The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part One: The Songs

Sometimes in the mid-December barrage of lists for the best albums of the year, the best songs released this year get ignored and forgotten. Of course its likely that a handful of said songs played a key role in their respective album winding up on a “best albums” list, but what about the really great songs on the not-so-great albums? As with the past few years, I’ve committed to giving songs in both of those categories a chance to get another look via an end of the year retrospective. What makes a song one of my best of the year? It could be anything from simply masterful songwriting, great lyricism, or even a courageous attempt at a stylistic shift or experiment (of course, it still has to be a great song). To force myself to make honest choices, I limit the list to ten, and the order of the list has as much to do with play counts as it does the more intangible qualities I listed above. Now to quote Monty Python to myself: “Get on with it!”

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2014:

 

 

1. Insomnium – “Lose to Night” (from the album Shadows of a Dying Sun)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vw81mcIhDt8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Its safe to say that Insomnium’s Shadows of a Dying Sun was my most anticipated album of 2014, and while it ultimately didn’t live up to the glorious heights of its predecessor One For Sorrow, it was still a very, very good album with some truly spectacular moments. The moment that stuck with me the most was the troubled ballad “Lose to Night”, and I’m going to do something I hardly ever do and quote what I wrote about it in my original review:

The untarnished gem on this album is “Lose to Night”, a song with an achingly beautiful chorus and note-perfect encapsulating verses. This is my most listened to song on an album that I must have spun at least a few dozen times by now, its the track that practically bleeds out the core musical identity of this band. Everything about it is perfect to me, from its tribal-esque intro drum patterns, to the circular guitar melodies within the verses where Sevanen growl-speaks about a litany of regrets, to Friman’s shining clean vocal performance in the chorus with that delicately hook laden vocal melody. I love that during said chorus, subtly buried in the mix is an electric guitar gently echoing Friman’s vocal melody beat for beat, along with Sevanen’s distant growls adding just the right touch of stormy intensity. I love that its a song about the decay of a relationship, but Friman’s prose is sparse and interpretative enough for it to apply to any circumstance —- the narrator could be speaking to his parents, or his sibling, or his past. I love that instead of associating a barren heart with romance, Friman dishes a curve ball by singing “No more fear in me / This heart’s stone inside”, while adding that “Every day must lose to night / Fade and die”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here but these strike me as very Finnish in their inherent nature —- slightly gloomy yes, but beautiful sentiments despite their despairing tone.

Insomnium, as well as a few other fellow Finnish metal artists seem to have a grasp on illustrating bleak, inner turmoil better than any other artist within the genre. It must be something about living there that does it, a result of their cultural identity and environment perhaps? I don’t know and I’d bet that they don’t either, but what is amazing to me is how their artistic interpretations can sound so vivid and true to people thousands of miles away in places that are quite unlike Finland (ahem, like Houston, Texas for starters). This is a haunting song, and that’s precisely what it has done to me —- I wouldn’t be able to shake it off if I tried.

 

 

2. Allen/Lande – “Lady of Winter” (from the album The Great Divide)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_OvrGEbMvo?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Something just occured to me a second ago when considering this singular masterpiece on Allen/Lande’s newest album —- maybe I love this song so much because it reminds me of Dio. It should be him singing this song, or at the least this should be a time-worn Dio classic that Jorn Lande decided to cover. Like many, I miss the departed legendary vocalist and metal icon, and maybe its more that I miss his particularly distinctive stylistic choices. On “Lady of Winter” you’ll get a sense of what I mean when you hear Lande croon out the lyrics in the second verse: “Winter lady crystal tears /In the shadow drawing near / Will you show me all your fear?”. It was noted that Lande himself contributed to writing lyrics and vocal melodies for this album, and if he did so on “Lady of Winter” then its no mystery who he was channeling.

Whats more surprising however is that The Great Divide was penned by ex-Stratovarius guitarist Timo Tolkki as opposed to Magnus Karlsson who handled the previous three Allen/Lande albums. I can’t begin to remember the last time I enjoyed a Tolkki penned song, but kudos to him for keeping his extravagant tendencies in check and delivering one of the flat out greatest pure heavy metal songs I’ve heard in a long time. The album was okay, certainly passable, but “Lady of Winter” with its huge, monumentally towering chorus is the sort of gem that will be on my iPod for years to come. Its also the sort of metal song that I’m always afraid everyone will stop making one day, and so thankfully my fears are abated.

 

 

3. Falconer – “At the Jester’s Ball” (from the album Black Moon Rising)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rMhLO8JFPI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

To understand just how truly masterful Falconer guitarist/songwriter Stephan Weinerhall and vocalist Mathias Blad truly are at their craft, take a listen to the chorus on this deep cut off 2014’s Black Moon Rising. Blad’s effortless clarion vocals skip and shuffle in a most waltz-like manner across Weinerhall’s ballroom imagery, “I am dancing in the waltz, come join in one and all” —- the song’s narrator a self-professed hypocritical, power-hungry misanthrope gleefully reveling in the chaos of corruption. Falconer leaned a little too much on aggression for Black Moon Rising to succeed as a whole, but there were a few moments when Weinerhall dialed back the heaviness to allow some songs to breathe —- the method in which their first four Blad-helmed albums were so excellently written. As on those albums, “At the Jester’s Ball” and “Halls and Chambers” were songs in which the melodies were placed well into the spotlight, and Blad was given ample room to let his voice blossom in its inimitably theatrical manner. This song makes the list not only because it was one of my most played in 2014, but because it gave me hope that Falconer hadn’t completely lost their mojo.

 

 

4. Sabaton – “No Bullets Fly” (from the album Heroes)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG2Snz9jkF8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

This was not only the most musically riveting song on Sabaton’s surprisingly anti-war Heroes, but lyrically told a story that was emotionally bracing in its depiction of human decency bridging the divide between enemies. Its the story of Franz Stigler, an ace German fighter pilot one confirmed kill away from earning a Knights Cross, who chose to escort a crippled American B-17 back to friendly territory. Stigler had pulled level with the damaged aircraft and could actually see the wounded crew and pilot through the shredded airframe —- he was overcome with a wave of humanity that prevented him from carrying out his military imperative to destroy the plane. His presence prevented German batteries from firing upon it and once they were across the North Sea he offered the injured American pilot Charles Brown a salute and turned back. There’s quite a bit of information on the details of the story on the internet, and its worth reading up, but Sabaton’s musical treatment ratchets up the lump in throat quotient by incalculable amounts. The tempo itself emulates the lyrical depiction of two aircraft searing through the sky side by side, and Joakim Broden’s vocals are the perfect narrative device. You’ve gotta love the chorus, with its backing vocal shouted chants of ““Killing Machine!… B-17!”, they’re a strange juxtaposition when paired with Broden’s lead vocal singing ““Honor in the sky!… Flying Home!… Said goodbye to the Cross he deserved!”. The best part about this story? Stigler and Brown met forty-seven years later and became friends.

 

 

5. Edguy – “Alone In Myself” (from Space Police: Defenders of the Crown)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvmraiXxAyU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Tucked away in the middle of a pretty good yet admittedly inconsistent Edguy album was this glowing gem, a gospel-touched power ballad about loneliness and isolation written as only Tobias Sammet can. He’s proven throughout his career to be a tremendously gifted songwriter, and he’s one of the few power metal songwriters truly adept at writing emotional, stirring, and affecting ballads. As Edguy has leaned more in a rock direction in the past half a dozen years, he has adapted his once traditionally structured balladry to incorporate looser, more eighties-rock inspired musical elements. Here he expands his repertoire by including an almost 90s R&B meets soulful gospel motif in the song’s masterful chorus, juxtaposed against arena-rock ready verses built on Def Leppard Hysteria era pounding percussion and rhythmic guitar picking.

The mood created is one that has become something of a Sammet trademark by now, a song that’s simultaneously wistfully melancholic while still coming across as hopeful, and dare I say —- even inspirational. I’m a sucker for background vocals as many of you know, I find them to be delicious ear candy when done right and I love the decision here to approach them differently in the chorus. The choral sung “oooohs” in the refrain build up to one of Sammet’s most passionately sung turn of phrases in “No matter how hard I pray, I’m lost in translation”, while the organ-styled keyboards provide the underlying soundtrack to this unlikely church confessional.

 

 

6. Ghost Brigade – “Departures” (from the album IV – One With The Storm)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dph9H340_4c?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

My favorite moment on an incredible album, Ghost Brigade deliver one of the most urgent, passionate songs of the year with “Departures”. It treads similar territory to fellow Finnish bands like Insomnium, namely loss, regret, loneliness and despair —- but it done it in a way that is refreshingly unapologetic about its pop sensibility. This was the most accessible moment on a rather heavy, harsh vocal-fueled album, but it still has plenty of attack in its hook-laden passages. Consider vocalist Manne Ikonen’s performance as he alternates between tortured, guttural screaming vocals to add a touch of intensity to his distinctly plaintive rock inflected clean vocals. I’ve seen some people suggest that Ikonen gets close to yarling with his vocal choices here, but I’m unconvinced. There’s something deeper, darker, and less suggestive of affectation in his tone —- and truthfully I can’t imagine the song with another singer. The verses here are anchored by dirty bass and sharp percussion, and they lay down a framework upon which the band lets loose on the chorus with melancholic guitar figures over heavy, sustained riffs. At times I’m reminded of the kind of Finnish rock now championed by Amorphis, but created and perfected by the long-departed Sentenced. A perfect song for when you’re having a crappy day and need some empathy.

