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Friday, January 15, 2010

CD Review: Axxis - Utopia

Axxis - Utopia
2009 AFM Records
Ray Van Horn, Jr.



Back in the day, Axxis was missed by virtually everyone outside of Europe unless they were well-linked into the tape trading network or astute readers of Metal Hammer, Metal Forces and Kerrang! It didn't help Axxis' cause they only started getting revved up in 1988 when even Accept was struggling to keep an audience in the west under their Russian Roulette album, while Warlock had already made a dent in the same market but were soon destined for a breakup. The Scorpions maintained a steady throng courtesy of FM radio, while the thrash underground was heralding Kreator and Destruction as Germanic champions of the style, despite the ever-looming presence of Sodom, Running Wild and the more obscure Deathrow and Violent Force.

The point is, Axxis had a fleeting chance to make a worldwide impression with 1989's Capitol Records release of their debut album Kingdom of the Night, but at that point, metal was slipping out of favor in North America. Timing more than anything is the reason Axxis had to work harder than the average metal band to expand their territories, despite a three-record deal with Caroline Records, a label more famous for nurturing mostly-American punk, hardcore and thrash of the day.

Give Axxis a hand for their resilience, however. In Europe, particularly their homeland, Axxis are regarded as unyielding champions of power prog. Unyielding is the operative word, because this band (as every critic coming across them these days attests) will not surrender to the new order of metal. Winds of change is merely a hit song by their fellow countrymen led by Klaus Meine, and as long as you resolve yourself to this precept on Axxis' latest offering Utopia, you'll do fine.

Kingdom of the Night today is something of a lost nugget, as are some of their subsequent albums such as Big Thrill, Eyes of Darkness and Paradise in Flames. Mighty projection in their place and time, nobody will ever accuse Axxis of not bringing the boom whenever they step up to the plate. Utopia is no less thunderous and like their previous outing, 2007's Doom of Destiny, Axxis does take advantage of today's technology to give their gauntlet-slamming crunch a crystal-cut upgrade.

Unfortunately for all that Axxis is in heavy metal with a refusal to look outside the proverbial gleaming cube, it's been covered tenfold these days by revisionists such as Hammer Fall, Stratovarius, Time Requiem, Kamelot and Sonata Arctica. The general amplitude Utopia issues is valorous and largely entertaining ("Eyes of a Child" is especially punchy and beautiful), but sadly for Axxis, they've been upstaged too many times at this point. Thus Axxis' belief system in the 2000s is hardly a script to be recommended to other bands unless they're comfortable in remaining earthed to a well-fortified sector of the power metal market.

Utopia's eye-popping cover heralds the glory days of serpentine album covers by Y&T, Asia and Whitesnake. Axxis delivers a much heavier blow soundwise than all three combined, but there's always been room for supplemental tricks such as falsetto-screamed response vocals ala Queen, which at times makes Axxis' music sound more dated than it should. Why the background vocals betray Axxis on this album instead of enhancing them is an anomaly, but they do interfere more than compliment.

Even founding member Bernhard Weiss (a sincerely competent singer) has a strange tendency to let some Jon Anderson creep into his delivery, which, accompanied by the sometimes-outlandish keyboards by Harry Oellers, derails Axxis' momentum at times. There's no denying "For You I Die" rings hauntingly like eighties' Yes on the verses, while the early-on title track is unfortunately prototype for every power metal record while still haunting of 90125-era Yes, though with less flamboyance. Some people might view this is a compliment, so take the assessment as you will.

On the positive side, Utopia does manage to build up some steam in the middle part of the album with tuneful hammer odes such as "My Father's Eyes," "The Monsters Crawl," "Fass Mich An" and the otherwise grubbily-titled "Sarah Wanna Die." Even "Underworld," which sounds weirdly like the Saw movie theme during the intro, gallantly springs into a thrash 'n crash finale. The song, however, would've been suited better on the reins of only Weiss himself and removed of the external voices which force the listener to partake them instead of jumping headfirst into the careening speed tempo.

Given all the crowded shoulder rubbing in the power metal leagues, Utopia is mandatory strictly if you think Yngwie Malmsteen should've spent his entire career quietly in Helloween. Utopia is worthy of a spin, particularly after you've been caught looking at the gorgeous splash of the album's artwork for more than a few seconds. Axxis are so shrewd with their eighties affinity they cleverly market their artistic covers. Remember, though, said tactic was the number one bait trap of the decade.

Utopia is unapologetic and mostly fluid, albeit it has too much going on times. Marco Wriedt flicks out a number of snazzy guitar solos, the riffs overall are mega at their best, basically all that you'd want from a veteran power metal band. If anything, cheers to Axxis for continuing their unbreakable litany of power and for living up to the adage, "to thine own self be true."

Rating: ***

2 comments:

Metal Mark said...

I kind of liked this one. Nothing new, but hyper enough that I took to it.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

I don't dislike it, just have heard far too many of these bands who've unintentionally robbed Axxis of their thunder and it's the nuances I noted which prevented me from jumping on the Axxis train...enjoyable enough, though