A lot has happened since my last update on the metal front, namely that I’ve seen an armful of bands live within the past month and a half. In April I finally had my pandemic delayed opportunity to see Seven Spires live and they did not disappoint, despite having a setlist that was limited in scope and set length to focus on the last album and just a few songs from the much beloved Emerald Seas (come to think of it, I don’t think they did anything from Solveig). I even got to say hello to Adrienne and Jack who were on the floor watching Firewind with the rest of us after their set — funnily enough, those two were also at the Rotting Christ/Borknagar show the other night here on the Devastation For the Nation’s Houston stop, although I didn’t see them personally and only found out through her Instagram story later. Oh yeah, getting to see Borknagar live for the first time was as my buddy Maurice at the show commented, a definite “bucket list” moment. Despite no Vintersorg in the lineup (and thus none of his era’s songs getting an airing), it was still an unforgettable experience and they were brilliant on stage in their own inimitable way. I’d seen ICS Vortex live way back in the day with Dimmu, but he was definitely way more in his own element here, his stage presence more attuned to being in a jam based band than the rigidity we’ve come to expect from black metal bands live. I also can’t express how surreal it was to see Oystein Brun in person, not that he’s a big celebrity even in the metal sense, but because this is a guy I’ve known about for twenty years now never thinking I’d get to see him play live.
What else? Oh yeah, of course, the epic two day Hells Heroes IV Fest that happened over the course of April 22nd-23rd where I got to see Candlemass for the first time ever (speaking of bucket list) on Friday night as the downstairs headliner, and High Spirits on Saturday night as the upstairs headliner. There were other tremendous bands I saw that weekend, Eternal Champion was brilliant live, I really loved Sumerlands who were way more fierce live than I was expecting, and getting to see Midnight again (who were the secret special guests) was a treat. I know Midnight had an album released back in March, and it sounds you know, like Midnight and it’s pretty good, but this is a band that I think is that rare bird that is best experienced live because they might be one of the best live performers in metal as a whole right now, just pure intensity and adrenaline when they’re onstage). On a recent MSRcast, we talked a bit in depth about the Hells Heroes experience, and quite a bit about how the expansion of an outdoor seating/merch/chilling area made the entire fest way more manageable and pleasant on a personal energy level than it was back in 2019, and I have to give praise to the organizers for that. It’s a great event and everyone should consider buying a ticket and coming down for it (that is, after I’ve bought mine of course).
There is also the recent slate of new music to cover, and I’ll be honest I’ve been listening to some albums far more than others. Månegarm and Lords of the Trident really occupied a lot of my metal listening time for the past few weeks, along with finding myself dipping back into Bruce Dickinson’s solo catalog (his speaking gig that I saw back in, what February(?) has apparently lingered in my mind since). I was jamming a bit of Dragonforce and Spires in the wake of that terrific gig, and went off on a post Hells Heroes tangent with some of the bands I got to see there as well. Recently its been Therion because they’ve dropped a new single and I couldn’t resist checking it out — it sent me on an indulgent spree of spinning their classic late 90s masterworks. This means I’m of course behind on new music, but thankfully I have people like Christian and Justin sorting through a mess of new music and I can afford to be a bit picky by really focusing on their recommendations, some which are landing and some not so much (opinions?!). Anyway here’s some of that in no real order below:
Månegarm – Ynglingaättens öde:
It feels like its been ages since an album has captured my heart and imagination the way the newest album by veteran Swedish OG folk metallers Månegarm has. This was a release day discovery, with me stumbling around the metal release calendar that Friday morning looking for anything interesting that had come out, and seeing this on it. I was utterly blown away from the very first song and all throughout this nine track masterpiece (I try not to use that term unless its warranted, and it absolutely is here), Ynglingaattens ode being a likely contender for the album of the year spot, because seriously this might be the most giddily surprised I’ve felt about anything metal wise since Seven Spires Emerald Seas. I’ve been a fan of the band since Havets vargar way back in 2000 when folk metal was exploding out of Scandinavia and Europe and felt nascently raw, vital, and fresh. I have in the past few years pointed out how there has been a quiet resurgence of both new and veteran folk metal artists who are releasing really strong records that harken back to that era, before the genre became bloated with gimmickry and goofiness. Thankfully Månegarm has been part of combating that nonsense for a good while now, with their 2019 album Fornaldarsagor landing on that year’s best albums list here, their most inspired offering in well over a decade. And they pick up right where they left off on this new album, slightly stepping away from Fornaldarsagor’s more blackened aggression to make room for more of their rootsy Scandinavian folk melodies this time around.
As if to prove that statement wrong, the album opener “Freyrs blod” comes striking out with a vicious frenetic aggression that would suggest otherwise at first. At around the two minute mark however, guitarist Markus Andé introduces subtle but gorgeous, grandiose sounding melodic progressions to accompany vocalist Erik Grawsiö’s soaring, leather worn clean vocals. I’m almost positive my eyebrows raised when I first heard this moment, it made me really sit up and take notice and by the time the hushed, folk string adorned vocal passage unfolded a minute and a half later, I was completely entranced. This is a ten minute song, something I honestly didn’t even realize until writing this review, because it doesn’t feel like ten minutes and not once was I aware of it’s length, a success in and of itself. It’d easily be the best track on an incredible album if it weren’t for the beautifully autumnal power ballad “En snara av guld”, with its sweetly melancholic violin accompaniment and a stunning vocal melody by Grawsiö. He’s joined here by his daughter Lea Grawsiö Lindström who turns in a really haunting performance, her voice a strikingly innocent yet mature counterpart to Grawsiö’s rougher textures. In the more purely folk ballad realm is the serene “Hågkomst av ett liv”, where recent Manegarm collaborator Ellinor Videfors sings wistfully to a lamenting melody with a subtle accompaniment by Grawsiö. I love that the band really dove deep on the folk side of their sound on this album, because I’ve always thought they had one of the most skillful and subtle touches when it came to working it into their overall sound. The melodies are brighter and more shimmering throughout this album, there’s a confidence here that suggests a comfortableness with their sonic identity — the result is an album that sounds spiritual, meditative and full of life.
Lords of the Trident – The Offering:
I love this album, and in classic Metal Pigeon fashion, it reached up from the inky blackness and slapped me without warning to become one of my most listened to records of the year thus far. The fifth album from Wisconsin based power metal goofs Lords of the Trident, The Offering represents a maturing and deepening of the band’s adventurous riff based power metal sound. There were hints that something like this was brewing on their 2018 effort Shadows From the Past, with some of those songs being incredibly solid, though I felt the album still felt a bit uneven throughout. That inadequacy is addressed here with not only a complete lack of any discernible weak spots across the board (a titanic accomplishment considering its 13 song track length), but with the band seemingly landing on a sound and overall approach that really rings true to them. This is power metal that is at once built on aggressive riffage, but at times plays on a balance of laid back hard rockin’ groove juxtaposed with strident, classic Edguy invoking adventurous power metal drive and gusto. The game changer lies not only on the instrumental front, but in how vocalist Fang VonWrathenstein (née Tyler Christian) has improved in leaps and bounds. Christian turns in a vocal performance here that is impassioned and rich, full of power but still capable of nuance and emotive inflections in his approach. It’s maybe my favorite vocal performance of the year overall, because it’s reminding me so much of a cross between Urban Breed and I dunno, maybe a lighter toned smoother vocalist like Tommy Karevik. His tone and delivery seems to be weighty and full of gravitas here, a more serious approach than he was dishing out on previous albums (which I’ll be honest, might have been why I wasn’t keen on their earlier stuff). The band is matching him too, turning out compositions that qualify this as a serious metal album despite the band members’ silly aliases. Songs like “Offering to the Void” and “Legend” have this beautifully vivid grandeur to them, soaring and majestic but still understated in their tonal color. Even when they cut loose with a wild rocker like on “Acolyte” or “Feed the Wolves”, there’s an intensity and precision here that is commanding my attention. Can’t say enough good things about this record, I’m really impressed and kinda relieved that a new power metal album has gotten me so fired up (there had been a concerning drought recently).
Trick or Treat – Creepy Symphonies:
Trick or Treat has been the Italian alternative for despondent fans of classic era Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Edguy who’ve longed for those bands to return to their lighter, more purist power metal sounds (though in fairness, Helloween has sorta gotten there). I’ve enjoyed their records on a mostly passing level since they debuted way back in 2006 with the unforgettably titled Evil Needs Candy Too, and have followed them since with a particular focus on seeing where Alessandro Conti’s various musical pursuits have led. While Conti’s classic power metal vocals are understandably the star attraction here, the band has really stepped up their efforts on the songwriting front this go around. One of the highlights here has them stretching their wings a bit on the power ballad front on “Peter Pan Syndrome (Keep Alive)” whose worrying title thankfully was disguising a gloriously uplifting, heartwarming gem the likes of which I’ve really missed hearing. I get major Avantasia with Kiske vibes on “Crazy”, and that’s a credit to Conti’s unnatural ability to sound a lot like the Helloween frontman when he hits a certain inflection. Conti and guitarist Guido Benedetti split the songwriting duties fairly evenly it seems across Creepy Symphonies, but there’s really a merging of styles with these two guys, a synchronicity in the way they’re approaching songwriting. In other words, Benedetti is just as liable to deliver songs with amply soaring vocals with arcing choruses as Conti is, there’s no discernible differences in approach that creates a noticeable dichotomy within the album. And I kinda like that because that consistency has yielded a truly fun, vibrant, and cheer inducing listening experience all throughout this album. Easily one of the strongest Euro-power albums I’ve heard in awhile alongside the Planeswalker album that came out earlier in the year.
Saidan – Onryō II: Her Spirit Eternal:
I’ve been addicted to this record as soon as I first checked it out, and in the weeks since that happened I’ve seen more and more people online talking about it here and there. Tennessean black metal duo Saidan deserve the traction, because this is kinda what I’ve been craving in black metal in a big way. On Twitter recently, user @VVolvenDaughterwrote“The thing black metal is missing is bangers. It’s an album genre, and good at atmosphere, but is distinctly lacking in standout songs that make you completely wreck your neck”, and while there are certainly exceptions to that statement, I largely agree with her. This is not to say that all black metal should be composed of attempts to write “bangers” either, because many of the black metal albums I do love are mostly textural, deeply layered, atmospheric experiences (cue Alcest and many other atmo-black records, as well as a majority of the second wave of black metal for that matter). But yeah, black metal could do with a crop of bands who understand the power of a headbanging worthy riff that stands out from the din of furious noise its usually buried by. When I saw Midnight at Hells Heroes, their blackened take on punky metallic speed metal was so effective at firing up the entire crowd live, and more recently, Rotting Christ’s hypnotic but arena ready riffs were absolutely commanding in a live situation. We were all banging our heads. And what I think Saidan get absolutely right on Onryō, their second album, is landing on that intersection between a densely layered, very much atmospheric experience while somehow being catchy as all get out with actual memorable riff sequences that cut through everything and smack you about the face. Take “Yuki Onna” for example, that melancholic yet aggressive intro riff repeating sequence is beguiling enough, but when the mid-song post bridge switch into a chugging, thunderous lumberjack of a riff kicks in, it’s deeply satisfying. There’s an excitement coursing through these songs, even the quiet interlude length cut with the odd name (“Kate”), where a tautly strung together clean guitar melody provides a tense backdrop for some breathy distant sounding melodic vocals. The truly killer moment is the entirety of the closing track “I Am The Witch”, where my only complaint is that the frigging awesome riff that kicks in at the five minute mark only sticks around for a minute before fading off to the conclusion (we needed a longer run of that one dammit). The sharpest and most hooky black metal album of the past two years easy, and that’s high praise considering the excellent records that have been delivered in that time frame.
Thunder – Dopamine:
This has been a nice surprise, a really strong new album by England’s hidden hard rock titans Thunder, a band that I’ll be honest, sort of fell off my radar over the past decade-ish plus. I first got into Thunder when I blindly bought a used cassette of their 1990 classic Backstreet Symphony way back in the mid-90s because the band name sounded vaguely metallic and the little band pic on the insert seemed to verify this as well. I had no idea who they were or where they came from (based on their sound I think for awhile I thought they were an American band), but I really loved that record and the band’s Bad Company meets classic GnR meets Tesla sound in general. I’d pick up a handful of their albums in the same secondhand way in scattershot fashion over the years and always enjoyed them, especially Laughing On Judgement Day, but looking over their discography page on Wikipedia now, I realize I’ve missed a ton of releases, particularly surprisingly high charting ones from the past handful of years. They’re a top ten charting band in the UK again, and clearly have experienced a revival of sorts, much like Magnum has recently with their past few efforts. If these other recent albums are anything like Dopamine, I can see why: This is confident, assured straight up hard rock from a veteran band that isn’t trying to be anything other than who they truly are. Songs like “One Day We’ll Be Free Again”, “The Western Sky”, and “Across the Nation” have that same recognizable no-frills hard rock attitude and swagger as anything off the first two albums, a refreshing sound to hear when lately I’ve been bouncing between all kinds of complexly layered extreme metal and densely layered K-Pop. I was particularly taken by the sparse piano adorned ballad “Is Anybody Out There?”, a great showcase that demonstrates guitarist Luke Morley’s songwriting abilities translate just as sharply with pure melodies as they do in cranking out memorable riffs. Vocalist Danny Bowes is nothing short of incredible here, emotive in his delivery and phrasing, landing on satisfying vocal runs and deftly handling delicate melodies. These two guys have a long track record together, and like similar duos in rock history (your Bob Catley/Tony Clarkin, your Jeff Keith/Frank Hannon pairings), they’re comfortable enough with each other to seemingly play to each other’s strengths. I’ve loved diving back into this really overlooked band (here in the States that is), and this has been a joy to listen to.
The past few weeks have been rather interesting in terms of big name releases on the metal landscape, with Ghost and Sabaton grabbing the headlines but not overshadowing new music from Hammerfall and Scorpions. There were a few more things I’ve been listening to that occurred in the past two weeks that I’ll have to get to next time around, although I suspect I’ll be writing about the upcoming Hell’s Heroes festival in Houston long before I can get to them (so stay plugged into the MSRcast to hear more new music talk in the interim!). Can hardly believe its April, but with a quarter of the year having gone by I’m more encouraged by what’s been released this year than in 2021, and there’s going to be some notable things coming out in the months to come. I’ve also been encouraged by listening to some other metal podcasts such as our friend David’s That Metal Podcast to make good on my promise to myself to do more writing on this blog that’s kinda selfish, those ideas I’ve kept meaning to get back to that always get shelved because of new music reviews. I started on this late last year with my Metal Pigeon Essential Ten: Power Metal write up, which I’m aiming to keep expanding on, but I also am hoping to get The Metal Pigeon Recommends feature relaunched too (David’s “The Northernmost Killers” episode on Sentenced got me thinking about it because they were last band I covered in that series as well). So yeah, there’s a lot on the agenda hopefully that will become reality soon enough.
Sabaton – The War To End All Wars:
So the first thought that came to my mind way back whenever I first heard that Sabaton was doing yet another World War I themed album was that they were committing a major faux pas… because rarely, and I mean friggin’ rarely does a band continue the same concept for two releases in a row. Even sequels tend to be separated by intervals of time, no matter how detrimental that gap in time can be (ask a Queensryche fan how they feel about Mindcrime II sometime). Sabaton’s reason for doing this is because they felt they simply had too many ideas that they couldn’t fit into The Great War due to the depth and wide reaching breadth of the subject matter at hand, and needed a continuation album. Shrewdly enough, they really did make an effort to tie the two records in together; from having cover artist Péter Sallai utilize nearly the same palette for the artwork, to ensuring similar stylization of the album titles, to even once again offering a narration boosted “history edition” of this album (which is what I’ve been listening to by the way) just like they did for The Great War. But the risk they run here is the unspoken elephant in the room tromping through their fans minds with the echoing message that these songs weren’t good enough to make the first one of these WWI albums, so here they are as leftovers. Hey its a fair enough thought, and I suspect there is a morsel of truth to it as well, but I’ve come to feel after many listens that The War To End All Wars succeeds more often than not and even shows glimpses of the band at their best.
Lets start with the highlights, and of course the first thing anyone should be singling out here is “The Christmas Truce”, which is in the running for being the one of the band’s most spectacular songs ever penned to date, certainly their best “epic”. Gorgeous, tinkling piano snowfall, setting the scene Joakim Broden paints out in some genuinely excellent lyrical diction, set to a melody that at once invokes the sounds of Christmas yet cuts them with an undercurrent of darkness and despair. This is a litmus test song for me, one of those cuts where I might start to side-eye question someone’s musical taste if they can’t even cop to this being a well wrought piece of music. Broden’s vocals dig deep here, full of passion, the kind of performance that required him to throw himself entirely into a different character, and if you’ve seen the incredibly well done music video you might know exactly what I’m alluding to. Another favorite is the grinding, stomping “Soldier Of Heaven”, where the prechorus features that classic Broden hammer drop (“A force of nature too strong, sent from above!”). It’s preceded on the album by the gloriously urgent spiritual cousin to Sabaton classic “Ghost Division” in “Stormtroopers”, not a song about the Empire’s fashionably iconic shock troops but the WWI era German troops of the same name. The Bulgarian Battle of Doiran anthem “Valley of Death” is old school swinging Sabaton action, all glorious triumphant major keys in that chorus and a truly memorable vocal hook. Nothing groundbreaking, but classic Sabaton when its on the mark satisfies that basic heavy metal need to fist pump and sing along. I also wanna point out “Hellfighters” for getting back to the darker, more grind it out sludgefest that The Great War often delved into, something I appreciated for the soundscape it gave to subject matter that needed a hefty dose of it to really give credence to the reality of WWI. The few other tracks I haven’t singled out here do however feel a little like the table scraps from this enormous WWI songwriting session, and they’re not bad songs per say, but their unremarkable nature makes this sequel a little less enthralling than part one.
Hammerfall – Hammer of Dawn:
If you didn’t remember, and you’d be forgiven for not doing so, I really enjoyed the heck out of Hammerfall’s Dominion in the before times back in 2019. Time really flies when you’re heeding the call as Joacim Cans reminds us on the door kicking opener “Brotherhood” (and lets face it, if you’re not heeding the call, why are you reading a Hammerfall review?). Is this classic medieval imagery as a metaphor for Hammerfall concert attendance anthem also hinting at the reality of our collective concert yearning during the pandemic? I normally wouldn’t try to read too much into Hammerfall’s lyrics for obvious reasons but I detect a note of… gratitude, hopefulness, or yearning present in Cans’ words here, and I have to think these songs were written sometime last year when we still didn’t know if shows would be happening in 2022. I last saw Hammerfall in 2018 when they were touring with Flotsam and Jetsam as openers in tow, it was a spectacular time, and they were supposed to be back in fall of 2020 with Beast In Black and Edge of Paradise. I’m incredibly eager to see them return not only for the classic material they’ll be playing, but also because with Hammer of Dawn, they now have two recent albums that I’ve been incredibly fired up about hearing cuts from live.
This is a far more conventional Hammerfall listening experience than Dominion, where the band was not so much experimenting as they were stretching their reach towards more creative songwriting approaches that really worked well. By no means does that make Hammer of Dawn boring though, this is a strong album with relatively few weak moments, but nothing as stellar as “Sweden Rock”, “Chain of Command”, or “Second to One”. The sure fire bangers here are the throwback Renegade-era invoking title track, the cheeky lyrical play of “Too Old to Die Young”, the complex tempo shifting “Reveries”, and the King Diamond assisted “Venerate Me” (although it’s hard to detect the King’s presence at first… maybe they can be knocked for under utilizing him). It’d be easy to think that simply being a Hammerfall fan means you’ll receive each new album fairly well, but that’s not always the case — I’m still not that wild on Infected and (r)Evolution, and there are tangible and intangible aspects I look for when it comes to new material from the group. What they’ve managed to grab ahold of on these past two albums I think is largely an awareness of who they are and what they’re best at tackling on a musical level. I’ve accepted that the raw, melodeath-ian influenced guitar attack they had on the first two albums is likely gone forever, replaced by the post millennium sense of Priest-like precision and the far less dense, looser chugging approach to their riffs. At its core of course, it boils down to the very simple question of whether the songwriting is on point or not, and lately it has been. This is a trend that I hope continues.
