The Thing About Pharaoh’s ‘The Powers That Be’

Can metal explode the master-slave dialectic?

Illustration by E. Williams. Used with permission.

The Thing About is a series of short, simple heavy metal reviews. Scroll down to the headings that interest you most or read the whole thing. The previous installment was about Ablaze My Sorrow’s Among Ashes and Monoliths.

“They say the Pharaohs built the pyramids. Do you think one Pharaoh dropped one bead of sweat? We built the pyramids for the Pharaohs and we’re building for them yet.” According to Inspirational Stories, that quote is from journalist and activist Anna Louise Strong (1885–1970). I don’t know the band Pharaoh’s precise politics, but they’re stridently pro-people and anti-authoritarian, and they bring that spirit to their stirring 2021 album The Powers That Be.

The Band

Pharaoh is four guys from Philadelphia, a city with a history in fighting for liberty. The band debuted with After the Fire in 2003 and continued to turn out new material for the next nine years, including a tribute to Coroner. The band’s website, which is only current through 2012’s Bury the Light, lays the rhetoric on thick in stating the band’s ethos of suspicion of the authorities and faith in the people. Pharaoh wouldn’t release another album for nine years, but The Powers That Be’s themes, while further developed, would be the same as on previous releases.

The Music

The Powers That Be is a technical and gritty iteration of some kind of metal: melodic metal (Amazon blurb), power metal (The Metal Archives) or just plain metal (Bandcamp). Matt Johnsen plays energetic riffs, bassist Chris Kerns shines in “When the World Was Mine,” and drummer Chris Black keeps pace with a galloping and syncopated flow recalling the most creative NWOBHM. Vocalist Tim Aymar has a rough sound and melodic style somewhere between Eric Adams of Manowar and Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, and he uses it for rousing melodies and catchy choruses that will, like so much of this album, occupy your head after first listen.

The Art

The cover art by Chris Cooper alludes to the album’s political themes. A giant, oblong heptagonal prism suggestive of an Egyptian obelisk hovers over a modern city. It sends bursts of electricity toward the buildings as people gather in the streets. To worship? To resist? Let’s hope the latter, which is what the lyrics to “The Powers That Be” indicate: “No one’s coming to save us […] Will we stand and save ourselves?” If politics in music are a turnoff, however, have no fear. Nothing here leaps out as narrowly partisan, so you won’t be betraying your chosen echo chamber unless it’s expressly totalitarian.

The Thing About

The thing about The Powers That Be is its live feeling. I assume Pharaoh hasn’t recorded the album live as a group, but it’s hard not to hear a band having a good time jamming. This feeling is heightened when the style veers toward hard rock. “Freedom” is reminiscent of Hammerfall’s “(We Make) Sweden Rock” on Dominion (2019) for the way it dials down the prog for a hard rock anthem, and “Dying Sun” even ends with the band repeatedly piling on the final note — ba-bam-baaam-baaaaammmm! — as in a concert. Technical wizardry can sound stale, but never on The Powers That Be.

The Verdict

In conclusion, Pharaoh plays powerful metal with themes of fighting our would-be overlords, blending technical heft and old-fashioned rocking-out into an album with serious replay potential. The Powers That Be should be as impressive to musicians as it is immediately enjoyable to metal fans who just press play.

Rating: 3.5/5

Image by author.

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J.P. Williams

J.P. Williams

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas.