The Metal Pigeon on the MSRcast!

Many months ago, Cary G. from the long running metal podcast MSRcast asked if I’d like to be a guest on his show, and many, many months later we somehow managed to get the planets to align to make it happen. For those who don’t know, MSRcast is the audio evolution of the now defunct Mainstream Resistance zine which once upon a time found its way into many a Texas metal fans’ sweaty, moist palms. There are very few metal based podcasts that I enjoy listening to, and MSRcast and its sister show Metalgeeks are both part of that select group. I was asked to be a guest on their 2013 rewind, and yes I know its nearly March but hey, one more look back couldn’t hurt right? You can listen to them by following the links provided below and using their web based player, or download it from their site directly as an mp3 file, or simply do what I do for my podcast needs and find them in the iTunes store, hit subscribe and you’ll auto-download every new episode! What — you’ve never listened to podcasts before? Maybe its time to get with it! I’ll let it go this time because I’m such a nice guy!

 

MSRcast 149: 2013 Rewind Part One /ft The Metal Pigeon!

MSRcast 150: 2013 Rewind Part Two /ft The Metal Pigeon!

Talking Heads: Within Temptation Baffles with Hydra

I’ve learned through these past few years doing The Metal Pigeon that the hardest reviews to write are the ones for releases that I don’t feel strongly about one way or another. Case in point is the amount of days I’ve been putting off publishing this review for the newest Within Temptation album, Hydra, simply because I’ve felt unsatisfied about my own written response (I’ve re-written this thing about three times now, and this fourth and final time is me just being blunt and hopefully not coming across as a jerk). Full disclosure before I begin: I generally enjoy what Within Temptation does —- which is polished, semi-symphonic metallic pop-rock crowned with the ear pleasing vocals of Sharon Den Adel. There have been some missteps along the way (the insipid “What’ve You Done Now?” duet with Keith Caputo comes to mind), but generally speaking Within Temptation have done rather well in their chosen style. I’ve never really considered them a metal band, but they get thrown into our world due to the semi-doom stylings of their debut album and simply by association (at least for me… I first heard of them through Den Adel’s guest spot on the first Avantasia album). But that’s okay, because over the past decade plus they’ve delivered a handful of albums with catchy, well crafted songs that ring with conviction.

 

This however, is not one of those albums. Within Temptation have always possessed a commercially friendly sound, but on albums like Mother Earth (2000), its follow up The Silent Force (2004), and the surprisingly excellent The Unforgiving (2011), that characteristic seemed like a natural byproduct of the band’s songwriting ability to use dramatic, epic sound palettes in crafting self contained pop format songs. Den Adel’s vocal melodies were central in importance, while the riffs and orchestral arrangements would work to support them by encapsulating them (for example on tracks like “Stand My Ground”, or “Angels”). Of course the caveat here is that such a strategy only worked as long as the vocal melodies were strong enough to carry the song alone —- and on those records, they generally were. When the band gets it wrong, as on The Heart of Everything (2007) and yes, on Hydra, the results are largely uninspiring. Compound this with a series of misguided guest vocalist additions and you have a near disaster of an album.

 

Let’s start with those questionable guest vocalists first. I remember feeling mildly concerned that their usage of the aforementioned Caputo as a guest vocalist on The Heart of Everything would mark the start of a potentially negative trend, but surprisingly The Unforgiving was guest-free. I guess they’re making up for the lack thereof on that album becauseHydraboasts an unseemly four guest singers, none of whom on paper inspire confidence. The results are worse on record —- where to start? Let’s take “And We Run”, a song where a promising verse really needs an actual developed bridge to the Den Adel sung chorus, but I suppose that’s rapper Xzibit’s job, with his post chorus raps full of nonsensical lyrics and atonal delivery that completely derail any hope of this being a good song. Its one of those songs where you wonder if someone in the recording process or mixing phase was silently thinking to themselves, “I think this should be a b-side”. Not faring much better is the lame “Dangerous”, where ex-Killswitch Engage screamer Howard Jones gives us his best alternative rock voice, which is a shade more tolerable than his regular style. The song itself seems to have the potential to be something decent, the vocal melody is salvageable, but its marred by clumsy, embarrassingly bad lyrics.

 

And then there’s the much ballyhooed Tarja Turunen (billed these days simply as “Tarja”) collaboration, “Paradise (What About Us)”, a song that is disappointing on a few levels. First I suppose I should remark on just how well Tarja’s English pronunciations sound these days, to the untrained ear her traded off verses with Den Adel would be nearly indistinguishable. That’s also part of the problem —- their verses are patterned so similarly that there really isn’t an apparent juxtaposition of voices on the song (unless you count Tarja’s operatic accents during the middle bridge section —- which I don’t). Songwriting wise, there’s some solid rhythmic variations going on in the verse sections that you wish were expanded upon. It’s the chorus that fails me, not only because its repeated countless times in favor of… you know, actual songwriting variations, but its simply weak, unable to pull sufficiently from the wellspring of drama that has fueled so many Within Temptation choruses past. To me personally, its yet another sad piece of proof that Tarja’s vocals will never have the benefit of the kind of songwriting platforms Tuomas Holopainen crafted for her in Nightwish —- she simply does not sound good anywhere else.

 

The only guest vocalist spot that sort of works, and that’s primarily due to the strength of the song, is Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner on “The Whole World is Watching”, of which I still can’t believe no one representing the band didn’t try to get on NBC during the Sochi Olympics. Do I have to draw you guys a picture? Despite its maudlin lyrics, this is one of the stronger songs on the record as an above average ballad, but I suppose that depends on your tolerance level for these things. Pirner has always been a rather expressive singer (certainly among most of the Minneapolis rock bands of that era), but just like the other guests he’s a puzzling choice for co-vocalist, albeit one of the more believable ones. I suppose I can see a younger Within Temptation enjoying “Runaway Train” back in the day, but wasn’t there someone with a far more distinctive and powerful voice they could’ve called upon? And I wonder why all the increased emphasis on guest vocalists all of a sudden anyway? A cynical perspective would highlight them as examples of a band wanting to trade in on a guest vocalist’s fan base, but only in the case of Tarja is that really a potential reality here. I’m baffled honestly.

 

Thankfully its not all bad. The album opener “Let It Burn” is a decent song, reminiscent of the same surging energy that ran throughout The Unforgiving, with tension building verses that explode in a exuberant refrain. The highlight of the album however is “Silver Moonlight”, the one track that sees the band refreshingly reconnecting with their metallic roots. There are actual metal riffs at work here! Some pretty good ones at that, making a change from what has become the band’s typical reliance on big dumb power chords. Here Sharon Den Adel flexes her soaring vocals to greater heights, and guitarist Robert Westerholt makes his co-vocalist return with some impressively doomy death vocals. Ironic that this ends up being the best track on an album full of guest vocalists. There’s also “Covered By Roses”, where the Gothic imagery of the title is matched by the content of the lyrics, full of references to castles, falling stars, wine, sadness, beauty —- it winds up sounding like an outtake from The Silent Force (that’s a good thing). Is that an actual fluid guitar solo I hear at the end there? I knew these guys still had some real musicality hiding under all these layers of production gloss! On an album this dire, I’ll take every encouraging sign I can get. I could’ve done without the awkward, half-baked “Dog Days”, a song that might’ve benefited from a producer who would’ve called the terrible lyrics into question. Oh well… I’m getting tired of listening to this record honestly, so moving on.

 

There’s a bonus disc on some editions of Hydra that contain a handful of covers taken from the band’s questionable The Q-Music Sessions (see Wikipedia for more info on this), and some “evolution” tracks of songs from the album (essentially, gradual fades of demos to finished versions). I just want to focus on the idea of these covers here, let’s see: Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive”, Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”, Enrique Iglesias’ “Dirty Dancer”, and Passenger’s “Let Her Go”. Both “Dirty Dancer” and “Radioactive” sound silly, they’re completely divorced from their original sound palette and while that was the point —- flatly I find them unlikeable. Faring little better is “Summertime Sadness”, as the upbeat Goth-rock orchestral arrangement conjured up for the cover is an inadequate backdrop when compared to the original’s eerie, smoky trip-hop palette. Much better by far is the band’s take on Passenger’s “Let Her Go”, and yes the lyrics are strange when sung by a woman, though Den Adel’s vocals are far superior to Mike Rosenberg’s. Something strikes me as odd about the inclusion of these four tracks as bonus cuts. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’m not surprised that three of them are very recent hits… and major major hits at that (I’m talking Lebron jamming to his Beats headphones type of hits). And they’re being re-re-released here for emphasis.

