These are some quick takes on a handful of albums that I didn’t get to include in the Mid-Year Reviews Cluster, mostly because they were too late in the release schedule or I didn’t have enough time to listen to them completely. I’ve been a little all over the place recently listening wise, digesting some late July releases (Powerwolf for example) still while trying to stay on top of the sudden rush of new music in August. There’s some big names coming out with new music soon, including Doro and Omnium Gatherum, and I still can’t quit listening to a couple things from earlier in the year that are making deep indentations in my best albums list nominee pool (oh yeah I’ve started working on those pieces early this year so hopefully I’ll have them out on time for once… he says now…). I’m also trying to nail down a Metal Pigeon recommends, but that’s in flux and might not see the light of day until September if I’m being honest. As much as I want to break away from the non-stop cycle of reviews, it gets hard when there’s this much noteworthy new stuff coming out continually.
I also went to a few shows lately, Uada in mid-July (I talked about the show on the last MSRcast episode) and this past Saturday a buddy and I checked out a tribute night at my favorite venue, Seventh Son (Maiden) + Savage Amusement (Scorpions), and Sacred Star (Dio + Yngwie). Seventh Son and Sacred Star were tons of fun, utterly convincing in their sonic impersonations. They are both San Antonio based outfits, with guitarist Jyro Alejo pulling double duty in both (he’s playing the Yngwie part in Sacred Star, convincingly I might add, puffy shirt and crushed velvet jacket to boot). His talent is nothing short of shredder level guitar hero, and he seemed to be the musical anchor for both bands. But the vocalists were great too, Star’s Jessica Espinoza does an amazing Dio, her voice rich and full of Dio-ian texture and heft, while Seventh Son’s Mauricio Adan did a dead on Bruce Dickinson. He not only could pull off the screams, but got the tenor and tone of the Air Raid Siren down to perfection. They stormed out of the gate with “Moonchild” and won the crowd over immediately, and when I realized I was finally hearing a note perfect live airing of “Stranger In A Strange Land”, I closed my eyes for a second and could’ve sworn I was hearing Maiden live on Somewhere on Tour in ’86. I feel lucky that both these bands are regionally based, and hope they can tour nationally sometime so everyone can experience what I saw. It made me remember how awesome it is to be a metal fan.
Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods:
I had originally planned on doing a longer review for this first, post-Abbath Immortal album, but as the weeks have passed in the interest of giving myself more listening time, I’ve realized that there’s actually just a few important things to touch on in regards to Northern Chaos Gods, and so I’ll keep things brief. The first and most obvious concern heading into this was just how would the band handle the Immortal guitar sound, something that really took shape on At the Heart of Winter, precisely the album when Abbath moved into the guitarist role and the sonics of the band infinitely improved. And sure this was largely due to Peter Tägtgren’s involvment in the production for the first time, but also due to Abbath’s own characteristic thrashier guitar approach and his tendency to add in melodic color to his riff barrages. Some of those first four Immortal albums are downright unlistenable, mostly due to the awful production robbing those songs of their would-be viscerality, but also because some of the riffing is just staid, boring and samey. What Abbath seemed to inherently know and employ was the use of tempo changes, spacing and an old-fashioned heavy metal sense of what was rockin’ to make that album and the ones that came later chock full of the blisteringly memorable riffs and songs we love today. This is to say nothing of his iconic vocal style. What would Immortal even sound like without both of those qualities?
Credit where credit’s due, Demonaz and Horgh made the right stylistic choice in approaching this album, to lean heavily towards an old school Immortal sound. Those first two songs are a clear indication of this, both “Northern Chaos Gods” and “Into Battle Ride” being ultra dense, squeezed together slabs of unrelenting glacial black metal fury. Wisely, they chose to stick with Tägtgren for the sonics, thus the production serving as the bridge between the throwback, pure second wave songwriting approach and their more melodic, modern era. When I first heard the record, all I could take away was that it was Demonaz bringing back the old Immortal sound but preferring to stick with a modern production job —- but that’s kind of oversimplifying whats happening here. He actually took more influence from Abbath than he might care to admit, because the latter’s songwriting DNA is deeply embedded within the fabric of these songs. Listen to cuts like “Where Mountains Rise”, with its mid-tempo gradual build, hypnotic almost pulsing rhythm and a call back to something like “Years of Silent Sorrow” from At the Heart of Winter. We hear the Abbath-ian influence elsewhere too, on “Gates to Blashyrkh”, with its warmly quiet, clean noted interludes. Its a standout track, epic and full of grand, heavy metal theatricality that made albums like Sons of Northern Darkness so gleeful as listening experiences.
While not a perfect album (two cuts in the middle, “Grim and Dark” and “Called To Ice” are decent if unremarkable songs that dull the blade a bit), Northern Chaos Gods is an intense, fiery record, far more convincing than 2009’s strangely uninspired miss All Shall Fall. Credit to Demonaz for delivering a focused vocal performance that meets the challenge this material presents, he’s more ice-demon in tone and frozen breathy rasp than Abbath’s bizarre, frog-ish bark, but it works with the tone of the material —- a far cry from his questionable performance on the Demonaz March of the Norse record. He dominates on “Mighty Ravendark”, as addictive a tune as you could imagine Immortal could write, his vocal lines perfectly paced, with dramatic buildup and a hook that is catchy with nary an atom of pop to be found. All these weeks later after first hearing the album, I think I’m honestly just stunned that Demonaz (and Horgh, who is as solid as ever) had this in them. Not that its a competition to the bands, but they’ve clearly released the better album between both parties, Abbath’s own release a few years ago being the direct follow-up to All Shall Fall that he took with him when he left the band. I hope this fires up Abbath as much as it did myself and apparently many others, because that could only mean great things for all of us.
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram:
One of those out of nowhere surprises for me, we played a track called “Tsar Bombs” from this on the last MSRcast, and when I saw the band name on our show notes, I had to really think back to when was the last time I had listened to them. I had to be in the very early aughts, back when I was running down every band to come out of Scandinavia just out of pure obsession with those countries. Necrophobic are a Swedish band hailing from Stockholm, but they’ve got a lot of Norwegian black metal running through their sound if you ask me, a blending that reminds me of a Enthrone Darkness era Dimmu and all eras Dissection. Even though I have a vague recollection of listening to them before, I’m essentially coming into this viewing Necrophobic as a new band to me given the passage of time. Its also worth pointing out that this their first album since the original vocalist Anders Strokirk has rejoined the band, he originally appeared on their 1993 debut The Nocturnal Silence. It gives this release a bit of the same uncertainty factor that Immortal’s Northern Chaos Gods came with, returning old members, new vocalists, etc.
All that detail gets a bit tedious though, particularly since my overall impression is that this is the most convincing blend of black and death metal that I’ve heard in awhile —- the songwriting is unabashedly melodic in its incorporation of Gothenberg-ian riff sequences, yet delivering Watain-level raw brutality in its blackened attack to balance things out. I love the Iron Maiden worship in extended guitar passages scattered throughout, something that might irritate purists but then again when you’re listening to a merging of two genres you might expect that all bets are off when it comes to cross pollination and experimentation. There are bands who provide brutality for brutality’s sake but Necrophobic seem far more interested in my preferred approach, that bands use every tool available to paint epic pictures, to create grand atmospheres. Strokirk emerges as an excellent vocalist for that approach too, his rasp is clean enough to be discernible lyrically, and it works to great effect on a song like “Requiem For A Dying Sun” where the vocal narration is the musical centerpiece everything else swirls around. He takes on that role with relish, coming across as more of a necromancer (heyo!) turned bard singing about his days running across the mountains of Skyrim (Krosis, is that you?!). In a year that’s not exactly brimming with black or death metal that’s demanded my attention, the Mark of the Necrogram is a rarity. Stick that in your Whiterun house and smoke it.
