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.
There’s an intimidating amount of highly anticipated new releases in these first few months of 2019, turning the old notion of the slow start to the release calendar on its head. I’ve also been introduced to or stumbled across a handful of intriguing releases by artists new to me, and the upcoming release calendar has a lot of albums by newer bands I’ve been told to check out so we’ll be venturing into a lot of uncharted territory in the future too. So without any further preamble lets get to it!
Swallow the Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light:
So I’ve sat with this album for a few weeks now, and I wanted to let it marinate for awhile before writing a review because I have to guard against the fact that in the intervening time between the release of 2015’s triple album Songs from the North I, II & III, I’ve become a massive fan of this band. I’ve gotten to see them play live twice in the intervening period, their hoodie has become my most worn metal apparel since that Nightfall’ Blind Guardian shirt I wore massive holes into, and I’ve deep dived into their discography repeatedly like a sugar addiction. I’ve been here before, where one’s enthusiasm for a band in general can color a new release in one’s own eyes, so I listened to this thing to death for the past few weeks, took a few days off, and have come back to it again to see if anything’s changed. But before I get to that, lets just talk about the elephants in the room with this record —- its the first album after the passing of founding guitarist/songwriter Juha Raivio’s partner Aleah Stanbridge. Its worth the mention because of just how much Raivio’s recent musical activities have been informed by it since her passing in April of 2016; the year end list making Trees of Eternity album, as well as the agonizing brutality of 2017’s Hallatar release. Its also the dawn of new guitarist Juho Räihä as a permanent member of the band (he has been their live guitarist standing in for Raivio for a few years now), replacing the band’s longtime guitarist Markus Jämsen. In 2016, the band’s longtime keyboardist Aleksi Munter also left, being replaced by Jaani Peuhu. Both Munter and Jämsen were in the band since 2001, practically founding members, so these aren’t necessarily inconsequential lineup changes.
This is a wildly surprising album, a confidently bold direction for the band to stride towards at this pivotal junction in their career. I mentioned Raivio’s musical mourning process on the Trees and Hallatar records; the wounded sorrow of the former and the pure rage of the latter, and it should be noted that this process continues here on When A Shadow… although in a tone that is at once still saddened yet also reverential and even hopeful in glimpses. Raivio accomplishes this by steering the musical direction of the band towards an arms wide embrace of gothic metal’s sweep and grandeur, incorporating a stylistic shift that brings to mind Paradise Lost and Sentenced’s sweeter moments, even reflecting a little Moonspell in the vocal approach. Far removed from the subdued clean vocals of Songs From The North Pt 2, here screamer/vocalist Mikko Kotamäki and keyboardist/backing vocalist Jaani Peuhu weave around each other with glorious melodic harmony vocals that cast a dramatic glamour over these songs. The complex and satisfying vocal layering is central to the impact of these songs, being written around both singers’ vocal melodies in a way that Swallow the Sun simply hasn’t tackled before so full on. Kotamäki is still a riveting screamer, full of blistering fury delivered with a razor sharp enunciation that ensures he’s landing every emotional gut punch. But its Peuhu who might be the quiet MVP of this record, his backing vocals (he’s so present everywhere on the album that he should really be considered a co-vocalist here) are utterly perfect in terms of tone and shading, and the vocal mix here by Jens Bogren is as lush as it needed to be.
Raivio’s lyrics across this album approach poetic levels of evocative imagery and storytelling, painting a dreamscape of vast reaches of starlit skies, endless black waters, fires and shadows, solitary temples and lonely places. His lyrics speak with a tone that is as reverential as it is grief stricken and lost, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard more convincingly pained and aching lyrics in extreme metal before (this is typically stuff that’s better handled by the Neko Cases of the music world). I would mention a specific example here, but what to pick, its all remarkable work. I will say that regarding both lyrics and music, “Here On The Black Earth” may just be my favorite Swallow The Sun song of all time, its escalating chord progression in the chorus is incredibly powerful stuff, and the gorgeous vocal harmonization of Kotamäki and Peuhu is as dazzling as the most ear candied Steven Wilson truffle. Looking back, I can say that although I really loved big chunks of Songs From The North (disc one was nearly flawless), I had difficulties cracking the album as a whole. Its partitioning of the band’s sound into three distinctive chapters (classic / mellow / funeral doom) seemed so final and conclusive even at the time, like a giant period at the end of a sentence. I suspect that Raivio felt the same way when he finally returned his attention to Swallow the Sun, and he felt that the only way forward musically (and perhaps emotionally as well) was to forge ahead with something radical (relatively speaking that is). His instincts were right, and I hope he knows deep down what myself and others have already figured out, that this is the greatest Swallow The Sun album to date. And I wish he never had to write it, that circumstances never resulted in this particular expression needing to surface, but I’m grateful for having it.
Soilwork – Verkligheten:
Now admittedly I haven’t been following Soilwork at all since 2005’s Stabbing the Drama, and although I enjoyed the records that preceded it I was never a big fan. So I have no context to compare the difficultly titled Verkligheten to, except to say this is not what I remembered this band sounding like the last time I checked in. And I might have heard one or two of their singles on YouTube or Spotify playlists over the past few years, looked up and thought “Oh Soilwork”, but if they sounded as strikingly different as the stuff on this album I must’ve not been paying attention. The obvious theory here is that vocalist Bjorn Strid’s time moonlighting with his other band The Night Flight Orchestra has rubbed off immensely on Soilwork, to such an extent that some of these songs feature hooks that might have felt right at home on Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough. I have become a big fan of that band lately, really enjoying all their records and I think that Strid just feels more at home in that milieu, not only as a frontman and performer but as a songwriter as well. His personality broke out in the Night Flight context, and it made me realize how much I didn’t know who he was in Soilwork really.
This Night Flight influence soaks into cuts like the music video dressed “Stålfågel”, where harmony backing vocals from Alissa White-Gluz (because of course apparently, at least they had a different role for her than we’re used to) coat the song in a hard rock sheen much like the “Airline Annas” did on the last NFO record. Its an undeniably catchy earworm of a song, and I really love its escalating approach in the verses, with Strid stressing emphasis at just the right moments to keep the drama heightened. On “Full Moon Shoals”, we’re treated to yet another maybe this was meant for another band slice of melodic hard rock, and all the overdubbed screaming vocals can’t really disguise it, particularly when we’re “oooh ooohh”-ing in the chorus. Not that I think the band is trying to disguise it, nor should they because I think bleed over is natural, but they run that Edguy/Avantasia risk where both bands start to sound sonically similar even if the lyrical tone moves further and further apart. In fact, my main criticism of this album is that they didn’t lean hard enough in that direction, and I find myself losing interest in the more standard modern melo-death stuff on the album, sure its heavy and there are a few good riffs thrown around, but I want more of those melodic choruses. I came away intrigued enough by this outing to definitely check out whatever Strid serves up next as Soilwork, but I’m far more eager for more neon lights, Camaro convertibles, palm trees, and pastel sport jackets from the Night Flight world.
