The Neapolitan Reviews Pack: New Darkthrone, Gloryhammer, and Aephanemer!

Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!


Darkthrone – Old Star:

The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.

One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?

Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.

Aephanemer – Prokopton:

I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.

One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.

The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.

Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:

I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.

I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.

That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.

Springtime Metals: New Music From Eluveitie, Thormesis, Devin and More!

Alright back to music! Thanks for indulging the little detour I had to go on with the last update, and though I’m hoping it will be the first and last of its kind, you kinda get the feeling that it won’t be unfortunately. The good news is that the metal release calendar marches on, and its been a busy few weeks trying to juggle listening time for everything that’s caught my ear. The big release I’m reviewing below is obviously the new Devin Townsend album Empath, and we went pretty in-depth on the upcoming newest MSRcast episode that should be up very soon, in addition to discussing recent concerts I’ve been to. Speaking of, I found out I’m driving to Dallas in August to see Demons & Wizards, and let me tell you, as a Houstonian, driving to Dallas is something I’d only do for a select few artists. Hansi should be honored! Oh and Game of Thrones’ final season premieres tomorrow so even though its officially spring, I’m happy to say Winter Is Coming!


Battle Beast – No More Hollywood Endings:

After becoming very familiar with Finland’s glam meets power metal export Battle Beast with 2017’s Bringer of Pain, I felt an almost zen-like state of awareness in approaching their new album. I’ve achieved this mental clarity in part through observing and participating in critical discussions about them with the r/PowerMetal community and generally feeling less confused about the band’s own schizophrenic tendencies that had left me puzzled in the past. I think what really helped however was seeing them live for the first time on the Kamelot tour in 2018, where simply watching their performance provided some insight into how this band sees itself and their music post Anton Kabanen (now Mr. Beast In Black in case you didn’t remember). My takeaway was equal parts Roxette / Dokken / and Twisted Sister, which is inherently fine, but it was good to get clarity (creating emotional epics ala Tuomas Holopainen isn’t their bag). Now I’m not sure how much thought the band put into titling the album No More Hollywood Endings, but its striking that both the cover art and arms wide, grandiose, arena ready anthems on this album directly contradict it in sound and spirit. The move towards this centering of their sound was suggested on their last record, and consolidates here on moving away from the Judas Priest-ian influences of their early records and more towards the Roxette meets Sabaton vibes that they’ve realized vocalist Noora Louhimo does better than most. She’s a phenomenal singer in terms of pure tone, grit, and delivery; the kind of voice that is able to coat a veneer of believability over the most lackluster lyric.

These songs place Louhimo front and center not only in the mix, but in the center of the overall songwriting approach, a wise decision that allows keyboardist Janne Björkroth, guitarists Juuso Soinio and relative new guy Joona Björkroth (who’s also the founding guitarist for Brymir, whom I review below) to lean hard towards pomp-tinged Avantasian power metal as on the opening rush of “Unbroken” and “Eden”, but also veer off towards the sultry modern pop meets glitter rock mash up in “Unfairy Tales”. The latter pulses and struts on the back of a fat, ultra-processed riff in the mold of Bon Jovi’s “Its My Life”, blossoming into skyward chorus that would’ve yielded a straight up hit in the 80s. And that’s not just Louhimo’s uncanny similarity to Ann Wilson as a vocalist suggesting that, but the actual construction of that stepladder nature of the bridge, and runway sized room available for the vocal hook in the refrain. This largely retro feel continues on the shoulder-padded, too many bracelets on two wrists Bonnie Tyler vibe of “Endless Summer”, and while I’m all too happy to eat this melodic jello with a plastic spoon, your tolerance may or may not be up for it. But its not all nostalgia soaked throwbackery, as the band gets a little inventive on the title track, concocting a strange waltz with ABBA-inspired guitar melodies and dance-pop keyboard motifs, reminiscent of something you’d hear Amberian Dawn dabble in with their unabashed love for the glorious Swedes. I particularly enjoy the drama of Louhimo’s vocal melody here, veering wildly from romantic anguish to Broadway stylized theatrics, and utterly ridiculous video aside, I thought it was a rare experiment from this band that actually worked. They have a track record of trying ambitious stuff like this and falling on their face, so this is progress —- in fact the whole record is surprisingly solid and at times even worthy of a roadtrip playlist inclusion or two.

Brymir – Wings of Fire:

Hailing from Finland, Brymir is one of those bands that I forgot I heard before for a reason I can’t hope to remember. Maybe its because their name was too close to Houston’s own Brimwylf or maybe its because I remember their debut coming out on Spinefarm in 2011 with a lot of hype behind them proclaiming them to be the next Wintersun. I barely remember anything from their debut, so that clearly wasn’t the case, and I must’ve just slept on their 2016 sophomore effort, but I’m glad to see they’ve sliced the gap of time between releases even further with Wings of Fire, their third album. More than that though, I’m beyond glad that this is a seriously thrilling affair, a thoroughly convincing slice of epic melodic death metal strutting around the castle with its symphonic metal overcoat. I’ve been listening to this consistently for the past couple weeks, and it took me a minute for it to dawn on me that I was finding myself missing it when I skipped it for a few days earlier this past week. I can’t speak for the past, but right now is all that matters, and on Wings of Fire, Brymir come across to me as the heavier end of Wintersun spiced with a little Children of Bodom and Suidakra for thrashy spice and smoky pagan flavor respectively. I think this particular vein of melodic meets extreme metal is particularly difficult to pull off this well, because there’s always the trap that you’ll lapse into pretentiousness if you’re not self-aware during the songwriting process. Brymir seem to have that awareness in spades however, and I love that their choice for the cover art is vividly anime influenced, suggesting they have a good feel for the visual spark their music might be conjuring in some of our minds’ eyes.

About that music then, there’s so much worth pointing out here, but overriding everything is that I find the band’s sense of wildly adventurous pomp lovable and refreshingly devoid of pretentious that can so easily cloud a merging of this specific kind of musical approach. You get a sense of that right from the opening gates of “Gloria in Regum”, a perfectly blended mix of orchestral surge and clamor, pummeling rhythm section and a ripping solo at the 2:52 mark. Or in the stuttering effect laid on top of the vocals in “Hails From the Edge” at the 2:25 mark that sounds like its something pulled from the BT playbook. Speaking of vocals, Brymir screamer Viktor Gullichsen has an approach that could arguably be described as a blackened version of what Jari Maenpaa or Mors Principium Est’s Ville Viljanen does, which is really the right way to go for Brymir’s melodic approach (grunting death metal vocals would just distract). The well chosen single, “Ride On, Spirit”, is one of the album’s highlights, a mix of a quiet folk intro and blasting symphonic backed riffing that erupts like a volcano. I also enjoyed Noora Louhima’s guest vocals on “Anew”, despite that songs borderline questionable spoken narration that uncomfortably sounds like Timo Tolkki speaking from on high. My personal favorite however is “Chasing the Skyline”, not only for its melancholy, distant sounding opening, but for that absolute stunner of a chorus that is just on the right side of ridiculous (noticeable Stratovarius / early Nightwish vibes popping up here, love it). A spectacularly fun album that I can’t stop listening to.

Devin Townsend – Empath:

I suspect that Empath will the point of entry for a lot of new fans to the wide and frankly weird world of Devin Townsend. In the months and weeks leading up to its release, I had noted an inordinate amount of buzz surrounding this album, much of which involved its striking cast of guest artists, but also on its rather risky, expensive price tag it cost to make it. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention before with his previous albums, but I’m usually a fairly astute observer of these things, and nevermind that my MSRcast co-host Cary the Metal Geek might be the biggest fan of Devin’s in all of Texas —- so I’ve heard about Devin’s releases before, but not with this level of volume. Going back to the album’s price tag for a minute because that is an eyebrow raising amount ($170,000 of his own money, not counting the amount the label put in for promotion) for an independent metal album in 2019, I wonder if that’s not fueling some of the extra interest that I’ve detected surrounding its release. I suspect that metal fans in particular love the idea of a band or album that is rife with ambition, and the media buzz around this album is drawing in a few more ears, with the knowledge that Devin has been vocal about needing this album to succeed in order to continue financially (enough to provoke even the most passive person to click on a link to a YouTube video to find out for themselves if he might just be able to). In 2004 when the music industry wasn’t in as quite a transformative state as it is today, Therion spent 100,000 Euros on recording two albums in Lemuria and Sirius B. While that wasn’t even a minor headline back then, and it was money Nuclear Blast provided for a recording budget, it still had to be recouped, so the band avoided music videos, toured for years and managed to pull it off. With Empath, Devin is already in the hole to the record company as well as himself, spending all of the 150k he managed to net from re-signing his back catalog. Yikes. The early good news however is that the album is landing some of his highest positions to date, particularly in the third largest music market of Germany where he’s nearly cracked the top ten.

As for myself, I think all of the above drove my interest in giving Empath particular attention that I’d never given to any prior Devin release, even setting aside knowing that it’d be a big topic on an episode of MSRcast. This album has been a challenge to wrap my mind around admittedly, my first impressions just being somewhere in the ballpark of “this is a lot”. And it still is to be truthful, I still have trouble processing all of the 23:33 running time of the epic “Singularity”, even though its opening five minute “Adrift” passage is so gorgeous I’ve come back to it over and over. The rest of it is a challenging listen, but there are little spots here and there where my interest is piqued, things I wish he’d repeat a few more times or develop into something larger (the Anneke van Giersbergen vocal passage in the “Here Comes The Sun!” suite is one of them). I realize that track was a large chunk of the album’s 74 minute running time, so that might be something of a black mark on the album so many listens into it, but its one that I feel okay about letting go. I enjoyed most of Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful while simultaneously decrying the disjointed nature of its 24 minute closer “The Greatest Show On Earth”. Conversely, I found enjoyment in Empath’s far more concise yet utterly weird tracks, such as “Sprite”, with its almost trance influenced approach towards electronically manipulated repeating vocal lines, strange jumble of rhythmic sounds and jarring musical elements that barrel their way forward without warning. I’ve been re-discovering my love of 90s and early 2000s electronic music lately, particularly trance and progressive house and I have a feeling that listening to all that stuff lately has groomed my headspace to easily accept something
unorthodox along these lines.

I’m of course relatively unaware of the musical directions Devin’s explored throughout his back catalog, but I was impressed enough by the bold, whimsical theatricality of “Why?”, a song that might be my favorite on the record. It actually reminded me of something off the aforementioned Therion and their Beloved Antichrist opera from last year, a tune that seems more classical aria than pop ballad as we know it. His vocals here are rich and emotive despite their purposeful over the top nature, particularly at the 3:10 mark during the heightened swell of the songs climax —- he could be a guest tenor on a Sarah Brightman record during that sequence. On the complete opposite end, “Hear Me” was a compelling uber-aggressive moment ala Strapping Young Lad, and it was interesting to hear how Chad Kroeger’s guest vocals fit into the chaos (it sounded good, but its a little hard to discern his voice from Devin’s). The percussion here courtesy of Samus Paulicelli is dizzying by the way, and its worth checking out this clip of him recreating his recording. Then there’s the love it or hate it proposition of “Spirits Will Collide” with its heart on sleeve lyrics that are admirable in their anti-suicide plea, sort of a spiritual cousin to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”. I’ve seen a decent amount of polarizing reactions to this one, and while I’m one of the few who don’t go towards either end, I think its a well constructed song in terms of its pop hook actually affecting sparking a listener’s pathos if they’re personally inclined to allow it. As some of you know, I listen to Sarah Brightman records, so this is the kind of syrup I’ll gladly pour over my pancakes, except that I think the song is diminished a bit with the harsher vocals. I’d love to see an alternate version surface, something more in the vein of this cover. It feels like it could’ve been a home run power ballad but maybe there was some thought that it might’ve been a little too much. I appreciate Devin’s admitting that Enya was an influence on the choral verse melodies, because I heard the structure of “Only Time” straight away on first listen. One of the most buzzed about albums this year is definitely worth all the noise, and for his sheer creativity alone, I hope he makes his money back.

Thormesis – The Sixth:

This was something brought to my attention via Justin of the Mindfudge Podcast when he guested on a recent MSRcast episode, and I’ve been binging this album ever since. Thormesis are a German band that have delivered five apparently unremarkable albums of epic pagan black metal ala Moonsorrow sung in their native language, thus going fairly unnoticed by most of the metal world. Now full disclosure, I haven’t had a chance to check out their back catalog, but I’m trusting the opinion of someone who has, so take my appraisal of their back catalog with a grain of salt. What matters is explaining why they’ve really hit upon something remarkable with The Sixth, and that’s at once a simple and complicated proposition. There so many elements at play here, furious tremolo riffing over frenetic blastbeat passages, hard rock influenced splashes of lead guitar overlays, an Ensiferum-esque way with pagan metal styled choral vocals, and a noticeable post-rock production wash (dare I say black-gaze-ish?) that permeates the pores of these songs. What brings all these together in as compelling a manner as they are is the satisfyingly earwormy sense of melody that’s ingrained in the songwriting. Yes this is an album full of discordant chord progressions and abrupt tempo shifts, the sort of thing that makes black metal the extreme noise chamber it can often be, but on The Sixth, Thormesis grab hold of those seemingly uncontrollable elements and tame them with some of the strongest melodies I’ve heard on an extreme metal album in recent memory.

We hear this on the very first measures of the album opener “Sonnen”, with its tail-riff segmenting approach to the verse passages (check the :25 second and 1:17 marks). Its something from the hard rock playbook that not only gives a clear, discernible structure to an otherwise chaotic rhythmic attack, but serves as the song’s motif, an approach I often wish more black metal bands would employ. But there’s so much more here to unpack, the gorgeous, melancholy keyboard fragments that gently glide over everything three minutes in, and the lead vocal duet between guitarists Tino Krüger and Benjamin Rupp, who apparently share vocal duties throughout the album. The worryingly titled “Their Morbid Drunken Ways” initially conjured up images of some kind of Finntroll level disaster, but thankfully its more along the lines of Sentenced in its melancholic, aching melody that’s loosely draped across a mid-tempo, Katatonia-esque quiet and thunder juxtaposing. I hear that same Sentenced / Insomnium melodic tone in the opening phrasings in “Chor der Toten”, which might be my favorite song on the album. And its not only because of that awesome rock guitar bend at 2:11 that steers us away from one of the album’s most fierce passages to a beautiful, satisfying guitar solo; its the dramatic, isolated tremolo fragment stirring in the ether that builds up to that visceral explosion at the 4:07 mark, like a roller coaster careening down from top of the highest hill. These are songs largely built around musical hooks, not conventional pop formatted vocal hooks, but there are times when the band get daring enough to employ unconventional vocal motifs such as on “One Tear For Every Last Burning Soul”, where clean vocals erupt in something like funeral wailing. It sounds weird but trust me it works, particularly when its fit in between crystalline synths and soaring, emotional guitarwork. If you’ve been looking for something to blow you away in the first half of this year, you need to check this out regardless of your tolerance for black metal because The Sixth is a transcendent release.

Eluveitie – Ategnatos:

I have to admit, even with the hindsight of enjoying Eluveitie’s first post major lineup schism release in the largely acoustic Evocation II: Pantheon, that I didn’t expect this band to emerge stronger after the loss of vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Anna Murphy, guitarist Ivo Henzi, and drummer Merlin Sutter. They might have nailed that acoustic album out of the park, even bettering the first volume, but the real test would come when the band returned to its melodeath meets folk metal core sound. I’m not gonna keep you in suspense, they really have pulled it off, convincingly I might add. And I’m beginning to wonder if the key to this successful transition was simply stumbling upon the right vocalist in Fabienne Erni as Murphy’s replacement. I raved about Erni’s vocals on Evocation II, her vibrant, lightened vocal tone a perfect match for that album’s material in giving it a breezy, brighter feel than I suspect Murphy would have been able to. It turns out her voice pairs equally as well next to pummeling rhythm sections and Gothenburg patterned riffing as on “Deathwalker”, an early in the tracklisting highlight and my current favorite on the record. Chrigel Glanzmann is still obsidian throated in his melodeath delivery here, but his side by side vocal duet with Erni on the chorus over intense riffing works surprisingly well, her voice powerful enough to hold her own against his and still sound strikingly opposite in tone and texture. Its a compelling song, and a fairly perfect portrait of everything that makes Eluveitie so distinct and unique even amongst other folk metal artists.

There’s another standout cut in “The Raven Hill”, where Erni’s hypnotic lead vocal entrance sets a mystical mood that amplifies the already elevated strong folk tendencies coming through here. Hurdy-gurdy from Michalina Malisz, fiddle courtesy of Nicole Ansperger, and Matteo Sisti on bagpipes work up a gorgeous, rustic folk melody that’s echoed by Glanzmann’s trademark whistles. Even here his harsh vocals are met stride for stride with Erni’s excellent vocals, and I particularly like the ending echoing the intro, with her guiding the way out of this smoky wood we’ve all obviously been hanging out in. There’s a few cuts on here that are pretty much full on melodeath with Glanzmann at the helm, and as on previous Eluveitie albums I’m generally fine with them, although they’ve never been the best cuts on the records and that’s the same situation here. I’m a fan of this band for the folk metal elements, and they tend to come around more when Erni’s at the very least taking a 50/50 role at the vocal helm as on the darker, aggressive “Threefold Death” and the pop soaked “Breathe”. In that respect, “Rebirth” is another album highlight for cleverly managing those elements so well, and for Erni’s handling of her vocal melody. It was also a risky but nice touch to add in a few little instrumental vignettes like “The Silvern Glow”, things I usually tend to frown upon but Eluveitie wisely kept these very much tied to the acoustic spirit of the music in Evocation II, kinda linking these two albums together based on its identical line-up. This is a sixteen track long album but if you subtract those few cuts its still a more than respectable thirteen song proper album, with a meaty running time. Its been awesome to see this band make its full comeback from a rough patch in its lineup history, and they’ve made an album that lives up to the best of their catalog.

Cellar Darling – The Spell:

Its uncanny that once again a new Eluveitie and Cellar Darling album are not only appearing back to back in one of my review clusters, but that yet again its not because I’m trying to be deliberately provocative by doing so —- in fact, these two albums were released within two weeks of each other. Its a close mirroring of what happened in 2017 with Eluveitie’s Evocation II: Pantheon and Cellar Darling’s debut This Is The Sound. Being that I’m a reviewer that is always going to get to albums late, after I’ve listened to them enough times to feel comfortable writing about them, a side by side comparison is too intriguing to pass up. However, a note of advice to both bands, particularly Cellar Darling, you both are on Nuclear Blast Records, surely it can’t be that hard to coordinate with the label to steer clear of each other and give yourselves some breathing room around your release dates. Its not that I think discerning fans can’t separate the two albums and make their own value judgments, but the proximity can only provoke a direct comparison to their ears too, and so many of those fans were upset when Anna Murphy / Merlin Sutter / Ivo Henzi and Eluveitie split, and considering the reason for the split was each side not liking the other’s ideas about musical direction —- well, don’t be surprised if some of those fans feel the burden of that conflict on themselves in hearing both of these records. I wasn’t all that bothered by the split myself, intrigued certainly, and I felt sympathy for Murphy and company, enough to hope that Cellar Darling would be something I’d really enjoy. Their debut was a shaky start, but I think most of us were willing to forgive that and hope for more interesting material the second go round, but on The Spell the band finds themselves with no new ideas, a worrying sign. You can see where this is headed, and its a bummer to say that The Spell isn’t an improvement on its predecessor.

