There aren’t many in metal who can sell a cheesy spectacle quite like Chris Bowes. Most bands with over the top productions and ideas tend to take it in a very serious manner and adopt reverent tones when speaking of the creation process. Bowes essentially shows them the Fully Monty and says, “Fuck that bollocks, I’m here to have fun!” Most of you know him for his long-standing fame as Alestorm’s party master general but his badly kept secret as the keyboardist and main songwriter for Gloryhammer is quickly becoming an equally sized feather his cap. It seems most logical that a lofty idea set this Dungeons-and-Dragons-gone-mad genre of power metal off, but it was literally just a song title, “The Unicorn Invasion of Dundee.” The brilliantly twisted mind of Bowes took off based on an incredibly impossible event happening in one of the quietest, unassuming areas of Scotland.
Since every album is a true concept album, I’ve included the general timeline of the first three as a pseudo-libretto. Much like opera, half of the meaning of the work is lost if you aren’t a lyrics first type of listener. I’m still convinced that this was originally created as a symphony and was shaved down into a top tier power metal album, but that’s for later in the review. Warning: This will read like a fantasy novel so if that’s not your bag, suck it up because it’s one hundred percent worth it.
Tales from the Kingdom of Fife (2013)
In 10th century Scotland, Angus McFife loses his beloved princess and sets forth on a quest to free her from the clutches of the evil sorcerer Zargothrax and his corrupted unicorn invasion force. He obtains the three artifacts needed to free his love: a magical war hammer (the Hammer of Glory), a dragon mount, and the Amulet of Justice. Having quested so mighty and true, he turns his attention to casting Zargothrax into a prison of liquid ice, frees the princess, and returns the realm to peace and prosperity.
Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards (2015)
1992, a millennium after the Kingdom of Fife has been saved once already by the mighty deeds of Angus McFife the First, Zargothrax rises once more from his prison of frost due to the help of a group of determined chaos wizards. Luckily the Hammer of Glory (now deemed the legendary Astral Hammer) has been passed down through the generations so that Angus McFife XIII now carries the weight of Dundee on his shoulders. With the help of the Goblin King, Zargothrax obtains a key to open a portal to Hell but not before being met in the skies above Mars by the defending forces of Angus McFife, the Knights of Crail, the Hollywood Hootsman, and the Questlords of Inverness. It was all but a distraction tactic as Zargothrax flees back to Earth with his crystalline portal key to Hell and begins the ritual to unleash the dark Elder God Kor-Virliath on the universe. The Hootsman, seeing this diversion tactic sped back to Earth and stopped the ritual just in time by voluntarily exploding his neutron star heart and vaporizing the planet. Having been foiled Zargothrax opened a portal to an alternate reality with the energy of the space/time rift that was caused by the Hootsman’s sacrifice and the album ends with Angus McFife XIII following him through to finish what had started so long ago.
Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex (2019)
After emerging from the wormhole into an alternate reality, Angus McFife finds that in this world Zargothrax has already enslaved the planet and the Knights of Crail have turned into twisted Deathknights deployed for evil under the dark sorcerer’s rule (much like the original unicorns of Dundee). McFife attempts to face his foe and finish the battle but finds that his mighty Astral Hammer holds no power in this twisted land. Fleeing for his life, he quests for a hermit who reveals the secret to unlocking the Hammer’s alternate dimensional power. After finding the enchanted jet pack of cosmic steel, our hero ascends to the heavens and infuses his glorious hammer with the power of the Sun itself and once more regains the ability to defeat his nemesis. During the final stand of the brave hero and his band of rebellious cohorts, we find that the Hollywood Hootsman is far from dead. His ultimate sacrifice, instead of ending in utter destruction, infused him into the very fabric of the universe and made him anew in the role of a literal god. With the Hootsman’s cosmic power and the Hammer of Glory once more recharged, Zargothrax is defeated once and for all. Alas, our brave hero Angus McFife XIII has been stabbed by the Knife of Evil and sacrifices himself before it converts him to the same dark power that had broken previous forces of Good and bent them to the will of Evil. You are led to believe all is well until the final moments of the album cut out to a Morse code transmission that translates to “Activate Zargothrax Clone: Alpha 1”. It seems that yet another chapter is in the works but who will defend the universe now that McFife is no more?
