Kamelot: The Legacy of Roy Khan

 

 

 

Timing can be a tricky thing. I had been thinking a lot about Kamelot recently, and the reality of their future without their now ex-vocalist, the mighty Roy Khan. I had to admit, as a fan of the band I’ve harbored worries —- the loss of a vocalist is a shakeup that few bands can endure with continued creative and commercial success and this is amplified in the case of the vocalist being very distinctive. So I had begun to write a piece on my doubts, and the reasons for them and had planned on it being published just before Kamelot announced their new vocalist. Of course, on the day I planned to publish, Kamelot lifted the curtains on the identity of Khan’s long speculated upon replacement: namely Seventh Wonder’s own Tommy Karevik. Well, I’m proud to say that I called it (among others certainly), Karevik had long been one of the candidates on most fans shortlists, he was certainly my favored choice and its not exactly a surprise that he’s been given the position. It makes sense, he seems to fit in with the band vocally, and he did fill in for Khan on select shows in 2010 to proven success. I feel a touch more confident with the band going forward with Karevik, in that they’ll be able to release something that is not a jarring stylistic departure due to a new vocalist being radically different (i.e. Blaze Bailey and The X Factor). My confidence is restrained however, by my speculation of the larger possibility that Kamelot’s future will be defined not by what they have gained, but by what they have lost.

 

 

Roy Khan’s emotive and expressive vocals are by this point well-known to most of the metal community at large. His smooth delivery, subtle accent, and near perfect inflection and timbre were one of Kamelot’s defining attributes during his tenure with the band. He wielded attributes rarely found in power metal vocalists: richness, texture, depth, and a touch of melancholy. Soon after being introduced to the band through their sixth album Epica, it became apparent to me that there was more to Kamelot than just a great voice; there was intelligent and articulate songwriting at the heart of their music. In this I saw the continuing evolution of a stylistic legacy that the once mighty Queensryche had long ago abandoned. Khan and band founder/guitarist Thomas Youngblood were to me the second coming of the untouchable Geoff Tate/Chris DeGarmo songwriting team that had penned so much of the classic music that I loved in the ‘Ryche. The jump in songwriting quality from Kamelot’s first two albums with original vocalist Mark Vanderbilt (as well as the first Khan vocal-helmed album Siége Perilous), to Khan’s songwriting debut in the masterful The Fourth Legacy was simply immeasurable. Soon after hearing more Khan-Youngblood classic albums such as Karma, and Epica sequel The Black Halo, the deficiencies of many other bands in the genre grew to disproportionate sizes in my eyes. Many of the power metal bands I was listening to in earnest prior to discovering Kamelot now seemed dramatically inferior in comparison; their lyrics trite, subject matter shallow, and musically lacking. I was finding it harder and harder to enjoy many of them to the degree that I once did. In my initiations with Kamelot’s discography, I discovered that Khan’s role as a songwriter and lyricist was a huge factor in the quantum leap that Kamelot took from being a Crimson Glory-soundalike to a truly remarkable, original, and fresh force in modern power metal.

 

