Rising Anew: The Unlikely Return of Power Quest

Even though I foolhardily consider myself to be a power metal expert (I’m often surpassed by the collective knowledge of the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the Power Metal Subreddit), sometimes I just get things wrong. When it comes to the UK’s Power Quest, my sin was not giving the band the attention they deserved after being introduced to them. I first heard about Power Quest in late 2004 in the wake of the Dragonforce furor that got everyone looking at the UK as the epicenter of power metal’s latest shockwave. The band’s second album Neverworld had just been made available for import from Sentinel Steel’s ever reliable mail order, and I grabbed it based on the recommendation of a trusted group of forum members on UltimateMetal.com (remember forums?). It was in retrospect the band’s only pure power metal album in the classicist Helloween mold. At the time Power Quest were heralded by some as superior to Dragonforce, and by others as the “Valley of the Damned” squad’s little brothers. The comparisons were natural, both bands shared members at one point in Steve Williams and Sam Totman, mainly because the UK power metal community was small and tightly-knit (still strange to think about given the country’s pedigree with Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden). It was so small that its leading lights both had to import vocalists —- the Force’s ZP Theart was from South Africa, and the Quest’s Alessio Garavello was from Italy. Together both bands made waves worldwide, denied any notion of a rivalry, and although a flood of British power metal bands failed to materialize in their wake, they both blazed their own distinctive trails.

 

I loved Neverworld, but when they released its follow-up Magic Never Dies a year later, its change in sound and approach threw me for a loop. I drifted away from following the band as other musical shiny metal objects attracted my attention. It wouldn’t be until many years later when I’d reignite my interest in Power Quest and go back to see what all I’d missed. It was right about early 2011 actually after hearing Dr. Metal play a cut from their upcoming Blood Alliance album with new vocalist Chity Somapala on his Metal Meltdown show. I dug the new song and went back out of curiosity to give Magic Never Dies another shot: It slapped me in the face for my absence with the sheer shock of just how awesome it was. That album and its 2008 follow-up Master of Illusion were bright, crisp, energetic, and dare I suggest even cheerful mash-ups of power metal with 80s guitar rock ala Van Halen circa 1984. Although power metal as a genre had taken a turn towards mixing in hard rock influences for awhile by then (to the delight of some and the agitation of others), what Power Quest had been doing was almost the diametrical opposite to the darker, aggressive, and often more symphonic direction that bands like Avantasia and Kamelot were going in. As much as I loved those bands, it was refreshing to hear someone in power metal doing something entirely unique on their own in another direction.

 

Even in comparison to their fellow countrymen in Dragonforce who were in a race with themselves to get faster and more over the top with frenzied, extended guitar passages; the ‘Quest was more interested in pursuing songs led by vocal harmonies, with Steve Williams trademark throwback keyboard sound paving the way underneath. Alessio was a high register vocalist, capable of helium heights only scaled previously by singers like Michael Kiske and early Tobias Sammet. And Power Quest may have had the most underrated lineup of guitarists in the genre, unheralded talents like Andrea Martongelli (now of Arthemis fame), and of course, the awesome Andy Midgley. Francesco Tresca on drums and longtime bassist Steve Scott were a rockin’, groove ready, occasionally jazzy rhythm section that always kept the band’s sound loose and lithe, never mired in sludge, even during the band’s slower songs. Eventually all those guys left to pursue other music, including Alessio, to be replaced by an entirely new lineup for Blood Alliance, and although the music got even more AOR influenced, the same spirit established by the old guard lived on in that record. Steve was the link of course, being the main songwriter and the force behind the Force, and even though Chity’s vocals couldn’t have been more different from Alessio’s, a song like “Better Days” sounded like the epitome of Power Quest. I remember first playing that song for my black metal loving buddies while helping one of them paint inside his house, they laughingly were aghast at its overt cheerfulness and 80s vibe, but a few months later they were jamming it by themselves.

 

 

When Steve announced in January 2013 that the band was coming to an end due to serious financial troubles, an increasingly demanding day job, and a perceived indifference from the market, I and many others were disappointed to say the least. That disappointment grew even deeper as I kept listening to their albums in the following years, feeling like the band ended long before their time and that a couple more albums were lost as a result. Steve was ever present on Facebook, heard all our longing comments over this time span, how we missed the band, hoped he would write new music again. He had a stint in Eden’s Curse, a rare UK based power metal band whom he did an album with (2013’s Symphony of Sin) although barely got to contribute to its writing process. And that’s what fans like myself missed the most, because the man has a definite vision of the kind of music he wants to make and its combination of influences result in a very unique blend. So fast forward to March of 2016, when Steve announced via social media and a gleeful YouTube video that he was bringing the band back. I know I was giddy, and I was happy to see that most of the Blood Alliance lineup was back in the fold: Rich Smith on drums, Paul Finnie on bass, Gavin Owen on guitars alongside his twin brother Dan. The newcomer was Dendera vocalist Ashley Edison, who was apparently Steve’s first choice for the position, his vocals finding a landing spot between Alessio’s silky tenor and Chity’s gritty, soulful croon. A pre-order funded EP was in the works, and an album to follow.

