Late Summer Reviews! Sabaton / Belakor / Thrawsunblat / High Spirits 

Fall is here, though you wouldn’t know it here in H-town quite yet. But the autumnal equinox is still a noteworthy occasion to mark, and as you likely know I spent the summer really giving myself a break from the review treadmill with positive results. I got to enjoy a lot of older records from various bands that hadn’t been played in ages, and I was able to devote a greater amount of attention to the handful of new music I did listen to. The ones I listened to the most are reviewed below, but there were a host of others that I’m passing on reviewing (new albums by Iron Savior, Dark Funeral, Volbeat, Rage, Nails, Fates Warning, Running Wild, Vicious Rumors, Evergrey to name a few off the top of my head) —- regarding the latter, some of them were pretty good, most kinda meh and nothing that really stood up and grabbed my attention (although Nails is indeed an interesting band). As I sit here waiting for the cool winds to blow in, the leaves to turn color and drop off these damned trees I’m busy making time with the new Insomnium, Darkthrone, and Alcest albums. And I just experienced Blind Guardian’s “Imaginations For North America” tour stop here the other day, meeting yet another one of the bards in the process (Andre Olbrich —- squeeeee!). Its going to be a busy fall metal wise, a lot of late year albums and a handful of concerts coming up! But it’ll be nice for things to be hectic again, I love this time of year. Pumpkin spice me up!


 

Sabaton – The Last Stand:

It struck me during my first few weeks listening to Sabaton’s latest cannon-shot, the thematically dictated The Last Stand, that the opinions surrounding this album tended to fall into two camps. Either you are a fan of the band and welcomed the album with varying degrees of affection and favor, or you have tended to be a Sabaton critic, and arguably pointed out that the band’s sound had not changed all that much in eight albums. Both opinions are equally valid, but whether or not the latter could be interpreted as a true criticism is something that’s up for debate. Without meaning to come across as snarky, are we really going to criticize a band for playing in their ballpark? Do we do that to death metal and black metal bands? To classic bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest? I know I know, a band should be expected to progress within the context of their sound, and I agree and can argue that Sabaton has done that in the past —- that being said, the hardest thing for any band to achieve is to create an identifiable sound all their own, and no one can argue Sabaton hasn’t managed that.

The way I hear things, Sabaton made some pretty interesting strides with their last two albums on the musical front, particularly with the increased choral elements on 2012’s Carolus Rex, alongside its symphony draped arrangements. But they also veered off into unexpected territory on 2014’s Heroes, with a spaghetti-western Ennio Morricone motif on “To Hell and Back”, and a throwback period-piece take on the piano ballad for “The Ballad of Bull”. They are capable of expanding or stretching their sound, but they’re wisely sticking to their wheelhouse for the most part because it simply works. And by “works”, I really mean that vocalist/main songwriter Joakim Broden is metal’s most consistent, quality songwriter going on well over an entire decade now. This isn’t an easy feat, but somehow the man has been able to tap into a seemingly endless well of musical inspiration to craft immensely catchy, hook laden songs with a propensity for high drama and adrenaline rushes.

For The Last Stand, he either by accident or design leaned towards an old school, or classic if you will Sabaton sound —- that being the keyboard heavy Primo Victoria/Attero Dominatus era. Its an interesting choice that works largely due to how lean and attacking these songs are —- take “Last Dying Breath”, where the keyboard “horn sections” actually work as the song’s musical hook, not allowing the intensity of the verse sections to slow down for a huge, protracted chorus. Kinda reminds me of “Nuclear Attack” from Attero Dominatus. Speaking of expanding musically however, how about a hat tip towards “Blood of Bannockburn”? I’ll confess that I wasn’t wild about the song when it premiered as a lyric video a few months back, but it sounds far better on the album (Nuclear Blast and their crappy quality audio uploads) and it boasts a melody delivered on actual bagpipes, befitting the subject matter of the song. But largely, this is a throwback album for Sabaton musically, and you can hear that shining through on ultra catchy cuts like “Shiroyama”, as ear-wormy and addictive a song you’ll hear all year. I’m a bit mystified as to why Broden doesn’t get more credit for his skill in this particular facet of songwriting —- maybe its that Sabaton shy away from technicality or overt complexity in their songs, but to me the ability of writing memorable melodies is so paramount. Its something a great deal of power metal bands even struggle with.

