It would be a mistake to dismiss Blazon Stone as a knockoff of the world’s premiere pirate metal act, Running Wild. It’s true that Blazon Stone takes its inspiration from the German band, whose releases from the mid ‘80s through the ‘90s remain some of the finest creations in heavy metal history. However, the three singers who’ve contributed to Blazon Stone each have a unique singing style, and prior to Down in the Dark, none of their performances could be confused for the rough-hewn delivery of Running Wild’s lead marauder, Rolf Kasparek (aka Rock ‘n’ Rolf). Moreover, the tankard-swinging, highly melodic guitar riffs and chorus sections that have populated past releases are largely an invention of Blazon Stone’s own metal mastermind, the mighty Cederick Forsberg (aka Ced). They’re found on Ced’s other speed and power metal projects Rocka Rollas and Breitenhold, but not on Running Wild’s archetypal speed metal releases. The pace and technical clarity of Blazon Stone’s songs are also consistently greater than those of the act’s predecessor, and the songwriting chops have been commendable in their own right. In other words, criticisms of the originality of Blazon Stone are often superficial, and they undermine the meaningful contributions Ced and his collaborators have made to true metal in the 21st century.
Although Blazon Stone’s unique character continues to shine through on the act’s fourth full-length album, the melodies and vocal performance feel truer to Running Wild than ever before. Understated chorus sections on “Eagle Warriors” and “Watery Graves” provide a particularly classic sound. The overly melodic anthems of past songs like “Amistad Rebellion” and “Beasts of War” have been reigned in, and Down in the Dark reveals a careful attention to detail in its emulation of the past. However, instead of complacently following in the wake of the older band’s vessel, Blazon Stone has prepared a hostile takeover. Down in the Dark uses established techniques to challenge Running Wild for dominance of the speed metal seas, and it does so with genuine respect and admiration, even as it boards their ship and sets fire to the sails.
Blazon Stone’s mastery of old school speed metal is evident immediately on “Into Victory” and “Down in the Dark,” which call to mind the most uptempo tracks from mid-‘90s classics like Black Hand Inn and Masquerade. Erik Forsberg (no relation to Ced) has roughened up his vocal delivery significantly from the duo’s 2016 collaborations on War of the Roses and Ready for Boarding, and his overall phrasing has more in common with Rock ‘n’ Rolf’s than anyone before him. Erik’s new singing style is a better fit for the music, though he also seems more comfortable with his role in general. His voice intuitively navigates the densely composed verse sections and flows effortlessly through chorus melodies in harmony with the guitars. The relative gruffness of his new style is sometimes accented by a brilliant high-pitch shriek that retains the coarseness of the lower notes. It’s an inspired performance all around, and the best one yet to grace any of Ced’s speed metal efforts.
Those who are new to Blazon Stone, or to Ced’s projects in general, will be immediately struck by the immense talent and precision in Ced’s playing. As the drummer, bass player, guitarist, and backing vocalist for Blazon Stone, he is very nearly a literal power metal machine, cranking out elaborate compositions with stunning precision. The opening to “Bloody Inquisition” is a perfect example of his virtuosic playing. It’s tough to find a single hair out of place in Ced’s perfectly groomed performances, and though many bands sacrifice their music’s energy levels at the expense of this kind of exactness, Ced’s irrepressible enthusiasm comes through on every note. It’s not just technical skill that sets Ced apart, either. He has an ear for creating addictive melodies, invigorating rhythms, and unique moments that add depth to every song. His guitar solos are also at the pinnacle of modern traditional metal.
Down in the Dark‘s sound production and mixing are mostly consistent with previous Blazon Stone releases. The recording provides complete clarity and dedication to every instrument, which means Ced’s unbelievable performances are easy to enjoy and Erik’s singing never overwhelms or competes with the instruments. This clarity comes at a price, however, as the recording feels bright and top-heavy, especially at high volume. That said, it’s a minor distraction, and one that’s preferable to the distant and murky sound that plagues many similar recordings.
It’s easy to recognize the effort the two men have put into making Down in the Dark a diverse and memorable experience, which is no mean feat on an album dedicated to rollicking speed. Song tempos fluctuate between the relentless top speed of “Down in the Dark” and “Merciless Pirate King” to more midtempo, hard rock-inspired efforts like “Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered” and “Rock Out!” Every track on the album has its own notable moments, such as the jig in “Tavern of the Damned” that summons images of salty marauders spending their ill-gotten coin on ale and women in a raucous watering hole. “Eagle Warriors” delivers a rapid-fire guitar melody that alternates with Erik’s singing as the lead before harmonizing for one of the album’s most memorable chorus hooks. It’s an exhilarating entry that demands high volume and creates an audial vacuum when it reaches its perfectly succinct conclusion. If the goal is to mimic Rock ‘n’ Rolf, then Erik finds his best success on “Rock Out!” during which there are moments when he could actually pass for the German metal legend. It’s also worth mentioning the album’s acoustic entries. These moments, such as “1478” and the intro to “Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered,” are beautiful in their own right, and they serve as meaningful intermissions from the rest of the music.
Finding singular moments within each song is deeply rewarding, though there is one caveat worth mentioning: multiple spins are required to fully appreciate Down in the Dark. Like the best Running Wild recordings, the speed and density of the compositions cause the songs to run together on the first listen or two, and it takes time to unpack the album and enjoy its many highlights. New fans would be remiss in walking away from the recording if it doesn’t immediately grab their interest, as there’s a treasure trove waiting in Down in the Dark for those willing to explore it.
It’s become popular to praise certain heavy metal releases from the ‘80s as untouchable, though hindsight and nostalgia have a funny way of shaping the quality of a recording. Down in the Dark rivals, and occasionally outshines, the absolute best heavy metal releases from the past. It’s likely that in 30 years, fans will cherish this release as a classic and reminisce about the first time they heard it. Criticisms of Blazon’s Stone’s originality may be louder than ever, though the sincerity and unqualified excellence of the act make these complaints irrelevant for fans of traditional metal. Considering that Running Wild hasn’t produced a worthwhile record in almost 20 years, there’s plenty of room in the world for outstanding pirate-themed speed metal in 2017.
Perhaps counterintuitively, the value of Blazon Stone’s songs has actually increased as Ced and Erik move closer to the sound of their inspiration, not because of the similarities, but because of the duo’s increased mastery of the style. Down in the Dark displays clear intent and self-awareness, and it is unquestionably the finest Blazon Stone effort to date. Machine-like instrumental precision, smartly restrained melodies, intuitive and energetic vocal sections, and rousing song compositions make every track a joy to experience. Don’t wait for history to vindicate Down in the Dark and clarify its greatness. Play it loud and raise a bottle of rum in honor of the masterpiece it already is.
Rating: 98 / 100
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