 

 

7. Freedom Call – “Follow Your Heart” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu4TGlKrc1A?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I was seriously thinking of nominating the title track of this album for this list, with its Blind Guardian-esque epic grandeur and gorgeous melody. Yet every time I considered Freedom Call’s surprisingly vibrant new album, I was reminded of this soaring, majestic paean to freewill and weathering the storms of life. This song brims with the kind of bouncy,kinetic energy so often found only in dance laden pop music, fueled by adrenaline surging backing vocal chants and wild Kai Hansen-inspired hard rock meets metal guitars. With Power Quest nothing but a memory at the moment, Freedom Call are perhaps the last men standing in this most marginalized of power metal strains —- that of ultra melodic, major key riddled, positive attitude infused “happy” power metal (its detractors know it by its given name “flower metal”). I apologize in advance, but once again I feel the need to quote myself,  this time regarding Freedom Call and their musical spirit:

“Whenever people accuse power metal bands of having only commercially minded interests, I’ll point out to them the careers of Freedom Call and Power Quest, who have eluded high chart positions, significant sales figures, and media attention —- ironic given their predilection towards writing undeniably catchy, ear wormy music. They’ve gone as long as they have with their too-commercial-its-noncommercial take on power metal for the sheer want of creating the music they want to hear, all while knowing and accepting that they are uncool and very unmarketable —- tell me, what is more metal than that?

 

 

8. Sonata Arctica – “Cloud Factory” (from the album Pariah’s Child)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RO5FPHFI6sI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I have no delusions about this one, I know it will inspire some scrutiny and scoffing but let me explain. It could be argued that the best album released by Sonata Arctica this year was their re-recording of Ecliptica, and if you read my original review of Pariah’s Child you would think I’d feel the same. Time has changed my mind however and I now look upon that album with a little bit of fondness and understanding, largely felt by seeing them performing a few of it’s songs in an October concert here in Houston. It was seeing and hearing those select new songs that made me realize that what I perceived as strange choices in modern Sonata Arctica albums were actually an extension of frontman Tony Kakko’s own particular brand of humor and expression. His stage mannerisms helped to give “Cloud Factory” a sense of directional narration and it made me appreciate a complexity within its lyrics that I hadn’t noticed before.

That isn’t to say that I thought it was a dud beforehand —- its one of the best songs the band has delivered in years with its slightly Japanese sounding melody and wonderful mid-song bridge at the 2:42 mark (which is promptly followed by one of those aforementioned “strange choices”, yet it works in context of the lyrics). I strongly considered placing the major-key fueled, heart-string tugging sappy ballad “Love” on this list, but as brave as that song is in its boldly sung sentiment it didn’t have the musical complexity of “Cloud Factory”. But both songs are perfect amalgams that represent exactly who Kakko is as a songwriter: He’s the Rivers Cuomo of metal, a man so willing to present raw, open nerve endings through his unflinching delivery of lyrics many would consider too heart-on-sleeve, too emotionally naked. Both men are willing to intermix truth and fiction in their songwriting, and its that mask that hides the mirror.

 

 

9. Anathema – “Ariel” (from the album Distant Satellites)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjAHS4pNUY8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

It would be disingenuous of any of us to begin to exclude new Anathema music from year end metal list consideration simply because of their stylistic shift towards modern progressive rock. Yes the vocals may be softer and sweeter, the melodies more gentle and hushed —- but the complexity and thought behind them has roots that extend far back into the band’s Peaceville three doom metal past. It would also just be plain wrong to ignore a song as singularly beautiful as “Ariel”, the highlight of their rather good Distant Satellites album. The band has been on a creative tear since their comeback in 2010, and they’ve seemed to find their milieu in soundscapes like this one, one of delicate piano and strings, and panoramic washes of screaming Porcupine Tree-esque guitars.

The echoing, soaring voices of Lee Douglas and Vincent Cavanagh are powerful enough to get solo turns each, but its when they join together for the song’s emotionally dizzying climax that they transcend genre and labels. Guitarist Daniel Cavanagh turns in the most inspired performance of his career during the song’s outro-solo; a wild, unrestrained moment of passion where its mirroring of the primary melody seems to continue the sentiments that both singers could not express. Anathema play with live emotional ammunition —- there’s nothing faked or phony here, certainly nothing that is subject to the shallowness of self-aware ironic detachment. That they’ve ceased to be a metal band sonically is arguable sure, but in spirit they’re still very much one of us.

 

 

10. Vintersorg – “Rymdens brinnande öar” (from the album Naturbål)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eg-iau4D52I?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I mentioned in my original review for the latest Vintersorg album that his work isn’t the most accessible or instantly palatable. His albums take time and patience to sit through repeated listens before they begin to reveal themselves to you, and even then you have to be in the right head space to be receptive to it. Sounds daunting, and take it from a decade long disciple of his strange blend of avant-garde, folk-black metal —- it is. But occasionally Vintersorg will surprise even me with a blast of poppy goodness so catchy and memorable that it requires no time at all to enjoy. Case in point was this gem, a hummable duet with an enchanting female vocalist named Frida Eurenius that boasts a refrain so beautiful and breezily effortless that you wonder if Vintersorg could just potentially knock out songs like this all day and specifically chooses NOT to. I could see that happening, he has always been geared towards hyper-progressive ideas within his songwriting, a mad scientist that piles on layers of swirling sound and keyboard washes under furious black metal screams… even his distinctive clean vocals have been sung in Swedish since 2004, making them practically indecipherable for most of us. Take a moment to enjoy this brief respite from his madness then, and to revel in one of the most ear-pleasing choruses of the year.

 

Falconer Rising: The Return of Power Metal’s Best Kept Secret

If you’ve been needing something to be thankful for lately, here’s something: Stefan Weinerhall, guitarist/songwriter of power metal’s mighty Falconer is still writing and recording music. I only bring this up because it appears that this was in doubt for quite a long period of time following the release of the band’s last album, 2011’s Armod. For a short while, all we had to go on in terms of evidence that points to this was Weinerhall’s own cryptically worded message in the latest press release announcing their new album, in which he stated, “After an eight-month complete break from music on the verge of quitting it, I finally returned with a feeling of hunger, power and commitment to the songwriting.” But in a recent interview with Zach Fehl of Metal Insider, Weinerhall expanded on that slightly by making reference to the years since Armod being punctuated by personal tragedies, the pluralization there seemingly emphasizing just how much of a personal crossroads Weinerhall found himself at. But he explains that the time apart from music made the heart grow fonder, as it does, and nostalgia kicked in for him and the result was a journey back through music, resulting in the eighth and newest Falconer album, Black Moon Rising. I’m glad that Weinerhall made it back from his personal and musical abyss, because there are power metal bands by the dozens and dozens, but none of them sound anything like Falconer. They are one of power metal’s uncut emeralds amidst ordinary gems.

 

Some of you might remember my earlier feature on Falconer, in which I aimed to present to the reader ten select cuts from the band’s discography in an attempt to make a fan out of them. It also might have demonstrated that my love of the band has run long and deep, and that the promise of a new Falconer album is a major metal event in my world. I’ll preface my comments on Black Moon Rising by saying that I found Armod to be a satisfying listen, if not an ultimately compelling one. I think part of it was that the Swedish language vocals were somewhat inhibiting for a band that I’m normally accustomed to understanding every word and syllable (with Mathias Blad’s non-metal, theatrical approach towards singing, that vocal clarity has become something of a band trademark —- it’s “absence” was noticeable). The other factor might have been that Armod was distinctively heavier, faster, and more aggressive than any other album in the band’s discography up til that point, even at times approaching the stylistic tendencies found in black metal (blastbeats anyone?). It heralded the full realization of a musical shift that had started to develop on 2008’s Among Beggars and Thieves, on songs like the excellent “Pale Light of Silver Moon”. I wasn’t opposed to Falconer getting faster or more aggressive —- they were always a heavy band from their debut onwards, but where songs on Among Beggars and Thieves would merely dabble in a little extra ooomph, Armod went whole hog with it and the classic melodic trademarks we were all used to got pushed to the wayside.

 

With all the previous talk of nostalgia and a band returning from the brink of death, you’d expect Black Moon Rising to come off as a slice of classic Falconer (and if you need a discography reference point, I’m referring to the triumvirate of Falconer, Chapters of a Vale Forlorn, and Northwind), but startlingly enough this album sounds like its picking up exactly where Armod left off in terms of musical direction and overall aggressiveness. Yes I know its sung in English and that should make it different enough, and on the whole its a fairly good album, but its not a great album —- its missing so much of what makes a classic Falconer album. The last of those classics, Northwind, was a diverse collection of songs with different tempos, styles, dynamics, and ever changing song structures. A frenzied track like “Spirit of the Hawk” would be immediately followed by the slow, stomping, almost Oriental sounding “Legend and the Lore”, itself followed by the mid-tempo Celtic-tinged wistful rocker “Catch the Shadows”. On Black Moon Rising, the album passes by like a blur of frenetic tremolo riffs over blastbeat level percussion with nary a moment to pause and catch it’s breath. I am aware of the irony of a review on a metal blog decrying an album for being too fast, too aggressive, too… well, heavy, but in Falconer’s case its coming at the price of their innate melodic strengths. Its a detriment.

