The Neapolitan Reviews Pack: New Darkthrone, Gloryhammer, and Aephanemer!

Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!


Darkthrone – Old Star:

The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.

One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?

Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.

Aephanemer – Prokopton:

I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.

One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.

The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.

Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:

I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.

I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.

That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.

Springtime Metals: New Music From Eluveitie, Thormesis, Devin and More!

Alright back to music! Thanks for indulging the little detour I had to go on with the last update, and though I’m hoping it will be the first and last of its kind, you kinda get the feeling that it won’t be unfortunately. The good news is that the metal release calendar marches on, and its been a busy few weeks trying to juggle listening time for everything that’s caught my ear. The big release I’m reviewing below is obviously the new Devin Townsend album Empath, and we went pretty in-depth on the upcoming newest MSRcast episode that should be up very soon, in addition to discussing recent concerts I’ve been to. Speaking of, I found out I’m driving to Dallas in August to see Demons & Wizards, and let me tell you, as a Houstonian, driving to Dallas is something I’d only do for a select few artists. Hansi should be honored! Oh and Game of Thrones’ final season premieres tomorrow so even though its officially spring, I’m happy to say Winter Is Coming!


Battle Beast – No More Hollywood Endings:

After becoming very familiar with Finland’s glam meets power metal export Battle Beast with 2017’s Bringer of Pain, I felt an almost zen-like state of awareness in approaching their new album. I’ve achieved this mental clarity in part through observing and participating in critical discussions about them with the r/PowerMetal community and generally feeling less confused about the band’s own schizophrenic tendencies that had left me puzzled in the past. I think what really helped however was seeing them live for the first time on the Kamelot tour in 2018, where simply watching their performance provided some insight into how this band sees itself and their music post Anton Kabanen (now Mr. Beast In Black in case you didn’t remember). My takeaway was equal parts Roxette / Dokken / and Twisted Sister, which is inherently fine, but it was good to get clarity (creating emotional epics ala Tuomas Holopainen isn’t their bag). Now I’m not sure how much thought the band put into titling the album No More Hollywood Endings, but its striking that both the cover art and arms wide, grandiose, arena ready anthems on this album directly contradict it in sound and spirit. The move towards this centering of their sound was suggested on their last record, and consolidates here on moving away from the Judas Priest-ian influences of their early records and more towards the Roxette meets Sabaton vibes that they’ve realized vocalist Noora Louhimo does better than most. She’s a phenomenal singer in terms of pure tone, grit, and delivery; the kind of voice that is able to coat a veneer of believability over the most lackluster lyric.

These songs place Louhimo front and center not only in the mix, but in the center of the overall songwriting approach, a wise decision that allows keyboardist Janne Björkroth, guitarists Juuso Soinio and relative new guy Joona Björkroth (who’s also the founding guitarist for Brymir, whom I review below) to lean hard towards pomp-tinged Avantasian power metal as on the opening rush of “Unbroken” and “Eden”, but also veer off towards the sultry modern pop meets glitter rock mash up in “Unfairy Tales”. The latter pulses and struts on the back of a fat, ultra-processed riff in the mold of Bon Jovi’s “Its My Life”, blossoming into skyward chorus that would’ve yielded a straight up hit in the 80s. And that’s not just Louhimo’s uncanny similarity to Ann Wilson as a vocalist suggesting that, but the actual construction of that stepladder nature of the bridge, and runway sized room available for the vocal hook in the refrain. This largely retro feel continues on the shoulder-padded, too many bracelets on two wrists Bonnie Tyler vibe of “Endless Summer”, and while I’m all too happy to eat this melodic jello with a plastic spoon, your tolerance may or may not be up for it. But its not all nostalgia soaked throwbackery, as the band gets a little inventive on the title track, concocting a strange waltz with ABBA-inspired guitar melodies and dance-pop keyboard motifs, reminiscent of something you’d hear Amberian Dawn dabble in with their unabashed love for the glorious Swedes. I particularly enjoy the drama of Louhimo’s vocal melody here, veering wildly from romantic anguish to Broadway stylized theatrics, and utterly ridiculous video aside, I thought it was a rare experiment from this band that actually worked. They have a track record of trying ambitious stuff like this and falling on their face, so this is progress —- in fact the whole record is surprisingly solid and at times even worthy of a roadtrip playlist inclusion or two.

Brymir – Wings of Fire:

Hailing from Finland, Brymir is one of those bands that I forgot I heard before for a reason I can’t hope to remember. Maybe its because their name was too close to Houston’s own Brimwylf or maybe its because I remember their debut coming out on Spinefarm in 2011 with a lot of hype behind them proclaiming them to be the next Wintersun. I barely remember anything from their debut, so that clearly wasn’t the case, and I must’ve just slept on their 2016 sophomore effort, but I’m glad to see they’ve sliced the gap of time between releases even further with Wings of Fire, their third album. More than that though, I’m beyond glad that this is a seriously thrilling affair, a thoroughly convincing slice of epic melodic death metal strutting around the castle with its symphonic metal overcoat. I’ve been listening to this consistently for the past couple weeks, and it took me a minute for it to dawn on me that I was finding myself missing it when I skipped it for a few days earlier this past week. I can’t speak for the past, but right now is all that matters, and on Wings of Fire, Brymir come across to me as the heavier end of Wintersun spiced with a little Children of Bodom and Suidakra for thrashy spice and smoky pagan flavor respectively. I think this particular vein of melodic meets extreme metal is particularly difficult to pull off this well, because there’s always the trap that you’ll lapse into pretentiousness if you’re not self-aware during the songwriting process. Brymir seem to have that awareness in spades however, and I love that their choice for the cover art is vividly anime influenced, suggesting they have a good feel for the visual spark their music might be conjuring in some of our minds’ eyes.

About that music then, there’s so much worth pointing out here, but overriding everything is that I find the band’s sense of wildly adventurous pomp lovable and refreshingly devoid of pretentious that can so easily cloud a merging of this specific kind of musical approach. You get a sense of that right from the opening gates of “Gloria in Regum”, a perfectly blended mix of orchestral surge and clamor, pummeling rhythm section and a ripping solo at the 2:52 mark. Or in the stuttering effect laid on top of the vocals in “Hails From the Edge” at the 2:25 mark that sounds like its something pulled from the BT playbook. Speaking of vocals, Brymir screamer Viktor Gullichsen has an approach that could arguably be described as a blackened version of what Jari Maenpaa or Mors Principium Est’s Ville Viljanen does, which is really the right way to go for Brymir’s melodic approach (grunting death metal vocals would just distract). The well chosen single, “Ride On, Spirit”, is one of the album’s highlights, a mix of a quiet folk intro and blasting symphonic backed riffing that erupts like a volcano. I also enjoyed Noora Louhima’s guest vocals on “Anew”, despite that songs borderline questionable spoken narration that uncomfortably sounds like Timo Tolkki speaking from on high. My personal favorite however is “Chasing the Skyline”, not only for its melancholy, distant sounding opening, but for that absolute stunner of a chorus that is just on the right side of ridiculous (noticeable Stratovarius / early Nightwish vibes popping up here, love it). A spectacularly fun album that I can’t stop listening to.

Devin Townsend – Empath:

I suspect that Empath will the point of entry for a lot of new fans to the wide and frankly weird world of Devin Townsend. In the months and weeks leading up to its release, I had noted an inordinate amount of buzz surrounding this album, much of which involved its striking cast of guest artists, but also on its rather risky, expensive price tag it cost to make it. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention before with his previous albums, but I’m usually a fairly astute observer of these things, and nevermind that my MSRcast co-host Cary the Metal Geek might be the biggest fan of Devin’s in all of Texas —- so I’ve heard about Devin’s releases before, but not with this level of volume. Going back to the album’s price tag for a minute because that is an eyebrow raising amount ($170,000 of his own money, not counting the amount the label put in for promotion) for an independent metal album in 2019, I wonder if that’s not fueling some of the extra interest that I’ve detected surrounding its release. I suspect that metal fans in particular love the idea of a band or album that is rife with ambition, and the media buzz around this album is drawing in a few more ears, with the knowledge that Devin has been vocal about needing this album to succeed in order to continue financially (enough to provoke even the most passive person to click on a link to a YouTube video to find out for themselves if he might just be able to). In 2004 when the music industry wasn’t in as quite a transformative state as it is today, Therion spent 100,000 Euros on recording two albums in Lemuria and Sirius B. While that wasn’t even a minor headline back then, and it was money Nuclear Blast provided for a recording budget, it still had to be recouped, so the band avoided music videos, toured for years and managed to pull it off. With Empath, Devin is already in the hole to the record company as well as himself, spending all of the 150k he managed to net from re-signing his back catalog. Yikes. The early good news however is that the album is landing some of his highest positions to date, particularly in the third largest music market of Germany where he’s nearly cracked the top ten.

As for myself, I think all of the above drove my interest in giving Empath particular attention that I’d never given to any prior Devin release, even setting aside knowing that it’d be a big topic on an episode of MSRcast. This album has been a challenge to wrap my mind around admittedly, my first impressions just being somewhere in the ballpark of “this is a lot”. And it still is to be truthful, I still have trouble processing all of the 23:33 running time of the epic “Singularity”, even though its opening five minute “Adrift” passage is so gorgeous I’ve come back to it over and over. The rest of it is a challenging listen, but there are little spots here and there where my interest is piqued, things I wish he’d repeat a few more times or develop into something larger (the Anneke van Giersbergen vocal passage in the “Here Comes The Sun!” suite is one of them). I realize that track was a large chunk of the album’s 74 minute running time, so that might be something of a black mark on the album so many listens into it, but its one that I feel okay about letting go. I enjoyed most of Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful while simultaneously decrying the disjointed nature of its 24 minute closer “The Greatest Show On Earth”. Conversely, I found enjoyment in Empath’s far more concise yet utterly weird tracks, such as “Sprite”, with its almost trance influenced approach towards electronically manipulated repeating vocal lines, strange jumble of rhythmic sounds and jarring musical elements that barrel their way forward without warning. I’ve been re-discovering my love of 90s and early 2000s electronic music lately, particularly trance and progressive house and I have a feeling that listening to all that stuff lately has groomed my headspace to easily accept something
unorthodox along these lines.

I’m of course relatively unaware of the musical directions Devin’s explored throughout his back catalog, but I was impressed enough by the bold, whimsical theatricality of “Why?”, a song that might be my favorite on the record. It actually reminded me of something off the aforementioned Therion and their Beloved Antichrist opera from last year, a tune that seems more classical aria than pop ballad as we know it. His vocals here are rich and emotive despite their purposeful over the top nature, particularly at the 3:10 mark during the heightened swell of the songs climax —- he could be a guest tenor on a Sarah Brightman record during that sequence. On the complete opposite end, “Hear Me” was a compelling uber-aggressive moment ala Strapping Young Lad, and it was interesting to hear how Chad Kroeger’s guest vocals fit into the chaos (it sounded good, but its a little hard to discern his voice from Devin’s). The percussion here courtesy of Samus Paulicelli is dizzying by the way, and its worth checking out this clip of him recreating his recording. Then there’s the love it or hate it proposition of “Spirits Will Collide” with its heart on sleeve lyrics that are admirable in their anti-suicide plea, sort of a spiritual cousin to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”. I’ve seen a decent amount of polarizing reactions to this one, and while I’m one of the few who don’t go towards either end, I think its a well constructed song in terms of its pop hook actually affecting sparking a listener’s pathos if they’re personally inclined to allow it. As some of you know, I listen to Sarah Brightman records, so this is the kind of syrup I’ll gladly pour over my pancakes, except that I think the song is diminished a bit with the harsher vocals. I’d love to see an alternate version surface, something more in the vein of this cover. It feels like it could’ve been a home run power ballad but maybe there was some thought that it might’ve been a little too much. I appreciate Devin’s admitting that Enya was an influence on the choral verse melodies, because I heard the structure of “Only Time” straight away on first listen. One of the most buzzed about albums this year is definitely worth all the noise, and for his sheer creativity alone, I hope he makes his money back.

Thormesis – The Sixth:

This was something brought to my attention via Justin of the Mindfudge Podcast when he guested on a recent MSRcast episode, and I’ve been binging this album ever since. Thormesis are a German band that have delivered five apparently unremarkable albums of epic pagan black metal ala Moonsorrow sung in their native language, thus going fairly unnoticed by most of the metal world. Now full disclosure, I haven’t had a chance to check out their back catalog, but I’m trusting the opinion of someone who has, so take my appraisal of their back catalog with a grain of salt. What matters is explaining why they’ve really hit upon something remarkable with The Sixth, and that’s at once a simple and complicated proposition. There so many elements at play here, furious tremolo riffing over frenetic blastbeat passages, hard rock influenced splashes of lead guitar overlays, an Ensiferum-esque way with pagan metal styled choral vocals, and a noticeable post-rock production wash (dare I say black-gaze-ish?) that permeates the pores of these songs. What brings all these together in as compelling a manner as they are is the satisfyingly earwormy sense of melody that’s ingrained in the songwriting. Yes this is an album full of discordant chord progressions and abrupt tempo shifts, the sort of thing that makes black metal the extreme noise chamber it can often be, but on The Sixth, Thormesis grab hold of those seemingly uncontrollable elements and tame them with some of the strongest melodies I’ve heard on an extreme metal album in recent memory.

We hear this on the very first measures of the album opener “Sonnen”, with its tail-riff segmenting approach to the verse passages (check the :25 second and 1:17 marks). Its something from the hard rock playbook that not only gives a clear, discernible structure to an otherwise chaotic rhythmic attack, but serves as the song’s motif, an approach I often wish more black metal bands would employ. But there’s so much more here to unpack, the gorgeous, melancholy keyboard fragments that gently glide over everything three minutes in, and the lead vocal duet between guitarists Tino Krüger and Benjamin Rupp, who apparently share vocal duties throughout the album. The worryingly titled “Their Morbid Drunken Ways” initially conjured up images of some kind of Finntroll level disaster, but thankfully its more along the lines of Sentenced in its melancholic, aching melody that’s loosely draped across a mid-tempo, Katatonia-esque quiet and thunder juxtaposing. I hear that same Sentenced / Insomnium melodic tone in the opening phrasings in “Chor der Toten”, which might be my favorite song on the album. And its not only because of that awesome rock guitar bend at 2:11 that steers us away from one of the album’s most fierce passages to a beautiful, satisfying guitar solo; its the dramatic, isolated tremolo fragment stirring in the ether that builds up to that visceral explosion at the 4:07 mark, like a roller coaster careening down from top of the highest hill. These are songs largely built around musical hooks, not conventional pop formatted vocal hooks, but there are times when the band get daring enough to employ unconventional vocal motifs such as on “One Tear For Every Last Burning Soul”, where clean vocals erupt in something like funeral wailing. It sounds weird but trust me it works, particularly when its fit in between crystalline synths and soaring, emotional guitarwork. If you’ve been looking for something to blow you away in the first half of this year, you need to check this out regardless of your tolerance for black metal because The Sixth is a transcendent release.

