Black Metal Pariah: Satyricon and their Polarizing New Album

Its highly unlikely that any of us would have been able to predict that the quietly touted new sound of Satyricon would sound exactly like what we’re hearing on their newly released eighth album. When the band announced a lengthy hiatus after completing the touring cycle for 2008’s “The Age of Nero”, they walked away saying that a comeback would have to include a revamp of their sound, which was essentially a silent way of saying that they had taken their straight ahead, black n’ roll style of the past decade as far as it could go. Upon reading that statement I found myself wondering, well, where could they take their sound? Its either go back to their roots by bringing back the symphonic elements of the Nemesis Divina era and perhaps mix it with slight touches of black n’ roll, or go off into some totally random avant-garde offshoot ala Ihsahn and perhaps “treat” us to bewildering saxophone laden weirdness. The thing with black metal is that when you really boil it down to its component parts to attempt to merge it with other non-black metal elements, there’s not a lot left out there that hasn’t been done. And maybe I’m just reading into something that was never there, but I felt that when Satyricon made that pre-hiatus declaration, they were speaking in reference to black metal as a whole, and not just the sound of Satyricon.


The new sound of Satyricon is perhaps the most radical, mind bending, and just plain strange expansion of the black metal mold since the arrival of Alcest’s Souvenirs d’un autre monde. I’ve listened to this album many times now, and I think I’ve finally settled on a reasonable way to describe it in one sentence: This is the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression. Gone is the buzz-saw, feral, raw guitar attack of their past three records; and Satyr’s vocals are no longer upfront, but now mixed in further back alongside the instrumentation. The logical response to hearing such a description would be to ask, “Well, why did they strip away the surface aggression?” This is the most intriguing question surrounding this record, which by the way I think is addictive and captivating for that simple reason alone — I’m relishing the challenge of trying to figure this record out. In the meantime, I’ve realized that its drawn me in with some really powerful, gripping songwriting that’s hidden behind the sheer “softness” of the recording.


And when I describe the album with a term like that, I suppose I had better really explain what I mean. This is proving to be the most difficult album I’ve ever had to write a review for, because I believe I understand what Satyricon are trying to attempt to capture here, but I’m finding it difficult to spell it out in words. I’ll give it a shot here: If you can look at older Satyricon as symphonic driven black metal, and recent Satyricon as a raw, unadorned, black n’ roll reaction against that, then new Satyricon exists not in between those polarities, but outside of it —- looking in. Their musical shift from their earlier sound to their recent sound was a process of addition by subtraction. Their new sound then, is born not from further addition or subtraction of black metal musical elements, but by simply rewriting the equation with new elements altogether, some black metal, and some just plain musical. The most distinct element is a noticeable sense of softness that comes not only from an organic, warm analog production, but from the liberal manipulations of space in relation to instrumentation.


Take for example the first non-intro track on Satyricon, “Tro Og Kraft”, an almost Sabbath-esque paced song that has no guitar riffs… just a relatively simplistic guitar figure repeated as the driving melody line. Meanwhile underneath we get Frost’s typical double kick intensity, yet the rest of his percussion is kept very spare, simple, and determinedly non-complex. This results in a surprising amount of space, shockingly so… because we’re so used to hearing black metal as a condensed form of music no matter how its adorned. The results come to our seasoned black metal listener minds as something acutely softer than what black metal “should be”. Yet at the same time we can’t deny that this does sound like black metal in its tones, its expressions, and there’s a pervasively dark melancholic vibe throughout the song. I wrote in an another article some thoughts on “Our World, It Rumbles Tonight”, being the first track released from the album, and weeks later, its still as powerful to me. Here again, the band inverts the idea of a black metal musical arrangement in the chorus by choosing a muted choral vocal instead of symphonic dressing, and purposefully slows down the chorus from its rock steady verses to better conjure a sense of solemnity and awe during the refrain. The result is a track that is full of texture and space, and moments of purposeful quietude.


Then there is the album’s strangest, most non-traditional styled track yet, “Phoenix”, a delicate, almost rock-like song with guest vocals from Norway’s Sivert Høyem, a vocalist who brings to mind a mix of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy with HIM’s Ville Valo. The tone is kept sombre and melancholic, and sustaining guitars that ring out provide a bed of soft melodicism that is strikingly unusual for black metal. This is rightfully the most talked about song on the album, and as such has become the focal point for those who love and hate the record as a whole. There’s no denying its a departure for the band, but only in purely sonic terms, as the mood the song evokes is one that corresponds to the rest of the album. And even when the band gets close to approximating their traditional black metal stylings, such as on “Walker Upon the Wind”, and “Nekrohaven”, they sidestep the expected approach by shedding tropes like riffage in favor of more open chord sustains and the use of simple guitar figures as drivers of melody. In “Nekrohaven”, they finally open up the playbook to riffs a bit more and unleash one that recalls the best moments of their Now, Diabolical era, except there is a laid-back feel to the tempo and aggression of this song than anything on that feral album. This isn’t a bad thing by the way, as it proves to be the catchiest song the band has done in years, and oddly enough the happiest sounding as well.


As I wrote before, I could not have ever imagined a Satyricon album sounding anything like this. And when I begin to shift my analysis from what makes this album sound this particular way to why the band intended on it sounding this way, I think about the possibility that perhaps Satyr and Frost have gotten to a point where black metal tropes sound predictable and boring. Its a suggestion that is bound to inspire some vitriol, and perhaps its why the band has avoided commenting on it directly as of yet. But if its true and my suspicions are vindicated, then I’ll understand how they could have gotten there. At some point in all of our metal loving lives, we’ve gotten to points where loudness and heaviness are no longer all that we need to sustain us. As listeners we are free to shift to and from as our moods see fit in order to placate our musical wants, but I imagine its far more difficult to do anything about it if you’re an artist known for working in that medium of aggression.


Its been suggested recently that black metal’s rebellion to almost everything had only one remaining frontier, namely —- itself. Many bands have been examples of this new rebellion, in the form of merging together shoegaze and ambient influences with the black metal aesthetic (to varying results). Satyr and Frost’s Satyricon did not authentically have that stylistic option, and as a result they have responded to their vision of a post-Satyricon Satyricon by deconstructing the very medium of aggression itself. Its a decision that has angered many admirers, but we shouldn’t be surprised by that fact at all. This is perhaps the most divisive black metal band in the history of the genre, spawning doubters and flat out haters with every album release. That they inspire such fanatical, extreme opinion is a mark of their success —- no matter how mad people get, they will always come back to listen to whats next. Satyricon is a milestone not only for the band, but for Norwegian black metal as a whole. The style has been manipulated, poked and prodded outside of its ancestral home, but this is the first time that it has looked inwards to revitalize itself.




The Pigeon Post #2: Reviewing New Music from Civil War, October Falls, Pellek, Gyre, and ViolentorY


To those of you who are wondering what the hell “The Pigeon Post” is supposed to be, I’ll refer you to my introduction in its premiere edition many months back.  For readers who prefer to preserve their retinas, its basically a recurring feature in which I can do a batch of shorter reviews (by my standards anyway) of promotional/advance release copies I get sent to me by various PR firms and record companies. I get into my ethics of why I’m doing it this way for now in that introduction, but suffice it to say, my main priority in writing about the things I write about on this blog is that they come from a genuine place of honesty and integrity —- whether its bands I’ve listened to for ages or as is the case here, artists I’m unfamiliar with. Basically what I’m saying is that I have no stake in the career trajectory of these artists or their associated business representatives, my opinion is being solicited, and for better or worse, I’m giving it. Time to open the mail!




Civil War – The Killer Angels (Despotz Records):

Sometime shortly after the recordings for Sabaton’s last album Carolus Rex were complete, the band went through a little restructuring. Actually, it was a fairly major change: gone were guitarists Oskar Montelius, Rikard Sunden, drummer Daniel Mullback, and keyboardist Daniel Myhr. Sabaton as Joakim Brodén and Pär Sundström continued on with new members and impressively they’ve seemed to keep the machine rolling with nary a hitch. What then of their cast off former bandmates? The tentatively phrased reasons for their departure was their lack of ability to commit to the demands that being in a heavy touring band would require. I don’t know if that’s the real reason or not, but its curious that these guys have gone ahead and started their own band, and seem hell bent on touring just as much as they did in their previous outfit. Joining them on this crusade is vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson, of Wuthering Heights/Astral Doors/Lion’s Share fame, a singer whose vocals contrast wildly with Brodén’s booming baritone. Johansson is essentially a higher register Dio with a touch of Michael Kiske, and while those are awesome names I’m dropping, the mix of their vocals looks better on paper than in practice.


Basically, these guys seek to pick up where they left off with Sabaton: military history themed, keyboard laden, melody infused power metal that is heavy on glory and all that jazz. Fair enough, go with what you know but it does suggest that the Sabaton split was perhaps more acrimonious than both parties let on through interviews. Oh and here’s the problem with their game plan —- Sabaton’s Brodén is one of the finest songwriters around in modern metal, both in terms of his ability to craft truly sublime melodies, as well as gripping, poetic lyrics. I’m not sure who’s handling the songwriting duties for Civil War, but after listening through the songs on The Killer Angels debut multiple times, I have yet to remember a single chorus. That’s a problem in this style of metal, you really have to deliver the goods there. I’m listening to it as I write this and musically these guys are experienced pros, everything sounds tight and there are nice melodies here and there, but you can only spot them in the moment. Nothings sticking! The other major issue is their choice of vocalist. I can understand wanting to do a 180 away from Brodén’s distinctive lower registers, but Johansson is a poor choice. Maybe its just my previous experiences with him coloring my opinion as well (I’ve only mildly enjoyed him in Wuthering Heights), but I’m getting nothing out of his work here —- he’s technically proficient, but there’s nothing there emotionally.


Maybe I’m comparing these guys to Sabaton and I suppose that’s unfair, but its also natural. I don’t think this is a bad record in the sense that its unlistenable. I could see myself returning to this a year from now and giving it another shot, and maybe with a second release they’ll find their footing and put out something really good. I’m aggravated here because reading over this review I feel like I should be more specific and detailed —- but that’s the problem, it all just glazed over me, again and again. That being said, these guys get a pass from me, because their work in Sabaton contributed to so many records I really love, and I got to see them live and meet them as well. I look forward to what they do next.




