The Spring 2018 Reviews Cluster

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

 


 

 

Judicator – The Last Emperor:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Light The Torch – Revival:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Nightwish – Decades:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

Make It Easier To Be A Fan: A Rant

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 


 

 

Lione / Conti – Lione / Conti:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Angra – ØMNI:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Tengger Cavalry – Cian Bi:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Visions of Atlantis – The Deep & The Dark:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

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

 

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

 

Stuff I Missed From Other People’s Lists

Before we plunge directly headlong into discussing 2018 music, I’ve been having a blast listening to all the recommendations from other year end 2017 lists from writers/sites I’ve respected over the years. Some of the albums on these lists have just bounced right off me, but many have piqued my interest, so below are a couple things I’ve stumbled upon late that maybe you hadn’t heard yet either. Its my blog companion piece to the two MSRcasts we’ve recently recorded focusing on a slew of releases we missed. On the horizon are reviews for albums I’m already listening to in addition to these latecomers from last year, namely the new Watain, Summoning, and the upcoming Orphaned Land album. If the jam packed release schedule for this first quarter means anything, its hopefully going to be a good year!

 


 

 

Serenity In Murder – Eclipse:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud2bgZstWws&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Its rare that bands from Japan ever light up my radar, let alone ones that dish out such satisfying melo-death as the oddly named Serenity In Murder on their third album Eclipse. Most J-Metal in my experience has been either in the Loudness inspired vein (largely a thing of the past these days), or stuff that’s musically influenced by X Japan and the ongoing neo-visual kei style. While I have enjoyed quite a bit of that stuff to a certain extent (Versailles’ wild, sometimes clunky take on symphonic power metal being the latest that I can remember), particularly for the musicality that Japanese rock and metal bands seem to innately possess, the vocal styles have always been my ultimate stumbling block. Maybe I just haven’t heard the right band yet, but most Japanese singers to my ears sound better when singing in Japanese, but are glaringly off-key and oddly phrased when trying English. A friend recently pointed out that this might be a byproduct of the shape of the Japanese language in pronunciation in comparison to English —- something only a linguist could perhaps really explain.

 

Serenity In Murder get around this with the expertly scream-growled melodeath vocals of Emi Akatsu, her approach having the fierceness of Angela Gossow and the obsidian shades of Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. Despite her fairly crisp enunciating, this is a heavily layered and dense listen, brick walled too (try to avoid cranking it at max), Akatsu’s English vocals are more of a texture here, which suits the music rather well I think. Whats really fun about Serenity In Murder is the sheer unrelenting attack of everything —- they’re going full throttle on speed, aggression and melody. And wow the melody, its here in wild, majestic, colorful splashes that coat damn near everything with a power metal playfulness. They remind me a lot of the melodies that run through the soundtracks of Japanese anime and videogames, the band making heavy use of piano/keys to carry primary motifs alongside the riffs and lead guitars. If you like what you hear above in “Dancing Flames”, check out “Dreamfall” next, I can’t decide which of the two are my favorite, but this album has been a joy to listen to these past few weeks.

 

 

 

 

Æther Realm – Tarot:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw3UygAi2oo&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I really really wish I had been introduced to this back in June, because although I’ve only been jamming it for a little over two weeks now, I think its addicting qualities could have seen it land a spot on the shortlist for the best albums of the year. Aether Realm (normal spelling works for Google!) sound like their members are probably from Helsinki or Tampere, but these guys are actually from the land that James Taylor famously had on his mind. Geography aside, Aether Realm play melodic death metal with strong folk overtones, think Ensiferum and a toned down Wintersun. This means intense, ultra-tight riffing and a crisp, clean production that allows room for not only keyboard orchestral elements but massive group choral vocals ala Jari and company. There’s an accessibility running throughout this album that has as much to do with how awesome some of these riffs are in addition to simply strong songwriting. When I consider the Ensiferum album released a few months after this one, I marvel at how a relatively new band like these guys could get damn near close to perfecting a sound that has escaped its originators. The key to Aether Realm’s success is their ability to incorporate a variety of songwriting styles and musical elements to captivating effect —- no two songs sound the same really.

 

Take “Temperance” where I was captivated by a beautifully played acoustic passage that’s deeply affecting in the way that the best metal ballads can be (the clean vocals here are just the right tenor of American folk). The monstrous nineteen minute epic “The Sun, The Moon, The Star” starts off with what I’m sure are Nintendo midi sounds, perhaps a not so subtle nod to some of these guys old musical influences. Its an impressive piece of songwriting overall, one that never feels as long as its actual length and is always changing, shifting from pummeling aggression with Wintersun levels of virtuosity on guitar and similarly vicious growling vocals to carefully crafted keyboard orchestrations. I wish I could identify who the clean vocalist was between bassist Vincent Jones and guitarist Heinrich Arnold —- he’s got a stellar voice and a good ear for just how to deliver those epic, folk metal inspired yearning vocals. My only complaint on the album is a slightly personal one, but just can’t get behind “King of Cups”, with Chris Bowles on guest vocals. The subject of drinking in a folk/viking metal context is so passe that not even this admittedly catchy take on it can prevent me from rolling my eyes, and of course the Alestorm guy has to be involved. A minor quibble though, one that I’m all to happy to overlook. Get this album.

 

 

 

 

Night Flight Orchestra – Amber Galactic:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puLWLR28LDg&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I was introduced to these guys sometime earlier in the year by my MSRcast co-host Cary on a lark —- he had seen a music video of theirs pop-up on the Nuclear Blast YouTube channel and it was a piece of kitschy throwback glory. The video was for “Something Mysterious” and its unabashedly indulgent early 80s look and feel (check that VHS grade quality and dated overlay graphics) immediately won me over, and when I got a chance I nabbed their May release Amber Galactic. Its been one of those random albums that I’d go back to every now and then as a musical antidote to the usual slurry of metal albums I’d been listening to for reviewing purposes. I’d always have to shelve it for something else before long, but over the rest of the year I racked up a substantial amount of time listening to the album not only as a palette cleanser, but just because these songs were so addicting and downright charming. If you’re completely unaware of their lineup, you’ll be surprised to learn that the smooth crooning vocalist here is the very same Björn “Speed” Strid of Soilwork growler fame alongside Arch Enemy bassist Sharlee DeAngelo.

 

What they and their fellow NFO bandmates have managed to craft over this project’s three albums is a detailed, rose-tinted, affectionate look back at a bygone era of transitional rock music. The touchstones here span the the birth of AOR hard rock in the late 70s through the introduction of synths in the 80s, notes of Toto and The Police on opposite ends and everything in between. I love that they’ve found themselves here, focusing on this particular era for their musical influence, because I’ve always felt its overlooked for the Zeppelin / Sabbath dominated early to mid 70s in general. So instead of Jimmy Page worship and any attempts at writing their own psychedelic epics, we get a High Spirits-esque focus on tight songwriting, precision guitar harmonies, and understated female backing vocalists on “Gemini” and “Josephine”. I hear tinges of Night Run era UFO in the aforementioned “Something Mysterious”, that low-key bass pulse humming through the rhythm section, contrasted by lonely drivin’ around the city at night keyboard melodies. This is just a grin inducing, super fun album to jam when you need something easy and comforting, songs you feel you’ve heard before even though its your first time listening to them.

 

 

 

 

Spirit Adrift – Curse of Conception:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGMC6UK3rNA&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Coming from Arizona of all places is the classic metal/doom machine Spirit Adrift, whose Curse of Conception is their second album release in little over a one year span(!), their debut having arrived in 2016. If Pallbearer was a little too slow moving and meandering for you (as they seem to be for me… ironic I know given my placing Bell Witch on my 2017 top ten albums list), Spirit Adrift might be the middle ground you’re looking for. Think doom metal’s bleak colors and ominous crushing volume of sound played with a touch more urgency, with riffs that resemble the tone and structure of classic Metallica. Vocalist/songwriter Nate Garret has a plaintive voice, almost reminiscent of Chris Black of Dawnbringer/High Spirits, typically a type of voice that I don’t really find myself gravitating to for most bands. The exceptions for both Dawnbringer and Spirit Adrift is due to just how endearing their songwriting and rich musicality come across, that hard to master alchemy of preserving classic sounds and styles yet somehow conjuring something new from them.

 

Take a listen to the title track to get an idea of what I’m trying (and hopefully succeeding in) to convey, with its Ride the Lightning lead guitar tones leading us into a drawn out slow motion verse sequence. The uptick in tempo at the 1:18 mark is kicked off a riff progression that is straight out of the classic metal playbook, and its something we’ve heard a thousand times before in our nascent metal listening years but it just sounds so explosive here. When we get to the solo around the four minute mark you start wondering if your Spotify player actually did switch over to Metallica when you weren’t looking, so reminiscent of Kirk Hammet’s mid-80s style is the playing here. I hate just referring to one band as a reference point, but I also get that Metallica feeling on the gorgeous “Starless Age”, a dramatic power-ballad that ascends on the type of chord progressions that James Hetfield would’ve approved of back in 1986. My MSRcast cohost Cary would chastise me if I didn’t mention Trouble here, and he’d know better than I but there definitely are some shades of that band. There’s so much to love here, but I’ll end on a particular favorite: The intro to “Graveside Invocation”, with its staggered, pounding percussion and half doom half battle ready chord progression is the kind of minor detail I will never stop being a dork about.

 

 

The Autumn Reviews Cluster: Enslaved, Cyhra, Amberian Dawn and More!

To my perception anyway, this has been a backloaded year, with most of the releases that would have caught my attention arriving within the past few months and here in November. This was a relief at first back in the early months of spring when I realized I’d have a lot of extracurricular writing time on my hands and began an ill-fated monthly journal (now several months behind, I’ve kinda decided to can it as a partial success/failure). But now due in part to a frenzied flurry of new music coming out and already having been behind from the chaos that was my life in late August/September, I’m in a constant state of catching up. This reviews cluster addresses a slew of albums that came out in various points during the past three to four months. I wanted to write more about Cyhra, because that’s an interesting project just for the personalities involved, so its a little longer, but generally I forced myself to keep these as short as is possible for me. Straight and to the point takes on the new music itself, not a lot of room for contextualizing (which you know I can’t help doing when unrestrained).

 


 

 

Cyhra – Letters to Myself:

I know people might scoff at me describing this as possibly the most intriguing release of 2017, but seriously think about it: We were given an announcement sometime ago, that ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg were teaming up (alongside ex-In Flames bassist Peter Ivers, and power metal veteran drummer Alex Landenburg). What on earth would that sound like? Stromblad’s last recorded output was with neo-thrash/death outfit Dimension Zero, with whom he released some decent metal, though nothing to write home about. Certainly nothing that resembled the imaginative, ultra melodic richness of his career defining work in In Flames. Lundberg’s last recorded work was with the increasingly poppier pop/electro/metal hybrid Amaranthe, whom he left shortly after finishing work on last year’s Maximalism, citing that in the process of the band’s ever changing sound, his role was (ironically?) being minimized. In describing why he left, he dropped a hint about what sound he envisioned that his previous band strayed away from, ” I wanted the band to sound like… a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice”. Now if you cut out the last bit about the female voice, there’s a fairly blunt description of what Cyhra could possibly end up sounding like.

 

Turns out that was exactly what Cyhra sounds like, and though my MSRcast cohost Cary vehemently disagrees, I actually think it works better than expected. I enjoy this album on the same wavelength that allowed me to get into Amaranthe, the songs largely being built around the vocal melodies where it turns out Lundberg has genuine songwriting talent (it was always hard to decipher individual songwriting contributions within Amaranthe, to separate Olof Morck and Lundgren in that respect). But what puts it over the top is that I’m getting to hear Stromblad’s signature melodic guitarwork again, that very distinctive style that he pioneered in In Flames that became a hallmark of the band’s sound and something I’d forever associate with Gothenburg melodic death metal. Given that its been sometime since he’s done music in this vein, its closer in approach to his last few records with In Flames than say those earlier classics of The Jester Race / Whoracle eras, but still, its refreshing to hear him playing in this vein again. If we’re all being honest, those are the types of records we’d love to see him return to making, where his guitar melodies dictated the direction of the songwriting and everything (vocals included) were arranged around them. But Lundgren is who he is, and there likely won’t be death metal growls coming from him, well, ever —- but that’s okay, because even though I’m in the minority here, I’ve always liked his voice.