 

As I said above though, this is still a good album, a testament to Weinerhall’s skill as a master songwriter that he’s still able to hammer out at least one classic and a few close-to’s here. The classic comes in the form of the most obviously Falconer sounding song on offer, “Halls and Chambers”, a rare moment where the tremolo riffing ceases long enough to provide sections of space and structure to a chorus that the album’s best. This could’ve been an outtake from the band’s debut or Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, its that evocative of the musical spirit of that era. Fellow guitarist Jimmy Hedlund and Weinerhall even get to indulge in a wild, unbridled classic Falconer styled guitar solo after the chorus and later on in the song, a bit of delicate acoustic guitar on a quiet bridge. Similarly, “At the Jester’s Ball” is a welcome departure from excessive aggression and speed, with its playful tempo shifts and almost waltz-like rhythmic structure within the chorus, where the always unhurried Blad delivers one of his most dexterous vocals to date in his lyrical verse to refrain transition: “I am dancing in the waltz, come join in one and all”. I love the way he leans on his inflection of the word “dancing” there… its a sleek and smooth maneuver that eases in the rest of the line like a see-saw shifting down towards one side. Speaking of Blad himself for a moment, the man is as expected on top form here, seemingly ageless it seems, a boon granted by his non-metal vocal approach —- he still has incredible range, and his delivery is all his own within the metal world, no one touches this guy.

 

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

 

My favorite song of the moment is “In Ruins”, a moderately fast song that slows down long enough for some classic Dio era Sabbath-isms on guitar, as well as a chorus as sharp as the sword’s edge. Weinerhall knows how to conjure up some beautiful drama, as he shows on his expertly crafted opening line during the refrain, “In Ruins —- are the pillars of eden!” Following just behind are “There’s a Crow on the Barrow” and “Dawning of a Sombre Age”, the former one of Weinerhall’s ultra-speedy, tremolo laced cuts that manages to keep its melodic integrity perfectly preserved with its injection of Blad’s expansive, cinematic vocalizations during the refrain. The latter is a slow building, surging, and oddly anthemic song (given its title and lyrics), where Hedlund and Weinerhall trade off hard rock-tinged riffs and melodic twists to satisfying effect. I also have to mention how the album closer “The Priory” has been growing on me —- its an odd bird of a song but its diversity here is the key to its success, Blad sounds incredible on the refrain (can’t tell if those are vocal effects or if his voice is just that awesomely capable). What I do miss on this album is the presence of a good, old school styled Falconer ballad. They give it a shot on “Scoundrel and the Squire”, but it just sounds like a b-side grade cousin to Chapters From a Vale Forlorn’s “Lament of a Minstrel”, down to the mid-tempo pace and heavy, thudding riffs. The difference is that the latter had beautiful melodic thru lines and rock n’ roll swing and verve, while the former just plods along. That being said, even if it had worked, I would still have missed Falconer’s penchant for acoustic laden balladry… I hope those come back.

 

So there it is, after many many repeat listens, the most fair verdict I can lay down for a new album by a band that I’m simply relieved to have back. I’ll reiterate, its a good record, but one for existing fans only. If you’re new to the band, check out one of the three classics I mentioned earlier in the review, you can’t go wrong with any of them. Wow, this is sounding like a sales pitch… not where I usually like to go in writing but dammit, this is Falconer, a merely good album by them is considered a career misstep, so you should probably check yourself if you haven’t ingratiated yourself into their discography by now.

 

The Metal Pigeon Recommends – Part One: Falconer

Hey everyone, took a bit of a break there —- had been listening to a lot of metal in September and took some time earlier this month to indulge my other musical listening habits. But I’m back with something that I’ve been thinking about doing for a little while now; that is a recurring feature I’m simply calling The Metal Pigeon Recommends. Its pretty much exactly what it sounds like… or maybe not. See there are bands I love that you probably love, and then there are bands I love that you probably don’t —- at least not yet. Maybe you’ve tried them once before and couldn’t get into them, or perhaps you’ve heard of them but were put off by the genre or cover art (or heck even the band name), or maybe you simply haven’t heard of them at all.

 

This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration for this blog, the exhilarating feeling of getting someone else into music that I think is great. Its a simple concept. I’ll take one band, pick out ten cuts that I think will make a fan out of you, have YouTube clips ready for all —- plus some commentary to go along with them. Oh and this feature is for bands and artists that are distinctively out of left field that I feel don’t get the attention they really deserve, or are otherwise challenging the preconceptions of what metal fans can enjoy. Point being that I wouldn’t expect a Recommends: Metallica feature anytime soon.

 

First up is Falconer, an often overlooked power metal band from Mjölby, Sweden that boasts one of the most uniquely individual styles within metal as a whole. Its a direct result of a combination of two very different musicians. There’s guitarist, primary songwriter, and band founder Stefan Weinerhall and his musical background writing for black, death, and thrash metal bands, such as his own short lived, yet revered Mithotyn project. Then there’s vocalist Mathias Blad, a Swedish stage actor and singer, who came into Falconer with no prior experience in heavy metal at all. In fact, Blad’s musical background consists of years of study at both Gothenburg’s Balettakademien, and The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He is in other words, a very serious professional stage actor, a veteran of the Swedish theater, whose work keeps him tied firmly to home base.

 

His inability to tour led to a brief departure from Falconer after their first two studio albums, when Weinerhall and the rest of the band attempted to launch Falconer as a live entity. The intermittent two albums recorded with vocalist Kristoffer Göbel were shaky at best, Falconer’s style being diluted as a result of having to adjust their sound to fit Göbel’s voice. The band has since written those non-Blad fronted albums off, Weinerhall even going as far as calling them “really bad”. They brought Blad back into the fold despite his heavy duty theater workload, picked up where they left off with him musically speaking, and happily accepted their future as a studio project —- as Weinerhall states: “That’s his [Blad’s] job and we have to respect that. We’d rather have him in the band and not tour than not have him at all. It’s a price I’m very willing to pay.”

 

 

The Clarion Call (from Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, 2002)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iswq0SWBRFA&w=420&h=315]

 

The centerpiece of Falconer’s sophomore album, “The Clarion Call” is a standout example of Weinerhall’s seemingly effortless ability to create epic, stirring power metal with unconventional songwriting. A wildly melodic intro ushers in well spaced staccato riffing over loudly rumbling bass lines, forming the bed for Blad to carry out the tune through his effortless vocal melodies. And when I say effortless, listen to this track and really think about how much this guy differs from your typical clean metal vocalist. Blad’s theater background has him trained to use his instrument as smoothly as possible, with space for dramatic flexing and emoting. He never extends or strains his voice even when going to higher registers as a regular metal vocalist would. The beauty of this approach is that Weinerhall understands this going in as a songwriter and guitarist, and compensates for the lack of aggression in Blad’s vocals by amping up the heavy in his riffs, and particularly in the band’s rhythm section.

Blad’s vocals aren’t “air-raid siren” like to be sure, but they’re crystal clear, capable of ranging from baritone lows to soaring tenor highs, all while maintaining perfect enunciation. His ability to inflect emotion at will is on full display during the song’s namesake moment, when all instrumentation subsides and Blad is left to sing a cappella —- his own clarion call so to speak. I’ve probably listened to this song hundreds of times now, but I’ll always get chills at that part. Weinerhall is an interesting, oft-inspired lyricist, who draws upon history and dark fantasy in seemingly equal amounts, but no matter the inspiration he always finds an interesting perspective to frame his lyrics from or in regard to. Here is a song that could apply within the pages of the dark, medieval fantasy novel you’re reading, or to our modern political climate as well.

 

 

Upon the Grave of Guilt (from Falconer, 2001)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GJhmIHY6Bac&w=420&h=315]

 

The lead off track from Falconer’s debut, this is a rollicking, fast paced riff monster that pits Weinerhall’s furious attack against Blad’s understated calm, a juxtaposition that is jarring at first but soon sounds second nature. I laugh when I see people write off Falconer as typical “flower metal” —- they’re clearly not listening well or at all, this stuff is sonically heavier than a lot of black metal out there. People who get hung up on Blad’s vocals are failing themselves in not seeing what else he’s bringing to the table. Take for instance just how important it is in this track to hear with perfect enunciation the powerful lyric, “My past is darkening my future / As my present dies / Every morning is a step towards / The edge of my soul’s demise”. This is a song about having deep, repressed guilt at the end of one’s life, and Blad’s sombre reading of the lyrics and knack for dramatic flair is chilling when he rounds off the final refrain of the chorus at the 4:17 mark (all capped off with some really excellent acoustic guitar work). Also, you gotta love that middle bridge section at 3:06 where Blad’s multi-tracked vocals are layered together for an awesome ear candy explosion. The riff storm right after is so sledgehammer that I can practically envision Weinerhall on stage leaning forward as the onslaught begins. What an awesome headbanging moment.

 

 

Svarta Ankan (from Armod, 2011)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jirq0rz_0xo&w=420&h=315]

 

The lead off track from their most recent album, Armod, which the band had recorded entirely in Swedish (with a few English versions as bonus tracks), “Svarta Ankan” is disarmingly heavy. Listen to that introductory assault, that could practically be the start of a black or death metal song, and that element of pure, unbridled aggression that Falconer has at their disposal is one of their greatest assets. Forget the usual power metal tropes and sonic redundancies, Falconer know how to tear down the walls if they want to and they often do. Their use of double kick in an extreme metal pattern is a calling card that few other power metal bands would even attempt (in fact there’s even black metal styled tremolo riffing over blast beats to be found on the Mithotyn-esque “Griftefrid”, another great track on this album). The extreme metal tendencies of “Svarta Ankan” aren’t even its best feature, for that I’ll direct you to 2:46, where there is a sudden, swooping mid-song drop into an enchanting acoustic bridge featuring duet vocals between Mathias and his sister Heléne. Of course, Hedlund and Weinerhall get in on the epicness with their excellent outro solos, both melancholic and uplifting at the same time —- as all the best Falconer solos are.

