New Music To The Rescue: Aeternam, Conception, Myrkur, and more!

With life settling into a strange and slower routine, I’ve had time to listen to stuff that came out in March and early April that I didn’t quite get around to right away with all the craziness happening a few weeks ago. It’s been a nice distraction, but also genuinely exciting in its own right because there’s new music from some big names covered down below, well —- big names in my book anyway. That includes blog favorites Aeternam, as well as the return of the mighty Roy Khan in Conception! Keeping these relatively short because I have a monster Nightwish review coming soon next in my more typical lengthier approach, and there ended up being quite the handful of releases in this update. Let me know what you think in the comments section below, what new or old music have you all been checking out lately?


Aeternam – Al Qassam:

I have been excited about a new Aeternam album ever since I saw them in Austin on their opening slot supporting Orphaned Land and Tyr on their 2018 North American tour, having been made a fan of theirs shortly before with the 2017 release of Ruin of Empires. They of course made that year’s best albums list, and we’ve promoted them fairly heavily on MSRcast in the past few years so I’d imagine most of you know about them already so I’ll spare the bio. Aeternam have their own approach to the arguably unfortunate but seemingly accepted genre tag of oriental metal. Their largely melodeath with hints of thrash approach is tempered with ample doses of Middle Eastern melodicism that is often delivered via lead guitar motifs rather than the largely string driven approach of their peers in Orphaned Land. That means that Aeternam’s sound is denser, thicker, and brutal in passages even though it’s still capable of being richly melodic even during more furious moments. You hear this contrast straight away on “The Bringer of Rain”, a song that’s equal parts rage filled aggression and epic, soaring, melodic majesty. On “Ascension”, vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy slams straight into a vicious riff and guttural roar from the three second mark, taking us for a ride that spans fierce, pummeling riffs backed by martial percussion and tribal drumming by Antoine Guertin. It’s easily the heaviest moment on the album, maybe the band’s heaviest moment since Moongod’s “Hubal, Profaner of Light”, yet still is structured around a twisting, sharp angled melodic through line. This is largely a far heavier album than Ruins of Empires which albeit suitably headbanging in its own right, was more of an exploration of the band’s cinematic side. On Al Qassam, it feels like the band are taking what they learned there, and marrying it to the straight ahead thunder of their 2012 classic Moongod, the fusion producing an album that’s both true to their sound and daringly experimental.

The latter side comes through in most of the songs here, even if they’re meant as breaks of sunlight amidst an otherwise darkened, metallic storm. Case in point is “Hanan Pacha”, a remarkably epic track built on throat-ripping vocal aggression from Loudiy and awesome riff interplay with his new lead guitarist Maxime Legault (who was in the band when I saw them live but is making his first recording appearance with them on this album). But this assault ceases towards the middle bridge of the song, with Loudiy clean singing over gorgeous acoustic guitars, inspired melodic flourishes from Legault and an epic string backdrop, all before swooping back down into a tunnel of pure brutality to close it out. Speaking of Loudiy’s clean vocals, he’s simply never sounded better at it than on this album, particularly on the should-be-a-single “Lunar Ceremony”, which starts out with an impassioned performance by him that is boldly upfront in the mix. This confidence in his abilities might be what prompted him to try singing this track entirely in cleans, a first for the band on a heavy song, demonstrating that they can mold and shape their sound in varying degrees. Despite the lack of guttural vocals here though, Aeternam avoid sounding in any way like their contemporaries in Myrath (not that it’d be a bad thing persay, I love Myrath), because of course, its all about the minor key laden riffing here, and that doesn’t fade into the background just because clean vocals are in the mix. On the most mellow cut on the album, “Palmyra Scriptures”, Loudiy is joined by Orphaned Land’s own Kobi Farhi who lays down a characteristically beautiful vocal performance in English, a striking counterpoint to Loudiy’s own Arabic language vocals. And I was really impressed by the creativity and breadth of songwriting shown in “Celestial Plains”, as varied and expansive a song as I’ve heard Aeternam ever cook up, built on grandiose orchestral cinematics, major chord clean vocal harmonies, all while still structured around a dramatic series of riff progressions. This is an excellent album by a band that seemingly doesn’t know how to make a bad one. They know their sound, they clearly love the style of music they’re creating, and so do I.

Heaven Shall Burn – Of Truth And Sacrifice:

I know that anything that resembles metalcore has tended to elude coverage on this blog, and that’s largely because I just think most of the genre is derivative to the point of exhaustion. But I have had some quiet appreciation for the style’s founders, as seen in my opening up about enjoying Hatebreed a couple years ago when their last album came out. I’ve felt the same way about Germany’s Heaven Shall Burn, having found myself impressed with footage of their sets at various Europoean metal fests, and enjoying a couple of their earlier records in small doses when the mood struck. I haven’t listened to a new Heaven Shall Burn record in ages, but this one landed in my Spotify recommends and honestly, I’ve been coming back to it again and again. I’ve likely missed a transition point somewhere, but I don’t remember this band being as heavily melo-death steeped as they sound on this new album. Amidst the pure andrenaline fueled fury in tracks like “Thoughts and Prayers” and “Eradicate”, there’s a surprising nod to Scandinavia in the syrupy melodies found in “My Heart and the Ocean”, and “Children of a Lesser God”. In the midst of the latter, the band slow things down to an Insomnium-styled moody, textural, introspective passage. Its followed up by a Fear Factory-hearkening industrial tinged assault in “La Resistance”, both songs featuring unexpected twists, a recurring theme through the album. Others will know the context better than I, but the band is experimenting here in a surprisingly expansive and unabashed manner. That they’ve gone for the double disc length approach with nearly 100 minutes of music on offer is a risky play, but I’ve found that my attention span hasn’t waned throughout it and that when its over I’m perfectly fine with hitting repeat and letting it fly again. This might be a surprise recommendation, but I think everyone should give this one a chance no matter their stance on metalcore.

Lucifer – Lucifer III:

I’ve kept a curious eye on Lucifer for the past few years, not only for the presence of the man behind Entombed’s Left Hand Path in Nicke Andersson, but for the earthy yet ethereal vocals of frontwoman Johanna Sadonis. I got into them after becoming a fan of the now defunct 60’s hard rock revivalists Purson, at that band’s one Houston gig actually in 2016 from the advice of a fellow attendee there. Lucifer had released their debut the year before, and it was intriguing enough, not quite as gripping as Purson, but I thought their throwback, occulty hard rock had potential. Fast forward to now and their helpfully titled third album, and I think they’ve finally realized a fully fleshed out version of what it is they’ve been trying to do. The improvements are subtle, but I hear growth in the intelligence of the songwriting, such as on the complex yet straightforwardly catchy “Midnight Phantom”. Sadonis and Andersson have gotten better at building up to the delivery of their memorable hooks, particularly with slowly escalating verse-bridge transitions, complemented by wonderfully dirty, buzzy riffs from Martin Nordin. Its at once heavier than anything they’ve done, yet still hits the same satisfying pop notes that they brought to the table with “California Sun” from their last record. We even get some metallic-doom level aggression on “Coffin Fever”, the extra heaviness being spread across these nine songs. Sometimes they run into the same problem that handicapped their first two albums, the meandering, lack of a payoff that characterizes a song like “Leather Demon”, but its not enough to sink what is easily their best album to date.

Myrkur – Folkesange:

Some of you might remember that I was so enthralled by Myrkur’s sophomore album Mareridt, it wound up making the top five in my 2017 Best Albums list. I wrote in that review that it succeeded in employing a more creative and natural folding in of the black metal elements than her debut album. But what really drew me back to it over and over was that she greatly expanded the depth and variety of the rustic, darkened folk music that was woven throughout the album. She’d introduced it on her debut of course, but it was kept separate from the black metal tracks, little interlude esque slices of respite amidst the Ulver-ian fury. That she found a way to integrate both elements was really exciting, and I still think its one of the best folk-metal albums in recent memory, vicious and entrancing in one package. Its kind of a surprise then that she’s chose to sharply veer away from that merging of her two musical worlds on its follow up, the appropriately titled Folkesange. This is a purely Scandinavian folk music album, with a lot of it’s gorgeous instrumentation played by Myrkur (Amalie Bruun) herself —- piano, violin, mandolas, lyres, and something called a nyckelharpa (sort of a Swedish hurdy-gurdy apparently). She layers these instruments together on tracks that are a mix of reworked old folk songs and some originals written in a traditional style. The only one I know for sure that Bruun crafted herself is the leadoff track and first single “Ella”, a richly evocative piece of music that throbs and pulses with a quality of ache and yearning I’ve come to associate with the music of Loreena McKennitt. I’ve got a suspicion that she’s also personally responsible for the excellent “Leaves of Yggdrasil”, which moves at a haunting, almost stately pace, Bruun’s truly spectacular vocal both ethereal and earthy. She’s brought in Heilung’s Christopher Juul to helm the production on this album, and he clearly understands these instruments and how to record them in such a way as to preserve their room filling texture. And it all largely works really well, I’ve enjoyed having this on lately, particular when I needed to chill out. I found the inclusion of her take on Joan Baez’s rendition of the Scottish ballad “House Carpenter” a weird, distracting choice however (it’s not bad, but it doesn’t really fit either), but its a minor quibble. This is, admittedly, a strange album to review in the regular sense, because there’s nothing metallic about it at all, so I kinda don’t know what to tell you there. Either you’ll be into this or it’s just not your cup of tea, I can only say it’s worth the time to find out.

Dynazty – The Dark Delight:

I don’t think I’ve ever written about Dynazty before, a band I came to know only due to vocalist Nils Molin’s prominent role as Jake Lundberg’s replacement in Amaranthe. In that role, Molin does a solid job, but in between their screamer Henrik Englund and of course Elize Ryd’s roles in the vocal department, we don’t get to hear much of Molin’s range, with his spots frequently coming in the form of vocal counterpoint to his fellow singers instead of a lead vocal role. In Dynazty however, Molin reveals himself to be an excellent, versatile singer, possessing a smooth tenor, a voice that sounds at home alongside hard rock and more power metal inclined fare. I was impressed with him on 2018’s Firesign, and perhaps even more impressed with his performances here on The Dark Delight (not in love with that title… sounds like a brand of dark chocolate but oh well). But Molin isn’t and shouldn’t the only focus here, because Dynazty is a pretty good band in their own right, with guitarists Rob Love Magnusson and Mike Lavér capable of seamlessly blending melodeath groove riffery with a looser hard rock inspired feel. This combination results in a sound that is capable of being thicker and darker along the lines of Kamelot or recent Pyramaze, but Molin can lift things into more soaring, shimmering, AOR territory with his vocal melody writing chops that remind me of, well, Jake Lundberg. Lead single “Waterfall” is a perfect example of this, a song that starts out in groove-riff territory but bursts skyward with the sudden onset of Molin’s strong chorus, all without the benefit of a transition bridge (that this works is a rarity in my experience). I’m absolutely loving the heartstring plucking power ballad “Hologram”, not only for its unusual lyrical bent that eschews sentimentality for a more abstract emotional perspective, but for Molin’s impeccable chorus, built on an interplay of a massive major key vocal hook and punctuating symphonic grandeur. Elsewhere on “Heartless Madness”, we hear that hard rockin’ sound that was so prominent on Firesign that seems to have been pushed a little bit to the backburner this time around. That’s okay though, because even in delivering a darker, more metallic album this time around, Dynazty still retains that AOR hard rock DNA in their songwriting, and damn, do I need that right now. This is a quality album, don’t miss it.

Dark Forest – Oak, Ash, & Thorn:

I’m a recent convert to England’s Dark Forest, having been introduced to the band as recently as late December with their 2016 opus Beyond The Veil, one of the most unusual and refreshing power metal albums I’ve heard in awhile. They have a unique sound, at once a mix of a rootsier, more rugged Falconer with splashes of Skyclad and a vocalist who reminds me of the versatile Bruce Dickinson we heard on his many solo albums. That vocalist, one Josh Winnard, is on his third album with the band, having joined the band in 2012 replacing former singer Will Lowry-Scott who was only on board for an EP and the band’s sophomore album (before him, founding guitarist Christian Horton handled vocal duties for their demos and s/t debut album). I haven’t gone back to see how Lowry-Scott nor Horton measured up at the vocal helm, but really I can’t imagine this band’s songs without Winnard’s rather distinctive vocals in the mix —- to me he’s that integral a part of their overall sound. Strike another similarity to Maiden and Dickinson in that regard. I think its fair to say that I haven’t been this intrigued and enthralled by a British metal band since Dragonforce. Their sound is difficult to pinpoint, but Oak, Ash, & Thorn provides examples aplenty, as on the surging, gloriously melodic “Relics”, a whimsy-folk infused song with Maiden-esque guitar patterns and an elating quality to its melodies. There’s an almost Elvenking-like playfulness to the lead off single “The Midnight Folk”, not only in its effervescent lead guitar motifs, but in Winnard’s almost punk-tinged approach to the vocals during the chorus. There’s always a slightly rough, jagged edge to his singing, and it really shows up here in a charming way (particularly in the “whoas” sailing in from the background) that reminds me of Damna’s approach. The martial percussion and machine gun riffing sequence that sits in the middle of the instrumental “Heart of the Rose” is another moment that exemplifies what Dark Forest can pull off so well, highlighted in those paintbrush strokes of bright, chiming guitar figures that adorn the rhythm track. Dark Forest aren’t polished. That ruggedness, that textural “roughness” you hear is a quality that’s at once purposeful and unavoidable. Its no wonder they’re signed to Cruz Del Sur Music, who gravitate towards non-traditional traditional artists in this vein. I enjoyed this record quite a bit, but not nearly as much as I did Beyond The Veil —- let that be your introduction to Dark Forest, and then come back to this.

Conception – State of Deception:

Well here we are, talking about one of the more surreal things to come across The Metal Pigeon inbox in recent memory in one of the strangest times we’re all collectively living through. I’m speaking of course of a new full length album featuring the one and only Roy Khan, who is back with Conception for their first album since their 1997 (at the time) swan song Flow. You’ll remember that I reviewed their single two years ago, my impression being largely favorable, though admittedly I was simply a little overjoyed to hear Roy singing again. Finally we have the first full length album with Roy on vocals since his Kamelot finale in 2010’s Poetry For The Poisoned, and while its a relief that he’s back in as tangible a way as this, your enjoyment of this album might depend a little on whether you are more of a Roy fan or a Kamelot fan, or of course, a Conception fan. I say that because with the exception of a couple songs/moments that I’ll get to below, this is first and foremost a Conception album. That means a lot of groove based, rhythm-forward, prog-metallic elements in the songwriting, as opposed to the symphonic accompanied stylings we were so used to hearing Roy sing alongside with in Kamelot. The first thing that leaps out when I think about State of Deception is that its decidedly a grower, a record that’s gonna take more than a couple listens to really gel for most of us I’d bet. There’s nothing as immediately hooky as “Flow”, “Reach Out”, or “Angel (Come Walk With Me)” from its predecessor, but Roy and his co-songwriter/guitarist Tore Østby deliver a couple gems here whose addictive qualities are a little more layered. The first among them is the lead off single “Waywardly Broken”, which rides on a classic Conception rhythmic riff progression and rumbling, pulsing bass line, and some tension building keyboard layering. Khan’s inimitable expressiveness is on full display here, and he sounds brighter, sharper here than he did on anything on the Dark Symphony EP two years ago (with the exception of “Feather Moves”, which weirdly seems to be lifted from the aforementioned 2018 single entirely, not even re-recorded, though it’s listed as remastered).

We hear some classic Roy vocal ingenuity in “She Dragoon”, boasting the heaviest attack on the album, and Khan ushering things along like the master vocal melody writer he is, this time using an alliterative twist on some of his lyrics that’s a technique I usually associate with pop acts like Lady Gaga and Chvrches (that’s not a negative comparison in my mind, it’s just something new out of the playbook for Roy). There’s a transcendent moment here, at the 3:49 mark where gorgeous backing vocals deliver an earworm of a hook, while Roy accent sings over the top. Its propulsive and exciting, the kind of thing that made me sit up and take notice the first time around. And I really love “The Mansion”, a slow grower of a ballad that might be the most Kamelot-sounding thing here, complete with a guest vocal drop in by Elize Ryd. That chorus is classic Roy though, all uplift and ethereality, with the keyboard orchestration sweeping us along in a rapturous accompaniment. The lyrics here are a nice reminder of the kind of skills Roy has in this department, with creative imagery and inspired storytelling. Of course, here he’s not dealing with the typical Kamelot-ian epic concepts that some of us might really crave (raises hand), but Conception was never about that kind of thing anyway. I wasn’t as wild about the second single “By The Blues” however, and not for a lack of trying either —- but so many listens on, I just can’t shake the association I’m getting here with Dedicated To Chaos era Queensryche (or more accurately, Tateryche). The lyrical choices might have a lot to do with that, because some of the diction here just seems a little out of Roy’s wheelhouse. Maybe that’s just the lyric snob in me resurfacing again though. It should be said that there’s really only seven new songs on offer here discounting the repeat track and the minute long intro track —- it has me wondering if the band wasn’t thinking of the EP and this album as one long project completed over spans of time that had to be broken up into pieces due to crowdfunding reasons. It does leave me with a sense of slight dissatisfaction however with State of Deception on the whole, because it’s a quality Conception record, but it could have been much stronger.

The Power!: New Music From Demons & Wizards, Seven Spires, and More!

The slow start to the year in January quickly evaporated with an onslaught in February, and we’ve gotten some big names in the mix too (well, relatively speaking of course). Chief among them is the fifteen years plus in the waiting third Demons & Wizards album, Hansi Kursch and Jon Schaffer’s side-project that has taken on an almost legendary air in the interim period. You heard it in the murmuring crowd on their recent North American tour, and I felt it myself —- a sort of disbelief that we were seeing these two major figures in power metal history standing onstage together. That’s a lot to live up to, not only with the show itself, but with an album that we’ve heard more than a few estimated release dates for during that time. We’re also getting new releases from Finland’s genre-bending Amberian Dawn, who are stretching the limits of power metal to its poppiest extreme yet, and of course the once power metal supergroup Serious Black that’s more of a honed in melodic metal vehicle for the mighty Urban breed. Lastly, there’s the sophomore album by Seven Spires, a band who is on two major support slots in North America this year for very relatively different audiences. Intrigued? I thought so!

Demons & Wizards – III:

I guess I’ve put this off long enough. This review was originally going to be one of the long ones, you know, my 1200 plus word excursions going in depth on an album’s backstory, details, and hidden nuances. Forget that. I simply can’t summon the interest. I’ll get right to the point here, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to write the following —- but this album bored me and is a chore to listen to. An absolute chore. I’m gravely disappointed. Not only because of the pedigree of the two musicians involved; not only because of the precedent set by their prior two albums —- one of which was pretty good (and sounding better by the minute) while the other I’d consider a power metal classic —- but also because I was so hyped for this thing after witnessing the band live in Dallas last August on their North American tour. That was a great show, and to hear songs like “Tear Down The Wall” and “Fiddler On The Green” in person was a dream I’d never imagined being possible come true. As a result, I allowed myself the luxury of getting hyped for this album, and yeah, I suppose the near fifteen year wait also added a bit to that. There’s been a lot written and spoken about that span of time in between this album, the creatively titled III, and 2005’s Touched By The Crimson King (now that’s an album title!), and it should be made clear to everyone that it had no impact on adding anything of value to the songwriting that went into these new songs. Jon and Hansi’s day jobs kept Demons & Wizards on the sideline until they could eventually find an opportunity to carve out a block of time to devote to it. The reasoning is rational enough on the surface, but I’m starting to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just working on material slowly through the years, passing ideas back and forth until they finally accumulated an album’s worth of material. Would we really care if any of the songs had begun in 2006 as opposed to being recent creations, entirely “fresh” and new? I’m guessing no as long as they were good.

