USPM from Maryland
Every once in a while, I am faced with the simple reality that life is not fair; when a newly-purchased and pristine scoop of ice cream slips from its cone on a hot summer day, when walking to my freshly-washed car and noticing that a few birds decided it would be an ideal target, and every single time that I listen to Apollo Ra’s Ra Pariah. Apollo Ra are a USPM band out of Maryland that only managed to release a pair of demos in 1989 before fading away into obscurity. Ra Pariah is their second demo and with eleven tracks and over forty minutes of pure American steel, it’s effectively a full length album.
I have a huge preference for the United States style of power metal over all other genres of metal. In fact, simply saying that I have a preference for it would be drastically understating my borderline unhealthy obsession with the sound. Kick-ass vocalists, powerful guitar riffs and melodies that take the traditional metal sound to the next level, a thunderous rhythm section to pull it all together, catchy vocal lines, and fantasy-filled lyrics for the cherry on top – what’s not to love? Apollo Ra tick all my boxes for USPM. Ra Pariah has everything that I’ve mentioned above and even more.
With a straight forward US power metal sound that incorporates minor progressive elements, the obvious comparison to draw is Crimson Glory’s landmark Self-Titled album. However, this doesn’t quite capture the essence of Ra Pariah. There’s a little more going on here – Apollo Ra have more bite in their sound than you would find on the vast majority of Crimson Glory’s discography. Imagine if Crimson Glory managed to channel the aggression of “Red Sharks” for an entire album. Ra Pariah combines the effortless grace of Crimson Glory’s self-titled debut with the unrelenting remorselessness of Jag Panzer’s Ample Destruction to create a USPM wet dream. I do not make these comparisons lightly as these are two of my most revered albums.
Power metal is extremely reliant on its vocalist to drive the sound forward. Without a strong vocalist, the sound lacks the punch it needs. Daniel John Miller is a shining example of the star vocalist you need for this genre. He has a razor sharp edge to his vocals that gives Ra Pariah its deadly bite. Miller has a certain character and charisma to his voice that’s really rare to come across. The combination of grit, energy, and raw, youthful passion makes it a treat to listen to. With banshee shriek after banshee shriek, and beautiful mid-range verse after verse, each vocal line is delivered with more passion than the last and I’m left wondering is there anything he’s not capable of doing?
The instrumentation is certainly an equal match for Miller’s intimidating vocals. Bill McKeown and Kevin Bulkley (RIP) write compelling and straightforward power metal riffs with a progressive touch. Again, the obvious comparison is Crimson Glory in this department, but there’s a lot of similarities with Savatage’s early career. From the aggressive “Heaven’s Just Another Way” to the mid-paced “March of Fire”, the songs are varied and memorable. The bass and drums sound exceptionally well and are prominent in the mix, giving “Ra Pariah” a healthy low end that it needs to power along. The drum tone sounds natural and compliments the sharpness of the guitars present here. The production is a bit thin, but is overall well beyond what you would expect from a demo at the time.
I don’t like discussing individual songs. I feel like an album has to be looked at holistically and that simply doing a rundown of the songs cheapens the whole thing. However, I need to make an exception here. The title track, “Ra Pariah”, is so above and beyond virtually every song out there that I feel obligated to discuss it. The beginning of the song starts with a bass line that’s repeated with synths to accent it. Every ten seconds or so Miller comes in, accompanied by guitars, with absolutely chilling highs. He shows off his remarkable chops as a vocalist here and just when you think it can’t get better, he unleashes an indescribably powerful shriek at 1:05. I get goosebumps without fail each and every time I listen to this song. The rest of it is mid-paced, catchy, power metal goodness that does justice to the intense build-up. The following song, “Bane of the Black Sword”, is a fast paced headbanger with riffs just as delicious as “Ra Pariah” – bonus to the Michael Moorcock inspired lyrics! It’s undoubtedly one of my favorite 1-2 punches in all of metal.
Ultimately, Apollo Ra are a victim of time. Their duo of straight forward and killer power metal demos came out in 1989. At this point, the original USPM movement was dying down popularity wise – Savatage, Fates Warning, and Queensryche were actively dropping their power metal elements for a more progressive sound and Manowar had already become a parody of themselves. If Ra Pariah had come out in 1985 then I think Apollo Ra’s fate would have been drastically different. Perhaps in an alternate universe they had a long, healthy career with a number of releases as killer as this one. Alas, we’ll simply have to settle instead for an all-time great power metal demo.
Favorite Track: Ra Pariah
Album Rating: 98/100