The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2021 // Part Two: The Albums

As I enter the tenth year of existence for The Metal Pigeon blog, its time to look back on a year that was undoubtedly strange, unexpected, and challenging for me as a music fan. To summarize it, I went through a period in the spring where I was feeling a little uninspired by most of the metal records coming out, and as a result started to check out different styles of music. I dove really hard into K-Pop in particular (and have kept diving), and had to figure out how to reignite a passion for metal that had all of a sudden felt a little stagnant. To the latter point, I figured out that a great tonic was to allow myself to escape the new release treadmill and simply revisit older classic metal records for fun. I also found out that when it came to new releases, my years long strategy of just slamming repeat listens of a record sort of by force was beginning to yield purely negative results. It was more prudent to wait until I was in the mood to hear something before giving it a spin, a process which definitely resulted in delayed reviews and even missing a few things, but better to slow down a little than feel burned out and stop entirely. All these months later, I feel like my connection with metal has become stronger, particularly through finding an refreshed appreciation for black metal again. As it turns out, when you spend a good amount of time ingesting super sugary music, what you really begin to crave as an antidote is it’s most extreme opposite. As a result, your musical perception is actually more open to appreciate the details and textures of extreme metal anew, rather than feeling like you’ve heard everything before. I suspect it’s a lot like if you scarf down a package of cookies in one sitting, your mind will have you yearning for I dunno, a salad the next day. The lesson learned here is that diversity is good, and balance even better — if you’re feeling a little unmoved by one style or another, check out something entirely different to change it up. This 2021 best albums list is a perfect example of how that can really have a dramatic effect.


1. Therion – Leviathan:

It’s a testament to how much I love Leviathan, that despite its late January release, it was my clear cut, without a doubt number one album all the way up until mid-summer, when the new Helloween album came out and I started to wonder if it would slip a bit. I questioned it further when in the late summer, I was getting a flurry of black metal recommendations tossed my way, and damn near all of them were direct hits, gripping my attention and dominating most of my metal listening time (which was in precious supply at certain points). But I would find myself returning to Leviathan regularly, in random moments when I didn’t even intend on playing the album all the way through, just a few songs here or there, to satisfy a craving to hear a particular melody or chorus. Spotify reminded me of this on December 1st when it presented me with my Your Top Songs 2021 playlist, and all the tracks from this album were on it (yes the whole damn album). Last.fm backs up the stats, Leviathan is my most listened to album of 2021 by well over a hundred listens compared to the album in second place, and my first rule of making these lists is to be honest with myself, even if it risks exposing me as a total fanboy. And look, I’ll embrace that title, because Therion’s first proper studio album of original material in a decade was a monumental event in the 2021 release calendar for me. This record had the added burden of being the follow up to first Therion album that I regarded as somewhat of a disappointment (2010’s Sitra Ahra). Fortunately Christofer Johnsson decided to abandon that album’s more avant garde/progressive tendencies and made a conscious decision to return to the band’s classic symphonic metal sound, even telegraphing in interviews ahead of the album release that this was an attempt at making a record that hardcore Therion fans would appreciate. And here’s the thing, he certainly succeeded in achieving that goal, but I believe that in doing so, he actually steered the band’s sound into a direction they’d not previously explored.

The beauty of Leviathan is that despite its overt look back to the band’s late 90s, post-Theli symphonic metal era, it’s a gaze that is undoubtedly refracted by the band’s gradual shifts in their sound over the course of all those albums between then and now. Where classic albums such as Vovin and Deggial were moody, dramatic, orchestral driven works, Secret Of The Runes was a jump to a heavier, almost hypnotic guitar driven approach. Their twin albums Lemuria and Sirius B were expansive, cinematic masterworks, almost panoramic in their scope and ambition. And then we saw the introduction of a new vocal driven era with Gothic Kabbalah, where for the first time the songwriting ran through some pretty incredible singers who had the ability to dominate songs through unforgettable vocal melodies. Even though releases since have been few and far between, this era has lingered; case in point, the band’s last release was the actual opera Beloved Antichrist, where guitars took a backseat to the stellar cast of classically trained singers who, you know, did their opera thing for most of those three discs. So no matter how pointedly Johnsson decided to look back at that particular late 90s era, the sound he wove together on Leviathan couldn’t help but be affected by everything in between, particularly the emergence of strong lead vocals as the band’s chief melodic force within the songwriting. This album’s most heart stirring moments are it’s most gloriously vocal driven ones — the eternity evoking choirs in “Die Wellen der Zeit”, Taida Nazraić’s achingly melancholic lament in “Ten Courts of Diyu”, Marco Hietala’s impassioned vibrato in “Tuonela”, Thomas Vikström’s mighty tenor with just a tinge of hard rock rasp on “El Primer Sol” — the list could go on. So much of this album feels fresh and new for the band, a spiritual renewal by embracing the past, a seemingly accidental forging of a new sound via the old axiom that you can never truly revisit the past again. I wonder if Christofer himself would be surprised at hearing a reaction like mine. Part of the beauty of nostalgia is melancholy, that longing for something that is elusive, but for me this album felt like a warm hug, it would always leave me strangely cheerful and hopeful in the moment, and that feeling would linger.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

2.   Stormkeep – Tales Of Othertime:

I think for most of the first half of this year, I didn’t really know what I was looking for in metal as a whole. Sure there were anticipated albums from veteran bands I’d spend time pouring over, but in the grand scheme of things, I would listen to new releases of all stripes and most of it was really not leaving a lasting impression. And as I stated above in my introduction, my purely melodic cravings were being satiated in a big way by another genre of music entirely, so the fact that power metal as a whole was having an underwhelming year was compounding my feeling of aimlessness. I think it was somewhere around late summer, while swimming in a sea of K-Pop, that I realized I was feeling an occasional deep yearning to hear something that was it’s spiritual and textural opposite. This timed perfectly with my being introduced to a handful of really spectacular black metal records from friends of mine (some of which I discuss below). But the one that shook me the most was the late fall release of Tales Of Othertime by Stormkeep, a relatively new symphonic black metal outfit from Denver (a realm of majestic, snow capped mountains of its own, take that Norway!). Stormkeep won me over with their perfectly blended mix of 90s era Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, and Emperor put through a Blashyrkh filter. Vocalist Issac Faulk (aka Grandmaster Otheyn Vermithrax Poisontongue because hell, sure why not?) delivers maybe the most entertaining and convincing black metal vocal performance of the past decade, working with a delivery that mixes razor sharp blackened shrieking with a surprising amount of enunciative clarity. His approach reminds me of vintage Shagrath ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, with a splash of Abbath’s guttural depths, a combination that makes for narrative magic — he sounds like he’s embodying the hooded character on the album cover, standing mountainside and recanting something terrible to the wind. The beauty of this album is that despite said frosty artwork and the generally bleak tone that the band achieves when going full on black metal tremolo/blastbeat mode, there’s a surprising amount of warmth being radiated from these songs. I feel it seeping through in the audible hum of the bass, the very Euro-power tinge to the keyboard arrangements (some very Blind Guardian vibes happening in places, particularly in the transitions to quieter passages), and just in the overall theatrical approach the band is favoring in these richly varied compositions. This is a perfect symphonic black metal album, to my ears anyway. It reminds me of when I first heard records in this style way back in the day, and how it made me feel at the time: Entranced, mystified, and transported somewhere else. More than any other year in the history of writing this blog, I needed to be reminded of that feeling once again.

3. Duskmourn – Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns:

On a surprise recommendation from our notoriously non-metal music fan George Tripsas, I was introduced this past summer to New Jersey duo Duskmourn’s Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns, who tap into a combination of metal styles that reach down to the very roots of what made me an extreme metal fan in the first place. There’s artfully crafted melodeath-ian lead guitars adorning expansive yet rustic, at times gritty blackened folk metal ala the early aughts, and most importantly, these songs just reverberate with me in a very physical, visceral way. So much of what started to put me off on black metal over the past few years is when bands make things too obtuse, too dense, or just too lost in their own meandering train of thought to reach out to the listener and form any kind of connection (I’m looking at you Enslaved). But listen to the first minute of “Deathless” here”, hitting us with a mix of complex black metal riffing, an incense-scented Summoning inspired epic keyboard arrangement, only to suddenly break way into a slamming heavy metal riff with thundering toms. As Halford once sang, get me locked in, get me headbanging in my desk chair. When I first listened to this album in my car, I was pounding my fist on the steering wheel to these drums. That gorgeous lead guitar solo towards the end — I mean there’s a reason why this tune ended up on my best songs list. On the title track, we’re ushered along by a stirring, majestic keyboard arrangement that acts as a melodic guide as the band rages underneath with undulating riff progressions and Walter Deyo’s charcoal blackened melodeath vocals. He and fellow guitarist Bill Sharpe keep these songs moving just enough, happy enough to plug a great riff a few times because of course you should, but introducing sharp contrasting variations in the song structure to allow tension to build and release, for melodies to blossom and breathe. Listen to how “The Sleeping Tide” changes a multitude of times throughout it’s 5 minute plus run time, exploding in a primal, anguished riff sequence towards the end. There’s a real Moonsorrow influence lurking throughout this record that harkens back to what made that band so staggering to behold in their best moments, particularly in their balancing of raw, primal, blackened aggression with beautifully complex, melancholic melodies. This is the band’s third album, they’ve clearly been honing their craft unbeknownst to me of course, but they found me when I needed them the most.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

4. Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers:

Two things can both be true: That we all wish the tragedy that informed these past two StS albums (and Hallatar, and Trees Of Eternity) never occurred in the first place, and secondly, that guitarist and main songwriter Juha Raivio has managed to create astonishing art out of his very deep grief. And truth be told, I didn’t really think that he could better 2019’s When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light (one that year’s best albums), but there is a very particular and distinctive kind of magic about Moonflowers that might have it firmly in the conversation of being one of the best Swallow The Sun albums of all time. And this does feel like a musical sibling to …Shadow…, from the lengthy clean vocal melodies, to the dreamy, cosmos pondering atmospherics and wistful acoustic guitars. But despite the similarities, I feel like this album is the inverse of it’s predecessor, it’s emotional peaks landing not on it’s most violent, surging cuts, but in its more calmer, reflective songs. Take the album highlight “All Hallows Grieve”, where Oceans Of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert joins Mikko Kotamäki on a sublimely haunting duet, it’s emotional refrain one of those moments where a beautifully written melody is elevated by an unforgettable performance. Then there’s “Keep Your Heart Safe From Me”, where despite the surprisingly Hope-esque riff to start things off, suddenly shifts into a Katatonia-like ebb and flow, finishing with as dazzling a guitar solo as I can remember on any StS album. And I really loved the weirdly Queensryche-ian vibes of “The Fight Of Your Life”, sounding like a distant cousin of “I Will Remember” or “Silent Lucidity”, Kotamäki’s vocals filled with a warmth despite all the ghostly effects put on his voice. This was a listening experience that required a bit more patience than …Shadow…, it’s pacing more subdued, it’s mood a little less anguished and violently reactive. It resulted in an album that seems out of time, particularly in the classical trio instrumental version that Raivio reworked, recorded by Trio Nox at Sipoo Church in Finland. I consider those pieces to be an extension of the album itself, instead of merely bonus tracks, because they have an entirely different emotional tenor to them despite working with mostly the same melodic structure. They made an already powerful album that much more emotionally engaging, and might be the most substantive “deluxe edition” addition in metal to date. To be sure, this was the most contemplative, inward looking album on this list in a year full of it’s exact opposite, a strange oddity that lived up to it’s namesake.

5. Fierce Deity – Power Wisdom Courage:

Every year there seems to be that band that comes out of nowhere and just levels me with a left hook through their awesomeness. Australia’s Fierce Deity was that band in 2021, it’s lone member Jonathan Barwick wowing me not only with this glorious masterpiece, but with his June release of The Trials Unmasked EP, a rustic, rootsy, Americana-informed reworking of his previous metal songs released over the past few years (you have to hear this one). I say songs because since Fierce Deity’s start in 2019, he’s been doing only digital single releases. But Power Wisdom Courage is his first all original EP release, a three track, 32 minute masterpiece that is his first complete statement, a fully realized musical journey that is audacious in its attitude, unapologetically trad metal, and tinged with a gorgeous streak of psychedelia. Of course you’ll likely recognize the album title as a reference to The Triforce from Zelda, and the band name pulled from a power-up found in Majora’s Mask, and to be sure, Barwick loves videogames and doesn’t shy away from hiding any it. He seems to occasionally go live on the Fierce Deity YouTube channel where he’s streaming himself playing and talking all things gaming (most recently seen playing Dark Souls III). But here on this record, he orchestrates a thunderous, bluesy hard rockin’ heavy metal assault with the kind of thick riffing that is at once anchoring and propulsive. How he manages to concoct an atmosphere that is rollicking as if a full band is jamming at once is beyond me, but even the drums, if indeed programmed, feel live and convincing. And this songwriting is enthralling, “Power” has a hook that won me over from the first time it graced my ears, and Barwick really understands how to write for his vocal type. He’s got a strong voice, full of character, a tone that registers more on the laid back, bellowing approach rather than the full throated going for the jugular attack of say Visigoth’s Jake Rogers. He describes his music as Stoner Power Metal on the Fierce Deity Bandcamp page, and that tag comes alive for me whenever the dreamy, stargazed atmospheric interludes pop up. They’re not distracting, they’re interwoven so deftly into the fabric of these songs that I can’t imagine them without, and their inclusion is a bold step for the band’s sound… moving beyond the more traditional metal approach heard on a cut like “Hearing Whispers” a few years ago. What excites me about Fierce Deity is that Barwick has found a truly authentic voice of his own, and it seems to have come naturally and without artifice. I love that he focuses on quality over quantity for his releases too, a concept I’ve seen work spectacularly well in K-Pop. Smaller focus, sharper execution. Make no mistake, this was the most exciting power metal release of the year.

6. Helloween – Helloween:

There was a moment there when I thought this would have sat atop this list at the end of the year. First off, it truly is one of the best albums released in 2021, and genuinely the best reunion album since Maiden shocked our collective faces with Brave New World (I know that there’s a few folks out there that would balk at this statement, sorry Dr. Metal!). That this record wasn’t an unfocused disaster given how it was constructed, with a multitude of band members taking turns handling songwriting duties over a pretty broad expanse of time, is quite frankly astonishing. Plans like this are supposed to result in plodding, mediocre messes, not an album that sounds like it was crafted with a laser focused precision by the band’s best songwriter. I was giddy on release night, staying up way too late to jam this over and over again, and it really was a euphoric experience to behold a veteran band hitting a grand slam this late in their career. That it sits here at number six on this list speaks more to the fact that I kinda burned myself out on it really quickly through the summer, and my other musical interests found myself reaching for more darker, abrasive forms of metal (see nearly everything else on this list) rather than the lighter shades found on this record. That being said, I still feel charged up when I hear “Out For The Glory”, an album opening, door-kicking in anthem that has one of the best Kai Hansen vocal drop ins ever. Michael Kiske and Andi Deris are incredible when they get to bounce off each other with vocal interplay as on “Fear Of The Fallen”, and Deris may have the best moment on the album on the ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. I need to shout out one of my personal favorites here in “Down In The Dumps”, a song that is a sweet balance of Walls Of Jericho era riffing and latter day pop candy Helloween, with a chorus that I found myself shouting along to in car rides (a pretty good sign of my approval). Of course there’s the strange and utterly surreal “Skyfall”, a song that is so packed with classic Helloween charm that you can’t help but smile at it’s audacious nature, particularly that David Bowie invoking bit in the middle. Don’t let the positioning on this list fool you, I loved the heck out of this album, but there was just so much competition for my listening time that it slipped down the ladder a bit.

7. Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:

This was one of those sneaky records that quietly burned up a ton of my listening time without me truly realizing it until I started looking at my play counts. But seeing those stats immediately brought to mind memories of me jamming this on my headphones during nightly walks, in the morning on my commute, on the drive home from work, etc. It would pop up intermittently, a tonic for a craving for all things melodeath. I actually think I listened to so few melodeath records this year because I was spending all my time bouncing between this and Duskmourn. If you’re unfamiliar, Ulthima are a Finnish-Mexican six piece who hit that sweet spot of Finnish melodeath that pulls from Children Of Bodom, Norther, and a little splash of early Kalmah in the way they balance aggressive elements with major key chord sequences. Just like Fierce Deity, there is a tangible videogame influence shining through this music, with cuts like “Black Swan” reverberating with shades of the Castlevania OST that the album title is referencing. It goes without saying that the title track here is a musical ode to that game, and really does somehow pull in major videogame music vibes through it’s melodies without resorting to cheap trickery like a random chiptune drop in. There was just something very satisfying about the listening experience on Symphony Of The Night, it brought tons of ear candy in it’s ultra melodic riff sequences, skillful lead parts, and the vocalist here, one Tuomas Antila has a real early Petri Lindroos quality to his delivery that I guess I’ve been missing from the man himself in Ensiferum lately. I wish I had something more poetic or insightful to say about this one, but sometimes an album is one of the year’s best because it just plain rules hard.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

8. Groza – The Redemptive End:

I suspect this will be on many folks’ year end lists (I know they’re all out, I haven’t looked at any yet!), because it just has that unmistakable quality of being undeniable. This came to me by way of an emphatic recommendation from friend of the podcast Justin The Metal Detector, and I’ll be honest, at first I was unmoved when listening to it. But a realization I’ve come to this year is the art of timing when it comes to listening to a record, so rather than dismissing it, I waited until I felt the need to hear something like it. That eventually came crawling, a desire for something bleak, unforgiving, and brutal to work as a palette cleanser for my aural sugar overdose. And one morning with the headphones on at work, it happened, this album was the black metal celery stick I needed and I was blown away. I think what I really enjoy about this record is that its not all bottom end or alternatively, high end screeching, but a well engineered variance of both and everything in between. Groza’s lead guitars hit those tinny registers on emphatic, punctuating tail ends of riffs, but its purposeful, with an aim to lock you into a hypnotic rhythm. Meanwhile there’s a black tornado of a rhythm section pummeling away below. There is obviously a huge debt to Mgla (and Uada… Groza are big on wearing hoods too) here, and of course I’m sure comparisons are being made between the two groups in almost every article written about them. I have no opinion on the subject really, but I can say that no Mgla album had me coming back for repeat listens as much as The Redemptive End has. And maybe this is just a purely personal anecdote, but I loved this album for it’s straightforwardness and almost monotone nature, the latter a quality I’ve dinged other bands with as a negative before. I dunno how to explain myself on that one — I just needed this album this year, among other terrific black metal releases. My chief takeaway for 2021 metal wise is that I was thrilled to be thrilled about black metal again, because it had been a damn long time.

9. Seth – La Morsure Du Christ:

In my personal black metal renaissance this year, I listened to quite a few really impressive albums, some of which I won’t be talking about here at year’s end because you know, ten spots only. But during the process of elimination, I had a hard time trying to justify not including La Morsure Du Christ from France’s longtime black metal institution Seth. I’m a little disappointed in myself that I hadn’t known about these guys before, they’ve been around since 1995 and apparently had a comeback on Season Of Mist in 2013. Unlike other French black metal names like Alcest and Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, Seth prefer a more straightforward, obliterate everything in their path approach to black metal. Their sound owes a lot to Mayhem, and perhaps in contemporary terms, to Taake and Watain as well, a furious assault that frequently boils over into nigh utter chaos. What I found surprising then, given that sonic profile, was how listenable this album was. The production here is stellar. The mixing providing enough balancing between instruments to discern melodies that are pushed to the background by design, and for anchoring riffs to have enough visceral intensity right up front to prevent this from just turning into a wall of noise. There are certainly some Alcest vibes happening on the rhythmic structure in “Sacrifice de Sang” however, and in that spirit Seth display an eyebrow raising amount of variance within their songwriting throughout this album. My favorite of these random moments are the interjections of surprisingly lush, pristine beauty, often tucked away as an end of song palette cleanser, such as the serene acoustic guitar/piano lullaby at the end of “Hymne au Vampire (Acte III)”. France has been full of surprises on the metal front lately, across the spectrum of heavy music, and it was nice to be reminded of that yet again.

