The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2019 // Part One: The Songs

It’s been an incredible year for new music, one of the best that I can remember, and I’m wrapping it up with part one of the double Best of 2019 feature. I’ve done a best songs list since 2012, and I think in the end of the year flurry around albums, its excellent songs that often tend to get lost in the shuffle. As expected, there will be some crossover here with the upcoming albums list, but I love giving isolated gems from problematic albums some attention on here. For the metrics, I did consider my iTunes play counts (yes I’m still using an iPod Nano), but as Spotify has increasingly taken over as a source for music, those stats are becoming less relevant. So I had to really check myself to be as honest as possible, even if it makes a few readers shake their heads in bewilderment as I’m sure some of the stuff below will. Be sure to check out our upcoming MSRcast episodes for discussion on late 2019 releases, as well as our gigantic year end blowout episodes where we’ll likely be talking about a ton of stuff not covered here.

1.   Avantasia – “Ghost In The Moon” (from the album Moonglow)

The opening track from Avantasia’s flawed but fun Moonglow, “Ghost In The Moon” contained a shimmering, shooting star chorus that was launched on the back of a gorgeous, rolling piano melody. It was a strange track coming from Sammet, with a rounded, soft approach to the songwriting that owed more to classic rock n’ roll than the sharp edges and angles of metal. It was the first time he simultaneously wore the Jim Steinman influence on his sleeve and yet transcended it at the same time. At just under ten minutes in length, it was an ambitious album opener too —- and I’ve heard so many bands try the epic as the opener gambit that have fallen flat on their faces and irreparably damaged an album’s pacing and momentum. Sammet must’ve felt confident that he had a gem on his hands then, and in another sign of confidence, took on this song solo on an album full of guest vocalists on all the other songs. The fantastic gospel choir backing vocalists singing half a beat behind him provided that soaring, spiritual uplift that lodged this song in comfort listening territory all through the year.

2. Sabaton – “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom” (from the album The Great War)

Built on insistent riff progressions and an inspired vocal melody from Joakim Broden, Sabaton found magic on the stirringly heroic “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”, a song about the exploits of the legendary T.E. Lawrence. There’s a riding on horseback through the desert rhythmic gallop at work here, and a swashbuckling swing to the chorus, suggestive of the derring-do ascribed to Lawrence himself in the lyrics. Largely devoid of keyboards, it was also refreshingly aggressive for Sabaton, built on the mechanized rhythm guitar of Chris Rörland and wild, flashy fireworks of Tommy Johansson. It was the clear highlight off The Great War, and should go down as an all-time classic for the band, and to my ears its their best song to date.

3. Idle Hands – “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” (from the album Mana)

Truth be told, there were a few songs off Idle Hands incredible debut album that could’ve wound up on this list, in fact I had “Give Me To The Night” and “Jackie” shortlisted for it, but I think it was going to be inconceivable to not include the strange, slightly mystical “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?”. Built on a Queensryche-ian bassline and guitarist Sebastian Silva’s chiming chord strums, this is a moody ballad that’s too dark and metaphorical to call a power ballad. Singer Gabriel Franco narrates us through his weird fantastical dream world with his emotional yet plaintive sounding vocals, sounding detached and possessed of a raw urgency at once. In the song’s apex, Franco counts down from eight to usher in Silva’s incredible, Latin-rock tinged solo, a transcendent moment that is as thrilling as it is weird.

4. Ancient Bards – “Light” (from the album Origine – The Black Crystal Sword Saga Part 2)

Ancient Bards are no strangers to ballads, but when they released “Light” just ahead of their fourth album Origine, they raised a few eyebrows. It was a lush piano and vocals centric affair that was dewy-eyed and heart on sleeve, something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Frozen 2 soundtrack. Its glossy, 4kHD music video juxtaposed interpretive dance intercut with singer Sara Squadrani dressed to the nines while singing on the shore of the Adriatic Sea at sunrise. This somehow landed on a conceptual fantasy story driven album? How did that even make sense? It didn’t, but Ancient Bards did it anyway because they had the wisdom to realize that a great song shouldn’t be ignored or stuffed into the vault just because its screamingly different or gasp, even non-metal to its very essence. There are guitars towards the end, including a sugary sweet solo, but by then you’re already miming along to Squadrani doing your best Celine Dion impression. Get. Into. It.

5. Swallow The Sun – “Here On The Black Earth” (from the album When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light)

The gut wrenching, agonizingly sad emotional center of one of the bleakest albums of this decade, nevermind the year, “Here On The Black Earth” is not an easy listen. It is however, a rewarding one musically speaking, its gripping musical refrain and lyrical motif colliding in a chorus that sends shivers down your arm. The lyrics here are elegiac, woven with imagery of the natural world and flesh and bone. Of course if you’re aware of the backstory behind this record, you’ll know that Juha Raivio was writing from a deeply personal perspective, yet he was also self-aware enough to keep things ultimately vague, providing space for this song to attach itself to anyone’s grief or sadness. The vocal performance by Mikko Kotamäki is fierce and empathetic, he really sinks into the brutal nature of the lyrics on his harsh vocal explosions, while allowing his clean vocals to sound slightly detached and deadened. That’s a tough ask of any singer but you get the feeling that he just knew what to do, and up and did it.

6. Frozen Crown – “In The Dark” (from the album Crowned In Frost)

Embodying the very essence of what we love the most about power metal, Italy’s Frozen Crown delivered a gem with “In The Dark”. It’s a tightly written gem burning with an empowering and defiant spirit, with a perfectly sculpted, fully arcing chorus. Vocalist Giada Etro is a dynamic singer, maintaining crispness and intensity through nuanced verses, with effortless transitions to a soaring belt during the refrain. Alongside songwriter/guitarist/co-vocalist Federico Mondelli, the pair are integral to what has become the most exciting new power metal debut on the European mainland in recent years. There’s a youthful vigor to the sound here that is exciting to behold, the kind of thing we heard on Edguy and Sonata Arctica records back in the late 90s. And alongside their compatriots in Temperance and Ancient Bards, they’re redefining what Italian power metal can sound like, and that’s something I’d never have imagined possible a few years ago.

7. Avatarium – “The Fire I Long For” (from the album The Fire I Long For)

Sneakily released in late November (Nuclear Blast should know better), this one almost eluded me, but thankfully I caught it in time to consider just how much Avatarium have transitioned away from their 70’s occult rock/doom hybrid into a band that embraces a wider artistic palette. Whether the stepping away of Candlemass founder Leif Edling has been the impetus of change or it was merely a natural artistic progression, there’s a wider range of influences at work throughout their new album. Here on the gorgeous, smoldering title track, vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith channels darker, alt-country chanteuses such as Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, and fellow Swede Nina Persson. This is a hypnotic song, lush and full of depth and artistry, both in Smith’s expressive vocals but also in guitarist Marcus Jidell’s inspired, loose, dark-countrified licks. Don’t skip this tune.

8. Dialith – “The Sound Of Your Voice” (from the album Extinction Six)

The lead off track from one of the year’s most visceral and exciting releases, “The Sound Of Your Voice” is the likely introduction for many to Connecticut(!) symphonic metallers Dialith, having been a full-length YouTube ad that a lot of folks may have stumbled upon whilst watching other videos. It’s a remarkable song on its own, not least for its perfect encapsulation of Dialith’s many interlocking musical elements, but for its euphoric, triumphant spirit streaking through it, particularly in the latter half of the song. Through a combination of crunchy and dense melodeath riffing, restrained keyboard symphonics, and the serene yet strong vocals of
Krista Sion, Dialith have single-handedly brought a fresh perspective to what symphonic metal could and should sound like. And just to put into perspective how utterly spectacular Extinction Six is as an album, I also had “Break The Chains” and “In Every Breath” as nominees for this list as well. As you might predict, this isn’t the last time I’ll be writing about Dialith this year…

9. Everfrost – “Winterider” (from the album Winterider)

Everfrost was one of those unexpected, out of nowhere surprises this year, and they arrived like a good priest with the timely heals in your mmorpg party (in the game of your choice of course —- shout out to any old Shadowbane players!), swooping in to comfort us in the wake of Sonata Arctica’s disastrous new album with a blast of sugary, wintry old school Finnish power metal. It’s hard to imagine a more timely release. But founding member/keyboardist Benjamin Connelly gets credit for being more than just the sum of his influences, being a sharp songwriter capable of crafting razor sharp hooks in songs imbued with a sense of freshness and fun. Case in point is the title track “Winterider”, which features one of the most satisfying opening keyboard/guitar riffs in power metal history, and packs as much energy as possible in its tight, compact synth melodies and urgent guitars. The band’s anime/manga aesthetic clearly leaves more than just a visual imprint on the band, with the frenetic, insistent pacing of this song reminding me of equal parts Galneryus and J Rock as it does the ultra-fast cutting and editing of the most hyperbolic animes. The glorious finale from the 3:26 moment onwards is what got this track on this list, bringing an adrenaline rush so addictive that I needed a daily fix.

10. Gloryhammer – “Gloryhammer” (from the album Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex )

It would be downright disingenuous to leave this track off the best songs list, considering how much I listened to it throughout the year, surprising not only myself but those around me who’d heard me grumble about bands like Gloryhammer in the past. Well opinions can change over time and shout out to the crew in the r/PowerMetal community for yet another thing they’ve managed to foist upon my playlists, because it was their enthusiasm for Gloryhammer that caused me to consider their new album this year with fresh ears and an open mind. It was the eponymous single “Gloryhammer” that was the clear cut apex of an already excellent album, with a hook built on a classic power metal mid-tempo strut and a high arcing vocal melody. The secret to pulling off such ridiculous lyrics lies in vocalist Thomas Winkler’s commanding performance —- his voice is rich with character, affecting the heroic pomp of the character he’s playing without resorting to pure theatrics. Hear the way he shout-sings “…since 1992!”, a minor detail but something that makes me crack a smile every time I hear it. Credit to bandleader/songwriter Christopher Bowes, who quite simply HAD to deliver the band’s most catchy, anthemic, and yes powerful song if he insisted on it being about the band’s namesake weapon. By gods he did it.

Last Call: The Final Reviews Of 2019

Here we are, on the doorstep of Thanksgiving and at the natural end of the 2019 metal release calendar. If you’re releasing your album in December, fire your label because most of us are on the verge of publishing our best of lists for the year and drinking as much Bailey’s as possible. These are my final reviews for the year, for releases that arrived in the autumn months of September through November, and crammed together at that. I know for sure that I’m missing some notable names here, and I simply ran out of time, like actual tangible time to listen to so many records while also giving a massive amount of attention to headline grabbing artists like Blind Guardian and Insomnium (oh and also, you know, real life stuff like work, studying, sleeping, and whatnot). In keeping with the way I’ve handled these bundled up reviews dumps throughout this year, these are smaller reviews, meant for a quicker read than your typical Metal Pigeon deep dive. And while I’m going to write more about this in the upcoming best of features, its worth emphasizing here just how much truly spectacular music we’ve had to come to grips with this year. These past three months have certainly lived up to their predecessors in terms of bringing quality and quantity. And while this blog is calling time on 2019 with this final new music update, on the upcoming MSRcasts we’ll be discussing at length a ton of stuff that I haven’t covered here, particularly albums that we’ve missed from earlier in the year that we’re only now getting around to.

Dawn Of Destiny – The Beast Inside:

It kinda stunned me that its been four years since Dawn of Destiny’s last record, 2015’s eminently listenable To Hell. This four year gap between that record and their newest, The Beast Inside, represents the longest time they’ve gone in between releasing albums (even lapping the three gap between 2009-12 caused by the departure of original vocalist Tanja Maul). I didn’t notice the absence largely in part to just how much new music I have spilling into my lap at any given month in any given year, with seemingly no let up —- a luxury of a problem for sure, but it does tend to cause the kind of inattentiveness to a band’s activities that me fifteen years ago would’ve scoffed at. Five years ago, I placed the band’s 2014 record F.E.A.R. at the number three spot on that year’s best albums list, and its been one of those albums that I’ve revisited so much since then that I can’t help but feel it’s in the conversation for one of my favorite albums of this past decade. That F.E.A.R. and To Hell were merely a year apart hearkened back to the band’s first three albums, also released in rapid succession one year after another —- this was clearly a band that was loaded with creativity, weren’t encumbered by a lengthy touring schedule, and were prepossessed with a desire to release as many albums as possible, and in doing so establish an artistic legacy despite their low profile on the international metal scene. I spell all this out because I’m wondering if that kind of rapid fire release schedule was the secret motor to the band’s artistic success in some forward momentum sustaining kind of way. Because for its strengths, The Beast Inside is a bit of a let down in comparison to its two immediate predecessors. Maybe taking too much time in between releases is the band’s kryptonite.

Given bassist/co-vocalist Jens Faber’s pedigree as a songwriter however, we’re guaranteed a handful of strong moments on this album. First among these is the album opener “The Beast Inside A Beauty”, a constantly shifting, redirecting slice of gothic tinged melodrama built on throbbing basslines, DoD’s always surprisingly crunchy riffs and a powerful vocal performance by Jeanette Scherff. Her staccato delivery, seemingly effortless, deft, and incredibly rich in tone is one of the most addictive aspects to the band’s sound, and she elevates a song like “It’s My Fate”, which is a bit of a left turn from DoD’s gothic power metal pomp with its strange pacing and instrumentation. But surprisingly, the two best songs on the album see Scherff sharing co-lead vocal duties with Faber in dramatic, enchanting duets: “Fight Your Inner Demons” is the kind of dark, moody theatrical power balladry that would’ve felt at home on F.E.A.R.; and “Peace Of Mind” is a branching out into experimental territory that actually works rather well. Faber takes the lead vocal and has improved as a singer, reminding me here of a smoother Alice Cooper on the verses while soaring alongside Scherff in the spectacularly epic chorus. It’s the killer cut on an album otherwise bogged down by a lot of songs that leave me simply wanting to return to their older albums for my fix of high melodrama. There’s nothing here I can point to as glaringly offensive, but I can’t help but wonder if its rust that’s preventing some of these songs from shining the way I’ve grown used to DoD appearing. I’m hoping that the band will be back with something new in their customary quick turnaround fashion and I’ll be heaping praises on them once again.

Kobra And The Lotus – Evolution:

The usage of the term evolution to describe any band’s changing sound from an album to album is one of the more overused in the vocabulary at this point. I think its been invoked so often that we’ve all lost sight of what its meaning is actually supposed to apply to —- gradual change over a lengthy period of time. When you do an about face in your musical approach from fairly serious in tone progressive hard rock/metal to the radio rock driven approach that Kobra and the Lotus have employed on their newest album, you don’t get to simply call it Evolution and not have someone call bs on it. You changed, you made a decision to change, not evolve. This was a late September release, and I heard it for the first time back then on release day, and was so baffled at what I heard that I immediately shelved it and vowed to come back at another time when I was less busy and more mentally prepared to process just what the hell this band had done to their sound. If you’ll recall, I came on board with Prevail I/II, the latter of which found itself popping up on my best songs of 2018 list with the incredible “Let Me Love You”. The refined melodicism of that pair of albums was an exciting place for this band, a merging of old influences and modern production flourishes and metallic crunch, kinda their sweet spot. It was helmed by producer wunderkind Jacob Hansen, who has proved himself to be quite skilled at merging the sometimes disparate worlds of gritty heaviness and refined melodicism into something excitingly whole. Weirdly premonitory, on the topic of the band’s future I spelled out the following —- “…the question is whether that central guitar riff will be too heavy for programmers and leave this song in too commercial for metal / too metal for radio purgatory.” I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one asking that question, whether it was the band themselves or their management, or the terribad advice of industry folks, radio programmers, booking agents and the like.

