'Black Sails At Midnight' is one of those rare albums that'll leave you wondering "why has no-one tried this before?"
Scottish four piece Alestorm take the gimmicky-but-actually-pretty-fun battle metal formula popularised by European metal bands such as Turisas, and replace references to Odin and Vikings with tales of quests, treasure and wenches. The result is "True Scottish Pirate Metal" which roughly translates as 'probably the most fun you'll ever have listening to a CD.'
Although clearly heavily influenced by Europe's love of folk and battle metal, Alestorm have a thrashier sound than their peers, with wrist-fracturing drumbeats providing this album with an almost ever-present background rumble. 'Black Sails At Midnight' also has a set stock of chuggy, metal-by-numbers riffs, with the result that the guitars and the drums are mostly just a simple-but-solid backdrop to Alestorm's pirate flourishes. And there are no shortage of these: tanked-up accordion refrains, sea-shanty keyboards, horns, fiddles and tavern-sing-alongs are splashed all over Alestorm's thrash metal base.
The album's most explosive offering is actually not an Alestorm song at all, but a cover of Latvia's 2008 Eurovision Song Contest Entry, 'Wolves of The Sea.' The fact that Alestorm serve up a heavy metal version of a Latvian Eurovision entry, pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this band.
'Wolves of The Sea' roars out of your speakers with crashing, heavy metal guitars and the boozy, drunken-pirate shout-along of "with a hi-hi-ho and a hi-hi hey!" that's custom-made to get every first pumping in the air when this gets a live airing.
The rest of the song consists of that aforementioned thrash drumbeat and chuggy riff combo, while vocalist and keyboard wizard Christopher Bowes snarls, screams, growls, "yar-har-har!"s and even tries to wrench something resembling actual singing from his vocal chords.
But, no matter what he does, he's always completely out of tune. I've never encountered someone who can actually scream out of tune before. This may sound like the recipe for a musical nightmare but, oddly, Bowes' inability to hold a note adds an extra dash of shambolic, tanked-up fun to proceedings.
The whole rousing, pirate-themed symphony is drenched in European-metal synths that makes this song, and indeed, the entire album, sound absolutely massive.
During the bridge section, Alestorm pull a trick they fall back on during almost every song. Thankfully, it's one that never gets old. They switch back and forth between keyboard and guitar solos, with the instruments mirroring one another's rhythms and pitching. This interplay between keyboard and guitar is always inventive and unusual, and really draws attention to the fact that, beneath the pirate gimmick, there's some outside-of-the-box thinking going on, in terms of music.
'Wolves of The Sea' builds to a thrilling climax of that euphoric chorus repeated over and over, attaining dizzying melodramatic heights, and dragging a storm of honking synths, one-hundred-mile-an-hour drums and riffs along with it. 'Wolves of The Sea' will leave you reeling, in the best possible way.
'Keelhauled' and 'That Famous Ol' Spiced' also offer up a shot of frivolous fun.
In terms of music, 'That Famous Ol' Spiced' is business as usual: wrist-snapping drums, repetitive-but-effective guitar-chugging, whirls of piratical keys and raise-your-pint-and-sing-along choruses. But what really makes 'That Famous Ol' Spiced' stand out, is how over-the-top it is, as Alestorm lavish praise upon their alcoholic beverage of choice, with a full supporting cast of horns and battle metal synths. This anthem-sized ode-to-alcohol trails off into an ale-soaked slop of slurred, out-of-tune, drunken-pirate vocals, oompa beats and a tootling tin whistle.
And then there's 'Keelhauled.' With lyrics that simultaneously shamelessly embrace every pirate cliche in the book (the chorus actually features the line "with a bottle of rum and a yo-ho-ho!") whilst throwing in a few wickedly humorous gems of Alestorm's own design, 'Keelhauled' weaves a blood-curdling tale of throwing a traitor overboard.
Opening with a particularly insane instrumental - Irish jig synths, fiddles and an accordion - 'Keelhauled' then launches straight into full-on thrash mode, while the fiddle continues to jab away in the background, as though thrash and folk is the most natural combination in the world.
If 'Keelhauled' is an album highlight, then 'To The End of Our Days' isn't far behind, but for completely different reasons. 'To The End of Our Days' is a power metal ballad. About pirates.
Musically, it leans a little too heavily on Alestorm's stock of riffs-by-numbers, but Bowes lamenting "alone I sail the endless seas / the hands of fate have slain my crew / my only friends," in his pirate accent and strangled singing voice, isn't something you're going to forget in a hurry.
