The Metal Pigeon on the MSRcast!

Many months ago, Cary G. from the long running metal podcast MSRcast asked if I’d like to be a guest on his show, and many, many months later we somehow managed to get the planets to align to make it happen. For those who don’t know, MSRcast is the audio evolution of the now defunct Mainstream Resistance zine which once upon a time found its way into many a Texas metal fans’ sweaty, moist palms. There are very few metal based podcasts that I enjoy listening to, and MSRcast and its sister show Metalgeeks are both part of that select group. I was asked to be a guest on their 2013 rewind, and yes I know its nearly March but hey, one more look back couldn’t hurt right? You can listen to them by following the links provided below and using their web based player, or download it from their site directly as an mp3 file, or simply do what I do for my podcast needs and find them in the iTunes store, hit subscribe and you’ll auto-download every new episode! What — you’ve never listened to podcasts before? Maybe its time to get with it! I’ll let it go this time because I’m such a nice guy!

 

MSRcast 149: 2013 Rewind Part One /ft The Metal Pigeon!

MSRcast 150: 2013 Rewind Part Two /ft The Metal Pigeon!

The Look Back: Adrien Begrand on Extremity and Metal + Talking Deafheaven

Thought I’d begin this new year with some intentional distance from my last pair of updates, the much labored over Best of 2013 features, not because there has been a lack of new releases in the interim (quite the opposite actually, I’ll talk about that next time), but mainly due to the information overload I was experiencing in the final days of last year. I’m a nerd for things like best metal of the year listings, features, and analysis and I spent many, many hours pouring over as many of them as possible. It was all too easy to get get worked up over the usual suspects, such as the “big platform” sites/publications (defined by No Clean Singing as “places with large audiences, most of which cover musical genres well beyond metal”) that issued their own best metal of the year lists —- even more so now that Rolling Stone of all magazines had decided to join in the discussion for the first time in their history.

 

Not surprisingly, nearly all of them placed indie darlings Deafheaven on the top of their lists. I’ll talk about them in a little bit, but first I want to direct everyone’s attention to what I believe was the singular most important piece of metal writing issued in 2013, written by the always great Adrien Begrand (Decibel, Terrorizer, MSN). The introduction to his finalized Best of 2013 feature puts into words my exact sentiments about the state of metal today —- my own thoughts on the subject being often muddled and subject to wild mood swings (ask my co-workers). It’s a great piece and I urge everyone to take a moment and read over it (check out his year end list as well). I don’t always agree with his takes —- for example he listed Therion’s Les Fleurs du Mal as one of 2012’s worst metal releases while it was my album of the year, but he almost always gives me something challenging to think about.

 

His overall take in my own crude, ungainly decipher is that innovation within metal has plateaued in terms of musical developments solely derived from internal factors. For example, its difficult to imagine a metal style that is more sonically brutal or extreme than black or death metal in its rawest forms. Adrien argues that the last real innovation in metal from a sonic standpoint was heard around the turn of the millennium with math metal. I think he’s right and I’ve long suspected as much myself, although I’ve also felt rather ambivalent about the whole idea. This is mainly because like most of us, I’m a student of metal history and spend as much energy on revisiting past works as I do on checking out new releases. I’m also a lover/defender of subgenres like power metal, which is essentially a revivalist genre at heart (innovative exceptions do exist however).

 

Like Adrien, I’ve also observed that most of what is being passed off as innovative within metal today and in recent years has been a direct product of infusing a metal style with distinct non-metal influences. So we got the French interpretation of black metal, which began nearly a decade ago with Alcest mixing shoegaze with strains of post-rock and black metal. There was the development of metalcore in America, which merged a palatable form of hardcore with a severe dose of Gothenburg melodic death metal. The apparent trend now is the emergence of noise music as mixing agent with (predominantly) black metal, resulting in reviewers having to graft prefixes onto style descriptors such as post-black metal. Of course nu-metal happened too, a failure of a subgenre in that its influence never extended beyond young bands trying to get signed during the era of its reign. More examples abound, but the point is that in the past twenty years, only electronic music can match the amount of crossover influence that metal has experienced.

 

I’ll say this here clearly so no one mistakes my meaning: All of that is fine. Metal is popular music’s most malleable genre and that ability to bend, flex, and shoot off in an infinite number of directions has been and will forever be metal’s greatest strength.

 

So coming back to Deafheaven then, who with Sunbather can lay claim to having 2013’s most critically lauded album (according to Metacritic), Adrien was a lone voice of dissent amongst the top ranks of metal writers/reviewers with his review of the album for MSN. I was inclined to avoid mentioning the band at all on this blog just because I felt that enough was being written about them in general and that any criticism I mentioned would be met with a degree of “this from the power metal guy?”. The truth is that I think Sunbather is an often brilliant album on a musical level; I love the melodies within “Dream House” and particularly the quiet, dreamy instrumental “Irresistible”. Kerry McCoy is obviously the band’s musical core, using layered guitars both as impressionist paintbrushes and as mechanisms for melodic hooks. The aforementioned songs are two that I’ll find myself coming back for, but not everything is as enchanting, there’s a noticeable dip in the second half of the record where I find the hooks lacking. Still, musically speaking Sunbather is unimpeachable.

 

My main criticism of the album is directed at the atonal, almost tinny vocals of George Clark —- they don’t work for me and I feel that not only do they detract from the great music going on underneath, but that they are simply uninteresting as an instrument in and of itself. I’m not going to assert that Deafheaven would be better suited with Alcest-like dream-pop vocals ala Neige, because that’s seemingly a non-starter of a take, however I will agree with Adrien when he calls into question the need for harsh, extreme vocals with lyrics like “I watched you lay on a towel in grass that exceeded the height of your legs / I gazed into reflective eyes / I cried against an ocean of light”. That awkward dichotomy is an aspect of the album that makes it easy for the band’s detractors to argue that they utilize black metal styled vocals as a bulwark in order to freely name drop Burzum and associate themselves with the mystery of black metal in an unassailable manner.

 

I recently exchanged emails with a fellow metal fan who stated his belief that Deafheaven’s decision to use pink, minimalist cover art was as cynical a marketing ploy as the most grotesque Cannibal Corpse album sleeve designed to shock parents and thrill teenagers (it certainly did the trick to get them noticed by Apple). The argument being that every aspect of Deafheaven is driven by design to bolster their media profile: black metal associations draw attention from metal fans that would have normally ignored the band, while the usage of soft, pastel colored art with a lack of traditional metal window dressing help to entice the indie-music world. I honestly don’t know where I fall on the topic, but I’m surprised that he didn’t mention that maybe it helps that the band members look an awful lot like the reviewers that love them (not a slight by the way, but I imagine that a Brooklyn based writer can identify easier with members of Deafheaven personally than say, Watain or Carpathian Forest).

 

The big takeaway for Adrien regarding Sunbather is that it is quite possibly a line of demarcation between extremity and metal. He raises an interesting question: What defines something as metal, given that the term applies to artists that sound as strikingly different from one another such as Gamma Ray, Morbid Angel, Megadeth, Nightwish, Opeth, and Darkthrone? He answers this question with a statement that is all encompassing in it’s simplicity: “Contrary to what some might assume, extremity is not the most important characteristic of heavy metal. Power is.” Adrien’s essay was controversial for his assertion that Sunbather was not a metal album, but I think he’s onto something that everyone writing about metal should take a moment to consider: The logical natural progression of extreme metal that has merged with outside influences is to allow more space for those influences.

 

Alcest’s new album Shelter comes out this week, courting a lot of discussion due to its complete lack of anything resembling metal. Frontman Neige has gone on record saying the shift away from even minimal black metal elements was completely intentional, a by design move prompted by his lack of interest in the style. No matter how much Deafheaven trumpet Burzum as “the blueprint”, their most obvious influence was the French black metal expansions by Alcest. So where do they go from Sunbather? Short of repeating themselves, I’d expect that the next Deafheaven record will shed more than a few metallic elements. To quote Adrien a final time: “Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely… And what is becoming apparent as bands like Deafheaven widen their musical breadth is that “extreme music” is the true limitless form of music.” If my prediction comes true, metal sites will still discuss future Deafheaven releases as they are Alcest’s Shelter, much like I still wrote about the recent, unabashedly non-metal releases by once doom-metallers Anathema. Ironic that after all the agitation and debate on Deafheaven’s metal cred, we’ll find ourselves unable to cast them out to the indie wolves. Once you’re in, apparently, you’re in for life.

 

A few years ago I published an article that drew a bit of controversy for questioning the narrowly scoped metal coverage of many big platform websites/publications. It was an admittedly flawed piece in execution, but my motive behind it was to get answers to what I still feel are unanswered questions: Why are those big platform publications’ year end lists comprised primarily of albums that are defined by their non-metal influences? Why are releases by bands of all metal subgenres that embrace traditionalism and revivalism in all aspects (music, artwork, appearance) more often ignored? Why are traditional metal and power metal ignored altogether, despite their being a significant presence in the listening habits of metal fans worldwide? Maybe a new question for the big platformers needs to be added to that list: What is their definition of metal?

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part Two: The Albums

And finally, in the thrilling(!) conclusion, I present The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013, the second and final part of my overall best of the year feature (click here for Part One: The Songs). I listened to more new metal releases this year than any other, something I intended to do after missing the boat on so many excellent albums from the past two years until well after their release dates. The resulting list is as always what I consider to be the ten albums released this year that I enjoyed the most. I only ever do ten because it forces me to be critical, selective, and honest with myself. It also keeps me mindful of my listening habits and preferences throughout the year. After all whats a better gauge for how much you enjoyed an album than taking into account the number of times you’ve actually listened to it? And yeah, I do look at my iTunes stats to spot check myself just for kicks, but I really don’t have to —- I’m proud of what I enjoy and will gladly own up to any of it. Its been another great year for metal —- here’s what I thought made it so:

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013:

 

 

1. Serenity – War of Ages:

I know what you’re thinking. A prog-power metal album at the number one spot?! Wow, big surprise Pigeon! Fair enough, and your sarcasm is noted. But here’s the thing, my rule for these types of lists is that they have to be founded on the unflinching honesty of the present moment, as well as some incontrovertible truth, and so here’s the deal: This was my most listened to album of 2013—- far, far above other new releases, as well as any older records. War of Ages strikes me right in my musical heart, a record that encompasses the elements of what I love most about music across all genres. It has gorgeous melodies, smart songwriting, complex arrangements, and vocals that ring and soar. As a metal album, there’s heft and crunch provided by Thomas Buchberger’s less-is-more riff barrage, and the light symphonic arrangements that encircle everything else provide a sense of scale, tension, and drama.

 

Power metal has a generally accepted set of definitions, or aesthetic choices that collectively are its auditory makeup —- and ultimately that’s led to a certain amount of stagnation genre-wide over the years. But within the last decade there have emerged a small movement of artists that are trying to sidestep the traps that have developed from a result of time worn stylistic elements being overused to point of cliche. I believe Serenity are one of these select few that are knowingly aware of not only their strengths, but of what they need to do to sidestep cliches —- and its all reflected in their lean, refined approach to songwriting. They’ve had a core of songwriters in guitarist Thomas Buchberger and vocalist Georg Neuhauser that for three albums now have been making a run at equaling the near mythic legacy of Kamelot’s Youngblood/Khan era. But Serenity take chances and allow their newest member, co-vocalist Clementine Delauney to contribute to their songwriting process right away —- particularly in that she pens over half of the lyrics on War of Ages. Serenity have been on the cusp of challenging Kamelot’s claim to having the best lyrics in the genre for awhile now, and I think that with Delauney’s help they’re getting stronger and on a track to clear that hurdle a few albums from now.

