Friday, July 9, 2010

Balflare - Tempest (2006)

Just a year after their debut, Japan's Balflare enacted a number of changes to their sound, to help iron out the ruffles and achieve more than a lukewarm reception the second time out. Vocalist Hideki Tada was replaced with Eijin Kawazoe, and the band enlisted a full time keyboard player in Ayuko Hayano, though guitarist/writer Syuta Hashimoto still performs some on this album. Kawazoe has a warmer tone than Tada, and delivers a more solid performance overall, as he is able to carry the lower range through the verses without as much wavering. Otherwise, Tempest packs the same punch as the prior album, with a range of aggressive speed metal and neo-classically influenced numbers that find a medium between the work of a Rhapsody, Gamma Ray, Helloween and Stratovarius.

The band writes in some rather huge chorus parts on this record, right from the start with the soaring piece of "Awakening", and there is this nicely done, distant feel to the production, almost as if ships were sailing across the clouds of the dreamlike blue world the cover art infers. The lead work is marginally superior to the debut, and the general riff writing has improved. The synthesizers create a more cavernous atmosphere to the momentum, and there is more interest in exchanging keyboard leads with the guitars, or fusing them in a duet that feels like some lost level to a Castlevania game. The drums are really pronounced, and though the bass has never been at the forefront, you can hear that bottom end on Tempest which really helps breathe the atmosphere into the melodic mix of synth, guitar and Kawazoe.

Most of the tracks consistently marry the listener to this glorious dreamtime, like all the best symphonic power metal does, but instead of bullshit about elves, dwarves and trolls which are better left to Tolkien and role playing games, Balflare puts a more personal, dark yet uplifting spin on their subject matter. Certainly the music still feels as cheesy as most other bands in this style, but there's just a slight edge of serious attitude when the dark banks of synthesizer roll across the soundscape like gathered black clouds. The band includes a lot of heavily classical work here, like the "Hollow the Dusk" interlude or the slow build of "Toward Fall", which feels like some lost Renaissance or Medieval song for the lost, engaged with samples of thunder and rain pounding. "Reaching for the Sky" is another slow, rock piece, with glints of lead dispersed among the voluminous swelling of the symphonic keys.

But what we really want is the band to apply the pedal to the metal, and thankfully they do so, especially in the latter half of the album where they clobber us with "Storm Lord", "Black Raven" and "End of Time", all of which thunder with some well plotted, spry melodic passages, massive drums and vocals that dance across the clouds and moonlight. Pretty epic material here, and joined with quality numbers like "Outbreak" with its adorable, Romantic melodies, or "Burning Wild", which is perhaps the very best track on the album, you've got yourself over 45 minutes of material worth hearing, provided you pack a boner for this sub-genre.

Tempest is indeed a step up from Thousands of Winters of Flames, and I really appreciated the resonant atmosphere. This is just as good, if not better than most releases from the band's peers Concerto Moon or Galneryus, and only 1-2 of the tracks drag behind the rest. The line-up changes paid off, the production is very sweet, and this was a band on their way to becoming something, since they prove they're the measure of many European contemporaries.

Verdict: Win [7.75/10]
(precious things lost)

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