Allegaeon – Damnum:
The name Allegaeon has been floating around my metal circle for awhile now, and although I have been introduced and exposed to their past few records via the podcast and just earnest recommendations that have come my way, it’s only on this new album Damnum that I’m really paying attention of my own accord. I’ll have to revisit the others to see if this record is just the beginning of them really landing on something truly inspired, or just the latest entry among a really impressive body of work that I’ve been spacing out on. I have listened to Damnum probably as much as I’ve been listening to any other metal record in the entirety of these past four months of 2022, and it speaks volumes that any record can command that kind of firm, long lasting grip on my attention span these days. And while there’s plenty of bands trying to do to death metal what Allegaeon is succeeding in doing here, namely, reimagining it through a progressive metal filter and embracing melody without turning into a melodic death metal band (a subtle distinction, but certainly a valid one). Their greatest asset in accomplishing this is vocalist Riley McShane, who is capable of some convincingly ferocious growls, fantastically blackened shrieking vox, and a full, almost warm sounding clean vocal tone that he can switch back and forth without warning. It allows the band to be adventurous in their songwriting, to pull some head spinning shifts in tempo and aggression one way or another, and to utilize unconventional rhythms and space as textures and soundscapes for more introspective, moodier moments. Take “Called Home”, which boasts some of the album’s most violent passages, but also has McShane leading us in an emotively sung clean vocal passage over drifting, isolated lead figures and some echoing, off-beat proggy drum fills.
McShane’s clean vocals are at once familiar and also hard to find a direct comparison to, he’s more of an amalgamation of a handful of vocalists you might already know than a doppelganger of one other singer or another. His work towards the end of the impressive album opener “Bastards of the Earth” kinda recalled hints of Haken’s Ross Jennings crossed with Countless Skies’ Phil Romeo (or you know, insert your own point of reference here). Perhaps even more impressive however is his razor sharp enunciation that cuts through in his harsh and growling vocal techniques. Even in uber dense cuts like “Into Embers”, where the band’s more tech death side surfaces, setting aside most melodic indulgences, you can actually discern the lyrics or at least most of the syllabic structure that he’s barking out. I feel like this is an incredibly underrated talent in extreme metal, its one thing for harsh or growling vocals to serve as more of a textural element, we’re all used to that by now. But actually combining that with understandable lyrics is something that can elevate a band’s songwriting, particularly when you have a lyricist with talent at work (Rivers of Nihil should get credit for this as well). Guitarists Greg Burgess and Michael Stancel also deserve mention for their work here, having crafted a wildly diverse tapesty of straightforward yet satisfying tech-death meets tremolo riffs and creative lead breaks and pattern changes. The amount of crazy changeups in a song like “Vermin” was headspinning, yet always felt perfectly timed and never something that was just done because it could be, everything felt of a purpose. This was one of those albums that sat at the crossroads of being familiar enough to be comforting, and yet full of surprises at the same time, a hard place to get to.
Scorpions – Rock Believer:
I’ve had a hard time evaluating this new and possibly final Scoprions album. When I’m actively listening to it I find that its a suitably rockin’ experience for the most part, there are certainly no glaring flaws to be heard. Yet unlike 2010’s now seemingly very strong Sting In the Tail, there aren’t that many moments that are lingering in my mind afterwards (something that characterized damn near all of 2015’s Return to Forever). And you know, I get that maybe expecting too much from a Scorpions record at this stage in their career is a bit rich, that I should just be happy to accept any new music from the legends (and I am). But here’s the thing: Klaus and company got my hopes up with this cover art many months back. It screamed a purposeful throwback to perhaps a late 70s/early 80s sound and spirit, and in somewhere in the very naïve portion of my mind I was hopeful that there could even be a reach back into the band’s more psychedelia infused days with Uli Jon Roth. Of course when I finally got to hear the album in full, it immediately dawned on me that an important aspect of achieving that wish would be, you know, Uli Jon Roth being in the lineup… so shifting back to the more realistic hope of an 80s throwback sound, how well did the Scorpions live up to this kinda sorta promise? Actually they did alright, Rock Believer has a distinctly older school feel that’s built on the band’s fundamental building blocks of straight ahead hard rocking riffs, and Klaus spitting out verses with more attitude filled swagger than he’s done in ages. Of course its still got the sheen of modern production on it, despite the deliberate attempt to conjure up an analog warmth (I could be wrong about this of course but I think at this point I’d be able to suss out a true analog record).
Okay I’m rambling. Here’s what rocked me on this record, first thing to mention being the title track itself, a song that is musically a bridge between modern Scorpions more mellower bent crossed with some Savage Amusement era style riffs and cowbell. If you haven’t seen the music video for this song, you owe it to yourself to check it out because the song is solid enough on it’s own as a slice of bittersweet nostalgia, but the visual dichotomy of the Scorp’s rocking out today intercut with classic footage of their previous eras elevates the entire thing to something that’s truly poignant and kinda hit me right in the emotional gut. It’s followed on the album by the classic 80s “Holiday” vibes invoking “Shining Of Your Soul”, Klaus’ vocals here incredibly emotive and that minor key dip on the prechorus just devastatingly effective at recreating a very specific sound that rings of classic Scorpions. I also love the wildly fast paced rocker “When I Lay My Bones To Rest”, Rudolf Schenker and Mathias Jabs trading off attitude spitting riffs like they’re Slash and Izzy. Klaus sounds in his element there as much as he does on the gorgeous melancholic power ballad “When You Know (Where You Come From)”, which reminds me of previous soul searching balladry classics such as “Send Me An Angel” or more recently, “Lorelei”. And of course “Peacemaker” and “Seventh Son” were absolute jams, culling from that tap of old school spirit that informs so much of this album. I’m realizing now that I’ve coincidentally picked all of the official singles as my favorite cuts from the album, which wasn’t intentional really, but perhaps telling. The rest of the album is decent to good, there’s some weird stuff on here such as the few songs relegated to the “bonus disc” (like the odd but kinda likable “When Tomorrow Comes”) which I’d agree to being wisely left off the main album tracklisting… but really a solid outing by the Scorpions in delivering as good of a throwback record they could muster for a possible final sting. My wish is that they actually would tap Uli to cowrite for another album that revisits their classic psychedelia 70s era, but maybe that’s asking a lot of a band in their 70s. I’m happy they didn’t end things with Return To Forever, this is a worthy swan song if it is indeed that.
Ghost – IMPERA:
I don’t believe I’ve ever reviewed a Ghost record before, and I figured I never would because there’s likely enough written out there about this band and rightly so. They’re a big deal like it or not, and generally speaking, I’m in favor of bands with loud guitars and riffs getting to arena levels because it’s good for the entire metal/hard rock ecosystem. We have talked about Ghost on the podcast before and I did make mention of how I enjoyed their turn towards Scorpions-esque 80s hard rock on 2018’s Prequelle, with “Dance Macabre” being the most convincing Klaus Meine impression anyone’s ever delivered this side of the Rhine (I don’t know what that means it just feels right to say it). Despite that however, I’ve been fairly ambivalent about their music itself, finding it enjoyable enough in the moment (I even thought they were pretty solid live opening for Maiden) but never really having an urge to seek it out on my own all that often. That might change with IMPERA however, because I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this record as a whole. The draw here is that Tobias Forge is sticking with further exploring the hard rock avenue he was careening onto on the last album, and its continuing to yield inspiring results. There’s Night Flight Orchestra esque late 70s/early 80s vibes happening on “Spillways” with as smartly crafted a pre-chorus/chorus combo as Forge has ever penned. Equally as compelling is “Call Me Little Sunshine” with its call back to the doomier tempos of their early career albums sans the Blue Oyster Cult sound.
What I really enjoy about Forge as both a songwriter and a vocalist is his indulgence of lush, layered vocal harmony, be it his own vocals multitracked again and again or better still, via backing vocals from some of the nameless ghouls that make up the rest of the lineup (at some point, it would be great to know who he’s playing with). There’s a choir being used on the gorgeously dramatic “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love” to glorious effect, at one point taking over lead vocals for Forge towards the end of the song in a bittersweet finale. And its worth mentioning that the album closer is the closest thing Ghost has come to an “epic” and its really, really well constructed, mini-hooks abound and the major refrain is vintage Forge with an emotive vocal melody. I even dug the harder, more aggressive cuts here (they were outnumbered for sure by midtempo and slower songs) such as “Hunter’s Moon” and “Watcher In The Sky” with their metallic bite and even the truly bizarre “Twenties” was hooky in its own quirky and comedic way. Metal, hard rock or whatever you wanna label it, IMPERA really is one of the strongest albums of the year, and I’m okay with admitting that.
As I’m writing this, the new Scorpions record has dropped today and sounds like something plucked from the early 80s, and in the news Russia is being a belligerent antagonist on the world stage yet again. If I wasn’t lucid, I could be deceived that we were traveling backwards in time for better or worse. Dark times aside, that Scorpions record is certainly something I’m going to be diving into on the blog very soon, but before I do, I ought to clear the decks of everything I’ve been listening to metal-wise for the past month and a half. I took some time in January to investigate records I’d missed in 2021, but have spent the rest of the time since digging into the flurry of new music these first two months have yielded. Part one of this coverage was done on the recent episode of MSRcast, and I’ll be talking with Cary on our next episode about our having just seen Bruce Dickinson’s An Evening With spoken word show here in our backyard of Stafford, Texas the other night. Covered below is everything else I didn’t really get to on the podcast, but be sure to let me know in the comments section if there’s something I’ve egregiously overlooked new music wise.
Amorphis – Halo:
There are many people who loved the last Amorphis album Queen of Time, I was not one of them. I didn’t exactly hate it, because it had some spectacular moments (the Anneke van Giersbergen duet “Amongst Stars” for one), but it was a let down for me after Under The Red Cloud and before that, Circle and The Beginning of Times. The thing that was frustrating about it was that it was hard to pin down what exactly felt off to me about it. I wondered if it wasn’t that there was an imbalance in the band’s melodic and aggressive sides, something leaning too much in one direction or another, but that didn’t make sense because Red Cloud was indeed their most melodic leaning album to date and I thought that was a masterpiece. Pushing past uncertainty, I’d say I’ve found more to enjoy here, but only slightly more — it doesn’t have a singular cut as spectacular as Queen of Time’s aforementioned glorious duet, but Halo’s heavier moments ring more convincing to me. Album opener “Northwards” has a crushing, intense attack built on a hypnotically rhythmic riff sequence, with Tomi Joutsen’s guttural narration pushing the way forward. The little bit of 70s Hammond organ shimmying in the middle like some long lost Deep Purple cut works really well as a dynamic shift in tone, especially with keeping it fairly uncomplicated and simple and not spiraling off into frenzied weirdness like so much recent Opeth. The multi-faceted “The Wolf” is a satisfying blast of brutality juxtaposed with some cosmic spaciness that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Slightly mellower but very much vintage Amorphis, the title track is an achingly beautiful Esa Holopainen lead melody draping across a frenetic assault underneath, Joutsen taking a more serenely mournful approach on vocals rather than one of angst and fury. I also thought “On the Dark Waters” had a compulsive quality to its rhythmic strut and a really sweetly dark chorus melody that worked with Joutsen’s vocal tone in that really inimitable way that only Amorphis could pull off (also dig the sitar-ish melodies in that mid-song bridge sequence).
And while “The Moon” isn’t as compelling as some of their previous singles, it’s still got that mid-tempo Amorpi-groove on lock and there’s a dramatic build up to a chorus that is good in the moment, if not ultimately memorable. But that song hints at the more concerning deficiencies that are noticeable on songs like “When the Gods Came” and “Seven Roads Come Together”, where there are good elements in place in the buildup to what should be a fantastic refrain, only for everything to either fail to launch or unravel entirely. Take the former, this album’s “Wrong Direction” in that it’s chorus vocal melody comes off as so misdirected that it brings the whole song down with it. The offending line is Joutsen singing “…they taught us how to live our lives”… a line that just hangs there without any musical support, not to mention as a melodic idea it feels incomplete or just incorrect as is. Regarding “Seven Roads…”, it’s one of those moments where I really love everything about the song except that refrain, and I’m sorry, but when you’re escalating tempos alongside some tension building orchestration, I need that refrain to pay off hard. This might be the most aggravating moment on an album that has it’s fair share of frustrating ones, because this song could’ve been the highlight on Halo but it falls short in it’s most critical moment. And then there’s other tunes that are you know, just there, such as “A New Land”, “Windmane”, and “War” which I honestly can’t remember after I’m done listening to them. Sometimes I get the feeling that Amorphis has found itself in a bit of a cycle where they’re trying too hard to sound like modern day Amorphis, shoehorning in clean vocal choruses or verses where maybe a song would be better served by just leaning harder full tilt in a more aggressive direction. In summation, at least it’s a step above Queen of Time, but not much of one, and that’s slightly concerning and I’m left a little underwhelmed still.
Battle Beast – Circus of Doom:
Battle Beast’s sixth album, Circus of Doom, is an interesting case study in a band mid-career stumble onto something genuinely inspired. I say it’s interesting because its really not that different from their past two albums on a stylistic level, but there is an almost imperceptible shift happening with these songs. Their last album was met with some scathing criticism for the band’s perceived stepping over the line between hooky pop-metal and just egregious, commercial pop. Now I actually enjoyed some of that record, but I do recognize where some of those criticisms might be coming from, and seemingly so does the band. As if realizing they hit the limits of where they could go with that aspect of their sound, they’ve retreated just a bit here, but not to the Priest-ian roots of their early albums. Instead on songs here such as “Eye of the Storm”, “Wings of Light”, “Master of Illusion”, and “Armageddon”, the band shifts their pop direction away from the Roxette-ian Swedish-tinged merger with 80s American hard rock of No More Hollywood Endings and leans hard into late era Abba (think the dark melodrama of the Swedes Super Trouper and The Visitors eras… full on Swedish then). It’s an incredibly shrewd move, and that ABBA influence allows the band to stay affixed to a poppy songwriting approach while painting in darker colors that accentuate Noora Louhimo’s incredibly emotive, raspy vocals. You really hear how this combination is maximized on “Where Angels Fear to Fly”, where we get an almost regal, Savatage-ian chorus that at first seems to stand apart from the tempered hard rock strut of the verses, but which Louhimo is able to merge together towards the end of the song with her vocals alone. It sounds like the band has realized that the best way to go about finding their sound is to simply elevate her ability to sound damn fantastic. Her voice is tailor made for this hard rockin/late era ABBA crossroads, and they’d do well to stay in this pocket for future albums. Honestly, the band has never sounded better.
Planeswalker: Sozos Michael & Jason Ashcraft – Tales of Magic:
In the depths of power metal fan communities, this was a much anticipated album despite its lower profile, independent release. Jason Ashcraft is of course the guitarist and founder of Helion Prime, one of the more well known leading lights of North American power metal in the past few years and Sozos Michael is an excellent melodic vocalist from Greece who you might recognize because he sang on Helion’s second album after Heather Michele Smith’s departure in 2016. You might remember that I didn’t think 2021 was all that stellar of a power metal year (a largely pervasive sentiment it seems), but it looks like this year is getting an early start on rectifying that deficiency with this and other recent debuts (Power Paladin, and even a full length Fellowship album due sometime soon). Simply put, Planeswalker’s Tales of Magic is maybe the most satisfying classic Euro-power metal release in the past twelve months and perhaps longer. Clocking in at a tidy six tracks and forty-two minutes of original music (minus a punchy cover of Kiss’ “A Million To One” at the end as a bonus), Ashcraft and Sozos have crafted a superb record of anthemic, triumphant Euro-power with some North American trad-metal influences heard in the riff sequences here and there (see the surprisingly death metal tinged riffage at the 1:40 mark of “Oath of the Gatewatch”). Ashcraft is a talented songwriter in terms of putting together a framework of melodic yet aggressive riffing and some really dizzying, glorious solos, but it’s been proven that he shines brightest when paired with a vocalist who understands how to develop their own vocal melodies. That’s not a knock on Ashcraft by the way, it’s certainly the way things worked with Thomas Youngblood and Roy Khan and with Ashcraft’s own prior experiences with Heather Michele Smith. This sounds like a true collaboration, with Sozos and Ashcraft sometimes joining together on a shared melody (“Tales of Magic”, “The Spark”), or at times Sozos doing the piloting alone as on the theatrical stage play of “Shadow of Emeria”. The two killer cuts here are the back to back daggers of “Blackblade” and “The Forever Serpent”, two songs that had me glory clawing in the car down the freeway. Ashcraft’s layered lead melody in “Blackblade” is inspiring in a euphoric, head rush kind of way, particularly when he lets it ring and repeat to close out the song. And “The Forever Serpent” is just a beast of a song, one of those instant power metal classics that exemplify the potential of power metal to inspire and make you feel genuinely happy for a few minutes. Consider this the year’s first (and hopefully not last) must listen, can’t skip power metal classic.
Nocturna – Daughters of the Night:
If you listened to the last MSRcast, you’ll hear the moment when I realize during the recording that Nocturna is yet another project of Italian power metal wunderkind Federico Mondelli (Frozen Crown, Volturian, etc). I don’t know the motivation for this new project, but it’s not too far off from what he’s doing with his wife Giada Etro in Frozen Crown, albeit with a more symphonic, darker themed approach with two lead vocalists in Rehn Stillnight and Grace Darkling. These two women both have relatively similar melodic singing tones, an unusual approach for any band to take, They both seem to veer between a classically informed approach ala Dianne Van Giersbergen and relatively straightforward melodic vocals, but together in tandem it creates an approach that is actually somewhat refreshing in comparison to the standard beauty and the beast vocal duo tropes found in the genre. Some of these songs are pretty darn good in their own right, with Mondelli seemingly having saved his best riffs for this project (the last Frozen Crown record left a lot to be desired). The clear example of this is “Daughters Of The Night”, which sees some furious riffing bookending a truly gorgeous layered vocal duet during the refrain. Similarly on “Blood of Heaven” Mondelli serves up a thrashy bed of power metal guitars that is a fantastic push against Stillnight and Darkling’s combined melodic vocals, which aren’t sugary, but certainly are lush and full. As a songwriter, Mondelli feels far more in his element here than in Frozen Crown where it seems like he’s still trying to figure out how all the pieces are supposed to fit together. And maybe it’s the singular focus on vocal melodies that does the trick, as on “Darkest Days”, which sounds worryingly glittering and fragile until the chorus sees both singers pulling the song together with an incredibly tight, nimbly delivered vocal melody. There’s something fresh and (using the F-word here) fun, about this album. It’s dual vocal approach is unique within the genre, even in comparison to other clean vocal groups like Temperance. Hoping we get another record and that this isn’t just a one-off.
Dawn of Solace – Flames Of Perdition:
The irony of this album being covered in the same article as the Amorphis review is that Flames of Perdition is solely responsible for why I’m late in publishing this damn thing. I spent so much time listening to this record that repeat listens of the new Amorphis kept getting pushed to the backburner, because when it comes to dark, slightly depressive melodic metal this was where I was turning to these past few weeks. Dawn of Solace if you didn’t already know is yet another project of Wolfheart guitarist/vocalist Tuomas Saukkonen, pairing himself here with a gifted Finnish singer named Mikko Heikkilä (who sang in Saukkonen’s now defunct Black Sun Aeon) who sounds like a less nasally Tuomas Tuominen (of The Man-Eating Tree, another um, Finnish band). Contrary to his more brutal side shown in Wolfheart, Dawn Of Solace really sees Saukkonen exploring more groove based, clean vocal territory, stepping away from the mic for the most part (he provides some growls) to let Heikkilä steer these songs with some really incredible vocal performances. There’s a desperation to his vocal approach that feels understated and worn in, and it matches the relatively straightforward riff based mid-tempo rhythm work that Saukkonen builds these songs around. His songwriting often mixes in crisp acoustic guitars as melodic guiderails with Sentenced-esque melodic doom laden riffs piled underneath like wood for a bonfire. The album opener “White Noise” illustrates this combination’s simple but elegant effectiveness, allowing Heikkilä the space to take the reins with vocal melodies that are expressive and tell a story. My favorite moment on the record might be the title track itself, a piano dirge intro that softly shakes out into a darkly comforting acoustic ballad. Saukkonen lets this gorgeousness unfold while utilizing silence in scattered pulses, only to hit you with a sudden burst of cinematic noise around the two minute mark in a dramatic flourish. The push and pull tension in this song and in others such as “Black Shores” is at times unsettling and disquieting, but always compelling to experience. I think this album has a meditative quality to it that gives it an emotional resonance that I’ve been longing for in a metal record for awhile now. Get this in your headphones before the cold weather drifts away.
