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Parody taken seriously (Part 1) - 91%

GOOFAM, June 13th, 2018

Even as a big fan of power metal, I have to admit it’s a pretty easy target for satire. Whether it’s the over-the-top fantasy lyrics, the over-the-top vocals, the over-the-top guitar solos, the sometimes excessive speed, or the giant production, there are a number of unabashedly outsized elements that can easily seem cartoonish. We’ve all probably made the joke about Dragonforce using some amalgamation of “burn,” “fire,” “flame,” “storm,” “land,” “wind,” “field,” and so forth for most of their lyrics on their first couple of albums, we’ve all probably poked some fun at the silly dramatic narrations that sometimes crop up in European power metal, and it doesn’t take much to turn the other elements of the style from epic to ridiculous.

The Australians in Tower of Fire are certainly aiming for the latter here, in case naming their debut Soundtrack to a Tower of Fire Album IV wasn’t enough of a heads up. Though some may view the band’s work—just like any product that attempts to mix metal with comedy—with skepticism or even disdain, the music here offers both suitably ridiculous lyrical content and surprisingly interesting and fulfilling musical accompaniment.

Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, right? Some would naturally disagree, as we can all think of examples of parody that come off quite mean-spirited. The difference between these and genuinely strong parody is indeed a reverence, or at least a respect, for the object of satire. Without that respect, one naturally makes errors: only focusing on the broadest elements and easiest targets, missing why anybody would like the thing in the first place, and overall creating an oversimplified veneer that ends up merely attacking a strawman and thus infuriating the fans of the parodied material.

Superficially, this band might seem to be piling on the silly, with lyrics that begin as fantasy farce but progressively descend further into absurdity, with all sorts of mock-improvisational asides, ridiculous forced rhymes, and the like. I mean, really, just click away from this review for a second, pull up any song on the album page, and read the lyrics. Maybe you find them hilarious in their parodic, stream-of-consciousness craziness, or maybe you find them incredibly dumb, but to actually function as anything other than gibberish, the band needs a strong musical force to bring things to life.

You might think that Tower of Fire has long odds of actually accomplishing that, especially because they lack the elements that typically make, say, Dragonforce what they are. The main guy behind this thing, Dale J. Williams (vocals, keys, bass) is possessed of a decent clean voice, but nothing special, and he particularly thins out when he goes for any kind of big high note; he also is not a particularly technical player on either instrument. Guitarist Mitch Rogers, meanwhile, is a really sloppy lead player who runs around with odd chromatic patterns that don’t cohere or evoke power metal much at all (unless they’re all a parody of Dragonforce’s Graspop 2006 performance, which I suppose would’ve been topical when this was released, but given that it persisted on their sequel almost a decade later I’m going to doubt that). The drumming is all programmed, and the production has a very DIY feel to it that lacks power metal grandiosity, though it’s generally clear and hardly lo-fi either.

Of course, as you’ve already gathered, I think Soundtrack to a Tower of Fire Album IV works quite well anyway, and it is in fact partly because Williams and Rogers aren’t soundalikes that this thing really starts to have its own identity and not come off as a bunch of stupid clichés. The album comes across as them (or probably just Williams, I’m guessing) writing power metal songs how they would do it, and then just throwing the silly lyrics over the top, rather than trying to ape any particular band(s).

And it turns out that the songwriting here not only is effective in the way that most power metal is, it also has a fairly adventurous bent. It’s not necessarily a progressive approach, except for perhaps “Eleven Minute Zong,” which lyrically lampoons such affairs while still employing a fairly memorable multisection approach and avoiding the lazy verse-chorus-verse-chorus-six minute instrumental-chorus arrangements that are all too common for bands with quasi-epic intentions. Still, the songs maintain some distinctiveness, even as Rogers’ largely gallop-oriented riffs and the quite technical programmed drums do enough to pull them into recognizable power metal territory.

Williams’ vocal delivery mostly avoids gimmicks, staying in a smooth tenor croon that doesn’t really sound like anyone else in particular but also is appropriate for the style (if fairly limited); occasional odd choices like the strange trills on the chorus “The Chodpistols Are Coming” remain melodically oriented and don’t distract. There’s a certain earnestness and directness to his delivery that both sells the whole joke of this thing while also meeting the generally uptempo pace of the music effectively.

Because the material is all pretty well-written and the slapstick humor of the lyricism remains consistent, Soundtrack to a Tower of Fire Album IV really works as a whole. Every song has something to offer, with surprising melodic ideas and engaging rhythm work really selling the pomp of the whole affair. Whether it’s the urgency and directness of “The Requiem of a Unicorn” and “The Swordsman of Unspoken Misc,” the amazing descending chorus of “Dragons Fly Around Castles in Europe (Europe is Where All the Dragons Fly),” or the progressive structure of “Eleven Minute Zong,” the band delivers.

The reason why this album works isn’t because it’s funny, though I must say I do find it a hilarious experience. The reason why it works is because Williams and Rogers cram this thing with great riff and melodic ideas that are right there with anyone, and the lyrical craziness adds a clear value that the oft-vapid, linear, and meaningless fantasy lyrics in power metal never touch (not that I mind the latter). Tower of Fire isn’t for everyone, because the complete silliness of the lyrics here is no doubt beyond the pale for some metal purists. But the band refuses to fall into a lazy set of clichés or even any kind of soundalike approach, and it is this attention to songwriting and musical detail that prevents them from becoming a musical farce; in fact, it makes them superior at this style than many bands who take it dead seriously.