Two Steps From Hell: Archangel Review
Two Steps From Hell’s second album, Archangel, is slightly under par with their first album, Invincible, but it’s still some of the best music on the market.
Before I even get started, let me express this opinion:
As I stated in my review of the first Two Steps From Hell album, “Invincible” is a collection of probably the most epic and imagination-inspiring music I’ve ever listened to. There’s kindhearted jokes on YouTube and various other forums suggesting that “Two Steps From Hell should give God back his iPod” or making up stories of, say, listening to one of their amazing tracks while taking out the garbage and having to slay four dragons, six zombies, and Darth Maul. That’s because the music of “Invincible” is nothing short of auditory inspiration, and anyone who has listened to it has felt their every day lives become a fleeting scene of some Hollywood epic. When you listen to “To Glory” on your mp3 player in a store, you find yourself marching down the paper towel aisles. When you listen to “1000 Ships of the Underworld” on your car stereo, you drive a little more aggressively as if you were being tailed by a shadow organization our outrunning an apocalyptic tsunami that you caught a glance of in your rear view mirror. Your heart beats in synch with the music, and for a minute you feel like you are seeing an adventurous new world for the first time. The effect is similar to the brain-enhancing pill in the movie “Limitless”, but instead only enhancing that center of your brain that controls a person’s desire for adventure and excitement that we can’t experience in our every day lives.
But at least that’s what I’ve gotten out of my time listening to Two Steps From Hell’s “Invincible” and maybe I’m placing it on too high a pedestal, but anyone who has listened to “Invincible” can attest to its greatness, a greatness that likely can’t be matched.
And that includes being matched by Two Steps From Hell, themselves.
Two Steps From Hell, founded by Nick Phoenix and Thomas J. Bergersen, has been around for a while now. They specialized in writing compelling music intended to bait the hook in Hollywood movie trailers, and they have many albums that were never released to the public. Their first public album, “Invincible” was a compilation of their best scores of their previous albums; in other words, sort of a “Greatest Hits” album for the public. In comparison, “Archangel” is a second “Greatest Hits” or possibly a “Second Greatest Hits” album, if there can be such a thing. This is a compilation of more of their amazing music, but of songs in their discography that I’m assuming were eliminated from qualifying for their public debut “Invincible” album. I won’t dare say that their latest album, Archangel is bad, or lackluster, or even anything less than stellar, in fact with its few flaws Archangel is still better than 95% of the music on the market, but to my ears it’s not nearly as strong or as overly memorable as its predecessor, Invincible.
Could it just be that I have either grown accustom to Two Steps From Hell’s style, possibly dulling the impact of the second album, or that maybe I walked into Archangel expecting too much? I don’t think it’s either, and I’ll explain why:
Let’s take one of my favorite tracks on Archangel, “Dragon Rider”:
“Dragon Rider” is a very adventurous theme, driven forward by frantic strings that symbolize the flapping of great wings, the sharp war percussion in the opening sequence (which unfortunately is eventually overtaken by a more modern beat), and it’s given a certain sense of openness and freedom from the triumphant brass and woodwinds. However compared to a track such as “To Glory” or “2000 Ships of the Underworld” on the Invincible album, the entire song lacks a story composition structure. Most of the songs on the Invincible album begin low, pick up pace and build to a great climax, just like a plot of any great book or movie, and then have an appropriate ending, be it climactic and thunderous, or a slow, solemn fade to silence. However, the song “Dragon Rider” builds nicely at first, but then unfortunately plateaus at a level which is carried the rest of the way through the track, rather than building to a great climactic moment. And finally, the theme terminates relatively abruptly. Rather than emulating a full musical story arch, the theme instead seems tailored to a particular battle scene or action segment within a story. Even the title track “Archangel”, when compared to a track from Invincible, like “Moving Mountains”, is less cinematic.
So why is it so horrible for Two Steps From Hell’s latest album to have fewer storyarch-like themes? It’s not horrible at all because the music is still solid, but if you think about a movie trailer, the format of which most of Two Steps From Hell’s music seems geared towards, trailers are basically short inconclusive stories themselves. When you watch a movie trailer you’re given the general gist of the theme of the movie, it’s often presented chronologically, it features the best moments of the entire movie (especially comedies), and its left intentionally unresolved to get you to shell out money for a ticket because you to know how the story you’ve just seen ends. And the music in a movie trailer needs to fit that short story format to be effective.
However, there are other songs on Archangel that retain the grand story composition such as “United We Stand – Divided We Fall”, “Norwegian Pirate”, and “The Last Stand”, possibly one of Two Steps From Hell’s best tracks in my personal opinion. “The Last Stand” carries with it the same immense power as many of the iconic tracks from the Invincible Album, beginning very ominously with a driving string section and swelling low brass, symbolizing in my mind the beginning of some upcoming threat that continually builds through the course of the song until reaching an epic climax at about 3/4 the way in with the clashing of symbols and the peak of the chorus. “The Last Stand” is short but harkens back to the structure of my favorite tracks from Invincible.
The Last Stand
As you progress through Archangel, you’ll notice that one of the improvements over Invincible is that it features a wider arrange of more eclectic music styles. One of my (later) chief complaints of Invincible is that as you listen through the album of orchestras and God Choirs a lot of the music begins to run together, making it progressively harder to make differentiations unless you stumble upon a track such as “Enigmatic Soul” or “After the Fall” which diverge from the “epic” sound in favor of a more mellow melody.
Immediately after “The Last Stand” is “Nero”, a soothing piano piece that also evolves into a theme nothing short of awe-inspiring before returning full circle and concluding with the opening piano theme. Like Invincible, Archangel has quite a few soothing, calming, and beautiful tracks sprinkled therein to keep the album from feeling too overwhelming and exhausting (in a good way). These ‘breather’ tracks let you come off of a few mindblowingly epic tunes, let your heart rate settle, and provide a short pleasant rest before jumping back into the next auditory orgasm. In Archangel there’s quite a lot more of these softer selections than in Invincible, or at least it blurs the lines between the two extremes more effectively than Invincible with tracks like “Everlasting”, “Love & Loss”, and “Atlantis” compared to entirely peaceful themes such as “Caradhras” and “Magic of Love”.
Other tracks such as “Mercy in the Darkness”, “Immortal Avenger”, “Dark Harbor”, and “He Who Brings the Night” are the sort of dark atmospheric themes that you would naturally associate with darker superhero or adventure movies. In addition, there’s an influx of the use of electric guitars in Archangel over Invincible with the songs “He Who Brings the Night”, “Destructo”, and “Ironwing”, which, while I find their use questionable (and in a case or two, unnecessary), their presence makes Archangel more eclectic than Invincible.
And that’s what it boils down to when purchasing Archangel as your first Two Steps From Hell album: How eclectic are your personal tastes? My suggestion is to simply purchase both albums, because both albums are solid, but in different ways. However, if you don’t have that option, then I would strongly suggest “Invincible” as the best possible first impression. “Invincible” is powerful, almost unyielding and grandiose, and you’ll most likely know what you’ll be getting if you’ve at least heard some of the music from Two Steps From Hell, whereas “Archangel” has a wider range of music types, guaranteed to please any ear, but to others it may come off as the slightly weaker of the two.
But overall, you can’t go wrong either way. Regardless of which Two Steps From Hell album you wish to buy, it’s guaranteed to be one of the crown jewels of your entire music collection.