Arc of Space: The Remarkable Solo Career of Bruce Dickinson (Part Two)

Continuing this retrospective of Bruce Dickinson as a solo artist, we move into the most creatively fruitful period of his career. The Tattooed Millionaire/Balls to Picasso eras were characterized by accidents such as stumbling into recording opportunities and re-recording an album from scratch three times. He was trying to find his voice creatively and was still a member of Iron Maiden for most of it. In contrast, this next era was defined by Bruce entering into his own creatively and figuratively, he had left Maiden by the time Picasso emerged, and he plunged ahead with a new band that would become the Skunkworks lineup. This was also a strange time period in the music business when metal and hard rock artists were in gradual decline with the general public, yet could still collide with major label budgets based on virtue of their brand name alone. In Bruce’s case, this meant that his artistic efforts around this time were met with his record company’s casual indifference towards actually promoting them beyond throwing money at music videos and press tours. And in fairness to those companies, it was hard to know how to promote a veteran metal artist’s solo efforts at the time — grunge and alternative had changed things irrevocably in the pop culture landscape and even the mighty Maiden were feeling the brunt of its effects.

Yet this was also the most adventurous, throw caution to the wind period of Bruce’s career, from flying into war-torn, besieged Sarajevo in December of 1994 to play a surreal concert in a life threatening situation, to more trivial things such as completely cutting off his hair and refreshing his public image to a less “metal” profile (much to the chagrin of metal fans, who were about to go ballistic with the then upcoming Metallica album Load and its provoking band photos). He shook up his sound with Skunkworks, working with a decidedly not-metal band and the result was something that existed in between genres, not quite alternative or grunge nor metal. He then reunited with Roy Z and the Tribes of Gypsies guys and pioneered a modernized approach to traditional metal, and in doing so forged his own sonic identity towards the back half of the decade. I love reading old interviews from him during this era, and especially in hearing him more recently recall this period with the benefit of hindsight, because it’s very fearless nature was exactly what made him a compelling solo artist. He was never afraid to experiment in public, even at great personal expense and risk, and his failures were as interesting as his successes. I’ve tried to explain this to people in the past, that it wasn’t Bruce’s amazing records with Maiden that made me become a massive fan of the man personally (even though I loved those) — instead, it was the albums I’m discussing down below that really did it, and all the stories behind them.


Skunkworks (1996, Raw Power)

Perhaps the most misunderstood album in Bruce Dickinson’s solo oeuvre, Skunkworks is a document that reflects not only the times during which it was written and recorded with it’s nod towards mid-90s alternative rock, but also of Bruce’s ambition to step out of the shadow of Iron Maiden even more so than he had done on Balls to Picasso. People sometimes refer to this as his “grunge” moment, but I’ve always felt that was a narrow and simplistic description, perhaps hyper focusing on the involvement of alternative rock producer extraordinaire Jack Endino. Bruce’s true ambition at this moment in his solo career was to establish a new band called “Skunkworks”, though he was denied by his record company at the time and basically forced to release it under his name for commercial reasons. But in considering this new band that he pieced together for the Balls to Picasso tour that carried over into this album — and that he chose to co-write the entire album with his relatively unknown new guitarist Alex Dickson, it’s understandable that he was trying to do something genuinely fresh in his career as a musician. It’s true that Dickson was more of an alternative rock guitarist as opposed to having a hard rock or metal background like Roy Z, and you hear this in his approach both as a co-songwriter as well as his performances here. Like Roy Z on Picasso, Dickson was the only guitarist in the lineup, and would have to fill up more of the sound on his own, veering between rhythm and lead playing. I’ve always felt that the singular guitarist lineups on Picasso and particularly on Skunkworks were the key in connecting those albums to the sound of bands such as Faith No More, Rollins Band, and even Rush more so than the twin guitar attack of Maiden.

Those aforementioned bands come to my mind in fits and spurts when listening to this album, largely because of the three piece guitar/bass/drums stripped down attack, and especially how Dickson loosely veers between laying down an awesome riff that glides in and out of gloriously fuzzy and psychedelic lead patterns whenever appropriate, only to fall back into a solid groove alongside bassist Chris Dale. Yet Rush is really the band that I think is the most apt comparison here, because so much of what Dickson is doing both as a songwriter and a guitarist is crafting prog infused hard rock that is breathable, loosely held together with melodic threads and with ample space for Bruce’s vocals to come in and take things into a refreshing direction with his soaring tenor. The obvious examples here are the two singles “Back From the Edge” and “Inertia”, where the contrast between a sky high soaring vocal melody during the pre-chorus and chorus is such a sharp contrast to how rhythmic and tight the verse sections are. The result are hooks that explode from the speakers, full of vibrant energy and colorful sonic imagery. Personally I’ve always felt that this album was awash in the color blue, like sky blue streaked with pinks, reds, and purples like some glorious sunrise or sunset. That kinda fits with the theme present in tunes such as “Solar Confinement” and particularly “Space Race”, where Bruce sings “Just want to feel the starlight on my face / Reach out my hand and touch beyond”, a not so veiled allusion to his then blossoming pursuit of becoming a qualified pilot.

This prog-influence I’m hearing wasn’t purposeful I think, but the byproduct of Dickinson’s natural tendencies and range as a vocalist working in the context of a band that wasn’t very Maiden-y at all. There’s a strangeness to this album that makes it one of a kind, a meeting of musical worlds that normally did not cross paths during this era (the grungier albums by once reigning pop-metal artists like Warrant don’t count because that was them trying to be something they weren’t, whereas the guys in the Skunkworks lineup were the genuine article). And look, I know the album isn’t quite perfect. The first five cuts here from “Space Race” to “Solar Confinement” are bangers, but the album hits a middle lull with “Dreamstate” and “I Will Not Accept the Truth” which although I do rather enjoy in the context of a full album listen myself, I’m willing to admit that you really have to be in the right headspace for them to land. The album finishes rather strong however with some strong psychedelic moments and an absolute epic in “Strange Death in Paradise”. Overall, its an album that might land some punches on you the first time around, but is definitely is a grower overall, requiring listens over time to fully open up. In that sense, it was a first for Bruce, a mood based album that relied on a listener being in the right headspace for it rather than just racing right into your subconscious via calvary charge ala “The Trooper”. That explains its mixed reaction when it first came out (and again, the haircut likely didn’t help), but this album has aged well in it’s opinions online from fans over the years. Bruce himself regards it fondly and with a reverence that is refreshing, as opposed to trying to ignore it or pretend it never happened. Personally, I love Skunkworks and it exemplifies the adventurous spirit that I love about his solo career overall.

Essential Cuts: So this might be fairly obvious, but “Inertia” is one of the finest songs in Bruce’s solo discography to date, there’s just something so emotionally affecting about its vocal led intro over a loosely strummed chord sequence, a sharp change of pace from how we’d normally have heard him in the context of Iron Maiden songs with their usual intros (“Can I Play With Madness” a rare exception). It was also a sterling example of just how much he had grown as a lyricist within this new band context, because “Inertia” is an incredible piece of lyric writing, but truthfully he just delivered all across the board in that regard, and its one of the main reasons I think the album has aged so well. It was clearly a reference to his experience playing in the middle of beseiged, war-torn Sarejevo in December of 1994, when he and the band were snuck into the city center and famously played a show there under the threat of mortal peril. I’ll also cite “Back From the Edge” here because its such an undeniable tune, with a refrain that’s powerful, making full use of Bruce’s range, and he just sounds exceptionally sharp on it. I also wanna make special mention of “Octavia”, an overlooked gem in the back half of the album with Dickson’s most psychedelic guitarwork, an almost Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream tone on that lead guitar that is so warm and fuzzy and works as a beautiful counterpart to Bruce’s emotive vocal throughout.

Accident of Birth (1997, Raw Power)

Widely regarded as a close second to The Chemical Wedding as the best album of Bruce’s solo career, Accident of Birth arrived less than a year after he had finished touring the Skunkworks album. He said farewell to the guys in that band, who mind you, he’d been touring with since 1994, and reunited with both Roy Z from Tribe of Gypsies and the Balls to Picasso album as well as the one and only Adrian Smith. Eddie Casillas and Dave Ingraham, fellow Tribe members who also played on Picasso, were roped back into the fold to round out the rhythm section and together this line-up can be considered the most iconic for Bruce’s solo career, yielding two masterful albums and one crushing live album. Regarding the line-up change, Bruce was quoted in Rock Hard Germany at the time stating, “We came to the point where our musical aims were so far apart that there wasn’t any sense in working together any longer. I had certain ideas about the further development of Skunkworks that weren’t shared by the other band members. After I heard their song ideas for the last album and compared them with what I wanted to do, I sat down with them and said: ‘I want a crushing, politically incorrect metal album, but you seem to want to do something completely different.’ Their world seemed to turn around Beck and stuff like that, while I was in a metal mood. So I took a plane to California and wrote a big part of the material together with Roy Z”.

I wonder if Bruce’s change in mood towards returning to metal was fueled by the blowback he got for the changes in sound and image during that era. It may seem preposterous now (and then as well), but those things really did matter with metal fans (this was after all the era of Metallica’s Load and the absolute chaos that ensued with fans when that album was released). He’s been vocal about suggesting that management and the record company didn’t get Skunkworks, and that it was Roy Z who reached out to him with some unexpected new material: “It was actually Roy that dragged me back into some assemblance, because he called up and he said, ‘Listen, I’ve got some stuff and it’s like a metal record.’ And I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t really sure that I had anything to offer … Then he played me some backing-tracks he’d done for what was to become Accident of Birth down the phone and I thought ‘There is something there.'”. The resulting process was quick, and there’s not much of a major difference between the demos (later released on the expanded edition of the album) and the finished album versions. Adrian was brought in and contributed three songs (“The Road to Hell”, “Welcome to the Pit”, and “The Ghost of Cain”) which complemented what Roy was doing songwriting wise with a slightly more straightforward metallic take on the new sound. During interviews at the time, Bruce talked enthusiastically about how Roy had brought the heaviness of modern metal bands such as Biohazard to a traditional heavy metal songwriting approach. It was in many ways, a novel thing that no one else was really doing at the time, with European power metal bands staying faithful to the Helloween mode and older traditional bands such as Maiden carrying on as usual.

I wish I was one of those fans that got to hear the album directly when it was released, in the context of knowing what Skunkworks was all about. I came to Accident of Birth first, and Skunkworks after that, but I wonder how many nervous fans felt crestfallen at the first few seconds of the opening cut “Freak”, with its grunge fuzz toned guitar wail, only to get immediately punched in the gut when the slamming metal riff kicked in the doors. A purposeful bait and switch? Undeterminable. As an opener, “Freak” was a spectacular microcosm of what the new Bruce sound would offer — a slightly downtuned guitar sound built around dense, thick riffing and a fat rhythm section anchoring the bottom end. The contrast between this purposeful instrumental design and the traditional, melodic metal mode of songwriting created a vibrant, bracing sound that still sounds fresh and captivating today after decades of the “modern metal” sound permeating every subgenre of metal. Fellow bruisers such as “Starchildren” and “Welcome to the Pit” served as similar tone setters for the album, that this was not only the heaviest album you’ve ever heard Bruce sing on, but by far heavier than anything Maiden had put out (certainly not a slight, just a fact and a surprising one at that). These heavier tunes were a collective statement, that Bruce wasn’t afraid of trying to modernize his own sound and that this album wouldn’t sound out of place in a playlist with current bands.

For all the sonic heaviness of the album, there was a buoyancy to the tone of these songs that came through via the soaring lead melodies and of course, Bruce’s penchant for crafting uplifting, empowering vocal hooks. I’ve always thought “Road to Hell” had layers of depth to it despite the lyrics and riffs being very straightforward and relatively simple on the surface. Maybe its something about Bruce’s lyrics towards the back half where he contemplates how “We all have to live with our family inventions” — it rings even more autobiographical after having read Bruce’s book “What Does This Button Do?” where he detailed his rather turbulent childhood and home situation. And epics like “Darkside of Aquarius” and “Omega” were multifaceted, dynamic songs that unfolded in surges of heightened dramatic tension, the former built on passages that recall hints of Dio era Sabbath while the latter boasts one of the thickest groove riffs you’ll ever hear in a song that is inherently very un-groovy. I love “Omega” in all it’s progressive, moody, temperamental glory, especially the skyward aiming guitar solo midway through — but it also was an example of how Bruce was continuing the coming into his own as a lyricist that began on Skunkworks. Though “Accident of Birth” as a title track is very autobiographical in regards to Bruce (despite the hellish imagery), it also was an apt description for the creation of this album as a whole, an unexpected collaboration that reunited Bruce with his most successful writing partners, and launched a renaissance that would carry through to rejoining Maiden two years later.

Essential Cuts: Although I loved the heaviness of the album as a whole, the songs that left the deepest impression on me were the ones that were built on beautiful vocal melodies such as the powerfully epic “Taking the Queen”, where Bruce serenaded a plaintive lyric over a gentle, almost lullaby-like melody. That U-turn when the chorus hits is in my top ten favorite Bruce moments of all time, the sheer crackling power that erupts when those guitars kick in and he dramatically sings “The howling shriek of death in your eyes / The hawklord and the beast enter your room”. That layered, echoing effect on “enter your room! — just inject that in my veins please. Its the kind of moment that not only makes the song, but is emblematic of why I love the drama and theatricality of metal. In this same melodic vein, the wistful ballad “Arc of Space” sees Bruce delivering an emotionally wrought and longing vocal performance that paints a cinematic picture of a dreamlike, haunting vision. I’ve never been able to decipher what this song is supposed to be about, but I certainly know that it hits me hard and leaves a powerful impression every time I hear it. That gorgeous finger plucked acoustic guitar solo accompanied by an aching cello and violin just hits my heartstrings in a way few ballads ever have.

The Chemical Wedding (1998, Air Raid)

Finally, we arrive at the apex, not only of Bruce’s solo career but arguably some might say of metal in general in the late 90s. Frequently cited as one of the great metal albums of the decade, The Chemical Wedding is a marvel of worlds colliding, with the band further developing the down tuned, uber-heavy sound they began on Accident of Birth and fusing it with Bruce and Roy’s most inspired songwriting to date, all woven together with the literary inspiration of English poet William Blake. The collision of a truly modern metal sonic approach merging with some of the finest traditional metal songwriting of Bruce’s career resulted in a sound that was genuinely new, incredibly fresh — not just for Bruce, but for metal overall. In looking back on this record and when it was released, I defy you to find another album released before the The Chemical Wedding that accomplished something similar with such spectacular results. It was a leap forward for traditional metal, proof that the genre could sound vital, gritty, dark, and rich with depth. It was also refreshingly self-serious in an era when irony, effervescence, and humor were held in higher esteem by the music press. The band — Roy, Adrian, Eddie Casillas, and Dave Ingraham all returning and contributing to the songwriting in moments, had grown into this sound, the seeds being planted on tracks such as “Laughing in the Hiding Bush” and “Hell No” on Balls to Picasso, and of course most of Accident of Birth. As a result of this natural progression, the sound here is fully realized, the fruits of something that began organically and over the course of time. The true strength of the album however is that despite all it’s era defining greatness, it sounds strangely out of time, untethered to anything we associate with the late 90s, largely due to I think because it is a fully realized, self-contained work of art, a world unto itself and it can stand alone as such.

