Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 1 !: New Music from Paradise Lost, Helloween, Luca Turilli and More!

Well I’m not sure how it is where you are, but down in Houston summer is off to its usual vulgar start of high temps and higher humidity. Its understood around here that one should go outdoors during the day for unavoidable reasons only, spending most of the time inside an air conditioned structure until sundown (the parking lots of our local public parks are unbelievably packed at 8pm). Its a wise methodology, because having lived here most of my life I’ve come to learn that the heat during these summer months will get you very, very angry —- its just pervasive and oppressive. Not to mention that with football offseason at its most uninteresting and NBA free agency over, there’s little reason to listen to sports radio. The end result of all these brutal truths is that the amount of metal I listen to during these months increases dramatically, and when its not the summertime flavor of melodic/power metal or hard rock, its typically something fierce and aggressive (the better to match my heat-induced high blood pressure).

During years when summertime new releases are lean, I’ll usually find myself going back to old favorites and classic albums of yore. But the summer of 2015 is packed with new albums aplenty, with releases from up and comers like Perzonal War and Witchbound, and a slew of them from established veterans such as Helloween, Paradise Lost, Virgin Steele, Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, and Pyramaze. Its been an overwhelming month and a half of repeated listening but I’ve managed to get a handle on this big first batch of new music. Simply because there’s so much to get through here, I’m going to try to keep these reviews as quick takes of 400(ish) words each, though that’s how all the review cluster articles were supposed to go and if you’ll recall the last two they certainly didn’t adhere to those guidelines. We’ll see how these fare in comparison —- onwards to catch up on May and June!

 


 

 

Helloween – My God Given Right: My initial indifference to this fifteenth studio album by power metal veterans Helloween was well documented on a recent episode of the MSRcast podcast. At the time I said that what brought the album down for me was its lightened tone, its greater emphasis on being hokey-jokey. Actually I shouldn’t have been surprised that Helloween was due to deliver something this light and fluffy at some point, their past few releases have subtly and not so subtly hinted at it.  A few weeks later I’m still largely of that opinion, but some of these songs have grown on me in a manner.

The obvious standout is the album’s second single “Lost In America”, a Maiden-esque guitar fueled anthem that only a German rock band could write about what essentially was a flight cancellation. Deris’ lyrical treatment is akin to Edguy’s Tobias Sammet and his infamous Helloween-like rocker “Lavatory Love Machine” —- complete with a lyric attributed to the airline pilot: “There’s a cloud / There’s a star / We should plunder the sky bar / We are lost / Lost in America”. My friend listened to the song once and came up with the perfect music video treatment for it, a Benny Hill styled edit of the band running around an airport while chased by security, affronted gaudy tourists as extras of course. Crazy German humor aside, its actually one of the strongest hooks I’ve heard this year, undeniable in its power to demand repeat spins just for the sheer fun of it.

There are a handful of other good cuts: “The Swing Of A Fallen World” takes us back to some of that stormy Dark Ride era moodiness; “Battle’s Won” has some terrific riffing on it’s verses but I find the chorus somewhat lacking in comparison; “My God-Given Right” is a pretty fierce straight-ahead rocker with some nice melodic guitar touches on the chorus; and I really enjoyed “Free World”, one of the many bonus tracks on the international edition which pushed the overall track listing here to sixteen new songs. Someone might hear that and think its great news, more music for less money —- and I’ll caution them to go back and consider the last Freedom Call release Beyond, where sixteen tracks were about 5 or 6 too many and diluted what could have been a truly great album. Helloween run into the same problem here, and according to a Deris quote from the album’s Wikipedia page the band had worked up 34 songs and had producer Charlie Bauerfeind and his team present the band with a whittled down tracklisting. I’m generally a fan of Bauerfeind, except I’ll be the first person to say that he’s not the go-to-guy when it comes to lessening excess and trimming the fat. They should’ve gotten a second opinion.

The Takeaway: The strange thing about My God Given Right is that when you have it on in the background while you’re doing something else, I dunno, the dishes or laundry for example, it actually comes off rather well —- light, unoffensive, catchy in some good spots. Its when you sit down and concentrate on it that you realize just how weak some of its constituent parts are. Spotify this first if you haven’t bought it yet.

 

 

Paradise Lost – The Plague Within: It seems that Nick Holmes recent stint recording the latest Bloodbath album was a pretty big influence on just how shockingly heavy this new Paradise Lost album turned out. Holmes was a curious choice for Bloodbath given that his performances on the past few Paradise Lost albums were more in the vein of a starker Amorphis / Sentenced approach. That resulting Bloodbath album, Grand Morbid Funeral, cast Holmes in the sonic vein of a crusty, smoky necromancer —- practically barking out his lyrics in the most bleak, death metal furor you forgot he was capable of. It was a good album, but he stole the show, injecting Bloodbath with a different flavor, one that was as brutal as Mikael Akerfeldt’s monolithic roar but distinct in its own right.

He tempers that approach only slightly here, allowing his vocals a dose of clarity in the way of enunciation, sort of like a really grim, death-metal touched James Hetfield. I know I’m mixing adjectives normally reserved for either black metal or death metal exclusively, but that’s part of Holmes gift as a vocalist, that he takes particulate elements from all kinds of extreme metal vocal styles and combines them through his own voice. The songwriting suits his favored approach (and according to interviews with Paradise Lost guitarist Greg Mackintosh the decision to get heavier was made after 2012’s Tragic Idol, an album that slightly hinted at a darkening of their sound). I could go on about individual songs here, but the truth is that there aren’t any weak ones —- this is without question one of the strongest, most cohesive albums of the year. But if you’re looking for YouTube-worthy glances, I’d recommend my personal favorites “No Hope In Sight” with its gorgeously melodic thru-lines, or “Cry Out” with its Metallica meets death metal fusion of straight ahead metal run through a grisly filter.

The Takeaway: One of the bigger surprises of the year, not that anyone was thinking that Paradise Lost would release a dud… but surely no one expected the bucket of water dose of heaviness that is The Plague Within. Fans of their Amorphis-ish past few albums might be taken back a bit by just how punishing it is, and if you’re not a fan of extreme metal vocals, Holmes approach could be a deal breaker. But its still Paradise Lost, the songwriting is inspired and Mackintosh rips off riffs that we haven’t heard from these guys since before Host. Just get it.

 

 

Pyramaze – Disciples of the Sun: Hey remember Pyramaze? That Danish prog-power band that Matt Barlow briefly joined to record an album with in 2007 before leaving for his second and apparently final stint with Iced Earth? That sole Barlow helmed album, titled Immortal, was to be their last for seven long years. In the interim, their line-up disintegrated: Founding guitarist Michael Kammeyer and longtime bassist Niels Kvist left the band, citing familial responsibilities, and Barlow’s replacement vocalist Urban Breed came and went, rejoining Swedish power metallers Bloodbound. Still standing were longtime keyboardist (and sole American in the lineup) Jonah Weingarten and drummer Morten Gade Sørensen, and with help from their longtime producer Jacob Hansen sitting in on guitar duties they’ve managed to rebuild a functional band line up with the addition of newbie Norwegian vocalist Terje Haroy.

Its absolutely commendable that the veterans in the band managed to rally and keep the flame burning to release this long delayed / awaited new album —- I’d talk more about that, except that its the new guy Haroy who utterly steals the show here. He’s simply one of the best new vocal talents in metal, regardless of genre, with a voice that takes equal parts from Chris Cornell and Tom Englund (Evergrey). That’s a gross oversimplification though, because Haroy delivers one of the year’s best overall vocal performances on Disciples of the Sun, his voice is just… massive, capable of soaring, tenor built choruses yet still possessing a thundering, booming heaviness. He’s a recent addition too, apparently only joining the ranks within the past year or so, and his seamless adaptability to the material on this album is a testament to just how well the songwriters in the band have spent the intervening years.

The songwriting borders on great, often surpassing it and as in the case of the title track —- transcending it. The chorus on “Disciples of the Sun” is so monumentally epic, so full of vigor and life that its immediately made my rough list for Songs of the Year candidates. Its not alone, being followed immediately by the uptempo, Symphony X-ish “Back For More”, where Weingarten and Hansen dual wield an ear-wormy melody to perfection, but allowing Haroy space to mimic it with his vocal take. Sometimes Haroy’s vocal melodies dominate certain songs, such as on “Genetic Process”, where the instrumentation surrounds him like an orchestra around a soprano. Its a great song, moody and heavy albeit with a sun bright chorus that places a ton of trust in a rookie singer. The wait was long but fruitful, and for many of you I’m sure Pyramaze will be coming across as essentially a new band —- what a debut then.

The Takeaway: Another of 2015’s astounding surprises, Pyramaze come out of nowhere to unleash an album that’s worth your time and money. With a new vocalist and new songwriting team to boot, its hard to compare it to their other works (unfair really), but this is for anyone who enjoys Evergrey, Symphony X, or even Kamelot.

 

 

Virgin Steele – Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation: On a recent episode of the MSRcast, I blurted out blindly that I had heard promising rumblings about the new Virgin Steele. Where did I glean said rumblings? Oh the usual assortment of forums I lurk at, coupled with the general sense of heaviness and epic pomp that pervaded the pre-release lyric video for “Lucifer’s Hammer”. Boy was I ever wrong. My first clue should’ve been my wary reticence at hearing David DeFeis’ vocal choices on said lyric video… I’ll just be honest about this, I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes with Virgin Steele, no idea why vocalizations like this would meet with approval. You can’t blame me for my lack of knowledge —- this is a band with limited web presence who haven’t released a new album since 2010’s dreadful The Black Light Bacchanalia, their last good effort to my ears anyway dating all the way back to The House of Atreus Act I/II around 99-00′. My only conclusion is that DeFeis has simply taken over production duties for Virgin Steele in the past decade and as a result he is the band’s songwriting and de facto editor.

Here’s something I’ve learned having to do my own editing for this blog over these past few years… no matter how diligent a job I think I’ve done correcting grammatical or punctuation errors, I’ll always miss a few here and there. I’ll go back and read old articles I’ve written just for reference or just the hell of it and find myself coming across sentences that make no sense (and my OCD about it will result in ninja edits). With DeFeis serving as the band’s producer, and the power structure in the band obviously starting and ending with him, who’s there to politely suggest that DeFeis recent fascination with the falsetto is getting over the top? Who’s there to tell him that no one wants to hear a respected metal vocalist make noises similar to actual alley cats? Oh you think I’m joking do you? Go and YouTube “Queen of the Damned” and enjoy those first twenty seconds. Is there a redeemable song on the album?… Perhaps a riff or two here or there, and “Demolition Queen” is officially the leading contender for worst song of 2015, so that might be worth listening to. I guess it depends if you’re the kind of person who likes watching extreme sports blooper vids. Hey, sometimes you can’t turn away.

The Takeaway: No. Just no. (If you’re mildly curious the entire album is up on YouTube and Spotify, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

 

 

Witchbound – Tarot’s Legacy: Don’t let the admittedly crude cover art put you off, and no this isn’t a Cradle of Filth clone despite how much the cover model seems to resemble Dani Filth circa 1997 (no I’m not trying to be meanspirited —- the model’s name is Vanessa Vergissmeinnicht and she’s quite lovely). Witchbound is an intriguing project for a few reasons, the first of which will interest hardcore power metal fans who enjoy the genre’s history: Witchbound is a new project created by both the ex-Stormwitch bassist and guitarist Ronny Gleisberg and Stefan Kauffman, respectively. Both were original members of that band’s early 80’s lineup alongside recently deceased Stormwitch founder Lee Tarot. Their monikers might be a tad unrecognizable, because for whatever reason during the Stormwitch era they went under Americanized versions of their names (for marketing reasons perhaps?).

Tarot’s untimely passing was the galvanizing force behind the creation of Witchbound, his old friends and bandmates rallying together in an effort to complete Tarot’s final musical works. Things like this have been done before for other deceased musicians, and they’re always well meaning, while almost always garnering some kind of press and media attention. In this case, there’s very little of that —- a fact that makes Witchbound’s efforts all the more poignant. Unless you’re a metal historian, chances are that Stormwitch isn’t a name that’s familiar to you: They never really blew up in any way in during their heyday, their exposure to American audiences was limited to import mail order catalogs (I don’t even think they had an American distribution deal), and they were never able to crack their home country of Germany like their peers in Grave Digger, Accept, Helloween, and later Blind Guardian. So what Witchbound has finished is an album called Tarot’s Legacy, its songs either written entirely or co-written by Tarot himself, as a grand gesture to a career cut short.

The other intriguing thing about this album is that its really, really great, perhaps Tarot’s finest work as a songwriter. With the help of the gruff yet richly melodic vocals of Thorsten Lichtner, the band powers through fifty minutes of music that boasts not only muscular aggression in terms of heaviness, but also a rich instrumental diversity with the infusion of acoustic passages and eastern sounding motifs (which work towards complementing the loosely metaphysical lyrical theme going on here). Think a less proggy version of Brainstorm’s take on power metal and you’re nearly there, with a dose of Suidakra’s musicality here and there as a spice. Songs like “Mauritania” and “Mandrake’s Fire” are propulsive, adrenaline-fueling uptempo gems, and the ballads here are unbelievable, Lichtner doing a wonderful job on “Trail of Stars” and the gorgeous, shimmering “Sands of Time” —- the latter is a shoe-in for the Songs of the Year list. These are inspired performances, the sound of friends trying to honor their friend’s legacy the best way they can.

The Takeaway: It may be out of nowhere, and difficult to believe if you judge books (or albums) by their covers, but Tarot’s Legacy is one of the strongest albums of the year, certainly one of the best power metal albums of 2015. I’ve seen so few people talking about this release so this is my meager attempt at picking up the slack —- check this album out.

 

 

Perzonal War – The Last Sunset: This one is for those of you pining for a new Metallica fix (and unlikely to get one soon). The unfortunately named Perzonal War is a thrash / trad-metal band from Germany who believe it or not have released six full lengths prior to 2015’s The Last Sunset, the first I’m hearing from them. There are a lot of metal bands out there, and its amazing how many of them go unnoticed by those of us who consider ourselves up on the genre —- again proving my “cream rises to the top theory” (tweet me if you want an explanation at your own risk!). With the aid of a better PR firm, a promo copy of this album landed in the MSRcast email account, and into my skeptical hands (hey, intentional misspellings are hard for me to overlook). Its a bit of a triumph then that this is a surprisingly fun mix of modern day thrash and blatant Metallica aping, down to vocalist/guitarist Mathias Zimmer’s slightly German-tinged but otherwise spot on James Hetfield impression.

I suppose that could be taken as a slight, but I mean it in a good way… certainly Perzonal War won’t win praise for originality, but they execute what they want to do rather well and Zimmer’s flexible vocal talent is a big reason for that. My favorite Zimmer / Hetfield moment is by far “Speed of Time”, a song that could’ve been at home on The Black Album or even Load / ReLoad, down to the rather minimalist use of melodic guitar variations to usher in the chorus. But then Zimmer surprises with a voice entirely his own on “What Would You Say?”, a relatively spacier song with metronomic guitar repetition in the verses and a refrain that reminds me of Tyr or Grand Magus. Sometimes when I’m listening to this album I get the notion in my head that it could’ve been the Metallica album to follow the Load era if someone had introduced Hetfield and Kirk Hammet to a few melodic death metal bands in timely fashion. Maybe its that the guitar work often owes more to Gothenburg or Tampa even rather than the SF Bay Area —- just a feeling though.

The Takeaway: No frills, solid musicianship (sometimes even near spectacular), Hetfield-ian vocals, and a rather muscular take on thrash… that’s The Last Sunset in a nutshell. The German Metallica then? Sorry Mille.

 

 

Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody – Prometheus Symphonia Ignis Divinus: I’m a frequent lurker of the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group, a surprisingly active group of a couple thousand metal fans, most of them indeed based in the United States, who talk pretty much nothing but power metal and all its associated topics. One of those topics recently was the release of this album specifically, and not a debate about whether or not it was good, but generally more along the lines of just how great is it? Full disclosure here is that I’ve never been a Rhapsody fan, even before the 2006 name change. It wasn’t for lack of trying either, they were such a big name in the power metal scene there was no way I could attempt to ignore them, but time and time again each new album failed to hook me. I wasn’t entirely sure what the 2011 splitting into two camps meant for either version of Rhapsody in the musical sense, was one going to become a touch more straightforward in their musical approach while the other spiraled out of control?

If I had to put money on who would go the latter route, it would’ve been on Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody. Turilli always struck me as the musical heart of Rhapsody and since his incarnation is typically viewed as the more legitimate of the two versions (Nuclear Blast put their eggs in his basket, a telling move), I figured he would be the one to carry on into further cinematic-inspired realms. I was right and wrong, Turilli has done exactly that but so has Alex Staropoli and Fabio Lione with their Rhapsody of Fire. The flight attendant asked Jerry. “More anything?”  He cried out, “More everything!” Seinfeld references aside, Turilli is winning the war of one upmanship, as his Prometheus album is the most operatically and cinematically drenched offering to date (to me at least, and if I’m naively wrong on that, correct me Rhapsody fans). Its all very impressive sounding, quite immaculately recorded and there’s a ton going on musically, more than mere descriptive sentences can capture. Stay far away if you absolutely hate opera, although I’ve found that its the few songs sung in Italian that tend to be the most interesting such as the suitably theater-esque “Notturno”, a ballad that sounds like its meant to be an aria. If Turilli really set out to craft an actual stage opera and left the metal elements behind I think he could do well at it… he’s got a knack for the stuff on the same level that Christofer Johnsson from Therion does.

But here’s a good example of why I tend to get tripped up on anything Rhapsody related: There’s a song on the album called “One Ring to Rule Them All”, and a quick glance at the lyrics will tell you that its directly about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Now, I consider myself a Tolkien aficionado, the kind of aficionado that has read The Silmarillion more times than I care to admit in public. I’ve heard Tolkien set to metal in the form of Blind Guardian’s many masterpieces, and what that band’s Tolkien-related work does so well is carve out a vivid, original soundtrack to set his stories against. Turilli’s Tolkien-related song here sounds no different than any of the other songs on the album, there’s nothing to set it apart —- I can’t tell the difference between it and the title track about, y’know, Prometheus. If you can’t make Tolkien interesting to me then I just have to wonder if I’ll ever find something to truly enjoy on your albums. Maybe more of the purely Italian operatic stuff, because at least that’s something that seems to come from an inspired place, and that’s ultimately what I need to detect to be interested in a band… honest inspiration.

The Takeaway: I hope Rhapsody fans can understand my disconnect here, the truth is I don’t honestly know whether or not this is a good album or not. What I do know is that its not for me, anyone else got a fan’s inside take on it?

 

Kamelot’s Path to Haven

For many of us, this particular Kamelot album has been a long time coming. I suspect that quite a few of you felt the same way that I did when considering their 2012 Tommy Karevik-fronted debut Silverthorn —- that it was a difficult album to judge for better or worse considering that it had largely been written before Karevik had joined up. It was known that he had handled the writing of his own vocal melodies and lyrics in Seventh Wonder, and was quite good at it to say the least. Now for a lot of bands, this wouldn’t be a big deal because either the guitarist, or bassist, or keyboardist even would be serving alone as the primary songwriter. Not so with Kamelot, as founding guitarist and songwriter Thomas Youngblood spent over a decade co-writing with Roy Khan —- who in addition to being one of the greatest metal voices of all time, was also gifted with savant-like abilities in vocal melody development and lyric writing. Together they were the second coming and fully realized promise of Chris DeGarmo and Geoff Tate of classic era Queensryche, sharing similarities in their respective styles and deliveries; and in penning masterful prog-metal with crisp, clean, melodic guitars and emotive, soaring vocals with intelligent, thoughtful lyricism.

