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Early Swedish metal; occasionally excellent - 80%

failsafeman, February 8th, 2008

The Swedish scene in the early-to-mid 80’s (called NWOSHM by some) was quite active, and sported many great bands. As a whole, it was undeniably influenced in large part by NWOBHM; of course, so was almost all heavy metal from that time period. However, there was a distinct flavor to the scene that made it subtly but significantly different from the other scenes of the time. Rather than continue the occult and satanic feel of Angel Witch and their ilk, as the French did, many Swedish bands (and most of the best, in my opinion) focused on more epic and triumphant themes. In this respect it was similar to the US heavy metal of the 80’s, but genealogically as well as geographically, Sweden was much closer to NWOBHM. For one, the dual guitar harmony passages are still in full force in many bands, only slightly more developed than they were in their NWOBHM predecessors; for another, the dirty hard rock influence is often much more obvious. The riff construction in Glory Bell’s Band, for example, sounds a lot more like Saxon than Omen, though thematically they were often closer to the latter. That sound tended to diminish in Sweden as the 80’s wore on, however; on Saigon’s 1985 masterpiece One Must Die, for example, most of that had been left behind. With that progression in mind, I tend to think of the Swedish sound of the time as halfway between NWOBHM and US heavy metal. It may be oversimplification, but when thinking of the many, many various styles and sub-styles that made up the nebulous “80’s heavy metal”, simplification can be helpful.

Now, all that said, Glory Bell’s Band (later known as just “Glory Bells”) is still clearly a transitional band, with one foot in epic territory and one in rock. More on that later; I’ll take a bit to describe their sound before continuing. Probably the first thing that’ll grab your attention when firing up this album (ok, the first thing after the cool riffing) is the wailing vocals of Glory North/Göran Nord. His style is rather hard to convey accurately through words, but basically he generally sings in this warbly falsetto with a really weird warm tone to it. He does sing in a lower register once in a while (“I’m the Captain”, for example), and it’s not bad, but it’s definitely the falsetto you’ll remember him for. I don’t want to say it’s good, exactly, because in the traditional sense it’s honestly not; but that said he puts so much heart into it that I can’t help but enjoy his performance. “Endearing” is a good way to describe him. There’s a parallel to Mark Shelton’s vocals, in that they both sound very weird and put the listener off at first, and they’re both pretty much terrible, technically speaking; but at the same time they totally fit the music and reinforce the mood, such that you can’t help but love them. Love him or hate him, though, you can’t deny Glory North doesn’t pull any punches.

The production is pretty much perfect. You can hear everything, the mix is great, the guitar tone is even pretty damn mean and up front for 1982. Nothing at all to complain about. As for song construction, well, they’re all over the place, but throughout the songs they’re able to craft riffs and leads that are extremely simple, yet incredibly catchy (which is a good thing, because they’re repeated a lot). In this they were miles ahead of their close contemporaries and countrymen in Heavy Load, who couldn’t write a good riff to save their lives (and just had the guitars follow the vocals half the time anyway). It’s a terrible irony that the best-known band of Swedish heavy metal is also the most overrated. I’ve probably offended some Heavy Load fans now, but fuck ‘em, I think the band sucks and I always have.

Enough of that now, on to the songs from Dressed in Black themselves. The title track is, unfortunately, a silly rocker, but it’s entertaining and pretty decent. “I’m the Captain” is another silly rocker, but substantially better than the previous. Well, “Guest Working Man” is yet another silly rocker, but this one is terrible. A single attempt? Anyway, skip it. After those three, we have “Sir Lionheart”, and holy crap, where did this song come from? It’s epic as fuck! Sure, the whole thing is about as simple as it gets, but the mood just works so well. FOR THE KINGDOM OF FREEDOM! Then, before we even have time to recover, they hit us with “Firestone”, which sounds like early speed metal, with Glory North’s highest falsetto of the whole album screeching over the top of fast, pounding riffs…not quite authentic speed metal, but very close, in the way Saxon occasionally were. “Flying Dutchman” is another rocker, but not silly this time; instead we’re treated to a fun song about the legendary ghost ship. There are some nice mood changes, from the confidence of the captain, to the fear when the Flying Dutchman appears (“is there anybody there? Please talk to me!”).

After that great trio, we have “City in my Soul”, which is, unfortunately, another silly rocker, sillier and rockier than any before. Unlike “Guest Working Man”, though, I can’t help but enjoy this one; I chuckle every time I hear those backing vocals. “This is Freedom” is the obligatory ballad, and it’s pretty bad, and annoyingly enough it never gets heavy. A piano makes an appearance for this track, and the whole thing is pretty cheesy, but there’s a certain charm there, and I don’t totally hate it. It’s about as far from metal as the album gets, though.

Next comes “Old Viking Man”, and hot poop, we’re right back to epic. Except this time, it’s not just the mere “epic” we had on “Sir Lionheart”, it’s full-blown EPIC. From the opening part, where the old Viking man begins his story, to the slow melodic section where he mourns his fallen comrade, back to the opening theme…and then that fast part comes out of nowhere, with those fantastic leads and just amazes me how, with such simple riffs, leads, and vocal melodies, they’re able to construct an epic atmosphere so strong. It boggles the mind. Now, “Old Viking Man” is without question the best song on the album, but “Military Toys” is so charming that I can’t begrudge it the final spot. “Charming” isn’t exactly a term that’s used to describe metal often, but this song definitely is just that. Though quite a bit of metal deals indirectly with or evokes feelings of nostalgia, this particular song tackles it directly; it’s about, you guessed it, a young boy playing with toy soldiers. It tells of the mock battles he orchestrates between his armies, and as just about every boy has fond memories of toy soldiers, this one can’t help but bring some up. In these imaginary conflicts, there are only the positive aspects of bravery and epic heroism, with no pain or death as consequences; the music is able to convey that feeling very strongly, and it contrasts starkly with the definite pain and loss suffered through the real conflict narrated by the previous song.

Well, if you’ll notice, the percentage score I gave this one doesn’t exactly add up. Four silly rockers of varying quality and one mediocre ballad versus four good songs and one totally excellent song…I’ve obviously weighted the scales a bit. But really, it all comes down to how good those good songs are; I feel that on their strength, the bad parts are excusable. I could say “if only they’d written more good songs,” but frankly a band only gets so many good songs, and so many don’t even get any. In the very early 80’s especially, many bands were struggling to find identity (see Manilla Road’s first album). Sadly, Glory Bell’s Band ditched the epic elements on their second album, and though there are at least some fun rockers on it, by 1985, the Swedish scene and metal in general had come to expect something more. Nevertheless, they leave us here with a handful of amazing songs, and I refuse to demean them by pining after what could have been.