Bruce says that the genesis of all this began with his interest in alchemy leading him to think up the potential album title of “The Chemical Wedding”. In an interview with the guys behind the Bruce Dickinson Well-Being Network (the oldest Bruce fansite) he explained: “So then, normally when I start writing albums, I start off by going to bookstore and I just walk around the bookstore looking for strange stuff. I was just browsing and this thing caught my eye which was an encyclopedia in art history of alchemy… A big thick book with loads of great pictures in it, ranging from early pictures of alchemical engravings, right up to H.R. Giger and stuff like that. And what’s linking them all together is that they all have an alchemical thread to them. And Blake features very heavily in this book, both his paintings and his poetry. One of them was this painting of Urizen and Los which completely blew me away. This was at the time when I had written three or four songs for the album already… And I was stuck. I thought “Alchemy, yea it’s kind of interesting” but I’m not sure there’s another four songs I can write about alchemy that’s gonna be up to it, you know. Then all of a sudden… enter William Blake! So I go off to the bookstore and found “Selected poems of William Blake”. I started reading and there it was…”. That copy of “Selected Poems of William Blake” brought into focus Bruce’s interest in Blake’s alchemical symbology and reminded him of his introduction to Blake’s work when as a student he’d have to sing the hymn “Jerusalem”, adapted from Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Times”. This convergence of ideas manifested into a lyrical theme that he wove throughout the album in a few tracks that were already musically composed by Roy, and others that had to be worked up from scratch.

It’s always wild to behold that intro to “King in Crimson”, with its nearly sludge metal crushing riffs, distorted bluesy leads and Bruce’s deep, expansively unfolding dramatic vocals delivering a truly inspired picture of gothic, occult terror. That combination of sounds instantly sets the tone throughout and crafts a sonic identity for the album that works as the nexus point for all the deviations explored on the rest of the songs. Such as on the ensuing title track, a song that veers between spacious, atmospheric psychedelia during the verses to a pulverizing, grinding riff sequence ushering in the epic refrain. This is such a gloriously majestic song, both musically and lyrically, and I sometimes think its the epic on the album when it actually clocks in at an economical four minutes flat. The actual epic on the album is “The Book of Thel”, a monstrous behemoth of a song built on a devastating riff progression and perhaps the rhythm section’s most thunderous display of window shaking fury on the album. It’s a deceptively long song that feels like it just sprints by in a flash, but maybe that’s due to the sheer awesomeness of the effective tension building minute long intro sequence or the climactic mid-song instrumental bridge. That passage, queued in by Casillas’ rumbly bass notes that unfurl into a devastatingly powerful riff, is one of those moments where you can’t help but start headbanging along (it gets me every time). Along with “Jerusalem”, these three tracks serve as the album’s tent poles so to speak, emotional pillars that support the different emotions and musical approaches that flow throughout the album’s entirety.

A lot of attention has gone to “The Killing Floor” as it was the first single and video released from the album, and it’s easy to see why it was selected as such. Built on swirling psychedelic textures and a thick, heavy groove, it was easily the best rhythmically strutting tune Bruce had ever concocted. The chorus of a group vocal shouting “Satan!” was certainly ear-catching and might have been considered slightly campy had it not been prefaced by downright chilling lyrics: “I’ve never been held by the hand of god / Who’s rocking the cradle, if he is not?”. The music video is worthy of mention here, a bit of 90’s weirdo music video camp that saw Bruce as a waiter in Satan’s restaurant (the latter of which was played by a hairdresser from Camden according to Bruce). One of the hidden gems of the album is “Machine Men”, tucked away near the end of the track listing but certainly worthy of possibly being considered a single just by virtue of how fully realized it’s refrain turned out. The first of the two slower paced yet doomily heavy tunes on the album, “Gates of Urizen” has strong Dio-era Sabbath vibes happening in its soulful songwriting, Bruce’s vocals interweaving with haunting guitar leads that seem to reverberate in space. The other is the album closer “The Alchemist”, a patient, thoughtful paean to conclude the album that ends with a beautiful vocalization before bowing out with a slowed down reprise of the chorus from the title track (“And so we lay / We lay in the same grave / Our chemical wedding day”), creating a kind of full circle moment for the album as a whole.

Essential Cuts: This album stands in my mind as such a complete, holistic (first time I’ve ever used that word on this blog I’m damn sure) listening experience that its hard to isolate individual tracks as “essential”, so take these as more of my personal favorites. First to mind is “The Tower”, which might be my favorite uptempo Bruce song of all time, this song being a propulsive, rhythmic masterpiece. Casillas bass lines here are so locked into this amazing groove, with Ingraham filling the spaces in between with a bouncy pattern, that you’re already engaged well before Roy and Adrian come swooping in. Bruce’s vocal melody design in this refrain is masterful, a heavenward spiraling ascending run that is layered to sound lush and full. The lead guitar melody that serves as the post chorus outro is simply iconic, one of the more memorable guitar riffs of the entire Bruce discography, to say nothing about how devastating that thoughtfully articulated solo is towards the back half. I’m also going to cite “Jerusalem” here, because this song is at once plaintive in its hymn like simplicity (borrowing Blake’s lyrics help), and yet joyfully exuberant and majestically powerful. The choice of scaled back instrumentation throughout the first half of the song has always struck me as a particularly inspired decision, lots of chiming acoustic guitars and letting Bruce’s voice breathe and echo and fill the space. The twin harmony guitars joining together for that emotional guitar solo in the second half is just one of those glory claw to the sky inducing moments, sounding so righteous and profound by itself.

(Look forward to part three where we’ll conclude with Tyranny of Souls, and of course The Mandrake Project)

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2023 // Part Two: The Albums

Here it is, part two of the Best of 2023 feature, with my top ten albums of the year, as always kept to a short list of ten, despite my having a mess of assorted runners up and one hard cut that could theoretically be called number eleven. For any newcomers to the blog, I don’t bother with numbering past the top ten, because with a few exceptions of certain lists I’m really interested in, I’ve always found it hard to parse out how numbering things for personal taste based lists matters much after that. This year I’ll gladly recommend checking out the recently dropped 2023 recap episode by our friends at The Metal Exchange Podcast, whose lengthily numbered lists (one of the aforementioned exceptions) are interesting because they cover quite a bit of stuff that I had either only listened to a few times or not heard at all, and their tastes closely align with mine. For my part, this list was maybe one of the more agonized over with the exception of the top slot, whom I’ve suspected was going to sit atop there for months and months now. The year started off slow, but surged as the months went on and we all had to play catch up, and the size of nominee pool this year was way more crowded than it had been these past couple years. It was great to see that within power metal we see signs of maybe things starting to turn around, with some really promising new artists represented on the list below, after it seemed like the subgenre had started to lose it’s way over the past few years. It’s also striking to see that six of the top ten albums on my list are from artists that were either new or certainly new to me, one of those small details that spells great things for the health of metal overall (or perhaps just my relationship to it, either way). If you want to hear about those other album nominees that didn’t make it, as well as my cohost Cary’s best of picks, check out our upcoming 2023 recap episode of the MSRcast podcast. And finally, the list:


1. Sacred Outcry – Towers of Gold:

I was thinking about this recently, the hypothetical idea that my favorite band of all time, Iron Maiden, could have released a near perfect throwback sounding album in 2023 reminiscent of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and honestly, I’m still not sure it would be able to dislodge Towers of Gold from atop this list. That is just how genre defining this album is, a modern day power metal classic. One that in future discussions of essential power metal records, I’ll casually list alongside Keeper I&II, Nightfall in Middle Earth, Land of the Free, and frickin’ Ecliptica, just the whole damn list of records you love and know by heart and I don’t have the time and space to list right now! This is the most convincingly well done old school pure power metal record I’ve heard in ages, a complete start to finish compelling listening experience rife with intensity, grand drama, theatricality, and a level of emotion woven into the fabric of the songwriting that reminds me of when I first heard those classic Khan era Kamelot albums. Much of the attention of course is falling on what is seemingly a career renaissance defining performance for legendary vocalist Daniel Heiman, and rightfully so (more on him in a second), but to me the real star here is George Apalodimas’ songwriting and overall conceptual vision. The mythic storyline that serves as the musical and lyrical focal point throughout, of a band of adventurers who hungrily lust after the towers of gold they hear described by an old man at their inn is broad and vague enough to be filled in with grand impressionist brushstrokes, not detailed plot that can often bog down the songwriting in an effort to get across tiny details. Yet credit to Apalodimas here, because the premise of the lyrical narrative is still cleverly written in a first person style to create depth and immersion the way the best concept albums are (think Mindcrime), and not delivered like a children’s book of fables. It took me a few listens just taking everything in before some of the lyrics really began to pique my attention, but this was really the singular album in metal this year where I found my attention drifting to what Heiman was singing as opposed to just how he was singing it, a credit to the care and attention paid to the lyricism at work.

Of course let’s take a moment to talk about Mr. Heiman here, because he is a legendary power metal vocalist who not only commands interest in anything he does, but deserves his flowers here for turning in what maybe is one of the best performances in his career, alongside those Lost Horizon classics we all love. Consider his energizing, soaring tenor on galloping uptempo anthemic tunes such as “The Flame Rekindled” where he navigates highly rhythmic vocal lines and knows exactly where to pepper in those patented screams from the utter depths of his soul (what else can you call those?). I love some of the vocal decisions being made here, like an almost deliberately slower, stately approach to the vocal melody on “The Voyage” as the music surges ahead underneath, creating a billowing effect like you’re visualizing the wind hitting the sails of a ship at sea. The wild swings of his voice on “Into the Storm” are so rich and nuanced, really lending weight and gravitas to the storytelling, and of course the reason for a standing ovation here is his work on the best songs listee “Symphony of the Night”, where his he manages to somehow fit in distant screams into a performance that is achingly emotive while hushed and restrained, a masterclass in itself. This song is also a great example of the musical synergy coursing through this entire album, the guitar work by Steve Lado is wonderfully melodic, and expressively lyrical. Apalodimas’ own excellent bass work is actually a crucial element to many of these pieces, his playing reminds me of Eddie Jackson of Queensryche, a throbbing pulse that feeds so much of the sound being crafted here. And kudos to the technical drumming of Defkalion Dimos, who is a fill machine all throughout this album, and knows how to match the drama of the music when the intensity ramps up with a battering attack, but also creative patterns that are contrary to what you’d expect. Even though these guys are all new musicians to the project, with this as their first recording together, it all has the feel of a band that’s been playing together for a decade plus, and credit for that has to go to Apalodimas. I hope he can keep this lineup together, although I trust that he can deliver something great next time as well even if he’s unable to retain their services. I’m sure by now he knows that he’s achieved something spectacular with Towers of Gold, but just in case, here’s one more voice to join the already loud chorus of people proclaiming so.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

2.  Skyblazer – Infinity’s Wings:

This album really took a journey to wind up at this placement on this list. At first I was keeping it off entirely because it just seemed like such a homer pick for someone like myself who is a massive fan of Power Quest, which is (among a few others such as Crystallion and Freedom Call) the chief influence driving Johannes Skyblazer in this project. Then I sheepishly slid it in at number ten down there because I couldn’t deny the sheer amount of times I listened to it. Yet as the weeks went on and I kept refining and re-ordering the list as I listened to all the candidates and jostled things around, I realized that it would be entirely disingenuous of me to not have this much much higher. And I can’t really say why it took so long to reach that conclusion — maybe its because Infinity’s Wings is the least heaviest record on this largely extreme metal dominated list, or maybe it’s because of its unintentionally home studio sounding, semi-amateurish production (which I think is a charming strength of the album, but I know that might be a minority opinion). What I know for absolute certain however, is that my introduction to Skyblazer this year was downright poetic in that Power Quest unceremoniously announced their retirement with a simple press release in February, so this album felt like a passing of the torch for this particular style of power metal. Johannes nails what makes this keyboard driven, energetic, bright-toned, euphoric power metal sound so appealing, and he writes suitably anthemic songs to match, loaded with memorable hooks, soaring melodies, and sharp chord progressions. Unlike his heroes, who had the benefit of full band lineups and recording studios, Skyblazer is essentially a one man project, with Johannes handling all the songwriting, recording, and lead vocals on his own (with some assists from a few guests). Admitting in interviews that his audio production can’t compete with the bigger bands, he’s expressed hope that his attention to the songwriting would compensate, and I think he has achieved that in spades. The result is a unique sound, even apart from his influences although their spirit flows eagerly through this album. In a year where I loudly complained about the state of popular power metal as disheartening, dumb garbage, Infinity’s Wings was among a handful of defiantly earnest, heart on sleeve, shimmering jewels that showed me and others that there are still artists out there who remember why this style of music meant so much to many of us in the past, and can continue to going forward.

3.  Serenity – Nemesis AD:

Sometimes, the injection of new blood in a lineup can act as an immediate catalyst for creative growth in a band, as opposed to forcing growing pains that need to be endured. With the exception of one truly inspired album (2016’s Codex Atlanticus) in the immediate wake of longtime guitarist Thomas Buchberger’s departure in 2014, Serenity had been adrift creatively in the past few years — and it seemed like Georg Neuhauser might have felt that somewhat as well, launching new side projects with Warkings and Fallen Sanctuary. The latter of these projects saw him pair up with Temperance songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Marco Pastorini, and yielded a pretty enjoyable, hard rock meets AOR meets power metal record. Credit to Neuhauser then for realizing that Pastorini would give Serenity some needed juice, because Nemesis AD is their best album since War of Ages, hearkening back to the magic they had with the Buchberger lineup. I already discussed how 2023’s best songs list topper “Reflections (of AD)” made me giddy with euphoria, but I didn’t get to mention how “Ritter, Tod und Teufel (Knightfall)” brimmed with the kind of Sonata Arctica meets Kamelot prog-power bliss that echoed shades of their classic Death & Legacy album. Nor did I get to mention how glory-claw inducingly epic the Roy Khan duet “The Fall of Man” turned out (that Kamelot influence coming full circle), nor how utterly charming the sweepingly melodramatic and achingly sweet Broadway-inspired power ballad “Crowned by an Angel” was, a tune Tobias Sammet would have loved to have penned. Pastorini’s influence is felt all throughout this album, the songs are sharper, the melodies sweeter, and there’s an overall sense that this band feels creatively renewed once again.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

4.  Sorcerer – Reign of the Reaper:

Expansive, cinematic, spiritual, and downright Epic with a capital E, Sorcerer delivered the finest album of what has been a stellar string of solid to excellent releases since their full band resurrection in 2015. They are to my mind, ascending the heights of trad laden doom metal in terms of artistic output to justifiably be compared to the greats of the subgenre in Candlemass. Despite it’s late October release date, this album casts such a large shadow over this list, that it was one of the first candidates I wrote down when compiling the list, and an easy one to highlight for one of the these ten spots. So much went right on this album, and it was due to the band playing around with their epic doom metal formula a bit. Where they leaned very doomy on 2020’s Lamenting of the Innocent which I feel led in large part to that album’s tendency to drag — they reversed course for Reign of the Reaper, introducing more classic heavy metal songwriting into the mix and restricting the doomier parts of their sound to aspects such as guitar tone, dense riffing, and keyboard derived cinematic atmospheres. As a result, the songwriting got sharper, more reminiscent of the clinic they put on in 2017’s The Crowning of the Fire King, songs oriented around not only memorable hooks, but recurrent melodic motifs articulated by Kristian Niemann’s impeccable signature lead guitarwork (seriously he’s cemented himself as one of my all-time favorite guitarists). This lean towards more traditional metal also opened up things for vocalist Anders Engberg to craft some of his most soulful and expressive vocal performances to date, reminding me in many spots (especially those soft sung intros) of the great Ronnie James Dio. You’ve probably noticed that “Morning Star” landed high on the Best Songs of 2023, but the truth is that this entire album was filled with truly incredible songs with little amazing moments all their own and it’d take way too long to go through them all. Just trust me and put this on and let it spin if you haven’t already, it’s one of the most satisfying listens of the year.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

5.  Gatekeeper – From Western Shores:

Undoubtedly one of the strongest front to finish metal albums of the year, Gatekeeper pushed aside any notion of the sophomore slump with their stellar second album From Western Shores. I remember not feeling the buzz that came with their debut many years back, despite giving it a shot largely due to it’s Cruz Del Sur label pedigree, but this album really delivered on what I saw then as budding potential. Part of the success here is just how well new vocalist Tyler Anderson fits the band’s upgraded sound here, his Eric Adams meets Chris Black dichotomous approach meshing perfectly with the more polished production that the Gatekeeper guys have employed this time around. On that subject, the band’s musical DNA of stripped down epic USPM is still preserved here entirely, but the guitars are fuller, lusher, particularly leads and harmonies, and the rhythm section seems tighter than on the debut, giving all these songs a heft and weight that winds up being the central element to this album’s success. With that bedrock in place, guitarists Jeff Black and new guy Adam Bergen are left with free reign to run amok with a flurry of inspired melodies, tight harmonies, and impeccably satisfying solos. Anderson can veer from wild, David DeFeis style yowling moments to these very straight faced Manilla Road meets Dawnbringer style vocals where his tone approaches something akin to a style that would fit in on a stoner metal album, and he covers the spectrum in between, in his best moments here reminding me of 80’s Jon Oliva. This is masterfully done epic power metal with purposefully rougher edges, a heavy bottom end and bared teeth in riffs and attitude, all on a damn near perfect album.

