Better Late Than Never: New music from Porcupine Tree and more!

Well its been a minute, but it’s been an incredibly busy month or so for me personally and yeah, things just got away from me (like days and weeks and stuff). I have done a considerable amount of listening over the many weeks that have elapsed since my last blog entry, but I have covered a bunch of stuff on the MSRcast that hasn’t been mentioned here so make sure you check those new episodes out. Discussed below are the records I kinda wanted to go a little deeper on and talk about in more detail. Of course there’s some really intriguing and monumental records coming down the pike: the new, long awaited Blind Guardian album of course which will get its own deep dive here, but also the highly anticipated by myself new project from the old In Flames gang + Mikael from Dark Tranquility called The Halo Effect. I am in the process of checking out the new Arch Enemy and Amon Amarth, but have only just begun and you know, given my interest in their recent output, I might not be moved to really say anything on it (I’m hoping otherwise), also I’m still trying to catch up on the Seventh Wonder and Oceans of Slumber releases that came out a couple weeks ago… they got shunted aside time wise and I never got to give them their proper due. Look I’ll admit I’ve been a bit of a mess this year but hell, the motto for 2022 is… ^^ well you know.


Porcupine Tree – Closure/Continuation:

I wanted to make sure I took my time digesting this at once long anticipated and yet still surprising that it even happened new Porcupine Tree album, aptly named Closure/Continuation. I guess we should’ve learned our lesson about bands we’d never expect to get back together after Duff and Slash made their way back to Guns N’ Roses, or certainly after Faith No More reunited or more shocking than either of those, ABBA came together to release a new album. Porcupine Tree was due, and it’s timing could not be more perfect for both fans or for Steven Wilson himself, whose last album seemed a little too self-indulgent for most and who could likely benefit from returning to something a little familiar. This version of Porcupine Tree features Wilson rejoined by longtime members Gavin Harrison on drums and Richard Barbieri on keyboards (ex-bassist Colin Edwards was not included in the reunion, for reasons that are wildly speculated about in the PT subreddit but I’ll not bore you with here, Wilson handled bass on this album btw). And though I wasn’t one of those who spent this intervening decade clamoring for a band reunion, I’m glad its happened because 2009’s The Incident was even at the time of its release, a relatively underwhelming album that hasn’t aged all that well. Wilson is right in his dim view of it in interviews over the years, and its nice for things to not have to end on that musical note if indeed this album leans more towards “closure” than “continuation”.

To that end, I find this album is more of an amalgam of all the previous Porcupine Tree records put together, with spacey, swirling progressive mood pieces from the mid 90s, touchstones of poppier elements from the late 90s and early aughts ala Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia and the more metallic leanings of Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet. It feels as a whole like a complete Porcupine Tree album, reflecting on all the sides of the group that seem familiar, yet accomplishing this feat with really strong material, songs that feel fresh and inspired. The aggressive riff progression in “Rats Return” is really something that I could’ve envisioned on Blank Planet, but the backing vocal/keyboard eerily mashed up arrangement that floats over the top prevents things from becoming too metallic in nature, keeping it firmly in weirdo prog-rock territory. It’s nice that despite all of Wilson’s statements in interviews about how rock guitar didn’t inspire him that much, that the majority of this record is built on exactly that. The strongest tracks are “Dignity” with it’s English folk-rock influences in those gentle verses, and my personal favorite “Of The New Day” is vintage Wilson balladry, achingly melancholic vocal melodies and quietly strummed acoustic guitars awash with layered of moody guitars and keyboards. When Wilson and Barbieri do incorporate more electronics, as on “Walk the Plank”, I find that its far more interesting and engaging than most of the stuff Wilson was attempting to do on The Future Bites (where tellingly the best song on the album was the piano ballad “12 Things I Forgot”). And I don’t mean to dump on Wilson’s solo work here, longtime readers will know that I loved Hand. Cannot. Erase, but I hope this experience has been satisfying for him as a composer, and perhaps a little bit of a perspective shift that hey, it doesn’t make you boring to like guitars, drums, bass and vocals together. All the wheels have been invented already, just focus on making the best ones that you can with your abilities.

Saor – Origins:

Andy Marshall, the man behind the Saor project is back with his fifth album under this banner, with Origins being the follow-up to 2019’s absolutely stunning Forgotten Paths. That album was my introduction to Saor, and it made enough of an impression on me that I went backwards investigating his other work under the banner. As expected, Saor’s production values have only increased dramatically with each new album, those first two being fairly raw, with 2016’s Guardians being the first glimpse at the more modern, cleaned up production that he’d fully realize on Forgotten Paths. The great thing is that Origins has somehow taken that approach to the next level, being the most clear and crisp sounding record that Marshall has ever made. This is important chiefly because the kind of rustic, folk infused atmospheric black metal he is writing truly demands production that has room for both depth, and a cinematic grandeur that your prototypical raw black metal recording does not allow. Case in point is the album opener here “Call of the Carnyx”, with its reverb laden lead guitar melodies to start, and lush keyboard layering, and incredibly meaty, devastating riffing — all perfectly balanced in the superb mixing job by Lasse Lammert of Germany’s LSD Studios. The ending of this song by the way, where Marshall comes roaring back in with those distant sounding yet still unbelievable fierce grim vocals is such an adrenaline inducing passage, the kind of moment where headbanging is the only natural response. Cue up that grandeur I was talking about for “Fallen” where Marshall introduces some bagpipes (I believe keyboard engineered but hey it still sounds the part), a perfect complement to the dramatic, highland clan guitar melodies and pounding drumbeats, while Marshall layers on some rather well done clean vocal harmonies that I didn’t think he was capable of.

There’s a mystical streak running through the songwriting on this album, a striking change from the more earthy, grounded, inward feelings imbued on Forgotten Paths. Conversely, Origins is all wide open skies, winds rippling through mountains, and a sense of wide open spaces, these songs almost a reflection of their inherent spirituality. You hear this quite vividly on “The Ancient Ones”, an album highlight with it’s well balanced mix of atmospherics, subtle folk melodies in those terrific lead parts, and in the interplay between chanted backing vocal theatrics and Marshall’s ever blistering grim vocal attack. The thing that makes all of this work so well is kinda hard to define, because on one hand Marshall isn’t reinventing atmospheric black metal persay, so many bands try to do this same style of atmo-black and yet so few seem to have his particular touch and skill at melding together so many disparate elements. He has a light hand when it comes to infusing the folk elements here, leaving them as melodic imprints heard via guitar or muted sounding keyboards rather than big spectacles imposed on the music via distinctly separate musical elements (there’s no humppa bits barging into the frame unwelcomely). The scaling back of black metal elements and replacing them with heavier, chunkier riffing is also crucial to Origins success, allowing for not only more instantly engaging riff sequences, but in providing the rest of the musical elements with enough spacing to breathe on their own. Full stop, I’ve been addicted to this album since it came out, just finding it a thoroughly engaging, beautiful work of art that has expanded the possibilities of Saor’s sonic potential for future releases. You don’t have to enjoy atmo-black to get into this either, its one of those records that easily transcends its subgenre.

Dawn of Destiny – Of Silence:

One of Germany’s buried treasures, Dawn of Destiny have been a favorite of mine since they grabbed my attention with 2014’s Best Albums listee F.E.A.R., their second album with the phenomenal vocal talents of Jeanette Scherff at the helm. Since then they’ve laid down a pair of quality follow-ups, but have yet to match F.E.A.R.’s brilliance — until now that is. Their eighth album overall, Of Silence contains some of the band’s most inspired work, with bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber penning some truly powerful stuff here. The basic Dawn of Destiny blueprint is still in place here, a thundering heavy/power metal framework infused with significant doses of gothic metal and gritty hard rock. Sounds weird but its like if Type O Negative or Sentenced had a baby with Heart, not only for the very noticeable Ann Wilson vibes in Scherff’s rich vocal tone, but for the downcast, at times outright melancholic feelings being explored throughout these songs. The album opens up with the eight minute multifaceted epic “We Are Your Voice”, which leans about as theatrical as Dawn of Destiny gets, a lot of dramatic surges of guitars to punctuate forlorn lyrics and some truly phat riffs to bookend passages. Its a strong song to kick things off, and doesn’t feel like eight minutes, but track two is where the album really finds its groove to my ears, with “Judas In Me” where guitarist Veith Offenbächer keeps things anchored with a gritty, Accept-ian slab of riffage. Faber’s counterpoint lead vocal in the chorus to offset Scherff is one of the album’s most addictive moments, working in tandem to cook up a hook that is incredibly memorable and satisfying.

Lord of the Lost vocalist Chris Harms joins for a duet on the driving “Childhood”, and hearing his gothic rock vocals in a more earthy, gritty soundscape than the more shiny and produced stylings of his day job band actually steers his voice towards reminding me a little of JP Leppäluoto of Charon. It’s a strong song, with a fully realized refrain that blends Harms and Scherff rather tastefully in intertwined melodies, as opposed to the beauty and the beast trading off dynamic. And for a band that is ostensibly a power metal meets gothic oeuvre, they can really lay the proverbial wood when they want to, with “Say My Name” hitting with the force of a jackhammer, Offenbächer serving up an almost thrashy riff sequence and a wild lead guitar solo towards the latter half of the song. My absolute favorite on the album is the much more subdued, almost power balladry packaged anguish of “Little Flower” (major Charon vibes on that title and lyrics herein), where Faber delivers his best lyrical refrain and melody. There’s something really poignant happening in the lyrics here, with simple metaphors serving a magnified purpose, and Scherff’s impassioned voice just made for songs like this, all painful experience and unrestrained yearning. And kudos has to be given to Faber for his lead vocals on “Run”, where he really shines as a co-vocalist, and though his parts are limited in scope throughout the band’s catalog as a whole, he really has a good sense of when to employ them and when to let Scherff handle things on her own. Not only is this the band’s best album in nearly a decade, it’s at once comfortingly familiar and also a bit of a wing stretcher creatively. Faber strips things down to the meaty essentials at some points, and also takes the band into some fresh progressive territory in others, it all makes for a challenging and rewarding listen.

Fellowship – The Saberlight Chronicles:

At long last, one of the most promising power metal bands to debut in the past decade have delivered their debut album after stoking all of our collective fires a few years ago with their self-titled three song independently released EP. It made such an impact on myself and the entire power metal sphere at r/PowerMetal that it found itself of many people’s best of 2020 lists, including mine where “Glint” was my second favorite song of the year behind Seven Spires immortal “Succumb”. Going the label route this time with Italian power metal institution Scarlet Records, The Saberlight Chronicles folds in the three cuts found on the debut EP (wisely, leaving those off would’ve been a mistake) with nine other entirely new songs, with no lousy intro tracks and no interludes by the way. The question at the heart of this album is do these nine new songs live up to the standard set by those original three (“Glint”, “The Hours of Wintertime”, and “Hearts Upon the Hill”)? And you know how it goes, its rare that there’s a clear cut answer to something like that because I think for starters its hard to live up to hype in general, and there was a lot of expectation put upon this album in the sense that Fellowship was being heralded by some as potential saviors of EUPM (if you believed that EUPM is in need of a savior, another discussion altogether). I feel there is enough stuff here that equals the brilliance displayed on those aforementioned three cuts to say that yeah, Fellowship live up to their potential for the most part here, with a handful of songs present that I’m less enthusiastic about.

First it should be said that vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry straight up delivers across the board, turning in incredible vocal performances in his Tony Kakko-ian emotive vocal style and penning some truly moving lyrics, his chief strength that many of us picked up on in the early days and championed him for. He might never hit the heights that he landed on with the glorious exuberance of his refrain in “Glint”, but he gets very close with “Silhouette” here, Corry evocative in his poetic diction without couching it in bizarre metaphors or imagery… you get his meaning yet find it subtle enough to be open to other interpretations. I really love “Oak and Ash”, sort of the wayward sibling track to “Glint”, where our narrator finds himself unabashedly seeking validation from others. Its refreshing also to find a power metal lyricist that uses grandeur and fantastical imagery as a graceful metaphorical touchstone to talk about real inner turmoil, all with a truly authentic and distinct narrative voice. It’s a very Roy Khan-esque way of going about it. Guitarists Sam Browne and Brad Wosko deserve commendation for their work throughout here, with really beautiful melodies and gorgeously articulated leads that make these songs swirl and dazzle beyond just Corry’s awesome vocal lines. They really explode on “Atlas”, with a spectacularly designed bridge instrumental that has the electricity of Dragonforce and the tempered restraint of Falconer or Kamelot all at once. This is an admirable debut album, likely the strongest UK power metal debut in well over a decade and this band has so much to offer if they keep kicking out new albums down the road. Get in on them now.

All the Heaviness: New Music from Kreator, Kvaen, Einvigi, and more!

There has been a handful of new albums that have shook me over the past month and a half that have come across my desk, and I mean literally. These all lean towards the heavier, extreme end of the metal spectrum, and I guess that’s just what I’ve been really into here lately as the brutal summer months arrive to envelope us in oppressive, withering heat. There’s the new album by leathered veterans Kreator after yet another lengthy five year wait, and a new album by Thormesis who were a band that I was pretty nuts over back in 2019 with their last album, and an armful of new records from band’s I’m entirely new too which is always encouraging. I haven’t been to any metal gigs since the last update, but there’s a bunch of tours coming up that are really tempting to buy tickets to, and I slated to see Moonspell and Swallow the Sun in late August which will also be my return to one of my favorite venues in town. It’s been also fun to check out some of the Hellfest footage on the YouTube ARTE channel, and the way they’ve segmented upcoming band’s performances as save-able video premieres is really convenient and something I’d hope other fests like Wacken would adopt (having to tune into a singular livestream feed seems like something that should have changed a few years ago now, our entertainment is literally all on demand now). Seeing Blind Guardian finally perform all of Somewhere Far Beyond was a treat to behold, I never thought we’d get to hear “Ashes to Ashes” live for starters. Although I can’t really imagine physically surviving going to Hellfest even for one weekend, let alone both, it’s nice to feel a part of this massive event from the comfort of one’s desk or couch. Anyway onto the reviews, and drop a line in the comments section on how you are all handling hell on ear— I mean summer! Yay… summer.


Kreator – Hate über alles:

Maybe it was the context of when I first checked out this album that really sold it for me, right after a particularly frustrating and exhausting day at work while driving in search of a tasty iced coffee on an afternoon where my car thermometer read 105°F. In that state of hellish existence, I really enjoyed the heck out of Hate über alles, tapping in rhythm on my steering wheel and pounding the passenger seat next to me for emphasis, but even now, some time later while listening to it at my desk, I think this album holds up to that initial positive impression. This is leagues better than 2017’s decent but sometimes flat Gods of Violence, an album that did not live up to the hype that 2012’s melodic death infused Kreator inspired with the truly excellent Phantom Antichrist. There’s a fire and intensity to Mille Petrozza that seemed missing from the last one, both in his lyrics and his impassioned vocals, not to mention some of the strongest songwriting they’ve delivered since Violent Revolution. It’s been interesting to see the varying opinions I’ve seen on this album, and as someone pointed out on a review in Metallum, there’s really no winning for legendary bands releasing new music. Fans want the band to recapture the essence and energy of a bygone era, and also want something new and fresh to the band’s sound so that it doesn’t sound like something they’ve heard before. I’ve seen some people complain about the lingering injection of melodeath in the Kreator sound over the past two albums post Phantom, and that’s puzzling to me, because as on “Strongest of the Strong” here, I think they’ve done a fantastic job at infusing that into their classic thrash sound. In fact the more melodic Kreator allow themselves to be, the richer and deeper their songwriting strikes me, with this album’s best cuts being those that allow for Sami Yli-Sirniö’s articulate lead melodies to flow over the top of Petrozza’s ever reliably crunchy riffing. This isn’t a deep dive review so while I won’t track by track it, I’ll point out “Demonic Future” (love that Maiden-y riff in the chorus), “Conquer And Destroy” has a gorgeous intro melody and rips into the most Kreator-y assault on the album, and I love the marching drive of “Crush the Tyrants” despite everyone complaining that it sounds like Sabaton (hey last time I checked, Sabaton didn’t invent the mid-tempo, just saying… where is everyone hearing this supposed Sabaton reference? Get real people…). This is a quality Kreator album for anyone willing to embrace it, quality songs, a mix of their classic sound and newer melodeath update, and Mille sounds like he’s reinvigorated from a lyric perspective.

Einvigi – Yö kulje kanssani:

I enjoy some atmo-black, but it’s rare that I recommend any records from that subgenre here on the blog, mostly because I tend to come to these albums far later than their initial release via recommendations from people or Spotify and by that time it’s a moot point. But I’m arriving right on time with Finland’s Einvigi and their late April release, Yö kulje kanssani. This is a refreshingly light on it’s feet, almost airy yet still substantial atmo-black record that reminds me more of stuff like Steven Wilson and weirdly enough, The Cranberries (musically) than it does Alcest or any of the French pioneers of this particular subgenre. Einvigi’s approach to guitars certainly come bearing riffs with dissonant tremolo passages and heavily distorted fuzzy wash (particularly that Alcest-ian effect of sounding like its coming over some distant fog-covered hill) but their real charm is heard in their jangly, strumming approach. Maybe its just my own individual point of reference, but I can’t help but hear other non-metallic influences shining through here, and my own filter is really clocking a lot of early 90s alternative sounding guitar melodies (I swear the intro to “Takauma” sounds like it could’ve been something from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?). The Smiths, Stephen Street’s production style… maybe even a little Smashing Pumpkins circle 92-96 — these are the sounds that I’m hearing when I play through Yö kulje kanssani, and there’s a warm nostalgic comfort to that. Maybe that’s why despite being a big fan of several Alcest records, and a few other atmo-black bands and albums here and there, its always leaning towards more of an appreciation of their objective qualities. Meaning that they’re albums I loved listening to because they were loaded with ear candy or just remarkable musical artistry. But I’ve been replaying this Einvigi album because it’s cutting a little deeper than those others, songs such as “De Profundis” and “Hirviöiden valtakunnassa” filled with the kind of watercolor beauty of Countless Skies’ Glow. But it’s somewhat futile to point out a killer song here, because this really is one of those recordings where its all meant to be a greater whole, to be digested at once so you fall under it’s spell and find that your emotional state is affected and your mood altered. It’s the kind of album you can describe as high art and primal all at once.

Thormesis – If Mania Never Ends:

Thormesis are back after delivering one of 2019’s best albums of that year in The Sixth, a reformation of their older style into something fresh and new that was at once blistering and full of rage and also pensive and melancholic. It’s sequel picks up where it left off, this time incorporating clean vocals in more lead vocal moments as opposed to just serving as a counterpoint to harshes and some peppered in melodeath growls. I’m not sure when the band started describing their sound as “atmospheric metal”, but that descriptor definitely fits for If Mania Never Ends as well as it’s predecessor. The Harakiri For the Sky adjacent soundscapes we got on The Sixth have been pushed over a bit for the introduction of a Finnish inspired, almost Insomnium-esque approach at times. The moody, somber epic “Still the Claim” is the most vivid sample of this infusion, and its smartly paced not to linger too long in one specific passage or another before jumping off to the next. It seems like this is a heavier album than The Sixth in terms of extremes, it’s sonic peaks such as “Cold and Soundless” and “You Are the Parting” having a fiercer, sharper attack than anything on the previous album where the main focus was all-encompassing atmospherics. One of Thormesis most fascinating aspects is how they blur the lines between black metal and melodeath death metal, being neither one and yet reflecting aspects of both styles. On the incredibly emotive “Anemone” you can hear this in the grinding stomp of that introductory verse passage with it’s melodeath assault and how it transitions gradually over the next few minutes into brightly lit progressive metal with black metal vocals underpinning things. At their most inspired, Thormesis manage to paint not so much with the watercolors of Einvigi, but with more primal streaks of raw emotion in violent, ugly, and also gorgeous fashion. This is definitely a progression of their sound, and although I prefer it’s predecessor for the meditative quality that album had as a whole, this is a worthy continuation of that sound.

