Reckless Abandon: Houston, Horna, and Antifa

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

Horna April 3rd @ The White Swan flyer

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

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

Spectral Manifest’s The Nether EP

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horna Promo Shot

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

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

MetalSucks Presents Taake, tour poster

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

Things I Missed + Non-Metal Music Stuff

Hey everyone, back from a self-imposed break I purposefully wanted to take in starting start off 2019. I’ve given my ears a long layover from the release calendar grind and indulged in things I missed throughout last year (recommended to me by our two guests on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind episode and elsewhere). I think its a nigh impossible task for anyone to stay on top of everything, and one of the things that podcast demonstrated was just how many different directions all four of us spiraled off to listening wise. The resulting handful of recommendations below is a wildly diverse variety of approaches to metal, and I’ve tried to avoid going into review mode here so hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to just give them a shot on your own. And then there’s a handful of non-metal recommendations I’ve included as a bit of a bonus, the stuff I listened to last year to cleanse my musical palette after too much metal. I’ve only once written something about non-metal music here on the blog, an ignored review for the soundtrack to the PS3 game Journey. I’ve always wanted to write more about the non-metal side of what I listen to, because its a wide variety of stuff, but have feared scaring away readers or just confusing things. This seems like the perfect time and post to include some of that stuff, and hopefully someone will get something out of it (let me know in the comments below if you do!). For those that are wondering, new 2019 reviews are coming soon, including some major names early in the year —- thanks for reading!


Stuff I Missed in 2018


Harakiri For The Sky – Arson:

Introduced and recommended by Justin on the aforementioned MSRcast episode, my first taste of this strangely named Austrian two piece post-black metal band came that night during our recording session when we played two tracks from it before recording. I’m not normally into this kind of stuff, but I think Harakiri’s emphasis on riffery is a big part of why I’m slowly getting addicted to this album. While I can’t pinpoint individual songs yet, I find the entire record immersive in that deep, background kinda way, something that you hear reveal itself when you’re multitasking doing something else. I’ve seen Insomnium used as a touchstone in describing this album so often in various reviews that its reaching cliche status but its also incredibly spot on. They don’t crank up the sweetness on the melodic side of things in the same melodeath way the Finns do, but they apply the same principles of songwriting to strikingly different effect. This has been a big chunk of my soundtrack to the last few weeks during my little break, and while I haven’t investigated anything else they’ve done in the past yet, I will be making a point to move onto their back catalog soon.

1914 – The Blind Leading The Blind:

Recommended to me by Cary the Metal Geek, the Ukranian 1914 are newcomers by metal standards, this being their sophomore album a scant three years after their debut. They’re an intriguing band on a number of levels, the first being their absolutely stone faced committment to the lyrical and visual theme of World War I. Metal bands like Sabaton have made a career of exploring historical themes before, but 1914 deep dive into this history exclusively, focusing on the sheer brutality and carnage of that conflict with its introduction of mechanization and trench warfare in a way that is far more explicit than anything Joakim Broden would dare touch. Then there’s their blending of death metal riffs with an affinity for black metal’s sense of grandeur, often set to blistering tempos but just as often slowed down in doomy fashion to emulate the grinding march of slow moving machinery. There are a number of carefully chosen sound effects, samples, and audio dialogue interspersed throughout to conjure an atmosphere that is weirdly anachronistic. That coupled with fresh, fearless extreme metal songwriting that doesn’t care about subgenre rules and boundaries has made this one of my most listened to “missed” albums of 2018, one that everyone owes it to themselves to check out. Better late than never.

Elderwind – The Colder The Night:

I believe it was one of the guys in the r/PowerMetal Discord that recommended Elderwind to me, catching my attention with a description that was somewhere along the lines of “Wintersun meets Summoning”. And yeah, that’s about spot on, because we could simplify Elderwind as atmospheric black metal, but there’s a ton of stuff in that specific subgenre that sounds nothing like this. What informs The Colder The Night (so glad the band translated the title from the original Russian for the benefit of everyone) is a transcendent sense of tranquility and celebratory uplift, something I could easily hear associated with Wintersun and their similar use of keyboard heavy melodies and atmospherics. The band’s obvious debt to Summoning with their commitment to epic scope and meditative, hypnotic tempos are heard throughout, but unlike fantasy literature based themes, Elderwind write almost exclusively about nature and its ability to inspire and cause inward reflection. Actually, the album art here is as spot on a visual interpretation of Elderwind’s music as you can imagine, a still lake, clear skies to see the stars, and some travelers warming themselves by a fire to ward off the night chill. When the “super blood wolf moon” eclipse occurred last week, I had this record on my headphones as I stood outside in the cold staring up. It was mental insulation.

In The Woods… – Cease The Day:

This was a surprise to many of us at MSRcast / Metal Geeks, a release that not only impressed all of us who were on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind, but also George Tripsas of the Metal Geeks podcast (he the subject of that show’s George Hates Metal segment). Anything that swayed George had to be worth a further look, so I did, and I’ll admit that the surprisingly lengthy history of this Norwegian band was unknown to me. They started way back in 1991, with members of another storied gothic metal band you may or may not have heard of called Green Carnation (whom I’ve been told I need to check out as a Sentenced fan). No matter, the album we’re concerned with right now is Cease The Day, a progressive blackened doom album with a mix of Grutle Kjellson-ian harsh vocals and Dan Swano-esque clean singing. At times I’m even reminded of classic late 90s, early 2000s Opeth in parts, because similarly to Akerfeldt, these guys aren’t afraid of pushing melodies and harmonies up front in the mix. There’s an intelligence and thoughtfulness to the songwriting too, and on cuts like “Cloud Seeder” the band wisely knows when to strip things back to just a meaty, rockin’ riff. One of the most surprising, out of left field records that sailed under my radar last year.

Temperance – Of Jupiter And Moons:

Italy’s Temperance are one of those non-guilty pleasures, an unabashedly melodic power metal band that owes equal parts to their bombastic countrymen in Rhapsody as they do to vocal heavy Avantasia or Amaranthe. That they’re not quite a cross section of those bands is also testament to their ability to stand apart on their own songwriting strengths. There’s three singers here, guitarist/songwriter Marco Pastorino, and two solo lead vocalists in Michele Guaitoli and Alessia Scolletti, and they carry these songs on their backs. This is the kind of band that you simply have to love vocal melodies and ear candy to enjoy, because even though things are suitably metallic around them and the odd beefy riff cuts through their velvety cloth, its a vocalists showcase for sure. This album came out back in April of last year, and it was introduced to me just a few weeks ago when the folks in the aforementioned r/PowerMetal Discord were cobbling their best of lists together. There was a lot of interesting stuff popping up from various lists that I hadn’t heard yet, and some of it I really liked (shout out to the Guardians of Time record!), but I kept coming back to Temperance in particular for the sheer fun of it.


Non-Metal Stuff

After I cobbled together this list of non-metal recommendations, it dawned on me that all the artists I chose were women or in the case of Chvrches, a band fronted by a woman. I’m not entirely sure why that is, and I’m just realizing it now but I guess its safe to say that my non-metal music listening tends to lean this way a lot. I’m not against listening to a guy in this context, and many of the regular “rock” stuff I listen to falls into that category (Weezer, Wilco, and many other bands that don’t start with a “W” for that matter). Maybe its needing to seek a balance after listening to metal which is largely male dominated, or perhaps its simply coincidence that these awesome artists happened to be women. I’m open to further non-metal recommendations, lady or guy oriented.

Chvrches

Sometime in the mid to late 90s, as I was in the blossoming of an underground metal fandom, I also had friends who didn’t listen to metal or even rock at all. Through hanging out with them I was introduced wide-eyed to electronic music of all stripes, particularly when one of them made me a copy of both volumes of the Hackers soundtrack. I soon began making the odd purchase here and there, Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works, Paul Oakenfold, Orbital, Chicane, and even though its half-electronic the entire back catalog of pop masters Saint Etienne. It was all music that complemented my metal listening, even though I might not have realized it at the time, because I didn’t mention most of it to my metal loving friends. I’ve dropped in and out of that world as far as exploration goes over the years, there was always too much metal to listen to and not enough time. But two years ago I finally clicked on a Chvrches video that YouTube was recommending for me(!) when I was deep in a nostalgia trip and listening to BT’s “Remember”. I had seen the name so often throughout the past few years and always thought its spelling was some indie-rock band stealing a bit from metal culture so I would scoff and ignore it.

It was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, because my simple aversion to a name (which I quite like now) nearly kept me from music that I now can’t do without. Chvrches are considered synth-pop as a simple genre tag, but to me they hearken back to what I loved about listening to electronic music in the 90’s, conjuring up that sense of futurism and looking at the world through a science fiction sheen tint. But its singer Lauren Mayberry’s crystalline vocals and skill at penning unforgettable vocal melodies that really pulled me in. Her two bandmates handle the electronics, creating stripped back electronic beds that pulse, shake, and shimmer in some Tokyo-esque fever dream of sound, but Lauren’s voice is simultaneously capable of sounding robotic and utterly human. I love all three of their albums, the latest one having been released in 2018, and I could easily have picked a song from any of them to post above as a sampler. I listened to the new album while driving around Austin in the middle of the night after last May’s Orphaned Land / Tyr concert there, half delirious with exhaustion and euphoria, it was the perfect tonic for the moment, and it soundtracked a lot of last year for me. But I’ve chosen my all-time favorite Chvrches song, “Leave A Trace”, from their 2015 sophomore record, because its the quintessence of everything I love about this band.

Florence and the Machine

I think there’s a lot of pop music out there that metal fans would appreciate mainly because of a shared depth in artistry, musicality, and sheer thoughtfulness in the songwriting. This is probably not news to some of you, but I know people who only listen to metal exclusively, and while I applaud their dedication, I wonder how they can only experience life in that one (admittedly very wide) musical/emotional spectrum. I have no idea where I stumbled onto Florence and the Machine some many years ago, but this band has been a salve that I reapply again and again when I need to feel something else. The emotional spectrum in this case can run the gamut of euphoria, deep affirmation, or as in the case of the gorgeous song above, ache and longing that only a voice like Florence Welch’s can conjure up. That her vocals are adorned with a kaleidoscope of rich musicality is what makes her music transcendent, and not just merely pleasing to the ear.

I went to see Florence and the Machine at the Woodlands Pavilion back in September, it was my first time getting to see her live. The “Machine”, her band that is pretty much stayed in one position on the stage, not drawing attention to themselves. Not being used to pop shows, that took a little getting used to, although to be fair some metal bands are cardboard cutouts on stage too. Florence on the other hand, was captivating to watch, seemingly constantly in motion while never sounding fatigued or out of breath. Her voice live rings right through your chest, she might have been one of the most powerful vocalists in a performance setting that I’ve ever seen. At one point she ran through the aisles in the crowd, passing within mere yards of me when she leaned against one of the pavilion support pillars next to our section. She was singing “What Kind of Man”, a horn punctuated rock anthem, and she somehow made the circuit around the amphitheater in the span of that three and half minutes. She told short quips about why she wrote some songs, politely asked in charming British humor if everyone could put away their phones (and they did!), and she played my favorite song off the new album, the one I posted above, and everyone forgot to breathe for five minutes.

Neko Case

I’ve been listening to Neko Case for awhile now, ever since I got a promo of Blacklisted way back in 2002 sometime. Think of a dark, alt-country Tori Amos without all the piano and you’re somewhere near the ballpark —- the truth is her voice is incomparable and unmistakable once you’ve heard it. That she writes such mellifluous songs with strange, evocative lyrics is what makes her a transcendent artist. Her music is warm toned, with a perfect balance of rustic, loose, live instrumentation and incredible richness in mixing and production. I’ve enjoyed every one of her albums, some more than others, case in point being my belief that she’ll never top 2009’s Middle Cyclone. The song I posted above is actually a cover of a Crooked Fingers song that was famously covered by The National and St. Vincent. On Neko’s version, she duets with its original songwriter, ‘Finger’s own Eric Bachmann in a stripped down version that swaps guitar for spare piano. If you’ve heard those previous two versions, you’ll know just how much Neko’s interpretation (and to his credit, Bachmann’s own performance on it) far surpasses them. Her instincts in knowing that piano would resonate more than formless acoustic guitar, and just how to handle the vocal layering in their duet to steep it in her musical world is genius. The result is a song that’s a sonic portrait of loneliness and heartbreak, awash in nostalgia that would make even Steven Wilson proud.

Sarah Brightman

Where to start here, and how to possibly keep this brief? I’ve been a huge, huge admirer of Sarah Brightman ever since an EMI rep gifted me with a free copy of her La Luna record way back in 2000 (and a promotional candle I still have #fanboy). She’s known for the eternal classic “Time To Say Goodbye” and for her role in the 80’s run of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, but I love her for her solo career that began in 1993. She has throughout her solo discography released thematic albums; the aquatic Dive, futuristic Fly, the classical London Symphony accompanied Timeless, the Italian aria steeped Eden, the lunar imagery of La Luna, the Middle-Eastern musical influence on Harem, a Gothic tinge on Symphony, the nostalgia-space race informed Dreamchaser, and last year’s spirituality informed Hymn. You get the idea. The themes are guides, not rails she has to cling to, so they might inform the lyrics, some of the music here and there, and certainly the photography and imagery of the album artwork (right up a metal fan’s alley). They make every release intriguing to dive into, but her evergreen angelic vocal ability and the influence of her longtime producer Frank Petersen (of Enigma/Gregorian fame) ensure that her sonic world is familiar and comforting.

Her new album is interesting in that its a purposeful throwback to her 1997 era, a classically drenched album that even revisits “Time To Say Goodbye”, this time slowed down and with the lyrics in complete English to really understand the sadness inherent in a song that most people think of as triumphant. She’s said in interviews regarding this album that it was a purposeful response to the bleakness of the emotional state of the world at the moment. She sought to return some of that lightness and euphoria back to her sound, which admittedly can run all across the emotional spectrum (her vocal hue often masks some really forlorn lyrics, think ABBA). I know some of you will back away slowly after reading this recommendation, but I think part of the reason I love Sarah’s work so much is the depth and artistry that informs the songs she chooses to sing, and as later in her career, the ones she helps to co-write. That and she practically defines the word epic, an aspect of metal I’m quite sure we all love. To that end, some of the most powerful moments of her musical catalog are gorgeously cinematic, stirring with such orchestral swell and grandeur that its enough to give you a knot in your throat. Even if the lyric she’s singing at the moment seems remote to you personally, her voice brings you to wherever she wants you to be with her, and you are powerless to fight it.

Loreena McKennitt

One of my oldest friends introduced me to Loreena McKennitt in 1997, when he bought her Book of Secrets album and I heard it at his house and was transfixed. For my younger self, that album was the first foray into buying non rock/pop music, but also the opening of a window to a larger world of cultural music that I’d quickly grow to love. Its an oversimplification to say that Loreena McKennitt is Celtic music, as she’s so often tagged in anything written about her. She’s interested in the history of the Celts and how their music has changed throughout history, but also of those other cultures they came into contact with. Her sound then is a mix of far ranging cultures all tethered together with the strength of her haunting voice. Case in point is the song posted above from last year’s Lost Souls, where subtle Spanish rhythms and acoustic guitar styles inform a rustic string led ballad. It was her first studio album in eight years, and although I’d rather not have near decade long waits for new music from her, its somewhat par for course with the way she works. Loreena actually travels to a range of countries and regions for research, and she gives you a taste of this in the diary entries she often places excerpts from in her liner notes, each entry from some wildly vivid locale. I’m pretty sure I read every single bit of the Book of Secrets liner notes a few times over, and to this day, its one of my favorite albums of all time full stop, I’d recommend starting there but you can’t go wrong with any of her stuff.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part Two: The Albums

This was undoubtedly the most difficult to narrow down year-end albums list I’ve ever had to put together. It involved whittling down a sizable nominee pool to the final ten, the last spot of which I must’ve switched out well over a dozen times, constantly rethinking myself out of making a final decision. As I’ve always done, I prefer to only list and discuss what I think were the ten best songs and albums in these lists, not my top 25 or 50 or more that some other sites do. I think sticking to a tight ten forces you to really think about what you listened to the most over the year, and more importantly what really blew you away instead of merely satisfied you. Albums that I really enjoyed at various points throughout the year aren’t here, not because they’ve fallen out of favor, but simply because there were other amazing releases crowding the field. It was a great year to be a metal fan. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed with this list! 

1.   Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs:

In a year packed full of remarkable new albums by newcomers and veterans alike, a few of which would’ve been able to top a year-end list at any other time, Orphaned Land’s conceptual Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs towered above them all —- and it wasn’t ever close. After I penned my original glowing review of the album, I wondered if its extremely early release date (January 26th) would’ve eroded my enthusiasm for it as the year wore on. Whenever that question would pop up at random times many months later, I’d give the album a spin and would have those doubts immediately erased. I even gave myself a wide berth from the band after seeing them live for the first time ever in Austin at a spellbinding show on their May tour with Týr and Aeternam, thinking that the intoxication surrounding that experience (and repeated listening thru their entire catalog) would’ve clouded my judgment. Yet even after that level of precaution; when I sit here now in December and consider everything I’ve listened to over the year, and think about the nine other records that made the cut out of the nominee pool, I can honestly say that I’ve never been as confident as I am right now about declaring that this is the unquestionable album of the year.

Here Orphaned Land leans harder than ever before into the incorporation of Middle-Eastern folk melodies and instrumentation, infusing it in every song, weaving it not only through moments of delicate beauty but around their most pummeling, aggression laden riffs. The result is their most perfect, most fully realized recording to date, a flawless fusion of those two disparate worlds of sound. The songs are wildly diverse in style, tempo, and structure, the melodies lush and vibrant, and Kobi Farhi turns in the most inspired vocal melodies and performances of his career. He also delivers some of his angriest lyrics ever, but smartly channels everything through the compelling concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, giving narrative shape and structure to what is ostensibly an anguished protest album. The co-MVPs here might be guitarists Chen Balbus and new guy Idan Amsalem; who together not only erase any worries over the departure of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, but put their stamp all over this album, unleashing waves of creative guitar and expressive bouzouki. The band also wisely chose to carry over from All Is One the use of an extensive supporting ensemble of choir singers, Middle Eastern percussionists and string players. It sounds like a lot. It sounds like it could be a mess in the wrong hands, but Orphaned Land has this music in their DNA. Their greatest strength is in knowing how to write songs that incorporate Middle Eastern folk melody as an integral, structural foundation of their music as opposed to mere window dressing. 

2.   Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

It’s not the time nor place to go into it here, but when I do eventually attempt to make my case in writing that we’re in the midst of a truly inspired global power metal resurgence in these past couple years, albums like Visigoth’s Conqueror’s Oath will be part of the bedrock on which I build my argument. Part of why I’ve found myself paying far more attention to newer power metal bands coming out of the States and Canada is their tendency to unabashedly wrap their arms around the genre’s traditions and tropes both, almost reveling in their over the top nature and yearning for epic storytelling (such as last year’s album of the year Apex by Unleash the Archers). Visigoth simplified their approach for their sophomore record, leaning harder in the Manilla Road / Manowar / Virgin Steele direction, and the result is the most outwardly joyful record of the year. It was also my most played album throughout the year, just perma-lodging itself in my playlist for those daily commutes to work, the long drive to the other side of Houston for gigs, and on the old headphones while ambling through the grocery store. Songs like “Warrior Queen” are full of inventive twists amidst the trad-and-true, glory claw raising thunder, and “Blades In The Night” is the kind of perfect, anthemic magic you wish more power metal bands could manage to achieve. You know an album is awesome when it makes waiting for your oil change to finish a pleasure.

3.   Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

I’m prepared now to expect the unexpected with Thrawsunblat, who chose to follow up 2016’s year end list making Metachthonia with this all acoustic album, the decision itself being somewhat eyebrow raising. That it wasn’t an album full of maritime balladry ala “Maritime Shores”/”Goose River” from their first album was perhaps the bigger surprise, because guitarist-vocalist Joel Violette seemed to be a natural at that style. Instead he and drummer Rae Amitay (also of Immortal Bird fame) worked up songs that were strikingly aggressive, uptempo, and energetic yet still woodsy, rustic, and incense smoke scented. Things veer from the lush prettiness of the title track to the anthemic spirituality of song of the year listee “Via Canadensis” to the violent, furious roil of “Thus Spoke The Wind”, where Violette and Amitay employ tremolo riffing and blastbeat accented percussion —- on acoustic instruments remember! This was a clever, inspired re-imagining of what folk metal could be, an expansion of the very definition of the genre. More than that however, it was a personal sounding album that echoed with strains of the northeastern Canadian folk music that inspired it.

4.   Therion – Beloved Antichrist:

For many, Therion’s massive, three-disc spanning opera (like, an actual opera!) Beloved Antichrist was an immediate write off. I’m almost positive that the majority of folks who managed to take the step of listening through its entirety the one time never went back to it, and most never got past hearing a single track on YouTube or Spotify, and hey, I get it. As I remarked in my massively deep diving review for this project back in February, few Therion fans were happy about the band taking a half decade plus leave of absence for this project. Understandably, they might’ve been a tad less forgiving than usual when initially hearing the thing, and at first I wasn’t either —- that is until I switched my mindset to okay, I’m listening to the soundtrack to a stage performance, not a metal album mode that I was finally able to begin appreciating what Therion had achieved here. There are a heap of musical treasures within this thing, moments I came back to throughout the year repeatedly (“To Shine Forever” landed on the best songs list). I do think one’s enjoyment of it hinges on whether you can appreciate not just classical music, but opera as a musical form itself. I had to check myself and make sure my Therion fanboy wasn’t showing in putting this so high on this list, but sure enough, it was one of my most played through albums this year according to iTunes playcounts. I’d put it on in the background night after night when working on other things, but sometimes I’d sit and really focus on the lyrics, and I got to know the plot pretty well and had fun with it. Its a gargantuan achievement in its own right, something that was labored over for years by a composer who had already proven himself to be a wizard at marrying metal and classical music. If anything, Therion’s pedigree should warrant your giving it a second chance.


5.   Hoth – Astral Necromancy:

This was truly one of the year’s out of left field, standout surprises. I’d never heard of Hoth before (the band, not the planet…), but they completely captured my attention with this compulsively listenable opus of intricate, shifting, and downright unpredictable melodic black metal. Hoth’s music is a contradiction; it’s icy in tone befitting the band’s name, as bleakly cold and unforgiving as you would want a two person black metal band to sound. Yet these songs are loaded with major chord sequences that jet out of nowhere with an almost power metal-ish joyfulness. You hear a nice cross-section of all those traits on “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” where seemingly triumphant, Blind Guardian-esque major key guitars inform the lead melodies over the top of that deathly cold tremolo riff underneath. Vocalist/lyricist Eric Peters has the perfect tone for these songs, withering and fell, like an actual necromancer’s voice careening down a snowy, windswept mountainside to chill your very heart. But again, no matter how awesome the black metal aspects are, what really grabs me are these perfectly written power metal soaked melodic counterweights, to add splashes of sharp colors to what is ostensibly a gray affair. You might be wondering why I’m so taken aback by the addition of melody to extreme metal, not exactly a new or fresh concept to be sure, but just give my enthusiasm the benefit of the doubt and listen to this record. Its likely that its very much unlike anything you’ve heard before.

6.   Elvenstorm – The Conjuring:

Storming out of the apparently secret power metal stronghold of Grenoble, France(?!), Elvenstorm sailed under many radars way back in July when they released the most vicious, devastatingly aggressive album of thrashy, speedy power metal this year. If you only hear the intro melody and first riff sequence on album opener “Bloodlust”, you’ll probably think these guys are from Germany, so indebted to Kreator and early 90s speed metal tinged Blind Guardian is their rocketing guitar attack. But then you’ll hear vocalist Laura Ferreux swoop in, with her wild, almost punk edged melodic vocal and that français accent echoing off canyon walls. She’s likely to be a make or break proposition for many, her vocals often unnerving raw, but I think she’s one of the strengths of this record, her careening voice matching the intensity of Michael Hellström’s explosive riffing. Like Visigoth with Conqueror’s Oath, there’s an infectious enthusiasm here for old school metal, that bullet belt attitude and defiant strut. What makes Elvenstorm stand apart from anyone else is their straight-faced manner of going about it, something one could almost think of as charming. There’s a passion and intensity ripping through these expertly crafted songs —- that they hit me with something resembling the force of a hurricane is why The Conjuring is on this list.

7.   Exlibris – Innertia:

Soaring out of Warsaw as if in protest of all the attention we’re lavishing onto the great power metal pouring out of Canada and the States lately, Poland’s Exlibris dropped the best Euro-power album of the year in Innertia. This was my introduction to the band, and it turns out to be perhaps the best possible point of entry as its the debut of new singer Riku Turunen, the absolute tour de force of this album. Call him the Patrick Mahomes of power metal in 2018, but I haven’t been this bowled over by a new vocal talent in the scene in ages. His voice has the pure raw power of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammet with the distinctive pronounciation inflections of Timo Kotipelto. You might have already read about best song listee “Shoot For the Sun”, where he proves himself as a leading man in an ever soaring duet, but check out his jaw dropping range in “Incarnate” or his command of theatrics in “No Shelter”. Beyond amazing vocal performances, these are simply expertly crafted songs, structured around earwormy hooks yet loaded with progressive metal twists and turns. Daniel Lechmański’s guitars sound meaty ala Tad Morose or Brainstorm, and his riffs and chord progressions are all intriguing in their balance of straight ahead rockin’ and rich complexity. Speaking of balance, his having to bounce off of keyboardist Piotr Sikora instead of another guitarist seems to be a source of fruitful inspiration between the two. There’s a push and pull going on between each of their lead melody lines that refuses to sit quietly in Turunen’s immense shadow. 

8.   Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods:

I really didn’t think Demonaz and Horgh could pull it off, rather naively thinking that an Abbath-less Immortal record was more likely to be a disaster than anything close to a success. And in my defense, what reasonable Immortal fan could think that Abbath’s departure would somehow make a new Immortal album better? It seems illogical on the face of it. But sometimes weird things happen, and there’s nothing weirder in 2018 than Immortal Mach 2 turning in the band’s best album since Sons of Northern Darkness, and maybe even a top three Immortal album overall. This is just a relentless, tireless rush of old school second wave black metal reminiscent of the band’s first four albums but tempered with the riff density and cold, crisp production of the post At the Heart of Winter era. Demonaz’ ice demon approach on vocals is pitch perfect for this blend of Immortal, grim and fierce but with a lengthy drawn out utterance that’s coupled with a surprising degree of enunciation, unlike Abbath’s bizarre frog gargoyle barking approach. The nine minute epic “Mighty Ravendark” barely missed out on making the best songs of the year list; its about as perfect an Immortal song as I can imagine, with an epic buildup and satisfying (dare I say hooky?) refrain built on clever vocal phrasing. I really can’t think of any time in recent memory when a band has lost a key member and somehow thrived as a result… I’d have to go back to what, Metallica perhaps? Iron Maiden after Dianno? Call it a comeback, maybe even the greatest comeback.

9.   Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Yet another in an increasingly longer line of excellent releases from North American power metal bands, The Last Emperor was my introduction to Arizona’s Judicator. As it turns out, it was the perfect introduction too, being their most early 90s Blind Guardian era inspired work, including a guest appearance by the bard Mr. Hansi Kursch himself. A lot has been written about this very apparent influence, and its hard to ignore for sure, but there’s so much more going on here than mere hero worship. Guitarist Tony Cordisco aimed to write songs that were not only tight and concise, but purposefully and methodically energetic throughout. There are no ballads here, although brief dips into acoustic territory help to spice up the intros or bridges of certain songs to keep things varied. Its intriguing to hear an American power metal band so infatuated with the traditional European interpretation of the style. I can hear jagged edges at the corners of Judicator’s sound, little things like the sharp teeth on that straight ahead attacking riff sequence in “Raining Gold”, or the early Iced Earth influence that comes through in vocalist John Yelland’s aggro counterpoint to Hansi in “Spiritual Treason”. Judicator also seems to be filling a sonic space in power metal that was long ago left vacant by the Blind Guardians and Helloweens and Edguys of the world, one I had long ago hoped would be filled by the now sadly quieted Persuader and Savage Circus. I don’t mind if my power metal bias is showing here, because Judicator is assuming the mantle of this specific style in the here and now as a recently formed power metal band delivering an amazing new album this year. This is the stuff that will keep the genre going strong into the future. Consider me grateful.

10.   Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

This one might raise a few eyebrows, but I just could not deny how much I listened to Eonian throughout the year. It was an album that I would listen to when in the mood for something fierce and biting, but also when I wanted something orchestral and epic, as well as melodic and complex. I consider myself a Dimmu fan, but I had been critical of them throughout the years, not completely enjoying an album since 2001’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia. Not only was this the first time since then I could say that I loved a new Dimmu album from front to back, but its honestly up there right next to Enthrone Darkness Triumphant as my second favorite of all their albums. The inspired songwriting in “I Am Sovereign” reminds me of that legendary album’s sense of playfulness with black metal song structures; here with an inversion of blazing riffing in the chorus instead of the verses, with regal string punctuations that would sound at home in a Carach Angren song. The band took care to increase the distinctiveness of their major sonic elements this time around, instead of the usual symphonic black metal mash up they had been doing. On Eonian, the black metal parts sound more black metal than ever, and the orchestral parts lean just as hard into their majestic symphonic grandeur. Its a subtle distinction that allowed them to sharpen their songwriting, to shape these songs with muscular force and gorgeous expressiveness. Its a shame that just like Cradle of Filth with their truly excellent past two albums, Dimmu seems to be getting glossed over this year as having released more of the same. Those are lazy opinions from people who haven’t listened close enough. This is a career rejuvenating work from one of the genre’s most creative artists.

Lessons From Concert-Going

Its been a sweat filled, beer guzzling start to the summer for me, not only for the surprising intensity this early in our Houston HnH (heat and humidity), but for the four shows I’ve already attended in May and June alone, with one more on the horizon this next week (Hammerfall) and possibly another in July. As I’ve written before, I don’t normally write up show reviews because they’re usually uninteresting to read for anyone who wasn’t there, full of sycophantic blather about how the band “killed it” or any variation on butts being kicked. It was the type of stuff I loved reading when I was 18 —- the kind of die hard fan who’d show up to shows at 3pm to catch the band sound checking or loitering outside their bus. Back then I’d stay long after the headliners had left, not only to talk to the band members I hadn’t met before the gig, but to just linger and soak up the atmosphere and keep the night going. Such thoughts are unfathomable to me now, when the very thought of standing up front by the stage for all the openers just to be in a prime spot for the headliner sounds like a nightmare rather than a privilege. Most shows these days I don’t mind arriving to the venue a little bit later, to avoid rush hour traffic and miss an opener I didn’t care about, and I’ll usually leave right after the headliners make their final bow. Chances are I have to work the next day and/or my friggin knee is killing me. The in-show energy is reserved as well, kept for moments when I really get into it and with caution not to headbang my way into feeling awful in the morning. Moshing? No. Retired. Mosh retirement.

 

That being said, I do want to talk about something I’ve learned about the act of going to a metal show, or any show really, over the course of these past couple. Two were within five days of each other, one being an out of town trip with some rough conditions (more on that in a sec), and the other was a capstone celebration for a pair of friends who’d gotten married that same day. Ah concerts, things we music lovers look forward to sometimes more than album releases. You see the announcement months in advance, let yourself get excited and sometimes even fret about whether to buy the tickets ahead of time or trust in the low-ish attendance tendency of these small metal club shows to know you can just pay at the door the night of. Then you wait. Days before the show, you let yourself get excited again, start listening to the band you’re seeing to prepare a little, to whet the appetite to hear those songs live, and then its the show day and you’re standing there in front of a stage with a drum kit, some mics, and a few crew guys scurrying around setting everything up. Countless shows attended now and its never gotten old, and I’m always intrigued by every aspect of the shin-dig, from the way the bands choose to make their entrance, to the amount of dry ice fog they’re unfurling, to how much room they’re all gonna have to move around. Music nerd you see. I don’t think I’ve become jaded yet, even when I’m achingly tired, irritated that the soundcheck’s going on forever, and the openers were meh. I’m still at a show and damn its cool, its my decision to be there and I’m in a room full of (mostly) other people who get it.

 

In my experience, any disappointment surrounding a show is largely due to having to miss it thanks to some interceding combination of bad timing, unavoidable scheduling conflicts or the bummer of bummers, being strapped for cash. There is however that rare tragedy where you actually attend a show and walk out at the end feeling vaguely unsatisfied, or worse yet, apathetic and indifferent to what you’ve just witnessed. And look, we’re all a little hesitant to admit out loud when this happens for fear of looking and feeling like a sucker. The most egregious example however came during a December 2013 Finntroll headlining show. I had seen them way back in 2007 when Vreth had just joined up as the lead vocalist, and they were supporting their most vicious black metal infused album ever (Ur jordens djup). It was an incredible show, the band playing a tiny stage that barely rose a foot off the ground with all of us going nuts in front of them. My friend Matt got his shoulder dislocated at that show by a bruiser in the pit, dashed away to the back of the room, popped his shoulder back in place and bounded back in the crowd next to me. Insane. They rolled through two years later with Swallow the Sun and Moonsorrow and again it was all kinds of awesome brutality (sans injuries). The 2013 show however was abysmal. Gone was the raw, primal intensity that ran through those two performances, replaced instead with pandering to the Korpiklaani/Alestorm set, heavy on the keyboard humppa and the band all sporting fake elven ears. The band was going through the motions, Vreth was noticeably out of it, hungover or drunk as he admitted to my friends later. Not to get dramatic, but I don’t think any of us have listened to the band since.

