Make It Easier To Be A Fan: A Rant

So its been shaping up to be a pretty busy and expensive concert calendar this year. I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing at least five to six shows in the next two months, a couple of them power metal bands (Kamelot in May, Hammerfall in June). A few weeks ago, Iced Earth played here at the House of Blues for a weeknight show that got moved from the usual big room down to something the venue referred to as “The Bronze Peacock”, their tiny room for smaller shows (172 people max allowed). I never thought House of Blues would chance having a metal show in there, so close to all the civilized patrons dining in the next room, but apparently a dire situation of low ticket sales (rumored at a little over 100 for pre-sales) was the motivating factor. As an aside, I didn’t understand just leaving the show as is in the big room, given that the decision was made on short notice and no one else was going to be performing in there that night, but whatever. More pressing was the stark reality that Iced Earth had such shockingly low ticket sales and overall attendance, but to me it served as a microcosm for an ongoing problem in the small scale metal touring world that should concern all of us as fans.

 

I had planned to go to that show, but whereas I had bought advance tickets for all the other shows on my concert calendar, I skipped grabbing one for Iced Earth. It was to be a game time decision, based on whether or not I could get a few friends to go with to make an outing of it, and my general level of enthusiasm as well. The bill wasn’t all that exciting to be honest, with only Sanctuary on their Warrel Dane tribute tour and relative unknowns Kill Ritual as openers. The last time I saw Iced Earth in that venue was in 2012, when they pulled in a huge crowd doing a co-headlining jaunt with Symphony X and an up and coming Warbringer. It was fun, an “event” type of show that pulls in the dusty fans who rarely stray outside their own neighborhood, their concert days slowly fading into memory. Iced Earth would return again a few years later with Sabaton and Floor Jansen’s ReVamp as support, and the combination of enthusiasm for the headliners was nearly matched by the ever growing love for Sabaton in Texas (they are big down here, more on that later), it was at a smaller venue but the place was impressively packed and giddy, especially considering it was a Monday night. That was in 2014, only four years ago when Iced Earth was touring on the relatively weak Plagues of Babylon album too —- so what in the world was going on with the low attendance on the band’s tour stop here promoting a far more well received album in Incorruptible? Word on social media was that the same thing happened at a few more dates on the trek, signaling that the Houston show was far from an isolated instance.

 

 

But hey, Iced Earth is a trad/power metal band, and Houston and Texas in general is pretty solidly death metal country right? Something like this was perhaps bound to happen. In fact I remember the days when the very idea that a power metal band of any stripe would play in Houston seemed like a cruel joke —- indeed, the first major one to really entice us was Blind Guardian on their 2002 trek supporting A Night At the Opera, but sadly forces conspired to bungle that one right out of our hands on the day before Thanksgiving. Of course other bands in the genre had tested out the H-town waters before, most notably Iced Earth themselves in 1999 who cobbled together a small handful of fans at the same ill-fated club that their German brethren would have to cancel at three years later (for the record, it was the venue’s fault). But when Iced Earth finally returned to Houston in 2004 after a half decade long wait (and most of our first times regardless), they brought Children of Bodom and Hypocrisy in tow to the Engine Room, a converted warehouse downtown where damn near a thousand metalheads showed up. The venue held 800 uncomfortably, 900 if you didn’t mind not breathing, and while I was told by the door guy later that nearly a hundred walk-ups were rejected at the door for fear of violating fire code, it certainly felt like everyone who showed up was in that venue.

 

It was the tail end of the golden age of power metal, and Ripper Owens being in the band’s lineup certainly turned some heads, but Iced Earth had also released two back to back excellent records, and to add fuel to the fire, Children of Bodom were blowing up big too. I remember seeing Alexi Laiho mobbed in a circle of fans after the show when he was just trying to enjoy a smoke outside the bus, the members of Iced Earth taking the opportunity of distraction to slip into their own bus almost unnoticed. Exhausted and sweat drenched, I stood there dumbly gazing at the mob surrounding him, all eager to get their copy of Hatecrew Deathroll or Follow the Reaper signed and maybe grab a picture. They should’ve been there earlier during soundcheck around 3pm when he was stumbling around outside hungover and ran into me and two other guys who showed up obscenely early, talking to us and asking if we knew where he could buy some smokes around the area. I remember earlier in the day, before the doors opened, glancing down the line of metalheads that stretched on and on for a ridiculous number of blocks, my mind blown that this many people loved the same underground music I loved, and that Houston was apparently primed to be a hotbed for trad and power metal bands to get down here asap.

 

 

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Oh we had some big shows through the years —- Dragonforce in 2006 at the Meridian drew almost as many as Iced Earth (pre – “Through the Fire and Flames” blowing up even), where somehow my friends and I wound up in the lounge backstage watching ZP Theart and Herman Li trying to lure all too witting women back to their tour bus (it was more amusing than impressive, like Motley Crue without the roadies to do their corralling for them). They had a nascent but buzz worthy Between the Buried and Me with them, who won over the crowd easily. Kamelot with Roy Khan would storm that same venue one year later with Leaves Eyes in tow (hot off the success of the Vinland Saga) and drew an eye raising amount of people for an unforgettable show, the band at the peak of their powers and riding high off the momentum of The Black Halo and Ghost Opera. Nightwish post-Tarja also landed a month later with Paradise Lost and sold the place out with a ton of fans arriving from Mexico for a chance to see the band in a small club setting. But largely speaking, power metal avoided Houston like the plague for most of that decade, the European bands often skipping North America altogether or having disappointing debut tours (Therion and Edguy come to mind immediately here).

