Over ten years ago now, when I first started this blog, I had a boatload of ideas that I wanted to eventually get to after I had accumulated a decent amount of articles on the site, and found my writing voice so to speak. One of those ideas was to talk about my ults (to borrow a K-Pop term) — you know, my favorite records in this genre, that genre, of all time, you get the point. So to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this site, I’m finally (finally!) launching this in the form of The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten. The idea is simple. I’m presenting my picks for the ten essential albums that I feel best exemplify everything that I love about a certain subgenre. In other words, its by no means an attempt at an objective-ish list, but more a personal reflection of my own experience as a fan of this music. Of course we’re starting with power metal, because over the years I’ve written about my love for it likely more than anything else on this blog, and whittling what I love about this subgenre down to ten albums was not easy. But I like the number ten for lists, its easy to focus on for a reader, and for myself it forces me to make hard cuts and think about what I really have to include. These ten picks are sorted in alphabetical order by artist… hey look it was hard enough getting my list down to ten, don’t make me rank them. The prospect of finally getting around to this has been surprisingly rejuvenating, and a great excuse to go back and listen to albums that I haven’t heard in awhile but have meant a lot to me since I first did.
Avantasia – The Metal Opera:
I think the first thing that someone might think when doing a quick scroll down through this list is “Where’s Helloween?”. Fair question. But I only have ten spots, and if I’m being honest with myself, as far as my personal experience with power metal goes, Helloween and Gamma Ray took a backseat to my rabid fanaticism for all things Tobias Sammet, particularly during that late 90s/early 00’s era. Released smack in the midst of the golden age of power metal™ (97-03 to be precise) in July 2001, the first Avantasia album was a monumental event in the power metal world. I had heard the single almost a year before in 2000 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown (a Cleveland area college radio show hosted by Dr. Metal whose show introduced me to a ton of power metal) when Tobias himself called in for an interview. He talked about the guest vocalists, people from bands that I was largely unfamiliar with, but he did winkingly confirm one significant guest he called “Ernie”, who Dr. Metal later clarified as Michael Kiske. My personal hype leading up to this album was massive, I made it a mission to grab as many albums as I could from the guest vocalist’s respective bands, in the process becoming fans of Angra, Stratovarius, Virgin Steele, Impellitteri, At Vance, and Within Temptation. That was a process that carried over into The Metal Opera Pt. II released a year later, but it was the debut that lit the match on what was already a flammable pyre of growing obsession over all things European power metal.
While the sequel was fantastic in its own right, the debut had the kind of crackling magic that all these years later refuses to diminish. From the melancholic majesty of “Farewell” to the glory-fist inspiring “Sign Of The Cross” to the now iconic “Reach Out For The Light” with Kiske’s glorious voice. What Tobias did on The Metal Opera was essentially build on what Kiske and Helloween had pioneered on the Keeper albums, only made bigger and wilder, with a cast of strikingly different vocalists that gave this straight ahead epic power metal a grandeur that made it sound larger than life. In writing this, I’ve realized that no amount of words can give voice to just how massive an impact this record was for me, it nearly rivaled having discovered Blind Guardian. For sure Keeper I/II belong on the list of the most influential and/or greatest power metal albums of all time, I totally agree with that both as a metal fan and a self appointed historian. But for as much as I love those records now, at the time I viewed them as heavy metal records ala Maiden… power metal really wasn’t a widespread term until 97 or so, and I always associated it with newer bands coming out of Europe. An artist like Tobias who wore his influences on his sleeves made it apparent just how far into the future Helloween’s influence has reached. But Avantasia’s The Metal Opera was a special moment in time for me, and I can’t look back on power metal history without it being a blinding beacon shining back at me.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall In Middle Earth:
