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

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


Brainstorm – Wall Of Skulls:

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

Unto Others – Strength:

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

Cradle Of Filth – Existence Is Futile:

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

Portrait – At One With None:

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

The Night Flight Orchestra – Aeromantic II:

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

Groza – The Redemptive End:

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

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

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


Iron Maiden – Senjutsu:

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

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

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

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

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

Seven Spires – Gods Of Debauchery:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Darkthrone – Eternal Hails……:

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

Suidakra – Wolfbite:

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

At The Gates – The Nightmare of Being:

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

Wizardthrone – Hypercube Necrodimensions:

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

Dialith – Atrophy (EP):

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

Pharaoh – The Powers That Be:

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

Powerwolf – Call Of The Wild:

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

Helloween Returns! Oh And Other New Releases…

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


Helloween – Helloween:

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

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

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

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

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

Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever:

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

King Of Asgard – Svartrviðr:

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

Verjagen – When The Sun Sets Over This Mortal World:

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

Bloodbound – Creatures Of The Dark Realm:

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

Sunrise – Equilibria:

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

Ildaruni – Beyond Unseen Gateways:

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

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

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


Frozen Crown – Winterbane:

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

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

Communic – Hiding From The World:

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

Orden Ogan – Final Days:

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

Metalite – A Virtual World:

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

Ghosts Of Atlantis – 3.6.2.4:

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

Secret Sphere – Lifeblood:

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

Numenor – Draconian Age:

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

Moonspell – Hermitage:

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

Spectral Wound – A Diabolic Thirst:

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

New Music From Steven Wilson, Tribulation, Labyrinth and More!

This is an obviously delayed batch of reviews for albums that have come out in January and February, it was actually supposed to come out the other week but as I’m sure you all saw, hell froze over down here in Houston and the rest of greater Texas. I was dealing with intermittent power outages for days and internet being knocked out, along with cell towers clogged with traffic — a situation which magnified the weakness of relying on streaming for one’s music instead of physical media (then again, you know… no electricity). So some of these reviews are older, some just finished hours before publishing this thing, I have a feeling that my opinions might shift over time on some of these albums because I just haven’t gotten a lot of time with them as I’d prefer due to having to play catch up with records released within the last two weeks. So consider these general impressions right now for everything except that Steven Wilson album (I listened to it to death and am glad I can shelve it for awhile), and that new Tribulation record. Hope everyone reading this weathered their own winter storms well enough, and I hope you’ve been able to get the vaccine if you want it. It really does feel like the beginning of the end for all this, and maybe we’ll be talking about shows that aren’t cancelled at some point this year. Also I’ve forced myself to stop referencing the weather or the passing of seasons in my article titles from now on, and it’s proving more challenging than I thought, so the unimaginative result above is what I have to offer for the moment.

Steven Wilson – THE FUTURE BITES:

So I’d normally write a longer, full length review for someone like Steven Wilson, an artist that I consider myself to be a fairly big fan of. And that I’m opting for the shorter format this time isn’t a slight on The Future Bites, but more a result of circumstances. See this album was supposed to come out in June of 2020, but was delayed till January 29th, 2021 (for reasons that seem a bit academic now given the ongoing state of the pandemic). In the interim, Wilson released no fewer than five singles from the album’s nine song tracklisting, leaving only four fresh cuts by the time the album was released. A bit anticlimactic and seeing as how the earliest single release dates back to March 2020… I feel like I’ve lived with this album for nearly a year now, my excitement level for it falling a little flat as time went on. So in reassessing it here as a whole, I had to return to the album with fresh ears and an open mind, because let’s be honest, like many of you, hearing “Personal Shopper” and “Eminent Sleaze” for the first time was jarring to say the least. Fortunately they weren’t representative of the sound of the entire record, in fact there’s a healthy dose of classic era Wilson-ism to be found throughout, and some stuff reminiscent of Blackfield too.

I just wanna say, while I respect the concept of the album and even find it fascinating… I’m not entirely sure as to why Bowie/Prince worship was the sonic vehicle Wilson chose to explore it in. Take those aforementioned two songs, and a cut like “Self” for example, with their heavy usage of group R&B backing vocals — am I wrong in thinking that Wilson just doesn’t possess the kind of songwriting style to successfully work those in? And if you’re going to experiment with stuff like that, why do it on an album largely crafted by yourself without the benefit of musical collaborators well versed on that style and approach? On Grace For Drowning, where Wilson explored more jazz-based elements, he brought in players who knew that style of music. It would only stand to reason that he’d have done something similar when attempting R&B infusions, because I just don’t think he has the rhythmic songwriting awareness (for lack of a better term) to pull them off convincingly. When Duff McKagan recently put out his rustic, stripped down, outlaw country injected solo album “Tenderness”, he worked with Shooter Jennings and a host of musicians skilled in performing in that vein to get it right. It resulted in a fairly convincing album in sonics and stylistic aspects, regardless of whatever you thought about McKagan’s own songwriting. Wilson has tried on a broad swathe of styles throughout his career to stellar and mixed results, but he usually is cognizant of his own limitations. It’s strange that he didn’t recognize them this time around.

Where The Future Bites excels is on its more conventional, classic Wilson sounding cuts, such as “Man Of The People” and “12 Things I Forgot”, one of Wilson’s more lovely, poignant guitar-pop moments. The former actually reminds me of something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet, a mix of tension building electronic pulses, and drug-addled pensive dreamyness. The latter is one of my favorite latter-day Wilson cuts, a simple yet heartstring plucking acoustic strummed ballad built on delicate melodies and a glorious wall of harmony vocals. It’s lyrics are particularly curious, almost a self-deprecating yet unapologetic letter to fans who criticize Wilson for the music he’s making now. That particularly comes through in the chorus lyric where he sings, “…something I lost / and I know what it meant to you… what I sang to you”, and though I doubt Wilson will ever admit to that interpretation if asked, that’s what I’m taking away from it anyway. And I don’t consider myself one of those disgruntled fans, despite the assessment of this particular album. I enjoyed about half of 2017’s To The Bone, and thought 2014’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. was Wilson’s career defining masterpiece. He’s done great work since the indefinite hiatus of Porcupine Tree, and I’m confident he’s gonna deliver something else in the future that I love. But I think Wilson’s wheelhouse for my particular taste is that nexus between prog rock and pop that made us love songs like “Trains”, “Lazarus”, “Collapse The Light Into the Earth”, “Happy Returns”, etc etc. Songs that showcased his ability to tap into raw emotional veins flowing with nostalgia, memory and yearning, regardless of how musically adventurous they were or weren’t.

Harakiri For The Sky – Mære:

I realized something about Harakiri For The Sky when listening to Maere (I can’t be bothered to copy and paste that symbol every time sorry) for the umpteenth time these past few weeks. I enjoy the hell out of this band when listening to their music, but I’ll be the first to admit that I have trouble remembering a single melody, song structure, or lyric after the fact. I’ve been pondering what to make of this, because it’s something I dealt with when becoming a fan of the band on their last record (2018’s Arson). That was a record I really enjoyed, talked to others about enthusiastically, and have kept listening to for a long time afterwards, but for the life of me I can’t remember much about it. Ditto for Maere. This is packed with frenetic, hyper rhythms, incredible percussion, explosive blasts of guitars whose melodies are sharp enough to slice through the clamor and grab your attention, even if they don’t make a lasting imprint like, oh I dunno, the lead melody from “Fear Of The Dark” or something. Harakiri’s music is considered post-black, largely I suspect due to V. Wahntraum’s vocals being mixed in that distant, screaming in the middle of a field kind of way, but they’re way more engaging that most bands tagged as that genre. There is a moment here that breaks through however, at the 3:40 mark in “Us Against December Skies” when the chaos pauses to let a simple repeating riff sequence unfold to awesome, fist-pumping effect. It’s a moment that wouldn’t stand out as much on any other band’s record, but because Harakiri hardly pause for, well… anything, it feels particularly momentous. I get the feeling that just like Arson, I’ll be returning to this record again and again throughout this year, reminding myself out of necessity of why I enjoy it so much.

Accept – Too Mean To Die:

With Too Mean To Die, Accept vocalist Mark Tornillo delivers his fifth album with the band, half way to matching Udo’s ten (we often forget about those three 90s records, understandably so). I don’t know if Mark will get to ten of his own, but it’s kind of remarkable that he’s gotten to five given the way things usually work with replacement vocalists in established veteran bands (see Tim Owens and Blaze Bailey). But he’s such a natural fit, that honestly I feel like his motorcycle greased, Americanized hard rock approach is just as much Accept-ian as Udo’s sardonic German churl. That he’s revitalized Wolf Hoffman’s passion for songwriting within the Accept vein is as much a testament to his impact as are his vocal capabilities. This is yet another quality Accept album — not earthshaking in any way mind you, and perhaps lacking the vibrant punch of Blood Of The Nations and Blind Rage, but I’m enjoying it a touch more than The Rise Of Chaos and Stalingrad. It is a bit frontloaded however, with the album getting off to a strong start with the clumsy yet endearing “Zombie Apocalypse”, it’s oafish lyrics made palatable with a rock solid hook. Can we seriously kick this beaten down lyrical idea to the curb? Zombies, really? Didn’t Hammerfall try this awhile back (I hate The Walking Dead for popularizing this, though I will admit the Max Brooks book was a fresh way of looking at it). The album highlight here is the title track, coming on with Painkiller-ish aggression and fury, and I also found a personal favorite in the slightly glam-rock aping “Overnight Sensation” (sadly it was not a cover of the Motorhead song as I was hoping). As I hinted before, the second half of the record does lose a bit of the bite and sense of fun that the first half had, with songs like “How Do We Sleep” coming on a bit paint by numbers, but not enough to diminish what is largely a quality record.

Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus:

In the wake of finally coming around to Italian power metal in the past few years (even to a point of starting to appreciate Rhapsody to a greater degree), it’s nice to come at this new album by one of the OGs of the Italian style in Labyrinth rather than one of the many newer bands I’ve become fans of. I last listened to new Labyrinth in 2010 with their sequel to Return To Heaven Denied, swayed by the hype surrounding Olaf Thorsen’s return to the lineup. I spaced on 2017’s Architecture Of A God (which is pretty solid hearing it now), but in keeping up with Vision Divine through the past few years I feel like I have a somewhat decent pulse on the direction that Thorsen’s songwriting would be steering Labyrinth in. Of course longtime guitarist Andrea Cantarelli and the great Roberto Tiranti have a hand in that, but Thorsen’s presence in these songs is unmistakable. Tracks like “The Absurd Circus”, “As Long As It Lasts”, and “One More Last Chance” marry his energetic blasts of neoclassical guitar with smooth AOR-styled melodies. A peak moment arrives at the mid-song guitar solo in the Queensryche-ian “Den Of Snakes”, where a joyous, accelerating guitar figure breaks out at the 4:22 mark, reminding me of something Edguy would do in the Theater of Salvation era. Tiranti of course is stellar throughout as always, particularly shining on the power ballad “A Reason To Survive”, his vocals ageless and even a bit Khan-esque in these more emotive moments. This is a top tier Labyrinth album, sleek, bold, and confident. It won’t best Heaven Denied of course, but few albums could. It’s only stumbling block is cover art as terrible as Maiden’s Dance Of Death… c’mon guys, its 2021, there’s no excuse anymore.

