Return of the Spectral Rider delivers one of the most uniquely old school sounds in modern metal. The central style lands closest to American power metal, but it frequently pushes into the borders of thrash, drops into the realm of melodic heavy metal, and occasionally opts for a straightforward speed metal assault. This blend is unusual among modern bands but clearly recalls classic ‘80s metal acts like Destiny, Grave Digger, and Helstar.
Surprisingly, the music also has epic metal roots that feel like the seeds of Manilla Road and Heavy Load flourishing decades later. That element of epic heavy metal sits just beneath the surface through most of the recording but fully reveals itself on the monumental closing track, “The King Forgotten.”
The comparison to Destiny and Grave Digger also extends to the singer, as Al Ravage foregoes high, soaring vocals in favor of a relatively gruff delivery. This dramatically changes the personality of the recording, providing a welcome change from the bulk of NWOTHM releases and giving the album a more mature personality.
It’s worth mentioning that Return of the Spectral Rider is a re-worked version of the band’s 2005 album, Spectral Rider, missing just one song from the original. That said, this venture fares far better than most re-recordings and is not simply an attempt to modernize old material. The original suffered from muted sound production and somewhat lackluster execution, while the reworked version feels imaginative, vibrant, and powerful. It’s a valuable contribution to the resurgence of heavy metal, and the inherent value of the songwriting more than merits this second chance opportunity.
The sound production on Return of the Spectral Rider is top-notch. The drums and bass come through with excellent clarity, and the guitars have an ideal amount of distortion that roughens them without obscuring the technical prowess on display. Songs are packed with inspired drum fills, compact guitar solos, and surprising structural changes that help the songs stay relevant for their duration. All of this means the album can be relatively dense, and the healthy 55-minute running length ensures listeners will need to take several spins to fully unpack everything. The songs are well worth repeated listens, however, as each one has its own surprises and unique personality.
The band opens with a brief instrumental track before launching into “Spectral Rider,” an uptempo fist-pumper with tight, elaborate riffs and a catchy chorus hook. The song is a meaty musical buffet, with brief guitar solos thrown into just about every available space and constant musical progression keeping things fresh. The song is a perfectly chosen opener and does a fine job of setting the tone for the first half of the album.
Ravage hardly lets off the accelerator for the next several songs, delivering a satisfying mix of uptempo tracks that occasionally drop their velocity to explore melodic elements before leaping back into full driving force. The most notable moments in the early going arrive in “Masque of the Black Death.” Choppy riffs and a rolling vocal section pound out the bulk of the song, while excellent dueling guitar solos break up the center. In fact, by the time “Masque of the Black Death” concludes, it’s clear that the guitar solos are a dominant force in this recording. They never quite reach the pinnacle set by the best albums of the ‘80s, but they easily outshine most contributions to old school metal in the 21st century.
Things cool down a bit on “Whyvern,” and the song signals more contemplative songwriting to follow. “The Wasteland” and “Curse of Heaven” deliver on that promise by opening with acoustic guitar melodies that develop into midtempo anthems with harmonizing vocal and guitar sections. The songs serve as an excellent counterpoint to the intensity of the album’s front half, demonstrating the band’s ability to adeptly shift between musical styles.
The closing track is perhaps the band’s finest moment, clocking in at over eight minutes and providing the most elaborate and innovative songwriting on the recording. The vocals occupy a small portion of the song, and the final four and a half minutes are almost entirely dedicated to an immense, progressive instrumental display that culminates in an explosive rush of guitar solos. It’s a satisfying climax and conclusion to the album that cements the band’s status as masterful players and songwriters.
With its hefty running length, remarkable blend of traditional metal styles, and outstanding execution, Return of the Spectral Rider is an impressive accomplishment. Al Ravage’s no-nonsense vocal style helps the album stand out from the NWOTHM pack, and the guitarists deliver some of the best performances this side of the ‘80s. The material may not exactly be new, but immaculate production, renewed energy, and excellent album art have earned it the respect it deserves. In a year packed with big releases, Return of the Spectral Rider rises above the crowd as one of the best modern releases in true metal.
Rating: 93 / 100