Kamelot’s Path to Haven

For many of us, this particular Kamelot album has been a long time coming. I suspect that quite a few of you felt the same way that I did when considering their 2012 Tommy Karevik-fronted debut Silverthorn —- that it was a difficult album to judge for better or worse considering that it had largely been written before Karevik had joined up. It was known that he had handled the writing of his own vocal melodies and lyrics in Seventh Wonder, and was quite good at it to say the least. Now for a lot of bands, this wouldn’t be a big deal because either the guitarist, or bassist, or keyboardist even would be serving alone as the primary songwriter. Not so with Kamelot, as founding guitarist and songwriter Thomas Youngblood spent over a decade co-writing with Roy Khan —- who in addition to being one of the greatest metal voices of all time, was also gifted with savant-like abilities in vocal melody development and lyric writing. Together they were the second coming and fully realized promise of Chris DeGarmo and Geoff Tate of classic era Queensryche, sharing similarities in their respective styles and deliveries; and in penning masterful prog-metal with crisp, clean, melodic guitars and emotive, soaring vocals with intelligent, thoughtful lyricism.

 

Youngblood and Khan were a pair of songwriters so attuned to each other that they unleashed not just one, but four outright masterworks in continuous succession from The Fourth Legacy thru The Black Halo (a feat that had not been accomplished in melodic metal since Iron Maiden’s 82-88 “Golden Era”). Khan’s departure in 2010 meant not only the loss of the band’s signature voice, but half of their songwriting engine. During the much speculated upon vocalist search, I suspected that Kamelot’s primary candidate requirement would be a singer who had also proven themselves in a songwriting capacity, to help fill that particular aspect of the void left by Khan. Considering that, the field of potential vocalists was reduced greatly, and at the top of my own (and many others’) list of suspects to be given the job was Karevik himself. He was the only logical choice: His tone and timbre was remarkably similar to Khan’s, Youngblood himself had stated a preference for the inflections present in Scandinavian accents, and Karevik had a resume full of songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal melody development.

 

With that in mind, its difficult to understand then why Youngblood and his newly adapted songwriting partners keyboardist Oliver Palotai and producer Sascha Paeth began writing without waiting for their new vocalist, but I would wager it was market forces. A full time band needs income from touring, which meant that the clock was ticking in terms of having to write and record a new album as soon as possible, vocalist or not. It was a gamble that paid off with an album that satisfied those concerns, but I believe failed in the greater context of actually being a good Kamelot album. With Silverthorn, Youngblood, Paeth, and Palotai engaged in a guessing game exercise in songwriting, the same kind faced by Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen for their post-Tarja Turunen album Dark Passion Play. Writing songs without knowing the tone and timbre of your future vocalist is an incredibly difficult challenge, one that rarely ensures optimal results.

 

 

When Karevik finally got to tackle his vocals, he did the best he could with clumsily constructed spacing for bridges and choruses. Rarely did he have enough room to unfurl a properly developed refrain, and the hooks suffered as a result. His vocal melodies were often forced to lay upon riffs that worked against him, resulting in awkward sonic pairings. The entire affair was hammered over with enough adjustments and editing to make it passable and listenable, but it lacked the natural smoothness and melodic flow that normally defined a good Kamelot album. One of the few exceptions was “Song For Jolee”, a stirring ballad that Karevik was able to get involved with in a greater capacity, writing the song around the strength of his vocal melody and a particularly haunting lyric. Alongside the similarly vocal melody-led “Solitaire”, it was a brief demonstration of the dramatic impact that Karevik could make if he was given a ground floor role in the songwriting.

 

It certainly made it clear to me that his second album with the band would be the far more accurate portrait of where the band was in their post-Khan evolution. That open question made Haven the most intriguing new release of 2015 for me, the very definition of a make or break situation that I nervously anticipated. I’ll be honest, I was still nervous even after my initial listen all the way through, but Haven has proven to harbor the trademarks of an expensive, well made perfume: underneath its initial sharp top notes are long lingering, pleasantly fragrant middle and base notes. Now thirty plus listens later, I feel confident about contextualizing its place in the band’s discography, and in deeming it their greatest album since The Black Halo —- a distinction I wouldn’t throw out without careful consideration. It is obviously far more accomplished than Silverthorn, with Karevik’s distinctive input in the songwriting directly translating into songs being written around the vocal melodies, the proper order of things in the Kamelot universe.

 

But perhaps more important than that is just how impactful his expansive vocal range is, urging the band to return to writing in largely major keys, with Karevik technically able to operate (with seeming effortlessness) in higher registers. Khan devotees (of which I consider myself to be) may balk at that statement for what it implies, but its the flip side of what is a rather uncomfortable topic for many Kamelot fans, namely, Khan’s degrading vocal range over the years. A few years ago, before Karevik was even announced as the successor, I wrote something for this blog called The Legacy of Roy Khan, a tribute of sorts as to why he was truly brilliant, and to why his void would be deeply felt by the band. Towards the end of the piece I briefly mentioned Khan’s declining range, but skipped over it perfunctorily, so as not to dwell so much on the very real difficulties he faced as a performer (a great deal of which was documented through live show recordings thrown on YouTube). It simply didn’t seem right to focus on it given the nature of the piece.

