Spring Cleaning Part Deux!: New Music from Dawn of Destiny / Sinbreed / Gamma Ray / Eldritch

Hey everyone, back again with the second installment of my attempt at plowing through the rather intimidatingly high number of noteworthy metal releases that have come out in just this first quarter of 2014. This really is becoming the year of power metal releases (although I’m told by someone in the know that the new Blind Guardian won’t be out until early 2015, major bummer). Power metal has dominated so much of my metal listening time as of late that I’ve only been able to review one extreme metal album this year (Behemoth’s The Satanist, in the first part of this feature). That of course will change with the upcoming Insomnium album (I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve anticipating that one), and hopefully the new Opeth album will arrive on time and make me love that band once again, but I’ve got enough to be going on with until then! Yes I know the Dawn of Destiny review is a tad longer than the others, but it was worth the extra white space. Straight to the point then:

 


 

 

Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R.: Almost every year, there’s a band that appears on my radar from seemingly out of nowhere, stunning me with an album so good that I have to kick myself for not realizing that they’ve been in existence for more than a few years already. Its the “cream rises to the top” metaphor in action —- a good band producing excellent work will ultimately reach my ears due to word of mouth. Its how most of us get to know the bands we love in the first place amidst a flood of metal releases. Its impossible to listen to everything, and if you try to get in on the ground floor of every promising new band, you really do run the risk of burning yourself out (as well as preventing yourself from enjoying what you’ve already heard), particularly if you make a habit of writing about metal bands.

 

Case in point is Germany’s Dawn of Destiny, a female fronted power metal band with a propensity for dark, moody drama. Fair warning, this is the only album I’ve heard from these guys as of yet, so I can’t review it based on its relative progression from its predecessors, but I can honestly say that I’ve been listening to it regularly for a few weeks now. What makes them stand out to me from the ever lengthening laundry list of female fronted metal bands are equally the vocal style of Jeanette Scherff, and the hook-minded songwriting of bassist and band founder Jens Faber. Scherff is unique in the area of female metal vocalists in that her voice avoids the polarities of being either commandingly operatic, or delicate and breathy. She resides in what is a largely unexplored middle ground, sounding at times like Ann Wilson fronting a metal band —- she certainly has the same level of power as Wilson, and at times an uncannily similar tone. Faber also contributes vocals, his abilities spanning from doomy death grunts to a rather uniquely strained clean vocal approach, he’s actually a good complement to Scherff.

 

Their individual talents are obvious, but its the quality songwriting by Faber that really melds everything together in an incredibly appealing way. He’s a confident songwriter, one who knows his melodies and hooks are so strong that he can allow himself to play around with some prog-metal ideas like tempo shifts, abrupt sideways ventures, and playful key changes. There are so many standout songs here, such as the goth-tinged “End this Nightmare”, with its softly building verses that glide over muted riffing and desolate keyboards to explode in a wonderfully grand chorus where Scherff’s vocals soar in a bombastic crescendo (Tuomas Holopainen would be proud!). Just as impressive are the lighter, poppier songs such as “Finally”, where Scherff and Faber trade off verse fragments only to join together on lead harmonies during the chorus, an impressive display of frenetically delivered precise enunciation over accelerating drum tempos. The finale of that track segues almost seamlessly into “Prayers”, another pop gem, where Scherff’s strong, confident vocals command your attention throughout (particularly on those strident verses). I love how unafraid Faber is of indulging his pop instincts here —- “Prayers” sometimes comes off as a tune that could fit in perfectly on the soundtrack to The Neverending Story, and that’s meant entirely as a compliment!

 

Its worth noting that the song off this album that initially caught my attention was actually one that paired Faber on co-lead vocals alongside guest vocalist Jon Oliva. Titled “No Hope For the Healing”, it serves as the centerpiece of the album; a wild Savatage-worthy epic with a chorus that grabs you by the throat. Faber’s vocals interplay excellently with Oliva’s chilling leads, particularly on the chorus where he sings the primary lyric hook with a soaring delivery —- both guys do a great job. Outside of Avantasia, I find that male/male duets are infrequent within metal, particularly ones this well executed (Oliva’s presence seems to inspire many songwriters, see his star guest spots on the Kamelot and yes, Avantasia records). Faber also takes center stage vocally on the lengthy “One Last Time”, which clocks in just under ten minutes. Normally these types of attempts are misses, but Faber nails it by packing in a plethora of relentlessly catchy refrains amidst his numerous tempo shifts and section changes.¬† But Scherff dominates the bulk of the album, and I really can’t get enough of her voice, she’s that good, and a breath of fresh air in a rather same-y female vocal arena.

