The Spring 2018 Reviews Cluster

We’ve had a few really solid months in terms of quality metal output, and I’ve been somewhat on top of most things this year which is a change from my usual flailing around. I’ve likely missed something somewhere but given the amount of time already spent listening to music, I don’t think I could cram anymore in. Here’s a few of the things I thought were noteworthy and worth talking briefly about, the ones that didn’t make it in this time might see the light of day next go round. If you really think I’m missing something that needs to be heard by all means let me know in the comments below, I need all the help I can get!

 


 

 

Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Tucson’s Judicator are the latest in a volley of trad/power metal shots fired from the States, and with The Last Emperor they might actually win enough critical acclaim to become a fixture on the scene. Theirs is a decidedly European leaning take on the style, heavily influenced by classic mid-period era Blind Guardian. This shouldn’t come as a surprise once you hear this record, but its worth mentioning that their founding members met at a Blind Guardian show in 2012, and having first hand experience myself at just how magical those shows are in particular, I wonder why more power metal bands haven’t blossomed in their wake. Anyway, at the heart of Judicator are vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco, both working as primary songwriters together, Cordisco working up the music and Yelland crafting his own vocal melody ideas. Their new album is actually my introduction to the band, arriving typically late to the party (this is album number four for them, three if you consider the first to be what it really is, a demo), I was introduced to them via the accumulated murmurings at the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the /r/powermetal subreddit. Everyone seemed to be eagerly anticipating its March 30th release above anything else, so like a kid elbowing his way through a throng watching the news on TV at a storefront window, I had to see what everyone was going on about. Two tracks in and I was immediately sold and bought the album from their Bandcamp a day before its official release.

 

It shouldn’t take long to sell you on it either, the opening title track being a near perfect microcosm of hearing their obvious influences shining through yet also detecting their own personality coming through. Midway through, they abruptly skip away from a very Blind Guardian-esque, layered vocal laden mid-tempo passage to a sudden gear shift into speed metal with group shouted backing vocals, a combination that reminds me of a metalcore approach (albeit without sounding ‘core). I imagine its impossible to write a review about these guys and not mention the influence of the ‘Bards, and while other bands have shown that influence before (Persuader anyone?), the really impressive thing about Judicator is just how that influence manifests itself —- the folky vocal passage towards the end of “Take Up Your Cross”. Yelland isn’t so much a dead ringer for Hansi in tone as he is in approach, something heard in his choice in diction, phrasing, and of course the innate sense of when to layer a vocal with heaps of harmonies. You get to directly hear that contrast on “Spiritual Treason” where Hansi himself shows up for a guest vocal spot, as ringing an endorsement of Judicator as you could envision. Its a fantastic track, epic in scope and feel, and while the two singers complement each other really well, the star here might be the songwriting itself, crisp, bracing and energetically bouncing along (its been awhile  since we’ve heard Hansi in something this lean and mean).

 

Nine Circles published a nice interview with Yelland and Cordisco, one worth checking out if only for the glimpse into the tons of behind the scenes work that American power metal bands have to go through. The insight into this album however yielded a few surprising details, the first being that this is the band’s first album without harsh vocals and ballads both. There are softer dips into folky acoustic territory scattered throughout The Last Emperor, and they sounded so excellent that I wondered why these guys weren’t trying their hand at a longer piece composed in that vein —- I’ll have to dig into their discography to find that then. Its not a knock against this album though, because I get what they were trying to do in maintaining a certain level of energy throughout (somewhat similar to what Visigoth recently accomplished on Conqueror’s Oath). Reading Cordisco’s description of how he approached the songwriting here only reinforces what I felt when hearing the album for the first time, that there’s a real methodical level of thought that went into the songwriting here, even down to tiny details like sudden riff progression changes and the design of hooks (vocal and musical both). This was a real surprise, a knockout album from a band that wasn’t even on my radar until recently. It gives me hope for the future of power metal which seems to be flourishing into a new renaissance recently with the likes of Visigoth, Triosphere, and Unleash the Archers.

 

 

 

Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages:

I’ve had a soft spot for Finland’s Barren Earth ever since being introduced to the project with their 2012 album The Devil’s Resolve (a Metal Pigeon Top Ten that year!), it being an intriguing mix of melancholic melo-death with very 70s prog-rock elements. At the time, Opeth had just undergone their neo-prog transition with the Heritage album and I wasn’t feeling it, so I was all to eager to fly the flag for Barren Earth pulling off the sound I wanted Opeth to be doing. But that’s an oversimplification of what they do, even if the comparison is completely justifiable, and as we heard on 2015’s On Lonely Towers they were forging a unique identity of their own. And that’s important because one of the things that always gets everyone’s attention about the band’s lineup is its supergroup of Finnish metal aura (two parts Moonsorrow, former ex and now current Amorphis, and the Finnish guitarist for Kreator). Since I missed out on reviewing On Lonely Towers, its worth pointing out here that it was their first without Swallow the Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamäki at the helm, and to his credit he was a big part of what made me love their previous album so much. His replacement is Clouds vocalist Jón Aldará, a vocalist whose clean vocals are a little more rich with emotive phrasing, not a bad thing by any means but one of the things I loved about Kotamäki’s cleans is his somewhat emotionally detached, distant approach. It lent an air of mystery to his performances with Barren Earth, whereas Aldará (damn these guys’ accented names!) puts almost the equal and opposite emphasis into emoting, something that tends to diminish its own power if done too often.

 

As far as melo-death vox go however, Aldará is on par with his predecessor, his tone having the right texture (somewhat blackened, nice crunch… what a weird way to describe the human voice). On “Further Down” you get a good balance of both his styles, and its a catchy track too, with a chorus boasting a memorable vocal hook and a nicely written major key guitar sequence that sets everything up. It was the major standout after my first couple listens to the album, and unfortunately, that’s kind of the problem with A Complex of Cages in the grand scheme of things. After a few weeks listening through it, giving it space, coming back to see if anything else would unlock, I’m realizing that its one of those albums that just isn’t sticking. Its a solid album when I’m actively listening to it, but apart from that one track I’m finding it difficult to have anything else stay with me long after I’m done. Now sometimes that’s fine, as was the case with Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper, but those are outliers, and I remember how much The Devil’s Resolve would linger long after listening to it. Oddly enough the only other track that came close to having some kind of return value was the ten minute epic, “Solitude Pith” for its fantastic ending passage at the 7:40 minute mark. These are the reviews I hate to write the most, because the album’s not bad by any means, and its got interesting moments scattered throughout, but ultimately I feel like I’ve given it a fair amount of time and its failed to make a lasting impression. I’m going to revisit it in a few months and see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

Light The Torch – Revival:

I don’t normally listen to bands like these, but lately I’ve become a supporter of Howard Jones just as a human being, his appearances on the Jasta Podcast being so endearing that I’ve found myself rooting for him. His is an interesting story, not just for his time in Killswitch Engage’s rise to fame but in his battling depression, the brutal physical effects of diabetes type II, as well as crippling social anxiety. His current band has been known as the Devil You Know, but legal problems with their former drummer prompted a name change as an easy out, and so we have Revival, the first album in this mach 2.0 version of the band. The style here is more modern hard rock than metalcore, but sees a meshing of various elements largely due to Jones’ expressive and distinct clean vocals. Curiosity made me start listening to this album, and I started using it as a palette cleanser after so much more involved and complicated music I’ve been constantly listening to (Nightwish comp aside, the rest of the albums in this post are proof of that). Its definitely a simpler brand of heavy music at its fundamental core, focusing on anthemic choruses and vocal melody centered songwriting.

 

The riffs are fairly standard, not a lot of texture to them and sometimes that’s a keen reminder as to why I don’t normally bother too much with this genre of music as a whole, an example being “The God I Deserve”, with its turgid, bland slabs of distortion not really saying much besides filling in the vocal gaps. But lets not get ahead of ourselves here with too much musically focused analysis, because I doubt the people who really love stuff like this are fawning over the guitarists in particular. The attraction here is Jones himself, and on the opener and video track “Die Alone” which boasts about as positive sounding and anthemic (any good synonyms to replace that adjective with?) a slice of groove metal can be, they lean on their greatest strength. Its an addictive hook, and Jones has something inherently likable about his clean vocal approach, capable of being booming and rich at the same time, never losing an ounce of power. His growls are fine, and they add shades of color and complexity that’s badly needed in the face of the straightforward attack of the band, but if he did more of this kind of harmonized type clean singing in Killswitch, I might’ve been more of a fan. He showcases this again on “The Safety of Disbelief”, a strong bit of songwriting with some rather well executed self-reflecting lyrics. The themes here are a more personal slant on what Hatebreed does, a lot of purging of inner turmoil and self doubt, and it works. Not my usual cup of tea but it was a nice change of pace.

 

 

 

 

Nightwish – Decades:

I’m not sure if the more apt critique of Nightwish’s new career spanning retrospective is its utterly bizarre tracklisting, or once again my pointing out just how inane it is for a band to spend money making these compilations in the first place. Granted, the costs of such a project are lower than that of a studio album for the most part —- we’re talking primarily the costs of design packaging here, and presumably Nightwish had already made the arrangements long ago to be allowed to re-release parts of their Spinefarm past back catalog on a newer label arrangement. Whatever the business arrangements, Nightwish made the shrewd decision to promote the hell out of the fact that this was a band curated release, with the tracklisting picked out by Tuomas Holopainen himself and the liner notes as detailed and fan pleasing as you could imagine. So pleased and confident were they that they gave away copies to every single ticket buyer of their recent US tour, a nice little tie-in with the tour bearing the same name. I did scan their social media a bit to see fan responses to the free surprise gift vary from giddy to pleasantly surprised to “This is nice but I don’t own a disc player…”. Well then, the very fundamental issue indeed.

 

I’ll wonder aloud and ask you to join me, “Couldn’t this have been accomplished by simply having the band curate their own Spotify playlist, perhaps with some audio commentary tracks thrown in as a nice bonus? Oh wait, they did that —- Spotify has done a series called “Metal Talks” in which artists do that very thing for their newest release and Nightwish recorded one with Tuomas and Troy Donockley, and I found their commentary incredibly fascinating, Tuomas in particular going into details that few interviews manage to drag out of him. If you consider that Decades release on Spotify itself is in fact a glorified playlist, then its mission accomplished without the need for a physical release of any kind, but Decades was released on CD and vinyl. I don’t have a problem with that, I just hope it was worth it and that they won’t take a bath on it financially. I’ve written about my own internal first world struggle with my physical music collection, and the in past few months we’ve seen new reports about how Best Buy and Target might remove CDs from their stores by the summer (and articles reporting that vinyl and cd sales are beating digital downloads for the first time in years). I guess I admire the spirit behind a physical release like this, but am torn on the question of its necessity (though clearly others would disagree still), a debate largely informed by my own ongoing conflicted feelings regarding physical media.

