Album Review: Raven Black Night - "Barbarian Winter"

Attentive readers have no doubt noticed that my compatriot Chris has been dedicating a lot of words to the notion that this wave of traditional metal which has so captures our attention in the past two years is beginning to play itself out. The idea behind the theory is that in some form, we’ve heard all this before, that these new or resurgent bands need to bring something new to the fold, lest they simply be branded as more of the tired same.

This swell of success in traditional metal has also predictably given rise to the hangers-on, as bands-come-lately try to ride the coattails of the vanguard. We’ve seen this before. As grunge blossomed into a colossal title wave on the talent and appeal of Soundgarden, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, so did we eventually see the rise of Seven Mary Three and Days Of The New.

Speaking of traditional metal, I think we can all agree that two of the fathers of the genre are Van Halen and Dio. It’s also a general consensus that David Lee Roth and Ronnie James himself are two of the most iconic vocalists to ever grace the genre, their vocal prowess and unprecedented sense of the dramatic ushering in a whole new era of flashy lead singers. What if those two singers were an amalgam, if they somehow tried to combine and form a two-man Voltron? Surely a volatile mix, but would it be effective?

We bring up all these conjectures and anecdotal memories because Raven Black Night and their new album “Barbarian Winter” are reminiscent of all these ideas.

The music of Raven Black Night is lifted straight from those hallowed days, each riff a reflection of the kind of musical attitude that led to bands like Judas Priest, Diamondhead, Cirith Ungol and all their celebrated ilk. Listen to “Mystery Woman” and you’ll hear the irrefutable echo of heavy metal as it existed in 1981.

In a further tribute to the headbanger’s halcyon days of yore, Raven Black Night pairs their riffs with a sort of reverb-ed echo, giving all their songs a latter-day twist of psychedelia. Unfortunately, I did not misspeak. Yes, ALL of their songs feature this production choice, from opener “Fire In Your Eyes” to finisher “Angel with a Broken Wing” and the effect becomes so supersaturated as to transcend the barrier between “element” and “gimmick.”

Which brings us to the last thought. Vocalist Jim Petkoff (calling himself “The White Knight,”) seriously reminds of Diamond Dave trying to put his stamp on “The Last in Line” or “Rainbow in the Dark.” Which on its face sounds beyond reproach, but this is hardly chocolate meeting peanut butter. Petkoff’s voice is not brassy enough, nor his delivery powerful enough, to quite reach either pedestal. “Black Call” or the title track could both have been accentuated by a stronger overall vocal performance.

Unfortunately, it’s this kind of detriment that holds back “Barbarian Winter.” Amidst the Grand Magus-es of the world, it behooves any traditional metal band to try and supersede the constraints of their genre by doing something innovative and Raven Black Night doesn’t apply that principle in proper fashion.

As a side note, they toss in a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Changes,” which is easily the worst actual song on a good Black Sabbath record. Why you’d pick that one to cover (and I pray they didn’t cover it ironically,) is a mystery. The RBN cover doesn’ make the song more palatable, which isn’t their fault; they were handed a bad script.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh. “Barbarian Winter” isn’t bad. Still, the absence of “bad” does not mean “good” or “great,” let alone “excellent.” In a forest of traditional metal releases, “Barbarian Winter” is another tree, not so different from any other. Like all trees, I’m sure it has its uniqueness, but few will have the patience to look close enough to find it.

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