 

The opener “Karma” was a solid choice for a preview track, giving a fairly representative overview of the band’s sound: Simple songwriting structures dressed up with Stromblad’s complex guitar attack, a chunky rhythm attack underneath and an ample dose of keyboard generated electronic effects for ambiance. Whats surprising is just how well his style meshes with a “Bon Jovi” type vocalist like Lundberg, because you’d figure that the sheer melodic expression projected from his guitarwork would crowd out the vocals rather than complement or support them. Its a weird thing to think about at first, because you’re probably thinking about all the very excellent guitarists in rock and metal history who’ve been aligned with a melodic singer without a problem —- and you’re right. What I’m emphasizing is that the melo-death/Stromblad-ian guitar approach is usually something you’d instinctively pair up against a harsh vocal, the better to contrast with (as we’ve seen on a load of excellent records past and present). So take “Heartrage”, my favorite cut on the album, where Lundberg’s emotion rippled vocal melody carries the heavy lifting of the song. Here Stromblad works around the edges, conjuring up beautiful patterns that punctuate and bookend verse fragements, while in the chorus he restrains himself enough to allow Lundberg to soar, only crashing in for the outro to send things accelerating again. Its a satisfying song, with a chorus as excellent as Lundberg ever penned in Amaranthe —- and with the foreknowledge that a lot of these songs are directly about or influenced by Stromblad’s battles with his personal demons, perhaps possessing more emotional gravity as a result.

 

This is largely a bouncing, kinetic listening experience, one that doesn’t slow down in tempo until the second half with a few slower, quasi-ballad songs that aren’t bad, but clearly aren’t what this band is best suited for. That they run together for three songs in a row is a sequencing problem, but one that is made somewhat tolerable by the fact that they each boast a fairly successful chorus. But the last track, “Dead to Me”, features some cringe worthy narration (this stuff usually never works) that overshadows what is a very well written hook that comes slowly at first, working its way to a heavier crescendo towards the end. They could’ve cut one of those songs and left it for future development on the next release, but its not enough to sink the album, because the first nine songs are the heart of this record. Normally I’d argue that a band should diversify the tracklisting a bit, slip in a slower song to break up the monotony, but there’s enough diversity in tempo and aggression in Cyhra’s uptempo songs to do that naturally. And I wonder now, thinking on Cary’s intensely negative reaction to this album (“its too poppy!”) if one’s individual tolerance level for pop is a determining factor in whether or not you’ll like it. Lundberg’s Bon Jovi-ian vocals are a major component of the band’s sound, and all the Stromblad melo-death guitars can’t mask that aspect. I’m considering myself lucky then to enjoy both, because this is a solid debut, something I honestly didn’t know that I’d be saying. Oh, and glad to you have back Jesper.

 

 

 

 

Enslaved – E:

The only thing I’ve learned for sure about Enslaved and the act of writing about their music is that everyone’s opinions about said music are wildly different. There seems to be no actual consensus about anything regarding their discography for example, a long list of fourteen studio albums and a handful of EPs and splits that have as many musical twists and turns as most bands have lineup changes. One of my favorite metal reviewers for example, Angry Metal Guy, had a lower opinion of the band’s 2010 Axioma Ethica Odini than myself and several of my metal loving friends did, one of whom loves that album so much it might make his top five desert island albums list. We also share the opinion than 2009’s Vertebrae was the weakest moment in their discography, an opinion that is generally not held among a host of prominent metal publications and blogs. It just gets more suffuse beyond that —- no one really has a consensus on what’s the band’s classic, definitive album (I would say 2004’s Isa along with the aforementioned Axioma), and seemingly everyone has a vastly different view on 2012’s heavily rock-infused RIITIIR (I rather enjoyed it myself). There’s a review on the band’s Metal Archive’s page for Below the Lights where a reviewer describes that album as Enslaved’s Dark Side of the Moon —- and don’t get me wrong, I like ‘Lights as well, but as you can see, there’s a spectrum of opinions here, reflected in that very same websites reviewer percentage ranking of the band’s discography: There’s no clear-cut high ranking album that towers above all the rest, most of them are high 80s and low 90s, which speaks volumes about the band’s consistency, if little about anything resembling certainty.

 

Why am I telling you all this? Well, for the self-defeating purpose of telling you that my review of E doesn’t really matter, not in the way that it usually might for those of you who have in the past discovered a new band through something I’ve written here on the blog. We’re talking about a band who’s new album is arriving with a major lineup change in its ranks (the departure of longtime keyboardist/clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen who is being replaced in those same roles by Hakon Vinje), though you wouldn’t know it unless you looked because the new guy sounds so much like his predecessor. The overall sonic palette and lengthy, progressive songwriting approach that characterizes so much of the band’s sound over the past couple albums is present as well. And while there’s nothing here that’s as rock-inflected as some of the cuts on RIITIIR or the chorus of “One Thousand Years of Rain” off 2015’s In Times, you generally feel like E is a close sibling to those albums. As expected, we’re treated to one absolute snore-fest of a tune in “Hiindsiight”, complete with repetitive clean vocal segments that last minutes too long, overwhelming keyboard drenched ambient sound effects and that godawful dreaded saxophone (can we have a year without that instrument on any metal record, just for the sake of good taste?). Then there’s bits I really enjoy: The fierce, slamming riffs that fuel “Sacred Horse” are very Axioma (again, all of us lean hard on our favorite aspects of this band); and “The River’s Mouth” is a pretty concise and hooky song all things Enslaved considered. Its kinda shocking that the best thing on the album however very well might be their cover of Röyksopp’s Icelandic trip-hop hit “What Else Is There?”, which they transform into a moody, Depeche Mode-ian clean vocal jam that is really excellent.

 

Largely though, I find myself losing attention through various moments on E, and while that has happened on the past two releases as well, it is occurring on this album at an alarming rate. That aforementioned friend who loved Axioma so much he’d plaster it to a volleyball he painted and called Wilson? His opinion of the new album and the band’s recent direction has turned dour: “They’re just getting boring”. And I think he’s right —- because sometimes its just that freaking simple. I used to think it was my fault or failing when I had trouble processing a complex, lengthy, multi-facted work of progressive metal such as this. But wait a second, I love other albums that fit that description: Opeth’s Blackwater Park and Still Life for starters, Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, Alcest’s Kodama… the list go could on and on, you get the idea. I’m going on month two of constantly going back and giving this album another shot, another sit down listening experience when its late at night and I’m in the mood for some serious headphone music time. Its not catching on this time around and not exciting the pulse points that I know this band is capable of hitting with sledgehammer. I’m undoubtedly sure that E will end up on a few best of lists at the end of the year, but I can’t honestly say its one of the best albums of 2017 (it might be quite the opposite).

 

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Darkness of Eternity:

I’ve written gushingly about Amberian Dawn and their surprise 2015 year end list making release Innuendo, which was and remains a breath of fresh air within the ranks of metal bands with female vocalists at the helm. That album, like Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter a year before, was an exciting, inventive non-operatic/classical affair that melded power metal with other outside influences from the world of pop and rock. In Amberian Dawn’s case, if you don’t remember, that predominant influence is the mighty ABBA, those masters of pop in its purest, most elegant, crystalline form. I was new to the band at that point, and Innuendo was my point of entry into their discography and apparently it was also the biggest injection of that ABBA sound in their work to date. Having gone back through their older albums with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen, I discovered a more conventional symphonic power metal approach with dashes of ABBA spice thrown in here and there, a mix that resulted in some good stuff, if not great albums. Call me biased, but I’m all for keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppala and vocalist (and ABBA cover band dabbler) Capri Virkkunen happily indulging their love for the finest of all Swedish pop. So its a pleasure to discover that they’ve not only continued in that direction on Darkness of Eternity, but might have increased the dosage so to speak.

 

I think Virkkunen’s vocal quality and approach is the secret to making this actually work, because she has that slight Scandinavian accent that bends the pronunciation of certain words all while singing with a clarity in her enunciation that reminds me exactly of Frida and Agnetha. That’s not to say nothing about Seppala’s knack for penning a catchy tune, because he has the gift, and is a studious disciple of the Benny/Bjorn school of songwriting (and the key to that in my opinion was understanding the techniques, range, and capability of the vocalists they were writing for). If you doubt me, consider these words in the press release from the man himself, speaking about the song “Maybe”:

“I was happy to produce this song as a tribute to ABBA‘s Benny Andersson. Most of the keyboards on this song was recorded at his studio in Stockholm and with his legendary keyboard ‘Great White Elephant,’ a Yamaha GX-1 which is often heard on ABBA songs in late ’70’s and early ’80s.”

That song is perhaps the most emblematic slice of archetypal ABBA-ian pop on Darkness of Eternity, a 70’s disco-groove inspired rhythmic shuffle built with moody keyboards, fat bass and tight metallic riffing. Virkkunen skates over the top with a rich minor/major key vocal that’s sung at a slightly slower tempo, creating that magical effect where melancholy rises to the top in that juxtaposition of happy and sad. Its the same effect that ABBA used for tunes such as “Knowing Me Knowing You”, or “When All Is Said And Done”, and its one that sounds simple on the surface but I’ve come to suspect is a talent reserved for only the best songwriters in any respective style. There’s another dance-tempo built gem on here, the 70s keyboard heavy “Sky Is Falling”, with bittersweet vocal melodies leading the way. And the lyric snob in me is impressed, because while its not earth shaking stuff, these lyrics are written without the typical misconstrued phrasing that tends to accompany most stuff from Scandinavia. The phrasing is both utilitarian and clever, as in the set up for the refrain, “Drip drop the tears are falling… Drip drop the sky is falling”, which has a built in major to minor transition in its phonetics alone. I love, absolutely LOVE well done pop in this mode, and sure, its a little light on the metallurgy, but that’s not why I’m listening to this band.

 

If you’re wondering then, why YOU should be listening to this band, well, like I mentioned earlier —- this is refreshingly different female fronted metal. I know that folks on my Twitter feed tend to scoff at that tag, but its just a catch all word choice to describe a grouping of bands that tends to sound one way or another. If gothic-metal isn’t your thing or you feel that no one does it better than Nightwish and just aren’t interested in hearing a copycat, this is the perfect band for you to explore. When they do lean a little harder here, as on “Dragonflies”, they morph into something resembling a heavier, meant for Broadway stages type of song, with the power metal elements working to support a soaring vocal run. On “Abyss”, you get a rather awesome melding of both a wild power metal explosion with some tightly crafted sublime pop songwriting, the heavy riff passages surrounding a gorgeously ascending refrain laden with semi-maudlin emotion. The vibrato that Virkkunen flashes in that chorus is pure ear candy for anyone who appreciates wonderful singing, she’s one of metal’s truly underappreciated talents right now. I’d also point out just how satisfyingly deft and tightly written is the pomp-epic storm of “Luna My Darling”, something that borrows as much from Wishmaster-era Nightwish as it does Sonata Arctica. But if you’re like me, you’ll be pulled in with cuts like “Breathe Again” and “Ghostwoman”, songs marinated in that sweet honey ABBA glaze. This album is my late year happy place, just an absolute blast to listen to.

 

 

 

 

Aetherian – The Untamed Wilderness:

Just when I was thinking that this year was offering little in the way of great music from new bands, this late November release drops in my lap thanks to a track being previewed on Spotify’s New Metal Tracks playlist (that’s new, not nu). First of all, I can’t oversell just how useful a tool that playlist has been for myself and my MSRcast cohort Cary G. Its constantly updated with the latest singles well ahead of the album releases, it spotlights that weeks new releases, and is a well rounded mix of every sub genre because really it doesn’t care if you’re power metal, death metal or grind —- if you’re new, you’re in. I highly suggest everyone check it out as one of those solid free resources to keep tabs on if you’re not subscribing to magazines or are frustrated by certain bloggers who don’t write/update fast enough for your liking (*cough*). Aetherian’s track on the playlist was “Black Sails”, which perked my ears up due to its beautifully arranged acoustic/electric, almost Falkenbach-ian intro that led into a mix of Insomnium styled melo-death over some ultra-bleak and doomy vocals. Its a rich, varied and colorful track, full of elegant melodies but also some uptempo, speedy Gothenburg rhythmic patterns that prevent things from ever getting boring. It was a breath of fresh air in that moment, coming right after Machine Head’s newest slice of utterly abominable meathead metal (the last thing I thought was okay by them was The Blackening, and even that’s a bit overrated in retrospect, we were all a little too eager for thrash metal to return in 2007…).

 

These guys are from Greece, and The Untamed Wilderness is their first album, although they’ve been releasing media attention getting singles (and an EP) since 2013. I like the strategy, and hope more newer bands are going that route —- start small, keep the focus narrow by aiming for a single first, another and another and then finally try for the EP. I haven’t gone back and listened to any of their pre-album releases, but what their full length debut illustrates is a band that really thought hard about what they wanted to sound like and what they wanted to say. This album sounds simultaneously classic and new, both firmly rooted in tried and true metal traditions (the delicate intros/outros that remind me of classic Metallica, spotlight grabbing guitar solos, an emphasis on memorable melodies), all while being unafraid of trying to cross-pollinate styles at will. Case in point is “The Rain”, where we get some epic guitar melodies that one would normally associate with traditional metal, followed by the band launching into a borderline metalcore/largely melodeath breakdown. I know you’re groaning at seeing that term thrown in here, but give the track a listen and you’ll see its not what your brain is conjuring up this very second. Vocalist Panos Leakos has a deeper register than most melo-death screamers, coming across like a blend of Swallow the Sun’s Mikko Kotamäki and Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There’s enough grit there to make it not overpower the melo-death underneath with overwhelmingly doomy vocals, but enough doom in his vocals to give everything a bleak as hell coating. Give this album a shot, we’re going to be talking about it on the next MSRcast for sure.

