The 2019 Winter Blast: Swallow the Sun, Soilwork and More!

There’s an intimidating amount of highly anticipated new releases in these first few months of 2019, turning the old notion of the slow start to the release calendar on its head. I’ve also been introduced to or stumbled across a handful of intriguing releases by artists new to me, and the upcoming release calendar has a lot of albums by newer bands I’ve been told to check out so we’ll be venturing into a lot of uncharted territory in the future too. So without any further preamble lets get to it!


Swallow the Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light:

So I’ve sat with this album for a few weeks now, and I wanted to let it marinate for awhile before writing a review because I have to guard against the fact that in the intervening time between the release of 2015’s triple album Songs from the North I, II & III, I’ve become a massive fan of this band. I’ve gotten to see them play live twice in the intervening period, their hoodie has become my most worn metal apparel since that Nightfall’ Blind Guardian shirt I wore massive holes into, and I’ve deep dived into their discography repeatedly like a sugar addiction. I’ve been here before, where one’s enthusiasm for a band in general can color a new release in one’s own eyes, so I listened to this thing to death for the past few weeks, took a few days off, and have come back to it again to see if anything’s changed. But before I get to that, lets just talk about the elephants in the room with this record —- its the first album after the passing of founding guitarist/songwriter Juha Raivio’s partner Aleah Stanbridge. Its worth the mention because of just how much Raivio’s recent musical activities have been informed by it since her passing in April of 2016; the year end list making Trees of Eternity album, as well as the agonizing brutality of 2017’s Hallatar release. Its also the dawn of new guitarist Juho Räihä as a permanent member of the band (he has been their live guitarist standing in for Raivio for a few years now), replacing the band’s longtime guitarist Markus Jämsen. In 2016, the band’s longtime keyboardist Aleksi Munter also left, being replaced by Jaani Peuhu. Both Munter and Jämsen were in the band since 2001, practically founding members, so these aren’t necessarily inconsequential lineup changes.

This is a wildly surprising album, a confidently bold direction for the band to stride towards at this pivotal junction in their career. I mentioned Raivio’s musical mourning process on the Trees and Hallatar records; the wounded sorrow of the former and the pure rage of the latter, and it should be noted that this process continues here on When A Shadow… although in a tone that is at once still saddened yet also reverential and even hopeful in glimpses. Raivio accomplishes this by steering the musical direction of the band towards an arms wide embrace of gothic metal’s sweep and grandeur, incorporating a stylistic shift that brings to mind Paradise Lost and Sentenced’s sweeter moments, even reflecting a little Moonspell in the vocal approach. Far removed from the subdued clean vocals of Songs From The North Pt 2, here screamer/vocalist Mikko Kotamäki and keyboardist/backing vocalist Jaani Peuhu weave around each other with glorious melodic harmony vocals that cast a dramatic glamour over these songs. The complex and satisfying vocal layering is central to the impact of these songs, being written around both singers’ vocal melodies in a way that Swallow the Sun simply hasn’t tackled before so full on. Kotamäki is still a riveting screamer, full of blistering fury delivered with a razor sharp enunciation that ensures he’s landing every emotional gut punch. But its Peuhu who might be the quiet MVP of this record, his backing vocals (he’s so present everywhere on the album that he should really be considered a co-vocalist here) are utterly perfect in terms of tone and shading, and the vocal mix here by Jens Bogren is as lush as it needed to be.