10. Epica – Omega:

What a massive surprise this was. Epica, a band that I had come to ignore over the years because every attempt to get into them fell flat, released an album that I genuinely thought was stellar. After Therion, it’s the next best symphonic metal album of the year, and certainly the best Epica album to my ears anyway (I have no frame of reference on whether or not most Epica fans share this opinion by the way). I think I was somewhat in denial about how much I liked this album at first, thinking to myself “Ah I just like a few songs here and there”, but when a “few songs” wind up being most of the damn album… even I had to check myself and give the band it’s due. This album edged out yet another black metal record for the final spot on this list, and I seriously considered leaving this off until I let the stats speak for me and realized this was one of my most listened to albums of the year. Being a late February release, it was also one of the few bright spots from the first half of this year, and it was something I would return to often throughout the rest of 2021. I suspect that what Mark Jansen and Simone Simons and company stumbled upon here is addition by subtraction, because correct me if I’m wrong, but this feels like a leaner, less orchestrally driven Epica. These songs are very riff forward, vocal melody driven affairs, with the symphonic elements shading in the colors around them with restrained, often scaled back arrangements. I realize that’s a silly thing to say about what is still essentially a symphonic metal album, but in my memory, Epica used to run amok with their reliance on that aspect of their sound, to the detriment of their songwriting. Maybe I’ll revisit their discography to find that I’m wrong about that and it’s only that I’ve unlocked my brain into enjoying what has always been their sound, but I suspect that I’m right — that the band has shifted their approach here in subtle but important ways. These are tremendous songs, “Seal Of Solomon” is a perfect juxtaposition of brutal and cinematic elements; “Abyss Of Time” wisely rides one of the band’s strongest melodies in my memory; and “Rivers” is incredibly beautiful, a song that stopped me in my tracks. A start to finish satisfying traditional symphonic metal listen, it’s nice to have my own perceptions of a band changed all these years into their career.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2021 // Part One: The Songs

Here we are again, at the end of yet another long yet passingly short year, and this time celebrating not only the recent 10th anniversary of The Metal Pigeon blog, but also this being the tenth time I’ve published a best of list on this site. Its surprising to me that even after all these years, I keep refining the process by which I make my picks for both this songs list and the upcoming albums list. It used to be a very stats heavy process back in the iTunes era, where I could track play counts on my computer and my devices with minute detail. That was a reasonable way to go for awhile, but looking back on some of those past lists, I can see where it was weighing earlier in the year release dates far too heavily. Conversely, the modern day stats are found in our Last.fm trackers and of course the Spotify Wrapped feature that we were all sharing on December 1st, are tracking everything we’re listening to, thus its a lot harder to break down solely metal stuff. So I’ve found that over the past few years, I’ve been moving in a more subjective, personalized process of putting these together… asking basic questions like what were the songs that I kept remembering or craving to hear again? What song made the biggest emotional impact on me? You get the idea. I will say this year’s best songs list was a little more difficult to put together than usual. I normally aim for a nominee list of twenty-five songs and cut them down to my final ten, but honestly, this year the chosen ten were so readily apparent that I had them written on my list first and really, really struggled to find any other nominees. I guess in that sense it was relatively easy then, ten confident picks for what it’s worth.


1.   Therion – “Tuonela” (from the album Leviathan)

Perhaps the band’s most effective single release since the Gothic Kabbalah era, “Tuonela” was the cannon shot that signaled the band had returned with open arms to the familiar symphonic metal stylings that Christofer Johnsson had devoted a career to pioneering. The inclusion of ex-Nightwish bassist Marco Hietala on co-lead vocals alongside the wonderful Taida Nazraić is the song’s biggest strength, his rough hewn, richly textured voice a perfect foil for her elegant, almost effortlessly charming vocals. One of Johnsson’s most underrated strengths is his ability to know exactly what voice he needs for a particular song, I can’t think of a moment where he’s missed the mark throughout the band’s discography. The heavy strings presence here recalls memories of the classically driven Vovin era, while the dueling co-lead male/female vocals remind me strongly of the Mats Levin/Snowy Shaw/Katarina Lilja vocal melody dominant era. This song is perfectly balanced between metallic and symphonic elements, has an unforgettable violin melody anchoring that magnificent chorus, and those trademark Therion choral vocals that lift you to the heavens. A gem.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

2.   Seven Spires – “In Sickness, In Health” (from the album Gods Of Debauchery)

Brimming with the same resonant emotional power and dramatic sweep that characterized so much of 2020’s album of the year winner Emerald Seas, “In Sickness, In Health” was neck and neck with “This God Is Dead” as the most nigh perfect moment of an otherwise imperfect album. From the sparse, drifting piano notes in the intro to Adrienne Cowan’s appropriately anguished vocals in the chorus to Jack Kosto’s channeling of Use Your Illusion-era Slash esque lead guitars, this was a power ballad with a capital P. As is becoming all too clear with each release, Adrienne has developed into one of metal’s finest lyricists. Her use of strong, clear imagery highlighted with often sharp juxtapositions helps to paint pictures that immediately place you in beautifully dramatic scenes or emotional states. As glorious as her and Roy Khan’s duet was, particularly in the final few minutes of “This God Is Dead”, this song was where I felt the emotional apex of the album resided and left me, as they say, shook.

3.   Steven Wilson – “12 Things I Forgot” (from the album THE FUTURE BITES)

On an album that was as difficult for most of his fans to accept, let alone process and enjoy, “12 Things I Forgot” was the lone reminder that when it came to heartstring plucking, nostalgia soaked emotion, no one does it better than Steven Wilson. Wilson calls this the album’s Fleetwood Mac love song moment, but I took this song as somewhat of a direct lyrical response to fans who would were going to understandably balk at the strange direction Steven had taken his solo career over these past two releases — not quite a mea culpa, but more of a message of understanding. When he sings “Something I lost / And I know what it meant to you”, particularly over chiming acoustic guitars and a cascade of lush “ooohhs” and “aaaahhhs” backing vocal layers, it could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his attempts at distancing himself from the progressive tag. The irony of course, apart from this song sounding like it could have been plucked from 2000’s Lightbulb Sun, is that he announced the reformation of modern day prog-princelings Porcupine Tree later in the year and has already released new music from the band. So maybe I was reading too much into it, but lyrically it works both ways and is undoubtedly one of his most gorgeous songs to date.

4. Brainstorm – “Glory Disappears” (from the album Wall Of Skulls)

The strongest Brainstorm song I’ve heard in ages off the strongest Brainstorm album in a decade, “Glory Disappears” is a monster of a song, built on an almost power ballad like build and release. Andy B Franck is seemingly ageless, and his vocals here are structured in an incredibly impactful way, starting with a deeper, lower register ala Geoff Tate and exploding with shocking force by the time the pre-chorus rolls around. The hook during the refrain elevates this into an all-time Brainstorm classic, Franck’s emotive tenor grabbing your wrist and refusing to let go. In a year where new power metal releases as a whole were mostly underwhelming, it was reassuring to hear one of the genre’s more underrated veterans capable of delivering such a heavy hitting jam so late in their career. Also in a year where my tastes really gravitated to two very polar musical opposites, it was nice to remember that sometimes all it took to get the Pigeon’s feathers ruffled were some meaty guitars, a thundering rhythm section, and a vocal melody that burned right into my brain.

5.   Unto Others – “Heroin” (from the album Strength)

The opening track from the newly dubbed Unto Others’ (formerly Idle Hands) second full length album, “Heroin” is a bruiser of a song, an unexpected cobra strike of sudden aggression. Singer/guitarist Gabriel Franco delivers his most desperate, intense vocal performance to date, complete with a more anguished scream to punctuate his lines than he ever barked out on their debut Mana. The MVP of this cut though is lead guitarist Sebastian Silva, whose insistent leads create an uneasy atmosphere of tension and danger. His solo midway through is a seething coil of discordant melodies that’s as energizing as it is discombobulating, and after all the prettiness he displayed all through their debut it’s kind of shocking to hear him paint something decidedly ugly and mean. For his part, Franco’s central riff here is devastating, a full on metal attack that not only set the tone for what was a far darker and more dour album than it’s predecessor, but also changed the way we’ll be perceiving this band’s capabilities from here on out. As he said in the lyrics, they gave it to us straight.

6. Therion – “Die Wellen der Zeit” (from the album Leviathan)

It’s rare that two songs from the same album end up on this list, I believe it’s only happened once before (with Orphaned Land way back in 2013), but “Die Wellen der Zeit” was too special of a song to ignore here at the end of the year. A delicate yet stately cinematic ballad built on bright, bursting orchestral grandeur and Taida Nazraić’s incredibly passionate soprano vocals, Therion paint with a kaleidoscope of colors here. This song floored me from my first pass through the album, and it continued to resonate with me throughout the year, ending up on my Spotify “Your Top Songs 2021” playlist that’s like 90% K-Pop (it’s been a weird year). Therion has had a tradition of delivering really moving ballads from “Siren Of The Woods” to “Lemuria”, but they struck upon something new and fresh here — a piece of music that was entirely ethereal and sounded like it was perpetually floating. The choral vocals provided by the Israeli choir Hellscore do a massive amount of heavy lifting, but it’s undoubtedly a star turn for Nazraić, who wasn’t even on most of our radars before her appearance on this album.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

7. Ulthima – “Black Swan” (from the album Symphony Of The Night)

The opening cut from the debut album of Ulthima, a Finnish-Mexican melodeath band with serious neoclassical tendencies ala Children Of Bodom and Norther, “Black Swan” is a microcosm of what makes Symphony Of The Night one of the year’s most compelling listens. Setting aside the seriously excellent, ultra melodic guitar leads from Ricardo Escobar, this song is equally indebted to keyboardist Niko Sutinen’s propelling melodies. There’s an unapologetically old school nature to the crunchy, dense texture of the riffing here that reminds me of classic melodeath ala the early aughts, and everything is mixed so tightly to give it that satisfyingly visceral snap you want this style to have. Vocalist Tuomas Antila’s slightly blackened vox reminding me so much of the tone used by Ville Viljanen (Mors Principium Est) is just the icing on the cake.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

8.   Epica – “Rivers” (from the album Omega)

Making their first appearance on any of my best of lists, Epica’s sublime piano-led ballad “Rivers” was the most compelling moment from one of the year’s most addictive symphonic metal albums in Omega. Of course vocalist Simone Simons’s truly haunting performance is the draw here, and she’s always been one of my favorite guest vocalists in various spots across a plethora of bands throughout the years. She has one of those voices that seems to be tailor made for emotive, often sparsely dressed ballads, and shrewd songwriters know how to utilize her talent — case in point here with Mark Jansen penning a song devoid of unnecessary nods to heaviness barring a little crunchy guitar boost up towards the end. There’s just something indefinably magical about “Rivers”, and it was one of those songs that I couldn’t ignore. I’d find myself longing to hear it again and then would let the album keep playing only to remember that everything else was plenty good to boot.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

9. Harakiri For The Sky – “Us Against December Skies” (from the album Mære)

Although I didn’t think Mære was able to get out from under the immense shadow cast by its predecessor in Arson, it was still capable of producing moments that were downright transcendent. Chief among these was the awesome, majestic “Us Against December Skies”, one of those eight minutes feels like four minutes time dilating epics. I don’t think I’ll truly ever be able to put into words why Harakiri is able to effectively channel such powerful emotion with such an unceasing wall of noise. It has a lot to do with the fantastic lead guitar melodies and simultaneously juxtaposing tempos — but what really got the lump caught in my throat here was the sequence starting at the 3:40 minute mark, where the band stop everything momentarily only to pull back the rubber band over an awesome, simple repeating riff figure, building up the tension, only to release it and let the chaos begin again.

10.   Duskmourn – “Deathless” (from the album Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns)

Propulsive, meditative, and vicious all at once, Duskmourn’s “Deathless” was the sharpest thorn from an album that was rootsy and rustic, a fusion of earthy folk-metal and epic melodic death metal. I got major Summoning vibes from the woodwind instrumentation that careens over the tremolo and blastbeat intro passage. And the band channels major Insomnium vibes with those guitar leads at the six minute mark, a wash of color that is painted across the drab, brown-grey sky that predominates this track. Just like Harakiri above, Duskmourn seem to have an innate sense of when to scale everything back and just pound a quality riff to get you audibly centered and kick up your adrenaline level. There’s intelligence in the songwriting at work here, a knowing use of space to create ebbs and flows to break up the wall of sound, and in doing so, tell a story through brutal noise that is as gorgeous as it is melancholy.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten: Power Metal

Ten years ago, when I first started this blog, I had a boatload of ideas that I wanted to eventually get to after I had accumulated a decent amount of articles on the site, and found my writing voice so to speak. One of those ideas was to talk about my ults (to borrow a K-Pop term) — you know, my favorite records in this genre, that genre, of all time, you get the point. So to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this site, I’m finally (finally!) launching this in the form of The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten. The idea is simple. I’m presenting my picks for the ten essential albums that I feel best exemplify everything that I love about a certain subgenre. In other words, its by no means an attempt at an objective-ish list, but more a personal reflection of my own experience as a fan of this music. Of course we’re starting with power metal, because over the years I’ve written about my love for it likely more than anything else on this blog, and whittling what I love about this subgenre down to ten albums was not easy. But I like the number ten for lists, its easy to focus on for a reader, and for myself it forces me to make hard cuts and think about what I really have to include. These ten picks are sorted in alphabetical order by artist… hey look it was hard enough getting my list down to ten, don’t make me rank them. The prospect of finally getting around to this has been surprisingly rejuvenating, and a great excuse to go back and listen to albums that I haven’t heard in awhile but have meant a lot to me since I first did. Thanks for reading the blog any of these past ten years, can’t believe its been this long but I’m grateful it has.


Avantasia – The Metal Opera:

I think the first thing that someone might think when doing a quick scroll down through this list is “Where’s Helloween?”. Fair question. But I only have ten spots, and if I’m being honest with myself, as far as my personal experience with power metal goes, Helloween and Gamma Ray took a backseat to my rabid fanaticism for all things Tobias Sammet, particularly during that late 90s/early 00’s era. Released smack in the midst of the golden age of power metal™ (97-03 to be precise) in July 2001, the first Avantasia album was a monumental event in the power metal world. I had heard the single almost a year before in 2000 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown (a Cleveland area college radio show hosted by Dr. Metal whose show introduced me to a ton of power metal) when Tobias himself called in for an interview. He talked about the guest vocalists, people from bands that I was largely unfamiliar with, but he did winkingly confirm one significant guest he called “Ernie”, who Dr. Metal later clarified as Michael Kiske. My personal hype leading up to this album was massive, I made it a mission to grab as many albums as I could from the guest vocalist’s respective bands, in the process becoming fans of Angra, Stratovarius, Virgin Steele, Impellitteri, At Vance, and Within Temptation. That was a process that carried over into The Metal Opera Pt. II released a year later, but it was the debut that lit the match on what was already a flammable pyre of growing obsession over all things European power metal.

While the sequel was fantastic in its own right, the debut had the kind of crackling magic that all these years later refuses to diminish. From the melancholic majesty of “Farewell” to the glory-fist inspiring “Sign Of The Cross” to the now iconic “Reach Out For The Light” with Kiske’s glorious voice. What Tobias did on The Metal Opera was essentially build on what Kiske and Helloween had pioneered on the Keeper albums, only made bigger and wilder, with a cast of strikingly different vocalists that gave this straight ahead epic power metal a grandeur that made it sound larger than life. In writing this, I’ve realized that no amount of words can give voice to just how massive an impact this record was for me, it nearly rivaled having discovered Blind Guardian. For sure Keeper I/II belong on the list of the most influential and/or greatest power metal albums of all time, I totally agree with that both as a metal fan and a self appointed historian. But for as much as I love those records now, at the time I viewed them as heavy metal records ala Maiden… power metal really wasn’t a widespread term until 97 or so, and I always associated it with newer bands coming out of Europe. An artist like Tobias who wore his influences on his sleeves made it apparent just how far into the future Helloween’s influence has reached. But Avantasia’s The Metal Opera was a special moment in time for me, and I can’t look back on power metal history without it being a blinding beacon shining back at me.

Blind Guardian – Nightfall In Middle Earth:

The never ending debate among not only Blind Guardian fans, but power metal fans in general is Imaginations or Nightfall? Because though Blind Guardian does have other great records, those two albums in particular have come to define the what is quintessentially great about the band. I’ve always felt that there is no wrong answer between the two, because there have been moments where I’ve considered Imaginations and thought that note for note it could be a stronger listening experience. But the reason why I’m placing Nightfall on this list over it is because of just how much it intersects at two of my major interests, namely Tolkien and epic power metal. This isn’t breaking news to anyone by now, but I’m sure that was the reason a lot of people got into Blind Guardian. But back in the day when I discovered the band shortly after Nightfall’s release, it was a major revelation to younger me, a shocking intersection that seemed only hinted at with stuff like Metallica’s nods to Lovecraft and Maiden with… all their various literary references. With Nightfall, Blind Guardian created a soundtrack to Middle Earth that I never knew could possibly exist, painting rich, theatrical aural drama for important vignettes from The Silmarillion. At the time concept albums were still a relative rarity, but the bards didn’t try to shoehorn in an entire plot into their songs. They used the existing literature as a diving board from which to write from specific character perspectives, tackle particular moments from complex scenes and flesh them out with narration, context, and internal monologues. The intricacy of the musical arrangements mirrored the pulse of the narrative — militant grandeur on “Time Stands Still”, anguish and loss on “Nightfall”, forlorn melancholy on “The Eldar”. Particularly impressive for source material that read more like a biblical history rather than a typical fantasy adventure, Nightfall’s songs were intensely emotional, full of haunting imagery in its lyrics and utterly convincing passion from Hansi Kursch’s vocals.

On a side note, this album got me to finally tackle The Silmarillion, which I had previously disregarded as too difficult to read. All these years later, and it’s one of my most read books (if not the most read), with me doing yearly readings right around this time of year for quite a few years in a row. I love everything about it now, as a flawed but still rather perfect piece of literature, and it took Nightfall to get me to appreciate that. I also still consider the album to be one of the finest storytelling moments in power metal, nearly equaled only by Kamelot’s Epica, together both albums illuminating a dearth of competition that is oftentimes disappointing to consider. It has also, after what has to be in the thousands of listens after all these years, still retained the same vibrancy and freshness that it did when I first heard it. Honestly I can’t even say that about a few old classic Maiden albums, and they’re my favorite band. Andre Olbrich’s leads in “Mirror Mirror” still get my adrenaline pumping even if I’m sitting in my desk chair, Hansi’s screamed “Fear my curse!” on “Noldor” still raises the hair on my arms, and the chorus of “Into The Storm” is still the most spirited, spitting defiance singalong moment, even if I’m by myself in the car. So again, you might think Imaginations deserves to be here, and I couldn’t fault you for it, but Nightfall is iconic to me, that cover art, the depth of what the band accomplished here — it’s a power metal essential, even if you tend to skip the interludes.

Edguy – Mandrake:

It’s a testament to Tobias Sammet’s impact on my power metal fandom that he’s landed on this essentials list twice, and you could say 2001 was a great year for him on an artistic level. Just over two months after he dropped The Metal Opera, Tobias delivered Edguy’s fifth and finest album in Mandrake, the point where the band’s sound was still cut from the classic Helloween inspired power metal cloth of 1999’s Theater Of Salvation, but tempered with an arena ready production complete with fuller, deeper guitar tones and a thicker bottom end. These sonic adjustments were paired with his most going for the jugular approach to songwriting yet, delivering bangers like “Golden Dawn” and the bruisingly heavy “Nailed To The Wheel”. An epic opener like “Tears Of A Mandrake” and the ultra-catchy “All The Clowns” blossomed into iconic power metal classics. Even an adventurous set piece like “The Pharaoh” saw Tobias growing into a confident, accomplished craftsman, capable of holding our attention for ten minute chunks, layering compelling sequences one after another, foreshadowing some of the great epics he’d deliver throughout his career afterwards. He also brought Edguy right up to the edge of a more AOR steeped approach, with “Painting On The Wall” being a seminal moment in their career — still power metal in spirit but dressed up in Magnum and Europe outerwear. And on an album so leaden with somber toned material (despite the major key choruses, this was a much darker album than Theater was or even The Hellfire Club after it) Tobias snuck in a satisfying bit of Helloween inspired cheek in “Save Us Now”, the type of thing that in lesser hands would stick out terribly. Even the ballad here, long a bane of many a power metal fan, “Wash Away The Poison” saw him still writing with that traditional power metal frame of mind, preferring lyrics about self-realization and discovery over the romantic overtures that would come later.

