October Rust: Myrkur’s Mareridt

So much has been written about Myrkur in regards to her black metal credibility that its almost tiresome now. I had only vaguely been aware of the controversy she inspired two years ago when she released her Relapse Records debut M. It was an album I’d picked up after being drawn to its cover art on a display rack of new releases at a local record store (Cactus Music for you H-Towners), not even realizing for half a second that it was by the lady who’d been shaking the black metal beehive online. I largely enjoyed it, finding it a strange collection of music that veered between classic black metal era Ulver and a darker strain of Enya. It wasn’t as its promotional hype claimed “the future of black metal” or whatever the quote was from that Terrorizer cover, but it was an interesting and often inspired listen. Fast forward to now, and Amalie Bruun is releasing her sophomore album under the Myrkur banner, and she’s actually leaned a great deal into the direction I hoped she would. I wrote in my review for M that I found myself growing to enjoy the more ethereal side of her work more, the clean vocal directed haunting soundtrack to some fog drenched Norwegian forest. It wasn’t that she couldn’t deliver convincing grim vocals, she certainly can, but I think that raw second wave Norwegian black metal aspect of her sound was her weakest link because its influences were so obvious to all of us well versed in that genre. Most of it was stuff taken from the Nattens Madrigal playbook and didn’t really bring anything new to the table.

 

On Mareridt, Bruun largely eschews black metal fury in favor of this new approach, and often sticks to clean vocals even over beds of tremolo riff laden, double-kick pounding, furious black metal such as on “Gladiatrix” which creates a rare listening experience only mirrored by those power metal unicorns in Falconer. Similarly on “Maneblot”, the track begins with a pure black metal approach only to later find Bruun switching to clean vocals over the same bed of frenzied tempos and abrasive walls of noise. Partway through, there’s an abrupt shift to rustic violins screeching a tortured folk melody in a cavern of silence only to be slowly crushed in by the black metal seeping in through the cracks —- like water engulfing the creaking hold of a ship. Those kinds of change-ups and attention to sonic details are what make Mareridt’s black metal aspects way more interesting than M’s ever were. She’s found her footing here, understanding that pure blanket second wave black metal shouldn’t be her end goal, that it should be used as an element of a greater sonic palette. On “Ulvinde”, one of the album’s stranger tracks, she couches blasts of her black metal vocals directly against an almost Tori Amos-esque plaintative vocal, one that’s almost sedate in its abrupt juxtaposition. On this and many other tracks, she’s found a way to blend black metal elements like tremolo-riffing, double-kick (even blastbeats at times) with decidedly non black metal tempos, song structures, and melodies. Sure, its walking down the path that artists like Alcest paved; to create something new by merging black metal with an outside genre (in their case, shoegaze). What Bruun is doing here sounds more like a marriage between black metal and the strong, defined folk of Loreenna McKennitt (and that’s awesome, in case you’re wondering who the latter is).

 

Not everything is a mish mash of black metal with something else however, as she reserves many of the album’s fifteen tracks for dips into pure Scandinavian folk music. Even here she’s improved by broadening her palette, no longer solely relying on the delicately ethereal, but exploring grittier, earthier variations on traditional folk melodies that often weave beautifully dark webs. The rumbling “Kaetteren” is one of these, setting the scene of musicians around a quietly flickering fire in the Scandinavian hillsides. While that track is the album’s lone instrumental, other folk laden songs revolve around Bruun employing far more hushed and delicate vocals than we’ve heard from her prior. On “Himlen Blev Sort”, she croons as sweetly and lightly as Sharon Den Adel, and the acoustic guitars trip lazily along in a semi-waltz rhythm, almost lullabye like in their intention (and perfect for an album closer). My favorite song is the truly spectacular “Death of Days”, a Dead Can Dance styled meditation with a swirling melody that’s utterly hypnotic. There’s a lot to process over these fifteen tracks, and I’m glad that Bruun decided to keep things short and sharp (just like Eluveitie with their recent eighteen track Evocation II), with no tracks hitting the five minute mark.

 

 

The background concept is also intriguing, giving reason to explore the lyrics —- Bruun kept a journal about her experiences with sleep paralysis and nightmares recently and a lot of these songs explore the feelings those stirred in her. I’ve experienced sleep paralysis myself, its wasn’t pleasant to say the least (absolutely terrifying when I didn’t even realize what it was at first), so my interest in Mareridt (Danish for “nightmare”) has only deepened on a lyrical level. I think I went into this expecting to like it, but not love it, that perhaps Bruun would make the mistake of trying what Deafheaven did, to get purposefully aggressive in order to win over some of the metal set. That she did the opposite is not only shrewd, but refreshing. She has nothing to prove to anyone, and a lot of the criticism towards her has been transparently misogynistic. I don’t like to use that term blithely, but it seems to me that most of the agitation surrounding her has been largely misguided as a result of the media coverage she gets. Its not her fault that the NY Post’s article about this album has the stupidly ignorant sub headline “This singer is making black metal into art”. Mainstream media likes to appropriate the appealing parts of our genre and promote them as their own grand discoveries. Bruun’s integrity however is unstained in my view, she’s in tune with the same artistic spirit that I find in a relatively more obscure band such as Swallow the Sun. My advice if you’ve been avoiding this is to ignore all the noise and check this album out, Bruun really is doing something new and fresh, a difficult thing to do in black metal, and its worth listening to.

Metal Spice Lattes: New Music from Cradle of Filth, Eluveitie and Cellar Darling!

October! My exclamation is defined both by my surprise at just how fast the year zips by now, and also just how aggravatingly long September felt like (to me anyway). We’ve just released a new MSRcast covering some of the music from August and September, and you should check out my recent July + August diary update for a handful of small reviews on various summer releases. I was going to deliver another reviews cluster with a bunch of new albums at once, but ended up writing longer reviews for most of them so I’m going to be releasing them a few at a time from here on in. Yeah, I’m not good at keeping myself to a word limit.

 


 

Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay:

Two years ago, we were treated to Cradle of Filth’s rebirth, their first album with their two new guitarists Richard Shaw and Martin “Ashok” Šmerda, and new keyboardist/backing vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft. I went into that album not knowing what to expect with the departure of longtime guitarist Paul Allender, who I had felt had overstayed his creative energy for the band by a handful of albums. Surely it would be a little different at the very least, but what we got was a full blown refreshing of the Cradle sound, a return to an authentic true twin guitar attack with heavy, downright thrashy guitars delivering chunky riffs and injecting some real brutality back into the band’s previously thinning sound. It was hands down the most interesting Cradle of Filth album since Nymphetamine, and one I played (and still play) often which I can’t say for most of the band’s releases over the past decade. Now we’re on to album number two with the same lineup, the band’s twelfth overall, and its only further vindictation that Dani’s instincts were right on the money in recruiting his three newest members. Not only is Cryptoriana an improvement over the already quite excellent Hammer of the Witches, but I’m calling this the absolute best Cradle album since Midian —- no ‘well that’s just my opinion’ here, I’m freakin’ calling it!

 

With an album and world tour under their belt, Shaw and Ashok’s guitar work is even more resembling something of a real tandem —- Cradle’s own Murray/Smith pairing if you will. Even at their mid-late nineties best, Allender and his longest serving axe partner Gian Pyres never were able to achieve the sort of creative partnership to play off each other the way that great metal guitar duos do. It may be premature to some for me to say that right now, only two albums in, but seriously check out their riff sequences on “You Will Know The Lion By His Claw”, in which they amplify a Maiden-esque influence upon the entire affair that is pure musical ear candy. They’re unafraid to get unconventional and creative, as we hear in the spitfire solos they shoot out without warning, but in keeping with their seeming determination to remake Cradle as a brutally heavy band once again, everything is subservient to their crushing rhythm guitars. That song is an album highlight, not only for its awesome guitar work, but as a display of just how shrewd Linsday Schoolcraft is in her musical role on the keys —- she doesn’t pile on layers of sound, instead dreams up a nightmarish quasi-orchestral accompaniment that never demands to take center stage. Schoolcraft however is a talented vocalist in her own right, and she gets to showcase her beautiful voice on “Achingly Beautiful”, delivering one of Cradle’s all-time catchiest hooks in the refrain.

 

The first time playing this album, I was laying down with it on blast at night, frequently smiling while hearing some awesome little riff pop up that gave me flashes of Judas Priest, Behemoth, or hell even Megadeth. Take the slamming, full throttle “The Night at Catafalque Manor”, where there are simply too many grin inducing guitar moments to fully list here, just a riff explosion that match Dani’s intensity step for step. While we’re on the subject, the new blood in the band has done wonders for the overall songwriting —- these guys and gal just have it down on how to write music for Dani and steer him into a more guttural overall approach, spiked with a reigned in mid-range shrieking style. The sheer aggression of the music has forced Dani to up his game and employ a diversity in his vocals that we’ve not heard ever before. He sounds revitalized, energized and far more focused than I’ve ever heard him, his new songwriting partners forcing him out of comfort zones. Its almost like in the past he’d become one dimensional because there seemed to be a formula for just how his vocals would have to work in relation to Allender’s guitar work. Quite the opposite these days on albums like Hammer and Cryptoriana, and as ridiculous as it might be to read this, Dani Filth has just dropped one of the best overall metal vocal performances in 2017. People are still sleeping on Cradle’s artistic resurrection, and that’s a grogginess that hopefully will be shaken off by the time the band tours anywhere and everywhere for this. LL Cool J once said “don’t call it a comeback”, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t the very definition of one.

 

 

Eluveitie – Evocation II – Pantheon:

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Cellar Darling – This Is The Sound:

One of the most intriguing behind the scenes story lines in 2016 was the split between Elveitie’s key members Anna Murphy and Chrigel Glanzmann. Murphy and guitarist Ivo Henzi’s decision to leave the band simultaneously seemed to be tied to Eluveitie’s firing of drummer Merlin Sutter. I honestly can’t remember the details but that’s kind of the point, everything was hazy in the public fallout from the big split, and to this day, no one really knows why it happened in the first place. Whatever it was, it definitely was personal and the band’s statement included the eyebrow raising statement “thus we felt that we have become something we shouldn’t have”, which caused Murphy to essentially go WTF?! in her own counter statement. Look, it was all very interesting for a couple days to dorks like me who are deeply interested in the behind the scenes stories of rock and metal bands of all sizes. But fast forward a year later and this summer provided something of an answer perhaps to that vague quote above: Both Eluveitie and its former members new project Cellar Darling were releasing albums within mere months of each other. It was a folk off!

 

So the monkey wrench here in trying to directly compare the two bands’ new albums is the very obvious fact that Eluveitie’s isn’t meant to be a metal album at all. This is of course because Evocation II is a direct sequel to their 2009 acoustic release Evocation: The Arcane Dominion, and in keeping with the original’s theme, it is all acoustic and sung in Gaulish with nary a trace of metal anywhere. Cellar Darling’s debut album on the other hand is a full on metallic rock infused affair —- it would be skewed and pointless in even remotely comparing the two, right? Absolutely… except that the stark differences between the two albums help to illuminate some of the issues that might have been at the root of their 2016 split on personal and creative differences. I think that a lot of us in the States don’t fully appreciate just how big Eluveitie has gotten in Europe. Sure they do well here Stateside, able to draw nice crowds for club tours and capable of headlining their own touring packages, but in Europe they’ve ascended to just under mid-major festival headliner status. The reason for all this has a lot to do with a cut like “Inis Mona” off the Slania album, a single which ignited the band’s career back in 2008 (caught them on the Houston Paganfest stop that year with Tyr/Ensiferum/Turisas, what a bill!), but it has just as much if not more to do with their 2014 hit “The Call of the Mountains”. We’re talking about bonafide hits measured in the only way that really matters these days, with YouTube views —- 26 million and 18.6 million respectively (that “The Call of the Mountains” is trailing in view count here is undercut by it being posted three years ago, versus nine years ago for the former).

 

The difference between these two songs is striking —- Glanzmann screams on “Inis Mona”, while Murphy delivers soulful, passionate melodic lead vocals on “Call of the Mountains”, and while both songs have genuinely awesome hooks, its easy to see just how much the band’s sound had changed in that time span of six years. I know a lot of people gave 2014’s Origins a pretty critical eye, but I really did enjoy that album because it seemed stronger overall than 2012’s Helvetios, and because I kinda appreciated the band’s more streamlined melodic approach on some of its tracks. Not coincidentally, those particular tracks happened to be cuts where Murphy or Henzi were co-writers alongside Glanzmann. The album was a huge hit, like hitting #6 in the German Media Control charts, #1 in their native Switzerland, and #1 on the U.S. Heatseekers charts (#106 on the Billboard 200) kinda huge. It also dented the UK Indie and Rock charts pretty significantly, and if you were paying attention to the crowds they were drawing on their tour supporting the album, you could see they had graduated to another level. The video for “The Call of the Mountains” also gave Murphy star billing, rather deservedly I’d argue since her lead vocal was the primary catalyst for the song’s tangible artistic success. She became in my mind and I’m sure many others, the face of the band alongside (or perhaps moreso than) Glanzmann. Now I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not insinuating that jealousy is at the root of their split, but I think it probably exacerbated already existing creative tensions that saw the band leaning more poppy in their sound than anyone ever pegged them becoming.

 

At some point between then and 2016, discussions about what to do musically must have come up and in one camp you had Sutter/ Henzi/ Murphy leaning towards continuing down the road that sparkling hit song had paved. Even if Glanzmann’s recent comments in interviews that Evocation II was planned as the next release prior to the split-up are to be believed (and we have no reason to doubt him), that very intention might have been the nail in the coffin for both parties agreeing on the band’s future direction. And certainly, Evocation II is almost the diametrical opposite of the “Call of the Mountains” approach, hearkening back to a more traditional folk music base, an album completely devoid of anything resembling rock (or metal). The addition of new lead vocalist Fabienne Erni makes this sequel sound quite different from the first Evocation, her singing far more breezy and brighter in tone. The music responds in kind, “Epona” being a vivid example of something I would pay money to hear at the Texas Rennaisance Festival as I’m walking around —- that’s not an insult by the way, I love stuff like this (this album is definitely on the playlist for the drive up there). Whereas its predecessor was dark, rumbling, full of stormier moods and melodies (better attuned to Murphy’s relatively deeper range), Evocation II keeps thing buoyant, lively and head-noddingly rhythmic. Even instrumentals such as “Nantosvelta” get in on this action and are anything but filler, tracks I don’t skip over in play-throughs and find myself replaying in my head later in the day. I particularly love “Lvgvs”, Erni’s vocals here are especially lovely, her voice capable of delivering genuine warmth —- she’s practically sunlight here, and in concert with the gorgeous melody and backing instrumentation at work. I know its a cover of an old folk song, but its one of the best things the band has ever recorded.

 

As surprising as it is to admit to myself and you, I can’t find a single negative thing to say about Evocation II. I even loved the sly remake of “Inis Mona” in “Ogmios”, reworking the song in a way that’s refreshing and comforting at once. I love that its eighteen tracks but that only two cuts go over the four minute mark, these are focused, tightly written pieces of music, vocals or no. We had our first real fall day here awhile ago, and I celebrated the chill in the air by playing this album, opening the windows, lighting a few sticks of this awesome incense I bought at last year’s RenFest and it was pretty perfect. There’s something this band has over its fellow folk metal brethren, and that is the real instrumentation at work —- real bagpipes, violin, harp, bodhrán, hurdy gurdy, its all tangible on the recording, giving this music a gritty earthiness that keyboard reliant bands lack. As ridiculous as it might be that one band has this many members (nine at last count), at least there’s a valid reason for so much personnel (because frankly its a little stupid that Slipknot has a drummer AND two percussionists, and do they use that DJ for anything?… nevermind).  Maybe an acoustic album was the soft landing that Eluveitie needed after so dramatic a lineup shift, particularly concerning a major voice and image of the band. And give them credit for so gracefully giving Erni the spotlight in the trio of videos they’ve released in support of this album, when so easily they could’ve shifted the attention to themselves —- the songs they picked are not only the catchiest, but vocal showcases for their new frontwoman. Hats off, seriously, I’m genuinely impressed at how well they’ve pulled this off… now the question is, can they carry this over successfully onto a metal based album?

 

 

The other side of this break-up story is told through the debut album of Cellar Darling, which was the name of Anna Murphy’s solo project while she was a member of Eluveitie, so I suppose it makes sense that she’d just carry on under that moniker this time as a band (as awkward a name as it is). She along with Henzi and Sutter tackle the challenging task of continuing where “The Call of the Mountains” left off, that is, imagining a merging of metallic rock with folk elements and trying to negotiation a balance between the two. The title of the album, This Is The Sound, is almost an explanation as much as it is a declaration —- a way of saying, this is where we saw Eluveitie heading, the sound we wanted to explore (and why we’re not in the band anymore). Its certainly one of the most interesting albums of the year for genuinely trying to merge the tangible essence of folk-metal as we know it to a more streamlined, rock music path. There are no melo-death riffs on display here, Henzi operating from a headspace more attuned to groove and rhythmic support, interlocked with Sutter’s deft, creative percussion. Together they remind me of modern rock ala Tool, A Perfect Circle, and occasionally (surprisingly) Rage Against the Machine. Murphy is frequently the melodic catalyst, be it through her charismatic vocals or her hurdy-gurdy, she’s our musical narrator. It is in that sense a showcase for her in the way that a solo project would be, and I wondered after my first pass through the album whether Sutter and Henzi were getting relegated to backing musicians status instead of equal contributors.

 

It took a few more listens, but gradually I was able to pick out the moments where its really their contributions that make everything tick, such as on “Fire, Wind & Earth” where Henzi delivers an intro blast that Tom Morello would approve of. On “Hullabulloo”, they dish out a fierce tandem attack, Sutter spicing up the space between riffs with creative fills and accents, one of the few songs where it could be argued that they’re really the ones driving the energy forward. Murphy however clearly is the star, the center of our attention through most of the songs and rightfully so —- she’s developed into an excellent vocalist over the years and you can hear tinges of Sinead O’Connor and Dolores O’Riordan in her tendency to wordlessly harmonize. Listen to “Black Moon” for an example of this, being one of the more balanced cuts in weighing folk harmonies against a modern rock song structure. Its not the best song on the album however, that honor goes to “Under the Oak Tree…”, which although lacking a strong motif is interesting in its ever-changing aspect of becoming increasingly folk-drenched as it goes on.  But just as often the album falls flat, such as on “Six Days”, where Murphy reminds me a little too much of Cristina Scabbia, which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but that its my least favored song on the album isn’t a coincidence. The same could be said for “Challenge”, which sports a terrific hurdy-gurdy led motif, but I just can’t get into Murphy’s vocal approach on the moments where she dips down low in her delivery (“…this is the sound…”). That reaction I have to that moment kind of sums up my aversion to modern rock in general, and I can only handle so much of that sound without feeling like I’ve heard it all before.

