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Blackstorm: Twist Of Fate

Tracklist:

 Twist of fate demo (1989)

  1. Twist of fate
  2. Thieves of the night
  3. The confrontation
  4. Merciless peril
  5. Edgerunner
  6. Bad winds rising

Tales from the wishing well demo (1990)

  1. Visions
  2. Vertigo
  3. Ship of fools
  4. House of dreams
  5. Test of time

The lands of yesterday demo (1992)

  1. Faith or fear
  2. The lands of yesterday
  3. Peace of mind
  4. Ashes to ashes
  5. Escape

 The well of bands that released a lone vinyl EP/longplayer, a few demos or a cassette album in the 80s/90s, only to sink without a trace immediately after, is nowhere near running dry. As a result one cannot, in hindsight, fail to notice the amount of talent nipped in the bud for some reason or other. ‘What happened?’ you ask. Life and the industry, that’s what happened.

Reissue specialists Arkeyn Steel in Thessaloniki, Greece have, just like their formidable US-counterpart Stormspell Records (RapidFire, Enforcer, Nitefall, Held Under, Target and many others), set themselves the task of rescuing those long lost gems from their undeserved doom of oblivion. One of the interesting recent AS-releases is Twist of fate, a 16-track compilation by US-metalband Blackstorm. It features hard-to-find demo material in remastered form and comes in a limited and handnumbered jewelcase edition of a 1000 copies. Although the booklet layout of almost every Arkeyn Steel-release would best be described as acquired taste, this one is somewhat of an improvement in that respect. It also sports rather fetching cover art based on a sketch by Kent Mathieu. Some of you may remember him as the man responsible for the album covers of Heathen’s Breaking the silence, Artillery’s By inheritance and Forbidden’s Forbidden evil, among others.

Blackstorm were formed in 1986 by drummer Greg Sablan and singer William Santos, who had grown up together on the island of Guam in the western Pacific Ocean. The five-piece band – after some back and forth to Guam – was based in the San Francisco Bay Area and recorded three demos, all of which have made it to the disc. Taking its title from the band’s first 6-track recording, Twist of fate serves up pure US-metal defined by guitar, bass and drum work that manage to be both technical and powerful. In short: rock ‘n’ roll sweat meets thinking man’s finesse.

If there’s one thing that transpires time and again whilst listening to US-metal from the period right before and during Grunge Hell, it’s the fact that the quality level often was nothing less than amazing. Putting aside, for a moment, the usual budget issues marring many a demo recording of the time, you cannot help but be impressed by the inventiveness in songwriting and the virtuosity in musicianship. The significant difference with today’s so-called progressive metal, however, being that technical prowess and complex structures never stood in the way of the song. In addition to that, there’s the near-absence of cheap-sounding keyboards/synths to cover up songwriting deficiencies or water down the metal component to wishy-washy pseudo-progrock with heavier guitars. Compositions often have a technical edge, but they are constructed from sound riffs, melody and hooklines hewn out of pure rock ‘n’ roll marble.

Blackstorm, delivering their own brand of guitar-based, strong US-power metal, were no exception. Exhibit A: opener ‘Twist of fate’, a first-rate crusher with intricate, Oliver Magnum-like rhythm guitars la ‘Sister Cybele’/‘Old world nites’. Just listen how those song elements fit seemlessly together, with one instrument driving along the other and the musicians managing to niftly vary riffs and fills when called for. Vocals have character, soloing is nothing short of A+. This is real songmanship from talented musicians aspiring to compose more than just run-of-the-mill rockers to boost a beer-soaked weekend.

 Throughout their limited years of existence, Blackstorm failed to attract interest from labels, this in no small part being due to the advent of Prozac whiner crap from Seattle. Sadly, the islanders from Guam and their fellow soldiers arrived just that decisive tad too late on the scene. The music industry, once again struck by that ugly mutant virus of deafness, blatant opportunism and complete ignorance, managed to sign the worst and ditch the best. You really wonder what went on in those airy A&R heads at the time - if there was ever anything going on in them at all. ‘Scuse me for digressing.

If Blackstorm had been offered a record contract, tracks like the furious ‘Edgerunner’ and its evil twin ‘The confrontation’ would’ve had headbangers smiling from ear to ear. Yes, in the Dark Ages of grunge, our beloved metal underground, facing semi-implosion and mass desertion, would certainly have found some comfort in a Blackstorm vinyl album. ‘Are you still with me?’ asks William Santos halfway through ‘The confrontation’. A rethorical question surely. Now mind you, Santos’ vocals scream testosterone, but the good man could’ve done with some coaching. At times, the discrepancies in his performance are outright puzzling, ranging from the excellent (‘Twist of fate’, ‘Edgerunner’) to the painfully underachieved (‘Test of time’, parts of ‘Bad winds rising’, ‘House of dreams’).