Magnum – The Monster Roars:
This one almost snuck by me, arriving with little advance fanfare or media buzz which isn’t exactly surprising given Magnum’s veteran status and their almost non-existence on this side of the Atlantic as a known quantity. It’s a bummer because classic rock fans would really love what the band has been doing lately, their last two albums being in particular fantastic examples of a late career artistic renaissance (The Serpent Rings was a 2020 album of the year listee). That record in particular was everything I could have wanted out of a Magnum record, an Avantasia influenced, power metal invoking classic that was built on sweeping melodies, some incredibly passionate performances from vocalist Bob Catley and a sense of grandeur that reminded me of On A Storytellers Night on steroids. I suppose it was inevitable then that The Monster Roars would be a bit of a letdown as a follow-up, although there are certainly moments here that remind me of what they were capable of on the last two records. I think the problem with The Monster Roars as it pertains to what I want are that the band has slightly shifted their approach to a more rootsy hard rockin’ feel rather than the dramatic and epic bombast heard on those records. Lead single “I Won’t Let You Down” is a vivid example of this, a song that is caught between a escalating keyboard arrangement that seems to want to take things to new heights, only to see the song retreat to a slower, somewhat meandering guitar pattern in a jarring shift. Other songs in this laid back mode just never seem to take off, like “Can’t Buy Yourself A Heaven”, where the chorus feels almost underdeveloped. Songs like “The Day After the Night Before” have some cool passages, only for their momentum to be halted with a sudden turn into a blander, less exciting area. Frustrating might be too harsh a criticism, but unsatisfying certainly describes my feelings on most of these songs. I’ll give credit to “Remember” though for being an absolute Magnum classic, the playful piano buildup, the tambourine adorned chorus with an awesome driving riff and Catley magic. I also enjoyed the Savatage vibe of “All You Believe In”, and the rare instance of an accompanying horn section in “No Steppin’ Stones” is a blast (seriously a cool throwback to something that is unmistakably out of fashion but I still kinda love). Other Magnum fans might really love this album, but the monster wasn’t roaring for me I guess.
So before I start writing about all the new music 2022 has already thrown at us so far (definitely the opposite of last January), I wanted to think out loud for a bit on some stuff that’s been on my mind for the past few months now. Namely, what I think metal as a genre and an industry could and should be doing better. During my foray into beginning to explore K-Pop last year, I got to learn about more than just new music, I got to understand how the Korean music industry has simultaneously structured itself around both digital streaming and physical music sales in a way that prioritizes both and yields tangible results. And of course, a reality check first. Metal bands and labels likely don’t have the budgets that some of these K-Pop companies have, but not all K-Pop companies have major label budgets, some of them are mid-sized companies, and some are fledgling startups. Yet all these companies seem to understand how to generate interest, build it, and capitalize on momentum, something that I’ve long lamented that metal bands and labels absolutely suck at. Here’s a few things I think metal could learn from K-Pop:
Smaller promotional windows generate more interest.
Metal bands of all stripes tend to do the following: Release a track or lyric video (more on that below) or music video months and months ahead of time, maybe another single or two down the line, and then finally, the album is released. The amount of time varies of course, it can range from a few months to a half a year, but of course the album’s initial announcement is usually released well ahead of any promotional single, at times up to eight months out or longer. I’ll pick on one of my favorite bands a little bit here… check out the November 5th, 2021 announcement date for the December 3rd, 2021 release date of the “Deliver Us From Evil” single, which itself is coming out over half a year ahead of the September 2022 release date for the upcoming untitled album. The band is citing delays in vinyl manufacturing for the reason for such a lengthy gap between the single and the album. That’s an extreme example of course, so consider this December 1st album announcement/MV release for Hammerfall for an album coming out at the end of February. A little better I suppose, but still, a single release three whole months out from the actual release of the album is rather far out… too far out to sustain any excitement over that considerable period of time. Do you remember what that December 1st Hammerfall single sounded like (no durr… sounds like Hammerfall jokes plz, they’re funny but now’s not the time!)?
Some of these manufacturing derived lead times are so lengthy, that even I forget that a single has been released or that an announcement was made, particularly with so many releases to consider and so much other noise on the media landscape (and I’m actively trying to pay attention!). And as the Blind Guardian example suggests, the vinyl manufacturing situation has continually gotten more and more precarious, delays caused by an ever mounting queue of orders for new releases, re-releases, Adele, record store day special editions, more new releases… etc, you get the picture. To fill in the details here, I’ll link this fantastic, illuminating article written by Eric Grubbs on the reasons for the vinyl delays (really worth the time, it’s a short read too). So lets assume that the lengthy gap between the announcement of a pre-order date along with the release of a single/MV and the eventual release of the full length album is largely due to approximating the lengthy lead time required for vinyl orders to be fulfilled. Labels/bands stick to this process because they ideally want to time both the digital and physical releases to hit the market at the same time. I’m arguing that I don’t think such a long lead time is necessary to ensure strong physical product sales. A considerable subset of metal fans are loyal physical product buyers, and would snap up a pre-order for a well made vinyl whenever it went live. And yes that includes a potential vinyl release after the digital album has already hit the streaming services. You might notice I’m not even mentioning CDs yet — hold on a sec, I’m getting to those.
In K-Pop, the announcement-to-release cycle is incredibly tiny in comparison, and specifically designed that way on purpose. Companies will usually time the announcement of an upcoming release with an eye to deliver said release within a few weeks. Take the recent January release of the new solo album by Mamamoo vocalist Wheein. The company releasing the album, The L1VE, made the announcement for her new album Whee on December 24th, 2021, and as you can see to the left, they provided an image for fans which detailed all the specifics of the promotional campaign leading up the album’s release on January 16th, 6pm KST. This promotion schedule release image is standard operating procedure in the K-Pop industry. Everyone from the biggest groups like Twice or Itzy or Stray Kids to singers from groups releasing solo albums like Wheein see their releases launched with similar images, and more importantly, with a similarly compressed window of time in mind. Twenty three days was the gap between the announcement of Wheein’s album and it’s actual release. If you glance over the dates listed in that image, you’ll see a gradual build up of things for fans to look forward to… the pre-order date to start, the track list on another day, music video trailers, and concept photos on other days, all leading up to an album spanning medley and full artwork reveal right up until the big moment, release day, where the unveiling of the album is typically accompanied by the release of the lead single’s music video as well. Granted K-Pop fans can be rabid, but this very precise but controlled release of information leading to the moment of release inspires a frenzy of tweeting, retweeting, discussion on reddit and VLive (a K-Pop based social media app/site). The hype that is generated is real and it’s designed that way on purpose, these little tidbits of released information, almost on a daily to near daily basis can yield impressive sales and streaming numbers for artists. Wheein’s album just debuted at number four on the Gaon album chart in Korea, not a bad swing for a solo record in a super competitive, uber crowded market.
Now I’m not suggesting that metal needs to co-opt this idea and run with every single detail, but taking the vinyl pre-orders out of the promotional release build up equation would go a long way towards generating hype for fanbases of bands. It’s a noisy world, you know this, I know this. There’s a lot of stuff being released that we’re all having to attempt to keep track of — TV shows, music, gigs, all in addition to the daily grind of work, bills, food, and sleep. And again, this is coming from a guy who writes a metal oriented music blog, I’m shouting as loud as I politely can: Make it easier to be a fan! Trim down the release schedule for metal albums from announcement to release. I don’t need to hear about a damn album being released six months from now. Tell me a month to a month and a half out for god sake. Two tops! Maybe consider timing the release of the single/MV closer to the actual release of the album, so the song will still be lingering in my mind and have me genuinely excited about a nigh-impending album just around the corner, not something that might someday be eventually released many months from now when I’ve long forgotten said single and lost whatever lingering excitement it was able to generate. And hell maybe take a page out of the K-Pop playbook and try out a schedule release image strategy along with it’s gradual rollout — teasers for the MV, a full artwork unveiling… don’t just dump all the info out at once months and months ahead of time, try to generate some actual hype and anticipation. And most importantly, build album release windows with a CD preorder and digital/streaming release in mind first — and allow the vinyl to lag behind if necessary (which apparently will likely be the case for awhile). This brings me to the following point:
Stop releasing CDs in jewel cases. They suck. Music isn’t software. Digibooks are also boring. Do better.
I abandoned the idea of buying music in jewel cases years ago when I realized that what I was getting out of these costly purchases wasn’t worth the money I was shelling out. Even during my halcyon days of collecting all kinds of music on CD including metal, I lamented the lack of anything remotely interesting going on in the presentation. A tiny booklet with some relatively uninteresting artwork, a few band photographs, and miniscule print wasn’t something that I was pleased with as a collector. When I stopped, part of the reason was that digital music was so much more convenient, but also that metal bands rarely offered releases that were presented in an interesting way. A jewel case release looks like software, in fact I’ve bought CDs before whose “booklet” was nothing more than a two page insert, mirroring the discount software you’d find in jewel cases in the bargain bin at a CompUSA way back in the day. The last metal album I bought on CD was Maiden’s Senjutsu in it’s “deluxe” edition, essentially a gatefold digipak, the cheap cardboardy kind with the inlet CD trays. The artwork in the booklet was of course, CD booklet sized… and as such, relatively difficult to discern details and leave a lasting impression. This was one of metal’s premiere artists releasing a new album, and I bought it out of fan loyalty and an urge to throw some support their way, but I felt tepid about the physical product I was holding in my hands and haven’t looked at it since. For a genre of music that prides itself on it’s fans supporting physical releases and supporting the bands, why the hell do we get such uninspired physical product?
A few months prior to that, when I was just getting into K-Pop, I found a little store tucked in the front corner of a Korean grocery that sold K-Pop albums and bought my first one (Mamamoo’s WAW). I wasn’t sure why at the time, but in retrospect I realized that I missed the fun of buying physical music and these K-Pop releases were visually beautiful, with thoughtfully designed packaging that wasn’t jewel case shaped and offered more than just a flimsy booklet inside. Most K-Pop releases are lavishly packaged (check out the vid below), with photobooks and photocards on high quality paper, with often unusually oblong physical dimensions that result in something that looks fantastic displayed on a shelf. My physical K-Pop collection has grown to seventeen releases to date, all of them wildly unique from group to group, even within a group’s own discography, the variance can be shocking. Eye on Design’s Tassia Assis wrote up this really excellent feature on K-Pop packaging and why that industry puts an emphasis on delivering quality products to fans, and how sales of CDs are skyrocketing there when they’re heading towards the gutter over here in the west. As the mode of listening to music shifts ever more to domination by streaming services, there is still a place for CDs in the physical release market for metal music. They’re cheap to press by themselves, an economical choice for bands offering a t-shirt/album bundle, and not subject to the aforementioned vinyl manufacturing backlog. But I’ll be brutally honest, as someone who used to have a physical jewel case music collection that numbered well over a thousand albums, I feel no urge to buy metal albums on disc at the moment. That needs to change.
Give me and many other metal fans who quietly feel like me a reason to pull out a fistful of cash like Fry shouting “shut up and take my money”. Metal of all stripes desperately needs a K-Pop like reinvention of the physical CD format, particularly in mirroring the way some of these K-Pop artists use their physical album presentations to express storytelling elements or conceptual themes (there’s a lot of that in the genre, I was surprised too). And I know what you’re thinking right now — the budgets in metal just aren’t there. I’ll concede that they aren’t in the realm of your typical K-Pop company, but I see metal bands wasting money on printing standard jewel case editions or slightly less boring digipaks or gatefolds or the worst offender of them all, the dreaded slipcase around a standard jewel case edition. Enough everyone. Stop wasting financial resources on these utterly forgettable products, and work with a product designer to create a truly unique physical CD product that is lavishly packaged, and filled with interesting items (metal bands need not copy K-Pop groups here, you don’t have to deliver photobooks… the possibilities are wide open). The production costs of such an item would likely necessitate a smaller print run of these at a higher price, but all the better. Metal fans are loyal. And if you reward that loyalty by offering them something that smacks of quality, they’ll gladly purchase it not only in the earnest effort to show support, but also because its something they genuinely feel an urge to own. Amongst all my metalhead friends, I can honestly only name one who still buys metal CDs on the regular. That’s a problem.
Metal bands need to rethink their approach to music videos, and abandon lyric videos.
This isn’t so much inspired by K-Pop as it is by simply watching the music video output of most metal bands. It might be highlighted by my observing the juxtaposition in quality that K-Pop offers on the music video front, where a well thought out concept and execution on the MV front is crucial to the success of a comeback (ie a release). No one wants metal bands to take out personal loans to film MVs, but there’s got to be a better way to go than releasing some of the dreck that’s being shelled out lately. One of the recurring topics of discussion on MSRcast episodes is us poking fun at some terrible metal music video we’d watched before or during our recording session, and it’s made me start thinking about doing a feature here highlighting actual good music videos within the genre (because lets face it, they’re few and far between). The reality that a lot of bands are facing is a lack of touring income over the past two years, which has only just begun to pick up again in the latter half of 2021. So with my appeal to bands above to consider making better physical product, I’d throw out a secondary appeal to them as well — stop wasting money on terrible music videos. If you have a genuinely great idea and can pull it off with what will likely be a small budget, then go for it. But the band playing in a darkened, wet-floor warehouse is just played out. The soundstage/greenscreen setup with low budget CGI is also tired. There’s nothing exciting about seeing a metal band playing on a make believe battlefield. Call me a curmudgeon. You know I’m right.
Labels would argue that you need to have a visual representation of your music, and YouTube is a easy outlet to utilize for promotional reasons. I understand that, but not every release needs to come with a music video that would turn off newcomers and make your existing fans cringe or just tab out to hear the song in the background without the visual distraction. The less expensive option that metal bands still seem insistent on utilizing is the lyric video, a widelyreviled format that is as embarrassing as it is aggravating. In the metal realm, I’ve seen maybe one that was actually well executed, but that was by Katatonia, a band whose dark tone and melancholic feel lend themselves to some nicely thought out lyrics. With all due respect to Brothers of Metal (a band I like), “Prophecy of Ragnarök” doesn’t need a lyric video. There’s nothing lacking in a band’s single release being a simple image of the cover art to go with the audio. And if bands really feel the need to crank out a video, either go all in on a visually engaging concept with the most amount of money you can spend (on the big budget front, Sabaton did an excellent job with their recent MV for “Christmas Truce”…released five months ahead of the album proper of course), or really think about how you can get the most out a lower budget. That means largely avoiding CGI which you know will look tacky, and instead being true to the who the band is, and maybe showcasing a little personality beyond “grrr we’re tough”. I’ll point to Red Fang as a band who delivers consistently entertaining MVs on a very limited budget (check out “Wires” below for proof), but they utilize their low budget approach in such a creative way where their personalities come through the screen. It’s time to stop throwing a couple grand at MV studios who deliver mediocre results, and really think up some truly fresh ideas or at the very least, use that couple grand MV budget in a smarter, less predictable way.
Okay I’ll end it here. It felt good to get some of this off my chest, even if no one in a position to affect any change in regards to my ideas ever reads this. Sometimes I have this stuff gurgling around in my head for ages and it’s something I bring up in conversation again and again in person with friends who are no doubt sick of it — so it’s better that I spill it out in these beginning of the year thought pieces. I think we all know metal bands have had to weather the financial impact of the pandemic in a more blunt way than say a typical K-Pop group would (though I’d be remiss not to point out that even that industry is hurting due to the lack of live shows). I know many metal fans who would agree with some or most of what I’ve written above, and I think listening to this kind of feedback would benefit a lot of bands and labels in terms of better allocating financial resources, giving fans better quality releases and content, and ultimately increasing physical album sales in a genre where artists really benefit from it. Let me know if you agree or disagree below.
As I enter the tenth year of existence for The Metal Pigeon blog, its time to look back on a year that was undoubtedly strange, unexpected, and challenging for me as a music fan. To summarize it, I went through a period in the spring where I was feeling a little uninspired by most of the metal records coming out, and as a result started to check out different styles of music. I dove really hard into K-Pop in particular (and have kept diving), and had to figure out how to reignite a passion for metal that had all of a sudden felt a little stagnant. To the latter point, I figured out that a great tonic was to allow myself to escape the new release treadmill and simply revisit older classic metal records for fun. I also found out that when it came to new releases, my years long strategy of just slamming repeat listens of a record sort of by force was beginning to yield purely negative results. It was more prudent to wait until I was in the mood to hear something before giving it a spin, a process which definitely resulted in delayed reviews and even missing a few things, but better to slow down a little than feel burned out and stop entirely. All these months later, I feel like my connection with metal has become stronger, particularly through finding an refreshed appreciation for black metal again. As it turns out, when you spend a good amount of time ingesting super sugary music, what you really begin to crave as an antidote is it’s most extreme opposite. As a result, your musical perception is actually more open to appreciate the details and textures of extreme metal anew, rather than feeling like you’ve heard everything before. I suspect it’s a lot like if you scarf down a package of cookies in one sitting, your mind will have you yearning for I dunno, a salad the next day. The lesson learned here is that diversity is good, and balance even better — if you’re feeling a little unmoved by one style or another, check out something entirely different to change it up. This 2021 best albums list is a perfect example of how that can really have a dramatic effect.
1.Therion – Leviathan:
It’s a testament to how much I love Leviathan, that despite its late January release, it was my clear cut, without a doubt number one album all the way up until mid-summer, when the new Helloween album came out and I started to wonder if it would slip a bit. I questioned it further when in the late summer, I was getting a flurry of black metal recommendations tossed my way, and damn near all of them were direct hits, gripping my attention and dominating most of my metal listening time (which was in precious supply at certain points). But I would find myself returning to Leviathan regularly, in random moments when I didn’t even intend on playing the album all the way through, just a few songs here or there, to satisfy a craving to hear a particular melody or chorus. Spotify reminded me of this on December 1st when it presented me with my Your Top Songs 2021 playlist, and all the tracks from this album were on it (yes the whole damn album). Last.fm backs up the stats, Leviathan is my most listened to album of 2021 by well over a hundred listens compared to the album in second place, and my first rule of making these lists is to be honest with myself, even if it risks exposing me as a total fanboy. And look, I’ll embrace that title, because Therion’s first proper studio album of original material in a decade was a monumental event in the 2021 release calendar for me. This record had the added burden of being the follow up to first Therion album that I regarded as somewhat of a disappointment (2010’s Sitra Ahra). Fortunately Christofer Johnsson decided to abandon that album’s more avant garde/progressive tendencies and made a conscious decision to return to the band’s classic symphonic metal sound, even telegraphing in interviews ahead of the album release that this was an attempt at making a record that hardcore Therion fans would appreciate. And here’s the thing, he certainly succeeded in achieving that goal, but I believe that in doing so, he actually steered the band’s sound into a direction they’d not previously explored.