 

In my best songs of 2013 list, I pointed out the album opener “Wings of Madness” as a particularly glorious highlight among many on this set, but the band really hits their stride in the second half of the album with a continuous streak of wildly diverse gems. Beginning with the quasi-ballad “Symphony of the Quiet”, where Neuhauser is able to flex his vocal dexterity over a moody piano bed and pronounced strings, almost Queen-like in its grandiose build up. It comes as a sharp contrast when the hard rock of “Tannenberg” kicks in, particularly in it’s strutting chorus where Delauney joins Neuhauser in a lead vocal duet —- her lilting vocals echoing his a split second behind. A lesser band wouldn’t be able to deliver such an upbeat, even fun sounding moment with nearly as much conviction. Ditto for the “Legacy of Tudors”, where the band really lets loose with an unexpected a capella intro, followed by a classically infused chorus where the vocal melodies are seemingly set to a waltz. On the closer, “Royal Pain”, Delauney takes another star turn with her emotionally shimmering delivery in the refrain —- perhaps the best moment by any female vocalist in metal this year.

 

Yes, I have grown up with European/American power metal as a part of my worldview of what metal can sound like. My appreciation for it sits alongside my love for death and black metal (check the rest of this list for proof). No, you don’t need to own a shiny, frilly-sleeved puffy shirt to be a fan of this music, or fall into some cliched stereotype that is so often thrown at those who enjoy power metal (nerd, basement dweller, etc, etc). All you need is an ability to appreciate music that is able to take you away from the often mundane realities of the daily grind, to remove yourself from the sheer staggering volume of irony, sarcasm, and self-awareness that engulfs society. Its the same reason you watch Game of Thrones and can’t explain why you love it so much: Escapism is something we all need and at times don’t realize how little of it we actually get. Serenity is a band made up of individuals that wake up each day and deal with the same amount of tedious crap that we all do; but when they get together and make music, they create a sound that seems like its coming from the pages of a book, of a world that we wish we could touch.

 

 

2. Suidakra – Eternal Defiance:

Germany’s Suidakra have a few important characteristics shared by many truly great bands: They aren’t easily categorized, and they don’t sound like anyone else. They’ve been perfecting a marriage of melo-death and folk metal for a long time now, and while that may not seem particularly distinctive on paper, its the way they’ve interpreted those sounds into something truly original that sets them apart. For starters they have nothing in common with Gothenburg melo-death or its stylistic traditions, and even more importantly they avoid the now cliche and trite “folk” sounds associated with Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Alestorm, and any other band of that ilk. And having seen what that genre turned into… it’s a smart move (before I get hate for that, I just saw Finntroll live the other week, and my concert enthusiasm plummeted when I saw them come out on stage dressed as elves, pointy ears and all).

 

I’d argue that their sound has more in common with fellow countrymen Blind Guardian than anyone else —- powerful and unafraid of being bombastic, as well as willing to indulge in pure balladry without a trace of self consciousness. This album is full of inspired work that exemplifies both traits: Take the militant headbanging stomp of “March of Conquest”, where lead vocalist Arkadius’ grim, harsh delivery contrasts with the clean female singing of Tina Stabel. Its one of the album’s catchiest moments, built around a folk inspired melody that is dressed up in brutal guitar riffs, juxtaposed by a chorus with a bagpipe arrangement that doesn’t overpower everything else. Stabel is a distinctive voice among female metal singers —- as opposed to being lithe and ethereal, her vocals are raspier and filled with what I can only describe as a metal attitude. And what I love in particular about Suidakra’s approach to songwriting is their embrace of diversity, such as the sudden mid-song drop in “Dragon’s Head” into near acoustic territory, replete with military snare drumming, distant orchestration, and possibly even a banjo being plucked!

 

Some may not enjoy the full on balladry of a song like “The Mindsong”, with its near maudlin lyrics about saucy, seductive Queens beckoning Roman rulers to come hither in their dreams but its a solidly crafted tune and I enjoy it for what it is. I have a high ballad tolerance remember? But those who didn’t enjoy that one will surely appreciate the rustic, elegantly understated “Damnatio Memoriae”, where Sebastian Hintz handles clean vocals with some of the best sung lyrics of the year: “Reflecting his desires / To roam the world / To travel from sky to sky / To make his mark in time”. I love that song and I really love the cover of “Mrs. McGrath” they decided to add on to the end of the digipak editions of the album. Yes its the traditional Irish ballad made popular recently by Bruce Springsteen, but Suidakra make it their own with a half acoustic, half metallic approach and unlike Springsteen, they deliver it with the original lyrics. Its almost swashbuckling with its organic instrumentation and an absolutely jaw dropping vocal by Stabel. I wish more metal bands would try their hand at unusual cover song choices like this from outside the instead of treating us to the umpteenth version of some metal classic.

 

 

3. Satyricon – Satyricon:

I’ve been fiddling with the damn ordering of this list on and off for the past couple weeks now, and a short while ago this was a few spots further down, but as I’ve gone through re-listening to all the albums on this list I realized something about Satyricon’s self-titled “comeback” record: This might be the bravest album of 2013. Tagging a record with that kind of adjective is confusing so I’ll explain briefly: Satyricon went away four years ago promising to come back musically renewed, having felt that they had taken the Now, Diabolical/Age of Nero era sound as far as it could go. Well that was already a rather simplistic sound when compared to their earlier, more symphonically infused back catalog, as well as in relation to releases by their fellow popular black metal peers. So the natural way to leap into a new sound Satyricon was to plunge back into the past with all the orchestral dressing of classics like Nemesis Divina, right?

 

Well not according to Satyr, who decided that the way forward into new sonic territory was to examine the structure of black metal itself and poke holes in it. Unlike the recent trend of American bands to copy the French and infuse black metal with shoegaze (or is it really the other way around?), Satyr has created a collection of songs that are built on the concept of addition by subtraction. Gone are the buzzsaw like guitars of the past, the hyper aggressive riffs and vocals, as well as the direct, in-your-face songwriting approach. Satyricon’s new sound is best described as muted, sparse, even spacey. The guitars mostly play open chord sequences, and when the rare riff pops up, its markedly less aggressive sounding than what we’re accustomed to a black metal riff sounding like. These songs are mostly atmospheric in nature, with a sense of awareness regarding the spatial relationships of instruments —- such as little in the way of multi-tracking or layering for example. The theory I summed up in my original review of this album is that “This is the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression.” In all honesty I have to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to this album in full, but when the mood does strike I’m consistently amazed at what the band has accomplished here. Its unlike any album I’ve ever heard, black metal, metal, or anything.

 

 

4. Carcass – Surgical Steel:

You should all be aware of this album by now, and yes its worthy of all the hype and high placement on year end lists. This is one of those rare occasions where a reunion album actually manages to add to a legacy, not only by remaining true to the sounds of the most beloved era of the band’s history, but by delivering song really great songs that tower among Carcass’ best ever. I’m referring specifically to a handful of cuts here, such as “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System”, “The Master Butcher’s Apron”, “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, and of course the instant fan favorite “Captive Bolt Pistol”. If you haven’t heard the record by now (seriously?), imagine the melodicism of Heartwork with just a slightly crisper, more modern production. I wonder if the scattered naysayers of this record are more upset by that than anything. I had a hard time imagining that Carcass would come back sounding closer to their earlier Symphonies era. Maybe on the next record?

 

Anyway Bill Steer is the star here, flying all over the fretboard, turning in riffs and wild solos as only he can —- his sound is so identifiable its almost like a trademark at this point. Jeff Walker’s vocals don’t miss a step either, he sounds as vicious and snarling as ever… ageless I think I said when I reviewed this album upon release, listening to him alone you’d think this was recorded in the mid-nineties. New drummer Daniel Wilding actually manages to outdo Ken Owen, as crazy as that reads on paper. He’s inventive, has fills aplenty, and plays off Steer’s riffs in unexpected ways. I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a few sentences gushing about the finest moment on the record, “316L Grade Surgical Steel”, which might be my all-time favorite Carcass song now. which is five minutes of metal perfection. My favorite moment comes towards the song’s end starting at 4:20 where Walker snarls out the catchiest, fiercest passage on the album. What an incredible album. Steel your heart!!!

 

 

5. Falkenbach – Asa:

The biggest surprise of the year for me personally, Falkenbach’s Vratyas Vakyas delivers the best album of his now two decade spanning career. What makes it so is equal parts excellent songwriting and a new emphasis on a clear, crisp, vocals-up-front mix and production. This is the first Falkenbach record that sounds equally as good on my car stereo as it does on headphones, something that couldn’t be said about past records. And when it comes to songs, Vakyas provides an array of styles and tempos, all inventive and unique in their own right. There’s an almost old school sounding black metal track in “Wulfarweijd”, which has a rather catchy riff buried underneath suitably blackened vocals courtesy of longtime Falkenbach screamer Tyrann / Philip Breuer (news to me, I always thought Vakyas did the screams). On other more mid-tempo songs, like “Bluot Fuer Bluot”, and “Bronzen Embrace”, I’m almost getting a Moonsorrow meets Otyg vibe.

 

Then there’s the Ulver-ian half-acoustic, sitting around the fire hymns of “Eweroun”, and ““Mijn Laezt Wourd”, two absolute gems that sail along on the power of Vakyas’ best clean vocal performances to date. “Eweroun” made my best songs of 2013 list, but its companion song could just as easily have been in it’s place there. Both have stirring, majestic, almost spiritual melodies set against a backdrop of warm, fuzzy, hypnotic riffing and delicate acoustic guitar. I love stuff like this and really appreciate it when someone just “gets” how to do it so well. I like that Vakyas has stayed true to his vision and refused to veer off into the cartoonish direction a lot of folk metal has gone into —- he doesn’t need to. Much like Suidakra’s Arkadius, Vakyas is one of folk metal’s pioneers, and his music connects to our ideas and conceptions of nature, the earth, and existence. Its criminal that this record is going to be overlooked by so many.

 

 

6. Orphaned Land – All Is One:

I doubt there is anyone who appreciated Orphaned Land’s All Is One album as much as I did. I wrote at length about my rather complex history with Orphaned Land earlier this year, and long story short I felt grateful to have another chance to really connect with the band that broadened my musical horizons well beyond metal. I’m aware that much of the band’s middle east following is due to their lyrical concepts and message of unification, peace, and brotherhood. I don’t have a strong opinion on that aspect of the band’s work as a distant American —- I think its a good thing in general of course, and I admire a metal band that dares to be purely positive without any trace of self consciousness, but my attraction to Orphaned Land has always been musical first and foremost. This is not a perfect album, (but then they’ve yet to realize one of those), it is however a really great one. I already gushed about the title track and “Brother” in my Best Songs of 2013 feature, so I’ll avoid repeating myself on both of them here. The rest of the album is just as interesting, filled with the kind of musically adventurous Oriental metal that this band has really pioneered.

 

Take the rich, cultural instrumentation and vocals in “Ya Benaye”, there is so much going on here musically that I couldn’t even begin to name all the instruments, I just know that its a beautiful, soulfully laid back moment of respite amidst an album full of drama, tension, and yeah, some fairly metallic riffs. Likewise in the instrumental “Freedom”, where the guitar vs oud interplay of Yossi Sassi and new guy Chen Balbus eventually turns into jaw-droppingly beautiful bouzouki outro (or hell maybe I got those instruments backwards, either way I want more of it). Speaking of guitars, those two guys turn in the best guitar dual guitar performance on any record released this year —- their ability to play off each other and complement one another is simply stunning, and a huge pull of this album’s appeal. Of course Kobi Farhi is his inimitable self here, delivering some fine vocals to some really excellent lyrics. And the decision to shell out for a full choir and string section was worth the additional expense, they lend a fullness to the sound that was lacking on past records. There’s so much to enjoy here, and the good news is that we’re promised a new studio record in a relatively short (for Orphaned Land standards) time frame —- I can’t wait.

