Album Review: Fear Theories – ‘The Predator’

One of the things that you can rely on Norway for in the metal scene is excellent quality metal music. Some of the greatest modern day melodic vocalists in metal are from this country (see Khan and Jorn Lande) and the country still has a solid black metal scene (unsurprisingly, considering the second wave of black metal practically came from there…). Needless to say, being a Norwegian metal band to most people outside of Norway means that you can pretty much expect to be assumed to be part of one of two groups: the black metal crowd (which basically means that you’re lumped in with the crazies to most people…yeah, even among the metal scene, black metal fans are noted for being a bit weird!) or the melodic metal crowd (which basically means you’re expected to have a frontman with an incredibly clean voice).

Fear Theories fit neither category, opting for a more traditional heavy metal vibe that, while a bit reminiscent of power metal bands in the vein of Primal Fear, still manages to avoid coming across as too heavy on the power metal influence (which, fairly obviously, bears no resemblance to black metal…although I would be interested in hearing a second wave black metal-influenced band where the vocalist is more appropriate for power metal, now I think on it!). The band have been around since 2010 and have apparently proven somewhat popular among the Norwegian metal press due to their performance at Karmoggeddon Metal Festival 2013 (which also had Sabaton, Overkill and Paradise Lost on the bill, among others) being highly praised. The band’s discography at the minute appears to be their debut EP (2013’s So It Begins) and this, their upcoming debut album. The band’s lineup (bassist Hakon Sakseide, drummer Brage Nygaard, vocalist and rhythm guitarist Andreas Tjosvoll and lead guitarist Ole Sonstabo) are unlikely to be familiar with most people, but some people may be faintly aware of Sonstabo due to his time in the band Hillbilly Blitzkrieg (although he is not on any of the band’s albums: he left before their 2014 debut was recorded) and currently being part of Einherjer (a Viking metal band which originally formed in 1993, disbanded in 2004 and reformed in 2008: for the record, he hasn’t replaced anyone in the band at all, just joined them!)

So, on The Predator, do the band impress me? Well…not really, but I don’t think they do a bad job either. More work is needed for the band to reach their full potential, but this isn’t a bad starting point for a career either!

FEAR THEORIES - The Predator cover art

The band’s sound is very much rooted in old school heavy metal, specifically 80s traditional heavy metal. You can certainly hear this fairly easily while listening to the album, with more than a few nods towards Saxon, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden being noticeable. I’d argue that a tiny bit of German power metal influence can be noticed in the album as well, but it’s more in the vein of Primal Fear than Helloween or Gamma Ray, so the influence is not as major as you might expect. More noteworthy is the more aggressive edge to the songs which hints towards the German traditional metal scene, as there were occasions where I couldn’t help being reminded of Accept. It’s nothing that’s going to win points for originality, admittedly, but it doesn’t feel like it’s deliberately being retro either, which is the key thing that separates the album from something by the likes of White Wizzard or Cauldron: it doesn’t feel like the band are deliberately sticking to a previously established formula so much as playing something which just happens to fall into a certain spectrum of music, which means that it feels fresh without necessarily adding anything especially new to the table (much like Holy Grail’s first EP did). I think the band could do with fine tuning their sound a bit more, as I found the record got a bit samey feeling and a bit more variety in the tempos would help it to get better, but, overall, the band have got a fairly good sound to them which, while not anything new in the grand scheme of things, is still done well.

The songwriting is generally decent, but I think the band falls into a trap which hampers them a bit. I mentioned earlier that the band’s music tends to feel a bit samey and the variety of tempos needs to be improved, but that’s more a general criticism of the album than anything else, since songs in isolation can still be very enjoyable and just not work as a full album. The problem with the songwriting for me is that, while the songs are fine on a technical level, they don’t really have the instantly memorable choruses that bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest pretty much proved capable of doing without difficulty and some of the songwriting outside of that suffers from this same issue. The end result doesn’t necessarily make the album completely unmemorable, but it does make the album a bit of a slog up until everything starts to leave an impact upon you on later listens. In this day and age, where there’s huge amounts of metal bands who can do that without difficulty and people don’t have as much free time as they used to, that’s a problem which the band really needs to work upon if they want to hit the big time, because most people don’t really have the time to sit through an album multiple times to see if it grows upon them. Still, like I mentioned earlier, the songwriting is not necessarily bad in and of itself: at the very least, it is competently done and you can tell that the guys know what a songwriting structure is, so, if the band can make sure everything is fairly immediately memorable in the future, they could pull off some truly great songwriting in the future.

