PHARAOH – The Powers That Be (2021)REVIEW

A most accessible, cathartic and impassioned bout of confrontational wisdom during a period of great chaotic injustice for the “lawful good” aligned, ‘The Powers That Be‘ embodies this idyllic, specific purpose of power metal just as intended — All of the anthemic inspiration pure heavy metal is capable of distilled into senses-shocking catharses and mood n’ muscle building empowerment without a shred of the plastic commercial self-aggrandizement we’d normally associate with the public traditions of heavy metal as a derivative factor of mid-70’s “stadium” rock music. Never the crew to incessantly stroke the tried and true fantasy war between mankind and Mordor in indirect terms, Philadelphia-based power/heavy metal quartet Pharaoh speak to the strange truths of our time on this fifth full-length album via an undistorted depiction of dire souls, their own and others in witness, twisted of their humanity by overgrown corporate oppression. At the very least it’ll be a pressure-release valve, a thrillingly set glom of heavy metal songs offering strong points of billowing refraction for folks deeply-mulling over the nowadays cost of complacency and self-obsession.

Standing in the corrosive stream of time and ever-fading consciousness together and producing their own timely, personal and rousingly catchy-yet-riff heavy work in slowing revolutions Pharaoh had long-ago faceted an indentation of their gem-like status in my skull, deep enough that it’d been a lot of fresh blood to soak when I couldn’t deny the thought that this record is yet something else, extra, beyond whatever I’d expected after nine years. The moment I’d sat down with ‘The Powers That Be’ and rolled through my first series of gawking and chest-swelling reactions I had to reflect upon my own fandom up front — Pharaoh have always been one of the best, most consistent “modern” translations of classic power metal through the ages but they’ve never been this good. And I say this as someone whom for nearly two decades has considered them my jam, the one window into the power metal world I’m still interested in staring deeply through. I mean I picked up a few Persuader and Hibria records along the way and certainly connected with them as much but, my version of what proper modern power metal ought to be has long been Pharaoh and the “it” factor generally lies in Tim Aymar‘s (Control Denied) charismatic vocals and Matt Johnsen‘s melodic, oft-technical guitar work. But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself for the sake of conveying the excited state that this album is likely to infect most listeners with. Charismatic anthems, rational and expressive thought and a soaring sensation throughout is the gist of it.

Conceived as a “melodic metal” project back in 1997 by way of drummer Chris Maycock (High Spirits, Dawnbringer, et al.) and soon relayed to fellow journalist/guitarist Johnsen, bassist Chris Kerns, and Aymar who’d been a go-to vocalist for certain Jim Dofka (whom provides a guest solo on “Ride Us to Hell” here) projects before joining Chuck Schuldiner‘s Control Denied that same year, Pharaoh wasn’t an exclusive priority for the band up front (and at a few points since) but they’ve all stuck together since the line-up was completed around 1998. So, who cares? Right, what makes Pharaoh special is a matter of taste and for the wagging tongues that’d spit back anything remotely power metal the secret ingredient here is influence from classic technical/progressive thrash guitar work which has developed alongside crowning interest in progressive power-thrashing metal. That shouldn’t suggest even a hint of punkish rawness, or anything as esoteric and awe-stricken as ‘Control and Resistance’, but certainly an ideal balance of aggressive and ornate guitar work with the mid-to-late 80’s Maiden-esque gusto that has served power metal endless divination since. After Control Denied had sadly ended and Dawnbringer hadn’t yet caught on it’d been the right time for Pharaoh to reign and ‘After the Fire‘ (2003) was the rare example of a band getting it right the first time. That isn’t to say they’ve not improved production values or gone more interesting places with their lyrics since but the rawness of the recording, the inventive vocal patternation throughout and all that makes this band memorable was unleashed there. “Flash of the Dark” is, to me, the best crystallization of the promising charm and creative force that’d only intensify from that point.

By most accounts the best Pharaoh album is probably ‘The Longest Night‘ (2006) but I’d argue it is simply the one with the most memorable aesthetic, the first to feature lyrics inspired by political unrest, and the one to “break” the band into a larger sphere of interest beyond their local circles and gain notice in Europe, where their brand of power metal was most vitally received. Though they’re entirely unrelated, around this time it was clear that Lost Horizon were on indefinite suspension and I’d more or less moved onto Pharaoh for the sake of admiring ‘The Longest Night’ to the point that I consider it one of the better power metal records, ever. ‘Be Gone‘ (2008) was a bit more aggressive, raising the skill ceiling and expectations higher. The point here is that these guys had been consistent but with a compressed, furious and ‘underground’ sound that isn’t so obviously related to the dynamic and very polished nowadays record that is ‘The Powers That Be’ today. When looking back we trade some of the long-winded and complex yet aggressive tendencies of the 2000’s for something far more refined, or, song oriented in a vastly different way. After the strong showing of ‘Bury the Light‘ (2012), a too-often overlooked record despite it being a meaningful refinement of Aymar‘s expanding vocal patternation/writing on ‘Be Gone’ and increasingly vivid progressive metal influences (see: “The Year of the Blizzard”). Maycock‘s High Spirits and Dawnbringer both were essentially in the midst of breaking out, releasing their most notable records to date and busying the artist with a seeming broken tap for inspiration as he’s release countless albums since. The five year wait for the announcement of ‘The Powers That Be’ back in 2017 made it clear that they were intending to make this one count or not do it at all.

