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Symphonic power metal flying high again - 80%

TrooperOfSteel, July 16th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2011, CD, Limb Music

Back in February 2010 Italian symphonic power metal newcomers Ancient Bards released their epic debut CD called ‘The Alliance of the Kings’. Word spread fast about the new young band around the traps and before long, Ancient Bards found themselves in the limelight. Reviews across the board were all positive and many were anticipating what will come next from their camp.

21 months later, the Ancient Bards have returned to deliver their sophomore album, ‘Soulless Child’. The only line-up change since the debut has been drummer Alessandro Carichini leaving the band in 2011 and replaced by Federico Gatti, the rest of the band remains the same. ‘Soulless Child’ continues the trend set by these Italians back with the debut and after one disc under their belts, and a few years more experience, Ancient Bards have a far polished sound that should again mesmerise and satisfy those who love their female-fronted European symphonic power metal.

Speaking of the vocalist, Sara Squadrani is a wonderful vocalist, who reminds me of Elise C. Martin, as I mentioned in the review for their debut. When I first heard her, I wasn’t sure whether her voice was strong enough to stand tall against the huge build-up of fierce guitars, thundering drumming, soaring choirs and orchestral elements. The same question has reappeared when listening to ‘Soulless Child’, where in some songs I feel her voice does not come across as powerful as it should be and is slightly drowned out by the music. Squadrani, however, has improved overall since the first disc.

The debut tells the story about the “Black Crystal Sword Saga” and ‘Soulless Child’ continues on with this story with new characters, new hidden dangers and new adventures. Once again the track lengths on the new CD are quite long, the disc as a whole clocking in at 66 minutes spread across 10 songs, including the 14 minute final track, the hugely epic “Hope Dies Last”. Adding to the fiery symphonic power metal, Ancient Bards have also includes traces of neo-classical and folk metal elements into their sound, to produce yet another grand movie-score styled album, with lengthy and blistering solos to give your air guitars a massive workout. Kudos must be given to certain members of the band, particularly guitarists Fabio Balducci and Claudio Pietronik, who have given one hell of a performance on this disc.

After the orchestral intro (that contains spoken word), it builds up to the opening epic track “To the Master of Darkness”. Clocking at over seven minutes, the song contains thundering double bass pummelling, heavy bass guitar and a fast galloping riff. With choirs aplenty and the orchestras at full throttle, Sara Squadrani holds her own well here against the plethora of sound around her. Normally singing at a medium pitch, she can also break out the high notes with ease and confidence.

“Gates of Noland” shows Sara taking control of the track, singing in a powerful style and showing her improvement from the previous release. More choirs make their presence felt here and again the music is swift and bombastic. Another excellent track is the melodic and neo-classical styled “Broken Illusion”, within you’ll find pulsating double bass yet again, fierce guitar riffs and constructive keyboards with Sara again at the helm with the choirs to aid her.

At this rate I’ll be mentioning every song, which I won’t do a spoil it for you. Obviously the song structures pretty much follow the same mould with each track, so I’ll just mention a few more standout tracks remaining on ‘Soulless Child’. They include the title track, the extravagant 9 minute “Soulless Child” and the grand epic CD closer, the huge 14 minute “Hope Dies Last”. My only gripe on ‘Soulless Child’ is that pretty much all the songs are very similar to one another, with no break in between. A slower song, a ballad or a song with a different structure would have done wonders to break up these similar sounding tracks, and overall it can be over-bearing going from track one to track 10 in one shot.

Despite that, Ancient Bards have produced a very good second disc in a typical and logical evolvement for the band. The story-telling may not be new, but at least it’s a new story to tell. The band has improved from the debut, not a hell of a lot, but that’s a good thing when the debut was extremely good. Fans of blistering female-fronted symphonic power metal should jump right on this, while fans of bands like Fairyland or Soulspell should also enjoy what “Soulless Child” has to offer.

(Originally written for www.metalcdratings.com and www.themetalforge.com)

The true successors return. - 97%

hells_unicorn, September 11th, 2013

All lovers of grand tales of mighty feats in a bygone age can rejoice, for one of Italy's newest collections of epic storytellers returned with a vengeance a very short time after wowing the power metal faithful just a year prior with the riveting "The Alliance Of The Kings". To dispense with the obvious, the band still known as Ancient Bards is a heavily derivative affair, owing about 99% of their influences to a familiar crop of symphonic power metal outfits and lovers of all things Tolkien and High Fantasy in Rhapsody Of Fire, Dark Moor, Fairyland, and Blind Guardian. But in contrast to a collection of bands after the mold of Kerion that tend to go through the motions (barring said band's latest album "Road To Skycity", which was an impressive turnaround), this band throws their hearts and souls completely into the entire endeavor and come out with an impressive collection of songs that challenge all of the previously mentioned outfits both in quality and even distinctiveness.

In much the same respect as its predecessor, "Soulless Child" is a highly stylized album that tends to focus heavily on a massive sounding orchestral and vocal arrangement and an accompanying barrage of Neo-classically inspired speed metal. Where it differs is in a noticeable uptick in energy that goes so far as to rival the high flying, double bass drum infused mayhem that first captivated the early adherents of this sound when Rhapsody Of Fire unleashed "Symphony Of Enchanted Lands" upon the masses 12 years prior to this. Still, it should be kept in mind that Ancient Bards are a bit less overtly melodramatic in their vocal approach, featuring a commanding soprano in Sara Squadrani whose pipes are a bit closer to that of Sharon Den Adel than that of Fabio Lione or Tarja Turunen. The resulting synchronicity that emerges from her powerful yet measured performance alongside a formulaic yet riveting instrumental accompaniment is truly spellbinding, and endures whether the arrangement is soaring at full speed, or coasting in more of a subdued ballad or march feel.

