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So this is what USPM sounds like in 2003 - 87%

Jophelerx, June 18th, 2012

In the land of swords, battles, and magic, there was an increasing amount of blight and a frighteningly high danger of extinction in the near future. Warriors were growing half-hearted, swords were slowing being replaced by knives, guns, and fists, and magic was slowly dying out. If something didn't happen soon, the world would be completely transformed into a mundane land of uninspired banalities. But what could be done to save it from extinction? The few remaining interested denizens were desperate, looking for something, anything, to bring life back to their land.

Enter Crest of the Martyrs. Sure, it wasn't exactly the only USPM at the time; Virgin Steele put out albums in the mid 90's up through 2000, and Wizard, who are basically a clone of Manowar, were still going strong, but other than that it was pretty barren. In fact, I don't think I can come up with even one other really good power metal album from 2003; 2001 had Wizard's Head of the Deceiver, and 2002 had Blind Guardian's A Night at the Opera; 2003 had only Crest of the Martyrs. Taking heavy influence from Omen and infusing it with a slice of modern epic metal a la Battleroar, Twisted Tower Dire hold the banner of USPM higher than anyone else at the time.

While I cite Battleroar's brand of Manilla Road worship, it's really a case of convergent evolution here, as Twisted Tower Dire actually predate most of those bands, putting out material as early as the mid 90's. The difference with Twisted Tower Dire is that they actually have melodic sensibilities and understand how to write a good song. The songs here are simple in structure, with solid, catchy riffs, blazing solos, and a charismatic vocalist. While Tony Taylor might not be quite on the level of, say, J.D. Kimball, he definitely holds his own here, with a slightly nasal tone and a rasp that makes him sound like a battle-hardened warrior telling tales of battle and glory (which he does). The album captures an epic atmosphere with its simple, repetitive, meaty riffs, stylistically similar to Manowar, although the soloing, song structures, and vocals are different enough that you wouldn't think of Manowar automatically upon hearing them; there is a certain degree of subtlety here, despite the straightforward, in-your-face delivery.

Now, praises aside, the album is hardly flawless. In spite of a deliciously meaty production, practically unheard of in 2003, the album drops off in quality a bit after the first five songs; it's not a drastic change, as the songs are stylistically and aesthetically almost identical to the rest of the album, but the riffs begin to get a bit more lackluster, the choruses less inspired, and the songs overall just a bit lacking. For example, the main riff of "Fight to be Free" is good, but the prechorus is decent at best, and the chorus feels as though it's missing something; despite the fact that it's no more repetitive than most of the other songs, it feels as though it's overlong. "Transfixed" has a similar feeling, as if the riffs are being overused and the song is overlong, despite the fact that it's a mere three minutes long. It's not bad, it's just not as gripping as the first half of the album. "By My Hand" is even worse, with the riffs barely keeping my attention; there are some good solos, but overall it's not a very good song. These three just don't have the catchiness and conviction of the glorious anthem that is "Axes and Honor" or driving force of "At Night".

Luckily, the album picks up again with "Guardian Bloodline" which has a fantastic main riff and a catchy, warm, almost euro-power chorus; not the shitty side of euro-power, though; I'm talking something you might find in Iron Savior's Battering Ram or Gamma Ray's Powerplant. Finally, we have "The Reflecting Pool", which is quite possibly the best song on the album, with a sugary, arcane opening that evokes the sword of sorcery of something like Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara, or perhaps Dungeons and Dragons, and then opens into what's probably the best riff on the album and doesn't let up for seven and a half minutes. Excellent soloing, riffing, and vocals, this song has a slightly darker feel than the rest of the album, as if Tony Taylor is encountering something deadly and he's being warned of its harm. However, this song also represents pretty much everything good about the album; if every song was this good, it would be in my top ten favorite albums of all time.

If you like modern power metal or USPM, and you want something a little better, a little heavier, a little more consistent, check out this album, I guarantee you'll find something good here.