Since the early 90’s, the American heavy metal scene has become increasingly centered around the divisive vocal style of screaming, and as a result bands like Theocracy have
been unfairly lumped in with them the moment they are labeled as metal. It is true, Theocracy is undeniably metal; very loud, heavy, and powerful with prominent distortion
in the guitars and lots of solos. But that simple description sells everyone short on everything else Theocracy brings to the table. They don’t scream, and their heaviness
is balanced with highly evocative melodies. And instead of dark and brooding lyrics, they offer complex and thoughtful ones, which are often contagiously catchy. But this
isn’t hair metal either, despite those general traits being similar to that passed-on phase of music; Theocracy bears only a passing resemblance to bands like Stryper or
Holy Soldier. What I am describing is power metal, a genre that is far more popular in Europe and other areas of the world than the United States. In fact, after releasing
their first album on the independent Virginian label MetalAges in 2003 (then just a solo act by Matt Smith), the label that ultimately took Theocracy under their wing was
Ulterium Records, based in Sweden. New albums in 2008 and 2011, and a remastered 2013 re-release of their debut, have showcased Theocracy across the world, and as a result
the American band has grown an ardent and passionate fan base that, up to now, consists primarily of people outside America. But that is changing, and with the release of
Theocracy’s fourth album Ghost Ship, I think they are ready to win over the multitudes of Americans that have unknowingly been longing to discover them.
Those who have never experienced a Theocracy album before will be in for an exhilarating ride from the very opening lines of “Paper Tiger.” Theocracy features dual lead
guitars from Jon Hinds and Val Allen Wood, and in the first three songs, every bit of those guitars is felt through the furious barrages of riffs, solos, and melodies that
Wood and Hinds often hit back and forth like tennis balls. The drums (provided by longtime drummer Shawn Benson, though he is no longer an official member of the band) are
no less frenetic and aggressive, even when founder and lead vocalist Matt Smith takes the reigns with a soaring melodic chorus. It isn’t until track four, lead single
“Wishing Well,” that the tempo finally comes back down and the atmospheric keyboards that permeated prominently throughout previous albums comes to the forefront and
allow the guitars and drums to relax. But the ballad “Around The World And Back” is where Theocracy really begins to show just how special of a band they are. Here, after
long barrages of great technical skill and head-banging adrenaline (and some great lyrics, which I’ll address in a bit), Theocracy plays the most pop-oriented, evocative,
tender song they have ever made, and not only does it fit perfectly with everything they have just played, but it makes the previous tracks even better in hindsight knowing
that the band is capable of this kind of diversity. And this diversity is displayed throughout the rest of the album too, with some experimentation of other genres and styles
that simply haven’t been present on previous albums. “Stir The Embers” chugging style is more akin to hard rock than Metal, “Currency In A Bankrupt World,” is more of a
genuine rock ballad, and “The Wonder Of It all” starts out as pure thrash metal. And it all balances beautifully with the power metal and progressive elements that have been
hallmarks of Theocracy since the very start. This is simply a beautifully-constructed and brilliantly-sequenced album.
However, Theocracy would hardly have the strong reputation they have (from both Christain and secular circles) if they didn’t feature rich and fascinating lyrics. Matt Smith
is the primary writer, and he loves using an extensive vocabulary that allows him to say things in very thoughtful, convicting, and eloquent ways. “Paper Tigers” and “Wishing
Well” both stand out in the ways they direct their listener toward conviction and re-evaluation of their attitudes, the former as a study of many Christian’s all-too-familiar
persecution complex, and the latter offers its two cents at our outlooks for the less fortunate and the sense of our own entitlement. Neither song condescends towards the
listener, but they both make us ask legitimate introspective questions. Other songs explore particular ideas, such as “The Wonder Of It all” (which highlights numerous
Biblical paradoxes such as “Giving to receive, you’ll be exalted through humility / True freedom found through slavery / Behold! What a mystery!”), or the twin songs
“Ghost Ship” and “Castaway” (which likens the Call of the Disciples to the way God uses the rejects, outcasts, and nothings in society to do his greatest works and advance
the Gospel). “Around the World and Back” and “Currency In A Bankrupt World” both offer Biblical perspectives on hopelessness and faith. And then in in a final stroke of
creative storytelling, the album’s finale and magnum opus “Easter” concludes with a possible glimpse into the mind and thoughts of the Disciples as they come to grips with
Jesus death (“Vision and the prophecies all washed away in vain / Groanings of creation as it cries out in pain / Sacrosanct the stories of what is and what will be / All
foretold this was supposed to end so differently”), the sudden arrival of hope (“Is this a cruel illusion, or could it really be / The miracle of miracles unfolding right
in front of me?”), and finally joy (“Now it’s done, Life has come, Death has died / Easter Glory, what an ending to the Story! My Son, arise!”).
Ghost Ship is, simply put, a masterpiece. Fans may argue that all three of their last releases (Mirror of Souls, As The World Bleeds and this one) are all masterpieces, but
I think Ghost Ship ultimately nailed more things and had fewer flaws than either of them. Older fans may notice that six of the ten songs are less than five minutes, a
dramatic turnaround from the progressive-leaning tendencies of previous albums, and it does exactly what it is supposed to do by not bogging down the album or allowing
it to drag, but instead lets each melody, riff, and solo play out no longer than is welcome. It is an album of ideal length with songs of ideal length and perfect
construction in comparison to its predecessors, and it does so without sacrificing one ounce of Theocracy’s creative integrity (in fact, it may have even been enhanced).
This reviewer in particular can safely say that Ghost Ship is hands down the best album he has heard this year, and anyone who passes this one up is missing out on something
- Review date: 10/28/16, written by Mark Rice of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Fans who consult the online metal directory, Encyclopaedia Metallum, will find the music of Theocracy tucked neatly away under the epic progressive power metal category. While pop purists and linguistic types alike may snicker at the use of the word "epic" in relation to a musical genre, the sweeping orchestration and grand, larger-than-life lyrics of new-album cuts like "Wishing Well" ("Concrete and coldness/ Cobwebs and chaos/ Deception falls like ashes from the skies") could well be the ticket to persuade even the most skeptical of listeners that such a categorization might just be spot-on after all.
Truth be told, even if all the group managed to produce was this sort of close approximation of the progressive metal textures of artists like Fates Warning and Queensryche, it would still be worth a mention simply because it accomplishes such a daunting task so proficiently. As it stands, though, the band exhibits an unqualified mastery of a far more diverse array of metal sub-genres, from the melodic, Stryper-esque "Paper Tiger" and thrash-inclined "The Wonder of It All" to boogie-infused best-of-album tracks like "A Call to Arms" and "Ghost Ship," the latter of which consummately encapsulates all that made classic Dr. Feelgood-era Motley Crue so utterly glorious and good.
The relentless hopping between genres, often within a single song, may be a bit dizzying even for some in the metal-loving crowd. Even so, the band still deserves points, if nothing else, for their ability to pull off so many disparate styles so convincingly. Likewise, even as they ratchet the notes-per-second quotient to an impossibly high number, the foursome never allow themselves to chase sheer speed at the expense of a great hook or melody. For folks who feel their favorite rock/metal band lost its mojo sometime around the turn of the new decade, or those who simply refuse to buy into the notion that Christian artists have to toss their overtly-spiritual lyrics to the curb in order to gain mainstream respect, the outstanding new release from the Theocracy camp will be an absolute revelation of the most welcome kind.
- Review date: 10/26/16, written by Bert Gangl