Running at three year release intervals since 2013, Tobias Sammet is back with the ninth Avantasia album, the ostentatiously titled The Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society (henceforth on this blog referred to as Moonflower Society), the follow-up to 2019’s German chart topper Moonglow. I was eagerly anticipating this release of course, I’ve been a fan of Tobias’ since before Avantasia was even a thing, discovering Edguy way back in 1999 after their Theater of Salvation and Savage Poetry re-recording releases here in the States. Really when I think about it, Tobias is perhaps the person whose career I’ve followed the longest from it’s inception, with my only missing Edguy’s arrival on the worldwide scene in 1997 by two years. His music has been a part of the fabric of my life for going on over two decades now, be it in either band, and with Avantasia in particular, he single handedly introduced me to a host of other singers whose bands I went on to check out and became a fan of. Every Avantasia album has either at best yielded album length masterworks, or at the very least offered up a handful of absolute gems worth revisiting over and over again. In short, I’m a massive fan and Tobias’ has had a major influence on me as a metal listener.
But being a massive fan shouldn’t blind one to faults, and Tobias isn’t immune from this either, his very singular, blinders-on focus simultaneously the source of his unbridled genius, and ultimately the cause of the myopia that sometimes limits his work. One of the interesting things about Moonflower Society is that it is a direct sequel to Moonglow, a continuation of that album’s thematic concept and storyline, even down to similarities in the cover art style. It brings to mind memories of the 2010 simultaneous release of The Wicked Symphony and Angel of Babylon, and like those two albums, here exists the urge to run a direct comparison to Moonglow by virtue of their interconnectedness. Like that album however, Moonflower Society has truly inspired moments of that aforementioned genius, from the jump too, smashing through the gates with the pensive, moody, Queensryche-ian paced “Welcome to the Shadows”. It’s a similar atypical opener to a power metal album in the same way that “Ghost in the Moon” was a gradually unfolding epic opening track on Moonglow, as opposed to the usual anthemic rocker we’re all expecting at that spot. Also like its predecessor, the title track here is a gorgeous slice of pomp and drama, this time with the immortal Bob Catley running shotgun on vocals, his finest Avantasia moment since “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” on 2016’s Ghostlights. Built on a Neal Schon-ian rhythmic riff, Tobias and Bob explode in a co-lead vocal during the refrain that is classic Sammet, with perfectly phrased lyrics meant for maximum hook factor and loaded with adrenaline pumping emotion.
One of the few new faces in the guest vocal lineup, Nightwish’s Floor Jansen is also the not so surprising homerun hitter this time around, with both of the tracks she duets on perhaps being the album’s best songs. There’s the uptempo, cathartic “Kill The Pain Away”, where Tobias juxtaposes a fairly straightforward rocking tune against a backdrop of Nightwish-ian symphonic bombast, a subtle but shrewd move to place Floor in a setting that is familiar to those who know her voice. The chorus is skillfully constructed, a speedy hook line that conjures up an incredible sense of urgency that matches the intensity of the lyrics (“Nobody there to kill the pain away…”). Even better is her appearance on the utterly magical “Misplaced Among the Angels”, a classic Sammet power ballad that rivals his best work in this vein, possibly even equaling past gems such as “The Story Ain’t Over” and “Farewell”. What his detractors of this more accessible song type get wrong when they peg it as “pop rock” is that it clearly owes more to classic AOR, not only the obvious Jim Steinman influence, but that late 80s / early 90s Bon Jovi melodicism, built on subtle turns of phrase and simple melodies artfully sketched. I love that kind of stuff and grew up on it so a song like this is comfort food to me, but I’d argue that this song transcends those descriptors based on the lead vocal performances by Tobias and Floor. It’s refreshing to hear her in a musical context that’s comfortable once again, because where she’s been sadly misused on the last Nightwish album, here Tobias sets her up with a vocal melody that highlights her strengths as a singer. She’s an obvious but inspired guest vocalist for the project as a whole, and I wondered for awhile if she’d ever get asked to do it considering she has been all over the Ayreon universe for awhile now.
I was also really moved by the Ronnie Atkins guested “Paper Planes”, a sorta kinda power ballad that took a few listens to really blossom for me but when it did, wow… it packed an emotional wallop. Given Ronnie’s health situation, there’s a serious gravitas to the lyrics in this song, particularly in the chorus where both men join together to sing “Flying away like a paper nothing / As I twist and turn, I’m light like a paper plane / Carried away like a trace of nothing / May the wind blow me its way like a paper plane”. Short but insistent piano phrases and moody guitar flourishes from Sascha Paeth are the perfect accompaniment to that whole passage — the effect is sombre, reflective, melancholic yet not dour. No lie, I think its one of Tobias’ best lyrical efforts in his career to date (and yeah, he’s not known for being a wordsmith for sure, but he stumbled on something really graceful here). And of course, long time Avantasia guest Michael Kiske sounds like a perfect fit on the very classic power metal speed run of “The Inmost Light”, basically a Helloween inspired moment for both singers to shine on like they have on past gems ala “Wastelands” and “Promised Land”. If I was slightly less excited by it, it’s likely because it feels like something I’ve heard before that wasn’t offering anything refreshing or new, but that’s a minor critique I suppose.
The biggest culprits for criticism however are equally tied into the guest vocalist choice as much as the songs in question just don’t hit the mark either. The only other new addition next to Floor is Ralf Scheepers on “The Wicked Rule the Night”, and although he delivers vocally like he always does, it’s a case of simply not fitting the band’s sound and vibe. Avantasia just shouldn’t get that heavy, it sounds stilted and awkward. And it was certainly a daring move six years back on Ghostlights to bring the much maligned Geoff Tate on board — Tobias however weaved together some black magic and made Tate’s cut on that album (the awesome “Seduction of Decay”) something that really turned our collective heads. Tate joined the touring company of the band, and also contributed to three songs on Moonglow, all three of which failed to ignite the same spark that his first appearance managed. They weren’t bad songs at the very least, but I’m afraid that “Scars”, the Tate cut on this album, might actually warrant being called below average, and I think it’s largely because Tobias just didn’t have much in the way of inspiration when it came to writing for Tate this time around. That’s the risk you run when you have repeat guests — a problem Tobias runs into with Eric Martin as well, who is on his third Avantasia album appearance as well and surfaces here on the decent but nothing spectacular “Rhyme and Reason”. It’s an awkward vocal moment for him, and seems to miss the mark in taking advantage of his more loose and bluesy tenor the way he was able to on 2013’s “What’s Left of Me”.
And look, I’m not arguing that Tobias shouldn’t have returning guest vocalists, because guys like Catley and the mighty Jorn Lande really feel like a part of the fabric of the Avantasia sound at this point. Jorn’s two moments here (“I Tame the Storm” and the Kiske joined “Arabesque”) are pretty good, not my favorite slices of Jorntasia but certainly enjoyable enough in the moment if not exactly hugely memorable. But I do feel like we’re coming towards an impasse where Tobias has to force himself to not simply add the touring company of Avantasia as the defacto vocal cast for the next album, which he’s essentially been doing for the past few records now. I believe he can and should separate the two, and find suitable replacements for the touring vocal roles to the best of his ability (a connected guy like him shouldn’t have a problem with that). But Avantasia needs to get adventurous again with the guest singers, in the same way that Arjen Lucassen seems to challenge himself to seek fresh voices for his projects. There’s a wealth of talented singers in the power metal scene who would be awesome picks for a future album, both veteran names and younger faces like Temperance’s Marco Pastorino, or hell Seven Spires Adrienne Cowan (how she, as a member of the recent touring company did not end up on this album is beyond my comprehension). Tobias believes this is the best album he’s written, and I don’t doubt his belief. But I hope he also believes that he needs to challenge himself every so often, to take some risks and see where it leads creatively. After all, wasn’t Avantasia itself such a risk twenty two years ago?
The new releases have been piling up for the past couple months, and of course I’ve fallen behind. Hence ye old reviews codex, that possibly multi-part broad collection of reviews that span many months (some of these albums go back to mid-summer). In keeping true to my recent ethos not to force feed album listens when I’m not feeling it at the moment, some of these were things I had kept on the back burner until the moment arose to deep dive in again, and it’s an approach that works well for me, if not for metal PR agents promotional schedules. There’s likely going to be another one of these before year’s end because the calendar is still packed and I haven’t even yet discussed new albums by Queensryche and The Cult, speaking of which, I got to see them live again for the first time in over a decade the other week. That was a great show, a setlist full of classics, the band was incredibly tight and Ian Astbury sounded as great as ever. They’ve added a keyboardist/backing vocalist who really makes a difference in filling out their sound as a live band, giving Ian some extra melodic thrust on those hooks and filling in the extra vocal arrangements that were always missing when Ian had to do it solo. It was also my first time seeing a gig from the near stage vantagepoint of a VIP table, which a friend had decided to spring for. More than just the option of having a seat whenever I wanted, it was nice to have barriers preventing sweaty dudes from standing uncomfortably close to me, certainly the comfiest concert experience I’ve ever had. I don’t expect to make a habit of it though — comfort does not come cheap.
Megadeth – The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead!:
It hadn’t dawned on me until the release of this, Megadeth’s sixteenth studio album, that this had been the longest gap in between album releases for Mustaine, even counting that weird period in 2002 where he left his own band, only to regroup two years later with a Megadeth-labeled solo record of sorts in The System Has Failed (I mean… it was certainly more of a Megadeth sounding album than the turgid The World Needs A Hero). Such a long layover (pandemic assisted no doubt) had me nervous, thinking that their most recent superstar guitarist acquisition in Angra’s Kiko Loureiro might decide to bail given all the inactivity and instability (Mustaine’s cancer treatment delaying things, David Ellefson’s whole “situation”), but it’s nice to see him sticking around for a second album with the band because I thought he really lit a fire under Mustaine on Dystopia, which was a legitimately damn good Megadeth record. The classic leaning titling of The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead! conjures up memories of the band’s more teeth bared, snarky, aggressive attitude laden eras from the mid 80s through Countdown to Extinction, and there is so much of this album that actually does live up to that billing. The opening title track for example is as poison mouthed as you’d want it to be, Mustaine’s inimitable vocal necromancy at work in satisfyingly resilient fashion.
The absolute banger here is the classic “Life In Hell”, as vicious and fierce as so many Megadeth gems of yore (think “99 Ways To Die”, “Sweating Bullets”), not only for its cracking riff that is vintage Deth, but also for some of Mustaine’s most pointedly sharp lyrics in ages: “A couple drinks and then you’ll feel ok / A couple pills makes the world go away / What the hell, you’re gonna die anyway and you’ll say…”. Mustaine’s gift as a lyricist was never about poetic beauty, it was in his blunt sardonic wrath, and his depiction of self-destructive apathy here avoids being heavy handed (they did that on Cryptic Writings already, which I loved but it wasn’t vintage Mustaine), favoring a self-deprecating levity that just hits harder. The chorus here finishes the sentiment perfectly: “I’m a disease, and I’m addicted to myself, ha! / I’m all I need, I’m gonna live and die in hell”. It makes me cackle in delight every time I hear it. Like many, I also feel that “Night Stalkers” would’ve been a gem were it not for the Ice-T spoken word narration bit in the middle… that was just unnecessary. But there’s so much to celebrate here: the brutal assault of “Dogs of Chernobyl”, “We’ll Be Back” with its crazy lead pyrotechnics (Kiko is spectacular throughout this album), and the unpredictable dizzying turns of “Sacrifice”. I also really loved the Sammy Hagar cover of “This Planet’s On Fire” (featuring the Red Rocker himself), one of those classics that actually sounds better through the Deth filter and rings truer today. Not everything works here, there’s a little too much narration in parts, but this is a satisfyingly strong Megadeth record.
Aeternam – Heir of the Rising Sun:
Talk about a complete surprise, I didn’t see Aeternam listed on any of my upcoming albums lists and so didn’t even realize this was out until an hour before it dropped on midnight of September 2nd, and amidst all the Blind Guardian day excitement it got pushed to the backburner for a day while I went ham listening to the bards new one. Quietly, Aeternam have been putting together one of the strongest discographies of any melodic death metal outfit anywhere, with their four prior albums all being incredibly good to great depending on what you valued the most about their sound. For me, the band is at it’s best when they hit that perfect balance between their folk metal (as in Orphaned Land-esque Arabic/Middle-Eastern motifs) and melodic death sides, blending the two together seamlessly. The success of which varies from song to song on those previous albums but man when they got it right, they just owned that sound entirely. Well, somewhere along the way, vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy must have realized that he could make both of these elements gel far more effortlessly if he just amped up the symphonic metal aspect of the band’s sound. It was always there in the background, a sort of connective keyboard glue that helped everything meld together, but it’s by far the most noticeable shift on Heir of the Rising Sun.
