AshesI’ve only heard Matt Barlow sing outside the confines of Iced Earth on Pyramaze’s 2008 CD “Immortal”, but I was told that the music was already written for that album so it was a similar situation to Iced Earth…again. He has one of Metal’s instantly recognizable voices, but Iced Earth’s sometimes one dimensional guitar lines made me feel like he was just singing different words over the same tune on each successive album at times. I was really looking forward to hearing what a band that he was a main writer for would sound like – and here it is! Add recent Iced Earth Bassist (also handling guitar duties on here) Freddie Vidales and the considerable talents of Nevermore drummer Van Williams and you have the debut outing from Ashes To Ares.

I have to be honest, on first listen, I just thought it was a slightly more imaginative Iced Earth with a top notch drummer. But a bass-intro’d, percussion-driven power-track like ‘Punishment’ would never be on an Iced Earth album. Don’t get me wrong, I like Iced Earth – “Something Wicked…” is a fantastic CD – but I just wish Jon Schaffer would let someone else write some songs, and this track alone is a prime example why he should. It absolutely grooves, with some subtle drumming touches that just elevate the song further The whole package just stopped me in my tracks. It just grinds and pounds along with animosity and underlying musical malevolence. All instruments and vocals just pull together perfectly in it’s common goal – it is Heavy in every way. Sometimes you just need that one song to stand out for an album to gel and this was mine. So OK – there are Iced Earth comparisons, but Barlow really was the voice of Iced Earth so his style will always be synonymous with that band. But I began to realize that Van Williams had a lot to do with Nevermore’s style too (The down-tuned dark heavy feel of ‘What I am’ is totally Nevermore). So add to that a bassist playing impressive guitar on record for the first time and what initially seemed obvious is something much more fresh and interesting.

Also, this is NOT Power Metal. It’s Heavy and it has Power, but also darkness, melancholy and groove…oh and it’s METAL! There’s double-kick, but used for effect, emphasis and punctuality. The guitar-work, maybe obviously now I think about it, is more catered towards the rhythmic as it come from the mind of a bassist first and a guitarist second. Thus, even a trad Iced Earth style “Acoustic-Heavy-Acoustic” type track (you know the sort) like ‘This Is My Hell’ or maybe ‘The Answer’ (now THAT’S how to write a ballad!) take on a new light when they have fabulously imaginative and intricate acoustic parts with unexpected rhythms driving the heavier sides. Some great lead-work too!

If you are already content with just listening to the music, it’s fair to say that adding a vocal performance where the singer is chucking everything he has at it – every octave, every style, every emotion – it’s going to impress. It’s a great performance from Barlow. Lyrically MB is clearly a religious and spiritual chap, he makes no secret of it, but usually they are more thought provoking than militant or preachy. Actually, being picky, the lyrics can be a little distracting and depressing when I’m trying to enjoy the clever intertwining layers of bass, guitar and drums and Matt Barlow insists I reflect on what happens to me when I die. Thanks Matt… But hey, if he was telling us how his Mama won’t dance and his Daddy won’t Rock n’ Roll then we’d really give him grief! And rightly so…

This album is a grower. It’s so easy to dismiss on first listen, but if you don’t really like Iced Earth, then you need to hear this so that Matt Barlow gets a chance to properly impress. Hell, if you DO like Iced Earth you need to hear this – same with if you like Nevermore or just great Metal musicians feeling free to flex their musical muscles. Ave Noctum’s esteemed Ed said that he hoped Ares wasn’t an anagram as he lobbed this album my way, I’m happy to report that it is not.

(8/10 – Andy Barker)