Monday, July 1, 2019

Review: Gloryhammer, "Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex"

I wish it were possible for Christopher Bowes to release new music every week. No matter how lousy the day or how bad the mood, it’s nothing that a new Gloryhammer or Alestorm song can’t fix.

The latest release from his heroic power metal outfit Gloryhammer bears a mouthful of a title – Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex – and a story that’s just as big. It concludes a trilogy of albums that started in a fictional version of medieval Scotland on Tales from the Kingdom of Fife, took us to outer space with Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards, and now takes us to another dimension.

At the end of Space 1992, as Earth was destroyed to save the galaxy, it opened a wormhole. The evil wizard Zargothrax (Bowes) escaped through it, and our hero, Angus McFife XIII (vocalist Thomas Winkler), pursued him. Now we find ourselves in an alternate dimension where Zargothrax is the dark lord of Dundee and Angus’ not-so-secret weapon, the Astral Hammer (an upgraded version of the Hammer of Glory from the first album), has lost its power.

If it all sounds a little silly, well, it is, and intentionally so. Gloryhammer has made its mark on the metal world by satirizing other power metal bands who take themselves and their subject matter way too seriously. They have fun with the clichés, tropes and traditions of the genre, while also producing music that far outshines most of their peers.

On this record, Bowes does a masterful job of tying up his trilogy, weaving in musical and content themes from the first two albums throughout. After ranging pretty far afield, he brings everything back to ground zero by the end, but more on that later.

After an intro track, we dive right into the storyline on “The Siege of Dunkeld (In Hoots We Trust).” It sets the stage for the story that unfolds throughout the course of the record, and also gives us the first of many earworm hooks on the chorus.

That’s one of the most beautiful things about Bowes’ work both with Gloryhammer and Alestorm. While most power metal bands have one or two tunes per album with those big, memorable choruses, Bowes manages to put one of those into every single song. Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex bounces from one hummable hook to the next until nearly the whole record is stuck in your head at the end.

That brings us to the band’s eponymous anthem “Gloryhammer.” It has a chest-pounding chant of the band’s name that leads into a galloping riff by the Dread Lord Proletius (guitarist Paul Templing) that is, in the beginning, somewhat reminiscent of Amon Amarth’s “Pursuit of Vikings,” but quickly goes full Gloryhammer. It’s a song guaranteed to get a rousing chant going in the live shows.

For those who haven’t been following the story, Proletius is formerly Ser Proletius, Grand Master of the Templar Knights of Crail, but he’s been corrupted after being stabbed with the Knife of Evil (this will be important later). He takes the spotlight on the third song, “Masters of the Galaxy,” in which Zargothrax commands him to slaughter peasants (slaughtering peasants is a theme on this record). In my review of Beast in Black’s most recent record, I pointed out that one of their songs had some similarities to Gloryhammer. Well, the favor is returned on this one with a big ’80s-influenced, synth-driven chorus that would have been right at home on From Hell with Love.

The next couple of songs recall big numbers from the first record as we travel to “The Land of Unicorns” (presumably not turned into an evil undead army by Zargothrax in this dimension) and battle with the “Power of the Laser Dragon Fire.” “Unicorns” offers up another epic chorus, while “Laser Dragon Fire” is a more aggressive power metal number.

Once we’re done there, we take a ride through the skies of Space Dundee on the “Legendary Enchanted Jetpack,” punctuated by fittingly soaring “woah-ohs.” How can you not like a song titled “Legendary Enchanted Jetpack?”

At this point in the album, I was definitely pleased with what I’d heard, but I was missing that ONE song – a favorite that would compete with “Angus McFife” from the first album or “Goblin King of the Darkstorm Galaxy” from the follow-up. Fear not, it’s here in the inescapably addictive “Hootsforce.” The song blends the absolute best of both of Bowes’ metal bands – a happy head-bobbing video-game-type melody a la Alestorm and the over-the-top dramatics of Gloryhammer – into an absolutely unstoppable force. Combine that with a bit of a tongue-twisting chorus, and this is the father-son sing-along I was looking for. It may outshine those two aforementioned songs. I’m sure I’ve hit at least 500 plays on this one in the last week.

The crowning achievement of this record, though is album closer “The Fires of Ancient Cosmic Destiny.” Under normal circumstances, I’m not a huge fan of the 12-minute power metal epic in five parts, but this is Gloryhammer.

Just like with a good book or movie, the culminating battle of this trilogy is a huge production, and surprisingly emotional given the light-hearted nature of the band’s music.

WARNING: There are spoilers in the two paragraphs that follow. Yes, I said spoilers … for an album. That’s an accomplishment in itself. Seriously, if you’re a fan who hasn’t listened to the album, skip down. You don’t want to know this yet.

The final battle is a grand one that sees the Death Knights of Crail unleashed and then destroyed by Ralathor, Mysterious Submarine Commander of Cowdenbeath (drummer Ben Turk – yeah, I’m also not sure how space “submarines” work). Then, as the final battle with Zargothrax looms, the Holy King of Unst and one true god of this dimension, The Hootsman (bassist James Cartwright) appears to help Angus defeat the wizard, turning him to “liquid dust.” In the process, though, our hero is stabbed with the Knife of Evil, and recognizing that it will corrupt him, throws himself into a volcano to save the universe.

So, yeah, that seems pretty final, and I was really stunned by how much the ending affected me. On first listen, I ended up staring into space for a few seconds, going “what the ….?” But then the album closes with a nice Easter egg, a mysterious transmission to the year 1022, apparently on a dial-up connection (I wonder where they found one of those to record in 2019, and who will have one in 1022 to receive the message) in Morse code. It’s been widely translated as “Activate Zargothrax Clone Alpha 1.” So, despite the ending of this story, it looks like Gloryhammer will return, and most likely go back to the beginning, to its fantasy roots.

*** End spoilers***

As usual, Bowes and Co. manage to avoid all of the pitfalls of the power metal genre in general, and specifically, concept albums. By necessity, concept albums are driven by story, often to the detriment of the music. I don’t know how many of them I’ve heard where the band seemed to just be trying to get from one plot point to the next, and the music becomes something of an afterthought. Even when Gloryhammer gets deeply involved in the story, though, as on “The Fires of Ancient Cosmic Destiny,” the music remains the driving force.

In my mind, the crown of Gloryhammer’s first three albums still belongs to Space 1992, but Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex is a very close second that could overtake the top spot in time.

Don’t let the head-bobbing hooks and tongue-in-cheek subject matter fool you, this is a masterful composition by an artist who is very underrated, probably because of the fact that he likes to have fun with his music. No one can deny that he’s accomplished that. If this record doesn’t put a smile on your face, you may want to check for a wound from the Knife of Evil.


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