It's a rare treat whenever we get new music from Athens, Georgia power metal act, Theocracy. Due to their infrequent amount of releases, it's easy to forget the band has been around for twenty years now. Because of this, their latest effort, Mosaic, feels like a visit from a long-lost friend. To start off with, I'm not an "album art" guy, but Theocracy always manages to capture the theme of the album through it, and this serene depiction of the earth as God's mural, is both fitting and eye-catching.
It's not often a professional audio engineer records his own album, but that's what we have in mastermind Matt Smith. The result we get is an album exactly as he intended it, including some eclectic production choices, such as the cut-to-black ending of "Flicker," full pause in the middle of "Anonymous," and raspy narration during "Sinsidious (The Dogs Of War)." Overall, the production is clean and full, with notable individual performances by Ernie Topran (drums), and newcomer Taylor Washington (lead guitar). The latter especially impressed as his 80's-rock shredding gives an additional flavor we've not heard from the band before.
Opening with "Flicker," I was immediately reminded of 2008's Mirror Of Souls opening track "A Tower Of Ashes," bringing both the pace and choirs we've come to expect from Smith. In fact, the flow of Mosaic follows very closely to the 2008 masterpiece (which remains my favorite album of all time), including speedy opening tracks, longer progressive numbers, and a magnum opus at the end. Continuing with "Flicker," I'm consistently impressed with the small details Smith adds into his compositions that keep you guessing and engaged. The choral snippets during the verses and major chords mixed with thrash metal beats blur the lines between metal genres, matching the song's theme of bewilderment by the world's priorities... "Trapped inside a world that buried Mozart in a pauper's grave/and said "give us Barabbas"/crucified Christ and turned away/elected fools to lead us/rejected truth/see us spiraling down/shall we enter the last days?"
"Anonymous" features one of the heaviest riffs on the album, as choppy and marching rhythms lead the way, until the chorus once again delivers those patented uplifting choirs, setting the formula entirely apart from other bands. One of the prevailing messages of the album, much like 2016's Ghost Ship, encourages those who feel worthless, left out, or "anonymous," that God has called them to something greater... "Not assigned our worth by words of men in changing flawed morality/a sacrifice painted in blood/recovered lost identity/it's not the things that we have done/or other things that we have not/You turn the lost souls carved in stone/to sons and daughters/welcome home." Smith has been one of my go-to lyricists throughout the years due to his practical, yet majestic, themes of overt Christianity. The lyrical content here is no different, and deserves its own consideration.
Moving to the title track, we have the first taste of a softer sound, opening to a clean guitar behind Smith's angelic falsetto, until a galloping riff brings back the fierce pace of the first two tracks. As is the case with much of Theocracy's catalogue, these metal confines somehow manage to stay emotionally positive throughout. The chorus may be the catchiest of the bunch, lodging a permanent nook in my brain since I first heard it. "Sinsidious (The Dogs Of War)" is a satirical, almost dystopian look at historical figures of war, and implores believers to "guard our hearts" against such regimes. I wasn't a fan of the aforementioned raspy tone included here, but I appreciate Smith's willingness to try something new with his vocal delivery. Lead single "Return To Dust" is average as far as Theocracy numbers go, as the main riff is a bit simplistic and repeated too many times, but it's still a fine number in its own right.
"The Sixth Great Extinction" is grand in scope, using a chugging guitar and key change to evoke an otherworldly feel. I only wish the breakdown near the end was as monumental as the subject matter deserves. "Deified" continues the "happy metal" assault, with Smith's ingenious chord progressions being placed in a thrash metal box, another trait that makes any Theocracy album a unique experience.
One knock on the album, as can be heard when the band explores its heavier side, is that many of the guitar riffs are a bit too simplistic. With the rise of modern metal over the last decade or so, our ears are becoming less-and-less accustomed to traditional metal riffs the likes of, say Metallica, and turning more to the technical, sweeping sounds of a Phinehas or the latest War of Ages. As such, this observation may only be relevant based on the preference of the listener, but I think more inventive instrumental backings would take the already impressive compositions to sparkling new heights.
The lone full-ballad is "The Greatest Hope," hearkening back to the classic power ballads of the 80's and serving as a short respite from the speed metal surrounding it. Smith's vocals take center stage, and the range he displays is breathtaking, bringing to mind Michael Sweet and even Axl Rose. In striking clarity to the hopelessness the album has previously decried from materialism, this track communicates one of the glories of Christianity, that even in grieving the loss of a loved one, believers will "see you again/my friend/I know/for we have the greatest hope." The transition from this ballad to perhaps the album's heaviest track was welcome. Album highlight "Liar, Fool, Or Messiah" tailors its message from C.S. Lewis' famous quote from Mere Christianity, about Jesus being either "Liar, Lunatic, or Lord." It has everything you could want from a Theocracy track: speed metal riffs and solos, progressive leanings, a powerful chorus, and solid Biblical themes... "How can a mortal man be good and claim divinity/could a great teacher say such things/it's either true or He's a liar or insane!"
If these weren't enough, we're treated to a nearly twenty-minute epic titled "Red Sea." Long-time fans of the band are no stranger to their compositions of epic proportions, but it feels especially nostalgic to see the band sticking to their guns all these years later. This track was actually written before the very first Theocracy album (though it's been reworked), and it does mirror some of the epics from their first album or the smidge-longer "Mirror Of Souls." Egyptian scales abound as the stage is set for the story of the Exodus. My favorite section has to be the polyphonic vocal section near the end of the first half, as Moses' enemies are drowned in the sea and a song of praise commences. The story continues, working much like a musical movie, including modern applications and Pauline tellings of Grace and Flesh from the New Testament... "So I rise and run to the shore/of this sea of righteousness/sanctified now forevermore/I dive into forgiveness/and float away." All of this is right in my wheelhouse, but understandably may not be for everyone. I'd encourage engaged listening, while reading the lyrics for the most immersive experience. The only downside was the middling, drawn-out lead guitar near the end.
It's hard to know where to rank Mosaic in Theocracy's storied discography. Even reading the album reviews on this website, the quality of each album is so high, that each is special in its own right. I'm just glad each proves to be worth the ungodly wait between them. Quality over quantity is the name of the game here, and Mosaic is no different. As with any Theocracy submission, there's so much detail and moving parts involved, it's impossible to note all of them in a digestible review, but consider this a hearty entreatment for all to give this album a listen; I highly doubt you'll regret it. Mosaic is an easy competitor for album of the year.- Review date: 10/28/23, written by Joel Zaloum of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Atomic Fire
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