Demons & Wizards – III (Album Review)

The immortal Power Metal duo Demons & Wizards are back with III, their long overdue return set for release on Friday, February 21st through Century Media.

A project many Heavy Metal enthusiast hold near and dear to their heart, Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch and Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer released their eponymous debut as Demons & Wizards in 2000 to critical acclaim. Amidst work by each of their main projects, the duo managed to find time for the 2005 Stephen King-inspired follow-up Touched by the Crimson King, but another handful of years passed before a third record entered the minds of fans and musicians alike. Actually, it has been 15 years! 

So why such a long gap? Well, numerous delays and adjusted press release followed, but now, on the heels of Century Media re-releasing their two prior albums, the third opus is here. A welcomed return, Schaffer and Kürsch are joined here by Drummer Brent Smedley, Guitarists Jake Dreyer along with Jim Morris, and Bassist Ruben Drake, along with a litany of backing vocalists, including the PA’dam Chamber Choir. Additionally, Morris also helped with production, along with Charlie Bauerfeind, Tommy Geiger, and Joost van den Broek.

Ahead of the album, the band released a video for “Diabolic” late last year, showcasing a shorn Schaffer and a demonic Kürsch; at times the vocalist is replaced in the video by Jack Dimich, who plays the role of Lucifer. The teaser provided, naturally, “Diabolic” opens with largely acoustic slash clean guitar work, replete with nifty harmonics. After a collection of heavy movements the song returns to its opening stance and plays out to “Invincible.” 

The opening track represents the album as a whole – there will be plenty of shredding, coupled with the occasional solo and presented with distinct, ear-splitting vocals, but there will also be slower, calmer portions, and vocals reduced to the spoken word, sometimes even a whisper. While Schaffer is known more for his steady rhythm work as well as songwriting abilities, the solos that pepper III fit break from the comfortable settings without overpowering his partner.

Midway through “Wolves in Winter,” for which another video was released earlier in February, the crisp guitar work attains proper Prog Metal status, and drives the point home with some heavy plodding. Then there is “Dark Side of Her Majesty,” a galloping track that keeps to its Power Metal roots but could also find a home amongst some of the more retro-themed bands that have appeared over the past decade.

All these factors in mind, Demons & Wizards save their heaviest moments for the latter half of the album. Nearing the realm of Hair Metal, “Midas Disease” rocks its way through lyrics seemingly serious themes – Jesus, redemption, broken wings, and the like – before finding time to give a bit of odd advice: watch out / if you leave now / you’ll be home for dinner. Furthermore, the accompanying guitar solo helps cement the ’80s vibe of the track.

However, the crushing weight of the second half of III begins with “New Dawn,” which contains some of the densest work of the collection. Faux acoustic guitar opens over drums, keyboards, and airy vocals, before being pushed aside by some high-pitched work from Kürsch and thrashing guitar from Schaffer. Then the critical mass grows with “Universal Truth,” a song which simply starts at the jugular and never quits. For the full run of its five minutes both Schaffer and Kürsch are busy putting their skills to the forefront. Although it is ultimately with “Split” that the fabled pairing takes a bit of a departure into new territory. Clawing at the gate of symphonic Black Metal, “Split” is brutal in its heaviness, barely letting up for a breath of air. 

Commanding the last ten minutes “Children of Cain” brings III to a largely acoustic close, with Kürsch taking turns with an assortment of vocal help to bring a ’70s soft ballad vibe. Of course, the pair could not stay away from heavy too long, so there are electric portions sprinkled throughout, but the cut largely keeps a calm, even keel. Earlier, “Timeless Spirit” showcases a similar structure, as it alternated passages of soft, acoustic guitar and layered vocals with impressive heaviness.

After such a long wait, it is natural, if not unfair, to hold the work of III against the nearly 15 years it has been under consideration. Kürsch and Schaffer acquit themselves well here, bringing portions of their main projects into the mix but with the flair fans have come to expect from the Demons & Wizards project. The songwriting is a bit sparse in places, and some of the longer tracks could benefit from a trim, but III is overall a dense, fun ride that showcases the rarefied skills of its two main players. A worthy addition to the two albums already in the Demons & Wizards locker, Cryptic Rock gives III 4 out of 5 stars.   

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