The Bounty of Spring! New Music March!

mpavatThe bounty of spring indeed, because this month I’ve found myself going through at least eight new releases, a few of which aren’t listed in the reviews below but might be up later sometime. Some of these are also late February releases that I had overlooked that month or simply thought were coming out in March (or more accurately, I didn’t get around to listening to until recently). There’s a lot to get to and I’ve tried to keep things short and concise for you and me both, so we’ll apply that to this preamble too. Begin!

 


 

wolfheart_tyhjyys_zpszbazutp9Wolfheart – Tyhjyys:

On the latest episode of the MSRcast, listen to my cohost Cary and I collectively slap our foreheads in bafflement at not knowing that Wolfheart was the newest project from Tuomas Saukkonen. I did have vague stirrings that I had remembered the band name somewhere, but laziness compelled me not to do a simple Google search on it (or I got distracted by Twitter, both likely culprits). Saukkonen is the restless spirit behind Black Sun Aeon (an MSRcast favorite), Before the Dawn, Dawn of Solace, and the short lived RoutaSielu melo-death project. He’s the Chris Black type (he of High Spirits, Dawnbringer, and Pharaoh fame), the kind of musician who operates under a project/band name until he feels its run its course, upon which he creates a new moniker, and begins to record under that for however long he feels its inspiration. These projects have been different enough musically to warrant such divisions, though they are almost always cooked up in a Finnish broth of blackened doom along with melodic death metal structures. Whereas Black Sun Aeon was a very Finnish extreme take on gothic metal, Saukkonen leans in an altogether new direction here, more towards the progressive simplicity of latter day Enslaved. Its a natural fit because one of his trademarks is his clever and engaging use of minimalism as a guide in his songwriting, allowing for the usage of empty space to create tension and to amplify heavier passages.

Case in point is the single “The Flood”, an acoustic led epic that recalls mid-period Opeth for its delicate patterns and understated minor key melodicism. I love a track that’s so confident in its overall strength that it allows for moments of sparsely adorned quietude where the drums are the dominating instrument, helped by Joonas Kauppinen’s jazz-inflected fills (check 2:04 – 2:26). That aforementioned Enslaved influence can’t help but be heard on a cut like “Boneyard”, whose main riff is a mish-mash of tremolo picking and modern day prog-metal, book ending a chorus that’s elevated by a bed of forceful keyboard atmospherics. Wolfheart’s keyboard usage is multi-faceted, not only serving as quasi-orchestral arrangements at times, but as purposefully artificial in tone as on “The Rift”, to conjure up a complementary melody to the rhythm guitar riff that brings to mind Omnium Gatherum and Insomnium (not bad touchstones to have). Unlike those fellow Finnish artists however, who occasionally swim in tones that can be described as warm, or summery (as in the honeyed melodies of One For Sorrow), Wolfheart choose to work with decidedly wintry sounds. That’s not a bad thing because they have the songwriting chops to keep it interesting, but for folks who can’t handle an overload of that stuff, it could act as a stumbling block. That being said there’s not a weak track on this album, and with only seven songs (excluding one rather well written instrumental intro) they could hardly afford one.

The Takeaway: Modern day Enslaved meets Blackwater era Opeth while being bear hugged by Metallica-esque accessibility. Worth a shot for extreme metal neophytes and old hands alike.

 

 

evocationtheshadowcd_zpsbkma3mt7Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:

Evocation aren’t exactly the most known name in death metal, despite existing in some spirit or another since 1991(!). There were demos and more demos in those early days, then a sudden implosion that halted any activity for years upon years. This halt in momentum prevented their ascent to the region defining status of their fellow Swedish death metal peers in Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and Unleashed. They eventually returned in 2007 with their long overdue debut album Tales From the Tomb, and went on to release three more between then and 2012. They were largely built upon that expected SDM template of buzzsaw guitars and dirty riffs, albeit with hellish vocals caught between a melo-death scream and something far more guttural. Eschewing any guest appearance by the cookie monster, Evocation presented a far more accessible take on this style of death metal, something later co-opted by Grave on their excellent Endless Procession of Souls. But its been five years since then, and while that gap of time might have frustrated anyone who felt like the band was a bit on a roll, those were four relatively uneven albums, with 2010’s Apocalypse being the only one I ever go back to. So I’m happy to report that the break has been beneficial for Evocation, with The Shadow Archetype easily being the best, most confident album of their career. If there’s any justice in the metal world, everyone will recognize this and perhaps even those in the non-metal worlds will give it the Gorguts Colored Sands treatment.

This is an addictive, refreshingly simple and direct re-imagining of the Evocation sound, a distillation of the band’s strengths into a cohesive, brutally effective death metal tonic. The sonics here are deep, raw, and dirty yet recorded with unbelievably wide dynamic range and instrument separation —- take the opener “Condemned to the Grave”, where ominous lead guitar motifs cleanly glide over riffs that hit you with the force of a monster truck smashing over junkyard cars. If you’re getting hints of At the Gates and The Haunted at moments, such as on “Modus Operandi”, you’re not hearing things. I suspect that the band deliberately kept reinforced the Gothenburg influence they’d picked up through the years and use it as a way to explore further melodicism within their traditionally straight ahead Swedish death metal approach (“Survival of the Sickest” being a prime example of the latter). This helps to explain the acoustic instrumental “Blind Obedience“, the most Gothenburg/Jesper Stromblad-ian thing they’ve ever attempted. I can’t pick a favorite track here, because this is a flawless album from start to finish, but I’ll give a special nod to “Children of Stone” for its mix of complex songwriting and structure held in check by ferocious guitar riffs that practically slam their way into action during transitions from verse to chorus and back again. What a song, what an album.

The Takeaway: A must listen to for 2017, one of the early contenders for the album of the year list.

 

 

Immolation-Atonement_zpsmgophuf4Immolation – Atonement:

Immolation have always been a unique specimen among modern American death metal bands, and to be more precise, from their hometown New York death metal scene at that. They certainly don’t sound like any of the NYDM bands I’ve heard, especially not the ones approved by those few dudes at local death metal shows around Houston and Texas in general sporting those silly NYDM brotherhood patches on their ripped jean jacket vests. I’ve idly wondered if those guys would consider Immolation false metal based on how far they stick out from other bands from the region (transcended more like), but never had a real inclination to strike up a conversation with any of them. Probably for the better. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Immolation on the blog before because I didn’t actually pen a review for 2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy, feeling a little blah about that album in general (I’ll be revisiting it soon to see if that’s changed); but I was a huge fan of their 2010 masterpiece, Majesty and Decay. That’s in my top five death metal albums of all time, an astonishing album of brutal death metal that was more oppressive in spirit than in overwhelming walls of sound, a key to its success. It would always be a difficult benchmark to top, and I wonder if that’s something that was on the band’s collective conscience this time around, four years after Kingdom of Conspiracy.

On Atonement, the first thing I noticed before playing the album was the cover art, purposefully more colorful and vivid than their past three releases (including the 2011 Scion A/V presents Providence EP), as well as the reintroduction of their old school logo. I went in expecting some reversion to an older school sound, bracing to hear evidence of the band I once enjoyed purposefully packed away from sight and sound. That turns out to not be the case, and I’m at a loss to explain the cosmetic changes surrounding the album because Atonement is still Immolation fully engaged in their modern mode. That is, death metal written with intelligence, thought, and attention to detail. There’s still an oppressive atmosphere pervading everything, but the instrumentation is still clearly defined, with space and breathing room allowed for everything even during the most intense and hectic passages. A true highlight here is “The Power of Gods”, which features a cleverly written ascending scale pattern that both serves as a hook and a motif at the same time. Equally impressive is the title track, with its deft intro riff pattern repeated throughout as a moving anchor tethering strains of furious, roiling chaotic noise in all directions. There’s musical curiosities as well, such as the bizarre guitar figures that adorn “Thrown to the Fire”, almost treading into non-sludgy sludge-doom territory (if that makes any sense!). Vocalist Ross Dolan is on fine form throughout, but he always is, an ageless wonder in the world of brutal death metal, of particular note is his menacing energy on “When the Jackals Come”, delivering its eponymous lyrics with enough clarity so there’s no mistaking his meaning. Yikes.

The Takeaway: A return to form, if not a confusing way to go about it. No its not as awesome as Majesty and Decay, but few albums are… if you’re new to the band, I highly recommend starting there and then moving to this.

 

 

bloodboundwod_zpsqsygakq1Bloodbound – War of Dragons:

I’ve never been able to get my head around Bloodbound, mostly because they can’t seem to do the same themselves, so thoroughly schizophrenic have they been over the course of their career. So here’s where I have to use caution, because I do love that a band like Bloodbound exists because its 2017 and we need all the new blood (no pun!) we can get to keep this beloved subgenre going. But good grief, they’ve really taken a turn for the worse here and have succumbed to a rather disheartening recent trend within power metal to amplify the style’s most egregious tendencies to the max. I’m thinking about those purposefully silly bands like Gloryhammer and Twilight Force, because there’s no way songs titled “Tears of a Dragonheart” and “Dragons are Forever” can be excused as anything else. I’m not anti-dragon, but that’s just goddamned silly (edit – this might be the most ridiculous sentence I’ve ever written). Are you kidding me with this stuff Bloodbound? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, because as alluded to above, these guys have been all over the place stylistically and thematically since their debut album. Yet the lineup on War of Dragons is still three-fifths of the band that recorded the truly inspired Tabula Rasa…so what happened?

Well line-up changes happened first of all, with the 2010 exit of vocalist Urban Breed bringing in current vocalist Patrik Selleby. Lost in that transition was not only Breed’s rather unique aggressive mid-range vocal approach, but his innate talent as a songwriter, writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies during his time in Tad Morose and bringing that talent to his two Bloodbound albums as well. Selleby is a far more conventional power metal voice, a good one at that with an impressive upper register, but he’s far more dependent on predictable power metal vocal patterns. Its hard to figure out if he’s the reason for the band’s increasingly simplified songwriting formula over the course of these past three albums but I’d equally point the finger at Bloodbounds three remaining original members. As a forgiving power metal fan, I can’t shake the feeling that these guys are looking for a straight shot to the most accessibility the subgenre can provide, and that means following whatever route that currently seems to be working for others. Only that can explain the increase in Gloryhammer-esque hamminess that characterizes War of Dragons on a lyrical level, and also the co-opting of Sabaton styled keyboard lines that mirror the vocal melody. That works for Sabaton because its part of their organic, original sound —- and the hamminess works for Gloryhammer because of their overall package. Bloodbound has no identity of their own anymore, and maybe the loss of Breed’s signature lyrical depth and intelligent vocal melody design on Tabulsa Rasa suggests they never did.

The Takeaway: The McDonalds of power metal then. 

 

 

morsprincipest_eoadw_zpsnlupp2qyMors Principium Est – Embers of a Dying World:

The lesser noticed little brother of Finnish melodic death metal (relative to Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum that is), Mors Principium Est are now on album number six, which is not remarkable in its own right except to suggest that they’ve had plenty of time to direct their sound in a more focused, organic direction. That actually is the feeling I’ve gotten from Embers of a Dying World, that the band is still in love with the Gothenburg template (nothing inherently wrong with that), but has this time around stumbled upon a way to incorporate more of a Finnish approach to their melo-death. That doesn’t mean they’re copying their brothers, but this is the most noticeably different sounding album in their discography, owing to Gothic-tinged keyboard arrangements, mournful melodies set to slower tempos in places, as well as the surprising inclusion of an actual ballad here in “Death Is The Beginning”. Its a bold experiment, one that I’m surprised they haven’t tried earlier, and here they include female vocals for the first time that I can remember, and it works really well. Check out “The Drowning” for a vivid example of just how much the band is stretching into unfamiliar territory —- a slightly below mid-tempo synth groove with Queensryche meets melo-death lead guitar drapery with playfully subtle tempo accelerations in the glide-in and out of its addictive chorus. This isn’t the Mors we once knew, yet they still sound like themselves, a challenge for any band to achieve.

This expansion of their palette I believe is a direct result of guitarist Andy Gillion’s gradually increasing songwriting influence since he joined up in 2011. His first two albums with the band displayed flashes of this transforming influence, but here he fully blossoms, and it seems that longtime vocalist Ville Viljanen and bassist Teemu Heinola are happy to let him take most of the songwriting reins. Its an odd quirk that its taken a British guitarist to coax out more of a Finnish sound from Mors, but Gillion brings a brashness, a boldness that the band has needed both musically and personality wise. Case in point, check out his tour diary for the band’s stay on this year’s 70000 Tons cruise; he’s an outgoing, upbeat, and playful personality. This is all just idle speculation, but he seems to have loosened up the band in general, and I can hear this affect Viljanen on Embers more than anyone, his performances here are the best of his career. He’s been one of the best melo-death voices for a long time, possessing that perfect condensed scream-growl vocal, but on new songs like “Apprentice of Death” and “Into the Dark”, he tries new approaches, invoking more of a blackened Satyr vibe. Its a subtle change, but it suits him and helps those two songs breathe. The whole band is breathing easier on Embers in fact, this is one of the nicer surprises this year.

The Takeaway: This may be up for vicious debate, but this is certainly my favorite Mors Principium Est album, so full of unexpected twists and turns yet not sounding like they’ve transformed into anyone else.

Insomnium: At The Heart Of Winter

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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


 

Sabaton – The Last Stand:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Be’lakor – Vessels:

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

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

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

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

 

 

Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

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

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

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

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

 

 

High Spirits – Motivator:

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

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

The Flowering Of Spring!: (Or I’m Back With Reviews of Myrath, Borknagar and Omnium Gatherum!)

Hey everyone, I’m back from a short, self-imposed exile. I briefly mentioned it on the most recent episode of the MSRcast, but I think the overwhelming amount of new albums last year which continued on into early 2016 was threatening to burn me out on writing reviews altogether. The recent Blind Guardian piece was a pleasure to immerse myself in, and I’m hoping to do more of that kind of non-review oriented stuff in the near future (several of them exist in near/half/almost finished states already). So I took a break for a few weeks to just listen to whatever I wanted to listen to, older stuff, non-metal stuff, and sure enough even some really excellent new metal albums that I simply couldn’t get enough of (a few of them I’ll discuss below) —- all without worrying about release dates and getting reviews done on time. So this is a collection of reviews for three major releases that normally would’ve been out a month and a half ago, all of them written now with a few weeks of listening time baked in. These are a little on the lengthy side due to how much more I focused on them above all other releases, but I have another batch of reviews on the way that will be on the shorter, punchier side (those covering new music by Oceans of Slumber, Amon Amarth, Rhapsody of Fire, Brainstorm, Ex Mortus, a 2015 missed Dawn of Destiny release, and maybe a few more). It feels good to be back writing, and I can’t wait to finish the non-reviews stuff I’m also working on. Thanks for the patience this past month!

 


 

 

myrathlegacy_zpspxugdo3vMyrath – Legacy: Tunisia’s greatest (and perhaps only) metal export Myrath return with their first new album in five years with Legacy, one of my most anticipated albums of the year. I was sold on this band with 2011’s Tales of the Sands, an album that was largely spectacular, the sound of a band that had found their distinctive style and the songwriting chops to match. Well, five years is an eternity in metal, and Myrath seem to have spent the time wisely because Legacy is a truly inspired breath of fresh air that is pushing the boundaries of what oriental metal can sound like. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, they play a blend of prog-metal with minor-scaled Arabic melodies and motifs built around the inclusion of instruments such as violins, violas, the lute, and the ney. In that sense they’re similar to Orphaned Land, except that their Israeli counterparts began as a death metal band and have gradually expanded their sound away from that as their vocalist Kobi Farhi has developed his clean singing voice. Myrath meanwhile have been all about clean delivery from the very start, even predating the arrival of their uniquely talented longtime and current singer Zaher Zorgati, whose innate abilities at channeling traditional Arabic vocals alongside his Russell Allen-esque pipes makes him one of the most unique vocalists in metal.

