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.

 

The Bounty of Spring! New Music March!

mpavatThe bounty of spring indeed, because this month I’ve found myself going through at least eight new releases, a few of which aren’t listed in the reviews below but might be up later sometime. Some of these are also late February releases that I had overlooked that month or simply thought were coming out in March (or more accurately, I didn’t get around to listening to until recently). There’s a lot to get to and I’ve tried to keep things short and concise for you and me both, so we’ll apply that to this preamble too. Begin!

 


 

wolfheart_tyhjyys_zpszbazutp9Wolfheart – Tyhjyys:

On the latest episode of the MSRcast, listen to my cohost Cary and I collectively slap our foreheads in bafflement at not knowing that Wolfheart was the newest project from Tuomas Saukkonen. I did have vague stirrings that I had remembered the band name somewhere, but laziness compelled me not to do a simple Google search on it (or I got distracted by Twitter, both likely culprits). Saukkonen is the restless spirit behind Black Sun Aeon (an MSRcast favorite), Before the Dawn, Dawn of Solace, and the short lived RoutaSielu melo-death project. He’s the Chris Black type (he of High Spirits, Dawnbringer, and Pharaoh fame), the kind of musician who operates under a project/band name until he feels its run its course, upon which he creates a new moniker, and begins to record under that for however long he feels its inspiration. These projects have been different enough musically to warrant such divisions, though they are almost always cooked up in a Finnish broth of blackened doom along with melodic death metal structures. Whereas Black Sun Aeon was a very Finnish extreme take on gothic metal, Saukkonen leans in an altogether new direction here, more towards the progressive simplicity of latter day Enslaved. Its a natural fit because one of his trademarks is his clever and engaging use of minimalism as a guide in his songwriting, allowing for the usage of empty space to create tension and to amplify heavier passages.

Case in point is the single “The Flood”, an acoustic led epic that recalls mid-period Opeth for its delicate patterns and understated minor key melodicism. I love a track that’s so confident in its overall strength that it allows for moments of sparsely adorned quietude where the drums are the dominating instrument, helped by Joonas Kauppinen’s jazz-inflected fills (check 2:04 – 2:26). That aforementioned Enslaved influence can’t help but be heard on a cut like “Boneyard”, whose main riff is a mish-mash of tremolo picking and modern day prog-metal, book ending a chorus that’s elevated by a bed of forceful keyboard atmospherics. Wolfheart’s keyboard usage is multi-faceted, not only serving as quasi-orchestral arrangements at times, but as purposefully artificial in tone as on “The Rift”, to conjure up a complementary melody to the rhythm guitar riff that brings to mind Omnium Gatherum and Insomnium (not bad touchstones to have). Unlike those fellow Finnish artists however, who occasionally swim in tones that can be described as warm, or summery (as in the honeyed melodies of One For Sorrow), Wolfheart choose to work with decidedly wintry sounds. That’s not a bad thing because they have the songwriting chops to keep it interesting, but for folks who can’t handle an overload of that stuff, it could act as a stumbling block. That being said there’s not a weak track on this album, and with only seven songs (excluding one rather well written instrumental intro) they could hardly afford one.

The Takeaway: Modern day Enslaved meets Blackwater era Opeth while being bear hugged by Metallica-esque accessibility. Worth a shot for extreme metal neophytes and old hands alike.

 

 

evocationtheshadowcd_zpsbkma3mt7Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:

Evocation aren’t exactly the most known name in death metal, despite existing in some spirit or another since 1991(!). There were demos and more demos in those early days, then a sudden implosion that halted any activity for years upon years. This halt in momentum prevented their ascent to the region defining status of their fellow Swedish death metal peers in Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and Unleashed. They eventually returned in 2007 with their long overdue debut album Tales From the Tomb, and went on to release three more between then and 2012. They were largely built upon that expected SDM template of buzzsaw guitars and dirty riffs, albeit with hellish vocals caught between a melo-death scream and something far more guttural. Eschewing any guest appearance by the cookie monster, Evocation presented a far more accessible take on this style of death metal, something later co-opted by Grave on their excellent Endless Procession of Souls. But its been five years since then, and while that gap of time might have frustrated anyone who felt like the band was a bit on a roll, those were four relatively uneven albums, with 2010’s Apocalypse being the only one I ever go back to. So I’m happy to report that the break has been beneficial for Evocation, with The Shadow Archetype easily being the best, most confident album of their career. If there’s any justice in the metal world, everyone will recognize this and perhaps even those in the non-metal worlds will give it the Gorguts Colored Sands treatment.

This is an addictive, refreshingly simple and direct re-imagining of the Evocation sound, a distillation of the band’s strengths into a cohesive, brutally effective death metal tonic. The sonics here are deep, raw, and dirty yet recorded with unbelievably wide dynamic range and instrument separation —- take the opener “Condemned to the Grave”, where ominous lead guitar motifs cleanly glide over riffs that hit you with the force of a monster truck smashing over junkyard cars. If you’re getting hints of At the Gates and The Haunted at moments, such as on “Modus Operandi”, you’re not hearing things. I suspect that the band deliberately kept reinforced the Gothenburg influence they’d picked up through the years and use it as a way to explore further melodicism within their traditionally straight ahead Swedish death metal approach (“Survival of the Sickest” being a prime example of the latter). This helps to explain the acoustic instrumental “Blind Obedience“, the most Gothenburg/Jesper Stromblad-ian thing they’ve ever attempted. I can’t pick a favorite track here, because this is a flawless album from start to finish, but I’ll give a special nod to “Children of Stone” for its mix of complex songwriting and structure held in check by ferocious guitar riffs that practically slam their way into action during transitions from verse to chorus and back again. What a song, what an album.

The Takeaway: A must listen to for 2017, one of the early contenders for the album of the year list.

 

 

Immolation-Atonement_zpsmgophuf4Immolation – Atonement:

Immolation have always been a unique specimen among modern American death metal bands, and to be more precise, from their hometown New York death metal scene at that. They certainly don’t sound like any of the NYDM bands I’ve heard, especially not the ones approved by those few dudes at local death metal shows around Houston and Texas in general sporting those silly NYDM brotherhood patches on their ripped jean jacket vests. I’ve idly wondered if those guys would consider Immolation false metal based on how far they stick out from other bands from the region (transcended more like), but never had a real inclination to strike up a conversation with any of them. Probably for the better. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Immolation on the blog before because I didn’t actually pen a review for 2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy, feeling a little blah about that album in general (I’ll be revisiting it soon to see if that’s changed); but I was a huge fan of their 2010 masterpiece, Majesty and Decay. That’s in my top five death metal albums of all time, an astonishing album of brutal death metal that was more oppressive in spirit than in overwhelming walls of sound, a key to its success. It would always be a difficult benchmark to top, and I wonder if that’s something that was on the band’s collective conscience this time around, four years after Kingdom of Conspiracy.

On Atonement, the first thing I noticed before playing the album was the cover art, purposefully more colorful and vivid than their past three releases (including the 2011 Scion A/V presents Providence EP), as well as the reintroduction of their old school logo. I went in expecting some reversion to an older school sound, bracing to hear evidence of the band I once enjoyed purposefully packed away from sight and sound. That turns out to not be the case, and I’m at a loss to explain the cosmetic changes surrounding the album because Atonement is still Immolation fully engaged in their modern mode. That is, death metal written with intelligence, thought, and attention to detail. There’s still an oppressive atmosphere pervading everything, but the instrumentation is still clearly defined, with space and breathing room allowed for everything even during the most intense and hectic passages. A true highlight here is “The Power of Gods”, which features a cleverly written ascending scale pattern that both serves as a hook and a motif at the same time. Equally impressive is the title track, with its deft intro riff pattern repeated throughout as a moving anchor tethering strains of furious, roiling chaotic noise in all directions. There’s musical curiosities as well, such as the bizarre guitar figures that adorn “Thrown to the Fire”, almost treading into non-sludgy sludge-doom territory (if that makes any sense!). Vocalist Ross Dolan is on fine form throughout, but he always is, an ageless wonder in the world of brutal death metal, of particular note is his menacing energy on “When the Jackals Come”, delivering its eponymous lyrics with enough clarity so there’s no mistaking his meaning. Yikes.

The Takeaway: A return to form, if not a confusing way to go about it. No its not as awesome as Majesty and Decay, but few albums are… if you’re new to the band, I highly recommend starting there and then moving to this.

 

 

bloodboundwod_zpsqsygakq1Bloodbound – War of Dragons:

I’ve never been able to get my head around Bloodbound, mostly because they can’t seem to do the same themselves, so thoroughly schizophrenic have they been over the course of their career. So here’s where I have to use caution, because I do love that a band like Bloodbound exists because its 2017 and we need all the new blood (no pun!) we can get to keep this beloved subgenre going. But good grief, they’ve really taken a turn for the worse here and have succumbed to a rather disheartening recent trend within power metal to amplify the style’s most egregious tendencies to the max. I’m thinking about those purposefully silly bands like Gloryhammer and Twilight Force, because there’s no way songs titled “Tears of a Dragonheart” and “Dragons are Forever” can be excused as anything else. I’m not anti-dragon, but that’s just goddamned silly (edit – this might be the most ridiculous sentence I’ve ever written). Are you kidding me with this stuff Bloodbound? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, because as alluded to above, these guys have been all over the place stylistically and thematically since their debut album. Yet the lineup on War of Dragons is still three-fifths of the band that recorded the truly inspired Tabula Rasa…so what happened?

Well line-up changes happened first of all, with the 2010 exit of vocalist Urban Breed bringing in current vocalist Patrik Selleby. Lost in that transition was not only Breed’s rather unique aggressive mid-range vocal approach, but his innate talent as a songwriter, writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies during his time in Tad Morose and bringing that talent to his two Bloodbound albums as well. Selleby is a far more conventional power metal voice, a good one at that with an impressive upper register, but he’s far more dependent on predictable power metal vocal patterns. Its hard to figure out if he’s the reason for the band’s increasingly simplified songwriting formula over the course of these past three albums but I’d equally point the finger at Bloodbounds three remaining original members. As a forgiving power metal fan, I can’t shake the feeling that these guys are looking for a straight shot to the most accessibility the subgenre can provide, and that means following whatever route that currently seems to be working for others. Only that can explain the increase in Gloryhammer-esque hamminess that characterizes War of Dragons on a lyrical level, and also the co-opting of Sabaton styled keyboard lines that mirror the vocal melody. That works for Sabaton because its part of their organic, original sound —- and the hamminess works for Gloryhammer because of their overall package. Bloodbound has no identity of their own anymore, and maybe the loss of Breed’s signature lyrical depth and intelligent vocal melody design on Tabulsa Rasa suggests they never did.

The Takeaway: The McDonalds of power metal then. 

 

 

morsprincipest_eoadw_zpsnlupp2qyMors Principium Est – Embers of a Dying World:

The lesser noticed little brother of Finnish melodic death metal (relative to Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum that is), Mors Principium Est are now on album number six, which is not remarkable in its own right except to suggest that they’ve had plenty of time to direct their sound in a more focused, organic direction. That actually is the feeling I’ve gotten from Embers of a Dying World, that the band is still in love with the Gothenburg template (nothing inherently wrong with that), but has this time around stumbled upon a way to incorporate more of a Finnish approach to their melo-death. That doesn’t mean they’re copying their brothers, but this is the most noticeably different sounding album in their discography, owing to Gothic-tinged keyboard arrangements, mournful melodies set to slower tempos in places, as well as the surprising inclusion of an actual ballad here in “Death Is The Beginning”. Its a bold experiment, one that I’m surprised they haven’t tried earlier, and here they include female vocals for the first time that I can remember, and it works really well. Check out “The Drowning” for a vivid example of just how much the band is stretching into unfamiliar territory —- a slightly below mid-tempo synth groove with Queensryche meets melo-death lead guitar drapery with playfully subtle tempo accelerations in the glide-in and out of its addictive chorus. This isn’t the Mors we once knew, yet they still sound like themselves, a challenge for any band to achieve.

This expansion of their palette I believe is a direct result of guitarist Andy Gillion’s gradually increasing songwriting influence since he joined up in 2011. His first two albums with the band displayed flashes of this transforming influence, but here he fully blossoms, and it seems that longtime vocalist Ville Viljanen and bassist Teemu Heinola are happy to let him take most of the songwriting reins. Its an odd quirk that its taken a British guitarist to coax out more of a Finnish sound from Mors, but Gillion brings a brashness, a boldness that the band has needed both musically and personality wise. Case in point, check out his tour diary for the band’s stay on this year’s 70000 Tons cruise; he’s an outgoing, upbeat, and playful personality. This is all just idle speculation, but he seems to have loosened up the band in general, and I can hear this affect Viljanen on Embers more than anyone, his performances here are the best of his career. He’s been one of the best melo-death voices for a long time, possessing that perfect condensed scream-growl vocal, but on new songs like “Apprentice of Death” and “Into the Dark”, he tries new approaches, invoking more of a blackened Satyr vibe. Its a subtle change, but it suits him and helps those two songs breathe. The whole band is breathing easier on Embers in fact, this is one of the nicer surprises this year.

The Takeaway: This may be up for vicious debate, but this is certainly my favorite Mors Principium Est album, so full of unexpected twists and turns yet not sounding like they’ve transformed into anyone else.

The Belated Fall Reviews Cluster: Darkthrone, Sonata, Theocracy, Alcest!

This is late incoming, oh I know, but better late than never right? This was supposed to come out in November but some real life stuff got in the way and exhaustion claimed most of what spare time was left. So while that left little time for writing, I did manage to get some extra listening time on all these releases below which proved critical in changing my opinion on one or two. This isn’t all that I listened to (hardly), but we’re running out of 2016 so this will be the last cluster of the year —-with that in mind, you might be hearing about a few albums not listed here on the upcoming Best of 2016 double feature. I’ll keep this preamble short, only to mention that I’ll have a hard look at the new Metallica coming next, with the year end lists following closely. This has been a rough year for the blog in terms of the update schedule, and one of my resolutions in 2017 is to simply write and publish more. Thanks for everyone who’s patiently stuck with me!


 

Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder:

If you have any interest in Darkthrone whatsoever (and I think you should), you’ve probably heard by now that this new album is something of a shift in style for them. That’s true to a certain extent, it is markedly different from their past three to four releases which found them delving deep into an almost black n’ roll approach to experimenting with more classic 80s metal stylings on 2013’s The Underground Resistance. But where those albums were taking the band into new, explored territory (for them anyway), Arctic Thunder is an about face to the black metal Darkthrone of the turn of the millennium, recalling the style of Plaguewielder and Hate Them. I imagine that for a lot of people the news that Darkthrone was returning to black metal brought about hopes of the band returning to their early, second wave style of A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Transilvanian Hunger, sort of what Blut Aus Nord did with their awesome and majestic Memoria Vetusta III. That would’ve required a severe and intentional handicapping of the sonics in the recording however, and I just don’t think that either Fenriz or Ted (Nocturno Culto) are all that interested in recreating the past like that.

In fact, sonics are the only thing that Arctic Thunder has with their black metal past, because even though it is far more grim and frost bitten than recent albums, you can’t tell me that middle riff that accelerates in “Inbred Vermin” is a black metal riff —- it sounds like it could be lifted off a mid to late 80s thrash album (not being Fenriz, I can’t pinpoint exactly what band and album it was inspired by). But this is a cleanly produced album, for all its first-take approach, Ted’s guitars are upfront, fresh and often crisp, full of nuance and intricacy in the actual execution of the riffs —- and Fenriz’s drumming is as full bodied and loud (the complete antithesis of the approach to drums in most early second wave Norwegian black metal). I had a strange time with this album as a listener, at first loving it due to its radical departure from what they had been doing and for the pleasure of hearing a colder, darker Darkthrone once again. That actually lasted awhile, a few weeks in fact. But over time I’d begun find myself longing to hear Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance, and when I went through those albums again I realized what Arctic Thunder was lacking (and it always comes back to this) —- hooky, memorable songs.

There are a few moments that fit that bill, “Tundra Leach” serving as an excellent album opener, with a bleak, dirty sounding riff that accelerates into tremolo flourishes. There’s an awesome moment midway through where an abrupt shift occurs —- built on pounding, tribal beat percussion and a classic metal riff that takes us into Metallica’s “Creeping Death” territory (think of the moments before “Die! By my hand…!”). Then there’s “Boreal Fiends” which successfully takes on the same approach, hitting you with a memorable riff straight away, this time with loud/quiet dynamics in between verses, only to lead to an about face mid-song. That shift, at the 4:18 mark, is as grin inducing as it is unexpected, Fenriz coming back from a funeral doom tempo with a cowbell accented over a meaty, flat out heavy riff. The guitar solo that follows is a surprise as well, a rare blast of technicality and intricacy from a band that is essentially built from large, wet slabs of uncut riffs stacked hither and yon. The thing I’ve realized after umpteen listens to this album however is that there’s not enough of that kind of variety, not enough surprises. For instance I like the main riff on “Burial Bliss”, it coming across as a sort of black metal take on the Misfits, but the song lacks a hook in a bad way, being one of the chief examples of how things can get repetitive here rather quickly. I have no problem with the band returning to this more blackened approach, but they clearly need another album to fully re-acclimate.

 

 

Alcest – Kodama:

Some of you might remember that Alcest was a Metal Pigeon Best of 2012 finisher with their magnificent Les Voyages de l’Âme, the album that made a fan of me with its panoramic scope and sweeping beauty. Beauty of course is a key word when discussing Alcest, because they don’t shy away from it, their albums chock full of melodies that can only be described as such. If you’re not familiar at all, Alcest is the pioneer of French black metal, which took the atmospherics of second wave Norwegian black metal ala Burzum’s Filosofem and deconstructed its metallic nature, replacing harsh, atonal riffing with dreamy, shoe-gaze inspired melodicism. They use guitars and keyboards in equal measure, whatever it takes really, to achieve a sound that is the aural equivalent of a watercolor painting, where most metal regardless of subgenre is more akin to a construction project (foundations, walls, etc… you get the idea). On that aforementioned album, they blossomed into that rare metal band that could make fans of non-metal folks, particularly if they’d ever been a fan of Sigur Ros, Porcupine Tree, or even Smashing Pumpkins for that matter (that band’s influence on Alcest is under discussed and overlooked).

Disappointingly for me, Alcest decided to abandon their blackgaze approach for 2014’s Shelter, leaving us with a record full of bright, sunlit post-rock that was certainly pretty, but was noticeably lacking the expansive vision and bottomless depth of Alcest in their full glory. I’m sure they’re glad they made that record, one that pushed them in a way to expand their sound and to see what could come of it artistically. What I suspect they realized however, was that the darkness that comes from their black metal origins and influences is not something that’s easily shed. Without it, they sounded to me like another post-rock/shoegaze band, a good one certainly, but as an Alcest album Shelter was merely pretty on a surface level, it never pulled me in deeper. Thankfully, they’ve happily returned with their full complement of influences on display, as they demonstrate here with the awe-inspiring Kodama. Thus proving that the darkness they explore through black metal aesthetics is the key to their unlocking that cosmic door from which spills their transcendent sound.

This album is simultaneously a return to form and a departure, the latter being the injection of a album wide pronounced Japanese influence; not only for the album title (“kodama” literally means both “tree spirit” and “echo”) and the accompanying artwork that depicts a Japanese woman in some uncomfortable looking waters, but mostly for the Japanese folk melodies that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I could pinpoint an example but that would be a little silly, because this influence is coursing through almost every riff, melody, and extended musical passage of Kodama —- unlike a lot of cases where metal bands will use cultural music as window dressing and stick to their own sound otherwise, Alcest here submerge their songwriting into this wellspring of Japanese musical inspiration entirely. Frontman, vocalist, guitarist, and all around songwriter Neige is on record about the purpose of his doing so, that the album is directly inspired by the animated film Princess Mononoke, and that in his words, its about “the confrontation of the natural world and the human world”. That was something he witnessed firsthand when Alcest played in Japan a few years ago, stating, “Japan has a hyper technologic society, always ahead of its time, full of crazy items, gadgets, etc, but yet people there are very attached to tradition, nature, and spirituality.” Of course, if you’ve seen the film (you should, its a classic), its easy to tie Neige’s own observation and tie it into the film’s narrative, both boiling down to this idea of duality and how we all deal with it in various forms.

I love the intellectual depth of conceptual albums like this, in many ways reminding me of 2015’s almost album of the year, Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson. Its the stuff that concept albums should be made of, instead of what we usually get in rock and metal —- mostly paper-thin surface narratives of ridiculous stories that have little to no meaningful echo to them whatsoever. I’m not trying to be snooty here, I love many albums that meet that description to a tee, but when a zillion other bands deliver their own version of it, it gets a little boring, trite, and dumb (after awhile you stop paying attention to bands’ concepts altogether). And setting the concept aside, Kodama is a musical wonder as well, eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse pop formatting in favor of longer tracks with more of a storytelling song structure. Hardly anything repeats, but somehow all of its seven tracks and forty-right minutes are captivating —- the parts that sound like a build up actually deliver pay-offs, and there’s an equal balance of light and shadow as heavy riffs run headlong into transcendent ethereal sequences.

