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Dark, female-fronted metal; great stuff! - 85%

failsafeman, March 21st, 2008

Here we have a weird little band from Canada that was apparently reasonably well-known in the underground at the time; they recorded quite a few songs, but only ever managed to put out this EP, which has more recently been re-released along with enough bonus tracks to bring it up to album length. As the six extra tracks on the 2002 official reissue are comparable in quality to the majority of the original five (and actually sport better production, too) I will be treating the whole thing as a single entity for the purpose of the review, and my overall valuation will reflect all eleven tracks (except the title track I suppose, of which there are two versions; both are good, so just pick whichever one you prefer).

Anyway, Black Knight plays a form of heavy metal that should be familiar to most; it’s not too far away from semi-epic US metal like Omen, Shok Paris, Dark Age, Sacred Oath, and Medieval Steel. Imagine if fellow Canadians Anvil listened to and tried to play Cirith Ungol, or if early Manowar got really depressed, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Black Knight sounds like. Needless to say, there’s a pretty heavy NWOBHM influence going on in the riffs and fantastic guitar leads, but as with most mid-80s metal of this sort, they take those older elements and use them to make something very different in tone and mood from what their British predecessors came up with.

Something that immediately distinguishes Black Knight from a lot of their contemporaries is that they sport a female singer. Lori “Scream Queen” Wilde, despite her nickname, is more of a mid-range singer; imagine Vic Hix or J.D. Kimball, but as a woman, and that’s close (for those more knowledgeable of female vocalists in metal, imagine halfway between Mourn’s and Taist of Iron’s). She’s got a nice edge to her voice at times, but can also be very melodic and mournful in softer parts, and the band makes frequent use of multi-tracking to great effect. For independently-released material, all the songs are very well-produced, with everything right where it belongs in the mix and a nice up-front guitar, though the tone is a bit tinny at times. The second half of the album, consisting of songs from their 1984 demo and various unreleased material, actually has a slightly better production with a noticeably beefier guitar tone.

The tracks vary from simpler, straight-ahead songs like “Metal Screams” and the title track to longer, more epic numbers like the lamenting “Black Knight” and the utterly devastating “Aaraigathor”, with “Warlord’s Wrath” and “Battlefield” standing somewhere in between. There are no total clunkers in the lot, though some are clearly worse than others; “Born to Rock” is not as bad as most of those rock-themed songs tend to be, but it’s certainly less ambitious than the rest. File that one under “fun but forgettable.”

However, while good songs like “Warlord’s Wrath” and “Fire in Your Eyes” make up the meat & potatoes of the album, it’s thanks mostly to a few totally fantastic tracks that I rate it so highly. The first of these is the incomparable “Aaraigathor”, which differs significantly from the other songs on the album both by being slower and more doom-like than any others, and by featuring bassist Glenn “The Hammer” Hoffman on vocals. And Jesus Christ copulating on a cracker, what a performance he puts on! I’m not quite sure what the song is about (Google searches haven’t helped me figure out even what the title means), but it seems to be about some guy losing touch with reality (“got this feelin’, reality’s just a dream!”) and going insane, and that’s exactly what Hoffman sounds like. His mid-range voice is powerful and just tears out of his throat as he half-screams, half-sings out the words. There’s just such powerful emotion and, dare I say, evil in his voice that a good comparison might be Glen May from Tyrant minus the falsetto stuff. You remember May’s awesome, visceral performance on “Sacrifice” from Tyrant’s first album? That’s what this is like, but I’m having a hard time deciding which is better. Yes, Hoffman is that awesome on Aaraigathor, with his really evil cackling and the confession at the end (“I think I’m insane…so insane”) turning into a maniacal scream…yeah, he really steals the show. The guitars are much more “open” sounding than on the other songs, with individual notes and chords being held out, with short breaks of silence here and there where no instrument at all is playing; it’s very effective at reflecting the atmosphere of the song. There’s an instrumental bit in the middle with some dual-guitar leads, which then picks up momentarily for a guitar solo, but it slows right back down again for Hoffman’s return. The atmosphere of this song is just incredible, easily rivaling anything Tyrant did (not that I’m knocking Tyrant, but rather trying to convey just how good this song is). Unfortunately it’s really the only song on the album that goes for that utterly evil atmosphere, but holy shit does it work. It’s all the more amazing considering Hoffman’s vocal performance was apparently done in just one take, with no overdubbing or anything, so we’re basically hearing him live…Lori Wilde’s quite good in her own right too, but I can’t help but wonder what Black Knight would’ve been like if The Hammer had been on vocal duties full time.

The second-best song on the album is “Dead of Knight”, which is a great semi-ballad showcasing Lori Wilde’s best vocal performance by far. Some very well-done male backing vocals accent the early parts, then come in as a choir near the end. This one differs from “Aaraigathor” mainly in that it’s the most successful of Black Knight’s standard kind of track, rather than a totally different one. The mournful, NWOBHM-flavored riffing is there, the frequent use of vocal multi-tracking, the impeccable sense of melody, the medieval gothic atmosphere, everything just comes together to make “Dead of Knight” a fantastic number. To think it wasn’t even on the original EP! This song really encapsulates also what I feel to be the band’s major difference from the other bands of its kind; rather than being terribly epic or triumphant or bloodthirsty when describing war and battles, it’s more tragic and melancholy, reminding me of what a woman’s take on Omen and Manowar’s usual lyrical subjects would be. Battle for women would usually mean waiting to see if their brothers, husbands, and sons would come back alive, and maybe caring for the wounded, with none of the glory men care so much about (“Battlefield is a good example of this). Perhaps at most a woman would feel pride or admiration at the strength of a loved one, which comes through somewhat in “Dead of Knight” (“You’ll never take him alive!”). I can’t say I’ve heard another band that really captures that same feel, and even other female-fronted bands don’t really come close; Taist of Iron for example is just as bloodthirsty as any male-fronted band, with great violent songs like “Bloody Axe” or "Cross of Fire"…but that’s a review for another day.

Black Knight was unfortunately never picked up by a major label, though apparently they were pretty close to making it and only the quirk of having a female singer held them back, as labels were unsure a female-fronted metal band would be lucrative; I can only imagine what they would’ve come up with if they had managed to score a deal. Anyway, don’t miss out on this band; they really deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Omen and Cirith Ungol and the like, though they were sadly unable to release as much material as either one. On a final note: The Metal Observer’s interview/band history was both helpful and interesting; follow the link down at the bottom of this band page if you want to check it out.