|Musical Style: Epic Metal||Produced By: Matt Smith|
|Record Label: Metal Ages/Ulterium||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2003/2013||Artist Website: Theocracy|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 95%|
|Running Time: 68:29|
It is a well-worn gripe in metal and hard rock circles: The 2003 self-titled Theocracy debut (on Metal Ages Records) could have used better production. Not that this diminishes the albums fundamental strength- the high quality songwriting in which the group made its “epic melodic power metal with progressive overtones” sound best known. The choir-like vocal melodies, catchy choruses, symphonic keyboards and orchestral arrangements that go hand in hand deserve every bit as much acclaim. Nor does it take away from the fact it was a “one man band project” in which founding member Matt Smith handled all aspects of the writing and recording process, including lead and choir vocals, rhythm, lead, acoustic and bass guitar, keyboards, orchestration and drum programming.
I always considered the programmed drums not to sound bad - they bypassed much of the thinness and one dimensionality associated with drum programming - but also lacking was the spontaneous creativity a human drummer might bring to the table. In similar fashion I assessed production as commendable for a self-financed and one man band release (and cut the artist some slack accordingly)- also keeping in mind that, not unlike much of the metal community, I felt things deserved to be improved upon at the same time.
Theocracy might have gone on to bigger and better things, turning into a full piece band and signing with Ulterium Records for its critically acclaimed follow up albums Mirror Of Souls (2008) and As The World Bleeds (2011). As the years passed, however, Smith longed to re-release the debut for two reasons: 1) To correct the already noted production issues 2) It had gone out of print and turned into a hard to find collectors item. Hence, the fall of 2013 Ulterium Records re-issue of Theocracy with the programmed drums replaced by Theocracy drummer Shawn Benson, re-mixing done by Smith and mastering Mika Jussila (who has worked with Stratovarious, Nightwish and Edguy).
Said improvements bring about several immediate noticeable results. First, production comes across in the brighter, crisper and all around cleaner manner. Specifically, the re-issue proves heavier with its emphasis on better-defined rhythm guitars that helps give the project an added metal-based feel. Keyboards stand out further in the backdrop as well. Second, the work of Benson on drums makes a decisive difference from how he lends greater punch and presence to the low-end and kicks up the tempo in the process. It cannot be understated the technical presence a real drummer brings to the table - listen closely and you will find fills and rolls, cymbals and kick drum not present on the original - not to mention the fact Benson is quite the talented timekeeper.
What has not changed is the inspired songwriting, with the upgrades in question making said songs stand out that much further. My favorites remain the three eleven minute epics, with “The Serpents Kiss” highlighting an intricately sweeping chorus and protracted instrumental section (which finds Smith exhibiting his searing lead guitar abilities) and “The Healing Hand” five distinct “parts” that serve to uphold the complex but creative environs at hand (too many time signatures to go into adequate detail). “Twist Of Fate” also breaks down (this time into three “parts”) in taking the overall heavier direction while maintaining the technical basis. The commonality between the three is notable melodies that remain fresh with repeat listen.
Speaking of which, high-spirited tracks “Ichthus” (with its choir-vocal harmony arrangements) and “Theocracy” (the towering Theocracy signature track) ooze of melody. Likewise, mid-paced pieces “Mountain” (heavier and underpinned by church organ) and “The Victory Dance” (reflecting some medieval flavorings) are catchy all the same. When Theocracy stretches, it can also deliver an all-out speed metal romp in “New Jerusalem” or even taper things for the emotional semi-ballad “Sinner”.
Great songs make for a great album and such is the case here. The choice songwriting at hand helped turn Theocracy into such a notable release and later created demand for its re-issue. Said re-issue comes highly recommended due to, again, improvements in production and drum performance. Hence, if you own the original then I encourage making the upgrade in that the difference between the two versions is night and day. If not (and either are new to Theocracy or a long term fan) then you cannot go wrong by making the re-issue a necessary purchase.
Track By Track
Opening interlude piece “Prelude” maneuvers its short (1:36) distance to keyboards and orchestration.
“Ichthus” kicks in at once, resonating heartfelt energy with its full throttle double bass and signature Theocracy layered vocal melodies in abundance. Chorus is over the top with its galloping essence. In the end, “Ichthus” delivers big melody in abundance and proves a fitting introduction to the epic Theocracy sound. Lyric snippet:
Forced into the catacombs
Unite to praise the King of kings
They fear a revolution
And the power that He brings
Heaven's sons stand as one, as believers
In the blood of Christ
Even in death we have true life
“The Serpents Kiss”, first of the albums three epics, opens gently and slowly with piano leading the way. A deluge of guitars step forward after a minute, forcing things ahead assertively until obtaining a huge, sweeping chorus interwoven with keyboards and choir-like vocal harmonies. The song, otherwise, centers itself around a five and a half minute instrumental interlude running the gamut from guitar harmonies to technically done guitar leads to a montage of preacher voices in the backdrop. This one puts the epic in epic metal in no uncertain terms. Lyric snippet:
Father bring us back to you
We're lost sheep, afraid, confused
Tangled in the snares that grow
Along this road of pain we chose
And though we've wandered far away
We've turned around and lost our way
Though we are the prodigal,
With open arms for us you still await
A mournful church organ gets “Mountain” underway before guitars take over in full force. The song sets a mid-paced clip the rest of the way, emotional in leaning with a sublimely feel reflected in the catchy chorus (very engaging, almost commercial in capacity). A progressive slant presents itself in the manner in which “Mountain” occasionally decelerates to a slower direction. Lyric snippet:
I cannot fight this battle on my own
I'm fallen weakness clothed in flesh and bone
I stand in awe of who You are
And what I feel I cannot explain
Forged in the flame, broken again
Rise to the top of the mountain with You
The world disappears
Into the valley below me
As I'm lost in the glory of You
Signature song “Theocracy” shines in all its stately and opulent glory. Fittingly, orchestral arrangements start the show with tempo soon to pick up in an outburst of double and heavyset guitars. An imposing demeanor highlights “Theocracy” moving forward, reflected in how a bass guitar interlude descends into a poignant bridge melded with quieter guitars and later chanted vocal arrangements give way to the grand and regal chorus. Theocracy at its finest. Lyric snippet:
Rather, use me to be Your hands down here
A mirror to reflect your glory into hurting eyes
And let me see the world with vision clear
And not through selfishness and lies
For if I am consumed with my own cares
What right have I to speak the words
Thy Kingdom Come?