6.  Cloak – Black Flame Eternal:

The yearly surprise out-of-leftfield album to make the list is becoming a Metal Pigeon tradition by this point, and this year the honor goes to Atlanta, Georgia’s Cloak, who delivered the most convincing and addictive extreme metal album of the year. Their sound is a blend of intense, grimy black metal with lush gothic metal melodic overtones in a fusion that is as inspired as anything we’ve seen in this space since Tribulation. This is their third album, and despite being on Season of Mist who have a pretty broad promotional reach, this band apparently sailed under the radars of both myself and others I know because we didn’t even play them on the MSRcast until this album came out. But better late than never of course, and although this album leapt out to me as ultra hooky and addictive the moment I listened to it, I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I started doing play count analytics and realized it was one of my most listened to albums in 2023, only second to Sacred Outcry in sheer numbers. I think the reason I came back to it repeatedly is that beyond the catchy riffs and clever blending of rockin’ heavy metal riffs into the whole gothic black metal mix, there is a tremendous amount of depth going on here. Take the two marching, rumbling epics that bookend the album, where the band confidently uses gradual tempo changes and spacious silence to build to impactful climaxes. And “With Fury and Allegiance” is built on such a excellent riff progression, simultaneously furious, melodic, and cinematic in it’s breadth (this song narrowly missed the best songs list). That explosive thrust that occurs at 3:36 (“Come silent night…”) was one of my favorite singular metal moments of the year, earning a fist pump every time I heard it no matter how ridiculous I must have looked.

7.  Keep of Kalessin – Katharsis:

Talk about an album that shook the jaded metalhead right out of me when I first listened to it back in what, April? It was just one album among a long list of them I was playing while talking a walk in a park on one of our nicer spring days. I suppose I’ll forever associate the album with my memory of that day, because I remember it was really the first album of the whole year that really thrilled me in that basic, fundamental way of just being a metal fan. This album was not only aggressively heavy in blasts, and full of all the meaty riffs and excellent scream/harshes that have characterized the band’s sound all these many years — but it just swept over me with it’s grandiosity and sense of adventure. I hear this combination most vividly in songs such as “Hellride” with its skyrocketing upward surge when the chorus hits, that rare kind of moment that I love when sustained intensity is compounded with a blast of even more intensity. The band’s sense of melodicism seemed to spill over the edges everywhere here, as on the Enthrone Darkness Triumphant invoking “War of the Wyrm”, where the inclusion of a semi-spoken word section actually enhanced the dramatic sweep of the song, rather than sucking all the momentum out like most bands tend to do when trying it. That melodicism characterized the Best Songs of 2023 listee “Journey’s End”, a bittersweet, emotive ballad that served as a perfect mid-album meditation and mood changer. And I was struck by how much power metal influence seemed to creep into the whole affair here, particularly on the epic “Throne of Execration”, where I felt major Blind Guardian/Andre Olbrich vibes happening on the harmonized lead guitars that poured a gorgeous melody out over the top towards the outro of the song. This was genuinely a multi-faceted album that hit all my metal sweet spots in various moments, molded together by creative and inspired songwriting and the feel of listening to something expansive, far reaching, and ambitious.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

8.  Moonlight Sorcery – Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle:

It’s not very often that you can aptly describe a black metal album as sounding magical, and dare I go further, sparklingly magical(!), but Finland’s Moonlight Sorcery achieves exactly that in a combination of symphonic power metal inspired ultra melodicism via keyboard synths and neoclassical guitar leads strewn across Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle. And maybe its the fact that I’ve been reading up on moon druids for DnD recently (nerd!), but this amalgam of sounds really does live up to the band’s name, sounding for all the world like the soundtrack to a swords and sorcery fantasy adventure-RPG videogame at times (blackened vocals aside). I was recommended this album by several people gushing about it all at once around October, and it’s rare that something manages to grab so many people’s attentions all at once these days when we’re usually all on different pages regarding everything. Guitarist and main songwriter Matti Meri-Huhti (credited as “Loitsumestari Taikakallo” here) seems to be the architect of this fusion, and I’d be a little shocked if he wasn’t a major Yngwie Malmsteen fan at some point in his life because his leads remind me of the Swedish master, tastefully articulated and thoughtfully patterned. Hearing this kind of lead playing set against the backdrop of pretty faithful, yet polished up second wave Norwegian black metal is such a refreshing and novel contrast. There have been examples where other artists have tried something close to this, but nothing that ever went all in on that sharp of a contrast the way Moonlight Sorcery have accomplished here. The culminating apex here for me is “Into the Silvery Shadows of the Night”, a hauntingly beautiful stately dirge with a mystical sounding lead melody ushering us during the outro. This is without a doubt one of the most memorable black metal albums of the last five, possibly ten years, definitely an easy one to return to.

9.  Immortal – War Against All:

In the spirit of not overthinking this one, this second post Abbath Immortal album just flat out rocked me ever since it’s release this summer, somehow managing to outdo the triumphant 2018 comeback Northern Chaos Gods. And you know, Demonaz has always had the right to lay claim to being at least fifty percent of the formula that made Immortal so successful, but what’s shocking is just how he’s managed to shake off the notion that Abbath was largely the musical driving force in the band. This new album sees Demonaz continuing the look back towards the band’s early, more blistering paced releases, while dropping a nod towards the mid-paced era they’d start to explore towards the turn of the millennium. That he manages to accomplish this while keeping the production crisp and pristine (yet not polished) is a testament to how well he understands what made those great Immortal records so undeniably appealing to audiences beyond black metal. Songs such as “War Against All”, “Blashyrkh My Throne”, and “Wargod” are catchy as all get out, and have that thrashy edge that I often wish more black metal bands would employ. I also appreciate that he hasn’t tried to stray from the tried and true fantastical Immortal style, going all in on the band’s mythos and fantasy steeped tales, as on “No Sun” with it’s tale of the mountain of evil (where there rises no sun, duh). I’ve seen people take some sideswipes at Demonaz for continuing the Blashyrkh mythos throughout the lyrics, and I want to shout at them to clear the hall — the imagery informs the sound and vice versa, its grim and frostbitten and that’s why we loved this band and all their classic albums. That Demonaz convincingly continues that spirit on War Against All is something to appreciate and cherish, not jadedly dismiss.

10.  Majesties – Vast Reaches Unclaimed:

Considering all the hype and subsequent disappointment of the recent In Flames “return to form” nonsense that occurred earlier in the year, my lack of enthusiasm for the recent Insomnium album, and also counting the semi-bummer that was The Halo Effect’s debut album last year, I had felt myself jaded about the prospect of anything genuinely interesting hitting me from the melodic death metal space this year. Enter in this under the radar release from Majesties, a Minneapolis based side project from the two dudes from Antiverse, guitarists Carl Skildum and Matthew Kirkwold (who plays bass here), joining together with vocalist/guitarist Tanner Anderson from the vaunted Obsequiae (I loved The Palms of Sorrowed Kings, sadly discovering it well after it’s 2019 release). Um, these guys must be kindred spirits to me in craving old school sounding Gothenburg melodeath with no core or modern melodic death influences whatsoever, because Vast Reaches Unclaimed is pure musical comfort food. Sounding like a cross between Lunar Strain era In Flames, Skydancer era Dark Tranquility, and a lost Gates of Ishtar album, this is a revisitation of a sound that few can imitate and whose progenitors have long abandoned. These guys just get it, the harmonized leads, the density of the crunchy riffing, Anderson’s perfectly mixed vocals (lower than the guitars, somewhat distant and appropriately hoarse as a sharp contrast to all the vibrant melody happening). A true longform, full album listening experience, I’ve returned to this album again and again almost as a nostalgia soaked soundtrack to go about my day to. It’s genuinely difficult to pick a favorite song here or stand out riff because it just keeps on coming, like an ever flowing stream (heyo!). This might be the first thing I’ve heard since… well, first hearing classic melodeath back in the day, that really took me back to the feeling I experienced when first stumbling onto those classic records and that awesome sound I love so much.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2023 // Part One: The Songs

Once again we’re at the end of another year of metal (and… existence of course), and as in the past, I’m presenting my picks for the best individual songs of the year. In reviewing what I’ve selected, I think it’s a first for any of my best songs lists in that this time there are no death or black metal picks. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy anything from those genres, as you’ll see in the albums list to come soon, but I think 2023 was a big year for clean vocals amongst the metal subgenres that predominantly feature them. The songs that really stuck with me were characterized by amazing vocal performances by artists known and unknown to me. There are songs listed below that are on albums that likely won’t be on the upcoming best albums list, but I’d still urge everyone to check out regardless because there were no bad albums among all of them. I had to make some tough cuts for this list, but I’m happy with the final result. Enough chit-chat for now, here are the best songs of 2023:


1.   Serenity – “Reflections (of AD)” (from the album Nemesis AD)

My general rule is that the song that sits atop this list should be a no brainer, as in being the first tune that comes to mind when I start assembling candidates for consideration. And Serenity’s unquestionable masterpiece in “Reflections (of AD)” attained that status during my first ever play through of it, where I interrupted my complete listen of the Nemesis AD album in order to hear it again and again because it was such a divine sounding piece of music. Though Serenity has delivered heaps of quality songs in the past, particularly on those first five albums, I had major doubts that they’d ever meet those heights again, let alone somehow transcend them. But with new blood in the band in the way of guitarist/vocalist/songwriting Marco Pastorini (the Temperance guy!), vocalist Georg Neuhauser finally seems to have someone that he gels with creatively on a songwriting level. Neuhauser always had a penchant for the theatrical, his songwriting on Codex Atlanticus steering the band towards those waters, but here with Pastorini, they work together to shape a soaring, bombastic epic that is not only loaded with melodramatic pathos, but genuine feelings of spirituality and purpose. The result is a song that crept into the hardened hearts of many power metal fans I know who felt Serenity’s best work was far behind them, and for those of us who still had a sliver of belief, was like receiving a benediction for our faith.

2.   Sacred Outcry – “Symphony of the Night” (from the album Towers of Gold)

This sublimely regal orchestral power ballad with the deceptive lullaby intro was emblematic of the utter perfection that was Sacred Outcry’s sophomore effort, Towers of Gold. Built around Daniel Heiman’s incredible, imagination defying vocals, band founder George Apalodimas crafted a song that sounded effortlessly elegant and so intrinsically powerful that I don’t think its out of bounds to call this some of Heiman’s best work to date in his career. I was transfixed by this album upon first listening to it and “Symphony of the Night”, with its placement smack in the middle of the album struck me as simultaneously a deep breath of calm, and also the album’s crackling, emotional core. The guitar tone on that acoustic pattern during the intro is so damn perfect, so expertly mood setting, as if its lighting the campfire that we’re all sitting around by sheer auditory magic. There are a plethora of songs from Towers of Gold that could have appeared on this best songs list (“The Voyage” almost did), but this one makes the cut because I believe it was the singular song that cast a spell on me during that first listen, and really made me feel like I was experiencing something special.

3.   Sorcerer – “Morning Star” (from the album Reign of the Reaper)

The storming, monumental album opener from Sorcerer’s latest and definitely greatest album to date, “Morning Star” is a swaggering tone setter of a song that punches as hard as a classic Dio era Sabbath cut. It’s surprisingly brisk tempo defies their categorization as a Candlemass influenced doom metal band, though the tonality of the classic Sorcerer sound is still very much present. This was easily my favorite song on what was a spectacular album. It’s verses are built on confidently muscular riffs, with ever articulate and fluid leads by one of my longtime favorite guitarists in metal Mr. Kristian Nieman. For all the crushing ferocity of the band’s performances though, vocalist Anders Engberg really steals the show here. I love his pacing and delivery throughout, with calculated pauses thrown into the delivery of specific lines that really bring to mind the soulful (yeah soulful!) way Ronnie James Dio would also parse out his phrasing. Like Dio, Engberg here seems to be reaching deep inside to pull up all the emotion he can muster from his gut, and sometimes its just too much to get out at once and he needs a beat to get the required energy. That kind of intensity is helped along by the songwriting decisions too, like the fact that Engberg starts singing the chorus outro line (“My name is Lucifer!”) a good second before the outro riff kicks in, as if he just can’t be restrained and those damn guitars better catch up quick. A stone cold masterpiece that might be the band’s best song to date.

4.   Riverside – “Friend or Foe?” (from the album ID.Entity)

I haven’t checked any other end of the year lists out yet, but when I do, I’ll be rather shocked if Riverside doesn’t wind it’s way onto many of the prog lists. It was leaps and bounds more interesting to me than Porcupine Tree’s comeback album, mostly because the Riverside guys seemed to focus mainly on crafting hooky, memorable songs with strong melodic motifs throughout, and then dressing those up with prog arrangements. This may seem like a rather basic thing to say, but sometimes progressive bands just overthink things and can’t get out of their own way, or neglect to use recurring motifs or you know, choruses that work because of the old “it gets boring” excuse. So yeah, when I listen to a gem like “Friend or Foe?”, the opening cut from Riverside’s ID.Entity, that excuse sounds flimsier than ever before. Here is a multi-faceted, stylistically varied and mood shifting piece that has a truly memorable melodic refrain driving the song forward. Vocalist Mariusz Duda has a haunting, melancholic twist to his smoothly melodic vocals, and keyboardist Michał Łapaj’s elegant progression during the pre-chorus is so simple yet such a vital, gorgeous fixture in this song. This album came out way back in January, but I couldn’t quit the craving to hear this song again at any point through the year.

5.   Metallica – “72 Seasons” (from the album 72 Seasons)

I genuinely had a joyous reaction when I first listened to this opening salvo from Metallica’s 72 Seasons, their first album in seven years and longest gap between releases to date. While the entire album suffered from a lack of editing that was made abundantly clear by the second half of it’s hour and seventeen minute runtime, Metallica did turn in a handful of some of their most inspired songwriting since the mid-90s on Load (an underrated album in that department). This title track is head and shoulders the album’s most enduring moment, a muscular, confident thrash metal meets hard rock blend that is utterly convincing in its ferocity. Hetfield sounds fired up, that old signature bark of yore heard once again in his vocal delivery, Lars delivers a crisp, energetic performance where his penchant for minimalism actually works in the song’s favor. Even Kirk turns in an excellent solo midway through, an otherwise bright spot from him on an album where he really needed someone to hide his wah pedal and force him to try something different. It felt good to root for Metallica again, both in principle and in practice, with fist in the air as I was driving around with this song on repeat shout barking the lyrics alongside James.

