The Power!: New Music From Demons & Wizards, Seven Spires, and More!

The slow start to the year in January quickly evaporated with an onslaught in February, and we’ve gotten some big names in the mix too (well, relatively speaking of course). Chief among them is the fifteen years plus in the waiting third Demons & Wizards album, Hansi Kursch and Jon Schaffer’s side-project that has taken on an almost legendary air in the interim period. You heard it in the murmuring crowd on their recent North American tour, and I felt it myself —- a sort of disbelief that we were seeing these two major figures in power metal history standing onstage together. That’s a lot to live up to, not only with the show itself, but with an album that we’ve heard more than a few estimated release dates for during that time. We’re also getting new releases from Finland’s genre-bending Amberian Dawn, who are stretching the limits of power metal to its poppiest extreme yet, and of course the once power metal supergroup Serious Black that’s more of a honed in melodic metal vehicle for the mighty Urban breed. Lastly, there’s the sophomore album by Seven Spires, a band who is on two major support slots in North America this year for very relatively different audiences. Intrigued? I thought so!

Demons & Wizards – III:

I guess I’ve put this off long enough. This review was originally going to be one of the long ones, you know, my 1200 plus word excursions going in depth on an album’s backstory, details, and hidden nuances. Forget that. I simply can’t summon the interest. I’ll get right to the point here, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to write the following —- but this album bored me and is a chore to listen to. An absolute chore. I’m gravely disappointed. Not only because of the pedigree of the two musicians involved; not only because of the precedent set by their prior two albums —- one of which was pretty good (and sounding better by the minute) while the other I’d consider a power metal classic —- but also because I was so hyped for this thing after witnessing the band live in Dallas last August on their North American tour. That was a great show, and to hear songs like “Tear Down The Wall” and “Fiddler On The Green” in person was a dream I’d never imagined being possible come true. As a result, I allowed myself the luxury of getting hyped for this album, and yeah, I suppose the near fifteen year wait also added a bit to that. There’s been a lot written and spoken about that span of time in between this album, the creatively titled III, and 2005’s Touched By The Crimson King (now that’s an album title!), and it should be made clear to everyone that it had no impact on adding anything of value to the songwriting that went into these new songs. Jon and Hansi’s day jobs kept Demons & Wizards on the sideline until they could eventually find an opportunity to carve out a block of time to devote to it. The reasoning is rational enough on the surface, but I’m starting to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just working on material slowly through the years, passing ideas back and forth until they finally accumulated an album’s worth of material. Would we really care if any of the songs had begun in 2006 as opposed to being recent creations, entirely “fresh” and new? I’m guessing no as long as they were good.

So what’s wrong with this album then? I’m afforded the luxury of being vague here, simply because this one criticism applies to nearly everything on here barring a moment or two, but this album sounds entirely disconnected. The debut album began as an in-person collaboration between Jon and Hansi, and the limits of technology at the time forced it to largely remain that way, despite the pair working on it via mailed recordings as well. The follow-up had to be done under a tighter time schedule, and Schaffer’s gone on record as stating it as a reason for his slight dissatisfaction with the overall result. But whereas the songs on the debut really felt like they were cooked up together, the result being a natural fusion of the two songwriter’s tendencies and styles, Crimson King felt divided due to being largely written separately by Jon and Hansi in geographic isolation. I used to think that was the album’s achilles heel, but as the years have gone on, I think it actually worked to its benefit. To me, half of that albums songs sound like Schaffer led tunes, and the other half Kursch’s —- meaning that some songs lean hard in an Iced Earth direction (“Terror Train”, “Crimson King”, “Seize The Day”, “Dorian”), whereas others are clearly more Blind Guardian tinged (“Beneath These Waves”, “Wicked Witch”, “Love’s Tragedy Asunder”, “Down Where I Am”, “Lunar Lament”). The result was a largely strong collection of songs, because each of the songwriter’s hard leans towards their strengths ensured that at least the melodies would be affecting. It would be inaccurate to say that Jon and Hansi each wrote half of Crimson King on their own, these were collaborations after all and Jon did pen music for all the tracks, and Hansi did write his own vocal melodies for all the songs. I’m more referring to the songwriting structures present in all those songs, as they provide strong context clues as to what came to dominate a song first in its early songwriting stages, the riff or the vocal melody?

Fast forward to III, where it’s clear that the riff came first, always and to a fault. As confirmed by the dozens of interviews Jon and Hansi have done for the album, they largely wrote this album geographically isolated from one another just like they did for Crimson King. This time however, I think they made a critical error in the division of responsibilities in the songwriting department. Simply put, they got too diplomatic for their own good. According to those interviews, Jon wrote the music, Dropboxed the tracks to Hansi, who would write vocal melodies for them. I’m certain there was some passing the songs back and forth after that point, but given that these hooks never really get that “lift” like we’re expecting and the verses just aimlessly merge into the refrains like a texting driver at a rush hour intersection, I’m not 100% certain of that either. When Jon writes for Iced Earth, he builds a song with vocal melodies in his mind as well, and will communicate a sketch of that idea to his vocalist (who may or may not have the leeway to change things). Of course Iced Earth songs are melodic, but they’re largely chiseled that way via shaping the tone and direction of riffs, not pure melodies in the sense that say… Tobias Sammet writes Avantasia’s songs on keyboards first. When Hansi writes for Blind Guardian, he and Andre work in tandem, sometimes with the vocal melody coming first, sometimes with a guitar melody coming first. Point is that their work is more melodically guided, and riffs and heaviness are worked in around that. Listening to III, I get the feeling that Jon didn’t want to tread on Hansi’s boots, and created riff driven songs with some melodic structures, but largely left space for Hansi to guide things with his vocal melodies. Subsequently, Hansi was given half-finished tracks that he had to figure out how to shoehorn lead vocal melodies therein, and likely didn’t pass any of them back to Jon and say “Yeah I have nothing for this one”. If you’re followed this train of thought this far, you might be of the opinion that I’m overthinking this —- you’re likely right, but I had to dig deep to potentially understand why, oh why I haven’t been able to get into this album after umpteen listens. I might even be wrong on all of the rationale above, but it’s all I can offer by way of explanation right now.

