The jesters hold their tongues.
With nearly two decades having passed since Iced Earth front man Matt Barlow originally cut ties with said band to pursue a career as a public servant, and a little over 10 years since his final stint with said iconic American power metal institution, the metal faithful still hunger for his unique voice to find a worthy musical accompaniment. Though some interesting guest appearances such as a one-song reprise of his brief stint helming Pyramaze on their latest album and as a recurring guest during Florida-based power metal act Artizan during the mid-2010s, Barlow’s menacing and expansive baritone has always worked best in a darker context. As such, a lengthy collaboration under the name of Ashes Of Ares with former Nevermore drummer Van Williams that bridges the gap between said 90s dark progressive outfit and Barlow’s more triumphant projects seemed the ideal way to go, though the material that rounded out their eponymous 2013 debut struggled in the production department and their 2018 follow up “Well Of Souls” seemed to shy away from totally unleashing the talents of all involved.
But with a new decade comes new precedents, and this de facto trio has landed on an impressive one with their gritty, impact-based 2022 return “Emperors And Fools.” Taking a page out of the grandiose storytelling playbook that Iced Earth often employed, the obligatory assortment of rhythmically nuanced, mid-paced and bottom-heavy craftsmanship that have been a staple of this outfit from the beginning are complemented by several highly kinetic thrashers that hearken back to the most explosive moments of “Horror Show,” alongside some tasteful and poignant acoustic balladry to showcase this outfit’s newfound versatility. To this end, guitarist/bassist and co-founder Freddie Vidales, himself also an Iced Earth alumni, is the one that ends up shining the brightest of the bunch with his biting riffs, innovative take on the metal guitar solo and folksy acoustic musings. All the same, the pummeling thud of Williams’ kit work, to speak nothing for Barlow’s assortment of vocal personas and gravity defying high range are integral in codifying this album’s potency.
As with “Well Of Souls,” the services of keyboardist and former Barlow band mate via his stint with Pyramaze Jonah Weingarten are employed for added affect, though in this case it manifests in a more overtly Hollywood film O.S.T. fashion. The symphonic pomp and bombast of his keyboard work on the opening chapter “A City In Decay” all but seals this album as a massive leap forward in terms of songwriting and quality of sound, and sure enough, concise opening crusher “I Am The Night” slams the ground with a vengeance and features Barlow splitting the difference between Rob Halford’s primal shrieks and Warrel Dane’s deep, menacing bellow all but to the point of inhumanity. Similarly styled and speedy successors such as “Our Last Sunrise”, “Where God Fears To Go” and “The Iron Throne” hit similar fever pitches, with Williams’ kit work proving as foundational as it is technically fancy. Yet among this strong assortment of high octane power thrashing mayhem, the song that brings it all together is the longer and more elaborate “By My Blade”, which is the closest thing to an overt throwback to Iced Earth to be heard out of this outfit yet.
Naturally a comprehensive representation of the power/prog style will involve some less frenetic material, though this album showcases a band is reluctant to dial back the intensity level to any great extent. Whether it be the serene yet deceptive acoustic intros that kick off “Primed” and “What Will Tomorrow Bring” and then give way to a similarly swift and pummeling metallic assault to the previously noted examples, or the full on power balladry with a delightfully reserved Barlow singing away that is the title anthem “Emperors And Fools”, there is a relentless character to this album which makes it more interesting than its two predecessors. Indeed, even the almost overt throwback to the radio-tinged early hit of Iced Earth “Watching Over Me” that is “Gone” features some heavier elements and one of Vidales’ more explosive guitar solo segments. But the song that truly closes the deal and should bring every first time listener back for more is the riveting 11-minute closer “Monster’s Lament”, featuring the glass-shattering chops of fellow former Iced Earth alumni Tim “Ripper” Owens, and just about every instrumental trick in this outfit’s arsenal.
There is definitely something to be said for the experience that goes with being a veteran of the scene, and while there may have been some bumps in the road, Ashes Of Ares has presented a consistently strong and innovative body of work here that recaptures much of the former glory that Barlow and Williams’ former projects brought to the table during a time when American metal was in a deep malaise. In many respects it is an album that plays things a little safer and sticks to what fans of both American metal staples would come to expect from a 2022 offering out of Iced Earth or Nevermore in the current year, were it actually possible. Likewise, though some highly explosive guitar displays are provided by Sacred Reich’s own Wiley Arnett and current Northtale shredder Bill Hudson, credit should be given where it is due to Freddie Vidales, not merely for some solid soloing as heard on “Where God Fears To Go”, but for co-writing the bulk of the chapters in this sonic codex. Those who enjoy the darker power metal territory treaded by the likes of Witherfall and Communic will definitely want to check this out.
Released By: Rock of Angels Records
Release Date: January 21st, 2022
Genre: Heavy Metal
- Freddie Vidales / Guitars, Bass
- Matt Barlow / Vocals
“Emperors and Fools” track-listing:
- A City in Decay (Intro)
- I Am the Night
- Our Last Sunrise
- Where God Fears to Go
- Emperors and Fools
- By My Blade
- What Tomorrow Will Bring
- The Iron Throne
- Throne of Iniquity
- Monster’s Lament
Though output has been fairly sporadic for the prog-tinged power metal super group Ashes Of Ares since their 2012 inception, they’ve found themselves in a compelling position of late, as the disparate influences of 90s dark progressive icons Nevermore and the contemporary power thrashing brilliance of Iced Earth find themselves more effectively reconciled and expressed on their 3rd studio LP, aptly dubbed Emperors And Fools.