Every month and year there are more than a few musical bands appearing on the horizon. Each and every one of them offers their own perception on metal genre, sometimes similar with other artists, sometimes with minor or not so minor deviations, like adding an unusual instrument to the mix or blending various genres into their creations. These distinctive traits can be helpful in finding the way out of complex maze the metal scene is these days, yet in order to truly stand out all the aspects of this intricate art should be honed to perfection. Because, why do you need to get, say, a saxophone and a violin players in your band if you can’t write the decent parts for them? That would be a stand out indeed, just not in a right way.
This isn’t the case with the Italian band Holy Shire though. The band consists of eight musicians, including a flute player and two female vocalists, and the songwriting is evidently and clearly affected by this fact. The flute presence in this record is quite perceptible and audible. Alessandro Baglioni plays it quietly and with restraint, making the noticeable appearance in most choruses and a number of moments throughout all the record. I would say his way of playing flute is totally opposite to a recognizable aggressive, flashing flurry of notes the famous Ian Anderson sometimes pulls off with his trademark instrument. Both female voices provided by Erika Ferraris and Eliana Sanna fit the picture nicely, adding a certain unexpected flavour to the whole composition, yet there are a few occasions when the vocals sound like they are coming up from a distance, being too thin and almost drowning in the mix. Simeone Monici on keyboards also adds depth to the tracks, while Andrea Faccini and Edoardo Santoni are extracting riffs and solos from their lead and rhythm guitars. And let’s not forget about Massimo Pianta and Piero Chiefa, who are narrating all these patterns, one behind the drumkit, one with a bass-guitar in his hands. The effort of all the eight performers is blended into a curious metal essence called Midgard, the band’s debut album, based on a several fantasy stories.
The record kicks off with Bewitched (My Words Are Power), a mostly straightforward track with simple riffs and catchy vocal melodies. The verses curiously consist only of three lines, while the chorus has that sing-along feeling and could work live nicely; and flute is filling the gaps between the singing, mostly in the same vein every time, yet with a few neat alterations. The clean guitar at the solo-section flows into a few chugs and then goes all heavy for a while, being supported with the drums, only to return to the chorus once again and then unexpectedly end without any noticeable outro. Admittedly, it has a bit of genetic feeling, but the next track, loosely based on A Song of Ice and Fire series and called Winter is Coming dispels all the doubts about the band’s songwriting. A cold opening built on keyboard and flute sounds entwined with the airy overlapping vocals enhances the song before the rest of the band makes the entrance. The clear, soft and innocent way of singing makes way for the raspy, hardened one. The song flows naturally and the six minutes fly by in a moment, never letting the listener get bored with its adventurous melodies, well-placed backing vocals and impressive instrumental work. It never stays on the same place for too long, and even when it returns to the second verse, the pace becomes noticeably faster, and for the ending the song has another surprise under its belt. Reusing the melodies from chorus a bit, the band concludes the tune with epic and desperate prayer to the seven gods of this fantasy universe. It’s a nice touch, yet when winter is coming, surely you ought to pray to the old gods of the north? Out of those new gods mentioned in the song maybe only Stranger could help the freezing people with a Gift of Death, which, ironically, is how the next track named. Opening in a pompous way with ambitious guitar riff and elevated keyboard sounds, the song then takes a turn to a darker, heavier direction. The transitions here are less predictable and there are no obvious choruses. Overall, the song is constructed in an unexpected way, it doesn’t follow the ordinary verse-chorus path, yet it feels quite climactic and concise.
The record goes on with Overlord of Fire, and as you can guess from the title, it features some not especially serious lyrical choices. That “overlord of infinite power” line just can’t be met with a straight face. Musically, though, this song is strong and tall; the vocal melodies remind me of 80s rock pieces in a few places, and yet it’s undoubtedly a metal track, and the flute usage in the calm parts is once again praiseworthy. The next tune shares the name with the band itself, called Holy Shire. It opens up with a lengthy intro and light, fairy-taleish (is this even a word? I bet it isn’t) vocals, but halfway through the song the mood changes, raising the level of recklessness considerably. The keyboard and flute unison after the chorus is a definite highlight here, as is the drumming, which picks up the speed right when you’re expecting it to do that. The Revenge of the Shadow begins calm and carries a haunting vibe, similar to Anywhere in the Galaxy by Gamma Ray. As it goes on, it develops its symphonic side, mixed with power and heaviness; all spiced up with a little pinch of progressive seasoning. It’s impressive how the vocals switch their approach back and forth from the clear, beautiful one to the harsh and gritty sounding; and it’s also impressive how the song goes nuts near the end, the band firing at all cylinders for half a minute before the evil growlish voice wraps the composition up.
Beyond appears to be a short epic about a man who escapes the difficult, unforgiving nature of reality by diving into the fantasy worlds. Driven by the sonorous keyboard sounds, the song does an admirable job in making the idea work. It would be even better if the word “beyond” wasn’t repeated like thirty times throughout the tune. Contrasting interestingly with Beyond, the next track, Holy War, uses the low, annoyed vocals to express the narrator’s displeasure with, well, holy war. It’s amazing how the band projects the desperation in the “where is God?” question for it works wonderfully in context: the tone goes from annoyance to eagerness for the answer, or at least that’s how I take it.
And to close the album up in a positive way the band decided to use the years approved recipe: conclude it with an epic. It is named Midgard, it’s a title track and, to be honest, it slays despite being a bit drawn out. There’s a lot going on in these eight and a half minutes. The beginning reminds me of Holy Shire, being ballad-oriented with the appropriate vocals; the heavy part is well thought out: I love how it intensifies on its way to the climax, and then it drops its momentum, abandons it completely, and makes the song build it up once again. And it does it faster than ever, managing to switch from the calm attitude to the epic sound in less than a minute, and it becomes a kind of band showcase, because everything is so perfect in here: the subtle flute addition, the wrecking pattern of guitar and drum and keyboard sounds, everything. After all that, the song transitions into a wonderful clean guitar solo, and it fades out way too fast for my liking. I wouldn’t mind another minute of this brilliance.
There are minor flaws in this album, there’s no point in denying that. Probably the one that bothers me the most is the songs’ endings. I feel most of them are quite underwhelming; they’ve been just cut out on a totally inappropriate places. The vocalist delivers the last line and the track ends right there, without anything else; it feels kind of weird, kind of too sudden, and it murks the record a bit. The other aspect I’m not fond of is lyrics. Yet here we have to take into account the fact it’s not an English band, so the simplified lyrics shouldn’t be judged too hard. The musicianship, the songwriting (despite the endings), on the other hand, are nearly flawless, and the talent is undeniable. I’m actually surprised how much I like this record: it’s not repetitive, it’s wondrous and adventurous and ambitious, and it can definitely give the current most famous power metal acts a run for their money.