We Blind Guardian fans have had to deal with a lot in the past few years. Set aside the vinyl manufacturing delay that pushed the release of this album back almost a full year, and let’s consider the fact that the band had finally settled upon a 2019 release date for their long labored over orchestral project that we’ve heard about for nearly two decades. This release in question extended a normally four year gap between studio albums to seven this time around (meaning studio albums proper, not lavish vanity projects that are up for debate on whether they were worth it). That wouldn’t have been such a long wait had 2015’s Beyond theRed Mirror been a truly excellent album, but while far from a disaster, it was certainly prone to being influenced by the band’s orchestral mindset with it’s heavily layered keyboard arrangements and progressive songwriting tendencies. In recent interviews, Hansi has admitted as much, that the Twilight Orchestra project impacted the band’s approach for a number of years and that their newest album, The God Machine, is in part a knowing reaction away from that. It should be said that this is good thing, the band’s awareness of having possibly overdosed their fanbase on all the orchestral stuff can only lead them towards a sound that is closer to the classic Blind Guardian archetype that we all know and love. It’s a small thing to remark on first, but notice that they’ve finally switched cover artists for the first time in over a decade, using a piece from the awesome Peter Mohrbacher instead of something from Felipe Machado (with respect to Felipe, a lot of fans felt the band had long needed a visual makeover), a change that is hard not to interpret as the bards themselves signaling the start of a new era.
But as The God Machine will prove, it’s rare that these types of artistic shifts can be executed at will, because a band like Blind Guardian tend to want to follow their own muse even when knowing they outta reign something in. Blind Guardian shifts their artistic direction the way an aircraft carrier turns around, relatively fast for their lumbering nature, but it still takes a bit — it’s not a Jetski. Consider their years long gradual transition from Teutonic thrashy speed metal in the late 80s and early 90s to the epic, genre defining power metal with Imaginations and Nightfall. When they’ve made sudden jumps in their musical approach it can be a shock to our system. Take their scaling back of the grandiose sugary sound they delivered on the uber layered and dense A Night at the Opera — they overcorrected with 2006’s A Twist in the Myth, and only really found their way back to an inspired equilibrium four years later on 2010’s At the Edge of Time. Part of the reason a lot of Blind Guardian fans have been sullen about the orchestral project is not only because it was a difficult listen, but because you couldn’t help but feel it had been derailing the hard hitting aspects of the band, you know… the metal, which had been a defining element of their classic sound. I think there are a lot of us who just felt relieved when the Twilight Orchestra was released, a feeling that maybe the band would have gotten that out of their system and started running lean again. Well… again, aircraft carrier here. Its never that easy with Blind Guardian.
To give immediate context to The God Machine in case you’re refusing to listen to it until reading this review for whatever sadistic reason, it sits at the crossroads between At the Edge of Time and Beyond the Red Mirror, really being a mix of the former’s classic power metal throwback approach and the latter’s more progressive songwriting tendencies. In other words, don’t come in here expecting the second coming of Imaginations, but there are moments that sometimes will recall hints of that glorious past, simply because one of its touchstone albums was recalling that very past. I feel like it has one foot firmly planted in Blind Guardian’s power metal sound while their progressive, epic songwriting is firmly grabbing a hold of its other leg, preventing it from making a full stride into that realm. This dichotomy unfolds throughout the album in unpredictable ways, because while the opener “Deliver Us From Evil” is a strong, classic-Guardian emulation built on a satisfying riff progression, raging Hansi screams, and those patented choral backing vocals — it’s immediately followed by the proggy arrangements heard in “Damnation”, though still very much rooted in the band’s more aggressive sound palette. And is it just me or does anyone else hear shades of A Night At the Opera here? There’s something about the way the choral vocals are layered in this staggered pattern in the prechorus and chorus that give me major 2002 vibes in a surprisingly welcome way. I appreciate how they tempered all the sudden zigzags in direction throughout this song with a powerfully weighty, anchoring refrain sequence that gives the whole thing a sense of purpose and direction.
Sometimes though we just simply get those glorious, soaring uncut gems where Hansi has always shined, as on the truly magnificent “Secrets of the American Gods”, as stirring and passionate a song the bards have ever crafted. This is based on the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods, a book I’ve reread likely over ten times now, and it’s a trip to see it’s Americana drenched storyline being alluded to in a Hansi-ian lyrical adaptation (where everything comes across as dramatic and millennia-spanning epic as the tales in The Silmarillion). Hear that chorus? That’s entirely Hansi’s wheelhouse, those lengthy lyrical phrases where his vocals have the time and space to stretch and bend words to his dramatic vision (notice throughout their entire catalog that the more shorter, clipped, and jumpy a Blind Guardian song’s lyrical stanzas are, the less effective he is at really unleashing what makes his vocals truly magical). Hansi being allowed to have a long runway is what turns “Let It Be No More” into an album highlight, elevating muted, dare I say meandering verses into something truly inspiring and heartrending when the refrain kicks in. It’s not quite a ballad in the traditional sense, but its the closest thing on The God Machine to such a thing (I too was hoping for a sequel to something like “Curse My Name” or “War of the Thrones” but I’ll take this as a more than suitable substitute). There is an alternate version of this song recorded as a bonus track for the digipak and other luxury editions of the album with “heavy vocals”, and its essentially a rawer lead from Hansi with less lush padding on the choral vocals during the refrain. I can’t decide which one I enjoy more, because both have their merits but typically I think you err on the side of rawer Hansi, which meant they picked the wrong version for a bonus track.
Where that Red Mirror progressive songwriting still lingers the most is on two cuts in particular (it popped up in fits and spurts on the songs mentioned previously too, just in more manageable doses), namely “Life Beyond the Spheres” and the album closer “Destiny”. Now there are some moments within these two songs that I do enjoy, certain musical motifs or lyrical passages or vocal melodies here and there, but as a whole they’re underwhelming. I can’t be the only one who wishes “Destiny” would’ve exploded in it’s mid-song instrumental bridge sequence, surely everything prior to it seemed to be building and building to something like that, a euphoric release of growing tension — it just never materializes (though Hansi partially redeems it with his unexpected vocal gusto at 5:26). As for “Life Beyond the Spheres”, this genuinely sounds like something left off Red Mirror, a weird, jumbled mix of neat ideas that don’t really seem to gel together at all. It’s a clunkily shifting track that lacks a memorable thru melody be it instrumental or vocal driven, and the chorus seems to just arrive without any fanfare like Kramer swinging open the door to Jerry’s apartment and waltzing in. Marcus’ rhythm guitar staccato riffing is a cool thing they could’ve built on, but like “Destiny” it’s just never leveraged into something that gets the heart beating faster. And this is where the progressive aspect of the band’s songwriting really trips them up, when songs become too heady instead of working off emotion and energy and instinct. The Blind Guardian that makes you glory claw in the air is the stuff that infects your love of pathos, drama, and penchant for theatricality, its not the stuff that you have to intellectualize like a Dream Theater album.
The song most reviewers are likely going to point to when referring to this as an “old school” Blind Guardian album is “Violent Shadows”, and for good reason (though it would be an inaccurate overall description for the album). Premiered during the virtual Wacken World Wide 2020 event that a lot of us caught live and freaked out over their truly old school setlist for the show, this was the song that sent thousands of hearts wildly beating out of control for the uber suggestive hint that we were getting Imaginations part two. And indeed it does sound like a forgotten cut from that era, or something that could’ve also been found on Somewhere Far Beyond. It’s built on a solid riff-vocal tradeoff, and has a fairly memorable hook going for it, I will however admit that at times I find it maybe a little too repetitive for it’s own good (I find myself wishing it would’ve had a more adventurous bridge sequence than just the small guitar solo moment). Just as good if not better in that old school Guardian spirit is “Blood of the Elves”, it’s pacing sometimes reminding me of “A Script For My Requiem”, with Andre’s solo here conjuring up familiar ghosts of the past in a welcome way. Similarly bone shaking is “Architects of Doom”, where a thundering series of riff sequences unfolds into something far more elegant than its aggressive opening assault was suggesting. This was a sneaky one, worming its way into my good graces after initially being indifferent to it, give it a couple listens to let it blossom (that’s really the central tenet for approaching this album as a whole btw).
I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned it on the blog, but one of the metrics I employ when evaluating a new album, particularly from a veteran band is what I call the playlist quotient: That being the number of songs from said album you would add into a real or hypothetical playlist you were making of the artist in question. It’s a helpful way to visualize your affection for an album in a wider angle, and allows you to get past being dazzled by one or two really great songs that might initially skew your impression of an album being better than it is. Case in point is Red Mirror, an album that I gave a critical yet decently complimentary review to at the time. But it fared below 50% on the playlist quotient, with only a pair of songs making my hypothetical Blind Guardian playlist (“The Throne”, “Distant Memories”), which from an eleven song long tracklist is not great. In comparison, 2010’s At the Edge of Time boasted eight tracks that made the playlist out of a ten track album, and that I’d still keep all of those choices on there is a huge testament to that album’s enduring greatness. And for a band that I have a tremendous amount of affection for, a metric like this really helps me in not letting my enthusiasm and inner fanboy cloud my judgement to where I’m just declaring it the album of the year just because its friggin’ Blind Guardian (to that end, At the Edge of Time was my 2010 album of the year with damn good reason).
So where does The God Machine end up on the playlist quotient? Definitely better then Red Mirror but not quite scaling those lofty heights reached by AtEoT. Without question “Secrets of the American Gods”, “Let It Be No More”, and “Damnation” are instant adds, songs that I don’t think I’d see myself hitting skip on when they came up on shuffle. I’d also toss on there “Violent Shadows”, “Blood of the Elves” and “Deliver Us From Evil”, but could see myself hitting skip if the moment wasn’t quite right. So six songs out of a nine song album is a fairly strong showing, three if you really forced me to make hard cuts but all told I’d consider that a success as well. This was a good, solid, at times genuinely excellent step in the right direction for Blind Guardian. It does however feel like a band that’s trying to regain their footing after being lost in the orchestral wilds for so long, like Thingol standing in the woods of Nan Elmoth for frigging ages and eventually stumbling out in a semi-daze (albeit without the whole surprise I now have a goddess as a wife! thing). As a fan, I’m encouraged to hear where next they could possibly take this newfound sense of musical liberation, if not back to their roots entirely (which I’ll admit is an unfair and unlikely proposition), then perhaps somewhere new and exciting with their metallic natures leading the way forward. But its the bards we’re talking about, we’ll be along for the caravan and campfire sit arounds regardless.
Ten years ago, when I first started this blog, I had a boatload of ideas that I wanted to eventually get to after I had accumulated a decent amount of articles on the site, and found my writing voice so to speak. One of those ideas was to talk about my ults (to borrow a K-Pop term) — you know, my favorite records in this genre, that genre, of all time, you get the point. So to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this site, I’m finally (finally!) launching this in the form of The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten. The idea is simple. I’m presenting my picks for the ten essential albums that I feel best exemplify everything that I love about a certain subgenre. In other words, its by no means an attempt at an objective-ish list, but more a personal reflection of my own experience as a fan of this music. Of course we’re starting with power metal, because over the years I’ve written about my love for it likely more than anything else on this blog, and whittling what I love about this subgenre down to ten albums was not easy. But I like the number ten for lists, its easy to focus on for a reader, and for myself it forces me to make hard cuts and think about what I really have to include. These ten picks are sorted in alphabetical order by artist… hey look it was hard enough getting my list down to ten, don’t make me rank them. The prospect of finally getting around to this has been surprisingly rejuvenating, and a great excuse to go back and listen to albums that I haven’t heard in awhile but have meant a lot to me since I first did. Thanks for reading the blog any of these past ten years, can’t believe its been this long but I’m grateful it has.
Avantasia – The Metal Opera:
I think the first thing that someone might think when doing a quick scroll down through this list is “Where’s Helloween?”. Fair question. But I only have ten spots, and if I’m being honest with myself, as far as my personal experience with power metal goes, Helloween and Gamma Ray took a backseat to my rabid fanaticism for all things Tobias Sammet, particularly during that late 90s/early 00’s era. Released smack in the midst of the golden age of power metal™ (97-03 to be precise) in July 2001, the first Avantasia album was a monumental event in the power metal world. I had heard the single almost a year before in 2000 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown (a Cleveland area college radio show hosted by Dr. Metal whose show introduced me to a ton of power metal) when Tobias himself called in for an interview. He talked about the guest vocalists, people from bands that I was largely unfamiliar with, but he did winkingly confirm one significant guest he called “Ernie”, who Dr. Metal later clarified as Michael Kiske. My personal hype leading up to this album was massive, I made it a mission to grab as many albums as I could from the guest vocalist’s respective bands, in the process becoming fans of Angra, Stratovarius, Virgin Steele, Impellitteri, At Vance, and Within Temptation. That was a process that carried over into The Metal Opera Pt. II released a year later, but it was the debut that lit the match on what was already a flammable pyre of growing obsession over all things European power metal.
While the sequel was fantastic in its own right, the debut had the kind of crackling magic that all these years later refuses to diminish. From the melancholic majesty of “Farewell” to the glory-fist inspiring “Sign Of The Cross” to the now iconic “Reach Out For The Light” with Kiske’s glorious voice. What Tobias did on The Metal Opera was essentially build on what Kiske and Helloween had pioneered on the Keeper albums, only made bigger and wilder, with a cast of strikingly different vocalists that gave this straight ahead epic power metal a grandeur that made it sound larger than life. In writing this, I’ve realized that no amount of words can give voice to just how massive an impact this record was for me, it nearly rivaled having discovered Blind Guardian. For sure Keeper I/II belong on the list of the most influential and/or greatest power metal albums of all time, I totally agree with that both as a metal fan and a self appointed historian. But for as much as I love those records now, at the time I viewed them as heavy metal records ala Maiden… power metal really wasn’t a widespread term until 97 or so, and I always associated it with newer bands coming out of Europe. An artist like Tobias who wore his influences on his sleeves made it apparent just how far into the future Helloween’s influence has reached. But Avantasia’s The Metal Opera was a special moment in time for me, and I can’t look back on power metal history without it being a blinding beacon shining back at me.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall In Middle Earth:
The never ending debate among not only Blind Guardian fans, but power metal fans in general is Imaginations or Nightfall? Because though Blind Guardian does have other great records, those two albums in particular have come to define the what is quintessentially great about the band. I’ve always felt that there is no wrong answer between the two, because there have been moments where I’ve considered Imaginations and thought that note for note it could be a stronger listening experience. But the reason why I’m placing Nightfall on this list over it is because of just how much it intersects at two of my major interests, namely Tolkien and epic power metal. This isn’t breaking news to anyone by now, but I’m sure that was the reason a lot of people got into Blind Guardian. But back in the day when I discovered the band shortly after Nightfall’s release, it was a major revelation to younger me, a shocking intersection that seemed only hinted at with stuff like Metallica’s nods to Lovecraft and Maiden with… all their various literary references. With Nightfall, Blind Guardian created a soundtrack to Middle Earth that I never knew could possibly exist, painting rich, theatrical aural drama for important vignettes from The Silmarillion. At the time concept albums were still a relative rarity, but the bards didn’t try to shoehorn in an entire plot into their songs. They used the existing literature as a diving board from which to write from specific character perspectives, tackle particular moments from complex scenes and flesh them out with narration, context, and internal monologues. The intricacy of the musical arrangements mirrored the pulse of the narrative — militant grandeur on “Time Stands Still”, anguish and loss on “Nightfall”, forlorn melancholy on “The Eldar”. Particularly impressive for source material that read more like a biblical history rather than a typical fantasy adventure, Nightfall’s songs were intensely emotional, full of haunting imagery in its lyrics and utterly convincing passion from Hansi Kursch’s vocals.
On a side note, this album got me to finally tackle The Silmarillion, which I had previously disregarded as too difficult to read. All these years later, and it’s one of my most read books (if not the most read), with me doing yearly readings right around this time of year for quite a few years in a row. I love everything about it now, as a flawed but still rather perfect piece of literature, and it took Nightfall to get me to appreciate that. I also still consider the album to be one of the finest storytelling moments in power metal, nearly equaled only by Kamelot’s Epica, together both albums illuminating a dearth of competition that is oftentimes disappointing to consider. It has also, after what has to be in the thousands of listens after all these years, still retained the same vibrancy and freshness that it did when I first heard it. Honestly I can’t even say that about a few old classic Maiden albums, and they’re my favorite band. Andre Olbrich’s leads in “Mirror Mirror” still get my adrenaline pumping even if I’m sitting in my desk chair, Hansi’s screamed “Fear my curse!” on “Noldor” still raises the hair on my arms, and the chorus of “Into The Storm” is still the most spirited, spitting defiance singalong moment, even if I’m by myself in the car. So again, you might think Imaginations deserves to be here, and I couldn’t fault you for it, but Nightfall is iconic to me, that cover art, the depth of what the band accomplished here — it’s a power metal essential, even if you tend to skip the interludes.
