Helloween Returns! Oh And Other New Releases…

In a much needed turnaround since my last update, the past month(ish) has provided a bounty of incredibly exciting new metal releases, some of which are the best albums I’ve heard this year. The headliner here is of course the new, much anticipated Helloween album with the reunited Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen onboard alongside Andi Deris. There’s not much suspense to be had in what I think about the record — it’s spectacular and beyond anything I expected the band to deliver, we’re talking a possible AOTY contender. What is surprising is just how they got there, and the choices they made on the record that resulted in a reunion album for the ages. More on that down below then. Rounding out the rest of the reviews below are new albums by veteran artists as well as a couple newer bands that I’m being introduced to via their debuts (which is unusual for me, being typically late to the party most of the time). It feels great to be excited about newer metal releases again, because it’s been a weird early summer that saw me deep diving into K-Pop (check out Mamamoo) — I guess I craved something entirely new to me. Yet simultaneously for a few weeks I couldn’t stop listening to Priest’s Turbo (I always had a soft spot for it but now I’m convinced it’s unfairly panned in retrospect still). Like I said, weird. Not gonna lie though, K-Pop summer is likely to continue, but now it’ll have to share time with a lot of the stuff covered below.


Helloween – Helloween:

The most anticipated release of the year lived up to the hype, how often can we really say that? I’m sure by now you’ve heard this record (because who needs a review to convince them to check out a new Helloween album?) and have realized that this is a way stronger effort than the band (even with this newly reinvigorated lineup) was ever expected to deliver. With Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske back in the fold alongside longtime vocalist Andi Deris, Helloween has mic-dropped their finest album since The Dark Ride and arguably a top five career album (some might challenge that assertion, but I think it can hang in there for a spot). I actually wish I didn’t listen to “Skyfall” when it was released all those weeks ago, because I’d have loved to hear it the way I heard the rest of this album — on release evening at midnight. When “Out For The Glory” was ripping along, with it’s classic Helloween tropes being unabashedly introduced (I still glory claw every time Kai descends with his “IRON MINIONS!”), I thought “Wow, sounds like something off the Keepers”. And despite the lead vocal split between Kiske and Deris, and the fact that when they team up on a lead, it’s hard for Kiske’s voice not to overpower things a touch, I’m honestly floored at how well these two guys sound together, particularly when they play off each other as on “Fear Of The Fallen”. Here they’re trading off lines, bouncing Kiske’s soaring tenor with Deris’ more emotive low to mid range approach to spectacular effect. The songwriting is superb, with particular attention to vocal melodies and who should be singing what and when. That the egos were laid bare for this is clearly evident here and on Deris led cuts like “Cyanide” and “Rise Without Chains” where Kiske steps back into more of an assisting lead vocal role. I really respect that there was an effort made to not just cast Deris aside as second fiddle or worse, an after thought, that he’s given equal time to Kiske — and of course he should, he’s been in the band longer than him by well over a decade. Whether the details of vocal splitting were arranged by whomever wrote an individual song, or more likely, by Deris and Kiske themselves, they get a lot of credit from me for making it work so well.

Helloween has been a songwriting roundtable for awhile now, with any member welcome to throw their idea into the mix and see it come through as a finished song on the record, and this roundtable free-for-all approach continues on Helloween. Actually not counting bonus tracks, Deris racks up the most credits on the album, complete with a doozy of a collab with Hansen on the awesome, ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. This is my personal favorite on the album, a classic slice of heavy metal expressly written about metal, and the act of rockin’, a made for stage anthem that they’ve cheekily layered some sampled crowd noise onto as a little guide for future audiences (“Make some noise!”). Deris is at his swagger-fueled best here, delivering the pounding chorus with conviction and his raspy edged voice is the perfect call for the aggressive tone set in the verses. Can we get more of these two writing together? Sascha Gerstner writes the Kiske centric “Angels”, which is richly dramatic and sends Kiske’s vocals spiraling skyward and falling back to earth, while an unorthodox arrangement unfolds below blending an almost Savatage-esque piano laced, stately paced melancholic swirl. The Deris/Kiske dueling tradeoff towards the end is one of the most spectacular moments on the album, and the acapella Kiske fade out is an inspired minor detail. Of course we have to mention “Robot King”, one of the most classic Helloween-y cuts here courtesy of Michael Weikath (he also penned “Out For The Glory”), because this is a fantastic Keeper-vibes gem with one of the most infectious passages on the album (“…robot king! / You’re the master race!…”). I’ve seen some nitpicking about the lyrics on “Down In The Dumps”, particularly the chorus… which I don’t really understand at all because I actually think its a funny way to phrase depression, especially in a refrain that sounds so bitingly angry as this one. This is an odd duck of a song but I love it, with its laid back My God Given Right era vibes in the verse jumping right to The Dark Ride in the chorus — only Helloween could pull off something this schizophrenic and make it gel.

Of course we have to mention “Skyfall”, which is a Hansen penned latter day Helloween classic, featuring an extended chorus passage that sounds like it’d fit in on one of Avantasia’s Metal Operas (a little power metal inception here, who is influenced by whom??!). Hansen hasn’t been shy about his influences over the years, so the David Bowie “Space Oddity” influenced middle bridge sequence isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s still an eye-opening transitional moment and something that feels really fresh, inspired, and joyful. It’s also seamlessly woven in, complete with a easy transition back into a traditional metal guitar solo sequence that rockets us back into high speed power metal territory. That’s the kind of move that only an assured, veteran songwriter tends to pull off successfully, and not often at that — it alone might notch this as the best thing Hansen has written in awhile. And though it’s the album closer, I want to point out that on Spotify anyway, we’re treated to two more excellent bonus tracks by default (a glaring fault of these streaming services is that there’s rarely any indication of what is and isn’t a bonus track). Both “Golden Times” and particularly “Save My Hide” are satisfying, album tracklist worthy cuts that I’m considering part of this overall album experience anyway, particularly the latter with its kick down the doors chorus opening that’s full of charging bull attitude and hard rock swagger to the max. We’re definitely going to discuss this album more at the end of the year, how could we not? I just wanna mention now though that twenty years ago when Kiske not-so-secretly finally returned to metal on Tobias Sammet’s first Metal Opera (Ernie!), I was stunned and grateful, because he seemed so disconnected from metal for awhile. But even then, I’d have never dreamed that we’d get another Helloween album with him and Hansen back on board, Weikath seemed to dismiss the idea and things just seemed too distant. I got a little emotional during my first playthrough of this somewhere between that midnight release and 1am, not like teardrop inducing, but I had a moment there halfway through the album where everything felt too surreal for me to process. I’m still processing it as I type this, but this time it’s more about how frigging great this album turned out to be. Unreal.

Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen:

This is a welcome surprise, largely due to me not knowing that Esa Holopainen was planning on trying his hand at a solo album. I suppose it’s pandemic time well spent, a window where he could focus time away from Amorphis without hurting the band’s usual touring/recording schedule. The naming of this project is unusual, not quite a band name yet more than just his name on the cover as per the usual solo album modus operandi, and the concept of Silver Lake seems like something that can be expanded upon for continuing releases in the future. The idea isn’t new here, essentially Esa writing songs with different guest vocalists on board, providing a different style, approach, and mood on their respective songs. The guest list is inspired both on paper and in execution, with vocals from Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse on two emotionally charged bookending cuts, a more prog-rock bent on the Bjorn Strid sung “Promising Sun” (boasting one of the strongest hooks on the album), and of course the show stopper herself Anneke Van Giersbergen on the gorgeous “Fading Moon” (a sister song to her glorious guest spot on “Amongst Stars” off the last Amorphis record). Holopainen’s expressive playing, at once melancholic and uplifting is the constant throughout the entirety of the album, and his songwriting DNA is of course omnipresent throughout. What I suspect separates this from his work with Amorphis is the more melodic progressive rock nature of these songs compared to the battering ram approach that is still part of Amorphis’ attack. That’s not to say things don’t get heavy any (in fact, Tomi Joutsen makes an appearance on “In Her Solitude” with his brutal bark and deep, guttural growls), but this is a far more contemplative and restrained affair than the full on emotional wringer that Amorphis delivers. Key example is “Storm”, a song about peaceful resignation and contentment sung by Swedish vocalist Hakan Hemlin, a song that I’m still on the fence about (I love the melodies, but sometimes the vocal melody gets too close to cloying). I’ve enjoyed listening to this record on it’s own merits, Holopainen is a fascinating songwriter, and this is clearly meant to be a window into his inner world. It’s worth peering in.

Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever:

The avant-garde, ever-changing lineup of Subterranean Masquerade is back with their fourth full length release, coming after the weird mish-mash quarantine EP last year (titled appropriately, The Pros & Cons Of Social Isolation). I probably should’ve reviewed that one, because I did check it out when it was released and it was the debut of the band’s new vocalist Davidavi Dolev, who with his appearance on this new album suggests that he might be the band’s long term solution post Kjetil Nordhus. I really love Dolev’s vocals, he’s a versatile singer, capable of inflecting aching emotion during impassioned moments and dipping down into quieter, hushed moments while still sounding clear and emotive. I can only guess that he’s handling the sprinkling of growls that are found throughout here and there whenever the band decides to shift into a more metallic attack for a moment. I say a moment because this band’s M.O. is basically to keep you guessing at all times, an approach they themselves describe as “polychromatic arrangements”, and yeah I agree that’s a fine way to phrase it. More than ever before though, the band’s merging of metal, loose rock n’ roll, and Middle-Eastern folk instrumentation put through a prog filter is distilled into it’s finest album to date. On their past couple efforts, I always felt like there were moments where they went a little too far in a direction that I couldn’t really follow, but Mountain Fever is a sharply written, deftly executed collection of terrifically inspired songs. There’s a spiritual feel to songs like “Snake Charmer” with its gorgeously aching string arrangements; and “Mangata” with its delicate acoustic melody that dances alongside what I can only guess is an oud or buzuq (I have a hard time distinguishing these instruments but god do I love listening to either one); and “Ascend” which closes out with my favorite vocal performance on the album in it’s last few minutes. These more introspective moments are countered by the pure aggression of “For The Leader, With Strings Music” (cheeky title that) and the euphorically bright “Ya Shema Evyonecha” where dense, urgent metallic riffing is countered by beautiful folk instrumentation in a vibrant bridge sequence. This is a fascinating album — you get immediately pulled in by the hooks, but come back for repeat listens because there’s simply so much going on within these songs that you can’t take it all in at once. One of the best albums of the year no doubt.

King Of Asgard – Svartrviðr:

One of Sweden’s finest folk metal exports are back with their fifth new album Svartrviðr (your guess is as good as mine on the pronunciation), their follow up to 2017’s genuinely excellent Taudr. The heart of the band is one Karl Beckmann (vocals/guitar), formerly of the Swedish folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, that some might remember from their late 90s run where they delivered a pair of folk metal classics in their short run and promptly disbanded, after which former guitarist Stefan Weinerhall and drummer Karsten Larsson linked up with a theater singer named Mathias Blad and formed Falconer. The rest is, well, you know the saying. Beckmann formed King Of Asgard in 2008 and after a few demos, released the band’s debut two years later. The band’s sound from the jump has really been a continuation of where Mithotyn left off, that revelatory fusion of black metal elements and rustic, roots-in-earth folk melodicism. This approach to folk music is something I’ve been delighted to see a return to from several artists over the past five years, a slowly growing alternative to the kitschy, campy dreck that folk metal turned to in the mid-2000s (and lingered far too long after). There’s a focused, almost meditative quality to the music on this album, designed to be listened to in one attentive sitting, with relatively lengthy songs that are built on cyclic tremolo riffs that pull you into a semi-lulled state, adding elements little by little, or alternatively, deconstructing themselves over time. Beckmann is a fine guitarist, joined here in tandem by Ted Sjulmark (of Grimner), together weaving folk inspired melodies that are often as foreboding sounding as they are gorgeous. But he’s just as impressive as a vocalist, his grim vocals earthen, gritty, and seemingly textural on purpose, a lost folk metal art — countered with a baritone bellow that suits the somber, downcast mood that this album is entrenched in. His clean vocals are a highlight on the title track, a resigned, sullen slow march set to pounding percussion that explodes midway through into an Enslaved-esque expansive progressive black metal passage. A personal favorite here is “Rifna” (as apt a name this song could have), built on a repeating riff figure that pulls you into it’s hypnotic trance, and Beckmann introduces some fantastic, eerie vocal layering effects midway through that really give the song a haunted, ghostly quality. It’s rare that a band delivers two incredibly solid albums back to back, but King Of Asgard do just that here, with Svartrviðr maybe getting the edge as the better of the two, but go back and check out Taudr as well.

Verjagen – When The Sun Sets Over This Mortal World:

Verjagen are a fresh face on the map of melodic death metal, I hesitate to call it a scene because well… are there even scenes anymore? Not geographically speaking anyway, but I digress. These guys are from Finland as well, but their sound has rather little to do with fellow countrymen like Insomnium or even Mors Principium Est, but more owing to blending traditional metal and some thrash elements with that core Swedish Gothenburg sound. The result is a sound that is at once familiar and yet unorthodox and fresh, because when listening to this (debut) album I feel like I’m being reminded of something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it is, I’ve been enjoying this record for the past few weeks now, songs like “Life Of War” and “Gritty Night” providing a blend of extreme aggression filtered with enough meaty, hooky riffs to latch onto for that headbanging element. The band uses melody as an accent, rather than the main attraction as usually the case with Gothenburg styled melo-death, and vocalist Otto-Aaron Timonen dishes out gravel throated, barking screaming vocals that are punishingly heavy ala Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There are moments where melodies take precedent over heaviness, as on the album highlight “Exit Plan” where we’re treated to an inspired chorus that’s slowed down and unfurls into an expansive, cinematic keyboard painted refrain that is genuinely majestic. I get some Dark Tranquility vibes on “Feast For The Dead” with its dramatic synth keyboard arrangements behind all the riffery, and Timonen does have a Mikael Stanne tinge to his vocals at points. The best part about this album is that it’s solid from front to back, something that is reinforced by its relatively succinct, eight track/forty-two minute run time. I’ve found myself listening to it while driving, and that’s been a tough task for most metal recently (again, except for Turbo for some reason) during K-Pop summer. I haven’t seen that many people talking about Verjagen yet, in fact, I think I might be one of the first to review this one and that in itself is a rarity. Worth checking out if you’ve been looking for a different twist on melo-death.

Bloodbound – Creatures Of The Dark Realm:

This was a frustrating listen, and I say that as someone who has quietly been rooting for Bloodbound ever since their fantastic debut in 2005 with the Urban Breed on vox classic Nosferatu. After Breed’s departure post Tabula Rasa, the band has been fronted by Patrik Johansson (Selleby… or whatever the heck he wants to be called by now), and the output has taken a noticeable nosedive to my tastes anyway. But being an amiable fellow, I think I’ve just bided my time with the band for the past decade, giving Johansson the benefit of the doubt as a vocalist. He has an appealing tone, a nicely melodic delivery and clearly has the range needed for Euro power. I guess I figured that the onus fell on the founding guitarist Olsson brothers to write material that really maximized the best use of his talents. But with a full decade of the Johansson era in the books, with six albums to its name, and I’m starting to suspect that Johansson really is the problem with Bloodbound’s direction all these years. On Creatures Of The Dark Realm, he’s actually managed to irritate me with his penchant for singsongy-ness that degenerates damn near every chorus into a Hobbits dancing around the kitchen, pointed elbows swinging back and forth silly jig melody. Take “Kill Or Be Killed” for example, one would expect a song with that title to bring the heat, a little straight to the throat heavy metal that matched the ugliness of it’s title — but instead it boasts one of the most childishly cheerful melodies you’ll ever hear, one that comes across as downright insufferable in the wider context of the album (largely because this pattern is repeated throughout). The same defect hampers any sense of excitement and danger in songs like “The Gargoyle’s Gate”, “When Fate Is Calling”, “Ever Burning Flame”, and hell let’s be real, most of the album. Occasionally, band and vocalist find their footing together (albeit however briefly), such as on “March Into War” where the vocals lock into an appealing rhythmic build-up to a chorus that is actually somewhat effective. I dunno, there might be another moment here that was interesting, but clearly not interesting enough for me to remember. One of the most disappointing releases in the genre in sometime, or maybe its just my not-so-secret desire to see Urban Breed (a recent free agent from Serious Black) reunite with his old bandmates for another album — either way, avoid this.

