Make It Easier To Be A Fan: A Rant

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Serenity Join the Crusades: The Lionheart Review

Would it be accurate to call this a surprise release? I heard rumors of Serenity working on a new album this year, but the idea that it would be released before the year was out seemed a little far fetched. Their previous album, Codex Atlanticus, was just released in January of 2016, and I suppose that does fall a few months shy of a two year mark, but simply put releases don’t tend to come this quickly —- record companies don’t like it. The short turnaround got me wondering if the band had even toured to support that album, I couldn’t remember… but sure enough they did a European tour of their own directly after its release. It seems to have been only a month or so, which might explain why they were able to get back to work on new material, perhaps feeling like they needed to ride the wave of creativity they were feeling after the critical success of that album (and it was a success to me anyway, remember “The Perfect Woman” landing on my top ten songs list). Then there’s also the added dimension of Lionheart being a concept/thematic album about… well Richard the Lionheart of course. Don’t these things usually need a little more time to work out? A longer bake time if you will. You’d probably be able to brush that aside considering that Serenity’s vocalist/songwriter Georg Neuhauser’s day job is that of a history professor, so presumably, all the research on such a topic had already been loaded into his brain long ago and this was a natural outsourcing of his passion. But as Angry Metal Guy smartly points out, Serenity’s take on Richard I comes off a bit slanted, biased, or even more dishearteningly, naive:

 

Googling Richard I for three minutes will show that he, like all regents and generals, was a complicated man who did complicated things for complicated reasons. But such a nuanced picture of the character is notable in its absence. Missing, for example, is a song about the massacre at Ayyadieh, where Richard I lion-heartedly executed 2,700 people—some accounts saying it was closer to 3,000, including women and children—because Saladin would not pay a ransom. Instead, Lionheart relies heavily on messages of unity and a lionization (see what I did there?) of Richard I. While “Massacre at Ayyadieh (I Executed 2,700 People Because Saladin Would Not Pay Me a Ransom)” makes a less inspiring song than “United” or “Stand and Fight,” it also makes a crucial point: who would write an uncritical concept album about The Crusades in 2017?

– Angry Metal Guy

 

 

As I’m sure I’ve pointed out before, I try to make a point of not reading other reviews of an album before penning my own, but I was late to this album, and during a bored, scrolling through my phone moment, I let my guard down and read his review. Angry Metal Guy doesn’t write as often as I’d like him to these days but that’s a stellar review (one I highly encourage you to read), and considering his site was one of the biggest influences on me starting my own blog, I make an exception for him without guilt. His larger point that Neuhauser’s lyrics seemed to rely on power metal’s proclivity towards positivity is what’s worth examining here. If you take a glance through the lyrics throughout this album, you’ll see a largely sympathetic take on Richard I, one that doesn’t offer a corresponding opposite view of his decisions and actions. I’m not saying Neuhauser should have written the soundtrack to Kingdom of Heaven here, but AMG delivers a valid criticism, and the overt romanticism that drenches every song on Lionheart actually works against it, makes it less likely to draw us in, particularly in the fraught, politically, racially charged climate of 2017. I’d immediately point out that I don’t detect anything malicious or nefarious in Neuhauser’s lyrics, and that’s reinforced in part because the formula he’s using on Lionheart is a damn near replica of the one he used for DaVinci on Codex Atlanticus. It worked there, because DaVinci is an interesting, engaging, well respected figure that largely avoids being seen in any particularly negative light today —- as a conceptual subject, he’s far better suited to power metal’s proclivity towards joyful euphoria.

 

 

All this wouldn’t really be much of an issue of course if the songs were on point, and some are nearly there, but for the most part this album sees Neuhauser missing his usual mark of excellence for the first time since I’ve become a fan. I’ve gone through this record well over a dozen times now over the course of a few weeks and its just not clicking with me. Many of the songs lack the sharpness, the well defined arcing hooks that he’s so adept at penning, with the exception of a few cuts. Opening song “United” comes across as the inspirational, horns bellowing call its supposed to be, its lyrics speaking of coming together to take up the holy crusade —- the sort of stuff power metal is meant to be the soundtrack for. Similarly on “Lionheart”, where “Jersualem unites us against Saladin”, Neuhauser delivers an impassioned vocal in the verse segments in particular, a slight phrasing twist in his delivery that reminds me of why I love him so much as a singer. Choir vocals backup the refrain here, bringing to mind a Blind Guardian influence that is noticeable all throughout the rest of this album. We get triumphant, punctuating horns in the chorus of “Hero”, a lyrical clunker but possessing enough strength in its vocal melodies to make you ignore the Enrique Iglesias reminders it will conjure in your mind.  This change in style and tone is appropriate for the subject matter, and on first listen I wasn’t too surprised to find the album’s first four cuts storming out of the gates in this mode. But it never lets up, the entire approach across the board sounds more epic and grand than we’re used to from Serenity, its all glory and light here. By the time I got to the fifth cut “Rising High”, I started to wonder where was this album’s “Wings of Madness”, or “Far From Home”, those doses of melancholy that I’ve come to expect.

 

For the bulk of their back catalog, like their spiritual cousins in Kamelot, Serenity were consistently working with light and shade, a splash of darkness to their sound to balance out their major key heavy songwriting. Even on Codex Atlanticus they had those more dark, introspective moments —- “Reasons” and “The Order” come to mind, and that was an album I thought was an abrupt about face from the darker tones of War of Ages to a brighter, cheerier sonic palette. Neuhauser pulled that off successfully because he had a couple musical factors changing; namely that Thomas Buchberger was no longer in the band, his thick guitar riffs dominating the bulk of the band’s earlier work, and as a result Neuhauser built up the songs around his vocal melodies, giving the album a noticeable Broadway vibe. So back to Lionheart, where songs like “Eternal Victory” midway through the album sport a few nice moments in the way of hooks and the odd nice riff or solo, a sameness begins to set in with all of these songs essentially mirroring one another. Another glorious paean to Richard I and his inevitable victory, got it. I didn’t actually realize that the sameness throughout the album was what might be dragging it down until I read Angry Metal Guy’s review, but his analysis of the lyrics really do sum it up: These songs all have the same theme of glory and victory, yadda yadda yadda, and that results in stylistic sameness throughout the album, and that ultimately results in a relatively unremarkable listening experience.