October Falls – The Plague of a Coming Age (Debemur Morti):

Really really late on this record, I think it came out in Spring. It sat in my inbox for awhile before I noticed that a lot of my usual metal website haunts were dishing out glowing reviews. This is October Falls’ fourth album, they’re from Finland yet sound like they should be from Sweden. I’ve seen Opeth thrown around a lot as a reference point for their sound, and while I’m not quite sure that’s a wholly accurate depiction, they do remind me at times of mid-period Katatonia. Anyway I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this album, its on regular rotation whenever I’m sitting here with the headphones on —- the kind of album that you set to play start to finish because its consistently good throughout. That could be seen as a weakness as well, for all its strengths as a seamless continuum of blackened (bleak-ened?) melodeath, there are no real standout tracks that jump up and slap you with their greatness. Oh there’s individual moments, such as the fantastic guitar melody at work towards the end of “Snakes Of The Old World”, and the awesome early Ulver-isms of “Boiling Heart Of The North” where we get our first real moment of quiet and space. Here guest vocalist Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis chimes in sounding rather un-Amorphis-like for an ear pleasing, echo-drenched clean vocal that still maintains the depressive tone set by the rest of the material. And I’m going to paraphrase Angry Metal Guy who described the sound of this album as a wet kind of heavy, like you’re listening to it from a distance through a cloud of fog. Guitars aren’t up front with heavy riffs, bass is more of a texture, and drums are slightly muted. There’s an ambient murkiness that suffuses the entire production, and I know that sounds dreadful, but trust me it works well.


Its interesting to note that many reviewers are touting this as October Falls most accessible release. They all point to the monolithic approach these guys took on earlier records, where for example a track listing could number three to four songs —- of ten minute plus lengths. The structure of this new record is far more conventional, nine tracks, the longest hitting the seven minute mark. Yet I wonder if people really listen to a record like this by skipping around various tracks. This is one of those albums that I can’t imagine driving to… and thus can’t imagine enjoying in spaced out chunks as on the random play of an iPod. Its far too hypnotic and enclosed in its own specific world of sound to be digested in that manner, and so it makes me think that all this talk of the album being accessible is a side-effect of what amounts to a cosmetic decision. In any case I don’t think I’m jumping the gun here to say that this will end up on my top ten albums of the year list somewhere, its really that damn good. Finland’s on a roll lately.




Pellek – Ocean of Opportunity (self-released/independent):

This is an interesting one. Pellek is the performer/stage name of the Norwegian vocalist Per Fredrik Åsly. It is also the name of his band (think Van Halen or more accurately, Dio), a vehicle for smoothly crooned melodic power metal ala Sonata Arctica and Seventh Wonder with their heavy emphasis on layered vocals. The striking detail of Pellek’s bio is that a few years ago he was a contestant on the Norwegian version of The X-Factor. I’ve not seen any footage of his time on that show, where he was apparently branded as the rock guy but ended up displaying a musical reach that extended to classic and contemporary metal. He became a recurring fixture on Scandinavian television after The X-Factor, often appearing alongside Swede Tommy Johansson (vocalist/guitarist of ReinXeed and Swedish Karaoke competition star in his own right). The two collaborated on parts of a compilation put together by Johansson called Swedish Hitz Goes Metal, which as you guessed it set cuts by the likes of ABBA, Roxette, and others to rock/power metal stylings. Keep in mind that there’s no official, easily digestible English bio for this guy, this is pretty much me doing my limited amount of Google research and to be honest its still all a bit confusing. I have no real indication of just how popular Pellek is in his native country, but I do know that his prolific array of YouTube uploads of himself covering rock and metal songs do garner some tens of thousands of views.


So anyway, this is Pellek the band’s sophomore album, I have not heard their first so I walked into this completely unaware —- and was pleasantly surprised. If my earlier description of Pellek’s sound piqued your interest, you’ll find a decent amount of stuff to enjoy here. There’s nothing mind bendingly awesome going on, but there’s a level of songwriting craftsmanship being achieved here that is mildly compelling. I’m referring in particular to cuts like the glorious “Northern Wayfarer”, a well executed syth line propelled rocker that supplements a catchy as hell chorus with percussive riffing, and an excellent acoustic dropped midsection that greatly enhances the epic aura of the song. The “Sea Of Okhotsk” has a striking verse and chorus that are purely dependent on the vocal melody, the underlying instrumentation working to conjure up an Oriental styled soundscape. Things do get a little too flowery for me on “Gods Pocket”, a tune so cheerful it makes Power Quest sound like a dark cloud… heavier riffing on the second verse here can’t disguise what essentially sounds like a children’s song set to rock guitars. There’s of course a ballad on offer here, the kind that can only be enjoyed by those of us who love our fair share of power metal ballads.


Pellek is clearly the star here, his vocals seem to take center stage on every song, but that’s not to marginalize the efforts of his backing band, who provide consistent, quality power metal musicianship all across the board (yet lack the creative signatures of say Sonata Arctica, or Nightwish.As for the rest… I dunno, there’s something just innocuously enjoyable about this whole affair. There are moments when I’m reminded of sounds of J-Pop and classic video game music, not in a blatant Dragonforce-d way, but more in the subtle textures that were recurring motifs in the work of the aforementioned Power Quest. Its an interesting feature that spices up what would otherwise be a fairly standard collection of Euro power metal. I’m surprised someone with Pellek’s past exposure and publicity remains unsigned, perhaps that’s by design but its a rarity in this genre. A nice surprise overall.




Gyre – Second Circle (Monolithic Records):

First of all, these guys have managed to manipulate the lettering of their chosen band name to look like the face of Cthulhu, which is awesome looking (and a fine marketing tie in!). Anyway, Gyre play a slightly technical, progressive blend of deathcore, which could mean absolutely nothing to you without a certain amount of experience in understanding what the connotations are to having “core” tagged on the end there. If I had to guess I would say the band must really hate that label now, but when I was doing research on these guys I’d see it thrown around everywhere. There seems to be an earnest attempt to transcend the limitations of that style and it comes in the small corners of these songs, the moments of time which are not filled with djent riffing.


Its like the band is interested in the textural depth of bands like Deftones, or even Opeth, yet can’t seem to allow themselves enough space within their interlocked framework of riffs to fully explore that potential of their sound.  I could spend a paragraph worth of space going into the minutiae of what this sounds like but this is a particular style of music that I have always had a hard time writing about without boring myself, much less you, so I’ll just refer you here so you can take a listen. The strange thing is that there’s something to these songs that I find rather enjoyable. I try not to put a lot of weight on my first impressions, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these songs as a headphones listening experience. The production values here are very, very good —- a trait that only enhances the “progressive” tag that Gyre seem to court. Lyrically there are some heady themes being addressed here, and the few lyrics I’ve seen are thoughtful and well done. Its a shame then that no one will give them much thought because the vocal approach here is far more conducive as an instrument, lacking the breadth to give words and phrases enough enunciation to register beyond mere sound.


As enjoyable an aural experience it was, I have a hard time rating this EP so highly when it comes to appreciating it on the values of songwriting itself. I suspect this is what forms my overall apathy towards this particular subgenre of metal. Yes these are songs with structures but there’s such an inane amount of riffs for riffs sake that I lose sight of what the song is supposed to be. When you listen to a Death song, you understand what it is you’re listening to even though it written with extreme metal language. Riffs have a musical definition, and tempo changes have purpose or direction. When you listen to Emperor, yes its a wall of sound, but these are layers upon layers of cohesive music, and if you listen repeatedly your mind will finally process them all individually and at once to beautiful effect. Years later you’ll find yourself telling your buddy how you think In the Nightside Eclipse is rather catchy at times. No matter how many times I listen to the four cuts on Gyre’s Second Circle, the riffs were always the same violent collision of riffs, nothing more, nothing less. But maybe that’s the way its supposed to be, aural chaos for aural chaos’ sake and its my problem that I can’t find the value in that. I would blame it on getting older, except that I’ve always felt that way towards core and djent oriented styles. Still, fantastic logo.




ViolentorY – Theory of Life (self-released/independent):

Hailing from Bulgaria, the awfully named ViolentorY play a less keyboard drenched Children of Bodom-ish take on melo-death with power metal leanings. Think latter period CoB mixed with the wild vocal theatrics of classic Sinergy (except with a dude singer) and Tarot. This is their debut album, having premiered with an EP a year ago and even though I’ve pretty much summed up their sound in one sentence, its enjoyable stuff overall. Sometimes being an obvious product of your influences works well if you know what bits to pick and choose. Take vocalist Dimitar Belchev, who comes off as a mix of Alexi Laiho and Marco Hietala. As weird as that sounds it really works, and is a suitable complement to a musical approach that is heavy on symphonic melody.


I have a particular fondness for the oddly titled “Power Source”, a rock-steady slow builder of keyboard atmospherics and heavy riffs that culminate in the album’s best chorus where Belchev pours his guts out and almost gets all Jon Oliva on us. Its a killer moment that I’ll be coming back to this album for. They get close to the same level of awesomeness with “Master of Dreams”, an uptempo, King Diamond-ish slice of great tension building verses and soaring refrains. There is budding pop songwriting talent within the band (I’ll be honest I have no idea who’s doing the songwriting here) that will hopefully continue to get better and better. Its not all good though, as they misstep with “Over You”, which does seem to be exactly what its Europe-ish title suggests, a love lorn power ballad in which they try to channel Dio’s adamant statement to “Walk Away!” from the evil woman (Look out! Tonight!) except without the verve and panache of the master himself. And there is a bit of filler in the second half of the album that’s unfortunate, as everything starts off so well.


Its a shame about that band name… you’d think things like that wouldn’t matter but let’s face it, it is rather silly. I hope people don’t let it put them off if they come across it. And Theory of Life sounds like an album title by an American post-grunge band, and song titles like “XperiMental”, and “Psychical Decay” made me groan but now I’m just being a jerk. Hey its late and I’ve been writing for a long time! Seriously I like what ViolentorY is doing and while this album is far from perfect, its a promising debut. These guys are unsigned, but you can hear this album on YouTube I believe, go check out “Power Source” for sure.