Raivio’s lyrics across this album approach poetic levels of evocative imagery and storytelling, painting a dreamscape of vast reaches of starlit skies, endless black waters, fires and shadows, solitary temples and lonely places. His lyrics speak with a tone that is as reverential as it is grief stricken and lost, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard more convincingly pained and aching lyrics in extreme metal before (this is typically stuff that’s better handled by the Neko Cases of the music world). I would mention a specific example here, but what to pick, its all remarkable work. I will say that regarding both lyrics and music, “Here On The Black Earth” may just be my favorite Swallow The Sun song of all time, its escalating chord progression in the chorus is incredibly powerful stuff, and the gorgeous vocal harmonization of Kotamäki and Peuhu is as dazzling as the most ear candied Steven Wilson truffle. Looking back, I can say that although I really loved big chunks of Songs From The North (disc one was nearly flawless), I had difficulties cracking the album as a whole. Its partitioning of the band’s sound into three distinctive chapters (classic / mellow / funeral doom) seemed so final and conclusive even at the time, like a giant period at the end of a sentence. I suspect that Raivio felt the same way when he finally returned his attention to Swallow the Sun, and he felt that the only way forward musically (and perhaps emotionally as well) was to forge ahead with something radical (relatively speaking that is). His instincts were right, and I hope he knows deep down what myself and others have already figured out, that this is the greatest Swallow The Sun album to date. And I wish he never had to write it, that circumstances never resulted in this particular expression needing to surface, but I’m grateful for having it.


Soilwork – Verkligheten:

Now admittedly I haven’t been following Soilwork at all since 2005’s Stabbing the Drama, and although I enjoyed the records that preceded it I was never a big fan. So I have no context to compare the difficultly titled Verkligheten to, except to say this is not what I remembered this band sounding like the last time I checked in. And I might have heard one or two of their singles on YouTube or Spotify playlists over the past few years, looked up and thought “Oh Soilwork”, but if they sounded as strikingly different as the stuff on this album I must’ve not been paying attention. The obvious theory here is that vocalist Bjorn Strid’s time moonlighting with his other band The Night Flight Orchestra has rubbed off immensely on Soilwork, to such an extent that some of these songs feature hooks that might have felt right at home on Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough. I have become a big fan of that band lately, really enjoying all their records and I think that Strid just feels more at home in that milieu, not only as a frontman and performer but as a songwriter as well. His personality broke out in the Night Flight context, and it made me realize how much I didn’t know who he was in Soilwork really.

This Night Flight influence soaks into cuts like the music video dressed “Stålfågel”, where harmony backing vocals from Alissa White-Gluz (because of course apparently, at least they had a different role for her than we’re used to) coat the song in a hard rock sheen much like the “Airline Annas” did on the last NFO record. Its an undeniably catchy earworm of a song, and I really love its escalating approach in the verses, with Strid stressing emphasis at just the right moments to keep the drama heightened. On “Full Moon Shoals”, we’re treated to yet another maybe this was meant for another band slice of melodic hard rock, and all the overdubbed screaming vocals can’t really disguise it, particularly when we’re “oooh ooohh”-ing in the chorus. Not that I think the band is trying to disguise it, nor should they because I think bleed over is natural, but they run that Edguy/Avantasia risk where both bands start to sound sonically similar even if the lyrical tone moves further and further apart. In fact, my main criticism of this album is that they didn’t lean hard enough in that direction, and I find myself losing interest in the more standard modern melo-death stuff on the album, sure its heavy and there are a few good riffs thrown around, but I want more of those melodic choruses. I came away intrigued enough by this outing to definitely check out whatever Strid serves up next as Soilwork, but I’m far more eager for more neon lights, Camaro convertibles, palm trees, and pastel sport jackets from the Night Flight world.

Helevorn – Aamamata:

This was a random discovery I stumbled upon when reading the subject line of a random email in my inbox that said “For fans of Swallow the Sun…”, and that was enough to get me to click through to hear the promo, expecting to hear some watered down version of that supposed influence. And its fair to say that fans of Swallow the Sun will likely enjoy Helevorn, but they’re so much more than a copy of that band, in fact I think this band’s influences pull far more from 90s gothic metal like Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and particularly their countrymen in Moonspell. I hear it not only in the songwriting structure, where juxtaposing elements slide alongside each other in purposefully jarring ways, but in the guitar tone that vividly recalls the sound heard on Wolfheart, Irreligious, or even later Moonspell records like Extinct. Its a bit unfair to reduce a new band to what one’s own perception of their influences are, but for one its a hard habit to break and secondly its maybe the easiest way in for anyone new, as was the case with me and that email subject heading.