 

 

7. Rotting Christ – Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy:

This is the most bizarre album on this list, I’m not even sure I did it justice in my original review for it earlier in the year. Rotting Christ is a band that I had callously written off many, many years ago for reasons I can’t remember. This album brought me back into the fold as a cemented fan, and its the sheer audacious sense of anything goes, unpredictable blend of what I guess are Greek folk music elements mixed with a unique vision of black metal. Song structures here are uncommonly strange, eschewing traditional verse/chorus structures in favor of Burzum-esque repetition, except that instead of aiming for the hypnotic riff sequencing, Rotting Christ favor a vibrant, shouted vocal chant style approach. There’s a high degree of melodicism going on here as well, guitars deliver ultra-melodic riffs and are often laced over an intense bed of furious percussion, often not matching tempos which creates a very unique effect upon your sensibilities as a listener.

 

Perhaps what makes Rotting Christ’s take on black metal sound so refreshing is their rejection of genre tropes, such as blurring blast beats, tremolo riffs, and aural density. In contrast, the songs on this album have ample space to breath, to sound muscular, and to have sonic identities of their own. Take “Cine iubeşte şi lasă”, where Gypsy-like female vocals usher the song along over slicing guitar riffs and a chanting choir bed. Then there’s the Therion meets Rammestein march of “Iwa Voodoo”, where melodic guitar figures sit between brutal, gutturally chanted male choirs. I wrote in my review of this album that I found it fun to listen to, and I still feel that way. Its one of the catchiest records of the year for metal of all genres, and I can’t tell whether its solely by design or it just tends to turn out that way. Next to Therion, I can’t think of a band that’s come from the ranks of extreme metal that composes music with such interesting song structures. For all it’s accessibility, I have a hard time explaining this album in words —- just go listen to it yourself and you’ll understand why.

 

 

8. In Solitude – Sister:

I imagine that by now you’ve seen this record pop up on many year end metal lists, and have either scoffed or wondered what the big deal is. I got to see these guys alongside Tribulation as openers for Watain a few months ago, and they were an impressive live band, so much so that I was moved enough to check this album out as well as revisit their past two records. I found that Sister has held my attention far more than their previous more straight up retro-metal records could. I do hate using that term to describe anything I’m listening to, but really In Solitude was doing little more than Mercyful Fate worship back then. They must’ve gotten tired of hearing that, because they purposefully distort their sound here with a substantial infusion of goth-rock and post-punk aural aesthetic. Vocalist Pelle Ahman even adopts a looser, more punk-inflected lead vocal delivery to match their new musical approach. If all this strikes you as purposeful affectation to be suspicious of, I suppose I can understand that sentiment but then I’d pose the question of what’s a band that is accused of simply mimicking the past supposed to do other than try to redefine their own sound?

 

All questions of motive and intent aside, In Solitude know how to write some really fantastic songs. A track like “Pallid Hands” hums along on the back of a guitar riff that reminds me of The Cult’s “Rain”, heck even Ahman’s vocals sometimes come off a bit Ian Astbury-ish. I love the inclusion of their cover of an obscure Swedish post-punk band called Cortex, with the rollicking, jaunty “Jesus I Betong” (yes that’s the title). On the propelling title track, Ahman’s vocal delivery rests a half beat behind the guitars, creating the effect of loose, wild rock n’ roll more than anything remotely metal, which is okay seeing as how the song is rather excellent. There are metallic elements mixed in throughout this record, but they’re more textures and retro metal stylistic nods than anything outright heavy in the way of riffs. I can’t help but find myself enjoying it all, though I have to be in the mindset to accept the fact that its far less sonically heavy than even the shiniest of power metal.

 

 

9. October Falls – The Plague of a Coming Age:

This album was a complete surprise, being one of the few promo copies I received and reviewed in the second edition of my Pigeon Post series. I really walked in blind, with no background on the band nor having heard any of their past work. To be honest, I still haven’t checked out the band’s back catalog because I’m so engrossed in this album, a strange blend of melodic death with blackened vocals, under a doomy, atmospheric blanket. Its almost a mix of Katatonia, Agalloch, and early era Opeth, minus a lot of the clean vocals (though there are some). As I was listening to it over these past few months I realized just how much these riffs bring to mind that classic Opeth sound of yore, and how much I’ve missed that. This isn’t to say that October Falls is simply ripping off Akerfeldt and company, but they both seem to tap into a shared vein of beautiful melancholia. When listened to on headphones outdoors in cold weather, this album is as good as hot coffee.

 

This is a full album experience —- one really needs to sit down, pay attention, and listen to this thing from start to finish. Skipping around tracks tends to ruin the atmosphere that is gradually building as the album progresses. But if I’m going to point out highlights you might want to check out, then start with the title track where Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis does guest clean vocals midway through under a wash of well done studio effects that have him sounding distant, almost faded out. Its a great moment, preceded by another stellar track in “Snakes of the Old World”, where gorgeous, swirling guitar melodies convey anguished emotion with as few notes as possible. I’m re-listening to this album as I type this, and every song has some awesome, isolated moment buried in the cocoon of each song —- they’re all worth writing about. Like I said, this album expects your full attention, and with the amount of thought and craft put into it, I think it deserves nothing less.

 

 

10. Tribulation – The Formulas of Death:

I ended up being wrong in my early predictions for this record, which I’ve been listening to regularly since seeing them open for Watain a few months ago. I had figured that it would end up on a lot of the bigger best-of metal lists around the internet —- which it didn’t, turns out the band’s profile is lower than I thought. Secondly, I didn’t see myself having this album on my list at all, not that I didn’t enjoy it, but because it was taking me awhile to come around to acclimating to the band’s penchant for indulging in purely instrumental sections. But Tribulation really has great songwriting in spades here, particularly in the sense that they know and value a catchy riff or three, and are able to utilize them to create mesmerizing, hypnotic songs while using a variety of open chord flourishes as atmospheric soundscapes. Such as “Wanderer in the Outer Darkness” with its epic length and shifting riff sections which build up to unleash pure metal fury with one of the most killer riffs of the year around the 4:34 mark. Another highlight is the uptempo, aggressive “When the Sky is Black With Devils”, where a series of classic sounding riffs usher along the album’s most brutal vocal sections. “Randa” might be the best song here, a wild rocker that has the instrumental vibe of early, pre-Dickinson Maiden. And I’m slowly coming around to some of the aforementioned atmospheric, instrumental sections, which when planned out well add a lot to the creepy, near haunted vibe of the album. Give this one time and patience and it’ll reward you, its at the very least one of the most intriguing releases of the year.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part One: The Songs

And farewell to another year that’s flown by too quickly. Of course that means its time for anyone and everyone in metal writing, print or digital, to indulge their egos a bit and draft up their end of year lists. Now most writers will never own up to it but I’m a rather shameless sort, and will freely admit that I love creating these lists. I put an inordinate amount of thought into drafting them and end up changing around the entries and numerical ordering countless times before I ever hit publish. Self-indulgent? Absolutely. But I also hope that people who in anyway remotely enjoy reading what I write will check out my lists as a way to get into bands or albums they’ve not heard before. That’s ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing about music, expressing your enthusiasm and passion for something to others and hoping they’ll hear what you hear.

 

As you can see from the title, to make everything more readable, I’m separating the best songs and albums of 2013 into separate articles (the albums list is on it’s way soon). Of course, some bands will overlap on both lists, with undeniable crowning jewels from great records being represented, but doing this separate list for just songs alone allows for a spotlight to be shined on those songs that were gems on releases that may not have necessarily made the best albums of the year cut. Anyway to quote Marti DeBergi, “Enough of my yakking”!

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2013:

 

1. Darkthrone – “Leave No Cross Unturned” (from the album The Underground Resistance)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0tsFqTulM8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The extent to which this song towered over the rest of the tracks from Darkthrone’s excellent The Underground Resistance is such that whenever I think upon that album, the monstrous, cyclonic riff that anchors this battleship of a song is the ONLY thing that comes to mind. This song, more than any other released this year by anyone else epitomizes to me the pure, untarnished, unapologetic, hell bent for leather spirit of metal as I know it and have grown up loving. Its not just the King Diamond-esque vocals from Fenriz that encompass so much of this thirteen minute long epic, or the brutal series of incredible, bone shaking riffs one after another courtesy of Nocturno Culto seemingly on a mission to destroy, or the slammingly heavy midsection bridge at 4:24 —- its everything all together. I contend, with some expectation of hatred at the very idea, that this is Darkthrone’s heaviest song to date.

 

Its typical of Darthrone’s contrary spirit then that this song could only come now, many albums past Darkthrone’s turning of their backs on the traditional black metal sound. They’ve also moved on past the crust punk/black n’ roll they dabbled in for some years and have seemingly embraced traditional heavy metal. Gone too are the murky, muddled productions of past albums, replaced here by a crispness and clarity never before heard with Darkthrone music. There are some out there that speculate that these guys are taking the piss, purposefully trolling the black metal fans with their current musical incarnation. I reject those notions out of hand not only because the band have come across as rather earnest about their current direction in interviews, but simply because music that sounds this genuinely in love with heavy metal in all its ugly glory doesn’t know the meaning of irony.

 

 


2. Amorphis – “Hopeless Days” (from the album Circle)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdKt1aw4BK8&w=560&h=315]

 

The shining gem on Amorphis’ 2013 effort, “Hopeless Days” is everything you’d want in a song built in this particular style of depressive, melancholic metallic hard rock. There were quite a few good songs on that record, but none as powerful and churning with dramatic ache as this one. Powerful percussion ushers you along over a bed of building riffs that explode in a supremely catchy chorus all whilst elegantly tinkling piano plays underneath —- a subtle yet brilliant juxtaposition. Vocalist Tomi Joutsen delivers his best vocal and lyric during this emotionally stirring moment: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”.  Gotta love the scale climbing guitar lines that kick in during and after the solo —- Esa Holopainen might just be the most underrated guitarist coming out of Finland right now. When Sentenced called it a day in 2005, I was worried that my supply of this type of rock inflected metal would dry up, but there seems to be a strong contingent of bands working in the same medium, Amorphis amongst the best of them. My iTunes count says I’ve played this song alone 79 times while the rest of the album’s songs sit at 30-40 (sometimes I wonder if the iTunes play counts of writers from taste maker websites would really back up their best metal of the year lists). Play count 80 starting…NOW!

 

 

3. Orphaned Land – “All Is One” / “Brother” (from the album All Is One)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bds3FALcR7M&w=280&h=225] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsPb1-uPIic&w=280&h=225]

 

How can two songs take one spot? Because they are to me inseparable, both in my mind as representations of my favorite moments on Orphaned Land’s surprisingly great All Is One album, and as micro representations of the core of the band’s progression through simplification both musically and lyrically. With the title track serving as both the lead off single and first song on the album track listing proper, Orphaned Land in four minutes and thirty seconds crafted a brilliant, euphoria inducing epic that perfectly encompassed their spiritual ideology (agree or disagree with it). What makes the song truly effective however are not just the direct, declarative lyrics, or the artfully done Middle Eastern instrumentation —- but the band’s embrace of clear, anthemic melodies and hair raising choral vocals ala Blind Guardian during the chorus. The infusion of that particular kind of power metal element is new for the band, as is their shift to a leaner, more direct method of songwriting, a complete 180 from the complex progressive metal of their last two records.

 

These newly embraced principles work to possibly greater effect on “Brother”, where singer Kobi Farhi’s inspired lyrics threaten to overshadow some truly great music going on underneath. The lyrics, as widely discussed by now, are intended to be the words of Issac to his brother Ishmael. Its a gutsy song for an Israeli to write, let alone record and perform on stage, as it’s lyrics essentially serve as an extended metaphor of the relationship between Jews and Muslims, brother faiths of the same Abrahamic father. Its a heavyweight topic to tackle but here its done with elegance, subtle apologetic notes, and a passionate vocal courtesy of Farhi that registers as the album’s highlight moment. The beautiful guitar interplay of Yossi Sassi and Chen Balbus that is to be found all throughout this album is the band’s best to date, particularly during the instrumental section where the guitars kick into an almost Slash-esque mellow solo. The band delivered an incredible one-two punch with both of these songs, and managed to wrangle an old fan like me back into the fold.