 

Around 2010, we started to notice some big power metal names popping up here a little more often —- Blind Guardian was back (they were here in 06′ playing a makeup date as well), Sonata Arctica and Epica came down, and even the odd Primal Fear and Hammerfall gig occurred. A lot of testing the waters. And in 2011 we had one of the biggest club shows in recent memory, with Sabaton supporting Accept at the Scout Bar with a crowd as dense as I can remember. I mention Sabaton first because it would be the opening salvo into six trips to H-town over the next six years, part of the band’s relentless push to break the United States. They made an impact that night with their infectious enthusiasm and humor, but when they came back to town headlining with only Alestorm and Powerglove as support months later, only about a hundred of us showed up to go nuts. I drove out to see them a year or so later in San Antonio for the opening show of their Carolus Rex world tour, the first with their new line-up, and once again it was about a hundred fans in attendance. Sabaton are great sports though, they play every show as if there’s thousands in the crowd, and that translated to an excellent reception, but they learned an important lesson. Even the best received live bands need to be a part of a killer package to sell tickets.

 

 

Sabaton ceased touring the States by themselves or with under powered touring partners, and in following up their 2014 trek supporting Iced Earth, they paired up with Nightwish a year later with Delain as support. It was three bands that would draw a fair amount of fans on their own pulling in a huge crowd together at a spacious downtown venue. When Sabaton returned a year later as a headliner, they brought along Delain and Battle Beast as support, and according my MSRcast co-host Cary it was so packed as to be downright uncomfortable, with no space to move among the biggest crowd that could possibly fit in the Scout Bar. They repeated the formula on last year’s tour as well, this time pairing up with Kreator for a co-headlining run with newcomers Cyhra as support —- the former coming off the success of sharing a headlining slot with Obituary and the latter drawing a few fans who were interested in what Jesper Stromblad was doing these days. I’m focusing a lot on Sabaton here for what I think should be an obvious reason: They’re the most successful power metal band in the United States since Dragonforce in the mid-aughts. Their success should be the model for other bands (particularly power metal bands) to follow when touring the United States, but clearly that isn’t happening. I’m at a loss as to why.

 

Look I get logistics. Every band has a different schedule, perhaps the availability of band members is limited due to day jobs or other musical activities. It could be an album release date affecting the timing of when a band will tour, or even more obscure details like radius or recency clauses. But in this over saturated touring market, metal bands need to be doing everything in their power to team up with other bands to create can’t miss live packages. The upcoming Hammerfall date in Houston with only Flotsam and Jetsam as support won’t draw as many fans as their co-headlining stop here a year ago with Delain, that’s nearly guaranteed. Half the crowd at last year’s show was wearing Delain t-shirts, and while I’d love to be proven wrong, I just don’t see it happening. It begs the question of why we couldn’t see an Iced Earth/Hammerfall co-headlining run (and sure, bring Flotsam along as support, that’d be a great bill)! I would’ve suggested a Kamelot/Iced Earth pairing, but Kamelot’s already been one step ahead, making their upcoming US run with who else but Delain and Battle Beast as direct support. They paired up with Dragonforce the last time I saw them, they’ve been all over this stacked bill approach for years now. The Kamelot/Delain show will be at the House of Blues, the very same venue Iced Earth got demoted at, and I’ll eat my words if this show gets the same treatment.

 

 

Booking agencies are failing their clients, and bands need to start taking matters into their own hands via direct communication with their peers to make sure their tours are attractive enough to get fans out of their houses on a weeknight. I knew a few people who went to the Iced Earth show (MSRcast Cary was one of them), but I know a handful of friends who decided to pass on it, and when asked why they replied with a litany of reasons —- they’d already seen the band before, the lineup wasn’t exciting, and there were too many other shows coming up to pay for. When I asked them if they’d have showed up to an Iced Earth / Hammerfall billing, the answer was a definitive yes. What more market research do you need? I myself passed on the Iced Earth show, and I’ll be honest, I felt a little guilty about it at first. I consider myself a champion of power metal in the States, particularly in a place like Texas where its not exactly beloved, but its increasingly harder to do everything a good fan does. You want to support bands by buying the albums, buying tickets to shows and even buying a t-shirt or a hoodie, sometimes you can’t do all three so you pick one and try to make good. But there’s only so much of a paycheck that can’t be diverted from bills and groceries, and bands need to realize that and begin attempting to make it easier on their fan bases.