On Legacy (which by the way is what the name Myrath actually translates to) the band wisely doesn’t over complicate things, choosing to allow their songwriting to naturally progress as it has over the course of their last four albums. And with that means continuing their ever gradual simplification of their sound, allowing their well crafted melodies to take a greater role in place of prog-metal song structures, which have been slightly pushed to the background in spots. Prog-metal aficionados might balk at that, but its a smart move —- think about why people are so interested and listen to Myrath in the first place. Its not because they’re the second coming of Symphony X, but instead because their traditionally imbued sound is so intriguing and captivating in its own right. Like Orphaned Land, we came for the metal and stayed for the native sounds of Israel and Pan-Arabia, those alluring melodies that speak of cultures that most of us only understand on a surface level. I went on about this idea at length in my review for Orphaned Land’s All Is One, that it was my interest in that band’s music that led me to seeking out non-metal Middle Eastern folk music as well as any non-metal music that was unfamiliar to me. It’d be impossible for Myrath to have quite the same effect on me as Orphaned Land did —- that was a result of a combination of things, timing key among them, but what Myrath succeeds in doing with Legacy is reminding me of the rush I felt when realizing that I was interested in exploring other music, the world’s music as it were.

This is an album characterized by simplicity, a facet that’s demonstrated right away with the instrumental “Jasmin” that bleeds into the euphoric “Believer”, the album’s first single (presented in a glossy, Prince of Persia-esque music video to boot). As an opening salvo, its as bold a statement as they have ever made, leaping directly at you with a sharply sculpted Arabic string melody accompanying Zorgati’s chant-sung traditional vocal. He does that quite often throughout the album, and he’s quite talented at it, sending his voice to float atop whatever bed of music is going on underneath (and its characteristically Arabic sounding, as opposed to the more condensed, compressed Jewish/Yiddish chant-singing found in Orphaned Land’s music). What makes the song work however is its mid-tempo groove that’s phonetically reinforced by Zorgati’s prog-power tinged clean vocals during the verse sections, his phrasing as rhythmic as Morgan Berthet’s dynamic percussion underneath. That chorus though —- you could actually pencil it in as the hook for a Middle Eastern pop single and it’d fit perfectly, something I say only to reinforce just how skilled the band is at writing that sort of thing. Its also works as a warning for anyone who’s too timid or afraid of losing “cred” by listening to a band that’s so unabashed about their desire to play with hooks and ear candy. I’m quite the fan if you couldn’t tell, and “Believer” is one of the year’s finest metal singles thus far. Its their “All Is One”, one of those rare life-affirming songs that drags metal into a space of positive emotions.

Its not however the only wonderfully ear-candied moment on the album either, as my current favorite is the morosely titled “I Want to Die”, a slowly spiraling strings and acoustic guitars powered ballad that sees Zorgati delivering an incredibly emotional vocal throughout. Instruments dance around him, the strings zipping under and alongside during the verses, acoustic guitar filling in space with light, soft pluckings, traditionally structured percussion brushed across in an accenting role —- everything then suddenly surging together for the explosive chorus. A quick glance at the lyrics will clue you in on this being a song about heartbreak, and while the diction and poetics aren’t on the level of Roy Khan, they’re carefully written so as to maximize Zorgati’s ability to bend them to his will. He makes these lyrics better by virtue of his performance and his interpretation of what syllables to stress and bend in that distinctive manner that we can accurately peg as his trademark (in metal anyway). Another example of that is on the following song “Duat”, where he makes the most of lines such as “Relieve me / Leave me here I’m dying / Isis knows how to bring me back to life” —- first of all that’s a reference to Isis the deity (just in case you were wondering), and while I think these are perfectly fine lyrics, they might test another metal fan’s capacity for melodrama, and I’d think they’d have a point if the vocalist in question were say Russell Allen, but here Zorgati’s vocal-isms are convincing enough. Something also occurs to me while I’m listening to “Endure the Silence”, another track with a decadent chorus, that most of these songs are actually love songs, the narrator either expressing his devotion to the object of his affection or lamenting a loss thereof (with the exception of the song referencing Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen). Its up to us I suppose whether we want the object to be a woman, a country, or a community.

I suppose we’re touching on something there with that last bit. You all watch the news, and are certainly aware of what’s going on in regions such as Syria, Iraq, and even Libya and Yemen. This is a band from Tunisia that I’m told ostensibly lives in France these days, and if so that means they’re served with a multitude of perspectives on what’s going on in Europe at the moment with the refugee crisis of the past year and a half. I’m not going to assume that those things influenced the writing of their music, maybe they didn’t at all, but I detect an openness in their lyrics that suggest they might be speaking to a larger idea or theme. Sagely perhaps, Myrath keep things relatively vague, allowing their music to be flexible to audiences of all kinds, and that might be their greatest strength. When all of Europe is feeling the tension spurred by terrorism in Paris and Brussels, waves of refugees, and anti-Islamic sentiment, here’s a band from the birthplace of the Arab Spring making art with western music that is being embraced by fans from vastly different parts of the world. I’m not naive enough to believe that music can completely change things, it rarely ever does, but it can help to chip away at an individual’s own reticence about other cultures, and help to springboard their interest in learning about them. With regard to the Middle-East, there are so few cultural links that exist right now to help facilitate communication between differing peoples, yet among those few are a handful of metal artists. I find that incredible, and something that few other musical genres can claim. Bands such as Myrath and Orphaned Land have fans in Israel, Tunisia, Egypt, Europe, the UK, and even here in Texas, and that’s a small victory if nothing else.

 

Borknagar – Winter Thrice:

I’ve enjoyed Borknagar since sometime in 2001, when I was introduced to the band via their then newly released album Empiricism. I was led there by my initial interest in Vintersorg, who had just joined up with his Norwegian countrymen to provide lead vocals in place of I.C.S. Vortex who had just left to join Dimmu Borgir. Vortex did three years as Borknagar’s black metal screamer, and he took over the slot after the departure of one Kristoffer Rygg, aka known as Garm from Ulver, who decided that he wanted to focus only on his primary band. Funnily enough all three men find themselves joining together on a pair of cuts from Borknagar’s newest and most ambitious album to date. Now this album has been out for a few months now, and you’ve all likely heard it —- and what you’re hearing is the sound of Borknagar further streamlining their sound away from the largely avant-garde keyboard atmospherics of the Empiricism/Epic/Origins/Universal era and more in tune with the bleak, wind-swept melodicism found on their previous album Urd and its signature track “The Earthling”. There’s still keyboards present, providing a counter-melody to the lead vocal (or guitar) melodies, but its more informed by a stripped down, 70’s prog-rock approach rather than the swirling, bat-crazy orchestral hurricanes that so characterized much of late 90s second wave black metal (ala Emperor). Some of you might be smirking at the mention of stripped down and 70’s in relation to prog-rock keyboards, but its basically more King Crimson and less Rick Wakeman, you jokers.

Let’s get back to the mention of all those ridiculously talented vocalists on one track, because “Winter Thrice” is not only the title track but the album’s first single and excellent music video. The latter provides us with a visual breakdown of who’s singing what, just in case you’re new to the band and can’t discern their voices quite yet: First we get Lazare (aka Lars Nedland) who really should get co-billing alongside his band mates as one of the amazing voices here; the next verse is sung by Vortex in that wonderfully strange, warped clean voice of his; and after a nice electro-clean chord sequence we’re treated to a rare black metal sighting of Garm, here delivering the song’s most affecting lyric passage (“I have wandered the skies…”) in a sweetly smooth croon that reminds me of a mix of Mike Patton and Mikael Akerfeldt. Its just a thrilling sequence overall, exciting in as much for its star studded succession of vocalists as it is for being one of the band’s most direct and disarmingly accessible passages to date. It all builds up to explode with Vintersorg’s ever blistering black metal anti-chorus (it can be argued that Garm was actually singing the hook, and that Vintersorg is delivering its outro bridge —- but whatever, this is black metal by one of the genre’s more unconventional craftsmen… we shouldn’t be looking for conventional songwriting). After Vintersorg’s traumatic accident over a year ago, its nice to hear him sound like himself here (although its reported by some that he recorded this before the accident —- that being said he has had time to heal and recently had surgery that seems successful enough for him to be currently working on a sequel to Till fjälls(!)). Suffice to say he’s still one of the most convincing and identifiable harsh vocalists in extreme metal, with something inimitable in the way he screams.

Vintersorg has his share of clean vocals too, because you don’t neglect a resource like that, and so he pops up in a fascinating and harmonious duet with Lazare and possibly Vortex (it gets difficult to discern between the latter two at times) on “The Rhyme of the Mountain”. Remember a paragraph ago when I mentioned the band was weaning itself away from avant-garde chaos and leaning more towards classic prog-rock stylings and songwriting? Cue mark 3:20 during this song and you’ll get a vivid example of what I mean —- an abrupt mid-song bridge sequence of harmonized vocals cooing a sparse, gorgeous melody. Its not even meant to serve as a counterpoint to the harsh vocals, because clean vocal verses build up to it as well as follow it. This is actually a defining trademark of the songs on this album, and perhaps more than any other recording of theirs in the past, Borknagar here work with almost equal parts clean to harsh vocals, something that’s not altogether shocking, but still a bold move. I love it personally, and it makes songs such as “Cold Runs the River” embed in my mind with strong, swinging hooks and inspired open chord guitar sequences that are unexpected but pleasant surprises. In the Lazare fronted “Panorama”, we’re treated to a jarringly poppy chorus in fairly short order, but whose recurrence is abruptly interrupted by a keyboard driven instrumental passage that recalls Hammond organ sounds of the 70s (in fact, that organ sound dominates much of the song, at times taking over the key melody entirely… I get reminded of Uriah Heep). We’re treated to another clean vocal mid-song bridge sequence in “When Chaos Calls” at the 3:42 mark, this one clearly sculpted by Vintersorg, recalling vivid moments from his vocal work on his own solo albums (particularly Visions From the Cosmic Generator in this case), and seriously, is there anyone better at crafting moments like these?

Founding guitarist Oystein Brun, still the primary songwriter on the credits seems fairly happy these days to allow the external influences of his band mates transform Borknagar’s sound into something that is simultaneously far removed from the The Olden Domain era, yet subtly familiar and knowing. At times, there are strong hints of the past that crop up violently such as on “Terminus”, where the sudden and sharp mood shifts lurch the band into full on black metal, blastbeat laden fury that recalls the violence of Empiricism (albeit without the ultra-crisp drum recording of that album). This might actually be my current favorite right now, because I can’t get enough of its last three minutes, from Garm’s resurfacing with a highly emotive and then hushed vocal, to Jens Ryland and Brun’s tremendous restraint on their guitar work to allow simple ambient space to fill the backdrop, to Vintersorg’s best clean vocal moment on the album, re-singing Garm’s final passage (“Raised to seek, grown to see / The flames of creation and prosperity…”). I suspect that with the impact of their video for “The Earthling”, hitting over 377k views on YouTube, and subsequently the video for “Winter Thrice” hitting over 300k in just a fragment of the time in comparison, word is getting out to formerly in the dark metal fans that Borknagar is one of those critically acclaimed bands they should have knowledge of. I really do think a sea-change occurred with Urd, an album that delivered a vein of accessibility that allowed both critics and potential fans to take a longer listen as opposed to simply being turned off by the utter weirdness of their past work (hey, as much as some of us love it, older Borknagar was a tough sell to many). As in the case of Enslaved, it could simply be a case of a band’s potential audience finally maturing and Borknagar issuing their most accessible work at the right time. Good for the band, good for those newcomers, and with songs as excellent as these, good for us who’ve been here all along.

 

Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens:

A leading light in Finland’s melo-death revival is back with a new album, and just like their neighbors in Borknagar, they’ve stumbled upon the discovery that their sound could actually benefit by allowing their music to breathe more. I’ve enjoyed Omnium Gatherum’s past works to varying degrees, with the accomplished New World Shadows being a favorite in terms of albums, and pegging “The Unknowing” from 2013’s Beyond as their absolute best song (I enjoyed the album as well, but that song was outrageously awesome with that ascending/descending scale pattern). The slight stumbling block I’d have with the band was their tendency to sound rather obsidian for large stretches of time through a song or even album. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s rigid, ultra-coarse melo-death growls played a big factor in that, his voice often lacking any hints of warmth or push and pull. Now this actually works for the band overall simply because he’s an unfailingly strong presence that can compete with the technicality that guitarists Joonas Koto and Markus Vanhala imbue their dense riff sequences with, thus preventing either guitars or vocals from dominating the sound alone. But that being said, for as much as I enjoyed their music, I found myself far more drawn to the comparatively paint-brushed, loosely woven melo-death of countrymen Insomnium.

But with Grey Heavens it seems like the band has naturally progressed away from songwriting that coats a piece of music in both heavy drenchings of both vocals and music, there’s actually a bit of give and take between those two strong elements that was only glimpsed previously in fleeting moments. I mentioned one of those above, “The Unknowing”, where Pelkonen’s vocals were timed to dive in gaps instead off slamming against the rest of the band. I think these are tricky things to learn for a lot of melo-death bands, and even tougher to discern as fans and explain in writing… but if we think of melo-death as primarily a dual lead guitar melody constructed artform, then those melodies deserve equal or almost equal spotlight time as the vocals, and the power of both can either overwhelm or diminish when they’re simultaneously hitting a listener at once. Think about classic In Flames albums, those songs on Whoracle or Colony or even The Jester Race —- there was a dance going on, guitars-vocals-guitar-vocals-guitars and on and on. Omnium Gatherum don’t exactly do a recreation of that formula here, but they’ve learned to give their individual sonic elements a bit more space. Take the title track “Frontiers”, where Aapo Koivisto’s keyboards actually work solo as the refrain, a wordless chorus that is not only a clever sonic earworm, but the light to the darkness of those brutal verse sections where Pelkonen matches his raw power to that of Koto’s and Vanhala’s.

Much of the album in fact is characterized by this smarter, more aware mode of songwriting, and it bears fruit with mounds of hooks and earworms. Even on the lengthiest track, the nearly eight minute “Majesty and Silence”, the band treat us to fresh, inspired ambient passages built on drizzles of acoustic guitar and cloudy sky inspired keyboards to serve as a balance to the more weighty, aggressive sections. On “The Great Liberation”, Pelkonen sings over chugging rhythm guitar while a lone lead melodic figure darts in and out quickly, both guitars then joining together in an entirely separate section to deliver their more frenetic, hyper-speed riff sequences in dazzling fashion. My MSRcast cohost Cary was mentioning during our recording session how he felt this was the catchiest Omnium Gatherum release to date, and I agree, but I think what that observation reveals is that the band has gotten better at displaying its hook-writing capability, and Koivisto has stepped up his game in order to further cement his keyboards as an integral part of melodic through lines within the songs, rather than just as coloring for the background. I think they’ve come to realize that writing better paced songs and separating segments of their songs with potentially opposing musical elements makes for a far more listenable song. Cary posited the idea that perhaps Vanhala’s recent stint as Insomnium’s second guitarist is playing a role, and that a good deal of their songwriting essence has rubbed off on him. Its an interesting theory, one that’s plausible for sure —- whatever the case may be, its resulted in the best album of their career.

The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part I: Swallow the Sun, Draconian and More!

Throughout the year, I’ve made not-so-veiled references to 2015 being the year with possibly the most noteworthy metal releases that we’ve ever seen. The sheer volume has been overwhelming. Here’s what I overlooked: that it wasn’t just going to be releases that were noteworthy to me, but releases that were noteworthy to everyone else as well. This year publicists, record labels, and bands themselves sent out more promos and emails than I ever expected, and before you mistake The Metal Pigeon blog as a beacon for traffic (it is not I assure you), I realize that most of them came because of my duties as co-host of the MSRcast podcast. Simply put, when blogs or metal writers I follow on Twitter talked about an album they loved, it happened to be a band I wasn’t aware of or expecting, and it went on my to-do list and my promo folder. No exaggeration, because I’ve kept count, I had 126 promos of individual new releases land on my metaphorical desk! Okay, so some of them were hard rock (apparently writing favorably about certain power metal bands makes you a hot target for any AOR oriented label) and some of them were bands I’d never heard of, but most were from established, popular metal bands.

So after going through them all, I whittled them down to a range of 15 to 20ish that I might want to talk about, hence the first of a multiple part Fall edition reviews cluster. Some of these might be albums released a few months or longer ago, but better late than never I suppose. Because there’s so many albums to discuss I’ll be trying (key word) to keep these on the shorter side, but some might go longer (yeah okay, the first one went really long). Bear with me, its going to be a crazy few weeks ahead.

