ALBUM REVIEW: Ring of Fire brings more than skill to ‘Battle’

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First Posted: 2/10/2014

How much virtuosity can you cram into one band? Ring of Fire resoundingly answers that question on their fourth album, their first in nine years, titled “Battle of Leningrad.” The band, comprised of renowned neo-classical shredder Tony McAlpine, keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij of Trans-Siberian Orchestra/Artension, Yngwie Malmsteen/Royal Hunt vocalist Mark Boals, ex-Stratovarius guitarist (here on bass) Timo Tolkki, and drummer Jami Huovinen, excels in decidedly European-flavored power metal without the overzealous sing-a-long attributes that relegate many of the genre’s acts into a clichéd vat of cheese to outside observers.

Ring of Fire’s alchemy involves deliberate classical composition, void of the mindless noodling that such skill usually encompasses – the band is more interested in creating a sensory experience than finishing atop a “best of” poll in their respective instrumental categories. The album traces the true story of the German siege of Leningrad during World War II, a story ripe for tales of heroism, grief, perseverance, and, ultimately, survival. The songs are built around the humanistic point of view of such experiences – take for example, the despair in the double-bass pounding ferocity of “Where Angels Play,” with Boals strikingly mouthing the words, “Give us our daily bread, but only the lucky get fed,” and you’re right there amid the utter devastation.

“They’re Calling Your Name” is a bleak look at the horror of war from afar – “If anyone had a right, the choices to live or to die,” is an idea pondered from a civilian window looking out onto a trail of sadness. The drama and sense of empathy captured in Boals’ vocals is respectable, his soaring range taking a backseat to the critical insistence of the story itself – McAlpine here providing a rigid yet seemingly fragile riff structure over which Kuprij dances so eloquently with shades of colored keystrokes.

“Firewind” is one of the true stunners on the album, beginning with a solid 1:30 of lush keys and solo guitar interlude, progressing through several different time signature changes, almost individual movements, varying from relaxed pop placidity to the sort of metallic, Paganini-influenced scaleular runs of Malmsteen himself. The track incites a stiff sense of the finality of war, with Boals proposing, “It’s not the end, ‘til someone loses of wins.” “Rain” concludes the story in grand, Wagner-meets-King Crimson might, with the sense of a war finished, but a recovery far out of reach.

An assertive metal stamp on a mournful reality, “Battle of Leningrad” sees art trumping a despondent narrative – it’s discriminating musical precision that proves bombast and beauty can coexist in an often by-the-numbers genre.

Ring of Fire ‘Battle of Leningrad’ Rating: W W W W