Catching Up: Recent Metal Gigs and New Albums

A lot has happened since my last update on the metal front, namely that I’ve seen an armful of bands live within the past month and a half. In April I finally had my pandemic delayed opportunity to see Seven Spires live and they did not disappoint, despite having a setlist that was limited in scope and set length to focus on the last album and just a few songs from the much beloved Emerald Seas (come to think of it, I don’t think they did anything from Solveig). I even got to say hello to Adrienne and Jack who were on the floor watching Firewind with the rest of us after their set — funnily enough, those two were also at the Rotting Christ/Borknagar show the other night here on the Devastation For the Nation’s Houston stop, although I didn’t see them personally and only found out through her Instagram story later. Oh yeah, getting to see Borknagar live for the first time was as my buddy Maurice at the show commented, a definite “bucket list” moment. Despite no Vintersorg in the lineup (and thus none of his era’s songs getting an airing), it was still an unforgettable experience and they were brilliant on stage in their own inimitable way. I’d seen ICS Vortex live way back in the day with Dimmu, but he was definitely way more in his own element here, his stage presence more attuned to being in a jam based band than the rigidity we’ve come to expect from black metal bands live. I also can’t express how surreal it was to see Oystein Brun in person, not that he’s a big celebrity even in the metal sense, but because this is a guy I’ve known about for twenty years now never thinking I’d get to see him play live.

What else? Oh yeah, of course, the epic two day Hells Heroes IV Fest that happened over the course of April 22nd-23rd where I got to see Candlemass for the first time ever (speaking of bucket list) on Friday night as the downstairs headliner, and High Spirits on Saturday night as the upstairs headliner. There were other tremendous bands I saw that weekend, Eternal Champion was brilliant live, I really loved Sumerlands who were way more fierce live than I was expecting, and getting to see Midnight again (who were the secret special guests) was a treat. I know Midnight had an album released back in March, and it sounds you know, like Midnight and it’s pretty good, but this is a band that I think is that rare bird that is best experienced live because they might be one of the best live performers in metal as a whole right now, just pure intensity and adrenaline when they’re onstage). On a recent MSRcast, we talked a bit in depth about the Hells Heroes experience, and quite a bit about how the expansion of an outdoor seating/merch/chilling area made the entire fest way more manageable and pleasant on a personal energy level than it was back in 2019, and I have to give praise to the organizers for that. It’s a great event and everyone should consider buying a ticket and coming down for it (that is, after I’ve bought mine of course).

There is also the recent slate of new music to cover, and I’ll be honest I’ve been listening to some albums far more than others. Månegarm and Lords of the Trident really occupied a lot of my metal listening time for the past few weeks, along with finding myself dipping back into Bruce Dickinson’s solo catalog (his speaking gig that I saw back in, what February(?) has apparently lingered in my mind since). I was jamming a bit of Dragonforce and Spires in the wake of that terrific gig, and went off on a post Hells Heroes tangent with some of the bands I got to see there as well. Recently its been Therion because they’ve dropped a new single and I couldn’t resist checking it out — it sent me on an indulgent spree of spinning their classic late 90s masterworks. This means I’m of course behind on new music, but thankfully I have people like Christian and Justin sorting through a mess of new music and I can afford to be a bit picky by really focusing on their recommendations, some which are landing and some not so much (opinions?!). Anyway here’s some of that in no real order below:


Månegarm – Ynglingaättens öde:

It feels like its been ages since an album has captured my heart and imagination the way the newest album by veteran Swedish OG folk metallers Månegarm has. This was a release day discovery, with me stumbling around the metal release calendar that Friday morning looking for anything interesting that had come out, and seeing this on it. I was utterly blown away from the very first song and all throughout this nine track masterpiece (I try not to use that term unless its warranted, and it absolutely is here), Ynglingaattens ode being a likely contender for the album of the year spot, because seriously this might be the most giddily surprised I’ve felt about anything metal wise since Seven Spires Emerald Seas. I’ve been a fan of the band since Havets vargar way back in 2000 when folk metal was exploding out of Scandinavia and Europe and felt nascently raw, vital, and fresh. I have in the past few years pointed out how there has been a quiet resurgence of both new and veteran folk metal artists who are releasing really strong records that harken back to that era, before the genre became bloated with gimmickry and goofiness. Thankfully Månegarm has been part of combating that nonsense for a good while now, with their 2019 album Fornaldarsagor landing on that year’s best albums list here, their most inspired offering in well over a decade. And they pick up right where they left off on this new album, slightly stepping away from Fornaldarsagor’s more blackened aggression to make room for more of their rootsy Scandinavian folk melodies this time around.

As if to prove that statement wrong, the album opener “Freyrs blod” comes striking out with a vicious frenetic aggression that would suggest otherwise at first. At around the two minute mark however, guitarist Markus Andé introduces subtle but gorgeous, grandiose sounding melodic progressions to accompany vocalist Erik Grawsiö’s soaring, leather worn clean vocals. I’m almost positive my eyebrows raised when I first heard this moment, it made me really sit up and take notice and by the time the hushed, folk string adorned vocal passage unfolded a minute and a half later, I was completely entranced. This is a ten minute song, something I honestly didn’t even realize until writing this review, because it doesn’t feel like ten minutes and not once was I aware of it’s length, a success in and of itself. It’d easily be the best track on an incredible album if it weren’t for the beautifully autumnal power ballad “En snara av guld”, with its sweetly melancholic violin accompaniment and a stunning vocal melody by Grawsiö. He’s joined here by his daughter Lea Grawsiö Lindström who turns in a really haunting performance, her voice a strikingly innocent yet mature counterpart to Grawsiö’s rougher textures. In the more purely folk ballad realm is the serene “Hågkomst av ett liv”, where recent Manegarm collaborator Ellinor Videfors sings wistfully to a lamenting melody with a subtle accompaniment by Grawsiö. I love that the band really dove deep on the folk side of their sound on this album, because I’ve always thought they had one of the most skillful and subtle touches when it came to working it into their overall sound. The melodies are brighter and more shimmering throughout this album, there’s a confidence here that suggests a comfortableness with their sonic identity — the result is an album that sounds spiritual, meditative and full of life.

Lords of the Trident – The Offering:

I love this album, and in classic Metal Pigeon fashion, it reached up from the inky blackness and slapped me without warning to become one of my most listened to records of the year thus far. The fifth album from Wisconsin based power metal goofs Lords of the Trident, The Offering represents a maturing and deepening of the band’s adventurous riff based power metal sound. There were hints that something like this was brewing on their 2018 effort Shadows From the Past, with some of those songs being incredibly solid, though I felt the album still felt a bit uneven throughout. That inadequacy is addressed here with not only a complete lack of any discernible weak spots across the board (a titanic accomplishment considering its 13 song track length), but with the band seemingly landing on a sound and overall approach that really rings true to them. This is power metal that is at once built on aggressive riffage, but at times plays on a balance of laid back hard rockin’ groove juxtaposed with strident, classic Edguy invoking adventurous power metal drive and gusto. The game changer lies not only on the instrumental front, but in how vocalist Fang VonWrathenstein (née Tyler Christian) has improved in leaps and bounds. Christian turns in a vocal performance here that is impassioned and rich, full of power but still capable of nuance and emotive inflections in his approach. It’s maybe my favorite vocal performance of the year overall, because it’s reminding me so much of a cross between Urban Breed and I dunno, maybe a lighter toned smoother vocalist like Tommy Karevik. His tone and delivery seems to be weighty and full of gravitas here, a more serious approach than he was dishing out on previous albums (which I’ll be honest, might have been why I wasn’t keen on their earlier stuff). The band is matching him too, turning out compositions that qualify this as a serious metal album despite the band members’ silly aliases. Songs like “Offering to the Void” and “Legend” have this beautifully vivid grandeur to them, soaring and majestic but still understated in their tonal color. Even when they cut loose with a wild rocker like on “Acolyte” or “Feed the Wolves”, there’s an intensity and precision here that is commanding my attention. Can’t say enough good things about this record, I’m really impressed and kinda relieved that a new power metal album has gotten me so fired up (there had been a concerning drought recently).

