Ala Mai

Golden Robot
rating icon 6.5 / 10

Track listing:

01. Samoa O La'u Fesili
02. Aiga
03. Le Manu
04. Nafanua
05. Ua Masaa
06. Ala Mai
07. The World Bleeds
08. Cold Summers Night
09. Finally
10. Never Forgotten
11. Atali'i
12. Samoa Mo Samoa
13. Mo'omo'ogo Sa Molia

A five-piece Polynesian band from South Auckland, New Zealand, SHEPHERDS REIGN are fascinating on paper and almost as intriguing in reality. With members of Pacific Islander, Maori and Asian descent, they are already doing much for diversity in the metal scene, and "Ala Mai" seems certain to expand that mission on a global level. Despite undeniable flaws, the band's debut album strikes a perfect balance between eclectic modern metal and the ethnic trimmings that give these songs such a unique atmosphere.

Lyrics are sung in both English and Samoan, but SHEPHERDS REIGN avoid a total reliance on their otherness. Instead, "Ala Mai" rips as hard as anything out there, sounding fervently contemporary but appealingly rooted in the band's cultural identity. Opener "Aiga" sums things up nicely: pitched halfway between the heavier end of nu-metal and the tribal tactics of SEPULTURA, it thuds and slams with passion and conviction. Similarly, "Nafanua" echoes the machine-gun syncopation of hardcore-fueled groove metal and sounds like an unusually esoteric PRONG at full blast. The title track is a big, alt-metal anthem, with surging background keys and a sharp core hook. "The World Bleeds" is emotive, rough-edged metalcore with cool vocal harmonies and a sludgy underbelly. "Atali'i" takes its cues from melodic death metal and arena grunge, combining the two into a rugged, anthemic, hands-in-the-air moment. Best of all, "Samoa Mo Samoa" employs wonky, avant-metal riffs and more skewed harmonies, resulting in a show-stopping barrage of triumphant noise. The production — fat, bottom heavy, sparkling of detail — also helps to make SHEPHERDS REIGN sound like heavyweight contenders.

The downside is that the New Zealanders have tried slightly too hard to make this album a diverse affair. "Cold Summer Night" is a very sweet and pretty acoustic ballad, but its cloying sentimentality and sonorous, radio-rock sensibilities feel bland and out of place in this context. Likewise, "Never Forgotten" is an overblown, prog-tinged epic with orchestral tendencies that suggests that SHEPHERDS REIGN have been listening to a lot of AVENGED SEVENFOLD. Again, despite being well-worked and glossy, its languorous, overwrought presence feels incongruous here, and plainly jars with the album's overall aesthetic.

By no means an unequivocal triumph, "Ala Mai" has plenty to commend it, and its heaviest moments are so good that it's hard to anticipate much resistance from the average metalhead. Iron out those weaker spots, and global glory may be a possibility.

Author: Dom Lawson
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