Lessons From Concert-Going

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Insomnium: At The Heart Of Winter

This was a dicey proposition from the press release alone. The exact wording that left me feeling uneasy was “it is a concept album made up of one epic 40-minute song”. What the heck? Did the Insomnium guys get confused and show up to Moonsorrow’s rehearsal space, shrug their shoulders and say “Screw it!”? This was such uncharted territory for a band who despite delivering consistently cohesive albums on a sonic and lyrical level (in aesthetic values at the least), is not exactly known for writing full blown, narrative-driven concept albums. Insomnium has always operated in a broad, expansive thematic field, their lyrical subject matter able to deftly shift between plainly written outpourings of introverted despair or the usage of folk allegory and natural imagery to communicate an intensely personal feeling. Their best album, 2011’s One For Sorrow, was a shifting, undulating collection of light and shade, moods and temperaments across a collection of songs about the memory of loss and the ache of loneliness. But this new album Winter’s Gate, their seventh overall, is based on a short story by vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen about a band of vikings that set out to discover a fabled island west of Ireland as winter approaches. Word is that Sevänen actually won a few literary awards for the original Finnish version of the short story, so its got some literary academia cred behind it. But even the finest storytelling won’t amount to much in the context of a metal album if the music doesn’t pull you in, let alone a singular forty minute track… and on that note, a bit of clarity is needed.

I’m not sure how all of you are consuming this album, but I got two copies —- somehow I landed a promo invite for this album thanks to a kind PR rep despite not being a regular for Century Media releases, and then my deluxe edition book arrived in the mail. So here’s the thing, on the physical edition of Winter’s Gate you get the album as one track at 40:02 in length, no cuts or segmentation at all —- yeeesh. However, on the promo copy, the album is divided up into chapters (titled “Winter’s Gate Pt. 1” and onwards through seven). This was curious, so I did some looking around and it turns out that perhaps the band or label was forced to make some cuts for the digital release of this album, and I wonder if its due to track length limitations on these various platforms such as iTunes or Spotify (perhaps caching such a long song is a problem?). Notice that audiobooks sold over iTunes are heavily segmented, even massive ones like The Silmarillion or the Game of Thrones stuff (maybe I’m way off on that theory, just speculating). What’s clear is that the band preferred to have this album consumed as one long, singular track ala Crimson by Edge of Sanity, their admitted inspiration for its structure (and perhaps not coincidentally, Dan Swano handles the mixing of this album!).

As for myself, faced with two options in listening experiences, I opted for convenience’s sake and went with the segmented digital copy. Firstly it would help me because often times in reviewing I’ll play the album straight through, and then go through it again in reverse order just to see if my opinion isn’t being strongly influenced by the first couple tracks (a long standing practice that isn’t talked about much publicly was/is to front load an album with what’s considered the best material and thus get the over burdened rock/metal press to peg glowing reviews, however skewed —- see Sepultura’s Roots). Anyway, that being the case, you might find it frustrating that I refer to particular sections of “Winter’s Gate” by the chapter instead of marking the time that you’d find in the 40:02 single player. I apologize in advance for that, but I do actually wish they’d sliced this up on the physical release a bit. I get why they chose not to, but if I only had the physical copy to play or rip to my laptop, it’d be a frustrating thing for me to get to my favorite chapter of the album, or a particularly awesome moment I really wanted to hear right then. That is a criticism I’m leveling at the band right away, because I applaud ambition (even if a forty minute song on paper sounds dreadful) and I love the guts it took to do something daring like this album when it could so easily backfire —- but a little detail like slicing the piece into skip-able sections shouldn’t be viewed as a concession to low attention spans in the iPod age, but simply as a considerate feature for your passionate fans.

 

 

I’m happy to say that all my fears about what this album could have sounded like are allayed, and in fact, Winter’s Gate might just be Insomnium’s most gripping, powerful piece of music to date. It’d be pure speculation to suggest that it was a purposeful internal reaction to the somewhat mixed reception of 2014’s Shadows Of A Dying Sun, but it sounds like a band having a sense of urgency about their art. That idea of urgency is most vividly heard in the increase of raw brutality that streaks across the album like that bear’s paws across Leo’s back in The Revenant, barreling at us in the form of harsher, more guttural vocals by Sevänen, and a surprising second wave of Norwegian black metal injection that courses through much of this material. That particular facet begins straight away, where blastbeats and furious tremolo riffing combine in a violent musical bed over which more traditional Insomnium-esque lead guitar melodies spiral upon at a slightly slower tempo. In other words, its a merging of Finnish melo-death mournful melody and Norwegian black metal hypnosis into something truly unique, and you’ve never heard Insomnium sound this heavy or impactful before. Its a satisfying combo, particularly when they add in flourishes of Gothenburg, or let’s be more specific, Jesper Stromblad-ian speed-picking riff flurries as a just-as-frenetic yet lighter shade to the black metal furor. My first playthrough of the album had me grinning like an idiot only a few minutes in “Winter’s Gate Pt. 2”.

And it was right around that time where we are treated to our first tastes of a more recognizable, classic Insomnium sound (approximately 8:43 for you folks with the single track), with guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala abruptly shifting away from a staggeringly brutal passage into a flowing, beautifully written, lilting open chord sequenced solo over chiming acoustic guitar. We also get our first dose of Friman’s excellent clean vocals, suitably downcast in tone but still built on tuneful melodies and helped along by his perfect enunciation that pairs well with only the slightest tinge of an accent. This chapter ends with swirling, long guitar sustains, like leaves stirred up by gusts of autumnal winds, quietly falling into a hush from which rises “Winter’s Gate Pt.3” (at the 12:52 mark). This section really reminded me of Porcupine Tree, not only for the syncopated rhythm section with playfully bouncy bass and dancing guitar lines, but for the paintbrush strokes of keyboard generated atmospherics that move in and out of audible range like waves lapping a shoreline. Vanhala has mentioned in interviews to referring to this chapter’s guitar solo as his “Dire Straits moment”, and its easy to hear why he’s characterizing it as such. It caps off an overall lovely 5:52 minutes of delicate musicality largely built upon progressive rock touchstones and dynamics (I say delicate because even Sevänen’s harsh vocals are a little more subdued when he comes back in towards the end).

Its not only a welcome musical interlude that is engaging and oddly comforting, but it sets up my favorite moment of the album in “Winter’s Gate Pt.4” (begins at the 18:45 mark). Friman has steadily been growing in confidence as a clean vocalist since his work on One For Sorrow, with his largest leaps marking some of Shadows of a Dying Sun’s finest moments (“Lose To Night”), and on this particular chapter he fully realizes his potential. His clean vocals during this section range from Mikael Akerfeldt earthiness in the beginning of the chapter (“Still I bear the flowers…”) to near Pink Floydian epic layering towards the chapter’s emotional crescendo (“I walk with my head down…”). Listen to this chapter with headphones, because there’s some impressive acoustic guitar work going on underneath all the heavy layers of riffs and aggressive vocals that absolutely needs to be heard. I also love the sombre, twilight conjuring use of piano to mark the beginning of “Winter’s Gate Pt.5”, as the instrument is an Insomnium staple at this point and it’d be strange not to hear it. What it introduces is the march towards some of the most dark, intensely heavy music the band has ever done —- cue up 29:36 where a classic Insomnium bittersweet melody unfurls into a blisteringly fierce section, Sevänen’s vocals delving down into previously unheard death-doom territory over tremolo riff sequences.

 

 

By the time we reach the concluding “Winter’s Gate Pt.7”, we’re somehow still not ready for the sheer violence that the band plunges you ear first in (specifically at the 34:31 mark), with Sevänen’s vocals exhanging guttural death-metal for the coarse, wind-strained harsh black metal barking more associated with Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson. If you’re following along with the lyrics and the storyline in general, this is around the time when it all hits the fan for our viking friends, but even if you’re not, the urgency and sense of madness conveyed by this awesome, eye-opening sequence is certainly heart pounding. The guitar work is inspired and tremendous, and the implementation of tremolo riffing isn’t a gimmick, it really does have a way of getting your hackles up as a listener —- funny how so many black metal bands never learned that tremolo picked passages work best when used alongside tempo accelerations and shifts and counterpoints… a melo-death band from Finland seems to understand that intuitively. If you want another example of tremolo passages being used in non-black metal music to powerful effect, check out Sweden’s own Falconer on their Armod album.

 

Something we should consider on the guitar front is Vanhala’s longer period of time within the lineup, he is in fact a co-songwriter all through the album, contributing to the music alongside Friman and Sevänen. Friman used to handle most of the music by himself, but he seemed stretched thin in spots for Shadows with some notable exceptions. I wonder if Vanhala’s integration in the music writing was the catalyst for injecting some much needed change with the way the guitar riffs and passages were envisioned and written (Vanhala is the primary songwriter for Omnium Gatherum whose music is considerably more uptempo and frenetic than Insomnium’s… well, until now perhaps). I’m absolutely thrilled that Insomnium pulled off the improbable here, and dare I suggest that they’ve made one of the most complete albums of the year. Its nicely concise, something I think the band needed after spending a decade in 55 minute plus territory through most of their albums, and despite the single track on the physical release being a significant flaw, the music here is strong enough to lock in most attention spans. Insomnium are a rather smart, intellectual bunch (check their bios), so credit to them for realizing that they had to shake things up somehow, even if that meant doing so in the riskiest way possible.

 

 

Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 2!: Symphony X, Powerwolf, and More!

Back again with yet another Reviews Cluster, covering a sizable chunk of some of the noteworthy metal releases that have dropped in these broiling summer months. There are so many that I’m pretty sure I’ll need one more summertime edition of these things to get through everything I’ve had to listen to lately. Its not a bad problem to have, but it hasn’t made it easy to finish off the non-reviews pieces that I’ve also been working on. Some housekeeping for me and you then: Expect a string of non-reviews pieces next, stuff I’ve been working on for awhile and have consistently had to delay because of the flood of new releases. It may mean a delay on reviews for new albums for a bit (except for Iron Maiden’s upcoming The Book of Souls, which I anticipate having up shortly after its release),  but eventually I’ll get around to having most of the major releases covered. Its been a grinder of a year for new music, with barely enough time to delve into the last batch of releases before another rolls in. I will admit that I’m excluding over half of the promos I’ve listened through and am only reviewing the ones that are of distinct interest to me for better or worse —- there’s a point when you can get burned out reviewing albums and I’m trying to avoid that. And canning the chatter…. now!

 


 

Symphony X – Underworld:

Some of you who happened to catch the dawn of this blog back in December of 2011 will remember something I wrote about just how long it took me to get into Symphony X. Long story short, it was years upon years, even after seeing the band live on their Paradise Lost tour, a block that was only cleared through their 2011 album Iconoclast. You might also remember that it was the album that topped my best of list that year (I’ve since retroactively amended that list in my mind, giving the top spot to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum and second to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow, dropping Iconoclast to number three —- but I won’t change the published list, it was a authentic snapshot of that time… anyway…!). For whatever reason, in 2011 I happened to be more receptive to the band’s classically infused take on prog-metal, and their infusion of a thrash metal attack on both Iconoclast and Paradise Lost was ultimately what led to me really being able to sink my teeth into those records. It was Iconoclast in particular that I felt was really inspired, a near-perfect fusion of visceral heaviness in the form of an aggressive rhythm section, razor sharp guitar wizardry from Michael Romeo and really terrific songwriting.

It was going to be an uphill battle for Underworld in that regard, but you’d figure that a four year gap between its predecessor would help its cause. Maybe it does a bit, because I honestly think its a good album, but it lacks the wall-to-wall hooks/microhooks that made Iconoclast such a joy to listen to. Don’t misread my meaning, because there certainly hooks to be found, and Russell Allen delivers yet another excellent performance in singing them —- being that rare prog-metal singer able to make accessible a nominally high learning curve subgenre of metal with his more hard rock inspired approach. It also features what has quickly become my favorite Symphony X song to date, the wide-open power ballad “Without You”. Its the kind of song that Allen is so adept at, with panoramic melodies that rocket skyward in the refrain and with enough iterations of the chorus throughout the song for him to lay on various inflections and changeups. If the guitars were chunkier you’d figure it was Allen guesting on an Avantasia song or perhaps a stray cut from an Allen/Lande album.

Unfortunately the rest of the album that seems to blend together, lacking songs with any real sense of identity or memorable moments. Some are better than others, such as “In My Darkest Hour” with its Whitesnake-ian chorus (I suppose the verses are a little Dave Mustaine-ish, to nod to the Megadeth reference… I doubt its intentional however). I do enjoy the swift transitions that separate each section of “Run With the Devil”, suddenly moving from mid-paced thrash metal to an AOR-tailored bridge only to finish with a strangely alt-rock chorus. Its a weird clunky track that actually manages to stand out. Everything else however is just there, and it took me a long time to figure out why so much of this album failed to affect me at all. I suspect its because the band has capitulated on the degree of the heavy thrashy-ness they doubled down upon for Paradise Lost and particularly on Iconoclast. Here they’ve decided to merge the heavy era of the past eight years with their lighter, proggy era before 2007, and in effect dulling the impact of the album a bit (for me). That they had moved towards a heavier direction was ultimately what pulled me in, and their distancing away from that is whats pushing me out.