 

 

4. Serenity – “Wings of Madness” (from the album War of Ages)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX5jsf3v9vw&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity stunned me this year with their spectacular War of Ages album, and this inspired lead off track (and first single) was the highest among many high points to be found on the set.  “Wings of Madness” is a complex, multifaceted masterpiece that twists and turns around the dramatic vocal duets of co-vocalists Georg Neuhauser and Clementine Delauney. The latter is the newest member of the band and the undeniable star on this particular song (and perhaps the entire album), her vocals equipped with both a light ethereal touch and a dark, rich, almost Lisa Gerrard-like quality that she can blend together at will. The song’s music video seems to suggest that the lyrics are about the infamous Countess Bathory and her blood bathing lifestyle (everyone’s got their thing). This is a band that directs its lyrical bent towards characterizations or accounts of historical figures, and as such, the quatrain in the chorus is unnervingly eerie and appropriate: “No sun is shining in your eyes / A shadow growing in disguise / I can’t stand the silence / Embracing you at night”. One of the many things I appreciate about Serenity is their commitment to a higher standard of lyricism than the power metal norm —- similar to what Roy Khan was instilling during his tenure in Kamelot.

 

 

5. Queensryche – “In This Light” (from the album Queensryche)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LGaEOP86Kc&w=560&h=315]

 

That Queensryche was able to find a viable, credible future sans Geoff Tate was in itself a remarkable feat, but their creation of an album that is worthy enough to stand alongside their first six bonafide classics is still mind-boggling. This year’s self-titled comeback record was full of the classic elements long missed from Queensryche releases, and the band found that new members like guitarist Parker Lundgren and of course, life-saver vocalist Todd LaTorre could contribute to the songwriting process from the word go. Truthfully speaking, while I enjoyed the album, I had to admit it did have an array of weaknesses mostly stemming from the album’s length, and some songs that could’ve used a few more minutes. “In This Light” however stands out as a pristine moment, a deftly penned stately rocker with a chorus that could’ve come from the band’s Empire era. I mentioned in my original review for the album that this song was “a sort of distant cousin to “Another Rainy Night” and “One and Only”. Its perhaps the most accessible song on the record, yet also the most thoughtful, its lyrics a reflective paean on despair and hope.” Its curious to me that they haven’t released this as a single yet.

 

 

6. Omnium Gatherum – “The Unknowing” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik&w=560&h=315]

 

These guys released a pretty solid record earlier this year with Beyond, but the highlight of the album was this singular gem, an arpeggio fueled, cinematic slice of melodic death metal nirvana. Not only is the guitar work stunning throughout in a general breathtaking sense, but they buoy a melody that is strangely melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s vocals here feature an extra degree of crisp clarity that is normally buried in his obsidian delivery (an acquired taste I admit). The Finns really have something going on right now with the amazing slate of fresh takes on melodic death metal that is very far removed from the now old-school Gothenburg scene in neighboring Sweden. Insomnium also released a fantastic new song this year that I reviewed earlier which will narrowly miss a placement on this list —- but its just more mounting evidence that both these promising torch bearers of modern melodic death metal have found a way to distance themselves from the negative associations that the original melo-death sound has unfortunately found with American metalcore.

 

 

7.  Týr – “The Lay of Our Love” (from the album Valkyrja)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zd2rYcxXBM&w=560&h=315]

 

This was a bold, gutsy move for  Týr, a band whose previous attempts at anything close to balladry were blanketed by singing in their native Faroese language, about subject matter that was really anyone’s guess.  But Valkyrja is a thematic album about the role of the woman as Goddess and wife, in the life of a Viking warrior —- and to the band’s credit they are lyrically adventurous about it throughout. Not only are the lyrics in “The Lay of Our Love” essentially about a rather sentimental subject, in this case a pair of lovers sundered by impending death, but the music at work here is pure power balladry (I mean that in a good way!). I’m not sure whats my favorite part, the delicately plucked acoustic intro or the wild, passionate guitar solo mid-way through that ranks amongst the band’s best. Liv Kristine of Leaves Eyes fame is the lithe, delicate female voice you’re hearing, and her performance here is just immense. Its a shame that I seem to only be able to really appreciate her work when its in guest spots like these, but she contrasts well with Heri Joensen’s deep, soaring vocals.  Týr should continue being brave with experiments like these if the payoffs are anything close to this.

 

 

8. Avantasia – “Saviour in the Clockwork” (from the album The Mystery of Time)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USkP6pT8UYI&w=560&h=315]

 

I pointed out in my review for Avantasia’s most recent album that in the past half decade Tobias Sammet has now released nearly double the amount of Avantasia releases in comparison to his main band Edguy. At some point, both of the projects were going to start blurring together stylistically due to having the same songwriter driving each, and as expected that is exactly what is happening with both of the newest Avantasia and Edguy releases. They’re still good albums, but at this point the only musical difference between both bands is the presence of guest vocalists in Avantasia, and you’ve gotta wonder if that will be enough in the long run. Of course, if you’re like me and just consider yourself more of a Tobias Sammet fan than a distinct fan of either one of his bands then you won’t really care all that much about such details as long as he keeps delivering the goods. Well, the bad news was that The Mystery of Time is the most uneven album in Avantasia’s now vast discography. The good news is that it did contain a handful of distinctive Sammet homeruns, including this awe-inspiring epic featuring vocals from Joe Lynn Turner, Biff Byford, and of course Michael Kiske. Its got all the elements a Sammet fan wants: thundering bombast, excellent songwriting, and lush vocal arrangements particularly in the group choir vocals during the chorus.

 

 

9. Falkenbach – “Eweroun” (from the album Asa)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA5nN65B_eg&w=560&h=315]

 

I consider it a good quality that this song conjures up the feeling of sitting by some intense campfire under the stars at midnight (… ah lets face it, I’m really thinking of Skyrim). Gone are the murky, lo-fi productions of past albums —- 2013 Falkenbach has taken a page from Darkthrone’s playbook: Sometimes the way to progress your sound forward is to fully capture it in a pristine form, not hide it under layers of hiss and microphones. Sole member and creator Vratyas Vakyas’s vocals are the selling point on “Eweroun” (translated as “Evermore”), his plaintive, spacious clean vocals ushering in the song with a vocal melody I can only describe as soothing. He sets this over a bed of warm muted riffing, simple percussion patterns, and chiming acoustic guitars. The hook is not a traditional chorus either, but simply an altered acoustic guitar figure. Vakyas apparently pens most of his lyrics in old Norse, and a look at the translation of the lyrics seems to suggest an allusion to the passage of time set against the backdrop of changing seasons. It all conjures up a rather spiritual feel, and its not much of a stretch to actually call it something close to spiritual folk metal.

 

 

10. Lord – “Digital Lies” (from the album Digital Lies)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR38tX6z6iI&w=560&h=315]

 

You may not have heard of Lord before, but many of you might remember Dungeon from Australia, the rather underrated power/trad metal band who in addition to building up a solid catalog of quality albums over the span of a decade  also provided us with one of metal’s great covers in their take on Toto’s “Hold the Line”. Lord then is ex-Dungeon vocalist Tim Grose’s project born out of the ashes of his former band. They launched in 2003 and have done a few decent records now, but their 2013 release Digital Lies shows the band taking determined strides towards potential greatness. This title track from the effort is one jewel among many featured on the release that crackles with the kind of excitement that is harder and harder to find with newer power metal releases (and worryingly so at that). Over a rock steady bed of aggressive, pulsing bass and pounding riffs is a striking contrast between almost Alexi Laiho-ish vocals in the verse, and Grose’s wide open, soaring tenor in the chorus. He’s always been an excellent vocalist, displaying a heft and weight to power metal vocal delivery that is so often found lacking amongst the European ranks —- but his ability to switch it up here at will is even more impressive. Check out this song, and if you like it do yourself the favor of grabbing the album, its one of the better power metal records released this year.

 

Fall Harvest: Records I Almost Missed + Assorted Ramblings

Yeah, I know its been a minute. What have I been up to this month to cause such a prolonged silence? Well, the Watain adventure late last month made me realize that I had slacked off mid-year in checking out some new releases by noteworthy bands, that concert’s opening bands In Solitude and Tribulation among them. So at the start of the month I began to tackle the laundry list of records released this year that I hadn’t checked out yet. With my mid/late December annual best of lists deadline approaching I really had to set myself to task and delay a couple articles I originally wanted published in November. There were about fourteen albums on that list that I’ve spent the past few weeks listening and re-listening to, some far more than others, and I’m glad I took the time to get to know some of them better. Its a tepid feeling of inadequacy when you come to an album a year or so late only to realize it should’ve been on it’s release year’s best of list. 2011 for me is a pretty glaring example, where top honors could have (and should have) gone to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow instead of Symphony X’s Iconoclast (still a great record though). I almost got it right in 2012, but slept on Woods of Ypres final, masterful album and so this year, I’m aiming for a higher level of vigilance. Chances are that I’ll probably miss something yet again.

 

Suidakra 16.02.2013 Session
Krefeld – Burg Linn, Germany

But for sure it won’t be 2013 releases by Suidakra, Falkenbach, and the aforementioned In Solitude and Tribulation. The latter two I’ll get to in a little bit, but first I have to say that I’ve been absolutely floored by Suidakra and Falkenbach’s new records. I’ve been a long time admirer of Falkenbach’s low-fi take on folk metal for a quite a few years now but was stupidly ignorant of just how incredible of a band Suidakra has become over their past few releases. Delving deep into their catalog now on Spotify, I’m going back four albums deep and loving every single note of what they’re doing, but their new album, Eternal Defiance, sees them taking more risks with their blend of folk infused melodic death metal. This is a gem of an album, living up to the quality of its excellent predecessor Book of Dowth. Learning a bit about the bio of the band it was surprising to note that they hail from Germany, not Scandinavia, where melodic death metal has its roots and current artistic renaissance. Yet they’re singing about Celtic subject matter and tackling folk metal simultaneously without relying on genre tropes and the godawful musical attributes that define the goofy Korpiklaani, the truly terrible Alestorm, and the once great Finntroll.

 

Band founder, vocalist, and songwriter Arkadius (that’s Suidakra spelled backwards by the way) has seemingly forged a new strain of melodic death metal, in that he’s not rehashing the Gothenburg sound of yore, nor following the modern of path of moody, melancholy Finnish melo-death. Instead, Suidakra’s sound and songwriting is geared towards dare I suggest, almost modern power metal minded ideas of major key melodicism, where a Blind Guardian-esque touch of bombast twists and turns over a militantly marching bed of percussion. The folk metal aspect peeks its head out in inspired ways, such as instrumentation or simply full blown excursions into realms of pure acoustic folk, where ethereal female vocals chime in alongside well done clean male vocals. I’m hesitant to write too much about this album here, because yep — you guessed it, Eternal Defiance will have a spot on my best albums of 2013 list and I’ll probably go into more depth there. Suffice it to say that this is a rich, multifaceted work that pulls you in upon first listen and then continually unfolds in layers to reveal even more greatness underneath. You need to listen to this album.

 

Falkenbach flew in under my radar in the sense that I really had no idea they would even have a new album out this year. This is after all a band that is basically one guy, doesn’t play live, and has practically zilch when it comes to an online/social media presence. Their newest offering, Asa, is by an incredibly large margin their best record yet, as Vratyas Vakyas pushes his project’s sound into the welcome reaches of a clearer, professional production. This isn’t to say that past Falkenbach records sounded horrible, but they were coated with a wash of muddled atmospherics and distant drum sounds that often compromised the power of what were undeniably good songs. Here, Vakyas’ vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, his blackened grim vocals now possessing even more bite and rancor than before, and his gorgeous, plaintitive clean vocals are now full, lush, and emotionally affecting. Such is the case on the lead off single “Eweroun”, where delicate acoustic pluckings contrast elegantly against a patient bed of hypnotic, warm riffing —- all while Vakyas calming multitracked vocals take center stage. Its an inspired song, with a definite feel of rootsy authenticity that I find lacking in most modern folk metal. On the other side of the spectrum are fierce black metal tracks that hit with a heaviness and aggression previously not heard on Falkenbach records, such as “I Nattens Stilta” which still manages to surprise with a few prog elements thrown in as well. This is shaping up to be the most welcome yet unexpected comeback record of the year.