I wish I could offer up a highlight here, but truthfully I’ve struggled to find one for these past few weeks, and I’ve internally groaned every time I’ve had to make another pass through the album to see if anything else clicked. The most emergent song from these hesitant listening sessions has been “Insomnia”, which marries a metallic degree of heavy riffing to isolated hurdy gurdy melodies to set up a soaring chorus where Murphy reminds us just how well she can get her rather earthy voice sailing through the air. I’d like the song more if it retained a sense of kinetic flow throughout, instead of the ambient passages within where nothing interesting is really happening. When you have a genuinely affecting hook, plug it in as often as you can without coming across like Haddaway. I also liked the dirty, ground in feel of “Freeze”, where Murphy’s vocals merge with a distant rhythmic grumble to come across like a close cousin to The Cranberries “Zombie” (before that awful radio rock band decided to ruin that song for everyone). A similar problem crops up on “Love”, which has a pretty solid hook that gets plugged a little more, but the connective tissue is missing in terms of crafting a compelling song from start to finish. But its a song like “Drown” that I have a really hard time with, its aimless riffing and lack of any kind of binding melody (even in the vocals) just result in a soupy mess of ideas that go nowhere. On the title track, Murphy juxtaposes elements of a pop chorus with a high pitched delivery of a specific line in a manner that is certainly memorable, but not exactly enjoyable. There’s a similar problem with “Hang”, where Murphy explores the full sweep of her vocal range, and she sounds great to her credit, but the song lacks a compelling motif to tie everything together (but given its lyrical narrative, perhaps that was intentional?). I’ve toned down what was initially a scathing review because I began to consider that a lot of Murphy’s fans will love this kind of stuff and might find it perfect for them. But for myself, it really puts the entire Eluveitie split into perspective and has me siding with them —- if this more bland, generic rock riff direction was what the Cellar Darling crew had in mind for the direction in their previous band, then I don’t blame the Eluveitie camp for balking. They’ve doubled down on what the essence of that band’s sound to deliver two really excellent folk-metal albums, and Cellar Darling are doing… whatever this is.

Reckless Abandon: Houston, Horna, and Antifa

I had hoped that Roy Khan leaving Kamelot would be the most disappointing thing I’d ever have to write about, but here we are. For as nakedly political as I can get on Twitter (as those of you who follow me there can attest), I have always attempted to keep this blog mostly focused on music —- because other sites traffic in rumor and gossip enough, and there are too many excellent releases coming out to be wasting time with anything else. Recently however, its been hard to avoid the MetalSucks spawned stories, seemingly one after another, of a black metal band about to tour the US that has NSBM ties past or present and the subsequent outcry surrounding this, usually manifesting itself in calling for shows to be cancelled. Watain, Taake, Disma, Marduk, Incantation, Inquisition, Graveland, Uada… I’m sure I’m missing others, these stories have seemingly run into each other within the past couple years. The latest is Finland’s Horna, whose currently ongoing US tour is running headlong into an internet spread, Antifa-fueled protest where locals are being encouraged to call the venues, the surrounding businesses, and local media to get a particular show shut down.

Horna April 3rd @ The White Swan flyer

I don’t listen to Horna, and had only vaguely heard of them before this controversy. But this story has hit close to home because I’m a Houstonian, and one of the stops on Horna’s US tour, April 3rd to be exact, is scheduled at a local Houston venue called The White Swan. There are a number of local Houston metal bands on the bill as support acts, including Spectral Manifest who have been around the scene here for quite a long time, whose drummer, one Cryptos Grimm is someone I personally know. In fact, he’s a friend of the MSRcast podcast I co-host with Cary the Metal Geek, primarily because he once sat in the co-host seat I now sit in. When a local media outlet called the Houston Press picked up on the Horna story from other outlets like Metalsucks, their writer Jef Rouner wrote up a piece in which he referred to Cryptos Grimm as a member of the alt-right, a description that was simply untrue. There was no minor amount of outrage that broke out on social media, where people in the Houston metal scene came to Cryptos’ defense, because not only was it kinda laughable that Cryptos of all people would be described as “alt-right”, it was a dangerously slanderous statement to just throw out there. It feels absolutely stupid and silly to have to do this, but it might help for context’s sake to know that Cary is Jewish (during Hanukkah there are menorahs all around the MSRcast studios), and that I’m of Indian descent, or as the term goes thesedays, a PoC (person of color). That’s the first time that I’ve ever had to mention my race or ancestry in relation to being a metal fan, ever. Because in multi-cultural Houston, its simply not an issue, no one cares. But I’m going to set aside Horna and black metal and everything else for a minute and just focus on this one topic —- that a guy was publicly slandered by a relatively popular (people can debate that point) local Houston publication and labeled something that he’s simply not.

The name Cryptos Grimm can easily be linked to his real name via a Google search, in fact I’m sure he’d be fine with me writing it here even though I’m not going to do that now (we’ve certainly referred to him on the podcast by it, in fact we just played a cut from Spectral’s newest EP on our last episode). I’ve known Cryptos personally since the year 2000, when I met him at a meeting for the MSRcast’s pre-podcast incarnation as the Mainstream Resistance Zine, which he along with a few others helped Cary put together. Back in those days he was also responsible for getting a local Borders Books and Music to stock a respectable metal section, and when he moved over to work at a local music store chain called Soundwaves, he oversaw the city’s best metal section at his particular location. I’d go down there after every paycheck Friday and sometimes in between to buy anything and everything. He’d recommend stuff to me and let me preview unknown albums on the store’s audio equipment so I wouldn’t blow money on something I didn’t like. I got into so many bands from that metal section, Therion, The Crown, Emperor, just too many to remember, and when Blind Guardian released A Night At The Opera, he held one of the few copies they’d received behind the counter for me. I’d go to local metal shows and sure enough every now and then I’d see Cryptos across the venue, lugging gear somewhere or talking with someone —- to say he’s been a fixture in the local metal scene here is to state the obvious. When I was running around with the Brimwylf guys, helping them load in gear and man their merch table at shows, I got to see Cryptos’ band Spectral Manifest play many times, they shared bills together all over Houston and even in San Antonio. The point here isn’t just that I know the guy personally, its that I and many others have known him for a long time now.

Spectral Manifest’s The Nether EP

The writer of this story, Rouner, wrote off-handedly of his interaction with Cryptos that [he was] “one of the many local metal musicians I’ve ended up blocking from social media for his alt-right views”, but one scour of Cryptos’ social media feed would show the exact opposite. From what I gathered, they’ve probably had some disagreements in various comments sections on Facebook and Rouner blocked him in the past. When the Horna story popped up, Rouner took Cryptos’ public advocacy that the show should go on as planned as the sole evidence he needed to slander him as “alt-right”. He didn’t take the time to interview Cryptos, or ask around to other members of the local metal scene for their views on Cryptos and Spectral Manifest, for reasons I can’t even guess at. Too lazy? Too much work? Or is it more likely that in 2019, in our state of polarized discourse, if you don’t agree 100% with someone’s views, you’re automatically their sworn enemy and represent everything they’re fighting against? A few days after the original story was published, the Houston Press issued a retraction and published an updated version of the story with a note of error and apology attached, “An earlier version of this story contained some erroneous information about Cryptos Grimm, the drummer for Spectral Manifest which was opening for Horna. Grimm voted for Barack Obama twice and was a Bernie Sanders supporter. The Houston Press and the author of this story retract the previous information and apologize for the error”. The publication should get credit for the clarification even though it came as a result of being sent messages pointing out the slander, but Rouner did not apologize to Cryptos personally, and likely never will. Because of course.

I don’t think its a coincidence that this Horna story, just like all the stories surrounding the bands I listed above was something that started on one of the coasts, be it the San Francisco / Oakland Bay Area or Brooklyn. If the protests weren’t manifesting at those cities, certainly the publications that were flagging them are based out of there (MetalSucks, Noisey, Brooklyn Vegan, etc). Antifa is a big deal on the coasts, its membership is larger in those areas, so much so that there’s rival factions (the now infamous “Proud Boys” among them) who seek to spark a counter movement against what they perceive as SJW virtue signaling. The problem is these two groups clashing have resulted in violent altercations, predominantly in the two biggest hotbeds of Antifa-related activity… you guessed it, the Bay Area and Brooklyn. As a Houston based metal fan who’s been going to shows for nearly two decades now, these kind of clashes and conflicts are entirely alien to me. I’ve been to punk shows here, countless metal shows, and I’ve never seen a neo-Nazi presence manifest itself, never felt threatened due to the color of my skin even at shows by bands who’ve ultimately been singled out by MetalSucks for whatever reason such as Watain and Mayhem. The same goes for shows in San Antonio —- I saw Immortal’s last Texas appearance with Abbath there in a packed club full of a mostly Hispanic audience, and in Austin, I found myself standing right next to Watain’s Erik Danielsson while watching Tribulation open, and he shook my hand and clapped me on the back. When I walk into a show at any Houston venue, whether with friends or alone as is sometimes the case, I don’t fear for my safety and wonder if its okay that I’m there. The metal crowds here are a mix of races, ethnicities, gender/sexual orientations, and varying shades of skin color; you’re more likely to get people staring at what band is on your t-shirt than your actual face. And it doesn’t matter what bands are playing that night, the same rules apply for any, regardless of whether its the most brutal death or black metal, or the sweet syrupy sounds of Sonata Arctica.

I guess I’m in a position of ignorance in asking the question, “Is it really that different everywhere else?”. Because that just isn’t the reality that I experience. I know that Houston is perhaps the most multi-cultural city in the United States, or at least in contention to be named as such. I’m not naive enough to suggest that there aren’t pockets of racists in Houston or its surrounding areas, but I am telling you that its damn difficult to be an out and proud racist here and start conflicts in the open that revolve around someone’s race, because you’re vastly outnumbered if you do so. That brings me to another aspect of Houston and its metal community —- its diversity. I’m a bit of a people watcher at shows, so I guess I notice more than others might that at death and black metal shows in particular, a good percentage of the audience comes from the Hispanic and Latino communities, but there are also African American metalheads here, and Asian-American fans in the crowd too (not just me!). Off the top of my head I remember a gay couple at a recent show who didn’t feel intimidated into hiding their sexuality, and they were right to feel safe because no one paid them any particular attention. Its striking that some of the bands that MetalSucks has rallied against through their stories have already played Houston, at gigs I personally attended, and there were zero incidents of any kind. Well, I guess it would have been striking… had that not been the case for damn near every show that happens here.

The White Swan interior
The White Swan… its smaller than it looks here

I don’t hate Antifa. I feel strongly that someone has to stand up to neo-Nazi rallies and white supremacists like the one in Charlottesville and I think its good that Antifa have taken a stand, but I don’t like their coastal chapters inserting themselves into our local Houston music scene where they have no context on how things here really are. They are trying to work through a small local chapter of Antifa whom I’ve only now just discovered exists, but the evidence of the coastal chapters’ fingerprints are all over the Horna in Houston situation. There are Antifa Twitter feeds dedicated to channeling information about future campaigns and protests into the hands of potential local volunteers and who encourage the doxxing of venue owners, promoters, and other local businesses. And they wouldn’t like this ugly truth, but as someone who’s been to metal shows on weeknights here in town, the reality is that had MetalSucks never put the spotlight on this Horna tour, the band’s aforementioned Wednesday night Houston show would’ve probably come and gone with minimal attendance. How can I be so sure? Because it was scheduled at The White Swan for starters, your apartment might be bigger than that venue. My bedroom closet is certainly bigger than its bathroom. Its in a part of Houston a lot of folks don’t want to drive to, with extremely sketchy neighborhood parking (hope you don’t get towed or broken into), and for gods sake, it was a Wednesday night. Houston’s a big, nay vast city that inspires some internal convincing to get in your car and drive across. I’m sorry to pierce whatever Hollywood inspired vision Antifa had in their minds for these shows, that there’d be dudes with swastika patches and iron cross tattoos walking around pounding on the predominantly African-American population in the neighborhood the venue is located in. This grand fantasy where a tiny metal show would blossom into an alt-right festival of racist hatred. That only Antifa could show up and match them fist for fist in some Green Day American Idiot inspired punk street opera. No… just no. Horna would have lugged their gear on that tiny corner stage, played their set to a very small, likely racially diverse audience who would have some beers from that ice chest (there’s no bar there), maybe someone would’ve even BBQ-ed on the grill in the back, and then everyone would’ve gone home, and Horna would have packed up and left town.

But since the MetalSucks article went viral and stirred up Antifa, and the word went out on social media, the possibilities for what could happen at this show are dangerously up in the air. A spotlight has been shown on this event now that continues even after its original location at The White Swan has been cancelled. The show will now take place at a secret location, most likely a house somewhere and attendees will be tipped off a few hours before the show, I’d guess most likely through private channels at first and then publicly on social media. But word will get out, and apparently if the back and forth threats I’m seeing online are to be believed, Antifa or maybe just Antifa sympathizers will be seeking the location of this show with the intent to shut it down. And the folks who are going to the show are responding with their own threats, goading them to show up and “see what happens”. And there we go. What would’ve been a largely ignored event, that would’ve come and gone like the neighborhood ice cream truck is now being highlighted as a place to come for a fight. And I’m looking at Facebook comment threads right now where local metal fans who didn’t plan on going to this gig in the first place are now specifically making plans to show up to see what happens or worse, get involved in something. This would be comically ridiculous if it weren’t a little scary, with the kind of vitriolic discussion surrounding an upcoming gig that I have never seen in all my time going to shows in this city. And hopefully maybe nothing bad will happen, the band will play (to a slightly larger crowd, congrats Antifa), and online chest thumping will be left at that. Lets hope so.

Horna Promo Shot

I don’t know whats more troubling to me: The possibility that violence could occur at a Houston metal show over something started by people who don’t even live in Houston or the surrounding areas. Or that someone I know could be tarred as a member of the alt-right when he’s far from it by someone who lives in the same city but couldn’t give a damn about the consequences of his actions. What is happening to everyone? Why can’t we just talk about these issues within the metal scene, particularly when we all have the platforms to do so? Why can’t MetalSucks use its very popular platform to contextualize a debate about this issue, maybe even invite these bands to come on their podcast and talk about things? Why just the instant doxx-ready articles with pointed social media references to Antifa social media? Here’s a question, since its already happened to someone I know: Does everyone who attends the Horna show in Houston instantly get labelled as neo-Nazi sympathizers? Who gets to decide that? Will photographs be taken of them and uploaded online for Facebook’s facial recognition software to tag them with? Will those photos and names go viral afterwards for the concert goers’ friends and families and employers to see and simply assume the worst about them? Aren’t there bigger problems that Antifa can be dealing with or planning on protesting? Why can’t they channel their efforts on community service and a few peaceful, non-confrontational awareness efforts to build trust in local communities? We’ve got a situation going on in the country now where right-wing media and the President himself label Antifa as agitators and violence prone troublemakers, and I don’t see Antifa themselves doing anything to change that image. Shouldn’t they?

Most metal fans are by default anti-facist (yes, I’m making that statement and stand behind it), but Antifa does little to endear themselves to metal fans and possibly engage them as participants or recruits when they’re shutting down metal shows. The economics of European bands touring the United States already keeps so many of our favorite artists away from the very realistic possibility that a US tour turns out to be a financial black hole for them. Look, I don’t care a whit about Horna, but I do care about other metal bands from Finland, three of whom I’m seeing this week (Children of Bodom / Swallow the Sun / Wolfheart). If promoters decide that the risk of taking on bands from Scandinavian countries in general is too risky because they wouldn’t want to get shut down by some Antifa activity they can’t see coming, they might decide to not take a risk on any band from that region. That’s not fair to those bands, but more importantly that’s not fair to American metal fans. Before you say I’m being ridiculous, consider the plight of folk-metal band Tyr well over a decade ago, when neo-Nazi’s began using their music for their own propaganda videos and it got the band banned across Germany and parts of Europe. They had zero neo-Nazi affiliations themselves, but the taint on them nearly ruined their career and took years of a concerted media campaign to erase entirely. But in the social media era of 2019, anything goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Antifa turned its sights on a band like Sabaton, whose history nerd meets power metal storytelling pulls in one of the most widely diverse crowds I’ve ever seen. They have songs about World War II, and yes that includes referencing the military forces of Nazi Germany, certainly not songs of pro-Nazi sentiment, but an accusation could be made and that association could do serious damage to one of the most cheerful metal bands to ever prance on a stage. Can you honestly say its not a possibility?

MetalSucks Presents Taake, tour poster

I don’t know if its possible right now to discuss Antifa with a critical eye and not be labeled as a neo-Nazi sympathizer. Metal twitter in all its grossness doesn’t have an eye towards subtlety and nuance in its various discussions, which is why I’m choosing to publish my thoughts here. Yes I’m defending a guy who’s going to drum for a band that’s opening for Horna on Wednesday night. Cryptos is more aggressive about it than I am, but I think we’re on the same spectrum of thinking in that shutting down concerts isn’t a productive way to fight against facism and neo-Nazi beliefs. Talk about it? Sure. Debate it intelligently online in a civilized manner? Yes absolutely. But to doxx local venue owners and create an atmosphere where violence could break out is the antithesis of what the local Houston metal scene has been about. When I was a teenager and was reading about black metal for the first time, the name Burzum would pop up a lot as being crucial to the subgenre’s history. So when I finally saw a copy of Filosofem in the record store, I bought it. For a long time Varg Vikernes’ exploits were more of a wild crazy story to me, and when I first started this blog I even reviewed his initial post-prison releases. But as time passed and Varg became more outspoken about his views in documentaries and his YouTube channel, I became more thoughtful about how maybe I shouldn’t cover his music at all and made the decision to stop. I learned more about his beliefs and made a personal choice to stop supporting him in any way, even with mere words. Presumably MetalSucks undertook a similar process seeing as they once supported Horna, or even Taake for that matter. Though it seems like they went in the opposite direction, and in doing so have shined an even greater spotlight on these issues, even potentially galvanizing them into polarizing conflicts. For years and years, NSBM was just something that scraped by an existence in the darkened corners of extreme undergrounds as Exhumed’s Matt Harvey pointed out in his 2017 Decibel op-ed, it wasn’t a growing movement. So why are we risking breathing new life into it by exposing it to a wider alt-right / Proud Boys audience who didn’t know about its very existence until now?

Lords of Chaos: The Metal Pigeon Review

Jack Kilmer, Jonathan Barnwell, Rory Culkin and Anthony De La Torre appear in Lords of Chaos by Jonas Åkerlund, an official selection of the Midnight program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.  All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.


