A Breezy 2024 Mid-Year Catch Up

I’ve never done mid-year in review features before, but seeing as how we’re in year two of this blog mostly eschewing the reviews treadmill, and thus not actually getting to talk much about new music here (I tend to save it for the podcast), I figure it would be a good way to cast a wide eye on the past handful of months since 2024 began. I’m going to do this in as rapid fire a manner as I possibly can, though with a sharp ruler hitting my hand to avoid this becoming a massive reviews cluster type thing that I can frequently allow myself to fall into. Instead I figure this time I’d discuss in chunks the stuff that impressed me, the stuff that didn’t move me much one way or another, and finally the stuff that disappointed me.

I also want to take a moment to mention that I caught Blind Guardian on the Austin stop of their now finished North American tour back on April 26th, after a long, what… near six year drought since seeing them last! It was my fifth time seeing the bards and easily their best performance of them all. I’ve had some pretty rough luck with their tour stops in the past — first the whole 2002 tour cancellation of the Houston date which… makes me too sad to write about, then a couple times Hansi (captured in all his glory by me in the pic here) was sick and had to power through as best as he could vocally, and a few other times the mix wasn’t quite right due to the chosen venue (the old Warehouse Live in Houston) always being an absolute tin can for acoustics. This show was at Emo’s East in Southeast Austin, and shout out to the venue for delivering killer sound (kudos to Blind Guardian’s sound guy as well). Hansi was perfect in the mix, he also sounded the best I’ve ever heard him live, just ferocious and full of energy, and I heard every single note that Andre played to utter perfection. They busted out “Ashes to Ashes” live which was likely on my top five list of songs I’d never imagine the band would ever play, and damn do the songs off the The God Machine sound really excellent live (I gave the entire album a thorough listening the week before the show and came away feeling far more favorably about it than I did back in 2022).

It had been a minute since I’d been to a show, and I dunno, maybe seeing bands like Seven Spires and Helloween in the past couple years has spoiled me, but I really just crave seeing bands that I have a genuine emotional investment in (as opposed to just going to shows to go to shows). Seeing shows like those and Blind Guardian just shakes off the cynicism and jadedness and I feel real enthusiasm — those have always been the shows I’ve remembered the most. I don’t think this means that I won’t go casually check out a good bill just for the hell of it anymore, but I just long for more live experiences like this past one in Austin, because the older you get, the fewer and far between they seem to occur.

Anyway, onto our new music talk, I’ll try to keep this as breezy as possible for both your benefit and mine, here we go:


New stuff that impressed me:

So straightaway on the power metal front, there’s been a handful of big names with new albums out these past few months, but none have stuck with me the way that Opera Magna have with their newest Heroica. I vaguely remember this band from maybe over a decade ago when they were splashing around making waves as the second coming of Elisa Martin era Dark Moor. Their sound has morphed and developed in the intervening years into something that actually has more in common with Alfred Romero era Dark Moor and other influences such as Rhapsody of Fire and Angra. As with Sacred Outcry’s exceptional work these past few years, Opera Magna are a band that crafts power metal without wry ironic humor and self-deprecating pretense. Lots of tasteful symphonic arrangements that aren’t syrupy, with enough complexity in the songwriting to satisfy — but nothing that distracts from the effectiveness of a fantastic vocal melody (cue up “Volver” for a great example of this).

And though I’ve mentioned this on the podcast recently, I want to mention Myrath’s Karma here, because it’s maybe the best front to finish album they’ve ever made. They seem to really have nailed down where to emphasize their songwriting, that being with a focus towards their rhythmic strengths and Zaher Zorgati’s powerful vocal ability. They were clever on this album in avoiding trying to be overly heavy (unlike their last album where it sometimes seemed like they felt the need to prove themselves as a metal band), something which I don’t think is their strength anyway. There was an increased emphasis on bringing their middle eastern sound to the forefront as well, particularly with the rhythm section in conjunction with Arabic strings. Look, fans of their older, more Symphony X adjacent sound will likely hate the direction they’re heading in, but this poppy hard rock infused folk metal is the sweet spot for Myrath, and I’m glad they’ve finally landed on it dead center.

Gotta heap praise upon Dialith’s new EP Alter as well, who were in 2019 if you recall, my album of the year list toppers with their still incredible Extinction Six. It’s tempting to pair this with 2021’s Atrophy EP and call both of them together the second Dialith album, but the three year gap there bothers me. I’m not sure whether or not the band’s plan is to keep sticking with the EP route (certainly a fine and understandable thing), but I won’t mind as long as they’re all as genuinely excellent as this one is. Krista Sion’s distinctive tone and delivery is so damn affecting to me, and Alasdair Mackie is still sticking with that melodeath guitar tone that’s so fantastic in a symphonic metal context. The combination of these two is so masterful that I didn’t even flinch at the saxophone weaving through the background of “Ironbound” (seriously maybe the best ever use of that confounded instrument I’ve ever heard in a metal context). My only gripe with the EP format here is that these are short EPs, I’ve heard K-Pop albums longer than this… so just as “Shadowdancer” has me banging my head, its all over and I’m longing for more new music. I can only hope more is just around the corner, nevertheless, do not sleep on this one.

On the extreme metal front, I have to thank Harsh Vocals for recommending Dödsrit’s Nocturnal Will, this is a beautiful record that blends together gritty black metal with washes of power metal inspired melodicism via gorgeous lead guitars that soar and ring thanks to the crisp and clean production on offer. There’s an often overtly Scandinavian folk metal influence flowing through the album here too, which befits the band’s own tagline for the album being “Mournful Hymns of Archaic Strength and Heroic Bloodshed”. I haven’t been able to stop listening since I heard it weeks ago, and the same goes for the new In Vain album Solemn, easily the best album of their career. This is a band that’s been on my radar since 2013’s Ænigma, but who have never before popped off as creatively as they have here. Remember Dialith using saxaphone to spectacular effect above? Well In Vain bring in a whole damn horn section and somehow make it sound right and natural amidst their blending of black and death metal elements into one big progressive blender. It is one of the most engaging metal albums of the year, one that’s worth checking out even if you’re not a fan of this type of extreme metal because I think there’s genuine crossover potential here (a surprising amount of clean vocals throughout as well).