 

I know the intention behind The Q-Music Sessions was to celebrate a radio station’s anniversary (huh?!) and to see if the band could quickly adapt a song to their style —- however, the entire affair struck me at the time as the most dubious exercise in crass commercialism. What’s even more surprising was the lack of anyone calling them out on it. I have no problem with a band wanting to get bigger, to sell more records, to gain more fans, and to generally secure their livelihood. I do feel however, that what Within Temptation have done by agreeing to the concept of their stunt with this radio station is inherently disingenuous. They’re not releasing a covers record of songs culled from their influences growing up, they’re simply covering pop radio hits. Was it really such a challenge to deliver such half-baked covers? When they released all these finished covers as an album, the YouTube uploads quickly followed —- you can’t say the band isn’t shrewd. How many of those covered artists’ fans have checked out these YouTube-d covers by this odd Dutch rock band? How many of those fans will in turn check out Hydra due to simple fandom flattery? How far does something like this go you may ask? Den Adel even recently appeared on a European chat show with a bewildered looking Lana Del Rey. Crossover indeed.

Catching Up: New Music from Persuader / Silent Force / Royal Hunt / Primal Fear

In continuing the theme of 2014 being the year of power metal, the past couple months have given us a handful of new releases by established artists from the genre to delve into. Among these are two bands back with their first new albums in over half a decade. Sweden’s Persuader were last heard from on 2006’s admittedly lackluster When Eden Burns, the first slight misstep within their largely fantastic discography. The German quintet of Silent Force haven’t released a record since 2007, and are also sporting three new band members while moving forward without longtime vocalist D.C. Cooper. If you haven’t been keeping up, he’s been back with Royal Hunt since 2011, and they’ve just released only their fourth album with him on vocals, despite his first joining the band way back in 1995(!). And then there’s Germany’s Primal Fear, who might just be one of the most hardworking bands in genre, ushering in one album/tour cycle after another with no stop in regularity. They return with their tenth album in sixteen years, a breathless pace for any band to keep (and that’s not counting compilations or live albums). Lets get into it:

 


 

Persuader – The Fiction Maze:

I’m glad I took my time with this album, because perhaps my initial exuberance at the mere fact that I was finally listening to a new Persuader record would have colored my initial impressions had I reviewed it right away. Speaking of taking one’s time, eight years is an eternally long time between albums in the metal world, and kind of a shame in Persuader’s case because despite my limited enjoyment of When Eden Burns, I had no doubt that they’d right the ship and get back to delivering modern day classics in just a year or two. Clearly that didn’t happen… so why such a long wait for this new album?

 

It’s ironically Blind Guardian’s fault (Persuader vocalist Jens Carlsson is a dead ringer for Hansi Kursch), as former Guardian sticksman Thomen Stauch persuaded (hah!) Carlsson and guitarist Emil Norberg to join him in the bizarre power metal Frankenstein that was Savage Circus. Stauch left Blind Guardian due to being unhappy with the band’s current symphonic-heavy direction, and he yearned for a return to their early nineties era musical style. Alongside Iron Savior’s Piet Sielck, the Persuader guys stuck around long after Stauch himself went on a hiatus for personal reasons, and a great deal of time passed in which they managed to release a few records to mild acclaim. I think the best way to consider all this is to state that the very obvious sentiment that where many were clamoring and hoping for new Persuader all these years, few have done the same for Savage Circus. Hindsight then.

 

So does the band rebound with The Fiction Maze? In large part yes, this is a far superior album to When Eden Burns, yet it fails to match the visceral intensity of their past classics The Hunter and Evolution Purgatory. The album opens with its best track, the absolutely storming “One Lifetime”, where a thunderous introduction with aggressive melo-death riffing and tension building verses usher in the band’s most devastating chorus to date. This is classic Persuader, playing to their strengths and showcasing their natural talents as hook first songwriters. Not quite as stunning, yet still great are the lead off single “Son of Sodom”, “Deep in the Dark”, and “Sent to the Grave”; the latter of which boasts 2014’s most compulsively earwormy chorus (Carlsson’s vocal phrasing here is inspired).

