I didn’t plan on writing a one year pandemic anniversary piece, because honestly who the hell wants to remember the past year, let alone mark the anniversary of something that turned everyone’s lives inside out in various ways? But I guess the answer to that simple question is, well, we want to remember it, at least our subconscious minds do anyway. I was having a discussion with someone at the end of March about my feeling generally grumpy, anxious, and uninspired throughout the month, and they said they were suffering from the same thing, and added, “But you know… trauma anniversary and all.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but looked it up on Twitter later, and sure enough, there was a torrent of tweets written about our collective and personal trauma anniversaries and how if you were feeling bad for whatever reason, this might be a hidden in plain sight culprit. I thought it was social media created nonsense at first, but as the idea lingered in my mind, it started to dawn on me that my listening habits had already shifted to possibly hint at this being the case.
Some of you might remember that in early April of 2020, I created a Spotify playlist called The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, and alongside my own picks, I solicited a ton of song suggestions from various power metal fans from the r/PowerMetal community and Twitter. I made it out of necessity for myself, and made it public to attempt to help anyone else out who needed shimmery, sugary, upbeat and inspiring power metal as much as I did to combat all the daily stress and anxiety we experienced in those early pandemic months. I don’t wanna bum anyone out by getting into details, but I was stressed about my job, money, and was one of the luckier ones in the end considering a ton of my friends and family members lost their jobs. Then there was the anxiety of just not seeing anyone or being able to hang out with friends. I suspect most of us made it through by binging content that was familiar and comforting, be it something like Parks and Rec, The Office, Good Mythical Morning or in my case videos of city walking tours filmed in the pre-pandy times. And so with music, I quickly found I didn’t want to listen to anything bleak or dark, I was getting enough of that from every second of the day thanks.
Enter the playlist. I can’t emphasize enough how much I relied on the music contained on this list. I’ll always remember going out for drives in April and May of 2020 around the rural country roads near me, blasting it full volume and glory clawing at perfect choruses and epic moments. It started to become a loud form of meditation, where I’d just lose myself in the music and focus on it so much I’d be mouthing along to any lyrics I knew (quite a bit as it turned out) and at times even singing along. No one was around to hear how bad that was anyway. Those were my brief escapes before I had to come back home and face reality, whilst keep myself busy doing anything but scouring social media for news updates like some self-flagellation aficionado. I could make it a few days, but then I’d start to feel antsy and claustrophobic and anxious yet again, and so into the car I went, for another therapy session. It was the only thing I wanted, nay, needed to hear. I actually grew up becoming a fan of extreme metal subgenres long before power metal was even called power metal, and many classic death, melodeath, and even black metal albums have been mainstays for me throughout my life when I was going through tough times. But something about the pandemic hit different, and I just knew that power metal in its most Euro-swag laden, pomp and glory drenched splendor was the only thing that would help then.
My favorite long-winded quote about power metal was written ages back by a reviewer named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum, who spoke of it’s “proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity”. A mouthful yes but it’s sentiment was proven true in 2020 and even now a year on. I have such warm feelings towards the classic songs and albums that make up the genre, both old and new. And I feel tremendous gratitude towards the bands who make them, choosing to play a terminally uncool style of music that with rare exception, isn’t going to earn most of them a steady paycheck or even a full time income. I follow a lot of those musicians on Instagram, and it was surreal to see them dealing with the same personal anxieties and financial worries as I was during the lockdown (many of them still dealing with all of that in European countries), all while their music was helping to keep me from absolutely losing it over here.
I’m really proud that a lot of people still listen to the playlist a year later, it’s almost at 100 followers, and we’re over 300 songs and counting. I had eased off listening to it the past many months, due to trying to soak up as much new music as possible, but sure enough when March rolled around, I found myself dipping back into it often. I got to thinking about how there are certain songs on that playlist that just stand out among all the others as being particularly impactful on me, the flag bearers in other words for the playlist’s feel good powers. In no particular order at all (just like the playlist itself), I’ve collected some thoughts on my ten favorite of these songs below in an effort to highlight them a bit and maybe even help someone take a closer look at a band they’ve previously ignored.
Nocturnal Rites – “Still Alive”
One of the best songs in the Rites’ catalog, “Still Alive” has been a feel-good classic to me since I first heard it in 2005, and in my mind the entire Grand Illusion album it hails from was one of the last great records from that wave of really heavy, groove based power metal that around the turn of the millenium (thinking of stuff like Brainstorm, Tad Morose, etc). Jonny Lindqvist’s vocals always struck me as a little Mark Boals-ish with a little David Coverdale splash on certain phrasings, especially here, the end result being a hard rock edge to Euro-power swag. His vocals are a joy to behold here, spitting defiance and tinged with never say die spirit. The volume gets maxed out whenever this pops up on the playlist.
Masterplan – “Spirit Never Die”
This was the first song I added to the playlist upon creation, the only reason it’s not number one in the list is that I thought Hammerfall would make a better opener if someone wasn’t listening to it on shuffle. Look, everyone knows this song, and if you don’t, better late than never. It’s got Jorn on vox, it’s got Roland Grapow on guitars, and a hook that inspires Tony Kakko’s eyes closed musical ecstasy face you see on the playlist icon. The way Jorn vocalizes that “woaaaahhh” after the “leaving the future behind me!” line in the chorus is deserving of a full power stance, glory claw raised to the sky. How do you not feel better while listening to this gem?
Galneryus – “In The Cage”
I’m not going to pretend that this song’s lyrics (what I can decipher of them) make any kind of sense in relation to keeping one’s spirits up, in fact, it seems like Yama-B is referring to some kind of romantic heartbreak or something like it (eternal longing, you get the drift). It really doesn’t matter, because this song’s power is in Syu’s incredibly melodic leads and that unforgettable recurring melody that is just pure joy given musical form. Some people rag on Galneryus for their AOR tendencies as heard here, and those people can clear the hall. That influence works as an open canvass for Syu’s expressive playing, and Galneryus catalog is loaded with so many spectacular and generally underappreciated moments (it took me a long to discover these guys as well). I can’t emphasize enough just how much I love this song, it always cheers me up.
Stormwarrior – “Heading Northe”
The title track and flag bearer for Stormwarrior’s best album, “Heading Northe” in many ways exemplifies everything I love about metal in one perfect anthem of defiance, standing one’s ground, and the triumph over adversity. Equal parts speed metal tempos, power metal melodicism, and punk rock edge courtesy of Lars Ramcke’s gritty vocals, it’s one of the most satisfyingly glorious songs in metal history. Last year when I came back to work in a post-pandemic landscape, I’d often find myself jamming this on the way back home. There was something about feeling exhausted, blaring this at top volume, and careening down the freeway while shouting along to “And the north wind fills my heart again / Withe the flame that missed so long” while making grand hand gestures towards cars around you.
Freedom Call – “One Step Into Wonderland”
I think it’s only natural that metal’s most bouncily cheerful sounding band would have been a go-to during all of this, and there’s a number of Freedom Call songs that I could have singled out (so many that I had to limit how many I threw on the playlist just to maintain artist variety). But for me, “One Step Into Wonderland” resonated more than any other partly for Chris Bay’s surreal vision of a happy, care free “eden” conveyed in his admittedly over the top lyrics. The chorus here is magnificent, and the key moment is imbibing that line of “take away all sorrow and pain” like Bay is a some wise mystic and you’re his pupil trying to achieve transcendence and ride off into “wonderland” on the back of a giant cartoon bunny.
Lost Horizon – “Think Not Forever”
It’s kinda wild that the best Lost Horizon song (I said it!) would have the most pointedly appropriate lyrics of anything on this playlist. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and when I was building the playlist it was a no-brainer for it’s lyrics urging patience and determination, sentiments that everyone needed for a variety of reasons. This was on repeat, multiple times a day for the first couple weeks of everything last year, and continual rotation throughout the rest of the year. It’s just ultra distilled power metal essence bottled into six minutes that feels like three, with an unforgettable riff and an absolutely wild solo midway through. Also Heiman’s intro vocal scream is the kind of cathartic lunacy that can make a bad day bearable.
Visigoth – “Necropolis”
I’d always loved Manilla Road’s “Necropolis” and thought of it as a trad metal anthem despite the ridiculously zany Skeletor-esque vocals. When Visigoth covered it on their debut, it was remade into a beefier, more metallic sounding mold thanks to Jake Roger’s weighter, grittier delivery. Given the context of it’s lyrics, someone on the internet once sussed out the difference between both versions as The Wizard (Manilla Road) and The Warrior (Visigoth) teaming up to infiltrate the mystical necropolis. No matter the band though, I always thought of these lyrics as a metaphor for depression, despite all the specific fantasy imagery scattered throughout the third verse. The first four lines here are almost a mantra: “Through the jungle by the river Styx / I’ve journeyed long and far this day / Lurking shadows in the parapets / Will never make me turn away”.
Bloodbound – “Nosferatu”
This Urban Breed era Bloodbound classic has always been a favorite of mine, not only for it’s serious Maiden songwriting vibes, but for Breed’s untouchable vocals. Sure it doesn’t fit the vibe of the playlist, lacking the sugariness or upbeat positivity of most of the music on there, but I felt like the playlist needed some escapism too and this was one of the songs that immediately came to mind. It’s a vivid reminder that much of metal’s power to get us through the grind is to distract us from all the real world stuff we’re dealing with when the music stops. Also that escalating guitar melody is Tomas Olsson’s crowning achievement, a work of art worthy of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.
Galderia – “Shining Unity”
Galderia is a French power metal band that sounds like they should come from Germany for all their Gamma Ray/Freedom Call vibes, and sometimes I’ll hear bits of Japanese power metal’s neoclassical tendencies come through as well, as on the hyper-driven “Shining Unity”. This is one of those songs that always seems to come on when I’m driving on the freeway, hitting 60-70 mph, speeds at which it feels appropriate to listen to a song that’s built on a perfect balance of relentless speed and glorious technical precision. The group vocals here are so strong, emphatic, and empowering, that you can’t help but get a rush just listening to that chorus. I have no idea what inspired these lyrics, but the utopian pipe dream they envision of a united humankind “alive in harmony” is nice to live in for five minutes before returning to… you know, *gestures* all this.
Bruce Dickinson – “Tears Of The Dragon”
Years back I had started writing up a Bruce Dickinson solo career retrospective, because that aspect of his musical output has been nonexistent since 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls, and I never really had a chance otherwise to write about just how much I love his solo records. I never finished it of course, but I was reminded of that fandom whenever this aching gem would pop up in the playlist. Bruce wrote this song about the unexpected change in his life upon leaving Maiden and embarking on something new and unknown, and that’s kind of how things felt for a lot of us last year and even now. It’s all contained in that metaphor of throwing oneself in to the sea, letting the waves wash over him (us), only in this case it’s not an Edna Pontellier ending-it-all kind of thing, but more a surrendering to the currents of life vibe.
This is an obviously delayed batch of reviews for albums that have come out in January and February, it was actually supposed to come out the other week but as I’m sure you all saw, hell froze over down here in Houston and the rest of greater Texas. I was dealing with intermittent power outages for days and internet being knocked out, along with cell towers clogged with traffic — a situation which magnified the weakness of relying on streaming for one’s music instead of physical media (then again, you know… no electricity). So some of these reviews are older, some just finished hours before publishing this thing, I have a feeling that my opinions might shift over time on some of these albums because I just haven’t gotten a lot of time with them as I’d prefer due to having to play catch up with records released within the last two weeks. So consider these general impressions right now for everything except that Steven Wilson album (I listened to it to death and am glad I can shelve it for awhile), and that new Tribulation record. Hope everyone reading this weathered their own winter storms well enough, and I hope you’ve been able to get the vaccine if you want it. It really does feel like the beginning of the end for all this, and maybe we’ll be talking about shows that aren’t cancelled at some point this year. Also I’ve forced myself to stop referencing the weather or the passing of seasons in my article titles from now on, and it’s proving more challenging than I thought, so the unimaginative result above is what I have to offer for the moment.
Steven Wilson – THE FUTURE BITES™:
So I’d normally write a longer, full length review for someone like Steven Wilson, an artist that I consider myself to be a fairly big fan of. And that I’m opting for the shorter format this time isn’t a slight on The Future Bites, but more a result of circumstances. See this album was supposed to come out in June of 2020, but was delayed till January 29th, 2021 (for reasons that seem a bit academic now given the ongoing state of the pandemic). In the interim, Wilson released no fewer than five singles from the album’s nine song tracklisting, leaving only four fresh cuts by the time the album was released. A bit anticlimactic and seeing as how the earliest single release dates back to March 2020… I feel like I’ve lived with this album for nearly a year now, my excitement level for it falling a little flat as time went on. So in reassessing it here as a whole, I had to return to the album with fresh ears and an open mind, because let’s be honest, like many of you, hearing “Personal Shopper” and “Eminent Sleaze” for the first time was jarring to say the least. Fortunately they weren’t representative of the sound of the entire record, in fact there’s a healthy dose of classic era Wilson-ism to be found throughout, and some stuff reminiscent of Blackfield too.
I just wanna say, while I respect the concept of the album and even find it fascinating… I’m not entirely sure as to why Bowie/Prince worship was the sonic vehicle Wilson chose to explore it in. Take those aforementioned two songs, and a cut like “Self” for example, with their heavy usage of group R&B backing vocals — am I wrong in thinking that Wilson just doesn’t possess the kind of songwriting style to successfully work those in? And if you’re going to experiment with stuff like that, why do it on an album largely crafted by yourself without the benefit of musical collaborators well versed on that style and approach? On Grace For Drowning, where Wilson explored more jazz-based elements, he brought in players who knew that style of music. It would only stand to reason that he’d have done something similar when attempting R&B infusions, because I just don’t think he has the rhythmic songwriting awareness (for lack of a better term) to pull them off convincingly. When Duff McKagan recently put out his rustic, stripped down, outlaw country injected solo album “Tenderness”, he worked with Shooter Jennings and a host of musicians skilled in performing in that vein to get it right. It resulted in a fairly convincing album in sonics and stylistic aspects, regardless of whatever you thought about McKagan’s own songwriting. Wilson has tried on a broad swathe of styles throughout his career to stellar and mixed results, but he usually is cognizant of his own limitations. It’s strange that he didn’t recognize them this time around.
Where The Future Bites excels is on its more conventional, classic Wilson sounding cuts, such as “Man Of The People” and “12 Things I Forgot”, one of Wilson’s more lovely, poignant guitar-pop moments. The former actually reminds me of something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet, a mix of tension building electronic pulses, and drug-addled pensive dreamyness. The latter is one of my favorite latter-day Wilson cuts, a simple yet heartstring plucking acoustic strummed ballad built on delicate melodies and a glorious wall of harmony vocals. It’s lyrics are particularly curious, almost a self-deprecating yet unapologetic letter to fans who criticize Wilson for the music he’s making now. That particularly comes through in the chorus lyric where he sings, “…something I lost / and I know what it meant to you… what I sang to you”, and though I doubt Wilson will ever admit to that interpretation if asked, that’s what I’m taking away from it anyway. And I don’t consider myself one of those disgruntled fans, despite the assessment of this particular album. I enjoyed about half of 2017’s To The Bone, and thought 2014’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. was Wilson’s career defining masterpiece. He’s done great work since the indefinite hiatus of Porcupine Tree, and I’m confident he’s gonna deliver something else in the future that I love. But I think Wilson’s wheelhouse for my particular taste is that nexus between prog rock and pop that made us love songs like “Trains”, “Lazarus”, “Collapse The Light Into the Earth”, “Happy Returns”, etc etc. Songs that showcased his ability to tap into raw emotional veins flowing with nostalgia, memory and yearning, regardless of how musically adventurous they were or weren’t.
Harakiri For The Sky – Mære:
I realized something about Harakiri For The Sky when listening to Maere (I can’t be bothered to copy and paste that symbol every time sorry) for the umpteenth time these past few weeks. I enjoy the hell out of this band when listening to their music, but I’ll be the first to admit that I have trouble remembering a single melody, song structure, or lyric after the fact. I’ve been pondering what to make of this, because it’s something I dealt with when becoming a fan of the band on their last record (2018’s Arson). That was a record I really enjoyed, talked to others about enthusiastically, and have kept listening to for a long time afterwards, but for the life of me I can’t remember much about it. Ditto for Maere. This is packed with frenetic, hyper rhythms, incredible percussion, explosive blasts of guitars whose melodies are sharp enough to slice through the clamor and grab your attention, even if they don’t make a lasting imprint like, oh I dunno, the lead melody from “Fear Of The Dark” or something. Harakiri’s music is considered post-black, largely I suspect due to V. Wahntraum’s vocals being mixed in that distant, screaming in the middle of a field kind of way, but they’re way more engaging that most bands tagged as that genre. There is a moment here that breaks through however, at the 3:40 mark in “Us Against December Skies” when the chaos pauses to let a simple repeating riff sequence unfold to awesome, fist-pumping effect. It’s a moment that wouldn’t stand out as much on any other band’s record, but because Harakiri hardly pause for, well… anything, it feels particularly momentous. I get the feeling that just like Arson, I’ll be returning to this record again and again throughout this year, reminding myself out of necessity of why I enjoy it so much.