The beauty of Leviathan is that despite its overt look back to the band’s late 90s, post-Theli symphonic metal era, it’s a gaze that is undoubtedly refracted by the band’s gradual shifts in their sound over the course of all those albums between then and now. Where classic albums such as Vovin and Deggial were moody, dramatic, orchestral driven works, Secret Of The Runes was a jump to a heavier, almost hypnotic guitar driven approach. Their twin albums Lemuria and Sirius B were expansive, cinematic masterworks, almost panoramic in their scope and ambition. And then we saw the introduction of a new vocal driven era with Gothic Kabbalah, where for the first time the songwriting ran through some pretty incredible singers who had the ability to dominate songs through unforgettable vocal melodies. Even though releases since have been few and far between, this era has lingered; case in point, the band’s last release was the actual opera Beloved Antichrist, where guitars took a backseat to the stellar cast of classically trained singers who, you know, did their opera thing for most of those three discs. So no matter how pointedly Johnsson decided to look back at that particular late 90s era, the sound he wove together on Leviathan couldn’t help but be affected by everything in between, particularly the emergence of strong lead vocals as the band’s chief melodic force within the songwriting. This album’s most heart stirring moments are it’s most gloriously vocal driven ones — the eternity evoking choirs in “Die Wellen der Zeit”, Taida Nazraić’s achingly melancholic lament in “Ten Courts of Diyu”, Marco Hietala’s impassioned vibrato in “Tuonela”, Thomas Vikström’s mighty tenor with just a tinge of hard rock rasp on “El Primer Sol” — the list could go on. So much of this album feels fresh and new for the band, a spiritual renewal by embracing the past, a seemingly accidental forging of a new sound via the old axiom that you can never truly revisit the past again. I wonder if Christofer himself would be surprised at hearing a reaction like mine. Part of the beauty of nostalgia is melancholy, that longing for something that is elusive, but for me this album felt like a warm hug, it would always leave me strangely cheerful and hopeful in the moment, and that feeling would linger.
I think for most of the first half of this year, I didn’t really know what I was looking for in metal as a whole. Sure there were anticipated albums from veteran bands I’d spend time pouring over, but in the grand scheme of things, I would listen to new releases of all stripes and most of it was really not leaving a lasting impression. And as I stated above in my introduction, my purely melodic cravings were being satiated in a big way by another genre of music entirely, so the fact that power metal as a whole was having an underwhelming year was compounding my feeling of aimlessness. I think it was somewhere around late summer, while swimming in a sea of K-Pop, that I realized I was feeling an occasional deep yearning to hear something that was it’s spiritual and textural opposite. This timed perfectly with my being introduced to a handful of really spectacular black metal records from friends of mine (some of which I discuss below). But the one that shook me the most was the late fall release of Tales Of Othertime by Stormkeep, a relatively new symphonic black metal outfit from Denver (a realm of majestic, snow capped mountains of its own, take that Norway!). Stormkeep won me over with their perfectly blended mix of 90s era Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, and Emperor put through a Blashyrkh filter. Vocalist Issac Faulk (aka Grandmaster Otheyn Vermithrax Poisontongue because hell, sure why not?) delivers maybe the most entertaining and convincing black metal vocal performance of the past decade, working with a delivery that mixes razor sharp blackened shrieking with a surprising amount of enunciative clarity. His approach reminds me of vintage Shagrath ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, with a splash of Abbath’s guttural depths, a combination that makes for narrative magic — he sounds like he’s embodying the hooded character on the album cover, standing mountainside and recanting something terrible to the wind. The beauty of this album is that despite said frosty artwork and the generally bleak tone that the band achieves when going full on black metal tremolo/blastbeat mode, there’s a surprising amount of warmth being radiated from these songs. I feel it seeping through in the audible hum of the bass, the very Euro-power tinge to the keyboard arrangements (some very Blind Guardian vibes happening in places, particularly in the transitions to quieter passages), and just in the overall theatrical approach the band is favoring in these richly varied compositions. This is a perfect symphonic black metal album, to my ears anyway. It reminds me of when I first heard records in this style way back in the day, and how it made me feel at the time: Entranced, mystified, and transported somewhere else. More than any other year in the history of writing this blog, I needed to be reminded of that feeling once again.
3. Duskmourn – Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns:
On a surprise recommendation from our notoriously non-metal music fan George Tripsas, I was introduced this past summer to New Jersey duo Duskmourn’s Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns, who tap into a combination of metal styles that reach down to the very roots of what made me an extreme metal fan in the first place. There’s artfully crafted melodeath-ian lead guitars adorning expansive yet rustic, at times gritty blackened folk metal ala the early aughts, and most importantly, these songs just reverberate with me in a very physical, visceral way. So much of what started to put me off on black metal over the past few years is when bands make things too obtuse, too dense, or just too lost in their own meandering train of thought to reach out to the listener and form any kind of connection (I’m looking at you Enslaved). But listen to the first minute of “Deathless” here”, hitting us with a mix of complex black metal riffing, an incense-scented Summoning inspired epic keyboard arrangement, only to suddenly break way into a slamming heavy metal riff with thundering toms. As Halford once sang, get me locked in, get me headbanging in my desk chair. When I first listened to this album in my car, I was pounding my fist on the steering wheel to these drums. That gorgeous lead guitar solo towards the end — I mean there’s a reason why this tune ended up on my best songs list. On the title track, we’re ushered along by a stirring, majestic keyboard arrangement that acts as a melodic guide as the band rages underneath with undulating riff progressions and Walter Deyo’s charcoal blackened melodeath vocals. He and fellow guitarist Bill Sharpe keep these songs moving just enough, happy enough to plug a great riff a few times because of course you should, but introducing sharp contrasting variations in the song structure to allow tension to build and release, for melodies to blossom and breathe. Listen to how “The Sleeping Tide” changes a multitude of times throughout it’s 5 minute plus run time, exploding in a primal, anguished riff sequence towards the end. There’s a real Moonsorrow influence lurking throughout this record that harkens back to what made that band so staggering to behold in their best moments, particularly in their balancing of raw, primal, blackened aggression with beautifully complex, melancholic melodies. This is the band’s third album, they’ve clearly been honing their craft unbeknownst to me of course, but they found me when I needed them the most.
Two things can both be true: That we all wish the tragedy that informed these past two StS albums (and Hallatar, and Trees Of Eternity) never occurred in the first place, and secondly, that guitarist and main songwriter Juha Raivio has managed to create astonishing art out of his very deep grief. And truth be told, I didn’t really think that he could better 2019’s When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light (one that year’s best albums), but there is a very particular and distinctive kind of magic about Moonflowers that might have it firmly in the conversation of being one of the best Swallow The Sun albums of all time. And this does feel like a musical sibling to …Shadow…, from the lengthy clean vocal melodies, to the dreamy, cosmos pondering atmospherics and wistful acoustic guitars. But despite the similarities, I feel like this album is the inverse of it’s predecessor, it’s emotional peaks landing not on it’s most violent, surging cuts, but in its more calmer, reflective songs. Take the album highlight “All Hallows Grieve”, where Oceans Of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert joins Mikko Kotamäki on a sublimely haunting duet, it’s emotional refrain one of those moments where a beautifully written melody is elevated by an unforgettable performance. Then there’s “Keep Your Heart Safe From Me”, where despite the surprisingly Hope-esque riff to start things off, suddenly shifts into a Katatonia-like ebb and flow, finishing with as dazzling a guitar solo as I can remember on any StS album. And I really loved the weirdly Queensryche-ian vibes of “The Fight Of Your Life”, sounding like a distant cousin of “I Will Remember” or “Silent Lucidity”, Kotamäki’s vocals filled with a warmth despite all the ghostly effects put on his voice. This was a listening experience that required a bit more patience than …Shadow…, it’s pacing more subdued, it’s mood a little less anguished and violently reactive. It resulted in an album that seems out of time, particularly in the classical trio instrumental version that Raivio reworked, recorded by Trio Nox at Sipoo Church in Finland. I consider those pieces to be an extension of the album itself, instead of merely bonus tracks, because they have an entirely different emotional tenor to them despite working with mostly the same melodic structure. They made an already powerful album that much more emotionally engaging, and might be the most substantive “deluxe edition” addition in metal to date. To be sure, this was the most contemplative, inward looking album on this list in a year full of it’s exact opposite, a strange oddity that lived up to it’s namesake.
5. Fierce Deity – Power Wisdom Courage:
Every year there seems to be that band that comes out of nowhere and just levels me with a left hook through their awesomeness. Australia’s Fierce Deity was that band in 2021, it’s lone member Jonathan Barwick wowing me not only with this glorious masterpiece, but with his June release of The Trials Unmasked EP, a rustic, rootsy, Americana-informed reworking of his previous metal songs released over the past few years (you have to hear this one). I say songs because since Fierce Deity’s start in 2019, he’s been doing only digital single releases. But Power Wisdom Courage is his first all original EP release, a three track, 32 minute masterpiece that is his first complete statement, a fully realized musical journey that is audacious in its attitude, unapologetically trad metal, and tinged with a gorgeous streak of psychedelia. Of course you’ll likely recognize the album title as a reference to The Triforce from Zelda, and the band name pulled from a power-up found in Majora’s Mask, and to be sure, Barwick loves videogames and doesn’t shy away from hiding any it. He seems to occasionally go live on the Fierce Deity YouTube channel where he’s streaming himself playing and talking all things gaming (most recently seen playing Dark Souls III). But here on this record, he orchestrates a thunderous, bluesy hard rockin’ heavy metal assault with the kind of thick riffing that is at once anchoring and propulsive. How he manages to concoct an atmosphere that is rollicking as if a full band is jamming at once is beyond me, but even the drums, if indeed programmed, feel live and convincing. And this songwriting is enthralling, “Power” has a hook that won me over from the first time it graced my ears, and Barwick really understands how to write for his vocal type. He’s got a strong voice, full of character, a tone that registers more on the laid back, bellowing approach rather than the full throated going for the jugular attack of say Visigoth’s Jake Rogers. He describes his music as Stoner Power Metal on the Fierce Deity Bandcamp page, and that tag comes alive for me whenever the dreamy, stargazed atmospheric interludes pop up. They’re not distracting, they’re interwoven so deftly into the fabric of these songs that I can’t imagine them without, and their inclusion is a bold step for the band’s sound… moving beyond the more traditional metal approach heard on a cut like “Hearing Whispers” a few years ago. What excites me about Fierce Deity is that Barwick has found a truly authentic voice of his own, and it seems to have come naturally and without artifice. I love that he focuses on quality over quantity for his releases too, a concept I’ve seen work spectacularly well in K-Pop. Smaller focus, sharper execution. Make no mistake, this was the most exciting power metal release of the year.
6. Helloween – Helloween:
There was a moment there when I thought this would have sat atop this list at the end of the year. First off, it truly is one of the best albums released in 2021, and genuinely the best reunion album since Maiden shocked our collective faces with Brave New World (I know that there’s a few folks out there that would balk at this statement, sorry Dr. Metal!). That this record wasn’t an unfocused disaster given how it was constructed, with a multitude of band members taking turns handling songwriting duties over a pretty broad expanse of time, is quite frankly astonishing. Plans like this are supposed to result in plodding, mediocre messes, not an album that sounds like it was crafted with a laser focused precision by the band’s best songwriter. I was giddy on release night, staying up way too late to jam this over and over again, and it really was a euphoric experience to behold a veteran band hitting a grand slam this late in their career. That it sits here at number six on this list speaks more to the fact that I kinda burned myself out on it really quickly through the summer, and my other musical interests found myself reaching for more darker, abrasive forms of metal (see nearly everything else on this list) rather than the lighter shades found on this record. That being said, I still feel charged up when I hear “Out For The Glory”, an album opening, door-kicking in anthem that has one of the best Kai Hansen vocal drop ins ever. Michael Kiske and Andi Deris are incredible when they get to bounce off each other with vocal interplay as on “Fear Of The Fallen”, and Deris may have the best moment on the album on the ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. I need to shout out one of my personal favorites here in “Down In The Dumps”, a song that is a sweet balance of Walls Of Jericho era riffing and latter day pop candy Helloween, with a chorus that I found myself shouting along to in car rides (a pretty good sign of my approval). Of course there’s the strange and utterly surreal “Skyfall”, a song that is so packed with classic Helloween charm that you can’t help but smile at it’s audacious nature, particularly that David Bowie invoking bit in the middle. Don’t let the positioning on this list fool you, I loved the heck out of this album, but there was just so much competition for my listening time that it slipped down the ladder a bit.
7. Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:
This was one of those sneaky records that quietly burned up a ton of my listening time without me truly realizing it until I started looking at my play counts. But seeing those stats immediately brought to mind memories of me jamming this on my headphones during nightly walks, in the morning on my commute, on the drive home from work, etc. It would pop up intermittently, a tonic for a craving for all things melodeath. I actually think I listened to so few melodeath records this year because I was spending all my time bouncing between this and Duskmourn. If you’re unfamiliar, Ulthima are a Finnish-Mexican six piece who hit that sweet spot of Finnish melodeath that pulls from Children Of Bodom, Norther, and a little splash of early Kalmah in the way they balance aggressive elements with major key chord sequences. Just like Fierce Deity, there is a tangible videogame influence shining through this music, with cuts like “Black Swan” reverberating with shades of the Castlevania OST that the album title is referencing. It goes without saying that the title track here is a musical ode to that game, and really does somehow pull in major videogame music vibes through it’s melodies without resorting to cheap trickery like a random chiptune drop in. There was just something very satisfying about the listening experience on Symphony Of The Night, it brought tons of ear candy in it’s ultra melodic riff sequences, skillful lead parts, and the vocalist here, one Tuomas Antila has a real early Petri Lindroos quality to his delivery that I guess I’ve been missing from the man himself in Ensiferum lately. I wish I had something more poetic or insightful to say about this one, but sometimes an album is one of the year’s best because it just plain rules hard.
I suspect this will be on many folks’ year end lists (I know they’re all out, I haven’t looked at any yet!), because it just has that unmistakable quality of being undeniable. This came to me by way of an emphatic recommendation from friend of the podcast Justin The Metal Detector, and I’ll be honest, at first I was unmoved when listening to it. But a realization I’ve come to this year is the art of timing when it comes to listening to a record, so rather than dismissing it, I waited until I felt the need to hear something like it. That eventually came crawling, a desire for something bleak, unforgiving, and brutal to work as a palette cleanser for my aural sugar overdose. And one morning with the headphones on at work, it happened, this album was the black metal celery stick I needed and I was blown away. I think what I really enjoy about this record is that its not all bottom end or alternatively, high end screeching, but a well engineered variance of both and everything in between. Groza’s lead guitars hit those tinny registers on emphatic, punctuating tail ends of riffs, but its purposeful, with an aim to lock you into a hypnotic rhythm. Meanwhile there’s a black tornado of a rhythm section pummeling away below. There is obviously a huge debt to Mgla (and Uada… Groza are big on wearing hoods too) here, and of course I’m sure comparisons are being made between the two groups in almost every article written about them. I have no opinion on the subject really, but I can say that no Mgla album had me coming back for repeat listens as much as The Redemptive End has. And maybe this is just a purely personal anecdote, but I loved this album for it’s straightforwardness and almost monotone nature, the latter a quality I’ve dinged other bands with as a negative before. I dunno how to explain myself on that one — I just needed this album this year, among other terrific black metal releases. My chief takeaway for 2021 metal wise is that I was thrilled to be thrilled about black metal again, because it had been a damn long time.
9. Seth – La Morsure Du Christ:
In my personal black metal renaissance this year, I listened to quite a few really impressive albums, some of which I won’t be talking about here at year’s end because you know, ten spots only. But during the process of elimination, I had a hard time trying to justify not including La Morsure Du Christ from France’s longtime black metal institution Seth. I’m a little disappointed in myself that I hadn’t known about these guys before, they’ve been around since 1995 and apparently had a comeback on Season Of Mist in 2013. Unlike other French black metal names like Alcest and Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, Seth prefer a more straightforward, obliterate everything in their path approach to black metal. Their sound owes a lot to Mayhem, and perhaps in contemporary terms, to Taake and Watain as well, a furious assault that frequently boils over into nigh utter chaos. What I found surprising then, given that sonic profile, was how listenable this album was. The production here is stellar. The mixing providing enough balancing between instruments to discern melodies that are pushed to the background by design, and for anchoring riffs to have enough visceral intensity right up front to prevent this from just turning into a wall of noise. There are certainly some Alcest vibes happening on the rhythmic structure in “Sacrifice de Sang” however, and in that spirit Seth display an eyebrow raising amount of variance within their songwriting throughout this album. My favorite of these random moments are the interjections of surprisingly lush, pristine beauty, often tucked away as an end of song palette cleanser, such as the serene acoustic guitar/piano lullaby at the end of “Hymne au Vampire (Acte III)”. France has been full of surprises on the metal front lately, across the spectrum of heavy music, and it was nice to be reminded of that yet again.
10. Epica – Omega:
What a massive surprise this was. Epica, a band that I had come to ignore over the years because every attempt to get into them fell flat, released an album that I genuinely thought was stellar. After Therion, it’s the next best symphonic metal album of the year, and certainly the best Epica album to my ears anyway (I have no frame of reference on whether or not most Epica fans share this opinion by the way). I think I was somewhat in denial about how much I liked this album at first, thinking to myself “Ah I just like a few songs here and there”, but when a “few songs” wind up being most of the damn album… even I had to check myself and give the band it’s due. This album edged out yet another black metal record for the final spot on this list, and I seriously considered leaving this off until I let the stats speak for me and realized this was one of my most listened to albums of the year. Being a late February release, it was also one of the few bright spots from the first half of this year, and it was something I would return to often throughout the rest of 2021. I suspect that what Mark Jansen and Simone Simons and company stumbled upon here is addition by subtraction, because correct me if I’m wrong, but this feels like a leaner, less orchestrally driven Epica. These songs are very riff forward, vocal melody driven affairs, with the symphonic elements shading in the colors around them with restrained, often scaled back arrangements. I realize that’s a silly thing to say about what is still essentially a symphonic metal album, but in my memory, Epica used to run amok with their reliance on that aspect of their sound, to the detriment of their songwriting. Maybe I’ll revisit their discography to find that I’m wrong about that and it’s only that I’ve unlocked my brain into enjoying what has always been their sound, but I suspect that I’m right — that the band has shifted their approach here in subtle but important ways. These are tremendous songs, “Seal Of Solomon” is a perfect juxtaposition of brutal and cinematic elements; “Abyss Of Time” wisely rides one of the band’s strongest melodies in my memory; and “Rivers” is incredibly beautiful, a song that stopped me in my tracks. A start to finish satisfying traditional symphonic metal listen, it’s nice to have my own perceptions of a band changed all these years into their career.
Here we are again, at the end of yet another long yet passingly short year, and this time celebrating not only the recent 10th anniversary of The Metal Pigeon blog, but also this being the tenth time I’ve published a best of list on this site. Its surprising to me that even after all these years, I keep refining the process by which I make my picks for both this songs list and the upcoming albums list. It used to be a very stats heavy process back in the iTunes era, where I could track play counts on my computer and my devices with minute detail. That was a reasonable way to go for awhile, but looking back on some of those past lists, I can see where it was weighing earlier in the year release dates far too heavily. Conversely, the modern day stats are found in our Last.fm trackers and of course the Spotify Wrapped feature that we were all sharing on December 1st, are tracking everything we’re listening to, thus its a lot harder to break down solely metal stuff. So I’ve found that over the past few years, I’ve been moving in a more subjective, personalized process of putting these together… asking basic questions like what were the songs that I kept remembering or craving to hear again? What song made the biggest emotional impact on me? You get the idea. I will say this year’s best songs list was a little more difficult to put together than usual. I normally aim for a nominee list of twenty-five songs and cut them down to my final ten, but honestly, this year the chosen ten were so readily apparent that I had them written on my list first and really, really struggled to find any other nominees. I guess in that sense it was relatively easy then, ten confident picks for what it’s worth.
