Los Angeles, CA-based Epic / Power Metallers Warlord are back with their new album entitled `The Holy Empire` released through Sons Of A Dream Music / Battle Hymns Music. The band’s line up is: William J Tsamis on guitars / keyboards, Mark S Zonder on drums, Rick Anderson on vocals, and Philip Bynoe on bass. `The Holy Empire` marks the band’s comeback eleven years after their last album `Rising Out Of The Ashes`.
This album can be characterized as one of the most expected releases both by the band’s die-hard fans and by those generally into metal music. Why? For three main reasons: First, it marks the return of band’s main man, composer/guitarist William J Tsamis, into music through the band’s reunion, while drummer Mark S Zonder completes the classic line up – thus, the result is this classic release. Second, this is the first official recording featuring vocals by Rick Anderson (`Damien King III`). And third, this is the first album that would bring the band on a mini tour of three shows, the first ever tour on the band’s entire history.
The album is 55 minutes longs and contains 8 songs. The number of the songs and the album”s length brings to mind the classic albums of the 80s that would generally include 8 to 9 songs lasting about an hour. In most cases someone would hardly notice a filler song on such releases. The `All Killer No Filler` motto in the album’s YouTube promo video prepares the listener for this classic, `like the old good days` someone may think. Lets see how these great expectations are fulfilled.
The album’s music is balanced between the classic catchy Warlord sound that is characteristic of the band’s first two releases (`Deliver Us, `And The Canons of Destruction Have Begun. . .`) and the most epic and classical oriented sound that Tsamis presented on his later Lordian Guard projects. And it is precisely `that` balance that is the key feature of this release. Eleven years ago, the music from the band’s third album, `Rising Out of the the Ashes`, would often be characterized as a more metal approach of Lordian Guard — I would personally not agree with this, and referring to the current album I should point out that there is not even room for such statements. You see, the band worked really hard to offer a record that includes the magic of Warlord’s past, through an expanded evolution of composition (Lordian Guard) under a cinematic musical approach. Thus, we have the birth of the `new` Warlord.
Dark, Epic, Powerful Music is what you hear on this excellent release. I could use a long description adding the word `Metal` at the end, but I think that the music presented on this album has crossed the limits of metal music and has gone beyond that definition for good. On `The Holy Empire` what you hear is the heavenly music of of a composer converting his pure inspiration to musical magic. You can even revise the phrase `chemistry between musicians` as you hear the Zonder offering an outstanding performance throughout each of the songs – indeed a creative force that drives the music to the pinnacle of perfection. Further, you hear a vocalist that sings straight from the soul delivering not only an outstanding vocal performance but some of the most brilliant melodies and harmonies you have ever heard.
I would like to dedicate some special lines about the vocalist Rick Anderson. We all know how serious the problem of finding a suitable singer was for Warlord. Anderson came into the band soon before they split up for the first time. He recorded a four track demo with them (although this was not an official release and never made it to the public. So Anderson’s official debut with the band is actually here on `this` album as I already indicated. He remained in touch with Tsamis, performing on his Lordian Winds project after the initial demise of Warlord, and he now returns in full victory with this album in a grand resurrection of Warlord. The most important thing about Anderson is that he was always more than able to realize the vision and concept behind Tsamis’ music, and that was the main reason that the two of them stayed in touch even after Warlord first broke up. So, as you may realize, when the new album came into the works Anderson was an obvious choice for the vocal slot. Having heard him on all his projects (including Lordian Winds and Martiria) I can certainly assure you that he delivers his best vocal performance with Warlord on `The Holy Empire`. In certain places he sounds like a `narrative vocalist` (and I am using this `narrative` term to describe the parts where Anderson sings in a calm but still very powerful and emphatic way based on Tsamis’ melodies). In these certain songs it sounds as if he is `narrating` the story by his melodic telling of the lyrics and theme. I don’t mean that he is `speaking` – absolutely not. He is singing wonderfully, but like a narrator he presents certain phrases and words in a way which `emphasize` various parts of the lyrical story / concept / theme. However, we also hear him sing with extreme power reaching epic crescendos. Thus, we hear a singer who puts his `soul`, not just his `voice`, into each and every song. He sounds excellent !!!.
