This was sneakily a loaded release calendar these past two months. Because I’ve been playing catch up a little bit after devoting so much attention to the Avantasia album, I was a little late getting to some of the major releases below. The following reviews compilation doesn’t even cover the full extent of my listening because there’s stuff that popped up on my radar, surprised me (like the Dream Theater record), but I had to just make a note of and intend to get back to later. Maybe I don’t need to listen to these albums as much as I do in order to review them, but I feel its the only way I can tell whether I really like or dislike something. Records aren’t movies, where you have a pretty good indication right away, or at least I don’t. Do movie critics watch movies over and over before issuing reviews on them? You know what, I’m rambling, its really early right now and I haven’t had coffee. So I’ll go get coffee, you probably already have coffee so keep reading below. Danke.
Beast In Black – From Hell With Love:
Perhaps the quickest power metal related success story since Sonata Arctica landed on the scene in 1999 and captivated the world, Finland’s Beast In Black are the subject of vitriolic scorn and some heated debate as to whether or not they can be called power metal at all. I try to stay away from those debates, other than to play devil’s advocate likely to the annoyance of the folks in the r/PowerMetal Discord community. Along with Sabaton, these guys provoke the biggest debates about what exactly defines power metal, with the implication being that their pop friendly productions move them into the realm of something called “arena metal”. Now I’m not naive, I know what that description is trying to get at, and I kind of agree with that argument to a certain extent, but mostly I think power metal fans (even you diehards that will scowl at reading this) should own all the tendencies of our favorite subgenre, shiny Max Martin-esque production warts and all. Why can’t power metal be both Blind Guardian, Pharaoh, and even Sabaton and Beast In Black? Why can’t there exist regional variants of power metal like the style of bands that are coming out of Italy as opposed to the tremendous resurgence we’re hearing out of American and Canadian bands? I believe that Judicator and Visigoth are power metal, they might just be better described as USPM in terms of a better genre label, as opposed to Ancient Bards who are definitely cut from the more flamboyant, cinematic Italian power metal cloth. This is the best time for power metal overall since its original glory era of 97-03, and that we’re even having debates like this is a good thing, because for awhile there the lack of new bands was really concerning.
Moving on from genre definitions just for a minute (!), one thing we can perhaps all agree on is that Beast In Black do what they do extremely well. Their sound from their first album to this one is a glossy, high production sheen coated focus on ultra catchy songwriting and wild, flying guitar solos. Vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos is a big part of why this band gets thrown in the power metal discussion, because his is a silken smooth voice that is capable of Narcis like highs yet also a gritty, almost Sebastian Bach-ian styled hard rock voice. His versatility is scary good, the kind of voice that could likely pinch hit for a number of power metal bands and melodic rock bands. He had more vocalist in the spotlight moments on their debut album Berserker, cuts like “Blind and Frozen” and the excellent ballad “Ghost In the Rain” where he took over entire songs on his own. On the new album he’s a little more restrained, leaning more towards meshing with the rest of the band in a deliberate move to a more 80s hard rock sounding direction. Ah that by now familiar tendency of power metal bands over the course of the last fifteen years —- but in the case of Beast In Black, its really the best move they could’ve made.
The retro 80s vibe comes in the increased usage of keyboard melody driven songs like “Cry Out For A Hero”, where a fast paced, unrelenting Jim Steinman-esque piano line sets the tempo underneath group vocal hooks. On the mid-tempo, hushed strut of “Die By the Blade”, we see the band channeling a keyboard riff that screams Van Halen or even Europe circa 1985, only to erupt in a chorus Hammerfall would feel comfortable with. Then there’s “True Believer”, which could’ve been on one of the Rocky or Karate Kid soundtracks were it not for the heavy production gloss, its the kind of song you’d expect from Power Quest (and that sentiment alone should speak volumes). Speaking of Rocky, the band actually covers “No Easy Way Out” from the Rocky IV soundtrack, as iconic an eighties song they could’ve picked, and they stay faithful to the original because why change something that’s already tailor made for your band? But lets not get lost in the 80s, because on “Sweet True Lies”, we’re hit over the head with some “baby babys” in a style that owes its inspiration to the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync (that Max Martin style coming back into play). Its an insidious song, in the most charming and ingratiating manner possible, a tune that will lodge itself in your cortex and you’ll be alright with that level of helplessness. There’s nothing really deep on this record, and the band doesn’t seem to exude a desire to head in that direction anytime soon. I’m okay with that, because this is who they are, and while I’m not going to champion them in particular, I’ve had a ton of fun listening to this thing and will likely continue to whenever I need a giant dose of the silly.
