Every time Steel Panther release a new album, the debate that crops up is whether the joke is wearing thin, and if so whether the songs are strong enough to carry the album regardless. With them, there seems to be a fairly well accepted view that they at their best like on acclaimed debut Feel the Steel simply write excellent glam metal songs that would rule regardless of lyrical content. Where this way of thinking should also exist but frequently does not to the same extent is in regards to Alestorm. It’s understandable; on a purely conceptual level, grown men pretending to be pirates is far less translatable to the average person than vulgar sex humour, and when that concept extends into the music itself it’s not hard to see why the idea that this band actually write strong songs that stand on their own merit doesn’t even cross some people’s minds.
At this point though, Alestorm have well outlasted the initial wave of curiosity piqued by their gimmick when they emerged a whole decade ago. In the years since, Alestorm haven’t just survived past that but continued to grow, and this has been done primarily through quality. Four consistently great albums have led to bigger and bigger rooms, and there’s absolutely enough on No Grave But the Sea to suggest that will continue. Unfortunately, the difference between album number five and the four prior is that word “consistent”, because for the first time, Alestorm’s piratical escapades don’t all hit the mark.
No Grave But the Sea does initially fly out of the gates, dealing out hit after hit in the manner you would have come to expect from Alestorm. The title track bursts into action with a flurry of drums giving way to a mighty gallop topped with imperious brass. Vocalist Chris Bowes choosing to start the entire album off with the word “quest” elicits a familiar chuckle, and before you know it the propulsive chorus atop an almost disco beat has victory in the bag. The two singles Mexico and the eponymous track Alestorm are both undeniable singalongs, the latter a somewhat heavier affair than usual and the former especially having almost everything you would want as an Alestorm fan right down to the final key change.
To the End of the World meanwhile represents the longer epics that Alestorm have become quite adept at since Death Throes of the Terrorsquid closed 2011’s Back Through Time. It’s these songs that best prove that Alestorm have way more going on musically than detractors would like to accept, tracks that are not only ambitious and multi-faceted but not actually all that silly. It’s here though that one of No Grave But the Sea’s shortcomings becomes apparent. To the End of the World is a genuinely great song, possessing all of the gusto you’d want from a high-stakes high seas adventure, but where Death Throes of the Terrorsquid and 1741 (The Battle of Cartagena) on previous records saw Alestorm pushing for bigger and bigger things, To the End of the World kinda comes across as a little safe, not pushing beyond what Alestorm have already set for themselves in the past bar a few Children of Bodom-esque keyboard harmonies. It’s even more apparent on the seven minute closer Treasure Island, which with its rousing pre-chorus is stirring enough, but doesn’t have anywhere near enough ideas to justify its runtime.
That’s not all of its problems too. While the first four songs demonstrate different facets of Alestorm’s strengths, things take a dip at the halfway point. It’s funny that a track entitled Scraping the Barrel appeared on Alestorm’s third and arguably best album, because now on album number five ideas begin to run a little thin. Bar und Imbiss is at most only the third best song Alestorm have written about a specific tavern, and Fucked with an Anchor is frankly catastrophic. Managing to be simultaneously the most puerile and the most sonically grating Alestorm song ever, it feels like a half-formed bonus track idea that somehow found its way onto the album, and it makes Pegleg Potion coming in its wake feel like Master of Puppets in comparison.
Ultimately No Grave But the Sea will probably not prove much of a bump in the road for Alestorm. Its best moments will fit seamlessly into the live setting where they thrive, and their core fanbase will find little to be disappointed about here. It’s just a shame that this collection of mostly very good songs also houses their worst ever moments, and contains very few new ideas from a band who have actually had far more in their time than many would give them credit for.