[16 January 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As of late, younger American metal bands have been starting to embrace the classic sounds of the early 1980s, be it Avenged Sevenfold’s inexplicable yet oddly engaging Warped Tour-goes metal sound, Trivium’s sudden turn toward the melodic, or Cellador’s Midwestern take on European power metal. Couple that with the sudden rise in popularity of British cheesemeisters DragonForce, and suddenly, a metal style previously labeled as “gay” among extreme metal fans is considerably cooler than it was three years ago. Still, for all these nods to old school sounds, as admirable as they are, no band has been able to nail that early ‘80s sound as well as Sweden’s Wolf. Traditionalists through and through, the band, led by tenor-voiced guitarist Niklas Stålvind, has been churning out the old school metal for the last seven years, turning heads with some brilliant covers of classic songs (their cover of Mercyful Fate’s “A Dangerous Meeting” is the best Fate cover this writer has ever heard), and holding our attention with some excellent original compositions, culminating in the immensely pleasing Evil Star two years ago. Wolf aren’t a clever homage, they’re practically time-travel, as accurate an ‘80s metal re-enactment as one will ever hear.
To no one’s surprise, The Black Flame, their fourth album, rigidly sticks to the formula; the only thing we ever ask of the guys is that they bring the hooks and the riffs, and for the most part, they deliver, giving us plenty of mid-tempo bangers inspired by the melodic guitar runs of Iron Maiden and Angel Witch, the intricacy of Mercyful Fate, and the Teutonic power of Accept and Grave Digger, bolstered by the high-pitched squeal of Stålvind, who bears a striking similarity to former Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske. Of course, being staunch retro ‘bangers, Wolf embrace everything old school, including the cornball lyrics of the era, which we get in copious amounts in the rousing album opener “I Will Kill Again”, as Stålvind howls, “Never unleash the beast / Or feed the flame!” as he and the band churn out taut riffs, gallops, and harmonies. “At the Graveyard” is the kind of blunt mood piece that Grim Reaper pulled off repeatedly two decades ago, effectively balancing the invigorating with the ludicrous, the furious dual guitar harmonies offset by such hilariously exasperating lines as, “Meet me at the graveyard when the clock strikes midnight!”
The rest of the album is solid, albeit unspectacular, displaying hints of wearing thin the longer the 47-minute album goes on, but managing to keep everything intact as a whole. “Black Magic” is a cool bit of Mercyful Fate-like theatricality, with an ultra-heavy breakdown/solo that hearkens back to the formidable duo of Denner and Shermann, while “Make Friends With Your Nightmares” is centered around a melodic guitar hook that sounds like it came from Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray. “The Dead” is the most punishing track on the album, as Stålvind and co-guitarist Johannes Losbäck eschew melody for brutality (think early ‘90s Metal Church). “Demon”, meanwhile, evokes classic new Wave of British Heavy Metal, bringing to mind the lithe harmonies of Diamond Head, the robust riffery of Saxon, and that ever-present Maiden gallop.
Unlike past albums, which benefited from some well-chosen cover songs at the end, The Black Flame moves beyond that gimmick, but the album is not without its flimsier originals. “Seize the Night” and “Children of the Black Flame” are rote at best, and if it weren’t for the ferocious, not to mention wonderfully titled “Steelwinged Savage Reaper”, the last 15 minutes would be a lost cause. That said, flaws and all, it’s hard not to feel affection for this band, which does a fantastic job introducing young listeners to metal in its most classic form, and reminds the oldsters just why they fell in love with heavy metal in the first place.