NEW BURN “We don’t want to be over-indulgent or over-bore the listener,” says James-Paul Luna (second from right). “We just want to kick everyone’s ass.”
Most metal bands have no difficulty in shredding, and shredding mightily. The tricky part is how to pursue tasty riffage while maintaining a dollop of dignity. That's tougher than it might sound: you're either a rock-and-roll clown or an overserious buffoon, right? Which is why any metal fan with a set of still-functioning ears should be praising the Grand Architect herself for the existence of Pasadena's Holy Grail, whose debut album, Crisis in Utopia (Prosthetic), balances modern somberness and classic razzle-dazzle.
"There's a fine line," explains Grail belter James-Paul Luna, "between shredding and shredding too much!" I catch up with Luna between tours, as the Grail prepare to set off with Blind Guardian on a trek that will bring them to the Worcester Palladium this Sunday. "We, as a band, go through our stuff carefully, riff by riff: 'Okay, this one's cool, this one has too much wanking, this one could be tastier.' Basically, we try to keep it all in good taste." If that sounds like a lot of reasonable thinking for a crazy headbanger — well, welcome to the 21st century, where metal bands need to have their act together if they want to give us something we haven't heard a zillion times before.
Holy Grail had to make some hard decisions to keep it all in good taste — after all, Luna, guitarist James LaRue, and drummer Tyler Meahl were, till a year and a half ago, three-quarters of White Wizzard, a hastily assembled outfit that grew out of bassist Jon Leon's desire to combat metal's ascendant screamo trend with a blatant return to the song-centered riffmania of the mid-'80s axis of Priest/Maiden/Dio. They were part of the Wizzard who made 2009's ripping High Speed GTO EP (Earache), but they'd split from Leon by the time of the record's release. And though the split was amicable, there was a genuine musical schism: whereas Leon was intent on reviving the purity of mid-'80s codpiece metal (as witness this year's WW Earache release Over the Top, a powerful yet by-the-books number from Leon and a trio of replacements), Luna, LaRue, and Meahl were looking to pursue a more contemporary muse. "We wanted to be a modern band with classic influences rather than be a new band playing classic-style metal," Luna elaborates. "I mean, sure, I love old-school stuff, I love Accept and Scorpions and Deep Purple, but we also love Nevermore, and '90s death metal."
After adding guitarist Eli Santana and bassist Blake Mount, Holy Grail went to work on Crisis in Utopia. The result is a monster that hits all the sweet spots of modern metal while retaining the melodicism and comprehensibility of metal's classic period. "Immortal Man" is one of 2010's metal highpoints, merging force-of-nature vocal power, chunky chops, and Brian-May-meets-Eddie-Van-Halen laser fighting to reach fist-pumping, jaw-dropping, head-banging nirvana. Luna's former-choirboy pipes conjure an unlikely Halford/Hetfield/Gillan/Mercury Frankenstein's monster that pierces the dry ice of the instrumental attack with a focus rarely seen nowadays.