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.
In keeping with my approach for the blog in 2023 to stay away from the reviews treadmill (for the most part) and let my intuition as a metal fan guide how and what I write on this site for a change, I’ve walked into the new year uncertain of what I was going to discuss next here. I waited for inspiration to strike really, listening to mostly sports talk radio, podcasts, and random non-metal music in the gaps in between. Recently, while driving to work on a cold morning, I felt the out of nowhere urge to jam some Charon, the oft-forgotten Finnish goth metal band whose sound was largely inspired and tied to that of fellow countrymen Sentenced (incidentally, the last band I profiled for this series many years ago). I pulled up Spotify’s “This is Charon” playlist and let it rip.
It struck me while sitting there in traffic jamming to these songs that this was a band that no one ever really talked about anymore, a thought that saddened me. Charon might have got caught in the shadow of Sentenced, and understandably so, but they put out a handful of pretty strong gothic metal records of their own, and more importantly, their presence in the international metal landscape helped to solidify this sound as distinctly Finnish, related yet quite different from goth metal godfathers Type O Negative. So in keeping with the still relatively short-lived tradition of this series, I’m presenting below ten cuts from Charon in chronological order to serve as a convincing introduction or gentle reminder that this band is worth checking out, remembering, and celebrating.
“4 Seasons Rush” (from 2000’s Tearstained)
Charon’s sophomore album Tearstained was the beginning of Charon as we all grew to love them, that’s not meant to be a slight on their debut, 1998’s Sorrowburn, but that album was their transition from the band’s early death metal roots (much like their peers in Sentenced) in that they were finding their footing, trying to figure out how to write for melodic vocals while still retaining some minor vestiges of their extreme roots. On this album, they had a better idea of how to write for the deep, gravelly singing voice of JP Leppäluoto, who himself was allowed to have a greater runway for his vocal melodies — his impact being immediately felt on the album’s best song, “4 Seasons Rush”, an emotional onslaught of a tune crafted with tension building and release in mind. JP affects an almost warbling, uncentered approach in the verses here, as if leaning towards overdramatic pastiche, only to roar back with his raw and real anguished vocal in that ultra powerful chorus. That chilling cello that serves as an unnerving segue outro from the refrain is one of the more unexpected yet inspired moments in the band’s catalog.
“As We Die” (from 2000’s Tearstained)
I think it’d be fair to call Tearstained a relatively uneven album — frankly there were moments where you felt like some songs needed a longer bake, but it did have a handful of strong tunes and “As We Die” was top of mind for me when considering the record as a whole. And while it wasn’t as inventive as “4 Seasons Rush”, it was a sublime slice of goth-rock/metal (whatever you think it deserves to be tagged as), built on a steady rhythm and purposeful chord progression to let JP’s vocal delivery carry the load. It’s really the depressive lyrics that pull you in here, talking about lovelorn despondency and just general malaise. Charon eschewed the sardonic word play of Sentenced or the unabashed romanticism of HIM on the lyrical front, instead working with a blunt directness in their lyrical approach that cut straight to the heart.
“Bitter Joy” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
I love the downward rhythmic tumble in the chorus of this overlooked gem from the band’s 2002’s gothic masterpiece Downhearted, all set up with a rather straightforward groove based riff sequence with weird synth effects thrown in for texture (surprisingly effective too). My favorite minor detail here is how JP’s vocals careen right through the ending of the pre-chorus with the lyric “My heart is all for open – for you two” and when the rest of the band crash back in a full second later, that impact is so damn satisfying in a visceral way. So much of really good gothic metal is about riding a feeling and emphasizing the punctuation marks whenever they come. That’s why a song such as “Bitter Joy” with it’s relatively simple, uncomplicated riff sequences can still impact you in a massive way via subtle details such as timing and intention.
“Craving” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
A slice of quintessential Finnish gothic metal, and one of the songs that exemplify JP as one of the genre’s best most expressive vocalists (dare I say even better than Sentenced’s Ville Laihiala from a purely technical standpoint), from the clarity of his enunciation to the utter outpouring of emotion heard in his voice during this excellent chorus. Founding guitarist Jasse von Hast was on a songwriting tear across Downhearted, penning three of it’s most stellar songs, splitting the writing duties with fellow guitarist Pasi Sipilä. While Sipilä has kept a low profile since Charon ended in 2005, von Hast went on to form the death-doom outfit Tomb of Finland where he’s continued his creative streak as a songwriter in delivering some pretty great records (we covered them on our podcast this past year). For both guys however, their songwriting work in Charon tends to get overlooked, with most of the band’s accolades going to JP (deservedly so, don’t get me wrong). Together they knocked out one of the finest gothic metal albums ever written here, and deserve to be acknowledged for it.
“Little Angel” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
Here it is, the band’s apex moment, a song that not only rocketed to nearly the top of the Finnish singles chart but remains one of the subgenre’s most compelling songs ever penned. This was another von Hast penned song, and it’s a credit to his versatility as a writer that someone so rooted in extreme metal is capable of crafting a song this entrenched in gothic angst and glorious drama. It’s not just that “Little Angel” is memorable, it’s about how and why it’s so memorable (and no its not because of the very brooding and suggestive music video, check it out). This is one of those songs that legitimately has three separate hooks, each uniquely addictive for reasons unto themselves. The verse is based on a synth groove and JP’s solitary compelling vocal melody, and it focuses your attention on the pseudo-maniacal lyrics with clever poetic framing (“Pain… / Fire…”). The sudden drop into the chorus with guitars crashing in is purposefully jarring, but the clever twist here is that they only deliver this chorus by itself at first, segueing right into another verse before adding a little guitar color towards the end to differentiate this go round in your mind — and then that downright epic, aching lead guitar motif rips through your heart, revealing itself as the true melodic hook after the chorus. A post chorus for the ages then.
“Desire You” (from 2002’s Downhearted)
Another von Hast classic on Downhearted, this power ballad was built on a pulsing bass line and gentle, floaty chord sequences, supporting a beautiful duet with JP’s gravelly accented vocals paired against the dark wine colored tones of frequent Charon collaborator Jenny Heinonen. The push and pull within this song is what has made it so compelling to me over the years, being one of those growers on the album that I didn’t appreciate upon release but have come to love since then. That being the juxtaposing dynamics between hushed quietude and a layered blanket of riffs — an effect that gives emotional weight to the build up and a cathartic release of tension. The lyrics here are spare, devoid of flowery diction, a seemingly deliberate choice that worked incredibly well given the context. Charon were never recognized as a particularly literate band, JP and company choosing to write lyrics that were more blunt than most of their goth rock/metal peers, but they knew how make it feel natural and even purposeful.
“In Trust Of No One” (from 2003’s The Dying Daylights)
There’s only one song on this list here from 2003’s The Dying Daylights, and that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this album as a whole, because I think it’s a solid record for the most part, but it had the misfortune of being sandwiched between Downhearted and Songs for the Sinners and that’s left it looking a little more underwhelming in comparison. There’s some really fantastic material on the album though, “Religious/Delicious”, “If”, “Every Failure” to mention a few, but “In Trust Of No One” is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of memorability. One of the band’s most uptempo, rock n’ roll injected tunes, Sipilä builds this around an Iron Maiden inspired circular lead motif that sort of sets the tempo and the tone throughout. I love the rhythm guitar shading on the pre-chorus, a deliberately simple chord progression that fills in so much sound and injects so much vivid color into that space. Not gonna avoid it, this was their most Sentenced sounding moment, it could’ve easily passed as one of that band’s tunes. I won’t hold it against them though, a great song is a great song.
“Colder” (from 2005’s Songs for the Sinners)
My favorite cut from Songs for the Sinners, the band’s 2005 swansong, “Colder” reigns supreme not only as one of the band’s greatest ever tunes, but a sterling example of just how powerful music in this stylistic vein could be when executed to its fullest. Little touches like guest vocalist Jenny Heinonen’s beautiful melodies as a recurring motif and her harmonized backing vocal add a lush depth to JP’s lines in the verse sections, giving this song a distinct character all it’s own (particularly in that Charon chose to avoid the beauty and the beast vocal archetype that was really popular around this time). I love the complexity heard in Sipilä’s lead melody during the post-chorus sequence, adding a bit of intensity right after an already passionately delivered chorus. This is also the band’s finest set of lyrics, vague and mysterious in intent yet still full of concrete and direct imagery that grounds it. There’s something magnetic about this song, one of those songs you replay over and over again when you first hear it, and even years later when you’re revisiting it.
“Deep Water” (from 2005’s Songs for the Sinners)
Following directly after “Colder” on the tracklist, “Deep Waters” always stuck with me due to the little details that popped up throughout, the repeating clean guitar that chimed up below that crunchy riff, the offset silence in the post chorus outro, and of course that downright awesome lead guitar melody that was the song’s true hook, hidden away behind one of JP’s more theatrical vocal performances on a Charon song, kinda akin to the stuff he’s been doing lately in his career in various different avenues (dude is a celebrity on Finnish television as a theatrical singer). For a large part of his time in Charon, he stuck to a gothic rock/metal mode, and we really didn’t get a chance to hear just how versatile of a singer he was until stuff like Northern Kings and Raskasta Joulua. This song was a brief glimpse at where he’d end up, and one of the many gorgeous slices of ache on Songs for the Sinners.
“House of the Silent” (from 2005’s Songs for the Sinners)
One of the band’s most lengthy and complex tracks ever (relatively speaking of course, this is a band that usually sat in the three to four minute range), it was also one of their most mournfully beautiful. Charon spent more time speaking about lovelorn anguish than pondering on the meaning of existence, but here they seem to merge the two, speaking about a “silent house where the love in bloom died”. By the end of the song, we’re not entirely certain either way whether JP was singing about the end of a relationship or the end of a life, so intertwined is the imagery of both in these lyrics. The depth of this storytelling occurs within the guitar interplay of Sipilä and then new guitarist Lauri Tuohimaa, who both go wild on the instrumental bridge with a gorgeous melodic motif and inspired soloing all around it. That their playing ushers along the fade out towards the end seems fitting, the final song on the final album of a band that was going to call it a day, albeit unknowingly at the time.
The annual best of list here at The Metal Pigeon has been an ongoing tradition since I started the blog way back in late 2011. In all those years of writing up lists, I’ve never had as hard a time putting one together as I have for 2022 — not for a lack of fantastic albums, but because of a surplus of them. The ten albums below are culled from an initial pool of twenty-ish nominees, down to a more manageable sixteen, from which I agonizingly forced myself down to my traditional ten. The cuts were hard to make, but harder still was the ordering of this list, particularly the top five (those two at the top in particular I flip-flopped over a dozen times easy) for which I made myself a little crazy re-ordering this way and that. I think that speaks volumes about the sheer quality of the albums on this list however, because most years there are very apparent front runners for those top five spots at least and I’m usually very decisive about it.
It was a really great year for metal, and a much better year for me as a metal fan largely because all the healthier new habits I’ve adopted after 2021’s near burnout have made me a smarter music listener. It’s time to extend that to blogging as well, so expect less of a reviews focus here in 2023 (I already started scaling back in 2022 if you hadn’t noticed) and more of an actual commentary from my perspective as a metal fan (more in line with the actual tagline for the blog!). I want to be more beholden to my own internal musings about metal rather than having to adhere to the release calendar, which is just a treadmill that never seems to end and really risks burning you out. I’ll still have plenty to say about really important records for sure, and will have recommendations to throw your way, that won’t ever change. Speaking of which, let’s get on with just that — If you love metal of any stripe, you’ll find something to really enjoy on this list (likely some of you already know most of these), and be sure to take a glance at the first part of the Best of 2022 feature covering the best songs of the year.
1.Xaon – The Lethean:
This will only be the fourth time in the history of the blog that the same band has captured both the top spot on the best songs and albums list in a particular year. It will be however the third year in a row that a band has managed that feat: Therion did it in 2021, Seven Spires did it in 2020, and before that Avantasia was the first to do it in 2016, but it’s a rarity for a reason, because band’s rarely deliver both an iconic song and a flawless album in one go (and it’s worth crowing about when they do). I had no idea who Xaon were before The Lethean was introduced to me via my cohost Cary on a random late summer episode of the MSRcast, and the song we played on the show (the aforementioned best songs list topper “If I Had Wings”) lingered long in my mind after we finished recording. When I eventually checked out the rest of the album, I don’t think I expected it to reach the same heights as that beautifully epic masterpiece of a song, but somehow, Xaon managed to create a front to finish work of art that not only thrilled me with it’s intensity, but challenged my idea of what progressive metal could sound like and more importantly achieve in terms of it’s visceral emotional impact. That progressive tag by the way is my own inclusion, because although they’re labeled as symphonic death metal on Metallum, to my ears they have more in common with an artist such as… Subterranean Masquerade than they do solely with Fleshgod Apocalypse or Septicflesh. This comes through straightaway in the songwriting, via an unorthodox approach to the way these guys approach arrangements and song structures in general, sometimes even forgoing traditional verse/chorus/bridge sequences altogether. They seemed to arrange their songs into something akin to movements at times, such as on “The Hunt”, with its ever mutating riff sequences and unrelentingly punishing percussive rhythmic attack, all while gorgeous orchestral melodies spiral off on their own accord. The effect was jarring but utterly hypnotic and compelling, the end result being that I just had to hear it again, and again, and again.
A remarkable thing about The Lethean is that it sees the introduction of two new guitarists in the band’s lineup, those most crucial of positions (and also this being the band’s first album without former guitarist / songwriter Vincent Zermatten), with new guys Eerik Maurage and Klin HC making their debut on this album. Pretty astonishing considering their work here just goes for the throat in terms of riff intensity and complexity. But clearly the focal point of the band is vocalist and longest tenured member Rob Carson, who not only seems to be the creative focal point here but also handled the mixing and mastering of the album (no small feat, the sound design here is perfect). Carson might be my favorite vocalist discovery of the year, a singer whose range veers from a suitably gravely textured throat for screaming vox, and a clean voice that is capable of gentle, emotive melodies ala Steven Wilson or Mikael Akerfeldt as on the closing lament “Telos”. He’s at his most impressive however when he blends those two styles into something very much his own, as heard on “If I Had Wings”, “Wayward Son”, or “In Pyrrhic Seas”, a full throated, unhinged sounding clean metal vocal that sounds like Primordial’s Alan Averill meshed with Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes. The last few minutes of “And Yet I Smile” demonstrates his versatility in another unpredictable way, with a guttural meets clean vocal melody that would sound at home on both a Carach Angren and Orphaned Land record (his voice is damn versatile). There was not a single weak moment or minute wasted on this album, a rarity for a track list that exceeded the fifty minute mark (just barely by a minute-ish). It’s also an album that is very challenging to describe into words, because I don’t think I’ve ever quite heard anything like it. Yes it has the orchestrations and grandeur inherent in symphonic metal, and certainly it has the progressive death metal that would hook in fans of older Opeth or Amorphis or Edge of Sanity even — but this is an album that is so much more than the sum of it’s parts. Carson and company have molded these influences into something that is actually original, that seethes with primal energy and is also dazzlingly beautiful, and in the process have created the most thrilling and convincing metal album of the year.
