The fact that German guitar slinger Axel Rudi Pell and his band of world-class metal veterans remain relatively unknown in America after 13 years of releasing eight studio albums, three compilations and one live record is a damn disgrace. The lack of recognition may be because Pell eschews the speed and flash that most of his peers embrace. Instead, the ex-Steeler guitarist crafts songs that usually contain brief solos, focusing more on accessible melodies, haunting vocals, heavy power chords and a relentless rhythm section that make Pell's songs almost instantly recognizable. This formula hit its zenith with 2000's dramatically stunning The Masquerade Ball, an album ensconced in eerie arrangements, supernatural lyrics, gutsy performances and aural mystery.
While The Masquerade Ball is practically perfect, Shadow Zone is merely very, very good. Singer Johnny Gioeli pours his soul into every note he sings, and Pell’s playing sounds more fluid than ever. Even “The Curse of the Chains,” the brief opening instrumental that has become a Pell tradition, is melodic as hell. Musically and thematically, Shadow Zone follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, and many of the songs here sound somewhat similar to ones on previous albums, with many tracks beginning as chilling slow-tempo pieces that pick up steam as they progress. Sure, it would be intriguing to hear how Pell – who wrote every track on Shadow Zone – would sound if he dared to veer from his successful musical blueprint. But it’s tough to bitch when music this moving is performed by a singer like Gioeli (Hardline) and players like Pell, drummer Mike Terrana (Artension, Yngwie Malmsteen), keyboardist Ferdy Doernberg (Rough Silk, Seven Witches) and bassist Volker Krawczak.
Highlights include just about every track. Eight of the 10 pieces here clock in at longer than five minutes, and at least three of them – the dark and slow-building “Live for the King,” the brooding ballad “All the Rest of My Life” and the soaring rocker “Time of the Truth” – qualify as epics. Meanwhile, “Coming Home” rocks just as hard as the song of the same name by Pell’s fellow German countrymen, The Scorpions, and the raucous “Saint of Fools” recalls some of Pell’s earlier material with singer Jeff Scott Soto.
Pell’s band has retained its current lineup for three albums, including last year’s The Wizards Chosen Few best-of collection, and it shows. Shadow Zone is the sound of a band firmly in its groove -- one whose members have found a winning formula and shouldn’t hesitate to see how far they can take it.