 

 

The first real difference in tone and even in song structure comes in the closing pair of tracks, “My Fantasy”, and “The Final Crusade”. The latter is a strange bird, featuring some harsh vocals that I suspect we all figured were coming at some point (every power metal band seems to do a little dip in them at some point), and while they don’t ruin what is a largely a good song, they fail to add anything to it. The strength of this track is the Broadway vibe of the chorus, bringing to mind hints of the last album, Neuhauser’s vocals soaring against the backdrop of a swooning symphony. He’s joined towards the end by Sleeping Romance vocalist Federica Lanna, her vocals a sweet, subdued tonic to his soaring theatrical delivery, though he does bury her sonically in the mix when their voices are supposed to be conjoining. The other song, “My Fantasy” might be the highlight of the album, a song that reminds me of the Death and Legacy era in its multi-faceted approach. A heavy riff progression sandwiches a wide open power ballad chorus where Neuhauser dreams up as glorious a hook as he’s ever conjured, his vocal progression bringing to mind the very best of Tony Kakko and Klaus Meine in his tone and vocal melody direction. Its also the only moment on the album where you could forget about the Richard I concept for a few minutes, because even though its written from the perspective of Richard while he’s imprisoned, its lyrics are vague enough to be malleable to anyone and anything. Neuhauser is such a gifted songwriter, he’s bound to deliver a gem per album at least, even when the rest of the affair is a surprising misstep. I’ll take it, and while I won’t recommend Lionheart as a must own, I’ll be happy to wait an extra year or so for a far greater Serenity album next time around.

 

 

 

Two For February: Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus and Megadeth’s Dystopia

For all my bellyaching about 2015 and its overwhelming amount of new releases, it hasn’t exactly been a lighter load in these first one and a half months of 2016. Dozens upon dozens of new metal albums of all sub genres have come out in this relatively short time span and of course its impossible to listen to them all. I’ve managed a hefty amount though in just these few short weeks and if you read my recent Avantasia Ghostlights review, you’ll know that the year started off rather brilliantly. Seeing as how that was such an “event” album for myself and this blog and I gave it an accordingly lengthy review, I’ll try to shorten things up for all the other albums I was listening to alongside it. Here’s two relatively shorter reviews (but only just) for two major releases in my metalsphere. I’ll have a smaller, rapid-fire reviews series coming out soon looking at Abbath, Borknagar, and a host of others!


 

Serenity – Codex Atlanticus:

So those of you with sharp memories might remember that Austria’s Serenity leaped straight into my heart and atop my 2013 Best Albums of the Year list with their satisfyingly sweet epic, War of Ages. I found it an addictive album in its own right, but it had the added bonus of being my introduction to this wonderful band and their excellent back catalog that had gone under my radar for many years. I found myself comparing them to both Kamelot and Sonata Arctica; the latter because vocalist Georg Neuhauser reminded me so much of Tony Kakko in moments —- but the former because Neuhauser and guitarist Thomas Buchberger were a songwriting team that worked so well together that I was instantly reminded of the Roy Khan / Thomas Youngblood duo. Buchberger even shared a similar approach to guitar playing with Youngblood, preferring lean, sharp riff writing with highly melodic through lines and tastefully written solos. If they leaned a little too close to Kamelot in some spots, it was okay in my opinion, because at least I enjoyed their influences and they were managing to put their unique stamp on their own songwriting.

They had also brought in their spectacular touring singer Clementine Delauney to serve as co-vocalist on War of Ages, and she made the handful of songs she was on her own, with a malleable vocal style capable of being both breathy and ethereal, yet stormy and dark at the same time. The band had made a transition to being a five piece despite original keyboardist/co-songwriter Mario Hirzinger leaving the lineup (he would continue to contribute to the songwriting in a limited fashion), and I was already looking forward to their second album as a dual female/male vocalist band. So rather out of the blue on February 3rd, 2015 while working on a review for this blog, I glanced at The Metal Pigeon Facebook feed to see that independently both Buchberger and Delauney had announced they were leaving the band. It was a sinking moment as a fan, and I hate to see bands making music like Serenity’s suffer huge blows like the loss of a major songwriting partner. And as for Delauney herself, I thought she and the band were a complementary pairing and could dish out at least a few more albums together. Fast forward throughout the year and it seemed like Neuhauser, bassist Fabio D’Amore, and longtime drummer Andreas Schipflinger were determined to forge through these difficulties, playing some support dates for Stratovarius as well as a few festivals, Neuhauser even squeezing in his Phantasma side project (with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels), and in early October surprising us all by announcing their next album Codex Atlanticus had been finished.

Its been a long wait from October til now, and this was perhaps second to Avantasia for my most anticipated album of the first half of 2016. Serenity’s lineup is radically different, going from six members in the War of Ages publicity shots to four, the new guy being guitarist Cris Tian. Some things are similar, the lyrical focus on history for example is still present, except that instead of exploring a different subject with each song as on past albums, the band has decided to change things up in devoting an entire album to one subject, in particular the life of Leonardo DaVinci. The songs on Codex Atlanticus are like entries in his diary throughout his life, arrayed in no particular order, so some songs might be from a younger or older perspective. Its a cool idea, I was instantly reminded of Assassin’s Creed II where Da Vinci was a big part of the story line and you’d actually get to see him walking out and about in Florence. Neuhauser’s day job is as a high school history teacher and he’s pursuing a PhD candidate in history as well, so this stuff is right up his alley. From what I’ve gleaned from various interviews, Neuhauser wrote most of the album with contributions from D’Amore and Tian, along with longtime producer Jan Vacik helping out on the orchestral/symphonic side (for the first time it seems they’re not working with their other longtime producer Oliver Phillips). While Buchberger was as expected a no-show on this album despite hinting that he could contribute to songwriting in the future, ex-keyboardist Mario Hirzinger chipped in with some help on the lyrics.