I honestly thought about skipping the theatrical release of Lords of Chaos, but when it arrived here on Friday, February 15th at the Alamo Drafthouse for its opening night showing, I figured what the hell. After all in December of 2009 I went to see Until The Light Takes Us at another Alamo Drafthouse, and there’s something about pecan porters and Belgian white ales and black metal films that just goes so well together. I had bought and read the book of course, way back when it first hit American bookstore shelves in the late 90’s and I poured over every page, only later to find out through various sources that a lot of the book was in dispute by those who were its subjects. Mostly Varg, but I recall reading a lot of criticism from the Mayhem camp, as well side figures like Ihsahn, Samoth, and Satyr who seemed to be outside the “inner circle” but close enough to know what was likely true and outright fabrication. As a result, I held a lot of prejudices against the book for quite some time (and to be honest still do), particularly in the overblown sensationalist aspect of propping up satanism as the central theme. I think it was a decade ago plus when we first started hearing that it would be turned into a film, and my primary thought beyond “that will never get made” was that the only way it could be any good is if it departed from the book in a meaningful way and attempted a more honest portrayal.

Cue Jonas Akerlund, probably the only director who was meant to handle a project like this, not only for his very brief stint in Bathory, but for the connection he’s maintained to metal in general even throughout his years directing videos for pop stars. Before the film started, well before the coming attractions, various music videos and strange film shorts by Akerlund were being played on the big screen, including his gritty video for Metallica’s “Turn The Page” and his glossier clip for Lady Gaga’s “John Wayne”. I wondered if they’d show his clip for Satyricon’s “Fuel For Hatred” considering its the only black metal band he’s done one for but no such luck. The Metallica clip was a good reminder of Akerlund’s tendencies though, a stark, unpolished bit of filmmaking through a humanist perspective. Its the struggle of a mom’s transient lifestyle living out of hotel rooms while working at a strip club during the evenings and hooking long after her daughter has gone to sleep. This aggressively hyper-realist perspective also informed his video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, where similarly the very ordinariness of the setting is a character in itself. In Lords of Chaos, there’s a moment when a domineering Varg barks at a young woman to disrobe, and its an uncomfortable, tension filled moment that is anything but sexy. She has a noticeable cyst that Akerlund makes sure viewers see, and the brightly lit room is quiet but for the sounds of a belt buckle hitting the floor after Varg growls “Are you deaf?” as he and Euronymous sit and watch.

This story is filled with ugliness and violence, and filmed without restraint in displaying that to the viewer. There’s the eerily distant manner in which we’re shown Dead’s suicide, without any emotional maneuvering via music, just a stark series of shots that show him sitting on the floor of his room slicing his wrists, forearms, and neck, stumbling to a desk to write a bloody suicide note as he’s gushing all over the place, and finally to his mattress where he sits against the wall, pulls the barrel of a gun to his head and fires without pause. Euronymous finding his body is a similarly disquieting sequence, the kind of reaction that seems rational and entirely illogical at once —- and when we come back to this later in the film, its surprisingly heartbreaking. Akerlund doesn’t glorify violence in the film, in fact his depiction of it is so upsetting that you’re wishing certain scenes didn’t linger as long as they did. When Faust is shown stabbing Magne Andreassen in Lillehammer Park, we seemingly see all 37 strikes he reportedly delivered, and its gruesome and terrible to take in. Worse yet is the final confrontation between Varg and Euronymous, a scene that is far more upsetting than I expected it to be, made worse not only for the sheer bloodiness, but for the senselessness of the whole thing. Akerlund’s style adds grit and grounding to all these depictions —- there are no action shots, nothing is remotely stylized, instead we get a single cam feel of someone simply recording actual violence happening mere feet from the lens. Its utterly disturbing.

All my reservations about the choice of cast and the decision to have them speak in English without any Norwegian accents in their speech were dispelled in the film’s first twenty minutes, when Rory Culkin’s surprisingly fantastic portrayal of Euronymous does the unlikely trick of charming the audience. I’m being serious. You can’t help but like Euronymous in this film, and I suspect that’s on purpose for the audience to forge some emotional connection onto a central character for plot purposes, but at the same time, you get the feeling that Øystein Aarseth hid a relatively decent person beneath the thick layers of angst, disaffection, and petulant jealousy. Akerlund splices in seemingly minor details to illustrate the point: Øystein’s affection for his little sister when she’s helping him color his hair black; his apparent love for a local kebab place he frequents so much that he knows the owner by name; laying on the couch next to his dad when his mother calls dinner (“spaghetti bolognese!”); the humorous exchange with a Norwegian postman he respectfully addresses; his relationship with girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira) where he allows for insecurity and vulnerability; and of course a handful of scattered moments where he attempts to deescalate the fallout resulting from his own provocations. Culkin nails playing both Øystein and Euronymous, his performance filled with subtlety in depicting what makes this young man essentially two personalities that sometimes merge, but in the films more emotionally resonant moments, repel away from one another in mutual disgust.

The casting turned out to be one of the film’s strongest aspects, with authentic feeling supporting turns from all the members of the inner circle, particularly Emory Cohen as Varg. I admit to feeling a moment of hesitation when he first appeared on screen, a dorky metalhead in a jean jacket with a Scorpions patch (man the Scorps got dragged through the mud in this movie) who gets the cold shoulder by an unimpressed Euronymous. But I quickly remembered that the earliest photos of Vikernes himself are pretty much exactly that, Akerlund did his homework here. Cohen’s presence gradually ebbs from uncertain and insecure to disturbingly confident, certain, and possessed. Vikernes will not be happy with his portrayal, but in reading interviews with Akerlund, most of the depictions came from knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources (in other words, not just the book), with the director citing Vikernes’ own statements as part of their source material. Vikernes has turned into an idiosyncratic narcissist in his later years as a YouTube celebrity, spreading his hate and racist diatribes for any impressionable goon to lionize, but he’s also been very specific about his perception of events and the way things went down, and to his chagrin, the film takes him at his word. There was no way for a guy like Vikernes to be portrayed as a hero, even when he’s telling Euronymous in the middle of a church they’re about to burn about what pagan sites stood at that spot before the Christians came. Remember this film screened at Cannes and Sundance, scores of non-metal audiences have seen this film who know nothing about black metal or its history or relevance —- they could probably see his point during that particular moment, he’s getting retribution in some way, but even that can’t redeem him from coming across as a maniacal sociopath.

This is ultimately a story about a group of young men and teenagers in a pre-internet world who become so involved with their own uniquely defined subculture that they began to get in over their heads in their attempts to stage rebellion against the traditional Christian Norwegian society they’ve grown up in. Within that framework, its a deeper story about the bonds of friendship and the forces that cause them to wither and tear apart. Akerlund juxtaposes Øystein’s strange but comradely kinship with Per Ohlin (Dead) versus his slowly decaying alliance with Varg, the former featuring some of the film’s best laughs (there are a few) while the latter crackles with a barely restrained tension. Euronymous cuts as mysterious and ambiguous a character onscreen as he seems to in black metal history where multiple accounts differ as to just who he was as Øystein. Watching the film, his likability was a strange thing for me to admit at first, because I could easily see why so many considered him egotistical, jealous and manipulative. In that respect he’s a mirror image of who Varg becomes, and two of those personalities could not co-exist in one clique. Despite that, there were hints at redemption for him —- subtle things that suggest he cares for his friends, worries over their well-being (even if that means at the expense of others), he even seems to know when its time to distance himself from everything altogether. I didn’t anticipate feeling a tinge of sadness at the end, but I did.

Now that Lords of Chaos is out in theaters, and those who hoped it would never be made have to live with its nagging presence, I hope most metal fans put aside their reservations and give it a shot. Its not a perfect film, there’s some awfully corny dialogue at times, the music is severely neglected, and some people might be put off by its schizophrenic shifts in tone. Yet despite those things, I think it should be stressed that the more people check this out and support it the more likely it is that we can have future metal related films, be they documentaries or biopics like this. All the criticism the recent Bohemian Rhapsody biopic received for being selective with the truth seems deserved, but they can’t level quite the same thing at Lords of Chaos. The former is a band approved vanity project aimed squarely at propagating their own magnificence with an audience that’s likely sympathetic at worst and die-hard fans at best. Akerlund’s film is an entirely different beast however, non-metal audiences don’t learn about why black metal is unique, how or why its different from death metal, they barely even get to hear what Mayhem sounds like —- instead they get a deeply disturbing, saddening tale that offers no answers in the way of virtue or morality. For us as metal fans who’ve known this story for seemingly ever now, we get a visualization of a slice of history we weren’t privy to ourselves. Let me be clear —- none of these guys were heroes or martyrs and don’t deserve to be treated as such, but its our history, we’re responsible for documenting it properly and processing it. Akerlund never stopped being a metal fan, and to the extent that Lords of Chaos is a fellow metalhead’s interpretation of this grim story, we should support it with the same enthusiasm we muster for new music or live shows, regardless of its Hollywood fingerprints.

Autumn Harvest Pt II: New Music From Thrawsunblat, Amaranthe, Brainstorm, Wolfheart and More!

The new releases are plentiful throughout October, and fortunately I’ve been better about keeping on top of them this year than I have in the past. Some of these are albums I’ve been looking forward to for most of the year, the new Wolfheart being chief among them. I will admit to being extremely curious about Amaranthe’s Helix, their first post Jake Berg release and debut of new clean singer Nils Molin (of Dynazty fame). Some of you might remember that I wasn’t that keen on their last record Maximalism, which saw Berg’s input and role greatly diminished and as a result led to his departure (which had the silver lining of resulting in a really fun record by Cyhra, his new band with Jesper Stromblad). And of course there’s a new album by Germany’s trad metal stalwarts Brainstorm, a band I’ve been a fan of since way back in the early 2000s during the Metus Mortis / Soul Temptation era. There’s something appropriately fitting about these guys delivering a new record this particular year when I think power metal is in the midst of a sweeping artistic resurgence, a reminder that there are still older bands who have stayed relatively consistent with their style when many of their peers started incorporating hard rock / AOR stylings. But does the new album stack up against the staggering amount of excellent releases by newer power metal bands? I’ll tackle that and other burning questions in the reviews below!


Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

I’ve written about Canada’s Thrawsunblat before, with the band’s 2016’s album Metachthonia landing on that year’s best albums list. Borne out of the incense smoke of Woods of Ypres, former Woods guitarist Joel Violette along with Immortal Bird vocalist Rae Amitay (here on drums) have been quietly releasing amazingly strong blackened folk metal records since 2013, and its been interesting to behold the range of this project, from maritime folk infused charm to blistering black metal fury. Their folk aspect is at once inspired by and very removed from the European folk that we commonly associate with the idea of folk metal, with Violette embracing his native roots of all things Canadian and pushing to the fore folk music of Northeast Canada and in particular the Atlantic coast. I’m only passingly familiar with that kind of music, but I gather that its related to that strain of New Englander lyrical folk song that I’ve found across the years, not quite sea-shanty material but musically joyous all the same. The black metal sieve that Thrawsunblat run this folk music through results in something that is rather unique across the folk metal landscape, one very different from other North American black metal artists that are mostly from the Pacific Northwest.

All that being said about the band’s rich folk influences, Great Brunswick Forest is a surprising album for Violette and Amitay to release right now as a followup to what was a roiling, furious black metal affair in Metachthonia. Picking up where the band left off from the plaintive maritime folk of “Goose River (Mourner’s March)” and the gorgeous gem “Maritime Shores” from the Wanderer album, the new record is an entirely acoustic endeavor, except that it doesn’t behave like the way you’d expect a typical acoustic recording would. That means instead of ballads and forlorn laments, these songs are uptempo,  jaunty affairs, bright and bursting with chiming guitars, lively violins, and a swinging percussive attack. The album starts out with its most representative model of this in “Green Man of East Canada”, a song that owes its lyrical influence directly to folk music, with its tale of two strangers pausing to speak near a darkened wood. Violette is a sharp, nuanced lyricist, and you can tell that he really loves the vein of woodsy Canadian folk that he’s clearly tapping into here, relishing it with every line and stanza; “I’m no stranger to these lands, / Though they’re not my own. / I left with the changed tides /  To call this Brunswick kingdom home”.

Things get more adventurous musically with the aggressively uptempo “Here I Am A Fortress” and the chaotic frenzy heard in “Thus Spoke the Wind”. The former boasts some tremolo-esque acoustic guitar patterns amidst the most traditionally black metal song structure on the album, and the cross pollination of style and instrumental medium is strange to behold at first, but its such a well written song that you become accustomed to the jarring juxtaposition quickly. A key component in making experiments like this one successful is the fiddle playing of one Keegan MC, who is all over this album and really becomes the musical glue and stylistic motif throughout. He has a way of engaging his instrument to create moments of dissonance that support the acoustic tremolo sections and give them a dose of ringing, electric vibrancy. But its Amitay who steals the spotlight in “Thus Spoke…” with her unleashing a battery of what you might term acoustic blast beats during the middle instrumental passage, pushing the way forward for tremolo style acoustic guitar riffs and slicing fiddle blasts to barrel forward in the album’s heaviest, most astonishing section. It was a little chaotic to make heads or tails of at first, but now the song is a favorite of mine, and I always seem to pay attention to that instrumental break.

The absolute show stealer of a song here however is “Via Canadensis”, where I think Violette sneaks in some subtle electric guitar throughout to add some muted crunch to what is a joyful, perfect slice of folk metal. I get a very strong Woods 5 vibe from this song, and musically it wouldn’t have felt out of place on that album where David Gold played around with contrasting musical and lyrical clashes. Lyrically though, this is Violette at his most positive, singing during the refrain “On we go — to the standing stones we’ve yet to raise!”, and that lyric takes on a mythic quality during the nearly a capella mid-song bridge. Similarly, I love the lyrical sentiment and supporting musical sweep that pins together the second half of “Dark Sky Sanctuary”, where Violette delivers his most smooth vocal melody yet in a hooky, Vintersorg-ian chorus. Like the folk metal legend himself, Violette’s vocals are probably going to be hit and miss for some, but frankly most of these songs wouldn’t sound right with another singer, having been attuned to his voice in the writing process. But “Dark Sky Sanctuary” is the exception, as I could hear this slice of folk-pop magic being sung by anyone and everyone, including a female voice (hopefully at some point YouTube will yield a cover version of this). This a magical album, particularly in its arrival at this time of the year when autumn is making its strongest entrance in years. I can’t predict where Violette and Amitay will take Thrawsunblat next, but I’m absolutely over the moon about where they’ve been throughout their career.

Brainstorm – Midnight Ghost:

So we all have our comfort foods right? Mine would be mundane but occasionally essential things like sourdough bread with real butter, soft chocolate chip cookies in bar form like my mom used to make, or whole wheat toast spread with peanut butter and a drizzle of honey with a cup of coffee —- actually this is starting to sound like the ramblings of one that has recently begun another bout of carb kicking (dammit). But thankfully here’s my metal equivalent of comfort food back with a new release to help take the edge off, as Brainstorm has been consistent in familiarity and quality for the better part of two decades now. Its a little over-simplifying to refer to them as meat and potatoes metal, because underneath those chunky riffs and earwormy choruses is a Nevermore-esque progressive technicality. Singer Andy B. Frank is one of the most underrated/overlooked vocalists in metal, capable of an operatic tenor, as well as a gritty, Jon Oliva-esque snarl perfect for the kind of heavier trad that Brainstorm specialize in. They’re a perfect “centering” band, for those times when you feel you’ve gone too far on the avant-garde/blackgaze/ambient/noise/funeral doom end of the metal spectrum or perhaps too far down the Rhapsody/Freedom Call side and need a reminder of metal at its most melodic AND heavy; so you queue up a classic like Soul Temptation or Metus Mortis (or better yet, this still exceptional live set at Wacken 2004 that is the epitome of everything wonderful about our genre) to get yourself right.

Its commendable that Midnight Ghost is the band’s twelfth release, as they’ve been knocking out records at far more regular intervals than most metal bands, at times even delivering two in back to back years. Whats absolutely astonishing however, is that this may very well be the most inspired and accomplished album they’ve ever made, in a recording career that started way back in 1997. Because the core of their sound hasn’t changed over their career, aside from a more welcoming embrace of the choral vocal backed chorus and a touch more symphonic keyboard dressing, I’m speaking to the quality of the songwriting. This is evident in the instant ear-worm gratification of “Ravenous Minds”, as classic a Brainstorm song we’ve ever heard with Frank’s vocals delivered with a sense of empowering belief. He has such staggering strength as a vocalist, singing here with a wildly confident display of his range, from gruff lows to Queensryche-ian highs in that spectacular chorus. At this point, Frank knows the pivot points around his vocals so much that you can hear that awareness reflected in the songwriting, particularly in that everything flows around his crafting of the vocal melodies. You hear it in the string and piano intro to “Revealing the Darkness”, the melody previewing Frank’s epic, arcing vocal during the chorus. Founding guitarists Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric rattle off a machine gun spray of punctuating bursts that are always book ended by a meaty riff to round out a verse section. Its that commitment to heaviness that separates Brainstorm’s dalliances with prog-metal from that of bands such as Dream Theater and Seventh Wonder.

Speaking of other bands, I can’t be the only one who hears a real Iced Earth Horror Show era meets Judas Priest Firepower vibe on “Jeanne Boulet (1764)”, from the aggressive, neo-thrashy attack to the “iter” ending of the lyric in the refrain, its a mash-up of sounds that are pieced together in a very different way for Brainstorm. Its been interesting to hear these influences pop up on this album and bleed through Brainstorm’s normally solid musical wall that they’ve spent a career erecting around themselves. From the moment I first heard them, this was a band that didn’t necessarily wear direct influences on their sleeves, only the general gist of those influences. That they sound more relatable to other German metal bands of all subgenres than say Maiden or Priest or Metallica is a testament to the way they’ve carved out a sonic niche of their own. Frank reminds me more of Mille Petrozza, Rage’s Peavy Wagner and a touch of Hansi Kursch than anything, but even those three singers combined aren’t an accurate representation of his vocals. I can’t believe that I’m getting to say this about his work on Midnight Ghost, but its thrilling to declare that he’s never sounded better. Brainstorm knows what they’re about, and their artistic success depends almost entirely on Frank’s inimitable talents, and its thrilling as a fan to hear them unexpectedly deliver an album this confident and masterful so late in the game. Far from comfort food, this is a meal at that really expensive steakhouse you’ve been waiting and saving for. One of the best albums of the year – write it down.

Amaranthe – Helix:

I won’t even pretend that I wasn’t highly curious about the state of Amaranthe circa 2018 in their post Joacim Lundberg state. Lundberg if you didn’t remember (or preferred not to… you haters) was one of the Swedish sextet’s founding vocalists, their clean male vocalist who had as equally big a hand in the songwriting as guitarist Olof Morck and fellow vocalist Elize Ryd. I first started listening to Amaranthe’s debut out of sheer curiosity in 2011 because you simply could not avoid hearing mention of this band that was cooking up this crazy melo-death/power metal/ pop mash-up. What became clear to me as I veered from somewhat agahst/mildly curious to rather appreciative of their frankly audacious metallic pop, was that Lundberg was a central figure in the formulation of their sound. He described his own contribution to the band’s sound as “melodic Bon Jovi type vocals” and he crafted vocal melodies in that vein that were able to both contrast and complement Ryd’s sugary pop voice. At times he would sing alongside her, in effect providing co-lead vocals that lent a needed earthiness to the melody, while he also had moments where his solo lead vocals would color however briefly the band’s sound with gritty hard rock energy. Of course the band’s two harsh vocal screamers in Andreas Solveström and since 2013 Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson were the melo-death element when Morck’s Soilwork-esque straight to the point riffing was taken into account. It all somehow largely worked, almost improbably so, a kaleidoscope of sound that was difficult to classify yet appealing beyond reason, particularly on 2014’s Massive Addictive.