 

 

Portals of Light (from Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, 2002)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhIkQRzEXfg&w=420&h=315]

 

There are many Falconer fans who would easily nominate this as perhaps the band’s finest moment, an emotionally resonant lament set as a character perspective of a person who has just lost their “gentle rose of mine”. The lyrics are poignant, spare and touching, and the decision to forgo guitars for the intro in favor of a solitary piano makes the opening lines even more gripping. Blad is at his most delicate, tender best here, and when the chorus kicks in, his slowly soaring vocals are only matched by the beautiful combination of sustained guitar notes and sweeping strings. This is a fine set of lyrics, and with Blad as the interpreter I don’t know if I’ve heard as much emotion squeezed out of two lines anywhere else as I do here when he sings in the chorus “I feel so astray inside / As I know you’re far away”. His pacing, delivery, and inflection are masterful, and the multi-tracked vocal layering during the final run of the chorus is plain goosebump inducing, I know there are people out there who have some sort of aversion to slow, soft, or ballady songs within metal. I don’t know whether its because they mask their insecurities with aggressive music and find their presence threatening, or that they’re afraid of what others will think if they catch them listening to one. Don’t be one of those people.

 

 

Catch the Shadows (from Northwind, 2006)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79wk_DkPy3E&w=420&h=315]

 

The charm of this Celtic-tinged, odd ball track is in its sheer variety of songwriting shifts, first from jaunty, mandolin fueled harmonies to speedy, hyper riffing passages overlain with Blad’s chanting choral vocals. Weinerhall has been quoted as saying that Jethro Tull is his favorite band, and primary influence for Falconer, and it really shows here. I love the comparative “lightness” of this track in relation to most of the Falconer catalog —- there’s almost a classic rock feel at work here. The middle drops at 2:26 and 3:19 of piano and vocals are those ear candied moments that Weinerhall is so skilled at penning, And he and Hedlund seem to be able to load up every ounce of their playing with micro hooks left and right, even their tailing off guitar melodies is inventive and interesting. Blad, as ever is on fine form throughout, and we get to see a rare glimpse of him having to surge forward his singing to his head voice during the chorus. Ian Anderson would be proud.

 

 

Pale Light of Silver Moon (from Among Beggars and Thieves, 2008)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWW5JFwnzZc&w=420&h=315]

 

One of the band’s speedier tracks (right out of the gate in fact), “Pale Light of Silver Moon” features in my opinion the best Falconer guitar solo to date, and you don’t have to wait that long for it. At the 1:05 mark second guitarist Jimmy Hedlund and Weinerhall trade off in a spectacularly written dual harmonized guitar solo that is richly melodic. It comes without any warning, and without any context, it’s just, “Hey! Here’s a mind melting awesome solo barely one minute into the song!” I love unexpected surprises like that, and we’re treated to an encore performance just over a minute later at 2:29, which is almost the inverse of the previous solo —- but still wildly melodic and fun. I also enjoy their usage of near tremolo riffing for the instrumental verse sections of the song, which in combined effect with thundering kick drums create a frenzied pace throughout. This is one of Falconer’s far more complex arrangements in terms of abrupt shifts, halts, and twists, yet it all works towards a highly memorable effect.

 

 

Lord of the Blacksmiths (from Falconer, 2001)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoYSwGNGksQ&w=420&h=315]

 

First of all, listen to that monster intro riff —- how someone from Fox Sports has not heard that and appropriated it for usage on NFL Sundays is beyond me. Secondly anyone who’s toiled at the forge in Skyrim while sorting through an overloaded inventory for various ores and ingots to turn into their mighty weapons of war —- this song’s for you. The rhythm section is on full attack here, a bruising and battering frenzy of heavy bottom end, while Weinerhall’s (who by the way played bass as well on this first album) guitars alternate between traditional metal pacing and thrashy staccato runs. Blad’s vocals are purely outstanding on the chorus, his normally calm reserve breaking for a moment as he goes higher and higher in registers as he yells about alloys of metal (Haha! Yes!). You’ll forgive the lyric about “power belts and magic rings” when 3:34 kicks in and the band throws in sounds approximating —- well, what else, a hammer hitting a freaking anvil! To the Skyforge!

 

 

Legend and the Lore (from Northwind, 2006)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI6sqjUj8dg&w=420&h=315]

 

Blad’s comeback album, Northwind, was laden with gems throughout and might rightfully be called the best Falconer album front to back. This track was perhaps the most overlooked highlight of a superb collection of songs. A dazzling display of flexible songwriting prowess, Weinerhall sets medieval instrumentation against the backdrop of what is essentially the rhythm of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, interspersed by Blad’s narrative vocals over guitar riffs that mimic the underlying thundering percussion boom. The chorus isn’t even vocal, the song’s refrain forming purely from the waltzy harpsichord led melody line —- a ballsy and inventive move. There’s a totally gorgeous, epic outro dual guitar solo at 2:40, where Weinerhall and Hedlund harmonize with a flute (well…keyboard flute). I know I’ve said it already, but I love Weinerhall’s natural gift at finding the most ultra melodic way of saying something, be it in a melody line for a song, the lead-in to a bridge, or in his guitar solos. He’s a meticulous craftsman who doesn’t often indulge in meaningless flurries of notes —– his preferred method is to plot out everything note for note, where even solos can squeeze out magnitudes of emotion.

 

 

Mindtraveller (from Falconer, 2001)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yMsxQWuWvE&w=420&h=315]

 

If Falconer were more well known, the solo guitar intro here would their iconic moment, an ominous ten second harbinger that is supplemented by thundering kick and toms before finally exploding in wonderful racketing symphony of crunchy guitar riffs and Blad bellowing some wild lyrics about “Crossing great rivers / In search of the knowledge of the Gods”. I’ll tell you straightaway that I have no idea what he’s on about when he says “I am the Mindtraveller”, but I’ve become accustomed to imagining some detached giant triangular head with spiraling eyes and an inconvenient floaty flight path. Don’t get me wrong, I love this song and its utterly bizarre lyrics, but I chalk this one up to a ‘make of them what you will’ type situation. Like sometimes when I’m at work, I wish I could just drop everything and turn into the Mindtraveller to float on out over the Houston streets towards said “deep valleys and forests” —- but I digress. This is simply a really fun song with some surprising tempo changes such as in the chorus, where everything speeds up, vocals included. This is harried as you’ll ever hear Blad singing, and his clarity and control are freaking awesome to behold.

 

 

Long Gone By (from Northwind, 2006)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=El2dIH35yWc&w=420&h=315]

 

Another great Falconer ballad —– and there are many more that I’m not including on this list (in fact, I could probably fill this list with ten other great Falconer tracks and still fulfill the aim of this feature, they’re that deep with awesome songs). What I love about this ballad in contrast to the overwhelming emotional rawness of “Portals of Light” is its laid back feel, and almost effortless musical approach. An old school Gn’R-esque sustained guitar figure opens up the track and acoustic guitars chime in over orchestral swells while Blad sings the memorable opening lines “We dwell in a time, of neither night nor day”. I love that imagery in particular, because it conjures up to me the idea of a sunset and when lyrics can paint pictures in suggestive ways as opposed to spelling everything out, I find that they resonate with me that much more. Blad’s gentle delivery throughout the song is peaceful, endearing, almost lullabye-like in its sheer effortlessness. The spectacular guitar solo at 2:17 is one of the band’s most nostalgia inducing moments, its placement and style harken to a classic Scorpions vibe, and it certainly complements the overall wistful lyrical themes going on. There’s some thoughtful songwriting at work here.

 

Mead Horn Metal! New albums from Ensiferum and Wisdom

 

 

So this year I’ve decided to induct the Fall season with a welcoming, light-hearted, cheery mood — mainly to counteract the eventual headlong plunge into all that excellent dreary, depressing metal that traditionally serves as the soundtrack for the autumn months. And I’ve been keeping my ears open for new music that would fit the bill. I’m talking about tunes that bring to mind sloshy mead horn raising, overeating at Renaissance Festivals type gluttony, lingering outside in the bracing air of the nighttime chill, and the warmth of standing near the fire pit. Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Think “The Bards Song” by Blind Guardian, or “Stand Up and Fight” by Turisas. I’m in the mood for some fun in my metal, and lo and behold, here’s a new album by Ensiferum, and a re-release of a year old album by a Hungarian power metal outfit called Wisdom. Can these two deliver the goods?! Someone get the mead ready!

 


 

 

Ensiferum – Unsung Heroes:

Here’s my thing with Ensiferum. I love their first two albums, in fact, lets capitalize that LOVE. I consider the self-titled Ensiferum and its follow-up Iron to be amongst the finest folk metal albums of all time. As for the band’s releases after those two albums?…Eh, really hit or miss to be frank about it. There’s usually a few good, not great songs per album, and a load of formulaic filler. Some coincidence then that I’m writing this as we all sit on the near eve of the release of the long awaited Wintersun album Time I, as it was Wintersun brainchild Jari Mäenpää that was at the vocal and writing helm of those first two Ensiferum albums. Together with Markus Toivonen, the longtime Ensiferum founder/guitarist, the pair created memorable folk metal anthems that are every bit as fresh today as they were upon release. And since seeing the two parties split off and hearing their individual results, I feel that it was Mäenpää whose musical vision was the larger voice showing up on those records; so easy is it to trace the similarities to the music in that first stunning Wintersun album. Toivonen has soldiered on though, with the aid of vocalist/guitarist Petri Lindroos and bassist/lyricist Sami Hinkka. What they’ve managed to come up with on what is now the third post-Mäenpää Ensiferum album can be best summed up as well meaning songs suited to their strengths, and a fair share of unrealized experiments that fall flat.