In summation, Mandrake was the first fully realized culmination of Tobias Sammet as one of the genre’s foremost songwriters. In a career full of great songs before and after, it was track for track his strongest overall effort, and it was also in so many ways the swansong of his power metal era too. The hard rock influences came to the forefront one album later and never really left, even in latter day Avantasia where classic power metal only rears it’s head in fits and spurts. I know for my part, that’s a big reason why I tend to view 2003 as a closing of the classic power metal era, because when you have one of the heavy hitters in a songwriting sense drifting away from that classic style, it’s a signal that something has ended, or at the very least, changed irreparably. Recently on albums like Ghostlights and Moonglow, Sammet has shown glimpses and flashes of the return of some classic power metal trappings of the Mandrake era, but hardly anything full on or overtly Helloween attuned like Mandrake was. Of course that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inferior, I think we’ve all grown accustomed to the change that’s occurred to Tobias’ songwriting approach over the years. It’s entirely possible that he felt Mandrake was as far as he could go in the classic power metal mode and still write compelling music. I think it’s also why I regard this album with a tinge of sadness, because despite it’s magic, it was the end of something special instead of the beginning.

Dragonforce – Sonic Firestorm:

Many if asked which was the most impactful Dragonforce album to date would cite either the band’s debut Valley Of The Damned or the truckload selling Inhuman Rampage with it’s improbable Billboard Hot 100 hit “Through The Fire And The Flames”. I hate dating myself here, but I very much remember listening to the band when they were known as Dragonheart with their demo on the ancient version of mp3.com. It created a stir not only for the awesome songs and dizzying guitarwork, but for the ease of which word of mouth spread thanks to it’s digital format. It was really the first time I remember seeing a band blow up thanks to their music being online, and they parlayed that into an actual record deal and released a debut that was pretty strong. The thing we forget about that album though is that the band hadn’t yet introduced the sonic elements that would rock the world three years later on Inhuman Rampage and er… Guitar Hero. Those elements would be introduced on their sophomore album, the utterly inspired, damn near perfect yet tragically overlooked Sonic Firestorm. Hypersonic riffing, wildly complex extended guitar solo passages, and aggressive black metal-esque blast beats spearheading an absolute battery of percussion courtesy of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh. Where Valley was sonically hampered by a slightly muddy production, Sonic Firestorm sounded crisp and clean, a textural facet of the recording that helped its various elements have a visceral impact. Upon release the band was describing this album as “extreme power metal”, and despite that being a bit of cheeky marketing, it was also kinda true, Sonic Firestorm saw them pushing the boundaries of what power metal was expected to sound like.

Of course, the songs were what really mattered, and Sam Totman delivered some of his most inspired songwriting ever with key assists from fellow guitarist Herman Li and keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov. They burst out the gates with “My Spirit Will Go On”, one of the greatest opening cannon shots in power metal history, a song that perfectly married epic ambition and length to an unforgettable hook and iconic lead guitar melody. It’s the first in a salvo of absolute bangers, followed by the aptly named “Fury Of The Storm”, one of vocalist ZP Theart’s best individual moments — he had a knack of sounding indefatigable even on lengthy vocal sequences at higher registers. My personal favorite might still be “Fields Of Despair” however, where the melancholic undertones of the key change during the chorus give the song an emotional weight that lives up to the song title. People were captivated by the band’s razzle dazzle (rightfully so), but I often found that their songwriting had moments of poignancy and complexity, tempered of course by the fact that the lyrics were essentially syllabically oriented vocal filler (not a criticism mind you, think of it as grim vocals are to black metal — texture!) This was seven breathtakingly paced tracks with the right mix of aggression and melodic nuance with satisfyingly hooky riffs and melodies, and one pretty piano based ballad that sounded divine on afternoon drives with the sun setting through your windshield. Dragonforce would make strong records long after this, deliver some incredible tunes here and there, but they never sounded as hyper focused as they did here.

Falconer – Falconer:

Rising from the ashes of folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, Sweden’s Falconer released their self-titled debut in 2001 just as folk-metal had found its footing, and smack in the midst of the golden era of power metal™, and their rootsy, gritty, often medieval music inspired sound fused the two subgenres together to create something new. One could argue that they were building on the foundations created by England’s Skyclad, but there was a distinct Scandinavian-esque quality to Stefen Weinerhall’s songwriting, both in Mithotyn and in Falconer. His focus was on incredibly rich melodies as a counterpoint to a startling dose of heavy riffage and aggressive, at times extreme metal inspired percussion. The melodies found their way through fluid lead patterns and glorious soloing of course, but also through the unorthodox vocalist the band had stumbled onto in Mathias Blad. He had no metal nor rock background, being a stage actor by trade in Sweden who had spent time studying in England, and his approach on record reinforced that. Blad certainly sang for Falconer with passion, but he didn’t project his voice in the way a metal singer would, with an increase of power or volume — his voice was naturally delivered, without exaggeration or projecting a “metal” attitude, as if he was simply on a theater stage somewhere. On Falconer, he was a revelation, carrying the narrative weight of Stefan’s lyrics and songwriting through sheer talent alone, his baritone deep and sonorous, and his phrasing crystal clear and fluid. I remember the exact moment I heard him for the first time on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown, stunned that a singer fronting a power metal band could sound so different from what was expected, yet fit so perfectly within the context of the band’s music.

The compositions on this album were magical, the kind of stuff that seemed to seep in from another world far removed from our mundane reality. To this day I can’t tell you what exactly Mathias is singing about in “Mindtraveller”, but I damn well feel that song in my gut, it’s been an all-time classic for me (and many others I’m sure), and among friends of mine, the term mindtraveller has become both an adjective and a noun. The looser, more brightly uptempo songs were loaded with ear candy; the layered “woooaaahhs” in “Royal Galley”; that fat bass line laid down by Weinerhall that anchors “Lord Of The Blacksmiths” into an unexpected but awesomely funky groove (only surpassed by the rings of a hammer striking hot iron!); and the subtle backing vocals by Ulrika Olausson on the ethereally beautiful “Wings Of Serenity” drip melancholy all over the song’s bridge sequence. I was always deeply impressed with just how vicious and batteringly heavy Falconer could sound. The sheer assault that occurs upon the opening instrumental bars of “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” could pass for the intro to a blackened folk metal tune before Mathias’ sweeps in. They’d surpass that level of heaviness on later songs such as “Pale Light Of A Silver Moon” off Among Beggars And Thieves, and entire albums like Armod, but they didn’t have to work their way up there or slowly introduce these elements to their sound over time. Album one, song one, and we were shown that Falconer would make a career of being beautifully mystical, often elegantly pretty, and also downright mean and punishing. The band would deliver other incredible records… one could make a case for Chapters From A Vale Forlorn being on this list, but the debut was so unexpected and made such a deep impression on me. They released their swansong last year, a capstone on a magnificent career, and went their separate ways — sadly still underrated and overlooked.

Hammerfall – Glory To The Brave:

Of course this was going to be here, not only for the obvious reasons that it was the album that kickstarted power metal as a recognized genre in earnest back in 1997 (remember friends, power metal as a term wasn’t really utilized as we know it today back when the Keeper records were released), but also for the simple reason that this album flat out rocks. Unlike Dragonforce six years later, who’d merge power metal’s Helloween engineered template with elements of speed and extreme metal, Hammerfall’s birth was a firmly resolute nod to the traditional heavy metal of the past, albeit trading in the screaming, rougher vocals of legends like Halford and Dickinson for the cleaner tone and delivery of Joacim Cans. It’s success across continental Europe opened doors for so many other bands to get signed and recognized, but unto itself, Glory To The Brave was a bracing, spectacular celebration of everything that made heavy metal great. I’ve always felt strongly that one of the keys to what made Hammerfall’s first two albums incredible was the relatively hidden influence of one Jesper Stromblad, who contributes here as a songwriter. He was at the peak of his riff writing powers during this era, having knocked out In Flames’ The Jester Race a year before, Whoracle in this same year, and Colony two years later. His influence is heard in the sheer melodeath-ian density of the riffs heard across this album, despite him not playing on the album. Guitarist Oskar Dronjak had been bandmates with Stromblad in Ceremonial Oath, and you get the feeling that both of their extreme metal roots crept into the approach towards Hammerfall — in the writing process those riffs were molded to be compact and intense, and it showed through in Dronjak’s and then In Flames guitarist Glenn Ljungström’s performances on the album. They’d shake this melodeath influence three years later on Renegade, shifting to a more permanent Priest/Helloween mix, and thus would never recapture the magic found on Glory To The Brave or its sequel Legacy Of Kings.

Then there’s just the full on triumph and glory claw inducing splendor of these songs; “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” is built on one of the most insistent and urgent power metal riffs of all time, with Cans delivering an emphatic and powerful vocal performance; and the album is bookended by its polar opposite, the beautiful power ballad title track with its echoing leads, and confidently articulate acoustic guitars reminiscent of the Scorpions’ finest ballads. It’s a toss up as to whether “Hammerfall” or “Stone Cold” is the most rockin’ cut here, the latter built on a Priest-ian attack and possessing an understated menace in it’s steady march whereas the former is a Helloween inspired banger that shows off the band’s melodicism in sharply vibrant ways. I loved the band’s audaciousness too, the pride of being a metal band playing metal tunes that was exemplified in “The Metal Age”, whose admittedly silly lyrics were still the kind of Manowar-ism that I felt an affinity towards. Even a song ostensibly about the Crusades such as “Steel Meets Steel” could be parlayed into a metal anthem, and there was something comforting about being a fan of such deeply uncool music yet hearing the band themselves proclaim it’s power as something righteous and worthy to be proud of. Such sentiments seem gauche in 2021, but they kinda mattered in the late 90s/early 00s. That kind of fervent belief made a dreamy ballad like “I Believe” ache with a resonance that lesser bands couldn’t manage. The capper on this excellent album was the inclusion of their awesome Warlord cover in “Child Of The Damned”, a direct line to one of the subgenre’s USPM grandfathers from the early 80s. It was an unapologetic nod to the past that was only fitting for an album that revived not only a sound, but a feeling.

Kamelot – Epica:

A landmark in power metal for its elevation of storytelling, lyrical diction, and songwriting, Kamelot’s Epica was part one of a two album long exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the tragic German play. Vocalist Roy Khan and founding guitarist Thomas Youngblood created their own storyline and characters closely resembling those in the original, and with wiggle room for artistic liberties. There are a lot of fans who will argue in favor of The Black Halo being more deserving of praise in a head to head comparison, and while I do love that album and it’s overall darker atmosphere, Epica has always sounded sharper to me from a songwriting perspective. By this point in Khan’s tenure with the band, he had already meshed with Youngblood as a major songwriting contributor and had put his stamp on two bonafide power metal classics in The Fourth Legacy and Karma. While his lyric writing and vocal performances on those albums were turning heads and keeping his name at the forefront of many power metal fans minds, Epica was his and the band’s most astonishing masterwork. Getting to inhabit a character for an entire album, Khan’s imagination ran wild and he managed to pen most of the lyrics and narrative storyboarding before the music was composed. This meant the songs took on even more of a vocal melody driven direction than before, the music often reactive to Khan’s phrasing and tempo choices, such as on the slow build of “The Edge Of Paradise” where Youngblood’s guitar is solely responsive to Khan’s vocal line. Song structures were often inventive out of narrative necessity, something that Khan made work due to crafting impeccable vocal melodies to keep one’s attention fixed while the Miro engineered symphonic elements (the “Rodenburg Symphony Orchestra”!), Gregorian chants, choir vocals, and guest lead vocals fluttered around or darted in and out. Just like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall, Khan and Youngblood had the benefit of having the source material available in literary form as a reference for both themselves and listeners, and as a result the songwriting was freed of the burden of exposition.

On the brilliant “Lost & Damned”, an accordion sways in a Parisian tango during the verses in a sad, sympathetic melody as Khan’s character says goodbye to the love of his life, a surprising choice that works so well it’s one of the album’s finest moments. The ballads were also magnificently constructed, “Wander” sounding warmly like the flower-scented, dewy air its lyrics spoke of, all romance and mystery; while “On The Coldest Winter Night” sounds like snowfall and warm fires, befitting the emotional scene that’s occurring between the two characters Ariel and Helena. I’ve written about Khan’s poetic lyrical diction at length, but its worth reiterating here that his way with words is one of the reasons this album is on this list. Khan was able to inhabit his characters’ inner monologues, craft elegant dialogue and paint his scenes with richly evocative imagery that brought this storyline to life and made you care about the characters. There was a visceral quality to a line such as “meet me by the wishing well / in cover of the moon”, a lyric that paints a scene as clearly as a sentence in a fantasy novel. But it wasn’t all extravagant instrumentation and romantic balladry, Kamelot brought thrilling majesty to the fore in the straight-ahead power metal of “Farewell”, where Khan married melancholy to gritty determination and crafted a chorus made of steel. And “Center Of The Universe” was peak classic era Kamelot at it’s finest, a dynamic masterpiece with alternating tempos and an ascending buildup that exploded in a euphoric, skyward reaching refrain, cut through with a mid-song bridge with Mari Youngblood on vocals that elevated everything to high drama. Khan would of course leave Kamelot a few albums later, and the band would never be the same, but they had a run there with four classic albums in a row with him at the helm and this was undoubtedly the apex.

Power Quest – Neverworld:

What do we love about power metal? There has to be more to it than the surface level stuff like catchy tunes, epic melodies, soaring vocals and bursting guitar solos. Underneath all of that wizardry is an emotional pulse behind a lot of this music, at least it’s always been that way for me. At it’s best, it can be mental armor to help you deal with the shrapnel that life sometimes explodes at you, as I found out first hand last year when the pandemic hit and everything changed and I found myself cobbling together the massive anti-anxiety power metal playlist on Spotify that kinda saved me all those weeks when I was worried about anything and everything. Power Quest has always been one of those bands who I’ve turned to for comfort listening whenever I needed a bit of spirit lifting, and truth is that I could make a personal case for their incredible Master Of Illusion album to grace this list as well. But those in the know understand that the band’s absolutely undeniable masterpiece is 2004’s Neverworld. It’s cohesive sound is perhaps the finest encapsulation of the genre’s ability to radiate warmth and indefatigable optimism, not only as an act of defiance, but as an affirmation of life itself. There are loads of power metal bands that write lyrics that aim to express something in that vein, but few that manage to sound convincingly bright, ethereal, and determined as Steve Williams and company did here. Power metal artists that play with this kind of palette, like PQ’s contemporaries in Freedom Call, tend to get criticized for the lightness of their approach, but I’ve always thought of it as extremity in reverse, pushing the sound of metal in the opposite direction of say black metal while still retaining undeniably metallic sonic elements. Much of that comes from Steve’s heavy keyboard synths, sweet and syrupy and clearly inspired by the classic early 80s tones heard on Van Halen’s 1984 and classic AOR bands of that era. He steeped that influence into the classic power metal mold ala Helloween and found the voice that seemed to just barely elude him on their debut.

I remember listening to this album as I commuted to university, getting up at 6am just to take the long route across the city to dodge traffic, sitting in my car in the empty parking lot while listening to “Temple Of Fire” to wake up and motivate myself to face being there all day until long after dark. I’d take long de-stressing drives after work while blasting the album start to finish, marveling at how it seemed made of all razor sharp edges and some of the most glorious power metal guitar ever courtesy of the ever underrated Andrea Martongelli. And vocalist Alessio Garavello, then just a new found wunderkind from Italy, delivered one of the most fired up, intensely acrobatic vocal performances heard on any power metal album ever, full of personality and as I’ve always described it, perfectly imperfect approaches to cadence and delivery. Beyond the performances however, at it’s core it was the songwriting that made Neverworld special. A song such as “When I’m Gone” was painted with wistful sunset sky melancholia, and it’s gentle, innocent melody legitimately made you ache. The uplifting chorus outro sequences in “Into The Light” were seemingly powered by sunlight, and the stormy, dramatic buildups in the epic “Lost Without You” were made buoyant by layers of brilliant harmony vocals. And my favorite cut, “Edge Of Time”, one of the most perfect power metal songs ever written, with it’s iconic opening keyboard intro and rockin’ Scorpions-esque riff, and as gloriously powerful a chorus as can be imagined. Steve wrote songs on this album that were dewy eyed and hopeful, at once preciously fragile and unyieldingly strong, and full of an almost spiritual, life affirming breath that you’d gulp in like your life depended on it.

Sonata Arctica – Silence:

There’s an argument to be made that it’s a coin flip between this or Glory To The Brave as the greatest power metal debut album of all time, as both are astonishing classics in their own right on a musical level. But I’ll give the edge to Sonata Arctica, because what they managed on Silence went beyond Hammerfall’s spirited resurrection of traditional heavy metal, with the Finns pushing the genre into an emotional territory not yet explored by any power metal band. They took the sonic template created by their fellow countrymen and power metal pioneers in Stratovarius, and through it further explored the inward facing lyrics that Helloween only scratched the surface of. Vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko favored storytelling through vignettes, often ones that were tragically romantic or explored even darker emotions like isolation or loneliness. Fantasy themes could be interwoven in his songs or discarded entirely for a more realistic setting, Kakko seemed unmoored from power metal’s tropes, often penning lyrics that used unorthodox diction for the genre. I suspect it was no coincidence that he and Tuomas Holopainen were friends and were encouraging each other in their musical pursuits, particularly around this era, and that we’d hear a similar lyrical shift in Nightwish’s music away from fantasy themes to deeply personal topics. In retrospect, given what we now know about the introspective music of Finnish mainstays like Amorphis and Insomnium, it seems obvious to say that it must be a “Finnish thing”. Yet at the time, Stratovarius and Hanoi Rocks was really the only thing the world knew about metal from Finland, and I remember being unable to pinpoint and articulate why Silence and it’s follow-up Ecliptica felt so different from anything else out there (in fact, I think it took discovering Sentenced shortly afterwards for me to begin to realize what made the Finns tick). Power metal had developed as music that was bombastic, defiant, and at times uncomfortably macho, and here was a band who turned that attitude on it’s head — introducing vulnerability, sensitivity, and uncertainty while marrying it to a sound that still soared despite it all.

I think we also now realize in retrospect that guitarist Jani Liimatainen was the perfect foil to Tony’s unorthodox approach to power metal songwriting, particularly in light of his work in Cain’s Offering and more recently Dark Element. His razor sharp riffs and classically inclined melodic sensibilities were the guide rails that kept these songs firmly planted in Timo Tolkki inspired power metal territory. We’ve heard where Tony has taken the band’s sound in a post-Liimatainen era, and while modern day Sonata Arctica still attempts to maintain links to it’s power metal heritage, it’s clear they’ve drifted away from it as a whole. But here on Ecliptica, these roots were strong, and on classics like the face melting “Blank File” and “UnOpened”, Jani’s driving attack kept Tony (who was handling keyboards back then, remember?!) in a more Jens Johansson-esque role as a keyboardist, sticking to tried and true Malmsteen derived classical guitar/keyboard duo formulas. On more mid-tempo paced cuts such as “My Land”, keyboards were creatively used as a rhythmic device with Jani’s guitar coming in as a counterpoint, creating an effect that conjured up wild, barely restrained passion. The most emotional moments on the album however were found in the far more introspective songs; the aching, forlorn “Replica” where Tony spoke about an “empty shell inside of me”; or the uptempo “Kingdom For A Heart” with possibly the most dramatic reaction to heartbreak ever realized in song lyrics. On the bonus version we were treated to one of the band’s finest songs, “Mary-Lou”, an achingly beautiful sad song made sadder on the acoustic version that was released on the Orientation EP a year later. The gem of all gems here is of course “Full Moon”, one of the greatest power metal songs ever written, no explanation needed. I’ll never forget seeing the band live a few years back, when a pair of arms crossed tattooed guys who had been watching the show stoically all night finally broke out in a euphoric sing-along to this song during the encore. You couldn’t write a better endorsement.