The never ending debate among not only Blind Guardian fans, but power metal fans in general is Imaginations or Nightfall? Because though Blind Guardian does have other great records, those two albums in particular have come to define the what is quintessentially great about the band. I’ve always felt that there is no wrong answer between the two, because there have been moments where I’ve considered Imaginations and thought that note for note it could be a stronger listening experience. But the reason why I’m placing Nightfall on this list over it is because of just how much it intersects at two of my major interests, namely Tolkien and epic power metal. This isn’t breaking news to anyone by now, but I’m sure that was the reason a lot of people got into Blind Guardian. But back in the day when I discovered the band shortly after Nightfall’s release, it was a major revelation to younger me, a shocking intersection that seemed only hinted at with stuff like Metallica’s nods to Lovecraft and Maiden with… all their various literary references. With Nightfall, Blind Guardian created a soundtrack to Middle Earth that I never knew could possibly exist, painting rich, theatrical aural drama for important vignettes from The Silmarillion. At the time concept albums were still a relative rarity, but the bards didn’t try to shoehorn in an entire plot into their songs. They used the existing literature as a diving board from which to write from specific character perspectives, tackle particular moments from complex scenes and flesh them out with narration, context, and internal monologues. The intricacy of the musical arrangements mirrored the pulse of the narrative — militant grandeur on “Time Stands Still”, anguish and loss on “Nightfall”, forlorn melancholy on “The Eldar”. Particularly impressive for source material that read more like a biblical history rather than a typical fantasy adventure, Nightfall’s songs were intensely emotional, full of haunting imagery in its lyrics and utterly convincing passion from Hansi Kursch’s vocals.
On a side note, this album got me to finally tackle The Silmarillion, which I had previously disregarded as too difficult to read. All these years later, and it’s one of my most read books (if not the most read), with me doing yearly readings right around this time of year for quite a few years in a row. I love everything about it now, as a flawed but still rather perfect piece of literature, and it took Nightfall to get me to appreciate that. I also still consider the album to be one of the finest storytelling moments in power metal, nearly equaled only by Kamelot’s Epica, together both albums illuminating a dearth of competition that is oftentimes disappointing to consider. It has also, after what has to be in the thousands of listens after all these years, still retained the same vibrancy and freshness that it did when I first heard it. Honestly I can’t even say that about a few old classic Maiden albums, and they’re my favorite band. Andre Olbrich’s leads in “Mirror Mirror” still get my adrenaline pumping even if I’m sitting in my desk chair, Hansi’s screamed “Fear my curse!” on “Noldor” still raises the hair on my arms, and the chorus of “Into The Storm” is still the most spirited, spitting defiance singalong moment, even if I’m by myself in the car. So again, you might think Imaginations deserves to be here, and I couldn’t fault you for it, but Nightfall is iconic to me, that cover art, the depth of what the band accomplished here — it’s a power metal essential, even if you tend to skip the interludes.
Edguy – Mandrake:
It’s a testament to Tobias Sammet’s impact on my power metal fandom that he’s landed on this essentials list twice, and you could say 2001 was a great year for him on an artistic level. Just over two months after he dropped The Metal Opera, Tobias delivered Edguy’s fifth and finest album in Mandrake, the point where the band’s sound was still cut from the classic Helloween inspired power metal cloth of 1999’s Theater Of Salvation, but tempered with an arena ready production complete with fuller, deeper guitar tones and a thicker bottom end. These sonic adjustments were paired with his most going for the jugular approach to songwriting yet, delivering bangers like “Golden Dawn” and the bruisingly heavy “Nailed To The Wheel”. An epic opener like “Tears Of A Mandrake” and the ultra-catchy “All The Clowns” blossomed into iconic power metal classics. Even an adventurous set piece like “The Pharaoh” saw Tobias growing into a confident, accomplished craftsman, capable of holding our attention for ten minute chunks, layering compelling sequences one after another, foreshadowing some of the great epics he’d deliver throughout his career afterwards. He also brought Edguy right up to the edge of a more AOR steeped approach, with “Painting On The Wall” being a seminal moment in their career — still power metal in spirit but dressed up in Magnum and Europe outerwear. And on an album so leaden with somber toned material (despite the major key choruses, this was a much darker album than Theater was or even The Hellfire Club after it) Tobias snuck in a satisfying bit of Helloween inspired cheek in “Save Us Now”, the type of thing that in lesser hands would stick out terribly. Even the ballad here, long a bane of many a power metal fan, “Wash Away The Poison” saw him still writing with that traditional power metal frame of mind, preferring lyrics about self-realization and discovery over the romantic overtures that would come later.
