It’s hard to escape the tendency to double-down on your sophomore album. You hit a measure of critical success and use that as a springboard to expand, to up your ambition and simply do more. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you get Use Your Illusion I and II. It’s a harder road to critically look at what worked and pare down to the essentials, to trim the fat and unleash a street ready fighting machine. Visigoth manages the tricky balance of paring an already lean attack to the essentials while simultaneously broadening their scope on the righteous heavy metal punch of Conqueror’s Oath.
Coming out of Salt Lake City, the band’s debut album The Revenant King quickly became a favorite, emphasizing for me everything that distinguishes “heavy metal” from simply “metal” – majestic, uplifting anthems of battles and kings, dungeons, and brotherhoods of iron. The music finds a powerful focal point in frontman Jake Rogers – his powerful voice carries through and above the soaring guitar work of Leeland Campana and Jamison Palmer. The Revenant King is deadly serious in ensuring you are rocked to your core, each song an exercise in classic traditional heavy metal, intricate in its lines and anthemic in its choruses. if there was a complaint at all, some quarters felt the songs could go on a little too long (I dispute this, as the opening title track and the almost 10 minute closer “From the Arcane Mists of Prophecy” just gave me more of the awesome hooks my body has craved since childhood). So hearing that Conqueror’s Oath was a good 20 minutes shorter actually gave me more pause than anything else.
And I admit…I was still a little leery after hearing opener “Steel and Silver.” I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to early Manowar, but what rang closer in my ears was a weaker, tepid Grand Magus. And at almost six minutes the song carries none of the brevity I had heard about. It’s not even remotely bad: all the components that cry out “Visigoth!” are here, and it’s a headstrong, fist waving track, but for me it lacks that spark that makes you immediately sit up and take notice. “Warrior Queen” fares better: right from the opening “Ooh!” there’s a wicked sense of play in the rigid denim, fitting more in line with what I actually like about early Manowar. The choruses that rocked on the debut also begin to rear their head with the second track.
My smile grew even bigger on “Outlive Them All,” which incorporates some of the speed tactics of classic Helloween blended with the best of early USPM. The distillation of the elements that made The Revenant King so good also begin to manifest at this point. Tracks are tightened without sacrificing mood or tone. “Hammerforged” has all the earmarks of an epic except for the runtime – it’s less than five minutes long. Not so on “Traitor’s Gate” which kicks off the second and superior half of Conqueror’s Oath and might be my favorite Visigoth track to date. This is a seriously heavy blast of heavy metal that will immediately change whatever drink you have in your head to ale. It’ll change all your clothes to denim and leather, grow your beard an extra two inches and give you +2 saving throws against false metal. This is not even remotely a joke – this is the soundtrack to every young kid who pretended they were the star of countless fantasy novels and D&D campaigns in order to escape the hell that was their reality. Except there’s nothing childish about it; rather, it’s a bravura storytelling performance complete with mammoth riffs and godly refrains.
So the fact that this is followed by “Salt City” makes me love Conqueror’s Oath even more. At once an ode to their home town as well as a musical homage to such 70s rockers as KISS and Thin Lizzy the song works incredibly well at presenting another facet to the band. Having a song this fun is something they couldn’t have done on The Revenant King, and speaks to the growth and confidence of what the band can pull off. Its a short-lived breath though, as both “Blades in the Night” and closer “The Conqueror’s Oath” return to the heavy metal template Visigoth feel on the verge of claiming as the new guardians of.
Visigoth have hewn a path that can be traced back decades, yet has an immediacy and vibrancy that makes The Conqueror’s Oath timeless. My “meh” reaction to the opener aside, this is a record that only gets better with each additional listen, and for something so compact as to fit on one side of a 90 minute cassette (the perfect length to these old ears) there’s striking amount of ambition and scope to the songs. Here’s a glass of the finest ale to Visigoth, may they long carry the torch of true heavy metal for ears to come.