Ahoy there! Prepare to be boarded, or risk being scuppered by the might of the powder and ball, for the dread ship Alestorm and her Caledonian crew have returned!
I was a big fan of Alestorm's debut album 'Captain Morgan's Revenge'; a power-thrash album that displayed something rare in the metal scene these days, great music and a sense of humour. Without taking themselves too seriously at the expense of the quality of their music, Alestorm's debut was an album of infectious, upbeat, satisfying metal songs, and pirate metal at that. The handsome packaging for this deluxe CD/DVD package came with a sticker boasting what may be the best three word phrase ever conceived: "Scottish Pirate Metal". Classic. The band themselves claim to be 'true scottish pirate metal'; a cheeky wink to their Norse comrades across the pond, and steeped in pirates they be.
This new album, 'Black Sails at midnight' ,their second full length album, isn't so much a case of more of the same rather that it's more of more of the same. Brilliant! Every song is stronger, more confident, every deck packed with keyboards, brass, violins, each chorus bolstered with the bellows of hirsute men. That's not to say that they've gone outrageously over-the-top and turned themselves into a nautical Nightwish, overblowing each tune with unbridled orchestrations, choirs, and samples; rather they have exerted exemplerary editorial constraint during the production, forgoing the tendency, especially for a younger band, to...ahem...go overboard. They are a long way from the rough-as-bags EPs they released under the monicker Battleheart, sounding ideal, full, rich, flamboyant, and still rocking hard.
As with their first release this album is so entertaining, immediately catchy and accessible; offering plenty of surprises to avoid them utterly narrowing the niche that their self-imposed genre could contrict them with.
Opening track 'The Quest' gallops into the album, running the gamut of Alestorm's tricks, thrashy riffing, fanfare stabs, keyboard and guitar trading solos, a boisterous chorus with a key change in the climax: business as usual, but the sound is definitely bigger, better.
'Leviathan' bursts with bombast, a mid-tempo tune brimming with brass and bold. Worthy of the name the song is a mini-epic, completed by a worthy woh-oh-woh ( and you know how I do love a good woh ).
A flourishing fanfare introduces 'That famous ol' spiced' before settling into a good ole-fashioned head-banging chunky riff that builds to a sensational chorus. This refrain is a mighty tavern shanty, evoking gloomy bars and knots of bedraggled men bellowing unified in song. This is certainly one of the best moments on the album. I imagine this wold be a great song to experience live.
'Keelhauled' is definitely my favourite song on the album, as well as perhaps being one of the band's best songs and a definitive pirate metal song ( I'm in the mood to make big calls ). A folky violin jig erupts seamlessly into a thrash frenzy, Christopher Bowes panto pirate rasp an apt performace, mounting to an enormous sing-a-long chorus that features the classic line "with a bottom of rum and a yo-ho-ho." It's almost impossible to avoid joining in. This sort of jigged-out metal is alike the Dropkick Murphy's rocked out Irish folk tunes, and is the strength of the band. The later tune 'Pirate Song' is a similarly strong fireside tale made metal, accompanied by accordian, augmented by acoustics and percussion, and sounding like a band who are really hitting their stride.
'To the end of our days' nearly sends what so far has been smooth sailing onto the rocks; a slow, ballad-like epic that risks being meandering, mawkish, and straining the limitations of Bowes voice. Thankfully due to several unexpected twists, including a dirge of bagpipes and a keyboard break with a sound that mustered memories of 'The house of the rising sun', this larger, more languid song provides a change of pace, and welcome diversity, without sounding like they are attempting to write one of those traditional Manowar epic-odes.
'Black Sails at Midnight' , as with the opening track is a leaner, simpler metal track, probably the most 'pure metal' on the album, sporting a great chunky riff, remaining mostly void of the embroidery that decorates the rest of the album.
The instrumental 'No Quarter', borrowing a theme from Klaus Bandelt's score for 'Pirates of the Caribbean 2' is a toe tapping, jaunty affair, that avoids utter self-indulegence, making you want to polish your beer off in one huge gulp, slam the mug down and set about tottering a dance with the nearest wench. Or something like that.
I must admit by the time I reached this point fo the album I was onto my fourth cider, and was jolly indeed.
'Chronicles of Vengeance' is the band at their most epic, rousing the listener with orchestral fanfares, swells, and twiddly keys. Strangely a blast section offers one of the few moments of indulgence that seems ill-advised, otherwise this is fantastic hand-on-hips melodramatic metal.
Closing the album is the hilarious cover of the Latvia's entry in the Eurovision Song Contest from a few years back, 'The Wolves of the Sea.' To be honest I was a fan of the original song, a bouncy, flouncy bit of buccaneer bubblegum, that was extremely catchy, and I could think of no better band than Alestorm to cover it. Needless to say their version is fantastic, while true to the original, the boys going for broke, hoardes bellow the chorus en-masse, steel drums tinkle, while the whole tune rocks right out, leaving the listener standing in the middle of their lounge room, legs spread, arms out, bellowing hi's and ho's at the top of his lungs, grinning like a fool.
I was onto my fifth cider by this point
With Running Wild having pulled into port for the last time, and retracted their sails, it seems that Alestorm, with this album, have proved that they may well be the true heirs to the mantle of Pirate Kings. The band may be camp and slightly silly but they have their own vibe, and most importantly their own sound, a rare quality, with this second conident album providing a tight, terrific, collection of toe-tapping thrash, and rollicking rock, hugely entertaining, cheeky, and worthy successor to their dynamic debut.