 

As I wrote in my previous article, In Solitude really wowed me with their performance in Austin opening for Watain. Now when I listen to their newest album, Sister, I wish I took the time to learn those songs in advance of the concert because I’m hearing great moments that I remembered from their set that night, and good shows are made great by knowing the songs yourself ahead of time. My previous reservations about In Solitude’s prior releases were that while they sounded good and there was generally a decent amount of songs worth going back for, the band was essentially aping Mercyful Fate. Generally speaking, this isn’t something worth crucifying a good band for, not when there are already loads of dopey revisionist thrash bands out there making fools of themselves in puffy eighties styled sneakers. But it was a factor in preventing me from getting into the band completely, and I found myself hoping they’d transition into an original sound or at least a new take on their influences in the future. The good news is that they wasted no time in doing so, and the great news is that they’re unearthing a truly original sound in the process by embracing their post-punk influences and toning back the metal classicism a great deal.

 

On Sister, a song like “A Buried Sun” moves along not on the back of tight riffage, but on airy, spaced out chord sequences that recall pre-Electric era The Cult, and heck, even The Cure. “Lavender” goes one higher, sounding like The White Stripes stop/start guitars married to the dark psychedelia of Bauhaus —- it may be the album’s most genre bending moment, as far from metal as the band is willing to go but a good song nonetheless. On the other hand, the title track is the most propulsive and downright catchy thing they’ve ever penned and its also the most metal moment on the record, with dark descending riffs that lend a classic doomy heaviness to the song. Vocalist Pelle Ahman is quickly becoming one of the more unique vocalists genre wide, his once shameless King Diamond impersonations now finding the usefulness of subtlety and variety and as a result he’s a far more expressive vocalist here —- at times recalling the wild rock n’ roll looseness of an Ian Astbury (sans the “woomon”‘s and “baby”s).  This isn’t an album that I’d recommend for someone wanting hard hitting, direct metal —- but its a successful and very interesting revamp of a band’s musical approach, the sound of a square peg trying to get out of a square hole.

 

The other band that night, the doomy Tribulation, have a new record out called The Formulas of Death, which is plenty riff heavy yet shares In Solitude’s new found penchant for airy infusions of dark psychedelic swirls. I’m still a bit undecided on this one, but a good sign is that I’m intrigued enough to keep coming back to it. They alternate between a doom laden crushing blend of death and black metal without succumbing to genre tropes, or even displaying any obvious influences, and when they hit it hard its gripping stuff. Check out a track like “When the Sky is Black with Devils”, which musically comes across as a mix of Dissection meets latter day Darkthrone. Like In Solitude, Tribulation choose to employ riffs in a far more restrained fashion, featuring long sustains and riffs that aren’t super tight. At times their musical attack brings to mind a blackened version of those early classic Maiden tradeoffs between Murray and Smith —- loose and almost hard rock-ish while simultaneously precise and focused. I love the aggressive moments found on tracks like “Spectres” and “Suspira de Profundis”, but admittedly I find the soft, spacey moments that permeate throughout to be an occasional strain on my patience. When I have the album on in the background and am focused on something else primarily, I find myself enjoying the record as a whole and even admiring those moments of quiet, but when I begin to really focus on what I’m listening to, I find them lacking in musicality —- quiet noodling should still have purpose, direction, and melody. Maybe that’s just going to be my hangup, but it comes and goes, and that further confuses my overall take on this album.

 

I get the feeling that Tribulation will wind up on many reviewers/bloggers best of 2013 lists, some are already short listing it as the album of the year. There usually are one or two albums that end up being a consensus pick of critics genre wide, and far be it for me to suggest that most of these folks don’t truly enjoy the album. Good albums are deservedly recognized as such, but in the past few years in particular I’ve found that the consensus pick of each year has fallen flat for me. And I think that’s where I differ in my end of year analysis and list creation from other sites, blogs, and critics. If a record doesn’t net an emotional or at least a compulsive response from me, then I find it hard to say that its the best album of the year, regardless of how innovative or genre-bending it is. I got a lot of flack a few years ago for publicly questioning NPR’s best metal records of 2011 list, in particular from fans of Cormorant, whose album Dwellings took the top spot on that list. It also appeared on just about every other critical list of metal records for that year, particularly from major mainstream media outlets. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it was an album worth checking out, it was certainly an interesting listen —- but that’s all I got out of it. The responses of that fan base to my list were scathing as expected, and that was fair enough, but my list was an honest one for the time. Of course as I admitted earlier, you’ll rarely get it right in retrospect, but as long as its honest in the moment, how wrong could it be?

 

So when I’m looking at candidates for the best songs and albums of 2013 articles I’m going to be putting up relatively soon (this month I promise!), I’m taking a few things into account: Firstly that this list really matters to no one but myself and perhaps a few other readers, but its going to be on the internet for all time. And secondly, that just like in these two years previous, I’m going to be opening myself up to the potential for a lot of criticism for the album’s list in particular. As the folks at Angry Metal Guy will attest to, this year started off dreadfully slow in terms of the quantity of excellent releases and there were some disappointments that cropped up along the way. 2013 has been heavily back loaded in a bizarre way, but how that has factored into list building is that I’m finding myself seriously going back to reconsider albums released earlier in the year and taking a look at how much I actually listened to them. The results surprised me, in good and not so good ways… some records I thought would be at the forefront of any album of the year list have dropped off for example. The other main takeaway is that its been a quietly strong year for metal, not the blockbuster that was 2011 and 2010, but definitely not the total disaster many bloggers were scouting out earlier in the year.

 

One major disappointment worth noting that I never commented on before is what in the wild hell happened to Blabbermouth? Website redesigns are totally understandable and even welcome when done right but that site was for better or worse the center of my and most other heavy music fans’ online experience. Its been my homepage for years and was always part of the daily new scouring routine. The old design’s iconic news feed scrolling section is now replaced by a far more inconvenient “highlights” feature, mostly featuring Kerry King’s unwelcome face. There are fewer articles on each page of the site, making navigating a chore, and forget about trying to remember how far back you’ve gone because there’s no easy way to judge unless your memory is spot on (mine isn’t). I’m starting to utilize Twitter and Facebook more and more for metal news on essentials like releases and tour dates, but those aren’t perfect systems for those. I find myself actively looking less and less at Blabbermouth even for entertainment value, which was of course one of it’s most dutiful roles, a sort of TMZ for the metal world. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I enjoyed being a spectator to the comment feeds as well, where stupidity and snark would collide in a misguided, often hilarious display of the worst of our fan-doms. With the comments sections now tied into Facebook, anonymity on the site is non-existent, and while some commenters have no problem presenting themselves as oafs and buffoons, the majority of people commenting on individual articles are turning Blabbermouth into a mild version of NPR.org (where complete sentences and paragraph length discussions do a poor job of masking one of the more abhorrent comment sections anywhere online… the ones brimming with irony and smug self satisfaction). Bring back the privacy curtains and trolling idiots I say, god knows we need something to laugh at in this genre.

 

One more thing (I wonder if there’s anyone reading this far), Manowar has announced a 2014 North American tour consisting of nine select shows in February. First, the routing: There’s a couple dates in the midwest, one in Minnesota, two in California and oddly enough two in Texas (Dallas and my current location, Houston). Screw you Florida and the majority of the North East and North West says Joey DeMaio! I can’t tell you how much I loath it when bands come over to only do a handful of dates…. this is the United States of America, a world tour within a world tour. Do a proper 20-30 shows and criss-cross the goddamned land. Kudos to them for scheduling dates in Texas, no proper tour can be called an American tour without hitting Texas in my estimation, but two shows back to back in Dallas and Houston? Fans in either city would drive to the other and meanwhile I’m sure your fans in the very metal friendly but geographically isolated Arizona and New Mexico and El Paso really appreciated that. Why not just be cool to your long suffering American fanbase and do a full fledged club tour of the entire country? Because this is Manowar and they can’t be bothered to play shows in their own backyard unless there’s a huge incentive to do so.

 

The incentive by the way are out of proportion ticket prices. The Manowar shows are 75 dollars for advance tickets or 100 bucks on the day of the show at the box office. Maybe the size of the venues being scheduled (a lot of small theaters like House of Blues) can justify these prices but the reality is that the band is simply taking advantage of scarcity. Manowar regularly schedules full length European tours that see them play in venues such as hockey arenas, soccer stadiums, and at the very least, big big halls (clear em!). They rarely play their own home country and make it point to utilize that scarcity to their economic advantage. Look, I understand economics and supply and demand, the reality is that they’re charging 75 bucks a pop because some people will pay 75 bucks a pop. Do I think they’ll sell out all 1000 tickets for the Houston House of Blues at those prices? Certainly not. I honestly think they’ll be lucky to get 200-300 people in there but there’s more to this issue than just money.

 

For a band who loudly proclaims to be all about their fans and the only metal band that matters, how about showing American fans the same respect that fellow countrymen Kamelot do, with reasonable tours of scaled down production in small clubs for 20 to 30 bucks a ticket so those people who are balking at those prices can cough up the money. The reality is that 75 bucks is a lot of money these days for nearly all of us. Nightwish, a band that can make a really nice career out of scheduling arena tours in Europe and South America toured Stateside last year in a coast to coast tour where base general admission tickets were 30 bucks. They even varied up their setlist a bit as a way of making it up to American audiences who didn’t get to experience their elaborate European stage productions. Getting to see a band that normally plays huge venues in a small club setting, mere yards away from you is a great experience, and they do it without demanding outrageous prices for entry (yes I’m aware Nightwish offered a VIP package for close to 100 bucks on that same tour, but it was entirely optional and you essentially bought a guaranteed meet and greet with the band —- a fair enough proposition in my eyes, as regular ticket holders weren’t being gouged in anyway.)

 

I enjoy some Manowar every now and then, as good time music for hanging out with like minded metal loving friends at get-togethers and such. They’ve made a couple good, not great albums, and their recent output has been dubious at best but always worth the odd catchy song or two. Are they worth 75 dollars? That’s for everyone to decide for themselves but I personally bristle at the idea of American audiences being screwed over in 2013 like that. For a long time it was pretty hard being a metal fan in this country, you’d have to import everything at huge mark ups, bands wouldn’t dare come to our shores for tours because just the very idea itself would lose money, and we had to put up with non-stop barrages of cancellations due to post 9-11 visa issues. Manowar is an American band, but they aren’t particularly welcoming to their fellow countrymen or seemingly at all grateful for the support they’ve had here. I’ll be seeing three shows for certain in the winter and spring of 2014; Amon Amarth with Enslaved; Dark Tranquility with Omnium Gatherum; and Iced Earth with Sabaton and ReVamp. I did the math, all three of those tickets combined cost less than the 86 dollars it would cost to see Manowar. I feel good about where my moneys going.

Yamahama Its Fright Night! Watain Live In Austin

 

Four nights ago I was in Austin, Texas to witness one of the more atmospheric metal shows that I’ve been lucky enough to catch. Watain was in the state capital on their The Wild Hunt tour with their Swedish pals In Solitude, and Tribulation along as support. I was asked if I was doing anything for Halloween earlier in the week, and I thought to myself —- yeah looks like it. Albeit falling one day short of Halloween itself, the tales I’d heard of Watain’s concert hi-jinx were as good as it gets in terms of inspiring an eerie, unnerving sense of dread and anticipation. I have a friend who’s a die hard Watain fan —- this was really his show. But I’d come to appreciate the band in the past year and a half and was curious to see a real black metal spectacle up close. I would not be disappointed.