Edguy – Mandrake:
It’s a testament to Tobias Sammet’s impact on my power metal fandom that he’s landed on this essentials list twice, and you could say 2001 was a great year for him on an artistic level. Just over two months after he dropped The Metal Opera, Tobias delivered Edguy’s fifth and finest album in Mandrake, the point where the band’s sound was still cut from the classic Helloween inspired power metal cloth of 1999’s Theater Of Salvation, but tempered with an arena ready production complete with fuller, deeper guitar tones and a thicker bottom end. These sonic adjustments were paired with his most going for the jugular approach to songwriting yet, delivering bangers like “Golden Dawn” and the bruisingly heavy “Nailed To The Wheel”. An epic opener like “Tears Of A Mandrake” and the ultra-catchy “All The Clowns” blossomed into iconic power metal classics. Even an adventurous set piece like “The Pharaoh” saw Tobias growing into a confident, accomplished craftsman, capable of holding our attention for ten minute chunks, layering compelling sequences one after another, foreshadowing some of the great epics he’d deliver throughout his career afterwards. He also brought Edguy right up to the edge of a more AOR steeped approach, with “Painting On The Wall” being a seminal moment in their career — still power metal in spirit but dressed up in Magnum and Europe outerwear. And on an album so leaden with somber toned material (despite the major key choruses, this was a much darker album than Theater was or even The Hellfire Club after it) Tobias snuck in a satisfying bit of Helloween inspired cheek in “Save Us Now”, the type of thing that in lesser hands would stick out terribly. Even the ballad here, long a bane of many a power metal fan, “Wash Away The Poison” saw him still writing with that traditional power metal frame of mind, preferring lyrics about self-realization and discovery over the romantic overtures that would come later.
In summation, Mandrake was the first fully realized culmination of Tobias Sammet as one of the genre’s foremost songwriters. In a career full of great songs before and after, it was track for track his strongest overall effort, and it was also in so many ways the swansong of his power metal era too. The hard rock influences came to the forefront one album later and never really left, even in latter day Avantasia where classic power metal only rears it’s head in fits and spurts. I know for my part, that’s a big reason why I tend to view 2003 as a closing of the classic power metal era, because when you have one of the heavy hitters in a songwriting sense drifting away from that classic style, it’s a signal that something has ended, or at the very least, changed irreparably. Recently on albums like Ghostlights and Moonglow, Sammet has shown glimpses and flashes of the return of some classic power metal trappings of the Mandrake era, but hardly anything full on or overtly Helloween attuned like Mandrake was. Of course that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inferior, I think we’ve all grown accustomed to the change that’s occurred to Tobias’ songwriting approach over the years. It’s entirely possible that he felt Mandrake was as far as he could go in the classic power metal mode and still write compelling music. I think it’s also why I regard this album with a tinge of sadness, because despite it’s magic, it was the end of something special instead of the beginning.
Dragonforce – Sonic Firestorm:
Many if asked which was the most impactful Dragonforce album to date would cite either the band’s debut Valley Of The Damned or the truckload selling Inhuman Rampage with it’s improbable Billboard Hot 100 hit “Through The Fire And The Flames”. I hate dating myself here, but I very much remember listening to the band when they were known as Dragonheart with their demo on the ancient version of mp3.com. It created a stir not only for the awesome songs and dizzying guitarwork, but for the ease of which word of mouth spread thanks to it’s digital format. It was really the first time I remember seeing a band blow up thanks to their music being online, and they parlayed that into an actual record deal and released a debut that was pretty strong. The thing we forget about that album though is that the band hadn’t yet introduced the sonic elements that would rock the world three years later on Inhuman Rampage and er… Guitar Hero. Those elements would be introduced on their sophomore album, the utterly inspired, damn near perfect yet tragically overlooked Sonic Firestorm. Hypersonic riffing, wildly complex extended guitar solo passages, and aggressive black metal-esque blast beats spearheading an absolute battery of percussion courtesy of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh. Where Valley was sonically hampered by a slightly muddy production, Sonic Firestorm sounded crisp and clean, a textural facet of the recording that helped its various elements have a visceral impact. Upon release the band was describing this album as “extreme power metal”, and despite that being a bit of cheeky marketing, it was also kinda true, Sonic Firestorm saw them pushing the boundaries of what power metal was expected to sound like.
Of course, the songs were what really mattered, and Sam Totman delivered some of his most inspired songwriting ever with key assists from fellow guitarist Herman Li and keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov. They burst out the gates with “My Spirit Will Go On”, one of the greatest opening cannon shots in power metal history, a song that perfectly married epic ambition and length to an unforgettable hook and iconic lead guitar melody. It’s the first in a salvo of absolute bangers, followed by the aptly named “Fury Of The Storm”, one of vocalist ZP Theart’s best individual moments — he had a knack of sounding indefatigable even on lengthy vocal sequences at higher registers. My personal favorite might still be “Fields Of Despair” however, where the melancholic undertones of the key change during the chorus give the song an emotional weight that lives up to the song title. People were captivated by the band’s razzle dazzle (rightfully so), but I often found that their songwriting had moments of poignancy and complexity, tempered of course by the fact that the lyrics were essentially syllabically oriented vocal filler (not a criticism mind you, think of it as grim vocals are to black metal — texture!) This was seven breathtakingly paced tracks with the right mix of aggression and melodic nuance with satisfyingly hooky riffs and melodies, and one pretty piano based ballad that sounded divine on afternoon drives with the sun setting through your windshield. Dragonforce would make strong records long after this, deliver some incredible tunes here and there, but they never sounded as hyper focused as they did here.
Falconer – Falconer:
Rising from the ashes of folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, Sweden’s Falconer released their self-titled debut in 2001 just as folk-metal had found its footing, and smack in the midst of the golden era of power metal™, and their rootsy, gritty, often medieval music inspired sound fused the two subgenres together to create something new. One could argue that they were building on the foundations created by England’s Skyclad, but there was a distinct Scandinavian-esque quality to Stefen Weinerhall’s songwriting, both in Mithotyn and in Falconer. His focus was on incredibly rich melodies as a counterpoint to a startling dose of heavy riffage and aggressive, at times extreme metal inspired percussion. The melodies found their way through fluid lead patterns and glorious soloing of course, but also through the unorthodox vocalist the band had stumbled onto in Mathias Blad. He had no metal nor rock background, being a stage actor by trade in Sweden who had spent time studying in England, and his approach on record reinforced that. Blad certainly sang for Falconer with passion, but he didn’t project his voice in the way a metal singer would, with an increase of power or volume — his voice was naturally delivered, without exaggeration or projecting a “metal” attitude, as if he was simply on a theater stage somewhere. On Falconer, he was a revelation, carrying the narrative weight of Stefan’s lyrics and songwriting through sheer talent alone, his baritone deep and sonorous, and his phrasing crystal clear and fluid. I remember the exact moment I heard him for the first time on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown, stunned that a singer fronting a power metal band could sound so different from what was expected, yet fit so perfectly within the context of the band’s music.
The compositions on this album were magical, the kind of stuff that seemed to seep in from another world far removed from our mundane reality. To this day I can’t tell you what exactly Mathias is singing about in “Mindtraveller”, but I damn well feel that song in my gut, it’s been an all-time classic for me (and many others I’m sure), and among friends of mine, the term mindtraveller has become both an adjective and a noun. The looser, more brightly uptempo songs were loaded with ear candy; the layered “woooaaahhs” in “Royal Galley”; that fat bass line laid down by Weinerhall that anchors “Lord Of The Blacksmiths” into an unexpected but awesomely funky groove (only surpassed by the rings of a hammer striking hot iron!); and the subtle backing vocals by Ulrika Olausson on the ethereally beautiful “Wings Of Serenity” drip melancholy all over the song’s bridge sequence. I was always deeply impressed with just how vicious and batteringly heavy Falconer could sound. The sheer assault that occurs upon the opening instrumental bars of “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” could pass for the intro to a blackened folk metal tune before Mathias’ sweeps in. They’d surpass that level of heaviness on later songs such as “Pale Light Of A Silver Moon” off Among Beggars And Thieves, and entire albums like Armod, but they didn’t have to work their way up there or slowly introduce these elements to their sound over time. Album one, song one, and we were shown that Falconer would make a career of being beautifully mystical, often elegantly pretty, and also downright mean and punishing. The band would deliver other incredible records… one could make a case for Chapters From A Vale Forlorn being on this list, but the debut was so unexpected and made such a deep impression on me. They released their swansong last year, a capstone on a magnificent career, and went their separate ways — sadly still underrated and overlooked.
Hammerfall – Glory To The Brave:
Of course this was going to be here, not only for the obvious reasons that it was the album that kickstarted power metal as a recognized genre in earnest back in 1997 (remember friends, power metal as a term wasn’t really utilized as we know it today back when the Keeper records were released), but also for the simple reason that this album flat out rocks. Unlike Dragonforce six years later, who’d merge power metal’s Helloween engineered template with elements of speed and extreme metal, Hammerfall’s birth was a firmly resolute nod to the traditional heavy metal of the past, albeit trading in the screaming, rougher vocals of legends like Halford and Dickinson for the cleaner tone and delivery of Joacim Cans. It’s success across continental Europe opened doors for so many other bands to get signed and recognized, but unto itself, Glory To The Brave was a bracing, spectacular celebration of everything that made heavy metal great. I’ve always felt strongly that one of the keys to what made Hammerfall’s first two albums incredible was the relatively hidden influence of one Jesper Stromblad, who contributes here as a songwriter. He was at the peak of his riff writing powers during this era, having knocked out In Flames’ The Jester Race a year before, Whoracle in this same year, and Colony two years later. His influence is heard in the sheer melodeath-ian density of the riffs heard across this album, despite him not playing on the album. Guitarist Oskar Dronjak had been bandmates with Stromblad in Ceremonial Oath, and you get the feeling that both of their extreme metal roots crept into the approach towards Hammerfall — in the writing process those riffs were molded to be compact and intense, and it showed through in Dronjak’s and then In Flames guitarist Glenn Ljungström’s performances on the album. They’d shake this melodeath influence three years later on Renegade, shifting to a more permanent Priest/Helloween mix, and thus would never recapture the magic found on Glory To The Brave or its sequel Legacy Of Kings.
Then there’s just the full on triumph and glory claw inducing splendor of these songs; “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” is built on one of the most insistent and urgent power metal riffs of all time, with Cans delivering an emphatic and powerful vocal performance; and the album is bookended by its polar opposite, the beautiful power ballad title track with its echoing leads, and confidently articulate acoustic guitars reminiscent of the Scorpions’ finest ballads. It’s a toss up as to whether “Hammerfall” or “Stone Cold” is the most rockin’ cut here, the latter built on a Priest-ian attack and possessing an understated menace in it’s steady march whereas the former is a Helloween inspired banger that shows off the band’s melodicism in sharply vibrant ways. I loved the band’s audaciousness too, the pride of being a metal band playing metal tunes that was exemplified in “The Metal Age”, whose admittedly silly lyrics were still the kind of Manowar-ism that I felt an affinity towards. Even a song ostensibly about the Crusades such as “Steel Meets Steel” could be parlayed into a metal anthem, and there was something comforting about being a fan of such deeply uncool music yet hearing the band themselves proclaim it’s power as something righteous and worthy to be proud of. Such sentiments seem gauche in 2021, but they kinda mattered in the late 90s/early 00s. That kind of fervent belief made a dreamy ballad like “I Believe” ache with a resonance that lesser bands couldn’t manage. The capper on this excellent album was the inclusion of their awesome Warlord cover in “Child Of The Damned”, a direct line to one of the subgenre’s USPM grandfathers from the early 80s. It was an unapologetic nod to the past that was only fitting for an album that revived not only a sound, but a feeling.
Kamelot – Epica:
A landmark in power metal for its elevation of storytelling, lyrical diction, and songwriting, Kamelot’s Epica was part one of a two album long exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the tragic German play. Vocalist Roy Khan and founding guitarist Thomas Youngblood created their own storyline and characters closely resembling those in the original, and with wiggle room for artistic liberties. There are a lot of fans who will argue in favor of The Black Halo being more deserving of praise in a head to head comparison, and while I do love that album and it’s overall darker atmosphere, Epica has always sounded sharper to me from a songwriting perspective. By this point in Khan’s tenure with the band, he had already meshed with Youngblood as a major songwriting contributor and had put his stamp on two bonafide power metal classics in The Fourth Legacy and Karma. While his lyric writing and vocal performances on those albums were turning heads and keeping his name at the forefront of many power metal fans minds, Epica was his and the band’s most astonishing masterwork. Getting to inhabit a character for an entire album, Khan’s imagination ran wild and he managed to pen most of the lyrics and narrative storyboarding before the music was composed. This meant the songs took on even more of a vocal melody driven direction than before, the music often reactive to Khan’s phrasing and tempo choices, such as on the slow build of “The Edge Of Paradise” where Youngblood’s guitar is solely responsive to Khan’s vocal line. Song structures were often inventive out of narrative necessity, something that Khan made work due to crafting impeccable vocal melodies to keep one’s attention fixed while the Miro engineered symphonic elements (the “Rodenburg Symphony Orchestra”!), Gregorian chants, choir vocals, and guest lead vocals fluttered around or darted in and out. Just like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall, Khan and Youngblood had the benefit of having the source material available in literary form as a reference for both themselves and listeners, and as a result the songwriting was freed of the burden of exposition.
On the brilliant “Lost & Damned”, an accordion sways in a Parisian tango during the verses in a sad, sympathetic melody as Khan’s character says goodbye to the love of his life, a surprising choice that works so well it’s one of the album’s finest moments. The ballads were also magnificently constructed, “Wander” sounding warmly like the flower-scented, dewy air its lyrics spoke of, all romance and mystery; while “On The Coldest Winter Night” sounds like snowfall and warm fires, befitting the emotional scene that’s occurring between the two characters Ariel and Helena. I’ve written about Khan’s poetic lyrical diction at length, but its worth reiterating here that his way with words is one of the reasons this album is on this list. Khan was able to inhabit his characters’ inner monologues, craft elegant dialogue and paint his scenes with richly evocative imagery that brought this storyline to life and made you care about the characters. There was a visceral quality to a line such as “meet me by the wishing well / in cover of the moon”, a lyric that paints a scene as clearly as a sentence in a fantasy novel. But it wasn’t all extravagant instrumentation and romantic balladry, Kamelot brought thrilling majesty to the fore in the straight-ahead power metal of “Farewell”, where Khan married melancholy to gritty determination and crafted a chorus made of steel. And “Center Of The Universe” was peak classic era Kamelot at it’s finest, a dynamic masterpiece with alternating tempos and an ascending buildup that exploded in a euphoric, skyward reaching refrain, cut through with a mid-song bridge with Mari Youngblood on vocals that elevated everything to high drama. Khan would of course leave Kamelot a few albums later, and the band would never be the same, but they had a run there with four classic albums in a row with him at the helm and this was undoubtedly the apex.
Power Quest – Neverworld:
What do we love about power metal? There has to be more to it than the surface level stuff like catchy tunes, epic melodies, soaring vocals and bursting guitar solos. Underneath all of that wizardry is an emotional pulse behind a lot of this music, at least it’s always been that way for me. At it’s best, it can be mental armor to help you deal with the shrapnel that life sometimes explodes at you, as I found out first hand last year when the pandemic hit and everything changed and I found myself cobbling together the massive anti-anxiety power metal playlist on Spotify that kinda saved me all those weeks when I was worried about anything and everything. Power Quest has always been one of those bands who I’ve turned to for comfort listening whenever I needed a bit of spirit lifting, and truth is that I could make a personal case for their incredible Master Of Illusion album to grace this list as well. But those in the know understand that the band’s absolutely undeniable masterpiece is 2004’s Neverworld. It’s cohesive sound is perhaps the finest encapsulation of the genre’s ability to radiate warmth and indefatigable optimism, not only as an act of defiance, but as an affirmation of life itself. There are loads of power metal bands that write lyrics that aim to express something in that vein, but few that manage to sound convincingly bright, ethereal, and determined as Steve Williams and company did here. Power metal artists that play with this kind of palette, like PQ’s contemporaries in Freedom Call, tend to get criticized for the lightness of their approach, but I’ve always thought of it as extremity in reverse, pushing the sound of metal in the opposite direction of say black metal while still retaining undeniably metallic sonic elements. Much of that comes from Steve’s heavy keyboard synths, sweet and syrupy and clearly inspired by the classic early 80s tones heard on Van Halen’s 1984 and classic AOR bands of that era. He steeped that influence into the classic power metal mold ala Helloween and found the voice that seemed to just barely elude him on their debut.
I remember listening to this album as I commuted to university, getting up at 6am just to take the long route across the city to dodge traffic, sitting in my car in the empty parking lot while listening to “Temple Of Fire” to wake up and motivate myself to face being there all day until long after dark. I’d take long de-stressing drives after work while blasting the album start to finish, marveling at how it seemed made of all razor sharp edges and some of the most glorious power metal guitar ever courtesy of the ever underrated Andrea Martongelli. And vocalist Alessio Garavello, then just a new found wunderkind from Italy, delivered one of the most fired up, intensely acrobatic vocal performances heard on any power metal album ever, full of personality and as I’ve always described it, perfectly imperfect approaches to cadence and delivery. Beyond the performances however, at it’s core it was the songwriting that made Neverworld special. A song such as “When I’m Gone” was painted with wistful sunset sky melancholia, and it’s gentle, innocent melody legitimately made you ache. The uplifting chorus outro sequences in “Into The Light” were seemingly powered by sunlight, and the stormy, dramatic buildups in the epic “Lost Without You” were made buoyant by layers of brilliant harmony vocals. And my favorite cut, “Edge Of Time”, one of the most perfect power metal songs ever written, with it’s iconic opening keyboard intro and rockin’ Scorpions-esque riff, and as gloriously powerful a chorus as can be imagined. Steve wrote songs on this album that were dewy eyed and hopeful, at once preciously fragile and unyieldingly strong, and full of an almost spiritual, life affirming breath that you’d gulp in like your life depended on it.