 

Cellar Darling is an interesting idea but they’re lacking in execution, which when we’re talking about albums basically means they don’t have enough strong songs to support that idea. I’d love for them to consider leaning a little harder in the folk direction and minimizing the modern rock elements a tad. Stick to what you’re stronger at I suppose, and although Henzi certainly has the modern rock guitar approach down, that sound means very little if its not supported with hooks galore. I’m not sure if things have changed for teenagers growing up now, but generally the way it works is that you start listening to rock radio, those more accessible bands with their easy riffs that only serve as ladders to the explosive chorus. You grow bored of that after awhile (or you settle for it and don’t) and want to hear something more exciting, whether its a conscious decision or not, and somehow you stumble upon metal. Metal is where the verses can be just as exciting as the chorus, if not more so —- where the musicianship during a verse can be as thrilling as the glorious vocals that careen outwards in the refrain. Its why folk metal happens. Its why hurdy-gurdys don’t sound out of place next to slicing riffs and staggered tempos. Cellar Darling might sound exciting to someone only well versed in melodic rock, but they’re lacking something when it comes to enticing this metalhead to linger too long. I’m looking for improvement the next time around, and perhaps learning a lesson in my wishing for more music like “The Call of the Mountains” —- that song was special, and by definition, they can’t all be.

Satyricon’s Spiritual Delving: The ‘Deep Calleth Upon Deep’ Review

The last time we really heard from the Satyricon camp in a big way, it was some bleak news that had nothing to do with black metal, black n’ roll, or however you might describe their post 2002 musical output. Frontman and guitarist Satyr (Sigurd Wongraven) announced on Instagram on October 5th, 2015 that upon being rushed to the hospital after feeling extremely ill, doctors found a brain tumor that while Satyr described as “most likely” benign, still managed to rattle myself and I’m sure many others who read the statement. I remember we discussed it on the MSRcast around then, and then everyone just kinda held their breath to see what would happen. I began following Satyr’s Instagram feed because of that post, and was encouraged to see his upbeat, positive nature in regards to his new found condition and how he seemed to just be forging ahead with life in general. He has one of the most intriguing Instagram feeds of any metal musician out there, particularly in the black metal realm where the majority of the big names are fairly reclusive when it comes to social media (understandably). Satyr’s feed is startlingly candid, featuring photos of his family life, his kids, a lot of his work in relation to his wine making (hosting wine tasting dinners in super fancy Norwegian restaurants… seriously), artistic pictures of some incredible looking meals, and generally devoid of most of the grim and brutal things you’d normally associate with the guy who penned Nemesis Divina. He replies to comments frequently, and has been open with his current medical status, which is thankfully fine, though he says he’ll have to be on alert for any signs of that changing.

 

What he took away from that intensely frightening personal experience was a sense of urgency, about life in general but also about his art. It was reflected in his statement in the press release for the album,

“Approaching this release, what I always kept in mind is that either this is the beginning of something new or it’s gonna be my last record. If this is going to be the last, then it needs to be something special. If there are more records, then I’d better make sure that this is so different from the last one that it feels like a new beginning. I think it’s really, really dark, very spiritual and filled with confidence and energy.”

– Satyr

I don’t usually quote from press releases in my album reviews, but this one is pertinent to fully understanding where Satyr is coming from as a songwriter on Deep Calleth Upon Deep. And of course before delving into this album, we should talk about where we all stand as fans or critics of the two major divisions of Satyricon’s career. Personally I love it all, but I came in at the end of their classic black metal era, that run from Dark Medieval Times through The Shadowthrone and their masterpiece Nemesis Divina. Their modern era, which arguably started with 1999’s Rebel Extravaganza (some would say 2002’s Volcano) has its share of detractors, particularly when singles like “Fuel For Hatred” and “K.I.N.G.” moved into a far more simplified musical direction, with shorter and more to the point songwriting built around catchy riffs and hooky choruses. But the band’s success increased throughout this latter era, and they released some of their best work as well —- to my ears anyway. I do understand some folks longing for a band like Satyricon to release something in their classic style again, with their Norwegian-ness and inherent second wave pedigree. But I’d argue that Satyricon have forged a sonic identity unique to themselves in their pursuit of a simpler, more direct songwriting approach. Its not new anymore, they’ve been in this milieu for just under two decades now, and they’ve released a handful of albums in its vein, but its unmistakably Satyricon’s.

 

On their previous album, the self-titled Satyricon in 2013, I wrote that the band was attempting to try something new and fresh, to shake off the black n’ roll tag they had been shackled with, describing its sound as “…the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression.” It was an intriguing shake up of their sound, one that was regarded with dismay by quite a large part of their audience, even the ones that had gotten on board during the Now, Diabolical and The Age of Nero eras. What I hope for those of you who were thrown off by that last album’s strange sonic deconstruction of the band’s black metal sound is that you’ve had enough time to digest it properly and appreciate some of its more abstract aspects. I emphasize this because even though four long years separate it and Deep Calleth Upon Deep, and even though this album is truly the beginning of something new for the band, they’ve continued that album’s exploration of a more muted sound (slightly less this time), as well as carrying over a penchant for atmospherics that they gained from that experience. In many ways Deep Calleth is a kaleidoscope of an album, its various turns featuring glimpses of the full spectrum of their career, from classicist black metal grandeur to grim, punchy black n’ roll, set to a backdrop of haunting atmospheric touches that often transcend mere keyboard studio trickery. Now I know what you’re thinking… Pigeon, you’re telling me this is the start of a new, fresh Satyricon yet you’re telling me they’re continuing the sound of their last album, which I loathed? Yes, and that’s seemingly a contradiction, but this is a band talented enough to make it work.

 

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say this is the best Satyricon album start to finish since Nemesis Divina. its just absolutely captivated me and held me in thrall since I first started listening to it weeks ago. To say its shocked me is an understatement, because although I always expect to enjoy most of a new Satyricon album (being a fan of the band), what I’m hearing on this album is the sound of a songwriter delivering his most inspired, most meaningful material —- perhaps ever. These songs are filled with imagery recalling nature, particularly in its wild, untamed, and primitive state, and the effect is spellbinding. There’s a spirituality to Deep Calleth Upon Deep that has eluded previous Satyricon albums. This comes through in the lyrics straightaway, as on the album opener “Midnight Serpent”, where Satyr barks in that inimitable grimness, “From soul to soul—I speak to you / God of no gods—I’m slave of none / I pledge to fight—your cause is mine”. The song lays out the underlying theme of the album, which Satyr remarked in that same press release I quoted before that the album was thematically about the essence of appreciating art itself. The very title of the album is in reference to this, that the creator digs deep within to create, and if the listener wants to truly appreciate that art, they have to dig deep within themselves as well. That may sound sanctimonious to some, but to me its the very root of what it takes to be a metal fan. And Satyr is writing with an eye towards his mortality as well, which adds gravitas and urgency to his spoken word lyric later in the song, “Face of morbidity / spotted through the keyhole / Unlocked by the persecuted / who wants nothing but the sunlit meadows”. When he barks a few bars later, “Let another song reverberate”, you know he means it like nothing else.

 

Its the first salvo in a barrage of excellent, inspired songs, the next being the uptempo “Blood Cracks Open The Ground”, where we get to hear our first example of how the sound from their previous album has carried over yet not dominated on these new songs. The band employs space between instruments, wide and airy as production technique to work as a counterbalance to the song’s heavy riffing and rumbling, thunderous percussion. I know that this particular approach to production and mixing must aggravate those who are used to Satyricon’s dense, crushing wall of sound that adorned albums like Now, Diabolical but I do feel it has a purpose. The guitars here are highly melodic, full of twisting, spiraling patterns that are center stage, not running into slabs of brutal rhythm guitars and having to fight for space in the mix. The result is an unorthodox way to perceive black metal, as not a furious assault on your ears, but a focused, concentrated effort —- and you’ll know what I mean at the 3:20 mark, where Satyr hones in over a particularly ominous chord progression with “Ravens flee / Pitch black”, the combination of the two resulting in a truly unsettling but addictive moment. The production (more precisely, the mixing) on this song and indeed throughout the album is best characterized as warm, open, and spacious. Instruments are given room to breath individually, even down to the basslines, and I think that’s on purpose. Nothing is able to hide under blankets of riffs in Satyricon’s new sonic world.

 

Those aforementioned sonic attributes are central to the triumph of “To Your Brethren In The Dark”, a slow-dance tempo meditation built on open chord sequences that ascend and descend like that skeleton you always knew was walking up and down your staircase at night when you were a kid (oh is that just me??). This is normally the kind of song that should irritate me, a slow moving dirge when I really want the album to be kicking off into high gear around track number three, but I’ve loved this upon first listen. I can’t explain why, but there’s something immensely satisfying about its construction —- the lead guitar motif that first appears at 1:26 is so beautifully wrought and evocative in itself that I want to grab hold of it like a corgi puppy. The patient rhythmic structure at work here is a coordinated effort between those open chord figures and Satyr’s most reigned in, yet still tension-filled vocal performance. His lyrics here are spectacular, perhaps his best ever amidst a career full of praise-worthy work, this time writing them with an eye towards poetic structure and rhythmic meter and the symmetry of it all. My favorite stanza is in the middle, “October sky, October leafs / and the silence, of nightfall / pass the torch to your brethren in the dark”, that last line serving as the song’s echoing refrain, a beautiful image that can sit at the center of the album’s thematic core. What an incredible song.

 

I’ll refrain from going on at length about every single song because I know I’ll be writing about this album again, but the rest of the record is just as spectacular. The early lead single was the title track, and it hits even harder within context of the album, being one of the most slyly hooky songs of the year. The background vocals by tenor Hakon Kornstad add an extra dimension to the soundscape here, as well as on “The Ghost of Rome” —- his contributions sounding more like the grief stricken wailing of some old-world woman at a funeral pyre. And I have a specific fondness for some of the riffs in specific passages of “Burial Rite”, particularly around the 3:27 mark when things get monstrously heavy after a section that was almost loose enough to be called jazz, a wild juxtaposition. Songs like “Dissonant” and “Black Wings and Withering Gloom” are fierce and fiery enough to prevent this album from leaning towards the slower end of the spectrum. Its a far more aggressive affair overall than Satyricon, despite continuing for the most part in that album’s sonic palette production/mix wise. That might be a stumbling block for some, but its worth trying to push past. It sounds borderline trite to say this, but Satyr’s brush with mortality has seemingly given him a focus that we’ve never heard from him. These songs have a clarity about them lyrically and musically, with a sense of vitality that is palpable. In a year where black metal has been unusually quiet, Deep Calleth Upon Deep is a cannon shot from the Norwegian wilderness that its old veterans still have the mastery of this dark art.

 

The Belated Fall Reviews Cluster: Darkthrone, Sonata, Theocracy, Alcest!

This is late incoming, oh I know, but better late than never right? This was supposed to come out in November but some real life stuff got in the way and exhaustion claimed most of what spare time was left. So while that left little time for writing, I did manage to get some extra listening time on all these releases below which proved critical in changing my opinion on one or two. This isn’t all that I listened to (hardly), but we’re running out of 2016 so this will be the last cluster of the year —-with that in mind, you might be hearing about a few albums not listed here on the upcoming Best of 2016 double feature. I’ll keep this preamble short, only to mention that I’ll have a hard look at the new Metallica coming next, with the year end lists following closely. This has been a rough year for the blog in terms of the update schedule, and one of my resolutions in 2017 is to simply write and publish more. Thanks for everyone who’s patiently stuck with me!


 

Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder:

If you have any interest in Darkthrone whatsoever (and I think you should), you’ve probably heard by now that this new album is something of a shift in style for them. That’s true to a certain extent, it is markedly different from their past three to four releases which found them delving deep into an almost black n’ roll approach to experimenting with more classic 80s metal stylings on 2013’s The Underground Resistance. But where those albums were taking the band into new, explored territory (for them anyway), Arctic Thunder is an about face to the black metal Darkthrone of the turn of the millennium, recalling the style of Plaguewielder and Hate Them. I imagine that for a lot of people the news that Darkthrone was returning to black metal brought about hopes of the band returning to their early, second wave style of A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Transilvanian Hunger, sort of what Blut Aus Nord did with their awesome and majestic Memoria Vetusta III. That would’ve required a severe and intentional handicapping of the sonics in the recording however, and I just don’t think that either Fenriz or Ted (Nocturno Culto) are all that interested in recreating the past like that.

In fact, sonics are the only thing that Arctic Thunder has with their black metal past, because even though it is far more grim and frost bitten than recent albums, you can’t tell me that middle riff that accelerates in “Inbred Vermin” is a black metal riff —- it sounds like it could be lifted off a mid to late 80s thrash album (not being Fenriz, I can’t pinpoint exactly what band and album it was inspired by). But this is a cleanly produced album, for all its first-take approach, Ted’s guitars are upfront, fresh and often crisp, full of nuance and intricacy in the actual execution of the riffs —- and Fenriz’s drumming is as full bodied and loud (the complete antithesis of the approach to drums in most early second wave Norwegian black metal). I had a strange time with this album as a listener, at first loving it due to its radical departure from what they had been doing and for the pleasure of hearing a colder, darker Darkthrone once again. That actually lasted awhile, a few weeks in fact. But over time I’d begun find myself longing to hear Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance, and when I went through those albums again I realized what Arctic Thunder was lacking (and it always comes back to this) —- hooky, memorable songs.

There are a few moments that fit that bill, “Tundra Leach” serving as an excellent album opener, with a bleak, dirty sounding riff that accelerates into tremolo flourishes. There’s an awesome moment midway through where an abrupt shift occurs —- built on pounding, tribal beat percussion and a classic metal riff that takes us into Metallica’s “Creeping Death” territory (think of the moments before “Die! By my hand…!”). Then there’s “Boreal Fiends” which successfully takes on the same approach, hitting you with a memorable riff straight away, this time with loud/quiet dynamics in between verses, only to lead to an about face mid-song. That shift, at the 4:18 mark, is as grin inducing as it is unexpected, Fenriz coming back from a funeral doom tempo with a cowbell accented over a meaty, flat out heavy riff. The guitar solo that follows is a surprise as well, a rare blast of technicality and intricacy from a band that is essentially built from large, wet slabs of uncut riffs stacked hither and yon. The thing I’ve realized after umpteen listens to this album however is that there’s not enough of that kind of variety, not enough surprises. For instance I like the main riff on “Burial Bliss”, it coming across as a sort of black metal take on the Misfits, but the song lacks a hook in a bad way, being one of the chief examples of how things can get repetitive here rather quickly. I have no problem with the band returning to this more blackened approach, but they clearly need another album to fully re-acclimate.

 

 

Alcest – Kodama:

Some of you might remember that Alcest was a Metal Pigeon Best of 2012 finisher with their magnificent Les Voyages de l’Âme, the album that made a fan of me with its panoramic scope and sweeping beauty. Beauty of course is a key word when discussing Alcest, because they don’t shy away from it, their albums chock full of melodies that can only be described as such. If you’re not familiar at all, Alcest is the pioneer of French black metal, which took the atmospherics of second wave Norwegian black metal ala Burzum’s Filosofem and deconstructed its metallic nature, replacing harsh, atonal riffing with dreamy, shoe-gaze inspired melodicism. They use guitars and keyboards in equal measure, whatever it takes really, to achieve a sound that is the aural equivalent of a watercolor painting, where most metal regardless of subgenre is more akin to a construction project (foundations, walls, etc… you get the idea). On that aforementioned album, they blossomed into that rare metal band that could make fans of non-metal folks, particularly if they’d ever been a fan of Sigur Ros, Porcupine Tree, or even Smashing Pumpkins for that matter (that band’s influence on Alcest is under discussed and overlooked).

Disappointingly for me, Alcest decided to abandon their blackgaze approach for 2014’s Shelter, leaving us with a record full of bright, sunlit post-rock that was certainly pretty, but was noticeably lacking the expansive vision and bottomless depth of Alcest in their full glory. I’m sure they’re glad they made that record, one that pushed them in a way to expand their sound and to see what could come of it artistically. What I suspect they realized however, was that the darkness that comes from their black metal origins and influences is not something that’s easily shed. Without it, they sounded to me like another post-rock/shoegaze band, a good one certainly, but as an Alcest album Shelter was merely pretty on a surface level, it never pulled me in deeper. Thankfully, they’ve happily returned with their full complement of influences on display, as they demonstrate here with the awe-inspiring Kodama. Thus proving that the darkness they explore through black metal aesthetics is the key to their unlocking that cosmic door from which spills their transcendent sound.

This album is simultaneously a return to form and a departure, the latter being the injection of a album wide pronounced Japanese influence; not only for the album title (“kodama” literally means both “tree spirit” and “echo”) and the accompanying artwork that depicts a Japanese woman in some uncomfortable looking waters, but mostly for the Japanese folk melodies that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I could pinpoint an example but that would be a little silly, because this influence is coursing through almost every riff, melody, and extended musical passage of Kodama —- unlike a lot of cases where metal bands will use cultural music as window dressing and stick to their own sound otherwise, Alcest here submerge their songwriting into this wellspring of Japanese musical inspiration entirely. Frontman, vocalist, guitarist, and all around songwriter Neige is on record about the purpose of his doing so, that the album is directly inspired by the animated film Princess Mononoke, and that in his words, its about “the confrontation of the natural world and the human world”. That was something he witnessed firsthand when Alcest played in Japan a few years ago, stating, “Japan has a hyper technologic society, always ahead of its time, full of crazy items, gadgets, etc, but yet people there are very attached to tradition, nature, and spirituality.” Of course, if you’ve seen the film (you should, its a classic), its easy to tie Neige’s own observation and tie it into the film’s narrative, both boiling down to this idea of duality and how we all deal with it in various forms.