The Takeaway: Far be it for me to slap a negative adjective on this album, because I’m sure a lot of longtime Symphony X fans will love it, and its certainly as well performed, recorded, and produced as you’d expect it to be. But I wonder if others who got into the band with either of the previous two albums are feeling the same way I am —- not entirely disappointed, just relatively disinterested.

 

 

Powerwolf – Blessed and Possessed:

I’ve never written about Powerwolf before, which is odd for this blog considering they are one of the bigger power metal bands across the pond in the recent years. They’re almost at a Sabaton level of popularity in their home country of Germany, with their previous album Preachers of the Night topping the German Media Control chart (a feat not even accomplished by Blind Guardian or Manowar yet, both bowing at number two). They are an interesting bunch to be sure, a power metal band that wears black-metal styled corpse paint (actually their aesthetic probably owes more to King Diamond than Euronymous but close enough), sings about werewolves and y’know… werewolf culture, oh and their music is the kind of hyper-polished take on power metal that’s tailor made for arenas and Euro summer metal fests. They write catchy songs, with absolute intention of sculpting memorable choruses with easy to sing a long lyrics set to keyboard led melodies. As a major fan of Sabaton, I should really enjoy them —- right?

I’ll be diplomatic, I like a small handful of Powerwolf songs, particularly when the band indulges their Twisted Sister pop influences such as on “We Are the Wild”, as good an original song you’ll find on Blessed and Possessed. Its cliche-laden lyrics could be talking about werewolves (I’m sure they are) but they also work in that ever so eighties metal trope of addressing their fans… especially those in attendance at the show that night. Its fist-pumpingly goofy stuff, and I’d be right there in the midst of it, grinning like an idiot and raising my fist in the air in rhythm, drunkenly mis-shouting the lyrics. There are quite a few rather great concert choruses spread across these eleven tracks, the problem is that often the verses fail to stack up in relation: I’m referring to songs like “Dead Until Dark”, “Sanctus Dominus”, and “Army Of The Night”. Enjoyable choruses all, but the build up to them is so pedestrian, and so interchangeable, with nothing in their verses or bridges to hold onto and remember.

When I listen to a band like Blind Guardian, Sonata Arctica, Falconer, or even Sabaton, those are bands whose songs are loaded with twists and turns, structural writing meant to ramp up emotion or tension, and unusual singular moments of brilliance never to be repeated. Its just a whole other level of songwriting that Powerwolf has yet to achieve, or perhaps is not interested in aspiring to. I don’t have a problem with the band wanting to be the AC/DC of power metal if that’s their thing, but its worth noting that beyond the classics I’ve found AC/DC often quite boring. The entirely separate hit against Blessed and Possessed is that the promo version I received was for the limited edition that comes with a staggering ten (10!!!!) cover songs of metal bands past and present. That I enjoyed them more than the actual album they were attached to was my first hint that I might never be a Powerwolf fanatic. The covers are pretty entertaining, with great takes on Savatage’s “Edge of Thorns” and Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark” in particular. There’s not a lot of deviation from the originals, but Atilla Dorn seems to have a malleable enough voice to cover an array of his heroes.

The Takeaway: If you enjoyed anything they’ve done in the past, you’ll probably enjoy Blessed and Possessed, albeit with a feeling that you’ve been buying the same album over and over again. My advice to everyone else: Get on iTunes and download “We Are the Wild” and a handful of the covers on the bonus disc for your “Party Metal” playlist (I know you have one!).

 

 

Luciferian Light Orchestra – Luciferian Light Orchestra:

A few months ago Christofer Johnsson, the brain trust of Therion quietly released an album via a new side project of his called Luciferian Light Orchestra, a mysterious band that plays a deliberately 70s styled version of occult rock. In this case that means vintage sounding guitars and Hammond Organ aplenty with breathy, detached female vocals over the top. I describe the project as mysterious because Johnsson is the only listed member, credited with handling most of the music and contributing some backing vocals (can’t discern where though). Rumor has it that one of the lead female vocalists on board (I suspect there’s at least two lead vocalists, could totally be wrong about that) is Johnsson’s girlfriend Mina Karadzic. As for who else is on board? I have no idea, and have tried in vain to find out. One thing has been revealed however, that most of the alleged twenty plus collaborators on the album are members of the Dragon Rogue, a mystical order that will be familiar to fans of Therion — Its founder and spiritual leader, Thomas Karlsson, has been writing Therion’s lyrics since 1998.

The insular nature of the project and the secrecy that shadows its individual parts only fuel the air of mysticism that oozes out of the nine songs on this self-titled debut. Your first impression listening to the album will probably match the one I had, that these songs while relatively simple and poppy for Johnsson are still loaded with a ton of Therion-isms. This makes sense when I read off the band’s one page official website that “the band is performing songs that Christofer Johnsson has written over the years but thought were too retro sounding for Therion.” Well, that explains the Therion-isms then. Its their hook-laden pop appeal that is the far more interesting trait running through the album, that a song like “Church of Carmel” can stick with me for hours upon hours throughout the day… typically speaking Therion songs don’t tend to do that (not a slight, I just find that I enjoy them more via actual playback as opposed to memory). Seriously, its a hypnotic, seductive, and charming song with a hyper-memorable chorus that is shoehorning itself into the best songs of the year conversation.

The rest of the album is no slouch either. I love the bizarre, hypnotically stoned-vocal approach of “Taste the Blood of the Altar Wine”, with its Heart meets Black Sabbath dark, smoky riffs and Deep Purple organ soundscapes. I’m also quite partial to the awesome guitar work and abrupt motif-changes of “Venus In Flames”, a Therion-ism that will smack you in the face. There’s some fantastic female lead vocal work on that song, with a voice that conjures up an actual witchy Stevie Nicks (albeit with a deeper register). There’s also something delightfully campy about its lyrics, particularly during the ending chant/refrain of “We hail Sathanas, Venus – Lucifer”. Perhaps I’m committing a faux-pas in assuming that the lyrics are to be interpreted literally, maybe I’m missing a grander metaphor at work —- with a guy like Johnsson at the helm I wouldn’t be surprised. Its just hard to take a song titled “Sex With Demons” with its lyrics specifically discussing sexual lucid dreams of unholy creatures of the night any other way. Actually this interview with Johnsson explains a ton regarding the lyrics if you’re interested (apparently Karlsson also assisted in penning most of these lyrics as well).

I was a little late on getting to this album, a rare occurrence for me when considering it was new music from the guy who gave me Therion, one of my favorite bands of all time. I had been wondering what Johnsson was doing in between random tour legs… writing that much talked about opera for one, but a part of me suspected he might also be hedging his bets a bit and slowly working on a new regular Therion album just in case. He very well might be, but with a significant portion of his time having gone into the LCO project I guess its not as much as I hoped he would. Am I disappointed? Not really, because this side project has been far more enjoyable than I could have ever suspected (occult rock and 70s throwback rock isn’t really my thing), I find myself listening to the album quite a bit, in the car, on headphones when out for the morning walk. Its a fun, loose, lively rock album that while not the deeply intense, spiritual experience of a fine Therion album, is still entertaining and artistic in a strange, unique way.

The Takeaway: Give this one a shot, even if that just means checking out the “Church of Carmel” or “Taste the Blood of the Alter Wine” music videos on YouTube. Its a strong set of songs done in a style that is annoying when handled by lesser talents —- but this is the guy who brought you Therion. That being said, I suspect that this will largely be a hard pass for some of you, but for you others there might be a hidden gem awaiting.

 

 

The Darkness – Last of Our Kind:

I’ve gone full disclosure on this before when I listed a song from The Darkness’ 2012 album Hot Cakes on that year’s best songs list (“She’s Just a Girl Eddie” in case you were wondering, and it still holds up!). I’ve enjoyed this band since learning about them shortly after their debut album was released stateside back in 2003. Their mix of Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Queen hits a sweet spot for me that few hard rock bands have ever managed to post-2000. Regardless of what you’ve thought about their image, their over-the-top stage show and their often times silly lyrics, The Darkness are consummate songwriters first and foremost. And I’ve never personally believed that they were a parody band, because their songwriting suggests an honest love of their influences that shine through, and an earnest attitude towards bright major key melodies, harmonized vocals, and openly bared sentiment. Any interview with either Justin or Dan Hawkins should be enough to clue you in on their baked in authenticity as fans of rock n’ roll, and their sense of humor is derived from their inherent British-ness. Despite sharing a similarity in their band names and the year of their debut album’s arrival, The Darkness had nothing else in common with all those bands of the post-millenium garage rock revival (you know… The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes, yawn, etc).

So their fourth album then, the aptly named Last of Our Kind, for certainly few bands are making music that sounds like this anymore, not even Def Leppard themselves. On the whole its an okay record, a bit more guitar-oriented than Hot Cakes (its closer to the debut in that regard), but that comes with its own drawbacks. What made Hot Cakes such a successful comeback album was its very honed in focus on making sure its choruses were shimmering and finely tuned for maximum memorability. That was an album loaded on catchy songs with sugar-pop hooks, largely vocal melody driven —- as a result the guitars took on more of a rear cockpit role and worked mainly to support them. On the new album the guitars are clearly the focus of attention, Justin and Dan trading off wild riffs and allowing their swirling, spiraling solos to be right up front. This is a facet most assuredly helped by Dan Hawkins serving as the album’s producer (a skill he honed during the band’s long hiatus) and defacto mix engineer. It works on the really simple, heavy attacks like “Barbarian” where the riff is the actual refrain, Justin’s vocals playing off it like a call and response. It works similarly well on the rather Cult-like “Open Fire”, with its gang-shouted chorus working as a breaker between verses rather than operating as a fully formed hook.

Where the increased emphasis on guitars tends to murky things up is on songs like “Roaring Waters”, where space that should be left for the development of a fully arcing chorus is shared with screaming guitar figures. Its not a bad song, but its not all that good either, nothing you want to come back for certainly… aren’t we listening to The Darkness for the don’t bore us get to the chorus mentality? If the chorus has nothing interesting to offer, what else are we left with? Again on “Mighty Wings”, the song is sabotaged by loading up layers of guitar wails over synth-based keyboard wash, leaving no space for vocals to maneuver. In this particular case though, I suspect its more that the song didn’t have much going on anyway… I tend to skip it whenever it pops up. On the utterly boring “Mudslide” (a name all too fitting for its sonic palette), we’re expected to enjoy a song built upon a riff so bereft of inspiration its hard to believe you’re not listening to a jam session at a rehearsal. This is all the undoing of what could’ve been a good album, that is a preponderance of songs built around the concept that the riff will be central to all things. Perhaps it was worth a try, but this is also why you use outside producers, to provide a sense of perspective about what you’re actually recording —- surely such a person would be able to tell the band what some random blogger is saying: “Your music works around vocal melodies, you’re not the Scorpions! Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken!”

Its in the more traditionally vocal led songs where the album really shines, such as on “Sarah O’ Sarah”, a sprightly, up-tempo tune with a charming brace of acoustic strumming and wonderfully endearing lyrics. It might be one of their all-time best songs, its lyrics purely in the Justin Hawkins trademark vein of bittersweet, “I’ll be patient, I’ll be strong / Until you see you’re wrong / Because I swallowed / Swallowed every lie you ever spat”. Later in the refrain, Hawkins flexes his creativity as a lyricist, “Sarah, oh Sarah / Make my heart burn / I’m lost within this labyrinth / Nowhere to turn”, which not only scores marks with me for the usage of labyrinth in perfect phonetic rhythm, but the imagery it inspires of a love-lorn fool unable to move on with his life. The power ballad “Conquerors” could be better, but I do enjoy its range of harmony vocals, with a point-counterpoint approach in it’s chorus. But its not as good as the title track, with its anthemic chorus and Thin Lizzy-esque guitar outro segue (the perfect order of things for this band). Its my second favorite tune on the record and perhaps the most archetypal moment on the album. I might normally dock a metal artist points for those, but I want familiarity in my hard rock bands.

The Takeaway: Toughie, but I’d recommend grabbing the title track and “Sarah O’ Sarah” off iTunes and leaving the rest behind. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of Hot Cakes instead, or even the rather underrated second album One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back. Both are front to back hard rock classics to my ears, with nary a misstep —- the debut is great as well.

 

 

Royal Hunt – XIII: The Devil’s Dozen:

Like clockwork, another Royal Hunt album lands in our laps, this being the third with vocalist DC Cooper since their reunion on 2011’s Show Me How to Live. In keeping with modern era Royal Hunt, it sticks with the AOR blend of melodramatic hard rock mixed with classically infused power metal, though far more leaning towards the former than the latter. I’ve been viewing this AOR element as a way for songwriter/guitarist Andre Andersen to steer the ship back towards a more melodic meets progressive direction ala the classic original DC Cooper era in the mid-nineties that gave us masterpieces like Paradox. After Cooper left and John West took over the vocal helm, it really did seem like the band got heavier, a little more metallic in their sonic approach, but it affected the songwriting in a meandering, heavy on the prog kinda way. They were good albums and West was a solid replacement, but I missed Cooper as well as the sheer fun and hook laden sensibility his era provided.

I’ve been relatively satisfied with the DC Cooper era Mark II, except that sometimes the AOR elements are so overpowering that they soften the impact of what is still a power METAL band. Its relatively similar to what Silent Force has been going through recently, though not quite as dramatic. That’s not to suggest there aren’t convincingly heavy power metal songs here, because tunes like “How Do You Know and the absolutely epic “A Tear In The Rain” are every bit as aggressive and hard hitting as anything the band has ever done. I’m stressing this quality in regards to Royal Hunt not only because the injection of hard rock and AOR devices into traditional power metal has become something of an enduring yet overdone trend in the past decade, but because the rather distinctive style, sonic palette, and mood of Royal Hunt has typically demanded that the band walk that fine line between uplifting melodicism and dark, somber symphonics.