Sonata Arctica – Silence:
There’s an argument to be made that it’s a coin flip between this or Glory To The Brave as the greatest power metal debut album of all time, as both are astonishing classics in their own right on a musical level. But I’ll give the edge to Sonata Arctica, because what they managed on Silence went beyond Hammerfall’s spirited resurrection of traditional heavy metal, with the Finns pushing the genre into an emotional territory not yet explored by any power metal band. They took the sonic template created by their fellow countrymen and power metal pioneers in Stratovarius, and through it further explored the inward facing lyrics that Helloween only scratched the surface of. Vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko favored storytelling through vignettes, often ones that were tragically romantic or explored even darker emotions like isolation or loneliness. Fantasy themes could be interwoven in his songs or discarded entirely for a more realistic setting, Kakko seemed unmoored from power metal’s tropes, often penning lyrics that used unorthodox diction for the genre. I suspect it was no coincidence that he and Tuomas Holopainen were friends and were encouraging each other in their musical pursuits, particularly around this era, and that we’d hear a similar lyrical shift in Nightwish’s music away from fantasy themes to deeply personal topics. In retrospect, given what we now know about the introspective music of Finnish mainstays like Amorphis and Insomnium, it seems obvious to say that it must be a “Finnish thing”. Yet at the time, Stratovarius and Hanoi Rocks was really the only thing the world knew about metal from Finland, and I remember being unable to pinpoint and articulate why Silence and it’s follow-up Ecliptica felt so different from anything else out there (in fact, I think it took discovering Sentenced shortly afterwards for me to begin to realize what made the Finns tick). Power metal had developed as music that was bombastic, defiant, and at times uncomfortably macho, and here was a band who turned that attitude on it’s head — introducing vulnerability, sensitivity, and uncertainty while marrying it to a sound that still soared despite it all.
I think we also now realize in retrospect that guitarist Jani Liimatainen was the perfect foil to Tony’s unorthodox approach to power metal songwriting, particularly in light of his work in Cain’s Offering and more recently Dark Element. His razor sharp riffs and classically inclined melodic sensibilities were the guide rails that kept these songs firmly planted in Timo Tolkki inspired power metal territory. We’ve heard where Tony has taken the band’s sound in a post-Liimatainen era, and while modern day Sonata Arctica still attempts to maintain links to it’s power metal heritage, it’s clear they’ve drifted away from it as a whole. But here on Ecliptica, these roots were strong, and on classics like the face melting “Blank File” and “UnOpened”, Jani’s driving attack kept Tony (who was handling keyboards back then, remember?!) in a more Jens Johansson-esque role as a keyboardist, sticking to tried and true Malmsteen derived classical guitar/keyboard duo formulas. On more mid-tempo paced cuts such as “My Land”, keyboards were creatively used as a rhythmic device with Jani’s guitar coming in as a counterpoint, creating an effect that conjured up wild, barely restrained passion. The most emotional moments on the album however were found in the far more introspective songs; the aching, forlorn “Replica” where Tony spoke about an “empty shell inside of me”; or the uptempo “Kingdom For A Heart” with possibly the most dramatic reaction to heartbreak ever realized in song lyrics. On the bonus version we were treated to one of the band’s finest songs, “Mary-Lou”, an achingly beautiful sad song made sadder on the acoustic version that was released on the Orientation EP a year later. The gem of all gems here is of course “Full Moon”, one of the greatest power metal songs ever written, no explanation needed. I’ll never forget seeing the band live a few years back, when a pair of arms crossed tattooed guys who had been watching the show stoically all night finally broke out in a euphoric sing-along to this song during the encore. You couldn’t write a better endorsement.
Tad Morose – Modus Vivendi:
Often overlooked and sometimes forgotten, Tad Morose’s Modus Vivendi deserves to be regarded as one of the genre’s masterworks. Eschewing shimmering melodies for crushing Nevermore-ian heaviness, Modus Vivendi worked not only for the straight ahead chugging dual guitar attack of Christer Andersson and Daniel Olsson, but for the majestic, towering vocal performance of Urban Breed. He had been with the band for a handful of albums before this one, but this was where he really demonstrated why he should be in any conversation for greatest power metal vocalists. His role as the narrator of a daunting conversation about death on “Afraid To Die” was not only a stunning display of his mastery as a lyricist, but also for his dramatic vocal choices — where to add emphasis, how to phrase each line, the way he’d bend specific words and in doing so give them extra power. His staggering performance on “No Mercy” made it an all-time classic, his vocal on the chorus coming at you like Mike Tyson’s right uppercut, pure intensity and heavy metal fury. His no holds barred approach to the vocals was how it had to be. How else to go blow for blow with the muscled up heavy metal attack loaded into every riff and in the pounding aggression of the rhythm section. Andersson and company were certainly creating power metal, these were richly melodic songs with mostly soaring hooks, but they tempered them with elements of doom metal to darken the overall tone and slow down the pacing. And the band’s penchant for progressive metal was infused throughout their approach to displaying their more technical leaning tendencies in fits and bursts, still allowing the trad metal approach to steer the songwriting around any self-indulgent potholes.
There was also songwriting depth involved here. Nothing revolutionary, but just a sustained implementation of sheer creativity in how these songs were constructed. Take the Egyptian motifs that run throughout “When The Spirit Rules World”, how they seem to be leading the song in a certain direction only for the band to abruptly switch gears for the starkly Queensryche-ian refrain. And then there’s the lumbering thick boy in “Cyberdome”, built on as menacing a groove based riff as you’ll hear in power metal, where the band willingly halts its strut by coming to a near standstill on the utterly spartan pre-chorus. It’s so rare to hear a band execute risky ideas like these and somehow make them seem as part of the masterplan all along. Even on relatively straightforward cuts like “Anubis” and “Take On The World”, the band doesn’t take the easy route, loading its verses with shifting, alternating riff sequences and aggression levels, the rhythm section working overtime to keep you guessing. This album was Urban’s swan song with the band, he’d move onto Bloodbound for a spell and do really great work with them. For the band, it took them a decade to recover and come back with new music, and despite having a fairly good singer in Ronny Hemlin onboard, they haven’t come close to the greatness they stumbled onto here. There’s nothing flashy about Modus Vivendi, but that’s its centralized strength — its perfectly crafted from start to finish, one of the most viscerally satisfying power metal albums you could imagine.
I didn’t plan on writing a one year pandemic anniversary piece, because honestly who the hell wants to remember the past year, let alone mark the anniversary of something that turned everyone’s lives inside out in various ways? But I guess the answer to that simple question is, well, we want to remember it, at least our subconscious minds do anyway. I was having a discussion with someone at the end of March about my feeling generally grumpy, anxious, and uninspired throughout the month, and they said they were suffering from the same thing, and added, “But you know… trauma anniversary and all.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but looked it up on Twitter later, and sure enough, there was a torrent of tweets written about our collective and personal trauma anniversaries and how if you were feeling bad for whatever reason, this might be a hidden in plain sight culprit. I thought it was social media created nonsense at first, but as the idea lingered in my mind, it started to dawn on me that my listening habits had already shifted to possibly hint at this being the case.
Some of you might remember that in early April of 2020, I created a Spotify playlist called The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, and alongside my own picks, I solicited a ton of song suggestions from various power metal fans from the r/PowerMetal community and Twitter. I made it out of necessity for myself, and made it public to attempt to help anyone else out who needed shimmery, sugary, upbeat and inspiring power metal as much as I did to combat all the daily stress and anxiety we experienced in those early pandemic months. I don’t wanna bum anyone out by getting into details, but I was stressed about my job, money, and was one of the luckier ones in the end considering a ton of my friends and family members lost their jobs. Then there was the anxiety of just not seeing anyone or being able to hang out with friends. I suspect most of us made it through by binging content that was familiar and comforting, be it something like Parks and Rec, The Office, Good Mythical Morning or in my case videos of city walking tours filmed in the pre-pandy times. And so with music, I quickly found I didn’t want to listen to anything bleak or dark, I was getting enough of that from every second of the day thanks.
Enter the playlist. I can’t emphasize enough how much I relied on the music contained on this list. I’ll always remember going out for drives in April and May of 2020 around the rural country roads near me, blasting it full volume and glory clawing at perfect choruses and epic moments. It started to become a loud form of meditation, where I’d just lose myself in the music and focus on it so much I’d be mouthing along to any lyrics I knew (quite a bit as it turned out) and at times even singing along. No one was around to hear how bad that was anyway. Those were my brief escapes before I had to come back home and face reality, whilst keep myself busy doing anything but scouring social media for news updates like some self-flagellation aficionado. I could make it a few days, but then I’d start to feel antsy and claustrophobic and anxious yet again, and so into the car I went, for another therapy session. It was the only thing I wanted, nay, needed to hear. I actually grew up becoming a fan of extreme metal subgenres long before power metal was even called power metal, and many classic death, melodeath, and even black metal albums have been mainstays for me throughout my life when I was going through tough times. But something about the pandemic hit different, and I just knew that power metal in its most Euro-swag laden, pomp and glory drenched splendor was the only thing that would help then.
My favorite long-winded quote about power metal was written ages back by a reviewer named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum, who spoke of it’s “proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity”. A mouthful yes but it’s sentiment was proven true in 2020 and even now a year on. I have such warm feelings towards the classic songs and albums that make up the genre, both old and new. And I feel tremendous gratitude towards the bands who make them, choosing to play a terminally uncool style of music that with rare exception, isn’t going to earn most of them a steady paycheck or even a full time income. I follow a lot of those musicians on Instagram, and it was surreal to see them dealing with the same personal anxieties and financial worries as I was during the lockdown (many of them still dealing with all of that in European countries), all while their music was helping to keep me from absolutely losing it over here.
I’m really proud that a lot of people still listen to the playlist a year later, it’s almost at 100 followers, and we’re over 300 songs and counting. I had eased off listening to it the past many months, due to trying to soak up as much new music as possible, but sure enough when March rolled around, I found myself dipping back into it often. I got to thinking about how there are certain songs on that playlist that just stand out among all the others as being particularly impactful on me, the flag bearers in other words for the playlist’s feel good powers. In no particular order at all (just like the playlist itself), I’ve collected some thoughts on my ten favorite of these songs below in an effort to highlight them a bit and maybe even help someone take a closer look at a band they’ve previously ignored.
Nocturnal Rites – “Still Alive”
One of the best songs in the Rites’ catalog, “Still Alive” has been a feel-good classic to me since I first heard it in 2005, and in my mind the entire Grand Illusion album it hails from was one of the last great records from that wave of really heavy, groove based power metal that around the turn of the millenium (thinking of stuff like Brainstorm, Tad Morose, etc). Jonny Lindqvist’s vocals always struck me as a little Mark Boals-ish with a little David Coverdale splash on certain phrasings, especially here, the end result being a hard rock edge to Euro-power swag. His vocals are a joy to behold here, spitting defiance and tinged with never say die spirit. The volume gets maxed out whenever this pops up on the playlist.
Masterplan – “Spirit Never Die”
This was the first song I added to the playlist upon creation, the only reason it’s not number one in the list is that I thought Hammerfall would make a better opener if someone wasn’t listening to it on shuffle. Look, everyone knows this song, and if you don’t, better late than never. It’s got Jorn on vox, it’s got Roland Grapow on guitars, and a hook that inspires Tony Kakko’s eyes closed musical ecstasy face you see on the playlist icon. The way Jorn vocalizes that “woaaaahhh” after the “leaving the future behind me!” line in the chorus is deserving of a full power stance, glory claw raised to the sky. How do you not feel better while listening to this gem?
Galneryus – “In The Cage”
I’m not going to pretend that this song’s lyrics (what I can decipher of them) make any kind of sense in relation to keeping one’s spirits up, in fact, it seems like Yama-B is referring to some kind of romantic heartbreak or something like it (eternal longing, you get the drift). It really doesn’t matter, because this song’s power is in Syu’s incredibly melodic leads and that unforgettable recurring melody that is just pure joy given musical form. Some people rag on Galneryus for their AOR tendencies as heard here, and those people can clear the hall. That influence works as an open canvass for Syu’s expressive playing, and Galneryus catalog is loaded with so many spectacular and generally underappreciated moments (it took me a long to discover these guys as well). I can’t emphasize enough just how much I love this song, it always cheers me up.
Stormwarrior – “Heading Northe”
The title track and flag bearer for Stormwarrior’s best album, “Heading Northe” in many ways exemplifies everything I love about metal in one perfect anthem of defiance, standing one’s ground, and the triumph over adversity. Equal parts speed metal tempos, power metal melodicism, and punk rock edge courtesy of Lars Ramcke’s gritty vocals, it’s one of the most satisfyingly glorious songs in metal history. Last year when I came back to work in a post-pandemic landscape, I’d often find myself jamming this on the way back home. There was something about feeling exhausted, blaring this at top volume, and careening down the freeway while shouting along to “And the north wind fills my heart again / Withe the flame that missed so long” while making grand hand gestures towards cars around you.
Freedom Call – “One Step Into Wonderland”
I think it’s only natural that metal’s most bouncily cheerful sounding band would have been a go-to during all of this, and there’s a number of Freedom Call songs that I could have singled out (so many that I had to limit how many I threw on the playlist just to maintain artist variety). But for me, “One Step Into Wonderland” resonated more than any other partly for Chris Bay’s surreal vision of a happy, care free “eden” conveyed in his admittedly over the top lyrics. The chorus here is magnificent, and the key moment is imbibing that line of “take away all sorrow and pain” like Bay is a some wise mystic and you’re his pupil trying to achieve transcendence and ride off into “wonderland” on the back of a giant cartoon bunny.
Lost Horizon – “Think Not Forever”
It’s kinda wild that the best Lost Horizon song (I said it!) would have the most pointedly appropriate lyrics of anything on this playlist. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and when I was building the playlist it was a no-brainer for it’s lyrics urging patience and determination, sentiments that everyone needed for a variety of reasons. This was on repeat, multiple times a day for the first couple weeks of everything last year, and continual rotation throughout the rest of the year. It’s just ultra distilled power metal essence bottled into six minutes that feels like three, with an unforgettable riff and an absolutely wild solo midway through. Also Heiman’s intro vocal scream is the kind of cathartic lunacy that can make a bad day bearable.
Visigoth – “Necropolis”
I’d always loved Manilla Road’s “Necropolis” and thought of it as a trad metal anthem despite the ridiculously zany Skeletor-esque vocals. When Visigoth covered it on their debut, it was remade into a beefier, more metallic sounding mold thanks to Jake Roger’s weighter, grittier delivery. Given the context of it’s lyrics, someone on the internet once sussed out the difference between both versions as The Wizard (Manilla Road) and The Warrior (Visigoth) teaming up to infiltrate the mystical necropolis. No matter the band though, I always thought of these lyrics as a metaphor for depression, despite all the specific fantasy imagery scattered throughout the third verse. The first four lines here are almost a mantra: “Through the jungle by the river Styx / I’ve journeyed long and far this day / Lurking shadows in the parapets / Will never make me turn away”.
Bloodbound – “Nosferatu”
This Urban Breed era Bloodbound classic has always been a favorite of mine, not only for it’s serious Maiden songwriting vibes, but for Breed’s untouchable vocals. Sure it doesn’t fit the vibe of the playlist, lacking the sugariness or upbeat positivity of most of the music on there, but I felt like the playlist needed some escapism too and this was one of the songs that immediately came to mind. It’s a vivid reminder that much of metal’s power to get us through the grind is to distract us from all the real world stuff we’re dealing with when the music stops. Also that escalating guitar melody is Tomas Olsson’s crowning achievement, a work of art worthy of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.
Galderia – “Shining Unity”
Galderia is a French power metal band that sounds like they should come from Germany for all their Gamma Ray/Freedom Call vibes, and sometimes I’ll hear bits of Japanese power metal’s neoclassical tendencies come through as well, as on the hyper-driven “Shining Unity”. This is one of those songs that always seems to come on when I’m driving on the freeway, hitting 60-70 mph, speeds at which it feels appropriate to listen to a song that’s built on a perfect balance of relentless speed and glorious technical precision. The group vocals here are so strong, emphatic, and empowering, that you can’t help but get a rush just listening to that chorus. I have no idea what inspired these lyrics, but the utopian pipe dream they envision of a united humankind “alive in harmony” is nice to live in for five minutes before returning to… you know, *gestures* all this.
Bruce Dickinson – “Tears Of The Dragon”
Years back I had started writing up a Bruce Dickinson solo career retrospective, because that aspect of his musical output has been nonexistent since 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls, and I never really had a chance otherwise to write about just how much I love his solo records. I never finished it of course, but I was reminded of that fandom whenever this aching gem would pop up in the playlist. Bruce wrote this song about the unexpected change in his life upon leaving Maiden and embarking on something new and unknown, and that’s kind of how things felt for a lot of us last year and even now. It’s all contained in that metaphor of throwing oneself in to the sea, letting the waves wash over him (us), only in this case it’s not an Edna Pontellier ending-it-all kind of thing, but more a surrendering to the currents of life vibe.