So what’s wrong with this album then? I’m afforded the luxury of being vague here, simply because this one criticism applies to nearly everything on here barring a moment or two, but this album sounds entirely disconnected. The debut album began as an in-person collaboration between Jon and Hansi, and the limits of technology at the time forced it to largely remain that way, despite the pair working on it via mailed recordings as well. The follow-up had to be done under a tighter time schedule, and Schaffer’s gone on record as stating it as a reason for his slight dissatisfaction with the overall result. But whereas the songs on the debut really felt like they were cooked up together, the result being a natural fusion of the two songwriter’s tendencies and styles, Crimson King felt divided due to being largely written separately by Jon and Hansi in geographic isolation. I used to think that was the album’s achilles heel, but as the years have gone on, I think it actually worked to its benefit. To me, half of that albums songs sound like Schaffer led tunes, and the other half Kursch’s —- meaning that some songs lean hard in an Iced Earth direction (“Terror Train”, “Crimson King”, “Seize The Day”, “Dorian”), whereas others are clearly more Blind Guardian tinged (“Beneath These Waves”, “Wicked Witch”, “Love’s Tragedy Asunder”, “Down Where I Am”, “Lunar Lament”). The result was a largely strong collection of songs, because each of the songwriter’s hard leans towards their strengths ensured that at least the melodies would be affecting. It would be inaccurate to say that Jon and Hansi each wrote half of Crimson King on their own, these were collaborations after all and Jon did pen music for all the tracks, and Hansi did write his own vocal melodies for all the songs. I’m more referring to the songwriting structures present in all those songs, as they provide strong context clues as to what came to dominate a song first in its early songwriting stages, the riff or the vocal melody?

Fast forward to III, where it’s clear that the riff came first, always and to a fault. As confirmed by the dozens of interviews Jon and Hansi have done for the album, they largely wrote this album geographically isolated from one another just like they did for Crimson King. This time however, I think they made a critical error in the division of responsibilities in the songwriting department. Simply put, they got too diplomatic for their own good. According to those interviews, Jon wrote the music, Dropboxed the tracks to Hansi, who would write vocal melodies for them. I’m certain there was some passing the songs back and forth after that point, but given that these hooks never really get that “lift” like we’re expecting and the verses just aimlessly merge into the refrains like a texting driver at a rush hour intersection, I’m not 100% certain of that either. When Jon writes for Iced Earth, he builds a song with vocal melodies in his mind as well, and will communicate a sketch of that idea to his vocalist (who may or may not have the leeway to change things). Of course Iced Earth songs are melodic, but they’re largely chiseled that way via shaping the tone and direction of riffs, not pure melodies in the sense that say… Tobias Sammet writes Avantasia’s songs on keyboards first. When Hansi writes for Blind Guardian, he and Andre work in tandem, sometimes with the vocal melody coming first, sometimes with a guitar melody coming first. Point is that their work is more melodically guided, and riffs and heaviness are worked in around that. Listening to III, I get the feeling that Jon didn’t want to tread on Hansi’s boots, and created riff driven songs with some melodic structures, but largely left space for Hansi to guide things with his vocal melodies. Subsequently, Hansi was given half-finished tracks that he had to figure out how to shoehorn lead vocal melodies therein, and likely didn’t pass any of them back to Jon and say “Yeah I have nothing for this one”. If you’re followed this train of thought this far, you might be of the opinion that I’m overthinking this —- you’re likely right, but I had to dig deep to potentially understand why, oh why I haven’t been able to get into this album after umpteen listens. I might even be wrong on all of the rationale above, but it’s all I can offer by way of explanation right now.

There were a few worthwhile moments, the entirety of “Wolves In Winter” being the best song on offer here and comparable to the band’s work on their prior two records. A near perfect merging of the heavy riff first approach with a classic Hansi vocal melody during the refrain results in a stellar track, at once unique with its primal, grunting, rhythmic tick and familiar in the sense that Hansi sounds powerful and confident as we’ve heard him countless times before. And I’m somewhat partial to most of “Diabolic”, which has elements that drag for sure (the long intro and outro for starters), but also displays one of the more convincing riff structures on the album in terms of pairing intensity with a melodic motif. I think there’s a good idea somewhere in “New Dawn”, where Hansi captures my attention every now and then, particularly his “I cleanse it with fire” lyrical motif towards the end (if only the rest of the song could match his intensity). I’m also in the minority in being somewhat into “Midas Disease”, not for its dumb, mawkish AC/DC tribute inherent in it’s plodding hard rock rhythms, but for Hansi’s spot on Blackie Lawless impersonation throughout, sounding for all the world like a distant echo from The Headless Children. As for the rest of these songs… I’m just baffled. I have thumped my head against them for countless listens now and am coming away with nothing but bruises and a growing loathing for the mere act of listening to this album. Out of respect for Jon and Hansi, I will shelve this for awhile and return to it in a year or two’s time to give it another shot. Reinforcing my theory that things may have been too diplomatic all around for this album, both Jim Morris and Charlie Bauerfiend were involved in the production at some stage, which just seems weird. The prescription for the next time around, should there be one, might be for Jon to largely write half the songs on the album and Hansi to nearly entirely pen the other half —- or, heck, here’s a thought, book a flight and get in a room and write the entire album together for once.

Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:

You might have seen the name Seven Spires listed on a few high profile tours this year and idly wondered who and what they were all about. Their biggest claim to fame heading into the release of their sophomore album Emerald Seas is that their vocalist/keyboardist Adrienne Cowan was the backing vocalist on Avantasia’s recent Moonglow world tour. Her role on that tour was certainly the reason why I first noticed the band and checked out their 2017 debut album Solveig when that tour was announced. I came away thinking it was an interesting record that flashed some nice ideas here and there, the kind of thing that a few albums down the road could see Seven Spires hone into a well defined sound and deliver a possibly great album (provided they could stay together for that time). The last thing I expected was that the band was talented enough to make that leap in fully realizing their sound and songwriting approach a mere one album later. So much for the sophomore slump, because Emerald Seas might just be the most exciting, creative, and thoughtfully written album we see this year. I’ve been stunned and knocked sideways by how much I love this album, and I’ve actively had to force myself to take days off from listening to it so I could squeeze in listening time for other releases. You might have noticed that Seven Spires is going to be opening for Insomnium this spring as well as Amaranthe in the fall, and they’re able to fit into both slots quite well because they blend together progressive symphonic power metal and a blackened vocal take on melo-death.

Cowan has the vocal talent to make these genre blendings sound seamless, transitioning between three voices —- a soaring, heartwarming crystalline tone that can move to a gritty, belting rock n’ roll voice, and of course go deeper in a grim vocal that reminds me strongly of Dani Filth’s midrange delivery. You hear this right away in “Ghost of A Dream”, where she displays all three approaches within the context of a handful of ultra-memorable vocal melody structures. This is also the song where you might be wondering what other band’s vibes you’re being reminded of, and the answer on the tip of your brain is Kamelot. There’s a depth to Seven Spires musicality illustrated here and throughout the album that brings to mind Kamelot’s Epica era. I’m thinking here specifically of the Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar figures that flare up alongside Cowan’s lithe vocals in the verses, as well as the elegant accordion style adornment in the background recall Roy Khan’s narrative vocal masterpiece in “Lost And Damned” off that album. Guitarist Jack Kosto also has a Thomas Youngblood-ian sense of how to keep his riffs muscular but largely simple when set against the backdrop of Cowan’s grandiose, cinematic orchestral keyboard backdrops. This artful approach to symphonic metal yields songs like “Every Crest”, where an almost Broadway styled vocal melody can swing suddenly into a brutal, utteringly convincing harsh vocal passage with a Hans Zimmer inspired slant to the orchestral arrangement. During the former, bassist Peter de Reyna shows off some nimble jazzy structures figures underneath Cowan’s vocals, and alongside drummer Chris Dovas’ thoughtful battery and Kosto’s knack for neoclassical styled shredding and spectacular soloing, this band unexpectedly injects frequent doses of stunning technicality throughout the album. It’s a subtle detail, but it works to add a sense of vitality and boiling emotional swell to the album in the same way that Dialith achieved with their infusion of gritty, intense melodic death riffs to their symphonic metal oeuvre.

This is the rare album with no weak songs, nothing resembling filler, but there are a couple of absolute gems that shine greater than the others, namely “Unmapped Darkness” and “Succumb”. The former is the grandest and boldest example of the band’s almost effortless swagger at pulling off the arms wide, cinematic expansiveness that its hopeful lyrics speak to. Cowan claims Roy Khan as one of her biggest influences, and her lyric writing abilities come pretty damn close to his in terms of diction, imagery, and phrasing. She’s really friggin good at this stuff. Take the chorus of “Succumb”, easily the catchiest moment on the album, where she eschews generic ideas in favor of “And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone / And I pray one day our stars align / So I might hold you one more time…”. That’s Khan level poetic abilities on display, and you guys know how I feel about the master himself (I’m not making this comparison lightly). Consider me a Cowan lyrical fanboy now, because this album has captivated me on that level completely, telling a story about a seafarer and the beast that’s chasing him. Its rare that a storyline intrigues me on any level within a metal album, but there’s something charming and rare about the one that Cowan has sketched out here —- it’s allowed for the variety of moods and emotions displayed amidst the differing songwriting styles and approaches. To wit, the gorgeous moonlit piano ballad “Silvery Moon” is a personal favorite here, the kind of thing I’d more associate with a stage play rather than a symphonic metal band, but Cowan’s lyrics are heartbreakingly poignant, and paint an evocative series of pictures in my mind. I could go in detail about the lyrical gems scattered throughout this record, in addition to its unforgettable melodies, but I promised myself I’d keep this short —- also, this isn’t the last I’ll be writing about Emerald Seas this year…

Amberian Dawn – Looking For You:

I became a fan of Finland’s once symphonic metallers Amberian Dawn in 2015 with the release of Innuendo, not so much because of the band’s still present symphonic metal palette, but for the strange, inexplicable ABBA influences scattered throughout the album. It was an interesting moment to be introduced to the band, who were finding their way with the still relatively new vocalist Capri Virkkunen who joined one album prior, after the departure of longtime classically inclined singer Heidi Parviainen. Capri possessed an entirely different voice, more a velvety, sonorous pop-rock voice as opposed to anything resembling classical training. It was Amberian’s Tarja to Annette moment, and band founder/keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppälä saw an opening to move away from a symphonic metal direction that he’d run with for four albums now with varying results and modest public interest, towards a more overtly pop driven approach inspired by the Swedish quartet. Capri had previously spent some time singing in an ABBA cover band, in addition to trying out for Eurovision a couple times, so her pop credentials were rooted in that classical European dramatic mode that made those ABBA hits so emotionally engaging. It also helped that her vocals sounded like a perfect blending of Agnetha and Frida, from tone to the clarity of her diction and phrasing. She and Seppälä seemed to be of one mind in this, because they increased the amount of pop-driven songwriting on the 2017 follow-up Darkness of Eternity. It seemed inevitable that they’d at some point have to just abandon the band’s symphonic metal roots… clearly they were having more fun heading in the opposite direction.

Fast forward to Looking For You, Capri’s fourth proper album with the band, and they’d pretty much done exactly that. Oh there’s still a nod to their symphonic metal past, on “Symphony Nr. 1 Part 3 – Awakening”, an entertaining to say the least duet with Fabio Lione which is actually the third installment in this song-suite over the past couple Capri fronted albums. But that one cut aside, Seppälä goes all in on the ABBA-worship this time, with the rest of the album working in that sophisticated pop songwriting mode. Capri is the star throughout, her mature, resonant voice clearly made for the theatrical, drama-rich lyrical delivery this kind of classic pop influence requires. The apex here is the title track, a sugary dance-beat fuelled pop confection built around a finely defined vocal melody that weaves effortlessly from verse to bridge to chorus. Capri’s the ringleader here, her urgency in tone is the cue for the extra crunch from the guitars, and really the band as a whole. There’s a very true to seventies-ABBA era pop approach to the lyrics here, with vague, hopeful sentiments expressed through a staging of a very specific scene —- “Late at night / Wondering where you are tonight / I feel the sadness in my heart”. I hear shades of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Day Before You Came” influencing this particular lyrical approach that Seppälä and Capri are writing with. It continues on “Two Blades”, another ultra catchy uptempo gem, where the narrator speaks about her relationship that is all smiles to the world around them, yet crumbling on the inside: “They don’t know how it feels to be / Forgotten in the hours of the night / Hiding in the shadows and being lost / And left behind for a lifetime”. I love the juxtaposition at the 2:38 mark of that satisfyingly crunchy riff sliding beneath Capri crooning “I am, I am the sun…”. This is pop songwriting at its classicist best, with a lyrical approach that is inviting and universal in its portraits of desperation and urgency. Its the kind of thing I find lacking in a lot of modern pop music (with some notable exceptions).

So maybe you’re thinking at this point, c’mon Pigeon, ABBA-metal? Why does this have to be a thing? And my answer is a very simple, “Why not?”. Here’s the thing about Amberian Dawn laid out bluntly, they’re simply more interesting and unique since they’ve been exploring music in this vein than they ever were as a symphonic metal band. I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in those older albums, but it’s generally stuff that feels overdone to the point of exhaustion. And here’s another thing —- no one, and I mean no one, is writing pop music in this classic ABBA mold, not even in the pop music world. As an outright fan of that band, I welcome new music in that vein, particularly if its as delightfully faithful, convincing, and skillfully executed as Amberian Dawn are managing to do. There’s plenty of bands out there doing symphonic metal, some are even pulling it off rather well (see Dialith’s Extinction Six), but only Amberian Dawn is giving me the sugar high I crave with sophisti-pop hooks ala a re-worked/refreshed “Cherish My Memory”. It also serves to give the band a unique identity, something that they had trouble finding in their previous style. Capri has a unique voice within metal, a classic pop voice that she’s used to develop a stage career in addition to her vocation as a music teacher. In that vein she’s sympatico with Falconer’s Mathias Blad, another theatrical stage performer who moonlights as a singer in a metal band, using a non-metallic voice to create something really unique and special within metal. To really drive the point home, Amberian Dawn cheekily laid down a cover of the Swedish masters’ “Lay All Your Love On Me” in the middle of the tracklisting here, and not only is it a perfectly executed cover (immediately preferable to Avantasia’s), it’s a bold declaration of intent and a giant middle finger to anyone who’s thinking of throwing stones.

Serious Black – Suite 226:

So apparently I’m one of the few weirdos that actually thought Serious Black’s 2016 sophomore effort Mirrorworld was a fine slice of Euro-tinged power metal. I’ve read pretty much nothing but verbal abuse hurled towards it in the years since its release, from reviews I’ve gone back and read, to the fine folks on the r/PowerMetal subreddit having their daggers sharpened for it. I can see why those attacks would come at the expense of Mirrorworld’s follow-up, 2017’s Magic, although it too contained a few good tunes (I still stan “Binary Magic” and ” amidst the overall cringe on display), but I do have a theory as to why Serious Black has endured a brunt of negativity over the course of their entire existence. It largely has to do with their vocalist Urban breed, who is nearly universally beloved in the power metal community for his masterful work with Tad Morose and briefly, Bloodbound. On his defining work with those two bands, Urban sang over heavier, darker, far more metallic power metal than he does in Serious Black, which is a little closer to happy-boi Helloween and Freedom Call on the spectrum than it is to Khan-era Kamelot or say, Pyramaze. That’s not to say Serious Black is all sugary highs and syrupy sweet melodies, but there’s a slightly sunny-ish disposition streaking through their four albums in terms of melodic tone and sometimes even lyrical approach that I think a lot of Urban fans are put off by. It’s certainly not for any decline in the man’s vocal ability, because he still sounds as powerful and ageless as ever, but this band’s material does send his voice into sharply different directions than some are used to.

For those of us who are used to Urban in this context, we’re treated to a rebound record for Serious Black with Suite 226, a concept album about a mental patient locked in a psych ward (apparently). Largely gone are the weirdly pop-rock affectations of Magic, replaced instead by a welcome return of darkness and perhaps the most marked uptick in aggression in the band’s short history. Right out of the gate, “Let It Go” is the most Dave Mustaine-channeling that we’ve ever heard Urban, and with the blistering, furious riffing from Dominik Sebastian speeding along underneath, the whole thing sounds downright Megadeth-ian. That energy doesn’t dissipate heading into the first single “When The Stars Are Right”, which for all its loaded poppiness in that excellent chorus is still bookended by some dense riffing, and a tight rhythmic attack on the bottom end by bassist Mario Lochert and Ramy Ali on drums (who is a longtime veteran talent in the more obscure side of Euro power metal and a quality replacement for Alex Holzwarth). On a more mid-tempo cut like “Solitude Etude”, the band opts to employ a darker, more downcast mood along with Urban delivering a melancholic vocal melody. They do this again on the notably more poppy “Fate Of All Humanity”, and in lieu of straightforward aggression, the moodier, more introspective approach is still a welcome relief from what we can reasonably label as Serious Black’s default blue skies disposition. Urban delivers an unforgettable hook in the chorus here, and its still as poppy as power metal can get, but its a subdued sweetness, tempered by the lyrical concerns of the concept running through these lyrics.

And it’s strange, because I don’t think I picked up on this overall shift in mood and approach my first few listens through this album. I was here for Urban and the hooks, and we’re of course treated to those in spades, but it was deeper listening that revealed the aggression and darkness buried underneath. Take “Castiel”, arguably the album’s best cut and one of the finest songs the band has ever written, it’s built on major-minor chord dichotomy and a seriously swaggering chorus that owes more to classic heavy metal than Europower. I love the delay that Urban playfully tags onto the end of the second iteration of the chorus, making that slamming Accept-ian riff just hit you with full force when it breaks back in. There’s some heavyweight metallic grit happening in that tune but the addictiveness of the chorus really deafened me to it for the first few listens. The opposite happened on “Heaven Shall Burn”, an obviously heavy tune that is sneakily one of the strongest songs on the record, boasting a hook that’s slyly catchy despite its purposefully awkward approach. The most uplifting thing on the album is “Way Back Home” and amidst the downcast vibe it actually stands out just by its marked shift in tone alone. I’m more impressed by “We Still Stand Tall”, which is similarly more upbeat in tone and disposition, but is still underscored by a current of gritty heaviness anchoring it firmly to earth. The two songs that close out the album, “Come Home” and the title track swing us back to the darker side of the album, and they’re fine in that context, although I’m finding myself more liable to grow impatient with their slower, meandering sections and skip out of them. That minor complaint aside, I’m honestly surprised and maybe a little relieved that Serious Black found their footing again after such a worrying release. Give this one a few chances.

2020 Kickoff: A Check In + Random Thoughts + Early Noteworthy Releases

Hope everyone’s settled into the new year as best they can, with resolutions still going strong or at least having forgiven yourself for breaking them already. Its been awhile since the last update here, which was last year’s best of lists that I actually managed to get up relatively early by my standards (early December!). That allowed me a lengthy break through the rest of that month that I basically took off from listening to metal since nothing new was coming out until January. I hoped to publish earlier in the month but there’s been a combination of family medical scares, close relatives passing away in a two week span, and I was stricken with the flu a week and a half ago. So yeah, not the best start to the year all things considered and they’ve contributed to the delay. To help mitigate the stress and flu-ridden stir-craziness however, I’ve slowly gone over a huge list of recommended things I missed last year (thanks in large part to Comical JC’s impressive list that he discussed at length on our recent year end recap episode of the podcast), in addition to new 2020 releases. And I’ll be honest, its been a slow start to the year for new music, my inbox full of meh to dud promos and no releases from major names coming down the pike until late February at the earliest. There have been a few notable things that have caught my ear and I’m covering them below with quick impressions. But before we get to that I want to get some thoughts on the screen about a random mess of things —- you’ll see as we go:


Spotify Has Changed Everything

So as of December 1st I made the move to Spotify Premium, taking advantage of their three month free trial offer, and quietly, without me noticing at first, its become the final nail in the coffin of physical releases, and thus the end of an era for me as a metal fan. I initially signed up for it to quickly assemble a playlist for the road on a recent friend outing to the Texas Renaissance Festival, but as the convenience factor has grown too large to ignore, its unlikely that I’ll be cancelling it before the free trial is up, and it will just become one of those monthly expenses alongside Hulu and Netflix that most of us have already. Ten bucks a month isn’t really that much for access to damn near everything I could need as a music fan. So why was I so late to sign up for Spotify Premium? I don’t have a clear answer for that really, because I have been using the free version of the service a ton on my laptop for easy music listening and research. But removed from the sitting at the desk, laptop open experience, I didn’t really use it that much because the free version limits you to shuffle play and incredibly annoying ads. So in the car, it’d be the old iPod Nano back to work again, plugged in via a cheap 3.5mm cable. Oh don’t get me wrong, I hate iTunes and everything about its ill-programmed, uber clunky interface, especially for podcasts, but its what I had been using for years now, and the iPod is still relatively new-ish and working well.