Eluveitie – Ategnatos:

I have to admit, even with the hindsight of enjoying Eluveitie’s first post major lineup schism release in the largely acoustic Evocation II: Pantheon, that I didn’t expect this band to emerge stronger after the loss of vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Anna Murphy, guitarist Ivo Henzi, and drummer Merlin Sutter. They might have nailed that acoustic album out of the park, even bettering the first volume, but the real test would come when the band returned to its melodeath meets folk metal core sound. I’m not gonna keep you in suspense, they really have pulled it off, convincingly I might add. And I’m beginning to wonder if the key to this successful transition was simply stumbling upon the right vocalist in Fabienne Erni as Murphy’s replacement. I raved about Erni’s vocals on Evocation II, her vibrant, lightened vocal tone a perfect match for that album’s material in giving it a breezy, brighter feel than I suspect Murphy would have been able to. It turns out her voice pairs equally as well next to pummeling rhythm sections and Gothenburg patterned riffing as on “Deathwalker”, an early in the tracklisting highlight and my current favorite on the record. Chrigel Glanzmann is still obsidian throated in his melodeath delivery here, but his side by side vocal duet with Erni on the chorus over intense riffing works surprisingly well, her voice powerful enough to hold her own against his and still sound strikingly opposite in tone and texture. Its a compelling song, and a fairly perfect portrait of everything that makes Eluveitie so distinct and unique even amongst other folk metal artists.

There’s another standout cut in “The Raven Hill”, where Erni’s hypnotic lead vocal entrance sets a mystical mood that amplifies the already elevated strong folk tendencies coming through here. Hurdy-gurdy from Michalina Malisz, fiddle courtesy of Nicole Ansperger, and Matteo Sisti on bagpipes work up a gorgeous, rustic folk melody that’s echoed by Glanzmann’s trademark whistles. Even here his harsh vocals are met stride for stride with Erni’s excellent vocals, and I particularly like the ending echoing the intro, with her guiding the way out of this smoky wood we’ve all obviously been hanging out in. There’s a few cuts on here that are pretty much full on melodeath with Glanzmann at the helm, and as on previous Eluveitie albums I’m generally fine with them, although they’ve never been the best cuts on the records and that’s the same situation here. I’m a fan of this band for the folk metal elements, and they tend to come around more when Erni’s at the very least taking a 50/50 role at the vocal helm as on the darker, aggressive “Threefold Death” and the pop soaked “Breathe”. In that respect, “Rebirth” is another album highlight for cleverly managing those elements so well, and for Erni’s handling of her vocal melody. It was also a risky but nice touch to add in a few little instrumental vignettes like “The Silvern Glow”, things I usually tend to frown upon but Eluveitie wisely kept these very much tied to the acoustic spirit of the music in Evocation II, kinda linking these two albums together based on its identical line-up. This is a sixteen track long album but if you subtract those few cuts its still a more than respectable thirteen song proper album, with a meaty running time. Its been awesome to see this band make its full comeback from a rough patch in its lineup history, and they’ve made an album that lives up to the best of their catalog.

Cellar Darling – The Spell:

Its uncanny that once again a new Eluveitie and Cellar Darling album are not only appearing back to back in one of my review clusters, but that yet again its not because I’m trying to be deliberately provocative by doing so —- in fact, these two albums were released within two weeks of each other. Its a close mirroring of what happened in 2017 with Eluveitie’s Evocation II: Pantheon and Cellar Darling’s debut This Is The Sound. Being that I’m a reviewer that is always going to get to albums late, after I’ve listened to them enough times to feel comfortable writing about them, a side by side comparison is too intriguing to pass up. However, a note of advice to both bands, particularly Cellar Darling, you both are on Nuclear Blast Records, surely it can’t be that hard to coordinate with the label to steer clear of each other and give yourselves some breathing room around your release dates. Its not that I think discerning fans can’t separate the two albums and make their own value judgments, but the proximity can only provoke a direct comparison to their ears too, and so many of those fans were upset when Anna Murphy / Merlin Sutter / Ivo Henzi and Eluveitie split, and considering the reason for the split was each side not liking the other’s ideas about musical direction —- well, don’t be surprised if some of those fans feel the burden of that conflict on themselves in hearing both of these records. I wasn’t all that bothered by the split myself, intrigued certainly, and I felt sympathy for Murphy and company, enough to hope that Cellar Darling would be something I’d really enjoy. Their debut was a shaky start, but I think most of us were willing to forgive that and hope for more interesting material the second go round, but on The Spell the band finds themselves with no new ideas, a worrying sign. You can see where this is headed, and its a bummer to say that The Spell isn’t an improvement on its predecessor.

I wish I could offer up a highlight here, but truthfully I’ve struggled to find one for these past few weeks, and I’ve internally groaned every time I’ve had to make another pass through the album to see if anything else clicked. The most emergent song from these hesitant listening sessions has been “Insomnia”, which marries a metallic degree of heavy riffing to isolated hurdy gurdy melodies to set up a soaring chorus where Murphy reminds us just how well she can get her rather earthy voice sailing through the air. I’d like the song more if it retained a sense of kinetic flow throughout, instead of the ambient passages within where nothing interesting is really happening. When you have a genuinely affecting hook, plug it in as often as you can without coming across like Haddaway. I also liked the dirty, ground in feel of “Freeze”, where Murphy’s vocals merge with a distant rhythmic grumble to come across like a close cousin to The Cranberries “Zombie” (before that awful radio rock band decided to ruin that song for everyone). A similar problem crops up on “Love”, which has a pretty solid hook that gets plugged a little more, but the connective tissue is missing in terms of crafting a compelling song from start to finish. But its a song like “Drown” that I have a really hard time with, its aimless riffing and lack of any kind of binding melody (even in the vocals) just result in a soupy mess of ideas that go nowhere. On the title track, Murphy juxtaposes elements of a pop chorus with a high pitched delivery of a specific line in a manner that is certainly memorable, but not exactly enjoyable. There’s a similar problem with “Hang”, where Murphy explores the full sweep of her vocal range, and she sounds great to her credit, but the song lacks a compelling motif to tie everything together (but given its lyrical narrative, perhaps that was intentional?). I’ve toned down what was initially a scathing review because I began to consider that a lot of Murphy’s fans will love this kind of stuff and might find it perfect for them. But for myself, it really puts the entire Eluveitie split into perspective and has me siding with them —- if this more bland, generic rock riff direction was what the Cellar Darling crew had in mind for the direction in their previous band, then I don’t blame the Eluveitie camp for balking. They’ve doubled down on what the essence of that band’s sound to deliver two really excellent folk-metal albums, and Cellar Darling are doing… whatever this is.

Suidakra Unplugged: Cimbric Yarns

I’ve been a recent convert to Suidakra, having heard the name throughout the years but only really investigating around five years back with 2013’s Eternal Defiance, an album that landed high on that year’s best albums list. It wasn’t their best album I’d realize upon investigating their back catalog, but it was impactful on me at that time, I played it constantly and loved its merging of a more subdued melo-death approach with bright, almost power metal infused Celtic folk metal. At times throughout their career, the band has leaned closer towards one of those poles than the other, always swaying back and forth from album to album. Lately, Arkadius Antonik had been fond of including one or two fully realized acoustic folk songs in the midst of the past few albums, and they were almost always spectacular. The rare exception came on the band’s last proper studio album, 2015’s Realms of Odoric, where “Braving The End” was a bit unfocused. That aberration with its weird Nick Cave soundalike male vocals made me a little worried when I heard that the next record would be all acoustic. Its the kind of idea that sounds cool in theory but is always harder to pull off convincingly —- I think back to how underwhelming Opeth’s Damnation sounded midway through, or how bewildering and difficult Borknagar’s Origin turned out.

But its not impossible to accomplish: Eluveitie pulled it off last year with Evocation II, and very recently Thrawsunblat knocked it out of the park with Great Brunswick Forest. There’s no one way to go about it, but the general rule is to pick a direction and lean hard into it, without hesitation or tentativeness in one’s sound or songwriting approach. In Eluveitie’s case they chose to focus on the bright, shimmery, uptempo nature of the European folk music at the heart of their folk-melodeath hybrid and the result was music that could’ve felt at home at a renaissance faire, fun and colorful (I’m not alone in thinking this, I was just at the Texas Renaissance Festival this past weekend where one of the acoustic bands did a cover of “Inis Mona”). Thrawsunblat made the bold decision to not attempt to emulate the excellent “Maritime Shore” acoustic lament from their first album, and instead decided to eschew balladry and approach their acoustic album as if they were writing for a regular metal album, albeit one recorded acoustically. The result was a surprising, wildly aggressive and punchy album that only served to reinforce the band’s Canadian maritime folk roots, demonstrating how it informed all aspects of their sound, not just the slower, softer side. Coming back to Suidakra’s Cimbric Yarns then, its readily apparent after many listens that Arkadius didn’t really hone in on a specific plan of attack for these songs, other than to write them as narrative-vocal driven. That creates a consistent thematic feel across the album, and these songs do feel bound together as a result, but it takes a songwriter that is specifically talented in writing with that kind of approach to make it work across ten continuous tracks. Arkadius is awesome at cranking out his very particular blend of melo-death, with its epic lifts and aggressive jabs, but Blind Guardian-esque narrative focused acoustic balladry? That’s not really his forte, and it shows. 

The stellar exception to that statement is the album highlight and first single “Ode to Arma”, which was a little difficult to decipher on first listen but had enough charm to keep me hitting repeat on YouTube before the album’s release where I quickly grew to love it. Its a majestic and melancholic song, that combination of emotions that Arkadius has managed to convey the best in his previous rare acoustic moments. Its strength is in longtime Suidakra contributing vocalist Sebastian Jensen’s clean, emotive lead vocal. He has a smooth, hefty voice, with frayed edges towards the end of phrasings, its closest comparison perhaps is perhaps Dan Swano. Here, his vocal lines are introduced, punctuated, and dance partner swung around with delicate yet confidently performed acoustic guitar patterns. It sounds like a sad song and the title and lyrics reinforce this, and it serves as a good reminder that this is an album with a story, though how much we’re expected to know about these characters is up in the air. I think its hard to expect fans to have an emotional attachment to a fantasy world created just for an album… those attachments usually come in literature or film first, and songs can serve to build on those ideas or concepts. Ask even the most die hard Blind Guardian fan if he or she really did a deep dive on the story line for Beyond the Red Mirror —- its not impossible, but highly unlikely.

The tambourine beat led “At Nine Light Night” is another highlight, the most traditionally structured ballad you might expect that would wind up on an acoustic Suidakra record. I think the weird Dracula’s castle keyboard orchestration towards the end could’ve been left on the mixing room floor, but that minor quibble aside this is as stirring and elegant as songs in this vein can be. But the problems surface in tracks that should be tent poles for the album, like the solid ideas presented in “Snakehenge” that are marred by woeful melodic choices and under cooked songwriting. Where Jensen was the star of “Ode to Arma”, he’s a liability here, his voice jarringly at odds with the nature of this particular melody. And one wonders, if they heard these problems in the recording process, why not beef up the guitars with some added layers or maybe re-write the lyrics so his vocal lines are so awkward in connecting to the music? The particularly glaring line here is “… arise brave people, join the cause!”, and though the concept of rhyming is often over emphasized in songwriting to a fault, it does help to bend to that core principle a little and particularly in terms of meter. Similarly, “A Day and Forever” commits the unforgivable sin of somehow making the wonderful Tina Stabel sound out of place and kind of hard to listen to. There’s nothing about the underlying guitar patterns that support her vocal melody, or even complement it or melodically respond to her lyrics. I do love the sped up acoustic run after the first verse, as well as the subtle orchestration that soon supports it, and the use of banjo here is excellent. But the compelling gravitas Stabel had on previous albums (and the awesome cover of the traditional “Mrs. McGrath”) isn’t present here, and I think that’s a shame.

I’m loathe to criticize Suidakra at all, but I’ve done it before for 2015’s Realms of Odoric, and the truth is that the band’s catalog has been consistently inconsistent. Arkadius is capable of amazing things but sometimes it just doesn’t come through, and one wonders if it comes with the territory of his prolific output. There’s a feeling across Cimbric Yarns that this was an album that needed a longer gestation period, more thought given to how these songs should be written and whether it really was critical to impart much of a storyline here. Isn’t it possible for projects like this to be created as soundtracks to a book we haven’t read or a movie we haven’t seen yet? I ask this aloud because I’ve become wary of bands foisting their concepts ahead of the ideal end goal of writing amazing songs. This album is connected to the storyline in the debut album of the Realms of Odoric side project Arkadius has with artist Kris Verwimp, though how exactly I’m not sure. Again I’ll ask, who is deep diving into this storyline? What is this fantasy world and why should I invest so much in it when its not readily available for me to process? These are pressing questions on my mind as a fan lately because I used to want to give bands the time of day and really attempt to immerse myself in their concept albums, but at some point I had to admit… I didn’t know what the hell the storylines for the first two Avantasia albums were about. I kind of still don’t! But I damn well know exactly what Hansi is referring to in the various songs of Nightfall In Middle Earth, because its not packing the entirety of its storyline within its running time —- there’s an easily accessible (albeit not readable, perhaps) story in print that anyone can optionally turn to if they really want to go in depth. Those songs don’t spell out entire events, they’re merely emotional reactions to those events described elsewhere (a bardic notion if you will). Again, I really hated the acceptance of my reaction towards this album, which boils down to me yanking a mere two songs out of its tracklisting to throw on the iPod. I like Arkadius a lot, he seems like a genuinely great, wonderful, friendly guy and he’s a fellow Houston Texans fan to boot (!), so in that spirit I’ll just say I’m looking forward to the next proper Suidakra album and will be rooting for him.

The Last Reviews of Summer: Cauldron / Omnium Gatherum / Powerwolf / Beyond The Black

More reviews from the dog days of summer, although the season is waning rapidly and good riddance I say, it was a pretty good time for metal releases. I was glad for the slow down that seemed to occur in August, it let me get around to listening to older albums and also to work on non-reviews features that I hope to have out soon for the fun of it. One of the older albums that I dug into listening to was Beast In Black’s 2017’s debut Berserker, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little miffed that no one sent me a message asking me why I hadn’t bothered reviewing one of the more outlandish, Euro-swagger filled power metal albums of that year. Its such a fun album, and their Greek vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos is a dynamo, one of the more promising talents in a burgeoning field of new, exciting singers coming up within power metal as a whole. I know that Beast In Black is an offshoot of Battle Beast, but their debut is yet another piece of ammo for my theory that power metal is enjoying a quiet renaissance as of the past two-three years. Anyway, here’s a handful of reviews to round out the summer months, and hopefully I’ll have some non-reviews stuff coming up ahead to give myself and you a break from the treadmill.

 

 

 

Powerwolf – The Sacrament of Sin:

There’s a few ways you can attempt to analyze a new Powerwolf album, and although I’ve only done that once before (for 2015’s Blessed and Possessed) I feel like the best way is to simply compare it to its immediate predecessor. This is because there is no lock on what is the band’s all time best album, even among their sizable fan base. In this Powerwolf share the same dilemma that Sabaton had over time, that the fan favorite songs were spread rather randomly across the entirety of their discography. In the well over half a dozen Sabaton shows I’ve seen, fans went just as nuts for “Ghost Division”, “40:1”, and “Cliffs of Galipoli” as they did for the encore “Primo Victoria”. Now in Sabaton’s case, there has been a recent consensus building/realization that their 2008 album The Art of War has risen in the esteem of the greater metal community at large as one of the best front to back power metal albums of the last decade, as well as one of the most impactful (something that I’d agree with even though I think Carolus Rex and Heroes are more interesting and rich albums). Its natural to compare both these bands, they started out in the same year with their debuts (2005) and have taken a similar career trek to headline status in the European festival scene with a poppy sensibility to their keyboard driven songwriting, a baritone-ish vocalist, and a distinct “shtick” to their image and subject matter. But where Sabaton have at times attempted to innovate, albeit slowly and subtly, Powerwolf might be on the verge of repeating themselves into a Manowar-ish corner.