 

 

Kamelot in Houston (May 2018) Credit: @wilkinson_image_designBut a band making a bad impression due to a combo of performance issues and aesthetic choices is admittedly an extreme outlier, and they certainly weren’t the problem when I left the House of Blues in Houston over a month ago on May 9th one song before Kamelot finished their headlining set. This is a band that can rightfully be called one of my favorite metal bands of the past decade plus, power metal stalwarts who towered mighty during their Roy Khan era, stumbled a bit after he left in 2011 but recovered with 2015’s excellent Haven album. I’ll say this, the band played well that night, Tommy Karevik was in as fine form of voice as he was on the past two times I’ve seen him, and they played to an appreciative audience. But I was a little unenthusiastic about the experience, mainly because I had taken a peek at the setlist ahead of time and noticed just how nearly identical it was to the last time I saw them in 2015. Nine songs were the same, and of the only four Khan era songs they played (down from seven the last time) all were cuts they had already played last time (and honestly on the tour before that back supporting Silverthorn in 2012 when I saw them in Austin). Now I get that three albums into the Karevik era, they’d naturally trim the Roy songs down a bit, but a little swapping in and out of classic Kamelot cuts would be preferable. Particularly for fans who’ve been around for awhile like myself. I was essentially seeing the same show from three years ago, with the exception of the new songs they added in from April’s The Shadow Theory.

 

What was missing from that Kamelot show was two factors that you at least require one of to be in play for a good concert experience —- namely, a sense of anticipation, or the element of surprise. The absolute best shows give you both, and those are rare gems that you should cherish and boast about loudly to friends during drunken reminiscing. With Kamelot, I knew the setlist going into it, and while I was mildly interested in hearing the new songs live, it wasn’t enough to overcome my dampened enthusiasm from knowing I was going to be hearing largely the same show yet again. There was zero sense of anticipation, but I bought the ticket well ahead of time, I was certainly not going to waste it. During the show however, there were no surprises —- the band played the same setlist that they were playing on every stop of their North American tour, no curve balls thrown in or new songs added or swapped out. The beats were the same within the show as well, Karevik with a piano only accompaniment for “Here Comes the Fall” so the rest of the band could take a water break, then there were the guest vocalist spots from Lauren Hart and Charlotte Wessels at all the expected moments. I know what you’re thinking, “Pigeon, this seems like disgruntled fan talk, not really a valid complaint about a band letting down an audience.” I’ll stop you right there. I am part of said audience. I take no especial pride in being a Kamelot fan longer than perhaps some of the other folks attending that show, but having that history with the band greatly exposed what was wrong with that show (and the band subsequently) to me whereas it may not have for someone excited to see them for the first time. Its the Iron Maiden dilemma just transposed to a smaller band (the grizzled Maiden show vet doesn’t need to hear “Iron Maiden” for the umpteenth time, but the fan seeing them for the first time is all about it).

 

My next show was a few weeks later, Tyr + Orphaned Land + Ghost Ship Octavius + Aeternam in Austin and it already had anticipation building up to feverish levels. It was a stupidly awesome bill, providing me with my first experience seeing Orphaned Land live, first time seeing the ascendant Aeternam (a Metal Pigeon Best of 2017 listee!), and another chance to see Tyr who I hadn’t seen since 2008 at Paganfest. I was hoping to rope in anyone to go check out the show with me but it would end up just being myself (my fellow MSRcast co-host having to bow out due to work obligations even though he badly wanted to go), so I made the road trip alone. Had to fight through a hot Texas Friday afternoon with rush hour traffic making it take well over an hour just to get out of Houston and its surrounding areas alone, but I made it to the venue just in time for doors to open. I was so incredibly giddy. I had blasted the combined Orphaned Land and Aeternam setlists on the way up to Austin, plus a spinning of Aeternam’s Moongod for the extra adrenaline. Both bands didn’t deviate from their expected setlists, but this time around the element of anticipation was so strong that knowing the songs ahead of time didn’t faze my enthusiasm. I was right upfront against the stage for Aeternam going nuts alongside one other guy while the rest of the crowd stood a little back, most voicing earlier within earshot about how they didn’t know who these guys were. One song in and they moved up with the pair of us, Aeternam winning them over with a no frills, heavy energy performance. I loved every second of it, this was a band that I didn’t realistically think would even tour, I didn’t even mind that they only got five songs worth of time.

 

 

Orphaned Land in Austin (May 2018)Seeing Orphaned Land take the stage made me feel a little like being eighteen again. It was surreal to finally see this band that I had been a massive fan of for such a long time since 2004 (more on that history here), and I’m not sure if there were any problems with the sound or if the band technically played well or not. I was on a high, just ecstatic that they were there and so was I, pressed against the stage and shouting along to these songs for the first time with other people who knew them (well, a good throng of us anyway, it was largely a Tyr crowd). At one point I made their guitarist Idan crack up when he saw how enthusiastic I was, giving him the metal horns (in my best Dio impersonation, throwing the horns directly at him). Their vocalist, the one and only Kobi Farhi said the band was going to be at their merch table directly after their set, and there I was, clutching a cold beer, with two Orphaned Land shirts slung over my shoulder (bought one for Cary, felt bad he was missing it), and shaking hands with every member of the band. I was admittedly a little star struck. Afterwards I ran into Achraf Loudiy from Aeternam in the stairwell/hallway of the venue and chatted for a bit, he remembered me from the crowd and seemed surprised that anyone knew who they were ahead of time. Oh I knew. He didn’t believe me when I told him I was jamming Moongod on the drive up from Houston. I’d like to think I helped him walk away with a good impression of Texas, enough to look forward to coming back one day (these guys work day jobs, he admitted its tough getting time off and schedules to line up).

 

The gig was already great, but it really was nice to be surprised (there it is!) with how solid Ghost Ship Octavius were live, like a groove based mid-period Paradise Lost, I enjoyed the rest of their set that I didn’t miss from hanging out with Orphaned Land in the back of the venue. Tyr were as enjoyable as I remembered, those excellent melodic group vocals being an absolute treat to experience live, and they played just about every classic Tyr cut you’d want to hear. I stumbled out at the end of the night achingly tired, having been up since 5am and having been to work earlier that day. A little detail about me, I’m really bad at tired long distance driving, prone to vision tunneling and highway hypnosis. I could chance it if someone was riding shotgun that could keep me awake and/or switch off with me, but that was no help to me this time. I had balked at the Austin weekend rates for hotels/motels when looking online, but someone tipped me off that the apartment complex literally right next to the venue had no entry gate and a load of guest parking spots where it would be safe to crash in your car for a few hours of sleep. I did this, occasionally woken up by a nearby car door shutting, but otherwise left alone. I left there sometime in the middle of the night well before dawn, a little better but still fatigued and made it thirty minutes outside of Austin to a Buc-ee’s in a highway town called Bastrop.

 

If you don’t know what a Buc-ee’s is, think of a 24 hour Texas sized gas station/convenience store with perhaps the cleanest restrooms you could imagine such a place having (seriously, they pride themselves on it). The parking lots of these highway Lothlóriens are obnoxiously large, and in the middle of the night, tired travelers often park at its far edges and get some sleep. The loitering State Troopers standing outside the store chatting and sipping coffee don’t care, they’d rather you sleep in your car there than wreck yourself or someone else on the road. I landed there and decked out for a few more hours, took advantage of everything Buc-ee’s can offer (cold water on my face, large coffee, protein snack kit and some cookies because I already had carb-y beers that night so screw it) and hit the road to Houston with podcasts playing to keep my mind focused. When I finally arrived home, I laid on my bed and felt the urge to once again hear the music that I had just heard that night, something that I never ever do. But I put on Orphaned Land and Aeternam and Tyr on shuffle and fell asleep to those bands, wanting to revisit such a great show in any way possible. It was a classic gig in my book, that perfect combination of anticipation and reward, it outweighed anything negative surrounding the show (the tiredness and the travel and having to go it solo).

 

 

Satyricon Houston (May 2018)Four days later I was heading out to Satyricon at a venue north of downtown Houston I’d never been to before. With me were three friends, two of whom had just gotten officially married earlier that day. Yes they were going to a black metal concert on their wedding night, and the groom was fired up in particular about seeing the band for the first time (he is a big, big fan). We all had a good idea of the setlist ahead of time, my only quibble being that it seemed like they were skipping playing “Now Diabolical” on this tour. Its been said by the band no less that this would be their likely last North American tour, for reasons that they’ve not gone deeply into but I think are largely business oriented at heart. They don’t get big crowds in the US, not like those in Europe, and its understandable that this late in their career they’d want to avoid spending a lot of time and money for little reward. Whatever the reason, we knew this was the last chance we’d have to see them. I’d seen the band twice before, but was still left feeling that this was going to be a momentous, memorable show just for the magnitude of its finality for us. But sometimes the best part about a show is everything else around it not related to the band or the performance —- it was fun to experience a new (and cool) venue, hang out at the nice patio bar built right next to it before and after the show picking craft beers off a gaudy flatscreen TV menu. It was an altogether different kind of celebratory feel to see my newly married friends rockin’ out right up front and center in front of Satyr in a state of near delirium. I was happy that they were that ecstatic. The bonus was that the band did throw some surprises our way in the setlist (they played “Now Diabolical” for one), and Frost came out from behind his drum kit to lead us in some strange, foot stomping crowd chant while Satyr politely tried to hide his amused grin.

 

I think in considering my Austin experience (Tyr/Orphaned Land) and the Satyricon show, it was revealing in just how much I was able to enjoy them despite the solo nature of the former and the extremely social nature of the latter. I’m not a psychologist nor would I attempt to armchair that subject even a little, but being able to get rich, positive experiences out of both of them further reinforces my belief that you simply have to have one of those two crucial elements. Anticipation or surprise. And they can both manifest in a variety of unexpected ways —- surprises don’t always need to come from rotating setlists, or even from the band themselves. They could come from the venue, or the people you meet, or the energy you’re feeling during the show, maybe even the food you ate. One of my most memorable show memories was seeing Dio fronting Heaven and Hell in 2008 on the Metal Masters tour at an outdoor amphitheater, singing the opening lines to “Heaven and Hell” itself while blackened grey clouds in the distance behind the stage crackled with lightning. It was this unexpectedly epic backdrop to one of the most epic metal songs ever, with Ronnie James freakin’ Dio singing it in front of us. Unreal. Another was seeing Watain in Austin in the courtyard of an outdoor club under waves of torrential downpour, a small pocket of fans under the awning at the front of the stage and everyone else back inside the club itself, watching from the doorway. Ages back I had a bunch of free tickets to go see Poison at the same amphitheater I’d later see Dio conjure up storms at, and I convinced a bunch of co-workers at the time to go with me. We had a blast, sitting at the top of the hill, imbibing the mind altering substances of youth while laughing and attempting to snake dance along to “Talk Dirty to Me”.

 

Anticipation can sometimes be a hard thing to perceive correctly, it isn’t enough to merely tell yourself and others that you’re looking forward to going to a show, you have to internalize and feel it within. Case in point was seeing Insomnium the other night here in town. I went with two of the same friends I went to Satyricon with, we even had time to get some phở beforehand. All seemed well but our enthusiasm in seeing Insomnium was a little worn away by having to deal with a bill that was way too loaded, and not in the good way. Three decent to downright awful local bands played before tour openers Oceans of Slumber (the hometown band gone global) took the stage. The venue, my local favorite, also took the weird step of having tables out where the middle of the floor was which made it worryingly dangerous when some idiots tried to start a mosh pit among the oh, thirty to forty of us who were standing in front of the stage during Insomnium’s set. I was exhausted from working earlier that day, seemed like most of the crowd was as well (being a weeknight didn’t help), and despite the band playing extremely well and wringing out the most energy they possibly could from us, I didn’t feel that same kinetic spark that I did the first time I saw them while opening for Epica a few years back. It really wasn’t the band’s fault —- the crowd was weird. A mix of really exhausted people just standing in the back with beers in hand, some of us exhausted folks up front, our agitation exacerbated by mosh pit starters and terrible local metal bands (I may write about this at some point, but I’m over supporting local metal). One guy was simply waiting for “While We Sleep” to attempt to start his bro-pit like this was some hardcore show. He received a prompt telling off by MetalGeeks host RedVikingDave (seriously, no one piss off Dave, he’s frightening).

 

I’m about to see Hammerfall in a few days. I had a great time seeing them almost exactly a year ago at the same venue they’re going to be playing this coming week. It was an electric, highly enthusiastic performance that engendered a similar response from the crowd, Hammerfall is nothing if not masterful stage performers. I’ve been looking forward to it to a certain extent, but I know from hearing a friend talking about it that the setlist is largely the same. This time around I’m kinda okay with that because it was such a great setlist last year… doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know but I suspect that each band creates different levels of expectations for lack of a better term. One might suggest that it will be hard for Hammerfall to live up to last year’s show, that it might be the metaphorical second slice of pizza (no matter how good it is, its not as amazing as the first). I’m okay with accepting that as a possible reality, I’ll be heading into this show ready for anything and expecting that it will simply be a good time. It could be possible that there’s a third way of ensuring that a show is enjoyable, and that’s in surrendering one’s reliance on anticipation and surprise, but that might require a level of inner zen that I haven’t figured out how to unlock yet. Maybe getting to that show zen is about focusing less on the things that irritate you, and more on the things that captivated you when you were eighteen and everything onstage seemed a little mystical. Maybe it requires engaging one’s imagination —- so Hammerfall weren’t just bumming around their tour bus, rolling out of their bunks and clambering onto the stage. Nope, they were just standing on that hammer of ice from the “Blood Bound” video and some cosmic portal has opened up and suddenly they’re here in front of me, icicles clinging to their hair and frost covering their guitars…

 

Stuff I Missed From Other People’s Lists

Before we plunge directly headlong into discussing 2018 music, I’ve been having a blast listening to all the recommendations from other year end 2017 lists from writers/sites I’ve respected over the years. Some of the albums on these lists have just bounced right off me, but many have piqued my interest, so below are a couple things I’ve stumbled upon late that maybe you hadn’t heard yet either. Its my blog companion piece to the two MSRcasts we’ve recently recorded focusing on a slew of releases we missed. On the horizon are reviews for albums I’m already listening to in addition to these latecomers from last year, namely the new Watain, Summoning, and the upcoming Orphaned Land album. If the jam packed release schedule for this first quarter means anything, its hopefully going to be a good year!

 


 

 

Serenity In Murder – Eclipse:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud2bgZstWws&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Its rare that bands from Japan ever light up my radar, let alone ones that dish out such satisfying melo-death as the oddly named Serenity In Murder on their third album Eclipse. Most J-Metal in my experience has been either in the Loudness inspired vein (largely a thing of the past these days), or stuff that’s musically influenced by X Japan and the ongoing neo-visual kei style. While I have enjoyed quite a bit of that stuff to a certain extent (Versailles’ wild, sometimes clunky take on symphonic power metal being the latest that I can remember), particularly for the musicality that Japanese rock and metal bands seem to innately possess, the vocal styles have always been my ultimate stumbling block. Maybe I just haven’t heard the right band yet, but most Japanese singers to my ears sound better when singing in Japanese, but are glaringly off-key and oddly phrased when trying English. A friend recently pointed out that this might be a byproduct of the shape of the Japanese language in pronunciation in comparison to English —- something only a linguist could perhaps really explain.

 

Serenity In Murder get around this with the expertly scream-growled melodeath vocals of Emi Akatsu, her approach having the fierceness of Angela Gossow and the obsidian shades of Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. Despite her fairly crisp enunciating, this is a heavily layered and dense listen, brick walled too (try to avoid cranking it at max), Akatsu’s English vocals are more of a texture here, which suits the music rather well I think. Whats really fun about Serenity In Murder is the sheer unrelenting attack of everything —- they’re going full throttle on speed, aggression and melody. And wow the melody, its here in wild, majestic, colorful splashes that coat damn near everything with a power metal playfulness. They remind me a lot of the melodies that run through the soundtracks of Japanese anime and videogames, the band making heavy use of piano/keys to carry primary motifs alongside the riffs and lead guitars. If you like what you hear above in “Dancing Flames”, check out “Dreamfall” next, I can’t decide which of the two are my favorite, but this album has been a joy to listen to these past few weeks.

 

 

 

 

Æther Realm – Tarot:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw3UygAi2oo&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I really really wish I had been introduced to this back in June, because although I’ve only been jamming it for a little over two weeks now, I think its addicting qualities could have seen it land a spot on the shortlist for the best albums of the year. Aether Realm (normal spelling works for Google!) sound like their members are probably from Helsinki or Tampere, but these guys are actually from the land that James Taylor famously had on his mind. Geography aside, Aether Realm play melodic death metal with strong folk overtones, think Ensiferum and a toned down Wintersun. This means intense, ultra-tight riffing and a crisp, clean production that allows room for not only keyboard orchestral elements but massive group choral vocals ala Jari and company. There’s an accessibility running throughout this album that has as much to do with how awesome some of these riffs are in addition to simply strong songwriting. When I consider the Ensiferum album released a few months after this one, I marvel at how a relatively new band like these guys could get damn near close to perfecting a sound that has escaped its originators. The key to Aether Realm’s success is their ability to incorporate a variety of songwriting styles and musical elements to captivating effect —- no two songs sound the same really.