That balance of elements that made everything gel together was disrupted when Lundberg’s role was gradually diminished on 2016’s Maximalism, the result being a sound that leaned too far in the pop direction and resulted in an album that was oddly disconnected, a jumble of random ideas. In my review for that record, which was written after Lundberg had already left the band, I predicted that his departure would be a huge blow for Amaranthe. When Lundberg resurfaced soon after in Cyhra with ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad, their debut was loaded with the same kind of quality vocal melody writing that characterized Lundberg’s work in Amaranthe. It was a fun, strong, and ear-wormy album in a way that was in keeping with Lundberg’s desire to marry those aforementioned Bon Jovi type vocals to melo-death guitars. I mention that because it helps to put into context Amaranthe’s attempt to retreat into the style of the first two and a half (ish) albums, and why that attempt feels unfocused and often empty. That’s not to say that Helix isn’t at times successful, because a song like “Countdown” is every bit the satisfying merger of electro-pop and fuzzy metallic guitars into a direct, focused chorus that is packed as tight as a fun-sized Snickers. And Ryd reaches something approaching inspired on “Dream”, a song that borrows from the tempo and temperature of the quasi-power ballad “Burn With Me” from Massive Addictive, her vocals shining in a duet with new co-vocalist Nils Molin (who’s also in Dynazty, if that name was ringing a bell). Molin is a safe but misguided choice for the band, and that’s not a criticism of Molin as a vocalist, because he’s clearly a talented singer and his work in Dynazty is far better a showcase than what he delivers on Helix. The problem is that his style is all wrong for this band, far more suited to the soaring power metal of his other band and lacking anything resembling an actual rock voice that Lundberg provided.

But elsewhere on the album, its honestly hard to come up with anything resembling a successful example of why I started listening to this band in the first place. Things feel off all over the place —- the lead single “365” is a half baked version of “That Song” from Maximalism, and as controversial as the latter was upon its release, at least it had something interesting going for it with its Queen inspired stomp. With “365” the rhythmic strut never materializes, the vocal melody isn’t nearly as hooky as it should be, and everything just feels like a mess. Similarly unfocused is “Inferno”, which attempts to recreate the sound of the band’s first two albums, but again there’s not enough strength in the vocal melody to make it worth basing a song around it. Molin sticks out in a particularly bad way here, just this out of place voice singing an unconvincing lyric. And look I know, even when Lundgren was in the band Amaranthe’s lyrics hardly ever made sense, but his voice somehow sold what he was singing regardless. The intro verses for songs like the title track and “Breakthrough Starshot” really illustrate why Molin seems so out of place, when he’s forced to sing lyrics that are at best abstractions when he’s used to delivering relatively more literate lyrics in Dynazty. This might improve with his next album with the band, but I get the sense that he doesn’t quite know how to tackle these lyrics, how to get emotionally invested in them and in turn where to place inflection points.

Lets not glide past “Breakthrough Starshot” either, this being the sequel that the awful “Electroheart” never needed but we’re unfortunately getting. Its actually miles better than that atrocity ever was, with an actual memorable hook that will reverberate throughout your brain all day. When fellow metal critics sharpen their knives for this band, its because of songs like this, where for some reason Wilhelmsson is screaming out the lyric “My expectation is the accelerated / Another journey to the breakthrough starshot” —- just, WHAT NOW?!  Ryd’s vocal interjection in the hook via her “yeah yeah’s” reminds me of something I’d have heard from a Britney Spears single in the late 90s (and probably did), but that’s not the kind of pop Ryd should be evoking within the context of Amaranthe, who owe more to Euro-pop and EDM than American bubblegum dreck. Perhaps more awful than “…Starshot” however is the weirdly titled “GG6”, where Wilhelmsson takes the lead and delivers the most maddeningly non-nonsensical lyrics you’ll ever hear, complete with a baffling barrage of profanity that just comes across as lazy and dumb. Everything else on the album is just meh, ho-hum paint by numbers attempts at landing a chorus worth remembering; “Iconic” gets the closest but its still lukewarm, and the ballad “Unified” is where we feel Lundberg’s absence the most. Morck is a talented musician and songwriter, but its more clear than ever that Lundberg was the brainchild behind making the band’s vocal melodies work. They’ve lost the magic ingredient that made their weird metallic amalgam work, and that’s probably going to be news to many who think of Ryd or Morck as the heart and soul of this band.

Wolfheart – Constellation of the Black Light:

Wolfheart’s Tuomas Saukkonen has been releasing records at perhaps a nearly unrivaled clip since his Before the Dawn days from the early aughts onwards, at times with various side projects popping up throughout various years. There have been years where he’s released more than one album, and only two years since 2003 where he hasn’t released anything (2005 and 2014, although during the latter he did chair the producer’s role for a Rain of Acid record). That kind of staggering level of artistic productivity has yielded somewhere in the range of 15-16 complete albums and a host of EPs and splits/singles. I got introduced to him through his Black Sun Aeon melodic doom project, and soon after stumbled onto the fact that said project was already over and he’d forged a new band in Wolfheart, who are already at album number four since their inception in 2013. One of the things my MSRcast co-host and I had been raving about last year was the band’s brilliant release Tyhjyys, which was one of the host of folk-metal gems that 2017 unearthed in a nascent revitalization of that subgenre. I shouldn’t have been surprised that we’d get a follow-up so quickly in little over a year, given Saukkonen’s track record, but its still stunning to consider the turnaround time given just how different Constellation of the Black Light is from its predecessor.

Whereas Tyhjyys was a diverse album, full of songs with slower, more moody, shifting tempos and a utilization of silence and space that made songs like “The Flood” so hypnotic, Black Light sees Wolfheart making the leap into a more wintry, primal, furious style of blackened melodic death metal. I know its going to be an on the nose comparison for many reasons, but its their equivalent to Insomnium’s surprisingly aggressive epic Winter’s Gate. This is a level of aggression that Saukkonen has dabbled in before in brief glimpses and the occasional full song, but here he keeps it as his primary weapon, with only shades of Tyhjyys folkiness and quietude used as accents. The opening track epic “Everlasting Fall” uses a mix of both in its intro passages, but erupts into one of the more violent explosions I’ve heard Saukkonen unleash, propelled along by Joonas Kauppinen’s unrelenting blast beats. The song’s emotional pulse is heard in Olli Savolainen’s keyboards, producing a backdrop of sound that is more Porcupine Tree dreamscape than anything owing to orchestral impulses. I can hear a guitar in there mirroring what the keyboards are doing, and I think I caught sight of that two Saturdays ago in October when I caught Wolfheart live on their tour with Mors Principium Est and headliners Carach Angren. Its a ten minute opening piece, which isn’t shocking in this kind of metal anymore, but it is new for Wolfheart, their longest song to date though it certainly doesn’t feel like it. And its actually the most representative song on the record at that, showcasing the range that they’ll explore throughout the rest of the album and preparing us for the neck-snapping brutality that follows on “Breakwater”.

Its might seem surprising at first if you saw the Napalm Records backed lush music video for “Breakwater” being ushered out as the first single for this album, because this is as uncompromising a black metal attack as Wolfheart have concocted. Wildly spiraling tremolo riffing, blast beats, all with Saukkonen veering between death metal brutality and a blackened rasp in his vocal approach. Its not exactly the kind of insta-catchy single that Napalm is known for having its bands release first, but then they must have known what they were getting into before signing the band. This is Wolfheart’s first release for the growing “major” metal label, a sign that they’re moving up in the world a touch, and have the budget required to fly to Iceland with a small film crew and drones to shoot what is a spectacular looking Skyrim tribute. Things will make sense around the time Saukkonen first stumbles upon the waterfall in the video, when the song downshifts into something moodily mid-tempo, yet still shifting and undulating with its melodic guitar lines, ala Insomnium once again. Its on the far more subdued “The Saw” where we finally get a taste of that old Wolfheart sound, with its stop start riff sequences, thick vocal layers and a major key melodicism pouring through the lead guitar melody. I have detected a little impatience on my part when sitting through “Defender”, which isn’t a bad song by any means, being a straightforward melo-death affair, with a head-nodding worthy riff progression, but its lacking in impacts and surprises. It would’ve been the start of a lopsided album were it not for the rejuvenating ability of “Warfare” and the following “Valkyrie” to close out the album.

Those concluding two songs might actually be one long song, because they feel connected in sound and spirit. The latter has one of the more satisfying opening riffs, a percussive rhythmic piece that is the kind of battle call that a band like Suidakra likes to use quite often. That everything suddenly ends on a lone piano delivering a dirge-like melodic fragment is classic Finnish metal to a tee, from not only a melo-death perspective but also from legends like Sentenced, a Finnish calling card if you will. This is a quality, deep dive worthy album that was released at the perfect time because there’s just something extra special about hearing this kind of wintry music during the first breaths of autumn in the air. I got a big dose of cold Finland this past month, seeing no less than five bands from the country within that time frame. The Carach/Mors/Wolfheart gig was everything a great show in a dingy venue could be, shortcuts and all: The bands were traveling light on that tour, packed into one tour bus with notable cuts to band lineups to save on money. Wolfheart ran keyboards through a laptop, Mors ran their absent bassist through another laptop, and well of course Carach Angren could hardly afford to bring a string quartet with them so they too used the laptop. For all I knew it was the same one. That didn’t matter, and Wolfheart were as intense and crushing onstage as this album would have you believe, and well received for a band on their first North American trek. I was a little surprised that they didn’t play anything off Tyhjyys, leaning on two songs apiece from every other album including the new one. The hope is that with Napalm’s promotional engine supporting them, they’ll find their way back here on another few supporting tours. I’ll be there for sure.

Conception – re:conception:

I usually don’t review individual songs or single releases, with few exceptions, and Conception’s first new music in what, twenty-one friggin years certainly qualifies. Their EP is coming out in a few weeks and this single has two pieces of music that will be on that release and one exclusive track, “Feather Moves”. I’ll talk more about the songs at length on the review for the EP in the future but I just wanted to chime in here to talk about the stunning realization that we’re hearing Roy Khan’s vocals once again. Most of you have read that piece I did on Khan many years ago about the giant hole he was leaving behind not only in Kamelot but in progressive / power metal in general with his at the time retirement. The nature of his departure from Kamelot, the cryptic statement he released at the time —- everything really pointed towards a permanent exit, and I just couldn’t help but be a little selfish about it, thinking of all the great lyrics and vocal melodies we were being denied. When news broke that he was heard (literally) in a Norwegian rehearsal studio jamming with his former Conception bandmates, the classic lineup at that, I may or may not have gone into full on denial mode. But with April’s Pledgemusic campaign announcement, everything was confirmed and so was the utter joy at not having to watch another year tick by where Khan’s talents were being utilized.

He simply sounds excellent on these two songs (one instrumental, yeah… I know), his voice rich and full of that ability to inflect incredible amounts of emotion in a single phrase. To Conception’s credit, they’re really picking up where they left off on Flow, with heavily rhythmic, undulating (I sure love that word lately it seems) riff progressions and impassioned songwriting. Tore Østby is shredding all over the place, with little interjections and micro-solos to fill in the vocal gaps, and the rhythm section of bassist Ingar Amlien and drummer Arve Heimdal playing in unconventional, groove oriented, almost poly-rhythmic patterns. But wisely, Khan is left to direct traffic with his vocal melodies, singularly able to shift the tone of a song from dark and stormy to angelic and uplifting as we get to hear on the chorus to “Grand Again”. There’s a filter on his voice in select moments on this song, nothing that’s distracting, in fact it actually adds to the song but I would like to hear something on the EP that really sees him cut loose. His range does not appear to be diminished in the slightest, I’d even say he sounds close to Ghost Opera era Kamelot here. Hopefully the time off did him good in that regard, to lay off the heavy touring and simply rest his vocal chords. There’s folks voicing concerns about the future of Tommy Karevik’s own golden pipes due to Kamelot’s touring schedule, but I think that’s a long way off, being that he’s almost a decade under Khan in age. There’s a morality tale here for career bands, to reconsider making a living from being on the road and go the semi-professional route like our guy Tuomas Saukkonen from Wolfheart. At the end of the day, its about an artistic legacy right?

Autumn Harvest: Major Releases From Behemoth, Seventh Wonder, and Vreid

In the midst of working on a few big features, including but not limited to a very preliminary imagining of what the Best of 2018 list might wind up as (so I’m not, y’know, scrambling in December as usual), I’ve also made sure to listen to a couple new albums from some noteworthy artists that deserve timely reviews. There’s the new Behemoth album, which may very well be one of the most anticipated extreme metal albums ever in terms of pre-release buzz that surrounded it. Then there’s the long (loooong) awaited new album by Seventh Wonder, a band that got pushed to the background a bit when vocalist Tommy Karevik joined Kamelot. This will be the second album with Karevik’s vocals released this year, and intriguingly enough, the new Seventh Wonder was ready to go way back in the spring when Kamelot’s The Shadow Theory forced its release to be pushed back. I know that rankled a lot of Seventh Wonder / Tommy Karevik fans, and I’ll attempt to answer the open question here of was it worth the wait, and frankly, which band made better use of his voice? Finally there’s the new album by Vreid, a band I hadn’t listened to in nearly a decade(!) that we actually discussed briefly on the September MSRcast, but the album was still new to me and I’ve had a lot of time to digest it since. Lets get straight to it then:


Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest:

Its interesting to see the spectrum of reactions to Behemoth’s newest and most daring release to date. That it has the benefit or misfortune (or both) of coming on the heels of their career watershed The Satanist adds an extra dose of intrigue to just how their fans and the greater media reaction at large will be. There was little obvious pressure with The Satanist, I recall very vividly the sentiment being that people were simply so happy that Nergal had come out of his cancer scare and that we were just plain fortunate to have a new Behemoth album at all in the first place. But surprise of surprises, it was a massively successful artistic leap, one applauded by almost everyone (there’s always a few naysayers) for the far more expressive and adventurous musical changes incorporated throughout. Gone was the stifling, suffocating density and overwhelming technical sheen of the Demigod through Evangelion era, replaced by a more organic, breathable sonic production and far more thoughtful and expressive songwriting to match. The adjective “mature” was tossed around a lot, and while its an overused cliche in music criticism, it really did fit in that context, you could sense that something profound had changed about Behemoth and more to the point, Nergal himself. 

We’ll look back on The Satanist the same way we’re starting to look back on Satyricon’s 2013 self-titled album, as the simultaneous end of a defining era for the band and the beginning of a new one. Satyricon’s Deep Calleth Upon Deep was one of the most haunting, rich, and deeply resonant black metal albums in years, and it doubled down on the stripped back, less dense sound of its predecessor, a choice that has changed and morphed the idea of the Satyricon sound in remarkable ways. Ditto for Behemoth with I Loved You At Your Darkest, which bypasses further nudging open the door that The Satanist cracked open by outright kicking it down. This is wildly diverse, loose, freeing album for not only the band’s sound, but in redefining the boundaries of what moods and emotions their music can now encompass. Nergal has clearly allowed the dark folk influences of his side project Me and That Man to flow through in a myriad of ways, but that’s a gross oversimplification. This is a bold, fearlessly expressive listening experience, from the opening children’s choral intro in “Solve” that resurfaces to glorious effect in “God = Dog”, to the almost Enigma-esque Gregorian chant swells that punctuate the refrains in both “Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica” and “Bartzabel”.

The changes aren’t all vocal based either, with the aforementioned “Ecclesia” suddenly dropping into a grey toned acoustic strumming sequence in its outro that right out of the folk metal playbook. There are also much larger swathes of these songs actually constructed with open chord sequences, often with cleanly arpeggiated progressions that are dreamily hypnotic. Its something we noticed Nergal incorporating more on The Satanist, but here he isn’t afraid to build entire tracks around them, “Bartzabel” a vivid example, but its also a big part of the inverse technique employed on “If Crucifixion Was Not Enough”. This is something that seems so obvious when you hear it, but bands have to grow into doing it —- minimizing the usage of blastbeats and waves of tremolo by packing them into shorter, thoughtfully employed bursts, instead of spreading them over everything like too much peanut butter overpowering too little jelly. The unsung hero here is drummer Inferno, who delivers the performance of a lifetime all throughout these twelve songs. His ability to be creative and diverse in his patterns, his choice of fills and the shift in reliance to floor toms and tribal sounding, emotionally charged percussion instead of simply battering our ears with a non-stop assault is the singular most important facet in Nergal’s ability to grow as an extreme metal songwriter and have it sound convincing and vital. One of the best albums of the year and to my tastes, the absolute pinnacle of Behemoth’s career, just stunning.

Vreid – Lifehunger:

Norway’s Vreid began life way back in 2004 after the tragic ending of Windir, and I remember at the time thinking that they were going to continue in the vein of what that band’s recently deceased founder Valfar had started. The first three albums somewhat did, though never really fully embracing the spirit that ran through Windir, something in retrospect we can see largely came from its founding member. I think my interest dropped off sometime after 2007’s I krig, it being the last album I can now remember listening to, and after that I was never reminded to check back in, or maybe I was but decided to skip it (aka the Soilwork effect). Its also perhaps not fair to always judge bands in the grim shadows of their former incarnations. I find myself doing the same with Thrawsunblat, who have a new album coming out later this week, which I’ll undoubtedly start comparing to Woods of Ypres and David Gold’s incredibly soulful songwriting. As is the way with these things, we find ourselves re-discovering artists through word of mouth recommendation, because Lifehunger was a complete surprise to me, sent in my direction via Cary the Metal Geek on our last MSRcast. I was mildly curious as to how we got a promo of this one, and surprise surprise, this album is being released on Season of Mist, the band’s first for the label. What a difference working PR makes!

The timing of this release is perhaps key to my enthusiasm in embracing it as fully as I have, because I’m sitting here writing this on the eve of a cold “northern wind” that’s supposed to blow through the streets of Houston and purify the hot, foul, stale vapors that drape this city like the heaviest wool blanket. If the cover art wasn’t enough to put you in an autumnal mood with its depiction of dead trees and a spooky moonlit silhouette of Death, the intro track “Flowers & Blood” should work, and its acoustic simplicity is a motif that we’ll hear throughout the album, almost like a rustic skeleton that binds all these songs together. But beyond essential folk metal ingredients, what really makes Lifehunger fascinating is the scope of its ambition, that the band chose to write without constraints and to put it bluntly, let themselves get really weird with it. The album opener proper “One Hundred Years” is perhaps the most conventional thing on the album and even it is loaded with passages where countermelodies spring up to disrupt the more familiar blackened folk metal tempo and riff structure. The title track jumps from an ominous marching tempo with almost doom metal inflected repetitive riffing to a furious uptempo attack, only to down shift again in the middle with a rock back-beat and a dirty Darkthrone vibe reminiscent of something off Circle the Wagons. One of my favorites for sheer unpredictability is “The Dead White”, not only for its myriad tempo shifts, but the Reinkaos-era Dissection vibe running throughout. Its a mix of smokey blackened folk with the coiled up energy of melodic death metal that results in a standout track, perhaps the best on the album.