 


 

Swallow The Sun – Songs From The North I, II & III: I’m not as big a Swallow the Sun aficionado as my MSRcast cohost Cary, but when he described this new triple disc thematic album to me on a recent episode of the podcast, I was all in. I love stuff like this, of a band running and gunning on ambition, throwing caution to the wind and doing something a record label would shake its head at (although perhaps in this age of struggling record sales, more projects like this are exactly what the industry needs to renew an interest in physical sales). I call this a thematic album in regards to its division of stylistic approaches across its three individual discs, not in regards to their lyrics, which effectively share similar Swallow the Sun(ny!) sentiments across the board (they’re a doomy melo-death band from Finland, you know the score). It goes like this: the first disc is a Swallow the Sun album done in the band’s normal/regular stylistic vein; the second disc is a largely acoustic album; and the third disc is an original album of rather extreme funeral doom —- I should hasten to point out that all three discs consist of entirely original new material (no re-records on that acoustic album, bonus points in my book). Its an intriguing proposition on paper, sort of like Opeth’s Deliverance / Damnation experiment taken a step further (and released simultaneously). If I’m being honest, I was more excited to hear the acoustic album, and that’s what I wound up listening to first. That’s certainly not intended to be a slight against their normal approach… its just that I hadn’t to this point really loved any of their past records like I have albums by Insomnium, Ominium Gatherum, and Amorphis.

Whats caught me off guard is how much I honestly am enjoying the first “normal” disc here. The songwriting on Songs From the North I is sharp, focused, riveting and full of darkly beautiful, evocative melodicism with just enough of a tempo kick in certain elements of the instrumentation to keep everything interesting on a sonic level. I’m not a big doom guy in general, because with the traditional stuff the slow tempos of everything just weigh on my interest and attention levels, but Swallow the Sun have always been intriguing because they attempted to mix melo-death musicality with doom metal structures. That means even when the tempos are at their doom-iest, there’s something captivating going on with the guitar patterns —- such as on the gorgeous opener “With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears”, a nine minute epic built on those aforementioned lead guitar patterns that move in procession over elongated rhythm and bass guitars that are structured like jutting pieces of a glacier moving down a mountain. Vocalist Mikko Kotamaki’s ushers everything along with one of the bleakest, fiercest doom/death vocal hybrids you’ll ever hear, his extreme voice having the flexibility to bend from relatively high-pitched screams to deep, rich guttural passages where he still maintains control and enunciation in the delivery of the lyrics. Furthermore, he demonstrates a smooth, emotive, accented clean vocal on the opener and in moments of songs such as “10 Silver Bullets” and my personal favorites for vocal work, “Heartstrings Shattering” and “From Happiness To Dust”.

Those latter two aforementioned songs might just be some of the best examples of microcosms for why the first disc is as rich, diverse, and practically flawless as it is. On “Heartstrings Shattering”, the band builds around Kotamaki’s cleanly sung laments, guitars echoing off the end of his lyrics like further continuations of sentiments they couldn’t set to words. His extreme metal vocal passages are layered in between those clean vocal passages, some of them sung by guest female vocalist and past contributor to the band Aleah Stanbridge (who incidentally also serves as the photographer for the individual art on each of the albums packaging within —- the ones with the model wearing tree branch/antlers, photography that contributes massively to just how excellent the overall design/packaging of the album turned out). Her vocals are a delicate, nuanced counterpoint to all the aggression we’re getting, yet her tone seems just shy of being ethereal because its mixed with a touch of despair that helps keep her in tone with the music… something a lot of other bands tend to get wrong by simply going the beauty and the beast route when it doesn’t suit the music. Here Stanbridge is a part of the fabric of the song as a whole, her appearance is sudden but not jarring, and the music doesn’t shift in tempo or tone to accommodate her because it simply doesn’t need to. As for “From Happiness to Dust”, sweet maria, listen to how unconventional yet perfect that open chord sequenced chiming guitar motif is when introduced at the :33 second mark. Its employed relatively sparingly throughout the song’s near nine minutes, but every occurrence seems like a religious experience. Its on the list as a song of the year candidate.

 

The first disc is such a towering achievement, that it threatens to overshadow the inspired Songs From the North II, the band’s all acoustic work. Its the perfect autumn chill out disc, a collection of minor key hushed lullabyes built on hypnotic acoustic guitar patterns, draped with keyboard built string arrangements, with Kotamaki’s delicate clean vocals adrift over the the top. That description might seem like its all a little mechanical or by the numbers, but once again the band’s songwriting here wins the day. Certain songs fall further in the “acoustic chill out” spectrum than others, such as “Away”, a song that sleepily sways along, drawing you into its almost relaxing, serene ambient nature. Others are more built on James Taylor-esque simple hooks, as on “Pray For the Winds to Come”, where guitarists Juha Raivio and Markus Jamsen deliver a lilting guitar motif built on chiming chords that actually serves as a strong hook, Kotamaki slipping his vocals in between their strongest accents. He’s joined by another female vocalist on the titular “Songs From the North”, one Kaisa Vala, who sings the refrain in Finnish with a relatively bright and cheery vocal tone —- believe me it works, not only because it better suits the complexities of Finnish language consonants but because in this case her voice is a warming accent to relatively frosty verses (musically and lyrically speaking —- the song is essentially a love letter to the Finnish wilderness).

Its interesting to me that I went into this album looking forward to hearing the acoustic disc the most, in fact I listened to it first, and its a lovely listen don’t get me wrong… but I’ve been realizing that its the first “regular” disc that’s been getting most of the spins lately. Its the more dynamic of the two, its longer length pieces having more peaks and valleys, more differentiation with songwriting structures and composition whereas the acoustic album tends to run at a very specific and unchanging speed for the most part. Of course this is to say nothing of this set’s third, “extreme funeral doom” disc… look, I’ve given it more than a handful of spins, and maybe its just that this particular flavor of metal isn’t for me (historically, that’s the way its been for my relationship with funeral doom) but I’m just having a hard time getting into it. It has its moments, such as on “Empires of Loneliness”, where the tempos of both the rhythm guitars and percussion alternate with speedier attacks to contrast to the sludge-paced tempo and overly extreme doom vocals (which I suppose Kotamaki does well). There’s also some really intriguing guitar work on the back end of “Abandoned By The Light” in the form of melodic figures that act as defacto solos of a sort… I almost wish they were utilized on the first disc in some other form. But on other more unforgiving tracks, “Gathering of the Black Moths” and “7 Hours Late” to name a pair, I’m just unable to find anything redeeming in their funeral procession-like tempos and overly droning vocalizations that they apparently require, but someone will —- its obvious that they are well done.

I applaud Swallow the Sun’s ambition in their approach to this project, its the kind of the thing that makes you excited to be a metal fan —- seriously, what other genre will you get something like this? In their attempt they’ve not only created some truly remarkable music, but renewed my interest in their work. Its the old story repeated once more: I find myself loving something new from an established band whom I had largely been ambivalent to, and its going to get me looking to revisit their back catalog to see if I’m now receptive to something amazing that I’ve missed. I never internalize that as self-chastening, instead I embrace it, it means there’s another band out there doing incredible stuff that I can proudly call myself a fan of.

The Takeaway: The only stain here is that I’m left thinking about how that problematic third disc might tarnish some of the luster on those first two —- this would be a feisty candidate for the album of the year list but I can’t just ignore how I feel about the funeral doom stuff, I mean, they made it part of the album concept! I guess we’ll see how it shakes out a few weeks from now.

 

 

Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos: I can’t remember when I started to tune out Children of Bodom… it was certainly after 2006’s abominable Are You Dead Yet?, where the band’s unfortunate turn towards incorporating industrial influences and veering away from their Finnish power metal influences left us with an album as sterile, formless, and dry as you can imagine. I would half-heartedly pay attention to the releases that followed, but sometime after either 2008’s Blooddrunk or 2011’s Relentless Reckless Forever I decidedly tuned out. I can’t remember listening to 2013’s Halo of Blood (I had to do a search on my own site to see if I had even written about it, I had not) and recently I asked a friend who paid more attention whether or not it was any good —- Bodom were his gateway into metal band and I trusted his opinion, but he hemmed and hawed a bit and that told me all I needed to know. When I got this promo, I thought about passing on it for a second but then I took a look at the cover art —- hmm… pretty nice, actually reminds me a bit of classic melo-death covers albeit with the traditional Bodom mascot. It also suddenly reminded me of one of my favorite virtues of being a metal fan, that of checking out or even buying an album simply because the cover art was compelling (see Myrkyr below), and so based on that alone, I decided to give I Worship Chaos a shot.

And I’m glad I did, because I never really thought that I would find myself enjoying anything by this band again apart from going back and spinning their first four albums again. Seeing as how I’m limited in my context as to how Halo of Blood might have helped set up a return to form that I’m hearing here, I can only guess that the band’s return to embracing their power metal influences is a new development. Its only guesswork here whether or not any of that has something to do with the departure of Roopa Latvala, as the band recorded this album as a four piece, Alexi Laiho handling all the guitar parts himself. Being that he’s always been the sole songwriter, perhaps the burden of shouldering both dual rhythm and lead parts caused Laiho to instinctively return to his “safe” roots of Malmsteen/Tolkki influenced guitar work with all their melodic bends and tails and rely less on the thrashier approach he’d been using for many of their previous questionable albums. Songs like “I Hurt”, “My Bodom (I am The Only One)”, and “Morrigan” are more instantly memorable than I’ve heard since the days of “Needled 24/7” (well, and all of the Hatecrew Deathroll album really), as Janne Wirman’s trademark keyboards are given space up front for once and Laiho seems all to happy to interplay with them, bouncing his riffs off of them with precision rather than just laying down messy riffs over the top. Its a trio of songs that launch the album on an adrenaline-pumping note, one of their best opening salvos in ages.

Even when things slow down, the songwriting seems sharp enough now to keep things compelling, as on “Prayer For The Afflicted”, where Laiho affixes addictive twists on to his monstrous riffs, so that each iteration throughout the song sounds a little different. And perhaps my favorite is the relatively glacial (for Bodom standards) “All For Nothing”, a dreamily-atmospheric tune that is built on Warmen’s tinkling keyboards and rather Finnish-y soundscapes. I love the mid-song bridge that turns into an extraordinarily epic guitar/keyboard solo at the 3:38 mark, because while I can’t quite put my finger on why, it reminds me of something off Hatebreeder (could it be the actual keyboard tone?). As a song, its a microcosm for why I think this album works so well, that it seems Laiho has returned to a songwriting style that has edged closer to complexity in riffs, arrangements, and overall structure —- I simply think he writes better when he allows himself the indulgence of being a child of the shredder school, of allowing his guitar figures to splurge on extra notes, like he’s making it rain (so to speak). The hope is that he realizes that he’s stumbled back into something he should hold onto for dear life.

The Takeaway: Is I Worship Chaos on the same level as classics such as their first four albums? Not quite, but its as close as they’ve been in well over a decade, and that’s worth celebrating and acknowledging. For the future, I’ll be paying attention again.

 

 

Myrkur – M: Ah yes, finally Myrkur. An album that drummed up no small amount of controversy upon its early fall release a few months ago mostly due to the identity of the person behind the band. It was known that Myrkur was a one woman band, but when that woman was revealed to be Danish model Amalie Bruun a lot of the usual internet nonsense began to occur. I suspected that a lot of these debates about Bruun’s validity as a black metal musician (she was getting some flack in metal circles for being one half of indie-pop band Ex-Cops) were thinly veiled jabs at her gender. That she was a model flirting with mainstream circles seemed to only add fuel to the fire —- never mind that this debut album was produced by Ulver’s own Kristoffer Rygg aka Garm and featured some rather credible black metal musicians in the fold such as Mayhem’s Teloch on guitar and Oyvind of Nidingr on drums. Never mind that Bruun has been a musician for as long as she’s been a model, having began her recording career in 2006. Just under twenty years after Nightwish came on the scene, why is there still the merest hint of sexism in metal? Hmm… I guess I should amend that, seeing as how despite the prevalence of tight corsets and sometimes myopic fandom, power metal audiences have long since accepted women in metal as equals (last year’s Triosphere anyone?), it seems that extreme metal audiences are the ones with the real problem. Funny that for all of black metal’s malleability, for its adoption by the hip indie set as yet another musical subgenre they can lay claim to and enjoy ironically or post-ironically (or whatever the hell they’re doing now), its the subgenre with the single largest gender gap in music… and I mean all of music.

Anyway, gender politics aside, I’ve been revisiting this album every now and then since I first heard it way back in September when I originally intended to publish a review for it. I couldn’t quite decide if I liked it enough based on its own merits or I was just reacting positively towards it due to feeling annoyed by the hate Bruun was receiving (and before you think it, its certainly not my intention to paint myself as some social justice warrior… ugh, the very idea). It was also one of those rare impulse purchases I made at Houston’s supposedly best record store (Cactus Music… hardly any metal to speak of, tons of indie rock) just based on its gorgeous cover art and my memory springing to life at the sight of the band name on the record label sticker on the front. I hardly ever buy an album these days without hearing something from it first, but I remembered liking the Myrkur EP from last year and the very notion of buying blind took me back to those old heady days of record store pillaging, before high speed internet, iTunes and Spotify. I was enthralled on the car ride back by what I was hearing from the very first song “Skøgen skulle dø”, Bruun’s ethereal, delicate vocals introducing a crush of sorrowful violins and accompanying strings, all drenched in melancholic splendor. The guitars were slightly fuzzy, muted just enough to be subservient to Bruun’s vocals and some tremolo picked leads, all mixed to sound like they were coming some distance away from a foggy moor. It was lush sounding, and actually evoked the dreamlike feeling I got from staring at the cover art. I drove around a little extra just to finish the album in my car.

So back to the present day, and my finally coming to a conclusion that I’ve been trying to avoid all this time: I enjoy Myrkur more for the clean vocal led, folk infused “songs” (quoted because at times they’re quasi-instrumentals) rather than for its black metal components. I find myself wishing that pieces such as “Vølvens spådom” were longer (1:38), because her usage of intertwined vocal layering here is imaginative and almost reverent in the atmosphere it conjures up, and Garm should get a ton of credit for that in how he’s approached the mixing. In fact, he’s a touchstone for all the aspects of Myrkur with his first three Ulver albums, seeing as how the mix of black metal and acoustic/atmospheric passages remind me of Bergtatt. I played the album for a black metal loving friend of mine, sure he would scoff at it, but he surprised me and told me he too actually enjoyed the clean, folky passages more, that he wanted an album full of those (Myrkur’s very own Kveldssanger I suppose). Its not that the black metal stuff is bad at all, its not, and Bruun is a capable second-wave styled black metal grim screamer, its just that I can’t help but be unmoved by those tracks, there’s a feeling that I’ve already heard it all before. This would make sense to me only if I didn’t find myself loving Blut Aus Nord’s ode to second wave black metal with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III (number four on last year’s best albums list). I guess I can put it this way, Bruun and her band definitely hit all the right notes on the black metal side of things, but maybe that’s just it… it sounds like black metal just for the sake of being black metal, as if there’s no real underlying reason for it to sound that way at all.

The Takeaway: I still enjoy listening to the entirety of M in general, but I think Bruun would be better served by forging more of a heavier identity that she can truly call her own. Looking forward to what she does next with the project.

 

 

Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall – Kingdom of Rock: Power metal’s favorite hired gun is at it again, this time returning with another chapter of his own eponymous project (the first self-titled Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall album was released in 2013). Karlsson has been on somewhat of a hot streak lately, with his songwriting work on the recent Kiske/Somerville album and his role as a songwriting partner in Primal Fear alongside Mat Sinner and Ralph Scheepers, just to name a few of his wide ranging list of projects. He is actually directly employed by Frontiers Records to work as a songwriter for many of their collaboration albums, side projects and what have you, a guitarist who is able to write for a variety of voices —- that kind of versatility is something to be prized in a songwriter, despite your views on any metal related project not being entirely 100% home spun by the band. After listening to no small handful of Karlsson penned albums however, its gotten easier to pinpoint where his comfort zone lies, that is in AOR styled hard rock with power metal flourishes (rarely does he write from a purely power metal base). So what separates Magnus Karlsson’s Freefall from the many other non-Primal Fear projects he’s worked on? Not much really —- he brings on a variety of vocalists on board, some of them from said projects he’s worked on (Jorn, Michael Kiske) and a bunch from the hard rock/AOR world (Tony Harnell of TNT/Skid Row fame, David Readman of Pink Cream 69, Rick Altzi of At Vance / Masterplan, Harry Hess from Harem Scarem) and gives them songs that individually suit their vocals.