So when the band chooses to use a hard rock meter to pattern out a riff instead of relying on a classic power metal approach, as on “So Right So Wrong”, the results skew a little more towards pedestrian melodic metal rather than the gloriously pompous grandeur we’ve all grown to love and expect from Royal Hunt. Don’t get me wrong, its a good song, obviously catchy and well written, but I can imagine it being a little more intense, perhaps even a tad more uptempo. I’m talking about the kind of intensity heard on a song like “May You Never (Walk Alone)”, as classic a Royal Hunt tune I’ve heard in years. Rollicking tempos, furiously unrestrained percussion, and a grandiose, aggressive keyboard arrangement fuel the energy in this gem of a track, allowing Cooper to deliver his vocal like a wildman. Andersen is still as adept as ever at writing magnetic riffs paired with synth lines, such as on “Way Too Late”, a brooding juggernaut of an epic with an ascending chorus that sees Cooper hitting some high notes he rarely visits. The album tends to alternate these strong moments with weak ones, preventing one side from being dominant, but the overall effect is one of inconsistency.

The Takeaway: Royal Hunt die hards will snap this one up, as they should, but newcomers might do better with its two immediate DC Cooper fronted predecessors. Of course it must be reiterated that newcomers should have already picked up 1997’s classic Paradox. Its a seminal album in power metal history and Royal Hunt’s finest hour.

 

 

To Die For – Cult:

Ah the return of To/Die/For… I feel like its 2003 all over again! I’ve always had a soft spot for these Finns and their synth heavy blend of pop and gothic metal, with their predilection towards recording unusual covers (seriously they’ve done a handful… remember their take on Sandra’s “In The Heat of the Night”). They never quite reached the ranks of affection that I reserved for their countrymen in Sentenced (being that the two were stylistically similar to a degree), and later on Insomnium and Ghost Brigade. But their initial prolific run from 1999 to 2006 yielded some pretty good records with a few remarkable singles, and a some really fun gothic metal dressed takes on U2’s “New Year’s Day”, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Its a Sin”, the Scorpions’ “Passion Rules the Game” (respected their song choice here, but the execution was lacking), the Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight”, and yet another (I Just) cover in their spin on Ozzy’s “(I Just) Want You”. Unlike those aforementioned bands of fellow Finnish countrymen, To/Die/For never really released a masterpiece of an album, always playing better as a singles band. I suppose it was what prevented me from really paying close attention to their activities throughout the years. After awhile I thought they had broken up, and it turns out they briefly did for a few months in 2009, but reunited and made a so-so album in 2011 called Samsara (had no idea!).

Throughout all these years the core of To/Die/For has remained intact, that being vocalist Jarno Peratalo and guitarist Juha-Pekka Sutela, the rest of the five piece lineup being filled out by relatively new members. I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to Samsara, but if the new album is any indication, then either Peratalo or Sutela or both have been listening to some of the grittier records by their fellow countrymen who are operating in a relatively similar style. On Cult, gone is the upfront presence of bright synth keyboards that characterized the band’s sound in the past —- instead, the guitars are murkier, darker-toned, more reliant on minor key melodies with long, modulating sustains on guitar. Now granted the latter is a fundamental characteristic of Finnish melodic metal (death or power metal), but do a side by side comparison of a To/Die/For oldie like “Hollow Heart” and the single from this album “In Black” and you’ll hear what I’m referring to. Modern To/Die/For owes more to post 2003 Amorphis, the last Ghost Brigade album, and those last two classic Sentenced albums than anything from a gothic rock milieu ala HIM (more fellow countrymen!).

Over at Angry Metal Guy, much of the discussion surrounded the seeming decline of Peratalo’s vocal talents, and indeed he does sound vastly different. His deep voiced clean vocals of the past now more resemble Poisonblack-era Ville Laihiala (really intense resemblance between the two voices here), and the change is a pretty good suspect for the musical shift towards a dirtier, darker, heavier style. This is the most metallic I’ve ever heard To/Die/For, and while it does tend to take away from their rather distinctive identity, it does yield some pretty good songs. Actually, I’m quite taken by the first three songs that open the album in a Finnish depressive salvo, from the aforementioned “In Black” to the furious, expansive melancholy of “Screaming Birds” (my personal favorite —- love the guitar solo from the 4:10-4:38 mark!), and the far more traditional (ie synth heavy) “Unknown III” which serves as a tribute to Tonmi Lillman (former To/Die/For, Lordi, and Sinergy drummer) with its raw, open-nerve ending lyrics: “Now you’re in the unknown / Your name’s written in stone / I just want you to know / You really had meaning / You know sometimes…. sometimes I still / Get wrapped up in the feeling / I don’t belong here”. Peratalo is joined on that refrain by a female vocalist named Linnea Kelin, who adds an subtle touch of additional pathos to an already emotive lyric.

There’s other good stuff too, “You” is a throwback to the band’s far more gothic rock drenched stylings of the past, despite Peratalo’s harsher vocals. And I love the direct simplicity of “Let It Bleed”, which might be setting some kind of record for the quickest launch into a song’s chorus in the history of metal (mere seconds). If anything its the two dirge-like ballads “Mere Dream” and the album closer “End of Tears” that fall flat, with no real discernible thru-melody to carry them while awash on a river of keyboard atmospherics. And in keeping with tradition, the band unloads another unusual cover tune, this time its a clunky take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”, which was a snazzy dance-pop number in the 80s but one of those songs that didn’t really need a rock/metal makeover. Its really the first of their covers to fall completely on its face, and that it winds up in the middle of the album ruins an otherwise nicely flowing song selection. I guess overall I’m more at peace with Peratalo’s changing vocals than the folks over at Angry Metal Guy were, because it seems that both he and Sutela knew exactly how to compensate for that change and adjust their songwriting approach accordingly. What they lost in originality they made up for with some really terrific songs.

The Takeaway: Much better than you’d probably be expecting from a band only releasing their second album in nearly a decade. Maybe its just me and my unabashed love of Finnish melancholy (it certainly does seem to strike a chord within me) but this is a surprisingly strong set a songs with only a few blemishes to skip over. Worth the time to investigate.

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

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

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2014:

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Catching Up On 2014 Part III (Sounds of Autumn Edition): At The Gates, Ghost Brigade and More!

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog throughout the year, you’ll remember I’ve done a pair of these batches of smaller reviews in an attempt to play catch up with the overwhelming amount of new releases I’ve had backlogged. This year has seen a constant flurry of new albums and I’ve been playing catch up all year, jumping reviews around to match release dates, postponing others… in short I’ve been trying in vain to get my metal house in order before the December Best of features start arriving and fouling up your Facebook and Twitter feeds (or maybe you love them like I do!). Anyway you know the drill with this feature by now, shorter reviews (400-500ish words) for a handful of new and new-ish 2014 releases that I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time listening to repeatedly. Seriously, I’m sort of glad to be done with these for the time being, regardless of whether I enjoyed them or not. On to the next batch!


 

At The Gates – At War With Reality:  I suppose back story isn’t really needed here, I mean you’re all smart, together, with-it metal fans that already know this is At The Gates first new music in nineteen years. I’ll admit that for the longest time after their initial reunion began in 2006 I never anticipated anything new in the way of a studio album from them. I saw them live in 2008 and they looked pretty comfortable doing the classics and I figured that would be it, Emperor-style reunion touring for us newer generation of metal fans that never saw them in their initial incarnation, healthy profits, and satisfaction all around. The At The Gates legacy didn’t have the same problem that Carcass did with theirs —- Slaughter of the Soul was a watershed classic, Swansong was anything but. It was understandable that Carcass would want to try their hand at crafting an album far more worthy of closing their discography upon, and the resulting Surgical Steel was so utterly fantastic, it should be considered the modern day reunion album benchmark (it is by me). So it comes as something of a gamble that At The Gates have chosen to follow up Slaughter of the Soul with At War With Reality, and I’ve seen plenty of other reviewers assert that the band’s greatest strength is in not caring what others make of their legacy at all. Okay, that’s fair —- but then again the band themselves would never have a hand in “defining” it to begin with, that’s our job as fans.

Straight to the point then, this is my take: I think At War With Reality is a good album, not great, certainly not up to the genre defining level of Slaughter of the Soul or Terminal Spirit Disease, but as good as you can reasonably expect a new At The Gates album to sound. If it sounds a little too familiar, keep in mind that the Björler brothers are the creators of a sound that has been pilfered again and again within melodic death metal as well as metalcore. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg sounds as ferocious as ever, if not a little deeper in range. His performance is consistent and well executed throughout, but he’s restrained on these songs, rarely letting himself escape his solid comfort zone. The same goes for the songwriting itself, which is composed of an array of riffs that seem fine while I’m listening to them, yet I have a hard time remembering any shortly after I’m done listening. Its not for a lack of effort either, I expect to remember a handful of riffs or melodies after twenty plus listens —- and that’s perhaps the biggest knock on At War With Reality. I suspect they played it a little too safe in the songwriting sessions, sticking to a sound they’re comfortable with but extenuating it over the majority of the tracklisting. The outliers are the sole gems here, “Order From Chaos”, and the album closer “The Night Eternal”. The latter is an adventurously epic song built on some creative minor key guitar patterns and a Dissection-esque sense of cinematic melody. More of that please, it gives me hope that there’s some far more creative stuff that could possibly wind up on a future album (granted, no one in the band has mentioned doing another one).

Takeaway: Sometimes I got the feeling that this effort leaned a little too close to The Haunted, and maybe that was to be expected (see the Sanctuary review below) with the Björler brothers history. It must be hard to determine what to include or cut out in a reunion album, especially one made nearly two decades later, but Carcass showed that it wasn’t impossible. At The Gates falls short, and while it won’t tarnish their legacy, it won’t help it either.
 

 

Ghost Brigade – IV: One With The Storm: The last time we heard from Finland’s Ghost Brigade was way back in 2011 with their rather good Until Fear No Longer Defines Us, a top ten album on this blog that year. Their newest, One With The Storm, is even better in large part because the band left behind their mid-period Katatonia worship for a looser, more Sentenced-influence take on depressive melodic rock as well as a clearer, fresher approach to mixing and production. This is such a great sounding record, that it enhances the impact of the band’s decision to get heavier in all respects. This isn’t a selling point by itself, but a noticeable change in the band’s sonic identity —- they’re no longer content to let the music simmer beneath the always excellent vocals of Manne Ikonen, instead the riffs and melodies clash right up against him, fighting for space in the best possible sense.

Take the exciting album opener “Wretched Blues”, which is surprising enough with its accelerating, near Opeth-esque intensity, and deep-throated death vocal intro long before you reach the beautiful, repeating guitar figures that serve as the musical refrain. The sweeping, elegant guitar solo that outros the song is one of my favorite moments on any album this year. But the standout song here is “Departures”, a simply gorgeous slice of melodic Finnish rock in the vein of Sentenced, Amorphis, and The Man-Eating Tree. Its centers around Ikonen’s emotionally charged refrain (“If only I knew how to forgive / If only I knew how to let go / If only I knew how to own what I am”), and its a song that has kept popping in my head for the past few weeks. Nearly as equal in stature is “Disembodied Voices”, where a forlorn two minute long lament gives way for a massive crush of heavy noise and wailing guitars as Ikonen’s vocals shift from despondent to chillingly bitter. I’d venture to say that most of the album leans towards the band’s doomy/death metal side, tracks such as “The Knife”, and “Anchored” only feature clean, soaring, melodic vocals in isolated moments. It feels like the band has developed a sense of identity in that regard, unafraid of displaying both sides of their sound in equal measure and prominence. A brave and well executed step forward.

Takeaway: Its stunning to even think this, but in a year with new Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum albums, Ghost Brigade may have delivered the best album out of Finland in 2014. Consider this a strong recommendation to listen to this, you’ll be doing yourself a favor (its particularly suitable music for this wonderful cold front that’s been chilling our bollocks off!).
 

 

While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion: First of all, While Heaven Wept’s newest album scores the award for best cover art of the year hands down, take a long gander at that sleeve in high res on Google Images… its just flat out jaw dropping. Secondly, I’ve been waiting for this album with a great amount of anticipation, having been sold on them a year or two ago with the song “Vessel” from their 2009 album Vast Oceans Lachrymose. I didn’t find its follow up album, Fear of Infinity nearly as compelling, but they’ve managed to win the benefit of the doubt in my mind. If you’re unfamiliar, this prog-meets-power-meets-doom metal band from Virginia of all places is keen on grand, epic scale music with lyrical themes (and artwork) to match. I expect that there might be a few metal fans out there who take umbrage with While Heaven Wept’s manner of tracklisting, sequencing, and envisioning of albums in general. There are usually not many actual tracks, two songs are often paired up and folded into one long song, there are short instrumentals including intro and outro tracks, and the overall album length is sometimes maddeningly short (forty minutes here, ten of which are instrumental). I’ll admit that its slightly frustrating for me as well, but the band clearly intends for their albums to be listened to from start to finish, and in truth they work better that way (this is prog-metal after all).

