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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part Two: The Albums

And finally, in the thrilling(!) conclusion, I present The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013, the second and final part of my overall best of the year feature (click here for Part One: The Songs). I listened to more new metal releases this year than any other, something I intended to do after missing the boat on so many excellent albums from the past two years until well after their release dates. The resulting list is as always what I consider to be the ten albums released this year that I enjoyed the most. I only ever do ten because it forces me to be critical, selective, and honest with myself. It also keeps me mindful of my listening habits and preferences throughout the year. After all whats a better gauge for how much you enjoyed an album than taking into account the number of times you’ve actually listened to it? And yeah, I do look at my iTunes stats to spot check myself just for kicks, but I really don’t have to —- I’m proud of what I enjoy and will gladly own up to any of it. Its been another great year for metal —- here’s what I thought made it so:

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013:

 

 

1. Serenity – War of Ages:

I know what you’re thinking. A prog-power metal album at the number one spot?! Wow, big surprise Pigeon! Fair enough, and your sarcasm is noted. But here’s the thing, my rule for these types of lists is that they have to be founded on the unflinching honesty of the present moment, as well as some incontrovertible truth, and so here’s the deal: This was my most listened to album of 2013—- far, far above other new releases, as well as any older records. War of Ages strikes me right in my musical heart, a record that encompasses the elements of what I love most about music across all genres. It has gorgeous melodies, smart songwriting, complex arrangements, and vocals that ring and soar. As a metal album, there’s heft and crunch provided by Thomas Buchberger’s less-is-more riff barrage, and the light symphonic arrangements that encircle everything else provide a sense of scale, tension, and drama.

 

Power metal has a generally accepted set of definitions, or aesthetic choices that collectively are its auditory makeup —- and ultimately that’s led to a certain amount of stagnation genre-wide over the years. But within the last decade there have emerged a small movement of artists that are trying to sidestep the traps that have developed from a result of time worn stylistic elements being overused to point of cliche. I believe Serenity are one of these select few that are knowingly aware of not only their strengths, but of what they need to do to sidestep cliches —- and its all reflected in their lean, refined approach to songwriting. They’ve had a core of songwriters in guitarist Thomas Buchberger and vocalist Georg Neuhauser that for three albums now have been making a run at equaling the near mythic legacy of Kamelot’s Youngblood/Khan era. But Serenity take chances and allow their newest member, co-vocalist Clementine Delauney to contribute to their songwriting process right away —- particularly in that she pens over half of the lyrics on War of Ages. Serenity have been on the cusp of challenging Kamelot’s claim to having the best lyrics in the genre for awhile now, and I think that with Delauney’s help they’re getting stronger and on a track to clear that hurdle a few albums from now.

 

In my best songs of 2013 list, I pointed out the album opener “Wings of Madness” as a particularly glorious highlight among many on this set, but the band really hits their stride in the second half of the album with a continuous streak of wildly diverse gems. Beginning with the quasi-ballad “Symphony of the Quiet”, where Neuhauser is able to flex his vocal dexterity over a moody piano bed and pronounced strings, almost Queen-like in its grandiose build up. It comes as a sharp contrast when the hard rock of “Tannenberg” kicks in, particularly in it’s strutting chorus where Delauney joins Neuhauser in a lead vocal duet —- her lilting vocals echoing his a split second behind. A lesser band wouldn’t be able to deliver such an upbeat, even fun sounding moment with nearly as much conviction. Ditto for the “Legacy of Tudors”, where the band really lets loose with an unexpected a capella intro, followed by a classically infused chorus where the vocal melodies are seemingly set to a waltz. On the closer, “Royal Pain”, Delauney takes another star turn with her emotionally shimmering delivery in the refrain —- perhaps the best moment by any female vocalist in metal this year.

 

Yes, I have grown up with European/American power metal as a part of my worldview of what metal can sound like. My appreciation for it sits alongside my love for death and black metal (check the rest of this list for proof). No, you don’t need to own a shiny, frilly-sleeved puffy shirt to be a fan of this music, or fall into some cliched stereotype that is so often thrown at those who enjoy power metal (nerd, basement dweller, etc, etc). All you need is an ability to appreciate music that is able to take you away from the often mundane realities of the daily grind, to remove yourself from the sheer staggering volume of irony, sarcasm, and self-awareness that engulfs society. Its the same reason you watch Game of Thrones and can’t explain why you love it so much: Escapism is something we all need and at times don’t realize how little of it we actually get. Serenity is a band made up of individuals that wake up each day and deal with the same amount of tedious crap that we all do; but when they get together and make music, they create a sound that seems like its coming from the pages of a book, of a world that we wish we could touch.

 

 

2. Suidakra – Eternal Defiance:

Germany’s Suidakra have a few important characteristics shared by many truly great bands: They aren’t easily categorized, and they don’t sound like anyone else. They’ve been perfecting a marriage of melo-death and folk metal for a long time now, and while that may not seem particularly distinctive on paper, its the way they’ve interpreted those sounds into something truly original that sets them apart. For starters they have nothing in common with Gothenburg melo-death or its stylistic traditions, and even more importantly they avoid the now cliche and trite “folk” sounds associated with Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Alestorm, and any other band of that ilk. And having seen what that genre turned into… it’s a smart move (before I get hate for that, I just saw Finntroll live the other week, and my concert enthusiasm plummeted when I saw them come out on stage dressed as elves, pointy ears and all).

 

I’d argue that their sound has more in common with fellow countrymen Blind Guardian than anyone else —- powerful and unafraid of being bombastic, as well as willing to indulge in pure balladry without a trace of self consciousness. This album is full of inspired work that exemplifies both traits: Take the militant headbanging stomp of “March of Conquest”, where lead vocalist Arkadius’ grim, harsh delivery contrasts with the clean female singing of Tina Stabel. Its one of the album’s catchiest moments, built around a folk inspired melody that is dressed up in brutal guitar riffs, juxtaposed by a chorus with a bagpipe arrangement that doesn’t overpower everything else. Stabel is a distinctive voice among female metal singers —- as opposed to being lithe and ethereal, her vocals are raspier and filled with what I can only describe as a metal attitude. And what I love in particular about Suidakra’s approach to songwriting is their embrace of diversity, such as the sudden mid-song drop in “Dragon’s Head” into near acoustic territory, replete with military snare drumming, distant orchestration, and possibly even a banjo being plucked!

 

Some may not enjoy the full on balladry of a song like “The Mindsong”, with its near maudlin lyrics about saucy, seductive Queens beckoning Roman rulers to come hither in their dreams but its a solidly crafted tune and I enjoy it for what it is. I have a high ballad tolerance remember? But those who didn’t enjoy that one will surely appreciate the rustic, elegantly understated “Damnatio Memoriae”, where Sebastian Hintz handles clean vocals with some of the best sung lyrics of the year: “Reflecting his desires / To roam the world / To travel from sky to sky / To make his mark in time”. I love that song and I really love the cover of “Mrs. McGrath” they decided to add on to the end of the digipak editions of the album. Yes its the traditional Irish ballad made popular recently by Bruce Springsteen, but Suidakra make it their own with a half acoustic, half metallic approach and unlike Springsteen, they deliver it with the original lyrics. Its almost swashbuckling with its organic instrumentation and an absolutely jaw dropping vocal by Stabel. I wish more metal bands would try their hand at unusual cover song choices like this from outside the instead of treating us to the umpteenth version of some metal classic.

 

 

3. Satyricon – Satyricon:

I’ve been fiddling with the damn ordering of this list on and off for the past couple weeks now, and a short while ago this was a few spots further down, but as I’ve gone through re-listening to all the albums on this list I realized something about Satyricon’s self-titled “comeback” record: This might be the bravest album of 2013. Tagging a record with that kind of adjective is confusing so I’ll explain briefly: Satyricon went away four years ago promising to come back musically renewed, having felt that they had taken the Now, Diabolical/Age of Nero era sound as far as it could go. Well that was already a rather simplistic sound when compared to their earlier, more symphonically infused back catalog, as well as in relation to releases by their fellow popular black metal peers. So the natural way to leap into a new sound Satyricon was to plunge back into the past with all the orchestral dressing of classics like Nemesis Divina, right?