Helevorn – Aamamata:
This was a random discovery I stumbled upon when reading the subject line of a random email in my inbox that said “For fans of Swallow the Sun…”, and that was enough to get me to click through to hear the promo, expecting to hear some watered down version of that supposed influence. And its fair to say that fans of Swallow the Sun will likely enjoy Helevorn, but they’re so much more than a copy of that band, in fact I think this band’s influences pull far more from 90s gothic metal like Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and particularly their countrymen in Moonspell. I hear it not only in the songwriting structure, where juxtaposing elements slide alongside each other in purposefully jarring ways, but in the guitar tone that vividly recalls the sound heard on Wolfheart, Irreligious, or even later Moonspell records like Extinct. Its a bit unfair to reduce a new band to what one’s own perception of their influences are, but for one its a hard habit to break and secondly its maybe the easiest way in for anyone new, as was the case with me and that email subject heading.
The variety of songwriting here is of particular note, because Helevorn can veer from a doom laden sense of aggression to a velvety dreamscape (as in album closer “La Sibil-la” with its Spanish acoustics, string beds and echoing vocals). Vocalist Josep Brunet alternates his distinctive clean vocals with a throaty growl, and often shifts into a talking vocal approach that is redolent of gothic metal and rock vocalists all around, that purposeful slowing of the voice to draw a listener’s attention to the lyrics. He’s got a rustic, dignified, somewhat aged quality to his vocal that is particularly appealing, at once lending some elder authority to both his extreme vocals as well as clean singing (major hints of Nick Holmes on both counts). I love that Draconian’s Heike Langhans drops in for a solo vocal appearance on “The Path To Puya”, and the effect when Brunet and the band come surging in to back her up is strong and powerful. I’m not sure who the clean vocalist is on the Spanish lyric semi-ballad “Nostrum Mare (Et deixo un pont de mar blava)” but she’s a highlight moment on the album all her own, particularly when the guitars sweep in underneath with a truly inspired solo. The key word with Aamamata is emotion, because its wringing out of every note throughout this record, and its refreshing to hear something new (well, to me anyway, this band has been around for over two decades) that is hearkening back to that late 90s style of gothic metal without taking on the sometimes watered down trappings that come with it. Can’t recommend this album enough.
Ancient Bards – Origine – The Black Crystal Saga Part 2:
For as much of a power metal fan I consider myself to be, I’ve always been somewhat allergic to the Italian variety. Not that I think its unlistenable or crudely done, quite the opposite actually, but its just never hit me with the same impact of other approaches coming from elsewhere. That long maintained tendency seems to be changing for the better with newer bands such as Frozen Crown with their debut last year as well as through the work of Ancient Bards, whom I’ve been passingly aware of the last few years. Though I was a few years late, their first three records really demonstrated something of a sharp songwriting sensibility that favored a hooks-first approach over a tired need to thrust storylines to the forefront (a critical flaw of Rhapsody’s music to me anyway). As a direct sequel to their concept/storyline driven debut, Origine is a little more darker toned in its overall vibe, but is still operating in that neo-classically informed mode of power metal bombast. They’re also rounding that corner where they’re not afraid to introduce some unexpected influences into the mix.
I’m chiefly referring to the extra dose of pop (beyond you know, normal power metal levels of “pop”) soaking into cuts like “Home of the Rejects” or “Aureum Legacy”, where vocalist Sara Squadrani shoulders the verses with an almost Broadway sensibility guiding her vocal melody. She’s at her most confident sounding on this record, putting herself out there vocally in a way that is daring in its escaping the constraints of the rigid power metal structure Ancient Bards largely operates in. Her standout and standalone moment is, well, as Cary the Metal Geek put it on our recent MSRcast —- the Disney Princess ready ballad “Light”. Its an apt description, because I could envision that in the hands of say Idina Menzel, this could be the show-tune hit on the upcoming Frozen 2. The song has been met with equal parts effusive praise and eye-rolling, with most of the audible groans coming from power metal purists who think this kind of balladry has no place on a power metal record. I just disagree, and Squadrani’s crystalline voice is perfect for a tune like this and her performance here is incredibly affecting. On a side note, they boldly chose it as a music video track, a risky move for any metal band these days when balladry has zero commercial truck with the public and risks alienating returning fans, but I gotta say, its certainly a pretty clip. This is another fun entry into the discography of one of the strongest new power metal bands to arrive on the scene in the past decade, more proof that there’s more to Italian power metal than I ever expected.
Within Temptation – Resist:
So I really wanted to take my time with this album and give it an honest airing in lieu of all the bad press its been getting since its December delay and subsequent pillaging in the recent flurry of reviews I’ve seen for it. If you recall my review for their last album in 2013, the bewildering Hydra, had a few withering criticisms of their then current musical direction and decision to include a handful of guest vocalists (I think it was four at least if I’m remembering right) for whatever reason. Remembering that review and juxtaposing it with Sharon Den Adel’s My Indigo solo project last year (where she revealed during its promotion that she battled writer’s block for Within Temptation), a record she described as “needing” to write really put the unfocused nature of Hydra in perspective. That record, with its forced duets and half-baked songwriting was the result of a band that had external stresses and was under the gun to get something released. The five year break that separates Hydra and Resist, the longest in their history, should probably have come after the promotional cycle for 2011’s The Unforgiving. The smart play for Within Temptation would’ve been to come storming back with an album that played to their strengths ala their first three albums, but instead they’ve chosen to pursue a path that pushes them further away from their core sound than they’ve ever been.
It really starts and ends with Den Adel’s preferences it seems. I did listen to her My Indigo record out of curiosity, and it was a decent albeit aggressively safe slice of modern indie toned pop. It was interesting to hear where Den Adel’s preferences lay when it comes to choices like production, because when we’ve heard Within Temptation get increasingly glossier and overproduced over the years, one wondered if it was the natural arc of their musical career, or a collective band decision, or something else. I’m starting to think that Den Adel just feels more comfortable in the world of modern production gloss, because for an album that was supposed to be her emotionally vulnerable solo record, I had hoped to hear something a little more vulnerable and stripped down. So it goes with Resist, where the production gloss has heightened to another level to such a degree that it completely dwarfs any metallic aspects going on underneath those layers. This is ostensibly supposed to be a dark, dystopian sci-fi themed record, and it is that, but not in the sense of heavy riffs and grand sweeping strings leading the way. Instead the sound of Resist owes more to the production flourishes of EDM and modern synth-pop artists like Chvrches, with the songwriting locked into a style that resembles alternative rock far more than symphonic metal. Speaking of the Scottish synth-pop band (if you saw my last blog update you’ll know I’m a big fan), Within Temptation even ape them a bit on their newest music video for “Raise Your Banner”, its chaotic showdown premise strikingly reminiscent of Chvrches video for “Miracle”. Its really hard to avoid the comparison.
