Planeswalker
Tales of Magic

I’ve been a big fan of Helion Prime since their 2016 self-titled debut. Their brand of familiar, but subtly unique Power Metal has always landed really well with me and, at least in my objectively worthless opinion, the band has been criminally underappreciated over their 6-year career. For me, there have been two things that help the band stand out – the first being the songwriting skills of guitarist Jason Ashcraft who, along with his expert sense of melody and ability to write memorable riffs, has always been able to inject a healthy dose of additional heft into his brand of Power Metal. It’s kinda like the happy middle ground of the more aggressive Blackguard, and the more traditional power sounds of Judicator. Secondly, to perfectly compliment Ashcraft’s work, the band has always had a knack for producing extremely fun, unique vocal lines and melodies – whether it be from original singer Heather Michele (check out the track “Apollo [The Eagle Has Landed]” for a prime example), current singer Mary Zimmer, or former singer Sozos Michael, whose vocal performance on sophomore record Terror of the Cybernetic Space Monster, can reasonably be argued as the best of the band’s catalogue.

Unfortunately for Sozos and Helion Prime, the union came to an untimely end due to travel and visa issues (Sozos being a native of Cyprus, and Helion Prime being based in California). But the bond built through such a creative powerhouse as Terror… was, as it turns out, not so easily broken – because Sozos and Jason Ashcraft have reunited for this new Power Metal passion project Planeswalker, and friends, it is so SO good. Get ready to nerd the fuck out.

This reunion shouldn’t come as too big a surprise though, as Helion Prime has served to create almost like its own little metal universe. Their last album, Question Everything, even featured guest appearances from both Heather Michele and Sozos Michael, proof that the kinship between current and former members is as strong as ever. But where Helion Prime is all about themes surrounding science and the celebration of humanity’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge – Planeswalker, as I’m sure many of you have surmised, is taken directly from Magic: The Gathering. I’ll admit right here that I know absolutely squat about the game or the lore surrounding it – but just like my experience with Serena Cherry’s (Svalbard) Skyrim-themed, solo black metal project Noctulea lack of knowledge about the source material certainly should not keep you from experiencing the pure joy that is Tales of Magic.

Stylistically, if you’re already familiar with the pair’s prior work, you likely won’t find anything super surprising here – though Ashcraft does take the opportunity to think a little bigger, reaching more towards operatic, Blind Guardian levels of grandeur. First single “Oath of the Gatewatch,” along with “Shadow of Emeria” serve as prime examples; epic, multi-layered tracks that both bring on a bevy of guest vocalists to serve as different characters from the album’s storyline, including Brittney Slayes (Unleash the Archers), R.A. Voltaire (Ravenous), Taylor Washington (Paladin) and, in a surprise to absolutely no one, Heather Michele – who pulls double duty as two characters, one with the fantastic cleans she’s probably more known for, and one with some really sweet demonic lows that she began working on during her time with Graveshadow. This absolutely STACKED list of guest vocalists, along with the core of Sozos Michael’s immense talents, does leave plenty for Ashcraft to work with, and he comes through in spades – delivering perhaps his most inspired work to date. Monster riffs and solos can be found throughout, with standouts on tracks like “The Spark,” and personal favorite, “Blackblade.” They run the gamut of influences everywhere from Dragonforce and HammerFall, to HEAVY doses of Rhapsody of Fire and Kamelot, particularly with the beautifully and expertly layered orchestrations complementing the guitar work, giving this record a very robust, cinematic feel. “The Forever Serpent” even features some really fun interplay between the guitar melodies and synths that give it a very folk-ish, almost Amorphis-like feel at times. It’s an intoxicatingly fun and upbeat mix that’s hard not to get swept away by.

There’s a really nice balance of technical wizardry, and just straight up headbanging fun; between being a vocal masterclass, and keeping things simple with just a really good vocal hook. You can find yourself in absolute awe while trying to keep up with the breadth of talent on display, but be singling along with earworms like “Tales of Magic” and “The Spark” in absolutely no time.  With any luck, Planeswalker is an open door for more collaboration between all of the talented current and former members of Helion Prime and their friends, because the results are, once again, fantastic (this is my open plea for these guys to get Kayla Dixon on a track, who very briefly fronted HP on the single “Remnants of Stars,” which is maybe my favorite all-time song of theirs). If you’re a Magic: The Gathering fan, there’s no doubt you’re gonna have plenty to geek out about here – but even though I couldn’t necessarily share in that experience, I am definitely geeking out on this brilliant collection of musicians coming together to make something really outstanding. If you’re at all into Power Metal, you’re doing yourself a disservice not checking this out.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
March 15th, 2022

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