 

The show was at a seemingly obscure hole in the wall called Red 7 on 7th street, yeah next to that famed street of one number below, but the venue was deceptively sized. Inside was a small stage facing a bar, but a side door led to a spacious outdoor courtyard complete with shady trees overhead and a covered stage. Watain’s backdrop’s were already on this stage behind multiple drum sets, and a pungent aroma of cloves, possibly sage, and incense was pervasive throughout the air. The show would apparently be happening outside, a small commercial office just on the other side of the fence, one of its window blinds drawn open to reveal a still lit computer monitor. This was unusual, and also totally Austin. I’ll admit my experience with the city is severely limited, most of my out of town show excursions aimed at San Antonio. Here in Houston, metal shows are almost exclusively at smoky, dark, indoor clubs in remote corners of the city.

 

I didn’t see much of it, but what little I did was enough to say —- Austin impressed me. We have hours to kill before the show. Across the street from the venue is a nice little dive bar called “The Side Bar” where we grab a beer in what else, a tiny courtyard. At the end of the block is an outdoor clutter of rickety tables under an awning, a precariously perched flat screen TV turned to the NFL network, and five food trailers arranged neatly around it. The guys at the BBQ trailer serve up some pretty damn good brisket sandwiches. Its all very relaxed, perhaps too much so. Everywhere you look on the street there are an alarmingly vast amount of standalone ATMs with no bank designation. All just out in the open —- I should’ve taken a picture of one in particular right at the sidewalk corner of an intersection. Nothing next to it, just a walk up ATM unattached to a building. What the hell?! My H-town born nerves and sense of foreboding would prevent me from daring to risk grabbing money in such an exposed manner. I think it really hits me then that this is a world apart from Houston: It’s a pedestrian friendly city, and rather convenient (or dangerous) for concert going activities. If I have to choose between out of town show locations in the future, I will from this point on always choose Austin. My views on its hipster population and aesthetic be damned.

 

Its raining on and off throughout the early parts of the evening, just light drizzle basically by the time local openers HOD take the stage. I’ve seen them a few times before in various venues, they’re a frequently gigging San Antonio based metal band whose sound is difficult to categorize except to say its mean and ugly. This is the best I’ve heard them yet. In past shows they’ve come across as a whirlwind blur of noise on stage but Red 7 seems to come equipped with a rarity in venues this size —- a really good sound guy. All of the instruments are discernible, the vocals are clear and up front in the mix, and the drums aren’t too overpowering, it all bodes well for the rest of the night. I didn’t know a thing about Tribulation, who take the stage soon after and begin to play a surprisingly atmospheric mix of doom and death metal. I love the instrumentation, they have a vivid sense of melodicism and use of space in moodier sections. They were entertaining on stage as well, a quality that to a relatively jaded metal head like myself is an achievement to note. I promised myself to check out their records once home.

 

In Solitude I’ve been familiar with, having given into the hype surrounding them and checking out their studio albums. I liked what they did, never loved any of it, but accepted them as an above average retro metal band among the scores of retro metal bands crawling all over the place these days. Getting on the tour with Watain seemed to me a pretty nice endorsement, as I’m thinking that Watain are at a stage in their career where they wouldn’t tolerate touring with bands they didn’t like. They are heavier, punchier, and way more interesting live. Its also telling that Watain vocalist Erik Danielsson slips into the crowd during the band’s first song, in fact, right next to where we’re standing in the far back corner. I feel a slight bump on my left side and its Danielsson, a Watain roadie, and an unknown female member of their entourage trying to squeeze in. We make room and amid some discrete pointing and gesturing, quietly freak out and take in the surreal moment. Danielsson is nodding along to the band, he’s clearly there to watch the performance, but as heads turn here and there, he politely obliges fans with handshakes and pictures —- even taking my friend’s not-so-subtle hopefulness that Watain would play their cover of “A Fine Day to Die” in good humor (he asked him this while wearing a Bathory shirt). Eventually they abscond backstage, as does In Solitude, and then things get surreal.

 

Remember when I told you it was drizzling? Good, keep that in mind. Changeover times are short, the venue staff really do seem to have a handle on all these things that we Houstonians usually accept with delays. Live music capital indeed. Watain’s stage set is grisly: A folded out two sectioned backdrop of stretched out animal skin panels with actual animal bones set in each panel column to spell out in runic lettering W-A-T-A-I-N. There is a small altar set off to the side just adjacent to the center mic position, upon it a chalice, an open book, and some kinds of incense or leaves (hard to distinguish in the dark). Inverted crosses stick in between the monitors at the front of the stage, and incense burners produce enormous quantities of perfumed smoke, and the entire scene is bathed in eerie, muted, red light. There won’t be any stage lighting change ups during their set, nor any roaming vocalist spotlights, this is all the lighting Watain wants. All the band’s have had extra help in that regard as the overcast clouds have brought much in the way of actual thunder and lightning throughout the evening. It was mood setting during the opening bands, with many in the audience nodding and smiling while looking up appreciatively at the night sky. Halloween, Watain, freaking lightning in the sky? Its as if the Earth approved of our shenanigans for a time. And then it didn’t.

 

Watain takes the stage to tremendous applause and a huge crowd surge forward, with some unwitting idiot deciding to start the pit (on slippery cement no less) on the left side of the crowd instead of the center (you know, as everyone else on the planet knows to do). I’m casually thrown back ten feet along with a dozen other people from my third row center position as another pit forms middle center. Somewhere between fending off circle pitters to my right with my forearm and helping a tiny female fan next to me get up after being bowled over, I see Watain appear as shadows in the smoke, Danielsson already launching into his weathering vocal attack. I won’t pretend to be entirely knowledgeable about the Watain back catalog, really just the past few records, but I knew they opened with “De Profundis”, one of the best cuts off The Wild Hunt. Then, a few songs into a set, as we’re all headbanging and warily watching our peripheral vision for incoming mosh pitters, the clouds are uncorked and a light, frothy drizzle becomes a torrid, cold downpour. It is vomiting rain, and we are stunned and soaked. The band plays on, covered by a huge sheet metal roof, and some of the first rows of fans pressed against the stage are sheltered as well, oblivious to the storm. The rest of us have a collective moment of either, “yep, going inside now”, or “oh well, hey’re we’re already wet —- and Watain’s playing!”. I stick with the latter camp, my shirt getting heavier and heavier with soaking rain each second, my only concern my cell phone now precariously pressed in my side pocket. I see Danielsson hold up his chalice and say something about ritual blood, oh man…. he throws it, everywhere. It reeks of, ahem… putrefaction.

 

More than halfway through Watain’s set, just after their rendition of “Reaping Death”, I finally have to call time on the satanic shower. Most of the rear half of the audience have gone inside, those closest to the open doorway watching from their dry vantage point. I’m more than drenched, its like I just walked into a shower with all my clothes on and decided to stay there for half an hour plus. I duck inside, past a mass of drip drying faces that I see through a wet blur. I feel a few hands clap me on the shoulder as I sludge past them, what I take as a “good effort, good hustle” type of thing. My friend —- he’s up at the front under the meager extension of the stage covering, raging like a maniac, while just barely escaping the water wall inches from his back. I try to watch from the doorway, but eventually just sit near the wall and listen to the rest of the set. Watain are excellent, and I wonder what they must make of the scene before them. This show was packed with people, there must’ve been close to six hundred in attendance at the peak just before the rainy onslaught. The few left out there look to number around forty.

 

At some point, Watain has to stop. Seriously —- something shorts out in the stage gear and either part of their final song is cut or an entire song is scrapped. Nature in all its protesting fury has finally pulled the plug on the show. The upside is that the rain has washed off the rotten blood, the car ride back won’t make us retch! We stagger out into the still pissing night sky, wind sweeping rain into our faces as we make our way to the car in a lot two blocks away. It wasn’t a pleasant walk, but what an amazing show. I can’t remember the last time I went to a show where I was pleased by every band on the bill, and in terms of matching it’s atmospherics, I can only think of the time I saw Heaven and Hell at a huge outdoor amphitheater, lightning in the distant sky as Dio sang “Well if it seems to be real, it’s illusion…”. This is one that won’t fade from memory —- and not just for me either:

 

https://twitter.com/NoFuneral/status/395978085264138240

https://twitter.com/lee__she/status/395780403497148416

https://twitter.com/_saviorself/status/395804834076442624

The Metal Pigeon Recommends – Part One: Falconer

Hey everyone, took a bit of a break there —- had been listening to a lot of metal in September and took some time earlier this month to indulge my other musical listening habits. But I’m back with something that I’ve been thinking about doing for a little while now; that is a recurring feature I’m simply calling The Metal Pigeon Recommends. Its pretty much exactly what it sounds like… or maybe not. See there are bands I love that you probably love, and then there are bands I love that you probably don’t —- at least not yet. Maybe you’ve tried them once before and couldn’t get into them, or perhaps you’ve heard of them but were put off by the genre or cover art (or heck even the band name), or maybe you simply haven’t heard of them at all.

 

This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration for this blog, the exhilarating feeling of getting someone else into music that I think is great. Its a simple concept. I’ll take one band, pick out ten cuts that I think will make a fan out of you, have YouTube clips ready for all —- plus some commentary to go along with them. Oh and this feature is for bands and artists that are distinctively out of left field that I feel don’t get the attention they really deserve, or are otherwise challenging the preconceptions of what metal fans can enjoy. Point being that I wouldn’t expect a Recommends: Metallica feature anytime soon.

 

First up is Falconer, an often overlooked power metal band from Mjölby, Sweden that boasts one of the most uniquely individual styles within metal as a whole. Its a direct result of a combination of two very different musicians. There’s guitarist, primary songwriter, and band founder Stefan Weinerhall and his musical background writing for black, death, and thrash metal bands, such as his own short lived, yet revered Mithotyn project. Then there’s vocalist Mathias Blad, a Swedish stage actor and singer, who came into Falconer with no prior experience in heavy metal at all. In fact, Blad’s musical background consists of years of study at both Gothenburg’s Balettakademien, and The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He is in other words, a very serious professional stage actor, a veteran of the Swedish theater, whose work keeps him tied firmly to home base.

 

His inability to tour led to a brief departure from Falconer after their first two studio albums, when Weinerhall and the rest of the band attempted to launch Falconer as a live entity. The intermittent two albums recorded with vocalist Kristoffer Göbel were shaky at best, Falconer’s style being diluted as a result of having to adjust their sound to fit Göbel’s voice. The band has since written those non-Blad fronted albums off, Weinerhall even going as far as calling them “really bad”. They brought Blad back into the fold despite his heavy duty theater workload, picked up where they left off with him musically speaking, and happily accepted their future as a studio project —- as Weinerhall states: “That’s his [Blad’s] job and we have to respect that. We’d rather have him in the band and not tour than not have him at all. It’s a price I’m very willing to pay.”

 

 

The Clarion Call (from Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, 2002)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iswq0SWBRFA&w=420&h=315]

 

The centerpiece of Falconer’s sophomore album, “The Clarion Call” is a standout example of Weinerhall’s seemingly effortless ability to create epic, stirring power metal with unconventional songwriting. A wildly melodic intro ushers in well spaced staccato riffing over loudly rumbling bass lines, forming the bed for Blad to carry out the tune through his effortless vocal melodies. And when I say effortless, listen to this track and really think about how much this guy differs from your typical clean metal vocalist. Blad’s theater background has him trained to use his instrument as smoothly as possible, with space for dramatic flexing and emoting. He never extends or strains his voice even when going to higher registers as a regular metal vocalist would. The beauty of this approach is that Weinerhall understands this going in as a songwriter and guitarist, and compensates for the lack of aggression in Blad’s vocals by amping up the heavy in his riffs, and particularly in the band’s rhythm section.

Blad’s vocals aren’t “air-raid siren” like to be sure, but they’re crystal clear, capable of ranging from baritone lows to soaring tenor highs, all while maintaining perfect enunciation. His ability to inflect emotion at will is on full display during the song’s namesake moment, when all instrumentation subsides and Blad is left to sing a cappella —- his own clarion call so to speak. I’ve probably listened to this song hundreds of times now, but I’ll always get chills at that part. Weinerhall is an interesting, oft-inspired lyricist, who draws upon history and dark fantasy in seemingly equal amounts, but no matter the inspiration he always finds an interesting perspective to frame his lyrics from or in regard to. Here is a song that could apply within the pages of the dark, medieval fantasy novel you’re reading, or to our modern political climate as well.