Gladenfold – Nemesis:

This was a random stumble upon in the bowels of Spotify, a new to me melodic death metal band from Finland who are a surprising mix of Children of Bodom keyboard dramatics driven melo-death (with harshes that remind me of Alexi Laiho’s phrasing but a little more tightened up on the delivery) swirled together with a dose of rather convincing power metal ala Kamelot or classic era Sonata. Their secret weapon in this is that vocalist Esko Itälä is apparently capable of doing both with real skill, his harshes plenty satisfying on a purely sonic level and his clean power metal vocals possessed of a clear, deep, sonorous timbre. At times his singing voice reminds me of a deeper Matthew Corry of UK symphonic power metallers Fellowship, and that might be a random reference but there’s something to the way both of these singers can deliver earnest expressions in their approach to a vocal melody. Gladenfold’s merging of Finnish melodeath and power metal really comes loaded with some major early 2000s vibes, and also plays right into my wheelhouse, but what made me instantly hooked on Nemesis is just how artfully they’ve combined these elements together. Take for example the quick, blistering transitions from melodic to brutal and vice versa on the awesome “Chiara’s Blessing”; or the intensity of that ultra densely packed melodeath riffing on “Revelations” as a bed for Itälä’s harsh/clean switch ups in the verses. The songwriting throughout Nemesis feels well thought out, full of depth and intricate passages that more often than not do venture interesting roads, towards satisfying hooks in the refrains or really monumental musical peaks and valleys. The tucked away gem that really won me over was the Blind Guardian meets modern day Borknagar merger happening in “Tapestry of Creation”, where a beautiful acoustic build up explodes into something that would’ve sounded at home on Winter’s Thrice. I also have a soft spot for the ballad “Saraste” which evokes the best of Suidakra’s indulgent acoustic vibes with the aforementioned Blind Guardian’s bard-esque legacy of balladry into a beautiful piece of music that is the kind of thing you should wish someone would be playing live at the Renaissance festival. Gladenfold have been around for more than a few years (a 2014 debut but they’ve been a thing since 2004!) and it seems like most people are discovering them with Nemesis (their third album) like myself. Looks like I have some homework listening to do.

The Spirit – Of Clarity and Galactic Structures:

Relative newcomers, Germany’s The Spirit are a black metal duo that offer a refreshing take on mining the genre, not through the classic second wave mold of hyperspeed tremolo buzzsaw guitars and a battery of blastbeats, instead opting for a more dynamic songwriting approach that evokes Satyricon’s post-2000’s midtempo output. The first thing that struck me when listening through this album for the first time was just how much I was getting Now, Diabolical vibes not only from vocalist MT’s (no real name provided) very Satyr-esque vocal tone of charcoal black grit and hoarseness, but from the duo’s resolve to stick to a steady, mid-tempo pace as the centering focus of most of these songs. I suppose one could point out that their two man nature also naturally evokes comparisons to Satyr and Frost, but there’s plenty of two man black metal outfits out there, and few if any have taken to tapping this particular style of black metal as a source of inspiration (which is puzzling, but works to The Spirit’s advantage in sticking out from the pack). I should emphasize that this isn’t a purely copycat situation either, The Spirit blending that source of inspiration with complex layering and enough sudden directional shifts that give me some slight Dissection vibes as well. Take the intro to “Celestial Fire” for example, with a seriously Reinkaos-vibe lead pattern to open things up, only to careen headlong into a downhill frenzied pace that is still locked into a headbanging rhythm, never descending into an indecipherable mess. Drummer MS doesn’t rely on black metal tropes such as blast beats and traditional patterns, preferring to employ unorthodox hits and fills that really give the percussion throughout it’s own personality. Current favorite is “The Climax of Dejection”, where you get a real feel for just how multifaceted and complex their songwriting approach can, mixing traditional metal riffs with black metal sounding bends, chords, and tonality. I also love that MT’s ability to deliver enunciative vocals that are both decipherable lyrically and still bleak as all hell, making the lyrics on this album as much a part of the fabric of the recording from a literal standpoint as well as a textural one. This is a really strong black metal record that is refreshing in how it’s mining a source of inspiration that is relatively untapped, and for how they’re putting their own stamp on it.

Kvaen – The Great Below:

This was a nice surprise, a sufficiently brutal slab of blackened, Dissection-y folk tinged metal that fuses in bits of melodeath, straight ahead death, and finds a way to be really tuneful and unrelentingly aggressive at the same time. Kvaen is a one man project courtesy of one lone Swede named Jakob Björnfot, who according to Metallum is responsible for “everything” on this album. Björnfot isn’t a well known name for anything before this, but hopefully Kvaen changes that because he’s got this style of music flowing through his veins. As a guitarist, his approach seems to favor thrashy, speed driven riffing that’s equal parts Kreator and early, early Metallica. It keeps cuts such as the awesome title track and “Damnation’s Jaw” flowing with a wild, headbanging energy that I don’t normally associate with black metal. Even when he does turn towards a more traditional black metal riff structure as on “Sulphur Fire”, Björnfot seems to have an innate sense of keeping it reigned in, to not resort to cliched hypnotic/droning riff sequences as a crutch — instead he uses tremolo riffing as a spice, a flavoring. I love the simplicity and primal nature of this approach, as on “Ensamvarg” where we get into a meaty, fist pumping riff straightaway with a nice, fat, thundering tail to end the verse. His cinematic songwriting instincts are on full display here, employing keyboard/synth as a subtle coloring in assisting a key change, something that feels more natural than hearing a horribly out of tune keyboard melody distract from everything else around it. I also wanna point out the guitar solo here (and elsewhere throughout the album for that matter), because Björnfot is a damn good guitarist and he has an incredible instinct for knowing when to go for broke and go nuts and when to lean more towards the understated and tasteful as he does here to conclude the song. He’s a really strong harsh vocalist as well, his vocals on the right mix of charcoal with a hint of gravel. There’s a host of guest appearances on this album, some impressive names to boot too, but I’ll let you discover those on your own because truth be told they might be a clever initial draw, but you’ll be hitting repeat because of Björnfot’s songwriting and musicianship alone. Seriously one of the flat out best extreme metal (hard to know what to peg this as, it’s such a mish-mash of subgenres in the best possible way) albums of the year, and a likely contender for winding up on many best albums lists at the end of the year.

Catching Up: Recent Metal Gigs and New Albums

A lot has happened since my last update on the metal front, namely that I’ve seen an armful of bands live within the past month and a half. In April I finally had my pandemic delayed opportunity to see Seven Spires live and they did not disappoint, despite having a setlist that was limited in scope and set length to focus on the last album and just a few songs from the much beloved Emerald Seas (come to think of it, I don’t think they did anything from Solveig). I even got to say hello to Adrienne and Jack who were on the floor watching Firewind with the rest of us after their set — funnily enough, those two were also at the Rotting Christ/Borknagar show the other night here on the Devastation For the Nation’s Houston stop, although I didn’t see them personally and only found out through her Instagram story later. Oh yeah, getting to see Borknagar live for the first time was as my buddy Maurice at the show commented, a definite “bucket list” moment. Despite no Vintersorg in the lineup (and thus none of his era’s songs getting an airing), it was still an unforgettable experience and they were brilliant on stage in their own inimitable way. I’d seen ICS Vortex live way back in the day with Dimmu, but he was definitely way more in his own element here, his stage presence more attuned to being in a jam based band than the rigidity we’ve come to expect from black metal bands live. I also can’t express how surreal it was to see Oystein Brun in person, not that he’s a big celebrity even in the metal sense, but because this is a guy I’ve known about for twenty years now never thinking I’d get to see him play live.

What else? Oh yeah, of course, the epic two day Hells Heroes IV Fest that happened over the course of April 22nd-23rd where I got to see Candlemass for the first time ever (speaking of bucket list) on Friday night as the downstairs headliner, and High Spirits on Saturday night as the upstairs headliner. There were other tremendous bands I saw that weekend, Eternal Champion was brilliant live, I really loved Sumerlands who were way more fierce live than I was expecting, and getting to see Midnight again (who were the secret special guests) was a treat. I know Midnight had an album released back in March, and it sounds you know, like Midnight and it’s pretty good, but this is a band that I think is that rare bird that is best experienced live because they might be one of the best live performers in metal as a whole right now, just pure intensity and adrenaline when they’re onstage). On a recent MSRcast, we talked a bit in depth about the Hells Heroes experience, and quite a bit about how the expansion of an outdoor seating/merch/chilling area made the entire fest way more manageable and pleasant on a personal energy level than it was back in 2019, and I have to give praise to the organizers for that. It’s a great event and everyone should consider buying a ticket and coming down for it (that is, after I’ve bought mine of course).

There is also the recent slate of new music to cover, and I’ll be honest I’ve been listening to some albums far more than others. Månegarm and Lords of the Trident really occupied a lot of my metal listening time for the past few weeks, along with finding myself dipping back into Bruce Dickinson’s solo catalog (his speaking gig that I saw back in, what February(?) has apparently lingered in my mind since). I was jamming a bit of Dragonforce and Spires in the wake of that terrific gig, and went off on a post Hells Heroes tangent with some of the bands I got to see there as well. Recently its been Therion because they’ve dropped a new single and I couldn’t resist checking it out — it sent me on an indulgent spree of spinning their classic late 90s masterworks. This means I’m of course behind on new music, but thankfully I have people like Christian and Justin sorting through a mess of new music and I can afford to be a bit picky by really focusing on their recommendations, some which are landing and some not so much (opinions?!). Anyway here’s some of that in no real order below:


Månegarm – Ynglingaättens öde:

It feels like its been ages since an album has captured my heart and imagination the way the newest album by veteran Swedish OG folk metallers Månegarm has. This was a release day discovery, with me stumbling around the metal release calendar that Friday morning looking for anything interesting that had come out, and seeing this on it. I was utterly blown away from the very first song and all throughout this nine track masterpiece (I try not to use that term unless its warranted, and it absolutely is here), Ynglingaattens ode being a likely contender for the album of the year spot, because seriously this might be the most giddily surprised I’ve felt about anything metal wise since Seven Spires Emerald Seas. I’ve been a fan of the band since Havets vargar way back in 2000 when folk metal was exploding out of Scandinavia and Europe and felt nascently raw, vital, and fresh. I have in the past few years pointed out how there has been a quiet resurgence of both new and veteran folk metal artists who are releasing really strong records that harken back to that era, before the genre became bloated with gimmickry and goofiness. Thankfully Månegarm has been part of combating that nonsense for a good while now, with their 2019 album Fornaldarsagor landing on that year’s best albums list here, their most inspired offering in well over a decade. And they pick up right where they left off on this new album, slightly stepping away from Fornaldarsagor’s more blackened aggression to make room for more of their rootsy Scandinavian folk melodies this time around.

As if to prove that statement wrong, the album opener “Freyrs blod” comes striking out with a vicious frenetic aggression that would suggest otherwise at first. At around the two minute mark however, guitarist Markus Andé introduces subtle but gorgeous, grandiose sounding melodic progressions to accompany vocalist Erik Grawsiö’s soaring, leather worn clean vocals. I’m almost positive my eyebrows raised when I first heard this moment, it made me really sit up and take notice and by the time the hushed, folk string adorned vocal passage unfolded a minute and a half later, I was completely entranced. This is a ten minute song, something I honestly didn’t even realize until writing this review, because it doesn’t feel like ten minutes and not once was I aware of it’s length, a success in and of itself. It’d easily be the best track on an incredible album if it weren’t for the beautifully autumnal power ballad “En snara av guld”, with its sweetly melancholic violin accompaniment and a stunning vocal melody by Grawsiö. He’s joined here by his daughter Lea Grawsiö Lindström who turns in a really haunting performance, her voice a strikingly innocent yet mature counterpart to Grawsiö’s rougher textures. In the more purely folk ballad realm is the serene “Hågkomst av ett liv”, where recent Manegarm collaborator Ellinor Videfors sings wistfully to a lamenting melody with a subtle accompaniment by Grawsiö. I love that the band really dove deep on the folk side of their sound on this album, because I’ve always thought they had one of the most skillful and subtle touches when it came to working it into their overall sound. The melodies are brighter and more shimmering throughout this album, there’s a confidence here that suggests a comfortableness with their sonic identity — the result is an album that sounds spiritual, meditative and full of life.

Lords of the Trident – The Offering:

I love this album, and in classic Metal Pigeon fashion, it reached up from the inky blackness and slapped me without warning to become one of my most listened to records of the year thus far. The fifth album from Wisconsin based power metal goofs Lords of the Trident, The Offering represents a maturing and deepening of the band’s adventurous riff based power metal sound. There were hints that something like this was brewing on their 2018 effort Shadows From the Past, with some of those songs being incredibly solid, though I felt the album still felt a bit uneven throughout. That inadequacy is addressed here with not only a complete lack of any discernible weak spots across the board (a titanic accomplishment considering its 13 song track length), but with the band seemingly landing on a sound and overall approach that really rings true to them. This is power metal that is at once built on aggressive riffage, but at times plays on a balance of laid back hard rockin’ groove juxtaposed with strident, classic Edguy invoking adventurous power metal drive and gusto. The game changer lies not only on the instrumental front, but in how vocalist Fang VonWrathenstein (née Tyler Christian) has improved in leaps and bounds. Christian turns in a vocal performance here that is impassioned and rich, full of power but still capable of nuance and emotive inflections in his approach. It’s maybe my favorite vocal performance of the year overall, because it’s reminding me so much of a cross between Urban Breed and I dunno, maybe a lighter toned smoother vocalist like Tommy Karevik. His tone and delivery seems to be weighty and full of gravitas here, a more serious approach than he was dishing out on previous albums (which I’ll be honest, might have been why I wasn’t keen on their earlier stuff). The band is matching him too, turning out compositions that qualify this as a serious metal album despite the band members’ silly aliases. Songs like “Offering to the Void” and “Legend” have this beautifully vivid grandeur to them, soaring and majestic but still understated in their tonal color. Even when they cut loose with a wild rocker like on “Acolyte” or “Feed the Wolves”, there’s an intensity and precision here that is commanding my attention. Can’t say enough good things about this record, I’m really impressed and kinda relieved that a new power metal album has gotten me so fired up (there had been a concerning drought recently).

Trick or Treat – Creepy Symphonies:

Trick or Treat has been the Italian alternative for despondent fans of classic era Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Edguy who’ve longed for those bands to return to their lighter, more purist power metal sounds (though in fairness, Helloween has sorta gotten there). I’ve enjoyed their records on a mostly passing level since they debuted way back in 2006 with the unforgettably titled Evil Needs Candy Too, and have followed them since with a particular focus on seeing where Alessandro Conti’s various musical pursuits have led. While Conti’s classic power metal vocals are understandably the star attraction here, the band has really stepped up their efforts on the songwriting front this go around. One of the highlights here has them stretching their wings a bit on the power ballad front on “Peter Pan Syndrome (Keep Alive)” whose worrying title thankfully was disguising a gloriously uplifting, heartwarming gem the likes of which I’ve really missed hearing. I get major Avantasia with Kiske vibes on “Crazy”, and that’s a credit to Conti’s unnatural ability to sound a lot like the Helloween frontman when he hits a certain inflection. Conti and guitarist Guido Benedetti split the songwriting duties fairly evenly it seems across Creepy Symphonies, but there’s really a merging of styles with these two guys, a synchronicity in the way they’re approaching songwriting. In other words, Benedetti is just as liable to deliver songs with amply soaring vocals with arcing choruses as Conti is, there’s no discernible differences in approach that creates a noticeable dichotomy within the album. And I kinda like that because that consistency has yielded a truly fun, vibrant, and cheer inducing listening experience all throughout this album. Easily one of the strongest Euro-power albums I’ve heard in awhile alongside the Planeswalker album that came out earlier in the year.

Saidan – Onryō II: Her Spirit Eternal:

I’ve been addicted to this record as soon as I first checked it out, and in the weeks since that happened I’ve seen more and more people online talking about it here and there. Tennessean black metal duo Saidan deserve the traction, because this is kinda what I’ve been craving in black metal in a big way. On Twitter recently, user @VVolvenDaughter wrote “The thing black metal is missing is bangers. It’s an album genre, and good at atmosphere, but is distinctly lacking in standout songs that make you completely wreck your neck”, and while there are certainly exceptions to that statement, I largely agree with her. This is not to say that all black metal should be composed of attempts to write “bangers” either, because many of the black metal albums I do love are mostly textural, deeply layered, atmospheric experiences (cue Alcest and many other atmo-black records, as well as a majority of the second wave of black metal for that matter). But yeah, black metal could do with a crop of bands who understand the power of a headbanging worthy riff that stands out from the din of furious noise its usually buried by. When I saw Midnight at Hells Heroes, their blackened take on punky metallic speed metal was so effective at firing up the entire crowd live, and more recently, Rotting Christ’s hypnotic but arena ready riffs were absolutely commanding in a live situation. We were all banging our heads. And what I think Saidan get absolutely right on Onryō, their second album, is landing on that intersection between a densely layered, very much atmospheric experience while somehow being catchy as all get out with actual memorable riff sequences that cut through everything and smack you about the face. Take “Yuki Onna” for example, that melancholic yet aggressive intro riff repeating sequence is beguiling enough, but when the mid-song post bridge switch into a chugging, thunderous lumberjack of a riff kicks in, it’s deeply satisfying. There’s an excitement coursing through these songs, even the quiet interlude length cut with the odd name (“Kate”), where a tautly strung together clean guitar melody provides a tense backdrop for some breathy distant sounding melodic vocals. The truly killer moment is the entirety of the closing track “I Am The Witch”, where my only complaint is that the frigging awesome riff that kicks in at the five minute mark only sticks around for a minute before fading off to the conclusion (we needed a longer run of that one dammit). The sharpest and most hooky black metal album of the past two years easy, and that’s high praise considering the excellent records that have been delivered in that time frame.

