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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.