In a perfect world, there would be a way for Brymir’s incredible, nigh flawless Voices in the Sky to sit atop the album of the year list on this blog, perhaps by being released a year earlier or later, but alas it had the misfortune of running up alongside that Xaon album and well, it will have to settle here. I’ll be honest though, in my stressing over the assembly of this list, it sat at the very top for about half of the various revisions and there were a few times were I toyed around with flipping a coin to see who would get the top spot. What I ultimately worked out however was giving the edge to The Lethean because it presented a band that was new to me who had a sound that I genuinely felt I hadn’t heard before, whereas Voices in the Sky is the perfection of a sound that I’ve heard Brymir making progress on throughout their career. Head to head, I went with rewarding the band that was entirely novel to me, but that shouldn’t lessen Brymir’s accomplishment here in any way. Their previous album Wings of Fire (2019) was an incredibly promising and sometimes frustrating listen — you could tell they were still trying to work out how to balance the disparate elements in their sound, that furious neoclassical infused Finnish black metal blitz with that sparkly, sugary power metal melodicism. They figured it out in full on Voices in the Sky, crafting a fully realized vision of what their sound should be, with instant classics such as “Fly With Me” and “Far From Home”, shining examples of that multifaceted, dynamic songwriting approach honed to a razor sharp edge. The “Herald of Aegir” was my personal highlight on the album, an ascending to the heavens skyrocketing banger that was framed by absolutely explosive epic vocal harmonies courtesy of bassist Jarkko Niemi and guitarist Joona Björkroth (these guys deserve the MVP award for their stellar work throughout the album as complements to lead vocalist Viktor Gullichsen). The songwriting throughout the album displayed admirable creativity and craftsmanship, with songs centered around precision hooks yet unafraid to be adventurous and zigzag in unexpected ways elsewhere. This album rocked with conviction and a genuinely fiery spirit, something rare and worth cherishing.
3.Månegarm – Ynglingaättens öde:
This album was at one point the leading contender for topping the album of the year list, having a brief head start on the two above it. Despite being bumped down a few spots, it is far and away my favorite traditional folk metal album of the past decade, and that’s saying a lot considering we’ve enjoyed a folk metal renaissance over the past few years. Although Månegarm had been putting out fairly solid records throughout the years with a few stumbles and missteps, they seem to have stuck upon a rich vein of inspiration here. These songs interweave gorgeous Scandinavian folk instrumentation with metallic elements so effortlessly that it gives the entire album a rustic, earthen, and organic feel that has proven so difficult for bands to achieve (so many who try often fall into traps of gimmickry and silliness). The glue that makes it all work is the absolute earnestness that comes through in these individual performances, both musically and vocally, with singer Erik Grawsiö’s work here at the top of the list. He seems to effortlessly glide from charcoal black metal grimness to a gruff melodic singing voice, with forays into beautifully deep, layered folky harmonies. There is a stellar cast of guest vocalists here as well, all bringing strikingly different tones to these songs, of particular note being Lea Grawsiö Lindström (Erik’s daughter) and past collaborator Ellinor Videfors, who both turn in star turns on their respective songs (Lea’s appearance on “En snara av guld” being one of my songs of the year). Martin Björklund’s violin work throughout the album is key to it’s sheer beauty in many moments, a honeyed counterpoint to the often ferocious metallic attack that sounds way louder than a three piece metal band should. So crucial is the interweaving of the violin parts that I’m considering Björklund as important as guitarist Markus Andé, who is also having a career moment here himself. I can’t fully express just how gratifying of a listen this album was, and how damn difficult it made sorting out this year’s best albums list along with the two troublemakers above. Sometimes albums end up on this list that I just don’t get back to very often as the years roll by, but I feel in my gut that this won’t be one of those.
One of my most listened to albums of 2022, Saor’s Origins was the go to soundtrack for most of my summer when I wasn’t listening to you know, Judas Priest, Dokken, and Scorpions (ie summertime jams). Unlike the earthen warmth that permeated 2019’s Forgotten Paths and it’s more rootsy folk metal infusions, Saor’s singular member Andy Marshall expands his palette on Origins, incorporating not only specific Celtic instrumentation with bagpipes, but lush keyboard orchestrations that are cinematic in their arrangement. It’s fitting for an album that dreams of cloud streaked skies, winds rippling through mountains, and a sense of wide open spaces. What really surprised me was how spiritual this music felt, and how personal that feeling could still be when it was the near inverse of Forgotten Path’s inward looking feelings. Part of Marshall’s success in crafting his sound is his ability to create atmospheric folk metal that sounds naturally blended together — at no point do the folk elements seem forced or clumsily thrust in out of place. On “Aurora”, Marshall delivers an aching lead melody, these bent melodic lines that all of a sudden give way to a lonely bagpipe sounding solo that eventually reintroduces the lead guitar back with a melancholic counterpoint, the combination of which is one of the most epic things I’ve heard. I suspect the other big musical aspect of Origins’ success is the decision to scale back the purely atmospheric black metal in favor of a more mixed upfront, straight ahead metal guitar attack. The lack of waves of tremolo riff layering actually lends more space within the framework of these songs, allowing the folk elements to breathe more and incorporate into things a little easier. Atmospheric folk metal rarely sounds this cinematic and powerful at the same time, its a difficult balance to get right, but on Origins Marshall created an album that sets itself apart from the rest of the subgenre, and was easily one of the most beautiful albums of the year.
5.Gladenfold – Nemesis:
One of just a few artists on this list that were completely new to me, Gladenfold came out of nowhere this year courtesy a random Spotify playlist placement and knocked me sideways. Their blend of keyboard heavy Finnish melodic death metal with generous swirls of Kamelot or classic era Sonata power metal has proven to be a revelation, and on Nemesis they’ve channeled this versatile, dynamic sound through incredibly assured songwriting. Alongside Xaor’s Rob Carson, Gladenfold vocalist Esko Itälä made the biggest impression on me this year for turning in a vocal performance that was not only surprising in it’s scope, but in just how well he was able to deliver all the varying facets of his vocal approach. Be it the gorgeous Roy Khan-ian rich smoothness of his singing on “Saraste” or “Where Mountains Mourn” where his deep, sonorous timbre created emotional swells that moved like gentle waves; or the sharpness of his melodeath growl on “Chiara’s Blessing” and “Revelations” that is a damn convincing blend of early Bodom era Alexi and Suidakra’s Arkadius Antonik and all shades in between. It’s rare to have a vocalist doing double duty on harshes and cleans where you’re satisfied at any particular moment — most of the time you find yourself wanting more of one style than the other. Itälä may have the most intriguing power metal voice to emerge in the last decade, because though I can sit here spitting out comparisons all day, the truth is that he really has a distinct tone all his own and I’m excited to see how he can develop it further. Not to ignore the band’s accomplishments as a whole however, because the performances here are incredible and the songwriting is masterfully crafted, full of depth and with intricate designs that build towards satisfying payoffs in hooks and musical refrains. This lushly layered album unfolded over a multitude of listens, as I was unable to escape it’s pull and kept returning to it again and again.
6.Therion – Leviathan II:
The latest in the continuing trilogy of albums that are the closest thing to fan service you could possibly expect from a band that has made a career of doing things their own way (stubbornly at that), Leviathan II avoided being a let down in the wake of its stunningly awesome predecessor (and last year’s best albums list topper), instead living up to its promise of being a nod towards the band’s enchantingly softer, melancholic side. The rush of warm nostalgia that I get when listening through Leviathan II is something I have a hard time putting into words. If you loved albums such as Vovin and Deggial in the past and obsessed over them as hard as I did, you might be able to understand what I’m referring to. But its also the splash of gothic metal vibes that I get from tunes such as “Alchemy of the Soul” and “Lunar Colored Fields” that really hits me in the feels. It brings to mind forgotten bands from that mid to late 90s era when gothic and symphonic metal were budding seeds — and black shirt adorned Euro kids would huddle in tiny clubs with bad lighting and rickety stages and listen to music that made them feel like they were on a hillside full of flowers. The shining gem here is the best songs listee “Cavern Cold As Ice”, one of the most bright and beautiful uptempo Therion songs to date, recalling such disparate touchstones such as their old ABBA cover “Summernight City” and the title track of the Gothic Kabbalah album. That this album isn’t higher on the list, perhaps even at the top isn’t a slight against it’s quality, but more of a commentary on just how incredible the rest of the albums above it on the list were. I loved Leviathan II a great deal, perhaps just slightly under its predecessor where the band caught a little accidental inspiration by focusing more heavily on vocal melodies than ever before and created something truly fresh. This album by contrast revels in old school mid-late 90s nostalgia, and its for that reason that I love it to death.
Dawn of Destiny just doesn’t know how to disappoint really, with all of their albums since 2014’s best albums listee F.E.A.R. landing somewhere in between very good and damn great. Their mix of gothic metal and hard rock with tinges of power metal hits a sweet spot for me that is put over the top by the pipes of vocalist Jeanette Scherff. But despite the band delivering strong records in all these years since F.E.A.R., this is the first time we’re seeing them return to the Best of list in nearly a decade, which means that Of Silence is truly a special record, not merely a great one. Truth be told it’s hard to tell what happened here to elevate things, because Scherff is as impressive as she’s ever been, but the secret might be in bassist/songwriter Jens Faber just feeling himself creatively these days. He put out another awesome record in his side project with Henning Basse in Legions of the Night, their second in the past year, and those along with Of Silence just prove that he should be considered one of the premier songwriters in the greater melodic metal world right now (he’s not of course, just like Scherff being an underrated and overlooked singer, Faber is rarely given the credit he’s due). This album has some of the band’s best ever tunes, the gorgeous best songs listee power ballad “Little Flower”, the thunderously heavy “Judas in Me” with it’s Accept-ian riffs and rhythmic swagger, and the breathlessly rushing epic “Say My Name”. Not a weak song on this tracklist and front to finish just incredibly strong songwriting — one of the most rewarding albums I had the pleasure of listening to all year.
It’s rare that atmo-black makes appearances on my year end lists, Alcest being the exception really, because most of the time I appreciate atmo-black for it’s pretty ear candy qualities alone, and rarely get into it on a more personal, emotional level. Finland’s Einvigi released an album this past April that was the exception to that, a record that was more concerned with expressing emotions on an intimate, personal scale rather than the grand sonic gestures of some of their contemporaries. What I loved the most about these songs was the emphasis on building them not around blasts of dissonant tremolo passages and heavily distorted fuzzy wash (there was plenty of it however), instead structuring them around looser, jangly guitar patterns reminiscent of alternative rock bands such as The Cranberries or Smashing Pumpkins. No kidding, there are times when I felt like this was what Siamese Dream might have sounded like if put through a black metal filter, with little splashes of Steven Street style production on it’s more clean guitar leaning moments. This was an album meant to be experienced together in one fell swoop, a thirty-eight minute emotional experience that struck chords of nostalgia, exuberance, sadness, and gratitude at varying moments. I’ll always associate this album with the first time I listened to it, taking an extended detour on a drive to the grocery store just to digest it all without interruption as a soundtrack to a bright sunny day. Points also need to be given to Einvigi here for crafting an atmo-black record that sounds nothing like their subgenre contemporaries from France or the USA, nor even the strains of Finnish black metal we’ve come to associate with certain influential bands from that country. They have a remarkably unique sound unto themselves, and here they wielded it not as a cudgel or battle axe, but like a paintbrush.
9.Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash:
This might be the biggest shock on this list, because I’ve been rather critical of Oceans of Slumber’s past few records, feeling like they were at times overwrought, overcooked, or even too heavy for their own good. The latter point is something the band themselves began to address on their previous album, scaling back their death/doom mode by several degrees and allowing vocalist Cammie Gilbert to take the reigns on a handful of songs, her vocal melodies leading the way. The band must’ve come to the same conclusion as me, because they’ve taken the musical seeds of those tracks and allowed them to bloom here in unexpected and satisfying ways. I wrote in my original review that this was the album I had always hoped Oceans of Slumber would make, but that it exceeded my expectations was something I’ll admit to not foreseeing. And the tag of “southern gothic” to describe the sound on Starlight and Ash is not only the most fitting descriptor for any record released this year, but really hits the nail on the head regarding what exactly is happening musically and texturally here. The album opener “The Waters Rising” is arranged with delicate piano and acoustic guitar lines, but a throbbing electronic pulse runs underneath, like the humming buzz of Houston’s streets and freeways. The sultry, jazzy R&B feel of the musical arrangements here are a complement to Gilbert’s vocal approach, which reminds me at times of Natalie Merchant and Tracey Thorn blended together — whereas in the past it’d seem like the music was fighting against her tonally. With the change in musical direction, Oceans tossed the progressive song lengths, trimming things down to more of a pop/rock format, a shrewd move that proved to keep things focused, concise and with the resulting aim to get to the emotional center of things quicker. It worked for me, this was one of those albums that really made me stop and pay attention and wonder in surprise.
I didn’t get a chance to review the newest Avatarium album at any point these past few months, but it ended up being one of my most revisited albums in the last quarter of the year for good reason. The band had started off on their debut with more of a doom metal sound back when Leif Edling was still in the band and ostensibly influencing their artistic direction, but since he left, the band has pursued a direction that owes more to 70s hard rock than say the utter darkness of Candlemass. That means brighter melodies, at times even major key anchored hooks and melodies — almost as if they’ve owned up to a hidden Fleetwood Mac obsession at times. The pair of albums that followed Edling’s departure were the band finding their way towards a sound that is fully realized on Death, Where Is Your Sting. This is their front to back first bonafide masterpiece, a smoky, crushed velvet draped hard rock record that smacks of vintage Whitesnake and Thunder with the unmistakable darkness of Black Sabbath and yes, hints of Candlemass. Vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith has been consistently great throughout her tenure with the band, but here she sounds liberated, her vocal melodies providing the melodic thrust throughout, as on the smoldering slow build of “Stockholm”, or the strangely uplifting title track. Her titanic belting performance on “God Is Silent” is Dio-esque in its raw power and yet precision control, she’s really just one of the strongest vocalists out there right now and hopefully will start getting the credit she richly deserves. More than anything, this album reminded me of what I loved and missed so much about hard rock all these years (a genre for which it was a lowkey strong year), particularly that when done right, it’s a direct connection to the gut in a way that metal sometimes can overcomplicate and miss that mark.
