The grip traditional metal holds over headbangers of a certain age is astonishingly strong, and hard to explain to anybody who wasn’t around when this style was developing in the early 1980s. Bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, along with dozens of lesser-known brethren, set the paradigm: powerful, upper-register vocals; screaming lead guitars; galloping rhythms; drums like cannon-fire. In America, the style came and went, primarily because no homegrown bands succeeded with it, except for Dio. Ronnie was always the odd man out, though, pushing the theatrical, fantasy-driven thing farther than anybody else dared.
No, in the States, metal was glam, then thrash, then death, and now it’s a fistful of subgenres all feuding with each other about which ones are truly metal and which ones are bullshit for boneheaded kids who don’t know what real music sounds like. Aside from glam, it’s always been about appearing life-sized, rather than over the top. American headbangers worship Rob Halford and Bruce Dickinson (and Dio, perhaps even more in death than in the last few years of his non-Heaven and Hell career), but we relate to Metallica and Motörhead (British, but adopted, especially since Lemmy lives in L.A. now). A band like Manowar, that traffics in rhetoric implying that metal is some sort of mystical brotherhood and gives every impression of living by some opaque code, gets laughed at.
In Europe, though, traditional metal is still a major force, its larger-than-life musical and lyrical values, and performances based more around instrumental skill than attempts to convey badassery continuing to win over young listeners. Power metal takes this sound to its ultimate extreme, but there are plenty of bands around making albums that could have been released at any time between 1980 and today. And as I get older, and sicker of guttural vocals, downtuned guitars, and songs I can’t remember a minute after I hear them (but boy are they “brutal”!), traditional metal becomes more and more appealing. I know with that last sentence, I’m sounding like Mike Scalzi of San Francisco’s Slough Feg, who articulated similar sentiments in a rant on InvisibleOranges.com, but the simple truth is, a lot of death metal, black metal, thrash metal, grindcore, etc., is just lacking in the anthemic power I’m seeking these days. I want to be catapulted out of myself by the raw glory of a metal song, not smacked in the face with a fistful of tossed gravel.
Crystal Viper is a traditional metal band from Katowice, Poland. Legends is their third studio album, fourth release overall (they also put out a live album, with a few studio tracks tacked on, earlier this year). They’ve been through more than their share of lineup turnover since forming in 2003; the only member who’s been a constant presence has been vocalist Marta “Leather Wych” Gabriel. Since the band is managed by her husband, this raises questions, but never mind that. Legends is a really good album.
Like its two predecessors (2007’s The Curse of Crystal Viper and 2009’s Metal Nation), the album runs just about 45 minutes and includes nine songs and a short intro. The cover, as you can see, is awesome: seriously, a scythe-wielding werewolf riding a horse outside a moonlit castle? Not only would the horse require special training to allow a werewolf on its back (imagine its shock if, say, they passed through a clearing, the light of the full moon fell upon its to-that-point human rider, and he suddenly became a slavering man-beast), but the werewolf would likely have to exhibit extraordinary self-control to keep from eating the horse. But I digress.
The songs are melodic and catchy. There are no ballads to slow things down. The band gallops forward, and Gabriel, whose voice is like a cross between that of power metal queen Doro Pesch and Arch Enemy vocalist Angela Gossow at her cleanest, sings of larger-than-life topics (though her actual words are often obscured by a thickish accent, track titles like “Blood of the Heroes,” “Goddess of Death,” “Night of the Sin,” “The Ghost Ship,” “Secret of the Black Water” and “Black Leviathan” give strong hints). There are guitar solos. They’re performed with energy and skill. (In addition to singing, Gabriel is the band’s rhythm guitarist, something that separates her from almost every other female vocalist in metal right now.) The bass is prominent in the mix, and somewhat high, in imitation of Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris. This isn’t even a headbanging album; it’s a fist-pumping album.