Well, I’m alive. For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter and hadn’t seen an update on this blog in over a month, that might be news to you —- particularly if you remembered that I live in Houston (well, just outside southwest Houston). I was already behind on reviews and of course this “monthly” 2017 journal, but Hurricane Harvey knocked me sideways for a good two and a half weeks. It was a cocktail of stressing out about prepping for the hurricane (which is expensive as hell and oh so exhausting), enduring the hurricane for days cooped up inside, waiting for my internet and power to go out (miraculously they never did), stressing (did I mention stressing?!) on maximum overload about whether or not the waters would reach my car (they never did), whether or not the damn lake I live right next to (an alligator preserve no less) would spill over into my living room, and oh yeah wondering if my parents house mere miles away from the soon to be overflowing Brazos River would be 5-10 feet underwater (the waters made it to the very edge of their neighborhood… literally the actual edge). Just north of me, my friend’s car flooded, neighborhoods experienced street flooding, and a couple miles further north, the straining Barker reservoir threatened to engulf nearly all of southwest Houston with a biblical flood.
I’ve lived in H-town since 1986. I’ve dealt with hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and lengthy power outages before. You get used to it when you’ve been down here for so long. But I’ve never been as stressed out as I was during the three to four days that Harvey was standing over us like a guy at a Texans game during halftime over the urinal, pissing rain down in a torrent that defined the very term. I had to take some extra days to recover, let alone begin listening to music again. I had left off in the middle of an already behind schedule review for To The Bone by Steven Wilson, which I’ve just now published oh so late to the party. But when I thought about perhaps recalling my own Harvey story for the August journal entry, I immediately felt pangs of the same stress I felt the other week when I was experiencing the storm. So for the continued betterment of my mental and physiological health, I’m going to elect to spare both you and I. Suffice to say it was awful, but I’m one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough to be in a specific area of Houston and its outer limits where I was spared the utter destruction and uprooting that many people in this stout, hardy city are having to endure right now. Friends I know had to evacuate with water in their homes, and here I was with nary an internet outage to contend with, only stir-craziness and anxiety.
In an effort to get back to normalcy, this August entry (written now in early September) is simply going to be a collection of quick takes covering a few of the albums I listened to but missed covering in actual reviews over the summer. Many of these I might have mentioned on the MSRcast at some point but certainly not all of them. The following July entry was something I wrote within that month and while its entirely random, blog-related brainstorming, I’m looking forward to implementing some of those ideas into action before the year’s end. It can only get better from here right? Onward and upward.
Anathema – The Optimist:
In what might register as one of the most pondered over albums in The Metal Pigeon’s six year history, I still have no freaking idea what to make of Anathema’s fourth post-metal album. Its not for lack of trying either, because I have spent a considerable amount of time on this hoping it would jump out of its densely packed soundscapes. Unlike recent offerings Distant Satellites, Weather Systems, and We’re Here Because We’re Here with their satisfying mix of beautiful dream pop amidst their transcendent progressive tracks —- The Optimist offers very little in the way of easy listening pleasures, and certainly no pop of any kind to counterbalance the overall gloomy, darkened, and often somber tone of this album. But that doesn’t mean its not interesting, or worth listening to, and it keeps compelling me back for more. But if you’d ask me to name a highlight? Well… I don’t really know. Maybe “Springfield” for its slightly Fear of a Blank Planet era Porcupine Tree vibe, its got a hypnotic, almost trip-hop keyboard/drum rhythmic element going on, paired with a ringing, airy lead guitar figure that is beautifully dark and evocative. Its the track I’ve listened to the most individually anyway, for what its worth.
I have a suspicion as to what is, lets see… what’s an apt term here… dampening(?) the impact of this album. Everything is largely written in varying shades of minor keys (or minor scale? Someone tell me if I’m wrong in my terminology, I’d like to get that right at least —- already found out I was using the term “syncopation” wrong which is totally on me). If you’ve heard any of those aforementioned past couple Anathema albums, you’ll understand what I’m trying to illustrate here. I miss the bright, shiny, epic, gorgeous moments that those albums had in spades, largely with songs that juxtaposed big, shimmering major key refrains, bridges, solo verses against largely minor key song structures. It was the figurative light house cutting through the fog, the break in the rain to let the sun shine through —- The Optimist is desperately in need of a few of those across this album. We get half of one, towards the middle of the final track “Back to the Start”, with a simultaneous lead guitar and majestic string arrangement duet, as co-vocalist Lee Douglas gets to deliver her best moment on an album where she’s woefully underutilized. I’m curious as to what you guys think of this album, because I can’t tell if its just my own personal apathy or if this is something that most folks are feeling. Let me know!