 

Well not according to Satyr, who decided that the way forward into new sonic territory was to examine the structure of black metal itself and poke holes in it. Unlike the recent trend of American bands to copy the French and infuse black metal with shoegaze (or is it really the other way around?), Satyr has created a collection of songs that are built on the concept of addition by subtraction. Gone are the buzzsaw like guitars of the past, the hyper aggressive riffs and vocals, as well as the direct, in-your-face songwriting approach. Satyricon’s new sound is best described as muted, sparse, even spacey. The guitars mostly play open chord sequences, and when the rare riff pops up, its markedly less aggressive sounding than what we’re accustomed to a black metal riff sounding like. These songs are mostly atmospheric in nature, with a sense of awareness regarding the spatial relationships of instruments —- such as little in the way of multi-tracking or layering for example. The theory I summed up in my original review of this album is that “This is the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression.” In all honesty I have to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to this album in full, but when the mood does strike I’m consistently amazed at what the band has accomplished here. Its unlike any album I’ve ever heard, black metal, metal, or anything.

 

 

4. Carcass – Surgical Steel:

You should all be aware of this album by now, and yes its worthy of all the hype and high placement on year end lists. This is one of those rare occasions where a reunion album actually manages to add to a legacy, not only by remaining true to the sounds of the most beloved era of the band’s history, but by delivering song really great songs that tower among Carcass’ best ever. I’m referring specifically to a handful of cuts here, such as “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System”, “The Master Butcher’s Apron”, “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, and of course the instant fan favorite “Captive Bolt Pistol”. If you haven’t heard the record by now (seriously?), imagine the melodicism of Heartwork with just a slightly crisper, more modern production. I wonder if the scattered naysayers of this record are more upset by that than anything. I had a hard time imagining that Carcass would come back sounding closer to their earlier Symphonies era. Maybe on the next record?

 

Anyway Bill Steer is the star here, flying all over the fretboard, turning in riffs and wild solos as only he can —- his sound is so identifiable its almost like a trademark at this point. Jeff Walker’s vocals don’t miss a step either, he sounds as vicious and snarling as ever… ageless I think I said when I reviewed this album upon release, listening to him alone you’d think this was recorded in the mid-nineties. New drummer Daniel Wilding actually manages to outdo Ken Owen, as crazy as that reads on paper. He’s inventive, has fills aplenty, and plays off Steer’s riffs in unexpected ways. I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a few sentences gushing about the finest moment on the record, “316L Grade Surgical Steel”, which might be my all-time favorite Carcass song now. which is five minutes of metal perfection. My favorite moment comes towards the song’s end starting at 4:20 where Walker snarls out the catchiest, fiercest passage on the album. What an incredible album. Steel your heart!!!

 

 

5. Falkenbach – Asa:

The biggest surprise of the year for me personally, Falkenbach’s Vratyas Vakyas delivers the best album of his now two decade spanning career. What makes it so is equal parts excellent songwriting and a new emphasis on a clear, crisp, vocals-up-front mix and production. This is the first Falkenbach record that sounds equally as good on my car stereo as it does on headphones, something that couldn’t be said about past records. And when it comes to songs, Vakyas provides an array of styles and tempos, all inventive and unique in their own right. There’s an almost old school sounding black metal track in “Wulfarweijd”, which has a rather catchy riff buried underneath suitably blackened vocals courtesy of longtime Falkenbach screamer Tyrann / Philip Breuer (news to me, I always thought Vakyas did the screams). On other more mid-tempo songs, like “Bluot Fuer Bluot”, and “Bronzen Embrace”, I’m almost getting a Moonsorrow meets Otyg vibe.

 

Then there’s the Ulver-ian half-acoustic, sitting around the fire hymns of “Eweroun”, and ““Mijn Laezt Wourd”, two absolute gems that sail along on the power of Vakyas’ best clean vocal performances to date. “Eweroun” made my best songs of 2013 list, but its companion song could just as easily have been in it’s place there. Both have stirring, majestic, almost spiritual melodies set against a backdrop of warm, fuzzy, hypnotic riffing and delicate acoustic guitar. I love stuff like this and really appreciate it when someone just “gets” how to do it so well. I like that Vakyas has stayed true to his vision and refused to veer off into the cartoonish direction a lot of folk metal has gone into —- he doesn’t need to. Much like Suidakra’s Arkadius, Vakyas is one of folk metal’s pioneers, and his music connects to our ideas and conceptions of nature, the earth, and existence. Its criminal that this record is going to be overlooked by so many.

 

 

6. Orphaned Land – All Is One:

I doubt there is anyone who appreciated Orphaned Land’s All Is One album as much as I did. I wrote at length about my rather complex history with Orphaned Land earlier this year, and long story short I felt grateful to have another chance to really connect with the band that broadened my musical horizons well beyond metal. I’m aware that much of the band’s middle east following is due to their lyrical concepts and message of unification, peace, and brotherhood. I don’t have a strong opinion on that aspect of the band’s work as a distant American —- I think its a good thing in general of course, and I admire a metal band that dares to be purely positive without any trace of self consciousness, but my attraction to Orphaned Land has always been musical first and foremost. This is not a perfect album, (but then they’ve yet to realize one of those), it is however a really great one. I already gushed about the title track and “Brother” in my Best Songs of 2013 feature, so I’ll avoid repeating myself on both of them here. The rest of the album is just as interesting, filled with the kind of musically adventurous Oriental metal that this band has really pioneered.

 

Take the rich, cultural instrumentation and vocals in “Ya Benaye”, there is so much going on here musically that I couldn’t even begin to name all the instruments, I just know that its a beautiful, soulfully laid back moment of respite amidst an album full of drama, tension, and yeah, some fairly metallic riffs. Likewise in the instrumental “Freedom”, where the guitar vs oud interplay of Yossi Sassi and new guy Chen Balbus eventually turns into jaw-droppingly beautiful bouzouki outro (or hell maybe I got those instruments backwards, either way I want more of it). Speaking of guitars, those two guys turn in the best guitar dual guitar performance on any record released this year —- their ability to play off each other and complement one another is simply stunning, and a huge pull of this album’s appeal. Of course Kobi Farhi is his inimitable self here, delivering some fine vocals to some really excellent lyrics. And the decision to shell out for a full choir and string section was worth the additional expense, they lend a fullness to the sound that was lacking on past records. There’s so much to enjoy here, and the good news is that we’re promised a new studio record in a relatively short (for Orphaned Land standards) time frame —- I can’t wait.

 

 

7. Rotting Christ – Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy:

This is the most bizarre album on this list, I’m not even sure I did it justice in my original review for it earlier in the year. Rotting Christ is a band that I had callously written off many, many years ago for reasons I can’t remember. This album brought me back into the fold as a cemented fan, and its the sheer audacious sense of anything goes, unpredictable blend of what I guess are Greek folk music elements mixed with a unique vision of black metal. Song structures here are uncommonly strange, eschewing traditional verse/chorus structures in favor of Burzum-esque repetition, except that instead of aiming for the hypnotic riff sequencing, Rotting Christ favor a vibrant, shouted vocal chant style approach. There’s a high degree of melodicism going on here as well, guitars deliver ultra-melodic riffs and are often laced over an intense bed of furious percussion, often not matching tempos which creates a very unique effect upon your sensibilities as a listener.

 

Perhaps what makes Rotting Christ’s take on black metal sound so refreshing is their rejection of genre tropes, such as blurring blast beats, tremolo riffs, and aural density. In contrast, the songs on this album have ample space to breath, to sound muscular, and to have sonic identities of their own. Take “Cine iubeşte şi lasă”, where Gypsy-like female vocals usher the song along over slicing guitar riffs and a chanting choir bed. Then there’s the Therion meets Rammestein march of “Iwa Voodoo”, where melodic guitar figures sit between brutal, gutturally chanted male choirs. I wrote in my review of this album that I found it fun to listen to, and I still feel that way. Its one of the catchiest records of the year for metal of all genres, and I can’t tell whether its solely by design or it just tends to turn out that way. Next to Therion, I can’t think of a band that’s come from the ranks of extreme metal that composes music with such interesting song structures. For all it’s accessibility, I have a hard time explaining this album in words —- just go listen to it yourself and you’ll understand why.