 

First the good stuff, and that starts off with the lead single (and lame video), “In My Sword I Trust”, a strike directly at the comfort zone of fans of the first two Ensiferum releases. Their last record, From Afar, had quite a few of these as well, the type of emblematic song that defines the core sound of the band in a catchy, energized, and inspired fashion. One thing I’ve been lamenting about modern day Ensiferum however is their tendency to rely too heavily on choirs to provide a musical uplift to a songs chorus, as is the case on this particular song. When I imagine them using harsh vocals all the way through, I feel the song would’ve been stronger, darker, and fiercer. Maybe its the production that’s bothering me, but things seemed a little too Korpiklaani-ish during a handful of moments throughout this album. The other gem here is a rare moment where some radical experimentation works rather well, as displayed in the female vocal laced ballad “Celestial Bond”. Its every bit as overwrought and sentimental as you’d anticipate, but stirring all the same and a nice bit of delicate atmospherics.

 

Then comes the drop off — the rest of the record ranges from the passable to the skippable, and the primary culprit is the reoccurring problem found with Lindroos’ vocals. Quite simply he just isn’t very exciting as a harsh vocalist — I’ve never been able to put my finger on it, but I’ve felt the same way about his performances in Norther. Its almost as if he can become so overtly monotone, or staid, that I find myself losing interest and not feeling anything resembling the crackling excitement I found in those first two Ensiferum albums, where Mäenpää’s vocals were a vicious mix of Dave Mustaine-esque snarl and Alexi Laiho sandpaper grit. There is a wide variety of tempos, sounds, and volumes on this album, but the trouble is that most of it isn’t very memorable. Why bother discussing the details of songs that don’t draw a reaction out of me one way or another? I’m sure some fans will enjoy it, but at what effort? I don’t mean to disparage the band, or this album, its worth a listen on Spotify at least. I suppose you could conclude that I’m disappointed, but it didn’t even do that, it just left me shrugging my shoulders.

 

 

 

 

Wisdom – Judas:

This album may be the biggest surprise coming out of European power metal in the past two years. It is certainly the most enjoyable front to back album in that vein since Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time; and while I’m not attempting to directly compare the two albums, with 2011’s Judas these Hungarians deliver the same gratifying, big-meal satisfaction that the Bards provided in 2010. The album had been severely limited in distribution until August of 2012, when it was re-released through a worldwide deal with NoiseArt Records. I had been aware of Wisdom in the past, but despite being impressed with their always rockin’ and bare-bones musical approach, their previous vocalist István Nachladal didn’t do much for me.

 

The new guy is another Hungarian, Gabor Nagy, who completely dominates the album with a powerful vocal performance that I can only best describe as blending together prime era Ronnie James Dio, a dash of good Ozzy, with a splash of Hansi Kursch thrown in — all filtered through a Hungarian accent that gives Nagy a stamp of personality all his own. Of course such talent would be wasted if not for what is arguably the strongest collection of Wisdom songs to date, led by the songwriting of guitarist Gabor (must be like Mike over there amirite?) Kovacs. The album highlights here are led by the single “Heaven and Hell”, a vaguely sludgy mid-tempo stomper where Nagy takes center stage over a chorus that is as aggressive as it is soaring, set over a bed of guitars that are perfectly thundering in their short bursts of riffs. “Somewhere Alone” is another mid-paced gem, led along by a strong guitar melody that serves as the song’s true refrain directly after its choir-laden chorus. The band does pick up the tempo to spectacular results, such as on “Live Forevermore”, where the vocals in the chorus seem to race against a drum beat that is putting on the brakes from its all out double bass assault in the verses — the resulting effect being bracing and adrenaline inducing.

 

I suppose its worth mentioning that Wisdom base their songwriting around a lyrical concept that has run all throughout their discography, where each song is based around a well-known quotation, hence tying this all together with their band name and mascot (the cloaked guy on all their album covers). Its an interesting idea I suppose, and although I’m often puzzled at what quotations are actually being utilized within the songs, I feel its worth the tip of the cap to the band for attempting to put some thought and weight behind their lyrics in a genre that sees so little of that. But the lyrics aren’t the selling point here, its the music that will win you over. This is that rare breed of power metal that is done with muscle and aggression, all while emphasizing great melodies and harmonies in the guitars as well as vocals. I realize that’s a fairly vague description especially since we’re talking power metal here, but think of the sparseness of Falconer’s approach mixed with the cheery melodies of Gamma Ray or Iron Savior and maybe you’ll get a better idea. Or better yet, check out the video for “Heaven and Hell” below (which I might add despite its expected corny aspects is one of the most well done power metal music video’s I’ve seen in a long time).

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbWYtuSaWL0&w=560&h=315]

 

Its Report Card Time: New Sabaton, Kreator, Sonata Arctica and more!

 

Here at The Metal Pigeon I’ll review new albums that I personally take an interest in, and if you’ve read any of them you’ll notice that I don’t favor utilizing a numerical point system to determine its worth. I guess I worry that I’ll be tempted to ease up on the damage I dish out through a number to a band that I traditionally like — if say their new album is mediocre. By forcing myself to stick to a written explanation of an album’s merits and demerits, I can at least keep myself honest. But it struck me that I had a ton of new albums that I had just finished listening through at the same time that most school terms are ending for the summer – and inspiration struck! Its report card time, and The Metal Pigeon is out to see who has and hasn’t made the grade!

 

 

Sabaton – Carolus Rex:

This is without exaggeration Sabaton’s best work, topping their former pinnacle in 2008’s The Art of War through an excellently framed concept, tremendously inspired songwriting, a greater emphasis on guitarwork (no longer taking a backseat to the keyboards), and a fully realized orchestral and choir arrangement that gives these songs about great Swedish kings and battles the sound of the regal, the austere, and of course, the fury, futility, and glory of battle. Obtaining Peter Tatgren’s services for the production of the entire album (not just the mixing as before) seems to have resulted in a work that is very much woven together, a collection of songs that are bound by a shared sonic palette. Sabaton’s traditionally metallic, somewhat mechanized style is merged with symphonic power metal-esque arrangements that are normally found on albums by Kamelot or Rhapsody of Fire.  Songs like “Killing Ground” and “Poltava” are classic galloping Sabaton, with smart songwriting, clever twists and of course, great riffing and guitar melodies.  “The Carolean’s Prayer” is a far more ambitious attempt at an epic than these guys have ever tried before, and they pull it off incredibly well – with a mid-song shift in direction that mixes in to supreme dramatic effect choral vocals sung in Swedish (taken of course from the alternate Swedish version of this album).

 

Speaking of the Swedish language version, while I have no reason to doubt the opinion of the Angry Metal Guy who being a Swede has excellent insight when comparing the two versions of this album, I must say, for my tastes the English lyrics on offer here are some of Sabaton’s finest. Take for example the very metal and adrenaline raising chorus of “Carolus Rex”, which is from the perspective of the young King Charles XII, in which he declares “I was chosen by heaven! Say my name when you pray – to the skies! See Carolus rise!” In one fell swoop singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén manages to convey to us listeners just how goddamned crazy old Charles really was (I recommend doing a little history reading online, seriously the guy was a nutter), yet at the same time, bold, brash, confident, and brilliant enough to lead Sweden to superpower status. Yes I know I’m geek about lyrics, but bravado is such an overdone and often ineffective lyrical slant within metal that when you hear it being tackled in a new and fresh way that is backed up and framed by history – its damn riveting, hair raising stuff!

 

In a recent interview with The Gauntlet, Brodén admitted that the Swedish version of the album was filled with far more subtlety and nuance than the English version, and that even narrative perspectives had to be changed in translation for certain songs (see the previously linked Angry Metal Guy’s review for a far more detailed explanation). That being the case however, well us non-Swedes can only enjoy what we can hear, and while the Swedish version is a nice bonus, its only just that, and I’m here to tell you that the English version of this album delivers a gripping, and powerful narrative of the rise and fall of the Stormaktstiden. Sabaton’s tight musicianship, sharp, smart songwriting courtesy of uniquely baritone voiced singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén are the obvious keys to their success, their quiet strength has been Brodén’s superior abilities as a lyricist who understands the nuances of language and displays a mastery of diction and storytelling to achieve pulse raising emotional impacts.

 

 

Sonata Arctica – Stones Grow Her Name:

It could have worse, far, far worse for Sonata Arctica. If I had written this article say a scant few weeks ago I would’ve graded this as an F. Such is the sheer bizarreness of some of the material on display here, its nagging presence threatening to drown the whole album in an ocean of negative sentiment and resentment. But thanks to the passage of time and some stout-hearted listening sessions, the cream of the album rose to the top and I found some reasons to have hope for this band, in addition to dishing out a barely passing grade. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s happened to these guys over the past few years, for although I’ve been checking out each new release I haven’t kept up with any interviews or the reasons for their seemingly numerous multitude of lineup changes. I guess the latter doesn’t matter much if Tony Kakko is still the primary songwriter, but one has to wonder when listening to some of this album’s most dire moments if he’s lost his focus. The bands first three albums up through about half of their fourth (Reckoning Night) were back to back classics, with nary a filler track in sight and despite the presence of ever cringe worthy spoken dialogue (seriously, they need to stop with that stuff). Their successive albums each would have a few truly excellent gems amidst a bed of mediocre filler, and I think for my part, and I’m sure many other fellow longtime admirers, we were inclined to give the band a pass simply because of what they had proved to be capable of in the past. The Metallica syndrome then. I won’t spend time here discussing the terrible stuff on offer here, there’s plenty of it as well as a few mediocre filler tracks as well, but I’ll gladly point out the gems worth seeking out on ITunes or some other legit download service, they are songs worth paying for. Namely, “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and lead off single “I Have a Right” both shimmer with classic Kakko melodies and thoughtful, always unabashed lyrics.  Grab them and load them up alongside the rest of their classics.