And cat out of the bag, this has become my favorite Aeternam album as a whole to date, a conclusion I’m able to confidently arrive at mere days after it’s release. Developing into a nigh fully symphonic melodic death metal band here (something they hinted at on 2020’s Al Qassam) has afforded their songs the lush cinematic grandeur they’ve yearned to illustrate on prior albums, and allowed their heaviness to increase to Moongod levels as a result in order to offset all that melody. Perfect examples of this are the brilliant “Beneath the Nightfall” with its blackened thrash riff sequences, and the glorious “Irene” with its orchestral swells that unfold into beautiful Arabic folk guitar patterns. My personal favorite is the masterful “The Treacherous Hunt”, a knife’s edge balancing act between their extreme heaviness and soaring, transcendently epic melodies that combine in perhaps the best song of their career so far. A monumental album that hopefully won’t get lost amidst all the other big releases that came out that day.
The Halo Effect – Days of the Lost:
This was one of my most anticipated albums for 2022 ever since I had heard about these guys getting together. The guys in question are veterans of prior In Flames lineups including Jesper Stromblad and Niclas Engelin on guitars, Peter Iwers handling bass, Daniel Svensson picking up the sticks again, and Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne on vocals (remember he was on Lunar Strain/Subterranean). This is clearly one of those projects where the names on paper just created it’s own gravity with the weight of expectations that any resulting album might not be able to escape, an entirely different set of expectations from fans than the guys themselves had. According to recent interviews with Stromblad and Engelin, it was a project that came about simply because as old friends they felt the urge to just hang out and play music together again. And to that point, some of these guys like Svensson had sworn off being in bands entirely, retiring as professional musicians and doing other things, heck last I heard Iwers was co-running that In Flames owned restaurant/bar (dunno if that’s still happening). Thus, in reality, these guys were going to naturally pick up where they left off, even if that wasn’t a conscious decision to do so or not —- meanwhile I suspect a large chunk of fans (myself included) expected a deliberate move towards recreating the classic mid-late 90s Gothenburg sound that we all love and crave a return to.
Long story short, that didn’t happen on Days of the Lost, which doesn’t mean its not a good album, because it certainly is. It is however a modern, fairly restrained take on melodic death metal ala recent Dark Tranquility (Stanne’s vocal choices certainly exacerbate that influence greatly). The frustrating thing that many have voiced about this record that I agree with are all the tiny Jesper-isms that get interjected throughout, like the darkly beautiful acoustic outro to “A Truth Worth Lying For “, the lead guitars on the very In Flames-ian “Gateways” (the album’s most old school moment happens during the abrupt mid-song shift lead riff progression), or the entirety of “Conditional”, easily the most classic and aggressive song on the album (see how those two things seem to go hand in hand?). At worst this album fades into the background where you don’t notice songs passing by, at it’s best it makes you long for what could have been. I hope they do another to deliver on that promised potential.
Brymir – Voices in the Sky:
Since their 2011 inception, Helsinki’s Brymir have been one of the most promising bands to come out of Finland, and indeed the wider symphonic metal scene worldwide. Crafting a fusion of symphonic blackened folk metal with bright, inspired power metal melodicism, they’ve finally to my ears fulfilled their potential with their newest effort, Voices in the Sky. And that’s not to suggest that I wasn’t impressed with 2019’s much lauded Wings of Fire, but I didn’t think it was the masterpiece I saw some people tagging it as. It suffered from getting a little too monotonous at points, the band leaning too hard on the symphonic black side of things and going break neck speed for most of that album. On the new album, they’ve allowed their sound to shift gears often with dynamic song structures, infusing more clean vocals (the epic, chanty, choral Ensiferum kind) and power metal elements into the mix to temper out their extreme side and let those heavier moments land more forceful impacts as a result.
As so often with bands who do fusions of two disparate or even complementary styles of metal, they often find themselves crafting their best songs when they’ve worked out how to best balance the various musical elements in their arsenal. The best moments here are perfect examples of that, the heavenly wash of choirs that usher along the title track for starters, and the outright aggressive slabs of unmelodic riffs that serve as battering rams throughout “Forged In War” that standout as inverse breathers from the richly melodic refrains. The best moments however are where Brymir ascend to the heavens, as on the folky, adrenaline rocketing “Fly With Me”, with its ascending hook sequence, and gorgeous, Dragonforce-esque guitar solos. My personal favorite here is “Herald of Aegir”, an emotional rush that recalls vintage Ensiferum/Wintersun, with an achingly emotional clean vocal passage that is as sweeping as the brilliant lead guitars that it skates atop. This album is a joy to experience, easily Brymir’s most accomplished and fully realized work to date.
Dynazty – Final Advent:
Slowly but surely, Dynazty have developed into one of the most reliable leading lights of the modern AOR movement. Of course, its a bit of a misnomer to classify them as such entirely, because there is a strong dose of power metal grandeur and theatricality to their sound, but the blending of these two styles put through a modern, Jacob Hansen produced filter has been their sound for these most recent two albums. It’s essentially a distillation of what they were attempting on previous albums but sanded off of some of the rough edges — which usually might be interpreted as a negative thing so I’ll stress that I don’t think that’s entirely the case here. I call them reliable because I can’t recall having heard a bad, awkward, or otherwise embarrassing song on this or their past few albums — things are pretty solid for the most part with one or two songs even standing out as notable highlights worth playlisting. I’d say the trouble with Dynazty is that it gets really hard to build a passionate following when you’re only delivering solid albums and never a truly great one.
The songs on Final Advent that I’d say qualify as aforementioned highlights include the power ballad (of course) “Yours”, a cousin of “Hologram” from 2020’s The Dark Delight, all anguished melodrama and a guitar solo midway through that’s phrasing is shatteringly emotional. There’s also a racing urgency to “All the Devils Are Here” that is vintage Dynazty in the best way, and I love the unorthodox, almost folky tinge to the lead guitar melodies in “The White” that gives it a different flavor from the rest of the album (Rob Love Magnusson and Mike Lavér are a talented guitar duo, and I wish they’d open up their palette with stuff like this more often). Vocalist Nils Molin (also of Amaranthe co-vocalist notoriety) of course sounds excellent throughout, his voice full of power and rugged inflection, though some might find his approach a little too heavy handed (and perhaps the band and he could both use a little loosening up, perhaps a rock n’ roll injection?). You’ll notice I haven’t really said anything specifically critical here, because there’s nothing to harp on to be honest. It’s a solid Dynazty album, albeit not a great one, and maybe that’s the larger criticism I’m edging around here, that I don’t exactly know what a truly great Dynazty album would sound like and that might be a bigger problem in the long run.
Xaon – The Lethean:
You always know a band is flying under the radar when they have zero reviews on their newest album on Metallum. Switzerland’s symphonic progressive death metallers Xaon released The Lethean back on July 1st and have yet to acquire a single review of not only their newest effort, but the two that have preceded it. And fair enough to everyone out there, because I myself didn’t know who this band was until my cohost Cary played the stellar, maybe best song of the year “If I Had Wings” on a recent MSRcast episode. My attention was immediately grabbed by that song, but you know how it is, I lollygagged a bit in terms of checking out the entire album for a few weeks. But the pull of that aforementioned song was too strong to resist for long, and I checked out the rest of the album in turn and wow… this is something special. Xaon get tagged as symphonic metal on Metallum, but I threw in the progressive tag above because there’s an unorthodox approach to the way these guys approach arrangements and songwriting structures in general, often eschewing traditional verse to prechorus to chorus sequences. Instead, as on the opener “The Hunt”, they utilize an almost metal equivalent to “movements” in ushering their songs along, where perhaps the rhythmic assault stays constant, but melodies abruptly shift and mutate along. The secret to Xaon’s success here is that each successive movement only escalates the dramatics at work within these rushing melodies via guitars or keyboard drive symphonics.
And then there’s the matter of their overall sound being different from what you’d expect from a band tagged as merely symphonic death — vocalist Rob Carson can run the gamut from guttural to melodeath screaming, but he mostly favors his clean vocals which are often anguished and twisted like Primodial’s Alan Averill, but at times soaring and downright gorgeous like a darker toned, more gravely Nick Holmes. I have to speak about “If I Had Wings” here briefly, because I’m sure I’ll be talking about it a few months from now as well: This is such an epic song (we overuse that term but it applies here), the kind of glorious, passion driven burst of creativity that few bands ever manage to unearth, and I am still enthralled by it after playing it repeatedly over the past few weeks. Carson is magnificent here, and if there’s one song you decide to check out first from this beast of an album, make it this one (it helps that it’s the single, wisely chosen guys). Ten tracks, no fillers, real creativity at work here, genuine conviction in the performances, and multifaceted in their abilities (check out “Telos” for their more reflective, Opeth-ian acoustic side that is actually affecting), Xaon is one of the year’s most satisfying discoveries for me.
Heilung – Drif:
If you’re even passingly aware of the cornucopia of reactor channels on YouTube, you’ll know that a live performance by the esoteric folk outfit Heilung has gone kinda viral in terms of being a popular reaction choice amongst that set. And its mostly for the members very primal, tribal garb laden appearance onstage and the fact that they’re playing unorthodox instruments and singing in styles that defy modern stylings. On their Wikipedia page, their project is self-described as “amplified history from early medieval northern Europe”, which is fairly accurate according to what I’ve heard (who knows, has an anthropologist verified that? Does it really matter anyway?). I’ll admit that at first I just felt a passing fascination with Heilung, simply because it was attracting so much reactor interest that and kind of prevented me from wanting to dive in further, feeling like it was something that might have been borderline gimmicky. I realize now that was a silly attitude to have, because having decided to check out their newest album Drif just as a pure audio experience (meaning I didn’t seek out the videos), I’ve really come to appreciate this album as a palette cleansing come down after listening to a lot of metal that’s still complex and thought provoking on its own merits.
Now I will clarify, that’s not including all of the album, because I could’ve done without the loud, irritating Stomp the Musical sounds in “Urbani” and the spoken word insanity of “Keltentrauer”. The stuff that I lean towards on this album is “Anoana” which reminds me of a darker, more medieval sounding mix of Loreena McKennitt, Enya, and Dead Can Dance (not quite so, but as a point of reference that’s the best I can do). I also loved the brightness of “Nikkal”, where choral vocals took center stage singing a melody that sounds elegiac, wistful, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. You’re probably getting the picture by now that none of this is metal, but Heilung are so folk metal adjacent, that even in the absence of heavy guitars or distortion of any kind really, you should still feel drawn to this as a metal fan. And look they threw a bone for you and named the last song “Marduk”, and to be honest, its echoing bells and whispered poetry I’d contend are more unnerving than anything put out by the band of the same name in ages. That’s not a shots fired thing by the way, it really sounds creepy as hell.
Sumerlands – Dreamkiller:
Hailing out of Philadelphia, Sumerlands had previously made a splash with their self-titled debut way back in 2016 with then vocalist Phil Swanson. It was an inspired eight song collection of traditional metal in the early to mid 80s mode, suitably rockin’ songs with inspired performances that seemed to be taking pages from several influences. The seeds were there for something really great to emerge, but as is the case with newer bands, sometimes it’s hard to capitalize on momentum and get a new record out quickly when stability is an issue. A vocalist change is a major thing, so is a worldwide pandemic, so here we are about six years later with Dreamkiller, their sophomore album and first with new vocalist Brendan Radigan. I was already pretty fired up about this one, having gotten to see Sumerlands live at Hells Heroes in April of 2022 where they laid on a spectacular set, Radigan every bit the inspired frontman in a live setting. Among others, it was a definite highlight of that evening, and taking that experience into account and now hearing Dreamkiller, Radigan really does fit the band better than Phil Swanson did. His vocals are like a mix of early 80s Ozzy and Klaus Meine with a the smoothness of Don Dokken, a tone that’s rich in expressiveness and commanding in every utterance. His approach lends a sense of comfort to the overall sound, rooting this in territory that feels familiar and even nostalgic even though these songs feel fresh and modern.
And the songwriting is the star here, Sumerlands guitarists Arthur Rizk and John Powers crafting riffs that are groove based, ultra hooky and incredibly satisfying with tight leads to punctuate them. The one two punch on this record sits in the middle of the tracklisting, with “Edge of the Knife” and “Force of a Storm” landing with the kind of infectious kinetic energy that characterized classics such as Dokken’s “Into the Fire” or WASP’s “Wild Child”. The former is one of the most infectious songs I’ve heard this year, a driving old-school rocker with a massive riff based hook and Radigan nailing the vocal line with emphatic gusto. I love the effects on those vocal harmonies laid over the top, it really harkens back to productions choices in the mid-80s that characterized a lot of those great records. Stepping on the gas a bit, “Force of a Storm” has a desperate urgency to its restless riffs and I love the keyed in explosion sounds in those transition moments — the kind of thing that would be utterly ridiculous if not applied exactingly. And that kind of sums up Sumerlands overall approach here, because their nods to their 80s trad metal influences are so overt yet applied so delicately, so natural sounding in their own idiom that they don’t end up sounding like anyone but themselves.