On the first single and most representative track matching the preceding description, “Oiseaux De Proie, a loose, jazzy mid-song bridge plunges dramatically into perhaps the album’s most up-tempo, accelerated moment (check the 5:50 mark). Its an adrenaline rush, largely due to how unexpected it was. This lack of foreshadowing is what keeps your attention rapt throughout Kodama, because you never really know what’s around the next minute mark. And I love how Neige does unexpected things texturally as well, such as the prominent use of the bass as a primary melodic instrument in the opening/title track, a quirky choice that creates separation with the higher pitched guitar accents that drift and careen above it. He also uses minimalist guitar to hearken to that Japanese sound that was discussed earlier on “Eclosion”, the patterns and phrasing and sleek, clean tones mimicking that country’s native folk melodies. I also love the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream influences that wash all over that track towards the middle bridge onwards —- Neige acknowledges them as a major influence and there are times when you can close your eyes and imagine this as something from their mid-90s era output. That actually might be my favorite on the album, its peaceful lone-guitar fade out saying more in those few delicate notes than many bands manage in an entire song. Ditto for closing instrumental “Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées”, with its descending chord patterns blossoming into one of the year’s most memorable musical moments. Make no mistake, this will be on my album of the year list, only question is how high.

 

 

Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour:

Its kind of unfortunate that I have to write this review before I’ll be seeing the band live here in Houston come mid-December, because as you might remember from their last album Pariah’s Child, I ended up enjoying most of its songs far more after I had heard their live airing a few months after my initial review. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy that album at all before the concert, but moreso that Tony Kakko’s impressive live performance both as a vocalist and a performance artist helped me see why he made the choices he did on the album as a songwriter. So I wonder, how much will my opinion change on songs like “Life”, or “We Are What We Are”, “Fairytale”, and “Closer to an Animal” (those being the primary cuts they seem to be pulling from this disc). They’re not bad songs by any means, the former being the first music video filmed for the album, with a chorus built on some amusing lyrical self-criticism by Kakko, who sings, “Life is better alive”, a lyric we could tear to pieces if it weren’t followed immediately by “It is a dumb thing to say / But the fact won’t wane away”, which in a nutshell encapsulates the theme of the song. Sonata Arctica have never been ones to shy away from positivity as a lyrical theme, particularly as of late —- it does not however make for a hook as strong as “The Wolves Die Young”.

But where Pariah’s Child was in some ways meant to be a classicist Sonata album (that’s debatable), The Ninth Hour isn’t explicitly held to such guidelines because its a part concept album, or thematic album to be more precise. The Stratovarius influence over Sonata Arctica looms particularly large here with the theme of environmentalism and reigning in of humanity’s careless destruction of the planet. If you weren’t familiar with Stratovarius albums around the turn of the millennium, that’s pretty much what those guys sang about for a handful of ’em. So a thematic leaning song like “We Are What We Are” is given license to be a bit more expansive, less concerned with delivering those knockout Sonata hooks we love in favor of non-romantic balladry that leans more towards White Lion’s “When the  Children Cry” than “Tallulah”. It only works because despite its too slow for slow dancing pace and downtrodden vibe, Kakko’s melody is charmingly simple and beautiful, almost lullaby-esque. Similarly on “White Pearl, Black Oceans Pt II” (a sequel to the original much beloved fan classic from Reckoning Night), Kakko allows a more overwhelmingly lyrical songwriting approach to govern things, which makes sense considering the narrative nature of the song in continuing a story. But in 2016, that means its a track that is substantially slower than its predecessor, lacking the midtempo and uptempo change ups that so characterized the original. Some might not like that, but I think the melody really works here, used as more of a Broadway show centerpiece complete with mimicking orchestral arrangement.

Not everything is slowed down though, there’s the surprisingly heavy and accelerating “Fly. Navigate. Communicate”, which took me awhile to get into but I now can appreciate for its striking aggression alongside its subtle lyrical hook. And “Rise A Night” is a classic uptempo slice of Sonata power metal with a nice verse and lead in bridge, only to meet a middling, aimless chorus that lacks a defining hook, a trait that handicaps the entire song sadly. Then there’s the strongly starting “Fairytale” where the inverse is the problem —- we’re treated to a memorable hook that doesn’t hit as hard as it could due to there being no build up to it via tempo shift or fully formed bridge. Of course when it comes to Sonata Arctica albums post 2004, we’re not expecting complete perfection, just some moments of perfection… and here’s where The Ninth Hour is worryingly deficient. There’s nothing here that I’d really consider adding to my Sonata playlist on the iPod, and there usually is at least a track or two per album. I’d give a huge maybe to the charming ballad “Candle Lawns”, but I’ve really gotta be in the mood for it. I honestly don’t know what to make of this album, and I know that makes for a crappy review —- but there’s nothing here that is shockingly bad like we’ve had in spots on the past three albums. In fact, its all just sounds alright, but I know I don’t often come back to revisit an album that’s just “alright”. Maybe I’ll have more to say after I see them two weeks from now.

 

 

Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Atlanta based Theocracy and its 98-01 era Tobias Sammet channeling vocalist/songwriter Matt Smith for a few years now. I got into them with 2011’s As The World Bleeds, an album of power metal songwriting perfection of such magnitude I strongly believe its one of the classics of the genre. I had first heard of the band way back in 2003 with their self-titled debut which was promising despite its flaws, but I promptly cut my interest when I learned that the band was outwardly Christian. Sure enough, the lyrics checked out, and I naively wrote the band off. In my defense I was young, stupid(er), and not mature enough to reconcile that it was okay to enjoy a band that was outwardly religious in their lyrics if I enjoyed their music in general. Looking back now, I suppose I thought it was anathema, to be into metal and subgenres like black metal which were largely about the darker stuff in life while simultaneously listening to something so religiously positive, so opposite in spirit. Never mind that I enjoyed U2 with all their Christian background, nor that I was conveniently ignoring the strongly religious overtones of Edguy’s classic Theater of Salvation. In between, I missed 2008’s Mirror of Souls, another quality release with some excellent songwriting, and when I finally did come around in 2011, I chickened out on publishing a fully written piece on Theocracy (if I remember right it was about whether or not it hypocritical to like their music without sharing their views on faith… guess the jury’s still out there). So essentially, no one has really known about how much I’ve loved this feisty prog-power metal band’s music, when I’ve been all too eager to champion any really worthwhile American bands of this genre. In all… Theocracy deserved better from me.

I’m quite keen on rectifying this here, even in a shorter, abbreviated review, although I might not have done the band a service had I reviewed this album shortly after first hearing it in mid-October. For whatever reason, I was having a devil of a time getting into Ghost Ship for the first few weeks I had it, and maybe it was due to other things competing for my attention (one of which may have been the ultra-negativity of the 2016 election… maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear something bright and positive just then…?). That seems so absurd and unlikely now given how much I’ve been enjoying these songs on their own merits, and that last bit is crucial to those of you who are already familiar with their past albums: In short, as hard as it might be, don’t compare this album to As The World Bleeds! You will of course, its only natural, but I say that for two reasons; first, …Bleeds was a uniquely excellent album, a perfecting of a specific type of aggressive power metal and dense, solid production that Edguy first introduced with 2000’s Mandrake; and secondly, because Theocracy has greatly expanded their sound intro far more progressive areas with Ghost Ship, toning down the pure Euro-step power metal influences and increasing their Queensryche influenced tendencies a bit. This is a far reaching, thorough permeation, affecting all the songs on the new album across the board, and maybe it makes them less instantly accessible —- though it must be stressed, that accessibility is still there, it just requires more listens than their previous albums.

You’ll hear that accessibility most vividly on leaner cuts such as the title track or on the lyrics contrasting cheerfulness of “Castaway”. Regarding the former, Smith is among those few in power metal circles so gifted at peppering his already hook-laden songs with those glory-claw raising micro-hooks like the ones heard at the :40 second and 2:02 minute marks. They come via his simply changing the key of his vocal delivery of a verse lyric mid-phrase, from a not-quite minor key to an abrupt, full-on MAJOR key. Its such musical ear-candy, and mark of a talented songwriter who knows how to utilize the technical prowess of his band and his vocal ability to inject these viscerally energy packed moments into the fiber of these songs. That awareness as a songwriter, to keep his songs dancing on two feet like a boxer in his fighting stance, unpredictable and ready to strike at a moment with a flourish of a micro-hook or ultra-melodic figure or accent is what keeps our attention even through lengthy epics such as the nine-minute “Easter”. Midway through we shift from a thunderous, choral vocal backed section into a solo acoustic guitar sequence with a gorgeous, arcing melody at the 6:38 mark that will always have me returning to this song. That’s the kind of attention to detail that characterized the best of Tobias Sammet’s lengthier epics back in the classic Edguy era (think “Theater of Salvation” and “The Pharaoh”).

Of course its not just the minor details that make these songs work. They’re carefully crafted with strong melodies and semi-technical instrumentation, with often gorgeous guitar work from Val Allen Wood and Jonathan Hinds, as well as soaring vocals via Smith’s helium tinged tenor. As I sit here listening to this album for the millionth time, I wonder if Smith’s English as birth language familiarity is his secret to songwriting success as an American well-versed in writing in the European vein of power metal. Theocracy can bring the wood, but they never get really heavy like Iced Earth, Pharaoh, or even Kamelot —- all fellow American power metal bands who utilize thrash metal elements or in Kamelot’s case, prog-rock and mid-tempo time signatures. Those American and British stylistic influences temper their power metal and make it easy for them to match their vocal melodies to lyrics in a suitable manner (I realize Roy Khan is of Norwegian decent, and he of course wrote most of Kamelot’s beautiful lyrics, but he’s an outlier in this case). Theocracy is a rare duck being an American band coming from the Edguy/Avantasia/Gamma Ray/ Helloween school of power metal, all of whom are guilty of lyrical atrocities. Smith’s songwriting from a lyrics to vocal melody perspective is so effortless, so smooth, that it actually helps the melodies flow like water —- there’s nary an awkward pause. His lyrics are finely written, and seemingly always set to melodies that fit them perfectly like a glove. That pairing is likely to be the litmus test for most people, can they allow themselves to enjoy those melodies despite them being set to (very finely written) spiritual lyrics. I definitely can.

 

Late Summer Reviews! Sabaton / Belakor / Thrawsunblat / High Spirits 

Fall is here, though you wouldn’t know it here in H-town quite yet. But the autumnal equinox is still a noteworthy occasion to mark, and as you likely know I spent the summer really giving myself a break from the review treadmill with positive results. I got to enjoy a lot of older records from various bands that hadn’t been played in ages, and I was able to devote a greater amount of attention to the handful of new music I did listen to. The ones I listened to the most are reviewed below, but there were a host of others that I’m passing on reviewing (new albums by Iron Savior, Dark Funeral, Volbeat, Rage, Nails, Fates Warning, Running Wild, Vicious Rumors, Evergrey to name a few off the top of my head) —- regarding the latter, some of them were pretty good, most kinda meh and nothing that really stood up and grabbed my attention (although Nails is indeed an interesting band). As I sit here waiting for the cool winds to blow in, the leaves to turn color and drop off these damned trees I’m busy making time with the new Insomnium, Darkthrone, and Alcest albums. And I just experienced Blind Guardian’s “Imaginations For North America” tour stop here the other day, meeting yet another one of the bards in the process (Andre Olbrich —- squeeeee!). Its going to be a busy fall metal wise, a lot of late year albums and a handful of concerts coming up! But it’ll be nice for things to be hectic again, I love this time of year. Pumpkin spice me up!


 

Sabaton – The Last Stand:

It struck me during my first few weeks listening to Sabaton’s latest cannon-shot, the thematically dictated The Last Stand, that the opinions surrounding this album tended to fall into two camps. Either you are a fan of the band and welcomed the album with varying degrees of affection and favor, or you have tended to be a Sabaton critic, and arguably pointed out that the band’s sound had not changed all that much in eight albums. Both opinions are equally valid, but whether or not the latter could be interpreted as a true criticism is something that’s up for debate. Without meaning to come across as snarky, are we really going to criticize a band for playing in their ballpark? Do we do that to death metal and black metal bands? To classic bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest? I know I know, a band should be expected to progress within the context of their sound, and I agree and can argue that Sabaton has done that in the past —- that being said, the hardest thing for any band to achieve is to create an identifiable sound all their own, and no one can argue Sabaton hasn’t managed that.

The way I hear things, Sabaton made some pretty interesting strides with their last two albums on the musical front, particularly with the increased choral elements on 2012’s Carolus Rex, alongside its symphony draped arrangements. But they also veered off into unexpected territory on 2014’s Heroes, with a spaghetti-western Ennio Morricone motif on “To Hell and Back”, and a throwback period-piece take on the piano ballad for “The Ballad of Bull”. They are capable of expanding or stretching their sound, but they’re wisely sticking to their wheelhouse for the most part because it simply works. And by “works”, I really mean that vocalist/main songwriter Joakim Broden is metal’s most consistent, quality songwriter going on well over an entire decade now. This isn’t an easy feat, but somehow the man has been able to tap into a seemingly endless well of musical inspiration to craft immensely catchy, hook laden songs with a propensity for high drama and adrenaline rushes.

For The Last Stand, he either by accident or design leaned towards an old school, or classic if you will Sabaton sound —- that being the keyboard heavy Primo Victoria/Attero Dominatus era. Its an interesting choice that works largely due to how lean and attacking these songs are —- take “Last Dying Breath”, where the keyboard “horn sections” actually work as the song’s musical hook, not allowing the intensity of the verse sections to slow down for a huge, protracted chorus. Kinda reminds me of “Nuclear Attack” from Attero Dominatus. Speaking of expanding musically however, how about a hat tip towards “Blood of Bannockburn”? I’ll confess that I wasn’t wild about the song when it premiered as a lyric video a few months back, but it sounds far better on the album (Nuclear Blast and their crappy quality audio uploads) and it boasts a melody delivered on actual bagpipes, befitting the subject matter of the song. But largely, this is a throwback album for Sabaton musically, and you can hear that shining through on ultra catchy cuts like “Shiroyama”, as ear-wormy and addictive a song you’ll hear all year. I’m a bit mystified as to why Broden doesn’t get more credit for his skill in this particular facet of songwriting —- maybe its that Sabaton shy away from technicality or overt complexity in their songs, but to me the ability of writing memorable melodies is so paramount. Its something a great deal of power metal bands even struggle with.

I like the interesting group vocal shouts/grunts in “Sparta”, you guessed it, a song about the famed 300 (think they made a movie about this awhile ago), as they tend to fall into a stomping pattern that actually paints a picture of the Spartans martial movements. Similarly I loved the usage of actual sounds of guns and artillery in “The Lost Battalion”, which conspire to add to the suffocating feeling of being trapped in the Argonne Forest, where its likely all that those soldiers heard for those six days. Give the band credit for being mindful of little details like that, they’re not included just for show, but tend to have a greater purpose. That of course brings up the topic of lyrics, this time bound by the overall thematic link of famous last stands in military history. Again I’ll mention the idea of this album being a throwback, lyrically as well, with subject matter anchored to stories of various historical battles and their gritty details (just like older albums). Its an about face from Heroes, where the focus was on non-violent acts of heroism (a theme that I still laud as admirable in its originality and spirit), as well as from Carolus Rex which was their first actual narrative concept album about the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire.

I guess one could view The Last Stand as a “regular” Sabaton album in that respect, and to some it may seem like regression as a result. But I think pairing the decision to go back to a more “regular” thematic approach (for lack of a better adjective) along with revisiting an older mode of the Sabaton musical style is smart, shrewd, and actually gives this album a bit of a looser, free-wheelin’ spirit that sets it apart from the gravitas of its two predecessors. If the last two albums were a more sombre, serious Sabaton approaching complex topics with delicacy and appropriate musical accompaniment, then The Last Stand is more of just a slamming, full-on power metal album with an aim to reset things for both the band and their audience. I’ll be honest, while I can honestly say I think this is a good album with some truly great moments (“Shiroyama”, “The Lost Batallion”, “Last Dying Breath” in particular), it didn’t grab me on the intellectual level that Carolus Rex did, nor the intensely emotional level that Heroes did.

That being said, its the right album for the band at their career at this particular point (and I know most people reading this won’t necessarily care about that). It charted in the States at #63, one of the highest positions for a power metal band alongside Dragonforce, Iced Earth, and Nightwish (#17 in the UK!); they just played at Ozzfest meets Knotfest in what signals to be a breakthrough moment for them with American promoters; and they’re opening for Trivium in North America in a huge score of a support slot this fall. This “reset” album is the perfect introduction for all the new fans they’ll have coming through, and Sabaton have worked hard, they deserve it. That they have vocal detractors online is merely a consequence of their widespread notoriety, and few bands can be all things to all people —- but if you’ve seen the band live you already know why all those criticisms don’t matter, because the impact Sabaton have on audiences from the stage is something no smug internet snark can deteriorate. I’ll find myself coming back to this album again and again, its a worthy addition to their already deep catalog, just not my favorite, but I’m sure its some fifteen year old kid’s album of the year.

 

 

Be’lakor – Vessels:

New Zealand’s own Be’lakor were one of 2012’s biggest surprises for me, their spectacular album Of Breath and Bone smashing into that year’s top ten albums list at number three. I was new to them, and it was a revelation to learn that a band from the southern hemisphere was creating a fresh take on melodic death metal. My enthusiasm for that album has not waned, I’ve consistently gone back to it when the mood strikes, so much so that I felt I was close to wearing it out sometime last year. Thankfully, the band is back after a Blind Guardian esque gap of time between releases with Vessels, an album that simultaneously sounds strikingly different from its predecessor, and comfortingly similar all at once. That paradox is the source of why I’ve had a hard time collecting my thoughts about this album, but I think I might have come to some way of sussing it out (I guess we’ll find out here…). With that said, I’m glad I took a longer time to get around to reviewing this one, mainly because my opinion has evolved a bit from when I first heard it back in July to now.

At first I thought it was the cover art that was affecting my interpretation of the sound, that the warmness I getting from the overall tones of Vessels was due to the imagery of lit torches, and that my mind was playing tricks on me. Nope, its not that at all —- this is indeed a warmer toned album compared to the subtle coldness heard on Of Breath and Bone, its melodies a hue brighter with an increased emphasis on major key flourishes. Its still the Be’lakor I came to know and love however, dense melodic death metal that eschews traditional structures of verses and choruses in favor of recurring instrumental hooks and leitmotifs. Alongside the new mode of melodic death metal being forged in Finland by Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, Ghost Brigade, and to some extent Swallow the Sun, Be’lakor should be recognized as a major force in the revitalization of a once glorious genre. The 1990s source of melodic death metal from Gothenburg was used and abused by American and British bands in the creating of metalcore to such a degree that the original genre was left a dry well. Its this motley collection of artists from such disparate parts of the world that are redefining what melodic death metal could sound like, to spectacular results.

How they’re doing this is a far more difficult thing to suss out, but Be’lakor for one doesn’t hide its progressive influences —- time shifts, tempo changes, and free-form song structures abound to such a degree that you can’t help but hear echos of Tool, Opeth, even Dream Theater (really only in structure). On a piece (I feel less comfortable calling these tracks “songs”… if you hear the album you’ll know why) such as “An Ember’s Arc” the band transitions from a cleanly plucked acoustic intro to a tension building staccato riff sequence only to plume outward in the most dreamy, hushed musical sigh you can imagine, isolated notes rising and drifting off into the ether. Its a subversion of expectations, that just when you think they’re going to blow the roof off the place with you in the blast radius, they instead gently push you onto a comfy bed and tuck you under plush blankets where you dream of Emmy Rossum feeding you grapes by an infinity pool. And make no mistake, I’m not suggesting its boring (far from it), merely trying to point out just how skillfully the dynamics of these songs are crafted and performed. The explosion does occur, like the rudest alarm clock of all time, waking you with a gorgeous lead melody rising out of the silence that ushers along a brutal, pummeling blast beat fueled passage.

Its almost impossible for me to pick out favorites from this album, simply because my favorite moments are all over the place, scattered hither and yon. If I had to pick though “Roots to Sever” would be a hard one to ignore, its beautiful, ultra-melodic lead guitar melody guiding us through the entirely of the piece over shifting, undulating rhythm section. I noticed that there’s a new drummer in the lineup (one Elliot Sansom), a stunner because I hadn’t notice a drop in creative quality on that front, even though previous sticksman Jimmy Vanden Broek was the unheralded MVP on Of Breath and Bone. Credit the band for understanding how their music is best recorded and mixed as well, because one of the joys of Be’lakor is getting to hear interesting bass guitar in an extreme context, bassist and original member John Richardson crafting basslines that add far more creativity to the music than merely keeping in lockstep with the drums. I started off not sure if I completely enjoyed Vessels as much as the last one, but repeat listens over these past few months have slowly changed my mind, its a compelling, addictive album and a worthy follow up.

 

 

Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

Though I’ve not written specifically about Woods of Ypres and their brief but monumental career (yet), I’ve been a posthumous admirer of their works and their gone too soon founder David Gold. I unfortunately came to know about the band well after Gold’s death in late 2011, and only through their last album, Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light. It was released a little over a month after his passing, and with Gold as the lyricist, its meditative songs about life, existence, meaning, and death took on an entirely different perspective and gravitas to everyone who heard the album. Five years on and it still has that same power for me and anyone else I’ve talked about the album to… I think I’ve avoided writing about Woods 5 for that reason (though having admitted that out loud, that’s probably the exact reason I should write about it). An important person who contributed greatly to the artistic success of Woods 5 was Gold’s sole bandmate, guitarist Joel Violette, who penned the music for six tracks on the album. He was a newcomer to the Woods of Ypres lineup, the band itself being a rotating cast of assorted musicians too long to recount here, but Violette was different —- something clicked between he and Gold that allowed the latter to share songwriting duties with his newfound partner. Violette’s contributions on the album are spectacular, emotionally affecting moments, his music coaxing out some of Gold’s finest lyrics ever.