In summation, Mandrake was the first fully realized culmination of Tobias Sammet as one of the genre’s foremost songwriters. In a career full of great songs before and after, it was track for track his strongest overall effort, and it was also in so many ways the swansong of his power metal era too. The hard rock influences came to the forefront one album later and never really left, even in latter day Avantasia where classic power metal only rears it’s head in fits and spurts. I know for my part, that’s a big reason why I tend to view 2003 as a closing of the classic power metal era, because when you have one of the heavy hitters in a songwriting sense drifting away from that classic style, it’s a signal that something has ended, or at the very least, changed irreparably. Recently on albums like Ghostlights and Moonglow, Sammet has shown glimpses and flashes of the return of some classic power metal trappings of the Mandrake era, but hardly anything full on or overtly Helloween attuned like Mandrake was. Of course that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inferior, I think we’ve all grown accustomed to the change that’s occurred to Tobias’ songwriting approach over the years. It’s entirely possible that he felt Mandrake was as far as he could go in the classic power metal mode and still write compelling music. I think it’s also why I regard this album with a tinge of sadness, because despite it’s magic, it was the end of something special instead of the beginning.
Dragonforce – Sonic Firestorm:
Many if asked which was the most impactful Dragonforce album to date would cite either the band’s debut Valley Of The Damned or the truckload selling Inhuman Rampage with it’s improbable Billboard Hot 100 hit “Through The Fire And The Flames”. I hate dating myself here, but I very much remember listening to the band when they were known as Dragonheart with their demo on the ancient version of mp3.com. It created a stir not only for the awesome songs and dizzying guitarwork, but for the ease of which word of mouth spread thanks to it’s digital format. It was really the first time I remember seeing a band blow up thanks to their music being online, and they parlayed that into an actual record deal and released a debut that was pretty strong. The thing we forget about that album though is that the band hadn’t yet introduced the sonic elements that would rock the world three years later on Inhuman Rampage and er… Guitar Hero. Those elements would be introduced on their sophomore album, the utterly inspired, damn near perfect yet tragically overlooked Sonic Firestorm. Hypersonic riffing, wildly complex extended guitar solo passages, and aggressive black metal-esque blast beats spearheading an absolute battery of percussion courtesy of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh. Where Valley was sonically hampered by a slightly muddy production, Sonic Firestorm sounded crisp and clean, a textural facet of the recording that helped its various elements have a visceral impact. Upon release the band was describing this album as “extreme power metal”, and despite that being a bit of cheeky marketing, it was also kinda true, Sonic Firestorm saw them pushing the boundaries of what power metal was expected to sound like.
Of course, the songs were what really mattered, and Sam Totman delivered some of his most inspired songwriting ever with key assists from fellow guitarist Herman Li and keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov. They burst out the gates with “My Spirit Will Go On”, one of the greatest opening cannon shots in power metal history, a song that perfectly married epic ambition and length to an unforgettable hook and iconic lead guitar melody. It’s the first in a salvo of absolute bangers, followed by the aptly named “Fury Of The Storm”, one of vocalist ZP Theart’s best individual moments — he had a knack of sounding indefatigable even on lengthy vocal sequences at higher registers. My personal favorite might still be “Fields Of Despair” however, where the melancholic undertones of the key change during the chorus give the song an emotional weight that lives up to the song title. People were captivated by the band’s razzle dazzle (rightfully so), but I often found that their songwriting had moments of poignancy and complexity, tempered of course by the fact that the lyrics were essentially syllabically oriented vocal filler (not a criticism mind you, think of it as grim vocals are to black metal — texture!) This was seven breathtakingly paced tracks with the right mix of aggression and melodic nuance with satisfyingly hooky riffs and melodies, and one pretty piano based ballad that sounded divine on afternoon drives with the sun setting through your windshield. Dragonforce would make strong records long after this, deliver some incredible tunes here and there, but they never sounded as hyper focused as they did here.