Einherjer – North Star:

If you’ve dabbled in folk metal or looked for the sometimes stupidly tagged “viking metal”, you’ve surely come across Einherjer, a band that is as frustrating as any in terms of consistency throughout their two era-ed career. Not only is Einherjer’s songwriting track record spotty and unpredictable, but their records seem to sound different from one another in terms of pure sonics, as in recording quality and mixing decisions. When I listened to them in the early aughts before their self imposed near-decade long exile, they were one of a small handful of bands doing music in this particular vein — folk tinged, blackened metal with partially harsh/clean blended vocals. They stood out in other words. But as the years went on and more bands who dabbled in this style got signed, Einherjer’s uniqueness wore off, and I’ll be honest, the last record I remember really enjoying was 2014’s Av Oss, For Oss. It was no coincidence that I was reminded of that record when listening to North Star, it bears striking similarity in the production approach as well as the reined in mix. But I’ll offer that North Star is a far better record just on the strength of it’s songwriting alone, the band settling on a heavily blackened groove based approach. It’s one that reminds me of mid-period Satyricon ala Now, Diabolical by the way of Viking folk influences that just seem to exude off our Norwegian friends like someone bathing in an entire bottle of Drakkar Noir. It starts with Grimar’s vocals being reigned in, his approach built on Satyr like grim-hued harshes, with a lyrical approach that is economical, lean and focused on textural aggression. Simply put, he sounds menacing throughout, his delivery laden with venom and bite. Adding to this is the dual guitar attack of new guy Tom Enge and relatively new guy Ole Sønstabø, who embrace dagger like riffing, simple and direct, straight to the gut, their only indulgences being the splashy solo or occasional countermelody. A vivid example of this is their tandem work in “Ascension”, where their riff sequences are purposeful, focused and honed in on delivering a razor’s edge throughout. A special mention needs to be made for “Chasing The Serpent”, as satisfying a song I’ve heard this year, a moody stomper that delivers a memorable, shout along payload. Highly recommended if you need a blackened fix (but don’t actually want black metal per say).

Nervosa – Perpetual Chaos:

I’ve come to admire Nervosa and their new album Perpetual Chaos quite a bit, first for the daunting story of the challenges bandleader Prika Amaral had to overcome in it’s making (and frankly, how quickly she was able to accomplish that), and second for the actual album that I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks. I’ve felt a disconnect with thrash over the past couple years, and I’m sure anyone who cared enough to pay attention to the albums I covered on the blog in that time could sense that. If I’m being honest the last thrash records that really affected me were Death Angel’s The Evil Divide and of course Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic. So its a bit of a surprise and a relief to know that I can still find enjoyment in a genre that I kinda feared was slipping away from me recently. In making Perpetual Chaos, Amaral had to recruit an entirely new lineup to replace her two departing, foundational bandmates, who left in April 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning. She shrewdly chose to replace them with European based musicians, likely not only for talent’s sake (bassist Mia Wallace did a short stint playing with Abbath during the Outstrider era), but there’s a huge financial/strategic advantage to moving the band’s base of operations to the EU, with bandmembers already citizens which can make touring dramatically easier when things open up. And they all gel together surprisingly well for an album written via distance under lockdown, with nary a weak moment here. Things really start cooking in the second half, with strong songs like “Until The Very End”, “Time To Fight” (the clear highlight here for me with its punk meets Kreator vibes), and the awesome “Rebel Soul”. The latter features Flotsam’s Erik AK, and its great to finally have a guest appearance like this live up on record to the potential it had on paper. Didn’t expect to enjoy a thrash metal record this much in 2021, but I’m glad the theme of the year so far seems to be surprises.

Epica – Omega:

I’ve normally skipped new Epica albums throughout the time I’ve had this blog, getting around to listening to them long after their release date when a review wouldn’t make a lot of sense. And usually my opinion on Epica albums has been a fairly consistent “Eh, it’s ok I guess”. For whatever reason, Epica’s music has just bounced off me for the most part and failed to engage me in the same way their influences, contemporaries, and namesake’s inspiration (in Kamelot) have. I remember liking most of The Divine Conspiracy and even paying attention when I saw them live in an opening slot on that tour (if I recall correctly, Amanda Somerville was handling lead vocals for that run). My biggest criticism of their overall discography is mainly the band’s reliance on a singular mode of attack, that being layers upon layers of overblown orchestral pomp. When that’s all you do, it can get a bit tiring. It’d be like Nightwish doing nothing but Wishmaster over and over again, only fattening up the layers each time. So color me surprised that with Omega, Epica seem to have breathed new life into their sound by choosing to scale things back, stripping away the layering to let their music breathe a bit. I’ve honestly been enjoying songs like the instantly catchy “Abyss Of Time”, the eastern melody tinged “Seal Of Solomon”, and the sweetly poppy “Freedom – The Wolves Within”. These songs are the opposite of the new Nightwish album, lean and straight to the point, and loaded with enough counter-balanced aggression from Mark Jansen (who somehow sounds heavier than I remembered) to prevent things from becoming syrupy. Though speaking of the latter quality, I’ll add a special mention for the spectacular ballad “Rivers”, which is the most effective and emotional one I’ve heard the band ever pull off. Surprise really does seem to be the running theme this year, because I didn’t see myself being this delighted with a new Epica album, but here we are.

Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound:

I love this album, and this band really. Ever since getting into them via 2013’s The Formulas Of Death, and then subsequently seeing them live at a memorable Austin gig on their tour opening for Watain, I’ve been consistently impressed with them. Their last record, 2018’s Down Below, was a solid album that saw the band expanding their gloom n’ roll sound to be noticeably more polished, with an emphasis on placing melodies front and center and scraping away some of the rougher, jagged edges of their sound. That in itself is a delicate balancing act and its nice to see a band recognize when they’ve landed on the blend that works for them. On the appropriately titled Where The Gloom Becomes Sound, Tribulation pick up where they left off, with the new album being in part a continuation of the sound they narrowed down on Down Below, and at the same time serving as a rejection that they were transitioning into their Swedish contemporaries Ghost (whom I and others were so keen to compare them to last time around). With excellent cuts like “Hour Of The Wolf” and “Funeral Pyre”, they’re succeeding in pairing Adam Zaars’ earwormy guitar hooks amidst creepily atmospheric dynamics. His contributions throughout the album are incredibly balanced, bringing in gushing sweetness on the solo during “Elementals” while maintaining enough of a charcoal-hued palette to prevent things in general from ever becoming saccharine. And vocalist Johannes Andersson is still Tribulation’s core sonic identity; his vocals ever bleak, laced with just enough reverb to make them sound like they’re echoing off the walls of a cave. I’ve been compulsively returning to this album time and again these past few weeks, it’s simply really satisfying, and a reminder that it’s not always a bad thing when bands give you more of the same.

Todd LaTorre – Rejoice In The Suffering:

So I’ve spent a few weeks with this album now, Todd LaTorre’s first solo album after a career serving as one of metal’s best replacement vocalists (Queensryche and Crimson Glory). With the aid of Craig Blackwell, a Tampa musician friend of his, LaTorre cobbled together an album of ostensibly full-on metal songs, breaking away from the prog-tinge that Queensryche is known for. The result is an album that sounds a bit like a less thrashy Testament fronted by Tim Ripper Owens, with LaTorre getting into that Painkiller vocal mode more often than not. There is of course, an instant delight in hearing this, as I’m guessing most of us felt when we first heard it. I will say that surprise was tempered a bit by knowing how heavy the last Queensryche album tended to get in moments, at times perhaps too heavy for that band’s sound and skillset (debatable I know, but I guess I like my Ryche mid-tempo, thoughtful, and a bit more dynamic). The curious thing about Rejoice is that I find the non-full throttle songs to be the most engaging, tracks like “Apology” with its slowed down, moodier vibes, and the strong Dokken-esque qualities in “Vexed”, with its wild, sunset strip chorus. The slow burning semi-ballad “Crossroads To Infinity” is another intriguing track, with a pretty solid hook in the chorus that I wish was a tad more satisfyingly tight. Everything else on offer is you know, solid attitude spiked metal, and there’s nary a bad or terrible moment among them. The problem I suppose is that there’s nothing overtly spectacular about them either, and I sort of wonder at the praise that’s being thrown towards this album from most people I’ve seen discuss it (though in fairness to LaTorre, he’s an easy guy to root for). But when I hear a song like the thrash-centric “Dogmata”, I’m not so much surprised that LaTorre can do it, but more unmoved by it’s aggression. This could be a ‘Pigeon is getting jaded about heaviness’ problem, but there’s many new records that are quite heavy that get me plenty excited. So yeah, I might be the odd one out here on this record, because everyone I’ve talked to about it loves it.

Therion Stir The Seas With Leviathan

Well I’ve been waiting for this one for a long, long time. Ten years in fact. A little biographical tidbit to put things in context: Therion is one of my favorite artists regardless of genre, period, easily in my top five and unlikely to ever budge from that position. I consider their music to be distinctly innovative, complex, and multifaceted in a way that dramatically differentiates them from other rock or metal based artists, even those we can rightfully call symphonic metal, a genre which Therion pioneered. Having said that, in the now going on ten year history of this blog, I have only been able to write about Therion a couple times, less than the amount you can count on one hand. Their last studio album proper was 2010’s Sitra Ahra, a decidedly difficult album that I can only partially enjoy at best even a decade later. The band released the wonderful Les Fleurs du Mal two years after that (this blog’s 2012 album of the year), but it wasn’t original material, being an album of French chanson cover songs. And of course, as reviewed here two years ago, we had the half-decade plus in the making opera (like, an actual opera) Beloved Antichrist, which I actually enjoy but again — I’m a fanboy so I took the time and effort to acquire that enjoyment.

In my review for that massive release, I voiced my worry that it would be another half decade before the band could get around to releasing a proper follow up to Sitra Ahra, considering touring obligations that would inevitably need to happen for obvious income reasons, and bandleader Christofer Johnsson’s desire to stage that opera (itself a lengthy undertaking no doubt). Now, I can only conjecture at this point, not knowing what his plans were for the band pre-pandemic. All I know for sure is that with all touring plans put on hold, it seems like the timetable on a new studio album was accelerated. This new album, Leviathan, is arriving years earlier than I anticipated it, and there’s word from Christofer himself that two sequels are already in the works to immediately follow it. As a passionate Therion fan, I’m not exaggerating in saying this feels like Christmas. Particularly so because the nature of Leviathan is so unexpectedly driven towards the idea of fan service, it really does feel like an armful of wrapped gifts on behalf of Christofer for the intolerably long wait. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge him taking the time to pursue whatever artistic ambitions he wanted to, nor do I think the opera was misguided, particularly after we’d experienced two decades of his career receiving mostly incredible releases. Yet how else to interpret and receive an album that’s described by the man himself as a purposeful distillation of the band’s most beloved eras?

