|Musical Style: Epic Metal||Produced By:|
|Record Label: Ulterium||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2011||Artist Website: Theocracy|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 95%|
|Running Time: 62:21|
Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones, and Theocracy vocalist Matt Smith’s idea to start a Christian metal band couldn’t be simpler: “(One) thing that I wanted to do (was) to put out Christian music that I liked, that I would like to listen to and that hopefully stood up, quality-wise to a lot of the other bands out there. And (that) didn’t worry with trends and with trying to fit in and this and that. So hopefully, we’ve succeeded on that front”, as outlined by Smith in an online interview.1
Theocracy has without a doubt fulfilled the artist’s expectations in becoming one of the leading players in not just the Christian metal scene but the metal scene overall. One only need consider Theocracy’s 2003 self-titled debut (on Metal Ages Records), which received significant critical acclaim while introducing the group’s unique brand of “epic melodic power metal with progressive overtones”. Theocracy, it must be noted, was a one man project in that Smith handled all aspects of the writing, recording and production process. Five years passed before Theocracy signed with Ulterium Records for its every bit as notable sophomore release, Mirror Of Souls. In addition to playing up the group’s epic power metal based sound, the album found Theocracy turning into a full piece band in that Smith was joined by guitarist Jon Hinds and drummer Shawn Benson.
As The World Bleeds, the third Theocracy release from the fall of 2011 (also on Ulterium), maintains the same musical leanings while building upon the strengths of its predecessors: And that is by taking the group’s trademark qualities - the catchy chorus hooks, epic arrangements, multi-layered vocal melodies and intricate (at times progressive based) songwriting - to the next level. The end result is a near perfect record from a talented band peaking at just the right moment.
Now, it has been this reviewers experience that each Theocracy album features that one track which cannot help but make you say, “Man, this is the best song I have EVER heard!” The self-titled debut had “The Healing Hand” (or, depending on my mood, “The Serpent’s Kiss”) while Mirror Of Souls featured “Laying The Demon To Rest”. With As The World Bleeds it is “I Am”, an eleven minute epic with everything you would want from a Theocracy masterpiece: Melody to spare while highlighting a bombastic and emotionally charged edge that cannot help but make you return time and again.
But what helps set As The World Bleeds apart, in my opinion, is that it also includes a number of VERY close second choices. The brilliance of the album, in other words, lies in that there are not just 1 or 2 great tracks but a slew of them. Let’s start with the running the gamut of near all out thrash riffs to commercial sensibilities that is “Nailed” or the dramatic elements representative of “Drown”. The albums highly complex title track with its joining of the technically progressive and equally memorable deserves equal consideration.
The infectious speed metal lacings to “30 Pieces Of Silver” and “Master Storyteller” are also choice selections while “Altar To The Unknown God” proves every bit as catchy, albeit on the more tempered side of things. When Theocracy strays from the beaten path, the quality does not diminish. Consider the semi ballad “The Gift Of Music”, in which Smith stretches and exhibits the full range to his voice (one thing you can say is that each Theocracy album finds him growing and improving in the vocal department) and “Hide In The Fairytale”, with its sublime (almost medieval) flavorings.
Of course, the artist’s decision to start a Christian metal band was not necessarily simplistic (Christian metal had already been around for several decades) but rather more innovative when considering his motives: Not wishing to follow any trend while creating music that would hold its own from a quality standpoint. As The World Bleeds, obviously, fulfills both roles unequivocally in terms of not only musical direction (You almost hardly ever hear epic metal played on the radio) but merit as well (When all is said and done, Matt Smith is destined to rank among the finest songwriters of his era).
As The World Bleeds finds Theocracy continuing to round out its line-up in that both a bassist (Jared Oldham) and lead guitarist (Val Allen Wood) have been added. Oldham joins with drummer Shawn Benson to form an unwavering rhythm section (Benson, in particular, deserves mention for his savvy and technical timekeeping skills). But it is Allen Wood that takes things to the next level in that what we have in As The World Bleeds is the first Theocracy album to feature shredding lead guitar work- and shred he does, most appreciably on “Nailed” and “Hide In The Fairytale”. At this point it must be noted that Smith handled all lead guitar duties on the debut while guest guitarists were brought in for Mirror Of Souls.
Complaints are few and far between. Yes, I wish that Theocracy had given us at least one more track in the ten minute range (accept this as more observation as opposed to critique when factoring in the quality to the songwriting). Also, there is one song, “Light Of The World”, that I might rate as very good as opposed to great (note that this is NOT a filler track in that there are many bands out there that would be proud to include it as part of their repertoire).
Lyrics maintain the bold and upfront stance of the first two from Theocracy in addressing topics ranging from the qualities to God (“I Am”), Judas’s betray of Christ (“30 Pieces Of Silver”) and Peter walking on water (“Drown”). Please note that this review was written off pre-release download files; an updated version with more details about the lyrics is forthcoming once the CD version has been released.