Falconer – Falconer:
Rising from the ashes of folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, Sweden’s Falconer released their self-titled debut in 2001 just as folk-metal had found its footing, and smack in the midst of the golden era of power metal™, and their rootsy, gritty, often medieval music inspired sound fused the two subgenres together to create something new. One could argue that they were building on the foundations created by England’s Skyclad, but there was a distinct Scandinavian-esque quality to Stefen Weinerhall’s songwriting, both in Mithotyn and in Falconer. His focus was on incredibly rich melodies as a counterpoint to a startling dose of heavy riffage and aggressive, at times extreme metal inspired percussion. The melodies found their way through fluid lead patterns and glorious soloing of course, but also through the unorthodox vocalist the band had stumbled onto in Mathias Blad. He had no metal nor rock background, being a stage actor by trade in Sweden who had spent time studying in England, and his approach on record reinforced that. Blad certainly sang for Falconer with passion, but he didn’t project his voice in the way a metal singer would, with an increase of power or volume — his voice was naturally delivered, without exaggeration or projecting a “metal” attitude, as if he was simply on a theater stage somewhere. On Falconer, he was a revelation, carrying the narrative weight of Stefan’s lyrics and songwriting through sheer talent alone, his baritone deep and sonorous, and his phrasing crystal clear and fluid. I remember the exact moment I heard him for the first time on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown, stunned that a singer fronting a power metal band could sound so different from what was expected, yet fit so perfectly within the context of the band’s music.
The compositions on this album were magical, the kind of stuff that seemed to seep in from another world far removed from our mundane reality. To this day I can’t tell you what exactly Mathias is singing about in “Mindtraveller”, but I damn well feel that song in my gut, it’s been an all-time classic for me (and many others I’m sure), and among friends of mine, the term mindtraveller has become both an adjective and a noun. The looser, more brightly uptempo songs were loaded with ear candy; the layered “woooaaahhs” in “Royal Galley”; that fat bass line laid down by Weinerhall that anchors “Lord Of The Blacksmiths” into an unexpected but awesomely funky groove (only surpassed by the rings of a hammer striking hot iron!); and the subtle backing vocals by Ulrika Olausson on the ethereally beautiful “Wings Of Serenity” drip melancholy all over the song’s bridge sequence. I was always deeply impressed with just how vicious and batteringly heavy Falconer could sound. The sheer assault that occurs upon the opening instrumental bars of “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” could pass for the intro to a blackened folk metal tune before Mathias’ sweeps in. They’d surpass that level of heaviness on later songs such as “Pale Light Of A Silver Moon” off Among Beggars And Thieves, and entire albums like Armod, but they didn’t have to work their way up there or slowly introduce these elements to their sound over time. Album one, song one, and we were shown that Falconer would make a career of being beautifully mystical, often elegantly pretty, and also downright mean and punishing. The band would deliver other incredible records… one could make a case for Chapters From A Vale Forlorn being on this list, but the debut was so unexpected and made such a deep impression on me. They released their swansong last year, a capstone on a magnificent career, and went their separate ways — sadly still underrated and overlooked.
