Hey everyone, hoping you are all in good health. Jeez what a difference a month can make right? In the time since my last update our entire lives have been flipped upside down and we’re living in a time of immense uncertainty, and that brings with it a ton of anxiety to even the most upbeat and positive type of person. I’m not going to get into specifics here, but I’ve had my fair share of battles with anxiety and depression throughout my life. The former is a constant battle, sometimes where I have the upper hand and other times not —- while a return of the latter is something I fear immensely and work all the time to keep at bay. These past few weeks have been difficult to deal with I’ll admit, and the prospect of being cooped up inside against my wishes feels a little suffocating. What I’ve been doing to combat this is pre-dawn walks, and the occasional solo drive-around just to keep myself sane, and my soundtrack to both these activities has been the most upbeat, positive feeling inspiring power metal I can search up. At first it was just the usual suspects, you know, your Dragonforce and Hammerfall, and Sabaton really helped a great deal (their more, defiant, triumphant, victory tinged stuff), but I started to repeat those choices one too many times and decided to address that by creating a Spotify playlist full of this particular flavor of power metal.
To be more specific as to what I’m referring to by the description of “positive power metal”, I’m talking about songs that are either lyrically or musically uplifting and empowering —- songs that can however briefly allow you to push those anxieties from your mind and just feel good for a few minutes. This means lyrically obvious stuff like “Hunting High and Low” from Stratovarius, or “Hearts On Fire” by Hammerfall, where the positive lyrics are reinforced by the major key melodicism surrounding them. But I’ve also included things like “Nosferatu” by Bloodbound, which lyrically may be steeped in its own fantastical storyline, but the guitar melodies are so awesome and majestic that it’s a sentimental favorite that makes me feel good when I listen to it. That same characteristic applies to say “Full Moon” by Sonata Arctica, because it doesn’t matter that the song is about a dude changing into a werewolf —- that song is the kick up the backside I need to hear sometimes when I’m feeling down. Metal’s defining characteristic to me has always been about the projection of power, and all the styles of metal do that in different ways. Power metal’s gift, to my ears anyway, has been about shaping the style of music I love into something that I can kind of wear like armor, something that can make you feel powerful and invincible. A summation I’ve come to lean on by someone named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum may have said it best regarding “power metal’s proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity“.
With that sage like observation in mind, I want to point out that this is intended to be a community project. Indeed, while many of the selections here are mine, I asked many of the folks in the r/PowerMetal community for their picks and scoured the very recent posts on the subreddit that were already asking for suggestions on positive power metal. On one hand it’s nice to know that I’m not the only person thinking along these same lines and needing this particular flavor of power metal right now. On the other hand, the fact that other people were asking for suggestions made me aware of just how necessary the need for this type of playlist is right now. So with the hope for as many people as possible to benefit from this playlist, I’m going to continue adding to it as I receive more suggestions from the power metal community, in addition to stumbling over stuff I’m just discovering myself. To that end I will also add additions that you guys think need to be on this playlist that aren’t there already (so long as they fit the theme and vibe of the playlist). So leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below if you want to contribute. And in case you were wondering, yes that is Tony Kakko’s magnificent emoting visage as the playlist’s image —- its the face you all should be making as you’re listening to the songs in it and are overwhelmed by the majesty, the glory, and the sheer bliss of it all. Keep your heads up, we’ll get through this eventually. As my co-host Cary likes to say, Keep it metal!
The slow start to the year in January quickly evaporated with an onslaught in February, and we’ve gotten some big names in the mix too (well, relatively speaking of course). Chief among them is the fifteen years plus in the waiting third Demons & Wizards album, Hansi Kursch and Jon Schaffer’s side-project that has taken on an almost legendary air in the interim period. You heard it in the murmuring crowd on their recent North American tour, and I felt it myself —- a sort of disbelief that we were seeing these two major figures in power metal history standing onstage together. That’s a lot to live up to, not only with the show itself, but with an album that we’ve heard more than a few estimated release dates for during that time. We’re also getting new releases from Finland’s genre-bending Amberian Dawn, who are stretching the limits of power metal to its poppiest extreme yet, and of course the once power metal supergroup Serious Black that’s more of a honed in melodic metal vehicle for the mighty Urban breed. Lastly, there’s the sophomore album by Seven Spires, a band who is on two major support slots in North America this year for very relatively different audiences. Intrigued? I thought so!
Demons & Wizards – III:
I guess I’ve put this off long enough. This review was originally going to be one of the long ones, you know, my 1200 plus word excursions going in depth on an album’s backstory, details, and hidden nuances. Forget that. I simply can’t summon the interest. I’ll get right to the point here, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to write the following —- but this album bored me and is a chore to listen to. An absolute chore. I’m gravely disappointed. Not only because of the pedigree of the two musicians involved; not only because of the precedent set by their prior two albums —- one of which was pretty good (and sounding better by the minute) while the other I’d consider a power metal classic —- but also because I was so hyped for this thing after witnessing the band live in Dallas last August on their North American tour. That was a great show, and to hear songs like “Tear Down The Wall” and “Fiddler On The Green” in person was a dream I’d never imagined being possible come true. As a result, I allowed myself the luxury of getting hyped for this album, and yeah, I suppose the near fifteen year wait also added a bit to that. There’s been a lot written and spoken about that span of time in between this album, the creatively titled III, and 2005’s Touched By The Crimson King (now that’s an album title!), and it should be made clear to everyone that it had no impact on adding anything of value to the songwriting that went into these new songs. Jon and Hansi’s day jobs kept Demons & Wizards on the sideline until they could eventually find an opportunity to carve out a block of time to devote to it. The reasoning is rational enough on the surface, but I’m starting to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just working on material slowly through the years, passing ideas back and forth until they finally accumulated an album’s worth of material. Would we really care if any of the songs had begun in 2006 as opposed to being recent creations, entirely “fresh” and new? I’m guessing no as long as they were good.
So what’s wrong with this album then? I’m afforded the luxury of being vague here, simply because this one criticism applies to nearly everything on here barring a moment or two, but this album sounds entirely disconnected. The debut album began as an in-person collaboration between Jon and Hansi, and the limits of technology at the time forced it to largely remain that way, despite the pair working on it via mailed recordings as well. The follow-up had to be done under a tighter time schedule, and Schaffer’s gone on record as stating it as a reason for his slight dissatisfaction with the overall result. But whereas the songs on the debut really felt like they were cooked up together, the result being a natural fusion of the two songwriter’s tendencies and styles, Crimson King felt divided due to being largely written separately by Jon and Hansi in geographic isolation. I used to think that was the album’s achilles heel, but as the years have gone on, I think it actually worked to its benefit. To me, half of that albums songs sound like Schaffer led tunes, and the other half Kursch’s —- meaning that some songs lean hard in an Iced Earth direction (“Terror Train”, “Crimson King”, “Seize The Day”, “Dorian”), whereas others are clearly more Blind Guardian tinged (“Beneath These Waves”, “Wicked Witch”, “Love’s Tragedy Asunder”, “Down Where I Am”, “Lunar Lament”). The result was a largely strong collection of songs, because each of the songwriter’s hard leans towards their strengths ensured that at least the melodies would be affecting. It would be inaccurate to say that Jon and Hansi each wrote half of Crimson King on their own, these were collaborations after all and Jon did pen music for all the tracks, and Hansi did write his own vocal melodies for all the songs. I’m more referring to the songwriting structures present in all those songs, as they provide strong context clues as to what came to dominate a song first in its early songwriting stages, the riff or the vocal melody?
Fast forward to III, where it’s clear that the riff came first, always and to a fault. As confirmed by the dozens of interviews Jon and Hansi have done for the album, they largely wrote this album geographically isolated from one another just like they did for Crimson King. This time however, I think they made a critical error in the division of responsibilities in the songwriting department. Simply put, they got too diplomatic for their own good. According to those interviews, Jon wrote the music, Dropboxed the tracks to Hansi, who would write vocal melodies for them. I’m certain there was some passing the songs back and forth after that point, but given that these hooks never really get that “lift” like we’re expecting and the verses just aimlessly merge into the refrains like a texting driver at a rush hour intersection, I’m not 100% certain of that either. When Jon writes for Iced Earth, he builds a song with vocal melodies in his mind as well, and will communicate a sketch of that idea to his vocalist (who may or may not have the leeway to change things). Of course Iced Earth songs are melodic, but they’re largely chiseled that way via shaping the tone and direction of riffs, not pure melodies in the sense that say… Tobias Sammet writes Avantasia’s songs on keyboards first. When Hansi writes for Blind Guardian, he and Andre work in tandem, sometimes with the vocal melody coming first, sometimes with a guitar melody coming first. Point is that their work is more melodically guided, and riffs and heaviness are worked in around that. Listening to III, I get the feeling that Jon didn’t want to tread on Hansi’s boots, and created riff driven songs with some melodic structures, but largely left space for Hansi to guide things with his vocal melodies. Subsequently, Hansi was given half-finished tracks that he had to figure out how to shoehorn lead vocal melodies therein, and likely didn’t pass any of them back to Jon and say “Yeah I have nothing for this one”. If you’re followed this train of thought this far, you might be of the opinion that I’m overthinking this —- you’re likely right, but I had to dig deep to potentially understand why, oh why I haven’t been able to get into this album after umpteen listens. I might even be wrong on all of the rationale above, but it’s all I can offer by way of explanation right now.
There were a few worthwhile moments, the entirety of “Wolves In Winter” being the best song on offer here and comparable to the band’s work on their prior two records. A near perfect merging of the heavy riff first approach with a classic Hansi vocal melody during the refrain results in a stellar track, at once unique with its primal, grunting, rhythmic tick and familiar in the sense that Hansi sounds powerful and confident as we’ve heard him countless times before. And I’m somewhat partial to most of “Diabolic”, which has elements that drag for sure (the long intro and outro for starters), but also displays one of the more convincing riff structures on the album in terms of pairing intensity with a melodic motif. I think there’s a good idea somewhere in “New Dawn”, where Hansi captures my attention every now and then, particularly his “I cleanse it with fire” lyrical motif towards the end (if only the rest of the song could match his intensity). I’m also in the minority in being somewhat into “Midas Disease”, not for its dumb, mawkish AC/DC tribute inherent in it’s plodding hard rock rhythms, but for Hansi’s spot on Blackie Lawless impersonation throughout, sounding for all the world like a distant echo from The Headless Children. As for the rest of these songs… I’m just baffled. I have thumped my head against them for countless listens now and am coming away with nothing but bruises and a growing loathing for the mere act of listening to this album. Out of respect for Jon and Hansi, I will shelve this for awhile and return to it in a year or two’s time to give it another shot. Reinforcing my theory that things may have been too diplomatic all around for this album, both Jim Morris and Charlie Bauerfiend were involved in the production at some stage, which just seems weird. The prescription for the next time around, should there be one, might be for Jon to largely write half the songs on the album and Hansi to nearly entirely pen the other half —- or, heck, here’s a thought, book a flight and get in a room and write the entire album together for once.
Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:
You might have seen the name Seven Spires listed on a few high profile tours this year and idly wondered who and what they were all about. Their biggest claim to fame heading into the release of their sophomore album Emerald Seas is that their vocalist/keyboardist Adrienne Cowan was the backing vocalist on Avantasia’s recent Moonglow world tour. Her role on that tour was certainly the reason why I first noticed the band and checked out their 2017 debut album Solveig when that tour was announced. I came away thinking it was an interesting record that flashed some nice ideas here and there, the kind of thing that a few albums down the road could see Seven Spires hone into a well defined sound and deliver a possibly great album (provided they could stay together for that time). The last thing I expected was that the band was talented enough to make that leap in fully realizing their sound and songwriting approach a mere one album later. So much for the sophomore slump, because Emerald Seas might just be the most exciting, creative, and thoughtfully written album we see this year. I’ve been stunned and knocked sideways by how much I love this album, and I’ve actively had to force myself to take days off from listening to it so I could squeeze in listening time for other releases. You might have noticed that Seven Spires is going to be opening for Insomnium this spring as well as Amaranthe in the fall, and they’re able to fit into both slots quite well because they blend together progressive symphonic power metal and a blackened vocal take on melo-death.
Cowan has the vocal talent to make these genre blendings sound seamless, transitioning between three voices —- a soaring, heartwarming crystalline tone that can move to a gritty, belting rock n’ roll voice, and of course go deeper in a grim vocal that reminds me strongly of Dani Filth’s midrange delivery. You hear this right away in “Ghost of A Dream”, where she displays all three approaches within the context of a handful of ultra-memorable vocal melody structures. This is also the song where you might be wondering what other band’s vibes you’re being reminded of, and the answer on the tip of your brain is Kamelot. There’s a depth to Seven Spires musicality illustrated here and throughout the album that brings to mind Kamelot’s Epica era. I’m thinking here specifically of the Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar figures that flare up alongside Cowan’s lithe vocals in the verses, as well as the elegant accordion style adornment in the background recall Roy Khan’s narrative vocal masterpiece in “Lost And Damned” off that album. Guitarist Jack Kosto also has a Thomas Youngblood-ian sense of how to keep his riffs muscular but largely simple when set against the backdrop of Cowan’s grandiose, cinematic orchestral keyboard backdrops. This artful approach to symphonic metal yields songs like “Every Crest”, where an almost Broadway styled vocal melody can swing suddenly into a brutal, utteringly convincing harsh vocal passage with a Hans Zimmer inspired slant to the orchestral arrangement. During the former, bassist Peter de Reyna shows off some nimble jazzy structures figures underneath Cowan’s vocals, and alongside drummer Chris Dovas’ thoughtful battery and Kosto’s knack for neoclassical styled shredding and spectacular soloing, this band unexpectedly injects frequent doses of stunning technicality throughout the album. It’s a subtle detail, but it works to add a sense of vitality and boiling emotional swell to the album in the same way that Dialith achieved with their infusion of gritty, intense melodic death riffs to their symphonic metal oeuvre.
This is the rare album with no weak songs, nothing resembling filler, but there are a couple of absolute gems that shine greater than the others, namely “Unmapped Darkness” and “Succumb”. The former is the grandest and boldest example of the band’s almost effortless swagger at pulling off the arms wide, cinematic expansiveness that its hopeful lyrics speak to. Cowan claims Roy Khan as one of her biggest influences, and her lyric writing abilities come pretty damn close to his in terms of diction, imagery, and phrasing. She’s really friggin good at this stuff. Take the chorus of “Succumb”, easily the catchiest moment on the album, where she eschews generic ideas in favor of “And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone / And I pray one day our stars align / So I might hold you one more time…”. That’s Khan level poetic abilities on display, and you guys know how I feel about the master himself (I’m not making this comparison lightly). Consider me a Cowan lyrical fanboy now, because this album has captivated me on that level completely, telling a story about a seafarer and the beast that’s chasing him. Its rare that a storyline intrigues me on any level within a metal album, but there’s something charming and rare about the one that Cowan has sketched out here —- it’s allowed for the variety of moods and emotions displayed amidst the differing songwriting styles and approaches. To wit, the gorgeous moonlit piano ballad “Silvery Moon” is a personal favorite here, the kind of thing I’d more associate with a stage play rather than a symphonic metal band, but Cowan’s lyrics are heartbreakingly poignant, and paint an evocative series of pictures in my mind. I could go in detail about the lyrical gems scattered throughout this record, in addition to its unforgettable melodies, but I promised myself I’d keep this short —- also, this isn’t the last I’ll be writing about Emerald Seas this year…
Amberian Dawn – Looking For You:
I became a fan of Finland’s once symphonic metallers Amberian Dawn in 2015 with the release of Innuendo, not so much because of the band’s still present symphonic metal palette, but for the strange, inexplicable ABBA influences scattered throughout the album. It was an interesting moment to be introduced to the band, who were finding their way with the still relatively new vocalist Capri Virkkunen who joined one album prior, after the departure of longtime classically inclined singer Heidi Parviainen. Capri possessed an entirely different voice, more a velvety, sonorous pop-rock voice as opposed to anything resembling classical training. It was Amberian’s Tarja to Annette moment, and band founder/keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppälä saw an opening to move away from a symphonic metal direction that he’d run with for four albums now with varying results and modest public interest, towards a more overtly pop driven approach inspired by the Swedish quartet. Capri had previously spent some time singing in an ABBA cover band, in addition to trying out for Eurovision a couple times, so her pop credentials were rooted in that classical European dramatic mode that made those ABBA hits so emotionally engaging. It also helped that her vocals sounded like a perfect blending of Agnetha and Frida, from tone to the clarity of her diction and phrasing. She and Seppälä seemed to be of one mind in this, because they increased the amount of pop-driven songwriting on the 2017 follow-up Darkness of Eternity. It seemed inevitable that they’d at some point have to just abandon the band’s symphonic metal roots… clearly they were having more fun heading in the opposite direction.
