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Dark power metal, with a few surprises - 72%

lukretion, May 10th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2001, CD, Rising Sun Productions

Third album for these four Austrian guys that in 2001 released their new music under the name of Stygma IV (their previous two albums were released as Stigmata and then Stigmata IV, the name changes due to legal issues with the monikers).

On "Phobia" the band's sound keeps evolving away from the progressive rock influences of their 1997 debut and towards more straightforward thrash / classic metal influences. The band is classified as "power metal", but they are not really into the classic German power metal tradition (Helloween, Gamma Ray, etc.). They are more similar to power metal bands from the US, like Iced Earth or Jag Panzer, which play a darker and gloomier brand of power metal compared to the European tradition. The key influences are Rainbow (but much more muscular and with far fewer neoclassical flourishes) and Savatage (especially the early albums, like Hall of the Mountain King). The singer's voice is quite close to Dio's, so that is another reference point. There are also some prog metal and prog rock influences, especially in the arrangements (and the fact that on this album they cover two songs from the proggy musical Jesus Christ Superstar says it all).

If their previous album, "The Court of Eternity", was very homogeneous in style, with 10 songs of dark, aggressive yet melodic classic metal, on "Phobia" the band mixes things up a little. Most songs continue in the tradition of their previous album, but there are a few surprises that contribute to make this album a more varied and refreshing listening experience compared to the predecessor that was perhaps a bit too monolithic for its own good.

The opening three songs, Isolation, Inhumanity and Dying, are all built around powerful, aggressive riffs on the verses to then open up with epic, majestic melodies in the choruses. These songs (especially the first two) are as good as the best songs on "The Court of Eternity", perhaps even better since the band has clearly matured in their songwriting and they can convey their ideas in a more concise, straightforward way than before. This is good as one of the problems with their previous two albums was that the songs were occasionally overstretched and overarranged.

Next we have the first surprising twist of the album: two covers from the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar". The first song is the iconic instrumental overture of the musical, while the second piece covers the iconic moment in the musical when Jesus is about to be crucified and talks with God about his destiny. On this second track, the vocal delivery by singer Ritchie Krenmaier is perfect. Really emotional, dark, gritty. As good as any version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" I have heard (and I have heard a few, including that with Ian Gillian, Deep Purple's singer). On these tracks it is also remarkable the work of bass player Alexander Hilzensauer. He uses a fretless bass that adds incredible color and tone to the songs. The duet between the bass and the voice on Gethsemane is really amazing. Great tunes, excellent renditions, not too dissimilar from the originals but grittier and with more punch.

The album then transitions back to a more metal sound, though with stronger prog influences. This is evidenced on both Ricochet and Fool IV (this is the third installment of a story, started on the debut album, about a murderer who goes insane). These two songs are longer (one over 6 minutes, the other about 10 minutes), more intricate, comprised of multiple parts and with slightly dissonant and unconventional riffs (especially Fool IV). As with previous albums, this works only in parts. The problem is that the various shifts and twists that the songs go through are not very well connected together and the song come across as a bit disjointed and overstretched.

The album closes with two bonus-tracks, the sombre ballad Pain, which is quite nice and refreshing after all the heaviness of the previous songs, and the third cover song of the album, a version of 22 Acacia Avenue by Iron Maiden. This cover is not as well done as the Jesus Christ Superstar covers. It is a decent rendition, but the original is far better (partly because the Iron Maiden sound is not really in the band's chords).

The album is really well produced. The sound is warm and clean. All instruments are perfectly audible. It is one of those rare metal albums where you can actually hear the bass (and thanks God for that, since the bass player is great!).Perhaps, as a metal album, the production is a bit strange (not so harsh or heavy) but works very well for the type of music played by the band. One minor grievance I have with the production is the sound of the keyboards which is quite basic and not well integrated with the rest of the instruments. Also, the second half of the album is a bit weaker than the beginning, something that could have been fixed in the production phase.

But these are minor grievances. Overall, this is a good album: nothing transcendental but good fun, especially if you like your metal dark, powerful, anthemic and with plenty of melody!