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Quite solid despite a few issues - 78%

Aeturnus65, October 31st, 2006

Swedish power metal troupe Crystal Eyes have been a fairly proficient act that’s also managed to keep a low profile for the duration of its existence. Whether this is attributable to inferior releases, poor promotion, or other reasons is debatable, but regardless, the band is back for its fifth album in seven years. Is it any good? Well, in so few words, mainly “yes”…and a little “no”.

Gone is vocalist Daniel Heiman, leaving to presumably phone in disappointing performances for another band. 2005’s “Confessions of the Maker” seemed at the time it was announced to be a can’t-miss winner. The band was coming off what was their by far (at least to me) best album, “Vengeance Descending” and was inheriting the vocal talents of Heiman, who was simply superb in Lost Horizon. Well, those of you who heard the album know what happened, the short description being that plenty of mediocrity ensued. Perhaps it might have made a decent debut disc for some unknown band, but it ranked as a major failure considering the expectations. Exit Heiman and enter Soren Nico Adamsen, he of the Dutch band Starrats (yep, never heard of ‘em either). With expectations hovering around zero, Crystal Eyes returns.

Compared to earlier efforts, “Dead City Dreaming” (DCD) moves in more of a power metal meets hard rock direction. Not as silly as, say, Edguy, and still certainly qualifying as a metal release, but one does miss the epic power metal leanings of tracks like “Wizard’s Apprentice” or “Eyes of the Forest Gloom”. Heck, as cheesy as they usually were, Mikael Dahl always had a good ballad or two in him per album (I’m talking the all-acoustic stuff), another thing strangely absent here. Anyways, let’s talk about the new guy, Adamsen. For an unknown replacement Dahl has found a true hidden gem. Adamsen possesses a very strong, full voice with a very nice range, never sounding the least bit strained. He actually sounds like a much more technically sound Mikael Dahl, who sang on the first four discs. Lots of catchy vocal melodies await the listener, Adamsen taking a page from guys like Urban Breed in using his voice more as a separate instrument. Seriously, it’s surprising this guy isn’t more well-known and hasn’t been invited to sing in a number of other bands.

Musically speaking, Dahl is the only thing worth much of a mention. Second guitarist Jonathan Nyberg is gone, but you’d have to read the liner notes to know so. Taking his place is old-timer Niclas Karlsson, back for a second tour of duty in the band. His contribution here, though, is apparently zilch, as the booklet says Dahl played all guitar parts. In that case, I question the decision or need for a second guitarist for studio work since Dahl writes all the songs anyways. Drummer Stefan Svantesson provides the requisite drumming – some double-bass, some gallop, and nothing you’ve not heard before – while Claes Wikander’s bass is about as generic as it gets.

With such a setup this band is going to sink or swim based purely on the songwriting talents of Dahl. Overall things came out quite well. The opening title track marches along at a steady clip, with the slower chorus giving Adamsen a chance to shine. Musically the song’s almost simple to a fault, but I still find myself playing it often. The next track is another winner, almost single-worthy in its catchiness (and relative mellow nature). Things continue much the same for the next three or four songs, all easily classified as “good” but rarely crossing into “great” territory. Eventually, however, you begin to lose track of which song you’re on, due in large part to the simple fact that songs begin to blend together in the middle. I’ve certainly heard worse, but Crystal Eyes is indeed guilty of lack of variety in several songs.

Things close with a bang on “Halls of Valhalla”. Upon first listen to this song I noticed something, aside from its length, that made it stand out amongst the rest. Not quite being able to put my finger on it, several replays confirmed my suspicions, which were verified when, lo and behold, a quick check in the booklet allowed that Dahl did lead vocals for the track. The fact that this was not instantly noticeable may be either good or bad depending on your viewpoint. I personally don’t get the point of “guest” vocalists who sound too much like the main singers, and this exact same band is the prime offender – back on “Vengeance Descending” there was one track with a guest lead singer, something I never even suspected until carefully reading my booklet, despite having heard the song countless times. Regardless, for someone who’s been trying to pass off vocal duties for a couple of albums now, I found Dahl to be a very good singer, and the track is probably my favorite on the disc, mainly to its eschewing of the hard rock tendencies that the other songs are partially built around.

For the Crystal Eyes virgins out there, some comparisons – this band can sound at times like Stratovarius or Edguy, with keyboards replaced by guitar leads (at which Dahl is quite good) although more direct and even edgy. New Steel Attack may also be a valid comparison, though the older SA stuff was usually paced much faster than DCD. Even bands like Dragonland come to mind, though perhaps to a lesser extent. Crystal Eyes, and more directly Dahl, often have the uncanny ability to construct songs around choruses and bridges that would fit right in on a Freedom Call disc without having everything come across as a sugary-sweet flower metal abomination. It’s this mixture of power metal, hard rock, great vocal melodies, and slight hint of seriousness or emotion that makes the band not sound like a million others.

I’d still say “Vengeance Descending” beats this one, but DCD also craps all over “Confessions…”. The band has continued the refining of its well-honed sound, surviving the speed bump that was their previous disc. Fans of the band can buy without hesitation, while power metal fans who’ve never heard of Crystal Eyes would be advised to start on “Vengeance…” and then try this one. Either way, it’s good to see that Crystal Eyes is back, surviving still as an obscure power metal act much better than its lack of exposure would indicate. Nothing earth-shattering, but very enjoyable.