 

I focused on power metal in my little rant here, but I’m seeing the same problem with various national death metal tours coming through town… its stupid that some of these bands aren’t pairing up together to share costs and pull in more people. Are they worried that pairing up will limit their merch sales per night? If I were a band, I’d rather gamble on selling more merch to a bigger audience pool in a stacked bill than gambling on a fewer number of my die-hards ponying up as a solo headliner. More bands on a bill might mean a smaller guarantee per band, we can acknowledge that. But that guarantee will get slashed if the show undersells on tickets anyway, particularly if the bar sales crash that night —- why chance that? Put together bills and touring packages that are must attend events, the kinds that people will remember for years to come. My most memorable shows were always stacked bills, whether it was Judas Priest/Heaven and Hell/Motorhead/Testament, or In Flames/Nevermore/Shadows Fall, or Maiden/Dio/Motorhead. There are loads more. I have memories from those shows that are seared forever, but I’ve forgotten tons more that weren’t as glorious. My advice to bands works on both fronts, to make it easier for your fans to be fans, and to combat over saturation in the same go. I’d hate to see bands write off certain markets just due to low ticket sales from an underwhelming bill or over loaded concert calendar. We want you all to keep coming back.

 

Their Glorious Return: Iced Earth’s Incorruptible and Vintersorg’s Till Fjälls del II

Its been an interesting month and a half in metal, mainly because I can’t remember the last time so many of my longtime favorite artists have released something within weeks of one another. One of which we’ll talk about sometime soon with their upcoming two-disc retrospective, but for now both Iced Earth and Vintersorg have new albums out. Iced Earth was one of the first non-mainstream metal bands I found my way to, by virtue of repeatedly seeing their album Dark Saga in the Best Buy racks circa 1996/97. On one of those trips to the old big box, I ended up picking it up out of sheer curiosity due to its cover constantly catching my eye, and it was a revelation, an almost symbiotic merging of Iron Maiden with Metallica. Little did I know initially (but would soon find out) that Iced Earth was one of the sole bands flying the flag of traditional metal throughout the early 90s. And then there’s Vintersorg, one Andreas Hedlund, whose Odenmarken’s Son and Cosmic Genesis was my introduction to folk-metal (frankly I didn’t even know such a thing existed until I got wind of those albums in 2000). He’s had an interesting, evolving discography throughout his solo project and his work in Borknagar, and the past few Vintersorg releases have seen him slowly coming back to a more rootsy, folkier sound as opposed to the proggy experimentation he was delving into a decade ago. That path has led him to create music that reminded him of his 1998 folk-metal landmark Till fjälls, and resultingly he realized that he had stumbled onto creating its direct sequel, nearly twenty years later.

 


 

Iced EarthIncorruptible:

I guess the first thing I should mention before discussing the new Iced Earth album is how much I flipped from my initial opinion of 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, which at the time of writing its review I thought was pretty solid. I listened to that album fairly consistently until I saw the band in concert on their North American trek a few months later, and that really was the last time I did until relatively recently for the purposes of preparing for this review. That’s never a good sign, for years to pass without revisiting an album is a sure sign that it was at best average and possibly even a little below that, right? My recent re-listens through Plagues have proven my original review to have been a little too generous, perhaps the beneficiary of just how enthralled I was with 2011’s still excellent Dystopia. I suspect now that there was a little confirmation bias creeping in, my fanboy-ism at the band’s third act succeeding so triumphantly with the addition of Stu Block that I let it influence my opinion of the music. The reality is that the band stumbled on Plagues, a record with a few highlights (the fun, romping cover of “The Highwaymen” being one of them), but largely a plodding, tiring, un-melodic affair (see the title track for an example of all three). In retrospect I wonder if the exhaustive touring cycle for Dystopia (the band’s longest ever) and the interruptions of stints opening for Volbeat on a desirable arena tour sapped the band’s reserves of energy all the way through the writing process of that album. Jon Schaffer has recently commented that he felt the album was rushed, and I can’t help but agree if he’s talking about the songwriting/pre-production period. The songs weren’t there.

So Incorruptible sees the band knowingly trying to rally, and Schaffer has stripped everything down its core elements more than ever. This is the first Iced Earth album not to feature a concept in any way (I’m not saying that every release they’ve put out was conceptual as a whole, but there were conceptual aspects to portions of every album). This is a telling feature, a way for the band to re-orient themselves to recapture their basic songwriting spirit, and despite vocalist Stu Block’s four songwriting credits, this is a largely Schaffer guided album. Ten songs (one surprisingly interesting instrumental) that are in many ways a prism though which the entire Iced Earth discography can be seen, with hints of previous eras coming to the fore with every track. It might even be a little disingenuous to characterize it as a back to basics album, because this was never a band that did anything basic —- concepts and grand ambition were always a defining trait of Schaffer’s vision for the band. More accurately, if there ever were an album deserving of a mid-career self-titling, this would be it (as loathsome as the very idea of a veteran band releasing a self-titled album is… ahem, Queensryche). Its a representative statement of the things this band can do, from galloping Maidenisms to thundering war-anthems to their distinctive approach to semi-ballads, this is Iced Earth 101 if you will.