 

I will say that I’ve enjoyed this particular album a great deal more than Blessed and Possessed, and though that wasn’t a difficult hurdle to clear, its encouraging to see the songwriting bounce back. The obvious single here is “Demons Are A Girl’s Best Friend”, and at least in its verses they try some new things here and there, but in the chorus its strikingly close to “We Are The Wild” off the last album, which itself was a watered down version of “Sacred and Wild” off 2013’s Preachers Of The Night. Its a strong song, though not exactly compelling stuff beyond the candy coated vocal hook, and honestly it was on the border for me with its lyrics, skirting the edge of good taste in keeping with the lycanthropic theme. If you’re going to commit to this concept, as you could honestly say they have been for years, then don’t muck it up by getting cute in your imagery (then again this is the band that once penned “Resurrection By Erection” so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised or annoyed). I actually enjoyed “Incense & Iron” more, with Attila’s commanding vocal during the verses going in an unexpectedly epic, Blind Guardian-ish place. The chorus may be standard swashbuckling power metal fare, but the Celtic sounds, the martial stomp and swing of the rhythmic approach combine to craft a stirring anthem. I also thought “Where The Wild Wolves Have Gone” was an interesting ballad from a band that isn’t really suited to attempting them, with its Orden Ogan channeling in style and even Attila’s vocals sounding similar to Sebastian Levermann’s.

 

I get why Powerwolf are so beloved over in Europe, but it shouldn’t be a mystery why so many of us stateside power metal fans are a little more detached from the band. Unlike Sabaton who’ve made it their mission to establish a fan base in the States through years and years of relentless touring here both as support and headliners, Powerwolf hasn’t even bothered with us (and according to Glenn Harveston, promoter of ProgPower, they won’t even entertain offers to come over). I get it, why go through the massive expense of even trying when you’re kings in your home turf and are scoring number one albums in Germany? It does however result in some distance in just how much I can find myself invested in the band, because while I personally find Sabaton very interesting as someone who enjoys history, even I can admit that their music is very pop-laden for metal. Powerwolf is just as pop, but the werewolf thing doesn’t do anything for me at all in terms of deepening my interest beyond a surface level of is this catchy or not? Without the benefit of seeing them live, I haven’t had the chance to form a personal connection with the band in lieu of being unable to forge any kind of connection to them as artists. I’ve never seen Therion either, but I love their music so deeply that it can override that absence. Powerwolf doesn’t have the kind of music that can really inspire that level of devotion, and sadly this absence of both the live experience and passion for their music will keep them a distant memory in the minds of most American fans.

 

 

 

Omnium Gatherum – The Burning Cold:

I think I’ve learned to be a little wary of album previews in general, whether its those atrocious 3 minute spliced together montages of every song on an album to “whet” fans appetites, or even just the actual lyric/music video released ahead of the album’s street date. This is because even if its a full song from the album, its not enough to get an impression about the album’s quality one way or another. Its often counterproductive actually, an easy way to overreact to enthusiasm or get dismissive because of a negative opinion on one song. Recently with the Immortal album, I somewhat duped myself into believing that Demonaz and company had simply gone back to their early era roots, which although partially true was nowhere near a complete rendering of what that album really was. It took almost a solid month of listening to it for me to suss out a far more nuanced take, and I suspect that had I simply never heard the pre-release single of “Northern Chaos Gods” ahead of the album in full, I might not have come to that premature, judgment clouding take. With Omnium Gatherum, I saw the music video for “Gods Go First” way back in early July, and for whatever reason came away feeling rather “meh” about what I heard. That honestly dampened my enthusiasm for this album and although I still managed to keep my curiosity piqued come release day just for sheer reviewing purposes, it was hard to shake the bad taste I still had. I get that not everyone will have this problem, but I might be making a decision to stay away from most of these kind of early previews in the near future (case in point is the new Wolfheart track, haven’t listened to it yet).

 

Fortunately in this case, my early negative impression wasn’t nearly strong enough to work against the very obvious excellence that is Omnium’s eighth album in The Burning Cold. This is a continuation of the crackling artistry heard on 2016’s Grey Heavens, an album that I credited with the band finally finding the right way to manage the density of their musical elements. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen started to time his vocal passages more effectively to complement the dual lead guitar melodies, to work around them and fill in gaps of sound rather than try to compete with them directly. Keyboardist Aapo Koivisto began to be a more foundational force within the structure of the songs, and as founding guitarist Markus Vanhala is usually the primary songwriter, its a credit to him in knowing that this strategy worked last time and to keep it going. A microcosm of this is heard on “Refining Fire”, where all of those elements come together to ensure that one of the more aggressive moments on the album is also its smartest songwriting wise. I particularly love the spacing around Pelkonen’s vocals during the chorus and the mid-song bridge where an awesome dual lead solo dances over Koivisto’s dreamy, lush soundscapes. Speaking of soundscapes, they’re just getting better and better, take a listen to the mid-song dip in “The Fearless Entity” for proof, with its own divergent melody and sense of melancholy and ache.

 

My previous disliking of “Gods Go First” has largely subsided, its a solid enough track, but it should have never been the single in the first place, that honor should’ve gone to “The Frontline”, as majestic a song Omnium Gatherum have ever written. Its up there with “The Unknowing” from Beyond and “New World Shadows” from well, New World Shadows. This is a gorgeous, thrilling song, built on a Gothenburg inspired sense of swinging melodic motifs ala Whoracle era In Flames, complete with a beautiful acoustic guitar framework keeping things rustic and enchanting underneath. The rhythm guitar attack here is measured and percussive even, aware of itself enough to keep out of the way of the lovely lead melodies, just smart, focused songwriting on display. The emotional outpouring occurs at the 3:22 mark, where Koivisto’s keyboards and the lead guitar join together to cry out a melody that’s simultaneously exulting and heartbreaking. This is why we listen to melodic death metal, because we want shimmering moments of major key goodness here to counterbalance the aggression and intensity —- they both work to make each other more potent. I’ll take stuff like this every day over non-stop blast beats and a never ending tremolo riff. I know I know, everything has its place, but straight up brutality has never produced a song that provokes the kind of emotional response that this song has. I didn’t think it was likely that Omnium would top Grey Heavens, but they’ve eclipsed it, and that’s something to cheer about.

 

 

 

Cauldron – New Gods:

I first caught onto Cauldron when their vocalist/bassist Jason Decay did a guest spot on BangerTV’s Lock Horns Power Metal episode. He wasn’t exactly the right guy for the gig, it should’ve gone to Martin Popoff (who later hosted the Essential Power Metal albums Lock Horns ep and delivered) but I figured anyone willing to stand up and talk about power metal on camera earned the few minutes in checking out his band. I became an immediate fan of their 2016 album In Ruin, a wild, semi lo-fi blast of old school, early 80’s hard rock meets early NWOBHM influenced metal. Sure they were one of the legion of bands that were doing deliberately retro sounding music, and that stuff could have a tendency to get a little too blatantly worshipful at times (Municipal Waste and the like), but like Sweden’s Enforcer and Chicago’s High Spirits, Cauldron found a way to express something vibrant and endearing (if not exactly new) in their music. There was an immaturity running through that album that was a boon, not a drawback, and through it a connection to the bands of that distant era they were pulling their influences from. I hate to get cliched, but this was metal that sounded great in a buddies garage from the stereo in the corner, while beers got drunk and bands and albums got argued over.

 

So when Cauldron leans into that aspect of their personality and sound on their newest, New Gods, I’m all in and enjoying every second of the trio’s still meat and potatoes sound. But this is also the band’s fifth album, and if its vague, amorphous artwork wasn’t a clue, the relatively scaled back accessibility factor is a signal that these guys are interested in maturing their approach a bit (actually if artwork is a guide, then they’ve been eyeing this path on their previous two albums as well, devoid of the Spinal Tap-ian ladies that adorned their first two). The most instantaneous stuff here is excellent, the best of the bunch being “Letting Go”, a slow burning juxtaposition of intense, biting mid-tempo riffage and Decay’s best vocal performance to date. His laid back tone has always reminded me of Chris Black but with a little more heft and roundness, and here he unleashes a memorable major key vocal hook, bright and full of energy. And then there’s “Together As None”, the most unorthodox song in Cauldron’s history to date, coming across as a slice of Dokken meets Def Leppard meets Weezer into some weird timeless pop-metal amalgam. I know its gotten its fair share of flack, but I love it and wish the band would extend further in this direction in the future (or in other strange, unexpected directions).

 

While those two songs were instantaneous and still hold up after countless listens, it took multiple efforts to crack into some of the other stuff here, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. I actively disliked “Save the Truth – Syracuse” at first, but came around to it over time, and perhaps its because its such a slow burner (I’m that guy who took forever to love “Holiday” by the Scorpions, it was too slow and repetitive for the longest time, but one day it just smacked me in the face). Its still just a solid, not great song however, with a refrain that is subtly pleasant and reminds me of 80’s hard rock’s penchant for taking itself deathly seriously (that’s a good thing here). I haven’t really made heads or tails of the lyrics here, but it all fits the tone and general vibe of the music, and that’s kind of what I want from Cauldron —- the title of the song suggests a possible storyline or backstory here, but I’m a little hesitant to commit that much mental energy to this band (its not implausible for the future, but c’mon, I’m not listening to Operation: Mindcrime here). Similarly, “Never Be Found” took its time growing on me, but I can’t understand why, its one of the best cuts on the album, a confident rocker with the tastiest (yes!) dual harmony guitar solo I’ve heard this band pull off. But its listless cuts like “Prisoner of the Past”, “Drown”, and the pointless instrumental “Isolation” that throw this album off balance and prevent it from being as fun as In Ruin. Its still a worthwhile listen with some awesome moments, but Cauldron took a step back here, and that’s concerning.

 

 

Beyond the Black – Heart of the Hurricane:

Beyond the Black is the brainchild of vocalist Jennifer Haben, who made her debut (to most of us not in Germany) on Kamelot’s newest album in April on “In Twilight Hours”, a song I deemed the best on the album and a contender for the Song of the Year list. Her vocals on that track in a spiraling duet with Tommy Karevik played a big role in its success, particularly during its dramatic peak towards the end where she delivered an impressive display of range and emotive resonance. It was enough to make me pay attention to news regarding her own band to give them a fair shot, and its interesting enough to point out that Beyond the Black is kind of a growing big deal in Germany already, their previous albums charting quite high there (both this new album and its predecessor were top five on the national chart). They are a German born band with German band members, and its also worth noting that barring Haben the lineup is entirely new for Heart of the Hurricane. I’m not exactly up to date on why the entire band parted ways with Haben after their 2016 album Lost In Forever, but its impressive that Haben was able to cobble together a new lineup in such a short amount of time in the interim. Just as impressive is that this is genuinely a really excellent slice of symphonic pop-metal in the vein of Within Temptation and to a certain extent, the sugary sweetness of Amaranthe sans the electro-beat influences. Let that be your warning, if you enjoy most things about those two bands, feel free to proceed —- everyone else, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

The ironic thing is that I’m writing this right as Within Temptation have released their new single with Jacoby Shaddix (yeah that guy) “The Reckoning”, and its as dicey as you’d expect, a transparent attempt at edginess for edginess sake. The band’s roots were in symphonic metal (gothic metal at first for you nitpickers), but as Therion’s own Christofer Johnson has pointed out in recent interviews, there is nothing so unfashionable these days as symphonic metal. With the genre’s bigger names and veterans having moved away from the sound, its left a vacuum for its fans wanting someone to deliver the kind of stuff that they loved on albums like Century Child and The Silent Force. I’d be willing to bet that they’d really love the bulk of the fifteen (!) tracks on Heart of the Hurricane, because Haben and company make no attempt to deviate from the symphonic metal playbook, even excelling at moments due to their dedication to its tropes and cliches. Take album highlight “Song For the Godless”, with its unabashed Eluvietie invoking Celtic/folky motifs, or “Fairytale of Doom” with its almost children’s sing-songy melody that Haben unexpectedly sings right along to. When you’d expect things to get too clever by half and do something different in order to not sound overly cheerful or happy… nope, its full steam straight ahead without a second thought. Call it refreshingly oblivious.

 

Its also worth pointing out that Haben is the perfect vocalist to serve as the vehicle for this stylistic approach, her vocals reminiscent enough of Sharon Den Adel’s nationality neutral delivery to soak up pop hooks and dish out radio-rock appeal. Even the beauty and the beast tropes seem to work just on the pure strength of the songwriting and her skill at delivering compelling melodies, as on “My God Is Dead” where the vocals of I’m assuming the guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer work as a foil, Haben manages to keep us entranced enough to avoid thinking about just how close to hammy his presence made things for a second. So with all this genuine praise about what I’m listening to as the carrot, here’s the sharp, pointy stick: This is not a genuine band in the traditional sense, and is almost certainly a studio project in practice if not in conception as well. I had wondered just how it was possible for Haben to lose her entire band and somehow get a new lineup together within a year and collectively work on new material in such a short time span —- was she the songwriter and just dictated to everyone else? Certainly possible. But no such luck, as a little digging has unearthed a trio of German producers as the songwriters at work here (with Miro Rodenberg working on the album as mastering engineer to boot). I’m not against this in principle, Frontiers Records has developed a cottage industry around these types of releases, but the “band” has certainly loses a little appeal to me as a result. Even Amaranthe is writing their own stuff, for better or worse. Make of this knowledge what you will symphonic metal fans.

 

Scandinavian Summer: The Return of At The Gates and Amorphis

The two biggest releases in the month of May, I was of course wanting to give them an ample amount of listening time before writing anything and the busy nature of the month (including concerts and one out of town trip!) lent towards the drawn out time frame from their release date till now. I’m glad I waited because I was a little high on one and not so much on the other and its been interesting to see how an extra week or so has leveled off both of those opinions with different insights that came to me later on. With as high profile as these have been I feel like I took my eye off the rest of the release radar for this month and possibly June, so if anyone has any tips on what I should be paying attention to right now please drop me a recommendation in the comments!

 


 

Amorphis – Queen of Time:

I was surprised when Amorphis announced that a new album would be landing in our laps this summer, but quickly realized that its release date would fall just under three years since the September 2015 release of Under The Red Cloud, an album that was so magnificently brilliant it took hold of my album of the year spot. I think that album had so dominated my listening time for a good half a year after first hearing it that it made it feel like it was just released last year-ish. I put the album and indeed the band on a long break after seeing them live later in April 2017, something that needs doing after so intense a period of listening to an album you’re obsessing over along with the band’s entire back catalog as a side effect of that enthusiasm. I learned that lesson way back in the early aughts with Opeth and Blackwater Park, particularly considering how soon Deliverance and Damnation and even Ghost Reveries followed —- I couldn’t so much as look at an Opeth album cover for a good long while (a few years actually). That being said I feel like I had a healthy level of anticipation for this one, optimistic that it would be a good album (remember my Amorphis as the New England Patriots of Finnish metal comparison?… no? Dammit.), but a little skeptical that they’d be able to go the distance towards a masterpiece like they did last time around. I was right on the last part, Queen of Time is certainly nowhere near the level of inspired artistry we heard on Red Cloud, and it can rightly be described as a good, even very good album, but somehow something isn’t clicking with me here and I’m having a hard time figuring out what.