Karlsson is upfront about that facet of his relationship with guest vocalists, that he bends his songwriting to their style, which isn’t always the case in multi-vocalist / one songwriter projects. For example with Tony Martin (yep that one), he delivered a song that touches on Martin’s work with Sabbath, the main riff even having that Iommi-esque extension during the chorus (Martin co-wrote on this one, the only song that ended up as a writing collaboration). And there’s a Rainbow-esque gem with Joe Lynn Turner called “No Control” that is the most satisfying performance that I’ve heard from him since “Stone Cold”. A friend of mine and I were listening to that one when in my car the other day and we briefly discussed how the lyrics seemed relevant to the early 80s, yet slightly questionable in our modern era, judge for yourself “…you better stay away / ‘Cause I’ve got no control…”. This is nitpicking, and maybe I’m just being a cheeky bastard, but what exactly is the narrator insinuating here? Where does this lack of control factor in? In the early 80s wouldn’t this clearly be a reference to his bad-boy demeanor, that he can’t be tied down to one woman and he’s gonna hurt this poor girl he’s addressing? I’d like to think so, and perhaps Karlsson decided to do a little time travel songwriting with Turner on board, but in 2015 the lyric comes off a little criminal-y.

The two best vocal performances however are from an entirely unknown vocalist and one with lead vocals from Karlsson himself. On the latter, “Walk This Road Alone”, Karlsson delivers a surprisingly convincing performance as a vocalist, his style equal parts Joey Tempest and Tony Harnell, and he injects enough passion into his delivery to make you consider that perhaps these particular lyrics aren’t entirely built from cliches. My favorite is the album’s only female fronted song, “The Right Moment”, with vocals courtesy of newcomer Rebecca De La Motte of whom absolutely nothing is known. She’s got a real Ann Wilson thing going on with her voice, maybe not as rough-hewn, but very similar in essence —- and Karlsson gives her an explosive song with a chorus that seems straight out of the kind of 80s hard edged pop-rock that makes us adore Pat Benatar and Roxette (don’t deny it). I’d take an album of Karlsson writing new material entirely for De La Motte’s vocals, she’s a legitimate talent and the metal world can always use another rock oriented female vocalist to inject some diversity into its ranks. I hope she gets some traction with this, if only to guest on other people’s records. Here’s hoping someone sends her song over to Tobias Sammet sometime in the future.

The Takeaway: A solid sophomore effort from Karlsson with what is essentially his solo project, the least Frontiers Records could do for the guy considering all the albums he’s written for the label. If you really enjoy this kind of thing then consider this one a safe bet, but if you’re limited to merely adding some fun, ultra catchy singles to a road mix, go on iTunes and download “No Control” and “The Right Moment” —- the most essential cuts here.

 

 

Draconian – Sovran: I believe it was a regular reader at this blog, Robert if I’m not mistaken, who pushed me to check out Draconian a few years ago or so, a band whose name I had seen in passing here and there and never bothered to investigate (forehead slap here). Once I did, I found a band that I liked on a surface level —- they were intriguing and often brilliant on their more recent albums like A Rose For the Apocalypse and Turning Season Within, their earlier albums less so (they had their moments, but at times the overtly doom laden approach wore on my patience). Due to the Great Album Barrage of 2015 it escaped my notice that the band was even releasing a new album this year. Once again it was my MSRcast cohost Cary who started playing the just received promo for this sixth Draconian album one night while we were sorting out our show notes for that episode. He hadn’t heard it yet either and as it played in the background we canned our inane chatter more and more and simply listened to a couple songs. I think at some point we both looked up at each other and nodded the “yeah… this is awesome” nod.

We’ve since rambled about it on the show in effusive praise and embarrassing gushing, but in Sovran Draconian have created the first utterly compelling, hypnotic, and inspired masterpiece of their career. Its always surprising when it happens too, certainly the band can’t predict it, and its obviously something that can be debated but I’ll have a hard time believing someone who attempts to argue that this isn’t the band’s greatest achievement. It leans a bit further away from their doom roots and more towards an overall gothic atmosphere but it feels as if they’ve actually gotten heavier as a result, the band beefing up their rhythm section’s bottom end to deliver a more metallic bed of sound over which longtime growler Anders Jacobsson and new female vocalist Heike Langhans trade off the role of lead singer. And its Langhans who steals the show on this album —- her vocals a bit more on the sleekly ethereal side compared to departed singer Lisa Johansson —- as most of these songs showcase her grabbing the majority of the vocal parts. She’s simultaneously capable of channeling a distant, frozen ice queen and a heart-on-sleeve, melancholy touched maiden (I completely deserve the nun’s ruler on my hand for going for such obvious imagery for female vocalists, but sometimes it really works). This dichotomy is illustrated rather well on “Stellar Tombs” and “Rivers Between Us”; the former seeing Langhans deliver proclamations during the verses in a remote, detached tone, while pouring every ounce of emotion into the latter in a brilliantly framed duet with clean male vocalist Daniel Anghede (Crippled Black Phoenix). Her voice was meant for this band.

As for everyone else, Draconian always manages to balance the relationship between vocals and music quite nicely, primary songwriters (and band founders) Jacobsson and lead guitarist Johan Ericson keeping it at about a 70/30 ratio. So you’ll get songs where Langhan’s vocal melody is carrying the load, but there are also times when the primary melody is guitar based and everyone works around it. Its a trademark feature of a really talented band that knows the limits of its sound and style… you’ll notice lesser female fronted bands in same genre (relatively speaking) almost always relying on their vocalist to solely carry the melody, a tendency that illustrates how paper thin their songwriting strength is (Lacuna Coil anyone?). It sounds to me as if the rhythm section parts were written to be more interlocking on the uptempo, heavier moments —- take the final 2-3 minutes of “Dishearten”, where they launch into an almost latter day Maiden giddy up and gallop with some Brave New World era lead figures. Speaking of lead guitar, Ericson might have delivered one of the best performances of the year on the album as a whole, his minor keyed laden approach being willfully bent in all manner of ways, he’s as much as joy to listen to as Langhan’s vocals. And kudos to Jacobsson if he is indeed still the primary lyricist here, because once again he demonstrates his mastery of employing simple, evocative imagery into smartly structured phrasing, all while keeping an eye towards creating a mini-narrative in every song. He’s an underrated lyricist, and for that matter Draconian is an underrated band, though not for long if everyone else is paying attention now.

The Takeaway: Without pretense, one of the best albums of the year —- if you haven’t heard Sovran yet make sure you do so before the year is out, you don’t want this to end up on your list of things you missed in 2015.

 

Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 1 !: New Music from Paradise Lost, Helloween, Luca Turilli and More!

Well I’m not sure how it is where you are, but down in Houston summer is off to its usual vulgar start of high temps and higher humidity. Its understood around here that one should go outdoors during the day for unavoidable reasons only, spending most of the time inside an air conditioned structure until sundown (the parking lots of our local public parks are unbelievably packed at 8pm). Its a wise methodology, because having lived here most of my life I’ve come to learn that the heat during these summer months will get you very, very angry —- its just pervasive and oppressive. Not to mention that with football offseason at its most uninteresting and NBA free agency over, there’s little reason to listen to sports radio. The end result of all these brutal truths is that the amount of metal I listen to during these months increases dramatically, and when its not the summertime flavor of melodic/power metal or hard rock, its typically something fierce and aggressive (the better to match my heat-induced high blood pressure).

During years when summertime new releases are lean, I’ll usually find myself going back to old favorites and classic albums of yore. But the summer of 2015 is packed with new albums aplenty, with releases from up and comers like Perzonal War and Witchbound, and a slew of them from established veterans such as Helloween, Paradise Lost, Virgin Steele, Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, and Pyramaze. Its been an overwhelming month and a half of repeated listening but I’ve managed to get a handle on this big first batch of new music. Simply because there’s so much to get through here, I’m going to try to keep these reviews as quick takes of 400(ish) words each, though that’s how all the review cluster articles were supposed to go and if you’ll recall the last two they certainly didn’t adhere to those guidelines. We’ll see how these fare in comparison —- onwards to catch up on May and June!

 


 

 

Helloween – My God Given Right: My initial indifference to this fifteenth studio album by power metal veterans Helloween was well documented on a recent episode of the MSRcast podcast. At the time I said that what brought the album down for me was its lightened tone, its greater emphasis on being hokey-jokey. Actually I shouldn’t have been surprised that Helloween was due to deliver something this light and fluffy at some point, their past few releases have subtly and not so subtly hinted at it.  A few weeks later I’m still largely of that opinion, but some of these songs have grown on me in a manner.

The obvious standout is the album’s second single “Lost In America”, a Maiden-esque guitar fueled anthem that only a German rock band could write about what essentially was a flight cancellation. Deris’ lyrical treatment is akin to Edguy’s Tobias Sammet and his infamous Helloween-like rocker “Lavatory Love Machine” —- complete with a lyric attributed to the airline pilot: “There’s a cloud / There’s a star / We should plunder the sky bar / We are lost / Lost in America”. My friend listened to the song once and came up with the perfect music video treatment for it, a Benny Hill styled edit of the band running around an airport while chased by security, affronted gaudy tourists as extras of course. Crazy German humor aside, its actually one of the strongest hooks I’ve heard this year, undeniable in its power to demand repeat spins just for the sheer fun of it.

There are a handful of other good cuts: “The Swing Of A Fallen World” takes us back to some of that stormy Dark Ride era moodiness; “Battle’s Won” has some terrific riffing on it’s verses but I find the chorus somewhat lacking in comparison; “My God-Given Right” is a pretty fierce straight-ahead rocker with some nice melodic guitar touches on the chorus; and I really enjoyed “Free World”, one of the many bonus tracks on the international edition which pushed the overall track listing here to sixteen new songs. Someone might hear that and think its great news, more music for less money —- and I’ll caution them to go back and consider the last Freedom Call release Beyond, where sixteen tracks were about 5 or 6 too many and diluted what could have been a truly great album. Helloween run into the same problem here, and according to a Deris quote from the album’s Wikipedia page the band had worked up 34 songs and had producer Charlie Bauerfeind and his team present the band with a whittled down tracklisting. I’m generally a fan of Bauerfeind, except I’ll be the first person to say that he’s not the go-to-guy when it comes to lessening excess and trimming the fat. They should’ve gotten a second opinion.

The Takeaway: The strange thing about My God Given Right is that when you have it on in the background while you’re doing something else, I dunno, the dishes or laundry for example, it actually comes off rather well —- light, unoffensive, catchy in some good spots. Its when you sit down and concentrate on it that you realize just how weak some of its constituent parts are. Spotify this first if you haven’t bought it yet.

 

 

Paradise Lost – The Plague Within: It seems that Nick Holmes recent stint recording the latest Bloodbath album was a pretty big influence on just how shockingly heavy this new Paradise Lost album turned out. Holmes was a curious choice for Bloodbath given that his performances on the past few Paradise Lost albums were more in the vein of a starker Amorphis / Sentenced approach. That resulting Bloodbath album, Grand Morbid Funeral, cast Holmes in the sonic vein of a crusty, smoky necromancer —- practically barking out his lyrics in the most bleak, death metal furor you forgot he was capable of. It was a good album, but he stole the show, injecting Bloodbath with a different flavor, one that was as brutal as Mikael Akerfeldt’s monolithic roar but distinct in its own right.

He tempers that approach only slightly here, allowing his vocals a dose of clarity in the way of enunciation, sort of like a really grim, death-metal touched James Hetfield. I know I’m mixing adjectives normally reserved for either black metal or death metal exclusively, but that’s part of Holmes gift as a vocalist, that he takes particulate elements from all kinds of extreme metal vocal styles and combines them through his own voice. The songwriting suits his favored approach (and according to interviews with Paradise Lost guitarist Greg Mackintosh the decision to get heavier was made after 2012’s Tragic Idol, an album that slightly hinted at a darkening of their sound). I could go on about individual songs here, but the truth is that there aren’t any weak ones —- this is without question one of the strongest, most cohesive albums of the year. But if you’re looking for YouTube-worthy glances, I’d recommend my personal favorites “No Hope In Sight” with its gorgeously melodic thru-lines, or “Cry Out” with its Metallica meets death metal fusion of straight ahead metal run through a grisly filter.

The Takeaway: One of the bigger surprises of the year, not that anyone was thinking that Paradise Lost would release a dud… but surely no one expected the bucket of water dose of heaviness that is The Plague Within. Fans of their Amorphis-ish past few albums might be taken back a bit by just how punishing it is, and if you’re not a fan of extreme metal vocals, Holmes approach could be a deal breaker. But its still Paradise Lost, the songwriting is inspired and Mackintosh rips off riffs that we haven’t heard from these guys since before Host. Just get it.

 

 

Pyramaze – Disciples of the Sun: Hey remember Pyramaze? That Danish prog-power band that Matt Barlow briefly joined to record an album with in 2007 before leaving for his second and apparently final stint with Iced Earth? That sole Barlow helmed album, titled Immortal, was to be their last for seven long years. In the interim, their line-up disintegrated: Founding guitarist Michael Kammeyer and longtime bassist Niels Kvist left the band, citing familial responsibilities, and Barlow’s replacement vocalist Urban Breed came and went, rejoining Swedish power metallers Bloodbound. Still standing were longtime keyboardist (and sole American in the lineup) Jonah Weingarten and drummer Morten Gade Sørensen, and with help from their longtime producer Jacob Hansen sitting in on guitar duties they’ve managed to rebuild a functional band line up with the addition of newbie Norwegian vocalist Terje Haroy.

Its absolutely commendable that the veterans in the band managed to rally and keep the flame burning to release this long delayed / awaited new album —- I’d talk more about that, except that its the new guy Haroy who utterly steals the show here. He’s simply one of the best new vocal talents in metal, regardless of genre, with a voice that takes equal parts from Chris Cornell and Tom Englund (Evergrey). That’s a gross oversimplification though, because Haroy delivers one of the year’s best overall vocal performances on Disciples of the Sun, his voice is just… massive, capable of soaring, tenor built choruses yet still possessing a thundering, booming heaviness. He’s a recent addition too, apparently only joining the ranks within the past year or so, and his seamless adaptability to the material on this album is a testament to just how well the songwriters in the band have spent the intervening years.

The songwriting borders on great, often surpassing it and as in the case of the title track —- transcending it. The chorus on “Disciples of the Sun” is so monumentally epic, so full of vigor and life that its immediately made my rough list for Songs of the Year candidates. Its not alone, being followed immediately by the uptempo, Symphony X-ish “Back For More”, where Weingarten and Hansen dual wield an ear-wormy melody to perfection, but allowing Haroy space to mimic it with his vocal take. Sometimes Haroy’s vocal melodies dominate certain songs, such as on “Genetic Process”, where the instrumentation surrounds him like an orchestra around a soprano. Its a great song, moody and heavy albeit with a sun bright chorus that places a ton of trust in a rookie singer. The wait was long but fruitful, and for many of you I’m sure Pyramaze will be coming across as essentially a new band —- what a debut then.

The Takeaway: Another of 2015’s astounding surprises, Pyramaze come out of nowhere to unleash an album that’s worth your time and money. With a new vocalist and new songwriting team to boot, its hard to compare it to their other works (unfair really), but this is for anyone who enjoys Evergrey, Symphony X, or even Kamelot.

 

 

Virgin Steele – Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation: On a recent episode of the MSRcast, I blurted out blindly that I had heard promising rumblings about the new Virgin Steele. Where did I glean said rumblings? Oh the usual assortment of forums I lurk at, coupled with the general sense of heaviness and epic pomp that pervaded the pre-release lyric video for “Lucifer’s Hammer”. Boy was I ever wrong. My first clue should’ve been my wary reticence at hearing David DeFeis’ vocal choices on said lyric video… I’ll just be honest about this, I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes with Virgin Steele, no idea why vocalizations like this would meet with approval. You can’t blame me for my lack of knowledge —- this is a band with limited web presence who haven’t released a new album since 2010’s dreadful The Black Light Bacchanalia, their last good effort to my ears anyway dating all the way back to The House of Atreus Act I/II around 99-00′. My only conclusion is that DeFeis has simply taken over production duties for Virgin Steele in the past decade and as a result he is the band’s songwriting and de facto editor.