The problem with this path for Within Temptation is that its simply not what they do well, whereas a band like Chvrches is specifically designed for this approach, two electronic musicians on synths and samplers while Lauren Mayberry pours her heart out up front. There’s spacing in their music, starts and stops, an innate understanding of how to manipulate EDM rhythms, song structures, tempo shifts, and the almighty “drop”. Within Temptation has three guitarists in the band…. why? What we hear on Resist is a dense wall of ultra-processed, noticeably compressed, amorphous sound. Its a black hole for riffs, with only passing few moments where one can hear multiple guitar patterns or solos. These songs seem to be stuck in one tempo as well, casting a sameness over the entire record. It does sound different from Hydra that’s for sure, but that apparently came at the cost of sounding entirely like one long song, something that its guest vocalists hardly budge. The Jacoby Shaddix guest spot on “The Reckoning” is decent in spots, particularly when they’re both singing together in the post chorus, but its the weakest of these type of songs they’ve cooked up in their catalog. The only other standout here is “Holy Ground” for how awkward Den Adel’s vocalizations come across. I think I get what Den Adel and Co were aiming for here, a futuristic soundscape which mirrored the theme of the album, but that’s not how they have excelled as a band. The real revolutionary move here would’ve been to scale down, get back to basics with a guitar forward album with swirling orchestral accompaniments. It would’ve been a striking study in contrasts against the dystopian sci-fi theme they’re so adamant about. I think its time to put that hope to bed permanently though, because like it or not this is likely how Within Temptation will sound going forward.
The new releases are plentiful throughout October, and fortunately I’ve been better about keeping on top of them this year than I have in the past. Some of these are albums I’ve been looking forward to for most of the year, the new Wolfheart being chief among them. I will admit to being extremely curious about Amaranthe’s Helix, their first post Jake Berg release and debut of new clean singer Nils Molin (of Dynazty fame). Some of you might remember that I wasn’t that keen on their last record Maximalism, which saw Berg’s input and role greatly diminished and as a result led to his departure (which had the silver lining of resulting in a really fun record by Cyhra, his new band with Jesper Stromblad). And of course there’s a new album by Germany’s trad metal stalwarts Brainstorm, a band I’ve been a fan of since way back in the early 2000s during the Metus Mortis / Soul Temptation era. There’s something appropriately fitting about these guys delivering a new record this particular year when I think power metal is in the midst of a sweeping artistic resurgence, a reminder that there are still older bands who have stayed relatively consistent with their style when many of their peers started incorporating hard rock / AOR stylings. But does the new album stack up against the staggering amount of excellent releases by newer power metal bands? I’ll tackle that and other burning questions in the reviews below!
Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:
I’ve written about Canada’s Thrawsunblat before, with the band’s 2016’s album Metachthonia landing on that year’s best albums list. Borne out of the incense smoke of Woods of Ypres, former Woods guitarist Joel Violette along with Immortal Bird vocalist Rae Amitay (here on drums) have been quietly releasing amazingly strong blackened folk metal records since 2013, and its been interesting to behold the range of this project, from maritime folk infused charm to blistering black metal fury. Their folk aspect is at once inspired by and very removed from the European folk that we commonly associate with the idea of folk metal, with Violette embracing his native roots of all things Canadian and pushing to the fore folk music of Northeast Canada and in particular the Atlantic coast. I’m only passinglyfamiliar with that kind of music, but I gather that its related to that strain of New Englander lyrical folk song that I’ve found across the years, not quite sea-shanty material but musically joyous all the same. The black metal sieve that Thrawsunblat run this folk music through results in something that is rather unique across the folk metal landscape, one very different from other North American black metal artists that are mostly from the Pacific Northwest.
All that being said about the band’s rich folk influences, Great Brunswick Forest is a surprising album for Violette and Amitay to release right now as a followup to what was a roiling, furious black metal affair in Metachthonia. Picking up where the band left off from the plaintive maritime folk of “Goose River (Mourner’s March)” and the gorgeous gem “Maritime Shores” from the Wanderer album, the new record is an entirely acoustic endeavor, except that it doesn’t behave like the way you’d expect a typical acoustic recording would. That means instead of ballads and forlorn laments, these songs are uptempo, jaunty affairs, bright and bursting with chiming guitars, lively violins, and a swinging percussive attack. The album starts out with its most representative model of this in “Green Man of East Canada”, a song that owes its lyrical influence directly to folk music, with its tale of two strangers pausing to speak near a darkened wood. Violette is a sharp, nuanced lyricist, and you can tell that he really loves the vein of woodsy Canadian folk that he’s clearly tapping into here, relishing it with every line and stanza; “I’m no stranger to these lands, / Though they’re not my own. / I left with the changed tides / To call this Brunswick kingdom home”.
Things get more adventurous musically with the aggressively uptempo “Here I Am A Fortress” and the chaotic frenzy heard in “Thus Spoke the Wind”. The former boasts some tremolo-esque acoustic guitar patterns amidst the most traditionally black metal song structure on the album, and the cross pollination of style and instrumental medium is strange to behold at first, but its such a well written song that you become accustomed to the jarring juxtaposition quickly. A key component in making experiments like this one successful is the fiddle playing of one Keegan MC, who is all over this album and really becomes the musical glue and stylistic motif throughout. He has a way of engaging his instrument to create moments of dissonance that support the acoustic tremolo sections and give them a dose of ringing, electric vibrancy. But its Amitay who steals the spotlight in “Thus Spoke…” with her unleashing a battery of what you might term acoustic blast beats during the middle instrumental passage, pushing the way forward for tremolo style acoustic guitar riffs and slicing fiddle blasts to barrel forward in the album’s heaviest, most astonishing section. It was a little chaotic to make heads or tails of at first, but now the song is a favorite of mine, and I always seem to pay attention to that instrumental break.
The absolute show stealer of a song here however is “Via Canadensis”, where I think Violette sneaks in some subtle electric guitar throughout to add some muted crunch to what is a joyful, perfect slice of folk metal. I get a very strong Woods 5 vibe from this song, and musically it wouldn’t have felt out of place on that album where David Gold played around with contrasting musical and lyrical clashes. Lyrically though, this is Violette at his most positive, singing during the refrain “On we go — to the standing stones we’ve yet to raise!”, and that lyric takes on a mythic quality during the nearly a capella mid-song bridge. Similarly, I love the lyrical sentiment and supporting musical sweep that pins together the second half of “Dark Sky Sanctuary”, where Violette delivers his most smooth vocal melody yet in a hooky, Vintersorg-ian chorus. Like the folk metal legend himself, Violette’s vocals are probably going to be hit and miss for some, but frankly most of these songs wouldn’t sound right with another singer, having been attuned to his voice in the writing process. But “Dark Sky Sanctuary” is the exception, as I could hear this slice of folk-pop magic being sung by anyone and everyone, including a female voice (hopefully at some point YouTube will yield a cover version of this). This a magical album, particularly in its arrival at this time of the year when autumn is making its strongest entrance in years. I can’t predict where Violette and Amitay will take Thrawsunblat next, but I’m absolutely over the moon about where they’ve been throughout their career.