 

Things hit a bump in March of this year however when the Owen brothers left for unknown reasons, causing the band to have to postpone their Portsmouth show —- but here’s where things got interesting, and kinda fun. So Power Quest have fully embraced social media in their rebirth, and when they hit the studio this summer in between festival dates they began to unleash a flurry of Facebook Lives. These broadcasts had been delivered here and there since the band reformed, but come summer of 2017 they were popping up on my phone’s notifications seemingly every other day —- usually close to midnight GMT as the band’s post-recording session way to blow off steam over a beer and keep fans engaged in the process. The enthusiasm was contagious, and we got introduced to the new guys through these videos as well, guitarists Andrew Kopczyk and Glyn Williams, both of whom revealed themselves to be longtime fans of the band. Because this isn’t a band that would necessarily draw in tons of viewers for these broadcasts, those of us who were there got to ask all sorts of questions, comment on whatever, and generally be a part of a rather cool fan experience —- the sort that galvanizes longtime casual fans into diehard fans. So it’d be safe to say I was already engaged in a preexisting disposition towards this album heading into hearing it for the first time. I think its worth mentioning right now before I actually get into any analysis just so you can weigh that against anything I write about it (though I do think mine is a reasonable, non-hyperbolic perspective).

 

So its been six years since the last Power Quest album, and that was with a one-off singer as well, which really keeps expectations for Sixth Dimension a bit up in the air. I honestly didn’t know what we’d get, but that we got a fairly steady-handed, finding their footing, straight down the middle take on the Power Quest sound isn’t surprising in the least. Nor is it a bad thing, this is the kind of record they probably were right to deliver, something that finds itself firmly between all of their previous albums’ approaches. There’s a classicist moment like the Neverworld invoking “Lords of Tomorrow”, which also boasts an “Edge of Time” mid-tempo hard rock riff sandwiched in between as a kind of breakdown. The EP title track “Face the Raven” is newly recorded here, and sounds a little fiercer in its attack, the guitars slightly heavier —- its grown on me as a single, Steve’s keyboard melody working as a well-timed motif to complement the chorus. The AOR vibe is strong with “Coming Home”, and maybe its due to the recency to the Blood Alliance era, but it can’t be more than coincidental that this winds up being the best song on the album. Ashley’s vocals here are confident, sure, and full of the bright energy that a chorus this fully arcing demands. Even the guitar solo sequence here is excellent, full of complex layering and melodies that run counterpoint to the primary song melody as a sort of centerpiece. This song has Master of Illusion type DNA, and I was hoping for a couple more like it but I’ll definitely take the one —- it is however the difference between a solid album and something better.

 

 

There’s some stuff here that doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot that we’re used to getting from Steve’s songwriting, two songs being “Starlight City” and “Kings and Glory”. They’re not bad tunes, but “Starlight City” doesn’t have a chorus that lives up to its promising intro verse and cascading bridge, and not even some surprising gang vocal “whoooaaahs” can lift up a refrain that seems a bit flat. Their positions in the tracklisting at two and three handicap the album a bit coming out of the gate, leaving the “Face the Raven” and “No More Heroes” to attempt to recapture the energy generated by the opener “Lords of Tomorrow”. They’re largely successful in that attempt, because “No More Heroes” has the kind of vocal melody ear candy that defined the band’s mid-period artistic success, a song you’ll come back to just to hear how Ashley bends his voice on the line “…I pray with all my heart / we find a brighter day yeah…”. Its followed up by “Revolution Fighters”, which has a level of grit in its verses that lend it enough power to carry the song over a chorus that doesn’t quite arc into a hook the way it needs to. On “Pray For the Day”, there’s enough of that awkward Power Quest charm to worm its way through to make me kinda love the track despite its flaws, I just wish that chorus hit with a little more heft.

 

Where things really do come together once again is on the title track for the album, serving as the closer and falling in line as one of the band’s best epic-length cuts in their discography. Its a moody, dark, tension filled slice of prog-metal that is patient in its buildup, with sublime melodic twists in the lead vocals during the verses. The chorus is a declarative eruption of yearning from Ashley, delivering his best vocal of the entire album over lyrics that would feel at home on a Tony Kakko penned tune. There’s a surprise Anette Olzon guest vocal drop in during the instrumental passage midway through, coming in so sweet and sudden that it seems to surprise Power Quest themselves, so sharp and swift is the change in tempo and melody. She sounds great, and its a perfect pairing, sounding all the more distinctive which is surprising given her time out of the spotlight —- there’s a unique accent to her vocal that Nightwish seemed to keep largely in check but its charming all its own. Steve wrote the song with an outside co-writer (Richard West from Threshold) which is unusual for him but it might account for its freshness, because there’s really nothing in the back catalog quite like it. Kudos to the band for also breaking a streak of really rough album closer epics from a string of releases that I’ve reviewed over the past three years here, someone finally did it right again.

 

What can I say in conclusion, except that I’m so grateful to have this band back, they mean more to me now than when they went away. Power Quest get tagged as flower metal by some, a pejorative for hyper positive power metal heavy on the major key, though I suspect the band themselves would wear it as a badge of honor. This is metal folks, it doesn’t sound like Darkthrone, it certainly doesn’t sound like Kreator or Morbid Angel, but its metal —- accept it. I have taken to comparing metal to ice cream, you might not like every flavor equally, but hey, its still ice cream right? There’s a flavor for everyone and Power Quest are the most fruit filled, whip cream plopped with a cherry on top flavor there is. Even amidst a genre of some often shiny, happy music, Power Quest are at another level, with only Freedom Call as their closest contemporary. Their willingness to stand apart even in power metal, against all the tides that have pushed against them is worthy of absolute respect even from those with no love for the style. Its funny that a band with more hooks than they know what to do with is inherently more noncommercial than extreme metal like Behemoth or Cradle of Filth as a direct consequence. That must have seemed unfair at moments for Steve Williams, who might have felt himself born a decade or so too late to have unleashed his sound in the mid to late 80s. His is a British mentality though, the “carry on” spirit built on stubbornness and pride and dignity that we recognize in bands like Iron Maiden. Ashley Edison said in a recent interview that at some point long after he had ended the band in 2013 and had since cleared his debts, Steve had wondered aloud to himself why he wasn’t doing the band anymore. He realized he needed it. And really, we needed him.