Running With the Devil: Watain’s Wild Hunt

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way here first. Yes this is one of the most anticipated black metal records coming out in 2013, a big three if you will alongside records by Darkthrone and Satyricon. Yes their last album was considered by many to be brilliant, and yes if you didn’t find anything to like about previous Watain offerings, you should avoid this like Taco Bell. Watain are what they are, either you’ll find something to like about them or you won’t, because this isn’t a band that strives towards innovation or makes a point of reinventing the black metal wheel. And yet I hate saying that, first because its a little unfair, and secondly because there will be differences in a band’s sound from album to album, simply because the most minute details can produce that change (guitar tone, mixing engineer, freaking recording studio). The question to ask I suppose with a band’s new album is what are these differences, and do they matter overall enough to change someone’s mind one way or another?


I’m particularly interested to hear the take of a friend of mine, who might be the biggest Watain fan in Texas. I’m sure he’ll turn into a spittle-flying maniac when we drive up to see them in Austin a few months from now. He turned me on to the band, and I’ll admit that I was indifferent… for awhile. Then I realized that every time I’d ride as a passenger in his car he would have their 2010 Lawless Darkness album insistently blasting in all its ugly glory — and I began to suspect that it was the only album he actually had in the car. I don’t care who you are or what you like, if you’re force blasted something that long, it WILL eventually seep into your brain and lo and behold, there I was, agitatedly driving home from work, unsatisfied with my iPod randomization and realized that I wanted to listen to the chorus I was hearing in my head. The chorus was from “Reaping Death”, the vicious highpoint of that particular album. And so now when I come back home from work or anywhere else feeling particularly aggravated, the Lawless Darkness has been one of a couple anger management records that I turn to as a soothing balm — like Swedish massage but black metal. That’s a thing right?


And so its in light of my enjoyment of their previous album that The Wild Hunt comes as something of a let down to me. Just like their fellow big three brethren, Watain have decided to mix up their formula a bit with this new album. Some of it works for sure, but there’s some rather baffling stuff going on here. First off the good stuff: Props to the band for coming up with a great album title and not self-titling their record (enjoy the artwork by the way). There’s some Lawless Darkness worthy face-ripping moments here, as on opening pair “De Profundis”, and slow (by Watain standards) stomper “Black Flames March”. The former in particular boasts the most ferocious riffs on the entire album, along with a mid-song hurtle into a vortex of some really really nasty background vocal effects and speed metal tempos. There’s a couple gems in “Outlaw”, “Sleepless Nights”, and most strikingly “The Child Must Die”, which in addition to its almost King Diamond-esque riffs and lyrics features an incredibly effective melodic intro that really catches you off guard. Vocalist Erik Danielsson is one of black metal’s finer vocalists, and he’s as reliable as ever on all of these cuts. Its when he decides to deviate from his normal gutteralic (yes we’ll make that a word) vocal approach that he begins to lose me.


Most reviews of this album will no doubt spend a few sentences analyzing Watain’s attempt at a ballad on this record, “They Rode On”, what the surprisingly succinct reviewer at Pitchfork aptly described as the band’s stab at a tune akin to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page”. I can see that, and look I love when metal bands try their hands at ballads. It interests me on a fundamental music level… I think that ballads are far more interesting when done by an artist who normally concentrates the vast majority of their musical output on rockin’, being loud and abrasive, and you know, heavy. Some bands can pull them off and others just don’t have the songwriting chops for it (and I’m really forgiving when it comes to ballads too). But in black metal it seems that the stylistic limitations of the genre would prevent a band from ever getting close to anything approximating balladry — perhaps the closest example we’ve seen has been Cradle of Filth’s “Nymphetamine”, but they’re not black metal as we understand it anymore, and they had to employ female vocals… so, yeah, cheating a bit. The adventurous stretch in black metal has seemingly been to attempt to get more melodic through symphonic elements as well as the introduction of clean vocals (albeit still within the context of a black metal style song).


I applaud Watain for going out on a limb with “They Rode On” but it fails as a song in general simply because its meandering and boring. The instrumentation is interesting for a short while, but then it too fades to a dull murmur — strummed chords that take no shape or have no direction. Its almost as if they wrote the song lyrics first and retrofit the music around them, there is no melodic through line and in a song with this much ambient space that deficiency becomes quite glaring. There’s a mildly nice, Scorpions-esque solo in the middle that is really the instrumental high point, but its not worth the price of admission alone (I could just go and listen to the Scorpions). What really burns the baking pan here is Danielsson’s woeful clean vocal performance. I realize that this is out of his wheelhouse and he’s branching out here, but you call it like you hear it and this is Anders Friden thinking he can do clean vocals live levels of bad. I’m sure a good many people will find his clean vocals endearing and to each their own, but they’re distracting to me. A good vocal melody for one would’ve gone a long way here.




They also come up empty on the album closer “Holocaust Dawn” (you’d figure at this point in their career with the storied visa problems they’ve experienced that they would avoid hot words like that in their song titles but whatever), this is a song that tackles doom metal levels of tempo and is heavy on plod n’ trod, light on anything remotely interesting. Well, there is the sheer oddness of the circus theme sounding mid-section but it stops as soon as it starts. Then comes a few more minutes of meandering plodding and by the time a heavy riff does finally kick in you’d probably have skipped backwards a few tracks anyway. Its a chore to listen to and one of the more unfortunate bits of experimentation on offer. But Watain’s attempts to branch out creatively aren’t all misguided, and I feel that they were really onto something with large parts of the title track, a six minute mid-tempo grinder of a track that juxtaposes excellently done whispered vocals with choral chants. Suitably moody yet melodically informed guitars blanket these unique vocal pairings with strong melodic lines, and the guitar solos throughout are really the best I’ve heard on any Watain track to date. Also Danielsson delivers a really effective agonized clean vocal here that makes you wonder what the hell was going on with “They Rode On”. I dig the spanish guitar at the end as well — nice touch.


I applaud bands for trying new things and being open to experimentation within their defined sound. I mean, at the end of the day, this is still undeniably a Watain album, its just that within that framework it might not hit the same breathless pace that older records had. I know its not a competition, but if I had to make it into one I’d give Darkthrone the nod on their experimental album released earlier this year, with one major footnote, that Darkthrone’s The Underground Resistance couldn’t really be called black metal… at least I don’t think so. Watain adheres, for better or worse, to a stylistic approach to black metal that is shuttered, focused, and very steeped in tradition. You could practically call their sound a dying art. That doesn’t make an album better persay but it does count for something.

Satyricon Returns: First Listen of “Our World, It Rumbles Tonight”

They certainly took their time with this. Its been five years since Satyricon’s last studio album, the spotty but generally good The Age of Nero. For two albums (two and a halfish if you count Volcano and its charting single “Fuel For Hatred”), Satyricon explored a style that could adequately be described as black metal meets rock, a simplification of an already slightly streamlined approach they began to take with 1999’s Rebel Extravaganza. Over the course of these, let’s face it, far more accessible albums, the band’s popularity grew and grew, and they even seemed to work up an arguable masterpiece with 2006’s Now Diabolical. Of course, there were people that hated everything about this era of the band, and inevitably when promotional photos began to show a short haired Satyr —- well that was probably the last straw for those on the fence. For those of us who happened to enjoy the era, I think we could pretty much agree on one thing, that the band had gone as far as they could with their current sound, and it was time for something new. Its rare when a band and its fans agree on change, but when the band finished their last touring cycle they vowed to take an extended break to recharge themselves, as well as to re-imagine their sound itself.


There’s a leak, and its on YouTube and other places (for now) of a track entitled “Our World, It Rumbles Tonight” from Satyricon’s upcoming self-titled album (seriously what is it with bands and self-titled albums this year? Stop being lazy and create a title!). I’ll confess, when I saw this being passed around on Facebook, I fully realized the amount of anticipation I’ve had building up for this album. I was pumped up, and all my goofy pious talk about waiting until I could hear the album in its entirety immediately dissipated. I’ve been listening on repeat non-stop for a few hours now, most likely ruining this track for future playthroughs but screw it —- its been five freaking years since I’ve gotten new Satyricon music! This was after all one of my top five most anticipated albums for 2013, and I’m doing my best not to put the cart before the horse or some other similar saying, but I’ll just throw this out there: If the rest of the new album is like this, then its going to be fantastic.


This is just one track, so its unfair to describe the new sound of Satyricon in this small write up, but there does seem to be a mix of familiar and unfamiliar elements going on here. The production is as crisp and professional as their more recent work, the guitars are upfront and riffing is kept relatively clear and simple, Satyr’s vocal lines are quick and forceful, and Frost is of course pounding directly in our temples with furious double kick. All that stuff reminds me of elements from their past few albums, however there does however seem to be a call back to the wide open, expansive arrangements that touched classic albums like Nemesis Divina. Except that instead of epic, sweeping strings, I’m hearing what sounds like a muted choral vocal that sets in to support the songs beautifully bleak chorus. Here Satyr croaks out “My world, crumbles”, and drawn out, wild guitar chords left to sustain paint a dark, yet vivid soundscape. Its a thrilling, addictive chorus. There definitely seems to be something fresh happening here, I just can’t put my finger on it. I want to say that I’m hearing moments of the wide open expansiveness of some of the more lengthy cuts off Volcano mixed with the pop-smarts of Now, Diabolical but that would be oversimplifying things, and well, it’d just be inadequate.


Take a listen yourself:




Shalom Orphaned Land! The All Is One Discussion

I loved Mabool. Orphaned Land’s 2004 comeback album was a seminal moment in my journey not just as a metal aficionado, but as a music lover in general. I was even fortunate enough to catch the album just shortly after its initial release, instead of years after the fact as would become a prevailing trend for me later on. It was to say the least, an incredibly timely release: An Israeli metal band delivering a conceptual album about the reunification of the three Abrahamic faiths smack dab in the middle of the Second Intifada, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a mere year away from Ariel Sharon’s earth shattering declaration to pull out of Gaza. You could either call that incredibly ballsy, or brazenly foolish.


But something truly dramatic happened: This Israeli metal band had struck a powerful chord throughout various Arab countries where their music was being pirated. The internet in its increasingly flourishing ability to outreach, unite, and amass people from all over the globe was the first piece of evidence that something truly profound was happening. I was on the band’s message boards during that time period, and you’d see users posting not only from Israel, but from Turkey, Egypt, Syria (seriously), and almost any other Middle Eastern/Islamic land you could point out on a map. The album was a success yes, but for so many more reasons than just commercially speaking. Orphaned Land were transcendent in ways that their region’s political leaders were unable to be.