Accept – Too Mean To Die:
With Too Mean To Die, Accept vocalist Mark Tornillo delivers his fifth album with the band, half way to matching Udo’s ten (we often forget about those three 90s records, understandably so). I don’t know if Mark will get to ten of his own, but it’s kind of remarkable that he’s gotten to five given the way things usually work with replacement vocalists in established veteran bands (see Tim Owens and Blaze Bailey). But he’s such a natural fit, that honestly I feel like his motorcycle greased, Americanized hard rock approach is just as much Accept-ian as Udo’s sardonic German churl. That he’s revitalized Wolf Hoffman’s passion for songwriting within the Accept vein is as much a testament to his impact as are his vocal capabilities. This is yet another quality Accept album — not earthshaking in any way mind you, and perhaps lacking the vibrant punch of Blood Of The Nations and Blind Rage, but I’m enjoying it a touch more than The Rise Of Chaos and Stalingrad. It is a bit frontloaded however, with the album getting off to a strong start with the clumsy yet endearing “Zombie Apocalypse”, it’s oafish lyrics made palatable with a rock solid hook. Can we seriously kick this beaten down lyrical idea to the curb? Zombies, really? Didn’t Hammerfall try this awhile back (I hate The Walking Dead for popularizing this, though I will admit the Max Brooks book was a fresh way of looking at it). The album highlight here is the title track, coming on with Painkiller-ish aggression and fury, and I also found a personal favorite in the slightly glam-rock aping “Overnight Sensation” (sadly it was not a cover of the Motorhead song as I was hoping). As I hinted before, the second half of the record does lose a bit of the bite and sense of fun that the first half had, with songs like “How Do We Sleep” coming on a bit paint by numbers, but not enough to diminish what is largely a quality record.
Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus:
In the wake of finally coming around to Italian power metal in the past few years (even to a point of starting to appreciate Rhapsody to a greater degree), it’s nice to come at this new album by one of the OGs of the Italian style in Labyrinth rather than one of the many newer bands I’ve become fans of. I last listened to new Labyrinth in 2010 with their sequel to Return To Heaven Denied, swayed by the hype surrounding Olaf Thorsen’s return to the lineup. I spaced on 2017’s Architecture Of A God (which is pretty solid hearing it now), but in keeping up with Vision Divine through the past few years I feel like I have a somewhat decent pulse on the direction that Thorsen’s songwriting would be steering Labyrinth in. Of course longtime guitarist Andrea Cantarelli and the great Roberto Tiranti have a hand in that, but Thorsen’s presence in these songs is unmistakable. Tracks like “The Absurd Circus”, “As Long As It Lasts”, and “One More Last Chance” marry his energetic blasts of neoclassical guitar with smooth AOR-styled melodies. A peak moment arrives at the mid-song guitar solo in the Queensryche-ian “Den Of Snakes”, where a joyous, accelerating guitar figure breaks out at the 4:22 mark, reminding me of something Edguy would do in the Theater of Salvation era. Tiranti of course is stellar throughout as always, particularly shining on the power ballad “A Reason To Survive”, his vocals ageless and even a bit Khan-esque in these more emotive moments. This is a top tier Labyrinth album, sleek, bold, and confident. It won’t best Heaven Denied of course, but few albums could. It’s only stumbling block is cover art as terrible as Maiden’s Dance Of Death… c’mon guys, its 2021, there’s no excuse anymore.
Einherjer – North Star:
If you’ve dabbled in folk metal or looked for the sometimes stupidly tagged “viking metal”, you’ve surely come across Einherjer, a band that is as frustrating as any in terms of consistency throughout their two era-ed career. Not only is Einherjer’s songwriting track record spotty and unpredictable, but their records seem to sound different from one another in terms of pure sonics, as in recording quality and mixing decisions. When I listened to them in the early aughts before their self imposed near-decade long exile, they were one of a small handful of bands doing music in this particular vein — folk tinged, blackened metal with partially harsh/clean blended vocals. They stood out in other words. But as the years went on and more bands who dabbled in this style got signed, Einherjer’s uniqueness wore off, and I’ll be honest, the last record I remember really enjoying was 2014’s Av Oss, For Oss. It was no coincidence that I was reminded of that record when listening to North Star, it bears striking similarity in the production approach as well as the reined in mix. But I’ll offer that North Star is a far better record just on the strength of it’s songwriting alone, the band settling on a heavily blackened groove based approach. It’s one that reminds me of mid-period Satyricon ala Now, Diabolical by the way of Viking folk influences that just seem to exude off our Norwegian friends like someone bathing in an entire bottle of Drakkar Noir. It starts with Grimar’s vocals being reigned in, his approach built on Satyr like grim-hued harshes, with a lyrical approach that is economical, lean and focused on textural aggression. Simply put, he sounds menacing throughout, his delivery laden with venom and bite. Adding to this is the dual guitar attack of new guy Tom Enge and relatively new guy Ole Sønstabø, who embrace dagger like riffing, simple and direct, straight to the gut, their only indulgences being the splashy solo or occasional countermelody. A vivid example of this is their tandem work in “Ascension”, where their riff sequences are purposeful, focused and honed in on delivering a razor’s edge throughout. A special mention needs to be made for “Chasing The Serpent”, as satisfying a song I’ve heard this year, a moody stomper that delivers a memorable, shout along payload. Highly recommended if you need a blackened fix (but don’t actually want black metal per say).
Nervosa – Perpetual Chaos:
I’ve come to admire Nervosa and their new album Perpetual Chaos quite a bit, first for the daunting story of the challenges bandleader Prika Amaral had to overcome in it’s making (and frankly, how quickly she was able to accomplish that), and second for the actual album that I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks. I’ve felt a disconnect with thrash over the past couple years, and I’m sure anyone who cared enough to pay attention to the albums I covered on the blog in that time could sense that. If I’m being honest the last thrash records that really affected me were Death Angel’s The Evil Divide and of course Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic. So its a bit of a surprise and a relief to know that I can still find enjoyment in a genre that I kinda feared was slipping away from me recently. In making Perpetual Chaos, Amaral had to recruit an entirely new lineup to replace her two departing, foundational bandmates, who left in April 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning. She shrewdly chose to replace them with European based musicians, likely not only for talent’s sake (bassist Mia Wallace did a short stint playing with Abbath during the Outstrider era), but there’s a huge financial/strategic advantage to moving the band’s base of operations to the EU, with bandmembers already citizens which can make touring dramatically easier when things open up. And they all gel together surprisingly well for an album written via distance under lockdown, with nary a weak moment here. Things really start cooking in the second half, with strong songs like “Until The Very End”, “Time To Fight” (the clear highlight here for me with its punk meets Kreator vibes), and the awesome “Rebel Soul”. The latter features Flotsam’s Erik AK, and its great to finally have a guest appearance like this live up on record to the potential it had on paper. Didn’t expect to enjoy a thrash metal record this much in 2021, but I’m glad the theme of the year so far seems to be surprises.
Epica – Omega:
I’ve normally skipped new Epica albums throughout the time I’ve had this blog, getting around to listening to them long after their release date when a review wouldn’t make a lot of sense. And usually my opinion on Epica albums has been a fairly consistent “Eh, it’s ok I guess”. For whatever reason, Epica’s music has just bounced off me for the most part and failed to engage me in the same way their influences, contemporaries, and namesake’s inspiration (in Kamelot) have. I remember liking most of The Divine Conspiracy and even paying attention when I saw them live in an opening slot on that tour (if I recall correctly, Amanda Somerville was handling lead vocals for that run). My biggest criticism of their overall discography is mainly the band’s reliance on a singular mode of attack, that being layers upon layers of overblown orchestral pomp. When that’s all you do, it can get a bit tiring. It’d be like Nightwish doing nothing but Wishmaster over and over again, only fattening up the layers each time. So color me surprised that with Omega, Epica seem to have breathed new life into their sound by choosing to scale things back, stripping away the layering to let their music breathe a bit. I’ve honestly been enjoying songs like the instantly catchy “Abyss Of Time”, the eastern melody tinged “Seal Of Solomon”, and the sweetly poppy “Freedom – The Wolves Within”. These songs are the opposite of the new Nightwish album, lean and straight to the point, and loaded with enough counter-balanced aggression from Mark Jansen (who somehow sounds heavier than I remembered) to prevent things from becoming syrupy. Though speaking of the latter quality, I’ll add a special mention for the spectacular ballad “Rivers”, which is the most effective and emotional one I’ve heard the band ever pull off. Surprise really does seem to be the running theme this year, because I didn’t see myself being this delighted with a new Epica album, but here we are.
Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound:
I love this album, and this band really. Ever since getting into them via 2013’s The Formulas Of Death, and then subsequently seeing them live at a memorable Austin gig on their tour opening for Watain, I’ve been consistently impressed with them. Their last record, 2018’s Down Below, was a solid album that saw the band expanding their gloom n’ roll sound to be noticeably more polished, with an emphasis on placing melodies front and center and scraping away some of the rougher, jagged edges of their sound. That in itself is a delicate balancing act and its nice to see a band recognize when they’ve landed on the blend that works for them. On the appropriately titled Where The Gloom Becomes Sound, Tribulation pick up where they left off, with the new album being in part a continuation of the sound they narrowed down on Down Below, and at the same time serving as a rejection that they were transitioning into their Swedish contemporaries Ghost (whom I and others were so keen to compare them to last time around). With excellent cuts like “Hour Of The Wolf” and “Funeral Pyre”, they’re succeeding in pairing Adam Zaars’ earwormy guitar hooks amidst creepily atmospheric dynamics. His contributions throughout the album are incredibly balanced, bringing in gushing sweetness on the solo during “Elementals” while maintaining enough of a charcoal-hued palette to prevent things in general from ever becoming saccharine. And vocalist Johannes Andersson is still Tribulation’s core sonic identity; his vocals ever bleak, laced with just enough reverb to make them sound like they’re echoing off the walls of a cave. I’ve been compulsively returning to this album time and again these past few weeks, it’s simply really satisfying, and a reminder that it’s not always a bad thing when bands give you more of the same.
Todd LaTorre – Rejoice In The Suffering:
So I’ve spent a few weeks with this album now, Todd LaTorre’s first solo album after a career serving as one of metal’s best replacement vocalists (Queensryche and Crimson Glory). With the aid of Craig Blackwell, a Tampa musician friend of his, LaTorre cobbled together an album of ostensibly full-on metal songs, breaking away from the prog-tinge that Queensryche is known for. The result is an album that sounds a bit like a less thrashy Testament fronted by Tim Ripper Owens, with LaTorre getting into that Painkiller vocal mode more often than not. There is of course, an instant delight in hearing this, as I’m guessing most of us felt when we first heard it. I will say that surprise was tempered a bit by knowing how heavy the last Queensryche album tended to get in moments, at times perhaps too heavy for that band’s sound and skillset (debatable I know, but I guess I like my Ryche mid-tempo, thoughtful, and a bit more dynamic). The curious thing about Rejoice is that I find the non-full throttle songs to be the most engaging, tracks like “Apology” with its slowed down, moodier vibes, and the strong Dokken-esque qualities in “Vexed”, with its wild, sunset strip chorus. The slow burning semi-ballad “Crossroads To Infinity” is another intriguing track, with a pretty solid hook in the chorus that I wish was a tad more satisfyingly tight. Everything else on offer is you know, solid attitude spiked metal, and there’s nary a bad or terrible moment among them. The problem I suppose is that there’s nothing overtly spectacular about them either, and I sort of wonder at the praise that’s being thrown towards this album from most people I’ve seen discuss it (though in fairness to LaTorre, he’s an easy guy to root for). But when I hear a song like the thrash-centric “Dogmata”, I’m not so much surprised that LaTorre can do it, but more unmoved by it’s aggression. This could be a ‘Pigeon is getting jaded about heaviness’ problem, but there’s many new records that are quite heavy that get me plenty excited. So yeah, I might be the odd one out here on this record, because everyone I’ve talked to about it loves it.
Well I’ve been waiting for this one for a long, long time. Ten years in fact. A little biographical tidbit to put things in context: Therion is one of my favorite artists regardless of genre, period, easily in my top five and unlikely to ever budge from that position. I consider their music to be distinctly innovative, complex, and multifaceted in a way that dramatically differentiates them from other rock or metal based artists, even those we can rightfully call symphonic metal, a genre which Therion pioneered. Having said that, in the now going on ten year history of this blog, I have only been able to write about Therion a couple times, less than the amount you can count on one hand. Their last studio album proper was 2010’s Sitra Ahra, a decidedly difficult album that I can only partially enjoy at best even a decade later. The band released the wonderful Les Fleurs du Mal two years after that (this blog’s 2012 album of the year), but it wasn’t original material, being an album of French chanson cover songs. And of course, as reviewed here two years ago, we had the half-decade plus in the making opera (like, an actual opera) Beloved Antichrist, which I actually enjoy but again — I’m a fanboy so I took the time and effort to acquire that enjoyment.
In my review for that massive release, I voiced my worry that it would be another half decade before the band could get around to releasing a proper follow up to Sitra Ahra, considering touring obligations that would inevitably need to happen for obvious income reasons, and bandleader Christofer Johnsson’s desire to stage that opera (itself a lengthy undertaking no doubt). Now, I can only conjecture at this point, not knowing what his plans were for the band pre-pandemic. All I know for sure is that with all touring plans put on hold, it seems like the timetable on a new studio album was accelerated. This new album, Leviathan, is arriving years earlier than I anticipated it, and there’s word from Christofer himself that two sequels are already in the works to immediately follow it. As a passionate Therion fan, I’m not exaggerating in saying this feels like Christmas. Particularly so because the nature of Leviathan is so unexpectedly driven towards the idea of fan service, it really does feel like an armful of wrapped gifts on behalf of Christofer for the intolerably long wait. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge him taking the time to pursue whatever artistic ambitions he wanted to, nor do I think the opera was misguided, particularly after we’d experienced two decades of his career receiving mostly incredible releases. Yet how else to interpret and receive an album that’s described by the man himself as a purposeful distillation of the band’s most beloved eras?
The most surprising aspect of Leviathan then is how it manages to transcend that aforementioned fan service description and reveal itself to be one of the band’s most cohesive and inspired albums to date. I consider myself well versed in the band’s catalog, and in knowing those prior albums extremely well… yes I hear shades and echoes of Therion’s musical past in glimpses and flashes throughout. More than that however, I hear how a simplifying, stripping back, or dare I suggest a reductivist approach to the songwriting here has pushed the band to leap forward to a place they’d not explored quite in this fashion before. To put it simply, for an album billed as the distillation of Therion’s most popular moments, there’s a lot about this album that feels fresh, uncharted, and newborn. It took me more than a handful of listens to suss out why I felt this way, but I think it boils down to a few things. First, the song structures here are far more linear than we’ve heard from Therion in ages, eschewing the often bewilderingly clunky patterns that made up Sitra Ahra. While not as simple as verse-chorus-verse-chorus, the progressive tendencies that laced the songwriting on that aforementioned last album have largely been abandoned in favor of songs that hit their emotional apex quicker. One of my main private criticisms of Sitra was the sometimes frustrating sonic choices throughout, be it instrumentation or vocalist, created a barrier to what could have been incredibly affecting music. It’s a criticism I levy quite a bit at progressive metal, and one of the unspoken truths about Therion is how their music flourishes far better when it’s allowed to be more naturally flowing, its melodies a little more effortless, as they are all throughout Leviathan.
Pair that with another striking aspect of the new album, that being how the cast of vocalists and their melodies have wound up being the core feature and strength of these songs. This might not seem revelatory, but for Therion it’s kind of a rarity for their music to lean so heavily on the vocal side. Consider that the band’s intent on creating this record was to challenge themselves to try to invoke the spirit of their more popular era. Well, records from that late 90s-early 00s era such as Vovin and Deggial and Secret of the Runes, while laced with dramatic, rich vocals throughout, were largely albums built on meditative, hypnotic instrumental passages. I had always felt that particular aspect of that era (my introductory era as well) was what gave the band their mystical aura, this purposeful deployment of vocal silence. In that space, the band’s instrumental side offered beautifully dark, mysterious melodies that were able to express just as much as a singer could. That’s why 2006’s Gothic Kabbalah came as such a surprise when it was released, as suddenly the band’s lineup had expanded to include a whole cast of lead vocalists that they’d previously not had before, including Mats Levin, Snowy Shaw, and Katarina Lilja. That album was full to the brim of lead vocal centric songs, as opposed to the choir based work on most of the preceding albums, and as a result it stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the Therion discography (and as divisive as that album was at the time, I still think its spectacular and incredibly underrated). When I listen to Leviathan, I’m most reminded of Gothic Kabbalah in execution and spirit than any other period of the band’s history.
The small yet, I suspect, consequential difference between these two albums however is that Leviathan’s vocal approach is not just hyper-focused on lead vocal driven songwriting, but on melding that with the band’s traditional choir based vocals. I idly wonder how much this album arriving on the heels of the massive, vocal centric Beloved Antichrist opera had to do with it — that project’s writing tendencies lingering to impact these new songs. This is total conjecture on my part, but I hear the opera’s influence on songs like the utterly gorgeous, stately ballad “Die Wellen der Zeit”, possibly one of the most beautiful songs in the Therion cannon. Not only is lead vocalist Taida Nazraić a revelation with her incredibly emotive performance, but the delicately ethereal, almost floating orchestral melodies here are sublime. The Israeli choir Hellscore provides the blanket of voices that join Nazraić, and together they spiral upwards into a chorus that is transcendent, and remind me of some of those shimmering moments on Beloved Antichrist that I wish were longer (“To Shine Forever”, “Through Dust, Through Rain”). I hear this operatic influence permeating the awesome, dramatically engaging “Psalm Of Retribution”, where Mats Leven, Thomas Vikström, and Lori Lewis seem to engage in a back and forth sung dialogue as opposed to the typical male/female vocal dynamic. As an aside, it’s just so great to hear Leven on a Therion album again, he was part of my favorite era of the band (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Therion albums Lemuria and Sirius B), and his distinctive rough edged vocal tone is an excellent contrast to Vikström’s smooth tenor.