The variety of songwriting here is of particular note, because Helevorn can veer from a doom laden sense of aggression to a velvety dreamscape (as in album closer “La Sibil-la” with its Spanish acoustics, string beds and echoing vocals). Vocalist Josep Brunet alternates his distinctive clean vocals with a throaty growl, and often shifts into a talking vocal approach that is redolent of gothic metal and rock vocalists all around, that purposeful slowing of the voice to draw a listener’s attention to the lyrics. He’s got a rustic, dignified, somewhat aged quality to his vocal that is particularly appealing, at once lending some elder authority to both his extreme vocals as well as clean singing (major hints of Nick Holmes on both counts). I love that Draconian’s Heike Langhans drops in for a solo vocal appearance on “The Path To Puya”, and the effect when Brunet and the band come surging in to back her up is strong and powerful. I’m not sure who the clean vocalist is on the Spanish lyric semi-ballad “Nostrum Mare (Et deixo un pont de mar blava)” but she’s a highlight moment on the album all her own, particularly when the guitars sweep in underneath with a truly inspired solo. The key word with Aamamata is emotion, because its wringing out of every note throughout this record, and its refreshing to hear something new (well, to me anyway, this band has been around for over two decades) that is hearkening back to that late 90s style of gothic metal without taking on the sometimes watered down trappings that come with it. Can’t recommend this album enough.

Ancient Bards – Origine – The Black Crystal Saga Part 2:

For as much of a power metal fan I consider myself to be, I’ve always been somewhat allergic to the Italian variety. Not that I think its unlistenable or crudely done, quite the opposite actually, but its just never hit me with the same impact of other approaches coming from elsewhere. That long maintained tendency seems to be changing for the better with newer bands such as Frozen Crown with their debut last year as well as through the work of Ancient Bards, whom I’ve been passingly aware of the last few years. Though I was a few years late, their first three records really demonstrated something of a sharp songwriting sensibility that favored a hooks-first approach over a tired need to thrust storylines to the forefront (a critical flaw of Rhapsody’s music to me anyway). As a direct sequel to their concept/storyline driven debut, Origine is a little more darker toned in its overall vibe, but is still operating in that neo-classically informed mode of power metal bombast. They’re also rounding that corner where they’re not afraid to introduce some unexpected influences into the mix.

I’m chiefly referring to the extra dose of pop (beyond you know, normal power metal levels of “pop”) soaking into cuts like “Home of the Rejects” or “Aureum Legacy”, where vocalist Sara Squadrani shoulders the verses with an almost Broadway sensibility guiding her vocal melody. She’s at her most confident sounding on this record, putting herself out there vocally in a way that is daring in its escaping the constraints of the rigid power metal structure Ancient Bards largely operates in. Her standout and standalone moment is, well, as Cary the Metal Geek put it on our recent MSRcast —- the Disney Princess ready ballad “Light”. Its an apt description, because I could envision that in the hands of say Idina Menzel, this could be the show-tune hit on the upcoming Frozen 2. The song has been met with equal parts effusive praise and eye-rolling, with most of the audible groans coming from power metal purists who think this kind of balladry has no place on a power metal record. I just disagree, and Squadrani’s crystalline voice is perfect for a tune like this and her performance here is incredibly affecting. On a side note, they boldly chose it as a music video track, a risky move for any metal band these days when balladry has zero commercial truck with the public and risks alienating returning fans, but I gotta say, its certainly a pretty clip. This is another fun entry into the discography of one of the strongest new power metal bands to arrive on the scene in the past decade, more proof that there’s more to Italian power metal than I ever expected.