I love the intellectual depth of conceptual albums like this, in many ways reminding me of 2015’s almost album of the year, Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson. Its the stuff that concept albums should be made of, instead of what we usually get in rock and metal —- mostly paper-thin surface narratives of ridiculous stories that have little to no meaningful echo to them whatsoever. I’m not trying to be snooty here, I love many albums that meet that description to a tee, but when a zillion other bands deliver their own version of it, it gets a little boring, trite, and dumb (after awhile you stop paying attention to bands’ concepts altogether). And setting the concept aside, Kodama is a musical wonder as well, eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse pop formatting in favor of longer tracks with more of a storytelling song structure. Hardly anything repeats, but somehow all of its seven tracks and forty-right minutes are captivating —- the parts that sound like a build up actually deliver pay-offs, and there’s an equal balance of light and shadow as heavy riffs run headlong into transcendent ethereal sequences.

On the first single and most representative track matching the preceding description, “Oiseaux De Proie, a loose, jazzy mid-song bridge plunges dramatically into perhaps the album’s most up-tempo, accelerated moment (check the 5:50 mark). Its an adrenaline rush, largely due to how unexpected it was. This lack of foreshadowing is what keeps your attention rapt throughout Kodama, because you never really know what’s around the next minute mark. And I love how Neige does unexpected things texturally as well, such as the prominent use of the bass as a primary melodic instrument in the opening/title track, a quirky choice that creates separation with the higher pitched guitar accents that drift and careen above it. He also uses minimalist guitar to hearken to that Japanese sound that was discussed earlier on “Eclosion”, the patterns and phrasing and sleek, clean tones mimicking that country’s native folk melodies. I also love the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream influences that wash all over that track towards the middle bridge onwards —- Neige acknowledges them as a major influence and there are times when you can close your eyes and imagine this as something from their mid-90s era output. That actually might be my favorite on the album, its peaceful lone-guitar fade out saying more in those few delicate notes than many bands manage in an entire song. Ditto for closing instrumental “Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées”, with its descending chord patterns blossoming into one of the year’s most memorable musical moments. Make no mistake, this will be on my album of the year list, only question is how high.

 

 

Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour:

Its kind of unfortunate that I have to write this review before I’ll be seeing the band live here in Houston come mid-December, because as you might remember from their last album Pariah’s Child, I ended up enjoying most of its songs far more after I had heard their live airing a few months after my initial review. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy that album at all before the concert, but moreso that Tony Kakko’s impressive live performance both as a vocalist and a performance artist helped me see why he made the choices he did on the album as a songwriter. So I wonder, how much will my opinion change on songs like “Life”, or “We Are What We Are”, “Fairytale”, and “Closer to an Animal” (those being the primary cuts they seem to be pulling from this disc). They’re not bad songs by any means, the former being the first music video filmed for the album, with a chorus built on some amusing lyrical self-criticism by Kakko, who sings, “Life is better alive”, a lyric we could tear to pieces if it weren’t followed immediately by “It is a dumb thing to say / But the fact won’t wane away”, which in a nutshell encapsulates the theme of the song. Sonata Arctica have never been ones to shy away from positivity as a lyrical theme, particularly as of late —- it does not however make for a hook as strong as “The Wolves Die Young”.

But where Pariah’s Child was in some ways meant to be a classicist Sonata album (that’s debatable), The Ninth Hour isn’t explicitly held to such guidelines because its a part concept album, or thematic album to be more precise. The Stratovarius influence over Sonata Arctica looms particularly large here with the theme of environmentalism and reigning in of humanity’s careless destruction of the planet. If you weren’t familiar with Stratovarius albums around the turn of the millennium, that’s pretty much what those guys sang about for a handful of ’em. So a thematic leaning song like “We Are What We Are” is given license to be a bit more expansive, less concerned with delivering those knockout Sonata hooks we love in favor of non-romantic balladry that leans more towards White Lion’s “When the  Children Cry” than “Tallulah”. It only works because despite its too slow for slow dancing pace and downtrodden vibe, Kakko’s melody is charmingly simple and beautiful, almost lullaby-esque. Similarly on “White Pearl, Black Oceans Pt II” (a sequel to the original much beloved fan classic from Reckoning Night), Kakko allows a more overwhelmingly lyrical songwriting approach to govern things, which makes sense considering the narrative nature of the song in continuing a story. But in 2016, that means its a track that is substantially slower than its predecessor, lacking the midtempo and uptempo change ups that so characterized the original. Some might not like that, but I think the melody really works here, used as more of a Broadway show centerpiece complete with mimicking orchestral arrangement.

Not everything is slowed down though, there’s the surprisingly heavy and accelerating “Fly. Navigate. Communicate”, which took me awhile to get into but I now can appreciate for its striking aggression alongside its subtle lyrical hook. And “Rise A Night” is a classic uptempo slice of Sonata power metal with a nice verse and lead in bridge, only to meet a middling, aimless chorus that lacks a defining hook, a trait that handicaps the entire song sadly. Then there’s the strongly starting “Fairytale” where the inverse is the problem —- we’re treated to a memorable hook that doesn’t hit as hard as it could due to there being no build up to it via tempo shift or fully formed bridge. Of course when it comes to Sonata Arctica albums post 2004, we’re not expecting complete perfection, just some moments of perfection… and here’s where The Ninth Hour is worryingly deficient. There’s nothing here that I’d really consider adding to my Sonata playlist on the iPod, and there usually is at least a track or two per album. I’d give a huge maybe to the charming ballad “Candle Lawns”, but I’ve really gotta be in the mood for it. I honestly don’t know what to make of this album, and I know that makes for a crappy review —- but there’s nothing here that is shockingly bad like we’ve had in spots on the past three albums. In fact, its all just sounds alright, but I know I don’t often come back to revisit an album that’s just “alright”. Maybe I’ll have more to say after I see them two weeks from now.

 

 

Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Atlanta based Theocracy and its 98-01 era Tobias Sammet channeling vocalist/songwriter Matt Smith for a few years now. I got into them with 2011’s As The World Bleeds, an album of power metal songwriting perfection of such magnitude I strongly believe its one of the classics of the genre. I had first heard of the band way back in 2003 with their self-titled debut which was promising despite its flaws, but I promptly cut my interest when I learned that the band was outwardly Christian. Sure enough, the lyrics checked out, and I naively wrote the band off. In my defense I was young, stupid(er), and not mature enough to reconcile that it was okay to enjoy a band that was outwardly religious in their lyrics if I enjoyed their music in general. Looking back now, I suppose I thought it was anathema, to be into metal and subgenres like black metal which were largely about the darker stuff in life while simultaneously listening to something so religiously positive, so opposite in spirit. Never mind that I enjoyed U2 with all their Christian background, nor that I was conveniently ignoring the strongly religious overtones of Edguy’s classic Theater of Salvation. In between, I missed 2008’s Mirror of Souls, another quality release with some excellent songwriting, and when I finally did come around in 2011, I chickened out on publishing a fully written piece on Theocracy (if I remember right it was about whether or not it hypocritical to like their music without sharing their views on faith… guess the jury’s still out there). So essentially, no one has really known about how much I’ve loved this feisty prog-power metal band’s music, when I’ve been all too eager to champion any really worthwhile American bands of this genre. In all… Theocracy deserved better from me.

I’m quite keen on rectifying this here, even in a shorter, abbreviated review, although I might not have done the band a service had I reviewed this album shortly after first hearing it in mid-October. For whatever reason, I was having a devil of a time getting into Ghost Ship for the first few weeks I had it, and maybe it was due to other things competing for my attention (one of which may have been the ultra-negativity of the 2016 election… maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear something bright and positive just then…?). That seems so absurd and unlikely now given how much I’ve been enjoying these songs on their own merits, and that last bit is crucial to those of you who are already familiar with their past albums: In short, as hard as it might be, don’t compare this album to As The World Bleeds! You will of course, its only natural, but I say that for two reasons; first, …Bleeds was a uniquely excellent album, a perfecting of a specific type of aggressive power metal and dense, solid production that Edguy first introduced with 2000’s Mandrake; and secondly, because Theocracy has greatly expanded their sound intro far more progressive areas with Ghost Ship, toning down the pure Euro-step power metal influences and increasing their Queensryche influenced tendencies a bit. This is a far reaching, thorough permeation, affecting all the songs on the new album across the board, and maybe it makes them less instantly accessible —- though it must be stressed, that accessibility is still there, it just requires more listens than their previous albums.

You’ll hear that accessibility most vividly on leaner cuts such as the title track or on the lyrics contrasting cheerfulness of “Castaway”. Regarding the former, Smith is among those few in power metal circles so gifted at peppering his already hook-laden songs with those glory-claw raising micro-hooks like the ones heard at the :40 second and 2:02 minute marks. They come via his simply changing the key of his vocal delivery of a verse lyric mid-phrase, from a not-quite minor key to an abrupt, full-on MAJOR key. Its such musical ear-candy, and mark of a talented songwriter who knows how to utilize the technical prowess of his band and his vocal ability to inject these viscerally energy packed moments into the fiber of these songs. That awareness as a songwriter, to keep his songs dancing on two feet like a boxer in his fighting stance, unpredictable and ready to strike at a moment with a flourish of a micro-hook or ultra-melodic figure or accent is what keeps our attention even through lengthy epics such as the nine-minute “Easter”. Midway through we shift from a thunderous, choral vocal backed section into a solo acoustic guitar sequence with a gorgeous, arcing melody at the 6:38 mark that will always have me returning to this song. That’s the kind of attention to detail that characterized the best of Tobias Sammet’s lengthier epics back in the classic Edguy era (think “Theater of Salvation” and “The Pharaoh”).

Of course its not just the minor details that make these songs work. They’re carefully crafted with strong melodies and semi-technical instrumentation, with often gorgeous guitar work from Val Allen Wood and Jonathan Hinds, as well as soaring vocals via Smith’s helium tinged tenor. As I sit here listening to this album for the millionth time, I wonder if Smith’s English as birth language familiarity is his secret to songwriting success as an American well-versed in writing in the European vein of power metal. Theocracy can bring the wood, but they never get really heavy like Iced Earth, Pharaoh, or even Kamelot —- all fellow American power metal bands who utilize thrash metal elements or in Kamelot’s case, prog-rock and mid-tempo time signatures. Those American and British stylistic influences temper their power metal and make it easy for them to match their vocal melodies to lyrics in a suitable manner (I realize Roy Khan is of Norwegian decent, and he of course wrote most of Kamelot’s beautiful lyrics, but he’s an outlier in this case). Theocracy is a rare duck being an American band coming from the Edguy/Avantasia/Gamma Ray/ Helloween school of power metal, all of whom are guilty of lyrical atrocities. Smith’s songwriting from a lyrics to vocal melody perspective is so effortless, so smooth, that it actually helps the melodies flow like water —- there’s nary an awkward pause. His lyrics are finely written, and seemingly always set to melodies that fit them perfectly like a glove. That pairing is likely to be the litmus test for most people, can they allow themselves to enjoy those melodies despite them being set to (very finely written) spiritual lyrics. I definitely can.

 

The Flowering Of Spring!: (Or I’m Back With Reviews of Myrath, Borknagar and Omnium Gatherum!)

Hey everyone, I’m back from a short, self-imposed exile. I briefly mentioned it on the most recent episode of the MSRcast, but I think the overwhelming amount of new albums last year which continued on into early 2016 was threatening to burn me out on writing reviews altogether. The recent Blind Guardian piece was a pleasure to immerse myself in, and I’m hoping to do more of that kind of non-review oriented stuff in the near future (several of them exist in near/half/almost finished states already). So I took a break for a few weeks to just listen to whatever I wanted to listen to, older stuff, non-metal stuff, and sure enough even some really excellent new metal albums that I simply couldn’t get enough of (a few of them I’ll discuss below) —- all without worrying about release dates and getting reviews done on time. So this is a collection of reviews for three major releases that normally would’ve been out a month and a half ago, all of them written now with a few weeks of listening time baked in. These are a little on the lengthy side due to how much more I focused on them above all other releases, but I have another batch of reviews on the way that will be on the shorter, punchier side (those covering new music by Oceans of Slumber, Amon Amarth, Rhapsody of Fire, Brainstorm, Ex Mortus, a 2015 missed Dawn of Destiny release, and maybe a few more). It feels good to be back writing, and I can’t wait to finish the non-reviews stuff I’m also working on. Thanks for the patience this past month!

 


 

 

myrathlegacy_zpspxugdo3vMyrath – Legacy: Tunisia’s greatest (and perhaps only) metal export Myrath return with their first new album in five years with Legacy, one of my most anticipated albums of the year. I was sold on this band with 2011’s Tales of the Sands, an album that was largely spectacular, the sound of a band that had found their distinctive style and the songwriting chops to match. Well, five years is an eternity in metal, and Myrath seem to have spent the time wisely because Legacy is a truly inspired breath of fresh air that is pushing the boundaries of what oriental metal can sound like. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, they play a blend of prog-metal with minor-scaled Arabic melodies and motifs built around the inclusion of instruments such as violins, violas, the lute, and the ney. In that sense they’re similar to Orphaned Land, except that their Israeli counterparts began as a death metal band and have gradually expanded their sound away from that as their vocalist Kobi Farhi has developed his clean singing voice. Myrath meanwhile have been all about clean delivery from the very start, even predating the arrival of their uniquely talented longtime and current singer Zaher Zorgati, whose innate abilities at channeling traditional Arabic vocals alongside his Russell Allen-esque pipes makes him one of the most unique vocalists in metal.

On Legacy (which by the way is what the name Myrath actually translates to) the band wisely doesn’t over complicate things, choosing to allow their songwriting to naturally progress as it has over the course of their last four albums. And with that means continuing their ever gradual simplification of their sound, allowing their well crafted melodies to take a greater role in place of prog-metal song structures, which have been slightly pushed to the background in spots. Prog-metal aficionados might balk at that, but its a smart move —- think about why people are so interested and listen to Myrath in the first place. Its not because they’re the second coming of Symphony X, but instead because their traditionally imbued sound is so intriguing and captivating in its own right. Like Orphaned Land, we came for the metal and stayed for the native sounds of Israel and Pan-Arabia, those alluring melodies that speak of cultures that most of us only understand on a surface level. I went on about this idea at length in my review for Orphaned Land’s All Is One, that it was my interest in that band’s music that led me to seeking out non-metal Middle Eastern folk music as well as any non-metal music that was unfamiliar to me. It’d be impossible for Myrath to have quite the same effect on me as Orphaned Land did —- that was a result of a combination of things, timing key among them, but what Myrath succeeds in doing with Legacy is reminding me of the rush I felt when realizing that I was interested in exploring other music, the world’s music as it were.

This is an album characterized by simplicity, a facet that’s demonstrated right away with the instrumental “Jasmin” that bleeds into the euphoric “Believer”, the album’s first single (presented in a glossy, Prince of Persia-esque music video to boot). As an opening salvo, its as bold a statement as they have ever made, leaping directly at you with a sharply sculpted Arabic string melody accompanying Zorgati’s chant-sung traditional vocal. He does that quite often throughout the album, and he’s quite talented at it, sending his voice to float atop whatever bed of music is going on underneath (and its characteristically Arabic sounding, as opposed to the more condensed, compressed Jewish/Yiddish chant-singing found in Orphaned Land’s music). What makes the song work however is its mid-tempo groove that’s phonetically reinforced by Zorgati’s prog-power tinged clean vocals during the verse sections, his phrasing as rhythmic as Morgan Berthet’s dynamic percussion underneath. That chorus though —- you could actually pencil it in as the hook for a Middle Eastern pop single and it’d fit perfectly, something I say only to reinforce just how skilled the band is at writing that sort of thing. Its also works as a warning for anyone who’s too timid or afraid of losing “cred” by listening to a band that’s so unabashed about their desire to play with hooks and ear candy. I’m quite the fan if you couldn’t tell, and “Believer” is one of the year’s finest metal singles thus far. Its their “All Is One”, one of those rare life-affirming songs that drags metal into a space of positive emotions.

Its not however the only wonderfully ear-candied moment on the album either, as my current favorite is the morosely titled “I Want to Die”, a slowly spiraling strings and acoustic guitars powered ballad that sees Zorgati delivering an incredibly emotional vocal throughout. Instruments dance around him, the strings zipping under and alongside during the verses, acoustic guitar filling in space with light, soft pluckings, traditionally structured percussion brushed across in an accenting role —- everything then suddenly surging together for the explosive chorus. A quick glance at the lyrics will clue you in on this being a song about heartbreak, and while the diction and poetics aren’t on the level of Roy Khan, they’re carefully written so as to maximize Zorgati’s ability to bend them to his will. He makes these lyrics better by virtue of his performance and his interpretation of what syllables to stress and bend in that distinctive manner that we can accurately peg as his trademark (in metal anyway). Another example of that is on the following song “Duat”, where he makes the most of lines such as “Relieve me / Leave me here I’m dying / Isis knows how to bring me back to life” —- first of all that’s a reference to Isis the deity (just in case you were wondering), and while I think these are perfectly fine lyrics, they might test another metal fan’s capacity for melodrama, and I’d think they’d have a point if the vocalist in question were say Russell Allen, but here Zorgati’s vocal-isms are convincing enough. Something also occurs to me while I’m listening to “Endure the Silence”, another track with a decadent chorus, that most of these songs are actually love songs, the narrator either expressing his devotion to the object of his affection or lamenting a loss thereof (with the exception of the song referencing Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen). Its up to us I suppose whether we want the object to be a woman, a country, or a community.

I suppose we’re touching on something there with that last bit. You all watch the news, and are certainly aware of what’s going on in regions such as Syria, Iraq, and even Libya and Yemen. This is a band from Tunisia that I’m told ostensibly lives in France these days, and if so that means they’re served with a multitude of perspectives on what’s going on in Europe at the moment with the refugee crisis of the past year and a half. I’m not going to assume that those things influenced the writing of their music, maybe they didn’t at all, but I detect an openness in their lyrics that suggest they might be speaking to a larger idea or theme. Sagely perhaps, Myrath keep things relatively vague, allowing their music to be flexible to audiences of all kinds, and that might be their greatest strength. When all of Europe is feeling the tension spurred by terrorism in Paris and Brussels, waves of refugees, and anti-Islamic sentiment, here’s a band from the birthplace of the Arab Spring making art with western music that is being embraced by fans from vastly different parts of the world. I’m not naive enough to believe that music can completely change things, it rarely ever does, but it can help to chip away at an individual’s own reticence about other cultures, and help to springboard their interest in learning about them. With regard to the Middle-East, there are so few cultural links that exist right now to help facilitate communication between differing peoples, yet among those few are a handful of metal artists. I find that incredible, and something that few other musical genres can claim. Bands such as Myrath and Orphaned Land have fans in Israel, Tunisia, Egypt, Europe, the UK, and even here in Texas, and that’s a small victory if nothing else.