There were a few worthwhile moments, the entirety of “Wolves In Winter” being the best song on offer here and comparable to the band’s work on their prior two records. A near perfect merging of the heavy riff first approach with a classic Hansi vocal melody during the refrain results in a stellar track, at once unique with its primal, grunting, rhythmic tick and familiar in the sense that Hansi sounds powerful and confident as we’ve heard him countless times before. And I’m somewhat partial to most of “Diabolic”, which has elements that drag for sure (the long intro and outro for starters), but also displays one of the more convincing riff structures on the album in terms of pairing intensity with a melodic motif. I think there’s a good idea somewhere in “New Dawn”, where Hansi captures my attention every now and then, particularly his “I cleanse it with fire” lyrical motif towards the end (if only the rest of the song could match his intensity). I’m also in the minority in being somewhat into “Midas Disease”, not for its dumb, mawkish AC/DC tribute inherent in it’s plodding hard rock rhythms, but for Hansi’s spot on Blackie Lawless impersonation throughout, sounding for all the world like a distant echo from The Headless Children. As for the rest of these songs… I’m just baffled. I have thumped my head against them for countless listens now and am coming away with nothing but bruises and a growing loathing for the mere act of listening to this album. Out of respect for Jon and Hansi, I will shelve this for awhile and return to it in a year or two’s time to give it another shot. Reinforcing my theory that things may have been too diplomatic all around for this album, both Jim Morris and Charlie Bauerfiend were involved in the production at some stage, which just seems weird. The prescription for the next time around, should there be one, might be for Jon to largely write half the songs on the album and Hansi to nearly entirely pen the other half —- or, heck, here’s a thought, book a flight and get in a room and write the entire album together for once.

Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:

You might have seen the name Seven Spires listed on a few high profile tours this year and idly wondered who and what they were all about. Their biggest claim to fame heading into the release of their sophomore album Emerald Seas is that their vocalist/keyboardist Adrienne Cowan was the backing vocalist on Avantasia’s recent Moonglow world tour. Her role on that tour was certainly the reason why I first noticed the band and checked out their 2017 debut album Solveig when that tour was announced. I came away thinking it was an interesting record that flashed some nice ideas here and there, the kind of thing that a few albums down the road could see Seven Spires hone into a well defined sound and deliver a possibly great album (provided they could stay together for that time). The last thing I expected was that the band was talented enough to make that leap in fully realizing their sound and songwriting approach a mere one album later. So much for the sophomore slump, because Emerald Seas might just be the most exciting, creative, and thoughtfully written album we see this year. I’ve been stunned and knocked sideways by how much I love this album, and I’ve actively had to force myself to take days off from listening to it so I could squeeze in listening time for other releases. You might have noticed that Seven Spires is going to be opening for Insomnium this spring as well as Amaranthe in the fall, and they’re able to fit into both slots quite well because they blend together progressive symphonic power metal and a blackened vocal take on melo-death.

Cowan has the vocal talent to make these genre blendings sound seamless, transitioning between three voices —- a soaring, heartwarming crystalline tone that can move to a gritty, belting rock n’ roll voice, and of course go deeper in a grim vocal that reminds me strongly of Dani Filth’s midrange delivery. You hear this right away in “Ghost of A Dream”, where she displays all three approaches within the context of a handful of ultra-memorable vocal melody structures. This is also the song where you might be wondering what other band’s vibes you’re being reminded of, and the answer on the tip of your brain is Kamelot. There’s a depth to Seven Spires musicality illustrated here and throughout the album that brings to mind Kamelot’s Epica era. I’m thinking here specifically of the Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar figures that flare up alongside Cowan’s lithe vocals in the verses, as well as the elegant accordion style adornment in the background recall Roy Khan’s narrative vocal masterpiece in “Lost And Damned” off that album. Guitarist Jack Kosto also has a Thomas Youngblood-ian sense of how to keep his riffs muscular but largely simple when set against the backdrop of Cowan’s grandiose, cinematic orchestral keyboard backdrops. This artful approach to symphonic metal yields songs like “Every Crest”, where an almost Broadway styled vocal melody can swing suddenly into a brutal, utteringly convincing harsh vocal passage with a Hans Zimmer inspired slant to the orchestral arrangement. During the former, bassist Peter de Reyna shows off some nimble jazzy structures figures underneath Cowan’s vocals, and alongside drummer Chris Dovas’ thoughtful battery and Kosto’s knack for neoclassical styled shredding and spectacular soloing, this band unexpectedly injects frequent doses of stunning technicality throughout the album. It’s a subtle detail, but it works to add a sense of vitality and boiling emotional swell to the album in the same way that Dialith achieved with their infusion of gritty, intense melodic death riffs to their symphonic metal oeuvre.

This is the rare album with no weak songs, nothing resembling filler, but there are a couple of absolute gems that shine greater than the others, namely “Unmapped Darkness” and “Succumb”. The former is the grandest and boldest example of the band’s almost effortless swagger at pulling off the arms wide, cinematic expansiveness that its hopeful lyrics speak to. Cowan claims Roy Khan as one of her biggest influences, and her lyric writing abilities come pretty damn close to his in terms of diction, imagery, and phrasing. She’s really friggin good at this stuff. Take the chorus of “Succumb”, easily the catchiest moment on the album, where she eschews generic ideas in favor of “And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone / And I pray one day our stars align / So I might hold you one more time…”. That’s Khan level poetic abilities on display, and you guys know how I feel about the master himself (I’m not making this comparison lightly). Consider me a Cowan lyrical fanboy now, because this album has captivated me on that level completely, telling a story about a seafarer and the beast that’s chasing him. Its rare that a storyline intrigues me on any level within a metal album, but there’s something charming and rare about the one that Cowan has sketched out here —- it’s allowed for the variety of moods and emotions displayed amidst the differing songwriting styles and approaches. To wit, the gorgeous moonlit piano ballad “Silvery Moon” is a personal favorite here, the kind of thing I’d more associate with a stage play rather than a symphonic metal band, but Cowan’s lyrics are heartbreakingly poignant, and paint an evocative series of pictures in my mind. I could go in detail about the lyrical gems scattered throughout this record, in addition to its unforgettable melodies, but I promised myself I’d keep this short —- also, this isn’t the last I’ll be writing about Emerald Seas this year…

