At first listen, Air Raid’s third full-length album, Across the Line seems to checks all the boxes on the list of requirements for a heavy metal classic: tight, intricate riffs, clear and energetic drumming, a soulful and impassioned singer, outstanding guitar solos, and attractive vocal hooks. The sound production and mastering even match the band’s undeniable skill. All of these things are present on the latest offering from one of Sweden’s premier NWOTHM bands, though a lack of song variety brings down the otherwise outstanding performance. That said, the album is hardly a disappointment, and the band’s long absence since 2013’s Point of Impact proves to worth the wait. Air Raid returns with a new singer and guitarist to deliver an immensely satisfying slab of old school heavy metal that should not be missed by fans of the band or the genre.
In terms of consistency and overall quality, it has to be said that Air Raid is among the very best true heavy metal bands of the modern era. The group’s debut EP, 2012’s Danger Ahead, was an exhilarating seven-track entry that essentially constituted a full-length album. The authentic style of old school power metal played by the group was a revelation at a time when many acts contributing to the revival of ‘80s-style metal were still incorporating the glossy, sentimental sound of modern popular rock music. In contrast to acts like White Wizzard and Holy Grail, Air Raid delivered an genuinely retro sound that felt more true to the source material than their contemporaries. A pair of full-length follow-ups, 2012’s Night of the Axe and 2014’s Point of Impact, cemented the band as a serious contributor to modern heavy music, and though they never quite competed with the absolute best NWOTHM releases, Air Raid’s albums remained valuable contributions to the scene.
Across the Line continues the band’s legacy with a superbly confident release. It doesn’t surpass the exceptional Night of the Axe as the band’s finest recording to date, but it makes a strong enough effort to put it into consideration. Notably, Across the Line features the band’s third lead singer in as many albums. New frontman Fredrik Werner has much more in common with the group’s original singer Michalis Rinakakis, who appeared on Danger Ahead and Night of the Axe, than he does with Point of Impact‘s Arthur Andersson. Werner delivers his sections with a gruff, mature voice that perfectly complements the rugged sound production on Across the Line. The result realigns Air Raid with their original musical identity, a move that should please long-time fans of the band.
“Hold the Flame” ignites the album with a red hot chunk of speed metal that wastes no time getting down to business. When Werner joins the outstanding instrumental work with his rich voice it becomes immediately clear that the band has brought a serious creative effort to the table. A well-timed break just past the midpoint drops the pace for a moment before launching into a series of virtuosic guitar solos, a staple of Air Raid’s discography. In all, the song is a perfectly composed and executed piece of music that promises great things for the rest of the recording.
“Line of Danger” and “Aiming for the Sky” extend the excellence of the opener with a slightly more relaxed pace. Each song has likable riffs, lively drumming, and an adept vocal performance. “Aiming for the Sky” in particular has a gripping sound that encourages repeat listens, and its satisfying chorus hook helps to make it one of the strongest entries on the recording.
The excitement of the opening tracks reaches a climax on the outstanding instrumental piece “Entering the Zone Zero.” The song leaves the starting line with a dextrous and exciting riff that is joined by a thunderous and invigorating rhythm section. The band quickly brings a guitar solo into the picture, signaling the onslaught of top-tier guitar work to follow. The bulk of “Entering Zone Zero” is guided by guitar solos, with Andreas Johansson and Magnus Mild trading off the lead with electrifying results. The song constitutes one of the finest instrumental tracks of 21st century heavy metal, rubbing elbows with Enforcer’s “Crystal Suite.”
Unfortunately, by the time “Entering Zone Zero” passes the baton to “Hell and Back” and Fredrik Werner’s voice returns to the music, it becomes clear that Across the Line has precisely zero surprises in store in its back half. The album’s first five tracks, while predominantly excellent, establish a pattern of unvarying songwriting that relies on the same structure and approach for every song on the recording. Each entry on Across the Line runs from about four minutes to five minutes in length. On its own, that might be unremarkable, though the homogenous song lengths are accompanied by an exceptionally narrow range of beats per minute. Every track comes through with the band’s signature and well established uptempo, not-quite-speed-metal pace. Even after three or four spins of the album it becomes difficult to tell individual songs apart, and searching through the recording for a specific track or moment often feels like a futile effort.
This is not exactly to say that every song sounds the same. Despite their undeniable similarities, several of the entries do have memorable riffs and vocal hooks that become recognizable and familiar over time. For this reason, it never quite feels like Air Raid is limited by their technical skill or breadth of artistic ability. Instead, the interchangeable nature of the songs feels like the result of a sort of creative narrow-mindedness or stubbornness that encourages the band to stick to a single approach for the album’s duration. A long composition with a slow build-up, a short and unique instrumental interlude, or a midtempo rocker would do wonders for the recording’s diversity. Even a ballad would be a welcome break from the band’s unvarying pace and technique.
A second, similar complaint has to do with Werner’s singing voice. His tone is excellent and his delivery is powerful and engaging, though it often feels like he slightly slips out of harmony with the instruments. Its a small issue, but the looseness of his delivery sometimes feels at odds with the high level of precision displayed by the rest of the band. Moreover, Werner’s performance is notably limited in terms of both pitch and style. As with the songwriting and the instrumentation, Werner’s voice varies far too little across the recording and becomes predictable after just a few songs. If he is capable of shifting the tone of his voice to create a different emotional impact, he never attempts it. If he is able to deliver a wide-ranging melodic performance with minimal instrumental support, he is never given that chance.
In terms of technique and technical skill, Air Raid is undeniably one of the best heavy metal acts of the 21st century. Across the Line delivers beautifully executed, exciting pieces with a hard rock-fueled, feel-good attitude. The guitar solos maintain Air Raid’s history of excellence and stand among the best of any NWOTHM release to date, and the band’s singer offers a compelling and distinctive voice that helps the group stand out from the pack. Across the Line also features top notch sound production and mastering that puts other prominent releases of 2017 to shame. On the surface, it has everything needed to be a masterpiece of the modern age.
Unfortunately, Across the Line suffers from too much of a good thing, and the unvarying pace and delivery of each song leads to flavor fatigue before the recording reaches its conclusion. A handful of standout tracks are separated by slightly less interesting doppelgängers, resulting in a creation that is surprisingly unmemorable in relation to the quality of its craftsmanship. Despite this complaint, the release is a satisfying piece of music that should be sought out and enjoyed by all fans of true heavy metal. Across the Line‘s lack of variety may prevent it from crossing the line from excellence into mastery, though it can’t stop the album from being an inspiring piece of uplifting heavy metal.
Rating: 83 / 100
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