 

 

8. In Solitude – Sister:

I imagine that by now you’ve seen this record pop up on many year end metal lists, and have either scoffed or wondered what the big deal is. I got to see these guys alongside Tribulation as openers for Watain a few months ago, and they were an impressive live band, so much so that I was moved enough to check this album out as well as revisit their past two records. I found that Sister has held my attention far more than their previous more straight up retro-metal records could. I do hate using that term to describe anything I’m listening to, but really In Solitude was doing little more than Mercyful Fate worship back then. They must’ve gotten tired of hearing that, because they purposefully distort their sound here with a substantial infusion of goth-rock and post-punk aural aesthetic. Vocalist Pelle Ahman even adopts a looser, more punk-inflected lead vocal delivery to match their new musical approach. If all this strikes you as purposeful affectation to be suspicious of, I suppose I can understand that sentiment but then I’d pose the question of what’s a band that is accused of simply mimicking the past supposed to do other than try to redefine their own sound?

 

All questions of motive and intent aside, In Solitude know how to write some really fantastic songs. A track like “Pallid Hands” hums along on the back of a guitar riff that reminds me of The Cult’s “Rain”, heck even Ahman’s vocals sometimes come off a bit Ian Astbury-ish. I love the inclusion of their cover of an obscure Swedish post-punk band called Cortex, with the rollicking, jaunty “Jesus I Betong” (yes that’s the title). On the propelling title track, Ahman’s vocal delivery rests a half beat behind the guitars, creating the effect of loose, wild rock n’ roll more than anything remotely metal, which is okay seeing as how the song is rather excellent. There are metallic elements mixed in throughout this record, but they’re more textures and retro metal stylistic nods than anything outright heavy in the way of riffs. I can’t help but find myself enjoying it all, though I have to be in the mindset to accept the fact that its far less sonically heavy than even the shiniest of power metal.

 

 

9. October Falls – The Plague of a Coming Age:

This album was a complete surprise, being one of the few promo copies I received and reviewed in the second edition of my Pigeon Post series. I really walked in blind, with no background on the band nor having heard any of their past work. To be honest, I still haven’t checked out the band’s back catalog because I’m so engrossed in this album, a strange blend of melodic death with blackened vocals, under a doomy, atmospheric blanket. Its almost a mix of Katatonia, Agalloch, and early era Opeth, minus a lot of the clean vocals (though there are some). As I was listening to it over these past few months I realized just how much these riffs bring to mind that classic Opeth sound of yore, and how much I’ve missed that. This isn’t to say that October Falls is simply ripping off Akerfeldt and company, but they both seem to tap into a shared vein of beautiful melancholia. When listened to on headphones outdoors in cold weather, this album is as good as hot coffee.

 

This is a full album experience —- one really needs to sit down, pay attention, and listen to this thing from start to finish. Skipping around tracks tends to ruin the atmosphere that is gradually building as the album progresses. But if I’m going to point out highlights you might want to check out, then start with the title track where Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis does guest clean vocals midway through under a wash of well done studio effects that have him sounding distant, almost faded out. Its a great moment, preceded by another stellar track in “Snakes of the Old World”, where gorgeous, swirling guitar melodies convey anguished emotion with as few notes as possible. I’m re-listening to this album as I type this, and every song has some awesome, isolated moment buried in the cocoon of each song —- they’re all worth writing about. Like I said, this album expects your full attention, and with the amount of thought and craft put into it, I think it deserves nothing less.

 

 

10. Tribulation – The Formulas of Death:

I ended up being wrong in my early predictions for this record, which I’ve been listening to regularly since seeing them open for Watain a few months ago. I had figured that it would end up on a lot of the bigger best-of metal lists around the internet —- which it didn’t, turns out the band’s profile is lower than I thought. Secondly, I didn’t see myself having this album on my list at all, not that I didn’t enjoy it, but because it was taking me awhile to come around to acclimating to the band’s penchant for indulging in purely instrumental sections. But Tribulation really has great songwriting in spades here, particularly in the sense that they know and value a catchy riff or three, and are able to utilize them to create mesmerizing, hypnotic songs while using a variety of open chord flourishes as atmospheric soundscapes. Such as “Wanderer in the Outer Darkness” with its epic length and shifting riff sections which build up to unleash pure metal fury with one of the most killer riffs of the year around the 4:34 mark. Another highlight is the uptempo, aggressive “When the Sky is Black With Devils”, where a series of classic sounding riffs usher along the album’s most brutal vocal sections. “Randa” might be the best song here, a wild rocker that has the instrumental vibe of early, pre-Dickinson Maiden. And I’m slowly coming around to some of the aforementioned atmospheric, instrumental sections, which when planned out well add a lot to the creepy, near haunted vibe of the album. Give this one time and patience and it’ll reward you, its at the very least one of the most intriguing releases of the year.

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2013:

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 


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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fall Harvest: Records I Almost Missed + Assorted Ramblings

Yeah, I know its been a minute. What have I been up to this month to cause such a prolonged silence? Well, the Watain adventure late last month made me realize that I had slacked off mid-year in checking out some new releases by noteworthy bands, that concert’s opening bands In Solitude and Tribulation among them. So at the start of the month I began to tackle the laundry list of records released this year that I hadn’t checked out yet. With my mid/late December annual best of lists deadline approaching I really had to set myself to task and delay a couple articles I originally wanted published in November. There were about fourteen albums on that list that I’ve spent the past few weeks listening and re-listening to, some far more than others, and I’m glad I took the time to get to know some of them better. Its a tepid feeling of inadequacy when you come to an album a year or so late only to realize it should’ve been on it’s release year’s best of list. 2011 for me is a pretty glaring example, where top honors could have (and should have) gone to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow instead of Symphony X’s Iconoclast (still a great record though). I almost got it right in 2012, but slept on Woods of Ypres final, masterful album and so this year, I’m aiming for a higher level of vigilance. Chances are that I’ll probably miss something yet again.

 

Suidakra 16.02.2013 Session
Krefeld – Burg Linn, Germany

But for sure it won’t be 2013 releases by Suidakra, Falkenbach, and the aforementioned In Solitude and Tribulation. The latter two I’ll get to in a little bit, but first I have to say that I’ve been absolutely floored by Suidakra and Falkenbach’s new records. I’ve been a long time admirer of Falkenbach’s low-fi take on folk metal for a quite a few years now but was stupidly ignorant of just how incredible of a band Suidakra has become over their past few releases. Delving deep into their catalog now on Spotify, I’m going back four albums deep and loving every single note of what they’re doing, but their new album, Eternal Defiance, sees them taking more risks with their blend of folk infused melodic death metal. This is a gem of an album, living up to the quality of its excellent predecessor Book of Dowth. Learning a bit about the bio of the band it was surprising to note that they hail from Germany, not Scandinavia, where melodic death metal has its roots and current artistic renaissance. Yet they’re singing about Celtic subject matter and tackling folk metal simultaneously without relying on genre tropes and the godawful musical attributes that define the goofy Korpiklaani, the truly terrible Alestorm, and the once great Finntroll.

 

Band founder, vocalist, and songwriter Arkadius (that’s Suidakra spelled backwards by the way) has seemingly forged a new strain of melodic death metal, in that he’s not rehashing the Gothenburg sound of yore, nor following the modern of path of moody, melancholy Finnish melo-death. Instead, Suidakra’s sound and songwriting is geared towards dare I suggest, almost modern power metal minded ideas of major key melodicism, where a Blind Guardian-esque touch of bombast twists and turns over a militantly marching bed of percussion. The folk metal aspect peeks its head out in inspired ways, such as instrumentation or simply full blown excursions into realms of pure acoustic folk, where ethereal female vocals chime in alongside well done clean male vocals. I’m hesitant to write too much about this album here, because yep — you guessed it, Eternal Defiance will have a spot on my best albums of 2013 list and I’ll probably go into more depth there. Suffice it to say that this is a rich, multifaceted work that pulls you in upon first listen and then continually unfolds in layers to reveal even more greatness underneath. You need to listen to this album.