I like the interesting group vocal shouts/grunts in “Sparta”, you guessed it, a song about the famed 300 (think they made a movie about this awhile ago), as they tend to fall into a stomping pattern that actually paints a picture of the Spartans martial movements. Similarly I loved the usage of actual sounds of guns and artillery in “The Lost Battalion”, which conspire to add to the suffocating feeling of being trapped in the Argonne Forest, where its likely all that those soldiers heard for those six days. Give the band credit for being mindful of little details like that, they’re not included just for show, but tend to have a greater purpose. That of course brings up the topic of lyrics, this time bound by the overall thematic link of famous last stands in military history. Again I’ll mention the idea of this album being a throwback, lyrically as well, with subject matter anchored to stories of various historical battles and their gritty details (just like older albums). Its an about face from Heroes, where the focus was on non-violent acts of heroism (a theme that I still laud as admirable in its originality and spirit), as well as from Carolus Rex which was their first actual narrative concept album about the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire.

I guess one could view The Last Stand as a “regular” Sabaton album in that respect, and to some it may seem like regression as a result. But I think pairing the decision to go back to a more “regular” thematic approach (for lack of a better adjective) along with revisiting an older mode of the Sabaton musical style is smart, shrewd, and actually gives this album a bit of a looser, free-wheelin’ spirit that sets it apart from the gravitas of its two predecessors. If the last two albums were a more sombre, serious Sabaton approaching complex topics with delicacy and appropriate musical accompaniment, then The Last Stand is more of just a slamming, full-on power metal album with an aim to reset things for both the band and their audience. I’ll be honest, while I can honestly say I think this is a good album with some truly great moments (“Shiroyama”, “The Lost Batallion”, “Last Dying Breath” in particular), it didn’t grab me on the intellectual level that Carolus Rex did, nor the intensely emotional level that Heroes did.

That being said, its the right album for the band at their career at this particular point (and I know most people reading this won’t necessarily care about that). It charted in the States at #63, one of the highest positions for a power metal band alongside Dragonforce, Iced Earth, and Nightwish (#17 in the UK!); they just played at Ozzfest meets Knotfest in what signals to be a breakthrough moment for them with American promoters; and they’re opening for Trivium in North America in a huge score of a support slot this fall. This “reset” album is the perfect introduction for all the new fans they’ll have coming through, and Sabaton have worked hard, they deserve it. That they have vocal detractors online is merely a consequence of their widespread notoriety, and few bands can be all things to all people —- but if you’ve seen the band live you already know why all those criticisms don’t matter, because the impact Sabaton have on audiences from the stage is something no smug internet snark can deteriorate. I’ll find myself coming back to this album again and again, its a worthy addition to their already deep catalog, just not my favorite, but I’m sure its some fifteen year old kid’s album of the year.

 

 

Be’lakor – Vessels:

New Zealand’s own Be’lakor were one of 2012’s biggest surprises for me, their spectacular album Of Breath and Bone smashing into that year’s top ten albums list at number three. I was new to them, and it was a revelation to learn that a band from the southern hemisphere was creating a fresh take on melodic death metal. My enthusiasm for that album has not waned, I’ve consistently gone back to it when the mood strikes, so much so that I felt I was close to wearing it out sometime last year. Thankfully, the band is back after a Blind Guardian esque gap of time between releases with Vessels, an album that simultaneously sounds strikingly different from its predecessor, and comfortingly similar all at once. That paradox is the source of why I’ve had a hard time collecting my thoughts about this album, but I think I might have come to some way of sussing it out (I guess we’ll find out here…). With that said, I’m glad I took a longer time to get around to reviewing this one, mainly because my opinion has evolved a bit from when I first heard it back in July to now.

