There are few US power metal bands that I personally consider as important as Twisted Tower Dire. They formed in 1995 and released their debut album The Curse of Twisted Tower in 1999 while remaining very active through the 2000s – this is far and away the lowest point for the genre. Outside of a handful of exceptions, US power metal was on its last breath, hiding away in the darkness. Twisted Tower Dire were the light in that darkness and the torchbearers for the American style of power metal, helping keep it alive. They have a long and storied history as a band, filled with its fair share of successes and tragedies alike, but it’s been close to eight years since we’ve had any proper activity from them – until now that is. The wait is over and their highly anticipated sixth studio album, Wars in the Unknown, is finally upon us.
Twisted Tower Dire’s sound has evolved gradually over time and it’s helpful to understand this progression to contextualize how Wars in the Unknown fits into their discography. The history of Twisted Tower Dire goes all the way back to 1995 with the release of the Hail Northern Virginia demo, featuring Tom Phillips, a founding member of While Heaven Wept, on vocals. This demo is dark, mid-paced, and epic and while it’s excellent, it sounds almost nothing like the triumphant, up-beat band that Twisted Tower Dire would eventually become. They released a couple of splits before coming to 1997’s Triumphing True Metal demo. This is a peculiar piece of their history as stylistically it sounds like Hail Northern Virginia, but there is one important difference here in the strong female vocals coming from Janet Rubin. It’s her only release with the band (or any metal band for that matter) and it’s a small glimpse into what possibly could have been.
It’s with the release of the bands debut album, The Curse of Twisted Tower, in 1999 that they really developed the sound that they would soon be known for. This release is the first that features vocalist Tony Taylor (RIP) and his signature “Axes and Honor” uplifting vocals. The band’s sound adjusted accordingly to a riff centric, fast paced US power metal approach with the heavy use of catchy choruses coming from Tony that brought in a bit of a European power metal flair. It’s with Tony that Twisted Tower Dire really began to hit their stride, releasing a strong album roughly every two years. Among them is Crest of the Martyrs, which stands proudly as one of the best modern power metal albums. Taylor was on four full length albums in total, leaving shortly after the recording of Netherworlds.
The departure of Tony Taylor brings us to the current chapter in the tale of the Twisted Tower. Taylor was replaced by current vocalist Jonny Aune. Prior to Wars in the Unknown, Aune’s only recording with the band was 2011’s album Make it Dark. This album was undoubtedly Twisted Tower Dire, but it slightly moved in a new direction. The production was cleaner and more modern and Jonny brought with him a different style of vocal delivery, with even more emphasis on catchier vocal melodies. The closest comparison I can possibly make are American new generation heroes Visigoth. It’s here, eight years later and in this style, where Wars in the Unknown picks up.
It’s evident from the opening track, “The Thundering”, that this is exactly what we’re in store for. Wars in the Unknown immediately greets us with twin guitar melodies, Jonny’s catchy voice accompanied with gang vocals, and a “thundering” bass. This holds up for most of the record as the Twisted Tower Dire that we’ve come to know and love is out in full force. The band keeps a fairly up-tempo pace for most of the album, but there are excellent mid-tempo anthems like “A Howl in the Wind” that bring some variety to the album. What’s astounding to me is that essentially every track is a display of Twisted Tower Dire’s high energy and innate ability for writing catchy hooks. I went into the album highly skeptical that they couldn’t possibly keep up their quality so many years later, but I finished it incredibly excited that my skepticism was dispelled.
I think Wars in the Unknown is a strong album on the whole, but there are a couple points here that I really struggle with. The first teaser we got for this album was a lyrical video for the song “Light the Sword on Fire”. It starts out by saying “FOR BEST RESULTS FULL SCREEN THIS MUTHA AND PLAY IT LOUD” followed by lyrics that I can only describe as self-satirical. I would be lying if I told you my initial reaction was anything but shock and confusion. I mean what in the hell was I watching? The song itself is solid (although there are plenty of songs on this album that are better), but the lyrics were a tough pill for me to swallow. Twisted Tower Dire said they would be exploring different and more lighthearted lyrical themes after Tony’s untimely death, but I didn’t expect it to go so far in this direction. We got glimpses of this new lyrical approach on 2011’s Make it Dark, but it wasn’t quite this blatant. I’m a bit of a hard-ass in this regard and I have a harder time getting into music when the lyrics are comedic, but these concerns melted away once I heard the full album. When just listening to Wars in the Unknown through it’s not the campy lyrics about sharks or fire-sword wielding cults that are memorable, it’s the delicious twin guitar melodies and great vocal lines that stick with me.
Wars in the Unknown isn’t a genre defining album in the same way that Crest of the Martyrs or The Isle of Hydra are, but it is a powerful statement of resilience and grit none-the-less. It’s a remarkably catchy record filled with plenty of earworm riffs and infectious choruses. Overall, this late career highlight is a very welcome addition to Twisted Tower Dire’s decorated and expansive catalog. After eight years of virtual silence, Twisted Tower Dire show us that they’re not quite done yet with making excellent music and this is definitely one they can be proud of.
Album Rating: 90/100
Favorite track: Tear You Apart
RIP Tony Taylor – gone, but your memory never fades as your legacy lives on.
Hear the cheering voices rise
You stand before the crowd with your arms raised high
You know the feeling that won’t fade with time -To be a champion! To be a champion!