 

 

Kreator – Phantom Antichrist:

In what is a solid contender for the album of the year spot, Kreator have done something with Phantom Antichrist that seems to elude many a veteran band — that is, to find a way back to the authenticity of your original sound and spirit by focusing on the strengths of your classic sound while folding in fresh new ideas that not only complement but enhance that sound. The past few records have been respectable, but not remarkable, but in retrospect you can regard them as building blocks away from their misguided batch of records in mid to late nineties. This album makes such a profound impact that you’re hard pressed not to view the past few Kreator records as tests and trial runs for the supreme masterwork delivered here. These are not just solid songs, they are heart-stoppingly great at their best and adrenaline inducing the rest of the time. Here songwriter and vocalist Mille Petrozza aims to infuse  a healthy dose of Gothenburg-esque melodicism into Kreator’s thrash metal attack and build the songs around this newfound element to jawdropping effect. The melodies aren’t run of the mill Gothenburg-isms either, but fresh and inspired in their own right, and they only serve to enhance the impact of Kreator’s trademark brutality by emphasizing memorability and catchiness. Those seeking a repeat of Pleasure to Kill will not get what they want, but an open mind will allow those expectations to be brushed away upon the hearing the grin inducing chorus of the album opener and title track. There are too many highlights here to adequately list: the blistering “Death to the World”, the quiet to loud explosion found within “Your Heaven, My Hell”, and of course the classic sounding title track just to name the obvious highlights. Someone get copies of this to everyone in the “Big Four”.

 

 

Dragonforce – The Power Within:

If you’re a fan of these guys, full time or part time, then I have some good and relieving news for you. They’re gonna be fine with the new guy. More than fine really. Yes, this is the same meticulously produced, shimmering, hyper-actively fast, guitar melody driven “extreme power metal” that they have won a reputation for and it would have been folly to think that an element as relatively decentralized as the vocals would beggar changes to that formula. Except that, in a promising way, they’ve managed to introduce some new elements into their typical formula, and those are best seen in the singles “Cry Thunder”, and “Seasons”. Its amusing that something as simple as slowing down the tempo a bit and focusing more on allowing good riffs space to breath could inject such a freshness to the typical Dragonforce sound. “Cry Thunder” builds from rock steady riffage to a swelling bridge, whereupon new vocalist Marc Hudson finally breaks free of the guitars in an uplifting chorus. On “Seasons” he takes center stage and the guitars work around his key lead vocal, which yes I know doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary, but for these guys its certainly different. It works, in part due to a catchy as hell chorus, but also in large part to the fact that the slower tempo-ed breathable verse structures with guitars in a supporting role really enhance the rock n’ roll feel going on (read: less clinical sounding). The fact that they throw in an acoustic version of this song as a bonus track and it actually sounds just as great stripped down is proof that if these guys continue in this less maniacal direction, their songwriting is bound to benefit. There’s nothing wrong with their fast style, its just that flurries of notes compacted together at unmeasurable BPMs was all they were doing for awhile. I’m enjoying this album in a casual way, its good summer music, and while it doesn’t touch the audacious brilliance of their 2002 classic Sonic Firestorm, its a good start in what I hope will be a further investigated new direction.

 

 

Grand Magus – The Hunt:

Hell yeah! Was my reaction upon first hearing the title track of this album played on a favorite metal radio show. Long have I been exposed to Grand Magus and time and time again it just didn’t sink in for me, but this song made me seek this record out in its entirety. And like a hammer slamming a nail through cheap balsa wood, Grand Magus has finally lodged itself in my mind as the awesome musical entity I’ve long suspected they are. I’m successfully enjoying their previous release lately as well, proceeding to work my way backwards through their discography. Every single song on this record is compelling, addictive, and plain rockin’ — in that excellent-for-driving around under the blazing Texas sun whilst nodding, headbanging, and hitting air cymbals way. I’m sure the following statements will raise the eyebrows of any who are already familiar with these guys, but the most apt comparison I can make for this three piece Swedish group is that they’re like a dirtier, grittier, doomier, more rock n’roll infused Falconer. The comparison to their fellow Swedes is not only relegated to the music, for vocalist Janne “JB” Christoffersson is similar in approach to Falconer’s Mathias Blad — they both sing in a mid-range delivery with a few exceptions, they both favor a far more restrained approach (no wild Kiske-esque screams to be found here), and generally speaking they have a similar timbre to their voice and accent. I’m firmly calling this a good thing by the way, so if you’re one of those unfortunate folks who can’t enjoy Mathias Blad led Falconer, don’t let the comparison turn you off. Christoffersson’s vocals are sandpaper smooth, and his timing, phrasing, and lyrics are a perfect complement to Grand Magus’ unique mix of power metal musicality and doom metal informed pacing. It seems on this new record they’ve taken an extra step away from their doom metal influences and have embraced the sounds of traditional American hard rock a bit more — an approach that recalls to mind the best of Dio’s mid 80’s solo work. Oh yeah, the album also has some of the most badassed cover art seen in awhile. This album has already been on heavy rotation, and I’m positive I’ll be listening to it all summer long. Gotta love it when a band finally clicks for you, and the records that do it are usually pretty special. The Hunt definitely is.

 

 

Burzum – Umskiptar:

This is depressing. After two ferocious, forward looking, and downright inspired post-prison albums (Belus and Fallen), Varg commits the inexcusable sin of simply boring us to sleep. Seriously, I fucking fell asleep listening to this. And many rounds of periodic repeat listens haven’t changed my mind, on the contrary, I’ve begun to dread those moments where I decide: “okay time to man up and give it another shot”. Forget it, I’m done. Things were promising in the early going — I had first heard what most folks had heard with the leak of the album’s first track proper, “Jóln (Deities)”, to YouTube and figured that we’d be in for something akin to Fallen part two. It suffices to say that the song serves as the albums only highlight (barely). The rest is an unsorted mess of murky, formless, meandering sonic textures and plodding guitars. Any riffs are few and far between, and to make matters worse, the latter third of the album is a delightful soup of spoken word and atmospherics. Appetizing for sure! There’s a cool moment at the very start of “Alfadanz” with an eerie tinkling piano and a guitar riff that mimics it, but sadly the track proceeds to limp along shortly afterwards, almost stubbornly refusing any injections of energy or excitement. Its all a damn shame too because he was riding on a stream of creative momentum and stretching the boundaries of what was possible for Burzum in a musical context. He overreaches here, and we all suffer for it.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2011!

 

 

 

It was always going to be hard for 2011 to match the unprecedented amount of great and often excellent albums released in 2010, which was a landmark year for metal in general. Across all the sub genres, the metal world flexed its muscles as if to show that ten years after the Iron Maiden reunion that sparked the metal resurgence across the globe, the flag was still flying high, commercially and creatively. But what 2011 lacked in sheer numbers of releases, it more than made up for in just how many potential candidates there were for the number one spot in this list. In my experience, most years have ended with a clear standout album, one that so easily towered above the rest in my mind that the list seemed lopsided. But not this year, because each one of the albums in the top five of this year’s list could have legitimately claimed the number one spot. That’s saying something about just how fantastic the album in that spot is, and now to get right to the point, The Metal Pigeon’s Album of the Year belongs to:

 

 

1. Symphony X – Iconoclast:

I wrote about the impact that this album had on me upon my first listen in an earlier blog piece, and well over half a year after initially hearing this record it still manages to get me to shake my head in disbelief at how much I really love this album. Now is not the time to be reserved about praise, this album is an absolute masterpiece, start to finish, and in all ways as close to a perfect album as you can get. This is a rarity for me, as I usually can find something to critique even in most of my albums of the year; a filler song here or there, a pointless intro track, a vocalization that sounds off, lame artwork, etc, etc. In Iconoclast, every note belongs where it is found, the transitions between the crunchy, gritty gut checking verses and soaring-so-high choruses aren’t forced – if a bridge is needed, you often find it becomes one of the defining features of the song. Some of the best moments in these songs are the little things, the one time transitions or outros that follow spectacular guitar solos or perhaps the third play through of the chorus – these are the musical gems that once discovered make you all too happy to sit through a six-minute song in order to hear that singular transcendent moment at the four-minute mark.