Rotting Christ – The Heretics:
My relationship to Greece’s Rotting Christ has been one defined by initial disregard, a lengthy absence, pleasant surprise and disappointment. That moment of surprise occurred with 2013’s irritatingly titled Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, which was one of my favorite albums of that year and still an album I’ve gone back to since on occasion. I skipped reviewing 2016’s Rituals, largely because I was so disappointed upon listening to it and hearing the band veer away from the more creatively melodic direction they explored on its predecessor and didn’t want to expend any further listening time to it at that moment. I did eventually go back to it and found it had a few gems tucked away (“Devadevam” is its absolute highlight) but my overall opinion still stood, it was a letdown relatively speaking. At some point I saw them live for the first time, opening for Mayhem and Watain here in Houston, and their setlist was geared towards those band’s crowds, leaning hard towards their death metal spectrum and further away from the weird folk/world music elements that I really wanted to hear. It was kind of a disappointment —- the smell of a rotting pig’s head from backstage didn’t help matters either (for real it was gag inducing). Suffice to say I was only mildly curious when I saw a new Rotting Christ record on the release schedule for late February.
This is one of those cases where I don’t think expectations or anticipation really affected my opinion of this record when I first started listening to it nearly a week ago, because I simply know what I wish to hear from this band. And to my delight, Rotting Christ have delivered exactly that on The Heretics, an album that bristles with creative songwriting, and clean toned riffs set to inventive rhythmic structures. Its all encased in a sonic palette that grabs hold of everything from spoken word vocal passages, Guns N’ Roses esque solo-ing, chanted choral arrays, and hypnotic percussion that often operates at its own tempo schedule, heedless of the pace of the other instruments. The stellar cut “Heaven And Hell And Fire” is a vivid example of almost all of these elements, and I just love the interplay between the rollicking drum patterns and in and out guitar slashing during the 2:27-3:04 moment after which a gloriously explosive solo rockets outward. There’s a sense of spatial awareness here that few bands ever really grasp, and Jens Bogren’s mixing job is fantastic for finding a way to not only preserve that aspect, but to seemingly fixate on ensuring that it comes through. My personal favorite is “Vetry zlye”, where Russian vocalist Irina Zybina blankets the song with a gorgeous (I’m guessing here) Greek lyric that reminds me a bit of Eluveitie in the best possible sense. On the more brutal end of the spectrum, “The Voice of the Universe” quakes with the unrelenting pounding of Themis Tolis martial percussive attack, and weirdly enough they’re almost working as the musical hook for the song. His natural interplay with his brother, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Sakis Tolis can’t be understated, because this kind of perfect, in lock-step sync just doesn’t happen with any drummer/guitarist pair. Maybe the best compliment I can offer The Heretics is that sometimes I feel like I’m listening to a lost Therion album, and I love that.
Traveler – Traveler:
The newest entrant into the North American pantheon of trad/power metal revivalists, Calgary’s Traveler hews the same path as their fellow Canadian’s in Cauldron, albeit juiced up with more NWOBHM git up and go speed. This is one of those rare times when I was in on the ground floor relatively speaking, having this promo pointed out by one of the powerful. a power metal podcast folks a few months ago —- a debut album that is arriving with a noticeable amount of buzz generated from their split EP with Finland’s Coronary in the summer of 2018. If you paid attention to the Gatekeeper debut that came out last spring, you’ll hear a striking similarity in Traveler’s vocalist, and that’s because both bands share Jean-Pierre Abboud at the mic. He’s almost a dead ringer for a combination of early Savatage Jon Oliva and Metal Church’s David Wayne, and takes a warts and all approach to his performance in the recording studio. That means that there are the odd bum notes, extra vibrato at the endings of lines, and an overall emphasis on attitude and feel more than technical proficiency, and that’s kind of the best way to go about things for this approach to metal.