The most surprising aspect of Leviathan then is how it manages to transcend that aforementioned fan service description and reveal itself to be one of the band’s most cohesive and inspired albums to date. I consider myself well versed in the band’s catalog, and in knowing those prior albums extremely well… yes I hear shades and echoes of Therion’s musical past in glimpses and flashes throughout. More than that however, I hear how a simplifying, stripping back, or dare I suggest a reductivist approach to the songwriting here has pushed the band to leap forward to a place they’d not explored quite in this fashion before. To put it simply, for an album billed as the distillation of Therion’s most popular moments, there’s a lot about this album that feels fresh, uncharted, and newborn. It took me more than a handful of listens to suss out why I felt this way, but I think it boils down to a few things. First, the song structures here are far more linear than we’ve heard from Therion in ages, eschewing the often bewilderingly clunky patterns that made up Sitra Ahra. While not as simple as verse-chorus-verse-chorus, the progressive tendencies that laced the songwriting on that aforementioned last album have largely been abandoned in favor of songs that hit their emotional apex quicker. One of my main private criticisms of Sitra was the sometimes frustrating sonic choices throughout, be it instrumentation or vocalist, created a barrier to what could have been incredibly affecting music. It’s a criticism I levy quite a bit at progressive metal, and one of the unspoken truths about Therion is how their music flourishes far better when it’s allowed to be more naturally flowing, its melodies a little more effortless, as they are all throughout Leviathan.

Pair that with another striking aspect of the new album, that being how the cast of vocalists and their melodies have wound up being the core feature and strength of these songs. This might not seem revelatory, but for Therion it’s kind of a rarity for their music to lean so heavily on the vocal side. Consider that the band’s intent on creating this record was to challenge themselves to try to invoke the spirit of their more popular era. Well, records from that late 90s-early 00s era such as Vovin and Deggial and Secret of the Runes, while laced with dramatic, rich vocals throughout, were largely albums built on meditative, hypnotic instrumental passages. I had always felt that particular aspect of that era (my introductory era as well) was what gave the band their mystical aura, this purposeful deployment of vocal silence. In that space, the band’s instrumental side offered beautifully dark, mysterious melodies that were able to express just as much as a singer could. That’s why 2006’s Gothic Kabbalah came as such a surprise when it was released, as suddenly the band’s lineup had expanded to include a whole cast of lead vocalists that they’d previously not had before, including Mats Levin, Snowy Shaw, and Katarina Lilja. That album was full to the brim of lead vocal centric songs, as opposed to the choir based work on most of the preceding albums, and as a result it stood in sharp contrast to the rest of the Therion discography (and as divisive as that album was at the time, I still think its spectacular and incredibly underrated). When I listen to Leviathan, I’m most reminded of Gothic Kabbalah in execution and spirit than any other period of the band’s history.

The small yet, I suspect, consequential difference between these two albums however is that Leviathan’s vocal approach is not just hyper-focused on lead vocal driven songwriting, but on melding that with the band’s traditional choir based vocals. I idly wonder how much this album arriving on the heels of the massive, vocal centric Beloved Antichrist opera had to do with it — that project’s writing tendencies lingering to impact these new songs. This is total conjecture on my part, but I hear the opera’s influence on songs like the utterly gorgeous, stately ballad “Die Wellen der Zeit”, possibly one of the most beautiful songs in the Therion cannon. Not only is lead vocalist Taida Nazraić a revelation with her incredibly emotive performance, but the delicately ethereal, almost floating orchestral melodies here are sublime. The Israeli choir Hellscore provides the blanket of voices that join Nazraić, and together they spiral upwards into a chorus that is transcendent, and remind me of some of those shimmering moments on Beloved Antichrist that I wish were longer (“To Shine Forever”, “Through Dust, Through Rain”). I hear this operatic influence permeating the awesome, dramatically engaging “Psalm Of Retribution”, where Mats Leven, Thomas Vikström, and Lori Lewis seem to engage in a back and forth sung dialogue as opposed to the typical male/female vocal dynamic. As an aside, it’s just so great to hear Leven on a Therion album again, he was part of my favorite era of the band (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite Therion albums Lemuria and Sirius B), and his distinctive rough edged vocal tone is an excellent contrast to Vikström’s smooth tenor.

Lori Lewis is joined by fellow veteran Therion soprano Chiara Malvestiti on “Nocturnal Light”, another richly operatic piece built on strong lead vocal melodies framed by a wall of choirs that are layered in the mix to sound ethereal and heavenly, as if sounding down from the heavens. Vikström is particularly impressive here, walking that tightrope between his classical tenor and the accessibility that a song with metal guitars would need — it’s as close as anyone has ever come to reminding me of Falconer’s great Mathias Blad. Again I’ll emphasize, this piece feels new to me, something that has hallmarks of classic Therion but it’s combination of elements is pieced together in a way I don’t think I’ve heard before. After many listens it’s risen to become one of my favorites on the record, along with the fantastic “Tuonela”, as buzz-worthy a single Therion have delivered in ages. Here ex-Nightwish vocalist/bassist Marco Hietala joins Nazraić in an elegant yet impassioned duet over a folky violin led melodic motif set against the backdrop of spectral choirs and chunky riffs. You’ve gotta hand it to Christofer for having a damn near perfect track record for knowing which uniquely distinctive voices will work as guest spots in Therion songs (in the past he’s used the likes of Dan Swano, Ralf Scheepers, and Hansi Kursch to name a few). Hietala’s unique delivery suits Therion, even his trademark wild vocal extensions that worked to hair raising effect in Nightwish conjuring that satisfying, fist pumping magic here.

As for Nazraić, I have to hand it to her for perhaps claiming the album’s MVP award, because although she was gifted with three of the strongest songs on the album, she manages to elevate all of them with genuinely glorious performances. This was my introduction to her, and I hope she’s utilized on the next two Therion records because she’s earned a new fan here. Her last performance comes on the album closer, the epic Asian influenced “Ten Courts of Diyu”, where she positively shines. Her vocal during the build-up to and during the refrain could squeeze emotion out of boulders. And again, I love the simplicity being shown here with the usage of silent pauses save for a few stray bass notes during the middle bridge. That moment in particular was one of the few things that reminded me of Vovin and Deggial, where Therion demonstrate an ability to shift the mood within the course of a song in such an elegant, seemingly effortless manner. And I would be remiss not to point out the fantastic performance turned in by Rosalía Sairem, particularly on the awesome uptempo (and endearingly cheerful sounding) “El Primer Sol”, as straight to the point and direct as Therion gets. Points also go to Vikström here for crafting a performance that blurs the line between distinguished classical tenor and rough-edged metal vocals. Sairem also turns “Eye Of Algol” into something special with a wild lead vocal delivery that reminds me of Katarina Lilja’s work on Gothic Kabbalah (there’s that reference again!).

I realize that I’ve spent most of this review discussing the vocal performances, but I just can’t emphasize enough how much this is a vocally driven, singer-centric album. If this is your introduction to Therion, you should know that it’s not always like this (not a bad thing mind you, but this is a band that has consistently changed things up throughout the years, apparently even when they attempt to revisit older eras!). So what about the rest of the band, of Christofer himself on rhythm guitars and lead guitarist Christian Vidal? Together I think their best moment comes on “Aži Dahāka”, as aggressive as the album gets within all things metallic, with Vidal spinning off some quick, dizzying lead patterns that are as joyfully melodic as we’ve come to expect from Therion. It’s been hard to consider Vidal as a replacement for the impeccable Kristian Niemann (Sorcerer), who was around for the band’s more guitar centric era. Vidal has been on two records now, spaced a decade apart, and he has glimpses and flashes of brilliance but I’ve yet to hear him really get a transcendent moment of his own yet. It was also strange that Snowy Shaw laid down drum tracks for five of these songs, but wasn’t used as a vocalist, particularly given his past work for Therion in that role. Here’s hoping he’s singing on the next two.

As for Christofer, his impact on Therion albums is more felt in the very fabric of every note and lyric rather than his Accept-ian rhythm guitars, and particularly in his musical instincts. I’m not going to exalt him and use words like “maestro” and “mastermind” like some overzealous PR people tend to throw around towards many other musicians. He’s just a metalhead like the rest of us, albeit one with a really creative vision and the ability to express himself through this vehicle of his own design. I’ll give him credit for steering the band in this direction, accepting his statement that it was as much a challenge for himself as it was a tacit acknowledgment of something fans would likely enjoy (spoiler alert: I’m enjoying it). But I think Leviathan succeeds on a level that he didn’t anticipate, that being the pushing of the band in a more vocally cohesive direction (whether intentionally or subconsciously). The result is a first for Therion, an album that sounds sweeter, warmer, with more heart on sleeve emotional resonance than they’ve ever conjured. It’s full of moments that remind me of why I fell in love with this band so much, of why I’m so quick to defend them from any detractors who just dismiss them with a cursory glance or worse, a lazy lumping in with other symphonic metal (or derisively, “corset-core”) bands. Therion are one of the most misunderstood bands in metal, their work needing no little amount of time and attention to properly appreciate and contextualize. The new album might not change that, but it’s certain to be appreciated as one of their best records by those of us who do get it.

The Last Chapter On 2020

Here we are at the end of all things, well… all things 2020 really. I’m calling it curtains on the metal year with my final reviews below, and the next updates after this will be my best songs and albums lists of 2020. I will acknowledge straight away that I know I didn’t review everything I planned to this year, particularly here at the end (I tried to make sure some of that stuff was addressed on the MSRcast episodes throughout the year), but hey it has been a tough, difficult year to adjust to and a lot of my free time was spent just making sure I was in a good headspace (I’ll never understand how I was able to mentally survive April and May). I know there’s going to be a slate of think pieces on 2020 as we march closer to New Years Eve. Thankfully life seems to be getting easier personally, even if things in general are getting worse out there with Covid. I’m still bummed out to acknowledge that this will be the first whole year I’ve gone without seeing a concert since I was what 17 or 18? I might have rounded a corner on a dull acceptance of live music deprivation, instead of the angsty panic I was feeling a few months ago where I was actively looking around for backyard death metal gigs in Houston and even briefly considering heading over to a nearby rehearsal studio where local bands held practices to see if anything was up. Based on all the news we’ve been hearing about the vaccines, it looks like we’re going to be waiting until mid-2021 at earliest before we get serious tours running again but I’m hopeful that things might move quicker than that.