 

Falkenbach flew in under my radar in the sense that I really had no idea they would even have a new album out this year. This is after all a band that is basically one guy, doesn’t play live, and has practically zilch when it comes to an online/social media presence. Their newest offering, Asa, is by an incredibly large margin their best record yet, as Vratyas Vakyas pushes his project’s sound into the welcome reaches of a clearer, professional production. This isn’t to say that past Falkenbach records sounded horrible, but they were coated with a wash of muddled atmospherics and distant drum sounds that often compromised the power of what were undeniably good songs. Here, Vakyas’ vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, his blackened grim vocals now possessing even more bite and rancor than before, and his gorgeous, plaintitive clean vocals are now full, lush, and emotionally affecting. Such is the case on the lead off single “Eweroun”, where delicate acoustic pluckings contrast elegantly against a patient bed of hypnotic, warm riffing —- all while Vakyas calming multitracked vocals take center stage. Its an inspired song, with a definite feel of rootsy authenticity that I find lacking in most modern folk metal. On the other side of the spectrum are fierce black metal tracks that hit with a heaviness and aggression previously not heard on Falkenbach records, such as “I Nattens Stilta” which still manages to surprise with a few prog elements thrown in as well. This is shaping up to be the most welcome yet unexpected comeback record of the year.

 

As I wrote in my previous article, In Solitude really wowed me with their performance in Austin opening for Watain. Now when I listen to their newest album, Sister, I wish I took the time to learn those songs in advance of the concert because I’m hearing great moments that I remembered from their set that night, and good shows are made great by knowing the songs yourself ahead of time. My previous reservations about In Solitude’s prior releases were that while they sounded good and there was generally a decent amount of songs worth going back for, the band was essentially aping Mercyful Fate. Generally speaking, this isn’t something worth crucifying a good band for, not when there are already loads of dopey revisionist thrash bands out there making fools of themselves in puffy eighties styled sneakers. But it was a factor in preventing me from getting into the band completely, and I found myself hoping they’d transition into an original sound or at least a new take on their influences in the future. The good news is that they wasted no time in doing so, and the great news is that they’re unearthing a truly original sound in the process by embracing their post-punk influences and toning back the metal classicism a great deal.

 

On Sister, a song like “A Buried Sun” moves along not on the back of tight riffage, but on airy, spaced out chord sequences that recall pre-Electric era The Cult, and heck, even The Cure. “Lavender” goes one higher, sounding like The White Stripes stop/start guitars married to the dark psychedelia of Bauhaus —- it may be the album’s most genre bending moment, as far from metal as the band is willing to go but a good song nonetheless. On the other hand, the title track is the most propulsive and downright catchy thing they’ve ever penned and its also the most metal moment on the record, with dark descending riffs that lend a classic doomy heaviness to the song. Vocalist Pelle Ahman is quickly becoming one of the more unique vocalists genre wide, his once shameless King Diamond impersonations now finding the usefulness of subtlety and variety and as a result he’s a far more expressive vocalist here —- at times recalling the wild rock n’ roll looseness of an Ian Astbury (sans the “woomon”‘s and “baby”s).  This isn’t an album that I’d recommend for someone wanting hard hitting, direct metal —- but its a successful and very interesting revamp of a band’s musical approach, the sound of a square peg trying to get out of a square hole.

 

The other band that night, the doomy Tribulation, have a new record out called The Formulas of Death, which is plenty riff heavy yet shares In Solitude’s new found penchant for airy infusions of dark psychedelic swirls. I’m still a bit undecided on this one, but a good sign is that I’m intrigued enough to keep coming back to it. They alternate between a doom laden crushing blend of death and black metal without succumbing to genre tropes, or even displaying any obvious influences, and when they hit it hard its gripping stuff. Check out a track like “When the Sky is Black with Devils”, which musically comes across as a mix of Dissection meets latter day Darkthrone. Like In Solitude, Tribulation choose to employ riffs in a far more restrained fashion, featuring long sustains and riffs that aren’t super tight. At times their musical attack brings to mind a blackened version of those early classic Maiden tradeoffs between Murray and Smith —- loose and almost hard rock-ish while simultaneously precise and focused. I love the aggressive moments found on tracks like “Spectres” and “Suspira de Profundis”, but admittedly I find the soft, spacey moments that permeate throughout to be an occasional strain on my patience. When I have the album on in the background and am focused on something else primarily, I find myself enjoying the record as a whole and even admiring those moments of quiet, but when I begin to really focus on what I’m listening to, I find them lacking in musicality —- quiet noodling should still have purpose, direction, and melody. Maybe that’s just going to be my hangup, but it comes and goes, and that further confuses my overall take on this album.

 

I get the feeling that Tribulation will wind up on many reviewers/bloggers best of 2013 lists, some are already short listing it as the album of the year. There usually are one or two albums that end up being a consensus pick of critics genre wide, and far be it for me to suggest that most of these folks don’t truly enjoy the album. Good albums are deservedly recognized as such, but in the past few years in particular I’ve found that the consensus pick of each year has fallen flat for me. And I think that’s where I differ in my end of year analysis and list creation from other sites, blogs, and critics. If a record doesn’t net an emotional or at least a compulsive response from me, then I find it hard to say that its the best album of the year, regardless of how innovative or genre-bending it is. I got a lot of flack a few years ago for publicly questioning NPR’s best metal records of 2011 list, in particular from fans of Cormorant, whose album Dwellings took the top spot on that list. It also appeared on just about every other critical list of metal records for that year, particularly from major mainstream media outlets. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it was an album worth checking out, it was certainly an interesting listen —- but that’s all I got out of it. The responses of that fan base to my list were scathing as expected, and that was fair enough, but my list was an honest one for the time. Of course as I admitted earlier, you’ll rarely get it right in retrospect, but as long as its honest in the moment, how wrong could it be?

 

So when I’m looking at candidates for the best songs and albums of 2013 articles I’m going to be putting up relatively soon (this month I promise!), I’m taking a few things into account: Firstly that this list really matters to no one but myself and perhaps a few other readers, but its going to be on the internet for all time. And secondly, that just like in these two years previous, I’m going to be opening myself up to the potential for a lot of criticism for the album’s list in particular. As the folks at Angry Metal Guy will attest to, this year started off dreadfully slow in terms of the quantity of excellent releases and there were some disappointments that cropped up along the way. 2013 has been heavily back loaded in a bizarre way, but how that has factored into list building is that I’m finding myself seriously going back to reconsider albums released earlier in the year and taking a look at how much I actually listened to them. The results surprised me, in good and not so good ways… some records I thought would be at the forefront of any album of the year list have dropped off for example. The other main takeaway is that its been a quietly strong year for metal, not the blockbuster that was 2011 and 2010, but definitely not the total disaster many bloggers were scouting out earlier in the year.

 

One major disappointment worth noting that I never commented on before is what in the wild hell happened to Blabbermouth? Website redesigns are totally understandable and even welcome when done right but that site was for better or worse the center of my and most other heavy music fans’ online experience. Its been my homepage for years and was always part of the daily new scouring routine. The old design’s iconic news feed scrolling section is now replaced by a far more inconvenient “highlights” feature, mostly featuring Kerry King’s unwelcome face. There are fewer articles on each page of the site, making navigating a chore, and forget about trying to remember how far back you’ve gone because there’s no easy way to judge unless your memory is spot on (mine isn’t). I’m starting to utilize Twitter and Facebook more and more for metal news on essentials like releases and tour dates, but those aren’t perfect systems for those. I find myself actively looking less and less at Blabbermouth even for entertainment value, which was of course one of it’s most dutiful roles, a sort of TMZ for the metal world. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I enjoyed being a spectator to the comment feeds as well, where stupidity and snark would collide in a misguided, often hilarious display of the worst of our fan-doms. With the comments sections now tied into Facebook, anonymity on the site is non-existent, and while some commenters have no problem presenting themselves as oafs and buffoons, the majority of people commenting on individual articles are turning Blabbermouth into a mild version of NPR.org (where complete sentences and paragraph length discussions do a poor job of masking one of the more abhorrent comment sections anywhere online… the ones brimming with irony and smug self satisfaction). Bring back the privacy curtains and trolling idiots I say, god knows we need something to laugh at in this genre.