Sadly, the collaboration was short-lived, and what seemed like a promising joining of talents resulted in only one album —- albeit a masterpiece at that. There was something else that Gold and Violette collaborated on briefly however, and that was Thrawsunblat, Violette’s own project that sought to forge melodic black metal with more of a maritime folk influence. Gold played drums on their demo “Canada 2010”, but that was the extent of his involvement. After Gold’s passing and Woods of Ypres ending as a result, Violette decided to run with the idea of making Thrawsunblat a full time project, and in some small way it was a tribute to Gold who had come up with the band name. Another detail that I view as a tribute was that Violette named Thrawsunblat’s first proper album Thrawsunblat II: Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings, thus retroactively making his and Gold’s initial demo release the first Thrawsunblat album and also in keeping with Woods of Ypres numerical convention for titling albums (a subtle yet touching tribute I think). And that album is worth seeking out, not only for its awesome folk-black metal mix that sounds in some ways like a continuation of the Woods of Ypres sound, but for its completely acoustic slices of maritime folk that are right up my musical alley.

Its sequel, the third Thrawsunblat album Metachthonia, is a slight departure however from the project’s initial musical vision; this time owing more to blistering Norwegian black metal influences such as Borknagar and the darker folk-metal of Moonsorrow. Gone are the concise song lengths of its predecessor, instead Violette and company have constructed longer compositions reaching progressive metal lengths. The tracklisting is pared down to six tracks as a consequence, half of what Wanderer had, but at the album clocking in at two minutes shy of an hour you never feel like this is an EP disguised as a full-length album. I think the major difference that can be pointed to in describing Metachthonia’s different approach is that the folk influences are pushed back from the musical foreground a bit —- on the last album they took up entire songs themselves and were pronounced influences on most songs melodies. Here you’ll get shades of that maritime folk influence in various details, such as the clean vocals of the epic opener “Fires That Light The Earth”, Violette at times sounding eerily like Gold himself. His harsh vocals however remind me of one Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg), lean, razor sharp and just pure burning, white hot fire.

On “She Who Names The Stars”, Violette lays down a series of furious tremolo patterned black metal riffs that roll together in gathering intensity, resulting in the most violent sounding song on the album. Its tempting to cite Ulver as a major influence here but what gets in the way of that are the tone and direction of the overlaid lead guitar motifs, owing more to Violette’s self-identified Pacific Northwest folk roots. Said roots peek their head out for a brief star turn towards the end of the track, during its final fifty seconds, where cello and clean electric notes combine in a dare I say, charming melody? There’s a similar moment during the second half of “Dead of Winter”, where an acoustic passage becomes the overriding motif for Violette’s lead guitar patterns thereafter. I love how effortlessly and unapologetically these songs shift from absolute black metal fury to shimmering, folk melody driven sequences. That tendency towards diversity and contrast was a trait I admired about Woods of Ypres and I’m glad to hear that it influenced Violette. His band mates are actually former Woods collaborators Rae Amitay on drums, Brendan Hayter on bass, and session cello player Raphael Weinroth-Browne (who laid down those heartbreaking cello accompaniments on Woods 5), and there’s a sense that this is a project born out of both a void and a calling —- not just to honor the musical spirit of their departed friend, but to continue where he left off.

 

 

High Spirits – Motivator:

Ah well some of you might remember that I love me some High Spirits, the somewhat retro straight ahead hard rock meets early 80s metal influences project by one Chris Black (Dawnbringer, many others). I was introduced to the project via their 2011 debut Another Night, an album that put Scorpions worship front and center (and that’s alright with me). But the follow-up, 2014’s You Are Here fell a little flat for me, mainly due to lacking much in the way of memorable riffs, melodies, and hooks (barring a few good songs). To be honest I wasn’t even expecting another High Spirits album so soon, figuring Black was working on one of his many other projects, but Motivator sounds like a record that was simply begging to be released, full of the same vitality and energy that coursed throughout their debut. Simply put, these are rocking songs and they’re pretty much all on point, hitting all the classicist nerves that one would want out of a band that is earnest about their love for the sound of the early 80s, where hard rock and metal met in an amorphous blending where subgenres and labeling did not exist yet. And check out that cover art too, the visual cousin to Another Night with its neon framed night time cityscape —- look I know it sounds strange but I’ve long contended that there’s a certain undefinable aspect to the sound of 80s Scorpions songs that always reminded me of an airport at sunset. Lo and behold! Chris Black knows what I’m talking about!

The songs, where to start? How about the cover art referencing opener “Flying High”, its Scorpions hat-tips lovingly obvious in that joyous backbeat on the drums, and that very Schenker/Meine trait of guitars outpacing the tempo of the vocal lines. There’s a surprising Maiden influence on “Reach For the Glory”, its opening twin lead melodies sounding like the rock n’ roll cousin to “Aces High”, and frankly they’re just as addictive. The guitars give a little Thin Lizzy treatment on those fragmentary melodies in “This Is the Night”, the same way Gorham and Robertson would punctuate Phil Lynott’s vocals with little five to ten second solos. My favorite has to be “Haunted By Love”, with its Pat Benatar-ish opening riff (cue “Heartbreaker”) and stop/start, sublime chorus that just takes me back to my initial days of exploring so many classic hard rock bands —- a real On Through The Night era Def Leppard feel to that one, particularly in the backing vocals. I know I keep referencing old bands, but its something I can’t help when it comes to High Spirits, because for me that’s half the fun when it comes to this band and their retro-fresh take on a sound that should never die. Black’s relatively monotone vocals are what actually keep High Spirits firmly locked in the present however, because they’re certainly impassioned, but he lacks the vocal range to pull off the acrobatics that we commonly associate with this type of music. But I think that’s a good thing, Black’s inadvertent way of dragging the past up off the booze soaked pavement of the Sunset Strip and stumbling towards the future.

The Flowering Of Spring!: (Or I’m Back With Reviews of Myrath, Borknagar and Omnium Gatherum!)

Hey everyone, I’m back from a short, self-imposed exile. I briefly mentioned it on the most recent episode of the MSRcast, but I think the overwhelming amount of new albums last year which continued on into early 2016 was threatening to burn me out on writing reviews altogether. The recent Blind Guardian piece was a pleasure to immerse myself in, and I’m hoping to do more of that kind of non-review oriented stuff in the near future (several of them exist in near/half/almost finished states already). So I took a break for a few weeks to just listen to whatever I wanted to listen to, older stuff, non-metal stuff, and sure enough even some really excellent new metal albums that I simply couldn’t get enough of (a few of them I’ll discuss below) —- all without worrying about release dates and getting reviews done on time. So this is a collection of reviews for three major releases that normally would’ve been out a month and a half ago, all of them written now with a few weeks of listening time baked in. These are a little on the lengthy side due to how much more I focused on them above all other releases, but I have another batch of reviews on the way that will be on the shorter, punchier side (those covering new music by Oceans of Slumber, Amon Amarth, Rhapsody of Fire, Brainstorm, Ex Mortus, a 2015 missed Dawn of Destiny release, and maybe a few more). It feels good to be back writing, and I can’t wait to finish the non-reviews stuff I’m also working on. Thanks for the patience this past month!

 


 

 

myrathlegacy_zpspxugdo3vMyrath – Legacy: Tunisia’s greatest (and perhaps only) metal export Myrath return with their first new album in five years with Legacy, one of my most anticipated albums of the year. I was sold on this band with 2011’s Tales of the Sands, an album that was largely spectacular, the sound of a band that had found their distinctive style and the songwriting chops to match. Well, five years is an eternity in metal, and Myrath seem to have spent the time wisely because Legacy is a truly inspired breath of fresh air that is pushing the boundaries of what oriental metal can sound like. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, they play a blend of prog-metal with minor-scaled Arabic melodies and motifs built around the inclusion of instruments such as violins, violas, the lute, and the ney. In that sense they’re similar to Orphaned Land, except that their Israeli counterparts began as a death metal band and have gradually expanded their sound away from that as their vocalist Kobi Farhi has developed his clean singing voice. Myrath meanwhile have been all about clean delivery from the very start, even predating the arrival of their uniquely talented longtime and current singer Zaher Zorgati, whose innate abilities at channeling traditional Arabic vocals alongside his Russell Allen-esque pipes makes him one of the most unique vocalists in metal.

On Legacy (which by the way is what the name Myrath actually translates to) the band wisely doesn’t over complicate things, choosing to allow their songwriting to naturally progress as it has over the course of their last four albums. And with that means continuing their ever gradual simplification of their sound, allowing their well crafted melodies to take a greater role in place of prog-metal song structures, which have been slightly pushed to the background in spots. Prog-metal aficionados might balk at that, but its a smart move —- think about why people are so interested and listen to Myrath in the first place. Its not because they’re the second coming of Symphony X, but instead because their traditionally imbued sound is so intriguing and captivating in its own right. Like Orphaned Land, we came for the metal and stayed for the native sounds of Israel and Pan-Arabia, those alluring melodies that speak of cultures that most of us only understand on a surface level. I went on about this idea at length in my review for Orphaned Land’s All Is One, that it was my interest in that band’s music that led me to seeking out non-metal Middle Eastern folk music as well as any non-metal music that was unfamiliar to me. It’d be impossible for Myrath to have quite the same effect on me as Orphaned Land did —- that was a result of a combination of things, timing key among them, but what Myrath succeeds in doing with Legacy is reminding me of the rush I felt when realizing that I was interested in exploring other music, the world’s music as it were.

This is an album characterized by simplicity, a facet that’s demonstrated right away with the instrumental “Jasmin” that bleeds into the euphoric “Believer”, the album’s first single (presented in a glossy, Prince of Persia-esque music video to boot). As an opening salvo, its as bold a statement as they have ever made, leaping directly at you with a sharply sculpted Arabic string melody accompanying Zorgati’s chant-sung traditional vocal. He does that quite often throughout the album, and he’s quite talented at it, sending his voice to float atop whatever bed of music is going on underneath (and its characteristically Arabic sounding, as opposed to the more condensed, compressed Jewish/Yiddish chant-singing found in Orphaned Land’s music). What makes the song work however is its mid-tempo groove that’s phonetically reinforced by Zorgati’s prog-power tinged clean vocals during the verse sections, his phrasing as rhythmic as Morgan Berthet’s dynamic percussion underneath. That chorus though —- you could actually pencil it in as the hook for a Middle Eastern pop single and it’d fit perfectly, something I say only to reinforce just how skilled the band is at writing that sort of thing. Its also works as a warning for anyone who’s too timid or afraid of losing “cred” by listening to a band that’s so unabashed about their desire to play with hooks and ear candy. I’m quite the fan if you couldn’t tell, and “Believer” is one of the year’s finest metal singles thus far. Its their “All Is One”, one of those rare life-affirming songs that drags metal into a space of positive emotions.

Its not however the only wonderfully ear-candied moment on the album either, as my current favorite is the morosely titled “I Want to Die”, a slowly spiraling strings and acoustic guitars powered ballad that sees Zorgati delivering an incredibly emotional vocal throughout. Instruments dance around him, the strings zipping under and alongside during the verses, acoustic guitar filling in space with light, soft pluckings, traditionally structured percussion brushed across in an accenting role —- everything then suddenly surging together for the explosive chorus. A quick glance at the lyrics will clue you in on this being a song about heartbreak, and while the diction and poetics aren’t on the level of Roy Khan, they’re carefully written so as to maximize Zorgati’s ability to bend them to his will. He makes these lyrics better by virtue of his performance and his interpretation of what syllables to stress and bend in that distinctive manner that we can accurately peg as his trademark (in metal anyway). Another example of that is on the following song “Duat”, where he makes the most of lines such as “Relieve me / Leave me here I’m dying / Isis knows how to bring me back to life” —- first of all that’s a reference to Isis the deity (just in case you were wondering), and while I think these are perfectly fine lyrics, they might test another metal fan’s capacity for melodrama, and I’d think they’d have a point if the vocalist in question were say Russell Allen, but here Zorgati’s vocal-isms are convincing enough. Something also occurs to me while I’m listening to “Endure the Silence”, another track with a decadent chorus, that most of these songs are actually love songs, the narrator either expressing his devotion to the object of his affection or lamenting a loss thereof (with the exception of the song referencing Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen). Its up to us I suppose whether we want the object to be a woman, a country, or a community.

I suppose we’re touching on something there with that last bit. You all watch the news, and are certainly aware of what’s going on in regions such as Syria, Iraq, and even Libya and Yemen. This is a band from Tunisia that I’m told ostensibly lives in France these days, and if so that means they’re served with a multitude of perspectives on what’s going on in Europe at the moment with the refugee crisis of the past year and a half. I’m not going to assume that those things influenced the writing of their music, maybe they didn’t at all, but I detect an openness in their lyrics that suggest they might be speaking to a larger idea or theme. Sagely perhaps, Myrath keep things relatively vague, allowing their music to be flexible to audiences of all kinds, and that might be their greatest strength. When all of Europe is feeling the tension spurred by terrorism in Paris and Brussels, waves of refugees, and anti-Islamic sentiment, here’s a band from the birthplace of the Arab Spring making art with western music that is being embraced by fans from vastly different parts of the world. I’m not naive enough to believe that music can completely change things, it rarely ever does, but it can help to chip away at an individual’s own reticence about other cultures, and help to springboard their interest in learning about them. With regard to the Middle-East, there are so few cultural links that exist right now to help facilitate communication between differing peoples, yet among those few are a handful of metal artists. I find that incredible, and something that few other musical genres can claim. Bands such as Myrath and Orphaned Land have fans in Israel, Tunisia, Egypt, Europe, the UK, and even here in Texas, and that’s a small victory if nothing else.

 

Borknagar – Winter Thrice:

I’ve enjoyed Borknagar since sometime in 2001, when I was introduced to the band via their then newly released album Empiricism. I was led there by my initial interest in Vintersorg, who had just joined up with his Norwegian countrymen to provide lead vocals in place of I.C.S. Vortex who had just left to join Dimmu Borgir. Vortex did three years as Borknagar’s black metal screamer, and he took over the slot after the departure of one Kristoffer Rygg, aka known as Garm from Ulver, who decided that he wanted to focus only on his primary band. Funnily enough all three men find themselves joining together on a pair of cuts from Borknagar’s newest and most ambitious album to date. Now this album has been out for a few months now, and you’ve all likely heard it —- and what you’re hearing is the sound of Borknagar further streamlining their sound away from the largely avant-garde keyboard atmospherics of the Empiricism/Epic/Origins/Universal era and more in tune with the bleak, wind-swept melodicism found on their previous album Urd and its signature track “The Earthling”. There’s still keyboards present, providing a counter-melody to the lead vocal (or guitar) melodies, but its more informed by a stripped down, 70’s prog-rock approach rather than the swirling, bat-crazy orchestral hurricanes that so characterized much of late 90s second wave black metal (ala Emperor). Some of you might be smirking at the mention of stripped down and 70’s in relation to prog-rock keyboards, but its basically more King Crimson and less Rick Wakeman, you jokers.

Let’s get back to the mention of all those ridiculously talented vocalists on one track, because “Winter Thrice” is not only the title track but the album’s first single and excellent music video. The latter provides us with a visual breakdown of who’s singing what, just in case you’re new to the band and can’t discern their voices quite yet: First we get Lazare (aka Lars Nedland) who really should get co-billing alongside his band mates as one of the amazing voices here; the next verse is sung by Vortex in that wonderfully strange, warped clean voice of his; and after a nice electro-clean chord sequence we’re treated to a rare black metal sighting of Garm, here delivering the song’s most affecting lyric passage (“I have wandered the skies…”) in a sweetly smooth croon that reminds me of a mix of Mike Patton and Mikael Akerfeldt. Its just a thrilling sequence overall, exciting in as much for its star studded succession of vocalists as it is for being one of the band’s most direct and disarmingly accessible passages to date. It all builds up to explode with Vintersorg’s ever blistering black metal anti-chorus (it can be argued that Garm was actually singing the hook, and that Vintersorg is delivering its outro bridge —- but whatever, this is black metal by one of the genre’s more unconventional craftsmen… we shouldn’t be looking for conventional songwriting). After Vintersorg’s traumatic accident over a year ago, its nice to hear him sound like himself here (although its reported by some that he recorded this before the accident —- that being said he has had time to heal and recently had surgery that seems successful enough for him to be currently working on a sequel to Till fjälls(!)). Suffice to say he’s still one of the most convincing and identifiable harsh vocalists in extreme metal, with something inimitable in the way he screams.

Vintersorg has his share of clean vocals too, because you don’t neglect a resource like that, and so he pops up in a fascinating and harmonious duet with Lazare and possibly Vortex (it gets difficult to discern between the latter two at times) on “The Rhyme of the Mountain”. Remember a paragraph ago when I mentioned the band was weaning itself away from avant-garde chaos and leaning more towards classic prog-rock stylings and songwriting? Cue mark 3:20 during this song and you’ll get a vivid example of what I mean —- an abrupt mid-song bridge sequence of harmonized vocals cooing a sparse, gorgeous melody. Its not even meant to serve as a counterpoint to the harsh vocals, because clean vocal verses build up to it as well as follow it. This is actually a defining trademark of the songs on this album, and perhaps more than any other recording of theirs in the past, Borknagar here work with almost equal parts clean to harsh vocals, something that’s not altogether shocking, but still a bold move. I love it personally, and it makes songs such as “Cold Runs the River” embed in my mind with strong, swinging hooks and inspired open chord guitar sequences that are unexpected but pleasant surprises. In the Lazare fronted “Panorama”, we’re treated to a jarringly poppy chorus in fairly short order, but whose recurrence is abruptly interrupted by a keyboard driven instrumental passage that recalls Hammond organ sounds of the 70s (in fact, that organ sound dominates much of the song, at times taking over the key melody entirely… I get reminded of Uriah Heep). We’re treated to another clean vocal mid-song bridge sequence in “When Chaos Calls” at the 3:42 mark, this one clearly sculpted by Vintersorg, recalling vivid moments from his vocal work on his own solo albums (particularly Visions From the Cosmic Generator in this case), and seriously, is there anyone better at crafting moments like these?

Founding guitarist Oystein Brun, still the primary songwriter on the credits seems fairly happy these days to allow the external influences of his band mates transform Borknagar’s sound into something that is simultaneously far removed from the The Olden Domain era, yet subtly familiar and knowing. At times, there are strong hints of the past that crop up violently such as on “Terminus”, where the sudden and sharp mood shifts lurch the band into full on black metal, blastbeat laden fury that recalls the violence of Empiricism (albeit without the ultra-crisp drum recording of that album). This might actually be my current favorite right now, because I can’t get enough of its last three minutes, from Garm’s resurfacing with a highly emotive and then hushed vocal, to Jens Ryland and Brun’s tremendous restraint on their guitar work to allow simple ambient space to fill the backdrop, to Vintersorg’s best clean vocal moment on the album, re-singing Garm’s final passage (“Raised to seek, grown to see / The flames of creation and prosperity…”). I suspect that with the impact of their video for “The Earthling”, hitting over 377k views on YouTube, and subsequently the video for “Winter Thrice” hitting over 300k in just a fragment of the time in comparison, word is getting out to formerly in the dark metal fans that Borknagar is one of those critically acclaimed bands they should have knowledge of. I really do think a sea-change occurred with Urd, an album that delivered a vein of accessibility that allowed both critics and potential fans to take a longer listen as opposed to simply being turned off by the utter weirdness of their past work (hey, as much as some of us love it, older Borknagar was a tough sell to many). As in the case of Enslaved, it could simply be a case of a band’s potential audience finally maturing and Borknagar issuing their most accessible work at the right time. Good for the band, good for those newcomers, and with songs as excellent as these, good for us who’ve been here all along.

 

Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens:

A leading light in Finland’s melo-death revival is back with a new album, and just like their neighbors in Borknagar, they’ve stumbled upon the discovery that their sound could actually benefit by allowing their music to breathe more. I’ve enjoyed Omnium Gatherum’s past works to varying degrees, with the accomplished New World Shadows being a favorite in terms of albums, and pegging “The Unknowing” from 2013’s Beyond as their absolute best song (I enjoyed the album as well, but that song was outrageously awesome with that ascending/descending scale pattern). The slight stumbling block I’d have with the band was their tendency to sound rather obsidian for large stretches of time through a song or even album. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s rigid, ultra-coarse melo-death growls played a big factor in that, his voice often lacking any hints of warmth or push and pull. Now this actually works for the band overall simply because he’s an unfailingly strong presence that can compete with the technicality that guitarists Joonas Koto and Markus Vanhala imbue their dense riff sequences with, thus preventing either guitars or vocals from dominating the sound alone. But that being said, for as much as I enjoyed their music, I found myself far more drawn to the comparatively paint-brushed, loosely woven melo-death of countrymen Insomnium.

But with Grey Heavens it seems like the band has naturally progressed away from songwriting that coats a piece of music in both heavy drenchings of both vocals and music, there’s actually a bit of give and take between those two strong elements that was only glimpsed previously in fleeting moments. I mentioned one of those above, “The Unknowing”, where Pelkonen’s vocals were timed to dive in gaps instead off slamming against the rest of the band. I think these are tricky things to learn for a lot of melo-death bands, and even tougher to discern as fans and explain in writing… but if we think of melo-death as primarily a dual lead guitar melody constructed artform, then those melodies deserve equal or almost equal spotlight time as the vocals, and the power of both can either overwhelm or diminish when they’re simultaneously hitting a listener at once. Think about classic In Flames albums, those songs on Whoracle or Colony or even The Jester Race —- there was a dance going on, guitars-vocals-guitar-vocals-guitars and on and on. Omnium Gatherum don’t exactly do a recreation of that formula here, but they’ve learned to give their individual sonic elements a bit more space. Take the title track “Frontiers”, where Aapo Koivisto’s keyboards actually work solo as the refrain, a wordless chorus that is not only a clever sonic earworm, but the light to the darkness of those brutal verse sections where Pelkonen matches his raw power to that of Koto’s and Vanhala’s.