 

One thing is clear after all these many listens, that Amorphis is clearly running with open arms towards the highly melodic side of their sound that they expanded on Red Cloud. That means ample melodies, some bordering on what can perhaps be described as sugary or at the least a little sweet, a load of Tomi Joutsen’s clean vocals, and the bulk of the songs being set in a mid-tempo groove. On “Daughter of Hate” they even balance a ferocious melo-death attack with a laid back jazzy section replete with backbeat on the percussion and that recent mistress heard operating around various parts of Scandinavia, the saxophone. I alternate between being okay with it and other times being largely annoyed by its presence, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t mind the odd bit of sax (I grew up liking INXS for starters and then there’s its star role in Queensryche’s Promised Land to consider). More than that though, I couldn’t get into the almost twee sounding melody propelling “Message In The Amber”, unfortunate because its brutal middle section is entirely worth sitting through the rest of the song for. The placement of various sections within the song seem disjointed as well, lacking anything in the way of needed transitions or cues. This songwriting dysmorphia is also evidenced on “Grain of Sand”, where we hear some good ideas but nothing ever gels or coalesces into a greater whole. There’s something just generally frustrating about how songs like “Wrong Direction” and “The Golden Elk” turned out, because you get the feeling that they could have been excellent had they just locked in on a few things. I love the Arabic strings towards the end of the latter, but they came in far too late and probably should’ve been used more throughout the song, as they are now they strike me as an afterthought.

 

But more often than not, Amorphis flash that brilliance we’ve all fallen in love with, be it on the synth dressed “The Bee” with its lurching, punching Jousten growled verses that stomps and beats its chest emphatically. It’s status as the best song on the album might be challenged by “Heart of the Giant”, an energetic song with a surprising rhythmically structured chorus that seems to swoop in from out of nowhere. Similarly, “Pyres On the Coast” drives a rumbling buildup to a swiftly moving orchestral motif that arrives without warning but is compulsively re-listenable. And I’m of course a fan of the duet here featuring one Anneke van Giersbergen on “Amongst Stars”, although it does by virtue of her vocal tone skirt near that saccharine territory I was talking about before. She’s just such a great foil to Joutsen though that it hardly matters, particularly when the chorus she’s belting out is as lovely as this. The folky whistles on this song I believe might come from Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann which is a cool little detail, and the addition of them makes it sound like a lost track to van Giersbergen’s collaboration with Arjen in The Gentle Storm. This was a Santeri Kallio penned tune, a perfect example of his preferred songwriting approach with largely uptempo songs built around his bright, harmonious keyboard melodies. He and founding guitarist Esa Holopainen once again split the songwriting duties fairly evenly, with Holopainen’s contributions coming in on the heavier end (a distinction that really was magnified on Red Cloud). I could attempt to draw some kind of conclusion that it seems like my tastes fell more in line with Kallio’s songs on this album, but it was the other way around last time so I’m not sure if there’s anything to really learn from that.

 

What has become clear to me however is that I just don’t find this album as addictive as I was hoping for, to take that full on plunge back into Amorphis’ world once again. It reminds me so much of their 2013 Circle album in that light, where a few songs really stood out and I’d listen to them repeatedly, but the album itself was a trying experience. I think Queen of Time is a stronger album than that one, but only because they’re really running with this whole extreme melodicism thing which is right up my power metal street. I’m not getting down on the band as a result of this however, nor on myself; it was always going to be a tall order to follow up Red Cloud, and I knew that going in. And besides, who can tell what album is going to trigger that kind of intense reaction in any of us? For all I know someone may experience this album as their Amorphis masterpiece and think Red Cloud was a misstep (they’re wrong of course…). Going back to that Patriots analogy for a second, that team made it back to the Super Bowl yet again this past February and seemed likely to cruise to another championship, only to lose to the Eagles and their upstart second string quarterback Nick Foles. So close yet so far and all that. Its hard to win a title, just look at how challenging its been for Lebron James who’s only won 3 out of the how many trips to the NBA Finals? If there’s any band that can deliver another masterpiece at some point in the future its Amorphis, whose discography is void of anything I’d call bad or terrible. Each new album has at least yielded a small handful of classics to throw onto the old playlist, and that’s something to be grateful for as a fan (as a Rockets fan, trust me you gotta find small victories). I’ll be seeing the band live in October, and you better believe I’ll be all in at that show.

 

 

 

 

At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself:

This might seem stupidly arbitrary, but I had a good feeling about this newest At The Gates album when I saw the title. Look at it, it practically screams early-90s At The Gates pretension, cue The Red In The Sky Is Ours and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness. When I was first getting introduced to melo-death, those album titles were thrown my way like life preservers by magazines, the scant metal websites around back then and the few metalheads I knew who were already in the know about such things. Those titles were mystical to me, just like Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin At Dusk, or Darkthrone’s A Blaze In the Northern Sky. I love a lengthy, vague, somewhat mystical album title. Maybe this was me just grabbing for something to be excited about, because I was already on shaky ground confidence wise considering how non-existent my relationship to their 2014 comeback album At War With Reality has been since I first reviewed it. To put it bluntly, I don’t think I listened to it again after finishing writing that review, I just never felt the urge to go back to it. For the purposes of putting this new album in context, I did go back and give it a once over, and my feelings largely remained the same as what I put down in my original review —- there were some decent songs, a few really awesome riffs, and a whole lotta paint by numbers At The Gates… it was the sound of a band trying to sound like what it thought it was supposed to sound like to everyone else. It wouldn’t have been half as glaring had Carcass not had their own glorious return just a year prior with Surgical Steel, a record that was as confident, thoroughly of the moment, and also as forward looking as a comeback album could possibly be. It was such a phenomenal record that five years on Carcass have yet to follow it up, and though I’m sure that At The Gates were proud of At War With Reality, I’m glad they’re not letting it be the last word on a storied career.

 

On To Drink From The Night Itself, At The Gates once again return to the spirit of a band trying to explore the internal limits of their sound. This is an audience challenging album, often times working at tempos that aren’t the breakneck pace of most of At War With Reality or Slaughter of the Soul, some of the most intriguing songs finding other ways than solely speed to project intensity. Take “A Stare Bound In Stone”, an early album highlight where circular riff sequences create a sense of hypnosis, new guitarist Jonas Stålhammar and band vet Martin Larsson playing in mechanical lockstep. The abrupt mid-song lone guitar led drop-out begins a passage of waves and waves of tremolo infused riffing that crash down. My personal favorite is “Palace of Lepers”, particularly for its euphoric, syrupy sweet classic melo-death riff payoff around the three minute mark, and that they let it carry on through the fade out is a nice detail. I could see how a song like “Daggers of Black Haze” might strike some as too slow or meandering seeming, but I think the melody they’re coaxing in that primary riff motif is interesting in its own right, and again with the beautiful mid-song transition (this time at the 2:33 mark), a little classic Gothenburg Scandinavian folk in that acoustic sounding sequence. There’s a real sense of the band attempting to morph or shape the limits of the At The Gates stylistic boundaries, as on “The Colours of the Beast” which is unlike anything we’ve heard them attempt, a staggeringly powerful lumbering riff based monster that rattles the interior cabin of your car if you’re like me listening to it a near full blast.

 

Of course there’s the lone exception to all this new freshness, that being the title track turned music video, and I’ll say right up front that its a fun, adrenaline rocketing tune, the kind of thing that At The Gates is identified with. The only complaint might be that its a little too close to “Blinded By Fear”, as in really frigging close (that riff is just one or two minor adjustments from being a carbon copy —- guitarists help me out here!). The jarring dichotomy between it and the rest of the songs is precisely why the album speaks to the band’s growth here. The former is a slice of past glories more in keeping with At War With Reality, and everything else is a bit of a strange journey into unknown places with only the slightest of head nods to the ancient past of their first two albums. When I listen to “Labyrinth of Tombs” and its interweaving guitar motifs or “Seas of Starvation” with its rumbling bass riffing and epic, elegiac guitar fragments, I hear a side of the band that I’d never expected (the string section blast at the end of “The Mirror Black” being another whoa moment). I will say that there are some production issues going on here that crop up more in some songs than others, particularly with how muffled the drum sound seems to get whenever everything else is pouring on top of it. Tomas Lindberg, as fine of form in gravelly voice as he ever is also gets a little cramped in the mix, with guitars taking a bite out of his fierceness in some critical spots. I am surprised at just how little I noticed Anders Björler’s absence, with the new guy fitting in remarkably well, not surprising I guess given Anders comments on why he decided to leave in the first place. For the rest of the band, they’ve found their footing after a long reunion process, and it finally feels like they’re really, really back.

 

Throw Open the Gates! Watain, Summoning, Tribulation, and More!

I had a vague notion that this year would be front loaded (and maybe back loaded too) with a ton of new noteworthy releases, but this January really has been like none other in recent memory. Most of my time was preoccupied with Orphaned Land’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, but the rest was spent trying to catch up on everything else. This is the first part of a series of smaller reviews covering these albums, with hopefully another post covering the rest of them coming soon. In between I have to tackle the mighty triple disc behemoth from Therion so… yeah, that’ll take awhile. There’s a lot of metal to cover and the next few months don’t look like it’ll slow down so I’ll try my best to keep up!

 

 


 

 

Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse:

I had to check to make sure I was getting the date of the last Watain album right —- its really been five years since The Wild Hunt, an album that while largely good, was a bit of a letdown coming after 2010’s viciously earthshaking Lawless Darkness. That’s an album that is seen by many black metal aficionados as something of a recent masterpiece, so it could be argued that The Wild Hunt was never going to live up to the expectations it created (how many bands knock out one masterpiece after another —- seriously though, promotional hype aside?). My problem with it as I recall was that its experimentation fell flat, particularly in their attempts to slow down the tempos more and at one point even try their hand at a road ballad (“They Rode On”). I think it was good of them to try those things, however meandering and at times just boring they ended up. What we and they should be certain of by now is that the Watain sound works better when its this fierce, uptempo ball of fury just barreling forward at full speed with a stop/start tempo change here and there to set things up.

 

The band returns to this formula for Trident Wolf Eclipse, an album that seems deliberately focused on achieving the spirit of Lawless Darkness, and they almost succeed. What’s holding it back is the thing that made this a really tough album to get into at first, and that’s the strange decision to have this kinda murky, muddy production quality through the whole affair. I had a hard time pinning down this problem at first, but a friend who’s a huge Watain fan pointed it out (“The production sucks!”), and sure enough when you compare this album to their previous outings, there’s a real problem here. It prevents everything from sounding as potent and slicing as it should, and this is a band where you should really feel the riffs on a visceral level. And then there’s just the overall problem that there’s nothing here that stands out, apart from the excellent “Towards the Sanctuary” and opener “Nuclear Alchemy”, two songs that do feel like they were left off Lawless Darkness. Everything else is okay, a fairly consistent barrage of speed and aggression with the occasional slightly slower passage, but there’s little that commands my attention. I’ve gone through this album a fair few times now, and I’m still having trouble deciphering whether its the production that’s keeping things from being too exciting, or that the songwriting just isn’t up to snuff. If its the former, that’s unfortunate but maybe it’ll grow on me in the future —- if its the latter, then we’re still seeing something of a hangover from 2013.

 

 

 

 

Summoning – With Doom We Come:

I’ve been listening to Summoning for a long, long time —-  my first exposure to them was in 2001 when a Tolkien loving friend bought Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame on a whim after inspecting the tracklisting and seeing a bevy of Lord of the Rings references in its song titles (as oddly coincidental as it is that he would stumble upon that album in person, its even stranger that a Summoning album was in a store in Houston, Texas to begin with). The context of this introduction is worth mentioning I feel, because around that time he and I had both undertaken a re-reading of all of Tolkien’s works in preparation for that year’s December release of The Fellowship of the Ring (although, that re-reading had been going on for some time, thanks to Blind Guardian stoking those fires a few years prior). He immersed himself in Summoning’s music and I followed suit, both of us getting copies of their previous album Stronghold and for me at least, having it be background to many a chapter read (and the de facto soundtrack to the hours drained playing Shadowbane aka the greatest MMORPG of all tid).

 

They were powerful, majestic experiences, and fully formed examples of minimalism in black metal long before the advent of blackgaze or post-black metal. The band was at its best on ‘Mortal Heroes, where they found the perfect balance of  golden epic pomp to counteract their ever bleak nature, particularly on “A Distant Flame Before the Sun”, a bleak re-working of the Tolkien/Bilbo Baggins song “I Sit Beside The Fire And Think”. They get close to those moments on With Doom We Come, even though this album largely follows the more subdued and darker tone of 2013’s Old Mornings Dawn. I’m thinking of songs like “Night Fell Behind”, where mournful horns pop up throughout to counteract the sombre singular-note keyboard melody that ambles along at its dreamy pace. Similarly on “Carcharoth”, an interesting mix of keyboard generated orchestral elements are used in juxtaposition to an isolated fragmentary melody to create a mysterious soundscape. Its hard to pull this stuff off convincingly, and Summoning have made a career of doing it. But a few solid moments aside, I wasn’t as enamored with this album as I’d hoped for, large parts of it seem to pass by without me taking much notice (a danger in ambient based music). Seen in retrospect with my lack of enthusiasm for Old Mornings Dawn, and we’re hitting a 14 year drought of something truly excellent from Protector and Silenius. Maybe its time for them to shake things up, to try something bold to re-imagine the Summoning sound.

 

 

 

 

Tribulation – Down Below:

I guess I failed to review Tribulation’s 2015 album The Children of the Night, which is weird to realize now considering I listened to it when it came out (new Nightwish and Kamelot albums came out around the same time, so maybe that explains why it slipped through the cracks). Anyway, what that album showed was the sound of this Swedish death metal outfit embracing a blend of goth rock, traditional metal, and psychedelia elements in their already progressive sound. It was a strikingly more song driven album compared to its predecessor, meaning that melodies were front and center to everything as opposed to the riff driven approach of their first two albums. Take that template, and further strip away most of the old death metal tendencies besides vocalist Johannes Andersson’s raw throated vocal approach and you’ll have a good picture of what to expect on Down Below. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Ghost being thrown around in regards to this, but that’s a bit of a stretch… Ghost is exuberantly melodic, working with major key melodies like they’re some kind of silky shirted power metal band from Finlandia. I get the spirit of the comparison, buts its waaaaay off.

 

Now I’ll grant you that Tribulation have upped their production quality, this is as clean and dare I suggest polished as they’ve ever sounded, but their application of melody is still subdued and restrained, used to sketch out the fragments of a song’s skeleton rather than lay things on thick with multi-tracked harmonies and piles of sound. On the album highlight “Nightbound”, its the clean melodic motif on lead guitar that keeps repeating in the background that serves as the actual hook, and its pristine quality allows the rhythm guitar upfront to play a little more relaxed, looser, and grittier. Andersson’s hoarse yet always intelligible vocals careen wildly across, working in tandem with the rhythm guitar in a way that’s half rock n’ roll strut and half goth-metal Nick Cave just going off the rails and ignoring song structure altogether. This is an approach that’s repeated in varying degrees through the album —- there always being something in the way of a simple yet artful melodic figure played with precision to create a sense of structure, and the rest of the band delivering a shimmying, swaying, at times ragged performance around it. On another personal favorite, “The World”, Tribulation unleash a Sentenced-esque sense of musicality, heavy on dark dramatics and major-minor chord shifts to create a sense of the grand and epic. There’s something really charming about this album, about its intentional imperfections and its just right mix of salty and sweet melodic approach that has me coming back again and again.