Dripping with cheese, 'To The End of Our Days' will make you laugh in disbelief and then, inexplicably, hit the repeat button. A so-bad-it's-good, lighters-in-the-air power ballad. About pirates.
Alestorm seem to know when they're onto a good thing, and treat us to another angsty power metal anthem, 'Pirate Song.'
The first verse is a continuous avalanche of sound, with the usual combination of boozy accordion and keyboard strains lending it character.
But it's with the chorus that Alestorm really layer on the power metal cheese, with defiant, pirate-themed soul-bearing lyrics, all sung in that ridiculous accent. Quite possibly the only power metal song ever written about an elderly pirate sat in a tavern wondering whether all the pillaging and questing was really worth it.
'No Quarter' is just about the most fun you'll ever have listening to an instrumental, as schizophrenic keys and swathes of accordion jig across a backdrop of chugging guitars and rumbling drum-rolls.
So far, so in keeping with Alestorm's excellent debut full-length 'Captain Morgan's Revenge.' However, 'The Quest,' 'Leviathan' and 'Chronicles of Vengeance' sees Alestorm veer towards a more serious, epic sound, which may have featured on their debut, but wasn't quite so prominent.
Album-opener 'The Quest' has darker undertones and puts an angsty slant on those pub-sing-along gang-vocals, with Alestorm lamenting that their "quest is never-ending." The downbeat tone means it isn't immediately obvious how massive and epic 'The Quest' sounds but, give it a few listens, and you'll be left wondering how this lumbering metal behemoth can manage to fit itself through your speakers.
The verses restrict themselves to only the occasional blast of capering synths. The predominance of galloping drums, black-hearted riffs and snarly vocals means that the verses are almost straight-up thrash, but Christopher Bowes is clearly relishing his role as vocalist; snarling and growling in stereotypical pirate fashion, and his obvious enjoyment is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, regardless of the darkness that lies at this song's heart.
A taunt, glowering thrash song, with spasms of pirate-themed synths; 'The Quest' proves Alestorm can not only hilariously send-up pirate stereotypes, but can also pen enthralling, battle metal tales of epic proportions.
'Leviathan' is an even grimmer number. Following a brief flurry of rollicking synths, the guitars grind to life and Alestorm pitch us into a hellish tale of terror on the high seas.
By the time Bowes begins snarling the particularly gruesome lyrics, those riffs are pulsing and bristling, and the silliness of 'Wolves of The Sea' is all but forgotten. The chorus of guttural vocals and blaring, call-to-arms horns sees Alestorm begin to sound genuinely frightening.
'Chronicles of Vengeance' ploughs a similar musical and lyrical furrow to 'Leviathan,' with its black-hearted riffing, shedloads of brassy, battle metal synths and an emphasis on epic story telling. This time, we're off on a quest to find a "traitorous cur," with plenty of dramatic musical flourishes along the way.
'Chronicles of Vengeance' is 'Black Sails At Midnight's most over-the-top, melodramatic track, painting a tangible tale of betrayal, murder and vengeance. By the time it's swept us to a ludicrously theatrical conclusion of "the lifeless corpse of my enemy floats in the bay!" you'll be riveted, and will have completely forgotten the inherent naffness of what you're listening to. Pure, unabashed cheesiness shouldn't feel this enthralling.
The only song that isn't a complete blast to listen to, is the title track. 'Black Sails At Midnight' is a decent thrash metal song, but the pirate theme doesn't really make itself felt beyond the lyrical content, and the burst of throat-shredding, hardcore vocal ramblings prior to the chorus, will have you wondering whether Alestorm are beginning to take themselves a little too seriously.
The chorus replaces the merrily-drunk, sing song vocals with chest-beating gang-shouts that ricochet off sawing riffs, in a double-pronged aural attack of surprising vitriol. A good thrash song, and a chorus of adrenal-gland-bothering aggression, but 'Black Sails At Midnight' is eclipsed by the songs on this album that are more fun to listen to.
It's always a worry when a band come with a startlingly original debut that gets everything pretty much spot-on - how can they possibly expand on it? To a certain extent, Alestorm have avoided this problem by not expanding at all. But, if it isn't broke, then why fix it? 'Black Sails At Midnight' is a neat continuation of their debut, with only the subtlest of differences between the two.
But, the thing that most effectively sums up this album, is the please-don't-put-this-album-online-prior-to-the-release-date voiceovers that are splashed all over this promo copy: "Yarrr! You're listening to the new Alestorm album, 'Black Sails At Midnight!' Remember, piracy is a crime!" Genius.