|Musical Style: Epic Power Metal||Produced By: Matt Smith|
|Record Label: Ulterium||Country Of Origin: USA|
|Year Released: 2016||Artist Website: Theocracy|
|Tracks: 10||Rating: 90%|
With the fall of 2016 release of its fourth full-length album Ghost Ship, Theocracy has some big shoes to fill- its own. After all, the renowned Athens, Georgia based act is widely regarded as one of the frontrunners within the hard music scene with its unique joining of epic melodic power metal and strong progressive overtones. Theocracy got off to a convincing start in 2003 with its Metal Ages self-titled debut, a ‘one man band’ project in which founding member Matt Smith handled all aspects of the writing and recording process, including all instrumentation and drum programming. Results speak for themselves, with the 95% Angelic Warlord review affirming how ‘great songs make for a great album and such is the case here’ while ‘the choice songwriting at hand helped turn Theocracy into such a notable release’.
Theocracy also introduced the epic side to the group’s sound, in terms of layered choir vocals and symphonic keyboards, but also the melodic, referencing the abundant melodies and hooks inherent to its songwriting. The progressive cannot be understated either, reinforcing how the album includes several tracks in excess of 10 minutes (a Theocracy staple). The re-mixed and re-mastered 2013 Ulterium Records re-issue of Theocracy not only rectified any production problems but also featured Theocracy timekeeper Shawn Benson, whom replaced the original programmed drum tracks.
Critics are on the fence as to which of the follow up releases Mirror Of Souls (2008) and As The World Bleeds (2011) represents the Theocracy magnum opus. What cannot be debated is how Mirror Of Souls found Theocracy turning into a full piece band with the addition of Benson and guitarist Jon Hinds. Every bit notable is how the album further built upon the Theocracy penchant for ‘catchy choruses and huge melodies, epic arrangements and progressive elements’ (referencing the 90% Angelic Warlord review). On As The World Bleeds Theocracy continued to round out its line up, noting second guitarist Val Allen Wood and bassist Jared Oldham, while ‘building upon the strengths of its predecessors (to create) a near perfect record from a talented band peaking at just the right moment’ (95% review).
Whereas Angelic Warlord might lean towards the As The World Bleeds side of the fence, even if slightly in that Mirror Of Souls is a great album in its own right, the question at hand comes down to where Ghost Ship ranks within the Theocracy back catalog. Repeat listen reveals the album answers the challenge in staying true to the Theocracy affinity for catchy choruses and melodies, with Smith outdoing himself from a songwriting standpoint in that Ghost Ship comes with more hooks than your local bait and tackle shop. I also find Ghost Ship challenges for the heaviest of the four Theocracy releases, as revealed in production that places premium on a forward rhythm guitar mix that delivers a bit more edge and bite than As The World Bleeds (observation and not a critique). Hence, how I associate Ghost Ship with highlighting the near perfect coalescing of melody and heaviness.
That would be the best way to describe opening cut “Paper Tiger”, one of Theocracy’s most fleet and unflinching with its heightened rhythm section and same crunch driven emphasis characteristic to much of the albums material. The group, however, fails to forsake accessibility in that a subtle but distinct melody helps define the intrepid scene. “Stir The Embers” takes the aggression to even higher levels. Touching upon thrash as guitars power in and out of the mix for its defined verses, the song tempers for a catchy refrain that contrasts with its elegant if not scintillating allure (almost a Jekyll & Hyde type situation if you will). Built in to the two are generous stretches of Val Allen Wood’s exciting lead guitar work, which lends a technical instrumental acumen not always present on the earlier Theocracy material.
Albums title track builds upon the melodic proclivity. “Ghost Ship” maneuvers its length as symphonic keyboards dance in the backdrop, turbulent with its seething low-end but every bit engaging in terms of a chorus that successfully strives for (and captures) the commercial. Lone complaint is that I could have done without the ‘whoa-whoa’ vocal trade off near the end but otherwise a great song. I like to think of “Castaway” as a companion track to “Ghost Ship”, and not just due to name association but from also playing up a similar bountiful melody. “Castaway” takes the faster and more resolved heading, approaching speed metal during its barreling verses while preserving the assertive focus for an equally constant (and quite engaging) refrain.