 

 

 

 

In Vain – Currents:

Norway’s In Vain were on my radar sometime after their 2013 release Ænigma, an album that I never wrote about due to discovering it a year past its release date, but one I ended up listening to quite a bit over the past few years whenever I was in the mood for something proggy yet still hooky and impactful (you’d figure Enslaved would be the go to there but I’ve burnt out quite a few of their albums and others are just too heavy on the prog to satisfy this urge). I just did a guest hosting appearance on an episode of MSRcast’s sister podcast Metal Geeks where I’m fairly certain we referred to these guys as a Finnish band —- a glaring mistake in retrospect because of course they’re from Norway… its written in their musical DNA! Rather than crafting darkly sweetened melo-death with painterly, sweeping guitars ala Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum and their brethren, In Vain display that Norwegian sensibility of progressive death metal heard in fore bearers Enslaved and Borknagar. It means that these songs are at times driven by both riff progressions, and alternately their guitar and/or vocal melodies, sometimes all at once. To add to these bands’ similarities, at times, clean vocalist/keyboardist Sindre Nedlund sounds like a mix of ICS Vortex, Herbrand Larsen, and his brother Lazare (whose Solefald project features In Vain as its backing band). I don’t think as an American metal fan, I’ll ever be able to truly understand just how small and insular the worlds of Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish metal really are. It just doesn’t work that way here in the States.

 

On Currents, In Vain certainly place a greater emphasis on clean vocals, but they’ve managed to prevent that from scaling back their heaviness factor, resulting in an album that’s strikingly aggressive and hooky. On “En Forgangen Tid (Times of Yore, Pt II)”, they place a gorgeous Norwegian lyric clean vocal melody over a bed of long sustained guitar figures that remind me of Opeth circa Blackwater Park, the tempo paced at a giant’s march with its doom-laden rhythmic approach. In Vain work well with these types of contrasts, and not all of them are vocal centric: There’s an excellent guitar motif throughout “As The Black Horde Storms”, a song that approaches quasi black metal territory with its near tremolo riffed passages and grim vocals (its possible that this is a guest vocal spot but I can’t confirm it). There is one major confirmed guest vocal drop in however, that being Trivium’s Matt Heafy on “Soul Adventurer”, this guy really making the rounds as of late. I like Heafy generally however, and thought he was quite good on Dragonforce’s last outing and of course he helped make Ihsahn’s “Mass Darkness” into a Metal Pigeon Song of the Year listee. I think he must have a couple different shades to his vocal approach because he’s hitting a lower register than I’m used to here (I’m not all too familiar with the spectrum of his work in Trivium). The result is pretty good, nothing I’m freaking out about —- its like hearing an Americanized version of Vintersorg, and to say its unusual is a fair appraisal I think. Time will tell if I wind up listening to this as much as its predecessor, but its made a strong impression overall.

 

 

 

 

Leaves Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead:

Its been over two years since the last time we had new music from Leaves Eyes —- in that time Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull had a very acrimonious and public divorce/fall-out, and the band went on the road with newly recruited Finnish vocalist Elina Siirala. I’m pretty sure I’m remembering this right, but I saw the band two times with her at the helm between then and now, the band opening a few North American tours for others as a way to not only introduce Siirala to their fans, but also perhaps test out the waters before committing to a recording. I know that I at least mentioned it on the MSRcast, if not in writing here on the blog, but I walked away from those shows rather unimpressed with Siirala within the greater context of the band. I had seen Leaves Eyes with Liv way back in 2007 opening for Kamelot, and she was magnificent that night, her delicate, graceful, downright elegant stage performance winning me over. I still wasn’t too wild on their albums (the Vinland Saga the exception) but I could at least say that they were able to translate to the stage what they were trying to accomplish live. Maybe things will change on future tours, but Siirala seemed out of place onstage, or perhaps it was that she was so strikingly different from Liv and I had a hard time accepting that.

 

As a vocalist however, Siirala has a strong, rich, almost Tarja-esque vocal ability, and she can siren it out live. And that’s the most striking thing about Sign of the Dragonhead, that she delivers the most forceful, pronounced, and strident lead vocal performance heard on any Leaves Eyes album period. Case in point is the opening title track, a slice of strut and stomp symphonic metal that’s about as meat and potatoes as this genre gets, but it boasts a pretty strong hook. Her voice is noticeably without accent, a rarity for a Finnish singer, but apparently she lives in London and you have to wonder if that’s been a factor in changing her voice to something that is very Euro-neutral. On the gentle, folk-instrument accompanied ballad “Fairer Than The Sun”, she delivers a command performance, controlled and precise, and what it might lack in distinct character, it makes up for in sheer strength. Another highlight is the weirdly different “Riders On the Wind”, where I’m hearing a folky-rockin’ vibe unlike anything I’ve heard from the band before. I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t an old Jethro Tull cover or something like that, and I wish the band would try to spread their wings a bit more like this and get adventurous. It works here, and “Riders” and the folk-laden “Winter Nights” are stark contrasts to nearly everything else on offer, which is largely more of the same. There’s nothing wrong per say with cuts like “Across the Sea” and “Jomsborg”, but it just feels like we’ve heard their kind before. A promising start with a new vocalist, but hopefully just a stepping stone to something greater.

 

 

Songs of Bravery: Orphaned Land’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs

Like other bands I absolutely love, I find the task of reviewing the new Orphaned Land album a daunting proposition, because there’s so much of my own emotional response I have to consider and somehow weigh before writing something that makes a lick of sense. Its been this way with new music from Maiden, Blind Guardian, Insomnium, etc… and will likely be this way for the upcoming Therion album as well. Its been five years since the band’s last album, the masterful, career-defining All Is One; an album that captured my heart so fully that it dragged me back to my fanboy state that existed with this band well over a decade ago. To quickly recap my personal history with this band (I go into much greater detail in that All Is One review): I was introduced to them and hooked in with 2004’s Mabool, quickly bought up their back catalog, consequentially explored other Middle Eastern/Arabic music (metal and non-metal) because I loved the sounds of it and needed more, and spent over half a decade waiting for a new Orphaned Land album. When that follow up arrived in 2010’s The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR, I could not get into it and felt greatly disappointed —- whether in myself or towards the band I still can’t really say. Three years later, All Is One was our relationship therapy, an album that was so magnificent in all its aspects that it renewed my enthusiasm for the band tenfold. It made me go back and reconsider ORwarriOR, which I found a new appreciation for even though its still below its predecessor and successor in my overall affection.

 

It was going to be hard for Orphaned Land to follow-up All Is One, it was a watershed release for more than just its musical content too —- being founding guitarist Yossi Sassi’s last album with the band whose sound he had a massive role in pioneering. I thought that was a massive blow to the band’s artistic fortunes for the future, the only potential salvation being that All Is One was also the introduction of guitar wizard Chen Balbus into the lineup. Together he and Yossi traded flashes of brilliance back and forth across that album through inspired songwriting and emotionally expressive playing. When Yossi announced his departure, it was only natural that Chen would move up to fill that creative void and claim a greater share of the songwriting responsibility alongside vocalist Kobi Farhi. In essence, Chen is Yossi’s “replacement”, and newcomer Idan Amsalem is Chen’s replacement, the newer new kid in the band. Fans are always leery of big lineup shifts like these, particularly of integral members like Yossi, but Chen’s continued presence in the lineup gave me a little bit of confidence that they’d be able to make this transition. And make it they have, because after intensively listening to Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs on countless repeat spins, the discussion really should be about whether it is leapfrogging All Is One to claim the title of the band’s best album to date.

 

 

I’m taking it as a given that everyone knows what Orphaned Land generally sounds like, its metal merged with Middle-Eastern instrumentation, melodies, and patterns. That’s a simplistic explanation but generally sums it up —- the thing is, a lot of bands can employ those sounds as window dressing and have (not naming any names here!). But Orphaned Land were the first to really do this in not only an authentic way, but in an interconnected way, meaning that it was enmeshed within their songwriting approach and integral to their sonic identity. It was called Oriental Metal by both the band and the metal community around the world, and one of the unique facets of this style of metal as others have gone down its path is that its entirely malleable to different subgenres. So we have the founders in Orphaned Land who for their first four albums merged traditional sounds with progressive death metal; but bands like Melechesh and Odious merged it with black metal; Aeternam are merging it with Gothenburg melodic death metal, and the likes of Myrath and Amaseffer merged with it clean vocal progressive metal with some power metal influences. I bring all this up because Orphaned Land’s sound has changed quite a bit over its past two albums, and its becoming clear to me with Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs that the choice of metal subgenre, or harsh or clean vocals doesn’t really matter —- the core of this style of metal is the traditional/ethnic Middle Eastern sound itself.

 

This new album is Orphaned Land’s grandest, deepest, and richest embrace of that sound, so widely and deeply does it cover and infuse every single song from front to back. You couldn’t honestly say that about an album like Mabool, or especially The Neverending Way of ORwarriOR —- go back and listen to those records, there are large swathes of those songs where what you’re predominantly hearing are slamming prog-metal riff passages and Kobi’s scream-growled death vocals. Sure the Middle-Eastern elements are there, but they sometimes recede to the background or they ebb and flow in and out of places in songs. I remember thinking that my one wish for the Mabool album was that the band could’ve thrown in more songs along the lines of “Norra El Norra”, those perfect, symbiotic fusions of cultural folk influences and metal. I longed for another “Sapari” on ORwarriOR, and though I’ve come to enjoy that album over time, there are still large chunks of it where I feel its lacking that special element that makes Orphaned Land (and Oriental Metal) so unique. The band headed in the right direction with All Is One, an album where they increased the melody by relying more on Arabic strings to drive most of the songwriting, pairing it with a power metal inspired turn towards choir vocal backed choruses. But here on Unsung Prophets, Kobi and company have finally dived headfirst into the pool of Middle Eastern sounds —- it infuses every song in intertwined melodic patterns and motifs.

 

 

 

 

The first visible ripples of that headfirst dive appear in the opening seconds of the album, where a sonorous female voice wordlessly expresses some undefinable emotion, ushered in by graceful violins. Those strings coalesce with a dramatic flourish and we’re off, their Arabic melodies leading the way on “The Cave”, leaving gaps for Balbus and Amsalem’s guitars and bouzouki. Back again are Kobi’s scream/growled melo-death vocals, and not just on this track but all over this album (they were relegated to a single song, “Fail”, on All Is One), and I find their reintroduction to the band’s sound refreshing. It has the effect to keep us off-balance with sudden bursts of heaviness and aggression in the songwriting to accompany him. A chief criticism of All Is One was its static tempo all throughout —- and while I don’t agree that it was a detriment to the songwriting quality on that album, I can understand why others might have. So the pinball bouncing around of tempos, melodic shifts and unpredictable rhythmic patterns on Unsung Prophets must be an absolute delight for anyone who felt that way. I guess another way of looking at it is that All Is One was imbued with a strong prog-power influence in its major key melodicism and reliance on vocal melodies, and here they’ve reintroduced some of the melo-death back into the formula while still carrying over the power metal esque love of dense orchestral arrangements.

 

Proof of that melo-death resurgence is heard in “We Do Not Resist”, arguably the heaviest song they’ve done in years, one that starts off with door kicking-in riffs with perhaps the fiercest growling vocals I’ve ever heard Kobi deliver. Once again however, that strong choral vocal influence from the last album stirs again for the chorus with a largely female backing cast singing the refrain. Its instrumental final half minute sets the stage for one of the prettiest songs on the album, “In Propaganda”, where traditional sounds lead the way in favor of electric guitars —- bouzouki melodies and crying violins usher us in, and we find Kobi showcasing the delicate, upper register of his voice that is really lovely. The mid song uptempo rhythmic shift is also traditionally inspired, something about it has an echo of Greek folk music, like the kind of excitable moments you’d hear at some kind of celebration. That’s an underused term for this band’s music, that it sounds celebratory, even if the lyrics are counter indicative of that sentiment. I’m speaking from experience a bit —- I’ve been to many a Muslim and Hindu wedding, or Diwali celebration, even the odd party at those kinds of households, and sometimes Orphaned Land’s music reminds me of standing outside with all the other guys, drinking a beer or chai (or both!) and hearing traditional music drift out from somewhere inside.

 

 

I had wondered if there would be an instrumental drop off after Yossi left the band, he was such a talent on a multi-instrumentalist scale, but thankfully the band has diversified their supporting musicians cast and still employs all the sounds you’d expect them too. I’m not good at picking individual tones out to identify each instrument correctly, but surely all of them are present on “All Knowing Eye”, a four minute journey into a lush Steven Wilson-esque soundscape, hypnotic melodies, and once again Kobi knocking it out of the park with a memorable vocal hook. He’s captivating again on the old traditional Hebrew vocal sung “Yedidi”, and its always interesting just how seamlessly the band’s amplified interpretations of these old religious/cultural songs fit in with their original material. The song that surprisingly might be the gem of the album is the nine minute plus epic “Chains Fall to Gravity”, a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music in construction and execution. Its not just the heart-wrenching violin melodies that grab you here, but the surging, hair-raising choral vocal bridge build up: “Go forth and be all you can be…”. The strange thing about this song is just how admittedly disjointed it really is if you break it down to its constituent parts. I’m not sure why it works so well, but its one of the most captivating things Orphaned Land has ever recorded, this album’s “The Beloved’s Cry” or “Brother”.

 

A close second favorite is the lead-off single “Like Orpheus”, which features the one and only Hansi Kursch on guest vocals. First, what a treat to have both these singers on the same song, but this track has really grown on me from my initial listen to it where I came away uncertain of what to think. Its hook is deceptively buried, revealing itself through its gossamer thread violin melodies that weave around Hansi’s distinctive tones in the chorus. It took a little courage for the band to trust such a crucial fragment of a song to a guest vocalist, but you’ve got to credit them for seeming to know that Hansi would be a great fit. If you haven’t seen the music video for this one, check it out below —- not only is it shrewd of the band to remove themselves from it entirely, but its message of unity through music is a hard one to pull off without feeling canned or corny. Great actors, a simple concept and focused yet simple cinematography go a long way (so many metal bands and video directors could learn from its example methinks). Moving on, I could see some people getting impatient with the lack of metal on “Poets of Prophetic Messianism”, but if you consider it in context within the tracklisting, it works well as a change of pace semi-instrumental. Particularly so when its followed by the up-tempo, groove-riffed “Left Behind”, a candidate for a single release with its ear-wormy hook and awesome acoustic rhythmic shuffle. I love the choice to deliver half the verse with the choral vocals, its one of those little details that keeps this album sounding fresh and exciting even on my umpteenth playthrough.

 

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hurWzo01FpM&w=560&h=315]

 

 

If you got to “My Brothers Keeper” and all of a sudden began to suspect that Unsung Prophets had some kind of conceptual streak running through it, you weren’t alone. Its not just that Kobi’s almost spoken word vocals here immediately draw attention to it (and to his credit, he pulls them off convincingly where so many others would sound terrible), but in examining lyrics like “I have to go back / To save these shades, souls with faded hearts, brothers of my pain” I immediately began to think about a larger picture at work here. Indeed this is a conceptual album, as Kobi has discussed at great length in the various interviews surrounding its release, one that’s inspired by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, something those of you who’ve read The Republic might remember. I won’t go into its conceptual details here, but you can gather just by looking at the tracklisting that these songs follow the journey of the freed person in that allegory (Kobi provides a pretty good overview of the concept if you’re interested). Normally I’ve tended to avoid looking too deeply into the band’s overarching concepts, preferring to enjoy individual songs on a musical and lyrical level as my own personal interpretation I suppose. But I think this is the most intriguing, in depth, and frighteningly relevant concept Kobi has ever worked with, and it clearly brought out the best in him on a lyrical level.