Here’s something I’ve learned having to do my own editing for this blog over these past few years… no matter how diligent a job I think I’ve done correcting grammatical or punctuation errors, I’ll always miss a few here and there. I’ll go back and read old articles I’ve written just for reference or just the hell of it and find myself coming across sentences that make no sense (and my OCD about it will result in ninja edits). With DeFeis serving as the band’s producer, and the power structure in the band obviously starting and ending with him, who’s there to politely suggest that DeFeis recent fascination with the falsetto is getting over the top? Who’s there to tell him that no one wants to hear a respected metal vocalist make noises similar to actual alley cats? Oh you think I’m joking do you? Go and YouTube “Queen of the Damned” and enjoy those first twenty seconds. Is there a redeemable song on the album?… Perhaps a riff or two here or there, and “Demolition Queen” is officially the leading contender for worst song of 2015, so that might be worth listening to. I guess it depends if you’re the kind of person who likes watching extreme sports blooper vids. Hey, sometimes you can’t turn away.

The Takeaway: No. Just no. (If you’re mildly curious the entire album is up on YouTube and Spotify, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

 

 

Witchbound – Tarot’s Legacy: Don’t let the admittedly crude cover art put you off, and no this isn’t a Cradle of Filth clone despite how much the cover model seems to resemble Dani Filth circa 1997 (no I’m not trying to be meanspirited —- the model’s name is Vanessa Vergissmeinnicht and she’s quite lovely). Witchbound is an intriguing project for a few reasons, the first of which will interest hardcore power metal fans who enjoy the genre’s history: Witchbound is a new project created by both the ex-Stormwitch bassist and guitarist Ronny Gleisberg and Stefan Kauffman, respectively. Both were original members of that band’s early 80’s lineup alongside recently deceased Stormwitch founder Lee Tarot. Their monikers might be a tad unrecognizable, because for whatever reason during the Stormwitch era they went under Americanized versions of their names (for marketing reasons perhaps?).

Tarot’s untimely passing was the galvanizing force behind the creation of Witchbound, his old friends and bandmates rallying together in an effort to complete Tarot’s final musical works. Things like this have been done before for other deceased musicians, and they’re always well meaning, while almost always garnering some kind of press and media attention. In this case, there’s very little of that —- a fact that makes Witchbound’s efforts all the more poignant. Unless you’re a metal historian, chances are that Stormwitch isn’t a name that’s familiar to you: They never really blew up in any way in during their heyday, their exposure to American audiences was limited to import mail order catalogs (I don’t even think they had an American distribution deal), and they were never able to crack their home country of Germany like their peers in Grave Digger, Accept, Helloween, and later Blind Guardian. So what Witchbound has finished is an album called Tarot’s Legacy, its songs either written entirely or co-written by Tarot himself, as a grand gesture to a career cut short.

The other intriguing thing about this album is that its really, really great, perhaps Tarot’s finest work as a songwriter. With the help of the gruff yet richly melodic vocals of Thorsten Lichtner, the band powers through fifty minutes of music that boasts not only muscular aggression in terms of heaviness, but also a rich instrumental diversity with the infusion of acoustic passages and eastern sounding motifs (which work towards complementing the loosely metaphysical lyrical theme going on here). Think a less proggy version of Brainstorm’s take on power metal and you’re nearly there, with a dose of Suidakra’s musicality here and there as a spice. Songs like “Mauritania” and “Mandrake’s Fire” are propulsive, adrenaline-fueling uptempo gems, and the ballads here are unbelievable, Lichtner doing a wonderful job on “Trail of Stars” and the gorgeous, shimmering “Sands of Time” —- the latter is a shoe-in for the Songs of the Year list. These are inspired performances, the sound of friends trying to honor their friend’s legacy the best way they can.

The Takeaway: It may be out of nowhere, and difficult to believe if you judge books (or albums) by their covers, but Tarot’s Legacy is one of the strongest albums of the year, certainly one of the best power metal albums of 2015. I’ve seen so few people talking about this release so this is my meager attempt at picking up the slack —- check this album out.

 

 

Perzonal War – The Last Sunset: This one is for those of you pining for a new Metallica fix (and unlikely to get one soon). The unfortunately named Perzonal War is a thrash / trad-metal band from Germany who believe it or not have released six full lengths prior to 2015’s The Last Sunset, the first I’m hearing from them. There are a lot of metal bands out there, and its amazing how many of them go unnoticed by those of us who consider ourselves up on the genre —- again proving my “cream rises to the top theory” (tweet me if you want an explanation at your own risk!). With the aid of a better PR firm, a promo copy of this album landed in the MSRcast email account, and into my skeptical hands (hey, intentional misspellings are hard for me to overlook). Its a bit of a triumph then that this is a surprisingly fun mix of modern day thrash and blatant Metallica aping, down to vocalist/guitarist Mathias Zimmer’s slightly German-tinged but otherwise spot on James Hetfield impression.

I suppose that could be taken as a slight, but I mean it in a good way… certainly Perzonal War won’t win praise for originality, but they execute what they want to do rather well and Zimmer’s flexible vocal talent is a big reason for that. My favorite Zimmer / Hetfield moment is by far “Speed of Time”, a song that could’ve been at home on The Black Album or even Load / ReLoad, down to the rather minimalist use of melodic guitar variations to usher in the chorus. But then Zimmer surprises with a voice entirely his own on “What Would You Say?”, a relatively spacier song with metronomic guitar repetition in the verses and a refrain that reminds me of Tyr or Grand Magus. Sometimes when I’m listening to this album I get the notion in my head that it could’ve been the Metallica album to follow the Load era if someone had introduced Hetfield and Kirk Hammet to a few melodic death metal bands in timely fashion. Maybe its that the guitar work often owes more to Gothenburg or Tampa even rather than the SF Bay Area —- just a feeling though.

The Takeaway: No frills, solid musicianship (sometimes even near spectacular), Hetfield-ian vocals, and a rather muscular take on thrash… that’s The Last Sunset in a nutshell. The German Metallica then? Sorry Mille.

 

 

Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody – Prometheus Symphonia Ignis Divinus: I’m a frequent lurker of the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group, a surprisingly active group of a couple thousand metal fans, most of them indeed based in the United States, who talk pretty much nothing but power metal and all its associated topics. One of those topics recently was the release of this album specifically, and not a debate about whether or not it was good, but generally more along the lines of just how great is it? Full disclosure here is that I’ve never been a Rhapsody fan, even before the 2006 name change. It wasn’t for lack of trying either, they were such a big name in the power metal scene there was no way I could attempt to ignore them, but time and time again each new album failed to hook me. I wasn’t entirely sure what the 2011 splitting into two camps meant for either version of Rhapsody in the musical sense, was one going to become a touch more straightforward in their musical approach while the other spiraled out of control?

If I had to put money on who would go the latter route, it would’ve been on Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody. Turilli always struck me as the musical heart of Rhapsody and since his incarnation is typically viewed as the more legitimate of the two versions (Nuclear Blast put their eggs in his basket, a telling move), I figured he would be the one to carry on into further cinematic-inspired realms. I was right and wrong, Turilli has done exactly that but so has Alex Staropoli and Fabio Lione with their Rhapsody of Fire. The flight attendant asked Jerry. “More anything?”  He cried out, “More everything!” Seinfeld references aside, Turilli is winning the war of one upmanship, as his Prometheus album is the most operatically and cinematically drenched offering to date (to me at least, and if I’m naively wrong on that, correct me Rhapsody fans). Its all very impressive sounding, quite immaculately recorded and there’s a ton going on musically, more than mere descriptive sentences can capture. Stay far away if you absolutely hate opera, although I’ve found that its the few songs sung in Italian that tend to be the most interesting such as the suitably theater-esque “Notturno”, a ballad that sounds like its meant to be an aria. If Turilli really set out to craft an actual stage opera and left the metal elements behind I think he could do well at it… he’s got a knack for the stuff on the same level that Christofer Johnsson from Therion does.

But here’s a good example of why I tend to get tripped up on anything Rhapsody related: There’s a song on the album called “One Ring to Rule Them All”, and a quick glance at the lyrics will tell you that its directly about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Now, I consider myself a Tolkien aficionado, the kind of aficionado that has read The Silmarillion more times than I care to admit in public. I’ve heard Tolkien set to metal in the form of Blind Guardian’s many masterpieces, and what that band’s Tolkien-related work does so well is carve out a vivid, original soundtrack to set his stories against. Turilli’s Tolkien-related song here sounds no different than any of the other songs on the album, there’s nothing to set it apart —- I can’t tell the difference between it and the title track about, y’know, Prometheus. If you can’t make Tolkien interesting to me then I just have to wonder if I’ll ever find something to truly enjoy on your albums. Maybe more of the purely Italian operatic stuff, because at least that’s something that seems to come from an inspired place, and that’s ultimately what I need to detect to be interested in a band… honest inspiration.

The Takeaway: I hope Rhapsody fans can understand my disconnect here, the truth is I don’t honestly know whether or not this is a good album or not. What I do know is that its not for me, anyone else got a fan’s inside take on it?

 

Reviews Cluster Blowout!: Releases By Melechesh, Kiske/Somerville, Subterranean Masquerade and More!

I realize its been few and far between in terms of updates to the blog over the past two months, and while I’ve never promised an end to these occasional bouts of silence —- I always try to keep a valid reason for their occurrence. As ever that reason tends to lay somewhere in between being overwhelmed by so many new albums coming out in a short span of time, and my inescapable longing to either linger on a particularly captivating recent release, or to simply revisit older classics. Its been a bit of all three for me as of late, as I kept stumbling onto one intriguing new album after another only to set each one aside after my attention was directed elsewhere, not a good thing when you’re trying to write reviews for them. Also I haven’t been able to quit Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., an album that I feel will stick with me far longer than I ever anticipated, and it led me to go through his catalog all over again, from Porcupine Tree to Blackfield.

Long story short, I got distracted along the way (the Nightwish release further delayed matters) and a lot of reviews that should have been out many weeks ago had to be delayed until I could go back and re-listen to them yet again. Quality over quantity is probably the worst way to go for a blog in this SEO-driven, microsecond attention span era of online communication, but hopefully somewhere along the way I’ll stumble onto a metal writer’s version of some Garrison Keillor meets Andy Rooney persona to justify it all (hmm… actually not sure about that). The reviews below aren’t all of the new albums I got to check out in the past few months, just the ones I really felt were worth talking about (for better or worse, mostly better). Also I should mention that I checked and as of this publication date all of these albums are available on Spotify, so if you want you can listen along with each review or better yet try before you buy.


 

Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar:

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing who these guys are, given that this January release is only their second full length album since the band’s inception in 1997 (there were also two EPs somewhere in there). Its a full ten years since their 2005 debut Suspended Animation Dreams, an album I’ve not listened to yet but might have to take a peek at if its anywhere near as satisfying as The Great Bazaar. This is prog-metal, in that particular vein where things get a little eccentric and weird. Thankfully it seems that their primary songwriter and guitarist Tomer Pink understands that most fundamental thing that can often elude an ambitious bunch of prog musicians —- no one will care if the songs are garbage.

I haven’t heard of Tomer Pink before admittedly, nor most of the other musicians that make up the band’s ranks except for one Paul Kuhr, yes that Kuhr, of November’s Doom. He’s here providing his particularly heavy vocals as a sharp contrast to clean vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (ex-Green Carnation, Tristania), and both guys do a tremendous job of injecting passion into nearly everything they touch. There’s not much to say in regards to the backgrounds of the other guys, save for one of them being the current drummer for Orphaned Land (percussion, he played on the All Is One album). It is worth mentioning that largely everyone save the two vocalists seems to hail from Israel, making this somewhat of an oriental metal band, in theory and in essence. It doesn’t take long for that distinctive, culturally inspired sound to pop up on the album opener “Early Morning Mantra”, in the form of traditional sounding percussion and Arabic motifs in the keyboard generated strings.

So by now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, so they’re like a mashup of Orphaned Land and Myrath”, to which I’ll respond, “Whoa, hold the phone there Radar”. It doesn’t take long for “Early Morning Mantra” to unveil its strange, surreal layering of sounds, and once you get to the 5:27 mark the sounds of a full blown ska section will utterly baffle your sense of comprehension. Not so smug now are we? Listen, in all seriousness, I’m not kidding you about just how head-spinningly eccentric/eclectic this album winds up being! That aforementioned “ska section” actually works like a charm, a moment of pure musical joy that etches a smile on your face just for the sheer cheek of it all. And you never know when an electric violin-type sound will pop up, flanked by Kuhr’s jagged vocals, followed by some delicate piano, or acoustic guitar figures, or what sounds like a soulful woodwind instrument (you’ll know it when you hear it, its like hearing a saxophone made of birch)!

The victory here is that all these cra-cra sounds are all woven together to shape definable and often moving songs. My absolute favorite is the oriental string melody led “Blanket of Longing”, a contender to make the best songs of the year list. Coming off like a mash up of Myrath, Evergrey, and Steven Wilson (told you I had his music on the brain), its a song that is built on a brilliantly layered cushion of separate yet complementary melodic structures. In the chorus however the vocal melody takes over and Nordhus soars effortlessly above it all, taking the listener with him via an emotional carpet ride of a lyric: “Often I go back to that picture of my little boy / And I just can’t cry anymore”. On the very ethnic-folk infused “Specter”, I’m surprised by random moments of sparse acoustic strumming over keyboard melodies that remind me of prog-rock Kansas or Styx. I can’t even begin to describe the fusion of sounds and styles in the album closer and epic “Father and Son”, except perhaps to compare it to what I imagine would be the sounds of… you know… an actual bazaar. Clever word play in the title then.

The Takeaway: One of the most surprising, out of nowhere salvos fired in the first half of 2015. You might not enjoy it if you don’t like the sounds of bands like Orphaned Land, Melechesh, or even Myrath —- but seriously who doesn’t? Highly, highly recommended.

 

 

Kiske/Somerville – City of Heroes

This is the second album in this duet-centric collaboration between vocalists Michael Kiske and Amanda Somerville, their first being issued in the now distant 2010. You all know Kiske of course, and likely have an opinion on him and his rather distinctive vocal style which is about as love it or leave it as it gets in power metal. Somerville on the other hand some of you might not be as familiar with, although chances are that you’ve already heard her somewhere along the way. She’s a fixture in the European melodic/power metal scenes as an excellent backing vocalist, occasional lead vocal drop in, and vocal coach. Her lengthy list of appearances includes luminaries such as Avantasia, Kamelot, and Epica to name a few, alongside a handful of her own solo projects/collaborations. As an aficionado of backing vocals on power metal albums, I’m happy to see her name on the credits of an album —- and I became quite the fan in general through viewing her rather excellent behind the scenes tour diaries that have become a fixture for nearly all of her tours (the Avantasia diaries are particularly intriguing).

What you get here is a relatively uncomplicated album full of the type of hooky, pop-infused take on melodic power metal that lands in the comfort zone of both vocalists. To call it an artistic collaboration would be generous however, because neither Kiske nor Somerville write the music or lyrics (Somerville lands a credit on a song she co-wrote with her husband Sander Gommans, longtime guitarist for After Forever). This project falls in line with other Frontiers Records operations, namely that one of the labels contracted professional musician/songwriters on staff cooks up a batch of songs appropriate for the project, which in this case are Primal Fear’s Magnus Karlsson and Mat Sinner. Take a closer look at many Frontiers releases and you’ll notice the same formula at work —- it presents an interesting internal debate for anyone attempting to review these albums. Should the lyric content weigh as heavily as it would in an album written by the performers themselves? Are we going to place a greater emphasis on how well the vocals turned out as a opposed to the actual guitar melodies?

The answer is of course far less complicated than the questions themselves. This is a album with no other purpose other than enjoyment itself, and that might come across as disingenuous to some, and perfectly fine for others. I think something to consider is that given Kiske’s history of distancing himself from metal in order to explore his artistic side, his willingness to sing lines like “I stole my daddy’s car only to be cool / I slammed the brakes and acted like a fool” speaks volumes about his personal connection to anything on here. Lets just get the negative stuff out of the way first by saying that the lyrics all across the album are either passable to well below average. Its a shame too because at times their clunky-ness can detract from an otherwise enjoyable vocal melody, and while it doesn’t occur all the time, it happens often enough to stop a couple songs dead in their tracks. The previously quoted “Rising Up” is one of them, but its joined by the strange ballad “Ocean of Tears” (nothing egregious, they’re just generic lyrics), and the title track “City of Heroes” (pretty baffling, it comes across as something that could’ve been written in hopes of making the Justice League soundtrack).