The album begins with the song `70.000 Sorrows.` The `essential` framework (song title and some riffs) were originally composed back in the Lordian Guard days and would have been included on the third Lordian Guard album. But there are many new features in this song as Tsamis has changed some things, written even more riffs, leads, themes, and lyrics for this song. So, although we can say it has it’s origin in the Lordian Guard era, it has become something grand and new on this album. The song is a mid-tempo melodic anthem that starts with a powerful phrygian melodic theme. Phrygian melodies are the basis both for the song’s main verse, for the lead break, and for the chorus as well. Anderson fills out the song with magnificent vocal melodies reflecting the narrative singing style I alluded to earlier. The chorus is the trademark of the song based on a shining, power vocal melody with grand harmonies and female voices. After the first chorus, you then hear a classic Warlord lead guitar part that works as a fast breaking bridge that turns into a real storm as Zonder thunders on the drums. Very wisely from a compositional standpoint, the chorus comes in again after this firestorm, emphasizing and driving the listener to the next lead theme that becomes the song’s epilogue. You can hear the guitars working in perfect counterpoint with an orchestral string section provided by Tsamis on the keyboards, or more specifically, his virtual instruments – thus, the orchestral sounds take a prominent role here criss-crossing with the guitars as the drums and bass pound forward. All the instruments build a very cinematic (or visual) epic theme, driving the song to a crescendo just before it begins to fade. Astounding!
The song `Glory` follows as second in the track list. There is a very catchy lead part which turns out to be a very memorable main theme in the `Lost and Lonely Days` style, and the song includes one of the most catchy choruses you have heard. It is more than clear in this track that the drumming of Mark Zonder is the feature that lets the song to go sky-high. Zonder’s emphatic groove brings the song really to the front. Focusing on the vocal melodies, here one will enjoy Anderson’s narrative vocal melodies once again, especially during the main themes. The explosive chorus, however, that comes like a little storm straight after the more mellow main theme (which is built on clean guitar picking and keyboards) releases some brilliant vocal melodies (and harmonies) along with some essential guitar work. If I would choose a single from this album this song is the one that is most catchy and melodic, and it is very radio friendly to my ears. It wasn’t the purpose of Tsamis to write a radio friendly song here – it’s just highly melodic, somewhat reminiscent of `Lost And Lonely Days`, as I indicated.
The next song, `Thy Kingdom Come` appears. It was originally composed back in the 80s Warlord Days (although the lyrics and lead structure is entirely different). It was included, of course as a different version, on the band’s second 1985 4-track demo (actually this demo was the only recording with Rick Anderson on vocals before this album). However. now it is re-presented in a more complete form, fulfilling Tsamis’ very special vision about this song. It starts with a trademark riff and a lead guitar melody that would be recognizable among thousands: `Yes this is Tsamis playing` someone would naturally say. Such lead guitar parts have been used a lot on the more epic Warlord material and, of course, on the Lordian Guard albums as well. Starting in a fast tempo, with Zonder’s drumming spreading the force hit by hit, an epic, meanwhile melancholic voice filled with agony (and perhaps protest), sings along a great melody: `Why in the world do we feed all our leaders with treasure they steal from the poor? Why in the world do we seal them as keepers with measure of power we abhor?`. A part based on clean guitar follows but soon it is layered with more guitar and vocal harmonies. This is the song’s chorus, it is slow and heavenly melodic. The previous vocal theme soon returns ‘front and center’ in an even more passionate way. Then? Yes this heavenly chorus again. I can hardly find words to describe the beauty of the melody which is sued as the basis of this chorus – however my shivering soul continues as the main lead guitar part follows, introduced by a suburb drum break. The bridge that follows is based on clean guitar and Anderson’s narrative almost whispering vocals plus some female vocals as well – no need tot tell you that I am still in heaven. Then I am hit by a strike of light which fills me as the song moves into a MIGHTY crescendo. Finally, moving back into the main riff the song fades from my hearing. THIS IS HEAVENLY EPIC MUSIC – words are poor here. You simply have to hear this to understand.