 

Youngblood and Khan were a pair of songwriters so attuned to each other that they unleashed not just one, but four outright masterworks in continuous succession from The Fourth Legacy thru The Black Halo (a feat that had not been accomplished in melodic metal since Iron Maiden’s 82-88 “Golden Era”). Khan’s departure in 2010 meant not only the loss of the band’s signature voice, but half of their songwriting engine. During the much speculated upon vocalist search, I suspected that Kamelot’s primary candidate requirement would be a singer who had also proven themselves in a songwriting capacity, to help fill that particular aspect of the void left by Khan. Considering that, the field of potential vocalists was reduced greatly, and at the top of my own (and many others’) list of suspects to be given the job was Karevik himself. He was the only logical choice: His tone and timbre was remarkably similar to Khan’s, Youngblood himself had stated a preference for the inflections present in Scandinavian accents, and Karevik had a resume full of songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal melody development.

 

With that in mind, its difficult to understand then why Youngblood and his newly adapted songwriting partners keyboardist Oliver Palotai and producer Sascha Paeth began writing without waiting for their new vocalist, but I would wager it was market forces. A full time band needs income from touring, which meant that the clock was ticking in terms of having to write and record a new album as soon as possible, vocalist or not. It was a gamble that paid off with an album that satisfied those concerns, but I believe failed in the greater context of actually being a good Kamelot album. With Silverthorn, Youngblood, Paeth, and Palotai engaged in a guessing game exercise in songwriting, the same kind faced by Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen for their post-Tarja Turunen album Dark Passion Play. Writing songs without knowing the tone and timbre of your future vocalist is an incredibly difficult challenge, one that rarely ensures optimal results.

 

 

When Karevik finally got to tackle his vocals, he did the best he could with clumsily constructed spacing for bridges and choruses. Rarely did he have enough room to unfurl a properly developed refrain, and the hooks suffered as a result. His vocal melodies were often forced to lay upon riffs that worked against him, resulting in awkward sonic pairings. The entire affair was hammered over with enough adjustments and editing to make it passable and listenable, but it lacked the natural smoothness and melodic flow that normally defined a good Kamelot album. One of the few exceptions was “Song For Jolee”, a stirring ballad that Karevik was able to get involved with in a greater capacity, writing the song around the strength of his vocal melody and a particularly haunting lyric. Alongside the similarly vocal melody-led “Solitaire”, it was a brief demonstration of the dramatic impact that Karevik could make if he was given a ground floor role in the songwriting.

 

It certainly made it clear to me that his second album with the band would be the far more accurate portrait of where the band was in their post-Khan evolution. That open question made Haven the most intriguing new release of 2015 for me, the very definition of a make or break situation that I nervously anticipated. I’ll be honest, I was still nervous even after my initial listen all the way through, but Haven has proven to harbor the trademarks of an expensive, well made perfume: underneath its initial sharp top notes are long lingering, pleasantly fragrant middle and base notes. Now thirty plus listens later, I feel confident about contextualizing its place in the band’s discography, and in deeming it their greatest album since The Black Halo —- a distinction I wouldn’t throw out without careful consideration. It is obviously far more accomplished than Silverthorn, with Karevik’s distinctive input in the songwriting directly translating into songs being written around the vocal melodies, the proper order of things in the Kamelot universe.

 

But perhaps more important than that is just how impactful his expansive vocal range is, urging the band to return to writing in largely major keys, with Karevik technically able to operate (with seeming effortlessness) in higher registers. Khan devotees (of which I consider myself to be) may balk at that statement for what it implies, but its the flip side of what is a rather uncomfortable topic for many Kamelot fans, namely, Khan’s degrading vocal range over the years. A few years ago, before Karevik was even announced as the successor, I wrote something for this blog called The Legacy of Roy Khan, a tribute of sorts as to why he was truly brilliant, and to why his void would be deeply felt by the band. Towards the end of the piece I briefly mentioned Khan’s declining range, but skipped over it perfunctorily, so as not to dwell so much on the very real difficulties he faced as a performer (a great deal of which was documented through live show recordings thrown on YouTube). It simply didn’t seem right to focus on it given the nature of the piece.

 

 

Yet its Karevik’s performance on Haven that drags this shadowy topic back into the light, as well as revealing a larger truth about the band in general —- that Khan’s declining range provoked a fundamental change in Kamelot’s sound and songwriting, a change that became habitual and they’ve yet to fully withdraw from. We can trace back Khan’s lowering vocal range to as early as The Black Halo, where he began to transition away from singing mostly in upper registers to settling into a comfortable mid-range with a few exceptions (“Serenade” and “Moonlight” come to mind immediately as that album’s upper register standouts). On Ghost Opera, this continued in large part, with Khan operating in a slightly lower register, even on a song like “Anthem” that required him to hit a few highs (studio effects on those vocals were noticeable, whether or not they were covering something up is entirely debatable). Where a song like “Up From the Ashes” should have had lead vocals that zoomed upwards through its soaring, arcing chorus, Khan hardly wavered from his mid-range delivery. Instead the band used layers of backing choral vocals to take care of the upper register work, a choir assembled of Gate Studios’ vets Amanda Somerville and both Robert and Cinzia Hunecke Rizzo, frequent choir contributors to Rhapsody, Avantasia, Edguy, etc, and all singers capable of filling in those high notes.

 

Even more noticeable than on the albums was Khan’s live performances beginning on the Ghost Opera tour. I myself attended their September 9th, 2007 Houston concert and despite my giddiness at seeing the band live for the first time, I was surprised to hear them down tuning for older songs in addition to new ones. They avoided included anything in their setlist from The Fourth Legacy, nothing all too surprising by considering its age and the vast amount of songs they had to choose from, but it was very telling in what the band viewed as the easy exclusions. When Poetry For the Poisoned was released in 2010, the common discussion from fans was just how dark the album sounded —- and it wasn’t just something felt in its admittedly depressing lyrics, but in its even more down tuned approach. Guitar tone alone wasn’t simply what was affecting us all, it was that such a change in tone was prompting Youngblood to think about songwriting differently —- heavier, chunkier riffs and rhythms to work better with Khan’s new register, slower tempos better suited to such sonic changes, and Palotai providing suitably darker atmospherics to work as adhesive.

 

 

The band as a songwriting unit had downshifted their approach away from their classic symphonic power metal approach of the late nineties / early aughts, and when fans would wish aloud for a return to a “classic” Kamelot sound, they were knowingly or unknowingly yearning for Khan to sing in a higher register again, something that could cause those tempos to pick up the pace once more —- they were hoping to go back in time in other words. There was spectacular work on those last two Khan era albums, by him in particular —- he still sounded great as a singer, and his vocal melodies and lyrics were always on point. But the tour supporting Poetry was the all too visible sign that Khan’s actual voice was deteriorating, and that he was incapable of even mid-ranged performances at times. The damning evidence is still on YouTube for anyone to relive (and I hated doing so for the purposes of pure research), and when he abruptly quit the tour it was hardly surprising despite our initial shock… for everyone who was paying attention, the end was in sight.

 

Both Youngblood and Palotai, as the surviving core of the writing team spent those final five to six Khan era years growing accustomed to the changes in the band’s sound, too accustomed it would seem. When they wrote for Silverthorn the tendency to down tune, rely on chunky riffing, and mid-paced tempos lingered on with a few exceptions. Its unfair to fault them, as the machinations of a creative process are hard to alter immediately, and the human tendency to rely upon developed habits is hard to shake. Nevertheless its one that they will have to, because in Karevik they have a vocalist whose natural register is higher, and who operates in that space with an ease that always seemed to elude Khan. If you’ve heard Karevik in Seventh Wonder, you’ll have heard him deliver vocals that seem to effortlessly dance across the top of major chords, deftly moving with an almost R&B influenced sense of alliteration and cadence —- he’s inherently poppier than Khan, less operatically inclined.

 

 

With a vocalist like Karevik, Kamelot can make its way back towards a sound that resembles its classic era, one replete with all the trimmings of their trademark symphonic power metal stylings that many of us have missed so much. The good news is that with a big chunk of the songs off Haven they’re well on their way. The bad news is that this flip side to the legacy of Roy Khan continues to plague a portion of their songwriting, in specific moments hampering the best use of Karevik’s abilities. Consider the not awful but rather clunky “Citizen Zero”, where the sludge-y tempo prevents the verse sections from developing into anything interesting, its down tuned riffs and overly aggressive approach resulting in heaviness that seemed forced and frankly boring. This faux-heaviness disrupts the structure of “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)”, wedging a bright, uptempo chorus in between two slabs of formless verses composed of floating keyboard atmospherics and meandering, un-melodic riffing.

 

The worst offender might be “Revolution”, as much an example of what not to do in a Kamelot song as there ever has been. No need to comment on the presence of the overused Alissa White-Gluz, whose aggressive vocals are indistinguishable from any other harsh vocalist (male or female), particularly when the biggest problem is the forced faux-heaviness of the guitar riffs. Youngblood is a supreme talent, one of the defining musicians of the genre and someone whose artistic legacy is already secure. He’s better than this quite frankly, and he of all people should know that we listen to his band for the melodies, not the riffs (this isn’t Melechesh!). This is the song that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps been singled out as the Japanese bonus track (more on that later). The last song to suffer from echoes of the past is “My Therapy”, where Karevik’s skillful treatment of the vocal melody (particularly in the chorus) saves the song from relatively lackluster verses fragments set to beds of uninspired riffs.

 

 

The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.

 

Continuing the brilliance is “Insomnia”, an uptempo song built off Palotai’s inventive, swinging keyboard figures and finished by a multi-layered Karevik vocal performance that is simply astounding. On the chorus, he soars above himself, setting his lead vocal underneath waves of his own layered vocal arrangement, apparently fit to serve as his own choir. Those familiar with Karevik’s layering work on Mercy Falls and The Great Escape will feel as if the styles of the two bands are merging here, the multi-layered vocal flurries of Seventh Wonder meeting the dark symphony of Kamelot. And as if to further justify his inclusion in ground level songwriting, consider just how much he improves “Veil of Elysium”, arguably the spiritual successor to Silverthorn’s “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)”. If you hadn’t noticed the similarities between both songs, take a moment to listen to them back to back and notice just how much more developed the song sounds now with Karevik able to expand on the chorus. Rather than being forced to shoehorn lyrics on top of a space reserved for a vocal melody, on “Veil of Elysium” he weaves the vocal melody around the phrasing of his diction, their very consonant structure providing the poetic meter within: “One day I know we will meet again / In the shade of a life to die for”. He also finds the time to serve up a particularly Khan-like piece of simple lyrical beauty, “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his treatment of the last line at the 1:04 mark being a prime example of his nimbleness as a singer.

 

 

The gorgeous, Troy Donockley’s pipes-assisted “Under Grey Skies” is a gem of a ballad, built almost entirely off Karevik’s vocal melodies, with help from the welcome Charlotte Wessels (Delain). She’s a breath of fresh air for the band’s choice of female collaborators, possessing a voice that is lighter than Simone Simons and more at home when set atop such cozy, acoustic guitar-plucked balladry. Some may find the lyrics here a little too cloying, but Karevik wisely avoids cliche diction and couches his romantic subtext in a stanza sung by Wessels, giving some respite to anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a guy sing them lines about kisses n’ stuff (if you feel guilty right about now you’re likely one of them). As a duet its a triumph, my favorite parts arriving towards the end when Karevik and Wessels trade off soaring layered vocals, singing under and around one another. Youngblood’s mid-song guitar solo here is note perfect, building off the vocal melody motif and extenuating it to sublime effect.

 

The highlights continue on the second half of the album, with “End of Innocence” proving itself to play along with the unusual coincidence of bands producing great songs under that particular title. I’m most struck by how well Youngblood manages to balance a dose of heavy guitar riffs without overpowering the melodies worked up by Palotai and Karevik. The MVP here might be Palotai, who answers the heaviness of the guitars with jaunty, symphonic keys that usher along a melody that works as a flamboyant counterpoint to successfully balance things out. Once again, Karevik knocks one out of the park with his choice vocal inflections and change-ups on the recurring chorus line, “And why must a hero die young / Not to be gone and forgotten” —- each time he gives it a new flavor. We’re treated to some Middle-Eastern flair in “Beautiful Apocalypse”, a song that took me a few listens to come around to. What sold it was Karevik’s simply stunning transition from gritty and tortured to smooth and sonorous (and back again), best exemplified at the 1:10 to 1:43 mark. Its one of the most dexterous things I’ve ever heard him accomplish.

 

A different kind of Khan influence creeps up on “Here’s to the Fall”, where Karevik sounds so eerily similar to his predecessor (particularly to open the song), that I wonder if Khan didn’t drop by the studio at any point to lay down some vocal fragments. This is of course the ability that won Karevik the job and was more frequently heard on Silverthorn, but here he uses it to great effect until the 3:10 mark, where the Tommy Karevik we’ve been hearing all album long pops up again in his more Seventh Wonder influenced mode. If Khan did drop by the studio, I’ll find out eventually, I don’t know how but I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t something sneaky going on (I’m only partially joking)! Normally I’d prefer an acoustic guitar/vocal pairing with keyboard embellishment  (think in the vein of “Glory” from The Fourth Legacy) rather than solely keyboards/vocals, but Palotai does a nice job here of creating a moody atmosphere that actually works. I mentioned the Japanese bonus track earlier, one “The Ties That Bind”, a hooky, tuneful yet heavy-riff fueled song with a chorus that doesn’t quite arc fully, yet is infinitely better for the album proper than “Revolution”.

 

 

If like me you received the expanded edition of the album with a second disc full of alternate renditions and instrumental tracks, you’ll have probably indulged in the piano version of “End of Innocence” and the acoustic guitar version of “Veil of Elysium”. These songs, so uptempo and electric on the album are hushed here, left to operate only on the strength of their defining characteristic: their vocal melodies. Its a further testament to Karevik’s contributions to this album, that his melodies are strong enough to be the actual skeleton of a working song… one can call it practically Khan-esque even. And a final thought on Youngblood himself, who deserves individual praise alongside Palotai and Karevik for trusting his collaborators enough to breathe new life into his band. I’ve always regarded his style as being directly influenced by Chris DeGarmo (among others surely) in that during their respective classic eras they both wrote in crisp, clear melodic lines with razor sharp precision, anchored by a mindset that was unconcerned with any sort of “heavy factor”.

 

The difference was that DeGarmo eventually got off that train and ventured into lighter, jangly, less riff-based directions —- whereas Youngblood found himself having to forcibly get heavier, chunkier, and less melodic as a result. Both of them are tremendously gifted songwriters and guitarists, and in their work one attribute directly correlated with the other. They both operate best when writing and performing in what I call the DeGarmo gold standard, that thoughtful mix of melodic writing filtered through crisp riffing and clear open chord sequences. It may be too far gone for DeGarmo to ever bother returning, but Youngblood can easily find his way back to that standard. The first step is realizing that he now has a vocalist capable of hitting the highs needed to bring Kamelot’s sound back to its classically infused, symphonic metal roots… a return to their primordial musical waters so to speak. They’re halfway there with Haven. Karevik is the savior of the band’s sound, I suspect they’d surely be lost without him. Behind Bruce Dickinson, I can think of no better or more important replacement vocalist in the history of metal.

 

Reviews Cluster Blowout!: Releases By Melechesh, Kiske/Somerville, Subterranean Masquerade and More!

I realize its been few and far between in terms of updates to the blog over the past two months, and while I’ve never promised an end to these occasional bouts of silence —- I always try to keep a valid reason for their occurrence. As ever that reason tends to lay somewhere in between being overwhelmed by so many new albums coming out in a short span of time, and my inescapable longing to either linger on a particularly captivating recent release, or to simply revisit older classics. Its been a bit of all three for me as of late, as I kept stumbling onto one intriguing new album after another only to set each one aside after my attention was directed elsewhere, not a good thing when you’re trying to write reviews for them. Also I haven’t been able to quit Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., an album that I feel will stick with me far longer than I ever anticipated, and it led me to go through his catalog all over again, from Porcupine Tree to Blackfield.

Long story short, I got distracted along the way (the Nightwish release further delayed matters) and a lot of reviews that should have been out many weeks ago had to be delayed until I could go back and re-listen to them yet again. Quality over quantity is probably the worst way to go for a blog in this SEO-driven, microsecond attention span era of online communication, but hopefully somewhere along the way I’ll stumble onto a metal writer’s version of some Garrison Keillor meets Andy Rooney persona to justify it all (hmm… actually not sure about that). The reviews below aren’t all of the new albums I got to check out in the past few months, just the ones I really felt were worth talking about (for better or worse, mostly better). Also I should mention that I checked and as of this publication date all of these albums are available on Spotify, so if you want you can listen along with each review or better yet try before you buy.


 

Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar:

You’ll be forgiven for not knowing who these guys are, given that this January release is only their second full length album since the band’s inception in 1997 (there were also two EPs somewhere in there). Its a full ten years since their 2005 debut Suspended Animation Dreams, an album I’ve not listened to yet but might have to take a peek at if its anywhere near as satisfying as The Great Bazaar. This is prog-metal, in that particular vein where things get a little eccentric and weird. Thankfully it seems that their primary songwriter and guitarist Tomer Pink understands that most fundamental thing that can often elude an ambitious bunch of prog musicians —- no one will care if the songs are garbage.

I haven’t heard of Tomer Pink before admittedly, nor most of the other musicians that make up the band’s ranks except for one Paul Kuhr, yes that Kuhr, of November’s Doom. He’s here providing his particularly heavy vocals as a sharp contrast to clean vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (ex-Green Carnation, Tristania), and both guys do a tremendous job of injecting passion into nearly everything they touch. There’s not much to say in regards to the backgrounds of the other guys, save for one of them being the current drummer for Orphaned Land (percussion, he played on the All Is One album). It is worth mentioning that largely everyone save the two vocalists seems to hail from Israel, making this somewhat of an oriental metal band, in theory and in essence. It doesn’t take long for that distinctive, culturally inspired sound to pop up on the album opener “Early Morning Mantra”, in the form of traditional sounding percussion and Arabic motifs in the keyboard generated strings.

So by now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, so they’re like a mashup of Orphaned Land and Myrath”, to which I’ll respond, “Whoa, hold the phone there Radar”. It doesn’t take long for “Early Morning Mantra” to unveil its strange, surreal layering of sounds, and once you get to the 5:27 mark the sounds of a full blown ska section will utterly baffle your sense of comprehension. Not so smug now are we? Listen, in all seriousness, I’m not kidding you about just how head-spinningly eccentric/eclectic this album winds up being! That aforementioned “ska section” actually works like a charm, a moment of pure musical joy that etches a smile on your face just for the sheer cheek of it all. And you never know when an electric violin-type sound will pop up, flanked by Kuhr’s jagged vocals, followed by some delicate piano, or acoustic guitar figures, or what sounds like a soulful woodwind instrument (you’ll know it when you hear it, its like hearing a saxophone made of birch)!

The victory here is that all these cra-cra sounds are all woven together to shape definable and often moving songs. My absolute favorite is the oriental string melody led “Blanket of Longing”, a contender to make the best songs of the year list. Coming off like a mash up of Myrath, Evergrey, and Steven Wilson (told you I had his music on the brain), its a song that is built on a brilliantly layered cushion of separate yet complementary melodic structures. In the chorus however the vocal melody takes over and Nordhus soars effortlessly above it all, taking the listener with him via an emotional carpet ride of a lyric: “Often I go back to that picture of my little boy / And I just can’t cry anymore”. On the very ethnic-folk infused “Specter”, I’m surprised by random moments of sparse acoustic strumming over keyboard melodies that remind me of prog-rock Kansas or Styx. I can’t even begin to describe the fusion of sounds and styles in the album closer and epic “Father and Son”, except perhaps to compare it to what I imagine would be the sounds of… you know… an actual bazaar. Clever word play in the title then.

The Takeaway: One of the most surprising, out of nowhere salvos fired in the first half of 2015. You might not enjoy it if you don’t like the sounds of bands like Orphaned Land, Melechesh, or even Myrath —- but seriously who doesn’t? Highly, highly recommended.

