RAGE
"Speak of the Dead"

(Nuclear Blast)

01. Mortituri Te Salutant
02. Prelude of Souls
03. Innocent
04. Depression
05. No Regrets
06. Confusion
07. Black
08. Beauty
09. No Fear
10. Soul Survivor
11. Full Moon
12. Kill Your Gods
13. Turn My World Around
14. Be With Me Or Be Gone
15. Speak of the Dead

RATING: 9/10

Career arc-wise, RAGE seems to take a page from the SAVATAGE playbook (except for the fact that they, like, release records and work and stuff). Starting from more raw and coarse origins in the early 1980s, both bands have evolved into increasingly graceful, orchestral, even theatrical outfits. But RAGE, even at their most refined and progressive, still retain a youthful spark and an infectious energy — their songs are memorable, delivered with a gung-ho spirit, refining their blend of thrashy hubris, prog finesse and power metal glee without ever choosing sides.

The first half of this album contains a number of instrumentals recorded with the symphony orchestra of Minsk, in guitarist Victor Smolski's homeland of Russia. There's a loose concept running through the lyrics, the Reaper coming for those who aren't ready to depart, an innocent girl bemoaning her fate as he offers himself as her guide to the world beyond. The orchestra and choir add a theatrical, bombastic atmosphere to these massive tracks – a heavy metal Broadway show where talk-box guitars and frenetic double-kick drumming merge seamlessly swelling string sections and ominous horns.

(And before anyone gives RAGE shit for this merger of metal and orchestral, they were doing this with Lingua Mortis years before METALLICA did the "S&M" album, and they do it about a million times better. So shaddup.)

RAGE manage to do these epics with all the grandiosity of a BLIND GUARDIAN or a RHAPSODY, but they pull off the feat of making even the most top-heavy, orchestra-laden songs crackle with urgency. The songs are built first and foremost around amazingly catchy choruses, the band's stock-in-trade since the 1980's, and the band's keen sense of dynamics. Pick apart the song "Innocent" and you'll find a near-perfect arrangement, one that knows exactly when the orchestra should be prevalent, and when it should back off and leave room for Victor Smolski's solo and some "just the band" time.

The Broadway motif hits its zenith with the impressive ballad "Beauty", featuring some stunning Spanish guitar from Smolski and the kind of chord changes that form a lump in your throat. And lest you think this is an incurable descent into schmaltz and that you're not interested, the very next track, "No Fear" contains some of "Speak of the Dead"'s heaviest moments — a sinister verse exploding into a percussive, snarling, angry raveup.

Once we get to side two (insert obligatory "I remember vinyl so I'm old" joke here), frontman Peavy Wagner has apparently decided to party like it's 1989 – and that's a good thing. The orchestra is packed up and sent home, and the last few songs are pure classic RAGE, too thrashy to be power metal, too refined to be thrash, full of upbeat lyrics and soaring, hopeful choruses. There's an angry, glowering vibe to "Kill Your Gods" and "Turn My World Around" which only adds to the band's impressive dynamic – "Speak of the Dead" is a journey, one that juggles many emotions and keeps the listener guessing.

With Smolski and veteran drummer Mike Terrana aboard, and with Wagner having grown greatly as a vocalist over the years, it all sounds a bit more polished than the heady days of "Secrets In a Weird World" and "Reflections of a Shadow". But if we all wondered what Peavy was getting at back then, now we know — and his songwriting vision has stayed remarkably true to his early ideals, proving himself ahead of his time even as the band remains uncategorizable today.

Even by RAGE's lofty standards, this is an ambitious, far-reaching album that pushes all the right buttons and succeeds every step of the way. It's arguably the best RAGE album, well, ever — and if the band remains as criminally underrated as they always have been, at least their diehard fanbase will revel in this slab of classy, powerful heavy metal delivered with heart, guts and inimitable style.

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