Ninja could well be a case study to show why labels can be downright crucial if you want people to hear about you and help you to develop your audience. The band have thus far released a total of four albums and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can claim to have heard any one of them apart from their 1988 debut, titled Invisible (and even that’s not a guaranteed thing). Their second album, 1992’s Liberty, was released on the label Rose (which, as far as I can tell, only ever released two things: this album and an EP by the Australian death/black metal band Baron Haze…which is the band’s only release thus far as well!) and their last two records (1997’s Valley of Wolves and 2014’s Into the Fire) have been released independently. Now, admittedly, the band weren’t especially active between the release of Liberty and Into the Fire, so there’s a good reason why they haven’t made a huge impact on most people, but it is fair to say that Ninja have been the sort of the band that you might have heard about due to a friend of a friend’s cousin’s sister’s best friend’s brother’s pen pal from Germany being hugely into them at best.
Luckily, this should be about to change, as it seems Pure Steel Records wants to help bring the band back into prominence by re-releasing their back catalogue, and they’re starting with 2014’s Into the Fire. Speaking personally for a second, I find the decision to release the most recent album first a bit questionable (I would have thought going for the debut first or putting them all out together as a box set would have made more sense), but I’m genuinely all for the label doing this, no matter what I think of the albums themselves, as it’s really cool to see a label willing to go the extra mile and hunt down a band’s entire discography just to re-release it, especially when it comes to material that is so obscure that you’d be hard pressed to have heard it the first time around. I almost wish people would do this with stuff like the Tony Martin-era Black Sabbath albums, since getting hold of them legally now is downright impossible!
…Well, OK, maybe not Forbidden. That can stay obscure for all I care.
Anyway, putting my critical hat on, Into the Fire is a record that has a great record in it somewhere, but ends up failing to deliver for me. It isn’t a bad record overall, but I think that the band makes some decisions in the songwriting stage which causes them to not show their strengths as much as they should have done.
Let me start with the songwriting. Now, I have to say that the songwriting is generally very good (even the worst songs had their moments that kept me interested), but the problem is that the band tries to write slower songs on the record and, beyond ‘Frozen Times’, they all fall into the “not especially interesting” camp for me. I do appreciate the attempt at keeping the record varied and, to be fair, they do have some moments which are interesting (‘Masterpiece’ in particular builds up speed in the last third in a way which actually makes sense after the first two thirds), but it’s obvious that slow tracks are not the band’s strong point and, whenever I reach one, I feel like the record has just charged headfirst into a brick wall and lost all of the momentum it was trying to build up. I also have to admit that ‘Hot Blond Shot’ fails to grab me in the slightest, feeling like a VERY poor attempt at being AC/DC to me. Again, I appreciate the attempt at variety, but it is not a song that really does much to warrant a lot of replays to me and I think the record might have been stronger without it. With all of that said, though, I do like the band’s overall sound (which is traditional heavy metal with a good amount of hard rock influence to it) and, had the band cut down on the number of slower tracks (which takes up around half of the album), I could have got into this record fairly easily.
Nolger Von Scheidt’s vocals are pretty much from the Udo Dirkschneider school of metal vocalists: as rough than sandpaper, but still clearly sung rather than yelled like Lemmy. Not a lot to comment on here, really: if you like Accept and Udo, you’ll like these vocals, as he does them well. He doesn’t particularly go for the higher screams that Udo was capable of doing, but I think taking points off for that would be very unfair, considering that the guy probably isn’t trying to sound like Udo deliberately.
The musician performances in general are decent enough. Nothing earth shattering, but they do their jobs well and aren’t one trick ponies like some thrash metal bands can end up sounding like due to the variety of techniques they use across their music (as much as I’ve complained about the slower tracks not holding my interest, I will acknowledge that being able to do guitar shredding and double bass drumming on the same album as playing a fairly melodic slower song which requires slow and heavy guitar riffs and very slow drumming shows that the musicians are versatile enough to play more than just one subgenre of metal and their technical skills on both styles is enough to convince me that they can do both well if they want to), so there’s not a huge amount to talk about overall.
The production is fairly modern sounding, but still with some grit to it to prevent it from entirely sounding like a typical modern metal album. This means that the bass guitar is pretty difficult to hear at first (although it is definitely there!) and the mastering, while not to the extremes that make me have to angrily call out the artist for it, is still at the level where I feel that I have to point out that a louder mastering job is NOT always a good thing (ear fatigue, for one thing, which makes it less likely that the record will be constantly replayed because the ears of the listener will eventually need a respite from the mastering). Still, ignoring my nitpicks on the bass guitar mixing and the mastering, I can’t complain too much about it because it’s actually not badly done overall.
Overall, I have to say that Into the Fire is a record which is probably aimed more towards Ninja’s diehard fans rather than newcomers to the band like myself. It isn’t a bad record, though: there’s some great songs on here and, while I think the band’s decision to focus on slower material is a decision that hurts the record more than the band might have thought it would, they don’t manage to sink themselves entirely through that decision, which is actually kind of commendable in some aspects. It’s really tough to say whether this is an album that is worth recommending or not, if I’m honest: on the one hand, there’s nothing about the record that is really bad, it does have some great moments which are worth hearing and the feeling that I get is that this is a record that old school metal fans should like, but, on the other hand, the issue with the slower songwriting being the main focus of the record when it is flawed and clearly not the band’s strong point make it a difficult album to recommend at the same time, since I feel that it could potentially make this a difficult album for people to enjoy. I’d say the best idea is to give this a miss if you want to hear something like Saxon’s last few releases, since the songwriting issue I’ve mentioned is likely to leave you disappointed, but, if you like the sound of it from a genre perspective, don’t think the issue I’ve raised is a big problem for you and you’re willing to give the record a fair shot, then you should do so, since there’s certainly stuff to like about this record.
Into the Fire will be released on the 18th of March by Pure Steel Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.