The overall feel of this album is still cut from the same triumphant mold as its predecessor, but with a bit more of a forbidding character at times, as if the time for distant prophecies of impending doom have ceased and now the beginning of a grand conflict has commenced. There's a greater proliferation of longwinded epics that cross well beyond the 7 minute threshold, much of them featuring a lot of speed and fury but mixed with a greater degree of depth and variation. Of the bunch, "All That Is True" and "Hope Dies Last" take on more of a melancholic ballad character, the former complementing things further with a looming military style beat at one point, while the latter features a bit more piano and synthesized orchestral moments. At times one is tempted to continue throwing up the horns as the flurry of speed metal riffs and shredding solos washes over one's ears, while at others a vision of pristine forests and elven wisdom prevails and might inspire contemplation normally reserved for a progressive metal album.

All the same, bands that take after the Rhapsody Of Fire style also need to forego the elaborate journeys for the occasional fist pumping speed anthem that is generally free of all the interludes and balladry. On this front, galloping speeders such as "Valiant Ride" are essential listening, particularly for those who couldn't get enough of "Riding The Winds Of Eternity" off the "Symphony Of Enchanted Lands" album. This one comes with a bit more of a folksy feel to it that occasionally reminds of Ensiferum, but particularly during the chorus it gets pretty tough not to hear textbook late 90s Italian symphonic speed at its finest. "Gates Of Noland" and "Broken Illusion" also take the same general path, though the latter is a bit heavier and guitar oriented, as if incorporating a little bit of a "Power Of The Dragonflame" element at times. But even when things are kept either short or of a moderate length (take note that this album's version of a moderate length song is just over 7 minutes), all the instrumentalists take their obligatory turns at showing their chops, and interestingly enough this band makes themselves distinct from the rest with an impressive bass display out of Martino Garattoni that brings in a bit of a Labyrinth power/progressive element to an otherwise textbook symphonic power affair.

Insofar as 2011 is concerned, this is arguably one of the best, if not the best thing to come out of the power metal scene, even when dealing with competition of the likes of "From Chaos To Eternity". It offers few surprises, but those looking for a grand tale of swords and sorcerers will probably not expect a bordering on bizarre fusion of jazz and metal, nor should they. One could go so far as to say that Malmsteen created a monster that has continued to grow and spawn throughout Western and parts of Eastern Europe, but in Ancient Bards' case the scale is tipped a bit more in favor of the songwriting department, though this by no means suggests that anyone in this outfit is a slouch in the technique department. Whether the sword be adorned with a green jewel or a black one, the magic contained within its story is not diminished, even with the passing of time and the discovery of several newer trends.

Italy does it again! - 90%

doomknocker, March 1st, 2012

Ever since my recent deviation from what was considered my musical “norm” throughout the 90s and into the early millennium, I’ve found quite the wellspring of talented, albeit pretty underground, female-fronted metal acts that are able to exude charm and ability. Now granted, many of these groups are placed within the same musical canon, but I’d like to think that each one sits in their own seat of necessity. And in this age where some of us could use a break from alternative screamers and gawth warbling, this is easily a breath of fresh air.

One such group, the semi-new power metal act Ancient Bards from (*gasp!*) Italy, is one such group…

Much that can be heard with “Soulless Child” is the majestic, choir-heavy, pitter-pattery power metal variety with plenty of emphasis on melody, speed, and those medieval atmospheric Rhapsodies that has Blinded many a Guardian for numerous years but had yet to really make a good enough comeback to remain relevant. However, with the likes of newer bands like Aquaria and Pathfinder blazing away, it seems that that creative fire has yet to be fully extinguished, and I can put Ancient Bards on that same level of ability and craft. While what these guys (and gal) are doing is, I’ll admit, a bit derivative, it’s however very well done, with each successive song possessing enough heaviness, hooks, and songwriting know-how to keep the listener in suspense, be they the heavy moments or the classy neo-classical sections, both of which shine very brightly.

Despite (or even in spite of) the group’s relative youth, the bards all come together like a collective of true professionals, with each instrumentalist a vital cog in the end. The guitars and bass rage from one end to the next with crushing riffs, tingly leads and blinding solos (yes, even the bassist shreds it up!), the symphonic keys channel the old sword-swinging spirit, from the dirgey and mournful to the fast-paced and fist-raising, and the drums pummel with both speed and regular rock beats at his disposal. At the forefront, the lead vocals tend to be a bit on the wild side for this kinda thing, but thankfully are able to blend in with the rest of the music without being too overbearing (though some of the higher registered crooning can sound thin and a bit strained), and the choirs add that undercurrent of lushness throughout their sparse usage. I’d not found any particular song that was lacking in the performance and compositional ends, only strength and absorbing potential with the likes of “Gates of Norland”, “Valiant Ride” and “Through My Veins”.

At the end of the day, “Soulless Child” shines like a polished broadsword swinging in the sun (as good as any power metal metaphor could be). I foresee many a repeated play from this listener and further attention paid to whatever other roads they shall tread upon.

Originally written for The Offering
www.offeringwebzine.com