Wednesday 20 July 2022

Holy Dragons - Jörmungandr: The Serpent of the World (2022)

Country: Kazakhstan
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 1 Jul 2022
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This may be a surprising album to show up as my second review of the day, given that I try to post a new and often indie band first but follow up with an established and well known outfit. So who are Holy Dragons, because I hadn't heard of them before and you may well not have done either? Well, they've been around since 1995 under this name—and were known as Axcess for a few more years before that—and this is between their sixteenth and twentieth album, depending on how we count. I think a few may be re-recordings of earlier albums with new singers. Whatever the number, they certainly count as established and it would seem that the Kazakh metal scene started with them.

I really dig this album, but it's a couple of different things rolled into one and it takes a little while to get used to that. For a start, the best thing about the band at present is surely the guitarwork, which is prominent and outstanding. Jürgen Thunderson and Chris Caine, usually called Thorheim, are both founder members, though the latter wasn't in Axcess before that. I'd state that, however much I enjoyed any particular song here, every single one of them is elevated at the point that the rhythm section settles into a groove and Thunderson and Caine trade solos with each other. I could listen to The Toothless Wolf forever. Even bassist Ivan Manchenko gets in on the act.

These guitars are firmly rooted in heavy/power metal and often acquire a speed metal edge when they shift into solo territory. The biggest shift I heard was when Somebody's Life showcases an old school AC/DC style riff, right out of the Bon Scott era, but everything else here is pretty consistent in approach. However, even when soloing fast, Thunderson and Caine never lose sight of melody, a potent combination and one that I've adored since I found rock and metal in 1984. However, I must add that, while Caine has been playing guitar in Holy Dragons since 1995, she didn't step up to the mike until 2015, suggesting that she's far more comfortable as a guitarist than a vocalist.

And that makes sense, given that she sounds more accomplished as a guitarist than a vocalist. I'd better mention here that I really dig her vocals, but they're not going to be for everyone, because her shriller, more emphatic take on the Doro style works better the faster they go and the fastest bits here are instrumental sections, when she's wearing her guitarist hat. I think that fans of the pure heavy metal style that don't like speed metal may find her voice too raucous for them, while speed metal fans will love her voice but wish the band would speed up to match it. It's people like me who appreciate both styles and remember Doro when she was Doro Pesch, the lead singer for Warlock, that will dig this, even if we take a song or two to adjust.

I believe this is a concept album that spins a story out of the rich vein of storytelling in Norse myth. If it isn't, that's certainly a common theme. Certainly Jörmungandr is straight out of the Eddas, as the sea serpent who surrounds the Earth. It's a child of Loki, another title here; a sibling of Fenrir, the Toothless Wolf of that song. When Jörmungandr lets its tail go, it'll be time for Ragnarok that will take place at the field called Vígríðr, the name of the intro here. The outro is Iðavöllr, which, like Midgard in another song title, are places and, well, everything here ties in somehow.

I didn't follow the concept as it ran through, but I appreciated the music, in the vocal sections and especially in the instrumental ones. Manchenko and drummer Zabir Shamsutdinov provide a solid backdrop for Thunderson and Caine to strut their stuff and they do that well. This album squeaks a second past a full hour and I didn't find it remotely long. I could listen to these guitar solos all day every day. This is old school stuff, reminding of Warlock, Exciter and Detente. It's not what most of the metal bands in the world are playing but that's just another plus point for me. And now you're familiar with the biggest metal band in Kazakhstan. You're welcome.

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