On Suspended At Aphelion, the band continues with their trademark of creating delicate atmospherics, but they’re also surprisingly heavy in moments, using aggressive riffing and harsh vocals as a light/shade to their normal clean vocal led passages sung by James LaBrie dead-ringer Rain Irving (he’s actually much better than LaBrie, calm down). Both elements are on display in the album opener “Icarus And I/Ardor”, and its a whirlwind juxtaposition of disparate musical elements that actually works. By the time the twelve minute plus song settles into its almost hypnotic outro, you’ve heard the range of styles that this band is capable of traversing. If you’re looking for another “Vessel” here, the quasi-power ballad “Heartburst” might come the closest in overall majesty, if falling short in its approach. Its a quiet, piano led affair, where tinkling keys playfully create a bed for Irving to lay down some truly great vocal lines, all building up to a towering crescendo where all the instruments come crashing in. The obnoxiously titled “The Memory Of Bleeding/Souls In Permafrost/Searching The Stars” is my personal favorite here, the latter section featuring some rather memorable and expressive vocal passages, its just a shame that it couldn’t be its own individual track. I commend them for sticking to their guns, but I’d love to one day get something new from these guys a little more geared towards accessibility.

Takeaway: I want to like this band more than I can actually claim to, and this album is good for what it is, but its failed to really excite me on the level I assume it really wants to —- an emotional one.
 

 

Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died: You’d be forgiven for glancing back at the album art when experiencing your initial few minutes of Sanctuary’s first new album in twenty-five years. It sounds an awful lot like a theoretical new Nevermore album than anything resembling the power metal infused thrash of the Sanctuary’s pair of late eighties albums. What makes it strange is that original guitarist Lenny Rutledge is back in the fold and handled most of the songwriting, and yet there is an overall Jeff Loomis vibe to the guitar work that is hard to ignore. I’ve considered the possibility that my brain is playing tricks on me, that Warrel Dane’s vocals being mixed far up front (similar to Nevermore), and the overall modern production of the album is subliminally suggesting a likeness that isn’t really there. I’m not going to harp on this though, but suffice to say, it was difficult at times to wrap my head around the reality that this is indeed a Sanctuary album.

If we accept that this is how the band will sound in 2014, you’re left with a really well written, thrashier flavor of Nevermore that perhaps you’ve always hoped for. There were times on Nevermore’s last two albums where I thought their prog influence was creeping too far into their overall sound. That’s not a problem on The Year The Sun Died. Here the songs frequently attack heavier, faster, and with a greater emphasis on presenting memorable riffs and vocal sections before lengthy solos or technicality. This is particularly felt on the pre-release single “Arise and Purify”, one of the best songs of the year, where Dane sounds fiercer than he ever did in Nevermore, his multi-tracked vocals in the refrain showcasing an inspired blending of his vocal range. I’m also really fond of the title track, where the vocal lines twist around in surprising ways, keeping me riveted. The most old-school sounding song is “I Am Low”, where the songwriting harkens back to a classicist approach towards 80s styled power metal ala Queensryche and Fates Warning down to the chant-like sound effects. I waver on that song a bit, sometimes wishing it was a touch faster if only to amp up its energy. I don’t really have any major quibbles however, there isn’t a lot to nitpick here: Good songwriting with some nearly great flashes, excellent performances from everyone on board, and its kinda nice to hear Dane’s vocals in something this intense again.

Takeaway: This is the best Nevermore album since Dead Heart in a Dead World —- ah, couldn’t resist. I’ve really enjoyed this album, granted it never had me jumping out of my seat but I never found a reason to cut it off midway through. There’s also a great Doors cover of “Waiting For the Sun” on the limited edition. Dane has a proven penchant for adapting oldies into rather interesting metal cover versions, and this might be the best one yet.
 

 

Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry: I’m a self-professed newbie when it comes to Blut Aus Nord’s vast and intimidatingly titled back catalog, but I’ve been intrigued enough by the writings of fellow reviewers whose opinions I trust to give the band repeated chances. Their recent handful of releases were a trilogy of albums and series of EPs under the overarching title of 777, and they were united musically through a rather bleak, unforgiving, and frankly unlikeable blend of industrial elements with densely layered avant-garde black metal. The hype meter on the band (actually, just the project of one reclusive Frenchman known as Vindsval) was through the roof during the years spanning those releases, and I felt like I was missing out on something that seemingly everyone was raving about. As I’ve come to discover today, a few years removed from that period, there were quite a few others who felt the same way I did. But in reading what they wrote, it seemed that I should’ve been checking out far older Blut Aus Nord albums in the Memoria Vetusta series of albums as they fell more in line with a style of black metal more inclusive of epic melodies and expansive soundscapes. My cup of tea in other words.

How convenient that I checked my email a few weeks ago to see that the band’s label had sent me a promo for the latest in the Memoria Vetusta series, part three aka Saturnian Poetry. Finally, this is a Blut Aus Nord I can enjoy, one that is built on early Ulver-styled black metal buzzsaw riffing, and an Emperor influenced sense of beautiful melodicism and grand scope. The vocals are as grim as you’d expect, and mixed lower than the guitars so as to allow the music to do the narrating, but that’s not to say this is lo-fi in any way —- in fact, this might be the best sounding black metal album of its kind that I’ve ever heard. The guitars may be massively layered blasts of minor key tremolo riffs built in shimmering waves of noise, but they’re shockingly clear to boot, you can actually differentiate patterns and melodies with incredible ease. This is the kind of listening experience that you simply have to allow to wash over you, its hard to point out individual songs as standout tracks. I will say that “Metaphor of the Moon” is a personal favorite though, with its oddly major key guitar accents and Falkenbach styled choral vocal effects. The most immediately accessible moments can be found on “Tellus Mater”, where the riffs are enticingly close to Gothenburg melo-death; as well as on “Paien”, where catchy patterns of riffs separate midway through the song to create a sense of welcome space amidst the overall intensity. This is the most second wave any black metal album has sounded in a long time, and its not even from Norway. Go figure.

Takeaway: Its been a slow, quiet year for black metal —- for myself anyway, but I suspect in general as well. The few releases that have come my way have been pretty good, but this might be the best of them all. If you were turned off by Blut Aus Nord before, seriously consider giving this one a chance.

I’ll Pretend Its Autumn: Insomnium’s Shadows of the Dying Sun

Finland’s melodic death metal brush artists Insomnium are perhaps my most beloved metal “discovery” within the past few years. I stumbled across them some time after the release of their 2011 album One For Sorrow, an elegiac, melancholy touched masterpiece. I think its easy for writers to throw that term around often, it happens quite a bit within metal reviewer circles —- but I really mean it in relation to that album. I was transfixed by every note within, and when I worked my way backwards through their discography, eagerly devouring the similarly styled Across the Dark (2009) and the noticeably more aggressive Above the Weeping World (2006), my appreciation for the band grew stronger and deeper. By October of 2012 I had my first opportunity to see the band live, who had an opening slot for Alestorm (the very idea) and Epica. I’ll never forget that show, I wrote earnestly about my experience that night in an admittedly unnoticed article published later in December of that year that discussed the musical links I traced between Insomnium and Sentenced. Reading it over now, I wonder why I didn’t discuss how deeply I felt connected to the band’s music that night, even on the drive to and from the venue, racing along the highways while staring out at a rapidly darkening, grey-clouded autumn sky. I’m not a religious person for the most part, but something spiritual was going on that day, it was as if Insomnium’s music was painting in the world around me as I perceived it.

 

After Insomnium had played, I thought I might stick around for Epica since I’d coughed up over twenty bucks for the ticket, but Alestorm made me throw in the towel, and I headed outside into the cold night chill. I was walking towards my car and had to move around one of the nightliner tour buses parked outside, and as I rounded the corner I walked past a couple guys that looked familiar. I stopped after a few steps while craning back to look at them, only realizing after my eyes had adjusted to the dark that I’d walked past Insomnium. There they were, all four of them, just casually hanging outside like they hadn’t just put on one of the all time great live performances that I’d ever witnessed. I sauntered over to them and we all said hellos and shook hands, and we began to converse about the typical things —- how they liked the audience,  how was the tour going, etc. They were quite friendly, seemingly rather surprised that some fan had apparently only come to see them play, and they talked at great length. At some point during this conversation, I remember just actively realizing what a vivid impression their music had upon me in various ways that day and its a memory haze blur as to how exactly I told them of this, but I did. I think I behaved like a normal human being (fairly sure), but I briefly let them know, and they replied with genuine appreciation. They shook my hand again after hearing of it, and I told them good night. When I got in my car and pulled out onto the road I felt invincible, and that somehow for a few hours that night, the world made sense to me.

 

 

I tell you all that not only to rectify the lack of detail in that older Insomnium/Sentenced article, but to express to you just how deep my personal roots have grown with this band. I’m writing an album review on the surface, but I’m almost pained to write one for fear of deconstructing the album past the point of —- well, the way I want to enjoy it. In keeping with the way I handled my previous review, for Sabaton’s Heroes, I’ll just come right out and declare this: This is a great Insomnium record, filled with the kind of emotionally charged songwriting and artistry that we now expect from the band. But then haven’t I already expressed that I felt their past three albums were great? Yes I have, and if that nullifies any sense of relative objectivity for you then I’m sorry. And really, what else can I say? This is a band on a roll, with an unshakeable sense of identity and a musical nucleus of guitarist/vocalist Ville Friman and vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevanen that is perhaps the strongest in melodic death metal since the Stromblad-Gelotte pairing during the classic In Flames era.

 

Speaking of identity in particular, Insomnium weren’t preternaturally gifted —- their first three albums were made of good, solid melodic death metal with some certain flashes of brilliance; you can see retrospectively that some unpopped kernel was there, trying to figure its way out. It happened with their fourth album, Above the Weeping World, their first truly great record where they began to trickle in this flood of musical melancholy —- a robust sense of definable emotion that was inherently very Finnish. Their next two albums, Across the Dark and One For Sorrow fully revealed the extent of this transformation —- all traces of Gothenberg removed from their take on melodic death metal as the band’s songwriting had transitioned away from being built around riffs. Instead they created songs by first painting with melodies, even allowing vocal melodies to carry the weight of choruses through clean vocals; there was a sense of space, of delicacy, and of musical texture. Tempos were slowed, there was an noticeable eagerness in their wanting to craft songs with unorthodox rhythms and percussive patterns —- they were in short redefining what melodic death metal could sound like.

 

Those albums also seemed to be the apotheosis of that particular avenue for the band in that I regard them as musical siblings, they share musical and structural commonalities and seem to fit together —- so much so that I suspected it was unlikely that they’d attempt a third repeat performance. In confirming my hypothesis, Shadows of the Dying Sun is as much a departure as it is a continuation of its immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously a further exploration of the softened melodic brush strokes of Across the Dark and One For Sorrow as it is a throwback to the sheer brutal intensity of Across the Weeping World —- and its a near faultless marriage. I’m not sure whether or not it was a conscious decision, but the band have definitely increased the tempos and aggression on an almost album wide basis. There’s a songwriting move back towards sharp, tight melodic riffs while still keeping the new-era layers of expressive clean guitar melodies. The semi-introductory track “The Primeval Dark” is a big hint towards this trajectory, with its soft atmospherics serving as a tension heightening backdrop to the marching, grinding, half growled/half instrumental passages that act as a build up to the kickoff of the album proper.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBZ5SLJmfdw&w=560&h=315]

 

 

That kickoff being the multifaceted “While We Sleep”, which starts off with some melodic vocals courtesy of Friman before transitioning into Sevanen’s monstrously deep death vocals, all while Friman and fellow guitarist Markus Vanhala create beautifully swirling guitar patterns juxtaposed over sharp, cutting riffs. I love that the mid-song guitar solo here isn’t kicked off in a wild Scorpions-esque electric overdrive, but builds slowly, with gently fluttering acoustic guitar chords that usher in a vivid electric guitar solo sans distortion. Its just one of the ways in which Friman is a thoughtful composer, he could’ve really gone for the big Slash-styled moment there, but tempered it back in accordance with the credo of only giving the song what it needs at any given moment, and in keeping with the tone set by his pensive lyrics. As we segue into the final outro where Sevanen growls the despairing lyric “We need to slow down, so I can catch you / We need to slow down, so you can catch me”, the lost wild rock n’ roll guitar solo finally shows up and its a stunningly expressive emotional release —- one of my favorite moments on the album. Looking at these two songs as a pair its worth noting that they’re keeping in the tradition of the past three Insomnium albums having similarly styled one-two punch opening combos.

 

The next two tracks, “Revelation” and “Black Heart Rebellion” are as starkly contrasting as day and night; the former is a dreamy blend of acoustic guitars and slower, patient tempos with crescendoing clean electric melodic runs, Sevanen’s vocal performance at times softening to a near spoken word whisper. Its a startlingly spiritual lyric at work here too, a Sevanen penned hymn that seems to touch on the Cosmos-themed concepts of being aware of one’s own place in the universe, that “This is the gift of man / The key to see it all / The hidden wonders / Hope in despair”. Alternately in both music and lyrics, “Black Heart Rebellion” is perhaps the most punishing and brutal track on the album, with its black metal like flurry of near tremolo riffs, blastbeat percussive tempos, and Sevanen’s vicious growling about the parallels between “Morning star, angel of the dawn” and “Desolate is the path of self-believers”. Yet Friman still writes in moments of space for quiet melodic reflections, such as Vanhala’s hushed solo at 4:53 —- the kind of thing that is such a distinctive Insomnium signature, their musical calling card if you will. The lengthiest track on the album is the similarly black metal-touched “The River”, where I love the way the guitars anticipate the vocals by a fraction of a second at the 1:27 mark and the resulting effect crackles with excitement. Those stately verse sections unleash into a tremolo riff fueled chorus section with some surprising melodic change-ups.

