Long before the words “subgenre” or “elitism” first graced my virgin ears, I was a massive fan of power metal. Granted, I had no idea that I was listening to something called “power metal” and it wasn’t until years later that I even heard the term, but I suppose that contributed to of the magic of it all; something about the fantastical quests and epic journeys described by bands like Rhapsody of Fire and Blind Guardian really struck a chord with my young self in a way that no music ever had. But as I grew up and was introduced to a whole new world of bands and styles, the genre as a whole soured on me considerably. Sure, I still have a special place in my heart for the classics, but it’s become difficult to stomach the genre-defining bombast in any more than the smallest doses. Power metal, especially more modern entries into the genre, generally grants the listener such little room to breathe due to comically overproduced instrumentation and orchestration that the vast majority of it just slips into one ear and out the other. I wouldn’t call most of it bad per se, but it’s simply overdone and formulaic—before you even press play, you know exactly what to expect: operatic vocals, shredding guitars, overblown symphonic elements, and a whole lot of cheese.
As a result of this, I would argue that Night Hides the World succeeds in large part thanks to the fact that it really doesn’t sound that much like a power metal album, much less one released in 2016. The high vocals and guitars are there, of course, but the songwriting and production are a far cry from what one would expect; there’s clear inspiration from more traditional metal bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and the final product resembles Fates Warning more than, say Stratovarius. It’s clear from the first minute of the album that Spellcaster places a huge emphasis on songwriting and subtlety (neither of which power metal is particularly well-known for), as opening track “Aria” smoothly delivers an outstanding introduction to the album’s sound, a sound that I really couldn’t pin down until my fourth or fifth listen.
Ultimately, Night Hides the World is power metal stripped of decades of self-parody; it sounds pure, natural, and dark. Just about all the genre’s elements are present, but few of the flaws associated with them. As is almost always true, catchy, melodic guitar leads and emotional vocals are ultimately the backbone of each song, but never once did I feel like choruses or solos were being forcibly shoved down my throat. Spellcaster doesn’t feel the need to remind me of the fact that the choruses are catchy and the guitar work is top-notch by pumping it all up in production like it’s on steroids; they let the music speak for itself, and Night benefits greatly from that fact. Even the occasional missteps such as the weak chorus of “The Moon Doors” are made considerably more forgivable due to this fact; after all, it’s far easier to ignore something if it’s not power drilling through your hippocampus. Hell, I might even venture to call some moments pretty damn mellow, such as the introduction to the title track and just about the entirety of album highlight “Betrayal.” On the topic of the mix, though, it would be downright criminal to ignore the performance of bassist Gabe Franco, frankly one of the best I’ve ever heard from the genre. His catchy, inventive basslines provide another element to Spellcaster’s sound that further separates them from the remainder of the power metal pack. In all honesty, despite how much I like Night, it would be about half as good if Franco’s bass was lost in the mix; it’s that fantastic.
Of course, the excellent production job would be in vain if the songs themselves were lacking, but that’s not an issue whatsoever. As someone who has now listened to the entire Spellcaster discography, I can state for a fact that every track that Night has to offer is better than anything on either of their prior two albums. It’s a huge step forward as far as both songwriting and instrumentation are concerned, and though the thrashy edge of their debut is completely absent, this more toned-down, streamlined style seems to cater to their talents more effectively. It’s shockingly easy to jam from start to finish in one setting, and the replay value is excellent as well. Although the record’s bookends, “Aria” and “Prophecy” are its best offerings, the six songs that separate them more than hold their weight, most notably the emotional and introspective “The Lost Ones.” A bit more variety would’ve been welcome—perhaps a more progressive track à la Fates Warning or Queensrÿche—but the fact of the matter is that everything here is excellent, and that’s a hell of an accomplishment. As I stated earlier, I’m not much of a fan of Spellcaster’s genre of choice, but of the half-dozen or so power metal albums I’ve listened to over the course of this year, this is without question the best. It’s power metal for people who don’t like power metal, and that’s a concept likely to earn Night Hides the World some serious consideration come my year-end list.