Sunrise – Equilibria:

About a month ago, Ukraine’s chief power metal export Sunrise released their first album in five years, Equilibria. It’s been the usual dose of lineup changes for this band, with the only original (and constant) member being vocalist Konstantin Naumenko aka Laars. I’m not going to get into the whole history of the lineup changes (the sheer amount of guitarists that have been in this band year in year out is ridiculous) but you can imagine this is what lent itself to the extended lead up time to this new album. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be for Laars to contend with this seemingly every album or even in between albums as it sometimes seems to be. Then there’s the fact that they’re independent, launching relatively successful crowdfunding campaigns to get funding for these recordings… it’s gotta be alot on one’s plate. Credit to him though because Equilibria does indeed hit the same benchmarks of quality songwriting and fantastic performances that have defined this band during their four album run (yep, only 4 albums since 2007 is what an unstable lineup will yield). Laars also handled mixing, mastering… the whole production basically, not to mention being the band’s major songwriter alongside new guitarist Maksym Vityuk and keyboardist (and spouse) Daria Naumenko. The appeal here isn’t rocket science, Laars’ vocal tone and approach is a sweet spot between Tony Kakko with a splash of Timo Kotipelto, and Sunrise deliver a vocal melody driven, keyboard soaked take on speedy, fleet of foot power metal ala classic era Sonata Arctica. There are an armful of gems here, the anti-anxiety vibes of “Wings Of A Dreamer” (added to the playlist!), the dual lead vocals with Daria on the mid-tempo proggy vibes of the title track, and a oddity (but personal fave) in “Call My Name” whose brooding power ballad structure reminds me of a cross between the Scorpions and something off Winterheart’s Guild. Right around the middle of this album, there’s a patch of songs that really strike me as more progressive metal influenced than the band’s power metal roots, which I’m not sure if I entirely enjoy or not (its not bad mind you, but everything gets a bit mid-paced for too long). One of these is a banger though, “The Bridge Across Infinity”, striking some Khan era Kamelot notes at times during the chorus, and delivering a really nice balance between our two lead vocalists. If you’ve never heard of this band, I would recommend starting with their 2009 classic Trust Your Soul which featured all-time power metal gems like “All This Time” and “Man In The World”, but Equilibria is a pretty strong addition to their catalog on it’s own. I just hope for Laars’ sake that this lineup can stick around for awhile so the next album can get underway sooner.

Ildaruni – Beyond Unseen Gateways:

I know I talked about this on a recent episode of MSRcast, but I figured I should write about it since Ildaruni’s Beyond Unseen Gateways is one of those albums that I haven’t been able to quit coming back to this year. Coming as a recommendation from the gang at r/PowerMetal, this debut album is one of the most fascinating extreme metal releases I’ve heard this year, being a fusion of Melechesh-esque blistering Eastern inspired black metal, with more of a methodical Rotting Christ rhythmic attack as the foundation instead of full on speed demon tempo mode. Ildaruni only just formed in 2018, and both of the songs on that year’s inaugural demo are here in “Towards Subterranean Realms” and “Treading the Path of Cryptic Wisdom”, and the musical foundations they laid out on those two songs is really the template for the exploration that occurs on the rest of the album. On the latter, the band isn’t afraid to temper extremity with some Maiden inspired gallop and twin harmonized leads just for funsies; or as on “Towards Subterranean Realms”, introduce some bread and butter mid-tempo chugging rhythm guitar to clear the decks and get heads nodding. As so many smarter extreme metal bands are demonstrating, a little rockin’ helps maximize the impact of extremity, a mid-song palette cleansing to break up the monotony of nonstop tremolo and blast beat batteries. And Ildaruni are full of such little deviations to keep us guessing throughout, including the infusion of unorthodox folk instrumentation in unexpected moments. On “Exalted Birth”, a bagpipe chimes in midway through before the guitar solo, delivering a folk melody that is distinctly not Celtic-sounding. I love that the instrumentation choice there doesn’t match the expectation of how you’d expect it to be used, in some mock-Braveheart arrangement — its a subtle choice, but I could have easily envisioned a Middle-Eastern string instrument playing that melody instead of a bagpipe. Ildaruni hail from Armenia, a country that exists at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, so it makes sense that they’d be pulling influences from a myriad of differing directions. And it’s really hard to pin their sound down as just one thing or the other, and I mean that as a compliment, Beyond Unseen Gateways is as unpredictable as it is epic, and it’s easily my favorite black metal record in a long time.

Pandiversary: The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist Revisited

I didn’t plan on writing a one year pandemic anniversary piece, because honestly who the hell wants to remember the past year, let alone mark the anniversary of something that turned everyone’s lives inside out in various ways? But I guess the answer to that simple question is, well, we want to remember it, at least our subconscious minds do anyway. I was having a discussion with someone at the end of March about my feeling generally grumpy, anxious, and uninspired throughout the month, and they said they were suffering from the same thing, and added, “But you know… trauma anniversary and all.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but looked it up on Twitter later, and sure enough, there was a torrent of tweets written about our collective and personal trauma anniversaries and how if you were feeling bad for whatever reason, this might be a hidden in plain sight culprit. I thought it was social media created nonsense at first, but as the idea lingered in my mind, it started to dawn on me that my listening habits had already shifted to possibly hint at this being the case.

Some of you might remember that in early April of 2020, I created a Spotify playlist called The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, and alongside my own picks, I solicited a ton of song suggestions from various power metal fans from the r/PowerMetal community and Twitter. I made it out of necessity for myself, and made it public to attempt to help anyone else out who needed shimmery, sugary, upbeat and inspiring power metal as much as I did to combat all the daily stress and anxiety we experienced in those early pandemic months. I don’t wanna bum anyone out by getting into details, but I was stressed about my job, money, and was one of the luckier ones in the end considering a ton of my friends and family members lost their jobs. Then there was the anxiety of just not seeing anyone or being able to hang out with friends. I suspect most of us made it through by binging content that was familiar and comforting, be it something like Parks and Rec, The Office, Good Mythical Morning or in my case videos of city walking tours filmed in the pre-pandy times. And so with music, I quickly found I didn’t want to listen to anything bleak or dark, I was getting enough of that from every second of the day thanks.

Enter the playlist. I can’t emphasize enough how much I relied on the music contained on this list. I’ll always remember going out for drives in April and May of 2020 around the rural country roads near me, blasting it full volume and glory clawing at perfect choruses and epic moments. It started to become a loud form of meditation, where I’d just lose myself in the music and focus on it so much I’d be mouthing along to any lyrics I knew (quite a bit as it turned out) and at times even singing along. No one was around to hear how bad that was anyway. Those were my brief escapes before I had to come back home and face reality, whilst keep myself busy doing anything but scouring social media for news updates like some self-flagellation aficionado. I could make it a few days, but then I’d start to feel antsy and claustrophobic and anxious yet again, and so into the car I went, for another therapy session. It was the only thing I wanted, nay, needed to hear. I actually grew up becoming a fan of extreme metal subgenres long before power metal was even called power metal, and many classic death, melodeath, and even black metal albums have been mainstays for me throughout my life when I was going through tough times. But something about the pandemic hit different, and I just knew that power metal in its most Euro-swag laden, pomp and glory drenched splendor was the only thing that would help then.

My favorite long-winded quote about power metal was written ages back by a reviewer named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum, who spoke of it’s “proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity”. A mouthful yes but it’s sentiment was proven true in 2020 and even now a year on. I have such warm feelings towards the classic songs and albums that make up the genre, both old and new. And I feel tremendous gratitude towards the bands who make them, choosing to play a terminally uncool style of music that with rare exception, isn’t going to earn most of them a steady paycheck or even a full time income. I follow a lot of those musicians on Instagram, and it was surreal to see them dealing with the same personal anxieties and financial worries as I was during the lockdown (many of them still dealing with all of that in European countries), all while their music was helping to keep me from absolutely losing it over here.

I’m really proud that a lot of people still listen to the playlist a year later, it’s almost at 100 followers, and we’re over 300 songs and counting. I had eased off listening to it the past many months, due to trying to soak up as much new music as possible, but sure enough when March rolled around, I found myself dipping back into it often. I got to thinking about how there are certain songs on that playlist that just stand out among all the others as being particularly impactful on me, the flag bearers in other words for the playlist’s feel good powers. In no particular order at all (just like the playlist itself), I’ve collected some thoughts on my ten favorite of these songs below in an effort to highlight them a bit and maybe even help someone take a closer look at a band they’ve previously ignored.


Nocturnal Rites – “Still Alive”

One of the best songs in the Rites’ catalog, “Still Alive” has been a feel-good classic to me since I first heard it in 2005, and in my mind the entire Grand Illusion album it hails from was one of the last great records from that wave of really heavy, groove based power metal that around the turn of the millenium (thinking of stuff like Brainstorm, Tad Morose, etc). Jonny Lindqvist’s vocals always struck me as a little Mark Boals-ish with a little David Coverdale splash on certain phrasings, especially here, the end result being a hard rock edge to Euro-power swag. His vocals are a joy to behold here, spitting defiance and tinged with never say die spirit. The volume gets maxed out whenever this pops up on the playlist.

Masterplan – “Spirit Never Die”

This was the first song I added to the playlist upon creation, the only reason it’s not number one in the list is that I thought Hammerfall would make a better opener if someone wasn’t listening to it on shuffle. Look, everyone knows this song, and if you don’t, better late than never. It’s got Jorn on vox, it’s got Roland Grapow on guitars, and a hook that inspires Tony Kakko’s eyes closed musical ecstasy face you see on the playlist icon. The way Jorn vocalizes that “woaaaahhh” after the “leaving the future behind me!” line in the chorus is deserving of a full power stance, glory claw raised to the sky. How do you not feel better while listening to this gem?