Track By Track
Credit Theocracy for being ambitious enough to open the album with the eleven minute “I Am”. Not that this has never been done before, as Nightwish, Dark Passion Play with the 14 minute “The Poet And The Pendulum”, and Symphony X, the 11 minute title track off Iconoclast, have opened albums with lengthy material as well.
What we have here is another classic Theocracy epic in the vein of “The Serpent’s Kiss”, “The Healing Hand” and “Twist Of Fate”. Yes, too many twists and turns and technical fortitude to go into adequate detail, but the end result is more than ample creativity and listenable mentality to keep things fresh with repeated listen. In terms of specifics, I am particularly drawn to the mega-huge chorus interwoven with the groups trademark layered vocal melodies and instrumental stretch that make a brief left turn towards a jazz-fusion direction.
“Master Storyteller” finds Theocracy backing off from the overt progressiveness and heading in more classic melodic metal territory. The key word being melodic in that what we have here is one of the catchiest choruses you will hear: Put this on FM radio in another era and it would dominate! The song, otherwise, proves up-tempo, highly energetic and excitingly infections.
The instrumental opening to “Nailed” brings to mind “Laying The Demon To Rest” in how it gradually builds momentum until breaking out in near thrash-like fashion. The aggression is maintained as the song moves ahead, storming through its verses to full on guitar assaults but gently decelerating to a brief stretch of flamenco guitar and then an abundant chorus with an almost pop-like catchiness (something I say in a positive sense). So in the end we are treated to a merging of the all out heavy and equally melodic.
“Hide In The Fairytale” moves forward expeditiously from the start, flowing in a lush and airy manner until the guitar kicks in and leads the way to one of those over the type choruses we have come to expect from Theocracy- grand and stately while also highlighting a slight medieval flair. Of particular note is the duel lead guitar work that bounces between the left and right channel.
“The Gift Of Music” is a semi-ballad along the lines of “Bethlehem” off MOS. Palatial and imposing, the song places equal emphasis on acoustic lacings and the staunchly guitar driven while giving rise to some creative time and tempo changes in the process. A classically flavored instrumental interlude and some near thrash heavy moments at the end finds the band firing on all cylinders.
“30 Pieces Of Silver” borders on all out speed metal, combining rapid double bass with incessant riffing to create a setting that can best be described as frenetic in capacity. But when things settle down, it is for a resounding chorus in which the bands layered vocal melodies, again, plays a prevailing role. It also deserves mention that “30 Pieces Of Silver” was chosen as the pre-release digital download single, a decision which, obviously, cannot be faulted when considering the quality of music at hand.
The aptly entitled “Drown” is a dramatic interpretation of Matthew 14: 22-23 in which Christ called Peter out of the boat to walk on water. Musically, what we have is a powerful pieces that catches the emotion of the moment at hand, highlighting Smith’s moving vocal performance and a smoothly flowing atmosphere in which another full on melody is reinforced. In between, you will find some lighter touches for its verses and another fluid run of lead guitar.
A very solid deep cut can be found in “Alter To The Unknown God”. Mid-paced and heavy, the song unites some of the albums most guitar driven moments with the penchant for the epic and catchy Theocracy is best known. Rounding things out is perhaps the albums finest stretch of soloing - blazing and expeditious - from Allen Wood.
“Light Of The World”, another one on the faster and more up-tempo side of things, is the albums only track I might describe as “merely good” as opposed to great. What is the difference? Well, it comes down to the fact the song lacks that extra touch of melody that is inherit to the better material here; as a result, it failed to grab me in the same forthright manner. Still, it is a quality work that is far from filler (Theocracy is one of those groups I cannot imagine every recording a filler track).
The albums eight minute title track just plain dominates. “As The World Bleeds” underscores an overriding progressiveness, playing up quieter piano and keyboard based moments, others heading in the faster (almost speed metal like) direction, slower passages upheld by lush vocal melodies and enough instrumental excursions to allow for a jam band feeling. Tying everything together is more than ample catchiness to prevent things from turning trite, leaving the overall impression of a shorter and more condensed version of “Mirror Of Souls”.
The best way to summarize would be with another quote from the artist: "When you're dealing with the most powerful and serious subject matter in existence, you can't back it up with weak music- it just doesn't work." I think we can all agree that no further commentary is necessary.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “I Am” (11:02), “Master Storyteller” (4:11), “Nailed” (6:27), “Hide In The Fairytale” (4:29), “The Gift Of Music” (7:14), “30 Pieces Of Silver” (5:10), “Drown” (5:31), “Alter To The Unknown God” (5:46), “Light Of The World” (4:30), “As The World Bleeds” (7:57)
Matt Smith - Lead Vocals
Val Allen Wood - Lead Guitar
Jonathan Hinds - Guitar
Jared Oldham - Bass
Shawn Benson - Drums