 

serenitycaband_zpsbw6u0v8lAlright so enough backstory, how does Serenity hold up in this post-Buchberger era? I guess it depends on what you valued more about the band in their previous era, because Neuhauser’s vocals definitely take on a larger presence here, with all of the songs now being structured around his vocal melodies. He was certainly a large presence on older albums as well, but there he was often restricted with Buchberger and Hirzinger’s more progressive metal approach. That’s not a criticism of older albums, because the compromise worked well, but without their influence the songwriting on Codex Atlanticus is less technically inclined, owing more to classic power metal stylings rather than symphonic power metal tropes. That’s going to sound like a silly statement when you’re hearing keyboard orchestration all over this album, but put it this way, this album comes across as more Sonata Arctica rather than Kamelot —- one influence of the band edging out the other. It results in some awesome songs, such as the opener “Follow Me”, with its glory-claw inducing chorus where Neuhauser gets to demonstrate his mastery of vocal phrasing in singing “Here I am, here I stand / Nothing left to say / My destiny will stay with me in sorrow”. I love his choices on another excellent track, “Reason”, where he lands on specific enunciations with extra harmony vocal layers to give the lyrics an added dose of emotion. That kind of attention to detail is what separates power metal vocalists from their peers in other genres of metal, namely, an understanding of all the elements in a vocal track.

On the more purely symphonic front (because they don’t drift away from it completely), there’s “Iniquity” and “Caught In a Myth” where both songs balance an almost swashbuckling/derring-do orchestral bombast with Neuhauser’s sing-song vocal melodies. The latter really caught my attention with a spectacular co-joining of vocals and orchestra in a triumphant punctuation mark at the 5:02 mark (“Just go / Don’t hide…”), one of those sublime once a song moments that will keep me coming back. On the ballad front, because there had better be ballads (hey if you disagree, what are you doing reading a power metal review anyway?!) we’re treated to the rather traditionally Serenity sounding “My Final Chapter” and the charmingly Freddy Mercury-ish “Forgive Me”. Neuhauser loads up both with an array of vocal inflections at well chosen moments that elevate the songs from being merely pleasant to compelling listens (Tony Kakko disease if you will). But Neuhauser’s truly shining moment comes in the Broadway-sounding piano ditty / quasi-ballad “The Perfect Woman”, a gorgeous song about the Mona Lisa of course (who else would the perfect woman be?). I’ve never heard of a song about a painting before, none that I can recall anyway, and I love the ingenuity of the lyrical approach that Neuhauser and Hirzinger take here, that of Da Vinci marveling at his own creation in awe. The vocal melody here carries everything, and its one of Neuhauser’s finest performances, full of genuine enthusiasm and a flexing display of his soaring tenor on certain lines (“There’s no chance for me to stray / day by day”); also of note here is Amanda Somerville’s welcome presence, her role as Neuhauser’s duet partner a call back to the classic “Changing Fate” off Death & Legacy.

Worth noting is that for the first time Serenity utilizes two male lead vocalists this time around, as D’Amore takes the vocal helm solo for a couple of moments, notably on “Sprouts of Terror” and “Spirit In the Flesh”. In an interview, D’Amore said that he had to deliberately try a radically different vocal approach to his normal style in order to provide a sharper contrast to Neuhauser. Its an experiment that has me sitting on the fence, because initially I thought it worked, but over time I’ve found myself growing weary of hearing his voice. I think contrast for contrast’s sake doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly when there’s nothing happening lyrically that would demand it (ala different characters in Avantasia). I’m not so put off that I can’t listen to those songs anymore, but I’d have rather heard Neuhauser on them all the way through (he is a big selling point for the band after all). Schipflinger turns in the reliable, solid performance that he’s always managed, and more interestingly Tian manages to come through on the guitar front, even knocking out a few solos where I couldn’t tell the difference between him and Buchberger (not sure he’d like that observation but it just means that he fits in well). Overall Codex Atlanticus bodes well for the future of Serenity, and that’s a testament to Neuhauser’s growing strength as a songwriter, one whose confidence in his vocal melody development has allowed him to carry the band on his back when they needed him most… not all vocalists could manage that.

 


 

 

Megadeth – Dystopia:

Okay, so everyone knows the backstory on this one. The fifteenth Megadeth album, the new line-up aka mach umpteenth of the band (this time being Mustaine/Ellefson/Loureiro/Adler), and this being a rather pivotal sequel to the deservedly maligned Super Collider. What you probably don’t know due to no fault of your own is that I’m a longtime and rather passionate Megadeth fan. Its a fandom that’s waxed and waned over the years due to a variety of reasons but they were one of my earliest metal obsessions alongside Metallica and Iron Maiden, and seeing a poster of the cover art to Peace Sells on the wall of my cousin’s room in 1986 when I was a wee lad is one of my earliest metal related memories. One of the reasons that might be unknown to you is that I actually have never written about Megadeth on this blog except in passing references, the major reason being that I was too late and uninspired to cover 2011’s Thirteen, and well, just too disappointed to even discuss 2013’s Super Collider. I thought the two albums that preceded those two were merely average to good at best, the last Deth’ album I thought was worth fawning over being 2004’s The System Has Failed. Oh alright Endgame had a few really great moments. See… that’s what I mean about the waxing and waning.

Actually, let me do a ranking of how I rate the Megadeth back catalog just so you’ll know where I stand so you’ll be able to gauge the ultimate verdict of this review. No numbers, you all know I don’t do numerical review scores so I won’t bother with them for a discography ranking. I think you’ll get the gist regardless. Anyway this is how I consider the Megadeth catalog, from best to worst:

 

Rust In Peace: Sitting at the top where it should be, because duh, its one of the greatest metal albums of all tid! Its also on my do not listen to whilst driving list!

Countdown to Extinction: My intro to the band and one of the first metal albums I completely immersed myself in. I’ve never gotten tired of it.

Youthanasia: What?! Over Peace Sells?! Yes, because despite its Max Norman dictated slowed down tempos I still think this contains some of Mustaine’s finest songwriting.

Cryptic Writings: Put down whatever it is you’re about to throw at me, hear me out —- I listened to this thing relentlessly, and thought songs like “Use the Man”, “Trust” and “Secret Place” was the band at their most melodic, hooky best. Its an underrated album and that’s kind of a shame. Go back and listen to it, its better than you remember!