 

 

October Rust: Myrkur’s Mareridt

So much has been written about Myrkur in regards to her black metal credibility that its almost tiresome now. I had only vaguely been aware of the controversy she inspired two years ago when she released her Relapse Records debut M. It was an album I’d picked up after being drawn to its cover art on a display rack of new releases at a local record store (Cactus Music for you H-Towners), not even realizing for half a second that it was by the lady who’d been shaking the black metal beehive online. I largely enjoyed it, finding it a strange collection of music that veered between classic black metal era Ulver and a darker strain of Enya. It wasn’t as its promotional hype claimed “the future of black metal” or whatever the quote was from that Terrorizer cover, but it was an interesting and often inspired listen. Fast forward to now, and Amalie Bruun is releasing her sophomore album under the Myrkur banner, and she’s actually leaned a great deal into the direction I hoped she would. I wrote in my review for M that I found myself growing to enjoy the more ethereal side of her work more, the clean vocal directed haunting soundtrack to some fog drenched Norwegian forest. It wasn’t that she couldn’t deliver convincing grim vocals, she certainly can, but I think that raw second wave Norwegian black metal aspect of her sound was her weakest link because its influences were so obvious to all of us well versed in that genre. Most of it was stuff taken from the Nattens Madrigal playbook and didn’t really bring anything new to the table.

 

On Mareridt, Bruun largely eschews black metal fury in favor of this new approach, and often sticks to clean vocals even over beds of tremolo riff laden, double-kick pounding, furious black metal such as on “Gladiatrix” which creates a rare listening experience only mirrored by those power metal unicorns in Falconer. Similarly on “Maneblot”, the track begins with a pure black metal approach only to later find Bruun switching to clean vocals over the same bed of frenzied tempos and abrasive walls of noise. Partway through, there’s an abrupt shift to rustic violins screeching a tortured folk melody in a cavern of silence only to be slowly crushed in by the black metal seeping in through the cracks —- like water engulfing the creaking hold of a ship. Those kinds of change-ups and attention to sonic details are what make Mareridt’s black metal aspects way more interesting than M’s ever were. She’s found her footing here, understanding that pure blanket second wave black metal shouldn’t be her end goal, that it should be used as an element of a greater sonic palette. On “Ulvinde”, one of the album’s stranger tracks, she couches blasts of her black metal vocals directly against an almost Tori Amos-esque plaintative vocal, one that’s almost sedate in its abrupt juxtaposition. On this and many other tracks, she’s found a way to blend black metal elements like tremolo-riffing, double-kick (even blastbeats at times) with decidedly non black metal tempos, song structures, and melodies. Sure, its walking down the path that artists like Alcest paved; to create something new by merging black metal with an outside genre (in their case, shoegaze). What Bruun is doing here sounds more like a marriage between black metal and the strong, defined folk of Loreenna McKennitt (and that’s awesome, in case you’re wondering who the latter is).

 

Not everything is a mish mash of black metal with something else however, as she reserves many of the album’s fifteen tracks for dips into pure Scandinavian folk music. Even here she’s improved by broadening her palette, no longer solely relying on the delicately ethereal, but exploring grittier, earthier variations on traditional folk melodies that often weave beautifully dark webs. The rumbling “Kaetteren” is one of these, setting the scene of musicians around a quietly flickering fire in the Scandinavian hillsides. While that track is the album’s lone instrumental, other folk laden songs revolve around Bruun employing far more hushed and delicate vocals than we’ve heard from her prior. On “Himlen Blev Sort”, she croons as sweetly and lightly as Sharon Den Adel, and the acoustic guitars trip lazily along in a semi-waltz rhythm, almost lullabye like in their intention (and perfect for an album closer). My favorite song is the truly spectacular “Death of Days”, a Dead Can Dance styled meditation with a swirling melody that’s utterly hypnotic. There’s a lot to process over these fifteen tracks, and I’m glad that Bruun decided to keep things short and sharp (just like Eluveitie with their recent eighteen track Evocation II), with no tracks hitting the five minute mark.

 

 

The background concept is also intriguing, giving reason to explore the lyrics —- Bruun kept a journal about her experiences with sleep paralysis and nightmares recently and a lot of these songs explore the feelings those stirred in her. I’ve experienced sleep paralysis myself, its wasn’t pleasant to say the least (absolutely terrifying when I didn’t even realize what it was at first), so my interest in Mareridt (Danish for “nightmare”) has only deepened on a lyrical level. I think I went into this expecting to like it, but not love it, that perhaps Bruun would make the mistake of trying what Deafheaven did, to get purposefully aggressive in order to win over some of the metal set. That she did the opposite is not only shrewd, but refreshing. She has nothing to prove to anyone, and a lot of the criticism towards her has been transparently misogynistic. I don’t like to use that term blithely, but it seems to me that most of the agitation surrounding her has been largely misguided as a result of the media coverage she gets. Its not her fault that the NY Post’s article about this album has the stupidly ignorant sub headline “This singer is making black metal into art”. Mainstream media likes to appropriate the appealing parts of our genre and promote them as their own grand discoveries. Bruun’s integrity however is unstained in my view, she’s in tune with the same artistic spirit that I find in a relatively more obscure band such as Swallow the Sun. My advice if you’ve been avoiding this is to ignore all the noise and check this album out, Bruun really is doing something new and fresh, a difficult thing to do in black metal, and its worth listening to.