Tad Morose – Modus Vivendi:

Often overlooked and sometimes forgotten, Tad Morose’s Modus Vivendi deserves to be regarded as one of the genre’s masterworks. Eschewing shimmering melodies for crushing Nevermore-ian heaviness, Modus Vivendi worked not only for the straight ahead chugging dual guitar attack of Christer Andersson and Daniel Olsson, but for the majestic, towering vocal performance of Urban Breed. He had been with the band for a handful of albums before this one, but this was where he really demonstrated why he should be in any conversation for greatest power metal vocalists. His role as the narrator of a daunting conversation about death on “Afraid To Die” was not only a stunning display of his mastery as a lyricist, but also for his dramatic vocal choices — where to add emphasis, how to phrase each line, the way he’d bend specific words and in doing so give them extra power. His staggering performance on “No Mercy” made it an all-time classic, his vocal on the chorus coming at you like Mike Tyson’s right uppercut, pure intensity and heavy metal fury. His no holds barred approach to the vocals was how it had to be. How else to go blow for blow with the muscled up heavy metal attack loaded into every riff and in the pounding aggression of the rhythm section. Andersson and company were certainly creating power metal, these were richly melodic songs with mostly soaring hooks, but they tempered them with elements of doom metal to darken the overall tone and slow down the pacing. And the band’s penchant for progressive metal was infused throughout their approach to displaying their more technical leaning tendencies in fits and bursts, still allowing the trad metal approach to steer the songwriting around any self-indulgent potholes.

There was also songwriting depth involved here. Nothing revolutionary, but just a sustained implementation of sheer creativity in how these songs were constructed. Take the Egyptian motifs that run throughout “When The Spirit Rules World”, how they seem to be leading the song in a certain direction only for the band to abruptly switch gears for the starkly Queensryche-ian refrain. And then there’s the lumbering thick boy in “Cyberdome”, built on as menacing a groove based riff as you’ll hear in power metal, where the band willingly halts its strut by coming to a near standstill on the utterly spartan pre-chorus. It’s so rare to hear a band execute risky ideas like these and somehow make them seem as part of the masterplan all along. Even on relatively straightforward cuts like “Anubis” and “Take On The World”, the band doesn’t take the easy route, loading its verses with shifting, alternating riff sequences and aggression levels, the rhythm section working overtime to keep you guessing. This album was Urban’s swan song with the band, he’d move onto Bloodbound for a spell and do really great work with them. For the band, it took them a decade to recover and come back with new music, and despite having a fairly good singer in Ronny Hemlin onboard, they haven’t come close to the greatness they stumbled onto here. There’s nothing flashy about Modus Vivendi, but that’s its centralized strength — its perfectly crafted from start to finish, one of the most viscerally satisfying power metal albums you could imagine.

Metal Tricks n’ Treats: New Cradle, Unto Others, and More!

Coming up on the end of the year relatively soon here, and I gotta say, there’s only a few more things on the release calendar for the next three months that’s attracting my attention. We have the new Swallow The Sun, Omnium Gatherum and Belakor albums due soon, and a couple others that I’m going to be sure to listen to. But the mad end of the year release rush that we’ve tended to see in the past 5-6 years isn’t happening this time around, and I’m actually relieved in a way because it’ll give me room to try to do something special for the upcoming ten year anniversary of the blog. That’s right, December 2011 was the date of the first post on this site, a little first impressions on Nightwish’s Imaginaerum if I recall correctly. I’ve been pondering on what I should put up as an anniversary thing — seeing as how a retrospective of the site would be of no interest to anyone but myself. So I think I’m going to finally get finished one of the many long incubating ideas I’ve had for the blog from it’s inception that I always delayed because I wanted to wait until I cultivated a bigger following before doing it. I’ll be honest, these days I don’t really stress much about promoting this blog, people will find it or they won’t… in that sense I’ve gone back to the roots of why I started this in the first place, to simply have a soapbox for my opinions and chronicle my experience of being a metal fan. Looking forward to finishing the anniversary post, I can’t believe it’s going to be ten years, didn’t see that coming when I started this thing. Until then, check out the reviews below!


Brainstorm – Wall Of Skulls:

I’ve been jamming this album consistently over the past month, longer if you count the Turn Off The Light digital EP back in August that featured four songs from this album (and only that, making it one of the weirder pre-album releases I can remember, but nevermind…). Brainstorm’s been on a bit of a tear recently, their 2018 outing Midnight Ghost was rather strong, a rebound from the relatively shaky trio of releases earlier in the decade. On Wall Of Skulls however, they turn back the clock to the quality and confidence heard during the Soul Temptation and Liquid Monster eras. Thick, meaty riffing courtesy of Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric, one of power metal’s longest paired guitar tandems is spliced with their trademark penchant for inspired lead breaks, and tightly controlled soloing. That mechanized, almost martial approach to power/heavy metal guitars is such an embedded quality of this band’s style that I often think of it even before Andy B Franck’s ageless bellow. This is an inspired batch of songs, with infectious hooks, melodies that sound effortlessly natural and a thunderous heavy metal swagger that’s a cross between Accept and early 00s Tad Morose. I’ve already raved about “Glory Disappears” on the EP review, but it deserves a second shout out here because its one of the most memorable vocal hooks from Franck ever, and a sharp example of just how skilled he is at phrasing, leading the tail end of one line seamlessly into the beginning of the next without you realizing he’s taken a breath. Other standouts are “Turn Off The Light” where Organ Oden’s Seeb makes a guest vocal appearance (he also returned for his second stint in a row handling mixing and production duties), the almost thrash metal riffage of “Escape The Silence” (Rage’s Peavy on guest vocals!), the fantastic Dokken vibes in the chorus of “Holding On”, and the epic album closer “I, Deceiver” brings back some classic Metus Mortis era vibes. Front to back bangers, from a band that a lot of metal snobs would write off for various reasons, all of them foolish. Seriously one of the strongest records of the year — don’t sleep on this!

Unto Others – Strength:

The artists formerly known as Idle Hands (name change for legal reasons), Unto Others picks up where they left off on their spectacular 2019 debut Mana (my number two album of that year), combining Sisters Of Mercy/early era Cult goth rock with metallic riffs and inspired Billy Duffy-esque leads. This was one of those albums where I had hoped the band would stick with their sound from the last record and maybe not deviate too much, one of those thoughts that usually only occurs in retrospect with a band when you’re wishing you had another album from a certain era or stylistic mode. Fortunately for me, Strength really does sound like its picking up right where they left off on Mana, at times some of these songs sounding like they could have fit in on the debut. Cuts like “Downtown” and “No Children Laughing Now” are the kind of moody, gothic rockers that characterized so much of the debut, with Gabriel Franco’s deadpanned vocals managing to convey emotion by the sheer juxtapostion of his tone in contrast to often bright and ebullient lead melodies. The band does amp up the aggression on this record a tad, as heard on the stunning opener “Heroin”, with a Metallica-esque riff that has thrashy edges and a hefty bottom end, complemented by a quasi tremolo-lead that is incredibly effective at creating a delightful dissonance. This is also one of the few cuts where we get Franco dropping those grunts and “ughs” that were such a trademark of his vocal approach on the debut. Of course if you hated those (they had to grow on you), then you’ll find this track repellent, but I freaking love it and kinda wished the band explored a few more heavier moments throughout. I don’t think I’ll raise any eyebrows by declaring the best cut on the album to be the band’s cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hell Is For Children”, which is not to slight their own songwriting mind you. It’s just that their transformation of this song is really inspired and they really make a claim for it being one of their own — imbuing it so thoroughly with their musical DNA, down to turning Benatar’s punchy-angry vibes in the original into a more resigned, bleaker vision ala Unto Others. It would’ve been expecting too much to hope for another Mana, but this is an incredibly strong (no pun intended) effort from a band on the rise.

Cradle Of Filth – Existence Is Futile:

It was hard to imagine Cradle’s recent late career renaissance back in October of 2012. The band had just released yet another relatively meh album by Cradle standards, their last with increasingly disinterested guitarist Paul Allender (who when I saw them on tour in 2008 already looked disengaged onstage). Two years later he’d quit, citing what we’d already seen with our own eyes as his reason for leaving, and we’d get two new guys entering the fold in guitarists Ashok and Richard Shaw who’d debut on 2015’s Hammer Of The Witches alongside new keyboardist Lindsey Schoolcraft. The change was immediately noticeable, Witches was the most exciting and creatively rich Cradle album since Midian. Not only for the return of a dual guitar tandem that played off each other incredibly well, but for how it seemed to light a fire under Dani Filth himself. They knocked out another fantastic and brutally heavy record in Cryptoriana two years later and now we’re getting at long last the third record of this era of Cradle in Existence Is Futile, which sees the introduction of new keyboardist Anabelle Iratni who’s replacing Schoolcraft. Fortunately, the lineup change hasn’t nudged the band off course, because this is such a damn inspired album, toned down in extremity from its previous two predecessors simply by scaling back the layering a bit and allowing things to breathe more. Vivid examples of this are “Necromantic Fantasies”, a mid-paced headbanging cut interwoven with cinematic orchestral/choral threads, as catchy as all get out, and seeing Dani work with a mix of guttural and reined-in grim vocals. My fav so far is “Discourse Between a Man and His Soul”, a slow moving, melancholy drenched stately ballad (well, by Cradle standards) built on sparse keyboards and an achingly beautiful lead guitar melody that serenades Dani through the chorus like a ballroom dance. So much of this album is seeing Dani and company reacquaint themselves with the band’s more melancholic, emotional side that they seemed to get a little distant from over the years. The songwriting reflects that with more slower, thoughtful, and at times elegiac moments. When they let it rip however, as on “How Many Tears To Nurture A Rose”, we get that classic going for the throat Midian era attack that reminds me of why I loved this band in the first place. Also one last thing… and I don’t use this term often, but that album art is sick.

Portrait – At One With None:

I’ve been sleeping on Portrait, who are a straight up heavy metal band in the spirit of the recent NWOTHM revival that has largely sprouted in North America. But these Swedes predate that phenomenon by a under a decade, having emerged in 2008 with their self-titled debut, and releasing four more albums at a three year clip before waiting four years to deliver At One With None, their fifth. I’ve yet to check out the rest of their catalog yet, but if its anything like this one, I’ll probably find them just as satisfying. Portrait’s sound really hits me as a cross between classic Metallica songwriting structures with a splash of early Candlemass’ penchant for epic grandeur, with vocalist Per Lengstedt coming across at times like a cross between Matt Barlow and King Diamond. Speaking of Iced Earth, it was hard not to think about records like Night Of The Stormrider or Burnt Offerings when hearing songs like “Ashen” and “He Who Stands”. Its nice to have a new band (relatively speaking, and to me anyway) releasing fresh music in the vein of a once beloved band for me until earlier this year. It fills a void that’s going to be there and I get the joy of having an entire back catalog to go play with as well. But to simply label these guys as a band that sounds like xxxx would be disingenous, because Portrait have their own thing going on, with a dark, bleak vibe that runs counter to all the rich melodicism in those fluid lead breaks (check out the guitars in the middle bridge of “Shadowless”). I’m not going to burn more text trying to describe everything about this in words, just put it on when you’re in the mood for something straight faced, aggressive yet melodic, and made with real craft and attention to detail. A sneaky album of the year list candidate.

The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic II:

The Night Flight Orchestra marches on their alternate universe journey where they’re a band who got their start in the late 70s on their debut, and six albums later, its around 1984-1985 and the sound of Aeromantic II is designed to reflect this period in their ongoing history. Now, being that the band clearly relish the soundscapes and vibes of 80-85 the most, I could easily see them rest in this polished 1985 zone for a few more records, because if they advance to 86-89 then we’re talking about booming drums, echo-y production, and a lot more gloss that I’d feel the NFO sound/songwriting approach could mesh well with. I guess the real question is, just how many more albums is this once considered side project going to go for? The project (now seemingly full time band) started in 2012, and to have six albums in a nine year span is incredibly impressive, particularly in the case of Aeromantic II, which comes a year after Aeromantic I, and honestly sounds like it’s songs were composed in the same writing period. Gone are the splashy, glitzy vibes of Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough and its “Turn To Miami” cocaine-era party rock, with the music on both Aeromantic albums feeling grounded, grittier, and a little more infused with artsier, genre-bending influences. I hear shades of Peter Gabriel-esque world music rhythms on “You Belong To The Night”, some weird Talking Heads-ish pop on “Zodiac”, and of course Toto-ian jauntiness on the piano led bop “Burn For Me”. A shout out to the band for not only executing on musical throwback ideas and making them sound fresh and exciting, but for understanding the lyrical/thematic nods to the era they’re steeped in. Case in point being the delightfully titled “Chardonnay Nights”, where the imagery of that party beverage used as a metaphor for a longing for romance and adventure is right in step with how we all collectively look back on that era. Bjorn and company seem to be having more fun than ever with this project — long may it continue.

Groza – The Redemptive End:

So I’ve actually been listening to this album for months now in fits and starts, impressed by the heaps of praise lain upon it by friend of the pod Justin (aka The Metal Detector). I trust Justin’s judgement on black metal and even melodeath more than anyone else I know so when he’s talking about a certain record possibly being his album of the year, I’m going to give it a shot. At first I was unmoved by The Redemptive End however, but chalked it up to possibly just not being in the right headspace (a recurrent problem this year). So in the interest of not forcing things, I just kept the album on my current listening playlist and waited for the right mood to hit. Finally relatively recently, one bleary morning when in an absolutely foul mood driving to work, I put it on and hit paydirt. And black metal is maybe the most frustratingly difficult style of music to write about… because how can you really describe this music without resorting to phrases and adjectives that have been tossed out a thousand times before? If I tell you that this album sounds “grim”, that’s not going to be very helpful in distinguishing it from, y’know, black metal in general. So screw that. Look at the album cover… the album sounds like that. Really grey-toned and unforgivingly bleak, but Groza (this is their second album after a debut in 2018 that I’ve yet to listen to) remind me of Harakiri For The Sky, mostly in the way they pattern their lead guitar melodies to wildly veer away from the rhythm guitars riffage. But there’s something far more ashen about Groza’s soundscapes… they lack the color that Harakiri so willingly adorns their music with (not a bad thing at all, its just a striking difference). My favorite cut here is the title track, not only for its gorgeous mid song passage built on quietude and elegantly sparse lead patterns, but in the focus and intensity of the fierce attack that opens the song. Major Enslaved Axioma era vibes in that moment. One of the year’s strongest black metal albums, alongside the recent release by their French neighbors in Seth.

The Most Anticipated Albums Of The Year: Iron Maiden and Seven Spires Return!

The duality of these two new albums by both of these incredible bands isn’t lost on me. On one hand we have the pandemic delayed new album by my favorite band of all time, and on the other, a pandemic driven new release by one of metal’s most exciting new bands arriving a year and a half after they delivered a straight up masterpiece (and my 2020 album and song of the year winner!). For Iron Maiden, there was tension and a little nervous anticipation awaiting it’s release, not only due to the long wait but also because we just don’t know how many of these we have left from those guys. With Seven Spires, I still haven’t gotten over just how incredible Emerald Seas was, and I still listen to that album from time to time when I need a comfort jam or want to revel in it’s downright poetic, imagery rich storytelling via Adrienne Cowan’s incredible lyrics. So I went into their new album with no personal expectations and more of a sense of wide open curiosity about where they would possibly go next. These reviews are deep dives and long enough to prevent me from babbling on here, so lets get to it!


Iron Maiden – Senjutsu:

Here we go, Maiden’s seventeenth studio album Senjutsu, which is actually only the second time I’ve gotten to write about a new record of theirs in the near decade long existence of this blog. In my review for 2015’s The Book Of Souls, I lamented that a five year gap existed between it’s release and 2010’s The Final Frontier, the band’s mortality being stretched thin over time — little did I know that a global pandemic would delay it’s follow-up an extra two years (this album was reportedly completed and literally placed in a vault sometime in 2019) to make this the longest gap between Maiden releases in their history. The pandemic took many things from all of us, but if it turns out that it robbed us of one more additional Maiden album down the road, and Senjutsu turns out to be their swansong, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that. The band certainly haven’t indicated anything to suggest that, but common sense dictates that they’re coming to the end of the road. It made release night for this album extra special for me, I was so excited listening to it at midnight that I didn’t sleep until three in the morning thereabouts. They’re my favorite band of all time for good reason, because few other bands can make me feel that giddy about the prospect of new music like I’m eighteen again waiting outside the local record store on a Tuesday morning to nab an album and drive around aimlessly blasting it full volume.

And of course my reaction to the music went from the predictable release night euphoria of “This is awesome!” to a more considered, measured thought process upon concurrent listens. I’d say five days ago it was at it’s most critical ebb, where it felt like all I was doing was picking apart it’s flaws. This morning however, I put it on the headphones and found myself really engaging with much of the album with a clearer head, allowing it’s strengths to come into focus and making note of what I didn’t think worked all that well. So the big picture here: This is a stronger album by a hair than The Book Of Souls, largely because it’s a little over ten minutes shorter in runtime (still too damn long at 81 minutes!), and because it’s sequenced in a more engaging, cohesive manner. It also has fewer outright duds than Souls did, with only “Lost In A Lost World” and “Death Of The Celts” being fairly skippable here (debatable I’m sure). Hmm, okay I guess I’m of a mind to get the bad stuff out of the way first, so the point: The latter is being fairly compared in an inferior light to “The Clansman”, and I can certainly hear that in it’s far too similar intro melody sequence, and in the very similar skipping rhythm of the vocal melody (“…Wake alone in the hills / with the wind in your face…”). Of course it doesn’t help that the subject matter is essentially the same(ish), and I think that while its forgivable that a longtime veteran band will on occasion repeat a melody or motif in bits and pieces, its very noticeable when an entire song is a reworked reprise of an older classic. I mean we went through this already in 2003 when the (rather good I thought) title track of the Dance of Death album was essentially a reimagined “Number Of The Beast”. At least on that song they introduced a fresh folk melody infusion into the climatic guitar solo — here “Death Of The Celts” finds Steve attempting to merely replicate the same vaguely Braveheart-esque stirring melodies that got Bruce hopak dancing on stage at Rock In Rio in 2001.

While “Lost In A Lost World” doesn’t commit the same faux pas of rehashing a previous Maiden song to detrimental effect, it has its own sins that come in the form of a plodding rhythm, lethargic transitions, a rather uninspired vocal melody throughout that leads to the greater folly of Bruce sounding somewhat tired (or is it bored?). It also clocks in at a completely unnecessary 9:30 in length (“…Celts” was also a long one at 10:20), and I know this is a tired criticism by this point, but damn, an internal editor within the band would be welcome. I suppose its just the guys being at the age they are, and with how swell this post-reunion twenty years has gone that makes it easier for everyone to just shrug their shoulders and agree that everything in the song sounds cool. It makes me wonder if we plucked late 80s era Bruce, or hell any of the other guys and made them listen to these new albums… would they pick a fight with Steve and tell him that stuff simply needed to be cut and chopped? I’m betting on yes. It’s unfortunate that these two songs are spaced out evenly enough to kinda mar what is otherwise a mostly compelling Maiden album. A little caveat though… this record does take time to settle in one’s affections, being far more subtle in its machinations both rhythmically and melodically. Take the opening title track for example, with its sledgehammer pounding percussion and un-Maiden-like lumbering build up striking me as something that sounds like it came from a Bruce solo album ala Skunkworks meets The Chemical Wedding. We experienced something similar on Book Of Souls with “If Eternity Should Fail” (which really was a Bruce solo cut apparently), and I think “Senjutsu” works just as well, delivering a compelling performance from Bruce with some really anguished lead guitar melodies in the refrain.