 

Russell Allen’s vocals are spectacular, he has the ability to quickly shift from a startlingly aggressive gritty delivery to a smooth, soaring, powerful vocal that often carries the rest of the band’s complex arrangements into the territory of raw human emotion. Sadness, melancholy, elation, and euphoria — a great progressive/power metal vocalist should be able to flex his instrument to convey them at the drop of a hat, regardless of the timbre of their voice. This is epic music and it requires a vocalist that goes for it, leave the irony and smirking at the door please. And regarding guitarist Michael Romeo, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a shredder who can so effortlessly spit out guitar riffs that sound so sharp and razor perfect that they threaten to slice up your face while listening, since the classic era of Megadeth via Dave Mustaine. Rapid flurries of notes are timed well, spaced out evenly, and countered by his innate sense of melodicism that he interjects not only in beautifully composed, epic guitar solos and passages, but also within the song structures as well. Throughout the album, he flares and flashes here and there before unleashing his technical abilities in a jaw dropping way, yet always knows when to exercise restraint and allow the rhythm section to carry the weight of the song.  I’ll repeat my earlier claim, there isn’t a note wrong on this record, and it manages to top its predecessor, 2007’s Paradise Lost, which was already a spectacular album. If you are any kind of metal fan, you owe it to yourself to give this a few listens at the very least.

Album highlights: “The End of Innocence”, “Children of a Faceless God”, “When All is Lost” (the guitar solo at 6:27 is worth the price of admission)

 

 

 

2. Nightwish – Imaginaerum:

Most of the albums on this list were released many months ago, Nightwish’s Imaginaerum was released on November 30th. In just a few weeks it has managed to occupy most of my listening time for this entire month, as well as streak up to the second highest spot on this list. In the UK, Metal Hammer has awarded it with its own prestigious Album of the Year award, and no wonder: Its addictive, in a way that no Nightwish album has ever come close, perhaps due to the fact that its so intriguing. No other album in this band’s history is as schizophrenic, jarringly abrasive, prone to sudden mood swings and well, just flat out bonkers. At the center of this madness is the steadying hand and guiding vision of keyboardist and main songwriter Tuomas Holopainen. And he somehow manages to keep all the zaniness in check through his ever reliable abilities to craft oh-so-catchy tunes and heart stopping orchestral arrangements. The shining star however, is not-so-new anymore Nightwish vocalist, Anette Olzon, who gives the performance of her career with a barrage of shifting styles and vocalizations. On “Slow, Love, Slow” she’s a jazz chanteuse who conducts the band with a hint of slyness in her voice, while the subtle shift to the chorus shows her ability to bend emotional inflection into her delivery in a way she never did on past ballads like “Eva”. She duels with bassist and co-vocalist Marco Hietala’s bizarre, gruff, mental patient-like shouting vocals on the epic “Ghost River” by being the bright light of innocence to his incredibly dark, haunting performance. Of note on this track is the way that the children’s voice of the Young Musicians London choir eerily backs up Hietala in what has to be one of the strangest duets in music history. It works.

 

It all somehow manages to work, even jazz lounge Nightwish. On the much talked about “Scaretale”, Olzon disappears into the character of a loopy performer in a deranged, Tim Burton-esque circus, and her vocal darts quickly in and out of rapid phrases and dramatic musical shifts. Her ABBA-esque pure pop vocal background is given center stage to crest to euphoric heights on the “Last Ride of the Day”, which turns out to be most quintessentially Nightwish styled song on the album, recalling hints of the bands Oceanborn and Century Child albums. This band has always been a master of balladry in their own unique idiom, and they have penned their finest ever in “Turn Loose the Mermaids”, a song that evokes Loreena McKennitt-like celtic melancholy in which Olzon delivers what seems to be a paean about the acceptance of death. There is a fairly heady conceptual theme tying together all these songs (in part due to the film of the same name being released next year), in which a dying elderly man suffering from dementia begins to regress into childhood and relive moments of his life in dreams. Its not necessary to be aware of the concept to enjoy the album, though it does make the experience even richer. This is the heaviest, darkest, and greatest Nightwish album to date, and it raises the bar for this style of metal to unimaginable heights.

Album Highlights: “Ghost River”, “Turn Loose the Mermaids”, “Last Ride of the Day”, “Slow, Love, Slow”

 

 

 

3. Taake – Noregs Vaapen:

This one came out of nowhere, and quietly crept into my listening habits on repeat rotation before I really knew what was going on. When I did, I was surprised because Taake’s previous album (the self-titled Taake), while a good record, had done little in the way of really impressing me. On Noregs Vaapen, songwriter and vocalist Hoest injects a myriad of wildly different influences into his traditional Norwegian black metal style, in ways that are difficult to sum up in a single phrase. In “Du Ville Ville Vestland”, a barrage of standard tremolo riffs and blast beats is punctuated by nearly alternative rock flourishes, and breaks wide open at the 4:10 mark, into an amazingly catchy Def Leppard-arena-rock styled riff and matching drum beat, followed by what sounds like a twangy bass guitar handling the lead melody. Twangy bass guitar leads in a black metal song?! Its an awesome moment, the first of many. A banjo makes an appearance in “Myr” and fits in beyond belief, helping along a mid-song transition while sounding like some long lost Norse instrument. In the album opener, “Fra Vadested Til Vaandesmed”, the combination of layered guitars over a tremolo-picked rhythm work to create a hypnotic, frenzied, dance-like quality. Check out the loose, jazzy, Porcupine Tree-invoking midsection in “Orkan”, and also the album highlight in “Norbundet”, where Taake eschew slicing riffs for airy, spacey, strummed guitar figures. A slew of guest stars are spotted throughout the album, such as Darkthrone’s Nocturno Culto, Mayhem’s Attila, and Demonaz from Immortal — and while they’re contributions are noticeable, the vocals really take a backseat to the music and compositions here.   This is an album that reveals its greatness when you allow it to wash over you. The amazing thing is that despite all its prog-rock deviations and non-black metal influences, it couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a Norwegian black metal album. Its not quite black-n-roll, nor is it attempting to emulate any of the genre-bending reworkings of the black metal sound that are coming out of the United States and France. Here we have the most radical black metal album released in at least ten years, and its by an eighteen year old band from Bergen, Norway.

Album Highlights: “Norbundet”, “Fra Vadested Til Vaandesmed, “Du Ville Ville Vestland”

 

 

 

 

4. Falconer – Armod:

I’m a recent convert to these guys. My eye opening experience with Symphony X’s Iconoclast spurred me to revisit many bands I had previously ignored or tried to like and failed. Falconer was the first of them to come back and slap me awake with a back catalog of albums that left me stunned and completely obsessed, to the same degree that I became permanently obsessed with other power metal greats such as Blind Guardian, Edguy/Avantasia, and others back in the day. It was fortunate then that this happened just before the release of Falconer’s seventh album Armod in June. This may be a power metal album, but its one of the most crushingly heavy albums released this year. If you aren’t aware of this band’s history, it is helpful to understand that their songwriter and guitarist Stefan Weinerhall’s previous musical project was the folk/black metal band Mithotyn. This explains Falconer’s tendency to rely upon heavy, crunchy guitar riffs over the sometimes more airy keyboard driven bands found in power metal. Not to forget the fact that “Griftefrid” is driven by relentless black metal blast beats (seriously), which makes for one of the most unusual power metal tracks I’ve ever heard.

 

In fact, guitar-wise, there is a great deal of music on this album that seems to be very influenced by the Gothenburg melodic death metal sound in the best possible way. Another interesting facet of this album is that the lyrics are all in Swedish, (something the band says will be a one off). Its a great experiment, because while a big part of the appeal of Falconer’s prior albums is the crystalline clear vocals of Mathias Blad and the often poetic qualities found within their English lyrics, his vocals are just as commanding and dramatic in Swedish. In fact the distinctively sharp nuances found within the language allows the songwriting to be far more complex and shifting than normal. Blad’s perfect theatrical baritone vocals are an odd duck in the power metal world, and based on opinions I’ve seen here and there, its a voice you either enjoy tremendously, or not at all. I find it refreshing, as his vocals possess a natural heaviness that lends gravity to both aggressive tracks and gentle ballads. To be sold on this album, all you need to do is listen to the first track, “Svarta Ankan”, which punches you right in the gut with harmonizing rhythm guitars, then folds in a beautiful vocal duet with Blad and his sister(!) Heléne Blad over softly plucked acoustic guitars — all followed by one of THE best guitar solos I’ve heard this year, a Brian May-esque doozy that leaves your jaw on the floor. But thats just the beginning, the entire album is fantastic, with doses of moments that make you rewind and have another listen.

Album Highlights: “Svarta Ankan”, “Herr Peder Och Hans Syster”, “Rosornas Grav”

 

 

 

 

5. Iced Earth – Dystopia:

This was a make or break album for Iced Earth, and everyone including band leader Jon Schaffer knew it. For myself, the departure of Matt Barlow wasn’t exactly a surprise, and to be completely honest, not an unwelcome one either. Don’t get me wrong, I love Matt Barlow, but something was off on 2008’s Crucible of Man, in terms of Barlow and Schaffer’s ability to move in lock step. I guess its understandable, Barlow was absent from the band for nearly half a decade and missed a few records and tours, while Schaffer had grown used to writing for the more flinty edged vocals of Ripper Owens. When Barlow announced that this time he was gone for good, I think I along with many others figured that there would be no one able to come in and carry this band forward anymore, and that we’d be hearing a retirement announcement fairly soon. To the rescue comes ex-Into Eternity throat Stu Block, whose performance not only ushers in what is the greatest Iced Earth album since 1997’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but lays down a significant challenge to Barlow’s legacy as the greatest Iced Earth vocalist. This album is grin inducing, bringing back a focus to pure and simple great metal songwriting that focuses on catchy melodies, anthemic choruses, and thundering, galloping riffs. Its not shackled like the last two albums by being conceptual and having to deliver a story, nor is it conscious of having to strive for sounding epic. Gone are the Blind Guardian-ripped off choirs in choruses that plagued the past couple records.