 

The best thing I can say about F.E.A.R. is that I can play it straight through without skipping a single track, impressive for a record of thirteen songs. Bonus points to the band for having a big fat ZERO for the number of instrumental interlude tracks that they could have easily thrown on here —- this is after all a concept album (or at least a storyline driven affair, from what I gather lyrically). However I really could’ve done without the first 1:12 of the opening song “And with Silence Comes the Fear”, where the band commits what is by now becoming a bit of a Metal Pigeon no-no, the dreaded spoken word section. The music that comes right after it would have been a perfect start to the album, and I have to remind myself to fast forward ahead to it (as I’m sure anyone who listens to this record will). If any of you read my previous post, a review of Sonata Arctica’s new album, you’ll know that I’m beginning to have a rather low tolerance for spoken word shenanigans in my metal. Its rarely done well, and usually fails to offer anything in the way of replay value (Blind Guardian’s intro for Nightfall in Middle Earth is compulsory listening however!). Still, its only one misstep. Dawn of Destiny have released one of the best records of the year, a certain contender to make my Best of 2014 list, hopefully more people and media take note and these guys get some proper attention.

 

 

Sinbreed – Shadows: You’d be forgiven for never having heard of these guys before Marcus Siepen of Blind Guardian fame decided to join up with them. He wasn’t the first link to the mighty bards however, as Sinbreed has actually been an ongoing project of current Blind Guardian drummer Frederik Ehmke’s since 2005, together with vocalist Herbie Langhans, and guitarist Flo Laurin. They released an album back in 2010, and I’ll totally admit to missing that one (hey, Blind Guardian’s own At the Edge of Time cast a pretty large shadow over my listening time that year). What really got my attention, and that of many others was Siepen deciding to participate in this project —- after all, we’re talking about a guy who has been content to play only in one band for nearly thirty years with practically zero interest in doing anything else outside of that. Siepen is often forgotten when people pontificate about the supreme awesomeness that is Blind Guardian, as lead guitarist Andre Olbrich tends to take most of the glory (and to be honest, as a primary songwriter he probably should). However Siepen has been the Izzy to Olbrich’s Slash throughout Blind Guardian’s discography, at least playing-wise, being a razor sharp rhythm player who can deftly interplay with Olbrich’s twists, turns, and Brian May-isms.

 

On Sinbreed’s Shadows, he continues his blistering rhythm guitar attack but gets more time in the lead guitar category by the band’s tendency towards songwriting with lead harmonies in mind. This is meat and potatoes, riff-packed Euro-power metal like you’d expect, but slightly heavier and more minor key aggressive than many other bands in the genre. Think modern day Accept (particularly with Langhans dead-ringer vocal similarity to Mark Tornillo) mixed with the bottom heavy crunch of Falconer. And if that sounds like something that would bore you out of sheer familiarity, you might really want to give Shadows a try. There are some pretty good songs on offer here, no real duds, and awesome riffs a plenty. I’m particularly fond of “Leaving the Road”, where the band lets in a few rays of major key melodicism in the chorus as Langhans really shows off the potential of his range. Special kudos for the title track as well, which features an earworm of a refrain sandwiched between the most thrashy verse sections on the entire album. I also rather enjoyed the NWOBHM-ish intro to “London Moon”, a song that seems like it could’ve been a Maiden b-side in the Killers era (for the record I love Maiden’s b-sides).

 

This isn’t a complex album —- well, some of the riffs can be, but songwriting wise this is as basic as metal tends to get. But simplicity can be a hard thing to pull off, particularly in terms of delivering conviction. Sinbreed do an admirable job in that regard, and while this most likely won’t be a record that makes a lot of year end lists, I’ll probably be adding a few songs from it to my “road metal” playlist. Here’s hoping that this isn’t the last we hear of Siepen and Ehmke in 2014 —- new Blind Guardian album please! Don’t break the four year circle guys (wink)!

 

 

Gamma Ray – Empire of the Undead: Sometimes the problem writing reviews is that you stumble across an album where you really just don’t know what else you can state other than the obvious. I’ll shake my head and say, “No dummy, remember we’re assuming the reader hasn’t heard this album yet”, and force myself to continue. Now other than that you know I sometimes talk to myself while writing, you’ll perhaps empathize with me when you remember that Gamma Ray simply hasn’t changed much from album to album in the past decade. In fact, increases in production quality aside, Gamma Ray albums have been fairly linear affairs from one to the other, and that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been good —- but it does get hard to discuss in any remotely in-depth manner the particular intricacies of a new Gamma Ray offering.