To be fair, you also get the feeling that more than once there simply wasn’t enough time to do things as envisioned. For instance, the chorus in the otherwise searing shredder ‘Test of time’ misses the mark by at least a mile. Was it just the lack of a finishing touch in the writing of the vocal lines, was the recording itself a rush job or Santos unprepared at that particular moment in the studio? Whatever the reason(s), it also handicaps a few of the other songs. Suffering from lacklustre melodies and riffs, the plodding ‘House of dreams’ just doesn’t do the rest of the material justice. The song, along with the intense ‘Bad winds rising’ and the ‘press skip please’ midtempo filler ‘Merciless peril’, are among the group’s first efforts. They were co-written by original guitar player Frank Emmi who, in 1987, left for Florida before the first demo was recorded. A fortunate thing to happen to Blackstorm, probably.

All three demos were recorded with different engineers and producers. The little set of tracks 7/8/9 was – with all good intentions no doubt - produced by Vicious Rumors’ own Geoff Thorpe. Audio quality of the Tales from the wishing well demo, by the way, is not on par with the rest of the songs on the disc, but any dedicated US-metal fan will be able to listen beyond that. Curiously enough, one of the songs from this session shares its title ‘Ship of fools’ with the classic VR-anthem starring the late Carl Albert on vocals. As with the other material, the guitar solos on this particular track are outstanding.

 How would Blackstorm sound, then, with a different singer and production? The last five cuts, from the 1992 demo The lands of yesterday, kindly provide us with the answer: like a different entity altogether. This is neither the first nor the last band that, after personnel changes – Blackstorm had by then shrunk to a four-piece with singer David Locken new to the ranks – suddenly took a u-turn in various departments. Locken technically may be a superior vocalist to Santos, but he’s considerably lighter on the steel as well. With the material itself veering toward melodic metal of the Lillian Axe/Racer X/early Dokken variety and guitar parts leaning toward the Stevie Blaze/Paul Gilbert/George Lynch end of the spectrum, Blackstorm had definitely morphed into something else. Not into a lesser version of itself, just a different and more versatile one. The high-energy pieces ‘Faith or fear’ and ‘Peace of mind’ could very well be lost tracks from Arch Rival’s little-known In the face of danger album. By way of contrast, ‘The lands of yesterday’ sounds like a Mr. Big singalong tune from one of MTV’s Unplugged shows. Production and mix on this set, however sounding strangely unfinished, are more dynamic and open, with a clear emphasis on bringing out the individual colour of the instruments.

On the whole, it is the first demo by the Blackstorm incarnation with William Santos - who may not be top drawer material, but whose presentation oozes rock ‘n’ roll - that will find favour with US-metal fanatics and collectors. Despite the flaws on these recordings, the class of the musicians always shines through. Twist of fate is one of those releases that just hold your attention because of the sheer energy and thrilling guitar work. David Matela and Robert Kolowitz – the latter also lending his chops to powerhouse outfits Hellhound and RapidFire - have talent in spades. Their crunchy rhythm guitar parts, leads and solos shine with verve and artistry, easily surpassing the depressingly bland stuff heard on 95 per cent of all metal releases today. As original bassist Marko Parker and drummer Greg Sablan, too, have a penchant for going beyond the mundane and combining driving rhythms with exciting details, Blackstorm’s modest legacy certainly is one to discover and enjoy. This music just feels so bloody alive.

One wonders what this band was like on stage – and how the best songs on this Arkeyn Steel compilation would sound if they were partly re-arranged and properly re-recorded. An ambitious track like ‘Vertigo’, now lamentably dressed in gardening clothes, certainly merits a dinner jacket. In his one-page band history in the CD-booklet, co-founder Sablan speaks of a rekindling of friendships as far back as 1999, hinting at a possible Blackstorm reunion for gigs in our not-so-new-anymore millennium. If anything, life teaches you three words: you never know.

 Twist of fate by Blackstorm can be obtained through various underground mail orders, Helmut Mueller’s Underground Power in Germany being one of them. www.myspace.com/undergroundpower

 At http://www.myspace.com/arkeynsteel the track ‘Twist of fate’ is available online.

(c)2009, Oliver Kerkdijk