 

But there’s some weaker stuff here as well, including a couple of clunkers in “War” (which is a shame as it follows “One Lifetime”), “Worlds Collide”, and most notably the insipidly titled “InSect”. Their interspersed placement among the tracklisting is distracting and disrupts the flow of the album into a continuously up and down experience. I see myself loading up the best tracks on the iPod and avoiding further listens to the album as a whole —- maybe next time we’ll get a start to finish classic. Hopefully it won’t take eight years.

 

 

Silent Force – Rising From Ashes:

I know that I’ve used a lot of screen space lately on discussing subgenres, styles, and just what characterizes metal. You’ll forgive me however if I delve right into a puzzling question that arises upon my umpteenth listen of Silent Force’s Rising From Ashes: Why is it that nearly every power metal/trad metal band that winds up on AFM records eventually ends up transitioning to a more hard rock style? If you know your power metal history, you’ll realize that this actually started with Edguy leaving AFM back in 2001 after Mandrake was released, their next album was 2004’s very much hard rock injected Hellfire Club —- their first for their new label Nuclear Blast. Maybe that’s where it started, but its become something of an unspoken phenomenon, but I’m not wrong in my observations. I can only idly speculate at what the source behind this influence is —- the label bosses perhaps?

 

This doesn’t mean that the results are automatically doomed to failure. More often than not, the natural extension for a power metal band looking to loosen up their traditionally tightly wound sound is to add more wild, unrestrained hard rock influences into the mix. The concerning thing is that its become a major trend over the past half a decade, and there are so few power metal bands going the opposite direction when seeking new inspiration (for example, mixing in more technicality, or getting heavier by adding in extreme metal elements… Falconer is a good example of the latter). Anyway, Rising From Ashes is worlds apart from their last album with D.C. Cooper, 2007’s Walk the Earth, as new vocalist Michael Bormann boasts a bluesy, Coverdale-ish rasp that is a striking contrast to Cooper’s smooth tenor. As far as hard rock vocalists go, he’s top tier and sounds practically ageless (he’s bounced around various projects since 1993). Founding guitarist Alexander Beyrodt apparently decided that it was enough of a contrast that he had to scale back the band’s more traditional power metal leanings in favor of lean, muscled up hard rock riffs, a simplified approach to songwriting and a shift from fantasy inspired lyrical themes to a more hard rock friendly range of topics about relationships and heartbreak.

 

It actually works surprisingly well on spectacular tracks like “Circle of Trust”, “Anytime Anywhere”, and the very Whitesnake-ian “Turn Me Loose”. The former is the best track on the record, featuring an explosive chorus complete with gang shouted vocals (although the workable lyrics tend to veer close to self-help/counseling territory). All three boast refrains that will get stuck in your head —- but unlike past Silent Force records, the entire song seems built around them in a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, and seemingly long gone are the prog-metal elements of records past. That means a tremendous lack of lengthy, flashy Beyrodt solos, no delicate piano or acoustic guitar intros, no sudden shifts in tempo or structure, and no more of the adventurous elements that made albums like Walk the Earth or Worlds Apart so compelling.

 

It honestly just sounds like a totally different band at times (or much like Beyrodt’s side project in Voodoo Circle, which makes the whole thing even more puzzling). The rest of the tracks on this album reinforce that loss, and while they’re all generally decent enough, they pass over you without much of an impact. The magic of those earlier releases seems to be gone, and I’m going to go ahead and suggest their choice of vocalist contributed to that. Bormann is an undeniable talent, and he could sound great singing your shopping list, but they really needed to get someone who could’ve continued in the same milieu as Cooper. Sometimes heading in the opposite direction with a replacement vocalist works out, but not if that direction pulls the band along with it as well.