Galneryus – “In The Cage”

I’m not going to pretend that this song’s lyrics (what I can decipher of them) make any kind of sense in relation to keeping one’s spirits up, in fact, it seems like Yama-B is referring to some kind of romantic heartbreak or something like it (eternal longing, you get the drift). It really doesn’t matter, because this song’s power is in Syu’s incredibly melodic leads and that unforgettable recurring melody that is just pure joy given musical form. Some people rag on Galneryus for their AOR tendencies as heard here, and those people can clear the hall. That influence works as an open canvass for Syu’s expressive playing, and Galneryus catalog is loaded with so many spectacular and generally underappreciated moments (it took me a long to discover these guys as well). I can’t emphasize enough just how much I love this song, it always cheers me up.

Stormwarrior – “Heading Northe”

The title track and flag bearer for Stormwarrior’s best album, “Heading Northe” in many ways exemplifies everything I love about metal in one perfect anthem of defiance, standing one’s ground, and the triumph over adversity. Equal parts speed metal tempos, power metal melodicism, and punk rock edge courtesy of Lars Ramcke’s gritty vocals, it’s one of the most satisfyingly glorious songs in metal history. Last year when I came back to work in a post-pandemic landscape, I’d often find myself jamming this on the way back home. There was something about feeling exhausted, blaring this at top volume, and careening down the freeway while shouting along to “And the north wind fills my heart again / Withe the flame that missed so long” while making grand hand gestures towards cars around you.

Freedom Call – “One Step Into Wonderland”

I think it’s only natural that metal’s most bouncily cheerful sounding band would have been a go-to during all of this, and there’s a number of Freedom Call songs that I could have singled out (so many that I had to limit how many I threw on the playlist just to maintain artist variety). But for me, “One Step Into Wonderland” resonated more than any other partly for Chris Bay’s surreal vision of a happy, care free “eden” conveyed in his admittedly over the top lyrics. The chorus here is magnificent, and the key moment is imbibing that line of “take away all sorrow and pain” like Bay is a some wise mystic and you’re his pupil trying to achieve transcendence and ride off into “wonderland” on the back of a giant cartoon bunny.

Lost Horizon – “Think Not Forever”

It’s kinda wild that the best Lost Horizon song (I said it!) would have the most pointedly appropriate lyrics of anything on this playlist. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and when I was building the playlist it was a no-brainer for it’s lyrics urging patience and determination, sentiments that everyone needed for a variety of reasons. This was on repeat, multiple times a day for the first couple weeks of everything last year, and continual rotation throughout the rest of the year. It’s just ultra distilled power metal essence bottled into six minutes that feels like three, with an unforgettable riff and an absolutely wild solo midway through. Also Heiman’s intro vocal scream is the kind of cathartic lunacy that can make a bad day bearable.

Visigoth – “Necropolis”

I’d always loved Manilla Road’s “Necropolis” and thought of it as a trad metal anthem despite the ridiculously zany Skeletor-esque vocals. When Visigoth covered it on their debut, it was remade into a beefier, more metallic sounding mold thanks to Jake Roger’s weighter, grittier delivery. Given the context of it’s lyrics, someone on the internet once sussed out the difference between both versions as The Wizard (Manilla Road) and The Warrior (Visigoth) teaming up to infiltrate the mystical necropolis. No matter the band though, I always thought of these lyrics as a metaphor for depression, despite all the specific fantasy imagery scattered throughout the third verse. The first four lines here are almost a mantra: “Through the jungle by the river Styx / I’ve journeyed long and far this day / Lurking shadows in the parapets / Will never make me turn away”.

Bloodbound – “Nosferatu”

This Urban Breed era Bloodbound classic has always been a favorite of mine, not only for it’s serious Maiden songwriting vibes, but for Breed’s untouchable vocals. Sure it doesn’t fit the vibe of the playlist, lacking the sugariness or upbeat positivity of most of the music on there, but I felt like the playlist needed some escapism too and this was one of the songs that immediately came to mind. It’s a vivid reminder that much of metal’s power to get us through the grind is to distract us from all the real world stuff we’re dealing with when the music stops. Also that escalating guitar melody is Tomas Olsson’s crowning achievement, a work of art worthy of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.

Galderia – “Shining Unity”

Galderia is a French power metal band that sounds like they should come from Germany for all their Gamma Ray/Freedom Call vibes, and sometimes I’ll hear bits of Japanese power metal’s neoclassical tendencies come through as well, as on the hyper-driven “Shining Unity”. This is one of those songs that always seems to come on when I’m driving on the freeway, hitting 60-70 mph, speeds at which it feels appropriate to listen to a song that’s built on a perfect balance of relentless speed and glorious technical precision. The group vocals here are so strong, emphatic, and empowering, that you can’t help but get a rush just listening to that chorus. I have no idea what inspired these lyrics, but the utopian pipe dream they envision of a united humankind “alive in harmony” is nice to live in for five minutes before returning to… you know, *gestures* all this.

Bruce Dickinson – “Tears Of The Dragon”

Years back I had started writing up a Bruce Dickinson solo career retrospective, because that aspect of his musical output has been nonexistent since 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls, and I never really had a chance otherwise to write about just how much I love his solo records. I never finished it of course, but I was reminded of that fandom whenever this aching gem would pop up in the playlist. Bruce wrote this song about the unexpected change in his life upon leaving Maiden and embarking on something new and unknown, and that’s kind of how things felt for a lot of us last year and even now. It’s all contained in that metaphor of throwing oneself in to the sea, letting the waves wash over him (us), only in this case it’s not an Edna Pontellier ending-it-all kind of thing, but more a surrendering to the currents of life vibe.

New Music From Steven Wilson, Tribulation, Labyrinth and More!

This is an obviously delayed batch of reviews for albums that have come out in January and February, it was actually supposed to come out the other week but as I’m sure you all saw, hell froze over down here in Houston and the rest of greater Texas. I was dealing with intermittent power outages for days and internet being knocked out, along with cell towers clogged with traffic — a situation which magnified the weakness of relying on streaming for one’s music instead of physical media (then again, you know… no electricity). So some of these reviews are older, some just finished hours before publishing this thing, I have a feeling that my opinions might shift over time on some of these albums because I just haven’t gotten a lot of time with them as I’d prefer due to having to play catch up with records released within the last two weeks. So consider these general impressions right now for everything except that Steven Wilson album (I listened to it to death and am glad I can shelve it for awhile), and that new Tribulation record. Hope everyone reading this weathered their own winter storms well enough, and I hope you’ve been able to get the vaccine if you want it. It really does feel like the beginning of the end for all this, and maybe we’ll be talking about shows that aren’t cancelled at some point this year. Also I’ve forced myself to stop referencing the weather or the passing of seasons in my article titles from now on, and it’s proving more challenging than I thought, so the unimaginative result above is what I have to offer for the moment.

Steven Wilson – THE FUTURE BITES:

So I’d normally write a longer, full length review for someone like Steven Wilson, an artist that I consider myself to be a fairly big fan of. And that I’m opting for the shorter format this time isn’t a slight on The Future Bites, but more a result of circumstances. See this album was supposed to come out in June of 2020, but was delayed till January 29th, 2021 (for reasons that seem a bit academic now given the ongoing state of the pandemic). In the interim, Wilson released no fewer than five singles from the album’s nine song tracklisting, leaving only four fresh cuts by the time the album was released. A bit anticlimactic and seeing as how the earliest single release dates back to March 2020… I feel like I’ve lived with this album for nearly a year now, my excitement level for it falling a little flat as time went on. So in reassessing it here as a whole, I had to return to the album with fresh ears and an open mind, because let’s be honest, like many of you, hearing “Personal Shopper” and “Eminent Sleaze” for the first time was jarring to say the least. Fortunately they weren’t representative of the sound of the entire record, in fact there’s a healthy dose of classic era Wilson-ism to be found throughout, and some stuff reminiscent of Blackfield too.

I just wanna say, while I respect the concept of the album and even find it fascinating… I’m not entirely sure as to why Bowie/Prince worship was the sonic vehicle Wilson chose to explore it in. Take those aforementioned two songs, and a cut like “Self” for example, with their heavy usage of group R&B backing vocals — am I wrong in thinking that Wilson just doesn’t possess the kind of songwriting style to successfully work those in? And if you’re going to experiment with stuff like that, why do it on an album largely crafted by yourself without the benefit of musical collaborators well versed on that style and approach? On Grace For Drowning, where Wilson explored more jazz-based elements, he brought in players who knew that style of music. It would only stand to reason that he’d have done something similar when attempting R&B infusions, because I just don’t think he has the rhythmic songwriting awareness (for lack of a better term) to pull them off convincingly. When Duff McKagan recently put out his rustic, stripped down, outlaw country injected solo album “Tenderness”, he worked with Shooter Jennings and a host of musicians skilled in performing in that vein to get it right. It resulted in a fairly convincing album in sonics and stylistic aspects, regardless of whatever you thought about McKagan’s own songwriting. Wilson has tried on a broad swathe of styles throughout his career to stellar and mixed results, but he usually is cognizant of his own limitations. It’s strange that he didn’t recognize them this time around.