The rest of the band strikes the right balance between precision and looseness, with guitarists Matt Ries and Toryin Schadlich creating razor sharp riffs, tight rhythmic density, and the odd dual guitar harmonization that just screams old school Maiden. But whether its the aggro, slightly ahead of the beat bassist and drummer or maybe just an overall production texture, there’s a feeling to Traveler that its all barely held together with the thinnest of threads. The highlight here is “Up to You”, a song that reminds me of High Spirits in its snappy chorus, and its pairing of a slightly off-balance vocal by Abboud and joyfully melodic guitar solos as punctuation marks. There’s also “Starbreaker”, as classic sounding any of these bands in this vein have ever come to sounding like a lost recording from the early 80s NWOBHM wake. From the worn out cassette recording texture present at the intro to the familiar riff progressions that you just seem to know where they’re heading, its a classic sounding song that actually could be a classic just due to how well its executed. I would love this band to cover something like “White Witch” from Savatage’s Hall of the Mountain King, because if there’s anyone that could do it convincingly, its Abboud and company. A crackling, fiery debut for these guys, it’ll be interesting to see if they stay in this lane or more towards something else in the future.
Týr – Hel:
Its been six years since the last Tyr album, kinda eye opening when I seem to remember these guys releasing something every other year or so for nearly a decade it seemed. I think if we’re all being honest though, the band hasn’t had the best track record with album length enterprises either, their best moments scattered across the entirety of their discography. I consider their first two records to the their strongest, and sometimes think that their debut with original vocalist Pól Arni Holm to be their most endearing (if not quite their best). But Heri Joensen is Tyr, his songwriting and vocals that have come to define this band’s unique sound and identity amongst a cluttered metal landscape where invoking viking and Norse imagery is all too commonplace. And despite a pair of major lineup changes (new guitarist, new drummer), the core sound is still as recognizable as ever on Hel, but I think the extended break from releases has done Joensen some good on the inspiration and songwriting front. The new album sees him taking some chances with the Tyr sound, injecting some fresh elements into the mix like the unexpected furious death metal vocals in the album opener “Gates of Hel” (I mean, if there’s any song you add those to, that’s the one). Its got a tight chorus on it too, as in tightly packed and smartly written, the kind of thing that defined some of their more memorable gems from albums past. In fact the first five songs on this tracklisting are genuinely inspired slices of Tyr-ian folk infused power metal, particularly the album highlight “Garmr” where we’re treated to the band’s most addictive song since “Hear the Heathen Call” (from 2009’s By the Light of the Northern Star).
The first stumble here is “Downhill Drunk”, whose title doesn’t inspire confidence unless you’re listening to something like Flogging Molly or some long lost Pogues song. Its not a terrible track, but really doesn’t have much in the way of melodic definition or a discernible hook, one of those tracks that’s just there, taking up space. Far more interesting is the subsequent “Empire of the North”, where a runaway chorus almost gets away from Joensen, but he manages to keep things together due to the strength of some awesome power metal guitar passages and a strong descending vocal hook in the aforementioned refrain. And I mentioned taking chances earlier, and I’m not exactly sure how to describe what’s happening on “Against the Gods” but its weird meshing of a quasi thrashy rhythmic barrage with a truly satisfying hook keeping it just accessible enough is something new and awesome for the band. Its paired up with another rock solid slab in “Fire and Flame” with its juxtaposing uptempo, martial percussion fueled intensity with slightly slower verses, an effect that magnifies a listener’s attention on each aspect. There’s a respectable amount of really excellent material on Hel, the problem is there’s just too much material on the album overall. Its well past an hour and change in length and that practically guarantees that some of it will be subpar, the case in point is the album’s closing package of “Songs of War” and “Alvur Kongur”, the latter of which I hoped to enjoy because I typically do for all their songs written in their native language. Again they’re not bad per say, but they fall flat which is a problem a band this good shouldn’t have. It begs the question on whether Tyr’s ultimate problem in composing albums is having a good sense of quality control and self restraint. I’m guessing no one was in the studio pointing out that maybe a tight 45′ would be better than packing everything that popped out in the writing process into the tracklisting.
