ALBUM REVIEW: From Western Shores – Gatekeeper

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An album should be a journey. A voyage into both known territory and uncharted waters. It’s something we should experience rather than simply listen to. With this figuratively and literally in mind, Canadian modern metallers GATEKEEPER launch their good ship From Western Shores.

Their first album in five years, GATEKEEPER follow up East Of Sun (2018) with eight tracks of quintessential heavy metal as if it had come straight from the 80s. Jeff Black’s (rhythm guitar) project creates their epic soundscapes once more and invites us along for the ride of colonisation. Relocating from Edmonton to Vancouver, the title can be taken quite literally, as can the opening title track. Tyler Anderson’s (vocals) lyrics take the reality of a situation and bathe it in the fantastical as the “west coast barbarian kings” go off in search of a new world to conquer. The crash of guitars and Tommy Tro’s percussion symbolise the hull of a ship hitting destinations unknown. While the higher vocals at the beginning of the track are jarring at best, Anderson’s performance throughout the rest is joyous to listen to. In the latter half of the track, a swell of percussion, backed up by the tandem of Black and lead guitarist Adam Bergen, cement the image of an epic voyage within the mind’s eye. We’re forced to sit and examine the splendour of the moment GATEKEEPER plants their flag in the soil. Though we’re reminded of Chief Powhatan’s proclamation “These white men are dangerous” as there is soon talk of “blood shall spill” and “submit to your new kings by conquest”.

Pillaging is good for the ones doing the pillaging, not so much for the indigenous communities. With the old gods hailed, we move into the bulk of the album. Death On Black Wings carries the ominous approach of a dictator taking an axe to a supple neck. While bloodshed surrounds us, we’re referred to as “companions of circumstance” in vocals which are a touch too high for a song as dark as this. Rolling drums dictate the pace of the riff resembling the beating black wings death rides upon. The genre of metal comes with a checklist of stereotypical entries, one of those being wails or screams from the front person. Anderson peppers Death On Black Wings with them but they’re not entirely appropriate. Lower tones are introduced in the second half of the track which flow into the guitar solo, but this moment needed to be just a touch longer.

By the time Shadow And Stone comes into the fold, we’re shown that this album may not do much in terms of new material for the genre, but that isn’t always needed. Though if you’re not going to do anything new, what is being brought to the table needs to be executed well. Anderson’s voice falls flat on Shadow And Stone. Guitars once again save the day as the verse houses and understated squeal before the full band comes to usher in a wonderful bounce. It has to be said GATEKEEPER can structure a song beautifully as the veil of our brethren falls and we are exposed to the true nature of our companions.

It isn’t just plights of the fantastical which have GATEKEEPER’s attention. Exiled King details the life of Harald Hardarada; the last Viking king of Norway. We expect a Viking-esque instrumental, though there are elements of the Middle East in some of the guitar tones, and the drums of war pound loud and true, driving a foreboding song. The track oozes atmosphere until Anderson’s typical metal scream yanks us from the moment. That aside, we’re treated to a faster vocal delivery atop a galloping guitar riff and pulled back into the story. Calls of the title could serve well at the band’s live show should they want to introduce this to the arena. “They shall weep at my arrival” calls to the drengr in us all as we all chant “I’ll reach Valhalla this day”. However there is a slight pitfall when the pace slows into the introductory instrumental once more. David Messier’s bass rings out beautifully but then there is a swell into… nothing.

Through the death of the Exiled King, we become Nomads. An understated instrumental slithers into play. The riff never deviates much from the tone of the overall sound. We’re given more talk of being wounded in battle and travelling through uncharted lands. While the theme is somewhat forced upon us, there is still a lot to be picked up on. The lyrics tell a wonderful story against the subtle guitars. Slightly later, there is a slow dual guitar section which warms the heart and breaks out into a low toned solo. “Guided by the sun and starlight” we are ushered towards the Twisted Towers in the distance. Twisted Towers feels more sleaze rock than heavy metal but at this point that’s a splitting hairs kind of criticism. The vocal hooks would be right at home within the live area and this seems intentional as the tale of a tyrannical rule unfolds. “I shall reap what you have sown” will speak to many on a personal and socio-political level. However, Twisted Towers is the start of the wheels falling off the wagon.

Desert Winds is the sign of a slower descent from a loss of momentum. The track still houses a lot of the meaty instrumentals GATEKEEPER are known for. On the other hand though, this feels a very much style over substance song. It’s not clear what this track adds to the album. It’s a good song and shows this band’s musical prowess incredibly well. However it’s also a filler track which feels more like a “drifting dream” than anything of any substance. Closer Keepers Of The Gate picks up the pace again – revisiting the energy of the opening track. The cyclical motions of the album are a joy to listen to for those who still listen to albums as entire units. Diving deeper into the track however, Keepers Of The Gate treads old ground. Perhaps this should have been the opening track, something to greet us at the gates of GATEKEEPER’s realm. These self-proclaimed “guardians of steel” don’t seem to be guarding very much as this doesn’t convey the sense of wonder the previous tracks had done. All in all, this feels like a dwindling flame rather than the raging inferno an album like this deserves at its end.

GATEKEEPER hopes to take us on a journey to a new world. Up to a certain point, they manage to achieve this. Their song structure and composition isn’t in question at all. The ability to craft well formed songs and maintain their identity in a time where everything is constantly taking has to be applauded. But there are only so many ways the idea of an epic voyage can be conveyed. GATEKEEPER find themselves at the midway point through the frontier with little left in the tank and limp over the finish line as a result. The first half of From Western Shores is a solid investment of time. It’s just a shame the latter half fades like the colours of the wind into the ether.

Rating: 6/10

From Western Shores - Gatekeeper

From Western Shores is out now via Cruz Del Sur Music.

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