I really thought FORCE OF EVIL would follow up a solid, if unoriginal, debut with an album that saw the band coming into its own and honing its craft. Nothing of the sort happens on "Black Empire". If anything, it's a step backwards; most of the songs sounding like tracks that didn't make it onto the debut album. It pains me to make such a statement as I've got the utmost respect for guitarists Michael Denner and Hank Shermann. Maybe I even cut 'em a little too much slack on the debut and got caught up in the all the hype over the MERCYFUL FATE/KING DIAMOND connection.Even with a vocalist (Martin Steene) who sounds like Jon Bon Jovi singing power metal (listen to his normal range stuff and tell me you don't hear it too), the debut was at least enjoyable and tickled my nostalgia bone. Steene's out-of-place whiny vocals only make the usually subpar songwriting on "Black Empire" that much worse. As much as I can't get into the guy's style, I tried to look past it and determine if it's my problem with Steene's delivery that make the songs sound so second rate. Nope, it's the songs too. I was cautiously optimistic after hearing some pretty damn scorching riffs and solos on the album-opening title track, the tone and delivery similar to vintage JUDAS PRIEST. What remains is a group of songs with middling verses and awful choruses, as exemplified by tracks like "Back to Hell", "Cabrini Green" and "Beyond the Gates". As hard as the band tries to milk the horror theme that runs throughout the album, there isn't anything even remotely creepy about the songs. The sample narrative from the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is the most chilling aspect of "Dead in Texas" (yet another chorus that has me cringing). At least the album closing "S.O.S." sees the band adding a few twists to set it apart from the otherwise standard arrangements. I guess I don't outright despise "Black Empire" and I've heard worse. It's a question of choices. When cash is limited and there are much better traditional heavy metal albums out there, such as MYSTIC PROPHECY's "Never-Ending" and BRAINSTORM's "Liquid Monster", I cannot in good conscience recommend "Black Empire" to anyone but classic metal junkies and MERCYFUL FATE groupies.
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