 

 

 

Blut Aus Nord – Deus Salutis Meæ:

I’m really going to be in the minority here, but I’m just not able to crack the new Blut Aus Nord, which is a complete roundabout dive back into their industrial work of a few years ago that also blew right past me. It wasn’t for lack of trying, I really did give all those highly praised 777 era albums a shot, willing myself to like them and see what all the hype was about, but it just never happened. I’m one of those curmudgeonly types that only enjoys it when the band delivers something in that second wave of black metal milieu, as they did for 2014’s brilliant Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry. The problem on Deus is that it sounds like one seriously monotone wash of noise, dark hellish noise for sure but unlike even the heaviest black metal, there’s nary a riff to grab onto. This is the perfect soundtrack to some kind of industrial, HR Giger influenced hellscape horror house. That’s not exactly the kind of listening experience that I’m after as a metal fan and the immense density of the production here —- slabs and slabs of noise colliding with each other, an almost drone-like repetitiveness to the rhythmic structures at work, not to mention just how annoying the drum machine programming comes across, assaulting ones ears with tinny blasts. The most listenable sequence here is “Chorea Macchabeorum”, which at least has a riff boasting a microhook in its curving rhythm, resembling a NIN track more than anything metal. I don’t know what else to say, and was almost going to skip writing about this album except I thought it’d be strange to have so highly spoken about their last release while being mum on the new one. I’m not saying its bad, but its clearly not for me —- I only hope there’s a Memoria Vetusta IV at some point.

 

 

 

Elvenking – Secrets of the Magic Grimoire:

So I was introduced to Elvenking way back in the early aughts by a Blind Guardian loving friend of mine on a record store trip where he took a chance on their sophomore effort Wyrd just based on the cover art reminding him of Finntroll (ah the days of blind music purchasing!). It was not what he expected of course, but being able to appreciate power metal, he dug it and so did I. Over the years I’ve kept a moderate interest in Elvenking, waiting for them to finally deliver that career defining album that gelled all the best elements of their sound. They fascinate me in that they’re an Italian band that somehow manages to sound like they’re from Italy yet maybe from Germany and the States as well. Their blend of triumphant power metal with occasional folk music injections sometimes hits all the right sweet spots, but other times comes across as cluttered, unfocused, and uninteresting. I’ve always personally felt their folk moments sounded forced, and they sounded better when leaning harder on the traditional power metal approach. Part of the reason for that is just how much I like Damna (Davide Moras) as a vocalist, his vocals an oddity in the power metal world for their rough hewn Bon Jovi like quality. Hell, there have been times where he sounds more apt to be the vocalist in a pop-punk band —- and that’s not a knock, he’d be great at it.

 

So the band has returned to their more traditional sound over the past few albums, and Secrets of the Magic Grimoire is no exception (with that title it better not be). In fact they’re hitting that sweet spot that I was referring to earlier straight off the bat here on the opener “Invoking the Woodland Spirit”, a charging, pounding anthem built on a tasty riff sequence and ascending vocal melody. Damna has a way of injecting addictive melodic bends in his vocals that owe more to rock than metal but still seem perfectly at home within the greater context of a song this epic (“Hounded, darkened and laid underneath…”). Its a glorious track, and so is the follow up “Draugen’s Maelstrom” where the verses are just as fist-pumping as that excellent chorus. I particularly love Damna’s shrewd tempo shift accenting on the bridge (“Through the pouring rain / The icy spurts”), a clever trick that gives those lines just a little extra juice in the energy department. But for every pair of rockin’ rollin’ jams like those two, you get a dud like “The One We Shall Follow”, with its plodding tempo, predictable sound /w group chorus vocal that sounds like so many other bands. I know people gave Elvenking a hard time for their poppier explorations over the years, but I really think the band’s strength is that middle ground between these strange pop-punk sounding influences and epic power metal. It gives them an identity that no one in the genre has, for better or worse (no one sounds like them when they’re merging both influences anyway). This is one of the band’s better efforts in recent memory, and cuts like “Summon the Dawn Light” that remind me simultaneously of Coheed & Cambria and Freedom Call are when the band is at their best. But they have trouble staying in that zone, and like the rest of their catalog, Secrets is an uneven listen.

 

 

 

Ensiferum – Two Paths:

I’m a jerk for pointing it out, but the title of the new Ensiferum album is just ripe for fitting in all sorts of insults and snarky Twitter burns. But you know, its also kinda emblematic of what’s really going on in folk metal in 2017,  a year in which we’ve seen a small handful of releases from the genre’s older standard bearers attempt to steer the genre back towards its gritty, dark, blackened roots. What they’re steering away from is sadly the kind of thing Ensiferum still find themselves stuck in, like some sticky tar they’re struggling to walk through for miles and miles. Its the goof-ication of a once solitary and spiritual subgenre of metal, the mid-2000s turn towards songs about ale, drunkenness, trolls, and whatever schlocky gimmicky stuff that’s been overplayed and overdone for about a solid decade plus now. I know I’ve gone on about this before so I’ll spare you all now, but there really has been solid statements of intent this year from folk metal artists such as Vintersorg, King of Asgard, and Wolfheart. We can even add Myrkur to that list, of new folk infused metal that reminds me of the way the genre used to be before it got all cartoonish and something to laugh about. Ensiferum’s first couple albums were part of that original legacy, and its been concerning to see them descend into the tropes that the genre’s more widely known bands have been barfing up.

 

I wasn’t wild about 2015’s One Man Army and only lukewarm on 2012’s Unsung Heroes, and I’m disappointed to see that trend continuing. Going back to my reviews of those albums now, I see that I chalked up my feelings on them with the belief that the band just needed to write better songs, which is an obvious take that could apply to any mediocre album. I wonder if Ensiferum’s problems are far deeper however, that maybe its a personnel problem in Petri Lindroos ultimately not being the most exciting vocalist the band could’ve picked as a replacement for Jari Maenpaa (for all Jari’s many difficulties, he had one of the best melo-death screamer voices in recent memory). Lindroos has the tendency to sound tame in comparison, his screaming vocals never really threatening or deviating from the monotone delivery he’s been using since his time in Norther. That might not bother some people, but I find it grating over the period of a couple songs, and its something that I’ve only just put my finger on this time around. I commend the band for trying to spice things up here with Lindroos and fellow band mate Netta Skog taking on clean vocals on “I Will Never Kneel” and “Don’t You Say”, but they fall flat musically. The latter sounds more like something off a Flogging Molly album and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, its just bewildering in the context of an Ensiferum release. The former features Skog on lead vocals and she’s got a fine voice, but there’s nothing emotionally gripping about what she’s singing, nothing that makes you feel that rush the way say Eluveitie did on “Call of the Mountains”.

 

Bassist and lyric writer (post Maenpaa) Sami Hinkka has contributed to the music writing more than ever on this album, being credited in writing five songs, a pair of them by himself (“God Is Dead”, “I Will Never Kneel”). I can only guess as to why longtime music writer/guitarist Markus Toivonen decided to mix things up this time around, but I wonder if there was a feeling in the band that things were getting stale and they had to inject something new. Skog also is credited on a few tracks, and unsurprisingly Lindroos is still not a major part of the songwriting team. Hey, some people just aren’t skilled in that particular facet of things and that’s okay, but that’s also why I wonder if the Lindroos/Ensiferum thing is running whatever course it seemed to have (at least on those fairly decent post Maenpaa albums). There are bands where the guitarist can write all the songs and the lyrics, and have a convincing frontman go out and sell them, we see it all the time in power metal and just regular rock n’ roll. Folk metal is a different breed however, its music that works best when its coming at you as a cohesive artistic expression. Lindroos was a fun vocalist in Norther, an admittedly generic melo-death band with a few fun songs and one excellent Europe cover, but I never really get the feeling he’s been a folk metal guy. When we go back and listen to those first two Maenpaa lyric penned albums we can hear the seeds of stuff he’d later explore in Wintersun, that guy really puts a ton of conviction into his art and recorded performance (regardless of however well he succeeds on a artistic or technical level). I hope I’m not sounding mean-spirited towards Lindroos, whom I hold no rancor towards —- I’m interested to hear someone else’s thoughts on this.

 

 

 

Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:

This was one of those albums that you see the cover art for and just have to check out —- if the image on the left isn’t big enough for you, check out the full length spread here. It certainly gives a visual to the album title, allowing no one any room to wonder at what a mirror reaper would look like (Dark Souls concept art anyone?). While I had no doubt it would be atop everyone’s best album art of 2017 lists, I saw the band described as funeral doom and lamented for a minute before going ahead and giving the album a shot on Spotify, fully expecting to be bored or at the least, severely disinterested. Funeral doom is a tough genre to get into, I even had problems with the third disc of Swallow the Sun’s Songs From the North and I rather enjoyed the first two discs of that one. So a little background first: This is Bell Witch’s third full length (their debut came out in 2012), they’ve been a two piece band since their inception with only drums and bass (yes, bass) as the primary instruments. Dylan Desmond is the bassist and co-lead vocalist, and he somehow manages to get sounds out of a bass that would trick anyone’s brain into thinking they’re hearing a guitar. The band’s drummer on their first two albums was Adrian Guerra, who sadly passed away in May of 2016. He’s replaced by Jesse Shreibman here, and together he and Desmond produce a spectrum of sound that runs the gamut from soft, hushed atmospherics to withering, claustrophobia inducing waves of noise.

 

Whats surprising about Mirror Reaper is just how well it really works while being presented as a single song clocking in at 83 minutes, and yes you’re reading that right. I’ve enjoyed my time listening to the album, never feeling impatient with it like I figured I would have. Its a hypnotic, lulling, and subsequently jarring listening experience, something perfect for a chilly autumn day or a quiet night with the headphones on. The scope of this is huge, difficult to put into words except to say that it does sound like the soundtrack to grief, or at least a window into someone else trying to process grief. It wasn’t necessary to understand the backstory of Guerra’s passing to hear that element in the music —- this is a very sad, brutally melancholic listen in the most understated way possible. I marvel at what Desmond is able to convey through a bass, all while playing in seemingly slow motion, his notes ringing long and laboriously, only coming in just as its predecessor is about to fade entirely. Both he and Shreibman play in a manner that can only be described as economical, somehow crafting sounds out of two instruments that can fill your entire room with reverberating sound that is at times as bleak as you’d expect but also surprisingly beautiful and aching. This is not an easy listen just by virtue of its length, but its a seductive one, and a journey that pulls you in and keeps you listening. I’m more surprised at my own reaction to this, coming from a genre that I usually just ignore. This is nothing I’d want to see played live, but at home, on my own with the lights turned out and the headphones on, its a mesmerizing experience.

 

Serenity Join the Crusades: The Lionheart Review

Would it be accurate to call this a surprise release? I heard rumors of Serenity working on a new album this year, but the idea that it would be released before the year was out seemed a little far fetched. Their previous album, Codex Atlanticus, was just released in January of 2016, and I suppose that does fall a few months shy of a two year mark, but simply put releases don’t tend to come this quickly —- record companies don’t like it. The short turnaround got me wondering if the band had even toured to support that album, I couldn’t remember… but sure enough they did a European tour of their own directly after its release. It seems to have been only a month or so, which might explain why they were able to get back to work on new material, perhaps feeling like they needed to ride the wave of creativity they were feeling after the critical success of that album (and it was a success to me anyway, remember “The Perfect Woman” landing on my top ten songs list). Then there’s also the added dimension of Lionheart being a concept/thematic album about… well Richard the Lionheart of course. Don’t these things usually need a little more time to work out? A longer bake time if you will. You’d probably be able to brush that aside considering that Serenity’s vocalist/songwriter Georg Neuhauser’s day job is that of a history professor, so presumably, all the research on such a topic had already been loaded into his brain long ago and this was a natural outsourcing of his passion. But as Angry Metal Guy smartly points out, Serenity’s take on Richard I comes off a bit slanted, biased, or even more dishearteningly, naive:

 

Googling Richard I for three minutes will show that he, like all regents and generals, was a complicated man who did complicated things for complicated reasons. But such a nuanced picture of the character is notable in its absence. Missing, for example, is a song about the massacre at Ayyadieh, where Richard I lion-heartedly executed 2,700 people—some accounts saying it was closer to 3,000, including women and children—because Saladin would not pay a ransom. Instead, Lionheart relies heavily on messages of unity and a lionization (see what I did there?) of Richard I. While “Massacre at Ayyadieh (I Executed 2,700 People Because Saladin Would Not Pay Me a Ransom)” makes a less inspiring song than “United” or “Stand and Fight,” it also makes a crucial point: who would write an uncritical concept album about The Crusades in 2017?

