Band: Ancient Empire
Album: Other World (2016)
Genre: traditional heavy metal
Where to buy: eBay
All storytelling involves risk, but when your stories spring from the traditional font of nerdy fantasy, there’s a greater risk of narrative failure. How many terrible fantasy novels are the product of their authors’ Dungeons and Dragons campaigns? How many science fiction tales are desperate attempts to justify descriptions of futuristic weapons and sexy alien liaisons? It’s imporant to note that these works aren’t bad because they’re not sufficiently deep, or utilize only the thinnest veneer of allegory if any, or because their only contribution to their genres is a palette-swapped version of what already exists. They’re bad because there is no craft in their making. On the other hand, when these works are products of skill and technique and intention, they perform artistic work, helping to define and construct genres and adding to the conversation of their medium. We appreciate them in contrast to the two-for-a-groat dross. This is how we appreciate Ancient Empire’s Other World.
Rarely do you hear a traditional heavy metal album as good as Other World. Ancient Empire pulls out all the stops to bring us an epic quest of human survival in an interstellar, post-apocalyptic struggle with alien invaders. In this story, when forced to choose between flight or fight, Ancient Empire answers with a question of their own: why not both? In the band’s synopsis of the record we learn of mankind’s loss in a war with aliens who claim earth as their ancestral home, of the survivors who take to the heavens to settle another star system and encounter resistance from the indigenous inhabitants, and of humanity’s last-ditch (and successful) effort to return to earth and take back the planet we called our own. This is science fiction at its purest: an insane, fun narrative, involving enormous yet indivisible actors (entire species) moving planet-sized chess pieces in extremely human terms. You get the sense that Ancient Empire conceived the arc of the story first, then wrote some great traditional heavy metal to act as medium and canvas. The eight songs are a straightforward drama, distilled to a powerful and effective concentrate.
But just as a film like “The Fifth Element” wouldn’t work if it weren’t firing on all cylinders, Other World would be less than the sum of its parts if not for the great care taken by the band in the album’s construction. The production is clean and well-balanced, with just the right amount of overdrive given to the guitars to make the riffs sound good and nasty. And they do – the riffs here are fast and furious, edging into thrash territory without succumbing to pointless noodling. The bass drives its lines under the guitars aggressively and heavily, and the drums add structure and color in equal measure. When the harmonized guitars in the opening track fire up, you can hear the echoes of Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath, and the powerful main riff that follows feels distinctly modern. This is not an anomaly; every one of Other World‘s eight tracks is a textbook example of a contemporary invocation of classic heavy metal. The solos are great, generally coming in a hair under totally melting your face, but still fun and screaming. Joe Liszt belts out the vocals with abandon; anything less would not serve the frantic and frenzied tone of the lyrics. We are treated to the only kind of earnestness that would work for this sort of album, and Ancient Empire hits all their targets here, a direct consequence of the band’s skill.
Earlier I mentioned the miltech evangelism that often accompanies this sort of sci-fi setting, acting as a sort of thin justification for, usually, genocide. And while Other World‘s narrative does include two technological species in all-out war for dominion of earth, the focus is less on the hardware (as it would be in, say, a Megadeth track) and more on the existential questions inherent in such a conflict. The lyrics bombard us with these questions. “Fight Another Day” asks, “Will we ever find our way?” and, in a moment of environmental uncertainty, “Will our earth be a distant memory?” “Embrace the Horror” asks, “Are we headed for nowhere?” And in case that’s too subtle (it’s not), the title track makes the album’s central question unmistakably clear: “Is mankind on its final journey?” These questions and their variants are the album’s elan, the sci-fi setting their vehicle. But the questions are not just rhetorical – there is a distinct sense that they are open and earnest queries. We are meant to consider them deeply and, if we can, to answer them. Other World is about colonialism, racism, eugenics, environmentalism, and humanity’s hubris. It takes our global society to task and castigates us for what amounts to cultural cowardice and planetary negligence. It does all this while absolutely nailing a fantastic heavy metal sound and structure. It is one of the great modern traditional heavy metal albums. I only hope Ancient Empire makes the album available for electronic purchase, or at least does another printing of the CD.