Amberian Dawn – Looking For You:

I became a fan of Finland’s once symphonic metallers Amberian Dawn in 2015 with the release of Innuendo, not so much because of the band’s still present symphonic metal palette, but for the strange, inexplicable ABBA influences scattered throughout the album. It was an interesting moment to be introduced to the band, who were finding their way with the still relatively new vocalist Capri Virkkunen who joined one album prior, after the departure of longtime classically inclined singer Heidi Parviainen. Capri possessed an entirely different voice, more a velvety, sonorous pop-rock voice as opposed to anything resembling classical training. It was Amberian’s Tarja to Annette moment, and band founder/keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppälä saw an opening to move away from a symphonic metal direction that he’d run with for four albums now with varying results and modest public interest, towards a more overtly pop driven approach inspired by the Swedish quartet. Capri had previously spent some time singing in an ABBA cover band, in addition to trying out for Eurovision a couple times, so her pop credentials were rooted in that classical European dramatic mode that made those ABBA hits so emotionally engaging. It also helped that her vocals sounded like a perfect blending of Agnetha and Frida, from tone to the clarity of her diction and phrasing. She and Seppälä seemed to be of one mind in this, because they increased the amount of pop-driven songwriting on the 2017 follow-up Darkness of Eternity. It seemed inevitable that they’d at some point have to just abandon the band’s symphonic metal roots… clearly they were having more fun heading in the opposite direction.

Fast forward to Looking For You, Capri’s fourth proper album with the band, and they’d pretty much done exactly that. Oh there’s still a nod to their symphonic metal past, on “Symphony Nr. 1 Part 3 – Awakening”, an entertaining to say the least duet with Fabio Lione which is actually the third installment in this song-suite over the past couple Capri fronted albums. But that one cut aside, Seppälä goes all in on the ABBA-worship this time, with the rest of the album working in that sophisticated pop songwriting mode. Capri is the star throughout, her mature, resonant voice clearly made for the theatrical, drama-rich lyrical delivery this kind of classic pop influence requires. The apex here is the title track, a sugary dance-beat fuelled pop confection built around a finely defined vocal melody that weaves effortlessly from verse to bridge to chorus. Capri’s the ringleader here, her urgency in tone is the cue for the extra crunch from the guitars, and really the band as a whole. There’s a very true to seventies-ABBA era pop approach to the lyrics here, with vague, hopeful sentiments expressed through a staging of a very specific scene —- “Late at night / Wondering where you are tonight / I feel the sadness in my heart”. I hear shades of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Day Before You Came” influencing this particular lyrical approach that Seppälä and Capri are writing with. It continues on “Two Blades”, another ultra catchy uptempo gem, where the narrator speaks about her relationship that is all smiles to the world around them, yet crumbling on the inside: “They don’t know how it feels to be / Forgotten in the hours of the night / Hiding in the shadows and being lost / And left behind for a lifetime”. I love the juxtaposition at the 2:38 mark of that satisfyingly crunchy riff sliding beneath Capri crooning “I am, I am the sun…”. This is pop songwriting at its classicist best, with a lyrical approach that is inviting and universal in its portraits of desperation and urgency. Its the kind of thing I find lacking in a lot of modern pop music (with some notable exceptions).

So maybe you’re thinking at this point, c’mon Pigeon, ABBA-metal? Why does this have to be a thing? And my answer is a very simple, “Why not?”. Here’s the thing about Amberian Dawn laid out bluntly, they’re simply more interesting and unique since they’ve been exploring music in this vein than they ever were as a symphonic metal band. I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in those older albums, but it’s generally stuff that feels overdone to the point of exhaustion. And here’s another thing —- no one, and I mean no one, is writing pop music in this classic ABBA mold, not even in the pop music world. As an outright fan of that band, I welcome new music in that vein, particularly if its as delightfully faithful, convincing, and skillfully executed as Amberian Dawn are managing to do. There’s plenty of bands out there doing symphonic metal, some are even pulling it off rather well (see Dialith’s Extinction Six), but only Amberian Dawn is giving me the sugar high I crave with sophisti-pop hooks ala a re-worked/refreshed “Cherish My Memory”. It also serves to give the band a unique identity, something that they had trouble finding in their previous style. Capri has a unique voice within metal, a classic pop voice that she’s used to develop a stage career in addition to her vocation as a music teacher. In that vein she’s sympatico with Falconer’s Mathias Blad, another theatrical stage performer who moonlights as a singer in a metal band, using a non-metallic voice to create something really unique and special within metal. To really drive the point home, Amberian Dawn cheekily laid down a cover of the Swedish masters’ “Lay All Your Love On Me” in the middle of the tracklisting here, and not only is it a perfectly executed cover (immediately preferable to Avantasia’s), it’s a bold declaration of intent and a giant middle finger to anyone who’s thinking of throwing stones.

Serious Black – Suite 226:

So apparently I’m one of the few weirdos that actually thought Serious Black’s 2016 sophomore effort Mirrorworld was a fine slice of Euro-tinged power metal. I’ve read pretty much nothing but verbal abuse hurled towards it in the years since its release, from reviews I’ve gone back and read, to the fine folks on the r/PowerMetal subreddit having their daggers sharpened for it. I can see why those attacks would come at the expense of Mirrorworld’s follow-up, 2017’s Magic, although it too contained a few good tunes (I still stan “Binary Magic” and ” amidst the overall cringe on display), but I do have a theory as to why Serious Black has endured a brunt of negativity over the course of their entire existence. It largely has to do with their vocalist Urban breed, who is nearly universally beloved in the power metal community for his masterful work with Tad Morose and briefly, Bloodbound. On his defining work with those two bands, Urban sang over heavier, darker, far more metallic power metal than he does in Serious Black, which is a little closer to happy-boi Helloween and Freedom Call on the spectrum than it is to Khan-era Kamelot or say, Pyramaze. That’s not to say Serious Black is all sugary highs and syrupy sweet melodies, but there’s a slightly sunny-ish disposition streaking through their four albums in terms of melodic tone and sometimes even lyrical approach that I think a lot of Urban fans are put off by. It’s certainly not for any decline in the man’s vocal ability, because he still sounds as powerful and ageless as ever, but this band’s material does send his voice into sharply different directions than some are used to.

