Album Review: Theocracy – “Ghost Ship”

…You know what, screw the rambling introduction this time, I want to get to the point with this record for once, so let’s just get on with explaining who Theocracy are.

Theocracy started out as the project of an American chap named Matt Smith (no, not the guy who played the eleventh Doctor in Doctor Who!), who recorded the band’s self-titled album (which was released in 2003) entirely on his own. Following this, the band was expanded out into a full band and they released their second album, Mirror of Souls, in 2008. After several singles, the band’s third album, 2011’s As The World Bleeds, was released and, after yet another single in 2012, the band finally prepared their fourth record, which is…well, this one. I COULD joke about the band not being all that prolific, but, frankly, what I’ve read about their previous albums indicates that this has actually paid off for them overall, as they’ve all been well received around the sectors of the internet that I’ve glanced at, so I’m not going to hold this against them…much.

The band’s style of music is basically progressive power metal, but it is noted in some places as “epic progressive power metal”, so you’d probably do better looking at the European power metal scene over the American power metal scene (or bands like Kamelot, who, like Theocracy, are also American, but play what is recognisably European power metal) when thinking of the band’s sound if you’re not familiar with Theocracy. Additionally, the band are noted for having a strong Christian focus with their lyrics, which I already recognise will be a sticking point for some people, though I feel I should point out that the band are nowhere near as blatant about it as the likes of Stryper. I’m actually faintly reminded of Narnia while I’m typing this for a comparison point, since both of them are progressive power metal bands with subtle Christian themes to their lyrics, although I will acknowledge that it is perhaps more a case of shared genre and themes than an outright resemblance.

As a brief side note, Matt Smith (again, I’m not the guy who played the eleventh Doctor) might be familiar to people for another reason, as, in April this year, he released a charity single, “Angel in the Ashes”, under the Project Aegis banner, which included appearances by several guest musicians (including a few who I’ve mentioned in previous reviews: Gus Drax should ring a bell to people who remember my review of Sunburst’s Fragments of Creation from earlier this year and Vasilis Georgiou should be familiar for both that review and my review of the re-release of Black Fate’s Deliverance of Soul, also from earlier this year). I actually revisited the song in preparation for this review and it’s actually held up better than I thought it would (considering most charity singles don’t tend to hold up well once the main appeal related to them is over), so it’s worth hunting that down if you happen to have a spare quid or so and are interested in checking Theocracy out at the same time, since their sounds aren’t really THAT dissimilar from each other!

Anyway, I feel that Ghost Ship is a pretty solid power metal record. It has its flaws, certainly, but it does a lot right and I can definitely say that I’m curious to hear more by the band after hearing this, which is a pretty great sign in my book!

theocracy_ghostship_artwork

I would normally talk more about the band’s style of music to give an oversight of what to think of when approaching the album, but, really, I’ve kind of done that already, so let’s jump forward to the actual discussion of the quality of the material on the album. Put frankly, this is an album that, when it hits the spot, produces some truly top notch material…but it also has a few stumbles which drag it down, though, luckily, not to a level that is less than good on any occasion. The album starts out on two absolutely great tracks (“Paper Tiger” and the title track), but “The Wonder Of It All” is where things start to get a bit more iffy, as it starts out with a longer than necessary introduction that just doesn’t do enough of interest to justify its length and the rest of the song, while perfectly fine in its own right, isn’t really strong enough to make up for the build up. While the next few tracks don’t really hit the heights of the first two tracks, the worst that can be said about them is that they just aren’t all that interesting when taken as a whole, but still have good moments to keep them from being completely worth writing off. It’s only really when you get to “Currency in a Bankrupt World” that the record really delivers something resembling a dud, as the song is a power ballad that doesn’t really have much going for it beyond Smith’s (admittedly, excellent) vocals. I am well aware that power ballads in general are built around the skills of the vocalist singing them and I usually love power ballads so long as they are done passably, but I just didn’t come out of it particularly sold on anything except that Smith has a great voice, which I’d already been convinced of before I’d got to this track anyway. Luckily, the album ends on two absolute classics (including a nearly ten minute long track that actually FEELS epic and constantly changes mood and tempo to reflect the emotions presented in the track rather than just a plodding snoozefest like most of Maiden’s epics post-The X Factor), so it ends on a really great note that makes up for the somewhat unremarkable (if still perfectly listenable) middle.

I am aware that this section is going on a bit longer than it really should do, but I think I should highlight one personal nitpick with the songwriting on here which is more a general criticism than focused at any one song and which I feel I need to discuss a bit more. For some reason, the songs seem to have a habit of adding a tower bell sound for bonus epicness on top of the usually expected choruses that one would expect to see in power metal, which I just find gets rather predictable after a while. I can see what is trying to be done (give the material a grander feeling without being too intrusive) and there are songs where it definitely works well (the title track being the best example, as it actually helps to give the impression of the ghost ship’s captain putting out a call to his crew to prepare to leave port), but doing it for every song is a bit unnecessary and it can become a bit irritating once you start to notice it. It’s not really a major thing to most people and I will admit that it doesn’t really become intrusive unless you’re actively listening for it, but it is definitely there and it is something that could wear thin on some people, even those who might normally be OK with power metal in general.