The good news is that the melodies and vocal hooks are strong enough to ignore all the iffy stuff and actually work in tandem to create a rather satisfying album. Satisfying in the way that a maple donut might be on a Saturday morning, when you feel justified by having eaten oatmeal all week. You’ll notice a pattern amidst all the catchiness, that Kiske tends to handle the bulk of the verses solo while Somerville gets the choruses (they do try to mix it up now and then, but this is largely the formula). Kiske is actually present on the choruses alongside Somerville, but he’s buried far below her in the mix, something that didn’t set well with my MSRcast cohost Cary. I can see where he’s coming from, but I suspect its also due to just how powerful her vocals are compared to his, her voice laden with a deep richness that Kiske’s lacks. Consider this something to put on Spotify for light, breezy summertime listening, preferably when BBQ-ing or “acting like a fool”.

The Takeaway: One of the better Frontiers Records songwriter-for-hire penned albums with two very accomplished vocalists. Given the label its on you should know what to expect, loads of sugary melodies and hooky hooks. I do enjoy the Roxette vibe on “After the Night Is Over”.

 

 

Thurisaz – The Pulse of Mourning:

I wasn’t familiar with Belguim’s Thurisaz heading into this, although they’ve been around since 2000 with a handful of albums released in the interim. From what I can tell having read a few reviews of their older work, The Pulse of Mourning appears to be a turning point for the band in finding their own sound. That isn’t to say that you can’t hear their influences, because some of them are pretty up front —- Opeth for one, but also hints of Enslaved, Katatonia, and perhaps even some Dan Swano projects. Thurisaz deliver a modern take on progressive symphonic-kissed black metal. I’m not sure if they’re brothers or not, but both Peter and Mattias Theuwen handle vocals and guitar together (though I’m not sure which one handles either the grim or clean vocals, perhaps they both do everything?!) and they form the nucleus of a band whose lineup has remained unchanged save for a succession of rotating bassists.

The MVP of the album just might be keyboardist Kobe Cannière, as his work is present on every song on the album including the instrumental based ambient pieces that serve as segues. He has a light touch, creating subtle orchestral swells and solo piano melodies that dress up the band’s kinetic riffing with beautiful ornamentation. For an example of this look no further than the awesome “Rays of Light”, where there are times when its the keyboard driving the song forward with a gorgeous melody over sustained riffing, an unusual twist for a two guitar band. The clean vocal passages on that song are one of the highlights of the album, a sort of mix of modern day Enslaved’s Herbrand Larsen with touches of old school Mikael Akerfeldt. Cannière’s work is also a major core of the overall mood of the album, which is imbedded in the handful of those aforementioned instrumental tracks. My description of them as ambient was not meant to imply they were electronic sounding in anyway, in fact they’re incredibly analog in their palettes —- lonely hushed piano sonatas, cellos set to ethereal female voices —- its all interesting stuff, though one wonders if there are too many of them.

I’ve been going back and forth on how I feel about the way the album is sequenced, in that perhaps the band’s placement of said instrumental tracks actually short circuits the mood they’re trying to achieve. An epic song like “In All Remembrance”, with its Insomnium-esque melodic guitar riffs and sparkling keyboard work should immediately follow the beautiful slow burn of “One Final Step”. They’re separated by a minute and change long instrumental that really might’ve worked better as an album outro. These might be minor quibbles, but the band clearly feels that their instrumental songs are important (there wouldn’t be as many of them otherwise), and in that light they aren’t working the way they should, as pretty as they all are. I’ll gladly exchange a pair of them for another great actual song, and I suppose in this regard Thurisaz runs into a problem that is usually reserved for power metal bands, where an eye towards album cohesion does more harm than good. Still, this is an album worthy of your attention.

The Takeaway: I suspect this might be a lot of people’s first time hearing music by Thurisaz, and I think everyone will be surprised at just how developed and mature they sound. I guess a few albums of working out the kinks in relative obscurity is good for making a first impression at least. Not only was I impressed, but my MSRcast co-host Cary was impressed as well, enough that we’ve featured the band on our latest episode.

 

 

Jorn Lande & Trond Holter – Dracula: Swing of Death:

Silently I’ve been enjoying this album for months now, never really intending upon writing an actual review for it until I began to realize that it would be a tad disingenuous not to give Jorn and his musical collaborator Trond Holter their due credit for taking up a nice slice of my attention this year. And why should I hide that I’ve been listening to an opera forged out of pompous hard-rock meets symphonic power metal with a touch of rock n’ roll pastiche? Sans the latter element, weren’t the last four Avantasia albums pretty much built on that musical template? Yes to all four, and I enjoyed the heck out of most of those records. First things first, I realize that this album as a conceptual whole is pretty damn silly —- I get it! But I have to confess that I have no real justifiable reasoning as to why Jorn taking on Dracula is silly while Blind Guardian taking on anything they’ve done is badassed —- I’m not even going to attempt to argue that those two are comparable (even though *cough* theyreallyare *cough*). If any of you are familiar with the Angry Metal Guy blog, you knew that this album had to be one spectacular listen, for better or worse, when Steel Druhm (one of the more tolerant Jorn supporters I’ve ever seen) admitted that parts of this thing made him cringe.

If you read Druhm’s review, you’ll notice that he was confident that the album was on the right track two songs in, praising “Walking on Water” for its sturdy Jorn-friendly muscular rock and relatively serious take on the conceptual matter (and for good reason, its a terrific song). Where Druhm fell off however was on the next song, the wildly jaunty Broadway-esque “Swing of Death”, describing it as “poppy hair metal tinged with regret” (a line I can see myself quoting in the future). So here’s the thing: Where Druhm saw this sudden turn towards musical theater stylings as the album’s biggest failing, I see it as its saving grace, a tongue-in-cheek approach towards presenting a happily ludicrous concept. Songs like “Swing of Death”, the female vocal duet in “River of Tears”, and the grand balladry of “Save Me” remind me of Green Day’s American Idiot —- an album that I loved instantly upon its release for its arms wide embrace of rock n’ roll pastiches. Whereas Green Day infused elements of 50s and 60s rock and rockabilly on that album to spectacular effect, Holter relies on a Jorn friendly influence of classic Jim Steinman songwriting (ala Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell). And quite frankly, I love it.

I love the choice of Lena Fløitmoen as Jorn’s female duet partner, as her beautifully melodic yet frail vocals prove a delicious sonic contrast to Jorn’s rich, roaring David Coverdale. Some of the album’s best singular moments are when Fløitmoen sings solo, her voice reminding me at times of one time Meatloaf duet partner Marion Raven. And of course there’s Holter’s music, an accomplished nuts and bolts mix of ear candied melodies, a dash of heavy riffing, furious guitar solo-ing a plenty, and some interesting surprises such as a balalaika sounding instrument on “Masquerade Ball”. His songwriting is on point as his hooks manage to hook you, and he never allows anything to get particularly cloying —- granted the lyrics could be better on a couple songs (or most of the album), but there’s nothing that stood out to me as being egregious. Put it this way, these lyrics are no more ridiculous than a lot of power metal records, and in that spirit its actually a fun listen. I’m not a Broadway guy by any means, but I can feel that theatricality bleeding into these songs, and at the very least I can appreciate the epic bombast that they are often striving for. I love straightfoward power metal, but sometimes I wish other bands could allow themselves to be playful like this (well not exactly like this, but you know what I mean).

The Takeaway: Screw it, I’m not going to be embarrassed about saying that I completely enjoy this. It hasn’t received the same amount of spins that Blind Guardian, Nightwish, or Enslaved have this year, but I have been going back to consistently since January and that’s saying something. Its a lighthearted, fun romp through a metal meets rock n’ roll pastiche sonic landscape. And dammit, Jorn’s voice is just so satisfying to listen to!

 

 

Monox – Perception Changes:

This is the debut album by a band from Croatia that offers a slightly eccentric take on prog-death. I say eccentric because this is indeed technical music at times, with complex riffing and poly rhythmic bass and percussion patterns. But its also music that at times is surprisingly melodic for the cloth its cut from, and the band’s vocalist, Tonko Vukonić, chooses instead a growling style that has more in common with Grutle Kjellson than Chris Barnes. Vukonić is an interesting topic in his own right, one of those rare figures in metal that has the potential to be a very convincing frontman. I say this because my first exposure to Monox was via their shockingly great music video for the song “Perfect Sky”.

Amid all the time-lapsed shots of gorgeous cityscape scenery and cloudy skies with sun rays poking through is Vukonić’s attention grabbing presence. Whether in performance mode in a blackened set with his fellow bandmates or overlooking a panoramic (Croatian?) urban vista in a super wide, near silhouette shot, Vukonić is the center of our attention and a wholly compelling performer. I obviously haven’t seen the band live so who knows if this video performance translates to the actual stage but you’d have to think that it does. And his vocal approach actually reminds me of Alan Averill of Primordial, a sort of unrestrained, out of control style that defies your typical metal singing approach (the difference between the two being screaming vs singing obviously). Well call me a new fan, because there’s just something really perfect about his delivery for these strange, proggy songs that while still punishing and laden with aggression are about as unorthodox as death metal gets.

We spoke about Monox and “Perfect Sky” on the latest episode of the MSRcast, and my co-host Cary commented on how he was surprised that this band was up my alley. To be honest so was I, and I wondered if it was just good timing in listening to it right on the heels of a bunch of power metal, but the more I spin this album I feel like I can identify the attributes that are causing it to pique my interest. The thing about modern death metal that bores me is the wall of sound approach where the sonics seem almost flattened, all of the instrumentation layered right against each other —- a trait owing more to unimaginative songwriting rather than actual audio engineering. What songs like “Shimmering Lights” and “Have I Conspired Again Against I” is that their sledgehammer heaviness is full and rounded —- the percussion is reactive, playing against dirty guitar riffs and moving in lockstep with a bass sound that’s not only audible, but the integral glue to the whole of these parts. More importantly, there’s actual texture to the songs, provided by the breathable space between the instrumentation.

I’ve seen some descriptions thrown around online that these guys are melodic death metal, and while I can understand why that tag is added, I don’t think its entirely accurate. Melo-death as a subgenre is defined by songwriting written around melody and the ushering of that melody as a motif throughout the song. Monox use melody as one would use cinnamon or turmeric in cooking up a curry (for a lunchtime example), its a spice and used sparingly. Make no mistake, these are riff based songs, but you’ll be hard pressed to find more than just a handful of examples where even repeating riffs are used as a motif. I described Monox as prog-death metal not only because of their unorthodox time signature changes, but because the band’s injection of melody is almost always unexpected and in strange places —- they don’t solely use it to make their choruses pop, they use it lyrically, as a way to alter the mood of the song itself.

The Takeaway: Color me surprised and impressed, and its audacious to say that a band on its debut effort might’ve released one of the best albums of the year, but this is close.

 

 

Melechesh – Enki:

Ah Melechesh, my other favorite band from the Middle East, my humblest of apologies for shelving your newest album Enki for a few weeks because of other things in the hopper. As has been demonstrated time and time again, this is a band that has a hard time disappointing me, I don’t even think they’d know how to try. Its because with the slight exception of Absu (and its ex-Melechesh drummer/vocalist Proscriptor) there is no other band on the planet that delivers precisely their brand of blistering intensity, hypnotic swirling dervish riffs, and exotic sounding, Eastern-tinged melodies. Even their cover art is spectacular, the kind of vibrant, colorful, artful design that perfectly represents their sound. They are one of the rare bands operating in metal that have yet to release a mediocre album, and in that respect, its actually harder to write a review for them. What helps this time is that Enki is not only their first album in five years, their largest gap of time in between new releases, but its their best work since the 2003 masterpiece Sphynx.

This success as ever revolves around the unbelievable guitar tandem of Ashmedi and Moloch, as much a Murray/Smith tandem of extreme metal as there ever has been. Their riffs are serpentine, snaking around each other in indecipherable patterns, and they’re percussive as well, with a staccato-like rhythm to their picking that is one of those intangible qualities that practically screams that this is metal as hell. And there’s all the other sounds they conjure up, such as eastern-motif open chord structures that slowly unwind and float up into the ether like incense smoke. They create those with typical six stringers, but also with a host of diverse instruments spanning the sitar, bouzouki, and saz. All of these sounds are definable within the context of the songs, but they’re also more than just window dressing, often acting as primary vehicles for the delivery of a melody that simply demands its particular distinctive sound.

What makes Enki standout for me far more than 2010s The Epigenesis and 2006s Emissaries is the degree to which the band has slightly expanded the boundaries of their sound. And lets not gloss over that, because its a hard thing for an extreme metal band to do: Go too far and you risk diluting your musical identity (like a myriad of possible bands). Melechesh avoid that by not making changes to their sound, their palette is as identifiably colorful as ever, but instead in their songwriting. There’s stuff here I’ve never heard before from the band such as the almost tribal-esque flavor in the Max Calavera guested track “Lost Tribes”, where a Pantera-syled riff works underneath Calavera’s broad brutal vocal that runs alongside Ashmedi’s fierce snarl. Dare I suggest that the song almost comes across as Chaos A.D. era Sepultura —- an accessible way to utilize the talents of a vocalist like Calavera.

There’s a sense of reckless adventurism to songs like “Metatron and Man”, where a Megadeth-like approach makes it a far more directly thrash-y song than you’d expect. On “Doorways to Irkala” you’ll get a full eight minute long treatment of acoustic Eastern instrumentation, a gutsy move that actually pays off as a segue into the bizarrely power metal-esque epic “The Outsiders”. Speaking of power metal-esque, how about the tremendous “The Palm the Eye and Lapis Lazuli”, where one of the band’s catchiest guitar figures to date acts as a repeater throughout, making this one of the most melodic Melechesh songs ever. I love the post-chorus bridge at the 2:30 mark where we’re treated to almost Myrath-like guitarwork —- where has that been all this time?! All that being said, Melechesh are firing on all cylinders even when sticking to their standard operating procedure, especially on songs like “The Pendulum Speaks” and “Tempest Temper Entill Enraged”. With the exception of the latter, they’ve really slowed down their overall tempo across the board, allowing for their songwriting to develop unchained from the often times limiting regulations of speed metal.

The Takeaway: The album that Melechesh needed to make at this point in their career, a mini-rejuvenation of sorts. Its unlikely that they’ll ever replace Sphynx in my overall ordering of their discography but Enki is solidly behind it —- its simply the best album they’ve released in well over a decade.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part Two: The Albums

This was an exciting year to be a metal fan, particularly if like me you made it a habit to check out as many new releases from established and up and coming artists as you possibly could. Its not an exaggeration for me to say that I listened to more new metal albums in 2014 than any other year —- easily surpassing even last year’s nutty total. It was an especially prolific year for power metal, with nearly every major band within the subgenre releasing new albums or singles. As far back as February I was speculating on 2014 possibly being a resurgent year for power metal —- so was it? Well, yes and no. There were some disappointments from a few veteran bands, but these were made up for with pleasant surprises from relatively new artists. And of course there were still quite a few extreme metal artists who offered up a handful of great records.

Consider the following ten albums on this list a very agonized over distillation of what I thought were the absolute best of the year. Most year end metal lists go up to twenty five or even fifty entries —- I limit myself to ten to force myself to be critical, selective, and honest with myself about what I enjoyed the most. A shorter list also helps to give weight to the ordering of entries, and you can be sure that the top spot means a great deal. I definitely look at album play counts when narrowing down my nominees as they provide an honest statistic about my listening habits, but I also consider other far more intangible factors as well (such as… you know, artistry and stuff). This is part two of my 2014 Best Of feature, so be sure to check out Part One: The Songs if you missed it. Enough of my incessant prattling! On with the list!

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2014:

 

 

1. Triosphere – The Heart of the Matter:

Its not an uncommon occurrence to discover a great band that I haven’t heard before; its one of the frequent perks of writing a metal blog. It is however extremely rare for that discovery to come in the form of an album that is absolutely flawless and perfect in all aspects. Norway’s Triosphere were a late entry in the 2014 album release calendar, November and December for Europe and the States respectively, a major misstep for AFM Records that has already ensured that it slipped under the radar of many metal writers. I consider myself lucky that I am not among them, because here’s what I learned: This is the best metal album of the year, regardless of subgenre, regardless of your preference for accessibility or extremity, and regardless of any preconceptions you might have about a female fronted metal band.