The album’s impact on me personally was a revelation. I had equated the very concept of folk metal with artists like Vintersorg and Ensiferum, as well as in the numerous Celtic-isms of a wide variety of metal bands. An exclusively Celtic/Scandinavian art form then…? It was, to say the least, a limited perspective. It had never occurred to me that yes, there could be folk metal that drew upon the musical heritage of other cultures. Mabool was the album that smacked me in the face and said, “Of course it can”. Songs like “Birth of the Three”, “Ocean Land”, “The Kiss of Babylon”, and the masterful “Norra El Norra” were laced and imbued with rich Middle Eastern/Judaic instrumentation and melodies. It wasn’t just the metal that was satisfying, I found the soundscapes of the ethnic musical backdrops extremely alluring. It all captured my imagination and swept me away to someplace else — it was an epiphany! And it soon occurred to me that this was a kind of metal that I had been longing for without even realizing it.



In time, after many hundreds of repeat spins, Mabool also left me with a void in my music collection: I had discovered a new found hunger and soon to be great appreciation for cultural music of the Middle East. I asked the band for recommendations through their forums, and was supplied a short list by Yossi Saharon, the Orphaned Land guitarist. I found that this newly acquired musical interest would only increase in momentum — I began seeking out, sampling, and buying international/cultural music regardless of where on the globe it was sourced from. My job in the music department of a Borders Books only aided my drive to find more and more. The store would be sent promo CDs from various record companies for in store play, and when the promo shelf had to be emptied at the end of the month (by employees getting to select stuff they wanted to take home… a definite perk), the dregs that no one else wanted were always a vast array of modern and traditional international music: French pop, Brazilian jazz, Gregorian Chant, Greek/Mediterranean folk, fifty different subgenres of music from Africa, in short, everything you could possibly imagine. I found a treasure trove of great stuff that I loved, and eventually this experimentation and growth lead to me appreciating stuff like the hip hop of Jurassic 5, or even the alt-country of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, and Neko Case. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d explored non rock/metal music, but Mabool tapped open a geyser of interest and curiosity in exploring new sounds that thankfully hasn’t stopped.


Now Orphaned Land has a tendency to work slowly. Well that’s actually unfair and inaccurate, but it could justifiably be the casual perception. There was an eight year gap between the band’s pair of mid-nineties releases and Mabool (explained vaguely as personal problems), and the success of that album demanded a touring schedule of three to four years — presumably to make up for lost time. Work on the follow up record took another couple years due to having to wait for their producer’s schedule to synch up (Porcupine Tree founder Steven Wilson), and so it was finally in 2010, six years later, when the band released The Never Ending Way of the ORwarriOR. I was as eager for the album as I was for that year’s new Blind Guardian and Iron Maiden records, and the heights of that anticipation would conversely be the depths to which I found myself disappointed.



I thought the album had a pair of good tracks, but the rest had failed to move me in any way. I know it sounds a little dramatic now, but I felt disheartened that after the impact of Mabool and the (I hate to use this word) “journey” it took me on, the band who delivered that eternal classic was somehow unable to impact me any further. When I looked at reviews all over, the general reception was overwhelmingly positive and glowing… so how was I left out in the cold this time around? I had burned myself out on Mabool through excessive overplaying, yet I couldn’t find enthusiasm for their new stuff. When the band played close to me on a subsequent North American tour supporting Katatonia, I missed the date and didn’t feel bad about it. Wow I’d think, my opinion had really soured on these guys. It really was a little depressing… and so I chalked it all up to an unfortunate loss, and moved on.


It was with a great deal of surprise that I began to hear rumors of a potential new Orphaned Land album slated for release in 2013. Of course, I had heard that kind of optimistic thinking before with this band, but hell, there I was this past Spring looking at the new cover artwork for All Is One. What — no half a decade plus wait? As stunning as it was that these guys managed to break old habits and actually deliver a new record within a reasonable time frame, I was a bit bummed out to realize that I had a mere speckle of interest when it came to checking it out, and certainly with a great degree of skepticism at that. My doubt was suddenly called into question when I heard the title track previewed on Dr. Metal’s The Metal Meltdown radio show. It was good, damn good — freaking beautiful actually. Right after I heard it, I found out that a friend of mine who does a rather excellent podcast (@ MSRcast) had interviewed Orphaned Land’s vocalist and founding member Kobi Farhi some weeks ago, and listening to their conversation was intriguing enough to make me plunk down for the album come release day.


My faith in Orphaned Land has been restored: All Is One is a fine album that while marking a noticeable stylistic shift in their trademark sound, beautifully weaves together disparate musical genres together into one epic, majestic, worldly fusion. It must be noted however, that for the most part gone are the frequent death metal vocals of yore, only popping up once on this album (to great effect at that). Is this the start of a post-metal Orphaned Land ala Opeth? Eh… no, not exactly. This is more Orphaned Land meets hard rock guitars as well as an progressive-power metal songwriting approach ala Blind Guardian. Think that sounds like an absurd comparison? Take a listen to the glorious, life affirming title track where scores of Guardian-esque choral voices join in on the most beautifully penned refrain in the band’s discography. Orchestras swoop in and usher melodic refrains throughout over a bed of crunchy guitars, hand claps spice up the percussion throughout, all surrounding an epic guitar solo that resides at the heart of this gem of a song (I also love the surreal, trippy, psychedelic music video they’ve done for the track). Additionally, on the rather charmingly rhythmic “The Simple Man”, guitars riff and play lead melodies in an intertwining that recalls Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen at their complicated best — all whilst Kobi Farhi’s lead vocals are embellished and sustained by intricately patterned supporting choral vocal harmonies. The newest addition to the band, guitarist Chen Balbus, seems to have a far greater natural chemistry with Yossi Saharon then his predecessor. The interplay between the two is fun, surprising, and rich.



Of course, the album is laden with all the traditional Arabic/Israeli (oh hell lets just call it “Oriental”, Edward Said enthusiasts be damned) that we’ve come to expect from Orphaned Land. There’s oud, saz, bouzouki, chumbush, apparently even a xylophone at some point, and of course the aforementioned tremendous strings and choirs. The band splashed out for this record, amassing a talent pool of over forty musicians “including 25 choir singers and eight classical violin, viola and cello players from Turkey”. Its a smart play, one that lines the sound of this album with an open fullness, a sense of spatial relationships between instruments that their older records, yes even Mabool, were unable to attain through having to rely solely on keyboards. As for the scarcity of death metal vocals I mentioned above, I don’t find myself missing them, or believing that these songs would be better served with them. Farhi has always had a fine, well accented clean delivery as a pure singer, and when he does decide to lay the death vocal wood, on “Fail”, its a powerfully shuddering standout moment. I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark upon his fantastic clean vocals on that particular song, as well as on the haunting, emotional “Brother” — which contains perhaps the band’s finest lyric.


I find it interesting that one of the most vocal admirers of the band’s previous album, ORwarriOR, the one and only Angry Metal Guy, has given their newest work a right panning. His primary criticism is that the majority of this album remains at a similar tempo throughout and lacks the varietal structure of albums past. I guess something like that doesn’t bother me, because as long as the music itself is of interest in the moment, I don’t consider its relationship to the songs surrounding it. But taking a step back I suppose I can concede to this being a weakness of the album, and surmise that that perhaps the band’s inclinations away from their metallic tendencies has homogenized their overall songwriting approach. I don’t however, agree with AMG’s take that a shorter gestation period for this band will undoubtedly lead to inferior results. First of all, I’m enjoying this record, but more importantly, these guys are too talented to let precious years go by in the name of delays or worse — absolute perfection. I don’t need perfection. Not even Mabool was perfect (it dipped in the second half a bit), but it had moments of perfection. Same goes right now… I’ll eagerly anticipate a record every two to three years if it means I get gems like the ones found on All Is One.





While I disagree with AMG’s take (and am only singling out his review in this instance because I so rarely do), I do have to give him credit for making me go back to give ORwarriOR another shot. Of course the fantastic new album is also encouraging me in that regard, my Orphaned Land fandom once again flourishing, but his adamant stance that I’m missing out on something close to perfection is reason enough for me. And here’s the thing… I’m finding that ORwarriOR is steadily growing on me. There are still some moments throughout that aren’t striking the right chord but I’m beginning to enjoy songs that I previously thought were clunkers. There’s a lot to digest there, so I’ll keep working on it — the best thing being that I want to give it repeated spins to see if anything else sticks. It feels good to have a second chance at something like that, and of course, if you’ve been a regular reader of The Metal Pigeon, you’ll be realize that its becoming my M.O. for the most part.


So All Is One may ultimately not have the perspective altering impact that Mabool had for me. But that’s okay, albums like that are rare, and often not recurring from the same artist. It will have the personal distinction of being the album that gave me one of my favorite bands back, almost like reconnecting with an old friend. A metal band that avoids topical cliches and genre tropes, seeks diversity both musically and topically, Orphaned Land are a uniquely rare breed. I can’t help but feel a little inspired by this unexpected turn of events, and as odd as it may be to say, I feel like it may be speaking to something deeper within me on a personal level. This is a music first oriented blog, so I’ll just leave it at that, but its comforting to know that I’m not yet jaded to a point where music is reduced to only being surface entertainment. I hope it never does.






Queensrÿche: The Triumph of their Eponymous New Album

Its probably getting a bit predictable by now, that is, the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Queensryche’s new self titled/post-Geoff Tate release. That there are so many interested parties taking a look at this album is perhaps indicative of how high in profile the band’s name has risen thanks to the online spillover of a courtroom/behind the scenes drama that has played out this past year for all to see. In terms of the PR war, there was a clear winner between the competing Queensryche’s long before a shred of new music was even heard from either party: Tate decided that his career would be best served by resembling a slow-crashing, flaming husk of a zeppelin. His version of the band is an internet laughing stock (run a search on blabbermouth for hilarious proof), and his consistently sub-par live performances in the name of Operation:Mindcrime’s 25th anniversary are filmed by concertgoers and uploaded to YouTube as documented proof of his deteriorating vocal ability, his sub-amateur band, and his boneheaded, thuggish antics. So all that the real version of Queensryche had to do was sit back, avoid Tate’s media baiting, and keep it level headed and classy in response. Oh and release an album that’s a little better than the atrocity that was Tate’s Frequency Unknown…yeah, seemed a fairly easy task.