Blackbraid – Blackbraid I:
About a few years ago, pandemic starting time I guess, I started following a guy on Instagram who was making really cool bone art. You can Google that if you’re drawing a blank right now but I imagine most of you know what it is. Anyway so in addition to his art he’d post up pictures of himself around the area he was living, a rural seeming landscape, so I knew that he was of Native American heritage from not only appearance, but from the meaning of his artwork as well. Jump forward to my hearing about an awesome record from a new project called Blackbraid, imagine my surprise when I checked out their biography and realized it was masterminded by indeed the very same bone art guy I had been following for years on Instagram. His name is Sgah’gahsowáh (also goes by Jon) and in true one man black metal project fashion, he is credited for “everything” on this record (although drums are provided by the album’s recording engineer (and man of many bands) Neil Schneider. To be honest, it had never crossed my mind that black metal would seem to fit black metal so well, but Blackbraid I makes it seem like it was always a merging that was meant to be.
No burying the lede here, this is one of if not the most accomplished black metal releases I’ve heard this year. It hits the target of what I value the most in modern black metal productions, that being clarity in the mix in terms of instrumentation separation and discernible melodies, but also in avoiding sounding clinical. This album, despite all the razor sharp tremolo riffs, is streaked with a subtle earthen warmth that underscores much of its quick thirty-six minute run time. Its not just in those Native American folk music soaked instrumental tracks either, but in the way the melodies are unfolded in the blistering, full speed ahead black metal here. On my favorite cut “Sacandaga”, there’s a dynamic shift between tempered, deliberately paced sequences and sudden bursts of hyperkinetic speed, the effect being violent and uncontrollable. The aforementioned folk music pieces it should be pointed out aren’t just window dressing — being two of the six tracks here they factor into the album in a big way. I’d argue they give the entire record its spiritual or emotional center, setting the listener down in a headspace meant to reflect the lyrical settings explored here, of creeks, pastel skies, and hemlock forests. As imagery goes, its a refreshing difference to behold from tales of ice covered Norwegian mountains and permafrost, this being a truly Native American black metal perspective. I really love this record.
Seventh Wonder – The Testament:
I don’t know why I’ve had a hard time settling down to give this new (ish… it came out in June) Seventh Wonder album the time and attention it deserves. I’d listened to it intermittently over the past few months but only recently decided to buckle down and give it my undivided attention. And now that I have, I’ve come to realize what was perhaps preventing me from achieving this all these past few months gone, namely, that this album gets me restless partway through. I suspect this is largely due to the pervasive sameness that seems to be running through the length of this thing. Unlike older Seventh Wonder classics like Mercy Falls or the really wild The Great Escape, where song diversity was an integral part of the final tracklist, it feels like songs on this (and to a certain extent their 2018 album Tiara) really sound similar in their style, tempo and overall approach. Despite the band’s technical prowess leaning towards a breezier Dream Theater, their songs are written to be geared around Tommy Karevik’s vocal melodies almost exclusively. And this works for a while, certainly on these first three songs that shotgun the start of the album in the single-ready “Warriors”, the uptempo, almost dance-rock strut of “The Light”, and the Empire-era Queensryche invoking semi-ballad “I Carry the Blame”. The latter is certainly one of the best individual slices of hook laden prog-rock the band have dished up, making up in what it lacks in heaviness with layers of gorgeously honeyed vocals from Karevik.
But after the patience testing instrumental “Reflections” is followed by the grating “The Red River” (usually where I’ve checked out on past listens), it’s hard to keep focus on the rest of this record. I actually enjoy some parts of “Invincible”, mainly the hook factor in the chorus here, but man for a three and a half minute long song there are stretches here that I wish would hurry up and be done every time I play it. And I like the increase in aggression via the guitars in “Under a Clear Blue Sky” but they’re unfortunately lost in a song that is way too long with very little in the way of discernible connective tissue (ie melodies that I want to return to). The closer “Elegy” is certainly pretty in the moment, though it’s not something that I could see myself returning to on it’s own. I do feel that maybe I’m being too hard on this album, but in fairness to myself, I have given it the benefit of many months to land, and it just hasn’t quite gotten there. Still a good band, and I’m glad it’s an ongoing concern for Karevik given his Kamelot day job, but they’re not delivering in quite the same way they used to for me.
Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash:
I think there was always a part of me that felt Oceans of Slumber was meant to head down this path, that being the gradual and now sudden removal of harsh vocals from their repertoire. The moments that excited me the most from their past few albums were those where vocalist Cammie Gilbert got to simply steer the ship with her distinctive, richly emotive singing instead of playing point/counterpoint. Its not that the band didn’t deliver good material with their more extreme metal rooted stuff, its just that the alternative they were offering in small handfuls was so much more enticing. I’ve said this over and over again here and on the podcast already, but my favorite Oceans of Slumber moment has been the title track to The Banished Heart, particularly during its midsong bridge onwards, that finale passage has all the dramatic sweep and grandeur that seemed like a sound world they should be exploring more of. Here on Starlight And Ash, they’ve finally decided to do just that, terming their sound as southern gothic which is exactly the descriptor I’d have tagged that aforementioned epic section of “The Banished Heart” with had I thought of it first. I think I’ve been rather critical of this band throughout their past few albums, but I’m happy to say that it was really hard to find something to complain about here. Simply put, this is the album I’ve been waiting for Oceans of Slumber to make, one that genuinely feels as though they’ve discovered their own voice, they sound more comfortable here than they ever have, some of these songs sounding as though they were effortlessly written.
I’m thinking here of “The Hanging Tree”, where Gilbert channels a little mid-90s Natalie Merchant in her vocal tone over twangy guitars and a generous amount of space and silence. These songs are shorter than older Oceans, with no more progressive death metal on the agenda, gone are the six to seven minute run times, Gilbert having free reign to work in the context of more manageable, focused three to five minute pieces. The absolute gem here is the opener “The Waters Rising”, with it’s beautiful country-folk tinged acoustic guitars, throbbing electronic pulse underneath, and moody piano melody running through. Somehow this album hits heavier than any of their others, despite the general lack of aggressive riffs and metallic elements — it brings to mind Smashing Pumpkins Adore, both tonally and lyrically, a softer, more hushed album that was an absolute emotional wrecking ball. I love that they found a sound that feels very authentic to who and where they are as well. Southern gothic indeed. I’d always associated that term with Anne Rice’s vision of New Orleans, but in this album I can really feel how Houston fits into the mix, the smell of asphalt and car exhaust, the blanketing heat and restless humid nights. Oceans of Slumber have found their identity with Starlight and Ash.
Fallen Sanctuary – Terranova:
So Fallen Sanctuary is a side project involving Georg Neuhauser (Serenity / Warkings) and Temperance guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Marco Pastorino who I’ve long considered one of the better songwriters in the melodic power metal world over the past few years. Georg himself is no slouch in that department, capable of crafting vocal melodies that are hooky, memorable, and earwormy for whatever project he’s involved in — the Tony Kakko meets Klaus Meine vocal tone is also a strength. So on paper this was an intriguing pairing to consider, and I actually broke my tendency to not listen to the singles ahead of time for this album because I was so curious. The album itself got shafted for listening time when it came out due to other things crowding the schedule so I know this write up is really late, but I’ve been re-listening to it over the last week and kinda glad I did because I think at first I glossed over how well crafted this ended up being. I respect that they didn’t try to veer outside of their comfort zone, which might be a weird compliment, but leaning into one’s strengths isn’t a bad thing really, hence these songs being vocal melody driven affairs. The riffs aren’t particularly aggressive, instead settling in a muted, crunchy tone fitting for this approach to melodic power metal where they’re not the main attraction anyway.
On strong cuts such as “Broken Dreams” and the lead off cut “Terranova”, the mood is light, uplifting, and almost sunny, the former even giving us a little a cappella vocal intro that veers into AOR territory. A little darker is “Now and Forever”, a song that reminds me of something off Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus, a song that goes through a couple transitions with different hook laden elements to each (the mid song bridge has a terrific vocal melody by Neuhauser). For his part, Pastorini can be heard on backing vocals throughout, and he sounds great, but he mostly cedes the leads to Neuhauser. An exception might be the pretty but sparse acoustic ballad “I Can’t Stay”, where you can hear him chime through on the chorus and the contrast between the two men’s voices is distinct and vibrant in their differences. This is definitely an album meant for those who would dig this kind of thing on paper, it won’t change any minds in that regard, but I dig what these two guys do in general (Warkings excepted) and this is something I’ll probably return to when I need something AOR/power adjacent that’s a little chilled out.
We Blind Guardian fans have had to deal with a lot in the past few years. Set aside the vinyl manufacturing delay that pushed the release of this album back almost a full year, and let’s consider the fact that the band had finally settled upon a 2019 release date for their long labored over orchestral project that we’ve heard about for nearly two decades. This release in question extended a normally four year gap between studio albums to seven this time around (meaning studio albums proper, not lavish vanity projects that are up for debate on whether they were worth it). That wouldn’t have been such a long wait had 2015’s Beyond theRed Mirror been a truly excellent album, but while far from a disaster, it was certainly prone to being influenced by the band’s orchestral mindset with it’s heavily layered keyboard arrangements and progressive songwriting tendencies. In recent interviews, Hansi has admitted as much, that the Twilight Orchestra project impacted the band’s approach for a number of years and that their newest album, The God Machine, is in part a knowing reaction away from that. It should be said that this is good thing, the band’s awareness of having possibly overdosed their fanbase on all the orchestral stuff can only lead them towards a sound that is closer to the classic Blind Guardian archetype that we all know and love. It’s a small thing to remark on first, but notice that they’ve finally switched cover artists for the first time in over a decade, using a piece from the awesome Peter Mohrbacher instead of something from Felipe Machado (with respect to Felipe, a lot of fans felt the band had long needed a visual makeover), a change that is hard not to interpret as the bards themselves signaling the start of a new era.
But as The God Machine will prove, it’s rare that these types of artistic shifts can be executed at will, because a band like Blind Guardian tend to want to follow their own muse even when knowing they outta reign something in. Blind Guardian shifts their artistic direction the way an aircraft carrier turns around, relatively fast for their lumbering nature, but it still takes a bit — it’s not a Jetski. Consider their years long gradual transition from Teutonic thrashy speed metal in the late 80s and early 90s to the epic, genre defining power metal with Imaginations and Nightfall. When they’ve made sudden jumps in their musical approach it can be a shock to our system. Take their scaling back of the grandiose sugary sound they delivered on the uber layered and dense A Night at the Opera — they overcorrected with 2006’s A Twist in the Myth, and only really found their way back to an inspired equilibrium four years later on 2010’s At the Edge of Time. Part of the reason a lot of Blind Guardian fans have been sullen about the orchestral project is not only because it was a difficult listen, but because you couldn’t help but feel it had been derailing the hard hitting aspects of the band, you know… the metal, which had been a defining element of their classic sound. I think there are a lot of us who just felt relieved when the Twilight Orchestra was released, a feeling that maybe the band would have gotten that out of their system and started running lean again. Well… again, aircraft carrier here. Its never that easy with Blind Guardian.
To give immediate context to The God Machine in case you’re refusing to listen to it until reading this review for whatever sadistic reason, it sits at the crossroads between At the Edge of Time and Beyond the Red Mirror, really being a mix of the former’s classic power metal throwback approach and the latter’s more progressive songwriting tendencies. In other words, don’t come in here expecting the second coming of Imaginations, but there are moments that sometimes will recall hints of that glorious past, simply because one of its touchstone albums was recalling that very past. I feel like it has one foot firmly planted in Blind Guardian’s power metal sound while their progressive, epic songwriting is firmly grabbing a hold of its other leg, preventing it from making a full stride into that realm. This dichotomy unfolds throughout the album in unpredictable ways, because while the opener “Deliver Us From Evil” is a strong, classic-Guardian emulation built on a satisfying riff progression, raging Hansi screams, and those patented choral backing vocals — it’s immediately followed by the proggy arrangements heard in “Damnation”, though still very much rooted in the band’s more aggressive sound palette. And is it just me or does anyone else hear shades of A Night At the Opera here? There’s something about the way the choral vocals are layered in this staggered pattern in the prechorus and chorus that give me major 2002 vibes in a surprisingly welcome way. I appreciate how they tempered all the sudden zigzags in direction throughout this song with a powerfully weighty, anchoring refrain sequence that gives the whole thing a sense of purpose and direction.
Sometimes though we just simply get those glorious, soaring uncut gems where Hansi has always shined, as on the truly magnificent “Secrets of the American Gods”, as stirring and passionate a song the bards have ever crafted. This is based on the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods, a book I’ve reread likely over ten times now, and it’s a trip to see it’s Americana drenched storyline being alluded to in a Hansi-ian lyrical adaptation (where everything comes across as dramatic and millennia-spanning epic as the tales in The Silmarillion). Hear that chorus? That’s entirely Hansi’s wheelhouse, those lengthy lyrical phrases where his vocals have the time and space to stretch and bend words to his dramatic vision (notice throughout their entire catalog that the more shorter, clipped, and jumpy a Blind Guardian song’s lyrical stanzas are, the less effective he is at really unleashing what makes his vocals truly magical). Hansi being allowed to have a long runway is what turns “Let It Be No More” into an album highlight, elevating muted, dare I say meandering verses into something truly inspiring and heartrending when the refrain kicks in. It’s not quite a ballad in the traditional sense, but its the closest thing on The God Machine to such a thing (I too was hoping for a sequel to something like “Curse My Name” or “War of the Thrones” but I’ll take this as a more than suitable substitute). There is an alternate version of this song recorded as a bonus track for the digipak and other luxury editions of the album with “heavy vocals”, and its essentially a rawer lead from Hansi with less lush padding on the choral vocals during the refrain. I can’t decide which one I enjoy more, because both have their merits but typically I think you err on the side of rawer Hansi, which meant they picked the wrong version for a bonus track.