Unleash the Archers – Apex:
I should be properly ashamed that I haven’t written about this magnificent album yet. Partly because if some of you haven’t actually checked it out yourselves yet, then I’ve done you a disservice by allowing you to go through the summer without this rockin’ beast. Mostly though, its because I’ve been playing this thing on heavy rotation throughout these past few months after first hearing it in late June. They’ve been a name I’ve heard for awhile now, but never actually managed to give them their proper due and chalked them up in my mind to being a metalcore band with a better than most name with some epic tendencies. The latter detail because often times I’d see their name thrown around as an example of modern traditional metal done right. Stupid me, I really should take greater heed of those kinds of praise when I first hear them and not years later when I finally get a promo sent to me. But as I always say, the cream rises to the top, and while I can’t contextualize how good Apex is compared to the rest of their discography, its an album that should be turning heads.
Its wild, rollicking, thunderous bangers like “The Matriarch” and “Shadow Guide” that will have you shake your head approvingly and exclaim, “Hey… these guys rock!” But its deeper, more complex cuts such as “Cleanse the Bloodline” that will have you regarding the band with a far more elevated perspective. Far more than just delivering a new take on the Maiden sound, Unleash the Archers demonstrate an ability to write convincingly epic material, with gradual builds and intriguing mid-song interludes. Nowhere better is this exemplified than on the stunning album closer title track, an eight minute masterpiece with one of the most adrenaline inducing refrains I’ve heard all year. The journey in getting to that chorus is wildly diverse, with a beautiful near acoustic intro verse, complete with a Number of the Beast-styled sonic wall of guitars slamming in to usher in an almighty epic galloping rhythm section. Unleash the Archers succeed in making old traditions sound fresh where so many others have failed, because they have the songwriting smarts to back it up and create songs that are fresh and inspired and vital. And this is no disrespect intended believe me, but it wasn’t until more than halfway into my first listen through that I realized the band’s vocalist was female, so perfectly suited are Brittney Hayes vocals to the band’s sound. I could toss out a few reference points, but I realize they’d be terribly inaccurate, Hayes’ vocals are strong and distinct enough to defy comparisons. A must listen for 2017, and a lock for the best albums of the year list.
Orden Ogan – Gunmen:
We did actually talk about this one for a bit on the MSRcast episode 196, playing the Liv Kristine duet “Come With Me to the Other Side” on that episode, which is a brilliant epic power ballad. At that point I hadn’t heard the album in its entirety though I immediately loved that track. Liv Kristine is just money when it comes to guest appearances on other bands’ albums, with all due respect to her work with Theatre of Tragedy and Leaves Eyes, she’s just amazing in these roles (and perhaps long overdue for a little retrospective on this blog, she’s a pioneer that doesn’t get the credit she richly deserves). Anyway back to Orden Ogan, whom I compared to a piece of delicious cake on the podcast —- certainly a treat in its own right, but only if kept at a slice. I know that’s counter-intuitive for the kiddos out there, but when you’re an adult you want a grown up meal with proper ingredients, and save the sophisticated slice of cake for after, preferably with coffee while eaten in a state of rapturous bliss. So after having gorged myself on the tooth-hurting sugary frosting laden sheet-cake that is Gunmen, the band’s sixth album, I’m more sure than ever of my analogy. Hang on a sec while I brush my teeth…
An album of Orden Ogan’s technically accomplished and often fun Blind Guardian-inspired power metal is just too much for one sitting. I enjoy this band in small doses, but Sebastian Levermann’s approach to layering heaps and heaps of vocal tracks in a thick pile and rolling every single fricken chorus in them just wears on me. There’s another joyous gem in the bunch here, one “Forlorn and Forsaken”, an uptempo jam with an instantly lovable chorus that will be great on the drive up to the Texas Renaissance Festival this fall. But most of these songs are lacking those kinds of strong hooks, ones they desperately need to keep my ears perked up. Without them, this isn’t a band that’s gifted enough to provide anything else to grab onto. Their biggest musical inspiration —- those bards from Krefield, Germany —- write musical pieces that are far more musically compelling than any one single chorus, hook, or melodic motif. Even on Guardian’s recent work, there are specific magical moments that occur only once within a song that keep me coming back again and again, nevermind the rest of the song being awesome in its own right. Orden Ogan lack that complexity, their songwriting seemingly focused on locking onto a chorus that might work, and plastering it over and over and over again until they hit the four minute mark. When it works, its nice, but you can’t sustain albums like that.