Much of the album in fact is characterized by this smarter, more aware mode of songwriting, and it bears fruit with mounds of hooks and earworms. Even on the lengthiest track, the nearly eight minute “Majesty and Silence”, the band treat us to fresh, inspired ambient passages built on drizzles of acoustic guitar and cloudy sky inspired keyboards to serve as a balance to the more weighty, aggressive sections. On “The Great Liberation”, Pelkonen sings over chugging rhythm guitar while a lone lead melodic figure darts in and out quickly, both guitars then joining together in an entirely separate section to deliver their more frenetic, hyper-speed riff sequences in dazzling fashion. My MSRcast cohost Cary was mentioning during our recording session how he felt this was the catchiest Omnium Gatherum release to date, and I agree, but I think what that observation reveals is that the band has gotten better at displaying its hook-writing capability, and Koivisto has stepped up his game in order to further cement his keyboards as an integral part of melodic through lines within the songs, rather than just as coloring for the background. I think they’ve come to realize that writing better paced songs and separating segments of their songs with potentially opposing musical elements makes for a far more listenable song. Cary posited the idea that perhaps Vanhala’s recent stint as Insomnium’s second guitarist is playing a role, and that a good deal of their songwriting essence has rubbed off on him. Its an interesting theory, one that’s plausible for sure —- whatever the case may be, its resulted in the best album of their career.

Forgotten Bard Songs: Ten Overlooked Blind Guardian Gems

 

 

 

Some of you might recall that I attended the Houston stop of Blind Guardian’s 2015 North American trek on Wednesday, November 25th. It was an unforgettable night —- out on Thanksgiving Eve with friends who were equally passionate about Blind Guardian, amidst a giddy crowd tipsy with the revelry of not having to work the next day (they don’t call it Blackout Wednesday for nothing), and the bards playing with more vigor and energy than in any of the other two times I’ve seen them live (2006 and 2010 for those keeping count). The band was nearing the end of their North American tour, to come to a close two shows and three days later in Orlando, which made their performance all the more gratifying: That one of our most treasured metal bands was committed to delivering excellence even when they were likely nearing exhaustion from being on the road for over a month straight. When they told us we were being recorded for inclusion in a future live album, we sang even louder, blowing out our voices by attempting to hit every note ourselves and keeping up the pace during Hansi’s ridiculously long crowd only outros for “Valhalla” and “The Last Candle”. It was a devastating set list full of classics, and the kind of joyous, celebratory mood that only a truly transcendent band can inspire.

It was one of the most satisfying highlights of my concert going history, one that’s been hard to shake. In the next few weeks and now months, I’ve begun to revisit the entirety of the band’s catalog from start to finish. In the process, I’ve gone over the setlist we got in Houston, and thought about what inclusions I’d love to hear in my idealized Blind Guardian show. I’ve realized that most of the songs I’ve picked out were ones that didn’t get talked about much by the Blind Guardian fanbase as a whole. I don’t think its due to anyone disliking them either —- I suspect its just that they tend to get overshadowed by the widely hailed classics on their respective albums whenever the subject of your favorite Blind Guardian songs comes up in various Facebook comment threads or message board discussions. I did a bit of checking on Setlist.Fm and realized that with an exception or two, most of the songs I’ve picked out are ones that hardly get played live at all. Their lacking presence on the band’s set lists tour after tour has perhaps largely contributed to their status as deep-cuts, a grouping of songs every band has, and whose fans’ only hope at hearing them live is for An Evening with… styled tour (hello Iron Maiden and most of Somewhere In Time). So here’s my alphabetically ordered list of what I consider the ten best of Blind Guardian’s overlooked songs, those gems still hidden beneath Smaug’s long, foreboding shadow.

 


 

“Another Holy War” (from Imaginations From the Other Side)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1s9Wmk_us3U&w=560&h=315]

 

Were we to have a hypothetical, NCAA March Madness-styled contest for the most “metal” metal song of all time, I’d select “Another Holy War” as my candidate. It’d soar through early rounds with ease, get through the sweet sixteen and elite eight on some nail biters, have a truly epic OT victory in the final four, and would be in a jump ball, anyone’s game showdown with Maiden’s “The Evil That Men Do” for the championship (on this issue there is a no debate! /#Papi#Seinfeld). So how can such a devastatingly awesome, powerful, and adrenalizing metal classic be considered underrated? I’ll refer you to Blind Guardian’s Setlist.fm statistics, where they have played this gem a mere sixteen documented times! Sixteen! Once in 95 shortly after Imaginations was released, then most famously as part of their 2003 Blind Guardian Festival setlist (as captured on the ‘Looking Glass live DVD), and finally only at a smattering of festivals afterwards (most recently at a show in Stockholm in 2010). And I get it —- this is a damn tough song to pull off live, not only because you need at least two solid back-up singers to fill in the backing vocal parts during the chorus, but also because in its original studio incarnation Hansi actually sings over himself quite often.

His lead vocals on the pre-chorus lyric “I am your light on through the night” gets overlapped by the first words of the chorus (“Why am I born”), as well as his epic vocal extensions at the end of verse lyrics such as “I will die before my vision ends”, where in his own inimitable way he gets as much passion out of that final word as possible (see the 1:51 mark for reference). In fact, you’re hard pressed to find moments where vocal sections don’t overlap one another by at least a second or two, and they all contribute towards building this palpable sense of violent urgency throughout the song, that Hansi is racing ahead of his band members and its out of his control. Its all by design of course, a result of the band’s pure devotion to their studio craft… that nothing, not even the complications of a playing a song live could alter their course in sculpting a piece of music to achieve exactly what they envision. And what they envision out of “Another Holy War” is a concentrated barrage of rage with Hansi as its physical manifestation. His performance is masterful, unlike anything we’ve ever heard in metal and the only piece of evidence you need to put prejudiced extreme metal fans who pooh-pooh power metal in their place. His half sung, half screamed vocal extensions of certain lyrics here are what his status as a living legend are built upon (refer to 3:22-3:27, and 3:42-:3:46 for further evidence), and that oh so sweet outro guitar melody beginning at the 4:02 mark matched with Thomen Stauch’s classic battlefield snare percussion is the 24k gold band this diamond is set in.

 

 

“A Past and Future Secret” (from Imaginations From the Other Side)

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8GIVtCNlCk&w=560&h=315]

 

Before you spit out your coffee and thunderously ask aloud how I can consider “A Past and Future Secret” as forgotten, I’ll ask you to consider that I’m coming at this from an American Blind Guardian fan’s perspective. Since the band has been touring on our shores since 2002, they’ve aired the song Stateside only once back on November 15th, 2002 at the ProgPower III festival in Atlanta, Georgia (incidentally, their first American show ever). Meanwhile, every single show here has featured the much loved “The Bard’s Song” —- and rightly so, its a classic and no one’s complaining about it. And I get it, most metal shows only have room for one ballad unless you’re Nightwish or Sonata Arctica and even then two is pushing it (it being the patience of a general standing room audience, I for one welcome all belligerent displays of balladry). We love “The Bard’s Song” for its simplicity, for the easiness of it’s vocal melody and how it can be strummed on an acoustic guitar in someone’s garage, or by a campsite at the RenFest —- its by nature a portable song, you don’t even need the guitar. But I’m going to step out on a ledge here and suggest that between the two ballads, “A Past and Future Secret” is actually the better song, both in composition and execution, and a better representative of how malleable, rich, and multifaceted the band’s sound is.

Its secret weapon is Hansi’s lyrical perspective, actually setting the scene by endearing to an audience around him, “Listen crowd I’ll tell you everything!” —- though who “I” is the subject of some debate. Some feel the narrator is Sir Bedivere, or an alternation between Merlin and Arthur, while others simply assign the narrator as a bard, shifting in various perspectives as he unfolds this tale of Arthurian drama. Regardless of how you see it, it paints a picture, and gives you a sense of being in a physical place as a listener that defines your experience when listening to it. Andre’s opening acoustic guitar figure is lilting, romantic, and instantly memorable, becoming the motif from which every other guitar and keyboard pattern swirls off of. But its in the layering and juxtaposition of the vocals where the song truly becomes an epic, in those gently mixed down full throated Hansi screams that seem to echo off in the distance. He peppers them in throughout the song, culminating in its climatic apex at the 2:34 mark when he passionately declares “I will wait and guard / The future king’s throne!”, his extension on the final word sending shivers down our spines. Even more than that, I love the call and response section towards the three minute mark, when he passionately sings “It was nice but now it’s gone” like some tortured madman a great distance away bellowing to the open air, his voice sounding like its crossed hills and rivers to get to us.

Also worth noting are Thomen’s martial percussion patterns, soft drumming on snares, a deeply ringing suspended cymbal, and booming array of timpani. Thomen doesn’t seem to get enough credit for his imaginative approach to percussion in general, but go back and really pay attention to what he’s doing on those albums and you’ll realize that he drives a lot of their classic moments in the same way that Andre did with his guitar fluidity. What you get on “A Past and Future Secret” that you don’t quite get on “The Bard’s Song” is Blind Guardian on full display, using every trick up their sleeve including Hansi’s crazy powerful Imaginations-era vocal ability (no one ever sounded so melodic yet so brutal at the same time) to create not an opulent, thundering metal epic, but a delicate, brushstroke ballad that makes you emotional about a lyric that comes from myth and fantasy. With “The Bard’s Song”, its simple and direct lyrics could be transferable to our actual lives, but in “A Past and Future Secret”, we suspend our disbelief and step willingly into another world to hear fictional characters’ memories.

 

 

“Ashes to Ashes” (from Somewhere Far Beyond)

 

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

 

There’s a moment directly in the middle of this song when it deviates from its tense, palm-muted riff fueled verse and chorus and daringly goes into something of an extended bridge, it starts and ends from 2:56 to 3:17 —- but the precise moment that really does it for me is at the introduction of the lyric, “…Obey my call to the cemetery / And don’t be afraid / To step into the dark…”. Its a transcendent moment. Take a second to rewind back to 2:56 to listen to it again, listen to that build up, Hansi’s choice of extended phrasing around the word “cemetery”, the way Andre’s lead guitars gush forth underneath it all during the next two lines beginning at the 3:07 mark, almost mirroring the vocal melody itself in order to better support Hansi’s emotionally charged performance. There’s something about that small little part, that little deviation in the trajectory of the song that has always captivated me and that I have long associated as a characteristic of truly great bands —- to have the confidence to implement such a remarkable musical moment only once in a song as opposed to hitting it again and again. I’m not suggesting that the rest of the song is weak in comparison, its not, but that part has been the reason “Ashes to Ashes” has stuck in my mind all these years.

I have to note here that “Ashes to Ashes” was written about the death of Hansi’s father, marking one of the few times he turned inward as a lyricist albeit still writing with an eye towards the fantastical. This might be a stretch but hear me out: I’ve always felt that the reason that moment sounded so emotional to me was because of how much it truly contrasted with the stony stoicism of the rest of the song. This contrast not only exists in the music but in the lyrics as well, notice how the bulk of the song’s lyrics seem to be about Hansi’s rationalization of death: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust / The life clock strikes and you obey / Like a candle light that fades… Time isn’t here to stay”. Its hard not to notice how even the vocal approach to those lines is purposefully detached, like its being chanted from afar (the combined choir vocal approach helps). Yet in sharp contrast there’s far more raw emotion in Hansi’s lead vocal during the build up to that extended bridge, as his lyrical perspective turns inward while expressing regret, “Morning is whispering in my head / Too late to say goodbye / Too late”, and of course how ten seconds later we reach our cataclysmic bridge where everything from the music, lyrics, and vocal approach combined just seems to reach an emotional apex.

Diving further into those lyrics its hard not to view the entire bridge as a dialogue between Hansi and his father, perhaps not directly but metaphysically, and in its own way being the place in the song where that aforementioned rational stoicism melts away and you hear the emotional grief of a son trying to make peace with the loss of a father. Its followed directly by yet another injection of that stony, detached chorus, like he’s trying to pull himself together after such an emotional outburst. Look I realize I’m getting into a hyper-textual interpretation here, and I doubt that Hansi had all these things in mind when he was writing this song, but that’s kinda the point —- subconsciously this is how he ended up writing this song, and how it affected me. Before I knew that this song was about Hansi’s father, I always regarded its narrator as being really confused about how to feel concerning the concept of death, and as a result often thought of “Ashes to Ashes” as confusing in itself. But after I learned of its origins, I still regarded its narrator in the same way, only this time the song made perfect sense.

 

“Lionheart” (from A Twist In The Myth)

 

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

 

One of the things I’ve been doing in my revisiting Blind Guardian’s catalog is give a lot of extra attention to A Night at the Opera and A Twist in the Myth, both albums that I had been neglecting in the past few years. The former had the benefit of coming to me anew, with its remixed version appearing on the band’s recent boxset, but unfortunately the Nuclear Blast released Myth didn’t get the same treatment, barring “This Will Never End” in its remixed state on the Memories of a Time to Come best of/remix collection. Why that was the case is puzzling… if you’re going to remix one song, why not do all of them for an album that needed it just as much as its predecessor (if not more so)? I get that the Traveler’s Guide To Space and Time boxed set was a Virgin Germany release and that Myth obviously couldn’t be included on that, but if you’re going through the trouble of updating your entire catalog, how about nudging the guys at Nuclear Blast into re-releasing that album with a new mix as a selling point? Part of me wonders if Nuclear Blast had to pony up for licensing fees for all those Virgin era Blind Guardian classics for re-release on the Memories compilation and they felt they had spent enough already (because while three songs were re-recorded, everything else on the set was simply remixed). Possible interview question for Hansi perhaps?

Anyway, A Twist In the Myth is understandably tagged as the worst of latter day Blind Guardian (oh hell, lets just say post 1990 Blind Guardian), with some songs that never took off (“Carry the Blessed Home”, “Straight Through the Mirror”), a radical change in style and sound (“Another Stranger Me”, “Fly”), and just an overall feeling that the whole affair was a bit underwhelming. I remember debating my theory at the time of its release with another Blind Guardian fan, that Myth was a deliberately different production approach in direct reaction to how A Night At the Opera was perceived as overproduced. He argued that no one could reasonably say that Myth was under produced, but I think we settled on both agreeing that it was badly produced. It seems weird to say that about a Charlie Bauerfeind album, but in retrospect it seemed that both Bauerfeind and the band had to take those first two albums together as a sort of calibration period that finally resulted in them getting on the same page for 2010’s At the Edge of Time. Even now when I go back through it front to finish, I hear those production side blemishes: Hansi’s vocals seem at times over-processed; the choral vocals aren’t pushed up in the mix enough; the guitars sometimes fall back into the mix to be buried under the keyboard arrangements; and speaking of which, the keyboard built arrangements can be all over the place, with a preponderance of odd sound effects instead of pure orchestral accompaniment.

On “Lionheart”, all those tendencies popped up in possibly the worst configuration —- yet for all its flaws, it rises on the strength of being one of the band’s best ever songs, with a chorus that could level a shopping mall. Built upon a truly inspired series of overlapping vocal melodies where the verses are just as compelling as the refrain, no time is wasted in a long instrumental build up as twenty-seven seconds in we hear Hansi usher us in with an ambiguous lyric, “Speak to me / It all would be easier / I want to talk to you”. What you don’t really hear with clarity due to its muddled mix is the repeating chant of the underneath backing vocals singing “Just let me out of here”, a sonic tidbit that requires some good headphones to detect. Let me pause here and again just marvel at how easily this band seems to conjure up vocal melodies that sound epic on the surface, and resonate with us beyond a surface level, and that’s just the intro! Frederik Ehmke delivers a monstrous percussion performance here, just pummeling us with double kick and furious, battle-inspired drum patterns that violently shake all throughout. And Andre’s inventiveness pops up in wonderful ways, such as his alliterative riff sequence (see :45-:53) during the pre-chorus bridge. As for the chorus itself, try listening to this song while reading along with the lyrics and see how many lines you’ve been missing simply because they’ve been submerged by a faulty vocal mix. You don’t get to hear huge chunks of whats actually being sung, not with clarity anyway. Its a shame because I dare anyone to deny this song’s greatness —- but its begging for a remix, for it to never get one would be a disservice to all Blind Guardian fans.

 

 

“Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)” (from Nightfall In Middle-Earth)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kl1rroJOZzw&w=560&h=315]

 

Its understandable that the first songs you’d think of when considering Nightfall in Middle-Earth would be “Mirror Mirror”, “Nightfall”, “Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)”, or even “Into the Storm” —- because duh! (insert pic of Batman slapping Robin here). It would however be a crime if you began to neglect listening to the rest of the album in some sort of misguided yet gallant attempt to create a best of Blind Guardian playlist on your iPod. The truth is I could’ve picked from a number of forgotten deep cuts off Nightfall, and in fact almost chose “The Eldar”, that doomy gloomy piano ballad that was imagined as Finrod Felagund’s dying lament of regret and farewell (its power is slightly diminished when you consider that things worked out for him in the afterlife with that whole getting to return to Valinor to live for eternity with his long sundered love Amarië kinda thing). But if we’re taking the concept of the album and its source material at heart, then no other song should stand out more for its sheer heartbreaking passion and sentiment than “Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)”, as it so perfectly captures that agonizing path that led the Noldor towards war and destruction.

First there’s its opening guitar figure, composed of romantic yet somber notes that serve as the bedrock for the see-saw melody that is draped over the song’s refrain. The Savatage-esque theatrical drop in of every other instrument briefly suggests that we’re in for something uptempo, but then those choir vocals kick in and we abruptly shift to something more mid-tempo, the unfolding of a moody, bi-polar song that at times quietly seethes and then furiously lashes out in a sonic tantrum. So erratic is the structure of the music here that at times it seems like you’re listening to entirely different songs, such as the shift from those aforementioned choir vocals to Hansi’s solo verse vocal, “We were lost / On grinding ice / In fear and hunger…”, all the way back again to the pummeling speed metal uproar during “(You) can’t escape / From my damnation / (Nor) run away / From isolation”. That pre-chorus transitions to a bridge that contains one of Hansi’s most glorious vocal moments ever, namely, his primal high note extension on the last word of the lyric “Hear my words / Fear my curse” hitting you like a shockwave completely out of nowhere. When you try to explain why Blind Guardian may just be the best metal band of all time to some plebeian, its difficult to articulate just how utterly majestic a specific moment like this one is —- words can’t come to mind that sufficiently describe it (and around that time the person you’re talking to nods and changes the subject).

The awesome final note of that bridge by the way transitions into one of the band’s most beautiful and underrated choruses. It seems silly to ask this, but are we collectively underrating Hansi as a lyricist? Because I’ve rarely heard, read, pondered over a stanza of lyrics as perfect as “I know where the stars glow / The sky’s unclouded / Sweet the water runs my friend”, a brushstroke of imagery that affects you for its cosmic spirituality, but then deepens in significance if you’ve read The Silmarillion (or seen the iconic cover art that graces its most common edition). The vocal melody that those words are sung to, with the help of lush layered lead vocals and group choral vocals all works in tandem to glorious effect —- its a chorus that tugs at me spiritually. The lyrics that immediately follow pay homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s authorship directly, “(But) Noldor / Blood is on your hands / Tears unnumbered / You will shet and dwell in pain”, with its knowing reference to the prophecy of doom spoken by Mandos upon the Noldor after their kinslaying at Alqualonde: “Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains.” Yes I posted the whole quote (that’s not even all of it), because its an awesome moment in the book, and you should read it (dammit!).

Its worth delving into the lyrical perspectives here, because “Noldor” is essentially a metaphysical dialogue between Mandos (one of the Valar, he being the Lord of Doom aka afterlife) and Fingolfin. Oh if there’s ever a sympathetic figure in The Silmarillion, its Fingolfin. The backstory is a little too involved to get into here, but essentially Fingolfin and his people are in a rough spot, having participated in the kinslaying of the Teleri (elf-on-elf violence) due to their sworn allegiance to the increasingly rage-maddened Feanor in their act to leave the paradise of Aman and depart to Middle-Earth to go after Morgoth (who has just stolen the Silmarils, oh and killed Finwe, the father of Fingolfin and Feanor). Feanor and his people departed on the stolen Teleri ships first, but instead of sending them back for Fingolfin’s people, he burns them after reaching the far shore. Fingolfin sees the fires in the distance and realizes that he and his host will have to go the long way around to Middle-Earth, on foot, through the icy wasteland of the Helcaraxe (the “grinding ice” we hear about in the song). Why would Feanor do such a thing? Because despite Fingolfin’s sworn allegiance, he still distrusts his younger brother —- Fingolfin is born from another mother; he at one time in the past stood against Feanor’s selfishness in withholding the light of the Silmarils from the Valar, and that up to no good Morgoth worm-tongued words of distrust to Feanor regarding Fingolfin’s supposed intentions to be the heir of Noldor (all lies of course). Also Feanor is by this point out of his mind, so blinded by grief and his rage at the loss of the Silmarils that he’s not quite thinking clearly.

