I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
Ancient Empire, "Priest of Stygia"
Genre: Traditional/Power Metal
Label: Stormspell Records, 2021
Tracks: 8 / Run time: 39:53
The Californian true-metallers of Ancient Empire have been a consistent and prolific crew, cranking out a new studio album almost every year since their 2014 debut When Empires Fall. Their sixth and latest disc, Priest of Stygia, hit the streets via the true-metal experts at Stormspell Records, and it's another quality collection of sturdy, chugging mid-paced trad metal produced by the usual crew of Joe Liszt (guitars/bass/vocals) and drummer Steve Pelletier, with lyric assistance from Steve's brother Rich Pelletier. (Fellow Stormspell family tree member Cederick "Ced" Forsberg of Blazon Stone and Rocka Rollas fame also stops by to contribute some blazing guitar solos to five of the album's eight tracks.)
I've reviewed several of Ancient Empire's previous releases for this website and I'm pleased to report that they are still in fine musical shape. Ancient Empire specializes in riff-packed heavy goodness aimed at fans of meat & potatoes '80s bands like Riot, Liege Lord, Jag Panzer and Iced Earth. Priest of Stygia only deviates from A.E.'s previous formula in the lyrical department. While their other albums have all revolved around cosmic wars, time travel, and other science fiction concepts, Priest... concerns itself with tales of swords and barbarians inspired by Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian. In the album's liner notes, Liszt claims that Conan himself "stalks the pages of this booklet, lookIng for ale, wenches, and battle" and invites us all to "grab a beer, crank it up, and enjoy!" So let's press "play" and join Ancient Empire on their journey to olde Cimmeria...
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"Priest of Stygia"
I haven't read anything Conan-related since the Marvel Comics series of the '70s and '80s (hails to Roy Thomas and John Buscema!) so I'm not sure if Priest of Stygia is a concept album that tells one long story, or if it's simply a collection of songs based on the Conan theme. Either way, things get off to a properly rollicking start with the pounding "Immortal," which bears a bit of Annihilator's rhythmic chug. Liszt's husky but confident vocal style, as usual, brings Iron Savior's Piet Sielck to mind. So far, so good. "Beyond the North Wind" gallops along like vintage Priest or Maiden with a touch of thrash nastiness, and the title track is an ode to the villainous looking fellow who's facing down Conan from his throne of skulls on the album cover.
At a hair over six minutes, the melodic epic "Island of the King" is the longest track on Priest of Stygia, and it features lots of cool Helloween-ish guitar histrionics. The moody "Burn Another Liar" (which is my pick for coolest song title on the album) and the stylish "Nine Worlds" keep the energy level high, and a touch of speed metal seeps in on "Every Man My Enemy" before the album comes to a close with the cinematic "Alone Against the Savage Hordes," which features some nice acoustic strumming before eventually roaring into metallic high gear.
"Alone Against the Savage Hordes"
Summing It Up
Priest of Stygia obviously doesn't re-invent the heavy metal wheel in any way, but it is another solid album, remaining true to the aggressive, hard hitting template Ancient Empire has laid down on their previous five albums. The Conan-inspired lyrics and cover artwork may cause new listeners to expect an album full of over-the-top, macho rock warrior cheese a la Manowar, but thankfully the A.E. dudes avoid falling into the overblown, "all men play on ten" campy power metal style.
Ancient Empire is a band made of seasoned metal scene veterans (the various members have also spent time in such cult acts as Hellhound, Forgotten Disciple, Rocka Rollas, and Shadowkiller), and therefore they know what they're doing and don't need any advice from me. So I guess there's nothing left for me to do except say "nice work (again), fellas," while I hit the "play" button for the umpteenth time.
© 2021 Keith Abt