Brainstorm – Midnight Ghost:
So we all have our comfort foods right? Mine would be mundane but occasionally essential things like sourdough bread with real butter, soft chocolate chip cookies in bar form like my mom used to make, or whole wheat toast spread with peanut butter and a drizzle of honey with a cup of coffee —- actually this is starting to sound like the ramblings of one that has recently begun another bout of carb kicking (dammit). But thankfully here’s my metal equivalent of comfort food back with a new release to help take the edge off, as Brainstorm has been consistent in familiarity and quality for the better part of two decades now. Its a little over-simplifying to refer to them as meat and potatoes metal, because underneath those chunky riffs and earwormy choruses is a Nevermore-esque progressive technicality. Singer Andy B. Frank is one of the most underrated/overlooked vocalists in metal, capable of an operatic tenor, as well as a gritty, Jon Oliva-esque snarl perfect for the kind of heavier trad that Brainstorm specialize in. They’re a perfect “centering” band, for those times when you feel you’ve gone too far on the avant-garde/blackgaze/ambient/noise/funeral doom end of the metal spectrum or perhaps too far down the Rhapsody/Freedom Call side and need a reminder of metal at its most melodic AND heavy; so you queue up a classic like Soul Temptation or Metus Mortis (or better yet, this still exceptional live set at Wacken 2004 that is the epitome of everything wonderful about our genre) to get yourself right.
Its commendable that Midnight Ghost is the band’s twelfth release, as they’ve been knocking out records at far more regular intervals than most metal bands, at times even delivering two in back to back years. Whats absolutely astonishing however, is that this may very well be the most inspired and accomplished album they’ve ever made, in a recording career that started way back in 1997. Because the core of their sound hasn’t changed over their career, aside from a more welcoming embrace of the choral vocal backed chorus and a touch more symphonic keyboard dressing, I’m speaking to the quality of the songwriting. This is evident in the instant ear-worm gratification of “Ravenous Minds”, as classic a Brainstorm song we’ve ever heard with Frank’s vocals delivered with a sense of empowering belief. He has such staggering strength as a vocalist, singing here with a wildly confident display of his range, from gruff lows to Queensryche-ian highs in that spectacular chorus. At this point, Frank knows the pivot points around his vocals so much that you can hear that awareness reflected in the songwriting, particularly in that everything flows around his crafting of the vocal melodies. You hear it in the string and piano intro to “Revealing the Darkness”, the melody previewing Frank’s epic, arcing vocal during the chorus. Founding guitarists Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric rattle off a machine gun spray of punctuating bursts that are always book ended by a meaty riff to round out a verse section. Its that commitment to heaviness that separates Brainstorm’s dalliances with prog-metal from that of bands such as Dream Theater and Seventh Wonder.
Speaking of other bands, I can’t be the only one who hears a real Iced Earth Horror Show era meets Judas Priest Firepower vibe on “Jeanne Boulet (1764)”, from the aggressive, neo-thrashy attack to the “iter” ending of the lyric in the refrain, its a mash-up of sounds that are pieced together in a very different way for Brainstorm. Its been interesting to hear these influences pop up on this album and bleed through Brainstorm’s normally solid musical wall that they’ve spent a career erecting around themselves. From the moment I first heard them, this was a band that didn’t necessarily wear direct influences on their sleeves, only the general gist of those influences. That they sound more relatable to other German metal bands of all subgenres than say Maiden or Priest or Metallica is a testament to the way they’ve carved out a sonic niche of their own. Frank reminds me more of Mille Petrozza, Rage’s Peavy Wagner and a touch of Hansi Kursch than anything, but even those three singers combined aren’t an accurate representation of his vocals. I can’t believe that I’m getting to say this about his work on Midnight Ghost, but its thrilling to declare that he’s never sounded better. Brainstorm knows what they’re about, and their artistic success depends almost entirely on Frank’s inimitable talents, and its thrilling as a fan to hear them unexpectedly deliver an album this confident and masterful so late in the game. Far from comfort food, this is a meal at that really expensive steakhouse you’ve been waiting and saving for. One of the best albums of the year – write it down.
Amaranthe – Helix:
I won’t even pretend that I wasn’t highly curious about the state of Amaranthe circa 2018 in their post Joacim Lundberg state. Lundberg if you didn’t remember (or preferred not to… you haters) was one of the Swedish sextet’s founding vocalists, their clean male vocalist who had as equally big a hand in the songwriting as guitarist Olof Morck and fellow vocalist Elize Ryd. I first started listening to Amaranthe’s debut out of sheer curiosity in 2011 because you simply could not avoid hearing mention of this band that was cooking up this crazy melo-death/power metal/ pop mash-up. What became clear to me as I veered from somewhat agahst/mildly curious to rather appreciative of their frankly audacious metallic pop, was that Lundberg was a central figure in the formulation of their sound. He described his own contribution to the band’s sound as “melodic Bon Jovi type vocals” and he crafted vocal melodies in that vein that were able to both contrast and complement Ryd’s sugary pop voice. At times he would sing alongside her, in effect providing co-lead vocals that lent a needed earthiness to the melody, while he also had moments where his solo lead vocals would color however briefly the band’s sound with gritty hard rock energy. Of course the band’s two harsh vocal screamers in Andreas Solveström and since 2013 Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson were the melo-death element when Morck’s Soilwork-esque straight to the point riffing was taken into account. It all somehow largely worked, almost improbably so, a kaleidoscope of sound that was difficult to classify yet appealing beyond reason, particularly on 2014’s Massive Addictive.
That balance of elements that made everything gel together was disrupted when Lundberg’s role was gradually diminished on 2016’s Maximalism, the result being a sound that leaned too far in the pop direction and resulted in an album that was oddly disconnected, a jumble of random ideas. In my review for that record, which was written after Lundberg had already left the band, I predicted that his departure would be a huge blow for Amaranthe. When Lundberg resurfaced soon after in Cyhra with ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad, their debut was loaded with the same kind of quality vocal melody writing that characterized Lundberg’s work in Amaranthe. It was a fun, strong, and ear-wormy album in a way that was in keeping with Lundberg’s desire to marry those aforementioned Bon Jovi type vocals to melo-death guitars. I mention that because it helps to put into context Amaranthe’s attempt to retreat into the style of the first two and a half (ish) albums, and why that attempt feels unfocused and often empty. That’s not to say that Helix isn’t at times successful, because a song like “Countdown” is every bit the satisfying merger of electro-pop and fuzzy metallic guitars into a direct, focused chorus that is packed as tight as a fun-sized Snickers. And Ryd reaches something approaching inspired on “Dream”, a song that borrows from the tempo and temperature of the quasi-power ballad “Burn With Me” from Massive Addictive, her vocals shining in a duet with new co-vocalist Nils Molin (who’s also in Dynazty, if that name was ringing a bell). Molin is a safe but misguided choice for the band, and that’s not a criticism of Molin as a vocalist, because he’s clearly a talented singer and his work in Dynazty is far better a showcase than what he delivers on Helix. The problem is that his style is all wrong for this band, far more suited to the soaring power metal of his other band and lacking anything resembling an actual rock voice that Lundberg provided.