 

You know Kai Hansen, you know how he writes for this band, and if you’ve forgotten then song titles like “Hellbent” (for metal, in case you were wondering), or “Empire Of The Undead” (what is this the Walking Dead? I’d like something a little more substantial from a guy like Kai, not horror cliches) will remind you soon enough. But being Kai Hansen, he will throw some curve balls our way that will either make you admire his free wheeling devil may care approach, or shake your head at his shenanigans. Take “Time For Deliverance” , a surprisingly mellow, Freddy Mercury inspired piano ballad that even features Queen-like layered backing vocals. When I first began listening to this track, I found myself rooting for it to work midway through, but sadly it lacks the required knockout hook in the refrain that would put it over the top. Everything sounds pretty, and Kai’s attempts at mellow vocals are not half bad, but without a strong chorus all these surrounding elements are simply cast adrift (also I’m not so sure Mercury himself would be utilizing words like deliverance, but I digress). I applaud the attempt, because its one of the only interesting things happening here.

 

I think my problem with modern day Gamma Ray (and I’m including the halfway successful attempt at a sequel to Land of the Free from a few years ago) is that Hansen seems so caught up in this idea that Gamma Ray had to “heavy” up their sound in the past decade, and in turn its led him down some songwriting dead ends. What made Somewhere Out In Space so truly great was its sense of wild, playful, uninhibited fun. The songwriting was a loose blend of classic power metal and 80’s Euro rock, the guitars blurring the line between riff and sustained melodic figures —- an insane song like “Beyond the Black Hole” felt like the sound of your head lifting off from your body. That particular era of Gamma Ray’s discography was close to perfect, and perhaps its unfair of me to compare new records to it (I suppose it brings to mind the discussion we had on Sonata Arctica last time). But that’s where I am with the band; I’m always interested in hearing their new stuff, I’m glad they’re still around and wish they’d tour the States more often, but their new stuff makes me long for the past, especially since those sounds of the past are getting harder and harder to find among any of the power metal elite.

 

 

Eldritch – Tasting the Tears: Eldritch have long been Italy’s metal secret, a band not named Rhapsody or Lacuna Coil that sails under the radar whilst releasing quality prog/power metal albums in fairly rapid succession. They don’t get a lot of press, not even in their home country, the glory being left for their overhyped and overblown countrymen. I myself always forget that Eldritch are from Italy, not the UK or Stateside, mainly due to Terence Holler’s vocals sounding like a blend of James LaBrie and Sebastian Bach. I have to admit I missed their last album Gaia’s Legacy, so I’m not sure how this new one measures up in terms of progression, but it certainly sounds like the Eldritch I remember. Take the more metallic side of Dream Theater, tone down the progressive noodling, increase the emphasis on catchy vocal hooks with some fairly strong melodic twists and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect here.

 

Much like Sinbreed’s Shadows, Eldritch deliver a consistent experience here, no real lows and a few standout cuts: I’m particularly fond of the title track, with its rather old school Stratovarius styled keyboards and Megadeth gun-metal grey guitar tones. And I wonder if I’m not the only one who feels that album opener “Inside You” could’ve been culled from Dream Theater’s Falling Into Infinity, down to the extending vocalizations of “I—-” in the chorus and the overall prog-meets-catchy song structure (really love the guitar solo that follows the instrumental break). Speaking of catchy songs, its worth noting that four cuts from this album clock in at under four minutes each, a rare feat for a prog-metal band, but something that I rather like. Rather than load down good songs with unnecessary instrumental baggage, Eldritch keep them lean and straight to the point, such as in “Waiting for Something”, which comes the closest to resembling a song you could hear on modern rock radio. If there’s a slight misstep here, its in the piano laced ballad “Iris”, which isn’t a bad song at all but just feels lacking —- piano ballads really need greater definition in their melodic hook (a bell curve instead of a small wave). As such the Goo Goo Dolls still hold the crown for greatest song with that name. Overall Tasting the Tears is a satisfying listen, if not quite a spectacular one.