 

One more thing (I wonder if there’s anyone reading this far), Manowar has announced a 2014 North American tour consisting of nine select shows in February. First, the routing: There’s a couple dates in the midwest, one in Minnesota, two in California and oddly enough two in Texas (Dallas and my current location, Houston). Screw you Florida and the majority of the North East and North West says Joey DeMaio! I can’t tell you how much I loath it when bands come over to only do a handful of dates…. this is the United States of America, a world tour within a world tour. Do a proper 20-30 shows and criss-cross the goddamned land. Kudos to them for scheduling dates in Texas, no proper tour can be called an American tour without hitting Texas in my estimation, but two shows back to back in Dallas and Houston? Fans in either city would drive to the other and meanwhile I’m sure your fans in the very metal friendly but geographically isolated Arizona and New Mexico and El Paso really appreciated that. Why not just be cool to your long suffering American fanbase and do a full fledged club tour of the entire country? Because this is Manowar and they can’t be bothered to play shows in their own backyard unless there’s a huge incentive to do so.

 

The incentive by the way are out of proportion ticket prices. The Manowar shows are 75 dollars for advance tickets or 100 bucks on the day of the show at the box office. Maybe the size of the venues being scheduled (a lot of small theaters like House of Blues) can justify these prices but the reality is that the band is simply taking advantage of scarcity. Manowar regularly schedules full length European tours that see them play in venues such as hockey arenas, soccer stadiums, and at the very least, big big halls (clear em!). They rarely play their own home country and make it point to utilize that scarcity to their economic advantage. Look, I understand economics and supply and demand, the reality is that they’re charging 75 bucks a pop because some people will pay 75 bucks a pop. Do I think they’ll sell out all 1000 tickets for the Houston House of Blues at those prices? Certainly not. I honestly think they’ll be lucky to get 200-300 people in there but there’s more to this issue than just money.

 

For a band who loudly proclaims to be all about their fans and the only metal band that matters, how about showing American fans the same respect that fellow countrymen Kamelot do, with reasonable tours of scaled down production in small clubs for 20 to 30 bucks a ticket so those people who are balking at those prices can cough up the money. The reality is that 75 bucks is a lot of money these days for nearly all of us. Nightwish, a band that can make a really nice career out of scheduling arena tours in Europe and South America toured Stateside last year in a coast to coast tour where base general admission tickets were 30 bucks. They even varied up their setlist a bit as a way of making it up to American audiences who didn’t get to experience their elaborate European stage productions. Getting to see a band that normally plays huge venues in a small club setting, mere yards away from you is a great experience, and they do it without demanding outrageous prices for entry (yes I’m aware Nightwish offered a VIP package for close to 100 bucks on that same tour, but it was entirely optional and you essentially bought a guaranteed meet and greet with the band —- a fair enough proposition in my eyes, as regular ticket holders weren’t being gouged in anyway.)

 

I enjoy some Manowar every now and then, as good time music for hanging out with like minded metal loving friends at get-togethers and such. They’ve made a couple good, not great albums, and their recent output has been dubious at best but always worth the odd catchy song or two. Are they worth 75 dollars? That’s for everyone to decide for themselves but I personally bristle at the idea of American audiences being screwed over in 2013 like that. For a long time it was pretty hard being a metal fan in this country, you’d have to import everything at huge mark ups, bands wouldn’t dare come to our shores for tours because just the very idea itself would lose money, and we had to put up with non-stop barrages of cancellations due to post 9-11 visa issues. Manowar is an American band, but they aren’t particularly welcoming to their fellow countrymen or seemingly at all grateful for the support they’ve had here. I’ll be seeing three shows for certain in the winter and spring of 2014; Amon Amarth with Enslaved; Dark Tranquility with Omnium Gatherum; and Iced Earth with Sabaton and ReVamp. I did the math, all three of those tickets combined cost less than the 86 dollars it would cost to see Manowar. I feel good about where my moneys going.

Insomnium Usher in Autumn with “Ephemeral”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

The A’s Have It: Amorphis, Arckanum, and Austin Wintory

I’ve been feeling a bit scatter brained lately. I’m blaming it on the always rude and unappreciated onset of the Houston summer, a tawdry mixture of Finnish sauna, exhaust fumes, and short tempers. You may remember last summer I ranted about this in one blog entry (I guess you’ll have to get used to it being a yearly thing), and I talked about how the shift in temperatures made me push away moody and melancholy music for something more upbeat and positive, like classic hard rock and trad metal, something you could loosely nod your head to as you drank a cold beverage outside as your forehead did a nice job of mimicking the condensation on your beer can. That was all well and good, a nice mental exercise to help make the passage of three to four nearly intolerable months, well, tolerable… and as ridiculous as it sounds, I’d been purposefully trying to listen to stuff like that recently, but I think its time to admit that its falling on (my) deaf ears.

 

 

The stuff that’s really been connecting with me lately is in fact wintery dark, morose, bleak, and of course melancholic — and I’ve just decided to be okay with that. Better to write about stuff that’s resonating with me for whatever reason than force feed everyone some half-hearted take on the NEW ANVIL RECORD! So, first off, the new Amorphis album, Circle,  is really striking a chord with me in a big way, and the I’ll be honest, I was one of those people who thought Amorphis got better when current vocalist Tomi Joutsen joined the band on 2003’s Eclipse. Okay, I loved Tales From A Thousand Lakes and Elegy, but then began the band’s strange, murky, experimental era, and I simply couldn’t zero in on any of those records. When Joutsen debuted on the “House of Sleep” single, I felt the band got some fire back. Coupled with the fact that there was also stronger emphasis on more rock based songwriting, Joustsen’s ability to deliver incredible melodic and emotional vocals resulted in a far more comfortable fit than Pasi Koskinen’s vocals ever could.

 

On Circle, Amorphis follow up what has been a relatively consistent streak of good dark melodic hard rock/metal albums with a new collection of songs that border on great. There’s the absolutely crushingly heavy opener, “Shades of Grey”, which alternates Joutsen’s excellent screaming vocal laden verses with one of the album’s best choruses. Then there’s my personal favorite in “Hopeless Days”, a song which is built on undulating, shifting percussive rhythms that build up to a heavy, surging, and emotional chorus that’s underpinned by beautiful, tinkling piano. It’s an ear pleasing juxtaposition over which Joutsen delivers his best vocal to date, pouring out tons of emotion into the chorus lyric: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”. This album finds the band at a songwriting high, delivering quite possibly the most well crafted songs in their long career. Its not just about songs being catchy or hook laden, there’s a real sense of artistry that abounds, whether in the flute bird calls in the blistering near black metal of “Nightbird’s Song”, or the dramatic guitar sweeps of “Narrowpath”, in which upbeat Celtic harmonies play alongside moody, downcast Finnish bleakness. Speaking of guitar, Esa Holopainen is on fire all over the album, dishing out beautiful solos, interludes, and really inspired lead harmonies.

 

 

Amorphis took me by surprise, not in that I don’t expect good work from them, but in that I’ve been listening to the album nonstop in a way that I haven’t since I heard Elegy. But if that was a surprise then I’d have to say my enthusiasm for the latest Arckanum offering, Fenris Kindir, is coming as a total shock. This is without a doubt, the best black metal out in 2013 (I know, I know… Darkthrone, but is The Underground Resistance really black metal?), as well as the most immersive listening experience of the year. For those who don’t know, Arckanum has been essentially a one man solo project of Johan Lahger, and he’s made a lengthy go it in releasing albums since the mid nineties. I’ll confess, I’ve been unmoved by this project for the most part, despite being exposed to the past few years of releases… and as is the usual way these things go, I have no explanation for why those previous albums didn’t affect me yet the new one does — but there you go. There’s nothing accessible or commercial about this recording, its pure blistering black metal done in a nod to an old school style, with very little in the way of vibrant melodies.

