Released: 2003, Massacre Records
Reviewer: Night of the Realm
ALBUM OF THE YEAR!
Ok, so the final judgement of this year’s metal offerings may yet be some six months premature, but I’m sure that at year’s end, two albums will be key forces in the final battle: the monstrous true power metal releases of Grave Digger’s RHEINGOLD or Cage’s DARKER THAN BLACK, both reviewed here this month.
Formed in 1992, Cage has been kicking around the Southern California underground metal scene for over ten years now, but it wasn’t until 1998 that this true power metal quintet marked the release of their first album, UNVEILED. The band’s next album, ASTROLOGY, stepped up in all departments, especially the speed and songwriting, making it one of my top 20 albums of 2000. With the release of DARKER THAN BLACK, Cage have exceeded all of my expectations for the album; in fact, they shattered them.
DARKER THAN BLACK certainly lives up to its title. Cage’s third album is by far their heaviest, darkest work to date, and is a textbook example of the pure essence of heavy metal: no shortage of speed, heaviness, or melody. Guitarists Dave Garcia and Anthony Wayne McGiness offer up a platter of chugging, head-bangable riffs, and powerfully catchy hooks with a relentless battery of bass and drums provided by the two Mikes: Mike Giordano and Mike Nielsen. As if this merciless assault of musicianship was not enough, there’s still the talent of vocalist Sean Peck to reckon with. This guy can give Dickinson, Halford, and Harry “Tyrant” Conklin all a run around. Why he is not lauded with those vocalists is beyond me. His range, power, and control are each far beyond impressive.
Each element of Cages sound combines synergistically to create a sound that few bands can match. Think Judas Priest’s PAINKILLER and Halford’s RESURRECTION meeting some old Metal Church and ancient Savatage. Unlike most bands hearkening to the old school for inspiration, Cage does not fall into the trap of warmed-over songwriting ideas, trite subject matter, and cliched lyical slogans. Every song on DARKER THAN BLACK offers up something different, lyrically and musically. The spoken intro “Darker than Black” segues into the first real track, “Kill the Devil,” leading off with a little hook that’d make Criss Oliva proud to hear before going into the “chug-a-lug” main riff, reminiscient of Halford’s “Made in Hell (it wouldn’t surprise me if this riff was brought over as a gift to Cage by Roy Z, who provides the guest lead on “Winds of Destruction”). This one’s one of my favourite tracks on the album, and fairly representative of what’s to come. “Chupacabra” (lyrically based on the Mexican folk-tale of the “Goatsucker”) slows down considerably. I find this one to be just a tad too slow, though the solos are very good, and Peck’s vocals go from the high scream to a pseudo-growl with absolute fluidity. “Blood of the Innocent” is another great track, leading off with a Native American flute and chant intro (yup, this one’s a tune about Indian relocation). I love the sinister bass + drum intro and later the twin guitar attack on this tune, and the Maiden-esque melody on the next one, “Eyes of Obsidian.” Without a doubt, “Philadelphia Experiment” (lyrically about atomic testing), is the fastest, heaviest song on the album. The double bass kicks are furious, and the riffs catchy, ensuring a pounding of my fist in the air for the duration of the tracking. “March of the Cage” is a mid-tempo tune that picks up with some excellent soloing + harmonics starting at the 2:52 mark. Sean Peck pulls a few vocal tricks for the listener on “White Magic” alternating his clear voice with a raspy growl and also a throaty growl, probably for no other reason than to prove that he can accomplish anything with his voice. Nearing the end of the album, we have a somewhat Savatage/Metal Church-ish track with “Door to the Unknown,” followed up by “Secret of Fatima” (nice bass interlude in the middle). The epic closer of the album is ‘Wings of Destruction,” a speedy 8-minute track with guest leads provided by guitarist/producer Roy Z (currently in Halford). The time changes here are kickass, the fury abating around the 3 minute mark to give way to a slower interlude with some air raid siren effects before exploding 30 seconds later into a King Diamond-ish falsetto backing chorusW the hell? Very cool touch here!). We’re also treated to nearly a full minute of guitar insanity starting around the 4:17 mark, with Dave, Anthony, and Roy Z all taking a turn. Shit! There’s still 3 minutes left in the song; these guys just do not give up. Closing out the European edition is another version of “Chupacabra,” this time sung in Spanish. While this is a neat idea, I heard enough of the song the first time around.
The production on DARKER THAN BLACK, done by Richard Carr (who has also worked on Halford and Bruce Dickinson albums) is as clear and as crisp as can be without sounding artificial. The artwork, too, from cover to booklet layout, is also very nicely done by Mark Sasso (who contributed to Dio – KILLING THE DRAGON). On my version, the jewel case comes with a cardboard slipcover featuring the album cover in 3-D effect. I love it when bands put the extra touches like this on their albums; as if the album wasn’t good enough already, this kicks it even further.
Cage have developed the sound on DARKER THAN BLACK with a maturity and intensity in musicianship and songwriting that sets this album far above the high bar set previously by ASTROLOGY. In a time when too many bands like Sonata Arctica playing shitty synth washes over flaccid guitars are prepackaged by labels as power metal, here comes Cage, unleashing a much assault to remind many just what power metal is supposed to sound like. Power metal with balls. That’s Cage’s mission statement.