 

The album finishes strong, with “Take My Hand” and “Only the Dead Have Seen then End of War”, the latter serving as a visceral reminder of just how good bassist Uri Zelcha and percussionist Matan Shmuely are at being an inspired, vibrantly unconventional rhythm section. The closing cut “The Manifest – Epilogue” isn’t technically part of the concept but is somewhat thematically linked, being a tribute to the assassinated revolutionary Chilean singer Victor Jara (if you were at any point a U2 fan like myself, you’ll remember his name being dropped in “One Tree Hill”). What a strikingly beautiful way to end an album that is really battling it out with All Is One as my favorite of all their records. For all that I loved about that album’s exuberant simplicity and joyous outpouring of melody, I love that Orphaned Land have delivered an album that really speaks to the darker mood of the world right now. But with this band, there’s always hope, and so at the 3:05 mark, where the choir vocalists get one final moment in the sun, their voices surge to sing in Spanish a sentiment that I honestly think Orphaned Land have earned unto themselves —- “Songs of bravery, will always be new songs, forever.”

 

Stuff I Missed From Other People’s Lists

Before we plunge directly headlong into discussing 2018 music, I’ve been having a blast listening to all the recommendations from other year end 2017 lists from writers/sites I’ve respected over the years. Some of the albums on these lists have just bounced right off me, but many have piqued my interest, so below are a couple things I’ve stumbled upon late that maybe you hadn’t heard yet either. Its my blog companion piece to the two MSRcasts we’ve recently recorded focusing on a slew of releases we missed. On the horizon are reviews for albums I’m already listening to in addition to these latecomers from last year, namely the new Watain, Summoning, and the upcoming Orphaned Land album. If the jam packed release schedule for this first quarter means anything, its hopefully going to be a good year!

 


 

 

Serenity In Murder – Eclipse:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud2bgZstWws&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Its rare that bands from Japan ever light up my radar, let alone ones that dish out such satisfying melo-death as the oddly named Serenity In Murder on their third album Eclipse. Most J-Metal in my experience has been either in the Loudness inspired vein (largely a thing of the past these days), or stuff that’s musically influenced by X Japan and the ongoing neo-visual kei style. While I have enjoyed quite a bit of that stuff to a certain extent (Versailles’ wild, sometimes clunky take on symphonic power metal being the latest that I can remember), particularly for the musicality that Japanese rock and metal bands seem to innately possess, the vocal styles have always been my ultimate stumbling block. Maybe I just haven’t heard the right band yet, but most Japanese singers to my ears sound better when singing in Japanese, but are glaringly off-key and oddly phrased when trying English. A friend recently pointed out that this might be a byproduct of the shape of the Japanese language in pronunciation in comparison to English —- something only a linguist could perhaps really explain.

 

Serenity In Murder get around this with the expertly scream-growled melodeath vocals of Emi Akatsu, her approach having the fierceness of Angela Gossow and the obsidian shades of Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. Despite her fairly crisp enunciating, this is a heavily layered and dense listen, brick walled too (try to avoid cranking it at max), Akatsu’s English vocals are more of a texture here, which suits the music rather well I think. Whats really fun about Serenity In Murder is the sheer unrelenting attack of everything —- they’re going full throttle on speed, aggression and melody. And wow the melody, its here in wild, majestic, colorful splashes that coat damn near everything with a power metal playfulness. They remind me a lot of the melodies that run through the soundtracks of Japanese anime and videogames, the band making heavy use of piano/keys to carry primary motifs alongside the riffs and lead guitars. If you like what you hear above in “Dancing Flames”, check out “Dreamfall” next, I can’t decide which of the two are my favorite, but this album has been a joy to listen to these past few weeks.

 

 

 

 

Æther Realm – Tarot:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw3UygAi2oo&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I really really wish I had been introduced to this back in June, because although I’ve only been jamming it for a little over two weeks now, I think its addicting qualities could have seen it land a spot on the shortlist for the best albums of the year. Aether Realm (normal spelling works for Google!) sound like their members are probably from Helsinki or Tampere, but these guys are actually from the land that James Taylor famously had on his mind. Geography aside, Aether Realm play melodic death metal with strong folk overtones, think Ensiferum and a toned down Wintersun. This means intense, ultra-tight riffing and a crisp, clean production that allows room for not only keyboard orchestral elements but massive group choral vocals ala Jari and company. There’s an accessibility running throughout this album that has as much to do with how awesome some of these riffs are in addition to simply strong songwriting. When I consider the Ensiferum album released a few months after this one, I marvel at how a relatively new band like these guys could get damn near close to perfecting a sound that has escaped its originators. The key to Aether Realm’s success is their ability to incorporate a variety of songwriting styles and musical elements to captivating effect —- no two songs sound the same really.

 

Take “Temperance” where I was captivated by a beautifully played acoustic passage that’s deeply affecting in the way that the best metal ballads can be (the clean vocals here are just the right tenor of American folk). The monstrous nineteen minute epic “The Sun, The Moon, The Star” starts off with what I’m sure are Nintendo midi sounds, perhaps a not so subtle nod to some of these guys old musical influences. Its an impressive piece of songwriting overall, one that never feels as long as its actual length and is always changing, shifting from pummeling aggression with Wintersun levels of virtuosity on guitar and similarly vicious growling vocals to carefully crafted keyboard orchestrations. I wish I could identify who the clean vocalist was between bassist Vincent Jones and guitarist Heinrich Arnold —- he’s got a stellar voice and a good ear for just how to deliver those epic, folk metal inspired yearning vocals. My only complaint on the album is a slightly personal one, but just can’t get behind “King of Cups”, with Chris Bowles on guest vocals. The subject of drinking in a folk/viking metal context is so passe that not even this admittedly catchy take on it can prevent me from rolling my eyes, and of course the Alestorm guy has to be involved. A minor quibble though, one that I’m all to happy to overlook. Get this album.

 

 

 

 

Night Flight Orchestra – Amber Galactic:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puLWLR28LDg&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I was introduced to these guys sometime earlier in the year by my MSRcast co-host Cary on a lark —- he had seen a music video of theirs pop-up on the Nuclear Blast YouTube channel and it was a piece of kitschy throwback glory. The video was for “Something Mysterious” and its unabashedly indulgent early 80s look and feel (check that VHS grade quality and dated overlay graphics) immediately won me over, and when I got a chance I nabbed their May release Amber Galactic. Its been one of those random albums that I’d go back to every now and then as a musical antidote to the usual slurry of metal albums I’d been listening to for reviewing purposes. I’d always have to shelve it for something else before long, but over the rest of the year I racked up a substantial amount of time listening to the album not only as a palette cleanser, but just because these songs were so addicting and downright charming. If you’re completely unaware of their lineup, you’ll be surprised to learn that the smooth crooning vocalist here is the very same Björn “Speed” Strid of Soilwork growler fame alongside Arch Enemy bassist Sharlee DeAngelo.

 

What they and their fellow NFO bandmates have managed to craft over this project’s three albums is a detailed, rose-tinted, affectionate look back at a bygone era of transitional rock music. The touchstones here span the the birth of AOR hard rock in the late 70s through the introduction of synths in the 80s, notes of Toto and The Police on opposite ends and everything in between. I love that they’ve found themselves here, focusing on this particular era for their musical influence, because I’ve always felt its overlooked for the Zeppelin / Sabbath dominated early to mid 70s in general. So instead of Jimmy Page worship and any attempts at writing their own psychedelic epics, we get a High Spirits-esque focus on tight songwriting, precision guitar harmonies, and understated female backing vocalists on “Gemini” and “Josephine”. I hear tinges of Night Run era UFO in the aforementioned “Something Mysterious”, that low-key bass pulse humming through the rhythm section, contrasted by lonely drivin’ around the city at night keyboard melodies. This is just a grin inducing, super fun album to jam when you need something easy and comforting, songs you feel you’ve heard before even though its your first time listening to them.

 

 

 

 

Spirit Adrift – Curse of Conception:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGMC6UK3rNA&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Coming from Arizona of all places is the classic metal/doom machine Spirit Adrift, whose Curse of Conception is their second album release in little over a one year span(!), their debut having arrived in 2016. If Pallbearer was a little too slow moving and meandering for you (as they seem to be for me… ironic I know given my placing Bell Witch on my 2017 top ten albums list), Spirit Adrift might be the middle ground you’re looking for. Think doom metal’s bleak colors and ominous crushing volume of sound played with a touch more urgency, with riffs that resemble the tone and structure of classic Metallica. Vocalist/songwriter Nate Garret has a plaintive voice, almost reminiscent of Chris Black of Dawnbringer/High Spirits, typically a type of voice that I don’t really find myself gravitating to for most bands. The exceptions for both Dawnbringer and Spirit Adrift is due to just how endearing their songwriting and rich musicality come across, that hard to master alchemy of preserving classic sounds and styles yet somehow conjuring something new from them.

 

Take a listen to the title track to get an idea of what I’m trying (and hopefully succeeding in) to convey, with its Ride the Lightning lead guitar tones leading us into a drawn out slow motion verse sequence. The uptick in tempo at the 1:18 mark is kicked off a riff progression that is straight out of the classic metal playbook, and its something we’ve heard a thousand times before in our nascent metal listening years but it just sounds so explosive here. When we get to the solo around the four minute mark you start wondering if your Spotify player actually did switch over to Metallica when you weren’t looking, so reminiscent of Kirk Hammet’s mid-80s style is the playing here. I hate just referring to one band as a reference point, but I also get that Metallica feeling on the gorgeous “Starless Age”, a dramatic power-ballad that ascends on the type of chord progressions that James Hetfield would’ve approved of back in 1986. My MSRcast cohost Cary would chastise me if I didn’t mention Trouble here, and he’d know better than I but there definitely are some shades of that band. There’s so much to love here, but I’ll end on a particular favorite: The intro to “Graveside Invocation”, with its staggered, pounding percussion and half doom half battle ready chord progression is the kind of minor detail I will never stop being a dork about.

 

 

The Autumn Reviews Cluster: Enslaved, Cyhra, Amberian Dawn and More!

To my perception anyway, this has been a backloaded year, with most of the releases that would have caught my attention arriving within the past few months and here in November. This was a relief at first back in the early months of spring when I realized I’d have a lot of extracurricular writing time on my hands and began an ill-fated monthly journal (now several months behind, I’ve kinda decided to can it as a partial success/failure). But now due in part to a frenzied flurry of new music coming out and already having been behind from the chaos that was my life in late August/September, I’m in a constant state of catching up. This reviews cluster addresses a slew of albums that came out in various points during the past three to four months. I wanted to write more about Cyhra, because that’s an interesting project just for the personalities involved, so its a little longer, but generally I forced myself to keep these as short as is possible for me. Straight and to the point takes on the new music itself, not a lot of room for contextualizing (which you know I can’t help doing when unrestrained).

 


 

 

Cyhra – Letters to Myself:

I know people might scoff at me describing this as possibly the most intriguing release of 2017, but seriously think about it: We were given an announcement sometime ago, that ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg were teaming up (alongside ex-In Flames bassist Peter Ivers, and power metal veteran drummer Alex Landenburg). What on earth would that sound like? Stromblad’s last recorded output was with neo-thrash/death outfit Dimension Zero, with whom he released some decent metal, though nothing to write home about. Certainly nothing that resembled the imaginative, ultra melodic richness of his career defining work in In Flames. Lundberg’s last recorded work was with the increasingly poppier pop/electro/metal hybrid Amaranthe, whom he left shortly after finishing work on last year’s Maximalism, citing that in the process of the band’s ever changing sound, his role was (ironically?) being minimized. In describing why he left, he dropped a hint about what sound he envisioned that his previous band strayed away from, ” I wanted the band to sound like… a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice”. Now if you cut out the last bit about the female voice, there’s a fairly blunt description of what Cyhra could possibly end up sounding like.

 

Turns out that was exactly what Cyhra sounds like, and though my MSRcast cohost Cary vehemently disagrees, I actually think it works better than expected. I enjoy this album on the same wavelength that allowed me to get into Amaranthe, the songs largely being built around the vocal melodies where it turns out Lundberg has genuine songwriting talent (it was always hard to decipher individual songwriting contributions within Amaranthe, to separate Olof Morck and Lundgren in that respect). But what puts it over the top is that I’m getting to hear Stromblad’s signature melodic guitarwork again, that very distinctive style that he pioneered in In Flames that became a hallmark of the band’s sound and something I’d forever associate with Gothenburg melodic death metal. Given that its been sometime since he’s done music in this vein, its closer in approach to his last few records with In Flames than say those earlier classics of The Jester Race / Whoracle eras, but still, its refreshing to hear him playing in this vein again. If we’re all being honest, those are the types of records we’d love to see him return to making, where his guitar melodies dictated the direction of the songwriting and everything (vocals included) were arranged around them. But Lundgren is who he is, and there likely won’t be death metal growls coming from him, well, ever —- but that’s okay, because even though I’m in the minority here, I’ve always liked his voice.

 

The opener “Karma” was a solid choice for a preview track, giving a fairly representative overview of the band’s sound: Simple songwriting structures dressed up with Stromblad’s complex guitar attack, a chunky rhythm attack underneath and an ample dose of keyboard generated electronic effects for ambiance. Whats surprising is just how well his style meshes with a “Bon Jovi” type vocalist like Lundberg, because you’d figure that the sheer melodic expression projected from his guitarwork would crowd out the vocals rather than complement or support them. Its a weird thing to think about at first, because you’re probably thinking about all the very excellent guitarists in rock and metal history who’ve been aligned with a melodic singer without a problem —- and you’re right. What I’m emphasizing is that the melo-death/Stromblad-ian guitar approach is usually something you’d instinctively pair up against a harsh vocal, the better to contrast with (as we’ve seen on a load of excellent records past and present). So take “Heartrage”, my favorite cut on the album, where Lundberg’s emotion rippled vocal melody carries the heavy lifting of the song. Here Stromblad works around the edges, conjuring up beautiful patterns that punctuate and bookend verse fragements, while in the chorus he restrains himself enough to allow Lundberg to soar, only crashing in for the outro to send things accelerating again. Its a satisfying song, with a chorus as excellent as Lundberg ever penned in Amaranthe —- and with the foreknowledge that a lot of these songs are directly about or influenced by Stromblad’s battles with his personal demons, perhaps possessing more emotional gravity as a result.

 

This is largely a bouncing, kinetic listening experience, one that doesn’t slow down in tempo until the second half with a few slower, quasi-ballad songs that aren’t bad, but clearly aren’t what this band is best suited for. That they run together for three songs in a row is a sequencing problem, but one that is made somewhat tolerable by the fact that they each boast a fairly successful chorus. But the last track, “Dead to Me”, features some cringe worthy narration (this stuff usually never works) that overshadows what is a very well written hook that comes slowly at first, working its way to a heavier crescendo towards the end. They could’ve cut one of those songs and left it for future development on the next release, but its not enough to sink the album, because the first nine songs are the heart of this record. Normally I’d argue that a band should diversify the tracklisting a bit, slip in a slower song to break up the monotony, but there’s enough diversity in tempo and aggression in Cyhra’s uptempo songs to do that naturally. And I wonder now, thinking on Cary’s intensely negative reaction to this album (“its too poppy!”) if one’s individual tolerance level for pop is a determining factor in whether or not you’ll like it. Lundberg’s Bon Jovi-ian vocals are a major component of the band’s sound, and all the Stromblad melo-death guitars can’t mask that aspect. I’m considering myself lucky then to enjoy both, because this is a solid debut, something I honestly didn’t know that I’d be saying. Oh, and glad to you have back Jesper.