I’m not sure where else to begin other than my own feelings in talking about Falconer’s newest, and seemingly last album, the appropriately titled From A Dying Ember. I’m saddened that we’re losing one of power metal’s leading lights —- scratch that, one of metal’s leading lights (and most unheralded). This is a band that I first discovered in 2001 thanks to that eternal program the Metal Meltdown on Cleveland’s WRUW hosted by my friend Dr. Metal. He was playing “Mindtraveller” of course, from their flawless debut album and I was immediately struck by how different this band sounded to the handfuls of other power metal bands that show had introduced me to. The singer wasn’t screaming full force into the microphone like a raging hellion ala Dickinson or Halford, his voice was reserved, smooth, and dare I say calm at points in it’s delivery and phrasing, very unmetal-like. I didn’t know at the time that said vocalist, Mathias Blad, was in fact a theater actor with no metal background whatsoever. His unorthodox vocal approach in conjunction with the band’s extra meaty riffs set to darker, folkier melodies, resulted in a heavier sound that hinted at influences that weren’t from the Helloween power metal family. And somehow it all just worked.
The band obviously wasn’t the same on those two mid-career records when Mathias had left and the rest of the band wanted to make a run at becoming a touring band. There were some good songs here and there (“Emotional Skies” in particular is a gem), as a songwriting talent like Stefan Weinerhall is a fount of inspiration even in less than ideal artistic circumstances. But it was clear that Blad was the key missing ingredient to make Falconer’s music so special and unique amidst the metal landscape. He returned and the band knocked out Northwind and Among Beggars and Thieves in quick succession, two albums that were to me just as magical and magnificent as the debut and Chapters From A Vale Forlorn. Then we got the unique and ultra-heavy experiment in all Swedish lyrics on Armod, an album that brought back the band’s extreme metal roots ala Mithotyn with some of the most punishingly heavy, and dare I say blackened songs ever. It was followed up with Black Moon Rising, an album that has aged far better than it’s initial impression would have suggested it would, some of its songs coming alive to when I came back to it years later. But that’s hardly surprising. Falconer’s gift was that they could be both instantaneous and yet rich in depth, some songs taking awhile to offer up their brilliance. Some people still don’t understand just how magnificent “Pale Light of A Silver Moon” is from Among Beggars, with that wordlessly joyful guitar explosion from the 1:05-1:37 mark. Some have yet to realize that Northwind contains one of the most emotionally engaging ballads in the metal genre ever in “Long Gone By”, a song so wistful and stirring that it’s hard not to be caught off guard by it every listen.
The band admirably enhances their incredible artistic legacy with the eleven songs on From A Dying Ember, which according to Weinerhall was written with an aim to be the most classic-molded Falconer album ever. He recently stated that he wanted to “…concentrate on having all Falconer elements present and really make sure that each element got full devotion. For example, the ballad should be as “ballady” as ever, and the folk song should sound as folky as possible, etc.” That meant that all the elements we loved the most about their work in the past would be amplified and stressed on this record, and it does come across that way. The opener “Kings And Queens” and “Redeem and Repent” are confident mid-tempo gems with plenty of thick slabs of chunky riffs balanced out with bright, lucid guitar melodies, reminiscent of material off the debut album. And I get shades of “Mindtraveller” in the accelerated pacing of the single “Desert Dreams”, which is at once catchy as all get out and entirely unusual in its unorthodox rhythmic structure. This is a stunning song by the way, a late career diamond that would have fit in on the debut or Chapters just fine, and its apex moment comes at the 3:35-3:50 mark when Blad drops in some overlaid vocals that add a wallop of satisfying emotion to an already brilliant chorus. I was driving around when I first listened to this song, and right around when Blad hit that extension on the end of “…the more I will looooooose”, I believe my exact exclamation was “Mathias you magnificent bastard!”. Stefan was certainly right on the money about having the folky song be as folky as possible, because “Bland Sump Och Dy” sounds like it could have been on Armod were it not for its slower, waltz-y tempo. It occurs to me that this is likely as close as we get to hearing what Blad sounds like when he’s singing at his gig with the theater company in Sweden. What’s so striking to notice here is how little difference there is in his vocal style here to the much heavier follow-up track “Fool’s Crusade”. Despite the latter’s near tremolo-sounding attack and its largely aggressive bent, Blad is smooth and in control as ever, even during the “…Crush the dream / And wake up / Ignorant One…. tension build and release sequence at the 3:07 mark.
The most ballady Falconer ballad that Stefan was referring to earlier is the showstopper “Rejoice the Adorned”, a piano and Blad affair that is extra potent in its tear-jerking capabilities due not only to the amazing vocal performance we’re treated to, but for the recognition of finality in those lyrics about loss and remembrance. I’m aware that it wasn’t written to be an epigraph on the band, but that’s how I’m internalizing it presently. It is on the same heartbreaking level as “Portals of Light”? Well, few things are, and it’s a different flavor of melancholy, but it’s a fine song for the band to bow out on as their last ballad. On the opposite end of things, there’s a pure metal jam on “Rapture”, the album’s final track (and I guess the career closer too), a visceral reminder how just how damn heavy and thundering this band can be despite their theatrical leanings. Stefan’s longtime co-founding bandmate drummer Karsten Larsson delivers a pummeling, primal performance here, a reminder of just how integral a part of the band’s sound he was all these years with powerful drumming in inventive, unrelenting fashion. I wanna take a sec to recognize bassist Magnus Linhardt, who as always is an audible and integral part of these songs, providing that rumbling foundation that cements nearly all of Falconer’s music in the heavier realm of sound. He’s been with the band since 2004, as has the wildly inimitable Jimmy Hedlund, whose lead guitarwork throughout the years I hold in as much esteem as Andrea Martongelli from Power Quest and Andre Olbrich from… well you know where. Hedlund’s style is infused with a shredder’s touch, but he incorporates it in fits and bursts into playing that is expressive, lyrical, and a complement to Stefan’s intense rhythm guitarwork.
I realize that this is probably sounding less like a review than the gushings of a fanboy, and I can admit that’s probably true. My consensus on this album is that its instantly more enjoyable than Black Moon Rising, far more “classic” Falconer than I ever expected the band could accomplish, although they’ve never really strayed far from what made them great in the first place. As a swan song, it’s everything a fan could hope for, and that its so accomplished also lends an air of gravity around the whole thing —- they’re going out on top. And when a band ends on a great record, and I do believe From A Dying Ember is a legit great Falconer record, a part of you can’t help but wonder what else they could accomplish in the future if they just stuck around a bit more. I said it at the top… I’m really saddened that the band is ending. I know that there are others who feel the same way, and I suppose on behalf of all of us, I should declare how grateful I am that we’re getting this fine of a send off. The gap between this release and the previous record is about six years, the longest between Falconer releases by a long shot. And to their credit, they saw this album through when they could have easily just talked away quietly a few years ago after they had made it clear there were going to be no more live gigs. This band has been a part of my life for nearly twenty years now, providing the soundtrack to so many days and nights, I really do feel like there’s a sense of loss I’m processing… and yes I realize that sounds overly dramatic but I’m just being honest here. I’ll blame my already stressed out emotional state for that, having been so busted to the floor already by the pandemic/lockdown and everything that came with it. This band always deserved more fans, more appreciation during their time for not only their uniqueness, but for their metal as hell resolution to do things their way, even if it meant being a studio project. I’ll just end this by expressing how grateful I am to be one of the few to have heard the clarion call. Thanks for the music Falconer.
The slow start to the year in January quickly evaporated with an onslaught in February, and we’ve gotten some big names in the mix too (well, relatively speaking of course). Chief among them is the fifteen years plus in the waiting third Demons & Wizards album, Hansi Kursch and Jon Schaffer’s side-project that has taken on an almost legendary air in the interim period. You heard it in the murmuring crowd on their recent North American tour, and I felt it myself —- a sort of disbelief that we were seeing these two major figures in power metal history standing onstage together. That’s a lot to live up to, not only with the show itself, but with an album that we’ve heard more than a few estimated release dates for during that time. We’re also getting new releases from Finland’s genre-bending Amberian Dawn, who are stretching the limits of power metal to its poppiest extreme yet, and of course the once power metal supergroup Serious Black that’s more of a honed in melodic metal vehicle for the mighty Urban breed. Lastly, there’s the sophomore album by Seven Spires, a band who is on two major support slots in North America this year for very relatively different audiences. Intrigued? I thought so!
Demons & Wizards – III:
I guess I’ve put this off long enough. This review was originally going to be one of the long ones, you know, my 1200 plus word excursions going in depth on an album’s backstory, details, and hidden nuances. Forget that. I simply can’t summon the interest. I’ll get right to the point here, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to write the following —- but this album bored me and is a chore to listen to. An absolute chore. I’m gravely disappointed. Not only because of the pedigree of the two musicians involved; not only because of the precedent set by their prior two albums —- one of which was pretty good (and sounding better by the minute) while the other I’d consider a power metal classic —- but also because I was so hyped for this thing after witnessing the band live in Dallas last August on their North American tour. That was a great show, and to hear songs like “Tear Down The Wall” and “Fiddler On The Green” in person was a dream I’d never imagined being possible come true. As a result, I allowed myself the luxury of getting hyped for this album, and yeah, I suppose the near fifteen year wait also added a bit to that. There’s been a lot written and spoken about that span of time in between this album, the creatively titled III, and 2005’s Touched By The Crimson King (now that’s an album title!), and it should be made clear to everyone that it had no impact on adding anything of value to the songwriting that went into these new songs. Jon and Hansi’s day jobs kept Demons & Wizards on the sideline until they could eventually find an opportunity to carve out a block of time to devote to it. The reasoning is rational enough on the surface, but I’m starting to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just working on material slowly through the years, passing ideas back and forth until they finally accumulated an album’s worth of material. Would we really care if any of the songs had begun in 2006 as opposed to being recent creations, entirely “fresh” and new? I’m guessing no as long as they were good.
So what’s wrong with this album then? I’m afforded the luxury of being vague here, simply because this one criticism applies to nearly everything on here barring a moment or two, but this album sounds entirely disconnected. The debut album began as an in-person collaboration between Jon and Hansi, and the limits of technology at the time forced it to largely remain that way, despite the pair working on it via mailed recordings as well. The follow-up had to be done under a tighter time schedule, and Schaffer’s gone on record as stating it as a reason for his slight dissatisfaction with the overall result. But whereas the songs on the debut really felt like they were cooked up together, the result being a natural fusion of the two songwriter’s tendencies and styles, Crimson King felt divided due to being largely written separately by Jon and Hansi in geographic isolation. I used to think that was the album’s achilles heel, but as the years have gone on, I think it actually worked to its benefit. To me, half of that albums songs sound like Schaffer led tunes, and the other half Kursch’s —- meaning that some songs lean hard in an Iced Earth direction (“Terror Train”, “Crimson King”, “Seize The Day”, “Dorian”), whereas others are clearly more Blind Guardian tinged (“Beneath These Waves”, “Wicked Witch”, “Love’s Tragedy Asunder”, “Down Where I Am”, “Lunar Lament”). The result was a largely strong collection of songs, because each of the songwriter’s hard leans towards their strengths ensured that at least the melodies would be affecting. It would be inaccurate to say that Jon and Hansi each wrote half of Crimson King on their own, these were collaborations after all and Jon did pen music for all the tracks, and Hansi did write his own vocal melodies for all the songs. I’m more referring to the songwriting structures present in all those songs, as they provide strong context clues as to what came to dominate a song first in its early songwriting stages, the riff or the vocal melody?
Fast forward to III, where it’s clear that the riff came first, always and to a fault. As confirmed by the dozens of interviews Jon and Hansi have done for the album, they largely wrote this album geographically isolated from one another just like they did for Crimson King. This time however, I think they made a critical error in the division of responsibilities in the songwriting department. Simply put, they got too diplomatic for their own good. According to those interviews, Jon wrote the music, Dropboxed the tracks to Hansi, who would write vocal melodies for them. I’m certain there was some passing the songs back and forth after that point, but given that these hooks never really get that “lift” like we’re expecting and the verses just aimlessly merge into the refrains like a texting driver at a rush hour intersection, I’m not 100% certain of that either. When Jon writes for Iced Earth, he builds a song with vocal melodies in his mind as well, and will communicate a sketch of that idea to his vocalist (who may or may not have the leeway to change things). Of course Iced Earth songs are melodic, but they’re largely chiseled that way via shaping the tone and direction of riffs, not pure melodies in the sense that say… Tobias Sammet writes Avantasia’s songs on keyboards first. When Hansi writes for Blind Guardian, he and Andre work in tandem, sometimes with the vocal melody coming first, sometimes with a guitar melody coming first. Point is that their work is more melodically guided, and riffs and heaviness are worked in around that. Listening to III, I get the feeling that Jon didn’t want to tread on Hansi’s boots, and created riff driven songs with some melodic structures, but largely left space for Hansi to guide things with his vocal melodies. Subsequently, Hansi was given half-finished tracks that he had to figure out how to shoehorn lead vocal melodies therein, and likely didn’t pass any of them back to Jon and say “Yeah I have nothing for this one”. If you’re followed this train of thought this far, you might be of the opinion that I’m overthinking this —- you’re likely right, but I had to dig deep to potentially understand why, oh why I haven’t been able to get into this album after umpteen listens. I might even be wrong on all of the rationale above, but it’s all I can offer by way of explanation right now.
There were a few worthwhile moments, the entirety of “Wolves In Winter” being the best song on offer here and comparable to the band’s work on their prior two records. A near perfect merging of the heavy riff first approach with a classic Hansi vocal melody during the refrain results in a stellar track, at once unique with its primal, grunting, rhythmic tick and familiar in the sense that Hansi sounds powerful and confident as we’ve heard him countless times before. And I’m somewhat partial to most of “Diabolic”, which has elements that drag for sure (the long intro and outro for starters), but also displays one of the more convincing riff structures on the album in terms of pairing intensity with a melodic motif. I think there’s a good idea somewhere in “New Dawn”, where Hansi captures my attention every now and then, particularly his “I cleanse it with fire” lyrical motif towards the end (if only the rest of the song could match his intensity). I’m also in the minority in being somewhat into “Midas Disease”, not for its dumb, mawkish AC/DC tribute inherent in it’s plodding hard rock rhythms, but for Hansi’s spot on Blackie Lawless impersonation throughout, sounding for all the world like a distant echo from The Headless Children. As for the rest of these songs… I’m just baffled. I have thumped my head against them for countless listens now and am coming away with nothing but bruises and a growing loathing for the mere act of listening to this album. Out of respect for Jon and Hansi, I will shelve this for awhile and return to it in a year or two’s time to give it another shot. Reinforcing my theory that things may have been too diplomatic all around for this album, both Jim Morris and Charlie Bauerfiend were involved in the production at some stage, which just seems weird. The prescription for the next time around, should there be one, might be for Jon to largely write half the songs on the album and Hansi to nearly entirely pen the other half —- or, heck, here’s a thought, book a flight and get in a room and write the entire album together for once.
Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:
You might have seen the name Seven Spires listed on a few high profile tours this year and idly wondered who and what they were all about. Their biggest claim to fame heading into the release of their sophomore album Emerald Seas is that their vocalist/keyboardist Adrienne Cowan was the backing vocalist on Avantasia’s recent Moonglow world tour. Her role on that tour was certainly the reason why I first noticed the band and checked out their 2017 debut album Solveig when that tour was announced. I came away thinking it was an interesting record that flashed some nice ideas here and there, the kind of thing that a few albums down the road could see Seven Spires hone into a well defined sound and deliver a possibly great album (provided they could stay together for that time). The last thing I expected was that the band was talented enough to make that leap in fully realizing their sound and songwriting approach a mere one album later. So much for the sophomore slump, because Emerald Seas might just be the most exciting, creative, and thoughtfully written album we see this year. I’ve been stunned and knocked sideways by how much I love this album, and I’ve actively had to force myself to take days off from listening to it so I could squeeze in listening time for other releases. You might have noticed that Seven Spires is going to be opening for Insomnium this spring as well as Amaranthe in the fall, and they’re able to fit into both slots quite well because they blend together progressive symphonic power metal and a blackened vocal take on melo-death.
Cowan has the vocal talent to make these genre blendings sound seamless, transitioning between three voices —- a soaring, heartwarming crystalline tone that can move to a gritty, belting rock n’ roll voice, and of course go deeper in a grim vocal that reminds me strongly of Dani Filth’s midrange delivery. You hear this right away in “Ghost of A Dream”, where she displays all three approaches within the context of a handful of ultra-memorable vocal melody structures. This is also the song where you might be wondering what other band’s vibes you’re being reminded of, and the answer on the tip of your brain is Kamelot. There’s a depth to Seven Spires musicality illustrated here and throughout the album that brings to mind Kamelot’s Epica era. I’m thinking here specifically of the Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar figures that flare up alongside Cowan’s lithe vocals in the verses, as well as the elegant accordion style adornment in the background recall Roy Khan’s narrative vocal masterpiece in “Lost And Damned” off that album. Guitarist Jack Kosto also has a Thomas Youngblood-ian sense of how to keep his riffs muscular but largely simple when set against the backdrop of Cowan’s grandiose, cinematic orchestral keyboard backdrops. This artful approach to symphonic metal yields songs like “Every Crest”, where an almost Broadway styled vocal melody can swing suddenly into a brutal, utteringly convincing harsh vocal passage with a Hans Zimmer inspired slant to the orchestral arrangement. During the former, bassist Peter de Reyna shows off some nimble jazzy structures figures underneath Cowan’s vocals, and alongside drummer Chris Dovas’ thoughtful battery and Kosto’s knack for neoclassical styled shredding and spectacular soloing, this band unexpectedly injects frequent doses of stunning technicality throughout the album. It’s a subtle detail, but it works to add a sense of vitality and boiling emotional swell to the album in the same way that Dialith achieved with their infusion of gritty, intense melodic death riffs to their symphonic metal oeuvre.