At first I thought it was the cover art that was affecting my interpretation of the sound, that the warmness I getting from the overall tones of Vessels was due to the imagery of lit torches, and that my mind was playing tricks on me. Nope, its not that at all —- this is indeed a warmer toned album compared to the subtle coldness heard on Of Breath and Bone, its melodies a hue brighter with an increased emphasis on major key flourishes. Its still the Be’lakor I came to know and love however, dense melodic death metal that eschews traditional structures of verses and choruses in favor of recurring instrumental hooks and leitmotifs. Alongside the new mode of melodic death metal being forged in Finland by Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, Ghost Brigade, and to some extent Swallow the Sun, Be’lakor should be recognized as a major force in the revitalization of a once glorious genre. The 1990s source of melodic death metal from Gothenburg was used and abused by American and British bands in the creating of metalcore to such a degree that the original genre was left a dry well. Its this motley collection of artists from such disparate parts of the world that are redefining what melodic death metal could sound like, to spectacular results.

How they’re doing this is a far more difficult thing to suss out, but Be’lakor for one doesn’t hide its progressive influences —- time shifts, tempo changes, and free-form song structures abound to such a degree that you can’t help but hear echos of Tool, Opeth, even Dream Theater (really only in structure). On a piece (I feel less comfortable calling these tracks “songs”… if you hear the album you’ll know why) such as “An Ember’s Arc” the band transitions from a cleanly plucked acoustic intro to a tension building staccato riff sequence only to plume outward in the most dreamy, hushed musical sigh you can imagine, isolated notes rising and drifting off into the ether. Its a subversion of expectations, that just when you think they’re going to blow the roof off the place with you in the blast radius, they instead gently push you onto a comfy bed and tuck you under plush blankets where you dream of Emmy Rossum feeding you grapes by an infinity pool. And make no mistake, I’m not suggesting its boring (far from it), merely trying to point out just how skillfully the dynamics of these songs are crafted and performed. The explosion does occur, like the rudest alarm clock of all time, waking you with a gorgeous lead melody rising out of the silence that ushers along a brutal, pummeling blast beat fueled passage.

Its almost impossible for me to pick out favorites from this album, simply because my favorite moments are all over the place, scattered hither and yon. If I had to pick though “Roots to Sever” would be a hard one to ignore, its beautiful, ultra-melodic lead guitar melody guiding us through the entirely of the piece over shifting, undulating rhythm section. I noticed that there’s a new drummer in the lineup (one Elliot Sansom), a stunner because I hadn’t notice a drop in creative quality on that front, even though previous sticksman Jimmy Vanden Broek was the unheralded MVP on Of Breath and Bone. Credit the band for understanding how their music is best recorded and mixed as well, because one of the joys of Be’lakor is getting to hear interesting bass guitar in an extreme context, bassist and original member John Richardson crafting basslines that add far more creativity to the music than merely keeping in lockstep with the drums. I started off not sure if I completely enjoyed Vessels as much as the last one, but repeat listens over these past few months have slowly changed my mind, its a compelling, addictive album and a worthy follow up.

 

 

Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

Though I’ve not written specifically about Woods of Ypres and their brief but monumental career (yet), I’ve been a posthumous admirer of their works and their gone too soon founder David Gold. I unfortunately came to know about the band well after Gold’s death in late 2011, and only through their last album, Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light. It was released a little over a month after his passing, and with Gold as the lyricist, its¬†meditative songs about life, existence, meaning, and death took on an entirely different perspective and gravitas to everyone who heard the album. Five years on and it still has that same power for me and anyone else I’ve talked about the album to… I think I’ve avoided writing about Woods 5 for that reason (though having admitted that out loud, that’s probably the exact reason I should write about it). An important person who contributed greatly to the artistic success of Woods 5 was Gold’s sole bandmate, guitarist Joel Violette, who penned the music for six tracks on the album. He was a newcomer to the Woods of Ypres lineup, the band itself being a rotating cast of assorted musicians too long to recount here, but Violette was different —- something clicked between he and Gold that allowed the latter to share songwriting duties with his newfound partner. Violette’s contributions on the album are spectacular, emotionally affecting moments, his music coaxing out some of Gold’s finest lyrics ever.