Many months ago someone clued me in to the existence of bluetooth transmitters, little ingenious devices you plug into the power port where your car cigarette lighter would’ve been in the old days. These things received bluetooth signals, from say a phone or iPod or whatever, and beam them out on a chosen FM frequency to a radius of just a few meters, enough for your car radio to pick up the signal if you tune into that same FM frequency. Gone was the need for the 3.5mm cable, and in this leap in personal technological day to day advancement prompted me to reconsider all my habits. I started ditching iTunes for podcasts, because an app like Google Podcasts is so clean, lightweight, and easy to use that it no longer made sense to have to download a file and “sync” it to a flash media device when I could simply stream things on a recently acquired unlimited data plan (I used to be capped at 2GB high speed that would slow to a stuttering crawl once eclipsed). And then Spotify Premium happened, and I’m able to listen to anything at anytime and have an algorithm throwing new things my way based on my saved artists/albums/songs and recently played items. Its allowed me to get out of that rut where I’d be too lazy to update the iPod and would recycle what I was listening to.

And look, I know what you’re thinking. This stuff shouldn’t be a revelation to most people —- but it is to me, and its put a few things in perspective from a metal fan’s view: For starters, I think my days of buying physical releases might be largely over, and its been trending in that direction for some time, but the ease of music delivery right now puts this in sharper perspective. I don’t own a cd player, I decided against buying the photobook edition of Insomnium’s last record because the cost of it plus shipping was simply too much for what was ostensibly a book. If I have no use for physical media, not even an optical drive to rip the cd onto my hard drive, what point am I proving buying them? What was once a huge hobby of mine that had slowed down significantly in the past couple years really has lost any impetus to start back up again. Accessing music is just too easy, and I feel that I make up for the lack of physical product sales with going to shows and buying merch (there is no digital replacement for a good metal shirt). In the past I’d feel guilty about this but I think I’m over it, I do my best to support bands I like in the ways that still make sense to me (and through this blog), but I just have no use for physical media anymore, particularly when other life expenses keep rising. I’ll still support Bandcamp digital releases, I have quite the collection of albums I’ve purchased through there, but why support a fading, overpriced entity like iTunes downloads? I’m still using my iPod on occasion, focusing on loading it with old favorites and stuff that I’d never want to be without, but I think Spotify will be my main new music player from this point going forward. At some point, technology got too convenient, and I’m waving the white flag today.

The Albums Of The Decade (2010-2019)?

Recently on the r/PowerMetal sub, the community ran a bracket style voting elimination tournament for the power metal album of the decade. It was a loose, let’s see what happens version of their otherwise highly regimented and overseen Yearly Awards, where instead of radio button polls, votes are entered in thread replies and their weight increases with the amount of explanation you offer along with your particular vote. Accordingly, the decade voting being a simple clickable straw poll resulted in some gamesmanship by certain fan communities, and no one was surprised when Gloryhammer fans voted last year’s Legends From Beyond The Terrorvortex as the best album of the 2010s. Now you might know that this album actually made a Gloryhammer fan of me too, but that it beat out Blind Guardian’s truly excellent At The Edge of Time (2010) in the finals was, well, to quote Monty Python…. The whole thing did get me thinking about what my own favorites from the decade were however, despite my promising on the 2019 Rewind MSRcast ep that I wasn’t going to bother with writing one up. And to be clear, I’m not going to do an in-depth feature on the decade, because just the thought of that is exhausting and frankly, I have yearly best of lists dating back to 2011 and those combined should be a fairly good (if not quite accurate) portrait of what I considered worth listening to for this past decade. But I thought it’d be fun to brainstorm a quick, off the top of my head list of the releases that stood out to me the most, and the ones that perhaps stayed with me the longest. So without further ado, here’s a quick chronological by release year list of my top ten —- I dunno, most fondly remembered albums of the decade? Sure, we’ll go with that:

Blind Guardian – At The Edge Of Time // (2010): I consider this to be a modern era classic of power metal, and quite clearly the bard’s finest album since Nightfall. Its a little frustrating that we only got one more proper album in the decade, not counting the orchestral project (and we’re not counting that), but AtEoT never left my iPod, never ceased to have its songs folded into road trip playlists, and “War of the Thrones” never ceased to make me have chills during its crazy choral vocal passages towards the end of the song. I just love this album so much, its in my top five favorites from the bards in general, so that’s enough of a voucher I suppose.

Power Quest – Blood Alliance // (2011): I was a little ambivalent on Chitty Somapala’s voice when I first heard this record, his one and only appearance in PQ’s catalog. It didn’t help that he was replacing one of my favorite power metal vocalists ever in Alessio Garavello, but Chitty soon grew on me because simply put these songs were as undeniable as the classics on the Alessio era albums. Like AtEoT, this album has become a staple in my general life listening habits, and amidst my friends circle, its become a cherished listen, even for the few who don’t particularly enjoy metal, but who can deny the glory that is “Better Days”.

Insomnium – One For Sorrow // (2011): I love this album, not only because it introduced me to Insomnium (yeah I was late on them), but because it really became my go to album for not only wallowing in misery, but when I needed a boost to get myself motivated again. It was a strangely positive album lyrically despite its bleak, melancholic nature, and I love that dichotomy. I played this so much that I’ve had to give it a bit of a break over the past few years, but thankfully Heart Like A Grave is damn near as excellent and fulfilling my broody Insomnium needs.

Nightwish – Imaginaerum // (2011): In what was definitely a stacked year, Imaginaerum probably should’ve been at the top of my 2011 Best Albums list if I could retroactively change it (I won’t). Tuomas was writing with Anette’s voice in mind here, and that went a long way towards maximizing what she could excel at. The sheer variety of songwriting here is astounding, and there was a rich, melancholic darkness to this album that seems to have left the Nightwish world forever as Tuomas further mind merges with Richard Dawkins and mother Gaia.

Triosphere – Heart of the Matter // (2014): This was 2014’s album of the year list topper, and justifiably so. It was such a devastatingly aggressive, precision oriented heavy metal album with note perfect songwriting and Ida Haukland’s rich, powerful vocals that perhaps the band themselves realized they needed some space from it to refuel creatively. To this date the band is still working to produce its follow up, and I can only hope its because Ida is too busy selling fjord side real estate to Oslo families looking for a summer house, rather than a fear of not being able to muster a follow up.

Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R. // (2014): I don’t expect many to understand this pick, but I can’t help it, I listened to this album to death from around 2014-2015, and honestly it still finds its way back into my rotation every now and then when I need a helping of Jeanette Scherff’s sublime, ultra-emotive vocals over Jens Faber’s decadent, dripping with melancholy songwriting. That Scherff and Ida Haukland both sang on incredible albums during this year was a big reason why I began to pivot towards listening for more natural voices in metal, and was less impressed by ethereal vocals for ethereal vocals sake.

Avantasia – Ghostlights // (2016): Song for song perfection, Tobias stumbled onto a mid-career masterpiece with this album and it was no surprise that it took my 2016 pole position for album of the year. He brought in new, unproven guest vocalists like Herbie Langhans, risky gambles like Geoff Tate, and managed to get truly amazing performances out of all of them. The songwriting yielded the strongest and most diverse batch of songs on any of his albums to date. This was just so much fun to listen to, and still is.

Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs // (2018): An overwhelming listening experience, and the culmination of Orphaned Land’s gradual finding their way to realizing a true metallic and cultural fusion. They simply leaned harder on the Middle Eastern folk musical influences than ever before, and the result was an angrier, more aggressive, and simultaneously gorgeous distillation of their sound. There’s so much inspired songwriting going on here —- a facet that made this one of the most rewarding albums to listen to in years.

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath // (2018): This was the album that not only convinced me that we really were in the middle of a power/trad metal renaissance, a second glory era as I deem it, but also the record that prompted me to go back and explore tons of North American metal that I’d ignored or bypassed in the years previously. I spent a lot of time at Ride Into Glory, and when Houston decided to bless me with our own recurring heavy/trad metal festival, Visigoth showed up and played and I had one of the most joyous concert experiences of my life.

Idle Hands – Mana // (2019): The most recent entry in this little list, and I know what you’re thinking —- how can this album be on your decade list it was only number two on the 2019 albums list? I’m projecting a bit, because I love Dialith’s Extinction Six (the list topper) to an unreasonable degree, but Idle Hands is a band that is transcending my own personal musical interest and has impacted friends of mine. It’s going to be one of those records that sticks around that I go back to on random whims like The Cult’s Electric, in other words, an undeniable hard rockin metallic classic.

Recommended January Releases

Temperance – Viridian:

I discussed Temperance around this same time last year, having discovered their truly excellent 2018 album Of Jupiter And Moons a few months too late for inclusion on that year’s best albums list (I have a feeling it would’ve landed on it somewhere), and they were yet another relatively new(ish) band from Italy to come along and impress me with not only their strong songwriting, but their distinctive and unique take on melodic symphonic/power metal that made them stand apart from their fellow countrymen and women. Temperance’s deal is that they come with three perfectly capable lead vocalists, two of whom are dedicated leads (Alessia Scolletti and Visions of Atlantis frontman Michele Guaitoli) but also joined by band founder/guitarist Marco Pastorino who is a superb singer in his own right. Okay enough bio talk, most of you probably have been made aware of them recently, particularly since this album is their first for Napalm Records, and you can see the impact already with YouTube video ads and Spotify playlist placements. I’m happy for the band to get a bigger profile, but I was worried when I first listened to the lead off single “Mission Impossible”, which struck me as Amaranthe more than anything I remembered from Of Jupiter And Moons. And therein lies the danger of these pre-release preview/single tracks, because a handful of folks made up their mind about the direction of the new album based on that track’s electro-pop pulse and near bubblegum vocal melodies.

Rest assured, the majority of Viridian is Temperance doing what they excel at —- exuberant, joyful multi-lead vocals delivering soaring melodies over a symphonic metal concoction that owes more to Avantasia’s wild power metal vocalists playground than Within Temptation or Nightwish. If I were in the band’s management/label corner, I’d have advised them to release “I Am The Fire” as the first single/video. It’s not only my favorite song on the album, it’s also the most evenly representative of what the bulk of the album has to offer, and a spiritual cousin to their 2018 breakout YouTube hit “The Last Hope In A World Of Hopes”. The song they actually delivered a music video for, “My Demons Can’t Sleep” is one of those songs that I was a little meh on at first, finding the title clunky as a chorus lyric, but the sheer catchiness packed into the refrain and verses is infectious. Part of the reason for that is simply the energy that Scolletti, Guaitoli, and Pastorino deliver with their impassioned, conjoined lead vocals. We hear this vividly at work on “Let It Beat”, a song that’s pretty straightforward musically, with riffs and keys just laying down a bed for our three lead vocalists to flex their ability to belt it out with power, precision, and just enough flash on vocal modulations to entangle us emotionally. They shine together on the strings and choir accented power ballad “Scent of Dye”, with Guaitoli in particular sounding spectacular and really owning the song with his vocal performance during the refrain. This is a good record overall, but it’s a little scattered in its ideas, at times too ambitious (the interesting vocal only “Catch A Dream”) and in others a little undercooked (the ballad “Gaia” could’ve used a few rewrites). I’m not too concerned about them missing greatness this go-round however, because they achieved that a little over a year and a half ago, shorter for me considering my being late to the Temperance party. I don’t know if signing to Napalm made them feel hurried to finish Viridian quickly, but they should take their time for their next one, because this is a legitimately fun and exciting band that’s proving they can deliver worthwhile music in every outing.

Magnum – The Serpent Rings:

I think most of us can probably admit that there’s a few classic/legacy bands that we grew up enjoying, whose new albums we approach with the trepidation of a 3 a.m. encounter with a cockroach on your kitchen floor on the way to get a glass of water. So often with many of the bands from my formative years I’ve met their new releases with a continued string of disappointment (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard come to mind), but I keep coming back every time there’s something new in the manic hope that they’ll have found a spark again. In the past decade I’ve been fortunate enough to get some tangible proof that my hope isn’t entirely foolish —- Judas Priest’s Firepower is a clear example, as was the Scorpion’s 2010 album Sting In The Tail. I was first introduced to Magnum when I was just entering my music buying infancy in the mid-90s simply by being enticed by the cover art for a used copy of On a Storyteller’s Night. It wasn’t what I was expecting (the artwork suggested something a little more Maiden or Helloween inspired), but I dug it anyway, their blend of gritty hard rock with a sophisticated, arty songwriting touch. They’ve had a few good moments in the albums that came after, but you’ve got to spend a lot of time digging, and really a truly great album has eluded Magnum OGs Bob Catley and Tony Clarkin since Storyteller’s release way back in 1985. But something unusual has been happening for the duo lately, starting with 2018’s rather strong Lost On The Road To Eternity, an album that saw the band get their mojo back (the return of the classic sword logo seemed to suggest the band felt the same way), pivoting towards their prog-rock side a little more than we’ve seen in the past two decades.

Building on the artistic momentum generated from that album, two years later Magnum are back with The Serpent Rings, which might actually be their finest album since Storyteller’s, and no that’s not an exaggeration. This album is loaded with stellar material, starting with the bombastic, epic opener “Where Are You Eden?”, with it’s Avantasia-ian influenced symphonic strut. Its followed up by a pair of equally invigorating cuts, the groove based “You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets”, and the classic 80s era evoking “Madman or Messiah” where Catley displays a voice that is still capable of skyrocketing heights with a power that seems effortless. A personal fave here is “The Archway of Tears”, a gradual dramatic build towards a joyful chorus that is perfectly crafted. And I can’t neglect to mention the utterly beautiful “The Last One On Earth”, which sports a chorus that sparkles and shimmers with that indescribable magic that only Catley can conjure up. Clarkin’s songwriting on these past two albums seems to be reconnecting with that epic side of the band that they seemed to leave behind when the 90s came around. The absolutely jaw dropping thing about this record is that there are no duds, no clunkers or missteps, and that’s just so encouraging. Clarkin is 73, Catley is 72, and these two have just released one of the best albums of their lengthy career —- and that’s so heartening to me as a fan of heavy music. Not only because it’s given us a modern day Magnum classic, but because it should be a reason for every single veteran band out there to keep making new records, to avoid getting complacent just doing hits tours, or worse still, to think that your fanbase isn’t interested in new music. It’s not guaranteed, but there’s always that chance that like Priest and Magnum, every veteran band out there has another awesome album in them just waiting to spill out.

Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga:

Most of you likely know who Brothers of Metal are by now, they’ve made enough of a splash on YouTube and Spotify playlists with the single “Yggdrasil” from their 2017 debut Prophecy of Ragnarök. It was a genuine hit, the kind of song with a hook so indelible that you’ll remember its vocal hook long before you’re able to remember the name of the band. This Swedish eight piece might be new on the international metal landscape, but the ease at which they combine power metal with layers of European/Viking folk melody suggests veteran skill and songwriting prowess (the band has existed since 2012, so they clearly took the time to refine what they wanted to do long before their debut). There’s three guitarists here, and they do a fine job of balancing heaviness with crisp, clear melody, but the stars are co-lead vocalists Ylva Eriksson and Joakim Lindbäck Eriksson (the power metal internet is split on whether or not they’re siblings). Ylva’s powerful, richly melodic voice is the huge draw here for vocalist aficionados like myself, she has a depth and gravity to her singing that I appreciate as a perfect foil to Joakim’s more rough hewn, warrior-throated approach. Joakim actually reminds me of Mathias Nygård from Turisas, not only in tone but his swagger laden approach, and if anything, this band should be a sweet relief to any Turisas fans lamenting how long that band’s new album is taking. Underscoring everything at play here is that Brothers of Metal are fun —- this is Viking metal that takes itself seriously (despite the “The Mead Song” on the debut) filtered through a band that quite clearly is having fun with the approach (check out the face pulling in their music videos for proof).

Does that fun factor mean I’m grading Brothers of Metal differently than I would a more serious folk metal entity like Eluveitie —- in a way, yes. And Emblas Saga is a terrifically fun record, with bangers like “Power Snake” with its borderline silly chorus that would be positively Whitesnake-ian were it not for clearly being a tale of Loki’s child Jörmungandr and his world encircling size. The mid-tempo pounder “Njord” is another ridiculous but enthralling cut, complete with Viking chants during the refrain that never threaten to descend into camp territory. And Ylva is the perfect antidote to when things seem to be heading into shtick territory, her solo vocal intro on the title track is haunting, serene, and I kind of wish they’d lean harder in that direction more often. She provides a nice balancing effect on “One”, contrasting sharply with Joakim’s gravel voice on a chorus that is almost but not quite the equal to “Yggdrasil”. In truth there’s nothing on the album that quite hits the same heights that song achieved in terms of being a clear cut hit, but I do think that “Kaunaz Dagaz” is the best song the band has penned to date. From its sweetly beautiful forest folk intro to what is Ylva’s tour-de-force vocal performance throughout, its the song that perhaps most clearly demonstrates everything this band does well, and also is a brief glimpse at just how potentially high their creative ceiling could grow. I’ve enjoyed listening to this album just for the sheer need for something uber catchy, viscerally satisfying, and melodically varied. The Viking stuff is fine, whatever gets the hooks going, keep it coming.

Last Call: The Final Reviews Of 2019

Here we are, on the doorstep of Thanksgiving and at the natural end of the 2019 metal release calendar. If you’re releasing your album in December, fire your label because most of us are on the verge of publishing our best of lists for the year and drinking as much Bailey’s as possible. These are my final reviews for the year, for releases that arrived in the autumn months of September through November, and crammed together at that. I know for sure that I’m missing some notable names here, and I simply ran out of time, like actual tangible time to listen to so many records while also giving a massive amount of attention to headline grabbing artists like Blind Guardian and Insomnium (oh and also, you know, real life stuff like work, studying, sleeping, and whatnot). In keeping with the way I’ve handled these bundled up reviews dumps throughout this year, these are smaller reviews, meant for a quicker read than your typical Metal Pigeon deep dive. And while I’m going to write more about this in the upcoming best of features, its worth emphasizing here just how much truly spectacular music we’ve had to come to grips with this year. These past three months have certainly lived up to their predecessors in terms of bringing quality and quantity. And while this blog is calling time on 2019 with this final new music update, on the upcoming MSRcasts we’ll be discussing at length a ton of stuff that I haven’t covered here, particularly albums that we’ve missed from earlier in the year that we’re only now getting around to.