 

 

Royal Hunt – A Life to Die For:

Good news for those hoping that the Hunt would maintain the momentum built back up with 2011’s Show Me How to Live, their long hoped for reunion album with D.C. Cooper. Their newest is as good, if not better and as a nice little bonus provides us with the best production to ever grace an album in their overwhelming discography. If you’ve gotten used to hearing Cooper’s far more metallic attack in Silent Force over the years, his approach in Royal Hunt might throw you. He showcases a far more theatrical, almost Freddy Mercury-ian flamboyance in his vocals on all his work in this band (and to my ears at least, it sounds like he picked up right where he left off on the 1998 masterpiece Paradox). Keyboard and composer André Andersen doesn’t shake up the formula all that much, so you know what you’re getting on an essential level: progressive, complex songwriting with an emphasis on strong hooks, prominent keyboard melody lines, and of course stellar upfront vocals.

 

This time Andersen added some actual string players to fatten up the orchestral elements normally handled by his keys alone. The results are noticeable, especially on standout tracks like “One Minute Left to Live” where they play off Andersen’s keys in dramatic fashion. That track is also a strong example of how its entirely possible to make melodic prog-metal both technically complex and accessibly catchy, possibly something born of a European tradition since its an aspect lost on American bands like Dream Theater. The same goes for “Sign of Yesterday”, a melodramatic quasi-power ballad where stately strings usher Cooper’s vocals in waltz like rhythms before revealing an almost circular, sweeping chorus. On “Running Out of Tears”, Cooper is joined by harmonized counterpoint female vocals, a delicate touch that adds depth to an already strong refrain. As I’m listening to the album again while writing this review, I can’t help but just appreciate how great it is having Cooper back with Andersen. The latter’s songwriting style always seemed to lend itself to an ultra smooth voice and while the John West / Mark Boals eras had their good moments, they simply don’t hold a candle to Cooper.

 

 

Primal Fear – Delivering the Black: Its getting harder and harder to review new Primal Fear albums. I’ve always enjoyed their Judas Priest-influenced (worship?) take on power metal, they make consistently solid albums (never truly great), and there’s not much to complain about. And that’s kind of the problem… (here it comes)… they have a tendency to largely play it safe to a fault sometimes. Don’t expect Delivering the Black to signal a drastic change of that tendency, and I suppose its fair to state that the band is entirely comfortable with that. I did however think 2012’s Unbreakable was the most inspired record they had delivered in the past ten years —- the reasons being hard to define except to surmise that they were firing on all cylinders songwriting wise. It was the first time I could remember being able to play through a Primal Fear album without skipping around.

 

As a follow-up Delivering is a touch underwhelming in comparison, but it does have its fair share of carry over excellence from its predecessor. As on Unbreakable with the undeniably awesome “Where Angels Die”, the longer songs here seem to fare better, namely, “One Night in December”, and the lead single “When Death Comes Knocking”. Kudos to the band for adding to the latter some unexpected musical flair in the form of middle eastern instrumentation midway through, it actually works for some bizarre reason. The former track is the traditional epic of the album, and they’ve been on a such a roll with them lately I almost encourage the band to seek out crafting a smaller tracklisted album full of these Sad Wings of Destiny influenced lengthier cuts. Its songwriting is complex and multifaceted, while sonically there are just enough subtle orchestral swells to make your hair stand on end at times. Guitarist Magnus Karlsson seems to have really found his place within the songwriting ranks of the band in the past couple albums, he’s likely one of the major reasons for their turnaround lately. A tip of the hat as well to Alex Beyrodt (yes the very same Beyrodt of Silent Force), who has been helping the band on second guitarist duties (I guess he’s officially in the band now?).

 

There’s of course a ballad on offer here too, “Born with a Broken Heart”, and if you enjoy power metal ballads then you should appreciate Primal Fear’s career long track record of tackling these. There’s just something about Ralf Scheepers’ leathery vocals softening for gorgeous, delicate orchestral melodies that supersedes any reservations about the admittedly trite lyrics (you don’t listen to Primal Fear for in depth lyricism). The rest of the album is largely good despite a few fillers here and there, but that’s to be expected, though I wasn’t wild about the closer “Inseminoid” —- whatever that title is supposed to mean. It could’ve been left as a b-side for Japan which would have made the ballad the closer. Oh well, nitpicking is futile. I suppose the fact that I wouldn’t mind hearing a good handful of these songs live when I see the band in May is a good sign for my overall appraisal.