Peace Sells: The best of 80s era Megadeth, though not quite a perfect album. I was never entirely a fan of their production during this era, as I always felt Deth’ needed sonic clarity to do justice to their technical precision.

The System Has Failed: Mustaine’s return from one of the more bizarre rock n’roll injuries in history and his much needed comeback album (because there’s no way the band could’ve ended on The World Needs A Hero). It was the most ferocious they had sounded in years, full of conviction and ear worms a plenty such as “Die Dead Enough”, “Kick the Chair”, and “Of Mice and Men”.

Endgame: I enjoyed Endgame when it came out, particularly the insta-classic “This Day We Fight”, and the album was the angriest sounding Megadeth album in ages. It was thrashy and heavy, but I felt at the time (and still do) that with a few exceptions, there was a noticeable lack of hooks amidst all the aggression. Lead single “Headcrusher” was kind of sprawling, all over the place, and only “The Right to Go Insane” really had something resembling the melodicism that I valued in Megadeth. Of the two Andy Sneap / Megadeth collaborations, this was the best one.

Thirteen: As I was writing this I took a re-listen to this one and yes, I’m reminded that it was a strong album with only a few average songs, it gets this high because of “New World Order” and “Public Enemy No. 1”. Amazing to think this album was nominated for three Grammy awards in consecutive years from 2011-2013 (and won none of course). Conversely, its this low on the list because I had to re-listen to it to remember large chunks of the album, but maybe that’s more due to how little I listened to it upon its release.

Killing Is My Business: Awful production, some okay-ish songs… I was never really sold on it as a spectacular debut however, and I still don’t feel that way in light of the remixed version even though it did clear up a lot of the original production flaws.

United Abominations: Merely mediocre, though I loved “Gears of War” and thought it deserved better than it got (it should’ve had a tremendous push for its video game tie-in but apparently that deal fell through for whatever reason). I didn’t see the point of the Cristina Scabbia duet on the remade “A Tout Le Monde”, aside from a transparent cross-promotional opportunity, it certainly didn’t sound better than the original.

So Far, So Good… So What!: A step down from Peace Sells and the second worst production in Megadeth history, this still had all-time classics (you know the ones), but I was never a fan of “Anarchy In the U.K.” in general, nor “502” which rivaled Exodus’ Impact Is Imminent for boneheaded-ness lyrically speaking. I was hoping the remaster would clear up some of the awful, thin, tinny production job but it only seemed to emphasize its worst elements (leading one to believe those Capitol remasters weren’t done from the analog masters).

Supercollider: Just one of the most inexplicable decisions ever —- on the heels of releasing a flurry of relatively Megadeth-ian sounding albums, Mustaine decided to go back to experimenting with a more… I don’t even know how to describe it. The ridiculous title track for example was awful and baffling —- where in his musical history were the seeds for such a song laid? It wasn’t all bad, “Kingmaker” was a decent song, but everything else was steeped in some sort of classic/mainstream rock marinade that ruined everything.

Risk: I know I know, you think this should be last, but hear me out! This is not the worst Megadeth album, despite its transparent attempt to break into the mainstream /modern rock charts and its highly amusing choice of producer in pop-country miscreant Dan Huff. Strip all that stuff away and consider the album as an isolated collection of songs from Mustaine and Marty Friedman that explored their more pop-driven instincts. It was an experiment that resulted in some truly awful stuff like “Crush ‘Em” and “I’ll Be There”, but also some unique and interesting stuff like “Wanderlust”, “Ecstasy”, “The Doctor Is Calling” and “Time Pt. I/II”.

The World Needs A Hero: Ah, the nadir of Megadeth! A reactionary album that proves that reactionary albums hardly ever work. Plodding, re-hashed, and uncertain of itself: This was the sound of Mustaine trying to remember how to write actual heavy metal again. It yielded a semi-decent ballad in “Promises” but even that was flawed… if Megadeth was to succeed in ballads as they did with “A Tout Le Monde”, they had to avoid attempting power ballads. Consider this not only the worst Megadeth album, but one of the worst metal albums of all time.

 

megadeth_dystopia_promo_shot_zpsyct91nusSo using the list above as a rubric, where does Dystopia fit in? I’m going to say, with a relatively high degree of confidence, that I’d slot it between Cryptic Writings and Peace Sells. Yep, you read that right, I’m considering Dystopia a top five Megadeth album, and its for good reason too. This is simply the fiercest, angriest, most convincingly Megadeth-y that the band has sounded in over a decade. Were I to remove myself from my nostalgia fed love for Cryptic Writings, I’d imagine I could comfortably slot this right below Youthanasia, its really that excellent. Mustaine in particular comes across as more plugged in and motivated both vocally and lyrically, and I wonder if that’s due to the divisive political climate we’re currently in (would make sense also considering how divided the country was in 2004 during the time of The System Has Failed). Musically the band is reinvigorated by the presence of Kiko Loureiro in particular, the ex-Angra guitarist being the creative partner that Mustaine has long missed since the departure of Friedman (certainly Al Pitrelli never fit the bill, Chris Poland was a recurrent flash in the pan, and Chris Broderick never quite seemed to gel). Loureiro comes in from a power metal background, and though you can argue that he has shredder level talent, he’s had years of experience in matching technical virtuosity with major key melodies, in other words, a Friedman-esque perfect match and foil for Mustaine’s thrashy guitar tendencies.

The album kicks the gate down right from the start, with a trio of some of the band’s best songs to date (and not coincidentally, the album’s first three singles). With “The Threat Is Real”, Megadeth have delivered their best album opener since “Trust”, Mustaine’s snarling, venomous delivery paired with a ridiculously catchy riff/vocal progression. Its sibling song “Dystopia” (tied together through their animated music videos) reminds me so much of Rust In Peace. We get alarming guitar melodies that conjure up a vivid sense of paranoia and fear, and later on the tempo slows down in an almost improvisational mid-song jam session built around funky, twisting rhythm patterns that usher along a frenetic solo —- its the kind of thing I’d imagine Friedman doing back in the day. Loureiro is simply stunning on this track, and he is equally as inspired on “Fatal Illusion”, giving his leads an Eastern-tinged accent. Ellefson and Adler cook up a thunderous rhythm section throughout, always in lockstep, and I’m impressed at how balanced the bass actually is in the mix on such a wildly guitar driven album. Ellefson in particular delivers an awesome groove on “Bullet to the Brain”, a mix of thrash and rhythmic alt-metal that works because of his distinctive bass lines. Adler is a terrific fit for Megadeth, full of fills and creative snare and cymbal usage —- and he gets that one thing that sometimes fails thrash drummers, that the music sounds more energetic when it sounds like the drummer might be slightly outpacing everyone else (it conveys an excitement that can’t be contained).

