When Tim “Ripper” Owens released his solo album Play My Game in 2010, the only song with any real staying power was its closer, “The Shadows are Alive.” It was a dark but lovably cheesy number elevated by the writing of former Savatage/TSO guitarist Chris Caffery. The prospect of the pair working again on a full-time project brought intrigue that only grew with the recruitment of such names as producer Roy Z, drummer Mark Zonder, and bassist Steve DiGiorgio.
On the flip side, I had some trepidation regarding how Spirits of Fire would turn out. The Ripper’s track record has not been the best lately and recent interviews focusing on his financial motivations as a career musician suggested this would just be another notch in a long line of phoned in, hired gun metal projects. To my shock and relief, Spirits of Fire’s debut album avoids such a fate thanks to some honest to gods focus.
As one would hope from such an assembly, the musicianship is stellar. Caffery’s guitar leads the charge, exerting sweeping chugs through a crunchy tone and flamboyant leads that are sure to trigger associations with Savatage, Judas Priest, and Yngwie Malmsteen. The rhythm section is also rock solid; you certainly won’t see the overt technicality or off the wall flash we all know Zonder and DiGiorgio are capable of, but the drums pack a strong punch while the bass is always felt loud and clear.
The songwriting also demonstrates a hefty amount of effort. The melodies are varied, the pacing is energetic, and the vocal lines are the most developed that Ripper has sung in nearly a decade. The band’s title song serves as the album’s first curveball thanks to its Dio-style groove, “A Game” is an ambitious albeit preachy almost ballad, “Meet Your End” is a bouncy shuffle, and I’m pretty sure they snuck Jon Oliva into the studio for the dead on Gutter Ballet emulation of “Never to Return.”
Alas, the production threatens to diminish the album’s power. A degree of polish is to be expected at this caliber, but the mix is incredibly claustrophobic and excessively echoed. Ripper’s voice in particular sounds severely muffled and while the near-exclusive use of his higher register fits the material, songs like the otherwise decent “Temple of the Soul” come out underwhelming. Beefier tones and greater emphasis on lower vocals might’ve offset this, but I’m just imagining how much stronger this would’ve been if somebody like Jim Morris or John Comprix had been involved from the get-go.
Spirits of Fire’s debut isn’t quite the dream album that sixteen-year-old me would’ve clamored for, but it’s better than expected from what seemed to be another hastily engineered Frontiers supergroup. I can’t remember the last time I heard any of the involved musicians sound this lively. They all work well together, bursting with energy and backed by surprisingly purposeful songwriting. There are some rough edges that need ironed out, but I really hope Ripper and co. can put in the investment to make this a truly successful entity. It’s sure as hell more worthwhile than The Three Tremors…
“Spirits of Fire”
“Meet Your End”
“Never to Return”