Khan’s songwriting legacy within Kamelot is deep and full of nuance. By becoming Kamelot’s lyricist he brought to the songs a poet’s gift, the ability for the band’s songs to shine beyond the music. As for his newly found songwriting partner Thomas Youngblood, he pushed the guitarist to rethink and expand his vision of Kamelot’s sound, right down to fundamentals such as tempos and song structure. His talent for creating vocal melodies and imagining the surrounding harmony arrangements with all their intricacies and subtleties melded with Youngblood’s natural talent for cranking out melodic yet powerful and tastefully restrained riffage, and as a result pushed the guitarist’s budding creativity.  Conversely, as seen on The Fourth Legacy album, Youngblood had a more straight ahead metal oriented songwriting approach than that of Tore Østby (Khan’s former Conception band mate and primary songwriter), and this urged Khan to get inventive in terms of how he’d develop and place vocal melodies, as well as adapt the phrasing of his smoother than most delivery to faster, heavier, more aggressively oriented metal. These results were often beautifully intricate, such as in the spectacular “Nights of Arabia” and “The Shadow of Uther”, where the verses and chorus feature alternating vocal tempos and styles to supreme dramatic effect. A further nod to creative expansion was introduced within the band’s repertoire in the form of spare, haunting, acoustic ballads. There Khan’s ability to carry a song’s melody on his vocal chords alone was put on full glorious display, as in “The Sailorman’s Hymn” and “Glory”, both moments where Khan’s lyrical storytelling abilities were allowed to blossom while Youngblood proved that he was as capable of delicate, spacious, finger-plucking as he was flashy, furious soloing. The two band mates meshed together on that album and challenged and improved each other, and it was only the beginning of a jaw dropping body of collaborative work.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_5X3FwzVeI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I keep mentioning Khan’s superlative abilities as a lyricist, and in truth the quality of lyrics don’t seem to be something that most metal fans fixate upon in general for reasons that are easy enough to understand. Most average metal bands get by on rather clunky, clumsy, and often lazy lyrics that work in a utilitarian way at best, while the appreciation of the music itself takes center stage. With Kamelot, Khan’s crystal clear vocals placed up front in the mix naturally put the spotlight upon his lyrics and he connected to listeners with his innate ability to tell stories, create interesting narrative perspectives, and offer elegant poetic verse and inventive phrasing. I’m not the only one who noticed, on the Amazon.com page for the Epica album the prolific reviewer LordChimp wrote: “Khan — in addition to being a prime singer is an outstanding lyricist, full of evocative colors and depth and beautiful diction”. Well put, and he’s not the only one who’s noticed: Kamelot fans have been vocal about their appreciation not only for Khan’s poetic voice, but for his ability to craft detailed concept albums with intricately woven stories, and imaginative narrative perspectives —- and never having it sound forced, or crammed in just for the sake of fitting it all in somehow.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jn4nzFmyNfw&w=560&h=315]

 

 

They’re referring to moments such as in the ballad “Wander”, where Khan paints a memory of a meeting between the concept album’s tragic protagonists in a setting that is depicted by simple, evocative phrases: “I recall one summers night / Within the month of June / Flowers in mahogany hair / And smell of earth in bloom”. The disconsolate narrator reflects upon the bittersweet agony of this memory in the gently soaring chorus, “Silently we wander / Into this void of consequence / My shade will always haunt her / But she will be my guiding light”. Those last two poignant lines, juxtaposition the path of the two protagonists lives in a starkly elegant manner, and serve as foreshadowing within the greater context of Epica’s Faustian storyline. In the album’s watershed song “Lost and Damned”, Khan twists and bends the verse lyrics to fit over accordion, piano and strings played in loose waltz-like rhythms only to dramatically plunge headlong into one of the band’s most bracing, urgent choruses. The lyrics deliver an appreciable musing on the workings of fate without having to clonk us on the head and actually use the terms fate, or destiny: “Don’t ask why / Don’t be sad / Sometimes we all must alter paths we planned / Only try — Understand / I want to save you / From the Lost and Damned”. Against the Faustian backdrop of the Epica storyline, this song is not only a pivotal moment of action for the album’s protagonist, Ariel, but a brilliantly executed set piece within the story. It is literally Ariel standing in front of the object of his affection, as she weeps, speaking the lyrics out to her, and we know this simply due to Khan deftly penning “Helena don’t you cry / Believe me; I do this for you / Heed my decision now / I will be gone tomorrow noon”. I could sit here listing countless other examples of similar literary devices and dramatic technique found within Khan’s lyrics across his entire spectrum of work with the band, but it’d take forever and this isn’t meant to be a literature lecture —- just one fan’s passion about what the guy brought to metal.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwCnOCYhHuI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

When Steph Perry of Rocknotes interviewed Khan back in 2009, she mentioned to him “In the song “Temples Of Gold”, there’s the lyric “little did we know that they were life itself, the days passing by”. That’s just pure poetry. You don’t even need a song behind it“. Khan responded,

 

The lyrics have always been really important to me. There’s so many bands that, I don’t know how they feel about it themselves of course but there’s a lot of bands that I feel don’t put enough into the lyrics. They focus on the music and song and everything’s great but the lyrics seem to be lacking something. There’s other bands that have brilliant lyrics too and much better lyrics for that matter. In our genre I feel there’s a lot of lyrics that definitely could have been more worked on let’s put it that way. I guess it’s just that I like to play with words, I like to say things in ways that make people stop and think. It’s very important to me. I really like writing lyrics. It doesn’t always take that long though, even though people may think that [laughs].