 

Take “Temperance” where I was captivated by a beautifully played acoustic passage that’s deeply affecting in the way that the best metal ballads can be (the clean vocals here are just the right tenor of American folk). The monstrous nineteen minute epic “The Sun, The Moon, The Star” starts off with what I’m sure are Nintendo midi sounds, perhaps a not so subtle nod to some of these guys old musical influences. Its an impressive piece of songwriting overall, one that never feels as long as its actual length and is always changing, shifting from pummeling aggression with Wintersun levels of virtuosity on guitar and similarly vicious growling vocals to carefully crafted keyboard orchestrations. I wish I could identify who the clean vocalist was between bassist Vincent Jones and guitarist Heinrich Arnold —- he’s got a stellar voice and a good ear for just how to deliver those epic, folk metal inspired yearning vocals. My only complaint on the album is a slightly personal one, but just can’t get behind “King of Cups”, with Chris Bowles on guest vocals. The subject of drinking in a folk/viking metal context is so passe that not even this admittedly catchy take on it can prevent me from rolling my eyes, and of course the Alestorm guy has to be involved. A minor quibble though, one that I’m all to happy to overlook. Get this album.

 

 

 

 

Night Flight Orchestra – Amber Galactic:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puLWLR28LDg&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I was introduced to these guys sometime earlier in the year by my MSRcast co-host Cary on a lark —- he had seen a music video of theirs pop-up on the Nuclear Blast YouTube channel and it was a piece of kitschy throwback glory. The video was for “Something Mysterious” and its unabashedly indulgent early 80s look and feel (check that VHS grade quality and dated overlay graphics) immediately won me over, and when I got a chance I nabbed their May release Amber Galactic. Its been one of those random albums that I’d go back to every now and then as a musical antidote to the usual slurry of metal albums I’d been listening to for reviewing purposes. I’d always have to shelve it for something else before long, but over the rest of the year I racked up a substantial amount of time listening to the album not only as a palette cleanser, but just because these songs were so addicting and downright charming. If you’re completely unaware of their lineup, you’ll be surprised to learn that the smooth crooning vocalist here is the very same Björn “Speed” Strid of Soilwork growler fame alongside Arch Enemy bassist Sharlee DeAngelo.

 

What they and their fellow NFO bandmates have managed to craft over this project’s three albums is a detailed, rose-tinted, affectionate look back at a bygone era of transitional rock music. The touchstones here span the the birth of AOR hard rock in the late 70s through the introduction of synths in the 80s, notes of Toto and The Police on opposite ends and everything in between. I love that they’ve found themselves here, focusing on this particular era for their musical influence, because I’ve always felt its overlooked for the Zeppelin / Sabbath dominated early to mid 70s in general. So instead of Jimmy Page worship and any attempts at writing their own psychedelic epics, we get a High Spirits-esque focus on tight songwriting, precision guitar harmonies, and understated female backing vocalists on “Gemini” and “Josephine”. I hear tinges of Night Run era UFO in the aforementioned “Something Mysterious”, that low-key bass pulse humming through the rhythm section, contrasted by lonely drivin’ around the city at night keyboard melodies. This is just a grin inducing, super fun album to jam when you need something easy and comforting, songs you feel you’ve heard before even though its your first time listening to them.

 

 

 

 

Spirit Adrift – Curse of Conception:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGMC6UK3rNA&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Coming from Arizona of all places is the classic metal/doom machine Spirit Adrift, whose Curse of Conception is their second album release in little over a one year span(!), their debut having arrived in 2016. If Pallbearer was a little too slow moving and meandering for you (as they seem to be for me… ironic I know given my placing Bell Witch on my 2017 top ten albums list), Spirit Adrift might be the middle ground you’re looking for. Think doom metal’s bleak colors and ominous crushing volume of sound played with a touch more urgency, with riffs that resemble the tone and structure of classic Metallica. Vocalist/songwriter Nate Garret has a plaintive voice, almost reminiscent of Chris Black of Dawnbringer/High Spirits, typically a type of voice that I don’t really find myself gravitating to for most bands. The exceptions for both Dawnbringer and Spirit Adrift is due to just how endearing their songwriting and rich musicality come across, that hard to master alchemy of preserving classic sounds and styles yet somehow conjuring something new from them.

 

Take a listen to the title track to get an idea of what I’m trying (and hopefully succeeding in) to convey, with its Ride the Lightning lead guitar tones leading us into a drawn out slow motion verse sequence. The uptick in tempo at the 1:18 mark is kicked off a riff progression that is straight out of the classic metal playbook, and its something we’ve heard a thousand times before in our nascent metal listening years but it just sounds so explosive here. When we get to the solo around the four minute mark you start wondering if your Spotify player actually did switch over to Metallica when you weren’t looking, so reminiscent of Kirk Hammet’s mid-80s style is the playing here. I hate just referring to one band as a reference point, but I also get that Metallica feeling on the gorgeous “Starless Age”, a dramatic power-ballad that ascends on the type of chord progressions that James Hetfield would’ve approved of back in 1986. My MSRcast cohost Cary would chastise me if I didn’t mention Trouble here, and he’d know better than I but there definitely are some shades of that band. There’s so much to love here, but I’ll end on a particular favorite: The intro to “Graveside Invocation”, with its staggered, pounding percussion and half doom half battle ready chord progression is the kind of minor detail I will never stop being a dork about.

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2017 // Part Two: The Albums

 

 

For as little trouble I had putting together the best songs list in the first half of this 2017 Best Of feature, I had a devil of a time deciding what albums to leave out of the final few spots of the albums list. There were a couple late comers to the nominee pool that made things hard to finalize, and so of course I had to leave a handful out. A few of them I haven’t even written reviews for or had a chance to discuss on the MSRcast yet (though I will). One of these was Aetherian’s The Untamed Wilderness, a mid-November find on the Spotify New Metal Tracks playlist, being a carefully constructed merger of melo-death with classic metal song structures that reminds me of a Gothenburg-ian Opeth. Another hard cut was Wolfheart’s Tyhjyys, a thoroughly enjoyable record that struck a balance between progressive metal and melo-death albeit with some simplicity via The Black Album era Metallica (not a slight I promise!). I was also aggrieved to cut Iced Earth’s Incorruptible, because I thought it would for sure make the list all those months ago, it just got crowded out over time (and played less than others). I was late in discovering but loved Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic, and I also feel the need to shout out Dragonforce’s Reaching Into Infinity, both albums being an absolute blast to listen to. In a year of mostly serious and introspective metal releases (my list being no exception), they were reminders that metal can and should be fun sometimes too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1.   Unleash the Archers – Apex:

Here it is then, my most listened to album of 2017, one that’s been on constant rotation ever since first coming to my attention way back in late June. I remember blasting it in the car as I sped through Houston’s spaghetti bowl of freeways on the way to see Iron Maiden play at the Toyota Center, and as openers Ghost were onstage wearing out my welcome, I wished that Unleash the Archers could have opened the show instead. It was the album I blared before and after work on exhausting, sweat-drenched, jungle humidity days throughout the summer. It was my go to soundtrack during those moments where my bad mood threatened to sour the whole day, and I was able to do that likely ridiculous looking mix of slight headbanging (headnodding?), air guitar, and mouth drumming (where you click and clack your jaw and tongue along to the beat… is that only me?) along to these songs to work off the angst. It was the album I returned to in trying to distract myself during the worst, worry-filled moments of Hurricane Harvey where flood waters were rising mere streets away from me and I wondered if I would have a dry car and apartment at the end of it all. Mostly I just listened to it because in a year full of music that was largely dark, bleak and introspective, Apex was an absolute blast to play, a genuinely fun album from start to finish.

 

But it didn’t just make number one on this list because it was my most listened to, although that is a solid metric for being honest about these things. No, Apex landed atop the list because it is packed with unbelievably well crafted songs that crackle with excitement and sheer kinetic energy. This is the band’s watershed moment, an album that towers above anything they’ve done previously, in the same way that Number of the Beast pointed towards a far greater ceiling for Iron Maiden’s sound and songwriting abilities. That comparison is not idly thrown out, because what Unleash the Archers do so well is recapturing the joy and excitement that Maiden was capable of achieving during those formative mid-80s “golden years”. Their approach to traditional metal is rooted in that hallowed Steve Harris gallop, but with modern power metal influences shaping the texture of their sound to prevent them from sounding like only a throwback. This mix defines full speed chargers like “The Matriarch”, and “The Coward’s Way”, but its their ability to go for the grand, the epic overture of towering mountains like “Cleanse the Bloodline” (Brittney Hayes’ steel lungs providing the vocal performance of the year during the chorus) and the best songs listee title track where the band truly transcends genre-boundaries. This is an album for anyone who calls themselves a metal fan, regardless of whether its a Mayhem or Blind Guardian back patch on your battle jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

2.   Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep:

Chalk it up to Deep Calleth Upon Deep being the second album in Satyricon’s new approach to sound, that being the deconstruction of black metal sonics that has moved them into fresh creative territory. Or maybe it really did have something to do with Satyr’s recent brush with mortality that is the amorphous force driving his creative demons to new heights this time around. What the band was trying to achieve with 2013’s confusion inducing self-titled album was hard to discern by almost everyone, rejecting the black n’ roll of their previous three albums by stripping away surface aggression of continuous riffs and accelerating rhythms. It resulted in a sound that was full of slow moving tempos, lots of space between instruments, an almost airy atmosphere that was pushed up front as the centerpiece at times. Black metal is a normally dense, compressed approach to metal, and Satyricon was its complete opposite in everything except for its bleak tone. Its an album that I’ve understood more (and enjoyed more) over time, particularly after hearing where they went on its sequel, but at the time it left me wondering where the band intended on taking their new found direction.

 

The answer then is that Satyricon could be seen as a complete reboot of the band’s sound, a thoughtful re-imagining of how they perceived black metal could sound. These types of grand ideas rarely work out in one go, and Deep Calleth Upon Deep as its sequel is the real fruit of all that labor, with the gradual mixing back in of a touch more aggression via riffs and Frost’s even more primitive than usual percussion. Interesting that the drums sound more menacing when Frost was forced to abstain from his usual dizzying array of fills and counter tempos. Then there’s the stuff that counts of course, the songwriting —- and here Satyr is at his most inspired and creative that we’ve seen him since the Now, Diabolical era. The best songs list topping “To Your Brethren In The Dark” is riveting, full of coiled energy, and a thousand hidden meanings. There’s a primitive (that word again!) spirituality to “The Ghosts of Rome”, made alive by the use of tenor Hakon Kornstad, his strange, mournful wailing making me think of that scene in Conan the Barbarian where Valeria is trying to ward off those hellish spirits around Conan’s near-dying body. Its an arguable point to say that this is Satyricon’s best album —- certain folks just won’t hear of anything being considered over Nemesis Divina, and I don’t think anything I could say would convince them. But it is shockingly excellent for a band in the third phase of redefining their sound, and gives them a masterpiece for each one of those wildly different eras, an achievement unparalleled in metal.

 

 

 

 

 

3.   Sorcerer – Crowning of the Fire King:

As I mentioned in their entry on my best songs list for “Unbearable Sorrow”, Sorcerer came out of nowhere in late October to nearly dominate my attention for the final two months of the year. I’m still kicking myself that they slipped under my radar with their excellent comeback album In The Shadow Of The Inverted Cross in 2015. Here’s a band that contains one of my favorite guitarists in metal, Mr. Kristian Niemann of Therion fame and glory, and its a joy to hear him play in that inimitable style once again. He’s one of the most melodically fluid and natural sounding guitarists I’ve ever heard, never failing to conjure up a big batch of dreamlike melodies that swirl and flow. When he left Therion I never thought he’d find a better place for him to be as a creative outlet, but Sweden’s Sorcerer are honestly the next best thing. That turns out not to be a coincidence either, given that previous Therion vocalist alum Anders Engberg is one of its co-founders, and I’m guessing that when he and his old bandmate Johnny Hagel decided to restart the band, Kristian was the first person they thought of. I know I’ve blindsided a few of you by not writing anything about these guys well before these year end lists, but better late than never right?

 

Sorcerer create a darkened blend of Candlemass-ian doom metal with Kamelot style prog-power melodicism, Engberg’s vocal style being at times very baritone, while still capable of soaring heights in his upper register. I could throw out all the appropriate adjectives on how to describe the songwriting here —- intelligent, sophisticated, artful —- but that really won’t give you a good idea of the magic of The Crowning of the Fire King. For me anyway, there’s a cosmically oriented spirituality running throughout this album in the way that recalls Kristian’s best work in Therion on albums like Gothic Kabbalah and of course the twin masterpieces Sirius B and Lemuria. The very opening guitar pattern on “Abandoned By The Gods” for example has that very effect, the result of Kristian being the kind of guitarist whose playing could say more in a smaller amount of space than a vocalist could convey. On the stunning “Unbearable Sorrow”, he matches Engberg’s anguished, gorgeous vocal melody with a stunning lead guitar pattern that sounds like he’s trying to recreate the heavens. I don’t know how he does it, but Kristian has always had that innate sense of creating guitar melodies that are panoramic, as if everything in the song (and the cosmos) rotates around his playing. The results are not only otherworldly, but create another voice to cry out the invisible emotions not reachable by human vocal chords —- musical dark matter then.

 

 

 

 

 

4.   Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay:

Here’s how I know Cradle of Filth is in the midst of an artistic career renaissance that is winning back over longtime fans like myself and slowly spreading the word to potential new ones —- two metal loving buddies of mine have given their thumbs up to Cryptoriana, after hearing me proselytize about it for months now. They both disliked Dani Filth’s vocals before, his tendency to go to shrill, ear-piercing heights and largely stay there. Well those days seem to be well past the diminutive vocalist, with his performances on this new album as well as 2015’s Hammer of the Witches seeing him stake out more of a fierce mid-range growl, punctuated by his deep, demonic bellow with only cursory trips into ear-bleeding, shrieking territory. And I think he’s responding to the awesomeness of the riffs here too, the metallic B-12 shot that relatively new guitarists Richard Shaw and Ashok injected into the band’s musical repertoire. They deepened the band’s sound by doing away with tired tremolo riff patterns heard on past Cradle albums and instead unleashing a battery of chunky, menacing death metal riffing ala Behemoth. Oh the nods to Iron Maiden are still there, and things are as melodic as ever, but they avoid giving in to this band’s history of musical tropes, those patterns and formulaic riff sequences that grew tiresome over time.

 

The result of this forced musical shift was to inspire Dani to be a better vocalist, not only in the aggressiveness of his delivery but in his control as well, he’s never been this impressive before. He sounds inspired and revitalized, and you can hear him utterly destroy on “The Night At Catafalque Manor”, where the crackling intensity of his performance is only matched by the frenzied rhythmic assault and epic lead guitar melodies. His still new guitarists (only two albums in) seem to have an innate understanding of how to steer the songwriting into surprising and unexpected directions, both to us and to their boss. On “You Will Know The Lion By His Claw”, they plunge straight away into deep death metal passages, and Dani tunnels in the middle of their slabs of riffs with a hellish, doom-inflected death metal growl. He’s not going for the typical Dani Filth maneuver, to go high and let his voice ride the wave over the top —- he’s choosing to be a part of the darkened sonic assault here, an essential part of the overall brutality. The supremely talented Lindsay Schoolcraft’s keyboard work is restrained, taking a more elegantly symphonic approach rather than clumsily piling on layers and layers of atmospherics, and her vocal work throughout the album is a perfect foil to Dani extreme aggression here (check “Achingly Beautiful” for proof). I was thrilled and surprised by Hammer of the Witches, it really was a tremendous album; but the songwriting on Cryptoriana is absolutely thrilling, capturing the dark majesty of the band’s mid-90’s era while rattling our teeth harder than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

5.   Myrkur – Mareridt:

I think its remarkable to look back on how folk metal was rejuvenated both as a subgenre and as an idea or an expression this past year. The last cut I made before coming to this final ten as my albums of the year was Eluveitie’s acoustic based Evocation II – Pantheon, a bright and vibrant collection of rustic, woodland European folk that sounded not only inspired, but authentic. That last adjective is one that would raise a small internet outcry if directed at Myrkur, but in my opinion, the Danish-born United States based Amalie Bruun has found her true, authentic voice on this genre bending album. In the process she’s unwittingly perhaps stumbled upon one of the most creative and emotionally charged folk metal releases of the past fifteen years. I wrote that her previous album M’s fatal flaw was its inability to detach itself from its very overt second wave Norwegian black metal influences. Here she steps back from any notion that she has to outdo that album’s bleak oeuvre, and instead she pushes forward her other influences ranging from female inspirations like Chelsea Wolfe (who guests on “Funeral”) to Nordic folk to classical music. The black metal is still there, but she finds ways to subvert traditional structures, for example her juxtaposing ethereal clean vocals over tremolo riffing on “Ulvinde”. Its not a gimmick or a cheap trick, the actual musical effect is haunting and beautiful, but still dark and a little unsettling.