 

What you get is Schaffer’s most focused, and dammit, FUN to listen to album in well over a decade. I heard album opener “Dystopia” for the first time when I was driving home, and its heart pounding build up to a rousing, electrifying chorus filled me with a jolt of adrenaline to such a degree that after I finished headbanging along to it I realized I was twenty miles over the speed limit! Stu Block’s perfect blend of Barlow’s low baritone with Owens high pitched registers is honed into a vocal style that is really quite perfect for Iced Earth. I keep wondering what the past few records could have been like had he been at the vocal helm. What you’ll really remember about this record after giving it a few spins, however, is the quality of the songwriting. There’s some kind of undefinable ‘x factor’ at work here, as most of these songs hit my metal bone in such a way that it reminded me of how it used to feel when I was a teenager, just hearing a classic metal album for the first time and knowing that it changed the way I perceived music. I’m not saying this album is a classic, in fact, a few relatively weaker songs kept this from being any higher on this list, but it did succeed in renewing my faith in Schaffer and Iced Earth in general.

Album Highlights: “Dystopia”, “V”, “Dark City”, “End of Innocence”, “Iron Will”

 

 

 

 

6. Edguy – The Age of the Joker:

Here’s the thing with this album — its far better than 2008’s Tinnitus Sanctus, just as good as 2006’s Rocket Ride, yet not as great as 2004’s Hellfire Club or its classic predecessor, Mandrake. Why the chronology lesson? Because its important to see this album as a positive step in the right direction. Tinnitus Sanctus wasn’t a terrible album by any means (in fact it had one of the bands best songs ever in “Thorn Without a Rose”), but it was at best a grower, and at worst a mediocre release. Now that singer/songwriter Tobias Sammet is finished for the time being with his solo project Avantasia’s recent trilogy of albums (of which some fans suspect sucked up most of Sammet’s creative inspiration, leaving the aforementioned Tinnitus Sanctus a tad bereft), he was free to refocus his considerable talents on his day job. Its not an exaggeration to say that this album features some of Edguy’s strongest material to date, as well as their most adventurous. Take the oddly country western influenced “Pandora’s Box”, where strange twang infused verses soon unload into one of Sammet’s most glorious choruses, a panoramic vocal cascade that recalls the dreamy eyed days of the Mandrake era. The celtic melodies that lace together “Rock of Cashel” are pure ear candy, and they open into an abrupt, startling medieval sounding solo section midway through that showcases Jens Ludwig’s natural fluidity as a guitarist.

 

I’ve long become accustomed to the fact that along with a batch of absolutely die hard Tobias Sammet fans, I’m a rarity in that I tend to love any ballad written by the guy. Look, either you like metal bands doing ballads or you don’t, but Sammet is one of metal’s shooting stars when it comes to crafting them, and he may have scored one of his best in “Every Night Without You”. Softly strummed acoustic guitars, minimal keyboard orchestrations, and Sammet’s rough edged melodic vocals set up the framework, and the excellent backing vocals of Oliver Hartmann and Cloudy Yang raise the epic chorus to absolute euphoric heights. Towards the end of the song, as if in a subtle nod to their pure power metal past of albums like Vain Glory Opera and Theater of Salvation, triumphant horns blare out to punctuate the bridge before the Slash-esque guitar solo. Another gem is “Fire on the Downline”, with its slow burning verses that flare into a melodic refrain that is again wonderfully supported by the talented backing vocal choir that Sammet seems so adept at utilizing lately. This is an album that I had every anticipation of being in my top five of the year, but it faced some seriously stellar competition, and there is some stuff on here I consider average to even filler for Edguy. Overall however, its a quality album, from which I have culled several of my all-time favorite Edguy songs. I just hope that its the first step on the path back towards greatness that so defined Edguy in their classic era. Iced Earth did it, now its your turn Mr. Sammet.

Album Highlights: “Rock of Cashel”, “Breathe”, “Every Night Without You”, “Fire on the Downline”

 

 

 

 

7. Týr – The Lay Of Thrym:

I’ll keep this fairly simple and to the point. Týr make consistently great albums, and if you haven’t treated yourself to any of them by this point you really need to rectify that mistake. They’re an unusual force within metal in that they’re not quite folk or power metal, but a mix of both while simultaneously sounding like an old fashioned heavy metal band at the same time. Nicely crunchy riffs follow the path drawn out by Scandinavian folk musicality, yet they manage to avoid sounding like the soundtrack to some bad renaissance fair, unlike a few bands tagged with the folk label that I can think of. This is undeniably heavy music, yet its written by a band with an ear for beautiful melody and in particular effective vocal harmonization. These guys all have excellent voices that are able to work in unison with each other to provide complementary tones to create a vocal tone that is inimitable. Listen to a stunning example of this in “Fields of the Fallen”, in which the multitude of vocals are delivered in perfect sequences where the pauses between phrases are interjected by a quick and catchy guitar figure. The soft/heavy ballad “Evening Star” is the greatest song Metallica never wrote, a slow tension building crescendo to a roaring, double bass kick pounding chorus with one of the best couplets they have ever penned: “When home is far behind, and ever the long roads wind/ I keep your memory in my mind, one day I’ll repay in kind”. They treat the Dehumanizer era Sabbath classic “I” with all the extra heaviness that song has always been begging for, Heri Joensen’s distinctive vocals giving the song an urgency that Dio’s rendition never had. This might be their most complete album yet; it displays a maturity and renewed faith in basic metal tenets. While that scales back their traditionally folk based sound as a result, it has served to tighten up the aggression in their sound and sharpen their songwriting.

Album Highlights: “Fields of the Fallen”, “Evening Star”, “I”, “Flames Of The Free”

 

 

 

 

8. Burzum – Fallen:

You have to hand it to him, Varg Vikernes has proven a lot of doubters (myself included) wrong about his ability to pick up where he left off in terms of pre-incarceration Burzum. He made a great album in last year’s Belus, a sort of reintroduction to his classic Burzum sound with a few new styles thrown in. But Fallen is so much better, in part because he goes into full on experimental mode here, utilizing clean vocals in a way that he never has. That may sound a bit off putting considering this is Vikernes, not Bruce Dickinson, but believe me it actually works well. His clean, melodic singing is eerily spooky, and he manages to weave it into his songs not as a layer over the top, but as an integral part of the song structure. No better example of this exists then in the excellent “Jeg Faller”, in which he hums you into the chorus before quietly delivering the hook. Hypnotic riffs have always been a Burzum trademark, and there are a plethora on display here. Some of the best reside in “Valen”, which is also notable for having some of the most melodic guitar tones ever to be found on any Burzum release. This is by far the most musical work he has ever done, relying more on tunefulness than sheer bleak riffage (plenty of that too though). Its a compelling listen, and one that you will keep coming back to. Over time you might realize, like I have, that when you’re in the mood for some Burzum, you put this record on first.

Album Highlights: “Jeg Faller”, “Valen”, “Budstikken”

 

 

 

 

9. Absu – Abzu:

This has quietly been a really good year for black metal, not only when considering releases by Taake and Burzum, but others such as Ravencult’s Morbid Blood (who narrowly missed this list). Absu’s strangely titled Abzu is yet another addition to that list, and it far surpasses their 2009 “comeback” album Absu (are these guys purposefully getting a little lazy in the title department?). This is to me the true follow up to their classic record Tara. Abzu is a short yet brutal 36 minutes of black thrash that is inspired in all aspects. Proscriptor’s always jaw dropping drumming is on full barrage mode here, but its the wild, seemingly out of control guitars and their slightly melodic bends and twists layered over beds of hypnotic rhythms that are the real attention grabber. The vocals are the same excellent, raw, tortured shrieks of agony that Proscriptor always delivers, his natural rasp complimenting the tone of the music perfectly. At times, this does sound more pure thrash than anything, yet its his vocal style that keeps Absu weighing anchor in black metal territory. There are two new members in the band here, the guitarist Vis Crom and bassist Ezezu, and they get the credits for writing the music here (Proscriptor handles the lyrics). In Vis Crom particularly, Proscriptor seems to have finally found a worthy songwriting talent to replace the gaping void left by Shaftiel. How he manages to keep unearthing this kind of talent out of nowhere is anyone’s guess. If you were left feeling empty after the last album, this one will fill you up.

Album Highlights: “Circles of the Oath”, “Abraxas Connexus”, “”Skrying in the Spirit Vision”

 

 

 

 

10. Ghost Brigade – Until Fear No Longer Defines Us:

I had not known about Ghost Brigade until shortly after the release of this album, when word of mouth led me to check it out with no idea of what to expect at all. Its a pleasant surprise; a mix of Finnish depression rock ala countrymen Sentenced and Amorphis, Opeth-like sections of iceberg shaped walls of sound, and an alternating mix of good throaty death growls and clean vocals that evoke a cross between Orphaned Land’s Kobi Farhi and Evergrey’s Tom Englund. If most of the above mentioned bands put you off, then you might be naturally wary of this stuff, as its pretty much right up that alley. But don’t dismiss this without giving it a shot, its bound to surprise with the amount of heaviness it contains within its smartly written, complex song structures. There are poppy elements to be found here, and that’s not something to be dismissed as a negative trait. If the song “Chamber”, with its spacey, guitar plucked intro and surging chorus doesn’t manage to stick in your head, then it sucks to be you. If you’re already intrigued however, then you’d be hard pressed to ignore what is one of the best albums in this style to be released since Sentenced’s elegant swan song, The Funeral Album.

Album Highlights: “Chamber”, “Grain”, “In the Woods”, “Clawmaster”

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