I want to take a minute to throw out a massive shout out/thank you to the r/PowerMetal community, a group of snarky but intelligent and kind people who were largely my social lifeline during a time when seeing friends in person on the regular was not happening. That has started changing for me lately but for awhile there, if it weren’t for this bunch, the dark times would have been much darker. Special shoutout to Darko, Rocket, Four, Nuc, and Bones —- some of the nicest people that were not only instant therapy in those bleak early Covid weeks, but generally are always around to entertain my random thoughts at odd hours of the day. And there’s other shout outs as well, people and/or their content which helped me power through this hell year:

Rambalac (YouTube):

I’ve been on the Rambalac train for well over a year and a half now, long before the pandemic, his no nonsense, no dialogue walking tours of Japan being my window into a surreal and beautiful place that I really really want to visit now. A group of friends and I became huge fans of his, often finding ourselves having one of his videos on at group hangouts and finding ourselves transfixed on them, the scenery becoming the focal point of discussion. Now I don’t know what Rambalac looks like, he’s not interested in filming himself and I’ve only heard him speak briefly in Japanese in response to a passerby, but I’m convinced this man is a living saint. Before the pandemic, I googled his channel name to see if anyone else was thinking about these videos as therapeutic, escapist treasures like my friends and I were, only to find little to nothing (apart from the many people posting in his YouTube videos’ comments sections). But now the post pandemic media world has stumbled upon Rambalac’s channel and are flush with think pieces about his work. This is cool of course, because more eyeballs to Rambalac will keep him walking and that’s good news for all of us. I can’t begin to describe how calming his videos were in the immediate lockdown months of April and May (and truthfully ever since as well), I would take refuge in them and celebrate their capturing the essence of pre-pandemic life. The interesting thing here is that Ramby (yes I call him that) is continuing to shoot new videos, so you get to see post-pandemic Japan which is… not too dissimilar to what things were like in his videos before the pandemic. If you haven’t checked out this channel, you owe it to yourself. There are a handful of fascinating walking tour channels in his wake, such as Gezeyenti covering the Middle East and ProWalkTours who goes anywhere and everywhere (his Positano and Amalfi walks are breathtaking), and the splinter genre of driving videos best represented by J Utah who puts out captivating content. But Rambalac is the G.O.A.T. of the genre because of his singular focus: Japan is a beautiful, strange, and infuriatingly convenient place where walking is a way of life, 7-11s provide delicious, healthy food and I can only gaze at it all longingly through Rambalac’s gimballed eye.

Haim (The band):

I discovered Haim sometime in April when I was aimlessly wandering around listening to cheerful pop music on Spotify and this was recommended to me as a result. I became an instant fan of the sisters Haim and their breezy melodies with lush harmony vocal drenched guitar rock-pop (whatever we’re gonna call it). They’re a Los Angeles based band, and that California musical DNA ala Fleetwood Mac is inherent in their sound, which might be why a lot of their songs hit me with waves of nostalgia, bringing to mind my California based early childhood It’s that weird kind of nostalgia that you can’t explain logically, like yearning for a time you weren’t even alive for, or in my case, what I imagined adulthood would be like when I was a little kid (damn was I waaaay off). When I wasn’t listening to a crap ton of power metal (see below), I’d often be listening to songs like “Now I’m In It”, “The Wire”, “Something To Tell You”, and everything else from their three albums as I drove around various backroads of Texas to avoid feeling cooped up at home during lockdown. If there was ever a moment to discover a band who’s sound made the day brighter, it was right then and Haim was the right band.

Good Mythical Morning / Mythical Kitchen (YouTube):

I expect many people binged on feel good stuff throughout this year, and while I made the expected runs through old favorites like Seinfeld, Frasier, and Parks and Rec, I really relied on the endless treasure trove of happy nonsense that is Rhett and Link’s Good Mythical Morning and its after show Good Mythical More. I’m sure everyone knows about these guys and their taste tests and silly games (the March Madness snack playoffs are a particular favorite), but I expect that less know about how spectacular their cousin channel Mythical Kitchen is, with Josh Scherer aka Mythical Chef Josh as the host. As ridiculous and fun as their videos are, ranging from fast foods recreated to fancier versions, food fears, and just absolute nonsense like this, I think the best thing to come out of the Mythical Kitchen world is a podcast called A Hot Dog Is A Sandwich. Hosted by Josh and fellow Mythical chef Nicole Hendizadeh, it is my favorite new podcast in 2020, being a lighthearted debate show about food topics that you wouldn’t think are capable of being worthy of in-depth discussion. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated having this brief 40-ish minute break to bliss out into conversations about french fries vs onion rings or if chocolate is technically a candy to get a break from nonstop covid and/or election news. I know I don’t normally recommend podcasts on this blog, but I wanna throw this out there just in case anyone needs some happy happy fun times.

The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist (Spotify):

This was a labor of necessity back when it started in April, a personal playlist to help distract me and cobble together the most uplifting, positive power metal I could think of in one easy go for my own listening. I added everything that came to mind immediately and then realized I should be soliciting opinions from other people in the power metal community for unexpected gems and stuff I’d missed, and not only that, but to share the results of that help with anyone and everyone. So the playlist was made public and I set about adding to it slowly over the past many post-pandemic months now, eventually hitting my goal of getting to 300 songs by the year’s end (we’re well over that at last count). Thanks to everyone who suggested stuff, I’ve even had a few as recently as a couple weeks ago, and I see that the playlist has over 60 people following it. I’m still using it whenever I’m feeling gloomy that day, but it’s also doubling as a much needed brain saver when I have no idea what I want to listen to, just that I need it to be satisfying like right now! I’ll keep building the playlist over time, its not going anywhere, follow/subscribe to it if you haven’t yet and throw songs my way if you think of any.


Hatebreed – Weight Of The False Self:

I think I’ve written about how I got into Hatebreed via listening to The Jasta Podcast often enough on the blog (I’ve certainly talked about it on the MSRcast), but long story short, I was big on 2016’s The Concrete Confessional, it even made that year’s top albums list simply due to the unavoidable fact that I played it relentlessly for most of that year. It’s unlikely that its follow-up, released a lengthy four years later in the clunkily titled Weight Of The False Self will land on my 2020 list —- not because its a bad record, far from it in fact. However it’s late November street date (Covid delayed from its original spring release) is naturally going to prohibit me from listening to it nearly as much as its predecessor in time, and secondly, while it’s as hooky, aggressive, and adrenaline inducing as any Hatebreed album, its not as uniformly excellent as Concrete. That album channeled the seething rage of living in 2016 America better than any record that came out that year, it’s lyrics tapping into a vein of societal frustration and desperation that proved eerily prescient about the election that year. And that rage was reinforced by the full-on embrace of thrash metal riffing into their metalcore formula, resulting in some truly vicious, cathartic music. In as much as that record looked outward with a caustic eye, their new album sees Jasta reflecting inwards once again, his lyrics focusing on the universal topics of personal struggle, self-worth and self improvement. Take the rather shrewdly written “Set It Right (Start With Yourself)”, featuring the most affirming lyrics I’ve heard this year addressing an ultra divided society and the culture of social media toxicity. Rhythmically, the song brings a strong Black Flag “TV Party” vibe, built on call and response group vocals, with Jasta himself reminding me of vintage era Rollins not only in lyrical philosophy but in his delivery as well. Other highlights include “Cling To Life”, built on a sludged-down tempo that builds to a surprisingly pretty and fluid guitar solo courtesy of Wayne Lozinak; and I really love “A Stroke Of Red”, its call and response grinding, headbanging stomp erupting in a pit ready breakdown around the two minute mark that brings back a little of Concrete’s thrash attack back into the mix. There are actually no skippable songs throughout, a rare achievement on a twelve song tracklist, and this will be a frequent player in the months to come, regardless of whether it ends up on any lists or not.

Pyramaze – Epitaph:

Denmarks’ prog-power veterans Pyramaze are back with a follow up to 2017’s fair to decent Contingent. First of all congratulations are in order for the band, who with Epitaph have now passed a milestone in their history for the longest stretch of albums under their belt with a consistent lineup, as well as the largest amount of albums with one vocalist (Terje Haroy). This is only Haroy’s third album with the band, so its not like it was a monumental obstacle to clear, but during that lengthy wait between the lone 2008 Matt Barlow album and Haroy’s 2015 debut, it seemed like the band might not even get a shot with a third singer at the helm. With the Haroy era hitting this new benchmark, this is clearly the sound of Pyramaze, and anyone hoping for hints of their older approach will just have to stow that away —- after all that was two singers and a major songwriter ago. Producer extraordinaire Jacob Hansen is largely now the driving creative force for the band, their predominant songwriter along with outside help from Anubis Gate’s Henrik Fevre with vocal melodies and lyrics. And this new album sounds a lot like the past two, and depending on how you felt about those it’s either something to celebrate or bemoan. I largely enjoy modern Pyramaze because of Haroy’s satisfyingly smooth, hard rock informed vocals —- he may not be penning these vocal melodies himself, but they’re tailored to his strengths. His singing is set against a backdrop of slick, at times glossily produced slabs of modern melodic metal, and its enjoyable stuff for the most part, if not exactly challenging. Songs like “Bird of Prey” and “Transcendence” stick out here; the former for its alternative-rock guitarwork and Haroy’s way with a major key vocal melody that’s bright and hopeful, while the latter is a satisfyingly catchy vocal duet/tradeoff with UtA’s Brittney Hayes. And after multiple listens, “Particle” grew on me, its chorus deceptively earwormy despite the song being a little on the softer side. The big noteworthy track here is the album closing epic “The Time Traveller”, featuring both Barlow and Lance Hart as guest vocalists, uniting all three Pyramaze singers together in a nod to their union onstage at Progpower 2016. It’s interesting in that each singer’s section seems written to replicate their particular era with the band, hence the time travelling allusion in the title. It ends up being a solid song in the name of fan service, although not my favorite ultimately. I guess my frustration with Pyramaze, and indeed a lot of modern prog-power bands, is that there’s a sense of new music being very by the numbers, good enough to serve as a follow up from the last album (i.e. very safe). This is a good record, but not a great one, and I wonder if they have it in them to deliver something that would really wow us.

Dark Tranquility – Moment:

Dark Tranquility are back after a lengthy four year stretch (granted, mostly filled with touring) since 2016’s Atoma —- a record that I didn’t love but grew on me slowly over time, and that I came to appreciate when I saw the band live in 2018. Ever since that show, I’d find myself slowly dipping back into their catalog which I’d sadly neglected a bit over the past decade, and finding more moments that I’ve come to enjoy as much as early records like Haven and Damage Done. So I was looking forward to Moment with not only anticipation, but a catalog awareness that I normally don’t have enough wherewithal to cobble together before a non-favorite band releases something new. And I will say straight off the bat, if you were hoping that this would be a dramatic about face from the sounds the started exploring on that album via heavy synth layering… well, prepare to be disappointed. If anything the band has delved further into that direction, an interesting thing to consider given the lineup changes that occured before this album was recorded with longtime guitarist Niklas Sundin departing and Christopher Amott taking his place (alongside Andromeda guitarist Johan Reinholdz). Dark Tranquility has always been eye poppingly democratic in their division of songwriting responsibilities, with usually a mix of 3-4 members contributing significantly. When guitarist/contributing songwriter Martin Henriksson left the band in 2016, they had already created an album written with scant few contributions from him in 2013’s Construct, in practical terms transitioning his share of the workload to Sundin, drummer Anders Jivarp, and keyboardist Martin Brändström. Now with Sundin’s departure, Reinholdz seems to be stepping in and handling the remaining workload alongside the usual suspects, with oddly Amott left out this go round (why?). The further synth exploration yields an expected number of merely passable, nice in the moment cuts like “Standstill” (I really like that chorus though), “Transient”, and “Eyes Of The World”. Mikael Stanne’s clean vocals sound more polished than ever, but at times that becomes a liability when he uses them too much in a single track. He’s far more effective on album highlights “A Drawn Out Exit” and the spectacular “Identical To None”. I do appreciate that there’s more of a melo-death sensibility happening throughout this album, but the synths are my overwhelming impression when thinking about this album, and my appreciation for the album changes because of it depending on my mood. I’m eager to see what DT can do in the future with Amott writing, they need a little change in their approach for sure.

