Ask any metalhead who follows the festival circuit in Europe to name a New Zealand metal act, and they will probably respond with Alien Weaponry who have made a huge impact internationally while having their debut album reach #1 in the NZ local charts and their follow-up #4, quite an achievement. We don’t see much of the guys down here I Aotearoa anymore as they are playing so much overseas, but there is another local band who are more than making up for that absence, Shepherds Reign. While Alien Weaponry make much of their Māori roots, performing in both Te Reo and English, Shepherds Reign are from South Auckland and proudly Samoan, tribal in their outlook and approach.
When one sees them come onto the stage one can only be impressed even before they play a note, all wearing the same shark’s tooth necklace, and a feeling of menace and danger while singer Filiva’a James is a mass of hair and next to him is a Pātē, the traditional Samoan split wooden drum and then they start. I have no idea how many times I have seen these guys play in the last few years but have come away massively impressed every time as they really are unlike anyone else. True, they are bringing in traditional influences in a similar manner to others such as Alien Weaponry or Sepultura, but these guys move between danger and commerciality unlike any other. I was worried this album may not live up to their live performances, so I am glad to say those fears were unfounded as this is incredibly powerful and in your face.
They build their music from the foundations of Shaymen Rameka (drums) and Joseph Oti-George (bass), who combine to twist the grooves as they mix and switch between different styles, yet always with that tribal and raw approach. Layered over the top of that are the twin guitars of Gideon Voon and Oliver Leupolu, two of the nicest guys one would ever want to meet offstage but focussed and driven when on it – standing either side of Fili, who when not singing can be found driving the rhythms on the Pātē or taking the music in a different direction on his keytar. Some of the songs are in English, others in Samoan, yet the power and emotion come through even if the words are not understood. “Ua Masa’a” is full of twists and turns, and while many will not be able to understand the lyrics, they tell a dramatic story, of how Filiva’a’s sister was murdered by her spouse and his family. Needless to say, this is raw and full of anger as Filiva’a voices the thoughts his sister would have felt prior to her death. “Ua masa’a le ipu vai” is translated to “The cup has spilt”, a symbolic look at the love once shared, lost like water in a broken cup.
The title cut has it all, commencing with keytar before the wooden percussion comes in, then more drums, all with the groove, with the guitars and bass joining in, before we are off into a belter with the percussion at its very heart. This is an anthem, powering, dramatic and intense before it somehow twists into something more commercial, dynamic and lifting. From the traditional “Samoa O La’u Fesili” at the beginning of the album, one realises this is going to be a very special experience indeed. Undoubtedly the New Zealand metal album of the year so far, ‘Ala Mai’ is going to find the band a whole host of new audiences overseas, and I can only hope they soon gain the international success and recognition they so richly deserve. Groove metal rarely sounds as epic as this.