Yes Triosphere is indeed a female fronted metal band —- a progressive power metal one, led by bassist/vocalist Ida Haukland. But they don’t sound like many other female fronted metal bands, as Haukland’s voice can best be compared to a blending of Ann Wilson and Doro Pesch, with hints of Coverdale’s inflection and Dio’s theatricality. She’s a stylistic rarity in an era when female vocals in metal usually mean light, airy, delicate, and that oft-used adjective, ethereal. Haukland is also unique among male and female vocalists in being a sonically powerful vocalist with both high and low range, all while capably demonstrating a mastery of melody. It would be an oversimplification to say that her tone is only raspy or leathery, because its also smooth, distinct, and enunciative. To say she is the undisputed star of this album would perhaps detract from the clockwork-like, precision machinery of the band as a whole, but certainly without her The Heart of the Matter would not be the special album it is.

Equally as key in the Triosphere lineup is guitarist Marius Silver Bergensen who is the band’s primary songwriter in cooperation with Haukland; he composes the music, she writes the lyrics and creates the vocal melodies. Together they weave a dark, stormy, and feverish take on progressive power metal that is both technically brilliant and emotionally resonant. Bergensen seems to be a smart guy in that his songwriting works around Haukland’s natural talent at creating fully formed vocal melody driven hooks. He’s a tremendous guitarist, and shows it off alongside fellow guitarist Tor Ole Byberg in brief flashes of technicality during riffs and in wild, unrestrained, hard rock inspired soloing. Triosphere weave technicality into the fabric of their guitar melodies throughout, but they know when to turn it up and tone it down, a result of marrying their approach with Kamelot-like simplicity where the melody has to remain preserved. Drummer Ørjan Aare Jørgensen lays down a tremendous performance, spicing up a thrash metal fueled percussive attack with proggy, jazzy fills and accents. There’s virtuosity teeming throughout these songs, but its used as an accent rather than the main attraction, the band subtly hinting that they could do more, if they wanted.

Ultimately its the start to finish array of great songs that steal the show here, and there’s a handful of absolute gems: “Steal Away the Light” is as excellent a pure heavy metal song as you will ever hear, with its Roxette-meets-Dio soaring, triple-segmented chorus built around Haukland’s incredible range. There’s the epic, tension fueled “The Sphere”, where her vocals practically scream heartbreak as she sings “Can you feel me like I feel you / A heartbeat where the sound of my soul shines through”. When I listen to that chorus, I realize that its Haukland’s perfect choices in enunciation that really drive home the powerful emotional response that line manages to conjure, and she does that all over the album and puts on a masterful display of how to make the most of every single line. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite song, “Breathless”, where the band really turns up the Roxette vibe with a fun, punchy, poppy chorus built around clever alliteration. Haukland sings “I know you think / You know the name / Of this game we are playing” with half-second pauses in between each line, giving the chorus a rock n’ roll stutter strut that you don’t normally hear in prog-metal. Its the kind of thing you hear the first time and smile over.

Much of Haukland’s lyrics deal with past and current relationships, or at least the conceptual idea of one where heartbreak is a central theme. It may not sound like very “metal” subject matter, but its refreshing in a strange way, perhaps because such a focused concentration suggests that its inspired by real personal experiences. You can perceive her attention to detail in regards to penning lyrics that while direct and straightforward, are full of depth and purpose. With a few more releases we could see Haukland blossom as a lyricist, possibly reaching Roy Khan levels of diction and imagery (she already has quite a bit in common with her fellow Norwegian). I called this album perfect, and take my word for it, there are no fillers to be found —- and there’s a raw, kinetic energy that flows throughout the album from the very start, every subsequent song picking up where the other left off. Triosphere don’t get bonus points for their uniqueness as a non-operatic female fronted metal band; they made it to number one on my list simply because they created an album that I couldn’t find anything wrong with, an album with nothing to complain about and everything to get excited by. The Heart of the Matter is a beautiful, aggressive, elegantly chaotic masterpiece.

 

 

2. Ghost Brigade – IV – One With the Storm:

Yet another in the waltzin’-into-class-late crew, Finland’s Ghost Brigade slipped this one in relatively late in the 2014 release calendar (must be a Scandinavian thing?). If you recall from a couple years ago, this pack of downtrodden Finns made my 2011 Best Albums list with Until Fear No Longer Defines Us, the album that introduced me to their take on Sentenced/Katatonia inspired melancholic metallic rock. Three years later, they’re finally back with its successor and have managed to land a higher placing on this list with an album that’s more metal and less rock. Its slightly amusing that the further Ghost Brigade have shifted away from what made me enjoy them in the first place has somehow resulted in a better, sharper, more compelling album. Its never the best metric to compare one album to another, but I can honestly say I love One With The Storm far more than I ever did its predecessor.

Not everything has changed, there are still many moments where Manne Ikonen demonstrates his melodic voice with his heavily accented clean singing, but they’re now equaled in play time with his raw, harsh, tortured screaming. He has to fight for space too, because the clearer, crisper production the band has chosen to employ here pushes the instrumentation right up against his vocals, and together they clash back and forth as on the album opener “Wretched Blues”. Its a huge reversal from their previous albums, where everything sat underneath Ikonen’s vocals in a hazy fuzz —- no more. Guitars pour aggression and beautiful, melancholic melodies all over these songs, and they take center stage, often times their musical patterns and figures serving as a song’s refrain such as on the brutal melo-death of “Stones and Pillars”. Some of those guitar figures are heart rending in their ability to touch your emotional nerves, as on the acoustic finger plucked intro to “Elama On Tulta”, where its abruptly followed by a wave of heavy melodicism that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sentenced’s The Cold White Light.

I included the brilliant “Departures” on Part One of this year’s Best Of feature, it being the album’s most accessible slice of metallic rock, but there’s a wealth of melodic vocal treasures to be found elsewhere. A particular favorite comes in the track “The Knife”, where steady mid-paced slabs of gargantuan riffs with suitably throat worn harsh vocals are contrasted with a wide open, cinematic chorus where Ikonen laments in his melodic best “Another year / Another wasted season”. As you can probably tell, much of Ghost Brigade’s lyrical approach deals with your typical Finnish appropriate topics of loneliness, isolation, and general feel-baddery (screw you spell check!), and they just do it oh so well. Take the introspective “Disembodied Voices”, where over a bed of moody, hushed atmospherics and cleanly plucked electric guitar figures Ikonen croons “They said time heals / In a year or so you’ll be alright / Time doesn’t heal / It only makes you forget”. In the hands of a lesser band and vocalist (and I can think of many American radio “rock” bands that could fit the bill) those lyrics would sound contrived and false, but Ghost Brigade understand what kind of soundtrack they need, and Ikonen understands that their delivery needs to be understated, passive even.

My high play count of One With The Storm may have spiraled out of control with its release coming square in these darkening autumnal months, but I have no doubt I’d feel this strongly about its cohesive artistic triumph were it released way back in spring or summer. I think the band has finally stumbled onto a formula they ought to consider sticking to for another release or two. Evening out the guitars with the vocals in the mix has really gone a long way towards giving their sound a surge of power, and its forced Ikonen to balance out his melodic singing voice with his equally riveting (if not superior) melo-death harsh vocals. Ultimately though, it always comes back to the songwriting and Ghost Brigade delivered a handful of gems here, an accomplishment that is even more impressive considering the vast array of diverse tempos and song structures they chose to employ. They outdid themselves, surprised the hell out of me, and somehow managed to release the best metal album out of Finland in 2014.

 

 

3. Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R.:

Until Triosphere came along, Dawn of Destiny laid claim to being the biggest out-of-nowhere surprise of the year. I had never heard of the band before (and apparently, neither did anyone else), but it was the appearance of Jon Oliva as a guest vocalist on the stellar “No Hope For the Healing” that caused my buddy Doctor Metal of The Metal Meltdown Show to play the band on his show one Friday afternoon. It wasn’t just the presence of the Mountain King that grabbed my attention, it was the absolutely fantastic songwriting on display as well. I was convinced and took a chance on the album, and after one pass through I had the kind of smug, self-satisfied, doofus grin that I’m sure we all tend to get after suggesting an unknown restaurant that turns out to be great and having your friends begrudgingly give you the nod of approval. If I wrote my original review of the album with that same grin on my face, I apologize.

Its not a stretch to say that this was my frontrunner to take the top spot on this list for most of the year before some tougher competition came along. That’s because like Triosphere, Dawn of Destiny are a rarity in the world of female fronted metal bands, as their vocalist Jeanette Scherff is neither operatic or light and ethereal, instead her vocals come from a mid-ranged rock style reminiscent of Ann Wilson or Pat Benatar. No need to scroll up to check whether you’re remembering seeing Ann Wilson’s name before, as I used her to describe Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. Both Haukland and Scherff are tremendously gifted vocalists and modern trailblazers of a sort as a budding handful of female singers bucking the metal establishment, but Scherff leans in a smoother, more refined direction (there’s no Doro influences with her). As great as she is, its bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber who is the true star of the album, as his songs are deliciously hooky, ornately arranged slices of dramatic power metal. On F.E.A.R. (if you’re dying to know, its an acronym for “Forgotten, Enslaved, Admired, Released”), Faber has compiled a selection of near perfect power metal songs where everything revolves around major key builds and truly memorable choruses.

Where to start? How about the stormy, tense drama of “End This Nightmare” where Scherff shares lead vocals with Faber, a distinctive and powerful singer in his own right. The chorus here is Meatloaf-meets-metal, the kind of joyously over-the-top chorus that is so skillfully written and deftly performed that it threatens to go off the rails but never does. Then there’s the one two punch of “Finally” and “Prayers”, the best back to back tracklisted tandem you’ll hear all year. The former is an aggressively uptempo vocal duet where both singers deliver unbelievably challenging vocal lines with near perfect enunciative choices and imaginative melodies, while “Prayers” is its 80’s inspired pure-pop cousin —- built on Scherff’s almost staccato delivery of the verse vocal lines. The chorus is a blast, a carefree merging of her vocals with Faber’s in a singalong that ascends like a spiral staircase. And there are so many moments like that, where Faber’s songwriting throws caution to the wind and interweaves vocal lines in unexpectedly delightful fashion, or allows the rather reigned-in, straightforward power metal guitars of Veith Offenbächer to explode in jawdroppingly gorgeous solos.

Should I mention that its a concept album? I’m not so sure its needed as a selling point, because although I’ve followed along with the lyrics and can honestly say that its a cohesive, well-told story —- I don’t think its necessary at all when it comes to simply enjoying F.E.A.R. as a musical experience. I began listening to this album back in March and have kept going back to it throughout the year. Granted there was a slight hiccup, the first minute twelve of the opening track features some rather awful spoken word dialogue that was actually gnawing at my conscience every time I considered placing the album atop this list (its that bad, and here’s to no more terrible spoken word on metal albums in 2015!). I was saved from having to deliberate that choice thanks to Triosphere and Ghost Brigade, but one lousy mistake aside, Dawn of Destiny were serious contenders for the throne.

 

 

4. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry:

Dense, layered, and nostalgic might be suitable adjectives for Blut Aus Nord’s return to second wave black metal after some time in the desert doing weird, not so great experiments with industrial music. Some quick history: Blut Aus Nord is the musical project of a notoriously reclusive Frenchman under the moniker of Vindsval, who was apparently just 15 when he released the project’s debut Ultima Thulée in 1995. Its sequel released a year later was titled Memoria Vetusta I: Fathers of the Icy Age, and together they were viewed upon as left-field classics emulating the black metal pouring out of Norway at that time. When Vindsval returned in 2001, he did so with a style that owed more to noise and industrial music, and continued in this vein even throughout Memoria Vetutsa II in 2009 and beyond. His unorthodox style won him a lot of praise in this lengthy era, particularly from big-platform publications —- but if you were one of those few that preferred his take on classic 90s black metal, you were out of luck.

So its not an overstatement to say that Memoria Vetutsa III: Saturnian Poetry is the most unexpected album by a veteran artist in 2014, being Vindsval’s return to pure, classicist second wave black metal with zero (ZERO!) industrial elements. The x-factor is that this album is recorded in the pristine, crisp, un-muddied production style that he’s become accustomed to working with in the preceding 777 trilogy, and its like being hit over the head with a frying pan in making you realize that hey, classicist second wave black metal actually sounds better without awful, muted production! This means that Vindsval’s waves of windswept tremolo riffs aren’t buried in the mix, instead they’re the main attraction, and they’re so excellent, so perfectly sculpted that you begin to remember why you loved this style in the first place. And I believe for the first time, Vindsval brings aboard a real drummer in Gionata Potenti (aka Thorns) whose unyielding, punishing attack gives the entire album the feel of a real band at work. The result is a complete about face from the cold, distant icy feel of the industrial era, instead presenting a earthy warmth, like you’re sitting around a mountainside campfire with each listen. This album single-handedly has reignited my interest in black metal as a whole, and made me dust off an Emperor classic or two.

 

 

 5. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls:

Its slightly disturbing that so many metal writers are overlooking that with Redeemer of Souls, Judas Priest have created their best work since 1990’s Painkiller. I want to believe that whats stopping many from realizing this is the pallor cast over by 2008’s tepid Nostradumus, but that would imply that they simply hadn’t bothered to listen to the new album (and that would be poor form for metal writers anywhere, this is Judas Priest we’re talking about). Or is it that in an era where extremity in metal is prized more than traditionalism and given more artistic merit, new music by Priest is considered antiquated or sin of sins, un-hip? I’m not sure what everyone else’s problem is, and granted, I’ve seen Redeemer of Souls pop up on a few other year end lists by websites or publications that aren’t so expressly concerned with demographics and credibility. Kudos to them for realizing what most of the metal world immediately picked up on.

Priest don’t earn their spot on this list simply by virtue of Redeemer being better than its four predecessors, they’re here because of new guitarist Ritchie Faulkner, who stepped out of K.K. Downing’s shadow as more than just a replacement guitarist when he co-wrote this entire album alongside Glenn Tipton and Rob Halford. He turned out to be a veritable fountain of youth, ushering the band back to the very spiritual essence of what made them legends. Priest albums aren’t exercises in intellectual aggrandizing, they’re inherently simple, straight forward affairs built on having a plethora of tight riffs, hummable melodies, and hooky choruses galore. Faulkner brought all these things to the table and in doing so seemed to emphasize that the band didn’t have to out-do itself, or compete with others. The result is an album that is brimming with good to great to masterful songwriting, there are no duds or mediocre tracks on offer here. And its not just the band’s British Steel / Screaming For Vengeance era that is invoked, as there is a distinct Sad Wings of Destiny / Sin After Sin vibe to songs like “Secrets of the Dead” and the echoing balladry of “Beginning of the End”. The production could’ve been a little more compressed, less cleanly modern, and more eighties-sounding —- the opposite of what Blut Aus Nord did in other words. Its the only blemish on an otherwise astounding album.

 

 

6. Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen:

I can completely understand the notion that Ireland’s Primordial is a difficult band to get into, most likely due to the unusual, eerie, scream-sung vocal style of Alan Averill (aka A. A. Nemtheanga). He used to be my stumbling block as well, I liked what the band was doing musically but couldn’t get around him. A long time ago I wrote on this blog that I suspected it was due to my wanting Primordial to be more of a Riverdance-meets-black metal type of affair —- a silly concept in retrospect but a purely reactionary one. For a band tagged “Irish black metal”, Primordial sure weren’t like what I imagined that label to sound like. So here’s my advice to newcomers, step one: Forget any subgenre labels, and lets just call Primordial a metal band from Ireland (one of very few, and a stellar one at that). Step two is harder, but worth the effort: Think of Averill’s vocals as the metal version of Dave King’s from the Irish-American punk band Flogging Molly sung by a hooded necromancer standing atop some moss strewn Irish cliff side overlooking a fog-shrouded valley. Hey, we’re metal fans, we’re supposed to be a receptive and imaginative audience, so get to work.

Your efforts will be rewarded with Where Greater Men Have Fallen, which equals the band’s 2007 seminal classic To The Nameless Dead in songwriting brilliance, and leap frogs it in terms of being their most punishing and aggressive music to date. That matters, because the band was in need of a little diversity in their sonic approach, and it arrives right out of the gate with the title track and its rumbling, earthquaking drums, searingly tremolo-ish riffs, and overall brisk pace. Similarly on “Seed of the Tyrants”, the band goes full on black metal with an intro blast of Averill’s loud proclaimation of “Traitors!”, followed by blistering, full-on blastbeats and tremolo riffs that sound like they were straight out of a Watain record. I’m quite fond of the awesomely titled “Wield Lightning to Split the Sun”, where you hear more of the band’s oft buried folk metal influences come to the surface with an acoustic guitars and drums intro. The most accessible song if you’re looking for a YouTube suggestion is “Ghost of the Charnel House”, which boasts a hook built around clever guitar phrasing, fittingly so… this isn’t a band where vocal melodies are pronounced or relied upon. Most of the time the instrumentation does its own thing and Averill floats over the top, Sluagh-like you might say.