Hammerfall – Glory To The Brave:
Of course this was going to be here, not only for the obvious reasons that it was the album that kickstarted power metal as a recognized genre in earnest back in 1997 (remember friends, power metal as a term wasn’t really utilized as we know it today back when the Keeper records were released), but also for the simple reason that this album flat out rocks. Unlike Dragonforce six years later, who’d merge power metal’s Helloween engineered template with elements of speed and extreme metal, Hammerfall’s birth was a firmly resolute nod to the traditional heavy metal of the past, albeit trading in the screaming, rougher vocals of legends like Halford and Dickinson for the cleaner tone and delivery of Joacim Cans. It’s success across continental Europe opened doors for so many other bands to get signed and recognized, but unto itself, Glory To The Brave was a bracing, spectacular celebration of everything that made heavy metal great. I’ve always felt strongly that one of the keys to what made Hammerfall’s first two albums incredible was the relatively hidden influence of one Jesper Stromblad, who contributes here as a songwriter. He was at the peak of his riff writing powers during this era, having knocked out In Flames’ The Jester Race a year before, Whoracle in this same year, and Colony two years later. His influence is heard in the sheer melodeath-ian density of the riffs heard across this album, despite him not playing on the album. Guitarist Oskar Dronjak had been bandmates with Stromblad in Ceremonial Oath, and you get the feeling that both of their extreme metal roots crept into the approach towards Hammerfall — in the writing process those riffs were molded to be compact and intense, and it showed through in Dronjak’s and then In Flames guitarist Glenn Ljungström’s performances on the album. They’d shake this melodeath influence three years later on Renegade, shifting to a more permanent Priest/Helloween mix, and thus would never recapture the magic found on Glory To The Brave or its sequel Legacy Of Kings.
Then there’s just the full on triumph and glory claw inducing splendor of these songs; “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” is built on one of the most insistent and urgent power metal riffs of all time, with Cans delivering an emphatic and powerful vocal performance; and the album is bookended by its polar opposite, the beautiful power ballad title track with its echoing leads, and confidently articulate acoustic guitars reminiscent of the Scorpions’ finest ballads. It’s a toss up as to whether “Hammerfall” or “Stone Cold” is the most rockin’ cut here, the latter built on a Priest-ian attack and possessing an understated menace in it’s steady march whereas the former is a Helloween inspired banger that shows off the band’s melodicism in sharply vibrant ways. I loved the band’s audaciousness too, the pride of being a metal band playing metal tunes that was exemplified in “The Metal Age”, whose admittedly silly lyrics were still the kind of Manowar-ism that I felt an affinity towards. Even a song ostensibly about the Crusades such as “Steel Meets Steel” could be parlayed into a metal anthem, and there was something comforting about being a fan of such deeply uncool music yet hearing the band themselves proclaim it’s power as something righteous and worthy to be proud of. Such sentiments seem gauche in 2021, but they kinda mattered in the late 90s/early 00s. That kind of fervent belief made a dreamy ballad like “I Believe” ache with a resonance that lesser bands couldn’t manage. The capper on this excellent album was the inclusion of their awesome Warlord cover in “Child Of The Damned”, a direct line to one of the subgenre’s USPM grandfathers from the early 80s. It was an unapologetic nod to the past that was only fitting for an album that revived not only a sound, but a feeling.
Kamelot – Epica:
A landmark in power metal for its elevation of storytelling, lyrical diction, and songwriting, Kamelot’s Epica was part one of a two album long exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the tragic German play. Vocalist Roy Khan and founding guitarist Thomas Youngblood created their own storyline and characters closely resembling those in the original, and with wiggle room for artistic liberties. There are a lot of fans who will argue in favor of The Black Halo being more deserving of praise in a head to head comparison, and while I do love that album and it’s overall darker atmosphere, Epica has always sounded sharper to me from a songwriting perspective. By this point in Khan’s tenure with the band, he had already meshed with Youngblood as a major songwriting contributor and had put his stamp on two bonafide power metal classics in The Fourth Legacy and Karma. While his lyric writing and vocal performances on those albums were turning heads and keeping his name at the forefront of many power metal fans minds, Epica was his and the band’s most astonishing masterwork. Getting to inhabit a character for an entire album, Khan’s imagination ran wild and he managed to pen most of the lyrics and narrative storyboarding before the music was composed. This meant the songs took on even more of a vocal melody driven direction than before, the music often reactive to Khan’s phrasing and tempo choices, such as on the slow build of “The Edge Of Paradise” where Youngblood’s guitar is solely responsive to Khan’s vocal line. Song structures were often inventive out of narrative necessity, something that Khan made work due to crafting impeccable vocal melodies to keep one’s attention fixed while the Miro engineered symphonic elements (the “Rodenburg Symphony Orchestra”!), Gregorian chants, choir vocals, and guest lead vocals fluttered around or darted in and out. Just like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall, Khan and Youngblood had the benefit of having the source material available in literary form as a reference for both themselves and listeners, and as a result the songwriting was freed of the burden of exposition.