For those of us who are used to Urban in this context, we’re treated to a rebound record for Serious Black with Suite 226, a concept album about a mental patient locked in a psych ward (apparently). Largely gone are the weirdly pop-rock affectations of Magic, replaced instead by a welcome return of darkness and perhaps the most marked uptick in aggression in the band’s short history. Right out of the gate, “Let It Go” is the most Dave Mustaine-channeling that we’ve ever heard Urban, and with the blistering, furious riffing from Dominik Sebastian speeding along underneath, the whole thing sounds downright Megadeth-ian. That energy doesn’t dissipate heading into the first single “When The Stars Are Right”, which for all its loaded poppiness in that excellent chorus is still bookended by some dense riffing, and a tight rhythmic attack on the bottom end by bassist Mario Lochert and Ramy Ali on drums (who is a longtime veteran talent in the more obscure side of Euro power metal and a quality replacement for Alex Holzwarth). On a more mid-tempo cut like “Solitude Etude”, the band opts to employ a darker, more downcast mood along with Urban delivering a melancholic vocal melody. They do this again on the notably more poppy “Fate Of All Humanity”, and in lieu of straightforward aggression, the moodier, more introspective approach is still a welcome relief from what we can reasonably label as Serious Black’s default blue skies disposition. Urban delivers an unforgettable hook in the chorus here, and its still as poppy as power metal can get, but its a subdued sweetness, tempered by the lyrical concerns of the concept running through these lyrics.

And it’s strange, because I don’t think I picked up on this overall shift in mood and approach my first few listens through this album. I was here for Urban and the hooks, and we’re of course treated to those in spades, but it was deeper listening that revealed the aggression and darkness buried underneath. Take “Castiel”, arguably the album’s best cut and one of the finest songs the band has ever written, it’s built on major-minor chord dichotomy and a seriously swaggering chorus that owes more to classic heavy metal than Europower. I love the delay that Urban playfully tags onto the end of the second iteration of the chorus, making that slamming Accept-ian riff just hit you with full force when it breaks back in. There’s some heavyweight metallic grit happening in that tune but the addictiveness of the chorus really deafened me to it for the first few listens. The opposite happened on “Heaven Shall Burn”, an obviously heavy tune that is sneakily one of the strongest songs on the record, boasting a hook that’s slyly catchy despite its purposefully awkward approach. The most uplifting thing on the album is “Way Back Home” and amidst the downcast vibe it actually stands out just by its marked shift in tone alone. I’m more impressed by “We Still Stand Tall”, which is similarly more upbeat in tone and disposition, but is still underscored by a current of gritty heaviness anchoring it firmly to earth. The two songs that close out the album, “Come Home” and the title track swing us back to the darker side of the album, and they’re fine in that context, although I’m finding myself more liable to grow impatient with their slower, meandering sections and skip out of them. That minor complaint aside, I’m honestly surprised and maybe a little relieved that Serious Black found their footing again after such a worrying release. Give this one a few chances.

Defeat Or Defiance: Serenity’s The Last Knight

It’s an interesting moment for our Austrian friends in Serenity here in the wake of the release of their seventh album The Last Knight. They’re having to follow up the extremely divisive Lionheart, an album that I was largely critical of in my review and still feel that way for the most part. Setbacks have plagued this endeavor from the get go, starting with the mixed reception to the “Set The World On Fire” single a few months ago, and a somewhat better yet problematic reception for the most recent single in “My Kingdom Comes” which got tagged with being a rip off of Kamelot’s “Veil of Elysium” (I can kind of hear what people are talking about), suffice to say it’s been an inauspicious launch for the new album. I think if we look back on the band’s career, they had a stretch from 2008-13 that a broad swath of the power metal community would agree on (both at the time and retrospectively) as being one of excellence, where the band captured our ears and hearts with their Kamelot meets Sonata Arctica blend of Euro-power. So I was quite worried then in 2015 when they announced that they’d be working on a new album without their longtime guitarist and co-songwriter Thomas Buchberger, as well as the departure of contributing vocalist Clementine Delauney. But they surprised us with Codex Atlanticus, which I thought was a really fun and exciting experiment for them, the album length concept of the life of Leonardo Da Vinci inspiring vocalist Georg Neuhauser to take command of the songwriting process with a greater emphasis on vocal melodies and symphonic elements propelling the songs. It was the most major key forward album of their career, a lush, verdant, theatrical affair that at times had splashes of broadway in its sound (check “The Perfect Woman”). As a fan, it filled me with confidence that the guitarist change and more importantly, the loss of one of the band’s major songwriters wasn’t going to impact them that much. Then Lionheart happened.

The problem with Lionheart, I suspect, stems in large part due to its lyrical theme about the crusades of King Richard I of England. The battle and glory soaked lyrical approach that Neuhauser chose to depict seemed to push him towards giving these songs a heavier, more aggressive footing. That wasn’t inherently a bad idea, but my theory is that without the knowing finesse of his old bandmate Buchberger on guitar to add the heaviness factor without taking too much away from the band’s overall melodicism, that trademark Serenity yin-yang balance slipped out of Neuhauser’s grasp. Sure it still sounded like the band, but Christian Hermsdörfer’s riffs were too upfront in the mix while being relatively simplistic and chug-a-chug to justify their prominent role, a distracting annoyance that plagued the album as a whole. To make matters worse, almost every song seemed to mirror each other in tone and sentiment —- all brash bravado and epic battle hymn and none of the light and shadow shading of the band’s pre-Codex material (barring “My Fantasy” towards the end of the album which finally offered a welcome heaping of melancholy to cut the incessant cheer). The dichotomy of unnecessarily aggro-riffing with a triumphant tone without any fluctuation was a jarring experience, and made potentially good songs sound severely flawed. The result is an album that is still regarded as largely below average, and that’s me putting it diplomatically, I won’t tell you what some of the guys at r/PowerMetal have to say about it. So why the step back in time to revisit these last two albums? Because newcomers to the band might not notice, but I tend to think its helpful for longtime listeners of a band to have a sense of context in considering a band’s newest effort, not only to check themselves against negative prejudices, but alternatively, to suss out exactly why it is they might have negative feelings towards new material.