New stuff that was either good, solid, or that I was indifferent to:

Hard to think of a more accurate subtitle to this section than that, though it may sound harsh. Look solid albums are fine, I mean, you’d rather they be great albums but solid is better than lackluster no? That being said, I’m a little bit uncertain about some more than others. But first, the actual good stuff here — first that comes to mind is the recent Borknagar album Fall, which is entirely mood dependent for me because there are some listens when I’m very receptive and will absolutely sing its praises, and other times where I just find myself impatient during a play through. Historically this feeling has always prevented an album from landing in my top ten list, but I do have to say that I enjoyed Fall way more than recent Borknagar albums so I’m a little puzzled as to where I’m really at with it. On a more certain note, the new album Honor. Power. Glory. by power metal newbies Glyph (though the band is comprised of veterans of the subgenre) is a fantastic USPM meets Euro merger that marries the best elements of both styles. If you liked Ravenous, you’ll recognize R. A. Voltaire on vocals here and he sounds perhaps even better on this album than he did with his other band (though I do dig them). Its nothing revolutionary but its solid power metal done really well and with that refreshing sense of earnestness that I know many of us have been seeking lately.

I similarly enjoyed the debut album Of War and Flames by Alterium, an Italian symphonic power metal band headed up by former Kalidia vocalist Nicoletta Rosellini. I loved Kalidia’s The Frozen Throne album back in 2018 and thought Rosellini had a knack for crafting clever vocal melodies. She brings the same spark to her new band, and though its music that adheres fairly strictly to that particular style, they execute it pretty damn well. And same goes for the new Firewind album Stand United, where Herbie Langhans pulls off his best Jorn Lande impersonation in a killer vocal performance throughout. I know my cohost on the MSRcast Cary is big on this album, and he just caught their recent Houston gig as a testament to his Firewind fandom. I dug the album, Langhans is a joy to listen to, and Gus G is well, awesome in his own right. I was a little less wild about the new Einvigi album Monokroma, a band who if you’ll remember landed on my best albums list in 2022 with Yö kulje kanssani. I’m missing all the gorgeous, melancholic moodiness that characterized so much of that previous album, because it seems like the band went off on a rather strange direction on the new one. April saw the release of the new Tyr album, Battle Ballads (which isn’t a collection of ballads, and I’m a little bummed about that), and its a solid Tyr album if not exactly a very good one. Although there were moments here that I did enjoy, “Hammered” and “Torklis Dotur” for example, I found myself wishing the band would ditch the overly layered sound they’ve been mining for the past many albums now (2013’s Valkyrja seemed to be the pinnacle of this approach) and get back to something a bit more stripped down and primal.

New stuff that disappointed me:

And so we get to the downer section, first there’s the new Sonata Arctica album Clear Cold Beyond… and I suppose I’m one of the few people out there who didn’t think this was any kind of return to form (in the sense that it was being touted as such before it’s release). There’s a few potentially good moments in the first half, but the last half of the album is the kind of meandering modern Tony Kakko-ness that drives me up the wall. Part of the magic of those early Sonata albums was that energetic, nigh-frenetic bursts of speed that characterized so many of those classic songs. I know that the band has changed, gotten older and understandably this is reflected in their sound — but then what’s with all the return to their power metal sound pap that was swirling around this album? Mistaken fan hysteria? Incredibly disappointing in the end. It all just made me think of Jani Liimatainen’s collab with Tony on the former’s solo album last year and what could be if those two could join forces again for a full length album. With Liimatainen out of Insomnium, the door is open to him pursuing something like that, a new side project perhaps? I don’t know what it is that makes him so keyed in on being able to write great power metal (Cain’s Offering, The Dark Element in addition to his era in Sonata), but Tony needs a balancing songwriting partner like him who can help unlock his potential as a songwriter and vocalist like he did in the past.

And finally, I wanna say my piece on the new Amaranthe album here, a band who in the past have garnered their own full length reviews for their new albums. I realize looking back that much of that had to do with how well their lineup clicked with former vocalist Joacim Lundberg (now in Cyhra) and just how much I enjoyed his contributions to the band’s songwriting. In his new band, I hear echoes (and sometimes bangs) of what he brought to the Amaranthe table for their first four albums, particularly the still excellent and joyously fun Massive Addictive. His replacement, Dynazty’s otherwise excellent vocalist Nils Molin is on album three of his tenure with the band, and look, that’s enough of a sample size now to declare that it just doesn’t work. The transitions from Elize Ryd’s lines to Molin always sound jarring, lacking the smoothness that Lundberg was able to somehow craft. Ryd and Molin’s vocal tones might be the warring factions here, to my ears anyway, because they sound like they’re fighting each other, not complementing one another in the slightest. Screamer Henrik Wilhelmsson bounced last year, replaced by Mikael Sehlin who does a decent job in balancing texture and enunciation, but he’s really not the issue here. Molin’s a pro and he’s likely not going anywhere if he doesn’t want to, but Olof Morck and company need a clean vocalist who works with their sound, and sadly, I just don’t think Molin does. As a result, my enjoyment of their new music has diminished exponentially over the past three albums (“Outer Dimensions” being a sole exception on the new album, a decent tune).


That wraps it up, I know we’re in a little early before the true halfway point of the year in June, but screw it, there was more than enough music to talk about and quite a bit that I didn’t really listen to enough to comment on. Shout out to Blaze Bailey for delivering another decent album, given all the health challenges he’s had lately, that’s a win in its own right. Really looking forward to what the second half of 2024 brings, possibly some new Avantasia, Hammerfall, and Nightwish even… it will be interesting for sure.

The Metal Pigeon Recommends — Part Five: Dark Moor (the Alfred Romero era)

Dark Moor have always been one of power metal’s most intriguing artists (to me anyway), a band that is well known in name across the power metal community, yet infrequently cited in conversation or debate. Much like their regional neighbors in Heavenly being for a time the leading light in power metal from France, Dark Moor have been Spain’s most recognizable power metal artist since 1998. In their nascent late 90s era, they were fronted by vocalist Elisa Martin and after a shaky debut effort, they released two of the finest releases of that 97-03 golden era of power metal back to back in The Hall of Olden Dreams and The Gates of Oblivion. Martin was a revelation at the time, a female vocalist in a genre that hadn’t seen very many of them up to that point, particularly in the European scene, with a voice that could be just as rugged and gritty as it was soaring and melodic. Like many power metal fans, I love those albums, and followed anything Martin did afterwards out of sheer love for her unique style of singing. And like many, I was bummed that she left the band, and when her replacement Alfred Romero arrived, I was skeptical of the idea of Dark Moor without her considerable talent.

