In an interview I conducted with PHARAOH guitarist Matt Johnsen a couple of months ago, I was discussing the fact that I still preferred 2006's "The Longest Night" to new album "Be Gone", though not by a wide margin. It is one of those instances where the follow-up to an album that you adored (it was a top 10 selection for me that year) is difficult to objectively critique because memories of its predecessor keep interfering. I also told Johnsen that considering the denser, more complex, style of "Be Gone", I would not be surprised if after a few more weeks of absorption that I'd find it superior to "The Longest Night". Sure enough, that is exactly what happened, as I now find "Be Gone" to be a slightly better overall release than "The Longest Night", although it is still a close race.
Where "Be Gone" differs from "The Longest Night" is, for the most part, in the intricacy of the compositions. By that I don't mean that PHARAOH has become CYNIC, only that the arrangements utilize a wide variety of licks and Johnsen's leads are easily his best yet. These are the kind of solos to which you look forward, as opposed to being mere song breaks; it is what bands like IRON MAIDEN and JUDAS PRIEST do so well, incorporating melodies in the solos and harmonies so that they became nearly as memorable as the choruses. This is the aspect of "Be Gone" that continues to grow on you with each listen and becomes the album's "X" factor, right down to the siren-esque, multi-layered effect (which doesn't describe it well enough, but will have to do) on the title track.
The central melodies have a way of getting better and better as well, so much so that several tracks initially seemed on par with the catchiest material from "The Longest Night", then ultimately surpass it. The two shining examples are "Red Honor" and "Buried at Sea", both heavy metal anthems of the highest order. The latter features a vaguely Celtic folk feel; you'll want to raise your fist and sing along every time you hear it. "Dark New Life" (featuring guest solos from RIOT's Mark Reale and Mark Flyntz) is right there too, as are "Cover Your Eyes and Pray" and "No Remains" (with returning guest guitarist Jim Dofka). Invariably, when I hear this album the following thought keeps slamming against the sides of my skull: "Goddamn, these guys are great songwriters!" The nine-track collection is near perfection; it's as simple as that.
Vocalist Tim Aymar puts in his best performance, stretching his gritty, yet soulful, pipes in a way that offers more variety, yet is never overdone. Even the most carefully written vocal can fall flat without a singer that's got the horsepower; not a problem with Aymar.
As for the IRON MAIDEN tag that has gone from an appropriate comparison point to a haunting and over-used pain in the ass for the band, some of those elements are still present. But all that really means is that PHARAOH composes its songs as masterfully as MAIDEN does (yeah, no shit). Make no mistake, on "Be Gone" PHARAOH has positioned itself as a classy and traditional heavy metal band that can proudly stand on its own. Facing facts, PHARAOH is without question one of the best heavy metal bands on earth and "Be Gone" stands tall as the act's best work yet and is a good bet to catapult toward the top of many a critic's year-end list. So far, it is my album of the year.