Lori Lewis is joined by fellow veteran Therion soprano Chiara Malvestiti on “Nocturnal Light”, another richly operatic piece built on strong lead vocal melodies framed by a wall of choirs that are layered in the mix to sound ethereal and heavenly, as if sounding down from the heavens. Vikström is particularly impressive here, walking that tightrope between his classical tenor and the accessibility that a song with metal guitars would need — it’s as close as anyone has ever come to reminding me of Falconer’s great Mathias Blad. Again I’ll emphasize, this piece feels new to me, something that has hallmarks of classic Therion but it’s combination of elements is pieced together in a way I don’t think I’ve heard before. After many listens it’s risen to become one of my favorites on the record, along with the fantastic “Tuonela”, as buzz-worthy a single Therion have delivered in ages. Here ex-Nightwish vocalist/bassist Marco Hietala joins Nazraić in an elegant yet impassioned duet over a folky violin led melodic motif set against the backdrop of spectral choirs and chunky riffs. You’ve gotta hand it to Christofer for having a damn near perfect track record for knowing which uniquely distinctive voices will work as guest spots in Therion songs (in the past he’s used the likes of Dan Swano, Ralf Scheepers, and Hansi Kursch to name a few). Hietala’s unique delivery suits Therion, even his trademark wild vocal extensions that worked to hair raising effect in Nightwish conjuring that satisfying, fist pumping magic here.
As for Nazraić, I have to hand it to her for perhaps claiming the album’s MVP award, because although she was gifted with three of the strongest songs on the album, she manages to elevate all of them with genuinely glorious performances. This was my introduction to her, and I hope she’s utilized on the next two Therion records because she’s earned a new fan here. Her last performance comes on the album closer, the epic Asian influenced “Ten Courts of Diyu”, where she positively shines. Her vocal during the build-up to and during the refrain could squeeze emotion out of boulders. And again, I love the simplicity being shown here with the usage of silent pauses save for a few stray bass notes during the middle bridge. That moment in particular was one of the few things that reminded me of Vovin and Deggial, where Therion demonstrate an ability to shift the mood within the course of a song in such an elegant, seemingly effortless manner. And I would be remiss not to point out the fantastic performance turned in by Rosalía Sairem, particularly on the awesome uptempo (and endearingly cheerful sounding) “El Primer Sol”, as straight to the point and direct as Therion gets. Points also go to Vikström here for crafting a performance that blurs the line between distinguished classical tenor and rough-edged metal vocals. Sairem also turns “Eye Of Algol” into something special with a wild lead vocal delivery that reminds me of Katarina Lilja’s work on Gothic Kabbalah (there’s that reference again!).
I realize that I’ve spent most of this review discussing the vocal performances, but I just can’t emphasize enough how much this is a vocally driven, singer-centric album. If this is your introduction to Therion, you should know that it’s not always like this (not a bad thing mind you, but this is a band that has consistently changed things up throughout the years, apparently even when they attempt to revisit older eras!). So what about the rest of the band, of Christofer himself on rhythm guitars and lead guitarist Christian Vidal? Together I think their best moment comes on “Aži Dahāka”, as aggressive as the album gets within all things metallic, with Vidal spinning off some quick, dizzying lead patterns that are as joyfully melodic as we’ve come to expect from Therion. It’s been hard to consider Vidal as a replacement for the impeccable Kristian Niemann (Sorcerer), who was around for the band’s more guitar centric era. Vidal has been on two records now, spaced a decade apart, and he has glimpses and flashes of brilliance but I’ve yet to hear him really get a transcendent moment of his own yet. It was also strange that Snowy Shaw laid down drum tracks for five of these songs, but wasn’t used as a vocalist, particularly given his past work for Therion in that role. Here’s hoping he’s singing on the next two.
As for Christofer, his impact on Therion albums is more felt in the very fabric of every note and lyric rather than his Accept-ian rhythm guitars, and particularly in his musical instincts. I’m not going to exalt him and use words like “maestro” and “mastermind” like some overzealous PR people tend to throw around towards many other musicians. He’s just a metalhead like the rest of us, albeit one with a really creative vision and the ability to express himself through this vehicle of his own design. I’ll give him credit for steering the band in this direction, accepting his statement that it was as much a challenge for himself as it was a tacit acknowledgment of something fans would likely enjoy (spoiler alert: I’m enjoying it). But I think Leviathan succeeds on a level that he didn’t anticipate, that being the pushing of the band in a more vocally cohesive direction (whether intentionally or subconsciously). The result is a first for Therion, an album that sounds sweeter, warmer, with more heart on sleeve emotional resonance than they’ve ever conjured. It’s full of moments that remind me of why I fell in love with this band so much, of why I’m so quick to defend them from any detractors who just dismiss them with a cursory glance or worse, a lazy lumping in with other symphonic metal (or derisively, “corset-core”) bands. Therion are one of the most misunderstood bands in metal, their work needing no little amount of time and attention to properly appreciate and contextualize. The new album might not change that, but it’s certain to be appreciated as one of their best records by those of us who do get it.
The Iced Earth / Children Of Bodom / Evergrey tour hit downtown Houston on a balmy Saturday May 8th, 2004 at the cramped metal box of a venue known then as the Engine Room. They pulled what the Atlanta Falcons jersey wearing doorman said was the largest crowd to ever turn up for a show there, estimating close to 800 people in a line that stretched down for so many blocks that the HPD took notice and had to get people to stop standing in the middle of the street. It was as intense a show I’ve ever been to, with an ultra packed, sweat drenched, and energized crowd that surged forward when Bodom came on and somehow crushed further together when Iced Earth took the stage. It stands in my memory as being a top five concert experience, with incredible mosh pits, crowd surfing, and massive group singalongs and thrashy headbanging.
What made a great show even better was that hours earlier, I had arrived early to the venue to catch the bands loading in for soundcheck, and got asked by a hungover Alexi Laiho to walk him to the nearest convenience store a mile away so he could buy cigarettes. When we got back and he went in for soundcheck, Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer and Tim Owens stepped out of their bus, and I got to meet them both, with Schaffer signing my copy of The Dark Saga, a seminal album for me as a metal fan. I shook his hand, and me and the other fan who had the same early bird idea as me chatted with him about the recent Iron Maiden album Dance of Death, and what rare old songs we all wished Steve and company would add to their setlist. The whole interaction only lasted for a few minutes, but it’s been part of a nice memory for me, one that stands out among many from what seems like a lifetime of going to metal shows.
I’ve been a fan of Iced Earth since I stumbled upon a copy of the aforementioned The Dark Saga album and bought it solely due to it’s cover art back in 1997. I soon tracked down Burnt Offerings, Night Of The Stormrider, and Something Wicked This Way Comes and was entrenched, a massive fan. Seeing them in 2004 was only the first time I would see the band live, catching them on numerous occasions afterwards. Being a nerdy metal fan, I’d read interviews with Schaffer to keep up on happenings with the band, and like other fans, it wasn’t hard to notice Schaffer’s libertarian streak coming to the forefront every so often when he spoke on the record —- nevermind their noticeable impact on his lyrics throughout the band’s albums. I think like many other Iced Earth fans, I took his views with a grain of salt, even though they differed from most of my own. Living in a liberal district in conservative Texas, surrounded by opposing political viewpoints in nearly every walk of life even among family and friends, you get used to dealing with that dichotomy and it ceased being surprising a long time ago.
And I was used to that already, one of my favorite albums being Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction, even though it was at times a paean to terrible misogyny. As a teenager who had learned about black metal from that infamous issue of Kerrang magazine, I had naively bought Burzum’s Filosofem, because the grizzly saga behind the album was something I was fascinated by —- and I listened to and enjoyed that album long before Varg’s racial beliefs became common knowledge. Questionable and/or provocative lyrics and imagery come with the territory in metal and hard rock, there’s no avoiding it, but as was the case with Burzum, sometimes they are a prelude to something terrible. For all of Jon Schaffer’s libertarian, 1776-worship in his lyrics, they were just words, and his interviews were just less poetic words, long-winded answers to questions asked and sometimes unasked. I don’t think any of his fans, even those who shared his beliefs, could have predicted that he would end up where he ended up on Wednesday, January 6th at the Capitol building riot that left five people dead including one police officer.
For all of Schaffer’s indulging of his personal politics in interviews, up until Wednesday, it was just that, opinions put forth in print or on YouTube video interviews. Whatever your feelings on those, he was allowed his views and the freedom to express them. As a fan, I had learned to live with that, Schaffer had his view of the world and that was that, I could still be a fan of the music and enjoy the records I grew up with, and even look forward to new albums. I’m not going to pretend to know what Schaffer’s purpose was when he decided to follow the hordes of rioters into the Capitol building on Wednesday. But when he decided to follow suit and entered the building with them, being caught mid-angry shout in the photograph above, he was a willing participant in one of the most shameful acts in the nation’s history. I don’t need to go into why the Capitol riots were awful, you should already know why —- but what I will get into is that Schaffer was marching side by side with people who committed murder, had the intent to commit murder, were engaging in domestic terrorism with explosive devices, and were committing seditious conspiracy via their actions.
As shocking and saddening it is that Schaffer was among those maniacs rioting inside the Capitol building, I’m particularly aggrieved that he was there side by side with neo-nazis and white supremacists. When I was trying to process all my thoughts about this on Wednesday evening, I found myself just remembering all the Iced Earth shows I’d been to here in Houston, where most of the metal fans who attend are like me, brown-skinned to some degree, ie not white. Attendees at metal shows here involve every race and nationality you can think of, which makes sense considering Houston is still the most diverse city in the nation. That was reflected in the giddy crowds at those Iced Earth shows, in the lines at the merch tables, and in the clusters of fans near the tour bus after the show hoping for a few minutes to get a pic or have something signed.
I thought about Schaffer’s partnership with Hansi Kursch in Demons & Wizards. Hansi was born in Germany in 1966, just 21 years after the fall of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II, his parents having had to grow up in the shadow of that terrible reality that their parents’ generation had allowed to happen. Hansi, a veritable teddy bear of a human being, is one of the nicest people in metal, and has been a friend of Schaffer since they met in 1992 on tour together. I wondered what he was thinking, about what he would want to say to Schaffer directly or if he’d be too shocked to say anything. I also thought about my MSRcast co-host Cary, who is Jewish, who has attended Iced Earth shows as well. Neo-nazis’ beliefs include vehemently denying the Holocaust, which is not only incredibly hurtful to Jewish people and German citizens, but should enrage the rest of us. Schaffer may not share the views of neo-nazis himself (Iced Earth after all, have played in Israel before), and I’ve never heard him give voice to those sentiments, but when you walk side by side with white supremacists and neo-nazis for a purpose, you are tacitly supporting their views regardless of whether or not you share them.
And I look at that image of Schaffer above, with his face caught in this contortion of rage, and I wonder: Jon, what the hell do YOU have to be so angry about? Here you are, a white guy in America, who’s never had to deal with the indignities of racism. Your family has never been hatefully stared at in a McDonalds along the interstate in Mississippi when you were a kid. You’ve never had the notion to regret your skin color because it would have made a situation, or just life in general a little easier. More than that, you’re living many a metal musician’s dream, making a living from your music and playing on big stages like Wacken. You get to tour the world in a metal band and receive adulation from adoring crowds on nearly every continent, getting to experience things that most of us will never be able to stuck in our 9-5 existence. Yeah you’ve worked hard for that opportunity, but this global audience is what allows you to enjoy that enriched life. So again, what the hell are you so angry about?
Schaffer will never read this of course, and really I suppose I’m writing this more for my own benefit than anyone else’s, it being the only way I can process my feelings about this whole thing. It’s an understatement to say that I’m incredibly disappointed, but that’s as applicable a term as I can find for describing being shoutingly angry one moment and utterly sad the next. Iced Earth is likely finished, being that Schaffer owns the name and is the central figure in the band, and will be persona non grata going forward (and you know, that minor detail of him possibly facing prison time for his actions). More relevant to me however is just having to deal with this as a fan… or former fan… or however I’m going to describe myself relative to this band’s music. Because even though it will likely be a long, long time before I can stomach listening to Iced Earth’s music again, I know how it goes: I won’t be able to unlike the stuff I’ve already enjoyed.
Maybe some people have that ability, but I clearly don’t. I’m listening to pop music while writing this, but if I hit pause and concentrate, I can think of my favorite passage in “Travel In Stygian”, or the ending sequence to “A Question Of Heaven”, or the thrashy aggressive moments in “The Coming Curse” and even in their fleetingly remembered state, I still love them. They’re part of the fabric of my experience as a metal fan, broadly speaking, but now there will always be a taint on those songs and albums in the form of my mind immediately going to the despicable actions of Schaffer at the Capitol. I’ll have to learn to live with that, and really the only thing I can do going forward is refuse to financially support any of Schaffer’s musical ambitions, if he is allowed to have any after this. I can’t see myself hypothetically reviewing any future Iced Earth albums either (but again, I don’t think that will be a problem). Two days before the Capitol building incident, the metal world came together to collectively mourn the news of Alexi Laiho’s passing in December. I was already saddened from that, and still trying to process it. To think I had met both of those guys within an hour of each other that day in 2004, and now, it feels like I’m mourning the loss of both.
The end of a long yet seemingly short road. In less than ten days we’ll be done with 2020 and hopefully onto better days and weeks to come. For as much as we try to rationalize with ourselves that there is no tangible difference in our everyday lives when that calendar changes over at midnight Dec 31st… the reality is that our perception of a clean slate, however imaginary, can change enough in our mindset to make a tangible difference. Whether it’s the introduction of New Year’s resolutions or just feeling like you can start over —- if that’s a feeling you have, then screw rationalizations and just run with it. I’m calling it right now, I think 2021 is going to be a spectacular year. It might not seem like it at first with the virus still raging and vaccine rollouts moving slowly, but I’m feeling quite optimistic about things in all ways. You should know that I’m not normally like this, but if 2020 taught me anything, its how to better appreciate the things that we took for granted that made our lives bright and worth striving for. The end of the year is also time to reflect, and that’s a tough ask this year I know —- but not on the musical front, and I’m so happy to publish this year’s best albums list below. It’s a brief list that will always serve as a reminder to me that even in the darkest of days this year, the joy of being a music (and metal!) fan never wavered. If anything, I relied on it more this year than any other time in my life, it was the ward against everything bad in the world that threatened to spill into my brain and make life dull and grey. Bring on 2021, I’ve never been more ready.
1. Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:
I think I knew right after my first pass through this album way back in the pre-pandemic before times, that this was going to be sitting atop my year end albums list. I simply loved it too much. So much so that I actually had to force myself to stop listening to it even after my review had been published because I was worried about potentially burning myself out on it too quickly. No, that wouldn’t do. I had to slow down and give it a rest, to keep it sounding as fresh as it was, and so I purposefully shelved it for weeks. The dam cracked frequently however, as I’d find myself returning for sneak listens throughout the summer months here and there when everything else sounded like static noise —- and only the sweetly dramatic magic of Adrienne Cowan and Jack Kosto’s songwriting could deliver what I yearned to hear. Their work on Emerald Seas transcends genre boundaries, at once combining the melodicism of power metal and the epic bombast of symphonic metal through a melodeath filter. Part of the band’s staggering talent is their technical background, all the members being students at the Berklee College of Music. It’s a facet that shows up in Kosto’s neoclassical shred inclinations; in Chris Dovas’ simply dizzying mix of aggressive thrash, death, and power metal drumming styles; and bassist Peter Albert de Reyna’s nimbly jazzy rhythmic performances, often in the foreground ala Eddie Jackson/John Myung, his role in these songs transcending rhythm section duties into jazzy, off-beat expressions to run counter to Kosto. And of course Cowan is as intense and vicious a screamer/growler as she is a shining light of a pure singer.
But it’s the songs that are the true stars here, richly musical gems like “Ghost Of A Dream” and “Every Crest” channeling the sheer inventiveness and ambition of Epica era Kamelot with their playful choice of instrumentation —- Spanish sounding acoustic guitars, some accordion, and massive layers of Hans Zimmer-esque keyboard orchestration. Kosto is the guitar child of Yngwie and Thomas Youngblood, inheriting the latter’s penchant for lean, muscular riffs yet capable of exploding into wild, seemingly unrestrainable neoclassical fury in fits and bursts. Cowan’s vocal melodies here are simply joyful and glorious, loaded with melodic integrity and emotional power. On “Unmapped Darkness”, she manages to guide very literate, narrative lyrics into a sweeping, grandiose melody that is worthy of a Broadway stage. Cowan’s penchant for theatricality is best exemplified in how she ties her lyrical approach to that of the thematic vision of the album, it’s nineteenth century Romanticism a backdrop to the story of a lone sea captain on a quest for eternal life. Her skill at penning imaginative, imagery rich lyrics is seen on album highlights “Succumb” and the breathless ballad “Silvery Moon”, the character and scene coming to life via skillful diction and a strong narrative voice. She’s just an undeniably gifted lyricist and songwriter, her way with words sharing a spiritual kinship with the mighty Roy Khan’s songwriting work with Kamelot, where he elevated power metal into high art. Seven Spires have achieved just that with Emerald Seas, delivering an outright masterpiece with their sophomore album when their debut Solveig suggested they’d begin a steady climb towards something promising. They’ve smashed that timeline to bits, and perhaps captured lightning in a bottle here —- but I seriously doubt this will be a one off. They’re only just beginning.
