Review by Paul H Birch
Versed in the blues, Al Atkins is a natural storyteller and now with more years under his belt, the man who founded Judas Priest after listening to a Bob Dylan song has got bigger tales to tell; all with a Black Country brogue that carries gravitas. This duly noted, Paul May has used the timbre and weight of Aktin’s voice to strong effect with the ten songs he’s written, produced and played guitar on for Valley of the Shadows.
Built for big speakers, May’s guitars are layered with arrangements that are allowed to breath in a less orchestrated manner than his namesake in Queen, veering towards the sonic trajectories of Judas Priest (naturally) while maintaining a fluid blues feel. Having played on over 50 albums and been involved in the Christian music field, May has utilised themes on love and redemption for Atkins to pay testament to and interpret with his own life experiences. The musical equivalent of an existential western, May has positioned Atkins into the role of a latter day Johnny Cash for the Heavy Metal brigade.
Laying the verbal groundwork with ‘Welcome to the Nightmare’, Atkins accentuates like a punk-edged Daltrey with a gravelled-croon while in the background May’s guitars fly emphatically in all directions like a pack of winged demons. Musically it’s the kind of sound computer games thrive for and fail to achieve.
A keen use of deceptive conspiratorial whispering, melancholic humour and Black Country cackling are all used to effect on the self-mythologising four-to-the-floor classic rock of ‘No Ordinary Man’ that paves the way for an epic ‘Bitter Wars’ – Opening acoustically, a grinding ‘Kashmir’ inflected metal chain-gang blues ensues as Akins sings contemplatively, May imposing brief eloquent Spanish acoustic statements between wailing electrics that are way tasty until Atkins matches with vocal passion and nonchalantly draws matters to a close with a repeatedly gruff John Wayne-meets-John Lee Hooker “Huh”. Cracking stuff!
‘Stronger is the Grace’ is a goodtime Motorhead thrash whereas ‘Harder They Fall’ has a great linear driving riff as the leads soar in and out, getting ever faster and Atkins delivers an emphatic vocal performance with some nice use of limited double track voicing while ‘Not Ready to Die Today’ is imbued with Sabbath menace even though the guys sound like they’re having fun playing it.
May takes off in neo-classical instrumental mode for ‘Messiah (Prelude)’ tipping his bonnet to Lizzy’s Emerald and things slow down for the title track’s chilling slow torch blues flavoured with Priestly echoes before the acoustic coda of ‘The Shallowing (Return)’ ends with the listener suitably wanting more. Keep them begging I say. This is a distinctive, classy metal album; someone should throw money at the Atkins May Project so it can put on a similarly impressive live show.
8 out of 10
- Welcome to the Nightmare
- No Ordinary Man
- Bitter Waters
- Enslaved to Love
- Stronger is the Grace
- Harder They Fall
- Not Ready to die Today
- Messiah (Prelude)
- Valley of Shadows
- The Shallowing (Return)