But elsewhere on the album, its honestly hard to come up with anything resembling a successful example of why I started listening to this band in the first place. Things feel off all over the place —- the lead single “365” is a half baked version of “That Song” from Maximalism, and as controversial as the latter was upon its release, at least it had something interesting going for it with its Queen inspired stomp. With “365” the rhythmic strut never materializes, the vocal melody isn’t nearly as hooky as it should be, and everything just feels like a mess. Similarly unfocused is “Inferno”, which attempts to recreate the sound of the band’s first two albums, but again there’s not enough strength in the vocal melody to make it worth basing a song around it. Molin sticks out in a particularly bad way here, just this out of place voice singing an unconvincing lyric. And look I know, even when Lundgren was in the band Amaranthe’s lyrics hardly ever made sense, but his voice somehow sold what he was singing regardless. The intro verses for songs like the title track and “Breakthrough Starshot” really illustrate why Molin seems so out of place, when he’s forced to sing lyrics that are at best abstractions when he’s used to delivering relatively more literate lyrics in Dynazty. This might improve with his next album with the band, but I get the sense that he doesn’t quite know how to tackle these lyrics, how to get emotionally invested in them and in turn where to place inflection points.
Lets not glide past “Breakthrough Starshot” either, this being the sequel that the awful “Electroheart” never needed but we’re unfortunately getting. Its actually miles better than that atrocity ever was, with an actual memorable hook that will reverberate throughout your brain all day. When fellow metal critics sharpen their knives for this band, its because of songs like this, where for some reason Wilhelmsson is screaming out the lyric “My expectation is the accelerated / Another journey to the breakthrough starshot” —- just, WHAT NOW?! Ryd’s vocal interjection in the hook via her “yeah yeah’s” reminds me of something I’d have heard from a Britney Spears single in the late 90s (and probably did), but that’s not the kind of pop Ryd should be evoking within the context of Amaranthe, who owe more to Euro-pop and EDM than American bubblegum dreck. Perhaps more awful than “…Starshot” however is the weirdly titled “GG6”, where Wilhelmsson takes the lead and delivers the most maddeningly non-nonsensical lyrics you’ll ever hear, complete with a baffling barrage of profanity that just comes across as lazy and dumb. Everything else on the album is just meh, ho-hum paint by numbers attempts at landing a chorus worth remembering; “Iconic” gets the closest but its still lukewarm, and the ballad “Unified” is where we feel Lundberg’s absence the most. Morck is a talented musician and songwriter, but its more clear than ever that Lundberg was the brainchild behind making the band’s vocal melodies work. They’ve lost the magic ingredient that made their weird metallic amalgam work, and that’s probably going to be news to many who think of Ryd or Morck as the heart and soul of this band.
Wolfheart – Constellation of the Black Light:
Wolfheart’s Tuomas Saukkonen has been releasing records at perhaps a nearly unrivaled clip since his Before the Dawn days from the early aughts onwards, at times with various side projects popping up throughout various years. There have been years where he’s released more than one album, and only two years since 2003 where he hasn’t released anything (2005 and 2014, although during the latter he did chair the producer’s role for a Rain of Acid record). That kind of staggering level of artistic productivity has yielded somewhere in the range of 15-16 complete albums and a host of EPs and splits/singles. I got introduced to him through his Black Sun Aeon melodic doom project, and soon after stumbled onto the fact that said project was already over and he’d forged a new band in Wolfheart, who are already at album number four since their inception in 2013. One of the things my MSRcast co-host and I had been raving about last year was the band’s brilliant release Tyhjyys, which was one of the host of folk-metal gems that 2017 unearthed in a nascent revitalization of that subgenre. I shouldn’t have been surprised that we’d get a follow-up so quickly in little over a year, given Saukkonen’s track record, but its still stunning to consider the turnaround time given just how different Constellation of the Black Light is from its predecessor.
Whereas Tyhjyys was a diverse album, full of songs with slower, more moody, shifting tempos and a utilization of silence and space that made songs like “The Flood” so hypnotic, Black Light sees Wolfheart making the leap into a more wintry, primal, furious style of blackened melodic death metal. I know its going to be an on the nose comparison for many reasons, but its their equivalent to Insomnium’s surprisingly aggressive epic Winter’s Gate. This is a level of aggression that Saukkonen has dabbled in before in brief glimpses and the occasional full song, but here he keeps it as his primary weapon, with only shades of Tyhjyys folkiness and quietude used as accents. The opening track epic “Everlasting Fall” uses a mix of both in its intro passages, but erupts into one of the more violent explosions I’ve heard Saukkonen unleash, propelled along by Joonas Kauppinen’s unrelenting blast beats. The song’s emotional pulse is heard in Olli Savolainen’s keyboards, producing a backdrop of sound that is more Porcupine Tree dreamscape than anything owing to orchestral impulses. I can hear a guitar in there mirroring what the keyboards are doing, and I think I caught sight of that two Saturdays ago in October when I caught Wolfheart live on their tour with Mors Principium Est and headliners Carach Angren. Its a ten minute opening piece, which isn’t shocking in this kind of metal anymore, but it is new for Wolfheart, their longest song to date though it certainly doesn’t feel like it. And its actually the most representative song on the record at that, showcasing the range that they’ll explore throughout the rest of the album and preparing us for the neck-snapping brutality that follows on “Breakwater”.
Its might seem surprising at first if you saw the Napalm Records backed lush music video for “Breakwater” being ushered out as the first single for this album, because this is as uncompromising a black metal attack as Wolfheart have concocted. Wildly spiraling tremolo riffing, blast beats, all with Saukkonen veering between death metal brutality and a blackened rasp in his vocal approach. Its not exactly the kind of insta-catchy single that Napalm is known for having its bands release first, but then they must have known what they were getting into before signing the band. This is Wolfheart’s first release for the growing “major” metal label, a sign that they’re moving up in the world a touch, and have the budget required to fly to Iceland with a small film crew and drones to shoot what is a spectacular looking Skyrim tribute. Things will make sense around the time Saukkonen first stumbles upon the waterfall in the video, when the song downshifts into something moodily mid-tempo, yet still shifting and undulating with its melodic guitar lines, ala Insomnium once again. Its on the far more subdued “The Saw” where we finally get a taste of that old Wolfheart sound, with its stop start riff sequences, thick vocal layers and a major key melodicism pouring through the lead guitar melody. I have detected a little impatience on my part when sitting through “Defender”, which isn’t a bad song by any means, being a straightforward melo-death affair, with a head-nodding worthy riff progression, but its lacking in impacts and surprises. It would’ve been the start of a lopsided album were it not for the rejuvenating ability of “Warfare” and the following “Valkyrie” to close out the album.