But whats really accounting for all the extra media and internet excitement surrounding this record is the fact that the band decided that “a little better” wouldn’t be good enough, and instead dropped in our laps the finest Queensryche album since 1994’s Promised Land. I’m going to try to avoid over exaggerating; there’s no instant classic like “Eyes of a Stranger” or “Take Hold of the Flame” on offer here, and the lingering question of “what if” regarding the input of still departed original guitarist/primary songwriter Chris DeGarmo will always linger. But in the simplest terms, this is the album that the band should have recorded well over fifteen years ago, before the creative and business control of the band was taken over by Tate and his Spinal Tap-ian manager wife. Reuniting with their classic era engineer James “Jimbo” Barton was one key to success; this record simply sounds like Queensryche in a way that their past couple forgettable albums have not (including the woeful Operation: Mindcrime 2). Smart, focused, and confident songwriting is the other key, most notably exemplified in a clear handful of standout tracks.



Towering highest among these is the deft, artfully done quasi-ballad “In This Light”, a song that staggered me upon first listen. Here’s a build up and chorus that harkens back to Empire, 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. Drummer Scott Rockenfield and bassist Eddie Jackson (founding members alongside guitarist Michael Wilton) are credited as its songwriting team, and it really makes you wonder how many potentially great songs by the rhythm section were ignored or shelved during the Tate era. Rockenfield decides to go bonkers on “Spore”, a song that almost seems to be a meshing of modern prog with Rychean stylings… his tribal drumming on this track is nothing short of incredible. There’s also “Fallout”, a surprisingly energetic rocker with an almost punk-rock invoking chorus that is loaded front to back with micro hooks. The whole thing is perhaps doubly effective because its just so damned unexpected. Same goes for album opener “Where Dreams Go To Die”, which is automatically a frontrunner for the most evil sounding Queensryche song to date. Dark atmospherics, and supreme epic sweep is paired with some truly chilling lyrics: “I’ll take you there, where castles built will fall / Where dreams go to die and I promise you this / As God as my witness, that your time will finally meet its end /Your dreams will burn and die”. Damn…



You might notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the performance of new vocalist, ex-Crimson Glory singer Todd LaTorre. And that’s because any question of his abilities should have been put to rest long before this album’s release… I refer of course to the numerous recordings available of his concert performances doing high justice to the band’s back catalog. When you hear recordings of him singing “I Don’t Believe In Love” the way its hasn’t been sung in years, your worries about his performance on a new album go out the window. Before I even had the opportunity to listen to this album, I witnessed the band playing live here in Houston on June 8th on a humid Saturday night. The band was on excellent form, but Todd LaTorre was simply on fire, the damp air and warm weather making an outdoor stage the perfect setting for me to witness the single greatest live vocal performance I have ever heard. It was possible that the versions of classics from the Warning and Rage For Order albums that I heard that night were actually better than the original recordings. For periodic moments during the show, I was in utter disbelief at how fantastic he actually was — it was like watching Lebron in Game 7. At one point a guy next to me shook me by the shoulder excitedly and shouted “Can you believe this guy?!” I responded back, alarmed, “Crazy eh!”


Whats crazier is that it took the firing of an iconic lead singer to get to this point, and that said lead singer is no longer recognizable to those of us who were in awe of him for so long.  Even more so, that a band we long considered nearly dead is now exciting both live and on record, and making dare I say vital music once again. There’s the possibility that this will end up on some short lists for the best of 2013… the only thing possibly standing in the way of that being the rather short, thirty-five minute length of the album. In fact, if there’s a criticism to make here its that the shortness of some of these tracks is whats holding them back, that with some added meat to their bones this could be an even better album. The logic behind the length is understandable: the band had a deadline to meet, and there’s that impending, decisive court date only a few months away. An album had to be delivered and the time crunch imposed restrictions on what the band could produce. So it begs the question… are we then rating this so high because the bar has been so low for so long? Possibly… yes. Its something we have to concede — that our excitement as fans may get the better of us. But isn’t that what being a fan is all about?

The A’s Have It: Amorphis, Arckanum, and Austin Wintory

I’ve been feeling a bit scatter brained lately. I’m blaming it on the always rude and unappreciated onset of the Houston summer, a tawdry mixture of Finnish sauna, exhaust fumes, and short tempers. You may remember last summer I ranted about this in one blog entry (I guess you’ll have to get used to it being a yearly thing), and I talked about how the shift in temperatures made me push away moody and melancholy music for something more upbeat and positive, like classic hard rock and trad metal, something you could loosely nod your head to as you drank a cold beverage outside as your forehead did a nice job of mimicking the condensation on your beer can. That was all well and good, a nice mental exercise to help make the passage of three to four nearly intolerable months, well, tolerable… and as ridiculous as it sounds, I’d been purposefully trying to listen to stuff like that recently, but I think its time to admit that its falling on (my) deaf ears.



The stuff that’s really been connecting with me lately is in fact wintery dark, morose, bleak, and of course melancholic — and I’ve just decided to be okay with that. Better to write about stuff that’s resonating with me for whatever reason than force feed everyone some half-hearted take on the NEW ANVIL RECORD! So, first off, the new Amorphis album, Circle,  is really striking a chord with me in a big way, and the I’ll be honest, I was one of those people who thought Amorphis got better when current vocalist Tomi Joutsen joined the band on 2003’s Eclipse. Okay, I loved Tales From A Thousand Lakes and Elegy, but then began the band’s strange, murky, experimental era, and I simply couldn’t zero in on any of those records. When Joutsen debuted on the “House of Sleep” single, I felt the band got some fire back. Coupled with the fact that there was also stronger emphasis on more rock based songwriting, Joustsen’s ability to deliver incredible melodic and emotional vocals resulted in a far more comfortable fit than Pasi Koskinen’s vocals ever could.


On Circle, Amorphis follow up what has been a relatively consistent streak of good dark melodic hard rock/metal albums with a new collection of songs that border on great. There’s the absolutely crushingly heavy opener, “Shades of Grey”, which alternates Joutsen’s excellent screaming vocal laden verses with one of the album’s best choruses. Then there’s my personal favorite in “Hopeless Days”, a song which is built on undulating, shifting percussive rhythms that build up to a heavy, surging, and emotional chorus that’s underpinned by beautiful, tinkling piano. It’s an ear pleasing juxtaposition over which Joutsen delivers his best vocal to date, pouring out tons of emotion into the chorus lyric: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”. This album finds the band at a songwriting high, delivering quite possibly the most well crafted songs in their long career. Its not just about songs being catchy or hook laden, there’s a real sense of artistry that abounds, whether in the flute bird calls in the blistering near black metal of “Nightbird’s Song”, or the dramatic guitar sweeps of “Narrowpath”, in which upbeat Celtic harmonies play alongside moody, downcast Finnish bleakness. Speaking of guitar, Esa Holopainen is on fire all over the album, dishing out beautiful solos, interludes, and really inspired lead harmonies.



Amorphis took me by surprise, not in that I don’t expect good work from them, but in that I’ve been listening to the album nonstop in a way that I haven’t since I heard Elegy. But if that was a surprise then I’d have to say my enthusiasm for the latest Arckanum offering, Fenris Kindir, is coming as a total shock. This is without a doubt, the best black metal out in 2013 (I know, I know… Darkthrone, but is The Underground Resistance really black metal?), as well as the most immersive listening experience of the year. For those who don’t know, Arckanum has been essentially a one man solo project of Johan Lahger, and he’s made a lengthy go it in releasing albums since the mid nineties. I’ll confess, I’ve been unmoved by this project for the most part, despite being exposed to the past few years of releases… and as is the usual way these things go, I have no explanation for why those previous albums didn’t affect me yet the new one does — but there you go. There’s nothing accessible or commercial about this recording, its pure blistering black metal done in a nod to an old school style, with very little in the way of vibrant melodies.


But it makes up for that with its sheer depth in ambient noise, all of which is purposeful in depicting the story of the mythological Odin-killing monsterous wolf. There’s distant tortured voices, a constant wash of feedback, and seemingly inhuman, guttural sounds all over the place. And really only just over half of the album is comprised of actual songs, the rest being a mix of intro/outro/interlude tracks, which may sound annoying, but everything blends into one another for an uninterrupted listening experience. Okay, maybe I’m throwing around the term “experience” too often for what is still at its core brutal and straightforward black metal. But there’s some rather good riffs on display and an overall intensity that is quite the perfect tonic for dealing with overheating summer induced rage. The best moment is on “Angrbða”, a relentlessly fast, brutal, and punishing slice of black metal that opens with an insane sounding tortured female voice shrieking in the distance… only to have (I’m assuming) the same crazed female come back in for a truly bizarre, yet appealing guest vocal midway through. Might be shortlisted for song of the year methinks.



Finally, something that was bound to happen… the first discussion of a non-metal-related album of music on The Metal Pigeon. Stick with me on this, because if you haven’t treated yourself to the sheer beauty and wonder that is composer Austin Wintory’s epic soundtrack for the PS3 downloadable gaming oddity called Journey, then you’re missing out on something really great. I actually don’t own a PS3, but thanks to YouTube I’ve been able to see the game played, and what I saw was a rather inspired and inventive take on merging gaming into pure visual/interactive art. It was IGN’s Game of the Year for 2012, a huge accomplishment for a small, independent developer overtaking such major heavyweights as Halo 4 for example. Well, I won’t launch into gaming talk here, but suffice it to say the very idea of Journey has a built in metal spirit — to me anyway. You wander alone at first, in this beautiful, desolate, epic landscape, always trying to get to this incredibly huge mountain that looms in the distance, and as you go through your “journey”, other players meet you in your world (or their world) and you can potentially aid one another onwards in your quest. Its an elegant visual metaphor for life, solitude, togetherness, and entropy.


Any soundtrack accompanying such an endeavor would have to be just as thoughtful, and trust me fellow metal fans, this stuff will be right up your street. Gorgeously swelling strings, solo cello and violin, brass and woodwinds and also some mighty thundering timpani led percussion. Its a dark, moody, and mysterious sounding work, and a complete one at that — you’ll find yourself listening to it uninterrupted from front to back. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was the first video game soundtrack to ever be nominated for a Grammy Award (it lost out to Trent Reznor, of all people, who did the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack). I’ve always been interested in games that have a relationship with metal, be it soundtrack wise or just in terms of feel. The PS2 game “Shadow of the Colossus” for example really was black metal personified into an epic game where you, a solitary hero named Wander had to venture out into a bleak, harsh, and desolate world to hunt down mighty giant “Colossi”, and defeat those mighty forces by yourself. Tell me that isn’t black metal. Journey then, in its own uniquely ambient way, as a game and soundtrack, seem to reflect some of the deeper virtues that I find within metal as an art. Life as an epic, mighty, yet ultimately doomed quest — its a bleak picture when regarding the destination, but the journey itself is the point, not the end. Didn’t Maiden once say something about not worrying about wasted years?