Iced Earth Return with Plagues of Babylon

I just realized something —- this will be only the third time I’ve written solely about Iced Earth in the history of this blog, the first being Dystopia‘s inclusion on the Best of 2011 list, and the second being a 2012 gig report that turned into trip down memory lane back to 2004 when I saw Iced Earth cram close to a thousand Houstonians in a sweltering converted warehouse on the Glorious Burden tour during their Ripper Owens era. I only point it out because its a surprisingly small number for a band that is among my longest running fandoms, as well as an important part of my breaking away from mainstream metal in order to explore the European power metal scene in earnest. I’m certain everyone is aware of the many upheavals within the lineup the past few years but its worth pointing out yet again what a huge shot in the arm the addition of Stu Block has been —- simply in terms of making Iced Earth a fully functioning band again.

Unlike the sporadic live shows in the final years of the Barlow era, Iced Earth is now doing their longest full length world tours yet, and in the span of the past three years have released two studio albums and one live album/dvd. The music has also improved, the difference in quality night and day from the final Barlow offering, The Crucible of Man in 2008, to 2011’s Stu Block debut Dystopia. As I wrote in that linked 2012 article, the band looked fired up on stage, Jon Schaffer in particular looking noticeably happier. I felt happier myself witnessing that. It was a rebirth of a band that I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for in addition to simply being a fan, as I’d always felt that the struggle of Iced Earth to sustain themselves as an American power metal band during the dry spell of the mid-nineties mirrored what many of us stateside fans had to endure as well.

I was encouraged to hear by the middle of 2013 just how quickly the band was able to finish writing and start the recording of Plagues of Babylon, their second effort with Block. It was a sign that the Block-Schaffer partnership wasn’t fraying from the demands of the road, and that they were eager to parlay that enthusiasm into productive work. And tellingly on Plagues, they’ve either consciously or subconsciously brought their live sound to the recording studio. This is a noticeably rawer and grittier Iced Earth than we’ve heard on their past couple releases (specifically I’m referring to all their albums since 2001’s Horror Show). Speaking broadly, there’s a sense that they have carried the effects of their long touring over into the studio —- Iced Earth have always been far heavier and even thrashier live on stage than they’ve been on record. Here the band goes easy on layered choral vocals during refrains and excessive displays of major key melodicism, instead opting for gun metal grey riffs with slight melodic variations alongside mostly solitary lead vocals that recall to mind their classic Something Wicked and Dark Saga period. Overall there is a very stripped down and “live” approach being employed —- and its a darker album as a result.

 

The first four songs on the tracklisting are particularly apparent examples, the highlight among them being the adrenaline pumping “Democide”, as thrash metal-y as Iced Earth have sounded in years. Block’s solo lead vocals seem heftier and far more menacing here than on Dystopia, and again it reminds me of how he sounded when I saw him live. Its ironic then that Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch turns up in a guest spot on “Among the Living Dead”, where he doesn’t really add his trademark wall of sound vocal layering approach to the mix, instead merely offering up his own solo vocal counterpoints to Block’s. Honestly it took me a few listens to even spot Kursch’s usually instantly recognizable voice, and even after many, many listens I wonder if his talents are going under utilized here. But these thoughts are put aside by the time “The End?” kicks in, where Schaffer and lead guitarist Troy Seele deliver a lushly melodic array of guitar work to introduce some contrast to Block’s brutal take on clean vocals —- here he even delivers a near black metal styled scream midway through.

