It’s been more three years since heavy power metal super group Ashes of Ares’ sophomore album Well of Souls graced mankind, and high time the ex- Iced Earth masterminds unleash another beast upon us. Once again with guest drums by original drummer Van Williams (Ghost Ship Octavius, ex- Nevermore), the band is led by multi instrumentalist Freddie Vidales and powerhouse vocalist Matt Barlow. This time, with Emperors and Fools, they lean heavier into the progressive stuff, and Vidales gets to shine as a riff smith of no small talent as the guys delve deep into the realms of dark, heavy metal. Heralded in late 2020 by the ominous Throne of Iniquity EP, the album marks another milestone in the band’s continued evolution. Where Well of Souls in places went closer to somber fantastic elements and a melodic approach, Emperors and Fools opt for the gritty riff driven realism, given flesh by succinct songwriting and monumental performances.
While the Iced Earth stylistics are obviously there, they are less so than on Ashes of Ares’ first two full lengths, as the guys are fully developing a style of their own, enveloping inspirations from Williams’ Nevermore and Vidales’ death metal roots. Vidales turns out to be the star of the show, having evolved his presence greatly since the previous two albums. The heavy, rifflicious tone on Emperors and Fools is technical, varied through both highs and lows; melodic and gritty. Thrash vibes abound in Vidales’ thrifty riffage, unleashed right from the get go as I Am the Night rivets off like hell on wheels, while tracks like Primed and What Tomorrow Will Bring start out acoustic turning into behemoths of weighty riffing, Williams’ drum work pounding the beast with Vidales laying his ground work on the bass. All that progressive ground work comes to a head in the monument of a closer, Monster’s Lament, which duets Barlow with fellow Iced Earth alumni Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens. The eleven minute titan sees the guys pull out every trick in their arsenal for a truly magnificent epic, one which should definitely be Ashes of Ares’ crowning moment thus far.
The album is theatric and big, given massive monumental life by Barlow’s baritone, on display in full expanse as he deals shattering high notes and earth rending bellows, shaking the foundations with the might he conveys. Of course, he also finds time to lay his soul bare in his own tender way as Gone rolls in; a (near obligatory) semi ballad in the vein of the Iced Earth classics you’re now singing in your head, which sees Barlow’s tender side and emotional tone as he sings of topics near and dear to him. The guys invoke some of that theatric Horror Show feel throughout as well, By My Blade being the biggest hit in that classic Iced Earth direction with Schaffer inspired riffing from Vidales and larger than life performance by Barlow reminiscing that early 2000’s masterpiece for full effect. Emperors and Fools turns out an incredibly diverse album, one that perhaps goes back to the sound of the Ashes of Ares debut (2015) but still pushes forward in terms of songwriting and the performance of all involved. Freddie Vidales and Matt Barlow have turned out the dream team in delivering fresh sounding Iced Earth antics, and Emperors and Fools push the boundaries in inspired new directions; and the entire foundations are shaken to the core by Ashes of Ares’ blade.
Standout tracks: I Am the Night, By My Blade, The Iron Throne, Monster’s Lament