Reviews: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Xalt - Dark War
   
Musical Style: Heavy Metal Produced By:
Record Label: Retroactive Country Of Origin: USA
Year Released: 1988 / 2017 Artist Website:
Tracks: 17 Rating: 80%
Running Time: 55:48

Xalt - Dark War - Retroactive re-issue

Eighties metal is an open-ended designation.  One cannot escape the fact fans and critics alike most often identity with the period for that of the ‘hair metal’ variety - or what commonly falls under the melodic, glam or pop metal heading - and rightly so in light of the popularity to well known bands such as Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Van Halen, Poison, Stryper and Mötley Crüe.  That said, when you go beneath the surface, you will find so much more musically to the decade in question.  On one hand, you have that of the traditional metal form (ranging from Judas Priest to Saxon to Saint) not to mention the power and progressive side of things (Queensryche, Helloween and Sacred Warrior).  On the other, thrash and speed metal deserve mention (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Deliverance and all things in between) as does that of a heavy blues based nature (Guns N’ Roses & Whitesnake).  Last but not least and deserving every bit the consideration is instrumental hard rock (can you say Joe Satriani?).   

One band which falls under the ‘eighties metal’ heading and potentially touches upon most if not all the styles referenced above is Xalt and its custom cassette 1988 full-length offering Dark War, but first a history lesson.  Xalt came roaring out of the late eighties Christian metal underground following the commercial success of Stryper in joining a host of other ‘white metal’ bands both signed (Barren Cross, Guardian, Bloodgood & Whitecross) and unsigned (Soldier, Paradox, Apostle & Revelation).  Good news is that Xalt is one of the few to make the transition from independent act to one with a label deal in that if followed up Dark War on Pure Metal Records with its 1990 debut full length Under The Ruins (a medium to good album) and 1991 sophomore effort History (a VERY good album bordering on great).  Xalt closed out its career in 1997 with the modern sounds of its Kaluboné Records third and final album Helium Blue Gazebo.

Xalt first came to my attention from a review of Dark War in Heaven’s Metal 18 and a full page add the same issue, but I did not actually hear the group until acquiring a pair of compilation releases to include Dark War tracks, with Underground Metal 2 featuring “Dark War” and the White Metal Invasion tape “The Cross”.  Despite both songs being right down my alley musically I never took the plunge and - much to my chagrin - purchased Dark War back in the day.  Hence, I did not have opportunity to listen to the album in its entirety until August of 2017 when it was re-mastered (by Rob Colwell of Bombworks Sound), and re-issued on CD for the first time by Retroactive Records.  In addition to the 11 included on Dark War, the re-issue also comes with six previously unreleased demo tracks that the group recorded during the Under The Ruins pre-productions sessions.

To say that I was impressed with Dark War would be an understatement in that I immediately took to the Xalt penchant for blending various forms of metal and the first class manner in which it performed and recorded its material.  Don’t be misled: Dark War is not another muddy-sounding-recorded-in-the-garage eighties era demo tapes from some band with more exuberance than ability.  Rather, Xalt is the real deal, and it recorded Dark War with the type of budget that lends a professional sound, at least when factoring its late eighties independent release.  Hence, how sound quality is such I am not comfortable referring to Dark War as a ‘demo tape’.  At the very least, I rate it alongside Soldier’s Babylon and Revelation’s Spiritual Wind as the best custom cassette releases I heard from the period.          

To understand Xalt and its penchant for blending various forms of metal one need listen to the first side to Dark War.  It begins with short introductory piece “Ariel”, which with its use of symphonic keyboards and orchestration comes across similar to the typical opening instrumental track you might find on a modern power metal album.  Xalt was WAY ahead of its tine in this regard.

Initial vocal cut “The Cross” represents quintessential Xalt with its equal joining of anthem like momentum and accessible precision.  A commercial essence comes to the forefront in the process, as the song brings the type of catchy hooks and inviting guitar rhythms to place it well within eighties melodic metal territory.  I can see it holding up quite well if re-recorded by a contemporary artist such as Rob Rock or Stryper.

Starting to a drum solo and several seconds of open-air guitar, “God In A Box” takes the heavier and more bottom heavy approach in touching upon straight on mid-tempo heavy metal territory.  Steve David’s larger than life bass prevails, particularly for the songs instrumental moments, as does the varied vocal abilities to Scott Doerfler, whom can stretch for classic metal territory or reach down for some lower register emotion.

“Where Victory Storms” second of the albums four instrumentals, proves more of a riff driven piece in which time signatures ranging from up-tempo and galloping to others lending a darker if not ominous signature prevail.  Of course, guitarist James Eardman has a field day in decorating the song with his inviting guitar riffs and soloing of an intricate nature.

“Angry Fire” stands out with its tight as it gets guitar harmonies.  The song otherwise touches upon a similar metal anthem feel as “The Cross”, but with its assertive guitar riffs, makes the overall heavier statement.  What I ultimately find on “Angry Fire” is a blending of multifarious forms of metal, at times melodic and others touching upon a straight on form in which Bloodgood comes to mind either way.

“Ready For The Fight” represents a fast paced and relentless barnburner that barely reaches two and a half minutes.  The song, however, approaches speed metal - at least in terms of all out velocity and aggression - although any thrash comparison might be misleading.  Interestingly, some of the guitar tones even reflect a bluesy quality.