 

 

Yet its Karevik’s performance on Haven that drags this shadowy topic back into the light, as well as revealing a larger truth about the band in general —- that Khan’s declining range provoked a fundamental change in Kamelot’s sound and songwriting, a change that became habitual and they’ve yet to fully withdraw from. We can trace back Khan’s lowering vocal range to as early as The Black Halo, where he began to transition away from singing mostly in upper registers to settling into a comfortable mid-range with a few exceptions (“Serenade” and “Moonlight” come to mind immediately as that album’s upper register standouts). On Ghost Opera, this continued in large part, with Khan operating in a slightly lower register, even on a song like “Anthem” that required him to hit a few highs (studio effects on those vocals were noticeable, whether or not they were covering something up is entirely debatable). Where a song like “Up From the Ashes” should have had lead vocals that zoomed upwards through its soaring, arcing chorus, Khan hardly wavered from his mid-range delivery. Instead the band used layers of backing choral vocals to take care of the upper register work, a choir assembled of Gate Studios’ vets Amanda Somerville and both Robert and Cinzia Hunecke Rizzo, frequent choir contributors to Rhapsody, Avantasia, Edguy, etc, and all singers capable of filling in those high notes.

 

Even more noticeable than on the albums was Khan’s live performances beginning on the Ghost Opera tour. I myself attended their September 9th, 2007 Houston concert and despite my giddiness at seeing the band live for the first time, I was surprised to hear them down tuning for older songs in addition to new ones. They avoided included anything in their setlist from The Fourth Legacy, nothing all too surprising by considering its age and the vast amount of songs they had to choose from, but it was very telling in what the band viewed as the easy exclusions. When Poetry For the Poisoned was released in 2010, the common discussion from fans was just how dark the album sounded —- and it wasn’t just something felt in its admittedly depressing lyrics, but in its even more down tuned approach. Guitar tone alone wasn’t simply what was affecting us all, it was that such a change in tone was prompting Youngblood to think about songwriting differently —- heavier, chunkier riffs and rhythms to work better with Khan’s new register, slower tempos better suited to such sonic changes, and Palotai providing suitably darker atmospherics to work as adhesive.

 

 

The band as a songwriting unit had downshifted their approach away from their classic symphonic power metal approach of the late nineties / early aughts, and when fans would wish aloud for a return to a “classic” Kamelot sound, they were knowingly or unknowingly yearning for Khan to sing in a higher register again, something that could cause those tempos to pick up the pace once more —- they were hoping to go back in time in other words. There was spectacular work on those last two Khan era albums, by him in particular —- he still sounded great as a singer, and his vocal melodies and lyrics were always on point. But the tour supporting Poetry was the all too visible sign that Khan’s actual voice was deteriorating, and that he was incapable of even mid-ranged performances at times. The damning evidence is still on YouTube for anyone to relive (and I hated doing so for the purposes of pure research), and when he abruptly quit the tour it was hardly surprising despite our initial shock… for everyone who was paying attention, the end was in sight.

 

Both Youngblood and Palotai, as the surviving core of the writing team spent those final five to six Khan era years growing accustomed to the changes in the band’s sound, too accustomed it would seem. When they wrote for Silverthorn the tendency to down tune, rely on chunky riffing, and mid-paced tempos lingered on with a few exceptions. Its unfair to fault them, as the machinations of a creative process are hard to alter immediately, and the human tendency to rely upon developed habits is hard to shake. Nevertheless its one that they will have to, because in Karevik they have a vocalist whose natural register is higher, and who operates in that space with an ease that always seemed to elude Khan. If you’ve heard Karevik in Seventh Wonder, you’ll have heard him deliver vocals that seem to effortlessly dance across the top of major chords, deftly moving with an almost R&B influenced sense of alliteration and cadence —- he’s inherently poppier than Khan, less operatically inclined.

 

 

With a vocalist like Karevik, Kamelot can make its way back towards a sound that resembles its classic era, one replete with all the trimmings of their trademark symphonic power metal stylings that many of us have missed so much. The good news is that with a big chunk of the songs off Haven they’re well on their way. The bad news is that this flip side to the legacy of Roy Khan continues to plague a portion of their songwriting, in specific moments hampering the best use of Karevik’s abilities. Consider the not awful but rather clunky “Citizen Zero”, where the sludge-y tempo prevents the verse sections from developing into anything interesting, its down tuned riffs and overly aggressive approach resulting in heaviness that seemed forced and frankly boring. This faux-heaviness disrupts the structure of “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)”, wedging a bright, uptempo chorus in between two slabs of formless verses composed of floating keyboard atmospherics and meandering, un-melodic riffing.

