"The Secret Fire"

(No Idea/Unspeakable Axe/Dark Descent)

01. Death March
02. Black Moon
03. The Dark Lord
04. Riders
05. Shadows
06. Winter
07. The Dragon Flies
08. Night Siege

RATING: 7/10

Canadian trio BLACK TOWER take their inspiration from both the NWOBHM and black metal. Assuming you're into the Tolkien-verse, you'll trip on BLACK TOWER's love for Sauron's dark forces from "Lord of the Rings", along with Smaug, the marauding dragon, and badass orc supreme, Azog the Defiler from "The Hobbit". Formed by members of punk acts, CRUSADES, THE CREEPS and THE VISITORS, BLACK TOWER is decidedly gloomier and heavier if, at times, a big ol' mess.

Much of BLACK TOWER's debut full-length, "The Secret Fire", is played to classic mid-tempo metal rhythms ("Death March" and "Dark Lord", for instance), but picks up speed toward the end on the final cuts, "The Dragon Flies" and "Night Siege". Applying their musical influences to Tolkien allows BLACK TOWER to appeal to doom and black metal fans, since the album's lyrical themes could be equally construed as satanic overtures.

Take the journey as you like, but stand ready since BLACK TOWER can be a wee bit of a chore to take in. Erin Ewing (vocals/guitar), Dave Williams (drums) and Skottie Lobotomy (vocals/bass) have the basics of their craft down pat, yet every stride "The Secret Fire" makes is bombed by less-than-flattering vocals.

To the album's credit, "Death March" does get it started on the right kick with chomping power chords and a palpitating smack. Erin Ewing is a terrific guitarist, if not the most appealing vocalist. Frankly, her harder shrieks are more appetizing than her cleans, while Skottie Lobotomy's vocal contributions are only a hair better. If not for the IRON MAIDEN-driven harmonies and Dave Williams's impressive drumming, there wouldn't be much else to rave about. Ditto for "Black Moon", which opens with a scattershot wreck with uninviting vocals and a clunky rhythm, but does has great bass lines going for it.

"The Dark Lord" rescues the album, one of its strongest cuts with its battering power-metal drive. A couple of tempo pickups in the midst of "Riders" jacks the song's excellent riffs and trundling bass rolls. Doom-driven "Shadows" is stuffed with tremendous guitars, bass and drums, weaving a call-to-arms feeling amidst Erin Ewing's shrieking battle cries. Unfortunately, it's hers and Skottie Lobotomy's clean vocals that nearly kill the whole thing. On the other hand, the musicianship is so freaking heavy most listeners won't care.

As BLACK TOWER dumps organs into "Winter" along with the fast-flinging "The Dragon Flies" and "Night Siege", the dynamic of "The Secret Fire" changes, if not the tedious vocals. A hidden ninth track wraps the album with a somber but delicious acoustic number, underscoring the fact that the band are mighty fine on their instruments, if not their mikes. To be fair, they'd give the Goblin King an easy run in the latter department.


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