Like Martin, Romero had a rough start to his gig as Dark Moor’s vocalist, with his debut on the 2003 self-titled album that was comprised of songs largely written with Martin in mind, and Romero’s first artistic input coming on 2005’s Beyond the Sea. Both were uneven albums with some bright moments, but they were the sound of a band finding its footing with their new singer — which they did in full force on 2007’s Tarot. The band’s sound changed for sure, from the Helloween meets Rhapsody Euro-power mix of the Martin era to something far more unique, a robust blend of theatrical power metal that was informed by classical music, shades of gothic rock, and AOR-ish hard rock songwriting. Romero began to blossom as a singer, showcasing a vocal approach that was rich with character and full of dramatics. Like Martin, his voice had a noticeable accent that was quite different from other contemporary power metal vocalists from Germany or Italy. He didn’t sound grounded and gritty like Kai Hansen or Hansi Kursch, nor quasi-operatic like Fabio Lione or Roberto Tiranti, instead delivering a vocal tone that reminded me more of Tony Kakko crossed with Fher Olvera of Maná. He sounded different from anyone else in power metal, and as the songwriting changed to suit his voice, his Spanish language vocal color infused more and more of his performances on the albums.

With this further development of Romero as a singer, the band would embark on an era where they released some truly incredible music, with some very good to great albums to their name such as the aforementioned Tarot, but also Autumnal and Ancestral Romance in back to back years. Those three records in particular are a wealth of genuinely refreshing, creatively inspired romantic toned power metal that sounded like nothing anyone else was doing. Yet for all that ingenuity and effort into renewing their sound, when people talk about Dark Moor to this day, they speak about the band’s first couple albums with Martin, and either ignore or gloss over the Romero era. I suspect there’s a few reasons for this, and some of them are self-inflicted injuries on the part of the band. To wit, this is a fairly low key band that does little in the way of self-promotion: interviews are few and far between, and compounding matters, they aren’t all that active on social media when that is the way things have been working in publicity for years now. So when someone goes looking for info on this band called Dark Moor they’ve just discovered, they get the impression that there’s a chance they don’t exist anymore. Their last album also came out way back in 2018, and with the exception of a couple recent tracks released as singles, Dark Moor has been way too quiet (ironically just like the aforementioned Heavenly).

I think it’s a shame that Dark Moor has started to be forgotten a bit, their name slipping through the cracks as the years go by and the subgenre has taken some unfortunate musical paths. To my tastes, the Romero era is far more interesting than the Martin era, sacrilege to many I’m sure, but I say that with conviction. He changed the band’s sound for sure, but he also gave them an identity that separated them from their original influences and made them stand out as unique artists in the power metal world. So with ten tracks listed below in chronological order (being the traditional way of this particular recurring feature), I’m going to attempt to convince you with actual music rather than just words that Romero-era Dark Moor is worth exploring:


The Chariot” (from 2007’s Tarot)

Like an actual chariot breaking out from the gates of a Roman coliseum (or something similarly historically epic), Tarot’s album opener rushes out at you with door breaking force. You’d be mistaken if you thought that vocalist in the intro was Elisa Martin, because it’s actually future (and now former) Nemesea vocalist Manda Ophuis, whose crystalline, powerful vocals are a perfect foil for a duet with Romero. Both singers join in on this song’s uplifting, soaring chorus with some truly unique and charming lyrics about making fun of death. Tarot was a thematic album about the major arcana trump cards in a tarot deck, with each song in the track listing representing one. It led to the infusion of some mystical sounding sonic elements in the mix, such as the charming, tinkling piano interspersed amongst the energetic riffing during the middle bridge. The band’s neoclassical inclinations are still in full effect here, not only in the unabashedly symphonic melodies coursing through everything, but in Enrik Garcia’s shredding solo three minutes in. A glorious ride indeed.

The Star” (from 2007’s Tarot)

The symphonic swagger that permeated so much of Tarot gave all the songs on the album a skyrocketing trajectory in sound and spirit, and “The Star” is a vivid example of this. Unlike the “The Chariot” with it’s juxtaposing dips down into mid-tempo groove territory, “The Star” was written in the mode of late-90s pure power metal Dark Moor. This meant melodies that raced along and slightly ebbed in speed but without ever taking the foot off the gas pedal. The series of neoclassical styled solos that Garcia unleashes beginning just before the three minute mark, with that particularly gorgeous one at the 3:17 mark is my favorite instrumental moment on an album that is full of great ones. There’s a common opinion out there that Tarot was the last real metal album Dark Moor would release (I’d disagree but I understand the sentiment), but it’s possible that “The Star” is the last old school traditional power metal song the band released, and what a glorious finale it was.

“Phantom Queen” (from 2009’s Autumnal)

Folk music inspired strings introduce “Phantom Queen”, one of the highlights off the masterful Autumnal, an album that continued the symphonic metal influences from Tarot, but in tones that were darker shaded, far more… well, autumnal and fall-like in their colors. Listening to that violently swirling orchestration in the pre-chorus as Romero heightens the tension, you can picture winds kicking up fallen leaves on some desolate forest path. There’s something at once delicate and majestic about this song, a balancing act between its softly strummed verses and the frothing boil that bubbles up suddenly during the chorus which is as regal and dramatic as we’ve ever heard Dark Moor. I love the addition of growling vocals in the bridge as a counterpoint to all the elegant, sweeping loveliness. I know that “Swan Lake” gets a ton of the attention off this album, and I understand why, but for me “Phantom Queen” was always more memorable in the heightened pomp and splendor department.

“For Her” (from 2009’s Autumnal)

When it came to sheer dramatic theatricality, few things in power metal can top the outright majesty of “For Her”, one of the earliest and most prominent examples of the band incorporating romance as a lyrical inspiration. Its a testament to this song’s sticking power that I picked it over other great Autumnal tracks such as “When the Sun is Gone” or “And End So Cold”. I think the insistent, propelling tempo the band sets here is a significant part of the song’s success, lending real urgency to Romero singing a veritable recitation of all the things he did “for her…”. His vocals here are as impassioned a performance as we’ve ever heard in power metal, equal parts pleading earnestness and chest thumping bravado that empowers the intent of the lyrics he’s delivering. Romero is joined by soprano Itea Benedicto in the chorus, a duet combination that adds a touch of classical gravitas to the vocal melodies. And I love the subtle layering in the background of some horns, be they keyboard generated (or not), their punctuating presence another detail that adds to the glorious nature of this fantastic song.