Fast forward to Looking For You, Capri’s fourth proper album with the band, and they’d pretty much done exactly that. Oh there’s still a nod to their symphonic metal past, on “Symphony Nr. 1 Part 3 – Awakening”, an entertaining to say the least duet with Fabio Lione which is actually the third installment in this song-suite over the past couple Capri fronted albums. But that one cut aside, Seppälä goes all in on the ABBA-worship this time, with the rest of the album working in that sophisticated pop songwriting mode. Capri is the star throughout, her mature, resonant voice clearly made for the theatrical, drama-rich lyrical delivery this kind of classic pop influence requires. The apex here is the title track, a sugary dance-beat fuelled pop confection built around a finely defined vocal melody that weaves effortlessly from verse to bridge to chorus. Capri’s the ringleader here, her urgency in tone is the cue for the extra crunch from the guitars, and really the band as a whole. There’s a very true to seventies-ABBA era pop approach to the lyrics here, with vague, hopeful sentiments expressed through a staging of a very specific scene —- “Late at night / Wondering where you are tonight / I feel the sadness in my heart”. I hear shades of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Day Before You Came” influencing this particular lyrical approach that Seppälä and Capri are writing with. It continues on “Two Blades”, another ultra catchy uptempo gem, where the narrator speaks about her relationship that is all smiles to the world around them, yet crumbling on the inside: “They don’t know how it feels to be / Forgotten in the hours of the night / Hiding in the shadows and being lost / And left behind for a lifetime”. I love the juxtaposition at the 2:38 mark of that satisfyingly crunchy riff sliding beneath Capri crooning “I am, I am the sun…”. This is pop songwriting at its classicist best, with a lyrical approach that is inviting and universal in its portraits of desperation and urgency. Its the kind of thing I find lacking in a lot of modern pop music (with some notable exceptions).
So maybe you’re thinking at this point, c’mon Pigeon, ABBA-metal? Why does this have to be a thing? And my answer is a very simple, “Why not?”. Here’s the thing about Amberian Dawn laid out bluntly, they’re simply more interesting and unique since they’ve been exploring music in this vein than they ever were as a symphonic metal band. I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in those older albums, but it’s generally stuff that feels overdone to the point of exhaustion. And here’s another thing —- no one, and I mean no one, is writing pop music in this classic ABBA mold, not even in the pop music world. As an outright fan of that band, I welcome new music in that vein, particularly if its as delightfully faithful, convincing, and skillfully executed as Amberian Dawn are managing to do. There’s plenty of bands out there doing symphonic metal, some are even pulling it off rather well (see Dialith’s Extinction Six), but only Amberian Dawn is giving me the sugar high I crave with sophisti-pop hooks ala a re-worked/refreshed “Cherish My Memory”. It also serves to give the band a unique identity, something that they had trouble finding in their previous style. Capri has a unique voice within metal, a classic pop voice that she’s used to develop a stage career in addition to her vocation as a music teacher. In that vein she’s sympatico with Falconer’s Mathias Blad, another theatrical stage performer who moonlights as a singer in a metal band, using a non-metallic voice to create something really unique and special within metal. To really drive the point home, Amberian Dawn cheekily laid down a cover of the Swedish masters’ “Lay All Your Love On Me” in the middle of the tracklisting here, and not only is it a perfectly executed cover (immediately preferable to Avantasia’s), it’s a bold declaration of intent and a giant middle finger to anyone who’s thinking of throwing stones.
Serious Black – Suite 226:
So apparently I’m one of the few weirdos that actually thought Serious Black’s 2016 sophomore effort Mirrorworld was a fine slice of Euro-tinged power metal. I’ve read pretty much nothing but verbal abuse hurled towards it in the years since its release, from reviews I’ve gone back and read, to the fine folks on the r/PowerMetal subreddit having their daggers sharpened for it. I can see why those attacks would come at the expense of Mirrorworld’s follow-up, 2017’s Magic, although it too contained a few good tunes (I still stan “Binary Magic” and ” amidst the overall cringe on display), but I do have a theory as to why Serious Black has endured a brunt of negativity over the course of their entire existence. It largely has to do with their vocalist Urban breed, who is nearly universally beloved in the power metal community for his masterful work with Tad Morose and briefly, Bloodbound. On his defining work with those two bands, Urban sang over heavier, darker, far more metallic power metal than he does in Serious Black, which is a little closer to happy-boi Helloween and Freedom Call on the spectrum than it is to Khan-era Kamelot or say, Pyramaze. That’s not to say Serious Black is all sugary highs and syrupy sweet melodies, but there’s a slightly sunny-ish disposition streaking through their four albums in terms of melodic tone and sometimes even lyrical approach that I think a lot of Urban fans are put off by. It’s certainly not for any decline in the man’s vocal ability, because he still sounds as powerful and ageless as ever, but this band’s material does send his voice into sharply different directions than some are used to.
For those of us who are used to Urban in this context, we’re treated to a rebound record for Serious Black with Suite 226, a concept album about a mental patient locked in a psych ward (apparently). Largely gone are the weirdly pop-rock affectations of Magic, replaced instead by a welcome return of darkness and perhaps the most marked uptick in aggression in the band’s short history. Right out of the gate, “Let It Go” is the most Dave Mustaine-channeling that we’ve ever heard Urban, and with the blistering, furious riffing from Dominik Sebastian speeding along underneath, the whole thing sounds downright Megadeth-ian. That energy doesn’t dissipate heading into the first single “When The Stars Are Right”, which for all its loaded poppiness in that excellent chorus is still bookended by some dense riffing, and a tight rhythmic attack on the bottom end by bassist Mario Lochert and Ramy Ali on drums (who is a longtime veteran talent in the more obscure side of Euro power metal and a quality replacement for Alex Holzwarth). On a more mid-tempo cut like “Solitude Etude”, the band opts to employ a darker, more downcast mood along with Urban delivering a melancholic vocal melody. They do this again on the notably more poppy “Fate Of All Humanity”, and in lieu of straightforward aggression, the moodier, more introspective approach is still a welcome relief from what we can reasonably label as Serious Black’s default blue skies disposition. Urban delivers an unforgettable hook in the chorus here, and its still as poppy as power metal can get, but its a subdued sweetness, tempered by the lyrical concerns of the concept running through these lyrics.
And it’s strange, because I don’t think I picked up on this overall shift in mood and approach my first few listens through this album. I was here for Urban and the hooks, and we’re of course treated to those in spades, but it was deeper listening that revealed the aggression and darkness buried underneath. Take “Castiel”, arguably the album’s best cut and one of the finest songs the band has ever written, it’s built on major-minor chord dichotomy and a seriously swaggering chorus that owes more to classic heavy metal than Europower. I love the delay that Urban playfully tags onto the end of the second iteration of the chorus, making that slamming Accept-ian riff just hit you with full force when it breaks back in. There’s some heavyweight metallic grit happening in that tune but the addictiveness of the chorus really deafened me to it for the first few listens. The opposite happened on “Heaven Shall Burn”, an obviously heavy tune that is sneakily one of the strongest songs on the record, boasting a hook that’s slyly catchy despite its purposefully awkward approach. The most uplifting thing on the album is “Way Back Home” and amidst the downcast vibe it actually stands out just by its marked shift in tone alone. I’m more impressed by “We Still Stand Tall”, which is similarly more upbeat in tone and disposition, but is still underscored by a current of gritty heaviness anchoring it firmly to earth. The two songs that close out the album, “Come Home” and the title track swing us back to the darker side of the album, and they’re fine in that context, although I’m finding myself more liable to grow impatient with their slower, meandering sections and skip out of them. That minor complaint aside, I’m honestly surprised and maybe a little relieved that Serious Black found their footing again after such a worrying release. Give this one a few chances.
It’s an interesting moment for our Austrian friends in Serenity here in the wake of the release of their seventh album The Last Knight. They’re having to follow up the extremely divisive Lionheart, an album that I was largely critical of in my review and still feel that way for the most part. Setbacks have plagued this endeavor from the get go, starting with the mixed reception to the “Set The World On Fire” single a few months ago, and a somewhat better yet problematic reception for the most recent single in “My Kingdom Comes” which got tagged with being a rip off of Kamelot’s “Veil of Elysium” (I can kind of hear what people are talking about), suffice to say it’s been an inauspicious launch for the new album. I think if we look back on the band’s career, they had a stretch from 2008-13 that a broad swath of the power metal community would agree on (both at the time and retrospectively) as being one of excellence, where the band captured our ears and hearts with their Kamelot meets Sonata Arctica blend of Euro-power. So I was quite worried then in 2015 when they announced that they’d be working on a new album without their longtime guitarist and co-songwriter Thomas Buchberger, as well as the departure of contributing vocalist Clementine Delauney. But they surprised us with Codex Atlanticus, which I thought was a really fun and exciting experiment for them, the album length concept of the life of Leonardo Da Vinci inspiring vocalist Georg Neuhauser to take command of the songwriting process with a greater emphasis on vocal melodies and symphonic elements propelling the songs. It was the most major key forward album of their career, a lush, verdant, theatrical affair that at times had splashes of broadway in its sound (check “The Perfect Woman”). As a fan, it filled me with confidence that the guitarist change and more importantly, the loss of one of the band’s major songwriters wasn’t going to impact them that much. Then Lionheart happened.
The problem with Lionheart, I suspect, stems in large part due to its lyrical theme about the crusades of King Richard I of England. The battle and glory soaked lyrical approach that Neuhauser chose to depict seemed to push him towards giving these songs a heavier, more aggressive footing. That wasn’t inherently a bad idea, but my theory is that without the knowing finesse of his old bandmate Buchberger on guitar to add the heaviness factor without taking too much away from the band’s overall melodicism, that trademark Serenity yin-yang balance slipped out of Neuhauser’s grasp. Sure it still sounded like the band, but Christian Hermsdörfer’s riffs were too upfront in the mix while being relatively simplistic and chug-a-chug to justify their prominent role, a distracting annoyance that plagued the album as a whole. To make matters worse, almost every song seemed to mirror each other in tone and sentiment —- all brash bravado and epic battle hymn and none of the light and shadow shading of the band’s pre-Codex material (barring “My Fantasy” towards the end of the album which finally offered a welcome heaping of melancholy to cut the incessant cheer). The dichotomy of unnecessarily aggro-riffing with a triumphant tone without any fluctuation was a jarring experience, and made potentially good songs sound severely flawed. The result is an album that is still regarded as largely below average, and that’s me putting it diplomatically, I won’t tell you what some of the guys at r/PowerMetal have to say about it. So why the step back in time to revisit these last two albums? Because newcomers to the band might not notice, but I tend to think its helpful for longtime listeners of a band to have a sense of context in considering a band’s newest effort, not only to check themselves against negative prejudices, but alternatively, to suss out exactly why it is they might have negative feelings towards new material.
For my part, I’ll just come out and say that The Last Knight is a rebound from the woeful Lionheart, though not as strongly as I would’ve liked. First of all, is this singular figure biography approach for a whole album just going to be the way things are going forward for Serenity now? They’ve always written about historical figures on their older albums, but they were a jumble of topics and ideas, which seemed like a wiser way to go about things. But Neuhauser seems hell bent on putting his history doctorate to full use and has devoted the band’s last three records to singular figures, this time focusing on Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. I’m not too familiar with his biography, but it does seem that the impact of this topic on the songwriting this time around has conjured up a more nuanced blend of light and dark that we’re used to in the Serenity DNA. That in itself makes this a more layered, deeper album than the surface level rah-rah glory worship of its predecessor, but also takes advantage of the band using Sascha Paeth as producer for the first time ever. Paeth is used to working with shifting tones, a blurring of major and minor keys with his experience producing for Kamelot and writing for Avantasia, and he does an admirable job here of highlight the band’s strengths. Neuhauser brings back that old school Serenity feel with onpoint songwriting on cuts like “Wings of Pride” and “Call to Arms”. The former has a romantic blush to its frenetic, speedy power metal tempos, as well as an appealing balance of loud/quiet dynamics and a chorus that is stirring. The latter is quintessential Serenity, with an unforgettable melodic hook built into Neuhauser’s soaring, powerful vocals in the chorus. They’re tracks immediately worth seeking out if you were one of the few put off by the album’s singles.
Speaking of which, yeah, you know that I keep banging on about how bands tend to pick the worst tracks to preview an album? I present exhibit number 35,432. And truth be told, I actually think “Set The World On Fire” is a really fun, quality song with an unforgettable hook —- the flashpoint that is setting off alarm bells amongst the power metal community is the sonic production gimmickry that is similar to what Beast In Black is doing. I’ve identified this as being either the vocal effect on Neuhauser’s voice in the vocal only intro, the easy, simplistic musical bed in the verses, or more accurately the moment at the 2:50 mark where Herbie Langhans joins in for a guest vocal spot and is backlit by some seriously glaring modern production gloss that sounds like an electronically generated rhythmic pulse. But all those things together don’t overshadow what I think is a wonderfully vibrant, fully arcing chorus that is right in Neuhauser’s wheelhouse as an expressive vocalist, leaving him lots of room for inflections and emoting. And in rejection of those Beast In Black comparisons, it’s one song people, and I can’t hear any of those same details anywhere else on the record. That being said, if it were simply an album cut instead of the highlighted first single, I think the reception to it would have nowhere near the amount of accusatory venom its been bitten with. A better choice might have been what turned out to be the second single in “Souls and Sins”, a moody, mid-tempo groove based cut that reminds me of the subtle complexity that defined the songs on War of Ages. Here we have an example of Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer being on the same page in terms of how to balance a gritty, grounded heaviness without smothering the power of the vocal melody in carrying the melodic load.
I’m also fond of the Death & Legacy era recalling “Queen of Avalon” with its medieval accents, and the richly beautiful power ballad “My Farewell”, which only gets better the more you listen to its various nuances. The opening “Invictus” is also the kind of Lionheart-esque thing that would have ruined this album were it full of its duplicates, but in an isolated moment, this slice of pomp and glory actually works as an energetic appetizer. Less effective yet still passable is “Keeper Of The Knights”, a song that isn’t short on urgency in its attacking tempo, but seems to lack a quality hook to go along with it. The glaring problem children of the album should be readily apparent to any experienced Serenity fan —- it’s all the tracks where the band is stepping out of the sweet spot that defines their sound, that nexus between a thick, dark sound and bright, soaring melodicism. The aforementioned “My Kingdom Comes” features dreadful screaming vocals, and this isn’t the first time the band has experimented with them, but they really have no place in the band’s palette. There’s also a haphazard approach to the staggering of tempos throughout this song, with no real flow or discernible reason as to why each tempo shift occurs at all. In other words, its a hot mess. Ditto for “Down to Hell”, where we’re treated to an unnecessarily aggro riff for aggro riff’s sake —- which not only isn’t impressive coming from a band that we’re all locked into for the melodies, but doesn’t do much to distract from the absolutely lackluster songwriting displayed here. That may be a harsh reaction to a song that simply isn’t that good, but the sooner Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer realize that they should take every pain to avoid following Kamelot into heavy riff edginess territory, the better off future Serenity albums will be. That being said, this album deserves a serious, focused look from disgruntled Serenity fans who wrote it off because of their initial impressions. It’s all too easy with streaming to just move onto the next thing, but this is a band we’ve loved in the past, and they’re owed the benefit of extra time.