 

 

7. Sabaton – Heroes:

Some would say this is a homer pick, particularly a pair of goofball friends of mine who enjoy trolling my Sabaton fandom with unrestrained glee (its okay, they go to the band’s shows just the same). But Sabaton are deserving candidates to wind up here, this time not just because Joakim Broden continues to make a case for being the most skillful songwriter in power metal today; but because with Heroes the band did something daringly bold. Here was a case of a band that’s made its legion of fans on triumphant anthems depicting war, battles, destruction, and the might of armies and kings. One of the criticisms they’ve faced in the past is that in writing solely about those topics, they pander to an audience and use patriotism as an advertising agent. I think its a bogus critique, because its proponents are suggesting that Broden has to qualify his lyrics with politically neutral counterpoints, as if somehow his audience will misappropriate a song like “Ghost Division” (his audience hasn’t, but the critics have). Sabaton had the concept for Heroes floating around for awhile apparently, but their timing was well chosen —- they simply had to deliver something different, and it came in the form of their first album largely dedicated to examples of non-violent heroism, where humanity triumphed over warfare.

You’ll see examples of this littered throughout the album: a German fighter pilot escorting a crippled American bomber to safety (“No Bullets Fly”); an Australian medic carrying twelve injured American soldiers down a mountain to safety under withering fire (“The Ballad of Bull”); a Polish hero who willingly became a prisoner of Auschwitz in order to gather evidence of war crimes, and escaped to deliver his report (“Inmate 4859”) —- to name a handful. The thematic success doesn’t detract from the fact that Broden still delivered the goods in the songwriting department. There are your supremely catchy, traditionally structured future Sabaton classics such as “Resist and Bite” and “Soldier of 3 Armies”; and there’s some rather gutsy experimentation in the form of 1940s musical pastiche. The new guitarists Chris Rörland and Thobbe Englund were an unproven, unknown quantity in terms of how well they’d be able to create guitar parts to complement Broden’s keyboard written structures, but their work here is an unmitigated success. Riffs are intense and tightly constructed, their melodies shimmer, and their soloing is vivid and flavorful. I keep wondering Sabaton will ever stumble as I’m sure their critics hope they will, but Heroes works as an argument to suggest they won’t.

 

 

8. Grand Magus – Triumph and Power:

This was a recurring listen throughout the year when I wanted something straightforwardly catchy, but more minor key and aggressive than your average power metal release. Sweden’s Grand Magus are not power metal, nor are they folk/viking metal despite their name and imagery —- they’re just metal. Long having abandoned their doomy roots, the band loosely exist in a trad metal palette these days and add in measured amounts of rock n’ roll rattle and shake. Vocalist Janne Christoffersson grabs your attention by virtue of the songs being constructed around his vocal melodies, and with the fact that the quality of his voice is more hard rock baritone than say, air raid siren Bruce Dickinson. The band is also a three piece, so its fairly no-frills, just the meat and potatoes of solid riffs, hummable vocal melodies, and rock-steady percussion.

Album highlight “Steel Versus Steel” is a good gauge of the kind of magic Grand Magus conjure up with a purposeful emphasis on simplicity, the mid-tempo pace set by seemingly swingin’ drums. The chorus is magic, as Christoffersson belts out “And in the end it’s steel versus steel / The final lock and the final key”, the guitars echoing the strutting vocal melody with staccato riffing. It narrowly missed appearing on my Best Songs of 2014 list (too many to list this year). The band gets more adventurous on the title track, where slowly sung verses dramatically build up to a gusher of a chorus, punctuated by a “Hail! Victory!”, its an incredibly fun moment. It gets heavier too, with the punishing “Dominator” which should ring strangely familiar to fans of Glen Cook’s The Black Company series (though I doubt that was on purpose). And I really, really love “The Hammer Will Bite”, not just for its strangely sorrowful sounding intro, but for its monstrously wild and glory-claw inducing chorus where Christoffersson sounds like a Swedish James Hetfield: “The hammer will bite – no other choice than surrender /
Bow to the might – a fiery death from above… Yeaaah!”. One of the few albums I covered this year that can instantly appeal to power and extreme metal fans alike.

 

 

9. Behemoth – The Satanist:

There’s already so much written about this album, and its ended up on so many year end lists that it might seem superfluous to see it yet again, but if you’re one of the few that slept on The Satanist one you really need to get on it. Its not overhyped, and its praise is not exaggerated; but its propensity to thrill you is perhaps entirely dependent on your tolerance for extreme metal. I use that term instead of labeling Behemoth’s sound with more specificity because now more than ever, this is a band that doesn’t fit in anywhere. On The Satanist, the band mixes their take on death metal with a little black metal in the form of a bleaker vocal approach, blast beats, and some quasi-tremolo riffing; finished with a touch of hard rock simplicity to produce a concoction that is brutal, violent, and feverish in its unyielding intensity.

That said, the band has evolved past the need for sheer brutality for brutality’s sake. In its place are atmospheric soundscapes and warm instrumentation, a combination that culminates in this being the most human sounding Behemoth album to date. Its a relief for me, because the tech-y coldness on their past albums was a stumbling block for me in trying to enjoy them —- and not only that, but Nergal simply delivers better songs here. One of his best is the title track, with its blackened, stop-start Metallica-esque riffs and oddly tuneful refrain. Of course there’s the music video famous “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, its guitar patterns reminding me of latter day Enslaved and providing the album’s most hummable riff. My favorite is still “O Father O Satan O Sun!”, whose primary riff and guitar melody are quite indebted to Judas Priest in the best possible way. The multi-tracking of Nergal’s vocals here are an inventive way to make them sound far more otherworldly and terrifying than you’d anticipate, a technique not often seen in extreme metal. I think everyone who’s wanted to hear this album has heard it by now, but power/prog metal fans should let their guard down and give it a few listens, its as ornate and fully arranged as a Blind Guardian album, just using a different palette.

 

 

10. Noble Beast – Noble Beast:

There are a handful of nominees that didn’t make the final cut of this list, the last few I was really deliberating over included Dragonforce’s Maximum Overload and Darkenhold’s Castellum —- both deserving in their own spectacular ways. But I just couldn’t ignore Noble Beast, a relatively unknown American band that came out of nowhere with a near perfect album of polished, thunder-heavy power metal with songwriting so developed and accomplished it ranks in my mind as one of the best debut albums in recent memory. Vocalist Rob Jalonen sounds like a symbiosis of Falconer’s Mathias Blad with his smooth baritone and the sandpaper-roughness of Iron Savior’s Piet Sielck —- with a splash of Hansi Kursch added to account for those throat-ripping screams. And if the European-ness of those names is any hint, then I’ll confirm that yes, Noble Beast owe more to their European heroes than they do to other American power metal bands whose lineage lies in thrash metal (your Pharaohs, your Iced Earths, etc).

It takes a supreme grinch to deny the sheer metal joy of the album opener “Iron Clad Angels”, with its arcing, soaring chorus built on Jalonen’s muscular vocal and some truly frenetic guitar work. The martial stomp of “The Dragon Reborn” with its extenuating choir vocal lines and ultra-melodic guitar twists seem like a lost Blind Guardian track, but there’s more than just reminders of other bands flowing throughout these songs. On “Nothing To Repent”, the band marries thrash metal aggression and riffs with some startlingly prog-rock song structures, a combination that works despite its disparity. There’s the arena-rock thunder and lightning of “Peeling Back the Veil”, with a stellar chorus and great Mathias Jabs/Rudolf Schenker styled guitar work and Maiden-esque twin soloing. And I love the inventiveness of throwing in some acoustic strumming in the verses of “We Burn”, creating some playful folky looseness in a song built on slamming riffage. Jalonen does double duty on guitar alongside a fellow named Matt Hodsdon, and together they dip and weave around each other like a power metal Slash and Izzy —- their interplay might be the most underrated aspect of the album.  More people need to hear this album, and hopefully there will be a second one.

 

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

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


 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Pour Some Sugar On Everything: Amaranthe Return With Massive Addictive

Depending on your perspective of Amaranthe, you’re either really excited for Massive Addictive, or really, really agitated at the mere thought that this unlikely band of Swedes has gotten popular and successful enough to warrant a third album. They are certainly notorious for the sheer contentiousness that surrounds any discussion of who they are and what they do. When I reviewed the band’s previous album, The Nexus, I dug into the career bios for band founders Olof Morck and Jake E Berg, both profiles of musicians that had toiled in relative obscurity for a decade of time before meeting up with Elize Ryd and arriving simultaneously (I’m assuming) at their viola! moment. A cynic could look at Morck and Berg’s creation of Amaranthe as a concoction geared towards commercial viability and broader appeal than anything either had been involved with in the past. They also wouldn’t be that far off the mark. There is something about Amaranthe’s conscious marketing design that raises red flags among the most forgiving of critics and metal fans —- check out one of their numerous absurdly flashy music videos (all directed by that king of gloss, Patric Ullaeus) and try to remember that they’re a metal band.

 

Beyond image, the band’s self-described “EDM meets metal” approach is built upon a softened metalcore foundation that will resonate with rock audiences (and rock radio at that), along with pure pop songwriting that supplies massive hooks with catchy verses, and two appealing clean singers that do enough to keep the attention of those put off by the rather tame growling vocalist. The “EDM” aspect of their sound only comes into play through the sheen studio production they coat all over their studio albums. In other words, its not interwoven into the fabric of their songwriting the way it was for say, the indie band Tegan and Sara, when they co-wrote two crossover EDM/indie rock songs with DJs Morgan Page and Tiesto; or for a band like The Prodigy who married hard rock sounds with pure techno long before anyone realized it could be done. There’s nothing really wrong with Amaranthe’s approach, except that it exposes their “EDM” tag as somewhat of a misnomer, and to a particularly cynical critic, it could be seen as an easy out for the band to simultaneously disguise and justify just how slick and polished their take on metal is. I’ll provide a more forgiving perspective, one in which the band has grabbed hold of their new hybrid “EDM/Metal” label as an easy, painless way to deflect critics and for the band to distance themselves from other female fronted metal peers that operate in more classicist territory ala Within Temptation.

 

All that considered, its amazing just how successfully Amaranthe works as a Frankenstein-esque project, stitching together disparate parts to create something that actually works (surely a monster to many). Morck and Berg combine their experiences in both power metal and melo-death to serve as their musical palette, and are malleable in their songwriting to sketch out smart, unobtrusive, accentuating uses for harsh vocals (courtesy of new screamer Henrik Englund), as well plenty of spotlight time for the completely un-metal Elize Ryd’s sugary, ABBA-Swede pop vocals. Ryd is obviously a necessary component in this whole equation, as its through her unremarkable but pleasant vocals that the band channels their poppiest sensibilities, allowing Berg to deliver his clean vocals as a melodic counterpoint or harmony double up. In typical Amaranthe fashion, Englund’s harsh vocals tend to be used as a counterpoint —- he’s only given one opportunity to handle lead vocals (on “An Ordinary Abnormality”), but of course he’s kept off the chorus. Ryd and Berg command the vocal spotlight of Amaranthe, and it has to be said that their voices tend to sound great together, his vocals are melodic and capable enough of soaring highs as hers, but he’s working in a slightly lower register so as to be complementary, not overpowering. I’ve always had mixed feelings on Ryd, finding her the least impressive vocalist of the three —- and I’ve long contended that she’s used metal as an easier springboard to fame and notoriety than she would have had through trying to make it as a pure pop singer. Its not a criticism, just an honest observation that I’m confident other discerning metal fans would agree with. Do an eye/ear test —- does she radiate metal in any way? Kudos to Morck and Berg for sculpting out a role for her and selling it convincingly (seriously, props).

 

On Massive Addictive, the band don’t change up the formula they first dreamed up on their debut and expanded on The Nexus, seeking only to further refine the elements that worked and ditch the clunky stuff that didn’t (there’s nothing as awful as the bubblegum “Electroheart” on here). The album’s pop highlight is “Trinity”, the second single that smartly balances chunky-riffs and harsh vocals with a exquisitely sculpted chorus boasting a hook that absolutely will not leave your head. Its musical candy, and that’s what we’re here for right? To rot our ears with the musical equivalent of junk food, because try as I might I cannot understand what these lyrics mean in the slightest —- are they talking about their roles as three singers? Hmmm… no that doesn’t seem to fit. What about this stanza, “As we break the chains of might / In dependence of the fire / Give up, this ground sterilized for all time” —- anyone got any ideas? There’s a huge suspicion on my part that Amaranthe often write lyrics phonetically, choosing words for their alliterative value within the context of a lyrical line or stanza rather than their inherent meaning. Its like how Paul McCartney used dummy lyrics for “Yesterday” (“Scrambled eggs, oh, you’ve got such lovely legs”), except that in this case Amaranthe never bothered to go back and revise their diction and you know, actually say something with most of these songs. On “Dynamite”, another album highlight through its rhythmic micro-hooks, we’re given another dose of nonsense in the lyrics during the refrain: “Come on believe me /You can’t deny /From the blaze in my eyes /I am hypnotized and /I can achieve it /I will arise /Like the fire in the sky /I am dynamite”. Look, I know I’m a lyrical grouch of the highest order (imagine me in a trash can and call me Oscar… actually don’t), and I’m aware that this approach works for pop music, but a little more effort on the lyrics of these upbeat tracks wouldn’t go amiss.

 

Its the slower, mid-paced ballads where the band executes particularly well in all aspects, lyrics included, such as on the surprisingly restrained “True”, where Ryd and Berg are at their emotive best. There’s a wonderful chorus to enjoy there: “This is the time for chasing my desires / Whats in my heart is true”, where both words and melody are extremely well written and emotive, highlighting some really deft songwriting. The same goes for another excellent ballad, “Over and Done”, this more of the embittered and love-lorn variety where a nicely done lyric crops up as well: “Over and done, a changing of seasons / The sun that ignited all our feelings is down”. Berg takes the lead here and its worth noting just how much he stands out apart from other male clean vocalists within metal through his ability to appeal to fans of simple rock music. I suppose I’m suggesting that he has a slightly Americanized bent to his vocals, and that statement in itself will turn off many who are used to power metal’s varied cultural accents and intonations. Fair enough, but it still leaves him as a rarity within metal, alongside other singers like Tom Englund of Evergrey in their ability to crossover to a radio format (surely a boon in Amaranthe’s case). I’m also very partial to the album closer “Exhale”, a catchy song built upon a heavily alliterative chorus where the lyrics are actually well written and seem to suggest someone’s search for spirituality. There’s a pattern here: When the band attempts to write fast, uptempo songs they’re so concerned with the ear-wormy factor in all aspects that they relegate lyrical meaning as an afterthought. I suppose that’s all irrelevant when they’re played live to a dancing crowd (er… no, that’d be headbanging right? What do they do at Amaranthe shows?).

 

 

The album isn’t without missteps though, nothing gravely serious but there are a handful of tracks that either don’t work as pop songs or have annoying tendencies that overpower their enjoyable parts. I’m referring specifically to “Danger Zone”, where a boy-band grade chorus is sandwiched between some very boring harsh vocal led verses; as well as “Unreal”, a song that reminds me of the worst aspects of modern day In Flames with the album’s flattest chorus to boot. There’s also something bothersome about “Skyline”, where I guess my expectations were higher because the title reminded me of Bioshock Infinite (skylines… some of you get it) —- a strange reason to cite but also I’m simply bored by the song, unlike the game. Still, on a twelve track album, there are seven songs that deliver precisely what you’d want from Amaranthe , and four of those are actually pretty great. Not a bad ratio overall, and Massive Addictive is the sound of a band getting better at what they’re doing —- even if it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve written in the past about the value of Amaranthe as a gateway band for non-metal fans to enter our world, and with this album that gateway has only gotten bigger. If someone gets hooked in with a song like “Trinity”, only to find themselves checking out Kamelot via Ryd’s connections to that band, which causes them to love a masterpiece such as The Black Halo as much as I do —- that’s a win. Metal needs gateway bands to survive, and even though Amaranthe are pushing the boundaries of acceptability in our beloved genre, they surely deserve some grudging acknowledgement for filling that role.

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