If you're searching for 2007's essential retro-metal fix, look no further.
This writer often likes to go on about how metal performers can sound ageless on record, how the best, most resilient acts can sound fresh well into their 50s, or in the case of the Kilmisters and Dios of the world, 60s. Sometimes, though, the old geezers lose the plot completely, and wind up being upstaged by a band of similar-sounding youngsters. Take Manowar, for instance. Purveyors of everything that is gloriously cheesy about metal, they've managed to maintain an extremely devoted worldwide fanbase for more than a quarter century now even though there's no gas in the tank whatsoever, and their 2007 release Gods of War comes to a sputtering halt. All the ingredients are there for a top-notch epic: Viking themes, battle hymns, and metal anthems, but from its 64-minute running time, to its bloated overtures, to the ponderous ballads, to the band's listless performance, to the ludicrously lengthy essay and liner notes written in Viking runes, the album is an absolutely joyless exercise.
3 Inches of Blood do the exact same kind of shtick, but in the Vancouver band's case, they do so with the kind of energy and verve that the likes of Manowar haven't pulled off in two decades. They have fun at what they're doing, and you can hear it in their music. While it may be fun to put on the ironic act for a while, lampooning such a bombastic genre, it's even more fun to buy into the act completely, and the sextet has been winning over young fans over the last three years, thanks primarily to the modest success of the 2004 album Advance and Vanquish, which had them telling tales of pirates, knights, and orcs atop a vintage metal sound that sidestepped the trendy, overdone metalcore style in favor of a much simpler sound derived heavily from the early-'80s legends like Iron Maiden and Angel Witch, as well as German power metal progenitors such as Accept and Running Wild. With screamer Jamie Hooper drawing in the kids with his metalcore bark, and Cam Pipes catching the ears of the old-school crowd with his alarming falsetto (ranking somewhere between King Diamond and Udo Dirkschneider), it was a formula that two generations of metal fans could latch onto.
Although past material like "Deadly Sinners", "Dominion of Deceit", and "Balls of Ice" channeled the spirit of classic early-'80s metal brilliantly, stretching the sound out to 45-50 minutes was a challenge the band struggled with, and the guitar work, while engaging enough, tended to play it safe. That has all changed on Fire Up the Blades (as inspired a title as you'll ever hear); under the tutelage of Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison, who produced the disc, the band has made vast improvements on all fronts, putting together an all-out barnstormer of a record that elevates 3 Inches of Blood from a pleasing gimmick to a top-flight metal act.
The difference between Advance and Vanquish and Fire Up the Blades is akin to Judas Priest's startling shift from 1988's tepid Ram it Down to 1990's obliterating Painkiller, and a great deal of the credit goes to guitarists Shane Clark and Jason Hagberg, as well as drummer Alexei Rodriguez, all of whom bring a far more aggressive approach to the band's sound while staying true to the old school sound. Clark and Hagberg add more of a Bay Area thrash metal feel, fast staccato picking complementing the accessible dual harmonies. Rodriguez, meanwhile, puts in a dominant performance, his double-kick beats, tom fills, and moments of blinding death metal blastbeats adding the kind of intensity that the rhythm section on the last album lacked. That added muscle is immediately apparent on the hard-charging tracks "Night Marauders", "Demon's Blade", and "The Goatriders Horde", each of which serve as bold statements that this band means business. Such terrifically-titled songs as "Forest King" and "The Great Hall of Feasting" give Swedish retro metal darlings Wolf a serious run for their kronor, while the sound of a beer can opening is the perfect way to kick off the swaggering "Assassins of the Light". Piano adds an ornate touch to the Maiden-esque gallop of "God of the Cold White Silence", and in a neat twist, organ enters the fray during "Trial of Champions", sounding like Uriah Heep's Ken Hensley sitting in on a Motorhead recording session.
The band's real ace in the hole, though, remains the dual vocal interplay between Pipes and Hooper. Pipes especially shows tremendous improvement in his high-pitched howls, delivering confident, strong melodies, not to mention unleashing glass-shattering cries that would impress both King Diamond and Rob Halford. Hooper's presence is downplayed slightly, serving more as a foil to Pipes, and the role suits him; as countless metalcore bands have shown, bland screaming will only get you so far, and Hooper never overplays his hand. With two capable vocalists leading the way, 3 Inches of Blood are just now starting to realize their potential, and have given us one of the year's most enjoyable old school metal records. As Manowar continue to flounder, these youngsters are only just getting started.