Hope everyone’s settled into the new year as best they can, with resolutions still going strong or at least having forgiven yourself for breaking them already. Its been awhile since the last update here, which was last year’s best of lists that I actually managed to get up relatively early by my standards (early December!). That allowed me a lengthy break through the rest of that month that I basically took off from listening to metal since nothing new was coming out until January. I hoped to publish earlier in the month but there’s been a combination of family medical scares, close relatives passing away in a two week span, and I was stricken with the flu a week and a half ago. So yeah, not the best start to the year all things considered and they’ve contributed to the delay. To help mitigate the stress and flu-ridden stir-craziness however, I’ve slowly gone over a huge list of recommended things I missed last year (thanks in large part to Comical JC’s impressive list that he discussed at length on our recent year end recap episode of the podcast), in addition to new 2020 releases. And I’ll be honest, its been a slow start to the year for new music, my inbox full of meh to dud promos and no releases from major names coming down the pike until late February at the earliest. There have been a few notable things that have caught my ear and I’m covering them below with quick impressions. But before we get to that I want to get some thoughts on the screen about a random mess of things —- you’ll see as we go:
Spotify Has Changed Everything
So as of December 1st I made the move to Spotify Premium, taking advantage of their three month free trial offer, and quietly, without me noticing at first, its become the final nail in the coffin of physical releases, and thus the end of an era for me as a metal fan. I initially signed up for it to quickly assemble a playlist for the road on a recent friend outing to the Texas Renaissance Festival, but as the convenience factor has grown too large to ignore, its unlikely that I’ll be cancelling it before the free trial is up, and it will just become one of those monthly expenses alongside Hulu and Netflix that most of us have already. Ten bucks a month isn’t really that much for access to damn near everything I could need as a music fan. So why was I so late to sign up for Spotify Premium? I don’t have a clear answer for that really, because I have been using the free version of the service a ton on my laptop for easy music listening and research. But removed from the sitting at the desk, laptop open experience, I didn’t really use it that much because the free version limits you to shuffle play and incredibly annoying ads. So in the car, it’d be the old iPod Nano back to work again, plugged in via a cheap 3.5mm cable. Oh don’t get me wrong, I hate iTunes and everything about its ill-programmed, uber clunky interface, especially for podcasts, but its what I had been using for years now, and the iPod is still relatively new-ish and working well.
Many months ago someone clued me in to the existence of bluetooth transmitters, little ingenious devices you plug into the power port where your car cigarette lighter would’ve been in the old days. These things received bluetooth signals, from say a phone or iPod or whatever, and beam them out on a chosen FM frequency to a radius of just a few meters, enough for your car radio to pick up the signal if you tune into that same FM frequency. Gone was the need for the 3.5mm cable, and in this leap in personal technological day to day advancement prompted me to reconsider all my habits. I started ditching iTunes for podcasts, because an app like Google Podcasts is so clean, lightweight, and easy to use that it no longer made sense to have to download a file and “sync” it to a flash media device when I could simply stream things on a recently acquired unlimited data plan (I used to be capped at 2GB high speed that would slow to a stuttering crawl once eclipsed). And then Spotify Premium happened, and I’m able to listen to anything at anytime and have an algorithm throwing new things my way based on my saved artists/albums/songs and recently played items. Its allowed me to get out of that rut where I’d be too lazy to update the iPod and would recycle what I was listening to.
And look, I know what you’re thinking. This stuff shouldn’t be a revelation to most people —- but it is to me, and its put a few things in perspective from a metal fan’s view: For starters, I think my days of buying physical releases might be largely over, and its been trending in that direction for some time, but the ease of music delivery right now puts this in sharper perspective. I don’t own a cd player, I decided against buying the photobook edition of Insomnium’s last record because the cost of it plus shipping was simply too much for what was ostensibly a book. If I have no use for physical media, not even an optical drive to rip the cd onto my hard drive, what point am I proving buying them? What was once a huge hobby of mine that had slowed down significantly in the past couple years really has lost any impetus to start back up again. Accessing music is just too easy, and I feel that I make up for the lack of physical product sales with going to shows and buying merch (there is no digital replacement for a good metal shirt). In the past I’d feel guilty about this but I think I’m over it, I do my best to support bands I like in the ways that still make sense to me (and through this blog), but I just have no use for physical media anymore, particularly when other life expenses keep rising. I’ll still support Bandcamp digital releases, I have quite the collection of albums I’ve purchased through there, but why support a fading, overpriced entity like iTunes downloads? I’m still using my iPod on occasion, focusing on loading it with old favorites and stuff that I’d never want to be without, but I think Spotify will be my main new music player from this point going forward. At some point, technology got too convenient, and I’m waving the white flag today.
The Albums Of The Decade (2010-2019)?
Recently on the r/PowerMetal sub, the community ran a bracket style voting elimination tournament for the power metal album of the decade. It was a loose, let’s see what happens version of their otherwise highly regimented and overseen Yearly Awards, where instead of radio button polls, votes are entered in thread replies and their weight increases with the amount of explanation you offer along with your particular vote. Accordingly, the decade voting being a simple clickable straw poll resulted in some gamesmanship by certain fan communities, and no one was surprised when Gloryhammer fans voted last year’s Legends From Beyond The Terrorvortex as the best album of the 2010s. Now you might know that this album actually made a Gloryhammer fan of me too, but that it beat out Blind Guardian’s truly excellent At The Edge of Time (2010) in the finals was, well, to quote Monty Python…. The whole thing did get me thinking about what my own favorites from the decade were however, despite my promising on the 2019 Rewind MSRcast ep that I wasn’t going to bother with writing one up. And to be clear, I’m not going to do an in-depth feature on the decade, because just the thought of that is exhausting and frankly, I have yearly best of lists dating back to 2011 and those combined should be a fairly good (if not quite accurate) portrait of what I considered worth listening to for this past decade. But I thought it’d be fun to brainstorm a quick, off the top of my head list of the releases that stood out to me the most, and the ones that perhaps stayed with me the longest. So without further ado, here’s a quick chronological by release year list of my top ten —- I dunno, most fondly remembered albums of the decade? Sure, we’ll go with that:
Blind Guardian – At The Edge Of Time // (2010): I consider this to be a modern era classic of power metal, and quite clearly the bard’s finest album since Nightfall. Its a little frustrating that we only got one more proper album in the decade, not counting the orchestral project (and we’re not counting that), but AtEoT never left my iPod, never ceased to have its songs folded into road trip playlists, and “War of the Thrones” never ceased to make me have chills during its crazy choral vocal passages towards the end of the song. I just love this album so much, its in my top five favorites from the bards in general, so that’s enough of a voucher I suppose.
Power Quest – Blood Alliance // (2011): I was a little ambivalent on Chitty Somapala’s voice when I first heard this record, his one and only appearance in PQ’s catalog. It didn’t help that he was replacing one of my favorite power metal vocalists ever in Alessio Garavello, but Chitty soon grew on me because simply put these songs were as undeniable as the classics on the Alessio era albums. Like AtEoT, this album has become a staple in my general life listening habits, and amidst my friends circle, its become a cherished listen, even for the few who don’t particularly enjoy metal, but who can deny the glory that is “Better Days”.
Insomnium – One For Sorrow // (2011): I love this album, not only because it introduced me to Insomnium (yeah I was late on them), but because it really became my go to album for not only wallowing in misery, but when I needed a boost to get myself motivated again. It was a strangely positive album lyrically despite its bleak, melancholic nature, and I love that dichotomy. I played this so much that I’ve had to give it a bit of a break over the past few years, but thankfully Heart Like A Grave is damn near as excellent and fulfilling my broody Insomnium needs.
Nightwish – Imaginaerum // (2011): In what was definitely a stacked year, Imaginaerum probably should’ve been at the top of my 2011 Best Albums list if I could retroactively change it (I won’t). Tuomas was writing with Anette’s voice in mind here, and that went a long way towards maximizing what she could excel at. The sheer variety of songwriting here is astounding, and there was a rich, melancholic darkness to this album that seems to have left the Nightwish world forever as Tuomas further mind merges with Richard Dawkins and mother Gaia.
Triosphere – Heart of the Matter // (2014): This was 2014’s album of the year list topper, and justifiably so. It was such a devastatingly aggressive, precision oriented heavy metal album with note perfect songwriting and Ida Haukland’s rich, powerful vocals that perhaps the band themselves realized they needed some space from it to refuel creatively. To this date the band is still working to produce its follow up, and I can only hope its because Ida is too busy selling fjord side real estate to Oslo families looking for a summer house, rather than a fear of not being able to muster a follow up.
Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R. // (2014): I don’t expect many to understand this pick, but I can’t help it, I listened to this album to death from around 2014-2015, and honestly it still finds its way back into my rotation every now and then when I need a helping of Jeanette Scherff’s sublime, ultra-emotive vocals over Jens Faber’s decadent, dripping with melancholy songwriting. That Scherff and Ida Haukland both sang on incredible albums during this year was a big reason why I began to pivot towards listening for more natural voices in metal, and was less impressed by ethereal vocals for ethereal vocals sake.
Avantasia – Ghostlights // (2016): Song for song perfection, Tobias stumbled onto a mid-career masterpiece with this album and it was no surprise that it took my 2016 pole position for album of the year. He brought in new, unproven guest vocalists like Herbie Langhans, risky gambles like Geoff Tate, and managed to get truly amazing performances out of all of them. The songwriting yielded the strongest and most diverse batch of songs on any of his albums to date. This was just so much fun to listen to, and still is.
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs // (2018): An overwhelming listening experience, and the culmination of Orphaned Land’s gradual finding their way to realizing a true metallic and cultural fusion. They simply leaned harder on the Middle Eastern folk musical influences than ever before, and the result was an angrier, more aggressive, and simultaneously gorgeous distillation of their sound. There’s so much inspired songwriting going on here —- a facet that made this one of the most rewarding albums to listen to in years.
Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath // (2018): This was the album that not only convinced me that we really were in the middle of a power/trad metal renaissance, a second glory era as I deem it, but also the record that prompted me to go back and explore tons of North American metal that I’d ignored or bypassed in the years previously. I spent a lot of time at Ride Into Glory, and when Houston decided to bless me with our own recurring heavy/trad metal festival, Visigoth showed up and played and I had one of the most joyous concert experiences of my life.
Idle Hands – Mana // (2019): The most recent entry in this little list, and I know what you’re thinking —- how can this album be on your decade list it was only number two on the 2019 albums list? I’m projecting a bit, because I love Dialith’s Extinction Six (the list topper) to an unreasonable degree, but Idle Hands is a band that is transcending my own personal musical interest and has impacted friends of mine. It’s going to be one of those records that sticks around that I go back to on random whims like The Cult’s Electric, in other words, an undeniable hard rockin metallic classic.
Recommended January Releases
Temperance – Viridian:
I discussed Temperance around this same time last year, having discovered their truly excellent 2018 album Of Jupiter And Moons a few months too late for inclusion on that year’s best albums list (I have a feeling it would’ve landed on it somewhere), and they were yet another relatively new(ish) band from Italy to come along and impress me with not only their strong songwriting, but their distinctive and unique take on melodic symphonic/power metal that made them stand apart from their fellow countrymen and women. Temperance’s deal is that they come with three perfectly capable lead vocalists, two of whom are dedicated leads (Alessia Scolletti and Visions of Atlantis frontman Michele Guaitoli) but also joined by band founder/guitarist Marco Pastorino who is a superb singer in his own right. Okay enough bio talk, most of you probably have been made aware of them recently, particularly since this album is their first for Napalm Records, and you can see the impact already with YouTube video ads and Spotify playlist placements. I’m happy for the band to get a bigger profile, but I was worried when I first listened to the lead off single “Mission Impossible”, which struck me as Amaranthe more than anything I remembered from Of Jupiter And Moons. And therein lies the danger of these pre-release preview/single tracks, because a handful of folks made up their mind about the direction of the new album based on that track’s electro-pop pulse and near bubblegum vocal melodies.
Rest assured, the majority of Viridian is Temperance doing what they excel at —- exuberant, joyful multi-lead vocals delivering soaring melodies over a symphonic metal concoction that owes more to Avantasia’s wild power metal vocalists playground than Within Temptation or Nightwish. If I were in the band’s management/label corner, I’d have advised them to release “I Am The Fire” as the first single/video. It’s not only my favorite song on the album, it’s also the most evenly representative of what the bulk of the album has to offer, and a spiritual cousin to their 2018 breakout YouTube hit “The Last Hope In A World Of Hopes”. The song they actually delivered a music video for, “My Demons Can’t Sleep” is one of those songs that I was a little meh on at first, finding the title clunky as a chorus lyric, but the sheer catchiness packed into the refrain and verses is infectious. Part of the reason for that is simply the energy that Scolletti, Guaitoli, and Pastorino deliver with their impassioned, conjoined lead vocals. We hear this vividly at work on “Let It Beat”, a song that’s pretty straightforward musically, with riffs and keys just laying down a bed for our three lead vocalists to flex their ability to belt it out with power, precision, and just enough flash on vocal modulations to entangle us emotionally. They shine together on the strings and choir accented power ballad “Scent of Dye”, with Guaitoli in particular sounding spectacular and really owning the song with his vocal performance during the refrain. This is a good record overall, but it’s a little scattered in its ideas, at times too ambitious (the interesting vocal only “Catch A Dream”) and in others a little undercooked (the ballad “Gaia” could’ve used a few rewrites). I’m not too concerned about them missing greatness this go-round however, because they achieved that a little over a year and a half ago, shorter for me considering my being late to the Temperance party. I don’t know if signing to Napalm made them feel hurried to finish Viridian quickly, but they should take their time for their next one, because this is a legitimately fun and exciting band that’s proving they can deliver worthwhile music in every outing.
Magnum – The Serpent Rings:
I think most of us can probably admit that there’s a few classic/legacy bands that we grew up enjoying, whose new albums we approach with the trepidation of a 3 a.m. encounter with a cockroach on your kitchen floor on the way to get a glass of water. So often with many of the bands from my formative years I’ve met their new releases with a continued string of disappointment (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard come to mind), but I keep coming back every time there’s something new in the manic hope that they’ll have found a spark again. In the past decade I’ve been fortunate enough to get some tangible proof that my hope isn’t entirely foolish —- Judas Priest’s Firepower is a clear example, as was the Scorpion’s 2010 album Sting In The Tail. I was first introduced to Magnum when I was just entering my music buying infancy in the mid-90s simply by being enticed by the cover art for a used copy of On a Storyteller’s Night. It wasn’t what I was expecting (the artwork suggested something a little more Maiden or Helloween inspired), but I dug it anyway, their blend of gritty hard rock with a sophisticated, arty songwriting touch. They’ve had a few good moments in the albums that came after, but you’ve got to spend a lot of time digging, and really a truly great album has eluded Magnum OGs Bob Catley and Tony Clarkin since Storyteller’s release way back in 1985. But something unusual has been happening for the duo lately, starting with 2018’s rather strong Lost On The Road To Eternity, an album that saw the band get their mojo back (the return of the classic sword logo seemed to suggest the band felt the same way), pivoting towards their prog-rock side a little more than we’ve seen in the past two decades.
Building on the artistic momentum generated from that album, two years later Magnum are back with The Serpent Rings, which might actually be their finest album since Storyteller’s, and no that’s not an exaggeration. This album is loaded with stellar material, starting with the bombastic, epic opener “Where Are You Eden?”, with it’s Avantasia-ian influenced symphonic strut. Its followed up by a pair of equally invigorating cuts, the groove based “You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets”, and the classic 80s era evoking “Madman or Messiah” where Catley displays a voice that is still capable of skyrocketing heights with a power that seems effortless. A personal fave here is “The Archway of Tears”, a gradual dramatic build towards a joyful chorus that is perfectly crafted. And I can’t neglect to mention the utterly beautiful “The Last One On Earth”, which sports a chorus that sparkles and shimmers with that indescribable magic that only Catley can conjure up. Clarkin’s songwriting on these past two albums seems to be reconnecting with that epic side of the band that they seemed to leave behind when the 90s came around. The absolutely jaw dropping thing about this record is that there are no duds, no clunkers or missteps, and that’s just so encouraging. Clarkin is 73, Catley is 72, and these two have just released one of the best albums of their lengthy career —- and that’s so heartening to me as a fan of heavy music. Not only because it’s given us a modern day Magnum classic, but because it should be a reason for every single veteran band out there to keep making new records, to avoid getting complacent just doing hits tours, or worse still, to think that your fanbase isn’t interested in new music. It’s not guaranteed, but there’s always that chance that like Priest and Magnum, every veteran band out there has another awesome album in them just waiting to spill out.
