Friday 3 May 2024

Praying Mantis - Defiance (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 9/10
Release Date: 19 Apr 2024
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I only review new rock and metal at Apocalypse Later and I've often talked about the main reason why I do that. So many of my fellow fans back in the eighties seem to have fallen prey to the belief that "all new music sucks". They're quite clearly wrong and I'd cite the fifteen hundred albums I've reviewed over the past six years as evidence for that. However, those people are also missing out on the fact that some of the bands who they use as examples of why rock music was so much better back then aren't just still going but are putting out their best material now.

Case in point: Praying Mantis. They formed way back in 1974 when I was toddling around causing a lot of heartache for my parents and they only released a sole album back in the day, Time Tells No Lies in 1981. Sure, it's a good one, but I'd suggest their most recent couple of albums are right up there with it, if not above it. That's Katharsis a couple of years ago and Defiance right now. This is a good one on a first listen, which is always a telling sign, but it grows on a second and cements its stature on a third.

The opening three songs explain why. From the Start is a solid opener, lively if not fast, there to be an attention grabber. Defiance is slower but has a majesty that builds it wonderfully, with an epic feel that makes it surprising to realise that it's over in four minutes and change, making it shorter than the opener. That majesty returns in songs like Forever in My Heart or Never Can Say Goodbye and, after a few listens, seems to pervade pretty much everything. Feelin' Lucky ups the tempo to rock out but with an elegance that reminds of the sort of thing we might expect from Demon.

They make for a strong opening, ably setting the stage for what's to come. Before I tell you that a few later songs are better still, let's dive into the acknowledgement that track four is a cover, the old Joe Lynn Turner-era Rainbow classic, I Surrender. It's an excellent version with another superb vocal performance from John Cuijpers and some sumptuous dual guitar work from Tino Troy and Andy Burgess. However, it initially seems rather redundant because it doesn't add anything to an established classic that we already know.

The point is that there's history here. It was written by Russ Ballard and its first release was on a Head East single in 1980. Praying Mantis recorded a version during the Time Tells No Lies sessions in 1981, but they didn't release it on the grounds that Rainbow had just done that. I presume that led to the selection of a Kinks song instead, All Day and All of the Night, for that album and as the second single from it. And so this is the modern day Praying Mantis re-staking their claim to it as a song that fits their style perfectly, which it does.

What's particularly telling is that other songs here, especially Give It Up, unfold in the same style of emphatic arena rock. This is an original and it's not quite as good as I Surrender, but it deserves to be in the same setlist. Forever in My Heart and One Heart would play wonderfully to arena rock fans too, both starting out like power ballads even if only the former stays there. These just ooze with the majesty I talked about earlier, the second adding an elegant acoustic guitar solo during its second half, power chords maintaining the impact behind it. There's some major sustain on the vocals of John Cuijpers on these, not that he skimps on that elsewhere.

That emphasises how he's a real boon to this band nowadays. He's the most recent arrival, joining in 2013 alongside drummer Hans in't Zandt, their decade plus with Praying Mantis cementing how this is easily the most consistent line-up they've ever had. Both simply fit here, even though both are Dutch and the band is English. The instrumental Nightswim is no less worthy an inclusion here for its lack of vocals, but when Cuijpers rips into the next song, Standing Tall, we see just how much he belongs in this band.

I mentioned that, as strong as the opening three songs are, there are better still to come. While I can't resist Forever in My Heart, even being generally put off by power ballads, but Standing Tall is my easy pick for the best song here and my personal favourite. It starts out like Rush and turns into Demon, with a dash of Survivor in the commerciality of its riffs and, as it builds, one of Golden Earring in its incessant drive. That's a catchy keyboard riff but an excellent guitar solo too and the best thing about it is that it manages to be a faster paced rocker without losing the majesty of the slower songs. But there's also Give It Up and Let's See and Never Can Say Goodbye and... let's just say that this is a damn fine album that ends even better than it begins.

What fascinates me the most is that we appear to be in a heyday of classic bands who predated my discovery of rock and metal in 1984 but who are putting out amazing material right now. It seems bizarre to suggest it, but could I come up with a theoretical tour more enticing to me in 2024 than Praying Mantis, Demon and Diamond Head, this band seeming like the missing link between the two? I don't think so, unless we add Weapon too for good measure. Let's revisit that in a few weeks when I review the new Demon album.

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