Serenity: The Refined Elegance of Austria’s Finest

I’m increasingly more aware of how rare it is to stumble upon a band that can utterly transfix my wandering attention span the way Serenity did about a month ago with the release of their spectacular fourth album, War of Ages. The band hails from Austria, a country far more regarded in metal circles as a purveyor of death and black metal bands, most notably Belphegor. Serenity then must be the black sheep of their countrymen, as they specialize in a style of progressive power metal informed by the obvious influences of Kamelot, Sonata Arctica, and maybe even a touch of Avantasia’s latter day hard rock epic strut. This is not to say they are merely the sum of their parts, as Serenity have an identity all their own within the fundamentals of songwriting styles and lyrical concepts — but their influences are a good touchstone and filter for prospective listeners.


It might be hard to ignore the extent to which the Kamelot influence has affected Serenity, down to styles of album cover art, logo design, and band photography. Even the way guitarist and co-primary songwriter Thomas Buchberger prefers an emphasis on understated riffs, elegant melody, and reigned in soloing brings to mind the style of Kamelot guitarist Thomas (!) Youngblood. Vocalist Georg Neuhauser doesn’t sound like Roy Khan per say, but he at times reminds me of a mix between current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik, Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko, and Scorpion’s Klaus Meine… a blending that is refined into one of the smoothest vocal deliveries in modern power metal. So yeah, the influences are hard to ignore… but they’re not hard to accept, at least for me anyway. I try to look at it pragmatically, that all bands have influences and starting points, everyone is trying to be uniquely derivative (particularly in a genre like power metal), and only the best will succeed in forging their own identity — a feat which usually takes more than a few records. Serenity succeeded in achieving that by their second album, 2008’s Fallen Sanctuary, which speaks volumes about the level of their abilities as songwriters.



Yes of course I emphasized songwriting, because while the musicianship Serenity display is of the excellent proficiency you’d expect from a European power metal band, the Buchberger/Neuhauser songwriting partnership is the critical heart of Serenity’s success. For anyone who felt/feels that something could potentially be permanently lost from the brilliance that was the Khan/Youngblood songwriting legacy — I’m telling you that the Buchberger/Neuhauser combo strikes right to the heart of the style of music that you and I both love, crave, and sadly can’t seem to find enough of. I’m talking about crisp, melodic, melancholy, triumphant, elegant, and yes actually HEAVY power metal that is written with a head for ambition, an ear for tunefulness, and a writer’s heart for great lyrics. And even though War of Ages is the album that sucked me in as a new fan of the band, I’ve become addicted to the other three albums in their discography as well. And one of the more brilliant examples of all of these aforementioned attributes combining to supreme effect can be found on the bonus track (!) of their 2011 Death & Legacy album, “To India’s Shores”.





As a lyricist, Neuhauser faces the same hurdle Khan did in being an English-as-a-second language writer, but he seems to make a similar effort in the care and choosing of diction, in the use of imagery, and in not burying either his narrator’s voice or his own in piles of metaphors that many lyricists in metal tend to do. It rings of confidence in his writing abilities, and coupled with the fact that Serenity seem hell bent on their songs being narrative voices for historical figures of the past musing on philosophical topics of their own lives or time periods… a great deal of confidence is needed for sure. Don’t let the historical figures thing put you off. The approach isn’t nearly as academic as it might threaten to sound on paper (although Neuhauser has apparently finished a doctorate’s in history, so its an informed voice at work here). I’ll be honest, I don’t really find it all that much of an influence over me when I’m listening to these songs. Historical names aren’t mentioned, you aren’t bludgeoned over the head with dates, places, times, or events… the lyrics at work here could be about anyone’s modern day struggles, relationships, or inner turmoil (okay the new record does have song called “Legacy of Tudors”, but its so good that I’ll just allow the indulgence).



For the War of Ages album, the band made what I can only refer to as a savvy game changer of a decision. Enter into the Serenity lineup one Clémentine Delauney from Lyon, France, as the co-lead vocalist to pair alongside Neuhauser’s powerful voice. This isn’t a gimmick, as they have experimented with a handful of female guest vocalists for select tracks on previous albums — and while the songs and performances have been good (particularly a duet with the always excellent Amanda Somerville on Death and Legacy’s “Changing Fate”), the types of female voices they’ve attempted to pair with Neuhauser never seemed to measure up or alternatively, contrast well with his rich, distinctive tone. I know these women have their fans, but I’ve never been overly impressed with Charlotte Wessels, nor Ailyn from Sirenia, and while Somerville’s duet was excellent, her voice is as strong and full of character as Neuhauser’s and to me it seemed that when they would join together both voices would be fighting for space with no one winning out.


Delauney however, had been singing with the band as their live backing vocalist for a considerable time prior to her finally being invited into the band as a permanent co-vocalist — and her vocal intersections with Neuhauser are noticeably more developed and experienced in terms of tone, delivery, and pure resonance. I think the band suspected this would be the case, and must’ve thought to themselves that their ideas of duet vocals would work better in the future if they had a consistent set of voices pairing up. Smart thinking — because honestly I think she’s an exceptional vocalist, possessing a soprano voice that is effortlessly melodic, rich, and deep yet capable of being ethereal, light, and even fragile when the song calls for it. She utilizes all those strengths on the epic opening track of the War of Ages album, “Wings of Madness”, where her vocals float above Neuhauser’s in the emotional chorus — only to swoop down to darker depths on her own solo verse (her eerily drawn out vocals there remind me of the haunting abilities of Sinéad O’Connor). I’m told that she penned around half of the lyrics on the new album as well, which means that she’s had a direct hand in crafting vocal melodies alongside Neuhauser and I really love that… Because when you’ve listened to a ton of power metal, you can spot the difference between a singer writing the vocal melodies as opposed to an overreaching guitarist, or bassist attempting to dictate what the vocalist does (hello Timo Tolkki and Steve Harris!).







I’ve been checking out the tour dates for the band and they’re disappointingly slim, even for Europe… (I have no delusions about the band getting to launch a full tour in the States — I’ll post a very grateful retraction if that ever happens). I’m not sure what the problem is, but I could venture to guess that these guys have day jobs, and that they try to fit Serenity in whenever they can. That’s understandable and to be expected given the state of things in the industry, but I hope they can do more then just a ten date headliner tour of clubs in Europe. But if that doesn’t, or can’t happen then I’d just have one word of advice for the band if they ever happened to read this: Write more songs, record more albums, document your art with a sense of urgency and ambition. You know its an uphill battle if you’re hoping to headline arenas or chart singles, there are very few Nightwish success stories in your chosen genre. So instead, strike while the creative irons are hot and get this stuff on tape. Build your artistic legacy.


And if you’re a fan of music like this… well, I’m going to do something I almost never do, which is admonish you to actually buy the official physical release or legal download. Look, I love death and black metal as much as the next guy or girl, but for all the hundreds to thousands of death and black metal bands Austria has coughed up and choked on, she’s only given us one Serenity. Bands that make metal like this are rare, and I fear, growing rarer — so if you love this style of metal, actually show your support for the artists that are essentially underdogs in attempting to create it. I shelled out something just short of fifty American to grab this band’s catalog and I look forward to handing over more of my money in their name in the future. Its really hard to think of something else I’ve bought lately in my everyday life that I feel that good about.

The Pigeon Post #1: New Music from Eclectika, Boneworm, Boil, and A Hero for the World


First, a brief introduction…

The Metal Pigeon blog is a relatively small endeavor. I am a staff of one; the writer, editor, and publisher. I realized long before I wrote my first article here that I couldn’t compete with the amount of content published on a near daily basis by metal sites that had multiple writers on staff. But it hasn’t been a drawback for me, as I’ve always meant for this blog to operate exactly as it has been, with an emphasis on long form opinion and criticism, and quality over quantity. I dabble in reviews for album’s I’m excited about and look forward to, or for bands that come out of the woodwork to surprise me and make me a fan, but I’m not on major metal record company promo lists yet (if ever) and pretty much have to rely on Spotify, YouTube, and yes spending cash to get access to music. No big deal really, but that’s a huge reason why I don’t review every noteworthy new album that comes out, or have something to post about every single day.


But lately, I’ve noticed more than just the usual clutter of metal related subscriber list emails in my inbox. Smaller metal labels  — mostly ones I haven’t heard of before — have begun to take notice of this little site, for good reasons I hope, and have started sending me promos of their artists’ new releases. Its been rather flattering as well as very cool, and honestly it all took me by complete surprise. See I have no delusions of grandeur about this blog. Its simply a better, broader, and more visible soapbox for me to voice my opinions, as opposed to the confines of some dusty metal web forum. But I am proud of it, its my own creation and I’m still blown away by the scores of people that  keep coming back to read my stuff and comment on it, and in that small way its been a success.


But here’s the dilemma I had: The promos these labels were sending me are for artists I’ve never heard of, let alone listened to before, and wouldn’t it seem just a tad strange that all of a sudden I publish an article about band “x” that YOU’VE likely not heard of before either? All while suggesting that it was something I was eyeballing down the pike months in advance as a possible album to review? I don’t pretend to have my fingers on the pulse of the metal underground, there’s just way too many releases, labels, and bands to even attempt to try. My time-learned philosophy for metal music has been to let the cream rise to the top. If a band is putting out good stuff they will garner interest from the community at large and at some point I will hear about it, check it out myself, and subsequently write something about it. Point is I have no overwhelming urge to be amongst the first ones to listen to and discover a band — that’s something you tend to grow out of, and for good reason.


However, I have a backlog of promos sitting in my inbox, and I feel bad about not having done anything with them. It got real when a French label sent me a physical copy in a nice envelope, with classy French stamps, addressed to The Metal Pigeon. I began to think about how to do something about all these promos, after all these people are spending effort and now actual money to get this out to me! I know how much it sucks to work on something, put it out there, and have it be ignored by everyone. If someone sends me something to listen to, it doesn’t take much of an effort on my part to actually find a moment to listen to it.


