With a run of enjoyable albums that began with 2015’s ‘Legacy’, Praying Mantis seemed to go from strength to strength over the following decade. Granted, a few of the tracks on that album and its successors (2018’s ‘Gravity’ and 2022’s ‘Katharsis’) were a little heavier sounding, but Chris and Tino Troy’s gifts for a strong melody continued to set the band apart from so many of the second tier acts associated with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and when dropping into numbers boasting more of an AOR/melodic rock hook, the band sounded as good as ever.

2024’s ‘Defiance’ finds the 80s stalwarts in even better shape. With regard to two or three of its very best tunes, their thirteenth studio album offers fans material that actually eclipses anything they’ve recorded since vocalist John Cuijpers arrived in 2013. Approached in the right mood, the whole thing could be a contender for the best Praying Mantis LP since 2000’s ‘Nowhere To Hide’.

Offering a very atmospheric beginning, ‘From The Start’ opens with a wash of keys and a musical box style melody, creating something rather creepy. Opening out into a full blown rock melody, guitarist Tino Troy’s chugging guitars hint at something from the more melodic end of the prog metal scale, before settling into a very European sounding slice of melodic metal. The balance of heaviness and melody is even more precarious here than most of the tracks on ‘Legacy’, and to begin with, Cuijpers adopts a broad, almost pompy vocal to suit. As the track progresses, though, his vocals get louder and, eventually, he booms with a genuine force. Keeping things very melodic, the lead guitars share more of an AOR feel throughout, and despite this track occasionally feeling like a kitchen sink affair, Tino and second guitarist Andy Burgess’s natural flow provides a central melody that’s very accessible. Also working a great melodic metal sound, ‘Lets See’ works very well since its upbeat rhythm and driving tempo is the perfect fit for Cuijpers sharing a Dio-ish performance. His louder approach is perfect when pitched against the busy guitar work, and although this track casts Praying Mantis in the mould of a late 80s metal band, it’s hard to find fault with their playing.A twin lead guitar break that sounds as if it’s on loan from Iron Maiden’s ‘Powerslave’ album helps the number to be especially enjoyable, as does the brief burst of lead bass that acts as a perfect reminder of Chris Troy’s brilliantly taut style.

For those who’ve always had a fondness for the Mantis when they drop into more of an 80s AOR sound, the bulk of this album leans a lot further in that direction than its immediate predecessors. The buoyant ‘Feelin’ Lucky’ is an instant stand out with its Michael Sembello-ish rhythm. It’s a track with a shamelessly retro heart, from its use of bright sounding, stabbed keyboard motifs, relentless chopping rhythm guitar lines, and busy countermelodies from the lead guitar, but it actually goes further into a display of loveable retro cheese when a busy harmony vocal underscores Cuijpers – who absolutely chews his way through the song’s main hook – on the coda. It’s one of those feel good rock tracks that hits with immediate effect, and almost hard to believe it hasn’t been dug up by a veteran rock band from thirty five years earlier. An equally strong AOR/melodic rock sound cuts through the centre of ‘Give It Up’, and right from the opening bars – absolutely loaded with twin lead guitars – it’s clear that, musically at least, it’s going to be an 80s inspired treat. Once the main riff settles into a mid tempo chug, the 80s vibes hold firm, and there’s plenty about the great arrangement – from the guitar work and gang vocals, especially – that sounds like a well played homage to Aviator. Unfortunately, John’s lead vocals are a little mismatched. On the verses, he booms with delight, but is far too loud for the job in hand. When approaching the harmonious chorus, his pompier style fits better, but there’s still a feeling that this otherwise superb tune required something a little more sympathetic. That said, a few plays in and given time to adjust, the hooky chorus and very melodic middle eight are certainly strong enough to make the track fly, and it’s safe to say that if you’ve enjoyed the previous couple of Mantis albums, you’ll like this too.

Clinging on to the AOR-centric tones and a strong twin lead, the instrumental ‘Nightswim’ really brings out the finer points of the band’s melodic chops. Throughout the number, Tino and Andy’s natural affinity for the style shines through, and the way they lock together is perfect. This is especially clear when they share a very melodic riff during the latter part of the tune where the notes rise and fall with an almost prog rock like flow, and via a smooth lead break actually conveys a sound that’s much closer to Joe Satriani than Grand Prix or early Maiden.

Elsewhere, the title track shares some very melodic guitar work – a very 80s influenced chiming rhythm and grandiose lead – to provide the heart of a broad sounding AOR number that sounds like something from Uriah Heep circa ‘Abominog’. Naturally, this finds Mantis in a comfort zone, but in terms of sharing some big sounding rock where Tino gets to play a couple of flowing solos and John gets to explore the more accessible end of his vocal range, it’s near perfect. ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’, meanwhile, applies the melodic rock core to something with more of a Scandinavian lilt, and creates something that sounds like a loving throwback to Snakes In Paradise with louder vocals – another track where Tino and Andy’s guitar work really shines – and ‘One Heart’ mixes the band’s obvious melodicism with even more of an AOR sound. From the outset, with the guitars and keys settling into a circular riff whilst Chris plays a high toned bass melody, there’s a little more interest here than in some of the era’s melodic rock fare, and even when the number ultimately settles into something a little safer, the mix of Tino’s flowing guitar and John’s theatrical vocal results in something hugely enjoyable. At the point where you might feel Praying Mantis are playing to their fanbase in a very traditional way, the number takes a dramatic turn, and instead of dropping in a soaring AOR lead break, Tino shares an acoustic accompaniment where busy notes lean towards a very Mediterranean flavour. There’s certainly a little more thought gone into this arrangement, and – even as part of a very solid album – it provides another standout track. It’s a little different to some of this album’s tracks, but for anyone who’s familiar with any of the “later” Praying Mantis recordings with Cuijpers at the mic, this is still unmistakably them.

In addition to some fine self penned tunes, ‘Defiance’ also features a well chosen cover that’ll be familiar to almost everyone. Quite why Praying Mantis have decided to wheel out a version of Russ Ballard’s ‘I Surrender’ (a massive UK top ten hit for Rainbow in 1981) in 2024 is unclear. What is obvious, though, is how well suited it is to their sometimes bombastic style, and it provides a superb showcase for John’s less than shy vocal approach. Between the hard edged riffs – given some extra punch courtesy of Hans In’t Zandt behind the drum kit – and the between verse melody being beefed up via another great twin lead, Praying Mantis offer a worthy recording that stands alongside the Rainbow cut.

Regardless of fashion, Praying Mantis have often shared some great work, and although ‘Defiance’ is more melodic than a couple of their earlier records, it still feels very much an album geared towards their fans. And those fans couldn’t expect much better than they’re given here. Almost fifty years after forming – and forty three since the release of their ‘Time Tells No Lies’ debut – this is the kind of record some veteran metal bands could only dream of making.

Buy the CD here.

April 2024