 

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

 

 

I have other favorites as well, “The Promethean Song” being chief among them, its chiming acoustics and slow tempo-ed bed of bass heavy guitars preceding a Sevanen/Friman vocal trade off where the latter opens up his pipes to higher ranges than we’ve seen from him before. He sounds good, really good actually, and he knows how to write vocal melodies that suit his tone (a rare skill in guitarist first songwriters). I adore the bridge section that occurs at the 4:00 minute mark with accented drumming, Sevanen’s harshly barked out vocals and perhaps the album’s best guitar solo. Then there’s the title track serving as the album closer, its a bass driven, rumbling beast of a song where heavy guitars suddenly swing up and crunch down to usher in a rather inspired Sevanen / Friman vocal duet on the refrain, “And I feel it in my heart / And I know it in my mind / That’s all there is, ever will be”. Its another song where Friman ruminates upon the stardust-y nature of our existence, a sentiment I entertain myself with on occasion and feel rather connected to. Incidentally, Friman makes his rent by working a day job as a scientific researcher, so if you’ve been wondering at the inclusion of science meets spirituality themes within the lyrics, that goes a long way towards explaining it. And of course there’s “Ephemeral”, which we heard late last year as a standalone single, and its dressed up here in a few more layers of guitars and production work, but still sounds just as vibrant, fresh, and ear wormingly catchy as it did originally. It features my favorite lyric on the album, “Dying doesn’t make this world dead to us / Breathing doesn’t keep the flame alive in us”, and its a rarity among Insomnium’s catalog —- a truly anthemic song.

 

I’ll curb this now to prevent it from being a track by track dissection, its already more review than I ever wanted it to be. On a personal level I’m still just allowing myself to experience the album as a continuum where the band’s musical sound palette affects me on a raw emotional level. That’s the kind of thing that I’ll never really be able to express within the context of a review, and its where the large majority of my enjoyment of Insomnium comes from. I was asked by a friend who was eager to hear the album how I thought it stacked up when compared to One For Sorrow, and apart from mentioning the obvious uptick in aggression and overall heaviness, it was a question that I really couldn’t answer. I loved One For Sorrow not only because I thought it was a masterpiece, but because it was the album that reintroduced me to this band and made me a devout fan, and because the music on that album came to me at the perfect moment in my life when I was receptive enough to appreciate it. That’s a lot for a follow-up album to live up to, and that’s why I’ve chosen not to compare Shadows of the Dying Sun directly to it —- its a beautiful, inspired album on its own, and that’s enough. I’m sure that others won’t have a problem giving a more objectified opinion, but there’s a fine line I’m walking here in regards to discussing personal connections to a band’s work. Music can often serve as a mask, a way for you to have your feelings expressed without opening your own dumb mouth. There’s that Oscar Wilde quote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part One: The Songs

And farewell to another year that’s flown by too quickly. Of course that means its time for anyone and everyone in metal writing, print or digital, to indulge their egos a bit and draft up their end of year lists. Now most writers will never own up to it but I’m a rather shameless sort, and will freely admit that I love creating these lists. I put an inordinate amount of thought into drafting them and end up changing around the entries and numerical ordering countless times before I ever hit publish. Self-indulgent? Absolutely. But I also hope that people who in anyway remotely enjoy reading what I write will check out my lists as a way to get into bands or albums they’ve not heard before. That’s ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing about music, expressing your enthusiasm and passion for something to others and hoping they’ll hear what you hear.

 

As you can see from the title, to make everything more readable, I’m separating the best songs and albums of 2013 into separate articles (the albums list is on it’s way soon). Of course, some bands will overlap on both lists, with undeniable crowning jewels from great records being represented, but doing this separate list for just songs alone allows for a spotlight to be shined on those songs that were gems on releases that may not have necessarily made the best albums of the year cut. Anyway to quote Marti DeBergi, “Enough of my yakking”!

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2013:

 

1. Darkthrone – “Leave No Cross Unturned” (from the album The Underground Resistance)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0tsFqTulM8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The extent to which this song towered over the rest of the tracks from Darkthrone’s excellent The Underground Resistance is such that whenever I think upon that album, the monstrous, cyclonic riff that anchors this battleship of a song is the ONLY thing that comes to mind. This song, more than any other released this year by anyone else epitomizes to me the pure, untarnished, unapologetic, hell bent for leather spirit of metal as I know it and have grown up loving. Its not just the King Diamond-esque vocals from Fenriz that encompass so much of this thirteen minute long epic, or the brutal series of incredible, bone shaking riffs one after another courtesy of Nocturno Culto seemingly on a mission to destroy, or the slammingly heavy midsection bridge at 4:24 —- its everything all together. I contend, with some expectation of hatred at the very idea, that this is Darkthrone’s heaviest song to date.

 

Its typical of Darthrone’s contrary spirit then that this song could only come now, many albums past Darkthrone’s turning of their backs on the traditional black metal sound. They’ve also moved on past the crust punk/black n’ roll they dabbled in for some years and have seemingly embraced traditional heavy metal. Gone too are the murky, muddled productions of past albums, replaced here by a crispness and clarity never before heard with Darkthrone music. There are some out there that speculate that these guys are taking the piss, purposefully trolling the black metal fans with their current musical incarnation. I reject those notions out of hand not only because the band have come across as rather earnest about their current direction in interviews, but simply because music that sounds this genuinely in love with heavy metal in all its ugly glory doesn’t know the meaning of irony.

 

 


2. Amorphis – “Hopeless Days” (from the album Circle)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdKt1aw4BK8&w=560&h=315]

 

The shining gem on Amorphis’ 2013 effort, “Hopeless Days” is everything you’d want in a song built in this particular style of depressive, melancholic metallic hard rock. There were quite a few good songs on that record, but none as powerful and churning with dramatic ache as this one. Powerful percussion ushers you along over a bed of building riffs that explode in a supremely catchy chorus all whilst elegantly tinkling piano plays underneath —- a subtle yet brilliant juxtaposition. Vocalist Tomi Joutsen delivers his best vocal and lyric during this emotionally stirring moment: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”.  Gotta love the scale climbing guitar lines that kick in during and after the solo —- Esa Holopainen might just be the most underrated guitarist coming out of Finland right now. When Sentenced called it a day in 2005, I was worried that my supply of this type of rock inflected metal would dry up, but there seems to be a strong contingent of bands working in the same medium, Amorphis amongst the best of them. My iTunes count says I’ve played this song alone 79 times while the rest of the album’s songs sit at 30-40 (sometimes I wonder if the iTunes play counts of writers from taste maker websites would really back up their best metal of the year lists). Play count 80 starting…NOW!

 

 

3. Orphaned Land – “All Is One” / “Brother” (from the album All Is One)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bds3FALcR7M&w=280&h=225] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsPb1-uPIic&w=280&h=225]

 

How can two songs take one spot? Because they are to me inseparable, both in my mind as representations of my favorite moments on Orphaned Land’s surprisingly great All Is One album, and as micro representations of the core of the band’s progression through simplification both musically and lyrically. With the title track serving as both the lead off single and first song on the album track listing proper, Orphaned Land in four minutes and thirty seconds crafted a brilliant, euphoria inducing epic that perfectly encompassed their spiritual ideology (agree or disagree with it). What makes the song truly effective however are not just the direct, declarative lyrics, or the artfully done Middle Eastern instrumentation —- but the band’s embrace of clear, anthemic melodies and hair raising choral vocals ala Blind Guardian during the chorus. The infusion of that particular kind of power metal element is new for the band, as is their shift to a leaner, more direct method of songwriting, a complete 180 from the complex progressive metal of their last two records.

 

These newly embraced principles work to possibly greater effect on “Brother”, where singer Kobi Farhi’s inspired lyrics threaten to overshadow some truly great music going on underneath. The lyrics, as widely discussed by now, are intended to be the words of Issac to his brother Ishmael. Its a gutsy song for an Israeli to write, let alone record and perform on stage, as it’s lyrics essentially serve as an extended metaphor of the relationship between Jews and Muslims, brother faiths of the same Abrahamic father. Its a heavyweight topic to tackle but here its done with elegance, subtle apologetic notes, and a passionate vocal courtesy of Farhi that registers as the album’s highlight moment. The beautiful guitar interplay of Yossi Sassi and Chen Balbus that is to be found all throughout this album is the band’s best to date, particularly during the instrumental section where the guitars kick into an almost Slash-esque mellow solo. The band delivered an incredible one-two punch with both of these songs, and managed to wrangle an old fan like me back into the fold.

 

 

4. Serenity – “Wings of Madness” (from the album War of Ages)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX5jsf3v9vw&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity stunned me this year with their spectacular War of Ages album, and this inspired lead off track (and first single) was the highest among many high points to be found on the set.  “Wings of Madness” is a complex, multifaceted masterpiece that twists and turns around the dramatic vocal duets of co-vocalists Georg Neuhauser and Clementine Delauney. The latter is the newest member of the band and the undeniable star on this particular song (and perhaps the entire album), her vocals equipped with both a light ethereal touch and a dark, rich, almost Lisa Gerrard-like quality that she can blend together at will. The song’s music video seems to suggest that the lyrics are about the infamous Countess Bathory and her blood bathing lifestyle (everyone’s got their thing). This is a band that directs its lyrical bent towards characterizations or accounts of historical figures, and as such, the quatrain in the chorus is unnervingly eerie and appropriate: “No sun is shining in your eyes / A shadow growing in disguise / I can’t stand the silence / Embracing you at night”. One of the many things I appreciate about Serenity is their commitment to a higher standard of lyricism than the power metal norm —- similar to what Roy Khan was instilling during his tenure in Kamelot.

 

 

5. Queensryche – “In This Light” (from the album Queensryche)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LGaEOP86Kc&w=560&h=315]

 

That Queensryche was able to find a viable, credible future sans Geoff Tate was in itself a remarkable feat, but their creation of an album that is worthy enough to stand alongside their first six bonafide classics is still mind-boggling. This year’s self-titled comeback record was full of the classic elements long missed from Queensryche releases, and the band found that new members like guitarist Parker Lundgren and of course, life-saver vocalist Todd LaTorre could contribute to the songwriting process from the word go. Truthfully speaking, while I enjoyed the album, I had to admit it did have an array of weaknesses mostly stemming from the album’s length, and some songs that could’ve used a few more minutes. “In This Light” however stands out as a pristine moment, a deftly penned stately rocker with a chorus that could’ve come from the band’s Empire era. I mentioned in my original review for the album that this song was “a sort of distant cousin to “Another Rainy Night” and “One and Only”. Its perhaps the most accessible song on the record, yet also the most thoughtful, its lyrics a reflective paean on despair and hope.” Its curious to me that they haven’t released this as a single yet.

 

 

6. Omnium Gatherum – “The Unknowing” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik&w=560&h=315]

 

These guys released a pretty solid record earlier this year with Beyond, but the highlight of the album was this singular gem, an arpeggio fueled, cinematic slice of melodic death metal nirvana. Not only is the guitar work stunning throughout in a general breathtaking sense, but they buoy a melody that is strangely melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s vocals here feature an extra degree of crisp clarity that is normally buried in his obsidian delivery (an acquired taste I admit). The Finns really have something going on right now with the amazing slate of fresh takes on melodic death metal that is very far removed from the now old-school Gothenburg scene in neighboring Sweden. Insomnium also released a fantastic new song this year that I reviewed earlier which will narrowly miss a placement on this list —- but its just more mounting evidence that both these promising torch bearers of modern melodic death metal have found a way to distance themselves from the negative associations that the original melo-death sound has unfortunately found with American metalcore.

 

 

7.  Týr – “The Lay of Our Love” (from the album Valkyrja)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zd2rYcxXBM&w=560&h=315]

 

This was a bold, gutsy move for  Týr, a band whose previous attempts at anything close to balladry were blanketed by singing in their native Faroese language, about subject matter that was really anyone’s guess.  But Valkyrja is a thematic album about the role of the woman as Goddess and wife, in the life of a Viking warrior —- and to the band’s credit they are lyrically adventurous about it throughout. Not only are the lyrics in “The Lay of Our Love” essentially about a rather sentimental subject, in this case a pair of lovers sundered by impending death, but the music at work here is pure power balladry (I mean that in a good way!). I’m not sure whats my favorite part, the delicately plucked acoustic intro or the wild, passionate guitar solo mid-way through that ranks amongst the band’s best. Liv Kristine of Leaves Eyes fame is the lithe, delicate female voice you’re hearing, and her performance here is just immense. Its a shame that I seem to only be able to really appreciate her work when its in guest spots like these, but she contrasts well with Heri Joensen’s deep, soaring vocals.  Týr should continue being brave with experiments like these if the payoffs are anything close to this.