6.   Keep of Kalessin – “Journey’s End” (from the album Katharsis)

A break in the assault that was Keep of Kalessin’s excellent album Katharsis, “Journey’s End” is the kind of thoughtful, emotive epic that reminds me of why I love metal more than any other genre. This is a gorgeous, understated, rustic ballad that brings to mind colors of autumn and reddened cloud streaked skies. It’s stirring in the way some of the best power metal ballads are, except that Kalessin certainly aren’t power metal, plying their trade in blackened melodic death metal. Notably, this is Kalessin’s first album since 2013’s fairly strong Epistemology, where guitarist Arnt Grønbech took over handling lead vocals. I’d argue that for as surprisingly good as he was then, he’s even better eight years on, and this song is a vivid example of just how expressive he can be as a gruff-toned clean vocalist (in addition to just how awesome he is on extreme vox). I got smoky campfire Hansi Kursch-ian vibes from his passion filled approach, particularly towards the end of the song where the chorus swells in grandeur, and his lead guitar tone and phrasing on the accompanying solo blend together both aching melancholy and empowering triumph.

7.   Theocracy – “Mosaic” (from the album Mosaic)

Theocracy’s latest effort, Mosaic, was a bounce back after the uneven Ghost Ship seven(!) years ago, and that’s notable because this is their longest gap between releases and their first without longtime lead guitarist Van Allen Wood who left in 2020. It’s a testament to songwriter/vocalist Matt Smith’s talents then that he can rebound with ease and deliver some of the band’s best material despite these challenges that might trip up other bands, and the title track here is a killer example of that trait. Leaning more classic American power metal than the proggy tinges awash on the last album, things kick off with the dramatic entry of a galloping riff after a gentle vocal led intro. That the articulate leads and speedy riffs capture my interest just as much as Smith’s titanic, call and response chorus vocal sequence is credit to new guitarist Taylor Washington and old hand Jonathan Hinds. The aforementioned chorus is the kind of monumental, towering stuff that characterized so much of their first three albums and thus a nod towards early millennium power metal classics such as Edguy’s Mandrake. That layered harmony vocal on the lyric “We are mosaic!” results in a soaring, spirit lifting moment that is emblematic of what makes Theocracy such an incredible and still underrated talent in power metal.

8.   Spiritbox – “Jaded” (from the The Fear of Fear EP)

I didn’t know who Spiritbox were before this year’s release of “Jaded” as a music video, whereupon the YouTube algorithm arranged for me to stumble upon it during a moment of not paying attention to autoplay’s shenanigans. It was playing in another tab while I worked on something else, and by the time vocalist Courtney LaPlante sang the opening lines of the chorus, I was clicking over to see who in the hell this was that was impressing me so much. Fusing the futuristic, synth-ian sounds of electro-pop such as Chvrches (replete with LaPlante’s clean vocal tone a close cousin to Lauren Mayberry) with a fusion of progressive metal and metalcore guitars. LaPlante also performs the screaming vocals on this track, impressively so, which made me curious enough to dig into her bio a bit only to realize oh yeah, I had heard her sing before in Iwrestledabearonce. The transition into this still relatively new but rocketing in popularity project in Spiritbox is clearly one of the biggest leaps to success we’ve seen a metal vocalist make since Floor Jansen joined Nightwish. But back to the song, which is just undeniable, even if you don’t enjoy metalcore in general, its footprint is so light here that it enhances the beautiful, dark velvety vocal melody driving things forward. I just realized upon writing this that “Jaded” was nominated for the Best Metal Performance Grammy to be chosen in 2024, but don’t let that air of music industry approval sway you from not listening to this song, I’m telling you its worth all the apparent hype.

9.   Therion – “Ruler of Tamag” (from the album Leviathan III)

Therion snuck in late here in December with the finale of their Leviathan trilogy, and Christofer Johnsson has long touted it as the more “experimental” of the three albums, and man he wasn’t kidding around about that. So “Ruler of Tamag” stands out from the complexity of the entirety of Leviathan III by being an achingly beautiful, understated and yet grandiose ballad sung largely by the wonderful Taida Nazraic who sang most of my favorite songs on the other two Leviathan albums. I just love the casually strummed acoustic intro here, its what I can only best describe as old-world sounding, which is a broad adjective I know but hopefully you get what I mean. Nazraic once again steals the show with her nightingale’s vocals, just another excellent vocal performance from the most overlooked vocalist in symphonic metal today (thank you Therion for giving her a wide platform). The beefy 80s riff that follows with deep toned choirs over the top really reminds me of 2000’s eternal classic Secret of the Runes, and gods, the expansive, cinematic strings that reveal themselves at the 3:00 minute mark are so glorious. This whole piece reminds me of the starry eyed exploring the band did during the Sirius B/Lemuria twin albums, with grandeur and adventure the most apt descriptors for the approach they were going for in the songwriting. This is yet another example of why Therion is one my favorite bands of all time.

10.   Beyond the Black – “Free Me” (from the album Beyond the Black)

I’m not too plugged in on what opinions are surrounding Beyond the Black, a German based symphonic metal band closer to Within Temptation in style and tone than say… well, Therion, but I can imagine there’s as many cynics out there towards them as there are supporters. The band is popular in Germany (four top ten albums there) and throughout Europe, having the sway to co-headline a Euro jaunt with Amaranthe despite being in existence for half the time. It is essentially a vehicle for vocalist Jennifer Haben, who I first became familiar with for her truly great guest performance on Kamelot’s “In Twilight Hours”, although its worth noting that Serenity guitarist Christian Hermsdörfer also pulls double duty with his role in this band. Look the band is as a whole very accomplished, but these songs are built around Haben’s considerable talent as a vocalist and she has definitely aimed for Beyond the Black’s music to cater to her strengths as a vocalist. So there’s no helium register stuff ala “Mother Earth” here, Haben instead utilizing her power to conjure up deeper tones and a smoother version of hard rock styled belting that is satisfying in an easy to listen to kinda way. This song was the standout on their strong 2023 self-titled album for me, it’s ascending dramatic chorus got lodged in my brain early in the year and I’d get the urge to replay it every so often.

Arc of Space: The Remarkable Solo Career of Bruce Dickinson (Part One)

To say that Bruce Dickinson’s solo career is the greatest of any vocalist in metal history is a bold claim, because you’re going right up against titans like Dio and Ozzy. The latter is a stretch, he’s made more mediocre to bad albums than good to great ones. Dio’s solo work however was consistent throughout his career, and legendary, iconic even, in its greatest moments. I will be making a case for Dickinson however, not so much based on his vast array of masterful songs and often fully realized albums — of which he has many, but on the incredible diversity found within his solo discography, his willingness to explore and expand into new sounds, and his lack of fear in experimenting in public. His discography ranges from bouncy, cheery hard rock to emotionally charged balladry; to proggy alternative-metal explorations; and onto dark, menacing metal records that shook with such vitality and earth-shaking heaviness that they made Iron Maiden’s 90s era albums seem tame in comparison.

I was late to the party in regards to Dickinson’s solo career, having only begun my own explorations of it after he had reunited with Maiden on 2000’s Brave New World. It was just one of those inexplicable actions of being a teenager, but at the time I held an innate prejudice towards solo material of any artist in any genre — my belief being that if the music wasn’t good enough for whatever band an artist was associated with, then it was probably not worth hearing. It was all justified in my mind, you see Holy Diver wasn’t a Dio solo album, it was the debut album of Dio, the band. What can you do about a mindset that attributes so much to one Vivian Campbell?! In retrospect I can see that it might’ve been a side-effect of that teenage need to identify oneself according to groups or brands — it was “(insert band name here) or GTFO”. As further testament to just how seriously I internalized this logic, I refused to listen to Dave Mustaine’s MD 45 until years and years later.

The catalyst for breaking free from such a close-minded view was my stumbling onto a Dickinson gem called “Tears of a Dragon”. It was a discussion on the Megadeth.com forums that prompted me to find this song, when a random post by some forgotten user name insisted that the song had Dickinson’s greatest vocal performance ever, above any Maiden songs. I searched around for it, found its music video streaming in Real Player (yes that existed, it wasn’t a dream), waited for it to buffer, and for the next few minutes I was mesmerized. I don’t need to convince anyone here do I? “Tears of a Dragon” was a watershed for Dickinson as a songwriter. It was a brooding, melancholic, wistful ballad that served as his confessional about his rapidly accumulating feelings about the possibility of leaving Iron Maiden. Its emotional resonance relied entirely on Dickinson’s lyrics and his approach to them. Never before had the Air Raid Siren sounded so pensive, hesitant, and vulnerable — nor sung words that lacked any semblance of blood and thunder bravado.

From there I plunged in head long, buying up his catalog in rapid succession, beginning with his just then released 2001 Best Of collection. It was both an imperfect and perfect starting place in that with the benefit of hindsight I can see how much its tracklisting was woefully inadequate, however it did work as a microcosm in illuminating just how wildly varied and diverse his catalog was. I listened to that collection to death, particularly its bonus disc of assorted rarities which enthralled me to no end due to its even more bewildering array of musicality. After a few months I had all of his solo albums, and devoured them, listening and re-listening and listening again. I scoured the internet for old interviews of Dickinson’s from every album release era, and wound up with a pretty decent collection of them, their collective contents threading together an undertold story.

What that story illuminated about Dickinson’s solo career is the sheer risk he wagered in reaching for it in an era of turbulent pop-cultural change; the emotional turmoil that ensued for him privately, and the tenuous nature of events that led him to soldier on instead of quitting music as a career altogether — the possibility of which was closer than anyone suspected. But lets start at the beginning, with the first two albums in his solo discography that were wildly different from one another, and exemplified the wild creative extremes he’d come to explore in many directions over the course of the 90s and beyond.


Tattooed Millionaire (1990, Columbia Records)

Dickinson’s solo career began in an inconspicuously innocent manner, as he himself describes in the liner notes to his solo Best Of collection as “a very enjoyable accident”. An invitation by his publishing company (Zomba Music) to contribute a song to a film soundtrack (1989’s cinematic masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child) led to Dickinson getting in touch with an old friend, an out of work guitarist named Janick Gers formerly of Ian Gillan’s solo band. The ensuing song was “Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter”, a clunky yet endearing tongue-in-cheek howler that impressed Steve Harris enough that it was yanked off the shelves so Maiden could co-opt it for their 1990 No Prayer for the Dying album.

Long before the song received its unlikely UK number one hit status in early 1991 however, it had generated enough behind the scenes interest from Zomba and Sony/Columbia records to lead to another invitation for Dickinson, this time to record an entire album. Zomba had then just recently acquired a recording studio, Battery Studios (oddly enough, it was the newly christened half of the legendary Morgan Studios, where just about every major UK rock album in the 70s was recorded), and they needed someone to come in and give their new toy a spin. Dickinson received the studio time essentially on their dime, all while assuring them he had enough songs already in the can to complete a full length album. He didn’t.

Holed up in the front room of Gers airport-adjacent Hounslow home, Dickinson and his new guitarist wrote the entire album in two weeks. It was a complete departure from the sophisticated complexity of Maiden’s preceding Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album in both tone and structure. Tattooed Millionaire was a wild, loose, no frills rock n’ roll album that owed more to AC/DC than anything resembling Maiden’s progressive influences. Dickinson would comment, “We took all our favorite rock and roll cliches, bundled them all together, and recorded it”, a fitting summation of the album, but it was still filled with inspired performances. Featuring the aforementioned Gers as the lone guitarist, along with Andy Carr on bass, and Jagged Edge’s Fabio Del Rio on drums, Dickinson’s band was in essence a three piece in purely instrumental terms. Gers would record both rhythm and overdubbed lead parts on the album, but as heard on the Dive Dive Live! concert video this lineup was downright aggressive, raw, and dare I suggest punky when playing live.

That rawness began on some of the deep cuts on this album, on songs such as “Dive Dive Dive!” with its almost Guns N’ Roses-ish snakey riffs and Dickinson’s half raspy / half snarled vocal delivery, as well as on “Son of a Gun” and “Gypsy Road” where he dips down into roots-y Aerosmith territory. On those and other songs where this strange British take on Americanized guitar rock really works, they come across as a batch of a fun, light-hearted, feel-good rock n’ roll songs sung by a vocalist who’s far too skilled for them. That’s not a critique on Dickinson’s vocals, but I’ve always felt that Tattooed Millionaire was an unusual sounding album because of that disparity. A song as zany as “Zulu Lulu”, or “Lickin’ the Gun” for example sounds like it would work better if performed by ZZ Top or Steven Tyler, more than the man who so epically sang “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. Dickinson himself would point out in the liner notes of the album’s re-release, “Some of the tracks hold up extraordinarily well… Some of them maybe not so much… In general, I think the stuff that has some really good melodies is the stuff that holds up”.

Essential Cuts: There’s little to link this rather inauspicious debut with the drastic musical experimentation he’d come upon in his next two solo records, but the seeds for those future outings can be detected in Dickinson’s success at writing a pair of breezy, excellent hard rock singles in the title track and the poignantly autobiographical “Born In ’58”. As a song, “Tattooed Millionaire” is directed at the era’s Los Angeles rock stars and their entourage/groupie fueled lifestyles (there are rumors that its about Nikki Sixx specifically, but I’ll let you Google those). Its perhaps the album’s smartest moment, a bit of satire that perhaps Jonathan Swift himself would approve of, as Gers and Dickinson crafted a pop-metal gem in the musical vein of those very bands the song’s ire is directed towards. So well crafted is the song that even its verses are in perfectly catchy lock-step, “He got a wife / She ain’t no brain child / ex-mud queen of Miami”. When Dickinson cuts loose on the high register, layered vocal chorus, he tonally shifts the song from angry judgment to that of liberating, blissful contentment.

Where “Tattooed Millionaire” is full of brash indictment, “Born in 58” is more concerned with contemplation — in many ways this is Dickinson’s first attempt at writing something personal, well, ever. Using his grandfather as a framing reference, Dickinson’s lyrics here deal with a pointed criticism of modern society and its lack of values. It can almost be viewed as a companion piece to “Tattooed Millionaire” in its dissatisfaction with something external, but here Dickinson seems to be speaking from some internal sense of loss, “On and on, we slept till dawn / When we awoke, we hardly spoke”. Whatever the song’s true meaning, its been a criminally underrated tune, and Dickinson’s vocal performance here demands some extra attention, particularly in how effortlessly he nails the verse segue into the chorus, “And men were still around / who fought for freedom / stood their ground and died!”. That explosive vocal is my favorite part of the song, one of those classic Dickinson moments that would never exist were the song in the hands of a lesser singer.

Though I’m not featuring the song or its fantastic music video among the clips below, I would be remiss not to talk a bit about the excellent David Bowie cover of “All The Young Dudes” on the album. Actually, its a Mott the Hoople song, but Bowie wrote it, you know how these things worked in the seventies… artists were songwriters or performers or both. Dickinson had performed the song cold at a charity show at Wembley Arena, and surprised by his own success with it on stage decided that the band would tackle it for the record. Frankly its a brilliant, inspired cover, and risking blasphemy I’ll say its the definitive version of the song, even nearly twenty years removed from its written era. The key lies not just in Dickinson’s flexible yet strong vocal delivery, but in Gers far more melodic and rounded treatment of the guitar motifs throughout the song. The original has guitar figures that sound incomplete and unfinished in comparison, Gers just seems to own this song and he’s really the star of it, delivering his best individual performance on the album.