And if I am consumed with my own will,
What right to pray Thy Will Be Done?
Epic two, “The Healing Hand”, breaks down into five “parts” - “The Gift”, “Restoration”, “Adulation”, “Betray” and “Eternity” - each of which serves to detail the meaning and ultimate purpose of Christ. The key is how they do so in an intelligent manner without coming across contrived or overbearing.
I always rated “The Healing Hand” among my favorite Theocracy songs (alongside “Laying The Demon To Rest” from Mirror Of Souls and “I Am” from As The World Bleeds) in reflecting a progressive slant with its numerous time and tempo changes. The five “parts” in question almost come across as separate songs melded together to form a complementary whole (sort of like some of Neal Morse’s epics). Now, I do not wish to go into too much detail, but “The Healing Hand” runs the gamut from driving metal passages to quieter ones in which guitars lay low to guitar harmony based instrumental sections to choir-like vocal melodies to worshipful overtones and more. The upshot is that despite its length and complexities the song fails to become trite due to the focus on melody at hand. Lyric snippet:
See the multitudes surround this man of miracles
The key to life they've found, He is the Son of God
Hear the suffering people cry for healing from this man
As they reach out to touch a supernatural hand
"Take my scars, heal my wounds, give new life to me"
The cry cleanse my stains, kill disease, Master, make this sickness die
Endless power, fueled by faith, restoration in one touch
Miracle, supernaturally disease is crushed
The Holy Hand becomes the Healing Hand
Classical instrumentation and acoustic guitar introduces “Sinner”. The song moves its remaining length in the form of a semi-ballad, reflective in capacity with poignant verses interspersed with occasional metal-laced guitars and luxurious chorus carried at the more emphatic tempo. I particularly enjoy how over its final minute “Sinner” picks up the initiative as assertive guitars move to the forefront of the mix. Lyric snippet:
Shame covers me
What was light has turned to dark
Pain torments me
Where there once was something holy
Now beats my blackened heart
Sin has tangled me
My life is broken and I bleed eternally
Grief's controlling me
So I cry out to the only one who can bring
The healing that I need
Back to up-tempo with “New Jerusalem”, as close as Theocracy gets to speed metal with its effervescent momentum and impetus. Plenty of double bass, as one might imagine, can be found (Shawn Benson gets quite the work out here) in addition to worshipful chorus aligning with the strident scene. Interestingly, things slow to a crawl at the end as choir-like backing vocals play a lead role. Lyric snippet:
By the grace of the holy one
I am free from this world of desolation
Free from greed, lust and selfishness
To nevermore be a slave to this wicked flesh
By the ultimate sacrifice
I'm alive, yet transcend this life
From this old world of death burning down
Now I walk through the ashes unto holy ground
“The Victory Dance” merges medieval flavorings with metal guitars to create an imposing effect. Almost anthem-like, the song gives rise to a majestic feel with its multi-layered chorus (very catchy and engaging on first listen) and intricacies of form (more progressive underpinnings can be found). A borderline commercial aspect can be found as a result. Lyric snippet:
Seven scares turned to ashes
Faces of madness melt into victory
Trial by fire, my burden
Burned in refining flames of purity
Seven steps into darkness
Mortal and crownless
Altar flames rising, burning higher
And straight through the fire
I'm dancing the victory dance
Final epic “Twist Of Fate” bases itself around the valleys of life and how by both learning and growing from them we can ultimately reach the mountains that ensue. Correspondingly, the song breaks down into three separate “parts”: “Descent Into the Valley Of The Shadows”, “Passage Through The Valley” and “Ascent Unto The Mountain”.
Musically, I rate “Twist Of Fate” the near equal of “The Healing Hand” but trending heavier territory: There is more of a metal basis at hand in running the same progressive gamut- all the while exuding a high level of melody despite the length. The song almost comes across as a journey with the “valley” parts distinguished by a darker and dire sound and the final “mountain” part slightly tempered with an added victorious and uplifting feel. It adds up to Theocracy at its epic and progressive best. Lyric snippet:
Spirits swarm around me: I feel it
They war against the one who dwells inside
Fate does not exist, I know it in my soul,
And strife to have that same faith in my mind
Tonight I sleep upon a bed of nails it seems
For once again I am a field of war
But it has long been written,
All things work together perfectly for me
For I have been reborn
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Prelude” (1:36), “Ichthus” (4:40), “The Serpents Kiss” (11:56), “Mountain” (4:48), “Theocracy” (6:01), “The Healing Hand” (11:36), “Sinner” (6:09), “New Jerusalem” (5:10), “The Victory Dance” (5:02), “Twist Of Fate” (11:31)
Matt Smith - Lead Vocals, Guitars, Bass, Keyboards & Orchestration
Shaw Benson - Drums