STORMTROOPER – Pride Before A Fall: The Lost Album

stormtrooper lpFor British hard rock and metal fans over a certain age, the late 70s and early 80s will always come with a certain rose-tinted viewpoint. Between 1979-82, as part of a scene dubbed as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, there were a whole slew of superb bands that made their breakthrough. Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon and Diamond Head are unquestionably the most successful from that time, but other bands like Angelwitch, Praying Mantis and Gaskin scored some well deserved success.

For every band that truly became stars, there were dozens more whom (sometimes for fairly obvious reasons) never quite made it. Over the course of a few years, the popular rock newspaper Sounds pretty much covered them all. Bristol’s Stormtrooper were real contenders: they had a genuine energy and plenty of melody to go with their riffs. Released as a single in 1980, their best-known track ‘Pride Before a Fall’ reached a respectable #11 on Sounds‘ heavy metal chart, a feat that forever links them with the NWOBHM, even though their influences often leant further towards prog. With the Sounds readers behind them, though, their future was wide open… They decamped to Bath’s Crescent Studios and other studios in Bristol, eventually cutting enough tracks for a full album. It never saw the light of day and inevitably the band split. Bassist Colin “Boggy” Bond joined Stampede, a band now best known for featuring Grand Slam and future UFO guitarist Laurence Archer; he also rubbed shoulders with future Magnum keyboard player Mark Stanway and later toured with the incomparable Meat Loaf. Vocalist Paul Merrell, meanwhile, made waves with another NWOBHM band, Jaguar, who achieved some underground success.

With each passing year, it looked ever more likely that Stormtrooper’s sole 7” would be all people would ever hear…and then…in 2016, Bristol Archive Records – a label that does exactly what it says on the tin – released the complete Stormtrooper studio recordings from the period as ‘Pride Before A Fall: The Lost Album’. This seemed to be an interesting move for the label whom, so far, had hardly touched on anything of a classic rock stance, but with Stormtrooper representing an interesting chapter in the city’s musical history they couldn’t pass it up…and fans of older styled metal, pomp and prog will certainly be glad to hear some of this material, in some cases, for the very first time.

Naturally, the collection kicks off with the single…and ‘Pride Before a Fall’ has weathered the decades reasonably well. A three minute classic rock tour de force, it’s the closest the band ever came to recording something that totally fit with a couple of their more famous peers. Bob Starling drives everything forward apace with a hard edged circular guitar riff, while drummer Nick Hancox hammers a steady rhythm. Over this, Merrell’s lead voice isn’t necessarily the strongest you’ll hear – it’s not even the strongest to emerge from the time of the NWOBHM; it’s hard to argue against Bruce “Bruce” Dickinson laying that claim – but it has a defiant cry and an energy that’s so key to so much of the best music of that era. What sets this apart from, say, Saxon, and puts it more in line with the underrated Praying Mantis is the presence of keyboards high in the mix. They’re never complex, but the repeated swirling and almost sci-fi sounds accompanying the heavier edge are a welcome touch. The simplistic style nods towards ‘Hemispheres’ era Rush, though NWOBHM devotees are more likely to be reminded of Limelight.

The b-side of that single release, ‘Still Coming Home’ works another circular riff, this time much dirtier in tone, while a huge bass shows Bond’s talents off extremely well. Merrell has his work cut out for him, but delivers a blusterous vocal performance that has a meter that’s often very close to Deep Purple’s ‘Burn’. The influence might be obvious to some, but it doesn’t detract from the performance – he has a real gusto…and although this is great, the instrumental break is greater, with the bass rising to deliver a busy solo. Throw in some keyboards – blatantly lifted from Rush’s ‘Xanadu’ – and some fierce drum fills and you have a track that really shows what Stormtrooper were all about. Dust off that denim and leather, close your eyes and imagine you’re at Neal Kay’s Bandwagon and it might sound even better. Hearing these tracks decades on, it’s easy to hear why the band were on the fringes of the NWOBHM.

Moving on to the never-before-released material, there’s much less to connect the band with the scene, as so many of the recordings steer more towards a prog-based persuasion. It may not be exactly what some of you expect, but there’s a wealth of gold within the grooves. Granted, some of it’s very of it’s time – certainly attitude wise – but most, if not all, of these tracks give a good insight into a talented and hard working band.