 

Borknagar – Winter Thrice:

I’ve enjoyed Borknagar since sometime in 2001, when I was introduced to the band via their then newly released album Empiricism. I was led there by my initial interest in Vintersorg, who had just joined up with his Norwegian countrymen to provide lead vocals in place of I.C.S. Vortex who had just left to join Dimmu Borgir. Vortex did three years as Borknagar’s black metal screamer, and he took over the slot after the departure of one Kristoffer Rygg, aka known as Garm from Ulver, who decided that he wanted to focus only on his primary band. Funnily enough all three men find themselves joining together on a pair of cuts from Borknagar’s newest and most ambitious album to date. Now this album has been out for a few months now, and you’ve all likely heard it —- and what you’re hearing is the sound of Borknagar further streamlining their sound away from the largely avant-garde keyboard atmospherics of the Empiricism/Epic/Origins/Universal era and more in tune with the bleak, wind-swept melodicism found on their previous album Urd and its signature track “The Earthling”. There’s still keyboards present, providing a counter-melody to the lead vocal (or guitar) melodies, but its more informed by a stripped down, 70’s prog-rock approach rather than the swirling, bat-crazy orchestral hurricanes that so characterized much of late 90s second wave black metal (ala Emperor). Some of you might be smirking at the mention of stripped down and 70’s in relation to prog-rock keyboards, but its basically more King Crimson and less Rick Wakeman, you jokers.

Let’s get back to the mention of all those ridiculously talented vocalists on one track, because “Winter Thrice” is not only the title track but the album’s first single and excellent music video. The latter provides us with a visual breakdown of who’s singing what, just in case you’re new to the band and can’t discern their voices quite yet: First we get Lazare (aka Lars Nedland) who really should get co-billing alongside his band mates as one of the amazing voices here; the next verse is sung by Vortex in that wonderfully strange, warped clean voice of his; and after a nice electro-clean chord sequence we’re treated to a rare black metal sighting of Garm, here delivering the song’s most affecting lyric passage (“I have wandered the skies…”) in a sweetly smooth croon that reminds me of a mix of Mike Patton and Mikael Akerfeldt. Its just a thrilling sequence overall, exciting in as much for its star studded succession of vocalists as it is for being one of the band’s most direct and disarmingly accessible passages to date. It all builds up to explode with Vintersorg’s ever blistering black metal anti-chorus (it can be argued that Garm was actually singing the hook, and that Vintersorg is delivering its outro bridge —- but whatever, this is black metal by one of the genre’s more unconventional craftsmen… we shouldn’t be looking for conventional songwriting). After Vintersorg’s traumatic accident over a year ago, its nice to hear him sound like himself here (although its reported by some that he recorded this before the accident —- that being said he has had time to heal and recently had surgery that seems successful enough for him to be currently working on a sequel to Till fjälls(!)). Suffice to say he’s still one of the most convincing and identifiable harsh vocalists in extreme metal, with something inimitable in the way he screams.

Vintersorg has his share of clean vocals too, because you don’t neglect a resource like that, and so he pops up in a fascinating and harmonious duet with Lazare and possibly Vortex (it gets difficult to discern between the latter two at times) on “The Rhyme of the Mountain”. Remember a paragraph ago when I mentioned the band was weaning itself away from avant-garde chaos and leaning more towards classic prog-rock stylings and songwriting? Cue mark 3:20 during this song and you’ll get a vivid example of what I mean —- an abrupt mid-song bridge sequence of harmonized vocals cooing a sparse, gorgeous melody. Its not even meant to serve as a counterpoint to the harsh vocals, because clean vocal verses build up to it as well as follow it. This is actually a defining trademark of the songs on this album, and perhaps more than any other recording of theirs in the past, Borknagar here work with almost equal parts clean to harsh vocals, something that’s not altogether shocking, but still a bold move. I love it personally, and it makes songs such as “Cold Runs the River” embed in my mind with strong, swinging hooks and inspired open chord guitar sequences that are unexpected but pleasant surprises. In the Lazare fronted “Panorama”, we’re treated to a jarringly poppy chorus in fairly short order, but whose recurrence is abruptly interrupted by a keyboard driven instrumental passage that recalls Hammond organ sounds of the 70s (in fact, that organ sound dominates much of the song, at times taking over the key melody entirely… I get reminded of Uriah Heep). We’re treated to another clean vocal mid-song bridge sequence in “When Chaos Calls” at the 3:42 mark, this one clearly sculpted by Vintersorg, recalling vivid moments from his vocal work on his own solo albums (particularly Visions From the Cosmic Generator in this case), and seriously, is there anyone better at crafting moments like these?

Founding guitarist Oystein Brun, still the primary songwriter on the credits seems fairly happy these days to allow the external influences of his band mates transform Borknagar’s sound into something that is simultaneously far removed from the The Olden Domain era, yet subtly familiar and knowing. At times, there are strong hints of the past that crop up violently such as on “Terminus”, where the sudden and sharp mood shifts lurch the band into full on black metal, blastbeat laden fury that recalls the violence of Empiricism (albeit without the ultra-crisp drum recording of that album). This might actually be my current favorite right now, because I can’t get enough of its last three minutes, from Garm’s resurfacing with a highly emotive and then hushed vocal, to Jens Ryland and Brun’s tremendous restraint on their guitar work to allow simple ambient space to fill the backdrop, to Vintersorg’s best clean vocal moment on the album, re-singing Garm’s final passage (“Raised to seek, grown to see / The flames of creation and prosperity…”). I suspect that with the impact of their video for “The Earthling”, hitting over 377k views on YouTube, and subsequently the video for “Winter Thrice” hitting over 300k in just a fragment of the time in comparison, word is getting out to formerly in the dark metal fans that Borknagar is one of those critically acclaimed bands they should have knowledge of. I really do think a sea-change occurred with Urd, an album that delivered a vein of accessibility that allowed both critics and potential fans to take a longer listen as opposed to simply being turned off by the utter weirdness of their past work (hey, as much as some of us love it, older Borknagar was a tough sell to many). As in the case of Enslaved, it could simply be a case of a band’s potential audience finally maturing and Borknagar issuing their most accessible work at the right time. Good for the band, good for those newcomers, and with songs as excellent as these, good for us who’ve been here all along.

 

Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens:

A leading light in Finland’s melo-death revival is back with a new album, and just like their neighbors in Borknagar, they’ve stumbled upon the discovery that their sound could actually benefit by allowing their music to breathe more. I’ve enjoyed Omnium Gatherum’s past works to varying degrees, with the accomplished New World Shadows being a favorite in terms of albums, and pegging “The Unknowing” from 2013’s Beyond as their absolute best song (I enjoyed the album as well, but that song was outrageously awesome with that ascending/descending scale pattern). The slight stumbling block I’d have with the band was their tendency to sound rather obsidian for large stretches of time through a song or even album. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s rigid, ultra-coarse melo-death growls played a big factor in that, his voice often lacking any hints of warmth or push and pull. Now this actually works for the band overall simply because he’s an unfailingly strong presence that can compete with the technicality that guitarists Joonas Koto and Markus Vanhala imbue their dense riff sequences with, thus preventing either guitars or vocals from dominating the sound alone. But that being said, for as much as I enjoyed their music, I found myself far more drawn to the comparatively paint-brushed, loosely woven melo-death of countrymen Insomnium.

But with Grey Heavens it seems like the band has naturally progressed away from songwriting that coats a piece of music in both heavy drenchings of both vocals and music, there’s actually a bit of give and take between those two strong elements that was only glimpsed previously in fleeting moments. I mentioned one of those above, “The Unknowing”, where Pelkonen’s vocals were timed to dive in gaps instead off slamming against the rest of the band. I think these are tricky things to learn for a lot of melo-death bands, and even tougher to discern as fans and explain in writing… but if we think of melo-death as primarily a dual lead guitar melody constructed artform, then those melodies deserve equal or almost equal spotlight time as the vocals, and the power of both can either overwhelm or diminish when they’re simultaneously hitting a listener at once. Think about classic In Flames albums, those songs on Whoracle or Colony or even The Jester Race —- there was a dance going on, guitars-vocals-guitar-vocals-guitars and on and on. Omnium Gatherum don’t exactly do a recreation of that formula here, but they’ve learned to give their individual sonic elements a bit more space. Take the title track “Frontiers”, where Aapo Koivisto’s keyboards actually work solo as the refrain, a wordless chorus that is not only a clever sonic earworm, but the light to the darkness of those brutal verse sections where Pelkonen matches his raw power to that of Koto’s and Vanhala’s.

Much of the album in fact is characterized by this smarter, more aware mode of songwriting, and it bears fruit with mounds of hooks and earworms. Even on the lengthiest track, the nearly eight minute “Majesty and Silence”, the band treat us to fresh, inspired ambient passages built on drizzles of acoustic guitar and cloudy sky inspired keyboards to serve as a balance to the more weighty, aggressive sections. On “The Great Liberation”, Pelkonen sings over chugging rhythm guitar while a lone lead melodic figure darts in and out quickly, both guitars then joining together in an entirely separate section to deliver their more frenetic, hyper-speed riff sequences in dazzling fashion. My MSRcast cohost Cary was mentioning during our recording session how he felt this was the catchiest Omnium Gatherum release to date, and I agree, but I think what that observation reveals is that the band has gotten better at displaying its hook-writing capability, and Koivisto has stepped up his game in order to further cement his keyboards as an integral part of melodic through lines within the songs, rather than just as coloring for the background. I think they’ve come to realize that writing better paced songs and separating segments of their songs with potentially opposing musical elements makes for a far more listenable song. Cary posited the idea that perhaps Vanhala’s recent stint as Insomnium’s second guitarist is playing a role, and that a good deal of their songwriting essence has rubbed off on him. Its an interesting theory, one that’s plausible for sure —- whatever the case may be, its resulted in the best album of their career.

The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part II: Everything Else I Didn’t Get To Earlier

Here we are, a final load of new releases from all over 2015 that I didn’t get around to reviewing upon their release for one reason or another, all stuff I’ve been listening to in varying amounts over the past few weeks and months. There’s way more on here than on part one of the Fall Reviews MegaCluster simply because I’ve committed to keeping these a bit shorter in length (200-400ish words, for realsies this time). But whereas last time all the reviews tended to be positive, that’s not quite the case here. I whittled down all the entries in the MegaCluster from a larger pool of about 30-40 albums —- chances are there’s going to be something I’ve missed that you had hoped to have reviewed here. But if I decided to eliminate something from the chosen few, its mainly because I didn’t get to spend enough time listening to it and you know me, I have a big problem with reviews where its obvious that the writer only listened to an album once. So here we go, the final reviews for 2015, the most exhausting year in metal I can ever remember.

 


 

 

 

Kylesa – Exhausting Fire:

I didn’t know much about Kylesa heading into the promo for Exhausting Fire, this their seventh studio album since their formation in 2001. I’ve learned since then that they’re from Savannah, Georgia, joining Christian power metallers Theocracy as the only metal bands I’ve known to come from the peach state. Well, is calling them metal going too far? I’m not really sure, because their mix of sludgey, doomy riffs is unrelentingly heavy and undeniably metal. Its during the other times, when their more spacey, reverb effect laden alternative rock side comes out where the issue gets clouded —- and the presence of dual gender vocals from bassist Philip Cope and guitarist Laura Pleasants harkens more to a rock feel for me than anything I’ve heard in metal. But I think that’s precisely why I’ve been so interested in this album since I first heard it back in September, because it simply doesn’t sound like anything else out there. I’m not even confident that I can describe it adequately with any sort of extravagant adjective abuse or metaphor, you really just have to listen to these guys.

And they’re worth listening to, because a song like “Shaping the Southern Sky” is so incredible, with a riff progression so catchy it will take mighty forces (like Abba!) to dislodge it from your head. I love Pleasants’ vocals here, her voice reminding me of a more aggressive Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), made all the more alluring with some reverse echo effects on her vocals to make her sound like she’s singing to you from beneath the surface of a swimming pool. As a three piece, Kylesa make an impressive racket, drummer Carl McGinley is jacked up on something, hopefully just adrenaline, but his beautifully recorded percussion is some of the most savage you’ll hear on any album this year. Together with Cope, they form a dominating rhythm section, fat with bottom end that physically shakes your speakers in rude rumbles. Pleasants’ guitar work is best described as heavily distorted psychedelia, a lot of cleanly picked patterns that float up gently as in “Falling”, or support more bass driven tunes like “Night Drive” with bizarre accents and exclamation points. When she and Cope join together for dual lead vocal passages, they don’t so much harmonize as simply sing next to one another (if that makes any sense), their voices never overlapping, one seemingly a split-nanosecond behind the other. It all amounts to a trippy experience, and fair warning if that’s not your thing… I suppose its worth saying that you need to be somewhat in the mood for music like this, but those moods do exist and luckily for us so does this out of nowhere crazy fun album.

 

The Takeaway: Dive right in if you’re a fan of sludge metal/rock, or even stoner doom in any of its incarnations. Tread carefully if you normally prefer more straight ahead melodic experiences, because while Kylesa do write melodic songs, they’re buried under layers of sonic debris (you’ll hear what I mean). Still that being said, worth your time to stream somewhere for free, and I wouldn’t recommend that if it wasn’t.

 

 

Stratovarius – Eternal:

Its been an eventful road towards album number fifteen for Finland’s original power metal export. We all know about the mid-2000’s intra-band turmoil that ultimately resulted in one spectacularly awful album and the departure of founding guitarist Timo Tolkki so I’ll sidestep the historical recap here. My own fandom of Stratovarius seemed to wane during that era as well, and not just because I found the whole thing silly and distasteful, but because at that time I happened to become a huge fan of Kamelot. After hearing albums like Epica and The Black Halo, it was hard to enjoy any of Stratovarius’ albums as much as I once did (and in a quirky bit of personal history I gave my entire Stratovarius collection to my current MSRcast cohost Cary!). Maybe that comes off as elitist but I still like the band and a smattering of their older classic songs (of which there are many), and ever since they moved on without Tolkki I’ve been quietly rooting for them. But Polaris (2009), Elysium (2011), and Nemesis (2013) didn’t wow me, they had their moments but even those seemed fleeting and dare I suggest, by the numbers? I didn’t even bother reviewing the latter two, mainly because I felt that I’d have nothing to say about them one way or another —- and I was trying to be conscious of the fact that perhaps they lost a key songwriting ingredient when Tolkki left. For better or worse, he was a major songwriting force for them, and it seems to have been a process of trial and error in determining who would fill the void within the band.

The answer it seems is not bassist Lauri Porra as Polaris seemed to suggest, but a largely contributions by Tolkki’s successor in guitarist Matias Kupiainen and the songwriting team-up of vocalist Timo Kotipelto with his solo project collaborator and ex-Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen, coupled with a song or two from Porra and longtime keyboardist Jens Johansson. Interestingly enough the Kotipelto/Liimatainen collaboration provides music for three songs entirely and lyrics for nearly the rest of them (save for songs penned solely by Johansson), and I suppose the band as a whole felt that those two guys were onto something with the pair of songs they contributed to the Nemesis album. Its a rarity in metal, let alone power metal for a band to have this many songwriters on board contributing whole songs to an album, and noteworthy for that alone I suppose. Whats encouraging is how surprised I am by how satisfying many of these songs are, they’ve got me paying attention for the first time in forever. I’m particularly fond of “My Eternal Dream” with its mix of minor and major key alterations, and a chorus that recalls the band’s classic Visions album. Ditto for “Shine In the Dark”, a relatively poppy song for Stratovarius but one where Kotipelto and Liimatainen dreamed up some awesome layered vocal melodies (great bridge on this one). Porra’s contribution “Lost Without A Trace” is fantastic as well, with a chorus built on a beautiful, emotional ascending vocal run that reminds you of just how talented Kotipelto truly is. Personal favorite comes in the oddly titled “My Line of Work”, another Kotipelto/Liimatainen number built on an addictive melodic riff pattern that enticingly reminds me of classic Sonata Arctica, which is never a bad thing.

 

The Takeaway: I gave this a cursory listen when it came out back around September or whenever (that month is covered in a haze now) and shelved it in favor of other priority releases… and I kinda regret it now. This is a feisty, swagger-filled, melodic-in-all-the-right-spots, truly excellent Stratovarius album; their first front to finish must listen since 2000’s Infinite, and that’s something I never thought I’d be able to say again. Glad to see the old masters refusing to go quietly in the night!

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Innuendo:

I’m a late comer to Amberian Dawn apparently, seeing as they’ve been around since 2006, have just released their seventh studio album Innuendo —- their second with vocalist Capri Virkkunen (so I’ve essentially missed an entire era of their history with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen). I could swear its a name that I’ve been familiar with, as in someone might’ve pointed them out to me and I had a conversation about them but never got around to actually listening to their music… it was probably Doctor Metal, because its usually Doctor Metal. I feel pretty lousy about missing out all this time, but once again this is another proven example of the cream rises to the top theory —- that a band doing good work will eventually reach my ears through word of mouth, and that its mostly okay to not be in on the ground floor of discovery (and now I get an entire discography to explore). What bugs me more than that however is that Amberian Dawn is a preciously rare example of a female fronted metal band doing something original and not just attempting to fit into the Nightwish / Epica / (insert band here) mold. I’ve read that primary songwriter/keyboardist Tuomas Seppala’s main influences are Ritchie Blackmore, Malmsteen, and Dio, and I totally hear those aspects, but it all makes complete sense when you throw in his non-metal inspiration of ABBA. Of course. Add to that Virkkunen’s pure pop background —- she started off in the late nineties releasing a pair of solo pop albums, made a few runs at Eurovision, and actually played the part of Frida Lyngstad in an ABBA musical (not sure if this was an off-broadway version of Mamma Mia or not). I noticed she has a Roxette cover on YouTube, now it really makes sense.