1. Therion – “Tuonela”(from the album Leviathan)
Perhaps the band’s most effective single release since the Gothic Kabbalah era, “Tuonela” was the cannon shotthat signaled the band had returned with open arms to the familiar symphonic metal stylings that Christofer Johnsson had devoted a career to pioneering. The inclusion of ex-Nightwish bassist Marco Hietala on co-lead vocals alongside the wonderful Taida Nazraić is the song’s biggest strength, his rough hewn, richly textured voice a perfect foil for her elegant, almost effortlessly charming vocals. One of Johnsson’s most underrated strengths is his ability to know exactly what voice he needs for a particular song, I can’t think of a moment where he’s missed the mark throughout the band’s discography. The heavy strings presence here recalls memories of the classically driven Vovin era, while the dueling co-lead male/female vocals remind me strongly of the Mats Levin/Snowy Shaw/Katarina Lilja vocal melody dominant era. This song is perfectly balanced between metallic and symphonic elements, has an unforgettable violin melody anchoring that magnificent chorus, and those trademark Therion choral vocals that lift you to the heavens. A gem.
2. Seven Spires – “In Sickness, In Health”(from the album Gods Of Debauchery)
Brimming with the same resonant emotional power and dramatic sweep that characterized so much of 2020’s album of the year winner Emerald Seas, “In Sickness, In Health” was neck and neck with “This God Is Dead” as the most nigh perfect moment of an otherwise imperfect album. From the sparse, drifting piano notes in the intro to Adrienne Cowan’s appropriately anguished vocals in the chorus to Jack Kosto’s channeling of Use Your Illusion-era Slash esque lead guitars, this was a power ballad with a capital P. As is becoming all too clear with each release, Adrienne has developed into one of metal’s finest lyricists. Her use of strong, clear imagery highlighted with often sharp juxtapositions helps to paint pictures that immediately place you in beautifully dramatic scenes or emotional states. As glorious as her and Roy Khan’s duet was, particularly in the final few minutes of “This God Is Dead”, this song was where I felt the emotional apex of the album resided and left me, as they say, shook.
3. Steven Wilson – “12 Things I Forgot” (from the album THE FUTURE BITES)
On an album that was as difficult for most of his fans to accept, let alone process and enjoy, “12 Things I Forgot” was the lone reminder that when it came to heartstring plucking, nostalgia soaked emotion, no one does it better than Steven Wilson. Wilson calls this the album’s Fleetwood Mac love song moment, but I took this song as somewhat of a direct lyrical response to fans who would were going to understandably balk at the strange direction Steven had taken his solo career over these past two releases — not quite a mea culpa, but more of a message of understanding. When he sings “Something I lost / And I know what it meant to you”, particularly over chiming acoustic guitars and a cascade of lush “ooohhs” and “aaaahhhs” backing vocal layers, it could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his attempts at distancing himself from the progressive tag. The irony of course, apart from this song sounding like it could have been plucked from 2000’s Lightbulb Sun, is that he announced the reformation of modern day prog-princelings Porcupine Tree later in the year and has already released new music from the band. So maybe I was reading too much into it, but lyrically it works both ways and is undoubtedly one of his most gorgeous songs to date.
4. Brainstorm – “Glory Disappears” (from the album Wall Of Skulls)
The strongest Brainstorm song I’ve heard in ages off the strongest Brainstorm album in a decade, “Glory Disappears” is a monster of a song, built on an almost power ballad like build and release. Andy B Franck is seemingly ageless, and his vocals here are structured in an incredibly impactful way, starting with a deeper, lower register ala Geoff Tate and exploding with shocking force by the time the pre-chorus rolls around. The hook during the refrain elevates this into an all-time Brainstorm classic, Franck’s emotive tenor grabbing your wrist and refusing to let go. In a year where new power metal releases as a whole were mostly underwhelming, it was reassuring to hear one of the genre’s more underrated veterans capable of delivering such a heavy hitting jam so late in their career. Also in a year where my tastes really gravitated to two very polar musical opposites, it was nice to remember that sometimes all it took to get the Pigeon’s feathers ruffled were some meaty guitars, a thundering rhythm section, and a vocal melody that burned right into my brain.
5. Unto Others – “Heroin” (from the album Strength)
The opening track from the newly dubbed Unto Others’ (formerly Idle Hands) second full length album, “Heroin” is a bruiser of a song, an unexpected cobra strike of sudden aggression. Singer/guitarist Gabriel Franco delivers his most desperate, intense vocal performance to date, complete with a more anguished scream to punctuate his lines than he ever barked out on their debut Mana. The MVP of this cut though is lead guitarist Sebastian Silva, whose insistent leads create an uneasy atmosphere of tension and danger. His solo midway through is a seething coil of discordant melodies that’s as energizing as it is discombobulating, and after all the prettiness he displayed all through their debut it’s kind of shocking to hear him paint something decidedly ugly and mean. For his part, Franco’s central riff here is devastating, a full on metal attack that not only set the tone for what was a far darker and more dour album than it’s predecessor, but also changed the way we’ll be perceiving this band’s capabilities from here on out. As he said in the lyrics, they gave it to us straight.
6. Therion – “Die Wellen der Zeit”(from the album Leviathan)
It’s rare that two songs from the same album end up on this list, I believe it’s only happened once before (with Orphaned Land way back in 2013), but “Die Wellen der Zeit” was too special of a song to ignore here at the end of the year. A delicate yet stately cinematic ballad built on bright, bursting orchestral grandeur and Taida Nazraić’s incredibly passionate soprano vocals, Therion paint with a kaleidoscope of colors here. This song floored me from my first pass through the album, and it continued to resonate with me throughout the year, ending up on my Spotify “Your Top Songs 2021” playlist that’s like 90% K-Pop (it’s been a weird year). Therion has had a tradition of delivering really moving ballads from “Siren Of The Woods” to “Lemuria”, but they struck upon something new and fresh here — a piece of music that was entirely ethereal and sounded like it was perpetually floating. The choral vocals provided by the Israeli choir Hellscore do a massive amount of heavy lifting, but it’s undoubtedly a star turn for Nazraić, who wasn’t even on most of our radars before her appearance on this album.
7. Ulthima – “Black Swan” (from the album Symphony Of The Night)
The opening cut from the debut album of Ulthima, a Finnish-Mexican melodeath band with serious neoclassical tendencies ala Children Of Bodom and Norther, “Black Swan” is a microcosm of what makes Symphony Of The Night one of the year’s most compelling listens. Setting aside the seriously excellent, ultra melodic guitar leads from Ricardo Escobar, this song is equally indebted to keyboardist Niko Sutinen’s propelling melodies. There’s an unapologetically old school nature to the crunchy, dense texture of the riffing here that reminds me of classic melodeath ala the early aughts, and everything is mixed so tightly to give it that satisfyingly visceral snap you want this style to have. Vocalist Tuomas Antila’s slightly blackened vox reminding me so much of the tone used by Ville Viljanen (Mors Principium Est) is just the icing on the cake.
Making their first appearance on any of my best of lists, Epica’s sublime piano-led ballad “Rivers” was the most compelling moment from one of the year’s most addictive symphonic metal albums in Omega. Of course vocalist Simone Simons’s truly haunting performance is the draw here, and she’s always been one of my favorite guest vocalists in various spots across a plethora of bands throughout the years. She has one of those voices that seems to be tailor made for emotive, often sparsely dressed ballads, and shrewd songwriters know how to utilize her talent — case in point here with Mark Jansen penning a song devoid of unnecessary nods to heaviness barring a little crunchy guitar boost up towards the end. There’s just something indefinably magical about “Rivers”, and it was one of those songs that I couldn’t ignore. I’d find myself longing to hear it again and then would let the album keep playing only to remember that everything else was plenty good to boot.
9. Harakiri For The Sky – “Us Against December Skies” (from the album Mære)
Although I didn’t think Mære was able to get out from under the immense shadow cast by its predecessor in Arson, it was still capable of producing moments that were downright transcendent. Chief among these was the awesome, majestic “Us Against December Skies”, one of those eight minutes feels like four minutes time dilating epics. I don’t think I’ll truly ever be able to put into words why Harakiri is able to effectively channel such powerful emotion with such an unceasing wall of noise. It has a lot to do with the fantastic lead guitar melodies and simultaneously juxtaposing tempos — but what really got the lump caught in my throat here was the sequence starting at the 3:40 minute mark, where the band stop everything momentarily only to pull back the rubber band over an awesome, simple repeating riff figure, building up the tension, only to release it and let the chaos begin again.
10. Duskmourn – “Deathless” (from the album Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns)
Propulsive, meditative, and vicious all at once, Duskmourn’s “Deathless” was the sharpest thorn from an album that was rootsy and rustic, a fusion of earthy folk-metal and epic melodic death metal. I got major Summoning vibes from the woodwind instrumentation that careens over the tremolo and blastbeat intro passage. And the band channels major Insomnium vibes with those guitar leads at the six minute mark, a wash of color that is painted across the drab, brown-grey sky that predominates this track. Just like Harakiri above, Duskmourn seem to have an innate sense of when to scale everything back and just pound a quality riff to get you audibly centered and kick up your adrenaline level. There’s intelligence in the songwriting at work here, a knowing use of space to create ebbs and flows to break up the wall of sound, and in doing so, tell a story through brutal noise that is as gorgeous as it is melancholy.
Ten years ago, when I first started this blog, I had a boatload of ideas that I wanted to eventually get to after I had accumulated a decent amount of articles on the site, and found my writing voice so to speak. One of those ideas was to talk about my ults (to borrow a K-Pop term) — you know, my favorite records in this genre, that genre, of all time, you get the point. So to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this site, I’m finally (finally!) launching this in the form of The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten. The idea is simple. I’m presenting my picks for the ten essential albums that I feel best exemplify everything that I love about a certain subgenre. In other words, its by no means an attempt at an objective-ish list, but more a personal reflection of my own experience as a fan of this music. Of course we’re starting with power metal, because over the years I’ve written about my love for it likely more than anything else on this blog, and whittling what I love about this subgenre down to ten albums was not easy. But I like the number ten for lists, its easy to focus on for a reader, and for myself it forces me to make hard cuts and think about what I really have to include. These ten picks are sorted in alphabetical order by artist… hey look it was hard enough getting my list down to ten, don’t make me rank them. The prospect of finally getting around to this has been surprisingly rejuvenating, and a great excuse to go back and listen to albums that I haven’t heard in awhile but have meant a lot to me since I first did. Thanks for reading the blog any of these past ten years, can’t believe its been this long but I’m grateful it has.
Avantasia – The Metal Opera:
I think the first thing that someone might think when doing a quick scroll down through this list is “Where’s Helloween?”. Fair question. But I only have ten spots, and if I’m being honest with myself, as far as my personal experience with power metal goes, Helloween and Gamma Ray took a backseat to my rabid fanaticism for all things Tobias Sammet, particularly during that late 90s/early 00’s era. Released smack in the midst of the golden age of power metal™ (97-03 to be precise) in July 2001, the first Avantasia album was a monumental event in the power metal world. I had heard the single almost a year before in 2000 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown (a Cleveland area college radio show hosted by Dr. Metal whose show introduced me to a ton of power metal) when Tobias himself called in for an interview. He talked about the guest vocalists, people from bands that I was largely unfamiliar with, but he did winkingly confirm one significant guest he called “Ernie”, who Dr. Metal later clarified as Michael Kiske. My personal hype leading up to this album was massive, I made it a mission to grab as many albums as I could from the guest vocalist’s respective bands, in the process becoming fans of Angra, Stratovarius, Virgin Steele, Impellitteri, At Vance, and Within Temptation. That was a process that carried over into The Metal Opera Pt. II released a year later, but it was the debut that lit the match on what was already a flammable pyre of growing obsession over all things European power metal.
While the sequel was fantastic in its own right, the debut had the kind of crackling magic that all these years later refuses to diminish. From the melancholic majesty of “Farewell” to the glory-fist inspiring “Sign Of The Cross” to the now iconic “Reach Out For The Light” with Kiske’s glorious voice. What Tobias did on The Metal Opera was essentially build on what Kiske and Helloween had pioneered on the Keeper albums, only made bigger and wilder, with a cast of strikingly different vocalists that gave this straight ahead epic power metal a grandeur that made it sound larger than life. In writing this, I’ve realized that no amount of words can give voice to just how massive an impact this record was for me, it nearly rivaled having discovered Blind Guardian. For sure Keeper I/II belong on the list of the most influential and/or greatest power metal albums of all time, I totally agree with that both as a metal fan and a self appointed historian. But for as much as I love those records now, at the time I viewed them as heavy metal records ala Maiden… power metal really wasn’t a widespread term until 97 or so, and I always associated it with newer bands coming out of Europe. An artist like Tobias who wore his influences on his sleeves made it apparent just how far into the future Helloween’s influence has reached. But Avantasia’s The Metal Opera was a special moment in time for me, and I can’t look back on power metal history without it being a blinding beacon shining back at me.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall In Middle Earth:
The never ending debate among not only Blind Guardian fans, but power metal fans in general is Imaginations or Nightfall? Because though Blind Guardian does have other great records, those two albums in particular have come to define the what is quintessentially great about the band. I’ve always felt that there is no wrong answer between the two, because there have been moments where I’ve considered Imaginations and thought that note for note it could be a stronger listening experience. But the reason why I’m placing Nightfall on this list over it is because of just how much it intersects at two of my major interests, namely Tolkien and epic power metal. This isn’t breaking news to anyone by now, but I’m sure that was the reason a lot of people got into Blind Guardian. But back in the day when I discovered the band shortly after Nightfall’s release, it was a major revelation to younger me, a shocking intersection that seemed only hinted at with stuff like Metallica’s nods to Lovecraft and Maiden with… all their various literary references. With Nightfall, Blind Guardian created a soundtrack to Middle Earth that I never knew could possibly exist, painting rich, theatrical aural drama for important vignettes from The Silmarillion. At the time concept albums were still a relative rarity, but the bards didn’t try to shoehorn in an entire plot into their songs. They used the existing literature as a diving board from which to write from specific character perspectives, tackle particular moments from complex scenes and flesh them out with narration, context, and internal monologues. The intricacy of the musical arrangements mirrored the pulse of the narrative — militant grandeur on “Time Stands Still”, anguish and loss on “Nightfall”, forlorn melancholy on “The Eldar”. Particularly impressive for source material that read more like a biblical history rather than a typical fantasy adventure, Nightfall’s songs were intensely emotional, full of haunting imagery in its lyrics and utterly convincing passion from Hansi Kursch’s vocals.
On a side note, this album got me to finally tackle The Silmarillion, which I had previously disregarded as too difficult to read. All these years later, and it’s one of my most read books (if not the most read), with me doing yearly readings right around this time of year for quite a few years in a row. I love everything about it now, as a flawed but still rather perfect piece of literature, and it took Nightfall to get me to appreciate that. I also still consider the album to be one of the finest storytelling moments in power metal, nearly equaled only by Kamelot’s Epica, together both albums illuminating a dearth of competition that is oftentimes disappointing to consider. It has also, after what has to be in the thousands of listens after all these years, still retained the same vibrancy and freshness that it did when I first heard it. Honestly I can’t even say that about a few old classic Maiden albums, and they’re my favorite band. Andre Olbrich’s leads in “Mirror Mirror” still get my adrenaline pumping even if I’m sitting in my desk chair, Hansi’s screamed “Fear my curse!” on “Noldor” still raises the hair on my arms, and the chorus of “Into The Storm” is still the most spirited, spitting defiance singalong moment, even if I’m by myself in the car. So again, you might think Imaginations deserves to be here, and I couldn’t fault you for it, but Nightfall is iconic to me, that cover art, the depth of what the band accomplished here — it’s a power metal essential, even if you tend to skip the interludes.
Edguy – Mandrake:
It’s a testament to Tobias Sammet’s impact on my power metal fandom that he’s landed on this essentials list twice, and you could say 2001 was a great year for him on an artistic level. Just over two months after he dropped The Metal Opera, Tobias delivered Edguy’s fifth and finest album in Mandrake, the point where the band’s sound was still cut from the classic Helloween inspired power metal cloth of 1999’s Theater Of Salvation, but tempered with an arena ready production complete with fuller, deeper guitar tones and a thicker bottom end. These sonic adjustments were paired with his most going for the jugular approach to songwriting yet, delivering bangers like “Golden Dawn” and the bruisingly heavy “Nailed To The Wheel”. An epic opener like “Tears Of A Mandrake” and the ultra-catchy “All The Clowns” blossomed into iconic power metal classics. Even an adventurous set piece like “The Pharaoh” saw Tobias growing into a confident, accomplished craftsman, capable of holding our attention for ten minute chunks, layering compelling sequences one after another, foreshadowing some of the great epics he’d deliver throughout his career afterwards. He also brought Edguy right up to the edge of a more AOR steeped approach, with “Painting On The Wall” being a seminal moment in their career — still power metal in spirit but dressed up in Magnum and Europe outerwear. And on an album so leaden with somber toned material (despite the major key choruses, this was a much darker album than Theater was or even The Hellfire Club after it) Tobias snuck in a satisfying bit of Helloween inspired cheek in “Save Us Now”, the type of thing that in lesser hands would stick out terribly. Even the ballad here, long a bane of many a power metal fan, “Wash Away The Poison” saw him still writing with that traditional power metal frame of mind, preferring lyrics about self-realization and discovery over the romantic overtures that would come later.
In summation, Mandrake was the first fully realized culmination of Tobias Sammet as one of the genre’s foremost songwriters. In a career full of great songs before and after, it was track for track his strongest overall effort, and it was also in so many ways the swansong of his power metal era too. The hard rock influences came to the forefront one album later and never really left, even in latter day Avantasia where classic power metal only rears it’s head in fits and spurts. I know for my part, that’s a big reason why I tend to view 2003 as a closing of the classic power metal era, because when you have one of the heavy hitters in a songwriting sense drifting away from that classic style, it’s a signal that something has ended, or at the very least, changed irreparably. Recently on albums like Ghostlights and Moonglow, Sammet has shown glimpses and flashes of the return of some classic power metal trappings of the Mandrake era, but hardly anything full on or overtly Helloween attuned like Mandrake was. Of course that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inferior, I think we’ve all grown accustomed to the change that’s occurred to Tobias’ songwriting approach over the years. It’s entirely possible that he felt Mandrake was as far as he could go in the classic power metal mode and still write compelling music. I think it’s also why I regard this album with a tinge of sadness, because despite it’s magic, it was the end of something special instead of the beginning.
Dragonforce – Sonic Firestorm:
Many if asked which was the most impactful Dragonforce album to date would cite either the band’s debut Valley Of The Damned or the truckload selling Inhuman Rampage with it’s improbable Billboard Hot 100 hit “Through The Fire And The Flames”. I hate dating myself here, but I very much remember listening to the band when they were known as Dragonheart with their demo on the ancient version of mp3.com. It created a stir not only for the awesome songs and dizzying guitarwork, but for the ease of which word of mouth spread thanks to it’s digital format. It was really the first time I remember seeing a band blow up thanks to their music being online, and they parlayed that into an actual record deal and released a debut that was pretty strong. The thing we forget about that album though is that the band hadn’t yet introduced the sonic elements that would rock the world three years later on Inhuman Rampage and er… Guitar Hero. Those elements would be introduced on their sophomore album, the utterly inspired, damn near perfect yet tragically overlooked Sonic Firestorm. Hypersonic riffing, wildly complex extended guitar solo passages, and aggressive black metal-esque blast beats spearheading an absolute battery of percussion courtesy of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh. Where Valley was sonically hampered by a slightly muddy production, Sonic Firestorm sounded crisp and clean, a textural facet of the recording that helped its various elements have a visceral impact. Upon release the band was describing this album as “extreme power metal”, and despite that being a bit of cheeky marketing, it was also kinda true, Sonic Firestorm saw them pushing the boundaries of what power metal was expected to sound like.
