Album review: The Raven Age – Blood Omen
Raging UK metal quintet The Raven Age get tight as hell and impressively melodic on fat-free third album…
“It’s probably one of the hardest support slots in music,” grins Matt James, nursing his glass of sparkling water, having just polished off a chicken Caesar salad. “It’s aggressive in terms of loyalty like you’ve never seen before. There’s dedication to what they are, it’s life to some of these people, and you get the most die-hard down the front. So you’ve got to go out there and win that crowd over every single night.”
The Raven Age vocalist is contemplating his fate in the coming hours, taking on the often thankless task of opening for Iron Maiden. Flanked by guitarist and sole remaining founding member George Harris, the London metallers meet Kerrang! in a sleepy Raddison hotel in Hannover, just next to the sold-out Zag Arena as part of the headliner’s Future Past tour. Soon the hotel lobby will be overrun by hundreds of Maiden fans, all sporting various slightly faded incarnations of Eddie across their chests, and wondering why the bar doesn’t serve Trooper.
“I’ve seen some of my favourite bands support Maiden and they’ve gone down like a fart in a lift,” Matt laughs. “Because the main focus of what we do is about melody, just like Maiden, there are definite similarities in our music style and theirs, so I think there is an appreciation. We see it time and again, the fan who stands there arms crossed, made up his mind before you’ve even hit the stage, but if you can get his head nodding by the time you leave then you know you’ve done it.”
“All you can do is go out there and give it everything,” continues George. “It’s almost like they can smell fear on you. You’ve just got to go out there and be confident in yourselves and deliver what you know you can.”
“And that’s the reason we’ve been asked back,” adds Matt with an air of swagger. “And we’re pretty cheap!”
Of course, there is another connection between The Raven Age and one of the biggest metal bands of all time – guitarist George just so happens to be the son of Maiden ringleader Steve Harris. Where some artists shy away from or even go to great lengths to hide their ‘nepo baby’ status, TRA aren’t hiding who they are and have embraced the opportunities afforded to them. But within a scene that celebrates graft and authenticity above almost everything else, is being known first and foremost as Steve Harris’ Son’s Band something of a burden?
“The only downside is that we’d like people to listen to the band without any of that in their mind, and think, ‘Do I like this or not?’” says George with the speed of someone who’s clearly had these thoughts run through his head countless times. “But it just naturally happens. And that can work against us, but I realised a long time ago that it’s going to be a thing and I’m going to have to deal with it and not let it play on my mind too much, or it will change the way I do things, change the way I write music.”
“This is the thing that doesn’t get as publicised,” Matt jumps in. “No-one gets anywhere in this business without knowing someone. Some of these relationships are maybe less publicised or less known, the only difference with George is he doesn’t shy away from who his dad is and I don’t see that as a bad thing. If you’re a plumber and you go into your dad’s family business, people think it makes sense. We grew up with music and went into that, but because of that, sometimes you get a negative spin. But like George says, people should judge us on our music then make up their mind, and if you don’t like the music then that’s fine. We’re not asking everyone to like what we do, we’re just trying to do what we do, and we’ve always been very honest about that.”
And what The Raven Age do is straight-up metal. No bells and whistles, no hard-turning into TikTok trends, but – as our 4K-rated review of new album Blood Omen states – a collision of “trad metal… with modern metal nuance.”
“The sub-genre thing does my head in because people like to pigeonhole bands because of trends,” begins Matt. “Trends are easy, people love it because they can sell it, but I’ve always said we’re a metal band and the great thing about that is the broad spectrum of what we can do in terms of songwriting. Melody has always been at the forefront of everything we’ve tried to do. Take some of the biggest metal bands out there, the Metallicas and the Maidens, there’s a lot of melody in what they do. As far as I’m concerned, they’re playing the biggest shows in the world anyway, so that shows their music is popular. It transcends those niches because their songs are commercial.”
While The Raven Age might have some way to go for their melodic metal to be considered ‘commercial’ or bother the programmers of daytime Radio 1, they’re packing some gigantic choruses in their arsenal. Onstage in Hannover, they deliver their promise of slowly but surely winning over even the most hardened Maiden fan who only came to see Alexander The Great. Sure, they don’t fill the stage quite like the headliners, but with new album Blood Omen in tow, fresh cuts like Serpents Tongue, Nostradamus and Parasite swing like an axe, while the more theatrical Tears Of Stone and Grave Of The Fireflies scratch that itch for those in need of something more expansive and emotive.
All this is watched over by the Raven King, a hooded corvid figure emblazoned in red across the back of the stage, taken from the Blood Omen artwork. Since the band’s 2017 debut, Darkness Will Rise, we’ve seen glimpses of this winged overlord, but now the feather-loving five-piece are leaning into the lore.
