Style: Heavy Metal
Release Date: 28 May 2020
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For those who don't know the name, Al Atkins was the original lead vocalist in Judas Priest, singing for them from 1969 until 1973 when he had to get a nine to five job to pay bills. He left before the recording of Rocka Rolla, so there are no albums for us to hear what the band sounded like with Atkins singing instead of his replacement, some dude called Rob Halford, but, much later, he recorded a solo version of Victim of Changes, which he co-wrote, and it sounds very good, different in many ways but still very good.
While he was gone from the world of music for a long while, he's been busy since returning in 1990. He put out a bunch of solo albums with a band named A.N.D. as his backing; sang for a band called Holy Rage, which featured ex-Al Atkins musicians; and teamed up with Paul May, guitarist for both A.N.D. and Al Atkins, for this band. This is their fourth album, but it comes six years after its predecessor, Empire of Destruction in 2014.
It sounds pretty good to me, but it also took me a little while to get into it. That's mostly because Atkins sounds old here, his voice filled with rasp and experience and hinting that he needs more breath. It's a highly lived in voice, which is no bad thing when it fits the material. On the title track, which opens up the album, I wasn't sure that it did, but as the album rolled on, I found myself more and more on board with it.
That's because he's at his best on slower, heavier songs where his voice is a stalking beast. On Buried Alive, he's utterly commanding and it's not hard to imagine him prowling the stage, owning the performance. What makes songs like these work so well is that Paul May does the same thing as a guitarist. Sure, the riff on Buried Alive is half inched from Iron Maiden's Wrathchild, merely played more like Black Sabbath, but he owns it. Most importantly, the two of them complement rather than clash when they both dominate at once.
I'd raise Iron Maiden for another reason too. Atkins is someone who owns an important spot in rock history but he was never an international superstar, putting him in a similar category to Paul Di'Anno. Clearly both had to deal with the fact that history moved on without them, but they both settled into making good music and I'm happy that both of them did so. The difference is that Di'Anno staked his sound in the NWOBHM era of the early eighties while Atkins is taking the heavy blues of the early seventies and looking forward from there.
There are a lot of seventies sounds here, from towering riffs reminiscent of Sabbath, Priest and often Saxon, to delicate guitarwork that reminds more of Wishbone Ash. How far is the intro to The Final Cut from the storming metal drive of Dead Mens Bones? The former would have fit on Wishbone Ash albums like Pilgrimage or Argus, while the latter, had it been released in the mid seventies, would have sat alongside Exciter and Overkill as a pioneer, paving the way for the speed and thrash metal of the early eighties.
Some of these songs sound great on a first listen, but every one of them is a grower. Perhaps the best is Stranger in a Strange Land, one more of those stalking songs where both Atkins and May dominate at the same time without a moment of treading on each other's toes. That applies to Masquerade too, the sheer power in these slower numbers that have a foot in heavy blues but are still completely and unashamedly metal leaving me with a huge smile.
It's great to see old school metal thriving right now. This was released on 28th April, only four days after new Cirith Ungol and Cloven Hoof albums, an unholy trio of worthy old school heavy metal releases, each of them doing a solid job in a very different way. And old school fans still talk about all modern music being crap? Listen to these three, folks, and hush your noise.