Album Review: Rampart – ‘Codex Metalum’

Bulgaria is not a country that has really been on my radar before now. Don’t get me wrong, I’d heard of it, but it says a lot that the only reason I knew about it was because of the Harry Potter franchise. I have been to eastern Europe before, but it was only once, it was a long time ago and it was to Turkey, so it’s fair to say that I’m honestly surprised that there IS a Bulgarian metal scene of any scale.

But yeah, there is actually a Bulgarian metal scene. It isn’t an especially large scene, admittedly (164 active metal bands on Metal-Archives), but it is out there if you look for it. Rampart have been around since 2002 and have thus far released three previous records (2009’s Voice of the Wilderness, 2012’s War Behest and 2013’s 3aBepa) and an EP (2012’s A Tale to Cold). The band’s lineup has mostly been based around the only remaining founding member of the band, vocalist Maria Diese, although bassist Alexander Spiridonov and guitarist Victor Georgiev are on their second spell with the band. The remaining members, drummer Peter Svetlinov and guitarist Yavor Despotov, have been in the band since 2011 and 2014 respectively. If you’re really big on the Bulgarian metal scene, Georgiev might be familiar to you due to him having also been a member of the band John Steel since 2013 and Svetlinov might be familiar due to him also being part of Ciroza and an ex-member of Demenzia and The A.X.E. Project.

So yeah, now we’re up to date…I’m going to have to say that Codex Metalum leaves me somewhat unimpressed. It’s not awful, but there are elements which badly hamper it and I feel that these elements are hurting a potentially promising band.

Cover RAMPART_Codex Metalum

Let me start off with the big issue: Maria Diese’s voice really doesn’t impress me. I know, bad vocals shouldn’t be enough to drag a record down, but her voice just really, REALLY bugs me, as she doesn’t sound like she’s singing in key at all. It could be her vocal tone, admittedly (which sounds like a female version of Warrel Dane’s atonal style, although Dane’s at least feels like a deliberate choice that actually reinforces the music while this doesn’t), but, either way, her voice grates on me and I would actually encourage her to take some singing lessons to improve her voice, because she is the weakest link on this record by a noticeable measure. She also doesn’t demonstrate an especially great vocal range on the record, to the extent that I have to wonder whether she has damaged her voice, because her upper range doesn’t feel like she is comfortable singing in it for long periods of time and it is there where she has her biggest struggles with pitching. There are a few occasions where she adds effects over her voice, but, honestly, all they do is irritate me because they don’t make her sound better and actively detract from the music to me. It’s possible that I’m being very unfair to Diese as a vocalist and I do like seeing female musicians in metal due to how underrepresented they tend to be, but, at the end of the day, a bad performance is a bad performance, and Diese’s performance is hard to call good on any fronts. I guess you could MAYBE argue that her voice fits in with the band’s style of music, but that’s not really a lot of praise at the end of the day: Gene Adam fit in with the material on Iced Earth’s debut album and Mark Vanderbilt fit in with Kamelot’s early sound, but most people would still say that their voices were pretty poor overall!

The band’s sound is not especially unique, falling squarely into the classic heavy metal style of things without any real deviations from that sound. So yeah, if you’re familiar with traditional heavy metal at all, you’ve probably heard the basics of this record before now: somewhat fast rhythm guitar playing with a sense of melody to prevent the material from falling into speed metal territory, but not so much that it falls into power metal territory, uncomplicated bass work, drumming that provides a solid backbone for the rest of the material, somewhat rapid lead guitar playing that still has a sense of melody to it without falling to rapid scale playing and Diese’s earlier mentioned vocals. It’s nothing you’ve haven’t heard before, which isn’t necessarily a bad sign, but it does mean that the material quality has to overcome a strong feeling of retreading already well covered ground.

That…doesn’t quite happen, but it’s certainly fair to say that the material on this record is actually pretty decent. The material is fairly catchy, with at least a few good moments which I found myself remembering from the first listen to the record, and I can say that I did finish every song feeling like I would have enjoyed it more had there not been the vocals complaint. The main problem is really that Rampart try to cram too many longer songs onto the record (half of the record has songs that are near or over the six minute mark) and they’re not really able to keep them interesting for the whole run time while the shorter songs (‘Crown Land’ being the shining example) are generally pretty solid overall. The cover of Blind Guardian’s ‘Majesty’ doesn’t really do a lot of interest, although I will concede that I do like how they changed the circus music from the opening of the original to a music box version of ‘Fur Elise’ which distorts to mimic the effect of the music box dying, as it is a surprisingly haunting opening which could have been used to open a song absolutely brilliantly…although it does beg the question of why they opted to use it for the Blind Guardian cover rather than an original song, because it doesn’t match the tone of the song they are covering at all. There’s definitely good ideas for songs in the band and, to be fair, this IS the first record by them which has the song lengths issue I raised, but I think the band needs to consider dialling back the song lengths or including more ideas into them to prevent them from growing dull for next time, because they don’t really succeed in making the longer songs stick with you as a whole.

The instrumental performances are honestly fairly good, for the most part. While Spiridonov’s bass work isn’t exactly going to win any awards for complexity, I have to say that the rest of the performances on the record are actually fairly good for the standard you would expect from a traditional heavy metal band. Svetlinov’s drumming is really good overall (he can definitely reach some pretty good speeds on the double bass drumming!) and Despotov and Georgiev are both very competent guitarists who can play the style of music they are playing well. I wouldn’t call them the best guitar duo out there, but I can’t fault them as guitarists in their own right!

The production of the record…well, there’s not a lot to complain about, really. The guitars sound great, the bass is very audible, Diese’s vocals are well mixed, the mastering is fairly good…really, everything is pretty good, although I would have prefered a tiny bit more volume on the mastering front overall.

Ultimately, I think Codex Metalum is a record which I probably would like more if the band had a change in vocalist and the band tightened up their songwriting, but, as it stands, it feels like a record which is more ambitious than it is capable of living up towards and is hurt by a vocalist who simply isn’t on the level the band needs. It’s not awful at all, but I can’t say that it reaches the heights to make it particularly recommendable either. If you’re able to ignore poor vocals and the song lengths don’t seem like a problem to you, then this is actually worth a listen, but I wouldn’t call it essential to hunt it down.

Codex Metalum will be released on the 8th of April by Iron Shield Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.