“A Warriors Honor” takes things back to mid-paced and bass guitar driven territory.  The song proves one of the albums more aggressive- technical and heavy but also darker in mirroring some decided European metal nuances.  Once more, the top of the line work from Eardman deserves note, as rhythm guitars dig and bite and soloing is of a fleet capacity.

“Looking Down A Loaded Gun” takes a bluesy metal meets hard rock form that points to classic Bride.  Of note are the gritty rhythm guitars, which slam in and out of the mix, and rawer vocal performance of Doerfler, whom lowers his register to align with the earthy nature to the music at hand.

Ensuing is third instrumental “Palace Daydreams”, which at two minutes serves an interlude role that bridges the gap between individual songs.  Musically, it proves deliberate and pensive as imposing guitar melodies allow for a delicate but swarthy edge.  While there is nothing wrong with it quality wise, it also forces me to bring up the long complaint I have regarding Dark War in that it is too instrumental heavy in that follow up cut “Soldiers In The Mist” is also instrumental.

“Soldiers In The Mist” is my favorite of the four from the manner in which the group executes it with so much grace, style and intense emotion.  The song gets off to a fast start with its initial seconds compelled by upbeat metal guitars, which abruptly give way to the jazzy bass and slower - almost doom-like - riffing that carry the ensuing two minutes.  Final minute returns things to the same upbeat heading at the start.

As “Soldiers In The Mist” fades out, albums closing title track cuts in, which leaves impression of one eight-minute progressive based piece.  “Dark War” stands out as this reviewers favorite, with its inviting harmonies and melodies coalescing to form a stylish, mid-paced environs that has inviting written all over it - chorus is by far the albums strongest - but without backing from the Xalt intrinsic heaviness.  The ominous narration at the end helps lend an apocalyptic if not epic metal-based feel. 

The six demo cuts (all of which were re-recorded for Under The Ruins) are board mixes that while a bit rough around the edges present with a bit more youthful energy than their better produced UTR counterparts.  I do not want to go into too much detail about individual cuts - that would be better reserved for a UTR reviews - but it is sufficient to say that my favorite of the six is “Through The Night” with its neo-classical guitar flavorings, which get lost on the UTR rendering.  Likewise, “Under The Ruins” translates better as a demo from how its lead guitar stands out that much cleaner in the mix, a particular that could be said for all the demo tracks in comparison.  That said, I like how keyboards lend an element of polish to UTR versions to “Kingdom Within” and “Fortress”, while vocals come across smoother on “Lift Him Up” (on the demo Doerfler adds some lower register gravel to his delivery).

It is worth noting the professional packaging to the Retroactive re-issue, which starts with the eye catching enhanced version to the cover art but also encompasses a 12 page mini booklet (both attributing to Scott Waters of NoLifeTilMetal).  Including alongside extensive liner notes from Eardman, is a track by track breakdown, lyrics and retro band photos.

When factoring the cover art, song titles and lyrics, Dark War appears to be a semi-concept album based around spiritual warfare.  “Ready For The Fight” certainly confirms this:

We’ve got our armor on
Ready for the fight
Swords held high
And ready to rip the night

Jesus is the Master and now
We have no need to fear
Satan is defeated
Through Christ we now see clear

As does “A Warrior’s Honor”:

Standing on the edge of a nightmare
Praying for the peace of a dream
Running towards the end of somewhere
But it’s not where it seems

Hanging on the edge of a lifetime
Who will you serve today?
Running from the gallows
A warrior’s honor betrayed

In the liner notes, Eardman offers the following in regards to “Dark War”: ‘I believe we were in the world to over come it, so that Light would prevail and there would be darkness no more’: 

Shadows fall on the mountain tops
The evil pray for falling rocks
The King has come
The Beast He’ll slay
The truth was always there
It never went’ away…

In the days of the Dark War
Heaven will descend on earth
The evil will curse the day of their birth

Finally, “The Cross” is an exposition of the Crucifixion:

He was not defeated
He took the keys of Death in hand
Kicked Satan square in the head
And on the third day He rose again

Though they pierced Him and beat Him
He forgave them for their sins
Opened the door to paradise
Those who ask may live and enter in

While there are many different ways to describe Xalt - melodic, traditional, power/progressive, instrumental - I find the well rounded label ‘heavy metal’ an accurate indicator of what Dark War brings to the table.  In a sense, the group reminds somewhat of Bloodgood in this capacity in that it is not limited to one specific form or style of hard music.  If I were to invite comparison, I rate Dark War much higher than Under The Ruins, albeit I place it slightly lower than the group’s magnum opus History.  It comes down to how Dark War presents with the near perfect track listing, with the possible exception including perhaps one too many instrumental cuts.  It is a treat hearing the Retroactive re-mastered version to the album after all these years.

Review by Andrew Rockwell

Track Listing (Dark War): “Ariel” (:41), “The Cross” (3:19), “God In A Box” (2:53), “Where Victory Storms” (3:03), “Angry Fire” (4:11), “Ready For The Fight” (2:32), “A Warrior’s Honor” (2:49), “Looking Down A Loaded Gun” (4:24), “Palace Daydreams” ( 2:08), “Soldiers In The Midst” (3:08), “Dark War” (5:30)

Track Listing (demo): “Under The Ruins” (4:04), “Wounded Heart” (4:36),”The Kingdom Within” (2:43), “Lift Him Up” (3:31), “The Fortress” (2:35), “Through The Night” (3:40)

Musicians
Scott Doerfler - Lead Vocals
James Eardman - Guitars & Keyboards
Steve David - Bass
Todd Gleason - Drums

 

Reviews: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
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