I think its interesting that Hansi chose to contrast Fingolfin with Mandos’ prophecy of doom rather then Feanor, who gets his own perspective song in “The Curse of Feanor”. It goes to show just how well Hansi understood the source material that he could achieve an even greater emotional impact by honing in on the remorse felt by Fingolfin at this juncture —- losing many of his people along the brutal march through the Helcaraxe, feeling enormous guilt for the Kinslaying, yet still feeling bound to his oath: “See my eyes / Are full of tears / And a cruel price / We’ve paid / But still I can’t claim / That I’m innocent”. His perspectives are kept to the verses, while Mandos’ takes over the rest of the song. Its hard to tell if that gorgeous chorus is a split between him and Fingolfin, or if its just all Mandos —- I’m inclined to think the latter, because of course the place with sweet waters, unclouded skies, and glowing stars that he’s referring to is Arda, home of the Valar and the place from which the Noldor who left are banished from. When I hear the Mandos perspective lyric “And the lost / Who will not reach the / House of spirits / (Will) grow old and weary”, I think of Galadriel much later on in the third age, lone surivor of the Noldor who left Arda, with her bleak outlook on any possibility of returning to Arda, with the guilt for all she’s seen for thousands of years weighing down upon her. From one fan of The Silmarillion to another, Hansi is communicating some of the unwritten emotion present in Tolkien’s true masterpiece. Thanks Hansi!

 

 

“Precious Jerusalem” (from A Night At the Opera)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWeeV7N3vDM&w=560&h=315]

 

So much attention has been paid to the fourteen minute long epic that is “And Then There Was Silence” before and after the release of A Night At the Opera that it sometimes seems as if the rest of the album has been sitting in its shadow. Certainly no other track from the album was played live on the band’s recent American tour, and it ranks as the most played song from this album since its release in 2002 (again according to Setlist.fm stats). Now let me preface this by saying, I do adore that song —- for weeks and months from its CD single release in November 2001 til the album release in March 2002, it was the only new Blind Guardian I had to listen to (well, that and its b-side “Harvest of Sorrow”). And boy did my Blind Guardian loving friends and I listen to it, over and over and over again, up until when the album was finally released and we were so burned out on it that we skipped over it during spins. I gave it a long miss for many years, honestly only hearing it when the band played it live in 2006 and 2010, and when they re-recorded it for the Memories of a Time to Come collection. Hearing it in a fresh recording gave me new appreciation for it, witnessing it performed live again bolstered that enthusiasm, and lately I’ve found myself humming various sections of it at random.

A year after the re-recording of “And Then There Was Silence” came another surprise: a completely remixed version of A Night At the Opera on the band’s A Traveler’s Guide to Space and Time boxed set. The band had murmured about the possibility of remixing it in interviews for years, and for awhile I chalked it up to wishful thinking (on their part and mine). Alongside many others I had always felt that the original release was a tad overcooked; perhaps too much compression of certain layers in the recording, too many vocal tracks, whatever it was —- the album could be a chore to listen to, an aural equivalent to an Australian’s nightmare, as Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith would put it. The remix breathed new life into its songs, adding space between instrumentation, bringing up interesting musical elements that had been trapped behind walls of noise, loosening up the layering of choral vocals so they could pop more. On the whole, I thought it was a triumph… oh, except for the deleting of one of the most epic moments from the best song on the album. Yes I’m referring to “Precious Jerusalem”, finally we’re here! Before I heap praise upon it, I have to take issue with the band and ask: Why was the decision made in the remixed album to delete the line “Let’s celebrate the dawning of the sun” at the 1:23 mark? Its such an integral musical segue from the intro verse to that first glorious rendition of the chorus that its absence in the remixed version seems unnaturally empty and incomplete. For the purposes of this article and you the reader, I’ve linked the original version above (and while I love and recommend the remixed album over the original, I’d urge everyone to replace the remixed “Precious Jerusalem” with the original for their tracklisting).

The band has elected to avoid touching “Precious Jerusalem” live, likely due to the necessity of the song needing a strong backing choir to even get close to pulling it off. The patterns of the vocal melodies are reminiscent of “Another Holy War” in a fittingly similar way (both songs lyrically seem to touch on the same topic) in that bridges and choruses begin while the previous verse, bridge, or chorus is finishing up on its last line. It works towards the same effect here, to build up tension and deliver epic payoffs, and it succeeds on both counts. I’ve always loved the lyric on the dramatic bridge, “I’ve gone beyond but there’s no life / And there is nothing how it seems / I’ve gone beyond but there’s no life / There is no healing rain in Eden”, its imagery suggestive of both physical and spiritual journeys. But its the chorus that houses the song’s emotional core, “I turn to you oh my precious Jerusalem / Deny your prophets their passion and treat them like fools / I turn to you oh my poor old Jerusalem / Deny my love but you can’t change fate”, with Hansi and his longtime choir emoting and inflecting just enough on that third repeating line to give it an extra dose of ache —- it sounds like these guys are pained singing this song, in a good way. Oh one other vocal related thing, how brilliant is Hansi at understanding alliteration and the value of repetition when he sings “I’ve found myself in desert lands in desert lands / But you’ve been on my mind”? Repeating “in desert lands” twice not only works syllabic-ally but reinforces the unending and repetitive nature of what we think of as Middle-East desert landscapes. It has a passionate yet tortured quality to its overstatement, so when he follows by singing “…you’ve been on my mind”, it makes you wonder —- for how long?

 

 

“Theatre of Pain” (from Somewhere Far Beyond)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9JXlYgUGQ50&w=560&h=315]

 

Easily the most cinematic song off Somewhere Far Beyond (and the band’s career at that point), “Theatre of Pain” was also one of the album’s mid-tempo numbers alongside “The Quest For Tanelorn”, the aforementioned “Ashes to Ashes”, and the epic title track. In tandem they redefined the band’s sound, building the path that lead them away from mostly speed/thrash metal and paving the way for the birth of their classic sound on Imaginations From the Other Side. What sets “Theatre of Pain” apart from those however is its panoramic use of keyboard orchestration to create a Hollywood-esque backdrop for Andre, Marcus and Thomen to play off of. So prominent was the orchestral arrangement for this song, that the band delivered a “classic version” on their 1996 rarities collection Forgotten Tales that pushed up both Andre’s lead guitars and the keyboards to the forefront. There was a time when I preferred the classic version, but over time I’ve come back around to the more raw, desperate push and pull of the original. Hard to believe that a song that the band saw fit to release in two incarnations can be overlooked by the fanbase at large but I hardly ever seen anyone mention it as a favorite. I guess its the price it pays for being on an album with “The Bard’s Song” and “Time What Is Time” (although I guess its not that surprising considering that once again, the band rarely plays it live).

I had a hard time coming up with an adjective for this song besides cinematic, but perhaps its a little swashbuckling? Not in the dumb Alestorm kind of way, but in the sense that its streaked with a touch of adventurous spirit in its see-saw swagger and overtly fantastical lyrics. Speaking of the lyrics, they’re apparently inspired by a 1979 sci-fi novel called The Merman’s Children by Poul Anderson, a book that I’ve never read but seems interesting its in premise. Needless to say, its hard to grow attached to lyrics that are so specific to unknown subject matter as they are here, but there are some standout moments, the most vivid to me being the chorus itself: “Don’t fear your last step / From the theatre of pain / And the children will love your singing”. To be honest, I have no idea what those lines mean, their specificity is the only aspect I can critique —- but their reassuring intention and tone seem obvious enough. And despite you asking yourself while listening to it one day, “Just what is a theater of pain anyway?” as I did, its Hansi’s delivery and the well timed joining in of the chorus vocals that have always made this a feel-good Blind Guardian song.

 

 

“The Curse of Feanor” (from Nightfall In Middle-Earth)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFAskJN4YKE&w=560&h=315]

 

Lost amidst a dense tracklisting between”Into the Storm”, “Nightfall”, and “Mirror Mirror” is this severely overlooked / under-discussed gem. Funnily and cruelly enough, the band unleashed their debut airing of this song just one show after their Houston date in Atlanta. It was hard to be bitter about it at the time while still riding high on the excitement of the show, and of course any cursory understanding of the tragedy of Feanor in The Silmarillion should be a warning for holding grudges and being selfish —- that being said, I still can’t help feeling a little robbed of hearing this glorious anthem live. But hey, I’m happy for my Atlanta brethren, it was about time the band played this in concert and its nice to see that an American audience got a live debut of a song for once (no I’m not gritting my teeth!). This is one of the most aggressive songs off Nightfall, just punishing you with heavy, barreling riffs and percussion after Andre’s joyously opulent lead guitar intro. At first listen someone might expect this to unfold in a fairly standard manner, with a cliche power metal chorus to follow, but Blind Guardian are nothing if not tricksters. We hit the bridge, and our racetrack tempo slows down, Hansi’s vocals briefly turn to a gentle hush, all before aggressively building towards the chorus where another tempo shift occurs, this time to a mid-tempo, almost stately march. Its in that chorus where Hansi once again displays his masterful command of the song’s source material in crafting a perspective based chorus that brings you right into the heart of Feanor’s despair and fury. The lyrics in the chorus are flawless, “Don’t fear the eyes of the dark lord / Morgoth I cried / All hope is gone but I swear revenge / Hear my oath / I will take part in your damned fate”. Its partly addressed to his followers in the house of Finwe, but also to himself and aloud in the air to Morgoth, quite a lot for one chorus to be getting on with.

The unusual and of course brilliant feature of “The Curse of Feanor” is how that chorus seems to be extended by virtue of a mid-chorus bridge where a brief guitar solo introduces a tempo change in the rhythm section and Hansi delivers another searing lyric, “I will always remember their cries / Like a shadow which covers the light / I will always remember the time /But it’s past / I cannot turn back the time / (I) don’t look back / There’s still smoke near the shore / But I arrived / Revenge be mine”. Okay there’s a lot to point out here: First, how about another shining example of Hansi’s choice to repeat a word or phrase for dramatic effect ala “Precious Jerusalem”, in this case how he repeats the “I” in the first line “I will always remember their cries” —- its a small thing I know, but it makes Hansi’s interpretation of Feanor come alive, become tangible and almost conversational (even though its real use is for the vocals to synch in better with the guitars swooping in). How about “Like a shadow which covers the light”, a general bit of imagery that can speak to the non-informed listener yet also speaks directly about the stolen Silmarils? And I’ve always loved the inclusion of “There’s still smoke near the shore”, because it reinforces what was suggested with “I will always remember their cries” —- that Hansi’s interpretation of Feanor brings with it some remorse for the kinslaying at Alqualonde. Is it too much for someone to get Hansi on a podcast and just talk The Silmarillion for an hour or so, is it really that hard? I’ll even take a print interview, but enough questions about tour dates and recording processes. Let’s talk to the man about Fingolfin (go-with-the-flow rube or saintly hero?); Glaurung’s candidacy for greatest fictional jerk of all time; Feanor or Turin Tarambar? (who was dealt the worse hand?); why couldn’t Morgoth have found Gondolin with some aerial scouting by one of his flying baddies?; and what were the real estate prices like in the Blessed Realm anyway?

 

 

“The Maiden And The Minstrel Knight” (from A Night At the Opera)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxeiH5q3Dlw&w=560&h=315]

 

This might be THE most overlooked Blind Guardian song of all time, not only because the band has ignored it live, but because it rather unjustly seems absent from any discussion I’ve seen regarding fan favorites. If we’re to go by the lyrics alone then we can consider this to be the bards’ first and only love song, a surprise considering the depth of their catalog. But hey, being Blind Guardian this isn’t just a regular love song, its based on the tragic romance of Tristan and Isolde of course! Many years ago, one bleary night around two in the morning while lying beached-whale-like in bed, I caught an opera performance of this on PBS that was subtitled. I remember it vividly for being the first opera I actually watched from start to finish (because it was 2am and the remote control was somewhere over there *points vaguely*), and surprisingly enough I actually enjoyed it in some small way. Anyway, Hansi essentially took a few important moments from this classic story and stitched together two perspectives of different characters. Without getting into the story (because its been awhile), we get a little bit of King Marke of Cornwall and his “testing” of his soon to be betrothed Isolde’s innocence, and we get Tristan who in his grievously wounded state is crying out for his true and sundered love (Isolde!). Look, you get the idea.

What A Night at the Opera brought in spades was an aggressive expansion of the band’s sound that a lot of people just lazily term as “progressive” —- which yes it was, but the band opened up their sound by reducing their usage of straight ahead metallic riffs, building songs around vocal melodies and lead guitar motifs, as well as increasing the role of keyboard designed orchestrations. All of which are cornerstones of “The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight”, which is largely built around Hansi’s lead vocal melody alone, so much so that you’ll notice hardly any instrumentation during the beginning verse apart from keyboards that echo his tune. Its a daring way to write a ballad, one that gets even more daring when the group vocals join in during the chorus (“Will you still wait for me? / Will you still cry for me?”), as Hansi cedes his spotlight at a moment in which most other vocalists would want to seize it. Guitars don’t kick in until the 2:12 mark, and despite the punctuating kick they deliver, they’re still secondary in nature even considering Andre’s excellent solo that works as the set up for the song’s best moment. That moment spans nearly a minute from 3:14 to 4:12, where intertwining lead vocal melodies work alongside group vocal layers to create breathlessly beautiful harmonic bliss. The lyrics during this segment speak of loss and ache, and despite their call and response nature between Hansi and the choir they seem to read as one long run-on train of thought.

 

 

“War of the Thrones (Piano Version)” (from At the Edge of Time)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6L0jQTAilJQ&w=560&h=315]

 

Had this blog existed in 2010, Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time would have sat atop 2010’s Best Albums of the Year list. It was the return of the bard’s classic speed and power metal styles infused and expanded with their post-2002 experimentation. It boasted not just one, but two supreme epics in “Sacred Worlds” and “Wheel of Time”, as well as neck-snapping cuts like “Tanelorn (Into the Void) and “Ride Into Obsession”, which seemed like modern distillations of the band’s early 90s era. Even the slow burning cuts were compelling, “Control The Divine” and “Road of No Release” were twisting and complex with their inspired tempo/riff changes; “Valkyries” soared with its cinematics; “A Voice In The Dark” brought us a quintessential Blind Guardian classic; and “Curse My Name” was a stirring, jangly acoustic guitar driven ballad in the vein of “A Past and Future Secret” that saw Hansi delivering a passion filled lead vocal. But what really caught my ear at that time and still now was the gorgeous, subdued piano ballad “War of the Thrones”, an unusually delicate song in that its subject matter was the violent and bloody tale of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

It was interesting in itself that they decided to match one to the other, because anyone’s first thought would be that any Game of Thrones inspired Blind Guardian song would be brutal and heavy, but in a strange way, it was a perfect pairing. Its been a mystery as to why it hasn’t gotten a live airing, nor is it talked about that much by fans in general. If you can guess which character(s) the lyrical perspective of this song is based on, you’re far better off than I. Some people say Jon Snow, but that doesn’t necessarily add up all the way through. One person on SongMeanings suggested Coldhands, and I’ve heard another suggestion that its actually from Ned Stark’s perspective, as he realizes his time is coming to an end. No matter which you choose there are details that don’t correlate, but does it really matter overall when the lyrics speak of doom but the melodies are sprightly, lilting, and dare I suggest happy?

That dichotomy might be the most appealing aspect of “War of the Thrones”, and it starts off at the very onset a few seconds in, with a lone piano dancing into one of the most singularly beautiful moments in Blind Guardian’s catalog, a tinkling melodic figure that could melt icicles (at the :08 second mark to be exact, but the buildup is just as affecting). Hansi’s lead vocals throughout are a balanced blend of sublimely melodic with aggressive accents on specific words for dramatic effect. Lyrically, you’re not supposed to feel as uplifted as you are when the chorus comes around, with its major keys and orchestral swells and Andre and Marcus’ dancing acoustic guitars. Maybe its fair to say that strong melodies will overrule lyrical direction in most cases, and Blind Guardian is no exception. The clincher begins at the 3:45 mark and runs to the very end of the song, where they extend the melodic line of the chorus through to a layered harmony vocal, Hansi directing the choir with additional setups for the group choral vocals. Its my favorite moment on the album, and of the band’s catalog in general, as Hansi sings “Leave a fee for the tiller man / And the river behind” while he and his select group of studio vocalists extend the final syllable on “behind” longer than a normal band would ever think to do. Seriously, who thinks of that?! Its a sequence that brings to mind Renaissance Fairs for me, as I vividly remember listening to the song with friends while driving up to one, its cheerful harmonies begging for a sing-a-long. Its also emblematic of the nature of Blind Guardian, to not shy away from all manner of emotion, nor from wearing their heart on their sleeve.

 

Avantasia Searches For Immortality With Ghostlights

I can’t remember ever anticipating an album with such a nervous bracing for a potential disappointing letdown, as I have with this seventh iteration of Tobias Sammet’s metal/rock opera shenanigan machine. Over the years there’s been a slow erosion to my confidence level in Sammet’s output —- from the wavering quality of the past few Edguy albums from merely okay to mediocre and back to okay again, to the stunning realization that I simply didn’t enjoy most of the last Avantasia album The Mystery of Time. Once his biggest fanboy this side of the Atlantic, I’ve had to start qualifying reviews and random conversations with friends with statements such as “Well, he always delivers a few gems each album”, or the old standard, “Give it time, it’ll probably grow on you (and me)”. But if I’m honest with myself and all of you, I’ve long thought that 2001’s Mandrake was the last time Sammet released a flawless, front to back masterpiece. Its such a long time ago that we tend to forget that it was hot on the heels of his Avantasia debut, The Metal Opera Part I, an album that upon its release was widely recognized as a monumental work in power metal history and an emblematic marker that we were then experiencing the subgenre’s golden era. For those of us in the late 90’s who were aware of this golden era as it was happening, we viewed Sammet as one of a few central figures in a larger, multi-band fueled wave of classic power metal releases —- he had already ripped off masterpieces in 1999’s Theater of Salvation and 1998’s Vain Glory Opera, and in the wake of Mandrake, he seemed nigh unstoppable.

Yet suddenly Sammet missed out on perfection for the first time in years with 2002’s The Metal Opera II, which though much loved by most of us, admittedly felt inferior as a sequel. On the Edguy track, 2004’s Hellfire Club was a thrilling, inventive, yet schismatic album with a few songs that fell short (we tend to overpraise this album because of how aggressive it was, but it also had the distinction of introducing hard rock elements into the band’s sound, something a segment of fans would later lament). Post Hellfire Club, things got complicated: Subsequent Edguy releases began to infuse Sammet’s childhood roots of 80s pop-metal, AOR, and arena rock —- thus pushing out most of the traditional power metal elements the band’s earlier records were based on. When Sammet announced in late 2006 that he was resurrecting the Avantasia project, I think many of us thought that it’d be his power metal outlet, even if we weren’t getting The Metal Opera “Part III”. This isn’t intended to be a history lesson, but indulge me for a bit: Sammet unleashed a trio of Avantasia albums over the following years that were far more in line stylistically with the AOR/hard rock/pop-rock explorations he was continuing in Edguy, and power metal was limited to usage as a flavoring throughout most of The Scarecrow Trilogy. While a very vocal segment of his fanbase cried foul and openly yearned for the power metal glory days of the turn of the millennium, I found myself alongside a host of others who didn’t mind Sammet’s stylistic choices and found much to love about both Edguy and Avantasia releases during this period.

Yet even with that said, all those releases had their share of flaws (even the aforementioned Scarecrow Trilogy, which I loved), and I began to develop a theory or three on just why that was the case. First, I suspect that Sammet’s exploration into expanding his songwriting palette via stylistic change was a process that was bound to inevitably produce some filler. I have no reasonable explanation as to why crafting hard rock/AOR styled songs would be trickier than penning classicist power metal as it seemed to be for Sammet —- maybe that’s just the way he was wired. The point is that the actual process yielded positive, mediocre, and negative results, proof that he was still finding his footing while the missteps were being documented on the records. Just go back and listen to how utterly schizophrenic Edguy albums such as Rocket Ride, Tinnitus Sanctus and The Age of the Joker were. Secondly, I think that he was potentially spreading himself too thin on the songwriting front —- consider that from 2008-2013, he ushered out four Avantasia albums with two Edguy albums sandwiched in between. Thirdly, I think in that aforementioned span of years, Sammet was having trouble finding a way to separate the now musically identical Avantasia and Edguy, an array of guest vocalists being the only element separating the two projects. It made me question why he felt a need to keep Edguy around at all, considering the lopsided ratio of albums being released by both bands.

 

 

The surprising artistic success of Space Police and its showing of strength on the songwriting front was a great sign for Sammet having reestablished a connection to Edguy. It wasn’t a perfect album by any means, but it had an identity that was in sharp contrast to Avantasia, and it seemed to be a statement of what Edguy is now a vehicle for —- fun, sometimes silly hard rock / traditional heavy metal that only rarely takes itself seriously. Its guesswork as to when he came to this realization, but I suspect that subtitling The Mystery of Time as “A Rock Opera” and not a “Metal Opera” was a quiet nod to anyone paying attention that there was no going back to the power metal days (also he has now released more albums in his hard rock/AOR/trad metal style than he has of classicist power metal). I say all that to set the stage for Ghostlights, an album that I’ve been considering ever since its announcement as a potential crossroads for Sammet —- the question being, does his success in compartmentalizing his projects carry over from Edguy to Avantasia and translate into masterful songwriting once again or was Space Police the last few drops from a well of inspiration that’s potentially run dry? I’m so relieved and happy to report that the bucket was plunged down the well and came up overflowing, and not only that, but in Ghostlights, Sammet has created his first front to finish classic since Mandrake.