One of those out of left field fall surprises that always seems to occur, Glow was the melodeath album that 2020 demanded. Channeling the melodic emotion of Insomnium with the clinical precision of Omnium Gatherum, Countless Skies filtered their influences through a kaleidoscope of changing, glittering colors to create a take on the style that is sunlit —- it’s melodies life-affirming and hopeful, matching the mood set by that glorious cover illustration. Part of this album’s strength is how the band utilizes space and even silence as an integral part of their compositional approach, such as on the epic “Zephyr”. Individual instruments ring on their own, notes drifting off into silent voids, all with a sense of emotive purpose rather than just a technique to build tension or anticipation. This is incredibly difficult to pull off this successfully, most bands relying on the opposite approach, to reinforce their songs with walls of sound. And to be sure, these aren’t songs on Glow in the traditional sense —- Countless Skies rarely traffic in hooks or anything resembling traditional verse/bridge/chorus song structures. Moments of beauty are bountiful but fleeting, such as the old school In Flames-ian acoustic guitar drop-off before the four minute mark in “Tempest”. Clean vocalist Phil Romeo’s impassioned exultations on that track and the awesome “Glow – Part 2: Awakening” are a revelation, equal parts Ville Friman and part Ross Jennings (although I’ve been told by a few people that he reminds them of Devin Townsend and now I can’t unhear that). This is an album that sounds effortlessly natural, again making me think just how well suited it’s cover art turned out to be because that simply is the image that this music puts in my mind. Fading afternoon sunlight against a spread of clouds in the distance, and in that visual a sense of momentary peace and resolution.
3. Décembre Noir – The Renaissance Of Hope:
Living up to the band’s name, this was a late year discovery for me, something we played recently on the MSRcast and has proven to be one of the most compelling releases of the year. Germany’s Décembre Noir traffic in thoughtfully written, deep and dark melodic death-doom. In a year with armfuls of death-doom releases, including a new Draconian album, it’s a bit of a stunner to say that a relative unknown has released the highest calibur release among them, but I think that’s exactly what happened. And for a album that can rightfully be described as melodic, this is a shockingly brutal and violent affair, built with slabs of tortured riffs stacked roughly against one another, while vocalist Lars Dotzauer growl-barks throughout like a man possessed. These songs are written in a way that eschews traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus formatting, coming across more like passages and movements. But for their lack of typical structure, they don’t lack for memorability or even something resembling hooks, such as the repeating lead guitar motif that haunts the latter half of “Hope/Renaissance”. The band flexes a touch of prog tendencies ala Novembers Doom on “Streets Of Transience”, and even demonstrates a little straightforward heavy metal thrust during the mid-song bridge shift, with a mighty lone riff propelling things towards an awesome, headbanging sequence. The MVP here is drummer Kevin Kleinschmidt, whose unorthodox timing and unpredictable patterns are a crucial factor in the excitement level running throughout this album. I’d even go as far as to say this is the best overall drumming I’ve heard on any metal album this year, it’s that important to conveying the sheer rage and spittle-flying madness being conveyed here. Late release date be damned, this album will captivate you on first listen, and that’s why it’s so high on this list.
4. Unleash The Archers – Abyss:
Proof that their 2017 year end list topping album Apex wasn’t just a fluke, Unleash The Archers returned this year with what is likely a far more compelling album as a whole. I say that fully aware that I’m placing Abyss three spots lower here, but that’s more due to circumstances beyond its control (namely the three albums above being released this year), and as I said in my initial review for the album, Apex had higher high points (songs like the title track and “The Matriarch”), whereas Abyss is more on an even keel throughout —- one of satisfyingly excellent songwriting tied together with the introduction of heavy layers of spacey, campy sci-fi synths. The band’s ultimately wise decision was to not attempt to replicate Apex in the slightest, to decidedly step away from its thrashier sound profile and aggressive songwriting and head boldly in a new direction. Sure there are moments of extremity found here and there, the near blastbeat percussion on “Legacy” or the furious, coulda been on Apex “Soulbound”, but they are exceptions. Continuing the storyline of the Matriarch and the Immortal’s struggle except in the expanse of outer space instead of the gritty earthen wild, allowed the band to justify adding colorful, psychedelic layers of synths to their sound, to slow down the tempos and temper their straightforward metallic attack to create some rich diversity in their songwriting output. It resulted in gems like “Through Stars”, as unorthodox a song they’ve penned to date, but one that illustrates this approach perfectly with a Beach Boys-esque harmonized chorus. There’s serious 80s Heart vibes on the sparkly power ballad “Carry The Flame”, where guitarist Andrew Kingsley delivers some awesome lead vocals alongside Brittney Hayes in an pairing that makes me think of Nightwish with Marco Hietala. The cumulative effective of all these experiments and risks taken was demonstrating that the band had grown confident enough in their songwriting abilities to trust they’d deliver memorable tunes despite changing up their color palette and brush strokes a bit. As it turns out, Unleash the Archers didn’t just get lucky on Apex, they were simply getting started on building their artistic legacy.
Some may raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Magnum here, not only because this was one of those incredibly early January releases that might be forgotten due to the time distortion of the pandemic, but also because Magnum is ostensibly a hard rock band. I’ll contest however that there’s enough metallic edge to their current sound to bend around any genre limitations, and not to mention they are a central influence on artists like Avantasia and much of the more AOR-inclined wing of European power metal. Vocalist Bob Catley is of course a seemingly perennial guest on recent Avantasia releases and tours, and in a returning of the favor, Tobias Sammet was a guest on their last record, the excellent Lost On The Road To Eternity. Magnum have steadily been releasing quality records for the past ten years, but it was on that album where they really found some fresh inspiration, and that well must’ve been deep because it’s resulted in the follow-up being their finest album in over twenty years. This is some of guitarist/songwriter Tony Clarkin’s finest work, delivering an album with no duds and a host of absolute gems, starting with the best songs listee “Where Are You Eden?” with its rich, ornate string arrangements. Bob Catley is as ageless as ever, but he’s pure magic on when given incredible melodies to work with as on the heart-aching gypsy balladry of “The Last One On Earth” (it’s lyrics as foreshadowing of the impending lockdown/isolation as anything released shortly before the pandemic), or the stately quasi-power metal of “The Archway Of Tears”. The entire first half of this album in fact is a murders row of to-be classics, and this from a band with their two principal members over 70 years old. If that’s not a motivating kick in the backside, what is?
The swan song of one of the truly great, genre expanding power metal bands borne in the original Golden Age of Power Metal™, From A Dying Ember is as fine a send off from the band to their fans and the metal world as can be imagined. It’s their most classic sounding Falconer album since Northwind, being molded after their first two classic albums, and not quite as heavy as 2008’s Among Beggars and Thieves or the all-Swedish sung Armod. Guitarist and songwriter Stefan Weinerhall set out to create the most Falconer-ish Falconer album he possibly could as a finale, taking aim to cover all the touchstones of styles and song types the band has explored over the years. That kind of bold ambition usually results in disappointment, but to his credit he nailed it —- we were gifted the best songs listee in “Desert Dreams”, an uptempo cut reminiscent of “Mindtraveller”. We also got wonderfully inspired songs loaded with the band’s penchant for infusing medieval folk melodies such as the awesome “In Regal Attire”, with one of the band’s best choruses to date. In that same vein was also the heart wrenching balladry of “Rejoice The Adorned”, a medieval tinged vocal melody led ballad cut from the same cloth as classics like “Portals Of Light” and “Long Gone By”. When I first listened to it, I idly wondered with some trepidation if this was the last time we’d be hearing Mathias Blad’s vocals on any recorded output, and that I’d even settle for recordings of his theater work in the future. He has had one of the most unique vocal approaches that any metal vocalist has ever delivered, one that is firmly committed to his theatrical stage singing style that he performs in his day job, never amplifying it to fit into a metal mold and entirely devoid of any metal vocalist influences. Weinerhall has quietly put together a resume that places him in the pantheon of all-time great songwriters in the genre, and indeed his folk music infusion was genre bending in itself. Falconer are going out as legends, and this album was for me a celebration of the nearly two decades I’ve been a fan.
The most euphoric, spirit lifting surprise of the year, Boisson Divine’s La Halha appeared on my radar via the good people in the r/PowerMetal community who are always sourcing unorthodox stuff that you wouldn’t expect a bunch of people who argue over what Blind Guardian album is the best to pull out of their collective back pocket (btw it’s Nightfall guys). Boisson Divine can be classified as folk metal, sourcing that aspect of their sound from their French Gascony roots which serves to set them apart from the subgenre’s usual geographical musical influences. And were it not for translations, I would not understand what these songs are speaking about (they sing in French and a regional language called Occitan), but the band makes it clear on their Bandcamp description blurb what they’re often singing about: legends, songs to the land, rural solidarity, feasts, traditional songs… rugby even. They marry all this with an ample amount of trad/power melodicism and musicianship, with a sprinkle of punk rock enthusiasm particularly in their often group sung lead vocals. And they write energetic songs that are loaded with hooks that transcended language via insanely catchy vocal melodies, such as on the album highlights “La Sicolana”, “Rei de Suèda”, and best songs listee “Libertat”. I mentioned in my original review for this months back that these songs were without anger —- and that’s something that drew me to this album time and again throughout the year. When it seemed like every minute was consumed with toxic moods and emotions, La Halha was an hour long escape where even the language barrier didn’t matter.
Norway’s Green Carnation returned after a fourteen year hiatus with one of the most cerebral yet headbanging albums of the year in Leaves of Yesteryear. And in truth, this was really my first experience with the band’s music, this album coming my way via Spotify’s playlists back in May. The band plays a vein of progressive metal that is similar in influences to what Opeth and Enslaved are doing now, except while those two bands channel Camel and Pink Floyd as influences respectively, Green Carnation seem to get their inspiration from heavier, more rockin’ sources like Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth era Scorpions. That’s already a far more appealing starting point for me, and that they write incredible songs is of course what makes this album worth talking about at the end of the year. It’s five song tracklist may seem appallingly short, but these are mostly lengthier songs that are gradually unfolding musical thrill rides, such as the fifteen minute “My Dark Reflections Of Life And Death”, a song that is built on a series of alternately headbanging riffs and meticulous spans of quiet, atmospheric tension building. Vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (also of Tristania fame) is a key draw of this album, his smooth yet hazy singing voice capable of bringing an element of raw emotion in ache and melancholy to these songs. He shines on the album closing Sabbath cover of “Solitude” (yes there’s only four original songs on here but trust me, it’s not an EP), his approach landing in that misty, smokey territory that reminds me slightly of Mikael Akerfeldt during the Steven Wilson producer years. In my original review for this album, I commended it’s overall listenability, and that opinion still stands —- this is one of those metal records that transcends subgenre barriers and should be essential listening for anyone who likes a heavy riff or two.
9. Well Of Night – The Lower Planes Of Self-Abstraction:
It was my goal way back at the beginning of the year to make an effort to listen to more black metal once again after really stepping away from the subgenre for the past couple years. I pretty much whiffed on that plan once the world went south and I found myself stuck inside all day building the Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, but what little black metal I did search out I made count. Case in point is debut album by Dayton, Ohio’s Well Of Night (such an unusual geographic location for a black metal band is by now not all that remarkable, given black metal’s permeating reach these days), who eschew the genre’s move towards more murkier, “post” drenched sound worlds in favor of hearkening to more traditional roots. Here they channeled second wave Norwegian black metal ala Emperor’s blistering wrath with Dimmu’s skillfully written song arrangements ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, resulting in a sound that was richly melodic without the need for layers of orchestra and cinematic symphonics. On tracks like “Apex and Eschaton” and “Black Alder Sacristy”, they utilize major rhythmic shifts and undulating currents of audible bass (in black metal?! Get out of here!) to create texture and space within the fabric of layers of ringing tremolo riffs. There’s an intensity and at times, violence to this album that is staggering, and it’s made possible as a result of the band’s decision to aim for the most crisp, clear, instrument separating mix that I’ve heard on a black metal album in years. It resulted in one of those undeniably compelling listens, one that caught me off guard and had me transfixed.
10. Eshtadur – From The Abyss:
Colombia’s Eshtadur released the most creative, expressively diverse extreme metal album of the year in From The Abyss, a merger of melodic death metal with symphonic black metal swirls and even wild hard rock. This blurring of genre lines within the context of an album and even in individual songs themselves is what makes Eshtadur one of the most intriguing and exciting extreme metal bands to emerge in the last decade, something they started to fully develop on the cheekily titled Stay Away From Evil And Get Close To Me. Vocalist/guitarist Jorg August is the band’s principle member, songwriter and all around visionary, and his approach is to embrace any and all aspects of his influences and distill them into his horror tinged elixir. As a vocalist he is versatile, veering from delivering deeply guttural vocals over some very Septic Flesh-reminiscent death metal to a metalcore influenced scream over a piercing tremolo riff sequence. Despite all the extremity, these are highly discernable songs, forgoing a wall of sound approach in favor of clear instrument separation, a balanced mix, and crisply recorded guitars so that the melodies here are bright and memorable. They’re also catchy as hell, and it’s not even a surprise when a rockin’ cover of Firehouse’s “All She Wrote” featuring Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati on guest vocals appears mid-album. It’s one of the best cross genre covers you’ll ever hear, and despite its bewildering, surreal placement in the middle of such a brutal, ferocious album —- it actually makes sense and provides context to the hookiness of the rest of the record. This is an album that flew under the radar this year but deserves to be heard, precisely because this band is unafraid of it’s unconventional influences, even something as polarizing as pop metal.
I’ve never been as relieved and ready to pen a year end list as I am now, for this most grueling and daunting of years. Welcome to part one of the annual best of feature, once again focusing on the top ten songs of the year with the albums list coming soon in part two. For this songs list, I don’t think it’s that surprising to state that this year more than any other, mood had a lot to do with what ended up here. You’ll notice a distinct lack of anything particularly extreme, and that’s not by coincidence. It’s only recently, as in the past few months, that I’ve started to listen to a lot of extreme metal again, because during those early pandemic months, I just needed it’s diametric opposite. So it’s perhaps accurate in saying that this list might have been ever so slightly different had 2020 been a normal year, although I suppose that could be said for so many things about life in general. Reminiscing aside, like anyone else I’m not sorry to see the backside of this year as we collectively slam the door behind it, but it’s worth remembering that it did yield some truly magical music amid the chaos.
1. Seven Spires – “Succumb” (from the album Emerald Seas)
Such is the magnificence of Seven Spires’ Emerald Seas that no less than four songs from it could have occupied this top slot for 2020, but the most charmingly gorgeous and daringly adventurous of them all was the monumental “Succumb”. Built on regal guitar melodies and a restrained yet punchy orchestral arrangement, “Succumb” is largely a vehicle for the devastatingly masterful songwriting and performance of vocalist Adrienne Cowan. She’s versatile and adept at seemingly everything; capable of fiercely abrasive harsh vox, gritty rock n’ roll belting, and alternately gorgeous clean singing reminiscent of Sara Squadrani’s heartwarming, crystalline tones. Here she manages to merge the latter two in a swaggering, heroic vocal performance so convincing and passionate you’d swear she’s singing it while swinging from the rigging of a ship. And her lyrics are pure poetry, full of inventive phrasing and evocative imagery, the chorus boasting the most striking moment —- “…And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone…”. Her talent as a lyricist shows her direct influence from the mighty Roy Khan, and like the master himself, she knows how to marry those words to unforgettable melodies so as to make their story come to life every time we listen.
2. Fellowship – “Glint” (from the album Fellowship)
The lead off track from the debut EP of UK power metal upstarts Fellowship, “Glint” is the reason why you’ll find so many of the peeps at r/PowerMetal convinced these guys are going to be the subgenre’s saving grace when their highly anticipated new album comes out (hopefully in 2021). While I personally think the state of power metal is more than fine, thriving actually, “Glint” is the first song I’ve seen that’s managed to collectively excite dewy eyed optimists like myself and bitter, cynical curmudgeons alike. It’s brilliance is self-evident, the band’s core identity and style presented in it’s light-footed orchestral sweep and sway, it’s classic-era Sonata Arctica guitarwork and vocal-centric melodicism. The whole band is deserving of praise for their work here, but I want to single out vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry in particular for his unconventional and inspired approach towards his lyrics, which are definitely a cut above the standard power metal fare. The self-empowerment theme running through this song, exemplified in that unforgettable refrain (“I’ve always been worthy…”) has certainly been expressed in the genre before, but rarely so effectively and directly. And there’s something so right and timely about that directness —- we all needed to hear this song this year.
