On Priestess's second album, it's a case of one step forward and two steps back.
In the wake of the US release of the enjoyable Hello Master, Montreal foursome Priestess found themselves riding a nice wave of momentum in 2006, the record justifiably attracting a good deal of attention Stateside; their Canadian fanbase growing by leaps and bounds (typically spurred by the positive reception in America); a series of plum tour spots being offered with such popular bands as Black Label Society, Mastodon, and Megadeth; and even inclusion on the wildly popular Guitar Hero videogame franchise. After all the promise they displayed on their first album and all that positive publicity, Priestess were primed to take that important next step with their much-ballyhooed follow-up, but much to many people's surprise, all that momentum came to an abrupt halt when their label RCA refused to release the album upon hearing the more aggressive and less commercial direction of the new songs. Instead of caving in to a major label's demands, the band parted ways with RCA, ultimately winding up with the excellent indie label Tee Pee. From a publicity standpoint, it came off as a masterstroke, making Priestess look like the picture of integrity in an age where corporate hard rock still dominates the airwaves. However, upon listening to Prior to the Fire, for all its exuberance, one can't help but wonder if RCA's A&R reps had a point when they asked for something a little catchier.
Priestess have always been exceptional when it comes to blue collar heavy rock riffs, and all those metal tours have certainly rubbed off on them, as Prior to the Fire completely does away with all the garage and stoner rock shtick in favor of a more vintage sound, one that hearkens back to the first wave of early-1970s heavy metal. And make no mistake about it, these guys can hammer out as effective a knock-off of Deep Purple's "Fireball" as well as anyone, and there are times when this album absolutely smokes: "Sideways Attack" nails the sound perfectly, Mikey Heppner's howls having us envisioning Ian Gillan on lead vocals, and "Trapped in Space & Time" is built around the kind of nimble rhythm guitar riff that Ritchie Blackmore mastered 35, 40 years ago. Elsewhere, "Ladykiller" feels lifted from Judas Priest's Sin After Sin, the economy of the riffing and drumming working greatly to the band's advantage, while the Sabbath-esque swing of "Lunar" features drummer Vince Nudo in a very impressive vocal turn.
Unfortunately, the problems start once the riffs give way to Heppner's lead vocals. He's never been the most powerful singer, but he held his own very well on Hello Master, the hooks on those songs strong and incessant enough to make up for his lack of range. On the new record, much to our surprise, the majority of the vocal lines sound half-baked at best, and with the odd exception, not for a second memorable. "The Firebird" starts out strongly, but there's never a payoff by the time the chorus comes along. The plodding "Murphy's Law" is positively hookless, and the proggy "Communicating Via-Eyes" is even worse, Heppner failing to sound convincing. Only does the lively "Raccoon Eyes" have a vocal melody that grabs us, but it still feels slightly awkward, failing hold a candle to any of Hello Master's strongest moments.
For all its imperfections, we still manage to get a glimpse of where Priestess can potentially go in the future, namely the eight minute epic "The Gem", an old school metal workout that displays a rather incredible amount of restraint as the band takes a far more deliberate approach than the Mastodons and Baronesses of the world, emphasizing groove over dexterity. It's the strongest moment on a frustratingly inconsistent album, one that we hope will ultimately be regarded as a temporary misstep by an otherwise talented band.