 

Anyway, lets talk songs, because for die-hard fans I can easily imagine Decades being a flawed tracklisting, and its not well chosen for newcomers as well. I know Tuomas calls “The Greatest Show on Earth” his best work ever, that 24 minute long monolith that closed out their last album and is his Richard Dawkins narrated dream come true. To me and many others, it was the first one of his epics that didn’t seem quite gelled together, suffering from severe bloat in many passages and not enough in the way of strong motifs to keep me coming back (the spoken word was a chore as well). I’d actually argue that “Song of Myself” or or especially “Meadows of Heaven” were more apt choices as far as modern epics go, both hitting a particular core facet of Nightwish mythology in a more compact, memorable way. The tracklisting is in reverse chronological order, and as we travel through the recent albums, I wonder about the “Amaranthe” inclusion (surely one of the weaker songs of Dark Passion Play), and the lack of “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” (some of Tuomas’ finest lyrics). The other chief glaring omission is “Everdream”, one of the band’s most beloved and iconic Tarja era gems, a song as central to Nightwish fans as “Nemo” or “Ghost Love Score” (both rightfully represented here). Only two songs from Century Child seems a bit strange, and I guess everyone could nitpick on what older songs should have made the cut but the ones they picked seem fine to me. Its just an unsatisfying overview in general however. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in lieu of just directing them to a single studio album alone. It worked for the rest of us, it’ll work for them.

 

 

 

 

Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins:

I’ve had a meandering relationship with this band, really liking them upon my first introduction with the ever more incredible The Gathering Wilderness, their classic 2005 Celtic folk metal masterpiece. That enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over the years with their subsequent albums until 2014’s Where Greater Men Have Fallen, an album that saw them up the aggression level just enough to shake up their sound. A friend of mine who also likes them recently observed that he would forget about Primordial for years until the next album came around, where he’d pay attention to it, until he’d likely forget about it once again. It didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy those albums, but that for some undefinable reason, Primordial couldn’t stick with him the way other bands did. I think I’m in the same boat, because even though ‘Greater Men’ was a Metal Pigeon Top Ten Album in 2014, I haven’t really gone back and given it a proper listen through until now when prepping for this review. I’m coming into Exile Amongst The Ruins with that in the back of my mind, maybe even allowing it to amplify my expectations for an album in an unfair way by raising the bar too high. If the last album was a top ten list maker yet not something I’ve revisited out of pure enjoyment, then this one has to be something truly special right?

 

Well yes and no, because I certainly know that I’ll be adding a few gems from this one to my iPod (lately I’ve cobbled together my own ‘best of’ Primordial playlist in hopes of keeping the flame burning so to speak). The first one being “To Hell or the Hangman” which is a tightly wound ball of energy on a vibrating string of a guitar figure, propelled forward like a bullet train. Alan Averill’s ever wild, unrestrained vocals here are delivered like he’s standing on a rocky Irish cliff side, arms wide open while singing into gale force winds. Its the very definition of a kinetic song, and a vivid portrait of Primordial at their best, especially in the way it evokes that Celtic spirit without actually resorting to cultural cliches (ie a lot of bagpipes, fiddles, and over the top Celtic melodies). Then there’s “Stolen Years”, where a deceptively laid back succession of floating, lazy guitar chords create a hazy atmosphere, broken through by an overlaid guitar figure a few notes higher. At the 2:45 mark the build up unfurls into a slow motion crashing wave, all the emotional weight behind the guitar melodies only furthered by Averill’s incredibly moving vocal. There are other good moments scattered throughout, but there’s also a lot of times where you’re waiting for something to happen, to materialize into a memorable passage (this band doesn’t really do hooks) or instrumental sequence and it just never gets there. They don’t entirely derail what is a relatively good album, loose and lively in a way they haven’t been in years, but it also results in a feeling that everything is a little too unfocused.

 

 

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart:

This is about a month late, but I thought since they’re fellow Houstonians and perhaps the biggest metal export from our city to date I’d give The Banished Heart an extended period of listening time. I’m glad I did because the first thing I heard from the album was the album opener and first single/video “The Decay of Disregard” and it just wasn’t working for me for whatever reason. To be honest, it still is one of the weaker tracks here and certainly a puzzling choice for the album opener, the slow, sludgy parts in the middle a little too meandering for my tastes. On the flip side, their choice for the title track as the second video release was spot on, despite its nine minute plus running time. This is Oceans of Slumber at their best, Cammie Gilbert pushing her vocals to their utmost emotional wrangling effectiveness, the usage of delicate, sad, and downright haunting piano courtesy of drummer Dobber Beverly in the middle passage reinforces the gravity of Gilbert’s heartbroken lyrics. At the 5:10 mark, he plays a figure that is pure Blackwater Park era Opeth in spirit, a beautiful melody awash in nostalgia and regret, and I find that I’m realizing he’s as much a talent on piano as he is with his always interesting percussion patterns. The song opens ups after that with the introduction of synth driven strings and an inspired bit of heavenly choral vocal effects helping to propel what is Gilbert’s watershed vocal performance. This was the first Oceans of Slumber tune I really could say I loved, even considering everything from Winter, and they even nailed the video for it, its visual aesthetic nicely understated, Texan in setting (those endless fields!), and darkly dramatic when it had to be.

 

On the heavier end of the spectrum, there’s a highlight in “A Path to Broken Stars” with its triplet infused riffs and intense sense of urgency. Gilbert has gotten better at learning how to develop her vocal patterns to mesh better with the heavier aspect of the bands’ sound, something that Winter needed. Here she doesn’t try to match the riffs rhythmically, being content to sing in a higher register at an entirely slower tempo, an old symphonic metal trick but it works for a reason. This is also a different shade of her vocal ability, something that could be classified as a little more ethereal, and it really works for her. What you don’t get so much throughout the album are her more bluesy inflected vocal stylings, but I think the songwriting helped to dictate the direction on that, and perhaps she and the band have simply grown into a new sound. Not everything is perfect here, there’s some songs that could use a little trimming, some where they don’t make enough use of a particularly impactful riff (thinking specifically of “Fleeting Vigilance”, and I wasn’t particularly taken with the closing cover tune “The Wayfaring Stranger”. I’ve heard countless versions of it before, its a pretty common folk song (Cash did it), but the digital effects and the telephone vocals here seems like distractions from what could’ve been a really fine recording. Oh well, the band’s gelled more and gotten better and they’re on the right track, that’s a good path to be on.

 

 

 

 

Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II:

Quietly in the middle of March, a new double album was released by Panopticon, better described as a project rather than a band given its solitary member, one Austin Lunn. Sort of like a Kentuckian equivalent to Vintersorg, I’ve been an admirer of his albums for awhile now, particularly 2015’s Autumn Eternal and the groundbreaking 2012 release Kentucky. If you’re not familiar, in a nutshell Lunn fuses Appalachia folk/bluegrass with blistering, second wave inspired Norwegian black metal. Now in truth, sometimes these aren’t pure fusions as they are juxtaposing individual tracks featuring each alongside the other, but its been interesting to see him continually strive throughout his discography to actually musical infuse his black metal strains with overtones of American folk. He might have finally nailed it though, because in the week I’ve been listening to this album, I’ve never been as captivated, intrigued, and flat out entranced by Panopticon as I am here. This album blindsided the heck out of me too, not even realizing it was released until I saw an update by the folks at No Clean Singing mentioning how Lunn wasn’t making it available ahead of time for reviewing purposes (the reason being that Autumn Eternal was leaked beforehand in a severely degraded quality and that rightfully pissed him off —- no problem with me by the way though, I rarely if ever get reviews up before an album has been released).

 

The consequence of such an odd album release approach is that this one is flying under a few radars, but I expect that will change as the mid-year best of lists some places publish get posted, in addition to old fashioned word of mouth. The instrumental folk intro of “Watch the Lights Fade” is a perfect mood setter, but in the blistering fury of “En Hvit Ravns Død” we get our first glimpse of how he’s integrating the two worlds of his soundscapes. The middle interlude of sad, discordant country violins and the sounds of forest creatures create a rustic ambiance throughout, and on “Blåtimen” and “Sheep in Wolves Clothing” Lunn uses overlaid lead guitar to create folky countermelodies set against the piles of tremolo riffs burning underneath. What he really excels at is using understated, minor key American folk as the tapestry for all the connective bits where the black metal is held at bay, and stepping back from this album in particular I’ve started to realize that it represents the very heart of his sound. The black metal ebbs and flows, and on disc two here it goes away completely. Its not meant to be the center of attention anymore like it once was, and I get the feeling that this is the kind of album that Lunn has been striving towards all this time. The rustic folk/alt-country of the second disc is gonna be an acquired taste for some, but I really enjoy it personally; it reminds me of Uncle Tupelo both in its lyrical perspective of down and out rural America but also in its lo-fi production wash. This is an album you owe it to yourselves to experience personally, too much for a simple review like this to convey. A magnum opus.

 

Make It Easier To Be A Fan: A Rant

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

Tear Down The Walls! New Music From Angra, Lione/Conti, Visigoth and More!

Here we are again, with a sequel to February’s Throw Open the Gates! review blitz, this time with more albums from these first two months and change of 2018. It has certainly proved to be the busiest opening release salvo of any year in recent memory, and things don’t seem to be slowing down in the next few months. There’s a few things that I didn’t review here that we’ve covered on our last two recent episode of the MSRcast, so you might also want to check those out if you are on the hunt for new music. A lot of these releases have been amazing, but not all —- I’ve got your back though, just think of me as your new release concierge. A lengthier look at the new Judas Priest album is next on the agenda, and I’m sure there’s going to be yet another of these multi-review clusters coming out relatively soon too. Headphones ready…

 


 

 

Lione / Conti – Lione / Conti:

Weirdly, Fabio Lione is at the vocal helm of two albums released within the span of a month, well okay one and a half albums. Just before the release of Angra’s OMNI (reviewed below), he and Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody/Trick or Treat vocalist Alessandro Conti released their Frontiers Records (of course!) debut duets album. If that phrase conjures up images of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett dancing cheek to cheek, or Sinatra and Bono cozying up at a bar drinking shots of something, then you’re actually not far off the mark —- these guys are indeed trading off vocal runs in true duet fashion. Frontiers does a lot of these types of projects, thinking of course of the Allen/Lande pairing, but also the recent Timo Tolkki star studded solo project, as well as the Kiske/Somerville stuff. This time the “staff writer” is Italian guitarist Simone Mularoni (of Italian prog-metallers DMG), who counterbalances the Italian penchant for high gloss factor power metal with an ample dose of AOR styled hard rock. Now I get the draw —- this is basically two generations of Rhapsody vocalists coming together for a vocalists duel (whatever that might mean), and on paper its bound to attract the ears of many a power metal fan. And to their credit, Frontiers Records does often deliver good records behind these so transparently obvious they’re ridiculous ideas, in fact, I still love those Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall albums.