Persuader – Necromancy:

Persuader albums are such rare events that I always get a little excited at their arrival, this year in particular. They’re just comforting power metal blankets cut from that Blind Guardian/Iron Savior cloth and in a year where the new Demons and Wizards and Blind Guardian orchestral project were both largely dissapointments (and of course you know, the pandemic), I friggin needed some comfort! While its not quite the eight year gap between 2006’s When Eden Burns and its follow up The Fiction Maze, it has been over half a decade since Persuader has released new music, so I’m glad they decided to stick to the tried and true formula here. Longtime bassist Fredrik Hedström left the band last year, and instead of replacing him founding guitarist Emil Norberg is handling bass on this record, and its also the first time we’re hearing Nocturnal Rites’ Fredrik Mannberg on rhythm guitars here. But despite this, Mannberg picks up immediately on what the band’s about and sticks to the precision machine-gun riffing that these songs demand, and right out the gate we’re launched into “The Curse Unbound”, as fine an opener as I’d have hoped for. Its hard to talk about vocalist Jens Carlsson without mentioning Hansi, but when you hear his delivery of lines like in the chorus here “Far from home I’ve found myself all alone in the dark”, he just has that ever so familiar ability to escalate in pitch and yet maintain intensity that just screams classic BG. Along with the epic “Scars” and its glorious chorus (“I look behind the door!” *fist pump*), this is the most satisfying one-two punch combo since “Strike Down”/”Sanity Soiled” on the classic Evolution Purgatory. The band’s compositional skills haven’t taken a hit with all the years away, in fact it seems like they spent a lot of time on the details of these songs. Gems like “Reign In Darkness” have a multitude of awesome details to geek out over, the little Nicko McBrain-esque kickdrum led intro to Carlsson’s layered vocal choir, the darkly tinkling keyboards that pop up midway through in lieu of an expected guitar solo. Norberg and Mannberg are a great pair, just satisfying riffs and explosive leadwork all throughout the record —- if Norberg lacks the wild expressionism of Andre Olbrich, he makes up for it by crafting crushing riff patterns. At seven songs this might seem like barely an album, but its a tight 44 minute banger, and I’m starting to believe most bands should be aiming for something in that ballpark. Quality over quantity and all that, Persuader deliver the goods here.

Iron Maiden – Nights Of The Dead, Legacy Of The Beast: Live In Mexico City:

Why am I reviewing this? Because I want to complain. So yeah its another Maiden live album and another tracklisting that features “Iron Maiden”, “The Number Of The Beast”, and “Fear Of The Dark”, and although its worth complaining about their inclusion on every frigging Maiden live album —- that apparently has fallen on deaf ears over in the Maiden camp and its likely never going to change. And you know, I get it: What we’re fundamentally bitching about there is their inclusion in the setlist in the first place, nevermind the live recording. Maiden throws those songs into their setlist because the band’s likely perspective is to design as inclusive a setlist for most of their audience, including younger fans and infrequent concertgoer fans who maybe haven’t gotten to hear those classics live yet. This new live album is merely an audio document of the Legacy Of The Beast tour’s setlist, and in that sense it’s a meticulous and accurately preserved archive. The presence of “For The Greater Good Of God” is really the central draw of this for Maiden die-hards, it was a surprise to see it on the setlist and a thrill to hear it live, it being my favorite song off AMOLAD. My problem really isn’t with the setlist, as frustrating as it can be for a longtime/diehard fan. The real issue with this release is that it’s merely a live album, as in solely an audio document. Are you kidding me Maiden? This was arguably the band’s most dazzlingly spectacular visual show in their history, perhaps only equalled by the Somewhere Back In Time World Tour (08-09) where we got to see the mummified Eddie and Powerslave era stage set recreated. If you saw the show, or even saw some of the decent fan-shot footage on YouTube, you’ll think of the moving replica Spitfire hanging above them on stage, or the beautiful stained glass cathedral window interior set with the lit candelabras, Bruce with his flamethrowers, and so much more. I can’t even begin to understand why the band would’ve opted for an audio document instead of an audio AND video document, or hell, just the video —- this show deserves a Bluray like En Vivo!. Give me a reason to give you money, because as it is, I’ve played through this live record a couple times on Spotify but without a visual companion, I’m a little less invested in it knowing what I know about the stage show. I suppose it’s a bit of an old school throwback to just deliver a live album in the new era of streaming video on demand, ever shifting attention spans, and endless content… but I guarantee you during this time of no concerts, I would’ve giddily sat down with a new Maiden live Bluray and savored every second.

Beaucoup!: New Music From Amaranthe, Enslaved, Draconian, MPE, and more!

Almost halfway through November, and only weeks to go before we can put 2020 to bed along with the memes that come with it. I hope everyone’s back to some kind of mental happy place (or at least not freaking out) now that the election is over, that was a fun week wasn’t it? We took a break from all of that last Friday to record a new episode of the MSRcast that’s out now if you want to get a broader perspective on recent new releases; since the reviews I’ve written below are more of a compilation of the past two months plus of stuff I’ve been listening to. There’s more than a few intriguing records looked at below, and we’ve got a handful more coming down the pike in these last few weeks of November (and even a new Persuader (what?!) album in December) to look forward to as well. Let’s see what else, oh, I’m going a little stir crazy having not been to a show in over a year now… have been looking at local clubs around the area, considering the scant few options for a gig just to get out and about. Fortunately it looks like I’ll be making my way to the Texas Renaissance Festival this year after all on Black Friday where there will be live bands (albeit not metal, but it’s something), so maybe that will assuage the concert fix for a time. Probably not though. Anyway, let me know in the comments below how you’re dealing or not dealing with concert deprivation! Anyone thrown a backyard grindcore show out of desperation yet?

Amaranthe – Manifest:

Earlier this month, Sweden’s metallic-pop purveyors Amaranthe released their sixth album to date, Manifest, also their second with Dynazty’s Nils Molin at the co-clean-vocal helm. I’ve long been on record on this blog as being a somewhat critical yet unabashed fan of these guys for their highly distinctive blending of pop, EDM gloss, and metalcore. Enough has been said about their sound, it is what it is and you’ll either be into their sensibilities or completely put off by it (enjoyment of pop music, whether openly or in denial mode is a huge prerequisite here, no one’s listening to Amaranthe for the sick riffs). I do want to take a second to say that I’m more than a little grateful to have a new Amaranthe album released during this year because it made me spend time with their catalog in the past few weeks and have some of the unabashed streak of positivity that’s running through their music rub off on me. But regarding Manifest, the real questions here are after getting a mulligan on Helix for it being their first album without the aid of founding member and core co-singer/songwriter Jake Lundberg (now in Cyhra), have guitarist/keyboardist Olof Morck and singer Elize Ryd adjusted to being the band’s songwriting team on their own, and consequently have they adjusted to writing for their new vocalist? The answer is that they have succeeded to some degree, and yet, not obviously so at the same time —- though to be sure, Manifest is a far better record than Helix overall. Molin’s vocals tend to fit better on these songs, even though there are examples where it isn’t quite the perfect fit you’d want it to be.

Take a song like “Make It Better” and consider just how jarring the transition is between Ryd’s chorus to his solo vocal in the second verse section, just tonally speaking it doesn’t work. One of the things I harped on about in my review for Helix was how Molin has a voice that’s nicely suited for the soaring, belting, heavy metal leaning approach called for in his other band Dynazty, but he sounds stilted and out of place in a tighter space, which is predominantly where he finds himself in most of Amaranthe’s songs. Lundberg’s vocals were far more suited to a Bon Jovi-ian adjacent modern hard rock context, a nimbler, grittier, less belty voice that made the transitions between he and Ryd almost seamless while still retaining a striking enough difference in their tone to serve as a perfect complement. In a band where you have to balance out vocal time for two clean vocalists, this is kind of a big deal. Lundberg’s biggest asset to the band as a songwriter was not only in his natural gift for crafting strong AOR hooks that resonated emotionally, but in knowing how to balance the interplay of the three voices in the band. Fortunately for us, Ryd and Morck have seemed to realize this, whether knowingly or just instinctually, as we hear her and Molin’s matching belty vocals work to spectacular effect on the album highlight “Scream My Name”. Notice how both Molin and Ryd duet on the chorus together, their solo vocals during the verses juxtaposed next to growler Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson rather than each other. On the chorus, their similarly belty voices work together in unison to give some added power to the album’s best hook, and it works pretty damn well. The work the same magic on “Viral”, joining together on the chorus for some added punch, even though again the solo Molin second verse does suffer somewhat in the transition. Ryd’s best moment comes on her stellar duet with Battle Beast’s Noora Louhima on “Strong”, a feisty self-empowerment anthem. It’s a strongly written and sung pop hook, by both women, but it’s really demonstrative of Ryd’s range, and her ability to inflect a little grit and toughness into her vocal.

I suspect that as songwriters, Morck and Ryd have decided to implement Wilhelmsson as a vocal foil far more than they utilized him or his predecessor in the past during the Lundberg era. The growling/screaming vocals have increased over the course of Helix and this new album, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence (whether or not they’re crutches is up for debate). Wilhelmsson works best in those aforementioned tight spaces such as a few bars of a verse or a sharp vocal contrast in a bridge such as his interplay with Molin during “Adrenaline”. But his presence gets to be a bit too much on the odd song that is centered around him, as evidenced on the meme-able “BOOM!1” [sic]. Similar to “GG6” from Helix, this is a screaming centric track albeit this time heavy on an aliterative scream-rapped vocal that is kinda impressive in its display of vocal gymnastics, but the Molin sung chorus is just goofy, maybe his worst moment on the album, and the cringe inducing mid-song bridge sequence (“the breakdown goes BOOM!”). Amaranthe seem prone to one of these misteps per album, and its almost becoming a trademark for them to spill over their bad ideas into one outrageous track (though I’ll admit to being wrong about “Breakthrough Starshot”, that track somehow got catchier and more endearing over time). Molin is heard in a far more suitable and powerful context on the power ballad “Crystalline”, a track that is similar in its crescendo building design as Dynazty’s “Hologram” earlier in the year. I’m glad they delivered what is a fairly strong composition here, because the ballad on the last record lacked in everything, and I wondered if Lundberg had took the ballad writing skills with him when he left. It’s not as emotionally resonant as “Amaranthine”, “True”, or “Over and Done” but it is a step in that direction, and I’m rooting for this lineup to keep gelling, and more importantly, keep going.