 

 

Kiske/Somerville – City of Heroes

This is the second album in this duet-centric collaboration between vocalists Michael Kiske and Amanda Somerville, their first being issued in the now distant 2010. You all know Kiske of course, and likely have an opinion on him and his rather distinctive vocal style which is about as love it or leave it as it gets in power metal. Somerville on the other hand some of you might not be as familiar with, although chances are that you’ve already heard her somewhere along the way. She’s a fixture in the European melodic/power metal scenes as an excellent backing vocalist, occasional lead vocal drop in, and vocal coach. Her lengthy list of appearances includes luminaries such as Avantasia, Kamelot, and Epica to name a few, alongside a handful of her own solo projects/collaborations. As an aficionado of backing vocals on power metal albums, I’m happy to see her name on the credits of an album —- and I became quite the fan in general through viewing her rather excellent behind the scenes tour diaries that have become a fixture for nearly all of her tours (the Avantasia diaries are particularly intriguing).

What you get here is a relatively uncomplicated album full of the type of hooky, pop-infused take on melodic power metal that lands in the comfort zone of both vocalists. To call it an artistic collaboration would be generous however, because neither Kiske nor Somerville write the music or lyrics (Somerville lands a credit on a song she co-wrote with her husband Sander Gommans, longtime guitarist for After Forever). This project falls in line with other Frontiers Records operations, namely that one of the labels contracted professional musician/songwriters on staff cooks up a batch of songs appropriate for the project, which in this case are Primal Fear’s Magnus Karlsson and Mat Sinner. Take a closer look at many Frontiers releases and you’ll notice the same formula at work —- it presents an interesting internal debate for anyone attempting to review these albums. Should the lyric content weigh as heavily as it would in an album written by the performers themselves? Are we going to place a greater emphasis on how well the vocals turned out as a opposed to the actual guitar melodies?

The answer is of course far less complicated than the questions themselves. This is a album with no other purpose other than enjoyment itself, and that might come across as disingenuous to some, and perfectly fine for others. I think something to consider is that given Kiske’s history of distancing himself from metal in order to explore his artistic side, his willingness to sing lines like “I stole my daddy’s car only to be cool / I slammed the brakes and acted like a fool” speaks volumes about his personal connection to anything on here. Lets just get the negative stuff out of the way first by saying that the lyrics all across the album are either passable to well below average. Its a shame too because at times their clunky-ness can detract from an otherwise enjoyable vocal melody, and while it doesn’t occur all the time, it happens often enough to stop a couple songs dead in their tracks. The previously quoted “Rising Up” is one of them, but its joined by the strange ballad “Ocean of Tears” (nothing egregious, they’re just generic lyrics), and the title track “City of Heroes” (pretty baffling, it comes across as something that could’ve been written in hopes of making the Justice League soundtrack).

The good news is that the melodies and vocal hooks are strong enough to ignore all the iffy stuff and actually work in tandem to create a rather satisfying album. Satisfying in the way that a maple donut might be on a Saturday morning, when you feel justified by having eaten oatmeal all week. You’ll notice a pattern amidst all the catchiness, that Kiske tends to handle the bulk of the verses solo while Somerville gets the choruses (they do try to mix it up now and then, but this is largely the formula). Kiske is actually present on the choruses alongside Somerville, but he’s buried far below her in the mix, something that didn’t set well with my MSRcast cohost Cary. I can see where he’s coming from, but I suspect its also due to just how powerful her vocals are compared to his, her voice laden with a deep richness that Kiske’s lacks. Consider this something to put on Spotify for light, breezy summertime listening, preferably when BBQ-ing or “acting like a fool”.

The Takeaway: One of the better Frontiers Records songwriter-for-hire penned albums with two very accomplished vocalists. Given the label its on you should know what to expect, loads of sugary melodies and hooky hooks. I do enjoy the Roxette vibe on “After the Night Is Over”.

 

 

Thurisaz – The Pulse of Mourning:

I wasn’t familiar with Belguim’s Thurisaz heading into this, although they’ve been around since 2000 with a handful of albums released in the interim. From what I can tell having read a few reviews of their older work, The Pulse of Mourning appears to be a turning point for the band in finding their own sound. That isn’t to say that you can’t hear their influences, because some of them are pretty up front —- Opeth for one, but also hints of Enslaved, Katatonia, and perhaps even some Dan Swano projects. Thurisaz deliver a modern take on progressive symphonic-kissed black metal. I’m not sure if they’re brothers or not, but both Peter and Mattias Theuwen handle vocals and guitar together (though I’m not sure which one handles either the grim or clean vocals, perhaps they both do everything?!) and they form the nucleus of a band whose lineup has remained unchanged save for a succession of rotating bassists.

The MVP of the album just might be keyboardist Kobe Cannière, as his work is present on every song on the album including the instrumental based ambient pieces that serve as segues. He has a light touch, creating subtle orchestral swells and solo piano melodies that dress up the band’s kinetic riffing with beautiful ornamentation. For an example of this look no further than the awesome “Rays of Light”, where there are times when its the keyboard driving the song forward with a gorgeous melody over sustained riffing, an unusual twist for a two guitar band. The clean vocal passages on that song are one of the highlights of the album, a sort of mix of modern day Enslaved’s Herbrand Larsen with touches of old school Mikael Akerfeldt. Cannière’s work is also a major core of the overall mood of the album, which is imbedded in the handful of those aforementioned instrumental tracks. My description of them as ambient was not meant to imply they were electronic sounding in anyway, in fact they’re incredibly analog in their palettes —- lonely hushed piano sonatas, cellos set to ethereal female voices —- its all interesting stuff, though one wonders if there are too many of them.

I’ve been going back and forth on how I feel about the way the album is sequenced, in that perhaps the band’s placement of said instrumental tracks actually short circuits the mood they’re trying to achieve. An epic song like “In All Remembrance”, with its Insomnium-esque melodic guitar riffs and sparkling keyboard work should immediately follow the beautiful slow burn of “One Final Step”. They’re separated by a minute and change long instrumental that really might’ve worked better as an album outro. These might be minor quibbles, but the band clearly feels that their instrumental songs are important (there wouldn’t be as many of them otherwise), and in that light they aren’t working the way they should, as pretty as they all are. I’ll gladly exchange a pair of them for another great actual song, and I suppose in this regard Thurisaz runs into a problem that is usually reserved for power metal bands, where an eye towards album cohesion does more harm than good. Still, this is an album worthy of your attention.

The Takeaway: I suspect this might be a lot of people’s first time hearing music by Thurisaz, and I think everyone will be surprised at just how developed and mature they sound. I guess a few albums of working out the kinks in relative obscurity is good for making a first impression at least. Not only was I impressed, but my MSRcast co-host Cary was impressed as well, enough that we’ve featured the band on our latest episode.

 

 

Jorn Lande & Trond Holter – Dracula: Swing of Death:

Silently I’ve been enjoying this album for months now, never really intending upon writing an actual review for it until I began to realize that it would be a tad disingenuous not to give Jorn and his musical collaborator Trond Holter their due credit for taking up a nice slice of my attention this year. And why should I hide that I’ve been listening to an opera forged out of pompous hard-rock meets symphonic power metal with a touch of rock n’ roll pastiche? Sans the latter element, weren’t the last four Avantasia albums pretty much built on that musical template? Yes to all four, and I enjoyed the heck out of most of those records. First things first, I realize that this album as a conceptual whole is pretty damn silly —- I get it! But I have to confess that I have no real justifiable reasoning as to why Jorn taking on Dracula is silly while Blind Guardian taking on anything they’ve done is badassed —- I’m not even going to attempt to argue that those two are comparable (even though *cough* theyreallyare *cough*). If any of you are familiar with the Angry Metal Guy blog, you knew that this album had to be one spectacular listen, for better or worse, when Steel Druhm (one of the more tolerant Jorn supporters I’ve ever seen) admitted that parts of this thing made him cringe.

If you read Druhm’s review, you’ll notice that he was confident that the album was on the right track two songs in, praising “Walking on Water” for its sturdy Jorn-friendly muscular rock and relatively serious take on the conceptual matter (and for good reason, its a terrific song). Where Druhm fell off however was on the next song, the wildly jaunty Broadway-esque “Swing of Death”, describing it as “poppy hair metal tinged with regret” (a line I can see myself quoting in the future). So here’s the thing: Where Druhm saw this sudden turn towards musical theater stylings as the album’s biggest failing, I see it as its saving grace, a tongue-in-cheek approach towards presenting a happily ludicrous concept. Songs like “Swing of Death”, the female vocal duet in “River of Tears”, and the grand balladry of “Save Me” remind me of Green Day’s American Idiot —- an album that I loved instantly upon its release for its arms wide embrace of rock n’ roll pastiches. Whereas Green Day infused elements of 50s and 60s rock and rockabilly on that album to spectacular effect, Holter relies on a Jorn friendly influence of classic Jim Steinman songwriting (ala Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell). And quite frankly, I love it.

I love the choice of Lena Fløitmoen as Jorn’s female duet partner, as her beautifully melodic yet frail vocals prove a delicious sonic contrast to Jorn’s rich, roaring David Coverdale. Some of the album’s best singular moments are when Fløitmoen sings solo, her voice reminding me at times of one time Meatloaf duet partner Marion Raven. And of course there’s Holter’s music, an accomplished nuts and bolts mix of ear candied melodies, a dash of heavy riffing, furious guitar solo-ing a plenty, and some interesting surprises such as a balalaika sounding instrument on “Masquerade Ball”. His songwriting is on point as his hooks manage to hook you, and he never allows anything to get particularly cloying —- granted the lyrics could be better on a couple songs (or most of the album), but there’s nothing that stood out to me as being egregious. Put it this way, these lyrics are no more ridiculous than a lot of power metal records, and in that spirit its actually a fun listen. I’m not a Broadway guy by any means, but I can feel that theatricality bleeding into these songs, and at the very least I can appreciate the epic bombast that they are often striving for. I love straightfoward power metal, but sometimes I wish other bands could allow themselves to be playful like this (well not exactly like this, but you know what I mean).

The Takeaway: Screw it, I’m not going to be embarrassed about saying that I completely enjoy this. It hasn’t received the same amount of spins that Blind Guardian, Nightwish, or Enslaved have this year, but I have been going back to consistently since January and that’s saying something. Its a lighthearted, fun romp through a metal meets rock n’ roll pastiche sonic landscape. And dammit, Jorn’s voice is just so satisfying to listen to!

 

 

Monox – Perception Changes:

This is the debut album by a band from Croatia that offers a slightly eccentric take on prog-death. I say eccentric because this is indeed technical music at times, with complex riffing and poly rhythmic bass and percussion patterns. But its also music that at times is surprisingly melodic for the cloth its cut from, and the band’s vocalist, Tonko Vukonić, chooses instead a growling style that has more in common with Grutle Kjellson than Chris Barnes. Vukonić is an interesting topic in his own right, one of those rare figures in metal that has the potential to be a very convincing frontman. I say this because my first exposure to Monox was via their shockingly great music video for the song “Perfect Sky”.

Amid all the time-lapsed shots of gorgeous cityscape scenery and cloudy skies with sun rays poking through is Vukonić’s attention grabbing presence. Whether in performance mode in a blackened set with his fellow bandmates or overlooking a panoramic (Croatian?) urban vista in a super wide, near silhouette shot, Vukonić is the center of our attention and a wholly compelling performer. I obviously haven’t seen the band live so who knows if this video performance translates to the actual stage but you’d have to think that it does. And his vocal approach actually reminds me of Alan Averill of Primordial, a sort of unrestrained, out of control style that defies your typical metal singing approach (the difference between the two being screaming vs singing obviously). Well call me a new fan, because there’s just something really perfect about his delivery for these strange, proggy songs that while still punishing and laden with aggression are about as unorthodox as death metal gets.

We spoke about Monox and “Perfect Sky” on the latest episode of the MSRcast, and my co-host Cary commented on how he was surprised that this band was up my alley. To be honest so was I, and I wondered if it was just good timing in listening to it right on the heels of a bunch of power metal, but the more I spin this album I feel like I can identify the attributes that are causing it to pique my interest. The thing about modern death metal that bores me is the wall of sound approach where the sonics seem almost flattened, all of the instrumentation layered right against each other —- a trait owing more to unimaginative songwriting rather than actual audio engineering. What songs like “Shimmering Lights” and “Have I Conspired Again Against I” is that their sledgehammer heaviness is full and rounded —- the percussion is reactive, playing against dirty guitar riffs and moving in lockstep with a bass sound that’s not only audible, but the integral glue to the whole of these parts. More importantly, there’s actual texture to the songs, provided by the breathable space between the instrumentation.

I’ve seen some descriptions thrown around online that these guys are melodic death metal, and while I can understand why that tag is added, I don’t think its entirely accurate. Melo-death as a subgenre is defined by songwriting written around melody and the ushering of that melody as a motif throughout the song. Monox use melody as one would use cinnamon or turmeric in cooking up a curry (for a lunchtime example), its a spice and used sparingly. Make no mistake, these are riff based songs, but you’ll be hard pressed to find more than just a handful of examples where even repeating riffs are used as a motif. I described Monox as prog-death metal not only because of their unorthodox time signature changes, but because the band’s injection of melody is almost always unexpected and in strange places —- they don’t solely use it to make their choruses pop, they use it lyrically, as a way to alter the mood of the song itself.

The Takeaway: Color me surprised and impressed, and its audacious to say that a band on its debut effort might’ve released one of the best albums of the year, but this is close.

 

 

Melechesh – Enki:

Ah Melechesh, my other favorite band from the Middle East, my humblest of apologies for shelving your newest album Enki for a few weeks because of other things in the hopper. As has been demonstrated time and time again, this is a band that has a hard time disappointing me, I don’t even think they’d know how to try. Its because with the slight exception of Absu (and its ex-Melechesh drummer/vocalist Proscriptor) there is no other band on the planet that delivers precisely their brand of blistering intensity, hypnotic swirling dervish riffs, and exotic sounding, Eastern-tinged melodies. Even their cover art is spectacular, the kind of vibrant, colorful, artful design that perfectly represents their sound. They are one of the rare bands operating in metal that have yet to release a mediocre album, and in that respect, its actually harder to write a review for them. What helps this time is that Enki is not only their first album in five years, their largest gap of time in between new releases, but its their best work since the 2003 masterpiece Sphynx.

This success as ever revolves around the unbelievable guitar tandem of Ashmedi and Moloch, as much a Murray/Smith tandem of extreme metal as there ever has been. Their riffs are serpentine, snaking around each other in indecipherable patterns, and they’re percussive as well, with a staccato-like rhythm to their picking that is one of those intangible qualities that practically screams that this is metal as hell. And there’s all the other sounds they conjure up, such as eastern-motif open chord structures that slowly unwind and float up into the ether like incense smoke. They create those with typical six stringers, but also with a host of diverse instruments spanning the sitar, bouzouki, and saz. All of these sounds are definable within the context of the songs, but they’re also more than just window dressing, often acting as primary vehicles for the delivery of a melody that simply demands its particular distinctive sound.

What makes Enki standout for me far more than 2010s The Epigenesis and 2006s Emissaries is the degree to which the band has slightly expanded the boundaries of their sound. And lets not gloss over that, because its a hard thing for an extreme metal band to do: Go too far and you risk diluting your musical identity (like a myriad of possible bands). Melechesh avoid that by not making changes to their sound, their palette is as identifiably colorful as ever, but instead in their songwriting. There’s stuff here I’ve never heard before from the band such as the almost tribal-esque flavor in the Max Calavera guested track “Lost Tribes”, where a Pantera-syled riff works underneath Calavera’s broad brutal vocal that runs alongside Ashmedi’s fierce snarl. Dare I suggest that the song almost comes across as Chaos A.D. era Sepultura —- an accessible way to utilize the talents of a vocalist like Calavera.

There’s a sense of reckless adventurism to songs like “Metatron and Man”, where a Megadeth-like approach makes it a far more directly thrash-y song than you’d expect. On “Doorways to Irkala” you’ll get a full eight minute long treatment of acoustic Eastern instrumentation, a gutsy move that actually pays off as a segue into the bizarrely power metal-esque epic “The Outsiders”. Speaking of power metal-esque, how about the tremendous “The Palm the Eye and Lapis Lazuli”, where one of the band’s catchiest guitar figures to date acts as a repeater throughout, making this one of the most melodic Melechesh songs ever. I love the post-chorus bridge at the 2:30 mark where we’re treated to almost Myrath-like guitarwork —- where has that been all this time?! All that being said, Melechesh are firing on all cylinders even when sticking to their standard operating procedure, especially on songs like “The Pendulum Speaks” and “Tempest Temper Entill Enraged”. With the exception of the latter, they’ve really slowed down their overall tempo across the board, allowing for their songwriting to develop unchained from the often times limiting regulations of speed metal.

The Takeaway: The album that Melechesh needed to make at this point in their career, a mini-rejuvenation of sorts. Its unlikely that they’ll ever replace Sphynx in my overall ordering of their discography but Enki is solidly behind it —- its simply the best album they’ve released in well over a decade.

 

The Endless Forms of Nightwish

Few bands in metal have inspired the unrestrained devotion and adoration of it’s fanbase the way Nightwish have. Such a fiery bond is subject to various temperaments, as the band themselves found out through the course of two vocalist changes. That they are widely (if erroneously) recognized as the first female vocal led power/symphonic metal band only serves as fuel for this burning intensity. Their success in the late 90’s and early 00’s spawned countless imitators, other newly formed bands that wanted to put their own spin on what really did feel like a fresh style of metal, with inspired females keen to try their hand at singing over heavy guitars and sweeping orchestras. Ushered along by a signing craze from metal labels all over, female fronted metal bands went from a mere handful to a plethora in the blink of an eye. But few, if any of them have ever managed to attain the near mythic status and storied history of the mother of them all.

Nightwish fans today fall into two basic camps, those that are aficionados of a particular era or vocalist past, and those who see the band as something greater than its constituent parts, including vocalists. This latter group is far more inclined to acknowledge the very apparent reality that Nightwish largely exists as a vehicle for the songwriting of its keyboardist, songwriter, founder, and guiding force Tuomas Holopainen. I myself fall into this latter camp, for despite being introduced to the band during the Tarja Turunen era shortly after the release of Wishmaster, I found myself becoming a bigger fan of the band after her departure. It didn’t take me long to realize after listening to their 2007 first post-Tarja Turunen release Dark Passion Play that I had always been more of a fan of Holopainen. Their 2011 follow-up Imaginaerum hit the nail on the head for me, a thirteen-track treatise of perfection that backed up my argument that Holopainen’s songwriting was able to blossom and flourish without Turunen’s limiting (albeit powerful) vocal style.

Nightwish and their fans share a relationship that is at once devotional and divisive, and also detached and myopic. The band’s most personal works (such as the entirety of the Century Child album) are the kinds of rare records that forge molten emotional bonds with fans. Holopainen’s autobiographical lyrics inspired this devotion, and with it came the kind of rabid fandom that became a hyper protective community, for better and worse. The band learned firsthand of the latter during the media and fan firestorm that resulted from their 2005 open letter dismissal of original vocalist Tarja Turunen. In an attempt to get ahead of the inevitable media war-of-words and fallout between the two parties, the band erred in underestimating just how exposed its own fans’ nerve endings were. Holopainen was himself skittish around the media and private by nature, and as the band leader he found the fallout particularly torturous. For many fans even nearly ten years later, that damage has yet to be undone —- click on any YouTube clip of the band’s Turunen era and scroll down to the comments section for the most surface of glimpses.

Since that cataclysmic event Nightwish have conducted most of their inner workings with an eye towards privacy and security. Unmoved by the pleas of fans lamenting the loss of Turunen, the band circled the wagons around their organization and approached future decisions with a touch of tunnel vision. The band wouldn’t shut their fans out completely, offering up some behind the scenes looks in the form of photo galleries, social media updates, video blogs —- but their content was carefully controlled. It was a gamble, but the commercial success of the Anette Olzon era justified Nightwish’s new approach in the face of a semi-divided fanbase that consisted of very vocal fans sympathetic to Turunen. And in demonstrating their commitment to not repeating the errors of the past, Nightwish handled the October 2012 falling out with Olzon with single press statement that offered no details. The timing of their announcement in declaring fill-in vocalist Floor Jansen as an official permanent member was also interesting to note —- occurring long after the Imaginaerum tour was over, in between album cycles where the requests and expectations for media availability would be relatively low.