Thunder – Dopamine:

This has been a nice surprise, a really strong new album by England’s hidden hard rock titans Thunder, a band that I’ll be honest, sort of fell off my radar over the past decade-ish plus. I first got into Thunder when I blindly bought a used cassette of their 1990 classic Backstreet Symphony way back in the mid-90s because the band name sounded vaguely metallic and the little band pic on the insert seemed to verify this as well. I had no idea who they were or where they came from (based on their sound I think for awhile I thought they were an American band), but I really loved that record and the band’s Bad Company meets classic GnR meets Tesla sound in general. I’d pick up a handful of their albums in the same secondhand way in scattershot fashion over the years and always enjoyed them, especially Laughing On Judgement Day, but looking over their discography page on Wikipedia now, I realize I’ve missed a ton of releases, particularly surprisingly high charting ones from the past handful of years. They’re a top ten charting band in the UK again, and clearly have experienced a revival of sorts, much like Magnum has recently with their past few efforts. If these other recent albums are anything like Dopamine, I can see why: This is confident, assured straight up hard rock from a veteran band that isn’t trying to be anything other than who they truly are. Songs like “One Day We’ll Be Free Again”, “The Western Sky”, and “Across the Nation” have that same recognizable no-frills hard rock attitude and swagger as anything off the first two albums, a refreshing sound to hear when lately I’ve been bouncing between all kinds of complexly layered extreme metal and densely layered K-Pop. I was particularly taken by the sparse piano adorned ballad “Is Anybody Out There?”, a great showcase that demonstrates guitarist Luke Morley’s songwriting abilities translate just as sharply with pure melodies as they do in cranking out memorable riffs. Vocalist Danny Bowes is nothing short of incredible here, emotive in his delivery and phrasing, landing on satisfying vocal runs and deftly handling delicate melodies. These two guys have a long track record together, and like similar duos in rock history (your Bob Catley/Tony Clarkin, your Jeff Keith/Frank Hannon pairings), they’re comfortable enough with each other to seemingly play to each other’s strengths. I’ve loved diving back into this really overlooked band (here in the States that is), and this has been a joy to listen to.

Mostly Headliners: New Music from Sabaton, Ghost, and more!

The past few weeks have been rather interesting in terms of big name releases on the metal landscape, with Ghost and Sabaton grabbing the headlines but not overshadowing new music from Hammerfall and Scorpions. There were a few more things I’ve been listening to that occurred in the past two weeks that I’ll have to get to next time around, although I suspect I’ll be writing about the upcoming Hell’s Heroes festival in Houston long before I can get to them (so stay plugged into the MSRcast to hear more new music talk in the interim!). Can hardly believe its April, but with a quarter of the year having gone by I’m more encouraged by what’s been released this year than in 2021, and there’s going to be some notable things coming out in the months to come. I’ve also been encouraged by listening to some other metal podcasts such as our friend David’s That Metal Podcast to make good on my promise to myself to do more writing on this blog that’s kinda selfish, those ideas I’ve kept meaning to get back to that always get shelved because of new music reviews. I started on this late last year with my Metal Pigeon Essential Ten: Power Metal write up, which I’m aiming to keep expanding on, but I also am hoping to get The Metal Pigeon Recommends feature relaunched too (David’s “The Northernmost Killers” episode on Sentenced got me thinking about it because they were last band I covered in that series as well). So yeah, there’s a lot on the agenda hopefully that will become reality soon enough.


Sabaton – The War To End All Wars:

So the first thought that came to my mind way back whenever I first heard that Sabaton was doing yet another World War I themed album was that they were committing a major faux pas… because rarely, and I mean friggin’ rarely does a band continue the same concept for two releases in a row. Even sequels tend to be separated by intervals of time, no matter how detrimental that gap in time can be (ask a Queensryche fan how they feel about Mindcrime II sometime). Sabaton’s reason for doing this is because they felt they simply had too many ideas that they couldn’t fit into The Great War due to the depth and wide reaching breadth of the subject matter at hand, and needed a continuation album. Shrewdly enough, they really did make an effort to tie the two records in together; from having cover artist Péter Sallai utilize nearly the same palette for the artwork, to ensuring similar stylization of the album titles, to even once again offering a narration boosted “history edition” of this album (which is what I’ve been listening to by the way) just like they did for The Great War. But the risk they run here is the unspoken elephant in the room tromping through their fans minds with the echoing message that these songs weren’t good enough to make the first one of these WWI albums, so here they are as leftovers. Hey its a fair enough thought, and I suspect there is a morsel of truth to it as well, but I’ve come to feel after many listens that The War To End All Wars succeeds more often than not and even shows glimpses of the band at their best.

Lets start with the highlights, and of course the first thing anyone should be singling out here is “The Christmas Truce”, which is in the running for being the one of the band’s most spectacular songs ever penned to date, certainly their best “epic”. Gorgeous, tinkling piano snowfall, setting the scene Joakim Broden paints out in some genuinely excellent lyrical diction, set to a melody that at once invokes the sounds of Christmas yet cuts them with an undercurrent of darkness and despair. This is a litmus test song for me, one of those cuts where I might start to side-eye question someone’s musical taste if they can’t even cop to this being a well wrought piece of music. Broden’s vocals dig deep here, full of passion, the kind of performance that required him to throw himself entirely into a different character, and if you’ve seen the incredibly well done music video you might know exactly what I’m alluding to. Another favorite is the grinding, stomping “Soldier Of Heaven”, where the prechorus features that classic Broden hammer drop (“A force of nature too strong, sent from above!”). It’s preceded on the album by the gloriously urgent spiritual cousin to Sabaton classic “Ghost Division” in “Stormtroopers”, not a song about the Empire’s fashionably iconic shock troops but the WWI era German troops of the same name. The Bulgarian Battle of Doiran anthem “Valley of Death” is old school swinging Sabaton action, all glorious triumphant major keys in that chorus and a truly memorable vocal hook. Nothing groundbreaking, but classic Sabaton when its on the mark satisfies that basic heavy metal need to fist pump and sing along. I also wanna point out “Hellfighters” for getting back to the darker, more grind it out sludgefest that The Great War often delved into, something I appreciated for the soundscape it gave to subject matter that needed a hefty dose of it to really give credence to the reality of WWI. The few other tracks I haven’t singled out here do however feel a little like the table scraps from this enormous WWI songwriting session, and they’re not bad songs per say, but their unremarkable nature makes this sequel a little less enthralling than part one.

Hammerfall – Hammer of Dawn:

If you didn’t remember, and you’d be forgiven for not doing so, I really enjoyed the heck out of Hammerfall’s Dominion in the before times back in 2019. Time really flies when you’re heeding the call as Joacim Cans reminds us on the door kicking opener “Brotherhood” (and lets face it, if you’re not heeding the call, why are you reading a Hammerfall review?). Is this classic medieval imagery as a metaphor for Hammerfall concert attendance anthem also hinting at the reality of our collective concert yearning during the pandemic? I normally wouldn’t try to read too much into Hammerfall’s lyrics for obvious reasons but I detect a note of… gratitude, hopefulness, or yearning present in Cans’ words here, and I have to think these songs were written sometime last year when we still didn’t know if shows would be happening in 2022. I last saw Hammerfall in 2018 when they were touring with Flotsam and Jetsam as openers in tow, it was a spectacular time, and they were supposed to be back in fall of 2020 with Beast In Black and Edge of Paradise. I’m incredibly eager to see them return not only for the classic material they’ll be playing, but also because with Hammer of Dawn, they now have two recent albums that I’ve been incredibly fired up about hearing cuts from live.

This is a far more conventional Hammerfall listening experience than Dominion, where the band was not so much experimenting as they were stretching their reach towards more creative songwriting approaches that really worked well. By no means does that make Hammer of Dawn boring though, this is a strong album with relatively few weak moments, but nothing as stellar as “Sweden Rock”, “Chain of Command”, or “Second to One”. The sure fire bangers here are the throwback Renegade-era invoking title track, the cheeky lyrical play of “Too Old to Die Young”, the complex tempo shifting “Reveries”, and the King Diamond assisted “Venerate Me” (although it’s hard to detect the King’s presence at first… maybe they can be knocked for under utilizing him). It’d be easy to think that simply being a Hammerfall fan means you’ll receive each new album fairly well, but that’s not always the case — I’m still not that wild on Infected and (r)Evolution, and there are tangible and intangible aspects I look for when it comes to new material from the group. What they’ve managed to grab ahold of on these past two albums I think is largely an awareness of who they are and what they’re best at tackling on a musical level. I’ve accepted that the raw, melodeath-ian influenced guitar attack they had on the first two albums is likely gone forever, replaced by the post millennium sense of Priest-like precision and the far less dense, looser chugging approach to their riffs. At its core of course, it boils down to the very simple question of whether the songwriting is on point or not, and lately it has been. This is a trend that I hope continues.

Allegaeon – Damnum:

The name Allegaeon has been floating around my metal circle for awhile now, and although I have been introduced and exposed to their past few records via the podcast and just earnest recommendations that have come my way, it’s only on this new album Damnum that I’m really paying attention of my own accord. I’ll have to revisit the others to see if this record is just the beginning of them really landing on something truly inspired, or just the latest entry among a really impressive body of work that I’ve been spacing out on. I have listened to Damnum probably as much as I’ve been listening to any other metal record in the entirety of these past four months of 2022, and it speaks volumes that any record can command that kind of firm, long lasting grip on my attention span these days. And while there’s plenty of bands trying to do to death metal what Allegaeon is succeeding in doing here, namely, reimagining it through a progressive metal filter and embracing melody without turning into a melodic death metal band (a subtle distinction, but certainly a valid one). Their greatest asset in accomplishing this is vocalist Riley McShane, who is capable of some convincingly ferocious growls, fantastically blackened shrieking vox, and a full, almost warm sounding clean vocal tone that he can switch back and forth without warning. It allows the band to be adventurous in their songwriting, to pull some head spinning shifts in tempo and aggression one way or another, and to utilize unconventional rhythms and space as textures and soundscapes for more introspective, moodier moments. Take “Called Home”, which boasts some of the album’s most violent passages, but also has McShane leading us in an emotively sung clean vocal passage over drifting, isolated lead figures and some echoing, off-beat proggy drum fills.

McShane’s clean vocals are at once familiar and also hard to find a direct comparison to, he’s more of an amalgamation of a handful of vocalists you might already know than a doppelganger of one other singer or another. His work towards the end of the impressive album opener “Bastards of the Earth” kinda recalled hints of Haken’s Ross Jennings crossed with Countless Skies’ Phil Romeo (or you know, insert your own point of reference here). Perhaps even more impressive however is his razor sharp enunciation that cuts through in his harsh and growling vocal techniques. Even in uber dense cuts like “Into Embers”, where the band’s more tech death side surfaces, setting aside most melodic indulgences, you can actually discern the lyrics or at least most of the syllabic structure that he’s barking out. I feel like this is an incredibly underrated talent in extreme metal, its one thing for harsh or growling vocals to serve as more of a textural element, we’re all used to that by now. But actually combining that with understandable lyrics is something that can elevate a band’s songwriting, particularly when you have a lyricist with talent at work (Rivers of Nihil should get credit for this as well). Guitarists Greg Burgess and Michael Stancel also deserve mention for their work here, having crafted a wildly diverse tapesty of straightforward yet satisfying tech-death meets tremolo riffs and creative lead breaks and pattern changes. The amount of crazy changeups in a song like “Vermin” was headspinning, yet always felt perfectly timed and never something that was just done because it could be, everything felt of a purpose. This was one of those albums that sat at the crossroads of being familiar enough to be comforting, and yet full of surprises at the same time, a hard place to get to.

Scorpions – Rock Believer:

I’ve had a hard time evaluating this new and possibly final Scoprions album. When I’m actively listening to it I find that its a suitably rockin’ experience for the most part, there are certainly no glaring flaws to be heard. Yet unlike 2010’s now seemingly very strong Sting In the Tail, there aren’t that many moments that are lingering in my mind afterwards (something that characterized damn near all of 2015’s Return to Forever). And you know, I get that maybe expecting too much from a Scorpions record at this stage in their career is a bit rich, that I should just be happy to accept any new music from the legends (and I am). But here’s the thing: Klaus and company got my hopes up with this cover art many months back. It screamed a purposeful throwback to perhaps a late 70s/early 80s sound and spirit, and in somewhere in the very naïve portion of my mind I was hopeful that there could even be a reach back into the band’s more psychedelia infused days with Uli Jon Roth. Of course when I finally got to hear the album in full, it immediately dawned on me that an important aspect of achieving that wish would be, you know, Uli Jon Roth being in the lineup… so shifting back to the more realistic hope of an 80s throwback sound, how well did the Scorpions live up to this kinda sorta promise? Actually they did alright, Rock Believer has a distinctly older school feel that’s built on the band’s fundamental building blocks of straight ahead hard rocking riffs, and Klaus spitting out verses with more attitude filled swagger than he’s done in ages. Of course its still got the sheen of modern production on it, despite the deliberate attempt to conjure up an analog warmth (I could be wrong about this of course but I think at this point I’d be able to suss out a true analog record).

Okay I’m rambling. Here’s what rocked me on this record, first thing to mention being the title track itself, a song that is musically a bridge between modern Scorpions more mellower bent crossed with some Savage Amusement era style riffs and cowbell. If you haven’t seen the music video for this song, you owe it to yourself to check it out because the song is solid enough on it’s own as a slice of bittersweet nostalgia, but the visual dichotomy of the Scorp’s rocking out today intercut with classic footage of their previous eras elevates the entire thing to something that’s truly poignant and kinda hit me right in the emotional gut. It’s followed on the album by the classic 80s “Holiday” vibes invoking “Shining Of Your Soul”, Klaus’ vocals here incredibly emotive and that minor key dip on the prechorus just devastatingly effective at recreating a very specific sound that rings of classic Scorpions. I also love the wildly fast paced rocker “When I Lay My Bones To Rest”, Rudolf Schenker and Mathias Jabs trading off attitude spitting riffs like they’re Slash and Izzy. Klaus sounds in his element there as much as he does on the gorgeous melancholic power ballad “When You Know (Where You Come From)”, which reminds me of previous soul searching balladry classics such as “Send Me An Angel” or more recently, “Lorelei”. And of course “Peacemaker” and “Seventh Son” were absolute jams, culling from that tap of old school spirit that informs so much of this album. I’m realizing now that I’ve coincidentally picked all of the official singles as my favorite cuts from the album, which wasn’t intentional really, but perhaps telling. The rest of the album is decent to good, there’s some weird stuff on here such as the few songs relegated to the “bonus disc” (like the odd but kinda likable “When Tomorrow Comes”) which I’d agree to being wisely left off the main album tracklisting… but really a solid outing by the Scorpions in delivering as good of a throwback record they could muster for a possible final sting. My wish is that they actually would tap Uli to cowrite for another album that revisits their classic psychedelia 70s era, but maybe that’s asking a lot of a band in their 70s. I’m happy they didn’t end things with Return To Forever, this is a worthy swan song if it is indeed that.

Ghost – IMPERA:

I don’t believe I’ve ever reviewed a Ghost record before, and I figured I never would because there’s likely enough written out there about this band and rightly so. They’re a big deal like it or not, and generally speaking, I’m in favor of bands with loud guitars and riffs getting to arena levels because it’s good for the entire metal/hard rock ecosystem. We have talked about Ghost on the podcast before and I did make mention of how I enjoyed their turn towards Scorpions-esque 80s hard rock on 2018’s Prequelle, with “Dance Macabre” being the most convincing Klaus Meine impression anyone’s ever delivered this side of the Rhine (I don’t know what that means it just feels right to say it). Despite that however, I’ve been fairly ambivalent about their music itself, finding it enjoyable enough in the moment (I even thought they were pretty solid live opening for Maiden) but never really having an urge to seek it out on my own all that often. That might change with IMPERA however, because I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this record as a whole. The draw here is that Tobias Forge is sticking with further exploring the hard rock avenue he was careening onto on the last album, and its continuing to yield inspiring results. There’s Night Flight Orchestra esque late 70s/early 80s vibes happening on “Spillways” with as smartly crafted a pre-chorus/chorus combo as Forge has ever penned. Equally as compelling is “Call Me Little Sunshine” with its call back to the doomier tempos of their early career albums sans the Blue Oyster Cult sound.

What I really enjoy about Forge as both a songwriter and a vocalist is his indulgence of lush, layered vocal harmony, be it his own vocals multitracked again and again or better still, via backing vocals from some of the nameless ghouls that make up the rest of the lineup (at some point, it would be great to know who he’s playing with). There’s a choir being used on the gorgeously dramatic “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love” to glorious effect, at one point taking over lead vocals for Forge towards the end of the song in a bittersweet finale. And its worth mentioning that the album closer is the closest thing Ghost has come to an “epic” and its really, really well constructed, mini-hooks abound and the major refrain is vintage Forge with an emotive vocal melody. I even dug the harder, more aggressive cuts here (they were outnumbered for sure by midtempo and slower songs) such as “Hunter’s Moon” and “Watcher In The Sky” with their metallic bite and even the truly bizarre “Twenties” was hooky in its own quirky and comedic way. Metal, hard rock or whatever you wanna label it, IMPERA really is one of the strongest albums of the year, and I’m okay with admitting that.

Dark Days: New music from Amorphis, Battle Beast, and more!

As I’m writing this, the new Scorpions record has dropped today and sounds like something plucked from the early 80s, and in the news Russia is being a belligerent antagonist on the world stage yet again. If I wasn’t lucid, I could be deceived that we were traveling backwards in time for better or worse. Dark times aside, that Scorpions record is certainly something I’m going to be diving into on the blog very soon, but before I do, I ought to clear the decks of everything I’ve been listening to metal-wise for the past month and a half. I took some time in January to investigate records I’d missed in 2021, but have spent the rest of the time since digging into the flurry of new music these first two months have yielded. Part one of this coverage was done on the recent episode of MSRcast, and I’ll be talking with Cary on our next episode about our having just seen Bruce Dickinson’s An Evening With spoken word show here in our backyard of Stafford, Texas the other night. Covered below is everything else I didn’t really get to on the podcast, but be sure to let me know in the comments section if there’s something I’ve egregiously overlooked new music wise.


Amorphis – Halo:

There are many people who loved the last Amorphis album Queen of Time, I was not one of them. I didn’t exactly hate it, because it had some spectacular moments (the Anneke van Giersbergen duet “Amongst Stars” for one), but it was a let down for me after Under The Red Cloud and before that, Circle and The Beginning of Times. The thing that was frustrating about it was that it was hard to pin down what exactly felt off to me about it. I wondered if it wasn’t that there was an imbalance in the band’s melodic and aggressive sides, something leaning too much in one direction or another, but that didn’t make sense because Red Cloud was indeed their most melodic leaning album to date and I thought that was a masterpiece. Pushing past uncertainty, I’d say I’ve found more to enjoy here, but only slightly more — it doesn’t have a singular cut as spectacular as Queen of Time’s aforementioned glorious duet, but Halo’s heavier moments ring more convincing to me. Album opener “Northwards” has a crushing, intense attack built on a hypnotically rhythmic riff sequence, with Tomi Joutsen’s guttural narration pushing the way forward. The little bit of 70s Hammond organ shimmying in the middle like some long lost Deep Purple cut works really well as a dynamic shift in tone, especially with keeping it fairly uncomplicated and simple and not spiraling off into frenzied weirdness like so much recent Opeth. The multi-faceted “The Wolf” is a satisfying blast of brutality juxtaposed with some cosmic spaciness that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Slightly mellower but very much vintage Amorphis, the title track is an achingly beautiful Esa Holopainen lead melody draping across a frenetic assault underneath, Joutsen taking a more serenely mournful approach on vocals rather than one of angst and fury. I also thought “On the Dark Waters” had a compulsive quality to its rhythmic strut and a really sweetly dark chorus melody that worked with Joutsen’s vocal tone in that really inimitable way that only Amorphis could pull off (also dig the sitar-ish melodies in that mid-song bridge sequence).