 

The tricky bit with this Lione/Conti extravaganza rests on how you answer this one question, and maybe its just me but… don’t these guys sound exactly alike? Luca Turilli didn’t just randomly pick Conti off a list of available vocalists to front his new version of Rhapsody, he did it because he could continue writing in the same mode he had been during his time in the original incarnation of Rhapsody of Fire. It was honestly only when watching the music video for “Ascension” when I was finally able to tell who was singing what, and even then I couldn’t discern any reasonable variations in their voices to help me throughout the rest of the album. I’m not sure if this is even a stumbling block when it comes to enjoying this album or not, because even though I’m really only hearing one voice to my ears, I’m rather liking Mularoni’s meat and potatoes approach. It mirrors the last Rhapsody of Fire album Into The Legend, with its stripped down songwriting that seemed to maximize hooks and memorable melodies at the expense of grandeur and ambition. Songs like “Destruction Show” work because of awesome guitar hooks to keep everything focused and concise, and “You’re Falling” has a nice Queensryche vibe to its vocal melody arrangement. Its a solid listening experience in full if you’re in the mood for straight ahead AOR tinged Italian power metal, but as they really could’ve used either Lione or Conti for the project alone, the duets aspect of this fails hard.

 

 

 

 

Angra – ØMNI:

So I’ve given this new Angra album a decent amount of playtime, enough I think for it to fully reveal itself, and I gotta say I’m a little ambivalent overall. In retrospect, Secret Garden was a far more interesting album than we gave it credit for, and its varied collection of vocals might have played a part in that. Not only did Fabio Lione have his debut turn there, but Rafael Bittencourt also added his excellent, rough-edged voice to several songs as well, that’s not to mention the guest turns by Simone Simons and the amazing Doro Pesch. It wasn’t perfect, but it was surprising and kept you guessing. ØMNI is a far more straightforward affair, with Lione getting most of the vocal time although Bittencourt does pop up and there are a few guests, including Alissa White-Gluz on “Black Widow’s Web”, a song that absolutely didn’t need growling vocals but, well, here we are. I enjoyed “Insania” for its beautiful guitarwork and stirring melody, despite shaking my head at just how silly the term “Insania” is (isn’t that what Geoff Tate’s wine was called?). Someone once told me that it was the Latin version of “Insane” and it took me an incredible amount of patience to simply grunt and nod. Moving on, “The Bottom of My Soul” is such an excellent tune, and not coincidentally Bittencourt’s on lead vocals —- is it wrong to suggest that maybe the band sounds better when he’s singing? I’m sure that’s fighting the spirit of their legacy and the impressive work of the Andre Matos and to a lesser degree, the Edu Falaschi years, but damn he sounds great.

 

Lione’s best work comes on “Always More”, a lovely ballad with some unusual guitar tones at work in absolutely gorgeous, simple melodies, combining with an ascending vocal melody that makes use of his effortless ability to hit higher registers. Regarding the departure of Kiko Loureiro, its hard to gauge —- I’m going on the assumption that Bittencourt penned most of the music here, but the now Megadeth guitarist does pop up in a guest spot on the single “War Horns”. I can only say that there’s enough shred factor here to satisfy the most ardent prog-power guitar fanboy out there, and at times Angra even sounds more like Dream Theater considering the tonality of Lione. The last two tracks on the album invoke the title, being the concluding companion pieces to what apparently is a concept album (about a science fiction future in 2046), but they fall flat, being neither heavy or melodic or heady enough to inspire any particular emotion. A rough ending for the album overall, and not a way to get people invested into the album’s concept. Maybe this will grow on me over the coming months, there’s some stuff worth coming back for, but I just find myself wanting to listen to Secret Garden again.

 

 

 

 

Tengger Cavalry – Cian Bi:

A few years ago I was introduced to Tengger Cavalry’s particular take on folk metal with their mixing of Mongolian throat singing and nomadic Asian traditional instrumentation. I was immediately intrigued and checked out a few albums on YouTube, and while I enjoyed what I heard, it was a difficult proposition to simply work into casual listening. Tengger Cavalry is one of those rare breeds of folk metal bands that don’t give you an easy entry way into their sound, there are no instantly accessible tailored singles that can draw a bigger crowd, no “Trollhammaren”. They’ve been unapologetic about their sound, and its also worth noting that the metal aspect of their folk metal seems largely devoid of allegiance to one particular metal style, being just straightforward heavy riffs, plain and simple. Their newest album, Cian Bi, is simultaneously their weirdest yet most straightforward album to date —- its also, shockingly, their last. Just the other week, band founder Nature (yes) Ganganbaigal issued a rough statement throwing the blame on ex-Century Media president and current M Theory Audio owner Marco Barbieri. I’m not well informed enough to make any judgements either way but that’s a bummer, and you have to wonder if Nature is dissolving Tengger Cavalry in name only to terminate any existing business agreements, and will regroup under a different name doing the same type of music.

 

One can only hope, because I’ve been enjoying this new album far more than just the passing casual listens I had with their back catalog. I don’t know if its their best work overall, but there’s something deeply appealing about this bizarre mish mash of elements. Of particular note is just how hard hitting some of the riffs gluing everything together can be, case in point are cuts like “The Old War”, and the pummeling “One Tribe, Beyond Any Nation”. The latter is my personal favorite, featuring a gorgeous melody played on a morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), an incredibly appealing instrument that I’m glad I now know the name of —- all blockaded by some seriously brutal, Rammstein-esque riffage. Besides the traditional instrumentation, Nature’s uncanny vocal ability is also a huge draw for me, as in “Ride Into Grave and Glory” where he switches between the throat singing and his clean rock/metal vocals. It might be an acquired taste for some, but even his “normal” vocals have character, a rustic quality that brings to mind grassy steppes and gritty, grimy back alleys in dense cities all at once. This is a listening experience best beheld start to finish, with the album as the soundtrack to your thoughts or random mindless activity. There’s a spiritual aspect to this blend of folk metal that’s hard to define and even harder to shake.

 

 

 

 

Visions of Atlantis – The Deep & The Dark:

Austria’s Visions of Atlantis have been off most radars since 2013, when they underwent a major lineup shift, not their first one but certainly their most dramatic. The most important change was the addition of ex-Serenity vocalist Clementine Delauney and The Dragonslayer (Siegfried Samer of the uber fun Dragony) on co-lead vocals. At the band’s core has always been drummer/founder Thomas Caser, and with the addition of new guitarist and bassist Christian Douscha and Herbert Glos respectively, we’re on to Visions of Atlantis Mach 7583234419! Well, close enough anyway. We did get a taste of what the Delauney/Samer pairing could sound like with the 2016 Old Routes New Waters EP, a re-recording of several older songs including the ballad “Winternight”, whose recording and video ended up being a thoughtful memorial to the sadly departed original vocalist Nicole Bogner, but The Deep & The Dark is clearly the debut that Caser and company have been striding towards all these years. Given his predilection towards the band’s concept being about seafaring and adventure, and with a fantastically dramatic vocalist like Samer at the forefront, I was expecting an album rich in dramatics, heavy on theatricality, and songwriting that pushed the band’s sound forward.

 

We get that, in brief flashes here and there, but unfortunately, the album suffers from the band’s chief structural flaw within its various lineups, that being the lack of a consistent songwriter. Throughout this band’s history, its songwriting has been generated by a mix of band members, the biggest slice of this coming from ex-keyboardist Martin Harb, but Caser himself isn’t this band’s Tuomas Holopainen. But Caser clearly is the driving force behind maintaining the vision of what this sound should be, at least in theory, that being Nightwish inspired dual male/female vocalist driven symphonic metal. The problem is that whomever is part of the songwriting team for the band at any particular time writes towards that mode, and the results sound like either too many cooks in the kitchen, or various emulations of musical approaches that have been done before. In other words, its symphonic metal by the numbers, and this is a genre where bands really need distinctive musical voices to emerge within their lineups to push their music hard in a particular direction or angle. You might be able to compensate for a lack of this if you’ve got really strong hooks by the armful, but that’s a tall order. Samer’s Dragony is a great example of the latter, their 2015 album Shadowplay doesn’t break new ground, but damn is it a fun listen, full of fist-raising choruses and glorious over the top nonsense.

 

You might think that given these comments I didn’t enjoy The Deep & The Dark at all, but that’s not entirely true. The title track that kicks off the album is a fine emulation of Nightwish, sounding strikingly similar to that band’s Anette Olzon era. And “Return to Lemuria” features a charming bit of Sonata Arctica esque keyboard sugar icing on a verse/chorus that hits heavy on one’s nostalgia factor, sounding like a cut that could’ve been suitable for The Neverending Story soundtrack. Delauney is on fine form on those cuts, her voice the right amount of ethereal and breathy and even with some deft melodic phrasing on certain lyrics to make them extra effective. But a juxtaposition of vocals in “Ritual Night” between her and Samer just doesn’t generate the kind of excitement it should, and I don’t know if its so much their fault as opposed to the song simply lacking anything in the way of hard hitting drama. The “Book of Nature” is yet another example of this homogenized quality to the overall songwriting hampering the vocalists ability to conjure up pulse racing excitement, which is kind of the point of symphonic power metal in the first place! This is a band in desperate need of a sharper songwriter, someone who can channel and mold the talents that they have at the vocal helm. Serenity’s Georg Neuhauser and Thomas Buchberger made Delauney sound positively enchanting on War of Ages, and its disappointing to not hear the same thing here. A frustrating under use of talent, and given the band’s history, I don’t see it changing.