Paradise Lost – Medusa:
A few weeks into getting full listening time with this one and I’m still a little on the fence. Its a weighty, massively heavy album, full of doom-laden riffs that shake your skull like a slow moving giant stomping across the cityscape. Its also a shift back to more mid-period elements of the band’s sound, touches of their Gothic metal and Depeche Mode influences creeping up in spots, particularly in Nick Holmes vocals here and there. That’s not a bad thing, and I suppose a carbon copy of The Plague Within and its complete deep dive into aggressive death/doom would have been criticized as being predictable. The thing is that album really rattled a lot of cages, particular folks like me who really hadn’t been all too enthused about the band’s recent output prior to that earth shaker of an album. It was the most uptempo album in ages, and I still jam cuts like “Cry Out” on a fairly consistent basis. The only song that’s really stood out as a must-add to my iTunes playlist from Medusa is “Blood and Chaos”, not coincidentally the most uptempo cut on the record. The truth is that I was never altogether too big on Paradise Lost throughout their career, and when I listen to Medusa, I’m reminded of how I’ve felt about most of their other albums (barring a couple). That feeling is one of ambivalence, where the album isn’t bad by any means to warrant severe, specific criticisms, but conversely doesn’t do much for me in terms of getting me hooked or excited. It seems The Plague Within was an exception to this rule, and things are back to normal, which I’ll chalk up to perhaps my own lack of enjoyment for the band rather than any misgivings on their own part. My co-host Cary, an actual Paradise Lost fan, was genuinely enthusiastic about this album. I might revisit this towards the end of the year to see if I change my mind.
Leprous – Malina:
If you watched the livestream of Emperor’s set at this year’s Wacken Open Air festival, you’d have noticed just how awesome their rendition of “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” was that evening. They had the sunset slot (so dubbed by me as that magical time of the day when a band takes the stage during the waning moments of daylight, with the sun setting in the distance, and finishing up just as dusk falls), and their performance of that song came just as things were growing dimmer in the sky around them. The performance was inspired, Ihsahn’s vocals full of fiery conviction, the musicianship in perfect lockstep, and the sound engineer had finally corrected the mix that was skewed during their first two songs. Their setlist was of course their much talked about performance of the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk album in its entirety for these handful of 2017 festival dates. To play it here, in front of the largest crowd of any metal festival must have felt special, despite the rain soaking the ground and making moshing impossible lest the risk of slippage. When the song hit its emotional zenith, the ending refrain of “Nightspirit! Spirit! Spirit! / Embrace my soul!”, the camera panned to the crowd who were caught in the moment, arms up, horns up, singing along to one of black metal’s finest moments. Thousands of miles away, on a livestream feed, I felt it too. And what really made it stand out was just how excellent the vocals were during that specific lyric, sung by Ihsahn himself in his distinct and improved with age clean vocals, but more importantly, given uplift and dramatic tenor by the band’s keyboardist/backing vocalist, one Einar Solberg.
Solberg of course is a prominent member of Ihsahn’s backing band, as well as his brother-in-law (Ihsahn is married to Einar’s sister Ihriel), but he is also the mastermind behind Leprous as its vocalist, keyboardist and primary songwriter. A slight distinction on that last detail, Solberg writes nearly all of the band’s music, but his co-founding guitarist Tor Oddmund Suhrke contributes almost all of the lyrics. That’s an unusual combination but one they’ve employed seemingly since their debut album so whatever works right? I have tried to get into Leprous for as long as they’ve been releasing albums, coming close with 2015’s The Congregation, but somehow that appeal that lured so many others seemed elusive to me. Well I’m pleased to say that these dapper Nords (check their promo photos) have finally won me over, because Malina is just a revelation to listen to. They’ve finally hit upon that perfect mix of complexity and simplicity, the result being heard in more focused songwriting, as on album highlight “From the Flame”. Its the most accessible moment to date for sure, but just as compelling as any of the other cuts on the album, such as my personal favorite “Stuck” where the chorus is capable of tying together all the off-beat, zig-zag musical elements to support a gorgeous vocal melody. Sure, there’s a touch of melodic rock on offer here, the kind you’d associate with American rock radio, but its never overwhelming and as a background accent I find it refreshing in contrast to their overwhelmingly progressive approach. This was an unexpected treat, and its nice to get to enjoy Solberg as a vocalist in a more leading man context —- give this one a shot.