And while “The Moon” isn’t as compelling as some of their previous singles, it’s still got that mid-tempo Amorpi-groove on lock and there’s a dramatic build up to a chorus that is good in the moment, if not ultimately memorable. But that song hints at the more concerning deficiencies that are noticeable on songs like “When the Gods Came” and “Seven Roads Come Together”, where there are good elements in place in the buildup to what should be a fantastic refrain, only for everything to either fail to launch or unravel entirely. Take the former, this album’s “Wrong Direction” in that it’s chorus vocal melody comes off as so misdirected that it brings the whole song down with it. The offending line is Joutsen singing “…they taught us how to live our lives”… a line that just hangs there without any musical support, not to mention as a melodic idea it feels incomplete or just incorrect as is. Regarding “Seven Roads…”, it’s one of those moments where I really love everything about the song except that refrain, and I’m sorry, but when you’re escalating tempos alongside some tension building orchestration, I need that refrain to pay off hard. This might be the most aggravating moment on an album that has it’s fair share of frustrating ones, because this song could’ve been the highlight on Halo but it falls short in it’s most critical moment. And then there’s other tunes that are you know, just there, such as “A New Land”, “Windmane”, and “War” which I honestly can’t remember after I’m done listening to them. Sometimes I get the feeling that Amorphis has found itself in a bit of a cycle where they’re trying too hard to sound like modern day Amorphis, shoehorning in clean vocal choruses or verses where maybe a song would be better served by just leaning harder full tilt in a more aggressive direction. In summation, at least it’s a step above Queen of Time, but not much of one, and that’s slightly concerning and I’m left a little underwhelmed still.

Battle Beast – Circus of Doom:

Battle Beast’s sixth album, Circus of Doom, is an interesting case study in a band mid-career stumble onto something genuinely inspired. I say it’s interesting because its really not that different from their past two albums on a stylistic level, but there is an almost imperceptible shift happening with these songs. Their last album was met with some scathing criticism for the band’s perceived stepping over the line between hooky pop-metal and just egregious, commercial pop. Now I actually enjoyed some of that record, but I do recognize where some of those criticisms might be coming from, and seemingly so does the band. As if realizing they hit the limits of where they could go with that aspect of their sound, they’ve retreated just a bit here, but not to the Priest-ian roots of their early albums. Instead on songs here such as “Eye of the Storm”, “Wings of Light”, “Master of Illusion”, and “Armageddon”, the band shifts their pop direction away from the Roxette-ian Swedish-tinged merger with 80s American hard rock of No More Hollywood Endings and leans hard into late era Abba (think the dark melodrama of the Swedes Super Trouper and The Visitors eras… full on Swedish then). It’s an incredibly shrewd move, and that ABBA influence allows the band to stay affixed to a poppy songwriting approach while painting in darker colors that accentuate Noora Louhimo’s incredibly emotive, raspy vocals. You really hear how this combination is maximized on “Where Angels Fear to Fly”, where we get an almost regal, Savatage-ian chorus that at first seems to stand apart from the tempered hard rock strut of the verses, but which Louhimo is able to merge together towards the end of the song with her vocals alone. It sounds like the band has realized that the best way to go about finding their sound is to simply elevate her ability to sound damn fantastic. Her voice is tailor made for this hard rockin/late era ABBA crossroads, and they’d do well to stay in this pocket for future albums. Honestly, the band has never sounded better.

Planeswalker: Sozos Michael & Jason Ashcraft – Tales of Magic:

In the depths of power metal fan communities, this was a much anticipated album despite its lower profile, independent release. Jason Ashcraft is of course the guitarist and founder of Helion Prime, one of the more well known leading lights of North American power metal in the past few years and Sozos Michael is an excellent melodic vocalist from Greece who you might recognize because he sang on Helion’s second album after Heather Michele Smith’s departure in 2016. You might remember that I didn’t think 2021 was all that stellar of a power metal year (a largely pervasive sentiment it seems), but it looks like this year is getting an early start on rectifying that deficiency with this and other recent debuts (Power Paladin, and even a full length Fellowship album due sometime soon). Simply put, Planeswalker’s Tales of Magic is maybe the most satisfying classic Euro-power metal release in the past twelve months and perhaps longer. Clocking in at a tidy six tracks and forty-two minutes of original music (minus a punchy cover of Kiss’ “A Million To One” at the end as a bonus), Ashcraft and Sozos have crafted a superb record of anthemic, triumphant Euro-power with some North American trad-metal influences heard in the riff sequences here and there (see the surprisingly death metal tinged riffage at the 1:40 mark of “Oath of the Gatewatch”). Ashcraft is a talented songwriter in terms of putting together a framework of melodic yet aggressive riffing and some really dizzying, glorious solos, but it’s been proven that he shines brightest when paired with a vocalist who understands how to develop their own vocal melodies. That’s not a knock on Ashcraft by the way, it’s certainly the way things worked with Thomas Youngblood and Roy Khan and with Ashcraft’s own prior experiences with Heather Michele Smith. This sounds like a true collaboration, with Sozos and Ashcraft sometimes joining together on a shared melody (“Tales of Magic”, “The Spark”), or at times Sozos doing the piloting alone as on the theatrical stage play of “Shadow of Emeria”. The two killer cuts here are the back to back daggers of “Blackblade” and “The Forever Serpent”, two songs that had me glory clawing in the car down the freeway. Ashcraft’s layered lead melody in “Blackblade” is inspiring in a euphoric, head rush kind of way, particularly when he lets it ring and repeat to close out the song. And “The Forever Serpent” is just a beast of a song, one of those instant power metal classics that exemplify the potential of power metal to inspire and make you feel genuinely happy for a few minutes. Consider this the year’s first (and hopefully not last) must listen, can’t skip power metal classic.

Nocturna – Daughters of the Night:

If you listened to the last MSRcast, you’ll hear the moment when I realize during the recording that Nocturna is yet another project of Italian power metal wunderkind Federico Mondelli (Frozen Crown, Volturian, etc). I don’t know the motivation for this new project, but it’s not too far off from what he’s doing with his wife Giada Etro in Frozen Crown, albeit with a more symphonic, darker themed approach with two lead vocalists in Rehn Stillnight and Grace Darkling. These two women both have relatively similar melodic singing tones, an unusual approach for any band to take, They both seem to veer between a classically informed approach ala Dianne Van Giersbergen and relatively straightforward melodic vocals, but together in tandem it creates an approach that is actually somewhat refreshing in comparison to the standard beauty and the beast vocal duo tropes found in the genre. Some of these songs are pretty darn good in their own right, with Mondelli seemingly having saved his best riffs for this project (the last Frozen Crown record left a lot to be desired). The clear example of this is “Daughters Of The Night”, which sees some furious riffing bookending a truly gorgeous layered vocal duet during the refrain. Similarly on “Blood of Heaven” Mondelli serves up a thrashy bed of power metal guitars that is a fantastic push against Stillnight and Darkling’s combined melodic vocals, which aren’t sugary, but certainly are lush and full. As a songwriter, Mondelli feels far more in his element here than in Frozen Crown where it seems like he’s still trying to figure out how all the pieces are supposed to fit together. And maybe it’s the singular focus on vocal melodies that does the trick, as on “Darkest Days”, which sounds worryingly glittering and fragile until the chorus sees both singers pulling the song together with an incredibly tight, nimbly delivered vocal melody. There’s something fresh and (using the F-word here) fun, about this album. It’s dual vocal approach is unique within the genre, even in comparison to other clean vocal groups like Temperance. Hoping we get another record and that this isn’t just a one-off.

Dawn of Solace – Flames Of Perdition:

The irony of this album being covered in the same article as the Amorphis review is that Flames of Perdition is solely responsible for why I’m late in publishing this damn thing. I spent so much time listening to this record that repeat listens of the new Amorphis kept getting pushed to the backburner, because when it comes to dark, slightly depressive melodic metal this was where I was turning to these past few weeks. Dawn of Solace if you didn’t already know is yet another project of Wolfheart guitarist/vocalist Tuomas Saukkonen, pairing himself here with a gifted Finnish singer named Mikko Heikkilä (who sang in Saukkonen’s now defunct Black Sun Aeon) who sounds like a less nasally Tuomas Tuominen (of The Man-Eating Tree, another um, Finnish band). Contrary to his more brutal side shown in Wolfheart, Dawn Of Solace really sees Saukkonen exploring more groove based, clean vocal territory, stepping away from the mic for the most part (he provides some growls) to let Heikkilä steer these songs with some really incredible vocal performances. There’s a desperation to his vocal approach that feels understated and worn in, and it matches the relatively straightforward riff based mid-tempo rhythm work that Saukkonen builds these songs around. His songwriting often mixes in crisp acoustic guitars as melodic guiderails with Sentenced-esque melodic doom laden riffs piled underneath like wood for a bonfire. The album opener “White Noise” illustrates this combination’s simple but elegant effectiveness, allowing Heikkilä the space to take the reins with vocal melodies that are expressive and tell a story. My favorite moment on the record might be the title track itself, a piano dirge intro that softly shakes out into a darkly comforting acoustic ballad. Saukkonen lets this gorgeousness unfold while utilizing silence in scattered pulses, only to hit you with a sudden burst of cinematic noise around the two minute mark in a dramatic flourish. The push and pull tension in this song and in others such as “Black Shores” is at times unsettling and disquieting, but always compelling to experience. I think this album has a meditative quality to it that gives it an emotional resonance that I’ve been longing for in a metal record for awhile now. Get this in your headphones before the cold weather drifts away.

Magnum – The Monster Roars:

This one almost snuck by me, arriving with little advance fanfare or media buzz which isn’t exactly surprising given Magnum’s veteran status and their almost non-existence on this side of the Atlantic as a known quantity. It’s a bummer because classic rock fans would really love what the band has been doing lately, their last two albums being in particular fantastic examples of a late career artistic renaissance (The Serpent Rings was a 2020 album of the year listee). That record in particular was everything I could have wanted out of a Magnum record, an Avantasia influenced, power metal invoking classic that was built on sweeping melodies, some incredibly passionate performances from vocalist Bob Catley and a sense of grandeur that reminded me of On A Storytellers Night on steroids. I suppose it was inevitable then that The Monster Roars would be a bit of a letdown as a follow-up, although there are certainly moments here that remind me of what they were capable of on the last two records. I think the problem with The Monster Roars as it pertains to what I want are that the band has slightly shifted their approach to a more rootsy hard rockin’ feel rather than the dramatic and epic bombast heard on those records. Lead single “I Won’t Let You Down” is a vivid example of this, a song that is caught between a escalating keyboard arrangement that seems to want to take things to new heights, only to see the song retreat to a slower, somewhat meandering guitar pattern in a jarring shift. Other songs in this laid back mode just never seem to take off, like “Can’t Buy Yourself A Heaven”, where the chorus feels almost underdeveloped. Songs like “The Day After the Night Before” have some cool passages, only for their momentum to be halted with a sudden turn into a blander, less exciting area. Frustrating might be too harsh a criticism, but unsatisfying certainly describes my feelings on most of these songs. I’ll give credit to “Remember” though for being an absolute Magnum classic, the playful piano buildup, the tambourine adorned chorus with an awesome driving riff and Catley magic. I also enjoyed the Savatage vibe of “All You Believe In”, and the rare instance of an accompanying horn section in “No Steppin’ Stones” is a blast (seriously a cool throwback to something that is unmistakably out of fashion but I still kinda love). Other Magnum fans might really love this album, but the monster wasn’t roaring for me I guess.

Metal Tricks n’ Treats: New Cradle, Unto Others, and More!

Coming up on the end of the year relatively soon here, and I gotta say, there’s only a few more things on the release calendar for the next three months that’s attracting my attention. We have the new Swallow The Sun, Omnium Gatherum and Belakor albums due soon, and a couple others that I’m going to be sure to listen to. But the mad end of the year release rush that we’ve tended to see in the past 5-6 years isn’t happening this time around, and I’m actually relieved in a way because it’ll give me room to try to do something special for the upcoming ten year anniversary of the blog. That’s right, December 2011 was the date of the first post on this site, a little first impressions on Nightwish’s Imaginaerum if I recall correctly. I’ve been pondering on what I should put up as an anniversary thing — seeing as how a retrospective of the site would be of no interest to anyone but myself. So I think I’m going to finally get finished one of the many long incubating ideas I’ve had for the blog from it’s inception that I always delayed because I wanted to wait until I cultivated a bigger following before doing it. I’ll be honest, these days I don’t really stress much about promoting this blog, people will find it or they won’t… in that sense I’ve gone back to the roots of why I started this in the first place, to simply have a soapbox for my opinions and chronicle my experience of being a metal fan. Looking forward to finishing the anniversary post, I can’t believe it’s going to be ten years, didn’t see that coming when I started this thing. Until then, check out the reviews below!


Brainstorm – Wall Of Skulls:

I’ve been jamming this album consistently over the past month, longer if you count the Turn Off The Light digital EP back in August that featured four songs from this album (and only that, making it one of the weirder pre-album releases I can remember, but nevermind…). Brainstorm’s been on a bit of a tear recently, their 2018 outing Midnight Ghost was rather strong, a rebound from the relatively shaky trio of releases earlier in the decade. On Wall Of Skulls however, they turn back the clock to the quality and confidence heard during the Soul Temptation and Liquid Monster eras. Thick, meaty riffing courtesy of Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric, one of power metal’s longest paired guitar tandems is spliced with their trademark penchant for inspired lead breaks, and tightly controlled soloing. That mechanized, almost martial approach to power/heavy metal guitars is such an embedded quality of this band’s style that I often think of it even before Andy B Franck’s ageless bellow. This is an inspired batch of songs, with infectious hooks, melodies that sound effortlessly natural and a thunderous heavy metal swagger that’s a cross between Accept and early 00s Tad Morose. I’ve already raved about “Glory Disappears” on the EP review, but it deserves a second shout out here because its one of the most memorable vocal hooks from Franck ever, and a sharp example of just how skilled he is at phrasing, leading the tail end of one line seamlessly into the beginning of the next without you realizing he’s taken a breath. Other standouts are “Turn Off The Light” where Organ Oden’s Seeb makes a guest vocal appearance (he also returned for his second stint in a row handling mixing and production duties), the almost thrash metal riffage of “Escape The Silence” (Rage’s Peavy on guest vocals!), the fantastic Dokken vibes in the chorus of “Holding On”, and the epic album closer “I, Deceiver” brings back some classic Metus Mortis era vibes. Front to back bangers, from a band that a lot of metal snobs would write off for various reasons, all of them foolish. Seriously one of the strongest records of the year — don’t sleep on this!

Unto Others – Strength:

The artists formerly known as Idle Hands (name change for legal reasons), Unto Others picks up where they left off on their spectacular 2019 debut Mana (my number two album of that year), combining Sisters Of Mercy/early era Cult goth rock with metallic riffs and inspired Billy Duffy-esque leads. This was one of those albums where I had hoped the band would stick with their sound from the last record and maybe not deviate too much, one of those thoughts that usually only occurs in retrospect with a band when you’re wishing you had another album from a certain era or stylistic mode. Fortunately for me, Strength really does sound like its picking up right where they left off on Mana, at times some of these songs sounding like they could have fit in on the debut. Cuts like “Downtown” and “No Children Laughing Now” are the kind of moody, gothic rockers that characterized so much of the debut, with Gabriel Franco’s deadpanned vocals managing to convey emotion by the sheer juxtapostion of his tone in contrast to often bright and ebullient lead melodies. The band does amp up the aggression on this record a tad, as heard on the stunning opener “Heroin”, with a Metallica-esque riff that has thrashy edges and a hefty bottom end, complemented by a quasi tremolo-lead that is incredibly effective at creating a delightful dissonance. This is also one of the few cuts where we get Franco dropping those grunts and “ughs” that were such a trademark of his vocal approach on the debut. Of course if you hated those (they had to grow on you), then you’ll find this track repellent, but I freaking love it and kinda wished the band explored a few more heavier moments throughout. I don’t think I’ll raise any eyebrows by declaring the best cut on the album to be the band’s cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hell Is For Children”, which is not to slight their own songwriting mind you. It’s just that their transformation of this song is really inspired and they really make a claim for it being one of their own — imbuing it so thoroughly with their musical DNA, down to turning Benatar’s punchy-angry vibes in the original into a more resigned, bleaker vision ala Unto Others. It would’ve been expecting too much to hope for another Mana, but this is an incredibly strong (no pun intended) effort from a band on the rise.

Cradle Of Filth – Existence Is Futile:

It was hard to imagine Cradle’s recent late career renaissance back in October of 2012. The band had just released yet another relatively meh album by Cradle standards, their last with increasingly disinterested guitarist Paul Allender (who when I saw them on tour in 2008 already looked disengaged onstage). Two years later he’d quit, citing what we’d already seen with our own eyes as his reason for leaving, and we’d get two new guys entering the fold in guitarists Ashok and Richard Shaw who’d debut on 2015’s Hammer Of The Witches alongside new keyboardist Lindsey Schoolcraft. The change was immediately noticeable, Witches was the most exciting and creatively rich Cradle album since Midian. Not only for the return of a dual guitar tandem that played off each other incredibly well, but for how it seemed to light a fire under Dani Filth himself. They knocked out another fantastic and brutally heavy record in Cryptoriana two years later and now we’re getting at long last the third record of this era of Cradle in Existence Is Futile, which sees the introduction of new keyboardist Anabelle Iratni who’s replacing Schoolcraft. Fortunately, the lineup change hasn’t nudged the band off course, because this is such a damn inspired album, toned down in extremity from its previous two predecessors simply by scaling back the layering a bit and allowing things to breathe more. Vivid examples of this are “Necromantic Fantasies”, a mid-paced headbanging cut interwoven with cinematic orchestral/choral threads, as catchy as all get out, and seeing Dani work with a mix of guttural and reined-in grim vocals. My fav so far is “Discourse Between a Man and His Soul”, a slow moving, melancholy drenched stately ballad (well, by Cradle standards) built on sparse keyboards and an achingly beautiful lead guitar melody that serenades Dani through the chorus like a ballroom dance. So much of this album is seeing Dani and company reacquaint themselves with the band’s more melancholic, emotional side that they seemed to get a little distant from over the years. The songwriting reflects that with more slower, thoughtful, and at times elegiac moments. When they let it rip however, as on “How Many Tears To Nurture A Rose”, we get that classic going for the throat Midian era attack that reminds me of why I loved this band in the first place. Also one last thing… and I don’t use this term often, but that album art is sick.

Portrait – At One With None:

I’ve been sleeping on Portrait, who are a straight up heavy metal band in the spirit of the recent NWOTHM revival that has largely sprouted in North America. But these Swedes predate that phenomenon by a under a decade, having emerged in 2008 with their self-titled debut, and releasing four more albums at a three year clip before waiting four years to deliver At One With None, their fifth. I’ve yet to check out the rest of their catalog yet, but if its anything like this one, I’ll probably find them just as satisfying. Portrait’s sound really hits me as a cross between classic Metallica songwriting structures with a splash of early Candlemass’ penchant for epic grandeur, with vocalist Per Lengstedt coming across at times like a cross between Matt Barlow and King Diamond. Speaking of Iced Earth, it was hard not to think about records like Night Of The Stormrider or Burnt Offerings when hearing songs like “Ashen” and “He Who Stands”. Its nice to have a new band (relatively speaking, and to me anyway) releasing fresh music in the vein of a once beloved band for me until earlier this year. It fills a void that’s going to be there and I get the joy of having an entire back catalog to go play with as well. But to simply label these guys as a band that sounds like xxxx would be disingenous, because Portrait have their own thing going on, with a dark, bleak vibe that runs counter to all the rich melodicism in those fluid lead breaks (check out the guitars in the middle bridge of “Shadowless”). I’m not going to burn more text trying to describe everything about this in words, just put it on when you’re in the mood for something straight faced, aggressive yet melodic, and made with real craft and attention to detail. A sneaky album of the year list candidate.