 Vocalist Sture Dingsøyr still has every bit the fierce, biting blackened rasp he did on their earlier records, but its aged into something resembling modern day Satyr in tone, not a bad thing. He’s at his best on my personal favorite track, “Hello Darkness”, where he even attempts some strangled cleans that remind me of In Solitude or Year of the Goat. There’s a near-campy Halloween vibe in the first few minutes here, and normally that stuff might annoy me but I think I was so charmed by hearing it on my first listen through the album that its stuck to me in a good way. Whats even more lovable is the 70s Scorpions Uli-era semi-chimed riff at around the three minute mark. It was so unexpected and feels so out of place on what is largely a bleak album, a moment of warm tones and major chords conjuring up bright nostalgia. It actually sums up the album for me, a listening experience that kept me guessing all the way throughout, yet when Vreid just put their heads down and barrel relatively straight ahead as on “Black Rites in the Black Nights”, I’m not left disappointed. The actual blackened folk here is strong, confident and creatively written in its own right —- the unexpected surprises just add to the depth of the songwriting as a whole. I’ve been away from these guys so long that I can’t definitively say this is their best effort, but its the one I’ve loved the most. Its also somewhat comforting in the light of the nascent folk metal revitalization last year to hear a strong connection to their Windir roots running through Lifehunger, I suspect Valfar would be proud.

Seventh Wonder – Tiara:

There’s something satisfying about getting to evaluate both Tommy Karevik fronted bands’ new releases essentially back to back within the same calendar year. Kamelot released The Shadow Theory in April and we heard the power metal institution run smack into a creative wall, a disappointment considering how artistically successful they were on 2015’s Haven. Without regurgitating what I went into detail in explaining in my reviews for those albums, I think there’s a feeling among the power metal constituency that Kamelot are a little too attached to the darker imagery they’re using these days in a vain attempt to try to capture perhaps a broader audience (and failing spectacularly at it commercially speaking, but that’s another matter). I’ve accused the band of trying to shoe-horn in something I’ve termed faux-heaviness, which The Shadow Theory was loaded with and characterized Haven’s few weak moments. What does that have to do with Karevik’s role as their vocalist? Well, everything. That comes into sharp relief once you hear him back in his ‘home turf’ of the unapologetically heart-on-sleeve prog metal of Seventh Wonder. Karevik’s performances on both his band’s newest albums is a night and day contrast, and since its football Sunday as I’m writing this, I’ll ask aloud: Do you hand off the ball to the running back 40 times a game if you have Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at quarterback? You don’t need to be a football expert to know the answer to that question, and you only need to be passingly familiar with Karevik’s work in Seventh Wonder to know that like the legend that he ended up replacing in Kamelot, he understands how to craft vocal melodies and has a range as gorgeously soaring as a Rodger’s hail mary. Put the ball in his hands.

Let’s put the comparison’s aside for a bit though, because there’s also the fact that this is Seventh Wonder’s first album in eight fricken years, a byproduct of Karevik’s limited availability, so that’s enough reason to be excited. This isn’t a band that needed Wintersun or even Blind Guardian-esque timescales between albums to create the next one, there were only at most two year gaps between each of their previous four albums, including the back to back greatness of Mercy Falls and The Great Escape. Seventh Wonder purists were indeed right to be concerned with just how much Karevik’s prolonged abscences and creative responsibilities elsewhere would detract from this band (a lot as it turned out). Fortunately for them, the rest of Seventh Wonder spent the intervening years working on this album as their main musical priority, with Karevik taking part during the breaks from Kamelot related activity. With the luxury of time on their side, they had to ability to compose what turns out to be the most intricate, melodically diverse, and conceptually ambitious concept record of their career. They haven’t strayed from their inherent sonic identity, adhering to their rather uniquely streamlined approach to prog-metal with Andreas Söderin’s 70s prog-rock keyboards almost acting as connective tissue amidst the staccato riffs and rumblings of guitarist Johan Liefvendahl and bassist/co-lyricist Andreas Blomqvist. Despite the majority of the songwriting here being hyper-centered around the vocal melodies, their roles are crucial within the sound of this band, and as on past albums they find various scattered little moments for their own star turns. I’ll be honest though, one of the things I’ve identified as a weakness for this band here and on past records is that I can find myself tuning out during some of their relatively few extended instrumental breaks. Even though they’re not as noodle heavy as Dream Theater, they’re still working from a prog foundation in style, so instead of purposeful sustained riffing, or clearly outlined melodic motifs, the musical beds during the more uptempo/metal tracks work as rhythmic exercises, which is hardly captivating by itself.

With Karevik getting the lions share of the spotlight however, we’re far more attuned to process this album through his vocal melodies, inflection choices, and of course his and Blomqvist’s lyric writing abilities. I’m not going to detail out the concept here, because Google for one and also its just too much to talk about, but its tilted enough towards centering around specific characters and their emotions and that’s plenty of ammo for great lyrics. I’m thinking specifically of album highlight “Tiara’s Song (Farewell Pt 1)”, the most gloriously pop drenched moment here, its chorus something right out of the Ayreon / Avantasia grand gesture oeuvre: “Farewell Tiara, this song is yours / From Sahara to the seven seas it soars”. There’s a really inspired bit of album making in the connective sequel track “Goodnight (Farewell Pt 2), where that chorus is revisited by the mechanic of storytelling itself, with us hearing what appears to be a celebratory nighttime campfire singalong, heard amidst the din of people laughing and conversing while crickets chirp in the trees. Tiara has been selected to be humanity’s savior, and they’re giving her a farewell party, raising glasses to her name. Its a perfect lead in to “Beyond Today (Farewell Pt 3)” where we get to hear directly from the heroine herself, and this is where Karevik is just magic as a lyricist and emotive singer. He can deliver gut-wrenching emotion with vocal inflection and choices in phrasing, and sells us on the very relatable idea that Tiara’s inner dialogue on the eve of her solo journey into outer space to represent all of humanity is preoccupied with very human, very teenage girl thoughts: “I wonder will I ever say / Hey, if you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine / A perfect stranger in a ticket line / Just like in the movies, will he put his hand in mine?” Its not the first time we’ve been treated to this kind of ultra aware songwriting from Karevik and company, but few bands do it as boldly and fearlessly as Seventh Wonder.

I’ve enjoyed this album more than I thought I would, and I don’t know why I was initially low on expectations… perhaps it was that The Shadow Theory really bummed me out on anything and anyone associated with it. Hearing Karevik in this context however has renewed my confidence that Kamelot really did grab the right guy (certainly Haven was no fluke), but they just have to loosen up a bit and let him be a little closer to the vocalist we’re hearing right here. And to be fair, Karevik has come out recently and talked about why the approach he takes in Kamelot is so different to his Seventh Wonder style, and he made a few interesting points. First that Kamelot write in a different style altogether, which may be debatable given what we know about the earlier records with Roy (they were as theatrical, playful and major key as anything done by Seventh Wonder), and second that he feels uninhibited when composing vocal melodies for Seventh Wonder because he knows he won’t have to tour on those songs for any length of time. The latter is a band that for all purposes is a very popular studio project that occasionally does a festival date or two. Its a bitter pill to swallow in even considering the implication here, that Kamelot’s touring schedule might be affecting just how Karevik approaches his performances in the band. I’m not entirely convinced, because his work on Haven was closer to what we hear on Tiara than The Shadow Theory. Seventh Wonder definitely released the stronger album this year, by a mile even, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, even digging into the concept which usually isn’t my forte. This is just wishful fan-thinking, but I’d hope that hearing the record themselves would light a fire under the rest of Kamelot for the future.

Mass Darkness: New Music From Dimmu Borgir and Ihsahn!

Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

So I could go the expected route and start off this review of the new Dimmu Borgir album Eonian by leveling a flurry of criticism at them for taking eight years to release something new. I did it with Therion recently, and in cases like theirs and of course the much discussed Wintersun the criticism can be warranted from a fan’s point of view. But other times its worth pausing to consider just how helpful a long hiatus can be for an artist’s career, not just for the obvious financial reasons of artificially building up interest for lucrative festival appearances and tour offers, but in allowing the creative process to reset and take stock. I know for me there was a feeling that the band had wandered off into the wilderness for their past two releases (something I actually felt started on 2003’s Death Cult Armageddon, despite its many fun moments). Their fascination with heavily orchestrated productions kinda spiraled out of control, and although I think the song “Dimmu Borgir” from 2010’s Abrahadabra was a triumph of dark majesty, the rest of the album was one heck of an overcooked chicken dinner. Eight years has given the band a new perspective on just how they should apply orchestral elements to their sound (judiciously is the answer) and has allowed them to rediscover some of the charm of the signature sonic elements of their classic Enthrone Darkness Triumphant album.

 

While Eonian isn’t quite a return to old school Dimmu Borgir, it hearkens to that spirit in their more streamlined musical approach, particularly in bringing back that old “Mourning Palace” keyboard approach —- you know what I’m talking about, the church organ gone evil. I hear it in the opening strains of the awesome “Interdimensional Summit”, as lean and pointed a single as they’ve ever released, boasting an earworm of a choral vocal hook amidst a bed of sharp, jumpy rhythmic shifts. Galder’s solo here is as gorgeous and memorable as something off a Therion album, and maybe its just my memory getting the better of me, but I can’t recall him doing something quite like it before. Another standout is “Aetheric”, a microcosm of the band’s better merging of symphonic bombast with streamlined leanness. Keyboards pair with lead guitars to create a spellbinding, otherworldly melody while waves of orchestra burst in to raise the tension and give us a little adrenaline kick. There’s a very Satyricon-esque riff at work throughout most of this tune as well, an unexpected though welcome surprise, one that I think actually works well with Dimmu’s overall approach (is dabbling in black n’ roll a potential way for them to lean next time?). The gloriously epic passage here is the 2:25-4:30 stretch, a lengthy but note perfect masterclass in the potential for symphonic metal’s emotional power. From just these two tracks alone, we’re getting work that could be placed alongside the handful of other truly great moments they’ve managed in a lengthy career. And before you think that’s a lot of hyperbole over two songs, the rest of the album holds up just as well, including the much discussed experimental nature of “Council of Wolves and Snakes”, although being a track that took me a few listens to really unlock and understand, I’ve been addicted to its slower, dreamscape invoking passage from the 2:45 mark onwards.

 

What’s striking about this album overall is just how much of a pure joy its been to listen to, something I can only best describe as being a fun listening experience. Its a playful record, both aware of when its invoking old Dimmu in pointed moments and slyly sliding in something unexpected when you aren’t ready for it. They bring back that aforementioned black n’ roll riff to “Lightbringer”, but segue it into a clever mystical keyboard vs tremolo riff sequence, and Shagrath narrates with vocals that haven’t aged a day, full of fierce bite and crisp enunciation. I also think “I Am Sovereign” is one of the more inventive moments on the album, veering from an urgent, regal march built around dizzying orchestral fragments that swirl like fevered dervishes that descend into a primitive thick riffed stop/start punctuation mark. I particularly enjoyed the lyrics on this one, a sort of reverse meditative musing on knowledge and understanding, very cosmic in the way its stated yet using personal language, a tricky thing to do. The band saves their biggest orchestral blast for “Alpha Aeon Omega”, a battering ram of a track, full of rapid, punishing percussion under gushing waves of symphonic swirl and color. Silenoz has notably stated that this time around the symphonic parts were more symphonic, and the black metal parts sounded more black metal, and I think he’s right —- essentially he’s suggesting there’s more definition between the two. That was a lesson hard learned I think from their past few albums where perhaps even the band themselves started to lose track of what kind of song structures they had hidden underneath those walls of noise. What Eonian succeeds in doing is simplifying the merger of these two worlds of sound, getting back to basics in essence (you shouldn’t go into this album expecting the band to reinvent the wheel, they’re doing enough by reinventing themselves).

 

I’m a little surprised that many others aren’t seeing it this way, the album is getting mixed reviews across the board, but then again a band this well known is never going to please everyone, and its been so long since we’ve had new Dimmu Borgir that I suspect most writers/reviewers/ fans don’t even know what they want from a new album by them. That’s the other side of the coin in staying away from new music for so long, that an audience can become disconnected with the band’s overall artistic milieu. Most folks simply aren’t going back and listening to the band’s catalog in preparation for hearing the new album, or revisiting the last album to see where they left off —- and I’m not suggesting that anyone should have (or even that I did… I did not by the way). But it does leave one with only their memories and vague, fleeting impressions of what Dimmu should sound like in their mind’s ear, so I’ve taken the criticism of this album with a huge grain of pink Himalayan salt. One review complained that the album sounded like it had been written over eight years, and that every song seemed so different than the rest that time was the only way that diversity could be explained (is that a criticism even?). Others simply stated that the band was up to their usual tricks of overblown symphonic bombast, opinions that can be immediately discarded since we know that’s just objectively not true. Some even criticized the album for sounding too happy (because apparently major keys in metal equal happiness —- didn’t know that, thanks guys!). Ignore all of the reviews panning this album, give it more time if it hasn’t gelled with you yet, its definitely loaded with some ‘immediate’ moments but its largely built on finesse and detail. Its the most fun I’ve had listening to a Dimmu album since Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and I don’t even blanch at discussing them side by side.

 

 

 

 

Ihsahn – Àmr:

If relatively more straightforward, traditionally structured black metal like Dimmu’s is like a dark, bitter beer, then Ihsahn’s more nuanced, progressive approach to the style is more like wine. That’s a terrible, awful comparison, trite and unhelpful overall, but maybe its worth throwing out here now for the few of you who are uninitiated to the solo career of the Emperor brain trust. Knowing personally a few craft beer connoisseurs and a wine expert who could likely give the sommelier test a go, I don’t want to tick anyone off, but wine is generally viewed as something more sophisticated. And having that mindset going into an album like Àmr will help you ready yourself to the odd nature of Ihsahn’s electronic bleeps and blops, his erratic time signatures, and his deconstruction of prototypical song structures. I’ve had an up and down time with his solo works, but I really enjoyed 2016’s relatively linear Arktis., particularly its excellent year end list making single “Mass Darkness”. This new album seems to continue in that spirit, much to my relief, although this time the heaviness and riffs take a backseat to clean vocal melodies, something that really is unexpected given Ihsahn’s publicly stated anxieties about his skill as a pure singer. He’s pushing himself vocally on this album like he’s never done before, his voice at times reminding me of early years Mikael Akerfeldt. Of course his black metal vocals are also present, sounding as distinctive in their ash coated blackened rasp as ever, the opening track “Lend Me The Eyes Of Millennia” being a fairly representative calling card for his overall solo style. Its a furious song, menacing in tone and surreal due to its separation of time signatures via different instruments where dirge strings, tremolo riff passages, and Ihsahn’s bleak vocals are each operating at their own tempos.

 

Yet the heart of Àmr comes out on “Arcana Imperii” where we get treated to Ihsahn’s most convincingly well sung clean vocal to date, arriving in the chorus complete with syrupy harmonies and little embellishments on repeated phrases. Yes I know thats the kind of thing singers do all the time, which is all the more reason why its so striking when its friggin Ihsahn doing it. The music in these sequences is largely devoid of riffing, Ihsahn opting for an openness and spacing between notes, the ambient keyboard work filling in textural gaps. There’s a noticeable Leprous influence on “Sámr”, in its deliberate rhythmic shuffle but also in the airplane takeoff clean vocal he unleashes for the refrain, sounding as lithe and elegant as his brother-in-law Einar. I get a jazzy feel from this cut, something that reminds me of “Evidence” from Faith No More’s King For A Day record (well, if only in shades musically speaking), and its one of those subtle cuts that soon becomes an earworm that lingers long after the album finishes playing. It was on “One Less Enemy” where I started to take notice of drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen’s amazing work here, and really all over the album; he plays with a progressive ear towards jazzy fills and slightly off-beat patterns, even his decisions on cymbal timing are intriguing. What a bizarre track that one is as well, built largely on a keyboard sound motif that I could only describe as something that could come from a theremin.

 

We get an excellent groove based riff on “In Rites Of Passage”, the album’s other overly black metal laden cut, this time with Ihsahn directly layering clean vocals atop his grim ones. I thought the very UK electronica instrumental tinges midway through were interesting bits of texture simply because they don’t seem all that out of place on an album that is constantly shifting, pulsing, and undulating in ways that metal albums typically don’t. And “Marble Soul” is an example of how despite Ihsahn having made a career out of steering clear of A-B-A-B pop songwriting structures, he is now all these albums later willing to appropriate that structure on a whim to serve a musical idea. This is a catchy track, still unsettling in its abrasive black metal parts, but that’s one smooth, sing-songy chorus (it would find its way to me in the grocery store of all places while I was roaming the aisles listening to a podcast). This is a head space album, one of those records you just put on and absorb without casting judgement as you listen —- its supposed to fill a room the way the best ambient electronic music can, and indeed it shares similarities in palette to that stuff. The details start to surface over time, but for them to appear you have to kind of mentally surrender in a way that we don’t ever do for typical metal records. I keep thinking back to that Bell Witch album from late last year, how it might have unlocked a part of my music listening brain that was previously blocked at times. Maybe a couple years ago I would have had a hard time with this album, impatient for something to happen (right away!). Now I feel almost at peace with the abstract nature of this stuff… that in itself is a trippy feeling.

 

The Spring 2018 Reviews Cluster

We’ve had a few really solid months in terms of quality metal output, and I’ve been somewhat on top of most things this year which is a change from my usual flailing around. I’ve likely missed something somewhere but given the amount of time already spent listening to music, I don’t think I could cram anymore in. Here’s a few of the things I thought were noteworthy and worth talking briefly about, the ones that didn’t make it in this time might see the light of day next go round. If you really think I’m missing something that needs to be heard by all means let me know in the comments below, I need all the help I can get!

 


 

 

Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Tucson’s Judicator are the latest in a volley of trad/power metal shots fired from the States, and with The Last Emperor they might actually win enough critical acclaim to become a fixture on the scene. Theirs is a decidedly European leaning take on the style, heavily influenced by classic mid-period era Blind Guardian. This shouldn’t come as a surprise once you hear this record, but its worth mentioning that their founding members met at a Blind Guardian show in 2012, and having first hand experience myself at just how magical those shows are in particular, I wonder why more power metal bands haven’t blossomed in their wake. Anyway, at the heart of Judicator are vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco, both working as primary songwriters together, Cordisco working up the music and Yelland crafting his own vocal melody ideas. Their new album is actually my introduction to the band, arriving typically late to the party (this is album number four for them, three if you consider the first to be what it really is, a demo), I was introduced to them via the accumulated murmurings at the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the /r/powermetal subreddit. Everyone seemed to be eagerly anticipating its March 30th release above anything else, so like a kid elbowing his way through a throng watching the news on TV at a storefront window, I had to see what everyone was going on about. Two tracks in and I was immediately sold and bought the album from their Bandcamp a day before its official release.