Those concluding two songs might actually be one long song, because they feel connected in sound and spirit. The latter has one of the more satisfying opening riffs, a percussive rhythmic piece that is the kind of battle call that a band like Suidakra likes to use quite often. That everything suddenly ends on a lone piano delivering a dirge-like melodic fragment is classic Finnish metal to a tee, from not only a melo-death perspective but also from legends like Sentenced, a Finnish calling card if you will. This is a quality, deep dive worthy album that was released at the perfect time because there’s just something extra special about hearing this kind of wintry music during the first breaths of autumn in the air. I got a big dose of cold Finland this past month, seeing no less than five bands from the country within that time frame. The Carach/Mors/Wolfheart gig was everything a great show in a dingy venue could be, shortcuts and all: The bands were traveling light on that tour, packed into one tour bus with notable cuts to band lineups to save on money. Wolfheart ran keyboards through a laptop, Mors ran their absent bassist through another laptop, and well of course Carach Angren could hardly afford to bring a string quartet with them so they too used the laptop. For all I knew it was the same one. That didn’t matter, and Wolfheart were as intense and crushing onstage as this album would have you believe, and well received for a band on their first North American trek. I was a little surprised that they didn’t play anything off Tyhjyys, leaning on two songs apiece from every other album including the new one. The hope is that with Napalm’s promotional engine supporting them, they’ll find their way back here on another few supporting tours. I’ll be there for sure.
Conception – re:conception:
I usually don’t review individual songs or single releases, with few exceptions, and Conception’s first new music in what, twenty-one friggin years certainly qualifies. Their EP is coming out in a few weeks and this single has two pieces of music that will be on that release and one exclusive track, “Feather Moves”. I’ll talk more about the songs at length on the review for the EP in the future but I just wanted to chime in here to talk about the stunning realization that we’re hearing Roy Khan’s vocals once again. Most of you have read that piece I did on Khan many years ago about the giant hole he was leaving behind not only in Kamelot but in progressive / power metal in general with his at the time retirement. The nature of his departure from Kamelot, the cryptic statement he released at the time —- everything really pointed towards a permanent exit, and I just couldn’t help but be a little selfish about it, thinking of all the great lyrics and vocal melodies we were being denied. When news broke that he was heard (literally) in a Norwegian rehearsal studio jamming with his former Conception bandmates, the classic lineup at that, I may or may not have gone into full on denial mode. But with April’s Pledgemusic campaign announcement, everything was confirmed and so was the utter joy at not having to watch another year tick by where Khan’s talents were being utilized.
He simply sounds excellent on these two songs (one instrumental, yeah… I know), his voice rich and full of that ability to inflect incredible amounts of emotion in a single phrase. To Conception’s credit, they’re really picking up where they left off on Flow, with heavily rhythmic, undulating (I sure love that word lately it seems) riff progressions and impassioned songwriting. Tore Østby is shredding all over the place, with little interjections and micro-solos to fill in the vocal gaps, and the rhythm section of bassist Ingar Amlien and drummer Arve Heimdal playing in unconventional, groove oriented, almost poly-rhythmic patterns. But wisely, Khan is left to direct traffic with his vocal melodies, singularly able to shift the tone of a song from dark and stormy to angelic and uplifting as we get to hear on the chorus to “Grand Again”. There’s a filter on his voice in select moments on this song, nothing that’s distracting, in fact it actually adds to the song but I would like to hear something on the EP that really sees him cut loose. His range does not appear to be diminished in the slightest, I’d even say he sounds close to Ghost Opera era Kamelot here. Hopefully the time off did him good in that regard, to lay off the heavy touring and simply rest his vocal chords. There’s folks voicing concerns about the future of Tommy Karevik’s own golden pipes due to Kamelot’s touring schedule, but I think that’s a long way off, being that he’s almost a decade under Khan in age. There’s a morality tale here for career bands, to reconsider making a living from being on the road and go the semi-professional route like our guy Tuomas Saukkonen from Wolfheart. At the end of the day, its about an artistic legacy right?
More reviews from the dog days of summer, although the season is waning rapidly and good riddance I say, it was a pretty good time for metal releases. I was glad for the slow down that seemed to occur in August, it let me get around to listening to older albums and also to work on non-reviews features that I hope to have out soon for the fun of it. One of the older albums that I dug into listening to was Beast In Black’s 2017’s debut Berserker, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little miffed that no one sent me a message asking me why I hadn’t bothered reviewing one of the more outlandish, Euro-swagger filled power metal albums of that year. Its such a fun album, and their Greek vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos is a dynamo, one of the more promising talents in a burgeoning field of new, exciting singers coming up within power metal as a whole. I know that Beast In Black is an offshoot of Battle Beast, but their debut is yet another piece of ammo for my theory that power metal is enjoying a quiet renaissance as of the past two-three years. Anyway, here’s a handful of reviews to round out the summer months, and hopefully I’ll have some non-reviews stuff coming up ahead to give myself and you a break from the treadmill.
Powerwolf – The Sacrament of Sin:
There’s a few ways you can attempt to analyze a new Powerwolf album, and although I’ve only done that once before (for 2015’s Blessed and Possessed) I feel like the best way is to simply compare it to its immediate predecessor. This is because there is no lock on what is the band’s all time best album, even among their sizable fan base. In this Powerwolf share the same dilemma that Sabaton had over time, that the fan favorite songs were spread rather randomly across the entirety of their discography. In the well over half a dozen Sabaton shows I’ve seen, fans went just as nuts for “Ghost Division”, “40:1”, and “Cliffs of Galipoli” as they did for the encore “Primo Victoria”. Now in Sabaton’s case, there has been a recent consensus building/realization that their 2008 album The Art of War has risen in the esteem of the greater metal community at large as one of the best front to back power metal albums of the last decade, as well as one of the most impactful (something that I’d agree with even though I think Carolus Rex and Heroes are more interesting and rich albums). Its natural to compare both these bands, they started out in the same year with their debuts (2005) and have taken a similar career trek to headline status in the European festival scene with a poppy sensibility to their keyboard driven songwriting, a baritone-ish vocalist, and a distinct “shtick” to their image and subject matter. But where Sabaton have at times attempted to innovate, albeit slowly and subtly, Powerwolf might be on the verge of repeating themselves into a Manowar-ish corner.
