California isn’t really the first place that one’s mind goes when thinking of modern power metal. Once upon a time, however, it was a place where, if you looked past the the cloud of hairspray on Sunset Boulevard, you would find an underground filled with some of the genre’s most technical guitar players (Many of whom were signed to Mike Varney‘s infamous Shrapnel Records) in a race toward classical-inflected oblivion.
Tony MacAlpine was one of those players. In the 80s, he released several albums that rivaled even Malmsteen and Paul Gilbert in the shred guitar sweepstakes. One need look no further than his 1987 instrumental opus Maximum Security to glean the head space and textures that the man is most famous for.
He’s also been the centerpiece of several full-fledged bands over the years. One of those bands was formed in 2000 under the moniker Ring of Fire. While their latest album, Battle of Leningrad, is largely what you would expect from a neo-classical power metal record, it benefits greatly from the pedigree of not only MacAlpine, but also his bandmates in former Yngwie Malmsteen vocalist Mark Boals, keyboardist Vitalij Kuprij, and new comers in the form of bass guitarist Timo Tolkki (ex-Stratovarius) and drummer Jami Huovinen (of Sentiment). While at times such pedigrees can be a hindrance with regard to keep things heavy, catchy, and song-oriented, that is not the case here. Battle of Leningrad is essentially a heavy Malmsteen album, with a focus on song structures and adherence to the concept of the album (Which I shouldn’t have to tell you. Seriously, just look at the title).
It was quite surprising to me to find not a single moment where one member overshadows the others. These are virtuosic players who consistently love to be heard. The restraint that they show here is fantastic and makes every song cohesive and thrilling. This cohesion allows the passages that need to pop the room they need to do so. Particular stand-out tracks are “Firewind”, where an aggressive riff set gives way to a fantastic, understated piano passage over which Boals is allowed to soar as only he can. “Where Angels Play” is excellent as well, being one of the balls-out fastest songs of the set.
The album is produced well also, with no one instrument being too high or two low in the mix. Mark Boals vocals could have used a bit more of a push, being produced just a little tepidly. However, he puts in some of the strongest work of his career, which makes that a small complaint.
This is a great record in the catalogs of all of these musicians. The fact that they can make music that still sounds fresh and heavy, without abandoning in the slightest their collective genre, is fantastic. To boot, this is very possibly the heaviest album of MacAlpine‘s career. It’s clear that he and his guitar still have a lot left to say. I’ll definitely be going back and taking a look at the first two Ring of Fire albums. You should too!