Within Temptation – Resist:

So I really wanted to take my time with this album and give it an honest airing in lieu of all the bad press its been getting since its December delay and subsequent pillaging in the recent flurry of reviews I’ve seen for it. If you recall my review for their last album in 2013, the bewildering Hydra, had a few withering criticisms of their then current musical direction and decision to include a handful of guest vocalists (I think it was four at least if I’m remembering right) for whatever reason. Remembering that review and juxtaposing it with Sharon Den Adel’s My Indigo solo project last year (where she revealed during its promotion that she battled writer’s block for Within Temptation), a record she described as “needing” to write really put the unfocused nature of Hydra in perspective. That record, with its forced duets and half-baked songwriting was the result of a band that had external stresses and was under the gun to get something released. The five year break that separates Hydra and Resist, the longest in their history, should probably have come after the promotional cycle for 2011’s The Unforgiving. The smart play for Within Temptation would’ve been to come storming back with an album that played to their strengths ala their first three albums, but instead they’ve chosen to pursue a path that pushes them further away from their core sound than they’ve ever been.

It really starts and ends with Den Adel’s preferences it seems. I did listen to her My Indigo record out of curiosity, and it was a decent albeit aggressively safe slice of modern indie toned pop. It was interesting to hear where Den Adel’s preferences lay when it comes to choices like production, because when we’ve heard Within Temptation get increasingly glossier and overproduced over the years, one wondered if it was the natural arc of their musical career, or a collective band decision, or something else. I’m starting to think that Den Adel just feels more comfortable in the world of modern production gloss, because for an album that was supposed to be her emotionally vulnerable solo record, I had hoped to hear something a little more vulnerable and stripped down. So it goes with Resist, where the production gloss has heightened to another level to such a degree that it completely dwarfs any metallic aspects going on underneath those layers. This is ostensibly supposed to be a dark, dystopian sci-fi themed record, and it is that, but not in the sense of heavy riffs and grand sweeping strings leading the way. Instead the sound of Resist owes more to the production flourishes of EDM and modern synth-pop artists like Chvrches, with the songwriting locked into a style that resembles alternative rock far more than symphonic metal. Speaking of the Scottish synth-pop band (if you saw my last blog update you’ll know I’m a big fan), Within Temptation even ape them a bit on their newest music video for “Raise Your Banner”, its chaotic showdown premise strikingly reminiscent of Chvrches video for “Miracle”. Its really hard to avoid the comparison.

The problem with this path for Within Temptation is that its simply not what they do well, whereas a band like Chvrches is specifically designed for this approach, two electronic musicians on synths and samplers while Lauren Mayberry pours her heart out up front. There’s spacing in their music, starts and stops, an innate understanding of how to manipulate EDM rhythms, song structures, tempo shifts, and the almighty “drop”. Within Temptation has three guitarists in the band…. why? What we hear on Resist is a dense wall of ultra-processed, noticeably compressed, amorphous sound. Its a black hole for riffs, with only passing few moments where one can hear multiple guitar patterns or solos. These songs seem to be stuck in one tempo as well, casting a sameness over the entire record. It does sound different from Hydra that’s for sure, but that apparently came at the cost of sounding entirely like one long song, something that its guest vocalists hardly budge. The Jacoby Shaddix guest spot on “The Reckoning” is decent in spots, particularly when they’re both singing together in the post chorus, but its the weakest of these type of songs they’ve cooked up in their catalog. The only other standout here is “Holy Ground” for how awkward Den Adel’s vocalizations come across. I think I get what Den Adel and Co were aiming for here, a futuristic soundscape which mirrored the theme of the album, but that’s not how they have excelled as a band. The real revolutionary move here would’ve been to scale down, get back to basics with a guitar forward album with swirling orchestral accompaniments. It would’ve been a striking study in contrasts against the dystopian sci-fi theme they’re so adamant about. I think its time to put that hope to bed permanently though, because like it or not this is likely how Within Temptation will sound going forward.