I will say that I’ve enjoyed this particular album a great deal more than Blessed and Possessed, and though that wasn’t a difficult hurdle to clear, its encouraging to see the songwriting bounce back. The obvious single here is “Demons Are A Girl’s Best Friend”, and at least in its verses they try some new things here and there, but in the chorus its strikingly close to “We Are The Wild” off the last album, which itself was a watered down version of “Sacred and Wild” off 2013’s Preachers Of The Night. Its a strong song, though not exactly compelling stuff beyond the candy coated vocal hook, and honestly it was on the border for me with its lyrics, skirting the edge of good taste in keeping with the lycanthropic theme. If you’re going to commit to this concept, as you could honestly say they have been for years, then don’t muck it up by getting cute in your imagery (then again this is the band that once penned “Resurrection By Erection” so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised or annoyed). I actually enjoyed “Incense & Iron” more, with Attila’s commanding vocal during the verses going in an unexpectedly epic, Blind Guardian-ish place. The chorus may be standard swashbuckling power metal fare, but the Celtic sounds, the martial stomp and swing of the rhythmic approach combine to craft a stirring anthem. I also thought “Where The Wild Wolves Have Gone” was an interesting ballad from a band that isn’t really suited to attempting them, with its Orden Ogan channeling in style and even Attila’s vocals sounding similar to Sebastian Levermann’s.
I get why Powerwolf are so beloved over in Europe, but it shouldn’t be a mystery why so many of us stateside power metal fans are a little more detached from the band. Unlike Sabaton who’ve made it their mission to establish a fan base in the States through years and years of relentless touring here both as support and headliners, Powerwolf hasn’t even bothered with us (and according to Glenn Harveston, promoter of ProgPower, they won’t even entertain offers to come over). I get it, why go through the massive expense of even trying when you’re kings in your home turf and are scoring number one albums in Germany? It does however result in some distance in just how much I can find myself invested in the band, because while I personally find Sabaton very interesting as someone who enjoys history, even I can admit that their music is very pop-laden for metal. Powerwolf is just as pop, but the werewolf thing doesn’t do anything for me at all in terms of deepening my interest beyond a surface level of is this catchy or not? Without the benefit of seeing them live, I haven’t had the chance to form a personal connection with the band in lieu of being unable to forge any kind of connection to them as artists. I’ve never seen Therion either, but I love their music so deeply that it can override that absence. Powerwolf doesn’t have the kind of music that can really inspire that level of devotion, and sadly this absence of both the live experience and passion for their music will keep them a distant memory in the minds of most American fans.
Omnium Gatherum – The Burning Cold:
I think I’ve learned to be a little wary of album previews in general, whether its those atrocious 3 minute spliced together montages of every song on an album to “whet” fans appetites, or even just the actual lyric/music video released ahead of the album’s street date. This is because even if its a full song from the album, its not enough to get an impression about the album’s quality one way or another. Its often counterproductive actually, an easy way to overreact to enthusiasm or get dismissive because of a negative opinion on one song. Recently with the Immortal album, I somewhat duped myself into believing that Demonaz and company had simply gone back to their early era roots, which although partially true was nowhere near a complete rendering of what that album really was. It took almost a solid month of listening to it for me to suss out a far more nuanced take, and I suspect that had I simply never heard the pre-release single of “Northern Chaos Gods” ahead of the album in full, I might not have come to that premature, judgment clouding take. With Omnium Gatherum, I saw the music video for “Gods Go First” way back in early July, and for whatever reason came away feeling rather “meh” about what I heard. That honestly dampened my enthusiasm for this album and although I still managed to keep my curiosity piqued come release day just for sheer reviewing purposes, it was hard to shake the bad taste I still had. I get that not everyone will have this problem, but I might be making a decision to stay away from most of these kind of early previews in the near future (case in point is the new Wolfheart track, haven’t listened to it yet).
Fortunately in this case, my early negative impression wasn’t nearly strong enough to work against the very obvious excellence that is Omnium’s eighth album in The Burning Cold. This is a continuation of the crackling artistry heard on 2016’s Grey Heavens, an album that I credited with the band finally finding the right way to manage the density of their musical elements. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen started to time his vocal passages more effectively to complement the dual lead guitar melodies, to work around them and fill in gaps of sound rather than try to compete with them directly. Keyboardist Aapo Koivisto began to be a more foundational force within the structure of the songs, and as founding guitarist Markus Vanhala is usually the primary songwriter, its a credit to him in knowing that this strategy worked last time and to keep it going. A microcosm of this is heard on “Refining Fire”, where all of those elements come together to ensure that one of the more aggressive moments on the album is also its smartest songwriting wise. I particularly love the spacing around Pelkonen’s vocals during the chorus and the mid-song bridge where an awesome dual lead solo dances over Koivisto’s dreamy, lush soundscapes. Speaking of soundscapes, they’re just getting better and better, take a listen to the mid-song dip in “The Fearless Entity” for proof, with its own divergent melody and sense of melancholy and ache.
My previous disliking of “Gods Go First” has largely subsided, its a solid enough track, but it should have never been the single in the first place, that honor should’ve gone to “The Frontline”, as majestic a song Omnium Gatherum have ever written. Its up there with “The Unknowing” from Beyond and “New World Shadows” from well, New World Shadows. This is a gorgeous, thrilling song, built on a Gothenburg inspired sense of swinging melodic motifs ala Whoracle era In Flames, complete with a beautiful acoustic guitar framework keeping things rustic and enchanting underneath. The rhythm guitar attack here is measured and percussive even, aware of itself enough to keep out of the way of the lovely lead melodies, just smart, focused songwriting on display. The emotional outpouring occurs at the 3:22 mark, where Koivisto’s keyboards and the lead guitar join together to cry out a melody that’s simultaneously exulting and heartbreaking. This is why we listen to melodic death metal, because we want shimmering moments of major key goodness here to counterbalance the aggression and intensity —- they both work to make each other more potent. I’ll take stuff like this every day over non-stop blast beats and a never ending tremolo riff. I know I know, everything has its place, but straight up brutality has never produced a song that provokes the kind of emotional response that this song has. I didn’t think it was likely that Omnium would top Grey Heavens, but they’ve eclipsed it, and that’s something to cheer about.
