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The last hurrah before the vault closed. - 90%

hells_unicorn, April 12th, 2019
Written based on this version: 2002, 12" vinyl, Hidden Metal Gems (Limited edition)

If one were to select the least likely of events to take place in the 1980s, it would be for one of the better examples of early 80s traditional styled metal to come raging out of the trenches circa 1985, let alone doing so from a country other than Germany, England or the USA. It isn't so much that the rest of Europe and parts of South America and Asia weren't putting out some solid metal, and the Netherlands did have a few powerhouses putting forth respectable outings by the mid-80s such as Angus, Martyr and Defender, but the circumstances surrounding Vault's de facto second studio album Sword Of Steel is particularly auspicious, despite its relative obscurity. While most of the early guard of Germany and the NWOBHM were becoming more and more commercialized, this soon to be defunct Dutch underground act would unleash the pinnacle of their career, albeit in the form of a highly limited demo recording that wouldn't see a proper release until a limited vinyl reissue hit shelves circa 2002, when interest in the older ways had been rejuvenated thanks to the millennial power metal revival and a concurrent heavy metal rebirth that would manifest completely a few years later.

The resulting sound of this octet of riff driven anthems has a decidedly British flavor to it, taking a fair degree of influence from the early 80s offerings of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, occasionally veering off into a lighter and slightly older feel in line with Rainbow and the short-lived NWOBHM meets prog rock flash in the pan White Spirit. To be clear, the influences implied in the latter two comparison bands are slight, as the overall edge and bite displayed in this guitar-oriented metallic assault has more in common with the quasi-thrashing early offerings of Grim Reaper and Diamond Head than the keyboard-drenched pop/rock feel of Bent Out Of Shape, and the lightest ballad found on here in "Revenge For Rape" starts with a sorrowful, UFO-like set of lamenting arpeggios, but has more in common with punchy power ballads like W.A.S.P.'s "Sleeping In The Fire" or Twisted Sister's "The Price" than a sappy retread of "Street Of Dreams" or the lovelorn crooning of a typical Dokken ballad. Likewise, the more melodic cruiser "Terror" has the occasional commonality with something off Di'Anno's eponymous 1984 arena rock album, which is further bolstered by vocalist Henri Draaijer having a similar sounding voice to the original Maiden front man in question, but the crunch of the guitars and the blaring solo work puts it closer to Judas Priest territory.

Once dispensing with the lighter side of this mostly harder edged heavy metal affair, the picture on display here rests somewhere between the trifecta of British Steel, Killers and Lightning To The Nations. Adding further fuel to the impressive fire denoting by these points of comparison is a speed-infused cruiser of an opening song "Run Or Die", which is probably the most technically involved offering on here while also being among the more catchy, kicking off with a raucous drum intro like a perfect outtake from Cozy Powell's handiwork on "Stargazer". Curiously enough, this riveting opener doesn't even constitute the tip of the iceberg, as the shred-happy speeder "His Will Shall Be Done" rages forth with about the same degree of intensity as the title track off Maiden's aforementioned sophomore LP, with some pretty heavy side orders of lead guitar detailing reminiscent of Brian Tatler with traces of Smith and Murray. The absolute fever pitch of high-flying fun is reached towards the tail end of things with a blazing speed metal romp in "Blackmail" that sounds half like "Exciter" and half like "Back In The Village", while the beast of a closer "Sword Of Steel" sees drummer Norbert Sulman revving up his Cozy Powell chops again and the guitar work laying on the Iron Maiden influences like it's going out of style.

Perhaps the lone downside to this album, nay, countless unsung classics that came out of the deluge of heavy, power and speed metal scenes in the early to mid 1980s, is that it is near impossible to track down in physical form without breaking the bank. But in this particular album's case it is doubly so given that it never really received a proper release until nearly 20 years after it was recorded, and then only in vinyl form. Thankfully, the advent of the internet has increased the potential for the general public to experience this album in its entirety, and even the fussiest of slick-production supporting AOR fans will be remiss to deny that this album sounds like a full fledged studio LP, though maybe one sporting a production more appropriate to 1982 than 1985. Though rarity hounds like yours truly will continue to try and push every obscure piece of metal out there to the random passerby, this is one of those hidden gems that should be heard by any self-respecting NWOBHM fan and younger generation New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal fan alike. There are few things more metal than a good old fashioned sword of steel, and this band putting it right in their album's name is accomplished without the slightest hint of pretentiousness.