 

His comments regarding his dedication to his craft speak volumes, and he is diplomatic about his perceptions of the lyrics found in other bands’ work, particularly within similar genres —- perhaps too diplomatic. He schooled them all, and ruined Stratovarius for me (sorry Kotipelto!). I consider Khan’s role in Kamelot as vitally important, he was half of the driving force that helped to shape the sound, style, and vision of the band’s work. Their last two albums, Ghost Opera and Poetry for the Poisoned, while not on the same peerless level as their conceptual predecessors, were still packed with memorable songs of sweeping drama, and Khan’s trademark ear for vocal melody and unforgettable lyrics. He never dropped the ball in that regard; where it counted for artistry’s sake, in the studio and forever documented on record.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately he seemed to struggle with the toll a punishing live schedule was taking on his vocal chords as well as the effects of age (older songs had been noticeably tuned down live to compensate for his diminishing range), and performances had been slightly spotty in his last few years on the road. He seemed to be making a resurgence in the spring/summer of 2010, where his documented live appearances sounded fresh and revitalized, but soon after the hammer was dropped: Khan went on hiatus, citing burnout and exhaustion, and a little over six months later his statement confirming his resignation was officially released. By this point, the stunning shock had worn off and it didn’t come as a surprise, just a profoundly depressing acceptance. There was a curious footnote to that statement,

 

I am eternally thankful for everything you and KAMELOT have given me and equally sorry that it has to end here. The good news is; God was there after all…”     – Roy Khan

 

 

Many of Kamelot’s songs dealt thematically with universal themes such as love, death, hope, despair, and faith —- in particular the loss and search for faith. Its been interesting as a fan to go back through the albums, and see that particular theme crop up over and over, in a way that I had not noticed before. No one will ever accuse Kamelot of being a religious band, certainly not a Christian band, but it does seem that Khan was quietly embedding a great deal of his personal struggles into his lyrics, even on up to his final album with them, as seen in “Once Upon a Time”: “I won’t stay to stand in line / Or wait for God to shine all over me / I wait for the storm”. His former band mate Youngblood was unable to adequately explain his former singer’s religious awakening, but did credit it with leading the singer down his path to leaving Kamelot. In a recent Q&A by the guitarist on the band’s Facebook page, he unloaded a stunner about Khan’s present activities: “Before making the final choice on the new singer, we did correspond via email. I know he’s in good health, working in Norway. When he quit Kamelot he also chose to quit the music business and seems to be very happy.” Never say never, but that sounds to me like the end of a music career, and while I suppose I’m glad the guy is apparently happy, I find it tragic in the sense that he still has a world of talent that will potentially remain untapped. I was at least hoping for a Conception reunion, a solo album, a guest appearance, anything! Sadly, its a quiet end to a deafening career.

 

 

Some Kamelot fans grew nervous (and some irate) that Fabio Leone, the band’s choice as a long term touring fill-in could even be considered as Khan’s replacement, and while I admired the guy’s effort when I caught the band live, I quietly agreed with them. Enter Tommy Karevik. I’ve been listening to The Great Escape by Karevik’s previous (and apparently still current) band Seventh Wonder. It and its immediate predecessor Mercy Falls have been striking a chord with me that I’ve been unable to get from them in the past. I’m not sure why, maybe its my subconscious projecting its hopes about a Karevik-fronted Kamelot that’s doing it… regardless, I’m enjoying them, though not loving them. Karevik was apparently chosen on the grounds that he is also a primary songwriter for Seventh Wonder, and a lyricist as well. While I can see some skill in his lyric writing in these songs, its a far cry from the sheer quality that Kamelot fans are used to, or at least this one anyway. He has a pretty good voice, and as I mentioned before, his takes on Kamelot songs when filling in for Khan live were strong. Its unfair to compare him to Roy but to be frank about it, he has huge shoes to fill. A great, passionate new album that showcases his writing abilities in a way that pushes Kamelot forward is the only way to step out of Khan’s immense shadow. I hope he and the guys pull it off, I don’t want my admiration for the band to diminish, and as for Roy Khan himself, I hope he makes a return to music, in any form. If he doesn’t, I’m glad I got to see him live, and glad that he stuck around long enough to build what can rightly be called a legacy.