Self-recording this album took place largely in Johnsen‘s home studio, apparently beginning the official process in early 2020 before being postponed by the poorly handled COVID-19 induced lockdown throughout the United States, freezing the vocal recordings in-process. I mention this for two reasons: First, it is impressive that all of this came together nonetheless, as many bands are still holding their 2020-planned albums close to their chest ever since. Second, the events of the previous year certainly had some great influence upon a record that I’m guessing was largely written and demoed a few years prior and I appreciate the broader intellectual and emotional reaction to trauma that the album persists with even if it was always planned to be something like the way it is. We strike into storm with what is immediately one of the most aggressive and rhythmically complex pieces from Pharaoh with the opener/title track “The Powers That Be” and its trade-off between despot and narrator by way of Aymar, who has never been so presently set and gloriously harmonized. The wringing-wild fingered runs of the chorus are some kind of goddamned addictive witchcraft as they swerve in, this alone is enough to short circuit most fans expectations from something surely “good” to -greatness- before uh, Chewy from Voivod contributes this thirty second shredding solo exchange around the four minute mark. This whole progressive/power thrash riff fest needed just one more thing and shit, that was it.

Pharaoh had always done what I’d considered a sort of early Fates Warning style of power metal, progressive edged and often hearkening back to the molten core of heavy metal with their far-reaching fantasy. They’d done that one thing really well and the tunnel vision it provided for the listener was a joy to follow for its unique and ambitious patternation alongside a skilled balance of heavy, complex, and prime melodic driver. On ‘The Powers That Be’ they’ve retained the ambitious handicraft of ‘Bury The Light’ but focused intently on providing catchy, memorable pieces that read as heavy metal anthems and this splits the record into three major modes: Heavy metal anthemic (“We Will Rise”, “Ride Us to Hell”, “Freedom”), balladry with a knife’s twist (“Waiting to Drown”, “When the World Was Mine”, “Dying Sun”) and the grey area between introspective and inspirational melodic metal pieces (“Lost in the Waves”, “I Can Hear Them”). This categorization dices the running order up from equitable distribution, the track list is set a sort of three act rise and fall wherein the average listener to set themselves up with any three songs in a row and get the broader experience before they’ve honed in on just how especially detailed and considered each piece is. There is little sense in plugging through a track-by-track for an album that says so much within a tightly presented no-nonsense 45 minute run, so, the task here is to relay just how much of a leap ‘The Powers That Be’ is for Pharaoh without spitting upon a brilliant legacy of releases in the process.

The poetic “Waiting to Drown” isn’t exactly ‘The Warning’-era Queensrÿche but it serves a similar purpose to the opening of “No Sanctuary” where lowering the lights only makes the reprise towards havoc all the more thrilling. The sing-along quality of “Lost in the Waves” is the pay-off and probably one of the best songs here in terms of what’d absolutely stuck to my dendrons when reflecting upon the full listen. The late reveal of the chorus around 2:19 is seamless and invigorating, hitting a bit by surprise and grinding into a solo that keeps the thread going. Each song here has these masterfully woven moments that’ll reveal themselves in various light throughout several listens, perhaps the best aspect of a more aggressive, more progressive Pharaoh is that we’re getting catchier songs at the same time. The Dio-worthy composition and performance of “When the World Was Mine” arrives with an affecting passion behind it, not only via the lyrics but in the massive gallop that soon arrives and powers through this most prime piece on the album for my own taste. Absolute class and more straight heavy metal than expected for a Side B ballad-opened ripper. Otherwise there are absolutely no missteps here, “Freedom” might as well have come from Running Wild circa “Conquistadors” if we get right down to it and they’ve still got riffs by the time the ever-climbing power/thrashing expanse of closer “I Can Hear Them” sends us off. I couldn’t be more impressed, anyhow.

Are Pharaoh still the best thing nowadays power metal has to offer? Well, I ain’t looking that hard but ‘The Powers That Be’ is exemplar beyond niche if we receive it without the pretense of sub-genre as a mind and soul-penetrating heavy metal record. As often as I’ll praise intellectually stimulating records, great works in their own right, it is music like this that showcases the value of the emotional variance available to heavy metal classicism when done right. A very high recommendation, and still some to grow on — I am nowhere near done enjoying this record even after two months within it.

Very high recommendation. (93/100)

Rating: 9 out of 10.
TITLE:The Powers That Be
LABEL(S):Cruz Del Sur Music
RELEASE DATE:June 18th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Heavy/Power Metal

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