 

But it makes up for that with its sheer depth in ambient noise, all of which is purposeful in depicting the story of the mythological Odin-killing monsterous wolf. There’s distant tortured voices, a constant wash of feedback, and seemingly inhuman, guttural sounds all over the place. And really only just over half of the album is comprised of actual songs, the rest being a mix of intro/outro/interlude tracks, which may sound annoying, but everything blends into one another for an uninterrupted listening experience. Okay, maybe I’m throwing around the term “experience” too often for what is still at its core brutal and straightforward black metal. But there’s some rather good riffs on display and an overall intensity that is quite the perfect tonic for dealing with overheating summer induced rage. The best moment is on “Angrbða”, a relentlessly fast, brutal, and punishing slice of black metal that opens with an insane sounding tortured female voice shrieking in the distance… only to have (I’m assuming) the same crazed female come back in for a truly bizarre, yet appealing guest vocal midway through. Might be shortlisted for song of the year methinks.

 

 

Finally, something that was bound to happen… the first discussion of a non-metal-related album of music on The Metal Pigeon. Stick with me on this, because if you haven’t treated yourself to the sheer beauty and wonder that is composer Austin Wintory’s epic soundtrack for the PS3 downloadable gaming oddity called Journey, then you’re missing out on something really great. I actually don’t own a PS3, but thanks to YouTube I’ve been able to see the game played, and what I saw was a rather inspired and inventive take on merging gaming into pure visual/interactive art. It was IGN’s Game of the Year for 2012, a huge accomplishment for a small, independent developer overtaking such major heavyweights as Halo 4 for example. Well, I won’t launch into gaming talk here, but suffice it to say the very idea of Journey has a built in metal spirit — to me anyway. You wander alone at first, in this beautiful, desolate, epic landscape, always trying to get to this incredibly huge mountain that looms in the distance, and as you go through your “journey”, other players meet you in your world (or their world) and you can potentially aid one another onwards in your quest. Its an elegant visual metaphor for life, solitude, togetherness, and entropy.

 

Any soundtrack accompanying such an endeavor would have to be just as thoughtful, and trust me fellow metal fans, this stuff will be right up your street. Gorgeously swelling strings, solo cello and violin, brass and woodwinds and also some mighty thundering timpani led percussion. Its a dark, moody, and mysterious sounding work, and a complete one at that — you’ll find yourself listening to it uninterrupted from front to back. I wasn’t surprised to learn that it was the first video game soundtrack to ever be nominated for a Grammy Award (it lost out to Trent Reznor, of all people, who did the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack). I’ve always been interested in games that have a relationship with metal, be it soundtrack wise or just in terms of feel. The PS2 game “Shadow of the Colossus” for example really was black metal personified into an epic game where you, a solitary hero named Wander had to venture out into a bleak, harsh, and desolate world to hunt down mighty giant “Colossi”, and defeat those mighty forces by yourself. Tell me that isn’t black metal. Journey then, in its own uniquely ambient way, as a game and soundtrack, seem to reflect some of the deeper virtues that I find within metal as an art. Life as an epic, mighty, yet ultimately doomed quest — its a bleak picture when regarding the destination, but the journey itself is the point, not the end. Didn’t Maiden once say something about not worrying about wasted years?

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KY0bUjF0YQ8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

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

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ypNgvc6c6Cc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

New Releases by Rotting Christ, Cnoc An Tursa, and Ominum Gatherum cure what ails The Metal Pigeon

Despite the newest Darkthrone masterwork only being a few weeks old in my listening rotation, I gotta be honest about feeling like I’ve been going through an all things extreme metal burnout lately. Regular readers of this blog probably won’t be surprised at hearing this, considering that I’m often talking about metal listening cycles in some form or fashion. I find it better for myself to be upfront about these things, not only for the blog’s sake but for my own overall enjoyment of metal’s sake. I don’t — as the road manager interviewed at Wacken in the Metal: A Headbangers Journey documentary claims to — wake up every morning and listen to just Slayer and Testament.

 

In other words, I love variety and diversity within the metal spectrum. Metal is a multifaceted form of music, and I enjoy pretty much most of its subgenres without discrimination. But why the burnout? I’m not sure… could be that I was listening to a ton of death and black metal at the end of 2012, and have frequented a good amount of local metal shows (which in the Houston area are almost always full of tepid, mediocre death metal)… whatever the reason, I knew something was amiss when I started listening to Foreigner on my iPod for my morning pick me up. Thankfully, three new albums from bands of differing styles are doing something fresh with their takes on extreme metal. Whats even better is that they collectively span the three major styles in this broadly tagged “extreme” category: black, death, and thrash.

 


 

In the case of Greece’s Rotting Christ, this was a band I hadn’t listened to in perhaps under a decade and had long ago written off as uninteresting (I’ve since checked out their back catalog on Spotify only to realize how wrong I was). Unbeknownst to me until now, they’ve been steadily pursuing a musical change of direction on their past couple albums, and its all led to the most radicalized experimentation of their career on Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy (Do What Thou Wilt), their eleventh studio album to date. Quite simply put, I love this album. Its one of the more bizarre imaginings of black metal that I’ve ever heard really. These guys dig down deep into their Greek heritage for some dark musical inspirations that really separate them from the hordes of Norwegian copycats. Unexpected amounts of melodicism, unorthodox percussive rhythms, very inspired blackened vocal arrangements and original songwriting are just a few touchstones to remark upon. The obvious standout for its sheer accessibility is “Grandis Spiritus Diavolos”, a steadfast march in which the title phrase is repeated in staccato rhythm over a bed of ultra-melodic guitar riffs, some Uli Jon Roth-style solo accompaniment, and Therion-ish choir vocals. On “Cine Jubeste Si Lasa”, things get really bizarre with the addition of very ethnic, gypsy-like female vocals of Souzana Vougioukli that intertwine with Sakis Tolis’ ever blackened grim vocals to hypnotic effect. It took me awhile to process what was going on in the track, but its quickly become a favorite.

 

But there’s straight up rockin’ infused in here as well, such as in the title track, where pummeling drums are set against slower riffing guitars that tail off into hard rock styled twists. Its surprising but totally awesome, and it makes you envision someone putting Slash on stage with Abbath and telling him to just interject wherever he can. Oh and if you like your metal with a lot of spiritual-ish chanting in the background, this is your lucky day!  I enjoy black metal for what it is — and its often dense and impenetrable music that demands your studious attention. And those aren’t negative attributes in my mind, they’re a part of the art. That being said its rare to come across a black metal album that is actually fun to listen to, and I can put this record alongside Sons of Northern Darkness in that regard. A year ago, the talk online was about how Norwegian black metal was stale and that American bands were making black metal fresh again (despite essentially rebranding French black metal ideas, but nevermind) with shoegaze and indie influences. Rotting Christ on the other hand don’t subscribe to addition by subtraction — they isolate what they love about black metal and reshape it to reflect their native musical language. And in doing so, they show that you don’t have to remove the metal from black metal in order to freshen things up a bit.

 

 

And then there’s new kids on the block Cnoc An Tursa, who defy cheeky boy-band references with what sounds to me like a perfect melding of folk-infused thrash ala early Ensiferum with some of the most excellent blackened vocals that I’ve heard in recent memory. I’ve seen these guys tagged as viking metal or folk metal, and that’s a gross oversimplification. First of all, forget the Viking stuff, these guys are a Scottish band that emphasize a musical and lyrical focus on their nation’s history and culture in a rather eloquent fashion. They draw upon the well of great Scottish poetry for their lyrical inspiration, as in “Bannockburn”, which depicts the battle that was central to the Robert Burns poem of the same name (and they do so in rather Burns-ian language themselves). On other tracks they essentially set a beloved Scottish poem to a bleak, wintry, blackened folk sound scape as with “Culloden Moor”, which works far better than the idea looks on paper.

This is enthralling stuff, and whats great for these guys is that their original lyrics match the tone and consistency of the historic national poetry that they clearly treasure. My favorite moment is “Ettrick Forest In November”, which is the Sir Walter Scott poem set to a blistering, epic as all hell, Bathory meets Moonsorrow explosion of atmospheric, melodic thrash. I’m throwing that term around a lot — thrash, because I hear it in the vocal approach, and in the attack of the guitars, their crunch and the suitably gritty production that emphasizes it. Its all done without sacrificing the cleanliness of the thoughtful keyboard driven atmospherics. No fronting, this could be surprisingly high on my best of 2013 list come December.