Trick or Treat – Creepy Symphonies:

Trick or Treat has been the Italian alternative for despondent fans of classic era Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Edguy who’ve longed for those bands to return to their lighter, more purist power metal sounds (though in fairness, Helloween has sorta gotten there). I’ve enjoyed their records on a mostly passing level since they debuted way back in 2006 with the unforgettably titled Evil Needs Candy Too, and have followed them since with a particular focus on seeing where Alessandro Conti’s various musical pursuits have led. While Conti’s classic power metal vocals are understandably the star attraction here, the band has really stepped up their efforts on the songwriting front this go around. One of the highlights here has them stretching their wings a bit on the power ballad front on “Peter Pan Syndrome (Keep Alive)” whose worrying title thankfully was disguising a gloriously uplifting, heartwarming gem the likes of which I’ve really missed hearing. I get major Avantasia with Kiske vibes on “Crazy”, and that’s a credit to Conti’s unnatural ability to sound a lot like the Helloween frontman when he hits a certain inflection. Conti and guitarist Guido Benedetti split the songwriting duties fairly evenly it seems across Creepy Symphonies, but there’s really a merging of styles with these two guys, a synchronicity in the way they’re approaching songwriting. In other words, Benedetti is just as liable to deliver songs with amply soaring vocals with arcing choruses as Conti is, there’s no discernible differences in approach that creates a noticeable dichotomy within the album. And I kinda like that because that consistency has yielded a truly fun, vibrant, and cheer inducing listening experience all throughout this album. Easily one of the strongest Euro-power albums I’ve heard in awhile alongside the Planeswalker album that came out earlier in the year.

Saidan – Onryō II: Her Spirit Eternal:

I’ve been addicted to this record as soon as I first checked it out, and in the weeks since that happened I’ve seen more and more people online talking about it here and there. Tennessean black metal duo Saidan deserve the traction, because this is kinda what I’ve been craving in black metal in a big way. On Twitter recently, user @VVolvenDaughter wrote “The thing black metal is missing is bangers. It’s an album genre, and good at atmosphere, but is distinctly lacking in standout songs that make you completely wreck your neck”, and while there are certainly exceptions to that statement, I largely agree with her. This is not to say that all black metal should be composed of attempts to write “bangers” either, because many of the black metal albums I do love are mostly textural, deeply layered, atmospheric experiences (cue Alcest and many other atmo-black records, as well as a majority of the second wave of black metal for that matter). But yeah, black metal could do with a crop of bands who understand the power of a headbanging worthy riff that stands out from the din of furious noise its usually buried by. When I saw Midnight at Hells Heroes, their blackened take on punky metallic speed metal was so effective at firing up the entire crowd live, and more recently, Rotting Christ’s hypnotic but arena ready riffs were absolutely commanding in a live situation. We were all banging our heads. And what I think Saidan get absolutely right on Onryō, their second album, is landing on that intersection between a densely layered, very much atmospheric experience while somehow being catchy as all get out with actual memorable riff sequences that cut through everything and smack you about the face. Take “Yuki Onna” for example, that melancholic yet aggressive intro riff repeating sequence is beguiling enough, but when the mid-song post bridge switch into a chugging, thunderous lumberjack of a riff kicks in, it’s deeply satisfying. There’s an excitement coursing through these songs, even the quiet interlude length cut with the odd name (“Kate”), where a tautly strung together clean guitar melody provides a tense backdrop for some breathy distant sounding melodic vocals. The truly killer moment is the entirety of the closing track “I Am The Witch”, where my only complaint is that the frigging awesome riff that kicks in at the five minute mark only sticks around for a minute before fading off to the conclusion (we needed a longer run of that one dammit). The sharpest and most hooky black metal album of the past two years easy, and that’s high praise considering the excellent records that have been delivered in that time frame.

Thunder – Dopamine:

This has been a nice surprise, a really strong new album by England’s hidden hard rock titans Thunder, a band that I’ll be honest, sort of fell off my radar over the past decade-ish plus. I first got into Thunder when I blindly bought a used cassette of their 1990 classic Backstreet Symphony way back in the mid-90s because the band name sounded vaguely metallic and the little band pic on the insert seemed to verify this as well. I had no idea who they were or where they came from (based on their sound I think for awhile I thought they were an American band), but I really loved that record and the band’s Bad Company meets classic GnR meets Tesla sound in general. I’d pick up a handful of their albums in the same secondhand way in scattershot fashion over the years and always enjoyed them, especially Laughing On Judgement Day, but looking over their discography page on Wikipedia now, I realize I’ve missed a ton of releases, particularly surprisingly high charting ones from the past handful of years. They’re a top ten charting band in the UK again, and clearly have experienced a revival of sorts, much like Magnum has recently with their past few efforts. If these other recent albums are anything like Dopamine, I can see why: This is confident, assured straight up hard rock from a veteran band that isn’t trying to be anything other than who they truly are. Songs like “One Day We’ll Be Free Again”, “The Western Sky”, and “Across the Nation” have that same recognizable no-frills hard rock attitude and swagger as anything off the first two albums, a refreshing sound to hear when lately I’ve been bouncing between all kinds of complexly layered extreme metal and densely layered K-Pop. I was particularly taken by the sparse piano adorned ballad “Is Anybody Out There?”, a great showcase that demonstrates guitarist Luke Morley’s songwriting abilities translate just as sharply with pure melodies as they do in cranking out memorable riffs. Vocalist Danny Bowes is nothing short of incredible here, emotive in his delivery and phrasing, landing on satisfying vocal runs and deftly handling delicate melodies. These two guys have a long track record together, and like similar duos in rock history (your Bob Catley/Tony Clarkin, your Jeff Keith/Frank Hannon pairings), they’re comfortable enough with each other to seemingly play to each other’s strengths. I’ve loved diving back into this really overlooked band (here in the States that is), and this has been a joy to listen to.

Mostly Headliners: New Music from Sabaton, Ghost, and more!