It’s fair then to praise “Stratego” as being far more effective here than it was as a standalone single, coming on the heels of that unorthodox opening track, it’s a refreshing blast of classic Maiden gallop and swagger at the perfect moment. Honestly I’ve been really loving this song lately, finding it’s ultra-catchy verses drifting into my mind long after I’ve stopped listening to it. And this is why I have largely begun avoiding listening to singles ahead of time (it’s damn near impossible for me to resist checking out new Maiden though), because most of the time my brain receives the songs chosen for singles far, far better in the context of the album proper. Ditto for the spaghetti western invoking “The Writing On The Wall”, which as a direct counterpoint to “Stratego” feels far more welcome with its laid back vibes than it did on it’s own as the first single from the album (A Metal Pigeon law = metal bands are terrible at picking singles). There’s a novelty to Maiden trying their hand at something like this, and I think I appreciate the song for that freshness as well as for it’s melodic groove that has grown on me over umpteen listens, but I’ll stop short of saying its a great song. For the shortest song on the album, the four minute long “Days Of Future Past”, its the rare moment where I found myself wishing it had a bit of length to it, not because I wanted more of its decent if not ultimately memorable refrain, but it felt like it needed a change of direction midway through in a bridge that never materialized.

Since I didn’t intend this to be a track by track rundown but that’s what its turned into, let’s quickly cover “The Parchment” and “Darkest Hour”, both two of the more intriguing cuts on the album both lyrically and musically. The eastern tinged vibes in the lead guitars for “The Parchment” often give me flashbacks to “The Nomad” (kinda similar progression in that lead riff), and I really enjoy the pacing and structure presented here. For “Darkest Hour”, presumably the song referencing Churchill, I worried that the lyrical narrative might get in the way of melodic flow, but they did a deft job at managing that, and ushered in a chorus that is nicely bittersweet. Now for the two best songs on the album: “The Time Machine” has the best guitarwork on the album, from the eerie slowly plucked intro reminiscent of “The Legacy” from A Matter Of Life And Death to being a punchy foil to Bruce’s abruptly spaced out vocal lines in the verses. The magnum opus moment of course comes at the three minute mark where we transition into a classic Maiden moment, all epic gallop and gorgeous lead melodies combining into the most thrilling musical passage on the album. And my personal favorite “Hell On Earth”, where we get an absolutely enthralling, classic Maiden chorus that at once sounds exuberant and joyful and wistful and somber. This is one of those rare ten minute plus long songs that feels like five minutes, something that Maiden tends to pull off at least once per album (despite all our valid complaints about the length). I’ll sum it up by saying that while I’m grateful for Senjutsu, I wish it was a bit more uptempo, a bit more aggressive… I suppose what I really want is for them to can Kevin Shirley, hire Andy Sneap as their producer and let er rip ala Priest on Firepower. I can dream I suppose…

Seven Spires – Gods Of Debauchery:

Perhaps truly my most anticipated album of the year, Gods Of Debauchery is Seven Spires’ follow up to 2020’s AOTY/SOTY winner Emerald Seas, their third album and the one with the quickest incubation period and turnaround time. Some quick backstory, Emerald Seas was released in early February of 2020, and had some notable tours booked throughout that year — supporting Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum in the spring, followed up by a fall trek opening for Amaranthe and Battle Beast. One show into the Insomnium tour, the pandemic erupted and everything had to come to a halt. Just like that, the promise of capitalizing on the momentum that a truly well received album was cruelly yanked from under the band’s feet, and they, like the rest of us in our lives, were left dazed and confused. For me personally, I really clung to that album like a life raft throughout much of the year that followed, using it for inspiration and staving off depression. It was an escape into an incredibly well told story in a world that was as imaginative as a fine fantasy novel, or film, or video game. But my personal attachment wasn’t the reason why it was my album of the year. It really was simply that damned excellent from start to finish, and alongside Dialith’s incredible Extinction Six, was one of the rare shining gems of symphonic metal from the past decade.

While the pandemic derailed the band’s touring plans, they decided to make the most of their forced hiatus to immediately start working on a follow up. I thought it was an admirable decision that I wished more bands would have tried to aim for (regardless of how recently their previous album was released), because even if things opened up quicker than expected and the tours could have resumed, at least they’d have planted the seeds for ideas that could be developed into a full length release. Cut to well over a year and a half later of pandemic living, and the band has harvested the fruit of those seeds, a full length finished album that clocks in at just under an Iron Maiden-esque hour and eighteen minutes in length. I’m guessing that being able to sit and work 24/7 on music for weeks and months unending resulted in a pile up of ideas, and that the anger and frustration of 2020 soaked into the writing process because not only is this the longest Spires album to date, but also the darkest and most aggressive. It’s become a common thing recently to opine that bands should keep albums to a tight forty five minutes, and often times I think its not entirely accurate as far as being a indicator of a quality, filler-free album. But length has been the biggest criticism I’ve seen being leveled at this new album online, and I will concede that it did make digging into this record to parcel out all it’s secrets a massive challenge.

But before we talk about length, let’s focus on the other thing, that being Gods Of Debauchery’s amped up dosage of melodeath attack and that Dimmu Borgir symphonic black metal influence that many of these songs are steeped in. One of the main aspects of Emerald Seas that I loved was its shimmering, uplifting epic sweep, built on buoyant melodies and a sense of grand adventure. I think that hearing the darker, bleaker tones throughout most of these songs threw me a bit at first, and it required many more subsequent listens for me to really mesh with some of the vibes happening here — and of course I totally get why these songs came out the way they did. Frankly, any album that was written in 2020 has a right to sound extra pissed off and even nihilistic. But because Spires has more than just raw aggression in their toolkit, the key to success within these songs is how well the band balances those harsher elements against their ability to suddenly veer into beautiful melodies and soaring choruses. And actually, that’s kind of where length comes back into the picture, because it’s a heck of a challenge for any band to get that balance right all throughout sixteen(!) songs and well over an hour of music (more on this later). Thankfully, the album offers plenty of moments where the band manages that balancing act extremely well.

The awesome title track delivers a grandiose orchestral rush to accompany Adrienne Cowan’s raw, viciously harsh vocals on the chorus. There’s just enough flashes of Jack Kosto’s glorious lead guitar throughout here to lay some much needed color across the expanse of blackness that’s threatening to envelope everything, including an Aeternam-esque solo towards the end with incredible phrasing. Similarly on “The Cursed Muse”, Cowan’s immense singing range is on display during the refrain as a foil to her harsh vocal led passages, with enough emotional power in her vocal melodies to carry us along for the ride. And I really love “Ghost Of Yesterday”, which reminds me of Kamelot’s Karma/Epica era with its creative verses structured around playful rhythms and flute/string melodies, and a well thought out balance of clean and harsh vocal passages. The Kamelot vibes of course foreshadow the appearance of the one and only Roy Khan on “This God Is Dead”, which was one of the early singles from the album, and made waves through the power metal community — getting to hear Khan on something remotely Kamelot adjacent (in this case, influenced by) was a big frigging deal. And this song is a masterpiece, a gorgeous choral vocal introduction ushering in a fantastically epic, thrilling, symphonic-swagger fueled vocal back and forth between Cowan and Khan in the roles of a father/daughter duet. The brilliance of this song is in it’s well spaced out varying musical passages — clean vocals, harsh vocals, operatic led sequences, culminating in our two leads joining together for the final run in one of the band’s most glorious moments on record to date. Simply put, I’m emotionally shattered every time from the 9:13 moment onwards, and Kosto’s guitars at the very end of this sequence (9:40-9:50) are like rays of sunlight bursting through that fade too damn quickly.

Khan’s undeniably powerful performance on that song had me for awhile overlooking the song that preceded it, “In Sickness, In Health”, one of a pair of power ballads on the album that are emotionally heart wringing. This seriously could have been an inspired choice for a music video or pre-release single, it just has that pull to it. Unlike the beautifully piano centric “Silvery Moon” on Emerald Seas, the ballads here are adorned with Kosto’s GnR-esque wild, expressive hard rock guitars, and I’m totally here for them. His work on “The Unforgotten Name” is outstanding, and I should also commend drummer Chris Dovas and bassist Peter de Reyna for their unconventional rhythm section approach to these songs, eschewing the typical hard rock approach and opting for a more complex, progressive metal inspired touch with fills and blastbeats scattered throughout. Even the theatrical ballad closer “Fall With Me” is dressed with a little rock n’ roll panache, lending a gritty edge to Cowan’s wonderfully sweet lyrics. I really enjoyed all three songs, but “In Sickness, In Health” at this point rivals “This God Is Dead” for my favorite from the album, and I think at times takes the top spot simply for how it makes me feel from start to finish. I also want to give props to “Oceans Of Time”, where us Emerald Seas lovers get their brief and fleeting taste of that gorgeously uplifting swirl of melodies that characterized so much of that album. It’s by far the most unabashedly power metal moment on Gods, and in the context of just how dark this record is, I’m kinda surprised that it made it onto this album (to be fair, there is a storyline happening here that I still need to delve into).

So everything I’ve mentioned above compromises nine tracks, and roughly 43-44 (give or take) minutes of music, which would be a respectable showing for a new album for any band. And I could make the case that leaving off the rest of the songs on the album would have resulted in a stronger overall album… but there’s narrative cohesion to consider here, so is it really fair to make that case? That’s a debate for the comments I suppose. I’m always of the mind that songwriting should come before narrative, but Seven Spires is one of the rare bands that finds a way to deliver narrative in a beautifully interwoven way, with songs that feel unburdened by elements that make, say Ayreon albums (sorry Cary!) such a challenge for me to sit through. In that spirit though, I found that “Lightbringer” just didn’t work for me, though I appreciated the attempt to do something entirely different. I think most of the song is on target, but I find the chorus repetitive both melodically and syllabically, and I wonder if something as simple as a tiny variation in that chorus could elevate it entirely. That refrain just seems to continue on the same trajectory as the pre-chorus before it, and I find that I’m longing for a change-up in that moment. Similarly “Echoes of Eternity” had moments I loved (the chorus is very nice), but I need something else in that outro bridge besides an echoing of the refrain. But damn do I love the Eastern tinged elements happening in the verses here, and the abrupt rhythmic shifts that go along with them.

My other issue with the album’s length is that over the course of listening to such a long album, I started to come across fatigue with the amount of extreme metal passages in comparison to the band’s more prog/power metal side. Keep in mind I’m not anti-harsh vocals, I love death and black metal and grew up with those genres, but when you favor a band for their ability to veer between both of these disparate styles, any lingering in one style longer than the other will be noticeable. Case in point is “Dreamchaser” which comes in at over an hour into the tracklisting, and lacks a hook either via riff or vocals to keep my attention focused (and yes I am listening to this thing from start to finish, even though it was really tempting to attack it in chunks for manageability). I had similar impatient stirrings with “Gods Amongst Men” and “Shadow On An Endless Sea”, both tracks where in the notes I typed in my phone for the album I wrote, “too much Dimmu?”; which I know is one of the band’s biggest influences, so perhaps my notes were more a commentary on how the band’s sound was getting lost behind their influences. The problem with the streaming era is that all of us can make our own album edits via the act of selective listening / playlisting, and I can see future Pigeon skipping those five cuts (plus the two instrumentals). And as a Spires fan, that’s both frustrating and also leaving me feeling a little guilty because… well, I wanted to love everything on this album. As it is however, Gods Of Debauchery is a strong, albeit short of excellent follow up to the truly stunning Emerald Seas, and hey, that’s as strong an endorsement for how awesome this band is as I can think of.

My Metal Hangover Cure For 2021’s K-Pop Bender

Back in the spring, despite the presence of a few standout records that made a big impact on me, I felt like I was in a rut with metal for the first time in years. It kinda freaked me out a bit, and one thing led to another and I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of an entirely unexpected genre of music that I had previously dismissed as either not for me, or worse, as disposable (wrong on both accounts!). The last time I was burned out on metal (over a decade ago if memory serves), I binged hard on alternative country like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, The Jayhawks, Calexico, Cowboy Junkies, etc. for months and months. When I had my fill, I came back to metal with a newfound appreciation for all things heavy, as well as an armful of fantastic new non-metal music I could return to when the mood struck (and an appreciation for a genre I didn’t know I’d enjoy). I still listen to those artists/records today, albeit not at binge worthy levels. This time around, I found myself back in early May curiously stumbling into the world of K-Pop in earnest, my only real experience with it beforehand limited to listening to a few Blackpink songs here and there.

I’ve always been a fan of hooky melody soaked, unique pop music, but lately I had found that I was unable to find newer (Western) pop artists whose music was engaging enough to me. I guess it was a combination of wanting newer music in this vein plus needing a metal break that prompted me to check out a recommended YouTube video for a R&B K-Pop group called Mamamoo doing a medley of their songs in a studio — and that did it, I had to find out more. After binging on Mamamoo’s discography in Spotify, I found a few other metal fans with K-Pop interests and they pointed me towards an armful of recommendations. Four months later, and I can have conversations about IU, Red Velvet, f(x), Wonder Girls, Dreamcatcher, (G)I-DLE, Sunmi, Punch, Infinite, etc., etc. Of course they got the Pigeon treatment, that being a deep dive into discographies and biographies in the same manner through which I know way too much about Iron Maiden and Therion, and can recite the chart positions of all of Queensryche’s albums from 83-97. I discovered that while there’s a fair share of disposable pap in K-Pop (same as there is in Western pop), there’s also artists like the ones I mentioned above that are barreling out the gates with some of the most sophisticated, complex, and genre bending pop music I’ve ever heard.

Then there’s the weird world of all the “content” that goes with it, in the form of variety shows, behind the scenes, vlogs, travel documentaries (yes), and anything else you could think of. I say weird because not even the biggest Western pop artists provide their fans anything close to the staggering amount of access that K-Pop does by seemingly the default standard operating procedure. From seeing members of these groups battle against actors and actresses on a show like Battle Trip (where audiences vote on which team had the best vacation experience, which is of course documented on film); to the truly surreal Secret Unnie (where a younger star is paired with an older star for twenty-four hours in an attempt to form a lasting “unnie-dongsaeng” bond. Its all wild and bewildering stuff to behold. So while immersing myself in this world, I kept hold of a tether to metal, making time for standout moments like the recent Helloween reunion album and a handful of other interesting things worth investigating. One of the side effects of listening to nonstop pop music was that in August I found myself having days where I craved heaviness and aggression. To quote a tweet by @riffspreader, “Death metal hits different when you haven’t listened to anything heavy in 6 months. Damn!”.

He’s right about that, and I was reminded of that when I went to my first live show since October of 2019 in the middle of August to see Goatwhore with Necrofier and Frozen Soul. It was a fantastic, cathartic, and downright healing experience to not only see and hear live metal again, but to feel it’s visceral impact via the vibrations of battering kickdrums in one’s ribcage and to feel the vibrations underneath as riffs reverberated around the room and people slipped on beer in the circle pit next to you. Frozen Soul really stood out that night, their frontman Chad Green pounding the stage with his round-based mic stand for punctuating emphasis as the band delivered an inspired performance worthy enough to be compared to Obituary for live death metal excellence. I couldn’t stop listening to their 2021 Crypt Of Ice record after that gig, and really all throughout August I’ve found myself back in the saddle metal-wise with an armload of new music that I’m genuinely excited about and hooked on.

So in concluding this rather self-indulgent essay, this time around I’m taking a minor break from reviewing what I’ve been listening to lately. Instead just consider the records below as my honest recommendations instead (with a helpful YouTube video provided!), a whole cornucopia of metal from varying subgenres that brought me back into the fold after months and months of listening to some pretty awesome shimmery pop music (seriously, if you want to talk about K-Pop hit me up, I have many opinions!).


Operus – Score Of Nightmares:

I’m glad I somewhat accidentally stumbled onto these guys, because this was a release from 2020 that I genuinely missed anyone talking about for the last year until very recently. This band is conjuring up music that sounds like someone smashed up some Kamelot with Carach Angren, resulting in a very theatrical, wildly musical take on progressive power metal. The singer here, David Michael Moote, is a musical theater actor for his day job, bringing to mind one Mathias Blad of Falconer and I can actually hear minor similarities in how they both approach their role singing for a metal band. Moote does seem far more ingrained with metal music than Blad ever did (not a knock on Blad mind you, that was part of his charm), because he absolutely tears it up on some of these songs with the kind of full on power metal fury that they deserve. What’s really keeping me coming back however is the sheer musicality flowing through all these songs — the odd use of violins in place of guitars for solos, the inventive rhythmic approaches taken on many of the songs, and just the sense that this music sounds like it was meant to be acted out on stage far more than just your typical power metal album.

Frozen Soul – Crypt Of Ice:

So I mentioned above in the intro essay a little about Frozen Soul’s set that I caught back in mid-August here in Houston, namely, that they were awesome, and they made me remember in an instant everything that is good and pure about seeing live music (particularly feel it in your chest metal shows). But its worth mentioning that Crypt of Ice is as compelling a death metal album as I’ve heard in ages, it’s like I’m transported back to the mid-90s in that era before death metal went through it’s era of being largely over technical or worse, over produced. This album just has the right amount of Wendy’s burger wrapper grease on a Beavis and Butthead t-shirt vibes — the sound of a band who care as much about headbanging worthy passages as they do about sounding broo-tal. All these years in, I still can’t quite pinpoint what separates a death metal album that captures my attention like this from the rest of them, but I suspect its that magical “it” factor that makes me catch some of those same feelings I had when I was a teenager and all of this sounded new to me. I guess I’m asking for music that doesn’t sound nostalgic but makes me feel nostalgic? Is that a thing?

Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:

Oh man I can’t emphasize how much I love this record, in all its late-90s Finnish melo-death referencing vibes via these melodies and decadent guitar leads. The title of this debut album isn’t a coincidence either, Ulthima admit to being Castlevania fans, and surely I’m correct in suspecting that they’re influenced by classic videogame scores ala Castlevania, even if its in drips and drops. That means that I wasn’t clonked over the head with melodies that reminded me of the actual soundtrack to that famed game, but some of the melodies that are present certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on said soundtrack either. If you have no idea what I’m talking about its fine because this is just a really fantastic melodeath album that recalls the genre’s more consistent, peak happiness creating era of yore. I just looked them up on Metallum and am not surprised to find they’re actually a Finnish based band (Finnish-Mexican to be exact), which makes sense given the serious Bodom and Norther vibes on some of these songs. And I love that album art… serious Andreas Marschall concept vibes there.

Silver Talon – Decadence and Decay:

Yet another band impressing with their debut record, Silver Talon was introduced to me on the last MSRcast episode (a good one, check it out!) and I’ve been enjoying this record ever since. It’s just that perfect blend of aggressive trad-metal with Virgin Steel vocal splashes mixed with some more extreme metal sonics ala thrash metal rhythmic attacks. I’ve been told that their 2018 EP Becoming A Demon was superior, and when I checked that release out on Metallum it became apparent that this band was basically formed out of the ashes of Spellcaster, and sure enough, I get major Spellcaster vibes on that EP so maybe that’s what people were responding to? And to be fair, their sound hasn’t changed that much on this new one, but that’s actually a good thing, and to my ears this album feels like a more realized vision of their sound. But lets not overly complicate things, this is a strong classic sounding trad-metal album that deserves checking out.

Vexillum – When Good Men Go To War:

Vexillum is one of those bands that I was introduced to awhile back but had kinda forgotten in the interim — namely their 2015 album Unum had a fantastic guest appearance on it by one Hansi Kursch, and where Hansi goes I go. I was impressed with that song and the rest of that album, which had two other strong guest appearance moments with Chris Bay and Mark Boals. Vexillum’s core sound reminds me a lot of Elvenking, only less pop-punk tinged in the vocals and with a far more weighty emphasis on a German power metal influence with riffs that emulate early Blind Guardian or Gamma Ray. I guess I’ll give myself a pass on forgetting about them since it has been six years since that record, but apparently worth the wait because I’ve come to love this album. It’s been that fittingly energetic and jaunty end of summer/prelude to fall soundtrack that has me thinking about the upcoming renaissance festival and cool winds and not sweating when walking outside. I was listening to this while ordering a certain fall-associated drink at the Starbucks drive-thru the other week and it was kinda stormy out with the wind blowing slightly “cool” for late August, and woo! What a feeling!

