Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don't get nearly enough love, stuff that's essential listening for students of extreme metal that you may not have ever heard of. Stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for. I've been wanting to do a power metal album for a while now (a woefully underrepresented genre in the pages of this magazine), and considering that, as of the publication of this article, I'll just be returning from a trip to Italy, I figured I would kill two birds with one stone: Labyrinth's Return to Heaven Denied (Metal Blade). Labyrinth are a distinctly European power metal band, which, depending on your preferences, means that you'll either find them awesome or maddening. Formed in 1991 in Italy, and featuring (for the first few years) future Rhapsody of Fire frontman Fabio Lione, they built off of the fairly solid foundation that Helloween and Dream Theater had laid before them. They released one album before Lione left, but that didn't hurt them too much – they hired Rob Tyrant to replace him and signed to Metal Blade soon after. Admittedly, this was Metal Blade in the mid-90s. Not exactly their salad days, unless you're into mediocre Galactic Cowboys, Riot, and Flotsam and Jetsam releases. And while Labyrinth were one of a bunch of prog/power metal bands that they were scooping up around the same time (Divine Regale, Jacob's Dream, Canvas), they were also the strongest. As they proved with 1998's Return to Heaven Denied.
Their biggest strength, unsurprisingly, lies in their ornate orchestration. While the fast-paced drums and crunching guitar parts probably wouldn't be heard in the parlors of the Medicis, their classically styled compositions have their roots there. The balance they strike between complexity and brawn is a rare one; usually acts of this sort wind up sounding pretty foofy, especially when the guitars have the harpsichord sound found here. However, like their peers in Symphony X across the Atlantic, Labyrinth never come across as effeminate, or even that cheesy. Obviously there's an element of Parmesan, but for the most part they keep it classy. Laying off the keyboards was the right move. It also probably helps that they didn't come from Scandinavia (or Germany).
On a song level, they rely more on the melancholy of progressive metal than the bravado of, say, Hammerfall. In fact, there's a distinct lack of anthems (which they would rectify with "Save Me" from the follow-up, Sons of Thunder). Really, "Thunder" is the only one, living up to its name quite satisfyingly. "Heaven Denied" certainly qualifies as epic, but it's more of a tragedy than anything. "State of Grace" succeeds in its emotive power balladry, while the keyboard rainfall on "New Horizons" provides some really nice texturing. Lots of solos and anguish, which is really what you want from this sort of thing.
You can't really argue that Labyrinth rewrote any sort of book, but here they delivered a prime slice of genre that anyone with a passing interest in the style should hear. Sonata Arctica were definitely taking notes. And while Labyrinth would go on to release a bunch more albums (including a recent sequel to this one), they never topped Return to Heaven Denied. In fact, the album title would prove to be prophetic. Still, for approximately 58 minutes, they soared with the angels.