Album Review: Lords of Black – ‘II’

I’m sure most people with even a passing awareness of the hard rock and metal scene will be able to tell you about the band Rainbow. Originally the side project of Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, Rainbow was best known for being fronted for three albums by the late Ronnie James Dio, although most people probably know them for their 1979 hit, a cover of Russ Ballard’s ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’. The band had been disbanded since 1997 while Blackmore focused on Blackmore’s Night with his wife Candice Night (yeah, real subtle with the naming there, Mr. Blackmore…), but they were reformed in 2015 by Blackmore.

Why am I starting this review by talking about Rainbow? Well, Rainbow’s new vocalist is Lords of Black vocalist Ronnie Romero, who has been kicking around the underground hard rock and metal scene since 2010 and has been described by Blackmore as sounding like a cross between Ronnie James Dio and Freddie Mercury. While I found this to be a very dubious claim (Mercury was known for a very wide vocal range and smooth voice while Dio was known for having a VERY powerful voice that could get somewhat aggressive at points, which didn’t sound like a combination that could exist to me), I was curious, because the usual go to person for comparisons to Dio among most people is Jorn Lande and anyone getting picked by Blackmore to live up to Dio’s legacy has to be good.

Anyway, to quickly fill everyone in on Lords of Black, they basically formed in 2014 when drummer Andy C. and guitarist Tony Hernando left Saratoga in 2013. Both had worked with Romero in the past (Andy C. as part of Rising, Hernando as part of Voces Del Rock), so they already knew what he was capable of, and they found bassist Victor Duran (who was the guitarist for Spanish gothic metal band Khael from 2008 to 2011) to complete their lineup. This lineup went on to record their self-titled debut album, which was released independently in 2014, and toured in support of it before the news of Romero being part of Rainbow hit the international music scene. I imagine the news was released while this album was in the mixing and mastering stages of things, considering albums usually are finished being recorded a few months before they’re released, but that’s purely a guess on my part.

Understandably, II has HUGE expectations on it. After all, it’s the album that most people will be introduced to Romero with and will use to judge whether he is going to be capable of living up to the lofty expectations placed upon him in Rainbow, not to mention give people an opportunity to gauge whether Romero’s reason for not breaking out of the hard rock and metal underground before now is purely down to bad luck or surrounding himself with unimpressive songwriters. Being honest…I think he’s going to be fine in Rainbow. Jury’s still out on the second one, but Lords of Black definitely have a solid chance of being my surprise of the year, because what I found in II was a very good heavy metal album that I wouldn’t go so far as to call a future classic, but is already sitting fairly comfortably among my potential picks for album of the year (alongside Sunburst’s Fragments of Creation, if you’re curious).

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Let’s jump to the part of the review everyone wants to read: no, Romero does not sound like a cross between Dio and Freddie Mercury. I am a huge Queen fan and I can tell you with confidence that there is little-to-no audible influence from Freddie Mercury in his voice (on this album, at least). He DOES, however, sound a hell of a lot like Dio! He and Diviner’s vocalist Yiannis Papanikolaou sound almost indistinguishable (trust me, I checked) and both of them can be best summed up as “Dio with a more aggressive edge”, so Romero, vocally, is actually going to be fine with the Dio-era of Rainbow. I’m not confident that he will be able to handle the other stuff by the band or the Deep Purple covers that are rumoured to be coming up on the setlist as well as he’ll be able to handle the Dio-era Rainbow material, but I’m purely speculating on this one: the key thing to take from this is that, if you love Dio-era Rainbow and you weren’t going to try to see one of the reunion shows out of concern that the vocalist wasn’t going to live up to Dio’s legacy, Romero should be able lay your concerns to rest very easily after you hear this album!

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the music. Well, traditional heavy metal is what the band are defined as, but the band’s sound isn’t completely under that spectrum of things: it arguably sounds a bit like old school power metal as well, due to the record generally falling into the fast paced side of metal while still maintaining more than a fair amount of melody to the music (although the absence of keyboards may make the power metal resemblance seem less immediate than you might expect, hence the old school power metal comment) and there’s a faintly progressive touch to things which isn’t prominent enough to make calling the band a progressive metal act valid, but is present enough to remind me a tiny bit of Dream Theater at points (‘Only One Life Away’ reminds me a bit of ‘Enemy Inside’ at points, if I’m honest!). It’s a surprisingly engaging sound, if I’m completely honest, and it’s very well done overall, although you don’t have to be a huge metal fan to be able to tell that it’s not exactly bringing anything new to the table.

The songwriting is honestly really good! If there’s one place that I would find myself in agreement with the claims of Lords of Black being destined for stardom, it would be if it was purely on a songwriting front, because, honestly, every single song is a winner! Every song has a chorus that is guaranteed to get you singing along, all of the songs are catchy, but still have enough complexity to avoid coming across as too poppy at the same time, and none of the songs particularly feel like they need cutting down at all. The core of the songwriting is still based on the usual rules of songwriting in that you have a definite verse-chorus structure to it, so there’s nothing especially unusual on the composition front, but it’s a well known and used formula because it works well, so I can’t really get too annoyed about that, if I’m being honest!

The performances of the musicians on the album are pretty good overall, I have to say! I think that Hernando and Andy C. (who do the bulk of the performances on the record: Hernando plays guitars and bass, Andy C. plays drums, piano and synths, with Hernando and Victor Diez providing additional piano and synth on the record) probably deserve the most praise on their usual instruments (guitars and drums, respectively), because they put out performances that, while not virtuosic, are certainly above the average level of what you might expect from the band’s genre of music, but the piano and synth performances aren’t exactly bad either, just serving more to add to the sound than take any real lead role. The bass, unfortunately, suffers from the usual “guitarist playing bass” issue of the bass just following the root note of the guitars, which isn’t exactly interesting to listen to.

The production, done by Tony Hernando and Roland Grapow (who people may know for being part of Masterplan and being an ex-member of Helloween), who also mixed and mastered the album, is, unfortunately, the sort of production where I have to take umbrage over the mastering. The general sound of the record is fine if you’re OK with digital album production stuff, but the mastering is unnecessarily loud (although not quite to the extents of Michael Sweet’s stuff, so that’s something, at least), which leaves me questioning if Grapow has learnt restraint with album mastering at all in the last decade plus (coming up to two decades now) since his first production credit. I get that people like metal loud and I’m probably flogging a dead horse by this point, but going deaf because of loud mastering wearing your ears out due to constant ear fatigue is NOT something I particularly want to support, so I’m sticking with my guns on this one. The bass mixing is also in need of a bit of a volume boost, although I will concede that it doesn’t do enough to make it worth highlighting, so this could be ignored as a criticism without too much difficulty, I’ll admit. Other than that, I have to say that the production is pretty good overall: the guitars sound great, the mixing (aside from the bass) is spot on and there’s not a lot to complain about which honestly couldn’t be fixed had the mastering been more reasonable.

So, overall, I think there’s a lot to like about II and, while I won’t be proclaiming it to be a new metal classic or anything drastic like that, it is certainly sitting fairly comfortably in my list of favourite albums from 2016 and I wouldn’t be too surprised if it appears on a few top 10 lists at the end of the year (even if only as an honourable mention). Definitely recommended if you like traditional heavy metal and old school power metal!

II will be released on the 18th of March by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.