Dawn Of Destiny – The Beast Inside:

It kinda stunned me that its been four years since Dawn of Destiny’s last record, 2015’s eminently listenable To Hell. This four year gap between that record and their newest, The Beast Inside, represents the longest time they’ve gone in between releasing albums (even lapping the three gap between 2009-12 caused by the departure of original vocalist Tanja Maul). I didn’t notice the absence largely in part to just how much new music I have spilling into my lap at any given month in any given year, with seemingly no let up —- a luxury of a problem for sure, but it does tend to cause the kind of inattentiveness to a band’s activities that me fifteen years ago would’ve scoffed at. Five years ago, I placed the band’s 2014 record F.E.A.R. at the number three spot on that year’s best albums list, and its been one of those albums that I’ve revisited so much since then that I can’t help but feel it’s in the conversation for one of my favorite albums of this past decade. That F.E.A.R. and To Hell were merely a year apart hearkened back to the band’s first three albums, also released in rapid succession one year after another —- this was clearly a band that was loaded with creativity, weren’t encumbered by a lengthy touring schedule, and were prepossessed with a desire to release as many albums as possible, and in doing so establish an artistic legacy despite their low profile on the international metal scene. I spell all this out because I’m wondering if that kind of rapid fire release schedule was the secret motor to the band’s artistic success in some forward momentum sustaining kind of way. Because for its strengths, The Beast Inside is a bit of a let down in comparison to its two immediate predecessors. Maybe taking too much time in between releases is the band’s kryptonite.

Given bassist/co-vocalist Jens Faber’s pedigree as a songwriter however, we’re guaranteed a handful of strong moments on this album. First among these is the album opener “The Beast Inside A Beauty”, a constantly shifting, redirecting slice of gothic tinged melodrama built on throbbing basslines, DoD’s always surprisingly crunchy riffs and a powerful vocal performance by Jeanette Scherff. Her staccato delivery, seemingly effortless, deft, and incredibly rich in tone is one of the most addictive aspects to the band’s sound, and she elevates a song like “It’s My Fate”, which is a bit of a left turn from DoD’s gothic power metal pomp with its strange pacing and instrumentation. But surprisingly, the two best songs on the album see Scherff sharing co-lead vocal duties with Faber in dramatic, enchanting duets: “Fight Your Inner Demons” is the kind of dark, moody theatrical power balladry that would’ve felt at home on F.E.A.R.; and “Peace Of Mind” is a branching out into experimental territory that actually works rather well. Faber takes the lead vocal and has improved as a singer, reminding me here of a smoother Alice Cooper on the verses while soaring alongside Scherff in the spectacularly epic chorus. It’s the killer cut on an album otherwise bogged down by a lot of songs that leave me simply wanting to return to their older albums for my fix of high melodrama. There’s nothing here I can point to as glaringly offensive, but I can’t help but wonder if its rust that’s preventing some of these songs from shining the way I’ve grown used to DoD appearing. I’m hoping that the band will be back with something new in their customary quick turnaround fashion and I’ll be heaping praises on them once again.

Kobra And The Lotus – Evolution:

The usage of the term evolution to describe any band’s changing sound from an album to album is one of the more overused in the vocabulary at this point. I think its been invoked so often that we’ve all lost sight of what its meaning is actually supposed to apply to —- gradual change over a lengthy period of time. When you do an about face in your musical approach from fairly serious in tone progressive hard rock/metal to the radio rock driven approach that Kobra and the Lotus have employed on their newest album, you don’t get to simply call it Evolution and not have someone call bs on it. You changed, you made a decision to change, not evolve. This was a late September release, and I heard it for the first time back then on release day, and was so baffled at what I heard that I immediately shelved it and vowed to come back at another time when I was less busy and more mentally prepared to process just what the hell this band had done to their sound. If you’ll recall, I came on board with Prevail I/II, the latter of which found itself popping up on my best songs of 2018 list with the incredible “Let Me Love You”. The refined melodicism of that pair of albums was an exciting place for this band, a merging of old influences and modern production flourishes and metallic crunch, kinda their sweet spot. It was helmed by producer wunderkind Jacob Hansen, who has proved himself to be quite skilled at merging the sometimes disparate worlds of gritty heaviness and refined melodicism into something excitingly whole. Weirdly premonitory, on the topic of the band’s future I spelled out the following —- “…the question is whether that central guitar riff will be too heavy for programmers and leave this song in too commercial for metal / too metal for radio purgatory.” I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one asking that question, whether it was the band themselves or their management, or the terribad advice of industry folks, radio programmers, booking agents and the like.

Whomever is to blame for the nudge, its the band themselves that acted on the advice and cooked up really meaningless pap like “Get the Fuck Out of Here”, which sounds far worse than its title would suggest. And I’ve never been a fan of dropping profanity in lyrics, not because I’m some puritanical church boy who’s easily offended, but because I think its lowest common denominator language that really has no place in a recorded artform where an artist has time to think about what they’re trying to say. I do think there are exceptions to this rule, but they’re few and far between and not reliant on genre either, because I think profanity in hip-hop also works to the same detrimental effect —- can you express an idea in a more intelligent manner? I’m fine with someone using it in everyday speech, in that off handed way that we all engage in here and there, but what am I getting out of it in a song? Onto a less juvenile but no less schlocky cut like “Burn!”, which is the album’s first single and thus a good indicator of the thought process for this album as a whole —- we get a generic riff progression, sterile production with none of the rough edge we were treated to on Prevail, and an electronica wash used by Amaranthe and more nauseatingly, modern In Flames. Production here was handled by the radio rock inclined Michael Baskette, who’s associated with Alter Bridge and Linkin Park, so smooth and polished is the blueprint. There’s a lone call back to the band’s previously gritter approach, the ballad “Wash Away”, and its worth adding to a playlist with the Prevail and High Priestess songs. As for the rest of this… what a disappointment. I noticed the press release for the album bafflingly stated: “No longer bound by old formulas and expectations from the past”, to which I can only wonder who they feel was holding them back. Their fans? The press release also stated “Each song feels like an Active Rock hit in the making”, which I guess kind of says it all really.

Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen:

France’s most enigmatic black metal band is back with their most unexpected, and bewildering in a good way album to date. The last we heard from Blut Aus Nord was 2017’s Deus Salutis Meæ, an inscrutably dense affair that largely sounded to me like one long industrial noisescape. It was not what I wanted to hear after being so taken with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III, a top ten album of the year listee and mid-90s second wave Norwegian black metal revisitation. Well, push both of those aside for Hallucinogen, because Vindsval and company have cooked up something entirely new here, a merging of black metal tremolo riffs with a looser, more rock directed rhythmic structure through which they inject ample amounts of major chord melody. Its not so much Deafheaven’s Sunbather as it is borrowing a little from the progressive rock world of Steven Wilson and Tool, with maybe a splash of fellow countrymen Alcest to help things mesh well. The vocals here are buried deep in the mix, more so than usual with Blut, and so for that reason its hard not to hear Hallucinogen as largely an instrumental and textural affair. That’s not a bad thing, because this is a captivating listen, a record that I always intend to put on as a soundtrack to some other mental activity and wind up paying more attention to regardless. If the cover art wasn’t a big tip off, the music certainly points to a central motif running throughout that’s informing the musical path here, that of a sense of discovery and exploration through the world of psychedelic stimulation. The melodic lead guitar figures on “Sybelius” are a vivid example of what I’m referring to, this isn’t a typical sound palette for a band known for dabbling in extreme black metal and noise. But its not just its burstingly melodic nature that characterizes Hallucinogen, its how emotionally charged that melodicism comes across that has resulted in this being one of the most fascinating albums of the year.

Alcest – Spiritual Instinct:

Alcest have over the past decade plus since their 2007 debut rarely failed to impress me. There was the 2014 misfire with the entirely non-metallic dream pop of Shelter, and thankfully they kept that exploration confined to one album because otherwise we’d have never gotten 2016’s year end list maker masterwork Kodama. Neige said at the time of Kodama’s release that his return to the band’s pioneering black gaze sound on that album was in large part because he wanted their new music to be punchier (something they lost entirely on Shelter). It’s interesting then to see that on its follow up, Spiritual Instinct, he’s doubling down on that desire instead of reactively shifting away from it purely to do something different for the sake of it. I say they’re doubling down on the punchiness factor because this is the heaviest, most aggressive Alcest album to date —- almost as if Neige opened his closet and rediscovered his lost black leather jacket and he and drummer Winterhalter drove around France listening to Accept records one day. Simply put, Neige is laying down some pretty excellent riffs throughout, particularly on the first four songs. On “Les jardins de minuit” at the 5:56 mark, I’m hearing the first full blown headbanging passage in an Alcest record. That happens again with the rumbling rhythmic groove riffing on “Protection”, and the propulsive Tool meets Porcupine Tree fusion on “Sapphire”. I will say that overall, for all it’s fun Neige plays non-tremolo metal riffs glory, Spiritual Instinct can’t quite match the beautiful artistry of Kodama. That album had so much going on within its gorgeous songs, particularly with its infusion of Japanese folk music motifs. Maybe Neige just wanted to get back to basics on this new one, and that’s fair enough, its a solid, at times really impressive record. Just not their greatest.

Wilderun – Veil Of Imagination:

I’m new to Wilderun, but the ceaseless chatter surrounding the Halloween night release of this album in the r/PowerMetal circles motivated me to check the band out. The peeps there listen to all kinds of metal, but general consensus on extreme metal releases are few and far between, so that was enough of a signal that perhaps this Wilderun band was something special. And they’re definitely a unique merger of sounds, that of blistering Blackwater Park era Opeth with Pink Floyd-ian spacey prog passages, cinematic ambient noises, effects, and a general panoramic feel to how this music is presented. And wow, is this definitely an experience that I associate more with something like a film soundtrack rather than a metal record. The opening cut is a fourteen minute plus opus that starts with spoken dialogue and an acoustic, folky guitar intro piece, and is joined by flutes and enchanting choral vocals —- all before the cold water of a shaking tremolo riff pierces the serenity. The metallic attack here can be shocking heavy, but it’s well balanced, with crisp instrument definition in the mix and a pretty sweet drum sound throughout, at the forefront of the recording but never overpowering the rhythm and lead guitars. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this album’s metallic nature, but its everything else going on in Wilderun’s musical palette that’s really the draw here. This band is the brainchild of former Immortal Bird guitarist Evan Anderson Berry, and he deserves props not only for being a seriously excellent growler and clean vocalist ala Mikael Akerfeldt, but for his skill at coordinating so many diverse musical elements in a single album (and at times in a single song or even section). Its unfortunate that they released this record so late in the year because myself and others likely didn’t get to have enough time to spend listening to it yet —- I’m on week three and I’m still finding new things on each and every listen. I guess this is more of a recommendation than a review… I’m not at a stage where I can say I’ve fully digested this album and know every nook and cranny by heart and have a firm grasp on its strengths and weaknesses. What I can say is that I never tire of listening to it, and it is certainly one of the most adventurous listening experiences you’ll ever encounter, this year or any year. Check this one out in full, but if you want a bite sized go-to sample, hit up the epic “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl”, which is the song that’s perhaps most representative of the album as a whole, and also a gorgeous, sweepingly grand piece of music.

Cyhra – No Halos In Hell:

You might recall that I was surprisingly impressed with Cyhra’s debut, Letters To Myself, two years ago. That such an unlikely pairing of Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg actually worked and produced some compellingly emotional modern metal, was a minor triumph. My only real complaints with that record as I recall were that I didn’t care for the abundance of slower, ballady material through the back half of the album, feeling like it dampened the excitement generated by the hook factor of the uptempo tracks. As per Lundberg’s own description of his voice paired with melodeath type guitars (i.e., Bon Jovi meets Soilwork), Cyhra found a realized sound rather quickly on those uber catchy, high energy songs, with Stromblad finding just enough space to weave in some of his unmistakable melodic signature lead bursts that we came to appreciate during his tenure with In Flames. Lundberg for his part proved himself to be quite adept at penning a razor sharp vocal hook, and we were finally able to get some clarity on just how vital a songwriter he was for Amaranthe. I looked forward to a second album, wondering if the band would amp up the heaviness the next time around. What they’d established on Letters was a good baseline, a balance of syrupy pop melodies with the splashy melodic technicality of one of melodeath’s pioneering architects. Yet the question that hung in the air was which way would the band lean further towards on future releases?

It doesn’t take more than one listen of No Halos In Hell to immediately pick up on the fact that the band has stuck with the formula of the first album, down to including way more songs than necessary resulting in a heavily diluted tracklisting. But unevenness in song quality is the least of the problems here, because while their debut had about seven to eight songs that were playlist worthy, repeat listeners —- No Halos has at best three to four, and that’s pushing it. I’m not sure how best to articulate why these songs just seem to fall flat, because the performance quality is up to snuff regarding Lundberg’s vocals and the rest of the band’s musical contributions. Stromblad seems a little more subdued throughout however, and that might be a major contributing factor, his signature guitar stylings not as bright and bursting as they were on the debut. I suspect that Lundberg is trying to branch out in his writing of melodic vocal melodies, and while that’s admirable in a vacuum, its not exactly what Cyhra needed right now. The songs that work here, such as “Battle From Within”, “Hit Me”, I Am The One”, and “Out Of My Life” have quick striking hooks in their refrains that are packed tightly between concise verse passages. But long drawn out soft ballady such as “Lost In Time” just does not work here, and perhaps it would have in an Amaranthe context, with Elize Ryd’s sugary tone carrying some of the lines in a duet. Not even a “full band” version further down the tracklisting can save it, and while you can hear what Lundberg was going for in the chorus, its just too flat of a hook to capture the heartstrings. Its a cliche, but the sophomore slump seems to be very much real here, and its down to the band playing it safe and repeating themselves when they probably should’ve looked to shake things up a little more on this one. My advice, for what its worth (and coming from a fan): Let Jesper cut loose, give him more extended solo sections, limit the slower/softer songs to one or two, and allow your heaviness to directly contrast with those aforementioned smooth Bon Jovi-type vocals. Cyhra’s sound has potential, but they gotta turn the key to unlock it —- otherwise they risk it growing stale really fast.

Novembers Doom – Nephilim Grove:

America’s hardest working doom metal vets are back with a follow up to 2017’s double year end list making Hamartia. That was a special album, the band choosing to explore their more melancholic and expressively emotional side. It reminded me of stuff like Charon, Sentenced, and Katatonia. It met with a surprising amount of vocal resistance from some fans, who felt that the band’s headfirst dive into pure melodicism was not what they signed up for, but a newbie like myself loved it. I’m a little less keen on Nephilim Grove then, in large part to the band’s retreat from the Hamartia approach and abrupt march back towards a more death-doom groove metal vein. Of course the possibility exists that there just wasn’t enough left to mine from that Hamartia style, and to force it for a second album would’ve produced less than inspired results, so I can’t fault the band for that if its the case. The possibility exists that a die-hard November’s Doom fan like my MSRcast co-host Cary will feel differently about this new album, and that I’m the odd man out for this round, which I can live with. And I should say, after having sat with Nephilim Grove for a few weeks, that its a solid slab of speaker rattling metal, more uptempo than the doom tag suggests, with tunes like “Petrichor” and “The Witness Marks” set to uptempo, attacking rhythms. Paul Kuhr of course sounds fantastic, his clean baritone as bleak and discomfiting as ever, and his growls fierce and crisply enunciated. The most satisfying cut here is “Adagio”, and he turns in an awesome performance delivering both vocal styles in direct, quick succession during the chorus. I dunno… if you haven’t listened to this yet but have enjoyed the band before, chances might be high that you’ll be all about this record, I’m very interested to hear Cary’s thoughts on it (we’ll be discussing it on our next podcast). Chalk this up to maybe being a Metal Pigeon problem, not a Novembers Doom one.

The Bards And Their Songs: Blind Guardian’s Twilight Orchestra

Here it is. Finally. A project over two decades in the making that, let’s be honest… few Blind Guardian fans were ever truly clamoring for at the expense of say a regular, guitar based Blind Guardian record. I say this having been one of those fans who’s been aware of this project lurking in the shadows for ages now, my first direct recollection being an interview Hansi gave to Dr. Metal on The Metal Meltdown show on WRUW Cleveland way back in 2001 (I still have the audio of it). It was described then as being in its early infancy, although they had hopes to finish it in a few years (cue stifled laughter here), and it had its roots in unused music for Nightfall In Middle Earth as well as the music that the band presented to Peter Jackson in hopes of landing on the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. In the time since I first heard about this project, the bards have released four studio albums, two live albums and I’ve seen them in concert four times, Hansi and Marcus five with Demons and Wizards this past August. Credit where its due, they never committed the absolute blunder that I lambasted Therion for, who set aside all normal recording output to devote a decade to both a covers record and triple disc opera project. Hansi and Andre, who he co-wrote this project with, knew how their bread was buttered and were okay with this orchestral project taking the long route home, something they could afford to have sitting dormant for huge chunks of time while they worked on normal band projects. Perhaps Hansi’s only mistake was in publicly mentioning it at all, but even I would have a hard time assigning any blame for that, because there were really no consequences to talking about it. I say this as a die-hard Blind Guardian fan mind you, but we’d hear him talk about it when asked in interviews over the years, grunt at the info, and continue reading for details on the follow up to A Twist In The Myth or At The Edge of Time. And I suppose I should clarify a bit —- its not like I wasn’t interested at all in the project, because how could one not be curious? But what else could you do but shrug and wait? No one knew what this orchestral thing was even supposed to be.

What it immediately struck me as being upon my very first listen and reinforced in subsequent spins, is that of an audiobook with a built in soundtrack. There’s an hour and fifteen minutes running time here, twenty four tracks total, of which only eleven are actual “song” length pieces of music. Now those eleven tracks compromise an hour and four minutes of the running time, so its not like we’re being subjected to an actual audiobook, but the arrangement of the musical pieces amongst an array of tracks where voice actors spin forth dialogue with radio play styled sound effects is spread out in such a way that no two musical tracks ever line up back to back. This will undoubtedly frustrate anyone who felt bothered by the interludes in Nightfall In Middle Earth —- fortunately for myself, I wasn’t one of those people (the thirty seconds of “Lammoth” are essential!). But I think its fair to say that one’s tolerance level for stuff like this is going to be a huge factor on whether or not they enjoy listening to Legacy of the Dark Lands overall, and as a frequent listener of fantasy audiobooks, I’ve grown accustomed to this kind of listening experience. The meat of the album then are those aforementioned eleven pieces of music (let’s just call them songs from now on), and it really is simply multilayered Hansi with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the FILMharmonic Choir Prague and Vox Futura choir chiming in on occasion. Hansi is backed by the “BG Choir Company” which I’m assuming is made up of all the regular guys who have provided backing vocals on Blind Guardian records for awhile now. There are no guitars, so Marcus isn’t a part of this project, and though there are booming timpani’s and martial snare percussion, Frederick is also not involved. It’s strictly a Hansi and Andre joint with Charlie Bauerfiend as usual at the production helm.

The biggest reservations I had about the project heading into it was how would Hansi sound in a setting with just the orchestra, and my worries were slightly exacerbated with their decision to release “Point Of No Return” as the lead advance promotional track. It was yet another in a long line of examples of bands misfiring on what song to release first, because while I do enjoy its undeniably powerful, swellingly grandiose chorus, its connective tissue was the kind of orchestra for animation stuff I typically associate with Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes (you know what I’m talking about), and Hansi stringing together random blitzes of short vocal melodies for a dizzying amount of lyrics. That magnificent repeating chorus aside, it lacked any kind of cohesiveness overall, and I wondered if that’s how the rest of the album would sound. We’re so used to having Andre and Marcus delivering awesome riffs and interesting counter melodies to fill in the gaps between Hansi’s vocals. Would Hansi and Andre attempt to either over write vocal lines for Hansi to sing to make up for that, or perhaps try to use the orchestra itself as a fill-in for those guitars? On that advance song, it certainly sounded like they were doing both. But again, this is why I have a growing dislike of checking out preview tracks well before the album is released. Because while of course everything that I didn’t like about “Point of No Return” is still present within the song in the context of the album; the pacing and structure of the surrounding tracks go a long way towards mitigating those annoyances, as the song fits into the larger cohesive framework of the album. Its like comparing a nicely cooked, whole roast chicken that’s had time to sit after taking it out of the oven, its juices evenly redistributing throughout to ensure deliciousness —- to attempting to bake a slab of skinless, boneless chicken breast that was the isolated “Point Of No Return”. That piece of meat would taste better left attached to the bird.

