One of the most surprising entries on year end lists, not to me but the people who chose it, was Texan traditionalists Eternal Champion. "I’ll be honest, wrote Aaron Lariviere, "I wouldn’t have guessed my favorite album of 2020 would come with not one but two topless ladies on the cover." He's talking of a painting by Ken Kelly, famed for his epic cover art for Kiss and Manowar, among others. In addition to those two ladies, whose bust sizes are above impressive, there's a mountain of skulls and a dragon and a giant snake. It's the sort of thing we expected in the mid eighties and what makes this album work is that the music, which is rooted in that era, does not sound like it was written then.
This is the second studio album for Eternal Champion and word is that it's deeper but not as catchy as the first, 2016's The Armor of Ire. I haven't heard that album, but that word rings true anyway. This is a fundamentally melodic album, but it's short on anthemic choruses. It feels like Jason Tarpey is always as interested in telling a story as singing a song, which inevitably lends every word equal importance and choruses distract from that. His voice, which is clean and effective, but not the emphatic operatic one we might expect, also plays up the guitars, which rule this album.
There are two guitarists here, John Powers and Arthur Rizk, the latter of whom is primarily the band's drummer, and they are constantly enjoyable. They're not just about conjuring up a riff and milking it for a while to give Tarpey the spotlight until it's time for a solo, though there are examples of that in songs like Skullseeker. Each of these riffs tends to lead to another one, then another, with a swathe of fills and solos dotted throughout, even if they're notably brief. As much as Tarpey's vocals fit well on top of this music, it feels like it was written instrumentally and would work that way too.
I enjoyed this from the outset, but not to the degree that I expected from an album that made six end of year lists, including a #1 at Stereogum and a #2 at Decibel. While songs like Ravening Iron and War at the Edge of the End were impressive, the album didn't grab me by the throat until it made it to the halfway mark. Coward's Keep is the highlight for me, a full step up on every level from anything that's ahead of it, and Worms of the Earth isn't far behind.
Coward's Keep kicks off with a vaguely exotic intro that leads into the best riffs of the album and the most overtly catchy vocals. If I wake up in the morning with Eternal Champion playing in my head, it's probably going to be this song, albeit more likely its riffs and the deliciously staccato drums from its midsection than its echoed chorus. That's also seeping into my soul though.
It feels just as epic as the album is supposed to, not least because of the those staccato drums return to pummel us all the way to the mediaeval acoustic outro, but, while it's the longest song here, it's a short longest song at under six minutes. To feel epic at under six minutes is impressive, but Worms of the Earth does the same thing at four and a half. The riffs here are faster and more vicious and Rizk is more than up to the task of driving them. His drum sound on this one is glorious.
The least worthy track here is The Godblade, which is just a two minute synth interlude before the final track, but it does remind us that there's a sword and sorcery novel accompanying the album. It's also titled The Godblade and it's by J. Christopher Tarpey, who's better known here as lead vocalist Jason Tarpey. It looks to be as influenced by the fantasy novels of Michael Moorcock as a band named for one of his primary characters, the Eternal Champion.
I certainly liked this album, which bodes well for the vibrant New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal or whatever we're calling it this week. It's solid throughout, deep and intricate without advertising it, a reliable set of songs. However, Coward's Keep and Worms of the Earth demonstrate just what the band can do and they couldn't match those songs on the other three quarters of the album. So, I'll happily recommend this but I won't rave about it. I might just rave about their next one though.