And I have to give the band kudos for sheer creativity in a gem like “Poisonous Shadows”, a slower, experimental song that demonstrates that they don’t have to step outside of their wheelhouse in order to cook up something different. Instead of playing around with goofy hard rock or pop, here they elect to use atmospheric strings and bring in a female vocalist named Farah Siraj to provide those eerie yet ethereal vocals that float over the top. I like Mustaine’s delivery choice here, going for a more desperate, sinister approach rather than trying to aim for melodic perfection. If he sang it straight the song would’ve sounded disjointed (as odd as that seems), instead his altering of his vocals actually sells the overall nightmare-like effect they were going for. And I quite enjoyed the highly syncopated “The Emperor”, with trademark Mustaine sarcasm in the verses and a hooky chorus. The decision to cover Fear’s “Foreign Policy” is yet another tip-off that Mustaine seemed far more lyrically aware and plugged in this time. Regardless of what you think of his politics, you can’t deny that he might be the best at vocalizing subject matter like this —- its an awesome cover, full of panic, aggression, and rage. And its an awesome album, one that’s kinda kick started my interest in Megadeth all over again (I’ve been on a Deth’ binge for the past few days). I really hope Loureiro sticks around, because he seems to have lit a fire within Mustaine, one that desperately needed to be lit, for everyone’s sake.

 

 

 

 

Kingdom Hearts: Sonata Arctica Look Back With Ecliptica Revisited

 

 

A few Fridays ago on a balmy Houston evening, I witnessed Sonata Arctica perform for the first time. I was excited, not only because I had missed a pair of chances to see them live in the past, but in large part because I had been revisiting the band’s classic era catalog in the week leading up to it —- a mix of dutiful homework and genuine affection for those albums that I had loved so much throughout the band’s early years. It was also somewhat of a banner night for power metal in Houston with Delain and Xandria also on the bill. Outside in the lengthy line and inside in the darkened venue, there was a palpable sense of giddy anticipation from almost everyone in the crowd. I knew something was a little different when most everyone was packed together in a shapeless mound of humanity in front of the stage long before the local opener, collectively staring at a perturbed roadie setting up gear instead of assuming the typical heads down, phones out pose.

My pre-show impression of Sonata Arctica as a live act was colored by various live YouTube clips (most recorded on inadequate phone cameras I know). In those various clips it often seemed that either the keyboard was mixed far too low, or the guitar was horribly muddied. I also noticed a distinct lack of the swelling harmony/ back up vocals that are such an integral part of the band’s studio releases. A lack of live backing vocals for a power metal band is often a critical error —- as much as I loved seeing Blind Guardian live, a clunky crowd sing-a-long could not prove to be an effective replacement for hundreds of multi-tracked Hansi Kursh’s. I always considered Kamelot’s One Cold Winter’s Night live recording setup as the best possible standard for a power metal band: In lieu of having anyone else in the band who could actually sing apart from Roy Khan, Kamelot hired three backup vocalists to ensure that their harmonized choruses would soar. It is however a fantastically expensive luxury to have (even for a single show), and quite impractical to expect a European band to bring over additional musicians for a North American tour. Some bands are fortunate to have harmony vocalists built into their lineup like Sabaton, and others aren’t so lucky. So with those factors in mind regarding Sonata, I braced myself for a slight letdown by tempering my expectations. The stage lights went down and voices around me bellowed in triumph, and the super hyped up guy I had been talking power metal with in between sets leaned over and shook my shoulder with alcohol fueled glee.

 

Tony Kakko was a vocal magician that night, and a performer unlike any I had ever witnessed. He leapt and bounded across the stage with relentless energy, and threw himself into the lyrics with physical movements that mirrored or reacted to the words he was singing. His voice was accordingly sonorous, full, soaring, and capable of an impressive dexterity in adapting harmony laden lines to a solo vocal approach. When he needed us to help out on the choruses he directed our voices himself, and classics as such “Full Moon” and “Replica” felt like celebrations of power metal’s proclivity in creating joyful euphoria. Newer songs from albums that I had been critical of on this blog such as “Losing My Insanity” and “Blood” actually sounded better live, brimming with a vitality that I now associate with their studio versions. Even the dreaded “X Marks the Spot” was actually fun because Kakko simply sold it so well, his skill as a front man keeping me rapt with attention as he seemed to act out the lyrics. I was caught off guard in realizing that the song actually has a rather good chorus that I had seemingly blocked out before (my feelings on the studio version’s horrible dialogue still stand). I was even stunned that Kakko had the guts to perform such a naked ballad such as “Love” from the recent Pariah’s Child, but he somehow managed to convince a room full of some pretty convincing looking metal fans that it was okay to sway back and forth to a delicate, gorgeous, emotionally soaked song. I lingered long after the show, fan babbled to the Xandria guys a bit, and found myself not wanting to leave. As it always seems, magical nights like that are rare, and over far too quickly.

That the set list was generously full of classics from the band’s debut album Ecliptica was not a random occurrence. As Kakko himself pointed out on stage, the band was celebrating their fifteen year anniversary and in addition to loading their set with songs from that watershed era , they were going to be releasing their re-recording of the album at the end of the month. I spent the weeks leading up to the show listening to that album in particular, and reveling in every second of what can only in retrospect be dubbed an actual masterpiece. Upon its 1999 release, Ecliptica became a hit in Finland (and Japan) in large part due to the tangible influence of native countrymen Stratovarius’ championing efforts, and the market’s hunger for a Hammerfall-fueled resurgent interest in soaring, melodic power metal. I myself was a frustrated metal fan reliant upon newly developing Stateside mail orders to acquire back catalog from any European metal band I could find. I was listening to a weekly college radio show called the Metal Meltdown out of Cleveland that was introducing me to wonderful new stuff at an alarming rate (in that my wallet was continually emptying) —- in one week the show played new music from a trio of bands I had never heard of: Edguy, Nightwish, and Sonata Arctica. It was like water to a lost traveler in the Sahara. It was a year of classic power metal  releases. It was a wonderful time to be a fan.