For my part, I’ll just come out and say that The Last Knight is a rebound from the woeful Lionheart, though not as strongly as I would’ve liked. First of all, is this singular figure biography approach for a whole album just going to be the way things are going forward for Serenity now? They’ve always written about historical figures on their older albums, but they were a jumble of topics and ideas, which seemed like a wiser way to go about things. But Neuhauser seems hell bent on putting his history doctorate to full use and has devoted the band’s last three records to singular figures, this time focusing on Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. I’m not too familiar with his biography, but it does seem that the impact of this topic on the songwriting this time around has conjured up a more nuanced blend of light and dark that we’re used to in the Serenity DNA. That in itself makes this a more layered, deeper album than the surface level rah-rah glory worship of its predecessor, but also takes advantage of the band using Sascha Paeth as producer for the first time ever. Paeth is used to working with shifting tones, a blurring of major and minor keys with his experience producing for Kamelot and writing for Avantasia, and he does an admirable job here of highlight the band’s strengths. Neuhauser brings back that old school Serenity feel with onpoint songwriting on cuts like “Wings of Pride” and “Call to Arms”. The former has a romantic blush to its frenetic, speedy power metal tempos, as well as an appealing balance of loud/quiet dynamics and a chorus that is stirring. The latter is quintessential Serenity, with an unforgettable melodic hook built into Neuhauser’s soaring, powerful vocals in the chorus. They’re tracks immediately worth seeking out if you were one of the few put off by the album’s singles.

Speaking of which, yeah, you know that I keep banging on about how bands tend to pick the worst tracks to preview an album? I present exhibit number 35,432. And truth be told, I actually think “Set The World On Fire” is a really fun, quality song with an unforgettable hook —- the flashpoint that is setting off alarm bells amongst the power metal community is the sonic production gimmickry that is similar to what Beast In Black is doing. I’ve identified this as being either the vocal effect on Neuhauser’s voice in the vocal only intro, the easy, simplistic musical bed in the verses, or more accurately the moment at the 2:50 mark where Herbie Langhans joins in for a guest vocal spot and is backlit by some seriously glaring modern production gloss that sounds like an electronically generated rhythmic pulse. But all those things together don’t overshadow what I think is a wonderfully vibrant, fully arcing chorus that is right in Neuhauser’s wheelhouse as an expressive vocalist, leaving him lots of room for inflections and emoting. And in rejection of those Beast In Black comparisons, it’s one song people, and I can’t hear any of those same details anywhere else on the record. That being said, if it were simply an album cut instead of the highlighted first single, I think the reception to it would have nowhere near the amount of accusatory venom its been bitten with. A better choice might have been what turned out to be the second single in “Souls and Sins”, a moody, mid-tempo groove based cut that reminds me of the subtle complexity that defined the songs on War of Ages. Here we have an example of Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer being on the same page in terms of how to balance a gritty, grounded heaviness without smothering the power of the vocal melody in carrying the melodic load.

I’m also fond of the Death & Legacy era recalling “Queen of Avalon” with its medieval accents, and the richly beautiful power ballad “My Farewell”, which only gets better the more you listen to its various nuances. The opening “Invictus” is also the kind of Lionheart-esque thing that would have ruined this album were it full of its duplicates, but in an isolated moment, this slice of pomp and glory actually works as an energetic appetizer. Less effective yet still passable is “Keeper Of The Knights”, a song that isn’t short on urgency in its attacking tempo, but seems to lack a quality hook to go along with it. The glaring problem children of the album should be readily apparent to any experienced Serenity fan —- it’s all the tracks where the band is stepping out of the sweet spot that defines their sound, that nexus between a thick, dark sound and bright, soaring melodicism. The aforementioned “My Kingdom Comes” features dreadful screaming vocals, and this isn’t the first time the band has experimented with them, but they really have no place in the band’s palette. There’s also a haphazard approach to the staggering of tempos throughout this song, with no real flow or discernible reason as to why each tempo shift occurs at all. In other words, its a hot mess. Ditto for “Down to Hell”, where we’re treated to an unnecessarily aggro riff for aggro riff’s sake —- which not only isn’t impressive coming from a band that we’re all locked into for the melodies, but doesn’t do much to distract from the absolutely lackluster songwriting displayed here. That may be a harsh reaction to a song that simply isn’t that good, but the sooner Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer realize that they should take every pain to avoid following Kamelot into heavy riff edginess territory, the better off future Serenity albums will be. That being said, this album deserves a serious, focused look from disgruntled Serenity fans who wrote it off because of their initial impressions. It’s all too easy with streaming to just move onto the next thing, but this is a band we’ve loved in the past, and they’re owed the benefit of extra time.

2020 Kickoff: A Check In + Random Thoughts + Early Noteworthy Releases

Hope everyone’s settled into the new year as best they can, with resolutions still going strong or at least having forgiven yourself for breaking them already. Its been awhile since the last update here, which was last year’s best of lists that I actually managed to get up relatively early by my standards (early December!). That allowed me a lengthy break through the rest of that month that I basically took off from listening to metal since nothing new was coming out until January. I hoped to publish earlier in the month but there’s been a combination of family medical scares, close relatives passing away in a two week span, and I was stricken with the flu a week and a half ago. So yeah, not the best start to the year all things considered and they’ve contributed to the delay. To help mitigate the stress and flu-ridden stir-craziness however, I’ve slowly gone over a huge list of recommended things I missed last year (thanks in large part to Comical JC’s impressive list that he discussed at length on our recent year end recap episode of the podcast), in addition to new 2020 releases. And I’ll be honest, its been a slow start to the year for new music, my inbox full of meh to dud promos and no releases from major names coming down the pike until late February at the earliest. There have been a few notable things that have caught my ear and I’m covering them below with quick impressions. But before we get to that I want to get some thoughts on the screen about a random mess of things —- you’ll see as we go:


