Last time out, Serious Black’s ‘Magic’ was a solid and consistent offering which offered some progression on the band’s style and approach to making music but it didn’t really break any new ground in terms of stand out musical moments. Whilst not ‘genre defining’ or any other hyperbole laden statements, Magic was and is catchy and it still has a regular place on my iPod, such is the quality of the music on it. Suite 226 is the band’s 4th album comprised of original material (First Light doesn’t count as it is an acoustic stand alone consisting of tracks from the first 3 records) and it lies at a musical crossroads of sorts; do the band continue on as they are, do they make a turn and go back and revisit an older approach or do they go in a totally new direction.
Well, if the album art is any indicator, then the band’s new direction seems to be into a padded cell. Switching approach from rich storytelling through the medium of concept album to a more music first, lyrical content second approach like the first releases from the band. This, on paper at least, is a sensible move given how the traditional European Power Metal giants like Hammerfall and Sonata Arctica are seemingly stagnating which means there is a gap in the melodic side of things which is waiting for a band like Serious Black to fill it, but the problem still persists – is there more to come from Serious Black or are they blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, much like their album artwork?
You could argue they already have lost their minds when the opening track of the album is called “Let It Go” but thankfully it isn’t a cheesed-up Euro-Metal rendition of ‘that’ song of the same name. It’s just a fast paced melodic metal track which serves as a good opening number with its catchy hooks, sing-along chorus sections and simple but effective melodic leads. “When the Stars Are Right” is more of the same stylistically – fast paced, energetic, formidable drums, melodic and packing a punch vocally and the follow up “Solitude Etude” brings a touch of symphonic power to the album. With a hard hitting start which focuses more on the music than the meaning, the release does appear to start off in a promising manner.
It is here where things begin to diversify stylistically. The more fantasy-themed moments begin to surface – symphonic elements and synth/sample elements begin to become more prominent, helping shape and dictate the way the tracks flow. Whilst the blasts of orchestral inspired arrangements help add an extra edge and some atmospheric impact, the prominence of them, along with the focus shifting more to these than the core guitar/bass/drums seems to push the release towards the style which dominated the previous album. “FateOf All Humanity” is a generic sounding track, “Castiel” which follows is a much better musical offering as it offers some great vocal and melodic work, managing to balance the theatrics with the more traditional metal feel of the first three tracks on the album. “Heaven Shall Burn” is vocally commanding but extremely predictable and the same can be said for “We Still Stand Tall” – strong vocals but fairly standard melodic Euro-metal musically. “Way Back Home” serves as a kick back towards the first tracks on the release with how energetic, hard hitting and dynamic it is and the penultimate track, “Come Home” is a decent attempt at a ballad, but it does go on maybe a minute or two longer than it ultimately needs to.
Closing the album is the titular number; “Suite 226” and this, as reflected by the album’s artwork, is a themed number about life in an asylum, the merging of the subject’s perceived reality and the subject’s actual reality. It’s a lengthy track clocking in at nearly 9 minutes in length and it encompasses elements from across the release – the traditional cutting metal influences, the symphonic and orchestral vibes, strong vocal sections and infectious melodic sections. It serves as a good closing number for the release with its synoptic feel and if you were to take this track as an example for the material on the release as a whole, it does do justice – showing the shift towards the band’s earlier approach but still maintaining elements of the narrative driven symphonic storytelling they have begun to incorporate.
Overall, “Suite 226” is rather mediocre. It has some stand out moments, “Way Back Home” and “Castiel” are amongst the best of the tracks on offer and the title track, whilst lengthy does have some excellent musical substance to it, but it feels like a step backwards in terms of progression. Whilst the first two releases by Serious Black might have had momentum behind them and their brief sojourn into the world of concept albums might have kept them moving fowards, “Suite 226” seems more like a ‘low risk’ investment rather than trying to break new ground and to firmly cement themselves as a good alternative to the fading stars of the early 2000’s melodic power metal scene.