Things I Missed + Non-Metal Music Stuff

Hey everyone, back from a self-imposed break I purposefully wanted to take in starting start off 2019. I’ve given my ears a long layover from the release calendar grind and indulged in things I missed throughout last year (recommended to me by our two guests on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind episode and elsewhere). I think its a nigh impossible task for anyone to stay on top of everything, and one of the things that podcast demonstrated was just how many different directions all four of us spiraled off to listening wise. The resulting handful of recommendations below is a wildly diverse variety of approaches to metal, and I’ve tried to avoid going into review mode here so hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to just give them a shot on your own. And then there’s a handful of non-metal recommendations I’ve included as a bit of a bonus, the stuff I listened to last year to cleanse my musical palette after too much metal. I’ve only once written something about non-metal music here on the blog, an ignored review for the soundtrack to the PS3 game Journey. I’ve always wanted to write more about the non-metal side of what I listen to, because its a wide variety of stuff, but have feared scaring away readers or just confusing things. This seems like the perfect time and post to include some of that stuff, and hopefully someone will get something out of it (let me know in the comments below if you do!). For those that are wondering, new 2019 reviews are coming soon, including some major names early in the year —- thanks for reading!


Stuff I Missed in 2018


Harakiri For The Sky – Arson:

Introduced and recommended by Justin on the aforementioned MSRcast episode, my first taste of this strangely named Austrian two piece post-black metal band came that night during our recording session when we played two tracks from it before recording. I’m not normally into this kind of stuff, but I think Harakiri’s emphasis on riffery is a big part of why I’m slowly getting addicted to this album. While I can’t pinpoint individual songs yet, I find the entire record immersive in that deep, background kinda way, something that you hear reveal itself when you’re multitasking doing something else. I’ve seen Insomnium used as a touchstone in describing this album so often in various reviews that its reaching cliche status but its also incredibly spot on. They don’t crank up the sweetness on the melodic side of things in the same melodeath way the Finns do, but they apply the same principles of songwriting to strikingly different effect. This has been a big chunk of my soundtrack to the last few weeks during my little break, and while I haven’t investigated anything else they’ve done in the past yet, I will be making a point to move onto their back catalog soon.

1914 – The Blind Leading The Blind:

Recommended to me by Cary the Metal Geek, the Ukranian 1914 are newcomers by metal standards, this being their sophomore album a scant three years after their debut. They’re an intriguing band on a number of levels, the first being their absolutely stone faced committment to the lyrical and visual theme of World War I. Metal bands like Sabaton have made a career of exploring historical themes before, but 1914 deep dive into this history exclusively, focusing on the sheer brutality and carnage of that conflict with its introduction of mechanization and trench warfare in a way that is far more explicit than anything Joakim Broden would dare touch. Then there’s their blending of death metal riffs with an affinity for black metal’s sense of grandeur, often set to blistering tempos but just as often slowed down in doomy fashion to emulate the grinding march of slow moving machinery. There are a number of carefully chosen sound effects, samples, and audio dialogue interspersed throughout to conjure an atmosphere that is weirdly anachronistic. That coupled with fresh, fearless extreme metal songwriting that doesn’t care about subgenre rules and boundaries has made this one of my most listened to “missed” albums of 2018, one that everyone owes it to themselves to check out. Better late than never.

Elderwind – The Colder The Night:

I believe it was one of the guys in the r/PowerMetal Discord that recommended Elderwind to me, catching my attention with a description that was somewhere along the lines of “Wintersun meets Summoning”. And yeah, that’s about spot on, because we could simplify Elderwind as atmospheric black metal, but there’s a ton of stuff in that specific subgenre that sounds nothing like this. What informs The Colder The Night (so glad the band translated the title from the original Russian for the benefit of everyone) is a transcendent sense of tranquility and celebratory uplift, something I could easily hear associated with Wintersun and their similar use of keyboard heavy melodies and atmospherics. The band’s obvious debt to Summoning with their commitment to epic scope and meditative, hypnotic tempos are heard throughout, but unlike fantasy literature based themes, Elderwind write almost exclusively about nature and its ability to inspire and cause inward reflection. Actually, the album art here is as spot on a visual interpretation of Elderwind’s music as you can imagine, a still lake, clear skies to see the stars, and some travelers warming themselves by a fire to ward off the night chill. When the “super blood wolf moon” eclipse occurred last week, I had this record on my headphones as I stood outside in the cold staring up. It was mental insulation.