Of course, the songs were what really mattered, and Sam Totman delivered some of his most inspired songwriting ever with key assists from fellow guitarist Herman Li and keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov. They burst out the gates with “My Spirit Will Go On”, one of the greatest opening cannon shots in power metal history, a song that perfectly married epic ambition and length to an unforgettable hook and iconic lead guitar melody. It’s the first in a salvo of absolute bangers, followed by the aptly named “Fury Of The Storm”, one of vocalist ZP Theart’s best individual moments — he had a knack of sounding indefatigable even on lengthy vocal sequences at higher registers. My personal favorite might still be “Fields Of Despair” however, where the melancholic undertones of the key change during the chorus give the song an emotional weight that lives up to the song title. People were captivated by the band’s razzle dazzle (rightfully so), but I often found that their songwriting had moments of poignancy and complexity, tempered of course by the fact that the lyrics were essentially syllabically oriented vocal filler (not a criticism mind you, think of it as grim vocals are to black metal — texture!) This was seven breathtakingly paced tracks with the right mix of aggression and melodic nuance with satisfyingly hooky riffs and melodies, and one pretty piano based ballad that sounded divine on afternoon drives with the sun setting through your windshield. Dragonforce would make strong records long after this, deliver some incredible tunes here and there, but they never sounded as hyper focused as they did here.
Falconer – Falconer:
Rising from the ashes of folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, Sweden’s Falconer released their self-titled debut in 2001 just as folk-metal had found its footing, and smack in the midst of the golden era of power metal™, and their rootsy, gritty, often medieval music inspired sound fused the two subgenres together to create something new. One could argue that they were building on the foundations created by England’s Skyclad, but there was a distinct Scandinavian-esque quality to Stefen Weinerhall’s songwriting, both in Mithotyn and in Falconer. His focus was on incredibly rich melodies as a counterpoint to a startling dose of heavy riffage and aggressive, at times extreme metal inspired percussion. The melodies found their way through fluid lead patterns and glorious soloing of course, but also through the unorthodox vocalist the band had stumbled onto in Mathias Blad. He had no metal nor rock background, being a stage actor by trade in Sweden who had spent time studying in England, and his approach on record reinforced that. Blad certainly sang for Falconer with passion, but he didn’t project his voice in the way a metal singer would, with an increase of power or volume — his voice was naturally delivered, without exaggeration or projecting a “metal” attitude, as if he was simply on a theater stage somewhere. On Falconer, he was a revelation, carrying the narrative weight of Stefan’s lyrics and songwriting through sheer talent alone, his baritone deep and sonorous, and his phrasing crystal clear and fluid. I remember the exact moment I heard him for the first time on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown, stunned that a singer fronting a power metal band could sound so different from what was expected, yet fit so perfectly within the context of the band’s music.
The compositions on this album were magical, the kind of stuff that seemed to seep in from another world far removed from our mundane reality. To this day I can’t tell you what exactly Mathias is singing about in “Mindtraveller”, but I damn well feel that song in my gut, it’s been an all-time classic for me (and many others I’m sure), and among friends of mine, the term mindtraveller has become both an adjective and a noun. The looser, more brightly uptempo songs were loaded with ear candy; the layered “woooaaahhs” in “Royal Galley”; that fat bass line laid down by Weinerhall that anchors “Lord Of The Blacksmiths” into an unexpected but awesomely funky groove (only surpassed by the rings of a hammer striking hot iron!); and the subtle backing vocals by Ulrika Olausson on the ethereally beautiful “Wings Of Serenity” drip melancholy all over the song’s bridge sequence. I was always deeply impressed with just how vicious and batteringly heavy Falconer could sound. The sheer assault that occurs upon the opening instrumental bars of “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” could pass for the intro to a blackened folk metal tune before Mathias’ sweeps in. They’d surpass that level of heaviness on later songs such as “Pale Light Of A Silver Moon” off Among Beggars And Thieves, and entire albums like Armod, but they didn’t have to work their way up there or slowly introduce these elements to their sound over time. Album one, song one, and we were shown that Falconer would make a career of being beautifully mystical, often elegantly pretty, and also downright mean and punishing. The band would deliver other incredible records… one could make a case for Chapters From A Vale Forlorn being on this list, but the debut was so unexpected and made such a deep impression on me. They released their swansong last year, a capstone on a magnificent career, and went their separate ways — sadly still underrated and overlooked.
Hammerfall – Glory To The Brave:
Of course this was going to be here, not only for the obvious reasons that it was the album that kickstarted power metal as a recognized genre in earnest back in 1997 (remember friends, power metal as a term wasn’t really utilized as we know it today back when the Keeper records were released), but also for the simple reason that this album flat out rocks. Unlike Dragonforce six years later, who’d merge power metal’s Helloween engineered template with elements of speed and extreme metal, Hammerfall’s birth was a firmly resolute nod to the traditional heavy metal of the past, albeit trading in the screaming, rougher vocals of legends like Halford and Dickinson for the cleaner tone and delivery of Joacim Cans. It’s success across continental Europe opened doors for so many other bands to get signed and recognized, but unto itself, Glory To The Brave was a bracing, spectacular celebration of everything that made heavy metal great. I’ve always felt strongly that one of the keys to what made Hammerfall’s first two albums incredible was the relatively hidden influence of one Jesper Stromblad, who contributes here as a songwriter. He was at the peak of his riff writing powers during this era, having knocked out In Flames’ The Jester Race a year before, Whoracle in this same year, and Colony two years later. His influence is heard in the sheer melodeath-ian density of the riffs heard across this album, despite him not playing on the album. Guitarist Oskar Dronjak had been bandmates with Stromblad in Ceremonial Oath, and you get the feeling that both of their extreme metal roots crept into the approach towards Hammerfall — in the writing process those riffs were molded to be compact and intense, and it showed through in Dronjak’s and then In Flames guitarist Glenn Ljungström’s performances on the album. They’d shake this melodeath influence three years later on Renegade, shifting to a more permanent Priest/Helloween mix, and thus would never recapture the magic found on Glory To The Brave or its sequel Legacy Of Kings.
Then there’s just the full on triumph and glory claw inducing splendor of these songs; “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” is built on one of the most insistent and urgent power metal riffs of all time, with Cans delivering an emphatic and powerful vocal performance; and the album is bookended by its polar opposite, the beautiful power ballad title track with its echoing leads, and confidently articulate acoustic guitars reminiscent of the Scorpions’ finest ballads. It’s a toss up as to whether “Hammerfall” or “Stone Cold” is the most rockin’ cut here, the latter built on a Priest-ian attack and possessing an understated menace in it’s steady march whereas the former is a Helloween inspired banger that shows off the band’s melodicism in sharply vibrant ways. I loved the band’s audaciousness too, the pride of being a metal band playing metal tunes that was exemplified in “The Metal Age”, whose admittedly silly lyrics were still the kind of Manowar-ism that I felt an affinity towards. Even a song ostensibly about the Crusades such as “Steel Meets Steel” could be parlayed into a metal anthem, and there was something comforting about being a fan of such deeply uncool music yet hearing the band themselves proclaim it’s power as something righteous and worthy to be proud of. Such sentiments seem gauche in 2021, but they kinda mattered in the late 90s/early 00s. That kind of fervent belief made a dreamy ballad like “I Believe” ache with a resonance that lesser bands couldn’t manage. The capper on this excellent album was the inclusion of their awesome Warlord cover in “Child Of The Damned”, a direct line to one of the subgenre’s USPM grandfathers from the early 80s. It was an unapologetic nod to the past that was only fitting for an album that revived not only a sound, but a feeling.
Kamelot – Epica:
A landmark in power metal for its elevation of storytelling, lyrical diction, and songwriting, Kamelot’s Epica was part one of a two album long exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the tragic German play. Vocalist Roy Khan and founding guitarist Thomas Youngblood created their own storyline and characters closely resembling those in the original, and with wiggle room for artistic liberties. There are a lot of fans who will argue in favor of The Black Halo being more deserving of praise in a head to head comparison, and while I do love that album and it’s overall darker atmosphere, Epica has always sounded sharper to me from a songwriting perspective. By this point in Khan’s tenure with the band, he had already meshed with Youngblood as a major songwriting contributor and had put his stamp on two bonafide power metal classics in The Fourth Legacy and Karma. While his lyric writing and vocal performances on those albums were turning heads and keeping his name at the forefront of many power metal fans minds, Epica was his and the band’s most astonishing masterwork. Getting to inhabit a character for an entire album, Khan’s imagination ran wild and he managed to pen most of the lyrics and narrative storyboarding before the music was composed. This meant the songs took on even more of a vocal melody driven direction than before, the music often reactive to Khan’s phrasing and tempo choices, such as on the slow build of “The Edge Of Paradise” where Youngblood’s guitar is solely responsive to Khan’s vocal line. Song structures were often inventive out of narrative necessity, something that Khan made work due to crafting impeccable vocal melodies to keep one’s attention fixed while the Miro engineered symphonic elements (the “Rodenburg Symphony Orchestra”!), Gregorian chants, choir vocals, and guest lead vocals fluttered around or darted in and out. Just like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall, Khan and Youngblood had the benefit of having the source material available in literary form as a reference for both themselves and listeners, and as a result the songwriting was freed of the burden of exposition.
On the brilliant “Lost & Damned”, an accordion sways in a Parisian tango during the verses in a sad, sympathetic melody as Khan’s character says goodbye to the love of his life, a surprising choice that works so well it’s one of the album’s finest moments. The ballads were also magnificently constructed, “Wander” sounding warmly like the flower-scented, dewy air its lyrics spoke of, all romance and mystery; while “On The Coldest Winter Night” sounds like snowfall and warm fires, befitting the emotional scene that’s occurring between the two characters Ariel and Helena. I’ve written about Khan’s poetic lyrical diction at length, but its worth reiterating here that his way with words is one of the reasons this album is on this list. Khan was able to inhabit his characters’ inner monologues, craft elegant dialogue and paint his scenes with richly evocative imagery that brought this storyline to life and made you care about the characters. There was a visceral quality to a line such as “meet me by the wishing well / in cover of the moon”, a lyric that paints a scene as clearly as a sentence in a fantasy novel. But it wasn’t all extravagant instrumentation and romantic balladry, Kamelot brought thrilling majesty to the fore in the straight-ahead power metal of “Farewell”, where Khan married melancholy to gritty determination and crafted a chorus made of steel. And “Center Of The Universe” was peak classic era Kamelot at it’s finest, a dynamic masterpiece with alternating tempos and an ascending buildup that exploded in a euphoric, skyward reaching refrain, cut through with a mid-song bridge with Mari Youngblood on vocals that elevated everything to high drama. Khan would of course leave Kamelot a few albums later, and the band would never be the same, but they had a run there with four classic albums in a row with him at the helm and this was undoubtedly the apex.
Power Quest – Neverworld:
What do we love about power metal? There has to be more to it than the surface level stuff like catchy tunes, epic melodies, soaring vocals and bursting guitar solos. Underneath all of that wizardry is an emotional pulse behind a lot of this music, at least it’s always been that way for me. At it’s best, it can be mental armor to help you deal with the shrapnel that life sometimes explodes at you, as I found out first hand last year when the pandemic hit and everything changed and I found myself cobbling together the massive anti-anxiety power metal playlist on Spotify that kinda saved me all those weeks when I was worried about anything and everything. Power Quest has always been one of those bands who I’ve turned to for comfort listening whenever I needed a bit of spirit lifting, and truth is that I could make a personal case for their incredible Master Of Illusion album to grace this list as well. But those in the know understand that the band’s absolutely undeniable masterpiece is 2004’s Neverworld. It’s cohesive sound is perhaps the finest encapsulation of the genre’s ability to radiate warmth and indefatigable optimism, not only as an act of defiance, but as an affirmation of life itself. There are loads of power metal bands that write lyrics that aim to express something in that vein, but few that manage to sound convincingly bright, ethereal, and determined as Steve Williams and company did here. Power metal artists that play with this kind of palette, like PQ’s contemporaries in Freedom Call, tend to get criticized for the lightness of their approach, but I’ve always thought of it as extremity in reverse, pushing the sound of metal in the opposite direction of say black metal while still retaining undeniably metallic sonic elements. Much of that comes from Steve’s heavy keyboard synths, sweet and syrupy and clearly inspired by the classic early 80s tones heard on Van Halen’s 1984 and classic AOR bands of that era. He steeped that influence into the classic power metal mold ala Helloween and found the voice that seemed to just barely elude him on their debut.
I remember listening to this album as I commuted to university, getting up at 6am just to take the long route across the city to dodge traffic, sitting in my car in the empty parking lot while listening to “Temple Of Fire” to wake up and motivate myself to face being there all day until long after dark. I’d take long de-stressing drives after work while blasting the album start to finish, marveling at how it seemed made of all razor sharp edges and some of the most glorious power metal guitar ever courtesy of the ever underrated Andrea Martongelli. And vocalist Alessio Garavello, then just a new found wunderkind from Italy, delivered one of the most fired up, intensely acrobatic vocal performances heard on any power metal album ever, full of personality and as I’ve always described it, perfectly imperfect approaches to cadence and delivery. Beyond the performances however, at it’s core it was the songwriting that made Neverworld special. A song such as “When I’m Gone” was painted with wistful sunset sky melancholia, and it’s gentle, innocent melody legitimately made you ache. The uplifting chorus outro sequences in “Into The Light” were seemingly powered by sunlight, and the stormy, dramatic buildups in the epic “Lost Without You” were made buoyant by layers of brilliant harmony vocals. And my favorite cut, “Edge Of Time”, one of the most perfect power metal songs ever written, with it’s iconic opening keyboard intro and rockin’ Scorpions-esque riff, and as gloriously powerful a chorus as can be imagined. Steve wrote songs on this album that were dewy eyed and hopeful, at once preciously fragile and unyieldingly strong, and full of an almost spiritual, life affirming breath that you’d gulp in like your life depended on it.
Sonata Arctica – Silence:
There’s an argument to be made that it’s a coin flip between this or Glory To The Brave as the greatest power metal debut album of all time, as both are astonishing classics in their own right on a musical level. But I’ll give the edge to Sonata Arctica, because what they managed on Silence went beyond Hammerfall’s spirited resurrection of traditional heavy metal, with the Finns pushing the genre into an emotional territory not yet explored by any power metal band. They took the sonic template created by their fellow countrymen and power metal pioneers in Stratovarius, and through it further explored the inward facing lyrics that Helloween only scratched the surface of. Vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko favored storytelling through vignettes, often ones that were tragically romantic or explored even darker emotions like isolation or loneliness. Fantasy themes could be interwoven in his songs or discarded entirely for a more realistic setting, Kakko seemed unmoored from power metal’s tropes, often penning lyrics that used unorthodox diction for the genre. I suspect it was no coincidence that he and Tuomas Holopainen were friends and were encouraging each other in their musical pursuits, particularly around this era, and that we’d hear a similar lyrical shift in Nightwish’s music away from fantasy themes to deeply personal topics. In retrospect, given what we now know about the introspective music of Finnish mainstays like Amorphis and Insomnium, it seems obvious to say that it must be a “Finnish thing”. Yet at the time, Stratovarius and Hanoi Rocks was really the only thing the world knew about metal from Finland, and I remember being unable to pinpoint and articulate why Silence and it’s follow-up Ecliptica felt so different from anything else out there (in fact, I think it took discovering Sentenced shortly afterwards for me to begin to realize what made the Finns tick). Power metal had developed as music that was bombastic, defiant, and at times uncomfortably macho, and here was a band who turned that attitude on it’s head — introducing vulnerability, sensitivity, and uncertainty while marrying it to a sound that still soared despite it all.
I think we also now realize in retrospect that guitarist Jani Liimatainen was the perfect foil to Tony’s unorthodox approach to power metal songwriting, particularly in light of his work in Cain’s Offering and more recently Dark Element. His razor sharp riffs and classically inclined melodic sensibilities were the guide rails that kept these songs firmly planted in Timo Tolkki inspired power metal territory. We’ve heard where Tony has taken the band’s sound in a post-Liimatainen era, and while modern day Sonata Arctica still attempts to maintain links to it’s power metal heritage, it’s clear they’ve drifted away from it as a whole. But here on Ecliptica, these roots were strong, and on classics like the face melting “Blank File” and “UnOpened”, Jani’s driving attack kept Tony (who was handling keyboards back then, remember?!) in a more Jens Johansson-esque role as a keyboardist, sticking to tried and true Malmsteen derived classical guitar/keyboard duo formulas. On more mid-tempo paced cuts such as “My Land”, keyboards were creatively used as a rhythmic device with Jani’s guitar coming in as a counterpoint, creating an effect that conjured up wild, barely restrained passion. The most emotional moments on the album however were found in the far more introspective songs; the aching, forlorn “Replica” where Tony spoke about an “empty shell inside of me”; or the uptempo “Kingdom For A Heart” with possibly the most dramatic reaction to heartbreak ever realized in song lyrics. On the bonus version we were treated to one of the band’s finest songs, “Mary-Lou”, an achingly beautiful sad song made sadder on the acoustic version that was released on the Orientation EP a year later. The gem of all gems here is of course “Full Moon”, one of the greatest power metal songs ever written, no explanation needed. I’ll never forget seeing the band live a few years back, when a pair of arms crossed tattooed guys who had been watching the show stoically all night finally broke out in a euphoric sing-along to this song during the encore. You couldn’t write a better endorsement.
Tad Morose – Modus Vivendi:
Often overlooked and sometimes forgotten, Tad Morose’s Modus Vivendi deserves to be regarded as one of the genre’s masterworks. Eschewing shimmering melodies for crushing Nevermore-ian heaviness, Modus Vivendi worked not only for the straight ahead chugging dual guitar attack of Christer Andersson and Daniel Olsson, but for the majestic, towering vocal performance of Urban Breed. He had been with the band for a handful of albums before this one, but this was where he really demonstrated why he should be in any conversation for greatest power metal vocalists. His role as the narrator of a daunting conversation about death on “Afraid To Die” was not only a stunning display of his mastery as a lyricist, but also for his dramatic vocal choices — where to add emphasis, how to phrase each line, the way he’d bend specific words and in doing so give them extra power. His staggering performance on “No Mercy” made it an all-time classic, his vocal on the chorus coming at you like Mike Tyson’s right uppercut, pure intensity and heavy metal fury. His no holds barred approach to the vocals was how it had to be. How else to go blow for blow with the muscled up heavy metal attack loaded into every riff and in the pounding aggression of the rhythm section. Andersson and company were certainly creating power metal, these were richly melodic songs with mostly soaring hooks, but they tempered them with elements of doom metal to darken the overall tone and slow down the pacing. And the band’s penchant for progressive metal was infused throughout their approach to displaying their more technical leaning tendencies in fits and bursts, still allowing the trad metal approach to steer the songwriting around any self-indulgent potholes.
There was also songwriting depth involved here. Nothing revolutionary, but just a sustained implementation of sheer creativity in how these songs were constructed. Take the Egyptian motifs that run throughout “When The Spirit Rules World”, how they seem to be leading the song in a certain direction only for the band to abruptly switch gears for the starkly Queensryche-ian refrain. And then there’s the lumbering thick boy in “Cyberdome”, built on as menacing a groove based riff as you’ll hear in power metal, where the band willingly halts its strut by coming to a near standstill on the utterly spartan pre-chorus. It’s so rare to hear a band execute risky ideas like these and somehow make them seem as part of the masterplan all along. Even on relatively straightforward cuts like “Anubis” and “Take On The World”, the band doesn’t take the easy route, loading its verses with shifting, alternating riff sequences and aggression levels, the rhythm section working overtime to keep you guessing. This album was Urban’s swan song with the band, he’d move onto Bloodbound for a spell and do really great work with them. For the band, it took them a decade to recover and come back with new music, and despite having a fairly good singer in Ronny Hemlin onboard, they haven’t come close to the greatness they stumbled onto here. There’s nothing flashy about Modus Vivendi, but that’s its centralized strength — its perfectly crafted from start to finish, one of the most viscerally satisfying power metal albums you could imagine.