This is an album brimming with confidence, full of vibrantly diverse songs with their own individual personalities, and loaded with shimmering, transcendent melodies and addictive hooks. It starts from the onset, with the Eurovision German preliminaries contending (!) lead single “Mystery of Blood Red Rose”, a Jim Steinman-esque vehicle meant for Meatloaf to actually guest on but as his management railroaded those plans, Sammet lays down lead vocals and delivers a worthy performance. As a pop-laden song it sees Sammet stretching his comfort zone a bit, weaving in Bat Out of Hell styled piano pastiche instead of relying on the semi Bon Jovi-ian vibe that so often laces his singles of this type. Sure they’ve used piano before, even on another Meatloaf-y number in “The Story Ain’t Over” in 2007, but here its delivered in runs of wild, loose glissando. It works well as an intro piece, setting a playful and fun tone for the album. Its on the epic thunderstorm of the following song “Let the Storm Descend Upon You” where we get our first guest vocalist spots with the returning Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids), the surprising Robert Mason (Warrant/ex-Lynch Mob) and of course the King of Kings himself, Jorn Lande. Mason is an inspired left field choice, and Atkins sounds far more comfortable here than he ever did on The Mystery of Time’s “Invoke the Machine”, and of course Jorn just makes everything better. This is the monstrous epic of the album, clocking in at over twelve minutes… and it took me awhile to realize that, perhaps the best compliment I can offer towards Sammet’s songwriting on this particular cut. Its so effortlessly packed with adrenaline-kicked riffs, smartly-paced lead vocal runs, and a diving-swinging-swooping theater of the dramatic —- its classic Avantasia.

 

Wacken Open Air 2008, Avantasia, Foto Axel Heyder

Speaking of guest vocalists, this is the area from where most of my skepticism towards this album came before hearing it, and its ultimately its most positive x-factor. One of my major criticisms of The Mystery of Time was just how mismatched the guest vocalists sounded with the songs given to them —- and I understand the argument that Sammet has to walk a fine line in balancing giving a guest singer a song that sounds too much like the band they’re known for, at the risk of losing the identity of Avantasia. I tend to reject that argument however for two reasons: The first being that its only all too natural for a listener acquainted with that guest singer’s primary band to hear shades of said band bleeding into their Avantasia role, especially considering they’ve been brought on board for their known voice after all. The bigger reason is that Sammet has proven himself to be capable of writing in such a distinctive voice that his songwriting tendencies are powerful enough to balance out even the strongest guest vocalists. On Ghostlights, Sammet has righted the ship in all respects, and my initial balking at seeing the names Dee Snider and Geoff Tate seems judgmental and foolish now (I believe I audibly scoffed at them on a past MSRcast episode). Snider is nigh unrecognizable to me, but that’s likely because I haven’t kept up with him musically over the years. He sounds terrific on “The Haunting”, with a leathery yet theatrical delivery on a slow burner of a song that recalls Alice Cooper’s guest spot on “The Toy Master” off The Scarecrow.

My surprise at Snider’s excellent performance was nothing compared to the alarm I felt at truly enjoying the much maligned Tate on “Seduction of Decay”, considering my initial bellyaching. I checked out a few interviews with Sammet in promotion for this album, he’s stated that the song came together first which then spurred the idea of bringing in Tate. Its a gutsy choice but you have to hand it to Sammet, it really does work, with this being Tate’s overall best vocal performance since some of his work on Queensryche’s Tribe album. And I’m a little proud of myself for setting aside all preconceived notions and feelings I had about him overall and allowing myself to be receptive to this song. Tate sounds particularly rejuvenated vocally here, perhaps due more to the higher quality of vocal melodies that Sammet has him working with, ones that make the best use of Tate’s distinctive phrasing. He even unleashes a bit of that forgotten upper register in a surprising show of force —- more proof that Tate needs a high caliber songwriter to get the best out of him (such as his former bandmate Chris DeGarmo). If Tate is the most vivid surprise among guest vocalists, then Herbie Langhans is the dark horse that snuck in under the radar. We’ve known that Langhans has some serious vocal power from his two albums in Sinbreed (and those of you who remember Seventh Avenue), but what he turns in here on “Draconian Love” is more akin to a subdued, smoother Ville Laihiala ala Sentenced. Its one of my favorite songs on the album, having a darkly romantic, almost gothic feel that’s a perfect foil for such a tremendously catchy chorus. Sammet starts off the refrain with his questioning shout “Where are you now, where are you now / Leaving me down here, lost in the waves”, and its delivery is perfectly satisfying, an unrolled welcome mat for Langhans to finish “You shed draconian love, you shed draconian love”. Its a case study in the art of successfully employing repetition and alliterative sequencing, the sort of thing Lady Gaga built her early hits upon (in other words, this is a ridiculously catchy song).

 

Likewise just as successful a song-to-vocalist pairing exists in Marco Hietala’s (Nightwish) “Master of the Pendulum”, where we’re treated to an aggressive, uptempo metallic bruiser. Hietala is another inspired choice, not the first guy you’d think of when pondering guests on a future Avantasia album either. He delivers one of my favorite moments on the album during the lines, “I lead the horse to the water and I make it drink / I‘m here to force precision just on everything”, which is about an accurate a characterization of his force of personality vocal delivery as I can imagine. Robert Mason crops up again on “Babylon Vampyres”, this time leaning more on his rock n’ roll delivery, a combination that matches well with Sammet’s lead vocal,  and talk about catchy, that chorus has not quit my head for the better part of a week. He’s also given a small but crucial part on the album closer / five-singer barrage in the delightfully sentimental “Wake Up to the Moon”, where he sings alongside a plethora of the album’s cast. Atkins has another role on “Unchain the Light”, where he gets to showcase his more rustic vocal texture, perhaps because he’s set in sharp contrast to the legend himself Michael Kiske. Its a satisfying song, with a unique sound palette that elevates it from being just another “rocker” and into something altogether more thoughtful and resonant. And I’ve long awaited the return of Sharon Den Adel to the Avantasia lineup, and she’s here in fine form on “Isle of Evermore”, not quite the dramatic, sharply angled power ballad that was “Farewell” from the first Metal Opera, but a beautiful song nonetheless —- one that’s written more in the style of her modern Within Temptation singing voice as opposed to her Mother Earth-era pop-classical approach. Its well placed in the tracklisting, a mid-album breather that is built around delicate keys, atmospherics and a subtly haunting refrain.

I don’t normally write song by song album reviews, but Ghostlights is a veritable treat bag of Halloween ear candy, lacking skippable tracks or anything bothersome. I’ll repeat that last part again —- nothing bothered me (me!)! And saving the best stuff for last, we have a trio of titanic tracks, not coincidentally involving Michael Kiske, Jorn Lande, and the immortal Bob Catley. First up is the truly remarkable “Ghostlights”, Kiske’s greatest singular Avantasia moment right alongside “Wastelands” from The Wicked Symphony, one of those speedy, Helloween-soaked gems that Sammet molds perfectly. Kiske is the kind of singer who needs a airport runaway length of rhythmic timing for his particular delivery, especially when you’re trying to get the most power metal styled delivery out of him. He’s not a rapid fire singer, instead allowing the music to outpace him while he steadily extends syllables and enunciation in his trademark smooth half singing half belting. He soars here, and Sammet and Jorn work around him smartly, ceding the spotlight to him and only coming in as counterpoints and fills. My favorite moment here actually involves Sammet on lead as the counterpoint to Kiske in the chorus, singing “thunder and rain and the wind in my face”, a line that is syncopated so perfectly, it brings a smile to my face every time I mentally (or audibly) sing along. Its a gem of a song, a joyous blast of power metal nostalgia that could’ve easily been on the Metal Operas. With that in mind, I marvel at Sammet’s personal success in bringing his hero, the once anti-metal Kiske, back to singing music like this and apparently enjoying it more than he ever has (to such a degree that it prompted the Kai Hansen reunion).

Jorn gets his star turn on the majestic, simply stunning “Lucifer”, a piano ballad turned power ballad that might be both he and Sammet’s finest moment working together. There’s a wonderful moment where Sammet and Jorn join voices together during the first iteration of the refrain, and its just spine-tingling in its effect. Dramatic in its confident, sturdy, string-laden build up, stirring in its lyrical beauty, this is a masterpiece and the first of two early bookmarks for potential songs of the year. And somehow, fittingly, its Mr. Bob Catley who guests on the album’s best song “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”, a flawless diamond that’s in the conversation for the greatest Avantasia song of all time. Bold praise I know, but here’s the thing folks —- this song is the epitome of why you and I and everyone else listens to Avantasia. Its why we keep coming back album after album with an eagerness that we reserve for precious few other artists, because of the possibility of magical moments like this. Catley of course was the co-lead vocalist on “The Story Ain’t Over”, perhaps the greatest song to be released as a b-side in power metal history and one that the band ended up turning into a bit of a live favorite during their 2008 festival tour. Sammet just seems to be keyed into what kind of song Catley would sound spectacular on, one that features earnest vocals and heartbreaking lyrics that demonstrate a palpable sense of yearning. On “…Obsidian Skies”, he and Catley join in on a surging, insistent, wide-eyed chorus with a simply beautiful lyric, “Dark is the night, scarlet the moon / Sacred the light in the haze reflecting within / Blazing the trail… Be still my restless heart / Obsidian’s the sky / Inward you look as you halt / Be still restless heart / I’m on my way”. I could go on and on about this song but I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more later in the year on the best songs list, its simply magical.

 

I experienced something while listening to this album the other night as I drove around Houston under an uncommonly clear night sky. It stemmed from feelings of utter happiness at being able to appreciate what really did feel like…at the risk of overstating it, a gift —- an album that actually thrilled me beyond mere aesthetic appeal and typical reviewer think-speak of judging an album’s artistic merit. It took me a second to realize that I was being hit with blasts of nostalgia —- that the music I was hearing was taking me there. But nostalgia is a tricky thing, something that tends to come at us in notes of bittersweet (or at least for me), reminders of not only the passage of time but of no way to return. Yet the nostalgia Ghostlights was conjuring up was a little different, in fact, it was making me remember the feelings I’d have when I was a kid and I worried about nothing and loved everything. I have these memories of specific days from my childhood, scattered across those blurry years, where everything would go right and I’d feel genuinely happy or thrilled about the sequence of events. I don’t get many of those days anymore as an adult, and I suspect many of you feel the same. It was in the middle of “…Obsidian Skies” when I realized that I was into every second of this album, that everything about it was hitting me right in that sweet spot of everything I love about music in general. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is an album I’m already treasuring for bringing me back to that mental headspace, and I’m grateful to Tobias Sammet for that. Its been a relief to write about Ghostlights without any qualifiers whatsoever —- I’ll say this plainly, this is a masterpiece for the ages.

The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part II: Everything Else I Didn’t Get To Earlier

Here we are, a final load of new releases from all over 2015 that I didn’t get around to reviewing upon their release for one reason or another, all stuff I’ve been listening to in varying amounts over the past few weeks and months. There’s way more on here than on part one of the Fall Reviews MegaCluster simply because I’ve committed to keeping these a bit shorter in length (200-400ish words, for realsies this time). But whereas last time all the reviews tended to be positive, that’s not quite the case here. I whittled down all the entries in the MegaCluster from a larger pool of about 30-40 albums —- chances are there’s going to be something I’ve missed that you had hoped to have reviewed here. But if I decided to eliminate something from the chosen few, its mainly because I didn’t get to spend enough time listening to it and you know me, I have a big problem with reviews where its obvious that the writer only listened to an album once. So here we go, the final reviews for 2015, the most exhausting year in metal I can ever remember.

 


 

 

 

Kylesa – Exhausting Fire:

I didn’t know much about Kylesa heading into the promo for Exhausting Fire, this their seventh studio album since their formation in 2001. I’ve learned since then that they’re from Savannah, Georgia, joining Christian power metallers Theocracy as the only metal bands I’ve known to come from the peach state. Well, is calling them metal going too far? I’m not really sure, because their mix of sludgey, doomy riffs is unrelentingly heavy and undeniably metal. Its during the other times, when their more spacey, reverb effect laden alternative rock side comes out where the issue gets clouded —- and the presence of dual gender vocals from bassist Philip Cope and guitarist Laura Pleasants harkens more to a rock feel for me than anything I’ve heard in metal. But I think that’s precisely why I’ve been so interested in this album since I first heard it back in September, because it simply doesn’t sound like anything else out there. I’m not even confident that I can describe it adequately with any sort of extravagant adjective abuse or metaphor, you really just have to listen to these guys.

And they’re worth listening to, because a song like “Shaping the Southern Sky” is so incredible, with a riff progression so catchy it will take mighty forces (like Abba!) to dislodge it from your head. I love Pleasants’ vocals here, her voice reminding me of a more aggressive Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), made all the more alluring with some reverse echo effects on her vocals to make her sound like she’s singing to you from beneath the surface of a swimming pool. As a three piece, Kylesa make an impressive racket, drummer Carl McGinley is jacked up on something, hopefully just adrenaline, but his beautifully recorded percussion is some of the most savage you’ll hear on any album this year. Together with Cope, they form a dominating rhythm section, fat with bottom end that physically shakes your speakers in rude rumbles. Pleasants’ guitar work is best described as heavily distorted psychedelia, a lot of cleanly picked patterns that float up gently as in “Falling”, or support more bass driven tunes like “Night Drive” with bizarre accents and exclamation points. When she and Cope join together for dual lead vocal passages, they don’t so much harmonize as simply sing next to one another (if that makes any sense), their voices never overlapping, one seemingly a split-nanosecond behind the other. It all amounts to a trippy experience, and fair warning if that’s not your thing… I suppose its worth saying that you need to be somewhat in the mood for music like this, but those moods do exist and luckily for us so does this out of nowhere crazy fun album.

 

The Takeaway: Dive right in if you’re a fan of sludge metal/rock, or even stoner doom in any of its incarnations. Tread carefully if you normally prefer more straight ahead melodic experiences, because while Kylesa do write melodic songs, they’re buried under layers of sonic debris (you’ll hear what I mean). Still that being said, worth your time to stream somewhere for free, and I wouldn’t recommend that if it wasn’t.

 

 

Stratovarius – Eternal:

Its been an eventful road towards album number fifteen for Finland’s original power metal export. We all know about the mid-2000’s intra-band turmoil that ultimately resulted in one spectacularly awful album and the departure of founding guitarist Timo Tolkki so I’ll sidestep the historical recap here. My own fandom of Stratovarius seemed to wane during that era as well, and not just because I found the whole thing silly and distasteful, but because at that time I happened to become a huge fan of Kamelot. After hearing albums like Epica and The Black Halo, it was hard to enjoy any of Stratovarius’ albums as much as I once did (and in a quirky bit of personal history I gave my entire Stratovarius collection to my current MSRcast cohost Cary!). Maybe that comes off as elitist but I still like the band and a smattering of their older classic songs (of which there are many), and ever since they moved on without Tolkki I’ve been quietly rooting for them. But Polaris (2009), Elysium (2011), and Nemesis (2013) didn’t wow me, they had their moments but even those seemed fleeting and dare I suggest, by the numbers? I didn’t even bother reviewing the latter two, mainly because I felt that I’d have nothing to say about them one way or another —- and I was trying to be conscious of the fact that perhaps they lost a key songwriting ingredient when Tolkki left. For better or worse, he was a major songwriting force for them, and it seems to have been a process of trial and error in determining who would fill the void within the band.

The answer it seems is not bassist Lauri Porra as Polaris seemed to suggest, but a largely contributions by Tolkki’s successor in guitarist Matias Kupiainen and the songwriting team-up of vocalist Timo Kotipelto with his solo project collaborator and ex-Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen, coupled with a song or two from Porra and longtime keyboardist Jens Johansson. Interestingly enough the Kotipelto/Liimatainen collaboration provides music for three songs entirely and lyrics for nearly the rest of them (save for songs penned solely by Johansson), and I suppose the band as a whole felt that those two guys were onto something with the pair of songs they contributed to the Nemesis album. Its a rarity in metal, let alone power metal for a band to have this many songwriters on board contributing whole songs to an album, and noteworthy for that alone I suppose. Whats encouraging is how surprised I am by how satisfying many of these songs are, they’ve got me paying attention for the first time in forever. I’m particularly fond of “My Eternal Dream” with its mix of minor and major key alterations, and a chorus that recalls the band’s classic Visions album. Ditto for “Shine In the Dark”, a relatively poppy song for Stratovarius but one where Kotipelto and Liimatainen dreamed up some awesome layered vocal melodies (great bridge on this one). Porra’s contribution “Lost Without A Trace” is fantastic as well, with a chorus built on a beautiful, emotional ascending vocal run that reminds you of just how talented Kotipelto truly is. Personal favorite comes in the oddly titled “My Line of Work”, another Kotipelto/Liimatainen number built on an addictive melodic riff pattern that enticingly reminds me of classic Sonata Arctica, which is never a bad thing.

 

The Takeaway: I gave this a cursory listen when it came out back around September or whenever (that month is covered in a haze now) and shelved it in favor of other priority releases… and I kinda regret it now. This is a feisty, swagger-filled, melodic-in-all-the-right-spots, truly excellent Stratovarius album; their first front to finish must listen since 2000’s Infinite, and that’s something I never thought I’d be able to say again. Glad to see the old masters refusing to go quietly in the night!

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Innuendo:

I’m a late comer to Amberian Dawn apparently, seeing as they’ve been around since 2006, have just released their seventh studio album Innuendo —- their second with vocalist Capri Virkkunen (so I’ve essentially missed an entire era of their history with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen). I could swear its a name that I’ve been familiar with, as in someone might’ve pointed them out to me and I had a conversation about them but never got around to actually listening to their music… it was probably Doctor Metal, because its usually Doctor Metal. I feel pretty lousy about missing out all this time, but once again this is another proven example of the cream rises to the top theory —- that a band doing good work will eventually reach my ears through word of mouth, and that its mostly okay to not be in on the ground floor of discovery (and now I get an entire discography to explore). What bugs me more than that however is that Amberian Dawn is a preciously rare example of a female fronted metal band doing something original and not just attempting to fit into the Nightwish / Epica / (insert band here) mold. I’ve read that primary songwriter/keyboardist Tuomas Seppala’s main influences are Ritchie Blackmore, Malmsteen, and Dio, and I totally hear those aspects, but it all makes complete sense when you throw in his non-metal inspiration of ABBA. Of course. Add to that Virkkunen’s pure pop background —- she started off in the late nineties releasing a pair of solo pop albums, made a few runs at Eurovision, and actually played the part of Frida Lyngstad in an ABBA musical (not sure if this was an off-broadway version of Mamma Mia or not). I noticed she has a Roxette cover on YouTube, now it really makes sense.

Her rich, dramatic, soaring vocal ability is perfect for the kind of dramatic yet upbeat, slightly symphonic metallic pop-rock that Seppala writes, and Virkkunen apparently functions as the sole lyricist, a rarity for most bands like this where the songwriter handles both the music and lyrics (ala Tuomas Holopainen). She’s a talented lyricist, writing convincingly about a range of emotions while adapting them to Seppala’s melodies quite nicely (I’m not wowed as much as I was by Triosphere’s Ida Haukland who seemed to have broader palette diction-wise, but Virkkunen offers some spectacular moments with clever phrasing). I’m a sucker for the kind of pomp and circumstance dramatic flair of “Fame & Gloria” and “Innuendo”, the latter of which features a really incredible major key shift in its bridge to chorus that’s surprisingly inventive. I’m very attached to “The Court of Mirror Hall”, where the ABBA influence really shines through and you could swear you’re listening to a forgotten cut by the Swedish gods, its got a rhythmic strut to its riff patterns that I love and Virkkunen’s alliterative vocal melodies are masterful. Speaking of channeling ABBA, how about the piano ballad “Angelique” and the ultra happy “Knock Knock Who’s There?” —- and look, I get that might be a bad thing for those of you who have no interest in anything that sounds remotely like ABBA (but let’s get one thing clear here, if all you know is “Dancing Queen” then go do your homework… I’m not kidding!). As you’d expect in a pop heavy context like this, the guitars are subservient to the keyboard and vocal melodies, but Emil Pohjalainen fills in the background really well, like a more refined Emppu Vuorinen, and sometimes as on “The Witchcraft” he’s able to steal the show with some delightful Malmsteen-esque patterns strewn across the song. But the album belongs to Virkkunen, who establishes herself as a supreme talent in the ranks of female vocalists in metal… she’s certainly got a fan in me.

 

The Takeaway: Check yourself for your pop tolerance levels before diving into this one but if you’re up for it then I definitely can’t recommend this enough. Fans of Amaranthe should take heed certainly, as well as those of you who thought Nightwish’s time with Anette Olzon yielded some pretty awesome results.

 

 

 

Hair of the Dog – The Siren’s Song:

For awhile there I couldn’t even remember where, when, or how I heard about Hair of the Dog, a Swedish throwback metallic, doom-kissed hard rock band that shockingly seem to be unsigned (they’re selling the album via bandcamp). I’ve narrowed it down to simply being a random promo that the MSRcast received that I loaded into my unruly new music iTunes playlist, because I certainly remember that it was a song called “You Soft Spoken Thing” that made me stop what I was doing and take notice of what I was listening to. Boasting one of the most amazing riffs I’ve heard all year, its representative of what Hair of the Dog are all about, that is a 70s inspired brew of Thin Lizzy, The Doors, and Black Sabbath put through a doom metal and psychedelic rock filter. These guys are from Edinburgh, Scotland, and while that’s not entirely implausible, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from I dunno… New Orleans, or Nashville even. Musically speaking its hard to detect any discernible UK characteristics to their sound, both musically and vocally —- their singer/guitarist Adam Holt sounds at times like a more controlled Jim Morrison if he was a southern rocker. His lyrics at times even owe more to regional American dialects than to anything from Scotland, and I’m not trying to suggest that’s he’s being disingenuous, because this kind of rock tends to be universal (take a listen to Gotthard, from Switzerland of all places), but its just a facet of this band that I find incredibly surprising.

