Whereas Jon Schaffer is the undisputed heart and soul of Iced Earth, it must so too be acknowledged that Matt Barlow is the epicenter of the gritty primal metal phenomenon known as Ashes of Ares. With this in mind, as we take this enjoyable opportunity to take a deep dive into the band’s sophomore album, we should take a moment to pay homage to the titan at the core of it all. For those of us fortunate to know Matt, what really shines is that he is the down-to-earth every-man character that many musicians merely pretend to be. Not only does he serve the community as a dedicated LEO, even spending time with Delaware’s “First State Force Band,” cops playing live music for kids while spreading messages of cooperation and personal responsibility, but he finds time to be a model husband and father, even if he is too humble to admit it. Although if he is no longer active with Iced Earth, it is impressive he can do the balancing act so few musicians can; putting his wife and boys first, doing meaningful work, and still finding time to craft some absolutely badass metal. Yes, we are critical at Sonic Perspectives, but we give credit where credit is due. Matt Barlow remains an “unsung” (pun intended) hero of the metal community.
2013 saw the maiden voyage of Ashes of Ares with their self-titled offering, a pleasantly surprising c**ktail of boiled-down metal with grown-up thematic elements and solid production value. In the studio, the band consisted of Barlow, along with Freddie Vidales on guitars, and ex-Nevermore Van Williams on drums. All three return for Well of Souls, although Van Williams is no longer a full-time member of the band, with other commitments to Ghost Ship Octavius.
The first thing to ambush the listener upon popping the disc is a hard-hitting jungle symphony care of Jonah Weingarten of Teramaze, who knows Barlow not only from Pyramaze fraternity, but also as the two are equal elements of the We Are Sentinels Project, which we recently evaluated here. Fans of that project should stay tuned; Matt and Jonah are already putting together the next Sentinels project now.
Once Jonah’s equally primal and tribal arrangement pauses for effect, the raw guitar-driven metal of Ashes of Ares arrives to give some punishment. The layered Barlow vocals waste no time in propelling the listener through a greatest hits nostalgia moment into the very best of the Iced Earth catalog. The very first supersonic vibrato leaves no doubt that this audible journey is the real deal. Wasting no time, the album propels onward to equally energetic “The Alien,” which touches on some of the sci-fi and almost comic book elements Barlow enjoys. By the time the album progresses to the gritty and almost sludgy “Unworthy,” one realizes that this Ashes of Ares album, although somewhat more evolved than its predecessor, remains much more raw and down-to-earth than earth of the iced variety. The riffs are brutal and straightforward, the drumming is Heavy Metal 101. The chorus of Barlows is really what sets this act above, and apart from, other metal acts that may be solid but do not quite find that “it” factor. This is not to say anything critical of the guitars, bass, and drumming. In fact, for all the meticulously produced symphonic prog metal concept albums we admittedly get to enjoy, there are times it is good to sink one’s teeth into something raw and straightforward. Every dinner does not need to be Gordon Ramsay; sometimes you just want a burger, and this one has the meat. And bacon. The guitar leads, while good, never climb up into the stratosphere where high-fliers like Michael Romeo and Marty Friedman enjoy absolute air superiority. Really, that is fine though. This album actually delivers what acts like Metallica have tried to do so many times since 1990, and failed. It is possible to make an album real without needlessly diminishing the quality.
The rest of the album has staying power, never really taking much of a break. “Sun Dragon” has killer chugging riffs and full-speed bone-grinding drums. The uninitiated may first hear the low-gain strumming chords of “Let All Despair” and think it’s time for a break, but it bears more than passing resemblance to some of the acoustic interludes of the “Night of the Stormrider” album. Since this track kicks off a trilogy, we know The Heavy draws nigh. Sure enough, the first track of the trilogy comes out of the cleanish chord strumming to deliver a big thick power rhythm anthem. The trilogy continues along, weaving a tale of the titular Well of Souls and its power to save Earth from apocalypse. It would seem that something wicked is coming after all. Although the Well of Souls trilogy is the climax of this work, the remaining tracks of the album never rest upon their laurels. The bonus track “You Know My Name” is a salute to the late Chris Cornell. As huge fans of the James Bond movie franchise and Mr. Cornell, both Matt and Freddie agreed that their favorite theme song from “Casino Royale” played perfectly into this tribute.
Barlow and Vidales have succeeded marvelously in crafting something right in the sweet spot of impressiveness without pretention. For any Ashes of Ares fans afraid that the band would not be able to deliver again, worry not. This particular well is far from dry. In fact, the writing is improved, the playing and production are solid, and Matt himself remains at the top of his game. The album is published by Rock of Angels Records, located right in Gus G central, Thessaloniki Greece, and it can be preordered at this location. Treat yourself and check it out!
Released By: ROAR Records
Release Date: November 9th, 2018
Genre: Heavy Metal
- Matt Barlow / Vocals
- Freddie Vidales / Guitars
- Van Williams (Ghost Ship Octavius, ex-Nevermore) / Drums
- Jonah Weingarten (We Are Sentinels, Pyramaze, Teramaze) / Keyboard intro composition.
“Well Of Souls” Track-Listing:
- Comsuming the Mana
- The Alien
- Soul Searcher
- Sun Dragon
- Let All Despair
- In The Darkness
- Spirit of Man
- Time Traveler
- The God of War
- You Know my Name (Bonus Track)
Obviously, most seasoned Iced Earth aficionados are likely to appreciate this album, although it should be noted it is anything but an Iced Earth clone. Where Iced Earth is known for complex rhythm playing, and elaborate arrangement, Ashes of Ares is the down-home back to basics Louisville Slugger wrapped in a chain. It will appeal to old-school thrashers into acts like Testament, Megadeth, and Priest, but will also draw fans of newer acts like Halcyon Way, Manimal, Mob Rules, Lords of Black and The Unity. This album is Matt Barlow boiled down to his most primal element, and it is a thrashing good pleasure to behold