 

All these years later, its understandably difficult to remember just how strikingly different and fresh Ecliptica and its 2001 follow-up Silence sounded amidst that newly forming power metal resurgence. Sure the band were noticeably influenced by Stratovarius, but where their countrymen played it straight and safe with their take on European power metal, Sonata Arctica displayed a tendency to wildly lean in odd, unexpected directions —- both musically and lyrically. There was something quite charmingly naive and innocent about their approach, as if they were so enamored with their ability to create songs worthy of a record deal that they didn’t bother to pay attention towards sticking to standard genre rules. This was a very young band for starters (scarcely out of their teens), consisting of musicians all to eager to lean on speed and flashy solos, and they had the talent to pull it off, particularly long-departed guitarist Jani Liimatainen. Yet Sonata’s sound all started with the songwriting genius of Kakko himself, who throughout his career has displayed his knack for crafting indelible melodies with sharp hooks, and incredibly focused songwriting that flirted with a variety of tempos. He was a keyboardist, and his songs were built with that instrument serving as the framework for his songwriting, which also meant that melodies had to come first before riffs (often a hallmark of the most melodic of power metal bands). He’s of the same caliber of talent as his good friend Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish; or Tobias Sammett of Edguy/Avantasia; or Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian: All power metal songwriters who are masters of their craft to such an extent that they simultaneously define and defy the genre. In that regard, Kakko was both a trail blazer and someone who was practically impossible to copy.

As a singer, he was capable of projecting emotive inflections in the simplest of vocal melodies, to such an extent that every song had the potential to come across as some autobiographical account of personal tragedy about a lost-love, or worse. When I first began to listen to the band, I didn’t get around to really investigating the lyrics in the album booklets until after many dozens of listens. I was convinced that these songs were based in part from real life experiences —- and as absolutely ridiculous as that sounds to you today, consider that hardly anyone in power metal at the time was tackling such first person, introverted, real-world subject matter in such an earnest way. Sure you’d occasionally find a love ballad on a random power metal album pre-1999, Stratovarius had a couple in fact, but they were usually paint-by-numbers affairs lyrically speaking, filled with flowery, vague, open-ended diction meant to apply to anyone in particular. In short, they weren’t telling stories. Kakko has been a storyteller throughout his career, a lyricist who writes with an eye for detail and tangible imagery rather than metaphysical conceits. Think about your favorite Sonata Arctica songs… I’m thinking right now of a gem like “Tallulah” from Silence, where Kakko writes from the perspective of a love lorn narrator: “You take my hand and pull me next to you, so close to you / I have a feeling you don’t have the words / I found one for you, kiss your cheek, say bye, and walk away / Don’t look back cause I am crying”. This kind of lyrical perspective was startlingly bold and evocative for a power metal band, so much so that I figured something that gritty and real had to be inspired from his personal life, right?

 

As it turns out, Kakko was a lyricist of the Joe Elliot mold, he being the famed lead singer of Def Leppard. When I was a budding rock fan in the early nineties, I read an interview with Elliot where he admitted that his lyrics were pure fiction, despite his narrative perspective almost always being in the first person with seemingly autobiographical overtones. I know its not a revolutionary concept, and that many other bands have utilized such a lyrical strategy to ratchet up the tension and passion in their music (Journey comes to mind immediately), but Elliot was the first famous musician that I had ever read such an admission from. Reading it then was a bit of a revelation for me, and made me pay attention to lyric writing in rock music with greater attention, to not be so gullible, and to think about things like narration and perspective and diction in a new light. It made me pay greater attention to Metallica’s Load for example, while many upon its release were writing it off as a sell-out move towards alternative rock, I found myself thinking that it featured James Hetfield’s most thoughtful and resonant lyric writing. So it was with great surprise that I found myself hoodwinked by Kakko, who in the very first interview I had ever read with him revealed that his lyrics were purely fictionalized. Doh! This has of course carried on throughout his career, as he recently pointed out in a late September interview on the Metal Meltdown radio show regarding his penchant for writing songs about relationships and love, “I write a lot of stories, these are not my diary entries by any means. I’ve been with my wife for eighteen years. We started dating back in ’96, the same year this band got started so she’s been there the whole time”.

Suffice it to say that when I finally got around to reading the lyrics, I had some other forehead slapping revelations. Take an Ecliptica classic such as “Full Moon”, which upon a cursory hearing could seemingly be about the emotional troubles and turmoils of a complex relationship told in a very romanticized, metaphor-laden manner. Kakko’s emotional vocals sell it that way dammit! But no, its actually about a man on the cusp of his werewolf transformation trying to isolate himself away from his wife during the full moon (“Run away run away run away!”). There is no larger metaphor there, but I suppose in its own juvenile, kooky way it works as a love song. Similarly there is no actual person named Dana, a fictional character in Kakko’s lyrical universe whose name was culled from Dana Scully of The X-Files (Kakko was a huge fan, as am I). Feel free to read into the lyrics of “Letter to Dana” what you will in that light, but I don’t recall Gillian Anderson posing for anything naughtier than the cover of FHM magazine. Likewise, the “Mary-Lou” of the Ecliptica Japanese bonus track is just a made-up character in a rather distressing tale of teenage pregnancy, yet one that’s sweetly sung. I could go on and on reciting examples of misinterpreted Sonata Arctica lyrics, but the point is that these were all songs sung with such emotional resonance that they started to mean whatever I selfishly wished them to. I’m reasonably confident that other Sonata fans have felt the same way. Why else would we get so throat lumpy and something-in-my-eye about so many of these wonderful songs?  I believe its because Kakko sang them with a passion and intensity that to this day seems embedded with painful experience —- despite all proof to the contrary. So powerful is his natural talent that I found myself haunted by a Bette Midler song I couldn’t have cared less about before.