To that end, I found my initial listening experience of this album in its entirety quite joyous, maybe it was just me responding to what is undeniably a cheerful, exuberant vibe emanating from it, but I really do believe there’s a heady dose of Blind Guardian magic to some of these songs. Take the gorgeous rise at the 2:20 mark in “The Great Ordeal”, an exquisitely triumphant moment that is the apex of what is one of the stronger melodic motifs at work on the album. The old Nightfall ideas resurface in “The Storm” and “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, and the former has a head turning moment from 2:38-2:55 where Hansi just breaks through everything to punch up with a mighty vocal thrust delivering the best lyrical stanza on the album: ” Gather up / I’m the storm / I’ll bind you / You’ll be the flame / I’m the spark / My wayward friends / You must come and find me / In the dark”. It’s a transcendent, attention grabbing moment that makes me stop what I’m doing every single time to hit rewind. It’s also one of those things that you realize keeps you coming back to the song again and again, yet you wish they’d have turned it into a proper repeating chorus. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Hansi is singing his face off throughout this album, he sounds full of conviction, passion, and emotion as he always does really, but there are a smattering of micro moments where he’s hitting “Another Holy War” esque levels of excellence. That aforementioned cheerful vibe is really felt on “Dark Cloud’s Rising”. which dare I suggest has an almost holiday/Christmassy feel to its melodic thru line, with even its darker, stomier mid-section sounding like a winter storm. The repeating lyrical element towards the end (“…the road goes on forevermore….”) sounds like something that could’ve been at home on a regular Blind Guardian album nestled between songs like “Curse My Name” and “War Of The Thrones”.

The album highlight for me is “War Feeds War”, ostensibly the album’s true opener, and like “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, one of the few tracks on the album to have a distinguishable melodic thru line running across most of its entire length. I really wish Hansi and Andre decided to write more stuff in this vein, because the memorability factor goes up when you have a long, gradually developing vocal melody to really pull you in. During that opening verse sequence, you can really get a feel for just how the orchestra could carry rhythmic, riff like structures through its brass section. Those horns slice through layers of vocals and strings like a broadsword and I would’ve relished more moments where they’d been allowed to work their magic in a forward, aggressive approach. We get a frustratingly brief glimpse of this again in “Nephilim” at the 1:06 mark, but its gone before it develops into something promising and worse yet we’re never treated to it again. Why can’t these songs have repeating hooks or motifs? They can’t tell me that it can’t be done because even though I know next to nothing about classical music composition and the limits of what an orchestra can achieve, I know I’ve heard some damn fine muzak symphony recordings of Celine Dion and Queen songs through the speakers of my local pho place. And perhaps more convincingly, Blind Guardian themselves wrote an orchestral piece built on solid hooks and melodic thru lines in “Wheel of Time” off the At The Edge Of Time album. In re-listening to that song, one can hear that large swaths of it are entirely carried by the orchestral swagger provided by none other than The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. There the guitars are often providing an added textural crunch and injection of power, but melodically it’s mostly the symphony at work (the Andre guitar solo an obvious exception). Hansi’s vocals there are memorable not only for their crescendo establishing rise, but in his epic duel with the orchestra in the chorus, where horns punctuate his pauses, seemingly goading him to sing on. On an album full of incredible songs, it was the capstone, and a genuinely complementary merger of metallic and orchestral elements.

I suppose it’s unfair to ask “Why aren’t there more songs like Wheel of Time on this orchestral album”, but it’s one worth letting hang in the air for a second. I know the answer by the way… it’s the same damn thing that kills the mood in Ayreon albums for me. It’s the damn plot. Because you see while “Wheel of Time” was rather cleverly structured around a chorus spun on rhythmically rhyming lyrics in a nod to the song title’s proverbial wheel allusion, the verses were structured through equal length lyrical lines in the stanza. They were long enough to allow Hansi about five syllables worth of melodic phrasing and emoting, and that consistent structure allowed the orchestra to simultaneously keep rhythmic time and also add in some variation and color through the string section. The lyrics were a broad look at the themes and motivations of the Wheel of Time universe and its chief protagonist Rand al’Thor, and they didn’t need to delve deeper than that. Similarly, the lyrics of Nightfall In Middle Earth were written with a cognizance that the source material was either known, or easily available to those who wanted to know it. As a result, the band focused not on pure storytelling and plot (though its touched on in brief, quick glimpses), but on the emotional pulses that were the undercurrent of that incredibly anguished saga. On Legacy Of The Dark Lands, the band is telling a story that is actually the sequel to the Markus Heitz novel “Die Dunklen Lande (The Dark Land). The orchestral album bears the weight of continuing a story that began in a novel, and while some of this may be disseminated in those short non-musical segues, the bulk of it falls to Hansi and company to sing forth into existence. As a result, they’re handicapped in the songwriting scope of the project in that hooks and memorability are sacrificed for the sake of advancing a story through the lyrics.

I haven’t read the Heitz novel myself, though others have picked up the English ebook translation recently and the reviews are mixed. I’m sure it’s a decent enough slice of fantasy literature, and the premise is certainly intriguing enough on its own (set during the Thirty Years War, seemingly in an alternate universe where magic exists in our “real world”), but try as I might, the confusion factor is a big deal here. I have no frame of reference for who’s speaking in the voice acted narrative sequences, nor do Hansi’s lyrics ever really get specific with who the narrator is supposed to be or what’s their motivation in that particular moment. We’re aware of a plot being advanced, however clunkily, but there’s nothing really pulling me in to further investigate the story on my own. Setting aside opera and musical theater where we have the benefit of visuals to help tell a story that we can physically perceive, a studio recording is a difficult medium in which to tell a story that would be better served put to paper. And here’s the paradox of Hansi and Andre’s chosen approach here, that they’re trying to tell a story and create a wonderful, memorable body of music at the same time, but you can’t do both successfully due to the constraints of the medium. But if Heitz had himself written the sequel, or heck, if Hansi and Andre simply decided to write an orchestral album that was inspired by the story of the original “Die Dunklen Lande” book, thus being freed of the need to put down the plot in the lyrics, I guarantee they’d have cooked up more memorable songs. Basically they tried to do two things at once, and might not have succeeded in either, but of course that’s down to how well you enjoy the music, which is after all, chief among the reasons we’re even talking about this in the first place.

How to sum this up? There’s so much here that its been an overwhelming experience just to soak this album in on endless repeating listens. Truthfully speaking, when I have it on in the background and am busy working on other things, I find it an enjoyable listening experience. There are a myriad of micro moments that capture my attention briefly in a positive way, but they’re scattered across the album in haphazard fashion, and my attention span wanes when they’re lacking, as on the entirety of “In The Red Dwarf’s Tower”, which is the chief example of everything I could do without on a project like this. I certainly didn’t like that “Harvester of Souls” was a worse version of “At The Edge of Time” from Beyond The Red Mirror, and can’t understand why they reused the music at all. But Hansi sounds great throughout, and the orchestra sounds wonderful and dynamic (my friends in the r/PowerMetal Discord have been ripping apart the instrumental mixing of this record, but my ears are dumb to that kind of detail —- though I have heard an interview with the mastering engineer for this album state that the vinyl version is the best sounding one shrug). As I was researching this project and listening to any Hansi interview I could get my hands on, my heart would leap whenever he’d confirm that the next Blind Guardian album was already written and they were going to begin production this coming January. I realized after awhile that my reaction kinda said it all really —- I’m more excited about the next proper studio album a year out than the new orchestral album that just dropped a week ago. I’m relieved that I didn’t actively dislike Legacy Of The Dark Lands on the whole (that would’ve been a painful review to write), but I’m a little discouraged at my middling reaction towards an album that Hansi has been calling in those aforementioned interviews his and Andre’s greatest career achievement. After two decades plus of time and a heck of a lot of money devoted to it’s making, he’s earned the right to feel that way, but I know and you know that his and Andre’s defining achievement is Nightfall In Middle Earth. And it wasn’t the guitars that made that record truly spectacular —- it was the inspiration and passion that the band felt for the Tolkien source material, that they transferred through us like a conduit.

Ever Colder: Insomnium’s Heart Like A Grave

Almost a decade ago, Insomnium went from being a name I’d see occasionally tossed around online to one of my favorite modern metal bands, the kind you spend years obsessing over. Their 2011 album One For Sorrow hit me with the kind of emotional impact that had only been felt a few times in my history as a metal fan, and almost single handedly made the idea of melo-death relevant to me again. I went back through their discography, played the older records on repeat until I burned their melodies in my brain, and leapt at the chance to see them live on their tour opening for Epica and Alestorm. I detailed a little bit of this state of mind in the intro to my review for 2014’s Shadows of A Dying Sun, recounting not only my conversation with the band outside their tour bus, but how their music really became the soundtrack to a specific kind of environment. That was a late November gig, a rare day with the autumn chill pleasantly in the air (hoodie weather, as we call it in Houston) and grey overcast skies. There’s a half joking rule amongst a few friends of mine that you don’t listen to Opeth until November, I’m not sure if it was the song “Dirge For November” that brought this about, but I have to admit, Blackwater Park sounds sweeter in that space between Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps less rigidly, so too with Insomnium.

But Heart Like A Grave’s strength as an aching, bittersweet meditation on the toil of existence, loneliness, temporality, and decay is not a result of its autumn release date, but on being Insomnium’s most melodic offering to date. Its a melodicism that we associate with all these Finnish bands as a whole but frustratingly, credit is not often given to its source, that being the melancholic wellspring that was dug up on those early Amorphis and Sentenced records in the mid-90s. As for the latter, Sentenced have been a singularly overlooked influence on Insomnium that I’ve long banged on about (even writing on it), their signature bittersweet major/minor key melodies rippling through other Finnish bands like Charon and To/Die/For. Sentenced were cited as the sole reason that David Gold even put together Woods of Ypres, and that Sentenced DNA is clearly heard and felt throughout that band’s chaotic mix of extreme metal and more gothic stylings. Back to Insomnium —- I’m not just hearing what I want to hear, hell the cover art and title of Heart Like A Grave looks and sounds like a long lost Sentenced album between 2001-2005. Said cover, as well as the deluxe edition’s accompanying photography book was shot by none other than Sentenced’s drummer Vesa Ranta, who as a longtime professional photographer also designed and shot Sentenced’s gorgeous cover/sleeve art for The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. But musically speaking, I’ve always heard big and small strains of this influence throughout Insomnium’s older records, but here the band worked it deeper into the bedrock of their songwriting than ever before.

The extra dosage of this distinctly Finnish melodicism results in a tradeoff, this being the least overall aggressive album in the band’s discography, yet also the most emotionally deep and engaging. Not that you wouldn’t think lack of aggression was a factor once the opening riff to “Valediction” kicked in, it being the most outwardly attack-mode element on the album. I’ll admit that I was a little nonplussed about this song when it was first released as a music video a month or two ago. I’ve been vocal lately about being loathe to listen to preview tracks or watch music videos ahead of the album release, because it always seems that either the bands pick the wrong song from the album for this purpose, or more puzzlingly, the song doesn’t seem to work outside the context of the album. For whatever reason, “Valediction” is one of those songs, where it was “fine” in its music video form a few months ago, but mysteriously blossomed into an undeniable album highlight in the context of the album in full. Its a captivating song, built on the strength of Ville Friman (along with new co-clean vocalist/guitarist Jani Liimatainen) delivering gorgeous clean vocal melody passages that bookend Niilo Sevanen’s guttural thunder in the chorus. The accompanying dual lead melody is richly sweet, full of palpable emotional resonance, providing a striking juxtaposition against Sevanen’s all too bleak lyric: “Tonight, the world is burning / Black smoke hides the skies…”. The band carries this balancing act all throughout the record, because lyrically speaking, this is as bleak and downcast as Insomnium have ever been, gazing inward deeper than ever, while setting that perspective against the backdrop of an outside world that seems more uncertain than before.

This album is also loaded with the kind of abrupt one-off moments that made the songs on Across the Dark and One For Sorrow so memorable. I’m thinking of the decision to interrupt the dirty, grinding groove of “Neverlast” with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous dual guitar detour at the 2:17 mark. It’s the kind of choice that turns a merely good song into something excellent, and we hear another example of this on the epic, churning title track “Heart Like A Grave”. Its an album highlight not only for Friman and Liimatainen as vocalists, but in being perhaps one of the best things Markus Vanhala has written for any of his bands. A highly charged quasi-ballad, it turns into a revelatory gem at the 4:36 mark, where a desperately urgent yet exuberant lead melody surges forward and serves as the backdrop to Sevanen’s most passionately growled lyric on the album: “Years of disappointment / and disillusion / All I see in the mirror now / Is an old man with heart like a grave”. Vanhala was also the songwriter on another album standout, “Pale Morning Star”, where we’re treated to yet another gorgeous mid-song shift in direction, a wailing, aching guitar melody cut adrift, seemingly fluttering and gently swaying as though it were a kite in the wind. The fascinating storyline to this album’s construction is in its egalitarian approach to the division of songwriting duties, falling amongst four of the band’s five members, including new guy Liimatainen (yes he’s that Jani, of the first five Sonata Arctica records fame). The new guy delivers the music on “Mute Is My Sorrow”, writing a classic sounding Insomnium song with a bright, acoustic intro and rhythmically dynamic grooves, and he makes a co-writing appearance on two other cuts. Sevanen and Vanhala split the bulk of the songs, almost equally although Sevanen handles the majority of the lyrics. The biggest surprise here is that Friman is left with “Valediction” as his sole songwriting credit (music and lyrics), shocking because he alongside Sevanen was one of the band’s defining songwriters and architects on Insomnium’s albums up to this point. Its simultaneously bizarre, confusing, and thrilling that Heart Like A Grave sounds so emphatically like Insomnium despite one of its defining voices being so scaled back in the construction of the album.

This is a beautiful, haunting, anguished and ultimately comforting record, and the closest thing to the spirit of Sentenced’s last two albums that I’ve heard since the original funeral Finns called it a day. That matters a whole heck of alot to me, because while I felt that way when I first heard One For Sorrow, I have to admit that the years haven’t been good to Shadows Of A Dying Sun, and for a time that concerned me. For as positive as my review of that album was at the time of its release in 2015, I’ve found myself listening to it less and less as time has gone by, with only a few songs from it still on my playlist. I listened to it for the first time in full a little bit ago and there is something stifling about its glossier production approach that mutes the power of some of those songs, that tends to mesh them all together in one amorphous sound profile. I think if I’m being honest with myself, I felt that some of its songwriting also lacked the bold melodic inspiration that I’d come to associate with the band. It was an album written to be an Insomnium album in the mold of its immediate predecessors, but perhaps the band had run with one approach for an album too long and it showed in the songwriting quality. Its follow-up, the deliberately blackened and far more brutal Winter’s Gate was the extreme deviation that the band needed, not only in that they delivered an awesome record with it, but it helped them grab some distance from their “classic” sound so that they could come at it once again with some freshness. They’ve done just that with Heart Like A Grave, possibly the most inspired and poignant chapter in an already emotionally loaded discography —- and a fitting soundtrack to colder nights and pumpkin spice.

Kaleidoscope Metal: New Music By Dragonforce, Borknagar, Opeth, and More!

These past two months have provided a handful of releases by major institutions from across the spectrum of subgenres. Dragonforce are back with the cheekily titled Extreme Power Metal, a phrase they actually coined back in 2004 to put on the sticker of Sonic Firestorm. And while some may snicker, its fair to say Dragonforce really were pioneers in marrying extreme tempos and drum patterns (blastbeats) to ultra melodic power metal, and that maybe they’ve earned the right to weirdly use that tag over a decade later on their eighth studio album. Similarly, Opeth were pioneers in a different way altogether, marrying melody to death metal in a way that had nothing to do with the Gothenburg melodeath sound of the mid-90s era that the band was birthed in. They’ve long since moved onto prog-rock pastures of course, and their newest In Cauda Venenum continues this trajectory. Then there’s the proggy black metal of Borknagar, who are releasing their first album with ICS Vortex at the grim vocal helm since 1999’s Quintessence, with Vintersorg having bowed out of the band last year, ending an eighteen year tenure. There’s a lot to dissect with all three, and of course there’s a few releases here by newer artists that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with too. Sleeping Ancient from Houston has released a buzzworthy debut, and then there’s Everfrost who are probably gonna be new to most of you but are releasing their sophomore album that’s catching a lot of interest due to their interesting twist on the album release. A wildly varied mix of new stuff, and there’s going to be more on the way, for now:

Dragonforce – Extreme Power Metal:

Its been interesting to hear the chatter around Dragonforce grow louder over the course of the recording of their newest album, Extreme Power Metal, due to Herman Li’s clever immersion into the Twitch community. There fans got to witness not only the recording of the new album in all its meticulous tedium (and if the internet has taught us anything, nothing is too tedious), but also experience band rehearsals and soon, the band’s tour where they’ll be streaming at every tour stop for a real behind the scenes peek at life on the road with Dragonforce. I’ve watched a few of Li’s streams on replay, as well as Matt Heafy’s replays from his own popular Twitch channel, and this is a brave new frontier for band promotion if I’ve ever seen one. Not all musicians would be cut out for it or feel comfortable doing it, but for a select few, this could be a great way to keep one’s audience engaged throughout downtimes and in a more connected, personal way rather than just the typical social media posts or YouTube vlogs. For Dragonforce, its created a noticeable buzz, most recently coalescing in the band performing a set at the Twitch Con 2019’s opening ceremony. There they debuted a snazzy stage set with old school arcade cabs that Herman Li and Sam Totman could stand atop of, guitar hero (ahem) style. I gotta say, even though I may not have enjoyed all the records entirely, its refreshing that even I started to feel excited about the band right now. I don’t think anyone expected them to still be around, that something would’ve derailed them at some point, but power metal is more fun with Dragonforce around —- they’re such an audacious spearhead of the genre that I feel we should all embrace them.

If the cover art wasn’t a clue, the band have decidedly leaned towards their lighter, video game nostalgia referencing sensibilities for Extreme Power Metal, a hard turn away from the darker approach of their last three records. The vibe here recalls the Inhuman Rampage / Ultra Beatdown era, and its refreshing to hear vocalist Marc Hudson in this context, his tenure up to this point on his three album appearances being associated with more serious, angsty lyrics at times (not a bad thing in my view, but it was strikingly different than what we all associated ZP Theart with). It helps that Sam Totman and former bassist (now in Kreator) Frédéric Leclercq delivered some of the most carefree and vibrantly fun material the band has tackled in well over a decade. Songs like “Highway to Oblivion” and “Cosmic Power of the Infinite Shred Machine” ring with those unmistakable classic era Dragonforce hyper-major key hooks that are bursting to the seams with cheerfulness. Even the title of the latter seems like a knowing callback to the Inhuman era, albeit marked with the post 2012 era’s tendency to slow things down a bit and keep the tempos fluctuating. There’s a handful of addictive cuts here, among them “In a Skyforged Dream”, a song that were it longer would remind me of the Sonic Firestorm era for its trope heavy, vaguely fantasy alluding lyrics and dramatic, theatrical stop/starts. The solos towards the end are fantastic, the kind of mirroring of the main melody affair that I’m just a sucker for. And proving that the band’s experimental streak in the Hudson era is still alive and well, there’s the unusually paced and martial drumming infused “Remembrance Day”, a risky song that could’ve easily been a disaster, but somehow it kinda works and has an endearing charm in its tribute to previous generations of fallen soldiers.