 

I’m not sure about who else Bruun herself would list as an influence, but I hear shades of Tori Amos, Bjork, and one of my favorite chanteuses in Loreena McKennitt. I also can’t help but hear a strong Dead Can Dance feel in the album highlight “Death of Days”, its swirling melody utterly entrancing and hypnotic. On “Kaetteren”, we’re treated to the kind of rustic, Nordic folk music that paints the scene of an evening fire on a hilltop overlooking Oslo, or for us flatlander southerners, music reminiscent of what we’d want to hear at the renaissance festival. It reminds me of the kind of stuff we heard Otyg do way back in folk metal’s infancy. At the album’s heaviest moments, Bruun finds ways to take black metal’s fervor and manipulate it to heighten its impact, such as on “Maneblot”, where during a quieter violin passage midway through the song, you hear the whispered strains of black metal fury just on the edges of the soundscape, slowly growing louder before crashing into the forefront. Its akin to water breaking through the hold of an old wooden ship and flooding everything. In a year when we were all bombarded with news and information in an exhausting, unrelenting manner, I found myself drawn to music that reflected a sense of the natural and the organic —- that spirit runs throughout Mareridt.

 

 

 

 

 

6.   Vintersorg – Till fjälls, del II:

I probably wouldn’t be repeating myself so much about 2017 being the year of a folk metal revival if it wasn’t for the fact that genre pioneer Vintersorg was a major part of this renaissance. He’s one of the old guard, his early solo works pioneering examples of the sound, expanding on the two classic folk metal masterpieces he recorded with his band Otyg in ’98/99 (not to forget the handful of demos they were doing as early as ’95, also the same year Fenriz and Satyr released the oft-forgotten but widely influential at the time Nordavind album from Storm, their one-off side project). I started listening to Vintersorg in 2000 with Cosmic Genesis, and he was a revelation, one of those artists who was delivering a sound and musical concept that upon first hearing, I realized I had been longing for all my years as a music fan. He’s made a slow return to his folk roots over the course of his past few albums, but it wasn’t until this year with Till fjälls, del II that he really tapped into the songwriting style that was rooted in his classic, pioneering early folk metal of Till fjälls and Odenmarkens Son. This album is full of song structures in that mode —- blistering riffs intertwined with acoustic guitar melodies, Vintersorg’s layering of his trademark majestic baritone “oooohhs” over the top of choruses for that old world sound, its all here.

 

Of course, whats most essential here is that Vintersorg has written some of the finest material of his career, spiritual folk metal that we haven’t heard from him in well over a decade. This is music infused with the rustic feeling of nature and the mountains, yet also of deeply existential and scientific pondering of our place within this context. On a gorgeous gem like “Vårflod”, Falkenbach-esque chiming acoustic chords usher in his old Otyg bandmate Cia Hedmark’s emotive singing about the days growing long and the nights getting shorter (the song title translates to “spring flow”). Vintersorg’s bellowing chorus here is sublime, catchy in its Swedish phrasing but also epic, with glistening horns trumpeting in the distance, as if roaring their praise for the changing of the seasons. He also understands just how acoustic guitars can be used for more than just pretty intros and outros —- take “Allt Mellan Himmel Och Jord”, where the mid song acoustic bridge keeps the tempo quick and alert, subtly increasing the tension like someone pulling back a rubber band before letting loose with hammering snare hits and some dizzying progressive riffs. Vintersorg himself described this album as “heartfelt”, music that arose when he didn’t even realize he was writing a sequel to Till fjälls, and indeed nothing about this seems contrived or forced (a rarity for musical sequels). This is the folk metal I fell in love with way back in the subgenre’s infancy —- its godfather has returned with the musical equivalent to the beacon of Minas Tirith. The beacons are lit!

 

 

 

 

 

7.   Aeternam – Ruins of Empires:

If you missed out on Aeternam’s sweeping, bombastic musical adventure that was Ruins of Empires, you deprived yourself of one of the year’s most fun and creative metal albums. Aeternam are one of the newer, noteworthy bands playing a style that has been long dubbed “Oriental Metal”, as flawed and controversial as that term is among the intelligentsia. Unlike subgenre godfathers Orphaned Land who began their sound with a bedrock of old school death metal influences, Aeternam’s sound is far more rooted in Gothenburg melodic death metal territory. Like Orphaned Land, the band’s sound is progressive by the very nature of adding in pan-Arabic folk musical influences, resulting in the richly melodic paintbrush strokes that adorn Ruins of Empires. These guys can be as brutal as Behemoth and Septic Flesh, but as wildly orchestral as Dimmu Borgir in their grandest moments, with the ambition of Therion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the album centerpiece “Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel”, a song that rings out from the start with a dramatic flourish of choral voices, exotic violin melodies, and a Blind Guardian rhythmic swagger before the death metal comes punching its way through against a backdrop of discordant, Arabic scale sounding guitar patterns. The guitar work throughout by vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy is superb, playing on the level that I associate with masters like Andre Olbrich and Jesper Stromblad.

 

Where they really got me hooked was just how well Loudiy and company pulled off the beautiful ethnic folk music of “The Keeper of Shangri-La”, a stunning piece built on rich Arabic instrumentation (the striking exception being the erhu, a traditional Chinese string instrument). Here Loudiy gets to showcase his melodic singing voice, and he sounds like a slightly accented, more soulful Matt Heafy, his role here as a desert bard speaking of tales “deep in a forgotten land”. Lesser bands would fumble this type of thing, but Aeternam has the songwriting and musical chops to deliver it, and the imagination to make it soar and sink deep within our psyche. I felt the same way on the other non-metal track, “Nightfall In Numidia”, a shorter track but no less imaginative, and though I have no knowledge of what or where Numidia is, I come away from every listen of that track with a picture of it in my mind’s eye, and that’s enough. So much average or merely passable metal that makes attempts at grandeur just resides in our listening experiences on a surface level, but Aeternam’s gift is delivering soundscapes that come alive like the best written fiction. I’ve been a big fan of Oriental metal in general, Orphaned Land and Myrath being two obvious loves, but also of the epic black metal of Melechesh and a few others. But Aeternam have really staked their claim as one of the genre’s leading lights with this inspired album, they are the Blind Guardian of the subgenre, storytellers who possess the musicality to take us elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

8.   November’s Doom – Hamartia:

I consider myself fairly new to November’s Doom, only really being introduced to them in the last few years due to co-hosting the MSRcast where Cary G is a big (scratch that, huge) fan of the band, a longtime one at that. Although I had scoured their discography in that time, Hamartia was my first real, proper introduction to their music, and what an introduction it was. Offering up their most melodically accessible album to date, November’s Doom received a minor backlash upon the initial release of this album for an increase in clean melodic vocals and doomy metallic hard rock riffs. At the time I thought those criticisms were ridiculous for a band that had been showing signs of heading in that direction (2014’s Bled White serving as a huge indicator), and I wondered if they would abate over the months that followed. In retrospect I’m realizing that its backlash is similar to Opeth’s around the release of Heritage, especially considering its predecessor Watershed also showed similar signs of moving away from death metal growls —- and in that respect, I guess I can understand some of the grumbling. Unfortunately, I haven’t been seeing this album pop up on a lot of year end lists, and I’m not sure if that’s down to said criticism or if this band just sails under most radars (like they did for me for many years).

 

That’s a shame really, because beyond the change in musical approach, this is an album of truly inspired songwriting alongside rich musicality that incorporates acoustic sounds and gorgeous piano as much as slabs of granite riffs. A gem like “Ever After” hit my sweet spot for melancholia ala Type O Negative and Charon, with its bleak tone complemented with bursts of elegiac melody (that solo sequence at the 3:42 mark is one of my favorite moments of the year). There’s also a strong Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel influence seeping through here, as heard on “Borderline” and “Hamartia” respectively, both songs where vocalist Paul Kuhr demonstrates tremendous emotive range in his clean delivery. At times, he sounds like a synthesis of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and Peter Steele. Its not all lighter stuff though, as they’re as heavy as they’ve ever been on moments like “Apostasy” which has a beefy, fattened bottom end that is reminiscent of the Entombed sound. That song employs a long worn trope, the old distant sounding intro that slams immediately into the forefront with a pulverizing riff, but man do they do it so well. The production all across Hamartia is worth praise too, because it seems fewer and fewer albums get the concept of dynamics right these days, but they deliver a properly mixed and mastered full spectrum of audio. On such a varied album like this, that was a crucial element —- here, the heaviness really hits you, and the quieter, more introspective moments are deeply affecting.

 

 

 

 

 

9.   Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:

I broke my rule about not looking at other best of lists before finalizing mine this year, not a lot of them, but enough to notice that some folks were calling 2017 the year of death metal. It seems that every year is the year of death metal, in my memory anyway, and truth be told I didn’t find myself getting too excited about many of the releases those lists were touting. You’ll notice I didn’t review the new Morbid Angel (Kingdoms Disdained), mainly because I was late on listening to it, but once I did, well… its hasn’t really made an impression with me yet (why does every Morbid Angel album have some new weird production approach?), and I wonder if a lot of the praise its getting seems to be based around it not being Illud Divinum Insanus. Then there were a few people throwing Immolation’s Atonement on their lists, and while I enjoyed that album and it was a step up from Kingdom of Conspiracy, I didn’t come back to it often. Point is, there’s a lot of death metal albums on those lists that are puzzling choices (even the Obituary s/t, which was good fun but again, one of the best albums of the year? Really?).

 

What was more alarming than some questionable choices was one particularly glaring omission —- that being Evocation’s career watershed The Shadow Archetype. It had the buzzy, lo-fi production of old school Entombed with the instrumental separation of a professional modern recording, the combination packing a sledgehammer level of heaviness all throughout. Evocation also finally found their musical path, straightforward brutality mixed with a complex, progressive edge that resulted in the striking melodicism in tracks like “Imperium Fall”, “Dark Day Sunrise”, and the epic title track. On “Modus Operandi”, the unabashed musicality and melodic thru-line in the instrumental bridge is closer to stuff you’d hear from a progressive power metal band rather than a band who likely would cite Left Hand Path as a defining influence. Yet for an album awash in melody, its still one of the most unrelentingly heavy albums of the year, largely due to that fat, lumbering low-end in rhythm guitar riffs, the car engine rumbling bass, and of course Thomas Josefsson’s blackened, oppressive death metal mouth of Sauron impersonation. Check out “Condemned to the Grave” for the absolute heaviest song of the year (it narrowly missed the best songs list), a song that is both catchy as hell and one of the most sinister sounding performances I’ve ever heard.

 

 

 

 

 

10.   Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:

I’ve never been as surprised by a metal album of any kind the way I was with Bell Witch and their 84 minute long, single track monolith Mirror Reaper. I think the only time I was this shocked to see myself placing a particular release on my year end list was when Alcest landed at number ten in 2012 with Les Voyages de l’Âme, being a band I had largely deemed as pretentious prior to. You guys know me, funeral doom isn’t really my forte, and the only time I came close to discussing that subgenre was when reviewing Swallow the Sun’s triple disc Songs From the North (and I didn’t grade that third disc very highly at all). I came across this album in late October through BangerTV’s Overkill Reviews, and while I took Blayne Smith’s review with a grain of salt (hey, its hard to tell whether he’s being serious half the time), I did check out the track myself because the clips he played on the show were way more musical than a band consisting of just drums and a bass (for reals!) should sound. And in a moment of old-school spirit, I found the cover art was so freaking excellent that I was intrigued to see if anything on the album justified it. So I found it in its entirety on YouTube and scrubbed through it impatiently at first, almost trying to confirm to myself that it was as boring as I’d expect it to be. I spent a few minutes going through it here and there, and remember being surprised at how such a variety of sounds were being coaxed from a bass guitar, but then as expected I moved onto something else.

 

But Mirror Reaper didn’t go away, I kept seeing it mentioned in random comments on various metal sites, it kept getting recommended to me on YouTube, and I saw a few metal writers I respect on Twitter raving about it. So I went back to that YouTube upload, and one night when trying to read, I let it play in the background and go its full length. That particular setting unlocked the album for me, and I spent more time paying attention to it than reading American Gods for the umpteenth time. I have no idea how bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond manages to write such a lengthy, ponderous piece of music —- does he actually write out every single passage and shift in direction? Or does he and drummer Jesse Shreibman simply record for hours, later cutting and pasting things around when editing and utilizing the studio as an instrument? I’m inclined to ignore the latter notion, because everything here sounds deliberate —- not only the direction of the passages that slowly paint a landscape of oppressive sorrow and resigned sadness, but that every note sounds purposeful, a connective artery to the next one. Its a bizarrely affecting listening experience, transcendent at its most outwardly mournful melodic wailing (the 32 minute mark area is noteworthy), and incredibly depressing when it hits a particular motif for sustained passages (particularly the 41 minute area). Some of the most emotional moments occur during the lengthy (of course) clean vocal period towards the second half of the album, where slight bends of the melodic motif and the introduction of a distant organ create a hypnotic effect. One that’s not so laid back that you’d fall asleep however, in fact its unsettling nature makes you focus in more sharply at what’s going on. So at the 1:09:50 mark, when Desmond suddenly ushers in a ringing high note out of the mists, you might be as alarmed as I was and glance about the room to see if you’re still alone.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2017 // Part One: The Songs

 

What a year, its feels like its both taken forever to get through and yet passed in the blink of an eye. I was a bit concerned halfway through around the early summer when I realized that it was a little light on noteworthy releases. My worries were premature however, as 2017 was backloaded in a staggering way, causing myself to pick up the pace in the late summer and early fall just to keep up. The process of putting together my year end lists this time was a bit strange, because I felt that my nominees pool for the albums list was a little shorter than I’d expected, while the songs list was way more stacked than it normally is. I keep written nominee lists for songs and albums going throughout the year, both so I can throw my choices in whenever I’m feeling like I’ve come across a contender, and (primarily) so I don’t have to trawl through my own blog come December to see if I’ve missed anything. As usual, I relied on iTunes stats for play counts to keep myself honest, but this year instinct really led the way. The following songs on this list just stood out clearly among the other nominees and they are absolutely worth a few minutes of your time. Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the best albums list coming soon, before year’s end is the goal!

 

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2017:

 

 

 

1.   “To Your Brethren In The Dark” – Satyricon (from the album Deep Calleth Upon Deep):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCp3xcrybI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Not only is “To Your Brethren In The Dark” the emotional core of Satyricon’s controversial masterpiece Deep Calleth Upon Deep, its one of the defining songs of their career. Its almost slow-dance like tempo is hypnotic, its spiraling ascending and descending melodic phrasing eerie and suggestive, working to strengthen the captivating allure of this dirge. If the loose theme around Deep Calleth was about the spirituality found in appreciating art while set against the transience of life, this song could apply directly about our own most cherished art form (weighty stuff I know, but consider Satyr’s recent medical scares as its source material and that heaviness is appropriate). The phrase within the lyrics, “… pass the torch to your brethren in the dark…” is so relevant to everyone who loves metal, from the bands and labels to the writers at blogs and magazines to fans buying albums, going to shows, recommending stuff to other fans. There is no governing structure that supports metal music as a subculture or records its history for us, those tasks simply fall to us and its our responsibility to make sure that this music gets passed onto younger generations growing up today. I know this is a very metal blogger take on a song that is far more expansive in its lyrical reach, but its what I took from it. That’s also a testament to its power, as Satyr himself ascribed to it, “A song for the dark towers of the past and those who will rise in the future.”

 

 

 

 

2.   “Apex” – Unleash The Archers (from the album Apex):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTWbVUUkWm4&w=560&h=315]

 

 

No song was more liable to get me a speeding ticket than the title track to Unleash The Archers awesome Apex, an album that not only represents the very best of what power metal has to offer, but has certainly opened up the genre to those who would normally scoff at it. This cut is a perfect example why, eight minutes that feel like three of a Maiden-gallop led charger that builds to the year’s most epic, satisfying chorus. This band is economical in the best sense, riffs are purposeful, built for conducting the crackling energy that underlies Brittney Hayes impassioned vocal melodies. Even the moody intro is a delight, with faintly chiming acoustic strumming underneath a lazily gorgeous open chord sequence, a moment of respite from the dramatic build up that follows and the rocket launch that happens immediately after. There’s real craft here, songwriting with an understanding of the trad/power metal bedrock that makes this kind of music spectacular, coupled with the wisdom of how to avoid the cliches and tropes that so often make it an easy target. In a recent tweet, Adrien Begrand (of Decibel fame) observed that the tastemaker best metal of 2017 lists were sorely lacking in metal that was actually, you know, fun —- I agree, and if said lists were missing out on Unleash the Archers, you can go ahead and ignore them now.