Duskmourn – Fallen Kings And Rusted Crowns:

There’s always one per year, that out of nowhere left hook of awesomeness that comes from the inky blackness to clock you across the jowl and leave you dazed and drooling. The long suffering George from our sister podcast Metal Geeks’ infamous segment “George Hates Metal” was responsible for this recommendation (which begs the question, does he really hate metal?), and this is the first recommendation from him that I will heartily back and endorse as a must listen. These guys are a duo from Jersey and Pennsylvania (…eh why not?), and this is their third independent album — the staggering quality of this record from start to finish prompting the question of “why aren’t these guys signed?”. It does occur to me though that perhaps they’re satisfied with being independent; because even though metal labels in the modern era aren’t known for putting in their two cents on creative decisions all too often nor applying pressure for a band to lean in a certain creative direction, being on a label does come with pressures all the same. Duskmourn have their Bandcamp and a pretty terrific merch selection on their Big Cartel band store. The first night we discussed them while recording the podcast, I was so impressed with their music and that spectacular logo that I was compelled to order a shirt then and there (it arrived and its awesome btw). Who needs a label?

Insomnium – The Antagonist:

Good grief this is a particularly gorgeous Insomnium song among a recent handful of new songs the band have slowly been releasing, all meant to be packaged together on the upcoming Argent Moon EP. It’s a little curious that they’ve essentially released the entire EP by this point over the past few months, because according to tracklistings I’ve seen, there’s only going to be one more as yet unreleased song on there, which makes the release itself a bit anticlimactic. But that’s a minor issue compared to what’s really on my mind…well, to be blunt, where the hell is Ville Friman? If you checked out their recent music videos, he’s nowhere to be found, and apparently, he wasn’t involved in this recording at all (already on Heart Like A Grave, his songwriting contributions were down to one track). Don’t get me wrong, I think Jani Liimatainen is a perfect fit for the band both as a songwriter/guitarist and a clean vocalist (as heard above), but Friman always struck me as one-half of the soul of the band alongside Niilo Sevanen. Anyway I did some digging, and stumbled on some answers to my question in this article focusing on Friman’s day job as a biology lecturer at a UK university. TLDR is that he contributed to songwriting and demos, but Covid restrictions meant he couldn’t contribute to the finished studio recordings (apparently?) nor be in their music videos. I’m relieved that he’s still part of the creative process in the band, because it was a little concerning with how much his contributions shrank last time around, but couldn’t they have had him record in the UK and just send the files over? Discuss this amongst yourselves.

Brainstorm – Turn Off The Light (EP):

So this is basically a pre-album EP release in the same vein of Insomnium’s The Antagonist EP that I talked about above, in that it collects all of the upcoming album’s pre-release singles into one tidy digital package (unless they’re releasing this in physical format mere weeks before the release of their album, which would make no sense). Insomnium of course do not have a new album on the horizon (at least, not to my knowledge), but Brainstorm’s Wall Of Skulls is expected September 17th. All four of these songs are going to be on there, but I’d still recommend giving this EP a listen to get as hyped up for the album proper as I am, because if these singles are any indication, we’re in for yet another satisfying album from Germany’s most reliable metal band. And the thing is, I thought their last record (2018’s Midnight Ghost) was pretty excellent, and I’m really feeling like these songs have been a continuation of the spirit they tapped into on that record. Meaty riffs, dramatic songwriting, and melodic hooks for ages — Andy B Franck can damn well deliver on a chorus. I broke out in a big grin when the chorus kicked in on “Glory Disappears” and bellowed a big expletive riddled bout of enthusiasm. Yet another moment when it’s probably better that I was alone in the car.

Metal Zen: New Music By Darkthrone, At The Gates, Suidakra and More!

Remember when summer wasn’t a time of abysmal heat-death either through dehydration, or forest fires all around the world, or apparently, historic flooding in Europe and China? The Metal Pigeon remembers. I remember that as a kid I used to ride my bike outside nearly all day with likely never a thought to gulping down water continuously so as not to pass out. I remember it being hot, but like summery hot, shorts and t-shirts hot, never oppressive blanket of humidity and painful sun kind of hot. I know I made it my resolution not to use weather related post titles this year, and I have kept true to that, but I said nothing about not remarking on it. The axiom here in Houston is that you get through summer by not complaining, by merely accepting that its hotter than hell, and through acceptance comes a kind of surrender, and through surrender, peace. It sounds like hippie talk, but the truth is that it actually works because its a mindset thing. Until August that is. August ruins everything. Its the most despised month for me (the hottest month by far, everyone seems anxiety riddled, pre-season football… its like the tepid version of what you really wanna watch), and so as August rolls in, my zen acceptance of sweating hither and yon comes to an end. Fortunately there do seem to be a plethora of new metal releases to keep me distracted, but in the meantime, let’s look back at the soundtrack to these past few pre-August weeks when I wasn’t an agitated mess of a human being.


Darkthrone – Eternal Hails……:

Darkthrone returns with their 18th (or 19th, I dunno) studio album Eternal Hails…... (that’s six dots to be precise) which marks a return to a two year gap between releases (2019’s Old Star) as opposed to the three year clip they’ve been maintaining for nearly a decade now. That kind of thing might seem trivial, the circumstances of touring and album gestation times tend to be unpredictable and vary for any band between albums, but remember that the pandemic likely didn’t affect Darkthrone activities that much — after all, these guys don’t do gigs. The likely explanation for a decrease in the gap between albums is that something transpired to increase the band’s enthusiasm for writing new music, perhaps newfound inspiration? I’ve been hesitantly leaning towards that explanation when considering this album because it is way more interesting than Old Star, at times even crackling with an excitement and intensity that matches Circle The Wagons and The Underground Resistance. The problem is that this is still an album that frustrates by spending way too much time on riffs that can only be described as plodding, if not laid back to a fault. An example is “Wake Of The Awakened”, where after a slow, trodden build up (there’s a lot of that going on throughout the album) the band kick it up a gear at the four minute mark, with uptempo trad metal riffs that I really wish they’d employ more of. That fantastic riff that comes in at around the 7:30-7:40 mark… it’s exactly what I wanted for most of the song, and though its cool that we get it as an outro, its also a headscratcher — why were you guys sitting on this? Same goes on “Voyage To A Northpole Adrift” (what a title), where the song leaps free of its slow, meandering riff built prison into blissful heavy metal, Priest-ian territory at the 3:40 mark, and you kind of just wonder, “Guys, why didn’t you just start the song here?”. Look I get it, there’s a place for slower, doomier metal within a black metal (or crust-black whatever you wanna call modern Darkthrone), but here’s the reality — Darkthrone just isn’t good at that stuff. There’s a lethargy that seems to linger around those minutes when they’re in that mode where you’re hoping something else will happen, gimme a drum fill for god’s sake Fenriz! That’s why the introduction of the Moog synth passages, particularly in “Lost Arcane City Of Uppakra” were a breath of fresh air, not only because of their novelty within the Darkthrone context, but because the melody being painted via that instrument really does sound creepily inspired. It’s the closest thing on this album that mirrors that unorthodox wash of color on the album artwork. I was as patient with this album as I was with the new At The Gates record that I reviewed below, but between the two I arrived at strikingly different conclusions.

Suidakra – Wolfbite:

I’ll admit that I didn’t have the highest of expectations going into Wolfbite, this the 14th studio album from Germany’s folk-melodeath pioneers Suidakra. This is one of those bands who has so many albums that I adore that I can overlook the ones that I don’t, but even I’ll admit that Realms Of Odoric and Cimbric Yarns were underwhelming and for the latter, challenging listens. The band’s last truly spectacular album is debatably 2011’s Book Of Dowth (although I’ll contend that 2013’s Eternal Defiance deserves consideration despite its unfortunate production defects (ie a loudness wars casualty), and its really been difficult to gauge what determines the likelihood of an artistically successful album for the band, given that Arkadius has been the consistent songwriting voice for ages now. Whatever changed this time around, it worked, because Wolfbite is one of the band’s finest hours, a record that is as charged up in its melodeath ferocity as it is inspired in it’s folk metal roots. I was a little stunned to behold it all upon first listen, but this is just flat out an incredibly strong outing for Arkadius and company from beginning to end. Consider “Resurgence”, where bagpipes anchor the melody in a mournful wailing cry, while Arkadius and Sebastian Jensen’s riffs are assisted with the deft, nimble violin performance of one time Eluveitie member Shir-Ran Yinon. Everything pauses to take a breath for a moment at the 2:38 mark before Arkadius comes screaming back in over a headbanging riff, a moment that is so damned satisfying. This album is packed with little one-off details like that, such as the awesome classic melo-death riff moment at the 1:58 mark in “Redemption”, something right out of the 1995 Gothenburg playbook that just feels comforting to hear being done in 2021 (I realize that’s a weird adjective to throw out at a melodeath song but it’s the truth). And beyond just the musicality on display here, credit needs to be given to the clean vocals of Jensen who turns in his strongest performance in that role to date. He had some remarkable moments on Cimbric Yarns as well, but he’s on another level here, particularly on “A Shrine For Ages”, the brooding, almost waltz-like semi-ballad where it sounds like I’m listening to a lost cut from the Dowth era. The spiraling upwards guitar solo climax midway through is gorgeous enough, but its the aching, melancholic acoustic melody in the verses that really make this one of the prettiest Suidakra cuts in ages. Intense and focused, this is one of the best melodeath albums to come out in the past few years, a visceral reminder of just how fantastic this particular vein of metal can be in its most punishing, angry, and melancholic form.

At The Gates – The Nightmare of Being:

I’m glad I spent a month mulling The Nightmare Of Being, this the seventh At the Gates album and second album where Jonas Björler has taken full control of the songwriting reigns in the void left behind by his brother Anders who as you might remember, decided to leave in 2018. I say glad because this is admittedly a difficult album right off the bat, and requires a few listens to get past the strangeness of it all. Underneath all of that is the best album the band has delivered since their reunion, though one that couldn’t have come without the two that preceded it. It almost feels like with Anders leaving, he took his straightforward, more direct to the throat approach ala The Haunting with him — in other words, leaving Tomas Lindberg and Jonas to get weird with it. It makes sense to me that way, because 2018’s To Drink From The Night Itself really did feel like a record that was torn between aiming for the Terminal/Slaughter dartboard like 2014’s At War With Reality clearly was, and in branching out towards more experimental areas that the band was tentatively venturing out towards. There’s a dynamic between the two Björler brothers that I’ve never been able to decipher (and I suspect only they really know), but it is surprising to consider that Jonas might be the one in favor of chucking the band’s now oft-lifted musical DNA in favor of something a little murkier, slower, and more contemplative. There’s a classic, coiled spring intensity to “Touched By The White Hands Of Death” via the riff progressions and Tomas’ echo-y, screaming in a cell sounding vocals; and “The Fall Into Time” is perhaps the most epic and cinematic composition the band has ever penned, built on a simple chord descending chord sequence that is downright foreboding. Another unconventional gem is “Cosmic Pessimism”, with dare I say jangly guitar lines that crest and fall in their dynamics, eventually exploding underneath Tomas’ demon-barked lyric “…We do not live, we are lived!” As I mentioned above, I took my time with this album, only listening to it when the mood struck, and in that spirit I think I got more out of a fewer number of listens. I thought of that approach when I heard that particular lyric again on my playthrough of the album this morning, sandwiched as it was between K-Pop this and K-Pop that. Take your cue from me, don’t force this one down your ears if you’re not in the mood, instead give it time when you’re feeling patient and receptive. Or just play it right after listening to Red Velvet’s “Peek-A-Boo”.

Wizardthrone – Hypercube Necrodimensions:

Not content with his giddy pirate themed folk/power metal project in Alestorm, nor songwriting for the exuberant Euro-power metallers in Gloryhammer, Christopher Bowes has another splashy project to delight or annoy you with (depending on your mood I guess). Wizardthrone is his symphonic melodic death metal detour, an unabashed ode to Bal-Sagoth as it’s primary influence, but also tempered by a surprising amount of power metal melodicism. On “Frozen Winds Of Thyraxia”, the lead guitar melodies lean far more towards Wintersun than they do Dimmu Borgir, and it makes for a brighter sounding atmosphere than you’d expect, melody drenched and easily listenable. And I’d argue that’s not a bad thing, because even though Aether Realm’s Jake Jones spews his best shredded throat grim vocals here, replete with the requisite “bleghs” that you’d expect, this is largely a theatrical affair. Spoken word dramatics appear throughout “Incantation of the Red Order”, and if you can tolerate that kind of thing, it does help to space out the composition a bit, giving space to the more menacing moments during the verses and allowing the orchestral pomp and grandeur to stand out more when it appears as a mid-song bridge. That’s one of the album’s strengths, sonic diversity in dynamics and song structures, and it helps to keep your attention a bit more than if it was just battering you with spooky keys and blastbeats for 5 minutes straight at a time. It results in an album where I’m able to remember that “Of Tesseractual Gateways and the Grand Duplicity of Xhul” (jesus Chris… these song titles… the “Xhul track” then) starts out with an almost Rotting Christ-like primal death metal passage, sounding vaguely Middle Eastern with guitars that reminded me at once of Melechesh. I can also pinpoint “Forbidden Equations Deep…” (track 4 dammit) as the one that starts with a Blind Guardian blast of guitars and a keyboard melody within that sounds very close to a theremin. In summation, there’s a lot of diversity on the album and that’s really to its strength, it lends it replay value, and I didn’t ever really get bored sitting through it. What Hypercube Necrodimensions really lacks is similarly the kind of gut punch that Bal-Sagoth could never quite deliver (mostly due to the thinness of their symphonic black metal approach), which is why I suppose I was never that big on them, even though it felt like I should have been. I kept waiting for Wizardthrone to deliver a really heavy, punishing riff to batter me relentlessly, and it briefly appeared for a moment on the title track, only to disappear before it could really leave a mark. The result is an album that is admittedly interesting to listen to, with some incredible artwork to gawk at, but doesn’t move me one way or another. More heaviness or more melody, I dunno what the answer is for the next album, but I hope they pick a direction and head towards it.

Dialith – Atrophy (EP):

In a weird coincidence with my K-Pop listening, Dialith are back with a release strategy that owes more to the approach taken by Korean Idol groups than anything metal related. Their new EP Atrophy is the first in a series of three planned releases, with another EP of songs to follow at some point, after which they both will be combined and packed along with more new songs to ultimately make up the full length sequel to their 2019 Metal Pigeon Album Of The Year Extinction Six. That’s not dissimilar to the way the K-Pop R&B group Mamamoo for example released four EPs to piece together their overall concept for their Four Seasons, Four Colors conceptual project — a strategy that owes more to continually releasing material to prevent your audience from moving on to something else and also just keeping up with the competition from other artists releasing music. Well, it’s not a perfect comparison I’ll admit, because metal bands tend to be afforded years by fans to get their next record together, sometimes to their own detriment, with fanbases that are often unreasonably patient (see Wintersun and until recently, Therion). But there is something to be said about maintaining momentum even in the slower moving metal world, and when a global pandemic interrupts the gains you should have gotten after an incredible debut record, kyboshing touring plans (if there were any) and the possibility of playing showcase festival gigs, you risk having people forget about you. Dialith explained their strategy in a post on their Instagram as a way to keep them in people’s radars while not being out of the spotlight for the lengthier amount of time it would take to assemble an entire album together. Presumably, this means they can focus their work on two or three songs at a time, instead of hurrying themselves into a sophomore slump in an effort to just get something out. As they say, bands have their entire life to get the debut record written, and only months for that all important follow up. And with the lead off song “Ignite The Sky”, Dialith sound more sparkly than they ever did on Extinction Six, with keyboard runs that sound downright synth-pop oriented and offer a brighter, more dewy-eyed take on the band’s core sonic identity. Alasdair Wallace Mackie still lays down thicker, denser, heavier riffs than you’d expect a symphonic metal band to have, and Krista Sion is the perfect shade of icy in her delivery. The other two songs here, “Sweet As Wine” (don’t let the title fool you) and “Undertow” are closer to the darker, angrier tone we heard on the debut, with battering riffs and a rhythmic aggression that is still just, shocking (for lack of a better description) to hear from a symphonic metal band. We’re not going to be forgetting Dialith anytime soon.

Pharaoh – The Powers That Be:

This was another release where like At The Gates’ new record, I wanted to give it time to gel in my mind a bit, because my first listen was a little underwhelming. It didn’t help that I’ve been looking forward to this album for years and years now, the band’s last effort being the absolutely incredible Bury The Light way the heck back in 2012. And right off the bat lets just acknowledge that The Powers That Be was going to have a hard time living up to the expectations that album created, no matter when it was released. But that it took nine years to get a follow up doesn’t help matters for sure, creating a situation where opinions about the new record will be impacted by the amount of time it took to deliver it. And of course, this isn’t really a full time band either, with its members (most notably Chris Black of High Spirits and Dawnbringer) participating in other projects and doing other things (though as far as I can tell, Tim Aymar isn’t in any other bands right now, correct me if I’m wrong), but still, nine years is a hell of a long time to go between releases. My guess is it takes that long because there’s so much songwriting input from everyone in the band that maybe this time around it just resulted in a freak slowdown, but that’s pure speculation. There is a noticeably thrashier bent to the introductory title track though than I was expecting to hear, with the guitars being more technical than I’d ever noticed on a Pharaoh record before, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the album on my first few listens I think. Through that filter, I think a lot of the melodies that are brimming under the surface of some of the songs midway through the album tend to get suppressed until you unlock them with future listens. Like “We Will Rise” has a really inspired Maiden-spiked guitar solo section midway through that I think I glossed over initially but now have come to really appreciate — and “Freedom” has a weird Helloween meets Pharaoh mashup vibe going on that I dismissed as clunky at first. It’s now one of the highlights of the record, it’s gang shouted “no, no!” vocals perfect for the old school, united against the world lyrical theme going on. I kept waiting for this album’s “The Spider’s Thread” to reveal itself, but the closest we got this outing is “When The World Was Mine”, which is a fine song as is but seems like it could have benefited from one or two more memorable melodies to firmly affix it in one’s memory. This is a good Pharaoh record, a worthy addition to their catalog, but not something that sounds like it earned those nine years in between… I guess I just wanted something that blew my mind the way the last one did. This could be a Pigeon problem.

Powerwolf – Call Of The Wild:

Powerwolf are back with another new album, although what differentiates this album from 2018’s The Sacrament Of Sin is something that only the most passionate fan could possibly detect, and I’d even have to contest that. For all the flack that their contemporaries in Sabaton receive for sounding samey throughout their career (and lately, that criticism is warranted on their post-pandemic drip-drip song rollout), at least Sabaton have made some significant album-wide shifts at times in their career. There was orchestral grandeur adorning Carolus Rex to match the splendor of those songs about the rise and fall of the Swedish king’s empire; and on the recent The Great War, the band often slowed down their attack at times, muddied up the rhythmic attack to mirror the sludge and trudge of World War I. Powerwolf have never, not to my memory anyway, attempted to coalesce the musical approach to an album into some kind of cohesive, narrative musical vision. It’s just another platter of songs ala Powerwolf mode, and you’re paying far closer attention than I if you can tell what song comes from what album. And truthfully, this wouldn’t be a problem if these songs were mostly hitting the target, but they’re not — when they do, as on the album highlight “Dancing With The Dead”, Powerwolf is as compelling as mainstream metal can possibly be, the stuff that ripples through crowds at European festivals and compels smiles and singalongs. That song’s chorus holds the answer, namely that Atilla Dorn’s vocal power really comes through when he has a vocal melody/lyric that allows him to be the ghoulish narrator that he was meant to be. With longer lines full of syllabic variation, his rich vocal tone, distinct in pronounciation and character is allowed to flourish, like a German Ozzy Osbourne being backed by Maiden-esque melodies that linger around like proper earworms. But when they get it wrong, as on the absolutely abysmal “Beast Of Gevaudan”, where the rhythmic structure is percussive, almost staccato-like, thus leaving Atilla with little to do but mirror it in his vocal delivery, which quickly becomes tiresome. It doesn’t help that the song has major Sabaton vibes, which is not a great sound profile for Powerwolf. They’ve fallen into this staccato trap quite often throughout their discography, and it just never, ever sounds good, and I wish someone would point out the difference between these two songs to them. That’s not to say a band shouldn’t have rhythmic variation within an album, because of course they should, but knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses is something that a band on album number, what, eight, should realize by now. Caught in the middle of these two extremes are the rest of the nine songs on the album, and none of them made enough of an impression on me (yet? maybe?) to warrant remarking on. Just meh.