They’re a trio, just guitar, bass, and drums, and they make the most out of that framework. Drummer Jon Holt (relation?) and bassist Iain Thomson make up an admirable rhythm section, but its Adam Holt whose guitar work demands most of the attention here. He’s just a superb riffer, and if he’s responsible for the songwriting (which seems likely) then apply that superlative to that as well. Personal favorites include “The Spell” where Holt kicks up the acceleration on a riff sequence that actually becomes the refrain; and “Don’t Know My Name” with its very Sabbath-esque riffs and quiet/loud verse to chorus dynamics (I get a real Doors vibe from this one). I quite like the eerie, backwoods swamp feel of the clean plucked intro to “My Only Home”, as well as the spooky, Blue Oyster Cult quality to “The Siren’s Song Pt.1” where Holt paints haunting melodic motifs with a minimalist’s brush, conjuring up gorgeous atmospherics with just a few notes. I’m surprised I enjoyed this album as much as I did, its a good collection of music in this particular style, but if I’m being honest its stuff I don’t normally listen to (feeling like I burned myself out on “rock” a long time ago, as strange as that sounds). That speaks volumes to me about the quality of the songwriting here, because ultimately that’s what its all about —- there are loads of bands that sound close to Hair of the Dog, but few of them have the chops to deliver compelling songs.
The Takeaway: One of those random out of nowhere albums that grabbed my attention in a year jammed full of releases, a feat in itself. This is exactly as described, so don’t head into this expecting something like Grand Magus, because Hair of the Dog is very much rock n’ roll with an emphasis on the roll. If you’re missing that in your rotation, you’d be negligent in not at least sampling this.

 

 

 

Circle II Circle – Reign of Darkness:

I have a soft spot for Zak Stevens’ post-Savatage project, the ever rotating cast that is Circle II Circle, not only because they charmingly seem to have attained some sort of perennial live slot at Wacken, but because after all these years they really are alone in creating this distinctive type of metal. One listen to a cut off this album will serve as enough of an example as to what I’m talking about —- largely minor key American styled melodic metal of the mid-tempo variety. Think 90s Savatage (duh!) and maybe a bit of Saigon Kick (for the  guitar tones anyway), and you’re pretty much on target for an accurate description of what Stevens and company are up to. Circle II Circle’s first two albums were largely written by his old Savatage bandmates Jon Oliva and Chris Caffrey, and they were pretty great as a result. Since then however, Stevens writing partner is his longtime bassist Mitch Stewart, who has the ability to hit upon some inspired riffs which lead to Stevens developing a few excellent vocal melodies or hooks. They’ve been working in tandem for five albums now, so they’ve developed a rapport and it seems like when they’re at their best they are outdoing themselves continually. Their problem is ultimately consistency, they can’t quite seem to spread that success across an entire album, and its been that way since 2006’s Burden of Proof.

Case in point is that there are really only a small handful of truly awesome cuts here, but man are they awesome: First up is the album opener (sans intro track, ugh) “Victim of the Night”, as classic sounding a Circle II Circle song as they’ve ever written with total minor key darkness on the verse and bridge section and a marginally brighter chorus (but only just). Somehow Stevens is able to hoist appealing, hummable vocal melodies above such an aggressive bed of riffs, with the band joining in on backup vocals to give that chorus a little bit of a lift. Even better is “Untold Dreams”, a semi-ballad that turns into an aggressive mid-tempo stomper with some of the album’s best moments. I love the way the backing vocals join in with Stevens at the end of the line “There’s a reason that I’ll always be… alone” (check the :47 second mark), their combined vibratos (or Stevens’ layered vocal tracks, whichever) making that a moment worth rewinding over and over for. The verses here are satisfyingly alliterative and the chorus is simply hookwormy, the kind that Stevens excels at like no one else. You’ll find another addictive chorus payoff in “Somewhere”, although some of the build up to it leaves a lot to be desired its still worth the effort because the vocal melody there is achingly emotive. The band gets a nice groove going on “Taken Away” with emphatic synchronous riffing leaving a lot of room for Stevens to carry the melodic load, I just wish there was a stronger hook at work here. As for everything else, its really just there, as in its unoffensive but not inspiring either —- just like the past four albums. Back in 2012 the band released a compilation album called Full Circle: The Best of Circle II Circle, and it was a near perfect cross-section of no frills American melodic metal. Circle II Circle’s unfortunate problem is their inability to write such a compilation album at will.

 

The Takeaway: I hate recommending someone to avoid listening to Circle II Circle, and for anyone new to the band I’d encourage them to check out the first two albums at the least, or even the respectably put together Full Circle compilation album. Download “Untold Dreams” and “Victim of the Night” off iTunes from this one for sure though.

 

 

 

Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable:

Credit goes to Fenriz and his amazing downloadable pirate radio show broadcasts, its through one of those episodes that I found out about Year of the Goat via a strikingly catchy song called “Riders of Vultures”. It appears at the end of this album but its not the only remarkable aspect of what may be one of the strongest records of the year. Whether or not you’ll find enjoyment in it depends on how much you’ve been able to get into this recent wave of retro occult rock. I’m of course referring to bands like Ghost, The Devil’s Blood, Orchid, Blues Pills (you get the idea); all rock and metal artists who’ve to varying degrees adapted a distinct sensibility born in the 70s, when the idea of introducing occult themes and marrying them to a distinct sound was entirely new territory. If you’ve been skeptical of some of the recent revivals (such as the odious purist 80s thrash metal wave) like I have then you might be naturally wary of this, but the occult rock revival seems to have a little more promise to it mainly because there’s so many styles of metal it can be mixed with —- In Solitude showed us as much with their excellent Sister album two years ago.

In fact, the aforementioned fellow Swedes might be the most apt to compare Year of the Goat to, as both In Solitude’s vocalist Pelle Ahman and Goat’s own creepy crooner Thomas Sabbathi share strong similarities in their singing styles, fragile and wavery while melodic. Sabbathi’s relatively flawed voice is strangely perfect for the type of loose, jangly, Blue Oyster Cult invoking rock n’ roll that Goat deliver here —- yes rock n’ roll, because while there are definitely metal riffs and songwriting tendencies to be found, there’s no way that a song like “The Wind” can’t be considered as such. The drums are played loose yet with an focus to its timekeeping back-beat, and bassist Tobias Resch plays off him like they’ve been jamming for a decade, keeping in rhythm, flourishing here and there to fill in voids —- they dance around each other gleefully. I like that the band is built on dual guitarists, Marcus Lundberg and Don Palmroos are a terrific tandem, moving from aggressive riffs to strum-based rhythm guitar, spitting out darkly gorgeous open chord patterns at will and generally just being more creative than other bands of this ilk tend to be. They’re as much a joy to listen to as Sabbathi, I particularly love their work on “Pillars of the South”, built upon their ascending and descending minor key harmonized riffing, dressed up during verses by spare harmonic patterns and finishing the song with wild Gn’R styled soloing. Their songwriting approach reminds me of the best qualities of The Darkness, that is writing with an eye towards memorable melodies, being unafraid of indulging in major chord hook-craft, all while playing loose and wild on guitars and vocals yet crisp and tight in the rhythm section. They seem to have figured out what their sweet spot is stylistically, allowing them to concentrate on quality songwriting to get the most out of it.

 

The Takeaway: I’ve been listening to this for nearly three months now in recurring fashion. Just when I think I’ve probably heard it enough I’ll hear one of its songs in my head and that craving will lead me right back into playing the entire thing all the way through. I’ve been skittish on the occult rock wave that seems to have brought record deals to countless bands, but The Unspeakable is an undeniably fantastic album, I even think I’m enjoying it more than In Solitude’s Sister which speaks volumes.

 

 

 

Leaves’ Eyes – King Of Kings:

I’ve always wanted to enjoy Leaves’ Eyes more than I actually do. I even saw them live once when they opened for Kamelot in 2007 (could be wrong about that year) and thought they were rather fun to see, Liv Kristine being an engaging frontwoman and Alexander Krull being the undeniable presence he always has been. Their studio albums are always produced well, sound great and their songwriting is largely good… a lame adjective sure but perhaps its the underlying issue, because they’ve never really done anything I can honestly call great. That trend continues with the history drenched King of Kings, a semi-concept album about the sagas of Harald Fairhair, Norway’s first king (which reminds me of Sabaton’s own Carolus Rex concept album, also about a king). While the subject matter does interest me, there’s nothing musically going on to distinguish it from the five other Leaves Eyes albums (especially the Celtic music soaked “Vengeance Venom”, why not go for something more Norwegian sounding as a cultural music touchstone to better serve the concept?). I cringe at having to criticize albums like this too, because I realize how increasingly rare it will be going forward to have new music released in this vein as the music industry continues to shrink and artists have to scale back their activities due to finances. Incidentally this is Leaves’ Eyes first album for AFM Records, having parted ways with Napalm, their label since the band’s inception. Seems counter intuitive for Napalm considering the roster they’ve been trying to cultivate, but maybe the band got tired of middling chart positions —- while on Napalm they had yet to really crack Germany (finally hitting number 15 on the Media Control charts there with this new album).

Its hard to deny the appeal of pop-driven songs like “The Waking Eye” and “King of Kings”, both advance songs (music video and lyric video respectively) for good reason. It struck me as I was listening to the latter along to its lyrics that one of the reasons I loved Sabaton’s aforementioned Carolus Rex so much was that its music really synced with the dramatic impact of the lyrics. Think about the title track and how its chorus (“I was chosen by heaven / Say my name when you pray / To the skies…”) came in with a sudden forcefulness, a slight increase in vocal delivery tempo backed up by a muscular layer of backing vocals. When you listen to “King of Kings”, ostensibly about the same kind of topic, the chorus seems relatively laissez-faire, entirely working against its lyrics: “Hail the forces / The first king of Norway / King of kings / Hail the fairest of Norsemen / The dragon / Victorious”. Far be it for me to assume anything on behalf of the songwriter, but I’d expect something with a little more gusto, a little more drive. Kristine sounds great however, so if you ignore the lyrics its all ice cream, but that disconnect that I’m perceiving here really detracts from any attempt at getting into the album’s concept. The Sabaton track was vivid and thrilling, its first person perspective really helped in pulling us into this lunatic’s worldview —- in contrast this Leaves’ Eyes song comes across a little like a cursory history lesson. Everywhere else things move along predictably, though there’s a fun, heavy guitar riff in “Edge of Steel” towards the end that perks up an otherwise unremarkable song. Also “Blazing Waters” seems to be an example of what these guys and gal should be trying more of, that is injecting a heck of a lot more aggression and uptempo riffing throughout. I’m sure a few people will read this review and disagree vehemently, and out of the admiration and respect I have for both Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull, I’m glad for that.

 

The Takeaway: Really did try with this one, giving it a few months to sink in by coming back to it every so often. It didn’t take, and I think its far inferior to Vinland Saga (still their best album to my ears). If you’ve enjoyed their previous albums in any substantial way you’ll be fine, otherwise consider Amberian Dawn for something a little different and unique in the way of female fronted metal (oh and Draconian as well!).

 

 

 

Gloryhammer – Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards:

I was told that I’d be remiss not to issue a review for the much ballyhooed Gloryhammer, a side project from Christopher Bowes of the abysmal Alestorm. I thought this was supposed to be a one-off thing, as they released a debut album in 2013 that I heard a few tracks from but I guess this is Bowes way of taking a break from half-hearted “pirate” metal and mediocre live shows. Kudos to him for that at least, because Gloryhammer is a far more intriguing project simply because he’s working with a better group of musicians, most noticeably vocalist Thomas Winkler, a relatively unknown guy from Switzerland who is actually pretty excellent, with incredible range and diversity in his singing styles. I know that most of the folks on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group were all about this Space 1992 album when it first dropped all those months ago. I saw a few posts on the group’s wall about it possibly being the best album of 2015 and that really did force my hand in actually hunting down a promo and giving it a shot despite my original intentions to ignore it entirely. I don’t know what I was expecting, I knew what I was walking into —- how much could I enjoy an album of self-professed “satirical power metal” anyway? As it turns out, not much at all.

Before you type that comment, I’ll point out one crucial thing: I’m not against anyone having fun, which seems to be the intent of this project (if not to capitalize on some sort of limited potential for irony-seeking cross-over success ala Dragonforce in 2006). I’m someone who thinks Manowar’s “Kings of Metal” is a fun album, grin-inducing in its best moments and containing a few songs worthy of fist-pumping and headbanging at a party or your buddy’s garage at 2am (if not quite at a $100 per ticket Manowar gig). And I’ll admit that when listening through this album I couldn’t help but enjoy “Universe on Fire” for its simple yet incredibly effective hook and refrain. But if Gloryhammer somehow stands out to you as an example of power metal done right… I’ll have to politely disagree. The knock on power metal has always seemed to be just how seriously its artists take their work, often times placing inordinate amounts of importance on their own made up story lines, or in the case of Dragonforce (one of the genre’s most popular exports, like it or not) the ludicrousness of how nonsensical the lyrics could be. We as power metal fans have heard these same old jabs time and time again, but what we get that everyone else on the outside looking in can never seemingly understand is that power metal is one of the last bastions in music that is free from irony and self-awareness.

That’s what allows me to connect with honest, open nerve ending songwriting such as on Avantasia’s twin releases The Wicked Symphony / Angel of Babylon, or sink deep into the fantastical, imaginative world of Nightwish as a metaphor for childhood nostalgia and lost innocence —- because I know that I’m listening to music that was created without a shred of irony, self-awareness, and detached cool. I get nothing out of the smirking, self-satisfied, satirical nature of Gloryhammer —- and maybe you do —- but to me its an exercise in pointlessness. Bowes only artistic ambition seems to be ascending to the title of metal’s Weird Al Yankovic. Congratulations, you’ve succeeded, and in the process we know nothing about what you really have to say as a musician and artist. One could argue, why does anyone have to say anything as an artist? Weird Al Yankovic just wants to make people laugh —- and you’d be right, he’s a funny guy… so am I supposed to be laughing or smirking while listening to Gloryhammer? Should I knowingly nod and say aloud, “Hah, these guys are taking the piss out of power metal bands like those idiots in Rhapsody, with their so-called cinematic Hollywood metal and stories of kingdoms and dragons and silky shirted Italian guys”. You know what, at least Rhapsody did something original and did it with conviction. They care about the stories they set to music and no one can deny they’ve worked hard at turning them into musical reality, regardless of whether or not you enjoy them or think they’re silly (and to be clear, I’m not really a fan). With all due respect to the USPMC guys because I really do enjoy the group, but if this is your best album of the year, you’re not looking hard enough for meaningful metal.

 

The Takeaway: No.

 

 

 

Deafheaven – New Bermuda:

I was asked by Morroweird (@michrzesz) on Twitter what I thought about the newest Deafheaven album, released back in early October. I hadn’t listened to it by the time he’d asked me later that month and honestly didn’t plan on it, having felt like I said all I ever wanted to say about Deafheaven already. But I’m an easy sell if someone actually wants my opinion (as opposed to me just forcefully throwing it out there), so I finally got around to giving it a few spins. First off I’ll have to acknowledge just how wrong my prediction was, as Morroweird pointed out, that the band would retreat further away from the metal aspects of their sound. Much to my surprise they’ve done the exact opposite, and though I could only guess at their motivations, I’m not sure they did themselves any favors here. For all my criticism of Deafheaven as a media darling, I had to admit that their 2013 album Sunbather had a few really stellar moments where their mix of dreamy shoegaze meshed with their major key take on black metal. Songs like “Dreamhouse” and the instrumental “Irresistible” were worth all the hoopla, even if the second half of the album lost my interest a bit. I’m re-listening to Sunbather right now as I type this sentence… its a strong record, as annoying as that still is to admit. I could’ve listened to an album full of nothing but melodies like those found in “Irresistible” actually.

So this followup then is simultaneously disappointing on a musical level and equally as puzzling for the absurd amount of praise its getting. My best of 2015 features are coming up next —- I purposefully delayed them to avoid getting lost in the flurry of year end lists that pollute your browser come early to mid December —- and I’ve stopped myself from looking at ANY year end lists (even Angry Metal Guy’s so you know I’m serious) until mine are complete just so I can make it easy on myself by not getting distracted with albums that I missed. But I’ve taken a gander at the New Bermuda page on Wikipedia and did a Google search and see it lighting up a ton of the usual suspects year end lists (Pitchfork (big surprise Stosuy), SPIN (Artists of the Year apparently), Stereogum, Rolling Stone). I’m suspecting the band to be an easy inclusion for a lot of these editors compiling these lists based on their name alone (imagine what they had to contend with in 2014 with no new Deafheaven to heap limitless praise upon, must’ve been tough), because if they were listening to the same album I was, I don’t see how anyone could dub this the best of the year by a long shot. Deafheaven have upped their metallic attack, relying more on integrated riff sequences with the occasional breath of air in the form of jangly open chord strumming. Instead of the fuzzy, dreamy hues of the last album we’re treated to what is largely a bleak, dark grey affair, one that seems out to impress upon people the validity of their self-professed metal roots.

Alright, its certainly more black metal than anything they’ve done before. The opener “Brought to the Water” sounds like pretty standard second wave Norwegian black metal until it reaches a few bridge sequences in the middle where bent chords shift away from the frenetic percussion and riffage to attempt to create some sort of dichotomous tonal separation (ie they try to start something and fail). Its an uninteresting clunker of a song, aimless and drifting in its meandering, slower moments, the only cool part coming at 5:38 when Kerry McCoy lurches in on a power chord to start the metal section again. The needlessly ten minute long “Luna” is essentially more of the same, except that its softer parts are even more meandering, serving only to work as foils to the introduction of a heavy sequence (this time an escalating chord progression). George Clarke’s vocals are once again a tinny, repetitive, pointless exercise —- are there people out there that enjoy his style and simultaneously dislike Dani Filth? Because a criticism of one is a criticism of the other (and to be fair to Dani, he does have a range and deviates within it a lot… Clarke seems unable). There’s actually a pretty good riff midway through “Baby Blue” but it doesn’t really set anything up and is repeated without purpose (no vocals over the top, so I assume the riff is supposed to convey something musical?… except that its not). Frustrating. The best part of the album comes at the 5:25 mark of “Come Back”, where the song shifts from more proving they can do it black metal to a largely hushed, ambient passage with soft, wistful guitar playing (they sound more comfortable doing this to be honest). Is it that they’re trying too hard or just didn’t realize that they had stumbled onto an actual sound they could work with on their last album? This is one of the more confusing releases of the year. Sorry Morroweird, I gave it a shot but didn’t expect to dislike this as much as I did.

 

The Takeaway: Avoid like the plague and check out Sunbather for a few interesting moments here and there. I think Deafheaven miscalculated, and whatever it was that they’re trying to accomplish here is misguided… they should’ve played to their strengths and drifted away from metallic elements, only using them as a brush or tone when needed. It worked for Alcest apparently. Not surprised that it made year end lists of mainstream publications though…they do have demographics to think about.

 

Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 2!: Symphony X, Powerwolf, and More!

Back again with yet another Reviews Cluster, covering a sizable chunk of some of the noteworthy metal releases that have dropped in these broiling summer months. There are so many that I’m pretty sure I’ll need one more summertime edition of these things to get through everything I’ve had to listen to lately. Its not a bad problem to have, but it hasn’t made it easy to finish off the non-reviews pieces that I’ve also been working on. Some housekeeping for me and you then: Expect a string of non-reviews pieces next, stuff I’ve been working on for awhile and have consistently had to delay because of the flood of new releases. It may mean a delay on reviews for new albums for a bit (except for Iron Maiden’s upcoming The Book of Souls, which I anticipate having up shortly after its release),  but eventually I’ll get around to having most of the major releases covered. Its been a grinder of a year for new music, with barely enough time to delve into the last batch of releases before another rolls in. I will admit that I’m excluding over half of the promos I’ve listened through and am only reviewing the ones that are of distinct interest to me for better or worse —- there’s a point when you can get burned out reviewing albums and I’m trying to avoid that. And canning the chatter…. now!

 


 

Symphony X – Underworld:

Some of you who happened to catch the dawn of this blog back in December of 2011 will remember something I wrote about just how long it took me to get into Symphony X. Long story short, it was years upon years, even after seeing the band live on their Paradise Lost tour, a block that was only cleared through their 2011 album Iconoclast. You might also remember that it was the album that topped my best of list that year (I’ve since retroactively amended that list in my mind, giving the top spot to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum and second to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow, dropping Iconoclast to number three —- but I won’t change the published list, it was a authentic snapshot of that time… anyway…!). For whatever reason, in 2011 I happened to be more receptive to the band’s classically infused take on prog-metal, and their infusion of a thrash metal attack on both Iconoclast and Paradise Lost was ultimately what led to me really being able to sink my teeth into those records. It was Iconoclast in particular that I felt was really inspired, a near-perfect fusion of visceral heaviness in the form of an aggressive rhythm section, razor sharp guitar wizardry from Michael Romeo and really terrific songwriting.