 

 

For Nightwish fans, the announcement of Jansen brought along expectations that the band would make use of her operatic vocal capability on the new studio album, as she had demonstrated on several older songs on the tour. I myself took note of the general tone and tenor of the reactions on the band’s Facebook page around that time, and most of them were from fans salivating at the thought of a Wishmaster or Century Child sequel. Its likely that many long sundered fans of the band’s Turunen era were eyeballing Jansen as the closest possible thing to their dream reunion. As a bigger fan of the pop-vocal infused Olzon era, I too wondered how the band was going to balance their expanded musicality with the undeniable fan craving for hearing something soprano-oriented being belted out by Jansen. As heard in the Showtime, Storytime concert video, Jansen was able to bounce from one style to another in varying moments, though she typically stuck to her rock-inflected delivery. A retrospective viewing of that concert makes me realize that it was far more foretelling of what the new album would bring than anyone realized.

Nightwish have responded to their fans’ expectations in rather typical fashion, by ignoring them altogether of course. Holopainen’s vision for Endless Forms Most Beautiful takes precedence over everything, its songs forming a loosely-stitched thematic album about spirituality through science and reason, inspired largely by the writings of biologists Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin. It’s songs didn’t require operatic vocals —- quite the contrary in fact, Jansen’s vocals on the album are far closer to the pop stylings of the Olzon era. This has confused some and upset many, the hope that Jansen would bring the band back to its classicist roots taking another massive blow. Certainly not everyone felt this way, but it does seem that Nightwish will yet again have to bear the brunt of their most vocal critics, their own diaspora of fans. That unfortunate truth about fans is that they can be rather myopic as well in their own regard.

So I’ll argue here that those fans affronted by the vocal decisions on Endless Forms are focusing on a singular aspect of the album to their own detriment. The very thing they are decrying is the mechanism that allows these songs to form yet another first-rate Nightwish album, and might I add —- an album that musically reaches back to touchstones of the past such as Oceanborn and Once. It might be that its coming off the heels of the wildly eccentric, diverse Imaginaerum album, but there is a musical unity present throughout the new album that reinforces its thematic concept and somehow bleeds the feel of old school Nightwish. Take the album opener “Shudder Before the Beautiful” where a sprinting orchestral arrangement slightly outpaces guitars, drums, and vocals —- a spectacular effect that ushers along what actually plays like a duel between Holopainen’s furious keyboard wizardry and Emppu Vuorinen’s wild guitar solos. Talk about old school, that’s the kind of Finnish power metal trademarks that you’re hard pressed to find anyone doing these days.

 

Perhaps its the largely uptempo feel of the album that’s responsible for the old-school resonance that I’m feeling. The band hasn’t done away with Dark Passion Play/Imaginaerum era live orchestras and cinematic arrangements, they’re still present and rather glorious in most moments, but they’re utilized this time more for amping up the energy of rollickingly speedy tracks like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, “Weak Fantasy”, and the title track. This is a triumvirate of songs that underscore Holopainen’s gift as a songwriter, not in that he expertly juxtaposes soaring melodic ear candy over a frenetic rhythms but that he can do it in such diverse ways with varying degrees of heaviness and aggression. The vicious, snarling “Weak Fantasy” might be the best song on the album, with its tension building usage of solo string sections and a furious pummeling courtesy of pinch-hitting Wintersun drummer Kai Hahto. I get enthralled after the post-folk breakdown at 3:37 where the orchestra descends with a sweeping crescendo alongside Marco Hietala’s always wonderfully passionate vocals —- few others can pull off such riveting drama through the tenor of their voice alone.

Its Jansen who shines on the other two tracks, providing them vocals that veer between ethereal lightness and leather-lunged rock n’ roll grit. On “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, Jensen doesn’t play the beauty to Hietala’s beast, instead her Doro Pesch-esque vocals work with his to amp up the aggression of the song tenfold. I get a bit of a “Slaying the Dreamer”/”Master Passion Greed” vibe here, particularly the latter in regards to the stop-start nature of the doomy, violent orchestral booms. Shifting in tone, she plays the cheerful, charming narrator in “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, her effortlessly bouncy vocals a stark contrast to a seriously aggressive rhythm section. Vuorinen and Hietala even share a rather nasty guitar/bass solo section here, unleashing a rumbling monster truck of a dual-riff that comes as a total surprise. Vuorinen gets some criticism in guitarist corners for playing what is largely the same riff-pattern in the same guitar tone throughout the entirety of the band’s catalog. I don’t personally feel the criticism is entirely warranted, because being the sole guitarist, he is largely responsible for the band’s metallic elements —- that being said he is far more reigned in on this album than on Imaginaerum, where he had room to experiment.

A rapidly rising favorite of mine is “Alpenglow”, a song that boasts the album’s most snappy, ear-wormy chorus, along with a twisted vocal segment from Jansen that really, really reminds me of Olzon’s vocal theatrics on “Scaretale” off Imaginaerum. Multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley is present throughout the album, chiming in with uilleann pipes, bodhran, low whistles, and bouzouki —- but his standout track is “My Walden” where he dominates the soundscape with a flurry of Celtic-tinged melodies. The first two minutes of the song are fairly standard in approach, but its the latter half of the song where the band indulges in a folky-jam session that I almost wish encompassed the entire track. I suspect it would’ve made the song standout more as a result and also given Donockley a platform for longer running melodies and motifs. Much to my surprise he isn’t on every track here, at least not blatantly so, as was my fear when discussing the Élan single a few weeks ago. Even more surprising is my feeling that he’s being underutilized somehow… that might be one to chew on, I could change my mind on it. I’m all for his presence on Nightwish albums, but I’ve yet to suss out what his contributions are within on a more fundamental level as a permanent member.

 

The aforementioned “Élan” is effectively the same version as on the single, and within the context of the album it actually sounds better, though I’m less convinced of its effectiveness as the lead off single (“Alpenglow” would’ve been a better choice, a more daring yet similarly catchy cut). The thematic-bending “Edema Ruh” (something from a fantasy series I’ve never read) is an okay song with a relatively generic chorus (by Holopainen standards), but its slightly redeemed by some interesting guitar work by Vuorinen. And I’m torn about the sole ballad on offer, “Our Decades In the Sun”, because during the moments when its working it is as gorgeous and beautiful as anything the band has ever done. The problem might be that the song is too delicate for its own good, its sections often left without connecting musical glue, and the silky string arrangements unable to muster enough momentum to bind everything together. Its actually Vuorinen’s stormy guitar interjection at 2:07 that provides the song with its only dose of electrical current, a brilliant moment that ought to make you shiver. I enjoy listening to it overall, but its not in the ballpark of the band’s best ballads, and its a shame because it had the qualities to perhaps be their best.

And here comes the axe… look, I’m as enthusiastic as can be about the theme of the album, having read books by Dawkins myself and generally sharing the same perspective as Holopainen on science and reason and the grandeur they have shown us. That being said, the grand epic of the album, a twenty-four minute behemoth titled “The Greatest Show on Earth” absolutely falls flat for me. I don’t mind that Dawkins is a narrative voice here, because the words he’s speaking are poetic and beautiful, but perhaps he would’ve been more effective at the end of the track, serving as the non-musical coda for the album. Instead his speaking parts and the musical sections of the song are chopped up into relatively non-conforming parts that simply come across as choppy and cluttered in their sequencing. As for the musical sections themselves, there’s only one that truly shines, from the 12:00 to 13:47 minute mark where Jansen and Hietala trade off vocals in a staccato rhythm fueled speed run. The other sections seem to lack any sort of definition, let alone micro-hooks, which are essential for longer set pieces like this —- you need those ear candy moments to keep your attention and to make you want to come back. And I could entirely do away with “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula”, which is more mood piece than instrumental (it does little to match up to the power of the original photograph its in reference to).

And now back to that non-operatic vocals thing —- simply listen to this album and you’ll understand that there was no room for it. That won’t appease anyone disappointed with the album as a result however, because the argument could always be “Well Tuomas should make an effort to write songs in that style”. But that’s the thing, he can’t —- if he tried and he wasn’t completely into it they would come off sounding half-baked and uninspired. The reason we’re all Nightwish fans is because of his songwriting, and his songs have always been for better or worse authentic portraits of his interests, feelings, or passions at that time. On Imaginaerum, the wide-open fantasy/imagination concept of the album influenced his songwriting towards a diverse array of styles and sounds. It might even be accurate to frame that album as more directed by the music rather than the lyrics. On Endless Forms, its the other way around because the lyrics are far more important to the crux of the thematic core, perhaps a reason why Holopainen endeavored to have them sung as clearly as possible. Maybe the next album will be thematic in a way that lends itself to soprano-styled vocals… its possible, but it shouldn’t define your enjoyment of a modern day Nightwish album. If the vocal style is that important to you, then you’re expecting the wrong things from the wrong band.

Reviews Cluster! Ensiferum, Napalm Death, Marilyn Manson and more!

Back with more reviews of early 2015 releases! It wasn’t just all power metal so far in 2015, as the following reviews for Napalm Death, Marduk and even Ensiferum will attest to. There’s more reviews on the way too, including one for the just released Scorpions album Return to Forever (remember when they were gonna retire?), as well as the upcoming Steven Wilson solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase., expect those soon as well as some other non-reviews features!

 

Ensiferum – One Man Army: First a mild rant: There was a time around the late 90s and early to mid 2000s when folk metal wasn’t an overcrowded subgenre, when the balance between folk and metal was handled deftly by a small cadre of accomplished bands, and when their lyrical subject matter had depth and richness. I’m thinking of those heady times when folk metal meant Skyclad, Amorphis, Subway to Sally, Otyg/Vintersorg, Falkenbach, among a few others. It was a subgenre that was creating vital, shimmering music that was stretching the boundaries of what metal could sound like —- it was fresh and exciting, the sound of things you didn’t know you always wanted to hear. Ensiferum’s first two albums were part of this wonderful era, being near-perfect marriages of thrashy guitars, power metal songwriting, and folky instrumentation.

Sometime around the mid 2000s, folk metal lost its way. I’ll point the finger for the catalyzing moment being Finntroll’s “Trollhammaren” music video in 2004 from the otherwise excellent Nattfodd album. That single/video got a lot of attention and its upbeat, Finnish polka (humppa) laden sound seemed to break down barriers for major metal magazines to begin covering the subgenre. Labels noticed, and a horde of bands followed through, with increasingly upbeat takes on the style, boasting more and more outlandish band “concepts” until we finally arrived at the current hokey state of folk metal with the likes of Alestorm, Trollfest, and the dreadful Korpiklaani. Folk metal today is largely associated with songs about ale, beer, rum, partying, and what have you —- I realize that I’m oversimplifying and that there are some artists out there who are still doing great, inspired folk metal. But at least in my eyes, the genre took a walk down a sad, sad road.

Some years ago, Finntroll seemed to publicly demonstrate some semblance of shame for their role in this sordid mess, and released the very black metal Ur Jordens Djup, and supported it with a tour consisting of utterly brutal live performances. But I suppose fans of the new model of folk metal were too numerous to ignore, because when I saw Finntroll last in 2014, the band came on stage with every member sporting plastic elven ears. They humppa-ed it up that night. Gone was the ferocity experienced during the Ur Jordens Djup tour, instead the band kept things tame for their enthusiastic crowd which seemed to largely consist of people who would otherwise never set foot into a metal show. Clearly myself and a few other disoriented looking metal fans were the odd men out in this situation. I walked away more than a little disappointed.

Ensiferum have managed to keep out this proverbial quagmire by releasing a string of albums that are in keeping with the thematic tone of their first two classics, while simultaneously damaging their image by associating with those aforementioned bands who contributed to folk metal’s current state. Just this past week, Ensiferum announced a North American headlining tour with support coming from Korpiklaani and Trollfest. How wonderful. I could dream up a handful of better touring packages than that in my sleep. I remember catching Ensiferum headlining Paganfest in 2007 with support coming from Turisas, Tyr, and Eluveitie —- now I suppose a lot of blame could be placed upon Turisas for coming up with the ludicrous “battle metal” tag, but they’re generally a decent band that has delivered good to great albums —- point is, that was a fantastic bill.

The band’s choices are unfortunate considering that One Man Army is the closest they’ve come to replicating the magic of their early, Jari Maenpaa-led era. The title track for starters is one of the most fierce, unrelentingly brutal, thrash metal assault-on-your-senses that they’ve ever unleashed. Throughout the album in fact, Ensiferum seem to have consciously redressed the balance between their thrash/power metal foundation and their folk influenced melodicism. On “Two of Spades”, the song kicks off with a Megadeth-ian intro and riff progression, and Petri Lindroos’ vocal is almost Dave Mustaine-ian in its subtle snark, heard underneath his ferocious, rapid-fire roars. The thrash metal bookends an upbeat folk-metal bridge, the closest the band ventures to the party-metal territory of some of their peers. Its sandwiching in between slabs of thrash is what is welcome here, it stands out because its not overdone —- there’s room for moments like these, just sparingly. Another favorite of mine is “My Ancestor’s Blood”, a seriously groovy epic with dual clean and grim vocal layering (that chorus is magnificent!), while Lindroos and fellow guitarist Markus Toivonen conjure up some rather beautiful intermingling melodies.

The band’s primary songwriter, Toivonen seems to be feeling particularly inspired throughout the album, there’s not a half-baked tune to be found, and he even nails the ten minute plus epic “Descendants, Defiance, Domination”. I love its vaguely spaghetti-western sounding intro, and its gradual build up to Toivonen’s rather excellent mid-song clean vocals that duel with Lindroos’ grim counterpoint. I really love his solo vocal from the 8:06 minute mark, there’s something very fresh going on there though I can’t quite put my finger on it. Towards the end of the song, tin-whistle type instrumentation lends a touch of vibrant originality to the orchestral grandeur that unfolds. The keyboard work of Emmi Silvennoinen is instrumental in this, her additions more integral to the cohesion of the music than ever before —- no longer just relegated to window dressing. Something clicked within the band this go around, and its a welcome relief after hearing just how tired they sounded on Unsung Heroes. If only they could get a better booking agent.

 

 

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: A week or so ago when recording MSRcast #165, our guest Dave mentioned just how surprised he was with the new Marilyn Manson album. It reminded me that I had recently read a story on some fancy non-metal music site about the raves and critical plaudits Manson’s new album was drawing. I had filed it away as something I’d perhaps get around to checking out on Spotify one dull afternoon, but Dave’s enthusiastic praise was enough to get me to include it as an item worth reviewing for the blog. I was never a Marilyn Manson fan in the slightest, even during his late 90s heyday. I thought he was all flash and no substance, and considered the music I’d heard from him as lightweight both sonically and artistically. I remember vividly ignoring a friends suggestion to pick up Mechanical Animals in a Best Buy cd section (remember those?!), choosing instead to get a replacement copy of So Far! So Good! So What!.  In fact, he ended up buying the album and we listened to it on the way home, and that marked the last time I listened to a Marilyn Manson album from start to finish, until now…

I can see why its getting the amount of high praise being thrown its way —- for a Manson album, this is exceptionally catchy in a way I’ve never heard his stuff before. Gone is any semblance of hard rock or metal, in favor of an industrial tinged dancy, swingy, loose rock n’ roll amalgam, like INXS remixed by Trent Reznor. Its an interesting listen, and I can easily see this album being licensed by Hollywood and TV studios out the wazzoo, probably in a crime series like CSI, The Blacklist or something of that ilk. The strutting, clawing “Deep Six” is the closest thing to heavy you’ll get here, with a chorus built on atonal guitar screeching and some semblance of riffing —- its not bad. Nor is “The Devil Beneath My Feet”, with its new wave guitar motifs and sly, image conjuring lyrics in the refrain “…when I wake up you best be gone / Or you better be dead”.

But for as good as it all sounds, I’m not sure Manson’s music is for me… I feel no reason to be compelled to return, there’s a lack of any emotional connection to what I’m hearing. That isn’t to say that everything I listen to connects with me emotionally, that’s not the case at all. I do however need to feel something; whether its a surge of adrenaline, or an appreciation of skill or artistry, or the simple quality of feeling like I’m being entertained. It could be his voice that’s doing it, a little goes a long way due to his relatively monotonous and non melodic tone (Its the same reason I think Tom Waits songs are better when performed by someone else). I dunno, I’m missing something here, but good for Manson —- he’s an interesting personality to have around and its nice to not see him fade away.

 

 

Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat: I guess I never had planned on ever writing about Napalm Death on this blog, not because I don’t enjoy them —- I do, but because I figured that there wasn’t much to elaborate on. Napalm Death will always sound like Napalm Death to me. I grew up listening to them, first being introduced to their grindcore/metal blend via dubbed cassette tapes by various heavy music loving friends back in middle school. They were one of those bridge bands to extreme metal, alongside Morbid Angel and Death and Carcass. More than those bands, Napalm Death delivered the kind of sheer caterwauling noise that a young budding metal fan gravitated towards because it simply sounded like something that was made for you and all the reasons you enjoyed having your parents lament your taste in music. I enjoyed playing them in my battered, sticker covered boom box in my bedroom, imagining that even with my door closed, it still sounded like hell on the other side. Maybe its fair to say that I never developed much of an emotional attachment to their music, but I don’t think it was ever designed that way.

I’ve listened to Apex Predator – Easy Meat a handful of times now (like most of their albums, its easy on the running time), and the one thing that leaps out at me is that I can’t recall this band ever sounding this crisp, clear, and catchy. Take “How The Years Condemn”, where the percussion and harmonized guitars on the outro of the chorus actually sound, dare I suggest, melo-death-ish? Barney Greenway is as muzzled, and spittle-flyingly menacing as always, but he seems to be developing into a more appealing vocalist the older he gets. He has moments throughout this album where he approaches something resembling melody, and for a band that defined grindcore, that’s something new worth mentioning. The musical approach over all just seems, well, more musical for lack of a better term —- it could be the ultra-clear mix, but the band’s sound seems expansive here, reaching for new palettes even. Not just bedroom noise anymore I suppose.

 

 

Marduk – Frontschwein:

By the time I had mentioned Marduk’s new album on the last MSRcast, I had only been able to listen to a fairly crappy quality stream once through. It sounded to me like typical Marduk, very consistent and largely good. Now having had a decent amount of time with the album in its proper form, I’m far more impressed with it. I didn’t pay much attention to Serpent Sermon (which I’ve been told I need to) so its difficult for me to throw out relative comparisons, but on its own Frontschwein is a rollicking affair —- black metal that is loaded with memorable riffs that are played midway between loose black n’roll and tight, tremolo black metal 101. Morgan Hakansson is one of the more underrated guitarists in the subgenre, his approach workmanlike in the best possible sense —- you never feel that his riffs are aimless or just filling out sound, they’re always the heart of these songs. On “Between the Wolf-Packs”, his repeated riff-motif is so catchy it almost detracts from everything else.

Vocalist Mortuus is as grim and fiery as ever, his particular tone a perfect complement to Hakansson. He even surprises on a song like “503”, approximating something resembling clean singing at certain spots, and on “Thousand-Fold Death” he spits out his grim, blackened vocals in such rabid, maniacally fast speeds that you think he’s on the verge of chewing his own tongue. I had also mentioned on the podcast my slight reservations regarding the album’s Nazi Germany iron cross sporting logo and just the war themed lyrics in general —- not that I was accusing the band of anything nefarious, but that they should be careful with iconography like that (and concepts like this as well). I’ve scanned through the lyrics, and they read like a black metal version of Sabaton, tales of battlefields and war torn mountains. Okay, so perhaps my concern was presumptive, especially considering that I am a Sabaton fan —- but this was a band that released an album called Panzer Division Marduk, which if you remember raised a ton of noise around its released about being sympathetic to NSBM beliefs. The band refuted it of course, but to once again draw from the same proverbial well for another album title/concept means that you get the scrutiny that comes with it.

