Allow me to preface by confessing that I don’t care for power metal. Objectively, there’s nothing wrong with it. The instrumentation and musicianship is fair, the songs are decent, and the production is almost always excellent quality, but with power metal comes this inherent cheesiness both compositionally and, most importantly, lyrically, which takes me out of the music and onto the back of a horse with my level 50 Imperial Guard ready to storm the Castle of Kvatch! That’s not to say that I shun the genre entirely; I do find myself dabbling in the occasional Symphony X or practicing singing to some Yngwie Malmsteen, but as far as the rest of the genre is concerned, the sometimes overwrought drama, meh song structure, and cheesy subject matter is just not my cup of tea. I find it a little too cornball for my taste, but if that’s something that you’re looking for in a band, then I have no doubt that you’ll find it in Split Heaven’s latest installment; Death Rider.
After two prior official releases on German based Pure Steel Records, Split Heaven’s Death Rider is a punch to the jaw of the evil orc prince in 10 tracks of pure metal power, and with a new singer at that. Looking at the inner sleeve, I thought to myself “That guy looks (and sounds) like the lead singer for that one band I saw open up for Steel Panther in Seattle,” and sure enough, it is. Small world, and good on him for partnering up with a band based in sunny, warm Mexico. I’m happy for you. Stay as long as you can. Don’t come back. It’s too damn cold up here!
But, with this album, I did my best to cast aside any prejudgment and gave Death Rider a genuine, fair listen, and I’ve broken down my thoughts with an extensive synopsis. Better twist off the Mountain Dew, close the blinds, turn off the lights, and break out the twenty sided dice! Hah! Dungeons and Dragons references!
“Death Rider”, the title track of the album, sets the tone for what we’re in for pretty well. In terms of bare bones production quality, the album is mixed in such a fashion where it sounds polished and professional, but also live and raw. My one complaint is that it’s a little trebly, needs a bit more bottom for balls. I could stand to have the low end brought up in the mix. This may be a nitpick, but I also felt the guitar tones were a little too open and “roomy,” for lack of a better word. But again, personal preference and most people aren’t audio engineers themselves, so they probably don’t care about the nitty gritty production details, what they do care about is musicianship and songs.
In terms of the former, the biggest draw to this band that would, for the most part, set it apart, is the singer. Vocalist Jason Conde-Houston is very articulate, almost like a parody of the very genre he belongs to. I would describe his style as a mix between Geoff Tate and Bobby Ellsworth. He has a strong voice, if a little nasally, but he carries the songs well and meshes with the rest of the band. The lyrical department, however, is not his strong suit.
Again coming to haunt me is the power metal lyrical cheese factor. To be fair, it’s not as bad as bands like Stryper or…Stryper-but it does leave much to be desired. The title track is about, what else, an evil guy and the entire rest of the album explores similar themes. Wizards, warriors, steel, big battles, storming castles, rolling a twenty-sided die, kind of takes me out of the songs, and the rhymes they incorporate aren’t much of an improvement. Easy rhymes like; “voices/choices…united/divided…power/devour…spoken/broken” just come off as rushed and uninspired. I did, however, hear one lyrical line which I found very endearing and even made me lightly chuckle to myself. *ahem*
“…the pain of living is unforgiving.”
No truer words were ever spoken.
So tossing lyrics aside, what’s really important is melody and overall song structure. In the vocal melody department, eh, it’s alright. Conde-Houston’s vocal melodies really don’t do much for me, and as such, I can only place my finger on two songs which had a memorable chorus; “Awaken the Tyrant,” and “Speed of the Hawk,” the latter of which incorporates a sound sample of a hawk towards the end, which was definitely the best part of the whole song, if not album. However, with songs like “Speed of the Hawk,” the guitar riffage and instrumentation is pretty good, but the lyrics and melody throughout the verses and pre-chorus tend to kill the momentum and bring them down again.
Speaking of instrumentation, this album has enough riffs to shake a stick at. Guitarists Carlo Hernandez and Armand Ramos definitely have the riff department on lock. Almost every song is jam packed with NWOBHM style riffs in the same vein of Iron Maiden’s Powerslave, Helloween’s Keeper of the Seven Keys, and Queensryche’s Rage for Order. Memorable tracks include “Awaken the Tyrant,” “Sacrifice,” and “Ghost of Desire,” which sounds like it could’ve been an early Queensryche song if you slowed it down. Though this album does have riffs for days, they don’t always stick, and some of them do seem tacked on here and there. Riffs for riffs sake.
Speaking personally, I found the lead work to be seriously lacking. Hernandez and Ramos have good tone and feel, but overall nothing to write home about in terms of musicianship. Where they both shine is the melody department, and when they slow it down and create melodic passages it has more of an impact than what is, quite frankly, amateur lead work, and like with the lackluster vocal melodies, at times the forced solos bring the songs down. It’s not bad, but it certainly isn’t great, and these guys should stick to riffs and melody in place of speed and shred.
So we can go on and on about specific details I liked and didn’t like (I can be very meticulous), but the takeaway from this album is that it certainly is not bad. It is very much in place with the subgenre of speed metal and power metal, but for me, Death Rider just doesn’t hit its mark. The songs are spaced poorly at times, with one song ending and another beginning, but the riffs and even drum fills are so similar that it sounds like it could be the same song and you wouldn’t even know it if you weren’t looking at the track listing. I realize my bias in the genre, and I encourage anyone who does like this style to check it out; my recommendations would be “Awaken the Tyrant,” “Speed of the Hawk,” “Ghost of Desire,” and “Sacrifice.” You can go ahead and skip the last two tracks, “Descarga Letal” and “Destructor” which are in Spanish, and are really repetitive and boring.
Lo Siento, hermanos.