The instrumental performances on the record are generally pretty solid, although I do think that bassist Jared Oldham has received a bit of a bum deal on his role on the record, as he generally finds himself having to play what is pretty much just the root notes of the guitars on the record and doesn’t really have an opportunity to stretch himself beyond that role much (although he does get some opportunities to showcase his ability to follow the fairly quick guitar playing, so he definitely is capable of more than he shows on here). I know this is probably a nitpick in the grand scheme of things, but I personally feel that relegating the bass to this level is a huge shame, because it is capable of far more than that when in the hands of a skilled bassist (see Steve DiGiorgio for proof of that!). The drumming is reasonably solid overall, although I do think that Patrick Nickell has a habit of falling back on the double bass drumming a bit more than he probably should do across this record, as there are occasions where he uses it when it doesn’t really feel right for him to do it. The guitars across the record are pretty great, as, while there aren’t any performances which are really virtuoso level at all, they definitely are strong enough to get the job done in a genre of music which demands high technical ability. There are some keyboards on the record (provided by Smith), but, outside of the title track (where they do a good job at providing a somewhat ominous organ sound to help with the atmosphere), they’re not really all that noticeable, so there’s not really a lot to say on them: when they make a major appearance, they help enhance the band’s music, but they don’t really make enough appearances on the record to really stand out.

Matt Smith’s vocals…I’m not going to lie, I love this guy’s voice! While, on a casual listen, he sounds like a typical power metal vocalist (tenor range, very clean vocal style), he actually is capable of singing VERY quickly in this style when he has to (listen to the chorus of the title track if you want proof of that) and has a surprisingly youthful edge to his voice which makes him sound like he is in his twenties (he is actually closer to 40…yes, seriously!). I get the vibe that Smith is what young Michael Kiske would have sounded like if he had dialed back the operatic nature of his voice (and, admittedly, without the extreme vocal range), which is a really good thing in my book because…well, I’m an unashamed Michael Kiske fanboy, so I’m sure you can fill in the gaps from that. How Smith’s voice hasn’t really gained the attention of the larger power metal, considering Theocracy have been around since 2002, is quite the mystery to me, because I’m pretty sure that most power metal fans would love to hear this guy if they were made aware of him!

The production on this record…honestly, aside from  the mastering being noticeably louder than it really needs to be (which is likely down to Vlado Meller doing the mastering for this record: if you’re wondering why I think he’s the cause of this, bear in mind that this is the guy who mastered Metallica’s Death Magnetic, along with a lot of other records which have bad reputations for loud mastering, so it’s not really that big of a stretch to assume this issue is down to him), there’s nothing I actually consider to be a major flaw with this production. While it is a digital production and is very professionally done, it is actually well done, managing to mix everything very well (although the bass might be a bit hard to hear for most people, as I had to use my bass enhancing headphones to actually hear it properly) while avoiding any issues like the feeling of hitting an invisible wall between the listener and the band like some production jobs do. Really, all I can do is commend Matt Smith for his side of the production (because he did the engineering, mixing and producing) and just question what Meller thinks a good mastering job sounds like, because, if he genuinely thinks turning everything up as loud as possible is the sign of a good mastering job, I have to ask who taught him how to master records and whether he is even familiar with the loudness war trend at all…

Overall, while I do think Ghost Ship has a slump in quality in the middle of it (though not to the extent of becoming bad so much as just becoming weaker than the opening and closing tracks) and the mastering is going to be a sticking point for people who are opposed to the loudness war trend in general, there’s really not a lot to dislike about this record if you are a power metal fan and I think that there is a lot to recommend about this record. I don’t see myself calling this one of my records of the year at the minute (although the middle of the record might turn out to be more of a grower than I’ve given it credit for, so we’ll have to see how it holds up towards the end of the year), but I would say that it’s convinced me to dig further into Theocracy’s discography when I get the chance and I can see a lot of power metal fans enjoying this record enough to give it a good recommendation.

Also, for the sake of FINALLY getting this comment off my chest: does anyone else suspect that someone in the band likes Pirates of the Caribbean from this album’s cover art? Seriously, ghost ships, storms, a song which mentions someone leaving a child behind (oh yeah, spoiler tag if you haven’t already seen the third film, because that’s part of the ending of the film)…if I didn’t know any better, I’d think this was a concept album about the franchise!

…I am going to look like a right numpty if it turns out that the franchise actually WAS a huge influence on this record, aren’t I?

Ghost Ship will be released on the 28th of October by Ulterium Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.

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