The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic II:

The Night Flight Orchestra marches on their alternate universe journey where they’re a band who got their start in the late 70s on their debut, and six albums later, its around 1984-1985 and the sound of Aeromantic II is designed to reflect this period in their ongoing history. Now, being that the band clearly relish the soundscapes and vibes of 80-85 the most, I could easily see them rest in this polished 1985 zone for a few more records, because if they advance to 86-89 then we’re talking about booming drums, echo-y production, and a lot more gloss that I’d feel the NFO sound/songwriting approach could mesh well with. I guess the real question is, just how many more albums is this once considered side project going to go for? The project (now seemingly full time band) started in 2012, and to have six albums in a nine year span is incredibly impressive, particularly in the case of Aeromantic II, which comes a year after Aeromantic I, and honestly sounds like it’s songs were composed in the same writing period. Gone are the splashy, glitzy vibes of Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough and its “Turn To Miami” cocaine-era party rock, with the music on both Aeromantic albums feeling grounded, grittier, and a little more infused with artsier, genre-bending influences. I hear shades of Peter Gabriel-esque world music rhythms on “You Belong To The Night”, some weird Talking Heads-ish pop on “Zodiac”, and of course Toto-ian jauntiness on the piano led bop “Burn For Me”. A shout out to the band for not only executing on musical throwback ideas and making them sound fresh and exciting, but for understanding the lyrical/thematic nods to the era they’re steeped in. Case in point being the delightfully titled “Chardonnay Nights”, where the imagery of that party beverage used as a metaphor for a longing for romance and adventure is right in step with how we all collectively look back on that era. Bjorn and company seem to be having more fun than ever with this project — long may it continue.

Groza – The Redemptive End:

So I’ve actually been listening to this album for months now in fits and starts, impressed by the heaps of praise lain upon it by friend of the pod Justin (aka The Metal Detector). I trust Justin’s judgement on black metal and even melodeath more than anyone else I know so when he’s talking about a certain record possibly being his album of the year, I’m going to give it a shot. At first I was unmoved by The Redemptive End however, but chalked it up to possibly just not being in the right headspace (a recurrent problem this year). So in the interest of not forcing things, I just kept the album on my current listening playlist and waited for the right mood to hit. Finally relatively recently, one bleary morning when in an absolutely foul mood driving to work, I put it on and hit paydirt. And black metal is maybe the most frustratingly difficult style of music to write about… because how can you really describe this music without resorting to phrases and adjectives that have been tossed out a thousand times before? If I tell you that this album sounds “grim”, that’s not going to be very helpful in distinguishing it from, y’know, black metal in general. So screw that. Look at the album cover… the album sounds like that. Really grey-toned and unforgivingly bleak, but Groza (this is their second album after a debut in 2018 that I’ve yet to listen to) remind me of Harakiri For The Sky, mostly in the way they pattern their lead guitar melodies to wildly veer away from the rhythm guitars riffage. But there’s something far more ashen about Groza’s soundscapes… they lack the color that Harakiri so willingly adorns their music with (not a bad thing at all, its just a striking difference). My favorite cut here is the title track, not only for its gorgeous mid song passage built on quietude and elegantly sparse lead patterns, but in the focus and intensity of the fierce attack that opens the song. Major Enslaved Axioma era vibes in that moment. One of the year’s strongest black metal albums, alongside the recent release by their French neighbors in Seth.

The Most Anticipated Albums Of The Year: Iron Maiden and Seven Spires Return!

The duality of these two new albums by both of these incredible bands isn’t lost on me. On one hand we have the pandemic delayed new album by my favorite band of all time, and on the other, a pandemic driven new release by one of metal’s most exciting new bands arriving a year and a half after they delivered a straight up masterpiece (and my 2020 album and song of the year winner!). For Iron Maiden, there was tension and a little nervous anticipation awaiting it’s release, not only due to the long wait but also because we just don’t know how many of these we have left from those guys. With Seven Spires, I still haven’t gotten over just how incredible Emerald Seas was, and I still listen to that album from time to time when I need a comfort jam or want to revel in it’s downright poetic, imagery rich storytelling via Adrienne Cowan’s incredible lyrics. So I went into their new album with no personal expectations and more of a sense of wide open curiosity about where they would possibly go next. These reviews are deep dives and long enough to prevent me from babbling on here, so lets get to it!


Iron Maiden – Senjutsu:

Here we go, Maiden’s seventeenth studio album Senjutsu, which is actually only the second time I’ve gotten to write about a new record of theirs in the near decade long existence of this blog. In my review for 2015’s The Book Of Souls, I lamented that a five year gap existed between it’s release and 2010’s The Final Frontier, the band’s mortality being stretched thin over time — little did I know that a global pandemic would delay it’s follow-up an extra two years (this album was reportedly completed and literally placed in a vault sometime in 2019) to make this the longest gap between Maiden releases in their history. The pandemic took many things from all of us, but if it turns out that it robbed us of one more additional Maiden album down the road, and Senjutsu turns out to be their swansong, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over that. The band certainly haven’t indicated anything to suggest that, but common sense dictates that they’re coming to the end of the road. It made release night for this album extra special for me, I was so excited listening to it at midnight that I didn’t sleep until three in the morning thereabouts. They’re my favorite band of all time for good reason, because few other bands can make me feel that giddy about the prospect of new music like I’m eighteen again waiting outside the local record store on a Tuesday morning to nab an album and drive around aimlessly blasting it full volume.

And of course my reaction to the music went from the predictable release night euphoria of “This is awesome!” to a more considered, measured thought process upon concurrent listens. I’d say five days ago it was at it’s most critical ebb, where it felt like all I was doing was picking apart it’s flaws. This morning however, I put it on the headphones and found myself really engaging with much of the album with a clearer head, allowing it’s strengths to come into focus and making note of what I didn’t think worked all that well. So the big picture here: This is a stronger album by a hair than The Book Of Souls, largely because it’s a little over ten minutes shorter in runtime (still too damn long at 81 minutes!), and because it’s sequenced in a more engaging, cohesive manner. It also has fewer outright duds than Souls did, with only “Lost In A Lost World” and “Death Of The Celts” being fairly skippable here (debatable I’m sure). Hmm, okay I guess I’m of a mind to get the bad stuff out of the way first, so the point: The latter is being fairly compared in an inferior light to “The Clansman”, and I can certainly hear that in it’s far too similar intro melody sequence, and in the very similar skipping rhythm of the vocal melody (“…Wake alone in the hills / with the wind in your face…”). Of course it doesn’t help that the subject matter is essentially the same(ish), and I think that while its forgivable that a longtime veteran band will on occasion repeat a melody or motif in bits and pieces, its very noticeable when an entire song is a reworked reprise of an older classic. I mean we went through this already in 2003 when the (rather good I thought) title track of the Dance of Death album was essentially a reimagined “Number Of The Beast”. At least on that song they introduced a fresh folk melody infusion into the climatic guitar solo — here “Death Of The Celts” finds Steve attempting to merely replicate the same vaguely Braveheart-esque stirring melodies that got Bruce hopak dancing on stage at Rock In Rio in 2001.

While “Lost In A Lost World” doesn’t commit the same faux pas of rehashing a previous Maiden song to detrimental effect, it has its own sins that come in the form of a plodding rhythm, lethargic transitions, a rather uninspired vocal melody throughout that leads to the greater folly of Bruce sounding somewhat tired (or is it bored?). It also clocks in at a completely unnecessary 9:30 in length (“…Celts” was also a long one at 10:20), and I know this is a tired criticism by this point, but damn, an internal editor within the band would be welcome. I suppose its just the guys being at the age they are, and with how swell this post-reunion twenty years has gone that makes it easier for everyone to just shrug their shoulders and agree that everything in the song sounds cool. It makes me wonder if we plucked late 80s era Bruce, or hell any of the other guys and made them listen to these new albums… would they pick a fight with Steve and tell him that stuff simply needed to be cut and chopped? I’m betting on yes. It’s unfortunate that these two songs are spaced out evenly enough to kinda mar what is otherwise a mostly compelling Maiden album. A little caveat though… this record does take time to settle in one’s affections, being far more subtle in its machinations both rhythmically and melodically. Take the opening title track for example, with its sledgehammer pounding percussion and un-Maiden-like lumbering build up striking me as something that sounds like it came from a Bruce solo album ala Skunkworks meets The Chemical Wedding. We experienced something similar on Book Of Souls with “If Eternity Should Fail” (which really was a Bruce solo cut apparently), and I think “Senjutsu” works just as well, delivering a compelling performance from Bruce with some really anguished lead guitar melodies in the refrain.

It’s fair then to praise “Stratego” as being far more effective here than it was as a standalone single, coming on the heels of that unorthodox opening track, it’s a refreshing blast of classic Maiden gallop and swagger at the perfect moment. Honestly I’ve been really loving this song lately, finding it’s ultra-catchy verses drifting into my mind long after I’ve stopped listening to it. And this is why I have largely begun avoiding listening to singles ahead of time (it’s damn near impossible for me to resist checking out new Maiden though), because most of the time my brain receives the songs chosen for singles far, far better in the context of the album proper. Ditto for the spaghetti western invoking “The Writing On The Wall”, which as a direct counterpoint to “Stratego” feels far more welcome with its laid back vibes than it did on it’s own as the first single from the album (A Metal Pigeon law = metal bands are terrible at picking singles). There’s a novelty to Maiden trying their hand at something like this, and I think I appreciate the song for that freshness as well as for it’s melodic groove that has grown on me over umpteen listens, but I’ll stop short of saying its a great song. For the shortest song on the album, the four minute long “Days Of Future Past”, its the rare moment where I found myself wishing it had a bit of length to it, not because I wanted more of its decent if not ultimately memorable refrain, but it felt like it needed a change of direction midway through in a bridge that never materialized.

Since I didn’t intend this to be a track by track rundown but that’s what its turned into, let’s quickly cover “The Parchment” and “Darkest Hour”, both two of the more intriguing cuts on the album both lyrically and musically. The eastern tinged vibes in the lead guitars for “The Parchment” often give me flashbacks to “The Nomad” (kinda similar progression in that lead riff), and I really enjoy the pacing and structure presented here. For “Darkest Hour”, presumably the song referencing Churchill, I worried that the lyrical narrative might get in the way of melodic flow, but they did a deft job at managing that, and ushered in a chorus that is nicely bittersweet. Now for the two best songs on the album: “The Time Machine” has the best guitarwork on the album, from the eerie slowly plucked intro reminiscent of “The Legacy” from A Matter Of Life And Death to being a punchy foil to Bruce’s abruptly spaced out vocal lines in the verses. The magnum opus moment of course comes at the three minute mark where we transition into a classic Maiden moment, all epic gallop and gorgeous lead melodies combining into the most thrilling musical passage on the album. And my personal favorite “Hell On Earth”, where we get an absolutely enthralling, classic Maiden chorus that at once sounds exuberant and joyful and wistful and somber. This is one of those rare ten minute plus long songs that feels like five minutes, something that Maiden tends to pull off at least once per album (despite all our valid complaints about the length). I’ll sum it up by saying that while I’m grateful for Senjutsu, I wish it was a bit more uptempo, a bit more aggressive… I suppose what I really want is for them to can Kevin Shirley, hire Andy Sneap as their producer and let er rip ala Priest on Firepower. I can dream I suppose…

Seven Spires – Gods Of Debauchery:

Perhaps truly my most anticipated album of the year, Gods Of Debauchery is Seven Spires’ follow up to 2020’s AOTY/SOTY winner Emerald Seas, their third album and the one with the quickest incubation period and turnaround time. Some quick backstory, Emerald Seas was released in early February of 2020, and had some notable tours booked throughout that year — supporting Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum in the spring, followed up by a fall trek opening for Amaranthe and Battle Beast. One show into the Insomnium tour, the pandemic erupted and everything had to come to a halt. Just like that, the promise of capitalizing on the momentum that a truly well received album was cruelly yanked from under the band’s feet, and they, like the rest of us in our lives, were left dazed and confused. For me personally, I really clung to that album like a life raft throughout much of the year that followed, using it for inspiration and staving off depression. It was an escape into an incredibly well told story in a world that was as imaginative as a fine fantasy novel, or film, or video game. But my personal attachment wasn’t the reason why it was my album of the year. It really was simply that damned excellent from start to finish, and alongside Dialith’s incredible Extinction Six, was one of the rare shining gems of symphonic metal from the past decade.

While the pandemic derailed the band’s touring plans, they decided to make the most of their forced hiatus to immediately start working on a follow up. I thought it was an admirable decision that I wished more bands would have tried to aim for (regardless of how recently their previous album was released), because even if things opened up quicker than expected and the tours could have resumed, at least they’d have planted the seeds for ideas that could be developed into a full length release. Cut to well over a year and a half later of pandemic living, and the band has harvested the fruit of those seeds, a full length finished album that clocks in at just under an Iron Maiden-esque hour and eighteen minutes in length. I’m guessing that being able to sit and work 24/7 on music for weeks and months unending resulted in a pile up of ideas, and that the anger and frustration of 2020 soaked into the writing process because not only is this the longest Spires album to date, but also the darkest and most aggressive. It’s become a common thing recently to opine that bands should keep albums to a tight forty five minutes, and often times I think its not entirely accurate as far as being a indicator of a quality, filler-free album. But length has been the biggest criticism I’ve seen being leveled at this new album online, and I will concede that it did make digging into this record to parcel out all it’s secrets a massive challenge.

But before we talk about length, let’s focus on the other thing, that being Gods Of Debauchery’s amped up dosage of melodeath attack and that Dimmu Borgir symphonic black metal influence that many of these songs are steeped in. One of the main aspects of Emerald Seas that I loved was its shimmering, uplifting epic sweep, built on buoyant melodies and a sense of grand adventure. I think that hearing the darker, bleaker tones throughout most of these songs threw me a bit at first, and it required many more subsequent listens for me to really mesh with some of the vibes happening here — and of course I totally get why these songs came out the way they did. Frankly, any album that was written in 2020 has a right to sound extra pissed off and even nihilistic. But because Spires has more than just raw aggression in their toolkit, the key to success within these songs is how well the band balances those harsher elements against their ability to suddenly veer into beautiful melodies and soaring choruses. And actually, that’s kind of where length comes back into the picture, because it’s a heck of a challenge for any band to get that balance right all throughout sixteen(!) songs and well over an hour of music (more on this later). Thankfully, the album offers plenty of moments where the band manages that balancing act extremely well.

The awesome title track delivers a grandiose orchestral rush to accompany Adrienne Cowan’s raw, viciously harsh vocals on the chorus. There’s just enough flashes of Jack Kosto’s glorious lead guitar throughout here to lay some much needed color across the expanse of blackness that’s threatening to envelope everything, including an Aeternam-esque solo towards the end with incredible phrasing. Similarly on “The Cursed Muse”, Cowan’s immense singing range is on display during the refrain as a foil to her harsh vocal led passages, with enough emotional power in her vocal melodies to carry us along for the ride. And I really love “Ghost Of Yesterday”, which reminds me of Kamelot’s Karma/Epica era with its creative verses structured around playful rhythms and flute/string melodies, and a well thought out balance of clean and harsh vocal passages. The Kamelot vibes of course foreshadow the appearance of the one and only Roy Khan on “This God Is Dead”, which was one of the early singles from the album, and made waves through the power metal community — getting to hear Khan on something remotely Kamelot adjacent (in this case, influenced by) was a big frigging deal. And this song is a masterpiece, a gorgeous choral vocal introduction ushering in a fantastically epic, thrilling, symphonic-swagger fueled vocal back and forth between Cowan and Khan in the roles of a father/daughter duet. The brilliance of this song is in it’s well spaced out varying musical passages — clean vocals, harsh vocals, operatic led sequences, culminating in our two leads joining together for the final run in one of the band’s most glorious moments on record to date. Simply put, I’m emotionally shattered every time from the 9:13 moment onwards, and Kosto’s guitars at the very end of this sequence (9:40-9:50) are like rays of sunlight bursting through that fade too damn quickly.

Khan’s undeniably powerful performance on that song had me for awhile overlooking the song that preceded it, “In Sickness, In Health”, one of a pair of power ballads on the album that are emotionally heart wringing. This seriously could have been an inspired choice for a music video or pre-release single, it just has that pull to it. Unlike the beautifully piano centric “Silvery Moon” on Emerald Seas, the ballads here are adorned with Kosto’s GnR-esque wild, expressive hard rock guitars, and I’m totally here for them. His work on “The Unforgotten Name” is outstanding, and I should also commend drummer Chris Dovas and bassist Peter de Reyna for their unconventional rhythm section approach to these songs, eschewing the typical hard rock approach and opting for a more complex, progressive metal inspired touch with fills and blastbeats scattered throughout. Even the theatrical ballad closer “Fall With Me” is dressed with a little rock n’ roll panache, lending a gritty edge to Cowan’s wonderfully sweet lyrics. I really enjoyed all three songs, but “In Sickness, In Health” at this point rivals “This God Is Dead” for my favorite from the album, and I think at times takes the top spot simply for how it makes me feel from start to finish. I also want to give props to “Oceans Of Time”, where us Emerald Seas lovers get their brief and fleeting taste of that gorgeously uplifting swirl of melodies that characterized so much of that album. It’s by far the most unabashedly power metal moment on Gods, and in the context of just how dark this record is, I’m kinda surprised that it made it onto this album (to be fair, there is a storyline happening here that I still need to delve into).

So everything I’ve mentioned above compromises nine tracks, and roughly 43-44 (give or take) minutes of music, which would be a respectable showing for a new album for any band. And I could make the case that leaving off the rest of the songs on the album would have resulted in a stronger overall album… but there’s narrative cohesion to consider here, so is it really fair to make that case? That’s a debate for the comments I suppose. I’m always of the mind that songwriting should come before narrative, but Seven Spires is one of the rare bands that finds a way to deliver narrative in a beautifully interwoven way, with songs that feel unburdened by elements that make, say Ayreon albums (sorry Cary!) such a challenge for me to sit through. In that spirit though, I found that “Lightbringer” just didn’t work for me, though I appreciated the attempt to do something entirely different. I think most of the song is on target, but I find the chorus repetitive both melodically and syllabically, and I wonder if something as simple as a tiny variation in that chorus could elevate it entirely. That refrain just seems to continue on the same trajectory as the pre-chorus before it, and I find that I’m longing for a change-up in that moment. Similarly “Echoes of Eternity” had moments I loved (the chorus is very nice), but I need something else in that outro bridge besides an echoing of the refrain. But damn do I love the Eastern tinged elements happening in the verses here, and the abrupt rhythmic shifts that go along with them.

