Chicago’s progressive doom/death metal stalwarts November’s Doom are an MSRcast favorite, which is no surprise to many of you who listen to our little podcast. But they’re favorites mainly because my cohost Cary the Metal Geek is perhaps their biggest fanboy this side of the Atlantic. And that’s okay, we’re all fanboys of something or another, and it was Cary’s enthusiasm for the band that led me to check them out a few years ago when I came on board as his cohost. I enjoyed their catalog and though I can’t honestly say I grew as attached to them as Cary was, I considered myself a new fan of theirs, particularly with the release of 2014’s Bled White. There seemed to be a slight shift on that album towards including something in the way of vocal melody’s that carried parts of songs, and a resulting musical shift to support that. We often throw around terms like progressive when a band tends to have more complex musicality in their songwriting or lengthier guitar solos, among other such cosmetic reasons. But November’s Doom really do embody the ideals of progressive music within their doom/death metal approach, because for better or worse, no two albums sound exactly alike throughout their discography and you can actually hear several paths of musical “progression” and development.
I’m bringing up those rather obvious ideas now because the band’s tenth and newest album Hamartia seems to have drawn flares of criticism for its abundance of clean melodic vocals across its ten songs. How this is a surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to the band is a little surprising and disappointing, because —- really?! They were telegraphing this for awhile now, and anyone who’s followed ‘Doom vocalist Paul Kuhr in his career overall knows he can deliver deep, rich clean vocals that have shades of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and Peter Steele (hello “The Memory Room”!). Also, when the songs are this great, does it really matter that Kuhr is leaning more on the clean vocals —- if anything its opened up the possibilities of the band’s sound, bringing in shades of light to mix beautifully with their innate command of dark sounds and textures. When I write that, I’m thinking of a song like “Ever After”, with its elegiac, mournful guitar passages that begin to whisper at the 3:44 mark, soon to cry out in gorgeous anguish. This is Opeth-ian level beauty, and one of the finest songs I’ve heard in awhile, my personal favorite on the album. Even when things go hard in the opposite direction, such as on “Waves in the Red Cloth” with its martial, pounding percussion, there’s still spaces for exquisite guitar passages that sound both beautiful and foreboding (check the 4:48 mark).
This is a cohesive album, with no weak songs dragging down one end or another, and held together with a musical palette that forms its own tonal motifs. Its warmer than past November’s Doom albums, more akin to the colors on its cover art, warm browns and shades of red, like a hazy sunset. When I was trying to think of other examples of band’s making similar tonal shifts with an album in comparison to the rest of their discography, I thought immediately of Enslaved’s RIITIIR (although I suppose Vertebrae could also fit the bill, RIITIIR had both similar tonal and structural shifts in its songwriting). Like Enslaved, November’s Doom has decided to take a couple giant steps forward in their progression rather than the one step per album they were taking throughout the progression of their career with each release. That in itself is what’s causing this relatively mild, comments section bound backlask to Hamartia, but its only been a month or so since people have heard the album. I’m thinking that with the benefit of time, everyone who is stubbornly shaking their head at these changes will get over it and come around, because for starters, its 2017 and every metal taboo has been broken by now. Bands that lighten their sound with clean vocals and more melody? Haven’t we all gotten over that in a post Opeth, Amorphis, and Anathema age? The reality is this: When I listen to Hamartia I’m hearing some of the finest songwriting I’ve heard all year, and a contender for the albums of the year list come December.