Whomever is to blame for the nudge, its the band themselves that acted on the advice and cooked up really meaningless pap like “Get the Fuck Out of Here”, which sounds far worse than its title would suggest. And I’ve never been a fan of dropping profanity in lyrics, not because I’m some puritanical church boy who’s easily offended, but because I think its lowest common denominator language that really has no place in a recorded artform where an artist has time to think about what they’re trying to say. I do think there are exceptions to this rule, but they’re few and far between and not reliant on genre either, because I think profanity in hip-hop also works to the same detrimental effect —- can you express an idea in a more intelligent manner? I’m fine with someone using it in everyday speech, in that off handed way that we all engage in here and there, but what am I getting out of it in a song? Onto a less juvenile but no less schlocky cut like “Burn!”, which is the album’s first single and thus a good indicator of the thought process for this album as a whole —- we get a generic riff progression, sterile production with none of the rough edge we were treated to on Prevail, and an electronica wash used by Amaranthe and more nauseatingly, modern In Flames. Production here was handled by the radio rock inclined Michael Baskette, who’s associated with Alter Bridge and Linkin Park, so smooth and polished is the blueprint. There’s a lone call back to the band’s previously gritter approach, the ballad “Wash Away”, and its worth adding to a playlist with the Prevail and High Priestess songs. As for the rest of this… what a disappointment. I noticed the press release for the album bafflingly stated: “No longer bound by old formulas and expectations from the past”, to which I can only wonder who they feel was holding them back. Their fans? The press release also stated “Each song feels like an Active Rock hit in the making”, which I guess kind of says it all really.

Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen:

France’s most enigmatic black metal band is back with their most unexpected, and bewildering in a good way album to date. The last we heard from Blut Aus Nord was 2017’s Deus Salutis Meæ, an inscrutably dense affair that largely sounded to me like one long industrial noisescape. It was not what I wanted to hear after being so taken with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III, a top ten album of the year listee and mid-90s second wave Norwegian black metal revisitation. Well, push both of those aside for Hallucinogen, because Vindsval and company have cooked up something entirely new here, a merging of black metal tremolo riffs with a looser, more rock directed rhythmic structure through which they inject ample amounts of major chord melody. Its not so much Deafheaven’s Sunbather as it is borrowing a little from the progressive rock world of Steven Wilson and Tool, with maybe a splash of fellow countrymen Alcest to help things mesh well. The vocals here are buried deep in the mix, more so than usual with Blut, and so for that reason its hard not to hear Hallucinogen as largely an instrumental and textural affair. That’s not a bad thing, because this is a captivating listen, a record that I always intend to put on as a soundtrack to some other mental activity and wind up paying more attention to regardless. If the cover art wasn’t a big tip off, the music certainly points to a central motif running throughout that’s informing the musical path here, that of a sense of discovery and exploration through the world of psychedelic stimulation. The melodic lead guitar figures on “Sybelius” are a vivid example of what I’m referring to, this isn’t a typical sound palette for a band known for dabbling in extreme black metal and noise. But its not just its burstingly melodic nature that characterizes Hallucinogen, its how emotionally charged that melodicism comes across that has resulted in this being one of the most fascinating albums of the year.

Alcest – Spiritual Instinct:

Alcest have over the past decade plus since their 2007 debut rarely failed to impress me. There was the 2014 misfire with the entirely non-metallic dream pop of Shelter, and thankfully they kept that exploration confined to one album because otherwise we’d have never gotten 2016’s year end list maker masterwork Kodama. Neige said at the time of Kodama’s release that his return to the band’s pioneering black gaze sound on that album was in large part because he wanted their new music to be punchier (something they lost entirely on Shelter). It’s interesting then to see that on its follow up, Spiritual Instinct, he’s doubling down on that desire instead of reactively shifting away from it purely to do something different for the sake of it. I say they’re doubling down on the punchiness factor because this is the heaviest, most aggressive Alcest album to date —- almost as if Neige opened his closet and rediscovered his lost black leather jacket and he and drummer Winterhalter drove around France listening to Accept records one day. Simply put, Neige is laying down some pretty excellent riffs throughout, particularly on the first four songs. On “Les jardins de minuit” at the 5:56 mark, I’m hearing the first full blown headbanging passage in an Alcest record. That happens again with the rumbling rhythmic groove riffing on “Protection”, and the propulsive Tool meets Porcupine Tree fusion on “Sapphire”. I will say that overall, for all it’s fun Neige plays non-tremolo metal riffs glory, Spiritual Instinct can’t quite match the beautiful artistry of Kodama. That album had so much going on within its gorgeous songs, particularly with its infusion of Japanese folk music motifs. Maybe Neige just wanted to get back to basics on this new one, and that’s fair enough, its a solid, at times really impressive record. Just not their greatest.

Wilderun – Veil Of Imagination:

I’m new to Wilderun, but the ceaseless chatter surrounding the Halloween night release of this album in the r/PowerMetal circles motivated me to check the band out. The peeps there listen to all kinds of metal, but general consensus on extreme metal releases are few and far between, so that was enough of a signal that perhaps this Wilderun band was something special. And they’re definitely a unique merger of sounds, that of blistering Blackwater Park era Opeth with Pink Floyd-ian spacey prog passages, cinematic ambient noises, effects, and a general panoramic feel to how this music is presented. And wow, is this definitely an experience that I associate more with something like a film soundtrack rather than a metal record. The opening cut is a fourteen minute plus opus that starts with spoken dialogue and an acoustic, folky guitar intro piece, and is joined by flutes and enchanting choral vocals —- all before the cold water of a shaking tremolo riff pierces the serenity. The metallic attack here can be shocking heavy, but it’s well balanced, with crisp instrument definition in the mix and a pretty sweet drum sound throughout, at the forefront of the recording but never overpowering the rhythm and lead guitars. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this album’s metallic nature, but its everything else going on in Wilderun’s musical palette that’s really the draw here. This band is the brainchild of former Immortal Bird guitarist Evan Anderson Berry, and he deserves props not only for being a seriously excellent growler and clean vocalist ala Mikael Akerfeldt, but for his skill at coordinating so many diverse musical elements in a single album (and at times in a single song or even section). Its unfortunate that they released this record so late in the year because myself and others likely didn’t get to have enough time to spend listening to it yet —- I’m on week three and I’m still finding new things on each and every listen. I guess this is more of a recommendation than a review… I’m not at a stage where I can say I’ve fully digested this album and know every nook and cranny by heart and have a firm grasp on its strengths and weaknesses. What I can say is that I never tire of listening to it, and it is certainly one of the most adventurous listening experiences you’ll ever encounter, this year or any year. Check this one out in full, but if you want a bite sized go-to sample, hit up the epic “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl”, which is the song that’s perhaps most representative of the album as a whole, and also a gorgeous, sweepingly grand piece of music.

Cyhra – No Halos In Hell:

You might recall that I was surprisingly impressed with Cyhra’s debut, Letters To Myself, two years ago. That such an unlikely pairing of Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg actually worked and produced some compellingly emotional modern metal, was a minor triumph. My only real complaints with that record as I recall were that I didn’t care for the abundance of slower, ballady material through the back half of the album, feeling like it dampened the excitement generated by the hook factor of the uptempo tracks. As per Lundberg’s own description of his voice paired with melodeath type guitars (i.e., Bon Jovi meets Soilwork), Cyhra found a realized sound rather quickly on those uber catchy, high energy songs, with Stromblad finding just enough space to weave in some of his unmistakable melodic signature lead bursts that we came to appreciate during his tenure with In Flames. Lundberg for his part proved himself to be quite adept at penning a razor sharp vocal hook, and we were finally able to get some clarity on just how vital a songwriter he was for Amaranthe. I looked forward to a second album, wondering if the band would amp up the heaviness the next time around. What they’d established on Letters was a good baseline, a balance of syrupy pop melodies with the splashy melodic technicality of one of melodeath’s pioneering architects. Yet the question that hung in the air was which way would the band lean further towards on future releases?

It doesn’t take more than one listen of No Halos In Hell to immediately pick up on the fact that the band has stuck with the formula of the first album, down to including way more songs than necessary resulting in a heavily diluted tracklisting. But unevenness in song quality is the least of the problems here, because while their debut had about seven to eight songs that were playlist worthy, repeat listeners —- No Halos has at best three to four, and that’s pushing it. I’m not sure how best to articulate why these songs just seem to fall flat, because the performance quality is up to snuff regarding Lundberg’s vocals and the rest of the band’s musical contributions. Stromblad seems a little more subdued throughout however, and that might be a major contributing factor, his signature guitar stylings not as bright and bursting as they were on the debut. I suspect that Lundberg is trying to branch out in his writing of melodic vocal melodies, and while that’s admirable in a vacuum, its not exactly what Cyhra needed right now. The songs that work here, such as “Battle From Within”, “Hit Me”, I Am The One”, and “Out Of My Life” have quick striking hooks in their refrains that are packed tightly between concise verse passages. But long drawn out soft ballady such as “Lost In Time” just does not work here, and perhaps it would have in an Amaranthe context, with Elize Ryd’s sugary tone carrying some of the lines in a duet. Not even a “full band” version further down the tracklisting can save it, and while you can hear what Lundberg was going for in the chorus, its just too flat of a hook to capture the heartstrings. Its a cliche, but the sophomore slump seems to be very much real here, and its down to the band playing it safe and repeating themselves when they probably should’ve looked to shake things up a little more on this one. My advice, for what its worth (and coming from a fan): Let Jesper cut loose, give him more extended solo sections, limit the slower/softer songs to one or two, and allow your heaviness to directly contrast with those aforementioned smooth Bon Jovi-type vocals. Cyhra’s sound has potential, but they gotta turn the key to unlock it —- otherwise they risk it growing stale really fast.

Novembers Doom – Nephilim Grove:

America’s hardest working doom metal vets are back with a follow up to 2017’s double year end list making Hamartia. That was a special album, the band choosing to explore their more melancholic and expressively emotional side. It reminded me of stuff like Charon, Sentenced, and Katatonia. It met with a surprising amount of vocal resistance from some fans, who felt that the band’s headfirst dive into pure melodicism was not what they signed up for, but a newbie like myself loved it. I’m a little less keen on Nephilim Grove then, in large part to the band’s retreat from the Hamartia approach and abrupt march back towards a more death-doom groove metal vein. Of course the possibility exists that there just wasn’t enough left to mine from that Hamartia style, and to force it for a second album would’ve produced less than inspired results, so I can’t fault the band for that if its the case. The possibility exists that a die-hard November’s Doom fan like my MSRcast co-host Cary will feel differently about this new album, and that I’m the odd man out for this round, which I can live with. And I should say, after having sat with Nephilim Grove for a few weeks, that its a solid slab of speaker rattling metal, more uptempo than the doom tag suggests, with tunes like “Petrichor” and “The Witness Marks” set to uptempo, attacking rhythms. Paul Kuhr of course sounds fantastic, his clean baritone as bleak and discomfiting as ever, and his growls fierce and crisply enunciated. The most satisfying cut here is “Adagio”, and he turns in an awesome performance delivering both vocal styles in direct, quick succession during the chorus. I dunno… if you haven’t listened to this yet but have enjoyed the band before, chances might be high that you’ll be all about this record, I’m very interested to hear Cary’s thoughts on it (we’ll be discussing it on our next podcast). Chalk this up to maybe being a Metal Pigeon problem, not a Novembers Doom one.

The Bards And Their Songs: Blind Guardian’s Twilight Orchestra

Here it is. Finally. A project over two decades in the making that, let’s be honest… few Blind Guardian fans were ever truly clamoring for at the expense of say a regular, guitar based Blind Guardian record. I say this having been one of those fans who’s been aware of this project lurking in the shadows for ages now, my first direct recollection being an interview Hansi gave to Dr. Metal on The Metal Meltdown show on WRUW Cleveland way back in 2001 (I still have the audio of it). It was described then as being in its early infancy, although they had hopes to finish it in a few years (cue stifled laughter here), and it had its roots in unused music for Nightfall In Middle Earth as well as the music that the band presented to Peter Jackson in hopes of landing on the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. In the time since I first heard about this project, the bards have released four studio albums, two live albums and I’ve seen them in concert four times, Hansi and Marcus five with Demons and Wizards this past August. Credit where its due, they never committed the absolute blunder that I lambasted Therion for, who set aside all normal recording output to devote a decade to both a covers record and triple disc opera project. Hansi and Andre, who he co-wrote this project with, knew how their bread was buttered and were okay with this orchestral project taking the long route home, something they could afford to have sitting dormant for huge chunks of time while they worked on normal band projects. Perhaps Hansi’s only mistake was in publicly mentioning it at all, but even I would have a hard time assigning any blame for that, because there were really no consequences to talking about it. I say this as a die-hard Blind Guardian fan mind you, but we’d hear him talk about it when asked in interviews over the years, grunt at the info, and continue reading for details on the follow up to A Twist In The Myth or At The Edge of Time. And I suppose I should clarify a bit —- its not like I wasn’t interested at all in the project, because how could one not be curious? But what else could you do but shrug and wait? No one knew what this orchestral thing was even supposed to be.

What it immediately struck me as being upon my very first listen and reinforced in subsequent spins, is that of an audiobook with a built in soundtrack. There’s an hour and fifteen minutes running time here, twenty four tracks total, of which only eleven are actual “song” length pieces of music. Now those eleven tracks compromise an hour and four minutes of the running time, so its not like we’re being subjected to an actual audiobook, but the arrangement of the musical pieces amongst an array of tracks where voice actors spin forth dialogue with radio play styled sound effects is spread out in such a way that no two musical tracks ever line up back to back. This will undoubtedly frustrate anyone who felt bothered by the interludes in Nightfall In Middle Earth —- fortunately for myself, I wasn’t one of those people (the thirty seconds of “Lammoth” are essential!). But I think its fair to say that one’s tolerance level for stuff like this is going to be a huge factor on whether or not they enjoy listening to Legacy of the Dark Lands overall, and as a frequent listener of fantasy audiobooks, I’ve grown accustomed to this kind of listening experience. The meat of the album then are those aforementioned eleven pieces of music (let’s just call them songs from now on), and it really is simply multilayered Hansi with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the FILMharmonic Choir Prague and Vox Futura choir chiming in on occasion. Hansi is backed by the “BG Choir Company” which I’m assuming is made up of all the regular guys who have provided backing vocals on Blind Guardian records for awhile now. There are no guitars, so Marcus isn’t a part of this project, and though there are booming timpani’s and martial snare percussion, Frederick is also not involved. It’s strictly a Hansi and Andre joint with Charlie Bauerfiend as usual at the production helm.