 

 

Nightwish – Elan (EP):

The first shot fired from the anticipation cannon that is Nightwish’s upcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful album is as you’d expect, a clearly accessible pop-rock number with a smooth chorus and charming melody. Sometimes I wish they’d release something daring for their first singles, but considering this is the band that topped pop charts with “Nemo”, I suppose they know what they’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy “Elan” as a song, but it reminds me of “Amaranthe” in the sense that it will likely wind up as my least favored track on the album. That was not the case with Imaginaerum’s “Storytime”, which I still feel to this day is an adrenaline surging, rollercoaster of a single, it just has a propulsive feel that never lets up. What “Elan” and “Amaranthe” have in common is that steady backbeat, mid-tempo, standard (in Nightwish terms) buildup to the very hooky chorus, and that’s okay, but after such a diverse album like Imaginaerum it feels like a bit of a letdown. All that being said, Floor Jansen sounds great as expected, more Anette Olzon here than Tarja for comparison’s sake, and I really love her vocal extenuation at the 3:56 mark —- more of that on the album I hope.

The other new song on offer here (the other cuts making up the EP are a radio edit and alternative version of “Elan”, the latter of which basically amounts to an unmixed demo) is “Sagan”, referring to the famous scientist himself, as I hear his name in the song a few times. This might be a better representation of what to expect from the album, despite being a b-side, simply because Jansen gets to stretch her talents a bit more here. She’s unleashes some nimble vocal dexterity during the chorus where the phrasing gets particularly dense. The song has a nice melody, a decent hook and some interesting proggy keyboard noodling courtesy of Tuomas Holopainen that you don’t hear that much anymore in modern Nightwish. New guy Troy Donockley is a major player on both of these songs, his uilleann pipes chiming in all over the place. They sound great, but I do wonder if we’ll reach a point on the album where everything might sound the same due to their presence. I love them as an instrument, but they do impart a tone that inherently light and bouncy… will he be kept off songs that don’t need him or will he be shoehorned in? I’ll be paying close attention when the album drops.

Oh Yeah, Angra and Orden Ogan Released New Albums Too!

Hope everyone has been handling the winter well enough, its all fun and games until you catch the flu, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, which I currently have. Its slowed me down in terms of productivity, but its not the only thing to blame. I guess its fairly obvious that Blind Guardian monopolized nearly all of my listening time for the first month and a half of the year. It wasn’t just the amount that I devoted to their excellent new album Beyond the Red Mirror, but to the band’s entire discography in the weeks leading up to it. Its actually been difficult to quell my inner fandom and fit in time to listen to you know, other bands —- a distressing thing considering that so many notable releases came crashing out of the gate in 2015. I’m going to tackle two of the bigger ones right here, having felt that I’ve finally given each of them enough time to form a relatively solid opinion. If you’ve been as overwhelmed as I have, don’t look now, because March and April hold a string of major releases too. The march of time, it has begun!

 


 

Angra_SecretGarden_zpswudxbqfpAngra – Secret Garden: I was having a hard time determining where I stand with Angra… my history with the band really started with the Edu Falaschi Rebirth era and went backwards to explore their classic Andre Matos past. This was back in 2001 or so, and I was even more a fan of Rebirth’s subsequent followup, the near-perfect Temple of Shadows. But the next two albums pretty much lost me, and my interest in the band waned throughout the years. When I read that Edu went and jumped ship in 2012 I figured the scene was set for a potential Matos reunion, but it never materialized for various reasons, and that furthered my disillusionment. I was never a big fan of Fabio Leone or Rhapsody, disliking his particular vibrato and their songwriting approach, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about him joining the band. I quietly hoped that it would be similar to the Kamelot situation, Leone pinch hitting for a tour or two and the band getting a completely different permanent vocalist. Leone won the job however, Angra’s remaining original members Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro apparently deeming him close enough to Matos to get the job done.

Their first collaboration together, Secret Garden, is one of those unexpected success stories that a veteran band is able to deliver every now and then, like an aging veteran with a low RBI suddenly cranking out a few doubles, maybe even a triple (to keep this loose baseball metaphor going). Here you get everything you’ve come to expect from this band; great musicianship with a modest amount of prog-rock noodling, well crafted hooks that lean more rock than pop, tribal-esque drumming in spots (its back!), and of course crystalline production. But then we got all that with Aqua (2010) and Aurora Consurgens (2006) right? I’m sure there are people reading this who really enjoyed those albums, but I feel the songwriting on Secret Garden is sharper, the songs fully realized, and some even near transcendent.

I’m thinking right off the bat about “Storm of Emotions”, where it seems Leone and Bittencourt trade off lead vocals, the guitarist’s deeper, darker voice giving the mid-song bridge a bit of tortured drama that Leone simply can’t achieve. Its a stellar song, with a soaring yet heavyweight chorus that will sound great with a few thousand South American fans screaming along. And I’ll give credit to Leone where its due, his performance on this album is perhaps his best, Angra’s songwriting style forces him to reign it in and stick to a mid-tempo range. Whereas Leone had to do that with Kamelot on tour as well, their music was too dark for his vocal tone; Angra’s lighter, brighter approach tends to give his more helium based vocal tendencies room to play. He’s pretty great on “Newborn Me”, the single and album opener which is about as archetypal modern Angra as you can get —- notice his lack of extreme vibrato, even in spots where he would usually let it occur, one wonders if he wasn’t coached out of that in the studio here. His abilities really flex on “Black Hearted Soul”, the kind of old school power metal speedster that Rhapsody could just never seem to get right.

Its interesting that in Leone’s first outing as lead vocalist, he’s not given all of the running time. In addition to Bittencourt’s rather lengthy lead vocal sections (take a listen to his star-turn in the rather great “Violet Sky”… is it wrong that I sometimes wish he was handling all the lead vocals?), the actual title track of the album is sung largely by Simone Simons, who does a serviceable job to a relatively unremarkable song. Usually I enjoy her guest vocal spots, but there’s something missing on that song, perhaps its that she’s missing a proper duet partner to bounce off of ala Kamelot. It reminds me too much of an Epica song and that’s seemingly going to be an eternal stumbling block for me. The other guest vocal track fares much better, starring the one and only Doro Pesch in a duet with Bittencourt, “Crushing Room” is a slow burning bruiser of a song with a heart rending chorus.

Bittencourt takes the lead again on the album’s best cut, and one of Angra’s greatest gems of all time —- “Silent Call” is a moody, gentle ballad that has an eternal hook and a vocal melody that could melt the iciest of hearts. I would guess that Leone is providing backing vocal support on the lead in “ooohs”, but he’s seemingly buried in the mix. No matter, because Bittencourt’s lead will lock-in your attention with a gravity that only the best ballads can muster, his vocal rich and full of emotive infections. There’s something poignant and hopeful about this song, its melody able to tug your heartstrings without having to lean on melancholy, a very rare thing for rock and metal bands in general. Its so good I can’t see it missing the best songs of the year list (its early yet, but I’ll be listening to this gem years from now, a good sign surely). Still, that’s four songs out of ten where Leone wasn’t the lead vocalist, kind of unusual when you’re trying to introduce a “new” singer, but Bittencourt’s performances alone seem to justify it.

The band chose to depart from longtime producer Dennis Ward on Aqua, and here they skip to yet another new producer in Jens Bogren, who’s far more known for producing extreme metal artists. He unsurprisingly does a good job, although sometimes I wonder if a little less sheen and polish would’ve benefited the guitar sound —- more wild rock instead of Dream Theater-y tech in other words. Its a minor complaint for an otherwise strong album which is not a home run mind you, but the bases are loaded.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s99o09I7jNs&w=560&h=315]

 

 


 

 

OrdenOganRav_zpsftimq17qOrden Ogan – Ravenhead: Germany’s Orden Ogan is one of the more promising “new” bands in power metal, making a tremendous splash with 2012’s To The End album. I describe them as “new”, despite their first album being released over a decade ago in 2004… because in power metal, any band that arrived post-2000 is considered new in my book. That and they didn’t really reach my radar until their last album, a fantastic slice of classic 90s Blind Guardian, Rage, and a touch of Immortal-esque guitarwork. Those three bands are Orden’s musical touchstones as I hear them, vocalist/guitarist Sebastian Levermann sounding like a dead ringer for Rage’s Peavy Wagner, while the guitars sound like Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen decided to have a jam with Abbath. The riffing is sharp, precise, but on the right side of thrash-meets-technicality, and the songwriting is engineered to provide maximum hook impact during the choruses. One wonders why Thomen Stauch didn’t simply join these guys when he left Blind Guardian all those years ago, because they’re doing exactly what you’d figure he wanted his previous band to continue doing. Okay, so Orden Ogan won’t win any awards for originality, but they make up for that in their superior execution of a style that is damn difficult to get right.

I’ll say this right off the bat, Ravenhead isn’t as great as To The End, but that was going to be a tall order. It is a perfectly good album, with a handful of very good songs, but nothing that stands out as powerfully as “The Things We Believe In” or “Land of the Dead”, or with the shimmering melodies of “Take This Light” (which despite its cringe worthy lyrics was an incredibly affecting ballad). Its not for lack of trying though, because they get really close on the album opener title track “Ravenhead” where layered harmony vocals give the unbelievably catchy chorus an adrenaline kick. I like the mid-song change up on the slower bridge, replete with keyboard orchestrations and chanting vocals, its a nice twist that lends a bit of “epic” depth the song. The next track was the album’s lead single, the awfully named “F.E.V.E.R.”, and though I understand why they chose to release it first, with its ear-wormy call and response lyric, I think they overestimated just how endearing this song came out. Parts of it just feel unfinished, with riffs covering up moments where there should have been additional verse fragments. I was somewhat unimpressed with the song when I first saw the music video and after many repeat listens I think they should’ve gone with “Ravenhead” as the video song; but oh well, choosing singles is a challenge for any band or label.

There’s a real old-school Blind Guardian moment in “The Lake” at the 2:12 mark, where the band speeds up into a bridge built on cascading lead vocals and ultra-melodic guitar work, a fragment that reminds me of the middle of Guardian’s “Ashes to Ashes”. These out of nowhere change ups are noticeably absent in the work of inferior bands, but you’ll find a plethora of them in songs by the aforementioned Blind Guardian, Falconer, Nightwish, Sonata Arctica —- all the heavyweights in other words. As a songwriter alone Levermann belongs in those ranks, the fact that he’s an excellent guitarist and impassioned vocalist is just icing on the cake. Another surprising moment is the intro to “Here at the End of the World”, where we’re treated to a decidedly melo-death guitar barrage that owes more to In Flames and Dark Tranquility than German power metallers. Rest assured, the song veers sharply back into power metal soon after, with a chorus that is as BIG as they could envision it. My favorite song is “A Reason To Give”, a folky half power ballad, half stomping rocker with the album’s most memorable refrain. If this song doesn’t sell on you the band or Levermann’s talent as a vocalist, then you’ll have a hard time with anything else they do.

A couple criticisms though, they should’ve lost the squeaky old lady voice that introduced “Evil Lies In Every Man”, for while the song itself is half-baked at best, the aggravation that the intro causes prevents me from wanting to go back to the song at all. Its mid-tracklisting placement is bothersome as well, particularly when a really good song like “Sorrow Is Your Tale” is pushed so far back. I also wish that the instrumental “In Grief and Chains” was developed into something more fully realized, I’m not saying that it had to be transformed into a lyric laden song, but its a great riff/melody that seems tossed out on its own. I think with a little extra work it could’ve been the basis for a remarkable song, and that seems a shame. The album closer “Too Soon” suffers from the exact opposite, a song so overproduced that it loses any and all impact. Levermann over sings the chorus here, and the layered vocals weren’t necessary at all. The concluding guitar solo is fantastic, but it would’ve been way more dramatic if the rest of the song was stripped down, say piano and vocal only —- I’m just spitballing here, but as it is I didn’t enjoy it.

Orden Ogan’s gutsiest move this year was coming out with this album around the same time as Blind Guardian’s new one, and they’ll likely be overshadowed as a result. Its hard not to compare the two bands due to one’s influence over the other, but Orden didn’t do themselves any favors in not postponing their release towards, say March. If you haven’t heard the band at all yet, try To The End first, and if you have… well, Ravenhead’s worth a listen but if the budgets tight you can feel justified in holding off.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Yn6fR7CAD0&w=560&h=315]

 

Blind Guardian Take Us Beyond the Red Mirror

There are so many things to discuss in regards to a new Blind Guardian album that I had trouble deciding where to begin. I settled on getting the obvious stuff out of the way first, namely, that four years (five on paper) has yet again separated their newest effort from its predecessor, in this case 2010’s highly acclaimed At the Edge Of Time. Four years in the rock and metal world is twice as long as the average 2-3 year gap between most artists’ releases, but the extended length of time for Blind Guardian is reasonably well accounted for: Multiple leg world tours take up a year and a half or more, and the writing, recording/production of one of their albums requires a longer gestation period than your typical meat n’ potatoes metal band. They’re not quite the obsessive perfectionists ala Axl Rose or Wintersun’s Jari Maenpaa, nor do they have the lackadaisical attitude of Tool, whom seem to regard new albums as a chore (and whose results have yet to justify the excessive time taken); no Blind Guardian are actually working productively in some form or fashion in the period between album releases, and fans have grudgingly gotten accustomed to these lengthy wait times ever since 1998.

This longer wait between albums most obviously raises anticipation, but I often wonder if it distorts expectations as well. Take At the Edge of Time for example, it was viewed as a return to form, a sort of throwback to their early 90s speed/lean metal approach combined with a grand orchestral backdrop that made it both their most hard hitting work in a decade as well as their most atmospherically epic. It was a complete 180° from the stripped down experimentation of A Twist in the Myth, itself a departure from A Night At the Opera’s grandiose excess. I can personally attest that the musical changes present in each of these four albums came as a surprise upon their release; there was little to nothing in each of their predecessors that would’ve foreshadowed those changes. I suspect its why At the Edge of the Time was so warmly received, because it differed so much from A Twist in the Myth’s odd blending of hard rock inspired sounds, toned down arrangements, and accessible songwriting. After four years of sporadic attempts at getting more into Myth’s eccentricities with partial success, I was blown away by the vastly different flavor of Blind Guardian that At the Edge of Time was presenting, in a very good way that is.

For better and worse a Blind Guardian fan’s post-2006 dilemma is that we’re unable to foreshadow what the bards will do next, because unlike most other bands they don’t gradually phase-in change over successive albums released in shorter intervals. Quite contrarily, Blind Guardian shifts their approach rather wildly and with zero mechanisms for forewarning, and as fans our last impression of what they did musically is already four years old (at least!) by the time something new comes around —- its why “And Then There Was Silence” was such a shock to the system when it was released as a single in 2002. When had you ever heard anything like that in the band’s bag of tricks? Never is the answer. Four years is long enough for the band to internally develop a new direction, but its also long enough for fans to tend to lose a sense of context in regards to what modern Blind Guardian should, or more importantly, could sound like. Its the price you pay for brilliance —- if Hansi Kursch and Andre Olbrich need two and a half years to write and record another great album as opposed to six to eight months, who are we to question their methods?
 

I mention all that because chances are that when you first hear Beyond the Red Mirror, the band’s tenth studio album in their now twenty-five year plus career, you’re liable to ask yourself just what am I listening to now? What you’re listening to is the most asymmetrically complex album that Blind Guardian have ever written, with songwriting that makes the tunes on At the Edge of Time seem poppy in comparison. Upon your first few listens, you’ll find it difficult to discern melodies, patterns, or anything resembling a prototypical hook throughout a large chunk of the album. I certainly did, but this being a new Blind Guardian album, you’ve gotta give it the extra time and attention it deserves and treat yourself to many repeat spins in order to let the experience sink in, wash over you, or whatever metaphor you subscribe to. Its another in a long line of surprises that have come with each of their past five releases, and the band offers no apologies, this is the music they came up with and you can take it or leave it.

If you’re still having trouble digesting what you’re hearing, perhaps it might help to frame the album as a mix of A Night at the Opera’s songwriting complexity with At the Edge of Time’s orchestral/choral bombast. Andre packs in the aggressive riffs and wild melodic zig-zags as only he can, but they’re denser, closer together, less anthemic and structured more as swirling patterns that support Hansi’s vocals, which drive the bulk of the melodies in these songs. Typically, a Blind Guardian song finds its balance between the melody being ushered along in equal parts by Andre and Hansi working in tandem (usually in the case of the vocals picking up where the guitars leave off during the chorus) —- except in the case of A Night at the Opera and this album, where Hansi’s vocals serve as the primary driving melodic thru-line for the song, the instrumentation left to play around it. It may seem a strange call back, a 2015 release sharing something so structurally important with an album released in 2002, and I don’t really have an explanation for why it worked out that way. I’m guessing that the band doesn’t either.

What this means of course is that you won’t find a direct spiritual successor to At the Edge of Time’s anthemic “Tanelorn”, or “Wheel of Time”, but you’ll find bits and pieces that remind you of them. Take the most radical song, the lead off nine-minute epic “The Ninth Wave”, where a solo choir intro clashes with futuristic sound effects, a strangely affecting buildup that helps to unleash one of the most purely anthemic choruses on the album. Hansi’s jump back in after the first chorus is equally dramatic as he shouts “To Muriel’s fire, walk with me!”, one of those fist-raising moments that you’ll get at least a few times an album with these guys. Andre’s extended guitar passages in the middle of the song are a treat, full of explosive solos and lead runs that rocket away from any motifs heard before within the song, a brave thing to do when the easier way out would be simply mimicking the vocal melody.

The other equally radical epic is the concluding song, “The Grand Parade”, a waltzing semi-power ballad that skips along on Frederik Ehmke’s rhythmic percussion and a gorgeous orchestral arrangement where strings and horns chime together in opulent fashion. Here Andre and fellow guitarist Marcus Siepen eschew riffs in favor of long Brian May-esque sustains, channeling their Queen fandom to its expressive best, suitable for a song that sounds like a celebration. This one took me awhile to wrap my head around, but its become one of my favorites on the album not only for its awesome, majestic chorus, but simply for the fact that its such an unusual Blind Guardian song. Unusually, “The Ninth Wave” and  “The Grand Parade” share a length of exactly 9:30, serving as symmetrical bookends —- whether that is by design or sheer accident is a mystery, but this is a concept album after all (more on that in a bit) so its worth noting.
 

Another one that took me a touch longer to get into was the song “At the Edge of Time” (I’ve read an interview where Hansi speaks on why they titled a song after their last album, but its a bit difficult to summarize in a sentence, suffice to say there IS a reason). The song starts out with an intro that features one of the album’s singular shining moments, at the :57 second mark, Hansi beautifully dreams out the lyrics “Who’ll grant me wings to fly? / And will I have another try?”. Its a simple lyric on the surface, but its unanswerable question is evocative in the very essence of what its asking —- and Hansi’s phrasing and emotive delivery just bowls me over every time I hear it. Moments like that are what I wish I could instantly summon whenever someone asks me why Blind Guardian is so great (if I haven’t slapped them across the head by then). Perhaps the song I still have trouble with is “Sacred Mind”, particularly in the chorus where I get the feeling Hansi might’ve over sung just a touch. Its not a bad song by any means, but there’s a monotone-ness to the chorus melody that prevents the song from reaching a higher emotional place.

Of course, some songs are easier to crack than others, such as the advance single “Twilight of the Gods”, which sounds grander, bolder, and more punchy here than on the YouTube lyric video release (its time for labels to reconsider the low quality of their lyric video uploads). The limited edition/vinyl copy of the album has an additional song within the middle of the track listing called “Distant Memories”, a beautifully lush and wonderfully written power ballad in the vein of “Noldor” and “War of the Thrones”. Why this song was kept as an exclusive track and not featured on the jewel case edition of the album is kind of a head scratcher, because its one of the most instantly accessible songs here. Hansi’s vocal is almost aching in the refrain where he sings “They’re just caught in distant memories /Then these fools will fade away / They may not fear the fall”. Its quickly become a favorite of mine and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to some of you, knowing that I’m a sucker for ballads.

