Sound — 8
Ozzy really knows how to pick 'em. First, he invents heavy metal with Tony Iommi (and Bill Ward and Geezer Butler), then taps a young and tragically short-lived Randy Rhoads, who proceeds to reinvent heavy metal guitar himself with neo-classical fretboard wizardry, then the underappreciated Jake E. Lee, whose chops pushed the shred boundaries even further, then an on-again-off-again relationship with viking pentatonic master Zakk Wylde, and a short stint by Joe Holmes. In 2009, Ozzy tapped Greek guitar god Gus G. To be Zakk's replacement, with whom he recorded Ozzy's commercially successful 2010 album "Scream." Needless to say, Gus G's commitments to his other projects has waned a little bit in the meantime, and the last album by this band, Firewind, was 2012's "Few Against Many," their last to feature vocalist Apostolos "Apollo" Papathanasio. With Henning Basse on lead vocals, Firewind has regrouped to bring us their eighth album, and first new one in five years, "Immortals." And it truly is a show of Gus G.'s guitar greatness.
The thing with power metal is that you go into it expecting it to be cheesy as all hell, full of epic clean vocals, lyrics about epic battles, and fast neo-classical guitar playing. And the album practically bursts out of the gate with "Hands of Time" filling every possible power metal trope you can imagine. From Henning Basse's powerful and soaring vocals, which bring to mind Russell Allen from Symphony X, to the amazing guitar and keyboard tradeoffs between Gus G. And keyboardist Bob Katsionis, to the pummelling uptempo assault of Petros Christodoulidis on bass and Johan Nunez on drums. But, just like the aforementioned Symphony X, there's a certain something to this band's writing that, while cheesy, still manages to remain quite alluring and endearing. Much in the same way that a band like DragonForce somehow manages to be one of the most trope-laden power metal bands in existence, yet still manages to retain a unique quality that makes them stand out.
For Firewind, it seems that they retain a very solid sound across this album, with not much that's too different across the songs (seriously, one could accuse this band's songs of "sounding the same" and probably be right on the money), but it doesn't change things like the truly epic guitar lead before the main solo in "We Defy" and the gang chants in "Ode to Leonidas" (I almost feel like the repeated chorus of "NO! SLEEP! For Leonidas" is a very thinly-veiled Beastie Boys reference, very oddly enough). The intro of "Back on the Throne" is an absolute cheese-fest, a total laugh of outdated synthesizer sounds, but it segues into some perfectly badass metal riffage. The acoustic guitar opening "Live and Die by the Sword" is pretty, and you get to hear Petros play a bit more than the typical root note power metal bass line. "Wars of Ages" is just a solid song through and through. "Lady of 1000 Sorrows" is possibly the only real diversion from the band's typical sound, being more of a ballad, with probably some of Gus G's most tasty guitar playing in the intro. It's not even close to his fastest or most epic, but it's a laid-back, almost bluesy part that shows a bit of variety (definitely more than the variety you'd get from Herman Li or Sam Totman) in an otherwise one-trick album. The main solo in the song is also another slower, more epic moment. The title track is a short power metal instrumental track, very much a return to the album's signature style, but without vocals. "Warriors and Saints" and "Rise From the Ashes" close out the album on a typical note for the band, nothing particularly special, but still incredibly solid.
At just about 45 minutes of music, this album seems to defy the idea of incredibly lengthy power metal songs, preferring instead to keep the proceedings brief and concise. "Live and Die by the Sword" is the album's longest track, clocking in at not much longer than six minutes. Writing-wise, the band focuses much more on actually coming up with effective melodies and riffs than adding any particularly progressive elements, and it all kind of comes off the same in a lot of ways as a lot of the classic power metal bands like Stratovarius. It's a one-trick pony, but WHAT a trick. I really feel that by keeping their songs relatively short, and not getting too bogged down in the kind of cheesy cinematics (the Hollywood-esque intro for "Ode to Leonidas" excepted) you expect from the genre go a really long way to keeping this album solidly entertaining from cover to cover. The only real complaint I have of the album is the same one I have for a lot of these balls-out-at-all-times power metal albums, they can be kind of fatiguing to listen to at high volumes through headphones after a while. The production is not bad, but there's not too much room for dynamic range on a record such as this.
Lyrics — 8
Being a Greek power metal band, it's no surprise that a lot of the lyrics carry the theme of ancient military battles in Greek history. Namely, the battles of Thermopylae and Greece's victory over the Persians at Salamis. Basically, if you've seen the movie "300," this is essentially that, set to music, but without any of the cheesy "THIS IS SPARTA" moments. Well, it's still cheesy, but... you get the point. And as such, typically for the genre, the lyrics tell of glorious battle, and it's all very martial and aggressive stuff. You get lines like this that start off the album: "Rage and fire in me/Turns a boy into a soldier/There's no wrong or right in the fight/For we do as we are told/Years went by and and I became/A king to lead this land to fame/Deep inside I feel the power/When it's over, it's over." It pretty much sets the pace for the ten songs ahead. Sadly, I don't find these lyrics about war to be quite as eloquent as a band like Iron Maiden's (pretty much the standard by which I set war-themed lyrics), but there's really nothing wrong with them.
As mentioned, Henning Basse's vocals are very reminiscent of the vocals of Symphony X's Russell Allen (that's *SIR* Russell Allen, if you're an Ayreon fan!), and that's not a bad thing at all. If you're going to be compared to another singer in your band's genre, it might as well be one of the greatest. During the softer parts like "Lady of 1000 Sorrows," he kind of drops the Allen impersonation a bit and has a voice that fits in quite well with other contemporaries of his like Tommy Karevik and Roy Khan of Kamelot, or Tobias Sammet from Avantasia. All in all, he's a pretty talented singer, and even though his voice is not exactly the most unique in the genre, he definitely gets the job done, and the singers his style is closest to are definitely some of the best in the genre.
Overall Impression — 8
As it's a power metal album, I wasn't really expecting to like this as much as I did. Coming full circle to the introduction of this review, most of what a lot of people will know about Firewind is Gus G's involvement with Ozzy Osbourne. One listen to any of the guitar solos on this record stands as a perfect example of why Ozzy has chosen him to fill a long line of incredible musicians. But if you, like me, are getting into Firewind based entirely on the fact that Gus G. is something of a current progeny of Ozzy, you might be surprised to hear that this is a band that's more than capable of standing on its own accord (something, of course, it had done without Ozzy from 1998 to 2009), and is worth a listen whether you're an Ozzy fan or not. If anything, it's kind of too bad that Gus' involvement with the Ozzy band has seemingly led to such a long gap between Firewind albums, because this band quickly became a favourite of mine in the genre. Power metal is kind of a hit-or-miss thing for me sometimes, and though there are some bands that are hits (Sonata Arctica, Blind Guardian, DragonForce and Kamelot all spring to mind), there are many, many more that I don't really care for. But this has been a surprisingly solid, endearing album and if you're just looking for a good power metal album to put on, you can't go wrong with this one. I expect this is going to be an amazing album to hear live, as well (I'm expecting swords and shields in the mosh pits, especially).
I'm impressed by this album, even though it's not really anything too special. It only does one thing for the most part, but it does it exceptionally well.