Queensrÿche – The Verdict:
I just deleted an opening paragraph for this review because it was sounding too reviewer like and honestly I just can’t with a band like Queensryche. I’ve been listening to them since what, 1994-ish at least (possibly heard “Silent Lucidity” earlier than that, can’t confirm) with varying degrees of fandom/skepticism, including a pretty dark stretch from oh friggin’ 2005-2011. You should all know the backstory by now, realize that Todd LaTorre is the band’s vocalist, and understand that The Verdict is album number three in Queensryche 2.0, or is that 4.0? Does the departure of each original band member herald a new version number? So Chris DeGarmo leaving in ’98 would’ve resulted in 2.0, Geoff Tate getting fired/splitting in 2012 would’ve been 3.0, and now Scott Rockenfield taking a strangely undefined paternal leave that transformed into maybe he’s still in the band ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) is 4.0? Or its just that life is unpredictable and chaotic and here we are, Queensryche in 2019 and kick the Deep Purple version numbers idea to the curb? The major thing is that for the guys who are still here, LaTorre, Michael Wilton, Eddie Jackson and Parker Lundgren —- album three is put up or shut up time not only in the grand scheme of things for their legacy together, but for my patience as a fan who eagerly jumped back onboard after LaTorre joined. My initial enthusiasm for the band’s post-Tate journey definitely masked some critical flaws with their 2013 self-titled debut album (namely those song lengths… this is prog, not punk rock, maybe add a couple solos or something, reprise a chorus or work up a outro… anything?). The follow-up in 2015, Condition Human, was better despite some truly abysmal cover art (The Verdict’s lame attitude filled grim reaper isn’t much better), but in re-listening to it for the first time since that reviewing period, its uneven nature stands out even more now.
Thankfully, just like every band is supposed to hit their stride by their third record, the LaTorre fronted Queensryche has done just that on The Verdict. Oh and believe me this time I’m confident in declaring that, because its being done so in the face of a healthy dose of skepticism that they could pull it off, particularly without Rockenfield behind the kit. The overwhelming thought that runs through my mind in trying to assess this album is that it sounds like the most Rychian Queensryche album since 2003’s semi DeGarmo reunion Tribe, but really hearkens back to threads of Promised Land and even older era classics like Empire and Mindcrime. I know the latter is a lofty one to throw out there, but its the closest sonic profile that informs the songwriting and guitar approach of songs like “Blood of the Levant” and “Man the Machine”, the opening salvo on this album. I wrote in my review for Condition Human that its first two songs were the best one-two opening punch the band had managed in ages, but these two out muscle them like an Urak-hai arm wrestling Frodo. Its something of a minor miracle that we’re hearing a song as inspired as “Blood of the Levant” from these guys, with its perfectly balanced blend of aggressive riffs with eastern tinged guitar melodies. The mid-song pre-solo vocal shift by LaTorre is so strikingly reminiscent of what DeGarmo would write for Tate in the Empire era, a nostalgia blast they’ve never managed before. And the dual harmonized solo from Wilton and Lundgren is excellent, a simple repeating melody that is bright and evocative. It slams right into “Man the Machine”, which combines a slight modern metal stop-start riffing approach to an otherwise classic sounding Queensryche cut. Its propelled along an urgent, insistent guitar figure that leads into a wide open chorus, with LaTorre peppering his performance with well timed sharp highs that remind me of the kind of unpredictable vocal inflections Tate would sometimes veer off into.