And as an introductory course, it succeeds wildly. I haven’t had this much fun, real tangible joy in listening to an Iced Earth album since 2004’s The Glorious Burden. It barrels out the gates with the viking ode “Great Heathen Army” with a real sense of propulsion its aggressive streak that courses throughout the entire song. Block wrote the lyrics and vocal melody on this one, and he’s back in his Dystopia era form, crafting tight, sharp, memorable vocal melodies. The most vivid example of this comes on the next track and album highlight, “Black Flag”, a deftly written, Maiden-esque anthem about the golden age of piracy sans any trace of the Disney factor that has contaminated this subject matter in other bands such as the dreadful Alestorm. Its an adrenaline charged song, and my absolute favorite on the album —- that chorus is spectacularly written: “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. But the terrific lyricism doesn’t end there, as heard in the second verse: Stories foretold/ Of silver and gold / And the empires greed / Well god damn the queen / We’ll string up the kings / We’re rogues of the seas / The freest of men / Fly no colors at all / And our creed is our own…”. The alliterative rhyme scheme at work here is not only phonetically sound, but instantly memorable, set to a tightly controlled yet loose and lively melody. Its one of Iced Earth’s most inspired moments, not only of this album, but of their entire career (to this fan, its an all-time classic).

The Schaffer-ian semi-ballad makes its welcome return as well, in the form of “Raven Wing”, a track whose sound profile is so similar to The Dark Saga that you’d swear it was a Japanese bonus track from that album. There’s a nod to classics such as “I Died For You” and “Melancholy (Watching Over Me)” in its intro segue, but then it unfolds into a mid-tempo stomper built on slabs of gritty, earthen riffs with open chord sustains. The guiding melody is left to Block, who has always reminded me of a meeting point between Matt Barlow and Tim Owens vocal approaches, and he recalls both in varying shades here. That’s not a knock on Block, and in a way, I suspect that Schaffer’s writing style naturally results in his vocalist having to sing in a way that recalls touches of the past (because how else could this song be sung… can’t go too low, a baritone would clash with the tonality of the music, nor can you go too high, a helium touched vocal would sound bizarrely out of place). It simultaneously a comforting slice of Iced Earth nostalgia and yet still reverberates as something fresh and genuine. The same can be said for “The Veil”, whose similar semi-ballad composition gives Block one of his shining moments, a chorus where his emotional range is on full display (the harmony layering later in the track is satisfyingly sweet).

 

When the initial preview track “Seven Headed Whore” was first released, I was a bit taken aback by what I believe I described as its modern day Slayer vibe. Now after having sat with it for a few months and hearing it in the context of the album, particularly as a change of pace after those aforementioned preceding semi-ballads, it holds up a little better. It actually feels like a spiritual cousin to “Violate” from Dark Saga, which also wasn’t my favorite track on that album but helped to inject some welcome variation in a largely mid-tempo album. I’ve read some criticism online of its overtly political lyrical theme, and Schaffer’s had his share of critics and derision when he discusses his views on, well, everything in interviews. All that aside, I’ve always found Schaffer to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and engaging interview subjects in metal (his half-hour interview on the bonus disc of Horror Show is a classic). I consider myself a patriotic American citizen, no more or less than others, and it was with Iced Earth that I first heard metal that spoke to that (thinking of classics like “Ghost of Freedom” off Horror Show, and “1776” from Something Wicked). Schaffer’s music was the motivating factor in getting me reading about the civil war for the first time and understanding its historical importance. He’s a valuable voice in metal, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what he’s said.

Its being said that perhaps Incorruptible is a little too front loaded, that the second half doesn’t hold up as well, and while I mostly disagree with that I can concede that “Relic (Part 1)” isn’t the most captivating song. Its not bad, and I like the different delivery that Block takes on some of the verse segments, but it could benefit from being a little shorter and its chorus a little punchier (its all a little too mid-tempo-y throughout, a sharp variation could’ve helped here). I’m also not sure if its deserving of a sequel, as indicated by its title but hey, we’ll see how that turns out next time. I do love the melody at work in the instrumental “Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)” (again quipping on the title, does an instrumental really need a parenthetical?), but I feel like this could have been turned into a fantastic proper song if they had just given it a little more time. That being said, they did the instrumental thing right, leaning hard on a melody that is strong enough to carry a tune without words (and hey, its another nod to the structure of past Iced Earth albums). The rounding out tracks “Defiance” and “Brothers” are beefy, reliably catchy workhorse numbers that don’t detract from the overall album quality, particularly the former with its Priest-ian vocal bridge. And while its intro runs a little long for my liking, I do love “Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862) for its thunderous, Glorious Burden-esque battle scaping vocal narration (“Forward! Clear the way!”). Frankly, there’s no one better at crafting inspiring, ultra-melodic, patriotically themed guitar melodies than Schaffer.

The overall result here is a win for Iced Earth, a rebound from the rushed and tired Plagues of Babylon and at the same time, a sort of career retrospective set to new music. The latter detail is particularly noteworthy when considering this is their last album on their current Century Media contract (their second stint with the label after some time away, and presumably, after having repaired a frayed relationship). In the time leading up to the pre-production for this album, Schaffer bought a building in which to house the band’s rehearsal space, recording studio (primary tracking only, not mixing), merch warehouse, and general business offices (Wintersun’s wet dream in other words?). It was a decided move towards perhaps seeing the next Iced Earth album released entirely independent of a record label, and Schaffer clearly relishes that possibility. If anyone can make it happen, Schaffer certainly can, and he’s seen his contemporaries try it in differing ways: Blind Guardian owning their own Twilight Hall recording studios to make multi-year long sessions possible; Kamelot self-releasing Poetry For the Poisoned in North America; Therion’s Christofer Johnsson betting on his mortgage in self-financing the French pop covers album Les Fleurs du Mal (and succeeding!). I know this is business talk all of a sudden, but the next Iced Earth album will certainly be interesting in more ways than just the music. For now, Incorruptible is more than enough to sustain us til then.