So here’s my solution, The Metal Pigeon’s Pigeon Post, a randomly reoccurring feature in which I will listen to these promo copies of releases by artists unknown to me, from small labels you’ve likely never heard of either, and review them with total unabashed honesty — even if what I end up writing is not complimentary. I throw that out there so that if any promotional reps are reading this, you’ll know what you’re getting into. I don’t make a habit of slamming bands whose music I’m not into, and I do try to provide understandable reasons for any criticism I dish out, but I will call a spade a spade if I have to.


So onwards, the premiere edition of The Pigeon Post!



Eclectika – Lure of Ephemeral Beauty:

This didn’t do much for me at first. So maybe its a good thing that I slacked off on the thinking up of a feature to talk about this album in, because time has slightly changed my opinion for the better. Eclectika is essentially a one man project based out of Corcelles-les-Monts, France, apparently a rather tiny hamlet in the middle of the Burgundy countryside. A suitably pleasant environment for creating atmospheric, symphonic, yet minimalist black metal right? In case you were wondering my nice envelope from France had this album in it. Sebastien Regnier is the driving force behind the project, apparently handling most of the lead vocals and all the instruments, but he’s joined by two guest vocalists, the most notable of which is a female singer named Noemie Sirandre whose high operatic vocals are scattered throughout the album. On paper, music like this should be right up my street, and when I listen to these songs I find myself liking a riff here and there, noticing a well done atmospheric moment, and admiring the range of Sirandre.


The problem is that those things occur by themselves, in scattered moments and never at one time altogether. I know I sound like a broken record in my reviews, but quality songwriting trumps everything else! If you don’t have that, then all the cool sonic elements musically and production wise never have a chance to coalesce or gel into anything memorable. The worst offender here is a song called “Cyclic Anagnorisis”, which features a really great atmospheric intro + riff + harsh vocal entrance that gets you thinking that the ceiling is about to shake, but nothing develops. Operatic female vocals come in awkwardly, the riff never deviates into anything interesting, the underlying ill-chosen bass tone is mixed waaaay too loud (so much so that it becomes distracting). The guitar solo halfway through is a surprise and actually interesting, but can we get some ‘heavy’ on these rhythm guitars please? What am I listening to? It sounds like someone playing guitar through a Super Nintendo. I know that low budget productions have their limitations, but when the guitars on Entombed’s late 80’s demos can sound so massive and crushing, I wonder how much a guitar sound like Eclectika’s is marred not by financial limitations as it is by selection of a guitar amp and head.


Its baffling because when Eclectika get it right, as they do on the brutal, punishing “Les Sept Vertus Capitales”, extra crunch on the guitars would add extra power to what is an already awesome series of riffs. On this track, all the disparate elements that make up this band’s sound find their appropriate points of entry and overall place. Unfortunately it comes more than halfway through the album, a revelation that strikes you with an impact of suddenly realizing at age 50 than all the ingredients that make up a hamburger actually taste better when put on top of each other. Argh, okay so maybe I’m being a bit ridiculous, but you can tell that this band has some quality influences, Therion, Paradise Lost perhaps? I’m not sure about their choice of song titles, like “Handicapped Sex in a Mental Orgy”… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that. A metal band wearing industrial clothes is a terrible look — knock it off.  But despite this being a critical review, the band accomplished the difficult task of capturing my attention: I am looking forward to what they do next. My earnest hope is that they work on the simple, yet challenging and demanding craft of songwriting… they’ve got all the ingredients ready, they just have to learn how to cook.



Boneworm – s/t:

Still not sure what to make of this resurgence in throwback doomy/Sabbathy metal that’s been popping up all over the place. The biggest local metal band in my home city of Houston is the recently signed to Napalm Records Venomous Maximus, who write good songs, have built up their following in a smart, savvy way, and yet seem to draw more hipsters to their live shows than actual metal fans. Whatever, its all about attracting an audience right? And they’re succeeding more than any other hard schlepping death metal band in our city’s infernal toilet of a local metal scene.


So maybe Portland’s Boneworm are on to something here. One glowing review on their bandcamp page described their music as “treacle-slow” (is it just me reading that as a Harry Potter reference?), and it certainly is paced similarly to traditional doom metal. But to me this is essentially sludge rock with a fondness for tritones, and when the gang shouted/barked vocals kick in, the whole affair takes on a punky vibe. And that’s when it sounds good —- I was interested in the parts where the vocals almost took on the challenge of delivering an actual hook. The final sections of “The Call” feature some attention grabbing vocal runs with alarming intensity, and I wanted more of that. Its everywhere else where my attention wanes.


I just don’t think I’m cut from the same type of cloth as these guys are when it comes to what inspires me musically and captures my imagination. To each his own and all that, and these guys got my attention with a really politely written email, and I certainly wish them well — but music like this is as exciting to me as doing laundry. On their page their lyrical concept is described with the following statement: “Which is the more terrifying, the intricate words of a sinister hex being cast, or plaintively being told that nothing matters because time is already against you?” Just so you don’t think I’m no fun at all, I actually take the bait for things like that more often than not, I like a band with ambition. But when you’re promising something bold like that, don’t attempt to deliver the goods with a musical approach that makes me go to the Bleacher Report to check out the latest picks in the NFL draft. Its boring. How about some vocal melodies? What if the musical tempo all of a sudden shifted in the middle of one of these fifteen minute long sludge n’ trudge behemoths? Something, anything to generate some interest.


When you’re on the outside looking in, as I suppose many people are with this particular style of rock/metal music, you find yourself wondering what kind of wiring the musicians creating this stuff are built with. Its as if I’m trying to understand an entirely different language. Am I missing something, and if so, I wonder if I could be talked into it? I lay this challenge down for fans of this style of music or indeed for the band and its fans: There’s a comment section below, someone help me see what I’m missing. Of course the thought occurs that maybe this is music meant for inebriated listening experiences —- to which I can only say: Fair.




Boil – aXiom:

This is an interesting one, and perhaps a band that some of you may already know. This is Boil’s third album apparently, a fact I couldn’t find on the Encyclopedia Metallum… which I thought was strange until I started listening to them and realized that this was a blending of progressive metal and alternative rock stylings. The folks at the metal archives can be a choosy bunch I guess. If you absolutely detest anything alt-rock related, you might be put off by singer Jacob Løbner’s tendency to sound as much like Maynard as he does your stereotypical melo-death vocalist. First thought is that I’m surprised at how tolerant I am for that type of stuff these days, especially considering I’ve spent the past decade slowly getting away from anything associated with “alternative” and “modern rock”. Not out of arrogance or elitism mind you, but simply because the deeper you go into the metal world, a lot of rock starts to sound safe, sterile, played-out, and well… boring.


I guess we all come back around to our old interests at some point to indulge some sort of facsimile sweet tooth that we’ve been neglecting. Its why I go back and listen to Garbage’s Version 2.0 album every few years or so. Boil remind me at times of Soilwork, Tool, latter-day Amorphis, and American alternative rock in general — but its a smart mix because Boil focus on songwriting and when they get it right, they REALLY get it right: Cue “At the Center of Rage” and “Heretic Martyr”, two songs where the balance between the metal and alt-rock elements are handled thoughtfully. Løbner’s vocals soar when they need to, lower to a soft croon for delicate moments, only to get surprisingly guttural in moments. The closing cut, “Almost a Legend”, is another highlight with its excellent recurring melodic guitar motif set against a stately tempo, a sort of rhythmic power ballad that ebbs and flows.


Boil are well served by choosing Jens Bogren to helm the production (he’s done Opeth, Soilwork, Katatonia, and Kreator’s Phantom Antichrist just to name a few), as everything sounds clear and well separated, and the vocals are given just the right amount of attention in terms of the right amount of reverb and not overdoing the filters. I suspect this isn’t a band I would’ve found out on my own, because despite all our good intentions, inner bias towards superficial things like a band name, or style of cover art often have a role in determining what we’re willing to spend time checking out. I’m pleasantly surprised at my enjoyment of this record. While its not something that I will be listening to non stop, I can see it being an album I’ll come back to when I’m in the mood for this particular blending of musical styles.




A Hero For the World – s/t:

Winners for the most ridiculous cover art and band name of 2013 thus far, A Hero For the World (that’s a mouthful dammit) deliver a debut album of rather typical modern power metal that is a mix of Firewind style musicality with Dragonforce goofball lyrics. I have a love for the best of this type of stuff, and a very high degree of tolerance for the mediocre versions. This band falls right above that mediocre category — they have promise but are mired in genre stereotypes to a fault. There are some occasional good moments on offer that suggest that on future releases they’ll manage to find their own sound and make a fan of me. Power metal is supported and nourished in Europe, its modern and ancestral home — so one reason to pay attention to the course of A Hero For the World’s career is that they actually hail from the Philippines. I applaud any new power metal band that steps onto the metal stage from a non-European territory, because lets face it, the very idea is not exactly welcome in local metal scenes anywhere in the United States.


I can hear some slight nods to the geographical cultural impact of the Philippines on a ballad like “Free Forever”, which is carried along by a slightly Asian sounding melody that is actually quite appealing, overriding the triteness of the lyrics. Sadly, there are no other infusions of the music of their region, something I’d think would add some uniqueness to their approach. Oh well, there’s nothing wrong with power metal for power metal’s sake, and whomever is the songwriting force in the band certainly has the budding talent to only get better. I think whats telling for me right now is that I really can’t think of anything else to say about this record… there’s nothing glaringly awful about it, but I highly doubt I’ll be coming back for more listens… there’s just better stuff out there in this vein. Keep trying dudes, I’ll check the next one out for sure.