 

The worst offender might be “Revolution”, as much an example of what not to do in a Kamelot song as there ever has been. No need to comment on the presence of the overused Alissa White-Gluz, whose aggressive vocals are indistinguishable from any other harsh vocalist (male or female), particularly when the biggest problem is the forced faux-heaviness of the guitar riffs. Youngblood is a supreme talent, one of the defining musicians of the genre and someone whose artistic legacy is already secure. He’s better than this quite frankly, and he of all people should know that we listen to his band for the melodies, not the riffs (this isn’t Melechesh!). This is the song that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps been singled out as the Japanese bonus track (more on that later). The last song to suffer from echoes of the past is “My Therapy”, where Karevik’s skillful treatment of the vocal melody (particularly in the chorus) saves the song from relatively lackluster verses fragments set to beds of uninspired riffs.

 

 

The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.

 

Continuing the brilliance is “Insomnia”, an uptempo song built off Palotai’s inventive, swinging keyboard figures and finished by a multi-layered Karevik vocal performance that is simply astounding. On the chorus, he soars above himself, setting his lead vocal underneath waves of his own layered vocal arrangement, apparently fit to serve as his own choir. Those familiar with Karevik’s layering work on Mercy Falls and The Great Escape will feel as if the styles of the two bands are merging here, the multi-layered vocal flurries of Seventh Wonder meeting the dark symphony of Kamelot. And as if to further justify his inclusion in ground level songwriting, consider just how much he improves “Veil of Elysium”, arguably the spiritual successor to Silverthorn’s “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)”. If you hadn’t noticed the similarities between both songs, take a moment to listen to them back to back and notice just how much more developed the song sounds now with Karevik able to expand on the chorus. Rather than being forced to shoehorn lyrics on top of a space reserved for a vocal melody, on “Veil of Elysium” he weaves the vocal melody around the phrasing of his diction, their very consonant structure providing the poetic meter within: “One day I know we will meet again / In the shade of a life to die for”. He also finds the time to serve up a particularly Khan-like piece of simple lyrical beauty, “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his treatment of the last line at the 1:04 mark being a prime example of his nimbleness as a singer.

 

 

The gorgeous, Troy Donockley’s pipes-assisted “Under Grey Skies” is a gem of a ballad, built almost entirely off Karevik’s vocal melodies, with help from the welcome Charlotte Wessels (Delain). She’s a breath of fresh air for the band’s choice of female collaborators, possessing a voice that is lighter than Simone Simons and more at home when set atop such cozy, acoustic guitar-plucked balladry. Some may find the lyrics here a little too cloying, but Karevik wisely avoids cliche diction and couches his romantic subtext in a stanza sung by Wessels, giving some respite to anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a guy sing them lines about kisses n’ stuff (if you feel guilty right about now you’re likely one of them). As a duet its a triumph, my favorite parts arriving towards the end when Karevik and Wessels trade off soaring layered vocals, singing under and around one another. Youngblood’s mid-song guitar solo here is note perfect, building off the vocal melody motif and extenuating it to sublime effect.

 

The highlights continue on the second half of the album, with “End of Innocence” proving itself to play along with the unusual coincidence of bands producing great songs under that particular title. I’m most struck by how well Youngblood manages to balance a dose of heavy guitar riffs without overpowering the melodies worked up by Palotai and Karevik. The MVP here might be Palotai, who answers the heaviness of the guitars with jaunty, symphonic keys that usher along a melody that works as a flamboyant counterpoint to successfully balance things out. Once again, Karevik knocks one out of the park with his choice vocal inflections and change-ups on the recurring chorus line, “And why must a hero die young / Not to be gone and forgotten” —- each time he gives it a new flavor. We’re treated to some Middle-Eastern flair in “Beautiful Apocalypse”, a song that took me a few listens to come around to. What sold it was Karevik’s simply stunning transition from gritty and tortured to smooth and sonorous (and back again), best exemplified at the 1:10 to 1:43 mark. Its one of the most dexterous things I’ve ever heard him accomplish.

 

A different kind of Khan influence creeps up on “Here’s to the Fall”, where Karevik sounds so eerily similar to his predecessor (particularly to open the song), that I wonder if Khan didn’t drop by the studio at any point to lay down some vocal fragments. This is of course the ability that won Karevik the job and was more frequently heard on Silverthorn, but here he uses it to great effect until the 3:10 mark, where the Tommy Karevik we’ve been hearing all album long pops up again in his more Seventh Wonder influenced mode. If Khan did drop by the studio, I’ll find out eventually, I don’t know how but I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t something sneaky going on (I’m only partially joking)! Normally I’d prefer an acoustic guitar/vocal pairing with keyboard embellishment  (think in the vein of “Glory” from The Fourth Legacy) rather than solely keyboards/vocals, but Palotai does a nice job here of creating a moody atmosphere that actually works. I mentioned the Japanese bonus track earlier, one “The Ties That Bind”, a hooky, tuneful yet heavy-riff fueled song with a chorus that doesn’t quite arc fully, yet is infinitely better for the album proper than “Revolution”.