Sadly, the collaboration was short-lived, and what seemed like a promising joining of talents resulted in only one album —- albeit a masterpiece at that. There was something else that Gold and Violette collaborated on briefly however, and that was Thrawsunblat, Violette’s own project that sought to forge melodic black metal with more of a maritime folk influence. Gold played drums on their demo “Canada 2010”, but that was the extent of his involvement. After Gold’s passing and Woods of Ypres ending as a result, Violette decided to run with the idea of making Thrawsunblat a full time project, and in some small way it was a tribute to Gold who had come up with the band name. Another detail that I view as a tribute was that Violette named Thrawsunblat’s first proper album Thrawsunblat II: Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings, thus retroactively making his and Gold’s initial demo release the first Thrawsunblat album and also in keeping with Woods of Ypres numerical convention for titling albums (a subtle yet touching tribute I think). And that album is worth seeking out, not only for its awesome folk-black metal mix that sounds in some ways like a continuation of the Woods of Ypres sound, but for its completely acoustic slices of maritime folk that are right up my musical alley.

Its sequel, the third Thrawsunblat album Metachthonia, is a slight departure however from the project’s initial musical vision; this time owing more to blistering Norwegian black metal influences such as Borknagar and the darker folk-metal of Moonsorrow. Gone are the concise song lengths of its predecessor, instead Violette and company have constructed longer compositions reaching progressive metal lengths. The tracklisting is pared down to six tracks as a consequence, half of what Wanderer had, but at the album clocking in at two minutes shy of an hour you never feel like this is an EP disguised as a full-length album. I think the major difference that can be pointed to in describing Metachthonia’s different approach is that the folk influences are pushed back from the musical foreground a bit —- on the last album they took up entire songs themselves and were pronounced influences on most songs melodies. Here you’ll get shades of that maritime folk influence in various details, such as the clean vocals of the epic opener “Fires That Light The Earth”, Violette at times sounding eerily like Gold himself. His harsh vocals however remind me of one Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg), lean, razor sharp and just pure burning, white hot fire.

On “She Who Names The Stars”, Violette lays down a series of furious tremolo patterned black metal riffs that roll together in gathering intensity, resulting in the most violent sounding song on the album. Its tempting to cite Ulver as a major influence here but what gets in the way of that are the tone and direction of the overlaid lead guitar motifs, owing more to Violette’s self-identified Pacific Northwest folk roots. Said roots peek their head out for a brief star turn towards the end of the track, during its final fifty seconds, where cello and clean electric notes combine in a dare I say, charming melody? There’s a similar moment during the second half of “Dead of Winter”, where an acoustic passage becomes the overriding motif for Violette’s lead guitar patterns thereafter. I love how effortlessly and unapologetically these songs shift from absolute black metal fury to shimmering, folk melody driven sequences. That tendency towards diversity and contrast was a trait I admired about Woods of Ypres and I’m glad to hear that it influenced Violette. His band mates are actually former Woods collaborators Rae Amitay on drums, Brendan Hayter on bass, and session cello player Raphael Weinroth-Browne (who laid down those heartbreaking cello accompaniments on Woods 5), and there’s a sense that this is a project born out of both a void and a calling —- not just to honor the musical spirit of their departed friend, but to continue where he left off.