Sonata Arctica: Pariah’s Child and the Reality of Expectations

I wonder if every new Sonata Arctica release shouldn’t come with a warning sticker on the front. I’m not quite sure exactly what the wording of the message would be, but it’d have to get its point across succinctly¬†since there would be an obvious character limit. Perhaps we can impose some self-made restrictions upon ourselves to keep it short and sweet —- a twitter style 140 character limit then? Yeah we’ll go with that. Perhaps by the time I arrive at the conclusion of this review we’ll have a message for that sticker that does the job. But why the need for a warning sticker at all…? Its because post-2007 Sonata Arctica have the misfortune of being saddled with the weight of rather grand expectations, and perhaps because as fans we see our expectations through the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

 

If you enjoy Sonata Arctica’s music, you do so despite the occasionally cringe or giggle inducing lyric, the often clunky song titles, and Tony Kakko’s uniquely melodramatic worldview. You’re drawn in for the same reason everyone gets drawn in —- through Kakko’s ABBA-esque sense of melodicism, his knack for pop songcraft, and his ability to cut through typical metal bravado and interject a little pathos through emotionally transparent storytelling. When you listen to a classic like “Tallulah”, a shimmering ballad from their glory era, your heartstrings swell from the honeyed melodies and gorgeously layered backing vocals, regardless of the lyric “I see you walking hand in hand /With long haired drummer of the band”. You don’t view Kakko’s heavily Finn-accented English as a drawback, but rather part of his charm as a charismatic vocalist. That the band’s following has seemingly rivaled that of elder Finn-metal statesmen Stratovarius speaks to just how much of a profound impact they’ve made upon the sometimes ultra-finicky power metal fan community worldwide.

 

So when Tony Kakko goes on record and states that this new album will be a return to form (even down to the return of the original logo), its understandable that a fan’s expectation of this promise is defined by their own personal best-of Sonata Arctica playlist. We tend to remember the highlights of what has been a rather lopsided discography, one marked by a stellar beginning but continued on through a series of spottier efforts. I speak from personal experience here, having created my own best of Sonata Arctica iTunes playlist many years ago, usually adding a couple tracks from every subsequent new album since then. I humbly consider it to be a rather terrific kaleidoscope of the tiny details that makes Sonata Arctica one of metal’s most endearing artists. If I took the time to compile another playlist from what was left on the cutting room floor (so to speak), I’d imagine the impression one would get from that playlist would be of a band high on ambition, yet uncertain on how to achieve it, often to disastrous results. See this is a band whose highs are mountain peaks, while their lows often go below sea level —- maddening for their fans for sure, but perhaps better in the long run than being stuck in the staid plod of mediocrity.

 

 

And that’s a fairly accurate (if crude) way of analyzing each new Sonata Arctica album since 2007’s Unia, a line of demarcation for the band where they decided to branch out their sound and songwriting with some far flung experimentation. Its been a rocky ride ever since. Sure there have been gems on all these experimental era records, “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and “Alone in Heaven” from 2012’s Stones Grow Her Name come to mind immediately, but there’s a been a lot of “cutting room floor” playlist material as well. And if you take a look at the band’s discography, you’ll notice that with the release of Pariah’s Child, the band has evened up the number of albums in this post-2007 experimental era to those of their classic, golden era —- four a piece to be precise. Yep, I’m including this “return to form” album with the experimental era because Tony Kakko —- who has spent these past seven years experimenting —- can no longer relate to the natural boundary of tunnel vision he had during the band’s early years. He’s an internal songwriter at heart, and as a result suffers from a lack of external separation… simply put, its likely that he doesn’t see the experimenting we hear as being all that experimental. But to us outsiders, it seems for all the bluster about how Pariah’s Child would be a no-nonsense, classic Sonata Arctica power metal album, there sure is a lot of nonsense here.

 

Let’s just get the really bad stuff out of the way first, because its hard to ignore such a recklessly provocative song like “X Marks the Spot”. Fellow Sonata fans, ever wish you could be in the studio during the mixing process of the band’s albums and could jump up at any moment and slap the engineer’s hands away from the console, and possibly force him to delete entire tracks? Because that’s what I wish I could do every time I hear some godawful, corny dialogue stain the very fabric of what could be a decent song. This has become an alarming trend with this band, and those familiar with their discography will know of the many stained moments I’m referring to. This is the worst one yet: A Finnish guy who sounds like a born again televangelist from Texas (I should know!!!) speaking about how rock n’roll has saved him. The song underneath isn’t spectacular by any means (and parts of it sound far too similar to “Alone in Heaven”), but it could’ve been a passable album track without all the horrible spoken word audio. Instead we get the poster-child for the very worst of Tony Kakko’s inexplicable need to do crazy, crazy things to his songs. Its a song ruined, a track we’re all likely to skip over, keep off playlists and generally speaking try to forget. Thanks Tony.