That time of the year again, and you know how this works, the Best of 2022 starts with the annual list of the ten best songs of the year, the ones that resonated with me throughout the year the most — either because they rocked the hardest, or they hit me in the feels the most. The initial nominee pool this year was running close to twenty songs, and to be honest, whittling down this list was pretty hard (though not nearly as hard as the albums list is proving, good grief). If there’s a theme running through the picks below, I think it’s largely that of the unexpected, those little elements of surprise that characterized each entry for either how they impacted me, or what the band was doing differently in relation to their own sound, or simply being unique gems all their own. Stay tuned for the albums list coming soon, and the big guest laden roundtable MSRcast year end episode where we’ll hash out 2022 at length and make sure you didn’t miss anything worthwhile!
1. Xaon – “If I Had Wings”(from the album The Lethean)
On my first listen through Xaon’s The Lethean, I was already impressed by the time “If I Had Wings” appeared midway through the tracklist, but this was the singular moment that truly stunned me. A dramatic and articulate masterpiece of songwriting, one of those rare moments where a band’s grandiose artistic ambition is perfectly matched to their talent and ability to execute as musicians. I find this song so harmoniously perfect in it’s balance of shifting progressive metal elements, sweeping orchestral arrangements, and elegantly sculpted vocal melodies that it’s difficult to pinpoint a singular thing that I love about it more than any other. I will however point out vocalist Rob Carson’s sheer versatility, here encapsulated within this track’s five minutes and change run time, switching from an intensely manic melodeath scream, to a truly impressive clean voice reminiscent of a stronger, weightier Lars Nedland with a splash of Sebastian Levermann. And as you would expect from a track sitting atop this list, I loved the lyrical picture this track painted, particularly in that heartrending chorus, the song’s title acting as a poetic totem for yearning, anguish, and regret.
2. Dawn of Destiny – “Little Flower”(from the album Of Silence)
From the ever reliable Dawn of Destiny came this gorgeous gem, a power ballad built on an 80’s Heart-esque moody piano melody and lush synth fill that cascaded into a glorious refrain. There are two stars here, first the impassioned vocals of Jeanette Scherff, who is still outrageously underrated even after debuting with the band over a decade ago. Second is the inspired songwriting of bassist Jens Faber who has such a unique and identifiable style unto his own (so much so that I recognized his trademark way with melodies on the recent Legions of the Night release before even realizing it was one of his side projects). The lyrics he’s penned for the chorus here are anguished yet poignant, that shade of bittersweet that recalls hints of Sentenced or Charon. This song stayed with me throughout the year, one of those pieces of music that I’d get a yearning to listen to at random times and couldn’t shake until I did.
3. Avantasia – “Paper Plane”(from the album A Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society)
There are more obvious standouts on the recent Avantasia album, the two really excellent Floor Jansen cuts for example, or the epic Bob Catley duet on “The Moonflower Society” — and I’ve seen a lot of reviews dismiss “Paper Plane” outright for various reasons (reminding folks of “Lost In Space” might be at the top of that list). I’ll even admit that it took me quite a few listens to unlock the poignancy of this tucked away gem, but once I did, it became the muted, reserved highlight of an otherwise wildly outlandish and opulent album. Ronnie Atkins of Pretty Maids is the guest vocalist on this song, and I’m sure most of you know that Ronnie’s been facing stage four cancer (it returned after being treated a few years back). He’s been on tour with the band recently, and has been open about his diagnosis in the press, so he’s clearly living life to the fullest right now. But I suspect Tobias had all this in mind when penning these lyrics, because to give them to Ronnie just lends them this incredible emotional weight. The beautifully light on it’s feet melody that underscores his vocals just adds to the bittersweet resonance of a song that makes you feel grateful to be alive and sad all at once.
4. Månegarm– “En snara av guld”(from the album Ynglingaättens öde)
This beautiful violin led lament was that moment on this April release by Sweden’s folk metal disciples Månegarm where I stopped dead in my tracks and just listened. I still remember that moment, and since then both this album and in particular this song have been part of my metallic soundtrack to 2022. As a piece of songwriting, this song is beautifully constructed: the Scandinavian folk musicality that flows through it and creates imaginatively rich drama; and the powerful dynamics created with the careful placement of gritty, thick riffing and vocalist Erik Grawsiö’s charcoal coated vocals. Erik’s daughter Lea Grawsiö Lindström handles lead vocals in the verses, her plaintive tone a perfect foil for his blackened grim tones. The dynamic transition that hits at the 1:56 mark is simply one of the greatest musical moments from this year, just pure ear candy. For a song about the grizzly topic of forced marriage and murderous revenge, this was one of the prettiest tunes I’d hear all year, and an example of everything I love about folk metal at it’s best.
5. Therion – “Cavern Cold As Ice”(from the album Leviathan II)
One of the fundamental aspects of Therion’s current Leviathan trilogy-in-progress project is that it’s a purposeful look back at different phases of the sounds regarded as “classic”. This second installment in the trilogy was focused on the band’s more softer, melancholic side that was a major component of their late 90s work, and though “Cavern Cold As Ice” is decidedly one of the more upbeat tunes on Leviathan II, it hit me the hardest and stayed with me the longest I suspect due to a heady dose of fervent nostalgia. There’s something truly charming and utterly endearing about the combination of jaunty orchestral rhythms and lithe but substantial vocals courtesy of Rosalía Sairem that really sent me back to that late 90s era. I can’t quite explain why, but I get such a retro gothic metal vibe from this song, reminding me of obscure stuff like Dreams of Sanity and Flowing Tears (anyone remember these bands?). This will likely be a pick that will leave some scratching their heads, and I can only justify it as my essential comfort listening, but this song makes me happy.
6. Oceans of Slumber – “The Waters Rising”(from the album Starlight And Ash)
The smokey, streetlight reflecting opener to Oceans of Slumber’s truly inspired Starlight And Ash, “The Waters Rising” is perhaps one of the band’s most fully realized compositions to date. It’s built on the simplest of piano figures, a hypnotic synth based rhythmic motif, and pulled together by vocalist Cammie Gilbert with a jaw droppingly confident and engaging performance. Her voice is at times equal parts Natalie Merchant, Tracey Thorn, and Shirley Manson, run through a blues filter that speaks to the band’s southern geographical roots here in Houston. This is one of the more wildly aggressive cuts on an otherwise far more smoldering album, the heavy guitars towards the latter half of the song being one of the few moments where the band really let rip. It’s easily the band’s most memorable (and by that virtue, marketable) song, and they were wise to video it up.
7. Planeswalker: Sozos Michael & Jason Ashcraft– “The Forever Serpent”(from the album Tales of Magic)
Plucked from the middle of one of the strongest power metal albums of the year, “The Forever Serpent” was one of the most enduring songs of the year, sticking with me all the way from it’s release way back in January. Guitarist Jason Ashcraft (he of Helion Prime notoriety) welds this thing together with some aggressive riffing, but he largely cedes the melodic territory to the tremendous vocals of Sozos Michael, who was easily the draw here for me. Grand, adventurous, rousing — all fitting adjectives for this slice of cliched power metal goodness packed with all the genre’s best tropes: the Johansson-esque keyboard solo dueling alongside Ashcraft’s leads, the dramatic mid-song bridge sequence with Sozos leading the way out of the darkness. Could anyone imagine a song about Magic: The Gathering being this exciting? I guess once Visigoth tackled D&D anything’s possible. Sozos is making waves now as the replacement for Thomas Winkler in Gloryhammer, and he’ll be far more well known for that than his brief stint with Helion Prime. But this brief detour of a project should receive more attention, because this was not the only awesome song to be heard on it.
8. Sabaton – “Christmas Truce”(from the album The War to End All Wars)
The remarkable thing about “Christmas Truce” off Sabaton’s WWI continuation album The War to End All Wars was that I caught sight of even their most cynical critics (shoutout to the r/PowerMetal gang) giving it props. It was, as they said, Sabaton’s (and thus by extension, songwriter Joakim Broden’s) most matured and accomplished songwriting to date, not only for the incorporation of elegant keys and a choir vocal, but for Broden’s blunt yet effective lyrical portrait of one of the more surreal stories to have emerged from wartime. For those of us familiar with Savatage’s Dead Winter Dead and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, you can’t help but hear a massive influence pulled from that collective musical wellspring. But that’s alright, because in an unexpected twist, the internet and YouTube reactor community has deemed this a modern day Christmas classic. And that’s a weird thing to say about a song based on WWI, but when you hear Tommy Johansson’s downright festive guitar solo, it starts to make sense. Some will scoff at this inclusion, but no song in metal from an album released this year made people tear up as much as this one did, and it takes a skilled songwriter to accomplish that.
9. Jani Liimatainen (ft. Tony Kakko) – “All Dreams Are Born To Die”(from the album My Father’s Son)
This collaboration between former bandmates hit like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky, no warning, no prior indication that Jani and Tony were even on speaking terms these days (certainly there were no public signs of bad blood either, but the silence after Liimatainen left Sonata Arctica was deafening in it’s own way). It’s a slice of that classic early Sonata sound from those first three unimpeachable albums, a song from that era that was seemingly lost and found and injected with a little of that newfound Insomnium-esque Finnish melodeath riffage that is Liimatainen’s day job these days. The combination is pure magic, and it’s not just myself who felt this way — just check the comments on that YouTube video for proof, with one commenter stating it’s “The best Sonata Arctica song in two decades.”. I couldn’t agree more, and it’s regrettable that we only got this one song out of this reunion collab, but it could be just the nudge both guys needed to perhaps collaborate together on a full length project again. Tony needs a writer like Jani, and Jani deserves a vocalist of Tony’s caliber (perhaps on a future Cain’s Offering, or hell, let’s just say it outright, Jani rejoining Sonata at some point?). For now, “All Dreams Are Born To Die” was one of the most joyful and incredible songs of 2022, and that’s enough.
10. Sumerlands – “Edge of the Knife”(from the album Dreamkiller)
This electric slice of classic 80s metal reimagined is one of the sharpest shivs off Dreamkiller, an album that can be described as somewhat of a rebirth for Sumerlands. I had gotten to see them live back in April at the Hells Heroes fest here in Houston and they delivered one of the most intense and engaging performances of the entire weekend. It was a great showcase for new vocalist Brendan Radigan, whose channeling of Randy Rhoads-era Ozzy with splashes of Klaus Meine and Don Dokken gave new attitude to the older songs from the debut album, and of course, have shaped the sound here on the new one. Across the rest of the album, there’s subtle complexity to the songwriting that is a direct conduit from the debut, but on “Edge of the Knife”, its all about no frills, straight to the heart rockin’. John Powers and Arthur Rizk spit out Priest-ian riffs and hit that gear shift into Schenker-Jabs Scorpions territory when the chorus kicks in. Probably the song I pulled up the most in my car when I needed to just rock the hell out these past few months.
So I figured that with November just about to slip away and our Spotify Wrapped already cluttering social media and Discords everywhere, that I’d take a bit to write up my own 2022 Wrapped feature as it were. The reality is that there were a large handful of albums that I just didn’t get to review properly on the blog this year for reasons related to real life busyness, and the very real factor that the metal release calendar was back-loaded this year. From highly anticipated power metal albums to intriguing new melodic death metal artists I’d never heard of before, the latter half of 2022 has been just a nonstop flurry of intriguing releases to check out one after another, and honestly its been a challenge to keep up. So rather than stress myself out scrambling to review them all here before the yearly best of lists have to go up, I figure I’d just do this a little more casually and talk about the stuff that’s really stood out these past few weeks and maybe what has continued to linger over the past year or resurface.
Stuff I didn’t get around to reviewing:
The first thing that immediately comes to mind as an album that got lost in the shuffle these past few months was Queensryche’s newest Digital Noise Alliance, which aside from the ridiculous word salad album title is genuinely the best album the band has made with Todd LaTorre, even better than their inspired but undercooked self-titled 2013 debut with him. They did a few smart things here: First off, they backed off the metallic approach they were hitting hard on 2019’s The Verdict; secondly, they once again embraced the accessible prog-metal elements that defined their sound to the ears of many fans, that being crisp, clean guitar tones, dynamic songwriting, tight melodies, and bright vocal harmonies to tie it all together. There were moments on 2015’s Condition Human where I felt like they were overthinking their prog sound a little too much, an over compensation for the drifting away from that territory in the latter Geoff Tate years. But here, songs like “Hold On”, and “Lost In Sorrow” ring with the same sort of charming, insurgent energy that ran through Empire, and Wilton’s leads sound kinda inspired even. LaTorre delivers, which to his credit is one of those unsurprising details now, his voice just made for the band’s songs past and present. I dunno… its not a perfect album for sure, there are some meh moments, but overall I found myself pleasantly surprised at how much bite this thing had in it. It was also cool to hear Casey Grillo’s drumming on an album again.
On the purely power metal front, I know a lot of time has gone by since the release of Dragonland’s The Power of the Nightstar practically two damn months ago, but you should know that I’ve jammed it a lot. Like alot alot. And I’ve gone through cycles with this thing, being entirely enthralled the first few times I listened to it just by the sheer virtue of having the band back, and being aided by there being some seriously great choruses in these songs (“The Scattering of Darkness” and the title track are magnificent), to finding myself giving it a more grounded appraisal after sitting with it for awhile. So its not as utterly spectacular as Under the Grey Banner, and I don’t think many of us expected it to be, but this is a strong power metal record, definitely a bit glossier than we’re used to Dragonland sounding, but with Olof Morck’s industry success with Amaranthe likely came a bigger budget for this project (to that point, Jacob Hansen engineered the recording). I will say that lyrically, this album suffers from what I’ll politely phrase here as Ayreon-itis, that being it’s insistence on detailing a plot to such a degree that the lyrics suffer from having to deliver a straightforward narrative instead of painting a picture with poetic phrases. It’s one of those things that negatively can hamper a power metal album’s ability to get you to sing along enthusiastically.
Continuing on the recent power metal front, France’s Galderia are finally back with their newest, Endless Horizon, and it’s a worthy follow up to 2017’s immaculate Return of the Cosmic Men (you’ll likely know “Shining Unity” from that album, which was one of the best power metal singles of the last decade). I think the consensus on Endless Horizon is that it’s a strong record, though of a bit of a grower in comparison to their previous two. I suspect that one of the reasons why is that the songwriting is a bit more contemplative than anthemic here, which I’m entirely onboard with. It’s expanding the band’s sound in a subtle but satisfying way — and that’s not to say there aren’t great anthemic power metal explosions here (“Striking the Earth” for starters), but I was equally as enamored by “Twenty One”, a jangly acoustic built introspective piece with warm melodies and Sebastien Chabot’s slightly sandpapery vocals reminding me of Steve Lee era Gotthard. All in all it was a quality release from one of the more overlooked Euro-power bands to have landed on the scene in the past decade. I think they’d have more momentum globally if they could just deliver albums faster than their current five year at a time clip, but maybe that’s just not possible for whatever reason.