Spotify Has Changed Everything

So as of December 1st I made the move to Spotify Premium, taking advantage of their three month free trial offer, and quietly, without me noticing at first, its become the final nail in the coffin of physical releases, and thus the end of an era for me as a metal fan. I initially signed up for it to quickly assemble a playlist for the road on a recent friend outing to the Texas Renaissance Festival, but as the convenience factor has grown too large to ignore, its unlikely that I’ll be cancelling it before the free trial is up, and it will just become one of those monthly expenses alongside Hulu and Netflix that most of us have already. Ten bucks a month isn’t really that much for access to damn near everything I could need as a music fan. So why was I so late to sign up for Spotify Premium? I don’t have a clear answer for that really, because I have been using the free version of the service a ton on my laptop for easy music listening and research. But removed from the sitting at the desk, laptop open experience, I didn’t really use it that much because the free version limits you to shuffle play and incredibly annoying ads. So in the car, it’d be the old iPod Nano back to work again, plugged in via a cheap 3.5mm cable. Oh don’t get me wrong, I hate iTunes and everything about its ill-programmed, uber clunky interface, especially for podcasts, but its what I had been using for years now, and the iPod is still relatively new-ish and working well.

Many months ago someone clued me in to the existence of bluetooth transmitters, little ingenious devices you plug into the power port where your car cigarette lighter would’ve been in the old days. These things received bluetooth signals, from say a phone or iPod or whatever, and beam them out on a chosen FM frequency to a radius of just a few meters, enough for your car radio to pick up the signal if you tune into that same FM frequency. Gone was the need for the 3.5mm cable, and in this leap in personal technological day to day advancement prompted me to reconsider all my habits. I started ditching iTunes for podcasts, because an app like Google Podcasts is so clean, lightweight, and easy to use that it no longer made sense to have to download a file and “sync” it to a flash media device when I could simply stream things on a recently acquired unlimited data plan (I used to be capped at 2GB high speed that would slow to a stuttering crawl once eclipsed). And then Spotify Premium happened, and I’m able to listen to anything at anytime and have an algorithm throwing new things my way based on my saved artists/albums/songs and recently played items. Its allowed me to get out of that rut where I’d be too lazy to update the iPod and would recycle what I was listening to.

And look, I know what you’re thinking. This stuff shouldn’t be a revelation to most people —- but it is to me, and its put a few things in perspective from a metal fan’s view: For starters, I think my days of buying physical releases might be largely over, and its been trending in that direction for some time, but the ease of music delivery right now puts this in sharper perspective. I don’t own a cd player, I decided against buying the photobook edition of Insomnium’s last record because the cost of it plus shipping was simply too much for what was ostensibly a book. If I have no use for physical media, not even an optical drive to rip the cd onto my hard drive, what point am I proving buying them? What was once a huge hobby of mine that had slowed down significantly in the past couple years really has lost any impetus to start back up again. Accessing music is just too easy, and I feel that I make up for the lack of physical product sales with going to shows and buying merch (there is no digital replacement for a good metal shirt). In the past I’d feel guilty about this but I think I’m over it, I do my best to support bands I like in the ways that still make sense to me (and through this blog), but I just have no use for physical media anymore, particularly when other life expenses keep rising. I’ll still support Bandcamp digital releases, I have quite the collection of albums I’ve purchased through there, but why support a fading, overpriced entity like iTunes downloads? I’m still using my iPod on occasion, focusing on loading it with old favorites and stuff that I’d never want to be without, but I think Spotify will be my main new music player from this point going forward. At some point, technology got too convenient, and I’m waving the white flag today.

The Albums Of The Decade (2010-2019)?

Recently on the r/PowerMetal sub, the community ran a bracket style voting elimination tournament for the power metal album of the decade. It was a loose, let’s see what happens version of their otherwise highly regimented and overseen Yearly Awards, where instead of radio button polls, votes are entered in thread replies and their weight increases with the amount of explanation you offer along with your particular vote. Accordingly, the decade voting being a simple clickable straw poll resulted in some gamesmanship by certain fan communities, and no one was surprised when Gloryhammer fans voted last year’s Legends From Beyond The Terrorvortex as the best album of the 2010s. Now you might know that this album actually made a Gloryhammer fan of me too, but that it beat out Blind Guardian’s truly excellent At The Edge of Time (2010) in the finals was, well, to quote Monty Python…. The whole thing did get me thinking about what my own favorites from the decade were however, despite my promising on the 2019 Rewind MSRcast ep that I wasn’t going to bother with writing one up. And to be clear, I’m not going to do an in-depth feature on the decade, because just the thought of that is exhausting and frankly, I have yearly best of lists dating back to 2011 and those combined should be a fairly good (if not quite accurate) portrait of what I considered worth listening to for this past decade. But I thought it’d be fun to brainstorm a quick, off the top of my head list of the releases that stood out to me the most, and the ones that perhaps stayed with me the longest. So without further ado, here’s a quick chronological by release year list of my top ten —- I dunno, most fondly remembered albums of the decade? Sure, we’ll go with that:

Blind Guardian – At The Edge Of Time // (2010): I consider this to be a modern era classic of power metal, and quite clearly the bard’s finest album since Nightfall. Its a little frustrating that we only got one more proper album in the decade, not counting the orchestral project (and we’re not counting that), but AtEoT never left my iPod, never ceased to have its songs folded into road trip playlists, and “War of the Thrones” never ceased to make me have chills during its crazy choral vocal passages towards the end of the song. I just love this album so much, its in my top five favorites from the bards in general, so that’s enough of a voucher I suppose.

Power Quest – Blood Alliance // (2011): I was a little ambivalent on Chitty Somapala’s voice when I first heard this record, his one and only appearance in PQ’s catalog. It didn’t help that he was replacing one of my favorite power metal vocalists ever in Alessio Garavello, but Chitty soon grew on me because simply put these songs were as undeniable as the classics on the Alessio era albums. Like AtEoT, this album has become a staple in my general life listening habits, and amidst my friends circle, its become a cherished listen, even for the few who don’t particularly enjoy metal, but who can deny the glory that is “Better Days”.

Insomnium – One For Sorrow // (2011): I love this album, not only because it introduced me to Insomnium (yeah I was late on them), but because it really became my go to album for not only wallowing in misery, but when I needed a boost to get myself motivated again. It was a strangely positive album lyrically despite its bleak, melancholic nature, and I love that dichotomy. I played this so much that I’ve had to give it a bit of a break over the past few years, but thankfully Heart Like A Grave is damn near as excellent and fulfilling my broody Insomnium needs.