 

 

 

 

3.   “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)” – Wintersun (from the album The Forest Seasons):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffQ2B5qegRg&w=560&h=315]

 

 

For all that I’ve written (controversially) about Wintersun that has aroused the ire of not only the band’s fans but Jari Mäenpää himself, I was eagerly anticipating The Forest Seasons, not to tear it down mind you, but because I genuinely think the guy is supremely talented. I loved the idea behind the concept, a metal re-imagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, it was inventive and fun and made you wonder why no one (Malmsteen perhaps?) hadn’t tried it before. I’m not sure how well it succeeded in the minds of Wintersun fans as an album, I’ve seen a spectrum of opinions ranging every which way but for me I found that the autumn and winter cuts were lacking (ironic given the band’s name). The spring and summer movements however were fresh reminders of just why there’s so much hubbub surrounding this band in the first place. For my part, Mäenpää has never written something as starkly beautiful as the epic folk metal with a power metal engine of “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”. There’s a spirituality heard in the dim orchestral keyboard arrangement that mournfully croons in the air above the noteworthy riff sequence going on in the verse sections. His clean vocal melody in the refrain is not only surprisingly hooky in a Vintersorg-ish way, but soulful even, the kind of thing old school folk metal was built on really. The moment that will send crowds of people headbanging in venues all over Europe is the coiled snake springing to strike in the full on riff assault that occurs at 7:19.

 

 

 

 

4.   “Unbearable Sorrow” – Sorcerer (from the album The Crowning of the Fire King):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r_JlWf_Biw&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Sorcerer is one of those bands who quietly slipped under a lot of radars this year, and their late October opus The Crowning of the Fire King will get unjustly ignored, but hopefully not by you once you hear “Unbearable Sorrow”. This was one of those bands I didn’t actually write a review on but we did cover on the MSRcast, which was my introduction to them and the moment when I realized that this was where ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann had wandered off to after he had left that band. Sorcerer actually began back in the late 80s, released a few demos, and split up in 1995 before ever doing a full length. Finally in 2010 its founding members bassist Johnny Hagel and vocalist Anders Engberg reunited and grabbed some of their Swedish pals to round out the lineup. Engberg is a sublime talent, and for you Therion diehards out there, he might look familiar if you remember the male vocalist onstage from the Wacken 2001 footage off the Celebrators of Becoming DVD box set (he was also on the 2001 live album Live In Midgard). This Therion connection is of course magnified with Niemann’s role as the lead guitarist here, as his distinctive neo-classical, richly melodic style is painted all across this album to stunning results. He was my favorite of the many guitarists that have graced Therion’s lineup, just wonderfully inventive in his writing and possessing a fluidity in his playing that I’ve rarely heard mirrored by anyone else. On “Unbearable Sorrow”, his guitarwork is mystical, other-worldly, darkly beautiful and damn near spiritual in its expressions, and he’s almost topped by Engberg’s powerful, melancholic vocal performance.

 

 

 

 

5.   “The Same Asylum As Before” – Steven Wilson (from the album To The Bone):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoGV9V_dHCk&w=560&h=315]

 

 

While Steven Wilson’s newest album didn’t wow me as much as 2014’s absolute masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase., it did bear a handful of gems, the shiniest among them this slice of Lightbulb Sun era prog-rock. Wilson’s distinctive songwriting style makes it difficult not to look for comparisons to his previous work, despite this song being set amidst an album heavily influenced by 80s ‘intelligent pop’ icons Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Tears For Fears. For all the art-pop ambition of To The Bone, what I mostly got out of it was Wilson returning to the lighter moods and tones of that classic turn of the millennium Porcupine Tree era. I hear it in this song’s chorus, a dichotomy of bummed out lyrics sung by a resigned narrator against a splash of bright, warmly laid back acoustic guitar. The escalating guitar pattern that slices through this lazy summer day is crackling and electric, an unexpected piece of ear candy that has kept me coming back to this song even if I haven’t been tempted to revisit the entire album yet. Also worth commending here is Wilson’s vocal performance, because his delivery in the chorus is sublime, hitting the boyish tenor he’s been avoiding on the past few albums but has achieved so often earlier in his discography. Forlorn Porcupine Tree fans who’ve long fallen off the Wilson wagon should really be giving this track (and the album at that) a spin, because its the closest he’s come to his old band’s sound in almost a decade.

 

 

 

 

6.   “Black Flag” – Iced Earth (from the album Incorruptible):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1effGoCTAnU&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Iced Earth rebounded with this year’s Incorruptible, after the subtle disappointment that was 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, and the album yielded a pair of absolute classics in “Black Flag” and “Raven Wing”. One could make an argument for either being the best on the album, but I know that the former was simply one of my most listened to songs of the year just based off iTunes play count stats alone. The band recently released an actual music video for this too, just a week or two ago, six months after the album saw the light of the day. If you’ve seen it in all its Master and Commander glory, you’ll get why it took them six months to get it out to the public —- and look, I’m hard on conceptual music vids by metal bands, frequently citing that the budget never covers the ambition. That truth applies this time as well, which is why I linked to the song itself above (though in fairness, the “Black Flag” video is far from the worst I’ve seen this year, one could even call it relatively decent). But I’m getting distracted, because my larger point is that this song’s evocative, scene setting lyrics need no video at all, particularly when Stu Block sings “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. How does that not put a music video of your own in your mind’s eye (or at least memories of playing Assassin’s Creed IV)?

 

 

 

 

7.   “A World Divided” – Pyramaze (from the album Contingent):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKERGAAWS9E&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Two years ago, I referred to then new Pyramaze vocalist Terje Haroy as one of the most promising new vocal talents in metal, and he certainly lived up to that hype on this year’s Contingent. It wasn’t a perfect album, in fact it was severely lopsided in that its first five cuts were home runs while the latter half of the album seemed lost and directionless. Amidst those first five songs however was the absolute gem “A World Divided”, a deceptively heavy song that lulls you in with a delicate, calming piano melody over much of its first minute, perhaps fooling you into thinking a power ballad was in the works. The great thing about guitarist Jacob Hansen’s production (yes that Jacob Hansen, he joined up after working as their producer/engineer on their last album and is pulling double duty) is that he keeps the keyboards high in the mix above the groove based riffs, and they’re an integral part of the musical fabric here. I know its a small thing, but there’s something delightful about how keyboardist Jonah Weingarten delivers a slowed down shadowing melody underneath underneath Haroy’s soaring vocal melody during the chorus. It speaks to the intelligence of the songwriting and the care put into crafting the soundscape that’s both hard hitting yet also fragile, delicate even. Oh and kudos to the band for actually delivering a high concept music video that was artfully done, and the band even looked great in it (which almost never happens)!

 

 

 

 

8.   “Lvgvs” – Eluveitie (from the album Evocation II – Pantheon):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMKykGYsmFY&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I loved this song and many, many others off Eluveitie’s first post Anna Murphy and company album, so much so that Evocation II – Pantheon is in the nominee pool for the upcoming albums of the year list. In a year where folk metal experienced something of a quiet artistic renaissance, Eluveitie released an album full of acoustic, European folk inspired music that was imbued with the very spiritual essence of what we loved about rootsy folk metal. It blew away its 2009 predecessor, but more importantly, it gave Eluveitie a bit of breathing room to stand apart from the more modern rock direction its former bandmates took with Cellar Darling. Their secret weapon in pulling this off turned out to be new vocalist Fabienne Erni, her voice light and breezy, providing a new tone in the band’s soundscape. On “Lvgvs”, her vocals are full of genuine warmth, almost reminiscent of Candice Night (of Blackmore’s Night fame), and her performance is surrounded by a stunning array of rustic instrumentation. This is technically not an original song, apparently being a traditional folk tune, but I’m not going to let that prevent me from putting it deservedly on this list —- Eluveitie make it their own here. This was on my playlist for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and it was the song I played when I woke up to the first really chilly winds of November sweeping through. Like the stick of frankincense I was burning that morning, “Lvgvs” was autumn’s musical incense.

 

 

 

 

9.   “Journey To Forever” – Ayreon (from the album The Source):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWNAjX8IKD8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

If you tune into the upcoming MSRcast’s yearly recap episodes (we usually run a two-parter), you’re likely to hear loads about Ayreon’s The Source, the latest album from a band that is among my co-host Cary’s favorites. This album was really my first headlong plunge into Arjen Lucassen’s career defining project and while I certainly didn’t hate it, I didn’t share his extreme love for it for various reasons I outlined in my original review. One thing he and I will agree upon however is that “Journey to Forever” is one of the year’s best songs, bar none. Its got a pair of my all-time favorite vocalists in Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch and Edguy/Avantasia’s Tobias Sammet (joined by Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus) —- and as impressive as that cast is, it wouldn’t be nearly as special if Lucassen hadn’t penned an incredible song. The chorus is spectacularly joyous, and it opens the song in acapella mode, followed by the beautiful plucking of a mandolin playing a variation on the chorus melody. After the guitars have kicked in, a gorgeous violin decides to swoon alongside everyone else, and at some point a hammond organ gets in on the fun too. Its the best three minutes on the album, in fact, its rather short length being the only serious criticism I can levy at it. If you heard the track and were reminded of his delightful work in The Gentle Storm project he did with Anneke van Giersbergen, you weren’t alone. More of this stuff please Arjen.

 

 

 

 

10.   “Queen Of Hearts Reborn” – Xandria (from the album Theater of Dimensions):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-NpB1JeMSI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

One of the year’s grave disappointments was seeing the way Xandria split with vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen, a break-up that went public when she detailed the circumstances on a social media post. It didn’t paint the band in the best light, and to add to the condemnation were two ex-Xandria vocalists in Manuela Kraller and Lisa Middelhauve weighing in with similar testimony as to how the band treated its frontwomen. I got to see the band live with van Giersbergen a few years back while opening for the Sonata Arctica / Delain North American tour, and she was spectacular, easily one of the best live vocalists I had ever seen. I walked away from that show more impressed with her performance than anything else that night, and instantly decided to give Xandria another shot and began delving into their discography. Their 2017 release Theater of Dimensions is one of the best traditional symphonic metal albums in years, a throwback to a sound pioneered by Nightwish on classics like Wishmaster and Century Child. Its not quite revolutionary stuff then, but I enjoyed the hell out of it earlier this year, and “Queen of Hearts Reborn” was its supreme highlight, a powerful, towering showcase of dramatics and theatricality. I’ll admit, I soured on listening to the band after reading about the way they treated their vocalists, and I’m looking forward to what van Giersbergen will do with her original band Ex Libris. I wish I could’ve written instead about how Xandria’s future was bright, how this was their defining album —- and while artistically it might be, I pity whomever else they convince to work with them going forward.

 

 

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

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

 


 

 

Cyhra – Letters to Myself:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Enslaved – E:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Darkness of Eternity:

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Aetherian – The Untamed Wilderness:

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

 

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

 

 

 

Blut Aus Nord – Deus Salutis Meæ:

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

 

 

 

Elvenking – Secrets of the Magic Grimoire:

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

 

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

 

 

 

Ensiferum – Two Paths:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:

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

 

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

 

The 2017 Journal: July+August Hurricane Edition

mpavatWell, I’m alive. For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter and hadn’t seen an update on this blog in over a month, that might be news to you —- particularly if you remembered that I live in Houston (well, just outside southwest Houston). I was already behind on reviews and of course this “monthly” 2017 journal, but Hurricane Harvey knocked me sideways for a good two and a half weeks. It was a cocktail of stressing out about prepping for the hurricane (which is expensive as hell and oh so exhausting), enduring the hurricane for days cooped up inside, waiting for my internet and power to go out (miraculously they never did), stressing (did I mention stressing?!) on maximum overload about whether or not the waters would reach my car (they never did), whether or not the damn lake I live right next to (an alligator preserve no less) would spill over into my living room, and oh yeah wondering if my parents house mere miles away from the soon to be overflowing Brazos River would be 5-10 feet underwater (the waters made it to the very edge of their neighborhood… literally the actual edge). Just north of me, my friend’s car flooded, neighborhoods experienced street flooding, and a couple miles further north, the straining Barker reservoir threatened to engulf nearly all of southwest Houston with a biblical flood.

 

I’ve lived in H-town since 1986. I’ve dealt with hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and lengthy power outages before. You get used to it when you’ve been down here for so long. But I’ve never been as stressed out as I was during the three to four days that Harvey was standing over us like a guy at a Texans game during halftime over the urinal, pissing rain down in a torrent that defined the very term. I had to take some extra days to recover, let alone begin listening to music again. I had left off in the middle of an already behind schedule review for To The Bone by Steven Wilson, which I’ve just now published oh so late to the party. But when I thought about perhaps recalling my own Harvey story for the August journal entry, I immediately felt pangs of the same stress I felt the other week when I was experiencing the storm. So for the continued betterment of my mental and physiological health, I’m going to elect to spare both you and I. Suffice to say it was awful, but I’m one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough to be in a specific area of Houston and its outer limits where I was spared the utter destruction and uprooting that many people in this stout, hardy city are having to endure right now. Friends I know had to evacuate with water in their homes, and here I was with nary an internet outage to contend with, only stir-craziness and anxiety.

 

In an effort to get back to normalcy, this August entry (written now in early September) is simply going to be a collection of quick takes covering a few of the albums I listened to but missed covering in actual reviews over the summer. Many of these I might have mentioned on the MSRcast at some point but certainly not all of them. The following July entry was something I wrote within that month and while its entirely random, blog-related brainstorming, I’m looking forward to implementing some of those ideas into action before the year’s end. It can only get better from here right? Onward and upward.

 


AUGUST

 

Anathema – The Optimist:

In what might register as one of the most pondered over albums in The Metal Pigeon’s six year history, I still have no freaking idea what to make of Anathema’s fourth post-metal album. Its not for lack of trying either, because I have spent a considerable amount of time on this hoping it would jump out of its densely packed soundscapes. Unlike recent offerings Distant Satellites, Weather Systems, and We’re Here Because We’re Here with their satisfying mix of beautiful dream pop amidst their transcendent progressive tracks —- The Optimist offers very little in the way of easy listening pleasures, and certainly no pop of any kind to counterbalance the overall gloomy, darkened, and often somber tone of this album. But that doesn’t mean its not interesting, or worth listening to, and it keeps compelling me back for more. But if you’d ask me to name a highlight? Well… I don’t really know. Maybe “Springfield” for its slightly Fear of a Blank Planet era Porcupine Tree vibe, its got a hypnotic, almost trip-hop keyboard/drum rhythmic element going on, paired with a ringing, airy lead guitar figure that is beautifully dark and evocative. Its the track I’ve listened to the most individually anyway, for what its worth.

 

I have a suspicion as to what is, lets see… what’s an apt term here… dampening(?) the impact of this album. Everything is largely written in varying shades of minor keys (or minor scale? Someone tell me if I’m wrong in my terminology, I’d like to get that right at least —- already found out I was using the term “syncopation” wrong which is totally on me). If you’ve heard any of those aforementioned past couple Anathema albums, you’ll understand what I’m trying to illustrate here. I miss the bright, shiny, epic, gorgeous moments that those albums had in spades, largely with songs that juxtaposed big, shimmering major key refrains, bridges, solo verses against largely minor key song structures. It was the figurative light house cutting through the fog, the break in the rain to let the sun shine through —- The Optimist is desperately in need of a few of those across this album. We get half of one, towards the middle of the final track “Back to the Start”, with a simultaneous lead guitar and majestic string arrangement duet, as co-vocalist Lee Douglas gets to deliver her best moment on an album where she’s woefully underutilized. I’m curious as to what you guys think of this album, because I can’t tell if its just my own personal apathy or if this is something that most folks are feeling. Let me know!

 

 

Unleash the Archers – Apex:

I should be properly ashamed that I haven’t written about this magnificent album yet. Partly because if some of you haven’t actually checked it out yourselves yet, then I’ve done you a disservice by allowing you to go through the summer without this rockin’ beast. Mostly though, its because I’ve been playing this thing on heavy rotation throughout these past few months after first hearing it in late June. They’ve been a name I’ve heard for awhile now, but never actually managed to give them their proper due and chalked them up in my mind to being a metalcore band with a better than most name with some epic tendencies. The latter detail because often times I’d see their name thrown around as an example of modern traditional metal done right. Stupid me, I really should take greater heed of those kinds of praise when I first hear them and not years later when I finally get a promo sent to me. But as I always say, the cream rises to the top, and while I can’t contextualize how good Apex is compared to the rest of their discography, its an album that should be turning heads.

 

Its wild, rollicking, thunderous bangers like “The Matriarch” and “Shadow Guide” that will have you shake your head approvingly and exclaim, “Hey… these guys rock!” But its deeper, more complex cuts such as “Cleanse the Bloodline” that will have you regarding the band with a far more elevated perspective. Far more than just delivering a new take on the Maiden sound, Unleash the Archers demonstrate an ability to write convincingly epic material, with gradual builds and intriguing mid-song interludes. Nowhere better is this exemplified than on the stunning album closer title track, an eight minute masterpiece with one of the most adrenaline inducing refrains I’ve heard all year. The journey in getting to that chorus is wildly diverse, with a beautiful near acoustic intro verse, complete with a Number of the Beast-styled sonic wall of guitars slamming in to usher in an almighty epic galloping rhythm section. Unleash the Archers succeed in making old traditions sound fresh where so many others have failed, because they have the songwriting smarts to back it up and create songs that are fresh and inspired and vital. And this is no disrespect intended believe me, but it wasn’t until more than halfway into my first listen through that I realized the band’s vocalist was female, so perfectly suited are Brittney Hayes vocals to the band’s sound. I could toss out a few reference points, but I realize they’d be terribly inaccurate, Hayes’ vocals are strong and distinct enough to defy comparisons. A must listen for 2017, and a lock for the best albums of the year list.