Manly as fuck, catchier than AIDS - 91%

Jophelerx, May 20th, 2013

The Netherlands is often an overlooked country when it comes to cool traditional/80s power metal bands. While their scene wasn't huge, it was sizable enough to produce a handful of winners, and other than the U.S., UK, and Germany, was definitely one of the more prominent countries for classic metal. With bands like Martyr, Defender, Emerald, Angus, and of course the mighty Vault, the Netherlands was definitely a force to be contended with. Unfortunately, most of these bands just didn't receive the popularity they deserved; not to say they were underrated, but rather that no one even realized they existed; they weren't really given a rating at all, past a few diehard fans. That's why I love the internet; it allows obscure bands like Vault to finally get the distribution and praise they deserve.

While Vault is one of the earlier Dutch heavy metal bands, by 1983 metal was pretty well-established, at least in its most traditional form. Bands like Motorhead, Maiden, and Priest were gaining popularity, while bands like Vault floundered in anonymity despite the fact that they were making highly enjoyable, original heavy metal that could stand up to the likes of Priest and Maiden and still come out favorably. Vault play a style that's very solidly in the traditional heavy metal camp, yet manages to sound very distinct from Maiden, Priest, and other big groups of the time. Although there are touches of Priest here and there, Sword of Steel is certainly its own beast.

The thing I love about Vault is their impeccable sense of melody and timing. Not only do they throw big, meaty, catchy riffs at you from the start, but they know just how long to ride that riff, and when it's time to move onto another. The songs are incredibly concise, packing as much into the thirty-odd minute album as possible. The style is upbeat yet aggressive, far less rock-y than anything Priest and their ilk were doing at the time; just listen to a song like "His Will Shall Be Done" or the title track and tell me that doesn't scream metal in the best possible way. Speaking of screaming, vocalist Henri Draaijer absolutely slays here, cutting down everything in his way. His gruff, manly midrange reminds me of a combination between Angus's Edgar Lois and a more melodic approach akin to say, Kevin Nugent on Legend's From the Fjords.

The hooks here are second to none, and you'll find it hard to keep yourself from headbanging along to the tasty solos and epic riffs. There's not a clunker to be found here, not even the semi-ballad, "Revenge for Rape". Just ham-fisted, hammer-wielding heavy metal, with a very U.S./UK sound while still maintaining their originality. Draaijer's pissed-off sounding performance is brilliant, and everything just works together very well; Vault prove themselves here to be masters of songwriting. I highly recommend this album to any fans of traditional metal or USPM - you won't be disappointed.

Top-shelf heavy metal - 95%

failsafeman, February 7th, 2011

I just can't get over how awesome Vault are. These Dutch dudes released very little material over the course of their short career, yet they thunder forth with more manliness than Manowar, as much beer-swilling swagger as Motorhead at their best, and the same keen nose for traditional songwriting that Judas Priest used to have. It's a shame then that they still seem largely unknown these days, even among connoisseurs, but that's been the fate of many Dutch bands. After the release of No More Escape, financed in part by the band themselves, Vault were billed as the 'best reigional band in Holland' and gigged extensively in their home country. On the strength of that popularity, Mausoleum signed them and Vault seemed on the brink of something bigger. Sword of Steel was intended to be their second album, but just as they finished recording it Mausoleum went bankrupt and the band folded shortly thereafter, consigning Sword of Steel to the vault, with a healthy dose of really corny irony. Fast forward nearly 20 years to 2001: the title track appeared on the Heavy Metal Maniacs part 2 compilation, and generated enough buzz that the whole album finally saw the light of day.