On the extreme metal front, there’s been a lot worth listening to, particularly in the progressive death realm, but also with a few recent black metal surprises worth crowing about too. To talk about the latter first, I need to bring up this Stormruler album Sacred Rites & Black Magick, introduced to me via longtime follower of the blog Rob (@GodofMetal69 on Twitter). I’ve been lowkey addicted to this album ever since he recommended it a few weeks ago and I think it’s one of the most satisfying melodic black metal records I’ve heard in awhile. Stormruler are a duo from the blackened lands of St. Louis (I’m guessing they took the Rams move to L.A. pretty hard) and this is their second album in the span of under two years, their debut coming last May. They’re also signed to Napalm Records, which is an eye opener for sure, because you typically don’t associate modern Napalm signees with black metal of this kind, but I think the label is onto something with these guys. I love the Dissection influences going on here, it brings a heavy nostalgic element to this sound, and they do incorporate enough dynamic elements into the songwriting to keep these songs creatively shifting and morphing and never feeling repetitive. The album is an ambitious hour plus, but about eight minutes of that are these scattered instrumental interludes that are like segue pieces between the songs, in a style that I can only describe as maybe dungeon synth? As a complete listening experience, it oddly works, though I can see how some might find them annoying. It’s an incredible effort overall though and black metal fans should at least give this a look.
Right, the new Behemoth album, which I listened to initially on release day and yet didn’t get back to it until a few weeks later. So 2018’s I Loved You At Your Darkest got criticized quite a bit for what many felt was the band stepping out of their defined sonic territory… and while I wasn’t that fond of the album overall I didn’t think it was quite the disaster that some were accusing it of being. I actually liked some of the less aggressive, atmospheric explorations on that album, what I saw as continuations of the bands exploration of empty space and texture on The Satanist. On Opvs Contra Natvram, it seems like they’ve naturally readjusted a bit to incorporate a little more dense riff sequences, the album ultimately sounding like the merging of those previous two albums. The best song here is “The Deathless Sun” with its grandiose “I am nothing! I am no one” chanting serving as a vocal hook motif, but I also enjoyed the heck out of “Once Upon a Pale Horse”, with its Metallica-esque Hetfield-ian rhythmic strut. I didn’t have any of this enthusiasm for the Darkthrone’s newest album Astral Fortress however, a continuation of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto’s recent exploration into laborious repetition and slow sonic drudgery. I know opinions were split on this and some folks are really enjoying it… fair enough, but I sat through this record wondering what happened to the Darkthrone that rocked me silly on Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance.
I did finally listen to the new Bloodbath album, Survival of the Sickest, after sleeping on it for a few months. It’s as vicious as you’d hope and I enjoyed thoroughly while driving all over Houston in the pissing rain on Thanksgiving day (because what else would you listen to on a holiday?). It sounds crisply recorded but still loaded with enough grime and grit that you’d want an old school Swedish death metal record to have, which is about all you can hope for really. I enjoyed listening to this, I do think its a tad stronger than The Arrow of Satan Is Drawn… it feels, this is a weird thing to say, but “breezier” than that album? I guess I’m feeling like it’s just a quicker, looser feeling collection of material in comparison, but that could just be recency bias speaking. Oh and on the melodic death front, we played this band on a recent episode of MSRcast, but I’ll shout them out again here, that being In the Woods… who released Diversum only a week or so ago. It’s a really strong album that fans of Novembers Doom and Green Carnation will likely get into, a merging of progressive death metal musicality with incredibly strong clean vocals courtesy of Bernt Fjellestad (he had a brief stint in Susperia a few years back). Also I want to direct attention to Finland’s melodic death metallers Horizon Ignited who released Toward the Dying Lands earlier this summer on Nuclear Blast. They remind me of classic Gothenburg melodeath put through a Pantera filter (it sounds weird, but you’ll hear what I’m talking about), their music having a no-frills, straight to the gut quality that I surprisingly enjoyed.
There were a lot more records that I could’ve covered here that eh, look we’re just running out of time and space for. New Stratovarius (was pretty solid, but all their recent albums have been); new Lacrimas Profundere (not quite the gothic metal masterpiece I was hoping for but it had some great songs on it); the new Avatarium is their best album yet and totally worth the time if you’re into that kind of doom tinged smokey hard rock sung by a fantastic lady singer; oh and I listened to this new album called Woe by a band called An Abstract Illusion more than a handful of times and it’s one of those weird ones where I think I’m into it, and other times I wasn’t quite so sure (I think the mystery there was why I kept coming back).
Stuff that was interesting (to me anyway):
No doubt we’ve all heard the new Metallica single “Lux Æterna” by now — you know it’s not bad in that bare bones Metallica kind of way, reminding me of bits of “Fuel” (I know I know) and just the Load album in general in a wild way. After the overtly old school claw back feel of Hardwired, you’d figure the last thing the band would want to do is recall hints of their mid-90s outrage makers but here we are. Am I the only one hearing that sound? I saw the cover art for the album by the way… and I’ll echo Revolver Magazine’s tweet:
For real… how can a band with so many cool t-shirt designs over the years consistently release terrible album covers/concepts again and again? You’d figure that at some point they’d look at one of those Pushead designs they likely have stashes of and think “why don’t we just use one of these for the album?”. And look I get the concept here, 72 Seasons, the years 1-18 that are formative for all of our individual yada yada yadas, and I appreciate Metallica always aiming to be relatively original. But originality doesn’t necessarily equate to something that’s good, or a design that one would want to sport on a shirt or poster on their wall. Heck of a color choice there too, I believe it’s French’s Yellow Mustard? Of course the contrarians on Twitter all came to it’s defense. No. You’re all wrong, it’s terrible, and you’re all wrong.
On a more delightful note, Judas Priest making the Hall of Fame was worth it if only for the clip of Halford getting to sing with Dolly Parton. Much has been made of this online I’m sure, but there is something inherently charming about this duo and Parton’s own bemused reaction to it. That Priest got in on a category specific award of some kind rather than just the general voting seems to have been a sore spot for many (Halford included), but I think at this point going forward, folks will just remember that they got in and articles will reference them as having done such, and that’s kind of all that matters for an award that’s all about perception anyway. There is still a big part of me that is all in the “who cares?” camp regarding Rock Hall nominations, but there’s another part of me that can admit that it’s nice to see a foundational metal band get something like this, for the guys in Priest to look at their place in a pantheon with musical heroes of theirs that they idolized growing up (even if most of us don’t give a damn about The Beatles).
And in other good news, the Pantera “tribute” that everyone was deriding and saying was going to be disrespectful actually had a great start at the Heaven and Hell Fest in Mexico. Footage from the shows back that up, the setlist is fantastic, Zakk reigned in the pinch harmonics a tad, and even Phil sounded like Pantera era Phil was supposed to sound (no Vince Neil-ing it here!). I called it months back on the podcast, but I had a feeling these guys would be able to pull this off, it wasn’t exactly attempting to recreate a progressive rock masterpiece on stage — these are Pantera songs. Charlie can pull off the odd Vinnie Paul groove based time signatures, Rex is Rex and Zakk would be faithful to Dimebag’s exact riffage. People are excited to hear these songs live again and man… when there’s so much crap out there to get us down, let’s collectively celebrate something that should be making us happy. I know it’s a nostalgia trip, but as a metalhead growing up in Texas, Pantera brings back good memories. I know that’s a weird thing to say. And let’s call it a wrap on 2022… I’m sure there’s stuff I’m forgetting to mention but I’ll probably address anything else on the upcoming episodes of MSRcast (subscribe! We’re on Spotify too!).
As Therion fans, we’re right in the middle of a glorious time period where contrary to the past decade of mostly silence, new music is being released at a nearly year or two clip that hearkens back to their late 90s run of continuous yearly album releases. The band’s newest effort is part two of the ongoing Leviathan trilogy, of which part one premiered in January of 2021 and wound up topping last year’s albums of the year list in a landslide. At the time of it’s release, Christofer Johnsson detailed out in interviews the overall plan for the trilogy, with the first album being the more epic, bombastic songs, while the second album would focus on the band’s more dark and melancholic side (album three to follow is said to be a diverse album collecting the more adventurous, heavier, and even folk-ier songs from the Leviathan sessions). The overall conceit for the Leviathan era is that Johnsson eyed this as a final frontier for the band, having tackled all the ambitious projects they’ve wanted to in the past (particularly with the recent metal opera Beloved Antichrist), they set about trying to write material that their fans would have wanted, something previously anathema to their process. Johnsson has described it himself as the challenge of trying to write a classic Therion “hits” album, and you get the gist of what he’s talking about, of trying to reimagine the essence of their most beloved and popular songs (because yeah there’s no actual chart hits in the Therion catalog to speak of singles wise). It’s an idea that is as wildly ambitious to me as any zany French pop covers album or grandiose metal opera, largely because it’s so infrequently done even within the tradition bound world of metal, to purposefully attempt such a thing.
The Leviathan sessions yielding more songs than Johnsson had anticipated is what’s led to this one album becoming a trilogy, and I’m grateful for that, it seemingly making up for all the quiet years in one fell swoop. And more specifically to Leviathan II, this album’s focus on the band’s more softer, melancholic side is something that I really appreciate because so much of those glorious late 90s albums were loaded with music in this vein. Classic gems such as “Birth of Venus Illegitima”, “Clavicula Nox”, “Raven of Dispersion”, “Eternal Return”, “Ship of Luna” — just to name a few, these were the songs that really made me fall in love with the band when I first discovered them sometime in 2000-ish when I randomly stumbled upon the band in a record store. Don’t get me wrong, I love their metal side, from the early death metal to the symphonic metal bombast, but Johnsson has always had a magical way with the band’s softer melancholic side, writing beautiful melodies and crafting for them inspired arrangements. It’s within this dichotomy that Therion’s sound exists, making them one of the most compelling artists in the symphonic metal world (and legit pioneers deserving of that title). And though Leviathan II touches upon the same fundamental elements that characterized those aforementioned classics, it also picks up where its immediate predecessor left off in being a very vocal driven album, as opposed to the very instrumental forward nature of late 90s Therion.
There are a couple moments on this album where this Leviathan I / Gothic Kabbalah esque vocal melody driven approach meshes with that older instrumental forward style, namely on “Cavern Cold As Ice”, and the lead single “Pazuzu”. The former might just be the most instantly accessible song on the album, with uptempo metallic riffs setting a quickened pace and Spanish vocalist Rosalía Sairem’s plaintive, rose tinted voice narrarating the song with a hooky vocal melody and genuinely emotional inflection in her performance. It might be the most, how should I say this… snappy(?) Therion song ever recorded at a quick 3:25 run time, but in keeping with the Leviathan playbook, its direct and to the point even as it eschews sheer heaviness in favor of bittersweet melancholy. As wonderful as Sairem’s performance is there, Thomas Vikstrom shines on “Pazuzu”, his regal tenor and alternating rough hewn clean metal voice both combining to spectacular effect on a fantastic track. The guitar solo here at the 3:07 mark is the vintage Therion approach to guitars, right out of the Accept and Scorpions playbook of wild, tastefully articulated 80s metal tinged goodness. It’s an interesting choice as the first single because I think it’s a bit of a grower as a song overall, but it does have enough of a balance of uptempo rockin’ riffs and a haunting, mysterious aura that might make it the likely candidate to be picked if not the most representative of the rest of the album. As an interesting aside, they’ve also included an “AOR” version of “Pazuzu” here, with well… AOR styled hard rock vocals in place of the classical tenor in the original version, and its a coin flip in deciding which I prefer because both have their strengths. Eclipse vocalist Erik Mårtensson contributes to both, and I’m actually having trouble discerning which parts he’s singing compared to Vikstrom because their tones get fairly similar at points, but either way both guys deliver the goods.
The most classic sounding song here is clearly “Lunar Colored Fields”, with its gentle soprano vocal introduction and subdued, evocative string arrangement sounding all the world like something that would’ve fit perfectly on Vovin or Deggial in all their heavily instrumental glory. The choral vocals that spring up when the song steps up the tempo a bit in the middle bridge are vintage Therion, dramatic and impactful while still casting a regal glamour over the soundscape. That uplifting, ascending choir at the four minute mark recalls shades of something like “The Wondrous World of Punt” from Sirius B, sharing the same sonic feel of spiritual ecstasy that makes for a transcendent listening experience. Similarly the elegant and mysterious balladry of “Hades and Elysium” has that distinct late 90s Therion feel, and I think it might be my personal favorite on the album for its sheer simplicity and utter beauty. Longtime Therion soprano Lori Lewis and Leviathan I’s star alto/soprano Taida Nazraić team up on this song and exchange gorgeous vocal passages to weave together the dreamy starscape that blankets across every second of this piece. Lewis is a Therion institution, her continued presence on Therion albums even though she’s not a part of the live lineup anymore is credit to Johnsson knowing he shouldn’t let go of a killer talent if at all possible. Nazraić is heard on four songs across this album, and though she doesn’t have a star turn like on Leviathan I’s “Tuonela” or “Die Wellen der Zeit”, her presence is heard in impactful moments throughout. Of particular note on “Hades and Elysium” is the flute playing of frequent Haggard musician Cătălina Popa, who I remember from her excellent work on the recent Suidakra releases.
On the heavier side of this melancholy drenched album, there’s a few noteworthy cuts worth pointing out, particularly “Codex Gigas”, a meaty and cleverly structured slow burn built on doomier riffs and thundering percussion. Vikstrom owns this song, his rich vocals full of drama and splendor in that killer chorus, one of the most satisfying hooks in recent Therion memory, particularly towards the finale when he’s joined by the Hellscore choir in all their glory. The heaviest jam here is “Midnight Star” where thundering riffs anchor aggressive verse passages with Chiara Malvestiti’s operatic singing gliding over the top, and Vikstrom swooping in like a hawk during the chorus with some of his most heavy metal sounding vocals ever. The song abruptly changes it up halfway through into a quieter, moodier introspective passage, with ghostly choirs, spare chord sequences, and a gradually building grand finale that gently subsides with an accordion sounding folk finish on the keyboards. Similarly on the bizarre and heavy side of things, we get some near death metal vocals on “Lucifuge Rofocale” (courtesy of one Chris Davidsson apparently… Johnsson himself has long retired from handling vocals himself), a first for a Therion album in years (perhaps Sirius B / Lemuria was the last time this happened?). The vocals here by all involved (including Hellscore Choir’s founder Noa Gruman in a solo spot) are incredible, but the highlight on this song is lead guitarist Christian Vidal’s smoking solo that leads the outro, a complex, highly articulate figure that at one point syncs up with the choir in the background to satisfying effect. It’s been hard for Vidal to really shake off the shadow of Christian Niemann to my ears, the latter just cast that large of a presence on Therion’s music during his era, but Vidal has really begun to make his mark on the Leviathan albums.
