Review: Holy Grail: “Crisis In Utopia”

It’s always a treat to go to a show and be totally blown away by a completely unknown band.

That doesn’t happen to me very often, but it did on Sept. 2, when Cali-based retro-thrashers Holy Grail opened the Exodus/Malevolent Creation show in Louisville.

Now, I wouldn’t say Holy Grail put on the absolute best performance of the night … but the Grail set is the only one that really stuck out in my mind. Exodus was good, of course, but they have nothing to prove and their performance was strong without being totally inspiring. Holy Grail, however, were freakin’ hungry, and it was evident in every last note of their quick-but-extremely-powerful set.

The short version of Holy Grail’s bio goes like this: Several of the members of the band were once in White Wizzard – another retro-thrash band – but went out on their own after experiencing the usual “creative difference” in WW. As Holy Grail, the band cut a four-song EP (with two original songs and covers of Accept’s “Fast As A Shark” and Judas Priest’s “Exciter”) that generated a considerable amount of positive buzz.

Now, “buzz” can easily be prefabricated record label hype … but like I said, I was oblivious to all the chatter about Holy Grail when I caught their set in Louisville on Sept. 2. So, as a completely unbiased observer, I’d say the band more than lives up to all the positive talk.

“Crisis In Utopia,” the band’s full-length debut, is not a “Ride The Lightning” masterpiece, but is plenty great enough to be on my list of favorite albums in 2010. Despite a few missteps, “Crisis” is a fist-throwing, head-knocking, hair-flinging blast from beginning to end, where the band both draws on the strengths of old-school thrash while not becoming a simple play-by-numbers ’80s thrash tribute band.

The power on “Crisis” comes mainly from guitarists Eli Santana and James J. Larue, who fire off blistering twin guitar solos and blazing melodies on every single track. Larue and Santana shred continuously; it’s hard to remember when I last heard a new album with so many ripping guitar solos. Oh, guitar solo, I didn’t know how much I missed you until you went away. Say you’ll stay forever this time …

Larue and Santana can shred with a quickness, and album openers “My Last Attack” and “Fight To Kill” roar by furious speed. Even when the disc slows down for “Call of Valhalla,” Larue and Santana wowed me with the solos. This is a guitar-happy album.

These boys know how to write riffs (the entire band takes songwriting credit for “Crisis”), but the songs are more than just “riffing for the sake of riffing.” The songs have structure, something so many riff-monsters never seem to learn. Maybe any accomplished guitarist can write a riff, but it takes effort to turn those riffs into something coherent. The band unleashes some killer riffs on “My Last Attack,” “Fight To Kill” and “Immortal Man,” but doesn’t let the riffitude overwhelm the songs.

Vocalist James Paul Luna also stands with his soaring, multiple-octive voice. Could it be I’ve just been really sick of bands that fall back out of laziness on death metal grunts? Comparisons to Halford or Dickinson would be hyperbole, but Luna can belt out a high note like nobody’s business.

The rhythm section doesn’t get a lot of chance to shine on the album, but with thrash, the goal of the bass and drums is mainly to hold the structure of the song together. In that regard, bassist Blake Mount and drummer Tyler Meahl are more than up to the task of keeping the double-time, double-bass songs from flying off the rails. Meahl gets a few moments to show his stuff and Mount is certainly laying down the fast-paced melodies on songs like “Fight To Kill.”  They’re good, just overshadowed by the twin guitars and Luna’s voice. Hopefully, that’s an oversight that will be corrected on future albums.

I do have one pet peeve here. Someone – perhaps a producer hoping for crossover appeal – decided to add some grunting roars to songs like “Crisis In Utopia” and “Immortal Man.” That was a mistake; Luna’s biggest asset is his ability to go for the soaring notes, so why but a bellowing roar in the chorus? Thankfully, the roars are kept mostly down in the mix, so they don’t become overwhelmingly distracting.

Almost every song is good – but highlights include the already mentioned “My Last Attack,” “Fight To Kill,” “Immortal Man” and “Call of Valhalla,” along with “Chasing The Wind,” “Hollow Ground” and “Cherish Disdain.” “Blackest Night” is also a strong track … in fact, the only track I usually skip is the title cut, which is a little too full of the aforementioned bellowing for my taste.

Anyway, do I recommend this? Oh yes. Unlike the other return-to-thrash bands I’ve heard, Holy Grail manage to sound like more than just a jumble of Metallicadethslayerthrax riffs. Even if it’s not your cup of blood, give Holy Grail credit for sounding so fresh. I’m already looking forward to hearing what these guys come up with next.

Here’s the official video for “My Last Attack.” See what you think.

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