 

 

 

 

Enslaved – E:

The only thing I’ve learned for sure about Enslaved and the act of writing about their music is that everyone’s opinions about said music are wildly different. There seems to be no actual consensus about anything regarding their discography for example, a long list of fourteen studio albums and a handful of EPs and splits that have as many musical twists and turns as most bands have lineup changes. One of my favorite metal reviewers for example, Angry Metal Guy, had a lower opinion of the band’s 2010 Axioma Ethica Odini than myself and several of my metal loving friends did, one of whom loves that album so much it might make his top five desert island albums list. We also share the opinion than 2009’s Vertebrae was the weakest moment in their discography, an opinion that is generally not held among a host of prominent metal publications and blogs. It just gets more suffuse beyond that —- no one really has a consensus on what’s the band’s classic, definitive album (I would say 2004’s Isa along with the aforementioned Axioma), and seemingly everyone has a vastly different view on 2012’s heavily rock-infused RIITIIR (I rather enjoyed it myself). There’s a review on the band’s Metal Archive’s page for Below the Lights where a reviewer describes that album as Enslaved’s Dark Side of the Moon —- and don’t get me wrong, I like ‘Lights as well, but as you can see, there’s a spectrum of opinions here, reflected in that very same websites reviewer percentage ranking of the band’s discography: There’s no clear-cut high ranking album that towers above all the rest, most of them are high 80s and low 90s, which speaks volumes about the band’s consistency, if little about anything resembling certainty.

 

Why am I telling you all this? Well, for the self-defeating purpose of telling you that my review of E doesn’t really matter, not in the way that it usually might for those of you who have in the past discovered a new band through something I’ve written here on the blog. We’re talking about a band who’s new album is arriving with a major lineup change in its ranks (the departure of longtime keyboardist/clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen who is being replaced in those same roles by Hakon Vinje), though you wouldn’t know it unless you looked because the new guy sounds so much like his predecessor. The overall sonic palette and lengthy, progressive songwriting approach that characterizes so much of the band’s sound over the past couple albums is present as well. And while there’s nothing here that’s as rock-inflected as some of the cuts on RIITIIR or the chorus of “One Thousand Years of Rain” off 2015’s In Times, you generally feel like E is a close sibling to those albums. As expected, we’re treated to one absolute snore-fest of a tune in “Hiindsiight”, complete with repetitive clean vocal segments that last minutes too long, overwhelming keyboard drenched ambient sound effects and that godawful dreaded saxophone (can we have a year without that instrument on any metal record, just for the sake of good taste?). Then there’s bits I really enjoy: The fierce, slamming riffs that fuel “Sacred Horse” are very Axioma (again, all of us lean hard on our favorite aspects of this band); and “The River’s Mouth” is a pretty concise and hooky song all things Enslaved considered. Its kinda shocking that the best thing on the album however very well might be their cover of Röyksopp’s Icelandic trip-hop hit “What Else Is There?”, which they transform into a moody, Depeche Mode-ian clean vocal jam that is really excellent.

 

Largely though, I find myself losing attention through various moments on E, and while that has happened on the past two releases as well, it is occurring on this album at an alarming rate. That aforementioned friend who loved Axioma so much he’d plaster it to a volleyball he painted and called Wilson? His opinion of the new album and the band’s recent direction has turned dour: “They’re just getting boring”. And I think he’s right —- because sometimes its just that freaking simple. I used to think it was my fault or failing when I had trouble processing a complex, lengthy, multi-facted work of progressive metal such as this. But wait a second, I love other albums that fit that description: Opeth’s Blackwater Park and Still Life for starters, Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, Alcest’s Kodama… the list go could on and on, you get the idea. I’m going on month two of constantly going back and giving this album another shot, another sit down listening experience when its late at night and I’m in the mood for some serious headphone music time. Its not catching on this time around and not exciting the pulse points that I know this band is capable of hitting with sledgehammer. I’m undoubtedly sure that E will end up on a few best of lists at the end of the year, but I can’t honestly say its one of the best albums of 2017 (it might be quite the opposite).

 

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Darkness of Eternity:

I’ve written gushingly about Amberian Dawn and their surprise 2015 year end list making release Innuendo, which was and remains a breath of fresh air within the ranks of metal bands with female vocalists at the helm. That album, like Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter a year before, was an exciting, inventive non-operatic/classical affair that melded power metal with other outside influences from the world of pop and rock. In Amberian Dawn’s case, if you don’t remember, that predominant influence is the mighty ABBA, those masters of pop in its purest, most elegant, crystalline form. I was new to the band at that point, and Innuendo was my point of entry into their discography and apparently it was also the biggest injection of that ABBA sound in their work to date. Having gone back through their older albums with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen, I discovered a more conventional symphonic power metal approach with dashes of ABBA spice thrown in here and there, a mix that resulted in some good stuff, if not great albums. Call me biased, but I’m all for keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppala and vocalist (and ABBA cover band dabbler) Capri Virkkunen happily indulging their love for the finest of all Swedish pop. So its a pleasure to discover that they’ve not only continued in that direction on Darkness of Eternity, but might have increased the dosage so to speak.

 

I think Virkkunen’s vocal quality and approach is the secret to making this actually work, because she has that slight Scandinavian accent that bends the pronunciation of certain words all while singing with a clarity in her enunciation that reminds me exactly of Frida and Agnetha. That’s not to say nothing about Seppala’s knack for penning a catchy tune, because he has the gift, and is a studious disciple of the Benny/Bjorn school of songwriting (and the key to that in my opinion was understanding the techniques, range, and capability of the vocalists they were writing for). If you doubt me, consider these words in the press release from the man himself, speaking about the song “Maybe”:

“I was happy to produce this song as a tribute to ABBA‘s Benny Andersson. Most of the keyboards on this song was recorded at his studio in Stockholm and with his legendary keyboard ‘Great White Elephant,’ a Yamaha GX-1 which is often heard on ABBA songs in late ’70’s and early ’80s.”

That song is perhaps the most emblematic slice of archetypal ABBA-ian pop on Darkness of Eternity, a 70’s disco-groove inspired rhythmic shuffle built with moody keyboards, fat bass and tight metallic riffing. Virkkunen skates over the top with a rich minor/major key vocal that’s sung at a slightly slower tempo, creating that magical effect where melancholy rises to the top in that juxtaposition of happy and sad. Its the same effect that ABBA used for tunes such as “Knowing Me Knowing You”, or “When All Is Said And Done”, and its one that sounds simple on the surface but I’ve come to suspect is a talent reserved for only the best songwriters in any respective style. There’s another dance-tempo built gem on here, the 70s keyboard heavy “Sky Is Falling”, with bittersweet vocal melodies leading the way. And the lyric snob in me is impressed, because while its not earth shaking stuff, these lyrics are written without the typical misconstrued phrasing that tends to accompany most stuff from Scandinavia. The phrasing is both utilitarian and clever, as in the set up for the refrain, “Drip drop the tears are falling… Drip drop the sky is falling”, which has a built in major to minor transition in its phonetics alone. I love, absolutely LOVE well done pop in this mode, and sure, its a little light on the metallurgy, but that’s not why I’m listening to this band.

 

If you’re wondering then, why YOU should be listening to this band, well, like I mentioned earlier —- this is refreshingly different female fronted metal. I know that folks on my Twitter feed tend to scoff at that tag, but its just a catch all word choice to describe a grouping of bands that tends to sound one way or another. If gothic-metal isn’t your thing or you feel that no one does it better than Nightwish and just aren’t interested in hearing a copycat, this is the perfect band for you to explore. When they do lean a little harder here, as on “Dragonflies”, they morph into something resembling a heavier, meant for Broadway stages type of song, with the power metal elements working to support a soaring vocal run. On “Abyss”, you get a rather awesome melding of both a wild power metal explosion with some tightly crafted sublime pop songwriting, the heavy riff passages surrounding a gorgeously ascending refrain laden with semi-maudlin emotion. The vibrato that Virkkunen flashes in that chorus is pure ear candy for anyone who appreciates wonderful singing, she’s one of metal’s truly underappreciated talents right now. I’d also point out just how satisfyingly deft and tightly written is the pomp-epic storm of “Luna My Darling”, something that borrows as much from Wishmaster-era Nightwish as it does Sonata Arctica. But if you’re like me, you’ll be pulled in with cuts like “Breathe Again” and “Ghostwoman”, songs marinated in that sweet honey ABBA glaze. This album is my late year happy place, just an absolute blast to listen to.

 

 

 

 

Aetherian – The Untamed Wilderness:

Just when I was thinking that this year was offering little in the way of great music from new bands, this late November release drops in my lap thanks to a track being previewed on Spotify’s New Metal Tracks playlist (that’s new, not nu). First of all, I can’t oversell just how useful a tool that playlist has been for myself and my MSRcast cohort Cary G. Its constantly updated with the latest singles well ahead of the album releases, it spotlights that weeks new releases, and is a well rounded mix of every sub genre because really it doesn’t care if you’re power metal, death metal or grind —- if you’re new, you’re in. I highly suggest everyone check it out as one of those solid free resources to keep tabs on if you’re not subscribing to magazines or are frustrated by certain bloggers who don’t write/update fast enough for your liking (*cough*). Aetherian’s track on the playlist was “Black Sails”, which perked my ears up due to its beautifully arranged acoustic/electric, almost Falkenbach-ian intro that led into a mix of Insomnium styled melo-death over some ultra-bleak and doomy vocals. Its a rich, varied and colorful track, full of elegant melodies but also some uptempo, speedy Gothenburg rhythmic patterns that prevent things from ever getting boring. It was a breath of fresh air in that moment, coming right after Machine Head’s newest slice of utterly abominable meathead metal (the last thing I thought was okay by them was The Blackening, and even that’s a bit overrated in retrospect, we were all a little too eager for thrash metal to return in 2007…).

 

These guys are from Greece, and The Untamed Wilderness is their first album, although they’ve been releasing media attention getting singles (and an EP) since 2013. I like the strategy, and hope more newer bands are going that route —- start small, keep the focus narrow by aiming for a single first, another and another and then finally try for the EP. I haven’t gone back and listened to any of their pre-album releases, but what their full length debut illustrates is a band that really thought hard about what they wanted to sound like and what they wanted to say. This album sounds simultaneously classic and new, both firmly rooted in tried and true metal traditions (the delicate intros/outros that remind me of classic Metallica, spotlight grabbing guitar solos, an emphasis on memorable melodies), all while being unafraid of trying to cross-pollinate styles at will. Case in point is “The Rain”, where we get some epic guitar melodies that one would normally associate with traditional metal, followed by the band launching into a borderline metalcore/largely melodeath breakdown. I know you’re groaning at seeing that term thrown in here, but give the track a listen and you’ll see its not what your brain is conjuring up this very second. Vocalist Panos Leakos has a deeper register than most melo-death screamers, coming across like a blend of Swallow the Sun’s Mikko Kotamäki and Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There’s enough grit there to make it not overpower the melo-death underneath with overwhelmingly doomy vocals, but enough doom in his vocals to give everything a bleak as hell coating. Give this album a shot, we’re going to be talking about it on the next MSRcast for sure.

 

 

 

Blut Aus Nord – Deus Salutis Meæ:

I’m really going to be in the minority here, but I’m just not able to crack the new Blut Aus Nord, which is a complete roundabout dive back into their industrial work of a few years ago that also blew right past me. It wasn’t for lack of trying, I really did give all those highly praised 777 era albums a shot, willing myself to like them and see what all the hype was about, but it just never happened. I’m one of those curmudgeonly types that only enjoys it when the band delivers something in that second wave of black metal milieu, as they did for 2014’s brilliant Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry. The problem on Deus is that it sounds like one seriously monotone wash of noise, dark hellish noise for sure but unlike even the heaviest black metal, there’s nary a riff to grab onto. This is the perfect soundtrack to some kind of industrial, HR Giger influenced hellscape horror house. That’s not exactly the kind of listening experience that I’m after as a metal fan and the immense density of the production here —- slabs and slabs of noise colliding with each other, an almost drone-like repetitiveness to the rhythmic structures at work, not to mention just how annoying the drum machine programming comes across, assaulting ones ears with tinny blasts. The most listenable sequence here is “Chorea Macchabeorum”, which at least has a riff boasting a microhook in its curving rhythm, resembling a NIN track more than anything metal. I don’t know what else to say, and was almost going to skip writing about this album except I thought it’d be strange to have so highly spoken about their last release while being mum on the new one. I’m not saying its bad, but its clearly not for me —- I only hope there’s a Memoria Vetusta IV at some point.

 

 

 

Elvenking – Secrets of the Magic Grimoire:

So I was introduced to Elvenking way back in the early aughts by a Blind Guardian loving friend of mine on a record store trip where he took a chance on their sophomore effort Wyrd just based on the cover art reminding him of Finntroll (ah the days of blind music purchasing!). It was not what he expected of course, but being able to appreciate power metal, he dug it and so did I. Over the years I’ve kept a moderate interest in Elvenking, waiting for them to finally deliver that career defining album that gelled all the best elements of their sound. They fascinate me in that they’re an Italian band that somehow manages to sound like they’re from Italy yet maybe from Germany and the States as well. Their blend of triumphant power metal with occasional folk music injections sometimes hits all the right sweet spots, but other times comes across as cluttered, unfocused, and uninteresting. I’ve always personally felt their folk moments sounded forced, and they sounded better when leaning harder on the traditional power metal approach. Part of the reason for that is just how much I like Damna (Davide Moras) as a vocalist, his vocals an oddity in the power metal world for their rough hewn Bon Jovi like quality. Hell, there have been times where he sounds more apt to be the vocalist in a pop-punk band —- and that’s not a knock, he’d be great at it.

 

So the band has returned to their more traditional sound over the past few albums, and Secrets of the Magic Grimoire is no exception (with that title it better not be). In fact they’re hitting that sweet spot that I was referring to earlier straight off the bat here on the opener “Invoking the Woodland Spirit”, a charging, pounding anthem built on a tasty riff sequence and ascending vocal melody. Damna has a way of injecting addictive melodic bends in his vocals that owe more to rock than metal but still seem perfectly at home within the greater context of a song this epic (“Hounded, darkened and laid underneath…”). Its a glorious track, and so is the follow up “Draugen’s Maelstrom” where the verses are just as fist-pumping as that excellent chorus. I particularly love Damna’s shrewd tempo shift accenting on the bridge (“Through the pouring rain / The icy spurts”), a clever trick that gives those lines just a little extra juice in the energy department. But for every pair of rockin’ rollin’ jams like those two, you get a dud like “The One We Shall Follow”, with its plodding tempo, predictable sound /w group chorus vocal that sounds like so many other bands. I know people gave Elvenking a hard time for their poppier explorations over the years, but I really think the band’s strength is that middle ground between these strange pop-punk sounding influences and epic power metal. It gives them an identity that no one in the genre has, for better or worse (no one sounds like them when they’re merging both influences anyway). This is one of the band’s better efforts in recent memory, and cuts like “Summon the Dawn Light” that remind me simultaneously of Coheed & Cambria and Freedom Call are when the band is at their best. But they have trouble staying in that zone, and like the rest of their catalog, Secrets is an uneven listen.