Other favorite moments… lets see, how about the entirety of “The Holy Grail”, the heaviest and fastest song on the album, where you get a “Tanelorn” meets “A Voice in the Dark” vibe. I love the way the choral chant of “Magna eterna! /Magna eterna sings!” sounds a lot like “Run like hell now! Run like hell now!” (or is that just me?). Then there’s the sneakily catchy “Ashes of Eternity”, a song that grows on you after many listens and features one of those aforementioned shining moments of pure brilliance, towards its end at the 4:23 mark when Hansi exults “I won’t lie / While bright eyes are turning pale / Your sands run low”. Not only is the callback to “Bright Eyes” something that makes you smile, but the delivery of that lyric and its subsequent passage is so dramatic in its timing, its placement, and its execution that it makes you wish it was the chorus of the song and not just an isolated moment. And of course, I have to mention the delicate intro to “Miracle Machine”, where Hansi sings over a lonely sounding piano, only backed up by his own multi-tracked vocals. I quite like the song, though in Blind Guardian’s piano ballad history it falls short of the standards set by “War of the Thrones” and “The Eldar”.
 

Saving the best for last, there’s my two favorite songs on the album, “The Throne” and “Prophecies”. The former is a seven minute masterpiece; a perfect storm of great riffs, battle horns, Hollywood symphonics, and angelic choral sections. It also boasts the album’s most ear wormy chorus amidst all that bombast, a simple couplet that is simultaneously catchy and pulse pounding, “We must serve the fire / We must confess we are liars!”. Its on a level of excellence as that of “Wheel of Time” or “Sacred Worlds” from At the Edge of Time, one of those all too perfect gems where the verses are as compelling as the mighty refrain. “Prophecies” is a perfectly crafted case study in mid-tempo understatement, where the line between verse and chorus is blurred as a result of Hansi’s almost effortless lead vocal —-  his narrative voice here is the song’s greatest strength, the backup vocalists only chiming in to punctuate specific lines in the refrain. Its worth noting that “Prophecies” was initially my least favorite song after my first few listens of the album, probably due to my thinking that its lack of any kind of build up suggested a directionless nature. Your favorites will likely change in similarly tumultuous fashion.

If you didn’t know by now, Beyond the Red Mirror is a concept album in the vein of Nightfall, a song by song unfolding of a storyline. Its connected to the song “As the Story Ends” from the Imaginations album, and deals with the consequences of a boy who refused to jump through a portal to another world. In the digibook edition of the album, the band provides beautiful artwork that is directly tied into the fantastical concept of this album. There’s also a few lengthy short stories and poetic etchings courtesy of Hansi that serve as narrative guides —- they’re interesting reading, although I should probably emphasize that this is all entirely optional on your part. Enjoying the album as an aural experience alone is a viable option, but if you want to delve into the conceptual storyline there’s plenty to tuck into. I’ve given it all a few looks and read a thread on the band’s official forum that dissected it further, but the discussion participants were still having disagreements on just how the story fits together so I suppose I’ll just wait for them to hash it all out (hey I’m already behind on other albums!).

A few days after getting the album, I tweeted out that people should have patience and not give up if they were having difficulty getting into it. Now, more than twenty-five complete playthroughs later I can’t emphasize enough just how dependent this album is on your ability to press play once more. Listen after listen, songs that went right past me began to open up bit by bit, like peeling the layers off an onion. This is Blind Guardian’s most inaccessible album alongside A Night at the Opera in that its so deeply intricate that your brain needs time to interpret everything its hearing, a process that by definition requires repeat listens. The opposite of pop music then. But despite its inaccessibility, Beyond the Red Mirror is also perhaps their most rewarding album. I’m at a loss to explain how a band on their tenth album begins to make the most challenging music of their career, because things don’t usually work that way. Nor am I at that point yet where I can honestly say that this is my favorite Blind Guardian album, or even that I enjoy it more than At the Edge of Time —- which I love a thousand times over. But there’s something here that will undoubtedly keep me coming back, perhaps secrets that I haven’t uncovered just yet.
 

Traveler In Time: Memories of a Blind Guardian Fan

 

 

 

It was a slightly chilly afternoon —- Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 to be exact —- under fading sunlight when I got to shake the hand of the one and only Hansi Kursch. An hour or so earlier, my two goofball buddies and I had barreled in my car down the Houston freeways to a venue called Warehouse Live that skirted the eastern edge of downtown Houston, a nominally sketchy area at the best of times. I was gunning the accelerator, despite knowing full well that the show wouldn’t start until many, many hours later in the evening. My subconscious reason for this might have been the fact that none of us had tickets yet. Yeah I know, and if you’ve slapped your forehead and muttered “Idiots!” under your breath already, well, under normal circumstances I’d agree with you —- but there was a perfectly valid reason for this. See this particular date on Blind Guardian’s “Sacred Worlds And Songs Divine Tour” was supposed to be held in San Antonio, but the actual location of the show was being shuffled around last minute and I was sending frantic emails to both the promoters and band management in trying to find out what the real deal was. Turns out no one would know until two days before the scheduled date, when the band confirmed that the show was officially moved to Houston.

 

We rejoiced! Not only because we wouldn’t have to make a furious post-work drive to San Antonio, but mostly because Houston finally won one. All the years of H-town being passed over, cancelled, or postponed by various metal tours in flux —- we finally had something swing OUR WAY! Not only that, but it was the biggest swing we could’ve possibly imagined, Blind Guardian was returning to Houston, they were in our city! This has greater impact if you know that Blind Guardian had tremendously bad luck with Houston in the past. The band had to cancel the Houston date on their 2002 North American trek in support of A Night At the Opera (and their first Stateside tour to boot), a show that was scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving (the irony!), all because the venue’s promoter goofed and couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. I was gutted. My friends were gutted. That night of the cancelled show, we got provocatively drunk and briefly debated the merits of throwing lit trash cans through the venue’s front windows. Four years later we would finally get another opportunity to see them here in Houston on their tour for A Twist In the Myth, and the band actually came and played a pretty good show at a different crappy venue. However the entire band was dealing with a really nasty case of the flu and were understandably too exhausted to do anything in the way of encores or shaking a few hands after the show. It was bittersweet in that sense. We finally got to see them live, but it would be in Houston of all places when the band would feel like ancient death… of course…

Naturally in my mind I was expecting something to go wrong, and chief on that list of possible disasters was the notion, however remote, that we’d get to the venue late only to find a lengthy line and a sold out sign on the front of the box office window. I recklessly exited the freeway and drove over numerous potholes, ignoring the fact that I was also super hungry (and the grumblings from said goofball friends echoing similar statements) —- because the only thing I wanted to do at that moment was give some disinterested box office girl my twenty odd bucks in return for a little stub of paper with Blind Guardian printed on it. Venue in sight, with black night-liner tour bus parked at its side (phew!). Haphazardly park, exit, hustle-walk to the front of venue and its hopefully open box office window. The girl was as disinterested as possible, but did confirm that we were the first idiots buying tickets that day when I asked. I looked at the time on my phone —- 4:45 pm. Tickets in hand, I finally agreed to increasingly loud declarations that we head to the nearest Freebirds, one of those made-to-order big burrito places. We began to walk back towards my car, and it was just after that when one of the most surreal moments of my life occurred.

 

 

I remember walking behind my friends, they got in the car first, but I was slowed down by rubbernecking at the tour bus itself, looking for signs of life within those heavily tinted front windows. There was one major sign of life, a short haired guy just outside the bus on the sidewalk taking what looked like a pair of shoes out of a bag. I didn’t think much of it initially, the guy looked like a roadie or a tour manager perhaps, and I got in my car and started to slowly pull backwards out of my parking spot and lurch forward towards the tour bus. An increasingly closer view prompted me to register what I was seeing by muttering the following aloud: “I think that’s Hansi…”. I was scoffed at on the notion that the man had short hair, but my fellow compatriots were not as plugged into the detailed minutiae of the band’s current profile as I was, I knew that Hansi had recently cut his hair. I made one of the best decisions of my life and awkwardly jutted the car into an awful, diagonally parked position —- half on the sidewalk mind you —- and clumsily got out of the car, hearing one of my two friends exclaim “Holy shit it is Hansi!”

The funniest thing about this burned in memory is just how particularly alarmed Hansi looked at that precise moment: He had stopped his particularly mundane activity, in this case, slapping his black boots in hand together to get what appeared to be a whole lot of mud off. He was partially bent over, looking directly at us with a look that was startled and wondering if he should jump back in the tour bus, arms frozen in mid-boot slap. It was the kind of look that immediately made me register the sudden, near-violent nature of our approach with a dawning realization that Hansi probably had a pretty good idea of just what part of town he was currently in. We could’ve been Houston thugs at that moment for all he knew. But it must’ve been our random mix of metal t-shirts, uncontrollable grins, and peacemaking hand waves that eased his disposition —- just a bunch of goofy fans (likely what he was thinking himself). I’ll confess that I can’t recall the particular words that first left my mouth, but that thankfully they weren’t “You’re Hansi!”. With handshakes all around, we welcomed him to Houston, and expressed just how insanely happy we were that the show wasn’t cancelled and that the band was actually here. He was gracious beyond belief. I remember him half-joking that “You guys might be the only people in the audience tonight.” The date’s city switch was sure to leave a lot of people scrambling, and I expressed to him my faith that Houston would rally.

 

 

The whole exchange lasted a few minutes, and towards its end I had considered asking him for a picture, but realized that I’d left my phone in the car. We told him he’d see us in the crowd for sure and said goodbye, and I remember walking back to the car as if in slow motion. A wellspring of thoughts were bubbling in my mind: I had just met the man responsible for so much music that impacted me not only as a metal fan, but as a music lover in general. I had just shook hands with Hansi Kursch. I had a conversation with Hansi frickin’ Kursch. I wanted so badly to turn around and start babbling something, anything, about what his music had done for me —- but of course, that’s not how you play those situations. The man had just stepped out of his tour bus to clean his boots off, he was cool enough to unexpectedly talk with us for a couple minutes, and he was as genuinely nice and friendly as he always had come across in the audio interviews I had heard of him. He didn’t deserve to have to deal with some random, awkward moment of fan-gushing. Still, fragments of glorious Blind Guardian songs were flying through my mind, along with all those memories of particular moments I associated with them. Speaking of memories…

It was on an internet radio website called Hardradio where I first discovered Blind Guardian, through a random airing of the orchestral version of their classic ballad “Lord of the Rings” from the Forgotten Tales album. This was late 1998, in the dawn of the turn of the millennium pop-metal nostalgia revival that would resurrect many forgotten bands’ careers as surprisingly successful live performers, so the station was mostly playing music of that ilk. It had seemed that nine times out of ten I would randomly tune in to their internet feed and hear stuff like Jackyl, Warrant, or Kix. I was generally okay with it, because at that time I was an equal parts hard rock aficionado as I was a mainstream metal fan; all to happy to explore Tesla’s back catalog as I was Metal Church’s. European metal hadn’t really sunk in as something that I should’ve known about, in fact, I was (however ignorantly) certain of the notion that American and British bands were mostly the only ones worth knowing.

 

 

Its likely that upon hearing “Lord of the Rings” initial acoustic pluckings I thought it was a dopey love ballad by one of those bands, but that was immediately cast aside when Hansi sang in his clarion voice, “There are signs on the ring / which make me feel so down…”. His voice was so unique, richly melodic yet still gruff, and with a slight timbre that I’d never heard before —- a completely original voice that was singing about something Tolkien related of all things! By the time the song was at its emotional high point with background vocal swells of “Slow down and I sail on the river / Slow down and I walk to the hill”, I was astonished, just completely overwhelmed by one of the most breathtaking songs I’d ever heard. I launched into an internet search to find out everything possible about the band, and need I remind you this was late nineties internet —- information was scarce, and MP3s were even scarcer. In my search however I eventually found my way to a few more of the band’s songs, and also discovered a hugely important radio show in my metal development called The Metal Meltdown with Dr. Metal —- a guy based in Cleveland who was one of the few American media people with his ear to the ground for European metal bands (and whose show I still listen to and rely on to this day).

Perhaps most pressingly I found out that the band had just inked an agreement with Century Media to issue their back catalog in the States. Physically obtaining their albums happened relatively slowly, I’d feast on one for months on end and eventually manage to get my hands on another. Once I started working as a music department staffer at a Borders Books and Music, obtaining albums became all too easy by tapping into the company’s distribution network and their unusually deep access to import companies. At one point I shelled out sixty bucks for an import mail order of Forgotten Tales, still the most expensive single disc album I’ve ever bought. The end result of this was the expansion and deepening of my metal fandom from merely on-the-radar bands fed to me through various rock and metal magazines to far more underground artists, most of whom had fanbases overseas but were complete unknowns in the States. Blind Guardian threw open the doors of European metal for me, and not just for power metal; it was through them that I discovered In Flames and the Gothenburg melo-death sound, the amazing power metal talent coming out of Finland at that time, as well as Norwegian black metal (and its history) —- just to name a few things.

 

 

More fundamentally in regards to power metal, Blind Guardian’s music was infused with an emphasis on melodicism that I had only heard before in Iron Maiden, and in small doses elsewhere. My immersion into their albums made me realize something fundamental about myself as a metal and music fan —- that I valued melody as much as heaviness, abrasiveness, and shock value. When I was younger, rock and metal was attractive noise because of its inherently rebellious nature, its counter-culture spirit, and the feeling of inclusion it seemed to project. As I grew out of those teenaged years and shed most of its self-conscious trappings, I was left with a simple love for the music itself, and a craving for more of the elements within it that I particularly enjoyed. Andre Olbrich’s guitarwork was one of these elements, and the way he played was truly a style of his own making —- borrowing equally from Brian May, Yngwie, and Chris DeGarmo (of classic era Queensryche), he channeled his influences to create vivid, intense musical backdrops that reflected everything from speed metal, Queen-esque theatricality, and romantic medieval themes (which I didn’t even know I loved until I heard Blind Guardian).

In Hansi, I found a vocalist that I enjoyed as much as Bruce Dickinson on a purely technical level, but perhaps loved even more for the sheer bloody passion he could deliver through his voice. When I’d hear his verse line-extending screams in “Another Holy War”, I’d shake with adrenaline (to this day still). He transfixed me with his abilities as a truly original lyricist as well, presenting his songs through the voice of an well-traveled narrator in a way that did justice to his fan appointed title as a “bard”. I saw it in obvious gems like “A Past and Future Secret” and of course”The Bard’s Song”, but in more creative narrative framing such as the entirety of the Nightfall in Middle-Earth album. So transfixed was I by his dramatization of events and perspectives from Tolkien’s source material, that I actually bought a copy of The Silmarillion and forced myself to keep at its dense, biblical text until I finally began to enjoy it. I’ve now read it more times than the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit combined, I sometimes even fall asleep with the unabridged audiobook playing on my headphones like a maniac. I’d like to think that Hansi would be proud, or worried.

 

 

I don’t need to go on about why Blind Guardian is great. If you’ve read this far, you know damn well why. But I don’t think that I’ve associated more personal memories with one band than I have with the bards. I’d ride around with their discs as a near permanent in-car rotation in those lo-tech days before iPods, and amidst hour long plus commutes to and from school, work, home, and various excursions all over Houston I’d repeatedly soak in every second of their discography. I have fond memories of laughing deliriously while driving when my buddy Matt pointed out how angry Hansi sounded during the second verse of their cover of “Surfin’ USA” (he’s REALLY angry that everybody’s gone surfin’), and how every time that song would come on we’d mime his imaginary rage. On their cover of “Spread Your Wings”, we got a kick out of the way Hansi pronounced “honey”, imagining he was standing with the characters of Winnie the Pooh and motioning us over a cartoon hill (“Come on haaaanie!”). Every time I was down and needed a pick me up, I could listen to that song and it’d help a bit.

I remember my excitement on the release day of A Night At the Opera, at an actual record store where a copy was specifically held just for me… I couldn’t tear the plastic off fast enough. Speaking of which, I vividly recall just how stunned I felt upon first hearing the “And Then There Was Silence” single, sitting in my room with headphones on with the lyric sheet in front of me. I remember the time I was huddled around a fire during a teeth-chatteringly cold night while camping at the Texas Renaissance Festival as Imaginations played out of a portable mini-disc player, downing awful whiskey and loving it. I remember with fondness the New Years Eve spent on a friend’s apartment balcony, a bunch of us drunkenly swaying and singing along to “The Bard’s Song” at the top of our lungs (written warnings were issued the next day). I remember how cheerful it felt to first hear those gorgeous final vocal melodies in “War of the Thrones”, and how I listened to that song on repeat over and over while singing along to them every time.

 

 

Mostly I just remember the band always being there, particularly during darker times when all I wanted was an escape. Here on the eve of a new Blind Guardian album release, I find it comforting to know that hasn’t changed at least. Its not lost on me that the last time Blind Guardian released an album way back in 2010, there were people, places, and situations that were in my life that simply aren’t there anymore. It happens less frequently to me these days, but when people question why you’re still an obsessed metal fan as an adult, all you really can to point to is your own personal relationship to the music you love. There are no cliques, no scenes, no one you’re trying to impress or piss-off —- the only thing that matters is whats going on internally when its just you by yourself in your car, listening to whatever you’re listening to.

Blind Guardian are one of the few metal bands that belong to a specific subgenre yet manage to transcend it and crossover to other metal fans. As Brad Sanders of Invisible Oranges so eloquently pointed out, “Their discography is like a completely crossed-out to-do list of things to put in your music if you don’t want the metal intelligentsia to take you seriously, and yet they’re the only power metal band I can put on with a carload of trve-kvlt warriors without having control of the stereo wrested from my hands.” Sanders attributes this to the band’s complete lack of cynicism —- and I’ll add a lack of irony and self-awareness to the list. Blind Guardian run on a love of pure imaginative storytelling, fantastical or otherwise, and pass this on to their listeners in the form of expressively earnest music. Its why they are loved in the manner they are, with devotion that most bands could never appreciate, let alone muster.

So I reached my car door and briefly looked back —- Hansi had begun to climb back into the bus, boots relatively less muddied. I wanted to sit there and let it soak in a for a minute, but after the initial round of expletive laden exclamations of triumph and joy, I was firmly ordered to hit the gas. Burritos waited somewhere in the distance, and we had to get back relatively soon to ensure a good spot in line. The stereo came on, playing Blind Guardian of course. We agreed that we had handled ourselves well, and no one did or said anything embarrassing —- it was about as much as we ever analyzed anything we’d ever said. Well then, let this serve as my ex post facto potentially embarrassing fan gushing treatise —- the stuff I wanted to say to Hansi at that moment but kept wisely bottled up instead. Delusional I’m not, I know he’s not going to read this, but its actually more for me than it is for anyone else. Traveler in time for life.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part Two: The Albums

This was an exciting year to be a metal fan, particularly if like me you made it a habit to check out as many new releases from established and up and coming artists as you possibly could. Its not an exaggeration for me to say that I listened to more new metal albums in 2014 than any other year —- easily surpassing even last year’s nutty total. It was an especially prolific year for power metal, with nearly every major band within the subgenre releasing new albums or singles. As far back as February I was speculating on 2014 possibly being a resurgent year for power metal —- so was it? Well, yes and no. There were some disappointments from a few veteran bands, but these were made up for with pleasant surprises from relatively new artists. And of course there were still quite a few extreme metal artists who offered up a handful of great records.

Consider the following ten albums on this list a very agonized over distillation of what I thought were the absolute best of the year. Most year end metal lists go up to twenty five or even fifty entries —- I limit myself to ten to force myself to be critical, selective, and honest with myself about what I enjoyed the most. A shorter list also helps to give weight to the ordering of entries, and you can be sure that the top spot means a great deal. I definitely look at album play counts when narrowing down my nominees as they provide an honest statistic about my listening habits, but I also consider other far more intangible factors as well (such as… you know, artistry and stuff). This is part two of my 2014 Best Of feature, so be sure to check out Part One: The Songs if you missed it. Enough of my incessant prattling! On with the list!