“Love From the Stone” (from 2010’s Ancestral Romance)

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More accenting female vocals! Which I’m fine with, because Dark Moor were demonstrating that they knew exactly when and where to use them as counterpoints to Romero. His vocal tone being deeper, as well as full of depth and rich in character meant that he could sing alongside a lighter, floatier vocalist and complement them instead of drowning them out (I’m reminded of Sarah Brightman’s spectacular duets with José Cura). Throughout Ancestral Romance, Romero pairs with soprano Berenice Musa of Tears of a Martyr, and their combined effect was stirring, as evidenced here. Dark Moor returned again to romantic love for inspiration on this song, and this time turned in their most poetic and artfully constructed set of lyrics to date. Romero’s rhythmic delivery echoes their poetic meter in an inspired way, and the imagery is as vivid and heart-on-sleeve as lyrics from Ville Valo. I think Romero deserves a lot of credit for being able to deliver lines like these with conviction, because I think few could pull it off without sounding hammy, which he deftly avoids.

“Mio Cid” (from 2010’s Ancestral Romance)

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This is an interesting one, because I loved the original version of “Mio Cid” on Ancestral Romance which is largely sung in English, telling the tale of El Cantar de mio Cid, (a Castilian epic poem which is now a national epic of Spain), but recently in 2023 the band re-recorded the song in Spanish. I gotta say, the Spanish re-recording is even more epic, the orchestration richer and full of depth (have orchestral sample libraries improved that much since 2010?!), and the lyrics just seem to fit better in Spanish. On that note, something interesting is happening with Dark Moor lately, their three 2023 singles being all releases with Spanish lyrics — it made me think back to comments Garcia made in an interview with Metal Shards in 2018, where he commented, “We committed the great sacrilege of being a Spanish band singing in English, a mortal sin for this Catholic country.”. He detailed in that interview that singing in English closed doors for the band in Spain, and I’m left wondering if they might be considering trying to open those doors again with a full length Spanish language album in the future. It would be a fantastic move for them at this point in their career to be honest, because the Spanish language singles sound great. So great in fact that I chose to link the 2023 remake of “Mio Cid” above, but the original version is crucial to what makes Ancestral Romance such a spectacular album.

“Tilt at Windmills” (from 2010’s Ancestral Romance)

One of my favorite Dark Moor songs of all time, “Tilt at Windmills” is widely regarded as one of the band’s Romero era masterpieces by those who are clued in enough. This is a gorgeous song that’s at once tongue in cheek sly through its lyrical imagery referencing Don Quixote, and yet heartbreakingly epic in its dramatic, cinematic swell. Romero does a ton of heavy lifting here with an incredible vocal performance, particularly in the chorus where he bends and stretches syllables and manages to make it sound painfully anguished. I love the sheer passion he’s singing with there, the inflection in his voice at specific moments is inimitable, there’s just no one else in metal who sounds like him at times. The softly rising brass section that reinforces him during those parts is a beautiful, delicate touch that makes them sound transcendent. The figure that Romero is singing about in the lyrics comes across as more tragic as a result rather than foolish, like someone whose convictions are true but entirely misplaced. I think what has always struck me about “Tilt at Windmills” is how the overall sound here suggests that this should be a wistful love song, and not as it is, an allegory of a knight fighting in vain (and whatever modern social situations you could apply that to).

“First Lance of Spain” (from 2013’s Ars Musica)

The stirring, dramatic album opener proper to Ars Musica, “First Lance of Spain” is one of Dark Moor’s catchiest uptempo cuts, a symphonic power fusion that reminds me at times of Austria’s Serenity for its vocal melodies and strong, punctuating chorus. At this point in their career, Dark Moor was fully incorporating Spanish history and folklore into their lyrical topics, and just like “Mio Cid” on Ancestral Romance, they tackled another historical military figure here in Diego de León, 1st Count of Belascoáin. Famed for riding at the head of his lancers column and charging first into spots where the enemy was the most numerous, he definitely earned the title Dark Moor are bestowing upon him here, in addition to the heroic overtone that characterizes the sound of this epic song. The nature of the band’s symphonic side seemed to shift a little more on this album to be more Hollywood-esque, that bombastic soundtrack style arrangement as opposed to the quieter, subtler touches in Ancestral Romance and Autumnal. In that sense, Ars Musica felt a little like a throwback to Tarot, albeit replacing the power metal with more of a hard rock style that you’ll likely remember was seeping into a ton of veteran power metal bands around this time.

“Gara & Jonay” (from 2013’s Ars Musica)

Dark Moor, for all their inclinations towards romance as lyrical inspiration, did not write a lot of ballads — tending to prefer couching their most ardent ruminations on love in the context of dramatic, epic rockers. So it would take a tragic, Romeo & Juliet evoking love story such as that of Gara and Jonay to get Dark Moor to write this incredibly affecting, emotive piano led paean. It’s the Canary Islands folk tale of Princess Gara of La Gomera and Jonay, a poor peasant’s son from Tenerife and their families refusal to allow their relationship to blossom due to a foretold doom that it would cause. You can guess where its headed I’m sure, Gara and Jonay escape together, climb a mountain, hold a laurel lance sharpened at both ends between them and take their final embrace. The tone of this song reflects that tragedy in a way that’s not entirely somber, but almost hauntingly celestial, particularly towards the end when layered backing vocals start being interwoven into Romero’s narration. His delicate touch in phrasing and vocal inflection here lend so much weight and power to the narrative, yet another example of why he’s such an incredible vocalist.

“Birth of the Sun” (from 2018’s Origins)

Wild, raucous, and decidedly different from anything the band had attempted before, “Birth of the Sun” was the lead single off Origins, which as the title suggests, seemed to be an exploration of the band’s influences and roots, with a ton of 70s rock influences on display. Their folk influences, prominent throughout their career, really took hold in this song, which is easily my favorite off this album. (Sidenote, if you’re amused that 2015’s Project X wasn’t represented on this list, I’ll just say that I don’t think its as terrible an album as many have labeled it as, but it definitely was an experiment that just kinda missed the mark overall.) This song reminds me a bit of the band Boisson Divine, the folk metal band from Gascony (France) who deliver similarly rockin’, spirited folk swirled jams. For sure this isn’t metal, but Romero is the link that connects wildly different material like this to older Dark Moor. I love his hearty vocal delivery here, full of swagger, bravado and gusto all rolled into one. In the mystical themed music video, he displays why he’s such a great frontman too, songs like this demand grand gestures and theatricality to match. I was mixed about this album overall, but this remains a highlight, and a big reason why I’m so eager for another one.