 

 

 

Ensiferum – Two Paths:

I’m a jerk for pointing it out, but the title of the new Ensiferum album is just ripe for fitting in all sorts of insults and snarky Twitter burns. But you know, its also kinda emblematic of what’s really going on in folk metal in 2017,  a year in which we’ve seen a small handful of releases from the genre’s older standard bearers attempt to steer the genre back towards its gritty, dark, blackened roots. What they’re steering away from is sadly the kind of thing Ensiferum still find themselves stuck in, like some sticky tar they’re struggling to walk through for miles and miles. Its the goof-ication of a once solitary and spiritual subgenre of metal, the mid-2000s turn towards songs about ale, drunkenness, trolls, and whatever schlocky gimmicky stuff that’s been overplayed and overdone for about a solid decade plus now. I know I’ve gone on about this before so I’ll spare you all now, but there really has been solid statements of intent this year from folk metal artists such as Vintersorg, King of Asgard, and Wolfheart. We can even add Myrkur to that list, of new folk infused metal that reminds me of the way the genre used to be before it got all cartoonish and something to laugh about. Ensiferum’s first couple albums were part of that original legacy, and its been concerning to see them descend into the tropes that the genre’s more widely known bands have been barfing up.

 

I wasn’t wild about 2015’s One Man Army and only lukewarm on 2012’s Unsung Heroes, and I’m disappointed to see that trend continuing. Going back to my reviews of those albums now, I see that I chalked up my feelings on them with the belief that the band just needed to write better songs, which is an obvious take that could apply to any mediocre album. I wonder if Ensiferum’s problems are far deeper however, that maybe its a personnel problem in Petri Lindroos ultimately not being the most exciting vocalist the band could’ve picked as a replacement for Jari Maenpaa (for all Jari’s many difficulties, he had one of the best melo-death screamer voices in recent memory). Lindroos has the tendency to sound tame in comparison, his screaming vocals never really threatening or deviating from the monotone delivery he’s been using since his time in Norther. That might not bother some people, but I find it grating over the period of a couple songs, and its something that I’ve only just put my finger on this time around. I commend the band for trying to spice things up here with Lindroos and fellow band mate Netta Skog taking on clean vocals on “I Will Never Kneel” and “Don’t You Say”, but they fall flat musically. The latter sounds more like something off a Flogging Molly album and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, its just bewildering in the context of an Ensiferum release. The former features Skog on lead vocals and she’s got a fine voice, but there’s nothing emotionally gripping about what she’s singing, nothing that makes you feel that rush the way say Eluveitie did on “Call of the Mountains”.

 

Bassist and lyric writer (post Maenpaa) Sami Hinkka has contributed to the music writing more than ever on this album, being credited in writing five songs, a pair of them by himself (“God Is Dead”, “I Will Never Kneel”). I can only guess as to why longtime music writer/guitarist Markus Toivonen decided to mix things up this time around, but I wonder if there was a feeling in the band that things were getting stale and they had to inject something new. Skog also is credited on a few tracks, and unsurprisingly Lindroos is still not a major part of the songwriting team. Hey, some people just aren’t skilled in that particular facet of things and that’s okay, but that’s also why I wonder if the Lindroos/Ensiferum thing is running whatever course it seemed to have (at least on those fairly decent post Maenpaa albums). There are bands where the guitarist can write all the songs and the lyrics, and have a convincing frontman go out and sell them, we see it all the time in power metal and just regular rock n’ roll. Folk metal is a different breed however, its music that works best when its coming at you as a cohesive artistic expression. Lindroos was a fun vocalist in Norther, an admittedly generic melo-death band with a few fun songs and one excellent Europe cover, but I never really get the feeling he’s been a folk metal guy. When we go back and listen to those first two Maenpaa lyric penned albums we can hear the seeds of stuff he’d later explore in Wintersun, that guy really puts a ton of conviction into his art and recorded performance (regardless of however well he succeeds on a artistic or technical level). I hope I’m not sounding mean-spirited towards Lindroos, whom I hold no rancor towards —- I’m interested to hear someone else’s thoughts on this.

 

 

 

Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:

This was one of those albums that you see the cover art for and just have to check out —- if the image on the left isn’t big enough for you, check out the full length spread here. It certainly gives a visual to the album title, allowing no one any room to wonder at what a mirror reaper would look like (Dark Souls concept art anyone?). While I had no doubt it would be atop everyone’s best album art of 2017 lists, I saw the band described as funeral doom and lamented for a minute before going ahead and giving the album a shot on Spotify, fully expecting to be bored or at the least, severely disinterested. Funeral doom is a tough genre to get into, I even had problems with the third disc of Swallow the Sun’s Songs From the North and I rather enjoyed the first two discs of that one. So a little background first: This is Bell Witch’s third full length (their debut came out in 2012), they’ve been a two piece band since their inception with only drums and bass (yes, bass) as the primary instruments. Dylan Desmond is the bassist and co-lead vocalist, and he somehow manages to get sounds out of a bass that would trick anyone’s brain into thinking they’re hearing a guitar. The band’s drummer on their first two albums was Adrian Guerra, who sadly passed away in May of 2016. He’s replaced by Jesse Shreibman here, and together he and Desmond produce a spectrum of sound that runs the gamut from soft, hushed atmospherics to withering, claustrophobia inducing waves of noise.

 

Whats surprising about Mirror Reaper is just how well it really works while being presented as a single song clocking in at 83 minutes, and yes you’re reading that right. I’ve enjoyed my time listening to the album, never feeling impatient with it like I figured I would have. Its a hypnotic, lulling, and subsequently jarring listening experience, something perfect for a chilly autumn day or a quiet night with the headphones on. The scope of this is huge, difficult to put into words except to say that it does sound like the soundtrack to grief, or at least a window into someone else trying to process grief. It wasn’t necessary to understand the backstory of Guerra’s passing to hear that element in the music —- this is a very sad, brutally melancholic listen in the most understated way possible. I marvel at what Desmond is able to convey through a bass, all while playing in seemingly slow motion, his notes ringing long and laboriously, only coming in just as its predecessor is about to fade entirely. Both he and Shreibman play in a manner that can only be described as economical, somehow crafting sounds out of two instruments that can fill your entire room with reverberating sound that is at times as bleak as you’d expect but also surprisingly beautiful and aching. This is not an easy listen just by virtue of its length, but its a seductive one, and a journey that pulls you in and keeps you listening. I’m more surprised at my own reaction to this, coming from a genre that I usually just ignore. This is nothing I’d want to see played live, but at home, on my own with the lights turned out and the headphones on, its a mesmerizing experience.

 

Wintersun Returns! Musing on The Forest Seasons

wintersunforestseasons300Awhile back in August of 2014, I wrote a piece on the continuing delays that surrounded Wintersun’s Time Pt II. It got noticed by a handful of their fans and linked on the band’s Facebook page where it made quite a stir (even eliciting a few disapproving comments from Jari Mäenpää himself). My main criticism in that piece was his attempt to deploy crowdfunding to circumvent his deal with Nuclear Blast who according to Mäenpää weren’t helping him achieve his artistic vision with adequate resources. Nuclear Blast had responded and the result was an ugly fight in the metal press, one that saw many people even outside of the Wintersun fandom taking sides. While I did side with Nuclear Blast to a certain extent, I think the source of my frustration was that I also considered myself a fan of the guy. The band’s 2004 self-titled debut was (and still is) an electric mix of speedy Swedish melo-death infused with Finnish power metal’s major key melodicism, christened with Yngwie-like guitar and keyboard theatrics that made the whole thing crackle with intensity. That album was only a couple months removed from another 2004 Mäenpää classic in Ensiferum’s Iron, the second of two incredible, pioneering albums he made with that band before leaving to pursue Wintersun full time that same year. In a span of just three years and change (’01-’04), Mäenpää had delivered three bonafide classics, exciting albums that made us rethink where metal could go and how it could sound. He seemed poised to among metal’s most admired prolific voices, like Therion’s Christofer Johnsson and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt before him, a guy who would knock out a flurry of awesome works in rapid succession over a decade. Instead, we wouldn’t hear anything new from him until 2012.

When Time I finally arrived in 2012, I found myself enjoying it, but wondering why it took eight years for just three songs proper (two of the album’s five tracks were instrumentals). Even if they were on the long side (13, 8 , and 12 minutes respectively), the lack of more than five tracks on the release made the whole thing come across as some kind of extended EP instead of an album proper. But no matter as I pointed out in my original review, because Time II was on the way, slated at the time for an early 2013 release (by whom, the label or band, no one’s really sure). Well, my snarky prediction that we might not see Time II until 2020 might not be so far off the mark, because in the intervening years Wintersun have focused on some touring and the launching of a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign to build Mäenpää’s much longed after Wintersun studio. Now as I pointed out above, my 2014 article took issue with the band’s attempt to crowdfund against the wishes of their label, but things have changed in the time since. In the autumn of 2016, the band and Nuclear Blast were able to come to terms and negotiate out a resolution that apparently has pleased both parties. No, The Forest Seasons isn’t Time II with a different title, we’re still being promised that far off epic, but at least Mäenpää has delivered new music in the meantime, realizing that another near decade wait would be inexcusable.

 

The resulting Indie-Go-Go crowdfunding campaign ran all of this past March. Instead of offering the usual run of merch n’ perks that most bands put up in exchange for donations, the only donation option was for “The Forest Package”, which was essentially the band’s new album The Forest Seasons, its instrumental twin plus a remastered version of Time I (and its instrumental version), as well as the remaster of the debut album along with the Live at Tuska 2013 live album. When this news went out I actually thought that it was a smart move, to just simply offer the die hard Wintersun fan a pre-order of the new album (essentially) plus a host of other Wintersun music that you could get a tidy amount for per person. It wouldn’t appeal to a casual fan like myself, and as a result I suspect many of us scoffed at the band’s overall stated goal of 750,000 Euros (a goal to be reached in chunks —- this being the first of three crowdfunding campaigns), but the band has gotten the last laugh as they netted € 428,310 in just March alone, more than halfway towards their goal. Kudos to them, seriously. I’m not against crowdfunding in metal, I think that its a valid way to go if a band can pull it off. With Mäenpää, the frustration was that he had started clamoring for a crowdfunding attempt after making his fans wait a decade, not to forget the numerous delays and social media posts that grated on everyone’s patience. Its a testament to the man’s music that so many didn’t hold that against him in March.

All that business related history aside, here we are with The Forest Seasons plum in our laps, and if its tracklisting looks a little familiar to you at first, its because Mäenpää has apparently found his preferred format for albums —- a couple songs, make em’ really long (I’d be willing to bet that Time II will follow this format closely). In this case Mäenpää has a built in excuse, that the album is patterned after Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, and accordingly so, Wintersun delivers four “suites” for four seasons. I just want to point out how utterly shocking it is that no one has attempted this in the history of metal until now (unless I overlooked something), because this is a concept that was begging to happen. And its one that really suits Mäenpää’s tendency towards melancholic melodies and vague, abstract, all-encompassing lyrics. Speaking of his lyrics, they’re ostensibly about the nature of these individual seasons albeit in a more metal fashion (particularly autumn and winter), mirroring the actual sonnets that Vivaldi wrote (supposedly) to accompany his famed violin suite. But what sets them apart and lends to their metal nature is that they seem to also speak to the condition of someone’s inner turmoil by use of metaphor, something my lyric loving self has to tip his hat to Mäenpää for. I love stuff like that.

The albums most enthralling moments are found in its first two suites, “Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring)”, and “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”, where we find Wintersun in peak form, at times eclipsing anything else they’ve ever done. You have to give “(Spring)” a few minutes into its fourteen minute long journey to really get going because there’s a lot here by way of the intro. Around the 6:27 mark a distant, dissonant riff emerges amidst the atmospheric quiet of stray keyboards and xylophone-like wind chimes, and transitions into the albums first proper headbanging riff progression. Towards the 12:32 mark, we finally get treated to that epic Mäenpää clean vocal, an almost baritone like quality that recalls the best of his work with Ensiferum. By the end of spring, I’m fully engaged and its a strong segue into summer which is not only the best suite of the four here, but in the running for Mäenpää’s most cohesive, devastatingly awesome work ever. Quite bluntly, I love everything about its twelve minutes, from the mournful strings that weep gently across the start of the piece, to the energetic, bouncy riffing that locks us in from the word go. There’s a riff progression motif you’ll hear just before the clean vocal chorus that so simple yet sounds so inspired. And after the mid-song atmospheric break, at the 7:19 mark, we’re treated to a riff sequence that’s the kind of thing people pony up nearly half a million Euros for. Stunning.

 

Riding such a high from the sounds of spring and summer, its a bit of a bummer that I couldn’t find as much enthusiasm for “Eternal Darkness (Autumn)”, and “Loneliness (Winter)”. You’d figure with the band’s name being Wintersun that these would be home runs, and while they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t inspire the same awe and grandeur of their more flowery siblings. With autumn we get the band’s most blistering attack ever, its furious black metal assault nearly running the gamut of the track’s fourteen minute run time. There are breaks here and there, the song being broken up into “parts”, transitioned by more breathable musical interludes. This piece instantly reminded me of fellow Finns Insomnium and their Winter’s Gate album, both in tonality and sheer aggression —- great for depicting the brutality of winter, which is what made Insomnium’s album so convincing, but I’m not so sure it was the wisest choice for the autumn sequence. The suite’s second half is so reminiscent of Dimmu Borgir riff sequences (complete with Tim Burton-esque orchestrations and Shagrath-like vocals) that I wonder if they weren’t a direct inspiration. Its a trying piece, one that is unforgiving in its attack and devoid of the Wintersun melodicism we all came for, and I just don’t think it succeeds on any level.

After that brutal assault, the quietude and near calm of the winter suite is indeed refreshing, but while Mäenpää’s clean vocals are nice in those moments that juxtapose them against his scathing harsh vox, a whole song built on them is perhaps too much. He’s not a bad clean vocalist (far from it), but he leans too hard on making every phrase sound pained and anguished here, which effectively saps them of all pain and anguish and just leaves them loooonnnngggg and drrrraaawwwnnn ouuuuutttttt. Things perk up quite wonderfully in the instrumental interlude that begins at the eight minute mark, culminating in a beautiful passage towards the tail end of an awesome guitar solo at 8:40. Here, the guitar melody is supported by a mimicking percussion pattern, heavy on the kicks, that gives everything a nice punch that the song desperately needed. Its a moment worth coming back for it, and to be fair, “Loneliness” certainly is captivating on a musical level, because I did enjoy listening to the instrumental version, so maybe it’ll just take some time to get on board with the vocals. I do get a Summoning vibe from parts of this song, a relatively obscure lo-fi black/viking metal one man project who I’ve seen thrown around here and there as a supposed influence for Mäenpää in writing this album.

So if we’re taking my appraisal literally, we’re looking at a fifty-fifty split on The Forest Seasons; but really its an intriguing listen overall, and for those first two suites, an exciting one at that. Whether or not Wintersun fans will agree enough to continue funding Mäenpää’s studio construction efforts will remain to be seen. They’re a contentious bunch at that, often found arguing with the man himself on the official Wintersun Facebook page where I’ve been an occasional lurker. A band shouldn’t be applauded just for releasing an album, but in this case it seems somewhat needed —- good on Mäenpää for releasing something worth discussing and debating, and for simply getting everyone to stop thinking about Time Pt II. I personally wouldn’t mind if there was yet another Wintersun album released before we even got to that one, so as to create more distance and perhaps lift the weight of expectations off of it just a little. I’m sure at some point in retrospect, Axl Rose would’ve loved to have released a new studio album in between 1991 and 2008, if only to give the much beleaguered Chinese Democracy a chance to breathe. This isn’t quite the same epic weight to carry, but Mäenpää could go a long way towards reclaiming any lost good will by being more consistent. This is definitely a start.

 

 

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