Album Review: Ram – Rod

Apocalyptic riffing, vigorous drumming, and savage vocals delivered with a signature snarl lend Ram’s latest full-length effort an attractive sound, though Rod is laden with awkward compositional choices that prevent it from competing with the Swedish band’s past achievements in heavy metal tyranny. It opens with four individual tracks before launching into a multi-part creation that, despite appearances, is significantly shorter and less memorable than it should be. The six-song opus that finishes the recording also creates a disjointed album structure that hangs the opening songs out to dry. However, in spite of its shortcomings, Rod features several memorable highlights that make it worth seeking out.

For those who are new to Ram, the group stands as one of NWOTHM‘s most prestigious and talented acts. Along with fellow Swedish band Portrait, Ram have been a steady presence in the scene since the mid-2000s, competently reviving true heavy metal without treading down well-worn musical paths. Instead, Ram have assertively built a new brand of heavy metal that is distinctly modern in comparison to the sounds of ‘80s metal.

Rod is the group’s fifth full-length release, and it retains much of the sound established on 2015’s outstanding Svbversvm. However, the uniform excellence of Svbversvm looms large behind Rod, casting a long shadow and haunting it with its more memorable and inspired design. As one of the best heavy metal albums of all time, Svbversvm is necessarily, if unfortunately, the measuring stick by which Rod must be judged, and the new release simply doesn’t meet the incredibly high standard of its predecessor. That said, it must be remembered that the shelf life of the average metal band is short, and many of the greatest acts of all time have only produced three or four worthwhile recordings. Ram has therefore surpassed the vast majority of metal bands with a fifth entry that merits recognition for its top-notch technical delivery and commitment to true heavy metal.

Ram reveal this commitment with three exceptional songs to kick off the album. “Declaration of Independence” opens the recording with a rip-roaring slab of musical steel that is one of the most energetic and riveting tracks released from any group this year. The no-frills composition maintains emphasis on classic heavy instrumentation, pounding through several satisfyingly aggressive sections while frontman Oscar Carlquist ascends over the song with his distinctively coarse and otherworldly take on traditional metal vocals. The result is a praiseworthy effort that is perhaps Rod‘s finest entry. “On the Wings of No Return” maintains the momentum established on the opener for another uptempo track with a hefty delivery, and it leads directly into the most accessible and immediately recognizable song, “Gulag.”

“Gulag” starts with sparse and haunting guitar notes, though the music soon opens up into a melodic verse section with a rumbling, light-hearted quality that belies the seriousness of the intro. The riff and rhythm of the verse recall ‘80s-era Judas Priest, with the guitar chords patiently ringing out and leaving plenty of room for Carlquist to lead the music. “Gulag” proceeds to carve its way through a series of fantastic guitar solos before returning to the chorus riff, arriving full circle in a well-executed bit of song composition. Regrettably, “Gulag” then proceeds to run for over seven minutes, and the extended rehash of the verse and chorus sections in the back half become unnecessary filler that diminishes the song’s overall value.

The disappointment generated by the overly long ending for “Gulag” is the first of many to come, as the overall excellence of the opening three tracks represents the album’s most consistent area. Rod quickly takes a turn for the worse on “A Throne at Midnight,” whose uninspired vocals, featureless riffs, and chunky rhythms do little to entice. It is the least interesting full piece of music on the recording, and it also stands as the final entry before the six-part “Ramrod the Destroyer.” The lackluster composition is further hindered by anticipation for the multi-part epic, causing “A Throne at Midnight” to become lost in the tracklist.

“Ramrod the Destroyer Pt. 1: Anno Infinitus” starts off the 24-minute long song with a two-minute intro. The dungeon-like electronic ambient sounds of the piece are relatively unremarkable on their own, and a deep, effects-heavy spoken track emerges as what must be interpreted as the voice of Satan. The cliche of the voice dampens the already forgettable music, yet even more awkward than the audio is the fact that “Pt. 1” is essentially the intro to the album, belatedly arriving as the fifth song on the recording.

As Rod plays through its duration, one gets the sense that Ram would’ve been better off making “Ramrod the Destroyer” an EP, or perhaps expanding it to a full-length and releasing the first four songs as an EP. But launching into what is essentially a brand new album in the middle of the recording is a clumsy compositional choice that negates the significance of the opening tracks, retroactively turning them into appetizers for what Ram clearly intended to be the main course.

Ironically, the sort-of title track rarely competes with the quality of the first three songs, making the dominating presence of the ostensibly massive “Ramrod the Destroyer” even more unusual. “Pt. 2: Ignitor” is a full entry with an uptempo verse and thunderous instrumentation, though it pales in comparison with the first two songs on Rod. It feels a bit redundant as a result, especially after the deliberate intro and buildup of “Pt. 1,” and despite its favorable tone, “Ignitor” doesn’t quite feel important enough to stand as the first full song of a six-part epic. Even worse, its almost-eight-minute running time is completely unjustified; it could be cut to five minutes or fewer without any loss in quality.

In terms of uniqueness, the most remarkable entry on Rod is “Pt. 3: The Cease to Be,” in which Carlquist provides a surprisingly clear and composed vocal performance. In contrast with his usual grit, Carlquist is unrecognizable in his silky smooth delivery, reverting subtly to his signature sound as the song shifts into the chorus. The unique vocal style of the verse is accented by sparse percussion and clean guitar melodies for one of Ram’s most introspective pieces to date. The result is a handsome and memorable effort that serves as a meaningful intermission from Rod‘s typically aggressive playing style.

In a bizarre and disappointing twist, “Pt. 4: Voices of Death” is a reprise of the ambient instrumental piece from part one. Even worse, a hackneyed, reverb-heavy voice chimes in with campy horror dialogue over the top. The result adds nothing interesting to the album, and at just over a minute long, it’s a redundant and disposable entry that artificially inflates the track count and running length of “Ramrod the Destroyer” to make it seem more important and ambitious than it is.

Fortunately, the aptly named “Pt. 5: Incinerating Storms” partly redeems the needless interlude by delivering the most rapid-fire offering on the album. Emerging with a scorching rhythm and shrieking guitar solo, the song maintains its breakneck pace for most of its running time, taking a breather only between the song’s two exceptional guitar solo sections. However, the high excitement of the track quickly yields to yet another disappointment in the finale.

“Pt. 6: Ashes” is inexplicably a quiet instrumental outro. This means that three of the six parts of “Ramrod the Destroyer” are short non-songs, effectively dropping the piece’s relevant musical content from a hefty 24 minutes to just over 18 minutes. It’s an exasperating conclusion to what was ostensibly an immense and epic piece of songwriting, and the anticlimactic listening experience of “Ramrod the Destroyer” greatly dampens the overall impression of the album.

When Rod provides actual music, it’s frequently outstanding. However, there are only seven songs, one of which is mediocre and two of which are three minutes too long, resulting in a surprisingly short-lived listening experience. The awkward album composition and padded tracklist created by the bipolar “Ramrod the Destroyer” diminishes the greatness of the recording, and the overall result is a likable but ultimately disappointing entry from one of modern heavy metal’s most revered acts. Ram’s fifth full-length effort remains worthwhile thanks to the high value of its best songs, though its lopsided overall quality prevents Rod from reaching the excellence of past releases.

Rating: 79 / 100

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