The past few weeks have been rather interesting in terms of big name releases on the metal landscape, with Ghost and Sabaton grabbing the headlines but not overshadowing new music from Hammerfall and Scorpions. There were a few more things I’ve been listening to that occurred in the past two weeks that I’ll have to get to next time around, although I suspect I’ll be writing about the upcoming Hell’s Heroes festival in Houston long before I can get to them (so stay plugged into the MSRcast to hear more new music talk in the interim!). Can hardly believe its April, but with a quarter of the year having gone by I’m more encouraged by what’s been released this year than in 2021, and there’s going to be some notable things coming out in the months to come. I’ve also been encouraged by listening to some other metal podcasts such as our friend David’s That Metal Podcast to make good on my promise to myself to do more writing on this blog that’s kinda selfish, those ideas I’ve kept meaning to get back to that always get shelved because of new music reviews. I started on this late last year with my Metal Pigeon Essential Ten: Power Metal write up, which I’m aiming to keep expanding on, but I also am hoping to get The Metal Pigeon Recommends feature relaunched too (David’s “The Northernmost Killers” episode on Sentenced got me thinking about it because they were last band I covered in that series as well). So yeah, there’s a lot on the agenda hopefully that will become reality soon enough.


Sabaton – The War To End All Wars:

So the first thought that came to my mind way back whenever I first heard that Sabaton was doing yet another World War I themed album was that they were committing a major faux pas… because rarely, and I mean friggin’ rarely does a band continue the same concept for two releases in a row. Even sequels tend to be separated by intervals of time, no matter how detrimental that gap in time can be (ask a Queensryche fan how they feel about Mindcrime II sometime). Sabaton’s reason for doing this is because they felt they simply had too many ideas that they couldn’t fit into The Great War due to the depth and wide reaching breadth of the subject matter at hand, and needed a continuation album. Shrewdly enough, they really did make an effort to tie the two records in together; from having cover artist Péter Sallai utilize nearly the same palette for the artwork, to ensuring similar stylization of the album titles, to even once again offering a narration boosted “history edition” of this album (which is what I’ve been listening to by the way) just like they did for The Great War. But the risk they run here is the unspoken elephant in the room tromping through their fans minds with the echoing message that these songs weren’t good enough to make the first one of these WWI albums, so here they are as leftovers. Hey its a fair enough thought, and I suspect there is a morsel of truth to it as well, but I’ve come to feel after many listens that The War To End All Wars succeeds more often than not and even shows glimpses of the band at their best.

Lets start with the highlights, and of course the first thing anyone should be singling out here is “The Christmas Truce”, which is in the running for being the one of the band’s most spectacular songs ever penned to date, certainly their best “epic”. Gorgeous, tinkling piano snowfall, setting the scene Joakim Broden paints out in some genuinely excellent lyrical diction, set to a melody that at once invokes the sounds of Christmas yet cuts them with an undercurrent of darkness and despair. This is a litmus test song for me, one of those cuts where I might start to side-eye question someone’s musical taste if they can’t even cop to this being a well wrought piece of music. Broden’s vocals dig deep here, full of passion, the kind of performance that required him to throw himself entirely into a different character, and if you’ve seen the incredibly well done music video you might know exactly what I’m alluding to. Another favorite is the grinding, stomping “Soldier Of Heaven”, where the prechorus features that classic Broden hammer drop (“A force of nature too strong, sent from above!”). It’s preceded on the album by the gloriously urgent spiritual cousin to Sabaton classic “Ghost Division” in “Stormtroopers”, not a song about the Empire’s fashionably iconic shock troops but the WWI era German troops of the same name. The Bulgarian Battle of Doiran anthem “Valley of Death” is old school swinging Sabaton action, all glorious triumphant major keys in that chorus and a truly memorable vocal hook. Nothing groundbreaking, but classic Sabaton when its on the mark satisfies that basic heavy metal need to fist pump and sing along. I also wanna point out “Hellfighters” for getting back to the darker, more grind it out sludgefest that The Great War often delved into, something I appreciated for the soundscape it gave to subject matter that needed a hefty dose of it to really give credence to the reality of WWI. The few other tracks I haven’t singled out here do however feel a little like the table scraps from this enormous WWI songwriting session, and they’re not bad songs per say, but their unremarkable nature makes this sequel a little less enthralling than part one.

Hammerfall – Hammer of Dawn:

If you didn’t remember, and you’d be forgiven for not doing so, I really enjoyed the heck out of Hammerfall’s Dominion in the before times back in 2019. Time really flies when you’re heeding the call as Joacim Cans reminds us on the door kicking opener “Brotherhood” (and lets face it, if you’re not heeding the call, why are you reading a Hammerfall review?). Is this classic medieval imagery as a metaphor for Hammerfall concert attendance anthem also hinting at the reality of our collective concert yearning during the pandemic? I normally wouldn’t try to read too much into Hammerfall’s lyrics for obvious reasons but I detect a note of… gratitude, hopefulness, or yearning present in Cans’ words here, and I have to think these songs were written sometime last year when we still didn’t know if shows would be happening in 2022. I last saw Hammerfall in 2018 when they were touring with Flotsam and Jetsam as openers in tow, it was a spectacular time, and they were supposed to be back in fall of 2020 with Beast In Black and Edge of Paradise. I’m incredibly eager to see them return not only for the classic material they’ll be playing, but also because with Hammer of Dawn, they now have two recent albums that I’ve been incredibly fired up about hearing cuts from live.

This is a far more conventional Hammerfall listening experience than Dominion, where the band was not so much experimenting as they were stretching their reach towards more creative songwriting approaches that really worked well. By no means does that make Hammer of Dawn boring though, this is a strong album with relatively few weak moments, but nothing as stellar as “Sweden Rock”, “Chain of Command”, or “Second to One”. The sure fire bangers here are the throwback Renegade-era invoking title track, the cheeky lyrical play of “Too Old to Die Young”, the complex tempo shifting “Reveries”, and the King Diamond assisted “Venerate Me” (although it’s hard to detect the King’s presence at first… maybe they can be knocked for under utilizing him). It’d be easy to think that simply being a Hammerfall fan means you’ll receive each new album fairly well, but that’s not always the case — I’m still not that wild on Infected and (r)Evolution, and there are tangible and intangible aspects I look for when it comes to new material from the group. What they’ve managed to grab ahold of on these past two albums I think is largely an awareness of who they are and what they’re best at tackling on a musical level. I’ve accepted that the raw, melodeath-ian influenced guitar attack they had on the first two albums is likely gone forever, replaced by the post millennium sense of Priest-like precision and the far less dense, looser chugging approach to their riffs. At its core of course, it boils down to the very simple question of whether the songwriting is on point or not, and lately it has been. This is a trend that I hope continues.

Allegaeon – Damnum:

The name Allegaeon has been floating around my metal circle for awhile now, and although I have been introduced and exposed to their past few records via the podcast and just earnest recommendations that have come my way, it’s only on this new album Damnum that I’m really paying attention of my own accord. I’ll have to revisit the others to see if this record is just the beginning of them really landing on something truly inspired, or just the latest entry among a really impressive body of work that I’ve been spacing out on. I have listened to Damnum probably as much as I’ve been listening to any other metal record in the entirety of these past four months of 2022, and it speaks volumes that any record can command that kind of firm, long lasting grip on my attention span these days. And while there’s plenty of bands trying to do to death metal what Allegaeon is succeeding in doing here, namely, reimagining it through a progressive metal filter and embracing melody without turning into a melodic death metal band (a subtle distinction, but certainly a valid one). Their greatest asset in accomplishing this is vocalist Riley McShane, who is capable of some convincingly ferocious growls, fantastically blackened shrieking vox, and a full, almost warm sounding clean vocal tone that he can switch back and forth without warning. It allows the band to be adventurous in their songwriting, to pull some head spinning shifts in tempo and aggression one way or another, and to utilize unconventional rhythms and space as textures and soundscapes for more introspective, moodier moments. Take “Called Home”, which boasts some of the album’s most violent passages, but also has McShane leading us in an emotively sung clean vocal passage over drifting, isolated lead figures and some echoing, off-beat proggy drum fills.