Balls to Picasso (1994, Mercury Records)

The pivotal album of Dickinson’s career not only as a solo artist, but as a member of Iron Maiden, Balls to Picasso has a long and tortured history in terms of development and what it meant in the greater scheme of things for the man himself. Where to begin discussing such things? Well, the album’s gestation itself seems a good place to start, and for that we go backwards from its 1994 release date all the way to pre-June 1992, while Dickinson was still a member of Iron Maiden and on the verge of going on the road for the Fear of the Dark World Tour. Seemingly picking up where he left off, the first iteration of the album in its rudimentary state was not much different from the feel and style of Tattooed Millionaire, reinforced by bringing aboard that album’s producer in Chris Tsangarides and this time the entirety of Jagged Edge as backing musicians (by this point they were known as Skin). Dickinson immediately felt that he was just going through the motions and not really challenging himself, an important tidbit to point out because that’s also precisely what he was beginning to feel within Maiden.

Those initial sessions were immediately broken up, and upon the advice of Maiden’s manager, the infamous Rod Smallwood, Dickinson got in touch with famed producer Keith Olsen of so many platinum/multiplatinum albums in the 70s and 80s (most notably, Olsen produced the now classic self-titled 1975 Fleetwood Mac album that introduced Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks into the lineup). The first thought was that Olsen would be able to work the same reconstructive magic he used for Whitesnake’s pair of late 80s albums that were waylaid by personnel changes and delays. The tapes were brought to Los Angeles, but it soon became obvious that simply re-edting material wasn’t a viable strategy in this case. It was decided that the tapes would be shelved and a new album created entirely from scratch, and Dickinson saw this as the perfect moment and opportunity to try something daring. He explains in the Best Of liner notes that he would begin by “taking a radical new direction, away from big-hair-metal and 80s cliches towards something dark, scary, joyful, intense, except I wasn’t quite sure how to do it”, and he adds, “This was a terrifying moment.”

It was January of 1993 by this time, and for six weeks Dickinson toiled, working on material that select chunks of would later surface as future b-sides that showcased a very “Peter Gabriel-y vibe” (Dickinson’s own description). The album was finished but Dickinson wasn’t satisfied, feeling that “deep down I know it wasn’t right and bits of it were downright embarrassing, but nevertheless it had the seeds of something good, and they were contained in a track called “Tears of a Dragon””. Those Los Angeles Olsen sessions also introduced Dickinson to a band called Tribe of Gypsies that was recording their album down the hall in the same studio. He stepped into their recording room one night to hear what they were doing and was blown away by their Latin infused take on hard rock. It was also the beginning of his long friendship and working partnership with Tribes guitarist Roy Z, the man whose presence launched the third iteration of what would become Balls to Picasso.

What Dickinson saw in the Tribe of Gypsies’ musical approach was an emphasis on a gritty rhythm section, playful percussion, with a melodic core that was simultaneously authentic and emotional (and he’s right, seriously, everyone owes it to themselves to check out the band’s excellent debut album). In the 1994 Kerrang! interview for the album’s release, Dickinson affirmed, “I wanted to use percussion and different rhythms in a way that’s never been done before… What’s been lacking in this form of music for so many years is groove. Things just became regimented into what’s now become the Maiden gallop or the AC/DC plod.” So he asked for the Tribes’ help and they agreed to be borrowed and together Roy Z and Dickinson discovered a writing partnership that resulting in an immediate outpouring of new songs. These new songs replaced everything written for the previous two failed album attempts, except for the aforementioned “Tears of a Dragon”, which Roy Z loved and managed to improve upon with a heartfelt, note perfect guitar solo.

The resulting third-times-a-charm Balls to Picasso is still a mixed bag to this day — to be praised for its uninhibited sense of ambition and its massive leap from the “AC/DC plod” rock n’ roll of Tattooed Millionaire, but with the acknowledgement that some of its ten cuts simply fell flat. Personally I suspect the lackluster production (courtesy of Olsen’s engineer Shay Baby) is at fault, because a song like “Laughing in the Hiding Bush” sounds absolutely massive when heard on the 1998 Scream For Me Brazil live album, but oddly muted and wet-ragged here. Fans and Dickinson himself agree in retrospect that the album should’ve been produced by Roy Z himself, given what he’d bring to the table in the future as a producer. That being said there are some moments where I think the songwriting itself is at fault, such as on back to back album openers “Cyclops” and “Hell No”, songs that seemed to either be in need of editing or some extra tempo based punch in their verse sections.

As a result, the album is ascending in quality, starting off sluggishly only to get increasingly better and better as it goes along, culminating in the glorious “Tears…” finale. But “1000 points of Light” has a sharp chorus that sounds somewhat similar to early 90s Queensryche (if only the verses weren’t so ho-hum), and I’m big on the steady burning “Fire”, with its almost funky hook line in the chorus. One of the most underrated cuts is “Sacred Cowboys”, which boasts a pulse pounding chorus with lyrics that could’ve been the basis for a rather interesting music video. And then of course there’s “Shoot All the Clowns”, a song that Dickinson was arm-twisted into writing at the behest of Mercury Records, who were interested in releasing the album. Bruce tells the story best (check out his Anthology DVD for his funny recounting of the tale) but suffice it to say his “guidance” on the song was a cassette copy of Aerosmith’s Rocks shoved under his door with a sticky note on it saying “something like this would be good”. Its actually a rather hooky, groove-laden song with nice musical moments but marred by godawful lyrics. I agree with Dickinson’s take that its music video was actually better than the song.

Its worth emphasizing that without a solo record deal in place in 1992, Dickinson birthed this difficult album at great personal expense, in fact he paid for all of the recording sessions plus travel expenses himself, including the massive costs of flying out the Tribe of Gypsies to England to complete the album proper. It made his early 1993 decision to announce his departure from Maiden all the more risky, because although he still had the financial benefit of fulfilling his upcoming last tour with Maiden (the fraught Real Live Tour) he was effectively an unsigned artist with a much lighter bank account hoping that a good, pro-active label would pick it up. Dickinson and half of Mercury Records roster was dropped a mere three months after the album’s release, enough time for them to pay for a pair of music videos and some basic promotion, but the album was not a commercial success. It wasn’t even a complete artistic success in its own right, but it certainly was a victory for Dickinson in proving to fans and media that he could do something different apart from Maiden.

Essential Cuts: The most vivid examples of what that something different could be are found in the album’s two best songs; the Latin-flavored ballad “Change of Heart”, and the epic “Tears of a Dragon”. The former is an overlooked gem on this album, and one of the moments where Roy Z’s Tribe of Gypsies flavor really shines through with his dazzling touches of acoustic guitar flourish and flamenco-styled runs. The lyrics lament the end of a relationship, a relatively sedate topic, but they’re written from the perspective of a narrator that seems both able and unable to accept what’s happened. From sitting “alone at a window”, depressed to no end of course, he affirms that he’ll “be there, catching your tears / Before they fall, to the ground” — all while acknowledging that she’s had enough of their relationship: “You, you’re walking away / You couldn’t stay / You had a change of heart”. Dickinson’s vocal in the chorus is simply magnificent, particularly when backed up by harmonized vocals in specific moments. But the star of the song is Roy Z with his utterly gorgeous Latin-rock styled guitar solo, the kind of thing I wish he did more of on this album.

Then of course there’s “Tears of a Dragon”, and what else needs to be said about this song? Its not just one of Dickinson’s finest moments as a vocalist overall, but it would rate serious consideration for being one of the greatest metal ballads of all time. I’ve always appreciated just how personal Dickinson went here, essentially laying out his emotions for all to see like the “blood on the tracks” Bob Dylan once spoke of. Its a song about Dickinson’s dawning realization that he needed to leave Iron Maiden, but while that’s specific to him — it’s universality makes it a song about facing your fears and in fact surrendering to the fear. Regarding the song’s spiritual essence, Dickinson was fond of a Henry Miller quote that declared, “All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” It was this encapsulating quote that stayed in his mind as he wrote this song and as he made the decision to leave Iron Maiden, feeling that it was the only way for him to grow as an artist and as a person.

I’ll admit that its a song that hits my emotional center when I’m receptive to it, which is also why I’m very judicious about when and where I listen to it. Its one of those songs that’s so powerful that I actually avoid listening to it when I’m in a frivolous, music hungry mood — it’s meant for more than that. The odd drunken, emotional sing-a-long with friends has happened a few times with this as our rousing soundtrack, but even in that hazy state, I’m still left punctured by its dagger sharp subtext. I think there are things in all of our lives that we’re afraid of, and most of it usually concerns the fear of taking a risk or plunging into that darkness headlong. In that regard “Tears of a Dragon” can often be uncomfortable to listen to, a reminder of what hasn’t been done yet — but we need these reminders. I’ll be remiss if I don’t mention just how well its music video has held up over the years, some of those panoramic hill-side shots are still stunning. They could lose the goofy, bald fat man and his mid-nineties computer generated pixie dust scenes, but everything else really works in an almost dreamy, nightmarish vision kind of way. If you haven’t already, also check out the two other versions of the song found on the re-issued edition of the album with a second disc of bonus tracks, they’re special in their own right.

The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten: Power Metal

Over ten years ago now, 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.


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 in 2020 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.

Why So Serious?: The Disheartening Rise of Dumb Power Metal

Something that I’ve noticed happening over the past few years now in increasing frequency is the propagation of what I’m going to umbrella term as “dumb power metal”. If you’re a power metal detractor, this is where you’ll chime in with some goofball interjection of “but Pigeon, all power metal is dumb“, and to you I’ll say, take a hike (or you know, stick around and hear me out). My definition of dumb power metal is a broad one for sure, but I’ll point to a recent moment as a singular example of what I’m trying to illustrate here, that being Angus McSix’s track “Laser-Shooting Dinosaur” off their debut album Angus McSix and the Sword of Power. This is the new band formed by former Gloryhammer vocalist Thomas Winkler, whose singing I enjoyed in that band, and despite having little interest in the also purposefully silly lore that streaked through that band’s own albums, I was able to appreciate that Christopher Bowes was at least writing some well crafted power metal, reductive for sure, but memorable and charming in it’s own way. But in retrospect, I think the success of Gloryhammer might be screwing us as power metal fans in the long run, because when that band was alone in that lane, they came across as a quirky outlier that you’d tag with adjectives such as “fun” or “campy”, while giving them credit as a musically credible parody act. Yet their commercial success was undeniable, bringing with it a host of copycats, and that lane has become crowded with a handful of bands that are pushing the limits of silliness towards outright stupidity. And as a result, I suspect that to many new power metal fans, this is what they think this genre is. And to this power metal fan anyway, that makes me sad.

I’ll be the first to admit that throughout the history of power metal, there’s been a lot of ridiculous concepts both thematically and lyrically that have pockmarked otherwise fine bands and albums… the kinds that we’d just gloss over and ignore on purpose because the music was so enjoyable. There’s no denying that the lyrics on the first two Hammerfall albums aren’t deeply intellectual, they’re riding that mix of fantasy tropes and basic heavy metal brotherhood stuff that has been a part of metal tradition since the early days of Dio and Priest. But they weren’t childishly stupid either. I was driving to work when I first listened to that aforementioned Angus McSix album, and I just remember sitting at a red light feeling more and more annoyed at the vapidity that was pouring out of my speakers before I disgustedly switched over to sports radio. I say this fully admitting that perhaps I’m sounding like a grumpy old(er) power metal fan but I’ve started to hit that point of not giving a damn about that. One of my favorite power metal bands is Edguy, I’ve been a fan since the late 90s, and they had baked into them that Helloween-like tendency to pack a touch of humor in their albums, as on “Save Us Now” off Mandrake (an otherwise somber-toned album), or on the 80s hard rock pastiche “Lavatory Love Machine” off Hellfire Club (complete with absurd music video). Nothing about tracks like those felt forced, it felt like humor that radiated off the personalities of the band members themselves, those early 2000s audio interviews of a wise-cracking, goofy Tobias Sammet being ample evidence of that. It was also merely one aspect of their work, this being the same band that released the deeply introspective and spiritual Theater of Salvation.

So many fantastic bands echoed that spirit of indulging in a little bit of refreshing silliness, Blind Guardian with all their covers of classic rock songs such as the Beach Boys “Barbara Ann” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, or their even more surreal cover of “Mr. Sandman” (I’ll never get over hearing Hansi singing “make her the cutest that I’ve ever seen”). The aforementioned originators in Helloween wrote the cartoonish rock n’ roll road anthem “Lost In America” on their 2015 album My God Given Right, where they wonder aloud if they should “plunder the sky bar”. Iron Maiden had a few of them too, dunking on manager Rod Smallwood with “Sheriff of Huddersfield”, or the absurd “Black Bart Blues”. Dragonforce largely used generic fantasy adjacent lyrics to the point of nullifying any meaning still played it straight faced, with their lyrics being almost placeholder vignettes for you to interject yourself into however you saw fit — and their reimagining of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” was funny not just because it was a cover of one of the most overplayed romantic ballads in history, but for the extra layer of just how perfect it fit as a Dragonforce song. Ditto for Sonata Arctica’s cover of “The Wind Beneath My Wings”. Point is that one, I’m not a humorless, po-faced grump shaking his fist at the idea of silliness in power metal or metal in general; and two, that when done right, its really endearing.

In retrospect and I suspect even at the time, all those little moments of humor just made me appreciate those bands all the more because it smacked of genuineness, the willingness to pull down the mask a bit and reveal a bit about who they were as people offstage. So when I see so much of power metal heading into this lazy, cheap laughs getting, nerd-audience baiting direction, it sorta explains why I’ve felt so unenthusiastic about the state of power metal as a whole over the past few years (the positive enthusiasm I felt at the beginning of the 2010s has definitely dissipated). As one of the frequent contributors at the r/PowerMetal discord put it, “Silliness is fine in PM, it’s just when it goes too far and you get bands doing “The Sword of Poo Poo Pee Pee”, and you can just tell there’s nothing behind it“. Exactly, there’s nothing behind it. Sadder than the Angus McSix Laser Dinosaur song was it reminding me about the career trajectory of Victorius, a once promising power metal band that broke onto the scene in 2014 with a strong debut in Dreamchaser, followed up by two other pretty good albums, only to see them take a turn for the dumb in 2018 with their EP Dinosaur Warfare – Legend of the Power Saurus. They followed it up with the Space Ninjas From Hell album, and their last record was Dinosaur Warfare Pt2. – The Great Ninja War. Of course.

I guess this makes me an old power metal fan, because it seems like a lot of discussions on the r/PowerMetal subreddit initiated by new fans to the subgenre are people who are mostly attracted to stuff like this and the likes of Gloryhammer (of course, and understood), Grailknights, Wind Rose, Rumahoy, or frigging Hevisaurus. Hey maybe I’m wrong and it’s selective vision on my part… but I kinda doubt it. Because it’s very reminiscent to what happened to folk metal around ten to fifteen years back when the genre went from gorgeous, haunting, mystique soaked music to humppa abusing drinking songs and Finntroll wearing elf-ears onstage the next time I saw them on tour (still the most disappointing live show I’ve ever seen), years after they were recording blistering blackened folk metal albums that were amazing. The hope as always is that these newcomer fans will eventually stick around long enough to discover the actual depth that does exist within power metal, with amazing bands and records that aren’t dealing in the most basic nerd-baiting nonsense just for clicks and views. If you’re still of the position that I need to lighten up and relax, promptly piss off, I’ve been listening to metal for a long time and I’m allowed to think some of this crap is just that, disposable garbage that shouldn’t be representing the face of the subgenre. But what can I do, apart from spill my thoughts on this blog… because no matter how much I’ve come to loathe it, the plastic swords and hammers and spiky plastic colorful body armor will continue, on stage and in the crowd and it will get dumber and dumber until that aforementioned “The Sword of Poo Poo Pee Pee” will become an actual song title, and not just a pointed jab in a Discord channel.