 

 

Orden Ogan – Gunmen:

We did actually talk about this one for a bit on the MSRcast episode 196, playing the Liv Kristine duet “Come With Me to the Other Side” on that episode, which is a brilliant epic power ballad. At that point I hadn’t heard the album in its entirety though I immediately loved that track. Liv Kristine is just money when it comes to guest appearances on other bands’ albums, with all due respect to her work with Theatre of Tragedy and Leaves Eyes, she’s just amazing in these roles (and perhaps long overdue for a little retrospective on this blog, she’s a pioneer that doesn’t get the credit she richly deserves). Anyway back to Orden Ogan, whom I compared to a piece of delicious cake on the podcast —- certainly a treat in its own right, but only if kept at a slice. I know that’s counter-intuitive for the kiddos out there, but when you’re an adult you want a grown up meal with proper ingredients, and save the sophisticated slice of cake for after, preferably with coffee while eaten in a state of rapturous bliss. So after having gorged myself on the tooth-hurting sugary frosting laden sheet-cake that is Gunmen, the band’s sixth album, I’m more sure than ever of my analogy. Hang on a sec while I brush my teeth…

 

An album of Orden Ogan’s technically accomplished and often fun Blind Guardian-inspired power metal is just too much for one sitting. I enjoy this band in small doses, but Sebastian Levermann’s approach to layering heaps and heaps of vocal tracks in a thick pile and rolling every single fricken chorus in them just wears on me. There’s another joyous gem in the bunch here, one “Forlorn and Forsaken”, an uptempo jam with an instantly lovable chorus that will be great on the drive up to the Texas Renaissance Festival this fall. But most of these songs are lacking those kinds of strong hooks, ones they desperately need to keep my ears perked up. Without them, this isn’t a band that’s gifted enough to provide anything else to grab onto. Their biggest musical inspiration —- those bards from Krefield, Germany —- write musical pieces that are far more musically compelling than any one single chorus, hook, or melodic motif. Even on Guardian’s recent work, there are specific magical moments that occur only once within a song that keep me coming back again and again, nevermind the rest of the song being awesome in its own right. Orden Ogan lack that complexity, their songwriting seemingly focused on locking onto a chorus that might work, and plastering it over and over and over again until they hit the four minute mark. When it works, its nice, but you can’t sustain albums like that.

 

 

Paradise Lost – Medusa:

A few weeks into getting full listening time with this one and I’m still a little on the fence. Its a weighty, massively heavy album, full of doom-laden riffs that shake your skull like a slow moving giant stomping across the cityscape. Its also a shift back to more mid-period elements of the band’s sound, touches of their Gothic metal and Depeche Mode influences creeping up in spots, particularly in Nick Holmes vocals here and there. That’s not a bad thing, and I suppose a carbon copy of The Plague Within and its complete deep dive into aggressive death/doom would have been criticized as being predictable. The thing is that album really rattled a lot of cages, particular folks like me who really hadn’t been all too enthused about the band’s recent output prior to that earth shaker of an album. It was the most uptempo album in ages, and I still jam cuts like “Cry Out” on a fairly consistent basis. The only song that’s really stood out as a must-add to my iTunes playlist from Medusa is “Blood and Chaos”, not coincidentally the most uptempo cut on the record. The truth is that I was never altogether too big on Paradise Lost throughout their career, and when I listen to Medusa, I’m reminded of how I’ve felt about most of their other albums (barring a couple). That feeling is one of ambivalence, where the album isn’t bad by any means to warrant severe, specific criticisms, but conversely doesn’t do much for me in terms of getting me hooked or excited. It seems The Plague Within was an exception to this rule, and things are back to normal, which I’ll chalk up to perhaps my own lack of enjoyment for the band rather than any misgivings on their own part. My co-host Cary, an actual Paradise Lost fan, was genuinely enthusiastic about this album. I might revisit this towards the end of the year to see if I change my mind.

 

 

Leprous – Malina:

If you watched the livestream of Emperor’s set at this year’s Wacken Open Air festival, you’d have noticed just how awesome their rendition of “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” was that evening. They had the sunset slot (so dubbed by me as that magical time of the day when a band takes the stage during the waning moments of daylight, with the sun setting in the distance, and finishing up just as dusk falls), and their performance of that song came just as things were growing dimmer in the sky around them. The performance was inspired, Ihsahn’s vocals full of fiery conviction, the musicianship in perfect lockstep, and the sound engineer had finally corrected the mix that was skewed during their first two songs. Their setlist was of course their much talked about performance of the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk album in its entirety for these handful of 2017 festival dates. To play it here, in front of the largest crowd of any metal festival must have felt special, despite the rain soaking the ground and making moshing impossible lest the risk of slippage. When the song hit its emotional zenith, the ending refrain of “Nightspirit! Spirit! Spirit! / Embrace my soul!”, the camera panned to the crowd who were caught in the moment, arms up, horns up, singing along to one of black metal’s finest moments. Thousands of miles away, on a livestream feed, I felt it too. And what really made it stand out was just how excellent the vocals were during that specific lyric, sung by Ihsahn himself in his distinct and improved with age clean vocals, but more importantly, given uplift and dramatic tenor by the band’s keyboardist/backing vocalist, one Einar Solberg.

 

Solberg of course is a prominent member of Ihsahn’s backing band, as well as his brother-in-law (Ihsahn is married to Einar’s sister Ihriel), but he is also the mastermind behind Leprous as its vocalist, keyboardist and primary songwriter. A slight distinction on that last detail, Solberg writes nearly all of the band’s music, but his co-founding guitarist Tor Oddmund Suhrke contributes almost all of the lyrics. That’s an unusual combination but one they’ve employed seemingly since their debut album so whatever works right? I have tried to get into Leprous for as long as they’ve been releasing albums, coming close with 2015’s The Congregation, but somehow that appeal that lured so many others seemed elusive to me. Well I’m pleased to say that these dapper Nords (check their promo photos) have finally won me over, because Malina is just a revelation to listen to. They’ve finally hit upon that perfect mix of complexity and simplicity, the result being heard in more focused songwriting, as on album highlight “From the Flame”. Its the most accessible moment to date for sure, but just as compelling as any of the other cuts on the album, such as my personal favorite “Stuck” where the chorus is capable of tying together all the off-beat, zig-zag musical elements to support a gorgeous vocal melody. Sure, there’s a touch of melodic rock on offer here, the kind you’d associate with American rock radio, but its never overwhelming and as a background accent I find it refreshing in contrast to their overwhelmingly progressive approach. This was an unexpected treat, and its nice to get to enjoy Solberg as a vocalist in a more leading man context —- give this one a shot.

 


JULY

Where I Brainstorm Openly:

All the recent photobucket crap I’ve been dealing with has had me going back through the blog, article by article, fixing up images and dead YouTube links while I’m at it. I’ve found myself stopping at some of the articles and re-reading many of them, parts of others. Sometimes I cringe, but other times I’ve been surprised at how well I was able to convey an idea or my rationale for reviewing something a certain way. I wish there was a way to collect the best of what I’ve written and post them in a separate space/ site/ or digital place (er… isn’t that a site?), kind of like my own writing portfolio. If that sounds too much like me allowing my ego to make decisions, feel free to let me know, but it might be useful to have. Perhaps another WordPress site, but with a different theme so as to work better with what I have in mind. I dunno… I’ll have to think about that. What do other writers/bloggers do?

 

One thing I have thought about doing is pulling quotes of my writing that I’m really fond of and placing it in a transparent layer over an image of whatever band, album, genre I’m talking about and posting them to Instagram. Oh you didn’t know I’m on Instagram? Don’t worry, hardly anyone does and I really just use it as a tool to keep up with other metal bands, fellow metal writers and a load of friends and other non-metal interests of course. Its hard to come up with stuff to put on Instagram if you’re not into marketing yourself as a person (which I’m not), and I won’t bore you with the plate of eggs I made this morning (they were delish). But with the above idea, I can simultaneously promote my own writing as well as have a re-Gram able image that other fellow metal fans can throw around. Every now and then I’ll get a notification on my phone that someone’s liked an old Instagram image I’ve thrown up… why this person has found it I have no idea but it does happen. Remember that idea I had in March of last year to put something up on Instagram everyday? I actually made it through successfully, but wow was that brutal. Maybe I can make a bunch of these at once and parcel them out —- would perhaps make it interesting to see what came up next.

 

Okay, enough about social media. What I also noticed when going through the old blog posts was that sometimes really good pieces just never got any attention at all. I haven’t done a Metal Pigeon Recommends since last year’s feature on Sentenced, which I thought was pretty excellent, but maybe was alone in that thinking(!). I may have just failed in promoting it well or had it published at a bad time (Sentenced is a fall weather type of band, not the go to for mid-August, so it might be on me). I’d love to republish that sometime later this year, as well as a few other things that I have my eye on that I think might have sailed under the radar. If I’m being honest, the lack of response on that one made me put off publishing the next one. The most popular piece by far on the site is something I wrote back in 2012 called “The Legacy of Roy Khan“, which not only went semi-viral when I published it, but continues to draw in those forlorn souls who Google search Roy Khan and see this usually listed near the top. Its been the gift that keeps on giving site visitor wise, but I’d love for other lesser known things to grab an audience.

 

That kind of brings me to another thing that’s been running through my mind as I go on this backwards-in-time journey through the blog. Within the past two years, I’ve settled into a more manageable pace of consuming new music for the purposes of the blog, as opposed to the overwhelming amount I was trying to juggle a few years ago. When I first decided to purposefully slash the amount of stuff I was forcing myself to cover, I thought I’d get more time to attempt the fun stuff I had been putting off for awhile. Like what you ask? Well for example like putting together in-depth top ten lists for what I considered the essential classic albums of various metal subgenres. Ranking my favorite bands discographies, doing a survey of what I considered the best twenty Maiden songs (just to spitball ideas). I kind of leapt into this a little while ago when I put out my list of Blind Guardian’s most overlooked songs, a piece that was incredibly fun to brainstorm and write, and I’d like to do that with other favorite bands: Kamelot, Nightwish, etc to name a pair that I certainly know others would love to chime in on. Whether it ends up being songs or albums is still undecided, but the point is to release more stuff along those lines that create real in-depth discussion and tangible debate.

 

I think I’ve been inspired by all the episodes of BangerTV’s Lock Horns YouTube show I’ve watched, where genuinely entertaining discussions arise over subjects you wouldn’t expect them to. Part of the responsibility I decided I’d shoulder myself with when I started the blog was an effort to build legitimacy for maligned subgenres such as power metal, to defend it and argue its artistic validity. But that’s been a scary proposal, one I’m afraid I’ll muck up in a clumsy effort. But being a part of a group such as the US Power Metal Connection on Facebook (even as a lurker) has shown me that people really want to talk about this stuff and have open debates about it. Sometimes the problem with new album reviews is that a lot of people don’t get around to listening to said album when they’re just being released —- hell I get promos for some of them and even I don’t manage that. By the time they do, looking up old reviews might not be their most immediate priority (or even a priority), and I have to remind myself that not everyone is as obsessive compulsive about music as I am where getting into a band or album involves a splurge of joyful research afterwards. Don’t worry if you do keep up with the new album reviews though, they’ll keep coming, but I’m going to feel less guilty about delaying them in favor of working on more fun things.

 

The 2017 Journal: Apr-May-June (Maiden + Live Shows n’ More)

So seeing as how the 2017 monthly journal went from a monthly to two-month thing in its first two iterations, it should be no surprise to see the April, May, and June entries packed here together in a triple feature. There’s no excuse except that the other blog updates took up the bulk of my writing time, and that publishing these in their respective months slipped by me. The sad thing is that I actually did write the April and May entries within the time frame of those months… just never finished polishing them up. So here they both are, extremely late (but what else is new?) but re-written a touch to actually be readable. Unlike the Feb/March edition, which was a long piece on the state of Amaranthe and their 2016 album Maximalism that I had only gotten around to delving into during that time span, the April and May entries are more a random collection of observations I had during those months. In reading over them now I can see a thread running through both of them, the central theme being the changing of the tangible experience of being a metal fan today. The June entry is about the Iron Maiden show I attended on June 21st in Houston, essentially my post-show documenting of what was a phenomenal experience. I hope some of you get something out of reading these, because the point of the journal experiment for me is to write stuff that is largely self-centered, and these are certainly in that vein for better or worse.

 


April: (Reflecting on the state of my physical music collection, aka “These Boxes Are Heavy”)

Had some extended time off in the middle of this month, a stay-cation of sorts, and went through my own bout of spring cleaning (as you do around this time of year). In addition to the regular vacuuming, wiping, dusting, spraying, incense-burning, etc, my cleaning involved the continuation of a major project I’d begun just a few years ago —- the compacting of my physical music collection. Compacting? Yes. See at its height, my physical music collection (nearly all CDs) comprised close to 1,700 items, the result of a twenty year plus obsession with a completionist’s eye for detail. This was particularly true from oh… I’d say ’96-07, the height of which came around the turn of the millennium. I’ll give you a small example of the depths to which this went: Take Cradle of Filth, a band that I consider myself a fan of since hearing Cruelty and the Beast in 1998. I promptly bought up all their catalog prior to that album and entrenched myself in their work. During the three year gap between Midian and its follow-up Damnation and a Day, Cradle put out a few “stop-gap” releases, the double live album Live Bait for the Dead and a two-disc compilation album called Lovecraft & Witch Hearts, both in the summer of 2002. There was also a DVD released earlier that year in April, a live show/behind the scenes documentary called Heavy, Left-Handed and Candid, of which I had pre-ordered from their website an autographed copy.

 

Now consider that the concert that the Live Bait for the Dead double live album was culled from was the exact same show filmed for Heavy, Left-Handed and Candid. Anyone who’s been to a Cradle of Filth show, particularly in that era will certainly attest that they were very visual experiences —- the band in full make-up, a regalia of stage performers doing creepy things, all very visually theatrical. Between the two releases, the obvious get would be the DVD right? You’d want to have a visual document of that kind of performance, and frankly, Cradle’s already difficult to decipher style of extreme metal is challenging enough on studio albums, let alone something you’d want to process on a live album. Well, I bought both. Why? I have no idea, but in retrospect I can say that 2002 me would’ve felt a little guilty and perhaps aggrieved at not having a complete Cradle of Filth collection. I ended up watching the DVD quite a few times —- the live album… I think I went through it once and shelved it permanently. And lets not forget the compilation album Lovecraft & Witch Hearts, which I bought because it contained a second disc full of rarities, b-sides, and covers. Now the Iron Maiden and Sodom covers are complete gems, but I already had both of them on my double disc edition of Cruelty and the Beast. In fact, pointless remixes aside, most of the stuff on that bonus disc were found on the limited editions of the other Cradle albums I had. As for the first disc, it was a best of, and not the song selection that I would’ve picked either. All in all, it was a wash but I bought it anyway. Why? (Because I had a problem!)

It was compulsive collecting behaviors like the example above that largely contributed to me amassing a physical music collection that was as detailed as it was impractical, particularly as the years rolled on through the age of downloadable new albums and streaming services. I got my first iPod (a 2nd gen Nano) around 2006 and loaded its 4GB up with a rotating selection of as many albums I could pack into it, and with a AUX cable for my car, I stopped taking most of my CDs out of their cases for any other reason except ripping them to iTunes. Not only was my car CD player going unused, but the long abused stereo system I had at home was getting dusty as well —- good quality headphones and a laptop were the only music listening equipment I needed apparently. It did take sometime for my physical music habit to abate, but I slowly started finding myself not leaping at every single release any band I was even a moderate fan of. I’d buy albums off iTunes, and when I did buy physical releases, they were only the special editions of albums, your gatefold editions, box and book editions with tons of artwork. At times I felt the old guilt return, but in smaller, more easy swatted away doses. When I started The Metal Pigeon in 2011 and started getting on record company/PR firm promo email lists, I wasn’t surprised to find that everything was being done digitally now, albums distributed through website apps like Haulix and Dropbox. In the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve only had one physical release mailed to me (from France! Shout out to Sebastien Regnier of Eclectika!), a far cry from when I used to take home armloads of physical promos from running the music department of a Borders (not coincidentally a large reason the physical collection ballooned to such absurd numbers).

So over the years, I’ve moved a few times, and like everyone else who’s moved, I learned that I had a lot of junk that I simply didn’t need. I threw away or donated more stuff than I ever realized I had, and made the decision to sell off chunks of my physical music collection —- mostly the non metal/rock stuff that was simply taking up room that I never listened to anyway. It was a helpful decision, as it cut the collection down to just over half of what it was, but I couldn’t bring myself to part with the metal/rock stuff. It was hard earned, and in its own small way a tangible stitching of my history as a fan. Two years ago however, I moved again, and this time the absurdity of having 7-8 arm achingly heavy boxes of jewel cased CDs to move was too much. I never wanted to go through that again and had further downsized the majority of my possessions as a whole, so I dragged my age old CD towers and racks out to the trash. I resolved to not have the physical collection on display anymore, mostly because it felt pointless, a waste of space that not even I looked at all that often anymore. I still wanted to keep the discs and the artwork though, so I bought a couple huge CD binders, and began the slow, monotonous process of ripping out the CD booklets, the back tray artwork inlet, and the discs themselves and slotting them in. Dear god what a tedious process it turned out to be.