On the brilliant “Lost & Damned”, an accordion sways in a Parisian tango during the verses in a sad, sympathetic melody as Khan’s character says goodbye to the love of his life, a surprising choice that works so well it’s one of the album’s finest moments. The ballads were also magnificently constructed, “Wander” sounding warmly like the flower-scented, dewy air its lyrics spoke of, all romance and mystery; while “On The Coldest Winter Night” sounds like snowfall and warm fires, befitting the emotional scene that’s occurring between the two characters Ariel and Helena. I’ve written about Khan’s poetic lyrical diction at length, but its worth reiterating here that his way with words is one of the reasons this album is on this list. Khan was able to inhabit his characters’ inner monologues, craft elegant dialogue and paint his scenes with richly evocative imagery that brought this storyline to life and made you care about the characters. There was a visceral quality to a line such as “meet me by the wishing well / in cover of the moon”, a lyric that paints a scene as clearly as a sentence in a fantasy novel. But it wasn’t all extravagant instrumentation and romantic balladry, Kamelot brought thrilling majesty to the fore in the straight-ahead power metal of “Farewell”, where Khan married melancholy to gritty determination and crafted a chorus made of steel. And “Center Of The Universe” was peak classic era Kamelot at it’s finest, a dynamic masterpiece with alternating tempos and an ascending buildup that exploded in a euphoric, skyward reaching refrain, cut through with a mid-song bridge with Mari Youngblood on vocals that elevated everything to high drama. Khan would of course leave Kamelot a few albums later, and the band would never be the same, but they had a run there with four classic albums in a row with him at the helm and this was undoubtedly the apex.
Power Quest – Neverworld:
What do we love about power metal? There has to be more to it than the surface level stuff like catchy tunes, epic melodies, soaring vocals and bursting guitar solos. Underneath all of that wizardry is an emotional pulse behind a lot of this music, at least it’s always been that way for me. At it’s best, it can be mental armor to help you deal with the shrapnel that life sometimes explodes at you, as I found out first hand in 2020 when the pandemic hit and everything changed and I found myself cobbling together the massive anti-anxiety power metal playlist on Spotify that kinda saved me all those weeks when I was worried about anything and everything. Power Quest has always been one of those bands who I’ve turned to for comfort listening whenever I needed a bit of spirit lifting, and truth is that I could make a personal case for their incredible Master Of Illusion album to grace this list as well. But those in the know understand that the band’s absolutely undeniable masterpiece is 2004’s Neverworld. It’s cohesive sound is perhaps the finest encapsulation of the genre’s ability to radiate warmth and indefatigable optimism, not only as an act of defiance, but as an affirmation of life itself. There are loads of power metal bands that write lyrics that aim to express something in that vein, but few that manage to sound convincingly bright, ethereal, and determined as Steve Williams and company did here. Power metal artists that play with this kind of palette, like PQ’s contemporaries in Freedom Call, tend to get criticized for the lightness of their approach, but I’ve always thought of it as extremity in reverse, pushing the sound of metal in the opposite direction of say black metal while still retaining undeniably metallic sonic elements. Much of that comes from Steve’s heavy keyboard synths, sweet and syrupy and clearly inspired by the classic early 80s tones heard on Van Halen’s 1984 and classic AOR bands of that era. He steeped that influence into the classic power metal mold ala Helloween and found the voice that seemed to just barely elude him on their debut.