The band’s concept has always been tied to the old legend about the Tower Of London, that when the ravens leave the empire will fall. But the Raven King goes one step further, collecting his ravens that are held captive in order to take over the throne.
“We’ve always had the raven skull emblem there, people are getting the raven skull tattoo all the time, and that’s a big thing, but the great thing about signing for [new label] Music For Nations, was they fell in love with the story and wanted us to go real gung-ho with it on the album. And we wanted to do the same,” smiles Matt.
“The great thing about having a backstory and imagery that’s separate from the band itself, in many ways it’s more than the band, it’s its own entity, and by treating it that way it gives it its own life. From that perspective, especially when you take into account the theatrical nature of the songs, it’s an escape and people who listen to our band love that. Even in the album we’ve created these runes, we’ve essentially created this whole language, and there’s hints at it in the videos, it’s in the artwork, [George] has got one on his arm… it’s just another step to refining this backstory to the band. Metal’s a great genre to do that stuff in, it allows that form of escapism.”
Indeed, there are many bands harnessing the power of narrative and character arcs. Cynics could draw comparisons to Iron Maiden and Eddie, but more modern acts like Ghost and Sleep Token are mired in mystique and melodrama, and no doubt have their stories mapped out for the next five years. Although TRA aren’t operating on quite the same level, George and Matt speak excitedly about ideas they’ve had for a comic book that develops the Raven King further, adding more chapters to the tale.
Throughout Blood Omen The Raven Age indulge in their fantastical side, writing about concepts and motifs that have been a part of heavy metal’s DNA since the beginning – cheery topics like the underworld and death. But there’s an energy in the music and burning from the pair sat opposite Kerrang! today that the band don’t want to be tied to that, dare we say, ‘classic’ sound. In the press notes for Blood Omen, the band said the overarching concept of the LP was one of overthrowing old masters. Sure, on the surface this ties into the Raven King booting King Charles out the palace, but could it also refer to removing the old guard of rock and metal?
They both laugh, but don’t disagree.
“It is starting to happen slowly, the new guard is coming through,” says Matt. “Bring Me The Horizon’s set at Download was so important and the fact they absolutely killed it was even better. It is gonna take time, bands like Maiden and Metallica, how many tours do they have left? But also, we need to see if there is a band that can take up that mantle.
“The thing we’ve noticed about being on this Maiden tour is because we tie in with both age groups – we’ve got the die-hard classic metal fans who hate everything new, we get on well with them, and the new guard who hate everything that’s a bit old-hat, and they get on board with it as well. It’s this bringing together of generations that we seem to do quite well at, which is why we can tour with bands like Gojira but also bands like Maiden.
“No-one wants to see these legends retire but it’s the way of the world, and it would be nice to have an opportunity for bands – I’m not saying us, but yeah (laughs) – to take up that mantle. We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve played on some of the biggest stages in the world. We know that we can do that. A metal gig on that level is something that’s truly unique and you’re not going to find anywhere else in terms of genres of music. The Bring Me set and the level they brought it up to, they’re paving the way for it, and that’s very important and there needs to be more of that!”
The ambition within TRA’s ranks is palpable. Meeting the band just as they come offstage, wide-eyed and drenched in sweat, there’s an infectious joy surrounding them, and not just one that comes from playing half of your new album to 10,000 people. They can sense, that even though this is album number three, it’s still just the beginning. Matt has spoken previously that although he can’t listen to any previous record, he can (and does) jam Blood Omen. Is this a line in the sand moment – a then and now?
“One hundred per cent,” he says matter-of-factly. “This is the strongest body of work we’ve put out, but it’s also the clearest representation of what we want The Raven Age to be. This is who we are a band.”
“With the stigma around the family connection, it was going to take a while for us to prove ourselves to a degree, that we’re not a flash in the pan and doing it ’cause it’s easy,” adds George. “No, we’re in our early 30s, we’re still doing it, we’ve lasted the pandemic, and it’s our lives. It’s what we’re doing no matter what.”
“We’re in it for the long haul,” concludes Matt. “We’ve grafted to get to this point and we want to continue doing what we’re doing. There is a change in the wind with metal music, I do feel like it’s moving back into the mainstream a little more, and we want to be a part of that. We want to be able to continue to have the opportunity to do what we’re doing. We’ve just started on this storytelling aspect of the band and we want to see where it takes us down the road. Sure headlining Download would be bloody awesome, but we’re here for the band to continue and to grow.”
Blood Omen is out now via Music For Nations
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