 

 

8. Avantasia – “Saviour in the Clockwork” (from the album The Mystery of Time)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USkP6pT8UYI&w=560&h=315]

 

I pointed out in my review for Avantasia’s most recent album that in the past half decade Tobias Sammet has now released nearly double the amount of Avantasia releases in comparison to his main band Edguy. At some point, both of the projects were going to start blurring together stylistically due to having the same songwriter driving each, and as expected that is exactly what is happening with both of the newest Avantasia and Edguy releases. They’re still good albums, but at this point the only musical difference between both bands is the presence of guest vocalists in Avantasia, and you’ve gotta wonder if that will be enough in the long run. Of course, if you’re like me and just consider yourself more of a Tobias Sammet fan than a distinct fan of either one of his bands then you won’t really care all that much about such details as long as he keeps delivering the goods. Well, the bad news was that The Mystery of Time is the most uneven album in Avantasia’s now vast discography. The good news is that it did contain a handful of distinctive Sammet homeruns, including this awe-inspiring epic featuring vocals from Joe Lynn Turner, Biff Byford, and of course Michael Kiske. Its got all the elements a Sammet fan wants: thundering bombast, excellent songwriting, and lush vocal arrangements particularly in the group choir vocals during the chorus.

 

 

9. Falkenbach – “Eweroun” (from the album Asa)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA5nN65B_eg&w=560&h=315]

 

I consider it a good quality that this song conjures up the feeling of sitting by some intense campfire under the stars at midnight (… ah lets face it, I’m really thinking of Skyrim). Gone are the murky, lo-fi productions of past albums —- 2013 Falkenbach has taken a page from Darkthrone’s playbook: Sometimes the way to progress your sound forward is to fully capture it in a pristine form, not hide it under layers of hiss and microphones. Sole member and creator Vratyas Vakyas’s vocals are the selling point on “Eweroun” (translated as “Evermore”), his plaintive, spacious clean vocals ushering in the song with a vocal melody I can only describe as soothing. He sets this over a bed of warm muted riffing, simple percussion patterns, and chiming acoustic guitars. The hook is not a traditional chorus either, but simply an altered acoustic guitar figure. Vakyas apparently pens most of his lyrics in old Norse, and a look at the translation of the lyrics seems to suggest an allusion to the passage of time set against the backdrop of changing seasons. It all conjures up a rather spiritual feel, and its not much of a stretch to actually call it something close to spiritual folk metal.

 

 

10. Lord – “Digital Lies” (from the album Digital Lies)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR38tX6z6iI&w=560&h=315]

 

You may not have heard of Lord before, but many of you might remember Dungeon from Australia, the rather underrated power/trad metal band who in addition to building up a solid catalog of quality albums over the span of a decade  also provided us with one of metal’s great covers in their take on Toto’s “Hold the Line”. Lord then is ex-Dungeon vocalist Tim Grose’s project born out of the ashes of his former band. They launched in 2003 and have done a few decent records now, but their 2013 release Digital Lies shows the band taking determined strides towards potential greatness. This title track from the effort is one jewel among many featured on the release that crackles with the kind of excitement that is harder and harder to find with newer power metal releases (and worryingly so at that). Over a rock steady bed of aggressive, pulsing bass and pounding riffs is a striking contrast between almost Alexi Laiho-ish vocals in the verse, and Grose’s wide open, soaring tenor in the chorus. He’s always been an excellent vocalist, displaying a heft and weight to power metal vocal delivery that is so often found lacking amongst the European ranks —- but his ability to switch it up here at will is even more impressive. Check out this song, and if you like it do yourself the favor of grabbing the album, its one of the better power metal records released this year.

 

Insomnium Usher in Autumn with “Ephemeral”

Sunday, September 22nd, marked the official Autumnal equinox, and even though the temperatures here in Houston will still reach the 90s this week, there were signs in the air that the seasons had truly changed. It was in the sounds of an NFL Sunday escaping from the television, the outdoor smells of burning wood and grilling meats, the sights of a grey, overcast sky, and of course, the feel of much cooler breezes. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty big on this time of the year, and of course I tend to gravitate to listening to those bands that tend to provide a suitable Fall soundtrack. One of these bands is Insomnium, whom I began to get into heavily last year around this same time after years of seeing their name pop-up repeatedly. This surging interest perfectly coincided with the chance to see them live in November supporting their One For Sorrow album, and I still remember the anticipation of the drive to the venue, the electricity of one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen, and the shaking exuberance of the drive back home in the chilly late night air.

 

So perhaps my perception of time is distorted a bit, in terms of gauging my stunned surprise to the fact that four days ago on Thursday, September 19th the band released their new single “Ephemeral”. Seeing that One For Sorrow was released in 2011, a full year prior to my becoming a die hard fan, I might be projecting my personal timeline with the band over their working, reality based timeline. But it seems to have come as a welcome surprise to most of their fans, as the band had been recently posting cryptic Facebook posts for awhile hinting at something coming down the pike, only for it to end up being the release of a rather absorbing documentary on the making of One For Sorrow. So when another of these cryptic hint posts showed up on my Facebook feed, I figured it would be another retrospective based release, certainly not new music. That it actually ended up being so capped off what was the best week of the year for metal releases. And I can’t think of a better way to usher in the Fall than with new Insomnium music.

 

This single release is actually an EP to be precise, a collection of four tracks, the aforementioned “Ephemeral” and three acoustic based instrumental tracks. The title track kicks us off; a just under four minute slice of tempered Insomnium styled melo-death and its our first taste of the band’s slightly different take on their sound. Noticeably there is a lack of the band’s usual penchant for a slower, lengthy musical intro —- before we know it we’re launching headlong into a twice repeating up tempo verse section that accelerates into a nicely worked bridge, before exploding with a gush of ultra melodic guitars in the chorus. Whats striking here is the interesting tempo progression, a rhythmically uptempo verse to be sure, followed by an even faster bridge, and finally the guitars take the lead in the chorus to push the song to the speed limit. As usual for a band of their songwriting talent, Insomnium’s keen ear at layer separation between instruments is the key attribute at work here —- notice that the vocals continue from section to section at their own pace, never feeling the need to match the rhythm section or guitar leads. This song is catchy as hell. Probably more than any other melo-death band, Insomnium seems to have a never ending supply of ear worms that they liberally sprinkle all throughout their songwriting.

 

I want to point out the exceptional lyrics here as well. As lyricists, Insomnium have tended to lean towards the bleak, morose, and often flat out depressing —- but they always temper that approach with an underlying layer of optimism, or for lack of a better term, hope. On “Ephemeral”, verse lyrics speak to us of the grimness of living: “For this life will break you / Years will wear you down / And every day you die a little / Until the shadows will take you”, a plainly laid out sentiment that no one has managed to express as well since Sentenced. But the refrain that follows in the chorus is one of Insomnium’s best moments lyrically, a Norse mythological ethos steeped expression of sheer will: “Dying doesn’t make this world dead to us / Breathing doesn’t keep the flame alive in us / Dreaming doesn’t make time less real for us / One life, one chance, all ephemeral”. In my experience with Insomnium, its the melodies that draw me in first, but vocalist Niilo Sevänen’s perfect blend of harsh vocals with clear enunciation prevent these lyrics from just melting into the background. This song’s been on a regular rotation for the past few days and will probably stay there for weeks more at least.

 

 

There are three other cuts on this EP, as mentioned before, they are short atmospheric, acoustic instrumentals that actually served as the soundtrack to their One For Sorrow documentary. And before you yawn, let me assure you that they work within the context of this release. I suppose the obvious thing would be to say they were soothing, and at times they were, but “The Swarm” kicks off with a Jester Race sounding acoustic strum that is almost waltz-like in its tempo, bringing to mind the best era of that famed Gothenburg sound. They’re all good pieces, and nice to have in addition to the main attraction, but I think it would have been far more interesting had they re-recorded a few tracks from their back catalog in an acoustic format, perhaps with clean vocals over them? Ah can’t win them all. Regarding the documentary, I loved every minute of it, and its starkness in tone matched the band’s musical qualities, right down to the directorial decisions —- its worth checking out on YouTube. That coupled with the new single has me more anticipatory than ever, could a new album possibly arrive before year’s end? If not at least Autumn is finally here.

 

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DjmQXtZUx4&w=480&h=360]

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2012!

Before I started The Metal Pigeon, my end of year lists used to be relatively private, only meant for me and anyone else within earshot who’d listen. But I chose to start a blog and with the power of social networking and the viral nature of the internet, my opinions are now very much up for public discussion and dissection. So it didn’t come as a surprise to me that I took a bit of flak for my 2011 end of year list for various reasons. Regardless, I was happy with myself for delivering an honest appraisal of what I listened to and enjoyed most that year.

 

What I’ve learned since however is that a published best of list is often a temporal thing in terms of the albums on it and what number you rank them at. That 2011 list was accurate for the time frame it was published within, but come now to a full year later and I’ve realized that it was severely lacking in its estimation of what I really considered the best albums of that year — simply because I was late to the party on several key releases (Insomnium, Man-Eating Tree, and Theocracy for example). So having said that, I am certain that this 2012 best of list will aggravate just as many people as my 2011 list did, and equally as certain that I’ll miss several releases that I’ll realize should’ve been on it come next December. Oh well.

 

Its a challenge to keep up with new releases if you aren’t on promo lists, and special thanks go to my favorite metal websites and blogs (Angry Metal Guy, the Metal Meltdown Show, and Metal Rules in particular) and the excellence that is Spotify for keeping me musically updated. I’ve expanded this year into two parts, first albums, and then songs (the idea for the latter being that sometimes you’ll find a gem that’s worth talking about on an otherwise average to good album). So settle in, here we go!

 


 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2012:

 

1. Therion – Les Fleurs Du Mal:

When the French critic and poet Charles Baudelaire published his first book of poetry in 1857, he ruffled quite a few scandalized feathers within mainstream French society due to the then taboo themes of sexuality and mortality that permeated his work. Six of the worst offenders were deemed unfit for publication and soon deleted from the next printing of the collection. Over a hundred and fifty years later, a metal band from Sweden who share a not dissimilar esoteric personality with Baudelaire himself find themselves ruffling the feathers (leathers?) of the metal community over a new album that shares its namesake with the poet’s greatest work.

 

While its unlikely that anything off Therion’s latest record, a collection of covers of old French pop songs, will be banned or deleted, the album as a whole has been met with the digital age equivalency, that is a furious panning across the internet. But like the reaction to Baudelaire’s poems, this was merely the initial reaction upon the album’s release, and while these critics were loudly heard, their opinions were not universally shared among all Therion fans or metalheads who were understandably interested in the album’s unusual description. As weeks passed by, something really interesting happened — the subsequent reviews were increasingly more favorable than not, and it seemed that latecomers who wondered if the album could really be as awful an experiment as those first initial reviewers proclaimed it was found themselves more impressed than they thought they’d be.

 

I wrote in my initial review of Les Fleurs Du Mal that Therion fans would have to make do with this “art-project” album because it would apparently be years before a new “regular” Therion album was released. Now I look back at that statement with bafflement and regret, because what Therion has done with this album is redefine the idea behind what metal should, and could sound like. This is an album that has an unexplainable allure, a pull to it that I can’t really explain in any meaningful way. My first listening experience was as expected, surreal and marked with amusement at what I was hearing. But I found some ear-catching melodies in a handful of tracks that I latched on to and marveled at how, French language aside, the whole affair sounded very Therion-esque. This is a band that has developed its own unique musical language across a spectrum of albums throughout their career. And while to the uninitiated certain tendencies and nuances may seem jarring, unexpected, and bizarre even, fans of Therion’s original work revere such things as definable trademarks that set the band apart from well… everyone really. As I kept listening to this album, out of an incessant need to hear it again and again, I began to realize that Therion had achieved something truly great — the convincing interpretation of such a disparate musical genre as classic French pop through their own metal based Therion language — all without losing in translation the sound, style, and spirit of the originals.

 

Therion has a long history of dabbling in covers, and what is remarkable about their impressive list of remade songs on previous albums and EPs has been an innate ability to tear a song apart and rebuild it from the ground up in the classic Therion style. Whether it was with their operatic, cinematic take on the Scorpions “Crying Days”, their epic, yet delicate rendition of what was Accept’s clunky ballad “Sea Winds”, or their powerful re-imagining of ABBA’s lesser known classic “Summer Night City”, Therion’s Christofer Johnsson proved himself to be metal’s most radically creative interpreter of song. Yet on Les Fleurs Du Mal, Johnsson chose instead to preserve the core of the original songs and to retain their essence as much as possible to ensure that they were recognizable — well, in a manner of speaking. The reality is that except for those musically clued-in listeners in France, or erstwhile or current Francophiles, these relatively obscure songs aren’t recognizable to most of us in the English speaking world. We haven’t heard the originals to make comparisons to, and as a result are not filled with predispositions towards these songs, negatively or positively — its really all new to most of us (they are on YouTube however and are worth checking out after the fact).

 

Our unfamiliarity is part of Johnsson’s underlying strategy: These are foreign cover songs in a language that is new even for Therion, French chansons and yé-yé music, but because they are reinterpreted through the right amount of Therion’s musical language we find ourselves enjoying the music of a genre that perhaps we would normally ignore, or even disdain. It all illustrates another motive of Johnsson’s art-project element of this album, to demonstrate that the attributes that separate one style of music from another are often times not so far apart or drastically different. I hear in this album the core things I love about Therion, the only major difference being that the normally dark, epic, and cinematic moods the band usually dabbles in are here replaced by love-lorn melancholy, dramatic longing, and a subtle literate sophistication.  This is a front to back exhilarating, darkly beautiful, and addictive listening experience, and its not only the best album of 2012, but one of the greatest entries in the Therion canon.