If interested in an even greater inclining for hooks than look no further than “A Call To Arms” and “Around The World And Back”. I like to think of former as ‘epic medieval battle metal’, aligning an anthem-like arena rock slant with a keyed up power metal basis to create an environs that reeks of the heroic if not all out bombastic. Massively catchy chorus screams ‘this is a revolution, this is a call to arms / so put your war paint on, it’s time to sound the fight song’. Latter is a quintessential power metal ballad. The song starts gently to airy keyboards only to gradually pick up pace as pronounced guitars kick in, drifting tranquilly until breaking out for an over the top refrain interwoven with some of the most imposing choir vocals you will hear (in the most generous sense). These two are so catchy it is insane- where is FM radio when you need it?
Every bit notable to both (not to mention all the Ghost Ship tracks) is how Matt Smith’s vocal performance stands out as one of the albums strong points. Yes, he maintains the same abundant range - capable of pulling off operatic falsettos and intelligent harmonies - but also adding elements of variety in the form of courser grit and gravel, and even some lower-register baritone flavorings. What I said in my As The World Bleeds review continues to hold true: “each Theocracy album finds him growing and improving in the vocal department”.
Further playing up the commercial aspects is “Currency In A Bankrupt World”. This is one of the least power metal-based tracks here, almost mid-tempo with an emotional allure that leans towards melodic metal but with some AOR tinctures and light semi-ballad varnishing. Regardless of genre classification, one cannot say it is not good. Likewise, “Wishing Well” backs from the power metal basis in also taking a melodic metal heading, playing up a driving heaviness (guitars in particular hit hard) but also reinforcing the melodic (another chorus over the top in terms of its engaging qualities). One cannot help but appreciate how Shawn Benson adorns the two with his spot on drum performance.
Every Theocracy album is going to have its progressive moments and Ghost Ship proves no exception, as can be found in perhaps my favorite of its tracks, “The Wonder Of It All”. The song aligns the best components of the assailing and engaging, launching at once to decided riffs and double bass that aggressively uphold the daunting verses, but fluidly evens out for a chorus in which the trademark Theocracy choir vocals again play a supreme role. An extended instrumental jam in which Wood again exhibits his licks and chops helps carry things out to seven satisfying minutes.
A progressive epic in ten-minute range is also unique to each Theocracy album, with “Easter” filling said role on Ghost Ship. I do not wish to go into too much detail in terms of every time signature or twist and turn, but I feel it sufficient to say “Easter” plays up the metal in the progressive metal side to things while blending in stylish progressive rock elements. Scattered throughout, for instance, are acoustic lacings and calmer passages, not to mention the “Glory! Glory! Hope is alive / And lifted up before your eye” refrain that has Neal Morse written all over it. Yet, more forthright moments that reach for a darker Symphony X vibe or mix melody and emotion akin to Shadow Gallery present themselves, as befitting the subject matter either way. It adds up to another classic that ranks alongside “I Am” (As The World Bleeds) and the Mirror Of Souls title track.
At this point, it deserves note that I find Ghost Ship the least progressive of the four Theocracy albums. Accept this as another ‘neutral observation and not critique’ type comment, but Theocracy has been gradually minimizing the progressive aspect to its songwriting starting with As The World Bleeds, which outside the 11 minute “I Am” and three other songs around 6 to 7 minutes each, features mostly material of the 4 to 5 minute variety. In my opinion, Mirror Of Souls is the most progressive Theocracy release in light of its awesome 22-minute title track and how five of its remaining cuts are in 7 to 10 minute territory.
This brings us back to Ghost Ship, which further distances itself from the progressive in that outside of “Easter” and “Wonder Of It All” none of its tracks barely exceeds five minutes. No, nothing wrong with that in that quality trumps quantity in terms of songwriting - who wants a bunch of boring and elongated progressive rock tracks? - noting how the Ghost Ship material delivers that quality in spades. That said, I also feel that Theocracy could have better explored the progressive side to its songwriting by perhaps extending a couple Ghost Ship tracks an additional two to three minutes or composing another 10-minute epic.