My other issue with the album’s length is that over the course of listening to such a long album, I started to come across fatigue with the amount of extreme metal passages in comparison to the band’s more prog/power metal side. Keep in mind I’m not anti-harsh vocals, I love death and black metal and grew up with those genres, but when you favor a band for their ability to veer between both of these disparate styles, any lingering in one style longer than the other will be noticeable. Case in point is “Dreamchaser” which comes in at over an hour into the tracklisting, and lacks a hook either via riff or vocals to keep my attention focused (and yes I am listening to this thing from start to finish, even though it was really tempting to attack it in chunks for manageability). I had similar impatient stirrings with “Gods Amongst Men” and “Shadow On An Endless Sea”, both tracks where in the notes I typed in my phone for the album I wrote, “too much Dimmu?”; which I know is one of the band’s biggest influences, so perhaps my notes were more a commentary on how the band’s sound was getting lost behind their influences. The problem with the streaming era is that all of us can make our own album edits via the act of selective listening / playlisting, and I can see future Pigeon skipping those five cuts (plus the two instrumentals). And as a Spires fan, that’s both frustrating and also leaving me feeling a little guilty because… well, I wanted to love everything on this album. As it is however, Gods Of Debauchery is a strong, albeit short of excellent follow up to the truly stunning Emerald Seas, and hey, that’s as strong an endorsement for how awesome this band is as I can think of.

Metal Zen: New Music By Darkthrone, At The Gates, Suidakra and More!

Remember when summer wasn’t a time of abysmal heat-death either through dehydration, or forest fires all around the world, or apparently, historic flooding in Europe and China? The Metal Pigeon remembers. I remember that as a kid I used to ride my bike outside nearly all day with likely never a thought to gulping down water continuously so as not to pass out. I remember it being hot, but like summery hot, shorts and t-shirts hot, never oppressive blanket of humidity and painful sun kind of hot. I know I made it my resolution not to use weather related post titles this year, and I have kept true to that, but I said nothing about not remarking on it. The axiom here in Houston is that you get through summer by not complaining, by merely accepting that its hotter than hell, and through acceptance comes a kind of surrender, and through surrender, peace. It sounds like hippie talk, but the truth is that it actually works because its a mindset thing. Until August that is. August ruins everything. Its the most despised month for me (the hottest month by far, everyone seems anxiety riddled, pre-season football… its like the tepid version of what you really wanna watch), and so as August rolls in, my zen acceptance of sweating hither and yon comes to an end. Fortunately there do seem to be a plethora of new metal releases to keep me distracted, but in the meantime, let’s look back at the soundtrack to these past few pre-August weeks when I wasn’t an agitated mess of a human being.


Darkthrone – Eternal Hails……:

Darkthrone returns with their 18th (or 19th, I dunno) studio album Eternal Hails…... (that’s six dots to be precise) which marks a return to a two year gap between releases (2019’s Old Star) as opposed to the three year clip they’ve been maintaining for nearly a decade now. That kind of thing might seem trivial, the circumstances of touring and album gestation times tend to be unpredictable and vary for any band between albums, but remember that the pandemic likely didn’t affect Darkthrone activities that much — after all, these guys don’t do gigs. The likely explanation for a decrease in the gap between albums is that something transpired to increase the band’s enthusiasm for writing new music, perhaps newfound inspiration? I’ve been hesitantly leaning towards that explanation when considering this album because it is way more interesting than Old Star, at times even crackling with an excitement and intensity that matches Circle The Wagons and The Underground Resistance. The problem is that this is still an album that frustrates by spending way too much time on riffs that can only be described as plodding, if not laid back to a fault. An example is “Wake Of The Awakened”, where after a slow, trodden build up (there’s a lot of that going on throughout the album) the band kick it up a gear at the four minute mark, with uptempo trad metal riffs that I really wish they’d employ more of. That fantastic riff that comes in at around the 7:30-7:40 mark… it’s exactly what I wanted for most of the song, and though its cool that we get it as an outro, its also a headscratcher — why were you guys sitting on this? Same goes on “Voyage To A Northpole Adrift” (what a title), where the song leaps free of its slow, meandering riff built prison into blissful heavy metal, Priest-ian territory at the 3:40 mark, and you kind of just wonder, “Guys, why didn’t you just start the song here?”. Look I get it, there’s a place for slower, doomier metal within a black metal (or crust-black whatever you wanna call modern Darkthrone), but here’s the reality — Darkthrone just isn’t good at that stuff. There’s a lethargy that seems to linger around those minutes when they’re in that mode where you’re hoping something else will happen, gimme a drum fill for god’s sake Fenriz! That’s why the introduction of the Moog synth passages, particularly in “Lost Arcane City Of Uppakra” were a breath of fresh air, not only because of their novelty within the Darkthrone context, but because the melody being painted via that instrument really does sound creepily inspired. It’s the closest thing on this album that mirrors that unorthodox wash of color on the album artwork. I was as patient with this album as I was with the new At The Gates record that I reviewed below, but between the two I arrived at strikingly different conclusions.

Suidakra – Wolfbite:

I’ll admit that I didn’t have the highest of expectations going into Wolfbite, this the 14th studio album from Germany’s folk-melodeath pioneers Suidakra. This is one of those bands who has so many albums that I adore that I can overlook the ones that I don’t, but even I’ll admit that Realms Of Odoric and Cimbric Yarns were underwhelming and for the latter, challenging listens. The band’s last truly spectacular album is debatably 2011’s Book Of Dowth (although I’ll contend that 2013’s Eternal Defiance deserves consideration despite its unfortunate production defects (ie a loudness wars casualty), and its really been difficult to gauge what determines the likelihood of an artistically successful album for the band, given that Arkadius has been the consistent songwriting voice for ages now. Whatever changed this time around, it worked, because Wolfbite is one of the band’s finest hours, a record that is as charged up in its melodeath ferocity as it is inspired in it’s folk metal roots. I was a little stunned to behold it all upon first listen, but this is just flat out an incredibly strong outing for Arkadius and company from beginning to end. Consider “Resurgence”, where bagpipes anchor the melody in a mournful wailing cry, while Arkadius and Sebastian Jensen’s riffs are assisted with the deft, nimble violin performance of one time Eluveitie member Shir-Ran Yinon. Everything pauses to take a breath for a moment at the 2:38 mark before Arkadius comes screaming back in over a headbanging riff, a moment that is so damned satisfying. This album is packed with little one-off details like that, such as the awesome classic melo-death riff moment at the 1:58 mark in “Redemption”, something right out of the 1995 Gothenburg playbook that just feels comforting to hear being done in 2021 (I realize that’s a weird adjective to throw out at a melodeath song but it’s the truth). And beyond just the musicality on display here, credit needs to be given to the clean vocals of Jensen who turns in his strongest performance in that role to date. He had some remarkable moments on Cimbric Yarns as well, but he’s on another level here, particularly on “A Shrine For Ages”, the brooding, almost waltz-like semi-ballad where it sounds like I’m listening to a lost cut from the Dowth era. The spiraling upwards guitar solo climax midway through is gorgeous enough, but its the aching, melancholic acoustic melody in the verses that really make this one of the prettiest Suidakra cuts in ages. Intense and focused, this is one of the best melodeath albums to come out in the past few years, a visceral reminder of just how fantastic this particular vein of metal can be in its most punishing, angry, and melancholic form.

At The Gates – The Nightmare of Being:

I’m glad I spent a month mulling The Nightmare Of Being, this the seventh At the Gates album and second album where Jonas Björler has taken full control of the songwriting reigns in the void left behind by his brother Anders who as you might remember, decided to leave in 2018. I say glad because this is admittedly a difficult album right off the bat, and requires a few listens to get past the strangeness of it all. Underneath all of that is the best album the band has delivered since their reunion, though one that couldn’t have come without the two that preceded it. It almost feels like with Anders leaving, he took his straightforward, more direct to the throat approach ala The Haunting with him — in other words, leaving Tomas Lindberg and Jonas to get weird with it. It makes sense to me that way, because 2018’s To Drink From The Night Itself really did feel like a record that was torn between aiming for the Terminal/Slaughter dartboard like 2014’s At War With Reality clearly was, and in branching out towards more experimental areas that the band was tentatively venturing out towards. There’s a dynamic between the two Björler brothers that I’ve never been able to decipher (and I suspect only they really know), but it is surprising to consider that Jonas might be the one in favor of chucking the band’s now oft-lifted musical DNA in favor of something a little murkier, slower, and more contemplative. There’s a classic, coiled spring intensity to “Touched By The White Hands Of Death” via the riff progressions and Tomas’ echo-y, screaming in a cell sounding vocals; and “The Fall Into Time” is perhaps the most epic and cinematic composition the band has ever penned, built on a simple chord descending chord sequence that is downright foreboding. Another unconventional gem is “Cosmic Pessimism”, with dare I say jangly guitar lines that crest and fall in their dynamics, eventually exploding underneath Tomas’ demon-barked lyric “…We do not live, we are lived!” As I mentioned above, I took my time with this album, only listening to it when the mood struck, and in that spirit I think I got more out of a fewer number of listens. I thought of that approach when I heard that particular lyric again on my playthrough of the album this morning, sandwiched as it was between K-Pop this and K-Pop that. Take your cue from me, don’t force this one down your ears if you’re not in the mood, instead give it time when you’re feeling patient and receptive. Or just play it right after listening to Red Velvet’s “Peek-A-Boo”.

Wizardthrone – Hypercube Necrodimensions:

Not content with his giddy pirate themed folk/power metal project in Alestorm, nor songwriting for the exuberant Euro-power metallers in Gloryhammer, Christopher Bowes has another splashy project to delight or annoy you with (depending on your mood I guess). Wizardthrone is his symphonic melodic death metal detour, an unabashed ode to Bal-Sagoth as it’s primary influence, but also tempered by a surprising amount of power metal melodicism. On “Frozen Winds Of Thyraxia”, the lead guitar melodies lean far more towards Wintersun than they do Dimmu Borgir, and it makes for a brighter sounding atmosphere than you’d expect, melody drenched and easily listenable. And I’d argue that’s not a bad thing, because even though Aether Realm’s Jake Jones spews his best shredded throat grim vocals here, replete with the requisite “bleghs” that you’d expect, this is largely a theatrical affair. Spoken word dramatics appear throughout “Incantation of the Red Order”, and if you can tolerate that kind of thing, it does help to space out the composition a bit, giving space to the more menacing moments during the verses and allowing the orchestral pomp and grandeur to stand out more when it appears as a mid-song bridge. That’s one of the album’s strengths, sonic diversity in dynamics and song structures, and it helps to keep your attention a bit more than if it was just battering you with spooky keys and blastbeats for 5 minutes straight at a time. It results in an album where I’m able to remember that “Of Tesseractual Gateways and the Grand Duplicity of Xhul” (jesus Chris… these song titles… the “Xhul track” then) starts out with an almost Rotting Christ-like primal death metal passage, sounding vaguely Middle Eastern with guitars that reminded me at once of Melechesh. I can also pinpoint “Forbidden Equations Deep…” (track 4 dammit) as the one that starts with a Blind Guardian blast of guitars and a keyboard melody within that sounds very close to a theremin. In summation, there’s a lot of diversity on the album and that’s really to its strength, it lends it replay value, and I didn’t ever really get bored sitting through it. What Hypercube Necrodimensions really lacks is similarly the kind of gut punch that Bal-Sagoth could never quite deliver (mostly due to the thinness of their symphonic black metal approach), which is why I suppose I was never that big on them, even though it felt like I should have been. I kept waiting for Wizardthrone to deliver a really heavy, punishing riff to batter me relentlessly, and it briefly appeared for a moment on the title track, only to disappear before it could really leave a mark. The result is an album that is admittedly interesting to listen to, with some incredible artwork to gawk at, but doesn’t move me one way or another. More heaviness or more melody, I dunno what the answer is for the next album, but I hope they pick a direction and head towards it.

Dialith – Atrophy (EP):

In a weird coincidence with my K-Pop listening, Dialith are back with a release strategy that owes more to the approach taken by Korean Idol groups than anything metal related. Their new EP Atrophy is the first in a series of three planned releases, with another EP of songs to follow at some point, after which they both will be combined and packed along with more new songs to ultimately make up the full length sequel to their 2019 Metal Pigeon Album Of The Year Extinction Six. That’s not dissimilar to the way the K-Pop R&B group Mamamoo for example released four EPs to piece together their overall concept for their Four Seasons, Four Colors conceptual project — a strategy that owes more to continually releasing material to prevent your audience from moving on to something else and also just keeping up with the competition from other artists releasing music. Well, it’s not a perfect comparison I’ll admit, because metal bands tend to be afforded years by fans to get their next record together, sometimes to their own detriment, with fanbases that are often unreasonably patient (see Wintersun and until recently, Therion). But there is something to be said about maintaining momentum even in the slower moving metal world, and when a global pandemic interrupts the gains you should have gotten after an incredible debut record, kyboshing touring plans (if there were any) and the possibility of playing showcase festival gigs, you risk having people forget about you. Dialith explained their strategy in a post on their Instagram as a way to keep them in people’s radars while not being out of the spotlight for the lengthier amount of time it would take to assemble an entire album together. Presumably, this means they can focus their work on two or three songs at a time, instead of hurrying themselves into a sophomore slump in an effort to just get something out. As they say, bands have their entire life to get the debut record written, and only months for that all important follow up. And with the lead off song “Ignite The Sky”, Dialith sound more sparkly than they ever did on Extinction Six, with keyboard runs that sound downright synth-pop oriented and offer a brighter, more dewy-eyed take on the band’s core sonic identity. Alasdair Wallace Mackie still lays down thicker, denser, heavier riffs than you’d expect a symphonic metal band to have, and Krista Sion is the perfect shade of icy in her delivery. The other two songs here, “Sweet As Wine” (don’t let the title fool you) and “Undertow” are closer to the darker, angrier tone we heard on the debut, with battering riffs and a rhythmic aggression that is still just, shocking (for lack of a better description) to hear from a symphonic metal band. We’re not going to be forgetting Dialith anytime soon.

Pharaoh – The Powers That Be:

This was another release where like At The Gates’ new record, I wanted to give it time to gel in my mind a bit, because my first listen was a little underwhelming. It didn’t help that I’ve been looking forward to this album for years and years now, the band’s last effort being the absolutely incredible Bury The Light way the heck back in 2012. And right off the bat lets just acknowledge that The Powers That Be was going to have a hard time living up to the expectations that album created, no matter when it was released. But that it took nine years to get a follow up doesn’t help matters for sure, creating a situation where opinions about the new record will be impacted by the amount of time it took to deliver it. And of course, this isn’t really a full time band either, with its members (most notably Chris Black of High Spirits and Dawnbringer) participating in other projects and doing other things (though as far as I can tell, Tim Aymar isn’t in any other bands right now, correct me if I’m wrong), but still, nine years is a hell of a long time to go between releases. My guess is it takes that long because there’s so much songwriting input from everyone in the band that maybe this time around it just resulted in a freak slowdown, but that’s pure speculation. There is a noticeably thrashier bent to the introductory title track though than I was expecting to hear, with the guitars being more technical than I’d ever noticed on a Pharaoh record before, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the album on my first few listens I think. Through that filter, I think a lot of the melodies that are brimming under the surface of some of the songs midway through the album tend to get suppressed until you unlock them with future listens. Like “We Will Rise” has a really inspired Maiden-spiked guitar solo section midway through that I think I glossed over initially but now have come to really appreciate — and “Freedom” has a weird Helloween meets Pharaoh mashup vibe going on that I dismissed as clunky at first. It’s now one of the highlights of the record, it’s gang shouted “no, no!” vocals perfect for the old school, united against the world lyrical theme going on. I kept waiting for this album’s “The Spider’s Thread” to reveal itself, but the closest we got this outing is “When The World Was Mine”, which is a fine song as is but seems like it could have benefited from one or two more memorable melodies to firmly affix it in one’s memory. This is a good Pharaoh record, a worthy addition to their catalog, but not something that sounds like it earned those nine years in between… I guess I just wanted something that blew my mind the way the last one did. This could be a Pigeon problem.

Powerwolf – Call Of The Wild:

Powerwolf are back with another new album, although what differentiates this album from 2018’s The Sacrament Of Sin is something that only the most passionate fan could possibly detect, and I’d even have to contest that. For all the flack that their contemporaries in Sabaton receive for sounding samey throughout their career (and lately, that criticism is warranted on their post-pandemic drip-drip song rollout), at least Sabaton have made some significant album-wide shifts at times in their career. There was orchestral grandeur adorning Carolus Rex to match the splendor of those songs about the rise and fall of the Swedish king’s empire; and on the recent The Great War, the band often slowed down their attack at times, muddied up the rhythmic attack to mirror the sludge and trudge of World War I. Powerwolf have never, not to my memory anyway, attempted to coalesce the musical approach to an album into some kind of cohesive, narrative musical vision. It’s just another platter of songs ala Powerwolf mode, and you’re paying far closer attention than I if you can tell what song comes from what album. And truthfully, this wouldn’t be a problem if these songs were mostly hitting the target, but they’re not — when they do, as on the album highlight “Dancing With The Dead”, Powerwolf is as compelling as mainstream metal can possibly be, the stuff that ripples through crowds at European festivals and compels smiles and singalongs. That song’s chorus holds the answer, namely that Atilla Dorn’s vocal power really comes through when he has a vocal melody/lyric that allows him to be the ghoulish narrator that he was meant to be. With longer lines full of syllabic variation, his rich vocal tone, distinct in pronounciation and character is allowed to flourish, like a German Ozzy Osbourne being backed by Maiden-esque melodies that linger around like proper earworms. But when they get it wrong, as on the absolutely abysmal “Beast Of Gevaudan”, where the rhythmic structure is percussive, almost staccato-like, thus leaving Atilla with little to do but mirror it in his vocal delivery, which quickly becomes tiresome. It doesn’t help that the song has major Sabaton vibes, which is not a great sound profile for Powerwolf. They’ve fallen into this staccato trap quite often throughout their discography, and it just never, ever sounds good, and I wish someone would point out the difference between these two songs to them. That’s not to say a band shouldn’t have rhythmic variation within an album, because of course they should, but knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses is something that a band on album number, what, eight, should realize by now. Caught in the middle of these two extremes are the rest of the nine songs on the album, and none of them made enough of an impression on me (yet? maybe?) to warrant remarking on. Just meh.

Helloween Returns! Oh And Other New Releases…

In a much needed turnaround since my last update, the past month(ish) has provided a bounty of incredibly exciting new metal releases, some of which are the best albums I’ve heard this year. The headliner here is of course the new, much anticipated Helloween album with the reunited Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen onboard alongside Andi Deris. There’s not much suspense to be had in what I think about the record — it’s spectacular and beyond anything I expected the band to deliver, we’re talking a possible AOTY contender. What is surprising is just how they got there, and the choices they made on the record that resulted in a reunion album for the ages. More on that down below then. Rounding out the rest of the reviews below are new albums by veteran artists as well as a couple newer bands that I’m being introduced to via their debuts (which is unusual for me, being typically late to the party most of the time). It feels great to be excited about newer metal releases again, because it’s been a weird early summer that saw me deep diving into K-Pop (check out Mamamoo) — I guess I craved something entirely new to me. Yet simultaneously for a few weeks I couldn’t stop listening to Priest’s Turbo (I always had a soft spot for it but now I’m convinced it’s unfairly panned in retrospect still). Like I said, weird. Not gonna lie though, K-Pop summer is likely to continue, but now it’ll have to share time with a lot of the stuff covered below.


