However motivated it may be by irony, nostalgia, or a mix of both, it’s hard to deny that that the “retro renaissance” in metal—whether in doom, death, thrash, or traditional heavy metal—has produced some noteworthy material from bands who aren’t just flogging the corpse of yesteryear. One such outfit is Magic Circle. After making waves with their self-titled 2013 debut, the Boston-based quintet return with sophomore effort Journey Blind, an album that, while definitely not earning points for originality, is still a fun, engaging, and catchy amalgam of traditional doom metal, NWOBHM, and hard rock.
On the first few listens, not much really fazed me about Journey Blind; it was simply a well-delivered, warmly-produced blend of riffs that drinks from the wells of Dio-era Sabbath, early Judas Priest, and more sinister tendencies ala Trouble or Saint Vitus, but it didn’t have any particular standout moments. Upon further listening, though, some glimmers of light poked through: Vocalist Brendan Radigan’s melodies and powerful delivery became a focal point, and comparisons to early Dio and Dickinson are not unwarranted; the songwriting started to unravel itself as the band deftly navigated through different forms of doom and traditional metal, from the bluesy drag of “The Damned Man” to the rollicking, arena-ready “Lightning Cage.” And like Keanu Reeves suddenly discovering he can dodge bullets in The Matrix, it hit me: Metal like this doesn’t need any fluff or “wow factor” to it. If it’s fun, memorable, and well-composed, that’s what matters. Fortunately for us, the band deliver this with surety.
It would be unfair to label this “simply” traditional metal or even just doom metal, for that matter. Magic Circle are adept at fusing the vocal stylings of Dio and Halford with riffs that draw from Black Sabbath as much as they do early Iron Maiden, all while not sounding too derivative in the process. “Ghosts of the Southern Front” is one of the most confident tracks here, displaying the strongest transitions from Trouble-esque riffs into shredding, bluesy solos and back to Iommi-inspired rhythms. “Grand Deceivers” dials down the blues-based figures but amps up in terms of dynamic songwriting and pure singability. Closer “Antediluvian” channels Stained Class-era Priest on the chorus and during the entire second half of its runtime. “A Ballad for the Vultures” is the truest doom track here, with the heavy drum grooves carving into the lumbering, bluesy riffs, but throws a curveball in the way of an uptempo drum-driven section accented by Thin Lizzy-indebted guitar harmonies toward the end. All that said, Magic Circle are certainly not a one-trick pony, even if Journey Blind sounds like the world stopped turning in 1983.
The album’s production matches the unashamed retro approach to the songwriting. Particularly, upon hearing the drums, one realizes, “Hey, this is what drums really sound like in a room.” The toms boom, the kick drum punches through without hogging up the whole low end, and the snare is both dry and snappy. The guitars are beautifully bereft of processing, relying instead on their bluesy and clear overdrive that allows the real grit to be felt behind the technique. As the album plays, it’s not hard to imagine a bunch of moustached long hairs jamming in a room of Marshall stacks, Les Pauls, and Gibson Grabbers while a thick haze hangs in the air.
More importantly than its retro vibe and unashamed homage, though, Magic Circle succeed in writing an album that, while not always memorable, is a fun ride while it lasts and has just enough staying power to make it an album worth returning to when the mood allows. Is it original? No way. Groundbreaking? Not even close. But the quality of the solos, riffs, and Radigan’s excellent vocal performance make this one of the better traditional metal albums to be released this year. Lap it up, chill’un.