 

 

2. Pharaoh – Bury the Light:

This album is so excellent that upon its initial release in early 2012, I had it as my album of the year by a mile. I figured that while there was still a lot of the year left, it was unlikely that anything would be able to top the sheer metal greatness that is Bury the Light. Make no mistake, just because its not number one on my list, doesn’t mean that I feel its value as a listening experience has diminished. These guys are part of the minority population within metal of US power metal bands, but before you let that pigeonholing genre label turn you off, know that this is not power metal in the modern Euro style, instead Pharaoh draw more from old-school American and Euro trad metal influences and their sound at times comes off as more thrash-influenced than anything. For more specifics check out the original review, there are too many details to adequately cover in this short space.

 

Pharaoh has metal’s jack of all trades Chris Black on drums, so its not surprising that a band that features in its ranks the mind behind High Spirits and Dawnbringer also focuses on crafting a reinvigorated approach to an old style. In all the reviews I’ve read for this album the one thing that hasn’t been stressed enough is just how well Pharaoh is able to look to the past for musical inspiration and come up with something fresh, way more so than the scores of fashionably-retro-thrash bands popping up everywhere. Personally what I took away from every listen of Bury the Light was this feeling of what it first felt like when I was being introduced to heavy music — in the sense that I found simple joys in the most meat and potatoes of metal. After so many years of hearing countless bands and albums, its sometimes hard to find excitement in old styles and motifs that you may think are being drawn from a dry well. Pharaoh proves that notion to be wrong, and gives me hope that metal will always be able to look backwards to go forwards — if it needs to.

 

 

 

3. Be’lakor – Of Breath and Bone:

Proving that its not just Finland that is taking over as the country behind the melodic death metal resurgence, Be’lakor hail from Melbourne, Australia, a country more known for barroom AC/DC-ish rock bands than anything extreme metal related. If anyone has a hope in changing that perception, its Be’lakor, and albums like this one will do it. They are clearly influenced by whats going on in Scandinavia, as well as some nods to the original Gothenburg sound as well, but what these guys seem so adept at doing is making you forget about that as you listen. The music here doesn’t invoke old wintry, desolate landscapes — instead it paints abstractly, with musical light and shade that move against each other, often over frenetic rhythms that are set against a modernistic Gothic inspired storyline etched throughout the lyrics.

 

As expected there’s tons of great melody here, and it serves as the songwriting anchor for the band’s sound, as opposed to being merely window dressing. Whats unexpected however is the bizarre nature of the rhythm section and its insistent shifting both in terms of tempo, as well as the tendency to have syncopation both in the guitars and percussion. Something that took me a few listens to catch was the realization that these guys are eschewing the standard verse/chorus format. Songs start in one direction and follow it for awhile before veering off somewhere else without ever returning. It all results in an unsettling sensation, but its kept in check by their ability to craft songs with memorable motifs throughout that are haunting in their eerie, dark beauty.

 

 

 

4. Sabaton – Carolus Rex:

This was a watershed moment for Sabaton, in terms of ambition, sonic production, and of course, quality songwriting. Joakim Brodén IS one of the best songwriters in metal to come about in the last ten years, and so the hooks and memorability quotient is never in doubt when it comes to a new Sabaton release. What was in doubt upon first hearing of the unusual concept behind Carolus Rex was whether or not the band had the ability to deliver a bi-lingual concept/thematic album that wasn’t weighed down by its own lofty aspirations. We should never have wavered in belief, because Brodén not only masterfully crafted a compelling lyrical story of the rise and fall of the Great Swedish Empire and one of its more iconic rulers, Charles XII, but reinvigorated Sabaton’s musical attack to match the grandness of the theme as well. Lush keyboard orchestral arrangements, smartly executed choral vocal sections, and a spot on production job by Peter Tägtgren were all locked into matching the nationalistic epic march of the historical narrative.

 

It was said that the lyrics on the Swedish version were far superior due to the language’s ability to weave in greater nuance, subtlety, and religious overtones; compared to the straightforward historical bent of the English lyrics, and though that may be true for native Swedish speakers, the rest of us hardly noticed. In fact I’d go as far as to say that this album featured some of Brodén’s most deft word play and intelligent diction choices to date. He has a way of crafting lyrics that when set to his stirring, rousing, powerfully anthemic melodies find a way to simultaneously fill you with adrenaline, melancholy, triumph, and exuberance often at the same time. I’m about to see these guys live again for the fourth time in two years (!), and I’m honestly hoping that they play most of this album. Sabaton gets a lot of flak online for being exactly who they are, a poppy, at times simple power metal band that obsesses about World War II and all things war related. To those detractors, here’s something different subject matter wise and this is the band delivering arguably the best shot in their cannon thus far. You owe it to yourself to pay attention to this history lesson.

 

 

 

5. Barren Earth – The Devil’s Resolve:

This came out of nowhere for me personally, I hadn’t even heard of the project until this release, but I owe it to my recent resurgent interest in all things Finnish melo-death for having stumbled onto this brilliant gem of an album. Barren Earth can be called a super group of sorts in Finland, in that they’re two parts Moonsorrow, two parts ex-Amorphis, and one part Swallow the Sun. To the rest of us, they’re just a relatively new band who are part of the resurgent melodic death metal landscape. Like their fellow countrymen, Barren Earth aren’t content to merely recycle old Gothenburg tropes, instead they’ve managed to find their own unique sound by melding into their work what naturally feels comfortable given their members’ other musical experiences. There’s generous portions of folk-metal infusions laden throughout, some slight doom touches, and even some progressive rock influences particularly within the guitar work.

 

In fact, whats most striking about The Devil’s Resolve is its retro-without-sounding-retro 70’s prog-rock style and production, no better example than on the lead-off single “The Rains Begin”, where ELO-ish keyboards anchor the melody against Mikko Kotamäki’s light and airy clean vocals (and whose death vocals here are far more upfront and untouched by production wash than they ever were in Swallow the Sun). I’ll throw this out there, and I think many will agree: This is the kind of album that Opeth should, and possibly could have made with Heritage. If you were one of those people who were intrigued by Akerfeldt’s descriptions of that album before its release, and massively disappointed after listening to it, you will find what you were hoping for in The Devil’s Resolve. Barren Earth seem to remember something that the Opeth founder forgot — its all about quality songwriting, everything else comes after. This is a highly satisfying album.

 

 

 

6. Anathema – Weather Systems:

Before anyone starts to yell about how can I possibly include modern day prog-rock Anathema in any metal-related context I’ll remind them of this: Most metal sites cover new Anathema releases, as once a band has been a part of the metal world, it seems we find it hard to let go of them — and also, I see no difference between Anathema’s recent output and something like Opeth’s Heritage, which found its way on to many sites’ best of 2011 lists (geez thats the second time I’ve mentioned that record). And finally, to be blunt, its the Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2012, not the best metal albums of 2012 (even though they’re generally all metal-related anyway).

 

So yeah Anathema, while I was always lukewarm on these guys’ doom metal past, preferring the more refined Paradise Lost as my English doom cup of tea, I’ve found a newly realized admiration for their post-metal work. I was enamored with much of 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, though I found the album on the whole to be severely lopsided in favor of the first half. The follow-up here then directly remedies that defect with a front to back album of excellence. Its slightly darker and yes, even at moments heavier than its predecessor as well, yet still presents beautifully written songs that are elegantly arranged, with an ear towards minimalism in all respects — the key to modern day Anathema’s sonic success is a less-is-more approach. This is music that is haunting, elegiac, yet brimming with hopefulness — the entire record seems to be a meditation on mortality, and as such it has a cohesiveness that really captures your attention.

 

The clear standouts here are the twin album openers “Untouchable Pt 1 & 2”, songs you’ll revisit again and again, but not to be overlooked are the gems “The Gathering of the Clouds”, and “The Beginning of the End”. Vocalists Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas share a more balanced split on vocals here, with Douglas even carrying a few songs herself — she is a strength that they’ve realized was under utilized on the last record. A lot has been written about how emotional this music can get, and at times it may even skirt the edges of being a touch maudlin for some listeners, something that I suppose is left up to everyone’s personal tolerance for that kind of stuff. Weather Systems is deserving of a wider audience, and it does seem to be getting some looks from mainstream media, a first for Anathema. Look at it as spiritual music for us metal heads.

 

 

 

7. Kreator – Phantom Antichrist:

This is arguably the best 21st century Kreator album to date. That it took a few releases and perhaps a touch of inspiration from other extreme metal styles to achieve says more about just how difficult it is to successfully reinvent/reinvigorate your sound than it does about any lack of inspiration on Kreator’s part. If there’s a band that knows anything about failed reinventions, its Mille Petrozza and company. Through much of the nineties, the band released record after record of various flavors of misguided quasi-industrial-maybe-doomy-metal. The rebound started with Violent Revolution eleven years ago but like a struggling pro football team trying to rebuild, it takes several incremental successes built over a span of years to get back to championship-caliber form again.

 

With Phantom Antichrist, the band found a refreshing mix with an extra dose of Gothenburg-esque melody in such heart attack inducing tracks as “Death to the World”, “Your Heaven, My Hell”, “Civilisation Collapse”, and of course the truly stellar title track. Of course some Kreator fans will never be happy, much like fans of any metal band who created their classics in the 80s, and as such some have found reason to complain about the band’s increased focus on melodicism. With songs this detrimental to your neck and spine, I can’t understand those complaints…great songwriting trumps everything in my book.

 

 

 

8. Dawnbringer – Into the Lair of the Sun God:

Chris Black is one of metal’s more enigmatic musicians, a low-profile Chicagoan whose involvement in a multitude of projects means he is releasing new albums at a rapid pace, and all of which are actually really, really good. Whereas he shares the creative role in the above listed Pharaoh with Aymar and guitarist Matt Johnsen, Black is the sole creative force behind projects like the Scorpions-style rock of High Spirits, and the now-on-the-radar Dawnbringer (who have apparently existed since 1999!).  If you’re not familiar this is musically speaking a mix of classic metal and NWOBHM traditions, all laid as foundation for Black’s dry, at times almost punk rock-ish deadpan vocals. Its hard to put a finger on why, but somehow none of it sounds purposefully retro, possibly because there is a single-mindedness to the whole enterprise that almost guarantees that irony and self-aware winking isn’t allowed in the Dawnbringer world.

 

Case in point is that Into the Lair of the Sun God is a concept album, in the most direct Mindcrime-ean terms. It is literally from start to finish the tale of a battle-less solitary warrior who is apparently insulted by the sun (sorry… Sun) and decides to seek his revenge — on the Sun. Musically there is a direct line to classic Maiden, Priest, but also 70s era classic hard rock — its not groundbreaking or original in spirit by any means, but thats not the point. Black is nothing if not a traditionalist who cares more about quality songwriting in that old school metal style that he clearly adores. That this album is a Profound Lore release is a credit to the people at that label for being able to see that not all of the bands on their roster need to be Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy clones. If you’re noticing a theme developing this year on metal sites and blogs best of lists, with bands that make old school traditions fresh again, its really something that’s been bubbling under for awhile now — its only now just boiling over and grabbing its well deserved share of attention.

 

 

9. Enslaved – RIITIIR:

I had an up and down relationship with this album, loving it immediately upon release and then tiring of it quickly. After putting it away for a few months I came back to it and was surprised at how much more I enjoyed it and was able to see through to the album’s core strengths. Its hard to understand why stuff like that happens, but if I were to guess I’d say that its because this is a good to great at moments album that you really need to be in the mood to listen to. It doesn’t have the straight forward accessibility to override a person’s mood or temperament like Axioma Ethica Odini had, but when you’re in the right frame of mind for it these songs leap out at you. There’s great stuff here, the hypnotic, addictive near drone lull of “Veilburner”, the utterly bizarre title track, and my personal favorite, the otherworldly AIC-meets-Gn’R-meets-Borknagar fusion of “Materal”, where it seems like Slash himself has a terrific guest solo spot.

 

Enslaved find a perfect melding of Axioma punch and the controversial Vertebrae’s soundscapes and simultaneously deliver some of their most memorable hooks to date. Contrary to most reviews I’ve seen of this record online, I don’t really believe that Enslaved is really breaking new ground or anything remotely resembling that type of hyperbole — they have however managed to expand the boundaries of their sound. And while this isn’t their best work by a long shot, its in their top five for me, and I recommend anyone who felt put off by its strangeness at first to give it another shot sometime down the road. There is something to be said within the context of metal about the redeeming value of albums that take awhile to sink in.

 

 

 

10. Alcest – Les Voyages De L’âme:

Well I really have no excuses here. I believe at some point or another I’ve taken a pot shot or two at the worshiping of so-called black metal coming out of France. Alcest are one of, if not THE key figure in that musical movement, and though I don’t believe I’ve ever said anything about them directly, they were certainly among the culprits in my mind. The thing is that this album came out really early this year, and a friend of mine who loves these guys was playing them in his car on the way to some show somewhere, and I found myself enjoying it despite myself. I couldn’t remember what album it was when I got home but I figured that he was playing me the newest one — fast forward eleven months later and when I look at my ITunes play count this album has gotten so many spins that I simply couldn’t ignore the fact that I had quietly been enjoying Les Voyages De L’âme way more than I realized (that title by the way translates in to “The Voyages of the Soul”, not “The Lame Voyages” — you were thinking it).

