As the successive death- and black metal craze of the 1990s lost its grip over Scandinavia, many musicians started a journey back towards their earliest of musical infatuations. Often this meant a return to classic 1980s heavy metal, although filtered through contemporary developments in the metal craft and coupled, at least in the more auspicious of cases, with a melodic flair distinctive of the region. One of few interesting products of this slightly schizoid period is the one-man and seemingly one-off project Defender, brain-child of a certain Phillip von Segebaden. Previously known primarily as bass player in Stockholm progressive death metal act Afflicted and later in the more black metal-oriented Dawn, Philip gathered a small cadre of friends/session-musicians in the late-1990s to put together They Came over the High Pass before once again lapsing into relative obscurity.
With Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Manowar as main sources of reference, Defender arrives at an elegant yet sturdy admixture of NWOBHM/true metal that, while obviously a homage to the past, steers away from the blatantly retrogressive tendencies of many a contemporary retro-band; arriving at a resolutely personal interpretation of 1980s heavy metal. The latter is further augmented by subtle incorporations of death/black metal techniques that, rather than obfuscating traditional elements, lends the music a more pronounced sense of fluidity and paced intensity.
As would be expected, guitars and vocals take center stage, accompanied by galloping bass-lines and solid if somewhat sterile percussion. The guitar work is versatile and meticulously recorded, primarily focused on straightforward NWOBHM/power metal-styled riffs, which give way to elongated stretches of emotion-drenched pentatonic soloing or delicate tremolo-picked melodies. A stern backing of palm-muted rhythm guitar maintains structure and brings necessary saturation. Melodic lines are relatively unambiguous and consonant, which allows for multiple voices simultaneously without losing focus or force. A pleasants surprise comes with the vocalist, who with a gruff and presumably untrained voice summons strength from his heart rather than vocal register – a nice change of scenery in a subgenre where the opposite is all too often the case.
Most of the songs follow in the epic metal tradition with grandly gestured and expansive verse/chorus constructions. Each composition, barring perhaps the uninspired closing track, is highly memorable without becoming predictable, although some of the band’s finest work is rather to be found in-between main sections; one example being the bridge in the album’s center piece “Dragon”, where intensity is generated and finally unleashed in the awaiting chorus. This is where the legacy of the 1990s is most prevalent, and gives a clue to what sets the band apart from lesser acts.
While not a conceptual affair per se, themes of ascension by proxy of courageous struggle runs like a red thread through the album, all draped in a metallic meta-language of fantasy and warfare. Inherent cheesiness aside, this is a radiant and truly uplifting work that stands head-tall above the majority of modern heavy metal.