 

Vintersorg – Till fjälls, del II:

Still can’t believe this is here. The idea of a sequel to Till Fjalls just seemed to good to be true, particularly since I thought surely we’d get the fourth album in the four elements cycle Vintersorg had been locked into since 2011 first. And certainly I never thought that Vintersorg was the kind of artist interested in revisiting something so deep from his musical past, particularly when he’d ventured so far away from his native Scandinavian folk roots in the pursuit of a more progressive driven direction. Vintersorg is unique for more than a handful of reasons, but among the most important of those are his central presence in the history and formation of folk-metal as a subgenre, both through his namesake project but also through the two albums he released with Otyg. Then there’s also the fact that he is criminally overlooked by the metal media as a whole, never given the proper due, respect, or attention by the big print media publications. The fact that it wasn’t until minute 38 of the 42 minute running time of Lock Horns “Folk Metal” debate/discussion that Vintersorg was put up on the board still rankles in my mind as a slap in the face to those of us who’ve long known about Mr. V (as his longtime Ultimate Metal Official Vintersorg Forum members know him to post as). To guest host Natalie Zed’s great credit, she seemed to immediately recognize it as a glaring omission and immediately corrected the oversight (she’s the real deal when it comes to folk metal knowledge by the way, see her reviews on Angry Metal Guy). Hopefully, with the release of this unexpected but breath of fresh Norwegian winter air sequel, heads will turn and we can start getting Mr. V some deserved respect (dammit).

For anyone not following the story, in hearing this album you’d be surprised to know that less than three years ago, Vintersorg was uncertain about his future as a vocalist in general. He suffered a traumatic brain injury by falling off a ladder, the damage being three cracks in his skull, brain hemorrhaging, and dysfunction in his ear. When he chimed in personally for an update in April of 2015, he claimed to be uncertain of when he could even attempt a return to music. Its been said that most (if not all) of his vocals on Borknagar’s early 2016 Winter Thrice release were actually recorded sometime in 2014 before the accident, so Till Fjalls del II might actually be the first post-accident vocals we’re hearing from the man. Well, I’m pleased to hear him sounding on top form here, not only from an artistic and fan standpoint but from a personal one as well. This album is not only a triumph for his fans, but for Mr. V himself, he’s gotta feel really good about his performance here —- because in many ways, Till Fjalls del II is superior to the original, in both songwriting execution as well as the more obvious upgrade on the sonic level. It might be jumping the gun to call it yet another one of his masterpieces, but damn it all if it doesn’t feel like it is one. And in a year when real, gritty, spiritual folk metal seems to be making a long overdue comeback (check King of Asgard and Wolfheart’s releases), Till Fjalls del II is like hearing the horn of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Our rescue from the dumb comic pageantry of Korpiklanni, Equilibrium, modern day Finntroll and Leaves Eyes may very well be at hand.

 

I know I rail against that kind of stuff hard, but it wasn’t an attitude I came to easily. For years I gave a lot of those bands leeway and a ton of patience, but where they ended up is so far from what I loved about folk-metal in the first place. In the liner notes of the awesome 2000 release Cosmic Genesis, Vintersorg thanked Carl Sagan, and delivered the still shiver inducing lyrics “In heaven I am a wild ox / On Earth I am a lion… The Scientist of darkness / Older than the constellations…” (on “The Enigmatic Spirit”). In summary, it was so much more elevated, thoughtful, and yes, spiritual than the bizarre, troll cosplaying, beer drinking singalongs that the bulk of the genre degenerated into after Finntroll released their “Trollhammaren” single in 2004. I feel this return to that older spirit when listening to Till Fjalls del II, even more than I did in spare, momentary glimpses on his past three “elements” albums where he did slowly incorporate more of his old folk stylings. Those albums, particularly Solens Rotter and Orkan found Vintersorg trying to regain his footing in songwriting in a less convoluted, progressive structure. They were still infused with the avant-garde quality of Visions From the Spiral Generator and The Focusing Blur, and as a result were at times murky and difficult.

What separates Till Fjalls del II from those is Vintersorg’s wholesale adapting of old-school folk metal rhythmic structures, including its reliance on intertwined acoustic guitar crafted melodies. Take “Allt Mellan Himmel Och Jord”, where the raw black metal drops away to be replaced by a compelling acoustic folk guitar/piano passage that dramatically shifts the songs direction. Or take the beautiful “Vårflod”, where open chord acoustic pluckings usher in the gorgeous female vocals of folk metal legend (and former/maybe current Otyg violinist/vocalist) Cia Hedmark. This is not only my favorite song from the album, but one of my favorite cuts all year period —- the slowed down, drawn out refrain, built on Vintersorg’s inimitable vocal delivery is just peak majestic folk metal. I love it. Mattias Marklund’s underrated guitarwork is as distinctive and unapologetically melodic as ever, but he gets downright Guns N’ Rosian on “Lavin” during a mid-song solo, showing off a side to his playing that we’ve never heard before. It made me laugh giddily when I first heard it, being so unexpected but awesome.