So I’ll do the only thing here that I can do, because I can see that this trend isn’t going away anytime soon, not as long as there are gullible droves who’ll lap up every ironic second of it. I’ll recommend an amazing, old school power metal album that was just released this year that has artistic depth, a serious disposition, and features the vocal talents of one of the genre’s most overlooked greats in Daniel Heiman, this being the sophomore album by Greece’s Sacred Outcry, Towers of Gold. This is it everyone, this is the most convincingly well done old school pure power metal record I’ve heard in a very long time. I say pure power metal because while in the past few years I’ve crowned albums by both Seven Spires and Dialith as my albums of the year, those bands are doing crossover power metal fusions; Spires with melodic death metal elements and Dialith blending symphonic and gothic metal into their power metal swirls — all wonderful in their own right for sure, but not examples of classical power metal the way Sacred Outcry is doing it. The weird thing about Sacred Outcry is that it was a project hatched in the late 90s that did some demos back in the day but didn’t put out a debut until 2020 with Yannis Papadopoulos on vocals (yeah that Yannis!), a debut that is just as excellent as it’s successor by the way (I didn’t realize Yannis had this kinda performance in him, but anyway back to Daniel and the new one). I can’t express to you all just how happy Sacred Outcry’s Towers of Gold makes me, it’s like someone finally pushed the curtain back a bit and let through some glorious autumn sunlight into this summer darkened dreary room (yeah that’s reality with 100 degree temperatures, summer fun my ass, the Beach Boys can go to hell).

I was wondering who besides the mighty Heiman was responsible for such an incredible record, that surely someone with power metal bonafides was pulling the songwriting strings. Surprise of surprises, its George Apalodimas of The Eternal Suffering, one of the most unheralded symphonic black metal bands that released one of my favorite records in the genre, Miasma, to virtually no acclaim in 2010 except for the few people who were trying to download a supposed leak of Dimmu Borgir’s Abrahadabra off Soulseek before it was released and ended up with it instead because of someone intentionally mislabeling mp3s (for a few weeks there people were mistakenly raving about how awesome the new Dimmu was on the UltimateMetal.com forums and who knows where else, until Dimmu released the “Gateways” single and the jig was up). God what the memory holds onto. Anyway, figures that it would take a symphonic black metal dude to start delivering new power metal here in the dawn of the post-pandemic era that might just have the power to re-focus this subgenre and renew the faith of old hands like myself. Fortunately there are also some people within the power metal world who are also contributing to the fight against “dumb power metal”, like the guys in Saint Deamon, whose League of the Serpent is an incredible power metal release that came out back in April and has been on my recent heavy rotation (featuring the underrated talents of Jan Thore Grefstad, Highland Glory’s first vocalist). I’ll also shout out here the new album Hellriot by Mystic Prophecy, a band as eternal and reliable as any in the power metal/thrash sphere and doing an admirable job of filling the void left behind by Tad Morose and others in that heavier vein.

I realize I’ve been complaining quite a bit here, so I’ll conclude things on a positive note by saying that I think there’s something to be hopeful about. On Metallum, Towers of Gold already has 8 reviews posted for it, a pretty high number for an album that just came out in late May by a very underground band, and that’s an encouraging sign that word is spreading, and of course that those reviews are just as glowing as I feel when I listen to it. Recently, in reading posts and talking to fellow power metal fans, I’ve been feeling that there is a growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the direction that the subgenre’s heading in, and that there’s an increasingly vocalized urge to find stuff that’s it’s exact opposite (be it in sound or spirit). That may result in more people checking out progressive metal for the former, just to find something that satisfies sonically, but regarding the latter, I think there are people in bands working on new material that also feel the same way. I’m encouraged by a demo I listened to recently from a new power metal project called Glyph featuring R.A. Voltaire from Ravenous. Year end list maker Fellowship released a strong debut album and there’s the promise of new music in the future from them, and there’ a new Spires album in development as well. We’re for sure in a drought of quality power metal lately, but there are a few rain showers here and there, hopefully it’ll start pouring down soon to help wash the dumb away.

Metal Thoughts + New Music Catch Up

The Metal Meat n’ Potatoes

It’s been an interesting past few weeks here at The Metal Pigeon, most notably because I finally got to see the legendary Helloween live on May 13th in what felt like a truly once in a lifetime event, but also because I feel like I’ve been listening to more metal in a concentrated span of time than I have in a long, long while. Actually to that point, as much as I’ve been enjoying stepping off the new release reviews treadmill that nearly derailed this blog entirely with burnout over the past couple years, there is a big drawback. Namely, that in being more casual about discussing new music, a lot of things I want to discuss have started piling up rather quickly. I have a breezy overview of much of the new music I’ve been listening to further down below, more a collection of overall impressions rather than detailed reviews. However, first I wanna talk about something I heard Justin of The Metal Exchange Podcast say on an older episode of the show covering Avantasia’s The Metal Opera, their first 10/10 rating for an album on the show.

He talked about how despite loving that album, he felt he hadn’t spent enough time with it over the years, having potentially wasted time on other albums that were mediocre in the intervening years, and how it was important to get back to the “meat and potatoes” of what great metal was to him. To listen to those albums more, spend more time with them. I really identified with that comment, because it seems so obvious, but I’ve always had this slightly guilty feeling when I indulge myself in listening to classic albums I’ve long loved, because that voice in my head says “hey what the hell are you doing… you should be paying attention to new music… new, new, new!”. But I’ve mentioned my Judas Priest’s Turbo indulgence over the past year, revisiting that album repeatedly and appreciating it anew. I sort of extended that into the wider Priest catalog slowly but surely, and have gone back to just jamming those records for fun… ditto for classic Maiden albums. Look, Maiden is my favorite band of all time, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had played their older studio albums at all before this past month and a half, when I’ve been playing them unapologetically and appreciating them all over again.

The Metal Exchange podcast has had a lot to do with this, as I’ve been playing the classic albums they’ve covered on their show as I’ve been working my way through their older episodes. Justin’s revelation on that episode about revisiting the great albums more frequently is right on, a truth that I’ve been slow to work my way back to, but in relistening to all these classic Priest and Maiden albums, among many other veteran artists, I’ve been reminding myself of what I grew up loving about this genre in the first place. I think when you get bogged down in that new release listening cycle exclusively, you run the risk of losing sight of that, particularly when you hit a spell of albums that just don’t move you much, or are examples of the aforementioned mediocrity. Actually, in revisiting these metal touchstones of the past, I’ve felt it’s been head clearing in a way for me to better receive new music from newer bands, a bit of stepping backwards in order to progress forwards I guess. This might only be of interest or relevance to a few of you who’ve felt yourself caught up in similar listening habits, but I’m guessing you few know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Speaking of veteran artists, Helloween has been a big part of this revisiting the classics process over the past two months, in fact methodically going through their catalog was a big part of the prep for the show I caught in Dallas. They played a mix of stuff from their career, including some stuff from their fantastic recent self-titled reunion album, but the songs that caught me off guard with how much I enjoyed them were the off-beat choices, such as “Perfect Gentleman”, and damn… “Forever and One”. That one really shook me, seeing Kiske and Deris handling lead vocals together in a spectacular, goosebump inducing duet. It was an emotional apex during the show, and I kept thinking back to old interviews I would hear via Dr. Metal’s Metal Meltdown radio show back in the late 90s, when musicians in the know would tell the Doc that a Helloween reunion would never, ever happen. So seeing those two together on this Deris era classic was a little surreal in the moment, and definitely a highlight of what was a spectacular show in general. On the drive back to Houston, I went through Deris era albums that I’d not listened to in ages, Master of the Rings, The Time of the Oath, Better Than Raw, and also a long time favorite, The Dark Ride. They sounded so much fresher than I’d have expected, the Turbo effect in action.

Yesterday when driving to our Saturday D&D session (nerd!!!!), I was listening to the Scorpions’ odd 2011 release Comeblack which was half re-recordings of their most classic cuts, and half covers of old rock songs that I suppose were influences on the band back in the day. I had previously only given the album a cursory glance and dismissed it as a pointless release. But I gotta say, I found myself really enjoying it, the re-recordings especially, because it was so interesting to hear these classic Scorps songs I knew by heart in a studio context without the distraction of crowdwork and cheering on a live album, yet still different from the original recordings whose very nuances I’ve had burned into my memory by now. Klaus enunciates the lyrics better here, the guitars attack in a way that more closely emulates their live attack, and freed from the sonic idiosyncrasies that characterized the old Dieter Dierks production style, I was hearing these songs in a brand new context. It wasn’t better or worse, just different. It was another reminder that there was as much value in delving into the musical archives so to speak, as there was in making sure you continually check out new music to keep your synapses firing and challenging your tastes.

Some New Music Chit-Chat

So onto the new stuff then, the cream of which has had to elbow and fight its way past not only recent release competition, but also my incessant need to hear every live version of “The Clairvoyant” on a random Wednesday afternoon. So lets talk about the albums that managed to hold their own against heavy consumption of Maiden, Priest, and Helloween:

Immortal – War Against All: I didn’t really think that Demonaz would be able to top 2018’s first post-Abbath release Northern Chaos Gods. That was a top ten album for me that year, a really powerful statement from Demonaz and Horgh about what they could put together on their own. Now, a few years later in a post-Horgh Immortal, Demonaz is able to stand on his own via unleashing an album that I think is somehow even leaner and meaner than it’s predecessor. When I think on the quality and innate Immortal-ness of these two albums and consider Abbath’s recent output in his own band, I have to admit that I’m questioning just how integral he was to the band’s songwriting approach over the years. For certain his ability as a guitarist left it’s mark on those classic albums, but I’m starting to suspect now that the key architect to the band’s sound was Demonaz after all, and it’s maybe long past time for him to get credit for that.

Cloak – Black Flame Eternal: The classic yearly out of left field surprise that really shouldn’t be a surprise given that I do remember listening to this band on their prior two albums over the past few years pre-pandemic and thinking that they were solid, but solid apparently doesn’t do enough to work it’s way into my memory, so enter Black Flame Eternal, in the running for the most satisfying extreme metal album of the year thus far. The description of their sound on Metallum is a bit odd (gothic/black metal) because while there are certainly gothic overtones ala Tribulation layered over the top of these songs, at their core this is some of the strongest black n’ roll I’ve heard in awhile. And I really mean the roll part too, these songs often built around rockin’ riffs that have an accessible headbanging bent to them. There’s little in the way of any kind of wall of sound/tremolo wave traditional black metal soundscaping here, and maybe that’s why this sounds so fresh and exuberant even in the dead of summer where my mind usually craves more of a hard rock/trad metal sound. No duds whatsoever, I could easily envision “With Fury and Allegiance” winding up on the best songs list down the line, and yeah, just a blackened record that really rocks, hits hard, and doesn’t ever bore me, I love it.

Gatekeeper – From Western Shores: I remember giving Gatekeeper’s debut album a few years ago a spin when their promo from Cruz del Sur landed in my inbox — I think I had just realized at the time how much that label was putting out stuff that was capturing my attention and I gave them the benefit of the doubt. The only thing I clearly remember about the listening experience (apart from the band’s very raw sound at the time) was that I felt the band had moments of potential but overall it wasn’t quite sticking with me. Clearly with how much I’ve been enjoying From Western Shores over the past few months, I’ll have to firstly go back and check out the debut to see if it wasn’t just a wrong headspace thing, and secondly, give the band serious props for possibly realizing said potential. I agree with the chorus of opinions I’ve heard from people I’ve discussed this album with saying that the new singer is a far better fit for the band, Tyler Anderson’s pipes sounding a bit like a more stoic, less outlandish Eric Adams. Despite the much improved production, fatter guitar sound, and tight mixing, there are still rough edges to Gatekeepers attack, but I’ve come to realize that’s more of a defining facet of their sound at it’s core. I find it charming, and it does work in a weird way to lend mystique to these songs in a Manilla Road kinda way. This whole album is a epic, rocking, somewhat weed smoke tinged vibe and it’s worth checking out.

Foretoken – Triumphs: A pretty solid, widely overlooked sophomore album from a Virginia based duo dishing out some finely crafted symphonic/folky melodeath fusion with a touch of blackened vocals just to further blur the lines dividing genres. There’s a trad metal sound to their guitar attack that I appreciate, a Priest-ian edge that chugs at the right time and a steely, flinty edge to the rhythm guitar tone that is sweet to hear. The interesting tidbit behind the production here is that Jacob Hansen is at the controls for the mixing and mastering, a guy who’s best known in the metal scene at the moment for his role in prog-power metallers Pyramaze and in being the producer du jour for numerous melodic vocal adorned bands of various subgenre types (I mean, he’s Amaranthe’s producer for starters). And of course Hansen has done work with extreme metal vocal bands in the past, but not that many in comparison, so this is an interesting record to listen to with that in mind if you’re a nerd about these things, which… if you’re reading this you likely are (it’s okay).

Enforcer – Nostalgia: I’ve been uncertain of how I felt about Enforcer for the longest time, initially being really impressed because my first exposure was seeing them live in a support slot for a tour I can’t even remember the headliner for. They were such an electrifying band on stage, but dang it if they couldn’t quite manage to capture that same feeling on record for me. I just wrote them off as being one of those great live bands that you really only took in live (Midnight falls into this category for me) and didn’t spend a lot of time with their studio output. Their last album, 2019’s Zenith was intended to be a change of pace from their proto-typical speed metal inspired sound, and some argued that it leapt far too deep into the pool of 80s commercial hard rock. I didn’t mind the attempt, but the execution felt off. So four years later, they’re sort of going back to their roots, but a little of that experimental mindset from Zenith still lingers, and I’d argue to far better effect. The title track here is the kind of thing the Scorpions would’ve knocked out around the Savage Amusement era, a perfectly articulated 80s hard rock power ballad that is honestly just gorgeous. But beyond that, they’ve somehow worked out the kinks to infuse their traditional sound with the arena hooks they were trying to achieve on the last album, and that makes Nostalgia easily the most compelling release they’ve delivered thus far.

Grave Pleasures – Plagueboys: So not a metal record at all, but if you’re a fan of bands such as Idle Hands/Unto Others, psychedlic trippy old school era The Cult, and maybe even Depeche Mode vocal aesthetic, this might be something to look into. I guess I do have to admit that at times I wish Grave Pleasures would turn it to eleven and really crank out some riffs, but in fairness, there’s nothing here that suggests they had any ambitions to be a heavy band in the sonic sense. It’s just that everything else about this album screams weirdo goth metal and I can’t help but love that. Some unexpectedly delightful guitarwork on this record, beautiful solos that often have unexpected melodic twists and turns. A love it or leave it kinda affair I’ll admit, but I think it’s a beautiful album.

Cruachan – The Living and the Dead: The other Irish metal band of some renown (I kid, I know there are starting to be worthwhile metal bands coming out of Ireland lately), Celtic-folk metallers Cruachan released this way back in March, and while I had it on heavy rotation all those months ago, it’s slowly drifted it’s way back into my recent listening as I have sort of taken stock of the halfway point of the year (I briefly thought about writing a midyear report, but nixed it because I feel like that influences me too much when assembling the end of year lists later). This is a band that I used to love way back in the early 2000s heyday of the folk-metal explosion, and just kinda spaced out on for the rest of the years in the interim. I think this is the first album I’ve heard from them since The Morrigan’s Call in 06, and better production notwithstanding, they sound exactly how I remember them which is fantastic. You guys know my feelings on folk metal, I love the stuff that rings of grit and an authentic spirit, not canned corniness. This is one of those slightly uneven albums where I do favor some songs more than others, but overall it provides a rich listening experience, particularly in its more syrupy sweet acoustic moments.