Where that Red Mirror progressive songwriting still lingers the most is on two cuts in particular (it popped up in fits and spurts on the songs mentioned previously too, just in more manageable doses), namely “Life Beyond the Spheres” and the album closer “Destiny”. Now there are some moments within these two songs that I do enjoy, certain musical motifs or lyrical passages or vocal melodies here and there, but as a whole they’re underwhelming. I can’t be the only one who wishes “Destiny” would’ve exploded in it’s mid-song instrumental bridge sequence, surely everything prior to it seemed to be building and building to something like that, a euphoric release of growing tension — it just never materializes (though Hansi partially redeems it with his unexpected vocal gusto at 5:26). As for “Life Beyond the Spheres”, this genuinely sounds like something left off Red Mirror, a weird, jumbled mix of neat ideas that don’t really seem to gel together at all. It’s a clunkily shifting track that lacks a memorable thru melody be it instrumental or vocal driven, and the chorus seems to just arrive without any fanfare like Kramer swinging open the door to Jerry’s apartment and waltzing in. Marcus’ rhythm guitar staccato riffing is a cool thing they could’ve built on, but like “Destiny” it’s just never leveraged into something that gets the heart beating faster. And this is where the progressive aspect of the band’s songwriting really trips them up, when songs become too heady instead of working off emotion and energy and instinct. The Blind Guardian that makes you glory claw in the air is the stuff that infects your love of pathos, drama, and penchant for theatricality, its not the stuff that you have to intellectualize like a Dream Theater album.
The song most reviewers are likely going to point to when referring to this as an “old school” Blind Guardian album is “Violent Shadows”, and for good reason (though it would be an inaccurate overall description for the album). Premiered during the virtual Wacken World Wide 2020 event that a lot of us caught live and freaked out over their truly old school setlist for the show, this was the song that sent thousands of hearts wildly beating out of control for the uber suggestive hint that we were getting Imaginations part two. And indeed it does sound like a forgotten cut from that era, or something that could’ve also been found on Somewhere Far Beyond. It’s built on a solid riff-vocal tradeoff, and has a fairly memorable hook going for it, I will however admit that at times I find it maybe a little too repetitive for it’s own good (I find myself wishing it would’ve had a more adventurous bridge sequence than just the small guitar solo moment). Just as good if not better in that old school Guardian spirit is “Blood of the Elves”, it’s pacing sometimes reminding me of “A Script For My Requiem”, with Andre’s solo here conjuring up familiar ghosts of the past in a welcome way. Similarly bone shaking is “Architects of Doom”, where a thundering series of riff sequences unfolds into something far more elegant than its aggressive opening assault was suggesting. This was a sneaky one, worming its way into my good graces after initially being indifferent to it, give it a couple listens to let it blossom (that’s really the central tenet for approaching this album as a whole btw).
I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned it on the blog, but one of the metrics I employ when evaluating a new album, particularly from a veteran band is what I call the playlist quotient: That being the number of songs from said album you would add into a real or hypothetical playlist you were making of the artist in question. It’s a helpful way to visualize your affection for an album in a wider angle, and allows you to get past being dazzled by one or two really great songs that might initially skew your impression of an album being better than it is. Case in point is Red Mirror, an album that I gave a critical yet decently complimentary review to at the time. But it fared below 50% on the playlist quotient, with only a pair of songs making my hypothetical Blind Guardian playlist (“The Throne”, “Distant Memories”), which from an eleven song long tracklist is not great. In comparison, 2010’s At the Edge of Time boasted eight tracks that made the playlist out of a ten track album, and that I’d still keep all of those choices on there is a huge testament to that album’s enduring greatness. And for a band that I have a tremendous amount of affection for, a metric like this really helps me in not letting my enthusiasm and inner fanboy cloud my judgement to where I’m just declaring it the album of the year just because its friggin’ Blind Guardian (to that end, At the Edge of Time was my 2010 album of the year with damn good reason).
So where does The God Machine end up on the playlist quotient? Definitely better then Red Mirror but not quite scaling those lofty heights reached by AtEoT. Without question “Secrets of the American Gods”, “Let It Be No More”, and “Damnation” are instant adds, songs that I don’t think I’d see myself hitting skip on when they came up on shuffle. I’d also toss on there “Violent Shadows”, “Blood of the Elves” and “Deliver Us From Evil”, but could see myself hitting skip if the moment wasn’t quite right. So six songs out of a nine song album is a fairly strong showing, three if you really forced me to make hard cuts but all told I’d consider that a success as well. This was a good, solid, at times genuinely excellent step in the right direction for Blind Guardian. It does however feel like a band that’s trying to regain their footing after being lost in the orchestral wilds for so long, like Thingol standing in the woods of Nan Elmoth for frigging ages and eventually stumbling out in a semi-daze (albeit without the whole surprise I now have a goddess as a wife! thing). As a fan, I’m encouraged to hear where next they could possibly take this newfound sense of musical liberation, if not back to their roots entirely (which I’ll admit is an unfair and unlikely proposition), then perhaps somewhere new and exciting with their metallic natures leading the way forward. But its the bards we’re talking about, we’ll be along for the caravan and campfire sit arounds regardless.
Well its been a minute, but it’s been an incredibly busy month or so for me personally and yeah, things just got away from me (like days and weeks and stuff). I have done a considerable amount of listening over the many weeks that have elapsed since my last blog entry, but I have covered a bunch of stuff on the MSRcast that hasn’t been mentioned here so make sure you check those new episodes out. Discussed below are the records I kinda wanted to go a little deeper on and talk about in more detail. Of course there’s some really intriguing and monumental records coming down the pike: the new, long awaited Blind Guardian album of course which will get its own deep dive here, but also the highly anticipated by myself new project from the old In Flames gang + Mikael from Dark Tranquility called The Halo Effect. I am in the process of checking out the new Arch Enemy and Amon Amarth, but have only just begun and you know, given my interest in their recent output, I might not be moved to really say anything on it (I’m hoping otherwise), also I’m still trying to catch up on the Seventh Wonder and Oceans of Slumber releases that came out a couple weeks ago… they got shunted aside time wise and I never got to give them their proper due. Look I’ll admit I’ve been a bit of a mess this year but hell, the motto for 2022 is… ^^ well you know.
Porcupine Tree – Closure/Continuation:
I wanted to make sure I took my time digesting this at once long anticipated and yet still surprising that it even happened new Porcupine Tree album, aptly named Closure/Continuation. I guess we should’ve learned our lesson about bands we’d never expect to get back together after Duff and Slash made their way back to Guns N’ Roses, or certainly after Faith No More reunited or more shocking than either of those, ABBA came together to release a new album. Porcupine Tree was due, and it’s timing could not be more perfect for both fans or for Steven Wilson himself, whose last album seemed a little too self-indulgent for most and who could likely benefit from returning to something a little familiar. This version of Porcupine Tree features Wilson rejoined by longtime members Gavin Harrison on drums and Richard Barbieri on keyboards (ex-bassist Colin Edwards was not included in the reunion, for reasons that are wildly speculated about in the PT subreddit but I’ll not bore you with here, Wilson handled bass on this album btw). And though I wasn’t one of those who spent this intervening decade clamoring for a band reunion, I’m glad its happened because 2009’s The Incident was even at the time of its release, a relatively underwhelming album that hasn’t aged all that well. Wilson is right in his dim view of it in interviews over the years, and its nice for things to not have to end on that musical note if indeed this album leans more towards “closure” than “continuation”.
To that end, I find this album is more of an amalgam of all the previous Porcupine Tree records put together, with spacey, swirling progressive mood pieces from the mid 90s, touchstones of poppier elements from the late 90s and early aughts ala Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia and the more metallic leanings of Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet. It feels as a whole like a complete Porcupine Tree album, reflecting on all the sides of the group that seem familiar, yet accomplishing this feat with really strong material, songs that feel fresh and inspired. The aggressive riff progression in “Rats Return” is really something that I could’ve envisioned on Blank Planet, but the backing vocal/keyboard eerily mashed up arrangement that floats over the top prevents things from becoming too metallic in nature, keeping it firmly in weirdo prog-rock territory. It’s nice that despite all of Wilson’s statements in interviews about how rock guitar didn’t inspire him that much, that the majority of this record is built on exactly that. The strongest tracks are “Dignity” with it’s English folk-rock influences in those gentle verses, and my personal favorite “Of The New Day” is vintage Wilson balladry, achingly melancholic vocal melodies and quietly strummed acoustic guitars awash with layered of moody guitars and keyboards. When Wilson and Barbieri do incorporate more electronics, as on “Walk the Plank”, I find that its far more interesting and engaging than most of the stuff Wilson was attempting to do on The Future Bites (where tellingly the best song on the album was the piano ballad “12 Things I Forgot”). And I don’t mean to dump on Wilson’s solo work here, longtime readers will know that I loved Hand. Cannot. Erase, but I hope this experience has been satisfying for him as a composer, and perhaps a little bit of a perspective shift that hey, it doesn’t make you boring to like guitars, drums, bass and vocals together. All the wheels have been invented already, just focus on making the best ones that you can with your abilities.
Saor – Origins:
Andy Marshall, the man behind the Saor project is back with his fifth album under this banner, with Origins being the follow-up to 2019’s absolutely stunning Forgotten Paths. That album was my introduction to Saor, and it made enough of an impression on me that I went backwards investigating his other work under the banner. As expected, Saor’s production values have only increased dramatically with each new album, those first two being fairly raw, with 2016’s Guardians being the first glimpse at the more modern, cleaned up production that he’d fully realize on Forgotten Paths. The great thing is that Origins has somehow taken that approach to the next level, being the most clear and crisp sounding record that Marshall has ever made. This is important chiefly because the kind of rustic, folk infused atmospheric black metal he is writing truly demands production that has room for both depth, and a cinematic grandeur that your prototypical raw black metal recording does not allow. Case in point is the album opener here “Call of the Carnyx”, with its reverb laden lead guitar melodies to start, and lush keyboard layering, and incredibly meaty, devastating riffing — all perfectly balanced in the superb mixing job by Lasse Lammert of Germany’s LSD Studios. The ending of this song by the way, where Marshall comes roaring back in with those distant sounding yet still unbelievable fierce grim vocals is such an adrenaline inducing passage, the kind of moment where headbanging is the only natural response. Cue up that grandeur I was talking about for “Fallen” where Marshall introduces some bagpipes (I believe keyboard engineered but hey it still sounds the part), a perfect complement to the dramatic, highland clan guitar melodies and pounding drumbeats, while Marshall layers on some rather well done clean vocal harmonies that I didn’t think he was capable of.
There’s a mystical streak running through the songwriting on this album, a striking change from the more earthy, grounded, inward feelings imbued on Forgotten Paths. Conversely, Origins is all wide open skies, winds rippling through mountains, and a sense of wide open spaces, these songs almost a reflection of their inherent spirituality. You hear this quite vividly on “The Ancient Ones”, an album highlight with it’s well balanced mix of atmospherics, subtle folk melodies in those terrific lead parts, and in the interplay between chanted backing vocal theatrics and Marshall’s ever blistering grim vocal attack. The thing that makes all of this work so well is kinda hard to define, because on one hand Marshall isn’t reinventing atmospheric black metal persay, so many bands try to do this same style of atmo-black and yet so few seem to have his particular touch and skill at melding together so many disparate elements. He has a light hand when it comes to infusing the folk elements here, leaving them as melodic imprints heard via guitar or muted sounding keyboards rather than big spectacles imposed on the music via distinctly separate musical elements (there’s no humppa bits barging into the frame unwelcomely). The scaling back of black metal elements and replacing them with heavier, chunkier riffing is also crucial to Origins success, allowing for not only more instantly engaging riff sequences, but in providing the rest of the musical elements with enough spacing to breathe on their own. Full stop, I’ve been addicted to this album since it came out, just finding it a thoroughly engaging, beautiful work of art that has expanded the possibilities of Saor’s sonic potential for future releases. You don’t have to enjoy atmo-black to get into this either, its one of those records that easily transcends its subgenre.
