At least once a week, I scan Bandcamp’s front page, searching for new jazz and metal releases. As one might expect, the decision to listen is often based on cover art. (Jazz artists: GET BETTER COVER ART.) Anyway, when doing this one evening a month or two ago, I came across the album Fatal Encounter by the band Air Raid. I’d never heard of them, but the album cover was a painting of an electric-guitar-shaped chrome starship firing its cannons at…something, and I was in. And once I heard the first track, “Thunderblood,” I was sold. They had my money before the song was over.
Air Raid are from Gothenburg, Sweden, and they play traditional/old-school power metal. Just like Willie Jones III makes music that will sound like jazz to anyone you play it for, Air Raid’s music is guaranteed to elicit the response, “Oh, yeah, that’s metal.” Their songs are fast, with a hard-driving rhythm, big riffs, soaring choruses, and squiggly guitar solos. When they’re not clichés like “Cold as Ice,” “Hell and Back,” or “See the Light,” their titles are nonsense phrases like “Hold the Flame,” “Highway Legion,” “Call of the Warlock,” and “We Got the Force.” (The chorus of “Cold as Ice” goes “She is cold as ice/Just like a devil in disguise.” Two clichés for the price of one!) All of this, I want to make clear, is awesome. This is exactly what I come to metal for.
Over the last few decades, a lot of metal has become, for lack of a better word, joyless. This may manifest in the demonic roars and blast beats of death metal, or the can-you-top-this? misogynist violence-porn of goregrind and pornogrind, or almost the entirety of black metal with the exception of Dimmu Borgir, or in any number of other ways, but a whole lot of metal musicians just don’t seem to be having much fun making their art, and the art they make isn’t a whole lot of fun, either. And for reasons I can’t really explain beyond *makes sweeping gesture indicating the world and everything in it*, metal fans and metal critics have embraced this “darkness” and rage and now write about the music as though that’s the only thing that counts as real metal. This is how you get white power chuds knuckle-walking into the scene growling about how metal “is not a safe space” and other such bullshit. But it’s also how you get people who should know better acting like, to quote Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, “there’s no smiling in metal.” Which is absurd. Watch a live video of Iron Maiden sometime. Bruce Dickinson is up there having a fucking blast. And are you gonna tell me that Iron Maiden are not metal?
This seems to mostly be an American problem, to be fair. In Europe, there is plenty of room for smiling, cheering, fist-pumping “fuck yeah!” metal. Just look at the popularity of Manowar over there versus Manowar at home. And no matter what country you’re in, an Amon Amarth show ain’t nothin’ but a party, y’all. Now, in recent years, some very good bands have emerged on the North American continent, waving the banner for this style — Visigoth, Blood Star (who share a guitarist with Visigoth), and Canada’s Smoulder, to name just three, are all doing great work. But they struggle to find an audience because…again, maybe things are just so grim in our rapidly collapsing society that we think we need our metal bands to be all anger all the time? I recognize that mindset, but I don’t understand it. I can’t relate to it.
So discovering Air Raid — and I’m late to the party on this; they’ve been around since 2009, and Fatal Encounter is their fourth album — has been a really positive, life-affirming experience for me. In fact, and maybe you knew I was gonna end up here before I did, the joy I experience when listening to Air Raid’s music is very closely related to the joy I experience when I look around at the rivers and mountains and trees in Montana. Its core qualities — the galloping drums, the riffs like a giant engine revving into high gear, the guitar solos rocketing into the sky like fireworks displays, the gruff but passionate vocals that posit masculinity as a source of inspiration rather than some kind of existential crisis to be borne — are perfect for looking around at a world that seems almost unfathomably vast, and yes, dangerous at times (I went to the hardware store this week and bought a can of bear spray, because it’s spring and the bears are awake), but also glorious. Whether they know it or not, Air Raid make big sky metal.
Their early work isn’t that easy to find; Fatal Encounter is the only one of their albums that’s on Bandcamp, and only it and its predecessor, 2017’s Across the Line, are on streaming services in the US. But just listening to those two will fill your heart with fire and make you wish your car was a gold Trans Am and you had a highway to scream down with your fist in the air and the wind in your hair. Vocalist Fredrik Werner (their third frontman; Michael Rinakakis sang on 2012’s Night of the Axe, while Arthur W. Andersson took over on 2014’s Point of Impact) has a classic hard rock voice, descended from Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan or maybe Gary Barden (the guy who sang on the first two Michael Schenker Group albums) but with an upper-register shriek that gets him into Axl Rose territory. Meanwhile, founding guitarist Andreas Johansson and his partner, the hilariously named Magnus Mild, keep the riffs and solos flying as bassist Jan Ekberg and drummer William Seidl fuel the rocket.
Fatal Encounter has an old-school structure; it’s nine tracks long, 37:28 total, with a 75-second interlude of classical guitar and harpsichord-mimicking synth falling right in the middle. (Surprisingly, that instrumental, “Sinfonia,” kicks off Side Two of the cassette version; I’d have placed it at the end of Side One, both because of the track running times and just because it feels better to me that way.) But that one quibble aside, this album is perfectly sequenced. “Thunderblood” and “Lionheart,” two hard-charging metal explosions, are followed by the midtempo “In Solitude,” a manly love song in the spirit of Yngwie Malmsteen’s “You Don’t Remember, I’ll Never Forget” and half the Scorpions’ ’80s catalog, and the side ends with the blasting “See the Light.”
After “Sinfonia,” we get “Edge of a Dream,” which kicks off with some awesomely synthwavey keyboards and a thunderous drumbeat; “Let the Kingdom Burn,” the album’s longest track at 5:37, has a marching tempo and a fist-in-the-air riff that Accept would have killed for in their glory days; “One By One” is a soaring, epic slab of Euro power metal cheese à la Hammerfall; and it all ends with a cover of “Pegasus Fantasy,” a 1986 song by the Japanese metal band Make-Up that was the theme to the Saint Seiya anime. Yes, they sing it in Japanese, and they fully commit to the bit, even preserving the accent in the few words that are sung in English. It’s brilliant and hilarious, but also awesome, like everything else about this album. Buy it.