Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dark Design - Prey for the Future (2013)

Science fictional power metal is not a new thing, since bands as far apart as Iron Maiden and Crimson Glory were pimping the themes in the 80s, and even some of today's stalwarts have entire albums (Gamma Ray) or careers (Iron Savior) based around some idealized, imagined future. But there are probably a lot of cases where the music just doesn't always match the expectations of the perceived setting. For instance, the debut album of Dark Design, Prey for the Future looks absolutely fucking smashing ridiculous, a labyrinthine collage that seems like H.R. Giger as seen through the eyes of Derek Riggs. It would be impossible for a terminal geek such as myself not to get pumped up at the sight, but then...the music is just not that same level of awe inspiring.

To be fair, what would be? I don't know, but if it's any consolation, the North Carolina quintet is at least performing a pretty rare hybrid of 90s thrash and progressive/power metal which feels like a more primitive alternative to Pharaoh, reliant more or straight rushing riffs more than incalculable melodic intricacies. There is some 80s inspiration for sure, with busy riffs redolent of Helstar, Liege Lord, Omen, or a muscled up Maiden, but I was also struck with some nostalgia for later, comparable USPM like New Eden, Opposite Earth, Jag Panzer (the Century Media years) and Destiny's End. Vocalist Andrew Bertrand has a delivery somewhere between the 'Tyrant' Harry Conklin, Henning Basse and Tim Aymar, smooth at its higher pitches, with a nice fragile strain on the sustained notes, but imbued with plenty of dirt and character when he's belting out lines in a mid-range. I also found the bass player here to be excellent, loudly and confidentally plugging along as early as "Dark Design", and always justifying himself by adding a level of nuance and groove you don't commonly find in this style of power metal.

The leads are very well designed, and the performance of drums and rhythm guitars never in question, but I will say that I occasionally felt underwhelmed by some of the chord patterns and note selections. A few examples include the bridge rhythm in "Dark Design", or the broken groove in "Abiding Contempt", where the vocals really take control and the guitar feels kinda crunchy and cheap by comparison. Or the slower, churning patterns in "Welcome to Your (Doom!)" which feel like pretty average Sabbathian detritus, and just don't really tweak my imagination. Dark Design cannot be faulted for lacking variety here, since they know how to pace out the album, swap some tempos, and prevent any one idea from becoming the beating of a dead horse, but individually when I break up the songs there just aren't a hell of a lot of riffs of note that I would pick out of a lineup of aggressive heavy/power from the 90s or 21st century. Without the leads, the vocals would have almost no competition in drawing the ear, so many of the note progressions just feel like a basic support system for this guy to go soaring over, like a well-hurled pass over the shoulders of the line backers.

I did like that some of the lyrics here were rather topical and relevant, even when teased with a fictional allegory. For instance, I figured "Spice World" would be another Dune-themed tune, but nope, it's about our own crises in the Middle East. Well played. Some are more directly nerdy, like "Dragonmount" which is based on the Wheel of Time series, but I don't mind a mix to be honest. The use of acoustics here as in the intro "Media Res" is quite good, and the cover of Kansas' "Dust in the Wind" seems fitting, but when I put the two together, I can't help wondering what Dark Design might accomplish in a straight up progressive rock format not unlike Marillion or something. At any rate, there are a few pretty inspired power metal moments here like the opening to "Meditations", but on the whole I didn't find a lot of the rhythm guitar riffs very creative or that level of escapism I had gleaned from a superficial expectation. It's competent stuff, all too uncommon in the States, and you can tell these are seasoned musicians who have been playing for a few decades. I think they'll certainly develop some traction with fans of the StormSpell, Pure Steel and Heaven and Hell label rosters, but beyond liking the singer, this particular set of tunes felt more like an incomplete launch into the atmosphere than an actual lunar landing, if that makes sense.

Verdict: Indifference [6.5/10]

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