Coming up on the end of the year relatively soon here, and I gotta say, there’s only a few more things on the release calendar for the next three months that’s attracting my attention. We have the new Swallow The Sun, Omnium Gatherum and Belakor albums due soon, and a couple others that I’m going to be sure to listen to. But the mad end of the year release rush that we’ve tended to see in the past 5-6 years isn’t happening this time around, and I’m actually relieved in a way because it’ll give me room to try to do something special for the upcoming ten year anniversary of the blog. That’s right, December 2011 was the date of the first post on this site, a little first impressions on Nightwish’s Imaginaerum if I recall correctly. I’ve been pondering on what I should put up as an anniversary thing — seeing as how a retrospective of the site would be of no interest to anyone but myself. So I think I’m going to finally get finished one of the many long incubating ideas I’ve had for the blog from it’s inception that I always delayed because I wanted to wait until I cultivated a bigger following before doing it. I’ll be honest, these days I don’t really stress much about promoting this blog, people will find it or they won’t… in that sense I’ve gone back to the roots of why I started this in the first place, to simply have a soapbox for my opinions and chronicle my experience of being a metal fan. Looking forward to finishing the anniversary post, I can’t believe it’s going to be ten years, didn’t see that coming when I started this thing. Until then, check out the reviews below!
Brainstorm – Wall Of Skulls:
I’ve been jamming this album consistently over the past month, longer if you count the Turn Off The Light digital EP back in August that featured four songs from this album (and only that, making it one of the weirder pre-album releases I can remember, but nevermind…). Brainstorm’s been on a bit of a tear recently, their 2018 outing Midnight Ghost was rather strong, a rebound from the relatively shaky trio of releases earlier in the decade. On Wall Of Skulls however, they turn back the clock to the quality and confidence heard during the Soul Temptation and Liquid Monster eras. Thick, meaty riffing courtesy of Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric, one of power metal’s longest paired guitar tandems is spliced with their trademark penchant for inspired lead breaks, and tightly controlled soloing. That mechanized, almost martial approach to power/heavy metal guitars is such an embedded quality of this band’s style that I often think of it even before Andy B Franck’s ageless bellow. This is an inspired batch of songs, with infectious hooks, melodies that sound effortlessly natural and a thunderous heavy metal swagger that’s a cross between Accept and early 00s Tad Morose. I’ve already raved about “Glory Disappears” on the EP review, but it deserves a second shout out here because its one of the most memorable vocal hooks from Franck ever, and a sharp example of just how skilled he is at phrasing, leading the tail end of one line seamlessly into the beginning of the next without you realizing he’s taken a breath. Other standouts are “Turn Off The Light” where Organ Oden’s Seeb makes a guest vocal appearance (he also returned for his second stint in a row handling mixing and production duties), the almost thrash metal riffage of “Escape The Silence” (Rage’s Peavy on guest vocals!), the fantastic Dokken vibes in the chorus of “Holding On”, and the epic album closer “I, Deceiver” brings back some classic Metus Mortis era vibes. Front to back bangers, from a band that a lot of metal snobs would write off for various reasons, all of them foolish. Seriously one of the strongest records of the year — don’t sleep on this!
Unto Others – Strength:
The artists formerly known as Idle Hands (name change for legal reasons), Unto Others picks up where they left off on their spectacular 2019 debut Mana (my number two album of that year), combining Sisters Of Mercy/early era Cult goth rock with metallic riffs and inspired Billy Duffy-esque leads. This was one of those albums where I had hoped the band would stick with their sound from the last record and maybe not deviate too much, one of those thoughts that usually only occurs in retrospect with a band when you’re wishing you had another album from a certain era or stylistic mode. Fortunately for me, Strength really does sound like its picking up right where they left off on Mana, at times some of these songs sounding like they could have fit in on the debut. Cuts like “Downtown” and “No Children Laughing Now” are the kind of moody, gothic rockers that characterized so much of the debut, with Gabriel Franco’s deadpanned vocals managing to convey emotion by the sheer juxtapostion of his tone in contrast to often bright and ebullient lead melodies. The band does amp up the aggression on this record a tad, as heard on the stunning opener “Heroin”, with a Metallica-esque riff that has thrashy edges and a hefty bottom end, complemented by a quasi tremolo-lead that is incredibly effective at creating a delightful dissonance. This is also one of the few cuts where we get Franco dropping those grunts and “ughs” that were such a trademark of his vocal approach on the debut. Of course if you hated those (they had to grow on you), then you’ll find this track repellent, but I freaking love it and kinda wished the band explored a few more heavier moments throughout. I don’t think I’ll raise any eyebrows by declaring the best cut on the album to be the band’s cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hell Is For Children”, which is not to slight their own songwriting mind you. It’s just that their transformation of this song is really inspired and they really make a claim for it being one of their own — imbuing it so thoroughly with their musical DNA, down to turning Benatar’s punchy-angry vibes in the original into a more resigned, bleaker vision ala Unto Others. It would’ve been expecting too much to hope for another Mana, but this is an incredibly strong (no pun intended) effort from a band on the rise.
Cradle Of Filth – Existence Is Futile:
It was hard to imagine Cradle’s recent late career renaissance back in October of 2012. The band had just released yet another relatively meh album by Cradle standards, their last with increasingly disinterested guitarist Paul Allender (who when I saw them on tour in 2008 already looked disengaged onstage). Two years later he’d quit, citing what we’d already seen with our own eyes as his reason for leaving, and we’d get two new guys entering the fold in guitarists Ashok and Richard Shaw who’d debut on 2015’s Hammer Of The Witches alongside new keyboardist Lindsey Schoolcraft. The change was immediately noticeable, Witches was the most exciting and creatively rich Cradle album since Midian. Not only for the return of a dual guitar tandem that played off each other incredibly well, but for how it seemed to light a fire under Dani Filth himself. They knocked out another fantastic and brutally heavy record in Cryptoriana two years later and now we’re getting at long last the third record of this era of Cradle in Existence Is Futile, which sees the introduction of new keyboardist Anabelle Iratni who’s replacing Schoolcraft. Fortunately, the lineup change hasn’t nudged the band off course, because this is such a damn inspired album, toned down in extremity from its previous two predecessors simply by scaling back the layering a bit and allowing things to breathe more. Vivid examples of this are “Necromantic Fantasies”, a mid-paced headbanging cut interwoven with cinematic orchestral/choral threads, as catchy as all get out, and seeing Dani work with a mix of guttural and reined-in grim vocals. My fav so far is “Discourse Between a Man and His Soul”, a slow moving, melancholy drenched stately ballad (well, by Cradle standards) built on sparse keyboards and an achingly beautiful lead guitar melody that serenades Dani through the chorus like a ballroom dance. So much of this album is seeing Dani and company reacquaint themselves with the band’s more melancholic, emotional side that they seemed to get a little distant from over the years. The songwriting reflects that with more slower, thoughtful, and at times elegiac moments. When they let it rip however, as on “How Many Tears To Nurture A Rose”, we get that classic going for the throat Midian era attack that reminds me of why I loved this band in the first place. Also one last thing… and I don’t use this term often, but that album art is sick.
Portrait – At One With None:
I’ve been sleeping on Portrait, who are a straight up heavy metal band in the spirit of the recent NWOTHM revival that has largely sprouted in North America. But these Swedes predate that phenomenon by a under a decade, having emerged in 2008 with their self-titled debut, and releasing four more albums at a three year clip before waiting four years to deliver At One With None, their fifth. I’ve yet to check out the rest of their catalog yet, but if its anything like this one, I’ll probably find them just as satisfying. Portrait’s sound really hits me as a cross between classic Metallica songwriting structures with a splash of early Candlemass’ penchant for epic grandeur, with vocalist Per Lengstedt coming across at times like a cross between Matt Barlow and King Diamond. Speaking of Iced Earth, it was hard not to think about records like Night Of The Stormrider or Burnt Offerings when hearing songs like “Ashen” and “He Who Stands”. Its nice to have a new band (relatively speaking, and to me anyway) releasing fresh music in the vein of a once beloved band for me until earlier this year. It fills a void that’s going to be there and I get the joy of having an entire back catalog to go play with as well. But to simply label these guys as a band that sounds like xxxx would be disingenous, because Portrait have their own thing going on, with a dark, bleak vibe that runs counter to all the rich melodicism in those fluid lead breaks (check out the guitars in the middle bridge of “Shadowless”). I’m not going to burn more text trying to describe everything about this in words, just put it on when you’re in the mood for something straight faced, aggressive yet melodic, and made with real craft and attention to detail. A sneaky album of the year list candidate.
The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic II:
The Night Flight Orchestra marches on their alternate universe journey where they’re a band who got their start in the late 70s on their debut, and six albums later, its around 1984-1985 and the sound of Aeromantic II is designed to reflect this period in their ongoing history. Now, being that the band clearly relish the soundscapes and vibes of 80-85 the most, I could easily see them rest in this polished 1985 zone for a few more records, because if they advance to 86-89 then we’re talking about booming drums, echo-y production, and a lot more gloss that I’d feel the NFO sound/songwriting approach could mesh well with. I guess the real question is, just how many more albums is this once considered side project going to go for? The project (now seemingly full time band) started in 2012, and to have six albums in a nine year span is incredibly impressive, particularly in the case of Aeromantic II, which comes a year after Aeromantic I, and honestly sounds like it’s songs were composed in the same writing period. Gone are the splashy, glitzy vibes of Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough and its “Turn To Miami” cocaine-era party rock, with the music on both Aeromantic albums feeling grounded, grittier, and a little more infused with artsier, genre-bending influences. I hear shades of Peter Gabriel-esque world music rhythms on “You Belong To The Night”, some weird Talking Heads-ish pop on “Zodiac”, and of course Toto-ian jauntiness on the piano led bop “Burn For Me”. A shout out to the band for not only executing on musical throwback ideas and making them sound fresh and exciting, but for understanding the lyrical/thematic nods to the era they’re steeped in. Case in point being the delightfully titled “Chardonnay Nights”, where the imagery of that party beverage used as a metaphor for a longing for romance and adventure is right in step with how we all collectively look back on that era. Bjorn and company seem to be having more fun than ever with this project — long may it continue.
Groza – The Redemptive End:
So I’ve actually been listening to this album for months now in fits and starts, impressed by the heaps of praise lain upon it by friend of the pod Justin (aka The Metal Detector). I trust Justin’s judgement on black metal and even melodeath more than anyone else I know so when he’s talking about a certain record possibly being his album of the year, I’m going to give it a shot. At first I was unmoved by The Redemptive End however, but chalked it up to possibly just not being in the right headspace (a recurrent problem this year). So in the interest of not forcing things, I just kept the album on my current listening playlist and waited for the right mood to hit. Finally relatively recently, one bleary morning when in an absolutely foul mood driving to work, I put it on and hit paydirt. And black metal is maybe the most frustratingly difficult style of music to write about… because how can you really describe this music without resorting to phrases and adjectives that have been tossed out a thousand times before? If I tell you that this album sounds “grim”, that’s not going to be very helpful in distinguishing it from, y’know, black metal in general. So screw that. Look at the album cover… the album sounds like that. Really grey-toned and unforgivingly bleak, but Groza (this is their second album after a debut in 2018 that I’ve yet to listen to) remind me of Harakiri For The Sky, mostly in the way they pattern their lead guitar melodies to wildly veer away from the rhythm guitars riffage. But there’s something far more ashen about Groza’s soundscapes… they lack the color that Harakiri so willingly adorns their music with (not a bad thing at all, its just a striking difference). My favorite cut here is the title track, not only for its gorgeous mid song passage built on quietude and elegantly sparse lead patterns, but in the focus and intensity of the fierce attack that opens the song. Major Enslaved Axioma era vibes in that moment. One of the year’s strongest black metal albums, alongside the recent release by their French neighbors in Seth.
The duality of these two new albums by both of these incredible bands isn’t lost on me. On one hand we have the pandemic delayed new album by my favorite band of all time, and on the other, a pandemic driven new release by one of metal’s most exciting new bands arriving a year and a half after they delivered a straight up masterpiece (and my 2020 album and song of the year winner!). For Iron Maiden, there was tension and a little nervous anticipation awaiting it’s release, not only due to the long wait but also because we just don’t know how many of these we have left from those guys. With Seven Spires, I still haven’t gotten over just how incredible Emerald Seas was, and I still listen to that album from time to time when I need a comfort jam or want to revel in it’s downright poetic, imagery rich storytelling via Adrienne Cowan’s incredible lyrics. So I went into their new album with no personal expectations and more of a sense of wide open curiosity about where they would possibly go next. These reviews are deep dives and long enough to prevent me from babbling on here, so lets get to it!
Iron Maiden – Senjutsu:
Here we go, Maiden’s seventeenth studio album Senjutsu, which is actually only the second time I’ve gotten to write about a new record of theirs in the near decade long existence of this blog. In my review for 2015’s The Book Of Souls, I lamented that a five year gap existed between it’s release and 2010’s The Final Frontier, the band’s mortality being stretched thin over time — little did I know that a global pandemic would delay it’s follow-up an extra two years (this album was reportedly completed and literally placed in a vault sometime in 2019) to make this the longest gap between Maiden releases in their history. The pandemic took many things from all of us, but if it turns out that it robbed us of one more additional Maiden album down the road, and Senjutsu turns out to be their swansong, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that. The band certainly haven’t indicated anything to suggest that, but common sense dictates that they’re coming to the end of the road. It made release night for this album extra special for me, I was so excited listening to it at midnight that I didn’t sleep until three in the morning thereabouts. They’re my favorite band of all time for good reason, because few other bands can make me feel that giddy about the prospect of new music like I’m eighteen again waiting outside the local record store on a Tuesday morning to nab an album and drive around aimlessly blasting it full volume.
And of course my reaction to the music went from the predictable release night euphoria of “This is awesome!” to a more considered, measured thought process upon concurrent listens. I’d say five days ago it was at it’s most critical ebb, where it felt like all I was doing was picking apart it’s flaws. This morning however, I put it on the headphones and found myself really engaging with much of the album with a clearer head, allowing it’s strengths to come into focus and making note of what I didn’t think worked all that well. So the big picture here: This is a stronger album by a hair than The Book Of Souls, largely because it’s a little over ten minutes shorter in runtime (still too damn long at 81 minutes!), and because it’s sequenced in a more engaging, cohesive manner. It also has fewer outright duds than Souls did, with only “Lost In A Lost World” and “Death Of The Celts” being fairly skippable here (debatable I’m sure). Hmm, okay I guess I’m of a mind to get the bad stuff out of the way first, so the point: The latter is being fairly compared in an inferior light to “The Clansman”, and I can certainly hear that in it’s far too similar intro melody sequence, and in the very similar skipping rhythm of the vocal melody (“…Wake alone in the hills / with the wind in your face…”). Of course it doesn’t help that the subject matter is essentially the same(ish), and I think that while its forgivable that a longtime veteran band will on occasion repeat a melody or motif in bits and pieces, its very noticeable when an entire song is a reworked reprise of an older classic. I mean we went through this already in 2003 when the (rather good I thought) title track of the Dance of Death album was essentially a reimagined “Number Of The Beast”. At least on that song they introduced a fresh folk melody infusion into the climatic guitar solo — here “Death Of The Celts” finds Steve attempting to merely replicate the same vaguely Braveheart-esque stirring melodies that got Bruce hopak dancing on stage at Rock In Rio in 2001.
While “Lost In A Lost World” doesn’t commit the same faux pas of rehashing a previous Maiden song to detrimental effect, it has its own sins that come in the form of a plodding rhythm, lethargic transitions, a rather uninspired vocal melody throughout that leads to the greater folly of Bruce sounding somewhat tired (or is it bored?). It also clocks in at a completely unnecessary 9:30 in length (“…Celts” was also a long one at 10:20), and I know this is a tired criticism by this point, but damn, an internal editor within the band would be welcome. I suppose its just the guys being at the age they are, and with how swell this post-reunion twenty years has gone that makes it easier for everyone to just shrug their shoulders and agree that everything in the song sounds cool. It makes me wonder if we plucked late 80s era Bruce, or hell any of the other guys and made them listen to these new albums… would they pick a fight with Steve and tell him that stuff simply needed to be cut and chopped? I’m betting on yes. It’s unfortunate that these two songs are spaced out evenly enough to kinda mar what is otherwise a mostly compelling Maiden album. A little caveat though… this record does take time to settle in one’s affections, being far more subtle in its machinations both rhythmically and melodically. Take the opening title track for example, with its sledgehammer pounding percussion and un-Maiden-like lumbering build up striking me as something that sounds like it came from a Bruce solo album ala Skunkworks meets The Chemical Wedding. We experienced something similar on Book Of Souls with “If Eternity Should Fail” (which really was a Bruce solo cut apparently), and I think “Senjutsu” works just as well, delivering a compelling performance from Bruce with some really anguished lead guitar melodies in the refrain.
It’s fair then to praise “Stratego” as being far more effective here than it was as a standalone single, coming on the heels of that unorthodox opening track, it’s a refreshing blast of classic Maiden gallop and swagger at the perfect moment. Honestly I’ve been really loving this song lately, finding it’s ultra-catchy verses drifting into my mind long after I’ve stopped listening to it. And this is why I have largely begun avoiding listening to singles ahead of time (it’s damn near impossible for me to resist checking out new Maiden though), because most of the time my brain receives the songs chosen for singles far, far better in the context of the album proper. Ditto for the spaghetti western invoking “The Writing On The Wall”, which as a direct counterpoint to “Stratego” feels far more welcome with its laid back vibes than it did on it’s own as the first single from the album (A Metal Pigeon law = metal bands are terrible at picking singles). There’s a novelty to Maiden trying their hand at something like this, and I think I appreciate the song for that freshness as well as for it’s melodic groove that has grown on me over umpteen listens, but I’ll stop short of saying its a great song. For the shortest song on the album, the four minute long “Days Of Future Past”, its the rare moment where I found myself wishing it had a bit of length to it, not because I wanted more of its decent if not ultimately memorable refrain, but it felt like it needed a change of direction midway through in a bridge that never materialized.
Since I didn’t intend this to be a track by track rundown but that’s what its turned into, let’s quickly cover “The Parchment” and “Darkest Hour”, both two of the more intriguing cuts on the album both lyrically and musically. The eastern tinged vibes in the lead guitars for “The Parchment” often give me flashbacks to “The Nomad” (kinda similar progression in that lead riff), and I really enjoy the pacing and structure presented here. For “Darkest Hour”, presumably the song referencing Churchill, I worried that the lyrical narrative might get in the way of melodic flow, but they did a deft job at managing that, and ushered in a chorus that is nicely bittersweet. Now for the two best songs on the album: “The Time Machine” has the best guitarwork on the album, from the eerie slowly plucked intro reminiscent of “The Legacy” from A Matter Of Life And Death to being a punchy foil to Bruce’s abruptly spaced out vocal lines in the verses. The magnum opus moment of course comes at the three minute mark where we transition into a classic Maiden moment, all epic gallop and gorgeous lead melodies combining into the most thrilling musical passage on the album. And my personal favorite “Hell On Earth”, where we get an absolutely enthralling, classic Maiden chorus that at once sounds exuberant and joyful and wistful and somber. This is one of those rare ten minute plus long songs that feels like five minutes, something that Maiden tends to pull off at least once per album (despite all our valid complaints about the length). I’ll sum it up by saying that while I’m grateful for Senjutsu, I wish it was a bit more uptempo, a bit more aggressive… I suppose what I really want is for them to can Kevin Shirley, hire Andy Sneap as their producer and let er rip ala Priest on Firepower. I can dream I suppose…
Seven Spires – Gods Of Debauchery:
Perhaps truly my most anticipated album of the year, Gods Of Debauchery is Seven Spires’ follow up to 2020’s AOTY/SOTY winner Emerald Seas, their third album and the one with the quickest incubation period and turnaround time. Some quick backstory, Emerald Seas was released in early February of 2020, and had some notable tours booked throughout that year — supporting Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum in the spring, followed up by a fall trek opening for Amaranthe and Battle Beast. One show into the Insomnium tour, the pandemic erupted and everything had to come to a halt. Just like that, the promise of capitalizing on the momentum that a truly well received album was cruelly yanked from under the band’s feet, and they, like the rest of us in our lives, were left dazed and confused. For me personally, I really clung to that album like a life raft throughout much of the year that followed, using it for inspiration and staving off depression. It was an escape into an incredibly well told story in a world that was as imaginative as a fine fantasy novel, or film, or video game. But my personal attachment wasn’t the reason why it was my album of the year. It really was simply that damned excellent from start to finish, and alongside Dialith’s incredible Extinction Six, was one of the rare shining gems of symphonic metal from the past decade.