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2014:

 

 

1. Triosphere – The Heart of the Matter:

Its not an uncommon occurrence to discover a great band that I haven’t heard before; its one of the frequent perks of writing a metal blog. It is however extremely rare for that discovery to come in the form of an album that is absolutely flawless and perfect in all aspects. Norway’s Triosphere were a late entry in the 2014 album release calendar, November and December for Europe and the States respectively, a major misstep for AFM Records that has already ensured that it slipped under the radar of many metal writers. I consider myself lucky that I am not among them, because here’s what I learned: This is the best metal album of the year, regardless of subgenre, regardless of your preference for accessibility or extremity, and regardless of any preconceptions you might have about a female fronted metal band.

Yes Triosphere is indeed a female fronted metal band —- a progressive power metal one, led by bassist/vocalist Ida Haukland. But they don’t sound like many other female fronted metal bands, as Haukland’s voice can best be compared to a blending of Ann Wilson and Doro Pesch, with hints of Coverdale’s inflection and Dio’s theatricality. She’s a stylistic rarity in an era when female vocals in metal usually mean light, airy, delicate, and that oft-used adjective, ethereal. Haukland is also unique among male and female vocalists in being a sonically powerful vocalist with both high and low range, all while capably demonstrating a mastery of melody. It would be an oversimplification to say that her tone is only raspy or leathery, because its also smooth, distinct, and enunciative. To say she is the undisputed star of this album would perhaps detract from the clockwork-like, precision machinery of the band as a whole, but certainly without her The Heart of the Matter would not be the special album it is.

Equally as key in the Triosphere lineup is guitarist Marius Silver Bergensen who is the band’s primary songwriter in cooperation with Haukland; he composes the music, she writes the lyrics and creates the vocal melodies. Together they weave a dark, stormy, and feverish take on progressive power metal that is both technically brilliant and emotionally resonant. Bergensen seems to be a smart guy in that his songwriting works around Haukland’s natural talent at creating fully formed vocal melody driven hooks. He’s a tremendous guitarist, and shows it off alongside fellow guitarist Tor Ole Byberg in brief flashes of technicality during riffs and in wild, unrestrained, hard rock inspired soloing. Triosphere weave technicality into the fabric of their guitar melodies throughout, but they know when to turn it up and tone it down, a result of marrying their approach with Kamelot-like simplicity where the melody has to remain preserved. Drummer Ørjan Aare Jørgensen lays down a tremendous performance, spicing up a thrash metal fueled percussive attack with proggy, jazzy fills and accents. There’s virtuosity teeming throughout these songs, but its used as an accent rather than the main attraction, the band subtly hinting that they could do more, if they wanted.

Ultimately its the start to finish array of great songs that steal the show here, and there’s a handful of absolute gems: “Steal Away the Light” is as excellent a pure heavy metal song as you will ever hear, with its Roxette-meets-Dio soaring, triple-segmented chorus built around Haukland’s incredible range. There’s the epic, tension fueled “The Sphere”, where her vocals practically scream heartbreak as she sings “Can you feel me like I feel you / A heartbeat where the sound of my soul shines through”. When I listen to that chorus, I realize that its Haukland’s perfect choices in enunciation that really drive home the powerful emotional response that line manages to conjure, and she does that all over the album and puts on a masterful display of how to make the most of every single line. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite song, “Breathless”, where the band really turns up the Roxette vibe with a fun, punchy, poppy chorus built around clever alliteration. Haukland sings “I know you think / You know the name / Of this game we are playing” with half-second pauses in between each line, giving the chorus a rock n’ roll stutter strut that you don’t normally hear in prog-metal. Its the kind of thing you hear the first time and smile over.

Much of Haukland’s lyrics deal with past and current relationships, or at least the conceptual idea of one where heartbreak is a central theme. It may not sound like very “metal” subject matter, but its refreshing in a strange way, perhaps because such a focused concentration suggests that its inspired by real personal experiences. You can perceive her attention to detail in regards to penning lyrics that while direct and straightforward, are full of depth and purpose. With a few more releases we could see Haukland blossom as a lyricist, possibly reaching Roy Khan levels of diction and imagery (she already has quite a bit in common with her fellow Norwegian). I called this album perfect, and take my word for it, there are no fillers to be found —- and there’s a raw, kinetic energy that flows throughout the album from the very start, every subsequent song picking up where the other left off. Triosphere don’t get bonus points for their uniqueness as a non-operatic female fronted metal band; they made it to number one on my list simply because they created an album that I couldn’t find anything wrong with, an album with nothing to complain about and everything to get excited by. The Heart of the Matter is a beautiful, aggressive, elegantly chaotic masterpiece.

 

 

2. Ghost Brigade – IV – One With the Storm:

Yet another in the waltzin’-into-class-late crew, Finland’s Ghost Brigade slipped this one in relatively late in the 2014 release calendar (must be a Scandinavian thing?). If you recall from a couple years ago, this pack of downtrodden Finns made my 2011 Best Albums list with Until Fear No Longer Defines Us, the album that introduced me to their take on Sentenced/Katatonia inspired melancholic metallic rock. Three years later, they’re finally back with its successor and have managed to land a higher placing on this list with an album that’s more metal and less rock. Its slightly amusing that the further Ghost Brigade have shifted away from what made me enjoy them in the first place has somehow resulted in a better, sharper, more compelling album. Its never the best metric to compare one album to another, but I can honestly say I love One With The Storm far more than I ever did its predecessor.

Not everything has changed, there are still many moments where Manne Ikonen demonstrates his melodic voice with his heavily accented clean singing, but they’re now equaled in play time with his raw, harsh, tortured screaming. He has to fight for space too, because the clearer, crisper production the band has chosen to employ here pushes the instrumentation right up against his vocals, and together they clash back and forth as on the album opener “Wretched Blues”. Its a huge reversal from their previous albums, where everything sat underneath Ikonen’s vocals in a hazy fuzz —- no more. Guitars pour aggression and beautiful, melancholic melodies all over these songs, and they take center stage, often times their musical patterns and figures serving as a song’s refrain such as on the brutal melo-death of “Stones and Pillars”. Some of those guitar figures are heart rending in their ability to touch your emotional nerves, as on the acoustic finger plucked intro to “Elama On Tulta”, where its abruptly followed by a wave of heavy melodicism that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sentenced’s The Cold White Light.

I included the brilliant “Departures” on Part One of this year’s Best Of feature, it being the album’s most accessible slice of metallic rock, but there’s a wealth of melodic vocal treasures to be found elsewhere. A particular favorite comes in the track “The Knife”, where steady mid-paced slabs of gargantuan riffs with suitably throat worn harsh vocals are contrasted with a wide open, cinematic chorus where Ikonen laments in his melodic best “Another year / Another wasted season”. As you can probably tell, much of Ghost Brigade’s lyrical approach deals with your typical Finnish appropriate topics of loneliness, isolation, and general feel-baddery (screw you spell check!), and they just do it oh so well. Take the introspective “Disembodied Voices”, where over a bed of moody, hushed atmospherics and cleanly plucked electric guitar figures Ikonen croons “They said time heals / In a year or so you’ll be alright / Time doesn’t heal / It only makes you forget”. In the hands of a lesser band and vocalist (and I can think of many American radio “rock” bands that could fit the bill) those lyrics would sound contrived and false, but Ghost Brigade understand what kind of soundtrack they need, and Ikonen understands that their delivery needs to be understated, passive even.

My high play count of One With The Storm may have spiraled out of control with its release coming square in these darkening autumnal months, but I have no doubt I’d feel this strongly about its cohesive artistic triumph were it released way back in spring or summer. I think the band has finally stumbled onto a formula they ought to consider sticking to for another release or two. Evening out the guitars with the vocals in the mix has really gone a long way towards giving their sound a surge of power, and its forced Ikonen to balance out his melodic singing voice with his equally riveting (if not superior) melo-death harsh vocals. Ultimately though, it always comes back to the songwriting and Ghost Brigade delivered a handful of gems here, an accomplishment that is even more impressive considering the vast array of diverse tempos and song structures they chose to employ. They outdid themselves, surprised the hell out of me, and somehow managed to release the best metal album out of Finland in 2014.

 

 

3. Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R.:

Until Triosphere came along, Dawn of Destiny laid claim to being the biggest out-of-nowhere surprise of the year. I had never heard of the band before (and apparently, neither did anyone else), but it was the appearance of Jon Oliva as a guest vocalist on the stellar “No Hope For the Healing” that caused my buddy Doctor Metal of The Metal Meltdown Show to play the band on his show one Friday afternoon. It wasn’t just the presence of the Mountain King that grabbed my attention, it was the absolutely fantastic songwriting on display as well. I was convinced and took a chance on the album, and after one pass through I had the kind of smug, self-satisfied, doofus grin that I’m sure we all tend to get after suggesting an unknown restaurant that turns out to be great and having your friends begrudgingly give you the nod of approval. If I wrote my original review of the album with that same grin on my face, I apologize.

Its not a stretch to say that this was my frontrunner to take the top spot on this list for most of the year before some tougher competition came along. That’s because like Triosphere, Dawn of Destiny are a rarity in the world of female fronted metal bands, as their vocalist Jeanette Scherff is neither operatic or light and ethereal, instead her vocals come from a mid-ranged rock style reminiscent of Ann Wilson or Pat Benatar. No need to scroll up to check whether you’re remembering seeing Ann Wilson’s name before, as I used her to describe Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. Both Haukland and Scherff are tremendously gifted vocalists and modern trailblazers of a sort as a budding handful of female singers bucking the metal establishment, but Scherff leans in a smoother, more refined direction (there’s no Doro influences with her). As great as she is, its bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber who is the true star of the album, as his songs are deliciously hooky, ornately arranged slices of dramatic power metal. On F.E.A.R. (if you’re dying to know, its an acronym for “Forgotten, Enslaved, Admired, Released”), Faber has compiled a selection of near perfect power metal songs where everything revolves around major key builds and truly memorable choruses.

Where to start? How about the stormy, tense drama of “End This Nightmare” where Scherff shares lead vocals with Faber, a distinctive and powerful singer in his own right. The chorus here is Meatloaf-meets-metal, the kind of joyously over-the-top chorus that is so skillfully written and deftly performed that it threatens to go off the rails but never does. Then there’s the one two punch of “Finally” and “Prayers”, the best back to back tracklisted tandem you’ll hear all year. The former is an aggressively uptempo vocal duet where both singers deliver unbelievably challenging vocal lines with near perfect enunciative choices and imaginative melodies, while “Prayers” is its 80’s inspired pure-pop cousin —- built on Scherff’s almost staccato delivery of the verse vocal lines. The chorus is a blast, a carefree merging of her vocals with Faber’s in a singalong that ascends like a spiral staircase. And there are so many moments like that, where Faber’s songwriting throws caution to the wind and interweaves vocal lines in unexpectedly delightful fashion, or allows the rather reigned-in, straightforward power metal guitars of Veith Offenbächer to explode in jawdroppingly gorgeous solos.

Should I mention that its a concept album? I’m not so sure its needed as a selling point, because although I’ve followed along with the lyrics and can honestly say that its a cohesive, well-told story —- I don’t think its necessary at all when it comes to simply enjoying F.E.A.R. as a musical experience. I began listening to this album back in March and have kept going back to it throughout the year. Granted there was a slight hiccup, the first minute twelve of the opening track features some rather awful spoken word dialogue that was actually gnawing at my conscience every time I considered placing the album atop this list (its that bad, and here’s to no more terrible spoken word on metal albums in 2015!). I was saved from having to deliberate that choice thanks to Triosphere and Ghost Brigade, but one lousy mistake aside, Dawn of Destiny were serious contenders for the throne.

 

 

4. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry:

Dense, layered, and nostalgic might be suitable adjectives for Blut Aus Nord’s return to second wave black metal after some time in the desert doing weird, not so great experiments with industrial music. Some quick history: Blut Aus Nord is the musical project of a notoriously reclusive Frenchman under the moniker of Vindsval, who was apparently just 15 when he released the project’s debut Ultima Thulée in 1995. Its sequel released a year later was titled Memoria Vetusta I: Fathers of the Icy Age, and together they were viewed upon as left-field classics emulating the black metal pouring out of Norway at that time. When Vindsval returned in 2001, he did so with a style that owed more to noise and industrial music, and continued in this vein even throughout Memoria Vetutsa II in 2009 and beyond. His unorthodox style won him a lot of praise in this lengthy era, particularly from big-platform publications —- but if you were one of those few that preferred his take on classic 90s black metal, you were out of luck.

So its not an overstatement to say that Memoria Vetutsa III: Saturnian Poetry is the most unexpected album by a veteran artist in 2014, being Vindsval’s return to pure, classicist second wave black metal with zero (ZERO!) industrial elements. The x-factor is that this album is recorded in the pristine, crisp, un-muddied production style that he’s become accustomed to working with in the preceding 777 trilogy, and its like being hit over the head with a frying pan in making you realize that hey, classicist second wave black metal actually sounds better without awful, muted production! This means that Vindsval’s waves of windswept tremolo riffs aren’t buried in the mix, instead they’re the main attraction, and they’re so excellent, so perfectly sculpted that you begin to remember why you loved this style in the first place. And I believe for the first time, Vindsval brings aboard a real drummer in Gionata Potenti (aka Thorns) whose unyielding, punishing attack gives the entire album the feel of a real band at work. The result is a complete about face from the cold, distant icy feel of the industrial era, instead presenting a earthy warmth, like you’re sitting around a mountainside campfire with each listen. This album single-handedly has reignited my interest in black metal as a whole, and made me dust off an Emperor classic or two.

 

 

 5. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls:

Its slightly disturbing that so many metal writers are overlooking that with Redeemer of Souls, Judas Priest have created their best work since 1990’s Painkiller. I want to believe that whats stopping many from realizing this is the pallor cast over by 2008’s tepid Nostradumus, but that would imply that they simply hadn’t bothered to listen to the new album (and that would be poor form for metal writers anywhere, this is Judas Priest we’re talking about). Or is it that in an era where extremity in metal is prized more than traditionalism and given more artistic merit, new music by Priest is considered antiquated or sin of sins, un-hip? I’m not sure what everyone else’s problem is, and granted, I’ve seen Redeemer of Souls pop up on a few other year end lists by websites or publications that aren’t so expressly concerned with demographics and credibility. Kudos to them for realizing what most of the metal world immediately picked up on.

Priest don’t earn their spot on this list simply by virtue of Redeemer being better than its four predecessors, they’re here because of new guitarist Ritchie Faulkner, who stepped out of K.K. Downing’s shadow as more than just a replacement guitarist when he co-wrote this entire album alongside Glenn Tipton and Rob Halford. He turned out to be a veritable fountain of youth, ushering the band back to the very spiritual essence of what made them legends. Priest albums aren’t exercises in intellectual aggrandizing, they’re inherently simple, straight forward affairs built on having a plethora of tight riffs, hummable melodies, and hooky choruses galore. Faulkner brought all these things to the table and in doing so seemed to emphasize that the band didn’t have to out-do itself, or compete with others. The result is an album that is brimming with good to great to masterful songwriting, there are no duds or mediocre tracks on offer here. And its not just the band’s British Steel / Screaming For Vengeance era that is invoked, as there is a distinct Sad Wings of Destiny / Sin After Sin vibe to songs like “Secrets of the Dead” and the echoing balladry of “Beginning of the End”. The production could’ve been a little more compressed, less cleanly modern, and more eighties-sounding —- the opposite of what Blut Aus Nord did in other words. Its the only blemish on an otherwise astounding album.

 

 

6. Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen:

I can completely understand the notion that Ireland’s Primordial is a difficult band to get into, most likely due to the unusual, eerie, scream-sung vocal style of Alan Averill (aka A. A. Nemtheanga). He used to be my stumbling block as well, I liked what the band was doing musically but couldn’t get around him. A long time ago I wrote on this blog that I suspected it was due to my wanting Primordial to be more of a Riverdance-meets-black metal type of affair —- a silly concept in retrospect but a purely reactionary one. For a band tagged “Irish black metal”, Primordial sure weren’t like what I imagined that label to sound like. So here’s my advice to newcomers, step one: Forget any subgenre labels, and lets just call Primordial a metal band from Ireland (one of very few, and a stellar one at that). Step two is harder, but worth the effort: Think of Averill’s vocals as the metal version of Dave King’s from the Irish-American punk band Flogging Molly sung by a hooded necromancer standing atop some moss strewn Irish cliff side overlooking a fog-shrouded valley. Hey, we’re metal fans, we’re supposed to be a receptive and imaginative audience, so get to work.

Your efforts will be rewarded with Where Greater Men Have Fallen, which equals the band’s 2007 seminal classic To The Nameless Dead in songwriting brilliance, and leap frogs it in terms of being their most punishing and aggressive music to date. That matters, because the band was in need of a little diversity in their sonic approach, and it arrives right out of the gate with the title track and its rumbling, earthquaking drums, searingly tremolo-ish riffs, and overall brisk pace. Similarly on “Seed of the Tyrants”, the band goes full on black metal with an intro blast of Averill’s loud proclaimation of “Traitors!”, followed by blistering, full-on blastbeats and tremolo riffs that sound like they were straight out of a Watain record. I’m quite fond of the awesomely titled “Wield Lightning to Split the Sun”, where you hear more of the band’s oft buried folk metal influences come to the surface with an acoustic guitars and drums intro. The most accessible song if you’re looking for a YouTube suggestion is “Ghost of the Charnel House”, which boasts a hook built around clever guitar phrasing, fittingly so… this isn’t a band where vocal melodies are pronounced or relied upon. Most of the time the instrumentation does its own thing and Averill floats over the top, Sluagh-like you might say.

 

 

7. Sabaton – Heroes:

Some would say this is a homer pick, particularly a pair of goofball friends of mine who enjoy trolling my Sabaton fandom with unrestrained glee (its okay, they go to the band’s shows just the same). But Sabaton are deserving candidates to wind up here, this time not just because Joakim Broden continues to make a case for being the most skillful songwriter in power metal today; but because with Heroes the band did something daringly bold. Here was a case of a band that’s made its legion of fans on triumphant anthems depicting war, battles, destruction, and the might of armies and kings. One of the criticisms they’ve faced in the past is that in writing solely about those topics, they pander to an audience and use patriotism as an advertising agent. I think its a bogus critique, because its proponents are suggesting that Broden has to qualify his lyrics with politically neutral counterpoints, as if somehow his audience will misappropriate a song like “Ghost Division” (his audience hasn’t, but the critics have). Sabaton had the concept for Heroes floating around for awhile apparently, but their timing was well chosen —- they simply had to deliver something different, and it came in the form of their first album largely dedicated to examples of non-violent heroism, where humanity triumphed over warfare.

You’ll see examples of this littered throughout the album: a German fighter pilot escorting a crippled American bomber to safety (“No Bullets Fly”); an Australian medic carrying twelve injured American soldiers down a mountain to safety under withering fire (“The Ballad of Bull”); a Polish hero who willingly became a prisoner of Auschwitz in order to gather evidence of war crimes, and escaped to deliver his report (“Inmate 4859”) —- to name a handful. The thematic success doesn’t detract from the fact that Broden still delivered the goods in the songwriting department. There are your supremely catchy, traditionally structured future Sabaton classics such as “Resist and Bite” and “Soldier of 3 Armies”; and there’s some rather gutsy experimentation in the form of 1940s musical pastiche. The new guitarists Chris Rörland and Thobbe Englund were an unproven, unknown quantity in terms of how well they’d be able to create guitar parts to complement Broden’s keyboard written structures, but their work here is an unmitigated success. Riffs are intense and tightly constructed, their melodies shimmer, and their soloing is vivid and flavorful. I keep wondering Sabaton will ever stumble as I’m sure their critics hope they will, but Heroes works as an argument to suggest they won’t.

 

 

8. Grand Magus – Triumph and Power:

This was a recurring listen throughout the year when I wanted something straightforwardly catchy, but more minor key and aggressive than your average power metal release. Sweden’s Grand Magus are not power metal, nor are they folk/viking metal despite their name and imagery —- they’re just metal. Long having abandoned their doomy roots, the band loosely exist in a trad metal palette these days and add in measured amounts of rock n’ roll rattle and shake. Vocalist Janne Christoffersson grabs your attention by virtue of the songs being constructed around his vocal melodies, and with the fact that the quality of his voice is more hard rock baritone than say, air raid siren Bruce Dickinson. The band is also a three piece, so its fairly no-frills, just the meat and potatoes of solid riffs, hummable vocal melodies, and rock-steady percussion.