Her rich, dramatic, soaring vocal ability is perfect for the kind of dramatic yet upbeat, slightly symphonic metallic pop-rock that Seppala writes, and Virkkunen apparently functions as the sole lyricist, a rarity for most bands like this where the songwriter handles both the music and lyrics (ala Tuomas Holopainen). She’s a talented lyricist, writing convincingly about a range of emotions while adapting them to Seppala’s melodies quite nicely (I’m not wowed as much as I was by Triosphere’s Ida Haukland who seemed to have broader palette diction-wise, but Virkkunen offers some spectacular moments with clever phrasing). I’m a sucker for the kind of pomp and circumstance dramatic flair of “Fame & Gloria” and “Innuendo”, the latter of which features a really incredible major key shift in its bridge to chorus that’s surprisingly inventive. I’m very attached to “The Court of Mirror Hall”, where the ABBA influence really shines through and you could swear you’re listening to a forgotten cut by the Swedish gods, its got a rhythmic strut to its riff patterns that I love and Virkkunen’s alliterative vocal melodies are masterful. Speaking of channeling ABBA, how about the piano ballad “Angelique” and the ultra happy “Knock Knock Who’s There?” —- and look, I get that might be a bad thing for those of you who have no interest in anything that sounds remotely like ABBA (but let’s get one thing clear here, if all you know is “Dancing Queen” then go do your homework… I’m not kidding!). As you’d expect in a pop heavy context like this, the guitars are subservient to the keyboard and vocal melodies, but Emil Pohjalainen fills in the background really well, like a more refined Emppu Vuorinen, and sometimes as on “The Witchcraft” he’s able to steal the show with some delightful Malmsteen-esque patterns strewn across the song. But the album belongs to Virkkunen, who establishes herself as a supreme talent in the ranks of female vocalists in metal… she’s certainly got a fan in me.

 

The Takeaway: Check yourself for your pop tolerance levels before diving into this one but if you’re up for it then I definitely can’t recommend this enough. Fans of Amaranthe should take heed certainly, as well as those of you who thought Nightwish’s time with Anette Olzon yielded some pretty awesome results.

 

 

 

Hair of the Dog – The Siren’s Song:

For awhile there I couldn’t even remember where, when, or how I heard about Hair of the Dog, a Swedish throwback metallic, doom-kissed hard rock band that shockingly seem to be unsigned (they’re selling the album via bandcamp). I’ve narrowed it down to simply being a random promo that the MSRcast received that I loaded into my unruly new music iTunes playlist, because I certainly remember that it was a song called “You Soft Spoken Thing” that made me stop what I was doing and take notice of what I was listening to. Boasting one of the most amazing riffs I’ve heard all year, its representative of what Hair of the Dog are all about, that is a 70s inspired brew of Thin Lizzy, The Doors, and Black Sabbath put through a doom metal and psychedelic rock filter. These guys are from Edinburgh, Scotland, and while that’s not entirely implausible, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from I dunno… New Orleans, or Nashville even. Musically speaking its hard to detect any discernible UK characteristics to their sound, both musically and vocally —- their singer/guitarist Adam Holt sounds at times like a more controlled Jim Morrison if he was a southern rocker. His lyrics at times even owe more to regional American dialects than to anything from Scotland, and I’m not trying to suggest that’s he’s being disingenuous, because this kind of rock tends to be universal (take a listen to Gotthard, from Switzerland of all places), but its just a facet of this band that I find incredibly surprising.

They’re a trio, just guitar, bass, and drums, and they make the most out of that framework. Drummer Jon Holt (relation?) and bassist Iain Thomson make up an admirable rhythm section, but its Adam Holt whose guitar work demands most of the attention here. He’s just a superb riffer, and if he’s responsible for the songwriting (which seems likely) then apply that superlative to that as well. Personal favorites include “The Spell” where Holt kicks up the acceleration on a riff sequence that actually becomes the refrain; and “Don’t Know My Name” with its very Sabbath-esque riffs and quiet/loud verse to chorus dynamics (I get a real Doors vibe from this one). I quite like the eerie, backwoods swamp feel of the clean plucked intro to “My Only Home”, as well as the spooky, Blue Oyster Cult quality to “The Siren’s Song Pt.1” where Holt paints haunting melodic motifs with a minimalist’s brush, conjuring up gorgeous atmospherics with just a few notes. I’m surprised I enjoyed this album as much as I did, its a good collection of music in this particular style, but if I’m being honest its stuff I don’t normally listen to (feeling like I burned myself out on “rock” a long time ago, as strange as that sounds). That speaks volumes to me about the quality of the songwriting here, because ultimately that’s what its all about —- there are loads of bands that sound close to Hair of the Dog, but few of them have the chops to deliver compelling songs.
The Takeaway: One of those random out of nowhere albums that grabbed my attention in a year jammed full of releases, a feat in itself. This is exactly as described, so don’t head into this expecting something like Grand Magus, because Hair of the Dog is very much rock n’ roll with an emphasis on the roll. If you’re missing that in your rotation, you’d be negligent in not at least sampling this.

 

 

 

Circle II Circle – Reign of Darkness:

I have a soft spot for Zak Stevens’ post-Savatage project, the ever rotating cast that is Circle II Circle, not only because they charmingly seem to have attained some sort of perennial live slot at Wacken, but because after all these years they really are alone in creating this distinctive type of metal. One listen to a cut off this album will serve as enough of an example as to what I’m talking about —- largely minor key American styled melodic metal of the mid-tempo variety. Think 90s Savatage (duh!) and maybe a bit of Saigon Kick (for the  guitar tones anyway), and you’re pretty much on target for an accurate description of what Stevens and company are up to. Circle II Circle’s first two albums were largely written by his old Savatage bandmates Jon Oliva and Chris Caffrey, and they were pretty great as a result. Since then however, Stevens writing partner is his longtime bassist Mitch Stewart, who has the ability to hit upon some inspired riffs which lead to Stevens developing a few excellent vocal melodies or hooks. They’ve been working in tandem for five albums now, so they’ve developed a rapport and it seems like when they’re at their best they are outdoing themselves continually. Their problem is ultimately consistency, they can’t quite seem to spread that success across an entire album, and its been that way since 2006’s Burden of Proof.

Case in point is that there are really only a small handful of truly awesome cuts here, but man are they awesome: First up is the album opener (sans intro track, ugh) “Victim of the Night”, as classic sounding a Circle II Circle song as they’ve ever written with total minor key darkness on the verse and bridge section and a marginally brighter chorus (but only just). Somehow Stevens is able to hoist appealing, hummable vocal melodies above such an aggressive bed of riffs, with the band joining in on backup vocals to give that chorus a little bit of a lift. Even better is “Untold Dreams”, a semi-ballad that turns into an aggressive mid-tempo stomper with some of the album’s best moments. I love the way the backing vocals join in with Stevens at the end of the line “There’s a reason that I’ll always be… alone” (check the :47 second mark), their combined vibratos (or Stevens’ layered vocal tracks, whichever) making that a moment worth rewinding over and over for. The verses here are satisfyingly alliterative and the chorus is simply hookwormy, the kind that Stevens excels at like no one else. You’ll find another addictive chorus payoff in “Somewhere”, although some of the build up to it leaves a lot to be desired its still worth the effort because the vocal melody there is achingly emotive. The band gets a nice groove going on “Taken Away” with emphatic synchronous riffing leaving a lot of room for Stevens to carry the melodic load, I just wish there was a stronger hook at work here. As for everything else, its really just there, as in its unoffensive but not inspiring either —- just like the past four albums. Back in 2012 the band released a compilation album called Full Circle: The Best of Circle II Circle, and it was a near perfect cross-section of no frills American melodic metal. Circle II Circle’s unfortunate problem is their inability to write such a compilation album at will.

 

The Takeaway: I hate recommending someone to avoid listening to Circle II Circle, and for anyone new to the band I’d encourage them to check out the first two albums at the least, or even the respectably put together Full Circle compilation album. Download “Untold Dreams” and “Victim of the Night” off iTunes from this one for sure though.

 

 

 

Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable:

Credit goes to Fenriz and his amazing downloadable pirate radio show broadcasts, its through one of those episodes that I found out about Year of the Goat via a strikingly catchy song called “Riders of Vultures”. It appears at the end of this album but its not the only remarkable aspect of what may be one of the strongest records of the year. Whether or not you’ll find enjoyment in it depends on how much you’ve been able to get into this recent wave of retro occult rock. I’m of course referring to bands like Ghost, The Devil’s Blood, Orchid, Blues Pills (you get the idea); all rock and metal artists who’ve to varying degrees adapted a distinct sensibility born in the 70s, when the idea of introducing occult themes and marrying them to a distinct sound was entirely new territory. If you’ve been skeptical of some of the recent revivals (such as the odious purist 80s thrash metal wave) like I have then you might be naturally wary of this, but the occult rock revival seems to have a little more promise to it mainly because there’s so many styles of metal it can be mixed with —- In Solitude showed us as much with their excellent Sister album two years ago.

In fact, the aforementioned fellow Swedes might be the most apt to compare Year of the Goat to, as both In Solitude’s vocalist Pelle Ahman and Goat’s own creepy crooner Thomas Sabbathi share strong similarities in their singing styles, fragile and wavery while melodic. Sabbathi’s relatively flawed voice is strangely perfect for the type of loose, jangly, Blue Oyster Cult invoking rock n’ roll that Goat deliver here —- yes rock n’ roll, because while there are definitely metal riffs and songwriting tendencies to be found, there’s no way that a song like “The Wind” can’t be considered as such. The drums are played loose yet with an focus to its timekeeping back-beat, and bassist Tobias Resch plays off him like they’ve been jamming for a decade, keeping in rhythm, flourishing here and there to fill in voids —- they dance around each other gleefully. I like that the band is built on dual guitarists, Marcus Lundberg and Don Palmroos are a terrific tandem, moving from aggressive riffs to strum-based rhythm guitar, spitting out darkly gorgeous open chord patterns at will and generally just being more creative than other bands of this ilk tend to be. They’re as much a joy to listen to as Sabbathi, I particularly love their work on “Pillars of the South”, built upon their ascending and descending minor key harmonized riffing, dressed up during verses by spare harmonic patterns and finishing the song with wild Gn’R styled soloing. Their songwriting approach reminds me of the best qualities of The Darkness, that is writing with an eye towards memorable melodies, being unafraid of indulging in major chord hook-craft, all while playing loose and wild on guitars and vocals yet crisp and tight in the rhythm section. They seem to have figured out what their sweet spot is stylistically, allowing them to concentrate on quality songwriting to get the most out of it.

 

The Takeaway: I’ve been listening to this for nearly three months now in recurring fashion. Just when I think I’ve probably heard it enough I’ll hear one of its songs in my head and that craving will lead me right back into playing the entire thing all the way through. I’ve been skittish on the occult rock wave that seems to have brought record deals to countless bands, but The Unspeakable is an undeniably fantastic album, I even think I’m enjoying it more than In Solitude’s Sister which speaks volumes.

 

 

 

Leaves’ Eyes – King Of Kings:

I’ve always wanted to enjoy Leaves’ Eyes more than I actually do. I even saw them live once when they opened for Kamelot in 2007 (could be wrong about that year) and thought they were rather fun to see, Liv Kristine being an engaging frontwoman and Alexander Krull being the undeniable presence he always has been. Their studio albums are always produced well, sound great and their songwriting is largely good… a lame adjective sure but perhaps its the underlying issue, because they’ve never really done anything I can honestly call great. That trend continues with the history drenched King of Kings, a semi-concept album about the sagas of Harald Fairhair, Norway’s first king (which reminds me of Sabaton’s own Carolus Rex concept album, also about a king). While the subject matter does interest me, there’s nothing musically going on to distinguish it from the five other Leaves Eyes albums (especially the Celtic music soaked “Vengeance Venom”, why not go for something more Norwegian sounding as a cultural music touchstone to better serve the concept?). I cringe at having to criticize albums like this too, because I realize how increasingly rare it will be going forward to have new music released in this vein as the music industry continues to shrink and artists have to scale back their activities due to finances. Incidentally this is Leaves’ Eyes first album for AFM Records, having parted ways with Napalm, their label since the band’s inception. Seems counter intuitive for Napalm considering the roster they’ve been trying to cultivate, but maybe the band got tired of middling chart positions —- while on Napalm they had yet to really crack Germany (finally hitting number 15 on the Media Control charts there with this new album).

Its hard to deny the appeal of pop-driven songs like “The Waking Eye” and “King of Kings”, both advance songs (music video and lyric video respectively) for good reason. It struck me as I was listening to the latter along to its lyrics that one of the reasons I loved Sabaton’s aforementioned Carolus Rex so much was that its music really synced with the dramatic impact of the lyrics. Think about the title track and how its chorus (“I was chosen by heaven / Say my name when you pray / To the skies…”) came in with a sudden forcefulness, a slight increase in vocal delivery tempo backed up by a muscular layer of backing vocals. When you listen to “King of Kings”, ostensibly about the same kind of topic, the chorus seems relatively laissez-faire, entirely working against its lyrics: “Hail the forces / The first king of Norway / King of kings / Hail the fairest of Norsemen / The dragon / Victorious”. Far be it for me to assume anything on behalf of the songwriter, but I’d expect something with a little more gusto, a little more drive. Kristine sounds great however, so if you ignore the lyrics its all ice cream, but that disconnect that I’m perceiving here really detracts from any attempt at getting into the album’s concept. The Sabaton track was vivid and thrilling, its first person perspective really helped in pulling us into this lunatic’s worldview —- in contrast this Leaves’ Eyes song comes across a little like a cursory history lesson. Everywhere else things move along predictably, though there’s a fun, heavy guitar riff in “Edge of Steel” towards the end that perks up an otherwise unremarkable song. Also “Blazing Waters” seems to be an example of what these guys and gal should be trying more of, that is injecting a heck of a lot more aggression and uptempo riffing throughout. I’m sure a few people will read this review and disagree vehemently, and out of the admiration and respect I have for both Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull, I’m glad for that.

 

The Takeaway: Really did try with this one, giving it a few months to sink in by coming back to it every so often. It didn’t take, and I think its far inferior to Vinland Saga (still their best album to my ears). If you’ve enjoyed their previous albums in any substantial way you’ll be fine, otherwise consider Amberian Dawn for something a little different and unique in the way of female fronted metal (oh and Draconian as well!).

 

 

 

Gloryhammer – Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards:

I was told that I’d be remiss not to issue a review for the much ballyhooed Gloryhammer, a side project from Christopher Bowes of the abysmal Alestorm. I thought this was supposed to be a one-off thing, as they released a debut album in 2013 that I heard a few tracks from but I guess this is Bowes way of taking a break from half-hearted “pirate” metal and mediocre live shows. Kudos to him for that at least, because Gloryhammer is a far more intriguing project simply because he’s working with a better group of musicians, most noticeably vocalist Thomas Winkler, a relatively unknown guy from Switzerland who is actually pretty excellent, with incredible range and diversity in his singing styles. I know that most of the folks on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group were all about this Space 1992 album when it first dropped all those months ago. I saw a few posts on the group’s wall about it possibly being the best album of 2015 and that really did force my hand in actually hunting down a promo and giving it a shot despite my original intentions to ignore it entirely. I don’t know what I was expecting, I knew what I was walking into —- how much could I enjoy an album of self-professed “satirical power metal” anyway? As it turns out, not much at all.

Before you type that comment, I’ll point out one crucial thing: I’m not against anyone having fun, which seems to be the intent of this project (if not to capitalize on some sort of limited potential for irony-seeking cross-over success ala Dragonforce in 2006). I’m someone who thinks Manowar’s “Kings of Metal” is a fun album, grin-inducing in its best moments and containing a few songs worthy of fist-pumping and headbanging at a party or your buddy’s garage at 2am (if not quite at a $100 per ticket Manowar gig). And I’ll admit that when listening through this album I couldn’t help but enjoy “Universe on Fire” for its simple yet incredibly effective hook and refrain. But if Gloryhammer somehow stands out to you as an example of power metal done right… I’ll have to politely disagree. The knock on power metal has always seemed to be just how seriously its artists take their work, often times placing inordinate amounts of importance on their own made up story lines, or in the case of Dragonforce (one of the genre’s most popular exports, like it or not) the ludicrousness of how nonsensical the lyrics could be. We as power metal fans have heard these same old jabs time and time again, but what we get that everyone else on the outside looking in can never seemingly understand is that power metal is one of the last bastions in music that is free from irony and self-awareness.

That’s what allows me to connect with honest, open nerve ending songwriting such as on Avantasia’s twin releases The Wicked Symphony / Angel of Babylon, or sink deep into the fantastical, imaginative world of Nightwish as a metaphor for childhood nostalgia and lost innocence —- because I know that I’m listening to music that was created without a shred of irony, self-awareness, and detached cool. I get nothing out of the smirking, self-satisfied, satirical nature of Gloryhammer —- and maybe you do —- but to me its an exercise in pointlessness. Bowes only artistic ambition seems to be ascending to the title of metal’s Weird Al Yankovic. Congratulations, you’ve succeeded, and in the process we know nothing about what you really have to say as a musician and artist. One could argue, why does anyone have to say anything as an artist? Weird Al Yankovic just wants to make people laugh —- and you’d be right, he’s a funny guy… so am I supposed to be laughing or smirking while listening to Gloryhammer? Should I knowingly nod and say aloud, “Hah, these guys are taking the piss out of power metal bands like those idiots in Rhapsody, with their so-called cinematic Hollywood metal and stories of kingdoms and dragons and silky shirted Italian guys”. You know what, at least Rhapsody did something original and did it with conviction. They care about the stories they set to music and no one can deny they’ve worked hard at turning them into musical reality, regardless of whether or not you enjoy them or think they’re silly (and to be clear, I’m not really a fan). With all due respect to the USPMC guys because I really do enjoy the group, but if this is your best album of the year, you’re not looking hard enough for meaningful metal.

 

The Takeaway: No.

