April 27, 2024

There will be a class of hard rock fans for whom Praying Mantis is nought but a distant memory. If they think hard, they may be able to remember a band by that name way back at the start of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Indeed, a vision may swim in their memory of a classic Rodney Matthews album cover, showing a huge, spiky Mantis facing off against a wizard, recently dismounted from a giant wasp – those were the days indeed.  There was a big anthem on that first album called Flirting With Suicide, based on the tale that a female mantis eats her mate after mating – so he really is, flirting with suicide.

It was a promising start, but Praying Mantis, along with many other early pioneers, stayed largely in the shadows while the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Saxon hit the stratosphere. Mantis never really went away though, and kept a strong grip on their fanbase, especially in Japan, where they were, and still are, a big draw. The core duo of brothers Tino and Chris Troy has been joined by various names over the years, including a number of early members of Iron Maiden: Paul Di’Anno was their front man for a while, Clive Burr has occupied the drum stool on occasion, and Dennis Stratton played guitar in the band for many years. And the albums have been tremendous; lush, layered vocals and guitars abound, and production values are top-notch.

Left to right: Hans in’t Zandt, Tino Troy, Jaycee Cuijpers, Chris Troy, Andy Burgess

Now though, they are more of a powerful force than ever before. Guitarist Andy Burgess joined way back in 2007, and with Tino, forms a potent twin-guitar attack. The vocal spot has been occupied for the last ten years by none other than the mighty Jaycee Cuijpers, a regular on the Ayreon roster. And quite possibly the best of all, Hans in’t Zandt is an absolute megalith behind the drums. Now celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band’s formation in 1974, they have released Defiance, the band’s 13th full studio album. Tino has long since swapped his curly locks for a more billiard-ball style; Chris still sports a thick thatch and retains that distinctive, low-slung bass position, and they are still piling on the rock.

The set starts innocuously enough, with some metallic ting-tinging sounds, before launching into From The Start, a symphonic rocker in the vein of Nightwish or Within Temptation, except with Cuijpers’ butch vocals. The drums are satisfactorily thudding, the guitars are smooth and thoughtfully arranged, and the production is perfect. I have to confess myself mightily impressed with in’t Zandt’s energetic and imaginative drumming, especially the cross-cut rhythm near the end. This is followed by the title track, which is also the album’s lead single; a little slower and more mournful, the ‘Can you believe in angels’ vocal line is accompanied by a nice arpeggiated guitar in the background.

Track 4 is a cover of none other than I Surrender, a big hit for Rainbow in 1981. It’s a pretty faithful cover, but chunkier and fuller-sounding all round. It turns out this is not the first time Praying Mantis have recorded this song, as they were in the middle of producing a version for their first album Time Tells No Lies, when Rainbow beat them to the punch.

Never Can Say Goodbye (not the Jackson 5 song), is another big anthemic number, which gives a neat nod to that original LP with the lines, ‘Time doesn’t lie’ and ‘Time never lies’. The album covers much the same intense ground throughout, which means there isn’t much in the way of highs and lows, but for my money, most of the really best stuff is in the second half. Give It Up, for instance,  relieves the tension to some extent, being somewhat more melodic and catchy than the rest, with subtle guitar textures. And this is followed by the instrumental Nightswim, altogether more gentle, but still retaining the lush depth of layered guitars that gives the album its tone.

Penultimate number Standing Tall is really something of an experiment, beginning with guitar arpeggios over synths, but then building an electronic rhythm into a kind of dance number. There is still plenty of rocky instrumentation though, a nice guitar solo, and vocals as powerful as ever. It’s certainly a bit of a crossover, but it can and does work surprisingly well, as has already been proven by Aussie electro-metal pioneers Voyager. It’s also the second single on the album, and is the featured video at the foot of this page.

They finish with Let’s See, easily the fastest number of the set, with a harmony guitar mid-section over rumbling bass and drums, then a deep drop filled by Chris Troy’s crunching bass, the album drawing to a close after 47 minutes and 11 songs. The arrangements are musically advanced, and walk the line between melodic and symphonic metal. It’s a shame the boys are still scratching around for a fanbase on their home turf, because it really doesn’t get much better than this.

Defiance by Praying Mantis is out now on Frontiers Music