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga:
Most of you likely know who Brothers of Metal are by now, they’ve made enough of a splash on YouTube and Spotify playlists with the single “Yggdrasil” from their 2017 debut Prophecy of Ragnarök. It was a genuine hit, the kind of song with a hook so indelible that you’ll remember its vocal hook long before you’re able to remember the name of the band. This Swedish eight piece might be new on the international metal landscape, but the ease at which they combine power metal with layers of European/Viking folk melody suggests veteran skill and songwriting prowess (the band has existed since 2012, so they clearly took the time to refine what they wanted to do long before their debut). There’s three guitarists here, and they do a fine job of balancing heaviness with crisp, clear melody, but the stars are co-lead vocalists Ylva Eriksson and Joakim Lindbäck Eriksson (the power metal internet is split on whether or not they’re siblings). Ylva’s powerful, richly melodic voice is the huge draw here for vocalist aficionados like myself, she has a depth and gravity to her singing that I appreciate as a perfect foil to Joakim’s more rough hewn, warrior-throated approach. Joakim actually reminds me of Mathias Nygård from Turisas, not only in tone but his swagger laden approach, and if anything, this band should be a sweet relief to any Turisas fans lamenting how long that band’s new album is taking. Underscoring everything at play here is that Brothers of Metal are fun —- this is Viking metal that takes itself seriously (despite the “The Mead Song” on the debut) filtered through a band that quite clearly is having fun with the approach (check out the face pulling in their music videos for proof).
Does that fun factor mean I’m grading Brothers of Metal differently than I would a more serious folk metal entity like Eluveitie —- in a way, yes. And Emblas Saga is a terrifically fun record, with bangers like “Power Snake” with its borderline silly chorus that would be positively Whitesnake-ian were it not for clearly being a tale of Loki’s child Jörmungandr and his world encircling size. The mid-tempo pounder “Njord” is another ridiculous but enthralling cut, complete with Viking chants during the refrain that never threaten to descend into camp territory. And Ylva is the perfect antidote to when things seem to be heading into shtick territory, her solo vocal intro on the title track is haunting, serene, and I kind of wish they’d lean harder in that direction more often. She provides a nice balancing effect on “One”, contrasting sharply with Joakim’s gravel voice on a chorus that is almost but not quite the equal to “Yggdrasil”. In truth there’s nothing on the album that quite hits the same heights that song achieved in terms of being a clear cut hit, but I do think that “Kaunaz Dagaz” is the best song the band has penned to date. From its sweetly beautiful forest folk intro to what is Ylva’s tour-de-force vocal performance throughout, its the song that perhaps most clearly demonstrates everything this band does well, and also is a brief glimpse at just how potentially high their creative ceiling could grow. I’ve enjoyed listening to this album just for the sheer need for something uber catchy, viscerally satisfying, and melodically varied. The Viking stuff is fine, whatever gets the hooks going, keep it coming.
There have been previous years here at The Metal Pigeon where the year end list was an agonizing, much deliberated upon process, but none like this year. Simply put, the sheer quality of some of these 2019 releases made trying to decide which of them I loved the most extremely difficult. This best albums list was slowly under construction as the year went along, with new contenders for the top spot seemingly popping up every month or so. I guess what really surprised me about the final result was in seeing just who wasn’t there, especially in a year where veteran bands were putting out notable new records. If there’s a theme to 2019, it’s the year of the upstart, the newcomers and relatively unknown bands that wound up making the biggest impact on me. Not only is that something to cherish because of what it says about the health of the metal scene overall, but for me personally it makes writing The Metal Pigeon and co-hosting the MSRcast podcast more gratifying, and just makes being a metal fan more fun too. Thanks to everyone for sticking around to read my words for another year!
1. Dialith – Extinction Six:
The subgenre with the most difficult learning curve and the easiest potential for a band to derail entirely is that of symphonic metal —- in which even its pioneering architects in Therion and Nightwish occasionally misstep or just flat out faceplant themselves in the dirt. Arguably, artistically successful symphonic metal requires gifted musicians, talented and often trained vocalists, and a songwriter that can weave together these disparate elements into something grand, epic, and powerful. It’s such a problematic subgenre that over the years it had gotten stale primarily because most of its artists followed a proven template time and time again. As a result listeners began to feel as though most bands were indistinguishable from one another, that they had heard the same record over and over, and the idea of classic symphonic metal (that is, the stuff not blended with extreme elements ala Fleshgod Apocalypse) began to be the object of scorn and ridicule. Its somewhat ironic then that the band that might be the turnaround for the entire subgenre is an unsigned band on their self-released debut album, who hail not from Europe or Scandinavia, but from Danbury, Connecticut. With Extinction Six, Dialith reintroduced actual metal to the idea of symphonic metal, creating a sound that is at once as shimmeringly ethereal as their obvious influences, but also grounded and gritty, at times full of seething aggression.
They accomplish this by incorporating a love of aggressive melodic death metal throughout their songwriting, thrashy and dense in the guitars, with a punishing rhythm section holding things together. Eschewing the standard rhythmic chug heard in most symphonic metal bands, guitarist Alasdair Mackie unleashes a barrage of crunchy, tightly packed, galloping melodic riffs that constantly shapeshift, slow down, speed up, and veer hard into wild power metallish passages. Directly propelling this attack is drummer extraordinaire and dark horse mvp candidate of the album Cullen Mitchell, whose incredibly creative patterns and fills bring a bracing urgency to these songs. Vocalist Krista Sion turns in the most compelling vocal performance in a symphonic metal record in the past decade, at once haunting and yet earthy, capable of sounding serene, or detached, and even angry from moment to moment. I simply could not stop listening to this record once I was introduced to it, and despite its August release date, it is my most played album of the year. I would listen to it at home, when driving to work, and when wearing headphones at the grocery store, blankly staring at bags of frozen veggies while I wondered how it took until 2019 for anyone to realize that the secret to revitalizing symphonic metal is to worry less about the symphonic bit, and just get more metal with it. That Dialith stumbled upon this truth on their first full length defies logic —- but that its an American band that’s bringing new life to a European born subgenre long declared dead is something I’m thrilled about. If you haven’t figured out by now that the most exciting new metal bands are spilling out of the USA and Canada this last half decade, consider Dialith’s Extinction Six another gloriously loud wake up call.
This is likely going to be one of those rare times when something on my year end list matches a lot of other publications, probably some high profile ones too. And when it comes to Idle Hand’s gnawingly irresistible debut Mana, that’s the way it should be, because this record is undeniable. You might recall that I was a bit conflicted on this album way back in the summer, even mentioning on an episode of the MSRcast that I found vocalist Gabriel Franco’s grunts and wolfman exultations a little trying. But his songwriting was just so compelling, and cuts like “Give Me To The Night”, “Jackie”, and the glorious “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” were too addictive to cast aside over a minor gripe. Funnily enough however, I began to learn to love those strange vocal outbursts, now to a point where I can’t imagine the songs without them and you damn well better believe that when I catch the band live in March I’ll be matching Franco grunt for grunt. Idle Hands’ sound is a blend, a Tribulation-esque metallic crunch to the riffs, with the hard rock strut and mystical swagger of The Cult, and the detached gothic sensibility to Franco’s stoic vocal tone that brings to mind Sisters Of Mercy or The Mission. But Mana is more than just the sum of its influences, as Franco’s songwriting style is imbued with a distinctive character, and guitarist Sebastian Silva turns in one of the finest performances of anyone on any album all year. Oh and the other thing that honestly counts for a lot these days —- that when I needed to hear something fun, to perk me up, to lift my mood, Idle Hands’ Mana wasn’t far from my mind or my speakers.
Representing a new spoke on the pinwheel of diversity that is French metal, Aephanemer broke this year in a big way with their sophomore album Prokopton. Unlike the black metal infused artistry of Blut Aus Nord and Alcest, or the raw, vicious speed/power blend of last year’s best albums list maker Elvenstorm, this four piece from Toulouse weave together Gothenburg-ian melodic death metal with classical inspired melodies (and apparently traditional Slavic music too, I’ll take their word for it). Lead guitarist and principal songwriter Martin Hamiche is a veritable fountain of non-stop melodies, most of which sound like they should be played on a violin or cello. Alongside rhythm guitarist/vocalist Marion Bascoul, they weave together the most frenetic yet beautiful guitar wizardry set to urgent, insistent tempos. And they simply don’t stop —- the melodies weave one idea into another without skipping a beat, and segues into ultra-aggressive headbanging riffs come without warning and with maximum impact. Bascoul’s rhythm guitars are fierce and just crunchy enough to stand apart from Hamiche’s decadent, flourish laden performances. But its her vocals that are perhaps her most valuable asset, brutal and snarling, shaded with a little black metal grimness, and crisply enunciated. The relentless pace of this album is hyper-aggressive, a breathless flurry of consistently up-up-up-tempo dizziness (ever have those dreams where you’re driving uncontrollably fast and fly off a highway overpass, tracks like “Bloodline” should be their soundtrack). I was stunned outright when I first heard Prokopton all those months ago, and still feel the same way listening to it now —- this was not only a bold re-imagining of what melodic death metal could be, but perhaps the most high-energy album to ever grace a Metal Pigeon year end list.
4. Thormesis – The Sixth:
Though they’ve been around for a decade plus, Germany’s Thormesis kinda languished in the dark for their first five albums (that they were sung in their native language probably didn’t help much). Cue The Sixth, where the band scaled back their pagan folk roots, incorporated more post-metal influences (particularly with moodier passages built on vividly ambient clean guitar figures), but most importantly, they brought some old school rock/metal sensibility to the affair. Tremolo guitars rarely dominate for long on these songs, often veering into (no other way to describe it other than…) rockin’ passages where you’re locked in with meaty, hooky riff progressions. The lead guitar flying over the top throughout is loose and wild with a hard rock sensibility, often going for maximum dramatic impact with inspired melodic motifs. And melody is where Thormesis reign supreme, because the fundamental appeal of this album is their ability to tightly control and deploy blasts of blistering, furious black metal within highly melodic, very accessible songwriting structures. The result was an album of songs that didn’t feel oppressive, didn’t require a certain kind of mood or external ambiance in order to really “get into it”. On the contrary, the band would often paint complex musical moments where you’d detect shades of melancholy and optimism simultaneously, such as in the ending sequence of “Their Morbid Drunken Ways”. Which meant that I listened to this album when I was in need of something angry, but also played it when I was perfectly calm and it was bright and sunny out. For someone like me who is finicky about stuff like being in the right mood to fully appreciate this or that album —- The Sixth was an anomaly, a kind of meditative space where I could be encompassed by its strange mix of disparate musical elements and figure myself out.
5. Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light:
This was not an easy album to listen to, even though I feel its Swallow The Sun’s strongest work to date in a career full of excellent moments. Enough has been written and spoken both on this blog and random episodes of MSRcast about the backstory behind this album, perhaps too much, but its not like you can ignore it particularly when these songs are the channeling of grief by the band’s chief songwriter. Its a sad, somber record that can weigh on you if you’re susceptible enough, and there were times when I simply didn’t want to listen to something this damned heavy… as in burden of grief heavy. In April I saw the band perform live on their tour with Children of Bodom, their first American trek with Juha Raivio in tow in years. He’d understandably skipped the past few tours, but there he was directly in front of me, playing some of these songs that he’d written to process whatever turmoil it was he was going through, and it was surreal to watch someone exorcising that in front of you. Getting to see that in person made me realize just how much of a triumph When A Shadow…actually is, because rather than rely on the old school Swallow The Sun formula, Raivio borrowed from the gothic splendor of the Trees of Eternity record to rejuvenate the band’s sound. This yielded aching melancholy through bittersweet melodies, a lushness through layered vocals from excellent performances by Mikko Kotamäki and keyboardist Jaani Peuhu, and allowed Raivio to incorporate empty space as a texture more than ever before. The overall effect was meditative, with songs that moved at a stately, often wandering pace, all working to support the evocative lyrical imagery of fire and shadow, of solitary temples, and expansive lakes under starlit skies. An uncomfortable listen at times, but one of the most compelling that I’ve ever experienced as a metal fan, full stop.
In any other year, Insomnium’s emotionally wrought Heart Like A Grave could have been at the top of this list, and it’s a testament to the aforementioned abundance of awesome releases that there are five others ahead of it here. Some may feel that the restrained, more subdued nature of some of these songs arriving in the wake of the brutal, blistering, black metal injected Winter’s Gate was too much of a deviation for their liking, but that’s precisely why I feel so strongly about it as a fan. The band ran out of some of their creative magic on Shadows Of A Dying Sun in 2014, and the step towards a more extreme direction on Winter’sGate helped them grab some distance from their “classic” sound. Returning to it now, the band displayed some renewed vigor, helped along by fresh songwriting inspiration by dipping deeper than ever before into the well of Finnish melodic melancholy by the way of Sentenced and Amorphis. The result was an album expressly written with an ear towards guitar and vocal melodies, with purely rhythmic riffs being secondary in the equation, at times even kept to a supporting role as on “Pale Morning Star”. On songs like “Valediction” and “Heart Like A Grave”, the band broaden the role of clean vocal melodies like never before, with Ville Friman and newcomer guitarist Jani Liimatainen carrying entire passages with their voices. Lyrically, a bleak, despairing streak coursed through these songs that was particularly downcast even for Insomnium. There were streaks of optimism firing through albums like One For Sorrow and Shadows, but not here, with themes of hopelessness and inner despair set against the backdrop of a fraying outside world. That they set these dark themes against some of the most achingly poignant melodies in a way that makes them heartbreakingly bittersweet is central to Insomnium’s brilliance and the emotional reach of Finnish melo-death.
7. Månegarm – Fornaldarsagor:
Earlier in the year, Swedish folk veterans Månegarm released their strongest record in a decade with Fornaldarsagor, one that is also arguably the most satisfyingly fun of their entire two decades long catalog. Still incorporating the broiling black metal foundation that’s been the broth to their particular recipe of folk metal phở, the Swedes stumbled upon a batch of incredibly hooky material for this record, helped along by leaning hard on the warm folky elements that we’ve gotten on albums past in fits and starts. Here they blanket the proceedings almost entirely, and as a result the album is a lot more mid-tempoed than you’d expect from a band built on black metal foundations. That’s not a bad thing though, because these are melodies that are incredibly endearing, not quite sugary, but possessed with enough sweetness to be a bright, uplifting counterpoint to all the aggression. Adrenaline ratcheting cuts like “Sveablotet” and “Hervors arv” were set to racing tempos, ringing tremolo guitars as well as a dense, melo-death riff battery that anchored everything with a powerful rhythm presence. But they were both spliced open with explosions of folk melody, yielding to its tempo needs and abrupt transitions. On the album highlight “Ett sista farval”, they were aided by gorgeous lead vocals from Ellinor Videfors in a duet with longtime Manegarm vocalist Erik Grawsiö —- their combined clean vocal combo resulting in one of the most poignant folk metal tracks that I can remember in years. Though the folk metal revitalization is taking a slower, more steady path than power metal’s recent resurgence, it’s comforting to see old hands like Vintersorg, and now Manegarm come up big as of late with stellar new albums. The genre was in need of a refocusing on its roots before it was handed off to younger, newer bands —- thankfully, Manegarm are doing their part.
8. Sabaton – The Great War (The History Edition):
Sabaton have had records on my year end lists before, so this shouldn’t be a surprise —- however they’ve not been on all of them. Only Carolus Rex and Heroes have made it on, with The Last Stand never even making my final nominees list. I say that to emphasize that even though I do love this band, I’m not blind to their faults and tendencies, and that being said, there’s plenty of reasons why Sabaton made the cut this time as well with an album that is arguably their strongest since the aforementioned Carolus Rex. You might have noticed above that I specified the History Edition of The Great War, and while I don’t believe that merely the presence of the historical narrations via a talented British (?) voice actor made all the difference between this album appearing on this list or not, I do believe that it is the definitive version of the album that all Sabaton fans owe it to themselves to check out. But indeed, The Great War is here because of its songs, with cuts like “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”, “The Red Baron” and “Great War” among the band’s very best compositions. The band took their time with this record, with the gap between this and 2016’s problematic The Last Stand being the longest in between releases they’d ever taken. That extra year allowed for time to focus on working on the ambitious World War I theme running throughout this album. And there’s something to be said about Sab using a darker, more somber theme for a change to their songwriting advantage. It forced them to write material that wasn’t all major chords and skyrocketing choruses, but to get heavy, to lean hard on the riffing and pyrotechnics combo of Chris Rorland and Tommy Johansson to get down in the mud and muck. Joakim Broden is of course ageless and still one of the most compelling songwriters in metal, turning in lyrics and performances here that bring these stories to life and make audiences care about them. This was the rebound they needed after The Last Stand saw them dangerously treading water, and I can’t begin to fathom how they’re gonna try to top it.
