Album Review: Wolf and Raven – Lair of the Dragon

Wolf and Raven are among the most exciting creators within the world of modern synthwave, combining an array of ‘80s cultural influences into their inspired and masterfully melodic recordings. Following a near-perfect album on last year’s Ace of Space, the duo has chosen to continue evolving by pushing into a noticeably new direction, one with ambitious compositional choices and a more heavily distorted guitar that takes center stage on Lair of the Dragon.

The results are not always perfect, and some technical issues occupy Wolf and Raven’s sometimes over-indulgent song lengths. However, neither of those things seriously detract from enjoyment of Lair of the Dragon. As fans of the artists might expect, Wolf and Raven’s latest effort contains a great variety of stylistic approaches with the duo’s remarkable songwriting intuition, and that strong foundation carries the album across a few rough patches with minimal dips in quality.

It’s barely worth getting into a discussion of individual standout songs on Lair of the Dragon, as all but one of them are worth hearing multiple times. Aside from the surprisingly uneventful “Demon City,” each entry on Wolf and Raven’s newest release contains worthwhile melodies and interesting songwriting twists, many of which become more appealing on repeat listens. Every one has its own distinctive personality and remains memorable well after the recording has ended, making this a deep and well-rounded full-length release.

“Starblade” and “Shadow Dancer” are most in alignment with the duo’s past releases, delivering a traditional synthwave sound paired with Wolf and Raven’s newly robust and crunchy guitar leads. Meanwhile, “Crystal Chamber” explores an atmospheric, video game-like space that builds subtly and beautifully across its running time to a dramatic finish. “Final Frontier” is a light-hearted, uptempo creation that pulls strongly from vintage cartoons and Japanese video game soundtracks. The result would feel at home on the end credits of an anime film with a victorious and supremely happy ending.

Even “Demon City,” which is relatively unremarkable in its composition, features traditional Japanese folk instrumentation that gives it a unique personality on the tracklist.

Other entries embrace the increased role of the guitar, particularly the serious-minded “Cyber Samurai,” which offers up chunky, palm-muted riffs that carry the track across its methodical and deliberate tempo. It would be a stretch to say the guitar is playing a form of metal music, though it’s significantly heavier and more distorted than on Wolf and Raven’s previous full-length albums. It’s a synthwave interpretation of heavy metal, and the essence of Wolf and Raven’s signature style remains intact.

The shift in the presentation is not inconsequential, however. Not only is the guitar grittier than before, but it’s pushed to the front of the mix where it holds the spotlight for the majority of the recording.

This is where Lair of the Dragon encounters some pitfalls.

For one thing, the keyboard performances have been outstanding on the duo’s past discography, and it’s hard not to miss them now. Tracks like “On the Run,” “Ethereal Ecstasy,” and “Star Drive” featured gorgeous synth melodies and graceful solos that gave Wolf and Raven’s music much of its appeal. The prominence of the guitar on Lair of the Dragon means that the keyboard leads are often relegated to a support role, and those stunning synth contributions of the past are in regrettably shorter supply now.

Secondly, pushing the guitar to the front, both in terms of songwriting and the mix itself, exposes several shortcomings in the guitarist and primary artist’s technical ability. To be fair, the performances are still superior to the vast majority of efforts within synthwave, but in comparison to the best ‘80s hair metal and traditional heavy metal bands from which the artist pulls inspiration, the playing has notable limitations.

Transitions between sections are sometimes clunky, harmonized guitar sections like the ones on “Lunar Festival” tend to slip out of sync, and the more ambitious solo performances present clear stumbling blocks for the player. Fans of true metal genres like heavy, speed, and thrash — whether it’s bands from the ‘80s or modern masters of retro shredding like Exmortus — might find themselves squinting at the missteps, though Wolf and Raven’s intuitive understanding of melody is almost always able to carry them across the rough spots.

This is not to say there are no redeeming aspects to the artist’s efforts on his axe. As with any art form, fundamental elements are more important than finesse and technical exhibition, and Lair of the Dragon is consistently enjoyable in terms of melody and the compositional interplay between instruments. A few of the album’s guitar solos are fully satisfying in their own right, particularly those in the back half of “Lair of the Dragon.”

It’s therefore difficult to hold the technical issues against Wolf and Raven. The artists are clearly exploring new musical spaces and pushing themselves to tackle more challenging performances. Past releases never featured guitar solos as often or to the same degree of difficulty as those on Lair of the Dragon. It’s safe to say there’s ambition behind the effort, and no artist makes progress without those types of creative leaps.

Innovation by itself is neither desirable nor undesirable, though the new approach to Wolf and Raven’s music delivers more than enough rewarding moments to justify the effort.

The other significant change is the album’s song lengths, which regularly run to six minutes and beyond. As mentioned before, Wolf and Raven’s compositional approach has evolved along with their sound, and the new entries are certainly more complex and varied than those on past releases. The running times are occasionally warranted, as with the wonderfully patient, long-form development of “Crystal Chamber” or the many energetic shifts in “Starblade.” Unfortunately, several others aren’t progressive or varied enough to justify more than four-and-a-half to five minutes of music.

This is perhaps no truer than on the very first track, “Lair of the Dragon,” whose protracted intro could nearly serve as its own standalone song. It’s a cinematic introduction to the album the first time through, though repeat listens make the first half of the title track feel unnecessarily long.

Suffice it to say, the ambitiously epic and guitar-driven Lair of the Dragon suffers from some growing pains, and in terms of overall quality, it falls short of the high mark set by the duo’s last album. On the other hand, last year’s Ace of Space felt like the culmination of the artists’ evolution to that point, and there was little chance of them topping that superb effort in the same style.

Instead, Wolf and Raven have respectably chosen to try something new.

Despite some rough edges, Lair of the Dragon will likely feel like a welcome change for fans of the act, and there are numerous exciting moments on the album to come back to. From the beautiful chime-like tones that open “Lunar Festival” to the outstanding guitar solo on the title track and the superb harmonization of synth and guitar on the primary melody of “Cyber Samurai,” Wolf and Raven continue to prove their intuitive ability to craft memorable and engaging songs.

This is a Wolf and Raven album through and through, and the artists remain invested in producing sincere music with their uncompromisingly personal touch. The result is well worth hearing.

Rating: 88 / 100 (Great)

Songwriting: 9
Execution: 7
Production: 9
Song Variety: 10
Consistency: 8
Memorability: 10
(Click here for a full explanation of the grading scale.)

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