 

It shouldn’t take long to sell you on it either, the opening title track being a near perfect microcosm of hearing their obvious influences shining through yet also detecting their own personality coming through. Midway through, they abruptly skip away from a very Blind Guardian-esque, layered vocal laden mid-tempo passage to a sudden gear shift into speed metal with group shouted backing vocals, a combination that reminds me of a metalcore approach (albeit without sounding ‘core). I imagine its impossible to write a review about these guys and not mention the influence of the ‘Bards, and while other bands have shown that influence before (Persuader anyone?), the really impressive thing about Judicator is just how that influence manifests itself —- the folky vocal passage towards the end of “Take Up Your Cross”. Yelland isn’t so much a dead ringer for Hansi in tone as he is in approach, something heard in his choice in diction, phrasing, and of course the innate sense of when to layer a vocal with heaps of harmonies. You get to directly hear that contrast on “Spiritual Treason” where Hansi himself shows up for a guest vocal spot, as ringing an endorsement of Judicator as you could envision. Its a fantastic track, epic in scope and feel, and while the two singers complement each other really well, the star here might be the songwriting itself, crisp, bracing and energetically bouncing along (its been awhile  since we’ve heard Hansi in something this lean and mean).

 

Nine Circles published a nice interview with Yelland and Cordisco, one worth checking out if only for the glimpse into the tons of behind the scenes work that American power metal bands have to go through. The insight into this album however yielded a few surprising details, the first being that this is the band’s first album without harsh vocals and ballads both. There are softer dips into folky acoustic territory scattered throughout The Last Emperor, and they sounded so excellent that I wondered why these guys weren’t trying their hand at a longer piece composed in that vein —- I’ll have to dig into their discography to find that then. Its not a knock against this album though, because I get what they were trying to do in maintaining a certain level of energy throughout (somewhat similar to what Visigoth recently accomplished on Conqueror’s Oath). Reading Cordisco’s description of how he approached the songwriting here only reinforces what I felt when hearing the album for the first time, that there’s a real methodical level of thought that went into the songwriting here, even down to tiny details like sudden riff progression changes and the design of hooks (vocal and musical both). This was a real surprise, a knockout album from a band that wasn’t even on my radar until recently. It gives me hope for the future of power metal which seems to be flourishing into a new renaissance recently with the likes of Visigoth, Triosphere, and Unleash the Archers.

 

 

 

Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages:

I’ve had a soft spot for Finland’s Barren Earth ever since being introduced to the project with their 2012 album The Devil’s Resolve (a Metal Pigeon Top Ten that year!), it being an intriguing mix of melancholic melo-death with very 70s prog-rock elements. At the time, Opeth had just undergone their neo-prog transition with the Heritage album and I wasn’t feeling it, so I was all to eager to fly the flag for Barren Earth pulling off the sound I wanted Opeth to be doing. But that’s an oversimplification of what they do, even if the comparison is completely justifiable, and as we heard on 2015’s On Lonely Towers they were forging a unique identity of their own. And that’s important because one of the things that always gets everyone’s attention about the band’s lineup is its supergroup of Finnish metal aura (two parts Moonsorrow, former ex and now current Amorphis, and the Finnish guitarist for Kreator). Since I missed out on reviewing On Lonely Towers, its worth pointing out here that it was their first without Swallow the Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamäki at the helm, and to his credit he was a big part of what made me love their previous album so much. His replacement is Clouds vocalist Jón Aldará, a vocalist whose clean vocals are a little more rich with emotive phrasing, not a bad thing by any means but one of the things I loved about Kotamäki’s cleans is his somewhat emotionally detached, distant approach. It lent an air of mystery to his performances with Barren Earth, whereas Aldará (damn these guys’ accented names!) puts almost the equal and opposite emphasis into emoting, something that tends to diminish its own power if done too often.

 

As far as melo-death vox go however, Aldará is on par with his predecessor, his tone having the right texture (somewhat blackened, nice crunch… what a weird way to describe the human voice). On “Further Down” you get a good balance of both his styles, and its a catchy track too, with a chorus boasting a memorable vocal hook and a nicely written major key guitar sequence that sets everything up. It was the major standout after my first couple listens to the album, and unfortunately, that’s kind of the problem with A Complex of Cages in the grand scheme of things. After a few weeks listening through it, giving it space, coming back to see if anything else would unlock, I’m realizing that its one of those albums that just isn’t sticking. Its a solid album when I’m actively listening to it, but apart from that one track I’m finding it difficult to have anything else stay with me long after I’m done. Now sometimes that’s fine, as was the case with Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper, but those are outliers, and I remember how much The Devil’s Resolve would linger long after listening to it. Oddly enough the only other track that came close to having some kind of return value was the ten minute epic, “Solitude Pith” for its fantastic ending passage at the 7:40 minute mark. These are the reviews I hate to write the most, because the album’s not bad by any means, and its got interesting moments scattered throughout, but ultimately I feel like I’ve given it a fair amount of time and its failed to make a lasting impression. I’m going to revisit it in a few months and see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

Light The Torch – Revival:

I don’t normally listen to bands like these, but lately I’ve become a supporter of Howard Jones just as a human being, his appearances on the Jasta Podcast being so endearing that I’ve found myself rooting for him. His is an interesting story, not just for his time in Killswitch Engage’s rise to fame but in his battling depression, the brutal physical effects of diabetes type II, as well as crippling social anxiety. His current band has been known as the Devil You Know, but legal problems with their former drummer prompted a name change as an easy out, and so we have Revival, the first album in this mach 2.0 version of the band. The style here is more modern hard rock than metalcore, but sees a meshing of various elements largely due to Jones’ expressive and distinct clean vocals. Curiosity made me start listening to this album, and I started using it as a palette cleanser after so much more involved and complicated music I’ve been constantly listening to (Nightwish comp aside, the rest of the albums in this post are proof of that). Its definitely a simpler brand of heavy music at its fundamental core, focusing on anthemic choruses and vocal melody centered songwriting.

 

The riffs are fairly standard, not a lot of texture to them and sometimes that’s a keen reminder as to why I don’t normally bother too much with this genre of music as a whole, an example being “The God I Deserve”, with its turgid, bland slabs of distortion not really saying much besides filling in the vocal gaps. But lets not get ahead of ourselves here with too much musically focused analysis, because I doubt the people who really love stuff like this are fawning over the guitarists in particular. The attraction here is Jones himself, and on the opener and video track “Die Alone” which boasts about as positive sounding and anthemic (any good synonyms to replace that adjective with?) a slice of groove metal can be, they lean on their greatest strength. Its an addictive hook, and Jones has something inherently likable about his clean vocal approach, capable of being booming and rich at the same time, never losing an ounce of power. His growls are fine, and they add shades of color and complexity that’s badly needed in the face of the straightforward attack of the band, but if he did more of this kind of harmonized type clean singing in Killswitch, I might’ve been more of a fan. He showcases this again on “The Safety of Disbelief”, a strong bit of songwriting with some rather well executed self-reflecting lyrics. The themes here are a more personal slant on what Hatebreed does, a lot of purging of inner turmoil and self doubt, and it works. Not my usual cup of tea but it was a nice change of pace.

 

 

 

 

Nightwish – Decades:

I’m not sure if the more apt critique of Nightwish’s new career spanning retrospective is its utterly bizarre tracklisting, or once again my pointing out just how inane it is for a band to spend money making these compilations in the first place. Granted, the costs of such a project are lower than that of a studio album for the most part —- we’re talking primarily the costs of design packaging here, and presumably Nightwish had already made the arrangements long ago to be allowed to re-release parts of their Spinefarm past back catalog on a newer label arrangement. Whatever the business arrangements, Nightwish made the shrewd decision to promote the hell out of the fact that this was a band curated release, with the tracklisting picked out by Tuomas Holopainen himself and the liner notes as detailed and fan pleasing as you could imagine. So pleased and confident were they that they gave away copies to every single ticket buyer of their recent US tour, a nice little tie-in with the tour bearing the same name. I did scan their social media a bit to see fan responses to the free surprise gift vary from giddy to pleasantly surprised to “This is nice but I don’t own a disc player…”. Well then, the very fundamental issue indeed.

 

I’ll wonder aloud and ask you to join me, “Couldn’t this have been accomplished by simply having the band curate their own Spotify playlist, perhaps with some audio commentary tracks thrown in as a nice bonus? Oh wait, they did that —- Spotify has done a series called “Metal Talks” in which artists do that very thing for their newest release and Nightwish recorded one with Tuomas and Troy Donockley, and I found their commentary incredibly fascinating, Tuomas in particular going into details that few interviews manage to drag out of him. If you consider that Decades release on Spotify itself is in fact a glorified playlist, then its mission accomplished without the need for a physical release of any kind, but Decades was released on CD and vinyl. I don’t have a problem with that, I just hope it was worth it and that they won’t take a bath on it financially. I’ve written about my own internal first world struggle with my physical music collection, and the in past few months we’ve seen new reports about how Best Buy and Target might remove CDs from their stores by the summer (and articles reporting that vinyl and cd sales are beating digital downloads for the first time in years). I guess I admire the spirit behind a physical release like this, but am torn on the question of its necessity (though clearly others would disagree still), a debate largely informed by my own ongoing conflicted feelings regarding physical media.

 

Anyway, lets talk songs, because for die-hard fans I can easily imagine Decades being a flawed tracklisting, and its not well chosen for newcomers as well. I know Tuomas calls “The Greatest Show on Earth” his best work ever, that 24 minute long monolith that closed out their last album and is his Richard Dawkins narrated dream come true. To me and many others, it was the first one of his epics that didn’t seem quite gelled together, suffering from severe bloat in many passages and not enough in the way of strong motifs to keep me coming back (the spoken word was a chore as well). I’d actually argue that “Song of Myself” or or especially “Meadows of Heaven” were more apt choices as far as modern epics go, both hitting a particular core facet of Nightwish mythology in a more compact, memorable way. The tracklisting is in reverse chronological order, and as we travel through the recent albums, I wonder about the “Amaranthe” inclusion (surely one of the weaker songs of Dark Passion Play), and the lack of “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” (some of Tuomas’ finest lyrics). The other chief glaring omission is “Everdream”, one of the band’s most beloved and iconic Tarja era gems, a song as central to Nightwish fans as “Nemo” or “Ghost Love Score” (both rightfully represented here). Only two songs from Century Child seems a bit strange, and I guess everyone could nitpick on what older songs should have made the cut but the ones they picked seem fine to me. Its just an unsatisfying overview in general however. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in lieu of just directing them to a single studio album alone. It worked for the rest of us, it’ll work for them.

 

 

 

 

Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins:

I’ve had a meandering relationship with this band, really liking them upon my first introduction with the ever more incredible The Gathering Wilderness, their classic 2005 Celtic folk metal masterpiece. That enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over the years with their subsequent albums until 2014’s Where Greater Men Have Fallen, an album that saw them up the aggression level just enough to shake up their sound. A friend of mine who also likes them recently observed that he would forget about Primordial for years until the next album came around, where he’d pay attention to it, until he’d likely forget about it once again. It didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy those albums, but that for some undefinable reason, Primordial couldn’t stick with him the way other bands did. I think I’m in the same boat, because even though ‘Greater Men’ was a Metal Pigeon Top Ten Album in 2014, I haven’t really gone back and given it a proper listen through until now when prepping for this review. I’m coming into Exile Amongst The Ruins with that in the back of my mind, maybe even allowing it to amplify my expectations for an album in an unfair way by raising the bar too high. If the last album was a top ten list maker yet not something I’ve revisited out of pure enjoyment, then this one has to be something truly special right?

 

Well yes and no, because I certainly know that I’ll be adding a few gems from this one to my iPod (lately I’ve cobbled together my own ‘best of’ Primordial playlist in hopes of keeping the flame burning so to speak). The first one being “To Hell or the Hangman” which is a tightly wound ball of energy on a vibrating string of a guitar figure, propelled forward like a bullet train. Alan Averill’s ever wild, unrestrained vocals here are delivered like he’s standing on a rocky Irish cliff side, arms wide open while singing into gale force winds. Its the very definition of a kinetic song, and a vivid portrait of Primordial at their best, especially in the way it evokes that Celtic spirit without actually resorting to cultural cliches (ie a lot of bagpipes, fiddles, and over the top Celtic melodies). Then there’s “Stolen Years”, where a deceptively laid back succession of floating, lazy guitar chords create a hazy atmosphere, broken through by an overlaid guitar figure a few notes higher. At the 2:45 mark the build up unfurls into a slow motion crashing wave, all the emotional weight behind the guitar melodies only furthered by Averill’s incredibly moving vocal. There are other good moments scattered throughout, but there’s also a lot of times where you’re waiting for something to happen, to materialize into a memorable passage (this band doesn’t really do hooks) or instrumental sequence and it just never gets there. They don’t entirely derail what is a relatively good album, loose and lively in a way they haven’t been in years, but it also results in a feeling that everything is a little too unfocused.

 

 

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart:

This is about a month late, but I thought since they’re fellow Houstonians and perhaps the biggest metal export from our city to date I’d give The Banished Heart an extended period of listening time. I’m glad I did because the first thing I heard from the album was the album opener and first single/video “The Decay of Disregard” and it just wasn’t working for me for whatever reason. To be honest, it still is one of the weaker tracks here and certainly a puzzling choice for the album opener, the slow, sludgy parts in the middle a little too meandering for my tastes. On the flip side, their choice for the title track as the second video release was spot on, despite its nine minute plus running time. This is Oceans of Slumber at their best, Cammie Gilbert pushing her vocals to their utmost emotional wrangling effectiveness, the usage of delicate, sad, and downright haunting piano courtesy of drummer Dobber Beverly in the middle passage reinforces the gravity of Gilbert’s heartbroken lyrics. At the 5:10 mark, he plays a figure that is pure Blackwater Park era Opeth in spirit, a beautiful melody awash in nostalgia and regret, and I find that I’m realizing he’s as much a talent on piano as he is with his always interesting percussion patterns. The song opens ups after that with the introduction of synth driven strings and an inspired bit of heavenly choral vocal effects helping to propel what is Gilbert’s watershed vocal performance. This was the first Oceans of Slumber tune I really could say I loved, even considering everything from Winter, and they even nailed the video for it, its visual aesthetic nicely understated, Texan in setting (those endless fields!), and darkly dramatic when it had to be.

 

On the heavier end of the spectrum, there’s a highlight in “A Path to Broken Stars” with its triplet infused riffs and intense sense of urgency. Gilbert has gotten better at learning how to develop her vocal patterns to mesh better with the heavier aspect of the bands’ sound, something that Winter needed. Here she doesn’t try to match the riffs rhythmically, being content to sing in a higher register at an entirely slower tempo, an old symphonic metal trick but it works for a reason. This is also a different shade of her vocal ability, something that could be classified as a little more ethereal, and it really works for her. What you don’t get so much throughout the album are her more bluesy inflected vocal stylings, but I think the songwriting helped to dictate the direction on that, and perhaps she and the band have simply grown into a new sound. Not everything is perfect here, there’s some songs that could use a little trimming, some where they don’t make enough use of a particularly impactful riff (thinking specifically of “Fleeting Vigilance”, and I wasn’t particularly taken with the closing cover tune “The Wayfaring Stranger”. I’ve heard countless versions of it before, its a pretty common folk song (Cash did it), but the digital effects and the telephone vocals here seems like distractions from what could’ve been a really fine recording. Oh well, the band’s gelled more and gotten better and they’re on the right track, that’s a good path to be on.

 

 

 

 

Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II:

Quietly in the middle of March, a new double album was released by Panopticon, better described as a project rather than a band given its solitary member, one Austin Lunn. Sort of like a Kentuckian equivalent to Vintersorg, I’ve been an admirer of his albums for awhile now, particularly 2015’s Autumn Eternal and the groundbreaking 2012 release Kentucky. If you’re not familiar, in a nutshell Lunn fuses Appalachia folk/bluegrass with blistering, second wave inspired Norwegian black metal. Now in truth, sometimes these aren’t pure fusions as they are juxtaposing individual tracks featuring each alongside the other, but its been interesting to see him continually strive throughout his discography to actually musical infuse his black metal strains with overtones of American folk. He might have finally nailed it though, because in the week I’ve been listening to this album, I’ve never been as captivated, intrigued, and flat out entranced by Panopticon as I am here. This album blindsided the heck out of me too, not even realizing it was released until I saw an update by the folks at No Clean Singing mentioning how Lunn wasn’t making it available ahead of time for reviewing purposes (the reason being that Autumn Eternal was leaked beforehand in a severely degraded quality and that rightfully pissed him off —- no problem with me by the way though, I rarely if ever get reviews up before an album has been released).

 

The consequence of such an odd album release approach is that this one is flying under a few radars, but I expect that will change as the mid-year best of lists some places publish get posted, in addition to old fashioned word of mouth. The instrumental folk intro of “Watch the Lights Fade” is a perfect mood setter, but in the blistering fury of “En Hvit Ravns Død” we get our first glimpse of how he’s integrating the two worlds of his soundscapes. The middle interlude of sad, discordant country violins and the sounds of forest creatures create a rustic ambiance throughout, and on “Blåtimen” and “Sheep in Wolves Clothing” Lunn uses overlaid lead guitar to create folky countermelodies set against the piles of tremolo riffs burning underneath. What he really excels at is using understated, minor key American folk as the tapestry for all the connective bits where the black metal is held at bay, and stepping back from this album in particular I’ve started to realize that it represents the very heart of his sound. The black metal ebbs and flows, and on disc two here it goes away completely. Its not meant to be the center of attention anymore like it once was, and I get the feeling that this is the kind of album that Lunn has been striving towards all this time. The rustic folk/alt-country of the second disc is gonna be an acquired taste for some, but I really enjoy it personally; it reminds me of Uncle Tupelo both in its lyrical perspective of down and out rural America but also in its lo-fi production wash. This is an album you owe it to yourselves to experience personally, too much for a simple review like this to convey. A magnum opus.

 

Throw Open the Gates! Watain, Summoning, Tribulation, and More!

I had a vague notion that this year would be front loaded (and maybe back loaded too) with a ton of new noteworthy releases, but this January really has been like none other in recent memory. Most of my time was preoccupied with Orphaned Land’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, but the rest was spent trying to catch up on everything else. This is the first part of a series of smaller reviews covering these albums, with hopefully another post covering the rest of them coming soon. In between I have to tackle the mighty triple disc behemoth from Therion so… yeah, that’ll take awhile. There’s a lot of metal to cover and the next few months don’t look like it’ll slow down so I’ll try my best to keep up!

 

 


 

 

Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse:

I had to check to make sure I was getting the date of the last Watain album right —- its really been five years since The Wild Hunt, an album that while largely good, was a bit of a letdown coming after 2010’s viciously earthshaking Lawless Darkness. That’s an album that is seen by many black metal aficionados as something of a recent masterpiece, so it could be argued that The Wild Hunt was never going to live up to the expectations it created (how many bands knock out one masterpiece after another —- seriously though, promotional hype aside?). My problem with it as I recall was that its experimentation fell flat, particularly in their attempts to slow down the tempos more and at one point even try their hand at a road ballad (“They Rode On”). I think it was good of them to try those things, however meandering and at times just boring they ended up. What we and they should be certain of by now is that the Watain sound works better when its this fierce, uptempo ball of fury just barreling forward at full speed with a stop/start tempo change here and there to set things up.