Nightwish – Imaginaerum // (2011): In what was definitely a stacked year, Imaginaerum probably should’ve been at the top of my 2011 Best Albums list if I could retroactively change it (I won’t). Tuomas was writing with Anette’s voice in mind here, and that went a long way towards maximizing what she could excel at. The sheer variety of songwriting here is astounding, and there was a rich, melancholic darkness to this album that seems to have left the Nightwish world forever as Tuomas further mind merges with Richard Dawkins and mother Gaia.

Triosphere – Heart of the Matter // (2014): This was 2014’s album of the year list topper, and justifiably so. It was such a devastatingly aggressive, precision oriented heavy metal album with note perfect songwriting and Ida Haukland’s rich, powerful vocals that perhaps the band themselves realized they needed some space from it to refuel creatively. To this date the band is still working to produce its follow up, and I can only hope its because Ida is too busy selling fjord side real estate to Oslo families looking for a summer house, rather than a fear of not being able to muster a follow up.

Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R. // (2014): I don’t expect many to understand this pick, but I can’t help it, I listened to this album to death from around 2014-2015, and honestly it still finds its way back into my rotation every now and then when I need a helping of Jeanette Scherff’s sublime, ultra-emotive vocals over Jens Faber’s decadent, dripping with melancholy songwriting. That Scherff and Ida Haukland both sang on incredible albums during this year was a big reason why I began to pivot towards listening for more natural voices in metal, and was less impressed by ethereal vocals for ethereal vocals sake.

Avantasia – Ghostlights // (2016): Song for song perfection, Tobias stumbled onto a mid-career masterpiece with this album and it was no surprise that it took my 2016 pole position for album of the year. He brought in new, unproven guest vocalists like Herbie Langhans, risky gambles like Geoff Tate, and managed to get truly amazing performances out of all of them. The songwriting yielded the strongest and most diverse batch of songs on any of his albums to date. This was just so much fun to listen to, and still is.

Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs // (2018): An overwhelming listening experience, and the culmination of Orphaned Land’s gradual finding their way to realizing a true metallic and cultural fusion. They simply leaned harder on the Middle Eastern folk musical influences than ever before, and the result was an angrier, more aggressive, and simultaneously gorgeous distillation of their sound. There’s so much inspired songwriting going on here —- a facet that made this one of the most rewarding albums to listen to in years.

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath // (2018): This was the album that not only convinced me that we really were in the middle of a power/trad metal renaissance, a second glory era as I deem it, but also the record that prompted me to go back and explore tons of North American metal that I’d ignored or bypassed in the years previously. I spent a lot of time at Ride Into Glory, and when Houston decided to bless me with our own recurring heavy/trad metal festival, Visigoth showed up and played and I had one of the most joyous concert experiences of my life.

Idle Hands – Mana // (2019): The most recent entry in this little list, and I know what you’re thinking —- how can this album be on your decade list it was only number two on the 2019 albums list? I’m projecting a bit, because I love Dialith’s Extinction Six (the list topper) to an unreasonable degree, but Idle Hands is a band that is transcending my own personal musical interest and has impacted friends of mine. It’s going to be one of those records that sticks around that I go back to on random whims like The Cult’s Electric, in other words, an undeniable hard rockin metallic classic.

Recommended January Releases

Temperance – Viridian:

I discussed Temperance around this same time last year, having discovered their truly excellent 2018 album Of Jupiter And Moons a few months too late for inclusion on that year’s best albums list (I have a feeling it would’ve landed on it somewhere), and they were yet another relatively new(ish) band from Italy to come along and impress me with not only their strong songwriting, but their distinctive and unique take on melodic symphonic/power metal that made them stand apart from their fellow countrymen and women. Temperance’s deal is that they come with three perfectly capable lead vocalists, two of whom are dedicated leads (Alessia Scolletti and Visions of Atlantis frontman Michele Guaitoli) but also joined by band founder/guitarist Marco Pastorino who is a superb singer in his own right. Okay enough bio talk, most of you probably have been made aware of them recently, particularly since this album is their first for Napalm Records, and you can see the impact already with YouTube video ads and Spotify playlist placements. I’m happy for the band to get a bigger profile, but I was worried when I first listened to the lead off single “Mission Impossible”, which struck me as Amaranthe more than anything I remembered from Of Jupiter And Moons. And therein lies the danger of these pre-release preview/single tracks, because a handful of folks made up their mind about the direction of the new album based on that track’s electro-pop pulse and near bubblegum vocal melodies.

Rest assured, the majority of Viridian is Temperance doing what they excel at —- exuberant, joyful multi-lead vocals delivering soaring melodies over a symphonic metal concoction that owes more to Avantasia’s wild power metal vocalists playground than Within Temptation or Nightwish. If I were in the band’s management/label corner, I’d have advised them to release “I Am The Fire” as the first single/video. It’s not only my favorite song on the album, it’s also the most evenly representative of what the bulk of the album has to offer, and a spiritual cousin to their 2018 breakout YouTube hit “The Last Hope In A World Of Hopes”. The song they actually delivered a music video for, “My Demons Can’t Sleep” is one of those songs that I was a little meh on at first, finding the title clunky as a chorus lyric, but the sheer catchiness packed into the refrain and verses is infectious. Part of the reason for that is simply the energy that Scolletti, Guaitoli, and Pastorino deliver with their impassioned, conjoined lead vocals. We hear this vividly at work on “Let It Beat”, a song that’s pretty straightforward musically, with riffs and keys just laying down a bed for our three lead vocalists to flex their ability to belt it out with power, precision, and just enough flash on vocal modulations to entangle us emotionally. They shine together on the strings and choir accented power ballad “Scent of Dye”, with Guaitoli in particular sounding spectacular and really owning the song with his vocal performance during the refrain. This is a good record overall, but it’s a little scattered in its ideas, at times too ambitious (the interesting vocal only “Catch A Dream”) and in others a little undercooked (the ballad “Gaia” could’ve used a few rewrites). I’m not too concerned about them missing greatness this go-round however, because they achieved that a little over a year and a half ago, shorter for me considering my being late to the Temperance party. I don’t know if signing to Napalm made them feel hurried to finish Viridian quickly, but they should take their time for their next one, because this is a legitimately fun and exciting band that’s proving they can deliver worthwhile music in every outing.

