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The supergroup delivers - 84%

GOOFAM, October 20th, 2017

For better or worse, Russell Allen is the 21st century Ronnie James Dio. We can go back and forth about the relative quality of each all you want, but the fact remains that both are (or were, in Dio’s case) acclaimed vocalists who indeed can showcase an otherworldly combination of vocal power and control, but under a close enough inspection, both are revealed to be a tad one-dimensional. That is, Allen, like Dio, is a low tenor who specializes in rough yet tuneful belting, but spends a great deal of his time doing just that. He never goes for big skyscraping notes, rarely comes down for anything particularly low, and while he opts for a cleaner approach every now and then, it tends to come off as comparatively faceless against his typical power. It’s not like the guy is completely without versatility—if you look through Allen’s oeuvre, there’s a “The Edge of Forever” here and an “Awakenings” intro there—but the reason he’s great is because he’s the best at exactly one thing. And in metal, that one thing happens to be very important.

The downside of Allen’s skillset is that it can be tough to balance—you don’t want him just shouting for an entire album, but especially in recent years, a lot of his departures from that primary style have tended to sound contrived. Symphony X’s last two albums, Iconoclast and Underworld, tended to run into these issues, where the former spent such a long portion of its extended runtime in aggression mode that it lost its impact, and the latter threw in a bunch of stylistic twists that tended to leave Allen twisting in the wind a bit. It’s not that his performance was poor or didn’t generally fit the songs, it’s that the whole seemed to be consistently less than the sum of the parts. Add in the fact that Allen’s other work in the past decade has come with the ridiculous nu-metal posturing of Adrenaline Mob, a stylistically monotonous band if there ever was one, and it becomes clear that he’s on quite the cold streak, even as his vocal chops remain considerable.

All this goes to show that even great vocalists are largely at the whim of the songwriting behind them, particularly if their greatness is more concentrated in a small area like Allen’s. As Symphony X and Adrenaline Mob have both failed to capitalize on their vocalist’s talent in recent years, one of the few other places to look for a fix is Level 10, a lesser-known collaboration between Allen and a number of European melodic metal vets, who released Chapter One in early 2015. And perhaps surprisingly, this band does what neither of Allen’s main projects have done in a decade and comes up with a set of material that suits his voice and works on a pretty consistent level.

Level 10 still is a ways off from Symphony X, even though it asks Allen to do many of the same things that made so much of the latter band’s work so compelling. This is music that isn’t progressive in the slightest, which makes sense given that players like Roland Grapow and Alessandro del Vecchio are on hand; both seem to pop up on every other power metal/AOR hybrid band these days. Throw in Alex Beyrodt, who helms Voodoo Circle and the recently AOR-ified Silent Force, and you get a clear picture of this band’s direction. Chapter One veers between souped-up AOR and something more metallic, with hints of power and speed variants peeking out of a largely traditional metal format.

While the ambition here is thus more modest than, say, The Divine Wings of Tragedy, it’s a style that isn’t too hard to get right pretty consistently, particularly with a powerhouse vocalist like Allen. And Chapter One actually does have a fair amount of variety—these tracks don’t really run together, since they vary in tempo, aggression, and heaviness. One minute, you’ve got “One Way Street,” which finds Allen singing bluesy patterns almost in the style of David Coverdale or Giant’s Dann Huff, complete with a bridge straight out of “Still of the Night,” and the next minute, you’re in the huge tidal wave chorus of “Blasphemy.”

There isn’t one song that towers over the others, but there are a number of strong cuts here. Opener “Cry No More” basically takes a speedy AOR approach right out of the Magnus Karlsson songbook, with a particularly strong set of melodies giving it a lot of force. The stomping “The Soul is Eternal” and the more understated “Forevermore” also come off as strong realizations of the AOR-hybridized sound. “When the Nighttime Comes” is basically a good Impellitteri song with Allen singing. On the more metallic side, “Blasphemy” ups the heaviness factor considerably and brings in some really interesting rhythms in the chorus, and “Voice in the Wilderness” builds off of a textbook Nocturnal Rites chord progression and adds a strong solo section. “Demonized” is even more aggressive, verging on the sort of shouted excesses of Adrenaline Mob, but an extended solo duel from Beyrodt and Grapow steals the show and really makes it worthwhile.

There aren’t a ton of real weaknesses on Chapter One, as it remains listenable throughout. The material tends to weaken the softer it gets; the chorus of “One Way Street” is sugary and predictable, and token ballad “All Hope Is Gone” plods along without much purpose. “Soul of a Warrior” is probably the worst track, since its chorus sounds grafted onto the arrangement, but even that remains tuneful and well-performed.

Allen is in fine voice here. He indeed spends much of this album’s runtime in that semi-gritty area that he’s so well-known for, but he increases the intensity to more of a roar or dials it back to something cleaner on a number of occasions, so his vocals don’t fall into too uniform of a character, much like the songs themselves. Beyrodt and Grapow provide solid if unspectacular riffs and generally strong solos, as well as a few nice harmonized leads. Mat Sinner’s bass work takes a prominent role every now and then and is pleasant. Drummer Randy Black is the only member here who doesn’t have much of a tie to the AOR-infused sound, as he’s an alum of a bunch of power and thrash projects, and it shows, as he tends to throw in a lot of complex fills that add energy but occasionally come off as overkill. A number of these songs actually start with Black playing a fill, which is kind of neat. Production on the album is generally stellar across the board, with Sinner's bass having some room and the rhythm guitars getting a pretty heavy tone that helps the songs stay out of autopilot AOR coasting feels.

If you, like me, aren’t a fan of Adrenaline Mob and struggle to get into post-Paradise Lost Symphony X, this might be the place to look to get a more satisfying dose of Allen’s still-top notch vocals. And if you do like those albums, chances are you’ll enjoy this as well. The only thing that might turn some off here is the amount of AOR influences, but even then, there are a few tracks that certainly bring the intensity to match Allen’s powerful pipes. Overall, this is an album with more sonic variety than a lot of its Frontiers Records compatriots, and it boasts a strong set of songs and a powerful and charismatic vocalist. Traditional to its core, Chapter One doesn’t reinvent anything, but it’s exactly the sort of reliable product you’d want to hear from a group of seasoned vets like this.