 

 

 

 

 

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

Utah’s Visigoth burst onto the scene in 2015 with their strong debut The Revenant King, whose stellar “Dungeon Master” we played on the MSRcast around that time. I remember listening to the rest of the album thinking that if they had a few more songs in the spirit of that spectacular cut, they’d really have a fun album. As it was, that song and a Manilla Road cover (“Necropolis”) were the most direct things on the album, the rest of the band’s punchy, vibrant USPM being folded into epic song lengths with extended instrumental passages and grand, broad-sword inspired prog. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the album, but I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. Fortunately, Visigoth have leaned into their strengths on The Conqueror’s Oath and stripped their sound down to its meat and bones trad metal roots, meaning more Manilla Road, early Manowar and Virgin Steele. This is such a fun record, eight quick cutting daggers of thunderous, unabashedly melodic, anthemic glory —- one of the most satisfying listens to come out of USPM in ages. Its not just that they’re capable of smile inducing glory paeans in “Steel and Silver”, but of inspired musical shifts like the gentle dip into Jethro Tull-esque flute accompanied balladry at the 3:40 mark of “Warrior Queen”. Vocalist (and flutist!) Jake Rogers the Tony Kakko x-factor, a knack for hooky lyrical phrasing, and the admirable talent to drape a memorable vocal melody over nearly everything he sings. Tonally he reminds me of a cross between the plantative Chris Black (High Spirits / Dawnbringer) and Janne Christoffersson from Grand Magus, with a little Eric Adams penchant for bellowing theatrics to power things out.

 

Manowar and Grand Magus are two perfectly suited reference points for what Visigoth have accomplished on this album, where thundering displays of power are at the forefront but the songwriting approach still leaves some room for tasteful musicality. On “Traitor’s Gate”, they utilize a twangy acoustic build up to ratchet up the mystery and tension before unleashing a thundering assault and some lyrics that are begging to be bellowed out loud in unison at a show (“Die like the dog you are!”). I love the middle bridge where Rogers unleashes a wry bit of clever vocal phrasing (“By spite and thunder /
Torn asunder…”), possibly out Manowar-ing Joey DeMaio with its fist in the air magnetism. My personal favorite has to be “Blades in the Night”, where I really feel that Visigoth is reaching into the same well of early 80s inspirations that fuel most of High Spirit’s Scorpions-esque hard rock. The chorus is the star here of course, deceptively simple but so effective, it was ringing in my head all day after first hearing it.  Rogers gets to stretch out here as well, delivering a fantastic performance that’s inspired and even beautiful in its lyrical qualities, reminding me a little of the great Mathias Blad in spots. This would almost be a perfect album, but I’ll agree with damn near every review I’ve seen where “Salt City” is singled out —- its not a terrible cut, and I get why they wanted it in here (hometown tribute and all) but its placement throws off the pacing of the album and I’d rather have had another slice of the same pie the rest of the seven tracks made up. A minor blemish though, one that’s easily forgivable considering the sheer quality of this album. Visigoth have arrived, bar the gates!

 

The Endless Forms of Nightwish

Few bands in metal have inspired the unrestrained devotion and adoration of it’s fanbase the way Nightwish have. Such a fiery bond is subject to various temperaments, as the band themselves found out through the course of two vocalist changes. That they are widely (if erroneously) recognized as the first female vocal led power/symphonic metal band only serves as fuel for this burning intensity. Their success in the late 90’s and early 00’s spawned countless imitators, other newly formed bands that wanted to put their own spin on what really did feel like a fresh style of metal, with inspired females keen to try their hand at singing over heavy guitars and sweeping orchestras. Ushered along by a signing craze from metal labels all over, female fronted metal bands went from a mere handful to a plethora in the blink of an eye. But few, if any of them have ever managed to attain the near mythic status and storied history of the mother of them all.

Nightwish fans today fall into two basic camps, those that are aficionados of a particular era or vocalist past, and those who see the band as something greater than its constituent parts, including vocalists. This latter group is far more inclined to acknowledge the very apparent reality that Nightwish largely exists as a vehicle for the songwriting of its keyboardist, songwriter, founder, and guiding force Tuomas Holopainen. I myself fall into this latter camp, for despite being introduced to the band during the Tarja Turunen era shortly after the release of Wishmaster, I found myself becoming a bigger fan of the band after her departure. It didn’t take me long to realize after listening to their 2007 first post-Tarja Turunen release Dark Passion Play that I had always been more of a fan of Holopainen. Their 2011 follow-up Imaginaerum hit the nail on the head for me, a thirteen-track treatise of perfection that backed up my argument that Holopainen’s songwriting was able to blossom and flourish without Turunen’s limiting (albeit powerful) vocal style.

Nightwish and their fans share a relationship that is at once devotional and divisive, and also detached and myopic. The band’s most personal works (such as the entirety of the Century Child album) are the kinds of rare records that forge molten emotional bonds with fans. Holopainen’s autobiographical lyrics inspired this devotion, and with it came the kind of rabid fandom that became a hyper protective community, for better and worse. The band learned firsthand of the latter during the media and fan firestorm that resulted from their 2005 open letter dismissal of original vocalist Tarja Turunen. In an attempt to get ahead of the inevitable media war-of-words and fallout between the two parties, the band erred in underestimating just how exposed its own fans’ nerve endings were. Holopainen was himself skittish around the media and private by nature, and as the band leader he found the fallout particularly torturous. For many fans even nearly ten years later, that damage has yet to be undone —- click on any YouTube clip of the band’s Turunen era and scroll down to the comments section for the most surface of glimpses.

Since that cataclysmic event Nightwish have conducted most of their inner workings with an eye towards privacy and security. Unmoved by the pleas of fans lamenting the loss of Turunen, the band circled the wagons around their organization and approached future decisions with a touch of tunnel vision. The band wouldn’t shut their fans out completely, offering up some behind the scenes looks in the form of photo galleries, social media updates, video blogs —- but their content was carefully controlled. It was a gamble, but the commercial success of the Anette Olzon era justified Nightwish’s new approach in the face of a semi-divided fanbase that consisted of very vocal fans sympathetic to Turunen. And in demonstrating their commitment to not repeating the errors of the past, Nightwish handled the October 2012 falling out with Olzon with single press statement that offered no details. The timing of their announcement in declaring fill-in vocalist Floor Jansen as an official permanent member was also interesting to note —- occurring long after the Imaginaerum tour was over, in between album cycles where the requests and expectations for media availability would be relatively low.

 

 

For Nightwish fans, the announcement of Jansen brought along expectations that the band would make use of her operatic vocal capability on the new studio album, as she had demonstrated on several older songs on the tour. I myself took note of the general tone and tenor of the reactions on the band’s Facebook page around that time, and most of them were from fans salivating at the thought of a Wishmaster or Century Child sequel. Its likely that many long sundered fans of the band’s Turunen era were eyeballing Jansen as the closest possible thing to their dream reunion. As a bigger fan of the pop-vocal infused Olzon era, I too wondered how the band was going to balance their expanded musicality with the undeniable fan craving for hearing something soprano-oriented being belted out by Jansen. As heard in the Showtime, Storytime concert video, Jansen was able to bounce from one style to another in varying moments, though she typically stuck to her rock-inflected delivery. A retrospective viewing of that concert makes me realize that it was far more foretelling of what the new album would bring than anyone realized.

Nightwish have responded to their fans’ expectations in rather typical fashion, by ignoring them altogether of course. Holopainen’s vision for Endless Forms Most Beautiful takes precedence over everything, its songs forming a loosely-stitched thematic album about spirituality through science and reason, inspired largely by the writings of biologists Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin. It’s songs didn’t require operatic vocals —- quite the contrary in fact, Jansen’s vocals on the album are far closer to the pop stylings of the Olzon era. This has confused some and upset many, the hope that Jansen would bring the band back to its classicist roots taking another massive blow. Certainly not everyone felt this way, but it does seem that Nightwish will yet again have to bear the brunt of their most vocal critics, their own diaspora of fans. That unfortunate truth about fans is that they can be rather myopic as well in their own regard.

So I’ll argue here that those fans affronted by the vocal decisions on Endless Forms are focusing on a singular aspect of the album to their own detriment. The very thing they are decrying is the mechanism that allows these songs to form yet another first-rate Nightwish album, and might I add —- an album that musically reaches back to touchstones of the past such as Oceanborn and Once. It might be that its coming off the heels of the wildly eccentric, diverse Imaginaerum album, but there is a musical unity present throughout the new album that reinforces its thematic concept and somehow bleeds the feel of old school Nightwish. Take the album opener “Shudder Before the Beautiful” where a sprinting orchestral arrangement slightly outpaces guitars, drums, and vocals —- a spectacular effect that ushers along what actually plays like a duel between Holopainen’s furious keyboard wizardry and Emppu Vuorinen’s wild guitar solos. Talk about old school, that’s the kind of Finnish power metal trademarks that you’re hard pressed to find anyone doing these days.

 

Perhaps its the largely uptempo feel of the album that’s responsible for the old-school resonance that I’m feeling. The band hasn’t done away with Dark Passion Play/Imaginaerum era live orchestras and cinematic arrangements, they’re still present and rather glorious in most moments, but they’re utilized this time more for amping up the energy of rollickingly speedy tracks like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, “Weak Fantasy”, and the title track. This is a triumvirate of songs that underscore Holopainen’s gift as a songwriter, not in that he expertly juxtaposes soaring melodic ear candy over a frenetic rhythms but that he can do it in such diverse ways with varying degrees of heaviness and aggression. The vicious, snarling “Weak Fantasy” might be the best song on the album, with its tension building usage of solo string sections and a furious pummeling courtesy of pinch-hitting Wintersun drummer Kai Hahto. I get enthralled after the post-folk breakdown at 3:37 where the orchestra descends with a sweeping crescendo alongside Marco Hietala’s always wonderfully passionate vocals —- few others can pull off such riveting drama through the tenor of their voice alone.

Its Jansen who shines on the other two tracks, providing them vocals that veer between ethereal lightness and leather-lunged rock n’ roll grit. On “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, Jensen doesn’t play the beauty to Hietala’s beast, instead her Doro Pesch-esque vocals work with his to amp up the aggression of the song tenfold. I get a bit of a “Slaying the Dreamer”/”Master Passion Greed” vibe here, particularly the latter in regards to the stop-start nature of the doomy, violent orchestral booms. Shifting in tone, she plays the cheerful, charming narrator in “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, her effortlessly bouncy vocals a stark contrast to a seriously aggressive rhythm section. Vuorinen and Hietala even share a rather nasty guitar/bass solo section here, unleashing a rumbling monster truck of a dual-riff that comes as a total surprise. Vuorinen gets some criticism in guitarist corners for playing what is largely the same riff-pattern in the same guitar tone throughout the entirety of the band’s catalog. I don’t personally feel the criticism is entirely warranted, because being the sole guitarist, he is largely responsible for the band’s metallic elements —- that being said he is far more reigned in on this album than on Imaginaerum, where he had room to experiment.

