Monday, January 4, 2016

Pharaoh!

Written by Dan Lawrence.


Power metal needs its evangelical wing. Truly.

But despite that need, power metal fans, particularly in America, can be an odd, awkward bunch. We're fired by the rightness of our cause, of course, but we know that if we push too hard, the blowback of ridicule and tuning out is always waiting just inches below the surface. Good music should always speak for itself, but some styles will always need an extra push to really connect.

Given that context, Pharaoh is pretty much the perfect band: they don't fit most of the flowery preconceptions that so many people hold about power metal. They don't sing about elves or fairies; none of their songs are medieval campfire singalongs; and they don't treat neoclassical shred as a sacred icon. In fact, over the course of their four unimpeachable albums, Pharaoh have established themselves as the quintessential exemplar of that ambiguous, mongrel genre: "US power metal."

But to whom, really, does Pharaoh compare? The short answer - and the real reason they're deserving of the red carpet treatment - is, "No one, or at least not exactly." Truly, they are difficult to pin an exact match on, but if they are unique, that's not to say they are without peer. They share a similar stoutness and traditional stomp with a band like Argus, while also resonating with some of the steelier Priest-isms of Primal Fear. At their most dramatic, it's not too much a stretch to hear echoes of Sanctuary, although Pharaoh also shares with The Lord Weird Slough Feg the ability to sound both playful and deadly serious at once. Hell, at times it even seems like Pharaoh sounds a bit like what might happen if Cynic's Focus had been a power metal album.

But their comrades are not what define them, particularly when the fusion of talents in the band is equal part unlikely and unavoidable. In fact, with the partial exception of High Spirits, I like Chris Black in Pharaoh far better than in any of his other projects. Similarly, while Pharaoh would be next to nothing without Matt Johnsen's seemingly effortless guitar, his work with Black in Dawnbringer rarely hits home for me. And despite his overwhelmingly evident skill, I never particularly cared for Tim Aymar in the context of Control Denied. Through whatever alchemical mystery, Pharaoh is the ideal venue for these disparate talents.

Cover Artwork by JP Fournier

This is an appropriate time of year to be writing about Pharaoh. When doubt, anxiety, and depression claw, all music is not created equal in its restorative capability. Plenty of power metal leans a little too positive and bright to feel authentic as self-medication. When you're low, the last thing you need is something high that feels like it's lying to you. Pharaoh, though, is chemically incapable of abetting wallowing. The music is too strident, stirring, and invigorating, but never anything less than truthful.

Because of these reasons and many others, Bury the Light is probably my favorite Pharaoh album (although The Longest Night makes a damned close play). More importantly, any time I listen to it feels like a righteous act of self-care. From the absurdly grandiose "Leave Me Here to Dream" (with its none-more-potent "No, not tonight / No, no, no" chorus the foil of Johnsen's rapid-fire uplift throughout) to the somehow Zeppelin-esque "The Year of the Blizzard" and the beautifully elastic rhythmic feint of "Castles in the Sky," Bury the Light is a monument to the power of music to awe and inspire. The outro that reprises the ending of "The Spider's Thread," however, is the masterstroke that truly marks the album of Pharaoh's most complete vision. That people aren't breaking down your door every other week to make sure your personal copy is still in good working order is some sort of crime.

"The Spider's Thread" reaches its climax with the line "Oh, can I ever hope to recover?" Although the song's answer to that question is not necessarily a positive one, "Bury the Light" on the whole has proven again and again to be one of those rare magical albums that always helps to keep my mind from going to a dark place. Sometimes you listen to music because it mirrors the mood you're already in; sometimes you listen to music because it creates in you the mood you'd like to be in. Pharaoh is ceaselessly the latter - a steady salve and companion.

If that doesn't inspire you to evangelism, then nothing will. Come, sisters and brothers: let's go out into the world together.


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Tagged with 2012, Cruz Del Sur Music, Dan Lawrence, Pharaoh, power metal
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