Its Report Card Time: New Sabaton, Kreator, Sonata Arctica and more!

 

Here at The Metal Pigeon I’ll review new albums that I personally take an interest in, and if you’ve read any of them you’ll notice that I don’t favor utilizing a numerical point system to determine its worth. I guess I worry that I’ll be tempted to ease up on the damage I dish out through a number to a band that I traditionally like — if say their new album is mediocre. By forcing myself to stick to a written explanation of an album’s merits and demerits, I can at least keep myself honest. But it struck me that I had a ton of new albums that I had just finished listening through at the same time that most school terms are ending for the summer – and inspiration struck! Its report card time, and The Metal Pigeon is out to see who has and hasn’t made the grade!

 

 

Sabaton – Carolus Rex:

This is without exaggeration Sabaton’s best work, topping their former pinnacle in 2008’s The Art of War through an excellently framed concept, tremendously inspired songwriting, a greater emphasis on guitarwork (no longer taking a backseat to the keyboards), and a fully realized orchestral and choir arrangement that gives these songs about great Swedish kings and battles the sound of the regal, the austere, and of course, the fury, futility, and glory of battle. Obtaining Peter Tatgren’s services for the production of the entire album (not just the mixing as before) seems to have resulted in a work that is very much woven together, a collection of songs that are bound by a shared sonic palette. Sabaton’s traditionally metallic, somewhat mechanized style is merged with symphonic power metal-esque arrangements that are normally found on albums by Kamelot or Rhapsody of Fire.  Songs like “Killing Ground” and “Poltava” are classic galloping Sabaton, with smart songwriting, clever twists and of course, great riffing and guitar melodies.  “The Carolean’s Prayer” is a far more ambitious attempt at an epic than these guys have ever tried before, and they pull it off incredibly well – with a mid-song shift in direction that mixes in to supreme dramatic effect choral vocals sung in Swedish (taken of course from the alternate Swedish version of this album).

 

Speaking of the Swedish language version, while I have no reason to doubt the opinion of the Angry Metal Guy who being a Swede has excellent insight when comparing the two versions of this album, I must say, for my tastes the English lyrics on offer here are some of Sabaton’s finest. Take for example the very metal and adrenaline raising chorus of “Carolus Rex”, which is from the perspective of the young King Charles XII, in which he declares “I was chosen by heaven! Say my name when you pray – to the skies! See Carolus rise!” In one fell swoop singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén manages to convey to us listeners just how goddamned crazy old Charles really was (I recommend doing a little history reading online, seriously the guy was a nutter), yet at the same time, bold, brash, confident, and brilliant enough to lead Sweden to superpower status. Yes I know I’m geek about lyrics, but bravado is such an overdone and often ineffective lyrical slant within metal that when you hear it being tackled in a new and fresh way that is backed up and framed by history – its damn riveting, hair raising stuff!

 

In a recent interview with The Gauntlet, Brodén admitted that the Swedish version of the album was filled with far more subtlety and nuance than the English version, and that even narrative perspectives had to be changed in translation for certain songs (see the previously linked Angry Metal Guy’s review for a far more detailed explanation). That being the case however, well us non-Swedes can only enjoy what we can hear, and while the Swedish version is a nice bonus, its only just that, and I’m here to tell you that the English version of this album delivers a gripping, and powerful narrative of the rise and fall of the Stormaktstiden. Sabaton’s tight musicianship, sharp, smart songwriting courtesy of uniquely baritone voiced singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén are the obvious keys to their success, their quiet strength has been Brodén’s superior abilities as a lyricist who understands the nuances of language and displays a mastery of diction and storytelling to achieve pulse raising emotional impacts.

