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 very special.- Review date: 10/28/16, written by Mark Rice of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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