A rapidly rising favorite of mine is “Alpenglow”, a song that boasts the album’s most snappy, ear-wormy chorus, along with a twisted vocal segment from Jansen that really, really reminds me of Olzon’s vocal theatrics on “Scaretale” off Imaginaerum. Multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley is present throughout the album, chiming in with uilleann pipes, bodhran, low whistles, and bouzouki —- but his standout track is “My Walden” where he dominates the soundscape with a flurry of Celtic-tinged melodies. The first two minutes of the song are fairly standard in approach, but its the latter half of the song where the band indulges in a folky-jam session that I almost wish encompassed the entire track. I suspect it would’ve made the song standout more as a result and also given Donockley a platform for longer running melodies and motifs. Much to my surprise he isn’t on every track here, at least not blatantly so, as was my fear when discussing the Élan single a few weeks ago. Even more surprising is my feeling that he’s being underutilized somehow… that might be one to chew on, I could change my mind on it. I’m all for his presence on Nightwish albums, but I’ve yet to suss out what his contributions are within on a more fundamental level as a permanent member.

 

The aforementioned “Élan” is effectively the same version as on the single, and within the context of the album it actually sounds better, though I’m less convinced of its effectiveness as the lead off single (“Alpenglow” would’ve been a better choice, a more daring yet similarly catchy cut). The thematic-bending “Edema Ruh” (something from a fantasy series I’ve never read) is an okay song with a relatively generic chorus (by Holopainen standards), but its slightly redeemed by some interesting guitar work by Vuorinen. And I’m torn about the sole ballad on offer, “Our Decades In the Sun”, because during the moments when its working it is as gorgeous and beautiful as anything the band has ever done. The problem might be that the song is too delicate for its own good, its sections often left without connecting musical glue, and the silky string arrangements unable to muster enough momentum to bind everything together. Its actually Vuorinen’s stormy guitar interjection at 2:07 that provides the song with its only dose of electrical current, a brilliant moment that ought to make you shiver. I enjoy listening to it overall, but its not in the ballpark of the band’s best ballads, and its a shame because it had the qualities to perhaps be their best.

And here comes the axe… look, I’m as enthusiastic as can be about the theme of the album, having read books by Dawkins myself and generally sharing the same perspective as Holopainen on science and reason and the grandeur they have shown us. That being said, the grand epic of the album, a twenty-four minute behemoth titled “The Greatest Show on Earth” absolutely falls flat for me. I don’t mind that Dawkins is a narrative voice here, because the words he’s speaking are poetic and beautiful, but perhaps he would’ve been more effective at the end of the track, serving as the non-musical coda for the album. Instead his speaking parts and the musical sections of the song are chopped up into relatively non-conforming parts that simply come across as choppy and cluttered in their sequencing. As for the musical sections themselves, there’s only one that truly shines, from the 12:00 to 13:47 minute mark where Jansen and Hietala trade off vocals in a staccato rhythm fueled speed run. The other sections seem to lack any sort of definition, let alone micro-hooks, which are essential for longer set pieces like this —- you need those ear candy moments to keep your attention and to make you want to come back. And I could entirely do away with “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula”, which is more mood piece than instrumental (it does little to match up to the power of the original photograph its in reference to).

And now back to that non-operatic vocals thing —- simply listen to this album and you’ll understand that there was no room for it. That won’t appease anyone disappointed with the album as a result however, because the argument could always be “Well Tuomas should make an effort to write songs in that style”. But that’s the thing, he can’t —- if he tried and he wasn’t completely into it they would come off sounding half-baked and uninspired. The reason we’re all Nightwish fans is because of his songwriting, and his songs have always been for better or worse authentic portraits of his interests, feelings, or passions at that time. On Imaginaerum, the wide-open fantasy/imagination concept of the album influenced his songwriting towards a diverse array of styles and sounds. It might even be accurate to frame that album as more directed by the music rather than the lyrics. On Endless Forms, its the other way around because the lyrics are far more important to the crux of the thematic core, perhaps a reason why Holopainen endeavored to have them sung as clearly as possible. Maybe the next album will be thematic in a way that lends itself to soprano-styled vocals… its possible, but it shouldn’t define your enjoyment of a modern day Nightwish album. If the vocal style is that important to you, then you’re expecting the wrong things from the wrong band.

Reviews Cluster! Ensiferum, Napalm Death, Marilyn Manson and more!

Back with more reviews of early 2015 releases! It wasn’t just all power metal so far in 2015, as the following reviews for Napalm Death, Marduk and even Ensiferum will attest to. There’s more reviews on the way too, including one for the just released Scorpions album Return to Forever (remember when they were gonna retire?), as well as the upcoming Steven Wilson solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase., expect those soon as well as some other non-reviews features!

 

Ensiferum – One Man Army: First a mild rant: There was a time around the late 90s and early to mid 2000s when folk metal wasn’t an overcrowded subgenre, when the balance between folk and metal was handled deftly by a small cadre of accomplished bands, and when their lyrical subject matter had depth and richness. I’m thinking of those heady times when folk metal meant Skyclad, Amorphis, Subway to Sally, Otyg/Vintersorg, Falkenbach, among a few others. It was a subgenre that was creating vital, shimmering music that was stretching the boundaries of what metal could sound like —- it was fresh and exciting, the sound of things you didn’t know you always wanted to hear. Ensiferum’s first two albums were part of this wonderful era, being near-perfect marriages of thrashy guitars, power metal songwriting, and folky instrumentation.

Sometime around the mid 2000s, folk metal lost its way. I’ll point the finger for the catalyzing moment being Finntroll’s “Trollhammaren” music video in 2004 from the otherwise excellent Nattfodd album. That single/video got a lot of attention and its upbeat, Finnish polka (humppa) laden sound seemed to break down barriers for major metal magazines to begin covering the subgenre. Labels noticed, and a horde of bands followed through, with increasingly upbeat takes on the style, boasting more and more outlandish band “concepts” until we finally arrived at the current hokey state of folk metal with the likes of Alestorm, Trollfest, and the dreadful Korpiklaani. Folk metal today is largely associated with songs about ale, beer, rum, partying, and what have you —- I realize that I’m oversimplifying and that there are some artists out there who are still doing great, inspired folk metal. But at least in my eyes, the genre took a walk down a sad, sad road.

Some years ago, Finntroll seemed to publicly demonstrate some semblance of shame for their role in this sordid mess, and released the very black metal Ur Jordens Djup, and supported it with a tour consisting of utterly brutal live performances. But I suppose fans of the new model of folk metal were too numerous to ignore, because when I saw Finntroll last in 2014, the band came on stage with every member sporting plastic elven ears. They humppa-ed it up that night. Gone was the ferocity experienced during the Ur Jordens Djup tour, instead the band kept things tame for their enthusiastic crowd which seemed to largely consist of people who would otherwise never set foot into a metal show. Clearly myself and a few other disoriented looking metal fans were the odd men out in this situation. I walked away more than a little disappointed.

Ensiferum have managed to keep out this proverbial quagmire by releasing a string of albums that are in keeping with the thematic tone of their first two classics, while simultaneously damaging their image by associating with those aforementioned bands who contributed to folk metal’s current state. Just this past week, Ensiferum announced a North American headlining tour with support coming from Korpiklaani and Trollfest. How wonderful. I could dream up a handful of better touring packages than that in my sleep. I remember catching Ensiferum headlining Paganfest in 2007 with support coming from Turisas, Tyr, and Eluveitie —- now I suppose a lot of blame could be placed upon Turisas for coming up with the ludicrous “battle metal” tag, but they’re generally a decent band that has delivered good to great albums —- point is, that was a fantastic bill.

The band’s choices are unfortunate considering that One Man Army is the closest they’ve come to replicating the magic of their early, Jari Maenpaa-led era. The title track for starters is one of the most fierce, unrelentingly brutal, thrash metal assault-on-your-senses that they’ve ever unleashed. Throughout the album in fact, Ensiferum seem to have consciously redressed the balance between their thrash/power metal foundation and their folk influenced melodicism. On “Two of Spades”, the song kicks off with a Megadeth-ian intro and riff progression, and Petri Lindroos’ vocal is almost Dave Mustaine-ian in its subtle snark, heard underneath his ferocious, rapid-fire roars. The thrash metal bookends an upbeat folk-metal bridge, the closest the band ventures to the party-metal territory of some of their peers. Its sandwiching in between slabs of thrash is what is welcome here, it stands out because its not overdone —- there’s room for moments like these, just sparingly. Another favorite of mine is “My Ancestor’s Blood”, a seriously groovy epic with dual clean and grim vocal layering (that chorus is magnificent!), while Lindroos and fellow guitarist Markus Toivonen conjure up some rather beautiful intermingling melodies.

The band’s primary songwriter, Toivonen seems to be feeling particularly inspired throughout the album, there’s not a half-baked tune to be found, and he even nails the ten minute plus epic “Descendants, Defiance, Domination”. I love its vaguely spaghetti-western sounding intro, and its gradual build up to Toivonen’s rather excellent mid-song clean vocals that duel with Lindroos’ grim counterpoint. I really love his solo vocal from the 8:06 minute mark, there’s something very fresh going on there though I can’t quite put my finger on it. Towards the end of the song, tin-whistle type instrumentation lends a touch of vibrant originality to the orchestral grandeur that unfolds. The keyboard work of Emmi Silvennoinen is instrumental in this, her additions more integral to the cohesion of the music than ever before —- no longer just relegated to window dressing. Something clicked within the band this go around, and its a welcome relief after hearing just how tired they sounded on Unsung Heroes. If only they could get a better booking agent.

 

 

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: A week or so ago when recording MSRcast #165, our guest Dave mentioned just how surprised he was with the new Marilyn Manson album. It reminded me that I had recently read a story on some fancy non-metal music site about the raves and critical plaudits Manson’s new album was drawing. I had filed it away as something I’d perhaps get around to checking out on Spotify one dull afternoon, but Dave’s enthusiastic praise was enough to get me to include it as an item worth reviewing for the blog. I was never a Marilyn Manson fan in the slightest, even during his late 90s heyday. I thought he was all flash and no substance, and considered the music I’d heard from him as lightweight both sonically and artistically. I remember vividly ignoring a friends suggestion to pick up Mechanical Animals in a Best Buy cd section (remember those?!), choosing instead to get a replacement copy of So Far! So Good! So What!.  In fact, he ended up buying the album and we listened to it on the way home, and that marked the last time I listened to a Marilyn Manson album from start to finish, until now…

I can see why its getting the amount of high praise being thrown its way —- for a Manson album, this is exceptionally catchy in a way I’ve never heard his stuff before. Gone is any semblance of hard rock or metal, in favor of an industrial tinged dancy, swingy, loose rock n’ roll amalgam, like INXS remixed by Trent Reznor. Its an interesting listen, and I can easily see this album being licensed by Hollywood and TV studios out the wazzoo, probably in a crime series like CSI, The Blacklist or something of that ilk. The strutting, clawing “Deep Six” is the closest thing to heavy you’ll get here, with a chorus built on atonal guitar screeching and some semblance of riffing —- its not bad. Nor is “The Devil Beneath My Feet”, with its new wave guitar motifs and sly, image conjuring lyrics in the refrain “…when I wake up you best be gone / Or you better be dead”.

