Thursday, October 12, 2017

Force of Evil - Black Empire (2005)

Force of Evil was a project I had pretty high hopes for back when it was active, largely because I hadn't been truly satisfied with a lot of the later Mercyful Fate and King Diamond material, save for 9 and the Abigail sequel, so hearing a 'supergroup' that would bark up that same, twisted tree was promising. That the project was almost entirely comprised of alumni from those two Danish greats was an even greater reason to be excited...Denner. Shermann. Patino, and Holm. Three of those names I'd follow off a cliff, even with the possibility of impending disaster. Well, Black Empire is not quite a disaster, and superior to the eponymous record from 2003, but it does have one obstacle in vocalist Martin Steene that it can never seem to shake...

I'm not saying Martin Steene performs poorly here, this is a guy with more than capable lungs who simply seems to lack focus. When he's on point, as he is occasionally in his mainstay Iron Fire, he delivers a kinetic, frilly, unique pitch that might have distinguished him among the crowded Euro power field. I just think he goofs off too much, or he goes overboard, attempt to ape a lot of different vocal styles and exhibit his range, and some times the screams get a little try-hard when he's going full King Diamond or Ripper Owens mode, which is unnecessary over a lot of this music. I get that he's got the Mercyful Fate guys in the band, and maybe there was a particular set of expectations that this was some sort of proxy for them, but Black Empire only really comes together when he's just absorbing the music and complementing it with his mid-range and pacing, whereas on tunes like the titular opening he's just all over the place trying to develop a more orchestrated, schizophrenic performance that just loses me entirely. This happens on roughly 50% of the album.

Vocals aside, the music here is generally consistent, varied and interesting enough that the listener's attention won't lapse too long. There is a good deal of straight-ahead, mid-paced Germanic power metal rocking, mixed with a lot of the dingier, haunted grooves of the Shermann/Denner team that one would have come to expect from 90s Mercyful Fate fare like In the Shadows or Time. A lot of cool, cleaner guitars and audible bass hooks (like in "Days of Damien") help to round off the metal edge, and you can tell the band put a lot of thought into their choices, attempting to find a common ground between that reunion Fate era, and Steene's own band. However, while the music is well enough written, I often found that the grooves lacked the atmosphere and memorable chords that were so important on much of In the Shadows, replacing those traits with a more modern polish that doesn't do much for me. When they pick up the pacing towards power metal, the riffs also just seem to fly by without sticking to me.

The production sounds great, even when Steene is performing his theatrics, the tone of the rhythm guitars has a nice, clear cut to it that beautifully sets up the leads, and allows the drumming and the bass to hover through. The songs are all paeans to various horror stories or films, and they don't just stick with the safer choices either...Damien and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are paid tribute, but there are also tracks here devoted to movies like Candyman or In the Mouth of Madness, to name a few. "Disciples of the King" is just dedicated to Stephen King in general. Heavy metal and horror movies have had a relationship for all the decades they've existed together, but I often find that the music just feels too bright and glorious to truly convey the themes expressed in the lyrics. Like those other Danish legends which supplied the band's lineup, Force of Evil does focus a little on getting this right, with mixed results...the moodier sequences with the cleaner guitars are quite well done, but often erupt into lackluster melodies and riffs.

The cover art also looks pretty hot, but I'm not sure that it has much to do with the music. A pretty package, all told, but not really living up to its potential. With all the great Fate albums between Denner and Shermann, this one doesn't hold a lot of appeal, not even against the middling Dead Again. Or if you'd like to see more hard hitting material from the duo, their latest collaboration for the album Masters of Evil has better riffing than what you'll find on the two Force full-lengths. This is far more than a trainwreck, committed to its subject matter, and competently executed, it just doesn't add up to something I've ever wanted to listen to repeatedly.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10] (it's a long walk in the dark)

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