 

 

Finally, there’s been the newest release by Finland’s Omnium Gatherum, a band that I was initially introduced to through their highly acclaimed 2011 New World Shadows album. It took me quite awhile to really sink into that album, not because I found it lacking — the opposite actually, there was so much going on that was just way different from anything else I’d come to expect from melodic death metal. Odd drum patterns, alternately shifting tempos, bleak-washing atmospherics, and of course the obsidian vocals of Jukka Pelkonen. This is a weird comparison, but once I finally broke through with repeated listens, it felt like I had cracked the secrets of a musical Rubik’s cube — suddenly it all made sense and sounded right. So getting a chance to hear new music from these guys with that hurdle behind me has been a real pleasure. Their new album, Beyond, is to me an even better collection of music than it’s predecessor. Whether its on the lead single, “The Unknowing”, with its sweeping arpeggio based musical refrain that is as cinematic as it is memorable, or on the breathy, acoustic laced “Luoto” and its buildup to the hooky rock guitar driven “New Dynamic”; this album delivers with a diverse range of songs that stretch the band’s trademark sound. This is especially true on the clean vocal laden “Who Could Say”, in which Pelkonen seems to draw on equal parts Sentenced and Amorphis.

 

There are of course some classic styled melo-death moments, like my favorite on “The Sonic Sign”, where the guitar work includes beautifully harmonized dual leads playing a melodic refrain that you will not be able to dislodge from your head. The strangest thing about Omnium Gatherum to me is the mood they create with their musical palette — its really hard to describe. I suppose I think of typical melo-death as bringing to mind dark, brooding, ominous, and often metaphysical imagery. Conversely the bright, modern, sleek, and yes even positive sounds of Omnium work to conjure up an entirely different head space, one that takes some getting used to. Or maybe that’s just my own weird way of interpreting things. To say Omnium has been a challenging listen for me is an understatement… there was a time where I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see what others saw about them. I won’t lie, Insomnium is still my favorite melodic death metal band and the one I crave the most, but Omnium intrigue me and keep me coming back for more listens. No one else sounds remotely like them.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIyrV5br1aM?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

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

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Five Most Anticipated Albums of 2013

Killer metal tends to come in waves that ebb and flow. For example from 2010 through 2012 one could not begin to stem the tide of awesome new releases being dished out every single month. This prolific three year stretch of metallic goodness was particularly noticeable when juxtaposed next to the comparative drought metal seemed to go through from 2006-2009 (hey, at least to me anyway). So the question of the moment has to be whether or not 2013 can maintain this high velocity level we’ve gotten used to from metal artists worldwide, spanning all sub genres. We won’t know until the year’s over but the tentative 2013 release schedules that are being compiled and posted on metal sites all over are promising to say the least. Here are my personal top five most anticipated metal releases of this new year!

 

 

1. Queensrÿche – TBA:

Just to clarify, I’m referring to the Todd LaTorre fronted, real Queensrÿche that has within its ranks founding members Michael Wilton, Scott Rockenfield, and Eddie Jackson. The abortion that is Geoff Tate’s Queensrÿche can go die a slow, miserable, dinner-theater death. Why is this my most anticipated release of the year? Well my Queensrÿche fandom runs way back in my metal loving infancy, they were among some of the first bands to really make me appreciate music on a far more complex level, as well as being a musical cornerstone for a type of sound that I love to this day. They were one of my gateway bands in other words, and to see the deterioration that they had to go through in their post-Chris DeGarmo era at the hands of the woeful Tate and Yoko Tate has been more than a man can bear. When they finally gave him the boot in April of 2012 and soon afterwards debuted their newly recruited vocalist, LaTorre from Crimson Glory, I felt that one of my old favorites had been given a new lease on life. The recorded live clips of their recent string of shows have been nothing short of fantastic and grin inducing, and the talk of what this new album is supposed to be has me cautiously optimistic. I’m hopeful that these guys will make good on their promise to release a prog-metal album in the vein of what Queensrÿche fans have long hungered for.

 

 

2. Avantasia – The Mystery of Time:

Maybe the least surprising factoid for many of you who read this blog often is that I’m a fairly huge power metal fan. When I was first exploring metal that was off the American mainstream radar I briefly shunned power metal, sticking to death and melodic death metal with inborn stubbornness. But I loosened up when three power metal titans punched me in the face with releases from the late 90s, namely, Blind Guardian, Iced Earth, and Edguy. The latter of which contained one of the sub genre’s truly fantastic personalities: Edguy’s mercurial frontman, Tobias Sammet, was a vivid, loud, and zany character — but also one of the most accomplished and prolific songwriters that metal had ever seen. In a span of three years, 1998 to 2001, he knocked out of the ballpark three power metal classics with Edguy’s Vain Glory Opera, Theater of Salvation, and Mandrake.

 

The fact that he was folding into that same time frame a pair of classic records with his solo project Avantasia’s The Metal Opera Pt I & II was not only an incredible feat, but also the defining moment for the sub genre in what was a watershed period of excellent releases that began in the mid-nineties and would span well over a decade. It was a great time to be a fan of this style of metal. When he brought the project back in 2008 and onwards with a trio of releases and a new line-up, I felt like Sammet was forging a new path within power metal itself by mixing traditional elements with AOR, hard rock, and even pop. Sure there were catcalls and criticisms from naysayers who felt he was straying too far from the sub genre’s trademark elements, but to his credit, he insisted on making the records that he wanted to hear. This new album then, due out in March, is yet another resurrection of the Avantasia project, and Sammet is assembling another interesting cast of guest vocalists and musicians that I hope will live up to the exciting musical legacy already established with the previous releases.

 

But here’s the real talk about Sammet, regardless of how much he tries to deny it, its becoming clear that Avantasia has supplanted Edguy as his primary focus. When your solo project starts to outgun your main band’s albums in terms of songwriting quality, scale, ambition, and record sales, its obvious where you’re subconsciously or consciously putting forth most of your efforts. And I guess I’m fine with that. No disrespect to the fellows in Edguy, but I suppose I’m more of a fan of Tobias Sammet and his songwriting than anything else, no matter what project its in. It’ll be interesting to see the futures of both projects.

 

 

 

3. Darkthrone – The Underground Resistance:

I know its not just myself that feels this way, but generally speaking, I think I enjoy listening to the latter day, more recent Darkthrone albums than their earlier ones. Sacrilege? To many yes. But here’s the thing, there’s only so many times I can listen to A Blaze in the Northern Sky and Transilvanian Hunger without feeling like I’m spinning my wheels a bit. Those were the records that I’d see references in metal magazines lists of essential black metal listening, the ones name dropped by so many bands, and the ones that its generally believed that a metal fan needs to devour in order to understand the complete picture of black metal.

 

Hey, that was all fine with me — if a bit studious, but there is such a thing as over listening to an album (still can’t really listen to those Emperor albums anymore). Darkthrone made an abrupt stylistic shift to a punky, crusty, thrashy black metal blend with 2003’s Hate Them and never really looked back. This approach has progressed to a more and more non-traditional sound, culminating in what might be one of their best records to date, 2010’s Circle the Wagons. Clean singing in Darkthrone songs? Clean(er) production on a Darkthrone album? What the hell was going on right? If all else failed it was worth it simply to see the internet black metal crybabies go berserk on the Metal Archives and black metal blogs everywhere. But I loved that record, and enjoyed the four that preceded it (yes I’m even including The Cult Is Alive with its critic-baiting, rage-inducing “Too Old, Too Cold”). If the teaser that’s out for the new album is any indication — where the vocals take on a near Mercyful Fate-esque quality — troo kvlt fans will be even more pissed off and I’ll be even more pleased. Good stuff.