McShane’s clean vocals are at once familiar and also hard to find a direct comparison to, he’s more of an amalgamation of a handful of vocalists you might already know than a doppelganger of one other singer or another. His work towards the end of the impressive album opener “Bastards of the Earth” kinda recalled hints of Haken’s Ross Jennings crossed with Countless Skies’ Phil Romeo (or you know, insert your own point of reference here). Perhaps even more impressive however is his razor sharp enunciation that cuts through in his harsh and growling vocal techniques. Even in uber dense cuts like “Into Embers”, where the band’s more tech death side surfaces, setting aside most melodic indulgences, you can actually discern the lyrics or at least most of the syllabic structure that he’s barking out. I feel like this is an incredibly underrated talent in extreme metal, its one thing for harsh or growling vocals to serve as more of a textural element, we’re all used to that by now. But actually combining that with understandable lyrics is something that can elevate a band’s songwriting, particularly when you have a lyricist with talent at work (Rivers of Nihil should get credit for this as well). Guitarists Greg Burgess and Michael Stancel also deserve mention for their work here, having crafted a wildly diverse tapesty of straightforward yet satisfying tech-death meets tremolo riffs and creative lead breaks and pattern changes. The amount of crazy changeups in a song like “Vermin” was headspinning, yet always felt perfectly timed and never something that was just done because it could be, everything felt of a purpose. This was one of those albums that sat at the crossroads of being familiar enough to be comforting, and yet full of surprises at the same time, a hard place to get to.

Scorpions – Rock Believer:

I’ve had a hard time evaluating this new and possibly final Scoprions album. When I’m actively listening to it I find that its a suitably rockin’ experience for the most part, there are certainly no glaring flaws to be heard. Yet unlike 2010’s now seemingly very strong Sting In the Tail, there aren’t that many moments that are lingering in my mind afterwards (something that characterized damn near all of 2015’s Return to Forever). And you know, I get that maybe expecting too much from a Scorpions record at this stage in their career is a bit rich, that I should just be happy to accept any new music from the legends (and I am). But here’s the thing: Klaus and company got my hopes up with this cover art many months back. It screamed a purposeful throwback to perhaps a late 70s/early 80s sound and spirit, and in somewhere in the very naïve portion of my mind I was hopeful that there could even be a reach back into the band’s more psychedelia infused days with Uli Jon Roth. Of course when I finally got to hear the album in full, it immediately dawned on me that an important aspect of achieving that wish would be, you know, Uli Jon Roth being in the lineup… so shifting back to the more realistic hope of an 80s throwback sound, how well did the Scorpions live up to this kinda sorta promise? Actually they did alright, Rock Believer has a distinctly older school feel that’s built on the band’s fundamental building blocks of straight ahead hard rocking riffs, and Klaus spitting out verses with more attitude filled swagger than he’s done in ages. Of course its still got the sheen of modern production on it, despite the deliberate attempt to conjure up an analog warmth (I could be wrong about this of course but I think at this point I’d be able to suss out a true analog record).

Okay I’m rambling. Here’s what rocked me on this record, first thing to mention being the title track itself, a song that is musically a bridge between modern Scorpions more mellower bent crossed with some Savage Amusement era style riffs and cowbell. If you haven’t seen the music video for this song, you owe it to yourself to check it out because the song is solid enough on it’s own as a slice of bittersweet nostalgia, but the visual dichotomy of the Scorp’s rocking out today intercut with classic footage of their previous eras elevates the entire thing to something that’s truly poignant and kinda hit me right in the emotional gut. It’s followed on the album by the classic 80s “Holiday” vibes invoking “Shining Of Your Soul”, Klaus’ vocals here incredibly emotive and that minor key dip on the prechorus just devastatingly effective at recreating a very specific sound that rings of classic Scorpions. I also love the wildly fast paced rocker “When I Lay My Bones To Rest”, Rudolf Schenker and Mathias Jabs trading off attitude spitting riffs like they’re Slash and Izzy. Klaus sounds in his element there as much as he does on the gorgeous melancholic power ballad “When You Know (Where You Come From)”, which reminds me of previous soul searching balladry classics such as “Send Me An Angel” or more recently, “Lorelei”. And of course “Peacemaker” and “Seventh Son” were absolute jams, culling from that tap of old school spirit that informs so much of this album. I’m realizing now that I’ve coincidentally picked all of the official singles as my favorite cuts from the album, which wasn’t intentional really, but perhaps telling. The rest of the album is decent to good, there’s some weird stuff on here such as the few songs relegated to the “bonus disc” (like the odd but kinda likable “When Tomorrow Comes”) which I’d agree to being wisely left off the main album tracklisting… but really a solid outing by the Scorpions in delivering as good of a throwback record they could muster for a possible final sting. My wish is that they actually would tap Uli to cowrite for another album that revisits their classic psychedelia 70s era, but maybe that’s asking a lot of a band in their 70s. I’m happy they didn’t end things with Return To Forever, this is a worthy swan song if it is indeed that.

Ghost – IMPERA:

I don’t believe I’ve ever reviewed a Ghost record before, and I figured I never would because there’s likely enough written out there about this band and rightly so. They’re a big deal like it or not, and generally speaking, I’m in favor of bands with loud guitars and riffs getting to arena levels because it’s good for the entire metal/hard rock ecosystem. We have talked about Ghost on the podcast before and I did make mention of how I enjoyed their turn towards Scorpions-esque 80s hard rock on 2018’s Prequelle, with “Dance Macabre” being the most convincing Klaus Meine impression anyone’s ever delivered this side of the Rhine (I don’t know what that means it just feels right to say it). Despite that however, I’ve been fairly ambivalent about their music itself, finding it enjoyable enough in the moment (I even thought they were pretty solid live opening for Maiden) but never really having an urge to seek it out on my own all that often. That might change with IMPERA however, because I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this record as a whole. The draw here is that Tobias Forge is sticking with further exploring the hard rock avenue he was careening onto on the last album, and its continuing to yield inspiring results. There’s Night Flight Orchestra esque late 70s/early 80s vibes happening on “Spillways” with as smartly crafted a pre-chorus/chorus combo as Forge has ever penned. Equally as compelling is “Call Me Little Sunshine” with its call back to the doomier tempos of their early career albums sans the Blue Oyster Cult sound.