Hot on the heels of their impressive debut album last year(!), Italy’s newest power metal phenoms Frozen Crown decided to waste no time and in lieu of extensive touring, worked on crafting a follow-up that would capitalize on the momentum they had built up. Its a smart strategy, and when you have a songwriter with the hook crafting talent of Federico Mondelli, you’re better off unleashing new songs to build up a catalog and get word of mouth by winding up on lists like this one rather than coughing up thousands in rental and fuel costs on the road. Undoubtedly, Frozen Crown will have some pretty sweet tour offers down the road, but for now its enough that they’re focused on their art, because Crowned In Frost makes the case for being the most fun power metal album of the year. Mondelli infuses crackling energy into songs like “Neverending”, “In The Dark”, and “Winterfall” by augmenting soaring power metal melodies with aggressive, melodeath riffing. He’s backed up in this by the dizzying battery of drummer Alberto Mezzanotte, who delivers wildly engaging, creative patterns, never resorting to power metal drumming 101 (check out his absolutely bananas work on “Winterfall” in particular). But it’d all be for naught if they didn’t have a vocalist who didn’t live up to all that excellent musicianship, and Giada Etro in a mere two year span has made a case to be considered one of the best in the genre. Simply put, she’s capable of soaring heights, has a rich, powerful timbre to her voice, and her choices in regards to phrasing, diction, and emphasis are downright impeccable. Mondelli’s melo-death inspired screaming vocals are a welcome addition to the Frozen Crown mix too, giving the band the ability to pull sudden turns off the trad/power route into extreme territory to ratchet up the energy or darken the mood. But what I love the most about this record is that it demonstrates that Mondelli and company seem to understand what fundamentally makes excellent power metal so vital —- that it delivers a sense of grand adventure, of spirit raising triumph, and defiance against the odds. Along with a score of other new bands arriving on the scene, Frozen Crown make me feel really confident about the health and future of the genre going forward.
Spain’s Helevorn may not have the big name pedigree of other death-doom metallers like Swallow The Sun, Paradise Lost, or My Dying Bride, but they deserve to be highlighted alongside those titans based on the quality of an album like Aamamata. And for sure those aforementioned bands’ collective influence can be heard through the bleak brutality present here, but what sets Helevorn apart is their unabashed embrace of gothic metal palettes and textures, particularly in the vocal department. On “A Sail To Sanity”, vocalist Josep Brunet balances his throat ripping gutturality with emotive, deep, and dare I say smooth clean vocals that sometimes affect a slight goth rock stoicism. I know that Helevorn’s geographic proximity to Spain might have influenced my thinking that there’s a heavy Moonspell influence at work here, but swear its audibly palpable on the trance inducing guitar motif being used in that song, and it pops up in other places throughout the album. Said influence is clearly running through an adventurous, genre defying cut like “Nostrum Mare”, a dreamy but desolate ballad with cinematic symphonic keyboards, a guest performance by an unknown vocalist singing in Catalan, and a gorgeous, haunting outro guitar solo. That blend of diverse elements sounds like its a bit much but Helevorn have the compositional chops to arrange everything into powerful, drama building passages. Draconian’s own Heike Langhans drops in for a suitably doom meets goth metal guest vocal moment on “The Path To Puya”, adding a bit of stargazing cosmic grandeur to a bleak, and morose sounding track about the trek to the afterlife. This album sailed under the radar for loads of people, and its early January release date will probably keep it off most folks radars when considering the best records of the year. That’s a shame because excellent work should be given its due, regardless of how relatively low a band’s profile is, and hopefully Helevorn’s placement here can be the start of that.
It’s been an incredible year for new music, one of the best that I can remember, and I’m wrapping it up with part one of the double Best of 2019 feature. I’ve done a best songs list since 2012, and I think in the end of the year flurry around albums, its excellent songs that often tend to get lost in the shuffle. As expected, there will be some crossover here with the upcoming albums list, but I love giving isolated gems from problematic albums some attention on here. For the metrics, I did consider my iTunes play counts (yes I’m still using an iPod Nano), but as Spotify has increasingly taken over as a source for music, those stats are becoming less relevant. So I had to really check myself to be as honest as possible, even if it makes a few readers shake their heads in bewilderment as I’m sure some of the stuff below will. Be sure to check out our upcoming MSRcast episodes for discussion on late 2019 releases, as well as our gigantic year end blowout episodes where we’ll likely be talking about a ton of stuff not covered here.
1. Avantasia – “Ghost In The Moon” (from the album Moonglow)
The opening track from Avantasia’s flawed but fun Moonglow, “Ghost In The Moon” contained a shimmering, shooting star chorus that was launched on the back of a gorgeous, rolling piano melody. It was a strange track coming from Sammet, with a rounded, soft approach to the songwriting that owed more to classic rock n’ roll than the sharp edges and angles of metal. It was the first time he simultaneously wore the Jim Steinman influence on his sleeve and yet transcended it at the same time. At just under ten minutes in length, it was an ambitious album opener too —- and I’ve heard so many bands try the epic as the opener gambit that have fallen flat on their faces and irreparably damaged an album’s pacing and momentum. Sammet must’ve felt confident that he had a gem on his hands then, and in another sign of confidence, took on this song solo on an album full of guest vocalists on all the other songs. The fantastic gospel choir backing vocalists singing half a beat behind him provided that soaring, spiritual uplift that lodged this song in comfort listening territory all through the year.
2. Sabaton – “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom” (from the album The Great War)
Built on insistent riff progressions and an inspired vocal melody from Joakim Broden, Sabaton found magic on the stirringly heroic “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”, a song about the exploits of the legendary T.E. Lawrence. There’s a riding on horseback through the desert rhythmic gallop at work here, and a swashbuckling swing to the chorus, suggestive of the derring-do ascribed to Lawrence himself in the lyrics. Largely devoid of keyboards, it was also refreshingly aggressive for Sabaton, built on the mechanized rhythm guitar of Chris Rörland and wild, flashy fireworks of Tommy Johansson. It was the clear highlight off The Great War, and should go down as an all-time classic for the band, and to my ears its their best song to date.
3. Idle Hands – “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” (from the album Mana)
Truth be told, there were a few songs off Idle Hands incredible debut album that could’ve wound up on this list, in fact I had “Give Me To The Night” and “Jackie” shortlisted for it, but I think it was going to be inconceivable to not include the strange, slightly mystical “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?”. Built on a Queensryche-ian bassline and guitarist Sebastian Silva’s chiming chord strums, this is a moody ballad that’s too dark and metaphorical to call a power ballad. Singer Gabriel Franco narrates us through his weird fantastical dream world with his emotional yet plaintive sounding vocals, sounding detached and possessed of a raw urgency at once. In the song’s apex, Franco counts down from eight to usher in Silva’s incredible, Latin-rock tinged solo, a transcendent moment that is as thrilling as it is weird.
4. Ancient Bards – “Light” (from the album Origine – The Black Crystal Sword Saga Part 2)
Ancient Bards are no strangers to ballads, but when they released “Light” just ahead of their fourth album Origine, they raised a few eyebrows. It was a lush piano and vocals centric affair that was dewy-eyed and heart on sleeve, something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Frozen 2 soundtrack. Its glossy, 4kHD music video juxtaposed interpretive dance intercut with singer Sara Squadrani dressed to the nines while singing on the shore of the Adriatic Sea at sunrise. This somehow landed on a conceptual fantasy story driven album? How did that even make sense? It didn’t, but Ancient Bards did it anyway because they had the wisdom to realize that a great song shouldn’t be ignored or stuffed into the vault just because its screamingly different or gasp, even non-metal to its very essence. There are guitars towards the end, including a sugary sweet solo, but by then you’re already miming along to Squadrani doing your best Celine Dion impression. Get. Into. It.
5. Swallow The Sun – “Here On The Black Earth” (from the album When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light)
The gut wrenching, agonizingly sad emotional center of one of the bleakest albums of this decade, nevermind the year, “Here On The Black Earth” is not an easy listen. It is however, a rewarding one musically speaking, its gripping musical refrain and lyrical motif colliding in a chorus that sends shivers down your arm. The lyrics here are elegiac, woven with imagery of the natural world and flesh and bone. Of course if you’re aware of the backstory behind this record, you’ll know that Juha Raivio was writing from a deeply personal perspective, yet he was also self-aware enough to keep things ultimately vague, providing space for this song to attach itself to anyone’s grief or sadness. The vocal performance by Mikko Kotamäki is fierce and empathetic, he really sinks into the brutal nature of the lyrics on his harsh vocal explosions, while allowing his clean vocals to sound slightly detached and deadened. That’s a tough ask of any singer but you get the feeling that he just knew what to do, and up and did it.
6. Frozen Crown – “In The Dark” (from the album Crowned In Frost)
Embodying the very essence of what we love the most about power metal, Italy’s Frozen Crown delivered a gem with “In The Dark”. It’s a tightly written gem burning with an empowering and defiant spirit, with a perfectly sculpted, fully arcing chorus. Vocalist Giada Etro is a dynamic singer, maintaining crispness and intensity through nuanced verses, with effortless transitions to a soaring belt during the refrain. Alongside songwriter/guitarist/co-vocalist Federico Mondelli, the pair are integral to what has become the most exciting new power metal debut on the European mainland in recent years. There’s a youthful vigor to the sound here that is exciting to behold, the kind of thing we heard on Edguy and Sonata Arctica records back in the late 90s. And alongside their compatriots in Temperance and Ancient Bards, they’re redefining what Italian power metal can sound like, and that’s something I’d never have imagined possible a few years ago.
7. Avatarium – “The Fire I Long For” (from the album The Fire I Long For)
Sneakily released in late November (Nuclear Blast should know better), this one almost eluded me, but thankfully I caught it in time to consider just how much Avatarium have transitioned away from their 70’s occult rock/doom hybrid into a band that embraces a wider artistic palette. Whether the stepping away of Candlemass founder Leif Edling has been the impetus of change or it was merely a natural artistic progression, there’s a wider range of influences at work throughout their new album. Here on the gorgeous, smoldering title track, vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith channels darker, alt-country chanteuses such as Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, and fellow Swede Nina Persson. This is a hypnotic song, lush and full of depth and artistry, both in Smith’s expressive vocals but also in guitarist Marcus Jidell’s inspired, loose, dark-countrified licks. Don’t skip this tune.
8. Dialith – “The Sound Of Your Voice” (from the album Extinction Six)
The lead off track from one of the year’s most visceral and exciting releases, “The Sound Of Your Voice” is the likely introduction for many to Connecticut(!) symphonic metallers Dialith, having been a full-length YouTube ad that a lot of folks may have stumbled upon whilst watching other videos. It’s a remarkable song on its own, not least for its perfect encapsulation of Dialith’s many interlocking musical elements, but for its euphoric, triumphant spirit streaking through it, particularly in the latter half of the song. Through a combination of crunchy and dense melodeath riffing, restrained keyboard symphonics, and the serene yet strong vocals of Krista Sion, Dialith have single-handedly brought a fresh perspective to what symphonic metal could and should sound like. And just to put into perspective how utterly spectacular Extinction Six is as an album, I also had “Break The Chains” and “In Every Breath” as nominees for this list as well. As you might predict, this isn’t the last time I’ll be writing about Dialith this year…
9. Everfrost – “Winterider” (from the album Winterider)
Everfrost was one of those unexpected, out of nowhere surprises this year, and they arrived like a good priest with the timely heals in your mmorpg party (in the game of your choice of course —- shout out to any old Shadowbane players!), swooping in to comfort us in the wake of Sonata Arctica’s disastrous new album with a blast of sugary, wintry old school Finnish power metal. It’s hard to imagine a more timely release. But founding member/keyboardist Benjamin Connelly gets credit for being more than just the sum of his influences, being a sharp songwriter capable of crafting razor sharp hooks in songs imbued with a sense of freshness and fun. Case in point is the title track “Winterider”, which features one of the most satisfying opening keyboard/guitar riffs in power metal history, and packs as much energy as possible in its tight, compact synth melodies and urgent guitars. The band’s anime/manga aesthetic clearly leaves more than just a visual imprint on the band, with the frenetic, insistent pacing of this song reminding me of equal parts Galneryus and J Rock as it does the ultra-fast cutting and editing of the most hyperbolic animes. The glorious finale from the 3:26 moment onwards is what got this track on this list, bringing an adrenaline rush so addictive that I needed a daily fix.
10. Gloryhammer – “Gloryhammer” (from the albumLegends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex )
It would be downright disingenuous to leave this track off the best songs list, considering how much I listened to it throughout the year, surprising not only myself but those around me who’d heard me grumble about bands like Gloryhammer in the past. Well opinions can change over time and shout out to the crew in the r/PowerMetal community for yet another thing they’ve managed to foist upon my playlists, because it was their enthusiasm for Gloryhammer that caused me to consider their new album this year with fresh ears and an open mind. It was the eponymous single “Gloryhammer” that was the clear cut apex of an already excellent album, with a hook built on a classic power metal mid-tempo strut and a high arcing vocal melody. The secret to pulling off such ridiculous lyrics lies in vocalist Thomas Winkler’s commanding performance —- his voice is rich with character, affecting the heroic pomp of the character he’s playing without resorting to pure theatrics. Hear the way he shout-sings “…since 1992!”, a minor detail but something that makes me crack a smile every time I hear it. Credit to bandleader/songwriter Christopher Bowes, who quite simply HAD to deliver the band’s most catchy, anthemic, and yes powerful song if he insisted on it being about the band’s namesake weapon. By gods he did it.
Here we are, on the doorstep of Thanksgiving and at the natural end of the 2019 metal release calendar. If you’re releasing your album in December, fire your label because most of us are on the verge of publishing our best of lists for the year and drinking as much Bailey’s as possible. These are my final reviews for the year, for releases that arrived in the autumn months of September through November, and crammed together at that. I know for sure that I’m missing some notable names here, and I simply ran out of time, like actual tangible time to listen to so many records while also giving a massive amount of attention to headline grabbing artists like Blind Guardian and Insomnium (oh and also, you know, real life stuff like work, studying, sleeping, and whatnot). In keeping with the way I’ve handled these bundled up reviews dumps throughout this year, these are smaller reviews, meant for a quicker read than your typical Metal Pigeon deep dive. And while I’m going to write more about this in the upcoming best of features, its worth emphasizing here just how much truly spectacular music we’ve had to come to grips with this year. These past three months have certainly lived up to their predecessors in terms of bringing quality and quantity. And while this blog is calling time on 2019 with this final new music update, on the upcoming MSRcasts we’ll be discussing at length a ton of stuff that I haven’t covered here, particularly albums that we’ve missed from earlier in the year that we’re only now getting around to.
Dawn Of Destiny – The Beast Inside:
It kinda stunned me that its been four years since Dawn of Destiny’s last record, 2015’s eminently listenable To Hell. This four year gap between that record and their newest, The Beast Inside, represents the longest time they’ve gone in between releasing albums (even lapping the three gap between 2009-12 caused by the departure of original vocalist Tanja Maul). I didn’t notice the absence largely in part to just how much new music I have spilling into my lap at any given month in any given year, with seemingly no let up —- a luxury of a problem for sure, but it does tend to cause the kind of inattentiveness to a band’s activities that me fifteen years ago would’ve scoffed at. Five years ago, I placed the band’s 2014 record F.E.A.R. at the number three spot on that year’s best albums list, and its been one of those albums that I’ve revisited so much since then that I can’t help but feel it’s in the conversation for one of my favorite albums of this past decade. That F.E.A.R. and To Hell were merely a year apart hearkened back to the band’s first three albums, also released in rapid succession one year after another —- this was clearly a band that was loaded with creativity, weren’t encumbered by a lengthy touring schedule, and were prepossessed with a desire to release as many albums as possible, and in doing so establish an artistic legacy despite their low profile on the international metal scene. I spell all this out because I’m wondering if that kind of rapid fire release schedule was the secret motor to the band’s artistic success in some forward momentum sustaining kind of way. Because for its strengths, The Beast Inside is a bit of a let down in comparison to its two immediate predecessors. Maybe taking too much time in between releases is the band’s kryptonite.