The biggest reservations I had about the project heading into it was how would Hansi sound in a setting with just the orchestra, and my worries were slightly exacerbated with their decision to release “Point Of No Return” as the lead advance promotional track. It was yet another in a long line of examples of bands misfiring on what song to release first, because while I do enjoy its undeniably powerful, swellingly grandiose chorus, its connective tissue was the kind of orchestra for animation stuff I typically associate with Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes (you know what I’m talking about), and Hansi stringing together random blitzes of short vocal melodies for a dizzying amount of lyrics. That magnificent repeating chorus aside, it lacked any kind of cohesiveness overall, and I wondered if that’s how the rest of the album would sound. We’re so used to having Andre and Marcus delivering awesome riffs and interesting counter melodies to fill in the gaps between Hansi’s vocals. Would Hansi and Andre attempt to either over write vocal lines for Hansi to sing to make up for that, or perhaps try to use the orchestra itself as a fill-in for those guitars? On that advance song, it certainly sounded like they were doing both. But again, this is why I have a growing dislike of checking out preview tracks well before the album is released. Because while of course everything that I didn’t like about “Point of No Return” is still present within the song in the context of the album; the pacing and structure of the surrounding tracks go a long way towards mitigating those annoyances, as the song fits into the larger cohesive framework of the album. Its like comparing a nicely cooked, whole roast chicken that’s had time to sit after taking it out of the oven, its juices evenly redistributing throughout to ensure deliciousness —- to attempting to bake a slab of skinless, boneless chicken breast that was the isolated “Point Of No Return”. That piece of meat would taste better left attached to the bird.

To that end, I found my initial listening experience of this album in its entirety quite joyous, maybe it was just me responding to what is undeniably a cheerful, exuberant vibe emanating from it, but I really do believe there’s a heady dose of Blind Guardian magic to some of these songs. Take the gorgeous rise at the 2:20 mark in “The Great Ordeal”, an exquisitely triumphant moment that is the apex of what is one of the stronger melodic motifs at work on the album. The old Nightfall ideas resurface in “The Storm” and “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, and the former has a head turning moment from 2:38-2:55 where Hansi just breaks through everything to punch up with a mighty vocal thrust delivering the best lyrical stanza on the album: ” Gather up / I’m the storm / I’ll bind you / You’ll be the flame / I’m the spark / My wayward friends / You must come and find me / In the dark”. It’s a transcendent, attention grabbing moment that makes me stop what I’m doing every single time to hit rewind. It’s also one of those things that you realize keeps you coming back to the song again and again, yet you wish they’d have turned it into a proper repeating chorus. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Hansi is singing his face off throughout this album, he sounds full of conviction, passion, and emotion as he always does really, but there are a smattering of micro moments where he’s hitting “Another Holy War” esque levels of excellence. That aforementioned cheerful vibe is really felt on “Dark Cloud’s Rising”. which dare I suggest has an almost holiday/Christmassy feel to its melodic thru line, with even its darker, stomier mid-section sounding like a winter storm. The repeating lyrical element towards the end (“…the road goes on forevermore….”) sounds like something that could’ve been at home on a regular Blind Guardian album nestled between songs like “Curse My Name” and “War Of The Thrones”.

The album highlight for me is “War Feeds War”, ostensibly the album’s true opener, and like “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, one of the few tracks on the album to have a distinguishable melodic thru line running across most of its entire length. I really wish Hansi and Andre decided to write more stuff in this vein, because the memorability factor goes up when you have a long, gradually developing vocal melody to really pull you in. During that opening verse sequence, you can really get a feel for just how the orchestra could carry rhythmic, riff like structures through its brass section. Those horns slice through layers of vocals and strings like a broadsword and I would’ve relished more moments where they’d been allowed to work their magic in a forward, aggressive approach. We get a frustratingly brief glimpse of this again in “Nephilim” at the 1:06 mark, but its gone before it develops into something promising and worse yet we’re never treated to it again. Why can’t these songs have repeating hooks or motifs? They can’t tell me that it can’t be done because even though I know next to nothing about classical music composition and the limits of what an orchestra can achieve, I know I’ve heard some damn fine muzak symphony recordings of Celine Dion and Queen songs through the speakers of my local pho place. And perhaps more convincingly, Blind Guardian themselves wrote an orchestral piece built on solid hooks and melodic thru lines in “Wheel of Time” off the At The Edge Of Time album. In re-listening to that song, one can hear that large swaths of it are entirely carried by the orchestral swagger provided by none other than The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. There the guitars are often providing an added textural crunch and injection of power, but melodically it’s mostly the symphony at work (the Andre guitar solo an obvious exception). Hansi’s vocals there are memorable not only for their crescendo establishing rise, but in his epic duel with the orchestra in the chorus, where horns punctuate his pauses, seemingly goading him to sing on. On an album full of incredible songs, it was the capstone, and a genuinely complementary merger of metallic and orchestral elements.

I suppose it’s unfair to ask “Why aren’t there more songs like Wheel of Time on this orchestral album”, but it’s one worth letting hang in the air for a second. I know the answer by the way… it’s the same damn thing that kills the mood in Ayreon albums for me. It’s the damn plot. Because you see while “Wheel of Time” was rather cleverly structured around a chorus spun on rhythmically rhyming lyrics in a nod to the song title’s proverbial wheel allusion, the verses were structured through equal length lyrical lines in the stanza. They were long enough to allow Hansi about five syllables worth of melodic phrasing and emoting, and that consistent structure allowed the orchestra to simultaneously keep rhythmic time and also add in some variation and color through the string section. The lyrics were a broad look at the themes and motivations of the Wheel of Time universe and its chief protagonist Rand al’Thor, and they didn’t need to delve deeper than that. Similarly, the lyrics of Nightfall In Middle Earth were written with a cognizance that the source material was either known, or easily available to those who wanted to know it. As a result, the band focused not on pure storytelling and plot (though its touched on in brief, quick glimpses), but on the emotional pulses that were the undercurrent of that incredibly anguished saga. On Legacy Of The Dark Lands, the band is telling a story that is actually the sequel to the Markus Heitz novel “Die Dunklen Lande (The Dark Land). The orchestral album bears the weight of continuing a story that began in a novel, and while some of this may be disseminated in those short non-musical segues, the bulk of it falls to Hansi and company to sing forth into existence. As a result, they’re handicapped in the songwriting scope of the project in that hooks and memorability are sacrificed for the sake of advancing a story through the lyrics.

I haven’t read the Heitz novel myself, though others have picked up the English ebook translation recently and the reviews are mixed. I’m sure it’s a decent enough slice of fantasy literature, and the premise is certainly intriguing enough on its own (set during the Thirty Years War, seemingly in an alternate universe where magic exists in our “real world”), but try as I might, the confusion factor is a big deal here. I have no frame of reference for who’s speaking in the voice acted narrative sequences, nor do Hansi’s lyrics ever really get specific with who the narrator is supposed to be or what’s their motivation in that particular moment. We’re aware of a plot being advanced, however clunkily, but there’s nothing really pulling me in to further investigate the story on my own. Setting aside opera and musical theater where we have the benefit of visuals to help tell a story that we can physically perceive, a studio recording is a difficult medium in which to tell a story that would be better served put to paper. And here’s the paradox of Hansi and Andre’s chosen approach here, that they’re trying to tell a story and create a wonderful, memorable body of music at the same time, but you can’t do both successfully due to the constraints of the medium. But if Heitz had himself written the sequel, or heck, if Hansi and Andre simply decided to write an orchestral album that was inspired by the story of the original “Die Dunklen Lande” book, thus being freed of the need to put down the plot in the lyrics, I guarantee they’d have cooked up more memorable songs. Basically they tried to do two things at once, and might not have succeeded in either, but of course that’s down to how well you enjoy the music, which is after all, chief among the reasons we’re even talking about this in the first place.

How to sum this up? There’s so much here that its been an overwhelming experience just to soak this album in on endless repeating listens. Truthfully speaking, when I have it on in the background and am busy working on other things, I find it an enjoyable listening experience. There are a myriad of micro moments that capture my attention briefly in a positive way, but they’re scattered across the album in haphazard fashion, and my attention span wanes when they’re lacking, as on the entirety of “In The Red Dwarf’s Tower”, which is the chief example of everything I could do without on a project like this. I certainly didn’t like that “Harvester of Souls” was a worse version of “At The Edge of Time” from Beyond The Red Mirror, and can’t understand why they reused the music at all. But Hansi sounds great throughout, and the orchestra sounds wonderful and dynamic (my friends in the r/PowerMetal Discord have been ripping apart the instrumental mixing of this record, but my ears are dumb to that kind of detail —- though I have heard an interview with the mastering engineer for this album state that the vinyl version is the best sounding one shrug). As I was researching this project and listening to any Hansi interview I could get my hands on, my heart would leap whenever he’d confirm that the next Blind Guardian album was already written and they were going to begin production this coming January. I realized after awhile that my reaction kinda said it all really —- I’m more excited about the next proper studio album a year out than the new orchestral album that just dropped a week ago. I’m relieved that I didn’t actively dislike Legacy Of The Dark Lands on the whole (that would’ve been a painful review to write), but I’m a little discouraged at my middling reaction towards an album that Hansi has been calling in those aforementioned interviews his and Andre’s greatest career achievement. After two decades plus of time and a heck of a lot of money devoted to it’s making, he’s earned the right to feel that way, but I know and you know that his and Andre’s defining achievement is Nightfall In Middle Earth. And it wasn’t the guitars that made that record truly spectacular —- it was the inspiration and passion that the band felt for the Tolkien source material, that they transferred through us like a conduit.

Ever Colder: Insomnium’s Heart Like A Grave

Almost a decade ago, Insomnium went from being a name I’d see occasionally tossed around online to one of my favorite modern metal bands, the kind you spend years obsessing over. Their 2011 album One For Sorrow hit me with the kind of emotional impact that had only been felt a few times in my history as a metal fan, and almost single handedly made the idea of melo-death relevant to me again. I went back through their discography, played the older records on repeat until I burned their melodies in my brain, and leapt at the chance to see them live on their tour opening for Epica and Alestorm. I detailed a little bit of this state of mind in the intro to my review for 2014’s Shadows of A Dying Sun, recounting not only my conversation with the band outside their tour bus, but how their music really became the soundtrack to a specific kind of environment. That was a late November gig, a rare day with the autumn chill pleasantly in the air (hoodie weather, as we call it in Houston) and grey overcast skies. There’s a half joking rule amongst a few friends of mine that you don’t listen to Opeth until November, I’m not sure if it was the song “Dirge For November” that brought this about, but I have to admit, Blackwater Park sounds sweeter in that space between Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps less rigidly, so too with Insomnium.

But Heart Like A Grave’s strength as an aching, bittersweet meditation on the toil of existence, loneliness, temporality, and decay is not a result of its autumn release date, but on being Insomnium’s most melodic offering to date. Its a melodicism that we associate with all these Finnish bands as a whole but frustratingly, credit is not often given to its source, that being the melancholic wellspring that was dug up on those early Amorphis and Sentenced records in the mid-90s. As for the latter, Sentenced have been a singularly overlooked influence on Insomnium that I’ve long banged on about (even writing on it), their signature bittersweet major/minor key melodies rippling through other Finnish bands like Charon and To/Die/For. Sentenced were cited as the sole reason that David Gold even put together Woods of Ypres, and that Sentenced DNA is clearly heard and felt throughout that band’s chaotic mix of extreme metal and more gothic stylings. Back to Insomnium —- I’m not just hearing what I want to hear, hell the cover art and title of Heart Like A Grave looks and sounds like a long lost Sentenced album between 2001-2005. Said cover, as well as the deluxe edition’s accompanying photography book was shot by none other than Sentenced’s drummer Vesa Ranta, who as a longtime professional photographer also designed and shot Sentenced’s gorgeous cover/sleeve art for The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. But musically speaking, I’ve always heard big and small strains of this influence throughout Insomnium’s older records, but here the band worked it deeper into the bedrock of their songwriting than ever before.

The extra dosage of this distinctly Finnish melodicism results in a tradeoff, this being the least overall aggressive album in the band’s discography, yet also the most emotionally deep and engaging. Not that you wouldn’t think lack of aggression was a factor once the opening riff to “Valediction” kicked in, it being the most outwardly attack-mode element on the album. I’ll admit that I was a little nonplussed about this song when it was first released as a music video a month or two ago. I’ve been vocal lately about being loathe to listen to preview tracks or watch music videos ahead of the album release, because it always seems that either the bands pick the wrong song from the album for this purpose, or more puzzlingly, the song doesn’t seem to work outside the context of the album. For whatever reason, “Valediction” is one of those songs, where it was “fine” in its music video form a few months ago, but mysteriously blossomed into an undeniable album highlight in the context of the album in full. Its a captivating song, built on the strength of Ville Friman (along with new co-clean vocalist/guitarist Jani Liimatainen) delivering gorgeous clean vocal melody passages that bookend Niilo Sevanen’s guttural thunder in the chorus. The accompanying dual lead melody is richly sweet, full of palpable emotional resonance, providing a striking juxtaposition against Sevanen’s all too bleak lyric: “Tonight, the world is burning / Black smoke hides the skies…”. The band carries this balancing act all throughout the record, because lyrically speaking, this is as bleak and downcast as Insomnium have ever been, gazing inward deeper than ever, while setting that perspective against the backdrop of an outside world that seems more uncertain than before.

This album is also loaded with the kind of abrupt one-off moments that made the songs on Across the Dark and One For Sorrow so memorable. I’m thinking of the decision to interrupt the dirty, grinding groove of “Neverlast” with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous dual guitar detour at the 2:17 mark. It’s the kind of choice that turns a merely good song into something excellent, and we hear another example of this on the epic, churning title track “Heart Like A Grave”. Its an album highlight not only for Friman and Liimatainen as vocalists, but in being perhaps one of the best things Markus Vanhala has written for any of his bands. A highly charged quasi-ballad, it turns into a revelatory gem at the 4:36 mark, where a desperately urgent yet exuberant lead melody surges forward and serves as the backdrop to Sevanen’s most passionately growled lyric on the album: “Years of disappointment / and disillusion / All I see in the mirror now / Is an old man with heart like a grave”. Vanhala was also the songwriter on another album standout, “Pale Morning Star”, where we’re treated to yet another gorgeous mid-song shift in direction, a wailing, aching guitar melody cut adrift, seemingly fluttering and gently swaying as though it were a kite in the wind. The fascinating storyline to this album’s construction is in its egalitarian approach to the division of songwriting duties, falling amongst four of the band’s five members, including new guy Liimatainen (yes he’s that Jani, of the first five Sonata Arctica records fame). The new guy delivers the music on “Mute Is My Sorrow”, writing a classic sounding Insomnium song with a bright, acoustic intro and rhythmically dynamic grooves, and he makes a co-writing appearance on two other cuts. Sevanen and Vanhala split the bulk of the songs, almost equally although Sevanen handles the majority of the lyrics. The biggest surprise here is that Friman is left with “Valediction” as his sole songwriting credit (music and lyrics), shocking because he alongside Sevanen was one of the band’s defining songwriters and architects on Insomnium’s albums up to this point. Its simultaneously bizarre, confusing, and thrilling that Heart Like A Grave sounds so emphatically like Insomnium despite one of its defining voices being so scaled back in the construction of the album.

