For what it’s worth, the first Demons & Wizards album in fifteen years preserves the signature tropes that fans have come to love from the power metal supergroup. The marriage between Jon Schaffer’s crunchy rhythm guitars and Hansi Kursch’s distinctive layering as is natural as ever, crafting a character that draws from Blind Guardian’s uplifting symphonics and Iced Earth’s darker bluntness. There are also enough excursions into other styles to make III feel more like an honest to gods leap forward than a nostalgia-fueled retread.
These factors may materialize in predominately mid-tempo songwriting, but the songs themselves manage to carve out their own identities. “Invincible” offers some conventional anthemic flavor while “Wolves in Winter” and “Dark Side of Her Majesty” present a more aggressive edge, and “Midas Disease” puts in a hard rock attitude. “Split” is a late-game highlight that suggests some upbeat hustle during the verses, but it doesn’t quite commit to that promise of speed.
Unfortunately, the album ends up being too middle of the road for its own good. There are some solidly written songs that come out of this eclecticism, but the performances just don’t have the conviction to sell the more aggressive songs nor the pathos for the more melodic material. The three epic tracks are an especially mixed bag; the opening “Diabolic” is a stellar track with a doom crawl that transitions to a sturdy charge, but the acoustic-tinged “Timeless Spirit” and “Children of Cain” meander too much to reach their “Fiddler on the Green” aspirations.
Like Blind Guardian’s Legacy of the Dark Lands in 2019, Kursch’s vocals are pretty much carrying this whole affair. But while that album was designed with such an intention, III is let down by its rather middling musicianship. The playing itself is competent, but Schaffer’s guitar tone lacks the sharpness that would aid his unmistakably choppy riffs, and the drums are buried in the mix with a certain stiffness throughout. Fortunately, the vocals work well with the material that’s been given, and the bass on “Diabolic” and “Universal Truth” sounds pretty nice.
My disappointment regarding the third Demons & Wizards album is likely linked to my reverence for their first two, but III is underwhelming in itself. The atmosphere is certainly on point, and it’s great to see this pairing come together again after so much time away. At the same time, this effort doesn’t quite have the spark or catchiness to justify its hour runtime. Schedules are likely too packed to expect much development from here, but fans of this project and its associations will be happy to get it while the getting’s good.