Ancient Empire - The Tower

Ancient Empire The Tower cover
Ancient Empire
The Tower
Stormspell Records
Eureka! I’m thrilled beyond words to announce I’ve found a prime candidate for my heavy metal album of the year in Ancient Empire’s third and latest offering, “The Tower”, released in December under the irrefutably reputable Stormspell Records. That said, each subsequent listen of Joe Lizst’s storied and masterfully composed brainchild is akin to donning a weathered, favorite old coat or slipping on well-worn, broken in shoes as it inexorably provides a similarly re-assuring comfort. Adhering to a science fiction style narrative in line with 2014’s auspicious debut, “When Empires Fall”, and 2016’s stellar sophomore, “Other World”, “The Tower” is comprised of nine rock solid gems whose varying tempos poignantly ebb and flow, book-ended as they are by the incremental and sybaritic sagas, which are the opening title track and conclusion, “The Last Sunset”.
Formed in San Francisco, California as a project amongst friends, Ancient Empire boasts of excellent musicianship and song-writing skills of which the enthralling lyrics are supplied by Rich Pelletier, who plays bass alongside Joe in Hellhound (which last year released its full-length debut and long-time cumulative effort, “Nothing Left”). His brother Steve assumes drumming duties whilst Joe takes full control of the vocals, guitars and bass. Listening to any one of AE’s releases you’d think it was a twin-guitar band thanks to all the multi-layered guitar parts, be they accompanying harmonies or sumptuously phrased leads over the main/backing riffs.
I also like to consider “The Tower” a blend of the first two releases in the sense it combines the hard-driving edge of “When Empires Fall” with the conceptual format and developmental aspect of “Other World”. While the longer tracks may take a little more time to fully appreciate some of the shorter ones such as “View From Up Here”, “The Battle of Stirling Bridge” and “Yesterday’s Hero” waste no time bowling one over with their fulminating guitar riffs as well as killer vocal inflections, especially on the choruses. Of note is when Joe heartily expounds the staggeringly great, engaging chorus to “The Battle of Stirling Bridge”:
“In this year of our Lord
By the will of our King
Four horses set to ride
Through the North of England
In this year of the Death
When our souls have found it
Some sung to our Victory
At the Battle of Stirling Bridge”
Its hooking and regal opening bass line withstanding, “The Battle of Stirling Bridge”’s rewarding build-up and zestful gallop, along with the wondrously captioned vocals, indubitably make it my most highly regarded and anticipated track. It’s so darn compelling I’m even brought to tears by the time the insanely colorful solo rounds the bend. The apocalyptic lyrics to “The Darker Side of Midnight” for their part bring to mind the underlying theme of “Other World”, as they too forebodingly warn of man’s technological hubris. This mid-paced track’s somber, at times jangling bass line also reflects Ancient Empire’s previous outing.
As well, “The Tower”’s production is utterly fantastic; whether it’s Lizst’s firm, expressively delivered raconteur vocals, his vibrant bass lines and rich yet crystal clear guitar tones or Steve Pelletier’s phenomenally wound up and multi-faceted drum beats, every component rises to the fore, thus making this release a true winner on all fronts. Leads wise, Lizst’s fetching, at times downright striking guitar solos pleasurably anoint one’s ears, whether they’re the disciplined, panoramic type found on “The Tower” and its lyrically imposing, bass-heavy successor, “Endless Curse” (which eventually yields fist-pumping backing shouts along with some mighty fine natural harmonics!) or flashing, iridescent sizzlers such as the ones surging out of nowhere on “View From Up Here” and “Yesterday’s Hero”. The latter’s swiftly deployed leads are the most gripping all-around as they dutifully compliment this fastest of cuts in short, sonorous bursts flowing from one speaker to the next before melding into an exquisite harmony on both sides. One thing’s for sure: the leads throughout are so impacting and toothsome you’ll fully revel in chomping down on ‘em.
Although the songs average six minutes in length, rest assured none wears out its welcome; even the seven minute plus missives make the most of every moment. “In the Land of the Damned” is laid out in the same glorious vein as Shadowkiller’s – AE’s earlier conceived twin if you will – “Heart of Judas” (from its 2013 debut “Slaves of Egypt”), as it slowly builds up tension before giving way to an extensive, unfolding solo and accelerated riff compounded by Pelletier’s vociferously rendered blast beats and dramatic return to form/cool down, while “Dawn of Forever” features Joe waxing wistful and placid in his most composed tenor like he does on Shadowkiller’s “Starring Into Obliveon” (from the mind-blowing 2015 sophomore “Until yhe War is Won”) until its eloquent and august denouement.
Shortly after I wrote up “Other World” last year, Rich emailed me a thankful shout-out but expressed the valid concern Ancient Empire faced a mighty challenge in raising its next release to equally high standards due to such a glowing appraisal. Having now fully imbibed “The Tower”, I can honestly say these numinous traditional heavy metal visionaries have majestically lived up to expectations and then some. In fact, it’s shocking the group has remained in the shadows for so long; I can only hope more people hop on the bandwagon in order to revel in what it has to offer, namely some of the most gratifying and portentous music available. If, anything, it merits my eternal recognition and respect.