Kamelot – The Awakening:
So I was planning to do a rather technical deep dive on this new Kamelot album, titled The Awakening (lets note that this is not in fact a concept album based on the famed Kate Chopin novel of the same name, although that sounds like a promising idea in general for any symphonic metal band), but after spending a considerable amount of time with it over the past few weeks I’ve realized that maybe a blow by blow dissection of this album isn’t what anyone, let alone myself, want or need. I’ll just be up front in saying that this isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but to it’s credit its a step in the right direction after the abysmal affair that was The Shadow Theory in 2018 (but after a five year gap, its certainly not a big enough step). Let’s just do this simply, by breaking down what Kamelot did right here, and what they did wrong (or more accurately have continued to do wrong).
First the positive stuff: Tommy seems increasingly unleashed to maximize his vocal talent and accentuate his strengths, a welcome change from how stifled and constrained his performances felt on the last album. It’s not a coincidence that the best songs here are examples of this in action, in particular the glorious opener “The Great Divide”, as old school power metal as the band have leaned in a long, long time (interestingly enough Jani Liimatainen is one of the co-writers on this tune, which might explain the classicist feel going on that we’ve heard him bring to the table with Cain’s Offering, The Dark Element, and last year’s collab with Tony Kakko). I’ll also single out “Eventide” as one of Tommy’s smoothest verse to chorus transitions, and there’s something irresistible about the ease of his vocal uplift on that soaring hook. Equally impressive for different reasons was his performance on “The Looking Glass”, where he did some different things with his vocals, taking a little more of a theatrical bent here and there that reminded me of the way his predecessor Roy Khan told a story with his intonation and delivery on all those classic songs. To cut to the quick of it, the band sounds way better when they lean towards major key, soaring power metal where Tommy gets to shine and flex his chords a bit.
Kamelot falters however in the same frustrating way they’ve been faltering artistically for the past many albums now (a decent chunk of Haven being an exception), that being their insistence in continuing their edgy, darker musical approach that just seems entirely at odds with Tommy’s entire personality and vocal presence. This stuff worked when it was introduced way the hell back in the Roy Khan era with The Black Halo, because Khan was a convincing vocalist for that particular approach, his voice deep and resonant enough to put genuine grit and gravitas to his vocals and the characters he was inhibiting. Even on the somewhat criticized Ghost Opera and Poetry For the Poisoned, where they continued that style, he was able to craft vocal melodies that made incredibly dramatic magic with his lower registers. At the time it was a refreshing change of pace for power metal at large, with few bands save Tad Morose and a couple others daring to dabble in anything less than polished and shiny Euro-power. However when Khan left, Thomas Youngblood and company stuck with this artistic palette, I’m guessing because it had delivered to the band a more marketable image that they could associate with rather than the regal toned power metal of their Fourth Legacy thru Epica era. We see evidence of this in the maddingly similar music video visual styles they’ve employed over the past decade plus, with one virtually indistinguishable from another. It’s all this edgy futuristic sci-fi goth, post-apocalyptic yawn inducing dreck, and the music of course has to fit that image.
I’ll admit that I had some slight hopes that after going through a five year gap between albums during which we all collectively went through the pandemic, that Kamelot might do an abrupt change, take the chance to shake things up a bit. You’d figure all that time sitting around in dour circumstances would inspire the band to do something else, anything remotely different in style and tone, but I guess not. In Kamelot’s case it really couldn’t hurt to consider the old adage that sometimes one needs to go backwards in order to go forwards. A little of that old school magic could really reinvigorate their sound (I’m talking about a full embrace of it, not just the drips and drabs that they’ve scattered across this album). The faux tough guy hardo act with songs like “One More Flag in the Ground” has never resonated with me, and by this point after a decade plus full of the stuff they’ve spread it so thin it barely has any substance left. The irony is that commercially the band has slipped over the past couple releases in markets like the USA and the UK where that kind of thing is largely aimed at. The chart positions and sales have gotten lower and lower. Kamelot, I’m urging you — embrace romanticism again, reconsider your entire visual approach, crawl out of the darkness and breathe some fresh air again. I suspect there’s quite a few of us who’ll be waiting on the other side.
Metallica – 72 Seasons:
Alright! Twelve years of The Metal Pigeon and my second Metallica album review! It’s a milestone of sorts I’d say, although one loaded with a ton of criticism that I’ve largely already written about at length and won’t reintroduce here anew. Deserving still of criticism is the band’s rate of fire on new music output, it still takes them ages, and I still think that works to their detriment in the grand scheme of things, but I think we’re past the point of no return on that front. Too much time has passed and the band is too set in their way of working (or rather, mostly touring). All that said, I think I had the same vague sense of trepidation with the approach of Metallica’s newest, 72 Seasons, as most veteran metalheads — with a jaded, arms folded stoicism. As far as advance singles go, “Lux Æterna” wasn’t the worst choice that they could’ve put out, though it does sound far more fitting within the context of the album. I’d say the most valid criticism of it as a single is that it was the obvious choice from the tracklist, the shortest, most radio format friendly cut (a mere 3:25 run time), and out there on it’s own it felt a little underwhelming as a preview, whereas on the album sandwiched right in the middle of things, its a blast of excitement when it hits.