What I really enjoy about Forge as both a songwriter and a vocalist is his indulgence of lush, layered vocal harmony, be it his own vocals multitracked again and again or better still, via backing vocals from some of the nameless ghouls that make up the rest of the lineup (at some point, it would be great to know who he’s playing with). There’s a choir being used on the gorgeously dramatic “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love” to glorious effect, at one point taking over lead vocals for Forge towards the end of the song in a bittersweet finale. And its worth mentioning that the album closer is the closest thing Ghost has come to an “epic” and its really, really well constructed, mini-hooks abound and the major refrain is vintage Forge with an emotive vocal melody. I even dug the harder, more aggressive cuts here (they were outnumbered for sure by midtempo and slower songs) such as “Hunter’s Moon” and “Watcher In The Sky” with their metallic bite and even the truly bizarre “Twenties” was hooky in its own quirky and comedic way. Metal, hard rock or whatever you wanna label it, IMPERA really is one of the strongest albums of the year, and I’m okay with admitting that.

Dark Days: New music from Amorphis, Battle Beast, and more!

As I’m writing this, the new Scorpions record has dropped today and sounds like something plucked from the early 80s, and in the news Russia is being a belligerent antagonist on the world stage yet again. If I wasn’t lucid, I could be deceived that we were traveling backwards in time for better or worse. Dark times aside, that Scorpions record is certainly something I’m going to be diving into on the blog very soon, but before I do, I ought to clear the decks of everything I’ve been listening to metal-wise for the past month and a half. I took some time in January to investigate records I’d missed in 2021, but have spent the rest of the time since digging into the flurry of new music these first two months have yielded. Part one of this coverage was done on the recent episode of MSRcast, and I’ll be talking with Cary on our next episode about our having just seen Bruce Dickinson’s An Evening With spoken word show here in our backyard of Stafford, Texas the other night. Covered below is everything else I didn’t really get to on the podcast, but be sure to let me know in the comments section if there’s something I’ve egregiously overlooked new music wise.


Amorphis – Halo:

There are many people who loved the last Amorphis album Queen of Time, I was not one of them. I didn’t exactly hate it, because it had some spectacular moments (the Anneke van Giersbergen duet “Amongst Stars” for one), but it was a let down for me after Under The Red Cloud and before that, Circle and The Beginning of Times. The thing that was frustrating about it was that it was hard to pin down what exactly felt off to me about it. I wondered if it wasn’t that there was an imbalance in the band’s melodic and aggressive sides, something leaning too much in one direction or another, but that didn’t make sense because Red Cloud was indeed their most melodic leaning album to date and I thought that was a masterpiece. Pushing past uncertainty, I’d say I’ve found more to enjoy here, but only slightly more — it doesn’t have a singular cut as spectacular as Queen of Time’s aforementioned glorious duet, but Halo’s heavier moments ring more convincing to me. Album opener “Northwards” has a crushing, intense attack built on a hypnotically rhythmic riff sequence, with Tomi Joutsen’s guttural narration pushing the way forward. The little bit of 70s Hammond organ shimmying in the middle like some long lost Deep Purple cut works really well as a dynamic shift in tone, especially with keeping it fairly uncomplicated and simple and not spiraling off into frenzied weirdness like so much recent Opeth. The multi-faceted “The Wolf” is a satisfying blast of brutality juxtaposed with some cosmic spaciness that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Slightly mellower but very much vintage Amorphis, the title track is an achingly beautiful Esa Holopainen lead melody draping across a frenetic assault underneath, Joutsen taking a more serenely mournful approach on vocals rather than one of angst and fury. I also thought “On the Dark Waters” had a compulsive quality to its rhythmic strut and a really sweetly dark chorus melody that worked with Joutsen’s vocal tone in that really inimitable way that only Amorphis could pull off (also dig the sitar-ish melodies in that mid-song bridge sequence).

And while “The Moon” isn’t as compelling as some of their previous singles, it’s still got that mid-tempo Amorpi-groove on lock and there’s a dramatic build up to a chorus that is good in the moment, if not ultimately memorable. But that song hints at the more concerning deficiencies that are noticeable on songs like “When the Gods Came” and “Seven Roads Come Together”, where there are good elements in place in the buildup to what should be a fantastic refrain, only for everything to either fail to launch or unravel entirely. Take the former, this album’s “Wrong Direction” in that it’s chorus vocal melody comes off as so misdirected that it brings the whole song down with it. The offending line is Joutsen singing “…they taught us how to live our lives”… a line that just hangs there without any musical support, not to mention as a melodic idea it feels incomplete or just incorrect as is. Regarding “Seven Roads…”, it’s one of those moments where I really love everything about the song except that refrain, and I’m sorry, but when you’re escalating tempos alongside some tension building orchestration, I need that refrain to pay off hard. This might be the most aggravating moment on an album that has it’s fair share of frustrating ones, because this song could’ve been the highlight on Halo but it falls short in it’s most critical moment. And then there’s other tunes that are you know, just there, such as “A New Land”, “Windmane”, and “War” which I honestly can’t remember after I’m done listening to them. Sometimes I get the feeling that Amorphis has found itself in a bit of a cycle where they’re trying too hard to sound like modern day Amorphis, shoehorning in clean vocal choruses or verses where maybe a song would be better served by just leaning harder full tilt in a more aggressive direction. In summation, at least it’s a step above Queen of Time, but not much of one, and that’s slightly concerning and I’m left a little underwhelmed still.

Battle Beast – Circus of Doom:

Battle Beast’s sixth album, Circus of Doom, is an interesting case study in a band mid-career stumble onto something genuinely inspired. I say it’s interesting because its really not that different from their past two albums on a stylistic level, but there is an almost imperceptible shift happening with these songs. Their last album was met with some scathing criticism for the band’s perceived stepping over the line between hooky pop-metal and just egregious, commercial pop. Now I actually enjoyed some of that record, but I do recognize where some of those criticisms might be coming from, and seemingly so does the band. As if realizing they hit the limits of where they could go with that aspect of their sound, they’ve retreated just a bit here, but not to the Priest-ian roots of their early albums. Instead on songs here such as “Eye of the Storm”, “Wings of Light”, “Master of Illusion”, and “Armageddon”, the band shifts their pop direction away from the Roxette-ian Swedish-tinged merger with 80s American hard rock of No More Hollywood Endings and leans hard into late era Abba (think the dark melodrama of the Swedes Super Trouper and The Visitors eras… full on Swedish then). It’s an incredibly shrewd move, and that ABBA influence allows the band to stay affixed to a poppy songwriting approach while painting in darker colors that accentuate Noora Louhimo’s incredibly emotive, raspy vocals. You really hear how this combination is maximized on “Where Angels Fear to Fly”, where we get an almost regal, Savatage-ian chorus that at first seems to stand apart from the tempered hard rock strut of the verses, but which Louhimo is able to merge together towards the end of the song with her vocals alone. It sounds like the band has realized that the best way to go about finding their sound is to simply elevate her ability to sound damn fantastic. Her voice is tailor made for this hard rockin/late era ABBA crossroads, and they’d do well to stay in this pocket for future albums. Honestly, the band has never sounded better.