 

With all that in consideration, I think its okay for any of us to ask why the band is re-recording Ecliptica at all. Well, the short answer is that the aptly dubbed Ecliptica Revisited was done at the request of the band’s longtime Japanese record label, a request the band agreed to as a gesture of goodwill towards a company that had stuck by them since the beginning. Kakko has even commented publicly that the contract they signed for the release stipulated that the re-recording had to be 94% identical to the original release, essentially meaning that they couldn’t re-work the songs into transformed versions or acoustic strip downs. For Kakko, this stipulation not only made it easier for the re-recording to be completed, but helped him to contextualize this release as a simple tribute to the original, as well as a more accurate representation of how these songs are performed live today. Typically within the metal community regardless of subgenre, a re-recording is frowned upon, not only for the often cloudy nature of the reason for it’s existence but more for the larger threat it presents to the legacy of the original. Most of the opinions I’ve seen regarding Ecliptica Revisited seem to align with that way of thinking, and I certainly understand some fans’ puzzlement and frustration (although I think its a waste of energy to get up in arms over a release that clearly will not be replacing the original recording).

As far as how enjoyable the re-recording sounds, well… that depends entirely on what you’re expecting from it. It would be a bit dense to expect an absolutely perfect, note-for-note recreation —- you have to walk into this expecting that certain melodies will be altered, the high notes might not be as high, and there might even be a key change or two. We’re factoring in a difference of fifteen years, the numerous adjustments that have been made over time to the way these songs have been played live, as well as the simple truth that no two recordings can sound alike (different band members, recording facilities, equipment, microphones, etc). Oddly enough I was really excited about this release, I think in large part because it gave me an excuse to simply spend a justifiable chunk of listening time with all these old songs I love so much. I spent the past few weeks going back and comparing the original and this re-recording with back to back listens, in an attempt to try to scope out what I liked about each over the other (a behavior one friend of mine deemed “maniacal”), and came up with an litany of notes.

I’ll spare you the bulk of them, but I’ll clear the decks of my negative impressions right away: I won’t fault the band or Kakko in particular for failing to realize this, but the slight tempo adjustments slowing most of these songs down a touch severely impacted a few in particular, effectively muting their original energy. This is acutely felt on “8th Commandment” and “UnOpened”, where the slower pace drags down Kakko’s vocal delivery in the refrains, zapping the songs of their original broiling anger (and yes, their sense of fun and exuberance). Similarly on “Replica”, a personal favorite of mine, Kakko tends to put the brakes on his delivery of the chorus, robbing the song of its original sense of urgency. I should note that this re-recorded version of “Replica” is almost identical to the manner in which they played it here in Houston, and in a live setting this slower pace worked in the sense that Kakko was able to use the extra time to play the performer and guide us in our sing-a-long. In fact you can hear the pauses where you can just imagine him gesturing to the crowd to join in —- it works in the context of a show where you’re just thrilled to be a part of the song in a meager way, but here on record it comes off as lacking. Its interesting to note that if you compare the song lengths of the originals to the re-recordings, you’ll see that the majority of the track lengths on Ecliptica Revisited have been extended by an average of ten seconds, the cumulative effect of all this slowing down business.

 

Fortunately the tempo downshift doesn’t hurt all the songs, in fact helping some songs to breathe easier and feel better paced. Cry heresy if you must but I actually find the vocal take on the re-recording of that eternal classic “My Land” far better than the original: Kakko’s enunciation and pacing is better, and the lyrics are more discernible as a result; I also love the alteration he made at 2:30 on the lyric “You can’t keep me away forever”, on the original that line only appears at the end and he doesn’t satisfyingly lean on the “forever” like he does here. I also really love what they’ve added to “Full Moon”, the intro is still as delicate and beautiful as it originally was, but the band gets heavier in the buildup to the galloping verses, giving the song a darker, stormier vibe. The chorus is as bright as ever though, and what I find so incredibly wonderful about Kakko’s vocal approach on it is that he seems to be reveling in its history as a fan favorite. I know its a subtle thing I’m trying to relay, but I hear it in the way he delivers that classic chorus with all its inherent poppiness in such a celebratory manner. Not surprisingly, its the balladry of  “Letter to Dana” that benefits the most from the re-recording, with guitars multi-tracked in choice spots, better vocal phrasing, and a greater emphasis on making those lead guitars really capture the epic sweep in a Slash-esque way. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a misstep and a shame that they didn’t turn up the harpsichord effects at 4:25 —- that was such an epic moment in the original and although you can still faintly hear them underneath, they’re not nearly as goose bump inducing here. I also think “Destruction Preventer” comes off a little better here, as they sanded off all the rough edges (Kakko’s wildly high pitched yelps) and added layers of extra guitars and harmony vocals.

All told its likely that some of you won’t hear things the same way I did, and my impression could by colored by the very vivid association I have of certain re-recorded songs sounding similar to their live renditions. If that’s really it, then all I can offer is the suggestion for you to catch the band in concert on a future tour. But we are comparing apples to apples here right? Ecliptica in its original recording is a masterpiece of melodic power metal, or at least as near close to one as you can get (I definitely put it up there), and it would’ve been fine without a re-recording. Yet it doesn’t diminish in the light of this one, in fact, I think its helped me to remember just how special these songs are.  I can’t recall the last time I’ve listened to the entire Sonata Arctica catalog as intently as I have in the past month, and I’ve found myself grateful for the opportunity to have my interest renewed. Maybe that coupled with seeing them live has given me a greater tolerance for the flaws of recent albums, and a greater sense of appreciation for all the collective gems and rubies they’ve given to me. Their best work captures the essence of what I love so much about power metal’s potential to uplift my spirits even through the saddest lyric. Its amazing to consider that they’re now regarded as a veteran band within the genre, when for seemingly the longest time they were the up and comers. Fifteen years was a lifetime ago. Happy anniversary Sonata Arctica.

 

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.

 

Anette Olzon: Turn Out the Lights… the Party’s Over

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtGxusvUT3k&w=560&h=315]

 

The legendary Monday Night Football color commentator “Dandy” Don Meredith was a wise man in his simple, inimitable manner, and his belting out of a few bars of the Willie Nelson classic during a lopsided game’s garbage time was a welcome light-hearted distraction from a laborious situation that really just needed to end. And while we can’t be spectators into the inner workings and decision making of a band like Nightwish the way we can during a football game, I suspect that the band’s fans who have kept abreast of the recent 72 hours worth of drama unfolding within the ranks of the symphonic metal giants are in need of some stupid, silly levity right now.