I’ve thus far neglected to talk about the first two opening songs here, but that’s not because I find them inadequate, on the contrary they’re all incredibly sharp in their own right, but their uptempo nature threw me for a loop initially when I was expecting the album to open with that softer melancholic side. That aside, “Aeon of Maat” is a meaty, solid opening punch in the Therion tradition of prior openers such as “Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah” and “Seven Secrets of the Sphinx”, a rockin’ uptempo affair that’s built around a hooky riff-vocal dynamic. It’s actually more of a spiritual sibling to Leviathan I’s opener “The Leaf on the Oak of Far” especially for it’s 80s metal meets classical musicality aesthetic. The following song “Litany of the Fallen” is a far more reigned in cut, with a bright choir sung chorus shining through the chugging guitars of the verse sequences. Both it and the also choir heavy “Marijin Min Nar” might be my least favorite songs on the album, not because I think they’re bad, but they’re just outshined in contrast to their surrounding songs and perhaps because I’ve been so wowed by the individual vocal performances on both Leviathan albums so much that having a choir handle the leads instead leaves me feeling a bit detached from them (no slight on Hellscore choir of course who are tremendous). For the last song I’ve neglected to mention, I really enjoyed both the violin parts and lead guitar figures on “Alchemy of the Soul”, a meditative piece of music that is sublimely beautiful in moments and also hooky in that very direct, no frills way that Therion have been employing a lot throughout the Leviathan project at large.
To sum things up, I’ve come away very satisfied by Leviathan II, though it’s hard to compare it directly to it’s predecessor given that its song makeup is so purposefully different. It’s delivered what Johnsson promised it would, a reimagining of the band’s melancholic, softer side via new songs, and reminded me that Therion are one of the most unique sounding bands in metal history (haters be damned, a lot of people have dismissed Therion over the past decade or so because symphonic metal got flooded with bands who were inspired by Nightwish and Within Temptation, and Therion somehow got shoehorned in with them… which only points out the sheer ignorance of those doing the criticizing). There are songs on this album that I’m going to keep going back to time and time again, just as on Leviathan I and hopefully on Leviathan III. I’ll admit the fanboy in me is very nervous at all this talk from Johnsson about how this is the band’s final challenge… does that mean he’s envisioning this being the band’s last few albums? I certainly hope not. I wrote in my original review of Leviathan I that this purposeful look back at their classic sound has seemingly reinvigorated the band’s creative spirit, and that in a funny roundabout way, they’ve actually made music that sounds fresh, inspired, and even treading on new ground at moments with all the lead vocal heavy performances. They’re on a creative tear right now and I hope Johnsson realizes that and keeps the music going for a long time to come.
Running at three year release intervals since 2013, Tobias Sammet is back with the ninth Avantasia album, the ostentatiously titled The Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society (henceforth on this blog referred to as Moonflower Society), the follow-up to 2019’s German chart topper Moonglow. I was eagerly anticipating this release of course, I’ve been a fan of Tobias’ since before Avantasia was even a thing, discovering Edguy way back in 1999 after their Theater of Salvation and Savage Poetry re-recording releases here in the States. Really when I think about it, Tobias is perhaps the person whose career I’ve followed the longest from it’s inception, with my only missing Edguy’s arrival on the worldwide scene in 1997 by two years. His music has been a part of the fabric of my life for going on over two decades now, be it in either band, and with Avantasia in particular, he single handedly introduced me to a host of other singers whose bands I went on to check out and became a fan of. Every Avantasia album has either at best yielded album length masterworks, or at the very least offered up a handful of absolute gems worth revisiting over and over again. In short, I’m a massive fan and Tobias’ has had a major influence on me as a metal listener.
But being a massive fan shouldn’t blind one to faults, and Tobias isn’t immune from this either, his very singular, blinders-on focus simultaneously the source of his unbridled genius, and ultimately the cause of the myopia that sometimes limits his work. One of the interesting things about Moonflower Society is that it is a direct sequel to Moonglow, a continuation of that album’s thematic concept and storyline, even down to similarities in the cover art style. It brings to mind memories of the 2010 simultaneous release of The Wicked Symphony and Angel of Babylon, and like those two albums, here exists the urge to run a direct comparison to Moonglow by virtue of their interconnectedness. Like that album however, Moonflower Society has truly inspired moments of that aforementioned genius, from the jump too, smashing through the gates with the pensive, moody, Queensryche-ian paced “Welcome to the Shadows”. It’s a similar atypical opener to a power metal album in the same way that “Ghost in the Moon” was a gradually unfolding epic opening track on Moonglow, as opposed to the usual anthemic rocker we’re all expecting at that spot. Also like its predecessor, the title track here is a gorgeous slice of pomp and drama, this time with the immortal Bob Catley running shotgun on vocals, his finest Avantasia moment since “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” on 2016’s Ghostlights. Built on a Neal Schon-ian rhythmic riff, Tobias and Bob explode in a co-lead vocal during the refrain that is classic Sammet, with perfectly phrased lyrics meant for maximum hook factor and loaded with adrenaline pumping emotion.
One of the few new faces in the guest vocal lineup, Nightwish’s Floor Jansen is also the not so surprising homerun hitter this time around, with both of the tracks she duets on perhaps being the album’s best songs. There’s the uptempo, cathartic “Kill The Pain Away”, where Tobias juxtaposes a fairly straightforward rocking tune against a backdrop of Nightwish-ian symphonic bombast, a subtle but shrewd move to place Floor in a setting that is familiar to those who know her voice. The chorus is skillfully constructed, a speedy hook line that conjures up an incredible sense of urgency that matches the intensity of the lyrics (“Nobody there to kill the pain away…”). Even better is her appearance on the utterly magical “Misplaced Among the Angels”, a classic Sammet power ballad that rivals his best work in this vein, possibly even equaling past gems such as “The Story Ain’t Over” and “Farewell”. What his detractors of this more accessible song type get wrong when they peg it as “pop rock” is that it clearly owes more to classic AOR, not only the obvious Jim Steinman influence, but that late 80s / early 90s Bon Jovi melodicism, built on subtle turns of phrase and simple melodies artfully sketched. I love that kind of stuff and grew up on it so a song like this is comfort food to me, but I’d argue that this song transcends those descriptors based on the lead vocal performances by Tobias and Floor. It’s refreshing to hear her in a musical context that’s comfortable once again, because where she’s been sadly misused on the last Nightwish album, here Tobias sets her up with a vocal melody that highlights her strengths as a singer. She’s an obvious but inspired guest vocalist for the project as a whole, and I wondered for awhile if she’d ever get asked to do it considering she has been all over the Ayreon universe for awhile now.
I was also really moved by the Ronnie Atkins guested “Paper Planes”, a sorta kinda power ballad that took a few listens to really blossom for me but when it did, wow… it packed an emotional wallop. Given Ronnie’s health situation, there’s a serious gravitas to the lyrics in this song, particularly in the chorus where both men join together to sing “Flying away like a paper nothing / As I twist and turn, I’m light like a paper plane / Carried away like a trace of nothing / May the wind blow me its way like a paper plane”. Short but insistent piano phrases and moody guitar flourishes from Sascha Paeth are the perfect accompaniment to that whole passage — the effect is sombre, reflective, melancholic yet not dour. No lie, I think its one of Tobias’ best lyrical efforts in his career to date (and yeah, he’s not known for being a wordsmith for sure, but he stumbled on something really graceful here). And of course, long time Avantasia guest Michael Kiske sounds like a perfect fit on the very classic power metal speed run of “The Inmost Light”, basically a Helloween inspired moment for both singers to shine on like they have on past gems ala “Wastelands” and “Promised Land”. If I was slightly less excited by it, it’s likely because it feels like something I’ve heard before that wasn’t offering anything refreshing or new, but that’s a minor critique I suppose.
The biggest culprits for criticism however are equally tied into the guest vocalist choice as much as the songs in question just don’t hit the mark either. The only other new addition next to Floor is Ralf Scheepers on “The Wicked Rule the Night”, and although he delivers vocally like he always does, it’s a case of simply not fitting the band’s sound and vibe. Avantasia just shouldn’t get that heavy, it sounds stilted and awkward. And it was certainly a daring move six years back on Ghostlights to bring the much maligned Geoff Tate on board — Tobias however weaved together some black magic and made Tate’s cut on that album (the awesome “Seduction of Decay”) something that really turned our collective heads. Tate joined the touring company of the band, and also contributed to three songs on Moonglow, all three of which failed to ignite the same spark that his first appearance managed. They weren’t bad songs at the very least, but I’m afraid that “Scars”, the Tate cut on this album, might actually warrant being called below average, and I think it’s largely because Tobias just didn’t have much in the way of inspiration when it came to writing for Tate this time around. That’s the risk you run when you have repeat guests — a problem Tobias runs into with Eric Martin as well, who is on his third Avantasia album appearance as well and surfaces here on the decent but nothing spectacular “Rhyme and Reason”. It’s an awkward vocal moment for him, and seems to miss the mark in taking advantage of his more loose and bluesy tenor the way he was able to on 2013’s “What’s Left of Me”.
And look, I’m not arguing that Tobias shouldn’t have returning guest vocalists, because guys like Catley and the mighty Jorn Lande really feel like a part of the fabric of the Avantasia sound at this point. Jorn’s two moments here (“I Tame the Storm” and the Kiske joined “Arabesque”) are pretty good, not my favorite slices of Jorntasia but certainly enjoyable enough in the moment if not exactly hugely memorable. But I do feel like we’re coming towards an impasse where Tobias has to force himself to not simply add the touring company of Avantasia as the defacto vocal cast for the next album, which he’s essentially been doing for the past few records now. I believe he can and should separate the two, and find suitable replacements for the touring vocal roles to the best of his ability (a connected guy like him shouldn’t have a problem with that). But Avantasia needs to get adventurous again with the guest singers, in the same way that Arjen Lucassen seems to challenge himself to seek fresh voices for his projects. There’s a wealth of talented singers in the power metal scene who would be awesome picks for a future album, both veteran names and younger faces like Temperance’s Marco Pastorino, or hell Seven Spires Adrienne Cowan (how she, as a member of the recent touring company did not end up on this album is beyond my comprehension). Tobias believes this is the best album he’s written, and I don’t doubt his belief. But I hope he also believes that he needs to challenge himself every so often, to take some risks and see where it leads creatively. After all, wasn’t Avantasia itself such a risk twenty two years ago?
The new releases have been piling up for the past couple months, and of course I’ve fallen behind. Hence ye old reviews codex, that possibly multi-part broad collection of reviews that span many months (some of these albums go back to mid-summer). In keeping true to my recent ethos not to force feed album listens when I’m not feeling it at the moment, some of these were things I had kept on the back burner until the moment arose to deep dive in again, and it’s an approach that works well for me, if not for metal PR agents promotional schedules. There’s likely going to be another one of these before year’s end because the calendar is still packed and I haven’t even yet discussed new albums by Queensryche and The Cult, speaking of which, I got to see them live again for the first time in over a decade the other week. That was a great show, a setlist full of classics, the band was incredibly tight and Ian Astbury sounded as great as ever. They’ve added a keyboardist/backing vocalist who really makes a difference in filling out their sound as a live band, giving Ian some extra melodic thrust on those hooks and filling in the extra vocal arrangements that were always missing when Ian had to do it solo. It was also my first time seeing a gig from the near stage vantagepoint of a VIP table, which a friend had decided to spring for. More than just the option of having a seat whenever I wanted, it was nice to have barriers preventing sweaty dudes from standing uncomfortably close to me, certainly the comfiest concert experience I’ve ever had. I don’t expect to make a habit of it though — comfort does not come cheap.
Megadeth – The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead!:
It hadn’t dawned on me until the release of this, Megadeth’s sixteenth studio album, that this had been the longest gap in between album releases for Mustaine, even counting that weird period in 2002 where he left his own band, only to regroup two years later with a Megadeth-labeled solo record of sorts in The System Has Failed (I mean… it was certainly more of a Megadeth sounding album than the turgid The World Needs A Hero). Such a long layover (pandemic assisted no doubt) had me nervous, thinking that their most recent superstar guitarist acquisition in Angra’s Kiko Loureiro might decide to bail given all the inactivity and instability (Mustaine’s cancer treatment delaying things, David Ellefson’s whole “situation”), but it’s nice to see him sticking around for a second album with the band because I thought he really lit a fire under Mustaine on Dystopia, which was a legitimately damn good Megadeth record. The classic leaning titling of The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead! conjures up memories of the band’s more teeth bared, snarky, aggressive attitude laden eras from the mid 80s through Countdown to Extinction, and there is so much of this album that actually does live up to that billing. The opening title track for example is as poison mouthed as you’d want it to be, Mustaine’s inimitable vocal necromancy at work in satisfyingly resilient fashion.
The absolute banger here is the classic “Life In Hell”, as vicious and fierce as so many Megadeth gems of yore (think “99 Ways To Die”, “Sweating Bullets”), not only for its cracking riff that is vintage Deth, but also for some of Mustaine’s most pointedly sharp lyrics in ages: “A couple drinks and then you’ll feel ok / A couple pills makes the world go away / What the hell, you’re gonna die anyway and you’ll say…”. Mustaine’s gift as a lyricist was never about poetic beauty, it was in his blunt sardonic wrath, and his depiction of self-destructive apathy here avoids being heavy handed (they did that on Cryptic Writings already, which I loved but it wasn’t vintage Mustaine), favoring a self-deprecating levity that just hits harder. The chorus here finishes the sentiment perfectly: “I’m a disease, and I’m addicted to myself, ha! / I’m all I need, I’m gonna live and die in hell”. It makes me cackle in delight every time I hear it. Like many, I also feel that “Night Stalkers” would’ve been a gem were it not for the Ice-T spoken word narration bit in the middle… that was just unnecessary. But there’s so much to celebrate here: the brutal assault of “Dogs of Chernobyl”, “We’ll Be Back” with its crazy lead pyrotechnics (Kiko is spectacular throughout this album), and the unpredictable dizzying turns of “Sacrifice”. I also really loved the Sammy Hagar cover of “This Planet’s On Fire” (featuring the Red Rocker himself), one of those classics that actually sounds better through the Deth filter and rings truer today. Not everything works here, there’s a little too much narration in parts, but this is a satisfyingly strong Megadeth record.
Aeternam – Heir of the Rising Sun:
Talk about a complete surprise, I didn’t see Aeternam listed on any of my upcoming albums lists and so didn’t even realize this was out until an hour before it dropped on midnight of September 2nd, and amidst all the Blind Guardian day excitement it got pushed to the backburner for a day while I went ham listening to the bards new one. Quietly, Aeternam have been putting together one of the strongest discographies of any melodic death metal outfit anywhere, with their four prior albums all being incredibly good to great depending on what you valued the most about their sound. For me, the band is at it’s best when they hit that perfect balance between their folk metal (as in Orphaned Land-esque Arabic/Middle-Eastern motifs) and melodic death sides, blending the two together seamlessly. The success of which varies from song to song on those previous albums but man when they got it right, they just owned that sound entirely. Well, somewhere along the way, vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy must have realized that he could make both of these elements gel far more effortlessly if he just amped up the symphonic metal aspect of the band’s sound. It was always there in the background, a sort of connective keyboard glue that helped everything meld together, but it’s by far the most noticeable shift on Heir of the Rising Sun.
