THE LAST REIGN – Endangered Pieces Volume One

Before the pandemic lockdown turned the world on its head and bands were forced to work from home studio setups wherever possible, US metal band The Last Reign’s career had really started to gain traction. Their ‘Prelude’ EP, released in 2019, mixed classic metal with waves of metalcore and a pinch of thrash to create something huge. The end result sometimes owed a debt to riff titans In Flames and Soilwork, but as influences go, it gave the band an especially solid sound. The ‘Evolution’ album (released during a troubled 2020), cemented their place within the metal underground, and a pair of EP releases – ‘Dangerous To Go Alone’, reimagining Last Reign material as 8-bit arcade machine soundtracks, and a covers disc ‘Just Too Darn Loud’ (2021) – showed that this sometimes very serious sounding band also knew how to have fun.

For those who’ve still not explored The Last Reign’s sound, this 2023 long player provides an interesting way of catching up. The featured material isn’t necessarily always the most representative of their best sounds, but it certainly shows off the breadth of their massive talents. By bundling together the ‘Dangerous’ and ‘Loud’ EPs, and also adding a few stand alone digital singles for good measure, listeners are treated to a mix of extremely heavy, strangely familiar and downright quirky all within one handy package.

‘Sands of Fate’, the most recent of those digital singles at the time of this release, is one of the most aggressive Last Reign tracks to date, and not especially representative of their earlier sound. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments, but it has a really abrasive edge that won’t be for everyone. Opening with a circular riff that sounds like a dirtier Trivium, the early signs suggest more heavy goodness, but the track almost immediately twists into an extreme metalcore/melodic death hybrid that’s genuinely abrasive. This much angrier Last Reign, very much driven by vocalist Lauren Wishnie, whose black/death infused delivery has made a huge change to the band since her arrival, are ready to take no prisoners with an intensive set against a world of pneumatic rhythms. The marriage of Lauren’s harsher screams and a classic melodic death growl (courtesy of Design The Void’s Jesse Isodore) takes the previous metalcore and drives it further into melodic deathcore on a track that works the rhythm section hard, and the vocalists harder. For those able to stretch their ears beyond the scratchy vocals and impressive but angry pneumatics, there are a few moments of interest that call back to previous work, ranging from a melodic solo and a modern twist on an 80s riff or two, and a pleasingly dirty groove that occasionally dares to poke its head between the faster riffs. There are some impressive sounds here, but in the main, the sledgehammer approach smothers most of the melody, suggesting that The Last Reign’s current interests are more within the extreme metal sphere than before. Looking positively at the change, of course, it’s good to hear a band who clearly aren’t resting on their laurels, stuck in a rut or content to recycle previous sounds. This is a band that clearly understands the value of new members bringing new ideas.

Two more numbers featuring Lauren are more palatable due to being a little more familiar. Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Good 4 U’ comes out of left field as covers go, but the huge pop melodies translate well, with a strong opening utilising stops in a way that makes the metalcore riffs sound even bigger, and a dual guitar powering the main melody calls back to The Last Reign’s earlier work. Having settled into a sound that pulls elements of ‘Clayman’ era In Flames and early Trivium, another vocal shared between two extreme performers intensifies the remainder of the melody. For fans of The Last Reign’s early work, however, this recording shows off more familiar traits when dual guitars cut through a really hard groove, and crying leads underscore another intense vocal. It’s one of those covers that, on paper, shouldn’t work. However, the combination of sharp rhythms and classic metal guitar work takes the familiar elements of the melody into an entirely new place, and the drums are as tight as hell. More within The Last Reign’s usual wheelhouse, a reworking of the Arch Enemy tune is played fairly straight, but it’s great to hear guitarist Brian Platter going all out on a circular riff with a descending motif during the intro and tackling some brilliant harmonised sounds during the main body of the track. Lauren, too, sounds more natural, and her harsh tones are able to take on Angela Gossow’s signature style with ease. Fans of the original are unlikely to be massively surprised by the results here, but there’s absolutely no faulting the performances from all concerned.