My personal highlights however are a pair of songs that will end up on the old iPod, as de facto best of Dragonforce cuts in “Strangers” and “The Last Dragonborn”. The latter is about exactly what you’re thinking, namely the Elder Scrolls Skyrim, complete with references to Whiterun and Tamriel —- first of all, its refreshing alone to simply have references to actual fantasy locations in a Dragonforce song for once, instead of the eternal fantasy steeped vagueness that they work with. There’s so much to love here, be it the vaguely Eastern sounds that shape the overall melodic structure along with the cinematic orchestral arrangement courtesy of Epica’s Coen Janssen; or the dramatic rise and crash of the bridge-to-chorus where Hudson turns in a command performance; or the gorgeous mid-song bridge at the 4:18 mark that brings me back to standing on top of High Hrothgar watching the sunrise. But my favorite on the album is undoubtedly “Strangers”, a mid-tempo banger built in the streamlined approach that informed a lot of The Power Within, largely due to being a Leclercq penned song, and if memory serves he wrote “Seasons” from that album as well. If the band loses the ability to knock out unimaginable catchy mid-tempo hits like this with Leclercq’s departure, that will indeed be a shame (although I’m really looking forward to seeing if Li starts writing more). And then of course, there’s the band’s absolutely wonderful, giddily delightful cover of “My Heart Will Go On”, and in the same vein as their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, they stay faithful to the original melody while Dragonforce-izing the song with speedy percussion and furious guitar wizardry. I love everything about this cover, from the silly videogame fx at the beginning to Hudson’s impassioned performance —- they take the song just seriously enough, because dammit, the Celine Dion original is indeed a beautiful song and demands it. I always knew its melody would’ve fit into a power metal context and its a shock and joy to hear it come to fruition. To close, if you were checked out on Hudson era Dragonforce because it seemed tonally different to the old days, this album is the moment to dive back in.

Borknagar – True North:

I was more than a little curious as to what Borknagar would sound like without Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg the man the myth the legend) at the vocal helm. For the past seventeen years, he has laced Øystein Brun’s avant-garde black metal with his rich, otherworldly baritone clean vocals and of course those fierce, frostbitten grim vox too. His presence on any record he’s involved with, be it Borknagar, his own Vintersorg solo project, Otyg, Cronian, etc is hugely influenced by his mere presence, the same way Hansi just brings an encompassing envelope of characteristic sound that is unmistakable. Vintersorg clearly shaped and influenced the Borknagar sound from Empiricism through Winter Thrice, regardless of whether or not he had a hand in the songwriting. Things have been different for him however since his 2014 head injury during an accident where he fell from a ladder. He was a little less prominent on Winter Thrice, as ICS Vortex and Lazare (Lars Nedland) saw increased roles handling the vocals, and his once prolific output has slowed to just two releases in the past five years, the aforementioned Winter Thrice and 2017’s Till Fjalls II. His reasoning in the statement to fans and media was that he didn’t want to hold the band back from touring due to his day job commitments and his “situation after the accident”. That stuff about the touring I kind of took with a grain of salt, because he’s sat out the band’s performances many times before, and Brun himself has a full time gig in IT and can’t commit to lengthy tours either. Sadly, its likely that the real reason is that he has to prioritize things now, and his own musical projects are the only thing that will fit in alongside what I’m assuming has been a grueling road to recovery. That its not a lack of enthusiasm, but rather scheduling and time that’s ending his participation is a bummer, but its also proved to be an opportunity for the band to try new things and stretch their sound.

And stretch their sound they have on True North, with Vortex and Lazare splitting the clean vocals and giving big assists in the songwriting department alongside Oystein, this is the most adventurous Borknagar album since Origins, and I’d argue, since Empiricism. There’s a brighter tone to these songs, and a sense of spaciousness to the songwriting that is uncommon for this band, normally so compressed and dense in their compositions. This is apparent from the jump on “Thunderous”, the most conventional track on offer but still a noticeably measured and dare I suggest, stately paced track despite the blackened, blast beat fuelled passages. Really its on “Up North” where people are going to hear the most striking changes, the song being a major key laced, Hammond drenched Uriah Heep-ian jam with Vortex delivering some James Hetfield growls in his largely clean lead vocal role. He seems to have written this piece solo too, and its fascinating to hear just how writing with his own voice in mind (as opposed to Vintersorg’s) helped shape the outcome to be this different. The unusually structured “Lights” is another bold experiment for the band, a combination of extreme metal moments packed with Porcupine Tree-like prog-rock artistry. Then there’s the gently swaying ballad(!) “Wild Father’s Heart”, where Lazare pours out some incredibly melancholic and heartbreaking vocal melodies. But my fave right now is the Lazare written and sung “Voices”, which is the most accessible thing the band has ever done, a bold slice of art-pop ala Dead Can Dance. Its the tip of the iceberg for things you’d never think to associate with this band, but somehow it fits and doesn’t sound out of place. This is the beginning of something radically different for Borknagar, and its more exciting than I ever thought it could be.

Everfrost – Winterider:

That Everfrost hail from Finland shouldn’t surprise any of you once you hear the first few keyboard notes of Winterider, but you might be forgiven for thinking they might’ve been from Japan for a second. Yes, those are manga styled characters in the album artwork, and in fact, this album was released with an actual manga comic book that details the storyline alluded to in these songs, a neat crossover mixed media approach that the band is trying out that I’ve often wondered why more bands don’t dare to attempt. It was the unusual nature of said album art that I saw in my inbox that got me to check out the promo of Winterider, bracing myself for a cringefest that would have me deleting it on the spot —- yet what I discovered was inspired, incredibly fun sugary power metal reminiscent of the halcyon days of early Sonata Arctica. Indeed Tony Kakko is a clear influence here, not only on the vocal approach by Mikael Salo, whose accent often makes him a dead ringer, but also in the songwriting approach of band founder and keyboardist Benjamin Connelly. For any of you who were disappointed in Sonata’s recent Talviyö and long for that band to return to the Ecliptica / Silence / Winterhearts era, you might wanna bounce on over Everfrost’s way and check out note perfect slices of Finn-power such as the powerful title track “Winterider”. Built on sugary synth lines and a crisp, dare I say wintry separation of instruments, topped with lush harmony vocals, this song is as wonderfully decadent as the most hooky classic Sonata era cut. It also sports an unusual, “Don’t Stop Believin'” arrangement, where the true chorus doesn’t appear until 3:30 seconds into the song, that being an unforgettable, spirited group sing of the song title. This kind of flair and flexibility to deviate from traditional verse/bridge/chorus structures is rare in melodic power metal bands, who tend to cling to those tried and true approaches.

There’s a focus in Connelly’s songwriting to be as concise as possible, with verses mainlining to get to a hook or refrain, but also to be as indulgently stylistic as possible on the way there. Take “Cold Night Remedy”, where the straightforward verse sections are anchored by a solid Scorpions-esque mid-tempo riff and drum beat, but guitarist Markus Laito is off the leash, free to add flurries of notes at will and to tack on creative angles and unexpected tails. There’s just so much ear candy present everywhere, as on “Actraiser” where the keyboards and guitars battle back and forth for control of the primary melody while Salo outstrips both in time for the chorus where his vocal melody surges upwards in one of the catchiest hooks in power metal this year. Its also a particularly Kakko-esque moment, and while I’m trying to not beat the Sonata drum too much in this review, its kind of impossible not to. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either, because frankly, Everfrost are filling a void that was deeply felt by many power metal fans once Sonata drifted into more rambling, eclectic songwriting territory. On the ballad, “Above The Treeline”, we’re hearing that overwhelming influence manifest itself in beautiful, chiming piano melodies that help build up the dramatic tension alongside Salo’s impassioned vocals, the singer delivering his best performance of the album. Salo is also awesome on the riskiest cut on the album, that being a fairly faithful cover of Kesha’s global hit “Die Young”, a choice that not only seems to fit the shimmering, exuberant tone of the album as a whole but sounds great set to rockin’ riffs. I’m not sure how this fits into the album’s storyline, I’m sure there’s a valid reason, but no matter —- simply electing to cover such an unlikely choice of pop song is the very essence of a Sonata influence (they who so gloriously covered Bette Midler’s “The Wind Beneath My Wings”). This is a hugely enjoyable album, and Everfrost do bring enough personality to the table to prevent the copycat label, but that being said, this is terrific tonic for anyone left frustrated by the last decade plus of Sonata.

Opeth – In Cauda Venenum:

Four albums deep now into Opeth’s post metal career, I think most of us have given up on the idea of a return to their prog-death roots. It was all but eliminated for me when I saw the footage of their pro-shot show at Red Rocks, where Mikael Akerfeldt struggled to muster up even a reasonable facsimile of his once glorious death growl (“Demon of the Fall” was particularly saddening). Despite this opening statement however, I don’t hold it against Akerfeldt, because his reasoning makes sense, and I have given Opeth’s post Watershed output a fair hearing, and even liked the odd song here and there. What troubles me though is this sense that Akerfeldt has become a less engaging songwriter ever since he’s loosened up in this free-form, jazzy, prog-rock steeped milieu. I loved the softer moments of the classic Opeth discography, from large chunks of Damnation, to all the quiet valleys of Still Life, Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Ghost Reveries. Part of the appeal of that quiet/loud dynamic of the classic era was that Akerfeldt was just as compelling a songwriter and vocalist during the hushed, tranquil sections as he was during the brutal passages. From Heritage onwards though, I have rarely heard that kind of quality (only once really, on “Faith In Others” off Pale Communion), and frequently have felt like I’m listening to a plate of musical noodles on these newer albums. On the new album, “Heart In Hand” has a relatively compelling rhythmic dynamic working for it, with a propulsive riff getting things going, except that there’s nothing substantial in the way of a bridge leading to the chorus. It all mushes together, like when you go out for Indian food and long for some other texture amidst the curried meats, curried vegetables, and pillowy naan bread —- its all a bit soft isn’t it? Take “The Garroter” for example, where an intriguing opening guitar figure never really leads anywhere all that interesting, just dissolving in an ambient, soupy mess. There’s some heavy hitting explosions in “All Things Will Pass” that perked my interest, but it wasn’t until the very end where an all too brief sparkling melody made its quick appearance and then faded off. I dunno… it might be time to call it on Opeth. Four albums in a row where one is left disappointed might be overkill. I check out every release out of obligation but this is an exercise in exasperation.

Sleeping Ancient – There Is No Truth But Death:

Sleeping Ancient is the latest in a slowly expanding crop of Houston based metal bands to make a splash online, with Invisible Oranges and Decibel among the major outlets that have covered them in the recent month plus since the release of this debut album. To their credit, like a few other noteworthy Houstonian metal exports they have a unique sound for a band from this city, a blend of post-metal with black and doom infusions. Its a sound that stands out from a local perspective, being far removed from the local TXDM (Texas death metal if you couldn’t guess) scene, and has more in common with geographically far-flung North American bands like Russian Circles, Numenorean, or Isis (no, not that Isis). I’ve slowly listened to this album over the past month —- I say slowly because I can’t emphasize enough just how much this is a mood dependent listen, for me anyway. Usually at night, when things are winding down its just about the right headspace for the meditative, hypnotic circular nature of “A Locked Room”, or the tension building “Disillusionist”. Those two are instrumentals, and there are three of those total on a seven track album which I’ll admit is a puzzling decision. I get it, its post-metal, and “post” means that there’s a lot of leeway in an almost free-form exploration of sound, but I found myself wanting another track in the vein of “A Path Emerges” and “Writhing in the City of Dregs” (which I can only assume is a paean to our lovely weather). The former has the most memorable intro passage of the entire album, with a distinct melodic motif that creeps in during its slower passage halfway through. The latter is the most consistently engaging song from start to finish, although I feel its ending needed something a little more straightforward, like a focused, catchy, aggressive riff to make everything else hit like the proverbial hadoken. This is a promising debut, far from perfect by any means (a little less meandering and more riffs would go a long way), but worth investigating during the moonlit hours.

Full Power: New Music From Hammerfall, Freedom Call, Dialith and More!

Its been a time of change and literal upheaval for The Metal Pigeon blog lately. I had been thinking about updating the look of the site for awhile now, and those thoughts led to actual research which led to my ultimately deciding that its time the blog graduated from its sheltered (and very limited) home at the actual WordPress.com to a self-hosted WordPress solution (if you’ve ever wondered what the difference between the .com and .org versions of WordPress were, TIL!). So after a nervous week waiting for a domain name transfer, exporting and importing a ton of files (all the old posts and comments and images), and fiddling around with a ton of themes over the past two weeks, things are finally settling down with the site for the time being. I’m still not done changing things, at some point I’d like to get a new logo (looking into that), and the site might have more visual changes coming to its home page but ultimately the foundation of this blog has been and always will be the content itself. So thanks for sticking through this rough period and bearing with me.

I haven’t neglected music in this period either, listening to a ton of new releases in the interim, a large dose of power metal to be exact. I’ve been spending time with new releases by veterans such as Hammerfall, Elvenking, Freedom Call, and Sonata Arctica, but also making time for debuts by new bands on the scene like Dialith, who appeared on my radar as a recommendation from Blayne of BangerTV of all people and places (they’re normally very power metal averse). I also went on a metal road trip up north to Dallas on August 26th for the Demons and Wizards North American tour, and that was a pretty epic experience not only for the surreal feeling of actually seeing that band live in the flesh, but for the depths of dehydration that the 107° Texas heat put me in. I talked about it a bit on the recent MSRcast #225 where I pontificated about the magical healing properties of post show Gatorades and smoked almonds. On the episode before that, we had Robb Zipp of The Most Epic Adventures on to talk about his experience going to this year’s Wacken Festival as a solo traveler. It was a pretty insightful discussion on the kind of logistical details that you’re likely to wonder about if like myself you’ve never made the trek overseas for a metal fest. I’m aiming to increase the updates to the blog and will likely have good reason to do so —- expect a Dragonforce new album breakdown on the next update! Now onto the reviews:


Hammerfall – Dominion:

I’ve experienced a renewed passion for Hammerfall over the course of the last couple years, beginning with when I saw them live for the first time on their tour with Delain. I had always revered Glory To The Brave and Legacy of Kings as iconic power metal classics, but that gig made me revisit the entirety of their catalog and since then they’ve been a consistent go to when I need that direct boost of adrenaline and euphoric, spirit lifting positivity. The quality of this discography if charted on a graph shows a slow decline starting after 2000’s Renegade and dipping down further after 2006’s middling Threshold, hitting its absolute nadir with the barely mediocre Infected in 2011, and a slow gradual rise since then with their last two albums. I’ll emphasize gradual here, because while those albums —- (r)Evolution and Built to Last —- had some excellent songs to add to the already stacked Hammerfall Best Of playlist, they were largely under baked as a whole. I was a little more invested this time in the output they’d produce on Dominion, this their eleventh studio album, hoping they’d conjure up some stuff with the same kind of crackling intensity that they had pouring out on stage both times I saw them in the last three years. And as recent output by Judas Priest has shown us, veteran bands can sometimes find their footing again and find themselves in fine fighting form. Hammerfall has done exactly that with Dominion, delivering their strongest, most confident album since 2005’s Chapter V: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken.

As to why and how they managed this feat on album eleven and not number ten, or nine —- eh, hard to pinpoint exactly, there’s no change in behind the scenes personnel, with Fredrik Nordström handling mixing duties alongside as co-producer with Oscar Dronjak. I think it could be as simple as they just wound up writing a vastly improved batch of songs this time, maybe the heaven and hell theme reflected in the artwork helped guide them to that point or maybe it had nothing to do with it. There certainly is a more “epic” feel to cuts such as “Never Forgive, Never Forget” and “Dominion”, the two back to back album openers. And I’ll freely admit that while “(We Make) Sweden Rock” had me rolling my eyes a bit when I first saw the title months back, its actually an undeniable jam, with one of the band’s strongest hooks in recent memory and an old school sounding lead guitar figure that bookends the chorus. Its also rather endearing to realize its a tribute to the Swedish contribution to metal, particularly if you’ve seen the music video for the song, with its intercutting the band’s performance with photographs of Swedish rock and metal royalty (where’s Falconer though?). My personal favorite however is the ballad “Second to One”, a piano driven affair that hearkens back to the bittersweet melancholy of classic Hammerfall ballads in “Always Will Be” or “Dreams Come True”. I’ve always loved the bands approach to balladry, where they seemingly prefer their slowest moments to sound haunting and reflective rather than syrupy sweet (even with love songs).

The ballad comes at the halfway point of Dominion, and its also the marker for when the album really gets going with quality songs in succession. I wouldn’t say there’s a pacing problem here, but the first half is definitely a little slower to excite than the spectacular second, where there’s not a bum song among the bunch. Actually, I’d say that “Chain of Command” is one of the best Hammerfall songs in their catalog, one that’s old school metal gang vocal fueled chorus would feel at home on Glory or Legacy. Ditto for “Dead By Dawn”, which is classic Hammerfall through and through, although that chorus is weirdly triumphant sounding for its particular chorus lyric: “You will be dead by dawn” (similarly, “Chain of Command” has a kinda funny lyric at work too if you imagine its talking about an HR departments rules and regs rather than an army on the march, but hey it rocks so…). The Valhalla referencing “Bloodline” and album closer “And Yet I Smile” are not as forward attacking, but are still well thought out compositionally. In fact the only song that I thought was a bit of a skipper was “Testify”, but its not a terrible song by any means, with a solid series of verse sections and an enjoyable bridge sequence, but that chorus is kinda a let down. That being said, its nice to see Dronjak return to fine songwriting form, and Joacim Cains sounds as ageless as ever. Sweden rocks indeed!

Dialith – Extinction Six:

This is the debut album by Dialith who hail from Danbury, Connecticut, yet another random (but apparently very nice!) North American locale where a promising new power metal band is launching its career from, joining the ranks of dozens of their peers in the past few years. This might be the sleeper hit of the summer, an album that has been released independently as of this writing but has gotten some relatively high-ish profile recommends via Angry Metal Guy and Blayne Smith of BangerTV (the latter of whom was my initial tip-off to check them out). I can’t imagine that they’ll be unsigned for long, and I hope that happens for them (and that its a beneficial arrangement, not some sort of 360 deal), but no matter to us at this moment really, because in 2019, the mechanisms are in place for a band to bypass the label route entirely and make an immediate impression with listeners like us on their debut album. For me, Extinction Six has kinda taken over my listening time over the past two weeks, being a compulsively addictive collection of smartly crafted symphonic power metal that’s as richly shimmering and effervescent as it is anchored in a bed of melodic-death riff fueled aggression. This isn’t a new concept, in fact Frozen Crown have made a name for themselves doing exactly that; but whereas Crown’s Giada Etro is the most effortless classic sounding power metal voice we’ve heard in years, Dialith’s Krista Sion is an absolute phenom with her soprano’s approach towards singing, morphing the band’s sound into symphonic power metal.

Of course she’s helped along by the keyboard orchestral elements courtesy of keyboardist Charles Woodruff and apparently an assist from Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Francesco Ferrini, who is credited with additional orchestration and arrangements. The band’s melo-death driven riffage is geared to balance out all that grandiose symphonic sweetness with the help of a guy I consider an ascendant star in the metal producer/engineer landscape, that being one Jacob Hansen. What I love about Hansen’s mixes for any band he works with is his ability to draw sharp, clear delineations between traditional metallic instrumentation and unorthodox elements such as orchestral or even electronically created textures (Pyramaze and recent Kamelot are good examples of this). He nails that again here, but really the bulk of the credit should go towards Sion’s vocals and guiarist Alasdair Wallace Mackie’s impassioned songwriting and his own performance across the album. His playing is downright vicious on “Catalyst” for example, one of the heaviest hitting songs on the record, his riffage sounding as dense as mid-90s In Flames and Gates of Ishtar records. And yet he’s still a melody driven songwriter, as heard on the storming opener “The Sound of Your Voice” and absolute show stealer “Break The Chains” (no its not a Dokken cover!). I can’t get enough of Sion’s approach, and its weird because she’s simultaneously emotive AND icy-toned, her vocals often purposefully distant or indifferent to the intensity of the music and its a fascinating and incredibly well executed dichotomy. I could go on but this likely won’t be the last you see of me writing about Dialith —- consider this one of the most essential albums in an already excellent year of metal releases.