Metal Spice Lattes: New Music from Cradle of Filth, Eluveitie and Cellar Darling!

October! My exclamation is defined both by my surprise at just how fast the year zips by now, and also just how aggravatingly long September felt like (to me anyway). We’ve just released a new MSRcast covering some of the music from August and September, and you should check out my recent July + August diary update for a handful of small reviews on various summer releases. I was going to deliver another reviews cluster with a bunch of new albums at once, but ended up writing longer reviews for most of them so I’m going to be releasing them a few at a time from here on in. Yeah, I’m not good at keeping myself to a word limit.

 


 

Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay:

Two years ago, we were treated to Cradle of Filth’s rebirth, their first album with their two new guitarists Richard Shaw and Martin “Ashok” Šmerda, and new keyboardist/backing vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft. I went into that album not knowing what to expect with the departure of longtime guitarist Paul Allender, who I had felt had overstayed his creative energy for the band by a handful of albums. Surely it would be a little different at the very least, but what we got was a full blown refreshing of the Cradle sound, a return to an authentic true twin guitar attack with heavy, downright thrashy guitars delivering chunky riffs and injecting some real brutality back into the band’s previously thinning sound. It was hands down the most interesting Cradle of Filth album since Nymphetamine, and one I played (and still play) often which I can’t say for most of the band’s releases over the past decade. Now we’re on to album number two with the same lineup, the band’s twelfth overall, and its only further vindictation that Dani’s instincts were right on the money in recruiting his three newest members. Not only is Cryptoriana an improvement over the already quite excellent Hammer of the Witches, but I’m calling this the absolute best Cradle album since Midian —- no ‘well that’s just my opinion’ here, I’m freakin’ calling it!

 

With an album and world tour under their belt, Shaw and Ashok’s guitar work is even more resembling something of a real tandem —- Cradle’s own Murray/Smith pairing if you will. Even at their mid-late nineties best, Allender and his longest serving axe partner Gian Pyres never were able to achieve the sort of creative partnership to play off each other the way that great metal guitar duos do. It may be premature to some for me to say that right now, only two albums in, but seriously check out their riff sequences on “You Will Know The Lion By His Claw”, in which they amplify a Maiden-esque influence upon the entire affair that is pure musical ear candy. They’re unafraid to get unconventional and creative, as we hear in the spitfire solos they shoot out without warning, but in keeping with their seeming determination to remake Cradle as a brutally heavy band once again, everything is subservient to their crushing rhythm guitars. That song is an album highlight, not only for its awesome guitar work, but as a display of just how shrewd Linsday Schoolcraft is in her musical role on the keys —- she doesn’t pile on layers of sound, instead dreams up a nightmarish quasi-orchestral accompaniment that never demands to take center stage. Schoolcraft however is a talented vocalist in her own right, and she gets to showcase her beautiful voice on “Achingly Beautiful”, delivering one of Cradle’s all-time catchiest hooks in the refrain.

 

The first time playing this album, I was laying down with it on blast at night, frequently smiling while hearing some awesome little riff pop up that gave me flashes of Judas Priest, Behemoth, or hell even Megadeth. Take the slamming, full throttle “The Night at Catafalque Manor”, where there are simply too many grin inducing guitar moments to fully list here, just a riff explosion that match Dani’s intensity step for step. While we’re on the subject, the new blood in the band has done wonders for the overall songwriting —- these guys and gal just have it down on how to write music for Dani and steer him into a more guttural overall approach, spiked with a reigned in mid-range shrieking style. The sheer aggression of the music has forced Dani to up his game and employ a diversity in his vocals that we’ve not heard ever before. He sounds revitalized, energized and far more focused than I’ve ever heard him, his new songwriting partners forcing him out of comfort zones. Its almost like in the past he’d become one dimensional because there seemed to be a formula for just how his vocals would have to work in relation to Allender’s guitar work. Quite the opposite these days on albums like Hammer and Cryptoriana, and as ridiculous as it might be to read this, Dani Filth has just dropped one of the best overall metal vocal performances in 2017. People are still sleeping on Cradle’s artistic resurrection, and that’s a grogginess that hopefully will be shaken off by the time the band tours anywhere and everywhere for this. LL Cool J once said “don’t call it a comeback”, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t the very definition of one.

 

 

Eluveitie – Evocation II – Pantheon:

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Cellar Darling – This Is The Sound:

One of the most intriguing behind the scenes story lines in 2016 was the split between Elveitie’s key members Anna Murphy and Chrigel Glanzmann. Murphy and guitarist Ivo Henzi’s decision to leave the band simultaneously seemed to be tied to Eluveitie’s firing of drummer Merlin Sutter. I honestly can’t remember the details but that’s kind of the point, everything was hazy in the public fallout from the big split, and to this day, no one really knows why it happened in the first place. Whatever it was, it definitely was personal and the band’s statement included the eyebrow raising statement “thus we felt that we have become something we shouldn’t have”, which caused Murphy to essentially go WTF?! in her own counter statement. Look, it was all very interesting for a couple days to dorks like me who are deeply interested in the behind the scenes stories of rock and metal bands of all sizes. But fast forward a year later and this summer provided something of an answer perhaps to that vague quote above: Both Eluveitie and its former members new project Cellar Darling were releasing albums within mere months of each other. It was a folk off!