Keep of Kalessin – Katharsis: I know I talked at length about this on the MSRcast a few episodes ago, so I won’t go into much beyond stating here that I genuinely found so much to love about this album. I’m not sure what the consensus opinion has been overall, because it met with some criticism in my metal circle when it came out, but I’m not that familiar with the band’s discography as a whole to judge if they dipped here (doesn’t sound like it to me). This is one of those records that had moments throughout where I found myself having that familiar feeling of “ahh this is why I love metal so much”. And records like that seem more rare the more stuff you listen to and the longer you’ve been a fan, fighting being jaded I guess. That means a whole heck of a lot to me, and songs like “Journey’s End” just hit that emotional core for me in a way that few bands have managed. I really took notice of this band with this one.

Metallica and Kamelot Return!

Kamelot – The Awakening:

So I was planning to do a rather technical deep dive on this new Kamelot album, titled The Awakening (lets note that this is not in fact a concept album based on the famed Kate Chopin novel of the same name, although that sounds like a promising idea in general for any symphonic metal band), but after spending a considerable amount of time with it over the past few weeks I’ve realized that maybe a blow by blow dissection of this album isn’t what anyone, let alone myself, want or need. I’ll just be up front in saying that this isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but to it’s credit its a step in the right direction after the abysmal affair that was The Shadow Theory in 2018 (but after a five year gap, its certainly not a big enough step). Let’s just do this simply, by breaking down what Kamelot did right here, and what they did wrong (or more accurately have continued to do wrong).

First the positive stuff: Tommy seems increasingly unleashed to maximize his vocal talent and accentuate his strengths, a welcome change from how stifled and constrained his performances felt on the last album. It’s not a coincidence that the best songs here are examples of this in action, in particular the glorious opener “The Great Divide”, as old school power metal as the band have leaned in a long, long time (interestingly enough Jani Liimatainen is one of the co-writers on this tune, which might explain the classicist feel going on that we’ve heard him bring to the table with Cain’s Offering, The Dark Element, and last year’s collab with Tony Kakko). I’ll also single out “Eventide” as one of Tommy’s smoothest verse to chorus transitions, and there’s something irresistible about the ease of his vocal uplift on that soaring hook. Equally impressive for different reasons was his performance on “The Looking Glass”, where he did some different things with his vocals, taking a little more of a theatrical bent here and there that reminded me of the way his predecessor Roy Khan told a story with his intonation and delivery on all those classic songs. To cut to the quick of it, the band sounds way better when they lean towards major key, soaring power metal where Tommy gets to shine and flex his chords a bit.

Kamelot falters however in the same frustrating way they’ve been faltering artistically for the past many albums now (a decent chunk of Haven being an exception), that being their insistence in continuing their edgy, darker musical approach that just seems entirely at odds with Tommy’s entire personality and vocal presence. This stuff worked when it was introduced way the hell back in the Roy Khan era with The Black Halo, because Khan was a convincing vocalist for that particular approach, his voice deep and resonant enough to put genuine grit and gravitas to his vocals and the characters he was inhibiting. Even on the somewhat criticized Ghost Opera and Poetry For the Poisoned, where they continued that style, he was able to craft vocal melodies that made incredibly dramatic magic with his lower registers. At the time it was a refreshing change of pace for power metal at large, with few bands save Tad Morose and a couple others daring to dabble in anything less than polished and shiny Euro-power. However when Khan left, Thomas Youngblood and company stuck with this artistic palette, I’m guessing because it had delivered to the band a more marketable image that they could associate with rather than the regal toned power metal of their Fourth Legacy thru Epica era. We see evidence of this in the maddingly similar music video visual styles they’ve employed over the past decade plus, with one virtually indistinguishable from another. It’s all this edgy futuristic sci-fi goth, post-apocalyptic yawn inducing dreck, and the music of course has to fit that image.

I’ll admit that I had some slight hopes that after going through a five year gap between albums during which we all collectively went through the pandemic, that Kamelot might do an abrupt change, take the chance to shake things up a bit. You’d figure all that time sitting around in dour circumstances would inspire the band to do something else, anything remotely different in style and tone, but I guess not. In Kamelot’s case it really couldn’t hurt to consider the old adage that sometimes one needs to go backwards in order to go forwards. A little of that old school magic could really reinvigorate their sound (I’m talking about a full embrace of it, not just the drips and drabs that they’ve scattered across this album). The faux tough guy hardo act with songs like “One More Flag in the Ground” has never resonated with me, and by this point after a decade plus full of the stuff they’ve spread it so thin it barely has any substance left. The irony is that commercially the band has slipped over the past couple releases in markets like the USA and the UK where that kind of thing is largely aimed at. The chart positions and sales have gotten lower and lower. Kamelot, I’m urging you — embrace romanticism again, reconsider your entire visual approach, crawl out of the darkness and breathe some fresh air again. I suspect there’s quite a few of us who’ll be waiting on the other side.

Metallica – 72 Seasons:

Alright! Twelve years of The Metal Pigeon and my second Metallica album review! It’s a milestone of sorts I’d say, although one loaded with a ton of criticism that I’ve largely already written about at length and won’t reintroduce here anew. Deserving still of criticism is the band’s rate of fire on new music output, it still takes them ages, and I still think that works to their detriment in the grand scheme of things, but I think we’re past the point of no return on that front. Too much time has passed and the band is too set in their way of working (or rather, mostly touring). All that said, I think I had the same vague sense of trepidation with the approach of Metallica’s newest, 72 Seasons, as most veteran metalheads — with a jaded, arms folded stoicism. As far as advance singles go, “Lux Æterna” wasn’t the worst choice that they could’ve put out, though it does sound far more fitting within the context of the album. I’d say the most valid criticism of it as a single is that it was the obvious choice from the tracklist, the shortest, most radio format friendly cut (a mere 3:25 run time), and out there on it’s own it felt a little underwhelming as a preview, whereas on the album sandwiched right in the middle of things, its a blast of excitement when it hits.

Were Metallica truly gutsy, they would’ve picked the album opener title track “72 Seasons” as the lead off single, because not only is it the best song on the album as a whole, but I’d argue it’s the best singular tune the band has delivered since some of the more smoky, deep cuts off 1996s Load. That deep rumbling Trujillo bass intro leading into a rollicking, thrash-tinged sequence is one of the more adrenaline pumping starts to a Metallica album in long memory. I love that Hetfield’s barking vocals here sound like vintage angry Hetfield circa 89-96, deep and booming but with that sharp, slicing bite that gave so much of classic Metallica cuts their visceral, emotional impact. And really, the whole band just slams in this song, Hammett even delivering a rare interesting guitar solo here that works as a minor detour and melodic complement to all the aggression surrounding it. Lars turns in a fiery, well thought out attack caught halfway between groove and solid quasi-thrash pummeling — its not flashy, but it doesn’t have to be and frankly shouldn’t because as is it serves the best interests of this song. I really love this song, and it just bowled me over the first time I put the album on, putting a grin on my face as I drove around pumping my fist to a new Metallica album which was a small joy to realize while it was happening.

The band follows it up with two damn near as convincing gems in “Shadows Follow” and “Screaming Suicide”, creating the band’s best three song opening salvo since Justice (I wasn’t ever wild on “Sad But True” so The Black Album doesn’t qualify for this). Regarding the former, this sometimes flip flops with “72 Seasons” as my favorite cut on the album, there being something really satisfying about Hetfield’s cadence on the vocal lines during the verses, that sharp spittle flying bark and bite attack. His lyrics here are also truly some of his best in ages, for all three of these songs really, but I can’t help but love that line “On I run / still my shadows follow” — it’s such a simple idea thematically, but so eloquently phrased as to create a picture in your mind that most of us can relate to I’d think. Actually I’ll expand on this lyrical discussion by stating that I think this album is Hetfield’s finest batch of lyrics as a collective whole since the Load album (which barring a few songs was a masterwork of lyric writing on Hetfield’s part in my book). Much has been discussed, largely by him, of his personal trials and tribulations that have changed things in his life since Hardwired, and it’s refreshing to hear him approach these subjects in a way that avoids clunkiness, awkward word choice, instead feeling like a direct conduit with his raw emotions.

Things hit speed bumps when we reach “Sleepwalk My Life Away”, “You Must Burn!”, and “Crown of Barbed Wire”, three mid-tempo set plodders that make you eyeball that 1hr 17min runtime and wish that the band had a more vocal editor in the studio during the album sequencing and urged them to leave those for b-sides. The riffs here seem to be aiming for a groove metal adjacent approach, but rather than locking you into said groove, I find myself growing angsty at how plodding they feel, how unfocused and fuzzy everything comes across. Working as a palette cleanser to those middle of the tracklist duds is “Chasing Light” which has one of the most effective, sharpened choruses on the album with a fantastic vocal trade off hook. I also loved “If Darkness Had a Son”, where we get that classic sounding Metallica vocal hook from James, a call and response out of the darkness that is written with precision and maximum earwormy-ness. The album has a strong closing run overall really, “Too Far Gone?” and “Room of Mirrors” are rockin’ songs that have specific parts I find worth coming back for, and I always find myself nodding my head along.

Much has been made of the very Sabbath influenced doom tinged closer “Inamorata”, the album’s lengthiest song clocking in at over eleven minutes, the band’s longest song in their career. I’m giving it semi-high marks because it does present something kinda unique among the album and in Metallica’s career in general, harkening back in a way to their cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Astronomy” they did on Garage, Inc all those years ago. As for the length, there is a mid-song bridge dropout where everything comes to a hush, only to build back up into a cascade of rather gorgeously phrased guitar parts that seem like a true interplay between Hetfield and Hammett. It’s not a song I’m losing my mind over, but I did enjoy it and applaud the band hitting a different stride here. Speaking of Hammett… he’s the weak link on this album, because with a few exceptions including “Inamorata”, his solos are so repetitive, full of overpoured wah pedal and seemingly directionless phrasing. He’s come out swinging against the criticism lately but I think it’s warranted — because seriously Kirk, I get that you think it’s a direct line to your emotional gut, but it’s tiresome for everyone else. I’m surprised the band doesn’t suggest he ditch the pedal, if only to offer some sonic variance for the sake of introducing freshness when that guitar solo hits. It’s weird to single out a member for poor performance on a Metallica album and not have it be Lars, but the Dane was absolutely solid this outing. And props to Hetfield on a fine return to form, as much as he can get these days anyway. I was incredibly surprised at how much I enjoyed this.

New albums from Insomnium, Enslaved and other new music thoughts!

There have been a few big names out with new records in this first quarter of the year, of particular note the Finnish melodeath titans Insomnium and Norway’s Enslaved, who if you’ve been following for any length of time will likely be aware of their far too proggy black metal approach over the course of the past decade plus. Despite my blah-dom over Enslaved’s recent albums (more or less anyway, there’s usually a track or two that has been worth hailing at least), I’m still interested in what they’re putting out if only because of the memory that still lingers of what they’ve delivered long in the past (I mean Axioma was thirteen years ago at this point, Ruun even longer!). The two bands are also embarking on a US trek that sees them getting as close to me as Austin, and I briefly considered going, but the list of other shows and events I’m attending in April is a bit too much to squeeze in another out of town trip (already heading up to Austin earlier in that week for another event). I will commend the bands on putting together a seriously value laden tour, two headliner worthy bands going the co-headline route is smart and something more bands really need to get together and do now that ticket service fees just seem to be skyrocketing higher and higher (gotta give The Cure’s Robert Smith props for shining a spotlight on this topic with his recent skirmish with Ticketmaster). Co-headlining packages makes a tour more feasible for the bands involved, helps fans save money and not have to pick and choose gigs, and just seems to be a win/win all around.

Insomnium’s newest, Anno 1696, is a lot like Winter’s Gate (2016) in that it’s based on a short story by bassist/vocalist Niilo Sevänen, this one loosely based on or inspired by the Torsåker witch trials (which by the way… brutal stuff), and in my opinion featuring a sound that also borrows a bit from the band’s more extreme blackened leanings on that album. It does not go full bore black metal however, keeping things reigned in a bit more in the traditional Insomnium mode, but this is decidedly a darker and more aggressive album than Heart Like A Grave (2019), which was an album I absolutely adored (it made that year’s top ten albums list). Like that album, this was largely a Marcus Vanhala written affair, with Sevänen handling lyrics, but founding guitarist Ville Friman popped back up on two songs and Jani Liimatainen contributed to a pair as well. I’ll admit that I miss the days when Friman was the creative musical force behind the band, his last real album wide input coming on Winter’s Gate and particularly Shadows of a Dying Sun before that. He’s scaled back his involvement largely due to his day job and that’s understandable, and to Vanhala’s credit as Heart Like A Grave has shown, he has been more than capable of fitting right into the Insomnium style and writing to suit this band’s creative approach rather than bringing over ideas from Omnium Gatherum. And I’ll be honest, Shadows was a bit of a letdown overall, but the best parts of that album had Friman’s very distinct tell-tale DNA, that unmistakable way of expressing melancholia that characterized so much of classics such as One For Sorrow and Across the Dark.

Friman’s songwriting is heard here on the album highlight “Lilian” and on the companion EP (included in the deluxe edition of the album) cut “Stained In Red”. Where the latter is set to a surprisingly fiery and aggressive uptempo rhythmic assault and splashes of melody thrown around like wild paintbrush strokes, the former is a tried and true Friman classic, all cascades of aching melodies draping over a storming progressive riff sequence. I really have trouble putting together in words just why Friman’s writing style is so affecting, but to me it’s what makes Insomnium’s sound so special, similarly to what Jesper Stromblad did for all those classic first five In Flames albums. But my two other favorite cuts from the album are a Vanhala tune in “Godforsaken” and a Sevänen/Liimatainen collaboration in “Starless Paths”. The former features accent vocals by Johanna Kurkela (aka Mrs. Tuomas Holopainen) and contains my favorite elegiac lead guitar melodies and a gripping, emotionally wrought outro vocal melody sequence. And “Starless Paths” really has to be one of the band’s best ever epics, the longest song on the album here at nearly eight minutes, it is built with several distinctive movements and never feels like it’s dragging or repeating itself, a genuine surprise (also the most Winter’s Gate adjacent moment on the record).

There’s enough dynamic variety on the album as a whole to keep things engaging throughout, songs such as “The Witch Hunter” and “The Unrest” having really earthen, rustic acoustic passages that are really effective at tempering all the aggression they’re sandwiched between. My only real meh reaction on the album unfortunately came on the collaboration with Rotting Christ’s Sakis Tolis in “White Christ”, which wasn’t a terrible tune, but felt a little plodding with nothing to offer in the way of mighty hooks or melodies (Tolis felt a little under utilized as well, I’m not exactly sure what he was supposed to bring to the song considering how lively he sounds in his main band and how muted he came across here). But over all, Anno 1696 is a solid, at times very good Insomnium album, though not living up to the dare I say masterpiece territory that Heart Like a Grave was knocking at the door of. They should try to get the three extra songs from the limited edition on the streaming services, because I do feel that despite increasing the overall tracklisting from a tidy eight to eleven, they do add quite a bit to the overall experience and don’t feel like mere b-sides left on the cutting room floor.