Draconian – Under A Godless Veil:

Five years have passed since Draconian released Sovran, their first album with vocalist Heike Langhans, and I’d argue in retrospect their most accessible album to date. Its songs landed on a nearly perfect balance of darkened, punishing doom riffs set to not too slowed down tempos, genuinely hook laden songwriting (“Pale Tortured Blue”, “Stellar Tombs”, “Rivers Between Us”, etc), and enough lush, pretty gothic flourishes to balance out its death-doom menace. It was also that point where the band seemed to give more room to the female lead vocals in their songwriting, with co-vocalist/lyricist Anders Jacobsson stepping back just a bit to let Langhans take the lead. It was an interesting distinction from the Lisa Johansson era, where he’d usually get the bulk of the air time if not splitting it directly with Johansson (maybe a little of why I feel Sovran sounded so accessible in comparison). Now, on Under A Godless Veil, the band’s sound is changing ever so slightly again, but certainly enough to be noticeable and definitely enough to provoke a likely differing mix of opinions on it. Moreso than on Sovran, Langhans plays an even more central role here, as the band leans far more towards their gothic, ethereal, and dare I say ambient side. Songs like “The Sacrificial Flame” and “Sleepwalkers” are built on gentle, melancholy drifts and slow, delicate cascades. On the latter, Langhans sings in a tone that is just above a whisper at moments, and its beautiful to hear in the moment, but as you can imagine, you really have to be in the mood for something that deliberately soft, slowed down, and fragile. I made the blunder of listening to this record in the car on my first attempt —- do not make my mistake! I realized it halfway through, switched over to something else, and started over with the album later at night at home on the headphones. That’s the kind of space and mood this album requires (as cliche as that sounds I know), and even then its not a guarantee you’ll be in the mood for it. There are gorgeous moments here, “Night Visitor” is a sad, aching, gothic lament, and I love the yearning expressed in “Claw Marks on the Throne”. That being said, this is an album that often moves at too sombre a tempo for most of its hour plus runtime, and that might be perfect for those very particular moments because it is indeed well executed. But I’d be glossing over the truth if I didn’t say I missed the sonic diversity and tempo changes of Sovran just a bit. You’ll need patience with this record, often a lot of it.

Mors Principium Est – Seven:

Finland’s favorite melo-death traditionalists Mors Principium Est are back with yet another album, this the fourth Andy Gillion album, which is significant because it officially means the band has more releases with the English guitarist than they did with his Finnish predecessors Jori Haukio and Jarkko Kokko. It’s actually a bit weird to still think of him as the new guy in the band (even though we’re all guilty of it), because setting aside the sheer number of releases he’s been an integral part of, next year will mark his decade anniversary in the Mors lineup. These days it’s just Gillion and founding vocalist Ville Viljanen, the band’s longtime drummer Mikko Sipola leaving in 2017 and recently bassist Teemu Heinola leaving after a nineteen year tenure. I suppose its a good sign that Gillion and Viljanen have issued this album despite these challenges, and hopefully they either reload the lineup when touring starts again or just go it with hired guns ala Wolfheart when on the road. If Seven is any indication, the loss of those band members hasn’t impacted the duo’s core creative nucleus at all. This is a classic Mors album through and through —- the tight rhythms, those undeniable Gothenburg melodies delivered via hypnotic lead guitar phrasing, with Viljanen’s pitch perfect grey throated screaming vocals the very ideal of what great melo-death vocals should aspire to. The songwriting here is often downright inspired, as on album standout “Lost In a Starless Aeon”, which might become every melo-death fans 2020 anthem for its downcast, utterly depressing lyrics. It’s energy however is crackling and alive with that perfect mix of aggression, precision instrumentation to create an air of intensity, and a truly transcendent lead melody courtesy of Gillion. Simply put, songs like this are emblematic of the very best aspects of melodeath and a vivid example of why so many of us love the subgenre —- its capable of encompassing so many emotions into one sonic cocktail. Other bangers include “March To War” with its frenetic, hyper-paced riffing and dizzying guitar solo that recalls a touch of heavier power metal ala Blind Guardian. And I’m also impressed by “At the Shores of Silver Sand”, which shows that expansive, epic side of the band’s sound that was more fully explored in the last album (Embers of A Dying World). Mors haven’t done anything radical on Seven overall, these songs are kind of what you’d expect (and demand) from a new record, but that the quality is on par with any of their best work in the past (including Embers which I loved) is something to be happy about.

Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo:

I never expected Mr. Bungle to reunite and release new music, but to be fair, I never expected Faith No More to do that either (or more implausibly, Guns N’ Roses but there you are). I will say that if I was asked to envision what new Mr. Bungle music would sound like, I’d have imagined they’d pick up relatively close to where they left off on 1999’s California, that being a stylistically divergent mish mash of styles all sitting in the same strangeness fondue. That album was my introduction to Mr. Bungle actually, I was a Faith No More fan forever it seemed but had only heard a brief snippet of the first Mr. Bungle album at a friend’s house —- enough to make me think twice about spending my then rare disposable income on something that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d spend a lot of time listening to. Circumstances had changed around the release of California, and I splurged on it one day and was transfixed; tracks like “Pink Cigarette” and “Retrovertigo” and the insane “Goodbye Sober Day” were far more adventurous than anything Patton had done in Faith No More, yet still adjacent enough in sound and approach to be accessible. I went backwards from there, picking up Disco Volante and then finally, their debut that had warded me off years earlier and became a fan of both of them in time. So, when I simultaneously learned that Bungle was back but releasing a re-recording of an old demo I’d never heard, I was elated and a little underwhelmed. Its new music to me certainly, I never bothered to check out the original demo (I did check it out on YouTube prior to hearing this however), but its not new music in the truest sense of the word. It sounds spectacular however on a sonic level, and with Dave Lombardo and Scott Ian on board, its closer to the spirit of the band’s early thrash influences than it could possibly ever be (a lot of this re-recording sounds like a tribute to S.O.D, so much so that there’s even an S.O.D cover here of sorts). I will say I’m surprised at how clean and clinical the guitar tone is, I’d have thought Patton and Trey Spruance would be more comfortable with a messier, fuzzier, more old school tone but I’m guessing they were okay with Ian’s more modern sonic approach guiding the way. Lombardo is Lombardo, brutal and aggressive and as energetic a performance as you’ve come to expect from him, perhaps even more so due to how zany, off-the-walls and unpredictable much of these songs are (its miles away from the rigidity of Slayer let’s put it that way). And of course Patton is clearly having a fantastic time, just screaming like a banshee and at times delivering some of his most extreme (metal) vocals to date. I enjoyed this on a sonic level, I’ve seen more than a few friends call it the thrash metal album of the year and I won’t doubt that (haven’t heard much good thrash this year apart from this really), but I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m looking forward to actual new music from Patton and Spruance, if that even happens.

Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity:

Spirit Adrift is an interesting story within the realm of relatively new American metal bands —- they were very doom laden on their 2016 debut as well as on it’s follow-up Curse of Conception released only a year later. I will confess to missing last year’s Divided By Darkness, but I went back and revisited it in preparing for Enlightened In Eternity and sure enough, the band’s sound began to shift there into the more uptempo, trad-metal inclined stomp on this new album. I’m sure there are some out there who will bemoan this shift, but I’m all for it, because Spirit Adrift’s approach to a more traditional heavy metal attack is dirty, rugged, almost hard rock steeped in its could be boogie-ish tempos. I thought it was an appropriate tip of the hat to a not so hidden influence when they modeled this new album’s art —- horses running through water, the band’s all of a sudden cursive font logo, and the spaced out lettering of the album title above it —- after Bob Seger’s own Against The Wind. Band founder/guitarist/bassist/vocalist Nate Garrett seems to channel Seger himself in his gruff and rough vocal approach, a roaring, almost bellowing style that is redolently American. I hear that most on his delivery in “Astral Levitation” and “Cosmic Conquest”, two of the more hard rock rooted tracks on the record, the latter seeing Garrett singing with an almost bluesy bent. On the instrumental front, I love the unabashed melodicism happening in “Harmony Of The Spheres”, Garrett’s guitar work here is deft, certain, and richly colorful. Special mention should be made of Marcus Bryant’s drumming, particularly on this song where he veers from an almost swinging hard rock bedrock to a furious, battering assault around the mid three minute mark (my favorite moment on the album). The only time my interest waned in the album was not surprisingly during the first half of the ten minute spanning “Reunited in the Void”, where the band’s old doom metal approach makes a comeback, its just a little too meandering to my ears, however, the abrupt Americana tinged guitar transition at the 6:20 mark is worth waiting for, and redeems the track as a worthy album coda. Glad I didn’t sleep on this record, it’s a wild and cathartic trad metal album with remnants of their older, doomy sonic tendencies and a newer, fresh hard rock injection, a fruitful direction for Garrett to head in.

Enslaved – Utgard:

I almost forgot to review this, which doesn’t bode well for its overall memorability factor I’m guessing —- okay that’s a bit rough to start with, I actually have positives and negatives to discuss here and to be fair it was released in early October and has been surpassed in my listening priority with other records. I will say that Utgard starts out quite strong, and I was taken aback with how striking “Fires In The Dark” was as the album opener. Its rustic acoustic intro is the kind of thing I’ve been longing for more of in Enslaved for the past decade now. It unfolds into a twisting, sinister melody with Grutle’s clean vocal(!) bellowing over a particularly nasty riff tucked in its belly. There are some strong Axioma vibes I enjoyed on “Jettegryta” which is a welcome moment of raw aggression on an album that’s often more muted and reigned in. I’m also big on “Sequence”, a crunchy bit of prog-metal where the band actually gets the balance right between the extreme elements and the bass forward proggy time signature stuff. It ends a bit lopsided however, a mess of disparate elements (and I realize it’s on purpose) that is finally bundled up with a concise reiteration of the chorus with Grutle’s charcoal blackened vocals. I’m not however as wild about the Rush vibes we’re getting on “Urjotun”, though I will concede that it’s certainly something new for the band, and clearly they’re interested in pursuing new frontiers musically. The relatively new in the lineup keyboardist/clean vocalist Håkon Vinje who was all over the band’s last album E is this time joined on clean vocal duties with new drummer Iver Sandøy, and it’s interesting to hear three vocalists within the lineup now. But taking a step back, I find myself just unable to connect on any kind of visceral or emotional level with the band’s music these days, and that’s largely been the case for most of their recent output barring Axioma. Call it old fan (man) syndrome, but maybe my attachment to the band’s mid-2000s era more Viking forward approach is too deeply rooted internally to be swayed towards really loving their new music. This isn’t a bad record by any means, but it’s just… there. I don’t know what to take away from it or what I’m missing. And it’s tough to say that about bands you love (or once loved), because you’re really just beating around the bush, trying to avoid saying what’s often painful to say when a band moves too far in a direction from your interest level (think In Flames, Opeth). I’m not entirely ready to say that about Enslaved just yet, but can see it happening in the future which is saddening.