It is on the whole, far more brutal than the original Till Fjalls ever was, but that’s more down to Vintersorg drawing on all the influences in his career that he’s accumulated since 1998. So we get moments where the progressive touches come to the fore, and others where Borknagar-esque black metal just stampedes all over the place, its all just part of who he is now. In one of the few interviews he’s done for this album, he remarked that when he was sitting down to write this music, ostensibly for the next and final elemental album, he realized that the stuff that was coming out had the swing and folky-step of his old classics. He unintentionally stumbled into making Till Fjalls II, which was described in his official statement in the press release for the album as: “…a heartfelt return to snow capped mountains, pure nature-inspired mysticism, Nordic folklore and real black metal with a captivating epic streak”. Heartfelt is the key word I’m latching onto there, because its exactly what I feel when listening to this, and where the past few Vintersorg albums haven’t moved me as much as I wanted, this one has rocked me to my core. Don’t be surprised to see this on the best albums of the year list, its really that excellent. It’ll certainly be the soundtrack to what I can only hope will be a bitter cold winter.

 

Iced Earth Return with Plagues of Babylon

I just realized something —- this will be only the third time I’ve written solely about Iced Earth in the history of this blog, the first being Dystopia‘s inclusion on the Best of 2011 list, and the second being a 2012 gig report that turned into trip down memory lane back to 2004 when I saw Iced Earth cram close to a thousand Houstonians in a sweltering converted warehouse on the Glorious Burden tour during their Ripper Owens era. I only point it out because its a surprisingly small number for a band that is among my longest running fandoms, as well as an important part of my breaking away from mainstream metal in order to explore the European power metal scene in earnest. I’m certain everyone is aware of the many upheavals within the lineup the past few years but its worth pointing out yet again what a huge shot in the arm the addition of Stu Block has been —- simply in terms of making Iced Earth a fully functioning band again.

Unlike the sporadic live shows in the final years of the Barlow era, Iced Earth is now doing their longest full length world tours yet, and in the span of the past three years have released two studio albums and one live album/dvd. The music has also improved, the difference in quality night and day from the final Barlow offering, The Crucible of Man in 2008, to 2011’s Stu Block debut Dystopia. As I wrote in that linked 2012 article, the band looked fired up on stage, Jon Schaffer in particular looking noticeably happier. I felt happier myself witnessing that. It was a rebirth of a band that I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for in addition to simply being a fan, as I’d always felt that the struggle of Iced Earth to sustain themselves as an American power metal band during the dry spell of the mid-nineties mirrored what many of us stateside fans had to endure as well.

I was encouraged to hear by the middle of 2013 just how quickly the band was able to finish writing and start the recording of Plagues of Babylon, their second effort with Block. It was a sign that the Block-Schaffer partnership wasn’t fraying from the demands of the road, and that they were eager to parlay that enthusiasm into productive work. And tellingly on Plagues, they’ve either consciously or subconsciously brought their live sound to the recording studio. This is a noticeably rawer and grittier Iced Earth than we’ve heard on their past couple releases (specifically I’m referring to all their albums since 2001’s Horror Show). Speaking broadly, there’s a sense that they have carried the effects of their long touring over into the studio —- Iced Earth have always been far heavier and even thrashier live on stage than they’ve been on record. Here the band goes easy on layered choral vocals during refrains and excessive displays of major key melodicism, instead opting for gun metal grey riffs with slight melodic variations alongside mostly solitary lead vocals that recall to mind their classic Something Wicked and Dark Saga period. Overall there is a very stripped down and “live” approach being employed —- and its a darker album as a result.

 

The first four songs on the tracklisting are particularly apparent examples, the highlight among them being the adrenaline pumping “Democide”, as thrash metal-y as Iced Earth have sounded in years. Block’s solo lead vocals seem heftier and far more menacing here than on Dystopia, and again it reminds me of how he sounded when I saw him live. Its ironic then that Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch turns up in a guest spot on “Among the Living Dead”, where he doesn’t really add his trademark wall of sound vocal layering approach to the mix, instead merely offering up his own solo vocal counterpoints to Block’s. Honestly it took me a few listens to even spot Kursch’s usually instantly recognizable voice, and even after many, many listens I wonder if his talents are going under utilized here. But these thoughts are put aside by the time “The End?” kicks in, where Schaffer and lead guitarist Troy Seele deliver a lushly melodic array of guitar work to introduce some contrast to Block’s brutal take on clean vocals —- here he even delivers a near black metal styled scream midway through.