This is a beautiful, haunting, anguished and ultimately comforting record, and the closest thing to the spirit of Sentenced’s last two albums that I’ve heard since the original funeral Finns called it a day. That matters a whole heck of alot to me, because while I felt that way when I first heard One For Sorrow, I have to admit that the years haven’t been good to Shadows Of A Dying Sun, and for a time that concerned me. For as positive as my review of that album was at the time of its release in 2015, I’ve found myself listening to it less and less as time has gone by, with only a few songs from it still on my playlist. I listened to it for the first time in full a little bit ago and there is something stifling about its glossier production approach that mutes the power of some of those songs, that tends to mesh them all together in one amorphous sound profile. I think if I’m being honest with myself, I felt that some of its songwriting also lacked the bold melodic inspiration that I’d come to associate with the band. It was an album written to be an Insomnium album in the mold of its immediate predecessors, but perhaps the band had run with one approach for an album too long and it showed in the songwriting quality. Its follow-up, the deliberately blackened and far more brutal Winter’s Gate was the extreme deviation that the band needed, not only in that they delivered an awesome record with it, but it helped them grab some distance from their “classic” sound so that they could come at it once again with some freshness. They’ve done just that with Heart Like A Grave, possibly the most inspired and poignant chapter in an already emotionally loaded discography —- and a fitting soundtrack to colder nights and pumpkin spice.

Kaleidoscope Metal: New Music By Dragonforce, Borknagar, Opeth, and More!

These past two months have provided a handful of releases by major institutions from across the spectrum of subgenres. Dragonforce are back with the cheekily titled Extreme Power Metal, a phrase they actually coined back in 2004 to put on the sticker of Sonic Firestorm. And while some may snicker, its fair to say Dragonforce really were pioneers in marrying extreme tempos and drum patterns (blastbeats) to ultra melodic power metal, and that maybe they’ve earned the right to weirdly use that tag over a decade later on their eighth studio album. Similarly, Opeth were pioneers in a different way altogether, marrying melody to death metal in a way that had nothing to do with the Gothenburg melodeath sound of the mid-90s era that the band was birthed in. They’ve long since moved onto prog-rock pastures of course, and their newest In Cauda Venenum continues this trajectory. Then there’s the proggy black metal of Borknagar, who are releasing their first album with ICS Vortex at the grim vocal helm since 1999’s Quintessence, with Vintersorg having bowed out of the band last year, ending an eighteen year tenure. There’s a lot to dissect with all three, and of course there’s a few releases here by newer artists that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with too. Sleeping Ancient from Houston has released a buzzworthy debut, and then there’s Everfrost who are probably gonna be new to most of you but are releasing their sophomore album that’s catching a lot of interest due to their interesting twist on the album release. A wildly varied mix of new stuff, and there’s going to be more on the way, for now:

Dragonforce – Extreme Power Metal:

Its been interesting to hear the chatter around Dragonforce grow louder over the course of the recording of their newest album, Extreme Power Metal, due to Herman Li’s clever immersion into the Twitch community. There fans got to witness not only the recording of the new album in all its meticulous tedium (and if the internet has taught us anything, nothing is too tedious), but also experience band rehearsals and soon, the band’s tour where they’ll be streaming at every tour stop for a real behind the scenes peek at life on the road with Dragonforce. I’ve watched a few of Li’s streams on replay, as well as Matt Heafy’s replays from his own popular Twitch channel, and this is a brave new frontier for band promotion if I’ve ever seen one. Not all musicians would be cut out for it or feel comfortable doing it, but for a select few, this could be a great way to keep one’s audience engaged throughout downtimes and in a more connected, personal way rather than just the typical social media posts or YouTube vlogs. For Dragonforce, its created a noticeable buzz, most recently coalescing in the band performing a set at the Twitch Con 2019’s opening ceremony. There they debuted a snazzy stage set with old school arcade cabs that Herman Li and Sam Totman could stand atop of, guitar hero (ahem) style. I gotta say, even though I may not have enjoyed all the records entirely, its refreshing that even I started to feel excited about the band right now. I don’t think anyone expected them to still be around, that something would’ve derailed them at some point, but power metal is more fun with Dragonforce around —- they’re such an audacious spearhead of the genre that I feel we should all embrace them.

If the cover art wasn’t a clue, the band have decidedly leaned towards their lighter, video game nostalgia referencing sensibilities for Extreme Power Metal, a hard turn away from the darker approach of their last three records. The vibe here recalls the Inhuman Rampage / Ultra Beatdown era, and its refreshing to hear vocalist Marc Hudson in this context, his tenure up to this point on his three album appearances being associated with more serious, angsty lyrics at times (not a bad thing in my view, but it was strikingly different than what we all associated ZP Theart with). It helps that Sam Totman and former bassist (now in Kreator) Frédéric Leclercq delivered some of the most carefree and vibrantly fun material the band has tackled in well over a decade. Songs like “Highway to Oblivion” and “Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine” ring with those unmistakable classic era Dragonforce hyper-major key hooks that are bursting to the seams with cheerfulness. Even the title of the latter seems like a knowing callback to the Inhuman era, albeit marked with the post 2012 era’s tendency to slow things down a bit and keep the tempos fluctuating. There’s a handful of addictive cuts here, among them “In a Skyforged Dream”, a song that were it longer would remind me of the Sonic Firestorm era for its trope heavy, vaguely fantasy alluding lyrics and dramatic, theatrical stop/starts. The solos towards the end are fantastic, the kind of mirroring of the main melody affair that I’m just a sucker for. And proving that the band’s experimental streak in the Hudson era is still alive and well, there’s the unusually paced and martial drumming infused “Remembrance Day”, a risky song that could’ve easily been a disaster, but somehow it kinda works and has an endearing charm in its tribute to previous generations of fallen soldiers.

My personal highlights however are a pair of songs that will end up on the old iPod, as de facto best of Dragonforce cuts in “Strangers” and “The Last Dragonborn”. The latter is about exactly what you’re thinking, namely the Elder Scrolls Skyrim, complete with references to Whiterun and Tamriel —- first of all, its refreshing alone to simply have references to actual fantasy locations in a Dragonforce song for once, instead of the eternal fantasy steeped vagueness that they work with. There’s so much to love here, be it the vaguely Eastern sounds that shape the overall melodic structure along with the cinematic orchestral arrangement courtesy of Epica’s Coen Janssen; or the dramatic rise and crash of the bridge-to-chorus where Hudson turns in a command performance; or the gorgeous mid-song bridge at the 4:18 mark that brings me back to standing on top of High Hrothgar watching the sunrise. But my favorite on the album is undoubtedly “Strangers”, a mid-tempo banger built in the streamlined approach that informed a lot of The Power Within, largely due to being a Leclercq penned song, and if memory serves he wrote “Seasons” from that album as well. If the band loses the ability to knock out unimaginable catchy mid-tempo hits like this with Leclercq’s departure, that will indeed be a shame (although I’m really looking forward to seeing if Li starts writing more). And then of course, there’s the band’s absolutely wonderful, giddily delightful cover of “My Heart Will Go On”, and in the same vein as their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, they stay faithful to the original melody while Dragonforce-izing the song with speedy percussion and furious guitar wizardry. I love everything about this cover, from the silly videogame fx at the beginning to Hudson’s impassioned performance —- they take the song just seriously enough, because dammit, the Celine Dion original is indeed a beautiful song and demands it. I always knew its melody would’ve fit into a power metal context and its a shock and joy to hear it come to fruition. To close, if you were checked out on Hudson era Dragonforce because it seemed tonally different to the old days, this album is the moment to dive back in.

Borknagar – True North:

I was more than a little curious as to what Borknagar would sound like without Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg the man the myth the legend) at the vocal helm. For the past seventeen years, he has laced Øystein Brun’s avant-garde black metal with his rich, otherworldly baritone clean vocals and of course those fierce, frostbitten grim vox too. His presence on any record he’s involved with, be it Borknagar, his own Vintersorg solo project, Otyg, Cronian, etc is hugely influenced by his mere presence, the same way Hansi just brings an encompassing envelope of characteristic sound that is unmistakable. Vintersorg clearly shaped and influenced the Borknagar sound from Empiricism through Winter Thrice, regardless of whether or not he had a hand in the songwriting. Things have been different for him however since his 2014 head injury during an accident where he fell from a ladder. He was a little less prominent on Winter Thrice, as ICS Vortex and Lazare (Lars Nedland) saw increased roles handling the vocals, and his once prolific output has slowed to just two releases in the past five years, the aforementioned Winter Thrice and 2017’s Till Fjalls II. His reasoning in the statement to fans and media was that he didn’t want to hold the band back from touring due to his day job commitments and his “situation after the accident”. That stuff about the touring I kind of took with a grain of salt, because he’s sat out the band’s performances many times before, and Brun himself has a full time gig in IT and can’t commit to lengthy tours either. Sadly, its likely that the real reason is that he has to prioritize things now, and his own musical projects are the only thing that will fit in alongside what I’m assuming has been a grueling road to recovery. That its not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather scheduling and time that’s ending his participation is a bummer, but its also proved to be an opportunity for the band to try new things and stretch their sound.

And stretch their sound they have on True North, with Vortex and Lazare splitting the clean vocals and giving big assists in the songwriting department alongside Oystein, this is the most adventurous Borknagar album since Origins, and I’d argue, since Empiricism. There’s a brighter tone to these songs, and a sense of spaciousness to the songwriting that is uncommon for this band, normally so compressed and dense in their compositions. This is apparent from the jump on “Thunderous”, the most conventional track on offer but still a noticeably measured and dare I suggest, stately paced track despite the blackened, blast beat fuelled passages. Really its on “Up North” where people are going to hear the most striking changes, the song being a major key laced, Hammond drenched Uriah Heep-ian jam with Vortex delivering some James Hetfield growls in his largely clean lead vocal role. He seems to have written this piece solo too, and its fascinating to hear just how writing with his own voice in mind (as opposed to Vintersorg’s) helped shape the outcome to be this different. The unusually structured “Lights” is another bold experiment for the band, a combination of extreme metal moments packed with Porcupine Tree-like prog-rock artistry. Then there’s the gently swaying ballad(!) “Wild Father’s Heart”, where Lazare pours out some incredibly melancholic and heartbreaking vocal melodies. But my fave right now is the Lazare written and sung “Voices”, which is the most accessible thing the band has ever done, a bold slice of art-pop ala Dead Can Dance. Its the tip of the iceberg for things you’d never think to associate with this band, but somehow it fits and doesn’t sound out of place. This is the beginning of something radically different for Borknagar, and its more exciting than I ever thought it could be.

Everfrost – Winterider:

That Everfrost hail from Finland shouldn’t surprise any of you once you hear the first few keyboard notes of Winterider, but you might be forgiven for thinking they might’ve been from Japan for a second. Yes, those are manga styled characters in the album artwork, and in fact, this album was released with an actual manga comic book that details the storyline alluded to in these songs, a neat crossover mixed media approach that the band is trying out that I’ve often wondered why more bands don’t dare to attempt. It was the unusual nature of said album art that I saw in my inbox that got me to check out the promo of Winterider, bracing myself for a cringefest that would have me deleting it on the spot —- yet what I discovered was inspired, incredibly fun sugary power metal reminiscent of the halcyon days of early Sonata Arctica. Indeed Tony Kakko is a clear influence here, not only on the vocal approach by Mikael Salo, whose accent often makes him a dead ringer, but also in the songwriting approach of band founder and keyboardist Benjamin Connelly. For any of you who were disappointed in Sonata’s recent Talviyö and long for that band to return to the Ecliptica / Silence / Winterhearts era, you might wanna bounce on over Everfrost’s way and check out note perfect slices of Finn-power such as the powerful title track “Winterider”. Built on sugary synth lines and a crisp, dare I say wintry separation of instruments, topped with lush harmony vocals, this song is as wonderfully decadent as the most hooky classic Sonata era cut. It also sports an unusual, “Don’t Stop Believin'” arrangement, where the true chorus doesn’t appear until 3:30 seconds into the song, that being an unforgettable, spirited group sing of the song title. This kind of flair and flexibility to deviate from traditional verse/bridge/chorus structures is rare in melodic power metal bands, who tend to cling to those tried and true approaches.

There’s a focus in Connelly’s songwriting to be as concise as possible, with verses mainlining to get to a hook or refrain, but also to be as indulgently stylistic as possible on the way there. Take “Cold Night Remedy”, where the straightforward verse sections are anchored by a solid Scorpions-esque mid-tempo riff and drum beat, but guitarist Markus Laito is off the leash, free to add flurries of notes at will and to tack on creative angles and unexpected tails. There’s just so much ear candy present everywhere, as on “Actraiser” where the keyboards and guitars battle back and forth for control of the primary melody while Salo outstrips both in time for the chorus where his vocal melody surges upwards in one of the catchiest hooks in power metal this year. Its also a particularly Kakko-esque moment, and while I’m trying to not beat the Sonata drum too much in this review, its kind of impossible not to. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either, because frankly, Everfrost are filling a void that was deeply felt by many power metal fans once Sonata drifted into more rambling, eclectic songwriting territory. On the ballad, “Above The Treeline”, we’re hearing that overwhelming influence manifest itself in beautiful, chiming piano melodies that help build up the dramatic tension alongside Salo’s impassioned vocals, the singer delivering his best performance of the album. Salo is also awesome on the riskiest cut on the album, that being a fairly faithful cover of Kesha’s global hit “Die Young”, a choice that not only seems to fit the shimmering, exuberant tone of the album as a whole but sounds great set to rockin’ riffs. I’m not sure how this fits into the album’s storyline, I’m sure there’s a valid reason, but no matter —- simply electing to cover such an unlikely choice of pop song is the very essence of a Sonata influence (they who so gloriously covered Bette Midler’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings”). This is a hugely enjoyable album, and Everfrost do bring enough personality to the table to prevent the copycat label, but that being said, this is terrific tonic for anyone left frustrated by the last decade plus of Sonata.

