You have no idea how tempted I was to start writing this review by just going “Primal Fear…what can I say about them that you don’t already know?”
However, I have a rule of assuming that readers aren’t familiar with artists that I’m talking about, so, for those who are already familiar with the band and just want me to get on with the review already, feel free to skip the next paragraph!
For those who aren’t familiar with Primal Fear, here’s the basic story of them: Primal Fear are a German power metal band that formed in 1997 (hardcore fans of Judas Priest will probably be slightly amused at that detail, considering Primal Fear’s frontman unsuccessfully auditioned to be Judas Priest’s new vocalist and Judas Priest released an album in 1997, the generally unpopular Jugulator). The band’s key members are lead vocalist Ralf Scheepers (who Gamma Ray fans may know for singing on the band’s first three records, although he’s also known for singing in a band named Tytan’s Pace which released 3 records in the mid-80s, a band named F.B.I. which released a record in 1993 and, at the time of Primal Fear’s founding, a Judas Priest cover band…yeah, no prize for guessing what his favourite band is!) and Mat Sinner (who is also part of the band Sinner and has contributed towards A LOT of other projects), although the band has also had ex-members of Annihilator and Angra as their drummers and the band have had Magnus Karlsson (who readers may remember for releasing a record a few months back) as a member since 2008. The band have been VERY prolific, putting out eleven records since their self-titled debut in 1998 (for those doing the maths, that works out to about one record every year and a half: indeed the longest gap between Primal Fear records to date has been two years and nine months!) and you can pretty much guarantee that the words “Judas Priest” will be mentioned at some point in a review of their material (I’ve already done it five times in this one paragraph!).
We’ll ignore the debate of whether Primal Fear deserves to be compared to Judas Priest or not for now (partially because this introduction has already ran on longer than it should have done and partially because my answer would take up a paragraph in and of itself) and simply ask one question: is Rulebreaker a good record?
Short answer? Yes!
Long answer? Grab a coffee, you’re gonna be here a while…
Let’s get the obvious comment out of the way: Ralf Scheepers sounds like Rob Halford. You can hear a slight German accent to his voice, his voice is a bit cleaner than Halford’s and his voice is a bit higher than Halford’s is now, but he still sounds so much like Halford that casual listeners would be forgiven for thinking it is him. So fans of the band will know the drill here: high pitched vocals, even higher falsetto screams, all sung with conviction, passion and a bit of grit. Nothing you’ve not heard before if you’ve ever heard a power metal record in your life, but there’s still talent there and, to his credit, Scheepers doesn’t come across too badly when compared to Rob Halford. He doesn’t QUITE have Halford’s range (although, considering Rob Halford’s vocal range was almost six octaves in his prime and still has around four octaves now in his sixties, that’s not really a flaw of Scheepers so much as a sign of just how good a vocalist Halford is), but that’s about the only real point where I think Scheepers falls compared to Halford.
The rest of the record is a bit more difficult to place as a Judas Priest clone when you get past the obvious comparison and dig deeper. While there are certainly more than a few aspects to their sound which scream “Judas Priest” at the top of their lungs, a deeper listen reveals more that is common with the German power metal scene than any one Priest album. It’s helped by the fact that the guitar riffs are a bit more complicated than what Priest are noted for: it’s easy to listen to ‘Bullets & Tears’ and think “Hey, this sounds a bit like ‘Breaking The Law’!”, but the comparison falls apart a bit when you listen closer and realise that the guitar riff has a different feel to it due to going in a slightly different direction, with a tiny bit more complexity to boot. Don’t get me wrong, the comparison IS there and it’s not entirely invalid by any measure, but it’s the closer listens (or being a die hard Priest fan with most of their library committed to memory) that makes you realise the little differences that help Primal Fear to distinguish themselves.
The songwriting quality is pretty great, I have to admit. Primal Fear definitely know how to write strong choruses that demand to be sung along to at the top of your lungs in an arena, as just about every chorus is one that you’re going to be singing along to enthusiastically. Every song is very well written, although the complexity of the material isn’t going to scratch the itch that prog fans will have, focusing more on strong and heavy (yet still melodic) guitar riffs that will encourage head banging over instrumental complexity. I think the only song which could surprise people is the nearly eleven minute long epic, ‘We Walk Without Fear’, as it doesn’t sound like a Primal Fear song at all. Is this a bad thing? Well, it depends how you look at it, as the song has a lot of symphonic elements to it (which may cause Blind Guardian fans who remember last year’s Beyond the Red Mirror to start backing away slowly), but, for what it’s worth, I think the band pull it off fairly well (heck, I think they do better than Blind Guardian did!), with my only real complaint being that I feel it repeats itself more than I personally would like. However, I never felt bored while listening to the song: it was long, yes, but it didn’t feel like it dragged at all or that it could have been made stronger by cutting it down. Speaking as someone who was expecting that track to be on the level Priest hit with 2008’s Nostradamus (read: not especially good) and who generally reacts to songs with songs over the ten minute mark by grabbing a pillow, I was very pleasantly surprised with this track. I wouldn’t usually recommend individual tracks as essential listens, but, if you’ve ever written off Primal Fear as a Judas Priest clone, then you REALLY need to hear this track.
The production is pretty solid as well. The guitars are high in the mix, as are Scheeper’s vocals, which does result in the bass being a bit difficult to hear and the drums occasionally needing a tiny bit more punch, but, for Primal Fear’s style of music, this isn’t a big problem. I think the production could have done with a tiny bit more grit to it, considering the band’s style of music, but the punch of the guitars should be more than enough to compensate for that to most people, so, again, not a big problem. I think the mastering is fair enough, being loud, but not to an extreme extent at all. Probably could do with being a little bit quieter overall, but I don’t think that a bad job was done here at all.
Overall, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Rulebreaker. I’ll freely admit that I went into this record as someone who isn’t a particularly huge fan of Primal Fear (I have some of their early records and their previous two releases, but they never really grabbed me beyond a few songs), so I’m actually quite impressed with the band for putting out a record that I really enjoyed. It’s not really fair to call this Primal Fear’s best record, considering that I’m speaking as someone who isn’t a Primal Fear fan, but I would certainly say that this record is the first Primal Fear record I’ve heard which I’ve felt lived up to the hype surrounding them and I really feel that I’d be doing the record a huge disservice if I didn’t give it a recommendation. Primal Fear fans should love it, obviously, but, if you’re a power metal fan who never got the appeal behind the band before now, this record might well be the one which finally tunes you into them. I’d also say that, if you like Judas Priest’s music and can appreciate German power metal, then this record should be a fairly good purchase as well.
Rulebreaker will be released on the 22nd of January by Frontier Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.