Kalmah – Palo:
This is a really late review for an album that I’ve been returning to ever since we played a cut from it on the MSRcast episode 207, and that occasion itself came a couple months late from Palo’s actual release in March. That’s a rough microcosm for how I’ve paid attention to Kalmah over the past decade, with the band making a big splash in the early aughts with their wild take on Finnish keyboard-laden melo-death with exuberant albums such as They Will Return, Swampsong, and The Black Waltz. If my memory is accurate, I kind of fell off the band after those albums, particularly around the time of 2008’s For The Revolution, and for whatever reason I never really found myself going back to see if they’d bounced back. Until now that is, and bounce back is a relative term for myself and for this review in general because I’m hearing Palo with no frame of reference to what they’ve been doing. It should be observed however that this is the bands first album in five years, their longest layover between releases ever. The one observation I can make about those intervening years is that when Children of Bodom was out in the wilderness of infusing industrial sounds into their take on Finnish melo-death (and just releasing subpar quality material in general), the one comment I’d often see casually tossed out was “at least we still have Kalmah”.
And we still do, and then some I’d argue, because Palo sounds to me like the band I remember enjoying so much in those halcyon early aughts. There’s the largely keyboard driven, blazing fast assault of hyper riffing and frantic fretboard flourishes all built around that sweet, sugary Finnish brand of melody. Songs like “The World of Rage” and “Into the Black Marsh” feel familiar for those trademarks, and there’s even a blackened touch to the vocals in the latter that seem new to me (though perhaps they’ve been working that in over the past few albums I’ve missed). What I really love however is the one thing I’ve seen people get really critical towards this album for, that being the inclusion of some poppier elements that sprout up on “Take Me Away” and to a lesser extent “The Evil Kin”. The former is my absolute favorite tune off the record, precisely because its channeling that strain of Finnish melancholy via goth rock tones ala Sentenced, Charon, and yes even HIM. It comes through in those aching keyboard notes to start off the song, a melody that blossoms through a clean-toned guitar passage later on. I adore stuff like this, and while the tempo is slowed down a bit to let the melodies breath and flow, I didn’t find it altogether so poppy that it would somehow be considered offensive. Metal fans have their quirks though (though sometimes I think they’re just insecurities). A bit surprised to say this in a year with an Amorphis release, but this is my favorite Finnish metal album of 2018 so far.
Elvenstorm – The Conjuring:
Thanks to a cursory mention by one of the peeps on the /r/PowerMetal subreddit, I learned about this new album from France’s Elvenstorm the day it came out. If the initial idea of French power metal conjures up flowery melodies and even flowerier vocals you might be forgiven if your only experience was with Heavenly and Fairyland (who all things considered, aren’t nearly as “flowery” as a few other non-French bands I can think of). I suspect there’s some cultural stereotyping we’re attributing to the idea of French music being flowery, but then again Yé-yé, Chanson, and the dreamy shoegaze of Alcest probably doesn’t help matters. No matter, because Elvenstorm have been loudly working in relative obscurity for the past decade to undo these preconceived notions and The Conjuring seems to be an apotheosis for them, and hopefully their breakthrough moment. This album surprised the hell out of me for that reason alone, its sheer aggression and viciousness, conveyed in a dirty guitar sound, thrashy riffs playing at often speed metal tempos. But trust me, its still power metal, the melodies abound and for all its bullet belt attitude, the band wields its progressive influences ala Blind Guardian in spades.
