Like all of the Idol (from whatever national franchise you care to name, except possibly Finland) alumni who’ve fancied themselves to be metal Gods over the years, it’s very easy to be cynical about singer James Durbin. I myself have been critical of the lad myself over the years, especially his work on the Quiet Riot albums he recorded before the sad passing of drummer Frankie Banali.
Those albums were recorded for the Frontiers label, and in 2021 we find James bringing out a solo album for the same label. Thankfully the label haven’t forced the man onto their production line of identikit hard rock albums, allowing the singer his own head and the freedom to work with whoever he wished. The result – and I’m not making this up – is one of the most joyful slabs of unalloyed, irony free heavy metal you’re likely to hear all year.
Because on The Beast Awakens Durbin allows his mask to slip, revealing a keen metalhead just like you and me, a man with a predilection for melody-packed, eighties-inspired heavy metal that’s classic and cheesy in the same measure. As listening experiences go, it’s hard to beat.
Dubbing yourself The Prince of Metal, as Durbin does on the opening track of the same name (and again in the lyrics of the Dioesque The Sacred Mountain) might be a bit presumptuous, but at least young James has the pipes to back such a claim up. The track itself is a nice slice of solo-period Halford worship, quickly followed by a jaunty, Fozzy-styled anthem in the shape of Kings Before You th- wait… is that Chris Jericho I hear contributing vocals? Yes it is! Celebrity guest star aside, it’s a nice slice of jaunty metal-lite, delivered with verve and enthusiasm.
The title track is another spirited rocker, reviving the album’s fortunes after the more earnest, Ripper Owens styled histrionics of Into The Flames and The Sacred Mountain, but the real ace in the pack comes at the album’s mid point with the quite superb Evil Eye, a song easily fit to slide in on any of the mid eighties albums from which Durbin has taken his cues for The Beast Awakens. It’s his best vocal performance, his best songwriting, all rolled into one irresistible package.
Whilst Necromancer packs a lot of ambition into it’s three minutes and seventeen seconds, adding some Cooperesque spookiness to the regulation sturm und drang, Riders On The Wind is a straight-up Dio tribute – and none the worse for that – and that simplicity continues with up-tempo rocker Calling Out For Midnight, which features some great power metal drumming from Y&T percussionist Mike Vanderhule. It’s another fantastic track, packed full of classic US metal tropes – Leatherwolf wouldn’t have turned their nose up at this during their Street Ready heyday, I suspect – and once again it’s just a sheer pleasure to listen to people doing something they so clearly enjoy, and doing it well.
The last trio of tracks, the balladic Battle Cry, the Defender-era Priestesque drama of By The Horns and superb closing epic Rise To Valhalla all ram home the fact that James Durbin is a capable and committed metalhead who deserves your support rather than suspicion based on his ‘pop’ background. This is honest metal, as sincere as it gets, and it deserves your attention!
The Beast Awakens is out now.