To the surprise of absolutely no one who has spoken to me, I far prefer the United States brand of power metal. I crave strong riffs and aggression when it comes to power metal. It’s not that I don’t like the more melodic and keyboard driven style of the Europeans, but even when I am in the mood for EUPM I tend default to more riff oriented German bands like Blind Guardian, Scanner, and Helloween. It’s rare for me to wander beyond that. However, there are a select few European power metal albums that don’t neatly conform to the style. It’s this small selection of albums that I find myself listening to regularly and Domine’s Champion Eternal is at the very top of this list.
In fact, Champion Eternal doesn’t conform to any style of metal, let alone just EUPM. Stylistically, it’s undoubtedly power metal, but absolutely nothing else sounds like it in any genre. I think to understand how Domine arrived at such a unique sound it’s important to have the context and history behind this album. Domine were formed all the way back in 1983, but this album didn’t see the light of day until 1997 – a full fourteen years later! Prior to this debut album, Domine toiled away and released four demos spread across the late 80s and early 90s. Champion Eternal contains material from 3/4 of these demos and represents the culmination of over a decade of meticulous songwriting and refinement. The songs here are more influenced by traditional heavy metal than later Domine material, which makes sense given when they were written. It took them a while to arrive here, but all the struggles they went through were well worth it because Champion Eternal is something very special indeed.
What makes this album really special is the emphasis on songwriting and storytelling. There’s plenty of melody here, but the songs are longer and the song structures are bigger than most of their power metal peers. Instead of cheesy choruses, Domine focus on world building and creating an epic atmosphere with riffs that are heavily rooted in traditional metal. Much like the album’s subject matter, Michael Moorcock’s Elric series, Champion Eternal is dark and foreboding, but gloriously epic. This dark masterpiece clocks in at almost exactly one hour, yet never does it feel too long. Each song is different from the next and there are plenty of stark tempo changes midway through tracks like “Freedom Flight” and “The Eternal Champion”, but instead of feeling disjointed it feels like different chapters of an epic saga. Domine use this album as a vessel to act as their own Chronicle of the Black Sword, vividly recounting Elric’s tales and by the end, even an hour doesn’t feel like enough time for them to finish the enthralling and ambitious musical journey they embark on.
Strong, rhythm-driven instrumentation lies at the heart of this grim epic. Champion Eternal is bass heavy. In fact, simply calling this album bass heavy doesn’t really do justice to just how prominent the bass is here. There is enough bass on Champion Eternal to make up for the lack of bass in the entirety of EUPM. There are plenty of moments on this album where the music seems to be entirely centered around Riccardo Paoli’s bass lines, such as on “Army of the Dead”, and it’s in moments like these that the bass becomes arguably just as important as the guitars. The bottom heavy instrumentation intertwines with light keyboard touches to accentuate Morby’s rich baritone and it brings out the best in his charismatic vocals. Morby is given opportunity to shine and show his strengths on Champion Eternal – some of his absolute best and most impactful vocal lines are found here.
I struggle to identify any fatal flaws with this record. I find myself coming back to Champion Eternal regularly and being just as in love with it on each listen as I was the very first. However, the album is a little front loaded with slightly stronger tracks on the A side than the B side. I will also say that I’m only able to truly enjoy this album when I’m in a particular mood. Even by epic heavy metal standards, Champion Eternal is grand and difficult to digest – it’s an album that demands your full and undivided attention. If you just put it on as background music while you’re focusing intently on something else then it won’t be an enjoyable listen and you won’t get the most you can out of this album.
Champion Eternal is an oddity. It sticks out like a sore thumb even amongst Domine’s discography. Its dark and epic undertones fill a very particular niche in my listening and it has me coming back to it regularly. Champion Eternal is so spectacular that it played a pivotal role for me extending beyond just music. Alongside American torchbearers Eternal Champion, it inspired me to hunt down Michael Moorcock’s Elric Saga and experience the magic behind the lyrics myself.
Favorite Track: The Mass of Chaos
Album Rating: 95/100
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