Sons of Thunder: Judas Priest’s Invincible Shield

Six years ago, when we collectively banged our heads in appreciation at Judas Priest’s excellent Firepower, there was a feeling that perhaps it would be their final album and that, damn, what a great way to go out. It felt like the guys rose to the occasion to deliver a purposefully classic early 80s style Priest meets modern production album (even the album cover evoked memories of Screaming For Vengeance), with still new guy Ritchie Faulkner continuing to steer the band towards their iconic sound and producer Andy Sneap delivering razor sharp sonics that more than made up for Redeemer of Souls glaring audio problems. But in the background of all this was Glenn Tipton’s battle with Parkinson’s, a reportedly very up and down one, KK Downing publicly voicing his shock and displeasure at not being asked to be back in the band while Sneap was tipped to fill in on the tour, a tour that would for the first time not feature either of the band’s original iconic guitarists. Then two years later the pandemic happened, postponing a US tour (that’s finally happening four years later, albeit not in Texas…) and of course putting the band’s activities on ice for a year and a half. Then came the ultra scary incident at the Louder Than Life Festival on September 26th, 2021 when Faulkner experienced a ruptured aorta onstage while playing “Painkiller” to close out Priest’s set and miraculously made it to the hospital in time for life saving surgery. If they had chose to call it a career at that point, I think most fans would understand.

Yet they’ve returned with Invincible Shield, an album aptly named considering the turbulence of the past few years for them (and all of us really), and to not bury the lede, it’s simply their finest album since Painkiller. Yeah, Priest’s nineteenth studio album, with a 72 year old Rob Halford sounding younger than he has in ages is their best work front to finish since 1990. That’s not to diminish Firepower in any way — in fact, I think I could argue that Firepower’s had more singular high points than Invincible Shield, but that overall as an album experience, the new Priest album is just thunderingly awesome in it’s songwriting, execution, and performances. For all the talk of this being the band’s best work since Painkiller (I’m not the only one saying that), I think its biggest strength lies in it not being a replica of that seminal album. Sure, the opener “Panic Attack” does sound like its built with the same approach that informed classics such as “All Guns Blazing” and, er… “Painkiller”, but give a closer listen to that intro sequence with the synthesizer guitar effects. That’s directly or indirectly a nod towards the Turbo era sound, it doesn’t really matter which because the effect was the same, to instantly evoke that era to any knowledgeable Priest fan. Unlike Firepower’s determination to stick to that early 80s Priest palette, Invincible Shield sees the band wrapping their arms unapologetically around (most of) their entire musical history.

Lets talk highlights here, because despite the entire album hitting the one hour mark yet not having a bum track in the bunch, there are some songs here that really had me hitting repeat and banging my head with a little more emphasis. The aforementioned “Panic Attack” is an obvious choice, being one of the band’s most convincing singles and album openers ever, but “Invincible Shield” itself could’ve easily filled in both of those same roles, Faulkner and Tipton (I think) spitting out fiery licks over imposing, mechanized riffs. And I love the hard rock Priest edge infused in “Devil In Disguise”, characterized by that kinda rockin’, strutting rhythmic shuffle that marked so much of early 80s Priest. I love the dip into slower, “A Touch of Evil” meets “Out In the Cold” territory on “Crown of Horns”, one of my personal favorites off the album. Not only is the songwriting emotionally affecting, the solid backbeat reinforced groove lets Halford show off his vocal chops via a simpler expression than his usual metal god attack. There’s something about the way he sings “…something grew inside of me…” during the second verse that I found incredibly raw and real. As a vocal moment, it was reminiscent of his recent duet with Dolly Parton on her recent new album, where he had to simmer down to complement her style. It’s a battle between that tune and “As God As My Witness” for my absolute favorite here, with it sometimes leaning towards the latter for its full barreled assault and glorious lead solo tradeoff midway through. And I have to praise “Trial By Fire” here, a slice of classic Priest, I love the way this is constructed, those cutting riffs slicing away under Rob’s half a beat behind vocals.

So why is this album so good? That answer I think begins with Ritchie Faulkner’s continued involvement as a primary songwriter within the group, continuing on the course plotted way back during the making of Redeemer of Souls. They’ve hinted as much in interviews, but I suspect they underplay just how much Faulkner really got the guys to abandon the progressive leanings they were exploring on Angel of Retribution and Nostradamus and just get back to the nuts and bolts of Priest’s sound. On Redeemer, they worked to get the songwriting headed back in the right direction, on Firepower, they brought in Andy Sneap and Priest’s longtime 80s producer Tom Allom to work together to craft a modern sonic identity for the band that was at once classic yet fresh. Now on Invincible Shield, they’ve realized the fruition of both of those collective efforts into something truly fully realized and bursting with an energy and excitement that a band this late in the game rarely delivers (Magnum did this through their last decade too, props). People have been comparing this record with the new Bruce Dickinson album, but that’s an apples and oranges comparison — they should be using it as a lens through which to regard Maiden’s last two studio albums, which sound stodgy and old in comparison. Priest deserves kudos for putting in the work to improve their art, and Maiden could learn a lesson or three from their generational peers, mostly that fresh blood in the creative process (*cough* producer) and refocusing the songwriting approach to get back to the essentials is something worth considering.

Arc of Space: The Remarkable Solo Career of Bruce Dickinson (Part Two)

Continuing this retrospective of Bruce Dickinson as a solo artist, we move into the most creatively fruitful period of his career. The Tattooed Millionaire/Balls to Picasso eras were characterized by accidents such as stumbling into recording opportunities and re-recording an album from scratch three times. He was trying to find his voice creatively and was still a member of Iron Maiden for most of it. In contrast, this next era was defined by Bruce entering into his own creatively and figuratively, he had left Maiden by the time Picasso emerged, and he plunged ahead with a new band that would become the Skunkworks lineup. This was also a strange time period in the music business when metal and hard rock artists were in gradual decline with the general public, yet could still collide with major label budgets based on virtue of their brand name alone. In Bruce’s case, this meant that his artistic efforts around this time were met with his record company’s casual indifference towards actually promoting them beyond throwing money at music videos and press tours. And in fairness to those companies, it was hard to know how to promote a veteran metal artist’s solo efforts at the time — grunge and alternative had changed things irrevocably in the pop culture landscape and even the mighty Maiden were feeling the brunt of its effects.