 

 

Upon the Grave of Guilt (from Falconer, 2001)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJhmIHY6Bac&w=420&h=315]

 

The lead off track from Falconer’s debut, this is a rollicking, fast paced riff monster that pits Weinerhall’s furious attack against Blad’s understated calm, a juxtaposition that is jarring at first but soon sounds second nature. I laugh when I see people write off Falconer as typical “flower metal” —- they’re clearly not listening well or at all, this stuff is sonically heavier than a lot of black metal out there. People who get hung up on Blad’s vocals are failing themselves in not seeing what else he’s bringing to the table. Take for instance just how important it is in this track to hear with perfect enunciation the powerful lyric, “My past is darkening my future / As my present dies / Every morning is a step towards / The edge of my soul’s demise”. This is a song about having deep, repressed guilt at the end of one’s life, and Blad’s sombre reading of the lyrics and knack for dramatic flair is chilling when he rounds off the final refrain of the chorus at the 4:17 mark (all capped off with some really excellent acoustic guitar work). Also, you gotta love that middle bridge section at 3:06 where Blad’s multi-tracked vocals are layered together for an awesome ear candy explosion. The riff storm right after is so sledgehammer that I can practically envision Weinerhall on stage leaning forward as the onslaught begins. What an awesome headbanging moment.

 

 

Svarta Ankan (from Armod, 2011)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jirq0rz_0xo&w=420&h=315]

 

The lead off track from their most recent album, Armod, which the band had recorded entirely in Swedish (with a few English versions as bonus tracks), “Svarta Ankan” is disarmingly heavy. Listen to that introductory assault, that could practically be the start of a black or death metal song, and that element of pure, unbridled aggression that Falconer has at their disposal is one of their greatest assets. Forget the usual power metal tropes and sonic redundancies, Falconer know how to tear down the walls if they want to and they often do. Their use of double kick in an extreme metal pattern is a calling card that few other power metal bands would even attempt (in fact there’s even black metal styled tremolo riffing over blast beats to be found on the Mithotyn-esque “Griftefrid”, another great track on this album). The extreme metal tendencies of “Svarta Ankan” aren’t even its best feature, for that I’ll direct you to 2:46, where there is a sudden, swooping mid-song drop into an enchanting acoustic bridge featuring duet vocals between Mathias and his sister Heléne. Of course, Hedlund and Weinerhall get in on the epicness with their excellent outro solos, both melancholic and uplifting at the same time —- as all the best Falconer solos are.

 

 

Portals of Light (from Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, 2002)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhIkQRzEXfg&w=420&h=315]

 

There are many Falconer fans who would easily nominate this as perhaps the band’s finest moment, an emotionally resonant lament set as a character perspective of a person who has just lost their “gentle rose of mine”. The lyrics are poignant, spare and touching, and the decision to forgo guitars for the intro in favor of a solitary piano makes the opening lines even more gripping. Blad is at his most delicate, tender best here, and when the chorus kicks in, his slowly soaring vocals are only matched by the beautiful combination of sustained guitar notes and sweeping strings. This is a fine set of lyrics, and with Blad as the interpreter I don’t know if I’ve heard as much emotion squeezed out of two lines anywhere else as I do here when he sings in the chorus “I feel so astray inside / As I know you’re far away”. His pacing, delivery, and inflection are masterful, and the multi-tracked vocal layering during the final run of the chorus is plain goosebump inducing, I know there are people out there who have some sort of aversion to slow, soft, or ballady songs within metal. I don’t know whether its because they mask their insecurities with aggressive music and find their presence threatening, or that they’re afraid of what others will think if they catch them listening to one. Don’t be one of those people.

 

 

Catch the Shadows (from Northwind, 2006)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79wk_DkPy3E&w=420&h=315]

 

The charm of this Celtic-tinged, odd ball track is in its sheer variety of songwriting shifts, first from jaunty, mandolin fueled harmonies to speedy, hyper riffing passages overlain with Blad’s chanting choral vocals. Weinerhall has been quoted as saying that Jethro Tull is his favorite band, and primary influence for Falconer, and it really shows here. I love the comparative “lightness” of this track in relation to most of the Falconer catalog —- there’s almost a classic rock feel at work here. The middle drops at 2:26 and 3:19 of piano and vocals are those ear candied moments that Weinerhall is so skilled at penning, And he and Hedlund seem to be able to load up every ounce of their playing with micro hooks left and right, even their tailing off guitar melodies is inventive and interesting. Blad, as ever is on fine form throughout, and we get to see a rare glimpse of him having to surge forward his singing to his head voice during the chorus. Ian Anderson would be proud.

 

 

Pale Light of Silver Moon (from Among Beggars and Thieves, 2008)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWW5JFwnzZc&w=420&h=315]

 

One of the band’s speedier tracks (right out of the gate in fact), “Pale Light of Silver Moon” features in my opinion the best Falconer guitar solo to date, and you don’t have to wait that long for it. At the 1:05 mark second guitarist Jimmy Hedlund and Weinerhall trade off in a spectacularly written dual harmonized guitar solo that is richly melodic. It comes without any warning, and without any context, it’s just, “Hey! Here’s a mind melting awesome solo barely one minute into the song!” I love unexpected surprises like that, and we’re treated to an encore performance just over a minute later at 2:29, which is almost the inverse of the previous solo —- but still wildly melodic and fun. I also enjoy their usage of near tremolo riffing for the instrumental verse sections of the song, which in combined effect with thundering kick drums create a frenzied pace throughout. This is one of Falconer’s far more complex arrangements in terms of abrupt shifts, halts, and twists, yet it all works towards a highly memorable effect.

 

 

Lord of the Blacksmiths (from Falconer, 2001)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoYSwGNGksQ&w=420&h=315]

 

First of all, listen to that monster intro riff —- how someone from Fox Sports has not heard that and appropriated it for usage on NFL Sundays is beyond me. Secondly anyone who’s toiled at the forge in Skyrim while sorting through an overloaded inventory for various ores and ingots to turn into their mighty weapons of war —- this song’s for you. The rhythm section is on full attack here, a bruising and battering frenzy of heavy bottom end, while Weinerhall’s (who by the way played bass as well on this first album) guitars alternate between traditional metal pacing and thrashy staccato runs. Blad’s vocals are purely outstanding on the chorus, his normally calm reserve breaking for a moment as he goes higher and higher in registers as he yells about alloys of metal (Haha! Yes!). You’ll forgive the lyric about “power belts and magic rings” when 3:34 kicks in and the band throws in sounds approximating —- well, what else, a hammer hitting a freaking anvil! To the Skyforge!

 

 

Legend and the Lore (from Northwind, 2006)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI6sqjUj8dg&w=420&h=315]

 

Blad’s comeback album, Northwind, was laden with gems throughout and might rightfully be called the best Falconer album front to back. This track was perhaps the most overlooked highlight of a superb collection of songs. A dazzling display of flexible songwriting prowess, Weinerhall sets medieval instrumentation against the backdrop of what is essentially the rhythm of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, interspersed by Blad’s narrative vocals over guitar riffs that mimic the underlying thundering percussion boom. The chorus isn’t even vocal, the song’s refrain forming purely from the waltzy harpsichord led melody line —- a ballsy and inventive move. There’s a totally gorgeous, epic outro dual guitar solo at 2:40, where Weinerhall and Hedlund harmonize with a flute (well…keyboard flute). I know I’ve said it already, but I love Weinerhall’s natural gift at finding the most ultra melodic way of saying something, be it in a melody line for a song, the lead-in to a bridge, or in his guitar solos. He’s a meticulous craftsman who doesn’t often indulge in meaningless flurries of notes —– his preferred method is to plot out everything note for note, where even solos can squeeze out magnitudes of emotion.

 

 

Mindtraveller (from Falconer, 2001)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yMsxQWuWvE&w=420&h=315]

 

If Falconer were more well known, the solo guitar intro here would their iconic moment, an ominous ten second harbinger that is supplemented by thundering kick and toms before finally exploding in wonderful racketing symphony of crunchy guitar riffs and Blad bellowing some wild lyrics about “Crossing great rivers / In search of the knowledge of the Gods”. I’ll tell you straightaway that I have no idea what he’s on about when he says “I am the Mindtraveller”, but I’ve become accustomed to imagining some detached giant triangular head with spiraling eyes and an inconvenient floaty flight path. Don’t get me wrong, I love this song and its utterly bizarre lyrics, but I chalk this one up to a ‘make of them what you will’ type situation. Like sometimes when I’m at work, I wish I could just drop everything and turn into the Mindtraveller to float on out over the Houston streets towards said “deep valleys and forests” —- but I digress. This is simply a really fun song with some surprising tempo changes such as in the chorus, where everything speeds up, vocals included. This is harried as you’ll ever hear Blad singing, and his clarity and control are freaking awesome to behold.

 

 

Long Gone By (from Northwind, 2006)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=El2dIH35yWc&w=420&h=315]

 

Another great Falconer ballad —– and there are many more that I’m not including on this list (in fact, I could probably fill this list with ten other great Falconer tracks and still fulfill the aim of this feature, they’re that deep with awesome songs). What I love about this ballad in contrast to the overwhelming emotional rawness of “Portals of Light” is its laid back feel, and almost effortless musical approach. An old school Gn’R-esque sustained guitar figure opens up the track and acoustic guitars chime in over orchestral swells while Blad sings the memorable opening lines “We dwell in a time, of neither night nor day”. I love that imagery in particular, because it conjures up to me the idea of a sunset and when lyrics can paint pictures in suggestive ways as opposed to spelling everything out, I find that they resonate with me that much more. Blad’s gentle delivery throughout the song is peaceful, endearing, almost lullabye-like in its sheer effortlessness. The spectacular guitar solo at 2:17 is one of the band’s most nostalgia inducing moments, its placement and style harken to a classic Scorpions vibe, and it certainly complements the overall wistful lyrical themes going on. There’s some thoughtful songwriting at work here.

 

Insomnium Usher in Autumn with “Ephemeral”

Sunday, September 22nd, marked the official Autumnal equinox, and even though the temperatures here in Houston will still reach the 90s this week, there were signs in the air that the seasons had truly changed. It was in the sounds of an NFL Sunday escaping from the television, the outdoor smells of burning wood and grilling meats, the sights of a grey, overcast sky, and of course, the feel of much cooler breezes. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty big on this time of the year, and of course I tend to gravitate to listening to those bands that tend to provide a suitable Fall soundtrack. One of these bands is Insomnium, whom I began to get into heavily last year around this same time after years of seeing their name pop-up repeatedly. This surging interest perfectly coincided with the chance to see them live in November supporting their One For Sorrow album, and I still remember the anticipation of the drive to the venue, the electricity of one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen, and the shaking exuberance of the drive back home in the chilly late night air.

 

So perhaps my perception of time is distorted a bit, in terms of gauging my stunned surprise to the fact that four days ago on Thursday, September 19th the band released their new single “Ephemeral”. Seeing that One For Sorrow was released in 2011, a full year prior to my becoming a die hard fan, I might be projecting my personal timeline with the band over their working, reality based timeline. But it seems to have come as a welcome surprise to most of their fans, as the band had been recently posting cryptic Facebook posts for awhile hinting at something coming down the pike, only for it to end up being the release of a rather absorbing documentary on the making of One For Sorrow. So when another of these cryptic hint posts showed up on my Facebook feed, I figured it would be another retrospective based release, certainly not new music. That it actually ended up being so capped off what was the best week of the year for metal releases. And I can’t think of a better way to usher in the Fall than with new Insomnium music.