Dawn of Destiny – Of Silence:
One of Germany’s buried treasures, Dawn of Destiny have been a favorite of mine since they grabbed my attention with 2014’s Best Albums listeeF.E.A.R., their second album with the phenomenal vocal talents of Jeanette Scherff at the helm. Since then they’ve laid down a pair of quality follow-ups, but have yet to match F.E.A.R.’s brilliance — until now that is. Their eighth album overall, Of Silence contains some of the band’s most inspired work, with bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber penning some truly powerful stuff here. The basic Dawn of Destiny blueprint is still in place here, a thundering heavy/power metal framework infused with significant doses of gothic metal and gritty hard rock. Sounds weird but its like if Type O Negative or Sentenced had a baby with Heart, not only for the very noticeable Ann Wilson vibes in Scherff’s rich vocal tone, but for the downcast, at times outright melancholic feelings being explored throughout these songs. The album opens up with the eight minute multifaceted epic “We Are Your Voice”, which leans about as theatrical as Dawn of Destiny gets, a lot of dramatic surges of guitars to punctuate forlorn lyrics and some truly phat riffs to bookend passages. Its a strong song to kick things off, and doesn’t feel like eight minutes, but track two is where the album really finds its groove to my ears, with “Judas In Me” where guitarist Veith Offenbächer keeps things anchored with a gritty, Accept-ian slab of riffage. Faber’s counterpoint lead vocal in the chorus to offset Scherff is one of the album’s most addictive moments, working in tandem to cook up a hook that is incredibly memorable and satisfying.
Lord of the Lost vocalist Chris Harms joins for a duet on the driving “Childhood”, and hearing his gothic rock vocals in a more earthy, gritty soundscape than the more shiny and produced stylings of his day job band actually steers his voice towards reminding me a little of JP Leppäluoto of Charon. It’s a strong song, with a fully realized refrain that blends Harms and Scherff rather tastefully in intertwined melodies, as opposed to the beauty and the beast trading off dynamic. And for a band that is ostensibly a power metal meets gothic oeuvre, they can really lay the proverbial wood when they want to, with “Say My Name” hitting with the force of a jackhammer, Offenbächer serving up an almost thrashy riff sequence and a wild lead guitar solo towards the latter half of the song. My absolute favorite on the album is the much more subdued, almost power balladry packaged anguish of “Little Flower” (major Charon vibes on that title and lyrics herein), where Faber delivers his best lyrical refrain and melody. There’s something really poignant happening in the lyrics here, with simple metaphors serving a magnified purpose, and Scherff’s impassioned voice just made for songs like this, all painful experience and unrestrained yearning. And kudos has to be given to Faber for his lead vocals on “Run”, where he really shines as a co-vocalist, and though his parts are limited in scope throughout the band’s catalog as a whole, he really has a good sense of when to employ them and when to let Scherff handle things on her own. Not only is this the band’s best album in nearly a decade, it’s at once comfortingly familiar and also a bit of a wing stretcher creatively. Faber strips things down to the meaty essentials at some points, and also takes the band into some fresh progressive territory in others, it all makes for a challenging and rewarding listen.
Fellowship – The Saberlight Chronicles:
At long last, one of the most promising power metal bands to debut in the past decade have delivered their debut album after stoking all of our collective fires a few years ago with their self-titled three song independently released EP. It made such an impact on myself and the entire power metal sphere at r/PowerMetal that it found itself of many people’s best of 2020 lists, including mine where “Glint” was my second favorite song of the year behind Seven Spires immortal “Succumb”. Going the label route this time with Italian power metal institution Scarlet Records, The Saberlight Chronicles folds in the three cuts found on the debut EP (wisely, leaving those off would’ve been a mistake) with nine other entirely new songs, with no lousy intro tracks and no interludes by the way. The question at the heart of this album is do these nine new songs live up to the standard set by those original three (“Glint”, “The Hours of Wintertime”, and “Hearts Upon the Hill”)? And you know how it goes, its rare that there’s a clear cut answer to something like that because I think for starters its hard to live up to hype in general, and there was a lot of expectation put upon this album in the sense that Fellowship was being heralded by some as potential saviors of EUPM (if you believed that EUPM is in need of a savior, another discussion altogether). I feel there is enough stuff here that equals the brilliance displayed on those aforementioned three cuts to say that yeah, Fellowship live up to their potential for the most part here, with a handful of songs present that I’m less enthusiastic about.
First it should be said that vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry straight up delivers across the board, turning in incredible vocal performances in his Tony Kakko-ian emotive vocal style and penning some truly moving lyrics, his chief strength that many of us picked up on in the early days and championed him for. He might never hit the heights that he landed on with the glorious exuberance of his refrain in “Glint”, but he gets very close with “Silhouette” here, Corry evocative in his poetic diction without couching it in bizarre metaphors or imagery… you get his meaning yet find it subtle enough to be open to other interpretations. I really love “Oak and Ash”, sort of the wayward sibling track to “Glint”, where our narrator finds himself unabashedly seeking validation from others. Its refreshing also to find a power metal lyricist that uses grandeur and fantastical imagery as a graceful metaphorical touchstone to talk about real inner turmoil, all with a truly authentic and distinct narrative voice. It’s a very Roy Khan-esque way of going about it. Guitarists Sam Browne and Brad Wosko deserve commendation for their work throughout here, with really beautiful melodies and gorgeously articulated leads that make these songs swirl and dazzle beyond just Corry’s awesome vocal lines. They really explode on “Atlas”, with a spectacularly designed bridge instrumental that has the electricity of Dragonforce and the tempered restraint of Falconer or Kamelot all at once. This is an admirable debut album, likely the strongest UK power metal debut in well over a decade and this band has so much to offer if they keep kicking out new albums down the road. Get in on them now.
There has been a handful of new albums that have shook me over the past month and a half that have come across my desk, and I mean literally. These all lean towards the heavier, extreme end of the metal spectrum, and I guess that’s just what I’ve been really into here lately as the brutal summer months arrive to envelope us in oppressive, withering heat. There’s the new album by leathered veterans Kreator after yet another lengthy five year wait, and a new album by Thormesis who were a band that I was pretty nuts over back in 2019 with their last album, and an armful of new records from band’s I’m entirely new too which is always encouraging. I haven’t been to any metal gigs since the last update, but there’s a bunch of tours coming up that are really tempting to buy tickets to, and I slated to see Moonspell and Swallow the Sun in late August which will also be my return to one of my favorite venues in town. It’s been also fun to check out some of the Hellfest footage on the YouTube ARTE channel, and the way they’ve segmented upcoming band’s performances as save-able video premieres is really convenient and something I’d hope other fests like Wacken would adopt (having to tune into a singular livestream feed seems like something that should have changed a few years ago now, our entertainment is literally all on demand now). Seeing Blind Guardian finally perform all of Somewhere Far Beyond was a treat to behold, I never thought we’d get to hear “Ashes to Ashes” live for starters. Although I can’t really imagine physically surviving going to Hellfest even for one weekend, let alone both, it’s nice to feel a part of this massive event from the comfort of one’s desk or couch. Anyway onto the reviews, and drop a line in the comments section on how you are all handling hell on ear— I mean summer! Yay… summer.
Kreator – Hate über alles:
Maybe it was the context of when I first checked out this album that really sold it for me, right after a particularly frustrating and exhausting day at work while driving in search of a tasty iced coffee on an afternoon where my car thermometer read 105°F. In that state of hellish existence, I really enjoyed the heck out of Hate über alles, tapping in rhythm on my steering wheel and pounding the passenger seat next to me for emphasis, but even now, some time later while listening to it at my desk, I think this album holds up to that initial positive impression. This is leagues better than 2017’s decent but sometimes flat Gods of Violence, an album that did not live up to the hype that 2012’s melodic death infused Kreator inspired with the truly excellent Phantom Antichrist. There’s a fire and intensity to Mille Petrozza that seemed missing from the last one, both in his lyrics and his impassioned vocals, not to mention some of the strongest songwriting they’ve delivered since Violent Revolution. It’s been interesting to see the varying opinions I’ve seen on this album, and as someone pointed out on a review in Metallum, there’s really no winning for legendary bands releasing new music. Fans want the band to recapture the essence and energy of a bygone era, and also want something new and fresh to the band’s sound so that it doesn’t sound like something they’ve heard before. I’ve seen some people complain about the lingering injection of melodeath in the Kreator sound over the past two albums post Phantom, and that’s puzzling to me, because as on “Strongest of the Strong” here, I think they’ve done a fantastic job at infusing that into their classic thrash sound. In fact the more melodic Kreator allow themselves to be, the richer and deeper their songwriting strikes me, with this album’s best cuts being those that allow for Sami Yli-Sirniö’s articulate lead melodies to flow over the top of Petrozza’s ever reliably crunchy riffing. This isn’t a deep dive review so while I won’t track by track it, I’ll point out “Demonic Future” (love that Maiden-y riff in the chorus), “Conquer And Destroy” has a gorgeous intro melody and rips into the most Kreator-y assault on the album, and I love the marching drive of “Crush the Tyrants” despite everyone complaining that it sounds like Sabaton (hey last time I checked, Sabaton didn’t invent the mid-tempo, just saying… where is everyone hearing this supposed Sabaton reference? Get real people…). This is a quality Kreator album for anyone willing to embrace it, quality songs, a mix of their classic sound and newer melodeath update, and Mille sounds like he’s reinvigorated from a lyric perspective.
Einvigi – Yö kulje kanssani:
I enjoy some atmo-black, but it’s rare that I recommend any records from that subgenre here on the blog, mostly because I tend to come to these albums far later than their initial release via recommendations from people or Spotify and by that time it’s a moot point. But I’m arriving right on time with Finland’s Einvigi and their late April release, Yö kulje kanssani. This is a refreshingly light on it’s feet, almost airy yet still substantial atmo-black record that reminds me more of stuff like Steven Wilson and weirdly enough, The Cranberries (musically) than it does Alcest or any of the French pioneers of this particular subgenre. Einvigi’s approach to guitars certainly come bearing riffs with dissonant tremolo passages and heavily distorted fuzzy wash (particularly that Alcest-ian effect of sounding like its coming over some distant fog-covered hill) but their real charm is heard in their jangly, strumming approach. Maybe its just my own individual point of reference, but I can’t help but hear other non-metallic influences shining through here, and my own filter is really clocking a lot of early 90s alternative sounding guitar melodies (I swear the intro to “Takauma” sounds like it could’ve been something from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?). The Smiths, Stephen Street’s production style… maybe even a little Smashing Pumpkins circle 92-96 — these are the sounds that I’m hearing when I play through Yö kulje kanssani, and there’s a warm nostalgic comfort to that. Maybe that’s why despite being a big fan of several Alcest records, and a few other atmo-black bands and albums here and there, its always leaning towards more of an appreciation of their objective qualities. Meaning that they’re albums I loved listening to because they were loaded with ear candy or just remarkable musical artistry. But I’ve been replaying this Einvigi album because it’s cutting a little deeper than those others, songs such as “De Profundis” and “Hirviöiden valtakunnassa” filled with the kind of watercolor beauty of Countless Skies’ Glow. But it’s somewhat futile to point out a killer song here, because this really is one of those recordings where its all meant to be a greater whole, to be digested at once so you fall under it’s spell and find that your emotional state is affected and your mood altered. It’s the kind of album you can describe as high art and primal all at once.
Thormesis – If Mania Never Ends:
Thormesis are back after delivering one of 2019’s best albums of that year in The Sixth, a reformation of their older style into something fresh and new that was at once blistering and full of rage and also pensive and melancholic. It’s sequel picks up where it left off, this time incorporating clean vocals in more lead vocal moments as opposed to just serving as a counterpoint to harshes and some peppered in melodeath growls. I’m not sure when the band started describing their sound as “atmospheric metal”, but that descriptor definitely fits for If Mania Never Ends as well as it’s predecessor. The Harakiri For the Sky adjacent soundscapes we got on The Sixth have been pushed over a bit for the introduction of a Finnish inspired, almost Insomnium-esque approach at times. The moody, somber epic “Still the Claim” is the most vivid sample of this infusion, and its smartly paced not to linger too long in one specific passage or another before jumping off to the next. It seems like this is a heavier album than The Sixth in terms of extremes, it’s sonic peaks such as “Cold and Soundless” and “You Are the Parting” having a fiercer, sharper attack than anything on the previous album where the main focus was all-encompassing atmospherics. One of Thormesis most fascinating aspects is how they blur the lines between black metal and melodeath death metal, being neither one and yet reflecting aspects of both styles. On the incredibly emotive “Anemone” you can hear this in the grinding stomp of that introductory verse passage with it’s melodeath assault and how it transitions gradually over the next few minutes into brightly lit progressive metal with black metal vocals underpinning things. At their most inspired, Thormesis manage to paint not so much with the watercolors of Einvigi, but with more primal streaks of raw emotion in violent, ugly, and also gorgeous fashion. This is definitely a progression of their sound, and although I prefer it’s predecessor for the meditative quality that album had as a whole, this is a worthy continuation of that sound.