Given bassist/co-vocalist Jens Faber’s pedigree as a songwriter however, we’re guaranteed a handful of strong moments on this album. First among these is the album opener “The Beast Inside A Beauty”, a constantly shifting, redirecting slice of gothic tinged melodrama built on throbbing basslines, DoD’s always surprisingly crunchy riffs and a powerful vocal performance by Jeanette Scherff. Her staccato delivery, seemingly effortless, deft, and incredibly rich in tone is one of the most addictive aspects to the band’s sound, and she elevates a song like “It’s My Fate”, which is a bit of a left turn from DoD’s gothic power metal pomp with its strange pacing and instrumentation. But surprisingly, the two best songs on the album see Scherff sharing co-lead vocal duties with Faber in dramatic, enchanting duets: “Fight Your Inner Demons” is the kind of dark, moody theatrical power balladry that would’ve felt at home on F.E.A.R.; and “Peace Of Mind” is a branching out into experimental territory that actually works rather well. Faber takes the lead vocal and has improved as a singer, reminding me here of a smoother Alice Cooper on the verses while soaring alongside Scherff in the spectacularly epic chorus. It’s the killer cut on an album otherwise bogged down by a lot of songs that leave me simply wanting to return to their older albums for my fix of high melodrama. There’s nothing here I can point to as glaringly offensive, but I can’t help but wonder if its rust that’s preventing some of these songs from shining the way I’ve grown used to DoD appearing. I’m hoping that the band will be back with something new in their customary quick turnaround fashion and I’ll be heaping praises on them once again.
Kobra And The Lotus – Evolution:
The usage of the term evolution to describe any band’s changing sound from an album to album is one of the more overused in the vocabulary at this point. I think its been invoked so often that we’ve all lost sight of what its meaning is actually supposed to apply to —- gradual change over a lengthy period of time. When you do an about face in your musical approach from fairly serious in tone progressive hard rock/metal to the radio rock driven approach that Kobra and the Lotus have employed on their newest album, you don’t get to simply call it Evolution and not have someone call bs on it. You changed, you made a decision to change, not evolve. This was a late September release, and I heard it for the first time back then on release day, and was so baffled at what I heard that I immediately shelved it and vowed to come back at another time when I was less busy and more mentally prepared to process just what the hell this band had done to their sound. If you’ll recall, I came on board with Prevail I/II, the latter of which found itself popping up on my best songs of 2018 list with the incredible “Let Me Love You”. The refined melodicism of that pair of albums was an exciting place for this band, a merging of old influences and modern production flourishes and metallic crunch, kinda their sweet spot. It was helmed by producer wunderkind Jacob Hansen, who has proved himself to be quite skilled at merging the sometimes disparate worlds of gritty heaviness and refined melodicism into something excitingly whole. Weirdly premonitory, on the topic of the band’s future I spelled out the following —- “…the question is whether that central guitar riff will be too heavy for programmers and leave this song in too commercial for metal / too metal for radio purgatory.” I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one asking that question, whether it was the band themselves or their management, or the terribad advice of industry folks, radio programmers, booking agents and the like.
Whomever is to blame for the nudge, its the band themselves that acted on the advice and cooked up really meaningless pap like “Get the Fuck Out of Here”, which sounds far worse than its title would suggest. And I’ve never been a fan of dropping profanity in lyrics, not because I’m some puritanical church boy who’s easily offended, but because I think its lowest common denominator language that really has no place in a recorded artform where an artist has time to think about what they’re trying to say. I do think there are exceptions to this rule, but they’re few and far between and not reliant on genre either, because I think profanity in hip-hop also works to the same detrimental effect —- can you express an idea in a more intelligent manner? I’m fine with someone using it in everyday speech, in that off handed way that we all engage in here and there, but what am I getting out of it in a song? Onto a less juvenile but no less schlocky cut like “Burn!”, which is the album’s first single and thus a good indicator of the thought process for this album as a whole —- we get a generic riff progression, sterile production with none of the rough edge we were treated to on Prevail, and an electronica wash used by Amaranthe and more nauseatingly, modern In Flames. Production here was handled by the radio rock inclined Michael Baskette, who’s associated with Alter Bridge and Linkin Park, so smooth and polished is the blueprint. There’s a lone call back to the band’s previously gritter approach, the ballad “Wash Away”, and its worth adding to a playlist with the Prevail and High Priestess songs. As for the rest of this… what a disappointment. I noticed the press release for the album bafflingly stated: “No longer bound by old formulas and expectations from the past”, to which I can only wonder who they feel was holding them back. Their fans? The press release also stated “Each song feels like an Active Rock hit in the making”, which I guess kind of says it all really.
Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen:
France’s most enigmatic black metal band is back with their most unexpected, and bewildering in a good way album to date. The last we heard from Blut Aus Nord was 2017’s Deus Salutis Meæ, an inscrutably dense affair that largely sounded to me like one long industrial noisescape. It was not what I wanted to hear after being so taken with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III, a top ten album of the year listee and mid-90s second wave Norwegian black metal revisitation. Well, push both of those aside for Hallucinogen, because Vindsval and company have cooked up something entirely new here, a merging of black metal tremolo riffs with a looser, more rock directed rhythmic structure through which they inject ample amounts of major chord melody. Its not so much Deafheaven’s Sunbather as it is borrowing a little from the progressive rock world of Steven Wilson and Tool, with maybe a splash of fellow countrymen Alcest to help things mesh well. The vocals here are buried deep in the mix, more so than usual with Blut, and so for that reason its hard not to hear Hallucinogen as largely an instrumental and textural affair. That’s not a bad thing, because this is a captivating listen, a record that I always intend to put on as a soundtrack to some other mental activity and wind up paying more attention to regardless. If the cover art wasn’t a big tip off, the music certainly points to a central motif running throughout that’s informing the musical path here, that of a sense of discovery and exploration through the world of psychedelic stimulation. The melodic lead guitar figures on “Sybelius” are a vivid example of what I’m referring to, this isn’t a typical sound palette for a band known for dabbling in extreme black metal and noise. But its not just its burstingly melodic nature that characterizes Hallucinogen, its how emotionally charged that melodicism comes across that has resulted in this being one of the most fascinating albums of the year.
Alcest – Spiritual Instinct:
Alcest have over the past decade plus since their 2007 debut rarely failed to impress me. There was the 2014 misfire with the entirely non-metallic dream pop of Shelter, and thankfully they kept that exploration confined to one album because otherwise we’d have never gotten 2016’s year end list maker masterwork Kodama. Neige said at the time of Kodama’s release that his return to the band’s pioneering black gaze sound on that album was in large part because he wanted their new music to be punchier (something they lost entirely on Shelter). It’s interesting then to see that on its follow up, Spiritual Instinct, he’s doubling down on that desire instead of reactively shifting away from it purely to do something different for the sake of it. I say they’re doubling down on the punchiness factor because this is the heaviest, most aggressive Alcest album to date —- almost as if Neige opened his closet and rediscovered his lost black leather jacket and he and drummer Winterhalter drove around France listening to Accept records one day. Simply put, Neige is laying down some pretty excellent riffs throughout, particularly on the first four songs. On “Les jardins de minuit” at the 5:56 mark, I’m hearing the first full blown headbanging passage in an Alcest record. That happens again with the rumbling rhythmic groove riffing on “Protection”, and the propulsive Tool meets Porcupine Tree fusion on “Sapphire”. I will say that overall, for all it’s fun Neige plays non-tremolo metal riffs glory, Spiritual Instinct can’t quite match the beautiful artistry of Kodama. That album had so much going on within its gorgeous songs, particularly with its infusion of Japanese folk music motifs. Maybe Neige just wanted to get back to basics on this new one, and that’s fair enough, its a solid, at times really impressive record. Just not their greatest.
Wilderun – Veil Of Imagination:
I’m new to Wilderun, but the ceaseless chatter surrounding the Halloween night release of this album in the r/PowerMetal circles motivated me to check the band out. The peeps there listen to all kinds of metal, but general consensus on extreme metal releases are few and far between, so that was enough of a signal that perhaps this Wilderun band was something special. And they’re definitely a unique merger of sounds, that of blistering Blackwater Park era Opeth with Pink Floyd-ian spacey prog passages, cinematic ambient noises, effects, and a general panoramic feel to how this music is presented. And wow, is this definitely an experience that I associate more with something like a film soundtrack rather than a metal record. The opening cut is a fourteen minute plus opus that starts with spoken dialogue and an acoustic, folky guitar intro piece, and is joined by flutes and enchanting choral vocals —- all before the cold water of a shaking tremolo riff pierces the serenity. The metallic attack here can be shocking heavy, but it’s well balanced, with crisp instrument definition in the mix and a pretty sweet drum sound throughout, at the forefront of the recording but never overpowering the rhythm and lead guitars. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this album’s metallic nature, but its everything else going on in Wilderun’s musical palette that’s really the draw here. This band is the brainchild of former Immortal Bird guitarist Evan Anderson Berry, and he deserves props not only for being a seriously excellent growler and clean vocalist ala Mikael Akerfeldt, but for his skill at coordinating so many diverse musical elements in a single album (and at times in a single song or even section). Its unfortunate that they released this record so late in the year because myself and others likely didn’t get to have enough time to spend listening to it yet —- I’m on week three and I’m still finding new things on each and every listen. I guess this is more of a recommendation than a review… I’m not at a stage where I can say I’ve fully digested this album and know every nook and cranny by heart and have a firm grasp on its strengths and weaknesses. What I can say is that I never tire of listening to it, and it is certainly one of the most adventurous listening experiences you’ll ever encounter, this year or any year. Check this one out in full, but if you want a bite sized go-to sample, hit up the epic “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl”, which is the song that’s perhaps most representative of the album as a whole, and also a gorgeous, sweepingly grand piece of music.
Cyhra – No Halos In Hell:
You might recall that I was surprisingly impressed with Cyhra’s debut, Letters To Myself, two years ago. That such an unlikely pairing of Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg actually worked and produced some compellingly emotional modern metal, was a minor triumph. My only real complaints with that record as I recall were that I didn’t care for the abundance of slower, ballady material through the back half of the album, feeling like it dampened the excitement generated by the hook factor of the uptempo tracks. As per Lundberg’s own description of his voice paired with melodeath type guitars (i.e., Bon Jovi meets Soilwork), Cyhra found a realized sound rather quickly on those uber catchy, high energy songs, with Stromblad finding just enough space to weave in some of his unmistakable melodic signature lead bursts that we came to appreciate during his tenure with In Flames. Lundberg for his part proved himself to be quite adept at penning a razor sharp vocal hook, and we were finally able to get some clarity on just how vital a songwriter he was for Amaranthe. I looked forward to a second album, wondering if the band would amp up the heaviness the next time around. What they’d established on Letters was a good baseline, a balance of syrupy pop melodies with the splashy melodic technicality of one of melodeath’s pioneering architects. Yet the question that hung in the air was which way would the band lean further towards on future releases?
It doesn’t take more than one listen of No HalosIn Hell to immediately pick up on the fact that the band has stuck with the formula of the first album, down to including way more songs than necessary resulting in a heavily diluted tracklisting. But unevenness in song quality is the least of the problems here, because while their debut had about seven to eight songs that were playlist worthy, repeat listeners —- No Halos has at best three to four, and that’s pushing it. I’m not sure how best to articulate why these songs just seem to fall flat, because the performance quality is up to snuff regarding Lundberg’s vocals and the rest of the band’s musical contributions. Stromblad seems a little more subdued throughout however, and that might be a major contributing factor, his signature guitar stylings not as bright and bursting as they were on the debut. I suspect that Lundberg is trying to branch out in his writing of melodic vocal melodies, and while that’s admirable in a vacuum, its not exactly what Cyhra needed right now. The songs that work here, such as “Battle From Within”, “Hit Me”, I Am The One”, and “Out Of My Life” have quick striking hooks in their refrains that are packed tightly between concise verse passages. But long drawn out soft ballady such as “Lost In Time” just does not work here, and perhaps it would have in an Amaranthe context, with Elize Ryd’s sugary tone carrying some of the lines in a duet. Not even a “full band” version further down the tracklisting can save it, and while you can hear what Lundberg was going for in the chorus, its just too flat of a hook to capture the heartstrings. Its a cliche, but the sophomore slump seems to be very much real here, and its down to the band playing it safe and repeating themselves when they probably should’ve looked to shake things up a little more on this one. My advice, for what its worth (and coming from a fan): Let Jesper cut loose, give him more extended solo sections, limit the slower/softer songs to one or two, and allow your heaviness to directly contrast with those aforementioned smooth Bon Jovi-type vocals. Cyhra’s sound has potential, but they gotta turn the key to unlock it —- otherwise they risk it growing stale really fast.
Novembers Doom – Nephilim Grove:
America’s hardest working doom metal vets are back with a follow up to 2017’s double year end list making Hamartia. That was a special album, the band choosing to explore their more melancholic and expressively emotional side. It reminded me of stuff like Charon, Sentenced, and Katatonia. It met with a surprising amount of vocal resistance from some fans, who felt that the band’s headfirst dive into pure melodicism was not what they signed up for, but a newbie like myself loved it. I’m a little less keen on Nephilim Grove then, in large part to the band’s retreat from the Hamartia approach and abrupt march back towards a more death-doom groove metal vein. Of course the possibility exists that there just wasn’t enough left to mine from that Hamartia style, and to force it for a second album would’ve produced less than inspired results, so I can’t fault the band for that if its the case. The possibility exists that a die-hard November’s Doom fan like my MSRcast co-host Cary will feel differently about this new album, and that I’m the odd man out for this round, which I can live with. And I should say, after having sat with Nephilim Grove for a few weeks, that its a solid slab of speaker rattling metal, more uptempo than the doom tag suggests, with tunes like “Petrichor” and “The Witness Marks” set to uptempo, attacking rhythms. Paul Kuhr of course sounds fantastic, his clean baritone as bleak and discomfiting as ever, and his growls fierce and crisply enunciated. The most satisfying cut here is “Adagio”, and he turns in an awesome performance delivering both vocal styles in direct, quick succession during the chorus. I dunno… if you haven’t listened to this yet but have enjoyed the band before, chances might be high that you’ll be all about this record, I’m very interested to hear Cary’s thoughts on it (we’ll be discussing it on our next podcast). Chalk this up to maybe being a Metal Pigeon problem, not a Novembers Doom one.
Here it is. Finally. A project over two decades in the making that, let’s be honest… few Blind Guardian fans were ever truly clamoring for at the expense of say a regular, guitar based Blind Guardian record. I say this having been one of those fans who’s been aware of this project lurking in the shadows for ages now, my first direct recollection being an interview Hansi gave to Dr. Metal on The Metal Meltdown show on WRUW Cleveland way back in 2001 (I still have the audio of it). It was described then as being in its early infancy, although they had hopes to finish it in a few years (cue stifled laughter here), and it had its roots in unused music for Nightfall In Middle Earth as well as the music that the band presented to Peter Jackson in hopes of landing on the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. In the time since I first heard about this project, the bards have released four studio albums, two live albums and I’ve seen them in concert four times, Hansi and Marcus five with Demons and Wizards this past August. Credit where its due, they never committed the absolute blunder that I lambasted Therion for, who set aside all normal recording output to devote a decade to both a covers record and triple disc opera project. Hansi and Andre, who he co-wrote this project with, knew how their bread was buttered and were okay with this orchestral project taking the long route home, something they could afford to have sitting dormant for huge chunks of time while they worked on normal band projects. Perhaps Hansi’s only mistake was in publicly mentioning it at all, but even I would have a hard time assigning any blame for that, because there were really no consequences to talking about it. I say this as a die-hard Blind Guardian fan mind you, but we’d hear him talk about it when asked in interviews over the years, grunt at the info, and continue reading for details on the follow up to A Twist In The Myth or At The Edge of Time. And I suppose I should clarify a bit —- its not like I wasn’t interested at all in the project, because how could one not be curious? But what else could you do but shrug and wait? No one knew what this orchestral thing was even supposed to be.
What it immediately struck me as being upon my very first listen and reinforced in subsequent spins, is that of an audiobook with a built in soundtrack. There’s an hour and fifteen minutes running time here, twenty four tracks total, of which only eleven are actual “song” length pieces of music. Now those eleven tracks compromise an hour and four minutes of the running time, so its not like we’re being subjected to an actual audiobook, but the arrangement of the musical pieces amongst an array of tracks where voice actors spin forth dialogue with radio play styled sound effects is spread out in such a way that no two musical tracks ever line up back to back. This will undoubtedly frustrate anyone who felt bothered by the interludes in Nightfall In Middle Earth —- fortunately for myself, I wasn’t one of those people (the thirty seconds of “Lammoth” are essential!). But I think its fair to say that one’s tolerance level for stuff like this is going to be a huge factor on whether or not they enjoy listening to Legacy of the Dark Lands overall, and as a frequent listener of fantasy audiobooks, I’ve grown accustomed to this kind of listening experience. The meat of the album then are those aforementioned eleven pieces of music (let’s just call them songs from now on), and it really is simply multilayered Hansi with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the FILMharmonic Choir Prague and Vox Futura choir chiming in on occasion. Hansi is backed by the “BG Choir Company” which I’m assuming is made up of all the regular guys who have provided backing vocals on Blind Guardian records for awhile now. There are no guitars, so Marcus isn’t a part of this project, and though there are booming timpani’s and martial snare percussion, Frederick is also not involved. It’s strictly a Hansi and Andre joint with Charlie Bauerfiend as usual at the production helm.