 

 

If like me you received the expanded edition of the album with a second disc full of alternate renditions and instrumental tracks, you’ll have probably indulged in the piano version of “End of Innocence” and the acoustic guitar version of “Veil of Elysium”. These songs, so uptempo and electric on the album are hushed here, left to operate only on the strength of their defining characteristic: their vocal melodies. Its a further testament to Karevik’s contributions to this album, that his melodies are strong enough to be the actual skeleton of a working song… one can call it practically Khan-esque even. And a final thought on Youngblood himself, who deserves individual praise alongside Palotai and Karevik for trusting his collaborators enough to breathe new life into his band. I’ve always regarded his style as being directly influenced by Chris DeGarmo (among others surely) in that during their respective classic eras they both wrote in crisp, clear melodic lines with razor sharp precision, anchored by a mindset that was unconcerned with any sort of “heavy factor”.

 

The difference was that DeGarmo eventually got off that train and ventured into lighter, jangly, less riff-based directions —- whereas Youngblood found himself having to forcibly get heavier, chunkier, and less melodic as a result. Both of them are tremendously gifted songwriters and guitarists, and in their work one attribute directly correlated with the other. They both operate best when writing and performing in what I call the DeGarmo gold standard, that thoughtful mix of melodic writing filtered through crisp riffing and clear open chord sequences. It may be too far gone for DeGarmo to ever bother returning, but Youngblood can easily find his way back to that standard. The first step is realizing that he now has a vocalist capable of hitting the highs needed to bring Kamelot’s sound back to its classically infused, symphonic metal roots… a return to their primordial musical waters so to speak. They’re halfway there with Haven. Karevik is the savior of the band’s sound, I suspect they’d surely be lost without him. Behind Bruce Dickinson, I can think of no better or more important replacement vocalist in the history of metal.

 

Reviews Cluster Blowout!: Releases By Melechesh, Kiske/Somerville, Subterranean Masquerade and More!

I realize its been few and far between in terms of updates to the blog over the past two months, and while I’ve never promised an end to these occasional bouts of silence —- I always try to keep a valid reason for their occurrence. As ever that reason tends to lay somewhere in between being overwhelmed by so many new albums coming out in a short span of time, and my inescapable longing to either linger on a particularly captivating recent release, or to simply revisit older classics. Its been a bit of all three for me as of late, as I kept stumbling onto one intriguing new album after another only to set each one aside after my attention was directed elsewhere, not a good thing when you’re trying to write reviews for them. Also I haven’t been able to quit Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., an album that I feel will stick with me far longer than I ever anticipated, and it led me to go through his catalog all over again, from Porcupine Tree to Blackfield.

Long story short, I got distracted along the way (the Nightwish release further delayed matters) and a lot of reviews that should have been out many weeks ago had to be delayed until I could go back and re-listen to them yet again. Quality over quantity is probably the worst way to go for a blog in this SEO-driven, microsecond attention span era of online communication, but hopefully somewhere along the way I’ll stumble onto a metal writer’s version of some Garrison Keillor meets Andy Rooney persona to justify it all (hmm… actually not sure about that). The reviews below aren’t all of the new albums I got to check out in the past few months, just the ones I really felt were worth talking about (for better or worse, mostly better). Also I should mention that I checked and as of this publication date all of these albums are available on Spotify, so if you want you can listen along with each review or better yet try before you buy.


 

Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar:

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing who these guys are, given that this January release is only their second full length album since the band’s inception in 1997 (there were also two EPs somewhere in there). Its a full ten years since their 2005 debut Suspended Animation Dreams, an album I’ve not listened to yet but might have to take a peek at if its anywhere near as satisfying as The Great Bazaar. This is prog-metal, in that particular vein where things get a little eccentric and weird. Thankfully it seems that their primary songwriter and guitarist Tomer Pink understands that most fundamental thing that can often elude an ambitious bunch of prog musicians —- no one will care if the songs are garbage.

I haven’t heard of Tomer Pink before admittedly, nor most of the other musicians that make up the band’s ranks except for one Paul Kuhr, yes that Kuhr, of November’s Doom. He’s here providing his particularly heavy vocals as a sharp contrast to clean vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (ex-Green Carnation, Tristania), and both guys do a tremendous job of injecting passion into nearly everything they touch. There’s not much to say in regards to the backgrounds of the other guys, save for one of them being the current drummer for Orphaned Land (percussion, he played on the All Is One album). It is worth mentioning that largely everyone save the two vocalists seems to hail from Israel, making this somewhat of an oriental metal band, in theory and in essence. It doesn’t take long for that distinctive, culturally inspired sound to pop up on the album opener “Early Morning Mantra”, in the form of traditional sounding percussion and Arabic motifs in the keyboard generated strings.

