Just in case you are not feeling the full weight of your years today, just be reminded that the Greek power metal project known as Firewind has existed for 22 years. You are welcome. Don’t panic; their first real LP was released 18 years ago, but still, how time has flown for what feels like metal of the new generation.
Ozzy Osbourne, the last man we would expect to teach us how to eat bats without bringing about the end times, granted Gus G the coveted lead role in his legacy. However, Ozzy and his producers always seemed to keep Gus on a short leash, with minimal writing input and very few opportunities to demonstrate his monster chops. Firewind (along with Dream Evil and his solo albums) has been how Gus gets to stretch out and show the music world what he can do. In a style of Ritchie Blackmore and Yngwie (J) Malmsteen, Gus G is a lead guitarist with a perpetually revolving lineup of vocalists and band members, to the point where his solo albums seem somewhat redundant, except to allow for song-by-song guest vocalists. Following the worrisome departure of long-time keyboardist and number-two lead guitar slinger Bob Katsionis, Gus has decided 2020 is the year to tighten up the band as a leaner, meaner, stripped down guitar-based power metal act, and release the band’s first self-titled album, “Firewind.”
While it is inconceivable on a Vizzini level for Gus G to produce a Firewind album without ESP guitars, let alone without Bob Katsionis, here we are, and the result is surprisingly fresh and strong. Especially noteworthy is the new vocalist, Herbie Langhans fronting the four-piece Firewind, adding a new texture to the band’s sound. “With Herbie I feel like we’re doing a relaunch of the original Firewind cast, because his singing style bears a certain resemblance to that of Stephen Fredrick, our first vocalist,” comments Gus. The gritty and powerful delivery of Langhans does, in fact, bear resemblance to Fredrick and his almost Graham Bonnet style, and perhaps it was this nostalgic déjà vu which inspired Gus to finally invoke an album simply entitled “Firewind.”
Thankfully, the band’s upheaval does seem to be limited to a change of vocalist and the complete departure of keyboards. Still present are longtime drummer Johan Nunez and essentially-founding member Petros Christodoulidis on the bass guitar. While the near-absence of keyboards in Firewind may seem like a faux pas on par with ketchup on spaghetti, it is actually not as dire as it may first seem. It may be more appropriate to consider Iron Maiden after “Seventh Son,” or perhaps the final era of Rush. After all, did anyone put a needle down on the “No Prayer” album, and upon hearing “Tailgunner,” ask aloud, “hey, where did the synths go?” It’s an analogy for the new Firewind release. The album does indeed open with a few synth keyboard chords, joined quickly by steel-string acoustic guitar, and eventually electric Gus leads. It is in the spirit of the Puppets-like opening of Firewind’s “Premonition” album. It is a lush and satisfyingly musical opening to the album, before opening up on us with Class 3 full-auto rock and roll. Double kick drums clear a path for Gus to launch into a two-hand tapping extravaganza, before riffing like hell to set the stage for the entrance of Herbie’s vocals. From this point forward, the relative absence of keyboards is unnoticeable, except to those missing the Bob Katsionis dueling leads with Gus, which is certainly fair. However, it does not quite leave a gaping hole, the way it would be if Michael Pinnella were to depart from Symphony X. This is no critique of Bob; it is just a fundamental difference with Symphony X being a band with more of the writing based around the keys.
In this album, while we do miss Bob (as the boys in the band do as well, no doubt), Gus and the group seem to have found a sweet spot in the writing formula. Where earlier albums were heavily marinated in the conventions of neoclassical Yngwie and the whole Shrapnel shred scene, the “Firewind” album has finally achieved an equilibrium, delivering powerful and accessible 21st century power metal and applying the lead guitar magic of Gus strategically in the all the right places and ways. If discretion is, in fact, the better part of valor, the latest album should be decorated with a chest full of medals. “Break Away” is just a single example, where the song is structurally sound enough to stand on its own merits, and yet it has more little lessons in lead guitar than a semester at Berklee. “Overdrive” leads in like something from Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” album, demonstrating the band’s capacity for head-bangable festival pleasers. Asked about this track, Gus muses, “That was a new direction for me. The song was supposed to be just a little bonus number but it took on a life on its own and was doing so well that it just had to be on the album.” The track “Rising Fire” (Gus must always have something about fire and/or fury) is closer to the formulae of old, and yet it is absolutely a solid rocker in every sense. The album ends with “Kill the Pain,” which is like someone gave some sketchy crystal meth to “Kill the King” by Blackmore and Dio. This song pushes Herbie to the very limits of vocal fry, and it’s a hell of a way to close out a big, loud, bombastic gorilla of an album like this one.
Where does this leave us? To be frank… pleasantly surprised. We were concerned with two things. First, the aging formula of the band, and second, the departure of keyboard and lead guitar maestro Bob Katsionis. Whether the band is better or worse for it, the fact remains that the remaining foursome have circled their wagons, tightened up their game and delivered what is easily one of Firewind’s most solid and listenable records. The mix and production are absolute speaker-candy, perhaps compressed and maximized too much, but what else is new in music. The new vocals are subjective and in the ear of the beholder… we could see any number of other singers, from Mats Leven to Dino Jelusick to Erik Mårtensson perhaps being an even better fit for the band, but it is also possible that without keyboards, as the band fine-tunes its leaner, meaner, raw and stripped-down approach, Herbie might have been exactly the right ingredient. No matter what, our favorite guitar virtuoso from Thessaloniki has put together an album for which he can be very proud. The album hit the streets and the virtual shelves last Friday, in spite of quarantines and lockdowns, and makes for some very good listening, but we want to hear your thoughts too. Check out the videos, or pick up your own copy, and leave us a comment.
Released By: AFM Records
Release Date: May 15th, 2020
Genre: Heavy Metal
- Gus G / Guitars
- Herbie Langhans / Vocals
- Petros Christodoulidis / Bass Guitars
- Johan Nunez / Drums
- Welcome To The Empire
- Rising Fire
- Break Away
- Orbitual Sunrise
- Longing To Know You
- Perfect Stranger
- All My Life
- Space Cowboy
- Kill The Pain
If you are a Firewind fan, you can safely stop reading and go buy this record. It is one of the band’s best, and you must have it. However, for power metal fans at large, you owe it to yourself to hear the lean, mean, raw, and stripped-down revitalized incarnation of Firewind. It has the youthful power of the band’s albums of almost 20 years ago, but with the wisdom and experience of the years since