The biggest reservations I had about the project heading into it was how would Hansi sound in a setting with just the orchestra, and my worries were slightly exacerbated with their decision to release “Point Of No Return” as the lead advance promotional track. It was yet another in a long line of examples of bands misfiring on what song to release first, because while I do enjoy its undeniably powerful, swellingly grandiose chorus, its connective tissue was the kind of orchestra for animation stuff I typically associate with Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes (you know what I’m talking about), and Hansi stringing together random blitzes of short vocal melodies for a dizzying amount of lyrics. That magnificent repeating chorus aside, it lacked any kind of cohesiveness overall, and I wondered if that’s how the rest of the album would sound. We’re so used to having Andre and Marcus delivering awesome riffs and interesting counter melodies to fill in the gaps between Hansi’s vocals. Would Hansi and Andre attempt to either over write vocal lines for Hansi to sing to make up for that, or perhaps try to use the orchestra itself as a fill-in for those guitars? On that advance song, it certainly sounded like they were doing both. But again, this is why I have a growing dislike of checking out preview tracks well before the album is released. Because while of course everything that I didn’t like about “Point of No Return” is still present within the song in the context of the album; the pacing and structure of the surrounding tracks go a long way towards mitigating those annoyances, as the song fits into the larger cohesive framework of the album. Its like comparing a nicely cooked, whole roast chicken that’s had time to sit after taking it out of the oven, its juices evenly redistributing throughout to ensure deliciousness —- to attempting to bake a slab of skinless, boneless chicken breast that was the isolated “Point Of No Return”. That piece of meat would taste better left attached to the bird.
To that end, I found my initial listening experience of this album in its entirety quite joyous, maybe it was just me responding to what is undeniably a cheerful, exuberant vibe emanating from it, but I really do believe there’s a heady dose of Blind Guardian magic to some of these songs. Take the gorgeous rise at the 2:20 mark in “The Great Ordeal”, an exquisitely triumphant moment that is the apex of what is one of the stronger melodic motifs at work on the album. The old Nightfall ideas resurface in “The Storm” and “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, and the former has a head turning moment from 2:38-2:55 where Hansi just breaks through everything to punch up with a mighty vocal thrust delivering the best lyrical stanza on the album: ” Gather up / I’m the storm / I’ll bind you / You’ll be the flame / I’m the spark / My wayward friends / You must come and find me / In the dark”. It’s a transcendent, attention grabbing moment that makes me stop what I’m doing every single time to hit rewind. It’s also one of those things that you realize keeps you coming back to the song again and again, yet you wish they’d have turned it into a proper repeating chorus. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Hansi is singing his face off throughout this album, he sounds full of conviction, passion, and emotion as he always does really, but there are a smattering of micro moments where he’s hitting “Another Holy War” esque levels of excellence. That aforementioned cheerful vibe is really felt on “Dark Cloud’s Rising”. which dare I suggest has an almost holiday/Christmassy feel to its melodic thru line, with even its darker, stomier mid-section sounding like a winter storm. The repeating lyrical element towards the end (“…the road goes on forevermore….”) sounds like something that could’ve been at home on a regular Blind Guardian album nestled between songs like “Curse My Name” and “War Of The Thrones”.
The album highlight for me is “War Feeds War”, ostensibly the album’s true opener, and like “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, one of the few tracks on the album to have a distinguishable melodic thru line running across most of its entire length. I really wish Hansi and Andre decided to write more stuff in this vein, because the memorability factor goes up when you have a long, gradually developing vocal melody to really pull you in. During that opening verse sequence, you can really get a feel for just how the orchestra could carry rhythmic, riff like structures through its brass section. Those horns slice through layers of vocals and strings like a broadsword and I would’ve relished more moments where they’d been allowed to work their magic in a forward, aggressive approach. We get a frustratingly brief glimpse of this again in “Nephilim” at the 1:06 mark, but its gone before it develops into something promising and worse yet we’re never treated to it again. Why can’t these songs have repeating hooks or motifs? They can’t tell me that it can’t be done because even though I know next to nothing about classical music composition and the limits of what an orchestra can achieve, I know I’ve heard some damn fine muzak symphony recordings of Celine Dion and Queen songs through the speakers of my local pho place. And perhaps more convincingly, Blind Guardian themselves wrote an orchestral piece built on solid hooks and melodic thru lines in “Wheel of Time” off the At The Edge Of Time album. In re-listening to that song, one can hear that large swaths of it are entirely carried by the orchestral swagger provided by none other than The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. There the guitars are often providing an added textural crunch and injection of power, but melodically it’s mostly the symphony at work (the Andre guitar solo an obvious exception). Hansi’s vocals there are memorable not only for their crescendo establishing rise, but in his epic duel with the orchestra in the chorus, where horns punctuate his pauses, seemingly goading him to sing on. On an album full of incredible songs, it was the capstone, and a genuinely complementary merger of metallic and orchestral elements.
I suppose it’s unfair to ask “Why aren’t there more songs like Wheel of Time on this orchestral album”, but it’s one worth letting hang in the air for a second. I know the answer by the way… it’s the same damn thing that kills the mood in Ayreon albums for me. It’s the damn plot. Because you see while “Wheel of Time” was rather cleverly structured around a chorus spun on rhythmically rhyming lyrics in a nod to the song title’s proverbial wheel allusion, the verses were structured through equal length lyrical lines in the stanza. They were long enough to allow Hansi about five syllables worth of melodic phrasing and emoting, and that consistent structure allowed the orchestra to simultaneously keep rhythmic time and also add in some variation and color through the string section. The lyrics were a broad look at the themes and motivations of the Wheel of Time universe and its chief protagonist Rand al’Thor, and they didn’t need to delve deeper than that. Similarly, the lyrics of Nightfall In Middle Earth were written with a cognizance that the source material was either known, or easily available to those who wanted to know it. As a result, the band focused not on pure storytelling and plot (though its touched on in brief, quick glimpses), but on the emotional pulses that were the undercurrent of that incredibly anguished saga. On Legacy Of The Dark Lands, the band is telling a story that is actually the sequel to the Markus Heitz novel “Die Dunklen Lande (The Dark Land). The orchestral album bears the weight of continuing a story that began in a novel, and while some of this may be disseminated in those short non-musical segues, the bulk of it falls to Hansi and company to sing forth into existence. As a result, they’re handicapped in the songwriting scope of the project in that hooks and memorability are sacrificed for the sake of advancing a story through the lyrics.
I haven’t read the Heitz novel myself, though others have picked up the English ebook translation recently and the reviews are mixed. I’m sure it’s a decent enough slice of fantasy literature, and the premise is certainly intriguing enough on its own (set during the Thirty Years War, seemingly in an alternate universe where magic exists in our “real world”), but try as I might, the confusion factor is a big deal here. I have no frame of reference for who’s speaking in the voice acted narrative sequences, nor do Hansi’s lyrics ever really get specific with who the narrator is supposed to be or what’s their motivation in that particular moment. We’re aware of a plot being advanced, however clunkily, but there’s nothing really pulling me in to further investigate the story on my own. Setting aside opera and musical theater where we have the benefit of visuals to help tell a story that we can physically perceive, a studio recording is a difficult medium in which to tell a story that would be better served put to paper. And here’s the paradox of Hansi and Andre’s chosen approach here, that they’re trying to tell a story and create a wonderful, memorable body of music at the same time, but you can’t do both successfully due to the constraints of the medium. But if Heitz had himself written the sequel, or heck, if Hansi and Andre simply decided to write an orchestral album that was inspired by the story of the original “Die Dunklen Lande” book, thus being freed of the need to put down the plot in the lyrics, I guarantee they’d have cooked up more memorable songs. Basically they tried to do two things at once, and might not have succeeded in either, but of course that’s down to how well you enjoy the music, which is after all, chief among the reasons we’re even talking about this in the first place.
How to sum this up? There’s so much here that its been an overwhelming experience just to soak this album in on endless repeating listens. Truthfully speaking, when I have it on in the background and am busy working on other things, I find it an enjoyable listening experience. There are a myriad of micro moments that capture my attention briefly in a positive way, but they’re scattered across the album in haphazard fashion, and my attention span wanes when they’re lacking, as on the entirety of “In The Red Dwarf’s Tower”, which is the chief example of everything I could do without on a project like this. I certainly didn’t like that “Harvester of Souls” was a worse version of “At The Edge of Time” from Beyond The Red Mirror, and can’t understand why they reused the music at all. But Hansi sounds great throughout, and the orchestra sounds wonderful and dynamic (my friends in the r/PowerMetal Discord have been ripping apart the instrumental mixing of this record, but my ears are dumb to that kind of detail —- though I have heard an interview with the mastering engineer for this album state that the vinyl version is the best sounding one shrug). As I was researching this project and listening to any Hansi interview I could get my hands on, my heart would leap whenever he’d confirm that the next Blind Guardian album was already written and they were going to begin production this coming January. I realized after awhile that my reaction kinda said it all really —- I’m more excited about the next proper studio album a year out than the new orchestral album that just dropped a week ago. I’m relieved that I didn’t actively dislike Legacy Of The Dark Lands on the whole (that would’ve been a painful review to write), but I’m a little discouraged at my middling reaction towards an album that Hansi has been calling in those aforementioned interviews his and Andre’s greatest career achievement. After two decades plus of time and a heck of a lot of money devoted to it’s making, he’s earned the right to feel that way, but I know and you know that his and Andre’s defining achievement is Nightfall In Middle Earth. And it wasn’t the guitars that made that record truly spectacular —- it was the inspiration and passion that the band felt for the Tolkien source material, that they transferred through us like a conduit.
Almost a decade ago, Insomnium went from being a name I’d see occasionally tossed around online to one of my favorite modern metal bands, the kind you spend years obsessing over. Their 2011 album One For Sorrow hit me with the kind of emotional impact that had only been felt a few times in my history as a metal fan, and almost single handedly made the idea of melo-death relevant to me again. I went back through their discography, played the older records on repeat until I burned their melodies in my brain, and leapt at the chance to see them live on their tour opening for Epica and Alestorm. I detailed a little bit of this state of mind in the intro to my review for 2014’s Shadows of A Dying Sun, recounting not only my conversation with the band outside their tour bus, but how their music really became the soundtrack to a specific kind of environment. That was a late November gig, a rare day with the autumn chill pleasantly in the air (hoodie weather, as we call it in Houston) and grey overcast skies. There’s a half joking rule amongst a few friends of mine that you don’t listen to Opeth until November, I’m not sure if it was the song “Dirge For November” that brought this about, but I have to admit, Blackwater Park sounds sweeter in that space between Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps less rigidly, so too with Insomnium.
But Heart Like A Grave’s strength as an aching, bittersweet meditation on the toil of existence, loneliness, temporality, and decay is not a result of its autumn release date, but on being Insomnium’s most melodic offering to date. Its a melodicism that we associate with all these Finnish bands as a whole but frustratingly, credit is not often given to its source, that being the melancholic wellspring that was dug up on those early Amorphis and Sentenced records in the mid-90s. As for the latter, Sentenced have been a singularly overlooked influence on Insomnium that I’ve long banged on about (even writing on it), their signature bittersweet major/minor key melodies rippling through other Finnish bands like Charon and To/Die/For. Sentenced were cited as the sole reason that David Gold even put together Woods of Ypres, and that Sentenced DNA is clearly heard and felt throughout that band’s chaotic mix of extreme metal and more gothic stylings. Back to Insomnium —- I’m not just hearing what I want to hear, hell the cover art and title of Heart Like A Grave looks and sounds like a long lost Sentenced album between 2001-2005. Said cover, as well as the deluxe edition’s accompanying photography book was shot by none other than Sentenced’s drummer Vesa Ranta, who as a longtime professional photographer also designed and shot Sentenced’s gorgeous cover/sleeve art for The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. But musically speaking, I’ve always heard big and small strains of this influence throughout Insomnium’s older records, but here the band worked it deeper into the bedrock of their songwriting than ever before.
The extra dosage of this distinctly Finnish melodicism results in a tradeoff, this being the least overall aggressive album in the band’s discography, yet also the most emotionally deep and engaging. Not that you wouldn’t think lack of aggression was a factor once the opening riff to “Valediction” kicked in, it being the most outwardly attack-mode element on the album. I’ll admit that I was a little nonplussed about this song when it was first released as a music video a month or two ago. I’ve been vocal lately about being loathe to listen to preview tracks or watch music videos ahead of the album release, because it always seems that either the bands pick the wrong song from the album for this purpose, or more puzzlingly, the song doesn’t seem to work outside the context of the album. For whatever reason, “Valediction” is one of those songs, where it was “fine” in its music video form a few months ago, but mysteriously blossomed into an undeniable album highlight in the context of the album in full. Its a captivating song, built on the strength of Ville Friman (along with new co-clean vocalist/guitarist Jani Liimatainen) delivering gorgeous clean vocal melody passages that bookend Niilo Sevanen’s guttural thunder in the chorus. The accompanying dual lead melody is richly sweet, full of palpable emotional resonance, providing a striking juxtaposition against Sevanen’s all too bleak lyric: “Tonight, the world is burning / Black smoke hides the skies…”. The band carries this balancing act all throughout the record, because lyrically speaking, this is as bleak and downcast as Insomnium have ever been, gazing inward deeper than ever, while setting that perspective against the backdrop of an outside world that seems more uncertain than before.
This album is also loaded with the kind of abrupt one-off moments that made the songs on Across the Dark and One For Sorrow so memorable. I’m thinking of the decision to interrupt the dirty, grinding groove of “Neverlast” with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous dual guitar detour at the 2:17 mark. It’s the kind of choice that turns a merely good song into something excellent, and we hear another example of this on the epic, churning title track “Heart Like A Grave”. Its an album highlight not only for Friman and Liimatainen as vocalists, but in being perhaps one of the best things Markus Vanhala has written for any of his bands. A highly charged quasi-ballad, it turns into a revelatory gem at the 4:36 mark, where a desperately urgent yet exuberant lead melody surges forward and serves as the backdrop to Sevanen’s most passionately growled lyric on the album: “Years of disappointment / and disillusion / All I see in the mirror now / Is an old man with heart like a grave”. Vanhala was also the songwriter on another album standout, “Pale Morning Star”, where we’re treated to yet another gorgeous mid-song shift in direction, a wailing, aching guitar melody cut adrift, seemingly fluttering and gently swaying as though it were a kite in the wind. The fascinating storyline to this album’s construction is in its egalitarian approach to the division of songwriting duties, falling amongst four of the band’s five members, including new guy Liimatainen (yes he’s that Jani, of the first five Sonata Arctica records fame). The new guy delivers the music on “Mute Is My Sorrow”, writing a classic sounding Insomnium song with a bright, acoustic intro and rhythmically dynamic grooves, and he makes a co-writing appearance on two other cuts. Sevanen and Vanhala split the bulk of the songs, almost equally although Sevanen handles the majority of the lyrics. The biggest surprise here is that Friman is left with “Valediction” as his sole songwriting credit (music and lyrics), shocking because he alongside Sevanen was one of the band’s defining songwriters and architects on Insomnium’s albums up to this point. Its simultaneously bizarre, confusing, and thrilling that Heart Like A Grave sounds so emphatically like Insomnium despite one of its defining voices being so scaled back in the construction of the album.
This is a beautiful, haunting, anguished and ultimately comforting record, and the closest thing to the spirit of Sentenced’s last two albums that I’ve heard since the original funeral Finns called it a day. That matters a whole heck of alot to me, because while I felt that way when I first heard One For Sorrow, I have to admit that the years haven’t been good to Shadows Of A Dying Sun, and for a time that concerned me. For as positive as my review of that album was at the time of its release in 2015, I’ve found myself listening to it less and less as time has gone by, with only a few songs from it still on my playlist. I listened to it for the first time in full a little bit ago and there is something stifling about its glossier production approach that mutes the power of some of those songs, that tends to mesh them all together in one amorphous sound profile. I think if I’m being honest with myself, I felt that some of its songwriting also lacked the bold melodic inspiration that I’d come to associate with the band. It was an album written to be an Insomnium album in the mold of its immediate predecessors, but perhaps the band had run with one approach for an album too long and it showed in the songwriting quality. Its follow-up, the deliberately blackened and far more brutal Winter’s Gate was the extreme deviation that the band needed, not only in that they delivered an awesome record with it, but it helped them grab some distance from their “classic” sound so that they could come at it once again with some freshness. They’ve done just that with Heart Like A Grave, possibly the most inspired and poignant chapter in an already emotionally loaded discography —- and a fitting soundtrack to colder nights and pumpkin spice.
