Album Review: Sleepy Hollow – ‘Tales of Gods and Monsters’

New Jersey isn’t exactly unknown for its contributions to metal music. After all, Bon Jovi and Skid Row hail from this place. However, there are bands from there aside from them: Overkill, Symphony X, Danzig, Trixter and Deadly Blessing are all names that hail from New Jersey which I can vouch for being enjoyable at minimum and the former three are also regarded as some of the bigger names in the metal scene, despite their relative obscurity to mainstream audiences (except possibly Danzig, considering the band’s connection to Misfits).

So, where exactly do Sleepy Hollow fit into everything? Well, from what I’ve been able to confirm about them, they formed in 1989, released their self-titled album in 1991, disbanded in spring 1993, reformed in late 2010, released their second album, Skull 13, and then had their lead vocalist Bob Mitchell separate from the band over creative differences in March 2014, allowing Altar of Dagon (previously known as Alazith) frontman Chapel Stormcrow (which, if it is the guy’s real name, has to be the most awesome name ever!) to step into the fold. This album, as such, sits in a very interesting place in the band’s discography: it is their first record without their usual frontman, it is their first record after their reunion album and it’s arguably their most important release to date, for failing to produce a solid record will beg the question of why they’ve bothered to continue after losing their frontman and be disheartening to fans who have waited so long for the band to actually leave a legacy of some significance behind only to watch them implode after the long years of waiting.

Needless to say, approaching this as a non-fan is difficult. I have no idea what the band previously sounded like, so, for all I know, this could be a complete change in sound. However, I will say this: as a person with no expectations for the record when I went into it, I found Tales of Gods and Monsters to be very badly flawed, though not without merits. Not enough for me to really recommend this record to most people, but an irredeemable album, this is definitely not!

Let’s get the obvious out of the way now: Chapel Stormcrow has a voice that will feel VERY atypical of what you might be expecting from this band on paper. See, Altars of Dagon, his other band, are a doom metal band, so his voice has an ominous edge to it that makes everything he sings seem like he’s telling a tale of evil. This is fine when you’re singing doom metal because…well, ominous pretty much sums up doom metal as a whole. US power metal fans, though, may find Stormcrow’s voice very difficult to get used to due to how atypical it is for the genre. However, taking his performance for what it is, I have to say that he does a decent job. He doesn’t really get an opportunity to demonstrate a particularly wide vocal range (mostly sticking in a fairly small range, with ‘Baphomet’ and ‘Shadowlands’ being the only real exceptions), but he has a voice that is incredibly easy to understand what he is singing, he has a decent amount of power to his voice and his more ominous edge to his voice is actually pretty engaging. I like to imagine that Stormcrow is what Dio would have sounded like had he deliberately made himself sound more like Ozzy, although I do have to admit that my knowledge of doom metal vocalists is so small that that’s pretty much my best way to sum up his voice without a frame of reference on the genre.

So, with that out of the way, let’s start breaking this record down properly.

Wizard by Benigne Gagneraux, oil on canvas, 1790-1795

The songwriting is…problematic. I wouldn’t call the songs bad, as there’s definitely good ideas for songs on this record, but they never seem to translate to being good songs in their own right to me. Part of the problem (and I know it’s going to be odd to be saying this, in light of the previous paragraph) is that Stormcrow’s voice just doesn’t fit the record. I can see why the band got him to front them, as the band’s material is darker than you see in most US power metal, but his voice blows the subtlety of the lyrics out of the water and feels like a poor fit for the band’s sound as a result. It’s not Stormcrow’s fault: his voice is perfect for doom metal because he’s singing about ominous stuff and has the perfect vocal tone for that sort of music. But the genre of music Sleep Hollow play just doesn’t work with that style of voice very well (you wouldn’t have got Peter Steele to sing ‘Neon Knights’, if you see the point I’m making), and the fact that the band haven’t managed to properly integrate Stormcrow’s voice into their sound only makes him stick out like a sore thumb. This is the real big issue with the record for me, even after I’ve taken the time to get used to his voice, and it might well be the thing which turns people off this album. It’s only made worse if you hear even snippets of the band’s previous record, as you hear Bob Mitchell’s voice and realise that it would have fit perfectly with what the band are doing on this record, which really begs the question of why the band didn’t go for someone with a voice similar to his, as I can’t help thinking that a vocalist doing the sort of thing he is would have eliminated this issue.

Mind you, once you get used to the vocals, the songwriting still has problems. While most of the songs carry themselves well, they also suffer from the fact that they mostly don’t come together to be songs that are especially great in their own right. There’s strong ideas in them, I won’t deny (heck, combining doom metal with power metal is something I’d be eager to hear!), but the execution leaves something to be desired. The songs do grow on you, it must be stressed, but it took more listens than it probably should have done before I was finally going “OK, this is better than I first gave it credit for”, and I still never found myself saying “these songs are great”. Now, I’ll admit, US power metal isn’t usually my kind of thing in general (I’m more interested in European power metal), but I can appreciate it when it is done well (see Iced Earth’s stuff pre-The Glorious Burden). Here…it’s not done badly, but it’d be a stretch to say it’s done well. Some good tracks can be found on the record, I’ll admit (opener ‘Black Horse Named Death’ is pretty ominous, ‘Baphomet’ has an interesting chorus as well as some surprisingly well integrated extreme metal vocals and ‘Shadowlands’ isn’t bad), but nothing that is really excellent, in my honest opinion.

Normally, I’d go on to talk about the musician’s performances on the record, but I feel that I should point out another factor which I feel hampers the album: the production. Something about the production on this record just really bugs me, and, for once, it isn’t the mastering (which is fairly respectable, in all honesty) or the mixing (which places the bass too low to be audible for most of the record and probably makes a mistake in pushing Stormcrow’s vocals to the front of the record), but the actual SOUND of the record. Whoever produced this record made the very odd choice of making the record sound underproduced (assuming it was deliberate, which isn’t guaranteed), as the drums and guitars feel like they’re being played from inside of a room next door and recorded with the door open. While it DOES help with the ominous atmosphere, it also gives the record a really odd sound that I can’t say I like much.

Still, I will give credit to the performances on the instrumental side of the record. While I would be lying if I said they were technically demanding performances, I can’t say the performances are weaker than I’d expect to hear on a US power metal album, as they’re certainly competent overall and fit in with the genre of music they’re playing.

Ultimately, I think that this record suffers from a few big problems which, while not album destroying on their own, combine to make a record that had potential, but doesn’t deliver upon it and is too hampered by the problems to really make it an easy recommendation. Is there reasons to like this record? Well, if you can get past the odd production and Stormcrow’s vocals, you should be able to have some fun with this record, but I doubt this is going to be a record which is going to become known as a classic. Sleepy Hollow fans should at least give this a shot, but I’m not sure if this is going to impress anyone who picks this up based on the genre. If you like doom metal and US power metal, then this might be worth a look into, but I honestly am going to have to say that this isn’t a record I can recommend to a general audience in good faith.

Tales of Gods and Monsters will be released on the 19th of February by Pure Steel Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.