So by now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, so they’re like a mashup of Orphaned Land and Myrath”, to which I’ll respond, “Whoa, hold the phone there Radar”. It doesn’t take long for “Early Morning Mantra” to unveil its strange, surreal layering of sounds, and once you get to the 5:27 mark the sounds of a full blown ska section will utterly baffle your sense of comprehension. Not so smug now are we? Listen, in all seriousness, I’m not kidding you about just how head-spinningly eccentric/eclectic this album winds up being! That aforementioned “ska section” actually works like a charm, a moment of pure musical joy that etches a smile on your face just for the sheer cheek of it all. And you never know when an electric violin-type sound will pop up, flanked by Kuhr’s jagged vocals, followed by some delicate piano, or acoustic guitar figures, or what sounds like a soulful woodwind instrument (you’ll know it when you hear it, its like hearing a saxophone made of birch)!

The victory here is that all these cra-cra sounds are all woven together to shape definable and often moving songs. My absolute favorite is the oriental string melody led “Blanket of Longing”, a contender to make the best songs of the year list. Coming off like a mash up of Myrath, Evergrey, and Steven Wilson (told you I had his music on the brain), its a song that is built on a brilliantly layered cushion of separate yet complementary melodic structures. In the chorus however the vocal melody takes over and Nordhus soars effortlessly above it all, taking the listener with him via an emotional carpet ride of a lyric: “Often I go back to that picture of my little boy / And I just can’t cry anymore”. On the very ethnic-folk infused “Specter”, I’m surprised by random moments of sparse acoustic strumming over keyboard melodies that remind me of prog-rock Kansas or Styx. I can’t even begin to describe the fusion of sounds and styles in the album closer and epic “Father and Son”, except perhaps to compare it to what I imagine would be the sounds of… you know… an actual bazaar. Clever word play in the title then.

The Takeaway: One of the most surprising, out of nowhere salvos fired in the first half of 2015. You might not enjoy it if you don’t like the sounds of bands like Orphaned Land, Melechesh, or even Myrath —- but seriously who doesn’t? Highly, highly recommended.

 

 

Kiske/Somerville – City of Heroes

This is the second album in this duet-centric collaboration between vocalists Michael Kiske and Amanda Somerville, their first being issued in the now distant 2010. You all know Kiske of course, and likely have an opinion on him and his rather distinctive vocal style which is about as love it or leave it as it gets in power metal. Somerville on the other hand some of you might not be as familiar with, although chances are that you’ve already heard her somewhere along the way. She’s a fixture in the European melodic/power metal scenes as an excellent backing vocalist, occasional lead vocal drop in, and vocal coach. Her lengthy list of appearances includes luminaries such as Avantasia, Kamelot, and Epica to name a few, alongside a handful of her own solo projects/collaborations. As an aficionado of backing vocals on power metal albums, I’m happy to see her name on the credits of an album —- and I became quite the fan in general through viewing her rather excellent behind the scenes tour diaries that have become a fixture for nearly all of her tours (the Avantasia diaries are particularly intriguing).

What you get here is a relatively uncomplicated album full of the type of hooky, pop-infused take on melodic power metal that lands in the comfort zone of both vocalists. To call it an artistic collaboration would be generous however, because neither Kiske nor Somerville write the music or lyrics (Somerville lands a credit on a song she co-wrote with her husband Sander Gommans, longtime guitarist for After Forever). This project falls in line with other Frontiers Records operations, namely that one of the labels contracted professional musician/songwriters on staff cooks up a batch of songs appropriate for the project, which in this case are Primal Fear’s Magnus Karlsson and Mat Sinner. Take a closer look at many Frontiers releases and you’ll notice the same formula at work —- it presents an interesting internal debate for anyone attempting to review these albums. Should the lyric content weigh as heavily as it would in an album written by the performers themselves? Are we going to place a greater emphasis on how well the vocals turned out as a opposed to the actual guitar melodies?

The answer is of course far less complicated than the questions themselves. This is a album with no other purpose other than enjoyment itself, and that might come across as disingenuous to some, and perfectly fine for others. I think something to consider is that given Kiske’s history of distancing himself from metal in order to explore his artistic side, his willingness to sing lines like “I stole my daddy’s car only to be cool / I slammed the brakes and acted like a fool” speaks volumes about his personal connection to anything on here. Lets just get the negative stuff out of the way first by saying that the lyrics all across the album are either passable to well below average. Its a shame too because at times their clunky-ness can detract from an otherwise enjoyable vocal melody, and while it doesn’t occur all the time, it happens often enough to stop a couple songs dead in their tracks. The previously quoted “Rising Up” is one of them, but its joined by the strange ballad “Ocean of Tears” (nothing egregious, they’re just generic lyrics), and the title track “City of Heroes” (pretty baffling, it comes across as something that could’ve been written in hopes of making the Justice League soundtrack).

