STORMWIND — Stargate (review)

STORMWIND — Stargate album cover Album · 1998 · Neoclassical metal Buy this album from MMA partners
3.5/5 ·
In the 90s Sweden was a fertile land for neoclassical metal, the metal subgenre based on a combination of hard rock, speed metal and baroque music popularized by Swedish guitar wizard Yngwie Malmsteen, who himself found inspiration in the songwriting of Ritchie Blackmore and his brainchild Rainbow. Guided by guitarist Thomas Wolf, Stormwind follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned six-string heroes. At the time of their second LP Stargate, the band was by and large a Thomas Wolf’s solo project, which is also reflected in their moniker (“Thomas Wolf’s Stormwind”). The guitarist is here aided by a score of different musicians, including Europe’s drummer Ian Haugland, keyboardist Per Hallman and bass player Kristofer Eng (who will later both play in prog rock outfit Brighteye Brison), and singer Angelica Häggström.

The presence of a female vocalist is probably the main element of novelty and interest in this album, since this is an unusual choice for neoclassical metal bands. The music on Stargate is otherwise a competent but fairly ordinary take on Rainbow’s hard rock / melodic metal style, with generous helpings of virtuoso’s showmanship that would have made Malmsteen proud. The guitar takes of course centre stage in the album’s twelve songs, where Wolf showcases a barrage of techniques, from standard hard rock riffs, to power chords, to leads inspired by typical baroque runs, to two-part guitar harmonies, and plenty of technical solos too. The keyboards mostly feature in a supplementary role, playing chords to add to the songs’ texture, and, in a couple of occasions, engaging in “solo duels” with Wolf’s guitars. Rhythmically, things are not particularly adventurous as per the genre’s standard. The drums mostly keep a straight rock tempo that does not vary much in the course of a song. Kristofer Eng’s bass playing is instead bolder, with lots of small solos and grooves that do not fail to capture the ear. The songs alternate between epic and majestic mid-tempos and faster, more aggressive numbers, in classic Rainbow/Malmsteen’s style, with a lean and focused songwriting that is centred on the repetition of verse/chorus plus the obligatory solo intermezzos.

What distinguishes Stargate from most other albums in this style is Angelica Häggström’s performance. Her voice is a cross between Ronnie James Dio and Janis Joplin, if you can imagine how that may sound. She packs a nice vibrato, tons of husky character, and power too. She can rip and roar in the most aggressive songs (“Hit by the Sun”; “Aliens”), but she also shows plenty of shades and emotions in the more mid-tempo pieces (“Masquerade of Love”; “Stargate”). She also has good melodies to sing, especially in songs like “Masquerade of Love”, “Time Won’t Tell” and “Stargate”, which are possibly the best tracks of the record.

Unfortunately, the interesting songs are all placed in the album’s first half, while the second half is considerably weaker and lacks cohesion too, due to a couple of tracks that do not seem to fit with the rest of the material (the bluesy “Cry for Your Love”, the strange AOR/metal hybrid “Beyond Lies”). This detracts somewhat from the listening experience since after the title-track I almost invariably skip most of the remaining songs, with the exception of the good instrumental “Miramar” that closes the album. The other major weakness of Stargate is the subpar production. The sound is muddy and muffled, and there is something seriously wrong with the mastering as there are several instances of audio clipping especially when the bassist starts slapping/soloing. The levels in the mix are also far from optimal, with the guitar sometimes pushed too far back and the drum/bass combo too upfront.

Overall, Stargate is an interesting, if imperfect, record that fans of neoclassical metal should pay attention to. In a sea of music releases that often sound all too samey, Stargate stands out thanks to some inspired songwriting and the presence of an exceptional female vocalist, which is highly unusual for the genre. A weaker second half and a messy production spoil somewhat the album’s enjoyment, but not so badly to completely undermine the record, which is in fact one of the best releases from this Swedish combo.
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