Its taken me about two years to get it done, only bothering to tackle it in spurts when I summoned enough motivation during bouts of intense cleaning, but this past week I finally saw it through, the last of the jewel cased CDs shoved into a massive cloth zip-up binder that’s certainly heavy, but not unwieldy. I sat on my couch, watching Netflix with my remaining box of CDs on the floor and a big garbage bag next to it that steadily filled with useless plastic. I used to be so obsessive about the state of my jewel cases, replacing broken or dented ones with nicer ones taken from albums deemed less important. Now they were tossed aside like corn husks, cracked tabs and all and thrown out with something resembling scorn. I had even begun to loathe the name, “jewel cases”, as if they were these hidden treasures of an ancient empire, these jewels to be coveted. Nope, they had become as superfluous as CD longboxes, as cassettes, as boxed PC games (do they even produce those anymore?). Also tossed out were the generic, same cover art as the booklet slipcases that so many jewel cased albums often came in, the most pointless kind of packaging. The only physical albums I have now are a pretty substantial collection of special format editions, those non-jewel cased items such as numerous digipacks and boxed sets.

 

But in the days that have passed since I’ve finished, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I miss the idea of buying physical music and actually maintaining a collection. Its absurd to think the latter now, particularly when I’ve just finished condensing 95% of it into two massive black-cloth, zipper binders. Sure the core collection is still there, and I can flip through it, all those key rock and metal albums that are markers of my history as a fan of this music as well as a huge part of my personal history —- but the fact that I don’t add to the collection quite as frequently as I used to is bumming me out. Last year, I bought a total of only ten physical releases. Ten! The rest of my purchased music was digital downloads from iTunes and Bandcamp, and of course most of my consumption tends to come from Spotify and of course, digital promos. And my no jewel cases policy prevents me from simply buying some releases because its not released in a “special” format (ie your digipacks or book-formats) such as the recent awesome November’s Doom album Hamartia. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned how he missed going to record stores and actually buying a physical copy of something, he didn’t even know what he wanted specifically, he just missed that feeling. I get it. Every now and then I’ll go out to the few remaining music stores in Houston, all indie places, and browse through, not knowing what I’m even looking for, just hoping that something will catch my eye. The metal selection is usually pretty threadbare, but I’m open to anything. Most of the time I leave without buying anything. The physical product I do buy is almost always ordered from an online distro.

As everything we do gets digitized and streamed, I’ve joined everyone else in letting go of most physical entities, even shedding most of the meager DVD collection I had because its easier to call it up on my phone from Netflix and its ilk and cast it to my TV. Digital life is more convenient in all ways, it allows us to de-clutter our lives and living spaces, but it has created an unexpected void of the tangible nature of physically owning something. I recently read a book by Marie Condo called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a best-selling treatise on the Japanese philosophy of zen in living spaces. Condo’s through line throughout her recommendations for organizing, cleaning, and discarding is the underlying question of: Does this object spark your joy? If it doesn’t, you thank it for its service and get rid of it. She also frequently reminds you that nostalgia is not your friend, and that most of our clutter derives from this emotion and our inability to deal with it. That’s a problem for most metalheads I imagine, because our physical music collections are built on the very essence of nostalgia, not practicality. My MSRcast co-host Cary has a room upstairs at his home that is filled from floor to ceiling with physical copies of music, but he’d be the first to admit, he dials up everything he needs on his computer, hardly ever going up there to grab a disc. As someone on the opposite end of the spectrum now, I can feel good about the space I’ve regained and the ease that my future self will enjoy when I have to move someday, but I think I haven’t quite figured out how to square the downsizing with maintaining that spark of joy.

 


May: (Big shows vs small shows and love for H-Towns “Scout Bar”)

 

This past Sunday, Metallica played a humongous show at NRG Stadium, the same place they held the Super Bowl in February and the home of the Houston Texans. A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook from his mid-bowl level seats and I’ve shared it here. Get a load of that scale and size, as well as the nominal view, which is the best you could hope for with a ticket that’s still nearing (or past) the 100$ mark. Now from what I’ve heard, everyone who went thought it was a great time, that the bands (Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat were also there) sounded good and there’s no doubting that Metallica always delivers a spectacle. I’m not sure how the folks in the upper bowl felt, nor the people who bought the cheaper tickets far opposite the stage, because I’ve been to Texans games there and sat in the end zone areas. Lemme tell you, when the teams are playing at the opposite end of the field from where you are, its like watching ants, and you end up watching the big screen TVs anyway. When I was in my formative metal fan years, I bought a Ross Halfin’s book of photographs of Metallica, which featured the best of his career’s work with the band from the 80s through the mid 90s. It was filled with a myriad of work, from promotional photoshoots and outtakes, backstage shots of the band just coming off stage in sitting in their sweat drenched garb in an arena locker room, as well as the band in far flung places like Thailand, catching the local riverboats. But mostly, it was just awe-inspiring shots of Hetfield standing on an enormous stage somewhere, in front of an immense crowd, kind of like the one in the Houston picture above. I loved those shots in particular, because they were simultaneously a repudiation of the mainstream that so often ignored metal as a whole, in a “look how many people love the band I love” kind of way —- but they also inspired a feeling of affirmation, that I wasn’t alone in my fanaticism but a part of something greater. I wanted to be in those crowds, screaming back at Hetfield with my metal horns raised.

All these years later, having attended countless (seriously, countless) shows of all shapes and sizes, if I’m being honest, its been the smaller, gritty, club-sized shows that I prefer. First, consider just how spoiled metal fans are relative to fans of more popular genres of music, particularly here in the States. We get to see many of our favorite bands in small venues simply because that’s the nature of most touring metal bands who don’t get the big draws of your Nickelback or Foo Fighters. Frequently these happen at clubs that become favorite haunts, nice places to sip beer as well as enjoy live music with nice beer selections at reasonable prices (no ten dollar Bud Lights like the local amphitheater). If you’re hoping to meet a particular musician and nab a picture, you pay a relatively small upgrade fee for a VIP meet and greet (not hundreds or thousands like fans of pop stars do) or you just go old school and show up early to catch them walking in for soundcheck or stay late and loiter by the buses. Most metal bands are so laid back, they’ll be out and about in the venue anyway after the show, and you can just come up and say hello. Our experiences are richer too, the small shows are more intimate, more intense if you don’t mind the pits, and more about the music itself.

I haven’t talked about this on the blog (though certainly have on the MSRcast a bit), but I’ve been to a few shows these past few months, Kreator/Obituary/Midnight/Horrendous back in late March, Amorphis with Swallow the Sun in April which was the closest to my birthday that a show has ever fallen, and most recently Hammerfall last week (**retro-edit** May 15th to be exact). In case you were wondering, I skipped the recent Sabaton headlining tour that went through Houston, the first time I’ve missed the band on a tour since I first saw them open for Accept way back in 2012. It was a mere three days after the Hammerfall show and in the midst of a packed schedule that week, but as I learned from friends who went, it was obscenely oversold, the place so packed full of bodies that it was described to me as “uncomfortable”. Now as much as it does suck to hear that my friends had less than a good time there, its also amazing that a European power metal band was able to draw that many Houstonians to a show on a weekday night! Its a highwater mark for the local metal scene in my view, and a sign that power metal’s audience has grown in my city, which is welcome news.

 

Most of these shows took place at a venue called the Scout Bar, which has for the past half a decade taken over as Houston’s primary metal show provider. Its located down the road from NASA near the southeastern border of Houston and League City. Its so far away from downtown itself, that you’d be forgiven for thinking you had left Houston proper, but that’s just how wide the city spawl is. The underlying facet about this geography lesson is to consider just how far most metal fans have to drive just to reach the venue, because if you live anywhere but near mid-town or downtown, you’re essentially driving across the span of Houston itself to and fro. The volume of shows I see here compared to more centrally located venues is entirely lopsided, in fact, out of the past eight shows I’ve seen since November 2016, only one has been at another place. Its also an odd duck of a venue, lodged in what was supposed to be an upscale waterside shopping area (there’s a huge creek behind it), with the shopping center punctuated by huge atrium style open air outdoor seating areas where presumably restaurants and cafes would seat those guests who wanted to see and be seen. Those grand plans never materialized, and the shopping center is now a mishmash of random local businesses, tiny eateries, and of course, a loud as hell rock/metal club that uses said atrium as its outdoor smoking area.

Inside the Scout Bar, you’ll find one of the strangest setups for a music venue that you’ve ever seen. Imagine that when you walk through the door, pass by the box-office foyer and walk into the club proper that the stage is directly off to your right. That’s right, the stage is placed against the front of the venue, turned around, while the bars are at the very back. This opposite day madness was utterly bewildering to me the first time I visited many years ago, and still doesn’t make sense except that there’s really no other way they could’ve configured things if you really look at the internal architecture. There’s a space for the sound booth directly opposite the stage, crammed in on the floor which takes up space which prevents the floor from being a nice rectangle of open moshing room —- there is no shape that describes its layout. Two bars, one at the very back on an elevated platform, and one with a respectable seating area that is off to the left of the door that we entered the club through. Obviously you can gather that there’s no backstage (where would it be?!)… there is a quasi green-room upstairs but I’ve rarely seen anyone use it. Bands either head back to the tour buses after playing, but most of them just hang out in the venue among the crowd or by the merch tables near the bar.

And in accepting all this weirdness, I can honestly say that its become my favorite venue. I have a collection of happy memories there, seeing bands like Sonata Arctica, Amorphis, Sabaton, Accept, Hammerfall, Insomnium, and countless others there for the first time. There was the night my idiot friends and I hung out with Stu Block of Iced Earth by a grilled cheese truck that was parked next to the venue (everyone getting a laugh out of a roadie taking Jon Schaffer’s order from a cell phone, the tour bus mere yards away). There was the time my friends’ band Brimwylf opened up for Sabaton and I was manning their merch table, side by side with Sabaton’s merch guy who could not have been nicer and more generous. Then there were all the amazing shows themselves, the small space naturally creating a more loose, comfortable, intimate vibe. Besides all the memories, the sound is great, and there’s just something charming about the fact that the bands walk from their tour buses directly into the front door and walk onstage. Its a venue that seems to urge concert goers and the bands themselves to remove themselves of pretense. Case in point: Were you to be standing outside in front of the venue when the headlining band walked off stage for the encore, you’d see the band members standing outside the venue’s front door, clad in stage garb, lingering awkwardly for a minute or two, and then walking back in to screams and hollers to deliver those final songs. What a scene.

 


June: (Troopin’ It: Iron Maiden @ Toyota Center 6/21/17)

So now that I’ve had the benefit of a few days to recover, I just wanted to report a little something about the Iron Maiden show at the Toyota Center here in Houston on Wednesday. It was a strange and surreal experience for a few reasons: First, I was seeing the band in an indoor arena for the first time ever, after all my previous four Maiden shows occurring at the outdoor Woodlands, Texas based pavilion amphitheater. We (myself and three friends) had bought floor/Standing Room Only tickets, and there was some thought to getting to the venue early to see if it was possible to get a semi-decent place as close to the stage as possible. We figured that we’d have to nudge, cajole, push, threaten, and elbow our way through a dense, immobile crowd to get remotely close to the front. I won’t bore you with details about how early we got there, but suffice to say, when we finally clambered down the arena steps from the concourse-level to walk across the floor that the Houston Rockets built, there was only perhaps 3 rows of people deep at the front of the arena. We causally walked by the enormous soundboard area, gated off and surrounded by a sea of empty space and just joined the rest of the eager throng standing agape at the stage in front of us.

I’ll help set the scene a bit. We were at most, I’d say 25-30 feet from the lip of the stage, so close that the staging didn’t even look that big from where we were (oh it was big, trust me, this was just how friggin’ close we were). I turned to my compatriots with a ridiculous grin I couldn’t control and stammered, “I can’t believe we’re going to see Iron Maiden this close, what the hell?!”. It felt indecent, and in the murky depths of my brain I felt we were going to be found out and promptly escorted outside, so when those three wandered off to the concessions for beers I almost berated them for abandoning such an absurdly good crowd position. That was my unspoken job you see —- hold the line, hold our spots with my presence. They returned and didn’t even have a difficult time getting to where I was, there was only a loosely scattered mess of people behind me by that point. This was my first time standing in the middle of an arena, unless you count my high school graduation at another venue, but that was different because there weren’t nearly as many people there as there would be at Maiden, plus half the arena was curtained off back then. This was far more bizarre, standing there looking on either side of us to see walls of slowly filling seats rise up from the ground and go up and up. Later when the venue was totally packed and Bruce was addressing the crowd in between songs, the house lights came on briefly and I turned around to see the panorama of a truly staggering mass of people sitting in that rising wall and it was slightly vertigo inducing. Clearly this was the biggest show I’d ever been to.

 

Damn near everyone we knew was at this show too, including my MSRcast cohost Cary and his wife, who I mistakenly thought were going to be on the floor with us but turns out were sitting in the lower deck, directly in line with us. They were so close they spotted us and we waved to each other as I tried to mime “Wtf? Why no down here with us?” in my best metal show version of charades. A few rows above him, our boisterous friend Trucker Matt (his name is Matt, but we’ve known a lot of Matts in our time, so everyone of them gets a variation on it —- he is not a trucker) was there with a date(!), which is probably one of the best ideas he’s ever had. He hooted and hollered at us, waving like a maniac and even in an arena that size, jeezus I could hear him. I’m not sure during what part of the show he took the picture, but he snapped a shot of the crowd directly in his line of sight and captured my ballcap wearing buddy Jason turned towards him, as if he knew the picture was being taken (I’m somewhere behind Jason to the right I think, seemingly lost in this particular picture however). Our friend Maurice and his wife were around somewhere too (he of the Houston doom band Blues Funeral and MSRcast guest), with him having both seated tickets and standing room only access (long story) and deciding to run to and fro from his wife in the seats and his buddies on the floor, can’t imagine how tiring that must’ve been. And of course there was our good friend Brent Bailey and his wife Lindsey, who we literally ran into halfway through Maiden’s set as Brent practically crashed into us, as excitable as only he can get, practically grabbing my shirt collar and shaking me like a madman screaming about how awesome this was. Excitable Brent is perhaps the most excitable person in the entire arena, I assure you. There were loads more people there that I recognized and ran into after the show —- this being perhaps the must-see metal event in Houston for all of 2017, even more so than the Metallica show. It just had that feel, that permeating joy that was etched into everyone’s face.

I don’t really write show reviews, as some of you might know, and besides this is a journal entry anyway. You damn well know that Maiden were amazing! That they played with passion and vigor that shames most bands twenty, thirty years their juniors. You know that Eddie came out and chased Janick around until Bruce literally ripped the beast’s heart out of its chest, and that everyone in the crowd wore delirious smiles, giddy with the utter silliness of it all. Surely you know that Bruce Dickinson ran and leapt all over the stage, never once seeming like a man who’d spent the better part of the last few years enduring chemo while battling cancer. You’re aware that when they played classics like “Fear of the Dark”, we all sang along to the melody, and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we did the same for a newer song like “The Red and the Black”. But did you know just how much friggin heat I felt on my face when the pyrotechnics flared up the moment the show opener “If Eternity Should Fail” kicked into its first heavy riff? Did you know just how much my legs were absolutely on fire from standing in a compressed space surrounded by fellow Maiden fans (that crowd got pretty dense after all)? Bet you didn’t know just how much energy I had to summon to rally through the encore, when the only thing my body wanted to do was collapse (seriously, I don’t know how I made it back up those arena stairs).

Standing there so close to the stage, I saw Steve Harris so vividly in front of me when he went for his machine gun stance, that I remember seeing a drop of sweat plummet from the tip of his nose to the neck of his bass. And when Bruce ran on the catwalk closest to our area of the stage, I felt so close that I could shout his name and he’d hear it over the din of the band. He waved the British Union Jack during the Trooper from the same spot, and I could’ve counted the damn holes in the tattered flag if I really tried. It was (and I know I’ve used this word a lot here) surreal. I had enjoyed seeing Maiden before, particularly in 2012 on the Maiden England tour when they played most of Seventh Son of A Seventh Son (aka my favorite metal album of all tid), and we had really good seats, center stage, certainly a little further back then we were this night, but close all the same. Something was different about that show however. You had a lot of space between you and the row of amphitheater seats in front of you, and hell… there were seats to begin with. This time, as close as we were standing, and without the inhibitions that the presence of seats places on the crowd, the atmosphere was more electric, the experience more visceral in intensity and enthusiasm. My buddy Jon said that it felt like we were at a club show at the Scout Bar, and Maiden were playing that night. Utterly surreal.

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