Monday 5 July 2021

Van Canto - To the Power of Eight (2021)

Country: Germany
Style: Power Metal
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 4 Jun 2021
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I like Van Canto. I've liked Van Canto ever since I heard them cover Metallica's Battery years ago, with only a drum kit and a whole heck of a lot of voices, and I've listened to them often since. The problem I have is a common one, namely that it's so easy to see their unique a cappella approach to hard rock or heavy metal as a gimmick, which, to be honest, it kind of is, and it's sometimes hard to take gimmickry seriously, especially on something as long as a full length album and without the benefit of visuals.

The good news is that they do what they do incredibly well and I often forgot that I was listening to an a cappella album here. Much of that has to do with the presence of Bastian Emig on an actual drum kit, as he instils all the underpinning power that this sort of music needs to work. You simply can't do power metal without power. A good part of it has to be due to the fact that, freed up by those drums from any need to beatbox, these vocalists can attempt other instruments, Ross Thompson and Stefan Schmidt doing a fantastic job of playing higher and lower guitars, or rakkatakka vocals, as they call it.

There are eleven songs on offer here, plus a two minute intro, and only four of them are covers. It's a good sign that I had to look that up. Sure, I recognised the four, but I honestly wondered if a song like Falling Down was a cover too, that I just didn't recognise. It isn't, though I'd love to hear a band with a full set of instruments cover it. That's a good sign too. Another is the fact that the band have enough confidence in their original material to let that build the album.

Hardrock Padlock is another one I had to look up, as it's so close to the Lordi template, right down to the stupid title, that I was surprised to find it was an original. As that might suggest, it's a hard rock song rather than the power metal of Dead by the Night or Falling Down. To highlight the versatility, I should point out that Turn Back Time is a folky number with very little contribution from Emig behind the drum kit.

The first cover is Raise Your Horns, the Amon Amarth song, which doesn't show up until track six. It's a decent cover, giving an opportunity for harsh vocals from whichever singer takes on that task. It's not easy to keep up, given that there are seven vocalists here, plus one guest (former lead vocalist Philip Schunke), who do nothing but sing. It isn't difficult to tell when Inga Scharf is singing, as she's the only female voice present, and that's Hagen Hirschman as her male equivalent and Schmidt handling solo guitar impersonation, or wah-wah vocals.

The other three are earlier classics: Iron Maiden's Run to the Hills, AC/DC's Thundersturck and Queen's I Want It All. They're all decent interpretations, but they're such iconic songs that any deviation from the originals is going to seem obvious, especially vocally, and there were moments on all of them that just seemed wrong, for no better reason than they're different. Of course, there's an irony in the fact that I finally figured out some lyrics to Thunderstruck in this European accent than I'd managed in the past few decades of listening to Brian Johnson.

The covers may be a necessary evil. This would be a better album without any of them, but they're the songs that are going to grab people's attention. Only when you know that Van Canto exist and they've just released their eighth album, will you be able to hear songs like Falling Down that really ought to be the standouts for anyone's attention. However, ditching them leaves just over half an hour of new music, and that would seem too short. That leaves Van Canto with the unenviable choice of pumping in covers to gain attention or turning out the best album they can without many noticing its existence. I can live with this compromise.

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