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Trapped in a digital nightmare. - 91%

hells_unicorn, June 11th, 2018
Written based on this version: 2003, CD, Massacre Records

The double-edged sword of mankind's technological advancements has been a favorite subject among the metal faithful, particularly in the more progressive corners of said community. Some of this owes to the early fascination that the likes of Queensryche and Dio had with the subject, the former basing most of their seminal 1984 debut LP The Warning on the same very topic, whereas the latter saw fit to work it into the dystopian imagery of their music video for their classic song from the same year "The Last In Line". Over the years, both bands and Dio's parallel work with Black Sabbath in the early 1990s would continue this theme in a more vivid sense, guided by the template provided by a number of popular Sci-Fi films including the Terminator series. It would stand to reason that the power/prog adherents of the millennial revival would see fit to take up the subject, and among the more obscure yet highly capable acts to do so was largely Christian-inspired Brighton residents Balance Of Power on their fifth LP Heathen Machine, an album that merges both the 80s arena oriented fanfare of those bands with a highly technical instrumental display comparable to the 90s golden age of Dream Theater.

Coming fresh off an uncharacteristically long stint for a band being fronted by vocalist and Nightmare Records owner Lance King, and undertaking an album with only on guitarist in congress, one might say that the odds were stacked against Balance Of Power managing to match the magic that they displayed between 1998 and 2001. However, there is one factor that ended up making the difference, and it came in the form of vocalist Yiannis Koutselinis (aka John K.). While Lance was clearly of a similar mode to Geoff Tate as a vocalist and was clearly inspired by the now former Queensryche front man, Koutselinis ends up sounding so remarkable similar to Tate during his earliest days with Queensryche that he could have done the job that Todd La Torre ended up doing had Tate been ejected after the first few flops that dogged Queensryche's career following Empire. He isn't an exact clone of Tate per say, as he proves himself capable of adding a level of grit and punch to his voice that, at times, matches what Warrel Dane was bringing to table in the mid-2000s. Granted, the musical template that surrounds John K. here is far closer to Operation: Mindcrime than it is This Godless Endeavor, and that's a big part of the overall charm.

Naturally along with the more intense and dramatic voice in the foreground, it would stand to reason that there would be some degree of evolution in how Balance Of Power approaches songwriting, and that's exactly what ends up occurring. Though overall the structure of things is geared towards the same epic scope of songwriting with a mixture of progressive twists and ultra-infectious chorus lines, there is a far heavier and more eerie character to this album. Right from the onset, "The Rising" comes off as more of a looming Sword of Damocles that sets the stage for some dystopian nightmare world, and sure enough this is confirmed with a heavy-ended speed ride of a title song "Heathen Machine", which can be best described as the existential horror story of humanity being digitized into mechanistic beings, set to a darkened hybrid of "Revolution Calling" and "The Needle Lies". Similar excursions with a tad more nuance and buildup like "I Wish You Were Here" and "Chemical Balance" play a bit heavier on the keyboards, but generally exert the same level of intensity and see guitarist Pete Southern finding a happy middle ground between the hyper-technique of Petrucci and the melodic luster of Wilton/DeGarmo when shredding through his obligatory guitar solos.

Perhaps the most unique and interesting things about this album is that while it begins on a decidedly dark and forbidding note, as the album progresses it almost seems as if this band is regressing back to their earlier sound and showcasing a musical picture that is a bit less bleak, almost like the ascendancy of a viable resistance in the heart of the world of Fahrenheit 451. Things truly begin to take on a more musically optimistic tone on "The Eyes Of All The World", which listens a fair bit closer to the smooth, galloping majesty that dominated Ten More Tales..., and John K's vocal approach, while still a tad bit more gravely around the ends, veers more closely to an orthodox Tate impression and away from the gritty modern groove metal gruff sound noted earlier. It all reaches a full on fever pitch of pomp towards the end when the 8-minute monster of an anthem "Wake Up Call" rolls out, cycling through a series of rhythmically mixed up grooves and triumphant gallops as John K morphs his voice into something dangerously close to the one Lance King exhibited on "Day Breaker". The closing song "Necessary Evil" takes a similar path, but opts for a darker and more uncertain final impression and without a highly cathartic cadence point during the chorus section, almost like a massive question mark thrown into the story's closing scene.

What makes an album like this so utterly satisfying is the fact that it fully accomplishes something that was left undone by other, far better known bands years prior. By all standards, this is the sort of album that should have followed suit after Queensryche put out Operation: Mindcrime, and there is probably a sizable number of Sanctuary fans out there might have dug hearing Warrel Dane take his powerful pipes to something like this instead of the disorganized and melodramatic mess that defined most of Nevermore's run in the late 1990s. Had Heathen Machine been released back in 1993 instead of 2003, it very well could have been stiff competition for the emerging phenomenon that Dream Theater brought onto the scene with Images And Words, albeit maybe a tad more accessible and hook-driven competitor at that. All the same, it is albums like these that serve as a reminder to anyone either familiar with or becoming acquainted with the power metal revival of the millennial period that the British Isles were a player in the early days, though not as prolific of one as Germany, Italy or Sweden, and was sort of compartmentalized to its own progressive niche. Along with ShadowKeep's A Chaos Theory, it stands as one of the more unique offerings of its day, a throwback to a better time that manages to be appropriate to its day in spite of itself.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Christopher Santaniello, aka Diamhea. (R.I.P.)