This is the rare album with no weak songs, nothing resembling filler, but there are a couple of absolute gems that shine greater than the others, namely “Unmapped Darkness” and “Succumb”. The former is the grandest and boldest example of the band’s almost effortless swagger at pulling off the arms wide, cinematic expansiveness that its hopeful lyrics speak to. Cowan claims Roy Khan as one of her biggest influences, and her lyric writing abilities come pretty damn close to his in terms of diction, imagery, and phrasing. She’s really friggin good at this stuff. Take the chorus of “Succumb”, easily the catchiest moment on the album, where she eschews generic ideas in favor of “And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone / And I pray one day our stars align / So I might hold you one more time…”. That’s Khan level poetic abilities on display, and you guys know how I feel about the master himself (I’m not making this comparison lightly). Consider me a Cowan lyrical fanboy now, because this album has captivated me on that level completely, telling a story about a seafarer and the beast that’s chasing him. Its rare that a storyline intrigues me on any level within a metal album, but there’s something charming and rare about the one that Cowan has sketched out here —- it’s allowed for the variety of moods and emotions displayed amidst the differing songwriting styles and approaches. To wit, the gorgeous moonlit piano ballad “Silvery Moon” is a personal favorite here, the kind of thing I’d more associate with a stage play rather than a symphonic metal band, but Cowan’s lyrics are heartbreakingly poignant, and paint an evocative series of pictures in my mind. I could go in detail about the lyrical gems scattered throughout this record, in addition to its unforgettable melodies, but I promised myself I’d keep this short —- also, this isn’t the last I’ll be writing about Emerald Seas this year…
Amberian Dawn – Looking For You:
I became a fan of Finland’s once symphonic metallers Amberian Dawn in 2015 with the release of Innuendo, not so much because of the band’s still present symphonic metal palette, but for the strange, inexplicable ABBA influences scattered throughout the album. It was an interesting moment to be introduced to the band, who were finding their way with the still relatively new vocalist Capri Virkkunen who joined one album prior, after the departure of longtime classically inclined singer Heidi Parviainen. Capri possessed an entirely different voice, more a velvety, sonorous pop-rock voice as opposed to anything resembling classical training. It was Amberian’s Tarja to Annette moment, and band founder/keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppälä saw an opening to move away from a symphonic metal direction that he’d run with for four albums now with varying results and modest public interest, towards a more overtly pop driven approach inspired by the Swedish quartet. Capri had previously spent some time singing in an ABBA cover band, in addition to trying out for Eurovision a couple times, so her pop credentials were rooted in that classical European dramatic mode that made those ABBA hits so emotionally engaging. It also helped that her vocals sounded like a perfect blending of Agnetha and Frida, from tone to the clarity of her diction and phrasing. She and Seppälä seemed to be of one mind in this, because they increased the amount of pop-driven songwriting on the 2017 follow-up Darkness of Eternity. It seemed inevitable that they’d at some point have to just abandon the band’s symphonic metal roots… clearly they were having more fun heading in the opposite direction.
Fast forward to Looking For You, Capri’s fourth proper album with the band, and they’d pretty much done exactly that. Oh there’s still a nod to their symphonic metal past, on “Symphony Nr. 1 Part 3 – Awakening”, an entertaining to say the least duet with Fabio Lione which is actually the third installment in this song-suite over the past couple Capri fronted albums. But that one cut aside, Seppälä goes all in on the ABBA-worship this time, with the rest of the album working in that sophisticated pop songwriting mode. Capri is the star throughout, her mature, resonant voice clearly made for the theatrical, drama-rich lyrical delivery this kind of classic pop influence requires. The apex here is the title track, a sugary dance-beat fuelled pop confection built around a finely defined vocal melody that weaves effortlessly from verse to bridge to chorus. Capri’s the ringleader here, her urgency in tone is the cue for the extra crunch from the guitars, and really the band as a whole. There’s a very true to seventies-ABBA era pop approach to the lyrics here, with vague, hopeful sentiments expressed through a staging of a very specific scene —- “Late at night / Wondering where you are tonight / I feel the sadness in my heart”. I hear shades of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Day Before You Came” influencing this particular lyrical approach that Seppälä and Capri are writing with. It continues on “Two Blades”, another ultra catchy uptempo gem, where the narrator speaks about her relationship that is all smiles to the world around them, yet crumbling on the inside: “They don’t know how it feels to be / Forgotten in the hours of the night / Hiding in the shadows and being lost / And left behind for a lifetime”. I love the juxtaposition at the 2:38 mark of that satisfyingly crunchy riff sliding beneath Capri crooning “I am, I am the sun…”. This is pop songwriting at its classicist best, with a lyrical approach that is inviting and universal in its portraits of desperation and urgency. Its the kind of thing I find lacking in a lot of modern pop music (with some notable exceptions).
So maybe you’re thinking at this point, c’mon Pigeon, ABBA-metal? Why does this have to be a thing? And my answer is a very simple, “Why not?”. Here’s the thing about Amberian Dawn laid out bluntly, they’re simply more interesting and unique since they’ve been exploring music in this vein than they ever were as a symphonic metal band. I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in those older albums, but it’s generally stuff that feels overdone to the point of exhaustion. And here’s another thing —- no one, and I mean no one, is writing pop music in this classic ABBA mold, not even in the pop music world. As an outright fan of that band, I welcome new music in that vein, particularly if its as delightfully faithful, convincing, and skillfully executed as Amberian Dawn are managing to do. There’s plenty of bands out there doing symphonic metal, some are even pulling it off rather well (see Dialith’s Extinction Six), but only Amberian Dawn is giving me the sugar high I crave with sophisti-pop hooks ala a re-worked/refreshed “Cherish My Memory”. It also serves to give the band a unique identity, something that they had trouble finding in their previous style. Capri has a unique voice within metal, a classic pop voice that she’s used to develop a stage career in addition to her vocation as a music teacher. In that vein she’s sympatico with Falconer’s Mathias Blad, another theatrical stage performer who moonlights as a singer in a metal band, using a non-metallic voice to create something really unique and special within metal. To really drive the point home, Amberian Dawn cheekily laid down a cover of the Swedish masters’ “Lay All Your Love On Me” in the middle of the tracklisting here, and not only is it a perfectly executed cover (immediately preferable to Avantasia’s), it’s a bold declaration of intent and a giant middle finger to anyone who’s thinking of throwing stones.
Serious Black – Suite 226:
So apparently I’m one of the few weirdos that actually thought Serious Black’s 2016 sophomore effort Mirrorworld was a fine slice of Euro-tinged power metal. I’ve read pretty much nothing but verbal abuse hurled towards it in the years since its release, from reviews I’ve gone back and read, to the fine folks on the r/PowerMetal subreddit having their daggers sharpened for it. I can see why those attacks would come at the expense of Mirrorworld’s follow-up, 2017’s Magic, although it too contained a few good tunes (I still stan “Binary Magic” and ” amidst the overall cringe on display), but I do have a theory as to why Serious Black has endured a brunt of negativity over the course of their entire existence. It largely has to do with their vocalist Urban breed, who is nearly universally beloved in the power metal community for his masterful work with Tad Morose and briefly, Bloodbound. On his defining work with those two bands, Urban sang over heavier, darker, far more metallic power metal than he does in Serious Black, which is a little closer to happy-boi Helloween and Freedom Call on the spectrum than it is to Khan-era Kamelot or say, Pyramaze. That’s not to say Serious Black is all sugary highs and syrupy sweet melodies, but there’s a slightly sunny-ish disposition streaking through their four albums in terms of melodic tone and sometimes even lyrical approach that I think a lot of Urban fans are put off by. It’s certainly not for any decline in the man’s vocal ability, because he still sounds as powerful and ageless as ever, but this band’s material does send his voice into sharply different directions than some are used to.
For those of us who are used to Urban in this context, we’re treated to a rebound record for Serious Black with Suite 226, a concept album about a mental patient locked in a psych ward (apparently). Largely gone are the weirdly pop-rock affectations of Magic, replaced instead by a welcome return of darkness and perhaps the most marked uptick in aggression in the band’s short history. Right out of the gate, “Let It Go” is the most Dave Mustaine-channeling that we’ve ever heard Urban, and with the blistering, furious riffing from Dominik Sebastian speeding along underneath, the whole thing sounds downright Megadeth-ian. That energy doesn’t dissipate heading into the first single “When The Stars Are Right”, which for all its loaded poppiness in that excellent chorus is still bookended by some dense riffing, and a tight rhythmic attack on the bottom end by bassist Mario Lochert and Ramy Ali on drums (who is a longtime veteran talent in the more obscure side of Euro power metal and a quality replacement for Alex Holzwarth). On a more mid-tempo cut like “Solitude Etude”, the band opts to employ a darker, more downcast mood along with Urban delivering a melancholic vocal melody. They do this again on the notably more poppy “Fate Of All Humanity”, and in lieu of straightforward aggression, the moodier, more introspective approach is still a welcome relief from what we can reasonably label as Serious Black’s default blue skies disposition. Urban delivers an unforgettable hook in the chorus here, and its still as poppy as power metal can get, but its a subdued sweetness, tempered by the lyrical concerns of the concept running through these lyrics.
And it’s strange, because I don’t think I picked up on this overall shift in mood and approach my first few listens through this album. I was here for Urban and the hooks, and we’re of course treated to those in spades, but it was deeper listening that revealed the aggression and darkness buried underneath. Take “Castiel”, arguably the album’s best cut and one of the finest songs the band has ever written, it’s built on major-minor chord dichotomy and a seriously swaggering chorus that owes more to classic heavy metal than Europower. I love the delay that Urban playfully tags onto the end of the second iteration of the chorus, making that slamming Accept-ian riff just hit you with full force when it breaks back in. There’s some heavyweight metallic grit happening in that tune but the addictiveness of the chorus really deafened me to it for the first few listens. The opposite happened on “Heaven Shall Burn”, an obviously heavy tune that is sneakily one of the strongest songs on the record, boasting a hook that’s slyly catchy despite its purposefully awkward approach. The most uplifting thing on the album is “Way Back Home” and amidst the downcast vibe it actually stands out just by its marked shift in tone alone. I’m more impressed by “We Still Stand Tall”, which is similarly more upbeat in tone and disposition, but is still underscored by a current of gritty heaviness anchoring it firmly to earth. The two songs that close out the album, “Come Home” and the title track swing us back to the darker side of the album, and they’re fine in that context, although I’m finding myself more liable to grow impatient with their slower, meandering sections and skip out of them. That minor complaint aside, I’m honestly surprised and maybe a little relieved that Serious Black found their footing again after such a worrying release. Give this one a few chances.
Its been a time of change and literal upheaval for The Metal Pigeon blog lately. I had been thinking about updating the look of the site for awhile now, and those thoughts led to actual research which led to my ultimately deciding that its time the blog graduated from its sheltered (and very limited) home at the actual WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress solution (if you’ve ever wondered what the difference between the .com and .org versions of WordPress were, TIL!). So after a nervous week waiting for a domain name transfer, exporting and importing a ton of files (all the old posts and comments and images), and fiddling around with a ton of themes over the past two weeks, things are finally settling down with the site for the time being. I’m still not done changing things, at some point I’d like to get a new logo (looking into that), and the site might have more visual changes coming to its home page but ultimately the foundation of this blog has been and always will be the content itself. So thanks for sticking through this rough period and bearing with me.
I haven’t neglected music in this period either, listening to a ton of new releases in the interim, a large dose of power metal to be exact. I’ve been spending time with new releases by veterans such as Hammerfall, Elvenking, Freedom Call, and Sonata Arctica, but also making time for debuts by new bands on the scene like Dialith, who appeared on my radar as a recommendation from Blayne of BangerTV of all people and places (they’re normally very power metal averse). I also went on a metal road trip up north to Dallas on August 26th for the Demons and Wizards North American tour, and that was a pretty epic experience not only for the surreal feeling of actually seeing that band live in the flesh, but for the depths of dehydration that the 107° Texas heat put me in. I talked about it a bit on the recent MSRcast #225 where I pontificated about the magical healing properties of post show Gatorades and smoked almonds. On the episode before that, we had Robb Zipp of The Most Epic Adventures on to talk about his experience going to this year’s Wacken Festival as a solo traveler. It was a pretty insightful discussion on the kind of logistical details that you’re likely to wonder about if like myself you’ve never made the trek overseas for a metal fest. I’m aiming to increase the updates to the blog and will likely have good reason to do so —- expect a Dragonforce new album breakdown on the next update! Now onto the reviews:
Hammerfall – Dominion:
I’ve experienced a renewed passion for Hammerfall over the course of the last couple years, beginning with when I saw them live for the first time on their tour with Delain. I had always revered Glory To The Brave and Legacy of Kings as iconic power metal classics, but that gig made me revisit the entirety of their catalog and since then they’ve been a consistent go to when I need that direct boost of adrenaline and euphoric, spirit lifting positivity. The quality of this discography if charted on a graph shows a slow decline starting after 2000’s Renegade and dipping down further after 2006’s middling Threshold, hitting its absolute nadir with the barely mediocre Infected in 2011, and a slow gradual rise since then with their last two albums. I’ll emphasize gradual here, because while those albums —- (r)Evolution and Built to Last —- had some excellent songs to add to the already stacked Hammerfall Best Of playlist, they were largely under baked as a whole. I was a little more invested this time in the output they’d produce on Dominion, this their eleventh studio album, hoping they’d conjure up some stuff with the same kind of crackling intensity that they had pouring out on stage both times I saw them in the last three years. And as recent output by Judas Priest has shown us, veteran bands can sometimes find their footing again and find themselves in fine fighting form. Hammerfall has done exactly that with Dominion, delivering their strongest, most confident album since 2005’s Chapter V: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.
As to why and how they managed this feat on album eleven and not number ten, or nine —- eh, hard to pinpoint exactly, there’s no change in behind the scenes personnel, with Fredrik Nordström handling mixing duties alongside as co-producer with Oscar Dronjak. I think it could be as simple as they just wound up writing a vastly improved batch of songs this time, maybe the heaven and hell theme reflected in the artwork helped guide them to that point or maybe it had nothing to do with it. There certainly is a more “epic” feel to cuts such as “Never Forgive, Never Forget” and “Dominion”, the two back to back album openers. And I’ll freely admit that while “(We Make) Sweden Rock” had me rolling my eyes a bit when I first saw the title months back, its actually an undeniable jam, with one of the band’s strongest hooks in recent memory and an old school sounding lead guitar figure that bookends the chorus. Its also rather endearing to realize its a tribute to the Swedish contribution to metal, particularly if you’ve seen the music video for the song, with its intercutting the band’s performance with photographs of Swedish rock and metal royalty (where’s Falconer though?). My personal favorite however is the ballad “Second to One”, a piano driven affair that hearkens back to the bittersweet melancholy of classic Hammerfall ballads in “Always Will Be” or “Dreams Come True”. I’ve always loved the bands approach to balladry, where they seemingly prefer their slowest moments to sound haunting and reflective rather than syrupy sweet (even with love songs).
The ballad comes at the halfway point of Dominion, and its also the marker for when the album really gets going with quality songs in succession. I wouldn’t say there’s a pacing problem here, but the first half is definitely a little slower to excite than the spectacular second, where there’s not a bum song among the bunch. Actually, I’d say that “Chain of Command” is one of the best Hammerfall songs in their catalog, one that’s old school metal gang vocal fueled chorus would feel at home on Glory or Legacy. Ditto for “Dead By Dawn”, which is classic Hammerfall through and through, although that chorus is weirdly triumphant sounding for its particular chorus lyric: “You will be dead by dawn” (similarly, “Chain of Command” has a kinda funny lyric at work too if you imagine its talking about an HR departments rules and regs rather than an army on the march, but hey it rocks so…). The Valhalla referencing “Bloodline” and album closer “And Yet I Smile” are not as forward attacking, but are still well thought out compositionally. In fact the only song that I thought was a bit of a skipper was “Testify”, but its not a terrible song by any means, with a solid series of verse sections and an enjoyable bridge sequence, but that chorus is kinda a let down. That being said, its nice to see Dronjak return to fine songwriting form, and Joacim Cains sounds as ageless as ever. Sweden rocks indeed!
