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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