 

 

 

Deafheaven – New Bermuda:

I was asked by Morroweird (@michrzesz) on Twitter what I thought about the newest Deafheaven album, released back in early October. I hadn’t listened to it by the time he’d asked me later that month and honestly didn’t plan on it, having felt like I said all I ever wanted to say about Deafheaven already. But I’m an easy sell if someone actually wants my opinion (as opposed to me just forcefully throwing it out there), so I finally got around to giving it a few spins. First off I’ll have to acknowledge just how wrong my prediction was, as Morroweird pointed out, that the band would retreat further away from the metal aspects of their sound. Much to my surprise they’ve done the exact opposite, and though I could only guess at their motivations, I’m not sure they did themselves any favors here. For all my criticism of Deafheaven as a media darling, I had to admit that their 2013 album Sunbather had a few really stellar moments where their mix of dreamy shoegaze meshed with their major key take on black metal. Songs like “Dreamhouse” and the instrumental “Irresistible” were worth all the hoopla, even if the second half of the album lost my interest a bit. I’m re-listening to Sunbather right now as I type this sentence… its a strong record, as annoying as that still is to admit. I could’ve listened to an album full of nothing but melodies like those found in “Irresistible” actually.

So this followup then is simultaneously disappointing on a musical level and equally as puzzling for the absurd amount of praise its getting. My best of 2015 features are coming up next —- I purposefully delayed them to avoid getting lost in the flurry of year end lists that pollute your browser come early to mid December —- and I’ve stopped myself from looking at ANY year end lists (even Angry Metal Guy’s so you know I’m serious) until mine are complete just so I can make it easy on myself by not getting distracted with albums that I missed. But I’ve taken a gander at the New Bermuda page on Wikipedia and did a Google search and see it lighting up a ton of the usual suspects year end lists (Pitchfork (big surprise Stosuy), SPIN (Artists of the Year apparently), Stereogum, Rolling Stone). I’m suspecting the band to be an easy inclusion for a lot of these editors compiling these lists based on their name alone (imagine what they had to contend with in 2014 with no new Deafheaven to heap limitless praise upon, must’ve been tough), because if they were listening to the same album I was, I don’t see how anyone could dub this the best of the year by a long shot. Deafheaven have upped their metallic attack, relying more on integrated riff sequences with the occasional breath of air in the form of jangly open chord strumming. Instead of the fuzzy, dreamy hues of the last album we’re treated to what is largely a bleak, dark grey affair, one that seems out to impress upon people the validity of their self-professed metal roots.

Alright, its certainly more black metal than anything they’ve done before. The opener “Brought to the Water” sounds like pretty standard second wave Norwegian black metal until it reaches a few bridge sequences in the middle where bent chords shift away from the frenetic percussion and riffage to attempt to create some sort of dichotomous tonal separation (ie they try to start something and fail). Its an uninteresting clunker of a song, aimless and drifting in its meandering, slower moments, the only cool part coming at 5:38 when Kerry McCoy lurches in on a power chord to start the metal section again. The needlessly ten minute long “Luna” is essentially more of the same, except that its softer parts are even more meandering, serving only to work as foils to the introduction of a heavy sequence (this time an escalating chord progression). George Clarke’s vocals are once again a tinny, repetitive, pointless exercise —- are there people out there that enjoy his style and simultaneously dislike Dani Filth? Because a criticism of one is a criticism of the other (and to be fair to Dani, he does have a range and deviates within it a lot… Clarke seems unable). There’s actually a pretty good riff midway through “Baby Blue” but it doesn’t really set anything up and is repeated without purpose (no vocals over the top, so I assume the riff is supposed to convey something musical?… except that its not). Frustrating. The best part of the album comes at the 5:25 mark of “Come Back”, where the song shifts from more proving they can do it black metal to a largely hushed, ambient passage with soft, wistful guitar playing (they sound more comfortable doing this to be honest). Is it that they’re trying too hard or just didn’t realize that they had stumbled onto an actual sound they could work with on their last album? This is one of the more confusing releases of the year. Sorry Morroweird, I gave it a shot but didn’t expect to dislike this as much as I did.

 

The Takeaway: Avoid like the plague and check out Sunbather for a few interesting moments here and there. I think Deafheaven miscalculated, and whatever it was that they’re trying to accomplish here is misguided… they should’ve played to their strengths and drifted away from metallic elements, only using them as a brush or tone when needed. It worked for Alcest apparently. Not surprised that it made year end lists of mainstream publications though…they do have demographics to think about.

 

The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part I: Swallow the Sun, Draconian and More!

Throughout the year, I’ve made not-so-veiled references to 2015 being the year with possibly the most noteworthy metal releases that we’ve ever seen. The sheer volume has been overwhelming. Here’s what I overlooked: that it wasn’t just going to be releases that were noteworthy to me, but releases that were noteworthy to everyone else as well. This year publicists, record labels, and bands themselves sent out more promos and emails than I ever expected, and before you mistake The Metal Pigeon blog as a beacon for traffic (it is not I assure you), I realize that most of them came because of my duties as co-host of the MSRcast podcast. Simply put, when blogs or metal writers I follow on Twitter talked about an album they loved, it happened to be a band I wasn’t aware of or expecting, and it went on my to-do list and my promo folder. No exaggeration, because I’ve kept count, I had 126 promos of individual new releases land on my metaphorical desk! Okay, so some of them were hard rock (apparently writing favorably about certain power metal bands makes you a hot target for any AOR oriented label) and some of them were bands I’d never heard of, but most were from established, popular metal bands.

So after going through them all, I whittled them down to a range of 15 to 20ish that I might want to talk about, hence the first of a multiple part Fall edition reviews cluster. Some of these might be albums released a few months or longer ago, but better late than never I suppose. Because there’s so many albums to discuss I’ll be trying (key word) to keep these on the shorter side, but some might go longer (yeah okay, the first one went really long). Bear with me, its going to be a crazy few weeks ahead.

 


 

Swallow The Sun – Songs From The North I, II & III: I’m not as big a Swallow the Sun aficionado as my MSRcast cohost Cary, but when he described this new triple disc thematic album to me on a recent episode of the podcast, I was all in. I love stuff like this, of a band running and gunning on ambition, throwing caution to the wind and doing something a record label would shake its head at (although perhaps in this age of struggling record sales, more projects like this are exactly what the industry needs to renew an interest in physical sales). I call this a thematic album in regards to its division of stylistic approaches across its three individual discs, not in regards to their lyrics, which effectively share similar Swallow the Sun(ny!) sentiments across the board (they’re a doomy melo-death band from Finland, you know the score). It goes like this: the first disc is a Swallow the Sun album done in the band’s normal/regular stylistic vein; the second disc is a largely acoustic album; and the third disc is an original album of rather extreme funeral doom —- I should hasten to point out that all three discs consist of entirely original new material (no re-records on that acoustic album, bonus points in my book). Its an intriguing proposition on paper, sort of like Opeth’s Deliverance / Damnation experiment taken a step further (and released simultaneously). If I’m being honest, I was more excited to hear the acoustic album, and that’s what I wound up listening to first. That’s certainly not intended to be a slight against their normal approach… its just that I hadn’t to this point really loved any of their past records like I have albums by Insomnium, Ominium Gatherum, and Amorphis.

Whats caught me off guard is how much I honestly am enjoying the first “normal” disc here. The songwriting on Songs From the North I is sharp, focused, riveting and full of darkly beautiful, evocative melodicism with just enough of a tempo kick in certain elements of the instrumentation to keep everything interesting on a sonic level. I’m not a big doom guy in general, because with the traditional stuff the slow tempos of everything just weigh on my interest and attention levels, but Swallow the Sun have always been intriguing because they attempted to mix melo-death musicality with doom metal structures. That means even when the tempos are at their doom-iest, there’s something captivating going on with the guitar patterns —- such as on the gorgeous opener “With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears”, a nine minute epic built on those aforementioned lead guitar patterns that move in procession over elongated rhythm and bass guitars that are structured like jutting pieces of a glacier moving down a mountain. Vocalist Mikko Kotamaki’s ushers everything along with one of the bleakest, fiercest doom/death vocal hybrids you’ll ever hear, his extreme voice having the flexibility to bend from relatively high-pitched screams to deep, rich guttural passages where he still maintains control and enunciation in the delivery of the lyrics. Furthermore, he demonstrates a smooth, emotive, accented clean vocal on the opener and in moments of songs such as “10 Silver Bullets” and my personal favorites for vocal work, “Heartstrings Shattering” and “From Happiness To Dust”.

Those latter two aforementioned songs might just be some of the best examples of microcosms for why the first disc is as rich, diverse, and practically flawless as it is. On “Heartstrings Shattering”, the band builds around Kotamaki’s cleanly sung laments, guitars echoing off the end of his lyrics like further continuations of sentiments they couldn’t set to words. His extreme metal vocal passages are layered in between those clean vocal passages, some of them sung by guest female vocalist and past contributor to the band Aleah Stanbridge (who incidentally also serves as the photographer for the individual art on each of the albums packaging within —- the ones with the model wearing tree branch/antlers, photography that contributes massively to just how excellent the overall design/packaging of the album turned out). Her vocals are a delicate, nuanced counterpoint to all the aggression we’re getting, yet her tone seems just shy of being ethereal because its mixed with a touch of despair that helps keep her in tone with the music… something a lot of other bands tend to get wrong by simply going the beauty and the beast route when it doesn’t suit the music. Here Stanbridge is a part of the fabric of the song as a whole, her appearance is sudden but not jarring, and the music doesn’t shift in tempo or tone to accommodate her because it simply doesn’t need to. As for “From Happiness to Dust”, sweet maria, listen to how unconventional yet perfect that open chord sequenced chiming guitar motif is when introduced at the :33 second mark. Its employed relatively sparingly throughout the song’s near nine minutes, but every occurrence seems like a religious experience. Its on the list as a song of the year candidate.

 

The first disc is such a towering achievement, that it threatens to overshadow the inspired Songs From the North II, the band’s all acoustic work. Its the perfect autumn chill out disc, a collection of minor key hushed lullabyes built on hypnotic acoustic guitar patterns, draped with keyboard built string arrangements, with Kotamaki’s delicate clean vocals adrift over the the top. That description might seem like its all a little mechanical or by the numbers, but once again the band’s songwriting here wins the day. Certain songs fall further in the “acoustic chill out” spectrum than others, such as “Away”, a song that sleepily sways along, drawing you into its almost relaxing, serene ambient nature. Others are more built on James Taylor-esque simple hooks, as on “Pray For the Winds to Come”, where guitarists Juha Raivio and Markus Jamsen deliver a lilting guitar motif built on chiming chords that actually serves as a strong hook, Kotamaki slipping his vocals in between their strongest accents. He’s joined by another female vocalist on the titular “Songs From the North”, one Kaisa Vala, who sings the refrain in Finnish with a relatively bright and cheery vocal tone —- believe me it works, not only because it better suits the complexities of Finnish language consonants but because in this case her voice is a warming accent to relatively frosty verses (musically and lyrically speaking —- the song is essentially a love letter to the Finnish wilderness).

Its interesting to me that I went into this album looking forward to hearing the acoustic disc the most, in fact I listened to it first, and its a lovely listen don’t get me wrong… but I’ve been realizing that its the first “regular” disc that’s been getting most of the spins lately. Its the more dynamic of the two, its longer length pieces having more peaks and valleys, more differentiation with songwriting structures and composition whereas the acoustic album tends to run at a very specific and unchanging speed for the most part. Of course this is to say nothing of this set’s third, “extreme funeral doom” disc… look, I’ve given it more than a handful of spins, and maybe its just that this particular flavor of metal isn’t for me (historically, that’s the way its been for my relationship with funeral doom) but I’m just having a hard time getting into it. It has its moments, such as on “Empires of Loneliness”, where the tempos of both the rhythm guitars and percussion alternate with speedier attacks to contrast to the sludge-paced tempo and overly extreme doom vocals (which I suppose Kotamaki does well). There’s also some really intriguing guitar work on the back end of “Abandoned By The Light” in the form of melodic figures that act as defacto solos of a sort… I almost wish they were utilized on the first disc in some other form. But on other more unforgiving tracks, “Gathering of the Black Moths” and “7 Hours Late” to name a pair, I’m just unable to find anything redeeming in their funeral procession-like tempos and overly droning vocalizations that they apparently require, but someone will —- its obvious that they are well done.

I applaud Swallow the Sun’s ambition in their approach to this project, its the kind of the thing that makes you excited to be a metal fan —- seriously, what other genre will you get something like this? In their attempt they’ve not only created some truly remarkable music, but renewed my interest in their work. Its the old story repeated once more: I find myself loving something new from an established band whom I had largely been ambivalent to, and its going to get me looking to revisit their back catalog to see if I’m now receptive to something amazing that I’ve missed. I never internalize that as self-chastening, instead I embrace it, it means there’s another band out there doing incredible stuff that I can proudly call myself a fan of.

The Takeaway: The only stain here is that I’m left thinking about how that problematic third disc might tarnish some of the luster on those first two —- this would be a feisty candidate for the album of the year list but I can’t just ignore how I feel about the funeral doom stuff, I mean, they made it part of the album concept! I guess we’ll see how it shakes out a few weeks from now.

 

 

Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos: I can’t remember when I started to tune out Children of Bodom… it was certainly after 2006’s abominable Are You Dead Yet?, where the band’s unfortunate turn towards incorporating industrial influences and veering away from their Finnish power metal influences left us with an album as sterile, formless, and dry as you can imagine. I would half-heartedly pay attention to the releases that followed, but sometime after either 2008’s Blooddrunk or 2011’s Relentless Reckless Forever I decidedly tuned out. I can’t remember listening to 2013’s Halo of Blood (I had to do a search on my own site to see if I had even written about it, I had not) and recently I asked a friend who paid more attention whether or not it was any good —- Bodom were his gateway into metal band and I trusted his opinion, but he hemmed and hawed a bit and that told me all I needed to know. When I got this promo, I thought about passing on it for a second but then I took a look at the cover art —- hmm… pretty nice, actually reminds me a bit of classic melo-death covers albeit with the traditional Bodom mascot. It also suddenly reminded me of one of my favorite virtues of being a metal fan, that of checking out or even buying an album simply because the cover art was compelling (see Myrkyr below), and so based on that alone, I decided to give I Worship Chaos a shot.

And I’m glad I did, because I never really thought that I would find myself enjoying anything by this band again apart from going back and spinning their first four albums again. Seeing as how I’m limited in my context as to how Halo of Blood might have helped set up a return to form that I’m hearing here, I can only guess that the band’s return to embracing their power metal influences is a new development. Its only guesswork here whether or not any of that has something to do with the departure of Roopa Latvala, as the band recorded this album as a four piece, Alexi Laiho handling all the guitar parts himself. Being that he’s always been the sole songwriter, perhaps the burden of shouldering both dual rhythm and lead parts caused Laiho to instinctively return to his “safe” roots of Malmsteen/Tolkki influenced guitar work with all their melodic bends and tails and rely less on the thrashier approach he’d been using for many of their previous questionable albums. Songs like “I Hurt”, “My Bodom (I am The Only One)”, and “Morrigan” are more instantly memorable than I’ve heard since the days of “Needled 24/7” (well, and all of the Hatecrew Deathroll album really), as Janne Wirman’s trademark keyboards are given space up front for once and Laiho seems all to happy to interplay with them, bouncing his riffs off of them with precision rather than just laying down messy riffs over the top. Its a trio of songs that launch the album on an adrenaline-pumping note, one of their best opening salvos in ages.

Even when things slow down, the songwriting seems sharp enough now to keep things compelling, as on “Prayer For The Afflicted”, where Laiho affixes addictive twists on to his monstrous riffs, so that each iteration throughout the song sounds a little different. And perhaps my favorite is the relatively glacial (for Bodom standards) “All For Nothing”, a dreamily-atmospheric tune that is built on Warmen’s tinkling keyboards and rather Finnish-y soundscapes. I love the mid-song bridge that turns into an extraordinarily epic guitar/keyboard solo at the 3:38 mark, because while I can’t quite put my finger on why, it reminds me of something off Hatebreeder (could it be the actual keyboard tone?). As a song, its a microcosm for why I think this album works so well, that it seems Laiho has returned to a songwriting style that has edged closer to complexity in riffs, arrangements, and overall structure —- I simply think he writes better when he allows himself the indulgence of being a child of the shredder school, of allowing his guitar figures to splurge on extra notes, like he’s making it rain (so to speak). The hope is that he realizes that he’s stumbled back into something he should hold onto for dear life.

The Takeaway: Is I Worship Chaos on the same level as classics such as their first four albums? Not quite, but its as close as they’ve been in well over a decade, and that’s worth celebrating and acknowledging. For the future, I’ll be paying attention again.

 

 

Myrkur – M: Ah yes, finally Myrkur. An album that drummed up no small amount of controversy upon its early fall release a few months ago mostly due to the identity of the person behind the band. It was known that Myrkur was a one woman band, but when that woman was revealed to be Danish model Amalie Bruun a lot of the usual internet nonsense began to occur. I suspected that a lot of these debates about Bruun’s validity as a black metal musician (she was getting some flack in metal circles for being one half of indie-pop band Ex-Cops) were thinly veiled jabs at her gender. That she was a model flirting with mainstream circles seemed to only add fuel to the fire —- never mind that this debut album was produced by Ulver’s own Kristoffer Rygg aka Garm and featured some rather credible black metal musicians in the fold such as Mayhem’s Teloch on guitar and Oyvind of Nidingr on drums. Never mind that Bruun has been a musician for as long as she’s been a model, having began her recording career in 2006. Just under twenty years after Nightwish came on the scene, why is there still the merest hint of sexism in metal? Hmm… I guess I should amend that, seeing as how despite the prevalence of tight corsets and sometimes myopic fandom, power metal audiences have long since accepted women in metal as equals (last year’s Triosphere anyone?), it seems that extreme metal audiences are the ones with the real problem. Funny that for all of black metal’s malleability, for its adoption by the hip indie set as yet another musical subgenre they can lay claim to and enjoy ironically or post-ironically (or whatever the hell they’re doing now), its the subgenre with the single largest gender gap in music… and I mean all of music.