Dialith – Extinction Six:
This is the debut album by Dialith who hail from Danbury, Connecticut, yet another random (but apparently very nice!) North American locale where a promising new power metal band is launching its career from, joining the ranks of dozens of their peers in the past few years. This might be the sleeper hit of the summer, an album that has been released independently as of this writing but has gotten some relatively high-ish profile recommends via Angry Metal Guy and Blayne Smith of BangerTV (the latter of whom was my initial tip-off to check them out). I can’t imagine that they’ll be unsigned for long, and I hope that happens for them (and that its a beneficial arrangement, not some sort of 360 deal), but no matter to us at this moment really, because in 2019, the mechanisms are in place for a band to bypass the label route entirely and make an immediate impression with listeners like us on their debut album. For me, Extinction Six has kinda taken over my listening time over the past two weeks, being a compulsively addictive collection of smartly crafted symphonic power metal that’s as richly shimmering and effervescent as it is anchored in a bed of melodic-death riff fueled aggression. This isn’t a new concept, in fact Frozen Crown have made a name for themselves doing exactly that; but whereas Crown’s Giada Etro is the most effortless classic sounding power metal voice we’ve heard in years, Dialith’s Krista Sion is an absolute phenom with her soprano’s approach towards singing, morphing the band’s sound into symphonic power metal.
Of course she’s helped along by the keyboard orchestral elements courtesy of keyboardist Charles Woodruff and apparently an assist from Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Francesco Ferrini, who is credited with additional orchestration and arrangements. The band’s melo-death driven riffage is geared to balance out all that grandiose symphonic sweetness with the help of a guy I consider an ascendant star in the metal producer/engineer landscape, that being one Jacob Hansen. What I love about Hansen’s mixes for any band he works with is his ability to draw sharp, clear delineations between traditional metallic instrumentation and unorthodox elements such as orchestral or even electronically created textures (Pyramaze and recent Kamelot are good examples of this). He nails that again here, but really the bulk of the credit should go towards Sion’s vocals and guiarist Alasdair Wallace Mackie’s impassioned songwriting and his own performance across the album. His playing is downright vicious on “Catalyst” for example, one of the heaviest hitting songs on the record, his riffage sounding as dense as mid-90s In Flames and Gates of Ishtar records. And yet he’s still a melody driven songwriter, as heard on the storming opener “The Sound of Your Voice” and absolute show stealer “Break The Chains” (no its not a Dokken cover!). I can’t get enough of Sion’s approach, and its weird because she’s simultaneously emotive AND icy-toned, her vocals often purposefully distant or indifferent to the intensity of the music and its a fascinating and incredibly well executed dichotomy. I could go on but this likely won’t be the last you see of me writing about Dialith —- consider this one of the most essential albums in an already excellent year of metal releases.
Sonata Arctica – Talviyö:
I’ve thought a lot in the past few days on how I’m supposed to approach writing about Sonata Artica’s utterly confounding Talviyö (“Winter Night” in Finnish), and I’m not sure I’ve come to any kind of conclusion on that so here goes anyway. My first experience with this album was late at night, and maybe it was the mental and physical fatigue of the day that I was foolishly putting off addressing by not going to sleep, but I found myself mildly enjoying the album at that moment. Not with such passion and verve mind you that would have me leaping out of my chair, suddenly wide awake, ready to tell anyone and everyone about how amazing the new Sonata record was, but enjoying it nonetheless. Yet every listen since then has invoked a far more critical reaction within me, seemingly progressive in nature as to how negatively I’ve been receiving these songs. I first thought that maybe this was a sign that Talviyö is a mood record, one that’s only meant for specific mindsets, but I’m not so sure about that —- and just to be sure, I listened to the album twice through after staying up all night watching the Monday Night Footall season opener double header. If anything, my irritation at the album only worsened, and trust me, that had nothing to do with the Texans agonizing loss earlier that night (…yes… nothing…). Bear in mind, that I adore Sonata like most of the power metal community does, their first four albums are genre defining in my estimation. I’ve even found stuff to like on most of their post Unia output, so it gives me no pleasure to write harshly about their new record.
So in that spirit, lets start with the positives, this won’t take long, but let’s give credit to the band and/or Nuclear Blast for correctly identifying the best track for the music video, that being “Cold” which starts off with the kind of irresistible Kakko vocal melody that we’ve all come to love him for. The song is built on tension building verses and a hard rockin’ approach to the mid-tempo riff structure, one slightly reminiscent of The Night Flight Orchestra. I will say that one intrepid YouTube commenter on the music video noted that the song sounded better when you increased the playback speed to 1.25, and damn it if he isn’t right. The middling tempo choice does in fact prevent the song from joining the ranks of classic Sonata songs, on my playlist anyway, but its still memorable and something I wouldn’t balk at taking up space on their setlists. I thought that “Whirlwind” had a nice melody at work and a chorus that had touches of that old impassioned Kakko style, although its sluggish tempo is a little frustrating and again, holds it back. There’s been praise showered on the curiously titled “Ismo’s Got Good Reactors” which sounds like a JRPG mistranslation, and indeed its Celtic-tinged rumble is actually a refreshing experiment to take in… for an instrumental. I don’t know about you, but I can’t ever find myself getting too excited about a Sonata instrumental. This isn’t classic era In Flames, where Jesper Stromblad was a monumental talent who would serve up perfectly sculpted acoustic/electric instrumental figures in unforgettable instrumental interludes like “Pallers Anders Visa” or “Man Made God”. Frankly, after Jani Liimatainen left, Sonata’s music became ever more dependent on the strength of Kakko’s vocal melodies, and an instrumental track only highlights that deficiency.
And then there’s everything else. A handful of frustrating songs that range from aggressively mediocre to downright aggravating. Who is ever going to enjoy “The Last Of The Lambs”, with its strange mix of production effects and plodding, go nowhere repetitive tempo? Or “Who Failed The Most”, where Kakko’s penchant for cute lyrics betrays him on the second worst offender on the album (” You decide, who is the lord of the rings”) set to the most Pepto Bismol-y tasting vocal melody I’ve heard on any power metal album. Then there’s the squandering of a promising melodic motif on “Demon’s Cage” with a sharp turn towards a rambling, unfocused vocal melody and another Kakko lyrical dud (” Working class, kneel and kiss my… s…). Keep in mind, I’m could care less at this point about the lyrical meaning, because if the way its being articulated isn’t drawing me in, any ideas that are being expressed are left at the door guarding my interest level. The worst offender is the insipid and cringe inducing ballad “The Garden”, and this is coming from a mushy ballad lover, someone who rated the hyper saccharine “Love” from Sonata’s 2014 Pariah’s Child as one of the strongest cuts on that album. But gods, this is a bridge too far: “My life… my everything in a beautiful garden / Sunshine, friends, glass of wine…”. Set aside the vitriol inducing twee melody at work here, and Kakko’s droopy approach to the vocals —- these lyrics are objectively terrible. And I get it, he’s clearly writing a song to his wife about the life he feels she’s given to him, and I have no doubt as to his sincerity. But good grief Tony… lose the wine glass, dunk your head in a bucket of cold water and get ahold of yourself man. I’ve gone on long enough —- this is either the worst Sonata album to date or in competition with The Ninth Hour for that title. Sleep on that.
Elvenking – Reader Of The Runes – Divination:
One of my most anticipated records of this year on the metal release calendar, Elvenking’s Reader Of The Runes – Divination is their tenth album and the follow up to the still frequently listened to Secrets of the Magick Grimoire from two years back. Well… at least certain songs from it. Elvenking’s weakness over the course of their career has been their inability to deliver a compelling album from start to finish, with often inspired moments scattered across a bed of middling ones on most of their records. That’s not the worst deficiency in the world for a band to have, it guarantees that there’s always something to love about each new album, but it prevents them from ever making an appearance in a lot of conversations between metalheads or even in the media where folks could point to a singular disc and say “this is the one”. The closest they’ve gotten by most estimates is 2014’s The Pagan Manifesto, but even there I still some songs lacking. I’ve idly wondered if the band’s problem has been their insistence on delivering at least 10-12 songs per album, that maybe in the effort to provide lengthier albums they’ve been allowing lesser quality material make the cut and thus diluting the overall strength. I dunno, its a thought and I’d be interested to see how a tight 35-40 minute album would fare, but we won’t get that chance on Reader, which is just over 52 minutes (relatively short by Elvenking standards).
This is a front loaded album, with playlist worthy cuts “Heathen Divine”, “Divination”, “Silverseal”, and “Eternal Eleanor” all arriving before the album’s halfway point. The latter is one of the band’s more appealing veins of experimentation, that of the folky ballad that they toss with their usual power metal meets alt-rock riff salad approach. Fabio Polo is a talented violinist, but his most underrated ability is in delivering melodies that really can anchor and/or carry a tune entirely on their own. He takes center stage here over power chord riffery and propels forward a pretty lively, jaunty folk ballad that is charming if not quite as catchy as it needs to be. The earworm role is served by “Heathen Divine”, which sports the most confident melody at work on the entire album. The band builds a folk tinged power metal banger atop it with a chorus that reminds you of what it is Elvenking can do so well, that mix of seemingly loose, haphazard vocal approach with precision playing that soars and hits hard yet feels like could come apart at any moment. My personal favorite however is “Silverseal” where the band writes a chorus for the ages and a supporting verse/bridge structure that raises and releases the tension. The folk-power sound here is kind of what these guys need to aim for nearly 100% of the time, sealing it in a compact, focused nearly four minute banger. But overall, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed by Reader, particularly on its back half where it just seems that nothing quite landed the way it should have. When these guys don’t deliver moment for moment perfect hooks, the lack of richness in their musicality stands out. I’m not sure what the fix is there… to add more instrumentation ala Eluveitie to spice things up? Maybe. Its past time for them to deliver an attention grabbing album, and they’ve missed the mark here again.
Freedom Call – M.E.T.A.L.:
If the audaciousness of the album art there didn’t clue you into the kind of over the top, Chris Bay led festivities we’re in for on Freedom Call’s tenth studio album, I’ll refer you to this Call frontman’s spectacularly lively music video from his 2018 solo album Chasing the Sun. Subtlety isn’t Freedom Call’s paintbrush of choice, and M.E.T.A.L. sees Bay and company staying true that to ethos. From their 1999 debut Stairway to Fairyland, Bay has made Freedom Call into a vehicle to explore the area of power metal once pioneered by Helloween, with loosely fantasy tinged life affirming lyrical metaphors and a musical sound that’s relentlessly cheerful sounding and lighthearted in its use of epic melodicism. Alongside Power Quest, they’ve been tagged unfairly by some as “flower metal”, but where the Quest pulled deep influences from 80s guitar rock ala Van Halen, the Call are firmly anchored in that German power metal legacy pioneered by Kai Hansen (which makes sense, considered Bay’s Gamma Ray stint). I was always a casual appreciator of the band, until 2014’s Beyond, which was their first legitimately excellent album from front to back and turned me into a straight up fan of the Call. Months and years after its release, it stayed with me as a go to for a glorious, epic power metal fix. It prompted me to revisit their back catalog in search of something I’d perhaps missed, and I unearthed some previously overlooked gems to be sure, but nothing matched its fiery verve. I will admit that its been hard to stomach some of their decision making though, as the cover art to 2016’s Master of Light and the quality of its lead off single “Metal Is For Everyone” demonstrate. What I’ve learned about Freedom Call and Chris Bay in particular though, is that you have to try your best to not judge a book by its cover (literally with their last two records) and just trust in this —- that Bay is a sharpshooter of a power metal songwriter.
He delivers ultra catchy power metal goodness by the armload here, the most lovable offering being “One Step Into Wonderland”, as perfect a song as the best of them on Beyond. Yes the “…wonderland…” thing is a bit much —- I’m not sure if Bay’s lyrics would be more interesting if he was actually singing about fantasy places, characters, and stories more akin to Rhapsody or Blind Guardian, as opposed to his purely metaphorical wielding of such language. It seems to be the way he’s utilized them throughout his career, and other bands have done the same thing for sure, but his such a gifted songwriter in terms of developing epic sounding ideas that I wonder if he shouldn’t try. Similarly “Fly With Us” is another barnstormer, built on an 80’s rockin’ guitar approach but still hitting with the impact of a hammer on the low riffy end. Even the Sabaton-ishly titled “Ronin” is a hard charging glorious slice of Euro-power, with those splashy cheerful leads from Lars Rettkowitz. I’m particularly fond of “Spirit of Daedalus”, which kind of reminds me of Tales-era Blind Guardian (albeit, definitely not as dark), propelled by the kind of speed metal flair that sounds so at home in German power metal. The major misstep on the album is clearly the title track, one of those praising metal tracks that some bands can pull off convincingly, and others can’t. Its not the worst offender of that ilk that I’ve heard, but its definitely a must skip here, and why name your album after it when you’ve had a career of nothing but relatively serious album titles. The glaring flaw with Master of Light was its abominable cover art that was so terrible it might land it as a contender for the worst metal cover art of all time… and in considering these recent spate of terrible artistic choices, I’m left wondering where Bay’s head is at these days. I hope these are temporary missteps because they’re overshadowing quality material.
You can almost feel the inevitability of Sabaton’s star turn happening this very moment, particularly here a week out from the release of their ninth and newest album, The Great War. There’s the increasing profile of the past few years with bigger tours overseas and even here in the States where they were absolutely packing out venues across the country. There’s the mainstream chart positions achieved with 2016’s The Last Stand, the big festival slots, and more recent in the mind of the metal world, their coming to the rescue at Hellfest with a last second, vocalist-impaired filling in for the tantrum throwing headliners Manowar. I mentioned this on Twitter the evening that event took place, but it almost felt like we were witnessing a changing of the guard in a very particular way. Those events just don’t happen in a vacuum in the metal world, they leave imprints and change perceptions, forge goodwill, and even create new fans. For example, I’ve never really been into Trivium’s music, but I can’t help but root for Matt Heafy with this upcoming black metal project he’s cooking up, because I’ve enjoyed him in podcast interviews and he just seems like a passionate fan of black metal music. That’s how things work within metal it seems, we’re rarely black and white on issues —- great bands can have terrible albums, you might still enjoy a song or two from a generally mediocre band, and you loved a band’s live show but their album did nothing for you or vice versa. You might, like many have, scoff at Sabaton’s schtick and over-the-top earnestness with which they go about it, but enough people love them despite or perhaps because of those things. To wit, as of this writing, The Great War has debuted at #1 in Germany, #11 in the U.K., and if early projections are to be believed, #5 in the US (turns out this was physical sales only… but still!), which would make it the highest charting power metal album in history.
Its worth mentioning that although its only been three years since The Last Stand, this gap marks the longest time between releases for the band since their debut. Not only is that remarkable for a band that tours as much as they do, but points to a more concerted focus here, the need for extra time to dig deep into the research process for one of the biggest conflicts in history. They’d touched on World War I before, with the Passchendaele tribute “The Price Of A Mile” from The Art of War and “Angels Calling” from Attero Dominatus, but The Great War deep dives on subject matter from the conflict that was admittedly new to me. I’d of course seen Lawrence of Arabia and knew about T.E. Lawrence, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of Francis Pegahmagabow, Osowiec Fortress, and Alvin York were nonexistent. I also only had a cursory knowledge of Manfred von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron, due to a once burning interest in aviation when I was a kid. Maybe what’s added the extra time in Sabaton’s album cycle this go round was the development of their YouTube channel Sabaton History, where many of these songs and others from their catalog are deep dived into with the help of YouTube historian Indy Neidells. Its an entirely separate endeavor from their music of course, but this level of depth and attention to detail (not to mention commitment to their subject matter) lends credibility to the band’s continuing historical focus. At this point its dishonest to criticize it as merely schtick, because I don’t think you can fake that kind of thing to this extent. Clearly this is a burning passion for Joakim Broden and Pär Sundström, and while the channel is not necessary to enjoy their records, it adds something to the experience of listening to those songs after you’ve watched their respective mini-documentary vids.
Case in point, there are three versions of The Great War, a normal songs only edition, a soundtrack version that’s mostly just an extra dressed up instrumental edition (Floor Jansen makes a special appearance here), and the “History Edition” —- the latter of which includes a little 20-30 second framing intro by a well spoken narrator to help set the scene. Now normally I dislike narration within albums, there are a few exceptions of course, but even the audiobook ripped narration the band threw into The Art of War got a little tiring after the millionth listen. I assume the band must’ve heard that before so they shrewdly provided options for the listening experience this time around, and surprisingly enough, it makes a hell of a difference. The history version brings a thematic cohesion to the full album listening experience that is well paced, sets the mood, and pulls you in to pay attention to the songs for more than just the hooks, and frankly the normal songs only edition feels a little empty without it. Why is this different from The Art of War? I’m not sure exactly and who knows, ten months from now I might only be listening to the songs only version, but I do know that I never felt as positively towards the narration on Art’ as I do on the new album. It is to The Great War’s credit however, that we can compare it to that seminal album for more reasons than just the narration.