Where I Brainstorm Openly:
All the recent photobucket crap I’ve been dealing with has had me going back through the blog, article by article, fixing up images and dead YouTube links while I’m at it. I’ve found myself stopping at some of the articles and re-reading many of them, parts of others. Sometimes I cringe, but other times I’ve been surprised at how well I was able to convey an idea or my rationale for reviewing something a certain way. I wish there was a way to collect the best of what I’ve written and post them in a separate space/ site/ or digital place (er… isn’t that a site?), kind of like my own writing portfolio. If that sounds too much like me allowing my ego to make decisions, feel free to let me know, but it might be useful to have. Perhaps another WordPress site, but with a different theme so as to work better with what I have in mind. I dunno… I’ll have to think about that. What do other writers/bloggers do?
One thing I have thought about doing is pulling quotes of my writing that I’m really fond of and placing it in a transparent layer over an image of whatever band, album, genre I’m talking about and posting them to Instagram. Oh you didn’t know I’m on Instagram? Don’t worry, hardly anyone does and I really just use it as a tool to keep up with other metal bands, fellow metal writers and a load of friends and other non-metal interests of course. Its hard to come up with stuff to put on Instagram if you’re not into marketing yourself as a person (which I’m not), and I won’t bore you with the plate of eggs I made this morning (they were delish). But with the above idea, I can simultaneously promote my own writing as well as have a re-Gram able image that other fellow metal fans can throw around. Every now and then I’ll get a notification on my phone that someone’s liked an old Instagram image I’ve thrown up… why this person has found it I have no idea but it does happen. Remember that idea I had in March of last year to put something up on Instagram everyday? I actually made it through successfully, but wow was that brutal. Maybe I can make a bunch of these at once and parcel them out —- would perhaps make it interesting to see what came up next.
Okay, enough about social media. What I also noticed when going through the old blog posts was that sometimes really good pieces just never got any attention at all. I haven’t done a Metal Pigeon Recommends since last year’s feature on Sentenced, which I thought was pretty excellent, but maybe was alone in that thinking(!). I may have just failed in promoting it well or had it published at a bad time (Sentenced is a fall weather type of band, not the go to for mid-August, so it might be on me). I’d love to republish that sometime later this year, as well as a few other things that I have my eye on that I think might have sailed under the radar. If I’m being honest, the lack of response on that one made me put off publishing the next one. The most popular piece by far on the site is something I wrote back in 2012 called “The Legacy of Roy Khan“, which not only went semi-viral when I published it, but continues to draw in those forlorn souls who Google search Roy Khan and see this usually listed near the top. Its been the gift that keeps on giving site visitor wise, but I’d love for other lesser known things to grab an audience.
That kind of brings me to another thing that’s been running through my mind as I go on this backwards-in-time journey through the blog. Within the past two years, I’ve settled into a more manageable pace of consuming new music for the purposes of the blog, as opposed to the overwhelming amount I was trying to juggle a few years ago. When I first decided to purposefully slash the amount of stuff I was forcing myself to cover, I thought I’d get more time to attempt the fun stuff I had been putting off for awhile. Like what you ask? Well for example like putting together in-depth top ten lists for what I considered the essential classic albums of various metal subgenres. Ranking my favorite bands discographies, doing a survey of what I considered the best twenty Maiden songs (just to spitball ideas). I kind of leapt into this a little while ago when I put out my list of Blind Guardian’s most overlooked songs, a piece that was incredibly fun to brainstorm and write, and I’d like to do that with other favorite bands: Kamelot, Nightwish, etc to name a pair that I certainly know others would love to chime in on. Whether it ends up being songs or albums is still undecided, but the point is to release more stuff along those lines that create real in-depth discussion and tangible debate.
I think I’ve been inspired by all the episodes of BangerTV’s Lock Horns YouTube show I’ve watched, where genuinely entertaining discussions arise over subjects you wouldn’t expect them to. Part of the responsibility I decided I’d shoulder myself with when I started the blog was an effort to build legitimacy for maligned subgenres such as power metal, to defend it and argue its artistic validity. But that’s been a scary proposal, one I’m afraid I’ll muck up in a clumsy effort. But being a part of a group such as the US Power Metal Connection on Facebook (even as a lurker) has shown me that people really want to talk about this stuff and have open debates about it. Sometimes the problem with new album reviews is that a lot of people don’t get around to listening to said album when they’re just being released —- hell I get promos for some of them and even I don’t manage that. By the time they do, looking up old reviews might not be their most immediate priority (or even a priority), and I have to remind myself that not everyone is as obsessive compulsive about music as I am where getting into a band or album involves a splurge of joyful research afterwards. Don’t worry if you do keep up with the new album reviews though, they’ll keep coming, but I’m going to feel less guilty about delaying them in favor of working on more fun things.