The band amps up the multitracked vocals on semi-ballad “If I Could See You”, a track that recalls “I Died For You” off the Dark Saga in a big way, not a bad thing mind you but its just another thing that ties this album’s sonic feel back to that era. And I particularly love the lush vocal layering on “Cthulhu”, where the refrain is so well written that it bleeds out emotion, despite being a song about a gigantic, mind-boggling octopus beast-god. Again referencing the past, it’s a quality song that would sound right at home on Horror Show (musically and thematically as well). But let’s face facts, eleven albums into their career no one is expecting Iced Earth to reinvent themselves, only to deliver the metallic goods so to speak. I think I could speak for Iced Earth fans if I suggest that all we want is a consistently good to great record that delivers all the trademarks we expect, with a high level of energy, and Plagues does deliver in that regard. Its not all perfect… I feel that the back to back pairing of both “Peacemaker” and “Parasite” tend to fall largely flat, but two out of twelve isn’t bad.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9unWRsD2QQM&w=560&h=320]

 

 

Now to discuss the obvious album highlight, which may irk some as its a cover, but the band’s take on “Highwayman” is nothing short of spectacular. This is of course the Jimmy Webb penned namesake track of the eighties super group of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash The song was fitting both lyrically and structurally for those singers, four country stars long pegged as outsiders in their own genre, four verses for each of them. Iced Earth invite some friends to flesh out their version of the classic, with Schaffer himself handling the first verse on lead vocals, followed by Symphony X’s Russell Allen, then Block, and finally rounded out by the distinctive country-punk twang of Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen. It really works, Schaffer has occasionally done some lead vocals on Iced Earth tracks here and there, so he has the chops to do it and sounds commanding here. Allen is of course a long ranged vocal dynamo, who even adds some of his trademark vocal run extensions despite only singing a few lines. Block’s verse might by my favorite, about the dam builder “Across the river, deep and wide / Where steel and water did collide”, his delivery touched with a hint of outlaw country and rock n’ roll abandon. Poulsen is admittedly an acquired taste, but I don’t mind a little Volbeat here and there and in small doses such as the concluding verse here he is a refreshing change up. They all do a great job.

This was among the first major metal releases of the year, and one of the first cannon shots representing what might be a banner year for power metal. With Plagues of Babylon, 2014 seems to be getting off to a strong start. Its not the best Iced Earth record ever, but its a solid, at times great album that I’m anticipating will sound even better on April 28th when I see them once again in Houston. I’m looking forward to finding out how my back and neck will hold up.

Atlantean Kodex: Power Metal’s Unlikely Heroes?

If you haven’t heard of Germany’s Atlantean Kodex before, that’s understandable because they are only recently receiving the kind of critical acclaim that is turning quite a few heads thanks to their amazing new record The White Goddess. I myself only listened to them after 2013 had passed, thanks to seeing their high placement on Adrien Begrand’s Best of 2013 list. Atlantean Kodex play power metal, or as some prefer to call it to avoid negative stigmas, traditional or epic metal. The caveat is that all this new found attention is coming from far more than just relatively underground power metal sites/blogs —-  as the band have been turning the heads of writers at a few big platform publications such as Pitchfork, Stereogum, Popmatters, and Vice. Yes you’re reading that right, a release by a power metal band from the birthplace of the subgenre itself is receiving the kind of attention that is normally reserved for critically acceptable black and death metal bands. Their success in this regard is the product of two parts smart marketing and pairing with highly regarded indie record labels (Cruz Del Sur/20 Buck Spin), and one part a blending of such disparate influences as Manowar and Bathory —- a combination that practically begs to be investigated.

 

Its important to note that Atlantean Kodex are a relatively young band in a strange way; they formed in 2005 but have been quite content to take their time in creating new music, as The White Goddess is only their sophomore full length album. However it might be one of the most important power metal recordings of all time, not only due to its undisputed excellence, but for what it could mean for the future of a subgenre long maligned in the United States. In this regard, Atlantean Kodex are venturing into unknown territory, being the first power metal band to achieve critical success from non-metal media platforms in the post-social media era. Surely this kind of success would not come from the genre’s long standing forefathers, its torchbearers such as Blind Guardian, Rhapsody, Kamelot, Iced Earth, Avantasia, etc, etc —- the fix was in against those bands perhaps simply because their origins predate the current era. Its always easier for the media to disregard something long established with lazy labels and critical adjectives (ie cheesy, pretentious, dinosaur, etc) than it is to actually do the work and understand why these artists are as popular and loved as they are.