 

So the monkey wrench here in trying to directly compare the two bands’ new albums is the very obvious fact that Eluveitie’s isn’t meant to be a metal album at all. This is of course because Evocation II is a direct sequel to their 2009 acoustic release Evocation: The Arcane Dominion, and in keeping with the original’s theme, it is all acoustic and sung in Gaulish with nary a trace of metal anywhere. Cellar Darling’s debut album on the other hand is a full on metallic rock infused affair —- it would be skewed and pointless in even remotely comparing the two, right? Absolutely… except that the stark differences between the two albums help to illuminate some of the issues that might have been at the root of their 2016 split on personal and creative differences. I think that a lot of us in the States don’t fully appreciate just how big Eluveitie has gotten in Europe. Sure they do well here Stateside, able to draw nice crowds for club tours and capable of headlining their own touring packages, but in Europe they’ve ascended to just under mid-major festival headliner status. The reason for all this has a lot to do with a cut like “Inis Mona” off the Slania album, a single which ignited the band’s career back in 2008 (caught them on the Houston Paganfest stop that year with Tyr/Ensiferum/Turisas, what a bill!), but it has just as much if not more to do with their 2014 hit “The Call of the Mountains”. We’re talking about bonafide hits measured in the only way that really matters these days, with YouTube views —- 26 million and 18.6 million respectively (that “The Call of the Mountains” is trailing in view count here is undercut by it being posted three years ago, versus nine years ago for the former).

 

The difference between these two songs is striking —- Glanzmann screams on “Inis Mona”, while Murphy delivers soulful, passionate melodic lead vocals on “Call of the Mountains”, and while both songs have genuinely awesome hooks, its easy to see just how much the band’s sound had changed in that time span of six years. I know a lot of people gave 2014’s Origins a pretty critical eye, but I really did enjoy that album because it seemed stronger overall than 2012’s Helvetios, and because I kinda appreciated the band’s more streamlined melodic approach on some of its tracks. Not coincidentally, those particular tracks happened to be cuts where Murphy or Henzi were co-writers alongside Glanzmann. The album was a huge hit, like hitting #6 in the German Media Control charts, #1 in their native Switzerland, and #1 on the U.S. Heatseekers charts (#106 on the Billboard 200) kinda huge. It also dented the UK Indie and Rock charts pretty significantly, and if you were paying attention to the crowds they were drawing on their tour supporting the album, you could see they had graduated to another level. The video for “The Call of the Mountains” also gave Murphy star billing, rather deservedly I’d argue since her lead vocal was the primary catalyst for the song’s tangible artistic success. She became in my mind and I’m sure many others, the face of the band alongside (or perhaps moreso than) Glanzmann. Now I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not insinuating that jealousy is at the root of their split, but I think it probably exacerbated already existing creative tensions that saw the band leaning more poppy in their sound than anyone ever pegged them becoming.

 

At some point between then and 2016, discussions about what to do musically must have come up and in one camp you had Sutter/ Henzi/ Murphy leaning towards continuing down the road that sparkling hit song had paved. Even if Glanzmann’s recent comments in interviews that Evocation II was planned as the next release prior to the split-up are to be believed (and we have no reason to doubt him), that very intention might have been the nail in the coffin for both parties agreeing on the band’s future direction. And certainly, Evocation II is almost the diametrical opposite of the “Call of the Mountains” approach, hearkening back to a more traditional folk music base, an album completely devoid of anything resembling rock (or metal). The addition of new lead vocalist Fabienne Erni makes this sequel sound quite different from the first Evocation, her singing far more breezy and brighter in tone. The music responds in kind, “Epona” being a vivid example of something I would pay money to hear at the Texas Rennaisance Festival as I’m walking around —- that’s not an insult by the way, I love stuff like this (this album is definitely on the playlist for the drive up there). Whereas its predecessor was dark, rumbling, full of stormier moods and melodies (better attuned to Murphy’s relatively deeper range), Evocation II keeps thing buoyant, lively and head-noddingly rhythmic. Even instrumentals such as “Nantosvelta” get in on this action and are anything but filler, tracks I don’t skip over in play-throughs and find myself replaying in my head later in the day. I particularly love “Lvgvs”, Erni’s vocals here are especially lovely, her voice capable of delivering genuine warmth —- she’s practically sunlight here, and in concert with the gorgeous melody and backing instrumentation at work. I know its a cover of an old folk song, but its one of the best things the band has ever recorded.

