How did it take 50-plus years of heavy music history for a band to figure out that a haka is metal as fuck? It’s the sound of deep-throated Polynesian blokes shouting and stomping, commonly heard before the Samoan rugby team steamroll over everyone else on the pitch. Put some guitars and drums in there and you’re set! This is precisely what Shepherds Reign did in December 2019, and they soon went viral. Their monstrously burly single Le Manu currently boasts more than three million views on YouTube and almost as many Spotify streams.
It was a near-instant breakthrough for a band who, when they released their debut album just 15 months prior, didn’t find much fanfare outside their native New Zealand. Ala Mai will doubtlessly be met with more intrigue than its predecessor. Not only does it contain Shepherds Reign’s online hit, but it sees the groove metal juggernauts delve deeper into their culture and personal lives. Intro track Samoa O La’u Fesili is a traditional Samoan song about finding happiness within your family, then Aiga forcefully continues the same theme, imbued with melodic riffs and imposing vocals.
The album is at its best when – as with the percussive title track and fiercely anti-colonialist Samoa Mo Samoa – it balances earnestness with distinctly Polynesian metal. However, at an excessive 13-song runtime, Ala Mai is also bloated with clichéd cuts. Cold Summers Night and Never Forgotten carry intense themes yet sound like run-of-the-mill slot into any Shinedown ballads able to or Five Finger Death Punch record, while Finally could be a generic Sepultura B-side.
Ultimately, there are only 40 minutes of excellence in this hour, turning an album that had the potential to affirm this band’s stardom into something that’s sadly hit and miss. Shepherds Reign could still do something special, but we need more focus and fury from their sonic onslaught.