Where The Future Bites excels is on its more conventional, classic Wilson sounding cuts, such as “Man Of The People” and “12 Things I Forgot”, one of Wilson’s more lovely, poignant guitar-pop moments. The former actually reminds me of something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet, a mix of tension building electronic pulses, and drug-addled pensive dreamyness. The latter is one of my favorite latter-day Wilson cuts, a simple yet heartstring plucking acoustic strummed ballad built on delicate melodies and a glorious wall of harmony vocals. It’s lyrics are particularly curious, almost a self-deprecating yet unapologetic letter to fans who criticize Wilson for the music he’s making now. That particularly comes through in the chorus lyric where he sings, “…something I lost / and I know what it meant to you… what I sang to you”, and though I doubt Wilson will ever admit to that interpretation if asked, that’s what I’m taking away from it anyway. And I don’t consider myself one of those disgruntled fans, despite the assessment of this particular album. I enjoyed about half of 2017’s To The Bone, and thought 2014’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. was Wilson’s career defining masterpiece. He’s done great work since the indefinite hiatus of Porcupine Tree, and I’m confident he’s gonna deliver something else in the future that I love. But I think Wilson’s wheelhouse for my particular taste is that nexus between prog rock and pop that made us love songs like “Trains”, “Lazarus”, “Collapse The Light Into the Earth”, “Happy Returns”, etc etc. Songs that showcased his ability to tap into raw emotional veins flowing with nostalgia, memory and yearning, regardless of how musically adventurous they were or weren’t.

Harakiri For The Sky – Mære:

I realized something about Harakiri For The Sky when listening to Maere (I can’t be bothered to copy and paste that symbol every time sorry) for the umpteenth time these past few weeks. I enjoy the hell out of this band when listening to their music, but I’ll be the first to admit that I have trouble remembering a single melody, song structure, or lyric after the fact. I’ve been pondering what to make of this, because it’s something I dealt with when becoming a fan of the band on their last record (2018’s Arson). That was a record I really enjoyed, talked to others about enthusiastically, and have kept listening to for a long time afterwards, but for the life of me I can’t remember much about it. Ditto for Maere. This is packed with frenetic, hyper rhythms, incredible percussion, explosive blasts of guitars whose melodies are sharp enough to slice through the clamor and grab your attention, even if they don’t make a lasting imprint like, oh I dunno, the lead melody from “Fear Of The Dark” or something. Harakiri’s music is considered post-black, largely I suspect due to V. Wahntraum’s vocals being mixed in that distant, screaming in the middle of a field kind of way, but they’re way more engaging that most bands tagged as that genre. There is a moment here that breaks through however, at the 3:40 mark in “Us Against December Skies” when the chaos pauses to let a simple repeating riff sequence unfold to awesome, fist-pumping effect. It’s a moment that wouldn’t stand out as much on any other band’s record, but because Harakiri hardly pause for, well… anything, it feels particularly momentous. I get the feeling that just like Arson, I’ll be returning to this record again and again throughout this year, reminding myself out of necessity of why I enjoy it so much.

Accept – Too Mean To Die:

With Too Mean To Die, Accept vocalist Mark Tornillo delivers his fifth album with the band, half way to matching Udo’s ten (we often forget about those three 90s records, understandably so). I don’t know if Mark will get to ten of his own, but it’s kind of remarkable that he’s gotten to five given the way things usually work with replacement vocalists in established veteran bands (see Tim Owens and Blaze Bailey). But he’s such a natural fit, that honestly I feel like his motorcycle greased, Americanized hard rock approach is just as much Accept-ian as Udo’s sardonic German churl. That he’s revitalized Wolf Hoffman’s passion for songwriting within the Accept vein is as much a testament to his impact as are his vocal capabilities. This is yet another quality Accept album — not earthshaking in any way mind you, and perhaps lacking the vibrant punch of Blood Of The Nations and Blind Rage, but I’m enjoying it a touch more than The Rise Of Chaos and Stalingrad. It is a bit frontloaded however, with the album getting off to a strong start with the clumsy yet endearing “Zombie Apocalypse”, it’s oafish lyrics made palatable with a rock solid hook. Can we seriously kick this beaten down lyrical idea to the curb? Zombies, really? Didn’t Hammerfall try this awhile back (I hate The Walking Dead for popularizing this, though I will admit the Max Brooks book was a fresh way of looking at it). The album highlight here is the title track, coming on with Painkiller-ish aggression and fury, and I also found a personal favorite in the slightly glam-rock aping “Overnight Sensation” (sadly it was not a cover of the Motorhead song as I was hoping). As I hinted before, the second half of the record does lose a bit of the bite and sense of fun that the first half had, with songs like “How Do We Sleep” coming on a bit paint by numbers, but not enough to diminish what is largely a quality record.

Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus:

In the wake of finally coming around to Italian power metal in the past few years (even to a point of starting to appreciate Rhapsody to a greater degree), it’s nice to come at this new album by one of the OGs of the Italian style in Labyrinth rather than one of the many newer bands I’ve become fans of. I last listened to new Labyrinth in 2010 with their sequel to Return To Heaven Denied, swayed by the hype surrounding Olaf Thorsen’s return to the lineup. I spaced on 2017’s Architecture Of A God (which is pretty solid hearing it now), but in keeping up with Vision Divine through the past few years I feel like I have a somewhat decent pulse on the direction that Thorsen’s songwriting would be steering Labyrinth in. Of course longtime guitarist Andrea Cantarelli and the great Roberto Tiranti have a hand in that, but Thorsen’s presence in these songs is unmistakable. Tracks like “The Absurd Circus”, “As Long As It Lasts”, and “One More Last Chance” marry his energetic blasts of neoclassical guitar with smooth AOR-styled melodies. A peak moment arrives at the mid-song guitar solo in the Queensryche-ian “Den Of Snakes”, where a joyous, accelerating guitar figure breaks out at the 4:22 mark, reminding me of something Edguy would do in the Theater of Salvation era. Tiranti of course is stellar throughout as always, particularly shining on the power ballad “A Reason To Survive”, his vocals ageless and even a bit Khan-esque in these more emotive moments. This is a top tier Labyrinth album, sleek, bold, and confident. It won’t best Heaven Denied of course, but few albums could. It’s only stumbling block is cover art as terrible as Maiden’s Dance Of Death… c’mon guys, its 2021, there’s no excuse anymore.

Einherjer – North Star:

If you’ve dabbled in folk metal or looked for the sometimes stupidly tagged “viking metal”, you’ve surely come across Einherjer, a band that is as frustrating as any in terms of consistency throughout their two era-ed career. Not only is Einherjer’s songwriting track record spotty and unpredictable, but their records seem to sound different from one another in terms of pure sonics, as in recording quality and mixing decisions. When I listened to them in the early aughts before their self imposed near-decade long exile, they were one of a small handful of bands doing music in this particular vein — folk tinged, blackened metal with partially harsh/clean blended vocals. They stood out in other words. But as the years went on and more bands who dabbled in this style got signed, Einherjer’s uniqueness wore off, and I’ll be honest, the last record I remember really enjoying was 2014’s Av Oss, For Oss. It was no coincidence that I was reminded of that record when listening to North Star, it bears striking similarity in the production approach as well as the reined in mix. But I’ll offer that North Star is a far better record just on the strength of it’s songwriting alone, the band settling on a heavily blackened groove based approach. It’s one that reminds me of mid-period Satyricon ala Now, Diabolical by the way of Viking folk influences that just seem to exude off our Norwegian friends like someone bathing in an entire bottle of Drakkar Noir. It starts with Grimar’s vocals being reigned in, his approach built on Satyr like grim-hued harshes, with a lyrical approach that is economical, lean and focused on textural aggression. Simply put, he sounds menacing throughout, his delivery laden with venom and bite. Adding to this is the dual guitar attack of new guy Tom Enge and relatively new guy Ole Sønstabø, who embrace dagger like riffing, simple and direct, straight to the gut, their only indulgences being the splashy solo or occasional countermelody. A vivid example of this is their tandem work in “Ascension”, where their riff sequences are purposeful, focused and honed in on delivering a razor’s edge throughout. A special mention needs to be made for “Chasing The Serpent”, as satisfying a song I’ve heard this year, a moody stomper that delivers a memorable, shout along payload. Highly recommended if you need a blackened fix (but don’t actually want black metal per say).

