June 22, 2019

Gygax - High Fantasy

By Dave Beaudoin. The third release from SoCal rockers Gygax marks a return to the high octane sound of their first album, and while it is a solid effort, High Fantasy doesn’t show the same evolution of their sound that was apparent on their sophomore effort.
By Dave Beaudoin.

Artwork by Fares Maese.

The third release from SoCal rockers Gygax marks a return to the high octane sound of their first album, and while it is a solid effort, High Fantasy doesn’t show the same evolution of their sound that was apparent on their sophomore effort. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a great Gygax album though. On the whole, the album works well, and each track captures the feeling of playing tabletop games with friends. It’s that translation of the theme of tabletop gaming to music that has been the defining feature of Gygax and they don’t put a foot wrong here. The excitement of building a world comes through in the interplay of the dueling guitars and narrative tension created by the vocals - from the intro riff of the opening track, “Light Bender,” the album dives right into lore, with lyrics that sound ripped from a Monstrous Manual.

Gygax’s previous album, Second Edition, stood on the precipice of being a full-on concept album and was a significant step beyond their debut record thematically. This also makes it the kind of ambitious record that can be extremely hard to follow. So it makes sense that High Fantasy represents a return to the roots of Gygax rather than as a further extension of their sound. From the start High Fantasy recalls the free-form roots of the band’s first album Critical Hits and collects a rogues gallery of D&D themed jams rather than presenting a more cohesive sonic narrative. Each track still is laden with lore, but taken as a whole High Fantasy serves as more of a general soundtrack to Dungeons and Dragons rather than guiding the listener through an imagined campaign.

High Fantasy leans heavily on the dueling guitars of Byrant Throckmorton and Wes Wilson to create an energetic and driving album while Eric Harris’ vocals tie everything together. Finally, adding extra flavor are some great keyboard lines by Ian Martyn. Overall the mix is great, and really puts the dueling guitars right out front, leading the charge. I do wish the keyboard sections were given more attention, as there are a few moments where they get lost in the mix and you have to work to really hear the fantastic work being done there.

Because every track is linked thematically not to just Dungeons and Dragons, but to the experience of playing those games, the feeling of traversing a fantastic world rife with magical monsters and fighting side by side with your party for honor, loot, or both carries each track. This is especially apparent on “Spell Shaker” as well as the first single off the album “Hide Mind.” Even the more chilled out instrumental “Acquisition, Magnus Canis” evokes the victory music of video games like Final Fantasy processed through the sensibilities of Thin Lizzy.

“Acquisition, Magnus Canis” also serves as a short intermission between the two halves of the record, both of which keep up a pretty high level of intensity. Even “Mirror Image,” the closest thing to a ballad on this record features some of the most sun-drenched Southern California guitar work I’ve ever heard on a Gygax album. It’s more Gary Hoey than Dick Dale, but it works in context and features one of the catchiest riffs on High Fantasy.

Ultimately, the one real problem with the album is that while each song is solid, there are few standouts and there isn’t enough variation on the album to make any one song particularly memorable. I’ve seen other critics say that Gygax is in a rut with this album and while I understand where they’re coming from, I don’t think it’s really a rut. High Fantasy almost feels like a greatest hits album where every song is immediately familiar and there aren’t any low points, but taken as a whole it fails to make a compelling case or evolve the band’s sound beyond Second Edition. What’s interesting is that if we look at this format from the perspective of tabletop gaming, it helps to rationalize this approach.

If High Fantasy is viewed as a “Gygax Sourcebook,” it makes much more sense as a complete work. In the world of tabletop gaming, between major revisions to the rules (usually referred to as “editions”), companies release sourcebooks that flesh out the world within the bounds established by the core books (in D&D this is the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Player’s Handbook). Sourcebooks have historically introduced some of the most legendary settings and iconic characters that have ever existed in tabletop gaming. In Dungeons and Dragons, for example, the Tomb of Annihilation, Forgotten Realms, and Ravenloft are all iconic settings that were introduced outside of the main books and hold a much more prominent place in defining Dungeons and Dragons as a popular culture artifact than the rules laid out in the handbooks. The Tomb of Annihilation was even featured prominently in the book Ready Player One as the touchstone for Dungeons and Dragons culture. High Fantasy works on the same level as these types of game supplements. On High Fantasy Gygax take the “rules” they’ve established in Critical Hits and Second Edition and play within that context to tell expanded stories. The result is a great album that delves deep into the underground caverns of the Gygax underdark and extends the fantasy while avoiding making any changes to the rules.

This view also resolves the internal conflict I had when I first listened to High Fantasy. Every track on the record can hold its own against nearly anything else in their catalog, but the lack of a central theme or story seemed like a deal breaker. Realizing that not every Gygax album is going to be a new set of “rules” helps to reconcile what I was expecting from a new Gygax record and allowed me to respect it for what it is, a collection of great rock tracks about dungeons and Dragons. If you’re a fan of Gygax you’re going to definitely dig this album, but if you’re looking for the next evolution of their sound you’ll have to wait. Maybe for the third edition.

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