A lot of people new to metal tend to assume that, since the uprising of thrash metal and power metal, traditional heavy metal has become completely obsolete. While there is certainly some logic to this on paper (most people who got into metal between the 90s and 2000s will say that it was nu-metal or metalcore which was their first real exposure to the genre, which usually have more links towards the extreme metal spectrum than traditional heavy metal, and a lot of people will point out that one of the biggest names in metal who a lot of people check out the genre through, Metallica, is known as a thrash metal band), the truth of the matter is that traditional heavy metal is still surprisingly popular among the metal scene and, while the traditional heavy metal revival lead by the likes of White Wizzard and Cauldron has mostly died down now, there are still new bands out there who play this style of metal music.
Axevyper is one of them. The band are from Italy, forming in 2009, and have previously released 2 studio albums (2010’s Axevyper and 2012’s Metal Crossfire) and an EP (2011’s Angeli d’acciaio). The band’s lineup, aside from the drums (I know, I’m tempted to make a Spinal Tap reference as well…), has been consistent, with bassist Andrea Tognetti, vocalist Luca Cicero and guitarists Guido Tiberi and Damiano Michetti having been with the band since it formed. The band’s current drummer is Niccolo Vanni, who is their third drummer to date.
Approaching this as someone who isn’t a previously established fan of the band, I can’t help thinking that this record, Into the Serpent’s Den, is a disappointment. It’s not bad and I do appreciate what the band are trying to do, but, regretfully, it doesn’t pay off well enough to make me all that eager to hear more by this band.
One of the first comments I should make is that this album is, indeed, an old school traditional heavy metal album, with a lot of nods towards NWOBHM, speed metal and very early power metal. Understandably, this gives the whole album a strong feeling of being a throwback to the early 80s with regards to the metal scene, helped by the production having the same old school feeling while still having a few minor elements that give away that it is a modern production (mostly the digital production that you can JUST make out if you listen closely). While those who like hearing something new will be understandably wondering what the big deal is, there’s definitely nothing wrong with being a throwback to an earlier era of music (the glam metal revival ring any bells?) and, if it’s done well, then a lot of fun can be had with it.
Luca Cicero’s vocals (I’ll come back to the songwriting in a bit) are probably the weakest link on the record for me, as his performance leaves a lot to be desired. Now, admittedly, part of what leaves me unimpressed is that his natural voice bears a surprisingly strong resemblance to modern Geoff Tate, which puts the guy at an unfortunate disadvantage because I REALLY can’t stand Geoff Tate’s modern day singing voice, but the problem is that the guy doesn’t really do much of note on the record. He does some decent falsetto screams and some lower somewhat harsh vocals across the album, but he’s definitely not a patch on the legends of the genre. Is it his fault that he isn’t a patch on the legends? No, of course not! However, the only thing that I can really say about his performance that is positive is that he definitely has energy and is clearly trying to produce a good performance, which is not really the best of signs.
The performances on the record fall into the “unexceptional, but good” category of things, as there’s nothing here that is virtuoso levels of talent here and nothing that’s especially out of the box for traditional heavy metal, but there’s nothing about them that’s bad either. The drumming certainly has its moments, the guitar solos are generally decent and the bass does occasionally show some interesting moments, but nothing really comes together to produce an excellent performance. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, I’ll admit, but I personally cannot help feeling a bit disappointed.
The songwriting, luckily, is fairly good. As surprising as this might seem to long time readers, I have to say that the three longer songs on the record (‘Brothers of the Black Sword’, ‘The Adventurer’ and ‘Beyond the Gates of the Silver Key’) are actually very well written, with some pretty good moments overall. I do think a bit of trimming could have enhanced them a bit more, but they’re generally very well done. The shorter songs are also decent, with ‘Soldiers of the Underground’ and ‘Under the Pyramids’ being my personal favourites. The big problem, unfortunately, is that none of the songs really reach the heights that make them amazing. They’re not bad, by any measure, and I can certainly see the appeal behind them, but they’re not exactly going to set the world on fire.
Part of this is the production. Now, I can’t fault the band for trying to make the record sound like an old school album: that’s actually pretty commendable and it does sound really good overall. But the problem is that, well, it’s not the 80s any more and, when you compare this to an actual 80s old school production (I used Battleaxe’s Burn This Town), it only makes you realise that the digital production hampers the band’s effort. However, if you can ignore that, then the production is certainly not badly done: the mixing is good, making the bass fairly easy to hear, and the mastering is actually pretty respectable. Being completely honest, this production, on an overall level, is actually one of the strongest things about this record…which isn’t really as much of a complement as it sounds, when you think about it hard enough.
Ultimately, I think that the big problems with this record are that the vocalist drags the record down more than he should do and that the songwriting isn’t all that exceptional. I kind of see this being more on the level of what you’d have expected Kamelot to have released on their first three records: decent metal that isn’t bad in and of itself, but nothing to lose your mind over and hampered by an unimpressive vocalist who is clearly trying his best, but isn’t succeeding at doing anything except highlighting how unimpressive his voice is. Is this completely unworthy of your attention? Well…it’s not entirely with merits (the songwriting does have some moments which make it a fun listen and there’s something commendable about the band’s determination to sound old school), but, on the whole, I think that it’s fair to say that there’s FAR better metal out there than this album. Probably best to just file this one under “for Axevyper fans only” and move on, I guess…
Into the Serpent’s Den will be released on the 26th of February by Iron Shield Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.