At long last, my first time writing a review for an Arjen Lucassen album, and not a coincidence that it comes with the first Ayreon release in four years, the first since I took up the co-host spot on the MSRcast. Once again, here’s an artist that MSRcast’s Cary is a die hard fanboy of, and he’s made no secret of this on the podcast. His enthusiasm for the man even got me to listen fairly closely to Lucassen’s 2015 release from his side project with Anneke van Giersbergen, The Gentle Storm. I enjoyed that album (The Diary) for the most part, it being a show case for the ex-Gathering vocalists immense talent, and it made me consider that perhaps I had changed in a way that allowed me to finally get into Lucassen’s songwriting. It is odd that such a huge Avantasia fan as myself has long held something like Ayreon at bay, because on paper it seems like it’d be right up my alley. The thing is that I have actually tried in the past, checking out Ayreon albums such as The Universal Migrator Pt I/II and The Human Equation but finding myself unable to connect, and with so much other stuff out there to listen to that was comparatively instantaneous, I just figured it wasn’t for me. But that can only last so long when your fellow power metal fans squeee at the news of yet another Lucassen release, particularly one that boasts two of my all time favorite vocalists in its guest roster, the legendary Hansi Kursch and Mr. Avantasia himself, Tobias Sammet. Also present are Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), and Floor Jansen (Nightwish), so yeah, I was going to check this album out regardless.
So I’ve been sitting with this album for about two weeks now, listening to it fairly diligently, playing it straight through from start to finish each time —- its a concept album (duh), and there are moments where tracks segue into one another by design, so skipping around would be a disjointed listen. Here’s an introductory take: There are moments when I really do enjoy what I’m hearing, specific sections of songs or appearances of my favorite vocalists getting some time in the spotlight, but they’re frustratingly spread apart and often tend to end all too soon. And I’m not being purposefully dense. I understand that there’s a story line here that needs to be delivered and that every vocalist represents a character in this cast and that the voices have to switch up in order for the story to move along. I did read through the synopsis of the story line before plunging into the album, having the benefit of this being a prequel meant that I wasn’t too lost in the woods on that front, and its a fairly conventional sci-fi type thing (hard for me to judge in comparison to other Ayreon efforts… I’ll say that I’m not wild about how its written lyrically, more on that in a bit). At times some of the tracks on the album come across more as musical theater pieces rather than coherent songs, the worst offender being the album opener “The Day That The World Breaks Down”, a twelve minute long endurance test where everyone’s vocals are really nice when they’re happening, but I just can’t remember anything about them after the fact.
Some things do stick though, such as the rather epic chorus of “Sea of Machines”, sung by Pagan’s Mind vocalist Nils K. Rue, and its a spectacular early highlight. I do find myself wishing that Lucassen would’ve done more in the way of a grander build-up to it though, because he had the ingredients in place: A beautiful flute/acoustic guitar pairing serving as the intro soundtrack, along with Michael Eriksen’s (Circus Maximus) smooth vocals crooning us in. But in lieu of anything resembling an exciting verse structure, we get a musical drop-off, a lull in energy and tempo, and by the time the chorus hits again I get more of a weird Jethro Tull vibe rather than a prog-power adrenaline rush. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it never seems to gel all that well —- the most noticeable defect coming during a Simone Simmons, Tobias Sammet, and Russell Allen trio of back to back to back quatrains. There’s hardly anything in the way of musical flow or even a recognizable verse pattern that could’ve glued one of those quatrains on the end as a dramatic bridge to catapult us into the air for the chorus. I’m not saying that it sinks the song overall, but I do feel that it could’ve been better, and that a chorus that well written deserves something more concrete in the way of a supporting structure around it.
All too frustratingly, that lack of structure around the album’s most potent refrains and choruses becomes a pattern. On “Star of Sirrah”, we get a Hansi Kursch/Tobias Sammet chorus that’s a fine pairing in vocal constrasts (and a callback to Edguy’s “Out of Control”), and its strong enough to overcome its lousy Russell Allen fed verse fragment built on some truly terrible lyrics (“You have all been chosen for your skills and expertise…” —- there’s simply no way to turn that into a musical phrase). On “Aquatic Race” we get a little bit of something resembling a more conventional song structure, yet its momentum is frequently stopped in its tracks with slow downs in tempo for ballad segments. When Russell Allen delivers his verse during the middle of the song, the percussion accelerates and you finally think we’re launching into something pulse pounding but once again a Simone Simons verse lands on you like a wet blanket, ruining the fun. I’m not knocking her vocal, its fine and all that, but its placement is just brutal. I’m going to sound like a broken record by the time this review is over, but I wonder if there’s anyone else who like me tends to hear a lot of these tracks as collections of vocal fragments rather than cohesive songs.