In The Woods… – Cease The Day:

This was a surprise to many of us at MSRcast / Metal Geeks, a release that not only impressed all of us who were on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind, but also George Tripsas of the Metal Geeks podcast (he the subject of that show’s George Hates Metal segment). Anything that swayed George had to be worth a further look, so I did, and I’ll admit that the surprisingly lengthy history of this Norwegian band was unknown to me. They started way back in 1991, with members of another storied gothic metal band you may or may not have heard of called Green Carnation (whom I’ve been told I need to check out as a Sentenced fan). No matter, the album we’re concerned with right now is Cease The Day, a progressive blackened doom album with a mix of Grutle Kjellson-ian harsh vocals and Dan Swano-esque clean singing. At times I’m even reminded of classic late 90s, early 2000s Opeth in parts, because similarly to Akerfeldt, these guys aren’t afraid of pushing melodies and harmonies up front in the mix. There’s an intelligence and thoughtfulness to the songwriting too, and on cuts like “Cloud Seeder” the band wisely knows when to strip things back to just a meaty, rockin’ riff. One of the most surprising, out of left field records that sailed under my radar last year.

Temperance – Of Jupiter And Moons:

Italy’s Temperance are one of those non-guilty pleasures, an unabashedly melodic power metal band that owes equal parts to their bombastic countrymen in Rhapsody as they do to vocal heavy Avantasia or Amaranthe. That they’re not quite a cross section of those bands is also testament to their ability to stand apart on their own songwriting strengths. There’s three singers here, guitarist/songwriter Marco Pastorino, and two solo lead vocalists in Michele Guaitoli and Alessia Scolletti, and they carry these songs on their backs. This is the kind of band that you simply have to love vocal melodies and ear candy to enjoy, because even though things are suitably metallic around them and the odd beefy riff cuts through their velvety cloth, its a vocalists showcase for sure. This album came out back in April of last year, and it was introduced to me just a few weeks ago when the folks in the aforementioned r/PowerMetal Discord were cobbling their best of lists together. There was a lot of interesting stuff popping up from various lists that I hadn’t heard yet, and some of it I really liked (shout out to the Guardians of Time record!), but I kept coming back to Temperance in particular for the sheer fun of it.


Non-Metal Stuff

After I cobbled together this list of non-metal recommendations, it dawned on me that all the artists I chose were women or in the case of Chvrches, a band fronted by a woman. I’m not entirely sure why that is, and I’m just realizing it now but I guess its safe to say that my non-metal music listening tends to lean this way a lot. I’m not against listening to a guy in this context, and many of the regular “rock” stuff I listen to falls into that category (Weezer, Wilco, and many other bands that don’t start with a “W” for that matter). Maybe its needing to seek a balance after listening to metal which is largely male dominated, or perhaps its simply coincidence that these awesome artists happened to be women. I’m open to further non-metal recommendations, lady or guy oriented.

Chvrches

Sometime in the mid to late 90s, as I was in the blossoming of an underground metal fandom, I also had friends who didn’t listen to metal or even rock at all. Through hanging out with them I was introduced wide-eyed to electronic music of all stripes, particularly when one of them made me a copy of both volumes of the Hackers soundtrack. I soon began making the odd purchase here and there, Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works, Paul Oakenfold, Orbital, Chicane, and even though its half-electronic the entire back catalog of pop masters Saint Etienne. It was all music that complemented my metal listening, even though I might not have realized it at the time, because I didn’t mention most of it to my metal loving friends. I’ve dropped in and out of that world as far as exploration goes over the years, there was always too much metal to listen to and not enough time. But two years ago I finally clicked on a Chvrches video that YouTube was recommending for me(!) when I was deep in a nostalgia trip and listening to BT’s “Remember”. I had seen the name so often throughout the past few years and always thought its spelling was some indie-rock band stealing a bit from metal culture so I would scoff and ignore it.