 

As surprising as it is to admit to myself and you, I can’t find a single negative thing to say about Evocation II. I even loved the sly remake of “Inis Mona” in “Ogmios”, reworking the song in a way that’s refreshing and comforting at once. I love that its eighteen tracks but that only two cuts go over the four minute mark, these are focused, tightly written pieces of music, vocals or no. We had our first real fall day here awhile ago, and I celebrated the chill in the air by playing this album, opening the windows, lighting a few sticks of this awesome incense I bought at last year’s RenFest and it was pretty perfect. There’s something this band has over its fellow folk metal brethren, and that is the real instrumentation at work —- real bagpipes, violin, harp, bodhrán, hurdy gurdy, its all tangible on the recording, giving this music a gritty earthiness that keyboard reliant bands lack. As ridiculous as it might be that one band has this many members (nine at last count), at least there’s a valid reason for so much personnel (because frankly its a little stupid that Slipknot has a drummer AND two percussionists, and do they use that DJ for anything?… nevermind).  Maybe an acoustic album was the soft landing that Eluveitie needed after so dramatic a lineup shift, particularly concerning a major voice and image of the band. And give them credit for so gracefully giving Erni the spotlight in the trio of videos they’ve released in support of this album, when so easily they could’ve shifted the attention to themselves —- the songs they picked are not only the catchiest, but vocal showcases for their new frontwoman. Hats off, seriously, I’m genuinely impressed at how well they’ve pulled this off… now the question is, can they carry this over successfully onto a metal based album?

 

 

The other side of this break-up story is told through the debut album of Cellar Darling, which was the name of Anna Murphy’s solo project while she was a member of Eluveitie, so I suppose it makes sense that she’d just carry on under that moniker this time as a band (as awkward a name as it is). She along with Henzi and Sutter tackle the challenging task of continuing where “The Call of the Mountains” left off, that is, imagining a merging of metallic rock with folk elements and trying to negotiation a balance between the two. The title of the album, This Is The Sound, is almost an explanation as much as it is a declaration —- a way of saying, this is where we saw Eluveitie heading, the sound we wanted to explore (and why we’re not in the band anymore). Its certainly one of the most interesting albums of the year for genuinely trying to merge the tangible essence of folk-metal as we know it to a more streamlined, rock music path. There are no melo-death riffs on display here, Henzi operating from a headspace more attuned to groove and rhythmic support, interlocked with Sutter’s deft, creative percussion. Together they remind me of modern rock ala Tool, A Perfect Circle, and occasionally (surprisingly) Rage Against the Machine. Murphy is frequently the melodic catalyst, be it through her charismatic vocals or her hurdy-gurdy, she’s our musical narrator. It is in that sense a showcase for her in the way that a solo project would be, and I wondered after my first pass through the album whether Sutter and Henzi were getting relegated to backing musicians status instead of equal contributors.

 

It took a few more listens, but gradually I was able to pick out the moments where its really their contributions that make everything tick, such as on “Fire, Wind & Earth” where Henzi delivers an intro blast that Tom Morello would approve of. On “Hullabulloo”, they dish out a fierce tandem attack, Sutter spicing up the space between riffs with creative fills and accents, one of the few songs where it could be argued that they’re really the ones driving the energy forward. Murphy however clearly is the star, the center of our attention through most of the songs and rightfully so —- she’s developed into an excellent vocalist over the years and you can hear tinges of Sinead O’Connor and Dolores O’Riordan in her tendency to wordlessly harmonize. Listen to “Black Moon” for an example of this, being one of the more balanced cuts in weighing folk harmonies against a modern rock song structure. Its not the best song on the album however, that honor goes to “Under the Oak Tree…”, which although lacking a strong motif is interesting in its ever-changing aspect of becoming increasingly folk-drenched as it goes on.  But just as often the album falls flat, such as on “Six Days”, where Murphy reminds me a little too much of Cristina Scabbia, which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but that its my least favored song on the album isn’t a coincidence. The same could be said for “Challenge”, which sports a terrific hurdy-gurdy led motif, but I just can’t get into Murphy’s vocal approach on the moments where she dips down low in her delivery (“…this is the sound…”). That reaction I have to that moment kind of sums up my aversion to modern rock in general, and I can only handle so much of that sound without feeling like I’ve heard it all before.

 

Cellar Darling is an interesting idea but they’re lacking in execution, which when we’re talking about albums basically means they don’t have enough strong songs to support that idea. I’d love for them to consider leaning a little harder in the folk direction and minimizing the modern rock elements a tad. Stick to what you’re stronger at I suppose, and although Henzi certainly has the modern rock guitar approach down, that sound means very little if its not supported with hooks galore. I’m not sure if things have changed for teenagers growing up now, but generally the way it works is that you start listening to rock radio, those more accessible bands with their easy riffs that only serve as ladders to the explosive chorus. You grow bored of that after awhile (or you settle for it and don’t) and want to hear something more exciting, whether its a conscious decision or not, and somehow you stumble upon metal. Metal is where the verses can be just as exciting as the chorus, if not more so —- where the musicianship during a verse can be as thrilling as the glorious vocals that careen outwards in the refrain. Its why folk metal happens. Its why hurdy-gurdys don’t sound out of place next to slicing riffs and staggered tempos. Cellar Darling might sound exciting to someone only well versed in melodic rock, but they’re lacking something when it comes to enticing this metalhead to linger too long. I’m looking for improvement the next time around, and perhaps learning a lesson in my wishing for more music like “The Call of the Mountains” —- that song was special, and by definition, they can’t all be.

Exit Eden: Symphonic Metal’s Double-Take Inducing Pop Experiment

This is a review that was written in early August that I thought I had lost permanently in a freak browser freezing accident, but apparently was saved through means I can’t really understand. Exit Eden is the four-piece vocal group that tackled a handful of pop/non-metal cover songs in the vein of symphonic metal —- the reaction towards it was mixed, as expected, but I’ve been surprised to see that over the past few weeks a more positive embrace of this album is taking hold. This is the unedited (except for grammar, hopefully) version of that original review, and my feelings on the album haven’t changed since, so I figured I’d repost this one. A fall reviews cluster is to follow this with a slew of reviews on albums that have dropped in the past few weeks/months.