Sonata Arctica – Talviyö:

I’ve thought a lot in the past few days on how I’m supposed to approach writing about Sonata Artica’s utterly confounding Talviyö (“Winter Night” in Finnish), and I’m not sure I’ve come to any kind of conclusion on that so here goes anyway. My first experience with this album was late at night, and maybe it was the mental and physical fatigue of the day that I was foolishly putting off addressing by not going to sleep, but I found myself mildly enjoying the album at that moment. Not with such passion and verve mind you that would have me leaping out of my chair, suddenly wide awake, ready to tell anyone and everyone about how amazing the new Sonata record was, but enjoying it nonetheless. Yet every listen since then has invoked a far more critical reaction within me, seemingly progressive in nature as to how negatively I’ve been receiving these songs. I first thought that maybe this was a sign that Talviyö is a mood record, one that’s only meant for specific mindsets, but I’m not so sure about that —- and just to be sure, I listened to the album twice through after staying up all night watching the Monday Night Footall season opener double header. If anything, my irritation at the album only worsened, and trust me, that had nothing to do with the Texans agonizing loss earlier that night (…yes… nothing…). Bear in mind, that I adore Sonata like most of the power metal community does, their first four albums are genre defining in my estimation. I’ve even found stuff to like on most of their post Unia output, so it gives me no pleasure to write harshly about their new record.

So in that spirit, lets start with the positives, this won’t take long, but let’s give credit to the band and/or Nuclear Blast for correctly identifying the best track for the music video, that being “Cold” which starts off with the kind of irresistible Kakko vocal melody that we’ve all come to love him for. The song is built on tension building verses and a hard rockin’ approach to the mid-tempo riff structure, one slightly reminiscent of The Night Flight Orchestra. I will say that one intrepid YouTube commenter on the music video noted that the song sounded better when you increased the playback speed to 1.25, and damn it if he isn’t right. The middling tempo choice does in fact prevent the song from joining the ranks of classic Sonata songs, on my playlist anyway, but its still memorable and something I wouldn’t balk at taking up space on their setlists. I thought that “Whirlwind” had a nice melody at work and a chorus that had touches of that old impassioned Kakko style, although its sluggish tempo is a little frustrating and again, holds it back. There’s been praise showered on the curiously titled “Ismo’s Got Good Reactors” which sounds like a JRPG mistranslation, and indeed its Celtic-tinged rumble is actually a refreshing experiment to take in… for an instrumental. I don’t know about you, but I can’t ever find myself getting too excited about a Sonata instrumental. This isn’t classic era In Flames, where Jesper Stromblad was a monumental talent who would serve up perfectly sculpted acoustic/electric instrumental figures in unforgettable instrumental interludes like “Pallers Anders Visa” or “Man Made God”. Frankly, after Jani Liimatainen left, Sonata’s music became ever more dependent on the strength of Kakko’s vocal melodies, and an instrumental track only highlights that deficiency.

And then there’s everything else. A handful of frustrating songs that range from aggressively mediocre to downright aggravating. Who is ever going to enjoy “The Last Of The Lambs”, with its strange mix of production effects and plodding, go nowhere repetitive tempo? Or “Who Failed The Most”, where Kakko’s penchant for cute lyrics betrays him on the second worst offender on the album (” You decide, who is the lord of the rings”) set to the most Pepto Bismol-y tasting vocal melody I’ve heard on any power metal album. Then there’s the squandering of a promising melodic motif on “Demon’s Cage” with a sharp turn towards a rambling, unfocused vocal melody and another Kakko lyrical dud (” Working class, kneel and kiss my… s…). Keep in mind, I’m could care less at this point about the lyrical meaning, because if the way its being articulated isn’t drawing me in, any ideas that are being expressed are left at the door guarding my interest level. The worst offender is the insipid and cringe inducing ballad “The Garden”, and this is coming from a mushy ballad lover, someone who rated the hyper saccharine “Love” from Sonata’s 2014 Pariah’s Child as one of the strongest cuts on that album. But gods, this is a bridge too far: “My life… my everything in a beautiful garden / Sunshine, friends, glass of wine…”. Set aside the vitriol inducing twee melody at work here, and Kakko’s droopy approach to the vocals —- these lyrics are objectively terrible. And I get it, he’s clearly writing a song to his wife about the life he feels she’s given to him, and I have no doubt as to his sincerity. But good grief Tony… lose the wine glass, dunk your head in a bucket of cold water and get ahold of yourself man. I’ve gone on long enough —- this is either the worst Sonata album to date or in competition with The Ninth Hour for that title. Sleep on that.

Elvenking – Reader Of The Runes – Divination:

One of my most anticipated records of this year on the metal release calendar, Elvenking’s Reader Of The Runes – Divination is their tenth album and the follow up to the still frequently listened to Secrets of the Magick Grimoire from two years back. Well… at least certain songs from it. Elvenking’s weakness over the course of their career has been their inability to deliver a compelling album from start to finish, with often inspired moments scattered across a bed of middling ones on most of their records. That’s not the worst deficiency in the world for a band to have, it guarantees that there’s always something to love about each new album, but it prevents them from ever making an appearance in a lot of conversations between metalheads or even in the media where folks could point to a singular disc and say “this is the one”. The closest they’ve gotten by most estimates is 2014’s The Pagan Manifesto, but even there I still some songs lacking. I’ve idly wondered if the band’s problem has been their insistence on delivering at least 10-12 songs per album, that maybe in the effort to provide lengthier albums they’ve been allowing lesser quality material make the cut and thus diluting the overall strength. I dunno, its a thought and I’d be interested to see how a tight 35-40 minute album would fare, but we won’t get that chance on Reader, which is just over 52 minutes (relatively short by Elvenking standards).

This is a front loaded album, with playlist worthy cuts “Heathen Divine”, “Divination”, “Silverseal”, and “Eternal Eleanor” all arriving before the album’s halfway point. The latter is one of the band’s more appealing veins of experimentation, that of the folky ballad that they toss with their usual power metal meets alt-rock riff salad approach. Fabio Polo is a talented violinist, but his most underrated ability is in delivering melodies that really can anchor and/or carry a tune entirely on their own. He takes center stage here over power chord riffery and propels forward a pretty lively, jaunty folk ballad that is charming if not quite as catchy as it needs to be. The earworm role is served by “Heathen Divine”, which sports the most confident melody at work on the entire album. The band builds a folk tinged power metal banger atop it with a chorus that reminds you of what it is Elvenking can do so well, that mix of seemingly loose, haphazard vocal approach with precision playing that soars and hits hard yet feels like could come apart at any moment. My personal favorite however is “Silverseal” where the band writes a chorus for the ages and a supporting verse/bridge structure that raises and releases the tension. The folk-power sound here is kind of what these guys need to aim for nearly 100% of the time, sealing it in a compact, focused nearly four minute banger. But overall, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed by Reader, particularly on its back half where it just seems that nothing quite landed the way it should have. When these guys don’t deliver moment for moment perfect hooks, the lack of richness in their musicality stands out. I’m not sure what the fix is there… to add more instrumentation ala Eluveitie to spice things up? Maybe. Its past time for them to deliver an attention grabbing album, and they’ve missed the mark here again.

Freedom Call – M.E.T.A.L.:

If the audaciousness of the album art there didn’t clue you into the kind of over the top, Chris Bay led festivities we’re in for on Freedom Call’s tenth studio album, I’ll refer you to this Call frontman’s spectacularly lively music video from his 2018 solo album Chasing the Sun. Subtlety isn’t Freedom Call’s paintbrush of choice, and M.E.T.A.L. sees Bay and company staying true that to ethos. From their 1999 debut Stairway to Fairyland, Bay has made Freedom Call into a vehicle to explore the area of power metal once pioneered by Helloween, with loosely fantasy tinged life affirming lyrical metaphors and a musical sound that’s relentlessly cheerful sounding and lighthearted in its use of epic melodicism. Alongside Power Quest, they’ve been tagged unfairly by some as “flower metal”, but where the Quest pulled deep influences from 80s guitar rock ala Van Halen, the Call are firmly anchored in that German power metal legacy pioneered by Kai Hansen (which makes sense, considered Bay’s Gamma Ray stint). I was always a casual appreciator of the band, until 2014’s Beyond, which was their first legitimately excellent album from front to back and turned me into a straight up fan of the Call. Months and years after its release, it stayed with me as a go to for a glorious, epic power metal fix. It prompted me to revisit their back catalog in search of something I’d perhaps missed, and I unearthed some previously overlooked gems to be sure, but nothing matched its fiery verve. I will admit that its been hard to stomach some of their decision making though, as the cover art to 2016’s Master of Light and the quality of its lead off single “Metal Is For Everyone” demonstrate. What I’ve learned about Freedom Call and Chris Bay in particular though, is that you have to try your best to not judge a book by its cover (literally with their last two records) and just trust in this —- that Bay is a sharpshooter of a power metal songwriter.

He delivers ultra catchy power metal goodness by the armload here, the most lovable offering being “One Step Into Wonderland”, as perfect a song as the best of them on Beyond. Yes the “…wonderland…” thing is a bit much —- I’m not sure if Bay’s lyrics would be more interesting if he was actually singing about fantasy places, characters, and stories more akin to Rhapsody or Blind Guardian, as opposed to his purely metaphorical wielding of such language. It seems to be the way he’s utilized them throughout his career, and other bands have done the same thing for sure, but his such a gifted songwriter in terms of developing epic sounding ideas that I wonder if he shouldn’t try. Similarly “Fly With Us” is another barnstormer, built on an 80’s rockin’ guitar approach but still hitting with the impact of a hammer on the low riffy end. Even the Sabaton-ishly titled “Ronin” is a hard charging glorious slice of Euro-power, with those splashy cheerful leads from Lars Rettkowitz. I’m particularly fond of “Spirit of Daedalus”, which kind of reminds me of Tales-era Blind Guardian (albeit, definitely not as dark), propelled by the kind of speed metal flair that sounds so at home in German power metal. The major misstep on the album is clearly the title track, one of those praising metal tracks that some bands can pull off convincingly, and others can’t. Its not the worst offender of that ilk that I’ve heard, but its definitely a must skip here, and why name your album after it when you’ve had a career of nothing but relatively serious album titles. The glaring flaw with Master of Light was its abominable cover art that was so terrible it might land it as a contender for the worst metal cover art of all time… and in considering these recent spate of terrible artistic choices, I’m left wondering where Bay’s head is at these days. I hope these are temporary missteps because they’re overshadowing quality material.

In The Heart of Summer: New Music From Abbath, Frozen Crown, and More!

Back with the most recent collection of accumulated reviews for albums that I’ve been listening to lately, and these really stretch the gamut in terms of release dates and the actual date that I started listening to them. The new Frozen Crown album for instance came out in March but got lost in the shuffle around then and didn’t resurface on my playlist until July (disappointed in myself for that one), and there’s some early summer stuff here that I wanted to have more time with. To change things up after the recent spate of lengthier reviews, I’m doing the shorter format once again (probably a recurring thing, bouncing between the varying lengths, it keeps things interesting for me). If you’ve been reading the site for awhile, you might guess that shorter reviews are harder for me to write, because it forces me to boil things down to the very essence, rather than spilling the broth everywhere on your screen. Disastrous metaphor I know —- its late, sue me.


Frozen Crown – Crowned In Frost:

It was barely a year ago that I was introduced to Italy’s Frozen Crown, who released their debut album, The Fallen King, in February of 2018. It became a favorite of mine, and made me reconsider my slight hesitancy to Italian power metal, something helped along by the recent strong offering from Ancient Bards. Its not all too surprising that they’re back so soon with yet another studio offering, I’m learning to expect this type of shorter lag time release schedule now from bands with limited touring availability and day jobs. What is surprising however, is how much of a leap in songwriting strength the band has achieved in such a short time. I’ll still have my personal favorites from their debut, but Crowned In Frost boasts so much more in terms of accomplished songwriting and a stronger stylistic identity, the band coming damn close to their unstated sonic vision of a Sonata Arctica / Wintersun fusion. It opens with two outright bangers, the first being lead off single “Neverending”, which mixes some nice, tight melo-death riff patterning under vocalist Giada Etro’s powerful straight ahead classicist power metal vocal approach. I compared her before to a mix of Brittney Hayes from Unleash the Archers and Kobra Paige, but she also possesses Tony Kakko’s innate sense of what to do with phrasing and syllabic timing. She turns in a devastating performance on “In The Dark”, her voice full of lift and soaring strength, and folks this song… this is a perfect example of what I love about power metal’s very essence. Four minutes and forty-four seconds of adrenalizing, empowering, spirit lifting fireworks that every band should hope to achieve.

They nearly reach these same heights again on the more melo-deathy infused “Winterfall”, where guitarist Federico Mondelli adds in some pretty solid melo-death growling vox and he and fellow guitarist Talia Bellazecca join in for some crushing tandem riffing in that satisfyingly dense melo-death style. The middle bridge here seems like a step into fresh songwriting territory for the band, a slower, epic build that seems reminiscent of UtA’s Apex. I hear this same similarity on “Unspoken”, a song that is at once a straight ahead, full-on rocker but there’s some complexity going on in the disparity between the tempos of guitars and vocals that’s a time-honored tendency of bands who are increasing in confidence and awareness as songwriters. Mondelli is a flourishing talent in this regard, and “Lost In Time” is one of those songs that points to this, the kind of almost ballad that is damn difficult for even experienced, veteran bands to pull off. The only real stumble on this record is minor, but I just felt a little too much repetition in “Battles In The Night”, which was perhaps more apparent given how unique and explorative the rest of these songs were (there’s also three relatively pointless instrumental tracks that they should start ditching on their next record, but we’ll let that slide for now). And its refreshing to hear a balanced mix on this record, Filippo Zavattari’s bass is clearly audible throughout and it was nice to not have the guitars fighting Etro for space up front. I can’t recommend this one enough, its the fun, frosty album this summer needed and everyone into power metal should be onboard the Frozen Crown dragon by now. These new crop of power metal bands are delivering new music at an alarmingly rapid rate (see Visigoth and Judicator), and we might be in the midst of a second golden age of power metal already.

Bewitcher – Under the Witching Cross:

Recently I went to see Striker play a gig on their tour with Holy Grail, wanting to experience the exuberant joyful performance that I witnessed a year ago when they opened for Unleash the Archers. They delivered, although the sound guy didn’t and left my ears ringing the next day while I looked for earplugs on Amazon, but the opening band on the tour more than made up for it. Portland’s Bewitcher pulled off that rare trick of impressing me when I knew nothing about their music going into it, and came away a fan not only of their intense, ferocious live performance, but of their songwriting as well. The description on Metallum says “Black/Speed Metal”, and yeah that’s about as accurate a summation as one could provide. Matt Litton’s (aka Unholy Weaver of Shadows & Incantations [!]) vocals never really stray into blackened death territory, having more in common with 80s thrash punkiness than anything resembling death metal’s gutturality. The track to YouTube preview is “Rome Is On Fire”, a compulsively addictive, head bashing battering ram of hooky riffing and delightfully spartan lyrics about the brewing wickedness in the declining Roman Empire. But I’m also partial to the title track, coming across as Riot trad-speed meat n’ potatoes meets Bathory’s smoke and fire. That the album sounds as kinetic and vital as the Bewitcher did live is a testament to not only the engineer here for the mix, but to the band who’s writing songs in a cross pollinated style where its often too easy to overdo the grime factor. Bewitcher seems to value memorability above all else, where its the melody guides the riffs, and that means they have to ensure that melodic brightness shows up on this recording, even if that means dialing back the dirtiness. Those looking for something more Entombed or Evocation might disregard this as too polished and compromised, but I think of it more as a solution to a tricky to master blend of metal.

Abbath – Outstrider:

I’m kinda glad I waited on writing a review for Outstrider, long after I discussed it on the podcast and expressed my then difficulty in deciding how I felt about the album at that time. The one thing I knew for certain was that I enjoyed the new Immortal album far more, but was questioning if that was even a fair comparison to make. Well, to answer that latter question now —- of course it freaking is! And no, its not just because direct comparisons are the meat on the bone for content succubi like myself, but because its a natural process that most fans of classic Immortal put themselves through whether they went public with their opinions or not. But the more instructive comparison is to pit Outstrider to Abbath’s self-titled debut, the latter being hamstrung perhaps by its half All Shall Fall followup and half Abbath plays rock n’ roll mishmash that prevented anything resembling album cohesion. The new album is a gigantic leap in improvement in that regard, seeing Abbath turn in a collection of songs forged in a fiery, speed-riffed black metal mold reminiscent of At The Heart of Winter. Oh sure, there’s some leftover hard rock styling imprinted on scattered moments here, like the wild guitar solo in the middle of “The Artifex”, but they’re more tasteful accents than structural shifts in the songwriting approach. The album works best however when Abbath remembers his old strength, to paraphrase Gandalf’s words to Théoden (nerd alert!), as on the highlight “Scythewinder” —- here he marries unrelentingly violent, battering ram verse passages to a dramatic, primal tempo-ed drum pounding middle bridge. Its a bracing reminder of just how good Abbath can be when he gets downright meat n’ potatoes-y with his songwriting, mixing in caveman styled slabs of simplified riffs and spacing to give the blistering black metal fury a little more definition. There’s more of this on “Hecate”, one of the catchiest songs on the album with a riff based hook one could almost call poppy for Abbath (almost). I also thought “Harvest Pyre” sounded better on my umpteenth listen whereas I was tending to dismiss it early on when first listening to the album, not sure why exactly, although I’m hearing several things coming to the surface here that I know I missed initially. I will admit however that there is a sense of frustration infusing my overall opinion here, the unshakeable feeling that this sounds like a fine transition album but that Abbath still sounds like he’s a little unfocused. At times these songs sound way too busy, that a little stripping down of excess riffs and some rearranging would go a long way to injecting some memorability in the mix. The only way to test that transition album theory unfortunately is to wait for the next one and hope its better. That and compare it to the next Immortal album of course.

Turilli / Lione Rhapsody – Zero Gravity: Rebirth And Evolution:

Lately I’ve been coming away relatively impressed by recent Rhapsody releases in any incarnation. Alex Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire has been putting out head turning records, particularly the highly enjoyable re-recordings collection Legendary Years in 2017, as well as this year’s The Eighth Mountain (for which I have no good excuse for forgetting to review). I’ve also enjoyed to a certain extent Luca Turilli’s two releases under his Rhapsody banner, though 2016’s Prometheus was a challenge to get into. More immediate then is the debut album from this third version of Rhapsody which sees Turilli reuniting with ex-Rhapsody/current Angra vocalist Fabio Lione. Its a collection of highly accessible songs in a style of Rhapsody that seems distilled of all excess pomp and grandeur, seemingly to match the more narrowly defined science meets futurism theme of the album title and lyrics. We gushed about the Elize Ryd duet “D.N.A. (Demon and Angel)” on a recent MSRcast, but there’s so much more here to love, particularly the rushing operatic pulse in “Zero Gravity”, where I’ve never heard Lione sound as nimble and versatile as a vocalist. He’s also terrific on “Multidimensional”, where he’s assisted by backing vocalist Emilie Ragni who turns in some incredible work herself all over this album, her voice a perfect complement to Lione, providing a higher register assist to really nail those epic, climbing refrains. The epic, Queen-influenced “I Am” is perhaps my favorite original (oh you’ll see) on the album, showcasing a layering of complex arrangements on piano and vocal harmonies and of course neo-classical wizardry on guitar that speaks to Turilli’s undiminished ability to weave these elements together into something that’s nothing short of beautiful. But weirdly enough, the track that really made me freak out was the cover of Josh Groban’s “Oceano” which is a bonus track at the end of the album, which for a few minutes I thought was a Turilli original and was demanding aloud why he wasn’t writing more material in this vein. Heh, well for good reason apparently, but Lione brings the house down on this beautiful slice of operatic pop, and the lightly metallic instrumentation gives it a boost of power the original sadly lacks. Would it be asking too much for these two to deliver an album of nothing but popera covers? Surely I’m not the only one who’d be into that right… right guys?