And cat out of the bag, this has become my favorite Aeternam album as a whole to date, a conclusion I’m able to confidently arrive at mere days after it’s release. Developing into a nigh fully symphonic melodic death metal band here (something they hinted at on 2020’s Al Qassam) has afforded their songs the lush cinematic grandeur they’ve yearned to illustrate on prior albums, and allowed their heaviness to increase to Moongod levels as a result in order to offset all that melody. Perfect examples of this are the brilliant “Beneath the Nightfall” with its blackened thrash riff sequences, and the glorious “Irene” with its orchestral swells that unfold into beautiful Arabic folk guitar patterns. My personal favorite is the masterful “The Treacherous Hunt”, a knife’s edge balancing act between their extreme heaviness and soaring, transcendently epic melodies that combine in perhaps the best song of their career so far. A monumental album that hopefully won’t get lost amidst all the other big releases that came out that day.
The Halo Effect – Days of the Lost:
This was one of my most anticipated albums for 2022 ever since I had heard about these guys getting together. The guys in question are veterans of prior In Flames lineups including Jesper Stromblad and Niclas Engelin on guitars, Peter Iwers handling bass, Daniel Svensson picking up the sticks again, and Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne on vocals (remember he was on Lunar Strain/Subterranean). This is clearly one of those projects where the names on paper just created it’s own gravity with the weight of expectations that any resulting album might not be able to escape, an entirely different set of expectations from fans than the guys themselves had. According to recent interviews with Stromblad and Engelin, it was a project that came about simply because as old friends they felt the urge to just hang out and play music together again. And to that point, some of these guys like Svensson had sworn off being in bands entirely, retiring as professional musicians and doing other things, heck last I heard Iwers was co-running that In Flames owned restaurant/bar (dunno if that’s still happening). Thus, in reality, these guys were going to naturally pick up where they left off, even if that wasn’t a conscious decision to do so or not —- meanwhile I suspect a large chunk of fans (myself included) expected a deliberate move towards recreating the classic mid-late 90s Gothenburg sound that we all love and crave a return to.
Long story short, that didn’t happen on Days of the Lost, which doesn’t mean its not a good album, because it certainly is. It is however a modern, fairly restrained take on melodic death metal ala recent Dark Tranquility (Stanne’s vocal choices certainly exacerbate that influence greatly). The frustrating thing that many have voiced about this record that I agree with are all the tiny Jesper-isms that get interjected throughout, like the darkly beautiful acoustic outro to “A Truth Worth Lying For “, the lead guitars on the very In Flames-ian “Gateways” (the album’s most old school moment happens during the abrupt mid-song shift lead riff progression), or the entirety of “Conditional”, easily the most classic and aggressive song on the album (see how those two things seem to go hand in hand?). At worst this album fades into the background where you don’t notice songs passing by, at it’s best it makes you long for what could have been. I hope they do another to deliver on that promised potential.
Brymir – Voices in the Sky:
Since their 2011 inception, Helsinki’s Brymir have been one of the most promising bands to come out of Finland, and indeed the wider symphonic metal scene worldwide. Crafting a fusion of symphonic blackened folk metal with bright, inspired power metal melodicism, they’ve finally to my ears fulfilled their potential with their newest effort, Voices in the Sky. And that’s not to suggest that I wasn’t impressed with 2019’s much lauded Wings of Fire, but I didn’t think it was the masterpiece I saw some people tagging it as. It suffered from getting a little too monotonous at points, the band leaning too hard on the symphonic black side of things and going break neck speed for most of that album. On the new album, they’ve allowed their sound to shift gears often with dynamic song structures, infusing more clean vocals (the epic, chanty, choral Ensiferum kind) and power metal elements into the mix to temper out their extreme side and let those heavier moments land more forceful impacts as a result.
As so often with bands who do fusions of two disparate or even complementary styles of metal, they often find themselves crafting their best songs when they’ve worked out how to best balance the various musical elements in their arsenal. The best moments here are perfect examples of that, the heavenly wash of choirs that usher along the title track for starters, and the outright aggressive slabs of unmelodic riffs that serve as battering rams throughout “Forged In War” that standout as inverse breathers from the richly melodic refrains. The best moments however are where Brymir ascend to the heavens, as on the folky, adrenaline rocketing “Fly With Me”, with its ascending hook sequence, and gorgeous, Dragonforce-esque guitar solos. My personal favorite here is “Herald of Aegir”, an emotional rush that recalls vintage Ensiferum/Wintersun, with an achingly emotional clean vocal passage that is as sweeping as the brilliant lead guitars that it skates atop. This album is a joy to experience, easily Brymir’s most accomplished and fully realized work to date.
Dynazty – Final Advent:
Slowly but surely, Dynazty have developed into one of the most reliable leading lights of the modern AOR movement. Of course, its a bit of a misnomer to classify them as such entirely, because there is a strong dose of power metal grandeur and theatricality to their sound, but the blending of these two styles put through a modern, Jacob Hansen produced filter has been their sound for these most recent two albums. It’s essentially a distillation of what they were attempting on previous albums but sanded off of some of the rough edges — which usually might be interpreted as a negative thing so I’ll stress that I don’t think that’s entirely the case here. I call them reliable because I can’t recall having heard a bad, awkward, or otherwise embarrassing song on this or their past few albums — things are pretty solid for the most part with one or two songs even standing out as notable highlights worth playlisting. I’d say the trouble with Dynazty is that it gets really hard to build a passionate following when you’re only delivering solid albums and never a truly great one.
The songs on Final Advent that I’d say qualify as aforementioned highlights include the power ballad (of course) “Yours”, a cousin of “Hologram” from 2020’s The Dark Delight, all anguished melodrama and a guitar solo midway through that’s phrasing is shatteringly emotional. There’s also a racing urgency to “All the Devils Are Here” that is vintage Dynazty in the best way, and I love the unorthodox, almost folky tinge to the lead guitar melodies in “The White” that gives it a different flavor from the rest of the album (Rob Love Magnusson and Mike Lavér are a talented guitar duo, and I wish they’d open up their palette with stuff like this more often). Vocalist Nils Molin (also of Amaranthe co-vocalist notoriety) of course sounds excellent throughout, his voice full of power and rugged inflection, though some might find his approach a little too heavy handed (and perhaps the band and he could both use a little loosening up, perhaps a rock n’ roll injection?). You’ll notice I haven’t really said anything specifically critical here, because there’s nothing to harp on to be honest. It’s a solid Dynazty album, albeit not a great one, and maybe that’s the larger criticism I’m edging around here, that I don’t exactly know what a truly great Dynazty album would sound like and that might be a bigger problem in the long run.
Xaon – The Lethean:
You always know a band is flying under the radar when they have zero reviews on their newest album on Metallum. Switzerland’s symphonic progressive death metallers Xaon released The Lethean back on July 1st and have yet to acquire a single review of not only their newest effort, but the two that have preceded it. And fair enough to everyone out there, because I myself didn’t know who this band was until my cohost Cary played the stellar, maybe best song of the year “If I Had Wings” on a recent MSRcast episode. My attention was immediately grabbed by that song, but you know how it is, I lollygagged a bit in terms of checking out the entire album for a few weeks. But the pull of that aforementioned song was too strong to resist for long, and I checked out the rest of the album in turn and wow… this is something special. Xaon get tagged as symphonic metal on Metallum, but I threw in the progressive tag above because there’s an unorthodox approach to the way these guys approach arrangements and songwriting structures in general, often eschewing traditional verse to prechorus to chorus sequences. Instead, as on the opener “The Hunt”, they utilize an almost metal equivalent to “movements” in ushering their songs along, where perhaps the rhythmic assault stays constant, but melodies abruptly shift and mutate along. The secret to Xaon’s success here is that each successive movement only escalates the dramatics at work within these rushing melodies via guitars or keyboard drive symphonics.
And then there’s the matter of their overall sound being different from what you’d expect from a band tagged as merely symphonic death — vocalist Rob Carson can run the gamut from guttural to melodeath screaming, but he mostly favors his clean vocals which are often anguished and twisted like Primodial’s Alan Averill, but at times soaring and downright gorgeous like a darker toned, more gravely Nick Holmes. I have to speak about “If I Had Wings” here briefly, because I’m sure I’ll be talking about it a few months from now as well: This is such an epic song (we overuse that term but it applies here), the kind of glorious, passion driven burst of creativity that few bands ever manage to unearth, and I am still enthralled by it after playing it repeatedly over the past few weeks. Carson is magnificent here, and if there’s one song you decide to check out first from this beast of an album, make it this one (it helps that it’s the single, wisely chosen guys). Ten tracks, no fillers, real creativity at work here, genuine conviction in the performances, and multifaceted in their abilities (check out “Telos” for their more reflective, Opeth-ian acoustic side that is actually affecting), Xaon is one of the year’s most satisfying discoveries for me.
Heilung – Drif:
If you’re even passingly aware of the cornucopia of reactor channels on YouTube, you’ll know that a live performance by the esoteric folk outfit Heilung has gone kinda viral in terms of being a popular reaction choice amongst that set. And its mostly for the members very primal, tribal garb laden appearance onstage and the fact that they’re playing unorthodox instruments and singing in styles that defy modern stylings. On their Wikipedia page, their project is self-described as “amplified history from early medieval northern Europe”, which is fairly accurate according to what I’ve heard (who knows, has an anthropologist verified that? Does it really matter anyway?). I’ll admit that at first I just felt a passing fascination with Heilung, simply because it was attracting so much reactor interest that and kind of prevented me from wanting to dive in further, feeling like it was something that might have been borderline gimmicky. I realize now that was a silly attitude to have, because having decided to check out their newest album Drif just as a pure audio experience (meaning I didn’t seek out the videos), I’ve really come to appreciate this album as a palette cleansing come down after listening to a lot of metal that’s still complex and thought provoking on its own merits.
Now I will clarify, that’s not including all of the album, because I could’ve done without the loud, irritating Stomp the Musical sounds in “Urbani” and the spoken word insanity of “Keltentrauer”. The stuff that I lean towards on this album is “Anoana” which reminds me of a darker, more medieval sounding mix of Loreena McKennitt, Enya, and Dead Can Dance (not quite so, but as a point of reference that’s the best I can do). I also loved the brightness of “Nikkal”, where choral vocals took center stage singing a melody that sounds elegiac, wistful, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. You’re probably getting the picture by now that none of this is metal, but Heilung are so folk metal adjacent, that even in the absence of heavy guitars or distortion of any kind really, you should still feel drawn to this as a metal fan. And look they threw a bone for you and named the last song “Marduk”, and to be honest, its echoing bells and whispered poetry I’d contend are more unnerving than anything put out by the band of the same name in ages. That’s not a shots fired thing by the way, it really sounds creepy as hell.
Sumerlands – Dreamkiller:
Hailing out of Philadelphia, Sumerlands had previously made a splash with their self-titled debut way back in 2016 with then vocalist Phil Swanson. It was an inspired eight song collection of traditional metal in the early to mid 80s mode, suitably rockin’ songs with inspired performances that seemed to be taking pages from several influences. The seeds were there for something really great to emerge, but as is the case with newer bands, sometimes it’s hard to capitalize on momentum and get a new record out quickly when stability is an issue. A vocalist change is a major thing, so is a worldwide pandemic, so here we are about six years later with Dreamkiller, their sophomore album and first with new vocalist Brendan Radigan. I was already pretty fired up about this one, having gotten to see Sumerlands live at Hells Heroes in April of 2022 where they laid on a spectacular set, Radigan every bit the inspired frontman in a live setting. Among others, it was a definite highlight of that evening, and taking that experience into account and now hearing Dreamkiller, Radigan really does fit the band better than Phil Swanson did. His vocals are like a mix of early 80s Ozzy and Klaus Meine with a the smoothness of Don Dokken, a tone that’s rich in expressiveness and commanding in every utterance. His approach lends a sense of comfort to the overall sound, rooting this in territory that feels familiar and even nostalgic even though these songs feel fresh and modern.
And the songwriting is the star here, Sumerlands guitarists Arthur Rizk and John Powers crafting riffs that are groove based, ultra hooky and incredibly satisfying with tight leads to punctuate them. The one two punch on this record sits in the middle of the tracklisting, with “Edge of the Knife” and “Force of a Storm” landing with the kind of infectious kinetic energy that characterized classics such as Dokken’s “Into the Fire” or WASP’s “Wild Child”. The former is one of the most infectious songs I’ve heard this year, a driving old-school rocker with a massive riff based hook and Radigan nailing the vocal line with emphatic gusto. I love the effects on those vocal harmonies laid over the top, it really harkens back to productions choices in the mid-80s that characterized a lot of those great records. Stepping on the gas a bit, “Force of a Storm” has a desperate urgency to its restless riffs and I love the keyed in explosion sounds in those transition moments — the kind of thing that would be utterly ridiculous if not applied exactingly. And that kind of sums up Sumerlands overall approach here, because their nods to their 80s trad metal influences are so overt yet applied so delicately, so natural sounding in their own idiom that they don’t end up sounding like anyone but themselves.
Blackbraid – Blackbraid I:
About a few years ago, pandemic starting time I guess, I started following a guy on Instagram who was making really cool bone art. You can Google that if you’re drawing a blank right now but I imagine most of you know what it is. Anyway so in addition to his art he’d post up pictures of himself around the area he was living, a rural seeming landscape, so I knew that he was of Native American heritage from not only appearance, but from the meaning of his artwork as well. Jump forward to my hearing about an awesome record from a new project called Blackbraid, imagine my surprise when I checked out their biography and realized it was masterminded by indeed the very same bone art guy I had been following for years on Instagram. His name is Sgah’gahsowáh (also goes by Jon) and in true one man black metal project fashion, he is credited for “everything” on this record (although drums are provided by the album’s recording engineer (and man of many bands) Neil Schneider. To be honest, it had never crossed my mind that black metal would seem to fit black metal so well, but Blackbraid I makes it seem like it was always a merging that was meant to be.
No burying the lede here, this is one of if not the most accomplished black metal releases I’ve heard this year. It hits the target of what I value the most in modern black metal productions, that being clarity in the mix in terms of instrumentation separation and discernible melodies, but also in avoiding sounding clinical. This album, despite all the razor sharp tremolo riffs, is streaked with a subtle earthen warmth that underscores much of its quick thirty-six minute run time. Its not just in those Native American folk music soaked instrumental tracks either, but in the way the melodies are unfolded in the blistering, full speed ahead black metal here. On my favorite cut “Sacandaga”, there’s a dynamic shift between tempered, deliberately paced sequences and sudden bursts of hyperkinetic speed, the effect being violent and uncontrollable. The aforementioned folk music pieces it should be pointed out aren’t just window dressing — being two of the six tracks here they factor into the album in a big way. I’d argue they give the entire record its spiritual or emotional center, setting the listener down in a headspace meant to reflect the lyrical settings explored here, of creeks, pastel skies, and hemlock forests. As imagery goes, its a refreshing difference to behold from tales of ice covered Norwegian mountains and permafrost, this being a truly Native American black metal perspective. I really love this record.