 

 

 

4. Satyricon – TBA:

It has been just under four and a half years since Satyr and Frost released any new music together. That is considered a rather long time in metal, a genre where Wintersun’s eight year delay of Time I was considered a long enough period to deem Jari Mäenpää as Axl Rose’s Finnish cousin. Unlike those two guys, who aim to be perfectionists much to their own detriment, Satyr had a decent enough reason to call time on his name sake band. Quite simply, he realized that he’d run the band’s sound as far as it would go, and was staring at a wall. It was time to go back to the drawing board and reconfigure the sound of Satyricon for the future.

 

The exciting part for us fans is that we really have no idea what this could mean. Few could predict the black n’ roll turn that these guys took with “Fuel For Hatred”, and really I’ve seen no one even take a stab in the dark at what the new stuff will sound like. The band is keeping mums the word as well, but we’ll all have some shreds of answers come late March when they take the stage at the Inferno Festival where its promised that they’ll debut several new songs live. I’m sure there are loads of people who have become disinterested in anything these guys have done since Rebel Extravaganza, despite their soaring popularity through the past decade. Again, like Darkthrone, I found myself enjoying black n’ roll Satyricon simply for what it was, in this case entertaining and catchy as hell metal. But if you were one of those disgruntled former fans, well here’s your chance to give the band another shot with a new album due this year that is expected to be the start of a new era of Satyricon.

 

 

 

5. Omnium Gatherum – Beyond:

These guys were a slow burn for me, as I took up an infatuation with Insomnium and Moonsorrow first and Omnium had to take the backseat for awhile. Choosing to ignore the odd subtext of that sentence, I’ll just move on and say that New World Shadows was my selling point on the band. What a great freaking album. I’ll have to admit that my listening experience with the band is so far limited only to the albums with Jukka Pelkonen on vocals, and I’ve no idea about anything done with the old singer. I’m okay with that right now, as I’m slowly becoming a Pelkonen fanboy. He might be one of the most versatile and expressive vocalists doing harsh/gutteral vocals in the metal scene as a whole. Musically not only does it feel like these guys are original in style and sound, but that originality extends to their songwriting as well, where standard pop structures are discarded in favor of more complex arrangements.

 

The new album, Beyond, will be the first of my most anticipated to be released this year, and the band have released a new song well ahead of the album’s expected release date of late February, and it can be heard here. It seems like the standard pre-album release cut strategy, issuing the most obviously catchy song first, but time will tell on that. I’m digging it, and it seems like they’ve gotten into more of the almost near power metal guitar sounds that they were exploring on New World Shadows. By the way, I wonder if anyone has passed a copy of that album to someone in In Flames? It’s seemingly the type of thing that those guys have been blindly trying to strive for with their recent clumsy, half-baked stabs at modernizing melodic death metal.

 

Bearing the Torch: Insomnium Inherit the Legacy of Sentenced

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Wintersun’s Time I: A Review Without Puns

I’m not going to get into a history lesson here on the maddeningly long span of time (don’t… just, don’t) and events that marked this album’s journey to this one day, when it has finally met its release date. I will however take a moment to put the release of Time I in perspective, in order to illustrate  just why the near Chinese Democracy-like series of delays and pratfalls surrounding the album’s creation are such a big deal. Wintersun’s only other album, their self-titled debut, was released on September 13th of 2004, and for those of you too young to remember, here’s a short list of stuff that’s worth mentioning: In 2004, there was no YouTube; MySpace was the height of social media; Facebook had not yet been opened to the general public; the first I-Phone was still years away; Twitter had not yet been dreamed of; the term “App” had not yet entered our popular vocabulary; the world had not heard of Barack Obama; George W. Bush was still serving his first term, and Dimebag Darrell (R.I.P.) was still alive and rocking.

 

In summary, 2004 was a long goddamned time ago and those of us who have been waiting the long wait for a follow up to that excellent debut should be forgiven for getting a bit agitated, annoyed, apathetic, and just plain “blah” over the years. Genuine enthusiasm is really hard to keep up for that long a time. It was noticeable that in the days following July4th, when the official release date was announced that fan response was muted overall, and even my own lack of excitement for the album came as a surprise. Maybe it was all just a subconscious lowering of expectations, or maybe it was just being realistic. But as expected you can’t dampen people’s curiosity for long, as the release date got closer and the Nuclear Blast hype generator was switched on, fan excitement and anticipation for this album has launched an upward trajectory in particular through social media. As the accolades from the European press pour in with all manner of praise and hyperbole, I find myself far more interested in the opinions of fellow fans who have had to bite the patience bullet all these years.

 

Time I features the first half of a promised eighty minutes of new Wintersun music painstakingly crafted by vocalist/guitarist Jari Mäenpää. The most noticeable thing that can be said about whats on offer here is that the original Wintersun blend of melodic death metal with a touch of power metal has been turned on its head. Gone are the guitar driven styles of the debut, where riffs and six string virtuosity were the meat and potatoes of the songs — on Time I ornately layered orchestral keyboard arrangements are at the forefront of everything. As a result this new sound Wintersun is very much epic power metal blended with a heavy shot of melo-death. Yes there are still some heavy, punishing guitar riffs (in a crunchier tone than you’ll be expecting), but there’s more clean vocals here than grim screams — more orchestral bombast than wild, out of control guitar solos. You didn’t think he’d spend all this time just to write an exact copy of the first album right? Of course not, and while this may not exactly be night and day from old school Wintersun, it is something that can fairly be called a progression. Some people might not be able to get past this genre bending hurdle and I can understand why they would feel that way.

 

 

Fortunately for the rest of us who enjoy our over the top, ridiculously bombastic power metal, Time I delivers ear candy in loads. There’s only three real songs on this album, two being instrumentals, but the the length of those three ranging from eight to thirteen minutes makes up for the shallow track count. It clocks in at just over forty minutes of music and while that is relatively short for an album I find that I’m not dissatisfied with the length — this is only part one after all. The centerpiece here is “Sons of Winter and Stars”, a suite of four separate song sections of urgent pacing, soaring choruses delivered in Mäenpää’s unique deep timbre, amidst a clash of keyboard orchestras, guiding riffs, and an overload of melodies both Japanese and Scandinavian folk inspired. There’s quiet moments too where string backed atmospheric sections provide a backdrop to eerily sung vocals, the lyrics of which concern… well you could probably take a guess at it: the unrelenting march of time, vastness, longing, and despair. No ones really making a big deal about this being a thematic album, but you get the gist from listening to his very discernible words that there are some unifying themes at work within the lyrics. It all works and matches the sheer epic reach of the music quite well, and honestly what else was he going to sing about anyway?

 

My first impressions upon hearing this album was that I found myself genuinely having fun listening to it. I’ve been able to put this on repeat and catch multiple listens all the way through a few times in a row without tiring of it or feeling like its a chore to listen to — that’s a harder feat to accomplish than it seems. I suppose I’m biased with my power metal love, but this is the kind of stuff that’s right up my street. There’s only so many times one can use the words epic and bombastic to describe this record, but they are apt terms and are the record’s core strengths. Mäenpää doesn’t write the catchiest choruses, or deliver exceptionally heavy music even, but he does craft emotional, melancholic melodies on such an exceptional scale that he is in the top tier of songwriters within modern day metal. If I were to point out a particular highlight of this album, it’d have to be Mäenpää’s incredible clean vocals, they are deeper and more resonant than anything he has recorded for the debut or his work in Ensiferum. When I’m not listening to the album, its usually the passages with those clean vocal melodies than come racing back into my head.

 

This is a great record — or a great first half of a record. Time II is supposed to be coming out in early 2013 and once that’s out we’ll be able to put these two pieces together to see if the second half dampens the energy of the first. My doubts are erased however regarding Mäenpää’s abilities to continue to create musically diverse, engaging, and satisfying slabs of metal. The approach has changed for Wintersun but the results haven’t, and for that alone Mäenpää should be applauded. Does it sound like it was worth all those years of incubation? No it doesn’t. There’s nothing on offer here arrangement wise that hasn’t been matched or bettered by recent albums from Blind Guardian or Nightwish, but then again Wintersun didn’t have their budgets either. Oh well, better late than never they say, and Wintersun releasing one of the most fun-to-listen-to albums of 2012 is a victory worth acknowledging.

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