I am in the middle of the record and so far I have listened three songs full of melody in generally calm modes. No one would prepare me for what is about to follow… Warlord now show it’s POWER once again, starting with `City Walls of Troy`: The Trojan Horse, Odysseus and his warriors storm the city of Troy and destroy it. The ancient story is the concept of a song that has a cult status among fans over the years. It was originally included on the band’s debut 1981 demo and it is represented here in full power and glory surprising all of us. It is basically a slow heavy song based on an outstanding main riff – again with a dominating phrygian riff. Anderson’s vocals, the killer bass lines and of course the lead part transform this song into the REAL hymn it deserves to be. A conquering song that covers the agony of the night attack inside the walls of Troy… this is the ancient war. The crescendo on Anderson’s voice during the song’s final seconds describe it the best possible way: `clearly powerful and epic.` But it seems that the war is not over yet…
Right after `City Walls of Troy`, we hear the sound of a military chopper… it seems as if `the soldiers` from `City Walls` are being transported into the 21st century. The agony remains and the VERY FIRST time I heard this specific part without knowing what was about to follow I was really caught in the middle thinking `what is going on here?`. Then the first attack came by Mark Zonder’s drum intro and then the firestorm begins. I am now in the `Kill Zone`. Well, to cut a long story short, `Kill Zone` is the best Power Metal song I have heard in YEARS. Fast, outstanding, simply a powerful thunderstorm. It is still based on a powerful main riff and on some magnificent lead melodies. For example: check out the lead part just after the intro and before the main verse. Furthermore, the song is characterized by the performance guest vocalist Giles Lavery from the Australian Power Metallers Dragonsclaw. He is screaming his guts out on `Kill Zone,` bringing the necessary `aggression` to the song Tsamis has conjured up. No doubt about it – it is a `song of war.` Even in a fast power metal song like this, Tsamis has found the suitable space to attach some exotic phrygian melodies on the guitars and keyboards, both on the rhythm and on the lead parts. The bass and drums on this song are outstanding. I must say, in general, that the song is well-composed (emotionally and methodically). There are various tempos – some fast, some at mid-speed – it all works together very well. In general this is the fastest song and sure one of the most powerful songs that the band has presented since day one. Indeed, excellent. The lyrics, as usual, are great, and in this case could be interpreted as extreme and maybe provocative. Warlord is probably the first heavy metal band to talk about Allah and the Prophet Mohammed in the context radical jihad in the current raging wars throughout the world.
`Night Of The Fury` follows. This is one of the songs that the band delivered as a demo on YouTube some months ago but I can assure you that the final version is, of course, much better. Generally the song is characterized by excellent guitar work, as usual. What I have to focus on here is the perfect balance between the song’s pounding parts and its melodic and dramatic themes. This very specific balance is very important because the song is a bit over 7 minutes, so the listener would have to stay focused, retaining his or her interest from the first to the last minute. The guitar part of the first minute can only be described with one word — `epic`. The main verse that follows carries once more some magnificent narrative vocals by Anderson through a straight and solid vocal melody. I would move straight forward to the part just before the song’s middle where we have this excellent little lead guitar part and vocal bridge. A smile come to my face noticing classic Warlord elements in the lyrics under the words `funeral bells` and `destroyers`, a very nice way to reflect the past. After the vocal bridge, I am able to hear the most exciting part of the song, in my opinion — the lead guitar bridge that prepares the listener for the surprising and unexpected, but so cleverly combined, lead guitar storm to come under an extremely fast tempo. There are two great lead guitar parts that make you go back to them again and again. I have to add that the epilogue in this tune is very cinematic and haunting. In general we have an inspired magnificent song, one of the tracks on this album that can be regarded as `the silent force`. I would like to make an extra reference to the great bass lines in this song. In general Philip Bynoe (also, Steve Vai, G3) has provided an excellent bass performance on the whole album and yes Tsamis’ melodies are trademarks even on the bass lines. I also want to give you two hints about this song: Hint no.1: Listen very carefully to Zonder’s playing to really pin down this song, especially how he works the kick drum. Hint no 2: Give a dedicated ear to the magnificent keyboards which haunt in the background.
