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Enjoyable to listen to but a missed occasion - 65%

kluseba, January 13th, 2018
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Frontiers Records

Ring of Fire is a progressive power metal all-star band supported by the Italian label Frontiers Records. There are three elements that got me interested in the group's first release in ten years. First and foremost, the title Battle of Leningrad evokes strong feelings and memories. I have visited Saint Petersburg as a teenager and still think it's the most beautiful city in the world. On my trip, I had the occasion to visit the Monument to Heroic Defenders of Leningrad which is dedicated to those who perished during the city's siege that lasted almost three years and caused about two million casualties among about three million citizens. If you add the fallen soldiers on both sides, the siege of Leningrad even caused above five million casualties. I was curious how Ring of Fire would deal with such a gloomy topic that deserves more attention than it gets in our history classes. Secondly, being a progressive power metal enthusiast, I was curious to hear how the five renowned musicians would manage to cooperate and complement their individual skills. When such a project comes to life, it can become an exceptional showcase of individual skills in an even stronger group context but it can also become a disjointed effort with five individualists who don't develop any chemistry and fail to write coherent songs respecting the ambitious lyrical topic. Thirdly, I have followed Timo Tolkki's career for years and I was curious to see what he could bring to the band. The surprising element is that he didn't perform as the band's guitarist or singer but as the group's new bassist which is quite unusual. I know that Timo Tolkki has both released some of power metal's greatest and worst records and his eclectic unpredictability makes him more interesting than any other performer in this genre.

Let's get to the point now. Battle of Leningrad is a good but not a great album. On the positive side, three fifths of the band manage to showcase their exceptional skills. The melodic vocals are emotional, gripping and variable which means that they do the lyrical concept justice. The melodic guitar play finds the right balance between uplifting power metal riffing and ambitious progressive metal solos. The keyboards are also very dominant and often add an epic and melodic touch to the different tracks. The songwriting is also rather consistent, focusing on overall shorter tracks with strong choruses instead of losing themselves in endless instrumental passages. The lyrical concept is interesting as well. The best song on the record is the epic title track that develops a haunting atmosphere due to more atmospheric musicianship, epic vocal efforts and short but precise lyrics characterizing the horrors of war.

However, the record also has several flaws. The drum play remains very unspectacular and the bass guitar is mostly inaudible apart of a few select exceptions that feel out of place. Even though the tracks are catchy and focused, I'm missing a certain atmospheric depth that does the gloomy topic justice. Bands such as Iron Maiden manage to bring the horrors of war to life in a melodic context but Ring of Fire are only scratching the surface in my book. The production isn't terrible but could be better. The keyboards are sometimes too abrupt and loud which makes them sound artificial and out of place. The bass guitar is surprisingly loud in the opener ''Mother Russia'' but buried in the mix throughout the rest of the album. The drums sound generic and even lifeless. This album could have made a much better impression with a more organic production.

Even though Battle of Leningrad is a good album and will end up pleasing progressive power metal fans, it's ultimately a missed occasion. The lyrical concept would have deserved a more profound atmosphere and better conceptual approach with more storytelling and maybe even different singers playing different roles. Ring of Fire's collaborative effort only scratches the topic's surface. It's an interesting introduction to the topic but fails to go in depth and detail. The musicianship is great however and the project sounds like an actual band and not the joint efforts of five skilled individualists thanks to concise songwriting and numerous melodic and memorable passages. Timo Tolkki's efforts are though somewhat underwhelming. His bass guitar play is buried in the mix and his production skills are only average at best for this release. Despite only fulfilling one out of three goals that I was initially interested in, Ring of Fire's Battle of Leningrad is still enjoyable to listen to but it could have been much more than just that.

Mother Russia's war and an unexpected revival. - 72%

hells_unicorn, July 20th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Frontiers Records

There are a number of potential causes for extended periods of studio silence, but regardless of what they may be, the end result is usually a completely different beast emerging. In the case of Mark Boals' long absent project Ring Of Fire, this can be best explained as turning from a life of steady studio work under one's own brand to a veritable vocal mercenary for hire, and the extensive number of both metal and rock projects that Boals has attached himself to definitely suggest a busy schedule. In light of this, it makes sense that this band, despite a limited line-up shift since going dark for such a long time, would return sounding a bit different. Having a band leader repeatedly shift company between a sizable collection of similarly oriented virtuosos to that of Tony MacAlpine and Vitalij Kuprij will no doubt result in some imported ideas per his return, though the result comes off as just a bit muddled.

Arguably the biggest shift in this band's overall paradigm on Battle Of Leningrad is a heavier lean towards a simpler, more power metal oriented sound. Consequently, while the songs do contain a healthy amount of guitar and keyboard noodling, the songs are a bit more restrained in their format and the rhythm section has been relegated to more of a support role. The inclusion of Timo Tolkki as bassist and replacement of Philip Bynoe is definitely the biggest curiosity on here from a personality standpoint, though the musical result is a far less active bass presence that almost makes one think Ian Hill had joined the band. Likewise, while Jami Huovinen doesn't come off as an overt slouch behind the kit, his approach is far more bare-bones basic than Virgil Donati, almost making this album come off as having a traditional early 80s flavor to it despite the heavy Malmsteen influences on the guitars and keyboards.

If any of Mark Boals' brief stints with various projects since Lapse Of Reality have truly served to shape where this album goes musically, it would definitely be the last one he just came out of in Dushan Petrossi's Iron Mask. One would expect this to land the band in similar territory as their riveting debut The Oracle in all its Malmsteen's Trilogy glory, but on the quality side of things, it definitely falls short on several key points. While the production of this album is largely on point, the songwriting just isn't quite consistent enough to really punch through the threshold of simply being solid to being spellbinding. Part of this lays in some lackluster attempts at varying the arrangement, such as a meandering 80s piano driven ballad with little punch to it in "Our World" and a plodding mid-tempo opener in "Mother Russia" that is passable, but definitely starts things off on a less than stellar note.

To be fair, this album does come with a number of impressive songs that reaffirm what this band was about when it was first put together, a few flaws here and there not withstanding. "Empire" is actually a really epic sounding slower number with plenty of keyboard flavoring to boot, though the hyper-repetitive chorus line Boals throws in gets a little grating. The same basic story goes with "Firewind" though it goes a bit long on the piano intro before it gets going. The only points where things go from being sufficient to outright astounding is when the tempo kicks up and the gimmicky detailing is minimized. Songs such as "Where Angels Pray", "No Way Out" and "They're Calling Your Name" are almost perfect restatements of that all-but-impossible to screw up marriage of speed metal riffing and Neo-classical tonality that Yngwie pioneered on classics such as "I'll See The Light Tonight" and "Liar", chock full of impressive guitar and keyboard solos while still functioning as actual songs with plenty of catchy moments.

To call this album an outright disappointment would be a bit too harsh, but it definitely begs for some more focus and also a bit more adventurism out of certain parties. It stands to reason that in light of Malmsteen and even Jon Leon being able to do more with bass than plug away at the root note that Timo Tolkki would be able to spice things up a bit more, but that wasn't the case here, nor his handiwork on his Avalon project while we're on the subject. Likewise, while there are plenty of twists and terms to give this thing a progressive edge, a greater degree of poise and organization is in order to redress the issues that plague some otherwise solid songs. It is forgivable for a band of this aptitude to stumble a bit after being on hiatus for 10 years, and hopefully any future offerings will see less of it. Leningrad didn't burn to this ground here, but some impressive fires occasionally lit the Soviet sky.