 

The band returns to this formula for Trident Wolf Eclipse, an album that seems deliberately focused on achieving the spirit of Lawless Darkness, and they almost succeed. What’s holding it back is the thing that made this a really tough album to get into at first, and that’s the strange decision to have this kinda murky, muddy production quality through the whole affair. I had a hard time pinning down this problem at first, but a friend who’s a huge Watain fan pointed it out (“The production sucks!”), and sure enough when you compare this album to their previous outings, there’s a real problem here. It prevents everything from sounding as potent and slicing as it should, and this is a band where you should really feel the riffs on a visceral level. And then there’s just the overall problem that there’s nothing here that stands out, apart from the excellent “Towards the Sanctuary” and opener “Nuclear Alchemy”, two songs that do feel like they were left off Lawless Darkness. Everything else is okay, a fairly consistent barrage of speed and aggression with the occasional slightly slower passage, but there’s little that commands my attention. I’ve gone through this album a fair few times now, and I’m still having trouble deciphering whether its the production that’s keeping things from being too exciting, or that the songwriting just isn’t up to snuff. If its the former, that’s unfortunate but maybe it’ll grow on me in the future —- if its the latter, then we’re still seeing something of a hangover from 2013.

 

 

 

 

Summoning – With Doom We Come:

I’ve been listening to Summoning for a long, long time —-  my first exposure to them was in 2001 when a Tolkien loving friend bought Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame on a whim after inspecting the tracklisting and seeing a bevy of Lord of the Rings references in its song titles (as oddly coincidental as it is that he would stumble upon that album in person, its even stranger that a Summoning album was in a store in Houston, Texas to begin with). The context of this introduction is worth mentioning I feel, because around that time he and I had both undertaken a re-reading of all of Tolkien’s works in preparation for that year’s December release of The Fellowship of the Ring (although, that re-reading had been going on for some time, thanks to Blind Guardian stoking those fires a few years prior). He immersed himself in Summoning’s music and I followed suit, both of us getting copies of their previous album Stronghold and for me at least, having it be background to many a chapter read (and the de facto soundtrack to the hours drained playing Shadowbane aka the greatest MMORPG of all tid).

 

They were powerful, majestic experiences, and fully formed examples of minimalism in black metal long before the advent of blackgaze or post-black metal. The band was at its best on ‘Mortal Heroes, where they found the perfect balance of  golden epic pomp to counteract their ever bleak nature, particularly on “A Distant Flame Before the Sun”, a bleak re-working of the Tolkien/Bilbo Baggins song “I Sit Beside The Fire And Think”. They get close to those moments on With Doom We Come, even though this album largely follows the more subdued and darker tone of 2013’s Old Mornings Dawn. I’m thinking of songs like “Night Fell Behind”, where mournful horns pop up throughout to counteract the sombre singular-note keyboard melody that ambles along at its dreamy pace. Similarly on “Carcharoth”, an interesting mix of keyboard generated orchestral elements are used in juxtaposition to an isolated fragmentary melody to create a mysterious soundscape. Its hard to pull this stuff off convincingly, and Summoning have made a career of doing it. But a few solid moments aside, I wasn’t as enamored with this album as I’d hoped for, large parts of it seem to pass by without me taking much notice (a danger in ambient based music). Seen in retrospect with my lack of enthusiasm for Old Mornings Dawn, and we’re hitting a 14 year drought of something truly excellent from Protector and Silenius. Maybe its time for them to shake things up, to try something bold to re-imagine the Summoning sound.

 

 

 

 

Tribulation – Down Below:

I guess I failed to review Tribulation’s 2015 album The Children of the Night, which is weird to realize now considering I listened to it when it came out (new Nightwish and Kamelot albums came out around the same time, so maybe that explains why it slipped through the cracks). Anyway, what that album showed was the sound of this Swedish death metal outfit embracing a blend of goth rock, traditional metal, and psychedelia elements in their already progressive sound. It was a strikingly more song driven album compared to its predecessor, meaning that melodies were front and center to everything as opposed to the riff driven approach of their first two albums. Take that template, and further strip away most of the old death metal tendencies besides vocalist Johannes Andersson’s raw throated vocal approach and you’ll have a good picture of what to expect on Down Below. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Ghost being thrown around in regards to this, but that’s a bit of a stretch… Ghost is exuberantly melodic, working with major key melodies like they’re some kind of silky shirted power metal band from Finlandia. I get the spirit of the comparison, buts its waaaaay off.

 

Now I’ll grant you that Tribulation have upped their production quality, this is as clean and dare I suggest polished as they’ve ever sounded, but their application of melody is still subdued and restrained, used to sketch out the fragments of a song’s skeleton rather than lay things on thick with multi-tracked harmonies and piles of sound. On the album highlight “Nightbound”, its the clean melodic motif on lead guitar that keeps repeating in the background that serves as the actual hook, and its pristine quality allows the rhythm guitar upfront to play a little more relaxed, looser, and grittier. Andersson’s hoarse yet always intelligible vocals careen wildly across, working in tandem with the rhythm guitar in a way that’s half rock n’ roll strut and half goth-metal Nick Cave just going off the rails and ignoring song structure altogether. This is an approach that’s repeated in varying degrees through the album —- there always being something in the way of a simple yet artful melodic figure played with precision to create a sense of structure, and the rest of the band delivering a shimmying, swaying, at times ragged performance around it. On another personal favorite, “The World”, Tribulation unleash a Sentenced-esque sense of musicality, heavy on dark dramatics and major-minor chord shifts to create a sense of the grand and epic. There’s something really charming about this album, about its intentional imperfections and its just right mix of salty and sweet melodic approach that has me coming back again and again.

 

 

 

 

In Vain – Currents:

Norway’s In Vain were on my radar sometime after their 2013 release Ænigma, an album that I never wrote about due to discovering it a year past its release date, but one I ended up listening to quite a bit over the past few years whenever I was in the mood for something proggy yet still hooky and impactful (you’d figure Enslaved would be the go to there but I’ve burnt out quite a few of their albums and others are just too heavy on the prog to satisfy this urge). I just did a guest hosting appearance on an episode of MSRcast’s sister podcast Metal Geeks where I’m fairly certain we referred to these guys as a Finnish band —- a glaring mistake in retrospect because of course they’re from Norway… its written in their musical DNA! Rather than crafting darkly sweetened melo-death with painterly, sweeping guitars ala Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum and their brethren, In Vain display that Norwegian sensibility of progressive death metal heard in fore bearers Enslaved and Borknagar. It means that these songs are at times driven by both riff progressions, and alternately their guitar and/or vocal melodies, sometimes all at once. To add to these bands’ similarities, at times, clean vocalist/keyboardist Sindre Nedlund sounds like a mix of ICS Vortex, Herbrand Larsen, and his brother Lazare (whose Solefald project features In Vain as its backing band). I don’t think as an American metal fan, I’ll ever be able to truly understand just how small and insular the worlds of Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish metal really are. It just doesn’t work that way here in the States.

 

On Currents, In Vain certainly place a greater emphasis on clean vocals, but they’ve managed to prevent that from scaling back their heaviness factor, resulting in an album that’s strikingly aggressive and hooky. On “En Forgangen Tid (Times of Yore, Pt II)”, they place a gorgeous Norwegian lyric clean vocal melody over a bed of long sustained guitar figures that remind me of Opeth circa Blackwater Park, the tempo paced at a giant’s march with its doom-laden rhythmic approach. In Vain work well with these types of contrasts, and not all of them are vocal centric: There’s an excellent guitar motif throughout “As The Black Horde Storms”, a song that approaches quasi black metal territory with its near tremolo riffed passages and grim vocals (its possible that this is a guest vocal spot but I can’t confirm it). There is one major confirmed guest vocal drop in however, that being Trivium’s Matt Heafy on “Soul Adventurer”, this guy really making the rounds as of late. I like Heafy generally however, and thought he was quite good on Dragonforce’s last outing and of course he helped make Ihsahn’s “Mass Darkness” into a Metal Pigeon Song of the Year listee. I think he must have a couple different shades to his vocal approach because he’s hitting a lower register than I’m used to here (I’m not all too familiar with the spectrum of his work in Trivium). The result is pretty good, nothing I’m freaking out about —- its like hearing an Americanized version of Vintersorg, and to say its unusual is a fair appraisal I think. Time will tell if I wind up listening to this as much as its predecessor, but its made a strong impression overall.

 

 

 

 

Leaves Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead:

Its been over two years since the last time we had new music from Leaves Eyes —- in that time Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull had a very acrimonious and public divorce/fall-out, and the band went on the road with newly recruited Finnish vocalist Elina Siirala. I’m pretty sure I’m remembering this right, but I saw the band two times with her at the helm between then and now, the band opening a few North American tours for others as a way to not only introduce Siirala to their fans, but also perhaps test out the waters before committing to a recording. I know that I at least mentioned it on the MSRcast, if not in writing here on the blog, but I walked away from those shows rather unimpressed with Siirala within the greater context of the band. I had seen Leaves Eyes with Liv way back in 2007 opening for Kamelot, and she was magnificent that night, her delicate, graceful, downright elegant stage performance winning me over. I still wasn’t too wild on their albums (the Vinland Saga the exception) but I could at least say that they were able to translate to the stage what they were trying to accomplish live. Maybe things will change on future tours, but Siirala seemed out of place onstage, or perhaps it was that she was so strikingly different from Liv and I had a hard time accepting that.

 

As a vocalist however, Siirala has a strong, rich, almost Tarja-esque vocal ability, and she can siren it out live. And that’s the most striking thing about Sign of the Dragonhead, that she delivers the most forceful, pronounced, and strident lead vocal performance heard on any Leaves Eyes album period. Case in point is the opening title track, a slice of strut and stomp symphonic metal that’s about as meat and potatoes as this genre gets, but it boasts a pretty strong hook. Her voice is noticeably without accent, a rarity for a Finnish singer, but apparently she lives in London and you have to wonder if that’s been a factor in changing her voice to something that is very Euro-neutral. On the gentle, folk-instrument accompanied ballad “Fairer Than The Sun”, she delivers a command performance, controlled and precise, and what it might lack in distinct character, it makes up for in sheer strength. Another highlight is the weirdly different “Riders On the Wind”, where I’m hearing a folky-rockin’ vibe unlike anything I’ve heard from the band before. I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t an old Jethro Tull cover or something like that, and I wish the band would try to spread their wings a bit more like this and get adventurous. It works here, and “Riders” and the folk-laden “Winter Nights” are stark contrasts to nearly everything else on offer, which is largely more of the same. There’s nothing wrong per say with cuts like “Across the Sea” and “Jomsborg”, but it just feels like we’ve heard their kind before. A promising start with a new vocalist, but hopefully just a stepping stone to something greater.

 

 

The Autumn Reviews Cluster: Enslaved, Cyhra, Amberian Dawn and More!

To my perception anyway, this has been a backloaded year, with most of the releases that would have caught my attention arriving within the past few months and here in November. This was a relief at first back in the early months of spring when I realized I’d have a lot of extracurricular writing time on my hands and began an ill-fated monthly journal (now several months behind, I’ve kinda decided to can it as a partial success/failure). But now due in part to a frenzied flurry of new music coming out and already having been behind from the chaos that was my life in late August/September, I’m in a constant state of catching up. This reviews cluster addresses a slew of albums that came out in various points during the past three to four months. I wanted to write more about Cyhra, because that’s an interesting project just for the personalities involved, so its a little longer, but generally I forced myself to keep these as short as is possible for me. Straight and to the point takes on the new music itself, not a lot of room for contextualizing (which you know I can’t help doing when unrestrained).

 


 

 

Cyhra – Letters to Myself:

I know people might scoff at me describing this as possibly the most intriguing release of 2017, but seriously think about it: We were given an announcement sometime ago, that ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg were teaming up (alongside ex-In Flames bassist Peter Ivers, and power metal veteran drummer Alex Landenburg). What on earth would that sound like? Stromblad’s last recorded output was with neo-thrash/death outfit Dimension Zero, with whom he released some decent metal, though nothing to write home about. Certainly nothing that resembled the imaginative, ultra melodic richness of his career defining work in In Flames. Lundberg’s last recorded work was with the increasingly poppier pop/electro/metal hybrid Amaranthe, whom he left shortly after finishing work on last year’s Maximalism, citing that in the process of the band’s ever changing sound, his role was (ironically?) being minimized. In describing why he left, he dropped a hint about what sound he envisioned that his previous band strayed away from, ” I wanted the band to sound like… a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice”. Now if you cut out the last bit about the female voice, there’s a fairly blunt description of what Cyhra could possibly end up sounding like.

 

Turns out that was exactly what Cyhra sounds like, and though my MSRcast cohost Cary vehemently disagrees, I actually think it works better than expected. I enjoy this album on the same wavelength that allowed me to get into Amaranthe, the songs largely being built around the vocal melodies where it turns out Lundberg has genuine songwriting talent (it was always hard to decipher individual songwriting contributions within Amaranthe, to separate Olof Morck and Lundgren in that respect). But what puts it over the top is that I’m getting to hear Stromblad’s signature melodic guitarwork again, that very distinctive style that he pioneered in In Flames that became a hallmark of the band’s sound and something I’d forever associate with Gothenburg melodic death metal. Given that its been sometime since he’s done music in this vein, its closer in approach to his last few records with In Flames than say those earlier classics of The Jester Race / Whoracle eras, but still, its refreshing to hear him playing in this vein again. If we’re all being honest, those are the types of records we’d love to see him return to making, where his guitar melodies dictated the direction of the songwriting and everything (vocals included) were arranged around them. But Lundgren is who he is, and there likely won’t be death metal growls coming from him, well, ever —- but that’s okay, because even though I’m in the minority here, I’ve always liked his voice.

 

The opener “Karma” was a solid choice for a preview track, giving a fairly representative overview of the band’s sound: Simple songwriting structures dressed up with Stromblad’s complex guitar attack, a chunky rhythm attack underneath and an ample dose of keyboard generated electronic effects for ambiance. Whats surprising is just how well his style meshes with a “Bon Jovi” type vocalist like Lundberg, because you’d figure that the sheer melodic expression projected from his guitarwork would crowd out the vocals rather than complement or support them. Its a weird thing to think about at first, because you’re probably thinking about all the very excellent guitarists in rock and metal history who’ve been aligned with a melodic singer without a problem —- and you’re right. What I’m emphasizing is that the melo-death/Stromblad-ian guitar approach is usually something you’d instinctively pair up against a harsh vocal, the better to contrast with (as we’ve seen on a load of excellent records past and present). So take “Heartrage”, my favorite cut on the album, where Lundberg’s emotion rippled vocal melody carries the heavy lifting of the song. Here Stromblad works around the edges, conjuring up beautiful patterns that punctuate and bookend verse fragements, while in the chorus he restrains himself enough to allow Lundberg to soar, only crashing in for the outro to send things accelerating again. Its a satisfying song, with a chorus as excellent as Lundberg ever penned in Amaranthe —- and with the foreknowledge that a lot of these songs are directly about or influenced by Stromblad’s battles with his personal demons, perhaps possessing more emotional gravity as a result.

 

This is largely a bouncing, kinetic listening experience, one that doesn’t slow down in tempo until the second half with a few slower, quasi-ballad songs that aren’t bad, but clearly aren’t what this band is best suited for. That they run together for three songs in a row is a sequencing problem, but one that is made somewhat tolerable by the fact that they each boast a fairly successful chorus. But the last track, “Dead to Me”, features some cringe worthy narration (this stuff usually never works) that overshadows what is a very well written hook that comes slowly at first, working its way to a heavier crescendo towards the end. They could’ve cut one of those songs and left it for future development on the next release, but its not enough to sink the album, because the first nine songs are the heart of this record. Normally I’d argue that a band should diversify the tracklisting a bit, slip in a slower song to break up the monotony, but there’s enough diversity in tempo and aggression in Cyhra’s uptempo songs to do that naturally. And I wonder now, thinking on Cary’s intensely negative reaction to this album (“its too poppy!”) if one’s individual tolerance level for pop is a determining factor in whether or not you’ll like it. Lundberg’s Bon Jovi-ian vocals are a major component of the band’s sound, and all the Stromblad melo-death guitars can’t mask that aspect. I’m considering myself lucky then to enjoy both, because this is a solid debut, something I honestly didn’t know that I’d be saying. Oh, and glad to you have back Jesper.

 

 

 

 

Enslaved – E:

The only thing I’ve learned for sure about Enslaved and the act of writing about their music is that everyone’s opinions about said music are wildly different. There seems to be no actual consensus about anything regarding their discography for example, a long list of fourteen studio albums and a handful of EPs and splits that have as many musical twists and turns as most bands have lineup changes. One of my favorite metal reviewers for example, Angry Metal Guy, had a lower opinion of the band’s 2010 Axioma Ethica Odini than myself and several of my metal loving friends did, one of whom loves that album so much it might make his top five desert island albums list. We also share the opinion than 2009’s Vertebrae was the weakest moment in their discography, an opinion that is generally not held among a host of prominent metal publications and blogs. It just gets more suffuse beyond that —- no one really has a consensus on what’s the band’s classic, definitive album (I would say 2004’s Isa along with the aforementioned Axioma), and seemingly everyone has a vastly different view on 2012’s heavily rock-infused RIITIIR (I rather enjoyed it myself). There’s a review on the band’s Metal Archive’s page for Below the Lights where a reviewer describes that album as Enslaved’s Dark Side of the Moon —- and don’t get me wrong, I like ‘Lights as well, but as you can see, there’s a spectrum of opinions here, reflected in that very same websites reviewer percentage ranking of the band’s discography: There’s no clear-cut high ranking album that towers above all the rest, most of them are high 80s and low 90s, which speaks volumes about the band’s consistency, if little about anything resembling certainty.

 

Why am I telling you all this? Well, for the self-defeating purpose of telling you that my review of E doesn’t really matter, not in the way that it usually might for those of you who have in the past discovered a new band through something I’ve written here on the blog. We’re talking about a band who’s new album is arriving with a major lineup change in its ranks (the departure of longtime keyboardist/clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen who is being replaced in those same roles by Hakon Vinje), though you wouldn’t know it unless you looked because the new guy sounds so much like his predecessor. The overall sonic palette and lengthy, progressive songwriting approach that characterizes so much of the band’s sound over the past couple albums is present as well. And while there’s nothing here that’s as rock-inflected as some of the cuts on RIITIIR or the chorus of “One Thousand Years of Rain” off 2015’s In Times, you generally feel like E is a close sibling to those albums. As expected, we’re treated to one absolute snore-fest of a tune in “Hiindsiight”, complete with repetitive clean vocal segments that last minutes too long, overwhelming keyboard drenched ambient sound effects and that godawful dreaded saxophone (can we have a year without that instrument on any metal record, just for the sake of good taste?). Then there’s bits I really enjoy: The fierce, slamming riffs that fuel “Sacred Horse” are very Axioma (again, all of us lean hard on our favorite aspects of this band); and “The River’s Mouth” is a pretty concise and hooky song all things Enslaved considered. Its kinda shocking that the best thing on the album however very well might be their cover of Röyksopp’s Icelandic trip-hop hit “What Else Is There?”, which they transform into a moody, Depeche Mode-ian clean vocal jam that is really excellent.