So, what makes Vault so worthwhile? Why should anyone give a fuck? Well, going back to the opening comparisons, imagine the manly spirit of Manowar or Heavy Load combined with some bar rock tendencies via Motorhead, throw in a dash of Iron Maiden dual-leads, and filter the whole business through 70s Judas Priest. The band themselves have acknowledged that Unleashed in the East was probably their biggest influence, and if you imagine those songs being written by actual hairy-chested bikers (instead of men who like hairy-chested bikers), then you've got a decent idea of what Sword of Steel sounds like. The presentation is less polished, the performances less theatrical and less refined, but they make up for that by being deadly serious and chest-thumpingly awesome without a hint of cheese or melodrama. Henri Draaijer is one of those rare metal baritones who actually knows how to sing, similar to Dave Wall of Desolation Angels, possessing a gripping masculine voice with a warm clear tone and just a bit of an edge. Draaijer breaks on some of the higher notes, but in a way that it only adds to the already considerable emotional intensity. Really, the man sounds just like what most of the Swedish singers of the time were going for, but better than all of them. Lending my biker comparison a modicum of credence, Draaijer has also been known to ride a motorcycle now and again, and not just on stage.

That said, as silly as it sounds the best part of Vault is just how damn good they are at writing songs. They don't fuck around with lame gimmicks or weird genres or progressive nonsense, they just know their way around a traditional metal song like Lemmy knows his way around a vagina. You can bet that Lemmy isn't out there trying to invent a weird new kind of vagina by combining traditional vaginas with elements from other orifices. Right from the get-go "Run or Die" grabs your nuts (or ovaries, if you're a lady) in a very direct manner, as if your precious reproductive organs belonged to them, and as it happens for the next 40 minutes they do. "Afraid of the Dark" immediately showcases the band's aptitude for dark melodies, sounding as ominous as anything metal had to offer up to that point. Vault know exactly, and I mean exactly when the song needs to change gears, and then just to keep you off balance they change them a little bit before that! Listen to "Terror" for example; another band would've repeated that little clean riff that introduces the song a couple of times, but we get it ONCE before they launch right into the song proper. Unlike with most traditional bands, it's Vault setting the pace here. They don't wait for nobody.

Most of the songs proceed in that dark and melodic but rocking fashion, though there are a couple of exceptions. First is "Blackmail", the most unabashedly fun and working-class song of the album, including my favorite line that I'm sure most people can relate to: "My boss makes me work hard, that son of a bitch, I hope he will die soon!" Nope, Vault don't beat around the bush, they beat directly into it. Well, our hard-working protagonist turns to blackmail to earn a little extra dough, and surprisingly enough he pulls it off. The triumph is palpable, the sweet, sweet triumph of a downtrodden dude who's had enough, takes a swing at THE MAN, and actually wins. "Revenge for Rape" immediately follows and couldn't be more different. It's essentially the ballad of the album, and goddamn is it a weighty one. The song title says it all, and the song describes with genuine gravitas the fateful phone call the everyman protagonist gets, and his reaction to hearing that his daughter has been raped. Then, by god, he goes out and does something appropriately manly about it. "Revenge for Rape" reminds me of "Beyond the Realms of Death" in a lot of ways (though you might think "Behind the Walls of Death" would be the one), following similar soft/loud changes and maintaining a similar gripping intensity, though it's perhaps not quite as godly as the classic Priest track. At the same time, it's incredibly impressive that "Revenge for Rape" managed to squeeze that much gut-wrenching emotion out of four and a half minutes. Lightening things up a bit just in time for the end is the title track, which as you might imagine is a rousing epic number that plays like a Heavy Load tune if they had known how to write riffs. It closes the album on a strong note, but then it was an album of nothing but strong notes.

So, there you have it. With Sword of Steel, Vault continued down the path they started out on with No More Escape, but with more consistency and greater focus. The songs aren't as varied as on the debut, but in my opinion the riffs and general musical ideas are slightly stronger. Vault's structural playfulness is less overt but also less distracting. Really, they pull off something very, very difficult here in that, without introducing any particular innovation or deviating from tradition much aside from an occasional subversion, they pretty much do the same thing as everyone else but better than all but the best. Vault might not have matched the heights that their idols Judas Priest reached, but as far as entire albums go, Sword of Steel features a consistency of quality that's only topped by Unleashed in the East.