 

 

Sonata Arctica – Stones Grow Her Name:

It could have worse, far, far worse for Sonata Arctica. If I had written this article say a scant few weeks ago I would’ve graded this as an F. Such is the sheer bizarreness of some of the material on display here, its nagging presence threatening to drown the whole album in an ocean of negative sentiment and resentment. But thanks to the passage of time and some stout-hearted listening sessions, the cream of the album rose to the top and I found some reasons to have hope for this band, in addition to dishing out a barely passing grade. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s happened to these guys over the past few years, for although I’ve been checking out each new release I haven’t kept up with any interviews or the reasons for their seemingly numerous multitude of lineup changes. I guess the latter doesn’t matter much if Tony Kakko is still the primary songwriter, but one has to wonder when listening to some of this album’s most dire moments if he’s lost his focus. The bands first three albums up through about half of their fourth (Reckoning Night) were back to back classics, with nary a filler track in sight and despite the presence of ever cringe worthy spoken dialogue (seriously, they need to stop with that stuff). Their successive albums each would have a few truly excellent gems amidst a bed of mediocre filler, and I think for my part, and I’m sure many other fellow longtime admirers, we were inclined to give the band a pass simply because of what they had proved to be capable of in the past. The Metallica syndrome then. I won’t spend time here discussing the terrible stuff on offer here, there’s plenty of it as well as a few mediocre filler tracks as well, but I’ll gladly point out the gems worth seeking out on ITunes or some other legit download service, they are songs worth paying for. Namely, “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and lead off single “I Have a Right” both shimmer with classic Kakko melodies and thoughtful, always unabashed lyrics.  Grab them and load them up alongside the rest of their classics.

 

 

Kreator – Phantom Antichrist:

In what is a solid contender for the album of the year spot, Kreator have done something with Phantom Antichrist that seems to elude many a veteran band — that is, to find a way back to the authenticity of your original sound and spirit by focusing on the strengths of your classic sound while folding in fresh new ideas that not only complement but enhance that sound. The past few records have been respectable, but not remarkable, but in retrospect you can regard them as building blocks away from their misguided batch of records in mid to late nineties. This album makes such a profound impact that you’re hard pressed not to view the past few Kreator records as tests and trial runs for the supreme masterwork delivered here. These are not just solid songs, they are heart-stoppingly great at their best and adrenaline inducing the rest of the time. Here songwriter and vocalist Mille Petrozza aims to infuse  a healthy dose of Gothenburg-esque melodicism into Kreator’s thrash metal attack and build the songs around this newfound element to jawdropping effect. The melodies aren’t run of the mill Gothenburg-isms either, but fresh and inspired in their own right, and they only serve to enhance the impact of Kreator’s trademark brutality by emphasizing memorability and catchiness. Those seeking a repeat of Pleasure to Kill will not get what they want, but an open mind will allow those expectations to be brushed away upon the hearing the grin inducing chorus of the album opener and title track. There are too many highlights here to adequately list: the blistering “Death to the World”, the quiet to loud explosion found within “Your Heaven, My Hell”, and of course the classic sounding title track just to name the obvious highlights. Someone get copies of this to everyone in the “Big Four”.

 

 

Dragonforce – The Power Within:

If you’re a fan of these guys, full time or part time, then I have some good and relieving news for you. They’re gonna be fine with the new guy. More than fine really. Yes, this is the same meticulously produced, shimmering, hyper-actively fast, guitar melody driven “extreme power metal” that they have won a reputation for and it would have been folly to think that an element as relatively decentralized as the vocals would beggar changes to that formula. Except that, in a promising way, they’ve managed to introduce some new elements into their typical formula, and those are best seen in the singles “Cry Thunder”, and “Seasons”. Its amusing that something as simple as slowing down the tempo a bit and focusing more on allowing good riffs space to breath could inject such a freshness to the typical Dragonforce sound. “Cry Thunder” builds from rock steady riffage to a swelling bridge, whereupon new vocalist Marc Hudson finally breaks free of the guitars in an uplifting chorus. On “Seasons” he takes center stage and the guitars work around his key lead vocal, which yes I know doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary, but for these guys its certainly different. It works, in part due to a catchy as hell chorus, but also in large part to the fact that the slower tempo-ed breathable verse structures with guitars in a supporting role really enhance the rock n’ roll feel going on (read: less clinical sounding). The fact that they throw in an acoustic version of this song as a bonus track and it actually sounds just as great stripped down is proof that if these guys continue in this less maniacal direction, their songwriting is bound to benefit. There’s nothing wrong with their fast style, its just that flurries of notes compacted together at unmeasurable BPMs was all they were doing for awhile. I’m enjoying this album in a casual way, its good summer music, and while it doesn’t touch the audacious brilliance of their 2002 classic Sonic Firestorm, its a good start in what I hope will be a further investigated new direction.