3. Mors Principium Est – “Lost In A Starless Aeon” (from the album Seven)
Striking like a guided missile, this absolute masterpiece from the new two man lineup Mors Principium Est album shot it’s way onto this list upon first listen. Why? Because of those incredibly melodic, almost neo-classical leads, rippling along a classic melodeath riff storming right out of the gate, and the catchiest little double figure-tail pattern I’ve heard in ages in that chorus. The solo midway through is built on beautiful ascending and descending patterns, a flurry of dizzying wizardry. Guitarist Andy Gillion delivered his finest songwriting moment for the band here, not only staying true to the band’s signature sound but refining it into being one of the greatest slices of melodeath to ever grace my ears. This is not only an instant classic banger, it’s emblematic of why when melodeath is done right, and I mean absolutely right, it’s the most viscerally exciting and satisfying subgenre of metal.
4. Unleash The Archers – “Abyss” (from the album Abyss)
The undeniable centerpiece of a spectacular album, the title track for Abyss proved that “Apex” wasn’t a fluke, that the band had developed the compositional skills to handle long pieces with skill and dexterity. This is a seven minute song that always feels like a three to four minute listen, usually with me getting irritated that it’s already over and I have to go back and click it again (the brazen inconvenience of it all). The marriage of synths with the band’s rocketing power metal was central in why the new album worked so well, and that can be heard as a microcosm here. And really, Brittney’s vocals subsume everything to her will anyway, her powerful performance here artistically depicted by the all consuming black hole in the video above.
5. Judicator – “Gloria” (from the album Let There Be Nothing)
Sometimes it doesn’t have to be that complicated to get on the best songs list. A few seriously crunchy, headbanging riffs, a fantastic vocal melody and an unforgettable call and response chorus —- “Gloria” had it all. The added dimension of John Yelland’s incredibly Hansi-ian vocal tone is one of the major selling points of Judicator’s sound for sure, but this was one of those songs where Judicator married their influences to something more inborn, a further refining of their own sound. The guest vocals by Mercedes Victoria were an inspired touch, utilizing female vocals in the most aggressive passages rather than in a typical beauty and the beast setup. Guitarist Tony Cordisco left the band after this album’s release, but hopefully the new lineup has a few more “Gloria’s” left in the bag.
6. Falconer – “Desert Dreams” (from the album From A Dying Ember)
Falconer guitarist Stefan Weinerhall penned the dreamily sweet melancholy ballad “Rejoice the Adorned” to serve as the emotional gut punch of their swan song album From A Dying Ember, and it certainly lived up to expectations. But for me, the last Falconer album’s most poignant tune was actually the second track on the record, the storming, attacking “Desert Dreams”. Not only was it cut from the same cloth as the band’s first two classic albums, all drama molded into furiously uptempo hard rock riffing with medieval-tinged melodic twists, but Mathias Blad does that effortless thing where his vocals stay at their own chosen tempo, regardless of the chaos erupting around him. It’s such an iconic sounding slice of classic Falconer —- and I’ll straight up admit that when Blad comes in with his layered harmony vocals around the 3:35 mark, I get all the feels. Aching bittersweet feels.
7. Sorceror – “Lamenting Of The Innocent” (from the album Lamenting Of The Innocent)
It’s rare that the longest track on an album winds up being it’s most spectacular song, but the title track to Sorcerer’s newest album fits that bill. A slowly, softly building atmospheric epic, “Lamenting Of The Innocent” is a journey unto itself, with distinct sections with separate melodic motifs that are equally compelling. It’s a spiritual cousin to the glorious “Unbearable Sorrow” off 2017’s The Crowning Of The Fire King, which also made that year’s best songs list (also the longest song on that album, must be #JustSorcererThings). The punishing, brutal vocal led bridges are contrasted with Kristian Niemann’s ever breathtaking swirling, hypnotic lead guitar melodies draping the chorus —- his clear tone and emotional phrasing makes you feel like you’re floating into the night air.
8. Magnum – “Where Are You Eden?” (from the album The Serpent Rings)
This majestic, surging gem from Magnum’s early January album The Serpent Rings is emblematic of the renewed spirit and vigor the band has found since 2018’s Lost On The Road To Eternity. Built on Rick Benton’s tension raising keyboard orchestration and some fairly aggro, border-line metallic riffing from Tony Clarkin, this song resembles something closer to Avantasia than the British rock that Magnum is typically associated with. And of course Bob Catley’s participation with that band recently adds fuel to that fire, but there’s truly something positively Tobias Sammet-ian about the heightened arc that Catley rides with his performance on this explosive chorus.
9. Dynazty – “Hologram” (from the album The Dark Delight)
Sometimes all it takes is to be at the right place at the right time… and to be a glorious power ballad of course. I can’t tell you how much I listened to this song around the early weeks of the pandemic, this album having come out in early April when everything was falling apart. I reviewed The Dark Delight among other albums as a means to distraction, but “Hologram”, with its comforting piano intro, plush orchestral arrangement, and gloriously skyrocketing chorus seemed to stick with me long after. It was one of those songs I kept on heavy rotation particularly around the April-June months for it’s uplifting, mood enlivening qualities. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that songs with that kind of power are more valuable than gold.
10. Boisson Divine – “Libertat” (from the album La Halha)
The euphoric, life-affirming single we needed in late-May is the capstone of one of the year’s most surprising, out of left-field albums. Boisson Divine’s blend of Celtic-punk spirit married to power metal guitars and their own Gascony folk-music DNA is honed to a razor’s edge here with an unforgettable hook. If the music video doesn’t lay it out pretty clearly, this is a song celebrating life in a fundamentally joyful spirit. And this song’s timing, post/during lockdowns was much needed, its chorus translated as “But one day you will escape / And you will find your freedom”. The band helpfully added English subtitles for this song’s music video, but I suspect most of us understood what they were singing about anyway.
Here we are at the end of all things, well… all things 2020 really. I’m calling it curtains on the metal year with my final reviews below, and the next updates after this will be my best songs and albums lists of 2020. I will acknowledge straight away that I know I didn’t review everything I planned to this year, particularly here at the end (I tried to make sure some of that stuff was addressed on the MSRcast episodes throughout the year), but hey it has been a tough, difficult year to adjust to and a lot of my free time was spent just making sure I was in a good headspace (I’ll never understand how I was able to mentally survive April and May). I know there’s going to be a slate of think pieces on 2020 as we march closer to New Years Eve. Thankfully life seems to be getting easier personally, even if things in general are getting worse out there with Covid. I’m still bummed out to acknowledge that this will be the first whole year I’ve gone without seeing a concert since I was what 17 or 18? I might have rounded a corner on a dull acceptance of live music deprivation, instead of the angsty panic I was feeling a few months ago where I was actively looking around for backyard death metal gigs in Houston and even briefly considering heading over to a nearby rehearsal studio where local bands held practices to see if anything was up. Based on all the news we’ve been hearing about the vaccines, it looks like we’re going to be waiting until mid-2021 at earliest before we get serious tours running again but I’m hopeful that things might move quicker than that.
I want to take a minute to throw out a massive shout out/thank you to the r/PowerMetal community, a group of snarky but intelligent and kind people who were largely my social lifeline during a time when seeing friends in person on the regular was not happening. That has started changing for me lately but for awhile there, if it weren’t for this bunch, the dark times would have been much darker. Special shoutout to Darko, Rocket, Four, Nuc, and Bones —- some of the nicest people that were not only instant therapy in those bleak early Covid weeks, but generally are always around to entertain my random thoughts at odd hours of the day. And there’s other shout outs as well, people and/or their content which helped me power through this hell year:
I’ve been on the Rambalac train for well over a year and a half now, long before the pandemic, his no nonsense, no dialogue walking tours of Japan being my window into a surreal and beautiful place that I really really want to visit now. A group of friends and I became huge fans of his, often finding ourselves having one of his videos on at group hangouts and finding ourselves transfixed on them, the scenery becoming the focal point of discussion. Now I don’t know what Rambalac looks like, he’s not interested in filming himself and I’ve only heard him speak briefly in Japanese in response to a passerby, but I’m convinced this man is a living saint. Before the pandemic, I googled his channel name to see if anyone else was thinking about these videos as therapeutic, escapist treasures like my friends and I were, only to find little to nothing (apart from the many people posting in his YouTube videos’ comments sections). But now the post pandemic media world has stumbled upon Rambalac’s channel and are flush with thinkpieces about his work. This is cool of course, because more eyeballs to Rambalac will keep him walking and that’s good news for all of us. I can’t begin to describe how calming his videos were in the immediate lockdown months of April and May (and truthfully ever since as well), I would take refuge in them and celebrate their capturing the essence of pre-pandemic life. The interesting thing here is that Ramby (yes I call him that) is continuing to shoot new videos, so you get to see post-pandemic Japan which is… not too dissimilar to what things were like in his videos before the pandemic. If you haven’t checked out this channel, you owe it to yourself. There are a handful of fascinating walking tour channels in his wake, such as Gezeyenti covering the Middle East and ProWalkTours who goes anywhere and everywhere (his Positano and Amalfi walks are breathtaking), and the splinter genre of driving videos best represented by J Utah who puts out captivating content. But Rambalac is the G.O.A.T. of the genre because of his singular focus: Japan is a beautiful, strange, and infuriatingly convenient place where walking is a way of life, 7-11s provide delicious, healthy food and I can only gaze at it all longingly through Rambalac’s gimballed eye.
Haim (The band):
I discovered Haim sometime in April when I was aimlessly wandering around listening to cheerful pop music on Spotify and this was recommended to me as a result. I became an instant fan of the sisters Haim and their breezy melodies with lush harmony vocal drenched guitar rock-pop (whatever we’re gonna call it). They’re a Los Angeles based band, and that California musical DNA ala Fleetwood Mac is inherent in their sound, which might be why a lot of their songs hit me with waves of nostalgia, bringing to mind my California based early childhood It’s that weird kind of nostalgia that you can’t explain logically, like yearning for a time you weren’t even alive for, or in my case, what I imagined adulthood would be like when I was a little kid (damn was I waaaay off). When I wasn’t listening to a crap ton of power metal (see below), I’d often be listening to songs like “Now I’m In It”, “The Wire”, “Something To Tell You”, and everything else from their three albums as I drove around various backroads of Texas to avoid feeling cooped up at home during lockdown. If there was ever a moment to discover a band who’s sound made the day brighter, it was right then and Haim was the right band.
Good Mythical Morning / Mythical Kitchen (YouTube):
I expect many people binged on feel good stuff throughout this year, and while I made the expected runs through old favorites like Seinfeld, Frasier, and Parks and Rec, I really relied on the endless treasure trove of happy nonsense that is Rhett and Link’s Good Mythical Morning and its after show Good Mythical More. I’m sure everyone knows about these guys and their taste tests and silly games (the March Madness snack playoffs are a particular favorite), but I expect that less know about how spectacular their cousin channel Mythical Kitchen is, with Josh Scherer aka Mythical Chef Josh as the host. As ridiculous and fun as their videos are, ranging from fast foods recreated to fancier versions, food fears, and just absolute nonsense like this, I think the best thing to come out of the Mythical Kitchen world is a podcast called A Hot Dog Is A Sandwich. Hosted by Josh and fellow Mythical chef Nicole Hendizadeh, it is my favorite new podcast in 2020, being a lighthearted debate show about food topics that you wouldn’t think are capable of being worthy of in-depth discussion. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated having this brief 40-ish minute break to bliss out into conversations about french fries vs onion rings or if chocolate is technically a candy to get a break from nonstop covid and/or election news. I know I don’t normally recommend podcasts on this blog, but I wanna throw this out there just in case anyone needs some happy happy fun times.
The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist (Spotify):
This was a labor of necessity back when it started in April, a personal playlist to help distract me and cobble together the most uplifting, positive power metal I could think of in one easy go for my own listening. I added everything that came to mind immediately and then realized I should be soliciting opinions from other people in the power metal community for unexpected gems and stuff I’d missed, and not only that, but to share the results of that help with anyone and everyone. So the playlist was made public and I set about adding to it slowly over the past many post-pandemic months now, eventually hitting my goal of getting to 300 songs by the year’s end (we’re well over that at last count). Thanks to everyone who suggested stuff, I’ve even had a few as recently as a couple weeks ago, and I see that the playlist has over 60 people following it. I’m still using it whenever I’m feeling gloomy that day, but it’s also doubling as a much needed brain saver when I have no idea what I want to listen to, just that I need it to be satisfying like right now! I’ll keep building the playlist over time, its not going anywhere, follow/subscribe to it if you haven’t yet and throw songs my way if you think of any.
Hatebreed – Weight Of The False Self:
I think I’ve written about how I got into Hatebreed via listening to The Jasta Podcast often enough on the blog (I’ve certainly talked about it on the MSRcast), but long story short, I was big on 2016’s The Concrete Confessional, it even made that year’s top albums list simply due to the unavoidable fact that I played it relentlessly for most of that year. It’s unlikely that its follow-up, released a lengthy four years later in the clunkily titled Weight Of The False Self will land on my 2020 list —- not because its a bad record, far from it in fact. However it’s late November street date (Covid delayed from its original spring release) is naturally going to prohibit me from listening to it nearly as much as its predecessor in time, and secondly, while it’s as hooky, aggressive, and adrenaline inducing as any Hatebreed album, its not as uniformly excellent as Concrete. That album channeled the seething rage of living in 2016 America better than any record that came out that year, it’s lyrics tapping into a vein of societal frustration and desperation that proved eerily prescient about the election that year. And that rage was reinforced by the full-on embrace of thrash metal riffing into their metalcore formula, resulting in some truly vicious, cathartic music. In as much as that record looked outward with a caustic eye, their new album sees Jasta reflecting inwards once again, his lyrics focusing on the universal topics of personal struggle, self-worth and self improvement. Take the rather shrewdly written “Set It Right (Start With Yourself)”, featuring the most affirming lyrics I’ve heard this year addressing an ultra divided society and the culture of social media toxicity. Rhythmically, the song brings a strong Black Flag “TV Party” vibe, built on call and response group vocals, with Jasta himself reminding me of vintage era Rollins not only in lyrical philosophy but in his delivery as well. Other highlights include “Cling To Life”, built on a sludged-down tempo that builds to a surprisingly pretty and fluid guitar solo courtesy of Wayne Lozinak; and I really love “A Stroke Of Red”, its call and response grinding, headbanging stomp erupting in a pit ready breakdown around the two minute mark that brings back a little of Concrete’s thrash attack back into the mix. There are actually no skippable songs throughout, a rare achievement on a twelve song tracklist, and this will be a frequent player in the months to come, regardless of whether it ends up on any lists or not.
Pyramaze – Epitaph:
Denmarks’ prog-power veterans Pyramaze are back with a follow up to 2017’s fair to decent Contingent. First of all congratulations are in order for the band, who with Epitaph have now passed a milestone in their history for the longest stretch of albums under their belt with a consistent lineup, as well as the largest amount of albums with one vocalist (Terje Haroy). This is only Haroy’s third album with the band, so its not like it was a monumental obstacle to clear, but during that lengthy wait between the lone 2008 Matt Barlow album and Haroy’s 2015 debut, it seemed like the band might not even get a shot with a third singer at the helm. With the Haroy era hitting this new benchmark, this is clearly the sound of Pyramaze, and anyone hoping for hints of their older approach will just have to stow that away —- after all that was two singers and a major songwriter ago. Producer extraordinaire Jacob Hansen is largely now the driving creative force for the band, their predominant songwriter along with outside help from Anubis Gate’s Henrik Fevre with vocal melodies and lyrics. And this new album sounds a lot like the past two, and depending on how you felt about those it’s either something to celebrate or bemoan. I largely enjoy modern Pyramaze because of Haroy’s satisfyingly smooth, hard rock informed vocals —- he may not be penning these vocal melodies himself, but they’re tailored to his strengths. His singing is set against a backdrop of slick, at times glossily produced slabs of modern melodic metal, and its enjoyable stuff for the most part, if not exactly challenging. Songs like “Bird of Prey” and “Transcendence” stick out here; the former for its alternative-rock guitarwork and Haroy’s way with a major key vocal melody that’s bright and hopeful, while the latter is a satisfyingly catchy vocal duet/tradeoff with UtA’s Brittney Hayes. And after multiple listens, “Particle” grew on me, its chorus deceptively earwormy despite the song being a little on the softer side. The big noteworthy track here is the album closing epic “The Time Traveller”, featuring both Barlow and Lance Hart as guest vocalists, uniting all three Pyramaze singers together in a nod to their union onstage at Progpower 2016. It’s interesting in that each singer’s section seems written to replicate their particular era with the band, hence the time travelling allusion in the title. It ends up being a solid song in the name of fan service, although not my favorite ultimately. I guess my frustration with Pyramaze, and indeed a lot of modern prog-power bands, is that there’s a sense of new music being very by the numbers, good enough to serve as a follow up from the last album (i.e. very safe). This is a good record, but not a great one, and I wonder if they have it in them to deliver something that would really wow us.