Given a boost by the live in the studio sound, ‘In The State of The City’ leads off with the kind of riff that made those early Saxon records so vibrant, backed by a solid rhythm section. Merrell is in good voice, taking each line and delivering it with a melodious edge that places him somewhere between the young Geddy Lee and Bernie Shaw, while the band’s Rush obsessions cut deeper via a spacy keyboard sound and complex mid-section where Bond backs a fiery guitar solo that comes across like a hybrid of Alex Lifeson and an unheralded NWOBHM star. Although dubious in content, ‘Drunken Women’ showcases some fine music; a riff borrowed and reworked from Edgar Winter, some insanely good bass playing and a heavy but melodic sound pull together to show off the band’s collective admiration for the Rush debut and Max Webster. Throw in a superb solo that combines the best of 70s hard rock – and, yes, another ‘Xanadu’ keyboard riff – and it quickly becomes classic Stormtrooper fare. Although this is a natural four minute workout, the artier side of the band means there’s some extra value and, in this case, a muted riff and edgy vocal make up an unexpected bridge, before moving back into the main riff and chorus for a last time where things sound even better than before.

Starting with an off-kilter drum roll and the kind of bluster you’d expect for the end of a track, ‘Bounty Hunter’ suggests pretty quickly it’s going to be a full-throttle affair and in terms of speed, it’s one of this collection’s most metal-oriented workouts. Lyrically, it’s pretty clichéd, made of the kind of stuff that was passable for hard rock in the early 80s – all bravado and macho posturing – but musically it doesn’t disappoint. Once the riff takes hold it genuinely doesn’t let up, with Starling eventually trailblazing his way through a solo that combines the energies of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith with the older whammy bar grubbiness of Ritchie Blackmore, while Bond smokes his fretboard as if he’s channelling Geddy Lee. Hancox doesn’t quite have the flair of Clive Burr but is more than up to the job in hand, while Merrell attacks with force. Hearing it years after the event, of course, it won’t change the world, but in terms of tightness and energy it still really hits the spot. Elsewhere, ‘Confusion’ works some choppy rhythms and huge chords in a way that pulls together influences from Rush and Budgie before going for a spacy keyboard freakout and the bizarrely named ‘If It Takes a Man a Week To Walk a Fortnight, How Long Is a Piece of String’ is more simple drum-oriented melodic metal fare. Hancox is permanently in the driving seat during the latter and the way he moves between the cymbals and snare really encapsulates the feel of the metal of the day.

If this release only contained those tracks it would already be worth seeking out, but Stormtrooper’s proggiest tendencies mean that you’ll also find a couple of genuine epics here, too. The twelve and a half minute ‘Battle for the Eve’ so obviously has moods derived from Rush (more specifically ‘Cygnus X-1’ and other parts of ‘A Farewell To Kings’). Beginning with a huge overture, various moods are built up with lovely old analogue sounds, with the quasi-melodic keyboard parts almost unsettling in their coldness, while Bond drops in with various bass harmonics (and they’re superb, obviously). This goes on for almost a standard track length, before even bigger guitar chords smash through. By the time the main riff arrives – by which time, you’ve had time to go and put the kettle on and come back – the band set upon a groovy 70s hard rocker. At the point that it feels as if this might be an instrumental, various Zeppelin-esque muted riffs inform a verse and Merrell starts wailing various fantasy themed lyrics, again, not too far removed from the basis of Neil Peart’s (cleverer) ideas or Tony Clarkin’s earliest flights of fancy. There’s more some enjoyable music – semi-acoustic guitar lines meshing with deep proggy bass, as well as a few heartfelt bluesy guitar lines drenched in reverb that take cues from both Jimmy Page’s better work on Led Zeppelin’s debut and the unrestrained hugeness of Ted Nugent’s ‘Stranglehold’. There’s a bit more Rush influence to be wrung from this, too, of course, but it all comes together with ease and the kind of grandiosity that most bands associated with the NWOBHM wouldn’t have touched with a fifty foot pole. A mite more concise, ‘After Battle’ (just the nine minutes) delivers an unsubtle Rush fixation throughout; it’s rarely any more than a lengthy extension of the original ‘Battle’s themes, but that’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Bond ensures there’s plenty here for bass players to get their teeth into and ears around, while Starling lays down some of his best guitar playing, tapping into a sound that tempers hard rock with a classy, bluesy slant. If prog with a metal edge floats your boat and you don’t mind that the Rush influences are very sleeve-worn as opposed to merely traceable, these epic tracks should provide hours of entertainment. If approached in the wrong mood, however, it might feel as if they’ve been on that long…great as they are.

Hearing this so many years later, it’s obvious that Stormtrooper were only considered part of the NWOBHM by virtue of timing. Their material can throw up some good metal riffs from time to time and occasionally ones reminiscent of Saxon, Praying Mantis et al (‘…Piece of String’ being testament to that), but the bulk of their sound owes far, far more to 70s prog and pomp. In theory, this release might just seem merely like another nostalgia trip – and, indeed, it’s a warm and very welcome look at what might have been – but it’s better than that. This compilation should also intrigue those who weren’t there that first time around…particularly listeners who love the Rush debut. For Stormtrooper, it’s no longer just an old page in Sounds and a half-remembered single that represents their shot at glory. Although the very epitome of buried treasure, this is also a great album in it’s own right. Don’t miss it!

July 2016