Its not a surprise then that the best moments on the album are those where Lucassen reigned in the musical theater approach and attempted to write more conventionally. The finest among these is “Journey to Forever”, which opens with its joyous refrain that seems to extend its influence to the connective verses and instrumental bridges that echo its melody. The only complaint then is just how infrequently that spectacular refrain is repeated and how awfully short the song is (clocking in at a mere three minutes, its not hard to imagine the intro being a verse longer to get this up to four). Then there’s the violin led “All That Was” which features a duet between Floor and Simone which gets some points for avoiding the beauty and the beast routine. Its a sugary sweet melody but a welcome rarity in an album that needs more of its ilk, and I got a real Gentle Storm vibe off this track which definitely endeared me to it. The usage of the violin melody as a recurring motif is a direct example of the kind of thing I wish Lucassen would employ more often, but with guitars and riffs! I also enjoyed “Into the Ocean”, the most Hammond drenched rocker on the album but boasting a hard, driving riff that is part Purple and a touch of Rainbow. Hansi Kursch handling the chorus here is a touch of brilliance, his honey on a pine cone vocals giving the chorus the energy spike it needs.
All in all, some good stuff, and a lot of frustrating stuff, and I realize that there’s going to be a few people who vehemently disagree with everything I’m saying. I totally get it, and I’m probably in the minority considering how popular Ayreon is among the prog/power metal set, so I can only conclude that its just my specific neediness for more conventional structure that is hampering a total embrace of the Ayreon catalog. Or… maybe I’m pulling on an annoying thread of truth about what Lucassen is trying to do here: He’s attempting to tell a fairly literal, cast based story that’s not actually a staged musical, so the only way to digest it as a fan and critic is to listen to it as a prog/power metal album. Bands like Blind Guardian and Kamelot have delivered relatively complex concept albums, the bards delivering one two years ago with Beyond the Red Mirror. But they were wise enough to keep the storyline specifics to the album booklet and allow the songs to serve as its thematic soundtrack. Kamelot simply had Roy Khan as a co-writer (aka the Michael Jordan of metal lyric writing) so that’s a bit unfair, but his work on Epica and The Black Halo serve as fine examples of how to lyrically sketch detailed scenes yet still stay within a melody line. And although this is too obvious a comparison and kinda taboo, Tobias Sammet found ways to handle multi-vocalist songs in Avantasia to great success. The secret was making sure each vocalist stayed within the bounds of the melody as defined by the song (check “The Seven Angels” and “The Scarecrow” for examples).
I’m not convinced that Lucassen’s has the lyrical talent to pull off the rather literal stories through music that he’s attempting on The Source. He’s ham handed and clunky in this specific facet, and all the musical window dressing that (often gorgeously) adorns his guest vocalists phrases can’t mask their inherent brokenness. The man is clearly an immense musical talent, and I can attest to the fact that he can pen a hell of a song when he restrains himself and focuses on the basic building blocks of songwriting (again thinking of The Gentle Storm). But in the sprawling, story-directed Ayreon project he is in desperate need of a co-writer to help him craft lyrics that are far more spare, economical, and skillfully deft enough to tell a story in a more poetic or rhythmic fashion. And he’d do well to consider crafting actual songs, not musical set pieces that would be better off as a stage play. Dream Theater delivered their worst album doing exactly that with The Astonishing —- when you allow your storyline to dictate your lyrics and thus your songwriting, you will flounder. You can’t have your sci-fi opera cake and eat it too in this case. Here’s the blueprint: Get a good writer to pen the storyline in a gorgeously detailed booklet, and let the album be songs that support or magnify aspects of that story. Have your all-star cast of vocalists, but don’t cram six to eight of them in a single song, limit the number to three a song tops, four if its an epic. Hansi Kursch had some nice moments on this album, but it left me wishing he had a song that could be HIS song, maybe shared with one other singer. You guys tell me, am I just missing the point?