Dark Tranquility – Moment:
Dark Tranquility are back after a lengthy four year stretch (granted, mostly filled with touring) since 2016’s Atoma —- a record that I didn’t love but grew on me slowly over time, and that I came to appreciate when I saw the band live in 2018. Ever since that show, I’d find myself slowly dipping back into their catalog which I’d sadly neglected a bit over the past decade, and finding more moments that I’ve come to enjoy as much as early records like Haven and Damage Done. So I was looking forward to Moment with not only anticipation, but a catalog awareness that I normally don’t have enough wherewithal to cobble together before a non-favorite band releases something new. And I will say straight off the bat, if you were hoping that this would be a dramatic about face from the sounds the started exploring on that album via heavy synth layering… well, prepare to be disappointed. If anything the band has delved further into that direction, an interesting thing to consider given the lineup changes that occured before this album was recorded with longtime guitarist Niklas Sundin departing and Christopher Amott taking his place (alongside Andromeda guitarist Johan Reinholdz). Dark Tranquility has always been eye poppingly democratic in their division of songwriting responsibilities, with usually a mix of 3-4 members contributing significantly. When guitarist/contributing songwriter Martin Henriksson left the band in 2016, they had already created an album written with scant few contributions from him in 2013’s Construct, in practical terms transitioning his share of the workload to Sundin, drummer Anders Jivarp, and keyboardist Martin Brändström. Now with Sundin’s departure, Reinholdz seems to be stepping in and handling the remaining workload alongside the usual suspects, with oddly Amott left out this go round (why?). The further synth exploration yields an expected number of merely passable, nice in the moment cuts like “Standstill” (I really like that chorus though), “Transient”, and “Eyes Of The World”. Mikael Stanne’s clean vocals sound more polished than ever, but at times that becomes a liability when he uses them too much in a single track. He’s far more effective on album highlights “A Drawn Out Exit” and the spectacular “Identical To None”. I do appreciate that there’s more of a melo-death sensibility happening throughout this album, but the synths are my overwhelming impression when thinking about this album, and my appreciation for the album changes because of it depending on my mood. I’m eager to see what DT can do in the future with Amott writing, they need a little change in their approach for sure.
Persuader – Necromancy:
Persuader albums are such rare events that I always get a little excited at their arrival, this year in particular. They’re just comforting power metal blankets cut from that Blind Guardian/Iron Savior cloth and in a year where the new Demons and Wizards and Blind Guardian orchestral project were both largely dissapointments (and of course you know, the pandemic), I friggin needed some comfort! While its not quite the eight year gap between 2006’s When Eden Burns and its follow up The Fiction Maze, it has been over half a decade since Persuader has released new music, so I’m glad they decided to stick to the tried and true formula here. Longtime bassist Fredrik Hedström left the band last year, and instead of replacing him founding guitarist Emil Norberg is handling bass on this record, and its also the first time we’re hearing Nocturnal Rites’ Fredrik Mannberg on rhythm guitars here. But despite this, Mannberg picks up immediately on what the band’s about and sticks to the precision machine-gun riffing that these songs demand, and right out the gate we’re launched into “The Curse Unbound”, as fine an opener as I’d have hoped for. Its hard to talk about vocalist Jens Carlsson without mentioning Hansi, but when you hear his delivery of lines like in the chorus here “Far from home I’ve found myself all alone in the dark”, he just has that ever so familiar ability to escalate in pitch and yet maintain intensity that just screams classic BG. Along with the epic “Scars” and its glorious chorus (“I look behind the door!” *fist pump*), this is the most satisfying one-two punch combo since “Strike Down”/”Sanity Soiled” on the classic Evolution Purgatory. The band’s compositional skills haven’t taken a hit with all the years away, in fact it seems like they spent a lot of time on the details of these songs. Gems like “Reign In Darkness” have a multitude of awesome details to geek out over, the little Nicko McBrain-esque kickdrum led intro to Carlsson’s layered vocal choir, the darkly tinkling keyboards that pop up midway through in lieu of an expected guitar solo. Norberg and Mannberg are a great pair, just satisfying riffs and explosive leadwork all throughout the record —- if Norberg lacks the wild expressionism of Andre Olbrich, he makes up for it by crafting crushing riff patterns. At seven songs this might seem like barely an album, but its a tight 44 minute banger, and I’m starting to believe most bands should be aiming for something in that ballpark. Quality over quantity and all that, Persuader deliver the goods here.
Iron Maiden – Nights Of The Dead, Legacy Of The Beast: Live In Mexico City:
Why am I reviewing this? Because I want to complain. So yeah its another Maiden live album and another tracklisting that features “Iron Maiden”, “The Number Of The Beast”, and “Fear Of The Dark”, and although its worth complaining about their inclusion on every frigging Maiden live album —- that apparently has fallen on deaf ears over in the Maiden camp and its likely never going to change. And you know, I get it: What we’re fundamentally bitching about there is their inclusion in the setlist in the first place, nevermind the live recording. Maiden throws those songs into their setlist because the band’s likely perspective is to design as inclusive a setlist for most of their audience, including younger fans and infrequent concertgoer fans who maybe haven’t gotten to hear those classics live yet. This new live album is merely an audio document of the Legacy Of The Beast tour’s setlist, and in that sense it’s a meticulous and accurately preserved archive. The presence of “For The Greater Good Of God” is really the central draw of this for Maiden die-hards, it was a surprise to see it on the setlist and a thrill to hear it live, it being my favorite song off AMOLAD. My problem really isn’t with the setlist, as frustrating as it can be for a longtime/diehard fan. The real issue with this release is that it’s merely a live album, as in solely an audio document. Are you kidding me Maiden? This was arguably the band’s most dazzlingly spectacular visual show in their history, perhaps only equalled by the Somewhere Back In Time World Tour (08-09) where we got to see the mummified Eddie and Powerslave era stage set recreated. If you saw the show, or even saw some of the decent fan-shot footage on YouTube, you’ll think of the moving replica Spitfire hanging above them on stage, or the beautiful stained glass cathedral window interior set with the lit candelabras, Bruce with his flamethrowers, and so much more. I can’t even begin to understand why the band would’ve opted for an audio document instead of an audio AND video document, or hell, just the video —- this show deserves a Bluray like En Vivo!. Give me a reason to give you money, because as it is, I’ve played through this live record a couple times on Spotify but without a visual companion, I’m a little less invested in it knowing what I know about the stage show. I suppose it’s a bit of an old school throwback to just deliver a live album in the new era of streaming video on demand, ever shifting attention spans, and endless content… but I guarantee you during this time of no concerts, I would’ve giddily sat down with a new Maiden live Bluray and savored every second.
Almost halfway through November, and only weeks to go before we can put 2020 to bed along with the memes that come with it. I hope everyone’s back to some kind of mental happy place (or at least not freaking out) now that the election is over, that was a fun week wasn’t it? We took a break from all of that last Friday to record a new episode of the MSRcast that’s out now if you want to get a broader perspective on recent new releases; since the reviews I’ve written below are more of a compilation of the past two months plus of stuff I’ve been listening to. There’s more than a few intriguing records looked at below, and we’ve got a handful more coming down the pike in these last few weeks of November (and even a new Persuader (what?!) album in December) to look forward to as well. Let’s see what else, oh, I’m going a little stir crazy having not been to a show in over a year now… have been looking at local clubs around the area, considering the scant few options for a gig just to get out and about. Fortunately it looks like I’ll be making my way to the Texas Renaissance Festival this year after all on Black Friday where there will be live bands (albeit not metal, but it’s something), so maybe that will assuage the concert fix for a time. Probably not though. Anyway, let me know in the comments below how you’re dealing or not dealing with concert deprivation! Anyone thrown a backyard grindcore show out of desperation yet?
Amaranthe – Manifest:
Earlier this month, Sweden’s metallic-pop purveyors Amaranthe released their sixth album to date, Manifest, also their second with Dynazty’s Nils Molin at the co-clean-vocal helm. I’ve long been on record on this blog as being a somewhat critical yet unabashed fan of these guys for their highly distinctive blending of pop, EDM gloss, and metalcore. Enough has been said about their sound, it is what it is and you’ll either be into their sensibilities or completely put off by it (enjoyment of pop music, whether openly or in denial mode is a huge prerequisite here, no one’s listening to Amaranthe for the sick riffs). I do want to take a second to say that I’m more than a little grateful to have a new Amaranthe album released during this year because it made me spend time with their catalog in the past few weeks and have some of the unabashed streak of positivity that’s running through their music rub off on me. But regarding Manifest, the real questions here are after getting a mulligan on Helix for it being their first album without the aid of founding member and core co-singer/songwriter Jake Lundberg (now in Cyhra), have guitarist/keyboardist Olof Morck and singer Elize Ryd adjusted to being the band’s songwriting team on their own, and consequently have they adjusted to writing for their new vocalist? The answer is that they have succeeded to some degree, and yet, not obviously so at the same time —- though to be sure, Manifest is a far better record than Helix overall. Molin’s vocals tend to fit better on these songs, even though there are examples where it isn’t quite the perfect fit you’d want it to be.
Take a song like “Make It Better” and consider just how jarring the transition is between Ryd’s chorus to his solo vocal in the second verse section, just tonally speaking it doesn’t work. One of the things I harped on about in my review for Helixwas how Molin has a voice that’s nicely suited for the soaring, belting, heavy metal leaning approach called for in his other band Dynazty, but he sounds stilted and out of place in a tighter space, which is predominantly where he finds himself in most of Amaranthe’s songs. Lundberg’s vocals were far more suited to a Bon Jovi-ian adjacent modern hard rock context, a nimbler, grittier, less belty voice that made the transitions between he and Ryd almost seamless while still retaining a striking enough difference in their tone to serve as a perfect complement. In a band where you have to balance out vocal time for two clean vocalists, this is kind of a big deal. Lundberg’s biggest asset to the band as a songwriter was not only in his natural gift for crafting strong AOR hooks that resonated emotionally, but in knowing how to balance the interplay of the three voices in the band. Fortunately for us, Ryd and Morck have seemed to realize this, whether knowingly or just instinctually, as we hear her and Molin’s matching belty vocals work to spectacular effect on the album highlight “Scream My Name”. Notice how both Molin and Ryd duet on the chorus together, their solo vocals during the verses juxtaposed next to growler Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson rather than each other. On the chorus, their similarly belty voices work together in unison to give some added power to the album’s best hook, and it works pretty damn well. The work the same magic on “Viral”, joining together on the chorus for some added punch, even though again the solo Molin second verse does suffer somewhat in the transition. Ryd’s best moment comes on her stellar duet with Battle Beast’s Noora Louhima on “Strong”, a feisty self-empowerment anthem. It’s a strongly written and sung pop hook, by both women, but it’s really demonstrative of Ryd’s range, and her ability to inflect a little grit and toughness into her vocal.
I suspect that as songwriters, Morck and Ryd have decided to implement Wilhelmsson as a vocal foil far more than they utilized him or his predecessor in the past during the Lundberg era. The growling/screaming vocals have increased over the course of Helix and this new album, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence (whether or not they’re crutches is up for debate). Wilhelmsson works best in those aforementioned tight spaces such as a few bars of a verse or a sharp vocal contrast in a bridge such as his interplay with Molin during “Adrenaline”. But his presence gets to be a bit too much on the odd song that is centered around him, as evidenced on the meme-able “BOOM!1” [sic]. Similar to “GG6” from Helix, this is a screaming centric track albeit this time heavy on an aliterative scream-rapped vocal that is kinda impressive in its display of vocal gymnastics, but the Molin sung chorus is just goofy, maybe his worst moment on the album, and the cringe inducing mid-song bridge sequence (“the breakdown goes BOOM!”). Amaranthe seem prone to one of these misteps per album, and its almost becoming a trademark for them to spill over their bad ideas into one outrageous track (though I’ll admit to being wrong about “Breakthrough Starshot”, that track somehow got catchier and more endearing over time). Molin is heard in a far more suitable and powerful context on the power ballad “Crystalline”, a track that is similar in its crescendo building design as Dynazty’s “Hologram” earlier in the year. I’m glad they delivered what is a fairly strong composition here, because the ballad on the last record lacked in everything, and I wondered if Lundberg had took the ballad writing skills with him when he left. It’s not as emotionally resonant as “Amaranthine”, “True”, or “Over and Done” but it is a step in that direction, and I’m rooting for this lineup to keep gelling, and more importantly, keep going.
Draconian – Under A Godless Veil:
Five years have passed since Draconian released Sovran, their first album with vocalist Heike Langhans, and I’d argue in retrospect their most accessible album to date. Its songslanded on a nearly perfect balance of darkened, punishing doom riffs set to not too slowed down tempos, genuinely hook laden songwriting (“Pale Tortured Blue”, “Stellar Tombs”, “Rivers Between Us”, etc), and enough lush, pretty gothic flourishes to balance out its death-doom menace. It was also that point where the band seemed to give more room to the female lead vocals in their songwriting, with co-vocalist/lyricist Anders Jacobsson stepping back just a bit to let Langhans take the lead. It was an interesting distinction from the Lisa Johansson era, where he’d usually get the bulk of the air time if not splitting it directly with Johansson (maybe a little of why I feel Sovran sounded so accessible in comparison). Now, on Under A Godless Veil, the band’s sound is changing ever so slightly again, but certainly enough to be noticeable and definitely enough to provoke a likely differing mix of opinions on it. Moreso than on Sovran, Langhans plays an even more central role here, as the band leans far more towards their gothic, ethereal, and dare I say ambient side. Songs like “The Sacrificial Flame” and “Sleepwalkers” are built on gentle, melancholy drifts and slow, delicate cascades. On the latter, Langhans sings in a tone that is just above a whisper at moments, and its beautiful to hear in the moment, but as you can imagine, you really have to be in the mood for something that deliberately soft, slowed down, and fragile. I made the blunder of listening to this record in the car on my first attempt —- do not make my mistake! I realized it halfway through, switched over to something else, and started over with the album later at night at home on the headphones. That’s the kind of space and mood this album requires (as cliche as that sounds I know), and even then its not a guarantee you’ll be in the mood for it. There are gorgeous moments here, “Night Visitor” is a sad, aching, gothic lament, and I love the yearning expressed in “Claw Marks on the Throne”. That being said, this is an album that often moves at too sombre a tempo for most of its hour plus runtime, and that might be perfect for those very particular moments because it is indeed well executed. But I’d be glossing over the truth if I didn’t say I missed the sonic diversity and tempo changes of Sovran just a bit. You’ll need patience with this record, often a lot of it.
Mors Principium Est – Seven:
Finland’s favorite melo-death traditionalists Mors Principium Est are back with yet another album, this the fourth Andy Gillion album, which is significant because it officially means the band has more releases with the English guitarist than they did with his Finnish predecessors Jori Haukio and Jarkko Kokko. It’s actually a bit weird to still think of him as the new guy in the band (even though we’re all guilty of it), because setting aside the sheer number of releases he’s been an integral part of, next year will mark his decade anniversary in the Mors lineup. These days it’s just Gillion and founding vocalist Ville Viljanen, the band’s longtime drummer Mikko Sipola leaving in 2017 and recently bassist Teemu Heinola leaving after a nineteen year tenure. I suppose its a good sign that Gillion and Viljanen have issued this album despite these challenges, and hopefully they either reload the lineup when touring starts again or just go it with hired guns ala Wolfheart when on the road. If Seven is any indication, the loss of those band members hasn’t impacted the duo’s core creative nucleus at all. This is a classic Mors album through and through —- the tight rhythms, those undeniable Gothenburg melodies delivered via hypnotic lead guitar phrasing, with Viljanen’s pitch perfect grey throated screaming vocals the very ideal of what great melo-death vocals should aspire to. The songwriting here is often downright inspired, as on album standout “Lost In a Starless Aeon”, which might become every melo-death fans 2020 anthem for its downcast, utterly depressing lyrics. It’s energy however is crackling and alive with that perfect mix of aggression, precision instrumentation to create an air of intensity, and a truly transcendent lead melody courtesy of Gillion. Simply put, songs like this are emblematic of the very best aspects of melodeath and a vivid example of why so many of us love the subgenre —- its capable of encompassing so many emotions into one sonic cocktail. Other bangers include “March To War” with its frenetic, hyper-paced riffing and dizzying guitar solo that recalls a touch of heavier power metal ala Blind Guardian. And I’m also impressed by “At the Shores of Silver Sand”, which shows that expansive, epic side of the band’s sound that was more fully explored in the last album (Embers of A Dying World). Mors haven’t done anything radical on Seven overall, these songs are kind of what you’d expect (and demand) from a new record, but that the quality is on par with any of their best work in the past (including Embers which I loved) is something to be happy about.
Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo:
I never expected Mr. Bungle to reunite and release new music, but to be fair, I never expected Faith No More to do that either (or more implausibly, Guns N’ Roses but there you are). I will say that if I was asked to envision what new Mr. Bungle music would sound like, I’d have imagined they’d pick up relatively close to where they left off on 1999’s California, that being a stylistically divergent mish mash of styles all sitting in the same strangeness fondue. That album was my introduction to Mr. Bungle actually, I was a Faith No More fan forever it seemed but had only heard a brief snippet of the first Mr. Bungle album at a friend’s house —- enough to make me think twice about spending my then rare disposable income on something that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d spend a lot of time listening to. Circumstances had changed around the release of California, and I splurged on it one day and was transfixed; tracks like “Pink Cigarette” and “Retrovertigo” and the insane “Goodbye Sober Day” were far more adventurous than anything Patton had done in Faith No More, yet still adjacent enough in sound and approach to be accessible. I went backwards from there, picking up Disco Volante and then finally, their debut that had warded me off years earlier and became a fan of both of them in time. So, when I simultaneously learned that Bungle was back but releasing a re-recording of an old demo I’d never heard, I was elated and a little underwhelmed. Its new music to me certainly, I never bothered to check out the original demo (I did check it out on YouTube prior to hearing this however), but its not new music in the truest sense of the word. It sounds spectacular however on a sonic level, and with Dave Lombardo and Scott Ian on board, its closer to the spirit of the band’s early thrash influences than it could possibly ever be (a lot of this re-recording sounds like a tribute to S.O.D, so much so that there’s even an S.O.D cover here of sorts). I will say I’m surprised at how clean and clinical the guitar tone is, I’d have thought Patton and Trey Spruance would be more comfortable with a messier, fuzzier, more old school tone but I’m guessing they were okay with Ian’s more modern sonic approach guiding the way. Lombardo is Lombardo, brutal and aggressive and as energetic a performance as you’ve come to expect from him, perhaps even more so due to how zany, off-the-walls and unpredictable much of these songs are (its miles away from the rigidity of Slayer let’s put it that way). And of course Patton is clearly having a fantastic time, just screaming like a banshee and at times delivering some of his most extreme (metal) vocals to date. I enjoyed this on a sonic level, I’ve seen more than a few friends call it the thrash metal album of the year and I won’t doubt that (haven’t heard much good thrash this year apart from this really), but I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m looking forward to actual new music from Patton and Spruance, if that even happens.
Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity:
Spirit Adrift is an interesting story within the realm of relatively new American metal bands —- they were very doom laden on their 2016 debut as well as on it’s follow-up Curse of Conception released only a year later. I will confess to missing last year’s Divided By Darkness, but I went back and revisited it in preparing for Enlightened In Eternity and sure enough, the band’s sound began to shift there into the more uptempo, trad-metal inclined stomp on this new album. I’m sure there are some out there who will bemoan this shift, but I’m all for it, because Spirit Adrift’s approach to a more traditional heavy metal attack is dirty, rugged, almost hard rock steeped in its could be boogie-ish tempos. I thought it was an appropriate tip of the hat to a not so hidden influence when they modeled this new album’s art —- horses running through water, the band’s all of a sudden cursive font logo, and the spaced out lettering of the album title above it —- after Bob Seger’s own Against The Wind. Band founder/guitarist/bassist/vocalist Nate Garrett seems to channel Seger himself in his gruff and rough vocal approach, a roaring, almost bellowing style that is redolently American. I hear that most on his delivery in “Astral Levitation” and “Cosmic Conquest”, two of the more hard rock rooted tracks on the record, the latter seeing Garrett singing with an almost bluesy bent. On the instrumental front, I love the unabashed melodicism happening in “Harmony Of The Spheres”, Garrett’s guitar work here is deft, certain, and richly colorful. Special mention should be made of Marcus Bryant’s drumming, particularly on this song where he veers from an almost swinging hard rock bedrock to a furious, battering assault around the mid three minute mark (my favorite moment on the album). The only time my interest waned in the album was not surprisingly during the first half of the ten minute spanning “Reunited in the Void”, where the band’s old doom metal approach makes a comeback, its just a little too meandering to my ears, however, the abrupt Americana tinged guitar transition at the 6:20 mark is worth waiting for, and redeems the track as a worthy album coda. Glad I didn’t sleep on this record, it’s a wild and cathartic trad metal album with remnants of their older, doomy sonic tendencies and a newer, fresh hard rock injection, a fruitful direction for Garrett to head in.
Enslaved – Utgard:
I almost forgot to review this, which doesn’t bode well for its overall memorability factor I’m guessing —- okay that’s a bit rough to start with, I actually have positives and negatives to discuss here and to be fair it was released in early October and has been surpassed in my listening priority with other records. I will say that Utgard starts out quite strong, and I was taken aback with how striking “Fires In The Dark” was as the album opener. Its rustic acoustic intro is the kind of thing I’ve been longing for more of in Enslaved for the past decade now. It unfolds into a twisting, sinister melody with Grutle’s clean vocal(!) bellowing over a particularly nasty riff tucked in its belly. There are some strong Axioma vibes I enjoyed on “Jettegryta” which is a welcome moment of raw aggression on an album that’s often more muted and reigned in. I’m also big on “Sequence”, a crunchy bit of prog-metal where the band actually gets the balance right between the extreme elements and the bass forward proggy time signature stuff. It ends a bit lopsided however, a mess of disparate elements (and I realize it’s on purpose) that is finally bundled up with a concise reiteration of the chorus with Grutle’s charcoal blackened vocals. I’m not however as wild about the Rush vibes we’re getting on “Urjotun”, though I will concede that it’s certainly something new for the band, and clearly they’re interested in pursuing new frontiers musically. The relatively new in the lineup keyboardist/clean vocalist Håkon Vinje who was all over the band’s last album E is this time joined on clean vocal duties with new drummer Iver Sandøy, and it’s interesting to hear three vocalists within the lineup now. But taking a step back, I find myself just unable to connect on any kind of visceral or emotional level with the band’s music these days, and that’s largely been the case for most of their recent output barring Axioma. Call it old fan (man) syndrome, but maybe my attachment to the band’s mid-2000s era more Viking forward approach is too deeply rooted internally to be swayed towards really loving their new music. This isn’t a bad record by any means, but it’s just… there. I don’t know what to take away from it or what I’m missing. And it’s tough to say that about bands you love (or once loved), because you’re really just beating around the bush, trying to avoid saying what’s often painful to say when a band moves too far in a direction from your interest level (think In Flames, Opeth). I’m not entirely ready to say that about Enslaved just yet, but can see it happening in the future which is saddening.
Black Fate – Ithaca:
When I first started listening to this new album by the unknown to me Greek power metallers Black Fate, I did the expected digging on Metallum and saw a name I recognized in the band’s lineup —- that being vocalist Vasilis Georgiou, and below his name was another band he was in whose name rang a bell with me. I checked my own blog’s archives and sure enough I reviewed Georgiou’s other band Sunburst way back in 2016, noting the Roy Khan-esque quality of his vocal timbre and approach. Because that very quality is the most striking thing that leaps out at you when listening to Ithaca, Georgiou is an uncanny dead-ringer for Khan in a way that not even current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik can emulate whenever he sings the older songs. Now that we have Khan back in Conception, it might seem a bit strange to pine for a voice that’s already delivered new material as late as earlier this year, but what makes Georgiou and Black Fate rather titillating is the band’s smooth, crisp, and intelligently crafted Khan-era Kamelot sound. Call it wearing their influence on their sleeves, or more cynically, appropriating their influence’s entire shtick, but Black Fate nails that classic-era Kamelot vibe more than Youngblood and company do themselves these days. Guitarist Gus Drax (also of Sunburst) lays down thick, sharp-edged beds of rhythmic riffing, punctuated by the odd lead harmony over the top or explosive standalone guitar solo. His role as a standalone guitarist mirrors the Kamelot setup (not to hammer that point home too much), and as a result, his interplay with keyboardist Themis Koparanidis and bassist Vasilis Liakos is crucial in forming the primary metallic thrust of the band’s sound. Georgiou’s vocals are very nearly the entire melodic vehicle on all these songs, serving as the focal point for the motifs throughout as well as any variations happening during the hooks. He’s the central figure on standout songs “Maze” and “Secret Place”, and even when things get a little more hushed as on the post-solo bridge on the title track, its his vocal that guides the way forth through a majestic, emotionally charged moment back towards a thunderous conclusion. This is a relatively simple album, with little variation amongst its tracklisting, but depending on what you’re looking for, that may not be a bad thing. For me, hearing a voice that I love for purely aesthetic reasons in a sound profile that I adore is all I really need from Black Fate. The drawback here is a lack of memorability in the songwriting —- everything here sounds great in the moment, but I’m left without a lingering memory of a particular melody or moment that will stick in my mind long after listening. I suppose that’s the difference between (very) good and great.
Countless Skies – Glow:
Every year we seem to get an album that appears out of nowhere that manages to push everything else out of our listening rotation so we can play it on repeat for a few days straight. That’s the case with the new album Glow from UK melodeath outfit Countless Skies, who are a late entry this year (this album was just released on the 4th of November) but should not escape your attention before the year’s end! First off, kudos on delivering the most beautiful cover art I’ve seen all year —- the singular distant silhouette standing against a glorious horizon seems to be a theme for their entire discography, but when you listen to this album it’s fair to call it a mood. That cinematic touch is injected into the band’s music, with their channeling of influences like Insomnium’s sweeping, majestic epic melodies and Omnium’s more clinical, precision aggression. Their band name is actually nabbed from a song on Aussie melodeathers Be’lakor’s Stone’s Reach album, and yeah I can hear strains of that band coming through, particularly on the dense, aggressive passages in “Summit”. But Countless Skies real strength I believe is in their ability to create natural sounding segues to contrasting moments of lush, thoughtful quietude. This is a band that utilizes space and silence as aggressively as other bands use blastbeats, and they manage to weave them into their songwriting so they’re not just abrupt transitions that leave you wondering if your network connection is dropping out. And it’s the gorgeously melancholy nature of those moments that match the sun breaking through the clouds vision of that cover art that keep me coming back —- paired with fluid lead guitars and clean vocalist Phil Romeo’s (also on bass) impassioned, soaring vocals. He’s a revelation on album standouts “Tempest” and “Glow – Part 2: Awakening”, the latter of which is my personal favorite moment on an album brimming over with them. There’s a brightness to these songs that differs from the more darkly melancholic work of the band’s influences, I hear it not only in those aforementioned quiet moments, but in the guitar tones and melodies. It reminds me of the Thormesis album from last year, that sharp contrast in tonal opposites while not sounding like the overprocessed “post-” bands that I so often associate extreme shifts in loud/quiet dynamics with. Highly recommended everyone gives this a listen, it’s one of the most captivating things I’ve heard all year.
Eshtadur – From The Abyss:
I believe we played and discussed this a few weeks back on a recent MSRcast, but recently I’ve come back to this album to spend more time with it because it really is one of the most intriguing and unique releases of 2020. Eshtadur are a Columbian(!) melodic death metal band whose sound is far more expansive than that limiting genre tag can do justice. There’s elements of symphonic black metal coating the songwriting here, as well as Hollywood film score pomp and grandeur, but my favorite aspect is their unabashed love of pop and hard rock inspired hooks. Take the lead guitar hook tucked away in the “The Red Door”, a wild GnR-ish motif that is a striking contrast to the tight, precision melo-death riffage surrounding it. We hear examples of those disparate elements all over the album, from the awesome solo spiraling upwards over blastbeats in “The Fall” to the ominous horns piercing the darkness of “She the Void”. Guitarist/vocalist Jorg August is the central figure in the band, and his riffing is as dense as Rotting Christ and Septic Flesh, but he has a sense of melody that permeates nearly everything he’s crafted here. There’s also a cinematic vision to the way he’s thought out certain things, for instance that guitar solo in the aforementioned “She the Void”, it might start out in a typical hard rock approach, but it ends in a completely unexpected moment of anguished phrasing that sounds like introduction of some Cthulu like creature (maybe that cover art is influencing me!). I was also struck by the Firehouse cover of “All She Wrote” that’s dropped in the middle of the tracklisting with Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati on guest lead vocals. Its a strange, bewildering cover to be tucked at the very middle of such a brutal, ferocious album, but its a joy to behold because of its sheer boldness as a sugary, poppy contrast. What I love is that despite such an out of place feeling to the idea of a Firehouse song being covered at all here, is that it actually puts the hookiness of the album’s original material into sharp focus. This is one of those albums you owe it to yourself to hear, particularly if you like intermixing of genres and influences in your extreme metal.
Hail to everyone. I know its been awhile. I took a bit of an unexpected hiatus for a few months here when I ran right into the first real bout of writer’s block I’ve ever faced while writing this blog. I tried to give myself time to sort it out, even discovering in the midst of recording a recent MSRcast that maybe I was just devoid of inspiration due to not having been to a show in awhile, but the most important thing I figured was to not put myself under pressure to write anything just to have something new out. That point about not having been to a show in ages (Amorphis in autumn of last year to be exact) is one to speak about for a bit, because its only been now during this pandemic ensured period of no fun that I’ve come to realize just how much going to shows were like my energizer battery. Not just as a metal fan either, but for life in general, they were events to get excited about and look forward to, to plan over and revel in when their date actually arrived. Shows are also breaks in the often slow, miasma of the everyday grind; concentrated blasts of life that can positively affect your mental well being —- people who don’t go won’t know, but they’re the best anti-depressant around. Their absence has slowly chipped away at my enthusiasm level for nearly everything, particularly paired with not having hung out with friends in person for ages, it all just adds up. And as mentioned before, we have kept the MSRcast going during this time, but even doing that digitally is just a disruptive headspace from the way we’ve normally done it, in person at the MSRcast studios. During our virtual fantasy football draft recently, a friend of mine replied to my hope of “Should be a fun season” with “Man nothing is fun anymore”. And yeah, I get that sentiment. I realize that things could be worse for all of us, but as they are now, its been a tough slog of a year, and that has to affect most of us mentally.
We’re lucky then as metal fans, that the bands we’re interested in, either as fans of or just curious about seem to keep pushing through this dark saga (heyyo!) with creative output and interesting content to soothe us however temporarily. Besides new music, I know there’s a ton of bands doing digital only shows, selling e-tickets to them, and I hope some of those have been great for whomever bought tickets. The Amorphis show was very good, my cohost Cary sharing his virtual ticket with me so I could check it out. I particularly enjoyed Blind Guardian’s set at the lavishly produced Wacken World Wide digital festival a few weeks ago, where they played as convincing and passionate a performance as I can remember seeing from them. Their setlist was loaded with nothing but classics, and they debuted a new song that was as compelling as anything it was sandwiched between, boding exciting things for the upcoming album. Recently, Therion just announced that we’ll be getting their first new proper studio album in a decade in early December, dubbed Leviathan, and I couldn’t be more excited. I had previously expressed fears that Christofer Johnsson’s commitment to staging his Beloved Antichrist opera would take too long and continue to delay another Therion record, but I’m glad that he maybe took my advice (hah!) and prioritized it over anything else. There’s a lot of intriguing records coming down these last few months of this hell year, so at least we have plenty of distractions to keep us occupied and perhaps even inspired as we close out these next few months. But right now, I’m going to do a little summer recap here of stuff that’s come out since I’ve been on hiatus —- mind you this isn’t all that I listened to, but I’ll be honest, I devoted a great deal of time to simply listening to whatever I wanted to listen to and not worrying about the release calendar so much. Please let me know in the comments below if there’s something I missed that I need to pay more attention to however.
Unleash The Archers – Abyss:
You might remember that UtA climbed the mountain to claim my 2017 Album of the Year spot with their aptly named Apex, a bracing collection of trad meets power metal that hit hard with aggression and married epic musical passages with unforgettable hooks. It earned that number one spot by simply being my most listened to album of that year, often an undeniable factor in determining which release actually belongs there amidst favoritism bias and whatnot. I wasn’t that wild on UtA before the album, probably like so many others, but became a fan after hearing it and was incredibly eager to hear how they’d follow it up, and had to give a little nod to the doubts I’d see surfacing in discussions online about whether or not this band had another excellent album in them. After all, it took them four tries to go from relatively mediocre to spectacular —- the question lurking underneath all of that success surrounding Apex was whether or not it really the start of the band realizing their sound and potential, or merely a fluke. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that watching and/or predicting what bands do in situations like this, following up a revered and successful record and analyzing the decisions made is kind of my wheelhouse, the nerdiest part of my fandom. But I’ll confess I had no idea what UtA could or should do beyond simply repeating the formula for Apex, because I couldn’t see anything in their past that they should return to, so I did think they were somewhat liable to fall flat on their face for this album just given the limited vision of what they could do.
Turns out that Brittney and company were thinking a few steps ahead, and instead of replicating the sound of Apex, they used its concept to springboard this album into another world of sound entirely. The Matriarch and the Immortal’s struggle that defined the loose concept of Apex continues here, but whereas it was bound to the grittiness of nature and the Earth on that album, the story here shifts to the expansiveness of space and planetary scale. The shrewd move here is that this shift (clearly illustrated in the differences in the album artwork) have allowed the band to make subtle but strong changes to their sound, adding in a strong keyboard/synth dimension that would have sounded out of place on Apex, but is woven into the tapestry of the cosmic reaching storyline laid out on Abyss. With this combination, the shift to what is clearly a lighter toned sound on Abyss, devoid of the aggressive, Iced Earth-ian tendencies of its predecessor is far more natural of a transition —- coming across less like a calculated move to avoid repeating themselves and rather a way to branch out their sound into uncharted territory. All they had to do to ensure this would work is to simply bring the hooks, and they’ve delivered in spades on that front. From the jump, segueing from the very effective intro “Waking Dream” we get one of the band’s best ever songs in the title track, a nearly seven minute epic that is built around Hayes incredible vocal prowess. She carries the song on a hook built around her ability to draw out and bend words to her vocal melody almost effortlessly. I love the transition change up at the four minute mark that she uses to usher in the dueling guitar solos from Andrew Kingsley and Grant Truesdell. These guys deserve special mention for delivering the goods throughout this album, particularly in how they’ve brightened up their tones and made adjustments to their approach from the gun-metal grey riffage to bright, somewhat psychedelic inspired motifs they’ve woven in all throughout here.