It was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, because my simple aversion to a name (which I quite like now) nearly kept me from music that I now can’t do without. Chvrches are considered synth-pop as a simple genre tag, but to me they hearken back to what I loved about listening to electronic music in the 90’s, conjuring up that sense of futurism and looking at the world through a science fiction sheen tint. But its singer Lauren Mayberry’s crystalline vocals and skill at penning unforgettable vocal melodies that really pulled me in. Her two bandmates handle the electronics, creating stripped back electronic beds that pulse, shake, and shimmer in some Tokyo-esque fever dream of sound, but Lauren’s voice is simultaneously capable of sounding robotic and utterly human. I love all three of their albums, the latest one having been released in 2018, and I could easily have picked a song from any of them to post above as a sampler. I listened to the new album while driving around Austin in the middle of the night after last May’s Orphaned Land / Tyr concert there, half delirious with exhaustion and euphoria, it was the perfect tonic for the moment, and it soundtracked a lot of last year for me. But I’ve chosen my all-time favorite Chvrches song, “Leave A Trace”, from their 2015 sophomore record, because its the quintessence of everything I love about this band.

Florence and the Machine

I think there’s a lot of pop music out there that metal fans would appreciate mainly because of a shared depth in artistry, musicality, and sheer thoughtfulness in the songwriting. This is probably not news to some of you, but I know people who only listen to metal exclusively, and while I applaud their dedication, I wonder how they can only experience life in that one (admittedly very wide) musical/emotional spectrum. I have no idea where I stumbled onto Florence and the Machine some many years ago, but this band has been a salve that I reapply again and again when I need to feel something else. The emotional spectrum in this case can run the gamut of euphoria, deep affirmation, or as in the case of the gorgeous song above, ache and longing that only a voice like Florence Welch’s can conjure up. That her vocals are adorned with a kaleidoscope of rich musicality is what makes her music transcendent, and not just merely pleasing to the ear.

I went to see Florence and the Machine at the Woodlands Pavilion back in September, it was my first time getting to see her live. The “Machine”, her band that is pretty much stayed in one position on the stage, not drawing attention to themselves. Not being used to pop shows, that took a little getting used to, although to be fair some metal bands are cardboard cutouts on stage too. Florence on the other hand, was captivating to watch, seemingly constantly in motion while never sounding fatigued or out of breath. Her voice live rings right through your chest, she might have been one of the most powerful vocalists in a performance setting that I’ve ever seen. At one point she ran through the aisles in the crowd, passing within mere yards of me when she leaned against one of the pavilion support pillars next to our section. She was singing “What Kind of Man”, a horn punctuated rock anthem, and she somehow made the circuit around the amphitheater in the span of that three and half minutes. She told short quips about why she wrote some songs, politely asked in charming British humor if everyone could put away their phones (and they did!), and she played my favorite song off the new album, the one I posted above, and everyone forgot to breathe for five minutes.

Neko Case

I’ve been listening to Neko Case for awhile now, ever since I got a promo of Blacklisted way back in 2002 sometime. Think of a dark, alt-country Tori Amos without all the piano and you’re somewhere near the ballpark —- the truth is her voice is incomparable and unmistakable once you’ve heard it. That she writes such mellifluous songs with strange, evocative lyrics is what makes her a transcendent artist. Her music is warm toned, with a perfect balance of rustic, loose, live instrumentation and incredible richness in mixing and production. I’ve enjoyed every one of her albums, some more than others, case in point being my belief that she’ll never top 2009’s Middle Cyclone. The song I posted above is actually a cover of a Crooked Fingers song that was famously covered by The National and St. Vincent. On Neko’s version, she duets with its original songwriter, ‘Finger’s own Eric Bachmann in a stripped down version that swaps guitar for spare piano. If you’ve heard those previous two versions, you’ll know just how much Neko’s interpretation (and to his credit, Bachmann’s own performance on it) far surpasses them. Her instincts in knowing that piano would resonate more than formless acoustic guitar, and just how to handle the vocal layering in their duet to steep it in her musical world is genius. The result is a song that’s a sonic portrait of loneliness and heartbreak, awash in nostalgia that would make even Steven Wilson proud.