I have a bit less to say about the new Enslaved album Heimdal, and not because I dislike it entirely, though I still have an overall less than enthusiastic take on it as a whole. To get into what I liked about it straight away, it sounds like they have brought a slightly deeper guitar tone to the album than the relatively cleaner one they were using on Utgard, and that’s a good thing. It actually works well with the Sabbath-ian riffs they have going on in the opener “Behind the Mirror” and the strangely arranged “Forest Dweller”. I quite liked the latter, surprising even myself because it does contain one of those morose, flat sounding clean vocal passages that Enslaved has become so fond of that normally try my patience. I wonder if all the acoustic guitar here and there and strange, otherworldly arrangements make the song feel a lot more akin to folk metal that’s making it stand out to me as an album highlight. The best riff on the album belongs to “Kingdom”, that repeating intro figure is damn excellent and despite some detours into bumpy territory, the song largely remains engaging throughout. I enjoyed the urgent aggression on “Congelia” and the strange Nintendo sounding keyboard accompaniment that bounced alongside the riff midway through (I do think they could’ve tightened this song by a minute or two and made it better). And well, frankly the last three songs on the album I tend to zone out on each pass through so I guess that’s an accurate indicator of my interest level for those. I dunno Enslaved, you do you I guess, and I’ll keep hoping you’ll ditch the progressive meanderings and just get back to something that feels vital, urgent, and headbanging worthy.

Apart from spending time with the big names (ICYMI, I did a deep dive on the new In Flames album last update), there’s been a mix of new releases worth talking about however briefly. On the symphonic metal front, I actually thought the new Xandria album The Wonders Still Awaiting, the band’s first with new vocalist Ambre Vourvahis is fairly strong. It’s eerie just how similar their situation is to Nightwish’s during the Tarja to Anette transition, because former vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen was similarly of the classically inclined vocalist mode that has so defined Tarja, and Nightwish made the switch to a more mainstream adjacent vocalist in Anette Olzon. To her credit Vourvahis does possess some quasi-classical vocalist ability, though seemingly out of van Giersbergen’s league, but she makes up for it with a voice that’s adaptable to either pop or rock, even handling the extreme metal screams on the record. This has naturally lent a bit of a shift to songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Marco Heubaum’s approach to new material, writing stuff that’s far less classically influenced. It’s how Nightwish pushed the classical stuff to be window dressing on Dark Passion Play and to a lesser extent, Imaginareum during the Anette era. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what van Giersbergen brought to this band, and her second album with the band, Sacrificium was a minor symphonic metal masterpiece, genuinely inspired and the kind of thing that breathed a little new life into an old formula. But it’s a wise move here, if you can’t outdo that album nor get a better or on par vocalist in the mold of van Giersbergen, don’t even try, just pivot into different direction. I think there will be a faction of their fans who aren’t enthusiastic about where they’re heading with Vourvahis, but just as many who will be along for the ride. I’m not saying this is the band’s best effort by any means, but the band avoided disaster here (who am I kidding, the band is all new members anyway, I’m talking about Marco specifically).

I found myself surprisingly just as enthusiastic about the new Delain album, largely I suspect because I’m not sure what I was expecting here really. Their new vocalist Diana Leah sounds rather good, she’s a talented singer and has a natural warmth in her tone that I quite enjoy. The guest vocalists Paolo Ribaldini and Marco Hietala (yep that one) do inspired appearances as well, and the songwriting is as tight and compact as the Martijn Westerholt has been known to deliver. I’m not an expert on this band, despite having seen them live at least six or eight times by now (have lost count it’s been so many), but one of my sneaking suspicions was that Charlotte Wessels might have been responsible for a lot of the lyrical cringe that prevented me from really engaging with their work in the past (“We Are the Others” springs to mind… good god). Now I’m not saying Wessels time in the band wasn’t without it’s merits, 2014’s The Human Contradiction was a solid record. But the new album, Dark Waters, might just be the best thing I’ve heard under the Delain banner, leaning into it’s fairly straightforward symphonic metal meets pop approach without apology. The aforementioned guest vocalists make a duo appearance on “Invictus” and damn if it’s not a really good song, just pompous grandeur with enough metallic teeth marks to convince someone they got bit. Put it this way, if I somehow see Delain on a package tour again for the umpteenth time, I’ll pay attention this go around instead of hanging in the back for most of their set.

Alright so a more rapid fire rundown of recent new stuff:

Riverside – ID.Entity: I think I’ve flirted in the past with the idea of Riverside being the natural successors to Porcupine Tree in the heavier prog-rock side of the prog spectrum, but they’ve really claimed that title with this new album. It’s simultaneously sad and exciting to say that I enjoyed this record way more than the recent Porcupine Tree reunion album. There’s just something very direct and punchy about these songs, despite all their very progressive time changes and veering off into different directions. It’s like Riverside are capable of doing all those very prog things while still keeping the reins on a song’s fundamental groove, riff, or melodic throughline. Go check out “Friend or Foe?” and tell me that’s not a damn hooky riff.

Lovebites – Judgement Day / Galneryus – Between Dread and Valor / Ethereal Sin – Time of Requiem Part. 2: Unleashed in the East! Erm…in other words, a handful of new albums by some storied Japanese bands in the power metal/symphonic power vein. I’m assuming everyone knows about Galneryus already, and the new album is a solid slice of what they do best. I really enjoyed the hell out of it even though I do acknowledge some of the production issues here that have the r/PowerMetal gang bent out of shape a tad. The new Lovebites is incredibly exciting, and songwriting wise it flows way better than their last two records (which I felt were great, but had a lot of jarringly awkward transitions). There was some fear that with founding member/bassist Miho leaving the group a few years back, they’d lose some of that NWOBHM/Iron Maiden influence that has so characterized their sound, but I don’t hear that here. If anything, I just hear a band that’s refined their sound to flow better, without sacrificing the jagged edges that give their attack the bite it’s always had. I’ll admit however that I was far more intrigued by the new album by longtime symphonic power/melodeath outfit Ethereal Sin, a band that’s new to me (thanks Christian!). This sounds like a mashup of Lovebites and Serenity In Murder, and I’m here for it — genuinely one of the more viscerally exciting albums I’ve heard this year. Search for it on Spotify by artist name because the album and song titles are listed in Japanese, but do give it a shot, I keep coming back to it.

Marauder – Metal Constructions VII: So this weirdly titled slab of old school metal was a happy surprise, a really well executed no frills, ample aggression filled collection of stuff that reminds me of equal parts Metal Church, Accept, and Armored Saint. A song like “Strike Back Again” hits that perfect sweet spot of furious, headbanging rage and impeccable melodic vocal melodies with well crafted supporting guitar melodies. I said this title was weird, and yeah there aren’t Metal Constructions I-VI that predate this album (shrug), but Marauder is a band that’s been around for awhile now… long enough to be called veterans anyway.

Frozen Crown – Call of the North: This is a rebound from 2021’s Winterbane, which was a worrying moment for this young band, but thankfully guitarist/songwriter Federico Mondelli sharpened his knives here. It’s a solid power metal album that accents the melodic two lead vocalist approach that Frozen Crown aims for, with Giada Etro sounding solid but my hat tip going to Mondelli’s lead vocals scattered throughout, with his moments on “Black Heart” really showing just how good he can be as a singer. I had fun listening to this overall, even though it didn’t blow me away like Crowned In Frost did in 2019.

That’s it for this update, there’s more albums I’ve listened to in the past few weeks/months that I just haven’t gotten enough time with or had “sink in” yet that will likely be covered in the next cluster-y update like this. Also the new Kamelot has only been out a week so I’m still ruminating on that one for a possible deep dive and the new Keep of Kalessin is raising my eyebrows as well so look forward to something on that.

Foregone Conclusions: Have In Flames returned to their Gothenburg roots?

There’s been such a steady murmur of anticipation about this album that I simply couldn’t ignore it like I had the past couple In Flames albums. Of course the single that started all this chatter, “State of Slow Decay”, was released way the hell back in summer of 2022, and it’s undeniably Gothenburg-ish, At the Gates-ian trademark riff sequences got everyone’s attention and had metalheads all over nudging their friends to ask, “Have you heard the new In Flames?”. But I was cautious, refusing to listen to the single itself, but reading opinions from people who had and reading comments online here and there. When a couple months later they released the second single from the album, “The Great Deceiver”, this low grade buzz became audibly louder, and I felt myself digging in harder, because I wasn’t about to let this band make a fool of me like they had for years and years straight when I’d eagerly buy each new album in the post-Reroute to Remain era hoping that it would be the one where the band would turn things around (for the record, I stopped after 2011’s Sounds of a Playground Fading… god that album title, yeeesh).

Recently however, I gave into curiosity as the album release drew nearer and listened to both of the initial singles one night (they went on to release three more in between then and release day… dudes, that’s about half the album, a bit much no?). I was reticent about sharing my opinion on them until I heard the album as a whole but I had to admit that I understood why folks were either intrigued and even a little hopeful. Hell even the album art was suggestive, far more metal-esque than anything they’ve slapped on an album jacket since I dunno, are going back as far as Colony here? Why am I being so cagey about this dumb album you wonder? Because at one point, In Flames really meant a whole heck of a lot to me, I discovered them a few months after Clayman was released and within a couple weeks had already acquired the entirety of their back catalog and would spend the next year obsessing over them and anything else coming out of Gothenburg past and present. The pinnacle was seeing In Flames do a headlining gig that December, a tale I detailed in an autobiographical piece a few years ago. Their music helped me through a rough time and I was incredibly attached to those first five albums, so I gave them a lengthy benefit of doubt when it came to future output, even though it mostly left a bad taste in my mouth.

Now having had time to process Foregone in full over the course of a week, I think that it’s fair to say its the band’s best album of their Reroute to Remain-present day era. It is arguably the best modern In Flames album alongside Come Clarity (and perhaps even slightly edging it), but it is most certainly not a return to “form” if what we mean by form is the sound of their classic first five albums. And I’ll emphasize that last bit, because anyone trying to convince you otherwise is either lying to themselves and you, or doesn’t really understand the difference between the band’s musical approach during their classic era to everything that came in the wake of Reroute (whose album title only looks more precient in retrospect). The difference, in a nutshell, is as follows: Classic era In Flames (Lunar Strain thru Clayman) was written with lead guitar melodies and/or riff sequences as the central motif of a song, often times serving as a hook or refrain, while vocalists Mikael Stanne and subsequently Anders Friden screamed around them. Modern In Flames (ie anything Reroute and onwards) is written around Anders Friden’s vocal melodies as the central refrain, leaving the lead guitars to work around his (often clean) vocal parts. Clayman is a bit of a transition album between these two eras, because while tunes like “Swim”, “Square Nothing” and others were firmly in the old school In Flames mode, you saw the band experimenting with Anders led songs such as “Only For The Weak”, “Pinball Map” and “Bullet Ride” (and because he was only tentatively trying out clean vocals here, these were largely screamed choruses and didn’t sound all that shocking or out of place).

So when I listen to the first single here, “State of Slow Decay”, I get that people flipped out about the Gothenburg elements, but despite those (and they are warm and familiar to hear, as strange as that might sound), I still hear a song built around an Anders’ clean vocal chorus, which lands like a sinking stone. It’s just not a good hook, it takes all the energy that was ripping through the verse segments and pumps the brakes on everything hard, coming across as anti-climatic more than anything. A more suitably old school adjacent track is the third single “Foregone Pt 1”, which seems to pivot around that very Whoracle/Colony riff during the verse build up, and even though we get the expected Anders led vocal chorus, its actually fairly intense and energetic in it’s shape and his aggressive delivery. This is definitely the closest they’ve gotten to touching upon that old school spirit and it was genuinely a thrill to hear it — this is really what I wanted The Halo Effect’s debut to sound like. Worth mentioning here is the unconventionally patterned “The Great Deceiver”, where I did get a bit of whiplash to a sound that really reminded me of something that could’ve been on Clayman, with Anders semi-clean/largely screamed chorus and a really simple yet deft and effective riff pattern that is one of the most addictive things they’ve cooked up in years. If the rest of the album was more in line with the approach taken on these two songs, I think people would be flipping out about this record way more than they were hoping to.

The truth is that this album is largely rooted in the sound of modern In Flames, with a noticeable step up in the overall aggression levels (I had to go back and slog through I, The Mask and Battles to determine that for godssake). And in fairness, I do enjoy some modern In Flames, the aforementioned Come Clarity was a relatively decent post-Reroute Jesper Stromblad era album (though it’s not aged nearly as well as I’d hoped), and I liked some sporadic songs from the albums that followed after that), and I can honestly say that there are a few modern In Flames songs on Foregone that I think are legit some of their best in that vein. As far as clean vocal Anders goes, I don’t think he’s ever sounded as good as he does on “Pure Light of Mind”, his vocals hitting an quasi-falsetto tone in the verses and a really solid, modern rock approach that actually suits him in the chorus which is itself an incredibly satisfying vocal melody. It’s that rare semi-power ballad that the band have tried before but never been able to quite pull off, and the clean vocals here are a boon to the song, not a hinderance. Similarly effective is “A Dialogue In B Flat Minor”, where Anders goes clean on the pre-chorus and chorus together, and though some may find those lyrics in the refrain a bit corny, it somehow works as a memorable earworm. I could easily see many hating this song with a passion, it’s so close to everything we tend to detest about modern In Flames (and it could be that I’m just a sucker for a really well written hook and am giving it a pass on the cringe factor).

Elsewhere on the album however, I found that most of these songs weren’t all together that remarkable, at times walking that fine line between boring and aggravating. A song like “Cynosure” really sounds like something that could’ve fit into any of their past six albums, with a few cool musical elements grabbing your attention, but the band failing to mold it into a cohesive whole. Ditto for “In The Dark”, where thick growling vocals can’t mask a dreadful hook, and the mid-song abrupt transition fails to make up the deficit (though I’ll admit the twin guitar solo towards the end is a nice moment). And did anyone get real “The Quiet Place” flashbacks when hearing “Meet Your Maker”? I can’t help but hear echoes of that song every time this track comes on (as you might have guessed, not exactly a ringing endorsement then). I didn’t mind “Bleeding Out” nearly as much, even though Anders leans a little too close to that whining tone in the chorus here that I can’t help but be irked by at this point. And “End the Transmission” is a decent album closer, built on a chunky riff that segues into a rather unusual pre-chorus/chorus that works despite sounding clunky on the surface. There actually aren’t any songs I completely dislike on the album as a whole, but most of this stuff falls in the category of “Eh, it’s alright”. In short, there’s nothing here that genuinely excites me.

In the past few years, I’ve avoided listening to pre-release singles by metal bands for the most part, usually because they’re a flawed indicator of the album as a whole and I don’t want my opinion going in to be negatively influenced. In the case of Foregone, listening to those first two singles a couple weeks ago might have worked in my favor because they really helped realign my expectations for what the reality was likely going to be, in comparison to people’s fanciful hopes. I’m actually glad that I didn’t hear the instrumental album opening track, “The Beginning of All Things That Will End”, as my first taste of this album — because that actually is the best song on the album in terms of going back to the sound of those first five In Flames albums. It’s not earthshaking either, but I’ll always associate the sound of prettily melancholic Scandinavian folk melodies played on acoustic with a somber cello swooping in underneath as a trademark of those hallowed Stromblad driven classics. Had I heard it first, I would have really been let down by the rest of Foregone, and this review might have been angrier and harsher, but as it is, that instrumental just makes me sad. Because it’s clear that Anders and Bjorn (Gelotte), the remaining two members from that classic era, know what they would have to do in order to really go back to that old sound (they got damn close on “Foregone, Pt 1”), but for reasons known only to themselves, they simply won’t do it. And maybe they genuinely can’t, not for a whole album. Maybe that DNA left when Jesper left the band… but he’s not putting it to use in The Halo Effect, and dammit, no other band has come forward to claim that incredible sound and do it anew, and I’ve been craving it’s return for over twenty years now and am still hungry.

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