Planeswalker: Sozos Michael & Jason Ashcraft – Tales of Magic:

In the depths of power metal fan communities, this was a much anticipated album despite its lower profile, independent release. Jason Ashcraft is of course the guitarist and founder of Helion Prime, one of the more well known leading lights of North American power metal in the past few years and Sozos Michael is an excellent melodic vocalist from Greece who you might recognize because he sang on Helion’s second album after Heather Michele Smith’s departure in 2016. You might remember that I didn’t think 2021 was all that stellar of a power metal year (a largely pervasive sentiment it seems), but it looks like this year is getting an early start on rectifying that deficiency with this and other recent debuts (Power Paladin, and even a full length Fellowship album due sometime soon). Simply put, Planeswalker’s Tales of Magic is maybe the most satisfying classic Euro-power metal release in the past twelve months and perhaps longer. Clocking in at a tidy six tracks and forty-two minutes of original music (minus a punchy cover of Kiss’ “A Million To One” at the end as a bonus), Ashcraft and Sozos have crafted a superb record of anthemic, triumphant Euro-power with some North American trad-metal influences heard in the riff sequences here and there (see the surprisingly death metal tinged riffage at the 1:40 mark of “Oath of the Gatewatch”). Ashcraft is a talented songwriter in terms of putting together a framework of melodic yet aggressive riffing and some really dizzying, glorious solos, but it’s been proven that he shines brightest when paired with a vocalist who understands how to develop their own vocal melodies. That’s not a knock on Ashcraft by the way, it’s certainly the way things worked with Thomas Youngblood and Roy Khan and with Ashcraft’s own prior experiences with Heather Michele Smith. This sounds like a true collaboration, with Sozos and Ashcraft sometimes joining together on a shared melody (“Tales of Magic”, “The Spark”), or at times Sozos doing the piloting alone as on the theatrical stage play of “Shadow of Emeria”. The two killer cuts here are the back to back daggers of “Blackblade” and “The Forever Serpent”, two songs that had me glory clawing in the car down the freeway. Ashcraft’s layered lead melody in “Blackblade” is inspiring in a euphoric, head rush kind of way, particularly when he lets it ring and repeat to close out the song. And “The Forever Serpent” is just a beast of a song, one of those instant power metal classics that exemplify the potential of power metal to inspire and make you feel genuinely happy for a few minutes. Consider this the year’s first (and hopefully not last) must listen, can’t skip power metal classic.

Nocturna – Daughters of the Night:

If you listened to the last MSRcast, you’ll hear the moment when I realize during the recording that Nocturna is yet another project of Italian power metal wunderkind Federico Mondelli (Frozen Crown, Volturian, etc). I don’t know the motivation for this new project, but it’s not too far off from what he’s doing with his wife Giada Etro in Frozen Crown, albeit with a more symphonic, darker themed approach with two lead vocalists in Rehn Stillnight and Grace Darkling. These two women both have relatively similar melodic singing tones, an unusual approach for any band to take, They both seem to veer between a classically informed approach ala Dianne Van Giersbergen and relatively straightforward melodic vocals, but together in tandem it creates an approach that is actually somewhat refreshing in comparison to the standard beauty and the beast vocal duo tropes found in the genre. Some of these songs are pretty darn good in their own right, with Mondelli seemingly having saved his best riffs for this project (the last Frozen Crown record left a lot to be desired). The clear example of this is “Daughters Of The Night”, which sees some furious riffing bookending a truly gorgeous layered vocal duet during the refrain. Similarly on “Blood of Heaven” Mondelli serves up a thrashy bed of power metal guitars that is a fantastic push against Stillnight and Darkling’s combined melodic vocals, which aren’t sugary, but certainly are lush and full. As a songwriter, Mondelli feels far more in his element here than in Frozen Crown where it seems like he’s still trying to figure out how all the pieces are supposed to fit together. And maybe it’s the singular focus on vocal melodies that does the trick, as on “Darkest Days”, which sounds worryingly glittering and fragile until the chorus sees both singers pulling the song together with an incredibly tight, nimbly delivered vocal melody. There’s something fresh and (using the F-word here) fun, about this album. It’s dual vocal approach is unique within the genre, even in comparison to other clean vocal groups like Temperance. Hoping we get another record and that this isn’t just a one-off.

Dawn of Solace – Flames Of Perdition:

The irony of this album being covered in the same article as the Amorphis review is that Flames of Perdition is solely responsible for why I’m late in publishing this damn thing. I spent so much time listening to this record that repeat listens of the new Amorphis kept getting pushed to the backburner, because when it comes to dark, slightly depressive melodic metal this was where I was turning to these past few weeks. Dawn of Solace if you didn’t already know is yet another project of Wolfheart guitarist/vocalist Tuomas Saukkonen, pairing himself here with a gifted Finnish singer named Mikko Heikkilä (who sang in Saukkonen’s now defunct Black Sun Aeon) who sounds like a less nasally Tuomas Tuominen (of The Man-Eating Tree, another um, Finnish band). Contrary to his more brutal side shown in Wolfheart, Dawn Of Solace really sees Saukkonen exploring more groove based, clean vocal territory, stepping away from the mic for the most part (he provides some growls) to let Heikkilä steer these songs with some really incredible vocal performances. There’s a desperation to his vocal approach that feels understated and worn in, and it matches the relatively straightforward riff based mid-tempo rhythm work that Saukkonen builds these songs around. His songwriting often mixes in crisp acoustic guitars as melodic guiderails with Sentenced-esque melodic doom laden riffs piled underneath like wood for a bonfire. The album opener “White Noise” illustrates this combination’s simple but elegant effectiveness, allowing Heikkilä the space to take the reins with vocal melodies that are expressive and tell a story. My favorite moment on the record might be the title track itself, a piano dirge intro that softly shakes out into a darkly comforting acoustic ballad. Saukkonen lets this gorgeousness unfold while utilizing silence in scattered pulses, only to hit you with a sudden burst of cinematic noise around the two minute mark in a dramatic flourish. The push and pull tension in this song and in others such as “Black Shores” is at times unsettling and disquieting, but always compelling to experience. I think this album has a meditative quality to it that gives it an emotional resonance that I’ve been longing for in a metal record for awhile now. Get this in your headphones before the cold weather drifts away.

Magnum – The Monster Roars:

This one almost snuck by me, arriving with little advance fanfare or media buzz which isn’t exactly surprising given Magnum’s veteran status and their almost non-existence on this side of the Atlantic as a known quantity. It’s a bummer because classic rock fans would really love what the band has been doing lately, their last two albums being in particular fantastic examples of a late career artistic renaissance (The Serpent Rings was a 2020 album of the year listee). That record in particular was everything I could have wanted out of a Magnum record, an Avantasia influenced, power metal invoking classic that was built on sweeping melodies, some incredibly passionate performances from vocalist Bob Catley and a sense of grandeur that reminded me of On A Storytellers Night on steroids. I suppose it was inevitable then that The Monster Roars would be a bit of a letdown as a follow-up, although there are certainly moments here that remind me of what they were capable of on the last two records. I think the problem with The Monster Roars as it pertains to what I want are that the band has slightly shifted their approach to a more rootsy hard rockin’ feel rather than the dramatic and epic bombast heard on those records. Lead single “I Won’t Let You Down” is a vivid example of this, a song that is caught between a escalating keyboard arrangement that seems to want to take things to new heights, only to see the song retreat to a slower, somewhat meandering guitar pattern in a jarring shift. Other songs in this laid back mode just never seem to take off, like “Can’t Buy Yourself A Heaven”, where the chorus feels almost underdeveloped. Songs like “The Day After the Night Before” have some cool passages, only for their momentum to be halted with a sudden turn into a blander, less exciting area. Frustrating might be too harsh a criticism, but unsatisfying certainly describes my feelings on most of these songs. I’ll give credit to “Remember” though for being an absolute Magnum classic, the playful piano buildup, the tambourine adorned chorus with an awesome driving riff and Catley magic. I also enjoyed the Savatage vibe of “All You Believe In”, and the rare instance of an accompanying horn section in “No Steppin’ Stones” is a blast (seriously a cool throwback to something that is unmistakably out of fashion but I still kinda love). Other Magnum fans might really love this album, but the monster wasn’t roaring for me I guess.