Gladenfold – Nemesis:
This was a random stumble upon in the bowels of Spotify, a new to me melodic death metal band from Finland who are a surprising mix of Children of Bodom keyboard dramatics driven melo-death (with harshes that remind me of Alexi Laiho’s phrasing but a little more tightened up on the delivery) swirled together with a dose of rather convincing power metal ala Kamelot or classic era Sonata. Their secret weapon in this is that vocalist Esko Itälä is apparently capable of doing both with real skill, his harshes plenty satisfying on a purely sonic level and his clean power metal vocals possessed of a clear, deep, sonorous timbre. At times his singing voice reminds me of a deeper Matthew Corry of UK symphonic power metallers Fellowship, and that might be a random reference but there’s something to the way both of these singers can deliver earnest expressions in their approach to a vocal melody. Gladenfold’s merging of Finnish melodeath and power metal really comes loaded with some major early 2000s vibes, and also plays right into my wheelhouse, but what made me instantly hooked on Nemesis is just how artfully they’ve combined these elements together. Take for example the quick, blistering transitions from melodic to brutal and vice versa on the awesome “Chiara’s Blessing”; or the intensity of that ultra densely packed melodeath riffing on “Revelations” as a bed for Itälä’s harsh/clean switch ups in the verses. The songwriting throughout Nemesis feels well thought out, full of depth and intricate passages that more often than not do venture interesting roads, towards satisfying hooks in the refrains or really monumental musical peaks and valleys. The tucked away gem that really won me over was the Blind Guardian meets modern day Borknagar merger happening in “Tapestry of Creation”, where a beautiful acoustic build up explodes into something that would’ve sounded at home on Winter’s Thrice. I also have a soft spot for the ballad “Saraste” which evokes the best of Suidakra’s indulgent acoustic vibes with the aforementioned Blind Guardian’s bard-esque legacy of balladry into a beautiful piece of music that is the kind of thing you should wish someone would be playing live at the Renaissance festival. Gladenfold have been around for more than a few years (a 2014 debut but they’ve been a thing since 2004!) and it seems like most people are discovering them with Nemesis (their third album) like myself. Looks like I have some homework listening to do.
The Spirit – Of Clarity and Galactic Structures:
Relative newcomers, Germany’s The Spirit are a black metal duo that offer a refreshing take on mining the genre, not through the classic second wave mold of hyperspeed tremolo buzzsaw guitars and a battery of blastbeats, instead opting for a more dynamic songwriting approach that evokes Satyricon’s post-2000’s midtempo output. The first thing that struck me when listening through this album for the first time was just how much I was getting Now, Diabolical vibes not only from vocalist MT’s (no real name provided) very Satyr-esque vocal tone of charcoal black grit and hoarseness, but from the duo’s resolve to stick to a steady, mid-tempo pace as the centering focus of most of these songs. I suppose one could point out that their two man nature also naturally evokes comparisons to Satyr and Frost, but there’s plenty of two man black metal outfits out there, and few if any have taken to tapping this particular style of black metal as a source of inspiration (which is puzzling, but works to The Spirit’s advantage in sticking out from the pack). I should emphasize that this isn’t a purely copycat situation either, The Spirit blending that source of inspiration with complex layering and enough sudden directional shifts that give me some slight Dissection vibes as well. Take the intro to “Celestial Fire” for example, with a seriously Reinkaos-vibe lead pattern to open things up, only to careen headlong into a downhill frenzied pace that is still locked into a headbanging rhythm, never descending into an indecipherable mess. Drummer MS doesn’t rely on black metal tropes such as blast beats and traditional patterns, preferring to employ unorthodox hits and fills that really give the percussion throughout it’s own personality. Current favorite is “The Climax of Dejection”, where you get a real feel for just how multifaceted and complex their songwriting approach can, mixing traditional metal riffs with black metal sounding bends, chords, and tonality. I also love that MT’s ability to deliver enunciative vocals that are both decipherable lyrically and still bleak as all hell, making the lyrics on this album as much a part of the fabric of the recording from a literal standpoint as well as a textural one. This is a really strong black metal record that is refreshing in how it’s mining a source of inspiration that is relatively untapped, and for how they’re putting their own stamp on it.
Kvaen – The Great Below:
This was a nice surprise, a sufficiently brutal slab of blackened, Dissection-y folk tinged metal that fuses in bits of melodeath, straight ahead death, and finds a way to be really tuneful and unrelentingly aggressive at the same time. Kvaen is a one man project courtesy of one lone Swede named Jakob Björnfot, who according to Metallum is responsible for “everything” on this album. Björnfot isn’t a well known name for anything before this, but hopefully Kvaen changes that because he’s got this style of music flowing through his veins. As a guitarist, his approach seems to favor thrashy, speed driven riffing that’s equal parts Kreator and early, early Metallica. It keeps cuts such as the awesome title track and “Damnation’s Jaw” flowing with a wild, headbanging energy that I don’t normally associate with black metal. Even when he does turn towards a more traditional black metal riff structure as on “Sulphur Fire”, Björnfot seems to have an innate sense of keeping it reigned in, to not resort to cliched hypnotic/droning riff sequences as a crutch — instead he uses tremolo riffing as a spice, a flavoring. I love the simplicity and primal nature of this approach, as on “Ensamvarg” where we get into a meaty, fist pumping riff straightaway with a nice, fat, thundering tail to end the verse. His cinematic songwriting instincts are on full display here, employing keyboard/synth as a subtle coloring in assisting a key change, something that feels more natural than hearing a horribly out of tune keyboard melody distract from everything else around it. I also wanna point out the guitar solo here (and elsewhere throughout the album for that matter), because Björnfot is a damn good guitarist and he has an incredible instinct for knowing when to go for broke and go nuts and when to lean more towards the understated and tasteful as he does here to conclude the song. He’s a really strong harsh vocalist as well, his vocals on the right mix of charcoal with a hint of gravel. There’s a host of guest appearances on this album, some impressive names to boot too, but I’ll let you discover those on your own because truth be told they might be a clever initial draw, but you’ll be hitting repeat because of Björnfot’s songwriting and musicianship alone. Seriously one of the flat out best extreme metal (hard to know what to peg this as, it’s such a mish-mash of subgenres in the best possible way) albums of the year, and a likely contender for winding up on many best albums lists at the end of the year.
A lot has happened since my last update on the metal front, namely that I’ve seen an armful of bands live within the past month and a half. In April I finally had my pandemic delayed opportunity to see Seven Spires live and they did not disappoint, despite having a setlist that was limited in scope and set length to focus on the last album and just a few songs from the much beloved Emerald Seas (come to think of it, I don’t think they did anything from Solveig). I even got to say hello to Adrienne and Jack who were on the floor watching Firewind with the rest of us after their set — funnily enough, those two were also at the Rotting Christ/Borknagar show the other night here on the Devastation For the Nation’s Houston stop, although I didn’t see them personally and only found out through her Instagram story later. Oh yeah, getting to see Borknagar live for the first time was as my buddy Maurice at the show commented, a definite “bucket list” moment. Despite no Vintersorg in the lineup (and thus none of his era’s songs getting an airing), it was still an unforgettable experience and they were brilliant on stage in their own inimitable way. I’d seen ICS Vortex live way back in the day with Dimmu, but he was definitely way more in his own element here, his stage presence more attuned to being in a jam based band than the rigidity we’ve come to expect from black metal bands live. I also can’t express how surreal it was to see Oystein Brun in person, not that he’s a big celebrity even in the metal sense, but because this is a guy I’ve known about for twenty years now never thinking I’d get to see him play live.
What else? Oh yeah, of course, the epic two day Hells Heroes IV Fest that happened over the course of April 22nd-23rd where I got to see Candlemass for the first time ever (speaking of bucket list) on Friday night as the downstairs headliner, and High Spirits on Saturday night as the upstairs headliner. There were other tremendous bands I saw that weekend, Eternal Champion was brilliant live, I really loved Sumerlands who were way more fierce live than I was expecting, and getting to see Midnight again (who were the secret special guests) was a treat. I know Midnight had an album released back in March, and it sounds you know, like Midnight and it’s pretty good, but this is a band that I think is that rare bird that is best experienced live because they might be one of the best live performers in metal as a whole right now, just pure intensity and adrenaline when they’re onstage). On a recent MSRcast, we talked a bit in depth about the Hells Heroes experience, and quite a bit about how the expansion of an outdoor seating/merch/chilling area made the entire fest way more manageable and pleasant on a personal energy level than it was back in 2019, and I have to give praise to the organizers for that. It’s a great event and everyone should consider buying a ticket and coming down for it (that is, after I’ve bought mine of course).
There is also the recent slate of new music to cover, and I’ll be honest I’ve been listening to some albums far more than others. Månegarm and Lords of the Trident really occupied a lot of my metal listening time for the past few weeks, along with finding myself dipping back into Bruce Dickinson’s solo catalog (his speaking gig that I saw back in, what February(?) has apparently lingered in my mind since). I was jamming a bit of Dragonforce and Spires in the wake of that terrific gig, and went off on a post Hells Heroes tangent with some of the bands I got to see there as well. Recently its been Therion because they’ve dropped a new single and I couldn’t resist checking it out — it sent me on an indulgent spree of spinning their classic late 90s masterworks. This means I’m of course behind on new music, but thankfully I have people like Christian and Justin sorting through a mess of new music and I can afford to be a bit picky by really focusing on their recommendations, some which are landing and some not so much (opinions?!). Anyway here’s some of that in no real order below:
Månegarm – Ynglingaättens öde:
It feels like its been ages since an album has captured my heart and imagination the way the newest album by veteran Swedish OG folk metallers Månegarm has. This was a release day discovery, with me stumbling around the metal release calendar that Friday morning looking for anything interesting that had come out, and seeing this on it. I was utterly blown away from the very first song and all throughout this nine track masterpiece (I try not to use that term unless its warranted, and it absolutely is here), Ynglingaattens ode being a likely contender for the album of the year spot, because seriously this might be the most giddily surprised I’ve felt about anything metal wise since Seven Spires Emerald Seas. I’ve been a fan of the band since Havets vargar way back in 2000 when folk metal was exploding out of Scandinavia and Europe and felt nascently raw, vital, and fresh. I have in the past few years pointed out how there has been a quiet resurgence of both new and veteran folk metal artists who are releasing really strong records that harken back to that era, before the genre became bloated with gimmickry and goofiness. Thankfully Månegarm has been part of combating that nonsense for a good while now, with their 2019 album Fornaldarsagor landing on that year’s best albums list here, their most inspired offering in well over a decade. And they pick up right where they left off on this new album, slightly stepping away from Fornaldarsagor’s more blackened aggression to make room for more of their rootsy Scandinavian folk melodies this time around.
As if to prove that statement wrong, the album opener “Freyrs blod” comes striking out with a vicious frenetic aggression that would suggest otherwise at first. At around the two minute mark however, guitarist Markus Andé introduces subtle but gorgeous, grandiose sounding melodic progressions to accompany vocalist Erik Grawsiö’s soaring, leather worn clean vocals. I’m almost positive my eyebrows raised when I first heard this moment, it made me really sit up and take notice and by the time the hushed, folk string adorned vocal passage unfolded a minute and a half later, I was completely entranced. This is a ten minute song, something I honestly didn’t even realize until writing this review, because it doesn’t feel like ten minutes and not once was I aware of it’s length, a success in and of itself. It’d easily be the best track on an incredible album if it weren’t for the beautifully autumnal power ballad “En snara av guld”, with its sweetly melancholic violin accompaniment and a stunning vocal melody by Grawsiö. He’s joined here by his daughter Lea Grawsiö Lindström who turns in a really haunting performance, her voice a strikingly innocent yet mature counterpart to Grawsiö’s rougher textures. In the more purely folk ballad realm is the serene “Hågkomst av ett liv”, where recent Manegarm collaborator Ellinor Videfors sings wistfully to a lamenting melody with a subtle accompaniment by Grawsiö. I love that the band really dove deep on the folk side of their sound on this album, because I’ve always thought they had one of the most skillful and subtle touches when it came to working it into their overall sound. The melodies are brighter and more shimmering throughout this album, there’s a confidence here that suggests a comfortableness with their sonic identity — the result is an album that sounds spiritual, meditative and full of life.
Lords of the Trident – The Offering:
I love this album, and in classic Metal Pigeon fashion, it reached up from the inky blackness and slapped me without warning to become one of my most listened to records of the year thus far. The fifth album from Wisconsin based power metal goofs Lords of the Trident, The Offering represents a maturing and deepening of the band’s adventurous riff based power metal sound. There were hints that something like this was brewing on their 2018 effort Shadows From the Past, with some of those songs being incredibly solid, though I felt the album still felt a bit uneven throughout. That inadequacy is addressed here with not only a complete lack of any discernible weak spots across the board (a titanic accomplishment considering its 13 song track length), but with the band seemingly landing on a sound and overall approach that really rings true to them. This is power metal that is at once built on aggressive riffage, but at times plays on a balance of laid back hard rockin’ groove juxtaposed with strident, classic Edguy invoking adventurous power metal drive and gusto. The game changer lies not only on the instrumental front, but in how vocalist Fang VonWrathenstein (née Tyler Christian) has improved in leaps and bounds. Christian turns in a vocal performance here that is impassioned and rich, full of power but still capable of nuance and emotive inflections in his approach. It’s maybe my favorite vocal performance of the year overall, because it’s reminding me so much of a cross between Urban Breed and I dunno, maybe a lighter toned smoother vocalist like Tommy Karevik. His tone and delivery seems to be weighty and full of gravitas here, a more serious approach than he was dishing out on previous albums (which I’ll be honest, might have been why I wasn’t keen on their earlier stuff). The band is matching him too, turning out compositions that qualify this as a serious metal album despite the band members’ silly aliases. Songs like “Offering to the Void” and “Legend” have this beautifully vivid grandeur to them, soaring and majestic but still understated in their tonal color. Even when they cut loose with a wild rocker like on “Acolyte” or “Feed the Wolves”, there’s an intensity and precision here that is commanding my attention. Can’t say enough good things about this record, I’m really impressed and kinda relieved that a new power metal album has gotten me so fired up (there had been a concerning drought recently).