Along with the Lauren Wishnie fronted tunes, this comp is worth picking up as an easy way of obtaining the ‘Just Too Darn Loud’ tracks where The Last Reign gleefully put on their 80s threads and hammer out a few old favourites, naturally with a twist of their own. Journey’s ‘Separate Ways’ is tailor made for a heavier approach with its massive, pounding intro, and as expected, Brian takes an opportunity to heavy up all of the guitar parts, ranging from the punchy rhythm to the dominant riffs which he reinterprets in a very harmony driven manner. He’s not the driving force here, though: drummer Vince Mayer spends a lot of time dropping in melodic metalcore pneumatics and vocalist Adam Svensson growls his way through the familiar lyric as if channelling ‘Steelbath Suicide’ era Soilwork. It’s great to hear one or two 80s era Iron Maiden influences creeping into the guitar work, and this is all very spirited…but it doesn’t quite work. The heaviness isn’t necessarily the issue – each of the band members does a good job at putting their own mark on the music, almost to the point of making it unrecognisable. The vocals are very problematic: after years of the Journey hit becoming over familiar, to hear all of the actual melody removed is incredibly jarring. Nevertheless, it’s a novelty worth hearing, if only the once…

The Icicle Works’ ‘Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)’ is a thousand times better. With a more spacious tune giving Vince room for some great tom work, the music sets up more of a goth metal mood beneath the more typical metalcore, and the lighter melody during the intro and chorus translates brilliantly to a near-stacatto guitar part. Even bringing in a deep, chugging groove metal bass and a throaty vocal doesn’t kill the melody, resulting in something far darker than Ian McNabb could’ve ever envisaged. The SoHo cover, which adds a great swathe of pop to the arrangement will always be the definitive take, but this is very interesting. Equally fun, Huey Lewis’s ‘The Power of Love’ gets puts through the ringer with a barrage of pneumatic drums and metallic growls. With the melody sucked out, The Last Reign go about rebuilding it from the ground up, with a doom/death metal instrumental break, harsh vocals and, eventually, a dirty hard rock groove underscoring a grubby lead guitar. There are a lot of multi-tracked clean guitars contrasting the heavier elements and there are times where these don’t actually seem to fit, but the sheer audacity of the arrangement should raise a smile. Again, it’s almost unrecognisable, but there’s no point in covering something if you’re going to do it straight.

If that seemed…insane, then Wham!’s ‘Careless Whisper’ reworked as if it were one of Queensryche’s moody “think pieces” meeting with a gothic metal groove should equally amuse. Armed with a more spacious melody, Brian lays down some fine, darker toned guitar lines whilst Adam growls in a demonic way. At the point where you think you’ve got it sussed, the band takes a turn into melodic death/metalcore for the main riff, before settling into some sharp edged metal for the chorus. It isn’t always easy going, but it’s good to hear this overplayed number with a fresh ear. Rounding out the covers, ‘Never’ – a number by Moving Pictures, and largely unknown to UK audiences – opens with a riff that’s easily derived from ‘Aces High’ by Iron Maiden, which is enough to make it a standout here. Easing into some brilliantly played trad metal with a metalcore vocal, it immediately becomes top tier Reign, and its great to hear a really tight rhythm section slowing down enough to demonstrate how well the bass and drums lock down a groove.

Lastly, the tracks from the ‘Dangerous To Go Alone’ EP hold up well and are brilliantly constructed with a really authentic sound, but perhaps don’t work quite as well heard as part of a larger body of work. Nevertheless, those who spent their youth in old amusement arcades, the sound-based memories these tunes evoke are very strong. Despite being based around largely unknown metal tunes, when listening, it’s easy to imagine the sound of coin machines emptying, the dubious smell of old carpets and burning cables, and the bustle of a seaside pier in summer when listening. These EP tracks are a welcome curio, but ultimately a novelty.

As compilations go, ‘Endangered Pieces Volume One’ is exceptionally good value. It showcases some great original metal, presents some familiar tunes in a new way, and also shows how well rounded The Last Reign are as a band. Whether tackling some taut metalcore or throwing a heavy hand in the direction of Olivia Rodrigo, they sound supremely confident – occasionally a little scary too, but often great. This release may well have come at a time when the UK and US metal festivals are booking the same tired old bands, but The Last Reign more than prove that there’s always a far more exciting alternative for those willing to dig a little deeper.

January/February 2023