What Metal Can Learn From K-Pop

So before I start writing about all the new music 2022 has already thrown at us so far (definitely the opposite of last January), I wanted to think out loud for a bit on some stuff that’s been on my mind for the past few months now. Namely, what I think metal as a genre and an industry could and should be doing better. During my foray into beginning to explore K-Pop last year, I got to learn about more than just new music, I got to understand how the Korean music industry has simultaneously structured itself around both digital streaming and physical music sales in a way that prioritizes both and yields tangible results. And of course, a reality check first. Metal bands and labels likely don’t have the budgets that some of these K-Pop companies have, but not all K-Pop companies have major label budgets, some of them are mid-sized companies, and some are fledgling startups. Yet all these companies seem to understand how to generate interest, build it, and capitalize on momentum, something that I’ve long lamented that metal bands and labels absolutely suck at. Here’s a few things I think metal could learn from K-Pop:


Smaller promotional windows generate more interest.

Metal bands of all stripes tend to do the following: Release a track or lyric video (more on that below) or music video months and months ahead of time, maybe another single or two down the line, and then finally, the album is released. The amount of time varies of course, it can range from a few months to a half a year, but of course the album’s initial announcement is usually released well ahead of any promotional single, at times up to eight months out or longer. I’ll pick on one of my favorite bands a little bit here… check out the November 5th, 2021 announcement date for the December 3rd, 2021 release date of the “Deliver Us From Evil” single, which itself is coming out over half a year ahead of the September 2022 release date for the upcoming untitled album. The band is citing delays in vinyl manufacturing for the reason for such a lengthy gap between the single and the album. That’s an extreme example of course, so consider this December 1st album announcement/MV release for Hammerfall for an album coming out at the end of February. A little better I suppose, but still, a single release three whole months out from the actual release of the album is rather far out… too far out to sustain any excitement over that considerable period of time. Do you remember what that December 1st Hammerfall single sounded like (no durr… sounds like Hammerfall jokes plz, they’re funny but now’s not the time!)?

Some of these manufacturing derived lead times are so lengthy, that even I forget that a single has been released or that an announcement was made, particularly with so many releases to consider and so much other noise on the media landscape (and I’m actively trying to pay attention!). And as the Blind Guardian example suggests, the vinyl manufacturing situation has continually gotten more and more precarious, delays caused by an ever mounting queue of orders for new releases, re-releases, Adele, record store day special editions, more new releases… etc, you get the picture. To fill in the details here, I’ll link this fantastic, illuminating article written by Eric Grubbs on the reasons for the vinyl delays (really worth the time, it’s a short read too). So lets assume that the lengthy gap between the announcement of a pre-order date along with the release of a single/MV and the eventual release of the full length album is largely due to approximating the lengthy lead time required for vinyl orders to be fulfilled. Labels/bands stick to this process because they ideally want to time both the digital and physical releases to hit the market at the same time. I’m arguing that I don’t think such a long lead time is necessary to ensure strong physical product sales. A considerable subset of metal fans are loyal physical product buyers, and would snap up a pre-order for a well made vinyl whenever it went live. And yes that includes a potential vinyl release after the digital album has already hit the streaming services. You might notice I’m not even mentioning CDs yet — hold on a sec, I’m getting to those.

In K-Pop, the announcement-to-release cycle is incredibly tiny in comparison, and specifically designed that way on purpose. Companies will usually time the announcement of an upcoming release with an eye to deliver said release within a few weeks. Take the recent January release of the new solo album by Mamamoo vocalist Wheein. The company releasing the album, The L1VE, made the announcement for her new album Whee on December 24th, 2021, and as you can see to the left, they provided an image for fans which detailed all the specifics of the promotional campaign leading up the album’s release on January 16th, 6pm KST. This promotion schedule release image is standard operating procedure in the K-Pop industry. Everyone from the biggest groups like Twice or Itzy or Stray Kids to singers from groups releasing solo albums like Wheein see their releases launched with similar images, and more importantly, with a similarly compressed window of time in mind. Twenty three days was the gap between the announcement of Wheein’s album and it’s actual release. If you glance over the dates listed in that image, you’ll see a gradual build up of things for fans to look forward to… the pre-order date to start, the track list on another day, music video trailers, and concept photos on other days, all leading up to an album spanning medley and full artwork reveal right up until the big moment, release day, where the unveiling of the album is typically accompanied by the release of the lead single’s music video as well. Granted K-Pop fans can be rabid, but this very precise but controlled release of information leading to the moment of release inspires a frenzy of tweeting, retweeting, discussion on reddit and VLive (a K-Pop based social media app/site). The hype that is generated is real and it’s designed that way on purpose, these little tidbits of released information, almost on a daily to near daily basis can yield impressive sales and streaming numbers for artists. Wheein’s album just debuted at number four on the Gaon album chart in Korea, not a bad swing for a solo record in a super competitive, uber crowded market.

Now I’m not suggesting that metal needs to co-opt this idea and run with every single detail, but taking the vinyl pre-orders out of the promotional release build up equation would go a long way towards generating hype for fanbases of bands. It’s a noisy world, you know this, I know this. There’s a lot of stuff being released that we’re all having to attempt to keep track of — TV shows, music, gigs, all in addition to the daily grind of work, bills, food, and sleep. And again, this is coming from a guy who writes a metal oriented music blog, I’m shouting as loud as I politely can: Make it easier to be a fan! Trim down the release schedule for metal albums from announcement to release. I don’t need to hear about a damn album being released six months from now. Tell me a month to a month and a half out for god sake. Two tops! Maybe consider timing the release of the single/MV closer to the actual release of the album, so the song will still be lingering in my mind and have me genuinely excited about a nigh-impending album just around the corner, not something that might someday be eventually released many months from now when I’ve long forgotten said single and lost whatever lingering excitement it was able to generate. And hell maybe take a page out of the K-Pop playbook and try out a schedule release image strategy along with it’s gradual rollout — teasers for the MV, a full artwork unveiling… don’t just dump all the info out at once months and months ahead of time, try to generate some actual hype and anticipation. And most importantly, build album release windows with a CD preorder and digital/streaming release in mind first — and allow the vinyl to lag behind if necessary (which apparently will likely be the case for awhile). This brings me to the following point:

Stop releasing CDs in jewel cases. They suck. Music isn’t software. Digibooks are also boring. Do better.