But for as good as it all sounds, I’m not sure Manson’s music is for me… I feel no reason to be compelled to return, there’s a lack of any emotional connection to what I’m hearing. That isn’t to say that everything I listen to connects with me emotionally, that’s not the case at all. I do however need to feel something; whether its a surge of adrenaline, or an appreciation of skill or artistry, or the simple quality of feeling like I’m being entertained. It could be his voice that’s doing it, a little goes a long way due to his relatively monotonous and non melodic tone (Its the same reason I think Tom Waits songs are better when performed by someone else). I dunno, I’m missing something here, but good for Manson —- he’s an interesting personality to have around and its nice to not see him fade away.

 

 

Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat: I guess I never had planned on ever writing about Napalm Death on this blog, not because I don’t enjoy them —- I do, but because I figured that there wasn’t much to elaborate on. Napalm Death will always sound like Napalm Death to me. I grew up listening to them, first being introduced to their grindcore/metal blend via dubbed cassette tapes by various heavy music loving friends back in middle school. They were one of those bridge bands to extreme metal, alongside Morbid Angel and Death and Carcass. More than those bands, Napalm Death delivered the kind of sheer caterwauling noise that a young budding metal fan gravitated towards because it simply sounded like something that was made for you and all the reasons you enjoyed having your parents lament your taste in music. I enjoyed playing them in my battered, sticker covered boom box in my bedroom, imagining that even with my door closed, it still sounded like hell on the other side. Maybe its fair to say that I never developed much of an emotional attachment to their music, but I don’t think it was ever designed that way.

I’ve listened to Apex Predator – Easy Meat a handful of times now (like most of their albums, its easy on the running time), and the one thing that leaps out at me is that I can’t recall this band ever sounding this crisp, clear, and catchy. Take “How The Years Condemn”, where the percussion and harmonized guitars on the outro of the chorus actually sound, dare I suggest, melo-death-ish? Barney Greenway is as muzzled, and spittle-flyingly menacing as always, but he seems to be developing into a more appealing vocalist the older he gets. He has moments throughout this album where he approaches something resembling melody, and for a band that defined grindcore, that’s something new worth mentioning. The musical approach over all just seems, well, more musical for lack of a better term —- it could be the ultra-clear mix, but the band’s sound seems expansive here, reaching for new palettes even. Not just bedroom noise anymore I suppose.

 

 

Marduk – Frontschwein:

By the time I had mentioned Marduk’s new album on the last MSRcast, I had only been able to listen to a fairly crappy quality stream once through. It sounded to me like typical Marduk, very consistent and largely good. Now having had a decent amount of time with the album in its proper form, I’m far more impressed with it. I didn’t pay much attention to Serpent Sermon (which I’ve been told I need to) so its difficult for me to throw out relative comparisons, but on its own Frontschwein is a rollicking affair —- black metal that is loaded with memorable riffs that are played midway between loose black n’roll and tight, tremolo black metal 101. Morgan Hakansson is one of the more underrated guitarists in the subgenre, his approach workmanlike in the best possible sense —- you never feel that his riffs are aimless or just filling out sound, they’re always the heart of these songs. On “Between the Wolf-Packs”, his repeated riff-motif is so catchy it almost detracts from everything else.

Vocalist Mortuus is as grim and fiery as ever, his particular tone a perfect complement to Hakansson. He even surprises on a song like “503”, approximating something resembling clean singing at certain spots, and on “Thousand-Fold Death” he spits out his grim, blackened vocals in such rabid, maniacally fast speeds that you think he’s on the verge of chewing his own tongue. I had also mentioned on the podcast my slight reservations regarding the album’s Nazi Germany iron cross sporting logo and just the war themed lyrics in general —- not that I was accusing the band of anything nefarious, but that they should be careful with iconography like that (and concepts like this as well). I’ve scanned through the lyrics, and they read like a black metal version of Sabaton, tales of battlefields and war torn mountains. Okay, so perhaps my concern was presumptive, especially considering that I am a Sabaton fan —- but this was a band that released an album called Panzer Division Marduk, which if you remember raised a ton of noise around its released about being sympathetic to NSBM beliefs. The band refuted it of course, but to once again draw from the same proverbial well for another album title/concept means that you get the scrutiny that comes with it.

 

 

Nightwish – Elan (EP):

The first shot fired from the anticipation cannon that is Nightwish’s upcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful album is as you’d expect, a clearly accessible pop-rock number with a smooth chorus and charming melody. Sometimes I wish they’d release something daring for their first singles, but considering this is the band that topped pop charts with “Nemo”, I suppose they know what they’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy “Elan” as a song, but it reminds me of “Amaranthe” in the sense that it will likely wind up as my least favored track on the album. That was not the case with Imaginaerum’s “Storytime”, which I still feel to this day is an adrenaline surging, rollercoaster of a single, it just has a propulsive feel that never lets up. What “Elan” and “Amaranthe” have in common is that steady backbeat, mid-tempo, standard (in Nightwish terms) buildup to the very hooky chorus, and that’s okay, but after such a diverse album like Imaginaerum it feels like a bit of a letdown. All that being said, Floor Jansen sounds great as expected, more Anette Olzon here than Tarja for comparison’s sake, and I really love her vocal extenuation at the 3:56 mark —- more of that on the album I hope.

The other new song on offer here (the other cuts making up the EP are a radio edit and alternative version of “Elan”, the latter of which basically amounts to an unmixed demo) is “Sagan”, referring to the famous scientist himself, as I hear his name in the song a few times. This might be a better representation of what to expect from the album, despite being a b-side, simply because Jansen gets to stretch her talents a bit more here. She’s unleashes some nimble vocal dexterity during the chorus where the phrasing gets particularly dense. The song has a nice melody, a decent hook and some interesting proggy keyboard noodling courtesy of Tuomas Holopainen that you don’t hear that much anymore in modern Nightwish. New guy Troy Donockley is a major player on both of these songs, his uilleann pipes chiming in all over the place. They sound great, but I do wonder if we’ll reach a point on the album where everything might sound the same due to their presence. I love them as an instrument, but they do impart a tone that inherently light and bouncy… will he be kept off songs that don’t need him or will he be shoehorned in? I’ll be paying close attention when the album drops.

Looking Ahead at 2015!

Happy New Years everyone! Alright I’m a little late, but I wanted to let those year end lists marinate out there for a bit before issuing another update, as well as allowing myself a little break from any kind of “required” listening. How have I spent my intervening few weeks off listening wise? Oh you know, a little sweeping balladry from Sarah Brightman, revisiting classic Celtic-punk albums by The Pogues, reveling in Basil Poledouris’ epic score for Conan the Barbarian (the original 1982 classic, mind you), and metal-wise blanketing myself with loads of classic Blind Guardian as a side effect of my now unrestrained anticipation for their new album. Regarding the latter, its our favorite bards who instantly win the crown for the most anticipated album of 2015 —- I mean, who are we kidding here? The German legends may be skirting the edge of their regular four year studio release schedule (that ‘2015’ is going to throw off the 98-02-06-10 symmetry of their last four albums), but in these final weeks leading up to the release of Beyond the Red Mirror, I’m remembering everything I love about the band and all is forgiven. That being said, what are the runners up as my most anticipated metal releases/events?

As it turns out, the number of potential/possible/likely 2015 releases from major metal names is quite lengthy. So I’m going to try something new and lay out my most anticipated in a rather rapid fire list in alphabetical order with a thought or two about what I expect, or (more importantly) am hoping for:

 


 

Angra – Secret Garden: One of the first cannon shots of 2015 is the debut of Fabio Lione in his role as Angra’s third official vocalist, being the successor to Edu Falaschi who left in 2012. Look, I wasn’t wild about the Edu era although it had its occasionally good to great moments, but I’m completely un-enthused about the very idea of the Lione era. I was never sold on Rhapsody (of Fire ™), in large part owing to how little I found to like about Lione’s thin, wafery delivery. I respected the heck out of the guy for helping out Kamelot on their Khan-less tour a few years back, despite having to acknowledge that his vocals were completely wrong for the band’s tone and mid-tempo stylings. So on paper Angra should be a better fit for him than his stint in Kamelot, but the pre-release single “Newborn Me” is completely underwhelming so far. It won’t be long before I drop a review of this one, Angra daring to challenge Blind Guardian with a January release (the very idea…).

 

Cradle of FilthHammer Of The Witches (working title): In the past few years, the idea of a new Cradle album was met with a sad level of indifference from myself and as it seemed many others. Paul Allender’s role as guitarist was long past its expiration date, heard in recycled riffs and uninspired songwriting. Yet his departure in 2014 was surprising as it was enticing —- with all due respect to Allender, its now transparently obvious that he wanted to move on years before but the relatively steady nature of Cradle’s existence and operations kept him around for years and albums longer. The new guitarists, two guys named Ashok and Richard Shaw (there’s some dichotomy for you) are relatively unknown quantities, but Dani’s recent quote held some promise, “It’s gone back to the twin-guitar harmonies — very fast and ornate and atmospherically spooky, but lots of melody. I think it’s gonna surprise a lot of people.” A new lineup, fresh blood at the guitar spot —- it worked for fellow British metallers Judas Priest in a big way. Its make or break time for Cradle, I demand something in the vein of Midian!

 

The Darkness – Cliffhanger (tentative title): Yeah, yeah I know —– “Dear Pigeon, why are you wasting my eye strength on a fairly ludicrous joke band that’s barely even hard rock, let alone metal in any way, shape, or form?”. Longtime readers however will remember that The Darkness actually ended up on my best songs of 2012 list with a gem off their excellent Hotcakes album. And let me address a few things that tend to linger on about this band: They’re not a joke band, check their cited influences, actually listen to their music, and you’ll realize the Hawkins brothers bleed classic Thin Lizzy, Queen, AC/DC, and a splash of Def Leppard. More importantly, they write wonderfully catchy songs with clever hooks and turns of phrase, with loose, Izzy n’ Slash melodic guitar interplay. Are they full of a particularly British sense of humour? Absolutely, but its part of their charm, their music is made with such attention to craft and detail that it demonstrates a conviction that a “joke” band simply wouldn’t bother with.