 

Largely though, I find myself losing attention through various moments on E, and while that has happened on the past two releases as well, it is occurring on this album at an alarming rate. That aforementioned friend who loved Axioma so much he’d plaster it to a volleyball he painted and called Wilson? His opinion of the new album and the band’s recent direction has turned dour: “They’re just getting boring”. And I think he’s right —- because sometimes its just that freaking simple. I used to think it was my fault or failing when I had trouble processing a complex, lengthy, multi-facted work of progressive metal such as this. But wait a second, I love other albums that fit that description: Opeth’s Blackwater Park and Still Life for starters, Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, Alcest’s Kodama… the list go could on and on, you get the idea. I’m going on month two of constantly going back and giving this album another shot, another sit down listening experience when its late at night and I’m in the mood for some serious headphone music time. Its not catching on this time around and not exciting the pulse points that I know this band is capable of hitting with sledgehammer. I’m undoubtedly sure that E will end up on a few best of lists at the end of the year, but I can’t honestly say its one of the best albums of 2017 (it might be quite the opposite).

 

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Darkness of Eternity:

I’ve written gushingly about Amberian Dawn and their surprise 2015 year end list making release Innuendo, which was and remains a breath of fresh air within the ranks of metal bands with female vocalists at the helm. That album, like Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter a year before, was an exciting, inventive non-operatic/classical affair that melded power metal with other outside influences from the world of pop and rock. In Amberian Dawn’s case, if you don’t remember, that predominant influence is the mighty ABBA, those masters of pop in its purest, most elegant, crystalline form. I was new to the band at that point, and Innuendo was my point of entry into their discography and apparently it was also the biggest injection of that ABBA sound in their work to date. Having gone back through their older albums with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen, I discovered a more conventional symphonic power metal approach with dashes of ABBA spice thrown in here and there, a mix that resulted in some good stuff, if not great albums. Call me biased, but I’m all for keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppala and vocalist (and ABBA cover band dabbler) Capri Virkkunen happily indulging their love for the finest of all Swedish pop. So its a pleasure to discover that they’ve not only continued in that direction on Darkness of Eternity, but might have increased the dosage so to speak.

 

I think Virkkunen’s vocal quality and approach is the secret to making this actually work, because she has that slight Scandinavian accent that bends the pronunciation of certain words all while singing with a clarity in her enunciation that reminds me exactly of Frida and Agnetha. That’s not to say nothing about Seppala’s knack for penning a catchy tune, because he has the gift, and is a studious disciple of the Benny/Bjorn school of songwriting (and the key to that in my opinion was understanding the techniques, range, and capability of the vocalists they were writing for). If you doubt me, consider these words in the press release from the man himself, speaking about the song “Maybe”:

“I was happy to produce this song as a tribute to ABBA‘s Benny Andersson. Most of the keyboards on this song was recorded at his studio in Stockholm and with his legendary keyboard ‘Great White Elephant,’ a Yamaha GX-1 which is often heard on ABBA songs in late ’70’s and early ’80s.”

That song is perhaps the most emblematic slice of archetypal ABBA-ian pop on Darkness of Eternity, a 70’s disco-groove inspired rhythmic shuffle built with moody keyboards, fat bass and tight metallic riffing. Virkkunen skates over the top with a rich minor/major key vocal that’s sung at a slightly slower tempo, creating that magical effect where melancholy rises to the top in that juxtaposition of happy and sad. Its the same effect that ABBA used for tunes such as “Knowing Me Knowing You”, or “When All Is Said And Done”, and its one that sounds simple on the surface but I’ve come to suspect is a talent reserved for only the best songwriters in any respective style. There’s another dance-tempo built gem on here, the 70s keyboard heavy “Sky Is Falling”, with bittersweet vocal melodies leading the way. And the lyric snob in me is impressed, because while its not earth shaking stuff, these lyrics are written without the typical misconstrued phrasing that tends to accompany most stuff from Scandinavia. The phrasing is both utilitarian and clever, as in the set up for the refrain, “Drip drop the tears are falling… Drip drop the sky is falling”, which has a built in major to minor transition in its phonetics alone. I love, absolutely LOVE well done pop in this mode, and sure, its a little light on the metallurgy, but that’s not why I’m listening to this band.

 

If you’re wondering then, why YOU should be listening to this band, well, like I mentioned earlier —- this is refreshingly different female fronted metal. I know that folks on my Twitter feed tend to scoff at that tag, but its just a catch all word choice to describe a grouping of bands that tends to sound one way or another. If gothic-metal isn’t your thing or you feel that no one does it better than Nightwish and just aren’t interested in hearing a copycat, this is the perfect band for you to explore. When they do lean a little harder here, as on “Dragonflies”, they morph into something resembling a heavier, meant for Broadway stages type of song, with the power metal elements working to support a soaring vocal run. On “Abyss”, you get a rather awesome melding of both a wild power metal explosion with some tightly crafted sublime pop songwriting, the heavy riff passages surrounding a gorgeously ascending refrain laden with semi-maudlin emotion. The vibrato that Virkkunen flashes in that chorus is pure ear candy for anyone who appreciates wonderful singing, she’s one of metal’s truly underappreciated talents right now. I’d also point out just how satisfyingly deft and tightly written is the pomp-epic storm of “Luna My Darling”, something that borrows as much from Wishmaster-era Nightwish as it does Sonata Arctica. But if you’re like me, you’ll be pulled in with cuts like “Breathe Again” and “Ghostwoman”, songs marinated in that sweet honey ABBA glaze. This album is my late year happy place, just an absolute blast to listen to.

 

 

 

 

Aetherian – The Untamed Wilderness:

Just when I was thinking that this year was offering little in the way of great music from new bands, this late November release drops in my lap thanks to a track being previewed on Spotify’s New Metal Tracks playlist (that’s new, not nu). First of all, I can’t oversell just how useful a tool that playlist has been for myself and my MSRcast cohort Cary G. Its constantly updated with the latest singles well ahead of the album releases, it spotlights that weeks new releases, and is a well rounded mix of every sub genre because really it doesn’t care if you’re power metal, death metal or grind —- if you’re new, you’re in. I highly suggest everyone check it out as one of those solid free resources to keep tabs on if you’re not subscribing to magazines or are frustrated by certain bloggers who don’t write/update fast enough for your liking (*cough*). Aetherian’s track on the playlist was “Black Sails”, which perked my ears up due to its beautifully arranged acoustic/electric, almost Falkenbach-ian intro that led into a mix of Insomnium styled melo-death over some ultra-bleak and doomy vocals. Its a rich, varied and colorful track, full of elegant melodies but also some uptempo, speedy Gothenburg rhythmic patterns that prevent things from ever getting boring. It was a breath of fresh air in that moment, coming right after Machine Head’s newest slice of utterly abominable meathead metal (the last thing I thought was okay by them was The Blackening, and even that’s a bit overrated in retrospect, we were all a little too eager for thrash metal to return in 2007…).

 

These guys are from Greece, and The Untamed Wilderness is their first album, although they’ve been releasing media attention getting singles (and an EP) since 2013. I like the strategy, and hope more newer bands are going that route —- start small, keep the focus narrow by aiming for a single first, another and another and then finally try for the EP. I haven’t gone back and listened to any of their pre-album releases, but what their full length debut illustrates is a band that really thought hard about what they wanted to sound like and what they wanted to say. This album sounds simultaneously classic and new, both firmly rooted in tried and true metal traditions (the delicate intros/outros that remind me of classic Metallica, spotlight grabbing guitar solos, an emphasis on memorable melodies), all while being unafraid of trying to cross-pollinate styles at will. Case in point is “The Rain”, where we get some epic guitar melodies that one would normally associate with traditional metal, followed by the band launching into a borderline metalcore/largely melodeath breakdown. I know you’re groaning at seeing that term thrown in here, but give the track a listen and you’ll see its not what your brain is conjuring up this very second. Vocalist Panos Leakos has a deeper register than most melo-death screamers, coming across like a blend of Swallow the Sun’s Mikko Kotamäki and Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There’s enough grit there to make it not overpower the melo-death underneath with overwhelmingly doomy vocals, but enough doom in his vocals to give everything a bleak as hell coating. Give this album a shot, we’re going to be talking about it on the next MSRcast for sure.

 

 

 

Blut Aus Nord – Deus Salutis Meæ:

I’m really going to be in the minority here, but I’m just not able to crack the new Blut Aus Nord, which is a complete roundabout dive back into their industrial work of a few years ago that also blew right past me. It wasn’t for lack of trying, I really did give all those highly praised 777 era albums a shot, willing myself to like them and see what all the hype was about, but it just never happened. I’m one of those curmudgeonly types that only enjoys it when the band delivers something in that second wave of black metal milieu, as they did for 2014’s brilliant Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry. The problem on Deus is that it sounds like one seriously monotone wash of noise, dark hellish noise for sure but unlike even the heaviest black metal, there’s nary a riff to grab onto. This is the perfect soundtrack to some kind of industrial, HR Giger influenced hellscape horror house. That’s not exactly the kind of listening experience that I’m after as a metal fan and the immense density of the production here —- slabs and slabs of noise colliding with each other, an almost drone-like repetitiveness to the rhythmic structures at work, not to mention just how annoying the drum machine programming comes across, assaulting ones ears with tinny blasts. The most listenable sequence here is “Chorea Macchabeorum”, which at least has a riff boasting a microhook in its curving rhythm, resembling a NIN track more than anything metal. I don’t know what else to say, and was almost going to skip writing about this album except I thought it’d be strange to have so highly spoken about their last release while being mum on the new one. I’m not saying its bad, but its clearly not for me —- I only hope there’s a Memoria Vetusta IV at some point.

 

 

 

Elvenking – Secrets of the Magic Grimoire:

So I was introduced to Elvenking way back in the early aughts by a Blind Guardian loving friend of mine on a record store trip where he took a chance on their sophomore effort Wyrd just based on the cover art reminding him of Finntroll (ah the days of blind music purchasing!). It was not what he expected of course, but being able to appreciate power metal, he dug it and so did I. Over the years I’ve kept a moderate interest in Elvenking, waiting for them to finally deliver that career defining album that gelled all the best elements of their sound. They fascinate me in that they’re an Italian band that somehow manages to sound like they’re from Italy yet maybe from Germany and the States as well. Their blend of triumphant power metal with occasional folk music injections sometimes hits all the right sweet spots, but other times comes across as cluttered, unfocused, and uninteresting. I’ve always personally felt their folk moments sounded forced, and they sounded better when leaning harder on the traditional power metal approach. Part of the reason for that is just how much I like Damna (Davide Moras) as a vocalist, his vocals an oddity in the power metal world for their rough hewn Bon Jovi like quality. Hell, there have been times where he sounds more apt to be the vocalist in a pop-punk band —- and that’s not a knock, he’d be great at it.

 

So the band has returned to their more traditional sound over the past few albums, and Secrets of the Magic Grimoire is no exception (with that title it better not be). In fact they’re hitting that sweet spot that I was referring to earlier straight off the bat here on the opener “Invoking the Woodland Spirit”, a charging, pounding anthem built on a tasty riff sequence and ascending vocal melody. Damna has a way of injecting addictive melodic bends in his vocals that owe more to rock than metal but still seem perfectly at home within the greater context of a song this epic (“Hounded, darkened and laid underneath…”). Its a glorious track, and so is the follow up “Draugen’s Maelstrom” where the verses are just as fist-pumping as that excellent chorus. I particularly love Damna’s shrewd tempo shift accenting on the bridge (“Through the pouring rain / The icy spurts”), a clever trick that gives those lines just a little extra juice in the energy department. But for every pair of rockin’ rollin’ jams like those two, you get a dud like “The One We Shall Follow”, with its plodding tempo, predictable sound /w group chorus vocal that sounds like so many other bands. I know people gave Elvenking a hard time for their poppier explorations over the years, but I really think the band’s strength is that middle ground between these strange pop-punk sounding influences and epic power metal. It gives them an identity that no one in the genre has, for better or worse (no one sounds like them when they’re merging both influences anyway). This is one of the band’s better efforts in recent memory, and cuts like “Summon the Dawn Light” that remind me simultaneously of Coheed & Cambria and Freedom Call are when the band is at their best. But they have trouble staying in that zone, and like the rest of their catalog, Secrets is an uneven listen.

 

 

 

Ensiferum – Two Paths:

I’m a jerk for pointing it out, but the title of the new Ensiferum album is just ripe for fitting in all sorts of insults and snarky Twitter burns. But you know, its also kinda emblematic of what’s really going on in folk metal in 2017,  a year in which we’ve seen a small handful of releases from the genre’s older standard bearers attempt to steer the genre back towards its gritty, dark, blackened roots. What they’re steering away from is sadly the kind of thing Ensiferum still find themselves stuck in, like some sticky tar they’re struggling to walk through for miles and miles. Its the goof-ication of a once solitary and spiritual subgenre of metal, the mid-2000s turn towards songs about ale, drunkenness, trolls, and whatever schlocky gimmicky stuff that’s been overplayed and overdone for about a solid decade plus now. I know I’ve gone on about this before so I’ll spare you all now, but there really has been solid statements of intent this year from folk metal artists such as Vintersorg, King of Asgard, and Wolfheart. We can even add Myrkur to that list, of new folk infused metal that reminds me of the way the genre used to be before it got all cartoonish and something to laugh about. Ensiferum’s first couple albums were part of that original legacy, and its been concerning to see them descend into the tropes that the genre’s more widely known bands have been barfing up.

 

I wasn’t wild about 2015’s One Man Army and only lukewarm on 2012’s Unsung Heroes, and I’m disappointed to see that trend continuing. Going back to my reviews of those albums now, I see that I chalked up my feelings on them with the belief that the band just needed to write better songs, which is an obvious take that could apply to any mediocre album. I wonder if Ensiferum’s problems are far deeper however, that maybe its a personnel problem in Petri Lindroos ultimately not being the most exciting vocalist the band could’ve picked as a replacement for Jari Maenpaa (for all Jari’s many difficulties, he had one of the best melo-death screamer voices in recent memory). Lindroos has the tendency to sound tame in comparison, his screaming vocals never really threatening or deviating from the monotone delivery he’s been using since his time in Norther. That might not bother some people, but I find it grating over the period of a couple songs, and its something that I’ve only just put my finger on this time around. I commend the band for trying to spice things up here with Lindroos and fellow band mate Netta Skog taking on clean vocals on “I Will Never Kneel” and “Don’t You Say”, but they fall flat musically. The latter sounds more like something off a Flogging Molly album and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, its just bewildering in the context of an Ensiferum release. The former features Skog on lead vocals and she’s got a fine voice, but there’s nothing emotionally gripping about what she’s singing, nothing that makes you feel that rush the way say Eluveitie did on “Call of the Mountains”.

 

Bassist and lyric writer (post Maenpaa) Sami Hinkka has contributed to the music writing more than ever on this album, being credited in writing five songs, a pair of them by himself (“God Is Dead”, “I Will Never Kneel”). I can only guess as to why longtime music writer/guitarist Markus Toivonen decided to mix things up this time around, but I wonder if there was a feeling in the band that things were getting stale and they had to inject something new. Skog also is credited on a few tracks, and unsurprisingly Lindroos is still not a major part of the songwriting team. Hey, some people just aren’t skilled in that particular facet of things and that’s okay, but that’s also why I wonder if the Lindroos/Ensiferum thing is running whatever course it seemed to have (at least on those fairly decent post Maenpaa albums). There are bands where the guitarist can write all the songs and the lyrics, and have a convincing frontman go out and sell them, we see it all the time in power metal and just regular rock n’ roll. Folk metal is a different breed however, its music that works best when its coming at you as a cohesive artistic expression. Lindroos was a fun vocalist in Norther, an admittedly generic melo-death band with a few fun songs and one excellent Europe cover, but I never really get the feeling he’s been a folk metal guy. When we go back and listen to those first two Maenpaa lyric penned albums we can hear the seeds of stuff he’d later explore in Wintersun, that guy really puts a ton of conviction into his art and recorded performance (regardless of however well he succeeds on a artistic or technical level). I hope I’m not sounding mean-spirited towards Lindroos, whom I hold no rancor towards —- I’m interested to hear someone else’s thoughts on this.

 

 

 

Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:

This was one of those albums that you see the cover art for and just have to check out —- if the image on the left isn’t big enough for you, check out the full length spread here. It certainly gives a visual to the album title, allowing no one any room to wonder at what a mirror reaper would look like (Dark Souls concept art anyone?). While I had no doubt it would be atop everyone’s best album art of 2017 lists, I saw the band described as funeral doom and lamented for a minute before going ahead and giving the album a shot on Spotify, fully expecting to be bored or at the least, severely disinterested. Funeral doom is a tough genre to get into, I even had problems with the third disc of Swallow the Sun’s Songs From the North and I rather enjoyed the first two discs of that one. So a little background first: This is Bell Witch’s third full length (their debut came out in 2012), they’ve been a two piece band since their inception with only drums and bass (yes, bass) as the primary instruments. Dylan Desmond is the bassist and co-lead vocalist, and he somehow manages to get sounds out of a bass that would trick anyone’s brain into thinking they’re hearing a guitar. The band’s drummer on their first two albums was Adrian Guerra, who sadly passed away in May of 2016. He’s replaced by Jesse Shreibman here, and together he and Desmond produce a spectrum of sound that runs the gamut from soft, hushed atmospherics to withering, claustrophobia inducing waves of noise.

 

Whats surprising about Mirror Reaper is just how well it really works while being presented as a single song clocking in at 83 minutes, and yes you’re reading that right. I’ve enjoyed my time listening to the album, never feeling impatient with it like I figured I would have. Its a hypnotic, lulling, and subsequently jarring listening experience, something perfect for a chilly autumn day or a quiet night with the headphones on. The scope of this is huge, difficult to put into words except to say that it does sound like the soundtrack to grief, or at least a window into someone else trying to process grief. It wasn’t necessary to understand the backstory of Guerra’s passing to hear that element in the music —- this is a very sad, brutally melancholic listen in the most understated way possible. I marvel at what Desmond is able to convey through a bass, all while playing in seemingly slow motion, his notes ringing long and laboriously, only coming in just as its predecessor is about to fade entirely. Both he and Shreibman play in a manner that can only be described as economical, somehow crafting sounds out of two instruments that can fill your entire room with reverberating sound that is at times as bleak as you’d expect but also surprisingly beautiful and aching. This is not an easy listen just by virtue of its length, but its a seductive one, and a journey that pulls you in and keeps you listening. I’m more surprised at my own reaction to this, coming from a genre that I usually just ignore. This is nothing I’d want to see played live, but at home, on my own with the lights turned out and the headphones on, its a mesmerizing experience.

 

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