 

 

What makes The White Goddess great isn’t exactly groundbreaking on a conceptual level —- its simply quality songwriting, excellent musicianship, and a vocalist that sells it all with soaring conviction. The same qualities could be attributed to many other fine releases by other bands within the genre. Where Atlantean Kodex strive to differentiate themselves is by adding shades of melancholic doom to their take on power metal, which makes everything sound heavier, with a tendency to lean on slower, steady tempos, often with ample use of space and silence. Evidence of the latter can be found on the slow and brooding eleven minute long “Heresiarch”, where isolated bass lines sometimes are the sole instrument rumbling along during the verses. The clear album standout here is “Sol Invictus” (another ten minute plus track), the album’s clarion call that boasts a punishing heaviness not only from sledgehammer riffs, but from the brutal attack of the rhythm section —- drummer Mario Weiss is one of the most talented and unheralded drummers in metal today, his percussion is at once relentless, assaulting, and artful. The chorus here puts the spotlight on vocalist Markus Becker who commands your attention with a performance that is Imaginations-era Hansi Kursch esque. I’ll spare you a track by track dissection here, the entire album is jawdroppingly amazing, but my personal favorite has to be “Twelve Stars and an Azure Gown”, a semi-ballad that wrenches out emotion from every note. At times throughout the song, metal fury is pierced by moments of haunting, doomy, ethereal beauty. I mentioned Bathory as an influence earlier, and its extremely difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where Quorthon’s work really comes through, because its simply everywhere, ingrained in the fabric of Atlantean Kodex’s sound and approach to songwriting. You hear it alongside the Manowar-ish influences and it sounds completely natural.

 

Lyrically, this is top tier level stuff that transcends power metal boundaries despite using many mythological references. The underlying theme of the album is the rise and fall of modern Europe, but these lyrics are ancient world imagery rich and full of obscure mythological metaphors, as guitarist Manuel Trummer explained to VICE, “The figure of the White Goddess is an allegory for this life/death relationship. She‘s an pan-European deity who shows up in all religions from ancient Greece to the Nordic pantheon, but she‘s always associated with aspects of life, death and rebirth.” Many of you that read this blog often already know that I’m big on lyricists within metal, that is, quality lyricists which are few and far between. This is band that has put as much work into their lyrics as they have their music, a rare tendency in power metal even, which is a shame because I thought Trummer had a point when he talked about the lack of need for focusing on lyrics in other, more extreme genres of metal: “with all these Cookie Monster vocals in brutal death metal, metalcore, deathcore, etc., you can‘t understand the lyrics anyway. A lot of this new kind of metal is about physical power, about experiencing your own body, about extreme feelings and situations. There‘s simply no need for elaborate lyrics.” And that’s a good jumping off point to say that I think The White Goddess could be a turning point for the future of power/trad/epic (whatever you want to call it) metal —- it certainly is going to be a benchmark going forward at the very least.
 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA5X91UUv1o&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The possibility exists now, however small it is, that this album’s critical success could pave the way for more power metal bands to get first time, or simply longer “looks” from the mainstream media, particularly here in the United States. More pressingly, it could inspire many power metal bands that are either stuck in a formula, or afraid to get “arty” to go ahead and take chances with their music. I must admit to wondering idly whether or not The White Goddess would have received the kind of attention it did from those big platform sites had it been released on Century Media or Nuclear Blast, and featured cover art that looked like it belonged more on a Gamma Ray record (as opposed to the one they chose, which could be a Candlemass cover). It was a savvy marketing move, and no one can fault the band for that.

 

Thanks to Atlantean Kodex’s late 2013 success, I have an interesting idea brewing about 2014 being a resurgent year for power metal, as we are likely going to see most major bands within the genre release new albums throughout the year (Iced Earth for example already have —- review forthcoming), and this could be the year that some of these guys finally get the attention from larger circles that they are so often denied. I look at Atlantean Kodex’s dent in the tastemaker’s media platform as just one part of this potential future, Pharaoh certainly turned major heads (such as Lars Gotrich of NPR) with 2012’s Bury the Light record —- but more than just isolated examples however, is an undercurrent of what I feel might be an overload of the extreme metal spectrum. Death and black bands tend to take up the majority of critical attention, and I’ve been noticing that a few writers out there are getting seemingly bored with it all, and that the prospect of a metal band with actual singing is becoming a more and more appealing idea. Its going to be interesting to look back at the end of this year and see if my prediction is right.

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