Nervosa – Perpetual Chaos:

I’ve come to admire Nervosa and their new album Perpetual Chaos quite a bit, first for the daunting story of the challenges bandleader Prika Amaral had to overcome in it’s making (and frankly, how quickly she was able to accomplish that), and second for the actual album that I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks. I’ve felt a disconnect with thrash over the past couple years, and I’m sure anyone who cared enough to pay attention to the albums I covered on the blog in that time could sense that. If I’m being honest the last thrash records that really affected me were Death Angel’s The Evil Divide and of course Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic. So its a bit of a surprise and a relief to know that I can still find enjoyment in a genre that I kinda feared was slipping away from me recently. In making Perpetual Chaos, Amaral had to recruit an entirely new lineup to replace her two departing, foundational bandmates, who left in April 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning. She shrewdly chose to replace them with European based musicians, likely not only for talent’s sake (bassist Mia Wallace did a short stint playing with Abbath during the Outstrider era), but there’s a huge financial/strategic advantage to moving the band’s base of operations to the EU, with bandmembers already citizens which can make touring dramatically easier when things open up. And they all gel together surprisingly well for an album written via distance under lockdown, with nary a weak moment here. Things really start cooking in the second half, with strong songs like “Until The Very End”, “Time To Fight” (the clear highlight here for me with its punk meets Kreator vibes), and the awesome “Rebel Soul”. The latter features Flotsam’s Erik AK, and its great to finally have a guest appearance like this live up on record to the potential it had on paper. Didn’t expect to enjoy a thrash metal record this much in 2021, but I’m glad the theme of the year so far seems to be surprises.

Epica – Omega:

I’ve normally skipped new Epica albums throughout the time I’ve had this blog, getting around to listening to them long after their release date when a review wouldn’t make a lot of sense. And usually my opinion on Epica albums has been a fairly consistent “Eh, it’s ok I guess”. For whatever reason, Epica’s music has just bounced off me for the most part and failed to engage me in the same way their influences, contemporaries, and namesake’s inspiration (in Kamelot) have. I remember liking most of The Divine Conspiracy and even paying attention when I saw them live in an opening slot on that tour (if I recall correctly, Amanda Somerville was handling lead vocals for that run). My biggest criticism of their overall discography is mainly the band’s reliance on a singular mode of attack, that being layers upon layers of overblown orchestral pomp. When that’s all you do, it can get a bit tiring. It’d be like Nightwish doing nothing but Wishmaster over and over again, only fattening up the layers each time. So color me surprised that with Omega, Epica seem to have breathed new life into their sound by choosing to scale things back, stripping away the layering to let their music breathe a bit. I’ve honestly been enjoying songs like the instantly catchy “Abyss Of Time”, the eastern melody tinged “Seal Of Solomon”, and the sweetly poppy “Freedom – The Wolves Within”. These songs are the opposite of the new Nightwish album, lean and straight to the point, and loaded with enough counter-balanced aggression from Mark Jansen (who somehow sounds heavier than I remembered) to prevent things from becoming syrupy. Though speaking of the latter quality, I’ll add a special mention for the spectacular ballad “Rivers”, which is the most effective and emotional one I’ve heard the band ever pull off. Surprise really does seem to be the running theme this year, because I didn’t see myself being this delighted with a new Epica album, but here we are.

Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound:

I love this album, and this band really. Ever since getting into them via 2013’s The Formulas Of Death, and then subsequently seeing them live at a memorable Austin gig on their tour opening for Watain, I’ve been consistently impressed with them. Their last record, 2018’s Down Below, was a solid album that saw the band expanding their gloom n’ roll sound to be noticeably more polished, with an emphasis on placing melodies front and center and scraping away some of the rougher, jagged edges of their sound. That in itself is a delicate balancing act and its nice to see a band recognize when they’ve landed on the blend that works for them. On the appropriately titled Where The Gloom Becomes Sound, Tribulation pick up where they left off, with the new album being in part a continuation of the sound they narrowed down on Down Below, and at the same time serving as a rejection that they were transitioning into their Swedish contemporaries Ghost (whom I and others were so keen to compare them to last time around). With excellent cuts like “Hour Of The Wolf” and “Funeral Pyre”, they’re succeeding in pairing Adam Zaars’ earwormy guitar hooks amidst creepily atmospheric dynamics. His contributions throughout the album are incredibly balanced, bringing in gushing sweetness on the solo during “Elementals” while maintaining enough of a charcoal-hued palette to prevent things in general from ever becoming saccharine. And vocalist Johannes Andersson is still Tribulation’s core sonic identity; his vocals ever bleak, laced with just enough reverb to make them sound like they’re echoing off the walls of a cave. I’ve been compulsively returning to this album time and again these past few weeks, it’s simply really satisfying, and a reminder that it’s not always a bad thing when bands give you more of the same.

Todd LaTorre – Rejoice In The Suffering:

So I’ve spent a few weeks with this album now, Todd LaTorre’s first solo album after a career serving as one of metal’s best replacement vocalists (Queensryche and Crimson Glory). With the aid of Craig Blackwell, a Tampa musician friend of his, LaTorre cobbled together an album of ostensibly full-on metal songs, breaking away from the prog-tinge that Queensryche is known for. The result is an album that sounds a bit like a less thrashy Testament fronted by Tim Ripper Owens, with LaTorre getting into that Painkiller vocal mode more often than not. There is of course, an instant delight in hearing this, as I’m guessing most of us felt when we first heard it. I will say that surprise was tempered a bit by knowing how heavy the last Queensryche album tended to get in moments, at times perhaps too heavy for that band’s sound and skillset (debatable I know, but I guess I like my Ryche mid-tempo, thoughtful, and a bit more dynamic). The curious thing about Rejoice is that I find the non-full throttle songs to be the most engaging, tracks like “Apology” with its slowed down, moodier vibes, and the strong Dokken-esque qualities in “Vexed”, with its wild, sunset strip chorus. The slow burning semi-ballad “Crossroads To Infinity” is another intriguing track, with a pretty solid hook in the chorus that I wish was a tad more satisfyingly tight. Everything else on offer is you know, solid attitude spiked metal, and there’s nary a bad or terrible moment among them. The problem I suppose is that there’s nothing overtly spectacular about them either, and I sort of wonder at the praise that’s being thrown towards this album from most people I’ve seen discuss it (though in fairness to LaTorre, he’s an easy guy to root for). But when I hear a song like the thrash-centric “Dogmata”, I’m not so much surprised that LaTorre can do it, but more unmoved by it’s aggression. This could be a ‘Pigeon is getting jaded about heaviness’ problem, but there’s many new records that are quite heavy that get me plenty excited. So yeah, I might be the odd one out here on this record, because everyone I’ve talked to about it loves it.

Therion Stir The Seas With Leviathan

Well I’ve been waiting for this one for a long, long time. Ten years in fact. A little biographical tidbit to put things in context: Therion is one of my favorite artists regardless of genre, period, easily in my top five and unlikely to ever budge from that position. I consider their music to be distinctly innovative, complex, and multifaceted in a way that dramatically differentiates them from other rock or metal based artists, even those we can rightfully call symphonic metal, a genre which Therion pioneered. Having said that, in the now going on ten year history of this blog, I have only been able to write about Therion a couple times, less than the amount you can count on one hand. Their last studio album proper was 2010’s Sitra Ahra, a decidedly difficult album that I can only partially enjoy at best even a decade later. The band released the wonderful Les Fleurs du Mal two years after that (this blog’s 2012 album of the year), but it wasn’t original material, being an album of French chanson cover songs. And of course, as reviewed here two years ago, we had the half-decade plus in the making opera (like, an actual opera) Beloved Antichrist, which I actually enjoy but again — I’m a fanboy so I took the time and effort to acquire that enjoyment.

In my review for that massive release, I voiced my worry that it would be another half decade before the band could get around to releasing a proper follow up to Sitra Ahra, considering touring obligations that would inevitably need to happen for obvious income reasons, and bandleader Christofer Johnsson’s desire to stage that opera (itself a lengthy undertaking no doubt). Now, I can only conjecture at this point, not knowing what his plans were for the band pre-pandemic. All I know for sure is that with all touring plans put on hold, it seems like the timetable on a new studio album was accelerated. This new album, Leviathan, is arriving years earlier than I anticipated it, and there’s word from Christofer himself that two sequels are already in the works to immediately follow it. As a passionate Therion fan, I’m not exaggerating in saying this feels like Christmas. Particularly so because the nature of Leviathan is so unexpectedly driven towards the idea of fan service, it really does feel like an armful of wrapped gifts on behalf of Christofer for the intolerably long wait. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge him taking the time to pursue whatever artistic ambitions he wanted to, nor do I think the opera was misguided, particularly after we’d experienced two decades of his career receiving mostly incredible releases. Yet how else to interpret and receive an album that’s described by the man himself as a purposeful distillation of the band’s most beloved eras?

