Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Heavy Load - Stronger Than Evil (1983)

Though I don't hold it up as my personal paragon of Heavy Load's output, I think history will prove that, if anything, Stronger Than Evil was their most structured work, with almost all focus directly on the songwriting and a fraction less perhaps on the atmosphere and variation of the first two full-lengths. The musicianship is just as tight as it was on Death or Glory, the barbaric icon of its cover art just as ready to taste the blood its fallen enemies, and the vocals far better balanced than any of their other works to its day. Yet despite its myriad strengths, there are simply a number of songs on this disc that I don't feel much of an attraction towards, and when you're coming out in a year that matched you up against classics like Balls to the Wall, Pyromania, Piece of Mind, Into Glory Ride, Metal Health, and the newfound aggression of Kill 'Em All and Show No Mercy, you really needed to knock every ball (or skull, in this case) out of the park.

Granted, there is at least track here which belongs in any conversation involving Euro metal classics of the 80s, and that would be the opener, "Run With the Devil". No surprise why the Swedish retrofitters HammerFall would choose this as one of their numerous nostalgic cover tunes, it's got personality and a spring-loaded, playful central riff to die for, with rock solid soaring vocals (lead and backing), and a screaming lead that at least perks up the ears. I also loved the rather epic, mid-paced majesty of "The King" with its subtly strutting bass lines and forceful howling, or the sad and beautiful "Dreaming" which makes one of the best uses of the dramatic vocal harmonies in all of Heavy Load's history. "Stronger Than Evil" itself is another of the album's stronger tunes, with a cheesy, percussive intro that reeks of campy 80s horror (you expect Michael Jackson to bust out his zombie gear about half way through it), but to be truthful I don't think it had the money shot riff of the similar "Run with the Devil".

And then there's the other half of this record, which is not quite up to the task. Songs like "Free" and "Saturday Night" bring a more peppy, inoffensive hard rock feel to the music, not that they are entirely void of decent riffs, but ultimately even the harmonies and bleating leads cannot save them from the void of forgetfulness. "Roar of the North" is another of the Swedes' mighty Viking epics, and while it tramples along at a mighty pace, I thought the vocals here had a bit of deficiency when placed against the remainder of the album. None of these are necessarily deal breakers that drag the album into the abyss, but Death or Glory seemed to have a surprise or two around every corner, while this is far more straightforward, the band's last substantial grasp towards achieving some success, and it builds up expectations with a few earlier tracks and then seems to run out of interesting ideas the deeper in you travel. Phil Lynott's guest bass slots don't really add a lot where they do appear on a few tunes.

Of course, Heavy Load were no longer 'alone' at this time in terms of the Swedish metal scene. The more commercially focused Europe had its debut out this same year, and good bands like Axe Witch, Silver Mountain, 220 Volt, Gotham City, Overdrive, Proud and Torch were just arriving in the 1983-84 period and putting out better albums than this one. Heavy Load had made a case for itself with Death or Glory, but the elder statesmen of the scene were on the verge of having their hopes drowned out due to the mass explosion of the genre through Europe, and they just weren't writing at the level of Accept or Judas Priest. For whatever reason, I'm guessing the very limited distribution channels of their own label, this venture was running out of steam, and Stronger Than Evil, while featuring what is arguably their most easily recognized song, was filed away under obscurity. That said, anyone seeking out vintage sounds could do a lot worse than this record, and it's at least better than their debut.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10] (and dawn was dark with smoke)


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