`Father,` which is the following track has been presented in the past in two versions. First, the band’s final 4-track 1985 demo tape included the song (in very poor quality), and second, on Lordian Guard’s `Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God` album. Well, this new version is by far the most superior. It is a very special composition written by Tsamis after his father passed away in 1985 and, believe it or not Anderson has managed to TOTALLY grasp the essence and meaning of the song, presenting a moving vocal performance. What can I write about this one? It is a classic Tsamis composition, mid tempo and very catchy. I would put this song as well into a CD single together with `Glory`. The interlude lead part of this tune is something that sticks in your mind forever. The guitar melodies during the main verse are straightly from heaven and the chorus indeed makes you shiver. This is heavenly music, I am writing it again, such music only Warlord can create. I would refer to Zonder’s emphatic drumming once again but, along with that, I would pay serious attention to Anderson’s vocal approach. He LIVES inside the song, he is not simply singing it.
The epilogue of the album belongs to the magnum opus. `The Holy Empire` another composition that was to be included on the third never released Lordian Guard album. It is finally presented on this album in a complete form. The song begins with a medieval / folk melody based on keyboards followed by yet another explosive main riff by Tsamis himself, including guitars, choirs, orchestras, and a cathedral pipe organ. The main verse consists of a fairy-tale melody in guitars, keyboards and vocals (indeed this melody takes you to another world), followed by a bridge that brings back the initial melody in a more expanded and richer performance by all the instruments. And then that main theme comes again. The polyphonic chorus that follows, recorded using a full choir, leaves you speechless. Another lead part comes next with guitars and keyboards in perfect harmonic dialogue and the bass lines continue in a rhythmic melody. The lead section increases in more passion and power, changing tempo as it gets closer to the mighty chorus again… just before another magnificent lead theme. Almost two minutes before the end of the song and the whole album a sort of keyboard part will drive the listener to the final crescendo, the `drums of war,` together with a pounding, folk melody are filling the air, the ears, the mind, the soul as the final fade marches out to the end of this magnum opus, the end of an excellent album.
I have the very strong belief that Tsamis pays justice to his music with this release. He uses many Lordian Guard themes that were once in their infancy and he develops and expands them into a perfectly new form in order to match his new vision for Warlord. The band puts a capstone on the career of old Warlord by re-presenting some Warlord songs form the old demos, but now in a new compositional and properly produced form. FINALLY, the way the songs sound are fresh – indeed, nothing short magnificent new compositions. Even the album’s title closes a semi-finished chapter on Tsamis’ saga as this was originally the title of the never released third Lordian Guard album. Well `The Holy Empire` is released and `justice` is done as Warlord proves once again that it can deliver the highest quality of this art form.
I must point that an excellent job was done in the production. The album was engineered and mastered by the multi-Grammy award winner Phil Magnotti (Fates Warning, Overkill, Arch / Matheos, O.S.I.). He has offered a result that does REAL justice to Warlord’s music. Everything sounds heavy, loud and clear. Extra attention has been given to the keyboards and orchestral parts of the album (according to Tsamis’ wishes in his composition of the material) and these grand parts match in perfect balance with each and every song. The orchestration is well done and is a part of every composition. Such orchestration transforms these songs into real anthems, transcending `convnetional Heavy Metal`. And this is the way that the music of Warlord should be approached – on the level of creativity and high art. This is the way the music of Warlord should sound, case closed.
The front cover is excellent. It is a painting by John Martin called `Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon`. The front and cover art plus the layout is done by Phoebus R Dokos who has also designed the Warlord logo on this album. Additional cover styling is done by Kostas Tsiakos who has also done all the booklet art.
In conclusion, I must say that this is the album of the year and one of the most important, if not the most important albums, of the decade. Those final words plus this whole review are the result of a careful listening of the record for a very long time before this review’s publication – it is not pure enthusiasm. I would write the same things about ANY band that would be capable to release a magnum opus like this. We all know that Warlord are a very special band and that Tsamis is one of the most inspired composers of our times. We all know the drama behind this band but we should leave all those elements behind and focus on the music that is being offered here. Simply, by doing this is, we are coming to the OBVIOUS conclusion that with `The Holy Empire` we have a piece of musical perfection, nothing more and nothing less. Everyone into good music – not only Metal – should listen to this album, plain and simple.