Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Album Review: Serious Black - Magic

Not all 'supergroups' turn out to be super, and few of them experience growth after their formation. The fact of the matter is that once a musician has established themselves, it's difficult to break free of that mold and do something new. The members of Serious Black were like that when they came together, putting out a good debut that often felt like more of the same from veterans of power metal. But last year's "Mirrorworld" was something different. That album showed tremendous growth, and more maturity, and earned itself a slot on my list of the best albums of the year (accurately; the deluxe edition did). So when they are ready to return but a year later, I am both excited for what they have in store, but I'm also a bit worried they might be pushing themselves a bit too hard. Which wins out?

This time out, Serious Black is offering up a nearly hour long concept album about a man and a journey through a magical land filled with witches and drama.

Over the course of two albums, the times I have most appreciated Serious Black are when they leave the blueprint of power metal behind. There's a time and a place for ripping through a double-bass number, but the songs where they gave Urban breed more space to ply his...ahem... magic were the ones that most resonated with me. That's why "Mirrorworld" caught me so off-guard when it was released. From the singles I had heard, I was not expecting the diversity of songwriting, nor the tracks that ended up being my favorites.

Concept albums are tricky, because there are tropes about them that have never sat right with me. The one minute introduction is one of them, a short interlude with the narrator welcoming us to the story, these sorts of tracks are inconsequential. Then there's "Burn Witches Burn", which is a nice little track filled with organs that I love in the background, but the song stops before the solo for a narrative breakdown. Spoken word and music are two things I don't think belong together, and it drags down my enjoyment of a song every time I have to listen to talking in the middle of one.

What works incredibly well on this album is the use of keyboards to set the tone of the songs. Shifting sounds from track to track, the sense of drama comes from the keyboards, which are able to add a slightly sinister feeling to what would otherwise be energetic power metal songs. There are a lot of concept albums that fail to match the feeling of the music to the narrative through-lines, but Serious Black has achieved the right balance, without resorting to ham-fisted usurping of a dozen genres for each scene. This still feels like Serious Black, through and through.

The other thing of note, at least to me, is that "Magic" is a tight, concise album. While it runs nearly an hour, each song briskly moves along, and if anything they feel like they need slightly more time to make their point. There is something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more, for sure, but at a couple of points I almost have the impression the band is rushing through the compositions, to make sure the record doesn't get too long.

Mostly, what I can say about "Magic" is that, in spite of stretching their creative boundaries with a concept, the album feels like a step back from where "Mirrorworld" was taking us. Yes, "Magic" has a narrative scope that expands outward, but the music is more traditional in its power metal forms, which doesn't feel to me as experimental as the softer songs, and more at times hard rock approach that "Mirrorworld" gave us. And with Urban's vocal approach, particularly with respect to the backing vocals, there is a hint of King Diamond's conceptual stories that creeps in. It never becomes distracting, but King's approach is one that relies far less on melodies and hooks, which has tamped down some of the buoyant choruses from what Serious Black is capable of.

Furthermore, this is an album that takes time before it fully sinks in. On my first listen, I was definitely underwhelmed by what I heard. But since I have a lot of respect for Urban, who has helmed some of my favorite recent metal albums, I gave it several more chances. With each listen, the songs became more familiar, and the bits that felt underwhelming became more clearly subtle than disappointing. "Skeletons On Parade" and "The Witch Of Caldwell Town" are the only tracks that immediately stuck out, and they remain the best songs on the album, with the kind of choruses that make power metal glorious. I particularly love how the latter track slows down for the last chorus, which makes it sound yet more epic. The rest of the album grows stickier with time, but you have to give it the chance to grow legs, which we don't always get the chance to do.

What I'm getting at is that my opinion is a bit two-fold. Serious Black are a very talented band, and this album is obviously put together by veterans who couldn't make a bad record without trying to deliberately do so. "Magic" is a very good album that doesn't feel like an album that would come out just a year after a monster release. Don't get me wrong; "Magic" is very good power metal. That's my issue, though. I was hoping Serious Black was going to break a bit more free of that mold. By focusing on a story, and bringing it to life through Urban's writing and performance, "Magic" isn't the melodic feast "Mirrorworld" was building towards.

While "Magic" is a step forward in some ways, it's a step backward in some others. It's a very good album, and it might very well end up being one of my favorites at the end of the year, but the nature of its construction is going to mean it's not an album that will stay with me as strongly as "Mirrorworld" did.

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