 

 

Grand Magus – The Hunt:

Hell yeah! Was my reaction upon first hearing the title track of this album played on a favorite metal radio show. Long have I been exposed to Grand Magus and time and time again it just didn’t sink in for me, but this song made me seek this record out in its entirety. And like a hammer slamming a nail through cheap balsa wood, Grand Magus has finally lodged itself in my mind as the awesome musical entity I’ve long suspected they are. I’m successfully enjoying their previous release lately as well, proceeding to work my way backwards through their discography. Every single song on this record is compelling, addictive, and plain rockin’ — in that excellent-for-driving around under the blazing Texas sun whilst nodding, headbanging, and hitting air cymbals way. I’m sure the following statements will raise the eyebrows of any who are already familiar with these guys, but the most apt comparison I can make for this three piece Swedish group is that they’re like a dirtier, grittier, doomier, more rock n’roll infused Falconer. The comparison to their fellow Swedes is not only relegated to the music, for vocalist Janne “JB” Christoffersson is similar in approach to Falconer’s Mathias Blad — they both sing in a mid-range delivery with a few exceptions, they both favor a far more restrained approach (no wild Kiske-esque screams to be found here), and generally speaking they have a similar timbre to their voice and accent. I’m firmly calling this a good thing by the way, so if you’re one of those unfortunate folks who can’t enjoy Mathias Blad led Falconer, don’t let the comparison turn you off. Christoffersson’s vocals are sandpaper smooth, and his timing, phrasing, and lyrics are a perfect complement to Grand Magus’ unique mix of power metal musicality and doom metal informed pacing. It seems on this new record they’ve taken an extra step away from their doom metal influences and have embraced the sounds of traditional American hard rock a bit more — an approach that recalls to mind the best of Dio’s mid 80’s solo work. Oh yeah, the album also has some of the most badassed cover art seen in awhile. This album has already been on heavy rotation, and I’m positive I’ll be listening to it all summer long. Gotta love it when a band finally clicks for you, and the records that do it are usually pretty special. The Hunt definitely is.

 

 

Burzum – Umskiptar:

This is depressing. After two ferocious, forward looking, and downright inspired post-prison albums (Belus and Fallen), Varg commits the inexcusable sin of simply boring us to sleep. Seriously, I fucking fell asleep listening to this. And many rounds of periodic repeat listens haven’t changed my mind, on the contrary, I’ve begun to dread those moments where I decide: “okay time to man up and give it another shot”. Forget it, I’m done. Things were promising in the early going — I had first heard what most folks had heard with the leak of the album’s first track proper, “Jóln (Deities)”, to YouTube and figured that we’d be in for something akin to Fallen part two. It suffices to say that the song serves as the albums only highlight (barely). The rest is an unsorted mess of murky, formless, meandering sonic textures and plodding guitars. Any riffs are few and far between, and to make matters worse, the latter third of the album is a delightful soup of spoken word and atmospherics. Appetizing for sure! There’s a cool moment at the very start of “Alfadanz” with an eerie tinkling piano and a guitar riff that mimics it, but sadly the track proceeds to limp along shortly afterwards, almost stubbornly refusing any injections of energy or excitement. Its all a damn shame too because he was riding on a stream of creative momentum and stretching the boundaries of what was possible for Burzum in a musical context. He overreaches here, and we all suffer for it.

 

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