Album highlight “Steel Versus Steel” is a good gauge of the kind of magic Grand Magus conjure up with a purposeful emphasis on simplicity, the mid-tempo pace set by seemingly swingin’ drums. The chorus is magic, as Christoffersson belts out “And in the end it’s steel versus steel / The final lock and the final key”, the guitars echoing the strutting vocal melody with staccato riffing. It narrowly missed appearing on my Best Songs of 2014 list (too many to list this year). The band gets more adventurous on the title track, where slowly sung verses dramatically build up to a gusher of a chorus, punctuated by a “Hail! Victory!”, its an incredibly fun moment. It gets heavier too, with the punishing “Dominator” which should ring strangely familiar to fans of Glen Cook’s The Black Company series (though I doubt that was on purpose). And I really, really love “The Hammer Will Bite”, not just for its strangely sorrowful sounding intro, but for its monstrously wild and glory-claw inducing chorus where Christoffersson sounds like a Swedish James Hetfield: “The hammer will bite – no other choice than surrender /
Bow to the might – a fiery death from above… Yeaaah!”. One of the few albums I covered this year that can instantly appeal to power and extreme metal fans alike.

 

 

9. Behemoth – The Satanist:

There’s already so much written about this album, and its ended up on so many year end lists that it might seem superfluous to see it yet again, but if you’re one of the few that slept on The Satanist one you really need to get on it. Its not overhyped, and its praise is not exaggerated; but its propensity to thrill you is perhaps entirely dependent on your tolerance for extreme metal. I use that term instead of labeling Behemoth’s sound with more specificity because now more than ever, this is a band that doesn’t fit in anywhere. On The Satanist, the band mixes their take on death metal with a little black metal in the form of a bleaker vocal approach, blast beats, and some quasi-tremolo riffing; finished with a touch of hard rock simplicity to produce a concoction that is brutal, violent, and feverish in its unyielding intensity.

That said, the band has evolved past the need for sheer brutality for brutality’s sake. In its place are atmospheric soundscapes and warm instrumentation, a combination that culminates in this being the most human sounding Behemoth album to date. Its a relief for me, because the tech-y coldness on their past albums was a stumbling block for me in trying to enjoy them —- and not only that, but Nergal simply delivers better songs here. One of his best is the title track, with its blackened, stop-start Metallica-esque riffs and oddly tuneful refrain. Of course there’s the music video famous “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, its guitar patterns reminding me of latter day Enslaved and providing the album’s most hummable riff. My favorite is still “O Father O Satan O Sun!”, whose primary riff and guitar melody are quite indebted to Judas Priest in the best possible way. The multi-tracking of Nergal’s vocals here are an inventive way to make them sound far more otherworldly and terrifying than you’d anticipate, a technique not often seen in extreme metal. I think everyone who’s wanted to hear this album has heard it by now, but power/prog metal fans should let their guard down and give it a few listens, its as ornate and fully arranged as a Blind Guardian album, just using a different palette.

 

 

10. Noble Beast – Noble Beast:

There are a handful of nominees that didn’t make the final cut of this list, the last few I was really deliberating over included Dragonforce’s Maximum Overload and Darkenhold’s Castellum —- both deserving in their own spectacular ways. But I just couldn’t ignore Noble Beast, a relatively unknown American band that came out of nowhere with a near perfect album of polished, thunder-heavy power metal with songwriting so developed and accomplished it ranks in my mind as one of the best debut albums in recent memory. Vocalist Rob Jalonen sounds like a symbiosis of Falconer’s Mathias Blad with his smooth baritone and the sandpaper-roughness of Iron Savior’s Piet Sielck —- with a splash of Hansi Kursch added to account for those throat-ripping screams. And if the European-ness of those names is any hint, then I’ll confirm that yes, Noble Beast owe more to their European heroes than they do to other American power metal bands whose lineage lies in thrash metal (your Pharaohs, your Iced Earths, etc).

It takes a supreme grinch to deny the sheer metal joy of the album opener “Iron Clad Angels”, with its arcing, soaring chorus built on Jalonen’s muscular vocal and some truly frenetic guitar work. The martial stomp of “The Dragon Reborn” with its extenuating choir vocal lines and ultra-melodic guitar twists seem like a lost Blind Guardian track, but there’s more than just reminders of other bands flowing throughout these songs. On “Nothing To Repent”, the band marries thrash metal aggression and riffs with some startlingly prog-rock song structures, a combination that works despite its disparity. There’s the arena-rock thunder and lightning of “Peeling Back the Veil”, with a stellar chorus and great Mathias Jabs/Rudolf Schenker styled guitar work and Maiden-esque twin soloing. And I love the inventiveness of throwing in some acoustic strumming in the verses of “We Burn”, creating some playful folky looseness in a song built on slamming riffage. Jalonen does double duty on guitar alongside a fellow named Matt Hodsdon, and together they dip and weave around each other like a power metal Slash and Izzy —- their interplay might be the most underrated aspect of the album.  More people need to hear this album, and hopefully there will be a second one.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part One: The Songs

Sometimes in the mid-December barrage of lists for the best albums of the year, the best songs released this year get ignored and forgotten. Of course its likely that a handful of said songs played a key role in their respective album winding up on a “best albums” list, but what about the really great songs on the not-so-great albums? As with the past few years, I’ve committed to giving songs in both of those categories a chance to get another look via an end of the year retrospective. What makes a song one of my best of the year? It could be anything from simply masterful songwriting, great lyricism, or even a courageous attempt at a stylistic shift or experiment (of course, it still has to be a great song). To force myself to make honest choices, I limit the list to ten, and the order of the list has as much to do with play counts as it does the more intangible qualities I listed above. Now to quote Monty Python to myself: “Get on with it!”

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2014:

 

 

1. Insomnium – “Lose to Night” (from the album Shadows of a Dying Sun)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vw81mcIhDt8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Its safe to say that Insomnium’s Shadows of a Dying Sun was my most anticipated album of 2014, and while it ultimately didn’t live up to the glorious heights of its predecessor One For Sorrow, it was still a very, very good album with some truly spectacular moments. The moment that stuck with me the most was the troubled ballad “Lose to Night”, and I’m going to do something I hardly ever do and quote what I wrote about it in my original review:

The untarnished gem on this album is “Lose to Night”, a song with an achingly beautiful chorus and note-perfect encapsulating verses. This is my most listened to song on an album that I must have spun at least a few dozen times by now, its the track that practically bleeds out the core musical identity of this band. Everything about it is perfect to me, from its tribal-esque intro drum patterns, to the circular guitar melodies within the verses where Sevanen growl-speaks about a litany of regrets, to Friman’s shining clean vocal performance in the chorus with that delicately hook laden vocal melody. I love that during said chorus, subtly buried in the mix is an electric guitar gently echoing Friman’s vocal melody beat for beat, along with Sevanen’s distant growls adding just the right touch of stormy intensity. I love that its a song about the decay of a relationship, but Friman’s prose is sparse and interpretative enough for it to apply to any circumstance —- the narrator could be speaking to his parents, or his sibling, or his past. I love that instead of associating a barren heart with romance, Friman dishes a curve ball by singing “No more fear in me / This heart’s stone inside”, while adding that “Every day must lose to night / Fade and die”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here but these strike me as very Finnish in their inherent nature —- slightly gloomy yes, but beautiful sentiments despite their despairing tone.

Insomnium, as well as a few other fellow Finnish metal artists seem to have a grasp on illustrating bleak, inner turmoil better than any other artist within the genre. It must be something about living there that does it, a result of their cultural identity and environment perhaps? I don’t know and I’d bet that they don’t either, but what is amazing to me is how their artistic interpretations can sound so vivid and true to people thousands of miles away in places that are quite unlike Finland (ahem, like Houston, Texas for starters). This is a haunting song, and that’s precisely what it has done to me —- I wouldn’t be able to shake it off if I tried.

 

 

2. Allen/Lande – “Lady of Winter” (from the album The Great Divide)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_OvrGEbMvo?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Something just occured to me a second ago when considering this singular masterpiece on Allen/Lande’s newest album —- maybe I love this song so much because it reminds me of Dio. It should be him singing this song, or at the least this should be a time-worn Dio classic that Jorn Lande decided to cover. Like many, I miss the departed legendary vocalist and metal icon, and maybe its more that I miss his particularly distinctive stylistic choices. On “Lady of Winter” you’ll get a sense of what I mean when you hear Lande croon out the lyrics in the second verse: “Winter lady crystal tears /In the shadow drawing near / Will you show me all your fear?”. It was noted that Lande himself contributed to writing lyrics and vocal melodies for this album, and if he did so on “Lady of Winter” then its no mystery who he was channeling.

Whats more surprising however is that The Great Divide was penned by ex-Stratovarius guitarist Timo Tolkki as opposed to Magnus Karlsson who handled the previous three Allen/Lande albums. I can’t begin to remember the last time I enjoyed a Tolkki penned song, but kudos to him for keeping his extravagant tendencies in check and delivering one of the flat out greatest pure heavy metal songs I’ve heard in a long time. The album was okay, certainly passable, but “Lady of Winter” with its huge, monumentally towering chorus is the sort of gem that will be on my iPod for years to come. Its also the sort of metal song that I’m always afraid everyone will stop making one day, and so thankfully my fears are abated.

 

 

3. Falconer – “At the Jester’s Ball” (from the album Black Moon Rising)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rMhLO8JFPI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

To understand just how truly masterful Falconer guitarist/songwriter Stephan Weinerhall and vocalist Mathias Blad truly are at their craft, take a listen to the chorus on this deep cut off 2014’s Black Moon Rising. Blad’s effortless clarion vocals skip and shuffle in a most waltz-like manner across Weinerhall’s ballroom imagery, “I am dancing in the waltz, come join in one and all” —- the song’s narrator a self-professed hypocritical, power-hungry misanthrope gleefully reveling in the chaos of corruption. Falconer leaned a little too much on aggression for Black Moon Rising to succeed as a whole, but there were a few moments when Weinerhall dialed back the heaviness to allow some songs to breathe —- the method in which their first four Blad-helmed albums were so excellently written. As on those albums, “At the Jester’s Ball” and “Halls and Chambers” were songs in which the melodies were placed well into the spotlight, and Blad was given ample room to let his voice blossom in its inimitably theatrical manner. This song makes the list not only because it was one of my most played in 2014, but because it gave me hope that Falconer hadn’t completely lost their mojo.

 

 

4. Sabaton – “No Bullets Fly” (from the album Heroes)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG2Snz9jkF8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

This was not only the most musically riveting song on Sabaton’s surprisingly anti-war Heroes, but lyrically told a story that was emotionally bracing in its depiction of human decency bridging the divide between enemies. Its the story of Franz Stigler, an ace German fighter pilot one confirmed kill away from earning a Knights Cross, who chose to escort a crippled American B-17 back to friendly territory. Stigler had pulled level with the damaged aircraft and could actually see the wounded crew and pilot through the shredded airframe —- he was overcome with a wave of humanity that prevented him from carrying out his military imperative to destroy the plane. His presence prevented German batteries from firing upon it and once they were across the North Sea he offered the injured American pilot Charles Brown a salute and turned back. There’s quite a bit of information on the details of the story on the internet, and its worth reading up, but Sabaton’s musical treatment ratchets up the lump in throat quotient by incalculable amounts. The tempo itself emulates the lyrical depiction of two aircraft searing through the sky side by side, and Joakim Broden’s vocals are the perfect narrative device. You’ve gotta love the chorus, with its backing vocal shouted chants of ““Killing Machine!… B-17!”, they’re a strange juxtaposition when paired with Broden’s lead vocal singing ““Honor in the sky!… Flying Home!… Said goodbye to the Cross he deserved!”. The best part about this story? Stigler and Brown met forty-seven years later and became friends.

 

 

5. Edguy – “Alone In Myself” (from Space Police: Defenders of the Crown)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvmraiXxAyU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Tucked away in the middle of a pretty good yet admittedly inconsistent Edguy album was this glowing gem, a gospel-touched power ballad about loneliness and isolation written as only Tobias Sammet can. He’s proven throughout his career to be a tremendously gifted songwriter, and he’s one of the few power metal songwriters truly adept at writing emotional, stirring, and affecting ballads. As Edguy has leaned more in a rock direction in the past half a dozen years, he has adapted his once traditionally structured balladry to incorporate looser, more eighties-rock inspired musical elements. Here he expands his repertoire by including an almost 90s R&B meets soulful gospel motif in the song’s masterful chorus, juxtaposed against arena-rock ready verses built on Def Leppard Hysteria era pounding percussion and rhythmic guitar picking.

The mood created is one that has become something of a Sammet trademark by now, a song that’s simultaneously wistfully melancholic while still coming across as hopeful, and dare I say —- even inspirational. I’m a sucker for background vocals as many of you know, I find them to be delicious ear candy when done right and I love the decision here to approach them differently in the chorus. The choral sung “oooohs” in the refrain build up to one of Sammet’s most passionately sung turn of phrases in “No matter how hard I pray, I’m lost in translation”, while the organ-styled keyboards provide the underlying soundtrack to this unlikely church confessional.

 

 

6. Ghost Brigade – “Departures” (from the album IV – One With The Storm)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dph9H340_4c?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

My favorite moment on an incredible album, Ghost Brigade deliver one of the most urgent, passionate songs of the year with “Departures”. It treads similar territory to fellow Finnish bands like Insomnium, namely loss, regret, loneliness and despair —- but it done it in a way that is refreshingly unapologetic about its pop sensibility. This was the most accessible moment on a rather heavy, harsh vocal-fueled album, but it still has plenty of attack in its hook-laden passages. Consider vocalist Manne Ikonen’s performance as he alternates between tortured, guttural screaming vocals to add a touch of intensity to his distinctly plaintive rock inflected clean vocals. I’ve seen some people suggest that Ikonen gets close to yarling with his vocal choices here, but I’m unconvinced. There’s something deeper, darker, and less suggestive of affectation in his tone —- and truthfully I can’t imagine the song with another singer. The verses here are anchored by dirty bass and sharp percussion, and they lay down a framework upon which the band lets loose on the chorus with melancholic guitar figures over heavy, sustained riffs. At times I’m reminded of the kind of Finnish rock now championed by Amorphis, but created and perfected by the long-departed Sentenced. A perfect song for when you’re having a crappy day and need some empathy.

 

 

7. Freedom Call – “Follow Your Heart” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu4TGlKrc1A?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I was seriously thinking of nominating the title track of this album for this list, with its Blind Guardian-esque epic grandeur and gorgeous melody. Yet every time I considered Freedom Call’s surprisingly vibrant new album, I was reminded of this soaring, majestic paean to freewill and weathering the storms of life. This song brims with the kind of bouncy,kinetic energy so often found only in dance laden pop music, fueled by adrenaline surging backing vocal chants and wild Kai Hansen-inspired hard rock meets metal guitars. With Power Quest nothing but a memory at the moment, Freedom Call are perhaps the last men standing in this most marginalized of power metal strains —- that of ultra melodic, major key riddled, positive attitude infused “happy” power metal (its detractors know it by its given name “flower metal”). I apologize in advance, but once again I feel the need to quote myself,  this time regarding Freedom Call and their musical spirit:

“Whenever people accuse power metal bands of having only commercially minded interests, I’ll point out to them the careers of Freedom Call and Power Quest, who have eluded high chart positions, significant sales figures, and media attention —- ironic given their predilection towards writing undeniably catchy, ear wormy music. They’ve gone as long as they have with their too-commercial-its-noncommercial take on power metal for the sheer want of creating the music they want to hear, all while knowing and accepting that they are uncool and very unmarketable —- tell me, what is more metal than that?

 

 

8. Sonata Arctica – “Cloud Factory” (from the album Pariah’s Child)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RO5FPHFI6sI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I have no delusions about this one, I know it will inspire some scrutiny and scoffing but let me explain. It could be argued that the best album released by Sonata Arctica this year was their re-recording of Ecliptica, and if you read my original review of Pariah’s Child you would think I’d feel the same. Time has changed my mind however and I now look upon that album with a little bit of fondness and understanding, largely felt by seeing them performing a few of it’s songs in an October concert here in Houston. It was seeing and hearing those select new songs that made me realize that what I perceived as strange choices in modern Sonata Arctica albums were actually an extension of frontman Tony Kakko’s own particular brand of humor and expression. His stage mannerisms helped to give “Cloud Factory” a sense of directional narration and it made me appreciate a complexity within its lyrics that I hadn’t noticed before.

That isn’t to say that I thought it was a dud beforehand —- its one of the best songs the band has delivered in years with its slightly Japanese sounding melody and wonderful mid-song bridge at the 2:42 mark (which is promptly followed by one of those aforementioned “strange choices”, yet it works in context of the lyrics). I strongly considered placing the major-key fueled, heart-string tugging sappy ballad “Love” on this list, but as brave as that song is in its boldly sung sentiment it didn’t have the musical complexity of “Cloud Factory”. But both songs are perfect amalgams that represent exactly who Kakko is as a songwriter: He’s the Rivers Cuomo of metal, a man so willing to present raw, open nerve endings through his unflinching delivery of lyrics many would consider too heart-on-sleeve, too emotionally naked. Both men are willing to intermix truth and fiction in their songwriting, and its that mask that hides the mirror.

 

 

9. Anathema – “Ariel” (from the album Distant Satellites)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjAHS4pNUY8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

It would be disingenuous of any of us to begin to exclude new Anathema music from year end metal list consideration simply because of their stylistic shift towards modern progressive rock. Yes the vocals may be softer and sweeter, the melodies more gentle and hushed —- but the complexity and thought behind them has roots that extend far back into the band’s Peaceville three doom metal past. It would also just be plain wrong to ignore a song as singularly beautiful as “Ariel”, the highlight of their rather good Distant Satellites album. The band has been on a creative tear since their comeback in 2010, and they’ve seemed to find their milieu in soundscapes like this one, one of delicate piano and strings, and panoramic washes of screaming Porcupine Tree-esque guitars.

The echoing, soaring voices of Lee Douglas and Vincent Cavanagh are powerful enough to get solo turns each, but its when they join together for the song’s emotionally dizzying climax that they transcend genre and labels. Guitarist Daniel Cavanagh turns in the most inspired performance of his career during the song’s outro-solo; a wild, unrestrained moment of passion where its mirroring of the primary melody seems to continue the sentiments that both singers could not express. Anathema play with live emotional ammunition —- there’s nothing faked or phony here, certainly nothing that is subject to the shallowness of self-aware ironic detachment. That they’ve ceased to be a metal band sonically is arguable sure, but in spirit they’re still very much one of us.

 

 

10. Vintersorg – “Rymdens brinnande öar” (from the album Naturbål)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eg-iau4D52I?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I mentioned in my original review for the latest Vintersorg album that his work isn’t the most accessible or instantly palatable. His albums take time and patience to sit through repeated listens before they begin to reveal themselves to you, and even then you have to be in the right head space to be receptive to it. Sounds daunting, and take it from a decade long disciple of his strange blend of avant-garde, folk-black metal —- it is. But occasionally Vintersorg will surprise even me with a blast of poppy goodness so catchy and memorable that it requires no time at all to enjoy. Case in point was this gem, a hummable duet with an enchanting female vocalist named Frida Eurenius that boasts a refrain so beautiful and breezily effortless that you wonder if Vintersorg could just potentially knock out songs like this all day and specifically chooses NOT to. I could see that happening, he has always been geared towards hyper-progressive ideas within his songwriting, a mad scientist that piles on layers of swirling sound and keyboard washes under furious black metal screams… even his distinctive clean vocals have been sung in Swedish since 2004, making them practically indecipherable for most of us. Take a moment to enjoy this brief respite from his madness then, and to revel in one of the most ear-pleasing choruses of the year.

 

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