Black Fate – Ithaca:

When I first started listening to this new album by the unknown to me Greek power metallers Black Fate, I did the expected digging on Metallum and saw a name I recognized in the band’s lineup —- that being vocalist Vasilis Georgiou, and below his name was another band he was in whose name rang a bell with me. I checked my own blog’s archives and sure enough I reviewed Georgiou’s other band Sunburst way back in 2016, noting the Roy Khan-esque quality of his vocal timbre and approach. Because that very quality is the most striking thing that leaps out at you when listening to Ithaca, Georgiou is an uncanny dead-ringer for Khan in a way that not even current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik can emulate whenever he sings the older songs. Now that we have Khan back in Conception, it might seem a bit strange to pine for a voice that’s already delivered new material as late as earlier this year, but what makes Georgiou and Black Fate rather titillating is the band’s smooth, crisp, and intelligently crafted Khan-era Kamelot sound. Call it wearing their influence on their sleeves, or more cynically, appropriating their influence’s entire shtick, but Black Fate nails that classic-era Kamelot vibe more than Youngblood and company do themselves these days. Guitarist Gus Drax (also of Sunburst) lays down thick, sharp-edged beds of rhythmic riffing, punctuated by the odd lead harmony over the top or explosive standalone guitar solo. His role as a standalone guitarist mirrors the Kamelot setup (not to hammer that point home too much), and as a result, his interplay with keyboardist Themis Koparanidis and bassist Vasilis Liakos is crucial in forming the primary metallic thrust of the band’s sound. Georgiou’s vocals are very nearly the entire melodic vehicle on all these songs, serving as the focal point for the motifs throughout as well as any variations happening during the hooks. He’s the central figure on standout songs “Maze” and “Secret Place”, and even when things get a little more hushed as on the post-solo bridge on the title track, its his vocal that guides the way forth through a majestic, emotionally charged moment back towards a thunderous conclusion. This is a relatively simple album, with little variation amongst its tracklisting, but depending on what you’re looking for, that may not be a bad thing. For me, hearing a voice that I love for purely aesthetic reasons in a sound profile that I adore is all I really need from Black Fate. The drawback here is a lack of memorability in the songwriting —- everything here sounds great in the moment, but I’m left without a lingering memory of a particular melody or moment that will stick in my mind long after listening. I suppose that’s the difference between (very) good and great.

Countless Skies – Glow:

Every year we seem to get an album that appears out of nowhere that manages to push everything else out of our listening rotation so we can play it on repeat for a few days straight. That’s the case with the new album Glow from UK melodeath outfit Countless Skies, who are a late entry this year (this album was just released on the 4th of November) but should not escape your attention before the year’s end! First off, kudos on delivering the most beautiful cover art I’ve seen all year —- the singular distant silhouette standing against a glorious horizon seems to be a theme for their entire discography, but when you listen to this album it’s fair to call it a mood. That cinematic touch is injected into the band’s music, with their channeling of influences like Insomnium’s sweeping, majestic epic melodies and Omnium’s more clinical, precision aggression. Their band name is actually nabbed from a song on Aussie melodeathers Be’lakor’s Stone’s Reach album, and yeah I can hear strains of that band coming through, particularly on the dense, aggressive passages in “Summit”. But Countless Skies real strength I believe is in their ability to create natural sounding segues to contrasting moments of lush, thoughtful quietude. This is a band that utilizes space and silence as aggressively as other bands use blastbeats, and they manage to weave them into their songwriting so they’re not just abrupt transitions that leave you wondering if your network connection is dropping out. And it’s the gorgeously melancholy nature of those moments that match the sun breaking through the clouds vision of that cover art that keep me coming back —- paired with fluid lead guitars and clean vocalist Phil Romeo’s (also on bass) impassioned, soaring vocals. He’s a revelation on album standouts “Tempest” and “Glow – Part 2: Awakening”, the latter of which is my personal favorite moment on an album brimming over with them. There’s a brightness to these songs that differs from the more darkly melancholic work of the band’s influences, I hear it not only in those aforementioned quiet moments, but in the guitar tones and melodies. It reminds me of the Thormesis album from last year, that sharp contrast in tonal opposites while not sounding like the overprocessed “post-” bands that I so often associate extreme shifts in loud/quiet dynamics with. Highly recommended everyone gives this a listen, it’s one of the most captivating things I’ve heard all year.

Eshtadur – From The Abyss:

I believe we played and discussed this a few weeks back on a recent MSRcast, but recently I’ve come back to this album to spend more time with it because it really is one of the most intriguing and unique releases of 2020. Eshtadur are a Columbian(!) melodic death metal band whose sound is far more expansive than that limiting genre tag can do justice. There’s elements of symphonic black metal coating the songwriting here, as well as Hollywood film score pomp and grandeur, but my favorite aspect is their unabashed love of pop and hard rock inspired hooks. Take the lead guitar hook tucked away in the “The Red Door”, a wild GnR-ish motif that is a striking contrast to the tight, precision melo-death riffage surrounding it. We hear examples of those disparate elements all over the album, from the awesome solo spiraling upwards over blastbeats in “The Fall” to the ominous horns piercing the darkness of “She the Void”. Guitarist/vocalist Jorg August is the central figure in the band, and his riffing is as dense as Rotting Christ and Septic Flesh, but he has a sense of melody that permeates nearly everything he’s crafted here. There’s also a cinematic vision to the way he’s thought out certain things, for instance that guitar solo in the aforementioned “She the Void”, it might start out in a typical hard rock approach, but it ends in a completely unexpected moment of anguished phrasing that sounds like introduction of some Cthulu like creature (maybe that cover art is influencing me!). I was also struck by the Firehouse cover of “All She Wrote” that’s dropped in the middle of the tracklisting with Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati on guest lead vocals. Its a strange, bewildering cover to be tucked at the very middle of such a brutal, ferocious album, but its a joy to behold because of its sheer boldness as a sugary, poppy contrast. What I love is that despite such an out of place feeling to the idea of a Firehouse song being covered at all here, is that it actually puts the hookiness of the album’s original material into sharp focus. This is one of those albums you owe it to yourself to hear, particularly if you like intermixing of genres and influences in your extreme metal.

A Brief Summer Recap ft. Unleash The Archers, Judicator and more!

Hail to everyone. I know its been awhile. I took a bit of an unexpected hiatus for a few months here when I ran right into the first real bout of writer’s block I’ve ever faced while writing this blog. I tried to give myself time to sort it out, even discovering in the midst of recording a recent MSRcast that maybe I was just devoid of inspiration due to not having been to a show in awhile, but the most important thing I figured was to not put myself under pressure to write anything just to have something new out. That point about not having been to a show in ages (Amorphis in autumn of last year to be exact) is one to speak about for a bit, because its only been now during this pandemic ensured period of no fun that I’ve come to realize just how much going to shows were like my energizer battery. Not just as a metal fan either, but for life in general, they were events to get excited about and look forward to, to plan over and revel in when their date actually arrived. Shows are also breaks in the often slow, miasma of the everyday grind; concentrated blasts of life that can positively affect your mental well being —- people who don’t go won’t know, but they’re the best anti-depressant around. Their absence has slowly chipped away at my enthusiasm level for nearly everything, particularly paired with not having hung out with friends in person for ages, it all just adds up. And as mentioned before, we have kept the MSRcast going during this time, but even doing that digitally is just a disruptive headspace from the way we’ve normally done it, in person at the MSRcast studios. During our virtual fantasy football draft recently, a friend of mine replied to my hope of “Should be a fun season” with “Man nothing is fun anymore”. And yeah, I get that sentiment. I realize that things could be worse for all of us, but as they are now, its been a tough slog of a year, and that has to affect most of us mentally.

We’re lucky then as metal fans, that the bands we’re interested in, either as fans of or just curious about seem to keep pushing through this dark saga (heyyo!) with creative output and interesting content to soothe us however temporarily. Besides new music, I know there’s a ton of bands doing digital only shows, selling e-tickets to them, and I hope some of those have been great for whomever bought tickets. The Amorphis show was very good, my cohost Cary sharing his virtual ticket with me so I could check it out. I particularly enjoyed Blind Guardian’s set at the lavishly produced Wacken World Wide digital festival a few weeks ago, where they played as convincing and passionate a performance as I can remember seeing from them. Their setlist was loaded with nothing but classics, and they debuted a new song that was as compelling as anything it was sandwiched between, boding exciting things for the upcoming album. Recently, Therion just announced that we’ll be getting their first new proper studio album in a decade in early December, dubbed Leviathan, and I couldn’t be more excited. I had previously expressed fears that Christofer Johnsson’s commitment to staging his Beloved Antichrist opera would take too long and continue to delay another Therion record, but I’m glad that he maybe took my advice (hah!) and prioritized it over anything else. There’s a lot of intriguing records coming down these last few months of this hell year, so at least we have plenty of distractions to keep us occupied and perhaps even inspired as we close out these next few months. But right now, I’m going to do a little summer recap here of stuff that’s come out since I’ve been on hiatus —- mind you this isn’t all that I listened to, but I’ll be honest, I devoted a great deal of time to simply listening to whatever I wanted to listen to and not worrying about the release calendar so much. Please let me know in the comments below if there’s something I missed that I need to pay more attention to however.

Unleash The Archers – Abyss:

You might remember that UtA climbed the mountain to claim my 2017 Album of the Year spot with their aptly named Apex, a bracing collection of trad meets power metal that hit hard with aggression and married epic musical passages with unforgettable hooks. It earned that number one spot by simply being my most listened to album of that year, often an undeniable factor in determining which release actually belongs there amidst favoritism bias and whatnot. I wasn’t that wild on UtA before the album, probably like so many others, but became a fan after hearing it and was incredibly eager to hear how they’d follow it up, and had to give a little nod to the doubts I’d see surfacing in discussions online about whether or not this band had another excellent album in them. After all, it took them four tries to go from relatively mediocre to spectacular —- the question lurking underneath all of that success surrounding Apex was whether or not it really the start of the band realizing their sound and potential, or merely a fluke. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that watching and/or predicting what bands do in situations like this, following up a revered and successful record and analyzing the decisions made is kind of my wheelhouse, the nerdiest part of my fandom. But I’ll confess I had no idea what UtA could or should do beyond simply repeating the formula for Apex, because I couldn’t see anything in their past that they should return to, so I did think they were somewhat liable to fall flat on their face for this album just given the limited vision of what they could do.