The most surprising aspect of Leviathan then is how it manages to transcend that aforementioned fan service description and reveal itself to be one of the band’s most cohesive and inspired albums to date. I consider myself well versed in the band’s catalog, and in knowing those prior albums extremely well… yes I hear shades and echoes of Therion’s musical past in glimpses and flashes throughout. More than that however, I hear how a simplifying, stripping back, or dare I suggest a reductivist approach to the songwriting here has pushed the band to leap forward to a place they’d not explored quite in this fashion before. To put it simply, for an album billed as the distillation of Therion’s most popular moments, there’s a lot about this album that feels fresh, uncharted, and newborn. It took me more than a handful of listens to suss out why I felt this way, but I think it boils down to a few things. First, the song structures here are far more linear than we’ve heard from Therion in ages, eschewing the often bewilderingly clunky patterns that made up Sitra Ahra. While not as simple as verse-chorus-verse-chorus, the progressive tendencies that laced the songwriting on that aforementioned last album have largely been abandoned in favor of songs that hit their emotional apex quicker. One of my main private criticisms of Sitra was the sometimes frustrating sonic choices throughout, be it instrumentation or vocalist, created a barrier to what could have been incredibly affecting music. It’s a criticism I levy quite a bit at progressive metal, and one of the unspoken truths about Therion is how their music flourishes far better when it’s allowed to be more naturally flowing, its melodies a little more effortless, as they are all throughout Leviathan.

Pair that with another striking aspect of the new album, that being how the cast of vocalists and their melodies have wound up being the core feature and strength of these songs. This might not seem revelatory, but for Therion it’s kind of a rarity for their music to lean so heavily on the vocal side. Consider that the band’s intent on creating this record was to challenge themselves to try to invoke the spirit of their more popular era. Well, records from that late 90s-early 00s era such as Vovin and Deggial and Secret of the Runes, while laced with dramatic, rich vocals throughout, were largely albums built on meditative, hypnotic instrumental passages. I had always felt that particular aspect of that era (my introductory era as well) was what gave the band their mystical aura, this purposeful deployment of vocal silence. In that space, the band’s instrumental side offered beautifully dark, mysterious melodies that were able to express just as much as a singer could. That’s why 2006’s Gothic Kabbalah came as such a surprise when it was released, as suddenly the band’s lineup had expanded to include a whole cast of lead vocalists that they’d previously not had before, including Mats Levin, Snowy Shaw, and Katarina Lilja. That album was full to the brim of lead vocal centric songs, as opposed to the choir based work on most of the preceding albums, and as a result it stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the Therion discography (and as divisive as that album was at the time, I still think its spectacular and incredibly underrated). When I listen to Leviathan, I’m most reminded of Gothic Kabbalah in execution and spirit than any other period of the band’s history.

The small yet, I suspect, consequential difference between these two albums however is that Leviathan’s vocal approach is not just hyper-focused on lead vocal driven songwriting, but on melding that with the band’s traditional choir based vocals. I idly wonder how much this album arriving on the heels of the massive, vocal centric Beloved Antichrist opera had to do with it — that project’s writing tendencies lingering to impact these new songs. This is total conjecture on my part, but I hear the opera’s influence on songs like the utterly gorgeous, stately ballad “Die Wellen der Zeit”, possibly one of the most beautiful songs in the Therion cannon. Not only is lead vocalist Taida Nazraić a revelation with her incredibly emotive performance, but the delicately ethereal, almost floating orchestral melodies here are sublime. The Israeli choir Hellscore provides the blanket of voices that join Nazraić, and together they spiral upwards into a chorus that is transcendent, and remind me of some of those shimmering moments on Beloved Antichrist that I wish were longer (“To Shine Forever”, “Through Dust, Through Rain”). I hear this operatic influence permeating the awesome, dramatically engaging “Psalm Of Retribution”, where Mats Leven, Thomas Vikström, and Lori Lewis seem to engage in a back and forth sung dialogue as opposed to the typical male/female vocal dynamic. As an aside, it’s just so great to hear Leven on a Therion album again, he was part of my favorite era of the band (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Therion albums Lemuria and Sirius B), and his distinctive rough edged vocal tone is an excellent contrast to Vikström’s smooth tenor.

Lori Lewis is joined by fellow veteran Therion soprano Chiara Malvestiti on “Nocturnal Light”, another richly operatic piece built on strong lead vocal melodies framed by a wall of choirs that are layered in the mix to sound ethereal and heavenly, as if sounding down from the heavens. Vikström is particularly impressive here, walking that tightrope between his classical tenor and the accessibility that a song with metal guitars would need — it’s as close as anyone has ever come to reminding me of Falconer’s great Mathias Blad. Again I’ll emphasize, this piece feels new to me, something that has hallmarks of classic Therion but it’s combination of elements is pieced together in a way I don’t think I’ve heard before. After many listens it’s risen to become one of my favorites on the record, along with the fantastic “Tuonela”, as buzz-worthy a single Therion have delivered in ages. Here ex-Nightwish vocalist/bassist Marco Hietala joins Nazraić in an elegant yet impassioned duet over a folky violin led melodic motif set against the backdrop of spectral choirs and chunky riffs. You’ve gotta hand it to Christofer for having a damn near perfect track record for knowing which uniquely distinctive voices will work as guest spots in Therion songs (in the past he’s used the likes of Dan Swano, Ralf Scheepers, and Hansi Kursch to name a few). Hietala’s unique delivery suits Therion, even his trademark wild vocal extensions that worked to hair raising effect in Nightwish conjuring that satisfying, fist pumping magic here.

As for Nazraić, I have to hand it to her for perhaps claiming the album’s MVP award, because although she was gifted with three of the strongest songs on the album, she manages to elevate all of them with genuinely glorious performances. This was my introduction to her, and I hope she’s utilized on the next two Therion records because she’s earned a new fan here. Her last performance comes on the album closer, the epic Asian influenced “Ten Courts of Diyu”, where she positively shines. Her vocal during the build-up to and during the refrain could squeeze emotion out of boulders. And again, I love the simplicity being shown here with the usage of silent pauses save for a few stray bass notes during the middle bridge. That moment in particular was one of the few things that reminded me of Vovin and Deggial, where Therion demonstrate an ability to shift the mood within the course of a song in such an elegant, seemingly effortless manner. And I would be remiss not to point out the fantastic performance turned in by Rosalía Sairem, particularly on the awesome uptempo (and endearingly cheerful sounding) “El Primer Sol”, as straight to the point and direct as Therion gets. Points also go to Vikström here for crafting a performance that blurs the line between distinguished classical tenor and rough-edged metal vocals. Sairem also turns “Eye Of Algol” into something special with a wild lead vocal delivery that reminds me of Katarina Lilja’s work on Gothic Kabbalah (there’s that reference again!).

I realize that I’ve spent most of this review discussing the vocal performances, but I just can’t emphasize enough how much this is a vocally driven, singer-centric album. If this is your introduction to Therion, you should know that it’s not always like this (not a bad thing mind you, but this is a band that has consistently changed things up throughout the years, apparently even when they attempt to revisit older eras!). So what about the rest of the band, of Christofer himself on rhythm guitars and lead guitarist Christian Vidal? Together I think their best moment comes on “Aži Dahāka”, as aggressive as the album gets within all things metallic, with Vidal spinning off some quick, dizzying lead patterns that are as joyfully melodic as we’ve come to expect from Therion. It’s been hard to consider Vidal as a replacement for the impeccable Kristian Niemann (Sorcerer), who was around for the band’s more guitar centric era. Vidal has been on two records now, spaced a decade apart, and he has glimpses and flashes of brilliance but I’ve yet to hear him really get a transcendent moment of his own yet. It was also strange that Snowy Shaw laid down drum tracks for five of these songs, but wasn’t used as a vocalist, particularly given his past work for Therion in that role. Here’s hoping he’s singing on the next two.

As for Christofer, his impact on Therion albums is more felt in the very fabric of every note and lyric rather than his Accept-ian rhythm guitars, and particularly in his musical instincts. I’m not going to exalt him and use words like “maestro” and “mastermind” like some overzealous PR people tend to throw around towards many other musicians. He’s just a metalhead like the rest of us, albeit one with a really creative vision and the ability to express himself through this vehicle of his own design. I’ll give him credit for steering the band in this direction, accepting his statement that it was as much a challenge for himself as it was a tacit acknowledgment of something fans would likely enjoy (spoiler alert: I’m enjoying it). But I think Leviathan succeeds on a level that he didn’t anticipate, that being the pushing of the band in a more vocally cohesive direction (whether intentionally or subconsciously). The result is a first for Therion, an album that sounds sweeter, warmer, with more heart on sleeve emotional resonance than they’ve ever conjured. It’s full of moments that remind me of why I fell in love with this band so much, of why I’m so quick to defend them from any detractors who just dismiss them with a cursory glance or worse, a lazy lumping in with other symphonic metal (or derisively, “corset-core”) bands. Therion are one of the most misunderstood bands in metal, their work needing no little amount of time and attention to properly appreciate and contextualize. The new album might not change that, but it’s certain to be appreciated as one of their best records by those of us who do get it.