Opeth – In Cauda Venenum:

Four albums deep now into Opeth’s post metal career, I think most of us have given up on the idea of a return to their prog-death roots. It was all but eliminated for me when I saw the footage of their pro-shot show at Red Rocks, where Mikael Akerfeldt struggled to muster up even a reasonable facsimile of his once glorious death growl (“Demon of the Fall” was particularly saddening). Despite this opening statement however, I don’t hold it against Akerfeldt, because his reasoning makes sense, and I have given Opeth’s post Watershed output a fair hearing, and even liked the odd song here and there. What troubles me though is this sense that Akerfeldt has become a less engaging songwriter ever since he’s loosened up in this free-form, jazzy, prog-rock steeped milieu. I loved the softer moments of the classic Opeth discography, from large chunks of Damnation, to all the quiet valleys of Still Life, Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Ghost Reveries. Part of the appeal of that quiet/loud dynamic of the classic era was that Akerfeldt was just as compelling a songwriter and vocalist during the hushed, tranquil sections as he was during the brutal passages. From Heritage onwards though, I have rarely heard that kind of quality (only once really, on “Faith In Others” off Pale Communion), and frequently have felt like I’m listening to a plate of musical noodles on these newer albums. On the new album, “Heart In Hand” has a relatively compelling rhythmic dynamic working for it, with a propulsive riff getting things going, except that there’s nothing substantial in the way of a bridge leading to the chorus. It all mushes together, like when you go out for Indian food and long for some other texture amidst the curried meats, curried vegetables, and pillowy naan bread —- its all a bit soft isn’t it? Take “The Garroter” for example, where an intriguing opening guitar figure never really leads anywhere all that interesting, just dissolving in an ambient, soupy mess. There’s some heavy hitting explosions in “All Things Will Pass” that perked my interest, but it wasn’t until the very end where an all too brief sparkling melody made its quick appearance and then faded off. I dunno… it might be time to call it on Opeth. Four albums in a row where one is left disappointed might be overkill. I check out every release out of obligation but this is an exercise in exasperation.

Sleeping Ancient – There Is No Truth But Death:

Sleeping Ancient is the latest in a slowly expanding crop of Houston based metal bands to make a splash online, with Invisible Oranges and Decibel among the major outlets that have covered them in the recent month plus since the release of this debut album. To their credit, like a few other noteworthy Houstonian metal exports they have a unique sound for a band from this city, a blend of post-metal with black and doom infusions. Its a sound that stands out from a local perspective, being far removed from the local TXDM (Texas death metal if you couldn’t guess) scene, and has more in common with geographically far-flung North American bands like Russian Circles, Numenorean, or Isis (no, not that Isis). I’ve slowly listened to this album over the past month —- I say slowly because I can’t emphasize enough just how much this is a mood dependent listen, for me anyway. Usually at night, when things are winding down its just about the right headspace for the meditative, hypnotic circular nature of “A Locked Room”, or the tension building “Disillusionist”. Those two are instrumentals, and there are three of those total on a seven track album which I’ll admit is a puzzling decision. I get it, its post-metal, and “post” means that there’s a lot of leeway in an almost free-form exploration of sound, but I found myself wanting another track in the vein of “A Path Emerges” and “Writhing in the City of Dregs” (which I can only assume is a paean to our lovely weather). The former has the most memorable intro passage of the entire album, with a distinct melodic motif that creeps in during its slower passage halfway through. The latter is the most consistently engaging song from start to finish, although I feel its ending needed something a little more straightforward, like a focused, catchy, aggressive riff to make everything else hit like the proverbial hadoken. This is a promising debut, far from perfect by any means (a little less meandering and more riffs would go a long way), but worth investigating during the moonlit hours.

Full Power: New Music From Hammerfall, Freedom Call, Dialith and More!

Its been a time of change and literal upheaval for The Metal Pigeon blog lately. I had been thinking about updating the look of the site for awhile now, and those thoughts led to actual research which led to my ultimately deciding that its time the blog graduated from its sheltered (and very limited) home at the actual WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress solution (if you’ve ever wondered what the difference between the .com and .org versions of WordPress were, TIL!). So after a nervous week waiting for a domain name transfer, exporting and importing a ton of files (all the old posts and comments and images), and fiddling around with a ton of themes over the past two weeks, things are finally settling down with the site for the time being. I’m still not done changing things, at some point I’d like to get a new logo (looking into that), and the site might have more visual changes coming to its home page but ultimately the foundation of this blog has been and always will be the content itself. So thanks for sticking through this rough period and bearing with me.

I haven’t neglected music in this period either, listening to a ton of new releases in the interim, a large dose of power metal to be exact. I’ve been spending time with new releases by veterans such as Hammerfall, Elvenking, Freedom Call, and Sonata Arctica, but also making time for debuts by new bands on the scene like Dialith, who appeared on my radar as a recommendation from Blayne of BangerTV of all people and places (they’re normally very power metal averse). I also went on a metal road trip up north to Dallas on August 26th for the Demons and Wizards North American tour, and that was a pretty epic experience not only for the surreal feeling of actually seeing that band live in the flesh, but for the depths of dehydration that the 107° Texas heat put me in. I talked about it a bit on the recent MSRcast #225 where I pontificated about the magical healing properties of post show Gatorades and smoked almonds. On the episode before that, we had Robb Zipp of The Most Epic Adventures on to talk about his experience going to this year’s Wacken Festival as a solo traveler. It was a pretty insightful discussion on the kind of logistical details that you’re likely to wonder about if like myself you’ve never made the trek overseas for a metal fest. I’m aiming to increase the updates to the blog and will likely have good reason to do so —- expect a Dragonforce new album breakdown on the next update! Now onto the reviews:


Hammerfall – Dominion:

I’ve experienced a renewed passion for Hammerfall over the course of the last couple years, beginning with when I saw them live for the first time on their tour with Delain. I had always revered Glory To The Brave and Legacy of Kings as iconic power metal classics, but that gig made me revisit the entirety of their catalog and since then they’ve been a consistent go to when I need that direct boost of adrenaline and euphoric, spirit lifting positivity. The quality of this discography if charted on a graph shows a slow decline starting after 2000’s Renegade and dipping down further after 2006’s middling Threshold, hitting its absolute nadir with the barely mediocre Infected in 2011, and a slow gradual rise since then with their last two albums. I’ll emphasize gradual here, because while those albums —- (r)Evolution and Built to Last —- had some excellent songs to add to the already stacked Hammerfall Best Of playlist, they were largely under baked as a whole. I was a little more invested this time in the output they’d produce on Dominion, this their eleventh studio album, hoping they’d conjure up some stuff with the same kind of crackling intensity that they had pouring out on stage both times I saw them in the last three years. And as recent output by Judas Priest has shown us, veteran bands can sometimes find their footing again and find themselves in fine fighting form. Hammerfall has done exactly that with Dominion, delivering their strongest, most confident album since 2005’s Chapter V: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.

As to why and how they managed this feat on album eleven and not number ten, or nine —- eh, hard to pinpoint exactly, there’s no change in behind the scenes personnel, with Fredrik Nordström handling mixing duties alongside as co-producer with Oscar Dronjak. I think it could be as simple as they just wound up writing a vastly improved batch of songs this time, maybe the heaven and hell theme reflected in the artwork helped guide them to that point or maybe it had nothing to do with it. There certainly is a more “epic” feel to cuts such as “Never Forgive, Never Forget” and “Dominion”, the two back to back album openers. And I’ll freely admit that while “(We Make) Sweden Rock” had me rolling my eyes a bit when I first saw the title months back, its actually an undeniable jam, with one of the band’s strongest hooks in recent memory and an old school sounding lead guitar figure that bookends the chorus. Its also rather endearing to realize its a tribute to the Swedish contribution to metal, particularly if you’ve seen the music video for the song, with its intercutting the band’s performance with photographs of Swedish rock and metal royalty (where’s Falconer though?). My personal favorite however is the ballad “Second to One”, a piano driven affair that hearkens back to the bittersweet melancholy of classic Hammerfall ballads in “Always Will Be” or “Dreams Come True”. I’ve always loved the bands approach to balladry, where they seemingly prefer their slowest moments to sound haunting and reflective rather than syrupy sweet (even with love songs).

The ballad comes at the halfway point of Dominion, and its also the marker for when the album really gets going with quality songs in succession. I wouldn’t say there’s a pacing problem here, but the first half is definitely a little slower to excite than the spectacular second, where there’s not a bum song among the bunch. Actually, I’d say that “Chain of Command” is one of the best Hammerfall songs in their catalog, one that’s old school metal gang vocal fueled chorus would feel at home on Glory or Legacy. Ditto for “Dead By Dawn”, which is classic Hammerfall through and through, although that chorus is weirdly triumphant sounding for its particular chorus lyric: “You will be dead by dawn” (similarly, “Chain of Command” has a kinda funny lyric at work too if you imagine its talking about an HR departments rules and regs rather than an army on the march, but hey it rocks so…). The Valhalla referencing “Bloodline” and album closer “And Yet I Smile” are not as forward attacking, but are still well thought out compositionally. In fact the only song that I thought was a bit of a skipper was “Testify”, but its not a terrible song by any means, with a solid series of verse sections and an enjoyable bridge sequence, but that chorus is kinda a let down. That being said, its nice to see Dronjak return to fine songwriting form, and Joacim Cains sounds as ageless as ever. Sweden rocks indeed!

Dialith – Extinction Six:

This is the debut album by Dialith who hail from Danbury, Connecticut, yet another random (but apparently very nice!) North American locale where a promising new power metal band is launching its career from, joining the ranks of dozens of their peers in the past few years. This might be the sleeper hit of the summer, an album that has been released independently as of this writing but has gotten some relatively high-ish profile recommends via Angry Metal Guy and Blayne Smith of BangerTV (the latter of whom was my initial tip-off to check them out). I can’t imagine that they’ll be unsigned for long, and I hope that happens for them (and that its a beneficial arrangement, not some sort of 360 deal), but no matter to us at this moment really, because in 2019, the mechanisms are in place for a band to bypass the label route entirely and make an immediate impression with listeners like us on their debut album. For me, Extinction Six has kinda taken over my listening time over the past two weeks, being a compulsively addictive collection of smartly crafted symphonic power metal that’s as richly shimmering and effervescent as it is anchored in a bed of melodic-death riff fueled aggression. This isn’t a new concept, in fact Frozen Crown have made a name for themselves doing exactly that; but whereas Crown’s Giada Etro is the most effortless classic sounding power metal voice we’ve heard in years, Dialith’s Krista Sion is an absolute phenom with her soprano’s approach towards singing, morphing the band’s sound into symphonic power metal.

Of course she’s helped along by the keyboard orchestral elements courtesy of keyboardist Charles Woodruff and apparently an assist from Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Francesco Ferrini, who is credited with additional orchestration and arrangements. The band’s melo-death driven riffage is geared to balance out all that grandiose symphonic sweetness with the help of a guy I consider an ascendant star in the metal producer/engineer landscape, that being one Jacob Hansen. What I love about Hansen’s mixes for any band he works with is his ability to draw sharp, clear delineations between traditional metallic instrumentation and unorthodox elements such as orchestral or even electronically created textures (Pyramaze and recent Kamelot are good examples of this). He nails that again here, but really the bulk of the credit should go towards Sion’s vocals and guiarist Alasdair Wallace Mackie’s impassioned songwriting and his own performance across the album. His playing is downright vicious on “Catalyst” for example, one of the heaviest hitting songs on the record, his riffage sounding as dense as mid-90s In Flames and Gates of Ishtar records. And yet he’s still a melody driven songwriter, as heard on the storming opener “The Sound of Your Voice” and absolute show stealer “Break The Chains” (no its not a Dokken cover!). I can’t get enough of Sion’s approach, and its weird because she’s simultaneously emotive AND icy-toned, her vocals often purposefully distant or indifferent to the intensity of the music and its a fascinating and incredibly well executed dichotomy. I could go on but this likely won’t be the last you see of me writing about Dialith —- consider this one of the most essential albums in an already excellent year of metal releases.

Sonata Arctica – Talviyö:

I’ve thought a lot in the past few days on how I’m supposed to approach writing about Sonata Artica’s utterly confounding Talviyö (“Winter Night” in Finnish), and I’m not sure I’ve come to any kind of conclusion on that so here goes anyway. My first experience with this album was late at night, and maybe it was the mental and physical fatigue of the day that I was foolishly putting off addressing by not going to sleep, but I found myself mildly enjoying the album at that moment. Not with such passion and verve mind you that would have me leaping out of my chair, suddenly wide awake, ready to tell anyone and everyone about how amazing the new Sonata record was, but enjoying it nonetheless. Yet every listen since then has invoked a far more critical reaction within me, seemingly progressive in nature as to how negatively I’ve been receiving these songs. I first thought that maybe this was a sign that Talviyö is a mood record, one that’s only meant for specific mindsets, but I’m not so sure about that —- and just to be sure, I listened to the album twice through after staying up all night watching the Monday Night Footall season opener double header. If anything, my irritation at the album only worsened, and trust me, that had nothing to do with the Texans agonizing loss earlier that night (…yes… nothing…). Bear in mind, that I adore Sonata like most of the power metal community does, their first four albums are genre defining in my estimation. I’ve even found stuff to like on most of their post Unia output, so it gives me no pleasure to write harshly about their new record.

So in that spirit, lets start with the positives, this won’t take long, but let’s give credit to the band and/or Nuclear Blast for correctly identifying the best track for the music video, that being “Cold” which starts off with the kind of irresistible Kakko vocal melody that we’ve all come to love him for. The song is built on tension building verses and a hard rockin’ approach to the mid-tempo riff structure, one slightly reminiscent of The Night Flight Orchestra. I will say that one intrepid YouTube commenter on the music video noted that the song sounded better when you increased the playback speed to 1.25, and damn it if he isn’t right. The middling tempo choice does in fact prevent the song from joining the ranks of classic Sonata songs, on my playlist anyway, but its still memorable and something I wouldn’t balk at taking up space on their setlists. I thought that “Whirlwind” had a nice melody at work and a chorus that had touches of that old impassioned Kakko style, although its sluggish tempo is a little frustrating and again, holds it back. There’s been praise showered on the curiously titled “Ismo’s Got Good Reactors” which sounds like a JRPG mistranslation, and indeed its Celtic-tinged rumble is actually a refreshing experiment to take in… for an instrumental. I don’t know about you, but I can’t ever find myself getting too excited about a Sonata instrumental. This isn’t classic era In Flames, where Jesper Stromblad was a monumental talent who would serve up perfectly sculpted acoustic/electric instrumental figures in unforgettable instrumental interludes like “Pallers Anders Visa” or “Man Made God”. Frankly, after Jani Liimatainen left, Sonata’s music became ever more dependent on the strength of Kakko’s vocal melodies, and an instrumental track only highlights that deficiency.

And then there’s everything else. A handful of frustrating songs that range from aggressively mediocre to downright aggravating. Who is ever going to enjoy “The Last Of The Lambs”, with its strange mix of production effects and plodding, go nowhere repetitive tempo? Or “Who Failed The Most”, where Kakko’s penchant for cute lyrics betrays him on the second worst offender on the album (” You decide, who is the lord of the rings”) set to the most Pepto Bismol-y tasting vocal melody I’ve heard on any power metal album. Then there’s the squandering of a promising melodic motif on “Demon’s Cage” with a sharp turn towards a rambling, unfocused vocal melody and another Kakko lyrical dud (” Working class, kneel and kiss my… s…). Keep in mind, I’m could care less at this point about the lyrical meaning, because if the way its being articulated isn’t drawing me in, any ideas that are being expressed are left at the door guarding my interest level. The worst offender is the insipid and cringe inducing ballad “The Garden”, and this is coming from a mushy ballad lover, someone who rated the hyper saccharine “Love” from Sonata’s 2014 Pariah’s Child as one of the strongest cuts on that album. But gods, this is a bridge too far: “My life… my everything in a beautiful garden / Sunshine, friends, glass of wine…”. Set aside the vitriol inducing twee melody at work here, and Kakko’s droopy approach to the vocals —- these lyrics are objectively terrible. And I get it, he’s clearly writing a song to his wife about the life he feels she’s given to him, and I have no doubt as to his sincerity. But good grief Tony… lose the wine glass, dunk your head in a bucket of cold water and get ahold of yourself man. I’ve gone on long enough —- this is either the worst Sonata album to date or in competition with The Ninth Hour for that title. Sleep on that.