LaTorre pulls double duty on this record as well, being a more than competent drummer he stepped in for Rockenfield and honestly did a great job of it, taking care to honor the way their absentee drummer might have approached things on his own. That means there’s a plethora of sonic variety in the drum kit he’s using, and an emphasis on unorthodox fills, rhythmic variations in spots, insistent backbeats, and just an attention to detail that matches Queensryche’s modus operandi. I love the proggy-jazzy cymbal hits in “Light-Years”, one of the album’s stronger cuts because of its gorgeous chorus, laced with not only a stellar vocal from LaTorre, but those all too recognizable backing vocals from Jackson. We’ve seen flashes of him being brought back into the harmony vocal fold over the past two albums, but never in this declarative a fashion, and its something this band has missed for ages now. Surprisingly enough, its Lundgren who might have delivered the album’s absolute gem in “Dark Reverie”, a ballad that brings back memories of “I Will Remember”, built on lone semi-acoustic styled guitar passages and LaTorre’s haunted vocal melodies. This is one of the songs fans will point to when they’re trying to illustrate why The Verdict sounds more like Queensryche than the past however many albums past; because its not just that LaTorre can sound radically similar to Tate quite often, its how these songs just echo and reverberate everything we remembered about this band sounding like. This is Lundgren’s first solo songwriting credit to my knowledge, and its exciting to see him not only emphatically put himself out there, but write something that sounds DeGarmo-ian (the highest compliment I can think of really). I think he and LaTorre seem to understand something intrinsic about what made classic Queensryche sound the way it did, something the rest of the original members were too close to everything to decipher themselves. This isn’t a perfect album, there are a few weaker moments but not many, and no duds(!), but its the most fulfilling album they’ve made in ages. This version of the band has proven themselves with this record, and they’ve gained creative momentum here, lets hope it doesn’t take another four years to capitalize on it.
Children of Bodom – Hexed:
The most surprising aspect of Hexed, Children of Bodom’s jeez, tenth studio album now, isn’t that its actually very strong —- their best since Hatecrew Deathroll easily. Its that months out before even hearing a note of this, I felt myself expecting it to be good, in fact telling others that I think we were all gonna be taken off guard by how good it was. This isn’t like me, and by now you’ve heard me mention how high expectations have perhaps stacked the deck against many an album that I’ve reviewed as a mediocre disappointment, or vice-versa, that an album I’ve had little anticipation for is the one that blows me away and keeps me listening for most of the year. Our psychology clearly isn’t the most complex thing to figure out in matters like this, but I’ve somehow gone metaphysical now with Hexed and power of intention-ed it and myself together in one harmonious, universal, Deepak Chopra approved resonance. Or, maybe its simply that I suspected as much because the band’s last record, 2015’s I Worship Chaos actually had some decent stuff on it that made me feel that the band was slowly finding their way back to their best sonic identity. It still had some of the contaminant of boneheaded chug and industrial-ish wash from their wilderness years (in retrospect that spanned a little more than a decade, yikes), but for the first time in years I didn’t find myself rolling my eyes at what they were doing and hitting repeat.
With Hexed, I find myself void of all snark upon hearing the old school melodic death metal nature of “This Road” and “Under Grass and Clover”, the latter sounding like a lost bonus track from the Something Wild sessions, a sound I’ve wanted to hear represented again for eons now. Its not always about the density of the riffing that makes melodeath so distinctive, its how its written, and Laiho hearkens back to that spirit on that cut and on “Glass Houses”, another full speed banger with little micro dueling solos pitted against Janne Wirman’s ever distinctive keyboard frills. A Hatecrew vibe permeates “Hecate’s Nightmare”, its thick slabs of keyboard tipped riffage building up to a pummeling, grinding back and forth in the refrain that isn’t so much catchy as it is satisfying on a visceral level. So much of Bodom at their best works that way, you’re not looking for pop hooks but just a snappy, crisp sense of controlled, tightly channeled rage and venom. I know that’s a strange sentiment from the guy who could write a dissertation on Power Quest, but despite my barely disguised loathing for meatheaded heavy for heaviness’ sake bands, I still crave a form of heaviness in metal. I just want it to be delivered alongside other interesting musical elements, and that’s why melodeath has always been a beloved subgenre. With Hexed, Children of Bodom have managed to make themselves a part of that fix again, which new age inclinations aside, I can’t honestly say I ever saw happening again.