I remember listening to this album as I commuted to university, getting up at 6am just to take the long route across the city to dodge traffic, sitting in my car in the empty parking lot while listening to “Temple Of Fire” to wake up and motivate myself to face being there all day until long after dark. I’d take long de-stressing drives after work while blasting the album start to finish, marveling at how it seemed made of all razor sharp edges and some of the most glorious power metal guitar ever courtesy of the ever underrated Andrea Martongelli. And vocalist Alessio Garavello, then just a new found wunderkind from Italy, delivered one of the most fired up, intensely acrobatic vocal performances heard on any power metal album ever, full of personality and as I’ve always described it, perfectly imperfect approaches to cadence and delivery. Beyond the performances however, at it’s core it was the songwriting that made Neverworld special. A song such as “When I’m Gone” was painted with wistful sunset sky melancholia, and it’s gentle, innocent melody legitimately made you ache. The uplifting chorus outro sequences in “Into The Light” were seemingly powered by sunlight, and the stormy, dramatic buildups in the epic “Lost Without You” were made buoyant by layers of brilliant harmony vocals. And my favorite cut, “Edge Of Time”, one of the most perfect power metal songs ever written, with it’s iconic opening keyboard intro and rockin’ Scorpions-esque riff, and as gloriously powerful a chorus as can be imagined. Steve wrote songs on this album that were dewy eyed and hopeful, at once preciously fragile and unyieldingly strong, and full of an almost spiritual, life affirming breath that you’d gulp in like your life depended on it.
Sonata Arctica – Silence:
There’s an argument to be made that it’s a coin flip between this or Glory To The Brave as the greatest power metal debut album of all time, as both are astonishing classics in their own right on a musical level. But I’ll give the edge to Sonata Arctica, because what they managed on Silence went beyond Hammerfall’s spirited resurrection of traditional heavy metal, with the Finns pushing the genre into an emotional territory not yet explored by any power metal band. They took the sonic template created by their fellow countrymen and power metal pioneers in Stratovarius, and through it further explored the inward facing lyrics that Helloween only scratched the surface of. Vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko favored storytelling through vignettes, often ones that were tragically romantic or explored even darker emotions like isolation or loneliness. Fantasy themes could be interwoven in his songs or discarded entirely for a more realistic setting, Kakko seemed unmoored from power metal’s tropes, often penning lyrics that used unorthodox diction for the genre. I suspect it was no coincidence that he and Tuomas Holopainen were friends and were encouraging each other in their musical pursuits, particularly around this era, and that we’d hear a similar lyrical shift in Nightwish’s music away from fantasy themes to deeply personal topics. In retrospect, given what we now know about the introspective music of Finnish mainstays like Amorphis and Insomnium, it seems obvious to say that it must be a “Finnish thing”. Yet at the time, Stratovarius and Hanoi Rocks was really the only thing the world knew about metal from Finland, and I remember being unable to pinpoint and articulate why Silence and it’s follow-up Ecliptica felt so different from anything else out there (in fact, I think it took discovering Sentenced shortly afterwards for me to begin to realize what made the Finns tick). Power metal had developed as music that was bombastic, defiant, and at times uncomfortably macho, and here was a band who turned that attitude on it’s head — introducing vulnerability, sensitivity, and uncertainty while marrying it to a sound that still soared despite it all.