These past two months have provided a handful of releases by major institutions from across the spectrum of subgenres. Dragonforce are back with the cheekily titled Extreme Power Metal, a phrase they actually coined back in 2004 to put on the sticker of Sonic Firestorm. And while some may snicker, its fair to say Dragonforce really were pioneers in marrying extreme tempos and drum patterns (blastbeats) to ultra melodic power metal, and that maybe they’ve earned the right to weirdly use that tag over a decade later on their eighth studio album. Similarly, Opeth were pioneers in a different way altogether, marrying melody to death metal in a way that had nothing to do with the Gothenburg melodeath sound of the mid-90s era that the band was birthed in. They’ve long since moved onto prog-rock pastures of course, and their newest In Cauda Venenum continues this trajectory. Then there’s the proggy black metal of Borknagar, who are releasing their first album with ICS Vortex at the grim vocal helm since 1999’s Quintessence, with Vintersorg having bowed out of the band last year, ending an eighteen year tenure. There’s a lot to dissect with all three, and of course there’s a few releases here by newer artists that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with too. Sleeping Ancient from Houston has released a buzzworthy debut, and then there’s Everfrost who are probably gonna be new to most of you but are releasing their sophomore album that’s catching a lot of interest due to their interesting twist on the album release. A wildly varied mix of new stuff, and there’s going to be more on the way, for now:
Dragonforce – Extreme Power Metal:
Its been interesting to hear the chatter around Dragonforce grow louder over the course of the recording of their newest album, Extreme Power Metal, due to Herman Li’s clever immersion into the Twitch community. There fans got to witness not only the recording of the new album in all its meticulous tedium (and if the internet has taught us anything, nothing is too tedious), but also experience band rehearsals and soon, the band’s tour where they’ll be streaming at every tour stop for a real behind the scenes peek at life on the road with Dragonforce. I’ve watched a few of Li’s streams on replay, as well as Matt Heafy’s replays from his own popular Twitch channel, and this is a brave new frontier for band promotion if I’ve ever seen one. Not all musicians would be cut out for it or feel comfortable doing it, but for a select few, this could be a great way to keep one’s audience engaged throughout downtimes and in a more connected, personal way rather than just the typical social media posts or YouTube vlogs. For Dragonforce, its created a noticeable buzz, most recently coalescing in the band performing a set at the Twitch Con 2019’s opening ceremony. There they debuted a snazzy stage set with old school arcade cabs that Herman Li and Sam Totman could stand atop of, guitar hero (ahem) style. I gotta say, even though I may not have enjoyed all the records entirely, its refreshing that even I started to feel excited about the band right now. I don’t think anyone expected them to still be around, that something would’ve derailed them at some point, but power metal is more fun with Dragonforce around —- they’re such an audacious spearhead of the genre that I feel we should all embrace them.
If the cover art wasn’t a clue, the band have decidedly leaned towards their lighter, video game nostalgia referencing sensibilities for Extreme Power Metal, a hard turn away from the darker approach of their last three records. The vibe here recalls the Inhuman Rampage / Ultra Beatdown era, and its refreshing to hear vocalist Marc Hudson in this context, his tenure up to this point on his three album appearances being associated with more serious, angsty lyrics at times (not a bad thing in my view, but it was strikingly different than what we all associated ZP Theart with). It helps that Sam Totman and former bassist (now in Kreator) Frédéric Leclercq delivered some of the most carefree and vibrantly fun material the band has tackled in well over a decade. Songs like “Highway to Oblivion” and “Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine” ring with those unmistakable classic era Dragonforce hyper-major key hooks that are bursting to the seams with cheerfulness. Even the title of the latter seems like a knowing callback to the Inhuman era, albeit marked with the post 2012 era’s tendency to slow things down a bit and keep the tempos fluctuating. There’s a handful of addictive cuts here, among them “In a Skyforged Dream”, a song that were it longer would remind me of the Sonic Firestorm era for its trope heavy, vaguely fantasy alluding lyrics and dramatic, theatrical stop/starts. The solos towards the end are fantastic, the kind of mirroring of the main melody affair that I’m just a sucker for. And proving that the band’s experimental streak in the Hudson era is still alive and well, there’s the unusually paced and martial drumming infused “Remembrance Day”, a risky song that could’ve easily been a disaster, but somehow it kinda works and has an endearing charm in its tribute to previous generations of fallen soldiers.
My personal highlights however are a pair of songs that will end up on the old iPod, as de facto best of Dragonforce cuts in “Strangers” and “The Last Dragonborn”. The latter is about exactly what you’re thinking, namely the Elder Scrolls Skyrim, complete with references to Whiterun and Tamriel —- first of all, its refreshing alone to simply have references to actual fantasy locations in a Dragonforce song for once, instead of the eternal fantasy steeped vagueness that they work with. There’s so much to love here, be it the vaguely Eastern sounds that shape the overall melodic structure along with the cinematic orchestral arrangement courtesy of Epica’s Coen Janssen; or the dramatic rise and crash of the bridge-to-chorus where Hudson turns in a command performance; or the gorgeous mid-song bridge at the 4:18 mark that brings me back to standing on top of High Hrothgar watching the sunrise. But my favorite on the album is undoubtedly “Strangers”, a mid-tempo banger built in the streamlined approach that informed a lot of The Power Within, largely due to being a Leclercq penned song, and if memory serves he wrote “Seasons” from that album as well. If the band loses the ability to knock out unimaginable catchy mid-tempo hits like this with Leclercq’s departure, that will indeed be a shame (although I’m really looking forward to seeing if Li starts writing more). And then of course, there’s the band’s absolutely wonderful, giddily delightful cover of “My Heart Will Go On”, and in the same vein as their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, they stay faithful to the original melody while Dragonforce-izing the song with speedy percussion and furious guitar wizardry. I love everything about this cover, from the silly videogame fx at the beginning to Hudson’s impassioned performance —- they take the song just seriously enough, because dammit, the Celine Dion original is indeed a beautiful song and demands it. I always knew its melody would’ve fit into a power metal context and its a shock and joy to hear it come to fruition. To close, if you were checked out on Hudson era Dragonforce because it seemed tonally different to the old days, this album is the moment to dive back in.
Borknagar – True North:
I was more than a little curious as to what Borknagar would sound like without Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg the man the myth the legend) at the vocal helm. For the past seventeen years, he has laced Øystein Brun’s avant-garde black metal with his rich, otherworldly baritone clean vocals and of course those fierce, frostbitten grim vox too. His presence on any record he’s involved with, be it Borknagar, his own Vintersorg solo project, Otyg, Cronian, etc is hugely influenced by his mere presence, the same way Hansi just brings an encompassing envelope of characteristic sound that is unmistakable. Vintersorg clearly shaped and influenced the Borknagar sound from Empiricism through Winter Thrice, regardless of whether or not he had a hand in the songwriting. Things have been different for him however since his 2014 head injury during an accident where he fell from a ladder. He was a little less prominent on Winter Thrice, as ICS Vortex and Lazare (Lars Nedland) saw increased roles handling the vocals, and his once prolific output has slowed to just two releases in the past five years, the aforementioned Winter Thrice and 2017’s Till Fjalls II. His reasoning in the statement to fans and media was that he didn’t want to hold the band back from touring due to his day job commitments and his “situation after the accident”. That stuff about the touring I kind of took with a grain of salt, because he’s sat out the band’s performances many times before, and Brun himself has a full time gig in IT and can’t commit to lengthy tours either. Sadly, its likely that the real reason is that he has to prioritize things now, and his own musical projects are the only thing that will fit in alongside what I’m assuming has been a grueling road to recovery. That its not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather scheduling and time that’s ending his participation is a bummer, but its also proved to be an opportunity for the band to try new things and stretch their sound.
And stretch their sound they have on True North, with Vortex and Lazare splitting the clean vocals and giving big assists in the songwriting department alongside Oystein, this is the most adventurous Borknagar album since Origins, and I’d argue, since Empiricism. There’s a brighter tone to these songs, and a sense of spaciousness to the songwriting that is uncommon for this band, normally so compressed and dense in their compositions. This is apparent from the jump on “Thunderous”, the most conventional track on offer but still a noticeably measured and dare I suggest, stately paced track despite the blackened, blast beat fuelled passages. Really its on “Up North” where people are going to hear the most striking changes, the song being a major key laced, Hammond drenched Uriah Heep-ian jam with Vortex delivering some James Hetfield growls in his largely clean lead vocal role. He seems to have written this piece solo too, and its fascinating to hear just how writing with his own voice in mind (as opposed to Vintersorg’s) helped shape the outcome to be this different. The unusually structured “Lights” is another bold experiment for the band, a combination of extreme metal moments packed with Porcupine Tree-like prog-rock artistry. Then there’s the gently swaying ballad(!) “Wild Father’s Heart”, where Lazare pours out some incredibly melancholic and heartbreaking vocal melodies. But my fave right now is the Lazare written and sung “Voices”, which is the most accessible thing the band has ever done, a bold slice of art-pop ala Dead Can Dance. Its the tip of the iceberg for things you’d never think to associate with this band, but somehow it fits and doesn’t sound out of place. This is the beginning of something radically different for Borknagar, and its more exciting than I ever thought it could be.
Everfrost – Winterider:
That Everfrost hail from Finland shouldn’t surprise any of you once you hear the first few keyboard notes of Winterider, but you might be forgiven for thinking they might’ve been from Japan for a second. Yes, those are manga styled characters in the album artwork, and in fact, this album was released with an actual manga comic book that details the storyline alluded to in these songs, a neat crossover mixed media approach that the band is trying out that I’ve often wondered why more bands don’t dare to attempt. It was the unusual nature of said album art that I saw in my inbox that got me to check out the promo of Winterider, bracing myself for a cringefest that would have me deleting it on the spot —- yet what I discovered was inspired, incredibly fun sugary power metal reminiscent of the halcyon days of early Sonata Arctica. Indeed Tony Kakko is a clear influence here, not only on the vocal approach by Mikael Salo, whose accent often makes him a dead ringer, but also in the songwriting approach of band founder and keyboardist Benjamin Connelly. For any of you who were disappointed in Sonata’s recent Talviyö and long for that band to return to the Ecliptica / Silence / Winterhearts era, you might wanna bounce on over Everfrost’s way and check out note perfect slices of Finn-power such as the powerful title track “Winterider”. Built on sugary synth lines and a crisp, dare I say wintry separation of instruments, topped with lush harmony vocals, this song is as wonderfully decadent as the most hooky classic Sonata era cut. It also sports an unusual, “Don’t Stop Believin'” arrangement, where the true chorus doesn’t appear until 3:30 seconds into the song, that being an unforgettable, spirited group sing of the song title. This kind of flair and flexibility to deviate from traditional verse/bridge/chorus structures is rare in melodic power metal bands, who tend to cling to those tried and true approaches.
There’s a focus in Connelly’s songwriting to be as concise as possible, with verses mainlining to get to a hook or refrain, but also to be as indulgently stylistic as possible on the way there. Take “Cold Night Remedy”, where the straightforward verse sections are anchored by a solid Scorpions-esque mid-tempo riff and drum beat, but guitarist Markus Laito is off the leash, free to add flurries of notes at will and to tack on creative angles and unexpected tails. There’s just so much ear candy present everywhere, as on “Actraiser” where the keyboards and guitars battle back and forth for control of the primary melody while Salo outstrips both in time for the chorus where his vocal melody surges upwards in one of the catchiest hooks in power metal this year. Its also a particularly Kakko-esque moment, and while I’m trying to not beat the Sonata drum too much in this review, its kind of impossible not to. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either, because frankly, Everfrost are filling a void that was deeply felt by many power metal fans once Sonata drifted into more rambling, eclectic songwriting territory. On the ballad, “Above The Treeline”, we’re hearing that overwhelming influence manifest itself in beautiful, chiming piano melodies that help build up the dramatic tension alongside Salo’s impassioned vocals, the singer delivering his best performance of the album. Salo is also awesome on the riskiest cut on the album, that being a fairly faithful cover of Kesha’s global hit “Die Young”, a choice that not only seems to fit the shimmering, exuberant tone of the album as a whole but sounds great set to rockin’ riffs. I’m not sure how this fits into the album’s storyline, I’m sure there’s a valid reason, but no matter —- simply electing to cover such an unlikely choice of pop song is the very essence of a Sonata influence (they who so gloriously covered Bette Midler’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings”). This is a hugely enjoyable album, and Everfrost do bring enough personality to the table to prevent the copycat label, but that being said, this is terrific tonic for anyone left frustrated by the last decade plus of Sonata.
Opeth – In Cauda Venenum:
Four albums deep now into Opeth’s post metal career, I think most of us have given up on the idea of a return to their prog-death roots. It was all but eliminated for me when I saw the footage of their pro-shot show at Red Rocks, where Mikael Akerfeldt struggled to muster up even a reasonable facsimile of his once glorious death growl (“Demon of the Fall” was particularly saddening). Despite this opening statement however, I don’t hold it against Akerfeldt, because his reasoning makes sense, and I have given Opeth’s post Watershed output a fair hearing, and even liked the odd song here and there. What troubles me though is this sense that Akerfeldt has become a less engaging songwriter ever since he’s loosened up in this free-form, jazzy, prog-rock steeped milieu. I loved the softer moments of the classic Opeth discography, from large chunks of Damnation, to all the quiet valleys of Still Life, Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Ghost Reveries. Part of the appeal of that quiet/loud dynamic of the classic era was that Akerfeldt was just as compelling a songwriter and vocalist during the hushed, tranquil sections as he was during the brutal passages. From Heritage onwards though, I have rarely heard that kind of quality (only once really, on “Faith In Others” off Pale Communion), and frequently have felt like I’m listening to a plate of musical noodles on these newer albums. On the new album, “Heart In Hand” has a relatively compelling rhythmic dynamic working for it, with a propulsive riff getting things going, except that there’s nothing substantial in the way of a bridge leading to the chorus. It all mushes together, like when you go out for Indian food and long for some other texture amidst the curried meats, curried vegetables, and pillowy naan bread —- its all a bit soft isn’t it? Take “The Garroter” for example, where an intriguing opening guitar figure never really leads anywhere all that interesting, just dissolving in an ambient, soupy mess. There’s some heavy hitting explosions in “All Things Will Pass” that perked my interest, but it wasn’t until the very end where an all too brief sparkling melody made its quick appearance and then faded off. I dunno… it might be time to call it on Opeth. Four albums in a row where one is left disappointed might be overkill. I check out every release out of obligation but this is an exercise in exasperation.
Sleeping Ancient – There Is No Truth But Death:
Sleeping Ancient is the latest in a slowly expanding crop of Houston based metal bands to make a splash online, with Invisible Oranges and Decibel among the major outlets that have covered them in the recent month plus since the release of this debut album. To their credit, like a few other noteworthy Houstonian metal exports they have a unique sound for a band from this city, a blend of post-metal with black and doom infusions. Its a sound that stands out from a local perspective, being far removed from the local TXDM (Texas death metal if you couldn’t guess) scene, and has more in common with geographically far-flung North American bands like Russian Circles, Numenorean, or Isis (no, not that Isis). I’ve slowly listened to this album over the past month —- I say slowly because I can’t emphasize enough just how much this is a mood dependent listen, for me anyway. Usually at night, when things are winding down its just about the right headspace for the meditative, hypnotic circular nature of “A Locked Room”, or the tension building “Disillusionist”. Those two are instrumentals, and there are three of those total on a seven track album which I’ll admit is a puzzling decision. I get it, its post-metal, and “post” means that there’s a lot of leeway in an almost free-form exploration of sound, but I found myself wanting another track in the vein of “A Path Emerges” and “Writhing in the City of Dregs” (which I can only assume is a paean to our lovely weather). The former has the most memorable intro passage of the entire album, with a distinct melodic motif that creeps in during its slower passage halfway through. The latter is the most consistently engaging song from start to finish, although I feel its ending needed something a little more straightforward, like a focused, catchy, aggressive riff to make everything else hit like the proverbial hadoken. This is a promising debut, far from perfect by any means (a little less meandering and more riffs would go a long way), but worth investigating during the moonlit hours.