 

Everyone knows the story of Nightwish’s firing of original vocalist Tarja Turunen, and whether one agreed with the decision or not, it was undoubtedly one of the more brutal, ice-cold dismissals of a band member in rock and metal history (for those that forget, she got handed a pink slip type letter mere minutes after finishing a homecoming tour finale in Helsinki — a letter which was pointedly made public online for all to read). Now I felt that the band was justified in their aggressive action towards Turunen, as their reasons were sound and encompassed everything from attempted power grabs, threats of blackmail, interfering business manager/husband, canceling North American tours because the venues were small, and most egregiously, getting the band thrown off a tour with Iron Maiden. I’m thinking that kind of behavior would get you fired from most jobs, or in keeping with the spirit of the NFL football season, you don’t put yourself above or ahead of the team. That’s what Turunen did, and its what newly ex-vocalist Anette Olzon eventually did as well.

 

There’s a lot of misinformation and ignorant buffonery going on in the comments sections of places like Blabbermouth (surprised?), so here’s a factual breakdown of what happened:

 

– On September 28th in Denver, Nightwish was due to play at the Ogden Theater with supporting band Kamelot. The night before the show, Olzon became violently ill, and she went to the hospital the following morning. Doctors suspected it was a kidney stone and after five hours released Olzon with painkillers. At 7pm she began vomiting heavily along with a fever, and upon notifying the hospital she was told to go to the ER immediately. She did, and the band was now faced with the unenviable position of having to possibly cancel the show until it was agreed upon that Kamelot’s backing vocalists Alissa White-Gluz and Elize Ryd (of The Agonist and Amaranthe respectively) would attempt to fill in cooperatively, clutching lyric sheets in hand. The band went out on stage and explained the situation to the crowd, and asked the audience if they would be up to seeing this last-minute, unique performance attempted, as well as giving them the option of getting a full refund at the door. The word is that only seven people got a refund and judging from personal testimonies and the fan filmed YouTube videos of the show, a large audience stayed to watch and participate in the show.

 

– On the night of September 29th, Olzon played what is presumably her last show with the band at The Complex in Salt Lake City. The next day, September 30th, Olzon expressed on her official blog that she was unhappy with the band’s decision to go on with the show and that she was not asked for her opinion on the matter. She continued on to say, “And you know, this is just music. Like life, sometimes we get ill and shows do get cancelled. Rihanna wouldn’t ask Britney Spears to sing for her if she was ill“. This morning on October 1st, Nightwish and Olzon released what appears to be a joint statement explaining the decision to part ways and continue the tour with ex-After Forever vocalist Floor Jansen as their touring fill-in singer, promising that no shows would be cancelled.

 

 

Okay, so with the facts laid out, here’s two immediate things to take away from this: One — That getting a European based vocalist such as Floor Jansen to come in to rather suddenly be the Nightwish touring vocalist for the October 1st show in Seattle, WA is no mere twenty-four hour task. This must have been in the works for at the very least many days to possibly weeks now — because think on it, you’re counting on time for work visas, travel arrangements, travel time, and obviously, enough time for Jansen to be familiar with at sixteen to seventeen songs in the setlist. Things like that do not happen overnight. Olzon’s last show was on September 29th — so the fact that they’re apparently going to pull this off is either incredibly impressive or downright miraculous. Two — That after what they’ve been through with Turunen, Nightwish don’t play around — if you’re not a team player, you’re out. And you know what? I completely understand and support their mentality.

 

I have been, since her induction into the band, a strong Olzon supporter. I think that the pair of albums created with her on board have been the band’s finest, in particular Imaginaerum, and I felt that her lack of an operatic voice such as Turunen’s was what allowed the band to blossom musically and take on an equally prominent role alongside the vocals. The music got better, more interesting, the songwriting more diverse, and Olzon’s pop informed vocal approach was a less overwhelming presence, at least to my ears. That being said, it was easy to see that there were some cracks developing in her relationship with Nightwish.  For starters there was her durability on long tours, she was prone to illness, exhaustion, and the band had to deal with the consequences of those things. Then in 2009, she decided upon getting her own manager — an inexplicable move that was widely speculated upon, and one could guess made the rest of the band have a touch of deja vu. The band seemed to soldier on through all these things but lets fast forward to the present day, and the aftermath of Olzon airing dirty laundry on her blog and publicly questioning a decision that was in large part voted upon by fans of the band in attendance that night in Denver. Now Olzon not only comes across as placing herself before the band, but putting herself above the desires of the fans as well.

 

 

Nightwish’s parting with Turunen seemed to be a traumatic period for both parties involved, judging from interviews taken around that time, and in particular band leader Tuomas Holopainen took the brunt of abuse from disgruntled fans. The band’s greater success from that point onwards was an admirable triumph, and something not won easily. Its hard to discern how far in advance the decision to part ways with Olzon was made, but clearly her comments were regarded by the band as being out of turn and the final contrary straw to the unity they originally wanted with her. As a fan with a financial interest in their current tour (I’m seeing them live in Austin, Texas on October 10th), I feel solidarity with the fans in Denver who had to make the best of a bad situation, as well as the band who alongside the rather brave efforts of both Kamelot backing vocalists all stepped up and did the best they could for the fans. Olzon’s comparison to Rihanna being replaced by Britney Spears is a pretty huge red flag for, well everyone really — this is a metal show we’re talking about, not a pop concert, and when it comes to live metal shows its all about the fans.

 

I’m looking forward to seeing the guys live in Austin in nine days and really amped up about the excellent Floor Jansen being on board for the rest of the tour. Here’s hoping they keep her on as the permanent vocalist. And kudos to the band for their commitment to their fans by not canceling a single show in the midst of a tour where they part ways with their singer, its beyond admirable. I know I’m only one guy, but they’ve got my support in full. The party is over for Olzon, perhaps to her quiet relief, but for Nightwish, its game on starting in Seattle — don’t cue Don Meredith yet!

 

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