 

This single release is actually an EP to be precise, a collection of four tracks, the aforementioned “Ephemeral” and three acoustic based instrumental tracks. The title track kicks us off; a just under four minute slice of tempered Insomnium styled melo-death and its our first taste of the band’s slightly different take on their sound. Noticeably there is a lack of the band’s usual penchant for a slower, lengthy musical intro —- before we know it we’re launching headlong into a twice repeating up tempo verse section that accelerates into a nicely worked bridge, before exploding with a gush of ultra melodic guitars in the chorus. Whats striking here is the interesting tempo progression, a rhythmically uptempo verse to be sure, followed by an even faster bridge, and finally the guitars take the lead in the chorus to push the song to the speed limit. As usual for a band of their songwriting talent, Insomnium’s keen ear at layer separation between instruments is the key attribute at work here —- notice that the vocals continue from section to section at their own pace, never feeling the need to match the rhythm section or guitar leads. This song is catchy as hell. Probably more than any other melo-death band, Insomnium seems to have a never ending supply of ear worms that they liberally sprinkle all throughout their songwriting.

 

I want to point out the exceptional lyrics here as well. As lyricists, Insomnium have tended to lean towards the bleak, morose, and often flat out depressing —- but they always temper that approach with an underlying layer of optimism, or for lack of a better term, hope. On “Ephemeral”, verse lyrics speak to us of the grimness of living: “For this life will break you / Years will wear you down / And every day you die a little / Until the shadows will take you”, a plainly laid out sentiment that no one has managed to express as well since Sentenced. But the refrain that follows in the chorus is one of Insomnium’s best moments lyrically, a Norse mythological ethos steeped expression of sheer will: “Dying doesn’t make this world dead to us / Breathing doesn’t keep the flame alive in us / Dreaming doesn’t make time less real for us / One life, one chance, all ephemeral”. In my experience with Insomnium, its the melodies that draw me in first, but vocalist Niilo Sevänen’s perfect blend of harsh vocals with clear enunciation prevent these lyrics from just melting into the background. This song’s been on a regular rotation for the past few days and will probably stay there for weeks more at least.

 

 

There are three other cuts on this EP, as mentioned before, they are short atmospheric, acoustic instrumentals that actually served as the soundtrack to their One For Sorrow documentary. And before you yawn, let me assure you that they work within the context of this release. I suppose the obvious thing would be to say they were soothing, and at times they were, but “The Swarm” kicks off with a Jester Race sounding acoustic strum that is almost waltz-like in its tempo, bringing to mind the best era of that famed Gothenburg sound. They’re all good pieces, and nice to have in addition to the main attraction, but I think it would have been far more interesting had they re-recorded a few tracks from their back catalog in an acoustic format, perhaps with clean vocals over them? Ah can’t win them all. Regarding the documentary, I loved every minute of it, and its starkness in tone matched the band’s musical qualities, right down to the directorial decisions —- its worth checking out on YouTube. That coupled with the new single has me more anticipatory than ever, could a new album possibly arrive before year’s end? If not at least Autumn is finally here.

 

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DjmQXtZUx4&w=480&h=360]

 

Hail to the Hammer: Týr Return with Valkyrja

Some of you may already know that I’ve been pretty big on Týr, they are a rarity in metal —- a band with a sound that is truly all their own. I once overheard a conversation on the floor of a Nightwish/Kamelot show where someone was trying to describe Týr to his friend by comparing them to other bands. If I recall correctly, he name dropped Korpiklanni somewhere in the conversation. No… just, no. There are your bog standard, numerous, often copycat folk and “Viking” metal bands, and then there are artists like Týr who elevate the entire subgenre to a level of literary and musical excellence. Even their cover art is goddamned jaw dropping (look at that picture over there and tell me you don’t want a framed poster of that on your wall). In a way the artwork is a microcosm for the band’s sound; punishing yet harmonious, epic yet understated in the most elegant way.

 

Týr have a commitment to their aesthetic that is not only admirable, it is their greatest strength. There’s nothing ironic or wry about what these guys do, and in a genre that’s been increasingly maligned by terrible tropes and often times plain goofy caricatures (I’m looking at you for both counts Alestorm), Týr’s stoicism and resolve to the underpinnings of their art garners my respect. Like their past few albums, the band’s newest effort, Valkyrja, is a loosely interwoven thematic album about the spiritual, emotional, and yes visceral connection between Viking warriors and women (in the broadest sense of the term). As expected, they treat this subject with care and deference, something that in the hands of lesser bands would likely be turned into a crude amalgam. We already have a Manowar thanks.

 

This is a spectacular album, continuing a winning streak of great records that began in earnest with 2006’s Ragnarok. Above all Týr seem to value strong, effective songwriting with an emphasis on keeping the verses as memorable as the spectacular choruses they bookend. The musicianship as also immaculate, buoyed by a crisp, clear, and upfront production that keeps guitars sounding fresh and alive, gives the percussion context and depth (you know, when double kick actually kicks and soft cymbal hits sound full and round) —- and then there’s the handling of Týr’s trademark vocal melodies, a layered symphony of vocalist/guitarist Heri Joensen’s multi-tracked vocals along with backing vocalist contributions from both longtime bassist Gunnar Thomsen, and lead guitarist Terji Skibenæs. I’ve seen these guys play live —- they nail the group vocals perfectly, that’s something rare in pure power metal circles, much less the genre-blurring area where Týr exist. You get all that plus a couple of nice surprises on Valkyrja.

 

My favorite of these surprises came in the form of Týr’s first collaboration with a well known metal vocalist, namely Leaves Eyes’ own Liv Kristine, who shines on the stormy power (and I mean POWER) ballad “The Lay of our Love”. This will make the best songs of the year list without a doubt, its one of those rare songs that made me stop what I was doing while listening and really pay attention, and when it was over, I replayed it again and again. Týr hit me right in my metal guilty pleasure wheel house here, a delicate ballad with an acoustic intro, set to tempo by distantly thundering bass lines with a guitar solo might rank among the most memorable the band has ever composed. Kristine’s vocals are well renowned for her ability to match ethereal tone with sheer vocal heft and power, and when she begins to soar in the chorus alongside Joensen’s rough hewn voice, the theme of the album comes alive. They made a great choice selecting Kristine to handle the guest spot, and it makes me wish I could enjoy her main band more.

 

Then there’s the short, punchy stomper “Into the Sky”, where Joensen’s vocals do an alternating run with punctuated rhythm guitar riffs and clever percussion during the song’s refrain: “Come my Valkyrie take me into the sky / Up where heroes of the north go when they die”. Its a deceptively simple song —- there’s a lot of complexity going on with the guitar work underneath those gorgeous vocal melodies. And of course it wouldn’t feel like a latter day Týr album without a few well selected covers, this time we’re treated to Iron Maiden’s “Where Eagles Dare” and Pantera’s “Cemetery Gates”. They both work really well, particularly the latter, where you’d think that Phil Anselmo’s vocals would be a odd fit for a guy like Joensen, but he really makes the song his own in a surprising way. Mind you, I still think they’ll have a hard time ever topping their cover of Dio-led Sabbath’s “I”.

 

Týr don’t set out to reinvent themselves with every album, and that suits me fine. They don’t need to. They belong to a pantheon of metal bands that have the distinction of sounding truly unique. I suppose my only hope for them in the future is that they continue to push themselves to try more experiments like “The Lay of our Love”, not necessarily with female vocalists mind you, but more in terms of attempting songs that morph the expected convention of their sound. They don’t need to press the issue, just keep writing great songs as they have been but every now and then do something to expand upon the formula, while preserving their identity. Valkyrja is a bold step forward to that potential being a reality.

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaFMODV9tTU&w=560&h=315]

Carcass: The Riddle of Surgical Steel

Well its finally here. Years after I first saw Carcass in 2007 at a dingy downtown Houston club playing the headlining slot of a godawful Texas Death Metal Fest and wondered if they were going to attempt to follow up… erm, Swansong, they have returned with a new album at last. And the thing is, my anticipation for it all those years ago when I relished the opportunity to hear “No Love Lost” live has gradually diminished over the years —- I think in part because I wondered what was taking them so long, and that maybe their return was really just about unleashing the classics night after night and making a living off it. Hey, that’s fair enough, they’d have all right to do so if its all they were content with. But noise was made by both Bill Steer and Jeff Walker that they were interested in the idea of doing a new record. So for years we’d read this stuff, doled out in Blabbermouth-sized bites with hopes raised that it could be soon, only to have soon pass by with nothing to show for it. I think that if many of us are totally honest, we all probably stopped caring after awhile.

 

So it was with great surprise and not a little trepidation that I read the band were actually recording this thing in 2012 on their own dime, and planning to shop it around to labels once it was finished. Nuclear Blast are no dummies, they know that a Carcass record will be at the very least a talking point among metalheads the world over. Most of those fans will open their wallets. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this is a post-reunion album actually worth opening those wallets for. This is perhaps the most enjoyable album in the Carcass discography, and I say that as someone who has an unabashed love for Heartwork. which served as my introduction to the band (yes I know of and have enjoyed Necroticism, Symphonies, and Reek —- calm down). The irritable bowel inducing Pitchfork Media reviewed this album in a surprisingly insightful manner, and remarked that “Surgical Steel is a nostalgic statement, seemingly designed to trigger a Pavlovian response in fans”. At first this irked me, but they present a good case. This is Carcass going back to their first four albums and pulling everything deemed great and defining about them and deciding that these will be the only tools used for the creation of a new album. There’s a huge danger in doing that, most bands that have tried end up sounding flat, but Carcass seems to sidestep this common trip up by focusing squarely on really excellent songwriting.

 

Bill Steer turns in an all around excellent performance, as expected, his guitars sound as sharp as ever and riffs and solos abound. There are few guitarists in extreme metal that can make you feel like their riffs could actually peel your skin off like Steer (okay maybe Schuldiner as well). He is drawing upon Heatwrork era melodicism here, solos are wild and Iron Maiden-esque, and his riffs often echo motifs of the past yet manage to avoid sounding like retreads. They’ve picked up an excellent drummer in Daniel Wilding, whose percussion is actually able to keep step with Steer’s playing in fluid and unexpected ways. Walker sounds ageless here, and far better than his lackluster performance on Swansong, his vocals raw and feral yet kept purposefully in front of the mix by veteran Carcass producer Colin Richardson. Speaking of which, the production is highly polished, immaculately clean and tight —- lovers of Symphonies era Carcass might find it too clean, but it does work for the rest of us (particular for an album called Surgical Steel).

 

Highlights abound, the much praised “Captive Bolt Pistol” turns in one of Steers more memorable series of solos —- strings of tornadic like fret patterns over a bed of thrash riffing that recalls Megadeth’s Rust In Peace era. Speaking of which, I get a Deth like vibe on the album closer “Mount of Execution”, which starts off with a memorable slow melodic bend before it launches into a midtempo-ed gallop for the majority of the track, Walker spitting out Mustaine laden vocals that actually do approximate melodic singing at various points. It sorta feels like 1992. “A Congealed Clot of Blood” storms along until the end of the song where we’re treated to a classic tri-tone laden symphony of guitars, capped off by an amazing middle solo… its a rare moment of quiet in an album that is 95% blistering attack. I love “The Master Butcher’s Apron” which is about exactly what the title suggests —- this might feature the best riff on the album, a slow, almost Metallica “Sad But True” echo to the tempo and rhythm guitar pattern (anyone else hearing that?). Wilding’s fills are incredibly complex, the kind of satisfying metal drumming that seems to be all too rare. My favorite moment on the record comes at the end of the best song on offer here, “316 L Grade Surgical Steel”, a perfect Carcass song in every way: Tremendously catchy main riff, Walker’s strategically paced vocals with lyrics turned dark and reflective —- the awesome ending section is worth pointing out alone, Walker barks against stop-start fire of riffs and percussion: “Don’t tell me that you want / Don’t tell me that you need / Don’t tell me that you love / Don’t tell me that you care / Don’t fool yourself”.

 

So I’ve come away pleasantly surprised. This isn’t changing my metal perspective like Heartwork did all those years ago (along with many other classic records of that era), but its incredibly enjoyable and satisfying to hear new music in the style that Carcass trademarked. Its nice when these things work out.

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