 


 

It would be so easy to come at this project with an ample amount of cynicism and derision… expected even. A label/producer concocted “band” (the quotation marks for that piercing barb!) with four strikingly gorgeous female vocalists from the Euro/power metal scene, coming at you like the corset wearing version of Il Divo (or worse, The Tenors, who by the way have no business covering a song that can only be truly sung in its full glory by either Freddie himself or my lady Sarah Brightman!). That its a covers album is yet another reason you’d be forgiven for indulging in a little eye-rolling. Check out that tracklisting, okay “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, that’s a Steinman classic that could’ve been a Meatloaf song so its an easy shoe-in for the symphonic metal treatment —- but Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, her paean to bad girls feeling guilty? C’mon, that’s just pandering for clicks and algorithm placement on YouTube and Spotify right? A take on Lady Gaga’s alliterative dance pop “Paparazzi”, seems like an unlikely candidate for a project like this and perhaps thrown in only for eyebrow raising right? Look, you’d be forgiven for thinking all of these things —- and when we listened to some of this stuff whilst recording our MSRcast with Blues Funeral’s Maurice Eggenschwiler, both he and my cohost Cary scoffed at this entire affair. I didn’t blame them.

 

But here’s the thing, despite all that, I kinda am having the best time when I listen to this album. Its ridiculous and absurd to a large degree, but its fun too, satisfyingly joyous for its musicality. I love symphonic metal because a long time ago I heard bands like Nightwish and Therion and realized that the sound of sweeping strings over a bed of thundering metal guitars was something I’d always wanted to hear. But I was scarcely provided the opportunity to until I directed my attention towards metal bands across the Atlantic way back in the late 90s. Its no coincidence that Exit Eden was dreamed up by a European production team, specifically the in-house studio producers at Elephant Studios in Flensburg, Germany. It figures, German producers just seem to have a knack for this kind of thing: Sarah Brightman’s longtime musical collaborator/producer is the German born Frank Peterson, who cut his teeth working with Michael Cretu (of Enigma fame). Oh then there’s Mr. Sascha Paeth himself, the man behind countless power metal productions at his Gate Studios in Ehmen, Germany —- and if you don’t know his work, I’ll just direct you here. Yeah, he’s involved in Exit Eden as well, as one of the guitarists at work in the band laying down the metal aspect of the soundscape here, and no doubt, helping on the symphonic end as well.

 

Paeth is also responsible for bringing on board Amanda Somerville as the first vocalist selected for the project, a wise choice because she possesses such a strong, powerful voice that can carry the majority of the load on any song she’s on. She was apparently instrumental in recruiting French vocalist Clementine Delauney (Visions of Atlantis, ex-Serenity) into the fold, a singer who I championed a few years ago in my review of Serenity’s War of Ages. She was spectacular on that album, the variety of songwriting giving her the opportunity to showcase a spectrum of vocal approaches, from delicate and breathy to otherworldly in a Sinead O’ Connor/Bjork vein. I was disappointed when she left that band, but both she and they rebounded fairly well. Her work on Visions of Atlantis 2016 EP Old Routes New Waters was promising, particularly for it’s hushed ballad “Winternight“, though it remains to be seen if that band will fully display her capabilities the way Serenity did. The other two vocalists filling out Exit Eden’s lineup are Brazil’s Marina La Torraca and German-American Anna Brunner, who apparently is Elephant Studios secretary who happened to lay down guide vocals on the demos for the project. La Torraca is best known for being Avantasia’s live backup vocalist during some shows in 2016, although she’s likely soon to be associated with Phantom Elite, Sander Gommans’ new project post-After Forever who are on the verge of releasing their debut album.

 

 

The music itself is well executed, with just enough of a balance between heavy, crunching metallic rock riffs (think Within Temptation) and computer/keyboard generated symphonic elements, but that’s to be expected given the caliber of the pros behind the scenes. And these are covers in the most strict, traditional sense —- there’s no changing up the melodies, no musical deconstructions, no slowing down tempos, its really just these songs as you’ve heard them in their original states but painted with symphonic metal colored paint. Some might find that annoying, but these songs relied primarily on the vocal melody in their original state, and unless you have a skilled composer reworking entire song structures (ala Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko or Therion’s Christofer Johnnson, both accomplished at reworking cover versions), then its best that Exit Eden played it this way. I guess the real question here is do all the song choices lend themselves to this approach? The answer is unsurprisingly no, because there’s a few that fall flat, one being Adele’s “Skyfall” which for some reason features a guest drop-in by Simone Simons of Epica. I’m not sure why, but “Skyfall” loses some of its sly charm in Exit Eden’s version, though I’ll venture that its because their more straight ahead approach diminishes the dreamy, 2am blurred vision feel of the original. You could practically see Adele in a smoky-hazed bar, hunched over the mic in the corner, crooning away —- Exit Eden’s feels practically clinical in comparison. And I thought the bizarre song selection of Visage’s “Fade to Black”, which is just… well for lack of a better term, bizarre! Never was fond of the original myself, and I hoped this version would change my mind but sadly it has not.

