Review by Greg Maki
Gather ‘round, adventurers. Keep your blades sharp, your spells in mind and your gods close, for our dice-throwing, Thin Lizzy-worshipping, hard rock heroes have returned to lead us once again to glory and plunder.
My love for Ventura, California’s Gygax extends far beyond its recorded output. Fueled by fantasy role-playing games and a passion for rock ‘n’ roll, the band, named for “Dungeons & Dragons” co-creator Gary Gygax, represents everything I was obsessed with as a kid—and things I still hold dear today.
Its latest campaign is titled, appropriately, “High Fantasy,” and if you’ve heard the first two Gygax records—”Critical Hits” (2016) and “2nd Edition” (2018)—it delivers exactly what you’re expecting. And in this case, that’s a beautiful thing, because you won’t find many modern bands playing this kind of up-tempo hard rock full of boogie rhythms and bright, harmonizing guitars. Throw in fantasy-inspired lyrics and unique touches such as the triple gatefold of the vinyl edition of “High Fantasy” that doubles as a DM screen, and you’ve got one infectiously good time. And with albums ranging in length from 28 to 35 minutes, it’s not like Gygax is in danger of oversaturation anytime soon.
With the intricate interplay of the guitars and Eric Harris’ bass higher in the mix, “High Fantasy” has more of a metal sound than the previous releases, at times recalling early Iron Maiden—never a bad thing. It’s most evident on the opening trio of “Light Bender,” “Hide Mind” and “Mage Lust.” “Mirror Image” is more relaxed while still employing a subtly galloping rhythm and showcasing Harris’ confident, increased vocal range.
The brief instrumental “Aquisition, Magnus Canis”—showing some ‘70s prog-rock influence—serves as a bridge to the album’s second half, which is just as strong as its first. Standouts from the back half include “Something So Familiar” and “The Eyes Have It.” And “Spell Shaker” and the title track. OK, i pretty much love every song on this album.
Former guitarist Armand Tambouris’ clean production allows the musicianship to shine throughout, as the record is packed with killer riffs, rhythms that grab the listener and refuse to let go, and absolutely ripping solos. My only complaint is that I wish there were more to “High Fantasy,” which clocks in at less than 30 minutes. Of course, it’s coming to us just 15 months after “2nd Edition,” and even at its abbreviated length, it’s easily the strongest Gygax album to date and one of my favorite releases of the year.
(Creator-Destructor Records, June 21, 2019)