If you've never had the pleasure of listening to GYGAX, go back and give "Dice Throwers and Rock 'n' Rollers", the opening track from last year's "2nd Edition", and blast at high volume. Therein lies everything you need about this band, from their unwavering devotion to the twin-lead evangelism of THIN LIZZY to their mastery of IRON MAIDEN's thunderous clatter and their winning way with vocal harmonies, insistent hooks and even the occasional nod to the blues. Just over a year on from that joyful slab of classic metal, the California quartet have somehow managed to write an album that is full to the brim with songs that are arguably even more absurdly entertaining and bursting with crazy-eyed exuberance. Done and dusted in a SLAYER-like 28 minutes, "High Fantasy" avoids all the usual retro-metal pitfalls and comes across as one giant dose of sonic sunshine, aimed squarely at our scowling, post-millennial faces.
It would be easy to underestimate how tricky it is to get this sort of stuff right. Ignoring the legions of bands making ham-fisted attempts to sound like TYGERS OF PAN TANG, attempting to evoke the sound and spirit of a hallowed age is an honorable enough endeavor, few manage it without either sounding horribly self-conscious or reeking of predatory hipsterism. GYGAX bypass all of that nonsense by simply being the real deal, with an intuitive understanding of how to harness their influences and turn them into something that is both familiar and fresh. And yes, assuming you have blood in your veins, those LIZZY vibes are just irresistible. Most importantly, "High Fantasy" is genuinely uplifting, its creators' sense of humor and unapologetic penchant for bright-eyed and glittery camp bringing real warmth and inclusivity to what is an otherwise riotous party.
Both opener "Light Bender" and "Hide Mind" are blissfully snappy examples of the enhanced GYGAX formula, with giant choruses and an infectious sense of forward motion.
"Mirror Image" scores even more points for sounding like an exquisite amalgam of the finest moments on THIN LIZZY's criminally underrated 1981 album "Renegade", before breezy interlude "Acquisition, Magnus Canis" glides in on a jazzy shuffle beat, with parping horns adding another color to the canvas. Meanwhile, "Spell Shaker" has dirty, garage rock edge that respectfully nods to THE HELLACOPTERS, while "Something So Familiar" is all bounce, bombast and AOR sheen; the simplicity of an early KISS anthem, enhanced and electrified by top-notch musicianship and delivered with a boisterous thump.
Heavy music's astonishing strength in depth often means that bands with such a straightforward and celebratory agenda rarely make headlines. But never underestimate the restorative powers of the kickass rock 'n' roll song, particularly if it comes drenched in THIN LIZZY harmonies and lyrics that diehard Dungeons & Dragons aficionados can pore over at their (and I'm guessing here) not inconsiderable leisure. GYGAX are just about the best trad metal time you can have right now and "High Fantasy" proves that by honoring the classics: this band is on the verge of forging a stone-cold classic of its own.