Helloween – Helloween:

The most anticipated release of the year lived up to the hype, how often can we really say that? I’m sure by now you’ve heard this record (because who needs a review to convince them to check out a new Helloween album?) and have realized that this is a way stronger effort than the band (even with this newly reinvigorated lineup) was ever expected to deliver. With Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske back in the fold alongside longtime vocalist Andi Deris, Helloween has mic-dropped their finest album since The Dark Ride and arguably a top five career album (some might challenge that assertion, but I think it can hang in there for a spot). I actually wish I didn’t listen to “Skyfall” when it was released all those weeks ago, because I’d have loved to hear it the way I heard the rest of this album — on release evening at midnight. When “Out For The Glory” was ripping along, with it’s classic Helloween tropes being unabashedly introduced (I still glory claw every time Kai descends with his “IRON MINIONS!”), I thought “Wow, sounds like something off the Keepers”. And despite the lead vocal split between Kiske and Deris, and the fact that when they team up on a lead, it’s hard for Kiske’s voice not to overpower things a touch, I’m honestly floored at how well these two guys sound together, particularly when they play off each other as on “Fear Of The Fallen”. Here they’re trading off lines, bouncing Kiske’s soaring tenor with Deris’ more emotive low to mid range approach to spectacular effect. The songwriting is superb, with particular attention to vocal melodies and who should be singing what and when. That the egos were laid bare for this is clearly evident here and on Deris led cuts like “Cyanide” and “Rise Without Chains” where Kiske steps back into more of an assisting lead vocal role. I really respect that there was an effort made to not just cast Deris aside as second fiddle or worse, an after thought, that he’s given equal time to Kiske — and of course he should, he’s been in the band longer than him by well over a decade. Whether the details of vocal splitting were arranged by whomever wrote an individual song, or more likely, by Deris and Kiske themselves, they get a lot of credit from me for making it work so well.

Helloween has been a songwriting roundtable for awhile now, with any member welcome to throw their idea into the mix and see it come through as a finished song on the record, and this roundtable free-for-all approach continues on Helloween. Actually not counting bonus tracks, Deris racks up the most credits on the album, complete with a doozy of a collab with Hansen on the awesome, ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. This is my personal favorite on the album, a classic slice of heavy metal expressly written about metal, and the act of rockin’, a made for stage anthem that they’ve cheekily layered some sampled crowd noise onto as a little guide for future audiences (“Make some noise!”). Deris is at his swagger-fueled best here, delivering the pounding chorus with conviction and his raspy edged voice is the perfect call for the aggressive tone set in the verses. Can we get more of these two writing together? Sascha Gerstner writes the Kiske centric “Angels”, which is richly dramatic and sends Kiske’s vocals spiraling skyward and falling back to earth, while an unorthodox arrangement unfolds below blending an almost Savatage-esque piano laced, stately paced melancholic swirl. The Deris/Kiske dueling tradeoff towards the end is one of the most spectacular moments on the album, and the acapella Kiske fade out is an inspired minor detail. Of course we have to mention “Robot King”, one of the most classic Helloween-y cuts here courtesy of Michael Weikath (he also penned “Out For The Glory”), because this is a fantastic Keeper-vibes gem with one of the most infectious passages on the album (“…robot king! / You’re the master race!…”). I’ve seen some nitpicking about the lyrics on “Down In The Dumps”, particularly the chorus… which I don’t really understand at all because I actually think its a funny way to phrase depression, especially in a refrain that sounds so bitingly angry as this one. This is an odd duck of a song but I love it, with its laid back My God Given Right era vibes in the verse jumping right to The Dark Ride in the chorus — only Helloween could pull off something this schizophrenic and make it gel.

Of course we have to mention “Skyfall”, which is a Hansen penned latter day Helloween classic, featuring an extended chorus passage that sounds like it’d fit in on one of Avantasia’s Metal Operas (a little power metal inception here, who is influenced by whom??!). Hansen hasn’t been shy about his influences over the years, so the David Bowie “Space Oddity” influenced middle bridge sequence isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s still an eye-opening transitional moment and something that feels really fresh, inspired, and joyful. It’s also seamlessly woven in, complete with a easy transition back into a traditional metal guitar solo sequence that rockets us back into high speed power metal territory. That’s the kind of move that only an assured, veteran songwriter tends to pull off successfully, and not often at that — it alone might notch this as the best thing Hansen has written in awhile. And though it’s the album closer, I want to point out that on Spotify anyway, we’re treated to two more excellent bonus tracks by default (a glaring fault of these streaming services is that there’s rarely any indication of what is and isn’t a bonus track). Both “Golden Times” and particularly “Save My Hide” are satisfying, album tracklist worthy cuts that I’m considering part of this overall album experience anyway, particularly the latter with its kick down the doors chorus opening that’s full of charging bull attitude and hard rock swagger to the max. We’re definitely going to discuss this album more at the end of the year, how could we not? I just wanna mention now though that twenty years ago when Kiske not-so-secretly finally returned to metal on Tobias Sammet’s first Metal Opera (Ernie!), I was stunned and grateful, because he seemed so disconnected from metal for awhile. But even then, I’d have never dreamed that we’d get another Helloween album with him and Hansen back on board, Weikath seemed to dismiss the idea and things just seemed too distant. I got a little emotional during my first playthrough of this somewhere between that midnight release and 1am, not like teardrop inducing, but I had a moment there halfway through the album where everything felt too surreal for me to process. I’m still processing it as I type this, but this time it’s more about how frigging great this album turned out to be. Unreal.

Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen:

This is a welcome surprise, largely due to me not knowing that Esa Holopainen was planning on trying his hand at a solo album. I suppose it’s pandemic time well spent, a window where he could focus time away from Amorphis without hurting the band’s usual touring/recording schedule. The naming of this project is unusual, not quite a band name yet more than just his name on the cover as per the usual solo album modus operandi, and the concept of Silver Lake seems like something that can be expanded upon for continuing releases in the future. The idea isn’t new here, essentially Esa writing songs with different guest vocalists on board, providing a different style, approach, and mood on their respective songs. The guest list is inspired both on paper and in execution, with vocals from Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse on two emotionally charged bookending cuts, a more prog-rock bent on the Bjorn Strid sung “Promising Sun” (boasting one of the strongest hooks on the album), and of course the show stopper herself Anneke Van Giersbergen on the gorgeous “Fading Moon” (a sister song to her glorious guest spot on “Amongst Stars” off the last Amorphis record). Holopainen’s expressive playing, at once melancholic and uplifting is the constant throughout the entirety of the album, and his songwriting DNA is of course omnipresent throughout. What I suspect separates this from his work with Amorphis is the more melodic progressive rock nature of these songs compared to the battering ram approach that is still part of Amorphis’ attack. That’s not to say things don’t get heavy any (in fact, Tomi Joutsen makes an appearance on “In Her Solitude” with his brutal bark and deep, guttural growls), but this is a far more contemplative and restrained affair than the full on emotional wringer that Amorphis delivers. Key example is “Storm”, a song about peaceful resignation and contentment sung by Swedish vocalist Hakan Hemlin, a song that I’m still on the fence about (I love the melodies, but sometimes the vocal melody gets too close to cloying). I’ve enjoyed listening to this record on it’s own merits, Holopainen is a fascinating songwriter, and this is clearly meant to be a window into his inner world. It’s worth peering in.

Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever:

The avant-garde, ever-changing lineup of Subterranean Masquerade is back with their fourth full length release, coming after the weird mish-mash quarantine EP last year (titled appropriately, The Pros & Cons Of Social Isolation). I probably should’ve reviewed that one, because I did check it out when it was released and it was the debut of the band’s new vocalist Davidavi Dolev, who with his appearance on this new album suggests that he might be the band’s long term solution post Kjetil Nordhus. I really love Dolev’s vocals, he’s a versatile singer, capable of inflecting aching emotion during impassioned moments and dipping down into quieter, hushed moments while still sounding clear and emotive. I can only guess that he’s handling the sprinkling of growls that are found throughout here and there whenever the band decides to shift into a more metallic attack for a moment. I say a moment because this band’s M.O. is basically to keep you guessing at all times, an approach they themselves describe as “polychromatic arrangements”, and yeah I agree that’s a fine way to phrase it. More than ever before though, the band’s merging of metal, loose rock n’ roll, and Middle-Eastern folk instrumentation put through a prog filter is distilled into it’s finest album to date. On their past couple efforts, I always felt like there were moments where they went a little too far in a direction that I couldn’t really follow, but Mountain Fever is a sharply written, deftly executed collection of terrifically inspired songs. There’s a spiritual feel to songs like “Snake Charmer” with its gorgeously aching string arrangements; and “Mangata” with its delicate acoustic melody that dances alongside what I can only guess is an oud or buzuq (I have a hard time distinguishing these instruments but god do I love listening to either one); and “Ascend” which closes out with my favorite vocal performance on the album in it’s last few minutes. These more introspective moments are countered by the pure aggression of “For The Leader, With Strings Music” (cheeky title that) and the euphorically bright “Ya Shema Evyonecha” where dense, urgent metallic riffing is countered by beautiful folk instrumentation in a vibrant bridge sequence. This is a fascinating album — you get immediately pulled in by the hooks, but come back for repeat listens because there’s simply so much going on within these songs that you can’t take it all in at once. One of the best albums of the year no doubt.

King Of Asgard – Svartrviðr:

One of Sweden’s finest folk metal exports are back with their fifth new album Svartrviðr (your guess is as good as mine on the pronunciation), their follow up to 2017’s genuinely excellent Taudr. The heart of the band is one Karl Beckmann (vocals/guitar), formerly of the Swedish folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, that some might remember from their late 90s run where they delivered a pair of folk metal classics in their short run and promptly disbanded, after which former guitarist Stefan Weinerhall and drummer Karsten Larsson linked up with a theater singer named Mathias Blad and formed Falconer. The rest is, well, you know the saying. Beckmann formed King Of Asgard in 2008 and after a few demos, released the band’s debut two years later. The band’s sound from the jump has really been a continuation of where Mithotyn left off, that revelatory fusion of black metal elements and rustic, roots-in-earth folk melodicism. This approach to folk music is something I’ve been delighted to see a return to from several artists over the past five years, a slowly growing alternative to the kitschy, campy dreck that folk metal turned to in the mid-2000s (and lingered far too long after). There’s a focused, almost meditative quality to the music on this album, designed to be listened to in one attentive sitting, with relatively lengthy songs that are built on cyclic tremolo riffs that pull you into a semi-lulled state, adding elements little by little, or alternatively, deconstructing themselves over time. Beckmann is a fine guitarist, joined here in tandem by Ted Sjulmark (of Grimner), together weaving folk inspired melodies that are often as foreboding sounding as they are gorgeous. But he’s just as impressive as a vocalist, his grim vocals earthen, gritty, and seemingly textural on purpose, a lost folk metal art — countered with a baritone bellow that suits the somber, downcast mood that this album is entrenched in. His clean vocals are a highlight on the title track, a resigned, sullen slow march set to pounding percussion that explodes midway through into an Enslaved-esque expansive progressive black metal passage. A personal favorite here is “Rifna” (as apt a name this song could have), built on a repeating riff figure that pulls you into it’s hypnotic trance, and Beckmann introduces some fantastic, eerie vocal layering effects midway through that really give the song a haunted, ghostly quality. It’s rare that a band delivers two incredibly solid albums back to back, but King Of Asgard do just that here, with Svartrviðr maybe getting the edge as the better of the two, but go back and check out Taudr as well.

Verjagen – When The Sun Sets Over This Mortal World:

Verjagen are a fresh face on the map of melodic death metal, I hesitate to call it a scene because well… are there even scenes anymore? Not geographically speaking anyway, but I digress. These guys are from Finland as well, but their sound has rather little to do with fellow countrymen like Insomnium or even Mors Principium Est, but more owing to blending traditional metal and some thrash elements with that core Swedish Gothenburg sound. The result is a sound that is at once familiar and yet unorthodox and fresh, because when listening to this (debut) album I feel like I’m being reminded of something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it is, I’ve been enjoying this record for the past few weeks now, songs like “Life Of War” and “Gritty Night” providing a blend of extreme aggression filtered with enough meaty, hooky riffs to latch onto for that headbanging element. The band uses melody as an accent, rather than the main attraction as usually the case with Gothenburg styled melo-death, and vocalist Otto-Aaron Timonen dishes out gravel throated, barking screaming vocals that are punishingly heavy ala Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There are moments where melodies take precedent over heaviness, as on the album highlight “Exit Plan” where we’re treated to an inspired chorus that’s slowed down and unfurls into an expansive, cinematic keyboard painted refrain that is genuinely majestic. I get some Dark Tranquility vibes on “Feast For The Dead” with its dramatic synth keyboard arrangements behind all the riffery, and Timonen does have a Mikael Stanne tinge to his vocals at points. The best part about this album is that it’s solid from front to back, something that is reinforced by its relatively succinct, eight track/forty-two minute run time. I’ve found myself listening to it while driving, and that’s been a tough task for most metal recently (again, except for Turbo for some reason) during K-Pop summer. I haven’t seen that many people talking about Verjagen yet, in fact, I think I might be one of the first to review this one and that in itself is a rarity. Worth checking out if you’ve been looking for a different twist on melo-death.

Bloodbound – Creatures Of The Dark Realm:

This was a frustrating listen, and I say that as someone who has quietly been rooting for Bloodbound ever since their fantastic debut in 2005 with the Urban Breed on vox classic Nosferatu. After Breed’s departure post Tabula Rasa, the band has been fronted by Patrik Johansson (Selleby… or whatever the heck he wants to be called by now), and the output has taken a noticeable nosedive to my tastes anyway. But being an amiable fellow, I think I’ve just bided my time with the band for the past decade, giving Johansson the benefit of the doubt as a vocalist. He has an appealing tone, a nicely melodic delivery and clearly has the range needed for Euro power. I guess I figured that the onus fell on the founding guitarist Olsson brothers to write material that really maximized the best use of his talents. But with a full decade of the Johansson era in the books, with six albums to its name, and I’m starting to suspect that Johansson really is the problem with Bloodbound’s direction all these years. On Creatures Of The Dark Realm, he’s actually managed to irritate me with his penchant for singsongy-ness that degenerates damn near every chorus into a Hobbits dancing around the kitchen, pointed elbows swinging back and forth silly jig melody. Take “Kill Or Be Killed” for example, one would expect a song with that title to bring the heat, a little straight to the throat heavy metal that matched the ugliness of it’s title — but instead it boasts one of the most childishly cheerful melodies you’ll ever hear, one that comes across as downright insufferable in the wider context of the album (largely because this pattern is repeated throughout). The same defect hampers any sense of excitement and danger in songs like “The Gargoyle’s Gate”, “When Fate Is Calling”, “Ever Burning Flame”, and hell let’s be real, most of the album. Occasionally, band and vocalist find their footing together (albeit however briefly), such as on “March Into War” where the vocals lock into an appealing rhythmic build-up to a chorus that is actually somewhat effective. I dunno, there might be another moment here that was interesting, but clearly not interesting enough for me to remember. One of the most disappointing releases in the genre in sometime, or maybe its just my not-so-secret desire to see Urban Breed (a recent free agent from Serious Black) reunite with his old bandmates for another album — either way, avoid this.

Sunrise – Equilibria:

About a month ago, Ukraine’s chief power metal export Sunrise released their first album in five years, Equilibria. It’s been the usual dose of lineup changes for this band, with the only original (and constant) member being vocalist Konstantin Naumenko aka Laars. I’m not going to get into the whole history of the lineup changes (the sheer amount of guitarists that have been in this band year in year out is ridiculous) but you can imagine this is what lent itself to the extended lead up time to this new album. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be for Laars to contend with this seemingly every album or even in between albums as it sometimes seems to be. Then there’s the fact that they’re independent, launching relatively successful crowdfunding campaigns to get funding for these recordings… it’s gotta be alot on one’s plate. Credit to him though because Equilibria does indeed hit the same benchmarks of quality songwriting and fantastic performances that have defined this band during their four album run (yep, only 4 albums since 2007 is what an unstable lineup will yield). Laars also handled mixing, mastering… the whole production basically, not to mention being the band’s major songwriter alongside new guitarist Maksym Vityuk and keyboardist (and spouse) Daria Naumenko. The appeal here isn’t rocket science, Laars’ vocal tone and approach is a sweet spot between Tony Kakko with a splash of Timo Kotipelto, and Sunrise deliver a vocal melody driven, keyboard soaked take on speedy, fleet of foot power metal ala classic era Sonata Arctica. There are an armful of gems here, the anti-anxiety vibes of “Wings Of A Dreamer” (added to the playlist!), the dual lead vocals with Daria on the mid-tempo proggy vibes of the title track, and a oddity (but personal fave) in “Call My Name” whose brooding power ballad structure reminds me of a cross between the Scorpions and something off Winterheart’s Guild. Right around the middle of this album, there’s a patch of songs that really strike me as more progressive metal influenced than the band’s power metal roots, which I’m not sure if I entirely enjoy or not (its not bad mind you, but everything gets a bit mid-paced for too long). One of these is a banger though, “The Bridge Across Infinity”, striking some Khan era Kamelot notes at times during the chorus, and delivering a really nice balance between our two lead vocalists. If you’ve never heard of this band, I would recommend starting with their 2009 classic Trust Your Soul which featured all-time power metal gems like “All This Time” and “Man In The World”, but Equilibria is a pretty strong addition to their catalog on it’s own. I just hope for Laars’ sake that this lineup can stick around for awhile so the next album can get underway sooner.

Ildaruni – Beyond Unseen Gateways:

I know I talked about this on a recent episode of MSRcast, but I figured I should write about it since Ildaruni’s Beyond Unseen Gateways is one of those albums that I haven’t been able to quit coming back to this year. Coming as a recommendation from the gang at r/PowerMetal, this debut album is one of the most fascinating extreme metal releases I’ve heard this year, being a fusion of Melechesh-esque blistering Eastern inspired black metal, with more of a methodical Rotting Christ rhythmic attack as the foundation instead of full on speed demon tempo mode. Ildaruni only just formed in 2018, and both of the songs on that year’s inaugural demo are here in “Towards Subterranean Realms” and “Treading the Path of Cryptic Wisdom”, and the musical foundations they laid out on those two songs is really the template for the exploration that occurs on the rest of the album. On the latter, the band isn’t afraid to temper extremity with some Maiden inspired gallop and twin harmonized leads just for funsies; or as on “Towards Subterranean Realms”, introduce some bread and butter mid-tempo chugging rhythm guitar to clear the decks and get heads nodding. As so many smarter extreme metal bands are demonstrating, a little rockin’ helps maximize the impact of extremity, a mid-song palette cleansing to break up the monotony of nonstop tremolo and blast beat batteries. And Ildaruni are full of such little deviations to keep us guessing throughout, including the infusion of unorthodox folk instrumentation in unexpected moments. On “Exalted Birth”, a bagpipe chimes in midway through before the guitar solo, delivering a folk melody that is distinctly not Celtic-sounding. I love that the instrumentation choice there doesn’t match the expectation of how you’d expect it to be used, in some mock-Braveheart arrangement — its a subtle choice, but I could have easily envisioned a Middle-Eastern string instrument playing that melody instead of a bagpipe. Ildaruni hail from Armenia, a country that exists at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, so it makes sense that they’d be pulling influences from a myriad of differing directions. And it’s really hard to pin their sound down as just one thing or the other, and I mean that as a compliment, Beyond Unseen Gateways is as unpredictable as it is epic, and it’s easily my favorite black metal record in a long time.