The performances on the record are generally decent, with one glorious exception: Sonstabo. I don’t wish to sound like the rest of the band are bad by saying this, but Sonstabo is easily the highlight of this album, as his lead guitar work is genuinely really good! I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a future guitar hero and his style isn’t exactly breaking any new boundaries, but he can play really well and he can play confidently at quite a good variety of tempos, which is surprisingly refreshing to hear overall. In fairness, the guy has playing in extreme metal bands before now, so he definitely knows how to play at speeds which Fear Theories don’t really get towards, but still, I’d say Sonstabo is the band member to keep an eye on in the future. The rest of the band are capable musicians, though: Nygaard’s drumming is decent enough and I can’t say Sakseide and Tjosvoll’s instrument skills are bad either, it’s just that Sonstabo is on a different level to them instrumentally and they don’t really do enough to stand out compared to him.

Speaking of Tjosvoll, I’m going to have to say that his vocals need refinement. He isn’t awful, I’ll admit, but he seems to struggle to hit some of the higher notes on some of the songs with confidence and his vocal tone grates on me for some reason which I can’t quite place. His vocal range isn’t especially noteworthy either, which doesn’t necessarily make him a bad vocalist, but it feels a bit like this problem is part of what hampers the band, as the music is almost crying out for someone with a strong melodic voice, a wide vocal range (and, potentially, a strong falsetto) to help give the songs the extra kick they need vocally. I wouldn’t say that the band need to tell Tjosvoll to stick to playing guitar, because he can do the vocals OK, but it would certainly help the band to get someone like Stu Block (or, more likely, like Ronnie Atkins) to front them, because Tjosvoll’s vocals just aren’t strong enough to push the band to the heights they are potentially capable of.

The last thing of note for me is the album production. It’s mostly fine, but I do have two major complaints which I need to get off my chest. The first one is the bass mixing, because the bass can be VERY difficult to hear, even once you’ve tuned your ears into it. I had to put my speakers almost to maximum before I started to hear it at all and, even once I had got used to what to listen for, I still had more than a few occasions where I wasn’t sure I could hear it at all! It’s not doing anything especially interesting, admittedly, but this is something that I always find irritating whenever it happens, so I still feel I should point it out simply because it is a trend that I don’t like much about modern metal production. The mastering is also a bit on the excessive side, with the drums in particular sounding like they’re suffering from the same issues that post-2013 Queensryche do (in other words: VERY plastic and studio sounding). I probably am beating a dead horse by this point, but a loud mastering job does NOT always make a record sound better: look at Queensryche’s last two studio albums (and no, I don’t count Frequency Unknown as a Queensryche album and I never will) or Death Magnetic and then compare their sound to…well, ANY Boston studio album (even Life, Love & Hope, and I’m saying this as someone who loathes the contents on that album and thinks every other aspect of the production on it is subpar!). You’ll spot the difference VERY quickly! Yes, loud mastering can have its uses (extreme metal relies on a raw and harsh sounding production job, which makes loud mastering somewhat justified as an artistic choice), but, when it’s damaging the sound of the instruments, like it is on here, that’s when you need to dial it back! That said, these are just my personal complaints and the rest of the production is fine, so, if you’re OK with modern day production practices, you’ll probably not find these complaints quite as drastic as I do.

Overall, I think Fear Theories have room to improve, but, despite most of this review probably looking like I’ve had nothing good to say about it, I can’t say there is anything I really disliked about The Predator at the same time. It’s a competently made record which has areas for improvement, but nothing which I feel cannot be sorted with time and effort. As a record in and of itself, The Predator is an album which I’d say is worth a look into if you like traditional heavy metal and want to hear it done in a way which sounds fresh, but you’ll need to have enough free time to let it grow on you to get the most out of it. It’s not going to win any awards and I doubt it’ll be anyone’s album of the year, but it’s certainly competent enough at what it does to make it worth giving a shot if you like  and, if the band builds upon this album in the right way, it could be the foundations for an excellent follow up album.

The Predator will be released on the 11th of March by Crime Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.