Elvenking – Reader Of The Runes – Divination:

One of my most anticipated records of this year on the metal release calendar, Elvenking’s Reader Of The Runes – Divination is their tenth album and the follow up to the still frequently listened to Secrets of the Magick Grimoire from two years back. Well… at least certain songs from it. Elvenking’s weakness over the course of their career has been their inability to deliver a compelling album from start to finish, with often inspired moments scattered across a bed of middling ones on most of their records. That’s not the worst deficiency in the world for a band to have, it guarantees that there’s always something to love about each new album, but it prevents them from ever making an appearance in a lot of conversations between metalheads or even in the media where folks could point to a singular disc and say “this is the one”. The closest they’ve gotten by most estimates is 2014’s The Pagan Manifesto, but even there I still some songs lacking. I’ve idly wondered if the band’s problem has been their insistence on delivering at least 10-12 songs per album, that maybe in the effort to provide lengthier albums they’ve been allowing lesser quality material make the cut and thus diluting the overall strength. I dunno, its a thought and I’d be interested to see how a tight 35-40 minute album would fare, but we won’t get that chance on Reader, which is just over 52 minutes (relatively short by Elvenking standards).

This is a front loaded album, with playlist worthy cuts “Heathen Divine”, “Divination”, “Silverseal”, and “Eternal Eleanor” all arriving before the album’s halfway point. The latter is one of the band’s more appealing veins of experimentation, that of the folky ballad that they toss with their usual power metal meets alt-rock riff salad approach. Fabio Polo is a talented violinist, but his most underrated ability is in delivering melodies that really can anchor and/or carry a tune entirely on their own. He takes center stage here over power chord riffery and propels forward a pretty lively, jaunty folk ballad that is charming if not quite as catchy as it needs to be. The earworm role is served by “Heathen Divine”, which sports the most confident melody at work on the entire album. The band builds a folk tinged power metal banger atop it with a chorus that reminds you of what it is Elvenking can do so well, that mix of seemingly loose, haphazard vocal approach with precision playing that soars and hits hard yet feels like could come apart at any moment. My personal favorite however is “Silverseal” where the band writes a chorus for the ages and a supporting verse/bridge structure that raises and releases the tension. The folk-power sound here is kind of what these guys need to aim for nearly 100% of the time, sealing it in a compact, focused nearly four minute banger. But overall, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed by Reader, particularly on its back half where it just seems that nothing quite landed the way it should have. When these guys don’t deliver moment for moment perfect hooks, the lack of richness in their musicality stands out. I’m not sure what the fix is there… to add more instrumentation ala Eluveitie to spice things up? Maybe. Its past time for them to deliver an attention grabbing album, and they’ve missed the mark here again.

Freedom Call – M.E.T.A.L.:

If the audaciousness of the album art there didn’t clue you into the kind of over the top, Chris Bay led festivities we’re in for on Freedom Call’s tenth studio album, I’ll refer you to this Call frontman’s spectacularly lively music video from his 2018 solo album Chasing the Sun. Subtlety isn’t Freedom Call’s paintbrush of choice, and M.E.T.A.L. sees Bay and company staying true that to ethos. From their 1999 debut Stairway to Fairyland, Bay has made Freedom Call into a vehicle to explore the area of power metal once pioneered by Helloween, with loosely fantasy tinged life affirming lyrical metaphors and a musical sound that’s relentlessly cheerful sounding and lighthearted in its use of epic melodicism. Alongside Power Quest, they’ve been tagged unfairly by some as “flower metal”, but where the Quest pulled deep influences from 80s guitar rock ala Van Halen, the Call are firmly anchored in that German power metal legacy pioneered by Kai Hansen (which makes sense, considered Bay’s Gamma Ray stint). I was always a casual appreciator of the band, until 2014’s Beyond, which was their first legitimately excellent album from front to back and turned me into a straight up fan of the Call. Months and years after its release, it stayed with me as a go to for a glorious, epic power metal fix. It prompted me to revisit their back catalog in search of something I’d perhaps missed, and I unearthed some previously overlooked gems to be sure, but nothing matched its fiery verve. I will admit that its been hard to stomach some of their decision making though, as the cover art to 2016’s Master of Light and the quality of its lead off single “Metal Is For Everyone” demonstrate. What I’ve learned about Freedom Call and Chris Bay in particular though, is that you have to try your best to not judge a book by its cover (literally with their last two records) and just trust in this —- that Bay is a sharpshooter of a power metal songwriter.

He delivers ultra catchy power metal goodness by the armload here, the most lovable offering being “One Step Into Wonderland”, as perfect a song as the best of them on Beyond. Yes the “…wonderland…” thing is a bit much —- I’m not sure if Bay’s lyrics would be more interesting if he was actually singing about fantasy places, characters, and stories more akin to Rhapsody or Blind Guardian, as opposed to his purely metaphorical wielding of such language. It seems to be the way he’s utilized them throughout his career, and other bands have done the same thing for sure, but his such a gifted songwriter in terms of developing epic sounding ideas that I wonder if he shouldn’t try. Similarly “Fly With Us” is another barnstormer, built on an 80’s rockin’ guitar approach but still hitting with the impact of a hammer on the low riffy end. Even the Sabaton-ishly titled “Ronin” is a hard charging glorious slice of Euro-power, with those splashy cheerful leads from Lars Rettkowitz. I’m particularly fond of “Spirit of Daedalus”, which kind of reminds me of Tales-era Blind Guardian (albeit, definitely not as dark), propelled by the kind of speed metal flair that sounds so at home in German power metal. The major misstep on the album is clearly the title track, one of those praising metal tracks that some bands can pull off convincingly, and others can’t. Its not the worst offender of that ilk that I’ve heard, but its definitely a must skip here, and why name your album after it when you’ve had a career of nothing but relatively serious album titles. The glaring flaw with Master of Light was its abominable cover art that was so terrible it might land it as a contender for the worst metal cover art of all time… and in considering these recent spate of terrible artistic choices, I’m left wondering where Bay’s head is at these days. I hope these are temporary missteps because they’re overshadowing quality material.

In The Heart of Summer: New Music From Abbath, Frozen Crown, and More!

Back with the most recent collection of accumulated reviews for albums that I’ve been listening to lately, and these really stretch the gamut in terms of release dates and the actual date that I started listening to them. The new Frozen Crown album for instance came out in March but got lost in the shuffle around then and didn’t resurface on my playlist until July (disappointed in myself for that one), and there’s some early summer stuff here that I wanted to have more time with. To change things up after the recent spate of lengthier reviews, I’m doing the shorter format once again (probably a recurring thing, bouncing between the varying lengths, it keeps things interesting for me). If you’ve been reading the site for awhile, you might guess that shorter reviews are harder for me to write, because it forces me to boil things down to the very essence, rather than spilling the broth everywhere on your screen. Disastrous metaphor I know —- its late, sue me.


Frozen Crown – Crowned In Frost:

It was barely a year ago that I was introduced to Italy’s Frozen Crown, who released their debut album, The Fallen King, in February of 2018. It became a favorite of mine, and made me reconsider my slight hesitancy to Italian power metal, something helped along by the recent strong offering from Ancient Bards. Its not all too surprising that they’re back so soon with yet another studio offering, I’m learning to expect this type of shorter lag time release schedule now from bands with limited touring availability and day jobs. What is surprising however, is how much of a leap in songwriting strength the band has achieved in such a short time. I’ll still have my personal favorites from their debut, but Crowned In Frost boasts so much more in terms of accomplished songwriting and a stronger stylistic identity, the band coming damn close to their unstated sonic vision of a Sonata Arctica / Wintersun fusion. It opens with two outright bangers, the first being lead off single “Neverending”, which mixes some nice, tight melo-death riff patterning under vocalist Giada Etro’s powerful straight ahead classicist power metal vocal approach. I compared her before to a mix of Brittney Hayes from Unleash the Archers and Kobra Paige, but she also possesses Tony Kakko’s innate sense of what to do with phrasing and syllabic timing. She turns in a devastating performance on “In The Dark”, her voice full of lift and soaring strength, and folks this song… this is a perfect example of what I love about power metal’s very essence. Four minutes and forty-four seconds of adrenalizing, empowering, spirit lifting fireworks that every band should hope to achieve.

They nearly reach these same heights again on the more melo-deathy infused “Winterfall”, where guitarist Federico Mondelli adds in some pretty solid melo-death growling vox and he and fellow guitarist Talia Bellazecca join in for some crushing tandem riffing in that satisfyingly dense melo-death style. The middle bridge here seems like a step into fresh songwriting territory for the band, a slower, epic build that seems reminiscent of UtA’s Apex. I hear this same similarity on “Unspoken”, a song that is at once a straight ahead, full-on rocker but there’s some complexity going on in the disparity between the tempos of guitars and vocals that’s a time-honored tendency of bands who are increasing in confidence and awareness as songwriters. Mondelli is a flourishing talent in this regard, and “Lost In Time” is one of those songs that points to this, the kind of almost ballad that is damn difficult for even experienced, veteran bands to pull off. The only real stumble on this record is minor, but I just felt a little too much repetition in “Battles In The Night”, which was perhaps more apparent given how unique and explorative the rest of these songs were (there’s also three relatively pointless instrumental tracks that they should start ditching on their next record, but we’ll let that slide for now). And its refreshing to hear a balanced mix on this record, Filippo Zavattari’s bass is clearly audible throughout and it was nice to not have the guitars fighting Etro for space up front. I can’t recommend this one enough, its the fun, frosty album this summer needed and everyone into power metal should be onboard the Frozen Crown dragon by now. These new crop of power metal bands are delivering new music at an alarmingly rapid rate (see Visigoth and Judicator), and we might be in the midst of a second golden age of power metal already.

Bewitcher – Under the Witching Cross:

Recently I went to see Striker play a gig on their tour with Holy Grail, wanting to experience the exuberant joyful performance that I witnessed a year ago when they opened for Unleash the Archers. They delivered, although the sound guy didn’t and left my ears ringing the next day while I looked for earplugs on Amazon, but the opening band on the tour more than made up for it. Portland’s Bewitcher pulled off that rare trick of impressing me when I knew nothing about their music going into it, and came away a fan not only of their intense, ferocious live performance, but of their songwriting as well. The description on Metallum says “Black/Speed Metal”, and yeah that’s about as accurate a summation as one could provide. Matt Litton’s (aka Unholy Weaver of Shadows & Incantations [!]) vocals never really stray into blackened death territory, having more in common with 80s thrash punkiness than anything resembling death metal’s gutturality. The track to YouTube preview is “Rome Is On Fire”, a compulsively addictive, head bashing battering ram of hooky riffing and delightfully spartan lyrics about the brewing wickedness in the declining Roman Empire. But I’m also partial to the title track, coming across as Riot trad-speed meat n’ potatoes meets Bathory’s smoke and fire. That the album sounds as kinetic and vital as the Bewitcher did live is a testament to not only the engineer here for the mix, but to the band who’s writing songs in a cross pollinated style where its often too easy to overdo the grime factor. Bewitcher seems to value memorability above all else, where its the melody guides the riffs, and that means they have to ensure that melodic brightness shows up on this recording, even if that means dialing back the dirtiness. Those looking for something more Entombed or Evocation might disregard this as too polished and compromised, but I think of it more as a solution to a tricky to master blend of metal.

Abbath – Outstrider:

I’m kinda glad I waited on writing a review for Outstrider, long after I discussed it on the podcast and expressed my then difficulty in deciding how I felt about the album at that time. The one thing I knew for certain was that I enjoyed the new Immortal album far more, but was questioning if that was even a fair comparison to make. Well, to answer that latter question now —- of course it freaking is! And no, its not just because direct comparisons are the meat on the bone for content succubi like myself, but because its a natural process that most fans of classic Immortal put themselves through whether they went public with their opinions or not. But the more instructive comparison is to pit Outstrider to Abbath’s self-titled debut, the latter being hamstrung perhaps by its half All Shall Fall followup and half Abbath plays rock n’ roll mishmash that prevented anything resembling album cohesion. The new album is a gigantic leap in improvement in that regard, seeing Abbath turn in a collection of songs forged in a fiery, speed-riffed black metal mold reminiscent of At The Heart of Winter. Oh sure, there’s some leftover hard rock styling imprinted on scattered moments here, like the wild guitar solo in the middle of “The Artifex”, but they’re more tasteful accents than structural shifts in the songwriting approach. The album works best however when Abbath remembers his old strength, to paraphrase Gandalf’s words to Théoden (nerd alert!), as on the highlight “Scythewinder” —- here he marries unrelentingly violent, battering ram verse passages to a dramatic, primal tempo-ed drum pounding middle bridge. Its a bracing reminder of just how good Abbath can be when he gets downright meat n’ potatoes-y with his songwriting, mixing in caveman styled slabs of simplified riffs and spacing to give the blistering black metal fury a little more definition. There’s more of this on “Hecate”, one of the catchiest songs on the album with a riff based hook one could almost call poppy for Abbath (almost). I also thought “Harvest Pyre” sounded better on my umpteenth listen whereas I was tending to dismiss it early on when first listening to the album, not sure why exactly, although I’m hearing several things coming to the surface here that I know I missed initially. I will admit however that there is a sense of frustration infusing my overall opinion here, the unshakeable feeling that this sounds like a fine transition album but that Abbath still sounds like he’s a little unfocused. At times these songs sound way too busy, that a little stripping down of excess riffs and some rearranging would go a long way to injecting some memorability in the mix. The only way to test that transition album theory unfortunately is to wait for the next one and hope its better. That and compare it to the next Immortal album of course.

Turilli / Lione Rhapsody – Zero Gravity: Rebirth And Evolution:

Lately I’ve been coming away relatively impressed by recent Rhapsody releases in any incarnation. Alex Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire has been putting out head turning records, particularly the highly enjoyable re-recordings collection Legendary Years in 2017, as well as this year’s The Eighth Mountain (for which I have no good excuse for forgetting to review). I’ve also enjoyed to a certain extent Luca Turilli’s two releases under his Rhapsody banner, though 2016’s Prometheus was a challenge to get into. More immediate then is the debut album from this third version of Rhapsody which sees Turilli reuniting with ex-Rhapsody/current Angra vocalist Fabio Lione. Its a collection of highly accessible songs in a style of Rhapsody that seems distilled of all excess pomp and grandeur, seemingly to match the more narrowly defined science meets futurism theme of the album title and lyrics. We gushed about the Elize Ryd duet “D.N.A. (Demon and Angel)” on a recent MSRcast, but there’s so much more here to love, particularly the rushing operatic pulse in “Zero Gravity”, where I’ve never heard Lione sound as nimble and versatile as a vocalist. He’s also terrific on “Multidimensional”, where he’s assisted by backing vocalist Emilie Ragni who turns in some incredible work herself all over this album, her voice a perfect complement to Lione, providing a higher register assist to really nail those epic, climbing refrains. The epic, Queen-influenced “I Am” is perhaps my favorite original (oh you’ll see) on the album, showcasing a layering of complex arrangements on piano and vocal harmonies and of course neo-classical wizardry on guitar that speaks to Turilli’s undiminished ability to weave these elements together into something that’s nothing short of beautiful. But weirdly enough, the track that really made me freak out was the cover of Josh Groban’s “Oceano” which is a bonus track at the end of the album, which for a few minutes I thought was a Turilli original and was demanding aloud why he wasn’t writing more material in this vein. Heh, well for good reason apparently, but Lione brings the house down on this beautiful slice of operatic pop, and the lightly metallic instrumentation gives it a boost of power the original sadly lacks. Would it be asking too much for these two to deliver an album of nothing but popera covers? Surely I’m not the only one who’d be into that right… right guys?