Trick or Treat – Creepy Symphonies:
Trick or Treat has been the Italian alternative for despondent fans of classic era Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Edguy who’ve longed for those bands to return to their lighter, more purist power metal sounds (though in fairness, Helloween has sorta gotten there). I’ve enjoyed their records on a mostly passing level since they debuted way back in 2006 with the unforgettably titled Evil Needs Candy Too, and have followed them since with a particular focus on seeing where Alessandro Conti’s various musical pursuits have led. While Conti’s classic power metal vocals are understandably the star attraction here, the band has really stepped up their efforts on the songwriting front this go around. One of the highlights here has them stretching their wings a bit on the power ballad front on “Peter Pan Syndrome (Keep Alive)” whose worrying title thankfully was disguising a gloriously uplifting, heartwarming gem the likes of which I’ve really missed hearing. I get major Avantasia with Kiske vibes on “Crazy”, and that’s a credit to Conti’s unnatural ability to sound a lot like the Helloween frontman when he hits a certain inflection. Conti and guitarist Guido Benedetti split the songwriting duties fairly evenly it seems across Creepy Symphonies, but there’s really a merging of styles with these two guys, a synchronicity in the way they’re approaching songwriting. In other words, Benedetti is just as liable to deliver songs with amply soaring vocals with arcing choruses as Conti is, there’s no discernible differences in approach that creates a noticeable dichotomy within the album. And I kinda like that because that consistency has yielded a truly fun, vibrant, and cheer inducing listening experience all throughout this album. Easily one of the strongest Euro-power albums I’ve heard in awhile alongside the Planeswalker album that came out earlier in the year.
Saidan – Onryō II: Her Spirit Eternal:
I’ve been addicted to this record as soon as I first checked it out, and in the weeks since that happened I’ve seen more and more people online talking about it here and there. Tennessean black metal duo Saidan deserve the traction, because this is kinda what I’ve been craving in black metal in a big way. On Twitter recently, user @VVolvenDaughterwrote“The thing black metal is missing is bangers. It’s an album genre, and good at atmosphere, but is distinctly lacking in standout songs that make you completely wreck your neck”, and while there are certainly exceptions to that statement, I largely agree with her. This is not to say that all black metal should be composed of attempts to write “bangers” either, because many of the black metal albums I do love are mostly textural, deeply layered, atmospheric experiences (cue Alcest and many other atmo-black records, as well as a majority of the second wave of black metal for that matter). But yeah, black metal could do with a crop of bands who understand the power of a headbanging worthy riff that stands out from the din of furious noise its usually buried by. When I saw Midnight at Hells Heroes, their blackened take on punky metallic speed metal was so effective at firing up the entire crowd live, and more recently, Rotting Christ’s hypnotic but arena ready riffs were absolutely commanding in a live situation. We were all banging our heads. And what I think Saidan get absolutely right on Onryō, their second album, is landing on that intersection between a densely layered, very much atmospheric experience while somehow being catchy as all get out with actual memorable riff sequences that cut through everything and smack you about the face. Take “Yuki Onna” for example, that melancholic yet aggressive intro riff repeating sequence is beguiling enough, but when the mid-song post bridge switch into a chugging, thunderous lumberjack of a riff kicks in, it’s deeply satisfying. There’s an excitement coursing through these songs, even the quiet interlude length cut with the odd name (“Kate”), where a tautly strung together clean guitar melody provides a tense backdrop for some breathy distant sounding melodic vocals. The truly killer moment is the entirety of the closing track “I Am The Witch”, where my only complaint is that the frigging awesome riff that kicks in at the five minute mark only sticks around for a minute before fading off to the conclusion (we needed a longer run of that one dammit). The sharpest and most hooky black metal album of the past two years easy, and that’s high praise considering the excellent records that have been delivered in that time frame.
Thunder – Dopamine:
This has been a nice surprise, a really strong new album by England’s hidden hard rock titans Thunder, a band that I’ll be honest, sort of fell off my radar over the past decade-ish plus. I first got into Thunder when I blindly bought a used cassette of their 1990 classic Backstreet Symphony way back in the mid-90s because the band name sounded vaguely metallic and the little band pic on the insert seemed to verify this as well. I had no idea who they were or where they came from (based on their sound I think for awhile I thought they were an American band), but I really loved that record and the band’s Bad Company meets classic GnR meets Tesla sound in general. I’d pick up a handful of their albums in the same secondhand way in scattershot fashion over the years and always enjoyed them, especially Laughing On Judgement Day, but looking over their discography page on Wikipedia now, I realize I’ve missed a ton of releases, particularly surprisingly high charting ones from the past handful of years. They’re a top ten charting band in the UK again, and clearly have experienced a revival of sorts, much like Magnum has recently with their past few efforts. If these other recent albums are anything like Dopamine, I can see why: This is confident, assured straight up hard rock from a veteran band that isn’t trying to be anything other than who they truly are. Songs like “One Day We’ll Be Free Again”, “The Western Sky”, and “Across the Nation” have that same recognizable no-frills hard rock attitude and swagger as anything off the first two albums, a refreshing sound to hear when lately I’ve been bouncing between all kinds of complexly layered extreme metal and densely layered K-Pop. I was particularly taken by the sparse piano adorned ballad “Is Anybody Out There?”, a great showcase that demonstrates guitarist Luke Morley’s songwriting abilities translate just as sharply with pure melodies as they do in cranking out memorable riffs. Vocalist Danny Bowes is nothing short of incredible here, emotive in his delivery and phrasing, landing on satisfying vocal runs and deftly handling delicate melodies. These two guys have a long track record together, and like similar duos in rock history (your Bob Catley/Tony Clarkin, your Jeff Keith/Frank Hannon pairings), they’re comfortable enough with each other to seemingly play to each other’s strengths. I’ve loved diving back into this really overlooked band (here in the States that is), and this has been a joy to listen to.
The past few weeks have been rather interesting in terms of big name releases on the metal landscape, with Ghost and Sabaton grabbing the headlines but not overshadowing new music from Hammerfall and Scorpions. There were a few more things I’ve been listening to that occurred in the past two weeks that I’ll have to get to next time around, although I suspect I’ll be writing about the upcoming Hell’s Heroes festival in Houston long before I can get to them (so stay plugged into the MSRcast to hear more new music talk in the interim!). Can hardly believe its April, but with a quarter of the year having gone by I’m more encouraged by what’s been released this year than in 2021, and there’s going to be some notable things coming out in the months to come. I’ve also been encouraged by listening to some other metal podcasts such as our friend David’s That Metal Podcast to make good on my promise to myself to do more writing on this blog that’s kinda selfish, those ideas I’ve kept meaning to get back to that always get shelved because of new music reviews. I started on this late last year with my Metal Pigeon Essential Ten: Power Metal write up, which I’m aiming to keep expanding on, but I also am hoping to get The Metal Pigeon Recommends feature relaunched too (David’s “The Northernmost Killers” episode on Sentenced got me thinking about it because they were last band I covered in that series as well). So yeah, there’s a lot on the agenda hopefully that will become reality soon enough.
Sabaton – The War To End All Wars:
So the first thought that came to my mind way back whenever I first heard that Sabaton was doing yet another World War I themed album was that they were committing a major faux pas… because rarely, and I mean friggin’ rarely does a band continue the same concept for two releases in a row. Even sequels tend to be separated by intervals of time, no matter how detrimental that gap in time can be (ask a Queensryche fan how they feel about Mindcrime II sometime). Sabaton’s reason for doing this is because they felt they simply had too many ideas that they couldn’t fit into The Great War due to the depth and wide reaching breadth of the subject matter at hand, and needed a continuation album. Shrewdly enough, they really did make an effort to tie the two records in together; from having cover artist Péter Sallai utilize nearly the same palette for the artwork, to ensuring similar stylization of the album titles, to even once again offering a narration boosted “history edition” of this album (which is what I’ve been listening to by the way) just like they did for The Great War. But the risk they run here is the unspoken elephant in the room tromping through their fans minds with the echoing message that these songs weren’t good enough to make the first one of these WWI albums, so here they are as leftovers. Hey its a fair enough thought, and I suspect there is a morsel of truth to it as well, but I’ve come to feel after many listens that The War To End All Wars succeeds more often than not and even shows glimpses of the band at their best.
Lets start with the highlights, and of course the first thing anyone should be singling out here is “The Christmas Truce”, which is in the running for being the one of the band’s most spectacular songs ever penned to date, certainly their best “epic”. Gorgeous, tinkling piano snowfall, setting the scene Joakim Broden paints out in some genuinely excellent lyrical diction, set to a melody that at once invokes the sounds of Christmas yet cuts them with an undercurrent of darkness and despair. This is a litmus test song for me, one of those cuts where I might start to side-eye question someone’s musical taste if they can’t even cop to this being a well wrought piece of music. Broden’s vocals dig deep here, full of passion, the kind of performance that required him to throw himself entirely into a different character, and if you’ve seen the incredibly well done music video you might know exactly what I’m alluding to. Another favorite is the grinding, stomping “Soldier Of Heaven”, where the prechorus features that classic Broden hammer drop (“A force of nature too strong, sent from above!”). It’s preceded on the album by the gloriously urgent spiritual cousin to Sabaton classic “Ghost Division” in “Stormtroopers”, not a song about the Empire’s fashionably iconic shock troops but the WWI era German troops of the same name. The Bulgarian Battle of Doiran anthem “Valley of Death” is old school swinging Sabaton action, all glorious triumphant major keys in that chorus and a truly memorable vocal hook. Nothing groundbreaking, but classic Sabaton when its on the mark satisfies that basic heavy metal need to fist pump and sing along. I also wanna point out “Hellfighters” for getting back to the darker, more grind it out sludgefest that The Great War often delved into, something I appreciated for the soundscape it gave to subject matter that needed a hefty dose of it to really give credence to the reality of WWI. The few other tracks I haven’t singled out here do however feel a little like the table scraps from this enormous WWI songwriting session, and they’re not bad songs per say, but their unremarkable nature makes this sequel a little less enthralling than part one.
Hammerfall – Hammer of Dawn:
If you didn’t remember, and you’d be forgiven for not doing so, I really enjoyed the heck out of Hammerfall’s Dominion in the before times back in 2019. Time really flies when you’re heeding the call as Joacim Cans reminds us on the door kicking opener “Brotherhood” (and lets face it, if you’re not heeding the call, why are you reading a Hammerfall review?). Is this classic medieval imagery as a metaphor for Hammerfall concert attendance anthem also hinting at the reality of our collective concert yearning during the pandemic? I normally wouldn’t try to read too much into Hammerfall’s lyrics for obvious reasons but I detect a note of… gratitude, hopefulness, or yearning present in Cans’ words here, and I have to think these songs were written sometime last year when we still didn’t know if shows would be happening in 2022. I last saw Hammerfall in 2018 when they were touring with Flotsam and Jetsam as openers in tow, it was a spectacular time, and they were supposed to be back in fall of 2020 with Beast In Black and Edge of Paradise. I’m incredibly eager to see them return not only for the classic material they’ll be playing, but also because with Hammer of Dawn, they now have two recent albums that I’ve been incredibly fired up about hearing cuts from live.
This is a far more conventional Hammerfall listening experience than Dominion, where the band was not so much experimenting as they were stretching their reach towards more creative songwriting approaches that really worked well. By no means does that make Hammer of Dawn boring though, this is a strong album with relatively few weak moments, but nothing as stellar as “Sweden Rock”, “Chain of Command”, or “Second to One”. The sure fire bangers here are the throwback Renegade-era invoking title track, the cheeky lyrical play of “Too Old to Die Young”, the complex tempo shifting “Reveries”, and the King Diamond assisted “Venerate Me” (although it’s hard to detect the King’s presence at first… maybe they can be knocked for under utilizing him). It’d be easy to think that simply being a Hammerfall fan means you’ll receive each new album fairly well, but that’s not always the case — I’m still not that wild on Infected and (r)Evolution, and there are tangible and intangible aspects I look for when it comes to new material from the group. What they’ve managed to grab ahold of on these past two albums I think is largely an awareness of who they are and what they’re best at tackling on a musical level. I’ve accepted that the raw, melodeath-ian influenced guitar attack they had on the first two albums is likely gone forever, replaced by the post millennium sense of Priest-like precision and the far less dense, looser chugging approach to their riffs. At its core of course, it boils down to the very simple question of whether the songwriting is on point or not, and lately it has been. This is a trend that I hope continues.
