Somehow, every time I hear them, I'm always shocked by how much Praying Mantis play hard rock rather than heavy metal. I ought to be used to it by now, given that I've been getting shocked for forty odd years now, but I'm not. It's probably due to the fact that I found rock and metal in 1984 when some of the bigger NWOBHM bands had become huge, most obviously Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, but Praying Mantis hadn't, as they'd split up in 1982 after only one album.The NWOBHM tag stuck, enough so that they'restill playing it up on their website, so I tend to think of the band as kin to Maiden and Angel Witch, peers on the Metal for Muthas compilation, instead of Demon and Magnum, with whom they fit far more naturally.
The other thing that shocks me whenever I hear Praying Mantis is how good they are, because it's a natural lead into the question of why I don't listen to them more often. Back in the day, it had to be because they only had the one album out, until they reformed in 1990 and knocked out six more in quick succession. They split again in 2003 but reformed five years later and this is their fourth in the years since, for an eleventh overall, so I don't have that old excuse any more. I go back to the early Demon albums often and I think I know the Magnum heyday albums by heart, but I can't say when I last went back to Time Tells No Lies. I should.
The core of the band, as ever, is the Troy brothers, Tino on guitar and Chris on bass. They founded Praying Mantis as long ago as 1974 and have been there ever since when the band's active. While Andy Burgess is only their third second guitarist, if that makes sense, who's been with them since their reformation in 2009, they've always had trouble keeping vocalists and drummers. I'm happy to see a relatively stable line-up right now, one that's been unchanged in nine years, perhaps an ongoing record for them. What's more, John Cuijpers and Hans in't Zandt are strong additions to the line-up. Hopefully this stability helps to raise their profile somewhat and give them a share of the success I'd say is long overdue them.
This album is reliable from the outset, with Cry for the Nations a strong opener, and it continues to impress as it rolls on, whether a particular song is a rocker, like Ain't No Rock 'n' Roll in Heaven, with some engaging riffs, or a more groove oriented song like Non Omnis Moriar, with some neat use of what sound like woodblocks. Many play unashamedly in the arena rock vein, such as Closer to Heaven and the catchy but rather clichéd Long Time Coming. Never mind the eighties, this one could have been written in the mid to late seventies. It wouldn't have been quite as heavy in a Bob Seger version, but I can easily imagine it.
It's also a very consistent album. I'm not sure I could fairly call out one track for special mention. I might plump for the opener but with the knowledge that I may be automatically biasing myself by having heard it first, which is kind of the point of an opener. I think it's fairer to say that quality is a constant here and listing the best tracks would really come down to favourite tracks, and that's not the same thing. Your favourite may not be mine and vice versa for perfectly good reasons, but the best track should be backed up with solid argument. I can't do that here.
The more I listen to the album, the more I fall for the repetitive Def Leppard-esque riff in Ain't No Rock 'n' Roll in Heaven. I like the bounce in Long Time Coming, even if I'm not a fan of its lyrics. I'm a sucker for the layered vocal in Sacrifice, as in Cry for the Nations. The guitar solo early in Wheels in Motion is heavenly and it sets the stage for more later in the song. But is the sheer confidence that's inherent in Masquerade better than the light touch of the keyboards in Find Our Way Back Home? I can't define that. I just know that I like both. And I like everything else here.
And that means I'm going to give it an 8/10 even though I can't throw out any suggestion for best song. Just start with Cry for the Nations, which you're going to love if you're into hard or melodic rock. If you do, keep going until you think something's letting the side down. I'd put money on you finding that you're on a third runthrough of the whole album before you realise that nothing on it does. I may even court controversy by suggesting that this is a better album than the Magnum that everyone raved about two weeks earlier (including me).