 

Dimmu Borgir – TBA: It will likely be just over five long years since the release of Dimmu’s last album, the unfortunately titled but otherwise decent Abrahadabra. I loved the eponymous “Dimmu Borgir” off that album, one of the band’s catchiest singles in years (it had a pretty decent music video too), but the majority of the album made me wonder how much there was possibly left to explore in their heavily symphonic black metal style. I’m not really sure what to expect from these guys now, but it really seems like a stylistic evolution ala Satyricon might be in order. Blut Aus Nord just dropped a new album of classic Norwegian second wave black metal that is bracing, fresh, and revitalized… proving in one fell swoop that there’s still life left in the old traditions. Maybe the way forward for Dimmu is to look back in order to progress their sound. More of the same from them would be disappointing in a way, especially after a five year gap.

 

Enslaved – In Times: Due in early March, the next Enslaved album is right up there among my most anticipated of 2015, this despite the band’s frustrating lack of Texas tour dates on yet another “North American” tour. That aside, I’m eager to hear what direction these guys veer off into this time. Their last album RIITIIR (a 2012 year end lister) was a blending of the progressive tendencies of 2008’s Vertebrae with traditional metal and rock elements, a stark contrast to the more punishingly straightforward black metal of 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini. To say that the band has been on a seesaw of stylistic shifts is an understatement —- Enslaved is simply the most unpredictable band in metal today. Personally I’m hoping for a return to a more primal, moodier, mid-career era sound, akin to the Viking infused charm of Below the Lights and Isa. If you’re new to Enslaved, consider the latter two albums your assigned homework.

 

Faith No More – TBA: If the band’s 2014 single “Motherfucker” was any indication, we’re in for a treat. I love the way that song didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard from the band in their 90s heyday, yet still sounded unmistakably like Faith No More in all their ugly, beautiful, and baffling glory. It also put to rest any remote moaning about the lack of Jim Martin’s involvement, as Jon Hudson is as creative and adaptable a guitarist as the band needs (surely his work on Album of the Year should’ve sold people on that). More promising is that the band are recording the new album entirely on their own without the involvement of a record label, and given what they got away with when on a major label, who knows what juxtapositions and bizarreness we’ll get from song-to-song. I’m just so happy to have the band back, their work felt incomplete upon their disbandment in 1998, and there are precious few bands that have the kind of personality that FNM had in spades. Maybe a Metal Pigeon Recommends feature is in order for these guys prior to the album release… something I’ll keep in mind.

 

Iron Maiden – TBA: Much like Dimmu Borgir, a five year gap will separate Maiden’s upcoming album from its predecessor, too long of a time in my opinion for a band whose members are pushing 60 (if not already past it). Its been frustrating to have this blog out for so many years now with absolutely zero writing on my favorite band of all time (I mean seriously, I’d have expected a Bruce solo album in the interim at least). Maiden has apparently been busy recording, the proof of which was delivered in the form of a cryptic fan club Christmas card in December that featured Eddie walking into a studio. Their last effort, The Final Frontier was a great album, with songs that harkened back to their Brave New World style with a splash of Somewhere Back In Time’s futuristic keyboard arrangements. Sure Steve Harris does tend to get a little long-winded, but its my slight hope that Bruce and Adrian might get more involved in the songwriting and balance out his longer compositions with some of their concise, catchy songwriting-duo magic.

 

Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Second only to Blind Guardian as my most anticipated album of 2015, I have the highest of hopes for the debut of Floor Jansen as the third Nightwish vocalist. She is perhaps the most adaptable of them all, capable of classical operatics, as well as the wildly versatile pop-rock accessibility of Anette Olzon. Having seen Jansen with the band in concert myself, I thought her most valuable resource as a vocalist was her ability to project power in a way that both Olzon and Tarja were unable to. Simply put, she can belt it out when she wants to, an ability that immediately makes her the metalized equal to Marco Hietala’s soaring, accented tenor. Of course Tuomas Holopainen’s songwriting will be my primary focus of attention, and judging by his choice of song titles, cited inspirational reading, and guest narrator in Richard Dawkins —- we’re in for a thematic album at the very least (something entirely new for the band). Its hard to envision a Nightwish album better than 2011’s Imaginaerum, but here’s to Holopainen giving it his best shot.

 

Queensryche – TBA: While Queensryche’s self-titled debut with new vocalist Todd LaTorre was a solid return to form, it had severe flaws. The most glaring of which was song length, most of the cuts on the album hovering in the three to four minute range that could’ve benefited from additional verses or expanded guitar solos. Now with all the legal battle drama behind them, this is Queensryche’s time to truly get back to their progressive metal roots —- especially with their debut at Wacken Open Air (finally!) only eight months away. This is a band that needs to be out there touring with actual modern metal artists, not 80s glam-rock bands, and hopefully their time at Wacken will yield fruit in that regard as well as serve as their re-introduction to the European metal audience as a whole. Oh and getting the album out before that show would be good too.

Scorpions – Return to Forever: This is surprising on a number of levels, as 2010’s Sting in the Tail was supposed to be the band’s final studio album, and its subsequent tour was to be their last ever. Even as recently as their late 2013 MTV Unplugged in Athens the band was demonstrably in winding down mode, delving into deep cuts from their discography for that album as well as openly discussing their career in retrospective terms in interviews surrounding the project. An additional phase of their winding down was to step briefly into the studio to flesh out some song ideas stockpiled in the past and quietly release them —- this idea apparently has blown up into a full-fledged new studio album with a world tour on its heels to follow. I guess I’m okay with this… it does lend a bit of irony to their song “The Best Is Yet to Come”,  it being the closing song on the track listing of that aforementioned “final” album. One wonders if Return to Forever will be their swansong, or they’ll stick around for one more.

 


 

Noteworthy Metal Related Events:

Savatage at Wacken Open Air: Fifteen years after the last Savatage tour, the band is getting back together for a last hurrah on the biggest stage in the metal universe. Or is it really the last? Chris Caffery recently suggested otherwise, and its anyone’s guess as to whether or not that will be a tour or a brand new studio album. Seeing as how I’m going to have to check out the Wacken performance on the livecast, I’m hoping for a subsequent North American tour. Oh and if they’re going to do this Wacken show without getting some additional cameras in there for a DVD recording, I will be a tad annoyed. Needless to say this is one of the most widely anticipated metal events of the year.

 

Nightwish / Sabaton / Delain in Houston: Yeah this is a personal one, or maybe not if you’re catching one of the many tour dates this amazing bill will be stopping at on its spring North American trek. This will mark my third time seeing Nightwish, the second time I’ll be seeing Delain, and jeez… the seventh or eighth time I’ll have witnessed Sabaton and their high adrenaline stage performance. Should be one to remember.

 

Will Immortal release their new album: I guess I should be asking, is Abbath going to win the rights to the Immortal name so he can release the album that he’s already recorded with other musicians? Read up on this if you are just now hearing of it, but it basically boils down to Abbath vs Demonaz/Horgh over the rights to the Immortal trademark. I’m firmly on the side of Abbath in this dispute, because after all its his vocals and his riffs that make up the bulk of the band’s discography that we love so much. He is for all intents and purposes Immortal —- and even though Demonaz has been the band’s lyricist, we’re not talking Louise Gluck levels of poetic brilliance here, I’m sure Abbath can more than manage them on his own. If Abbath’s accusations about Demonaz and Horgh’s feet dragging are true, then its appalling to hear of them trying to deny everyone a new album with lengthy legal proceedings.

And that wraps it up, hope it helps a little in setting the metal stage for 2015 —- here’s to a great year for everybody!

Kingdom Hearts: Sonata Arctica Look Back With Ecliptica Revisited

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Quick Takes: Floor Jansen’s Open Letter, Paul Allender Leaves Cradle of Filth, and Opeth’s New Single

Sorry, I didn’t have a better title than the above, sometimes just getting to the point works better than anything. I don’t normally comment on news stories (even though I just did with Metallica a few weeks ago), but some things have popped up in the past few days that caught my attention and I felt the need to dish some opinions on them:

 

 

Floor Jansen’s Open Letter: As I’m sure most of you are aware through Blabbermouth’s eye catching select headlines feature at the top of their site, newly ordained Nightwish (and ReVamp) vocalist Floor Jansen recently posted an open letter to her fans explaining her point of view on personal fan interaction. Blabbermouth extolled the virtue of their name by naturally extrapolating the most quotable line from said open letter to headline their article, ” Nightwish singer Floor Jansen: “I am not an arrogant bitch”. For the past few years the comments sections of Blabbermouth articles have been more of a draw than the articles themselves, a tendency that didn’t waver even when the site implemented commenting through Facebook profiles alone (thus precluding anonymity). I read the original article, and then braced myself for the hellstorm that awaited when I scrolled further down. The comments were as expected, highly divisive and vitriolic in the extreme.

 

There’s a twitter profile out there called Don’t Read Comments, which pops up periodically on my feed once a day to remind me and thousands of others in a sagely manner that its not worth our time to read internet comment sections. I mentally nod and agree with the tweet, appreciate its usually humorous undertone, and proceed to wind up reading a comments section somewhere on the internet within the next ten minutes. I’d blame myself if only it wasn’t such a scalded in reflex by now. The very notion of social media is based upon the contextualization of comments, Facebook and Twitter are collections of our own comments and those of others that we’re interested (er… in seeing comment). If you’re about to go back to the original article and make the same mistake I made by reading the comments, put the brakes on you sadist. I’ll save you the trouble by telling you that you’ll come off with a lower impression of metal fans. I certainly did.

 

I’m not going to put up a counterargument to what Jansen wrote in her open letter, because she has every right to feel that way and to set boundaries that are within her comfort zone. I’m taking a guess here, but its likely that her appointment to Nightwish’s storied vocalist position has increased her profile to such a degree that she’s encountering a higher volume of fan interactions. That’s to be expected, and if you notice the first sentence of her letter, she makes references to “nightmares and many worried thoughts” —- unless that’s for dramatic effect I’d think that this has the makings of an alarming situation. She’s been on tour in the States with Iced Earth and Sabaton, opening their countrywide trek and finding herself in a strange position. Jansen is arguably the most famed individual on the tour, yet her band opens first, and there’s a tendency to expect that as the opening band, you’ll make yourself available to anyone and everyone after your set (this isn’t my expectation mind you, but a familiar tradition within metal shows anywhere). I saw the Houston date of this particular tour, and sure enough Jansen and her band were meeting people by the buses well after Iced Earth had finished playing. Jansen seemed comfortable and took photos with people and signed stuff, and generally everyone seemed pretty happy.