Jon Schaffer’s Dark Saga

The Iced Earth / Children Of Bodom / Evergrey tour hit downtown Houston on a balmy Saturday May 8th, 2004 at the cramped metal box of a venue known then as the Engine Room. They pulled what the Atlanta Falcons jersey wearing doorman said was the largest crowd to ever turn up for a show there, estimating close to 800 people in a line that stretched down for so many blocks that the HPD took notice and had to get people to stop standing in the middle of the street. It was as intense a show I’ve ever been to, with an ultra packed, sweat drenched, and energized crowd that surged forward when Bodom came on and somehow crushed further together when Iced Earth took the stage. It stands in my memory as being a top five concert experience, with incredible mosh pits, crowd surfing, and massive group singalongs and thrashy headbanging.

What made a great show even better was that hours earlier, I had arrived early to the venue to catch the bands loading in for soundcheck, and got asked by a hungover Alexi Laiho to walk him to the nearest convenience store a mile away so he could buy cigarettes. When we got back and he went in for soundcheck, Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer and Tim Owens stepped out of their bus, and I got to meet them both, with Schaffer signing my copy of The Dark Saga, a seminal album for me as a metal fan. I shook his hand, and me and the other fan who had the same early bird idea as me chatted with him about the recent Iron Maiden album Dance of Death, and what rare old songs we all wished Steve and company would add to their setlist. The whole interaction only lasted for a few minutes, but it’s been part of a nice memory for me, one that stands out among many from what seems like a lifetime of going to metal shows.

I’ve been a fan of Iced Earth since I stumbled upon a copy of the aforementioned The Dark Saga album and bought it solely due to it’s cover art back in 1997. I soon tracked down Burnt Offerings, Night Of The Stormrider, and Something Wicked This Way Comes and was entrenched, a massive fan. Seeing them in 2004 was only the first time I would see the band live, catching them on numerous occasions afterwards. Being a nerdy metal fan, I’d read interviews with Schaffer to keep up on happenings with the band, and like other fans, it wasn’t hard to notice Schaffer’s libertarian streak coming to the forefront every so often when he spoke on the record —- nevermind their noticeable impact on his lyrics throughout the band’s albums. I think like many other Iced Earth fans, I took his views with a grain of salt, even though they differed from most of my own. Living in a liberal district in conservative Texas, surrounded by opposing political viewpoints in nearly every walk of life even among family and friends, you get used to dealing with that dichotomy and it ceased being surprising a long time ago.

And I was used to that already, one of my favorite albums being Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction, even though it was at times a paean to terrible misogyny. As a teenager who had learned about black metal from that infamous issue of Kerrang magazine, I had naively bought Burzum’s Filosofem, because the grizzly saga behind the album was something I was fascinated by —- and I listened to and enjoyed that album long before Varg’s racial beliefs became common knowledge. Questionable and/or provocative lyrics and imagery come with the territory in metal and hard rock, there’s no avoiding it, but as was the case with Burzum, sometimes they are a prelude to something terrible. For all of Jon Schaffer’s libertarian, 1776-worship in his lyrics, they were just words, and his interviews were just less poetic words, long-winded answers to questions asked and sometimes unasked. I don’t think any of his fans, even those who shared his beliefs, could have predicted that he would end up where he ended up on Wednesday, January 6th at the Capitol building riot that left five people dead including one police officer.

For all of Schaffer’s indulging of his personal politics in interviews, up until Wednesday, it was just that, opinions put forth in print or on YouTube video interviews. Whatever your feelings on those, he was allowed his views and the freedom to express them. As a fan, I had learned to live with that, Schaffer had his view of the world and that was that, I could still be a fan of the music and enjoy the records I grew up with, and even look forward to new albums. I’m not going to pretend to know what Schaffer’s purpose was when he decided to follow the hordes of rioters into the Capitol building on Wednesday. But when he decided to follow suit and entered the building with them, being caught mid-angry shout in the photograph above, he was a willing participant in one of the most shameful acts in the nation’s history. I don’t need to go into why the Capitol riots were awful, you should already know why —- but what I will get into is that Schaffer was marching side by side with people who committed murder, had the intent to commit murder, were engaging in domestic terrorism with explosive devices, and were committing seditious conspiracy via their actions.

As shocking and saddening it is that Schaffer was among those maniacs rioting inside the Capitol building, I’m particularly aggrieved that he was there side by side with neo-nazis and white supremacists. When I was trying to process all my thoughts about this on Wednesday evening, I found myself just remembering all the Iced Earth shows I’d been to here in Houston, where most of the metal fans who attend are like me, brown-skinned to some degree, ie not white. Attendees at metal shows here involve every race and nationality you can think of, which makes sense considering Houston is still the most diverse city in the nation. That was reflected in the giddy crowds at those Iced Earth shows, in the lines at the merch tables, and in the clusters of fans near the tour bus after the show hoping for a few minutes to get a pic or have something signed.

I thought about Schaffer’s partnership with Hansi Kursch in Demons & Wizards. Hansi was born in Germany in 1966, just 21 years after the fall of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II, his parents having had to grow up in the shadow of that terrible reality that their parents’ generation had allowed to happen. Hansi, a veritable teddy bear of a human being, is one of the nicest people in metal, and has been a friend of Schaffer since they met in 1992 on tour together. I wondered what he was thinking, about what he would want to say to Schaffer directly or if he’d be too shocked to say anything. I also thought about my MSRcast co-host Cary, who is Jewish, who has attended Iced Earth shows as well. Neo-nazis’ beliefs include vehemently denying the Holocaust, which is not only incredibly hurtful to Jewish people and German citizens, but should enrage the rest of us. Schaffer may not share the views of neo-nazis himself (Iced Earth after all, have played in Israel before), and I’ve never heard him give voice to those sentiments, but when you walk side by side with white supremacists and neo-nazis for a purpose, you are tacitly supporting their views regardless of whether or not you share them.

And I look at that image of Schaffer above, with his face caught in this contortion of rage, and I wonder: Jon, what the hell do YOU have to be so angry about? Here you are, a white guy in America, who’s never had to deal with the indignities of racism. Your family has never been hatefully stared at in a McDonalds along the interstate in Mississippi when you were a kid. You’ve never had the notion to regret your skin color because it would have made a situation, or just life in general a little easier. More than that, you’re living many a metal musician’s dream, making a living from your music and playing on big stages like Wacken. You get to tour the world in a metal band and receive adulation from adoring crowds on nearly every continent, getting to experience things that most of us will never be able to stuck in our 9-5 existence. Yeah you’ve worked hard for that opportunity, but this global audience is what allows you to enjoy that enriched life. So again, what the hell are you so angry about?

Schaffer will never read this of course, and really I suppose I’m writing this more for my own benefit than anyone else’s, it being the only way I can process my feelings about this whole thing. It’s an understatement to say that I’m incredibly disappointed, but that’s as applicable a term as I can find for describing being shoutingly angry one moment and utterly sad the next. Iced Earth is likely finished, being that Schaffer owns the name and is the central figure in the band, and will be persona non grata going forward (and you know, that minor detail of him possibly facing prison time for his actions). More relevant to me however is just having to deal with this as a fan… or former fan… or however I’m going to describe myself relative to this band’s music. Because even though it will likely be a long, long time before I can stomach listening to Iced Earth’s music again, I know how it goes: I won’t be able to unlike the stuff I’ve already enjoyed.

Maybe some people have that ability, but I clearly don’t. I’m listening to pop music while writing this, but if I hit pause and concentrate, I can think of my favorite passage in “Travel In Stygian”, or the ending sequence to “A Question Of Heaven”, or the thrashy aggressive moments in “The Coming Curse” and even in their fleetingly remembered state, I still love them. They’re part of the fabric of my experience as a metal fan, broadly speaking, but now there will always be a taint on those songs and albums in the form of my mind immediately going to the despicable actions of Schaffer at the Capitol. I’ll have to learn to live with that, and really the only thing I can do going forward is refuse to financially support any of Schaffer’s musical ambitions, if he is allowed to have any after this. I can’t see myself hypothetically reviewing any future Iced Earth albums either (but again, I don’t think that will be a problem). Two days before the Capitol building incident, the metal world came together to collectively mourn the news of Alexi Laiho’s passing in December. I was already saddened from that, and still trying to process it. To think I had met both of those guys within an hour of each other that day in 2004, and now, it feels like I’m mourning the loss of both.

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