Idle Hands – Mana:

Perhaps the most simultaneously lovable and aggravating albums of the year, Idle Hands much buzzed about debut album took well over a few months to completely grow on me. It wasn’t for lack of an immediate fascination with the band’s Sisters of Mercy meets Tribulation amalgam of sound, or the truly inspired songwriting at work here, but more vocalist / guitarist Gabriel Franco’s penchant for irritating vocal eruptions. Its been a recurring complaint with newcomers to Mana, and one I’m glad to say becomes less of an issue over time (some of you might recall me complaining about it on the MSRcast a few weeks ago) if you just listen past them. Hopefully everyone has patience enough to indulge in these songs despite that annoying characteristic, because Franco is a compelling songwriter, a lyricist whose awkward directness reminds me of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and latter day Sentenced. His sense of melodicism and seemingly innate ability to craft indelible hooks results in some of the most addictive, earwormy songs I’ve heard this year. Its the icing on the cake that they’re all relatively unique as well: “Give Me To The Night” is a racing, full-throttled metallic rocker with post-punk lead guitar sensibilities; while my personal favorite “Jackie” is like someone dipped the poppiest slice of Charon in a fondue made of The Cult circa 1985. The song that’s got the peeps in the r/PowerMetal Discord fired up calling this the AOTY is “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?”, which Sonata Arctica cringe title aside, really is an unconventional epic. I’m kinda hooked on Franco’s pre-solo “8…7…6…” countdown before lead guitarist Sebastian Silva unleashes a gorgeous, fluid, character rich solo. In fact, Silva’s playing is perhaps the unheralded performance MVP of the album, even though most of the attention goes towards Franco’s stoic, stentorian vocals. His guitar approach actually reminds me of Roy Z’s work in Tribe of Gypsies at times, loose and quick on its feet, slightly Latin-tinged without leaning on cliches, and full of swagger and attitude. There’s so much to love about this album, and its been one I’ve been returning to for months now (this was a May release), I might have my minor gripes about Franco’s plethora of out of nowhere grunts and shouts, but they do kinda grow on you strangely. Push past them, ignore any cringe factor the lyrics might conjure for you and let yourself be treated to one of the finest collection of goth-metal songs ever recorded.

Soundtracking Cataclysm: Sabaton’s The Great War

You can almost feel the inevitability of Sabaton’s star turn happening this very moment, particularly here a week out from the release of their ninth and newest album, The Great War. There’s the increasing profile of the past few years with bigger tours overseas and even here in the States where they were absolutely packing out venues across the country. There’s the mainstream chart positions achieved with 2016’s The Last Stand, the big festival slots, and more recent in the mind of the metal world, their coming to the rescue at Hellfest with a last second, vocalist-impaired filling in for the tantrum throwing headliners Manowar. I mentioned this on Twitter the evening that event took place, but it almost felt like we were witnessing a changing of the guard in a very particular way. Those events just don’t happen in a vacuum in the metal world, they leave imprints and change perceptions, forge goodwill, and even create new fans. For example, I’ve never really been into Trivium’s music, but I can’t help but root for Matt Heafy with this upcoming black metal project he’s cooking up, because I’ve enjoyed him in podcast interviews and he just seems like a passionate fan of black metal music. That’s how things work within metal it seems, we’re rarely black and white on issues —- great bands can have terrible albums, you might still enjoy a song or two from a generally mediocre band, and you loved a band’s live show but their album did nothing for you or vice versa. You might, like many have, scoff at Sabaton’s schtick and over-the-top earnestness with which they go about it, but enough people love them despite or perhaps because of those things. To wit, as of this writing, The Great War has debuted at #1 in Germany, #11 in the U.K., and if early projections are to be believed, #5 in the US (turns out this was physical sales only… but still!), which would make it the highest charting power metal album in history.

Its worth mentioning that although its only been three years since The Last Stand, this gap marks the longest time between releases for the band since their debut. Not only is that remarkable for a band that tours as much as they do, but points to a more concerted focus here, the need for extra time to dig deep into the research process for one of the biggest conflicts in history. They’d touched on World War I before, with the Passchendaele tribute “The Price Of A Mile” from The Art of War and “Angels Calling” from Attero Dominatus, but The Great War deep dives on subject matter from the conflict that was admittedly new to me. I’d of course seen Lawrence of Arabia and knew about T.E. Lawrence, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of Francis Pegahmagabow, Osowiec Fortress, and Alvin York were nonexistent. I also only had a cursory knowledge of Manfred von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron, due to a once burning interest in aviation when I was a kid. Maybe what’s added the extra time in Sabaton’s album cycle this go round was the development of their YouTube channel Sabaton History, where many of these songs and others from their catalog are deep dived into with the help of YouTube historian Indy Neidells. Its an entirely separate endeavor from their music of course, but this level of depth and attention to detail (not to mention commitment to their subject matter) lends credibility to the band’s continuing historical focus. At this point its dishonest to criticize it as merely schtick, because I don’t think you can fake that kind of thing to this extent. Clearly this is a burning passion for Joakim Broden and Pär Sundström, and while the channel is not necessary to enjoy their records, it adds something to the experience of listening to those songs after you’ve watched their respective mini-documentary vids.

Case in point, there are three versions of The Great War, a normal songs only edition, a soundtrack version that’s mostly just an extra dressed up instrumental edition (Floor Jansen makes a special appearance here), and the “History Edition” —- the latter of which includes a little 20-30 second framing intro by a well spoken narrator to help set the scene. Now normally I dislike narration within albums, there are a few exceptions of course, but even the audiobook ripped narration the band threw into The Art of War got a little tiring after the millionth listen. I assume the band must’ve heard that before so they shrewdly provided options for the listening experience this time around, and surprisingly enough, it makes a hell of a difference. The history version brings a thematic cohesion to the full album listening experience that is well paced, sets the mood, and pulls you in to pay attention to the songs for more than just the hooks, and frankly the normal songs only edition feels a little empty without it. Why is this different from The Art of War? I’m not sure exactly and who knows, ten months from now I might only be listening to the songs only version, but I do know that I never felt as positively towards the narration on Art’ as I do on the new album. It is to The Great War’s credit however, that we can compare it to that seminal album for more reasons than just the narration.

This is one of the strongest Sabaton albums to date, a rebound from the one dimensional mood of The Last Stand, with a thematic and narrative cohesion that places it next to Carolus Rex, The Art of War, and Heroes. In songwriting terms, they’ve benefited greatly by the simple fact that the subject matter this time has the breadth to be both darkly agonizing and shimmeringly heroic. The latter are as epic, soaring, and thrilling as we’ve come to expect from Broden’s experienced songwriting chops, as evidenced on album highlight “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”. Its recounting of T.E. Lawrence’s grand desert adventures in Arabia leading the guerilla war against the Ottoman Empire is set to a suitably swashbuckling vocal melody and horse sprint tempo. The other highlight in this vein is the hammond organ accelerating waltz rhythm of “The Red Baron”, a track that sounds not only slightly anachronistic in a strange way, but sees the band stretching their sound in fresh musical territory. Broden’s vocals in the chorus zip around the gang vocal melody chanting “Higher!”, all while the bouncy, light-on-its-feet uptempo keyboard blitz creates the feeling of a song that’s as aerial as its subject matter. The band dips back into a little orchestral bombast for “Devil Dogs”, loading its chorus with ample symphonic weight and choral backing vocals, a striking musical counterpoint to the subject matter of the US Marines storied battle at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Running counter to all this upbeat major key celebratory tone is the darkened, slower vein of the album, providing a much needed balance that The Last Stand lacked and suffered as a result from. Broden and company deliver a career standout in “Great War”, boasting one of his most effectively written refrains, anthemic and powerful in the vocal cadence and sympathetic and tragic on a lyrical level.

Speaking of which, this is where Broden really shines as a writer, when he places the listener at a shoulder to shoulder perspective with a narrator. The personal, first-person narration happening in “Great War”, about a brother lamenting the loss of his two siblings in the war and his mother’s grief is the kind of detail oriented lyrical bent that I wish Broden would engage in more often. I understand that not every song can work with that kind of lyric writing, either due to syllabic or rhythmic constraints, but when it can work he should make an effort to accomplish that. Its what makes a song like The Pogues “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” or Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” so powerful and effective, that humanizing individual experience set against the backdrop of a grander, dehumanizing experience. Continuing down the darker, more somber vein of the album, there’s “The End of the War To End All Wars”, as purposefully lumbering and deadened a vocal approach as Broden’s ever mustered. Its contrasted with powerful blasts of horns and choral vocal lines during the refrain and the culminating mid-song bridge. Similarly brooding is “The Attack of the Dead Men”, where the vocal lines are built in rhythmic, percussive patterns that serve as their own form of microhook and would likely not work without Broden’s thick brogue. I’m particularly fond of the more mid-tempoed “A Ghost In The Trenches”, a song with sharply written lyrics, cleverly phrased: “Just another man and rifle, a marksman and a scout revealed / Makes his way from trench to trench alone, moving undetected”. Criticize him for all too often writing lyrics that read like plain historical recounting, but Broden’s unique gift is in his occasionally thoughtful diction and memorable phrasing in particular. And I love the choral vocal reading of “In Flanders Fields” as an album closer, a band-less affair that is poignant and entirely unexpected and a little gutsy.

There are a couple moments here that don’t live up to the rest, like the album opener “The Future of Warfare”, which is an excellent intro but a relatively middling song. Not the kind of tune begging for inclusion in the setlist perhaps, but it works in the context of the album. I will say that “82nd All The Way” strikes a little too close to “No Bullets Fly”, and critics of the band will likely pounce on it as an example of the band repeating themselves. Its a valid criticism and to be honest it did prevent me from being fully engrossed in an otherwise decent song, but then again, Sab’s gonna Sab; they’ll sound like themselves no matter how much innovation they dare to interject in an album. Bands that sound distinctly like themselves (AC/DC, Iron Maiden) seem to be more open to criticism for repeating themselves than bands whose influences are easily discernible. And I started out a little lukewarm on “Fields of Verdun”, which seemed a little too straightforward structurally and weirdly joyful in tone considering the subject matter, but lately I’ve come around to it largely due to the strength of that earworm of a hook. The band sounds terrific all throughout as you’d expect, but particular mention should be made for new guitarist Tommy Johansson (ReinXeed / Majestica), who is a perfect neo-classical foil for Chris Rörland’s more meat n’ potatoes approach. Johansson’s playing is lighter, sleeker, and a little more unexpected in terms of solos, he seems to zag where you expect the zig. The band as currently constructed seems to be at its best with the most talented lineup to date (no disrespect intended to previous guitarist Thobbe Englund who actually helped Broden with songwriting on “Fields of Verdun”). This is a welcome return to form for Sabaton, one of their strongest, most thematically cohesive albums to date, and its arrived when at the exact moment when they needed to hit one out of the park. Its the kind of album that justifies their recent ascent to the top of the metal world, in chart positions, headlining festival slots, and a legion of fans. Manowar, you can clear the hall now.

The Neapolitan Reviews Pack: New Darkthrone, Gloryhammer, and Aephanemer!

Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!


Darkthrone – Old Star:

The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.

One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?

Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.

Aephanemer – Prokopton:

I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.

One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.

The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.

Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:

I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.

I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.

That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.

The First 2019 Summer Reviews Cluster: Myrath, Amon Amarth and More!

Too many new albums, not enough time, and somehow I still managed to get through a good many of them (though as usual, not all). How? By sneaking in listening sessions at the most inconvenient times when I’d usually just prefer silence or an episode of Bob’s Burgers as background noise. This might be the most economical, quick-dashed off reviews cluster to date in Metal Pigeon history, my focus here on being concise and straight to the point in one paragraph at most (with the exception of Myrath of course). Let me know in the comments below if I’ve forgotten something glaring or of course if you entirely disagree with something I’ve written! Again there’s more coming in the weeks ahead (with the exception of Sunn O)))’s much praised Life Metal… I tried, just not for me), so if you don’t see a particular album here yet, maybe it’ll show up down the line.


Myrath – Shehili:

This is only my second opportunity to review a new Myrath album, seeing as how I became a fan of the band in between the five year gap of 2011’s Tales of the Sands and 2016’s best albums list maker Legacy. In the review for the latter, I spent some lines pondering other ideas related to this band and their serving as a link to a geographic and cultural region that most listeners likely have few ties to outside of what they see on CNN. In light of recent news regarding possible war with Iran, I’d like to call attention to that sentiment once again although will refrain from rewriting it all out here. With Shehili, Myrath are back with a more regular release schedule in line with their first three albums, with the same line-up that recorded Legacy (its the second album for drummer Morgan Berthet). That to me is a pretty good indicator that there would be more of a continuity on Shehili with the more looser, celebratory, wild rock vibe that infused its predecessor rather than the prog-metal underpinnings of Tales. Typically speaking (though not always), when a band takes a long time between releases, five or more years lets say, expect that there’s going to be some deviation in sound from what they’d done before, for better or worse. Its just a natural byproduct of too much time passing in between songwriting sessions, new influences having time to creep into the mix, and a greater time to reflect on whats been done previously and what a songwriter would like to try doing next. The inverse typically works the opposite fashion, a band can carry over the essential musical variables they collected on a previous album to the new one because its what’s naturally on their brain in such a limited time after touring and immediately getting back to the studio process. Of course, we can all cite examples where both of these theories are blown apart, but Shehili would not be one of them.

