Best known as the frontman with Metal Church, Ronny Munroe has one of those voices that absolutely encapsulates the sound of “classic metal”. It might not have been so obvious on the thrash-centic output of his former band, but via a run of solo releases, his vocal power has become more than clear. His huger notes convey a Bruce Dickinson inspired wail, some of the harder edged, theatrical elements occasionally capture a gruffer take on Geoff Tate, and when dropping into something a little more angry, his darker tones have even managed to sound a little like Russell Allen, if only the sometime Symphony X man were coasting rather than attacking everything at full volume and full pelt. There’s no escaping the fact that most of Munroe’s style relies on some very 80s influenced stock, but since the bulk of the material on ‘The Black Watch’ centres around a very busy, very retro sound, Ron’s performances are more than suitable. They’re also one hundred percent committed – both in terms of energy and volume. This album’s blend of classic and power metal is many things, but subtle it really isn’t.
‘The Black Watch’ marks the end of a hibernation period for Munroe. Last heard bellowing on his solo release ‘Electric Wake’ in 2014, his voice retains a lot of that voluminous style, but aided a much more adventurous band – unafraid to explore a hugely bombastic canvas – he’s able to abe both grander and more melodic. Things never shift too far from an old school metal core, but it often feels as if there’s far more here at stake for his fans.
The title track literally thunders from the speakers with a classic sounding 80s metal riff that’s of a moderate tempo, but a maximum crunch. Twin lead guitars and a pleasingly semi-melodic sound collide to provide a backdrop over which Munroe pulls his best Dickinson to tell us of “trumpets sounding and drawbridges falling”, and its to his eternal credit that it doesn’t sound too silly. Armed with such a massive voice, he has the self confidence to make this work, but in fairness, so much of the entertainment doesn’t actually come from him. The assembled band are superb: ex-House of Lords drummer BJ Zampa supplies plenty of weight throughout – that’s something that becomes very obvious when dropping in occasional double bass moments, and in many ways, its his solid backbone that’s vital here. From there, everyone else gets to work their retro magic, and whether that means tackling 80s harmonics, huge riffs or soaring their way through the track’s semi-proggy mid section, guitarists Justin Zych and David Mark Pierce wield some huge and unwavering tones. When everything slows down enough to introduce symphonic layers of keys, Oliver “Son of Rick” Wakeman supplies the kind of sonic textures you’d never find on an old Metal Church record. Combined, they’re a genuine musical force. Granted, it mightn’t be a force that’ll reach the heights of a Russell Allen project, but about four minutes into this record, their abilities to capture a bloody massive sound are more than clear.
An easy highlight, ‘Awaken The Fire’ features a mid tempo riff that’s all menace and crunch, almost sounding like something borrowed from Judas Priest circa ‘Nostradamus’. Avoiding it sounding like a direct rip of one of Glenn Tipton’s finest might have been tough, but the addition of some really bright keys dropping prog metal melodies and an occasional twin lead guitar used in a very different way are enough for this to stand on its own merits. Faced with the heavy crunch, Munroe steps up to the plate to share a tale of “blood on the hands” and “shifting the memories”, adding a very macho, almost battle metal worthy lyric to the superb riff, and Wakeman drops in some huge prog metal keyboard sounds which contrast the heavy guitars brilliantly. Despite being very much an ensemble piece – here, it becomes clear that Monroe’s Thunder is very much a band and not just Munroe and band – but it’s very much Pierce and Zych who steal the show with a world of melodic breaks and further twin lead sounds. Overall, even with Monroe over-singing on occasion, this is a superb slice of old school riffing that’ll thrill many a fan of classic sounding metal.
Providing an extended intro into something huge, ‘Falkirk’ once again pushes the acoustic guitar to the fore, whilst Wakeman adds several soundtrack-like keyboard washes, and moving into ‘Thirty Years War’, a mournful piano takes the reigns, again reminding everyone that there’s far more to Munroe’s Thunder than sheer bombast. As another Queensryche-esque melody takes shape and Ronny shares a whispered vocal, there’s an unease at play, but that’s quickly pushed aside by a melodic metal crunch, where the two guitarists get to share a very dramatic riff. Just as quickly as that arrived, it subsides in favour of the quiet verse once more, and the ongoing push and pull between the two contrasting moods taps into something a little more thoughtful, over which Monroe recounts another historical skirmish. For those not too worried about narratives (and these aren’t always much better than Steve Harris’s oft-plundered O-Level History notes), a couple of bluesy lead guitar breaks ensures the music remains excellent, and with Wakeman trading in proggy sounds for a huge organ sound worthy of Don Airey, there’s a very mature feel to this piece that sets it apart from the bulk of this – already excellent – record.
Another round of classic 80s metal interjected with something a little bigger, ‘Echoes of The Dead’ drops a couple of thrash riffs and a little power metal ferocity into the by now predictable Iron Maiden/Helloween-ish core, showing off Zampa’s more aggressive tendencies, as well as showing off some exceptionally tight rhythm work from the guitarists. That’s obviously good, but for most, the track’s highlights will come from huge, soaring, vibrato fuelled notes busying themselves between another equally powerful vocal. It never shows the band thinking outside the box, but when heard as another example of how they’ve successfully taken the sounds of the late 80s, beefed them up and made them their own for 2022, it’s another fist-clenched winner.
Elsewhere, ‘Babbington Mary’ teases with acoustic riffs in a neo-medieval way, allowing for Ron to unleash his best Geoff Tate impersonation before exploding into a waltzing heavy rocker that sounds like a Bruce Dickinson solo cast-off, and ‘Brace For The Night’ explores a few sonic textures that sound like early Threshold thanks to some great keyboard lines during its instrumental breaks, whilst borrowing a heavy and almost theatrical sound for some powerful verses where Munroe and Pierce go head to head. Aside from Wakeman adopting a more upfront stance, these tracks don’t necessarily add anything hugely different to an already solid album, but they definitely showcase a hugely confident band – unafraid of being unfashionable, and truly committed to the trad metal cause.
There are times when this album honestly sounds like it has crawled from the swamps of 1989. At others – and often via Wakeman’s own background – a little too indebted to the burgeoning prog metal from that time, and despite boasting a much fuller production sound in comparison to a lot of metal albums from back then, the first time you hear ‘The Black Watch’, it runs the risk of sounding like a relic. Time spent not only allows for its retro sound to shine through and for the listener to relate, but also allows for the often upfront guitar work to sound more impressive will each successive spin. Eventually, it becomes more than obvious that, for what this represents, genre fans probably couldn’t ask for much more. It isn’t the kind of album you could listen to repeatedly in one sitting, but it has more than enough weapons grade riffs and hooks to thrill anyone who wishes those old Blaze Bayley albums were much better. None of that will sway anyone unsure of the style, but when it comes to very retro, leather trousered metal that’s mostly about sweat, studs, larger than life tales and a world of macho posturing, Munroe’s Thunder delivers in spades.