The good news is that the melodies and vocal hooks are strong enough to ignore all the iffy stuff and actually work in tandem to create a rather satisfying album. Satisfying in the way that a maple donut might be on a Saturday morning, when you feel justified by having eaten oatmeal all week. You’ll notice a pattern amidst all the catchiness, that Kiske tends to handle the bulk of the verses solo while Somerville gets the choruses (they do try to mix it up now and then, but this is largely the formula). Kiske is actually present on the choruses alongside Somerville, but he’s buried far below her in the mix, something that didn’t set well with my MSRcast cohost Cary. I can see where he’s coming from, but I suspect its also due to just how powerful her vocals are compared to his, her voice laden with a deep richness that Kiske’s lacks. Consider this something to put on Spotify for light, breezy summertime listening, preferably when BBQ-ing or “acting like a fool”.

The Takeaway: One of the better Frontiers Records songwriter-for-hire penned albums with two very accomplished vocalists. Given the label its on you should know what to expect, loads of sugary melodies and hooky hooks. I do enjoy the Roxette vibe on “After the Night Is Over”.

 

 

Thurisaz – The Pulse of Mourning:

I wasn’t familiar with Belguim’s Thurisaz heading into this, although they’ve been around since 2000 with a handful of albums released in the interim. From what I can tell having read a few reviews of their older work, The Pulse of Mourning appears to be a turning point for the band in finding their own sound. That isn’t to say that you can’t hear their influences, because some of them are pretty up front —- Opeth for one, but also hints of Enslaved, Katatonia, and perhaps even some Dan Swano projects. Thurisaz deliver a modern take on progressive symphonic-kissed black metal. I’m not sure if they’re brothers or not, but both Peter and Mattias Theuwen handle vocals and guitar together (though I’m not sure which one handles either the grim or clean vocals, perhaps they both do everything?!) and they form the nucleus of a band whose lineup has remained unchanged save for a succession of rotating bassists.

The MVP of the album just might be keyboardist Kobe Cannière, as his work is present on every song on the album including the instrumental based ambient pieces that serve as segues. He has a light touch, creating subtle orchestral swells and solo piano melodies that dress up the band’s kinetic riffing with beautiful ornamentation. For an example of this look no further than the awesome “Rays of Light”, where there are times when its the keyboard driving the song forward with a gorgeous melody over sustained riffing, an unusual twist for a two guitar band. The clean vocal passages on that song are one of the highlights of the album, a sort of mix of modern day Enslaved’s Herbrand Larsen with touches of old school Mikael Akerfeldt. Cannière’s work is also a major core of the overall mood of the album, which is imbedded in the handful of those aforementioned instrumental tracks. My description of them as ambient was not meant to imply they were electronic sounding in anyway, in fact they’re incredibly analog in their palettes —- lonely hushed piano sonatas, cellos set to ethereal female voices —- its all interesting stuff, though one wonders if there are too many of them.

I’ve been going back and forth on how I feel about the way the album is sequenced, in that perhaps the band’s placement of said instrumental tracks actually short circuits the mood they’re trying to achieve. An epic song like “In All Remembrance”, with its Insomnium-esque melodic guitar riffs and sparkling keyboard work should immediately follow the beautiful slow burn of “One Final Step”. They’re separated by a minute and change long instrumental that really might’ve worked better as an album outro. These might be minor quibbles, but the band clearly feels that their instrumental songs are important (there wouldn’t be as many of them otherwise), and in that light they aren’t working the way they should, as pretty as they all are. I’ll gladly exchange a pair of them for another great actual song, and I suppose in this regard Thurisaz runs into a problem that is usually reserved for power metal bands, where an eye towards album cohesion does more harm than good. Still, this is an album worthy of your attention.

The Takeaway: I suspect this might be a lot of people’s first time hearing music by Thurisaz, and I think everyone will be surprised at just how developed and mature they sound. I guess a few albums of working out the kinks in relative obscurity is good for making a first impression at least. Not only was I impressed, but my MSRcast co-host Cary was impressed as well, enough that we’ve featured the band on our latest episode.

 

 

Jorn Lande & Trond Holter – Dracula: Swing of Death:

Silently I’ve been enjoying this album for months now, never really intending upon writing an actual review for it until I began to realize that it would be a tad disingenuous not to give Jorn and his musical collaborator Trond Holter their due credit for taking up a nice slice of my attention this year. And why should I hide that I’ve been listening to an opera forged out of pompous hard-rock meets symphonic power metal with a touch of rock n’ roll pastiche? Sans the latter element, weren’t the last four Avantasia albums pretty much built on that musical template? Yes to all four, and I enjoyed the heck out of most of those records. First things first, I realize that this album as a conceptual whole is pretty damn silly —- I get it! But I have to confess that I have no real justifiable reasoning as to why Jorn taking on Dracula is silly while Blind Guardian taking on anything they’ve done is badassed —- I’m not even going to attempt to argue that those two are comparable (even though *cough* theyreallyare *cough*). If any of you are familiar with the Angry Metal Guy blog, you knew that this album had to be one spectacular listen, for better or worse, when Steel Druhm (one of the more tolerant Jorn supporters I’ve ever seen) admitted that parts of this thing made him cringe.