Yet this was also the most adventurous, throw caution to the wind period of Bruce’s career, from flying into war-torn, besieged Sarajevo in December of 1994 to play a surreal concert in a life threatening situation, to more trivial things such as completely cutting off his hair and refreshing his public image to a less “metal” profile (much to the chagrin of metal fans, who were about to go ballistic with the then upcoming Metallica album Load and its provoking band photos). He shook up his sound with Skunkworks, working with a decidedly not-metal band and the result was something that existed in between genres, not quite alternative or grunge nor metal. He then reunited with Roy Z and the Tribes of Gypsies guys and pioneered a modernized approach to traditional metal, and in doing so forged his own sonic identity towards the back half of the decade. I love reading old interviews from him during this era, and especially in hearing him more recently recall this period with the benefit of hindsight, because it’s very fearless nature was exactly what made him a compelling solo artist. He was never afraid to experiment in public, even at great personal expense and risk, and his failures were as interesting as his successes. I’ve tried to explain this to people in the past, that it wasn’t Bruce’s amazing records with Maiden that made me become a massive fan of the man personally (even though I loved those) — instead, it was the albums I’m discussing down below that really did it, and all the stories behind them.


Skunkworks (1996, Raw Power)

Perhaps the most misunderstood album in Bruce Dickinson’s solo oeuvre, Skunkworks is a document that reflects not only the times during which it was written and recorded with it’s nod towards mid-90s alternative rock, but also of Bruce’s ambition to step out of the shadow of Iron Maiden even more so than he had done on Balls to Picasso. People sometimes refer to this as his “grunge” moment, but I’ve always felt that was a narrow and simplistic description, perhaps hyper focusing on the involvement of alternative rock producer extraordinaire Jack Endino. Bruce’s true ambition at this moment in his solo career was to establish a new band called “Skunkworks”, though he was denied by his record company at the time and basically forced to release it under his name for commercial reasons. But in considering this new band that he pieced together for the Balls to Picasso tour that carried over into this album — and that he chose to co-write the entire album with his relatively unknown new guitarist Alex Dickson, it’s understandable that he was trying to do something genuinely fresh in his career as a musician. It’s true that Dickson was more of an alternative rock guitarist as opposed to having a hard rock or metal background like Roy Z, and you hear this in his approach both as a co-songwriter as well as his performances here. Like Roy Z on Picasso, Dickson was the only guitarist in the lineup, and would have to fill up more of the sound on his own, veering between rhythm and lead playing. I’ve always felt that the singular guitarist lineups on Picasso and particularly on Skunkworks were the key in connecting those albums to the sound of bands such as Faith No More, Rollins Band, and even Rush more so than the twin guitar attack of Maiden.

Those aforementioned bands come to my mind in fits and spurts when listening to this album, largely because of the three piece guitar/bass/drums stripped down attack, and especially how Dickson loosely veers between laying down an awesome riff that glides in and out of gloriously fuzzy and psychedelic lead patterns whenever appropriate, only to fall back into a solid groove alongside bassist Chris Dale. Yet Rush is really the band that I think is the most apt comparison here, because so much of what Dickson is doing both as a songwriter and a guitarist is crafting prog infused hard rock that is breathable, loosely held together with melodic threads and with ample space for Bruce’s vocals to come in and take things into a refreshing direction with his soaring tenor. The obvious examples here are the two singles “Back From the Edge” and “Inertia”, where the contrast between a sky high soaring vocal melody during the pre-chorus and chorus is such a sharp contrast to how rhythmic and tight the verse sections are. The result are hooks that explode from the speakers, full of vibrant energy and colorful sonic imagery. Personally I’ve always felt that this album was awash in the color blue, like sky blue streaked with pinks, reds, and purples like some glorious sunrise or sunset. That kinda fits with the theme present in tunes such as “Solar Confinement” and particularly “Space Race”, where Bruce sings “Just want to feel the starlight on my face / Reach out my hand and touch beyond”, a not so veiled allusion to his then blossoming pursuit of becoming a qualified pilot.

This prog-influence I’m hearing wasn’t purposeful I think, but the byproduct of Dickinson’s natural tendencies and range as a vocalist working in the context of a band that wasn’t very Maiden-y at all. There’s a strangeness to this album that makes it one of a kind, a meeting of musical worlds that normally did not cross paths during this era (the grungier albums by once reigning pop-metal artists like Warrant don’t count because that was them trying to be something they weren’t, whereas the guys in the Skunkworks lineup were the genuine article). And look, I know the album isn’t quite perfect. The first five cuts here from “Space Race” to “Solar Confinement” are bangers, but the album hits a middle lull with “Dreamstate” and “I Will Not Accept the Truth” which although I do rather enjoy in the context of a full album listen myself, I’m willing to admit that you really have to be in the right headspace for them to land. The album finishes rather strong however with some strong psychedelic moments and an absolute epic in “Strange Death in Paradise”. Overall, its an album that might land some punches on you the first time around, but is definitely is a grower overall, requiring listens over time to fully open up. In that sense, it was a first for Bruce, a mood based album that relied on a listener being in the right headspace for it rather than just racing right into your subconscious via calvary charge ala “The Trooper”. That explains its mixed reaction when it first came out (and again, the haircut likely didn’t help), but this album has aged well in it’s opinions online from fans over the years. Bruce himself regards it fondly and with a reverence that is refreshing, as opposed to trying to ignore it or pretend it never happened. Personally, I love Skunkworks and it exemplifies the adventurous spirit that I love about his solo career overall.

Essential Cuts: So this might be fairly obvious, but “Inertia” is one of the finest songs in Bruce’s solo discography to date, there’s just something so emotionally affecting about its vocal led intro over a loosely strummed chord sequence, a sharp change of pace from how we’d normally have heard him in the context of Iron Maiden songs with their usual intros (“Can I Play With Madness” a rare exception). It was also a sterling example of just how much he had grown as a lyricist within this new band context, because “Inertia” is an incredible piece of lyric writing, but truthfully he just delivered all across the board in that regard, and its one of the main reasons I think the album has aged so well. It was clearly a reference to his experience playing in the middle of beseiged, war-torn Sarejevo in December of 1994, when he and the band were snuck into the city center and famously played a show there under the threat of mortal peril. I’ll also cite “Back From the Edge” here because its such an undeniable tune, with a refrain that’s powerful, making full use of Bruce’s range, and he just sounds exceptionally sharp on it. I also wanna make special mention of “Octavia”, an overlooked gem in the back half of the album with Dickson’s most psychedelic guitarwork, an almost Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream tone on that lead guitar that is so warm and fuzzy and works as a beautiful counterpart to Bruce’s emotive vocal throughout.

