Ladies and gentlemen, I have to say that I expected a bit more from this second offering from Ashes Of Ares. As much as I love former Iced Earth frontman Matt Barlow’s work during the golden era of that band; I’m just not getting the same sense of notability here. However, I can say that the production problems which plagued the first album have been completely removed and a much crisper; more dignified sense now pounds out from these guys. “Consuming The Mana” showcases a highly technical take at power/thrash here, which I think loses basic song structure and doesn’t flow so well with Barlow’s chorus. These lines are great, phenomenal even – Barlow hasn’t sounded this good since the glory days of Iced Earth, for sure – but I’m just not hearing the kind of band so far that encapsulates them quite as well as Schaeffer and co. Let’s try again with “The Alien” which opens up with a terrific melody line. Ashes Of Ares needs to learn that when they hire a vocalist like Barlow, they need strong melodies to flow with those choruses. When a Barlow chorus is offered, it needs a potent melody behind it. That opening riff is exactly what I’m talking about. It is again offered at 2:18; right before a breathtaking solo. This song could have been so much more, unfortunately. I’m really not sure what these guys were trying to do, but they really could have hit it if they focused less on the technicality. I honestly don’t care so much about all the intriguing things that one can do with the drums, I’m looking for something more to the core of the performance. “Unworthy” seems to further dictate just what I’m talking about, unfortunately showing that some glaring production moments are to be found here as well. This chunky song seems to run off the rails a little as some weird, almost whispered harsh vocal section comes in and ruins a great chorus moment. They do manage to make up for it right towards the end of the song, which once again comes before a great solo moment.
“Soul Searcher” turns back the dials a little, heading more towards the balladic nature of current Iced Earth. Though Despite Barlow’s best efforts on the chorus, I have to wonder what in the living hell th guitarist is up to here. Are you tone-deaf? There’s a vocal harmony here and you’re playing these basic melodies? Why, these simple basic melodies? Where’s the melodic hook? There’s no flow. And you know what really would have picked this song up? An additional electric lead riff that flows along with the chorus. The acoustic backing is fine, but it really would have worked better if someone had brought in a strong, passionate lead. That’s what was missing here. This was a strong attempt, but a terrible misfire. “Sun Dragon” gives me hope for the future of the album though, as I’m getting some real Iced Earth vibes from this one. Nice chugs, Barlow with slightly harsh vocal lines that roll into clean harmonies similar to those used on Something Wicked This way Comes or Horror Show. It seems like they might even have the chorus melody up to par this time around. Although slightly regurgitated Iced Earth, this might be the best one I’ve heard from them yet. “Transcending” came next, but felt kind of flat musically, as well. Barlow really hit the notes and decimated the chorus on this one, but the backing again seems just too technically influenced and all of this meandering seems to once again take away from the core of the performance.
“Let All despair” follows, showing that Ashes of Ares decided to give it another shot at a performing a proper ballad. Fortunately, this one seems to hit. Additionally, the song unbelievably utilizes strong melody lines. Great, now that I know you can play those kinds of riffs, gentlemen; let’s try putting them on the album in areas where they’re actually needed. The sense of prog in this one also works towards the end, for once on the album. “In The Darkness” opens with yet another memorable clean melody. The effort here is quite decent, rolling right into a chorus and an immeasurable solo effort soon after. “Spirit of Man” seems to really hit for me with its nice balance of highs and lows. The cut isn’t just heavy, but seems to feature a great deal of theatrics on Barlow’s end. It’s classic Barlow that certainly shows what Ashes Of Ares can do when all pistons are firing. I’m quite pleased with this one and would consider it one of the most noteworthy hits here. “Time Traveler” opens up with an impressively snakelike melody line in which Barlow’s clean harmonies seem to sit just over the top of. This later changes to stylistic progressive thrash, which could be said to be the main issue that I have with this album. Thankfully, a strong chorus does manage to burst through albeit right before another solo moment. The solos are quite extravagant here, but my problem is that the formula has been much the same. Barlow performs one chorus and then there’s a massive solo right afterwards. The choral earworm does certainly work near the end of this one, so I can’t be too upset with it and I’m reminded of Steins;Gate a bit as well, due to the subject matter. “The God Of War” is decent enough, but I’m just not feeling it as much as some of the other cuts. Even Barlow’s chorus here seems a bit flat. The only real intrigue here is in all actuality; the over-the-top technicality. The album ends with the unexpectedly accessible “You Know My Name” which actually seems to feature the backing band at their most competent. The melodies flow in tune with Barlow’s lines and although there is a poppy overtone, it all seems to work the way it should have during most of this recording.
In the end, I find that Ashes of Ares seem to be a bit too technical for their own good and that’s what I find to be a turn-off. These guys don’t seem to be able to differentiate their clean melody lines from the heavier, more technical work and that’s where I see a problem. As I said earlier, the choruses would have flowed much better had they strong leads to back them. A huge example of this was in “Soul Searcher” which could have been made at least 50% better if they had just brought in an electric lead around the mid-point of the song. It never felt like it was going anywhere, which is why “Let All Despair” seemed to hit much harder. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that this just doesn’t manage to meet my expectations for what this act should and can truly be. If they could just find a way to differentiate the technicality from the melody and really make those goddamned choruses hit, we’d be looking at a truly proficient act. Though right now, it doesn’t matter how on his A-game that Barlow sounds, because the rest of these guys seem to be stumbling and confused. I guess I’ve nearly thrown my hands up at this point and can say with bitter certainty that there just won’t be records with Matt Barlow on them that are as memorable as anything during prime-era Iced Earth. Even so, the record still has a couple of gems on it and shouldn’t come off as a total disappointment. And yes, I will have to denote the fact that the guitar solos on this record are quite amazing and that’s just enough for me to boost up my review score by a slim margin.
(12 Tracks, 58:00)
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