Turns out that Brittney and company were thinking a few steps ahead, and instead of replicating the sound of Apex, they used its concept to springboard this album into another world of sound entirely. The Matriarch and the Immortal’s struggle that defined the loose concept of Apex continues here, but whereas it was bound to the grittiness of nature and the Earth on that album, the story here shifts to the expansiveness of space and planetary scale. The shrewd move here is that this shift (clearly illustrated in the differences in the album artwork) have allowed the band to make subtle but strong changes to their sound, adding in a strong keyboard/synth dimension that would have sounded out of place on Apex, but is woven into the tapestry of the cosmic reaching storyline laid out on Abyss. With this combination, the shift to what is clearly a lighter toned sound on Abyss, devoid of the aggressive, Iced Earth-ian tendencies of its predecessor is far more natural of a transition —- coming across less like a calculated move to avoid repeating themselves and rather a way to branch out their sound into uncharted territory. All they had to do to ensure this would work is to simply bring the hooks, and they’ve delivered in spades on that front. From the jump, segueing from the very effective intro “Waking Dream” we get one of the band’s best ever songs in the title track, a nearly seven minute epic that is built around Hayes incredible vocal prowess. She carries the song on a hook built around her ability to draw out and bend words to her vocal melody almost effortlessly. I love the transition change up at the four minute mark that she uses to usher in the dueling guitar solos from Andrew Kingsley and Grant Truesdell. These guys deserve special mention for delivering the goods throughout this album, particularly in how they’ve brightened up their tones and made adjustments to their approach from the gun-metal grey riffage to bright, somewhat psychedelic inspired motifs they’ve woven in all throughout here.

The standout track “Through Stars” is a vivid example of this new sound world for UtA, a song built on a gorgeous keyboard synth backdrop that glitters and sparkles while the band takes an almost laid back, reactionary approach as counterpoint, slightly behind Scott Buchanan’s rock steady beat. The combined group harmony vocals here are really nice, particularly in the closing minute of the song, with what sounds like a multitracked Hayes along with Kingsley and Truesdell combining for an almost Beach Boys invoking approach. We hear that same tendency in “Legacy”, where I get really strong Coheed and Cambria vibes throughout from Hayes vocal performance to the unorthodox, progressive spaciness to the song despite all the extremity of riffs and barrages of drum fills. Now I actually enjoy a little bit of what Coheed and Cambria do, particularly in their more pop-punkier moments, so this could be a hurdle for anyone who doesn’t. But as I mentioned before, this sonic shift towards a brighter palette really works here, these songs seem like natural extensions of the band’s sound into territory that they’ve only previously hinted at in the briefest of glimpses. There’s still aggressive trad metal fury to be found however, as “Soulbound” is a personal favorite from the album with its partially growled vocals (one of the guitarists I’m guessing?) interjected with Hayes on the verses over a bed of thrashy riffs. I love the extra highs we hear on her multi tracked vocals that are distanced about a half a second behind the lead vocal, it just adds to the intensity. I’d recommend avoiding the distracting, perplexing video for “Faster Than Light” and just sticking to the song itself, because its a superb track, the chorus boasting one of their catchiest moments on the album with a guitar solo that Yngwie would be proud of.

I was surprised at just how well the inter-band duet between Hayes and Kingsley worked on “Carry The Flame”. with the latter boasting a rich, hard rock voice that really works within the shiny arena rock chorus that’s tucked away at the core of this song. There are strong Dokken vibes throughout this song (and that’s a positive dammit) with a little 80s invoking sparkle that really put their combined vocals over the top on that fat, massive hook. Its this kind of adventurous spirit that dominates this entire record and has made it a pleasure to take in. So often it seems like bands follow up excellent albums with something that lacks cohesion or direction, or worse, tries to do too much. Credit where it’s due, UtA did neither and have delivered an album that, dare I say it, might be an overall better album than Apex —- more diverse, more ambitious, yet still delivering the goods in terms of memorable sequences and massive hooks. I’m genuinely surprised but happy about it, and it’s saying something that after so many listen throughs of Abyss, I’m still enjoying it as its playing right now as I finish this review. Normally that’s about the time when I’m relieved to take a break from hearing an album so much, but I can see myself playing this again tomorrow, and the next day. This paired along with the band’s smartly executed cover of the Stan Roger’s classic “Northwest Passage” last year, demonstrates that the band has clearly moved into a confident, reassured phase of their musical career, and maybe it’s time to give them the benefit of the doubt in the future.

Judicator – Let There Be Nothing:

One of the leading lights in the burgeoning North American power/trad metal movement that’s coalesced over the past few years, Judicator has run into some disheartening news lately —- namely, that founding guitarist and co-songwriter Tony Cordisco has recently left the band. I’m not sure what the reasons are exactly, the statement he and the band released seem to suggest geography issues as well as the classic “personal differences” cited by Cordisco. Its well known around the power metal community that vocalist John Yelland is outspoken about his views on certain socio-political topics, so there’s been some idle speculation that some of that might have played a part. For me, I’m not that bothered by that stuff (if I were, I probably wouldn’t listen to Iced Earth, or Megadeth for that matter), but what does concern me is the loss of the band’s principal music writer and how it will impact their future output in either direction. We recently saw Serenity weather this exact storm fairly well when founding guitarist Thomas Buchberger left the band after War of Ages, but they were able to rebound with the strong, vocal melody driven Codex Atlanticus, thanks to Georg Neuhauser’s ability to step in as the principal songwriter. The band’s sound changed however, and after delivering one fine album, we’re starting to see some slightly diminishing returns in the memorable riffs department, with their sound heavily attenuated to his vocals now rather than sharing a balance with the guitars. For Judicator, this news coming on the heels of releasing their follow up to the year end list making The Last Emperor has to rock the confidence of most fans. The band recently released a statement of their own mentioning that their songwriting for the next album will be headed up by Yelland and new guitarist Balmore Lemus (who’s also in NovaReign) and that they’re already into the songwriting process for it. At least its nice to know they’re not going to be twisting in the wind for awhile, but Cordisco’s way with a riff was a huge, huge part of the band’s sound in addition to Yelland’s Hansi Kursch like vocal ability.

His swan song with the band, Let There Be Nothing, is a testament to his skill as a riff-based progressive power metal songwriter. Cordisco’s signature blend of aggressive, USPM-tinged riffing with EUPM informed splashes of color in his progressions and motifs continues in a far more expansive and adventurous way than he’s ever demonstrated before. While the songs on The Last Emperor were tight, compact slices of propulsive, hooky as hell prog-power, Cordisco and Yelland chose to veer hard in the opposite direction here, favoring lengthier compositions and more patient build ups. We see that from the outset in the title track with its delicately building intro passage and series of riff progressions that transition to the main riff motif, a Cordisco gem in its own right, building a bed for Yelland to closely follow with some inspired, powerful layered vocal leads. There’s a tempo downshifting bridge towards the back end of the song that changes up the routine and introduces some headbanging worthy passages into the mix, these more proggy passages being a recurrent element throughout the album. The lengthiest song here, “Amber Dusk” is almost Iced Earth-ian in its implementation of these various down/up shifts in tempo and riff progression changeups, complete with one of Cordisco’s most colorful leads to date, a focused spiraling flurry of notes bouncing off his guitar like a tightly compressed spring let loose. The shorter songs on the album provide that link to The Last Emperor’s compulsively hooky addictiveness, with “Gloria” being one of the band’s all-time best offerings in that regard. The song is a split between Yelland’s vocal hook and some uptempo riff progressions where Cordisco lays down a bed for guest lead vocalist Mercedes Victoria to shine. I’m on the fence about whether I like this album more than The Last Emperor, but absolutely sure that its very, very good in its own right. As a finale, Cordisco is bowing out at the top of his game.

Finntroll – Vredesvävd:

Finntroll are back with their first album in, jeez, seven years. And though that certainly is a long time between releases, its actually okay in my view for the band to have taken the extra time to seemingly wait for some inspiration to flow. Its not that 2013’s Blodsvept was a bad album by any means, but it was heavy on the humppa influences and major keys in a way that was just continuing more of the same that they had delivered on Nifelvind three years prior. I’m not against that particular musical vein in principal, but it has to be accommodated appropriately, with the right amount of brutality to counter its sickly sweet tendency to overwhelm a listener with the audio equivalent of a tummy ache. My personal experiences with Finntroll have been back and forth and confusing, first being introduced to the band way back in 2001 with Jaktens Tid (dating myself more and more every time I look backwards it seems) and having seen them live a few times since then. Their best live outing here was on the tour supporting Ur jordens djup in 2007, a brutal, no-frills, attitude filled show that was heavy on the black metal presence in their sound, seemingly a rejection of the folk metal genre that was exploding after the success of “Trollhammaren”. The last time I saw them however, in 2014 on an ill-fated night, they were in full on Korpiklaani mode, boasting plastic elven ears and leaning heavy on the humppa, with a crowd that was largely made up of the kinds of people who didn’t seem to typically attend metal shows. I guess somewhere along the way the band made adjustments geared towards the audience that was showing up for one side to their sound. For all the reasons I dislike most gimmicky folk metal in favor of the rustic, natural sounding stuff that I tend to champion, I find Finntroll more to my liking when they lean towards their heavier, blackened side —- and thankfully, that is what they’ve done with Vredesvävd, their most unadorned, straight ahead blackened folk offering in their entire career. Sure the Finnish folk elements are there, and that’s fine, but they’re counterbalanced by an ample dose of Watain-esque black metal fury, such as on the ripping “Att döda med en sten”. I’ve enjoyed listening to this album more than I expected I would, maybe solely due to the heavier shift the band has made in their sound. Whatever it is, its been a welcome return to a sound I’ve not really enjoyed in a long, long time.

Oceans of Slumber – Oceans Of Slumber:

Coming back with their fourth album and their first after a major lineup change which saw three members depart and new guys join the team, are Houston’s own Oceans of Slumber. Founding members Sean Gary (guitars, harsh vocals), Anthony Contreras (guitars), and bassist Keegan Kelly said adieu, and incoming members Semir Ozerkan (bass), Jessie Santos (guitars), and Alexander Lucian (guitars) arrived just in time for the creation process of the band’s “Mark 3” era self-titled debut. I’ve long been critical of bands delivering self-titled albums that aren’t their debut, and this is no exception (give the album a title, its not that hard), but I suppose a massive transfusion of half your band’s roster is as good a reason as any. And though the self-titled mid-career album is supposed to signal a rebirth of sorts, possibly a redefining of a band’s sound, or a return to their roots —- what we get here is really the band picking up where they left off with Winter and The Banished Heart. To my ears, its more of a blending of those two, returning a bit of the brighter, more major key melodicism of the former with the bleak, depressive tone of the latter. This is most concisely heard on the album standout “A Return To the Earth Below”, where we get bright, swirling, chiming psychedelic guitars in the first half of the song as vocalist Cammie Gilbert glides over the top. The doomy guitars in the hook that jut in suddenly are a strong counterpoint, and help form one of the band’s most memorable refrains to date, and the combination serves as a segue to the far more doom-tempoed second half of the song. On “Pray For Fire”, one of the more epic length cuts here, the band plays to their strengths in marrying Opeth-ian acoustics to dreamy melodies that build up to a propulsive, rhythmic hook bed that works spectacularly well thanks to Gilbert’s dexterity as a vocalist. And the band’s song choices and execution of covers has been impeccable to date, and their take on Type O Negative’s “Wolf Moon” here might actually be superior to the original. I’ve on the whole enjoyed this record way more than The Banished Heart, even though it lacks a moment as transcendent as the title track of that aforementioned album —- the new record is aided by a brightening of their sound, and I think maybe even the band has realized that they sound way better dallying with both darkness and the light.

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