Helloween Returns! Oh And Other New Releases…

In a much needed turnaround since my last update, the past month(ish) has provided a bounty of incredibly exciting new metal releases, some of which are the best albums I’ve heard this year. The headliner here is of course the new, much anticipated Helloween album with the reunited Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen onboard alongside Andi Deris. There’s not much suspense to be had in what I think about the record — it’s spectacular and beyond anything I expected the band to deliver, we’re talking a possible AOTY contender. What is surprising is just how they got there, and the choices they made on the record that resulted in a reunion album for the ages. More on that down below then. Rounding out the rest of the reviews below are new albums by veteran artists as well as a couple newer bands that I’m being introduced to via their debuts (which is unusual for me, being typically late to the party most of the time). It feels great to be excited about newer metal releases again, because it’s been a weird early summer that saw me deep diving into K-Pop (check out Mamamoo) — I guess I craved something entirely new to me. Yet simultaneously for a few weeks I couldn’t stop listening to Priest’s Turbo (I always had a soft spot for it but now I’m convinced it’s unfairly panned in retrospect still). Like I said, weird. Not gonna lie though, K-Pop summer is likely to continue, but now it’ll have to share time with a lot of the stuff covered below.


Helloween – Helloween:

The most anticipated release of the year lived up to the hype, how often can we really say that? I’m sure by now you’ve heard this record (because who needs a review to convince them to check out a new Helloween album?) and have realized that this is a way stronger effort than the band (even with this newly reinvigorated lineup) was ever expected to deliver. With Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske back in the fold alongside longtime vocalist Andi Deris, Helloween has mic-dropped their finest album since The Dark Ride and arguably a top five career album (some might challenge that assertion, but I think it can hang in there for a spot). I actually wish I didn’t listen to “Skyfall” when it was released all those weeks ago, because I’d have loved to hear it the way I heard the rest of this album — on release evening at midnight. When “Out For The Glory” was ripping along, with it’s classic Helloween tropes being unabashedly introduced (I still glory claw every time Kai descends with his “IRON MINIONS!”), I thought “Wow, sounds like something off the Keepers”. And despite the lead vocal split between Kiske and Deris, and the fact that when they team up on a lead, it’s hard for Kiske’s voice not to overpower things a touch, I’m honestly floored at how well these two guys sound together, particularly when they play off each other as on “Fear Of The Fallen”. Here they’re trading off lines, bouncing Kiske’s soaring tenor with Deris’ more emotive low to mid range approach to spectacular effect. The songwriting is superb, with particular attention to vocal melodies and who should be singing what and when. That the egos were laid bare for this is clearly evident here and on Deris led cuts like “Cyanide” and “Rise Without Chains” where Kiske steps back into more of an assisting lead vocal role. I really respect that there was an effort made to not just cast Deris aside as second fiddle or worse, an after thought, that he’s given equal time to Kiske — and of course he should, he’s been in the band longer than him by well over a decade. Whether the details of vocal splitting were arranged by whomever wrote an individual song, or more likely, by Deris and Kiske themselves, they get a lot of credit from me for making it work so well.

Helloween has been a songwriting roundtable for awhile now, with any member welcome to throw their idea into the mix and see it come through as a finished song on the record, and this roundtable free-for-all approach continues on Helloween. Actually not counting bonus tracks, Deris racks up the most credits on the album, complete with a doozy of a collab with Hansen on the awesome, ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. This is my personal favorite on the album, a classic slice of heavy metal expressly written about metal, and the act of rockin’, a made for stage anthem that they’ve cheekily layered some sampled crowd noise onto as a little guide for future audiences (“Make some noise!”). Deris is at his swagger-fueled best here, delivering the pounding chorus with conviction and his raspy edged voice is the perfect call for the aggressive tone set in the verses. Can we get more of these two writing together? Sascha Gerstner writes the Kiske centric “Angels”, which is richly dramatic and sends Kiske’s vocals spiraling skyward and falling back to earth, while an unorthodox arrangement unfolds below blending an almost Savatage-esque piano laced, stately paced melancholic swirl. The Deris/Kiske dueling tradeoff towards the end is one of the most spectacular moments on the album, and the acapella Kiske fade out is an inspired minor detail. Of course we have to mention “Robot King”, one of the most classic Helloween-y cuts here courtesy of Michael Weikath (he also penned “Out For The Glory”), because this is a fantastic Keeper-vibes gem with one of the most infectious passages on the album (“…robot king! / You’re the master race!…”). I’ve seen some nitpicking about the lyrics on “Down In The Dumps”, particularly the chorus… which I don’t really understand at all because I actually think its a funny way to phrase depression, especially in a refrain that sounds so bitingly angry as this one. This is an odd duck of a song but I love it, with its laid back My God Given Right era vibes in the verse jumping right to The Dark Ride in the chorus — only Helloween could pull off something this schizophrenic and make it gel.

Of course we have to mention “Skyfall”, which is a Hansen penned latter day Helloween classic, featuring an extended chorus passage that sounds like it’d fit in on one of Avantasia’s Metal Operas (a little power metal inception here, who is influenced by whom??!). Hansen hasn’t been shy about his influences over the years, so the David Bowie “Space Oddity” influenced middle bridge sequence isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s still an eye-opening transitional moment and something that feels really fresh, inspired, and joyful. It’s also seamlessly woven in, complete with a easy transition back into a traditional metal guitar solo sequence that rockets us back into high speed power metal territory. That’s the kind of move that only an assured, veteran songwriter tends to pull off successfully, and not often at that — it alone might notch this as the best thing Hansen has written in awhile. And though it’s the album closer, I want to point out that on Spotify anyway, we’re treated to two more excellent bonus tracks by default (a glaring fault of these streaming services is that there’s rarely any indication of what is and isn’t a bonus track). Both “Golden Times” and particularly “Save My Hide” are satisfying, album tracklist worthy cuts that I’m considering part of this overall album experience anyway, particularly the latter with its kick down the doors chorus opening that’s full of charging bull attitude and hard rock swagger to the max. We’re definitely going to discuss this album more at the end of the year, how could we not? I just wanna mention now though that twenty years ago when Kiske not-so-secretly finally returned to metal on Tobias Sammet’s first Metal Opera (Ernie!), I was stunned and grateful, because he seemed so disconnected from metal for awhile. But even then, I’d have never dreamed that we’d get another Helloween album with him and Hansen back on board, Weikath seemed to dismiss the idea and things just seemed too distant. I got a little emotional during my first playthrough of this somewhere between that midnight release and 1am, not like teardrop inducing, but I had a moment there halfway through the album where everything felt too surreal for me to process. I’m still processing it as I type this, but this time it’s more about how frigging great this album turned out to be. Unreal.

Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen:

This is a welcome surprise, largely due to me not knowing that Esa Holopainen was planning on trying his hand at a solo album. I suppose it’s pandemic time well spent, a window where he could focus time away from Amorphis without hurting the band’s usual touring/recording schedule. The naming of this project is unusual, not quite a band name yet more than just his name on the cover as per the usual solo album modus operandi, and the concept of Silver Lake seems like something that can be expanded upon for continuing releases in the future. The idea isn’t new here, essentially Esa writing songs with different guest vocalists on board, providing a different style, approach, and mood on their respective songs. The guest list is inspired both on paper and in execution, with vocals from Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse on two emotionally charged bookending cuts, a more prog-rock bent on the Bjorn Strid sung “Promising Sun” (boasting one of the strongest hooks on the album), and of course the show stopper herself Anneke Van Giersbergen on the gorgeous “Fading Moon” (a sister song to her glorious guest spot on “Amongst Stars” off the last Amorphis record). Holopainen’s expressive playing, at once melancholic and uplifting is the constant throughout the entirety of the album, and his songwriting DNA is of course omnipresent throughout. What I suspect separates this from his work with Amorphis is the more melodic progressive rock nature of these songs compared to the battering ram approach that is still part of Amorphis’ attack. That’s not to say things don’t get heavy any (in fact, Tomi Joutsen makes an appearance on “In Her Solitude” with his brutal bark and deep, guttural growls), but this is a far more contemplative and restrained affair than the full on emotional wringer that Amorphis delivers. Key example is “Storm”, a song about peaceful resignation and contentment sung by Swedish vocalist Hakan Hemlin, a song that I’m still on the fence about (I love the melodies, but sometimes the vocal melody gets too close to cloying). I’ve enjoyed listening to this record on it’s own merits, Holopainen is a fascinating songwriter, and this is clearly meant to be a window into his inner world. It’s worth peering in.

Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever:

The avant-garde, ever-changing lineup of Subterranean Masquerade is back with their fourth full length release, coming after the weird mish-mash quarantine EP last year (titled appropriately, The Pros & Cons Of Social Isolation). I probably should’ve reviewed that one, because I did check it out when it was released and it was the debut of the band’s new vocalist Davidavi Dolev, who with his appearance on this new album suggests that he might be the band’s long term solution post Kjetil Nordhus. I really love Dolev’s vocals, he’s a versatile singer, capable of inflecting aching emotion during impassioned moments and dipping down into quieter, hushed moments while still sounding clear and emotive. I can only guess that he’s handling the sprinkling of growls that are found throughout here and there whenever the band decides to shift into a more metallic attack for a moment. I say a moment because this band’s M.O. is basically to keep you guessing at all times, an approach they themselves describe as “polychromatic arrangements”, and yeah I agree that’s a fine way to phrase it. More than ever before though, the band’s merging of metal, loose rock n’ roll, and Middle-Eastern folk instrumentation put through a prog filter is distilled into it’s finest album to date. On their past couple efforts, I always felt like there were moments where they went a little too far in a direction that I couldn’t really follow, but Mountain Fever is a sharply written, deftly executed collection of terrifically inspired songs. There’s a spiritual feel to songs like “Snake Charmer” with its gorgeously aching string arrangements; and “Mangata” with its delicate acoustic melody that dances alongside what I can only guess is an oud or buzuq (I have a hard time distinguishing these instruments but god do I love listening to either one); and “Ascend” which closes out with my favorite vocal performance on the album in it’s last few minutes. These more introspective moments are countered by the pure aggression of “For The Leader, With Strings Music” (cheeky title that) and the euphorically bright “Ya Shema Evyonecha” where dense, urgent metallic riffing is countered by beautiful folk instrumentation in a vibrant bridge sequence. This is a fascinating album — you get immediately pulled in by the hooks, but come back for repeat listens because there’s simply so much going on within these songs that you can’t take it all in at once. One of the best albums of the year no doubt.

King Of Asgard – Svartrviðr:

One of Sweden’s finest folk metal exports are back with their fifth new album Svartrviðr (your guess is as good as mine on the pronunciation), their follow up to 2017’s genuinely excellent Taudr. The heart of the band is one Karl Beckmann (vocals/guitar), formerly of the Swedish folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, that some might remember from their late 90s run where they delivered a pair of folk metal classics in their short run and promptly disbanded, after which former guitarist Stefan Weinerhall and drummer Karsten Larsson linked up with a theater singer named Mathias Blad and formed Falconer. The rest is, well, you know the saying. Beckmann formed King Of Asgard in 2008 and after a few demos, released the band’s debut two years later. The band’s sound from the jump has really been a continuation of where Mithotyn left off, that revelatory fusion of black metal elements and rustic, roots-in-earth folk melodicism. This approach to folk music is something I’ve been delighted to see a return to from several artists over the past five years, a slowly growing alternative to the kitschy, campy dreck that folk metal turned to in the mid-2000s (and lingered far too long after). There’s a focused, almost meditative quality to the music on this album, designed to be listened to in one attentive sitting, with relatively lengthy songs that are built on cyclic tremolo riffs that pull you into a semi-lulled state, adding elements little by little, or alternatively, deconstructing themselves over time. Beckmann is a fine guitarist, joined here in tandem by Ted Sjulmark (of Grimner), together weaving folk inspired melodies that are often as foreboding sounding as they are gorgeous. But he’s just as impressive as a vocalist, his grim vocals earthen, gritty, and seemingly textural on purpose, a lost folk metal art — countered with a baritone bellow that suits the somber, downcast mood that this album is entrenched in. His clean vocals are a highlight on the title track, a resigned, sullen slow march set to pounding percussion that explodes midway through into an Enslaved-esque expansive progressive black metal passage. A personal favorite here is “Rifna” (as apt a name this song could have), built on a repeating riff figure that pulls you into it’s hypnotic trance, and Beckmann introduces some fantastic, eerie vocal layering effects midway through that really give the song a haunted, ghostly quality. It’s rare that a band delivers two incredibly solid albums back to back, but King Of Asgard do just that here, with Svartrviðr maybe getting the edge as the better of the two, but go back and check out Taudr as well.

Verjagen – When The Sun Sets Over This Mortal World:

Verjagen are a fresh face on the map of melodic death metal, I hesitate to call it a scene because well… are there even scenes anymore? Not geographically speaking anyway, but I digress. These guys are from Finland as well, but their sound has rather little to do with fellow countrymen like Insomnium or even Mors Principium Est, but more owing to blending traditional metal and some thrash elements with that core Swedish Gothenburg sound. The result is a sound that is at once familiar and yet unorthodox and fresh, because when listening to this (debut) album I feel like I’m being reminded of something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it is, I’ve been enjoying this record for the past few weeks now, songs like “Life Of War” and “Gritty Night” providing a blend of extreme aggression filtered with enough meaty, hooky riffs to latch onto for that headbanging element. The band uses melody as an accent, rather than the main attraction as usually the case with Gothenburg styled melo-death, and vocalist Otto-Aaron Timonen dishes out gravel throated, barking screaming vocals that are punishingly heavy ala Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There are moments where melodies take precedent over heaviness, as on the album highlight “Exit Plan” where we’re treated to an inspired chorus that’s slowed down and unfurls into an expansive, cinematic keyboard painted refrain that is genuinely majestic. I get some Dark Tranquility vibes on “Feast For The Dead” with its dramatic synth keyboard arrangements behind all the riffery, and Timonen does have a Mikael Stanne tinge to his vocals at points. The best part about this album is that it’s solid from front to back, something that is reinforced by its relatively succinct, eight track/forty-two minute run time. I’ve found myself listening to it while driving, and that’s been a tough task for most metal recently (again, except for Turbo for some reason) during K-Pop summer. I haven’t seen that many people talking about Verjagen yet, in fact, I think I might be one of the first to review this one and that in itself is a rarity. Worth checking out if you’ve been looking for a different twist on melo-death.

Bloodbound – Creatures Of The Dark Realm:

This was a frustrating listen, and I say that as someone who has quietly been rooting for Bloodbound ever since their fantastic debut in 2005 with the Urban Breed on vox classic Nosferatu. After Breed’s departure post Tabula Rasa, the band has been fronted by Patrik Johansson (Selleby… or whatever the heck he wants to be called by now), and the output has taken a noticeable nosedive to my tastes anyway. But being an amiable fellow, I think I’ve just bided my time with the band for the past decade, giving Johansson the benefit of the doubt as a vocalist. He has an appealing tone, a nicely melodic delivery and clearly has the range needed for Euro power. I guess I figured that the onus fell on the founding guitarist Olsson brothers to write material that really maximized the best use of his talents. But with a full decade of the Johansson era in the books, with six albums to its name, and I’m starting to suspect that Johansson really is the problem with Bloodbound’s direction all these years. On Creatures Of The Dark Realm, he’s actually managed to irritate me with his penchant for singsongy-ness that degenerates damn near every chorus into a Hobbits dancing around the kitchen, pointed elbows swinging back and forth silly jig melody. Take “Kill Or Be Killed” for example, one would expect a song with that title to bring the heat, a little straight to the throat heavy metal that matched the ugliness of it’s title — but instead it boasts one of the most childishly cheerful melodies you’ll ever hear, one that comes across as downright insufferable in the wider context of the album (largely because this pattern is repeated throughout). The same defect hampers any sense of excitement and danger in songs like “The Gargoyle’s Gate”, “When Fate Is Calling”, “Ever Burning Flame”, and hell let’s be real, most of the album. Occasionally, band and vocalist find their footing together (albeit however briefly), such as on “March Into War” where the vocals lock into an appealing rhythmic build-up to a chorus that is actually somewhat effective. I dunno, there might be another moment here that was interesting, but clearly not interesting enough for me to remember. One of the most disappointing releases in the genre in sometime, or maybe its just my not-so-secret desire to see Urban Breed (a recent free agent from Serious Black) reunite with his old bandmates for another album — either way, avoid this.

Sunrise – Equilibria:

About a month ago, Ukraine’s chief power metal export Sunrise released their first album in five years, Equilibria. It’s been the usual dose of lineup changes for this band, with the only original (and constant) member being vocalist Konstantin Naumenko aka Laars. I’m not going to get into the whole history of the lineup changes (the sheer amount of guitarists that have been in this band year in year out is ridiculous) but you can imagine this is what lent itself to the extended lead up time to this new album. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be for Laars to contend with this seemingly every album or even in between albums as it sometimes seems to be. Then there’s the fact that they’re independent, launching relatively successful crowdfunding campaigns to get funding for these recordings… it’s gotta be alot on one’s plate. Credit to him though because Equilibria does indeed hit the same benchmarks of quality songwriting and fantastic performances that have defined this band during their four album run (yep, only 4 albums since 2007 is what an unstable lineup will yield). Laars also handled mixing, mastering… the whole production basically, not to mention being the band’s major songwriter alongside new guitarist Maksym Vityuk and keyboardist (and spouse) Daria Naumenko. The appeal here isn’t rocket science, Laars’ vocal tone and approach is a sweet spot between Tony Kakko with a splash of Timo Kotipelto, and Sunrise deliver a vocal melody driven, keyboard soaked take on speedy, fleet of foot power metal ala classic era Sonata Arctica. There are an armful of gems here, the anti-anxiety vibes of “Wings Of A Dreamer” (added to the playlist!), the dual lead vocals with Daria on the mid-tempo proggy vibes of the title track, and a oddity (but personal fave) in “Call My Name” whose brooding power ballad structure reminds me of a cross between the Scorpions and something off Winterheart’s Guild. Right around the middle of this album, there’s a patch of songs that really strike me as more progressive metal influenced than the band’s power metal roots, which I’m not sure if I entirely enjoy or not (its not bad mind you, but everything gets a bit mid-paced for too long). One of these is a banger though, “The Bridge Across Infinity”, striking some Khan era Kamelot notes at times during the chorus, and delivering a really nice balance between our two lead vocalists. If you’ve never heard of this band, I would recommend starting with their 2009 classic Trust Your Soul which featured all-time power metal gems like “All This Time” and “Man In The World”, but Equilibria is a pretty strong addition to their catalog on it’s own. I just hope for Laars’ sake that this lineup can stick around for awhile so the next album can get underway sooner.