– Angry Metal Guy

 

 

As I’m sure I’ve pointed out before, I try to make a point of not reading other reviews of an album before penning my own, but I was late to this album, and during a bored, scrolling through my phone moment, I let my guard down and read his review. Angry Metal Guy doesn’t write as often as I’d like him to these days but that’s a stellar review (one I highly encourage you to read), and considering his site was one of the biggest influences on me starting my own blog, I make an exception for him without guilt. His larger point that Neuhauser’s lyrics seemed to rely on power metal’s proclivity towards positivity is what’s worth examining here. If you take a glance through the lyrics throughout this album, you’ll see a largely sympathetic take on Richard I, one that doesn’t offer a corresponding opposite view of his decisions and actions. I’m not saying Neuhauser should have written the soundtrack to Kingdom of Heaven here, but AMG delivers a valid criticism, and the overt romanticism that drenches every song on Lionheart actually works against it, makes it less likely to draw us in, particularly in the fraught, politically, racially charged climate of 2017. I’d immediately point out that I don’t detect anything malicious or nefarious in Neuhauser’s lyrics, and that’s reinforced in part because the formula he’s using on Lionheart is a damn near replica of the one he used for DaVinci on Codex Atlanticus. It worked there, because DaVinci is an interesting, engaging, well respected figure that largely avoids being seen in any particularly negative light today —- as a conceptual subject, he’s far better suited to power metal’s proclivity towards joyful euphoria.

 

 

All this wouldn’t really be much of an issue of course if the songs were on point, and some are nearly there, but for the most part this album sees Neuhauser missing his usual mark of excellence for the first time since I’ve become a fan. I’ve gone through this record well over a dozen times now over the course of a few weeks and its just not clicking with me. Many of the songs lack the sharpness, the well defined arcing hooks that he’s so adept at penning, with the exception of a few cuts. Opening song “United” comes across as the inspirational, horns bellowing call its supposed to be, its lyrics speaking of coming together to take up the holy crusade —- the sort of stuff power metal is meant to be the soundtrack for. Similarly on “Lionheart”, where “Jersualem unites us against Saladin”, Neuhauser delivers an impassioned vocal in the verse segments in particular, a slight phrasing twist in his delivery that reminds me of why I love him so much as a singer. Choir vocals backup the refrain here, bringing to mind a Blind Guardian influence that is noticeable all throughout the rest of this album. We get triumphant, punctuating horns in the chorus of “Hero”, a lyrical clunker but possessing enough strength in its vocal melodies to make you ignore the Enrique Iglesias reminders it will conjure in your mind.  This change in style and tone is appropriate for the subject matter, and on first listen I wasn’t too surprised to find the album’s first four cuts storming out of the gates in this mode. But it never lets up, the entire approach across the board sounds more epic and grand than we’re used to from Serenity, its all glory and light here. By the time I got to the fifth cut “Rising High”, I started to wonder where was this album’s “Wings of Madness”, or “Far From Home”, those doses of melancholy that I’ve come to expect.

 

For the bulk of their back catalog, like their spiritual cousins in Kamelot, Serenity were consistently working with light and shade, a splash of darkness to their sound to balance out their major key heavy songwriting. Even on Codex Atlanticus they had those more dark, introspective moments —- “Reasons” and “The Order” come to mind, and that was an album I thought was an abrupt about face from the darker tones of War of Ages to a brighter, cheerier sonic palette. Neuhauser pulled that off successfully because he had a couple musical factors changing; namely that Thomas Buchberger was no longer in the band, his thick guitar riffs dominating the bulk of the band’s earlier work, and as a result Neuhauser built up the songs around his vocal melodies, giving the album a noticeable Broadway vibe. So back to Lionheart, where songs like “Eternal Victory” midway through the album sport a few nice moments in the way of hooks and the odd nice riff or solo, a sameness begins to set in with all of these songs essentially mirroring one another. Another glorious paean to Richard I and his inevitable victory, got it. I didn’t actually realize that the sameness throughout the album was what might be dragging it down until I read Angry Metal Guy’s review, but his analysis of the lyrics really do sum it up: These songs all have the same theme of glory and victory, yadda yadda yadda, and that results in stylistic sameness throughout the album, and that ultimately results in a relatively unremarkable listening experience.

 

 

The first real difference in tone and even in song structure comes in the closing pair of tracks, “My Fantasy”, and “The Final Crusade”. The latter is a strange bird, featuring some harsh vocals that I suspect we all figured were coming at some point (every power metal band seems to do a little dip in them at some point), and while they don’t ruin what is a largely a good song, they fail to add anything to it. The strength of this track is the Broadway vibe of the chorus, bringing to mind hints of the last album, Neuhauser’s vocals soaring against the backdrop of a swooning symphony. He’s joined towards the end by Sleeping Romance vocalist Federica Lanna, her vocals a sweet, subdued tonic to his soaring theatrical delivery, though he does bury her sonically in the mix when their voices are supposed to be conjoining. The other song, “My Fantasy” might be the highlight of the album, a song that reminds me of the Death and Legacy era in its multi-faceted approach. A heavy riff progression sandwiches a wide open power ballad chorus where Neuhauser dreams up as glorious a hook as he’s ever conjured, his vocal progression bringing to mind the very best of Tony Kakko and Klaus Meine in his tone and vocal melody direction. Its also the only moment on the album where you could forget about the Richard I concept for a few minutes, because even though its written from the perspective of Richard while he’s imprisoned, its lyrics are vague enough to be malleable to anyone and anything. Neuhauser is such a gifted songwriter, he’s bound to deliver a gem per album at least, even when the rest of the affair is a surprising misstep. I’ll take it, and while I won’t recommend Lionheart as a must own, I’ll be happy to wait an extra year or so for a far greater Serenity album next time around.

 

 

 

Rising Anew: The Unlikely Return of Power Quest

Even though I foolhardily consider myself to be a power metal expert (I’m often surpassed by the collective knowledge of the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the Power Metal Subreddit), sometimes I just get things wrong. When it comes to the UK’s Power Quest, my sin was not giving the band the attention they deserved after being introduced to them. I first heard about Power Quest in late 2004 in the wake of the Dragonforce furor that got everyone looking at the UK as the epicenter of power metal’s latest shockwave. The band’s second album Neverworld had just been made available for import from Sentinel Steel’s ever reliable mail order, and I grabbed it based on the recommendation of a trusted group of forum members on UltimateMetal.com (remember forums?). It was in retrospect the band’s only pure power metal album in the classicist Helloween mold. At the time Power Quest were heralded by some as superior to Dragonforce, and by others as the “Valley of the Damned” squad’s little brothers. The comparisons were natural, both bands shared members at one point in Steve Williams and Sam Totman, mainly because the UK power metal community was small and tightly-knit (still strange to think about given the country’s pedigree with Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden). It was so small that its leading lights both had to import vocalists —- the Force’s ZP Theart was from South Africa, and the Quest’s Alessio Garavello was from Italy. Together both bands made waves worldwide, denied any notion of a rivalry, and although a flood of British power metal bands failed to materialize in their wake, they both blazed their own distinctive trails.

 

I loved Neverworld, but when they released its follow-up Magic Never Dies a year later, its change in sound and approach threw me for a loop. I drifted away from following the band as other musical shiny metal objects attracted my attention. It wouldn’t be until many years later when I’d reignite my interest in Power Quest and go back to see what all I’d missed. It was right about early 2011 actually after hearing Dr. Metal play a cut from their upcoming Blood Alliance album with new vocalist Chity Somapala on his Metal Meltdown show. I dug the new song and went back out of curiosity to give Magic Never Dies another shot: It slapped me in the face for my absence with the sheer shock of just how awesome it was. That album and its 2008 follow-up Master of Illusion were bright, crisp, energetic, and dare I suggest even cheerful mash-ups of power metal with 80s guitar rock ala Van Halen circa 1984. Although power metal as a genre had taken a turn towards mixing in hard rock influences for awhile by then (to the delight of some and the agitation of others), what Power Quest had been doing was almost the diametrical opposite to the darker, aggressive, and often more symphonic direction that bands like Avantasia and Kamelot were going in. As much as I loved those bands, it was refreshing to hear someone in power metal doing something entirely unique on their own in another direction.

 

Even in comparison to their fellow countrymen in Dragonforce who were in a race with themselves to get faster and more over the top with frenzied, extended guitar passages; the ‘Quest was more interested in pursuing songs led by vocal harmonies, with Steve Williams trademark throwback keyboard sound paving the way underneath. Alessio was a high register vocalist, capable of helium heights only scaled previously by singers like Michael Kiske and early Tobias Sammet. And Power Quest may have had the most underrated lineup of guitarists in the genre, unheralded talents like Andrea Martongelli (now of Arthemis fame), and of course, the awesome Andy Midgley. Francesco Tresca on drums and longtime bassist Steve Scott were a rockin’, groove ready, occasionally jazzy rhythm section that always kept the band’s sound loose and lithe, never mired in sludge, even during the band’s slower songs. Eventually all those guys left to pursue other music, including Alessio, to be replaced by an entirely new lineup for Blood Alliance, and although the music got even more AOR influenced, the same spirit established by the old guard lived on in that record. Steve was the link of course, being the main songwriter and the force behind the Force, and even though Chity’s vocals couldn’t have been more different from Alessio’s, a song like “Better Days” sounded like the epitome of Power Quest. I remember first playing that song for my black metal loving buddies while helping one of them paint inside his house, they laughingly were aghast at its overt cheerfulness and 80s vibe, but a few months later they were jamming it by themselves.

 

 

When Steve announced in January 2013 that the band was coming to an end due to serious financial troubles, an increasingly demanding day job, and a perceived indifference from the market, I and many others were disappointed to say the least. That disappointment grew even deeper as I kept listening to their albums in the following years, feeling like the band ended long before their time and that a couple more albums were lost as a result. Steve was ever present on Facebook, heard all our longing comments over this time span, how we missed the band, hoped he would write new music again. He had a stint in Eden’s Curse, a rare UK based power metal band whom he did an album with (2013’s Symphony of Sin) although barely got to contribute to its writing process. And that’s what fans like myself missed the most, because the man has a definite vision of the kind of music he wants to make and its combination of influences result in a very unique blend. So fast forward to March of 2016, when Steve announced via social media and a gleeful YouTube video that he was bringing the band back. I know I was giddy, and I was happy to see that most of the Blood Alliance lineup was back in the fold: Rich Smith on drums, Paul Finnie on bass, Gavin Owen on guitars alongside his twin brother Dan. The newcomer was Dendera vocalist Ashley Edison, who was apparently Steve’s first choice for the position, his vocals finding a landing spot between Alessio’s silky tenor and Chity’s gritty, soulful croon. A pre-order funded EP was in the works, and an album to follow.

 

Things hit a bump in March of this year however when the Owen brothers left for unknown reasons, causing the band to have to postpone their Portsmouth show —- but here’s where things got interesting, and kinda fun. So Power Quest have fully embraced social media in their rebirth, and when they hit the studio this summer in between festival dates they began to unleash a flurry of Facebook Lives. These broadcasts had been delivered here and there since the band reformed, but come summer of 2017 they were popping up on my phone’s notifications seemingly every other day —- usually close to midnight GMT as the band’s post-recording session way to blow off steam over a beer and keep fans engaged in the process. The enthusiasm was contagious, and we got introduced to the new guys through these videos as well, guitarists Andrew Kopczyk and Glyn Williams, both of whom revealed themselves to be longtime fans of the band. Because this isn’t a band that would necessarily draw in tons of viewers for these broadcasts, those of us who were there got to ask all sorts of questions, comment on whatever, and generally be a part of a rather cool fan experience —- the sort that galvanizes longtime casual fans into diehard fans. So it’d be safe to say I was already engaged in a preexisting disposition towards this album heading into hearing it for the first time. I think its worth mentioning right now before I actually get into any analysis just so you can weigh that against anything I write about it (though I do think mine is a reasonable, non-hyperbolic perspective).

