Saturday, May 23, 2015

Light Force - Mystical Thieves (1988)

I hadn't listened to Mystical Thieves in approximately 25 years, since I discovered the cassette haunting a discount bin at a record store at the local mall, and thought the cover artwork was cool enough to take it home for a few bucks. Pure Metal Records had a bit of a reputation as a Christian metal label, sure, but at the time I was around 15-16 and religiously independent (having walked out on confirmation at my parents' church), I was never one to really hold this as a sole reason to avoid a band. In fact, I had a number of pretty decent Christian thrash and heavy metal tapes in my stash, with names like Vengeance Rising, Deliverance, and so forth, and for all external purposes the Light Force sophomore seemed like it might join them...

...which, of course, was wishful thinking, because Mystical Thieves sucks. The few among you who might even be aware of this band probably recognize it as Australian Steve Rowe's previous band before he launched Mortification, a heavier thrash/death metal outfit which has gone on to produce a rather long and prolific career which even had some material licensed to labels like Nuclear Blast. I am not a big fan of that band, never have been... a few of the earlier CDs like Scrolls of the Megilloth had some potential there, but although the lyrics were fairly Christian all along, the band seemed to dumb itself down on subsequent releases through the 90s. Love them or hate them, though, this man soldiers on; irregardless of what the extreme metal audience thinks, there is no question he is pretty serious and unshakeable in his commitment to both his faith and his bog standard death metal. All the power to him, or Power to get the point. But speaking of 'power', Light Force is considered one of those earlier examples of power metal which was difficult to distinguish from the later phase NWOBHM of the time...certainly it has little of the fire and fury of the USPM in the 80s, or little fire and fury AT ALL.

Rowe was the bassist here, and he's perhaps the album's most overt culprit of Steve Harris' playing in Iron Maiden, with loads of pluggy, driving triplets that combine with the melodic guitar harmonies to produce an atmosphere highly redolent of things like Number of the Beast, Powerslave, Piece of Mind and Somewhere in Time; whether trudging along or erupting in an anthem speed much like they do in the album's titular opener. The problem here is that the riffs are just so bloody uninspired, that even as a teen I found them mind numbingly boring and predictable in an era that was producing works like Thundersteel, Master Control, No Exit or even Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, which is more or less everything some of these songs attempt, but exponentially superior. The beginnings, middles and ends of these cuts are quite uninspiring while a little TOO inspired, and there are lots of choices that don't really make much sense, seemingly amateur like when Rowe starts frenzying on the bass at the end of the opening cut, only to have it all just...whisked away.

Even worse, the singer here is just so painfully average that it feels as if he's extremely hung-over and just trying to make anything stick. Not the worst intonation I've heard, but he hangs out too much in that upper mid-range, sounding sloshed and entirely incapable of tackling a proper chorus. Hell, if you're going to be doing a Maiden-ish thing, wouldn't you want a singer who can dominate the material with some range and power? There are particular tracks where he gets more potent to the degree that it doesn't come off offensively lazy, but generally these are also tunes where the rhythm guitars  also come together in a more powerful, if not any more memorable combination like in "Crossfire" or the more forceful, speed-metal approach of "City Streets", which is a style I wish they would have adopted on far more of the album, since it shows a meaner edge and kind of abandons the aimless airiness of the title track. But then, there is very little consistency on the record for which they could capitalize on such momentum..."Metal Missionaries" feels like so much tired mid paced Judas Priest worship, while "Searching" had a few insipid callbacks to Sabbath stuff.

If the music is weak, the production is weaker, with Rowe's bass level set just about the same as the rhythm guitar, stealing some of its bite without supplementing enough low end thunder. It all feels thin and wimpy, and the drums sound like they're being played half the time by banging on tin cans and bicycle chains. Very little force or muscle. Perhaps the only part of the music that felt slightly invigorating were when the leads broke out over some of the rhythms in the bridges, they definitely have that feel of wild abandon so precious to traditional 80s speed, heavy and power metal, but it's such a chore to get around to them that who even cares? In the end, Mystical Thieves is just dull and third rate Australian metal with nothing going for it when you could just put on the Hobbs' Angel of Death and hear how it really needed to be done. Rowe would move on to bigger and better things, because Mortification was certainly a step up from this, but the Light Force sophomore seems in retrospect just a waste of decent artwork with an evocative 70s/80s Michael Whelan feel.

Verdict: Fail [3.5/10] (No, no, no mind control, it's a Satanic craze!)

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