Magnum – The Serpent Rings:

I think most of us can probably admit that there’s a few classic/legacy bands that we grew up enjoying, whose new albums we approach with the trepidation of a 3 a.m. encounter with a cockroach on your kitchen floor on the way to get a glass of water. So often with many of the bands from my formative years I’ve met their new releases with a continued string of disappointment (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard come to mind), but I keep coming back every time there’s something new in the manic hope that they’ll have found a spark again. In the past decade I’ve been fortunate enough to get some tangible proof that my hope isn’t entirely foolish —- Judas Priest’s Firepower is a clear example, as was the Scorpion’s 2010 album Sting In The Tail. I was first introduced to Magnum when I was just entering my music buying infancy in the mid-90s simply by being enticed by the cover art for a used copy of On a Storyteller’s Night. It wasn’t what I was expecting (the artwork suggested something a little more Maiden or Helloween inspired), but I dug it anyway, their blend of gritty hard rock with a sophisticated, arty songwriting touch. They’ve had a few good moments in the albums that came after, but you’ve got to spend a lot of time digging, and really a truly great album has eluded Magnum OGs Bob Catley and Tony Clarkin since Storyteller’s release way back in 1985. But something unusual has been happening for the duo lately, starting with 2018’s rather strong Lost On The Road To Eternity, an album that saw the band get their mojo back (the return of the classic sword logo seemed to suggest the band felt the same way), pivoting towards their prog-rock side a little more than we’ve seen in the past two decades.

Building on the artistic momentum generated from that album, two years later Magnum are back with The Serpent Rings, which might actually be their finest album since Storyteller’s, and no that’s not an exaggeration. This album is loaded with stellar material, starting with the bombastic, epic opener “Where Are You Eden?”, with it’s Avantasia-ian influenced symphonic strut. Its followed up by a pair of equally invigorating cuts, the groove based “You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets”, and the classic 80s era evoking “Madman or Messiah” where Catley displays a voice that is still capable of skyrocketing heights with a power that seems effortless. A personal fave here is “The Archway of Tears”, a gradual dramatic build towards a joyful chorus that is perfectly crafted. And I can’t neglect to mention the utterly beautiful “The Last One On Earth”, which sports a chorus that sparkles and shimmers with that indescribable magic that only Catley can conjure up. Clarkin’s songwriting on these past two albums seems to be reconnecting with that epic side of the band that they seemed to leave behind when the 90s came around. The absolutely jaw dropping thing about this record is that there are no duds, no clunkers or missteps, and that’s just so encouraging. Clarkin is 73, Catley is 72, and these two have just released one of the best albums of their lengthy career —- and that’s so heartening to me as a fan of heavy music. Not only because it’s given us a modern day Magnum classic, but because it should be a reason for every single veteran band out there to keep making new records, to avoid getting complacent just doing hits tours, or worse still, to think that your fanbase isn’t interested in new music. It’s not guaranteed, but there’s always that chance that like Priest and Magnum, every veteran band out there has another awesome album in them just waiting to spill out.

Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga:

Most of you likely know who Brothers of Metal are by now, they’ve made enough of a splash on YouTube and Spotify playlists with the single “Yggdrasil” from their 2017 debut Prophecy of Ragnarök. It was a genuine hit, the kind of song with a hook so indelible that you’ll remember its vocal hook long before you’re able to remember the name of the band. This Swedish eight piece might be new on the international metal landscape, but the ease at which they combine power metal with layers of European/Viking folk melody suggests veteran skill and songwriting prowess (the band has existed since 2012, so they clearly took the time to refine what they wanted to do long before their debut). There’s three guitarists here, and they do a fine job of balancing heaviness with crisp, clear melody, but the stars are co-lead vocalists Ylva Eriksson and Joakim Lindbäck Eriksson (the power metal internet is split on whether or not they’re siblings). Ylva’s powerful, richly melodic voice is the huge draw here for vocalist aficionados like myself, she has a depth and gravity to her singing that I appreciate as a perfect foil to Joakim’s more rough hewn, warrior-throated approach. Joakim actually reminds me of Mathias Nygård from Turisas, not only in tone but his swagger laden approach, and if anything, this band should be a sweet relief to any Turisas fans lamenting how long that band’s new album is taking. Underscoring everything at play here is that Brothers of Metal are fun —- this is Viking metal that takes itself seriously (despite the “The Mead Song” on the debut) filtered through a band that quite clearly is having fun with the approach (check out the face pulling in their music videos for proof).

Does that fun factor mean I’m grading Brothers of Metal differently than I would a more serious folk metal entity like Eluveitie —- in a way, yes. And Emblas Saga is a terrifically fun record, with bangers like “Power Snake” with its borderline silly chorus that would be positively Whitesnake-ian were it not for clearly being a tale of Loki’s child Jörmungandr and his world encircling size. The mid-tempo pounder “Njord” is another ridiculous but enthralling cut, complete with Viking chants during the refrain that never threaten to descend into camp territory. And Ylva is the perfect antidote to when things seem to be heading into shtick territory, her solo vocal intro on the title track is haunting, serene, and I kind of wish they’d lean harder in that direction more often. She provides a nice balancing effect on “One”, contrasting sharply with Joakim’s gravel voice on a chorus that is almost but not quite the equal to “Yggdrasil”. In truth there’s nothing on the album that quite hits the same heights that song achieved in terms of being a clear cut hit, but I do think that “Kaunaz Dagaz” is the best song the band has penned to date. From its sweetly beautiful forest folk intro to what is Ylva’s tour-de-force vocal performance throughout, its the song that perhaps most clearly demonstrates everything this band does well, and also is a brief glimpse at just how potentially high their creative ceiling could grow. I’ve enjoyed listening to this album just for the sheer need for something uber catchy, viscerally satisfying, and melodically varied. The Viking stuff is fine, whatever gets the hooks going, keep it coming.

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