I think we also now realize in retrospect that guitarist Jani Liimatainen was the perfect foil to Tony’s unorthodox approach to power metal songwriting, particularly in light of his work in Cain’s Offering and more recently Dark Element. His razor sharp riffs and classically inclined melodic sensibilities were the guide rails that kept these songs firmly planted in Timo Tolkki inspired power metal territory. We’ve heard where Tony has taken the band’s sound in a post-Liimatainen era, and while modern day Sonata Arctica still attempts to maintain links to it’s power metal heritage, it’s clear they’ve drifted away from it as a whole. But here on Ecliptica, these roots were strong, and on classics like the face melting “Blank File” and “UnOpened”, Jani’s driving attack kept Tony (who was handling keyboards back then, remember?!) in a more Jens Johansson-esque role as a keyboardist, sticking to tried and true Malmsteen derived classical guitar/keyboard duo formulas. On more mid-tempo paced cuts such as “My Land”, keyboards were creatively used as a rhythmic device with Jani’s guitar coming in as a counterpoint, creating an effect that conjured up wild, barely restrained passion. The most emotional moments on the album however were found in the far more introspective songs; the aching, forlorn “Replica” where Tony spoke about an “empty shell inside of me”; or the uptempo “Kingdom For A Heart” with possibly the most dramatic reaction to heartbreak ever realized in song lyrics. On the bonus version we were treated to one of the band’s finest songs, “Mary-Lou”, an achingly beautiful sad song made sadder on the acoustic version that was released on the Orientation EP a year later. The gem of all gems here is of course “Full Moon”, one of the greatest power metal songs ever written, no explanation needed. I’ll never forget seeing the band live a few years back, when a pair of arms crossed tattooed guys who had been watching the show stoically all night finally broke out in a euphoric sing-along to this song during the encore. You couldn’t write a better endorsement.
Tad Morose – Modus Vivendi:
Often overlooked and sometimes forgotten, Tad Morose’s Modus Vivendi deserves to be regarded as one of the genre’s masterworks. Eschewing shimmering melodies for crushing Nevermore-ian heaviness, Modus Vivendi worked not only for the straight ahead chugging dual guitar attack of Christer Andersson and Daniel Olsson, but for the majestic, towering vocal performance of Urban Breed. He had been with the band for a handful of albums before this one, but this was where he really demonstrated why he should be in any conversation for greatest power metal vocalists. His role as the narrator of a daunting conversation about death on “Afraid To Die” was not only a stunning display of his mastery as a lyricist, but also for his dramatic vocal choices — where to add emphasis, how to phrase each line, the way he’d bend specific words and in doing so give them extra power. His staggering performance on “No Mercy” made it an all-time classic, his vocal on the chorus coming at you like Mike Tyson’s right uppercut, pure intensity and heavy metal fury. His no holds barred approach to the vocals was how it had to be. How else to go blow for blow with the muscled up heavy metal attack loaded into every riff and in the pounding aggression of the rhythm section. Andersson and company were certainly creating power metal, these were richly melodic songs with mostly soaring hooks, but they tempered them with elements of doom metal to darken the overall tone and slow down the pacing. And the band’s penchant for progressive metal was infused throughout their approach to displaying their more technical leaning tendencies in fits and bursts, still allowing the trad metal approach to steer the songwriting around any self-indulgent potholes.
There was also songwriting depth involved here. Nothing revolutionary, but just a sustained implementation of sheer creativity in how these songs were constructed. Take the Egyptian motifs that run throughout “When The Spirit Rules World”, how they seem to be leading the song in a certain direction only for the band to abruptly switch gears for the starkly Queensryche-ian refrain. And then there’s the lumbering thick boy in “Cyberdome”, built on as menacing a groove based riff as you’ll hear in power metal, where the band willingly halts its strut by coming to a near standstill on the utterly spartan pre-chorus. It’s so rare to hear a band execute risky ideas like these and somehow make them seem as part of the masterplan all along. Even on relatively straightforward cuts like “Anubis” and “Take On The World”, the band doesn’t take the easy route, loading its verses with shifting, alternating riff sequences and aggression levels, the rhythm section working overtime to keep you guessing. This album was Urban’s swan song with the band, he’d move onto Bloodbound for a spell and do really great work with them. For the band, it took them a decade to recover and come back with new music, and despite having a fairly good singer in Ronny Hemlin onboard, they haven’t come close to the greatness they stumbled onto here. There’s nothing flashy about Modus Vivendi, but that’s its centralized strength — its perfectly crafted from start to finish, one of the most viscerally satisfying power metal albums you could imagine.