 

So its been six years since the last Power Quest album, and that was with a one-off singer as well, which really keeps expectations for Sixth Dimension a bit up in the air. I honestly didn’t know what we’d get, but that we got a fairly steady-handed, finding their footing, straight down the middle take on the Power Quest sound isn’t surprising in the least. Nor is it a bad thing, this is the kind of record they probably were right to deliver, something that finds itself firmly between all of their previous albums’ approaches. There’s a classicist moment like the Neverworld invoking “Lords of Tomorrow”, which also boasts an “Edge of Time” mid-tempo hard rock riff sandwiched in between as a kind of breakdown. The EP title track “Face the Raven” is newly recorded here, and sounds a little fiercer in its attack, the guitars slightly heavier —- its grown on me as a single, Steve’s keyboard melody working as a well-timed motif to complement the chorus. The AOR vibe is strong with “Coming Home”, and maybe its due to the recency to the Blood Alliance era, but it can’t be more than coincidental that this winds up being the best song on the album. Ashley’s vocals here are confident, sure, and full of the bright energy that a chorus this fully arcing demands. Even the guitar solo sequence here is excellent, full of complex layering and melodies that run counterpoint to the primary song melody as a sort of centerpiece. This song has Master of Illusion type DNA, and I was hoping for a couple more like it but I’ll definitely take the one —- it is however the difference between a solid album and something better.

 

 

There’s some stuff here that doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot that we’re used to getting from Steve’s songwriting, two songs being “Starlight City” and “Kings and Glory”. They’re not bad tunes, but “Starlight City” doesn’t have a chorus that lives up to its promising intro verse and cascading bridge, and not even some surprising gang vocal “whoooaaahs” can lift up a refrain that seems a bit flat. Their positions in the tracklisting at two and three handicap the album a bit coming out of the gate, leaving the “Face the Raven” and “No More Heroes” to attempt to recapture the energy generated by the opener “Lords of Tomorrow”. They’re largely successful in that attempt, because “No More Heroes” has the kind of vocal melody ear candy that defined the band’s mid-period artistic success, a song you’ll come back to just to hear how Ashley bends his voice on the line “…I pray with all my heart / we find a brighter day yeah…”. Its followed up by “Revolution Fighters”, which has a level of grit in its verses that lend it enough power to carry the song over a chorus that doesn’t quite arc into a hook the way it needs to. On “Pray For the Day”, there’s enough of that awkward Power Quest charm to worm its way through to make me kinda love the track despite its flaws, I just wish that chorus hit with a little more heft.

 

Where things really do come together once again is on the title track for the album, serving as the closer and falling in line as one of the band’s best epic-length cuts in their discography. Its a moody, dark, tension filled slice of prog-metal that is patient in its buildup, with sublime melodic twists in the lead vocals during the verses. The chorus is a declarative eruption of yearning from Ashley, delivering his best vocal of the entire album over lyrics that would feel at home on a Tony Kakko penned tune. There’s a surprise Anette Olzon guest vocal drop in during the instrumental passage midway through, coming in so sweet and sudden that it seems to surprise Power Quest themselves, so sharp and swift is the change in tempo and melody. She sounds great, and its a perfect pairing, sounding all the more distinctive which is surprising given her time out of the spotlight —- there’s a unique accent to her vocal that Nightwish seemed to keep largely in check but its charming all its own. Steve wrote the song with an outside co-writer (Richard West from Threshold) which is unusual for him but it might account for its freshness, because there’s really nothing in the back catalog quite like it. Kudos to the band for also breaking a streak of really rough album closer epics from a string of releases that I’ve reviewed over the past three years here, someone finally did it right again.

 

What can I say in conclusion, except that I’m so grateful to have this band back, they mean more to me now than when they went away. Power Quest get tagged as flower metal by some, a pejorative for hyper positive power metal heavy on the major key, though I suspect the band themselves would wear it as a badge of honor. This is metal folks, it doesn’t sound like Darkthrone, it certainly doesn’t sound like Kreator or Morbid Angel, but its metal —- accept it. I have taken to comparing metal to ice cream, you might not like every flavor equally, but hey, its still ice cream right? There’s a flavor for everyone and Power Quest are the most fruit filled, whip cream plopped with a cherry on top flavor there is. Even amidst a genre of some often shiny, happy music, Power Quest are at another level, with only Freedom Call as their closest contemporary. Their willingness to stand apart even in power metal, against all the tides that have pushed against them is worthy of absolute respect even from those with no love for the style. Its funny that a band with more hooks than they know what to do with is inherently more noncommercial than extreme metal like Behemoth or Cradle of Filth as a direct consequence. That must have seemed unfair at moments for Steve Williams, who might have felt himself born a decade or so too late to have unleashed his sound in the mid to late 80s. His is a British mentality though, the “carry on” spirit built on stubbornness and pride and dignity that we recognize in bands like Iron Maiden. Ashley Edison said in a recent interview that at some point long after he had ended the band in 2013 and had since cleared his debts, Steve had wondered aloud to himself why he wasn’t doing the band anymore. He realized he needed it. And really, we needed him.

 

 

Wintersun Returns! Musing on The Forest Seasons

wintersunforestseasons300Awhile back in August of 2014, I wrote a piece on the continuing delays that surrounded Wintersun’s Time Pt II. It got noticed by a handful of their fans and linked on the band’s Facebook page where it made quite a stir (even eliciting a few disapproving comments from Jari Mäenpää himself). My main criticism in that piece was his attempt to deploy crowdfunding to circumvent his deal with Nuclear Blast who according to Mäenpää weren’t helping him achieve his artistic vision with adequate resources. Nuclear Blast had responded and the result was an ugly fight in the metal press, one that saw many people even outside of the Wintersun fandom taking sides. While I did side with Nuclear Blast to a certain extent, I think the source of my frustration was that I also considered myself a fan of the guy. The band’s 2004 self-titled debut was (and still is) an electric mix of speedy Swedish melo-death infused with Finnish power metal’s major key melodicism, christened with Yngwie-like guitar and keyboard theatrics that made the whole thing crackle with intensity. That album was only a couple months removed from another 2004 Mäenpää classic in Ensiferum’s Iron, the second of two incredible, pioneering albums he made with that band before leaving to pursue Wintersun full time that same year. In a span of just three years and change (’01-’04), Mäenpää had delivered three bonafide classics, exciting albums that made us rethink where metal could go and how it could sound. He seemed poised to among metal’s most admired prolific voices, like Therion’s Christofer Johnsson and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt before him, a guy who would knock out a flurry of awesome works in rapid succession over a decade. Instead, we wouldn’t hear anything new from him until 2012.

When Time I finally arrived in 2012, I found myself enjoying it, but wondering why it took eight years for just three songs proper (two of the album’s five tracks were instrumentals). Even if they were on the long side (13, 8 , and 12 minutes respectively), the lack of more than five tracks on the release made the whole thing come across as some kind of extended EP instead of an album proper. But no matter as I pointed out in my original review, because Time II was on the way, slated at the time for an early 2013 release (by whom, the label or band, no one’s really sure). Well, my snarky prediction that we might not see Time II until 2020 might not be so far off the mark, because in the intervening years Wintersun have focused on some touring and the launching of a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign to build Mäenpää’s much longed after Wintersun studio. Now as I pointed out above, my 2014 article took issue with the band’s attempt to crowdfund against the wishes of their label, but things have changed in the time since. In the autumn of 2016, the band and Nuclear Blast were able to come to terms and negotiate out a resolution that apparently has pleased both parties. No, The Forest Seasons isn’t Time II with a different title, we’re still being promised that far off epic, but at least Mäenpää has delivered new music in the meantime, realizing that another near decade wait would be inexcusable.

 

The resulting Indie-Go-Go crowdfunding campaign ran all of this past March. Instead of offering the usual run of merch n’ perks that most bands put up in exchange for donations, the only donation option was for “The Forest Package”, which was essentially the band’s new album The Forest Seasons, its instrumental twin plus a remastered version of Time I (and its instrumental version), as well as the remaster of the debut album along with the Live at Tuska 2013 live album. When this news went out I actually thought that it was a smart move, to just simply offer the die hard Wintersun fan a pre-order of the new album (essentially) plus a host of other Wintersun music that you could get a tidy amount for per person. It wouldn’t appeal to a casual fan like myself, and as a result I suspect many of us scoffed at the band’s overall stated goal of 750,000 Euros (a goal to be reached in chunks —- this being the first of three crowdfunding campaigns), but the band has gotten the last laugh as they netted € 428,310 in just March alone, more than halfway towards their goal. Kudos to them, seriously. I’m not against crowdfunding in metal, I think that its a valid way to go if a band can pull it off. With Mäenpää, the frustration was that he had started clamoring for a crowdfunding attempt after making his fans wait a decade, not to forget the numerous delays and social media posts that grated on everyone’s patience. Its a testament to the man’s music that so many didn’t hold that against him in March.

All that business related history aside, here we are with The Forest Seasons plum in our laps, and if its tracklisting looks a little familiar to you at first, its because Mäenpää has apparently found his preferred format for albums —- a couple songs, make em’ really long (I’d be willing to bet that Time II will follow this format closely). In this case Mäenpää has a built in excuse, that the album is patterned after Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, and accordingly so, Wintersun delivers four “suites” for four seasons. I just want to point out how utterly shocking it is that no one has attempted this in the history of metal until now (unless I overlooked something), because this is a concept that was begging to happen. And its one that really suits Mäenpää’s tendency towards melancholic melodies and vague, abstract, all-encompassing lyrics. Speaking of his lyrics, they’re ostensibly about the nature of these individual seasons albeit in a more metal fashion (particularly autumn and winter), mirroring the actual sonnets that Vivaldi wrote (supposedly) to accompany his famed violin suite. But what sets them apart and lends to their metal nature is that they seem to also speak to the condition of someone’s inner turmoil by use of metaphor, something my lyric loving self has to tip his hat to Mäenpää for. I love stuff like that.

The albums most enthralling moments are found in its first two suites, “Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring)”, and “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”, where we find Wintersun in peak form, at times eclipsing anything else they’ve ever done. You have to give “(Spring)” a few minutes into its fourteen minute long journey to really get going because there’s a lot here by way of the intro. Around the 6:27 mark a distant, dissonant riff emerges amidst the atmospheric quiet of stray keyboards and xylophone-like wind chimes, and transitions into the albums first proper headbanging riff progression. Towards the 12:32 mark, we finally get treated to that epic Mäenpää clean vocal, an almost baritone like quality that recalls the best of his work with Ensiferum. By the end of spring, I’m fully engaged and its a strong segue into summer which is not only the best suite of the four here, but in the running for Mäenpää’s most cohesive, devastatingly awesome work ever. Quite bluntly, I love everything about its twelve minutes, from the mournful strings that weep gently across the start of the piece, to the energetic, bouncy riffing that locks us in from the word go. There’s a riff progression motif you’ll hear just before the clean vocal chorus that so simple yet sounds so inspired. And after the mid-song atmospheric break, at the 7:19 mark, we’re treated to a riff sequence that’s the kind of thing people pony up nearly half a million Euros for. Stunning.

 

Riding such a high from the sounds of spring and summer, its a bit of a bummer that I couldn’t find as much enthusiasm for “Eternal Darkness (Autumn)”, and “Loneliness (Winter)”. You’d figure with the band’s name being Wintersun that these would be home runs, and while they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t inspire the same awe and grandeur of their more flowery siblings. With autumn we get the band’s most blistering attack ever, its furious black metal assault nearly running the gamut of the track’s fourteen minute run time. There are breaks here and there, the song being broken up into “parts”, transitioned by more breathable musical interludes. This piece instantly reminded me of fellow Finns Insomnium and their Winter’s Gate album, both in tonality and sheer aggression —- great for depicting the brutality of winter, which is what made Insomnium’s album so convincing, but I’m not so sure it was the wisest choice for the autumn sequence. The suite’s second half is so reminiscent of Dimmu Borgir riff sequences (complete with Tim Burton-esque orchestrations and Shagrath-like vocals) that I wonder if they weren’t a direct inspiration. Its a trying piece, one that is unforgiving in its attack and devoid of the Wintersun melodicism we all came for, and I just don’t think it succeeds on any level.

After that brutal assault, the quietude and near calm of the winter suite is indeed refreshing, but while Mäenpää’s clean vocals are nice in those moments that juxtapose them against his scathing harsh vox, a whole song built on them is perhaps too much. He’s not a bad clean vocalist (far from it), but he leans too hard on making every phrase sound pained and anguished here, which effectively saps them of all pain and anguish and just leaves them loooonnnngggg and drrrraaawwwnnn ouuuuutttttt. Things perk up quite wonderfully in the instrumental interlude that begins at the eight minute mark, culminating in a beautiful passage towards the tail end of an awesome guitar solo at 8:40. Here, the guitar melody is supported by a mimicking percussion pattern, heavy on the kicks, that gives everything a nice punch that the song desperately needed. Its a moment worth coming back for it, and to be fair, “Loneliness” certainly is captivating on a musical level, because I did enjoy listening to the instrumental version, so maybe it’ll just take some time to get on board with the vocals. I do get a Summoning vibe from parts of this song, a relatively obscure lo-fi black/viking metal one man project who I’ve seen thrown around here and there as a supposed influence for Mäenpää in writing this album.