If you read Druhm’s review, you’ll notice that he was confident that the album was on the right track two songs in, praising “Walking on Water” for its sturdy Jorn-friendly muscular rock and relatively serious take on the conceptual matter (and for good reason, its a terrific song). Where Druhm fell off however was on the next song, the wildly jaunty Broadway-esque “Swing of Death”, describing it as “poppy hair metal tinged with regret” (a line I can see myself quoting in the future). So here’s the thing: Where Druhm saw this sudden turn towards musical theater stylings as the album’s biggest failing, I see it as its saving grace, a tongue-in-cheek approach towards presenting a happily ludicrous concept. Songs like “Swing of Death”, the female vocal duet in “River of Tears”, and the grand balladry of “Save Me” remind me of Green Day’s American Idiot —- an album that I loved instantly upon its release for its arms wide embrace of rock n’ roll pastiches. Whereas Green Day infused elements of 50s and 60s rock and rockabilly on that album to spectacular effect, Holter relies on a Jorn friendly influence of classic Jim Steinman songwriting (ala Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell). And quite frankly, I love it.

I love the choice of Lena Fløitmoen as Jorn’s female duet partner, as her beautifully melodic yet frail vocals prove a delicious sonic contrast to Jorn’s rich, roaring David Coverdale. Some of the album’s best singular moments are when Fløitmoen sings solo, her voice reminding me at times of one time Meatloaf duet partner Marion Raven. And of course there’s Holter’s music, an accomplished nuts and bolts mix of ear candied melodies, a dash of heavy riffing, furious guitar solo-ing a plenty, and some interesting surprises such as a balalaika sounding instrument on “Masquerade Ball”. His songwriting is on point as his hooks manage to hook you, and he never allows anything to get particularly cloying —- granted the lyrics could be better on a couple songs (or most of the album), but there’s nothing that stood out to me as being egregious. Put it this way, these lyrics are no more ridiculous than a lot of power metal records, and in that spirit its actually a fun listen. I’m not a Broadway guy by any means, but I can feel that theatricality bleeding into these songs, and at the very least I can appreciate the epic bombast that they are often striving for. I love straightfoward power metal, but sometimes I wish other bands could allow themselves to be playful like this (well not exactly like this, but you know what I mean).

The Takeaway: Screw it, I’m not going to be embarrassed about saying that I completely enjoy this. It hasn’t received the same amount of spins that Blind Guardian, Nightwish, or Enslaved have this year, but I have been going back to consistently since January and that’s saying something. Its a lighthearted, fun romp through a metal meets rock n’ roll pastiche sonic landscape. And dammit, Jorn’s voice is just so satisfying to listen to!

 

 

Monox – Perception Changes:

This is the debut album by a band from Croatia that offers a slightly eccentric take on prog-death. I say eccentric because this is indeed technical music at times, with complex riffing and poly rhythmic bass and percussion patterns. But its also music that at times is surprisingly melodic for the cloth its cut from, and the band’s vocalist, Tonko Vukonić, chooses instead a growling style that has more in common with Grutle Kjellson than Chris Barnes. Vukonić is an interesting topic in his own right, one of those rare figures in metal that has the potential to be a very convincing frontman. I say this because my first exposure to Monox was via their shockingly great music video for the song “Perfect Sky”.

Amid all the time-lapsed shots of gorgeous cityscape scenery and cloudy skies with sun rays poking through is Vukonić’s attention grabbing presence. Whether in performance mode in a blackened set with his fellow bandmates or overlooking a panoramic (Croatian?) urban vista in a super wide, near silhouette shot, Vukonić is the center of our attention and a wholly compelling performer. I obviously haven’t seen the band live so who knows if this video performance translates to the actual stage but you’d have to think that it does. And his vocal approach actually reminds me of Alan Averill of Primordial, a sort of unrestrained, out of control style that defies your typical metal singing approach (the difference between the two being screaming vs singing obviously). Well call me a new fan, because there’s just something really perfect about his delivery for these strange, proggy songs that while still punishing and laden with aggression are about as unorthodox as death metal gets.

We spoke about Monox and “Perfect Sky” on the latest episode of the MSRcast, and my co-host Cary commented on how he was surprised that this band was up my alley. To be honest so was I, and I wondered if it was just good timing in listening to it right on the heels of a bunch of power metal, but the more I spin this album I feel like I can identify the attributes that are causing it to pique my interest. The thing about modern death metal that bores me is the wall of sound approach where the sonics seem almost flattened, all of the instrumentation layered right against each other —- a trait owing more to unimaginative songwriting rather than actual audio engineering. What songs like “Shimmering Lights” and “Have I Conspired Again Against I” is that their sledgehammer heaviness is full and rounded —- the percussion is reactive, playing against dirty guitar riffs and moving in lockstep with a bass sound that’s not only audible, but the integral glue to the whole of these parts. More importantly, there’s actual texture to the songs, provided by the breathable space between the instrumentation.