 

It would serve throughout the year as my soundtrack to writing articles, playing Skyrim, general internet nonsense, and at times in the car as I’d drive to work. Upon thinking about what albums would be on this list, I tried in vain to think of another album that I could have justifiably placed at my ten spot, but the reality is that you can’t lie to yourself. Whereas past Alcest albums failed me and couldn’t keep my attention (might be time for a revisit), this is perhaps the band’s most instantly accessible work to my ears. I won’t go into adjective filled sentences here about what they sound like, you’re not an idiot, you know what this band is about by now just from seeing their name enough. What I will say is that songs like “Autre Temps” and “Faiseurs De Mondes” are undeniable in their beauty and epic majesty. If you like myself had found no truck with Alcest in the past, their latest might be what you were waiting for all along.

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2012:

 

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

 

1. Anathema – “Untouchable Pt I/II”: The opening duo from the Weather Systems record is one of many high points on a near flawless album. It may be too light and positive for many metal heads, and it is a complete 180 from Anathema’s Peaceville doom days, but they’ve found their footing here and seem comfortable in it. I know I’m squeezing two songs into one spot here, but both parts are inseparable really — a gorgeous pairing that I’ll never tire of.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6hzsrqyGPs?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

2. The Darkness – “She’s Just a Girl, Eddie”: I love the Darkness, I have no shame in admitting it. I was thrilled when they came back and finally released new music. I believe that I’m in a small minority when I say that I don’t believe that The Darkness are as have-a-laugh and ironic as most people seem to believe. The mix of Def Leppard/Queen/AC/DC rock n’ roll that these Englishmen crank out can’t be done as well as they do it without there existing some genuine love for the stuff. I believed that back when they first came out, and I believe it now. These guys write well-crafted, lyrically deft, and humorous songs that don’t skimp on the hooks. I grew up listening to pop-rock like Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Europe long before I listened to heavy metal, and a  love of straight-up hard rock has never left me. This album cut off their newest, Hotcakes, is an oddly touching paean to their once heart-broken drummer, Eddie, and its a personal highlight off of a fantastic album.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbWYtuSaWL0?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

3. Wisdom – “Heaven and Hell”: This rousing singalong by Hungarian trad/power metallers Wisdom can rightfully claim its title as the owners of the second best song named “Heaven and Hell”. It was the highlight off their most recent album Judas, and it boasted a fairly tasteful music video to boot. The draw here aside from the exceptionally catchy hook is new vocalist Gábor Nagy’s unique blend of prime Ozzy, Dio, and slight Hansi Kursch. This is one of those songs that was tailor made for a field of fist pumping maniacs at Wacken — anyone wanna buy me a plane ticket?

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZMY-YXLa38?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

4. Sabaton – “Carolus Rex”: “I was chosen by heaven/ Say my name when you pray / To the skies — see Carolus rise!” The chorus of the title track of Sabaton’s masterful new album is alone filled with the kind of bombastic, pompous, chest pounding bravado that only heavy metal could deliver (rappers have nothing on Charles XII of Sweden). This song encompasses not only the near genius lunacy of the former ruler of the Swedish Empire, but also the spirit of the new album as a whole. One of their best singles and perhaps the most pounding, adrenaline-inducing song of the year.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqRF1JS63Mc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

5. Kamelot – “Song for Jolee”: One of two emotional high points on the new Silverthorn album, their first with new vocalist Tommy Karevik, Kamelot adds another spectacular ballad to their repertoire. Many might wonder after all the articles I published about Kamelot’s situation this year, why they eluded the top ten albums list, and really there was just too much in the way of competition. Silverthorn was a good album, and a nice start for the band charting a future without the mighty Roy Khan, but it wasn’t great and had some flaws. This song however hinted that they’re possibly only a few albums away from delivering another great one.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2QrnT–2mI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

6. Grand Magus – “The Hunt”: There was a lot to love on these Stockholm lads sixth album, in particular this storming title track. This was an easy album to enjoy right out of the gate but also an easy one to over play and tire of. Grand Magus’ major drawback is that their high points are so high that everything else on offer starts to blend in together and sound the same. Still, I keep some choice songs off this album on my Ipod at all times, and its this track that has me singing loudly out of tune the most.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNESu-ChMXY?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

7. Borknagar – “The Earthling”: I love this song, and believe that its more stripped down, metallic attack is the direction that Borknagar should further explore on upcoming releases. It boasts one of the most euphoric and powerful refrains of any Borknagar song to date and in typical Norwegian progressive black metal fashion, it comes towards the end of the song. Its worth the wait, and singer Vintersorg is in prime form using his heavily accented clean vocals to deliver soaring lines that meditate on the relationship between nature and man. Freaking sweet music video too. Nice one guys.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98-yil0olG8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

8. Pharaoh – “The Year of the Blizzard”: This is the centerpiece of Pharaoh’s awesome Bury the Light album and in a way a perfect microcosm of everything great about this band. While my initial favorite on the record was “The Spider’s Thread” for its unforgettable fade out refrain, “The Year of the Blizzard” features sparse acoustics, blisteringly frenetic near thrash metal, and gorgeous solos (the best one coming at the 5:15 mark, an emotional, fluid, and elegant guitar solo that bites down to the core of what we love about the epicness of metal). Guitarist Matt Johnsen will in all likelihood go unnoticed by most guitar enthusiast magazines and sites, but he’ll get a major shout out from me —- someone get that guy a trophy.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir_BVxBz5do?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

9. Orden Ogan – “The Things We Believe In”: These German power metallers clearly take major inspiration from the mighty Blind Guardian, which is no bad thing of course, but doesn’t net the points for originality. It doesn’t matter however when you have songs as straight up fun as this one. Their new album, To The End, is chalk full of anthemic choruses and surprisingly some hyper-intense Immortal-like riffing. But its a bit of a mixed bag overall, with some filler here and there, and one ballad that has some seriously cringe worthy lyrics (and I’m a guy who tolerates a lot in that department) despite its good melody. But generally speaking, this is the kind of band you listen to for some good time, singalong, drinking metal. We’ll leave the serious German power metal to the original bards.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXhyzGc7_pc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

10. Asphyx – “Deathhammer”: These guys narrowly missed my top ten albums list this year with their release of the same name, a convincingly brutal assault on the ear drums in that classic Entombed style. This was the best pure death metal album of the year, even topping Grave with their solid Endless Procession of Souls, and it was this song in particular that served as their consideration for nomination. Asphyx are grim traditionalists in every aspect, even down to details such as an insistence on a mud n’ blood production. These songs wouldn’t work half as well if they were recorded with the pristine precision of a band like Nile. Darkthrone’s Dutch death metal cousins then.

 

Bearing the Torch: Insomnium Inherit the Legacy of Sentenced

 

A few weeks ago, I went to see Insomnium live here in Houston, on their opening slot on the Epica/Alestorm North American trek. It was my first time seeing them, and was the culmination of many months of anticipatory buildup for me, as I’d only really awakened my interest in the band this year through their excellent recent release “One For Sorrow” (that much to my shame, I missed upon its initial release in 2011). As the days drew nearer to the show, I was listening to the band’s entire discography on heavy rotation, at home, in the car, on the Ipod. There are few things better in metal than being able to see a band live during the period where you’ve just gotten into them, everything’s still a bit fresh, and that new found listener passion is still there. It makes the experience of seeing them live that much more powerful.

 

Insomnium were inspired live that night, playing in front of what I suspected was a larger audience than they really expected (the show started late and most of the Epica fans were already in attendance, a packed house actually). They only played six songs but the audience to the side and front of me were reacting as if they were the headliner — headbanging, throwing up the horns, hair flailing, sweat drops flying off in every direction, and shit eating grins pasted on our faces as I’m sure we made menaces of ourselves to the politely patient Epica and Alestorm fans that did their best to get out of the way. It was a great night, and I jammed them on the way back home as well — I couldn’t get enough. Still can’t.

 

 

 

Symmetry is an interesting thing. Alongside Insomnium, lately I’ve been finding myself listening again to albums by one of my favorite and now long defunct Finnish bands, Sentenced. I realized that the album that introduced me to those manic Finns was 2002’s The Cold White Light, a near perfect collection of songs that I can still listen to all the way through to this day and feel the same magic that I felt back in ’02. As such, there exists a neatly wrapped decade’s worth of time separating my introduction to both Sentenced and Insomnium, two Finnish bands that share more in common that just my personal anniversaries. What I loved about Sentenced was their ability to create beautifully melancholic melodic metal that despite its occasional tongue-in-cheekiness, could be extremely emotional at a very deep level. It wasn’t even about the lyrics, which were simple, effective and poignant, but more about the sweep and scope provided through the songwriting, and the uncanny ability of how something as normal as a guitar melody or solo could evoke feelings of loneliness and isolation.

 

 

 

Their songwriting could be poppy and hook laden to be sure, but still weighty, heavy and definitely not something that could be mistaken for light, alt-radio-rock. It was far too dark for that, there was a pervasive sense of gloom that permeated songs like “Killing Me Killing You”, “Drain Me”, “Cross My Heart and Hope to Die”, and “No One There”. Despite that feeling, those songs were filled with lyrical and musical beauty — take the latter for example, an elegiac pronouncement of remorse for an estranged relationship, and the reality of isolation, abject loneliness, and the feeling of despair at facing the prospect of life and death alone. Its buoyed along with melodic guitars, and an almost positive sounding chorus, yet it is perhaps the heaviest song the band ever wrote, its emotional weight immense.

 

 

Sentenced were a remarkable band, underrated to this day and worse of all, they seemed to call it quits just as they were achieving great things artistically. Their 2005 release. The Funeral Album, was their swan song and it was every bit as awesome as its predecessor. Miika Tenkula, their lead guitarist and primary songwriter, was the heart and soul of the band — and it was his voice that underscored nearly every song  they wrote. When he passed away in 2009, only thirty-four years young, I hardly found it shocking to read that he had a serious drinking problem that apparently got worse after the band ended. The raw emotion and pain within their music had to really come from somewhere true — sadly that is. I wondered if there would ever be a band that could provide me with that particular fix that Sentenced so effortlessly delivered. There is — I believe their countrymen in Insomnium are the spiritual successors to the musical legacy that Sentenced chose to leave behind.

 

Granted, Insomnium’s distinctly unique take on melodic death metal is a distinctly differing style from the crunchy, hooky metal of Ville Laihiala-era Sentenced, but the two bands share an essential atmosphere and spirit — perhaps something found within the Finnish personality itself. This time of year, as autumn colors itself everywhere, I typically long to listen to music that is perhaps a touch more sombre, earthy, gritty, and yes, melancholy. I find within tracks such as “Weighed Down With Sorrow” from 2009’s Across the Dark, an ethereal, haunting feeling as lead guitars seem to weep out melodic passages that convey far more emotion than any lyric could possibly hope to. Primary songwriter and guitarist Ville Friman seems to have this stuff in his blood — his guitar part that kicks in at the 3:20 mark of “Lay the Ghost to Rest” off One For Sorrow is breathtaking … its sheer simplicity; a wailing lonely guitar solo that ushers in a crushing wave of relentlessly heavy guitar riffage in one supreme, emotive sweep is the kind of watershed moment that you’ll hit repeat on a seven minute long song for without hesitation. His interplay with fellow guitarist Ville Vänni on that album’s title track, a slow, moody, tribal drum beat led doom monster is not only delicately intricate, like the best moments between Izzy and Slash, but displays a level of artistry that rises above the typical Maiden-esque guitar approach found in most melodic death metal (read: Gothenburg).

 

 

 

Setting aside music for a second, these two bands share similarities in other aspects of their art. Their booklet pages for The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album are filled with gorgeous photography of desolate arctic desert, serene Finnish countryside, the final booklet page of the latter featuring a photograph of silhouettes of birds in flight — striking when you consider the album art for Insomnium’s One For Sorrow. The overall art direction of both bands in terms of sleeve design and packaging, as well as other media such as music videos shows a tendency to lean towards understatement, and refined elegance — as well as a predilection to juxtapose songs full of complex human emotion against the backdrop of the simplicity of nature. I’m not sure this is on purpose, but regardless for some primal reason it really ties both bands together for me, and if its noticeable to a newcomer to Insomnium like myself, I’m sure others who have enjoyed both bands for awhile now have picked up on it too.

 

If you have never listened to Sentenced, or are even later getting to the Insomnium party than I am, you’d do yourself a favor by remedying both of those issues immediately. Both bands’ discographies are all over Spotify for free even, so you really have no excuse. If you think that what sounds like depressing listening isn’t really your cup of tea. then I again suggest listening to both bands. One more thing they both share is the inexplicable presence of what can only be inadequately described as a positive edge to their music — not in a dopey way, but in that sense that through listening to music that explores these types of emotions and sentiments, there’s a release or catharsis provided that you might not get in trying to cheer yourself up by listening to… I don’t know, Accept’s Russian Roulette (as stupidly fun as that album is). Both Sentenced’s and Insomnium’s elegiac, haunting lyrics and crushing, heavy power will break through you to expose those simple, deep, universal human emotions that most of us keep hidden, while simultaneously reassuring you with an indelible melodic sweep.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kFHd0oegYfs?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

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

 

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