Mixed Bag: New Music From Frozen Crown, Moonspell, and more!

Nearing the midway point of 2021, and the past few months of new music have been simultaneously surprising and disappointing in various ways. I point out some of the surprises (both good and bad) below in the many new albums I’ve reviewed here, but one of the things I’m a little frustrated about is that with a few exceptions, this year hasn’t delivered much in the way of breathtaking, truly excellent records. In response to this frustration, I’ve found myself just going back and listening to old records (went on a Judas Priest bender some days ago), also doing a little revisiting of some of the albums on my past few years best of lists (proud of myself there, they’re all still deserving of their placements), and just trying out bands I’ve never heard of before. And you know I’m not really even sure what I’m looking for genre wise, I suppose it doesn’t matter, as long as it keeps me compelled and coming back for another listen. So with that in mind, I’m an open book for any recommendations if you’ve got them, because its been a little meh lately. In other news, I bought my first concert ticket in over a year the other day, a two day pass to the April 2022 Hell’s Heroes Fest that takes place right here in Houston. I hope I’ll be seeing a show long before that one, but at least it’s a step towards normality. It never felt so good to pay for processing fees and parking passes. Right, onto the reviews:


Frozen Crown – Winterbane:

I’d been looking forward to what Frozen Crown would do next ever since I became a fan of theirs somewhere between their 2018 strong debut and it’s rather excellent Best Albums of 2019 list making follow-up Crowned In Frost which yielded the Best Songs list maker “In The Dark”. That song and other gems like “Neverending” and “Winterfall” showcased the band’s budding gifts at making melodeath-esque dense riffage soaked power metal with exuberant vocal melodies reminiscent of classic Sonata Arctica. There was a charming naivete about their approach, almost purposefully cliched in a slight way to really hammer home how satisfying this particular style of music could be, a celebration of all their influences. On their third album, Winterbane, Frozen Crown stumble slightly, and I mean ever so slightly, but it’s noticeable enough to warrant pointing it out right away considering how it stands in contrast to their first two records. This is actually a pretty enjoyable album as a casual listen, but it’s lacking a little of the wild guitar fireworks of the first two albums in favor of a more vocal melody driven direction. What I loved about the band’s debut and to a certain extent on it’s follow-up was that exciting extreme metal fusion approach that suggested shades of Jesper Stromblad mixed with Alexi Laiho.

Now the shift from being guitar centric to vocals front and center theoretically shouldn’t be a problem considering Giada Etro’s remarkably powerful and rich voice, but the vocal melodies on most of these songs suffer from a sameness that handicaps their impact. That being a plethora of boringly loooooonnnggggg notes, mainly in the form of “whooooooaaaaaaaaassss” and “ooooooooohhhhhhhhs” such as on “The Lone Stranger” (a shame because there’s some spicy guitar ear candy here that gets lost amidst the vocal drudgery). This long note extension vocal stuff pops up everywhere around the album, and the rhythmic variations we heard Etro delivering on the first two albums are hardly to be found, barring a moment here and there. One of those moments is a cover of “Nightcrawler”, and you know, its fine… it was never my favorite Priest tune by any stretch and I just think its a little too by the numbers here when they could have really dressed it with up with some power metal flair. This isn’t a knock on Etro’s talent either, as a friend in the r/PowerMetal community said of her performance on this album, “She clearly knows how to sing. Just doesn’t know how to make it interesting”. And I’m not sure if that’s on her so much as it is on guitarist/songwriter Federico Mondelli, who has noticeably lessened his co-vocal involvement in the band’s songs compared to the first two albums (he’s really only noticeable on two cuts here). And what I’ve noticed about my reaction to Winterbane is that I’m not compelled to come back to it again and again like I was with the first two records, it’s just a little tedious to listen to in various spots, and I hate having to say that.

Communic – Hiding From The World:

This is actually from 2020, but it’s one of those better late than never discoveries because Communic’s Hiding From The World is one of the best straight ahead metal albums I’ve heard in awhile. I’m admittedly not that familiar with the band, having seen their name around vaguely and maybe having checked them out in the past at some point (they’ve been around since 2005), but here they have a sound that reminds me of a less technical Nevermore. Vocalist/guitarist Oddleif Stensland has a Warrel Dane-esque tortured quality to his soulful vocals, albeit with a wider range to deliver some truly jaw dropping performances. Communic are a trio, but they manage to get a thunderous roar out of drums, bass and guitar. Stensland lays down overdubbed solos, and the way these songs are constructed — with artful passages built around contemplative shifts in tempo, dynamics, and tone, create more nuanced depth to these songs than other three piece prog/power outfits ala Rage or Grand Magus. The title track is a haunting, gradually building semi-ballad that rides Queensryche-ian guitars towards a battering ram of a riff sequence, and a nine minute track length feels more like five. Another standout is “Born Without A Heart”, a slow, pensive mood piece that reminds me of latter day November’s Doom for it’s utterly bleak mood, while Stensland crafts a vocal melody that is gorgeous yet utterly anguished. Album closer “Forgotten” seems to ride a psychedelic tinge to it’s lead guitar melodies, pairing them with dense, meaty riffs in a paean to regrets and the passage of time. Its’s a heavy track for more than just it’s sonics, and that general depressive tone is pretty much present throughout all of this album. Where Nevermore sounded angry and full of seething rage, Communic seems to explore the other emotions that result from the aftermath of those, ones more sullen and resigned.

Orden Ogan – Final Days:

I remember when Orden Ogan seemed like they were going to take over as the next massive thing in power metal. It was right after the release of To The End, which was a monstrous power metal record with two absolute bangers on it in “The Things We Believe In” and the title track, and a pretty spectacular ballad in “Take This Light”. Then the band stumbled a bit with the near-dud in Ravenhead, and something weird happened to their sound on it’s 2017 follow-up Gunmen, a simplification of a sound that was already pretty straight ahead in it’s Iron Savior meets Gamma Ray meets Blind Guardian mix. My more cynical friends at r/PowerMetal would say that Sebastian Levermann has been affected with Sabaton-itis, that affliction that where riff complexity is eschewed aside in favor of heavy synth lines and a larger reliance on easy vocal melodies. I’m on the fence of this particular debate, because I do enjoy a couple of the songs from those records, but yeah I do think the band’s sound has been a little more… streamlined as of late, and Final Days is no exception. Levermann really employs the old “don’t bore us get to the chorus” approach to his songwriting throughout, often issuing the refrain at the outset of a song so we’re jumping right in with very little buildup. It should be said, these are some very catchy songs on a surface level: “Heart Of An Android”, “In The Dawn Of The AI” and “Interstellar” have hooks that are hard to ignore. Levermann himself is as appealing a vocalist as ever, his Kai Hansen meets Hansi Kursch delivery a perfect vehicle for ultra melodic yet riff dense power metal. But there is something to the theory that Orden Ogan just isn’t as musically interesting as they used to be on their first couple albums where melody and grandeur were matched by an intensity best conveyed through a barrage of complex arrangements and riff sequences. The band has largely abandoned that more progressive side of their sound, and we’re left with these glossy, ear candy laden platters of power metal that is often a blast to listen to, but is lacking in the way of depth and emotion.

Metalite – A Virtual World:

Someone over at Metallum needs to explain how it is that Metalite has a page on their database, but Amaranthe somehow still doesn’t despite virtually identical approaches to their sound. One could even argue that Amaranthe has a greater claim to metal roots, given their harsh vocals, guitarist Olof Morck’s power metal roots in Dragonland, and Jake Lundberg’s stint in Dreamland and Dream Evil. Anyway Metalite is a curiosity in the metal world, even alongside Amaranthe, because there’s really no gimmick to be had here, except for their purely saccharine, glossy pop-metal sound. I mean it’s in the name isn’t it? Metal-(l)ite? Actually full disclosure here, I kinda like this band for just leaning into this particular sound palette and songwriting style. There’s no growls here to, I dunno, do whatever Amaranthe is trying to do with them, as vocalist Erica Ohlsson is left to her own devices to carry these songs with her straight ahead melodic vocals. I think she’s a fairly good singer judging from live clips I’ve seen, certainly good enough not to need the noticeable sheen of processing (autotune maybe?) on her vocals all throughout the album. I chalked that up to a thematic choice, it does fit with the ultra processed production wash that permeates every second of the aptly titled A Virtual World, a thematic album that as best as I can tell, is about the urge to breakaway from the all encompassing encroachment of technology (the cover art checks out). I did think it was kinda funny that I enjoyed Metalite’s “Cloud Connected” here far more than In Flames own dour song of the same name from all those years ago, at least there’s a brightness and bite to Metalite’s chorus than Anders Friden’s dishwater clean vocals. Elsewhere, “Alone” is a 80s pop starlet’s ballad set to thick power chords and has a warm charm to it, and “Beyond The Horizon” has some grand, arms wide open gesturing kitschiness that I enjoy purely for it’s surface level ear candy. I will say “Peacekeepers” and “The Vampire Song” are at best examples of not putting much thought behind your lyrics, but then again we shouldn’t expect too much here. I had fun listening to this album, which can’t be said for an armful of new releases this year.

Ghosts Of Atlantis – 3.6.2.4:

This is the debut album from United Kingdom based symphonic death metal/sometimes melodeath meets metalcore-ish Ghosts Of Atlantis. Despite being one of the more just plain awful album titles I’ve seen in a minute, 3.6.2.4. is a promising debut from a band that has the potential to turn out something spectacular down the road. These guys have an identity right out of the gate, and in that sense they remind me of Seven Spires on their debut Solveig, how there were creative ideas that pointed to great things down the road (didn’t expect them to come to fruition as quick as they did however). The most representative track here is wisely the lead off cut “The Third Pillar”, a Septic Flesh meets Therion fusion of groove based melo-death and gorgeous symphonic flourishes, including orchestral elements and a choral vocal accompaniment. Vocalist Phil Primmer is a versatile fellow, capable of some rather convincing harshes and a ICS Vortex influenced grand, theatrical clean voice that he transitions to and from rather effortlessly. Sometimes, the band tries an idea that just falls flat on it’s face and mars and otherwise fantastic song, as on “Halls Of Lemuria” where Primmer launches into a spoken word/near rap passage midway through the song that leaves me cringing. I’m sure others won’t be as bothered by it as I was, but it’s a shame because I really loved the rest of the song up to that point. When they just sharpen up their focus on tight compositions however, such as “The Curse Of Man”, they’re a potent blend of the grandeur of symphonic metal and the intimacy of melodeath. And I suppose debut albums are where these competing ideas are supposed to sit alongside each other (they can’t all be Appetite For Destruction), because Ghosts Of Atlantis at times seem to be trying out different approaches throughout the record. On “Poseidon’s Bow”, we’re treated to a little more of a progressive metal approach that reminds me of a more extreme Symphony X, while I got a strong Barren Earth vibe from “The Lost Compass”. This was a strong debut effort from a record label (Black Lion Records) that’s releasing some intriguing bands, most of whom are intermixing subgenres a bit like Ghosts of Atlantis. Looking forward to the follow up record already.

Secret Sphere – Lifeblood:

So yet another Italian power metal band that’s impressing me way more than I’d have ever expected years ago. Actually Secret Sphere isn’t entirely new to me, I first became aware of them when Michele Luppi was singing for them after his stint in Vision Divine filling in for Fabio Lione during his hiatus (actually… on second thought, I’m going to skip right past the musical chairs landscape of Italian power metallers for the time being), but now Luppi has been replaced by Sphere’s original vocalist Roberto Messina, who I remember from way back in 2003 for his stint on Alkemyst’s Meeting In The Myst (terrible band name, great record). Messina reminds me of a cross between Labyrinth’s Roberto Tiranti with a splash of Steve Perry for a more rounded, AOR style. This reunion of old band members has resulted in a spectacular collection of songs, smooth melodic metal with a slight neo-classical tinge in moments. What seems to separate Secret Sphere from their Italian contemporaries is an ear towards incorporating some subtle pop-metal influences ala Europe, something you can readily hear on “Thank You”, where punchy group vocals tackle a chorus Striker would die for. Messina shows off his flair for AOR vocal melodies with a Steve Lee-esque raspy edge on “Against All The Odds”, not only in tone, but in the mechanics of his phrasing (the sudden bend in the line “I don’t wanna say goodbye” in particular). Of course there’s plenty of more trad power metal stuff happening here too, as on the cracking title track where guitarist Aldo Lonobile spits out fireworks in the vein of Vision Divine’s more neo-classical, uptempo rockers. I also love the vibe of “The End Of An Ego” where the melodies are somewhat jagged but fit just enough to form a hook that’s satisfying in it’s raw energy and metallic edge. Like their countrymen in Labyrinth earlier this year, Secret Sphere have delivered one of the more standout power metal albums this year, and it’s always great to see veteran bands stepping up to the moment where younger bands have been delivering the goods as of late (for the most part).

Numenor – Draconian Age:

Serbia’s Numenor are one of the newer crop of trad/power metal bands to have surfaced in the past decade, releasing their debut in 2013 and delivering two more records in quick succession over the next few years. They’re a curiosity in the power metal landscape however for their more symphonic black metal roots, still heard here on their fourth album Draconian Age with the presence of grim vocalist Despot Marko Miranović. This album picks up where 2017’s Chronicles from the Realms Beyond left off, with Despot splitting lead vocal duties with clean vocalist Željko Jovanović who sings in sharp contrast with his soaring, clarion tenor. I really like Jovanović’s vocals, he’s got a nice balance of Kiske-ish lightness to his tone but undercut with a darker, weightier edge. On the eponymous “Numenor” (I guess it was bound to happen at some point, but gotta give them some credit for waiting until four albums in), Jovanović delivers his best performance to date with a layered lead vocal that is built on extended syllables and a fearless, heroic swagger befitting the lyrical subject matter. Guitarist Srđan Branković balances epic, Andre Olbrich-esque leads with some rumbling, thick riffs underneath, a mix that really gives a USPM vibe to a lot of what Numenor does. Oh speaking of Blind Guardian, Mr. Hansi Kursch makes splashy guest appearance on the lead off track “Make Your Stand (At the Gates of Erebor)”, matching his recent Judicator guest appearance with something that’s just as awesome, and perhaps even more striking for just how much he contrasts with Despot (yet fits in with Numenor’s sound like a glove). It’s bound to be the most talked about song on the album just for Hansi’s presence alone, but hopefully it doesn’t overshadow the equally spectacular “Feanor”, which behind Guardian’s own “The Curse of Fëanor” is now my second favorite song about the maker of the Silmarils to date. Something I’ve really come to appreciate about Numenor is their punchiness, with their songs kept fairly short and to the point despite their aim for epic majesty. Seriously, none of the ten songs on this album reach past the four minute mark, and most stay just above three minutes in length like some kind of pop-punk record. It keeps every listen of Draconian Age refreshingly short in an age of ten minute plus epics and unnecessary intro tracks, and more importantly it makes Numenor stand out from the crowd. The grim vocals will prevent this from being accepted by some power metal fans, and sometimes the narrations are a bit over the top, but this is easily one of the stronger records released this year.

Moonspell – Hermitage:

Ah this wasn’t an easy album to consider… I really sat with it for a long time, in fact, I believe I mentioned as much on the last two MSRcast episodes which were weeks apart even. My hopes for this record were elevated by the fact that Moonspell was one of the bands at the last gig I attended in October of 2019 (I know…) on their trek with Amorphis and Anneke Van Giersbergen. It was a spectacular show, my first time seeing them since 2005 or somewhere around then when they opened for Opeth, and Moonspell managed to steal the show yet again. I dove back into their past few records that I’d only glanced at before and got really into 1755 and Extinct. My anticipation level for Hermitage was fairly high then, and upon my first listen, I just couldn’t decipher what it was I was listening to. Gone was the aggressive, dark heavy rock inflected vibes of the past two records and in it’s place was something much more muted and atmospheric. I know I’ve written about this before, but that disconnect that happens when something you’re expecting is anything but, makes it hard for you to accept what something actually is — in other words, I had to take a break from trying to crack this album, get some distance from it and try again after a few weeks. This is a late February release, and it’s mid-May right now, and I’ll be honest I’m not even sure if I know what I’m thinking about this record sometimes. There are a couple of really cool moments here, particularly “Entitlement”, with its laid back, almost early aughts Paradise Lost vibes, but also “Common Prayers” with its Depeche Mode tones adorning a rather well done web of groove based riffs. And I appreciate the lead off track “The Greater Good” for it’s rare moment of pure aggression from vocalist Fernando Ribeiro, who for the most part hush sings his way through this album, even during it’s more emotive moments. I suspect the title track would have been a better lead single than “All Or Nothing”, which alongside “Without Rule” is a lengthy, seven minute plus track that needed to be half the length at it’s present tempo, or at least offered something in the way of shifting dynamics and sonic diversity. Those are moments where this album just loses me entirely, and they’re so sleepy, it makes it hard to recover. Maybe this is a mood dependent record, but I keep suspecting it’s just far too overthought for it’s own good.

Spectral Wound – A Diabolic Thirst:

One of 2020 musical resolutions was to try to leap back into black metal, but then the pandy happened and well, I was listening to other, more happier forms of music. I still am slow on the black metal uptake, largely because it doesn’t arrive in my promo box all that often and most of the stuff I get recommended to me is atmoblack (for godsake, no more atmoblack). I have been checking out an ever growing, largely black metal playlist made by friend of the podcast Justin who is far more on top of that genre’s new releases than I am (I think we’re calling him The Metal Detector now). But I’m proud to say one of the more notable black metal discoveries I’ve made for myself this year is Spectral Wound, and I believe they’re worth making noise over. These Montreal based guys are on their third record with A Diabolic Thirst, scoring a higher profile release this time around via Profound Lore, and they deliver some of the most convincingly frostbitten and grim second wave revivalist black metal you’ll hear this year. The most impressive aspect of this record is how this band manages to conjure up a tangible atmosphere without having to utilize keyboards, largely due to the creative guitar tapestry woven by Sean Zumbusch and Patrick McDowall who deliver razor sharp waves of tremolo riffs. On the album highlight, “Soul Destroying Black Debauchery”, they launch the song with a memorable riff that is actually this side of pretty and has a fairly expansive direction throughout. They largely operate in wall of sound territory, but part of what makes Spectral Wound’s sound so appealing is their willingness to incorporate space as a texture, particularly when one guitar drops away and it feels like you’ve made it below an awning to duck out of the deluge for a moment. You hear this on “Frigid and Spellbound”, and get to hear drummer Illusory (great black metal name btw) take advantage of the open space to knock out some creative rhythmic work and rolling fills. Gluing all this together are blistering vocals by Jonah Campbell (no grim pseudonym for him I guess) and a relatively polished production that makes the raw black metal components sound less like early Darkthrone and more like modern day Watain. I wish all modern black metal was this easy to love.

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