Wednesday 8 April 2020

Ivanhoe - Blood and Gold (2020)

Country: Germany
Style: Progressive Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Mar 2020
Sites: Facebook | Metal Archives | Official Website | Prog Archives

Opening track Midnight Bite is only four minutes long but the first of those minutes is quintessential progressive metal, ably suggesting the pairing of Yes and Queensrÿche as the obvious influences. After that, the only surprise is that the longest song here is a mere five and a half minutes. Ivanhoe are apparently not interested in excess for its own sake.

They're a German band who formed in 1986 and have gradually evolved a lineup around bass player Giovanni Soulas, who has been the sole founder member for a long time. This is their eighth studio album, following on from 7 Days in 2015, and it feels comfortable and mature. After a couple of similar songs, it gets really interesting with Fe Infinita, a two minute acoustic interlude led by an unknown female voice that's joined halfway through by lead singer Alex Koch. It's folky and enticing and it's just what the album needed.

It sets us up for the title track well too, which is probably the best song on the album. Koch's vocal is commanding. The rhythm section is jaunty. The guitar solo is intricate. The keyboards start out decorative but become the lead for a section. It's calm until it's vehement, so there's neat contrast. Everything in it is precisely what it needs to be for a memorable prog metal song. It's a ten minute song done and dusted in five and a half.

What it isn't is the most prog song on offer. That's likely Martyrium, which follows it with jagged rhythms and a real attempt at a powerful but patient Geoff Tate style lead vocal. I don't think it entirely succeeds but it's not that far away and, once again, it does a heck of a lot within its brief for prog running time. If I left this album with anything in mind beyond Ivanhoe being a prog metal band worth our time, it was that they distil their songs down to their essence, cutting out everything that doesn't need to be there.

If Blood and Gold was my favourite song of the nine on offer, the other end of that spectrum is surely If I Never Sing Another Song, which feels rather like a musical number that was originally built as a vocal workout and has become a mainstay on talent shows for singers who want to add their own embellishments in an effort to show off to the judges. Fortunately, Koch is able to resist that urge, so the song is listenable but, the moment he stops singing, the song is over without the rest of the band doing anything and so probably feeling like session musicians hiding behind the curtain.

That's sad because those musicians are all clearly highly capable. Everyone does a solid job here, including Soulas whose bass is thankfully audible in the mix. The songs aren't the most complex prog metal numbers I've heard but none of them are throwaways and, as I keep mentioning, they're compressed as much as possible. When they do something unexpected, like Fe Infinita or the saxophone that shows up on Shadow Play, they're even more interesting. Best of all, they treat hooks as being just as important as anything else, which is something so many prog metal bands sadly forget.

This is my first Ivanhoe album, but Blood and Gold tells me that they're an abidingly reliable band. I don't think anything here grabbed me as essential but I enjoyed everything, even that faux musical number. The highlights are excellent, like the title track and the closer, Perfect Tragedy, but, perhaps more importantly, there are no real low points.

My biggest criticism is that I wish they'd let be willing to let their songs breathe. I'm more than happy to recommend this sub-forty minute album, but I think it would have been greater at forty-five, with the extra seven divided up between the tracks, a little more instrumental exploration here and a bit more substantial closure to a song over there. Patience, young padawans.

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