Sarah Brightman

Where to start here, and how to possibly keep this brief? I’ve been a huge, huge admirer of Sarah Brightman ever since an EMI rep gifted me with a free copy of her La Luna record way back in 2000 (and a promotional candle I still have #fanboy). She’s known for the eternal classic “Time To Say Goodbye” and for her role in the 80’s run of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, but I love her for her solo career that began in 1993. She has throughout her solo discography released thematic albums; the aquatic Dive, futuristic Fly, the classical London Symphony accompanied Timeless, the Italian aria steeped Eden, the lunar imagery of La Luna, the Middle-Eastern musical influence on Harem, a Gothic tinge on Symphony, the nostalgia-space race informed Dreamchaser, and last year’s spirituality informed Hymn. You get the idea. The themes are guides, not rails she has to cling to, so they might inform the lyrics, some of the music here and there, and certainly the photography and imagery of the album artwork (right up a metal fan’s alley). They make every release intriguing to dive into, but her evergreen angelic vocal ability and the influence of her longtime producer Frank Petersen (of Enigma/Gregorian fame) ensure that her sonic world is familiar and comforting.

Her new album is interesting in that its a purposeful throwback to her 1997 era, a classically drenched album that even revisits “Time To Say Goodbye”, this time slowed down and with the lyrics in complete English to really understand the sadness inherent in a song that most people think of as triumphant. She’s said in interviews regarding this album that it was a purposeful response to the bleakness of the emotional state of the world at the moment. She sought to return some of that lightness and euphoria back to her sound, which admittedly can run all across the emotional spectrum (her vocal hue often masks some really forlorn lyrics, think ABBA). I know some of you will back away slowly after reading this recommendation, but I think part of the reason I love Sarah’s work so much is the depth and artistry that informs the songs she chooses to sing, and as later in her career, the ones she helps to co-write. That and she practically defines the word epic, an aspect of metal I’m quite sure we all love. To that end, some of the most powerful moments of her musical catalog are gorgeously cinematic, stirring with such orchestral swell and grandeur that its enough to give you a knot in your throat. Even if the lyric she’s singing at the moment seems remote to you personally, her voice brings you to wherever she wants you to be with her, and you are powerless to fight it.

Loreena McKennitt

One of my oldest friends introduced me to Loreena McKennitt in 1997, when he bought her Book of Secrets album and I heard it at his house and was transfixed. For my younger self, that album was the first foray into buying non rock/pop music, but also the opening of a window to a larger world of cultural music that I’d quickly grow to love. Its an oversimplification to say that Loreena McKennitt is Celtic music, as she’s so often tagged in anything written about her. She’s interested in the history of the Celts and how their music has changed throughout history, but also of those other cultures they came into contact with. Her sound then is a mix of far ranging cultures all tethered together with the strength of her haunting voice. Case in point is the song posted above from last year’s Lost Souls, where subtle Spanish rhythms and acoustic guitar styles inform a rustic string led ballad. It was her first studio album in eight years, and although I’d rather not have near decade long waits for new music from her, its somewhat par for course with the way she works. Loreena actually travels to a range of countries and regions for research, and she gives you a taste of this in the diary entries she often places excerpts from in her liner notes, each entry from some wildly vivid locale. I’m pretty sure I read every single bit of the Book of Secrets liner notes a few times over, and to this day, its one of my favorite albums of all time full stop, I’d recommend starting there but you can’t go wrong with any of her stuff.

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