Learning there was going to be a new Valkyrie album was certainly a surprise to me. While we were pretty much on track for a new one based on historical trends, I have to admit that 2015's Shadows passed me by originally, so the possibility wasn't on my radar -- nothing to do with its quality, just my inattentiveness. For those in the know, however, new music from these Virginians is something worthy of reverence -- to be spoken of in a hushed voice, quietly brimming with excitement. Continuing the trend that Shadows set, their new album Fear further elevates the raw proto-metal-meets-heavy-rock feeling of the band's early releases. The band's talent and vision channel that emotion into hard-hitting sagas that at times feel almost too picturesque to be as heavy as they actually are.

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2008's Man of Two Visions was the perfect album for 2010 me, when I found it -- fittingly enough for the album name, it combined retro stoner metal with proto-metal leanings for a dual impact, occasionally savagely raw and and just as often beautifully poignant. It captured my imagination, and the bizarre album art and concept made it an easy revisit through the years. Shadows, although not as indelible in my mind, was a clear next step for the band -- a step forward emotionally, feeling more mature and fully realized. Of course, that also came with a slightly more polished approach, evidenced by the album art, but it was still very much Valkyrie: gentle heaviness with an undercurrent of raw energy.

Fear finds Valkyrie in full mastery of both previous albums' strong points, delivering a mix of catchy hooks and progressive-minded guitar harmonies. Moving further away from any explicit "stoner" feel, the big riffs here are more highlights than cornerstones -- a variety of guitar textures are interwoven into songs besides just big chunky stomps. I mean, those are still here -- the opening track "Feeling So Low" makes that clear. But on "Loveblind", the heavy-hitting riff up front soon transitions into airy guitar leads that contrast against the Sabbathian bass flurries energetically driving the core of the song. "The Choice," featuring one of my personal favorite Valkyrie riffs ever, doesn't lean on it for too long, building up the pensive atmosphere of the track without losing the head-nodding appeal.

While cetainly drawing from their past works, Fear has its own sound that can't be ascribed entirely to those. Southern rock's poignant gloom finds an extremely suitable host in Fear, such as in the hook of "Fear and Sacrifice," where the intricate melody feels right at home against the heavier rhythm and bass elements. The uncommonly gripping dual vocals of brothers Pete and Jake Adams, which have always been a mainstay of the band's appeal, are given headroom like never before to bring the darkened corners of the songs into the foreground.

Underneath the vocals, the twin guitar work of the brothers is simply stuffed with solos, harmonies and aspirational lead work. Often, that can be a detractor for bands that err too heavily on the "jam" side, but every note on Fear is played with soulful intention. Interestingly, the guitars aren't usually too heavy on their own -- most of the impact here comes from the impeccably-calibrated bass work and vigorous percussion. The guitars add sparkling crunch to the rhythm section's critical mass, creating the "gentle heaviness" I mentioned before, only with a clarity and sense of immersion that outmatches any of the band's previous albums.

What cements the quality of the album is the band's chops -- the lengthy rockers are filled out with dazzling displays of skill from every member. There's a few lengthy drum fills scattered across the album, placed with an artisan's sparing hand, and every one of these rare treats is an adrenaline-injecting jolt. I know that putting an entire drum solo track on an album is generally considered a Career Limiting Move, but I would have been okay with it here, just this once.

To be honest, Man of Two Visions is always going to have a place in my heart that Fear can't usurp -- but that's because it happened to come into my life at a time where it was exactly what I wanted to hear, and nostalgia has eternally enshrined it. Fear, however, is absolutely the best this band has ever sounded, and feels like the truest possible Valkyrie sound yet: the way that the innumerable creamy guitar leads smash up against the ingenious bass work and squarely-in-the-pocket drums simply can't be matched. As you find yourself lost in the lengthy, minutes-spanning adventures that comprise so much of the album, there's always another killer riff around the corner ready to bring your head back down from the clouds. For newcomers to the band and longtime fans alike, I suspect that Fear is coming into your life when it's also exactly what you want to hear.

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Fear released July 24th via Relapse Records.


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