Released By: Rock of Angels Records
Release Date: January 21st, 2022
Genre: Heavy Metal
Matt Barlow – Vocals
Freddie Vidales – Guitars, Bass
1. A City in Decay (Intro)
2. I Am the Night
3. Our Last Sunrise
5. Where God Fears to Go
6. Emperors and Fools
7. By My Blade
8. What Tomorrow Will Bring
9. The Iron Throne
11. Throne of Iniquity
12. Monster’s Lament
As a longtime Iced Earth fan who always thought the band was at their absolute best with vocalist Matt Barlow, I was both disappointed when his second tenure with the band ended quickly, and excited to hear his new project Ashes of Ares when it started in 2012. Working with fellow former Iced Earth member Freddie Vidales and Nevermore drummer Van Williams, the trio released an excellent debut in 2013, to much fanfare. Williams left the band in 2017 while continuing to contribute as a session member, and the band released a solid follow-up in 2018 called The Well of Souls, which seemed to go by largely unnoticed due to coming at a busy time. Now, though, the duo of Barlow and Vidales is back and ready to release their third full-length album, Emperor and Fools, and it is every bit as good as either of their previous albums, with a couple of tracks, in particular, standing out as their best work to date.
Fans of the previous two Ashes of Ares albums should know exactly what to expect from this album as it very much feels like a continuation of the duo’s previous releases, especially Well of Souls. Where their self-titled debut largely felt laid back and introspective, Well of Souls was more varied and often more energetic and intense, while still having some very dark lyrical themes, and all of that continues with Emperors and Fools. The first half is very much focused on heavier material, with a mix of classic heavy metal, a bit of Euro power metal, and hard-hitting, mid-tempo USPM, blending all three styles quite nicely, for something that does sound similar to Iced Earth at times, while still sounding distinct enough to stand out. The second half of the album reminds me a lot of my personal favorite IE album, Something Wicked This Way Comes, in that it alternates between heavy tracks and ballads for a while, before ending with the huge climax that is the 11-minute epic “Monster’s Lament”.
Performances are excellent across the board, with Vidales providing some excellent riffs, sometimes in a more classic heavy metal vibe, sometimes with some intense USPM riffs, a bit of thrash, and some excellent solos, of course. Williams does a great job on drums, as always, and there are some excellent guest contributions throughout the album, with some nice solos by Bill Hudson, Charlie Mark, and Wiley Arnett, keyboard performances by Jonah Weingarten and Brian Trainor, and one very memorable guest vocal performance, which I’ll point out towards the end of this review. Everything sounds great, the production is a bit raw, but suits the music perfectly, giving it a bit of extra power, and musically everything is excellent.
As expected, though, the key to the album is Barlow’s voice, which sounds as fantastic as ever. He sings in a lower register a lot of the time, as expected, but his epic heavy metal wails are still as strong as ever, his soft vocals on ballads are very emotional, and he sounds as smooth, powerful, and emotionally invested as he ever has before. He especially shines on the ballads, but of course, he also sounds amazing on the heavier tracks, and overall this is one of his strongest performances to date.
Songwriting is also very strong across the board, with a nice mix of heavy tracks, ballads, and a couple of somewhat restrained tracks that still have a bit of heaviness to them. The album opens with a very brief intro track, before giving way to “I am the Night”, a fairly up-tempo track that charges out of the gates with thundering riffs, fast-paced drums, and powerful vocals from Barlow. It calms down a bit for the more melodic chorus but quickly picks up the pace again during the second verse, which speeds along nicely. It’s one of the more power metal-influenced tracks here, and is very fun and catchy, while also being quite heavy and intense, and it serves as a strong opener.
The early part of the album as a whole is pretty much classic, with no frills, no-nonsense heavy metal, so fans of heavier material are sure to love it. Following that strong opener, “Our Last Sunrise” slows down the tempo just a bit, while still marching along at a nice pace. It’s an unrelenting, aggressive USPM track from start to finish, with a very memorable main riff, as well as a fun chorus, and more excellent vocals. “Primed” starts slow and moody, initially seeming like a ballad during the early parts, before quickly turning into the kind of epic heavy metal the band specializes in. It’s a slower-paced track but still has some very heavy riffs. For the most part, though, it’s a more vocal-driven track, with a heavy atmosphere to it, and the chorus is easily the highlight, along with a very strong guitar solo in the second half. The band goes into full thrash mode with “Where God Fears to Go”, a song with very strong IE vibes throughout, and it’s probably the most aggressive track here, with some very fun verses, an awesome main riff, and a strong, unrelenting chorus.
Following that intense beginning, the album begins to fall into a formula where it mixes ballads and heavier tracks. Among the heavier tracks in the second half, the lead single “By My Blade” is the clear winner, being the last more up tempo track on the album, and it has a very strong vocal performance from Barlow, as well as some killer riffs. “The Iron Throne” and “Throne of Iniquity” are both solid mid-tempo heavy metal tracks, but they don’t have as much energy as some of the other tracks here, and aren’t as memorable overall. On the softer side of things, the title track, “What Tomorrow Will Bring” and “Gone” are all excellent ballads of the type the duo excels at, with a nice mix of acoustic and heavy guitar work in various parts, while Barlow delivers some very strong, emotional vocals, and the lyrics are very good on all of them. I find “Gone” in particular to be a bit more memorable and hard-hitting than the other two, and it’s probably my favorite track on the entire album, largely due to its spectacular chorus, though all three ballads here are excellent.
The album closes out with the 11 minutes “Monsters Lament”, and it’s a clear winner. As expected of a long, climactic track, it goes through many different phases and moods, starting heavy, fast, and intense, quieting down a bit in the middle, and then getting heavy again at various points in the second half. Despite no real chorus, it has plenty of memorable vocal sections, including some excellent guest vocals from another former Iced Earth member Tim “Ripper” Owens, who lends his ever-animated, intense-sounding voice throughout the track, pairing well with Barlow. The two alternate vocals a lot throughout the track, which helps make it even more memorable, and the result is as excellent as a fan of the two could dream of, helping to make it another one of my personal favorites.
Overall, Emperors and Fools is an excellent album, which provides fans with more of what they’d expect from Ashes of Ares. Musically, it has a nice mix of heavy tracks and ballads, as well as a fantastic epic closing track, and obviously, Matt Barlow sounds amazing as always. All three albums from the duo have been excellent so far, and I’d say this one may very slightly edge out the other two. Either way, it’s one fans are sure to love, and newcomers looking for a great heavy metal album should give this one a try.
Written by: Travis Green
My Global Mind – Staff Writer
Travis Green is a Canadian based writer for My Global Mind, with a particular passion for power metal, as well as an interest metal in all its forms.