Anyway, gender politics aside, I’ve been revisiting this album every now and then since I first heard it way back in September when I originally intended to publish a review for it. I couldn’t quite decide if I liked it enough based on its own merits or I was just reacting positively towards it due to feeling annoyed by the hate Bruun was receiving (and before you think it, its certainly not my intention to paint myself as some social justice warrior… ugh, the very idea). It was also one of those rare impulse purchases I made at Houston’s supposedly best record store (Cactus Music… hardly any metal to speak of, tons of indie rock) just based on its gorgeous cover art and my memory springing to life at the sight of the band name on the record label sticker on the front. I hardly ever buy an album these days without hearing something from it first, but I remembered liking the Myrkur EP from last year and the very notion of buying blind took me back to those old heady days of record store pillaging, before high speed internet, iTunes and Spotify. I was enthralled on the car ride back by what I was hearing from the very first song “Skøgen skulle dø”, Bruun’s ethereal, delicate vocals introducing a crush of sorrowful violins and accompanying strings, all drenched in melancholic splendor. The guitars were slightly fuzzy, muted just enough to be subservient to Bruun’s vocals and some tremolo picked leads, all mixed to sound like they were coming some distance away from a foggy moor. It was lush sounding, and actually evoked the dreamlike feeling I got from staring at the cover art. I drove around a little extra just to finish the album in my car.

So back to the present day, and my finally coming to a conclusion that I’ve been trying to avoid all this time: I enjoy Myrkur more for the clean vocal led, folk infused “songs” (quoted because at times they’re quasi-instrumentals) rather than for its black metal components. I find myself wishing that pieces such as “Vølvens spådom” were longer (1:38), because her usage of intertwined vocal layering here is imaginative and almost reverent in the atmosphere it conjures up, and Garm should get a ton of credit for that in how he’s approached the mixing. In fact, he’s a touchstone for all the aspects of Myrkur with his first three Ulver albums, seeing as how the mix of black metal and acoustic/atmospheric passages remind me of Bergtatt. I played the album for a black metal loving friend of mine, sure he would scoff at it, but he surprised me and told me he too actually enjoyed the clean, folky passages more, that he wanted an album full of those (Myrkur’s very own Kveldssanger I suppose). Its not that the black metal stuff is bad at all, its not, and Bruun is a capable second-wave styled black metal grim screamer, its just that I can’t help but be unmoved by those tracks, there’s a feeling that I’ve already heard it all before. This would make sense to me only if I didn’t find myself loving Blut Aus Nord’s ode to second wave black metal with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III (number four on last year’s best albums list). I guess I can put it this way, Bruun and her band definitely hit all the right notes on the black metal side of things, but maybe that’s just it… it sounds like black metal just for the sake of being black metal, as if there’s no real underlying reason for it to sound that way at all.

The Takeaway: I still enjoy listening to the entirety of M in general, but I think Bruun would be better served by forging more of a heavier identity that she can truly call her own. Looking forward to what she does next with the project.

 

 

Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall – Kingdom of Rock: Power metal’s favorite hired gun is at it again, this time returning with another chapter of his own eponymous project (the first self-titled Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall album was released in 2013). Karlsson has been on somewhat of a hot streak lately, with his songwriting work on the recent Kiske/Somerville album and his role as a songwriting partner in Primal Fear alongside Mat Sinner and Ralph Scheepers, just to name a few of his wide ranging list of projects. He is actually directly employed by Frontiers Records to work as a songwriter for many of their collaboration albums, side projects and what have you, a guitarist who is able to write for a variety of voices —- that kind of versatility is something to be prized in a songwriter, despite your views on any metal related project not being entirely 100% home spun by the band. After listening to no small handful of Karlsson penned albums however, its gotten easier to pinpoint where his comfort zone lies, that is in AOR styled hard rock with power metal flourishes (rarely does he write from a purely power metal base). So what separates Magnus Karlsson’s Freefall from the many other non-Primal Fear projects he’s worked on? Not much really —- he brings on a variety of vocalists on board, some of them from said projects he’s worked on (Jorn, Michael Kiske) and a bunch from the hard rock/AOR world (Tony Harnell of TNT/Skid Row fame, David Readman of Pink Cream 69, Rick Altzi of At Vance / Masterplan, Harry Hess from Harem Scarem) and gives them songs that individually suit their vocals.

Karlsson is upfront about that facet of his relationship with guest vocalists, that he bends his songwriting to their style, which isn’t always the case in multi-vocalist / one songwriter projects. For example with Tony Martin (yep that one), he delivered a song that touches on Martin’s work with Sabbath, the main riff even having that Iommi-esque extension during the chorus (Martin co-wrote on this one, the only song that ended up as a writing collaboration). And there’s a Rainbow-esque gem with Joe Lynn Turner called “No Control” that is the most satisfying performance that I’ve heard from him since “Stone Cold”. A friend of mine and I were listening to that one when in my car the other day and we briefly discussed how the lyrics seemed relevant to the early 80s, yet slightly questionable in our modern era, judge for yourself “…you better stay away / ‘Cause I’ve got no control…”. This is nitpicking, and maybe I’m just being a cheeky bastard, but what exactly is the narrator insinuating here? Where does this lack of control factor in? In the early 80s wouldn’t this clearly be a reference to his bad-boy demeanor, that he can’t be tied down to one woman and he’s gonna hurt this poor girl he’s addressing? I’d like to think so, and perhaps Karlsson decided to do a little time travel songwriting with Turner on board, but in 2015 the lyric comes off a little criminal-y.

The two best vocal performances however are from an entirely unknown vocalist and one with lead vocals from Karlsson himself. On the latter, “Walk This Road Alone”, Karlsson delivers a surprisingly convincing performance as a vocalist, his style equal parts Joey Tempest and Tony Harnell, and he injects enough passion into his delivery to make you consider that perhaps these particular lyrics aren’t entirely built from cliches. My favorite is the album’s only female fronted song, “The Right Moment”, with vocals courtesy of newcomer Rebecca De La Motte of whom absolutely nothing is known. She’s got a real Ann Wilson thing going on with her voice, maybe not as rough-hewn, but very similar in essence —- and Karlsson gives her an explosive song with a chorus that seems straight out of the kind of 80s hard edged pop-rock that makes us adore Pat Benatar and Roxette (don’t deny it). I’d take an album of Karlsson writing new material entirely for De La Motte’s vocals, she’s a legitimate talent and the metal world can always use another rock oriented female vocalist to inject some diversity into its ranks. I hope she gets some traction with this, if only to guest on other people’s records. Here’s hoping someone sends her song over to Tobias Sammet sometime in the future.

The Takeaway: A solid sophomore effort from Karlsson with what is essentially his solo project, the least Frontiers Records could do for the guy considering all the albums he’s written for the label. If you really enjoy this kind of thing then consider this one a safe bet, but if you’re limited to merely adding some fun, ultra catchy singles to a road mix, go on iTunes and download “No Control” and “The Right Moment” —- the most essential cuts here.

 

 

Draconian – Sovran: I believe it was a regular reader at this blog, Robert if I’m not mistaken, who pushed me to check out Draconian a few years ago or so, a band whose name I had seen in passing here and there and never bothered to investigate (forehead slap here). Once I did, I found a band that I liked on a surface level —- they were intriguing and often brilliant on their more recent albums like A Rose For the Apocalypse and Turning Season Within, their earlier albums less so (they had their moments, but at times the overtly doom laden approach wore on my patience). Due to the Great Album Barrage of 2015 it escaped my notice that the band was even releasing a new album this year. Once again it was my MSRcast cohost Cary who started playing the just received promo for this sixth Draconian album one night while we were sorting out our show notes for that episode. He hadn’t heard it yet either and as it played in the background we canned our inane chatter more and more and simply listened to a couple songs. I think at some point we both looked up at each other and nodded the “yeah… this is awesome” nod.

We’ve since rambled about it on the show in effusive praise and embarrassing gushing, but in Sovran Draconian have created the first utterly compelling, hypnotic, and inspired masterpiece of their career. Its always surprising when it happens too, certainly the band can’t predict it, and its obviously something that can be debated but I’ll have a hard time believing someone who attempts to argue that this isn’t the band’s greatest achievement. It leans a bit further away from their doom roots and more towards an overall gothic atmosphere but it feels as if they’ve actually gotten heavier as a result, the band beefing up their rhythm section’s bottom end to deliver a more metallic bed of sound over which longtime growler Anders Jacobsson and new female vocalist Heike Langhans trade off the role of lead singer. And its Langhans who steals the show on this album —- her vocals a bit more on the sleekly ethereal side compared to departed singer Lisa Johansson —- as most of these songs showcase her grabbing the majority of the vocal parts. She’s simultaneously capable of channeling a distant, frozen ice queen and a heart-on-sleeve, melancholy touched maiden (I completely deserve the nun’s ruler on my hand for going for such obvious imagery for female vocalists, but sometimes it really works). This dichotomy is illustrated rather well on “Stellar Tombs” and “Rivers Between Us”; the former seeing Langhans deliver proclamations during the verses in a remote, detached tone, while pouring every ounce of emotion into the latter in a brilliantly framed duet with clean male vocalist Daniel Anghede (Crippled Black Phoenix). Her voice was meant for this band.

As for everyone else, Draconian always manages to balance the relationship between vocals and music quite nicely, primary songwriters (and band founders) Jacobsson and lead guitarist Johan Ericson keeping it at about a 70/30 ratio. So you’ll get songs where Langhan’s vocal melody is carrying the load, but there are also times when the primary melody is guitar based and everyone works around it. Its a trademark feature of a really talented band that knows the limits of its sound and style… you’ll notice lesser female fronted bands in same genre (relatively speaking) almost always relying on their vocalist to solely carry the melody, a tendency that illustrates how paper thin their songwriting strength is (Lacuna Coil anyone?). It sounds to me as if the rhythm section parts were written to be more interlocking on the uptempo, heavier moments —- take the final 2-3 minutes of “Dishearten”, where they launch into an almost latter day Maiden giddy up and gallop with some Brave New World era lead figures. Speaking of lead guitar, Ericson might have delivered one of the best performances of the year on the album as a whole, his minor keyed laden approach being willfully bent in all manner of ways, he’s as much as joy to listen to as Langhan’s vocals. And kudos to Jacobsson if he is indeed still the primary lyricist here, because once again he demonstrates his mastery of employing simple, evocative imagery into smartly structured phrasing, all while keeping an eye towards creating a mini-narrative in every song. He’s an underrated lyricist, and for that matter Draconian is an underrated band, though not for long if everyone else is paying attention now.

The Takeaway: Without pretense, one of the best albums of the year —- if you haven’t heard Sovran yet make sure you do so before the year is out, you don’t want this to end up on your list of things you missed in 2015.

 

Cradle of Filth Bring the Hammer Down

There’s a bit of history swirling around the release of Hammer of the Witches, the eleventh studio album by Cradle of Filth. Its the most noteworthy among the new metal albums that were released on July 10th, the world’s first global release day; and secondly, its Cradle of Filth’s first album without longtime guitarist Paul Allender. Some of you may remember that Allender’s departure in April of 2014 had me speculating about how it might be the best possible thing for the future of the band. I found Allender’s songwriting contributions to be growing ever more stale and repetitive, its like he was running of enthusiasm and as a result, inspiration. It was confirmed when I saw just how bored he seemed on stage when I caught them live on their North American trek with Satyricon in 2008, so much so that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had bailed soon thereafter. But Allender stuck around through the recording and touring of 2012’s The Manticore and Other Horrors, an album that while certainly not awful, was hardly remarkable either. Its rare that you can look at a band’s current lineup and single out what’s not working, but Allender and Cradle were visibly no longer meant to be together, it was plain for everyone to see.

Cue in new guitarists Richard Shaw and Ashok (née Marek Šmerda); the former a relative unknown whose primary background is as a music teacher, while Ashok spent well over a decade with relatively low-profile Czech black metallers Root. Their road to joining the band isn’t particularly dramatic… a band like Cradle is well established, tours a lot, has plenty of contacts in the industry, so musicians (particularly guitarists) can be found easily. That they’re not known quantities is what is interesting here, that Dani chose not to make overtures to former CoF guitarists (of which there are many), nor extended invitations to other well known musicians is a bit surprising —- it would have been the easier option you’d think. To go with entirely new guys is a roll of the dice gamble, but good on Dani for going this route, because its resulted in the freshest, most vibrant, and enthralling Cradle of Filth album since Midian. It starts with the riffs, where Cradle has undergone a musical blood transfusion, as Shaw and Ashok make only the slightest of nods to the sounds, patterns, and motifs of the past. They’re committed to introducing heavier, chunkier rhythms, at times almost Behemoth-like death metal waves of crushing heaviness with thrash-metal spice thrown in to diffuse things every once in awhile.

This is evident on the first song out of the gate, “Yours Immortally”, my favorite Cradle song since “Nymphetamine”, an unrelentingly furious blast of speed and raw aggression. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard the band sound this raw, recalling the sound and spirit of their first three albums (albeit with meatier, muscular production). Another gem is “Deflowering The Maidenhead, Displeasuring The Goddess”, a perfect balance of speed, punishing riffs that avoid relying on quasi-tremolo patterns the way Allender did, and Dani’s gutturally aggressive vocals. Dani is on form here, taming back his reliance on ear-splitting high shrieks to primarily reside in a more death metal growl informed vocal mid-range. He’s sounding better than ever before throughout the entirety of the album, partially due to allowing the songs to be written around guitar patterns entirely and segmenting his vocal patterns in between them. Its a given that he’s going to be a love him or hate him proposition for most people, I have some metal loving friends who can’t stand his voice, but songs like these might be as good an introduction to him as ever.

 

Continuing this theme of a resurgent classic Cradle of Filth sound and spirit is “Blackest Magick in Practice” which is structurally simple enough to feel at home on a less symphonic album such as Midian. Melodies are twisted around a terrific series of riffs, each one building upon the other, before their explosive crest at the 2:38 mark where Ashok and Shaw go full on dual-lead Maiden. The only real arrangement present is a few keyboard flourishes and ethereal female vocals, both courtesy of Lindsay Schoolcraft, a relatively new member in the line-up continuing in the role that predecessors Sarah Jezebel Deva, Rosie Smith, and briefly Ashley Jurgemeyer and most recently Caroline Campbell vacated. Female vocalists have always been a requirement in the band’s sound, and with the exception of Deva who was a force of nature, they always tend to sound relatively similar. Schoolcraft is perhaps the best of the recent rotating cast however, with her powerful ability to dynamically range her vocals without losing any of her dramatic, theatrical stylings. She might be the best keyboardist they’ve had in a long time as well, as her work on “Onward Christian Soldiers” matches the intensity and awesome melodic riff sequences of Ashok and Shaw.

Alright, enough of the blow by blow review, because if you’ve read this far down on a Cradle of Filth review at this particular blog, then you’re likely interested in hearing the album or have heard it already or were hoping for a good trashing. Since its clear the latter isn’t going to happen, you might be leaning towards mildly curious, and here’s what I’ll tell you: Cradle of Filth have been around since 1991, they sound like they sound, and to their credit no one else even manages to emulate them (for better or worse I suppose). There is I believe a quiet, unspoken stigma around being past a certain age and still listening to Cradle of Filth albums. But I’d say that people who grew up with the band in their formative metal years are exempt (mainly because I’m one of them). We remember the brutal majesty of Cruelty and the Beast, or the rather groundbreaking gothic-black metal fusion of The Principle of Evil Made Flesh and Dusk and Her Embrace albums. We remember Midian, widely regarded as the band’s pinnacle, for its Maiden like galloping blend of classic metal through an extreme metal filter. In short, I keep coming back to new Cradle of Filth releases because I’m hoping for another one of those.

If you’ve never given the band a chance and aren’t under the age of say 21… it might be hard to embrace their music given the loudness of their image. Regardless of the band’s waning record sales in the era of digital piracy, their audiences remain rather young. I recall just how old I felt when I last saw them live, surrounded by teenagers with black fingernails and spiky wrist bracelets. The band’s image does speak more to that confused and searching period of teenagedom more than anything else, the same way Alice Cooper and Kiss attracted their audiences through their over the top imagery in the late 70s and Marilyn Manson did for another generation in the late 90s. Someone in their twenties or thirties might have a hard time not rolling their eyes when checking out the lyrics for Hammer of the Witches —- I get it, believe me. But here’s what I’ll counter with: In our concerted effort to give irony and self-aware hipsterdom the proverbial finger, isn’t Cradle of Filth’s unwavering dedication to remaining faithful to their particularly theatrical, gothic, and rather English take on extreme metal worth applauding, and even respecting? Aren’t those some of the qualities we admire in metal bands? If you’re new to the band, start with this album —- whats the harm? If you’re an old fan like myself, we have another classic on our hands.

 

Capricious Nords: Enslaved Return With In Times

So I’ve finally gotten to listen Enslaved’s new album enough times to confidently offer up an opinion, but the first thought that comes to mind is that they have sneakily become metal’s most hard to predict band. I can never anticipate what they’re going to try next, and am always more than a little surprised when I finally get to hear what that is. The thing is, if you laid out their discography on a timeline, there’s a reasonable amount of linearity: the early 90s second wave Norwegian black metal roots, the switch to English language lyrics on 2001’s Monumension, the introduction of progressive elements on Below the Lights and Isa and the full blown era of prog-rock infusions ala Pink Floyd/King Crimson with 2009’s Vertebrae and onwards. Its in this latter era where the band have decided to throw out curveballs left and right, such as their reversion back to almost completely brutal, punishing black metal on Axioma Ethica Odini, a move that made some of us think that they had stretched the boundaries of their sound far enough and were making a move back towards their roots. But then RIITIIR happened, a big collossal “What the Hell?!” full of some rather Alice in Chains inspired hard rock melody, opulent Slash-esque guitar solos and more Herbrand Larsen than you’ve ever bargained for. It was a good, at times great album, and it set in concrete the idea that the band would remain vastly unpredictable from now on.

Their newest, In Times, is a further reinforcement of that notion; its certainly heavier than RIITIIR and at times matches the feral intensities of Axioma, but its simultaneously more smoothly melodic than anything off of Vertebrae. Its bothersome to me to have to contextualize a new album in relation to a string of its past predecessors, mainly because if you haven’t heard those other albums you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about. It just happens to be the easiest way to frame things with a band as diabolically complex as Enslaved. That actually got me thinking though, that perhaps In Times is an ideal starting point for anyone new to the band —- of which I’m sure there must be a few people around (right?). I say this because not only is In Times a phenomenal album, perhaps my personal favorite of theirs since Isa, but its their most accessible and representative album as well. There are only six songs here, and they’re all over eight minutes a piece, which may seem long and tedious on paper I know —- the band sidestep that by all but eliminating their more tedious, proggy-exploration moments that they’ve been prone to indulging in recently. The result is an album big on heavy riffs, wildly unrestrained guitar work, colorful washes of keyboard accompaniment, and a fifty/fifty mix of brutal and clean vocals that deliver hooks galore. It almost seems like I’m describing a Blind Guardian album (uh… minus the brutal vocals thing).