Idle Hands – Mana:

Perhaps the most simultaneously lovable and aggravating albums of the year, Idle Hands much buzzed about debut album took well over a few months to completely grow on me. It wasn’t for lack of an immediate fascination with the band’s Sisters of Mercy meets Tribulation amalgam of sound, or the truly inspired songwriting at work here, but more vocalist / guitarist Gabriel Franco’s penchant for irritating vocal eruptions. Its been a recurring complaint with newcomers to Mana, and one I’m glad to say becomes less of an issue over time (some of you might recall me complaining about it on the MSRcast a few weeks ago) if you just listen past them. Hopefully everyone has patience enough to indulge in these songs despite that annoying characteristic, because Franco is a compelling songwriter, a lyricist whose awkward directness reminds me of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and latter day Sentenced. His sense of melodicism and seemingly innate ability to craft indelible hooks results in some of the most addictive, earwormy songs I’ve heard this year. Its the icing on the cake that they’re all relatively unique as well: “Give Me To The Night” is a racing, full-throttled metallic rocker with post-punk lead guitar sensibilities; while my personal favorite “Jackie” is like someone dipped the poppiest slice of Charon in a fondue made of The Cult circa 1985. The song that’s got the peeps in the r/PowerMetal Discord fired up calling this the AOTY is “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?”, which Sonata Arctica cringe title aside, really is an unconventional epic. I’m kinda hooked on Franco’s pre-solo “8…7…6…” countdown before lead guitarist Sebastian Silva unleashes a gorgeous, fluid, character rich solo. In fact, Silva’s playing is perhaps the unheralded performance MVP of the album, even though most of the attention goes towards Franco’s stoic, stentorian vocals. His guitar approach actually reminds me of Roy Z’s work in Tribe of Gypsies at times, loose and quick on its feet, slightly Latin-tinged without leaning on cliches, and full of swagger and attitude. There’s so much to love about this album, and its been one I’ve been returning to for months now (this was a May release), I might have my minor gripes about Franco’s plethora of out of nowhere grunts and shouts, but they do kinda grow on you strangely. Push past them, ignore any cringe factor the lyrics might conjure for you and let yourself be treated to one of the finest collection of goth-metal songs ever recorded.

The First 2019 Summer Reviews Cluster: Myrath, Amon Amarth and More!

Too many new albums, not enough time, and somehow I still managed to get through a good many of them (though as usual, not all). How? By sneaking in listening sessions at the most inconvenient times when I’d usually just prefer silence or an episode of Bob’s Burgers as background noise. This might be the most economical, quick-dashed off reviews cluster to date in Metal Pigeon history, my focus here on being concise and straight to the point in one paragraph at most (with the exception of Myrath of course). Let me know in the comments below if I’ve forgotten something glaring or of course if you entirely disagree with something I’ve written! Again there’s more coming in the weeks ahead (with the exception of Sunn O)))’s much praised Life Metal… I tried, just not for me), so if you don’t see a particular album here yet, maybe it’ll show up down the line.


Myrath – Shehili:

This is only my second opportunity to review a new Myrath album, seeing as how I became a fan of the band in between the five year gap of 2011’s Tales of the Sands and 2016’s best albums list maker Legacy. In the review for the latter, I spent some lines pondering other ideas related to this band and their serving as a link to a geographic and cultural region that most listeners likely have few ties to outside of what they see on CNN. In light of recent news regarding possible war with Iran, I’d like to call attention to that sentiment once again although will refrain from rewriting it all out here. With Shehili, Myrath are back with a more regular release schedule in line with their first three albums, with the same line-up that recorded Legacy (its the second album for drummer Morgan Berthet). That to me is a pretty good indicator that there would be more of a continuity on Shehili with the more looser, celebratory, wild rock vibe that infused its predecessor rather than the prog-metal underpinnings of Tales. Typically speaking (though not always), when a band takes a long time between releases, five or more years lets say, expect that there’s going to be some deviation in sound from what they’d done before, for better or worse. Its just a natural byproduct of too much time passing in between songwriting sessions, new influences having time to creep into the mix, and a greater time to reflect on whats been done previously and what a songwriter would like to try doing next. The inverse typically works the opposite fashion, a band can carry over the essential musical variables they collected on a previous album to the new one because its what’s naturally on their brain in such a limited time after touring and immediately getting back to the studio process. Of course, we can all cite examples where both of these theories are blown apart, but Shehili would not be one of them.

That’s not to say that Shehili is a carbon copy of Legacy, but its built in the same muscular riffed, heavily orchestral, shimmering pop songwriting structures that defined the latter’s overall makeup. That’s largely a plus for me, seeing as I preferred the stuff they were doing on that album to the ones before it (I still enjoy the older stuff too), and with gems like “Wicked Dice” and “Stardust”, I get the same tingly feeling I felt three years ago. The former is maybe the best song on the album, with a compelling and deeply heavy, groove oriented rhythmic riff. The sudden rush of drama we hear in the chorus is one of the band’s most compelling moments, full of the kind of gravitas that Myrath handles so expertly. I love the depth of sound in “Stardust”, where the epic sweep of more straightforward symphonic orchestral elements support the theatrical push of vocalist Zaher Zorgati’s powerful performance. Its a rare Myrath song without an overtly Middle-Eastern sound palette, and surprisingly it works just based on the band’s raw musical abilities. Speaking of that distinctive palette however, I adore “Born To Survive” where the band marries slabs of groove oriented metal riffs to what sounds like a Berber folk music intro. Those trademark gorgeous Arabic violin melodies reappear during the chorus encircling the ascending vocal pattern, and its just pure ear candy for me. I could sit here and point out all the Middle-Eastern musical elements that I love but they’re so interwoven with nearly every facet of the band’s songwriting that isolating one over others seems random. Its in everything from the percussion fills, to the phrasing that guitarist Malek Ben Arbia employs in his creative lead guitar work, to Zorgati’s myriad vocal inflections. I’d say that nearly all my enjoyment from Myrath stems from their ability to marry that world of gorgeous ethnic sound to every facet of their songwriting —- the riffs and heaviness are just the pistachios on the baklava.

The interesting question here is that with Shehili coming relatively hot on the heels of Legacy, or at least soon enough to observe continuity between the two albums, how well does it hold up to its predecessor? I’d say fairly well, with a few caveats. Its a strong album on its own, but when things get a little too close comparison wise (at least from a fan’s eye point of view), Legacy has the upper hand. Take Shehili’s first single, “Dance”, definitely an enjoyable slice of rock n’ roll infused Myrath, but far too similar to Legacy’s “Believer” not to take immediate notice. Hell, there’s even the same split second pregnant pause just before Ben Arbia’s guitar solo in both songs. As much as “Dance” was a strong track, its not in the same league as “Believer” which had not only a euphoria inducing, life affirming chorus vocal melody, but the perfect build up to it in Zorgati’s lyrical cadence in the verses. It was swashbuckling and full of swagger, and “Dance” just doesn’t quite get to that same level. Similarly, the album stumbles ever so slightly on songs like “Monster In My Closet” which despite a dynamite chorus, features a series of verse sections that are more rhythmic than melodic, not playing to the band’s core strengths. I hear the same problem on “Darkness Arise”, which has some good ideas tucked within but they get a little lost amidst everything going on. I actually would have loved more of a lean towards the approach on “No Holding Back” and “Shehili”, both songs built on Zorgati’s inimitable ability to sound like he’s pouring everything he has into a singular expressive vocal melody. I guess the takeaway here from my perspective is basically, more melodrama infused melodies anchoring songs instead of rhythmic structures. That being said, this is still a tremendously enjoyable experience, Myrath just bring so much to the table that I love.

Ravenous E.H. – Eat the Fallen:

Ravenous E.H. (as in Eternal Hunger) are the latest in an ever growing line of new trad/power metal bands coming from the maple kissed north of Canada, in Calgary to be exact. That is starting to become a less and less surprising factoid, because Canada seems to be the new hotbed of metal talent within the past few years with no signs of slowing down. Ravenous E.H. tackle a familiar vein of power metal with cited inspiration from the likes of Hammerfall, Iced Earth, Grave Digger and Manowar but also claim to share a close affinity with modern day genre representatives like Judicator and Viathyn. Their debut full-length Eat the Fallen is fist in the air, headbanging stuff, and songs like “Strength of the Warrior” and “The Hunger Never Dies” do an admirable job of ringing familiar bells we’re all comfortable hearing. Jake Wright’s virtuosic guitar melodies are attuned to a wintry, folkish spirit, and vocalist Robert Antonius Voltaire has a vocal style that brings to mind the range of Matt Barlow with the baritone of Joakim Broden. There’s some genuinely exciting talent here, and the songwriting is far better than a debut often tends to be, at times even approaching true excellence. I think they find it on the album’s closer “Conquering the Sun”, a charging, martial ditty about armies crossing seas to kick in the gates somewhere (a tribute to the Dothraki and Unsullied perhaps?). There’s a fantastic chorus here, soaring with the help of choral gang vocal harmonies and made to stand out by wedging it in between slabs of punchy, regal melody adorned sections big on crunchy riffing. There’s something playful at work throughout this album too, just on the right side of swinging your beer horn and sloshing a little over the side in celebration. It’s gritty and grounded, full of enough melancholia to prevent it from joining the ranks of cheerful, chipper “battle metal” gaucheness. Lesser bands would have walked into that with their chins out.

Grand Magus – Wolf God:

Its been awhile since we’ve heard from Grand Magus, their last album Sword Songs coming three years ago, and perhaps too soon after its clearly superior predecessor Triumph and Power, a Metal Pigeon Best of 2014 list maker. This isn’t to say Sword Songs was an awful album, it had its share of solid moments, but it suffered from a series of bad decisions regarding the tempos on a handful of songs that either slowed things down to a point of draining their energy or sped them up in a way that this band simply doesn’t do well. Its a relief then to hear that they’ve decided to firmly plant themselves in mid-tempo rock n’ roll strut territory on Wolf God. Vocalist/guitarist Janne Christoffersson has seemed to always sound more at home in this rock n’ roll songwriting approach, with the metallic nature of the band’s sound coming in the thundering heaviness of the riffs and subject matter (add some Southern rock phrasing to the melodies, replace lyrics depicting the north and glorious battles with motorcycles and drinkin’ and Magus could sound like a pretty great American southern rock band). Its his wheelhouse, and I say that in a complimentary way. On songs like “Untamed” and “He Sent Them All To Hell” are built on ever-steady, in lock-step groove based riffs, while Christoffersson ushers things along with his lumbering, dryly impassioned vocal melodies. I’m big on “To Live And Die In Solitude”, particularly the stark storytelling in its lyrics, and also “Brother of the Storm” where stop-start riffing allows for Christoffersson to flex his soulful croon a little over ambient space. I kinda expected that Magus would rebound with this album, and glad to see my hunch was right, they’re too good a band to lay two semi-duds in a row.

Tanagra – Meridiem:

I’ve had a hell of a time wrapping my mind around this album, not because of any complexity or inaccessibility on its part —- Portland, Oregon’s Tanagra are a progressive power metal band and that’s familiar territory obviously. No, in this case its that I can’t quite figure out if I actually like the vocals of Tom Socia or not, which is a strange place to be after a couple weeks of fairly consistent listening. This is Tanagra’s sophomore album, they’re yet another among many newer North American bands playing a vein of melodic metal to come on the scene lately, having released their debut in 2015. The easy comparison here is Dream Theater in terms of degrees of light and dark, overall medium weight in heaviness, dramatic injection of keyboards, and of course a distinctive toned vocalist. But I enjoy Tanagra’s songwriting far more than DT’s, and there’s more of a Euro-power influence to the riffing that firmly anchors these songs in a trad/power posture than the loose, jazzy feel of other prog-metal bands. Socia is an absolute mystery though, because the mono-tonality in his clean voice is sometimes off putting and alternatively enjoyable in quick succession (or simultaneously in spots). When he leans into his more aggressive style, as on “Across the Ancient Desert”, he showcases a nicely gruff side to his vocal that is a perfect blend of melodic and metallic, and I’m really fond of all those moments. Look for this to be on a future MSRcast episode where I’ll try to sort out my thoughts on it more —- this is a quality record for certain, just a confusing one.

Månegarm – Fornaldarsagor:

The Swedish folk metal legends return after a four year absence, longer if 2015’s self-titled affair felt as off to you as it did to me. I only remember enjoying the acoustic ballads because that album’s muddy guitar tone annoyed me, and thankfully the Månegarm guys decided to abandon it on Fornaldarsagor in favor of a much more classic sounding approach. That decision and some other X factors resulted in crisply produced batch of blackened folk metal that is far darker and more convincingly brutal than I’ve heard this band ever sound. It barrels out of the gates that way with “Sveablotet”, a near perfect synthesis of everything the band does well —- rich Scandinavian folk melodies on violin and hurdy gurdy alongside flawlessly executed clean electric guitar, accompanied by harmonized group vocalization that recalls a little of Tyr and the brighter moments of Vintersorg, melded together with grizzled, smoky battlefield black metal. What Månegarm have always done so well however is to keep things accessible, with moments such as the wordless guitar melody refrain at the 3:30 mark of “Hervors arv” being ear candy I’ll return to over and over again. Vocalist Erik Grawsiö is still capable of his uncanny ability to blend together a gruff singing technique into some Johan Hegg-esque growls. This album is loaded with so many noteworthy musical moments in that vein, but my favorite slice has to be the entirety of “Ett sista farval”, whose melody is emblematic of the reason many of us love this subgenre in the first place. A return to form for Månegarm, and another shot in the arm for the slow revitalization of folk metal as a whole.

Riot City – Burn The Night:

Canada’s latest volley in the recent power/trad metal resurgence (I really need to come up with a name for that, any suggestions?), Alberta’s Riot City take their cue from classic early-mid 80s period Judas Priest and maybe a generous splash of Exciter here and there. There’s a level of technicality on the guitar work on “Warrior of Time” that instantly brings to mind the meticulous writing style of Tipton and Downing. Its all the more impressive when considering these guys are a four piece, the twin guitars provided by Roldan Reimer and Cale Savy, the latter handling lead vocals in a strikingly fierce emulsion of Halford and David Wayne. He has that chilling, eerily calm colder clean tone when singing melodically, and can turn it to Painkiller-esque hellion screams seemingly on a dime. If he’s capable of pulling this all off in a live setting, that’s a show I have to see for myself. There’s not a bum track in the bunch among these eight songs (keeping things old school with the classic vinyl album length here, a tight 37), and a few notable highlights battling it out for the best: “Burn the Night” is an absolute ripper, a blazing fast slice of classic speed metal with attention to razor sharp riffs and unrelenting intensity from start to finish. But I’m just as partial to “In The Dark” for its subtle shades of Euro-influence in those Helloween inspired guitar melodies wedged in the verses. I’m also digging the “Hot Rockin'” vibe on “Livin’ Fast”, a song that screams 1983 and would be tons of fun to gloryclaw along to at a gig. I just wonder what the idea of living fast means in 2019, or are Riot City purely soaking in the nostalgia hot tub and to hell with lyrical depth? Fair enough if that’s the case —- but Riot City’s challenge on future releases will be to expand on their influences that are so front and center on this excellent debut.

Enforcer – Zenith:

Its been intriguing to contemplate the dramatic evolution of Enforcer on Zenith, because I’ve associated them with hyper speed riffing and wild hard rock tones mixed with early 80s metallic attack —- to such a point that I have an archetype in mind of what they “sound like” (even if I can’t ever really remember a single song). Oh I like the band enough, I saw them live when they were supporting 2015’s From Beyond and enjoyed them thoroughly, particularly when singer/guitarist Olof Wikstrand attempted to kick a drunken, bottle throwing idiot in the face from the stage but thankfully missed and comically kicked the guy’s popcorn out of his hand (I know… popcorn, the Scout Bar is a quirky little venue). They were energetic and an absolute blast at that show, and it was easy to see why they stuck to their formula for their studio records. So I’ll be eager to hopefully catch them this coming fall on their next swing through town to see if and how these new songs come across live, because tunes like “Regrets”, “Sail On”, and “Zenith of the Black Sun” deviate in a striking way from the Enforcer playbook. The latter is hard not to compare to Hammerfall, and while I’m able to enjoy its mid-tempo classic power metal approach for what it is, its also illustrative of why Hammerfall is so damn awesome at this type of thing. Enforcer just can’t quite get the interlocking musical rhythm that these verses demand, but you could envision their fellow countrymen doing something terrific with them. I was a little more resistant to “Sail On”, whose chorus comes across as deliberately trying to invoke Styx that you wonder if its a weird inside joke among the band. Its to the point of distraction, but the song’s loose, strummed rhythmic structure also feels a little unsettled, like the band isn’t comfortable in this mode. I do think they nailed the power ballad “Regrets”, which is a close cousin to something The Night Flight Orchestra would tackle, a tune that will annoy many but genuinely please a few of us more inclined to the sappy stuff. This is merely scratching the surface of the strangeness of this album, and would you believe me if I told you there’s only a single track among its total ten songs that rings of classic Enforcer?! Its like the band decided to collect all their experimenting over the years and save it for one puzzling new album. One of the year’s weirdest releases but also one I’ll keep investigating.

Amon Amarth – Berserker:

I initially was blasé about the prospect of a new Amon Amarth record, and if I’m being honest its been awhile since I’ve been remotely interested in them, having never reviewed them for the blog before now. I’ve certainly listened to their many recent albums when they were initially released, more out of obligation than anything, and I should add that I don’t dislike the band. But at some point Amon went from being an exciting melo-death / power metal mashup to well… just more of that. I know, I know, they’re viking metal, but that’s an ideological label, not one that in any way describes their musical approach. Replace Johan Hegg’s consistent gruff/grim growling vocals with a Jorn Lande or Joacim Cans, and you have a bonafide power metal band because Amon’s melodies are bound tightly together between vocals and guitars. I decided to give Berserker a shot because I rather enjoyed the pre-release promo track “Raven’s Flight”, hearing something a little more aggressive in the opening guitar sequence and subsequent Gothenburg-ian percussive riff that reminded me of the signature moment in Dark Tranquility’s “Terminus”. Its a rare moment when the band seems to lean a little more aggressive, and that’s long overdue. Amon has for ages now needed their own Axioma Ethica Odini, that being Enslaved’s 2011 brief foray into a next level of speed, aggression and fury that we hadn’t heard from them before or since. While we don’t get that entirely on this album, its encouraging to hear Amon at least making a meager attempt.

Melodies have never been Amon Amarth’s weakness, they’ve always had an armload for each album and there’s no lack here. I’m particularly fond of the story driven “Mjölner, Hammer of Thor” with its dual guitar harmonies serenading Hegg’s growling melody (a strange thing to write but apt enough). The really fun moment is the pummeling bass driven assault that arrives at the 2:10 mark, something that I think could’ve been absolutely devastating if it were just a little faster, a little dirtier, and a touch heavier. If they could outsource moments like that to Unleashed or say Evocation, we’d be onto something awesome here. The heaviness returns in “Shield Wall”, as straightforward death metal as Amon might actually get, even though its speeds are just a notch above mid-tempo. The refrain here is excellent, nicely rumbling and propulsive, and the mid-song bridge with Tyr-ish battle drums pounding away is a nice Viking touch. But more often than not I just wish some of these songs would pick up the pace a little, such as “Crack the Sky” and “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge”, the latter of which has a few nice riffs that could’ve been more effective with more push behind them. I know this is a weird criticism coming from me, the power metal guy, about a band that has wholehearted power metal vibes bursting out of every song. Shouldn’t I be embracing that aspect? Again —- they do a fine job of those things… but I also grew up listening to death and black metal, and sometimes I wonder why Amon are a death metal band at all if they’re not going to better harness the potential of power that style can bring to the table. Insomnium had the right idea with Winter’s Gate, to use aggression, speed, and fury like a battering ram at certain well chosen moments —- not all the time, but enough to make it matter. There’s good stuff on this album, but every time I take a pass through its entirety, I’m left wanting for something more exciting. More of the same old with Amon Amarth I guess.

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