This is one of the strongest Sabaton albums to date, a rebound from the one dimensional mood of The Last Stand, with a thematic and narrative cohesion that places it next to Carolus Rex, The Art of War, and Heroes. In songwriting terms, they’ve benefited greatly by the simple fact that the subject matter this time has the breadth to be both darkly agonizing and shimmeringly heroic. The latter are as epic, soaring, and thrilling as we’ve come to expect from Broden’s experienced songwriting chops, as evidenced on album highlight “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”. Its recounting of T.E. Lawrence’s grand desert adventures in Arabia leading the guerilla war against the Ottoman Empire is set to a suitably swashbuckling vocal melody and horse sprint tempo. The other highlight in this vein is the hammond organ accelerating waltz rhythm of “The Red Baron”, a track that sounds not only slightly anachronistic in a strange way, but sees the band stretching their sound in fresh musical territory. Broden’s vocals in the chorus zip around the gang vocal melody chanting “Higher!”, all while the bouncy, light-on-its-feet uptempo keyboard blitz creates the feeling of a song that’s as aerial as its subject matter. The band dips back into a little orchestral bombast for “Devil Dogs”, loading its chorus with ample symphonic weight and choral backing vocals, a striking musical counterpoint to the subject matter of the US Marines storied battle at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Running counter to all this upbeat major key celebratory tone is the darkened, slower vein of the album, providing a much needed balance that The Last Stand lacked and suffered as a result from. Broden and company deliver a career standout in “Great War”, boasting one of his most effectively written refrains, anthemic and powerful in the vocal cadence and sympathetic and tragic on a lyrical level.
Speaking of which, this is where Broden really shines as a writer, when he places the listener at a shoulder to shoulder perspective with a narrator. The personal, first-person narration happening in “Great War”, about a brother lamenting the loss of his two siblings in the war and his mother’s grief is the kind of detail oriented lyrical bent that I wish Broden would engage in more often. I understand that not every song can work with that kind of lyric writing, either due to syllabic or rhythmic constraints, but when it can work he should make an effort to accomplish that. Its what makes a song like The Pogues “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” or Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” so powerful and effective, that humanizing individual experience set against the backdrop of a grander, dehumanizing experience. Continuing down the darker, more somber vein of the album, there’s “The End of the War To End All Wars”, as purposefully lumbering and deadened a vocal approach as Broden’s ever mustered. Its contrasted with powerful blasts of horns and choral vocal lines during the refrain and the culminating mid-song bridge. Similarly brooding is “The Attack of the Dead Men”, where the vocal lines are built in rhythmic, percussive patterns that serve as their own form of microhook and would likely not work without Broden’s thick brogue. I’m particularly fond of the more mid-tempoed “A Ghost In The Trenches”, a song with sharply written lyrics, cleverly phrased: “Just another man and rifle, a marksman and a scout revealed / Makes his way from trench to trench alone, moving undetected”. Criticize him for all too often writing lyrics that read like plain historical recounting, but Broden’s unique gift is in his occasionally thoughtful diction and memorable phrasing in particular. And I love the choral vocal reading of “In Flanders Fields” as an album closer, a band-less affair that is poignant and entirely unexpected and a little gutsy.
There are a couple moments here that don’t live up to the rest, like the album opener “The Future of Warfare”, which is an excellent intro but a relatively middling song. Not the kind of tune begging for inclusion in the setlist perhaps, but it works in the context of the album. I will say that “82nd All The Way” strikes a little too close to “No Bullets Fly”, and critics of the band will likely pounce on it as an example of the band repeating themselves. Its a valid criticism and to be honest it did prevent me from being fully engrossed in an otherwise decent song, but then again, Sab’s gonna Sab; they’ll sound like themselves no matter how much innovation they dare to interject in an album. Bands that sound distinctly like themselves (AC/DC, Iron Maiden) seem to be more open to criticism for repeating themselves than bands whose influences are easily discernible. And I started out a little lukewarm on “Fields of Verdun”, which seemed a little too straightforward structurally and weirdly joyful in tone considering the subject matter, but lately I’ve come around to it largely due to the strength of that earworm of a hook. The band sounds terrific all throughout as you’d expect, but particular mention should be made for new guitarist Tommy Johansson (ReinXeed / Majestica), who is a perfect neo-classical foil for Chris Rörland’s more meat n’ potatoes approach. Johansson’s playing is lighter, sleeker, and a little more unexpected in terms of solos, he seems to zag where you expect the zig. The band as currently constructed seems to be at its best with the most talented lineup to date (no disrespect intended to previous guitarist Thobbe Englund who actually helped Broden with songwriting on “Fields of Verdun”). This is a welcome return to form for Sabaton, one of their strongest, most thematically cohesive albums to date, and its arrived when at the exact moment when they needed to hit one out of the park. Its the kind of album that justifies their recent ascent to the top of the metal world, in chart positions, headlining festival slots, and a legion of fans. Manowar, you can clear the hall now.
Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!
Darkthrone – Old Star:
The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.
One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?
Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.
Aephanemer – Prokopton:
I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.
One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.
The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.
Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:
I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.
I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.
That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.
Alright back to music! Thanks for indulging the little detour I had to go on with the last update, and though I’m hoping it will be the first and last of its kind, you kinda get the feeling that it won’t be unfortunately. The good news is that the metal release calendar marches on, and its been a busy few weeks trying to juggle listening time for everything that’s caught my ear. The big release I’m reviewing below is obviously the new Devin Townsend album Empath, and we went pretty in-depth on the upcoming newest MSRcast episode that should be up very soon, in addition to discussing recent concerts I’ve been to. Speaking of, I found out I’m driving to Dallas in August to see Demons & Wizards, and let me tell you, as a Houstonian, driving to Dallas is something I’d only do for a select few artists. Hansi should be honored! Oh and Game of Thrones’ final season premieres tomorrow so even though its officially spring, I’m happy to say Winter Is Coming!
Battle Beast – No More Hollywood Endings:
After becoming very familiar with Finland’s glam meets power metal export Battle Beast with 2017’s Bringer of Pain, I felt an almost zen-like state of awareness in approaching their new album. I’ve achieved this mental clarity in part through observing and participating in critical discussions about them with the r/PowerMetal community and generally feeling less confused about the band’s own schizophrenic tendencies that had left me puzzled in the past. I think what really helped however was seeing them live for the first time on the Kamelot tour in 2018, where simply watching their performance provided some insight into how this band sees itself and their music post Anton Kabanen (now Mr. Beast In Black in case you didn’t remember). My takeaway was equal parts Roxette / Dokken / and Twisted Sister, which is inherently fine, but it was good to get clarity (creating emotional epics ala Tuomas Holopainen isn’t their bag). Now I’m not sure how much thought the band put into titling the album No More Hollywood Endings, but its striking that both the cover art and arms wide, grandiose, arena ready anthems on this album directly contradict it in sound and spirit. The move towards this centering of their sound was suggested on their last record, and consolidates here on moving away from the Judas Priest-ian influences of their early records and more towards the Roxette meets Sabaton vibes that they’ve realized vocalist Noora Louhimo does better than most. She’s a phenomenal singer in terms of pure tone, grit, and delivery; the kind of voice that is able to coat a veneer of believability over the most lackluster lyric.
These songs place Louhimo front and center not only in the mix, but in the center of the overall songwriting approach, a wise decision that allows keyboardist Janne Björkroth, guitarists Juuso Soinio and relative new guy Joona Björkroth (who’s also the founding guitarist for Brymir, whom I review below) to lean hard towards pomp-tinged Avantasian power metal as on the opening rush of “Unbroken” and “Eden”, but also veer off towards the sultry modern pop meets glitter rock mash up in “Unfairy Tales”. The latter pulses and struts on the back of a fat, ultra-processed riff in the mold of Bon Jovi’s “Its My Life”, blossoming into skyward chorus that would’ve yielded a straight up hit in the 80s. And that’s not just Louhimo’s uncanny similarity to Ann Wilson as a vocalist suggesting that, but the actual construction of that stepladder nature of the bridge, and runway sized room available for the vocal hook in the refrain. This largely retro feel continues on the shoulder-padded, too many bracelets on two wrists Bonnie Tyler vibe of “Endless Summer”, and while I’m all too happy to eat this melodic jello with a plastic spoon, your tolerance may or may not be up for it. But its not all nostalgia soaked throwbackery, as the band gets a little inventive on the title track, concocting a strange waltz with ABBA-inspired guitar melodies and dance-pop keyboard motifs, reminiscent of something you’d hear Amberian Dawn dabble in with their unabashed love for the glorious Swedes. I particularly enjoy the drama of Louhimo’s vocal melody here, veering wildly from romantic anguish to Broadway stylized theatrics, and utterly ridiculous video aside, I thought it was a rare experiment from this band that actually worked. They have a track record of trying ambitious stuff like this and falling on their face, so this is progress —- in fact the whole record is surprisingly solid and at times even worthy of a roadtrip playlist inclusion or two.
Brymir – Wings of Fire:
Hailing from Finland, Brymir is one of those bands that I forgot I heard before for a reason I can’t hope to remember. Maybe its because their name was too close to Houston’s own Brimwylf or maybe its because I remember their debut coming out on Spinefarm in 2011 with a lot of hype behind them proclaiming them to be the next Wintersun. I barely remember anything from their debut, so that clearly wasn’t the case, and I must’ve just slept on their 2016 sophomore effort, but I’m glad to see they’ve sliced the gap of time between releases even further with Wings of Fire, their third album. More than that though, I’m beyond glad that this is a seriously thrilling affair, a thoroughly convincing slice of epic melodic death metal strutting around the castle with its symphonic metal overcoat. I’ve been listening to this consistently for the past couple weeks, and it took me a minute for it to dawn on me that I was finding myself missing it when I skipped it for a few days earlier this past week. I can’t speak for the past, but right now is all that matters, and on Wings of Fire, Brymir come across to me as the heavier end of Wintersun spiced with a little Children of Bodom and Suidakra for thrashy spice and smoky pagan flavor respectively. I think this particular vein of melodic meets extreme metal is particularly difficult to pull off this well, because there’s always the trap that you’ll lapse into pretentiousness if you’re not self-aware during the songwriting process. Brymir seem to have that awareness in spades however, and I love that their choice for the cover art is vividly anime influenced, suggesting they have a good feel for the visual spark their music might be conjuring in some of our minds’ eyes.
About that music then, there’s so much worth pointing out here, but overriding everything is that I find the band’s sense of wildly adventurous pomp lovable and refreshingly devoid of pretentious that can so easily cloud a merging of this specific kind of musical approach. You get a sense of that right from the opening gates of “Gloria in Regum”, a perfectly blended mix of orchestral surge and clamor, pummeling rhythm section and a ripping solo at the 2:52 mark. Or in the stuttering effect laid on top of the vocals in “Hails From the Edge” at the 2:25 mark that sounds like its something pulled from the BT playbook. Speaking of vocals, Brymir screamer Viktor Gullichsen has an approach that could arguably be described as a blackened version of what Jari Maenpaa or Mors Principium Est’s Ville Viljanen does, which is really the right way to go for Brymir’s melodic approach (grunting death metal vocals would just distract). The well chosen single, “Ride On, Spirit”, is one of the album’s highlights, a mix of a quiet folk intro and blasting symphonic backed riffing that erupts like a volcano. I also enjoyed Noora Louhima’s guest vocals on “Anew”, despite that songs borderline questionable spoken narration that uncomfortably sounds like Timo Tolkki speaking from on high. My personal favorite however is “Chasing the Skyline”, not only for its melancholy, distant sounding opening, but for that absolute stunner of a chorus that is just on the right side of ridiculous (noticeable Stratovarius / early Nightwish vibes popping up here, love it). A spectacularly fun album that I can’t stop listening to.
Devin Townsend – Empath:
I suspect that Empath will the point of entry for a lot of new fans to the wide and frankly weird world of Devin Townsend. In the months and weeks leading up to its release, I had noted an inordinate amount of buzz surrounding this album, much of which involved its striking cast of guest artists, but also on its rather risky, expensive price tag it cost to make it. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention before with his previous albums, but I’m usually a fairly astute observer of these things, and nevermind that my MSRcast co-host Cary the Metal Geek might be the biggest fan of Devin’s in all of Texas —- so I’ve heard about Devin’s releases before, but not with this level of volume. Going back to the album’s price tag for a minute because that is an eyebrow raising amount ($170,000 of his own money, not counting the amount the label put in for promotion) for an independent metal album in 2019, I wonder if that’s not fueling some of the extra interest that I’ve detected surrounding its release. I suspect that metal fans in particular love the idea of a band or album that is rife with ambition, and the media buzz around this album is drawing in a few more ears, with the knowledge that Devin has been vocal about needing this album to succeed in order to continue financially (enough to provoke even the most passive person to click on a link to a YouTube video to find out for themselves if he might just be able to). In 2004 when the music industry wasn’t in as quite a transformative state as it is today, Therion spent 100,000 Euros on recording two albums in Lemuria and Sirius B. While that wasn’t even a minor headline back then, and it was money Nuclear Blast provided for a recording budget, it still had to be recouped, so the band avoided music videos, toured for years and managed to pull it off. With Empath, Devin is already in the hole to the record company as well as himself, spending all of the 150k he managed to net from re-signing his back catalog. Yikes. The early good news however is that the album is landing some of his highest positions to date, particularly in the third largest music market of Germany where he’s nearly cracked the top ten.
As for myself, I think all of the above drove my interest in giving Empath particular attention that I’d never given to any prior Devin release, even setting aside knowing that it’d be a big topic on an episode of MSRcast. This album has been a challenge to wrap my mind around admittedly, my first impressions just being somewhere in the ballpark of “this is a lot”. And it still is to be truthful, I still have trouble processing all of the 23:33 running time of the epic “Singularity”, even though its opening five minute “Adrift” passage is so gorgeous I’ve come back to it over and over. The rest of it is a challenging listen, but there are little spots here and there where my interest is piqued, things I wish he’d repeat a few more times or develop into something larger (the Anneke van Giersbergen vocal passage in the “Here Comes The Sun!” suite is one of them). I realize that track was a large chunk of the album’s 74 minute running time, so that might be something of a black mark on the album so many listens into it, but its one that I feel okay about letting go. I enjoyed most of Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful while simultaneously decrying the disjointed nature of its 24 minute closer “The Greatest Show On Earth”. Conversely, I found enjoyment in Empath’s far more concise yet utterly weird tracks, such as “Sprite”, with its almost trance influenced approach towards electronically manipulated repeating vocal lines, strange jumble of rhythmic sounds and jarring musical elements that barrel their way forward without warning. I’ve been re-discovering my love of 90s and early 2000s electronic music lately, particularly trance and progressive house and I have a feeling that listening to all that stuff lately has groomed my headspace to easily accept something unorthodox along these lines.
I’m of course relatively unaware of the musical directions Devin’s explored throughout his back catalog, but I was impressed enough by the bold, whimsical theatricality of “Why?”, a song that might be my favorite on the record. It actually reminded me of something off the aforementioned Therion and their Beloved Antichrist opera from last year, a tune that seems more classical aria than pop ballad as we know it. His vocals here are rich and emotive despite their purposeful over the top nature, particularly at the 3:10 mark during the heightened swell of the songs climax —- he could be a guest tenor on a Sarah Brightman record during that sequence. On the complete opposite end, “Hear Me” was a compelling uber-aggressive moment ala Strapping Young Lad, and it was interesting to hear how Chad Kroeger’s guest vocals fit into the chaos (it sounded good, but its a little hard to discern his voice from Devin’s). The percussion here courtesy of Samus Paulicelli is dizzying by the way, and its worth checking out this clip of him recreating his recording. Then there’s the love it or hate it proposition of “Spirits Will Collide” with its heart on sleeve lyrics that are admirable in their anti-suicide plea, sort of a spiritual cousin to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”. I’ve seen a decent amount of polarizing reactions to this one, and while I’m one of the few who don’t go towards either end, I think its a well constructed song in terms of its pop hook actually affecting sparking a listener’s pathos if they’re personally inclined to allow it. As some of you know, I listen to Sarah Brightman records, so this is the kind of syrup I’ll gladly pour over my pancakes, except that I think the song is diminished a bit with the harsher vocals. I’d love to see an alternate version surface, something more in the vein of this cover. It feels like it could’ve been a home run power ballad but maybe there was some thought that it might’ve been a little too much. I appreciate Devin’s admitting that Enya was an influence on the choral verse melodies, because I heard the structure of “Only Time” straight away on first listen. One of the most buzzed about albums this year is definitely worth all the noise, and for his sheer creativity alone, I hope he makes his money back.
Thormesis – The Sixth:
This was something brought to my attention via Justin of the Mindfudge Podcast when he guested on a recent MSRcast episode, and I’ve been binging this album ever since. Thormesis are a German band that have delivered five apparently unremarkable albums of epic pagan black metal ala Moonsorrow sung in their native language, thus going fairly unnoticed by most of the metal world. Now full disclosure, I haven’t had a chance to check out their back catalog, but I’m trusting the opinion of someone who has, so take my appraisal of their back catalog with a grain of salt. What matters is explaining why they’ve really hit upon something remarkable with The Sixth, and that’s at once a simple and complicated proposition. There so many elements at play here, furious tremolo riffing over frenetic blastbeat passages, hard rock influenced splashes of lead guitar overlays, an Ensiferum-esque way with pagan metal styled choral vocals, and a noticeable post-rock production wash (dare I say black-gaze-ish?) that permeates the pores of these songs. What brings all these together in as compelling a manner as they are is the satisfyingly earwormy sense of melody that’s ingrained in the songwriting. Yes this is an album full of discordant chord progressions and abrupt tempo shifts, the sort of thing that makes black metal the extreme noise chamber it can often be, but on The Sixth, Thormesis grab hold of those seemingly uncontrollable elements and tame them with some of the strongest melodies I’ve heard on an extreme metal album in recent memory.