So if we’re taking my appraisal literally, we’re looking at a fifty-fifty split on The Forest Seasons; but really its an intriguing listen overall, and for those first two suites, an exciting one at that. Whether or not Wintersun fans will agree enough to continue funding Mäenpää’s studio construction efforts will remain to be seen. They’re a contentious bunch at that, often found arguing with the man himself on the official Wintersun Facebook page where I’ve been an occasional lurker. A band shouldn’t be applauded just for releasing an album, but in this case it seems somewhat needed —- good on Mäenpää for releasing something worth discussing and debating, and for simply getting everyone to stop thinking about Time Pt II. I personally wouldn’t mind if there was yet another Wintersun album released before we even got to that one, so as to create more distance and perhaps lift the weight of expectations off of it just a little. I’m sure at some point in retrospect, Axl Rose would’ve loved to have released a new studio album in between 1991 and 2008, if only to give the much beleaguered Chinese Democracy a chance to breathe. This isn’t quite the same epic weight to carry, but Mäenpää could go a long way towards reclaiming any lost good will by being more consistent. This is definitely a start.

 

 

Edguy Looks Back On 25 Years With Monuments

Our lovable crazy Germans from the little town of Fulda are celebrating twenty-five years of rockin’, and in keeping with how these things are usually marked, we’re getting a career retrospective that spans two discs, as well as a third that’s a DVD with a few music videos and footage of a concert from 2004. I wouldn’t normally review these types of releases, because really, what is there to review apart from song selection? But as I did with Blind Guardian and their retrospective, Memories of a Time To Come, I tend to let that stance slide in the face of some of my favorite bands. The interesting thing about this release is noticeable just from looking at the tracklisting itself, to see that it spans the entirety of Edguy’s career, even from their first four (five if you include the Savage Poetry re-recording) albums back when they were on AFM Records. This is the first time that the band has re-released studio versions of those old songs that weren’t live recordings, suggesting that at some point they were able to purchase that catalog back (pure speculation here, maybe they always had it). There have been compilations before, the 2002 AFM double-live Burning Down the Opera (an underrated live record), and the 2009 Nuclear Blast live CD/DVD Fucking With F***, whose title walks the thin line between stupid and clever. There was also an utterly ridiculous cash grab released called The Singles, which wasn’t the hits compilation its title suggests, merely a full length compilation of the individual King of Fools, Lavatory Love Machine and Superheroes EPs.

I guess its no surprise to anyone for me to admit to owning every Edguy album, including the aforementioned live albums and EPs. I am quite the fan. So my real interest in Monuments is in the five brand new songs the band and label have wisely tacked on to the start of the compilation here in order to turn the heads of fans exactly like myself, and congrats to them, they’ve succeeded. Normally these types of compilations get the odd one or two new songs included, the least amount of effort to get something on the release to simultaneously act as fan bait and serve as a promotional vehicle (and they’re usually a re-polished cutting room floor track). So right off the bat I’ve gotta give the band credit for providing a whole EPs worth of new material here, although there’s some real b-side vibes going on in a few of the songs. Our first introduction to these came a month or so ago with the lyric video for “Ravenblack”, which I mildly liked upon first hearing it then, and actually really enjoy now. Its not earth shattering, but its got a patented Tobias Sammet quality hook in its chorus that’s strong and attention grabbing. Its verses remind me of a sonic collage of the past few Edguy albums, particularly in its use of a slowed down pre-chorus bridge (its likely just a common Sammet tendency that I’m picking up on).

Where “Ravenblack” reminds me of the very recent, pop-inflected, hard rock Edguy of their past few albums, so do the other four new songs, and that’s not only disappointing, but a real missed opportunity to do something fun. If they were hell bent on including five, why not actually take the time to develop five distinctly individual songs that somewhat echoed different styles and even eras of Edguy? So you’d get your hard rock “Ravenblack”, but you could also have a new ballad, done in the style of either a recent ballad (“Save Me”) or a classic styled one (“Wash Away the Poison”). Perhaps another song could be a slice of classic power metal in the vein of something off Mandrake or Theater of Salavation. Maybe the fourth song could’ve been developed into something epic and grand, recalling hints of the types of lengthy epics that have practically every Edguy album since the beginning? And the fifth song could’ve been another addition to the band’s growing roster of tongue-in-cheek humorous songs ala “Lavatory Love Machine” or “Save Us Now”. With the amount of ideas that Sammet must generate and stockpile throughout the years, he surely could’ve had seeds for all of the above. It would’ve been a nod to the fans and a self-aware wink to their own career, and before you get on my case and remind me that I once stated that Sammet’s power metal classicist leanings should be reserved for Avantasia, I’ll just say, if a slice of retro-Edguy isn’t allowed on a new studio album, isn’t a compilation album like this the perfect place for it?

 

If you’re wondering what the heck I’m referring to with that last sentence, basically in my review for Edguy’s 2014 album Space Police, I stumbled upon a revelation: “Sammet has rather conspicuously separated the veins of his songwriting approach into his two ongoing projects. Since 2006, Avantasia would receive (and monopolize) the far more serious, artistic vein, while Edguy’s increasing blendings of hard rock with traditional power metal served as a perfect soundtrack in which Sammet could further indulge his wacky, silly, Scorpions-inspired vein”. Of course, 2016’s Avantasia masterpiece Ghostlights confirmed my theory and saw that project lean harder in a classicist musical direction (not quite the Helloween inspired Metal Operas per say, but definitely miles away from anything hard rock-ish). That being said, this is a retrospective compilation album, and I feel like an exception or two could have been made in the new songs —- but now I’m going on about something imagined. What we got instead are mostly a couple songs similar in style and structure that adhere to the general Edguy sonic template of the past decade.

The best of the rest is clearly “Landmarks”, a speedy double-kick fed blitz that if you close your eyes, sounds like it possibly could have fit on Hellfire Club, but really reminds me of something that could have been off 2011’s Age of the Joker or 2009’s Tinnitus Sanctus. The buildup to the chorus is convincing, but the chorus is missing a certain something, an extra dose of uplift to really sell it or introduce an element of drama to the whole thing. Same goes for “The Mountaineer”, whose delightful lead guitar intro reappears as a teasing motif throughout, but can’t compensate for the underwhelming chorus that seems to drag the entire song down with its lack of energy or impact. Then there’s the fairly pedestrian, plodding “Wrestle the Devil”, with its unfocused verses built on hodge-podge Def Leppard-ian muted rhythmic guitar phrasing. Its just the very definition of filler, a song that’s not bad enough to remember, but not good enough to come back for. That also describes “Open Sesame”, which might be memorable for containing one of the band’s more uninspiring titles and refrain lyrics, so that’s something. Its a dud of a track, but in a weird sort of way, its the closest to a self-aware song about rocking out that they’ve ever done in a Scorpions kind of way. Normally I love that kind of stuff, but this needed to be better.

In summary, save your cash on this one, especially if like me you’re no longer a completionist. As for the rest of the compilation, it’d do for someone new to the band, but this is the age where you normally get into new bands by a buddy texting you the link to a YouTube video, or by reading something that gets you to hit up Spotify. These album length compilations aren’t quite the introduction that they used to be, and in fact a bad one could put a potential new fan off. As far as that’s concerned, Monuments is serviceable but severely flawed at the same time. So I’m going to have a little fun as a Tobias Sammet scholar, and go down the tracklisting and give a quick thought on each with a possible replacement track, because they might’ve consulted the die-hard fans for this project, as there’s some seriously questionable cuts here (but others that are inspired!). Here we go:

 

Disc 1 (first five cuts were the new songs)

 

6. “9-2-9” (from the album Tinnitus Sanctus):

  • Actually the strongest cut from the band’s disjointed, unfocused 2009 album, alongside the aching power ballad “Thorn Without A Rose”. Its far more in the pop-rock mold than a lot of old school fans would like, but its worth including here because its so sharply written, with a chorus that is both memorably melodic and lyrics that are actually non-cliched and interesting for the state of mind they present the narrator in. I really love this song and applaud the decision to add it to this compilation.

 

7. “Defenders of the Crown” (from the album Space Police):

  • One of the more puzzling choices on Monuments, it wasn’t even a highlight of the album it was originally birthed for, let alone a career spanning retrospective. Ideally we’d swap it with an older song but in trying to keep the balance of pre to post 2004 songs somewhat even, I’ll call up “Alone In Myself” from the same album, as it landed on that year’s top ten songs list and is one of my favorite Edguy songs ever. Its light gospel touch was inspired and fresh for a power metal ballad, and its lyrical subject matter addressed the subject of loneliness in a way few artists can.

 

8. “Save Me” (from the album Rocket Ride):

  • This one’s a keeper. Rocket Ride was a deeply divisive album that got a handful of things wrong, but just as many right, and none more so than “Save Me”, the soaring power ballad that remarkably became somewhat of a fan favorite. Its been well documented on this site anyway that I’m a big fan of ballads in metal, and that goes double for power metal. I know a lot of folks hate them, but I find that they’re so much more interesting backed with metallic instrumentation and the willingness to be epic. Ballads by balladeers and crooners can be nice, but mostly are pedestrian. Also, its just been a part of rock music tradition since The Beatles and songs like “Hey Jude” and Zeppelin with “Stairway to Heaven”, so let’s just all agree that they’re here to stay! *ducks*

 

9: “The Piper Never Dies” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • An undeniable Edguy classic, an instant contender for any top ten Edguy songs list debate, and quite possibly in the running for a hypothetical top ten best power metal epics list. Do you feel me? 

 

10. “Lavatory Love Machine” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • A ridiculous song by any standards, it was Edguy’s second stab at delivering a comically inclined song and ended up being the perfect vehicle to give their budding inclinations towards hard rock a test spin. Yes the lyrics are absurd, the mid-song “spoken word” pilot’s address is needless and awful, but dammit all if its not one of the catchiest hooks they’ve ever knocked out. The video was hilarious (again, except for the awful pilot’s address thing) —- I’ll always laugh at Tobias’ hitting a passenger on the nose whilst taking off his jacket or him tripping and stumbling towards the airline stewardess (also, in 2004 that was a relatively high budget video for a non-mainstream metal band). Humor started in Edguy with “Save Us Now” off Mandrake, and was a shocker in the context of that relatively dark and serious album, particularly coming right after Theater of Salvation, the band’s most serious and near spiritually inclined album as well. “LLM” was a signal that this was a permanent part of the band’s identity, a nod towards their Scorpions influences, and also a signal that their sound was about to change. A keeper.

 

11. “King of Fools” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • It could be argued that this was the band’s first legitimate “hit”, a song that made waves in Germany and even dented the charts there (they actually played this live on that country’s McDonald’s Chart Show, a sort of Top of the Pops for Deutchland at the time). It was their first and really only brush with genuine mainstream flirtation, and its easy to see why —- it was simple, basic, and had an easy hook. It played to a market that was becoming receptive to harder music again after the surprising success of Bon Jovi four years prior as well as Iron Maiden’s even more surprising transcendent comeback. I suppose on that ground it could merit consideration, but is it really more deserving than the awesome “Navigator” from the same album? I’ll lean in favor of the latter and vote to replace.

 

12. “Superheroes” (from the album Rocket Ride):

  • Following the template laid down on “King of Fools”, Edguy decided to try their hand at another potentially radio friendly tune in “Superheroes”, a lyrically nonsensical ode to rocker independence (I think). Its an okay song with a video that rivals “Lavatory Love Machine” in sheer silliness, but unlike that song’s self-deprecating message and 80s metal sense of swagger, “Superheroes” was far too saccharine for its own good. Voting to replace this one, my choice being the classic “Painting On the Wall” from Mandrake, that album’s sole single, one of Edguy’s finest songs ever and a glaring oversight here.

 

13. “Love Tyger” (from the album Space Police):

  • I love this song, and it still sounds as lively and fun as it did three years ago when it practically leaped out of the speakers upon my first pass through Space Police. Its the closest Edguy has come to morphing into The Darkness, but its one of their most fully realized hard rock/pop songs. Its also cleverly written, built on Sammet’s alliterative, repeating vocal pattern during the chorus, giving the song a tongue-in-cheek vibe all while swinging with real strut and swagger. It was the second single off the album, but perhaps should’ve been the lead —- that being said, I’m not sure if the band or label picked the track listing (seems like the label), but good on whomever for including this gem.

 

14. “Ministry of Saints” (from the album Tinnitus Sanctus):

  • Picks like this are what makes me think the label cobbled this track listing together and the band just grunted and said sure, because this is the clear winner for the most lackluster Edguy single ever. It was the lead off promotional choice for Tinnitus Sanctus, and despite its aggressiveness, it was a dud of a single. That it represented the band’s worst album has not endeared me to it over the years, it bores me still, but “Thorn Without A Rose” would be a fine replacement from the same album. That might risk things getting too ballad heavy for some folks tastes but I’m down for it!

 

15. “Tears of a Mandrake” (from the album Mandrake):

  • Yes, a keeper, and one of the band’s finest songs to boot. Seriously they could just put all of Mandrake on here and I’d have kept my mouth shut.