I’ve seen some descriptions thrown around online that these guys are melodic death metal, and while I can understand why that tag is added, I don’t think its entirely accurate. Melo-death as a subgenre is defined by songwriting written around melody and the ushering of that melody as a motif throughout the song. Monox use melody as one would use cinnamon or turmeric in cooking up a curry (for a lunchtime example), its a spice and used sparingly. Make no mistake, these are riff based songs, but you’ll be hard pressed to find more than just a handful of examples where even repeating riffs are used as a motif. I described Monox as prog-death metal not only because of their unorthodox time signature changes, but because the band’s injection of melody is almost always unexpected and in strange places —- they don’t solely use it to make their choruses pop, they use it lyrically, as a way to alter the mood of the song itself.

The Takeaway: Color me surprised and impressed, and its audacious to say that a band on its debut effort might’ve released one of the best albums of the year, but this is close.

 

 

Melechesh – Enki:

Ah Melechesh, my other favorite band from the Middle East, my humblest of apologies for shelving your newest album Enki for a few weeks because of other things in the hopper. As has been demonstrated time and time again, this is a band that has a hard time disappointing me, I don’t even think they’d know how to try. Its because with the slight exception of Absu (and its ex-Melechesh drummer/vocalist Proscriptor) there is no other band on the planet that delivers precisely their brand of blistering intensity, hypnotic swirling dervish riffs, and exotic sounding, Eastern-tinged melodies. Even their cover art is spectacular, the kind of vibrant, colorful, artful design that perfectly represents their sound. They are one of the rare bands operating in metal that have yet to release a mediocre album, and in that respect, its actually harder to write a review for them. What helps this time is that Enki is not only their first album in five years, their largest gap of time in between new releases, but its their best work since the 2003 masterpiece Sphynx.

This success as ever revolves around the unbelievable guitar tandem of Ashmedi and Moloch, as much a Murray/Smith tandem of extreme metal as there ever has been. Their riffs are serpentine, snaking around each other in indecipherable patterns, and they’re percussive as well, with a staccato-like rhythm to their picking that is one of those intangible qualities that practically screams that this is metal as hell. And there’s all the other sounds they conjure up, such as eastern-motif open chord structures that slowly unwind and float up into the ether like incense smoke. They create those with typical six stringers, but also with a host of diverse instruments spanning the sitar, bouzouki, and saz. All of these sounds are definable within the context of the songs, but they’re also more than just window dressing, often acting as primary vehicles for the delivery of a melody that simply demands its particular distinctive sound.

What makes Enki standout for me far more than 2010s The Epigenesis and 2006s Emissaries is the degree to which the band has slightly expanded the boundaries of their sound. And lets not gloss over that, because its a hard thing for an extreme metal band to do: Go too far and you risk diluting your musical identity (like a myriad of possible bands). Melechesh avoid that by not making changes to their sound, their palette is as identifiably colorful as ever, but instead in their songwriting. There’s stuff here I’ve never heard before from the band such as the almost tribal-esque flavor in the Max Calavera guested track “Lost Tribes”, where a Pantera-syled riff works underneath Calavera’s broad brutal vocal that runs alongside Ashmedi’s fierce snarl. Dare I suggest that the song almost comes across as Chaos A.D. era Sepultura —- an accessible way to utilize the talents of a vocalist like Calavera.

There’s a sense of reckless adventurism to songs like “Metatron and Man”, where a Megadeth-like approach makes it a far more directly thrash-y song than you’d expect. On “Doorways to Irkala” you’ll get a full eight minute long treatment of acoustic Eastern instrumentation, a gutsy move that actually pays off as a segue into the bizarrely power metal-esque epic “The Outsiders”. Speaking of power metal-esque, how about the tremendous “The Palm the Eye and Lapis Lazuli”, where one of the band’s catchiest guitar figures to date acts as a repeater throughout, making this one of the most melodic Melechesh songs ever. I love the post-chorus bridge at the 2:30 mark where we’re treated to almost Myrath-like guitarwork —- where has that been all this time?! All that being said, Melechesh are firing on all cylinders even when sticking to their standard operating procedure, especially on songs like “The Pendulum Speaks” and “Tempest Temper Entill Enraged”. With the exception of the latter, they’ve really slowed down their overall tempo across the board, allowing for their songwriting to develop unchained from the often times limiting regulations of speed metal.

The Takeaway: The album that Melechesh needed to make at this point in their career, a mini-rejuvenation of sorts. Its unlikely that they’ll ever replace Sphynx in my overall ordering of their discography but Enki is solidly behind it —- its simply the best album they’ve released in well over a decade.

 

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