 

Speaking of annoying spoken dialog, I can’t neglect to mention “Blood”, where we’re treated to monotone droning of scientific explanations of animal biology. The crime in this case is that this is actually a pretty good song, a warmly melodic verse that builds up into an aggressive bridge with frenetic percussion to a pretty fantastic chorus. Again, I have to ask —- Tony, why are you subjecting your songs to these distractions? Let the music speak for itself (a lot of bands could use this advice, I’m looking at you Seventh Wonder!). Unfortunately, its not simply those questionable decisions that detract from this album’s attempt at classic status. There’s the woefully overwrought and lyrically cliched ballad “What Did You Do In The War, Dad”, and yes the title is obviously indicative of the approach Kakko takes in the lyrics, that is, a back and forth dialog between a father and son. The real shame here isn’t so much the missed opportunity on Kakko’s part by addressing such a potentially rewarding topic with fists instead of surgeon’s hands, but the fact that underneath those on-the-nose lyrics are some really affecting melodies. This could’ve been a great song, and I’m disappointed that it only reminds me of another old clunker, “The Boy Who Wanted To Be a Puppet” (I’ll volunteer to help you with song titles Tony, I know I could do better than these).

 

 

I’m sure the most baffling track on the album is “Half A Marathon Man”, which actually has a nice Deep Purple/Rainbow-ish approach for the majority of the song, but they’re undermined by Kakko’s pointed lyrical American-isms. That in itself isn’t a deal breaker, but the sheer rock n’roll throwback approach is jarring, especially in the context of this supposed return to their power metal glory (of which I’m sure it’s abundantly clear by now that Pariah’s Child is not). And I can’t neglect to mention the utter mess that is the purported epic of the album, “Larger Than Life”, where the first five and a half promising minutes are blown completely out of the water by hearing an operatic choir sing the lines “So don’t take life so seriously”. Look, I tolerate a lot with Sonata Arctica, but I have a hard time swallowing the juxtaposition of an epic sounding collection of professional voices singing such mundane phrases. It simply doesn’t work, and tellingly the song unravels immediately after that, a directionless blast of orchestration and guitars that get blander as they go on…. at one point you realize that nothing is actually happening in the song, its just elevator music over tepid riffing. This song desperately needs a melodic motif that it can go back to or utilize in increments throughout —- instead it just comes off as a collection of leftover ideas that were cobbled together against an orchestral arrangement in the hopes that it would mesh together well. It didn’t, and instead can be officially considered the worst Sonata Arctica “epic” to date.

 

Thankfully, there are some gems on Pariah’s Child, ones that I’ve already added to my permanent Sonata Arctica best of playlist. The sharpest of these is the lead single, “The Wolves Die Young”, which sounds better on the album mix than it did for the video (maybe the fact that the video was terrible clouded my judgement?). Credit to commenter Garret, who told me to give the song a little bit of time to open up. It certainly did, with its effortlessly melodic chorus and nicely layered backing vocals, its the kind of pop song that Kakko writes so well, and that encapsulates the very best qualities of Sonata Arctica. I’m also quite fond of “Running Lights”, despite its silly car screeching sound effects at the start (completely unnecessary, this isn’t Operation: Mindcrime), its the kind of romantically nostalgic lyric that recalls the best moments of the band’s Ecliptica/Silence era, “And they enter the night when /The young ones need no sleep / Laughing at the lights they keep running /Becoming color of the night”. And I have to admit that “Cloud Factory” has grown on me, its melody is charming and invokes an almost Japanese quality, but again we have to deal with a questionable Kakko experimental songwriting moment when he caps off a rather brilliant mid-song bridge with a wild jaunt into big-top circus territory. A minor gripe perhaps, but its the kind of silliness that makes you think twice before adding the song to the road trip playlist you’re assembling for you and your buddies.

 

It was with great relief and an almost yearning joy that I embraced the most unadorned track on Pariah’s Child, the sparse, delicately folded ballad “Love”, perhaps the band’s greatest to date. So excellent is the songwriting at work here, so confident is Kakko in his lyrical approach that his vocals kick in before the :01 second mark, over beautifully soft piano melodies. This is Sonata Arctica! What a fantastic song —- nothing I say about it could do justice to its status as a diamond among gems. You wonder why Kakko couldn’t employ a similar display of subtle imagery that he offers in the lyric “Oh I love the face you try to hide in your hands” in songs like “What Did You Do In The War, Dad”. Maybe one of the things we’re learning is that Kakko is at his best when he’s writing about love, the losing or gaining of (or in this case, the appreciating).

 

Certainly we’ve learned that he’s to be taken with a grain of sea salt when making claims of returning to any type of classic Sonata Arctica era. The reality is that experimentation has slowly become a habit of his that he’s unable to ween away from, just as expecting another Silence or Winterheart’s Guild is a habit that we as fans have made, well, habitual. Perhaps the warning label we were considering earlier should be something like:

 

 

 

Or maybe it should simply read, “Old habits die hard”.

 

 

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