Epic Heavy Metal / Space Rock
There are masterpieces, and then there are masterpieces. What I mean to say is, an album I might describe as a “masterpiece” usually tends to become so in my perception in one of two ways: the first is the type in which it’s immediately obvious that it’s a challenging, cerebral album, one that has the potential to be a “masterpiece” in some way, but which takes a lot of time to fully digest and understand. Albums I would put in this first category include Fates Warning‘s Awaken the Guardian, Psychotic Waltz‘s A Social Grace, and Holocaust‘s Covenant. The other kind, though, doesn’t necessarily immediately (or ever) strike me as overly cerebral or complex or challenging; it might not even seem especially interesting or ambitious upon the first few listens. This sort of masterpiece is more subtle in a way; its brilliance creeps up on you gradually, and at some point you suddenly realize everything works together perfectly, or the juxtaposition of melodies just strikes you in a way that you never noticed before. Albums I’d put in this category would include Screamer‘s Target Earth, The Mist of Avalon‘s Here and After, and, getting more to the point of the review, the self-titled debut from British post-NWOBHM act Full Moon.
What we’ve got on Full Moon is an interesting reconciliation of space/prog rock and heavy metal/NWOBHM. I use the word reconciliation because I feel the word ‘combination’ is too weak; it’s not as if you’ve got space rock songs and heavy metal songs, or even passages within songs that alternate between the two genres (for the most part). For at least 90% of the album, what you’ve got is simultaneously NWOBHM and space rock, and it blends together more seamlessly than I would have thought possible. The adventurous, galloping NWOBHM riffs combine with the laid-back, spacey feel somewhat akin to Hawkwind to create something significantly better than the sum of its parts. I don’t much like space rock, personally, and I’m quite picky about NWOBHM, but here the interweaving of the two elements is a match made in heaven. You take something like Ritual‘s Widow, add some Hawkwind or perhaps a little Rush, and suddenly you have something that reaches the atmospheric highs and epic scope of Manilla Road. It’s really incredible to me.
Of course, great riffs and leads can only do so much without a quality vocalist to take the reins, and here the lead singer known only as “Mike” on metal archives does a superb job. Unlike most NWOBHM vocalists, he doesn’t sound rough, unpolished, or unskilled, yet neither does he sound overly focused on technique. He takes an approach to the vocals that’s neither something you’d expect from prog/space rock or from heavy metal, exactly; sounding very little like Dave Brock of Hawkwind or Geddy Lee of Rush, instead presenting a confident, charming baritone that occasionally lets out a shriek or two but is nothing like the screechers expected of power metal. Moreso, he gives off a combination of the understated, introspective style present in most American epic heavy metal (Longings Past, Eternal Champion, Avalon Steel) and the more playful, suggestive style of someone like Sean Harris of Diamond Head. The man just oozes a charm and masculine charisma whenever he opens his mouth, which definitely adds to the experience. He’s not really the type of vocalist I’d expect for a combination of space rock and metal, yet like just about everything on this album, it works perfectly. When needed, it pulls the attention away from the riffs, yet most of the time they’re so good that you’re struggling to pay as much attention as you can to both. The spacey style definitely requires the efforts of a talented vocalist, though, as in those moments where the riffs take a backseat and the focus is more on the overall atmosphere, the listening experience still needs to be enjoyable.
Only a few other heavy metal bands have attempted to add spacey elements to their music, with various results. Sacred Blade/Othyrworld is probably the only one I know of that blends the sound as well as Full Moon, although there the focus was more on pure heavy metal rather than the NWOBHM and more epic leanings found here. Late 80s Cloven Hoof also tried to do this, and were successful, though the spacey elements were less central. Certainly, though, Dominator and A Sultan’s Ransomare also largely carried by an excellent vocalist in Russ North. Manilla Road’s Invasion and Mark of the Beast also flirt with this sound, but here the metal elements are less central, creating something that’s rougher and less mature than Full Moon.
The only issue I see with the album is a couple of tracks that throw off the pacing; “Awakening” is a ballad that, while retaining some spacey elements, kind of takes away from that galloping, adventurous feel given by the metal riffs, and isn’t especially good in its own right anyway. This one probably could have been left out. The instrumental “Actius Selene”, on the other hand, is just short enough not to detract too much from the overall atmosphere, has stronger songwriting in general, and provides a good segue into “Euphoric Dance” which is much more psychedelic and strange than the more or less epic heavy metal anthems “Time Machine” and “Highlander.” “The Chequered Floor” also gets just a little bit slow and clunky at times, especially after “Euphoric Dance” and “Blur on the Horizon,” which are a bit lighter on the metal front, but ultimately doesn’t provide too much of a problem.
“The Ninth Wave” gets things back on track nicely and the utterly monstrous and brilliant album opus and closer “Beltaine Fires” just destroys everything in its path, handing out mesmerizing riffs, mind-blowing solos, breathtaking vocals and unparalleled atmosphere like candy. Never for one moment in its duration of over 8 minutes missing a beat or providing anything less than fantastic, switching from epic metal anthem to lush, spacey ballad and back again like it’s nothing. On top of all this, its switching moods ultimately build up feelings over the course of the song that eventually lead to the triumphantly galloping climax like a good epic ought to do. Really, there’s hardly anything to fault the album for except for the somewhat below par “Awakening”; otherwise, it’s an utterly catchy, sword-wielding, and mind-altering journey into the depths of space, through battles cosmic and barbaric, among psychedelic strangeness and ultimately back again, becoming the stronger for the experience. If you have any doubts as to my claims about this album, just listen to it, and find out for yourself what a beautiful experience this strange and wonderful masterpiece of an album is.
Favorite tracks: “Time Machine”, “Blur on the Horizon”, “Beltaine Fires”
Album Rating: 92%