 

Disc 2

1. “Mysteria” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • One of Edguy’s most aggressive moments, and a worthy inclusion to this compilation. I will point out that they might have considered including the version of this song with guest vocals from Mille Petrozza of Kreator. It was a bonus cut from the Japanese edition of Hellfire Club if I remember right, but his fiercely angry vocals made an excellent song even better.

 

2. “Vain Glory Opera” (from the album Vain Glory Opera):

  • Ah, finally something pre-1999! This was the first Edguy album where they really found their sound, having previously released the largely demo-based Savage Poetry and their “true” debut in Kingdom of Madness where they were just figuring things out. Its not a perfect album by any means, but it was certainly exciting stuff to hear in the late 90s. This is one of its standout moments, though it hasn’t aged as well as you’d hope, its a slice of Edguy history and deserves to be here.

 

3. “Rock of Cashel” (from the album Age of the Joker):

  • If you go back and read my best albums list from 2011, you’ll see Age of the Joker listed somewhere in the middle of the top ten. That was definitely a mistake, but the blog was barely a month or two old and I hadn’t really developed a process of testing myself against my own biases. Thus Edguy got listed with a mediocre album (though, one that was certainly better than Tinnitus Sanctus), and “Rock of Cashel” was certainly a highlight on it, along with the gorgeous ballad “Every Night Without You”. What this song in particular had going for it was its intriguing Celtic motif that ran throughout, but where such an element made it stand apart on that album, it doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny here against the band’s better efforts. If we’re picking a replacement from that same album and I can’t have that wonderful ballad, I’d pick “Breathe” or the weird but amusing synth rock of “Two Out Of Seven” as more exciting choices.

 

4. “Judas at the Opera” (from the Superheroes EP):

  • One of the more surprising left field inclusions on Monuments, “Judas At the Opera” was enough of a reason to spend the cash on mail ordering the Superheroes EP, featuring a vocal collab with one Michael Kiske, sort of a precursor to his return with Avantasia in 2008. I’ve always contended that Sammet is probably the best songwriter Kiske could ever have hoped for and this is a prime example. I will however point out something that never really bothered me until now, but I question the inclusion of the homophobic lyrics here. Given what I’ve come to know about Sammet throughout the years, it was a tongue in cheek lyric (and taken in context with the entirety of the song, it is a slightly humorous song), and he meant no serious offense. But hearing it now for the first time in awhile, it stands out as a glaring flaw on an otherwise awesome song. For that reason alone, I don’t know if it belongs on a compilation that’s supposed to represent the band’s best moments. Reluctantly would replace it with “The Asylum” from Rocket Ride, an overlooked epic that had both grit and gravitas.

 

5. “Holy Water” (from the King of Fools EP):

  • Yes, keeping this one, a thousand times yes. I will always wonder why the heck Edguy didn’t include “Holy Water” on either Mandrake or Hellfire Club, depending on when it was written. It has the feel of Mandrake era high drama but with Hellfire Club style hard rock guitars, and is so excellent that it could have been a single off either album. Its relgation to a b-side status for “King of Fools” no less was nothing short of the biggest oversight of Edguy’s career. This is a contender for the top ten Edguy songs list, and just a pure, joyous musical reminder of why we love bands that play music like this. At least its inclusion here redeems the mistake somewhat and gives the song another chance in the sun.

 

6. “Spooks in the Attic” (from the Superheroes EP):

  • Just like its fellow Superheroes EP lurker “Judas At the Opera”, this was one of those songs strong enough to warrant a purchase of that release by itself. Not only is “Spooks…” well written, but it has a kinetic energy flowing through it that is a combination of its urgent tempo, the incredibly well executed backing vocals, and some deft guitar work from Jens Ludwig and Dirk Sauer. This was one of the first displays of Sammet understanding that he had stumbled upon a great backing vocalist team whose work elevated his songwriting. Two of the key members of the future Avantasia group vocal recording sessions are present here, the immaculate Amanda Somerville and Thomas Rettke. An inspired pick.

 

7. “Babylon” (from the album Theater of Salvation):

  • Duh. “Babylon” stays, its an all-time power metal classic that transcends even Edguy. That unforgettable guitar melody has converted so many over to power metal that it deserves its own spot in any future power metal hall of fame. The lyrics make no sense, but that never mattered to anyone.

 

8. “The Eternal Wayfarer” (from the album Space Police):

  • This isn’t a bad song by any means (its downright awesome from 5:03 to 7:00), but it has no business being on this list because it wasn’t even in the top three best songs off Space Police. As an Edguy epic it doesn’t hit that sweet spot of over the top bombast and sailing on stormy seas drama. With that in mind, I’m going to replace it with another Edguy epic seeing as how we’re a little light on those on Monuments, and go with the transcendent, “Theater of Salvation”, which is one of my all-time favorite Sammet cuts. That song is so epic I have to brace myself every time I listen to it, because when that breathless guitar solo kicks in at 4:58, its an out of body experience.

 

9. “Out of Control” (from the album Vain Glory Opera):

  • An often overlooked gem from the late 90s that saw two titans of the power metal resurgence converge at an amazing time in both of their careers, “Out of Control” features Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch on guest vocals. He’s not all over the song, but chimes in for the refrain, a subtle inclusion that somehow makes all the difference in the world. That’s the power of Hansi. I’ve been using the word inspired too much during this review, but let’s give Sammet some credit here —- picking Hansi to elevate an already awesome song was certainly deserving of that adjective. (Just also want to point out that this was the first Edguy song I ever heard, back in 1999 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown radio show on Friday afternoons hosted by Doctor Metal. That show was massively influential in my becoming a power metal fan, in fact, I give Doc pretty much all the credit. The show is on terrestrial radio in Cleveland, but the station was pioneering in its early adoption of broadcasting on the internet starting in the late 90s, which is how I was able to listen it. Its still on the air on Tuesday afternoons, the Doc a constant source of what’s happening in power metal, give it a listen.)

 

10. “Land of the Miracle” (from the album Theater of Salvation):

  • If you have yet to listen to Theater of Salvation, trust me when I say this, you need to remedy that straight away. Its one of the all-time power metal classics and was a part of that late 90s power metal movement that established the genre and moved the hearts of so many fans who craved to hear music like this. Truthfully you could pick any cut off that album for this compilation and I’d be okay with it, and “Land of the Miracle” qualifies with particular honors as a fan favorite, particularly as a live sing-along. Its not my personal favorite Edguy ballad, but its the closest thing Edguy have to a “Bard’s Song”, and is deserving of its place here.

 

11. “Key to My Fate”  (from the album The Savage Poetry (re-recorded version)):

  • Wow, we’re just now getting to The Savage Poetry, an album that you’ll be forgiven for overlooking because the band doesn’t really play anything from it these days. A little history: the original Savage Poetry was the 1995 album length demo that got the band signed, and it was technically followed up by their “debut” album Kingdom of Madness in 1997. But the band almost immediately disavowed KoM as deeply flawed (and it was, albeit still listenable), and quickly surpassed it with Vain Glory Opera and of course, Theater of Salvation. I still remember hearing Sammet in an interview in 1999 with the aforementioned Doctor Metal on The Metal Meltdown explaining the decision to re-record the demo, that the songs deserved another chance to shine. He was right, because The Savage Poetry is an excellent power metal album that is overshadowed by being sandwiched between Theater and Mandrake and Avantasia’s The Metal Opera Pt 1. The ballads “Roses to No One”, “Sands of Time”, and the thunderous epic “Eyes of the Tyrant” are classics in my book. As is “Key to My Fate”, one of the band’s finest up-tempo cuts with as glorious a chorus you’ll ever hear.

 

12. “Space Police” (from the album Space Police):

  • I’m cool with this being here, because I loved this song on the album and its semi-nod to the power metal Edguy seems to fit well with everything here. Others might disagree, but I thought Space Police was a return to form for Edguy, and songs like this were a major reason why. Its admittedly a little weird with its spacey sound effects and its slow tempo drop just before the accelerating chorus, not to mention its bizarre lyrics. But with Space Police, Edguy became Sammet’s vehicle for indulging this looser, sillier, tongue-in-cheek rockin’ side of his musical inclinations, and he did it with confidence here.

 

13. “Reborn in the Waste” (unreleased 1995 demo, Savage Poetry):

  • As indicated above, this is apparently an unreleased song from the original Savage Poetry demo, which is a cool little bonus for the sake of the band’s history. As a song, its unremarkable, and its not surprising that it was left off the original Savage Poetry demo —- to me it actually sounds like something that could have fit in on Kingdom of Madness which is unrepresented here for good reason. If you’re wondering why I’d consider the original Savage Poetry demo to be better than Kingdom of Madness, at least in songwriting terms, well its the classic rock band affliction right? A band has all the time in the world to write their debut, but only months or less to knock out that all important sophomore release. Make no mistake, even though Kingdom is technically their debut as a signed professional band, it was spiritually their troubled second album. On their “third” attempt, they knocked out Vain Glory Opera, and we were off to power metal glory.

 

So this went a little long, but its been past time for a little Edguy retrospective, and Monuments provided the perfect excuse to indulge in a little fanboy-dom. While I won’t be buying it, it did cause me to go back and revisit the entire discography which was fun and surprising for what I found myself positively responding to or not. Albums I thought were okay at the time have not aged well (Age of the Joker chief among them), but there were more than a handful of excellent songs that I’d almost forgotten about just from years of not listening to the albums they were on, particularly on Rocket Ride. What I do hope Edguy does in keeping with this whole anniversary thing is finally come back to the States to give us long suffering fans a proper tour. Yes it’d be a club tour, but suck it up and team up with another power metal band (Dragonforce perhaps?) to make it workable financially and ensure a draw. They’ve only toured the States twice before (2005 and 2009, never in Texas btw), and seem to lack the will to play the smaller venues they’d likely have to. But they have fans here who deserve to see the band, and likewise, the band deserves to see them.

Their Glorious Return: Iced Earth’s Incorruptible and Vintersorg’s Till Fjälls del II

Its been an interesting month and a half in metal, mainly because I can’t remember the last time so many of my longtime favorite artists have released something within weeks of one another. One of which we’ll talk about sometime soon with their upcoming two-disc retrospective, but for now both Iced Earth and Vintersorg have new albums out. Iced Earth was one of the first non-mainstream metal bands I found my way to, by virtue of repeatedly seeing their album Dark Saga in the Best Buy racks circa 1996/97. On one of those trips to the old big box, I ended up picking it up out of sheer curiosity due to its cover constantly catching my eye, and it was a revelation, an almost symbiotic merging of Iron Maiden with Metallica. Little did I know initially (but would soon find out) that Iced Earth was one of the sole bands flying the flag of traditional metal throughout the early 90s. And then there’s Vintersorg, one Andreas Hedlund, whose Odenmarken’s Son and Cosmic Genesis was my introduction to folk-metal (frankly I didn’t even know such a thing existed until I got wind of those albums in 2000). He’s had an interesting, evolving discography throughout his solo project and his work in Borknagar, and the past few Vintersorg releases have seen him slowly coming back to a more rootsy, folkier sound as opposed to the proggy experimentation he was delving into a decade ago. That path has led him to create music that reminded him of his 1998 folk-metal landmark Till fjälls, and resultingly he realized that he had stumbled onto creating its direct sequel, nearly twenty years later.

 


 

Iced EarthIncorruptible:

I guess the first thing I should mention before discussing the new Iced Earth album is how much I flipped from my initial opinion of 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, which at the time of writing its review I thought was pretty solid. I listened to that album fairly consistently until I saw the band in concert on their North American trek a few months later, and that really was the last time I did until relatively recently for the purposes of preparing for this review. That’s never a good sign, for years to pass without revisiting an album is a sure sign that it was at best average and possibly even a little below that, right? My recent re-listens through Plagues have proven my original review to have been a little too generous, perhaps the beneficiary of just how enthralled I was with 2011’s still excellent Dystopia. I suspect now that there was a little confirmation bias creeping in, my fanboy-ism at the band’s third act succeeding so triumphantly with the addition of Stu Block that I let it influence my opinion of the music. The reality is that the band stumbled on Plagues, a record with a few highlights (the fun, romping cover of “The Highwaymen” being one of them), but largely a plodding, tiring, un-melodic affair (see the title track for an example of all three). In retrospect I wonder if the exhaustive touring cycle for Dystopia (the band’s longest ever) and the interruptions of stints opening for Volbeat on a desirable arena tour sapped the band’s reserves of energy all the way through the writing process of that album. Jon Schaffer has recently commented that he felt the album was rushed, and I can’t help but agree if he’s talking about the songwriting/pre-production period. The songs weren’t there.