 

 

High Spirits – Motivator:

Ah well some of you might remember that I love me some High Spirits, the somewhat retro straight ahead hard rock meets early 80s metal influences project by one Chris Black (Dawnbringer, many others). I was introduced to the project via their 2011 debut Another Night, an album that put Scorpions worship front and center (and that’s alright with me). But the follow-up, 2014’s You Are Here fell a little flat for me, mainly due to lacking much in the way of memorable riffs, melodies, and hooks (barring a few good songs). To be honest I wasn’t even expecting another High Spirits album so soon, figuring Black was working on one of his many other projects, but Motivator sounds like a record that was simply begging to be released, full of the same vitality and energy that coursed throughout their debut. Simply put, these are rocking songs and they’re pretty much all on point, hitting all the classicist nerves that one would want out of a band that is earnest about their love for the sound of the early 80s, where hard rock and metal met in an amorphous blending where subgenres and labeling did not exist yet. And check out that cover art too, the visual cousin to Another Night with its neon framed night time cityscape —- look I know it sounds strange but I’ve long contended that there’s a certain undefinable aspect to the sound of 80s Scorpions songs that always reminded me of an airport at sunset. Lo and behold! Chris Black knows what I’m talking about!

The songs, where to start? How about the cover art referencing opener “Flying High”, its Scorpions hat-tips lovingly obvious in that joyous backbeat on the drums, and that very Schenker/Meine trait of guitars outpacing the tempo of the vocal lines. There’s a surprising Maiden influence on “Reach For the Glory”, its opening twin lead melodies sounding like the rock n’ roll cousin to “Aces High”, and frankly they’re just as addictive. The guitars give a little Thin Lizzy treatment on those fragmentary melodies in “This Is the Night”, the same way Gorham and Robertson would punctuate Phil Lynott’s vocals with little five to ten second solos. My favorite has to be “Haunted By Love”, with its Pat Benatar-ish opening riff (cue “Heartbreaker”) and stop/start, sublime chorus that just takes me back to my initial days of exploring so many classic hard rock bands —- a real On Through The Night era Def Leppard feel to that one, particularly in the backing vocals. I know I keep referencing old bands, but its something I can’t help when it comes to High Spirits, because for me that’s half the fun when it comes to this band and their retro-fresh take on a sound that should never die. Black’s relatively monotone vocals are what actually keep High Spirits firmly locked in the present however, because they’re certainly impassioned, but he lacks the vocal range to pull off the acrobatics that we commonly associate with this type of music. But I think that’s a good thing, Black’s inadvertent way of dragging the past up off the booze soaked pavement of the Sunset Strip and stumbling towards the future.

Another Night in the City: The Return of Chicago’s High Spirits

Longtime readers of the blog will have by now taken note of just how much the seasons tend to shift my listening habits around, and they’ll also note just how much I dislike summer in general. If you think that’s an unusual attitude to have, I’ll remind you that I live in Houston, Texas —- but there are silver linings to the oppressive heat and humidity of a Texan summer. One of which is just how well wild, classic styled hard rock pairs with the rising mercury, case in point being the timely arrival of You Are Here, a new album by the Chicago based rock band High Spirits. Okay, they’re in a band in that they play live, but in reality High Spirits is the work of one highly motivated musician in Chris Black. You may have heard his other work before as well —- he moonlights as the drummer for Pharaoh, whose 2012 album Bury the Light came in second on that year’s best of list, and he’s also the sole mastermind behind Dawnbringer, whose excellent Into the Lair of the Sun God placed eighth on that very same list! I guess you can say that I’m a fan of the guy. I was enthralled by the last High Spirits album, Another Night, as much by the music as well as the throwback album cover featuring a very eighties logo design slapped on top of a neon splashed portrait of nighttime Chicago. All of that combined was the very essence of the “Big City Night” that one Klaus Meine once sang about, and if you’re not getting a serious Scorpions vibe when you listen to High Spirits, you’re hopeless. The German greats, alongside a heady dose of Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, radio ready Rush, and classic NWOBHM spice make up the ingredients of Chris Black’s rock n’ roll cocktail.