The welcome return of Pyramaze, who with 2015’s rather satisfying Disciples of the Sun made a play for many folks year end lists. This new album is their second with the versatile Terje Haroy, the Norwegian vocalist I credited with much of the success of that last album. Its also nice to see its only been a two year gap since then, considering the seven year gap that separated Disciples from its Matt Barlow helmed predecessor Immortal. Its a sign of the band laying down the groundwork to make a seriously prolific run, no doubt inspired by the frustration of the band’s earlier years when they enduring constant lineup changes. It also seems like the band has finally found a musical style they can call their own, a somewhat more streamlined take on what Evergrey are currently doing and what bands like Symphorce (remember them?) used to do. That means prog-power metal with an equal focus on songs driven by guitar riffs and those led by keyboard melodies, often both working in tandem on the same melody. Its a sound that’s proven difficult to get just right, band’s often missing the right combination of one or the other or not having that magical vocalist to bring it all together (like Haroy). I haven’t been this enthusiastic about a band in this vein in ages, and that they’re looking to stick around is encouraging. The question with Contingent is do they hit upon a “sophomore slump” so to speak, or does the rookie sensation Haroy have what it takes to deliver yet another awesome album?
The early signs were extremely encouraging, as pre-release single “A World Divided” was a homerun, a perfectly written slice of ear candy with an arcing chorus that turned the song into one of this year’s most addictive listens. And since our MSRcast discussions often delve into the quality of metal music videos, kudos to Pyramaze here for delivering a rather nice video here, that rare kind that executes a complicated script without looking out of its league and with a great band performance to pair with it. But its not alone among the quality songs here, as album opener “Land of Information” is exactly the kind of hard driving, up-tempo mix of loose hard rock styled guitar frills and dense, steel forged riffs that this album needed to get off to an electrifying start. There’s “Kingdom of Solace”, with perhaps the most cleverly sly hook on the album, its refrain doing a rhythmic shuffle between the percussion and the interplay of Haroy’s soaring call and response vocals. There’s an interesting tempo downshift when the chorus of “Nemesis” approaches, and not a lot of bands can make something like that work (Falconer is a rare example), but Pyramaze pull it off here, the refrain written beautifully —- to say nothing of the mid-song bridge that begins at the 2:15 mark which is a showstopper in its own right. There is unfortunately a bit of a slanted feel to this album however, in that the first half slightly outruns the second.
Its not that there aren’t good songs on the back end, but those first five are damn near excellent and unique among themselves as well. I never really felt that “Under Restraint” took off in the way it should have, being built on some skillfully painted atmospherics and solid verses, but they suffer from a chorus that just needed a little more work. Similarly in need of some fine tuning is “Symphony of Tears”, whose chorus seems unable to outshine the truly excellent bridge that precedes it. I also got too much of a nu-metal vibe on “Obsession”, and I realize that’s an aggravating description to read because it can say so many things. I guess there’s something about the lack of smoothness in that song, the shifts in the song are jarringly abrupt, and the guitar riffs get a little repetitive in that plodding, radio-rock way. Similarly, “20 Second Century” suffers from generic-itis, this time in the overly aggressive hard rock vibe of the pre/post verse riffs that don’t jibe with the ultra glossy feel of the primary vocal melodies and keyboards that fly along with Haroy. They’re all told not bad songs, they’re just not what I’d confidently term “good” songs either. Fortunately, the duet (with an unknown American vocalist Kristen Foss) “The Tides That Won’t Change” is simply superb, the kind of thing I was hoping to hear on this album, a braver stab at a ballad based on vocal melodies alone that Haroy’s vocals were seemingly destined for. Don’t let a few bumpy songs deter you, this is a must listen for prog-power fans this year, jump on it!