Well, well, well. The five years between now and the debut ASHES OF ARES album seem to have been an eternity. Since then, drummer extraordinaire Van Williams has departed the band amicably, leaving ICED EARTH veterans Matt Barlow and Freddie Vidales as the “soul” remaining members. Williams did however return as a session player on the new album Well of Souls, out now on ROAR! Rock of Angels Records.
As a huge fan of the debut record, I have to say Well of Souls is a staggering upgrade on every level. While the album preceding it drew a lot of comparisons to ICED EARTH, the new material is more in line with Barlow’s work with PYRAMAZE than anything else – in fact PYRAMAZE keyboardist and all-around wizard Jonah Weingarten contributes the intro to the first track “Consuming The Mana”, achieving the rare goal of an instrumental orchestral opening to a metal album that you won’t ever feel like skipping – everyone else take notice! Weingarten, by the way, also worked with Barlow on the stellar WE ARE SENTINELS album from earlier this year, which is highly recommended listening.
If it feels like I’m procrastinating on diving into the tracks themselves, there’s a good reason for that – every song on this disc KILLS! Quite literally, as the aforementioned opening deals with themes of human sacrifice, which you may not have expected from the unearthly beautiful melody of the chorus. I’m going to try to pick on highlights of the album rather than go track-by-track – there is NO filler here, folks!
The opening trio of tunes continues laying a path of total destruction with “The Alien”, a song with a PUNISHING heavy riff combined with some lyrics exploring the “humanity” of Superman, who is of course an alien; this is sure to be a live hit! However “The Unworthy” to me is the crown jewel of this disc, bringing a bit of a death metal tinge at times alongside lyrics that explore the feelings of the downtrodden, marginalized, and bullied among us. Halfway through the chorus shifts to incorporate layered vocals similar to “Chalice of Man” from the first album – a really cool touch that feels uniquely ASHES.
“Soul Searcher” is one of the few songs without an instant earworm of a chorus but this works in its favor as it allows the emotional delivery to shine through all the brighter. This is in contrast with “Let All Despair” which is a more ICED EARTH-esque heavy ballad. Between those two is “Sun Dragon”, which has both possibly the thrashiest riff of the album and also one of its catchiest choruses. In the terms of catchy choruses, “Time Traveler” and a personal favorite “In The Darkness” deliver in spades, while “Transcending” offers another thrash attack to keep things heavy with truly inspirational and heartfelt lyrics brought on perhaps by Van Williams’ wife’s struggle with cancer.
Damn it, it does look like every track on this album is a highlight, huh. As a concluding note I’d like to mention the one weakness I noticed in Well of Souls is that the instruments are a bit further back in the mix compared to the first album. I was about to say it has something of a shortage of memorable riffs but upon repeated listens I keep picking up on new intricacies in the playing. Guitarist Freddie continues to be ASHES’ underrated secret weapon. However, the vocal melodies are stronger than they’ve ever been, aided by the layered approach that might well become the defining aspect of the band.
I have to extend a final note of appreciation for the killer CHRIS CORNELL cover of “You Know My Name” that concludes the album (THANK you for not just doing another acoustic cover of “Black Hole Sun”!!); it’s every bit as phenomenal as you’d expect – after all, all’s well that ends Well.
STANDOUT TRACKS: ALL OF THEM