If you've been following my review series on some of the lesser known albums I've found over the years you may have seen my review for Matthias Steele's Haunting Tales of a Warrior's Past (1991). This next review is something of a follow-up to that one, though the two bands are completely unrelated. You may recall if you've read said previous review that I talked about US power metal in general for a little bit at the start and how it had its surge in the eighties. Well that's a point that needs to be reiterated here; I hear about a lot of USPM acts from the eighties and there has been something of a small resurgence of the style in more recent years but the nineties? Not so much. Matthias Steele released their debut in the early nineties, sure, but it's fairer to say they were simply a latecomer to the USPM scene rather than an oddity. I haven't heard much about new USPM acts from later than that in the nineties, much less 1997, which is the year in question here.
I wasn't into metal in 1997 (I was nine and more interested in Power Rangers than music), but looking back at the year now it doesn't look to have been the metal genre's high point by any means. Judas Priest had made their Rob Halford-less comeback with the groove metal release Jugulator (which I actually rather like but it's certainly no Painkiller or Sad Wings of Destiny!). Metallica were pushing towards more and more commercial territory with Reload. Megadeth put out the not totally hated but not exactly well regarded either Cryptic Writings. Also no doubt to many metalheads horror 1997 saw the release of the debuts of nu metal titans (a term I used somewhat loosely) Coal Chamber and Limp Bizkit. But despite all this, like any year, 1997 had some gold in there too. You've probably heard of albums like Gamma Ray's Somewhere Out in Space or Symphony X's The Divine Wings of Tragedy but what about Born of the Cauldron, the debut album by USPM act Cauldron Born?
Thought not. But if you have, kudos to you.
Cauldron Born were actually formed a few years previously in 1994 and put out a demo called Swords, Sorcery and Science before making Born of the Cauldron. And they played US power metal. And by that I really mean the full-on kind of USPM, indeed not that unlike what the aforementioned Matthias Steele played on Haunting Tales of a Warrior's Past although this doesn't have the fully-developed thrash metal side to it. We're talking heavy riffs that are quite fast and in your face, technical musicianship and of course the genre's favourite: high register vocals courtesy of Danny White.
I enjoy the vocals on Born of the Cauldron a lot, but the real star here is the guitarist Howie Bentley (more recently of the doom metal act Briton Rites), whose playing is really what makes this album special. While rarely being outright thrashy, he displays some of the heaviest and most aggressive power metal riffing you're likely to find even from the USPM side of the genre, which becomes even heavier in the instances while he and the band dial down the speed. It helps that the production is none too polished. His lead playing can have an almost neoclassical feel to it while the more complex parts push the album into some excellent progressive metal. In fact this album also deserves recognition as some of the most technical power metal I've heard so far. I've heard a lot of metal albums by this point, so it's rare that something blows my mind quite this much when I first hear it, much less continues to do so on repeat spins.
The songs are all excellent so I'm not going to try to namedrop any particular highlights. Born of the Cauldron is an easy album to take in one listen anyway. It has this unrelenting approach to the genre. You'll hear odd acoustics thrown in, but there's no ballads here. Just pure metal done the US power way.
And yes, this was released in 1997, which seems to me now in 2015 to be a pretty bad time to release an album in the USPM genre. The bigger metal bands were getting modern and/or more commercial and nu metal was on the rise. In hindsight it isn't really any surprise to me that Born of the Cauldron isn't the most well known of power metal albums (though it has gone less under the radar than the first two albums I reviewed in this series and actually got a reissue in 2008 (a sadly limited one) and a vinyl reissue in 2011, though it remains a hard to find release). But the reason I decided to review this album as a part of this series is because it damn well should be right up there in the USPM ranks with the likes of Sanctuary, Crimson Glory, Metal Church and Vicious Rumors et al. I easily rank Born of the Cauldron as one of the best USPM releases, as well as the best release of 1997, which I think is saying something, as I really bloody love Gamma Ray's Somewhere Out in Space. 5 stars.