 

In the past half decade, retro metal has seemingly come and gone en vogue, and from my point of view, very few of those bands managed to stamp their own identity on their music. What separates High Spirits from the pack is that while the music has sonic touchstones to classic bands and eras bygone, there is no attempt at emulation —- in other words, Black is making music for today, not in a vain attempt to recreate 1982. I think that one of the aspects of Black’s musical design here that most vividly brings to mind the past is his complete lack of irony, and his utter disregard for what happened to rock music in the 1990s (you know, when a great deal of joy was sucked out of it). Hipsters be wary, this is genuine rock music made with honest intentions —- Black has stated his desire to see High Spirits grow, for them to be able to tour longer and more extensively. Again I’m reminded of the Scorpions, a band born of a time when there was no shame in hoping to play bigger venues, to have more intricate staging, to play wild rock n’ roll in the manner it was meant to be played in. I’ve read that High Spirits live shows are unabashed in their sincerity, both from band and audience alike, they are an active experience, not an event to be afraid of publicly showing your love for a style of music that a lot of unwitting people think is dead.

 

Whats utterly bananas about Chris Black and his work in High Spirits is that he is everything that you hear on the albums: All instruments, all vocals (including harmonies and overdubs). As I mentioned above, he has a band that he takes out live for small runs of select dates, but on album High Spirits is an entirely one man show. It doesn’t sound like it, and that’s testament to Black’s songwriting skills and overall artistry in understanding band dynamics in aspects of rock music —- as in the interplay between rhythm and lead guitars. Take the album opener “When the Lights Go Down”, with its loose yet tight riffing complemented by scorching lead fragments at the tail end of choruses. The songwriting here is razor sharp, Black has a wonderful and rare ability to pen adrenaline soaked, speedy choruses that outpace their verse section anchors (for further proof, check out “Full Power” on the band’s debut album). These are the kinds of songs that cause speeding tickets. Black slows down the tempo a touch on the next track, “I Need Your Love”, where the swinging rhythm guitar and the amped up speed in the pre-chorus bridge just smacks of the classic riffing of Rudolf Schenker. Black’s vocals are unusual for this type of music, while he’s skilled enough to carry melodies and hold notes, his tone is raw, punky even, and his delivery is borderline laid back. If I can provide some adequate frame of reference, its basically the exact opposite of Sebastian Bach’s histrionics —- Black’s approach to singing is workmanlike in serving the song only (I mean that in a positive way).

 

There’s plenty more in the way of good songs on offer as well, most notably the eponymous “High Spirits”, an infectious high speed rocker with crunchy riffs and a propulsive rhythm bed, and a chorus that lives up to its name. Its a jubilant song, like much of the material on You Are Here. The closest thing to a ballad on the album is the slightly moody “I Will Run”, with its juxtaposition of lonely solo guitar patterns in the intro followed immediately by a slamming riff bed upon which Black paints a bleakly romantic picture of gritting one’s teeth in the face of adversity, to “take to the stars and the streetlights”. Of course all this praise isn’t to suggest that the band has no critics or its share of criticism, the biggest being Black’s tendency to live in worlds of relatively lo-fi production. If you’re expecting booming bass, thundering drums, and intense dynamics you’ll be disappointed. Black tends to like his guitars compressed and a tad fuzzy, with the lead parts mixed up top while the vocals at times seem to sink beneath everything else. There are moments when a chorus could be made to “pop” more if it was simply mixed to be more up front, but this is a production choice that benefits the album in particular moments as well. If you’re used to listening to fuzzy alt-rock, or indie dream-pop or even old school early proto metal bands of the 70s, you’ll be able to handle High Spirits’ production. This is great summer music, evocative of the sound of car tires and beer bottles clinking, the dirty, mucky feel of hot concert venues, and of walking out of those venues to smell the nighttime rain on steaming pavement. My associations of this band’s music with this time of the year are so strong that to be honest… I’m not sure if I’ll be listening to it come November, but for right now its pretty much perfect.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOe-QQ-7LYo&w=420&h=315]

 

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