Accident of Birth (1997, Raw Power)

Widely regarded as a close second to The Chemical Wedding as the best album of Bruce’s solo career, Accident of Birth arrived less than a year after he had finished touring the Skunkworks album. He said farewell to the guys in that band, who mind you, he’d been touring with since 1994, and reunited with both Roy Z from Tribe of Gypsies and the Balls to Picasso album as well as the one and only Adrian Smith. Eddie Casillas and Dave Ingraham, fellow Tribe members who also played on Picasso, were roped back into the fold to round out the rhythm section and together this line-up can be considered the most iconic for Bruce’s solo career, yielding two masterful albums and one crushing live album. Regarding the line-up change, Bruce was quoted in Rock Hard Germany at the time stating, “We came to the point where our musical aims were so far apart that there wasn’t any sense in working together any longer. I had certain ideas about the further development of Skunkworks that weren’t shared by the other band members. After I heard their song ideas for the last album and compared them with what I wanted to do, I sat down with them and said: ‘I want a crushing, politically incorrect metal album, but you seem to want to do something completely different.’ Their world seemed to turn around Beck and stuff like that, while I was in a metal mood. So I took a plane to California and wrote a big part of the material together with Roy Z”.

I wonder if Bruce’s change in mood towards returning to metal was fueled by the blowback he got for the changes in sound and image during that era. It may seem preposterous now (and then as well), but those things really did matter with metal fans (this was after all the era of Metallica’s Load and the absolute chaos that ensued with fans when that album was released). He’s been vocal about suggesting that management and the record company didn’t get Skunkworks, and that it was Roy Z who reached out to him with some unexpected new material: “It was actually Roy that dragged me back into some assemblance, because he called up and he said, ‘Listen, I’ve got some stuff and it’s like a metal record.’ And I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t really sure that I had anything to offer … Then he played me some backing-tracks he’d done for what was to become Accident of Birth down the phone and I thought ‘There is something there.'”. The resulting process was quick, and there’s not much of a major difference between the demos (later released on the expanded edition of the album) and the finished album versions. Adrian was brought in and contributed three songs (“The Road to Hell”, “Welcome to the Pit”, and “The Ghost of Cain”) which complemented what Roy was doing songwriting wise with a slightly more straightforward metallic take on the new sound. During interviews at the time, Bruce talked enthusiastically about how Roy had brought the heaviness of modern metal bands such as Biohazard to a traditional heavy metal songwriting approach. It was in many ways, a novel thing that no one else was really doing at the time, with European power metal bands staying faithful to the Helloween mode and older traditional bands such as Maiden carrying on as usual.

I wish I was one of those fans that got to hear the album directly when it was released, in the context of knowing what Skunkworks was all about. I came to Accident of Birth first, and Skunkworks after that, but I wonder how many nervous fans felt crestfallen at the first few seconds of the opening cut “Freak”, with its grunge fuzz toned guitar wail, only to get immediately punched in the gut when the slamming metal riff kicked in the doors. A purposeful bait and switch? Undeterminable. As an opener, “Freak” was a spectacular microcosm of what the new Bruce sound would offer — a slightly downtuned guitar sound built around dense, thick riffing and a fat rhythm section anchoring the bottom end. The contrast between this purposeful instrumental design and the traditional, melodic metal mode of songwriting created a vibrant, bracing sound that still sounds fresh and captivating today after decades of the “modern metal” sound permeating every subgenre of metal. Fellow bruisers such as “Starchildren” and “Welcome to the Pit” served as similar tone setters for the album, that this was not only the heaviest album you’ve ever heard Bruce sing on, but by far heavier than anything Maiden had put out (certainly not a slight, just a fact and a surprising one at that). These heavier tunes were a collective statement, that Bruce wasn’t afraid of trying to modernize his own sound and that this album wouldn’t sound out of place in a playlist with current bands.

For all the sonic heaviness of the album, there was a buoyancy to the tone of these songs that came through via the soaring lead melodies and of course, Bruce’s penchant for crafting uplifting, empowering vocal hooks. I’ve always thought “Road to Hell” had layers of depth to it despite the lyrics and riffs being very straightforward and relatively simple on the surface. Maybe its something about Bruce’s lyrics towards the back half where he contemplates how “We all have to live with our family inventions” — it rings even more autobiographical after having read Bruce’s book “What Does This Button Do?” where he detailed his rather turbulent childhood and home situation. And epics like “Darkside of Aquarius” and “Omega” were multifaceted, dynamic songs that unfolded in surges of heightened dramatic tension, the former built on passages that recall hints of Dio era Sabbath while the latter boasts one of the thickest groove riffs you’ll ever hear in a song that is inherently very un-groovy. I love “Omega” in all it’s progressive, moody, temperamental glory, especially the skyward aiming guitar solo midway through — but it also was an example of how Bruce was continuing the coming into his own as a lyricist that began on Skunkworks. Though “Accident of Birth” as a title track is very autobiographical in regards to Bruce (despite the hellish imagery), it also was an apt description for the creation of this album as a whole, an unexpected collaboration that reunited Bruce with his most successful writing partners, and launched a renaissance that would carry through to rejoining Maiden two years later.

Essential Cuts: Although I loved the heaviness of the album as a whole, the songs that left the deepest impression on me were the ones that were built on beautiful vocal melodies such as the powerfully epic “Taking the Queen”, where Bruce serenaded a plaintive lyric over a gentle, almost lullaby-like melody. That U-turn when the chorus hits is in my top ten favorite Bruce moments of all time, the sheer crackling power that erupts when those guitars kick in and he dramatically sings “The howling shriek of death in your eyes / The hawklord and the beast enter your room”. That layered, echoing effect on “enter your room! — just inject that in my veins please. Its the kind of moment that not only makes the song, but is emblematic of why I love the drama and theatricality of metal. In this same melodic vein, the wistful ballad “Arc of Space” sees Bruce delivering an emotionally wrought and longing vocal performance that paints a cinematic picture of a dreamlike, haunting vision. I’ve never been able to decipher what this song is supposed to be about, but I certainly know that it hits me hard and leaves a powerful impression every time I hear it. That gorgeous finger plucked acoustic guitar solo accompanied by an aching cello and violin just hits my heartstrings in a way few ballads ever have.