Ildaruni – Beyond Unseen Gateways:

I know I talked about this on a recent episode of MSRcast, but I figured I should write about it since Ildaruni’s Beyond Unseen Gateways is one of those albums that I haven’t been able to quit coming back to this year. Coming as a recommendation from the gang at r/PowerMetal, this debut album is one of the most fascinating extreme metal releases I’ve heard this year, being a fusion of Melechesh-esque blistering Eastern inspired black metal, with more of a methodical Rotting Christ rhythmic attack as the foundation instead of full on speed demon tempo mode. Ildaruni only just formed in 2018, and both of the songs on that year’s inaugural demo are here in “Towards Subterranean Realms” and “Treading the Path of Cryptic Wisdom”, and the musical foundations they laid out on those two songs is really the template for the exploration that occurs on the rest of the album. On the latter, the band isn’t afraid to temper extremity with some Maiden inspired gallop and twin harmonized leads just for funsies; or as on “Towards Subterranean Realms”, introduce some bread and butter mid-tempo chugging rhythm guitar to clear the decks and get heads nodding. As so many smarter extreme metal bands are demonstrating, a little rockin’ helps maximize the impact of extremity, a mid-song palette cleansing to break up the monotony of nonstop tremolo and blast beat batteries. And Ildaruni are full of such little deviations to keep us guessing throughout, including the infusion of unorthodox folk instrumentation in unexpected moments. On “Exalted Birth”, a bagpipe chimes in midway through before the guitar solo, delivering a folk melody that is distinctly not Celtic-sounding. I love that the instrumentation choice there doesn’t match the expectation of how you’d expect it to be used, in some mock-Braveheart arrangement — its a subtle choice, but I could have easily envisioned a Middle-Eastern string instrument playing that melody instead of a bagpipe. Ildaruni hail from Armenia, a country that exists at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, so it makes sense that they’d be pulling influences from a myriad of differing directions. And it’s really hard to pin their sound down as just one thing or the other, and I mean that as a compliment, Beyond Unseen Gateways is as unpredictable as it is epic, and it’s easily my favorite black metal record in a long time.

Mixed Bag: New Music From Frozen Crown, Moonspell, and more!

Nearing the midway point of 2021, and the past few months of new music have been simultaneously surprising and disappointing in various ways. I point out some of the surprises (both good and bad) below in the many new albums I’ve reviewed here, but one of the things I’m a little frustrated about is that with a few exceptions, this year hasn’t delivered much in the way of breathtaking, truly excellent records. In response to this frustration, I’ve found myself just going back and listening to old records (went on a Judas Priest bender some days ago), also doing a little revisiting of some of the albums on my past few years best of lists (proud of myself there, they’re all still deserving of their placements), and just trying out bands I’ve never heard of before. And you know I’m not really even sure what I’m looking for genre wise, I suppose it doesn’t matter, as long as it keeps me compelled and coming back for another listen. So with that in mind, I’m an open book for any recommendations if you’ve got them, because its been a little meh lately. In other news, I bought my first concert ticket in over a year the other day, a two day pass to the April 2022 Hell’s Heroes Fest that takes place right here in Houston. I hope I’ll be seeing a show long before that one, but at least it’s a step towards normality. It never felt so good to pay for processing fees and parking passes. Right, onto the reviews:


Frozen Crown – Winterbane:

I’d been looking forward to what Frozen Crown would do next ever since I became a fan of theirs somewhere between their 2018 strong debut and it’s rather excellent Best Albums of 2019 list making follow-up Crowned In Frost which yielded the Best Songs list maker “In The Dark”. That song and other gems like “Neverending” and “Winterfall” showcased the band’s budding gifts at making melodeath-esque dense riffage soaked power metal with exuberant vocal melodies reminiscent of classic Sonata Arctica. There was a charming naivete about their approach, almost purposefully cliched in a slight way to really hammer home how satisfying this particular style of music could be, a celebration of all their influences. On their third album, Winterbane, Frozen Crown stumble slightly, and I mean ever so slightly, but it’s noticeable enough to warrant pointing it out right away considering how it stands in contrast to their first two records. This is actually a pretty enjoyable album as a casual listen, but it’s lacking a little of the wild guitar fireworks of the first two albums in favor of a more vocal melody driven direction. What I loved about the band’s debut and to a certain extent on it’s follow-up was that exciting extreme metal fusion approach that suggested shades of Jesper Stromblad mixed with Alexi Laiho.

Now the shift from being guitar centric to vocals front and center theoretically shouldn’t be a problem considering Giada Etro’s remarkably powerful and rich voice, but the vocal melodies on most of these songs suffer from a sameness that handicaps their impact. That being a plethora of boringly loooooonnnggggg notes, mainly in the form of “whooooooaaaaaaaaassss” and “ooooooooohhhhhhhhs” such as on “The Lone Stranger” (a shame because there’s some spicy guitar ear candy here that gets lost amidst the vocal drudgery). This long note extension vocal stuff pops up everywhere around the album, and the rhythmic variations we heard Etro delivering on the first two albums are hardly to be found, barring a moment here and there. One of those moments is a cover of “Nightcrawler”, and you know, its fine… it was never my favorite Priest tune by any stretch and I just think its a little too by the numbers here when they could have really dressed it with up with some power metal flair. This isn’t a knock on Etro’s talent either, as a friend in the r/PowerMetal community said of her performance on this album, “She clearly knows how to sing. Just doesn’t know how to make it interesting”. And I’m not sure if that’s on her so much as it is on guitarist/songwriter Federico Mondelli, who has noticeably lessened his co-vocal involvement in the band’s songs compared to the first two albums (he’s really only noticeable on two cuts here). And what I’ve noticed about my reaction to Winterbane is that I’m not compelled to come back to it again and again like I was with the first two records, it’s just a little tedious to listen to in various spots, and I hate having to say that.

Communic – Hiding From The World:

This is actually from 2020, but it’s one of those better late than never discoveries because Communic’s Hiding From The World is one of the best straight ahead metal albums I’ve heard in awhile. I’m admittedly not that familiar with the band, having seen their name around vaguely and maybe having checked them out in the past at some point (they’ve been around since 2005), but here they have a sound that reminds me of a less technical Nevermore. Vocalist/guitarist Oddleif Stensland has a Warrel Dane-esque tortured quality to his soulful vocals, albeit with a wider range to deliver some truly jaw dropping performances. Communic are a trio, but they manage to get a thunderous roar out of drums, bass and guitar. Stensland lays down overdubbed solos, and the way these songs are constructed — with artful passages built around contemplative shifts in tempo, dynamics, and tone, create more nuanced depth to these songs than other three piece prog/power outfits ala Rage or Grand Magus. The title track is a haunting, gradually building semi-ballad that rides Queensryche-ian guitars towards a battering ram of a riff sequence, and a nine minute track length feels more like five. Another standout is “Born Without A Heart”, a slow, pensive mood piece that reminds me of latter day November’s Doom for it’s utterly bleak mood, while Stensland crafts a vocal melody that is gorgeous yet utterly anguished. Album closer “Forgotten” seems to ride a psychedelic tinge to it’s lead guitar melodies, pairing them with dense, meaty riffs in a paean to regrets and the passage of time. Its’s a heavy track for more than just it’s sonics, and that general depressive tone is pretty much present throughout all of this album. Where Nevermore sounded angry and full of seething rage, Communic seems to explore the other emotions that result from the aftermath of those, ones more sullen and resigned.

Orden Ogan – Final Days:

I remember when Orden Ogan seemed like they were going to take over as the next massive thing in power metal. It was right after the release of To The End, which was a monstrous power metal record with two absolute bangers on it in “The Things We Believe In” and the title track, and a pretty spectacular ballad in “Take This Light”. Then the band stumbled a bit with the near-dud in Ravenhead, and something weird happened to their sound on it’s 2017 follow-up Gunmen, a simplification of a sound that was already pretty straight ahead in it’s Iron Savior meets Gamma Ray meets Blind Guardian mix. My more cynical friends at r/PowerMetal would say that Sebastian Levermann has been affected with Sabaton-itis, that affliction that where riff complexity is eschewed aside in favor of heavy synth lines and a larger reliance on easy vocal melodies. I’m on the fence of this particular debate, because I do enjoy a couple of the songs from those records, but yeah I do think the band’s sound has been a little more… streamlined as of late, and Final Days is no exception. Levermann really employs the old “don’t bore us get to the chorus” approach to his songwriting throughout, often issuing the refrain at the outset of a song so we’re jumping right in with very little buildup. It should be said, these are some very catchy songs on a surface level: “Heart Of An Android”, “In The Dawn Of The AI” and “Interstellar” have hooks that are hard to ignore. Levermann himself is as appealing a vocalist as ever, his Kai Hansen meets Hansi Kursch delivery a perfect vehicle for ultra melodic yet riff dense power metal. But there is something to the theory that Orden Ogan just isn’t as musically interesting as they used to be on their first couple albums where melody and grandeur were matched by an intensity best conveyed through a barrage of complex arrangements and riff sequences. The band has largely abandoned that more progressive side of their sound, and we’re left with these glossy, ear candy laden platters of power metal that is often a blast to listen to, but is lacking in the way of depth and emotion.

Metalite – A Virtual World:

Someone over at Metallum needs to explain how it is that Metalite has a page on their database, but Amaranthe somehow still doesn’t despite virtually identical approaches to their sound. One could even argue that Amaranthe has a greater claim to metal roots, given their harsh vocals, guitarist Olof Morck’s power metal roots in Dragonland, and Jake Lundberg’s stint in Dreamland and Dream Evil. Anyway Metalite is a curiosity in the metal world, even alongside Amaranthe, because there’s really no gimmick to be had here, except for their purely saccharine, glossy pop-metal sound. I mean it’s in the name isn’t it? Metal-(l)ite? Actually full disclosure here, I kinda like this band for just leaning into this particular sound palette and songwriting style. There’s no growls here to, I dunno, do whatever Amaranthe is trying to do with them, as vocalist Erica Ohlsson is left to her own devices to carry these songs with her straight ahead melodic vocals. I think she’s a fairly good singer judging from live clips I’ve seen, certainly good enough not to need the noticeable sheen of processing (autotune maybe?) on her vocals all throughout the album. I chalked that up to a thematic choice, it does fit with the ultra processed production wash that permeates every second of the aptly titled A Virtual World, a thematic album that as best as I can tell, is about the urge to breakaway from the all encompassing encroachment of technology (the cover art checks out). I did think it was kinda funny that I enjoyed Metalite’s “Cloud Connected” here far more than In Flames own dour song of the same name from all those years ago, at least there’s a brightness and bite to Metalite’s chorus than Anders Friden’s dishwater clean vocals. Elsewhere, “Alone” is a 80s pop starlet’s ballad set to thick power chords and has a warm charm to it, and “Beyond The Horizon” has some grand, arms wide open gesturing kitschiness that I enjoy purely for it’s surface level ear candy. I will say “Peacekeepers” and “The Vampire Song” are at best examples of not putting much thought behind your lyrics, but then again we shouldn’t expect too much here. I had fun listening to this album, which can’t be said for an armful of new releases this year.

Ghosts Of Atlantis – 3.6.2.4:

This is the debut album from United Kingdom based symphonic death metal/sometimes melodeath meets metalcore-ish Ghosts Of Atlantis. Despite being one of the more just plain awful album titles I’ve seen in a minute, 3.6.2.4. is a promising debut from a band that has the potential to turn out something spectacular down the road. These guys have an identity right out of the gate, and in that sense they remind me of Seven Spires on their debut Solveig, how there were creative ideas that pointed to great things down the road (didn’t expect them to come to fruition as quick as they did however). The most representative track here is wisely the lead off cut “The Third Pillar”, a Septic Flesh meets Therion fusion of groove based melo-death and gorgeous symphonic flourishes, including orchestral elements and a choral vocal accompaniment. Vocalist Phil Primmer is a versatile fellow, capable of some rather convincing harshes and a ICS Vortex influenced grand, theatrical clean voice that he transitions to and from rather effortlessly. Sometimes, the band tries an idea that just falls flat on it’s face and mars and otherwise fantastic song, as on “Halls Of Lemuria” where Primmer launches into a spoken word/near rap passage midway through the song that leaves me cringing. I’m sure others won’t be as bothered by it as I was, but it’s a shame because I really loved the rest of the song up to that point. When they just sharpen up their focus on tight compositions however, such as “The Curse Of Man”, they’re a potent blend of the grandeur of symphonic metal and the intimacy of melodeath. And I suppose debut albums are where these competing ideas are supposed to sit alongside each other (they can’t all be Appetite For Destruction), because Ghosts Of Atlantis at times seem to be trying out different approaches throughout the record. On “Poseidon’s Bow”, we’re treated to a little more of a progressive metal approach that reminds me of a more extreme Symphony X, while I got a strong Barren Earth vibe from “The Lost Compass”. This was a strong debut effort from a record label (Black Lion Records) that’s releasing some intriguing bands, most of whom are intermixing subgenres a bit like Ghosts of Atlantis. Looking forward to the follow up record already.

Secret Sphere – Lifeblood:

So yet another Italian power metal band that’s impressing me way more than I’d have ever expected years ago. Actually Secret Sphere isn’t entirely new to me, I first became aware of them when Michele Luppi was singing for them after his stint in Vision Divine filling in for Fabio Lione during his hiatus (actually… on second thought, I’m going to skip right past the musical chairs landscape of Italian power metallers for the time being), but now Luppi has been replaced by Sphere’s original vocalist Roberto Messina, who I remember from way back in 2003 for his stint on Alkemyst’s Meeting In The Myst (terrible band name, great record). Messina reminds me of a cross between Labyrinth’s Roberto Tiranti with a splash of Steve Perry for a more rounded, AOR style. This reunion of old band members has resulted in a spectacular collection of songs, smooth melodic metal with a slight neo-classical tinge in moments. What seems to separate Secret Sphere from their Italian contemporaries is an ear towards incorporating some subtle pop-metal influences ala Europe, something you can readily hear on “Thank You”, where punchy group vocals tackle a chorus Striker would die for. Messina shows off his flair for AOR vocal melodies with a Steve Lee-esque raspy edge on “Against All The Odds”, not only in tone, but in the mechanics of his phrasing (the sudden bend in the line “I don’t wanna say goodbye” in particular). Of course there’s plenty of more trad power metal stuff happening here too, as on the cracking title track where guitarist Aldo Lonobile spits out fireworks in the vein of Vision Divine’s more neo-classical, uptempo rockers. I also love the vibe of “The End Of An Ego” where the melodies are somewhat jagged but fit just enough to form a hook that’s satisfying in it’s raw energy and metallic edge. Like their countrymen in Labyrinth earlier this year, Secret Sphere have delivered one of the more standout power metal albums this year, and it’s always great to see veteran bands stepping up to the moment where younger bands have been delivering the goods as of late (for the most part).

Numenor – Draconian Age:

Serbia’s Numenor are one of the newer crop of trad/power metal bands to have surfaced in the past decade, releasing their debut in 2013 and delivering two more records in quick succession over the next few years. They’re a curiosity in the power metal landscape however for their more symphonic black metal roots, still heard here on their fourth album Draconian Age with the presence of grim vocalist Despot Marko Miranović. This album picks up where 2017’s Chronicles from the Realms Beyond left off, with Despot splitting lead vocal duties with clean vocalist Željko Jovanović who sings in sharp contrast with his soaring, clarion tenor. I really like Jovanović’s vocals, he’s got a nice balance of Kiske-ish lightness to his tone but undercut with a darker, weightier edge. On the eponymous “Numenor” (I guess it was bound to happen at some point, but gotta give them some credit for waiting until four albums in), Jovanović delivers his best performance to date with a layered lead vocal that is built on extended syllables and a fearless, heroic swagger befitting the lyrical subject matter. Guitarist Srđan Branković balances epic, Andre Olbrich-esque leads with some rumbling, thick riffs underneath, a mix that really gives a USPM vibe to a lot of what Numenor does. Oh speaking of Blind Guardian, Mr. Hansi Kursch makes splashy guest appearance on the lead off track “Make Your Stand (At the Gates of Erebor)”, matching his recent Judicator guest appearance with something that’s just as awesome, and perhaps even more striking for just how much he contrasts with Despot (yet fits in with Numenor’s sound like a glove). It’s bound to be the most talked about song on the album just for Hansi’s presence alone, but hopefully it doesn’t overshadow the equally spectacular “Feanor”, which behind Guardian’s own “The Curse of Fëanor” is now my second favorite song about the maker of the Silmarils to date. Something I’ve really come to appreciate about Numenor is their punchiness, with their songs kept fairly short and to the point despite their aim for epic majesty. Seriously, none of the ten songs on this album reach past the four minute mark, and most stay just above three minutes in length like some kind of pop-punk record. It keeps every listen of Draconian Age refreshingly short in an age of ten minute plus epics and unnecessary intro tracks, and more importantly it makes Numenor stand out from the crowd. The grim vocals will prevent this from being accepted by some power metal fans, and sometimes the narrations are a bit over the top, but this is easily one of the stronger records released this year.

Moonspell – Hermitage:

Ah this wasn’t an easy album to consider… I really sat with it for a long time, in fact, I believe I mentioned as much on the last two MSRcast episodes which were weeks apart even. My hopes for this record were elevated by the fact that Moonspell was one of the bands at the last gig I attended in October of 2019 (I know…) on their trek with Amorphis and Anneke Van Giersbergen. It was a spectacular show, my first time seeing them since 2005 or somewhere around then when they opened for Opeth, and Moonspell managed to steal the show yet again. I dove back into their past few records that I’d only glanced at before and got really into 1755 and Extinct. My anticipation level for Hermitage was fairly high then, and upon my first listen, I just couldn’t decipher what it was I was listening to. Gone was the aggressive, dark heavy rock inflected vibes of the past two records and in it’s place was something much more muted and atmospheric. I know I’ve written about this before, but that disconnect that happens when something you’re expecting is anything but, makes it hard for you to accept what something actually is — in other words, I had to take a break from trying to crack this album, get some distance from it and try again after a few weeks. This is a late February release, and it’s mid-May right now, and I’ll be honest I’m not even sure if I know what I’m thinking about this record sometimes. There are a couple of really cool moments here, particularly “Entitlement”, with its laid back, almost early aughts Paradise Lost vibes, but also “Common Prayers” with its Depeche Mode tones adorning a rather well done web of groove based riffs. And I appreciate the lead off track “The Greater Good” for it’s rare moment of pure aggression from vocalist Fernando Ribeiro, who for the most part hush sings his way through this album, even during it’s more emotive moments. I suspect the title track would have been a better lead single than “All Or Nothing”, which alongside “Without Rule” is a lengthy, seven minute plus track that needed to be half the length at it’s present tempo, or at least offered something in the way of shifting dynamics and sonic diversity. Those are moments where this album just loses me entirely, and they’re so sleepy, it makes it hard to recover. Maybe this is a mood dependent record, but I keep suspecting it’s just far too overthought for it’s own good.

Spectral Wound – A Diabolic Thirst:

One of 2020 musical resolutions was to try to leap back into black metal, but then the pandy happened and well, I was listening to other, more happier forms of music. I still am slow on the black metal uptake, largely because it doesn’t arrive in my promo box all that often and most of the stuff I get recommended to me is atmoblack (for godsake, no more atmoblack). I have been checking out an ever growing, largely black metal playlist made by friend of the podcast Justin who is far more on top of that genre’s new releases than I am (I think we’re calling him The Metal Detector now). But I’m proud to say one of the more notable black metal discoveries I’ve made for myself this year is Spectral Wound, and I believe they’re worth making noise over. These Montreal based guys are on their third record with A Diabolic Thirst, scoring a higher profile release this time around via Profound Lore, and they deliver some of the most convincingly frostbitten and grim second wave revivalist black metal you’ll hear this year. The most impressive aspect of this record is how this band manages to conjure up a tangible atmosphere without having to utilize keyboards, largely due to the creative guitar tapestry woven by Sean Zumbusch and Patrick McDowall who deliver razor sharp waves of tremolo riffs. On the album highlight, “Soul Destroying Black Debauchery”, they launch the song with a memorable riff that is actually this side of pretty and has a fairly expansive direction throughout. They largely operate in wall of sound territory, but part of what makes Spectral Wound’s sound so appealing is their willingness to incorporate space as a texture, particularly when one guitar drops away and it feels like you’ve made it below an awning to duck out of the deluge for a moment. You hear this on “Frigid and Spellbound”, and get to hear drummer Illusory (great black metal name btw) take advantage of the open space to knock out some creative rhythmic work and rolling fills. Gluing all this together are blistering vocals by Jonah Campbell (no grim pseudonym for him I guess) and a relatively polished production that makes the raw black metal components sound less like early Darkthrone and more like modern day Watain. I wish all modern black metal was this easy to love.

Pandiversary: The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist Revisited

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.

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