Ghost Ship production matches the professionalism of past Theocracy releases. Main difference, as noted, is the pronounced role attributed to guitars. Otherwise, everything else - including drums, keyboards and vocals - maintains its proper place in the mix.
As always, lyrics leave little doubt as to Theocracy’s faith. “Easter” upholds this best:
Run and see the stone has rolled away behold the way
They’re trembling in terror at the grave
(is this an empty promise, that we’ve been waiting for?
Because I’m so afraid to get my hopes up anymore
Is this a cruel illusion? Or could it really be
The miracle of miracles unfolding right in front of me?)
Blinding angel, white as lightning
Violent earthquakes, do not fear
Why seek the living among the dead?
Behold, He is not there
Glory! Glory! Hope is alive
And lifted up before your eyes
Waking all the world, open gates to paradise
Now it’s done, life has come
Death has died
Easter glory, what an ending to the story
My Son, arise!
As does “The Wonder Of It All”:
Three in One and One in Three
My burden’s light and yoke is easy
Grace sufficient for you to glory in infirmity
All of God and all of man incarnate
Soul’s redemption plan
The Lamb’s blood spilled by human hands shall clean
And wash that stain away
Die to live and live to die, you lose it all to save your life
Become a fool to be as wise, and see when you close your eyes
Saints shall serve to lead
And you’ll be strong when you are weakest
Fining joy through trials and grief
It all shall be told upon the other side
According to the groups press material, the Ghost Ship title comes from all the misfits, the un-cool, the outcasts, there is a place where you do fit in. Hence, the message behind “Ghost Ship”:
Cast off for the journey, join us as we sail the open seas
Unto the great adventure – follow Me
All the world’s unwanted
Come aboard and leave your darkness behind
Desperate to count, redeem the time
We are the ghosts awakened to the light
Forged and branded in His name
Ancient workmanship before ordained
Pay the piper, here we go
Got a ticket for a one way journey
(There’s revolution in the air)
Slay the viper, come follow, even if you’re ordinary
There’s a place for you here
(Though you were dead, come alive)
Raise the anchor, all aboard as the Captain calls His misfits
This Ghost Ship
Sets off to shake the world- let’s go
A similar theme recurs in “Castaway”
Isolation, always counting the cost
Always bearing the cross
But in the end your gain will far outweigh
The things you’ve lost
So when the world has passed you by, and every promise was a lie
And all the friends you had
Have turned their backs on you
Don’t wonder why
You’re shunned and cast out just for taking a stand
Left on an island all alone in the sand
Off they go, but you know why your ship is coming in tomorrow
Similar to the first three Theocracy albums, you cannot go wrong with Ghost Ship. Great song after great song presents itself, with Matt Smith continuing to reveal himself as one of the top songwriters within the melodic meets power meets progressive metal genres. My favorites include “Easter”, “The Wonder Of It All”, “A Call To Arms”, “Stir The Embers”, “Castaway” and “Around The World And Back”, but also noting how none of the Ghost Ship numbers are skip worthy (Theocracy has yet to produce a ‘filler’ track on any of its albums). Yes, I might have appreciated a few more songs that touch upon a progressive element, but I also see things from the bands point of view in that it is easier to perform live more accessible 4 to 5 minute material as opposed to that in excess of 7 minutes. In the end, the Ghost Ship quality is such I hope it is not another five long years between Theocracy albums.
Review by Andrew Rockwell
Track Listing: “Paper Tiger” (5:13), “Ghost Ship” (4:39), “The Wonder Of It All” (6:38), “Wishing Well” (5:01), “Around The World And Back” (4:57), “Stir The Embers” (4:07), “A Call To Arms” (4:39), “Currency In A Bankrupt World” (4:41), “Castaway” (4:43), “Easter” (9:53)
Matt Smith - Lead Vocals
Val Allen Wood - Lead Guitar
Jonathan Hinds - Guitar
Jared Oldham - Bass
Shawn Benson - Drums