The Chemical Wedding (1998, Air Raid)

Finally, we arrive at the apex, not only of Bruce’s solo career but arguably some might say of metal in general in the late 90s. Frequently cited as one of the great metal albums of the decade, The Chemical Wedding is a marvel of worlds colliding, with the band further developing the down tuned, uber-heavy sound they began on Accident of Birth and fusing it with Bruce and Roy’s most inspired songwriting to date, all woven together with the literary inspiration of English poet William Blake. The collision of a truly modern metal sonic approach merging with some of the finest traditional metal songwriting of Bruce’s career resulted in a sound that was genuinely new, incredibly fresh — not just for Bruce, but for metal overall. In looking back on this record and when it was released, I defy you to find another album released before the The Chemical Wedding that accomplished something similar with such spectacular results. It was a leap forward for traditional metal, proof that the genre could sound vital, gritty, dark, and rich with depth. It was also refreshingly self-serious in an era when irony, effervescence, and humor were held in higher esteem by the music press. The band — Roy, Adrian, Eddie Casillas, and Dave Ingraham all returning and contributing to the songwriting in moments, had grown into this sound, the seeds being planted on tracks such as “Laughing in the Hiding Bush” and “Hell No” on Balls to Picasso, and of course most of Accident of Birth. As a result of this natural progression, the sound here is fully realized, the fruits of something that began organically and over the course of time. The true strength of the album however is that despite all it’s era defining greatness, it sounds strangely out of time, untethered to anything we associate with the late 90s, largely due to I think because it is a fully realized, self-contained work of art, a world unto itself and it can stand alone as such.

Bruce says that the genesis of all this began with his interest in alchemy leading him to think up the potential album title of “The Chemical Wedding”. In an interview with the guys behind the Bruce Dickinson Well-Being Network (the oldest Bruce fansite) he explained: “So then, normally when I start writing albums, I start off by going to bookstore and I just walk around the bookstore looking for strange stuff. I was just browsing and this thing caught my eye which was an encyclopedia in art history of alchemy… A big thick book with loads of great pictures in it, ranging from early pictures of alchemical engravings, right up to H.R. Giger and stuff like that. And what’s linking them all together is that they all have an alchemical thread to them. And Blake features very heavily in this book, both his paintings and his poetry. One of them was this painting of Urizen and Los which completely blew me away. This was at the time when I had written three or four songs for the album already… And I was stuck. I thought “Alchemy, yea it’s kind of interesting” but I’m not sure there’s another four songs I can write about alchemy that’s gonna be up to it, you know. Then all of a sudden… enter William Blake! So I go off to the bookstore and found “Selected poems of William Blake”. I started reading and there it was…”. That copy of “Selected Poems of William Blake” brought into focus Bruce’s interest in Blake’s alchemical symbology and reminded him of his introduction to Blake’s work when as a student he’d have to sing the hymn “Jerusalem”, adapted from Blake’s poem “And Did Those Feet In Ancient Times”. This convergence of ideas manifested into a lyrical theme that he wove throughout the album in a few tracks that were already musically composed by Roy, and others that had to be worked up from scratch.

It’s always wild to behold that intro to “King in Crimson”, with its nearly sludge metal crushing riffs, distorted bluesy leads and Bruce’s deep, expansively unfolding dramatic vocals delivering a truly inspired picture of gothic, occult terror. That combination of sounds instantly sets the tone throughout and crafts a sonic identity for the album that works as the nexus point for all the deviations explored on the rest of the songs. Such as on the ensuing title track, a song that veers between spacious, atmospheric psychedelia during the verses to a pulverizing, grinding riff sequence ushering in the epic refrain. This is such a gloriously majestic song, both musically and lyrically, and I sometimes think its the epic on the album when it actually clocks in at an economical four minutes flat. The actual epic on the album is “The Book of Thel”, a monstrous behemoth of a song built on a devastating riff progression and perhaps the rhythm section’s most thunderous display of window shaking fury on the album. It’s a deceptively long song that feels like it just sprints by in a flash, but maybe that’s due to the sheer awesomeness of the effective tension building minute long intro sequence or the climactic mid-song instrumental bridge. That passage, queued in by Casillas’ rumbly bass notes that unfurl into a devastatingly powerful riff, is one of those moments where you can’t help but start headbanging along (it gets me every time). Along with “Jerusalem”, these three tracks serve as the album’s tent poles so to speak, emotional pillars that support the different emotions and musical approaches that flow throughout the album’s entirety.

A lot of attention has gone to “The Killing Floor” as it was the first single and video released from the album, and it’s easy to see why it was selected as such. Built on swirling psychedelic textures and a thick, heavy groove, it was easily the best rhythmically strutting tune Bruce had ever concocted. The chorus of a group vocal shouting “Satan!” was certainly ear-catching and might have been considered slightly campy had it not been prefaced by downright chilling lyrics: “I’ve never been held by the hand of god / Who’s rocking the cradle, if he is not?”. The music video is worthy of mention here, a bit of 90’s weirdo music video camp that saw Bruce as a waiter in Satan’s restaurant (the latter of which was played by a hairdresser from Camden according to Bruce). One of the hidden gems of the album is “Machine Men”, tucked away near the end of the track listing but certainly worthy of possibly being considered a single just by virtue of how fully realized it’s refrain turned out. The first of the two slower paced yet doomily heavy tunes on the album, “Gates of Urizen” has strong Dio-era Sabbath vibes happening in its soulful songwriting, Bruce’s vocals interweaving with haunting guitar leads that seem to reverberate in space. The other is the album closer “The Alchemist”, a patient, thoughtful paean to conclude the album that ends with a beautiful vocalization before bowing out with a slowed down reprise of the chorus from the title track (“And so we lay / We lay in the same grave / Our chemical wedding day”), creating a kind of full circle moment for the album as a whole.

Essential Cuts: This album stands in my mind as such a complete, holistic (first time I’ve ever used that word on this blog I’m damn sure) listening experience that its hard to isolate individual tracks as “essential”, so take these as more of my personal favorites. First to mind is “The Tower”, which might be my favorite uptempo Bruce song of all time, this song being a propulsive, rhythmic masterpiece. Casillas bass lines here are so locked into this amazing groove, with Ingraham filling the spaces in between with a bouncy pattern, that you’re already engaged well before Roy and Adrian come swooping in. Bruce’s vocal melody design in this refrain is masterful, a heavenward spiraling ascending run that is layered to sound lush and full. The lead guitar melody that serves as the post chorus outro is simply iconic, one of the more memorable guitar riffs of the entire Bruce discography, to say nothing about how devastating that thoughtfully articulated solo is towards the back half. I’m also going to cite “Jerusalem” here, because this song is at once plaintive in its hymn like simplicity (borrowing Blake’s lyrics help), and yet joyfully exuberant and majestically powerful. The choice of scaled back instrumentation throughout the first half of the song has always struck me as a particularly inspired decision, lots of chiming acoustic guitars and letting Bruce’s voice breathe and echo and fill the space. The twin harmony guitars joining together for that emotional guitar solo in the second half is just one of those glory claw to the sky inducing moments, sounding so righteous and profound by itself.

(Look forward to part three where we’ll conclude with Tyranny of Souls, and of course The Mandrake Project)

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