It was going to be an uphill battle for Underworld in that regard, but you’d figure that a four year gap between its predecessor would help its cause. Maybe it does a bit, because I honestly think its a good album, but it lacks the wall-to-wall hooks/microhooks that made Iconoclast such a joy to listen to. Don’t misread my meaning, because there certainly hooks to be found, and Russell Allen delivers yet another excellent performance in singing them —- being that rare prog-metal singer able to make accessible a nominally high learning curve subgenre of metal with his more hard rock inspired approach. It also features what has quickly become my favorite Symphony X song to date, the wide-open power ballad “Without You”. Its the kind of song that Allen is so adept at, with panoramic melodies that rocket skyward in the refrain and with enough iterations of the chorus throughout the song for him to lay on various inflections and changeups. If the guitars were chunkier you’d figure it was Allen guesting on an Avantasia song or perhaps a stray cut from an Allen/Lande album.

Unfortunately the rest of the album that seems to blend together, lacking songs with any real sense of identity or memorable moments. Some are better than others, such as “In My Darkest Hour” with its Whitesnake-ian chorus (I suppose the verses are a little Dave Mustaine-ish, to nod to the Megadeth reference… I doubt its intentional however). I do enjoy the swift transitions that separate each section of “Run With the Devil”, suddenly moving from mid-paced thrash metal to an AOR-tailored bridge only to finish with a strangely alt-rock chorus. Its a weird clunky track that actually manages to stand out. Everything else however is just there, and it took me a long time to figure out why so much of this album failed to affect me at all. I suspect its because the band has capitulated on the degree of the heavy thrashy-ness they doubled down upon for Paradise Lost and particularly on Iconoclast. Here they’ve decided to merge the heavy era of the past eight years with their lighter, proggy era before 2007, and in effect dulling the impact of the album a bit (for me). That they had moved towards a heavier direction was ultimately what pulled me in, and their distancing away from that is whats pushing me out.

The Takeaway: Far be it for me to slap a negative adjective on this album, because I’m sure a lot of longtime Symphony X fans will love it, and its certainly as well performed, recorded, and produced as you’d expect it to be. But I wonder if others who got into the band with either of the previous two albums are feeling the same way I am —- not entirely disappointed, just relatively disinterested.

 

 

Powerwolf – Blessed and Possessed:

I’ve never written about Powerwolf before, which is odd for this blog considering they are one of the bigger power metal bands across the pond in the recent years. They’re almost at a Sabaton level of popularity in their home country of Germany, with their previous album Preachers of the Night topping the German Media Control chart (a feat not even accomplished by Blind Guardian or Manowar yet, both bowing at number two). They are an interesting bunch to be sure, a power metal band that wears black-metal styled corpse paint (actually their aesthetic probably owes more to King Diamond than Euronymous but close enough), sings about werewolves and y’know… werewolf culture, oh and their music is the kind of hyper-polished take on power metal that’s tailor made for arenas and Euro summer metal fests. They write catchy songs, with absolute intention of sculpting memorable choruses with easy to sing a long lyrics set to keyboard led melodies. As a major fan of Sabaton, I should really enjoy them —- right?

I’ll be diplomatic, I like a small handful of Powerwolf songs, particularly when the band indulges their Twisted Sister pop influences such as on “We Are the Wild”, as good an original song you’ll find on Blessed and Possessed. Its cliche-laden lyrics could be talking about werewolves (I’m sure they are) but they also work in that ever so eighties metal trope of addressing their fans… especially those in attendance at the show that night. Its fist-pumpingly goofy stuff, and I’d be right there in the midst of it, grinning like an idiot and raising my fist in the air in rhythm, drunkenly mis-shouting the lyrics. There are quite a few rather great concert choruses spread across these eleven tracks, the problem is that often the verses fail to stack up in relation: I’m referring to songs like “Dead Until Dark”, “Sanctus Dominus”, and “Army Of The Night”. Enjoyable choruses all, but the build up to them is so pedestrian, and so interchangeable, with nothing in their verses or bridges to hold onto and remember.

When I listen to a band like Blind Guardian, Sonata Arctica, Falconer, or even Sabaton, those are bands whose songs are loaded with twists and turns, structural writing meant to ramp up emotion or tension, and unusual singular moments of brilliance never to be repeated. Its just a whole other level of songwriting that Powerwolf has yet to achieve, or perhaps is not interested in aspiring to. I don’t have a problem with the band wanting to be the AC/DC of power metal if that’s their thing, but its worth noting that beyond the classics I’ve found AC/DC often quite boring. The entirely separate hit against Blessed and Possessed is that the promo version I received was for the limited edition that comes with a staggering ten (10!!!!) cover songs of metal bands past and present. That I enjoyed them more than the actual album they were attached to was my first hint that I might never be a Powerwolf fanatic. The covers are pretty entertaining, with great takes on Savatage’s “Edge of Thorns” and Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark” in particular. There’s not a lot of deviation from the originals, but Atilla Dorn seems to have a malleable enough voice to cover an array of his heroes.

The Takeaway: If you enjoyed anything they’ve done in the past, you’ll probably enjoy Blessed and Possessed, albeit with a feeling that you’ve been buying the same album over and over again. My advice to everyone else: Get on iTunes and download “We Are the Wild” and a handful of the covers on the bonus disc for your “Party Metal” playlist (I know you have one!).

 

 

Luciferian Light Orchestra – Luciferian Light Orchestra:

A few months ago Christofer Johnsson, the brain trust of Therion quietly released an album via a new side project of his called Luciferian Light Orchestra, a mysterious band that plays a deliberately 70s styled version of occult rock. In this case that means vintage sounding guitars and Hammond Organ aplenty with breathy, detached female vocals over the top. I describe the project as mysterious because Johnsson is the only listed member, credited with handling most of the music and contributing some backing vocals (can’t discern where though). Rumor has it that one of the lead female vocalists on board (I suspect there’s at least two lead vocalists, could totally be wrong about that) is Johnsson’s girlfriend Mina Karadzic. As for who else is on board? I have no idea, and have tried in vain to find out. One thing has been revealed however, that most of the alleged twenty plus collaborators on the album are members of the Dragon Rogue, a mystical order that will be familiar to fans of Therion — Its founder and spiritual leader, Thomas Karlsson, has been writing Therion’s lyrics since 1998.

The insular nature of the project and the secrecy that shadows its individual parts only fuel the air of mysticism that oozes out of the nine songs on this self-titled debut. Your first impression listening to the album will probably match the one I had, that these songs while relatively simple and poppy for Johnsson are still loaded with a ton of Therion-isms. This makes sense when I read off the band’s one page official website that “the band is performing songs that Christofer Johnsson has written over the years but thought were too retro sounding for Therion.” Well, that explains the Therion-isms then. Its their hook-laden pop appeal that is the far more interesting trait running through the album, that a song like “Church of Carmel” can stick with me for hours upon hours throughout the day… typically speaking Therion songs don’t tend to do that (not a slight, I just find that I enjoy them more via actual playback as opposed to memory). Seriously, its a hypnotic, seductive, and charming song with a hyper-memorable chorus that is shoehorning itself into the best songs of the year conversation.

The rest of the album is no slouch either. I love the bizarre, hypnotically stoned-vocal approach of “Taste the Blood of the Altar Wine”, with its Heart meets Black Sabbath dark, smoky riffs and Deep Purple organ soundscapes. I’m also quite partial to the awesome guitar work and abrupt motif-changes of “Venus In Flames”, a Therion-ism that will smack you in the face. There’s some fantastic female lead vocal work on that song, with a voice that conjures up an actual witchy Stevie Nicks (albeit with a deeper register). There’s also something delightfully campy about its lyrics, particularly during the ending chant/refrain of “We hail Sathanas, Venus – Lucifer”. Perhaps I’m committing a faux-pas in assuming that the lyrics are to be interpreted literally, maybe I’m missing a grander metaphor at work —- with a guy like Johnsson at the helm I wouldn’t be surprised. Its just hard to take a song titled “Sex With Demons” with its lyrics specifically discussing sexual lucid dreams of unholy creatures of the night any other way. Actually this interview with Johnsson explains a ton regarding the lyrics if you’re interested (apparently Karlsson also assisted in penning most of these lyrics as well).

I was a little late on getting to this album, a rare occurrence for me when considering it was new music from the guy who gave me Therion, one of my favorite bands of all time. I had been wondering what Johnsson was doing in between random tour legs… writing that much talked about opera for one, but a part of me suspected he might also be hedging his bets a bit and slowly working on a new regular Therion album just in case. He very well might be, but with a significant portion of his time having gone into the LCO project I guess its not as much as I hoped he would. Am I disappointed? Not really, because this side project has been far more enjoyable than I could have ever suspected (occult rock and 70s throwback rock isn’t really my thing), I find myself listening to the album quite a bit, in the car, on headphones when out for the morning walk. Its a fun, loose, lively rock album that while not the deeply intense, spiritual experience of a fine Therion album, is still entertaining and artistic in a strange, unique way.

The Takeaway: Give this one a shot, even if that just means checking out the “Church of Carmel” or “Taste the Blood of the Alter Wine” music videos on YouTube. Its a strong set of songs done in a style that is annoying when handled by lesser talents —- but this is the guy who brought you Therion. That being said, I suspect that this will largely be a hard pass for some of you, but for you others there might be a hidden gem awaiting.

 

 

The Darkness – Last of Our Kind:

I’ve gone full disclosure on this before when I listed a song from The Darkness’ 2012 album Hot Cakes on that year’s best songs list (“She’s Just a Girl Eddie” in case you were wondering, and it still holds up!). I’ve enjoyed this band since learning about them shortly after their debut album was released stateside back in 2003. Their mix of Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Queen hits a sweet spot for me that few hard rock bands have ever managed to post-2000. Regardless of what you’ve thought about their image, their over-the-top stage show and their often times silly lyrics, The Darkness are consummate songwriters first and foremost. And I’ve never personally believed that they were a parody band, because their songwriting suggests an honest love of their influences that shine through, and an earnest attitude towards bright major key melodies, harmonized vocals, and openly bared sentiment. Any interview with either Justin or Dan Hawkins should be enough to clue you in on their baked in authenticity as fans of rock n’ roll, and their sense of humor is derived from their inherent British-ness. Despite sharing a similarity in their band names and the year of their debut album’s arrival, The Darkness had nothing else in common with all those bands of the post-millenium garage rock revival (you know… The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes, yawn, etc).

So their fourth album then, the aptly named Last of Our Kind, for certainly few bands are making music that sounds like this anymore, not even Def Leppard themselves. On the whole its an okay record, a bit more guitar-oriented than Hot Cakes (its closer to the debut in that regard), but that comes with its own drawbacks. What made Hot Cakes such a successful comeback album was its very honed in focus on making sure its choruses were shimmering and finely tuned for maximum memorability. That was an album loaded on catchy songs with sugar-pop hooks, largely vocal melody driven —- as a result the guitars took on more of a rear cockpit role and worked mainly to support them. On the new album the guitars are clearly the focus of attention, Justin and Dan trading off wild riffs and allowing their swirling, spiraling solos to be right up front. This is a facet most assuredly helped by Dan Hawkins serving as the album’s producer (a skill he honed during the band’s long hiatus) and defacto mix engineer. It works on the really simple, heavy attacks like “Barbarian” where the riff is the actual refrain, Justin’s vocals playing off it like a call and response. It works similarly well on the rather Cult-like “Open Fire”, with its gang-shouted chorus working as a breaker between verses rather than operating as a fully formed hook.

Where the increased emphasis on guitars tends to murky things up is on songs like “Roaring Waters”, where space that should be left for the development of a fully arcing chorus is shared with screaming guitar figures. Its not a bad song, but its not all that good either, nothing you want to come back for certainly… aren’t we listening to The Darkness for the don’t bore us get to the chorus mentality? If the chorus has nothing interesting to offer, what else are we left with? Again on “Mighty Wings”, the song is sabotaged by loading up layers of guitar wails over synth-based keyboard wash, leaving no space for vocals to maneuver. In this particular case though, I suspect its more that the song didn’t have much going on anyway… I tend to skip it whenever it pops up. On the utterly boring “Mudslide” (a name all too fitting for its sonic palette), we’re expected to enjoy a song built upon a riff so bereft of inspiration its hard to believe you’re not listening to a jam session at a rehearsal. This is all the undoing of what could’ve been a good album, that is a preponderance of songs built around the concept that the riff will be central to all things. Perhaps it was worth a try, but this is also why you use outside producers, to provide a sense of perspective about what you’re actually recording —- surely such a person would be able to tell the band what some random blogger is saying: “Your music works around vocal melodies, you’re not the Scorpions! Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken!”

Its in the more traditionally vocal led songs where the album really shines, such as on “Sarah O’ Sarah”, a sprightly, up-tempo tune with a charming brace of acoustic strumming and wonderfully endearing lyrics. It might be one of their all-time best songs, its lyrics purely in the Justin Hawkins trademark vein of bittersweet, “I’ll be patient, I’ll be strong / Until you see you’re wrong / Because I swallowed / Swallowed every lie you ever spat”. Later in the refrain, Hawkins flexes his creativity as a lyricist, “Sarah, oh Sarah / Make my heart burn / I’m lost within this labyrinth / Nowhere to turn”, which not only scores marks with me for the usage of labyrinth in perfect phonetic rhythm, but the imagery it inspires of a love-lorn fool unable to move on with his life. The power ballad “Conquerors” could be better, but I do enjoy its range of harmony vocals, with a point-counterpoint approach in it’s chorus. But its not as good as the title track, with its anthemic chorus and Thin Lizzy-esque guitar outro segue (the perfect order of things for this band). Its my second favorite tune on the record and perhaps the most archetypal moment on the album. I might normally dock a metal artist points for those, but I want familiarity in my hard rock bands.

The Takeaway: Toughie, but I’d recommend grabbing the title track and “Sarah O’ Sarah” off iTunes and leaving the rest behind. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of Hot Cakes instead, or even the rather underrated second album One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back. Both are front to back hard rock classics to my ears, with nary a misstep —- the debut is great as well.

 

 

Royal Hunt – XIII: The Devil’s Dozen:

Like clockwork, another Royal Hunt album lands in our laps, this being the third with vocalist DC Cooper since their reunion on 2011’s Show Me How to Live. In keeping with modern era Royal Hunt, it sticks with the AOR blend of melodramatic hard rock mixed with classically infused power metal, though far more leaning towards the former than the latter. I’ve been viewing this AOR element as a way for songwriter/guitarist Andre Andersen to steer the ship back towards a more melodic meets progressive direction ala the classic original DC Cooper era in the mid-nineties that gave us masterpieces like Paradox. After Cooper left and John West took over the vocal helm, it really did seem like the band got heavier, a little more metallic in their sonic approach, but it affected the songwriting in a meandering, heavy on the prog kinda way. They were good albums and West was a solid replacement, but I missed Cooper as well as the sheer fun and hook laden sensibility his era provided.

I’ve been relatively satisfied with the DC Cooper era Mark II, except that sometimes the AOR elements are so overpowering that they soften the impact of what is still a power METAL band. Its relatively similar to what Silent Force has been going through recently, though not quite as dramatic. That’s not to suggest there aren’t convincingly heavy power metal songs here, because tunes like “How Do You Know and the absolutely epic “A Tear In The Rain” are every bit as aggressive and hard hitting as anything the band has ever done. I’m stressing this quality in regards to Royal Hunt not only because the injection of hard rock and AOR devices into traditional power metal has become something of an enduring yet overdone trend in the past decade, but because the rather distinctive style, sonic palette, and mood of Royal Hunt has typically demanded that the band walk that fine line between uplifting melodicism and dark, somber symphonics.

So when the band chooses to use a hard rock meter to pattern out a riff instead of relying on a classic power metal approach, as on “So Right So Wrong”, the results skew a little more towards pedestrian melodic metal rather than the gloriously pompous grandeur we’ve all grown to love and expect from Royal Hunt. Don’t get me wrong, its a good song, obviously catchy and well written, but I can imagine it being a little more intense, perhaps even a tad more uptempo. I’m talking about the kind of intensity heard on a song like “May You Never (Walk Alone)”, as classic a Royal Hunt tune I’ve heard in years. Rollicking tempos, furiously unrestrained percussion, and a grandiose, aggressive keyboard arrangement fuel the energy in this gem of a track, allowing Cooper to deliver his vocal like a wildman. Andersen is still as adept as ever at writing magnetic riffs paired with synth lines, such as on “Way Too Late”, a brooding juggernaut of an epic with an ascending chorus that sees Cooper hitting some high notes he rarely visits. The album tends to alternate these strong moments with weak ones, preventing one side from being dominant, but the overall effect is one of inconsistency.

The Takeaway: Royal Hunt die hards will snap this one up, as they should, but newcomers might do better with its two immediate DC Cooper fronted predecessors. Of course it must be reiterated that newcomers should have already picked up 1997’s classic Paradox. Its a seminal album in power metal history and Royal Hunt’s finest hour.

 

 

To Die For – Cult:

Ah the return of To/Die/For… I feel like its 2003 all over again! I’ve always had a soft spot for these Finns and their synth heavy blend of pop and gothic metal, with their predilection towards recording unusual covers (seriously they’ve done a handful… remember their take on Sandra’s “In The Heat of the Night”). They never quite reached the ranks of affection that I reserved for their countrymen in Sentenced (being that the two were stylistically similar to a degree), and later on Insomnium and Ghost Brigade. But their initial prolific run from 1999 to 2006 yielded some pretty good records with a few remarkable singles, and a some really fun gothic metal dressed takes on U2’s “New Year’s Day”, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Its a Sin”, the Scorpions’ “Passion Rules the Game” (respected their song choice here, but the execution was lacking), the Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight”, and yet another (I Just) cover in their spin on Ozzy’s “(I Just) Want You”. Unlike those aforementioned bands of fellow Finnish countrymen, To/Die/For never really released a masterpiece of an album, always playing better as a singles band. I suppose it was what prevented me from really paying close attention to their activities throughout the years. After awhile I thought they had broken up, and it turns out they briefly did for a few months in 2009, but reunited and made a so-so album in 2011 called Samsara (had no idea!).

Throughout all these years the core of To/Die/For has remained intact, that being vocalist Jarno Peratalo and guitarist Juha-Pekka Sutela, the rest of the five piece lineup being filled out by relatively new members. I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to Samsara, but if the new album is any indication, then either Peratalo or Sutela or both have been listening to some of the grittier records by their fellow countrymen who are operating in a relatively similar style. On Cult, gone is the upfront presence of bright synth keyboards that characterized the band’s sound in the past —- instead, the guitars are murkier, darker-toned, more reliant on minor key melodies with long, modulating sustains on guitar. Now granted the latter is a fundamental characteristic of Finnish melodic metal (death or power metal), but do a side by side comparison of a To/Die/For oldie like “Hollow Heart” and the single from this album “In Black” and you’ll hear what I’m referring to. Modern To/Die/For owes more to post 2003 Amorphis, the last Ghost Brigade album, and those last two classic Sentenced albums than anything from a gothic rock milieu ala HIM (more fellow countrymen!).

Over at Angry Metal Guy, much of the discussion surrounded the seeming decline of Peratalo’s vocal talents, and indeed he does sound vastly different. His deep voiced clean vocals of the past now more resemble Poisonblack-era Ville Laihiala (really intense resemblance between the two voices here), and the change is a pretty good suspect for the musical shift towards a dirtier, darker, heavier style. This is the most metallic I’ve ever heard To/Die/For, and while it does tend to take away from their rather distinctive identity, it does yield some pretty good songs. Actually, I’m quite taken by the first three songs that open the album in a Finnish depressive salvo, from the aforementioned “In Black” to the furious, expansive melancholy of “Screaming Birds” (my personal favorite —- love the guitar solo from the 4:10-4:38 mark!), and the far more traditional (ie synth heavy) “Unknown III” which serves as a tribute to Tonmi Lillman (former To/Die/For, Lordi, and Sinergy drummer) with its raw, open-nerve ending lyrics: “Now you’re in the unknown / Your name’s written in stone / I just want you to know / You really had meaning / You know sometimes…. sometimes I still / Get wrapped up in the feeling / I don’t belong here”. Peratalo is joined on that refrain by a female vocalist named Linnea Kelin, who adds an subtle touch of additional pathos to an already emotive lyric.

There’s other good stuff too, “You” is a throwback to the band’s far more gothic rock drenched stylings of the past, despite Peratalo’s harsher vocals. And I love the direct simplicity of “Let It Bleed”, which might be setting some kind of record for the quickest launch into a song’s chorus in the history of metal (mere seconds). If anything its the two dirge-like ballads “Mere Dream” and the album closer “End of Tears” that fall flat, with no real discernible thru-melody to carry them while awash on a river of keyboard atmospherics. And in keeping with tradition, the band unloads another unusual cover tune, this time its a clunky take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”, which was a snazzy dance-pop number in the 80s but one of those songs that didn’t really need a rock/metal makeover. Its really the first of their covers to fall completely on its face, and that it winds up in the middle of the album ruins an otherwise nicely flowing song selection. I guess overall I’m more at peace with Peratalo’s changing vocals than the folks over at Angry Metal Guy were, because it seems that both he and Sutela knew exactly how to compensate for that change and adjust their songwriting approach accordingly. What they lost in originality they made up for with some really terrific songs.

The Takeaway: Much better than you’d probably be expecting from a band only releasing their second album in nearly a decade. Maybe its just me and my unabashed love of Finnish melancholy (it certainly does seem to strike a chord within me) but this is a surprisingly strong set a songs with only a few blemishes to skip over. Worth the time to investigate.

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