The band amps up the multitracked vocals on semi-ballad “If I Could See You”, a track that recalls “I Died For You” off the Dark Saga in a big way, not a bad thing mind you but its just another thing that ties this album’s sonic feel back to that era. And I particularly love the lush vocal layering on “Cthulhu”, where the refrain is so well written that it bleeds out emotion, despite being a song about a gigantic, mind-boggling octopus beast-god. Again referencing the past, it’s a quality song that would sound right at home on Horror Show (musically and thematically as well). But let’s face facts, eleven albums into their career no one is expecting Iced Earth to reinvent themselves, only to deliver the metallic goods so to speak. I think I could speak for Iced Earth fans if I suggest that all we want is a consistently good to great record that delivers all the trademarks we expect, with a high level of energy, and Plagues does deliver in that regard. Its not all perfect… I feel that the back to back pairing of both “Peacemaker” and “Parasite” tend to fall largely flat, but two out of twelve isn’t bad.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9unWRsD2QQM&w=560&h=320]

 

 

Now to discuss the obvious album highlight, which may irk some as its a cover, but the band’s take on “Highwayman” is nothing short of spectacular. This is of course the Jimmy Webb penned namesake track of the eighties super group of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash The song was fitting both lyrically and structurally for those singers, four country stars long pegged as outsiders in their own genre, four verses for each of them. Iced Earth invite some friends to flesh out their version of the classic, with Schaffer himself handling the first verse on lead vocals, followed by Symphony X’s Russell Allen, then Block, and finally rounded out by the distinctive country-punk twang of Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen. It really works, Schaffer has occasionally done some lead vocals on Iced Earth tracks here and there, so he has the chops to do it and sounds commanding here. Allen is of course a long ranged vocal dynamo, who even adds some of his trademark vocal run extensions despite only singing a few lines. Block’s verse might by my favorite, about the dam builder “Across the river, deep and wide / Where steel and water did collide”, his delivery touched with a hint of outlaw country and rock n’ roll abandon. Poulsen is admittedly an acquired taste, but I don’t mind a little Volbeat here and there and in small doses such as the concluding verse here he is a refreshing change up. They all do a great job.

This was among the first major metal releases of the year, and one of the first cannon shots representing what might be a banner year for power metal. With Plagues of Babylon, 2014 seems to be getting off to a strong start. Its not the best Iced Earth record ever, but its a solid, at times great album that I’m anticipating will sound even better on April 28th when I see them once again in Houston. I’m looking forward to finding out how my back and neck will hold up.

Remembrance of Things Past: Iced Earth / Symphony X / Warbringer @ HoB in Houston, Texas 2/29/12

 

I have never been a fan of reading concert reviews. I find that most of them are overwhelmingly positive to a fault; you can often hear the giddy fanboy-ism of the writer lurking just beneath the sentences. I’m all about respecting the die hard fan, but I find that either I completely agree with their concert review, or am indifferent to it. In other words, I get little out of reading them. At best I’ll see what people are saying on message boards or Facebook about overall impressions of a particular tour, check out setlist.fm, and sometimes seek out any pictures available of the stage show. Usually all this is done in preparation for an upcoming show on a tour that I’ll be attending myself. This is why I’ll avoid going into gritty detail about this particular show, and merely offer some lasting impressions. Before I do that, let me indulge a little in a dose of nostalgia.

 

Nearly eight years have passed since the last time I saw Iced Earth live. I missed the Barlow years before the Ripper era, and again when he returned for the Crucible of Man album. Iced Earth had last played Houston on May 8th, 2004 at a tin box of a venue in downtown called The Engine Room with Children of Bodom and Evergrey as openers. It was a transitioning period for the band: Tim “The Ripper” Owens had made his debut on the highly divisive The Glorious Burden album, fans were trying to get used to the idea, and non-metal media had given the band its first press coverage thanks to the epic three-part closing track of the album, “Gettysburg”, and its use by high school history teachers as an educational tool (seriously it happened).

 

There I was, hours early at the venue with a friend of mine, shuffling around downtown Houston in the summer heat trying to find something to eat, bumping into an agitated and bewildered Alexi Laiho on the street who was baffled by the lack of any convenience store nearby (“No we’re serious man, you’d have to walk at least eight blocks in that direction…”), and watching in total amazement as the line to get into the show stretched further than I’d ever seen for a club show – multiple city blocks! The venue had a capacity of 650, and we had overheard the Atlanta Falcons jersey-wearing door guy say that they had oversold the show by hundreds. In effect, there could have been 800-1000 people out there. It was nuts. I couldn’t fathom how that many people came out of the woodwork to see a relatively underground metal band (at least in the States). I’d been going to metal shows in Houston for years before this, and the crowds were never THIS big. Where the hell did these people come from and why did I not see them out and about more often?!

 

 

Doors had opened, and inside the venue I could barely get from the merch booth to the bar, both on opposing ends of the venue. People were nearly standing shoulder to shoulder, and it took deft movements and side-walkin’ to navigate my way through. I recall buying bottles of water only, no beer, even though I was a year past being of age – I just had a feeling I would need the hydration severely. I was right. Hypocrisy and CoB were easy enough to watch, most of the crowd just idly banging their heads and moving slightly. It was when Iced Earth took stage that the maddening deathcrush of the crowd began. We were close to the front, and in the center, and all I can vividly remember is the feeling of being pushed forward along with the rest of the crowd like a floating buoy in the sea. I was having trouble breathing until I managed to wedge out my arms from my sides and use them as physical barriers against the bodies slamming against me, it gave my compacted torso space to take in glorious oxygen. Somehow I managed to keep my place, and once the initial deathcrush subsided I established my personal space and gulped down room temperature water, surprising myself at having held onto my water bottles. I had been a part of some intense shows before, but nothing that had me feeling anywhere close to “I could actually die here… ah well I guess it would be with my boots on right Bruce?”