That’s not to say that Shehili is a carbon copy of Legacy, but its built in the same muscular riffed, heavily orchestral, shimmering pop songwriting structures that defined the latter’s overall makeup. That’s largely a plus for me, seeing as I preferred the stuff they were doing on that album to the ones before it (I still enjoy the older stuff too), and with gems like “Wicked Dice” and “Stardust”, I get the same tingly feeling I felt three years ago. The former is maybe the best song on the album, with a compelling and deeply heavy, groove oriented rhythmic riff. The sudden rush of drama we hear in the chorus is one of the band’s most compelling moments, full of the kind of gravitas that Myrath handles so expertly. I love the depth of sound in “Stardust”, where the epic sweep of more straightforward symphonic orchestral elements support the theatrical push of vocalist Zaher Zorgati’s powerful performance. Its a rare Myrath song without an overtly Middle-Eastern sound palette, and surprisingly it works just based on the band’s raw musical abilities. Speaking of that distinctive palette however, I adore “Born To Survive” where the band marries slabs of groove oriented metal riffs to what sounds like a Berber folk music intro. Those trademark gorgeous Arabic violin melodies reappear during the chorus encircling the ascending vocal pattern, and its just pure ear candy for me. I could sit here and point out all the Middle-Eastern musical elements that I love but they’re so interwoven with nearly every facet of the band’s songwriting that isolating one over others seems random. Its in everything from the percussion fills, to the phrasing that guitarist Malek Ben Arbia employs in his creative lead guitar work, to Zorgati’s myriad vocal inflections. I’d say that nearly all my enjoyment from Myrath stems from their ability to marry that world of gorgeous ethnic sound to every facet of their songwriting —- the riffs and heaviness are just the pistachios on the baklava.

The interesting question here is that with Shehili coming relatively hot on the heels of Legacy, or at least soon enough to observe continuity between the two albums, how well does it hold up to its predecessor? I’d say fairly well, with a few caveats. Its a strong album on its own, but when things get a little too close comparison wise (at least from a fan’s eye point of view), Legacy has the upper hand. Take Shehili’s first single, “Dance”, definitely an enjoyable slice of rock n’ roll infused Myrath, but far too similar to Legacy’s “Believer” not to take immediate notice. Hell, there’s even the same split second pregnant pause just before Ben Arbia’s guitar solo in both songs. As much as “Dance” was a strong track, its not in the same league as “Believer” which had not only a euphoria inducing, life affirming chorus vocal melody, but the perfect build up to it in Zorgati’s lyrical cadence in the verses. It was swashbuckling and full of swagger, and “Dance” just doesn’t quite get to that same level. Similarly, the album stumbles ever so slightly on songs like “Monster In My Closet” which despite a dynamite chorus, features a series of verse sections that are more rhythmic than melodic, not playing to the band’s core strengths. I hear the same problem on “Darkness Arise”, which has some good ideas tucked within but they get a little lost amidst everything going on. I actually would have loved more of a lean towards the approach on “No Holding Back” and “Shehili”, both songs built on Zorgati’s inimitable ability to sound like he’s pouring everything he has into a singular expressive vocal melody. I guess the takeaway here from my perspective is basically, more melodrama infused melodies anchoring songs instead of rhythmic structures. That being said, this is still a tremendously enjoyable experience, Myrath just bring so much to the table that I love.

Ravenous E.H. – Eat the Fallen:

Ravenous E.H. (as in Eternal Hunger) are the latest in an ever growing line of new trad/power metal bands coming from the maple kissed north of Canada, in Calgary to be exact. That is starting to become a less and less surprising factoid, because Canada seems to be the new hotbed of metal talent within the past few years with no signs of slowing down. Ravenous E.H. tackle a familiar vein of power metal with cited inspiration from the likes of Hammerfall, Iced Earth, Grave Digger and Manowar but also claim to share a close affinity with modern day genre representatives like Judicator and Viathyn. Their debut full-length Eat the Fallen is fist in the air, headbanging stuff, and songs like “Strength of the Warrior” and “The Hunger Never Dies” do an admirable job of ringing familiar bells we’re all comfortable hearing. Jake Wright’s virtuosic guitar melodies are attuned to a wintry, folkish spirit, and vocalist Robert Antonius Voltaire has a vocal style that brings to mind the range of Matt Barlow with the baritone of Joakim Broden. There’s some genuinely exciting talent here, and the songwriting is far better than a debut often tends to be, at times even approaching true excellence. I think they find it on the album’s closer “Conquering the Sun”, a charging, martial ditty about armies crossing seas to kick in the gates somewhere (a tribute to the Dothraki and Unsullied perhaps?). There’s a fantastic chorus here, soaring with the help of choral gang vocal harmonies and made to stand out by wedging it in between slabs of punchy, regal melody adorned sections big on crunchy riffing. There’s something playful at work throughout this album too, just on the right side of swinging your beer horn and sloshing a little over the side in celebration. It’s gritty and grounded, full of enough melancholia to prevent it from joining the ranks of cheerful, chipper “battle metal” gaucheness. Lesser bands would have walked into that with their chins out.

Grand Magus – Wolf God:

Its been awhile since we’ve heard from Grand Magus, their last album Sword Songs coming three years ago, and perhaps too soon after its clearly superior predecessor Triumph and Power, a Metal Pigeon Best of 2014 list maker. This isn’t to say Sword Songs was an awful album, it had its share of solid moments, but it suffered from a series of bad decisions regarding the tempos on a handful of songs that either slowed things down to a point of draining their energy or sped them up in a way that this band simply doesn’t do well. Its a relief then to hear that they’ve decided to firmly plant themselves in mid-tempo rock n’ roll strut territory on Wolf God. Vocalist/guitarist Janne Christoffersson has seemed to always sound more at home in this rock n’ roll songwriting approach, with the metallic nature of the band’s sound coming in the thundering heaviness of the riffs and subject matter (add some Southern rock phrasing to the melodies, replace lyrics depicting the north and glorious battles with motorcycles and drinkin’ and Magus could sound like a pretty great American southern rock band). Its his wheelhouse, and I say that in a complimentary way. On songs like “Untamed” and “He Sent Them All To Hell” are built on ever-steady, in lock-step groove based riffs, while Christoffersson ushers things along with his lumbering, dryly impassioned vocal melodies. I’m big on “To Live And Die In Solitude”, particularly the stark storytelling in its lyrics, and also “Brother of the Storm” where stop-start riffing allows for Christoffersson to flex his soulful croon a little over ambient space. I kinda expected that Magus would rebound with this album, and glad to see my hunch was right, they’re too good a band to lay two semi-duds in a row.

Tanagra – Meridiem:

I’ve had a hell of a time wrapping my mind around this album, not because of any complexity or inaccessibility on its part —- Portland, Oregon’s Tanagra are a progressive power metal band and that’s familiar territory obviously. No, in this case its that I can’t quite figure out if I actually like the vocals of Tom Socia or not, which is a strange place to be after a couple weeks of fairly consistent listening. This is Tanagra’s sophomore album, they’re yet another among many newer North American bands playing a vein of melodic metal to come on the scene lately, having released their debut in 2015. The easy comparison here is Dream Theater in terms of degrees of light and dark, overall medium weight in heaviness, dramatic injection of keyboards, and of course a distinctive toned vocalist. But I enjoy Tanagra’s songwriting far more than DT’s, and there’s more of a Euro-power influence to the riffing that firmly anchors these songs in a trad/power posture than the loose, jazzy feel of other prog-metal bands. Socia is an absolute mystery though, because the mono-tonality in his clean voice is sometimes off putting and alternatively enjoyable in quick succession (or simultaneously in spots). When he leans into his more aggressive style, as on “Across the Ancient Desert”, he showcases a nicely gruff side to his vocal that is a perfect blend of melodic and metallic, and I’m really fond of all those moments. Look for this to be on a future MSRcast episode where I’ll try to sort out my thoughts on it more —- this is a quality record for certain, just a confusing one.

Månegarm – Fornaldarsagor:

The Swedish folk metal legends return after a four year absence, longer if 2015’s self-titled affair felt as off to you as it did to me. I only remember enjoying the acoustic ballads because that album’s muddy guitar tone annoyed me, and thankfully the Månegarm guys decided to abandon it on Fornaldarsagor in favor of a much more classic sounding approach. That decision and some other X factors resulted in crisply produced batch of blackened folk metal that is far darker and more convincingly brutal than I’ve heard this band ever sound. It barrels out of the gates that way with “Sveablotet”, a near perfect synthesis of everything the band does well —- rich Scandinavian folk melodies on violin and hurdy gurdy alongside flawlessly executed clean electric guitar, accompanied by harmonized group vocalization that recalls a little of Tyr and the brighter moments of Vintersorg, melded together with grizzled, smoky battlefield black metal. What Månegarm have always done so well however is to keep things accessible, with moments such as the wordless guitar melody refrain at the 3:30 mark of “Hervors arv” being ear candy I’ll return to over and over again. Vocalist Erik Grawsiö is still capable of his uncanny ability to blend together a gruff singing technique into some Johan Hegg-esque growls. This album is loaded with so many noteworthy musical moments in that vein, but my favorite slice has to be the entirety of “Ett sista farval”, whose melody is emblematic of the reason many of us love this subgenre in the first place. A return to form for Månegarm, and another shot in the arm for the slow revitalization of folk metal as a whole.

Riot City – Burn The Night:

Canada’s latest volley in the recent power/trad metal resurgence (I really need to come up with a name for that, any suggestions?), Alberta’s Riot City take their cue from classic early-mid 80s period Judas Priest and maybe a generous splash of Exciter here and there. There’s a level of technicality on the guitar work on “Warrior of Time” that instantly brings to mind the meticulous writing style of Tipton and Downing. Its all the more impressive when considering these guys are a four piece, the twin guitars provided by Roldan Reimer and Cale Savy, the latter handling lead vocals in a strikingly fierce emulsion of Halford and David Wayne. He has that chilling, eerily calm colder clean tone when singing melodically, and can turn it to Painkiller-esque hellion screams seemingly on a dime. If he’s capable of pulling this all off in a live setting, that’s a show I have to see for myself. There’s not a bum track in the bunch among these eight songs (keeping things old school with the classic vinyl album length here, a tight 37), and a few notable highlights battling it out for the best: “Burn the Night” is an absolute ripper, a blazing fast slice of classic speed metal with attention to razor sharp riffs and unrelenting intensity from start to finish. But I’m just as partial to “In The Dark” for its subtle shades of Euro-influence in those Helloween inspired guitar melodies wedged in the verses. I’m also digging the “Hot Rockin'” vibe on “Livin’ Fast”, a song that screams 1983 and would be tons of fun to gloryclaw along to at a gig. I just wonder what the idea of living fast means in 2019, or are Riot City purely soaking in the nostalgia hot tub and to hell with lyrical depth? Fair enough if that’s the case —- but Riot City’s challenge on future releases will be to expand on their influences that are so front and center on this excellent debut.

Enforcer – Zenith:

Its been intriguing to contemplate the dramatic evolution of Enforcer on Zenith, because I’ve associated them with hyper speed riffing and wild hard rock tones mixed with early 80s metallic attack —- to such a point that I have an archetype in mind of what they “sound like” (even if I can’t ever really remember a single song). Oh I like the band enough, I saw them live when they were supporting 2015’s From Beyond and enjoyed them thoroughly, particularly when singer/guitarist Olof Wikstrand attempted to kick a drunken, bottle throwing idiot in the face from the stage but thankfully missed and comically kicked the guy’s popcorn out of his hand (I know… popcorn, the Scout Bar is a quirky little venue). They were energetic and an absolute blast at that show, and it was easy to see why they stuck to their formula for their studio records. So I’ll be eager to hopefully catch them this coming fall on their next swing through town to see if and how these new songs come across live, because tunes like “Regrets”, “Sail On”, and “Zenith of the Black Sun” deviate in a striking way from the Enforcer playbook. The latter is hard not to compare to Hammerfall, and while I’m able to enjoy its mid-tempo classic power metal approach for what it is, its also illustrative of why Hammerfall is so damn awesome at this type of thing. Enforcer just can’t quite get the interlocking musical rhythm that these verses demand, but you could envision their fellow countrymen doing something terrific with them. I was a little more resistant to “Sail On”, whose chorus comes across as deliberately trying to invoke Styx that you wonder if its a weird inside joke among the band. Its to the point of distraction, but the song’s loose, strummed rhythmic structure also feels a little unsettled, like the band isn’t comfortable in this mode. I do think they nailed the power ballad “Regrets”, which is a close cousin to something The Night Flight Orchestra would tackle, a tune that will annoy many but genuinely please a few of us more inclined to the sappy stuff. This is merely scratching the surface of the strangeness of this album, and would you believe me if I told you there’s only a single track among its total ten songs that rings of classic Enforcer?! Its like the band decided to collect all their experimenting over the years and save it for one puzzling new album. One of the year’s weirdest releases but also one I’ll keep investigating.

Amon Amarth – Berserker:

I initially was blasé about the prospect of a new Amon Amarth record, and if I’m being honest its been awhile since I’ve been remotely interested in them, having never reviewed them for the blog before now. I’ve certainly listened to their many recent albums when they were initially released, more out of obligation than anything, and I should add that I don’t dislike the band. But at some point Amon went from being an exciting melo-death / power metal mashup to well… just more of that. I know, I know, they’re viking metal, but that’s an ideological label, not one that in any way describes their musical approach. Replace Johan Hegg’s consistent gruff/grim growling vocals with a Jorn Lande or Joacim Cans, and you have a bonafide power metal band because Amon’s melodies are bound tightly together between vocals and guitars. I decided to give Berserker a shot because I rather enjoyed the pre-release promo track “Raven’s Flight”, hearing something a little more aggressive in the opening guitar sequence and subsequent Gothenburg-ian percussive riff that reminded me of the signature moment in Dark Tranquility’s “Terminus”. Its a rare moment when the band seems to lean a little more aggressive, and that’s long overdue. Amon has for ages now needed their own Axioma Ethica Odini, that being Enslaved’s 2011 brief foray into a next level of speed, aggression and fury that we hadn’t heard from them before or since. While we don’t get that entirely on this album, its encouraging to hear Amon at least making a meager attempt.

Melodies have never been Amon Amarth’s weakness, they’ve always had an armload for each album and there’s no lack here. I’m particularly fond of the story driven “Mjölner, Hammer of Thor” with its dual guitar harmonies serenading Hegg’s growling melody (a strange thing to write but apt enough). The really fun moment is the pummeling bass driven assault that arrives at the 2:10 mark, something that I think could’ve been absolutely devastating if it were just a little faster, a little dirtier, and a touch heavier. If they could outsource moments like that to Unleashed or say Evocation, we’d be onto something awesome here. The heaviness returns in “Shield Wall”, as straightforward death metal as Amon might actually get, even though its speeds are just a notch above mid-tempo. The refrain here is excellent, nicely rumbling and propulsive, and the mid-song bridge with Tyr-ish battle drums pounding away is a nice Viking touch. But more often than not I just wish some of these songs would pick up the pace a little, such as “Crack the Sky” and “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge”, the latter of which has a few nice riffs that could’ve been more effective with more push behind them. I know this is a weird criticism coming from me, the power metal guy, about a band that has wholehearted power metal vibes bursting out of every song. Shouldn’t I be embracing that aspect? Again —- they do a fine job of those things… but I also grew up listening to death and black metal, and sometimes I wonder why Amon are a death metal band at all if they’re not going to better harness the potential of power that style can bring to the table. Insomnium had the right idea with Winter’s Gate, to use aggression, speed, and fury like a battering ram at certain well chosen moments —- not all the time, but enough to make it matter. There’s good stuff on this album, but every time I take a pass through its entirety, I’m left wanting for something more exciting. More of the same old with Amon Amarth I guess.

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