While the pandemic derailed the band’s touring plans, they decided to make the most of their forced hiatus to immediately start working on a follow up. I thought it was an admirable decision that I wished more bands would have tried to aim for (regardless of how recently their previous album was released), because even if things opened up quicker than expected and the tours could have resumed, at least they’d have planted the seeds for ideas that could be developed into a full length release. Cut to well over a year and a half later of pandemic living, and the band has harvested the fruit of those seeds, a full length finished album that clocks in at just under an Iron Maiden-esque hour and eighteen minutes in length. I’m guessing that being able to sit and work 24/7 on music for weeks and months unending resulted in a pile up of ideas, and that the anger and frustration of 2020 soaked into the writing process because not only is this the longest Spires album to date, but also the darkest and most aggressive. It’s become a common thing recently to opine that bands should keep albums to a tight forty five minutes, and often times I think its not entirely accurate as far as being a indicator of a quality, filler-free album. But length has been the biggest criticism I’ve seen being leveled at this new album online, and I will concede that it did make digging into this record to parcel out all it’s secrets a massive challenge.
But before we talk about length, let’s focus on the other thing, that being Gods Of Debauchery’s amped up dosage of melodeath attack and that Dimmu Borgir symphonic black metal influence that many of these songs are steeped in. One of the main aspects of Emerald Seas that I loved was its shimmering, uplifting epic sweep, built on buoyant melodies and a sense of grand adventure. I think that hearing the darker, bleaker tones throughout most of these songs threw me a bit at first, and it required many more subsequent listens for me to really mesh with some of the vibes happening here — and of course I totally get why these songs came out the way they did. Frankly, any album that was written in 2020 has a right to sound extra pissed off and even nihilistic. But because Spires has more than just raw aggression in their toolkit, the key to success within these songs is how well the band balances those harsher elements against their ability to suddenly veer into beautiful melodies and soaring choruses. And actually, that’s kind of where length comes back into the picture, because it’s a heck of a challenge for any band to get that balance right all throughout sixteen(!) songs and well over an hour of music (more on this later). Thankfully, the album offers plenty of moments where the band manages that balancing act extremely well.
The awesome title track delivers a grandiose orchestral rush to accompany Adrienne Cowan’s raw, viciously harsh vocals on the chorus. There’s just enough flashes of Jack Kosto’s glorious lead guitar throughout here to lay some much needed color across the expanse of blackness that’s threatening to envelope everything, including an Aeternam-esque solo towards the end with incredible phrasing. Similarly on “The Cursed Muse”, Cowan’s immense singing range is on display during the refrain as a foil to her harsh vocal led passages, with enough emotional power in her vocal melodies to carry us along for the ride. And I really love “Ghost Of Yesterday”, which reminds me of Kamelot’s Karma/Epica era with its creative verses structured around playful rhythms and flute/string melodies, and a well thought out balance of clean and harsh vocal passages. The Kamelot vibes of course foreshadow the appearance of the one and only Roy Khan on “This God Is Dead”, which was one of the early singles from the album, and made waves through the power metal community — getting to hear Khan on something remotely Kamelot adjacent (in this case, influenced by) was a big frigging deal. And this song is a masterpiece, a gorgeous choral vocal introduction ushering in a fantastically epic, thrilling, symphonic-swagger fueled vocal back and forth between Cowan and Khan in the roles of a father/daughter duet. The brilliance of this song is in it’s well spaced out varying musical passages — clean vocals, harsh vocals, operatic led sequences, culminating in our two leads joining together for the final run in one of the band’s most glorious moments on record to date. Simply put, I’m emotionally shattered every time from the 9:13 moment onwards, and Kosto’s guitars at the very end of this sequence (9:40-9:50) are like rays of sunlight bursting through that fade too damn quickly.
Khan’s undeniably powerful performance on that song had me for awhile overlooking the song that preceded it, “In Sickness, In Health”, one of a pair of power ballads on the album that are emotionally heart wringing. This seriously could have been an inspired choice for a music video or pre-release single, it just has that pull to it. Unlike the beautifully piano centric “Silvery Moon” on Emerald Seas, the ballads here are adorned with Kosto’s GnR-esque wild, expressive hard rock guitars, and I’m totally here for them. His work on “The Unforgotten Name” is outstanding, and I should also commend drummer Chris Dovas and bassist Peter de Reyna for their unconventional rhythm section approach to these songs, eschewing the typical hard rock approach and opting for a more complex, progressive metal inspired touch with fills and blastbeats scattered throughout. Even the theatrical ballad closer “Fall With Me” is dressed with a little rock n’ roll panache, lending a gritty edge to Cowan’s wonderfully sweet lyrics. I really enjoyed all three songs, but “In Sickness, In Health” at this point rivals “This God Is Dead” for my favorite from the album, and I think at times takes the top spot simply for how it makes me feel from start to finish. I also want to give props to “Oceans Of Time”, where us Emerald Seas lovers get their brief and fleeting taste of that gorgeously uplifting swirl of melodies that characterized so much of that album. It’s by far the most unabashedly power metal moment on Gods, and in the context of just how dark this record is, I’m kinda surprised that it made it onto this album (to be fair, there is a storyline happening here that I still need to delve into).
So everything I’ve mentioned above compromises nine tracks, and roughly 43-44 (give or take) minutes of music, which would be a respectable showing for a new album for any band. And I could make the case that leaving off the rest of the songs on the album would have resulted in a stronger overall album… but there’s narrative cohesion to consider here, so is it really fair to make that case? That’s a debate for the comments I suppose. I’m always of the mind that songwriting should come before narrative, but Seven Spires is one of the rare bands that finds a way to deliver narrative in a beautifully interwoven way, with songs that feel unburdened by elements that make, say Ayreon albums (sorry Cary!) such a challenge for me to sit through. In that spirit though, I found that “Lightbringer” just didn’t work for me, though I appreciated the attempt to do something entirely different. I think most of the song is on target, but I find the chorus repetitive both melodically and syllabically, and I wonder if something as simple as a tiny variation in that chorus could elevate it entirely. That refrain just seems to continue on the same trajectory as the pre-chorus before it, and I find that I’m longing for a change-up in that moment. Similarly “Echoes of Eternity” had moments I loved (the chorus is very nice), but I need something else in that outro bridge besides an echoing of the refrain. But damn do I love the Eastern tinged elements happening in the verses here, and the abrupt rhythmic shifts that go along with them.
My other issue with the album’s length is that over the course of listening to such a long album, I started to come across fatigue with the amount of extreme metal passages in comparison to the band’s more prog/power metal side. Keep in mind I’m not anti-harsh vocals, I love death and black metal and grew up with those genres, but when you favor a band for their ability to veer between both of these disparate styles, any lingering in one style longer than the other will be noticeable. Case in point is “Dreamchaser” which comes in at over an hour into the tracklisting, and lacks a hook either via riff or vocals to keep my attention focused (and yes I am listening to this thing from start to finish, even though it was really tempting to attack it in chunks for manageability). I had similar impatient stirrings with “Gods Amongst Men” and “Shadow On An Endless Sea”, both tracks where in the notes I typed in my phone for the album I wrote, “too much Dimmu?”; which I know is one of the band’s biggest influences, so perhaps my notes were more a commentary on how the band’s sound was getting lost behind their influences. The problem with the streaming era is that all of us can make our own album edits via the act of selective listening / playlisting, and I can see future Pigeon skipping those five cuts (plus the two instrumentals). And as a Spires fan, that’s both frustrating and also leaving me feeling a little guilty because… well, I wanted to love everything on this album. As it is however, Gods Of Debauchery is a strong, albeit short of excellent follow up to the truly stunning Emerald Seas, and hey, that’s as strong an endorsement for how awesome this band is as I can think of.
Back in the spring, despite the presence of a few standout records that made a big impact on me, I felt like I was in a rut with metal for the first time in years. It kinda freaked me out a bit, and one thing led to another and I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of an entirely unexpected genre of music that I had previously dismissed as either not for me, or worse, as disposable (wrong on both accounts!). The last time I was burned out on metal (over a decade ago if memory serves), I binged hard on alternative country like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, The Jayhawks, Calexico, Cowboy Junkies, etc. for months and months. When I had my fill, I came back to metal with a newfound appreciation for all things heavy, as well as an armful of fantastic new non-metal music I could return to when the mood struck (and an appreciation for a genre I didn’t know I’d enjoy). I still listen to those artists/records today, albeit not at binge worthy levels. This time around, I found myself back in early May curiously stumbling into the world of K-Pop in earnest, my only real experience with it beforehand limited to listening to a few Blackpink songs here and there.
I’ve always been a fan of hooky melody soaked, unique pop music, but lately I had found that I was unable to find newer (Western) pop artists whose music was engaging enough to me. I guess it was a combination of wanting newer music in this vein plus needing a metal break that prompted me to check out a recommended YouTube video for a R&B K-Pop group called Mamamoo doing a medley of their songs in a studio — and that did it, I had to find out more. After binging on Mamamoo’s discography in Spotify, I found a few other metal fans with K-Pop interests and they pointed me towards an armful of recommendations. Four months later, and I can have conversations about IU, Red Velvet, f(x), Wonder Girls, Dreamcatcher, (G)I-DLE, Sunmi, Punch, Infinite, etc., etc. Of course they got the Pigeon treatment, that being a deep dive into discographies and biographies in the same manner through which I know way too much about Iron Maiden and Therion, and can recite the chart positions of all of Queensryche’s albums from 83-97. I discovered that while there’s a fair share of disposable pap in K-Pop (same as there is in Western pop), there’s also artists like the ones I mentioned above that are barreling out the gates with some of the most sophisticated, complex, and genre bending pop music I’ve ever heard.
Then there’s the weird world of all the “content” that goes with it, in the form of variety shows, behind the scenes, vlogs, travel documentaries (yes), and anything else you could think of. I say weird because not even the biggest Western pop artists provide their fans anything close to the staggering amount of access that K-Pop does by seemingly the default standard operating procedure. From seeing members of these groups battle against actors and actresses on a show like Battle Trip (where audiences vote on which team had the best vacation experience, which is of course documented on film); to the truly surreal Secret Unnie (where a younger star is paired with an older star for twenty-four hours in an attempt to form a lasting “unnie-dongsaeng” bond. Its all wild and bewildering stuff to behold. So while immersing myself in this world, I kept hold of a tether to metal, making time for standout moments like the recent Helloween reunion album and a handful of other interesting things worth investigating. One of the side effects of listening to nonstop pop music was that in August I found myself having days where I craved heaviness and aggression. To quote a tweet by @riffspreader, “Death metal hits different when you haven’t listened to anything heavy in 6 months. Damn!”.
He’s right about that, and I was reminded of that when I went to my first live show since October of 2019 in the middle of August to see Goatwhore with Necrofier and Frozen Soul. It was a fantastic, cathartic, and downright healing experience to not only see and hear live metal again, but to feel it’s visceral impact via the vibrations of battering kickdrums in one’s ribcage and to feel the vibrations underneath as riffs reverberated around the room and people slipped on beer in the circle pit next to you. Frozen Soul really stood out that night, their frontman Chad Green pounding the stage with his round-based mic stand for punctuating emphasis as the band delivered an inspired performance worthy enough to be compared to Obituary for live death metal excellence. I couldn’t stop listening to their 2021 Crypt Of Ice record after that gig, and really all throughout August I’ve found myself back in the saddle metal-wise with an armload of new music that I’m genuinely excited about and hooked on.
So in concluding this rather self-indulgent essay, this time around I’m taking a minor break from reviewing what I’ve been listening to lately. Instead just consider the records below as my honest recommendations instead (with a helpful YouTube video provided!), a whole cornucopia of metal from varying subgenres that brought me back into the fold after months and months of listening to some pretty awesome shimmery pop music (seriously, if you want to talk about K-Pop hit me up, I have many opinions!).
Operus – Score Of Nightmares:
I’m glad I somewhat accidentally stumbled onto these guys, because this was a release from 2020 that I genuinely missed anyone talking about for the last year until very recently. This band is conjuring up music that sounds like someone smashed up some Kamelot with Carach Angren, resulting in a very theatrical, wildly musical take on progressive power metal. The singer here, David Michael Moote, is a musical theater actor for his day job, bringing to mind one Mathias Blad of Falconer and I can actually hear minor similarities in how they both approach their role singing for a metal band. Moote does seem far more ingrained with metal music than Blad ever did (not a knock on Blad mind you, that was part of his charm), because he absolutely tears it up on some of these songs with the kind of full on power metal fury that they deserve. What’s really keeping me coming back however is the sheer musicality flowing through all these songs — the odd use of violins in place of guitars for solos, the inventive rhythmic approaches taken on many of the songs, and just the sense that this music sounds like it was meant to be acted out on stage far more than just your typical power metal album.
Frozen Soul – Crypt Of Ice:
So I mentioned above in the intro essay a little about Frozen Soul’s set that I caught back in mid-August here in Houston, namely, that they were awesome, and they made me remember in an instant everything that is good and pure about seeing live music (particularly feel it in your chest metal shows). But its worth mentioning that Crypt of Ice is as compelling a death metal album as I’ve heard in ages, it’s like I’m transported back to the mid-90s in that era before death metal went through it’s era of being largely over technical or worse, over produced. This album just has the right amount of Wendy’s burger wrapper grease on a Beavis and Butthead t-shirt vibes — the sound of a band who care as much about headbanging worthy passages as they do about sounding broo-tal. All these years in, I still can’t quite pinpoint what separates a death metal album that captures my attention like this from the rest of them, but I suspect its that magical “it” factor that makes me catch some of those same feelings I had when I was a teenager and all of this sounded new to me. I guess I’m asking for music that doesn’t sound nostalgic but makes me feel nostalgic? Is that a thing?
Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:
Oh man I can’t emphasize how much I love this record, in all its late-90s Finnish melo-death referencing vibes via these melodies and decadent guitar leads. The title of this debut album isn’t a coincidence either, Ulthima admit to being Castlevania fans, and surely I’m correct in suspecting that they’re influenced by classic videogame scores ala Castlevania, even if its in drips and drops. That means that I wasn’t clonked over the head with melodies that reminded me of the actual soundtrack to that famed game, but some of the melodies that are present certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on said soundtrack either. If you have no idea what I’m talking about its fine because this is just a really fantastic melodeath album that recalls the genre’s more consistent, peak happiness creating era of yore. I just looked them up on Metallum and am not surprised to find they’re actually a Finnish based band (Finnish-Mexican to be exact), which makes sense given the serious Bodom and Norther vibes on some of these songs. And I love that album art… serious Andreas Marschall concept vibes there.
Silver Talon – Decadence and Decay:
Yet another band impressing with their debut record, Silver Talon was introduced to me on the last MSRcast episode (a good one, check it out!) and I’ve been enjoying this record ever since. It’s just that perfect blend of aggressive trad-metal with Virgin Steel vocal splashes mixed with some more extreme metal sonics ala thrash metal rhythmic attacks. I’ve been told that their 2018 EP Becoming A Demon was superior, and when I checked that release out on Metallum it became apparent that this band was basically formed out of the ashes of Spellcaster, and sure enough, I get major Spellcaster vibes on that EP so maybe that’s what people were responding to? And to be fair, their sound hasn’t changed that much on this new one, but that’s actually a good thing, and to my ears this album feels like a more realized vision of their sound. But lets not overly complicate things, this is a strong classic sounding trad-metal album that deserves checking out.
Vexillum – When Good Men Go To War:
Vexillum is one of those bands that I was introduced to awhile back but had kinda forgotten in the interim — namely their 2015 album Unum had a fantastic guest appearance on it by one Hansi Kursch, and where Hansi goes I go. I was impressed with that song and the rest of that album, which had two other strong guest appearance moments with Chris Bay and Mark Boals. Vexillum’s core sound reminds me a lot of Elvenking, only less pop-punk tinged in the vocals and with a far more weighty emphasis on a German power metal influence with riffs that emulate early Blind Guardian or Gamma Ray. I guess I’ll give myself a pass on forgetting about them since it has been six years since that record, but apparently worth the wait because I’ve come to love this album. It’s been that fittingly energetic and jaunty end of summer/prelude to fall soundtrack that has me thinking about the upcoming renaissance festival and cool winds and not sweating when walking outside. I was listening to this while ordering a certain fall-associated drink at the Starbucks drive-thru the other week and it was kinda stormy out with the wind blowing slightly “cool” for late August, and woo! What a feeling!
Duskmourn – Fallen Kings And Rusted Crowns:
There’s always one per year, that out of nowhere left hook of awesomeness that comes from the inky blackness to clock you across the jowl and leave you dazed and drooling. The long suffering George from our sister podcast Metal Geeks’ infamous segment “George Hates Metal” was responsible for this recommendation (which begs the question, does he really hate metal?), and this is the first recommendation from him that I will heartily back and endorse as a must listen. These guys are a duo from Jersey and Pennsylvania (…eh why not?), and this is their third independent album — the staggering quality of this record from start to finish prompting the question of “why aren’t these guys signed?”. It does occur to me though that perhaps they’re satisfied with being independent; because even though metal labels in the modern era aren’t known for putting in their two cents on creative decisions all too often nor applying pressure for a band to lean in a certain creative direction, being on a label does come with pressures all the same. Duskmourn have their Bandcamp and a pretty terrific merch selection on their Big Cartel band store. The first night we discussed them while recording the podcast, I was so impressed with their music and that spectacular logo that I was compelled to order a shirt then and there (it arrived and its awesome btw). Who needs a label?
Insomnium – The Antagonist:
Good grief this is a particularly gorgeous Insomnium song among a recent handful of new songs the band have slowly been releasing, all meant to be packaged together on the upcoming Argent Moon EP. It’s a little curious that they’ve essentially released the entire EP by this point over the past few months, because according to tracklistings I’ve seen, there’s only going to be one more as yet unreleased song on there, which makes the release itself a bit anticlimactic. But that’s a minor issue compared to what’s really on my mind…well, to be blunt, where the hell is Ville Friman? If you checked out their recent music videos, he’s nowhere to be found, and apparently, he wasn’t involved in this recording at all (already on Heart Like A Grave, his songwriting contributions were down to one track). Don’t get me wrong, I think Jani Liimatainen is a perfect fit for the band both as a songwriter/guitarist and a clean vocalist (as heard above), but Friman always struck me as one-half of the soul of the band alongside Niilo Sevanen. Anyway I did some digging, and stumbled on some answers to my question in this article focusing on Friman’s day job as a biology lecturer at a UK university. TLDR is that he contributed to songwriting and demos, but Covid restrictions meant he couldn’t contribute to the finished studio recordings (apparently?) nor be in their music videos. I’m relieved that he’s still part of the creative process in the band, because it was a little concerning with how much his contributions shrank last time around, but couldn’t they have had him record in the UK and just send the files over? Discuss this amongst yourselves.
Brainstorm – Turn Off The Light (EP):
So this is basically a pre-album EP release in the same vein of Insomnium’s The Antagonist EP that I talked about above, in that it collects all of the upcoming album’s pre-release singles into one tidy digital package (unless they’re releasing this in physical format mere weeks before the release of their album, which would make no sense). Insomnium of course do not have a new album on the horizon (at least, not to my knowledge), but Brainstorm’s Wall Of Skulls is expected September 17th. All four of these songs are going to be on there, but I’d still recommend giving this EP a listen to get as hyped up for the album proper as I am, because if these singles are any indication, we’re in for yet another satisfying album from Germany’s most reliable metal band. And the thing is, I thought their last record (2018’s Midnight Ghost) was pretty excellent, and I’m really feeling like these songs have been a continuation of the spirit they tapped into on that record. Meaty riffs, dramatic songwriting, and melodic hooks for ages — Andy B Franck can damn well deliver on a chorus. I broke out in a big grin when the chorus kicked in on “Glory Disappears” and bellowed a big expletive riddled bout of enthusiasm. Yet another moment when it’s probably better that I was alone in the car.