 

 

Its fair to say that In Times outright success is due in large part to the aforementioned Herbrand Larsen widening his range and scope as the band’s clean co-vocalist. In the past, Larsen’s moments tended to work like Dimmu Borgir-ian spot fills; those moments of cinematic, heavens opening up juxtaposition sandwiched in between brutal vocal sections. He had a particularly distinctive delivery in these moments, one that he repeated over and over and over again. There was a samey-ness to his singing, a monotone uniformity throughout the run of his vocal lines that almost came across as an instrument rather than actual singing, a role normally reserved for extreme metal vocals. He did attempt to change slightly, as seen on RIITIIR’s more accessible moments, incorporating in a little more in the way of variations in delivery, but it was still largely Larsen working in a comfort zone. Here however, he takes his quantum leap, a complete re-working of his role as co-vocalist and in the sculpting of his vocal melodies.

This stems from the songwriting itself, where clean vocal passages are underscored by a rhythm section that actually plays rhythmically in the standard sense. Take his vocal passages in “Building With Fire”, where Larsen sings over what comes across as almost alternative rock styled staggered riffing —- this is not to say it “sounds” like that, the guitar tone is rather typically modern Enslaved. Its a small touch, but one that allows Larsen to carry the song entirely on his own, rather than be subject to the irregular riff patterns that Grutle Kjellson can growl over with relative ease. An expanded role for Larsen means that these songs are not lacking in vocal hook laden refrains, a feature that allows the band to play around with degrees of heaviness and sonic brutality in a myriad of creative ways. On the album opener “Thurisaz Dreaming”, Larsen is emotive and expressive in his extended refrain sections, a perfect foil for Kjellson’s screaming bookends. He gets a star turn on “One Thousand Days of Rain”, its chorus the most gloriously pop moment of Enslaved’s twenty plus year career. Its elegantly worded refrain of “Wandering down the icy path / The sun is dying / The mother is crying” will stay with you after your first listen, forming the delicious nougat center of a great song you’ll keep coming back to again and again.

On that very song, Larsen trades off verses and sometimes single lines with Kjellson, over the undulating pulse of accelerating waves of melodic riffs and open chord figures. Kjellson (or Brutal Grutle as I enjoy calling him) delivers his extreme vocals like the bowling ball of howling fury that he always is, his voice far more wild and unrestrained than someone like Shagrath, or even Nergal. His tone is entirely his own, he sounds only like himself, and he doesn’t really change his approach (depending on your perspective, that’s either for better or worse I suppose). What he does succeed in achieving is a sense of agelessness, there’s no sense that his ability to reach peak intensity has diminished. His ability to deliver vocals like these this late in his career is a testament to whatever he’s been doing to keep his throat working.

 

 

As always, the musicianship is just utterly impressive, drummer Cato Bekkevold a force of nature unto himself, his fills and accent choices entrancing in their own right. I love his cymbal work towards the end of “Building With Fire”, or his militant snare drumming in “Nauthir Bleeding”, and his overall creative vision towards his role within Enslaved’s sound. He never smothers anything in double bass when its not needed, and keeps blast beats in reserve as something to be used sparingly only. But its guitarists Ivar Bjornson and Arve Isdal who really capture my attention. Isdal (“Ice Dale”) is an interesting guitarist within extreme metal, a guy more influenced by non-metal avant-pop players like U2’s Edge and Floyd’s David Gilmour, even alternative rock players like John Frusciante and Trey Spruance. Those seem like silly names to throw around as influences for a Norwegian guy in a band called Enslaved, but when you listen to his largely open chord permutations, you can hear that they ring true. Bjornson brings the proverbial sledge hammer in the form of muscular, cleanly written riffs, and here he sculpts them like a master smith at work. Check out the devastating high note progression in “Building With Fire” at the 1:53 minute mark, its one of my favorite moments on the album and I can’t get enough of how those open chord sequences flow directly into teeth gnashing outro riffs.

There are times when you know that you’ll keep coming back to an album weeks and months from now, and I will return to In Times with little effort needed. It wasn’t that way with RIITIIR, a record I found I had to be precisely in the mood for. Sometimes accessible doesn’t necessarily equate to something negative, and here Enslaved have the potential to cross over into a few other pools of potential listeners. I actually think I need to give it a few days of rest before listening again, I might be on the verge of overplaying it (five complete play throughs for this review alone). It is easily in contention for that distant album of the year list which I realize now is an absurdly short eight months away. All my earlier talk of Enslaved’s unpredictability means that I have no idea how they’re going to follow this album up a few years from now. Its actually not too crazy to suggest that they might revisit some of their earlier Viking/folk influenced sounds of eras bygone. That being said, unpredictability works both ways, there’s no guarantee I’ll enjoy the next thing they do as much as this one, so I’ll savor this while it lasts.

Reviews Cluster! Ensiferum, Napalm Death, Marilyn Manson and more!

Back with more reviews of early 2015 releases! It wasn’t just all power metal so far in 2015, as the following reviews for Napalm Death, Marduk and even Ensiferum will attest to. There’s more reviews on the way too, including one for the just released Scorpions album Return to Forever (remember when they were gonna retire?), as well as the upcoming Steven Wilson solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase., expect those soon as well as some other non-reviews features!

 

Ensiferum – One Man Army: First a mild rant: There was a time around the late 90s and early to mid 2000s when folk metal wasn’t an overcrowded subgenre, when the balance between folk and metal was handled deftly by a small cadre of accomplished bands, and when their lyrical subject matter had depth and richness. I’m thinking of those heady times when folk metal meant Skyclad, Amorphis, Subway to Sally, Otyg/Vintersorg, Falkenbach, among a few others. It was a subgenre that was creating vital, shimmering music that was stretching the boundaries of what metal could sound like —- it was fresh and exciting, the sound of things you didn’t know you always wanted to hear. Ensiferum’s first two albums were part of this wonderful era, being near-perfect marriages of thrashy guitars, power metal songwriting, and folky instrumentation.

Sometime around the mid 2000s, folk metal lost its way. I’ll point the finger for the catalyzing moment being Finntroll’s “Trollhammaren” music video in 2004 from the otherwise excellent Nattfodd album. That single/video got a lot of attention and its upbeat, Finnish polka (humppa) laden sound seemed to break down barriers for major metal magazines to begin covering the subgenre. Labels noticed, and a horde of bands followed through, with increasingly upbeat takes on the style, boasting more and more outlandish band “concepts” until we finally arrived at the current hokey state of folk metal with the likes of Alestorm, Trollfest, and the dreadful Korpiklaani. Folk metal today is largely associated with songs about ale, beer, rum, partying, and what have you —- I realize that I’m oversimplifying and that there are some artists out there who are still doing great, inspired folk metal. But at least in my eyes, the genre took a walk down a sad, sad road.

Some years ago, Finntroll seemed to publicly demonstrate some semblance of shame for their role in this sordid mess, and released the very black metal Ur Jordens Djup, and supported it with a tour consisting of utterly brutal live performances. But I suppose fans of the new model of folk metal were too numerous to ignore, because when I saw Finntroll last in 2014, the band came on stage with every member sporting plastic elven ears. They humppa-ed it up that night. Gone was the ferocity experienced during the Ur Jordens Djup tour, instead the band kept things tame for their enthusiastic crowd which seemed to largely consist of people who would otherwise never set foot into a metal show. Clearly myself and a few other disoriented looking metal fans were the odd men out in this situation. I walked away more than a little disappointed.

Ensiferum have managed to keep out this proverbial quagmire by releasing a string of albums that are in keeping with the thematic tone of their first two classics, while simultaneously damaging their image by associating with those aforementioned bands who contributed to folk metal’s current state. Just this past week, Ensiferum announced a North American headlining tour with support coming from Korpiklaani and Trollfest. How wonderful. I could dream up a handful of better touring packages than that in my sleep. I remember catching Ensiferum headlining Paganfest in 2007 with support coming from Turisas, Tyr, and Eluveitie —- now I suppose a lot of blame could be placed upon Turisas for coming up with the ludicrous “battle metal” tag, but they’re generally a decent band that has delivered good to great albums —- point is, that was a fantastic bill.

The band’s choices are unfortunate considering that One Man Army is the closest they’ve come to replicating the magic of their early, Jari Maenpaa-led era. The title track for starters is one of the most fierce, unrelentingly brutal, thrash metal assault-on-your-senses that they’ve ever unleashed. Throughout the album in fact, Ensiferum seem to have consciously redressed the balance between their thrash/power metal foundation and their folk influenced melodicism. On “Two of Spades”, the song kicks off with a Megadeth-ian intro and riff progression, and Petri Lindroos’ vocal is almost Dave Mustaine-ian in its subtle snark, heard underneath his ferocious, rapid-fire roars. The thrash metal bookends an upbeat folk-metal bridge, the closest the band ventures to the party-metal territory of some of their peers. Its sandwiching in between slabs of thrash is what is welcome here, it stands out because its not overdone —- there’s room for moments like these, just sparingly. Another favorite of mine is “My Ancestor’s Blood”, a seriously groovy epic with dual clean and grim vocal layering (that chorus is magnificent!), while Lindroos and fellow guitarist Markus Toivonen conjure up some rather beautiful intermingling melodies.

The band’s primary songwriter, Toivonen seems to be feeling particularly inspired throughout the album, there’s not a half-baked tune to be found, and he even nails the ten minute plus epic “Descendants, Defiance, Domination”. I love its vaguely spaghetti-western sounding intro, and its gradual build up to Toivonen’s rather excellent mid-song clean vocals that duel with Lindroos’ grim counterpoint. I really love his solo vocal from the 8:06 minute mark, there’s something very fresh going on there though I can’t quite put my finger on it. Towards the end of the song, tin-whistle type instrumentation lends a touch of vibrant originality to the orchestral grandeur that unfolds. The keyboard work of Emmi Silvennoinen is instrumental in this, her additions more integral to the cohesion of the music than ever before —- no longer just relegated to window dressing. Something clicked within the band this go around, and its a welcome relief after hearing just how tired they sounded on Unsung Heroes. If only they could get a better booking agent.

 

 

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: A week or so ago when recording MSRcast #165, our guest Dave mentioned just how surprised he was with the new Marilyn Manson album. It reminded me that I had recently read a story on some fancy non-metal music site about the raves and critical plaudits Manson’s new album was drawing. I had filed it away as something I’d perhaps get around to checking out on Spotify one dull afternoon, but Dave’s enthusiastic praise was enough to get me to include it as an item worth reviewing for the blog. I was never a Marilyn Manson fan in the slightest, even during his late 90s heyday. I thought he was all flash and no substance, and considered the music I’d heard from him as lightweight both sonically and artistically. I remember vividly ignoring a friends suggestion to pick up Mechanical Animals in a Best Buy cd section (remember those?!), choosing instead to get a replacement copy of So Far! So Good! So What!.  In fact, he ended up buying the album and we listened to it on the way home, and that marked the last time I listened to a Marilyn Manson album from start to finish, until now…

I can see why its getting the amount of high praise being thrown its way —- for a Manson album, this is exceptionally catchy in a way I’ve never heard his stuff before. Gone is any semblance of hard rock or metal, in favor of an industrial tinged dancy, swingy, loose rock n’ roll amalgam, like INXS remixed by Trent Reznor. Its an interesting listen, and I can easily see this album being licensed by Hollywood and TV studios out the wazzoo, probably in a crime series like CSI, The Blacklist or something of that ilk. The strutting, clawing “Deep Six” is the closest thing to heavy you’ll get here, with a chorus built on atonal guitar screeching and some semblance of riffing —- its not bad. Nor is “The Devil Beneath My Feet”, with its new wave guitar motifs and sly, image conjuring lyrics in the refrain “…when I wake up you best be gone / Or you better be dead”.

But for as good as it all sounds, I’m not sure Manson’s music is for me… I feel no reason to be compelled to return, there’s a lack of any emotional connection to what I’m hearing. That isn’t to say that everything I listen to connects with me emotionally, that’s not the case at all. I do however need to feel something; whether its a surge of adrenaline, or an appreciation of skill or artistry, or the simple quality of feeling like I’m being entertained. It could be his voice that’s doing it, a little goes a long way due to his relatively monotonous and non melodic tone (Its the same reason I think Tom Waits songs are better when performed by someone else). I dunno, I’m missing something here, but good for Manson —- he’s an interesting personality to have around and its nice to not see him fade away.

 

 

Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat: I guess I never had planned on ever writing about Napalm Death on this blog, not because I don’t enjoy them —- I do, but because I figured that there wasn’t much to elaborate on. Napalm Death will always sound like Napalm Death to me. I grew up listening to them, first being introduced to their grindcore/metal blend via dubbed cassette tapes by various heavy music loving friends back in middle school. They were one of those bridge bands to extreme metal, alongside Morbid Angel and Death and Carcass. More than those bands, Napalm Death delivered the kind of sheer caterwauling noise that a young budding metal fan gravitated towards because it simply sounded like something that was made for you and all the reasons you enjoyed having your parents lament your taste in music. I enjoyed playing them in my battered, sticker covered boom box in my bedroom, imagining that even with my door closed, it still sounded like hell on the other side. Maybe its fair to say that I never developed much of an emotional attachment to their music, but I don’t think it was ever designed that way.

I’ve listened to Apex Predator – Easy Meat a handful of times now (like most of their albums, its easy on the running time), and the one thing that leaps out at me is that I can’t recall this band ever sounding this crisp, clear, and catchy. Take “How The Years Condemn”, where the percussion and harmonized guitars on the outro of the chorus actually sound, dare I suggest, melo-death-ish? Barney Greenway is as muzzled, and spittle-flyingly menacing as always, but he seems to be developing into a more appealing vocalist the older he gets. He has moments throughout this album where he approaches something resembling melody, and for a band that defined grindcore, that’s something new worth mentioning. The musical approach over all just seems, well, more musical for lack of a better term —- it could be the ultra-clear mix, but the band’s sound seems expansive here, reaching for new palettes even. Not just bedroom noise anymore I suppose.

 

 

Marduk – Frontschwein:

By the time I had mentioned Marduk’s new album on the last MSRcast, I had only been able to listen to a fairly crappy quality stream once through. It sounded to me like typical Marduk, very consistent and largely good. Now having had a decent amount of time with the album in its proper form, I’m far more impressed with it. I didn’t pay much attention to Serpent Sermon (which I’ve been told I need to) so its difficult for me to throw out relative comparisons, but on its own Frontschwein is a rollicking affair —- black metal that is loaded with memorable riffs that are played midway between loose black n’roll and tight, tremolo black metal 101. Morgan Hakansson is one of the more underrated guitarists in the subgenre, his approach workmanlike in the best possible sense —- you never feel that his riffs are aimless or just filling out sound, they’re always the heart of these songs. On “Between the Wolf-Packs”, his repeated riff-motif is so catchy it almost detracts from everything else.

Vocalist Mortuus is as grim and fiery as ever, his particular tone a perfect complement to Hakansson. He even surprises on a song like “503”, approximating something resembling clean singing at certain spots, and on “Thousand-Fold Death” he spits out his grim, blackened vocals in such rabid, maniacally fast speeds that you think he’s on the verge of chewing his own tongue. I had also mentioned on the podcast my slight reservations regarding the album’s Nazi Germany iron cross sporting logo and just the war themed lyrics in general —- not that I was accusing the band of anything nefarious, but that they should be careful with iconography like that (and concepts like this as well). I’ve scanned through the lyrics, and they read like a black metal version of Sabaton, tales of battlefields and war torn mountains. Okay, so perhaps my concern was presumptive, especially considering that I am a Sabaton fan —- but this was a band that released an album called Panzer Division Marduk, which if you remember raised a ton of noise around its released about being sympathetic to NSBM beliefs. The band refuted it of course, but to once again draw from the same proverbial well for another album title/concept means that you get the scrutiny that comes with it.

 

 

Nightwish – Elan (EP):

The first shot fired from the anticipation cannon that is Nightwish’s upcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful album is as you’d expect, a clearly accessible pop-rock number with a smooth chorus and charming melody. Sometimes I wish they’d release something daring for their first singles, but considering this is the band that topped pop charts with “Nemo”, I suppose they know what they’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy “Elan” as a song, but it reminds me of “Amaranthe” in the sense that it will likely wind up as my least favored track on the album. That was not the case with Imaginaerum’s “Storytime”, which I still feel to this day is an adrenaline surging, rollercoaster of a single, it just has a propulsive feel that never lets up. What “Elan” and “Amaranthe” have in common is that steady backbeat, mid-tempo, standard (in Nightwish terms) buildup to the very hooky chorus, and that’s okay, but after such a diverse album like Imaginaerum it feels like a bit of a letdown. All that being said, Floor Jansen sounds great as expected, more Anette Olzon here than Tarja for comparison’s sake, and I really love her vocal extenuation at the 3:56 mark —- more of that on the album I hope.

The other new song on offer here (the other cuts making up the EP are a radio edit and alternative version of “Elan”, the latter of which basically amounts to an unmixed demo) is “Sagan”, referring to the famous scientist himself, as I hear his name in the song a few times. This might be a better representation of what to expect from the album, despite being a b-side, simply because Jansen gets to stretch her talents a bit more here. She’s unleashes some nimble vocal dexterity during the chorus where the phrasing gets particularly dense. The song has a nice melody, a decent hook and some interesting proggy keyboard noodling courtesy of Tuomas Holopainen that you don’t hear that much anymore in modern Nightwish. New guy Troy Donockley is a major player on both of these songs, his uilleann pipes chiming in all over the place. They sound great, but I do wonder if we’ll reach a point on the album where everything might sound the same due to their presence. I love them as an instrument, but they do impart a tone that inherently light and bouncy… will he be kept off songs that don’t need him or will he be shoehorned in? I’ll be paying close attention when the album drops.

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