 

Where things actually work are on the big, bright, arcing pop songs with soaring choruses: Katy Perry’s “Firework”, Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, and yes even the Backstreet Boys faux-soul balladry of “Incomplete”. Regarding the latter, Exit Eden’s version towers over the original, which was always hampered by the sub par, often nasally voices of the individual Backstreet Boys singers themselves. Here the chorus is beefed up by a kick of guitars and see-sawing strings to give it extra heft, and the vocalists (I believe Delauney alongside Somerville backing up) deliver a rather passionate performance —- its a delight to hear, a good song finally given a proper recording. The Rhianna cover was also surprisingly successful, complete with an organic violin sound in the verses which was a shrewd choice because if you’ve heard the original, they were going to be the problematic area for any symphonic metal transition. I will say that the tone of the vocals during the bridge/chorus don’t really match what the lyrics in this tune are going on about —- for the most part, I’m nitpicking however and its entirely possible to ignore those aspects and just enjoy everything on a purely musical level. There’s a good showcase in one of the verses here of Anna Brunner’s more rough-hewn vocal ability, as she demonstrates a more Doro-influenced vocal that she uses in spots throughout the album. Its on Katy Perry’s “Firework” where everything, and I mean everything really come together for one harmonious outpouring. But its easy to see why, the original was such a perfect pop song, and the producers here have wisely avoided doing anything except adding a little more guitar and some nicely played symphonic beds.

 

Two other cuts worth getting starry-eyed over are the aforementioned expected take on “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with Amanda Somerville and Masterplan/At Vance vocalist Rick Altzi going back and forth on dueling vocals; and an unexpectedly majestic take on Bryan Adams eternal classic “Heaven”. About a decade ago I remember hearing a Euro-dance version of “Heaven” that I actually thought was fairly good despite the tackiness of the genre it was attached to, and hearing Exit Eden’s version just makes me think that its one of those songs that sound good when anyone does it. There’s a nicely stutter-stepped rush of guitars and orchestration when the chorus hits and it just lends a bucketful of gravitas to what’s already an impactful chorus. But its the verses I love —- and for the life of me I wish I could identify with absolute accuracy who’s singing in the second verse sequence, because she’s accenting all the right moments just perfectly. I really love this version, its as bright, hopeful and romantic as the original, but there’s a wash of melancholy that’s coming through the lead vocals that give the track a different kind of vibe that Adams’ vocals didn’t give it. It may be sacrilegious to say it, but I might prefer this rendition more? I’ll say it —- I do. Going back to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, Altzi gives his lines the right amount of that classic hard rock sandpaper feel and he’s a solid choice for the duet, not flashy, not showing off, just getting the job done convincingly. This is Somerville’s moment however, her best performance on the album and proof positive that she’s consistently one of the best vocalists in power metal today (regardless of gender).

 

 

The most daring experiment here (besides that Visage cover) is the opening cut, a challenging take on Depeche Mode’s dark, storming “Question of Time”. Now, I love Depeche Mode, and completely love that metal bands feel the same way and have responded throughout the years with some really excellent covers. Not sure how the guys in that band feel about it, but they’ve quietly influenced so many metal bands over the years. I’m ultimately undecided on whether or not I can enjoy this one, because while there’s nothing wrong with it as a cover, it just makes me want to hear the original (something that may simply speak to just how awesome Depeche Mode is). Its rivaled in its bold experimentation factor by “Paparazzi”, the iconic Lady Gaga hit, which definitely is interesting for its vocal choices. Instead of playing along with Gaga’s patented alliterative vocal rhythms, Exit Eden stretch them out, like a roller pin over a mound of dough. It results in a chorus that sounds very much like Tarja era Nightwish, with heavy vibrato undercurrents in the vocal approaches. Its also the heaviest track on the album by far, with extra thick guitars and little micro solos flying around in unexpected moments. Again, I’m not sure just how I feel about it, because while I enjoy the musicality, I wonder if it doesn’t lose its meaning in transition. I think a successful cover can do one of two things: Either bring the original meaning of the song with it, or give the song an entirely new context via a different approach (think about Therion’s gorgeous cover of Accept’s “Seawinds” vs their radically different reworking of ABBA’s “Summernight City” —- the former kept the bittersweet yearning of the original while the latter turned a shiny, happy, upbeat dance cut into something truly sinister).

 

Minor quibbles and philosophizing aside, bet you didn’t think a review on a project like this would end up being so lengthy. Truth is, neither did I, and that’s what makes Exit Eden and “Rhapsodies In Black” stand out. We’ve seen some pointless releases come out recently… Masterplan’s cover album of Helloween classics is one of them, Krokus’ entirely pointless Big Rocks was another. Covers albums generally fall in the pointless category, and it takes either a special band to make them convincing (Metallica’s Garage Inc for example, which was half compilation/half new) or a unique, fresh take to make them worthwhile (Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, their reworking of classic French pop covers and 2012’s Album of the Year!). Sometimes even a unique take isn’t enough if the execution isn’t there, as the tepid Maiden uniteD [sic] acoustic albums (albums!) have proven. But Exit Eden have managed to side step this with a release that is quirky, playful, and really quite fun. The band and their production team succeeded in this attempt where Within Temptation faltered on their The Q-Music Sessions —- you gotta pick the right songs and fully lean into the idea of a symphonic metal translation. This is worth your time for a Spotify play-through, you just might find yourself smiling despite your misgivings.

 

 

 

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