I abandoned the idea of buying music in jewel cases years ago when I realized that what I was getting out of these costly purchases wasn’t worth the money I was shelling out. Even during my halcyon days of collecting all kinds of music on CD including metal, I lamented the lack of anything remotely interesting going on in the presentation. A tiny booklet with some relatively uninteresting artwork, a few band photographs, and miniscule print wasn’t something that I was pleased with as a collector. When I stopped, part of the reason was that digital music was so much more convenient, but also that metal bands rarely offered releases that were presented in an interesting way. A jewel case release looks like software, in fact I’ve bought CDs before whose “booklet” was nothing more than a two page insert, mirroring the discount software you’d find in jewel cases in the bargain bin at a CompUSA way back in the day. The last metal album I bought on CD was Maiden’s Senjutsu in it’s “deluxe” edition, essentially a gatefold digipak, the cheap cardboardy kind with the inlet CD trays. The artwork in the booklet was of course, CD booklet sized… and as such, relatively difficult to discern details and leave a lasting impression. This was one of metal’s premiere artists releasing a new album, and I bought it out of fan loyalty and an urge to throw some support their way, but I felt tepid about the physical product I was holding in my hands and haven’t looked at it since. For a genre of music that prides itself on it’s fans supporting physical releases and supporting the bands, why the hell do we get such uninspired physical product?

A few months prior to that, when I was just getting into K-Pop, I found a little store tucked in the front corner of a Korean grocery that sold K-Pop albums and bought my first one (Mamamoo’s WAW). I wasn’t sure why at the time, but in retrospect I realized that I missed the fun of buying physical music and these K-Pop releases were visually beautiful, with thoughtfully designed packaging that wasn’t jewel case shaped and offered more than just a flimsy booklet inside. Most K-Pop releases are lavishly packaged (check out the vid below), with photobooks and photocards on high quality paper, with often unusually oblong physical dimensions that result in something that looks fantastic displayed on a shelf. My physical K-Pop collection has grown to seventeen releases to date, all of them wildly unique from group to group, even within a group’s own discography, the variance can be shocking. Eye on Design’s Tassia Assis wrote up this really excellent feature on K-Pop packaging and why that industry puts an emphasis on delivering quality products to fans, and how sales of CDs are skyrocketing there when they’re heading towards the gutter over here in the west. As the mode of listening to music shifts ever more to domination by streaming services, there is still a place for CDs in the physical release market for metal music. They’re cheap to press by themselves, an economical choice for bands offering a t-shirt/album bundle, and not subject to the aforementioned vinyl manufacturing backlog. But I’ll be brutally honest, as someone who used to have a physical jewel case music collection that numbered well over a thousand albums, I feel no urge to buy metal albums on disc at the moment. That needs to change.

Give me and many other metal fans who quietly feel like me a reason to pull out a fistful of cash like Fry shouting “shut up and take my money”. Metal of all stripes desperately needs a K-Pop like reinvention of the physical CD format, particularly in mirroring the way some of these K-Pop artists use their physical album presentations to express storytelling elements or conceptual themes (there’s a lot of that in the genre, I was surprised too). And I know what you’re thinking right now — the budgets in metal just aren’t there. I’ll concede that they aren’t in the realm of your typical K-Pop company, but I see metal bands wasting money on printing standard jewel case editions or slightly less boring digipaks or gatefolds or the worst offender of them all, the dreaded slipcase around a standard jewel case edition. Enough everyone. Stop wasting financial resources on these utterly forgettable products, and work with a product designer to create a truly unique physical CD product that is lavishly packaged, and filled with interesting items (metal bands need not copy K-Pop groups here, you don’t have to deliver photobooks… the possibilities are wide open). The production costs of such an item would likely necessitate a smaller print run of these at a higher price, but all the better. Metal fans are loyal. And if you reward that loyalty by offering them something that smacks of quality, they’ll gladly purchase it not only in the earnest effort to show support, but also because its something they genuinely feel an urge to own. Amongst all my metalhead friends, I can honestly only name one who still buys metal CDs on the regular. That’s a problem.

Metal bands need to rethink their approach to music videos, and abandon lyric videos.

This isn’t so much inspired by K-Pop as it is by simply watching the music video output of most metal bands. It might be highlighted by my observing the juxtaposition in quality that K-Pop offers on the music video front, where a well thought out concept and execution on the MV front is crucial to the success of a comeback (ie a release). No one wants metal bands to take out personal loans to film MVs, but there’s got to be a better way to go than releasing some of the dreck that’s being shelled out lately. One of the recurring topics of discussion on MSRcast episodes is us poking fun at some terrible metal music video we’d watched before or during our recording session, and it’s made me start thinking about doing a feature here highlighting actual good music videos within the genre (because lets face it, they’re few and far between). The reality that a lot of bands are facing is a lack of touring income over the past two years, which has only just begun to pick up again in the latter half of 2021. So with my appeal to bands above to consider making better physical product, I’d throw out a secondary appeal to them as well — stop wasting money on terrible music videos. If you have a genuinely great idea and can pull it off with what will likely be a small budget, then go for it. But the band playing in a darkened, wet-floor warehouse is just played out. The soundstage/greenscreen setup with low budget CGI is also tired. There’s nothing exciting about seeing a metal band playing on a make believe battlefield. Call me a curmudgeon. You know I’m right.

Labels would argue that you need to have a visual representation of your music, and YouTube is a easy outlet to utilize for promotional reasons. I understand that, but not every release needs to come with a music video that would turn off newcomers and make your existing fans cringe or just tab out to hear the song in the background without the visual distraction. The less expensive option that metal bands still seem insistent on utilizing is the lyric video, a widely reviled format that is as embarrassing as it is aggravating. In the metal realm, I’ve seen maybe one that was actually well executed, but that was by Katatonia, a band whose dark tone and melancholic feel lend themselves to some nicely thought out lyrics. With all due respect to Brothers of Metal (a band I like), “Prophecy of Ragnarök” doesn’t need a lyric video. There’s nothing lacking in a band’s single release being a simple image of the cover art to go with the audio. And if bands really feel the need to crank out a video, either go all in on a visually engaging concept with the most amount of money you can spend (on the big budget front, Sabaton did an excellent job with their recent MV for “Christmas Truce”…released five months ahead of the album proper of course), or really think about how you can get the most out a lower budget. That means largely avoiding CGI which you know will look tacky, and instead being true to the who the band is, and maybe showcasing a little personality beyond “grrr we’re tough”. I’ll point to Red Fang as a band who delivers consistently entertaining MVs on a very limited budget (check out “Wires” below for proof), but they utilize their low budget approach in such a creative way where their personalities come through the screen. It’s time to stop throwing a couple grand at MV studios who deliver mediocre results, and really think up some truly fresh ideas or at the very least, use that couple grand MV budget in a smarter, less predictable way.


Okay I’ll end it here. It felt good to get some of this off my chest, even if no one in a position to affect any change in regards to my ideas ever reads this. Sometimes I have this stuff gurgling around in my head for ages and it’s something I bring up in conversation again and again in person with friends who are no doubt sick of it — so it’s better that I spill it out in these beginning of the year thought pieces. I think we all know metal bands have had to weather the financial impact of the pandemic in a more blunt way than say a typical K-Pop group would (though I’d be remiss not to point out that even that industry is hurting due to the lack of live shows). I know many metal fans who would agree with some or most of what I’ve written above, and I think listening to this kind of feedback would benefit a lot of bands and labels in terms of better allocating financial resources, giving fans better quality releases and content, and ultimately increasing physical album sales in a genre where artists really benefit from it. Let me know if you agree or disagree below.

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