Avantasia’s The Mystery of Time: Sonic Ambivalence

Since I’m going to be talking about Tobias Sammet and Avantasia, I’ll point out that this isn’t a conventional review in the sense that I’m trying to help you decide whether or not to check this album out — because of course you should. Sammet possesses a nearly peerless songwriting ability within the power metal/hard rock spectrum, and with said ability has delivered a career’s worth of superb work through Edguy and of course his solo/all-star project Avantasia. Every Sammet penned album can be guaranteed to contain a small to large handful of gems, and for that fact alone I believe he is worthy of respect and yes even gratitude. Speaking as a power metal fan, that level of consistency is a rare beast in a genre too often full of talented musicians who can’t write a decent tune. I became a fan of the man back in 2000 with Edguy’s seminal classic Mandrake, and both retrospectively and with each new release, Sammet continued to fill the soundtrack of my life with thundering, grandiose power metal epics and emotive, stirring ballads. Few others in power metal deliver the goods as well as he does. So as expected, there’s a lot on my mind regarding this record, and to better help myself keep all my thoughts in order I’ll be breaking this down into categorized, bite-sized chunks:


The Good:


Stylistic commitment:

When it comes to the music on offer here, Sammet sticks with what his overall approach has developed into, which is a broadly scoped fusion of anthemic hard rock mixed with traditional power metal. I’m going to cautiously say that this was a good call. There are probably quite a handful of fans that would prefer to see a full on return to the quasi-neoclassical sound of The Metal Operas, and while I understand those wishes, I also appreciate that asking an artist to conjure up new music in a style and head space that he is over ten years removed from is simply unrealistic. While The Scarecrow Trilogy did feature some wonderfully decadent orchestral keyboard laden tracks, Sammet relied far more on unadorned hard rock — and that was a line crosser for many fans at the time, who felt that the name Avantasia should conjure up music that was entirely regal, and Euro-centric-ally classical.  That being said, there does seem to be a knowing glance to The Metal Opera past that arrives in the presence of the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg on the album from front to back. The orchestra’s impact is felt throughout, providing an expansive bed of sound for even the more rock than metal cuts, giving them an appropriately epic feel.



Some really great songs:

But far more than the details of styles and sounds, its songwriting that matters the most to me, and Sammet digs up a couple of inarguable gems. The most obvious of these is the album standout “Savior in the Clockwork”, a surging ten minute monster with a chill inducing epic chorus that contains perhaps my favorite Sammet characteristic as of late: Goddamned awesome choir background vocals. They give what is already a great chorus that extra airtime with this huge soaring uplift — its pure ear candy and has been a prominent songwriting/production element in the past few Avantasia/Edguy albums. There’s a small but well known handful of vocalists that make up this choir, including the immensely likable Amanda Somerville, and quite frankly they should be talked about more in other reviews I’ve seen.


The award for most Avantasia-ian song goes to the truly exciting “Dweller in a Dream”, which harkens back to the classic pure symphonic metal style so vividly that you could probably slip it onto a burned copy of the first Metal Opera record and a newbie wouldn’t know it was a from another album. Maybe its the way Michael Kiske’s vocals finish Sammet’s refrain during the chorus, but I got flashbacks of 2000 — anyone else? And I’ll go ahead and blaspheme here (to some people), by saying that “Sleepwalking”, the most startlingly overt pop song Sammet has ever penned actually works surprisingly well; a semi-power ballad with a yearning, cinematic chorus that soars to those same dizzying heights that characterize so many of his past ballads. Producer/guitarist Sascha Paeth makes a wonderful contribution here with an elegantly simple guitar solo that softly echoes the primary melody and evokes a beautiful sentimentality.



Eric Martin / No lame interludes!:

And speaking of ballads, Sammet’s best decision on this album is to utilize Eric Martin’s seemingly ageless voice for the actual ballad, a classic piano and strings laden slow dance with a strong, emotionally stirring refrain and lush backing vocal arrangement. Martin’s voice is rich, suitably sandpapery, and inflected with just a touch of country that only enhances the heart wrenching qualities of Sammet’s composition by grounding it in an American southern earthiness.


Bonus points go to Sammet for good decision making on avoiding a concept album cliche of small non-song intervals, few bands can do them well and Sammet has had a sketchy record in the past when he’s tried it (the utterly obnoxious “Lucifer in Love” anyone?). To his credit he’s done a great job keeping that nonsense out of his past seven records, and I’ve noticed fewer and fewer bands doing it as well (hopefully this becomes a full fledged trend).



The Not So Good


Woeful filler and lyrics:

There are a couple songs that simply fall flat unfortunately, the first that comes to mind is the absolutely uninspired “The Watchmaker’s Dream”, which might just have one of the most boring choruses I’ve heard in years. Joe Lynn Turner is the guest vocalist on it, and while he’s a good singer, he comes off as rather indistinguishable here (more on that later), whereas someone with a bit more character in his voice could have possibly salvaged the track by making it their own. I could have lived without the other Kiske track on offer, “Where Clock Hands Freeze”, a total 180° from the excellent “Dwellers In a Dream”. Its this album’s version of the classic Helloween-inspired power metal speedster, and frankly its weak. Sammet has previously delivered the goods on these types of attempts on the past few albums, so its disconcerting to see him drop the ball here with Kiske — whats up with that? I could also have done without the quiet, orchestra only parts in “The Great Mystery”, which interrupt the flow of what is really a fantastic series of mini-songs folded into one long epic piece. Sammet included vague meandering orchestral parts on the title track for “The Scarecrow” album, and it struck me as lazy then as it does now — surely he can come up with a creative musical or lyrical bridge to serve as a connector for two disparate sections of a song. In other words cut it out with the faux atmospherics and stop boring us. You’re better than that Tobi.



I’ve always admired great lyricists in metal and elsewhere, and I feel that I’ve been rather patient and forgiving for the typicality of mediocre lyrics that permeate so much of metal. Power metal is unfortunately guilty of harboring some horrendous lyrical massacres, and my love of the overwhelming enjoyability of the genre has forced me to simply accept it as the norm. Sammet isn’t the worst lyricist in power metal — far, far from it — he often writes about interesting subject matter and has a particular English as a second language way with a phrase that is endearing. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to call him a good lyricist either; he overuses words, phrases, and imagery often, he relies on abstraction to a fault, and his tendency to use malapropisms is simply maddening. I let a lot of that go… especially when it comes to lyricists who aren’t writing in their native tongue, but sometimes I wish they’d make use of a proofreader every once in awhile.


So in the rather heavy, and aggressive “Invoke the Machine”, we get Ronnie Atkins trying to manfully bark out this travesty of a phrase: “Don’t you see what you are meant to be / Outside your cloud-cuckoo-land”. It almost, ALMOST… ruins the song for me. Maybe its just me but dammit that’s just embarrassingly bad — “cloud-cuckoo-land”? What is this, a Teletubbies album? What in the hell is that supposed to mean anyway?


The guest vocalist line-up:

No ones said it, but surely some have to be thinking it: This album would’ve been far better with different vocalists. This has to be the most ambivalence-inducing guest cast for an Avantasia album ever. And I know that it was going to be hard to top the absolutely stellar array of vocalists Sammet assembled for The Scarecrow Trilogy, so I do applaud his efforts in trying to diversify this lineup from previous casts. As I mentioned before, Eric Martin is a great choice, and I dig Ronnie Atkins and Bob Catley’s contributions as well. But Biff Byford, Joe Lynn Turner, Cloudy Yang, and to some extent Kiske himself were really uninspired choices here.


I include Kiske because his vocals only work if he’s getting exceptional songs, as he has on past efforts. And while I loved “Sleepwalking”, surely Amanda Somerville would have been a far better choice than Yang — who while not bad, suffers from awkward phrasing, spotty enunciation, and an all around weird approach to vocals… is she trying to be R&B, pop, rock, or none of the above? Hell if I know! As for Byford — I’ve never been a big fan and I can’t help but think when listening to his feature track here, “Black Orchid”, how much better it’d sound if Jorn was on vocals instead.


And while I realize that the guest vocalists on Avantasia albums are for the most part reflections of Sammet’s musical inspirations and interests, he has proven that he could stretch out before to spectacular results such as nabbing Roy Khan, or even Hansi Kursch himself on an old Edguy record. There’s a load of great talent out there, and maybe next time Sammet should set his sights wider to scope out some of the great contemporary vocalists out there in rock and metal that perhaps aren’t the traditional favorites (though no one would object to Bruce Dickinson… seriously how has that not happened yet?). I’m veering close into straight up nitpicking territory here I know, but this was the first time that an Avantasia guest list didn’t excite me (Martin being an exception), and I think that its been a bit of a damp towel on my enthusiasm for the album.



The Takeaway


Despite initially looking forward to The Mystery of Time, I’ll confess that I was surprised that a new record was even in the works. Sammet all but put the project to bed after the 2010 mini-tour, citing that he felt he had done all he could under the Avantasia banner. So why the sudden change? Especially when its pretty much been a known certainty that his main band Edguy has indeed suffered in wake of the post-2006 resurgence of Avantasia. Look, like I said earlier, all his albums have their share of excellent moments, and the past few Edguy albums have been no exception. But I can’t honestly sit here and say that The Age of the Joker, Tinnitus Sanctus, and Rocket Ride can compare to earlier Edguy classics.


Its obvious to myself and other Sammet devotees that Avantasia has gotten most of his attention for the past half a decade now; consider that all of a sudden Avantasia’s total album count tallies at six, only three behind Edguy’s nine. In fact, since 2006, Sammet has delivered four full length Avantasia albums plus two EPs, while Edguy has only released three albums. If Avantasia has gotten the better half of Sammet’s songwriting for the past few years, its reasonable to say that Edguy has diminished in turn. Slowly, gradually, Avantasia has become Sammet’s main priority and Edguy is increasingly an afterthought.


There’s a fellow who goes by the name Empyreal on the Encyclopedia Metallum, whose reviews for various Edguy/Avantasia releases so often mirror my feelings as to why I love Sammet’s work so much. And as a fellow details obsessed devotee, Empyreal points out exactly what I was thinking about The Mystery of Time,

A lot of these songs are more traditional rock-based ones, like Tobias usually does, even if they are markedly less “fun” sounding than he’s usually known for. I didn’t expect him to dive head-on into his new experiments without some forays back to the familiar territory, but it would help if some of these songs were better.

I think that Empyreal is touching on something that has been bubbling under the surface for many Sammet fans, namely, it seems that the blend of rock and metal is tilting very far into rock and further and further away from anything remotely metal related. Heck, the new album is even subtitled as “A Rock Epic” for that matter, the era of the Metal Opera is long over apparently, as Sammet is deliberately distancing himself from a tag that admittedly does seem more and more burdensome. Now this wouldn’t even be an issue if the two bands didn’t sound so stylistically similar, but they’re becoming virtually indistinguishable in that regard. The hard rock infusions don’t bother me by themselves, but it does beg the question: Is there really that much of a difference between Edguy and Avantasia anymore? And to further that question, is Edguy relevant to Sammet, and if so, is there a way to get it out of the grand shadow cast by his larger than life side project?




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