The band’s motor is guitarist Michael Hellström, who has an ear for keeping the songwriting grounded in rough, heavy riffs and explosive, ripping tempo shifts yet isn’t afraid to usher in major keys in his lead parts over the top or alongside. Think Helloween’s Walls of Jericho on the kind of steroids Sweet Dee was taking in Always Sunny when she was prepping to fight in the boxing ring. The band’s x factor however is vocalist Laura Ferreux, whose vocals might be a make or break proposition for some. Her tone is distinct, kept in the upper registers (she ranges from high to glass shatteringly high) with a noticeable French speaker influence to her English lyric delivery, much in the same vein that Klaus Meine has a certain German approach to his pronunciation. I find her vocals work perfectly with the frenetic nature of these songs, and there’s something awesome about that much full throttle power and attitude coming from the body of a petite Frenchwoman. She’s spectacular on gems like “Bloodlust”, “Into the Night”, and “Devil Within”, all three songs hitting you with the force of a hurricane, Ferreux’s vocals sounding like they’re coming from somewhere amidst the tempest. On the proggy end of things, “Chaos From Beyond” has quickly become one of my favorite songs over the past month, its smartly constructed echoing chorus worthy of a best songs list nomination methinks —- then again, The Conjuring has already made the nominee pool for the best albums list so… decisions decisions…
Dee Snider – For The Love Of Metal:
I remember listening to the episode of the Jasta Show podcast when this idea was initially broached. It was almost an off the cuff comment by Jamey Jasta, a spur of the moment idea borne of his gushing that he always thought Dee had a classic metal voice, and wouldn’t it be great if he did a full on metal album to showcase that voice ala what Halford did with his namesake project. Dee seemed to congenially agree to everything, that he was up for whatever, as long as he didn’t have to write the songs (he stopped songwriting after the short lived Widowmaker project in the mid-90s). Jasta was pumped, and a couple months later he let slip that he and the Bellmore brothers (Toxic Holocaust) were actually working on songs for it. I don’t remember if I thought at the time that it was a good idea or not, it just seemed like an amusing thing to contemplate —- the singer from one of the most recognizable metalcore bands working on an album with someone like Dee Snider, a guy who I honestly never really thought of as a classic metal vocalist in any capacity. He was always just the mouthpiece for Twisted Sister and an interesting personality in the hard rock world. Key words being hard rock, I just never thought of him as a metal guy. We’ve all got a little revisionist historian in us as metal fans, a way of reordering the events of the past in our beloved genre according to our own preferences, regardless of whether we’re trying to be as objective as possible or not. Its what makes shows like Lock Horns from BangerTV so crucial, that a community should be involved to come up with a consensus on what is what in regards to genres and classic albums, not just one or two voices in print mags or popular sites.
Jasta’s opinion that Dee is a classic metal vocalist isn’t a ridiculous notion, but its an arguable position, one that really needed to be backed up by this album, because myself and many others didn’t really feel that way going in. So how do we evaluate this record? The songwriting is clearly cut from the Hatebreed-ian / modern metal cloth, which isn’t a bad thing by any means, because as a more mainstream approach to that sound these songs are pretty solid. There’s hooks a plenty, the riffs are meaty and convincing, if simple to a fault, and there’s enough variation with tempo changes and well thought out bridges and segues to keep things interesting. Dee’s vocals are recorded in pristine fashion, through the sort of modern recording approach that most bands are using these days, certainly a league apart from the raw, punky feel of those early Twisted Sister albums. It can be a little clinical, a little too antiseptic at times however, for all its sonic perfection. I think the best track here is “Tomorrow’s No Concern”, where despite the clunky lyrics the vocal hook and riff work off each other well enough to get lodged into your head. I also really liked the different things they tried in the duet with the much over-booked Alyssa White-Gluz (yet another guest appearance? Must we?), there was a nice Spanish style acoustic strummed intro, and the guitar solo was quite pretty and made for a refreshing change of pace for an album that was largely very samey throughout.
You’ve all heard this record by now, I’m not gonna waste time describing it any further. My takeaway is this: It was an interesting record to behold, to consider as a novel and unexpected project. For all its relative strength as a solid metal record, its biggest drawback might be just how seriously it takes itself. We all smile to the “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video and sing along to it at metal festival karaokes, at ball games, or whenever it inevitably comes on during a commercial these days. I don’t hear that Dee Snider at all on this record, that light hearted, flippant purveyor of defiance and all things rock n’ roll. Maybe Jasta should’ve recruited a songwriter from that era to help with the writing, or someone contemporary who operates in the same spirit (Justin Hawkins from The Darkness perhaps?). I feel no urge to revisit this album at any point in the near future, but I’ve never stopped coming back to Jorn Lande’s utterly ridiculous and magnificent Dracula: Swing of Death from 2015. That album was fun, knew it was camp as hell and Jorn leaned into it hard and turned in some fine theatrical and full on Jorn-metal performances on some terrific songs. He’s all thunder and epic majesty on the Avantasia project though, largely because Tobias Sammet knows how to utilize his voice and writes songs towards that goal. Sammet’s also the guy who got Geoff Tate’s best performance of the last twenty years on the Ghostlights album, leaning hard into the man’s strengths and driving it home with a song that amplifies them. I applaud the ambition of Jasta’s Dee Snider project, but the execution was a little misdirected, and once the hype train passes, I think most people will feel the same way.