Album Review: Planeswalker — “Tales of Magic”

You know, I kind of can’t believe it’s taken until the year of our lord 2022 for someone to put power metal together with Magic: The Gathering on a big stage.  On paper, it seems like an obvious match made in heaven, especially considering that the immense amount of careful worldbuilding Wizards of the Coast has been doing with the most recent sets lends itself quite well to soaring vocals and bombastic guitars.  Maybe they aren’t the first, but Planeswalker are attempting to ramp up to bigger and better proportions on their debut Tales of Magic, summoning sickness be damned.

Hardly newcomers, Planeswalker might be just releasing their debut, but the duo of singer Sozos Michael and guitarist Jason Ashcroft are no strangers to the big stage.  Michael is the newly christened singer of Gloryhammer and Ashcroft is the songwriter and guitarist of Helion Prime, so you know that the group is not lacking in the talent department.  The lineup of Tales of Magic is rounded out by not only a hardcore band of session musicians, but a huge cast of guest performers like Heather Michele, Brittney Slayes, R.A. Voltaire and Taylor Washington fleshing out the characters portrayed in the album’s six vignettes pulled straight from the MtG cinematic universe, covering epic battles with Eldrazi titans, scheming elder dragons and murder in the name of forging the finest sword ever made, among other tales.  Faithfully and quite lovingly crafted, these songs show a deep devotion to a shared adoration for this game, in a way that is both satisfyingly nerdy and elevated in its presentation, all suitably adorned with the infamous Black Lotus on the cover.

Tales of Magic is, as expected, chock full of glorious riffs and theatrical vocals at every turn.  All the standard power metal gallops and runs are present, and Ashcroft does a great job showcasing his melodic sensibilities in his lead work that gels perfectly with Michael’s tenor howl.  However, there is a surprising amount of bite to the guitar work that is absolutely reminiscent of the heavier sections of Helion Prime, if you can believe it.  The title track in particular runs the gamut of delicate string orchestrations, soaring lead work and vocals in tandem all the way to a nasty breakdown to introduce the ending section of the song.  Similarly, single “The Forever Serpent” proves a fitting tribute to Mr. Nichol Bolas, one of the most iconic villains in all the multiverse.  The epic chant section in the middle of the song is seriously infectious, and it exemplifies the energy that these tracks have.  There is something deeply cinematic about the way that these songs weave in and out of the stories they tell, further cemented by all the guest vocalists covering dialogue from a particular character.  It feels like a musical based on MtG as much as a power metal album.  There are, however, spots in the album where I feel like Planeswalker are holding something back.  Maybe they need to go harder or faster or louder or something entirely intangible, but occasionally I get the sense that something is missing from the sound, which is made all the more prominent when you realize that when things really get going on Tales of Magic, it’s really good.  The divide between the highs and lows (really, mids, because even when the album stumbles a little bit it still keeps me interested) is something noticeable here, but it is worth noting that if you don’t buy in for the concept alone (admittedly, like I did) then there are enough hooks and catchy choruses to reel in even someone unschooled in the game.

It’s hard to listen to Tales of Magic and not immediately want to drag out all my Magic cards and start building deck after deck.  Once it has its claws in you, you’re never truly free from the crushing grip of cardboard crack.  And I don’t know that I would ever want to be, because Tales of Magic reminds me how much I truly love this world and this game, and at the end of the day that’s probably the point.  This is an album that is a labor of love between two people with a shared interest, and what’s more wholesome than that?  Hopefully this isn’t the last we’ve heard from Planeswalker, because there are plenty more tales to tell and I want to have all of them scream-sung at me.

– Ian

Tales of Magic is available now on the band’s Bandcamp page.  For more information on Planeswalker, visit their Facebook page.

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