The standout track “Through Stars” is a vivid example of this new sound world for UtA, a song built on a gorgeous keyboard synth backdrop that glitters and sparkles while the band takes an almost laid back, reactionary approach as counterpoint, slightly behind Scott Buchanan’s rock steady beat. The combined group harmony vocals here are really nice, particularly in the closing minute of the song, with what sounds like a multitracked Hayes along with Kingsley and Truesdell combining for an almost Beach Boys invoking approach. We hear that same tendency in “Legacy”, where I get really strong Coheed and Cambria vibes throughout from Hayes vocal performance to the unorthodox, progressive spaciness to the song despite all the extremity of riffs and barrages of drum fills. Now I actually enjoy a little bit of what Coheed and Cambria do, particularly in their more pop-punkier moments, so this could be a hurdle for anyone who doesn’t. But as I mentioned before, this sonic shift towards a brighter palette really works here, these songs seem like natural extensions of the band’s sound into territory that they’ve only previously hinted at in the briefest of glimpses. There’s still aggressive trad metal fury to be found however, as “Soulbound” is a personal favorite from the album with its partially growled vocals (one of the guitarists I’m guessing?) interjected with Hayes on the verses over a bed of thrashy riffs. I love the extra highs we hear on her multi tracked vocals that are distanced about a half a second behind the lead vocal, it just adds to the intensity. I’d recommend avoiding the distracting, perplexing video for “Faster Than Light” and just sticking to the song itself, because its a superb track, the chorus boasting one of their catchiest moments on the album with a guitar solo that Yngwie would be proud of.
I was surprised at just how well the inter-band duet between Hayes and Kingsley worked on “Carry The Flame”. with the latter boasting a rich, hard rock voice that really works within the shiny arena rock chorus that’s tucked away at the core of this song. There are strong Dokken vibes throughout this song (and that’s a positive dammit) with a little 80s invoking sparkle that really put their combined vocals over the top on that fat, massive hook. Its this kind of adventurous spirit that dominates this entire record and has made it a pleasure to take in. So often it seems like bands follow up excellent albums with something that lacks cohesion or direction, or worse, tries to do too much. Credit where it’s due, UtA did neither and have delivered an album that, dare I say it, might be an overall better album than Apex —- more diverse, more ambitious, yet still delivering the goods in terms of memorable sequences and massive hooks. I’m genuinely surprised but happy about it, and it’s saying something that after so many listen throughs of Abyss, I’m still enjoying it as its playing right now as I finish this review. Normally that’s about the time when I’m relieved to take a break from hearing an album so much, but I can see myself playing this again tomorrow, and the next day. This paired along with the band’s smartly executed cover of the Stan Roger’s classic “Northwest Passage” last year, demonstrates that the band has clearly moved into a confident, reassured phase of their musical career, and maybe it’s time to give them the benefit of the doubt in the future.
Judicator – Let There Be Nothing:
One of the leading lights in the burgeoning North American power/trad metal movement that’s coalesced over the past few years, Judicator has run into some disheartening news lately —- namely, that founding guitarist and co-songwriter Tony Cordisco has recently left the band. I’m not sure what the reasons are exactly, the statement he and the band released seem to suggest geography issues as well as the classic “personal differences” cited by Cordisco. Its well known around the power metal community that vocalist John Yelland is outspoken about his views on certain socio-political topics, so there’s been some idle speculation that some of that might have played a part. For me, I’m not that bothered by that stuff (if I were, I probably wouldn’t listen to Iced Earth, or Megadeth for that matter), but what does concern me is the loss of the band’s principal music writer and how it will impact their future output in either direction. We recently saw Serenity weather this exact storm fairly well when founding guitarist Thomas Buchberger left the band after War of Ages, but they were able to rebound with the strong, vocal melody driven Codex Atlanticus, thanks to Georg Neuhauser’s ability to step in as the principal songwriter. The band’s sound changed however, and after delivering one fine album, we’re starting to see some slightly diminishing returns in the memorable riffs department, with their sound heavily attenuated to his vocals now rather than sharing a balance with the guitars. For Judicator, this news coming on the heels of releasing their follow up to the year end list making The Last Emperor has to rock the confidence of most fans. The band recently released a statement of their own mentioning that their songwriting for the next album will be headed up by Yelland and new guitarist Balmore Lemus (who’s also in NovaReign) and that they’re already into the songwriting process for it. At least its nice to know they’re not going to be twisting in the wind for awhile, but Cordisco’s way with a riff was a huge, huge part of the band’s sound in addition to Yelland’s Hansi Kursch like vocal ability.
His swan song with the band, Let There Be Nothing, is a testament to his skill as a riff-based progressive power metal songwriter. Cordisco’s signature blend of aggressive, USPM-tinged riffing with EUPM informed splashes of color in his progressions and motifs continues in a far more expansive and adventurous way than he’s ever demonstrated before. While the songs on The Last Emperor were tight, compact slices of propulsive, hooky as hell prog-power, Cordisco and Yelland chose to veer hard in the opposite direction here, favoring lengthier compositions and more patient build ups. We see that from the outset in the title track with its delicately building intro passage and series of riff progressions that transition to the main riff motif, a Cordisco gem in its own right, building a bed for Yelland to closely follow with some inspired, powerful layered vocal leads. There’s a tempo downshifting bridge towards the back end of the song that changes up the routine and introduces some headbanging worthy passages into the mix, these more proggy passages being a recurrent element throughout the album. The lengthiest song here, “Amber Dusk” is almost Iced Earth-ian in its implementation of these various down/up shifts in tempo and riff progression changeups, complete with one of Cordisco’s most colorful leads to date, a focused spiraling flurry of notes bouncing off his guitar like a tightly compressed spring let loose. The shorter songs on the album provide that link to The Last Emperor’s compulsively hooky addictiveness, with “Gloria” being one of the band’s all-time best offerings in that regard. The song is a split between Yelland’s vocal hook and some uptempo riff progressions where Cordisco lays down a bed for guest lead vocalist Mercedes Victoria to shine. I’m on the fence about whether I like this album more than The Last Emperor, but absolutely sure that its very, very good in its own right. As a finale, Cordisco is bowing out at the top of his game.
Finntroll – Vredesvävd:
Finntroll are back with their first album in, jeez, seven years. And though that certainly is a long time between releases, its actually okay in my view for the band to have taken the extra time to seemingly wait for some inspiration to flow. Its not that 2013’s Blodsvept was a bad album by any means, but it was heavy on the humppa influences and major keys in a way that was just continuing more of the same that they had delivered on Nifelvind three years prior. I’m not against that particular musical vein in principal, but it has to be accommodated appropriately, with the right amount of brutality to counter its sickly sweet tendency to overwhelm a listener with the audio equivalent of a tummy ache. My personal experiences with Finntroll have been back and forth and confusing, first being introduced to the band way back in 2001 with Jaktens Tid (dating myself more and more every time I look backwards it seems) and having seen them live a few times since then. Their best live outing here was on the tour supporting Ur jordens djup in 2007, a brutal, no-frills, attitude filled show that was heavy on the black metal presence in their sound, seemingly a rejection of the folk metal genre that was exploding after the success of “Trollhammaren”. The last time I saw them however, in 2014 on an ill-fated night, they were in full on Korpiklaani mode, boasting plastic elven ears and leaning heavy on the humppa, with a crowd that was largely made up of the kinds of people who didn’t seem to typically attend metal shows. I guess somewhere along the way the band made adjustments geared towards the audience that was showing up for one side to their sound. For all the reasons I dislike most gimmicky folk metal in favor of the rustic, natural sounding stuff that I tend to champion, I find Finntroll more to my liking when they lean towards their heavier, blackened side —- and thankfully, that is what they’ve done with Vredesvävd, their most unadorned, straight ahead blackened folk offering in their entire career. Sure the Finnish folk elements are there, and that’s fine, but they’re counterbalanced by an ample dose of Watain-esque black metal fury, such as on the ripping “Att döda med en sten”. I’ve enjoyed listening to this album more than I expected I would, maybe solely due to the heavier shift the band has made in their sound. Whatever it is, its been a welcome return to a sound I’ve not really enjoyed in a long, long time.
Oceans of Slumber – Oceans Of Slumber:
Coming back with their fourth album and their first after a major lineup change which saw three members depart and new guys join the team, are Houston’s own Oceans of Slumber. Founding members Sean Gary (guitars, harsh vocals), Anthony Contreras (guitars), and bassist Keegan Kelly said adieu, and incoming members Semir Ozerkan (bass), Jessie Santos (guitars), and Alexander Lucian (guitars) arrived just in time for the creation process of the band’s “Mark 3” era self-titled debut. I’ve long been critical of bands delivering self-titled albums that aren’t their debut, and this is no exception (give the album a title, its not that hard), but I suppose a massive transfusion of half your band’s roster is as good a reason as any. And though the self-titled mid-career album is supposed to signal a rebirth of sorts, possibly a redefining of a band’s sound, or a return to their roots —- what we get here is really the band picking up where they left off with Winter and The Banished Heart. To my ears, its more of a blending of those two, returning a bit of the brighter, more major key melodicism of the former with the bleak, depressive tone of the latter. This is most concisely heard on the album standout “A Return To the Earth Below”, where we get bright, swirling, chiming psychedelic guitars in the first half of the song as vocalist Cammie Gilbert glides over the top. The doomy guitars in the hook that jut in suddenly are a strong counterpoint, and help form one of the band’s most memorable refrains to date, and the combination serves as a segue to the far more doom-tempoed second half of the song. On “Pray For Fire”, one of the more epic length cuts here, the band plays to their strengths in marrying Opeth-ian acoustics to dreamy melodies that build up to a propulsive, rhythmic hook bed that works spectacularly well thanks to Gilbert’s dexterity as a vocalist. And the band’s song choices and execution of covers has been impeccable to date, and their take on Type O Negative’s “Wolf Moon” here might actually be superior to the original. I’ve on the whole enjoyed this record way more than The Banished Heart, even though it lacks a moment as transcendent as the title track of that aforementioned album —- the new record is aided by a brightening of their sound, and I think maybe even the band has realized that they sound way better dallying with both darkness and the light.
I’m not sure where else to begin other than my own feelings in talking about Falconer’s newest, and seemingly last album, the appropriately titled From A Dying Ember. I’m saddened that we’re losing one of power metal’s leading lights —- scratch that, one of metal’s leading lights (and most unheralded). This is a band that I first discovered in 2001 thanks to that eternal program the Metal Meltdown on Cleveland’s WRUW hosted by my friend Dr. Metal. He was playing “Mindtraveller” of course, from their flawless debut album and I was immediately struck by how different this band sounded to the handfuls of other power metal bands that show had introduced me to. The singer wasn’t screaming full force into the microphone like a raging hellion ala Dickinson or Halford, his voice was reserved, smooth, and dare I say calm at points in it’s delivery and phrasing, very unmetal-like. I didn’t know at the time that said vocalist, Mathias Blad, was in fact a theater actor with no metal background whatsoever. His unorthodox vocal approach in conjunction with the band’s extra meaty riffs set to darker, folkier melodies, resulted in a heavier sound that hinted at influences that weren’t from the Helloween power metal family. And somehow it all just worked.
The band obviously wasn’t the same on those two mid-career records when Mathias had left and the rest of the band wanted to make a run at becoming a touring band. There were some good songs here and there (“Emotional Skies” in particular is a gem), as a songwriting talent like Stefan Weinerhall is a fount of inspiration even in less than ideal artistic circumstances. But it was clear that Blad was the key missing ingredient to make Falconer’s music so special and unique amidst the metal landscape. He returned and the band knocked out Northwind and Among Beggars and Thieves in quick succession, two albums that were to me just as magical and magnificent as the debut and Chapters From A Vale Forlorn. Then we got the unique and ultra-heavy experiment in all Swedish lyrics on Armod, an album that brought back the band’s extreme metal roots ala Mithotyn with some of the most punishingly heavy, and dare I say blackened songs ever. It was followed up with Black Moon Rising, an album that has aged far better than it’s initial impression would have suggested it would, some of its songs coming alive to when I came back to it years later. But that’s hardly surprising. Falconer’s gift was that they could be both instantaneous and yet rich in depth, some songs taking awhile to offer up their brilliance. Some people still don’t understand just how magnificent “Pale Light of A Silver Moon” is from Among Beggars, with that wordlessly joyful guitar explosion from the 1:05-1:37 mark. Some have yet to realize that Northwind contains one of the most emotionally engaging ballads in the metal genre ever in “Long Gone By”, a song so wistful and stirring that it’s hard not to be caught off guard by it every listen.
The band admirably enhances their incredible artistic legacy with the eleven songs on From A Dying Ember, which according to Weinerhall was written with an aim to be the most classic-molded Falconer album ever. He recently stated that he wanted to “…concentrate on having all Falconer elements present and really make sure that each element got full devotion. For example, the ballad should be as “ballady” as ever, and the folk song should sound as folky as possible, etc.” That meant that all the elements we loved the most about their work in the past would be amplified and stressed on this record, and it does come across that way. The opener “Kings And Queens” and “Redeem and Repent” are confident mid-tempo gems with plenty of thick slabs of chunky riffs balanced out with bright, lucid guitar melodies, reminiscent of material off the debut album. And I get shades of “Mindtraveller” in the accelerated pacing of the single “Desert Dreams”, which is at once catchy as all get out and entirely unusual in its unorthodox rhythmic structure. This is a stunning song by the way, a late career diamond that would have fit in on the debut or Chapters just fine, and its apex moment comes at the 3:35-3:50 mark when Blad drops in some overlaid vocals that add a wallop of satisfying emotion to an already brilliant chorus. I was driving around when I first listened to this song, and right around when Blad hit that extension on the end of “…the more I will looooooose”, I believe my exact exclamation was “Mathias you magnificent bastard!”. Stefan was certainly right on the money about having the folky song be as folky as possible, because “Bland Sump Och Dy” sounds like it could have been on Armod were it not for its slower, waltz-y tempo. It occurs to me that this is likely as close as we get to hearing what Blad sounds like when he’s singing at his gig with the theater company in Sweden. What’s so striking to notice here is how little difference there is in his vocal style here to the much heavier follow-up track “Fool’s Crusade”. Despite the latter’s near tremolo-sounding attack and its largely aggressive bent, Blad is smooth and in control as ever, even during the “…Crush the dream / And wake up / Ignorant One…. tension build and release sequence at the 3:07 mark.
The most ballady Falconer ballad that Stefan was referring to earlier is the showstopper “Rejoice the Adorned”, a piano and Blad affair that is extra potent in its tear-jerking capabilities due not only to the amazing vocal performance we’re treated to, but for the recognition of finality in those lyrics about loss and remembrance. I’m aware that it wasn’t written to be an epigraph on the band, but that’s how I’m internalizing it presently. It is on the same heartbreaking level as “Portals of Light”? Well, few things are, and it’s a different flavor of melancholy, but it’s a fine song for the band to bow out on as their last ballad. On the opposite end of things, there’s a pure metal jam on “Rapture”, the album’s final track (and I guess the career closer too), a visceral reminder how just how damn heavy and thundering this band can be despite their theatrical leanings. Stefan’s longtime co-founding bandmate drummer Karsten Larsson delivers a pummeling, primal performance here, a reminder of just how integral a part of the band’s sound he was all these years with powerful drumming in inventive, unrelenting fashion. I wanna take a sec to recognize bassist Magnus Linhardt, who as always is an audible and integral part of these songs, providing that rumbling foundation that cements nearly all of Falconer’s music in the heavier realm of sound. He’s been with the band since 2004, as has the wildly inimitable Jimmy Hedlund, whose lead guitarwork throughout the years I hold in as much esteem as Andrea Martongelli from Power Quest and Andre Olbrich from… well you know where. Hedlund’s style is infused with a shredder’s touch, but he incorporates it in fits and bursts into playing that is expressive, lyrical, and a complement to Stefan’s intense rhythm guitarwork.
I realize that this is probably sounding less like a review than the gushings of a fanboy, and I can admit that’s probably true. My consensus on this album is that its instantly more enjoyable than Black Moon Rising, far more “classic” Falconer than I ever expected the band could accomplish, although they’ve never really strayed far from what made them great in the first place. As a swan song, it’s everything a fan could hope for, and that its so accomplished also lends an air of gravity around the whole thing —- they’re going out on top. And when a band ends on a great record, and I do believe From A Dying Ember is a legit great Falconer record, a part of you can’t help but wonder what else they could accomplish in the future if they just stuck around a bit more. I said it at the top… I’m really saddened that the band is ending. I know that there are others who feel the same way, and I suppose on behalf of all of us, I should declare how grateful I am that we’re getting this fine of a send off. The gap between this release and the previous record is about six years, the longest between Falconer releases by a long shot. And to their credit, they saw this album through when they could have easily just talked away quietly a few years ago after they had made it clear there were going to be no more live gigs. This band has been a part of my life for nearly twenty years now, providing the soundtrack to so many days and nights, I really do feel like there’s a sense of loss I’m processing… and yes I realize that sounds overly dramatic but I’m just being honest here. I’ll blame my already stressed out emotional state for that, having been so busted to the floor already by the pandemic/lockdown and everything that came with it. This band always deserved more fans, more appreciation during their time for not only their uniqueness, but for their metal as hell resolution to do things their way, even if it meant being a studio project. I’ll just end this by expressing how grateful I am to be one of the few to have heard the clarion call. Thanks for the music Falconer.