 

The crowd swirled and slammed together in chaotic fashion for the rest of the show. I was battered and literally bruised upon my side. I have images and flashes of memory from Iced Earth’s actual performance, but far more overwhelming is the recollection that when the band launched into the thirty minute “Gettysburg” as the encore, I silently and ashamedly hoped that the power would be cut, the guitars would short out, ANYTHING to get out of there at that exact moment. I could barely stand upright, and once the band took their final bow I collapsed against the bar alongside several other worn out husks of metalheads, one of whom was my now barely standing friend. I distinctly remember the eye-widening on the bartender’s face as she poured us plastic cups of water and handed them over without asking for payment. We managed to crawl back to my car and somehow, I drove us back home. I can’t recall exactly, but I’m certain that not a word was spoken on the way back. It was a point of pride the next day at work to boast to everyone I could of how brutal that show was (and how by silent implication of me standing before them, and not in the hospital, I was a real hardass). I was 22 and shows like that were one more notch in my ever expanding list of concerts attended, slowly I was becoming a metal show veteran in my own right.

 

Fast forward to last Wednesday night, where I was all too keenly aware of how different I now feel at 29 than I did at 22, and how I imagined Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth (the only Iced Earth member onstage to have taken part in the 2004 show) felt himself, now 43, then 35. I wasn’t sure why I had thought about it so much until well after the show, when I realized that the eight year gap between the 04 show and now had represented the longest period between two shows by a band that I had ever experienced. I could only imagine at what an older concert attendee who had last seen Maiden back in the eighties felt recently upon seeing them say on the 2008 “Somewhere Back in Time Tour”. Personal thoughts to be sure of course, but its a goddamned show and you don’t talk about stuff like that there… though I’d bet that it had to cross the mind more than a few times.

 

Don’t get me wrong, this may sound melancholic, but its really not. Its not a lament about getting older, nor is it an admonition for younger fans to show the far older, grizzled metal veterans their due respect (even though you should, seriously, most of those guys are awesome and can tell you some tales). This is a dawning realization that apart from metal being the longest, most enduring thing in my life, it also creates markers by which I remember the past. Not all for sure, but many – how else would I remember who I was, and what I was doing in May of 2004 if not for this Iced Earth concert. Details of my life at that time come bubbling up to the surface, and I wince at some of them, and fondly remember others.

 

I was with some friends at the show Wednesday night, and I remember my buddy to my left speaking with two really short kids standing in front of us as we waited for Iced Earth to hit the stage. The kid pointed to his friend and said “Its his first metal show, not a bad one to start with right?” We approved and slapped the kid on his back and I looked directly over his head to see a greying man in the front row leaning against the barricade wearing a blue jeans jacket that was heavily decorated with concert memorabilia (caught guitar picks, metal band logo pins, badges, etc) including a huge Savatage Hall of the Mountain King patch on the back. It was a stunning juxtaposition.

 

 

I promised some impressions of the show earlier, and I’ll keep it simple: The crowd was mostly older, to be expected I suppose, but as shown above younger fans weren’t exempt. I found Iced Earth far more riveting this time with Stu Block at the helm than I did back in ’04 with the Ripper. He’s the right fit for the band and they genuinely seemed happy to be onstage. They really are a violent and eviscerating force onstage, those riffs can tear through your gut when being channeled out at those volumes, and when Stu did the highs it was the very definition of ear-splitting. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance by Symphony X, my 2011 album of the year winners, Russell Allen proved to be a far more engaging and humorous frontman than he was during the first time I saw them live. I will echo my friend’s sentiments however by saying that I wish the rest of the band could be as enthusiastic on stage as Allen, who has to carry the band live (no wonder he’s drinking straight rum from a glass skull decanter(!)). Warbringer are a band I’ll be paying far more attention to in the future, their Kreator-influenced approach impressed me so much I bought a t-shirt. I was disappointed when their opening set was over. All these details I’ll soon forget however, and it won’t matter. What matters is that it was a great show because we had a blast. I won’t remember the technical details, but I will find it hard to forget practically leaping in between my buddies to thrash out during the heaviest, most climactic moment of “Dante’s Inferno”. This is why I get bored reading show reviews: I want to read about why it was such a great experience for a person, not the ins and outs of every facet of the performance. I want to read stories.

 

Having headbanged and thrown horns for most of the three bands sets, I knew I’d be sore the following morning. Though it wasn’t as violent a show as the 2004 performance was, it didn’t need to be – standing for a long period of time hurts way more now than it did back then. I was relieved in a small way that the crowd apart from the circle pit was fairly cool tempered. You could drink a beer comfortably if you wanted to, and it seemed most wanted to. I got back to my apartment complex and could barely make it out of my car, as my back had seized up painfully. I briefly considered just falling back into the driver’s seat and sleeping there in the parking lot all night. Somehow I semi-hunchbacked it all the way up to my apartment, laughing aloud while doing my best Mort Goldman. A fitting bookend to this particular concert. At the 2004 show, I felt as thought I could have almost blacked out or worse, and I could barely make it from the venue to my car — only to bounce back the following day to head to work. On Wednesday night I could barely walk, and I could only be comfortable falling asleep sitting up on my sofa. I spent the next day sitting still and ice-packing my neck. Iced Earth 2012 had rendered me useless. I could have easily found it disheartening, but I honestly found it humorous instead — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

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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