So Incorruptible sees the band knowingly trying to rally, and Schaffer has stripped everything down its core elements more than ever. This is the first Iced Earth album not to feature a concept in any way (I’m not saying that every release they’ve put out was conceptual as a whole, but there were conceptual aspects to portions of every album). This is a telling feature, a way for the band to re-orient themselves to recapture their basic songwriting spirit, and despite vocalist Stu Block’s four songwriting credits, this is a largely Schaffer guided album. Ten songs (one surprisingly interesting instrumental) that are in many ways a prism though which the entire Iced Earth discography can be seen, with hints of previous eras coming to the fore with every track. It might even be a little disingenuous to characterize it as a back to basics album, because this was never a band that did anything basic —- concepts and grand ambition were always a defining trait of Schaffer’s vision for the band. More accurately, if there ever were an album deserving of a mid-career self-titling, this would be it (as loathsome as the very idea of a veteran band releasing a self-titled album is… ahem, Queensryche). Its a representative statement of the things this band can do, from galloping Maidenisms to thundering war-anthems to their distinctive approach to semi-ballads, this is Iced Earth 101 if you will.

And as an introductory course, it succeeds wildly. I haven’t had this much fun, real tangible joy in listening to an Iced Earth album since 2004’s The Glorious Burden. It barrels out the gates with the viking ode “Great Heathen Army” with a real sense of propulsion its aggressive streak that courses throughout the entire song. Block wrote the lyrics and vocal melody on this one, and he’s back in his Dystopia era form, crafting tight, sharp, memorable vocal melodies. The most vivid example of this comes on the next track and album highlight, “Black Flag”, a deftly written, Maiden-esque anthem about the golden age of piracy sans any trace of the Disney factor that has contaminated this subject matter in other bands such as the dreadful Alestorm. Its an adrenaline charged song, and my absolute favorite on the album —- that chorus is spectacularly written: “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. But the terrific lyricism doesn’t end there, as heard in the second verse: Stories foretold/ Of silver and gold / And the empires greed / Well god damn the queen / We’ll string up the kings / We’re rogues of the seas / The freest of men / Fly no colors at all / And our creed is our own…”. The alliterative rhyme scheme at work here is not only phonetically sound, but instantly memorable, set to a tightly controlled yet loose and lively melody. Its one of Iced Earth’s most inspired moments, not only of this album, but of their entire career (to this fan, its an all-time classic).

The Schaffer-ian semi-ballad makes its welcome return as well, in the form of “Raven Wing”, a track whose sound profile is so similar to The Dark Saga that you’d swear it was a Japanese bonus track from that album. There’s a nod to classics such as “I Died For You” and “Melancholy (Watching Over Me)” in its intro segue, but then it unfolds into a mid-tempo stomper built on slabs of gritty, earthen riffs with open chord sustains. The guiding melody is left to Block, who has always reminded me of a meeting point between Matt Barlow and Tim Owens vocal approaches, and he recalls both in varying shades here. That’s not a knock on Block, and in a way, I suspect that Schaffer’s writing style naturally results in his vocalist having to sing in a way that recalls touches of the past (because how else could this song be sung… can’t go too low, a baritone would clash with the tonality of the music, nor can you go too high, a helium touched vocal would sound bizarrely out of place). It simultaneously a comforting slice of Iced Earth nostalgia and yet still reverberates as something fresh and genuine. The same can be said for “The Veil”, whose similar semi-ballad composition gives Block one of his shining moments, a chorus where his emotional range is on full display (the harmony layering later in the track is satisfyingly sweet).

 

When the initial preview track “Seven Headed Whore” was first released, I was a bit taken aback by what I believe I described as its modern day Slayer vibe. Now after having sat with it for a few months and hearing it in the context of the album, particularly as a change of pace after those aforementioned preceding semi-ballads, it holds up a little better. It actually feels like a spiritual cousin to “Violate” from Dark Saga, which also wasn’t my favorite track on that album but helped to inject some welcome variation in a largely mid-tempo album. I’ve read some criticism online of its overtly political lyrical theme, and Schaffer’s had his share of critics and derision when he discusses his views on, well, everything in interviews. All that aside, I’ve always found Schaffer to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and engaging interview subjects in metal (his half-hour interview on the bonus disc of Horror Show is a classic). I consider myself a patriotic American citizen, no more or less than others, and it was with Iced Earth that I first heard metal that spoke to that (thinking of classics like “Ghost of Freedom” off Horror Show, and “1776” from Something Wicked). Schaffer’s music was the motivating factor in getting me reading about the civil war for the first time and understanding its historical importance. He’s a valuable voice in metal, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what he’s said.

Its being said that perhaps Incorruptible is a little too front loaded, that the second half doesn’t hold up as well, and while I mostly disagree with that I can concede that “Relic (Part 1)” isn’t the most captivating song. Its not bad, and I like the different delivery that Block takes on some of the verse segments, but it could benefit from being a little shorter and its chorus a little punchier (its all a little too mid-tempo-y throughout, a sharp variation could’ve helped here). I’m also not sure if its deserving of a sequel, as indicated by its title but hey, we’ll see how that turns out next time. I do love the melody at work in the instrumental “Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)” (again quipping on the title, does an instrumental really need a parenthetical?), but I feel like this could have been turned into a fantastic proper song if they had just given it a little more time. That being said, they did the instrumental thing right, leaning hard on a melody that is strong enough to carry a tune without words (and hey, its another nod to the structure of past Iced Earth albums). The rounding out tracks “Defiance” and “Brothers” are beefy, reliably catchy workhorse numbers that don’t detract from the overall album quality, particularly the former with its Priest-ian vocal bridge. And while its intro runs a little long for my liking, I do love “Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862) for its thunderous, Glorious Burden-esque battle scaping vocal narration (“Forward! Clear the way!”). Frankly, there’s no one better at crafting inspiring, ultra-melodic, patriotically themed guitar melodies than Schaffer.

The overall result here is a win for Iced Earth, a rebound from the rushed and tired Plagues of Babylon and at the same time, a sort of career retrospective set to new music. The latter detail is particularly noteworthy when considering this is their last album on their current Century Media contract (their second stint with the label after some time away, and presumably, after having repaired a frayed relationship). In the time leading up to the pre-production for this album, Schaffer bought a building in which to house the band’s rehearsal space, recording studio (primary tracking only, not mixing), merch warehouse, and general business offices (Wintersun’s wet dream in other words?). It was a decided move towards perhaps seeing the next Iced Earth album released entirely independent of a record label, and Schaffer clearly relishes that possibility. If anyone can make it happen, Schaffer certainly can, and he’s seen his contemporaries try it in differing ways: Blind Guardian owning their own Twilight Hall recording studios to make multi-year long sessions possible; Kamelot self-releasing Poetry For the Poisoned in North America; Therion’s Christofer Johnsson betting on his mortgage in self-financing the French pop covers album Les Fleurs du Mal (and succeeding!). I know this is business talk all of a sudden, but the next Iced Earth album will certainly be interesting in more ways than just the music. For now, Incorruptible is more than enough to sustain us til then.

 

Vintersorg – Till fjälls, del II:

Still can’t believe this is here. The idea of a sequel to Till Fjalls just seemed to good to be true, particularly since I thought surely we’d get the fourth album in the four elements cycle Vintersorg had been locked into since 2011 first. And certainly I never thought that Vintersorg was the kind of artist interested in revisiting something so deep from his musical past, particularly when he’d ventured so far away from his native Scandinavian folk roots in the pursuit of a more progressive driven direction. Vintersorg is unique for more than a handful of reasons, but among the most important of those are his central presence in the history and formation of folk-metal as a subgenre, both through his namesake project but also through the two albums he released with Otyg. Then there’s also the fact that he is criminally overlooked by the metal media as a whole, never given the proper due, respect, or attention by the big print media publications. The fact that it wasn’t until minute 38 of the 42 minute running time of Lock Horns “Folk Metal” debate/discussion that Vintersorg was put up on the board still rankles in my mind as a slap in the face to those of us who’ve long known about Mr. V (as his longtime Ultimate Metal Official Vintersorg Forum members know him to post as). To guest host Natalie Zed’s great credit, she seemed to immediately recognize it as a glaring omission and immediately corrected the oversight (she’s the real deal when it comes to folk metal knowledge by the way, see her reviews on Angry Metal Guy). Hopefully, with the release of this unexpected but breath of fresh Norwegian winter air sequel, heads will turn and we can start getting Mr. V some deserved respect (dammit).

For anyone not following the story, in hearing this album you’d be surprised to know that less than three years ago, Vintersorg was uncertain about his future as a vocalist in general. He suffered a traumatic brain injury by falling off a ladder, the damage being three cracks in his skull, brain hemorrhaging, and dysfunction in his ear. When he chimed in personally for an update in April of 2015, he claimed to be uncertain of when he could even attempt a return to music. Its been said that most (if not all) of his vocals on Borknagar’s early 2016 Winter Thrice release were actually recorded sometime in 2014 before the accident, so Till Fjalls del II might actually be the first post-accident vocals we’re hearing from the man. Well, I’m pleased to hear him sounding on top form here, not only from an artistic and fan standpoint but from a personal one as well. This album is not only a triumph for his fans, but for Mr. V himself, he’s gotta feel really good about his performance here —- because in many ways, Till Fjalls del II is superior to the original, in both songwriting execution as well as the more obvious upgrade on the sonic level. It might be jumping the gun to call it yet another one of his masterpieces, but damn it all if it doesn’t feel like it is one. And in a year when real, gritty, spiritual folk metal seems to be making a long overdue comeback (check King of Asgard and Wolfheart’s releases), Till Fjalls del II is like hearing the horn of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Our rescue from the dumb comic pageantry of Korpiklanni, Equilibrium, modern day Finntroll and Leaves Eyes may very well be at hand.

 

I know I rail against that kind of stuff hard, but it wasn’t an attitude I came to easily. For years I gave a lot of those bands leeway and a ton of patience, but where they ended up is so far from what I loved about folk-metal in the first place. In the liner notes of the awesome 2000 release Cosmic Genesis, Vintersorg thanked Carl Sagan, and delivered the still shiver inducing lyrics “In heaven I am a wild ox / On Earth I am a lion… The Scientist of darkness / Older than the constellations…” (on “The Enigmatic Spirit”). In summary, it was so much more elevated, thoughtful, and yes, spiritual than the bizarre, troll cosplaying, beer drinking singalongs that the bulk of the genre degenerated into after Finntroll released their “Trollhammaren” single in 2004. I feel this return to that older spirit when listening to Till Fjalls del II, even more than I did in spare, momentary glimpses on his past three “elements” albums where he did slowly incorporate more of his old folk stylings. Those albums, particularly Solens Rotter and Orkan found Vintersorg trying to regain his footing in songwriting in a less convoluted, progressive structure. They were still infused with the avant-garde quality of Visions From the Spiral Generator and The Focusing Blur, and as a result were at times murky and difficult.

What separates Till Fjalls del II from those is Vintersorg’s wholesale adapting of old-school folk metal rhythmic structures, including its reliance on intertwined acoustic guitar crafted melodies. Take “Allt Mellan Himmel Och Jord”, where the raw black metal drops away to be replaced by a compelling acoustic folk guitar/piano passage that dramatically shifts the songs direction. Or take the beautiful “Vårflod”, where open chord acoustic pluckings usher in the gorgeous female vocals of folk metal legend (and former/maybe current Otyg violinist/vocalist) Cia Hedmark. This is not only my favorite song from the album, but one of my favorite cuts all year period —- the slowed down, drawn out refrain, built on Vintersorg’s inimitable vocal delivery is just peak majestic folk metal. I love it. Mattias Marklund’s underrated guitarwork is as distinctive and unapologetically melodic as ever, but he gets downright Guns N’ Rosian on “Lavin” during a mid-song solo, showing off a side to his playing that we’ve never heard before. It made me laugh giddily when I first heard it, being so unexpected but awesome.

It is on the whole, far more brutal than the original Till Fjalls ever was, but that’s more down to Vintersorg drawing on all the influences in his career that he’s accumulated since 1998. So we get moments where the progressive touches come to the fore, and others where Borknagar-esque black metal just stampedes all over the place, its all just part of who he is now. In one of the few interviews he’s done for this album, he remarked that when he was sitting down to write this music, ostensibly for the next and final elemental album, he realized that the stuff that was coming out had the swing and folky-step of his old classics. He unintentionally stumbled into making Till Fjalls II, which was described in his official statement in the press release for the album as: “…a heartfelt return to snow capped mountains, pure nature-inspired mysticism, Nordic folklore and real black metal with a captivating epic streak”. Heartfelt is the key word I’m latching onto there, because its exactly what I feel when listening to this, and where the past few Vintersorg albums haven’t moved me as much as I wanted, this one has rocked me to my core. Don’t be surprised to see this on the best albums of the year list, its really that excellent. It’ll certainly be the soundtrack to what I can only hope will be a bitter cold winter.

 

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