Cauldron – New Gods:
I first caught onto Cauldron when their vocalist/bassist Jason Decay did a guest spot on BangerTV’s Lock Horns Power Metal episode. He wasn’t exactly the right guy for the gig, it should’ve gone to Martin Popoff (who later hosted the Essential Power Metal albums Lock Horns ep and delivered) but I figured anyone willing to stand up and talk about power metal on camera earned the few minutes in checking out his band. I became an immediate fan of their 2016 album In Ruin, a wild, semi lo-fi blast of old school, early 80’s hard rock meets early NWOBHM influenced metal. Sure they were one of the legion of bands that were doing deliberately retro sounding music, and that stuff could have a tendency to get a little too blatantly worshipful at times (Municipal Waste and the like), but like Sweden’s Enforcer and Chicago’s High Spirits, Cauldron found a way to express something vibrant and endearing (if not exactly new) in their music. There was an immaturity running through that album that was a boon, not a drawback, and through it a connection to the bands of that distant era they were pulling their influences from. I hate to get cliched, but this was metal that sounded great in a buddies garage from the stereo in the corner, while beers got drunk and bands and albums got argued over.
So when Cauldron leans into that aspect of their personality and sound on their newest, New Gods, I’m all in and enjoying every second of the trio’s still meat and potatoes sound. But this is also the band’s fifth album, and if its vague, amorphous artwork wasn’t a clue, the relatively scaled back accessibility factor is a signal that these guys are interested in maturing their approach a bit (actually if artwork is a guide, then they’ve been eyeing this path on their previous two albums as well, devoid of the Spinal Tap-ian ladies that adorned their first two). The most instantaneous stuff here is excellent, the best of the bunch being “Letting Go”, a slow burning juxtaposition of intense, biting mid-tempo riffage and Decay’s best vocal performance to date. His laid back tone has always reminded me of Chris Black but with a little more heft and roundness, and here he unleashes a memorable major key vocal hook, bright and full of energy. And then there’s “Together As None”, the most unorthodox song in Cauldron’s history to date, coming across as a slice of Dokken meets Def Leppard meets Weezer into some weird timeless pop-metal amalgam. I know its gotten its fair share of flack, but I love it and wish the band would extend further in this direction in the future (or in other strange, unexpected directions).
While those two songs were instantaneous and still hold up after countless listens, it took multiple efforts to crack into some of the other stuff here, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. I actively disliked “Save the Truth – Syracuse” at first, but came around to it over time, and perhaps its because its such a slow burner (I’m that guy who took forever to love “Holiday” by the Scorpions, it was too slow and repetitive for the longest time, but one day it just smacked me in the face). Its still just a solid, not great song however, with a refrain that is subtly pleasant and reminds me of 80’s hard rock’s penchant for taking itself deathly seriously (that’s a good thing here). I haven’t really made heads or tails of the lyrics here, but it all fits the tone and general vibe of the music, and that’s kind of what I want from Cauldron —- the title of the song suggests a possible storyline or backstory here, but I’m a little hesitant to commit that much mental energy to this band (its not implausible for the future, but c’mon, I’m not listening to Operation: Mindcrime here). Similarly, “Never Be Found” took its time growing on me, but I can’t understand why, its one of the best cuts on the album, a confident rocker with the tastiest (yes!) dual harmony guitar solo I’ve heard this band pull off. But its listless cuts like “Prisoner of the Past”, “Drown”, and the pointless instrumental “Isolation” that throw this album off balance and prevent it from being as fun as In Ruin. Its still a worthwhile listen with some awesome moments, but Cauldron took a step back here, and that’s concerning.
Beyond the Black – Heart of the Hurricane:
Beyond the Black is the brainchild of vocalist Jennifer Haben, who made her debut (to most of us not in Germany) on Kamelot’s newest album in April on “In Twilight Hours”, a song I deemed the best on the album and a contender for the Song of the Year list. Her vocals on that track in a spiraling duet with Tommy Karevik played a big role in its success, particularly during its dramatic peak towards the end where she delivered an impressive display of range and emotive resonance. It was enough to make me pay attention to news regarding her own band to give them a fair shot, and its interesting enough to point out that Beyond the Black is kind of a growing big deal in Germany already, their previous albums charting quite high there (both this new album and its predecessor were top five on the national chart). They are a German born band with German band members, and its also worth noting that barring Haben the lineup is entirely new for Heart of the Hurricane. I’m not exactly up to date on why the entire band parted ways with Haben after their 2016 album Lost In Forever, but its impressive that Haben was able to cobble together a new lineup in such a short amount of time in the interim. Just as impressive is that this is genuinely a really excellent slice of symphonic pop-metal in the vein of Within Temptation and to a certain extent, the sugary sweetness of Amaranthe sans the electro-beat influences. Let that be your warning, if you enjoy most things about those two bands, feel free to proceed —- everyone else, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The ironic thing is that I’m writing this right as Within Temptation have released their new single with Jacoby Shaddix (yeah that guy) “The Reckoning”, and its as dicey as you’d expect, a transparent attempt at edginess for edginess sake. The band’s roots were in symphonic metal (gothic metal at first for you nitpickers), but as Therion’s own Christofer Johnson has pointed out in recent interviews, there is nothing so unfashionable these days as symphonic metal. With the genre’s bigger names and veterans having moved away from the sound, its left a vacuum for its fans wanting someone to deliver the kind of stuff that they loved on albums like Century Child and The Silent Force. I’d be willing to bet that they’d really love the bulk of the fifteen (!) tracks on Heart of the Hurricane, because Haben and company make no attempt to deviate from the symphonic metal playbook, even excelling at moments due to their dedication to its tropes and cliches. Take album highlight “Song For the Godless”, with its unabashed Eluvietie invoking Celtic/folky motifs, or “Fairytale of Doom” with its almost children’s sing-songy melody that Haben unexpectedly sings right along to. When you’d expect things to get too clever by half and do something different in order to not sound overly cheerful or happy… nope, its full steam straight ahead without a second thought. Call it refreshingly oblivious.
Its also worth pointing out that Haben is the perfect vocalist to serve as the vehicle for this stylistic approach, her vocals reminiscent enough of Sharon Den Adel’s nationality neutral delivery to soak up pop hooks and dish out radio-rock appeal. Even the beauty and the beast tropes seem to work just on the pure strength of the songwriting and her skill at delivering compelling melodies, as on “My God Is Dead” where the vocals of I’m assuming the guitarist Chris Hermsdörfer work as a foil, Haben manages to keep us entranced enough to avoid thinking about just how close to hammy his presence made things for a second. So with all this genuine praise about what I’m listening to as the carrot, here’s the sharp, pointy stick: This is not a genuine band in the traditional sense, and is almost certainly a studio project in practice if not in conception as well. I had wondered just how it was possible for Haben to lose her entire band and somehow get a new lineup together within a year and collectively work on new material in such a short time span —- was she the songwriter and just dictated to everyone else? Certainly possible. But no such luck, as a little digging has unearthed a trio of German producers as the songwriters at work here (with Miro Rodenberg working on the album as mastering engineer to boot). I’m not against this in principle, Frontiers Records has developed a cottage industry around these types of releases, but the “band” has certainly loses a little appeal to me as a result. Even Amaranthe is writing their own stuff, for better or worse. Make of this knowledge what you will symphonic metal fans.