For a classically trained musician like myself (and many, many others in the metal scene) the thrill of a fully realized symphony crashing into an epic power metal charge is pretty much perfection. Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortexfirst track, “Into the Terrorvortex of Kor-Virliath” bleeds into “The Siege of Dunkeld (In Hoots We Trust)” as if stepping through a mirror (a la Phantom of the Opera) and goes from stuffy concert hall to sweaty metal show in the two seconds it takes you to realize that the album has actually begun. While I was a fan of Space 1992, Gloryhammer ‘s Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex is serving me EXACTLY what I thought was missing from the last release, tasty and memorable riffs. There’s a certain energy in the guitars that seems to rub together and throw off sparks whenever I least expect it. I find myself humming every facet of a song depending on the day, not just the pristinely polished vocals. Even when the guitars are in the background and holding down the driving rhythm while the chorus of brass takes over melodic fills, the relentless pace, and dynamic rhythmic emphasis create a full and rich instrumental background for the vocals to soar over.
Props to Lasse Lammert (mixing and mastering) for not burying the bass. I appreciate a deft hand when it comes to featuring that low end and my love of that “Just Enough” school of thought is expressed consistently but with the classic Rhapsody style pinnacle of power metal bent. I still make that “Oh fuck yeah!” face when I hear the synth dive bombs in “Power of the Laser Dragon Fire.” Everywhere you look on any track there’s a tasty morsel to tempt you down the side path in the twisted labyrinth that is the musical map of this album. The guitar solo transitions are smooth as buttah and somehow manage to be a standout moment as well as musical progression of the song itself, an instrumental soliloquy if you will. There’s even a guest keyboard solo from Stratovarius’s own Jens Johansson in “Battle for Eternity” to tickle the fancy of even the most elite of power metal snobs.
Speaking of elite power metal snobs, they should be quite happy with the deluxe version which includes a second disc of fully composed classical versions of each track. I’m not talking about a basic, four-part, Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass (think standard church choir) split composition. There’s no easy hack of putting the vocal line in the violins/flutes and letting everyone else be basic chordal structuring (one melodic line, basic chords always equals a bad time, m’kay). In true classical style, the melody is passed around, and some transitions take entire musical phrases, instead of ramming home a two-bar pivot, while countermelody and harmonization appear in vast abundance. Imagine two warriors in the Thunderdome; you’re paying attention to the constantly shifting balance of power (that Dance of Death if you will) but the bloodthirsty crowd surrounding it, that ambiance, makes it a truly killer scene. The countermelodies trade blows while the harmonies egg them on for more. Bowes makes absolutely vicious use of choral accompaniment and power metal style apex moments to draw you into the aural landscape each second of music strives to create. In essence, it’s the ultimate blend of a subgenre, and one of its main influences put side by side and presented with zero apologies or explanations. The work simply speaks for itself.
If over the top, cheese filled, bombastic bravado isn’t your bag, you’re probably never going to like Gloryhammer in the same way that you probably don’t like Alestorm, Twilight Force, or Brothers of Metal. It’s made not to be taken seriously in relation to the content but very seriously when it comes to the actual music making aspect. “Take your music seriously but never yourself.” For me, every time I listen to this album, I feel like a mighty quest has indeed been accomplished, and I must ride forth into my own battles to conquer my foes and bring balance to my own life. If you’re already a fan, you won’t regret picking up this album (hopefully the deluxe version) in any way, shape, or form. For those fence riders, I think Legends from Beyond the Galactic Terrorvortex will be the album to win you over. There are enough goodies to catch anyone’s attention if you just give it a chance and don’t expect Satan worship from a bunch of power metal dorks just trying to have fun on stage. Take it from one such dork, it’s an epic ride from start to finish, and it shouldn’t be missed. This is one of the rare albums that I wouldn’t change a thing about. If Gloryhammer can keep putting out music like this, they’re set to go down in heavy metal history as the saviors of modern symphonic power metal.