It has been 15 years since the release of the last Demons & Wizards album, Touched By The Crimson King. That record was special to me because I was reading The Dark Tower book series at the time, and I had been truly carried away by that world.
The new record doesn’t seem to feature any lyrical material based on The Dark Tower, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of it. In fact, one thing that I can say with absolute certainty is that III, out on February 21 via Century Media, is the heaviest record that you’ve heard Hansi Kürsch fronting since the early days of Blind Guardian.
The album punishes with its opener “Diabolic,” which seems to carry on lyrically from “Heaven Denies”—a piece that you should now be familiar with, as Century Media reissued the first two Demons & Wizards albums shortly before the release of III. I’m told they were remastered as well, but truth be told, they didn’t need it.
The Iced Earth influences are pretty heavy here until the mood calms down (not unlike “Heaven Denies”) and we roll into “Invincible,” which feels like a more modern-era Iced Earth song. The chorus is unbelievably catchy, showing that Kürsch still has it. This only continues with “Wolves In Winter,” which reminds me pretty heavily of the material from Touched By The Crimson King.
A solo seems to creep up here as well, but it doesn’t linger and feels cut-off somehow. Not sure why they made that decision, but the song doesn’t falter because of it. “Final Warning” is a bit more progressive, relying far less on thrash elements though still encompassing John Schaffer’s signature guitar chug. I feel that this song isn’t quite finished, since it doesn’t really get started until about three minutes in, and then it’s gone.
However, there is one moment on this album that struck me down like a bolt of lightning which resulted in a repeat listen after the first go-round. I had to re-observe the song just to make sure I wasn’t losing my mind. Granted, “Timeless Spirit” takes a bit of time to get started, beginning with slight, subtle acoustics which are not out of place for this band, nor Iced Earth.
It’s also worth pointing out that Kürsch sounds virtually identical to the way he sounded nearly two decades ago, which is pretty damn amazing, all things considered. A series of guitar acrobatics meld with a full choir in the most electrifying moment on the album. You’d better hope they play this one live, because in my opinion, it is the epitome of the record.
“Dark Side Of Her Majesty” changes the mood with a much darker tone, bringing the choir back for an ode to an evil queen. The signature chugging is alive, bringing with it yet another dynamite chorus. It’s nice to hear Kürsch reaching into raspier vocal territory as well, showing the world that he can roll out some harsh vocals every once in a while. As a whole, this is one of the more convoluted songs on the disc, though in the most meaningful way. You’ll want to listen to it a few times through in order to truly soak it in, and then I think you’ll get it. I think some of you might remember “Sacred II” from Blind Guardian, and I’d say this is a much better version of that. Certainly makes me think of the world of high fantasy.
“Midas Disease” is a bit different, almost sounding like a completely different band. There’s a bit of a ’70s rock edge to this one, though it still manages to bring about a sense of grandeur due to Kürsch’s vocal performance. Schaffer also throws in a classic rock solo, once again reminding me of something not far-removed from The Scorpions. Sure, the song sounds a bit out of character for the album, but I welcomed the unexpected sucker punch of it.
“New Dawn” takes a while to get started, but it hits with a strong chorus when it gets the chance. There are moments on the album when you can discern that Demons & Wizards are trying very hard to not get stuck in a verse/chorus, pop-centric format, but there can be no denying that said formula works for them.
“Universal Truth” is yet another potent moment here where complexity meets with another one of those patented, sing-a-long choruses the band have been so damned good at. I’m telling you, folks—there are so many bands out there that could learn a thing or two from these guys. It’s tough to get a good chorus to stick, but these guys manage to pull that off effortlessly. Giving the song an extra minute or so to add a little extra muscle certainly doesn’t hurt it either. The chorus kills it from the start, but there’s so much here that makes the thing epic.
Fans of classic Iced Earth will smile with glee when they hear the opening riffs of “Split,” which makes me yearn for those old days again. I wonder if these kids even know how great Night Of The Stormrider and Burnt Offerings were? Without a doubt, this cut is the most “Iced Earthy” on the album, which shows that Schaffer definitely has it in him to make another thrashterpiece. This being said, Kürsch certainly takes a different path with the vocals, at least until a certain part of the song where there’s no real choice but to take us back to “Guardian Of The Blind.”
I’m pretty sure that as soon as most of you read this review, you’re going to hunt this one down just to see how right I am, and will find that I’m definitely not pulling your leg. It could also be stated that some of you will cast the whole album off just for this one song, and I’m sure that can’t be helped. Folks, I know you need your thrash fix, and I can’t blame you there, but please give some of the other tracks a chance.
The last cut here is “Children Of Cain,” which I’d consider a finale in the truest sense. You’re getting an 11-minute closer with everything that the band have to offer, which includes thrash metal, seventies rock, and full-on, acoustic ballads. To be honest, the record ends with an acoustic moment, which I would not have expected. The track felt heavily layered but with no real sense of purpose. There were highs and lows but nothing that beckoned a return listen.
In conclusion, I feel that there are a few glaring problems here that prevent me from giving this a perfect score. I am certainly a fan, but that isn’t important, as I’m commissioned for these pieces for more reasons than to just say “it’s great, and you should go buy it.” Clearly, the record suffers from track placement. “Diabolic” is a great opener, and I wouldn’t change it at all, but the unfinished “Final Warning” feels like it could have been left on the cutting room floor.
“Split” is for some reason thrown towards the end of the disc, when it would be better placed closer to the beginning. Not directly after “Diabolic,” but perhaps in the place where “Final Warning” was cut. That gives you a heavy moment right before “Dark Side Of Her Majesty.” Finally, “Children Of Cain” is a bit of a tame exit, and I think that album standout “Timeless Spirit” would have been a much better closer. The best solo offering, the choir at full-force—this is how you end an album. You may recall Iced Earth’s “A Question Of Heaven,” which is still one of the most exhilarating songs I’ve ever heard in my life. There were moments during “Timeless Spirit” that felt like that, and it was certainly long enough to have qualified as a closer.
My changes would have resulted in an album that was just ten tracks in length, unless we wipe out “Children Of Cain” and make it a bonus track. Then we have a cool 52 minutes of playing time that shouldn’t have any real sense of filler. As for “Midas Disease,” we could yank that too, but I don’t think it would be necessary because it is so unexpected. That being said, people looking for the epic metal that these guys are known for might find that track to be distasteful. It is impossible to appeal to everyone, and this is just my opinion, but I think there are a ton of killer songs on here, even with the fat not completely trimmed. I’ll of course do that myself when I make a playlist, and you may feel differently.
Even so, I can’t say that this a bad album, and the four-star rating would certainly solidify that. After all these years, two metal giants have come together once again to release another solid album that I don’t think I’ll be getting tired of anytime soon. I’m glad that I was still around to hear it, and hopefully, fans of the band’s previous two recordings will be happy with it. I’m one of those fans, and despite my issues, I’m still quite satisfied with the final product.