A Challenge of Honour – No Way Out CD (Vrihaspati)
A CHALLENGE OF HONOUR (ACOH) is a well-respected name in the martial industrial scene, with early albums like The Right Place and Wilhelm Gustloff being regarded as classics of the genre. No Way Out, released on Vrihaspati, the ACOH-specific imprint of Steinklang, is the project’s first new release since 2005’s Seven Samurai. Since No Way Out was released earlier this year, there have been two more ACOH releases, the Leonidas album on Old Europa Café, and the 1666 – The Great Fire Of London MCD on Vrihaspati, as well as a deluxe boxed set of No Way Out, so it seems as if ACOH is back in business. Whether this is a good thing, though, depends on what you’re expecting. I didn’t hear Seven Samurai, so I don’t know how different No Way Out is from that, but it’s certainly a radical departure from the earlier ACOH releases. Imposing martial bombast has given way to synthetic, 80s synth-pop with occasional neo-classical flourishes.
No Way Out contains ten tracks totalling 55 minutes, and it opens with its title track, a wistful piano-led instrumental piece which develops into swelling, anthemic symphonic pop, played over a brittle synthetic rhythm track. It’s both banal and appallingly mainstream, sounding like the kind of pompous orchestral overture that a band like Queen would put on an album. Slavery Called Democracy manages to be a bit darker and more credible, with brooding, minor-key synth chords and spoken-word vocals something like Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio, but again, the programmed percussion really detracts from the song’s impact. Worst of all is the eighth track, an instrumental called We Will Reach That Certain Point, which runs a lachrymose piano melody and jazzy clarinet over a horribly cheesy Bontempi organ-style rhythm track. This song wouldn’t sound out of place on a Michael Jackson album – seriously. Fall Of Grace is a more neo-folk oriented song, with a sparse arrangement of bright strummed guitar over the synthetic beat, something like the later work of Orplid or other electronics-reliant German neo-folk acts such as Seelenthron.
The album’s last track is A Last Goodbye, a glossy, upbeat pop song with accordion and strummed guitar which sounds disturbingly like Simple Minds doing Don’t You Forget About Me (the song which plays over the credits at the end of The Breakfast Club, 80s pop-pickers!). This is followed by a reprise of No Way Out, which sounds quite similar to the opening version, though without the drums, and a bonus track. City Of Decay, which is another neo-folk song like Fall Of Grace.
No Way Out does feature two songs which stand out as being superior to the others. Thinking About Ernesto, a tribute to Che Guevara, uses Hammond organ and reverbed tremelo guitar licks to good effect, producing a kind of sparse Latin pop like Spiritual Front. And Nakba mixes a brooding darkwave melody with violin and ululating, middle-eastern female vocals (uncredited on my review copy), sounding like Mother’s Destruction’s Amodali. Apart from these two tracks, though, I really couldn’t find much to enjoy about this album. Some reviews of No Way Out have compared ACOH’s new sound, and Peter Savelkoul’s vocals in particular, to Joy Division, but this seems pretty wide of the mark to me. If only this album sounded as cool as Joy Division, but alas, I found myself reminded a lot more of such credibility-free 80s atrocities as Simple Minds, Tears For Fears and Yazoo. I’ve been here before with bands I previously admired, who suddenly take off in a direction I really don’t want to follow them in, most notably Orplid and Ostara. So farewell then, A Challenge Of Honour, bon voyage. I’ll see you when you get back.
Reviewed by Simon Collins. Reprinted with acknowledgements to Judas Kiss web-zine.