We hear this on the very first measures of the album opener “Sonnen”, with its tail-riff segmenting approach to the verse passages (check the :25 second and 1:17 marks). Its something from the hard rock playbook that not only gives a clear, discernible structure to an otherwise chaotic rhythmic attack, but serves as the song’s motif, an approach I often wish more black metal bands would employ. But there’s so much more here to unpack, the gorgeous, melancholy keyboard fragments that gently glide over everything three minutes in, and the lead vocal duet between guitarists Tino Krüger and Benjamin Rupp, who apparently share vocal duties throughout the album. The worryingly titled “Their Morbid Drunken Ways” initially conjured up images of some kind of Finntroll level disaster, but thankfully its more along the lines of Sentenced in its melancholic, aching melody that’s loosely draped across a mid-tempo, Katatonia-esque quiet and thunder juxtaposing. I hear that same Sentenced / Insomnium melodic tone in the opening phrasings in “Chor der Toten”, which might be my favorite song on the album. And its not only because of that awesome rock guitar bend at 2:11 that steers us away from one of the album’s most fierce passages to a beautiful, satisfying guitar solo; its the dramatic, isolated tremolo fragment stirring in the ether that builds up to that visceral explosion at the 4:07 mark, like a roller coaster careening down from top of the highest hill. These are songs largely built around musical hooks, not conventional pop formatted vocal hooks, but there are times when the band get daring enough to employ unconventional vocal motifs such as on “One Tear For Every Last Burning Soul”, where clean vocals erupt in something like funeral wailing. It sounds weird but trust me it works, particularly when its fit in between crystalline synths and soaring, emotional guitarwork. If you’ve been looking for something to blow you away in the first half of this year, you need to check this out regardless of your tolerance for black metal because The Sixth is a transcendent release.
Eluveitie – Ategnatos:
I have to admit, even with the hindsight of enjoying Eluveitie’s first post major lineup schism release in the largely acoustic Evocation II: Pantheon, that I didn’t expect this band to emerge stronger after the loss of vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Anna Murphy, guitarist Ivo Henzi, and drummer Merlin Sutter. They might have nailed that acoustic album out of the park, even bettering the first volume, but the real test would come when the band returned to its melodeath meets folk metal core sound. I’m not gonna keep you in suspense, they really have pulled it off, convincingly I might add. And I’m beginning to wonder if the key to this successful transition was simply stumbling upon the right vocalist in Fabienne Erni as Murphy’s replacement. I raved about Erni’s vocals on Evocation II, her vibrant, lightened vocal tone a perfect match for that album’s material in giving it a breezy, brighter feel than I suspect Murphy would have been able to. It turns out her voice pairs equally as well next to pummeling rhythm sections and Gothenburg patterned riffing as on “Deathwalker”, an early in the tracklisting highlight and my current favorite on the record. Chrigel Glanzmann is still obsidian throated in his melodeath delivery here, but his side by side vocal duet with Erni on the chorus over intense riffing works surprisingly well, her voice powerful enough to hold her own against his and still sound strikingly opposite in tone and texture. Its a compelling song, and a fairly perfect portrait of everything that makes Eluveitie so distinct and unique even amongst other folk metal artists.
There’s another standout cut in “The Raven Hill”, where Erni’s hypnotic lead vocal entrance sets a mystical mood that amplifies the already elevated strong folk tendencies coming through here. Hurdy-gurdy from Michalina Malisz, fiddle courtesy of Nicole Ansperger, and Matteo Sisti on bagpipes work up a gorgeous, rustic folk melody that’s echoed by Glanzmann’s trademark whistles. Even here his harsh vocals are met stride for stride with Erni’s excellent vocals, and I particularly like the ending echoing the intro, with her guiding the way out of this smoky wood we’ve all obviously been hanging out in. There’s a few cuts on here that are pretty much full on melodeath with Glanzmann at the helm, and as on previous Eluveitie albums I’m generally fine with them, although they’ve never been the best cuts on the records and that’s the same situation here. I’m a fan of this band for the folk metal elements, and they tend to come around more when Erni’s at the very least taking a 50/50 role at the vocal helm as on the darker, aggressive “Threefold Death” and the pop soaked “Breathe”. In that respect, “Rebirth” is another album highlight for cleverly managing those elements so well, and for Erni’s handling of her vocal melody. It was also a risky but nice touch to add in a few little instrumental vignettes like “The Silvern Glow”, things I usually tend to frown upon but Eluveitie wisely kept these very much tied to the acoustic spirit of the music in Evocation II, kinda linking these two albums together based on its identical line-up. This is a sixteen track long album but if you subtract those few cuts its still a more than respectable thirteen song proper album, with a meaty running time. Its been awesome to see this band make its full comeback from a rough patch in its lineup history, and they’ve made an album that lives up to the best of their catalog.
Cellar Darling – The Spell:
Its uncanny that once again a new Eluveitie and Cellar Darling album are not only appearing back to back in one of my review clusters, but that yet again its not because I’m trying to be deliberately provocative by doing so —- in fact, these two albums were released within two weeks of each other. Its a close mirroring of what happened in 2017 with Eluveitie’s Evocation II: Pantheon and Cellar Darling’s debut This Is The Sound. Being that I’m a reviewer that is always going to get to albums late, after I’ve listened to them enough times to feel comfortable writing about them, a side by side comparison is too intriguing to pass up. However, a note of advice to both bands, particularly Cellar Darling, you both are on Nuclear Blast Records, surely it can’t be that hard to coordinate with the label to steer clear of each other and give yourselves some breathing room around your release dates. Its not that I think discerning fans can’t separate the two albums and make their own value judgments, but the proximity can only provoke a direct comparison to their ears too, and so many of those fans were upset when Anna Murphy / Merlin Sutter / Ivo Henzi and Eluveitie split, and considering the reason for the split was each side not liking the other’s ideas about musical direction —- well, don’t be surprised if some of those fans feel the burden of that conflict on themselves in hearing both of these records. I wasn’t all that bothered by the split myself, intrigued certainly, and I felt sympathy for Murphy and company, enough to hope that Cellar Darling would be something I’d really enjoy. Their debut was a shaky start, but I think most of us were willing to forgive that and hope for more interesting material the second go round, but on The Spell the band finds themselves with no new ideas, a worrying sign. You can see where this is headed, and its a bummer to say that The Spell isn’t an improvement on its predecessor.
I wish I could offer up a highlight here, but truthfully I’ve struggled to find one for these past few weeks, and I’ve internally groaned every time I’ve had to make another pass through the album to see if anything else clicked. The most emergent song from these hesitant listening sessions has been “Insomnia”, which marries a metallic degree of heavy riffing to isolated hurdy gurdy melodies to set up a soaring chorus where Murphy reminds us just how well she can get her rather earthy voice sailing through the air. I’d like the song more if it retained a sense of kinetic flow throughout, instead of the ambient passages within where nothing interesting is really happening. When you have a genuinely affecting hook, plug it in as often as you can without coming across like Haddaway. I also liked the dirty, ground in feel of “Freeze”, where Murphy’s vocals merge with a distant rhythmic grumble to come across like a close cousin to The Cranberries “Zombie” (before that awful radio rock band decided to ruin that song for everyone). A similar problem crops up on “Love”, which has a pretty solid hook that gets plugged a little more, but the connective tissue is missing in terms of crafting a compelling song from start to finish. But its a song like “Drown” that I have a really hard time with, its aimless riffing and lack of any kind of binding melody (even in the vocals) just result in a soupy mess of ideas that go nowhere. On the title track, Murphy juxtaposes elements of a pop chorus with a high pitched delivery of a specific line in a manner that is certainly memorable, but not exactly enjoyable. There’s a similar problem with “Hang”, where Murphy explores the full sweep of her vocal range, and she sounds great to her credit, but the song lacks a compelling motif to tie everything together (but given its lyrical narrative, perhaps that was intentional?). I’ve toned down what was initially a scathing review because I began to consider that a lot of Murphy’s fans will love this kind of stuff and might find it perfect for them. But for myself, it really puts the entire Eluveitie split into perspective and has me siding with them —- if this more bland, generic rock riff direction was what the Cellar Darling crew had in mind for the direction in their previous band, then I don’t blame the Eluveitie camp for balking. They’ve doubled down on what the essence of that band’s sound to deliver two really excellent folk-metal albums, and Cellar Darling are doing… whatever this is.
Its been just a little over three years since Tobias Sammet released Ghostlights, an album that stunned me and stayed with me during what turned out to be a darkly turbulent year, enough for me to call it 2016’s album of the year. In my personal Avantasia pantheon, it often tops the Metal Operas as my favorite album of all time (though sometimes when I get nostalgic, dips below them however briefly). It had some bold guest choices on there, with Tobias taking chances on the shaky Geoff Tate, a relatively obscure talent like Herbie Langhans, and Dee Snider (long before his Jasta helmed metallic resurrection) in addition to strong regulars like Jorn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, the great Bob Catley, and of course Michael Kiske. More impressively however, all thirteen of its songs landed knockout punches, each with their own unique sonic identity and sometimes strikingly distinct style —- it was Tobias’ most expertly crafted batch of songs in ages. I was completely surprised, seeing as how my expectations were as low as ever considering my lukewarm appraisal of 2013’s The Mystery of Time (I’ve gone back and listened to it recently, that opinion still stands). I think being surprised when you have low expectations doesn’t necessarily make a good album sound better than it would have had you heard it out of context, but it does make you appreciate whatever’s surprising you more.
With that mind, the opposite can also be true, and it seems to be the case with Moonglow, which has the misfortune of following the impeccable Ghostlights. But I wanna be clear, Moonglow is a good, at times even excellent album that actually distinguishes itself by having its own unique album spanning cohesive sound that seems to originate from its lyrical and thematic concept. That may seem obvious at first, but with post-Metal Opera era Avantasia the styles and songwriting approaches tended to fall into Tobias’ songwriting tropes (for better or worse). Here I’m referring specifically to the “roundness” or softness of the edges on this collection of songs, which largely tend to lack the sharp, hard angles that made up the sheer catchiness of the Ghostlights songs. This works for the better on a song such as album opener “Ghost In The Moon”, where a bouncy Jim Steinman-esque melody is carried along not by the guitars, but rather the rolling piano underneath all the vocal layers. Aside from the post chorus outro, the guitars in this song seem reactive, playing off the vocal melodies, which result in a more rock n’ roll affair than anything close to power metal. Its the album’s most poppy moment, and one of its best because those vocal melodies are simply awesome. The addition of gospel backing vocalists Bridget Fogle, Lerato Sebele, and Alvin Le Bass give the song a sense of joyful enthusiasm and uplifting energy. Tobias has of course used backing vocalists before to great effect (particularly on The Scarecrow trilogy), but this is noticeably different and refreshing.
Likewise I hear this rounded, flowing feel on another standout track, “Moonglow”, where Tobias engages in a duet with Blackmore’s Night vocalist Candice Night. This is one of the smartest guest picks Tobias has nabbed in awhile, eyebrow raising in its reach outside of the metal realm and steering away from obvious choices that we’ve all come to expect. Its a pretty song, again built on piano lines, this time sparsely performed in such a way that conduce a feel appropriate to the nighttime imagery of the song. It strikes me as a cousin to “Sleepwalking” off The Mystery of Time, the dreamlike verses and sunlit choruses for both, but I might love “Moonglow” just a touch more because Night’s vocal approach and clear ringing tone seems particularly suited to Tobias’ power balladry. The background keyboard atmospherics here are something that producers Sascha Paeth and Miro Rodenburg have used often in Avantasia, most notably on songs like “Lost In Space”, “Carry Me Over”, and the aforementioned “Sleepwalking” (basically, the poppier cuts). At this point its something of their production trademark, because you’ll hear variations of it on nearly every band they produce, and it could be tiring if overused (ahem… *stares at Kamelot*), but Tobias’ seems to know when its most effective and when he needs to keep the atmospheric wash at bay.
Similarly the Bob Catley star turn on “Lavender” is another piano driven affair, a drama rich slice of pomp rock that takes a more choral driven approach than his Ghostlights appearance on the masterful “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”. Where the latter was all heart stopping arcing melodies and gut wrenching epic starts and stops, “Lavender” is a rather more subtle tune. The chorus is well defined and appealing, though it lacks a magical transition from the verse/bridge sequence, and you get the feeling that Catley might’ve been underused. He’s a home run hitter, the guy who made “The Story Ain’t Over” such a spectacular why isn’t this on the album fan favorite. I actually like “Lavender” a good deal, and I don’t think its verses nor its chorus are lacking, but I suspect there’s something missing in terms of a powerful buildup, that maybe Tobias misfired when writing the bridge. Its partially redeemed by that magnificent dramatic mid-song detour at the 2:38-3:02 mark, and maybe I’m wrong but if he used that moment just a few more times throughout the song, it might’ve made the difference. Then again, as we’ll see on “The Piper At The Gates of Dawn”, that singular moment might be that much more appealing because of its rarity. In the case of “The Piper…” we’re treated to a magical musical moment at the 5:30 mark, one of the more gorgeous guitar solos on the album and in Avantasia’s history overall. I wish its opening motif were longer, or repeated a few times throughout what is a largely lackluster song, with verses that are strangely devoid of anything musical besides production wash and a drum beat. Its the weakest song on the album, yet has one of its most lovable moments. Strange.
The album’s preview/hype track was the guest vocalist monster “The Raven Child”, which has one of the more gorgeous opening sequences that sees Hansi Kursch and Tobias trade off lines. We got to hear these two together on Ayreon’s majestic “Journey to Forever” a few years ago, and this is spellbinding in similar ways, and a fitting return for Hansi to guest one of Tobias’ songs since his much loved appearance on Edguy’s “Out of Control” way back in the day. His vocal performance on those opening verse sections is the kind of bard-like balladry that we all have come to love him for, particularly in that little “woah-oh-oh” bit towards the end before the big dramatic musical exclamation mark. He and Jorn are a dominating presence on this track, with Tobias serving as the glue guy. Its an album highlight, continuing Tobias’ winning streak of lengthier Jorn-infused epics that will likely be concert staples ala “The Scarecrow”, “The Wicked Symphony”, and “Let The Storm Descend Upon You”. I was also surprised by how much I liked “Starlight”, a song that makes the best use of Ronnie Atkins vocals in a compact, aggressive rocker. I say surprised because I wasn’t that fond of Atkins’ previous solo turn on “Invoke The Machine” off Mystery, so its nice to have my doubts erased as to whether he could deliver as a standalone partner to Tobias. Its also one of the few songs here that really breaks free of that smooth, rounded feel, it being built on urgent tempos and some well timed quiet-loud dynamic shifts.
If I was surprised by Ronnie Atkins, I was reaffirmed by Geoff Tate’s once again excellent performance on a Tobias’ penned tune, because just like his debut on “Seduction of Decay” on Ghostlights, he sounds like his old self on “Invincible”. This is equal parts Tobias being unafraid to write Tate into his higher range that he seems to have avoided in his latter day Queensryche and now Operation: Mindcrime albums, and also just giving him a fully arcing chorus melody that is actually emotionally affecting. And on its direct follow-up track “Alchemy”, Tate sings over a rhythm structure that sits right in that mid-tempo pocket that allowed him to sound so convincing on so many Queensryche gems. The only downside here is that the chorus doesn’t match the intensity of the verses, and ends up feeling a little half-baked, an ugly negative drawback to the rounded, dare I suggest softened approach that yet again makes it presence known here. As far as other songs that suffer a bit in the songwriting department, I wasn’t wild about “Book of Shadows” even though it features Hansi and even Mille Petrozza. Just something about that chorus where it doesn’t seem to get the proper amount of lift under its wings. I do enjoy the contrast of Petrozza’s vocal part, and ultimately I wish he was given a larger role for the album, perhaps a song of his own to kick up the overall heaviness factor a bit. I also liked yet didn’t love the Michael Kiske “Requiem For A Dream”, and its largely due to a remarkable bridge/chorus that makes up for some pretty uninspired verse sections. Tobias has done better with Kiske before, and “Wastelands” is really the benchmark to my ears… unfortunately he didn’t quite get there this time.
I don’t know what to say about the Michael Sembello “Maniac” cover, because we’ve all heard the song before and if you’re like me you always thought it sucked and likely didn’t want one of your favorite artists touching it with a ten foot you know what. But its done, and I hate it and only listened to it long enough for reviewing purposes. I actually really love the bonus track for the deluxe editions in “Heart”, which was written as a tribute to Steve Perry era Journey and sounds the part. The roundness of this album that I’ve been vaguely harping on about throughout the review is both a blessing and a curse, dramatically shaping some songs for the better and hurting others. I think for me personally, this album faced a bit of an unfair uphill battle following up a record I loved so much, but at the end of the day lofty expectations don’t determine whether or not a song feels underwritten or that a chorus lacks some punch. I’ve enjoyed Moonglow for the most part, it has an interesting concept and sonic palette, and I definitely didn’t feel anywhere near the level of discontent as I did with The Mystery of Time. Something I was thinking about earlier was that its going to be well over five plus years since the last Edguy studio album, and having had two Avantasia albums in a row unexpectedly, I find myself longing a bit for his other songwriting side lately. I’d love something shockingly heavy, rollicking, and aggressive in the vein of Mandrake or Hellfire Club, it would be the perfect way to veer in the opposite direction.