Were Metallica truly gutsy, they would’ve picked the album opener title track “72 Seasons” as the lead off single, because not only is it the best song on the album as a whole, but I’d argue it’s the best singular tune the band has delivered since some of the more smoky, deep cuts off 1996s Load. That deep rumbling Trujillo bass intro leading into a rollicking, thrash-tinged sequence is one of the more adrenaline pumping starts to a Metallica album in long memory. I love that Hetfield’s barking vocals here sound like vintage angry Hetfield circa 89-96, deep and booming but with that sharp, slicing bite that gave so much of classic Metallica cuts their visceral, emotional impact. And really, the whole band just slams in this song, Hammett even delivering a rare interesting guitar solo here that works as a minor detour and melodic complement to all the aggression surrounding it. Lars turns in a fiery, well thought out attack caught halfway between groove and solid quasi-thrash pummeling — its not flashy, but it doesn’t have to be and frankly shouldn’t because as is it serves the best interests of this song. I really love this song, and it just bowled me over the first time I put the album on, putting a grin on my face as I drove around pumping my fist to a new Metallica album which was a small joy to realize while it was happening.
The band follows it up with two damn near as convincing gems in “Shadows Follow” and “Screaming Suicide”, creating the band’s best three song opening salvo since Justice (I wasn’t ever wild on “Sad But True” so The Black Album doesn’t qualify for this). Regarding the former, this sometimes flip flops with “72 Seasons” as my favorite cut on the album, there being something really satisfying about Hetfield’s cadence on the vocal lines during the verses, that sharp spittle flying bark and bite attack. His lyrics here are also truly some of his best in ages, for all three of these songs really, but I can’t help but love that line “On I run / still my shadows follow” — it’s such a simple idea thematically, but so eloquently phrased as to create a picture in your mind that most of us can relate to I’d think. Actually I’ll expand on this lyrical discussion by stating that I think this album is Hetfield’s finest batch of lyrics as a collective whole since the Load album (which barring a few songs was a masterwork of lyric writing on Hetfield’s part in my book). Much has been discussed, largely by him, of his personal trials and tribulations that have changed things in his life since Hardwired, and it’s refreshing to hear him approach these subjects in a way that avoids clunkiness, awkward word choice, instead feeling like a direct conduit with his raw emotions.
Things hit speed bumps when we reach “Sleepwalk My Life Away”, “You Must Burn!”, and “Crown of Barbed Wire”, three mid-tempo set plodders that make you eyeball that 1hr 17min runtime and wish that the band had a more vocal editor in the studio during the album sequencing and urged them to leave those for b-sides. The riffs here seem to be aiming for a groove metal adjacent approach, but rather than locking you into said groove, I find myself growing angsty at how plodding they feel, how unfocused and fuzzy everything comes across. Working as a palette cleanser to those middle of the tracklist duds is “Chasing Light” which has one of the most effective, sharpened choruses on the album with a fantastic vocal trade off hook. I also loved “If Darkness Had a Son”, where we get that classic sounding Metallica vocal hook from James, a call and response out of the darkness that is written with precision and maximum earwormy-ness. The album has a strong closing run overall really, “Too Far Gone?” and “Room of Mirrors” are rockin’ songs that have specific parts I find worth coming back for, and I always find myself nodding my head along.
Much has been made of the very Sabbath influenced doom tinged closer “Inamorata”, the album’s lengthiest song clocking in at over eleven minutes, the band’s longest song in their career. I’m giving it semi-high marks because it does present something kinda unique among the album and in Metallica’s career in general, harkening back in a way to their cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Astronomy” they did on Garage, Inc all those years ago. As for the length, there is a mid-song bridge dropout where everything comes to a hush, only to build back up into a cascade of rather gorgeously phrased guitar parts that seem like a true interplay between Hetfield and Hammett. It’s not a song I’m losing my mind over, but I did enjoy it and applaud the band hitting a different stride here. Speaking of Hammett… he’s the weak link on this album, because with a few exceptions including “Inamorata”, his solos are so repetitive, full of overpoured wah pedal and seemingly directionless phrasing. He’s come out swinging against the criticism lately but I think it’s warranted — because seriously Kirk, I get that you think it’s a direct line to your emotional gut, but it’s tiresome for everyone else. I’m surprised the band doesn’t suggest he ditch the pedal, if only to offer some sonic variance for the sake of introducing freshness when that guitar solo hits. It’s weird to single out a member for poor performance on a Metallica album and not have it be Lars, but the Dane was absolutely solid this outing. And props to Hetfield on a fine return to form, as much as he can get these days anyway. I was incredibly surprised at how much I enjoyed this.