 

I was with a couple friends a short distance away, one of whom was intent upon meeting Jon Schaffer (he never came out of the bus, but we did get to have an extended conversation with Stu Block next to a food truck strangely hidden behind the venue). At one point Jansen had drifted off towards the direction of her tour bus, standing a good distance away from the throng of waiting fans. The same friend now urged me to go meet Jansen as she was by herself and had actually turned around scanning the crowd while smiling as if waiting for one last person to run up to her for a photo. I waved off his obnoxious urgings, simply because I felt no real necessity to meet her, and it might’ve taken away time from someone who really did (as it turned out no one else stepped up and she ended up scooting back to her bus). I’m not telling you that to make myself look better, but just to paint a picture. She struck me as someone who was personable, affable, and was genuinely enjoying the experience. I wonder if other tour stops on the trek were as laid back and pleasant, or if they became uncomfortable and she had to back off. If this tour was in South America I could understand, as fans there are super passionate and that can be construed as aggressive behavior — but us meek North Americans? Really? Its hard to comprehend.

 

Perhaps this open letter is more motivated by something else she indicated —- internet rumors of her being “rude”. If that is what has really gotten her upset, her open letter is only adding fuel to the fire. Her letter was written in English, and its very readable and clear. What it lacks however is levity, a casual tone, and perhaps even a hint of self-deprecating wit to soften its impact to the hordes of internet readers that have already formed an impression of her one way or another after reading it. I say that knowing that some things shouldn’t be softened —- but as I pointed out before, I have no problem with her message. But as her bandmates in Nightwish learned through brutal experience, posting an open letter is a form of PR, and in this case, its a heady dose of negative PR for Jansen. I think she’d have been better off by avoiding the open letter route, shrugging off the rumors (which only a small percentage of people tend to take seriously anyway), and going about her policies when meeting fans. Look there’s no way around it, telling someone who’s stoked to meet you to not touch you is just going to come off badly. Jansen is absolutely within her rights to make the request, but she has to realize that there will be fallout from it, and thanks to the internet, a lot of people will hear about it. I hope she finds a way to persevere through this. She was the right choice for Nightwish, hopefully she finds that Nightwish was the right choice for her.

 

 

Paul Allender Leaves Cradle of Filth: Not to sound like a jerk or anything, but why didn’t this happen years ago? Cradle of Filth have been in a creative tailspin for the past half a decade (possibly longer, depends who you ask) and one of the major reasons I feel is that their songwriting began to stagnate. Dani Filth may be the creative force behind the band, but it was Allender who was doing the bulk of the riff writing since 2000’s Midian, and therein was the problem. I saw them with Satyricon back in 2008 and it looked like Allender didn’t even want to be on stage, and frankly I found myself agreeing with him —- I wanted him off too, he was bumming me out. Its not yet confirmed whether or not Allender left the band of his own volition as my headline suggests or whether he was forced out, but either way, I hope that Dani finds a replacement that has some creative fire to infuse into a sound that is now an echo of what it once was. I have never really written about Cradle on the blog, but they were one of the extreme metal (hard to call them black metal these days) bands that I took a shine to in the late nineties and I still love their classic records.

 

By classics I’m referring specifically to Dusk and Her Embrace, Cruelty and the Beast, and the gloriously Maiden-ized Midian, Allender’s sole indisputable riff packed masterpiece. They had a couple interesting moments during the aughts with a few scattered songs here and there; certainly “Nymphetamine” was a great track (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Liv Kristine may just be the best guest female vocalist in metal), and I didn’t mind certain songs off Thornography (including their cover of “Temptation”). Their last three albums just left me feeling rather unmoved however, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. When you finish listening to an album and can think of nothing to say about it one way or another, that’s a bad sign. The chart positions have declined, as have sales, and Cradle are no longer guaranteed large audiences —- somewhere along the way, their shtick wore thin because the music backing it was no longer compelling. I’m not particularly fond of the gothic, Tim Burton-esque trappings that came with the band, but I accepted it as part of the package. Perhaps now its time for a rethink, for Dani to redefine himself as a vocalist and explore his range more (no more high shrieks for high shrieks sake). A new guitarist that could double as a cooperative songwriting partner should be someone who seeks not to replicate the band’s existing sound, but tear it all down and build something new. Its long past time, I hope it happens.

 

 

Opeth’s New Single, “Cusp of Eternity”: If you were reading the blog a few years ago, you’ll remember that I wasn’t very fond of Opeth’s last offering, the retro-psychedelic Heritage, and not because I was one of those disappointed by Mikael Akerfeldt’s retreat from all things death metal. The idea of that album that were bandied about before its releases were actually rather intriguing to me, and I was looking forward to it, having loved the softer moments on various Opeth records throughout their discography. I hoped that it would not be a repeat performance of Damnation, their nearly all acoustic album that ended up being a bit of a yawner in retrospect. But Heritage fell flat with me on all levels, the songwriting just wasn’t there —- songs were disjointed, lacked bridges and overall musical continuity. When the negative fallout occurred over that album’s release, I didn’t go out of my way to burn the band, but suffice to say I didn’t go see them live when their setlists revealed that they were avoiding older material. Through the press it seemed that Akerfeldt had tired of metal and was even at times close to disparaging it. Its hard to hold that against a guy who’s given us so many monumental death metal records, so I let it all slide. But I knew that there was no going back for this band, that in their hearts, they’d moved on from metal.

 

Turns out my intuition was correct on that front, the new song isn’t metal in the slightest, in fact its seemingly a continuation of the Heritage born exploration of progressive rock sounds of the 70s (perhaps that is an oversimplification, but I’ll make amends for it when I review the album as a whole). But here’s the thing: I actually really like “Cusp of Eternity”! This is a compelling, rhythmically heavy uptempo song with a set of great guitar tones, fluidly melodic patterns, and lush Steven Wilson produced vocal arrangements. Akerfeldt himself sounds fantastically eerie, and I love the distant effects on the guitar outro following the chorus, something I feel I haven’t heard from Opeth in forever. I’ve been playing this on repeat quite a bit today and its just working for me. I know I’m supposed to be a music reviewer and talk about this in greater detail, but screw it, my mind is half shuttered on a Monday so I’ll just let my more immediate reactions come to the surface. The truth is that I haven’t felt this excited about a new Opeth song since “Coil” from Watershed. If Pale Communion turns out to be one of the best albums of the year, there will be few others as greatly surprised as myself. You’ve got my attention Akerfeldt —- well played!

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.

Nightwish/Kamelot in Austin: Karevik and Jansen Hit Their Stride

 

I figured I’d follow up my previous blog entry about Anette Olzon’s abrupt departure from Nightwish with something a little more positive and music related, namely, a few quick thoughts about the Nightwish/Kamelot performance on October 10th at Emo’s in Austin, Texas. By now forums, Reddit, and a ton of other places online have been filling up with talk of just how Floor Jansen and Tommy Karevik have been handling their new roles respectively as the vocalists of Nightwish and Kamelot. To be accurate, Karevik has had a longer gestation period (going on a few months) as Roy Khan’s official replacement — Jansen has had a scant ten days and seven shows to acclimate herself to her new role and the band’s setlist. Most fans are understanding of this fact, knowing that over time and subsequent performances, she’d get better and find the right vocal approach for each song, but this being the internet, there have been a fair share of grumblers, nit-pickers, and cries for Tarja. I went into Wednesday night’s show with a mind to focus on both Karevik and Jansen in particular and to try to just come away with a honest fan’s take.

 

Kamelot was first, walking out in front of a backdrop of the cover of their upcoming “Silverthorn” release. They started off with what struck me as a surprise, two songs from the Ghost Opera record followed immediately by “The Great Pandemonium” from their most recent, Poetry for the Poisoned. There’s nothing inherently wrong about those choices but you’d figure that a band on tour with a new vocalist would try to shoot from the earlier classic era material straight off the bat in a fast approach to try to win over skeptics. Regardless, from the word go Karevik blew me away with his near perfect singing, seemingly effortless reach of higher registers, and his ability to inflect emotion into all the requisite moments that Roy Khan had so pinned down on the records.

 

The band surprised me by bringing out “Seasons End” for this tour, a bonus track left off the initial non-Japanese Ghost Opera releases and one of the band’s true gems. Karevik and guest touring vocalist Elize Ryd (Amaranthe) sang together a powerful rendition of the song and traded off solo A cappella sections of the refrain towards the end only to join back in together for one ultimate climactic chorus. The rest of Kamelot’s short set (they were opening after all) was excellent, but it was “Seasons End” that really sold me on their choice of Karevik — at least as a live vocalist. I hate to say it, because I love the mighty Khan, but Karevik really did appear to be a genuinely better vocalist on stage, and as a frontman he was engaging and didn’t miss a cue and just as importantly he seems to have calmed down on his European tour habits of trying to over hype the crowd. Now comes the album on October 30th, the final test.

 

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

 

 

As for Nightwish, I got the feeling from talking to people in the line outside and in the crowd in the venue that most fans in attendance were pretty much fine with the decision to replace vocalists mid-tour, generally not out of any real malice towards Olzon but just out of the simple satisfaction of being able to see the band live at all. Nightwish has toured the States before, but the tours have been few and far between, and who knows how many years it will be even before the next Nightwish album is out. The fact that the tour wasn’t canceled was seen as something of a miracle by those who were aware of the details of the band’s recent situation. As far as thoughts about the new vocalist… I saw a few After Forever shirts out there, but got the impression that most people didn’t know all that much about Floor Jansen.

 

So I’ll go out on a limb here and say something blunt that might bite me in the ass later down the line: I think Nightwish have found their permanent vocalist. If its not Floor Jansen, then they might as well just openly state that they’ll be using a rotating cast of female singers from this point onwards. She was not only surprisingly great, but there were stunningly amazing moments such as on “Ever Dream” where she delivered the song’s chorus in its true to original spirit of ever increasing high notes. I looked over to the right side of the stage during those moments to see Nightwish guitarist Emppu Vuorinen grinning in reaction in what appeared to be genuine surprise. Jansen was recovering from a cold during the first few shows of this tour but she said in a recent online posting that she’s now able to belt everything out at her full capacity. It certainly sounded that way.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXdrBCOLHX4&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The biggest surprise of the night was an airing of the “Once” album cut and fan favorite “Ghost Love Score”, which hadn’t been played since 2009. Interestingly enough my view was somewhat blocked at this point by longtime Nightwish manager Ewo Pohjola who quietly slipped into the audience to watch the band try its first attempt at performing this song with Jansen. They pulled it off, as well as the rest of the largely Imaginaerum based set list. The only moment that could be pointed out for possibly losing the crowd was “Slow Love Slow”, which works incredibly well on the album with all its moody subtleties, but doesn’t seem to translate as well live. My only other gripe would have to be the morphing of “Nemo” into an acoustic rendition, as opposed to the full dramatic flair of the original. With a singer that good, you should let her open up on your biggest hit — just saying.

 

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