Seventh Wonder – The Testament:
I don’t know why I’ve had a hard time settling down to give this new (ish… it came out in June) Seventh Wonder album the time and attention it deserves. I’d listened to it intermittently over the past few months but only recently decided to buckle down and give it my undivided attention. And now that I have, I’ve come to realize what was perhaps preventing me from achieving this all these past few months gone, namely, that this album gets me restless partway through. I suspect this is largely due to the pervasive sameness that seems to be running through the length of this thing. Unlike older Seventh Wonder classics like Mercy Falls or the really wild The Great Escape, where song diversity was an integral part of the final tracklist, it feels like songs on this (and to a certain extent their 2018 album Tiara) really sound similar in their style, tempo and overall approach. Despite the band’s technical prowess leaning towards a breezier Dream Theater, their songs are written to be geared around Tommy Karevik’s vocal melodies almost exclusively. And this works for a while, certainly on these first three songs that shotgun the start of the album in the single-ready “Warriors”, the uptempo, almost dance-rock strut of “The Light”, and the Empire-era Queensryche invoking semi-ballad “I Carry the Blame”. The latter is certainly one of the best individual slices of hook laden prog-rock the band have dished up, making up in what it lacks in heaviness with layers of gorgeously honeyed vocals from Karevik.
But after the patience testing instrumental “Reflections” is followed by the grating “The Red River” (usually where I’ve checked out on past listens), it’s hard to keep focus on the rest of this record. I actually enjoy some parts of “Invincible”, mainly the hook factor in the chorus here, but man for a three and a half minute long song there are stretches here that I wish would hurry up and be done every time I play it. And I like the increase in aggression via the guitars in “Under a Clear Blue Sky” but they’re unfortunately lost in a song that is way too long with very little in the way of discernible connective tissue (ie melodies that I want to return to). The closer “Elegy” is certainly pretty in the moment, though it’s not something that I could see myself returning to on it’s own. I do feel that maybe I’m being too hard on this album, but in fairness to myself, I have given it the benefit of many months to land, and it just hasn’t quite gotten there. Still a good band, and I’m glad it’s an ongoing concern for Karevik given his Kamelot day job, but they’re not delivering in quite the same way they used to for me.
Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash:
I think there was always a part of me that felt Oceans of Slumber was meant to head down this path, that being the gradual and now sudden removal of harsh vocals from their repertoire. The moments that excited me the most from their past few albums were those where vocalist Cammie Gilbert got to simply steer the ship with her distinctive, richly emotive singing instead of playing point/counterpoint. Its not that the band didn’t deliver good material with their more extreme metal rooted stuff, its just that the alternative they were offering in small handfuls was so much more enticing. I’ve said this over and over again here and on the podcast already, but my favorite Oceans of Slumber moment has been the title track to The Banished Heart, particularly during its midsong bridge onwards, that finale passage has all the dramatic sweep and grandeur that seemed like a sound world they should be exploring more of. Here on Starlight And Ash, they’ve finally decided to do just that, terming their sound as southern gothic which is exactly the descriptor I’d have tagged that aforementioned epic section of “The Banished Heart” with had I thought of it first. I think I’ve been rather critical of this band throughout their past few albums, but I’m happy to say that it was really hard to find something to complain about here. Simply put, this is the album I’ve been waiting for Oceans of Slumber to make, one that genuinely feels as though they’ve discovered their own voice, they sound more comfortable here than they ever have, some of these songs sounding as though they were effortlessly written.
I’m thinking here of “The Hanging Tree”, where Gilbert channels a little mid-90s Natalie Merchant in her vocal tone over twangy guitars and a generous amount of space and silence. These songs are shorter than older Oceans, with no more progressive death metal on the agenda, gone are the six to seven minute run times, Gilbert having free reign to work in the context of more manageable, focused three to five minute pieces. The absolute gem here is the opener “The Waters Rising”, with it’s beautiful country-folk tinged acoustic guitars, throbbing electronic pulse underneath, and moody piano melody running through. Somehow this album hits heavier than any of their others, despite the general lack of aggressive riffs and metallic elements — it brings to mind Smashing Pumpkins Adore, both tonally and lyrically, a softer, more hushed album that was an absolute emotional wrecking ball. I love that they found a sound that feels very authentic to who and where they are as well. Southern gothic indeed. I’d always associated that term with Anne Rice’s vision of New Orleans, but in this album I can really feel how Houston fits into the mix, the smell of asphalt and car exhaust, the blanketing heat and restless humid nights. Oceans of Slumber have found their identity with Starlight and Ash.
Fallen Sanctuary – Terranova:
So Fallen Sanctuary is a side project involving Georg Neuhauser (Serenity / Warkings) and Temperance guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Marco Pastorino who I’ve long considered one of the better songwriters in the melodic power metal world over the past few years. Georg himself is no slouch in that department, capable of crafting vocal melodies that are hooky, memorable, and earwormy for whatever project he’s involved in — the Tony Kakko meets Klaus Meine vocal tone is also a strength. So on paper this was an intriguing pairing to consider, and I actually broke my tendency to not listen to the singles ahead of time for this album because I was so curious. The album itself got shafted for listening time when it came out due to other things crowding the schedule so I know this write up is really late, but I’ve been re-listening to it over the last week and kinda glad I did because I think at first I glossed over how well crafted this ended up being. I respect that they didn’t try to veer outside of their comfort zone, which might be a weird compliment, but leaning into one’s strengths isn’t a bad thing really, hence these songs being vocal melody driven affairs. The riffs aren’t particularly aggressive, instead settling in a muted, crunchy tone fitting for this approach to melodic power metal where they’re not the main attraction anyway.
On strong cuts such as “Broken Dreams” and the lead off cut “Terranova”, the mood is light, uplifting, and almost sunny, the former even giving us a little a cappella vocal intro that veers into AOR territory. A little darker is “Now and Forever”, a song that reminds me of something off Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus, a song that goes through a couple transitions with different hook laden elements to each (the mid song bridge has a terrific vocal melody by Neuhauser). For his part, Pastorini can be heard on backing vocals throughout, and he sounds great, but he mostly cedes the leads to Neuhauser. An exception might be the pretty but sparse acoustic ballad “I Can’t Stay”, where you can hear him chime through on the chorus and the contrast between the two men’s voices is distinct and vibrant in their differences. This is definitely an album meant for those who would dig this kind of thing on paper, it won’t change any minds in that regard, but I dig what these two guys do in general (Warkings excepted) and this is something I’ll probably return to when I need something AOR/power adjacent that’s a little chilled out.
We Blind Guardian fans have had to deal with a lot in the past few years. Set aside the vinyl manufacturing delay that pushed the release of this album back almost a full year, and let’s consider the fact that the band had finally settled upon a 2019 release date for their long labored over orchestral project that we’ve heard about for nearly two decades. This release in question extended a normally four year gap between studio albums to seven this time around (meaning studio albums proper, not lavish vanity projects that are up for debate on whether they were worth it). That wouldn’t have been such a long wait had 2015’s Beyond theRed Mirror been a truly excellent album, but while far from a disaster, it was certainly prone to being influenced by the band’s orchestral mindset with it’s heavily layered keyboard arrangements and progressive songwriting tendencies. In recent interviews, Hansi has admitted as much, that the Twilight Orchestra project impacted the band’s approach for a number of years and that their newest album, The God Machine, is in part a knowing reaction away from that. It should be said that this is good thing, the band’s awareness of having possibly overdosed their fanbase on all the orchestral stuff can only lead them towards a sound that is closer to the classic Blind Guardian archetype that we all know and love. It’s a small thing to remark on first, but notice that they’ve finally switched cover artists for the first time in over a decade, using a piece from the awesome Peter Mohrbacher instead of something from Felipe Machado (with respect to Felipe, a lot of fans felt the band had long needed a visual makeover), a change that is hard not to interpret as the bards themselves signaling the start of a new era.
But as The God Machine will prove, it’s rare that these types of artistic shifts can be executed at will, because a band like Blind Guardian tend to want to follow their own muse even when knowing they outta reign something in. Blind Guardian shifts their artistic direction the way an aircraft carrier turns around, relatively fast for their lumbering nature, but it still takes a bit — it’s not a Jetski. Consider their years long gradual transition from Teutonic thrashy speed metal in the late 80s and early 90s to the epic, genre defining power metal with Imaginations and Nightfall. When they’ve made sudden jumps in their musical approach it can be a shock to our system. Take their scaling back of the grandiose sugary sound they delivered on the uber layered and dense A Night at the Opera — they overcorrected with 2006’s A Twist in the Myth, and only really found their way back to an inspired equilibrium four years later on 2010’s At the Edge of Time. Part of the reason a lot of Blind Guardian fans have been sullen about the orchestral project is not only because it was a difficult listen, but because you couldn’t help but feel it had been derailing the hard hitting aspects of the band, you know… the metal, which had been a defining element of their classic sound. I think there are a lot of us who just felt relieved when the Twilight Orchestra was released, a feeling that maybe the band would have gotten that out of their system and started running lean again. Well… again, aircraft carrier here. Its never that easy with Blind Guardian.
To give immediate context to The God Machine in case you’re refusing to listen to it until reading this review for whatever sadistic reason, it sits at the crossroads between At the Edge of Time and Beyond the Red Mirror, really being a mix of the former’s classic power metal throwback approach and the latter’s more progressive songwriting tendencies. In other words, don’t come in here expecting the second coming of Imaginations, but there are moments that sometimes will recall hints of that glorious past, simply because one of its touchstone albums was recalling that very past. I feel like it has one foot firmly planted in Blind Guardian’s power metal sound while their progressive, epic songwriting is firmly grabbing a hold of its other leg, preventing it from making a full stride into that realm. This dichotomy unfolds throughout the album in unpredictable ways, because while the opener “Deliver Us From Evil” is a strong, classic-Guardian emulation built on a satisfying riff progression, raging Hansi screams, and those patented choral backing vocals — it’s immediately followed by the proggy arrangements heard in “Damnation”, though still very much rooted in the band’s more aggressive sound palette. And is it just me or does anyone else hear shades of A Night At the Opera here? There’s something about the way the choral vocals are layered in this staggered pattern in the prechorus and chorus that give me major 2002 vibes in a surprisingly welcome way. I appreciate how they tempered all the sudden zigzags in direction throughout this song with a powerfully weighty, anchoring refrain sequence that gives the whole thing a sense of purpose and direction.
Sometimes though we just simply get those glorious, soaring uncut gems where Hansi has always shined, as on the truly magnificent “Secrets of the American Gods”, as stirring and passionate a song the bards have ever crafted. This is based on the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods, a book I’ve reread likely over ten times now, and it’s a trip to see it’s Americana drenched storyline being alluded to in a Hansi-ian lyrical adaptation (where everything comes across as dramatic and millennia-spanning epic as the tales in The Silmarillion). Hear that chorus? That’s entirely Hansi’s wheelhouse, those lengthy lyrical phrases where his vocals have the time and space to stretch and bend words to his dramatic vision (notice throughout their entire catalog that the more shorter, clipped, and jumpy a Blind Guardian song’s lyrical stanzas are, the less effective he is at really unleashing what makes his vocals truly magical). Hansi being allowed to have a long runway is what turns “Let It Be No More” into an album highlight, elevating muted, dare I say meandering verses into something truly inspiring and heartrending when the refrain kicks in. It’s not quite a ballad in the traditional sense, but its the closest thing on The God Machine to such a thing (I too was hoping for a sequel to something like “Curse My Name” or “War of the Thrones” but I’ll take this as a more than suitable substitute). There is an alternate version of this song recorded as a bonus track for the digipak and other luxury editions of the album with “heavy vocals”, and its essentially a rawer lead from Hansi with less lush padding on the choral vocals during the refrain. I can’t decide which one I enjoy more, because both have their merits but typically I think you err on the side of rawer Hansi, which meant they picked the wrong version for a bonus track.
Where that Red Mirror progressive songwriting still lingers the most is on two cuts in particular (it popped up in fits and spurts on the songs mentioned previously too, just in more manageable doses), namely “Life Beyond the Spheres” and the album closer “Destiny”. Now there are some moments within these two songs that I do enjoy, certain musical motifs or lyrical passages or vocal melodies here and there, but as a whole they’re underwhelming. I can’t be the only one who wishes “Destiny” would’ve exploded in it’s mid-song instrumental bridge sequence, surely everything prior to it seemed to be building and building to something like that, a euphoric release of growing tension — it just never materializes (though Hansi partially redeems it with his unexpected vocal gusto at 5:26). As for “Life Beyond the Spheres”, this genuinely sounds like something left off Red Mirror, a weird, jumbled mix of neat ideas that don’t really seem to gel together at all. It’s a clunkily shifting track that lacks a memorable thru melody be it instrumental or vocal driven, and the chorus seems to just arrive without any fanfare like Kramer swinging open the door to Jerry’s apartment and waltzing in. Marcus’ rhythm guitar staccato riffing is a cool thing they could’ve built on, but like “Destiny” it’s just never leveraged into something that gets the heart beating faster. And this is where the progressive aspect of the band’s songwriting really trips them up, when songs become too heady instead of working off emotion and energy and instinct. The Blind Guardian that makes you glory claw in the air is the stuff that infects your love of pathos, drama, and penchant for theatricality, its not the stuff that you have to intellectualize like a Dream Theater album.
The song most reviewers are likely going to point to when referring to this as an “old school” Blind Guardian album is “Violent Shadows”, and for good reason (though it would be an inaccurate overall description for the album). Premiered during the virtual Wacken World Wide 2020 event that a lot of us caught live and freaked out over their truly old school setlist for the show, this was the song that sent thousands of hearts wildly beating out of control for the uber suggestive hint that we were getting Imaginations part two. And indeed it does sound like a forgotten cut from that era, or something that could’ve also been found on Somewhere Far Beyond. It’s built on a solid riff-vocal tradeoff, and has a fairly memorable hook going for it, I will however admit that at times I find it maybe a little too repetitive for it’s own good (I find myself wishing it would’ve had a more adventurous bridge sequence than just the small guitar solo moment). Just as good if not better in that old school Guardian spirit is “Blood of the Elves”, it’s pacing sometimes reminding me of “A Script For My Requiem”, with Andre’s solo here conjuring up familiar ghosts of the past in a welcome way. Similarly bone shaking is “Architects of Doom”, where a thundering series of riff sequences unfolds into something far more elegant than its aggressive opening assault was suggesting. This was a sneaky one, worming its way into my good graces after initially being indifferent to it, give it a couple listens to let it blossom (that’s really the central tenet for approaching this album as a whole btw).
