It's a sad state of affairs that we primarily recognize Norway for the country's contributions in the black metal field, to the exclusive of almost all other sub-genres. Not that there's anything wrong with the black metal. It's the most financially successful and shocking musical export the country has ever known, and arguably the best in terms of quality. But before this, the Norse had a small contingent of quality thrash and traditional metal bands in the 80s, one of which was the tragically obscure Artch, who were active as of 1983 and finally got out their debut in 1988, where it was titled Another Return to Church Hill. The title was snipped down, and the album did see several re-releases, the latest through Metal Blade with a bonus video CD-R.
Artch were a straight up heavy/power metal act, but their propensity for bone crunching riffs bordered on the emerging thrash realm, with a similar level of aggression to a band like Metal Church. The vocalist, and Icelander named Eric Hawk, has a voice that ranges from Bruce Dickinson's vicarious leering to a more hard rock attitude like an Ian Gillan or Ronny James Dio.
The guitars are massive on Another Return, and the drums crash like a stormed wreck against a treacherous rocky landmass. The songwriting throughout most of the album is impeccable, with an excellent course plotted through mid paced to slower, emotional tracks, and thankfully only one moody power ballad, and it sounds just as fresh as most of the modern but throwback heavy metal I hear coming out of Europe today.
"Conversio Prelude" sets an ominous, yet majestic tone to the record, through flighty keyboards that feel like they're strafing the skyline from a medieval castle or bell tower. Then the steady chugging of the title track, the choir like woes, and a bell strikes as the bass begins to slowly churn. Something very dark and very metal is about to happen, and soon Hawk's alights like a blaze of early 80s Dickinson. The bridge here at about 1:15 sounds almost exactly like Maiden, but all will be forgiven when he hear the climactic chorus to the sound, which is beyond vainglorious. Yeah, that was pretty BAD ASS. They follow it with "Power to the Man", not the greatest song on this album, since the thundering verse gives way to a rather silly, bouncing chorus that feels a little too like grimy, failed hard rock. "Loaded" compensates with a steady rock pace and a feel very much akin to Seattle's excellent 80s band Fifth Angel. Great, simple riffing that you simply can't get away with anymore.
As I mentioned, there is one ballad here, called "Where I Go", and it opens like a mix of the Scorpions and any random strip metal band from California in the mid 80s. A little cheesy, but serious enough that you'll feel your jaw bounce to the bass-lines and skull crack when the heavier riffing and leads erupt over 3 minutes in. "Metal Life" is a nice, driving metal piece which feels like some hypothetical blend of Twisted Sister and Omen, and "The Promised Land" feels like it could hammer spikes into a railroad with its guitars, though the lyrics are a little bit cheesy, and I question the wisdom of having two songs about 'metal' in a row, even for a 1988 record. Thankfully the record closes with a three punch combo: the straight power metal of "Shoot to Kill", the laid back but heavy burn of "Living in the Past", and the rhinoceros speed of the closer "Reincarnation", which leaves me with only the desire to hear these guys play an album of faster material at some date.
It's got some cheesy lyrics, and "Power to the Man" is almost sad enough to evince laughter from my tired old skull, but otherwise Another Return was a very promising debut that I've never grown tired of in over 20 years. Artch were a little heavier than your stock NWOBHM worship band, but clearly the roots of their sound all lay within that field, and you could probably develop a crush on this if you're a fan of Dio's original two Sabbath records, the heavier side of Saxon, or Iron Maiden circa 1980-1984. Judging on the strength of this effort alone, the band should have exploded in their country, and they may very well have turned a few ears, since a few of my metal friends in high school were all over them here, an entire ocean away. However, I fear the momentum slowed quickly, since the album's successor was simply not as charming nor memorable.
Verdict: Win [8/10] (headstones licked the falling rain)