I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned it on the blog, but one of the metrics I employ when evaluating a new album, particularly from a veteran band is what I call the playlist quotient: That being the number of songs from said album you would add into a real or hypothetical playlist you were making of the artist in question. It’s a helpful way to visualize your affection for an album in a wider angle, and allows you to get past being dazzled by one or two really great songs that might initially skew your impression of an album being better than it is. Case in point is Red Mirror, an album that I gave a critical yet decently complimentary review to at the time. But it fared below 50% on the playlist quotient, with only a pair of songs making my hypothetical Blind Guardian playlist (“The Throne”, “Distant Memories”), which from an eleven song long tracklist is not great. In comparison, 2010’s At the Edge of Time boasted eight tracks that made the playlist out of a ten track album, and that I’d still keep all of those choices on there is a huge testament to that album’s enduring greatness. And for a band that I have a tremendous amount of affection for, a metric like this really helps me in not letting my enthusiasm and inner fanboy cloud my judgement to where I’m just declaring it the album of the year just because its friggin’ Blind Guardian (to that end, At the Edge of Time was my 2010 album of the year with damn good reason).
So where does The God Machine end up on the playlist quotient? Definitely better then Red Mirror but not quite scaling those lofty heights reached by AtEoT. Without question “Secrets of the American Gods”, “Let It Be No More”, and “Damnation” are instant adds, songs that I don’t think I’d see myself hitting skip on when they came up on shuffle. I’d also toss on there “Violent Shadows”, “Blood of the Elves” and “Deliver Us From Evil”, but could see myself hitting skip if the moment wasn’t quite right. So six songs out of a nine song album is a fairly strong showing, three if you really forced me to make hard cuts but all told I’d consider that a success as well. This was a good, solid, at times genuinely excellent step in the right direction for Blind Guardian. It does however feel like a band that’s trying to regain their footing after being lost in the orchestral wilds for so long, like Thingol standing in the woods of Nan Elmoth for frigging ages and eventually stumbling out in a semi-daze (albeit without the whole surprise I now have a goddess as a wife! thing). As a fan, I’m encouraged to hear where next they could possibly take this newfound sense of musical liberation, if not back to their roots entirely (which I’ll admit is an unfair and unlikely proposition), then perhaps somewhere new and exciting with their metallic natures leading the way forward. But its the bards we’re talking about, we’ll be along for the caravan and campfire sit arounds regardless.
Well its been a minute, but it’s been an incredibly busy month or so for me personally and yeah, things just got away from me (like days and weeks and stuff). I have done a considerable amount of listening over the many weeks that have elapsed since my last blog entry, but I have covered a bunch of stuff on the MSRcast that hasn’t been mentioned here so make sure you check those new episodes out. Discussed below are the records I kinda wanted to go a little deeper on and talk about in more detail. Of course there’s some really intriguing and monumental records coming down the pike: the new, long awaited Blind Guardian album of course which will get its own deep dive here, but also the highly anticipated by myself new project from the old In Flames gang + Mikael from Dark Tranquility called The Halo Effect. I am in the process of checking out the new Arch Enemy and Amon Amarth, but have only just begun and you know, given my interest in their recent output, I might not be moved to really say anything on it (I’m hoping otherwise), also I’m still trying to catch up on the Seventh Wonder and Oceans of Slumber releases that came out a couple weeks ago… they got shunted aside time wise and I never got to give them their proper due. Look I’ll admit I’ve been a bit of a mess this year but hell, the motto for 2022 is… ^^ well you know.
Porcupine Tree – Closure/Continuation:
I wanted to make sure I took my time digesting this at once long anticipated and yet still surprising that it even happened new Porcupine Tree album, aptly named Closure/Continuation. I guess we should’ve learned our lesson about bands we’d never expect to get back together after Duff and Slash made their way back to Guns N’ Roses, or certainly after Faith No More reunited or more shocking than either of those, ABBA came together to release a new album. Porcupine Tree was due, and it’s timing could not be more perfect for both fans or for Steven Wilson himself, whose last album seemed a little too self-indulgent for most and who could likely benefit from returning to something a little familiar. This version of Porcupine Tree features Wilson rejoined by longtime members Gavin Harrison on drums and Richard Barbieri on keyboards (ex-bassist Colin Edwards was not included in the reunion, for reasons that are wildly speculated about in the PT subreddit but I’ll not bore you with here, Wilson handled bass on this album btw). And though I wasn’t one of those who spent this intervening decade clamoring for a band reunion, I’m glad its happened because 2009’s The Incident was even at the time of its release, a relatively underwhelming album that hasn’t aged all that well. Wilson is right in his dim view of it in interviews over the years, and its nice for things to not have to end on that musical note if indeed this album leans more towards “closure” than “continuation”.
To that end, I find this album is more of an amalgam of all the previous Porcupine Tree records put together, with spacey, swirling progressive mood pieces from the mid 90s, touchstones of poppier elements from the late 90s and early aughts ala Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia and the more metallic leanings of Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet. It feels as a whole like a complete Porcupine Tree album, reflecting on all the sides of the group that seem familiar, yet accomplishing this feat with really strong material, songs that feel fresh and inspired. The aggressive riff progression in “Rats Return” is really something that I could’ve envisioned on Blank Planet, but the backing vocal/keyboard eerily mashed up arrangement that floats over the top prevents things from becoming too metallic in nature, keeping it firmly in weirdo prog-rock territory. It’s nice that despite all of Wilson’s statements in interviews about how rock guitar didn’t inspire him that much, that the majority of this record is built on exactly that. The strongest tracks are “Dignity” with it’s English folk-rock influences in those gentle verses, and my personal favorite “Of The New Day” is vintage Wilson balladry, achingly melancholic vocal melodies and quietly strummed acoustic guitars awash with layered of moody guitars and keyboards. When Wilson and Barbieri do incorporate more electronics, as on “Walk the Plank”, I find that its far more interesting and engaging than most of the stuff Wilson was attempting to do on The Future Bites (where tellingly the best song on the album was the piano ballad “12 Things I Forgot”). And I don’t mean to dump on Wilson’s solo work here, longtime readers will know that I loved Hand. Cannot. Erase, but I hope this experience has been satisfying for him as a composer, and perhaps a little bit of a perspective shift that hey, it doesn’t make you boring to like guitars, drums, bass and vocals together. All the wheels have been invented already, just focus on making the best ones that you can with your abilities.
Saor – Origins:
Andy Marshall, the man behind the Saor project is back with his fifth album under this banner, with Origins being the follow-up to 2019’s absolutely stunning Forgotten Paths. That album was my introduction to Saor, and it made enough of an impression on me that I went backwards investigating his other work under the banner. As expected, Saor’s production values have only increased dramatically with each new album, those first two being fairly raw, with 2016’s Guardians being the first glimpse at the more modern, cleaned up production that he’d fully realize on Forgotten Paths. The great thing is that Origins has somehow taken that approach to the next level, being the most clear and crisp sounding record that Marshall has ever made. This is important chiefly because the kind of rustic, folk infused atmospheric black metal he is writing truly demands production that has room for both depth, and a cinematic grandeur that your prototypical raw black metal recording does not allow. Case in point is the album opener here “Call of the Carnyx”, with its reverb laden lead guitar melodies to start, and lush keyboard layering, and incredibly meaty, devastating riffing — all perfectly balanced in the superb mixing job by Lasse Lammert of Germany’s LSD Studios. The ending of this song by the way, where Marshall comes roaring back in with those distant sounding yet still unbelievable fierce grim vocals is such an adrenaline inducing passage, the kind of moment where headbanging is the only natural response. Cue up that grandeur I was talking about for “Fallen” where Marshall introduces some bagpipes (I believe keyboard engineered but hey it still sounds the part), a perfect complement to the dramatic, highland clan guitar melodies and pounding drumbeats, while Marshall layers on some rather well done clean vocal harmonies that I didn’t think he was capable of.
There’s a mystical streak running through the songwriting on this album, a striking change from the more earthy, grounded, inward feelings imbued on Forgotten Paths. Conversely, Origins is all wide open skies, winds rippling through mountains, and a sense of wide open spaces, these songs almost a reflection of their inherent spirituality. You hear this quite vividly on “The Ancient Ones”, an album highlight with it’s well balanced mix of atmospherics, subtle folk melodies in those terrific lead parts, and in the interplay between chanted backing vocal theatrics and Marshall’s ever blistering grim vocal attack. The thing that makes all of this work so well is kinda hard to define, because on one hand Marshall isn’t reinventing atmospheric black metal persay, so many bands try to do this same style of atmo-black and yet so few seem to have his particular touch and skill at melding together so many disparate elements. He has a light hand when it comes to infusing the folk elements here, leaving them as melodic imprints heard via guitar or muted sounding keyboards rather than big spectacles imposed on the music via distinctly separate musical elements (there’s no humppa bits barging into the frame unwelcomely). The scaling back of black metal elements and replacing them with heavier, chunkier riffing is also crucial to Origins success, allowing for not only more instantly engaging riff sequences, but in providing the rest of the musical elements with enough spacing to breathe on their own. Full stop, I’ve been addicted to this album since it came out, just finding it a thoroughly engaging, beautiful work of art that has expanded the possibilities of Saor’s sonic potential for future releases. You don’t have to enjoy atmo-black to get into this either, its one of those records that easily transcends its subgenre.
Dawn of Destiny – Of Silence:
One of Germany’s buried treasures, Dawn of Destiny have been a favorite of mine since they grabbed my attention with 2014’s Best Albums listeeF.E.A.R., their second album with the phenomenal vocal talents of Jeanette Scherff at the helm. Since then they’ve laid down a pair of quality follow-ups, but have yet to match F.E.A.R.’s brilliance — until now that is. Their eighth album overall, Of Silence contains some of the band’s most inspired work, with bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber penning some truly powerful stuff here. The basic Dawn of Destiny blueprint is still in place here, a thundering heavy/power metal framework infused with significant doses of gothic metal and gritty hard rock. Sounds weird but its like if Type O Negative or Sentenced had a baby with Heart, not only for the very noticeable Ann Wilson vibes in Scherff’s rich vocal tone, but for the downcast, at times outright melancholic feelings being explored throughout these songs. The album opens up with the eight minute multifaceted epic “We Are Your Voice”, which leans about as theatrical as Dawn of Destiny gets, a lot of dramatic surges of guitars to punctuate forlorn lyrics and some truly phat riffs to bookend passages. Its a strong song to kick things off, and doesn’t feel like eight minutes, but track two is where the album really finds its groove to my ears, with “Judas In Me” where guitarist Veith Offenbächer keeps things anchored with a gritty, Accept-ian slab of riffage. Faber’s counterpoint lead vocal in the chorus to offset Scherff is one of the album’s most addictive moments, working in tandem to cook up a hook that is incredibly memorable and satisfying.
Lord of the Lost vocalist Chris Harms joins for a duet on the driving “Childhood”, and hearing his gothic rock vocals in a more earthy, gritty soundscape than the more shiny and produced stylings of his day job band actually steers his voice towards reminding me a little of JP Leppäluoto of Charon. It’s a strong song, with a fully realized refrain that blends Harms and Scherff rather tastefully in intertwined melodies, as opposed to the beauty and the beast trading off dynamic. And for a band that is ostensibly a power metal meets gothic oeuvre, they can really lay the proverbial wood when they want to, with “Say My Name” hitting with the force of a jackhammer, Offenbächer serving up an almost thrashy riff sequence and a wild lead guitar solo towards the latter half of the song. My absolute favorite on the album is the much more subdued, almost power balladry packaged anguish of “Little Flower” (major Charon vibes on that title and lyrics herein), where Faber delivers his best lyrical refrain and melody. There’s something really poignant happening in the lyrics here, with simple metaphors serving a magnified purpose, and Scherff’s impassioned voice just made for songs like this, all painful experience and unrestrained yearning. And kudos has to be given to Faber for his lead vocals on “Run”, where he really shines as a co-vocalist, and though his parts are limited in scope throughout the band’s catalog as a whole, he really has a good sense of when to employ them and when to let Scherff handle things on her own. Not only is this the band’s best album in nearly a decade, it’s at once comfortingly familiar and also a bit of a wing stretcher creatively. Faber strips things down to the meaty essentials at some points, and also takes the band into some fresh progressive territory in others, it all makes for a challenging and rewarding listen.
Fellowship – The Saberlight Chronicles:
At long last, one of the most promising power metal bands to debut in the past decade have delivered their debut album after stoking all of our collective fires a few years ago with their self-titled three song independently released EP. It made such an impact on myself and the entire power metal sphere at r/PowerMetal that it found itself of many people’s best of 2020 lists, including mine where “Glint” was my second favorite song of the year behind Seven Spires immortal “Succumb”. Going the label route this time with Italian power metal institution Scarlet Records, The Saberlight Chronicles folds in the three cuts found on the debut EP (wisely, leaving those off would’ve been a mistake) with nine other entirely new songs, with no lousy intro tracks and no interludes by the way. The question at the heart of this album is do these nine new songs live up to the standard set by those original three (“Glint”, “The Hours of Wintertime”, and “Hearts Upon the Hill”)? And you know how it goes, its rare that there’s a clear cut answer to something like that because I think for starters its hard to live up to hype in general, and there was a lot of expectation put upon this album in the sense that Fellowship was being heralded by some as potential saviors of EUPM (if you believed that EUPM is in need of a savior, another discussion altogether). I feel there is enough stuff here that equals the brilliance displayed on those aforementioned three cuts to say that yeah, Fellowship live up to their potential for the most part here, with a handful of songs present that I’m less enthusiastic about.
First it should be said that vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry straight up delivers across the board, turning in incredible vocal performances in his Tony Kakko-ian emotive vocal style and penning some truly moving lyrics, his chief strength that many of us picked up on in the early days and championed him for. He might never hit the heights that he landed on with the glorious exuberance of his refrain in “Glint”, but he gets very close with “Silhouette” here, Corry evocative in his poetic diction without couching it in bizarre metaphors or imagery… you get his meaning yet find it subtle enough to be open to other interpretations. I really love “Oak and Ash”, sort of the wayward sibling track to “Glint”, where our narrator finds himself unabashedly seeking validation from others. Its refreshing also to find a power metal lyricist that uses grandeur and fantastical imagery as a graceful metaphorical touchstone to talk about real inner turmoil, all with a truly authentic and distinct narrative voice. It’s a very Roy Khan-esque way of going about it. Guitarists Sam Browne and Brad Wosko deserve commendation for their work throughout here, with really beautiful melodies and gorgeously articulated leads that make these songs swirl and dazzle beyond just Corry’s awesome vocal lines. They really explode on “Atlas”, with a spectacularly designed bridge instrumental that has the electricity of Dragonforce and the tempered restraint of Falconer or Kamelot all at once. This is an admirable debut album, likely the strongest UK power metal debut in well over a decade and this band has so much to offer if they keep kicking out new albums down the road. Get in on them now.