Allegaeon – Damnum:
The name Allegaeon has been floating around my metal circle for awhile now, and although I have been introduced and exposed to their past few records via the podcast and just earnest recommendations that have come my way, it’s only on this new album Damnum that I’m really paying attention of my own accord. I’ll have to revisit the others to see if this record is just the beginning of them really landing on something truly inspired, or just the latest entry among a really impressive body of work that I’ve been spacing out on. I have listened to Damnum probably as much as I’ve been listening to any other metal record in the entirety of these past four months of 2022, and it speaks volumes that any record can command that kind of firm, long lasting grip on my attention span these days. And while there’s plenty of bands trying to do to death metal what Allegaeon is succeeding in doing here, namely, reimagining it through a progressive metal filter and embracing melody without turning into a melodic death metal band (a subtle distinction, but certainly a valid one). Their greatest asset in accomplishing this is vocalist Riley McShane, who is capable of some convincingly ferocious growls, fantastically blackened shrieking vox, and a full, almost warm sounding clean vocal tone that he can switch back and forth without warning. It allows the band to be adventurous in their songwriting, to pull some head spinning shifts in tempo and aggression one way or another, and to utilize unconventional rhythms and space as textures and soundscapes for more introspective, moodier moments. Take “Called Home”, which boasts some of the album’s most violent passages, but also has McShane leading us in an emotively sung clean vocal passage over drifting, isolated lead figures and some echoing, off-beat proggy drum fills.
McShane’s clean vocals are at once familiar and also hard to find a direct comparison to, he’s more of an amalgamation of a handful of vocalists you might already know than a doppelganger of one other singer or another. His work towards the end of the impressive album opener “Bastards of the Earth” kinda recalled hints of Haken’s Ross Jennings crossed with Countless Skies’ Phil Romeo (or you know, insert your own point of reference here). Perhaps even more impressive however is his razor sharp enunciation that cuts through in his harsh and growling vocal techniques. Even in uber dense cuts like “Into Embers”, where the band’s more tech death side surfaces, setting aside most melodic indulgences, you can actually discern the lyrics or at least most of the syllabic structure that he’s barking out. I feel like this is an incredibly underrated talent in extreme metal, its one thing for harsh or growling vocals to serve as more of a textural element, we’re all used to that by now. But actually combining that with understandable lyrics is something that can elevate a band’s songwriting, particularly when you have a lyricist with talent at work (Rivers of Nihil should get credit for this as well). Guitarists Greg Burgess and Michael Stancel also deserve mention for their work here, having crafted a wildly diverse tapesty of straightforward yet satisfying tech-death meets tremolo riffs and creative lead breaks and pattern changes. The amount of crazy changeups in a song like “Vermin” was headspinning, yet always felt perfectly timed and never something that was just done because it could be, everything felt of a purpose. This was one of those albums that sat at the crossroads of being familiar enough to be comforting, and yet full of surprises at the same time, a hard place to get to.
Scorpions – Rock Believer:
I’ve had a hard time evaluating this new and possibly final Scoprions album. When I’m actively listening to it I find that its a suitably rockin’ experience for the most part, there are certainly no glaring flaws to be heard. Yet unlike 2010’s now seemingly very strong Sting In the Tail, there aren’t that many moments that are lingering in my mind afterwards (something that characterized damn near all of 2015’s Return to Forever). And you know, I get that maybe expecting too much from a Scorpions record at this stage in their career is a bit rich, that I should just be happy to accept any new music from the legends (and I am). But here’s the thing: Klaus and company got my hopes up with this cover art many months back. It screamed a purposeful throwback to perhaps a late 70s/early 80s sound and spirit, and in somewhere in the very naïve portion of my mind I was hopeful that there could even be a reach back into the band’s more psychedelia infused days with Uli Jon Roth. Of course when I finally got to hear the album in full, it immediately dawned on me that an important aspect of achieving that wish would be, you know, Uli Jon Roth being in the lineup… so shifting back to the more realistic hope of an 80s throwback sound, how well did the Scorpions live up to this kinda sorta promise? Actually they did alright, Rock Believer has a distinctly older school feel that’s built on the band’s fundamental building blocks of straight ahead hard rocking riffs, and Klaus spitting out verses with more attitude filled swagger than he’s done in ages. Of course its still got the sheen of modern production on it, despite the deliberate attempt to conjure up an analog warmth (I could be wrong about this of course but I think at this point I’d be able to suss out a true analog record).
Okay I’m rambling. Here’s what rocked me on this record, first thing to mention being the title track itself, a song that is musically a bridge between modern Scorpions more mellower bent crossed with some Savage Amusement era style riffs and cowbell. If you haven’t seen the music video for this song, you owe it to yourself to check it out because the song is solid enough on it’s own as a slice of bittersweet nostalgia, but the visual dichotomy of the Scorp’s rocking out today intercut with classic footage of their previous eras elevates the entire thing to something that’s truly poignant and kinda hit me right in the emotional gut. It’s followed on the album by the classic 80s “Holiday” vibes invoking “Shining Of Your Soul”, Klaus’ vocals here incredibly emotive and that minor key dip on the prechorus just devastatingly effective at recreating a very specific sound that rings of classic Scorpions. I also love the wildly fast paced rocker “When I Lay My Bones To Rest”, Rudolf Schenker and Mathias Jabs trading off attitude spitting riffs like they’re Slash and Izzy. Klaus sounds in his element there as much as he does on the gorgeous melancholic power ballad “When You Know (Where You Come From)”, which reminds me of previous soul searching balladry classics such as “Send Me An Angel” or more recently, “Lorelei”. And of course “Peacemaker” and “Seventh Son” were absolute jams, culling from that tap of old school spirit that informs so much of this album. I’m realizing now that I’ve coincidentally picked all of the official singles as my favorite cuts from the album, which wasn’t intentional really, but perhaps telling. The rest of the album is decent to good, there’s some weird stuff on here such as the few songs relegated to the “bonus disc” (like the odd but kinda likable “When Tomorrow Comes”) which I’d agree to being wisely left off the main album tracklisting… but really a solid outing by the Scorpions in delivering as good of a throwback record they could muster for a possible final sting. My wish is that they actually would tap Uli to cowrite for another album that revisits their classic psychedelia 70s era, but maybe that’s asking a lot of a band in their 70s. I’m happy they didn’t end things with Return To Forever, this is a worthy swan song if it is indeed that.
Ghost – IMPERA:
I don’t believe I’ve ever reviewed a Ghost record before, and I figured I never would because there’s likely enough written out there about this band and rightly so. They’re a big deal like it or not, and generally speaking, I’m in favor of bands with loud guitars and riffs getting to arena levels because it’s good for the entire metal/hard rock ecosystem. We have talked about Ghost on the podcast before and I did make mention of how I enjoyed their turn towards Scorpions-esque 80s hard rock on 2018’s Prequelle, with “Dance Macabre” being the most convincing Klaus Meine impression anyone’s ever delivered this side of the Rhine (I don’t know what that means it just feels right to say it). Despite that however, I’ve been fairly ambivalent about their music itself, finding it enjoyable enough in the moment (I even thought they were pretty solid live opening for Maiden) but never really having an urge to seek it out on my own all that often. That might change with IMPERA however, because I’m genuinely surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this record as a whole. The draw here is that Tobias Forge is sticking with further exploring the hard rock avenue he was careening onto on the last album, and its continuing to yield inspiring results. There’s Night Flight Orchestra esque late 70s/early 80s vibes happening on “Spillways” with as smartly crafted a pre-chorus/chorus combo as Forge has ever penned. Equally as compelling is “Call Me Little Sunshine” with its call back to the doomier tempos of their early career albums sans the Blue Oyster Cult sound.
What I really enjoy about Forge as both a songwriter and a vocalist is his indulgence of lush, layered vocal harmony, be it his own vocals multitracked again and again or better still, via backing vocals from some of the nameless ghouls that make up the rest of the lineup (at some point, it would be great to know who he’s playing with). There’s a choir being used on the gorgeously dramatic “Darkness At The Heart Of My Love” to glorious effect, at one point taking over lead vocals for Forge towards the end of the song in a bittersweet finale. And its worth mentioning that the album closer is the closest thing Ghost has come to an “epic” and its really, really well constructed, mini-hooks abound and the major refrain is vintage Forge with an emotive vocal melody. I even dug the harder, more aggressive cuts here (they were outnumbered for sure by midtempo and slower songs) such as “Hunter’s Moon” and “Watcher In The Sky” with their metallic bite and even the truly bizarre “Twenties” was hooky in its own quirky and comedic way. Metal, hard rock or whatever you wanna label it, IMPERA really is one of the strongest albums of the year, and I’m okay with admitting that.
As I’m writing this, the new Scorpions record has dropped today and sounds like something plucked from the early 80s, and in the news Russia is being a belligerent antagonist on the world stage yet again. If I wasn’t lucid, I could be deceived that we were traveling backwards in time for better or worse. Dark times aside, that Scorpions record is certainly something I’m going to be diving into on the blog very soon, but before I do, I ought to clear the decks of everything I’ve been listening to metal-wise for the past month and a half. I took some time in January to investigate records I’d missed in 2021, but have spent the rest of the time since digging into the flurry of new music these first two months have yielded. Part one of this coverage was done on the recent episode of MSRcast, and I’ll be talking with Cary on our next episode about our having just seen Bruce Dickinson’s An Evening With spoken word show here in our backyard of Stafford, Texas the other night. Covered below is everything else I didn’t really get to on the podcast, but be sure to let me know in the comments section if there’s something I’ve egregiously overlooked new music wise.
Amorphis – Halo:
There are many people who loved the last Amorphis album Queen of Time, I was not one of them. I didn’t exactly hate it, because it had some spectacular moments (the Anneke van Giersbergen duet “Amongst Stars” for one), but it was a let down for me after Under The Red Cloud and before that, Circle and The Beginning of Times. The thing that was frustrating about it was that it was hard to pin down what exactly felt off to me about it. I wondered if it wasn’t that there was an imbalance in the band’s melodic and aggressive sides, something leaning too much in one direction or another, but that didn’t make sense because Red Cloud was indeed their most melodic leaning album to date and I thought that was a masterpiece. Pushing past uncertainty, I’d say I’ve found more to enjoy here, but only slightly more — it doesn’t have a singular cut as spectacular as Queen of Time’s aforementioned glorious duet, but Halo’s heavier moments ring more convincing to me. Album opener “Northwards” has a crushing, intense attack built on a hypnotically rhythmic riff sequence, with Tomi Joutsen’s guttural narration pushing the way forward. The little bit of 70s Hammond organ shimmying in the middle like some long lost Deep Purple cut works really well as a dynamic shift in tone, especially with keeping it fairly uncomplicated and simple and not spiraling off into frenzied weirdness like so much recent Opeth. The multi-faceted “The Wolf” is a satisfying blast of brutality juxtaposed with some cosmic spaciness that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Slightly mellower but very much vintage Amorphis, the title track is an achingly beautiful Esa Holopainen lead melody draping across a frenetic assault underneath, Joutsen taking a more serenely mournful approach on vocals rather than one of angst and fury. I also thought “On the Dark Waters” had a compulsive quality to its rhythmic strut and a really sweetly dark chorus melody that worked with Joutsen’s vocal tone in that really inimitable way that only Amorphis could pull off (also dig the sitar-ish melodies in that mid-song bridge sequence).
And while “The Moon” isn’t as compelling as some of their previous singles, it’s still got that mid-tempo Amorpi-groove on lock and there’s a dramatic build up to a chorus that is good in the moment, if not ultimately memorable. But that song hints at the more concerning deficiencies that are noticeable on songs like “When the Gods Came” and “Seven Roads Come Together”, where there are good elements in place in the buildup to what should be a fantastic refrain, only for everything to either fail to launch or unravel entirely. Take the former, this album’s “Wrong Direction” in that it’s chorus vocal melody comes off as so misdirected that it brings the whole song down with it. The offending line is Joutsen singing “…they taught us how to live our lives”… a line that just hangs there without any musical support, not to mention as a melodic idea it feels incomplete or just incorrect as is. Regarding “Seven Roads…”, it’s one of those moments where I really love everything about the song except that refrain, and I’m sorry, but when you’re escalating tempos alongside some tension building orchestration, I need that refrain to pay off hard. This might be the most aggravating moment on an album that has it’s fair share of frustrating ones, because this song could’ve been the highlight on Halo but it falls short in it’s most critical moment. And then there’s other tunes that are you know, just there, such as “A New Land”, “Windmane”, and “War” which I honestly can’t remember after I’m done listening to them. Sometimes I get the feeling that Amorphis has found itself in a bit of a cycle where they’re trying too hard to sound like modern day Amorphis, shoehorning in clean vocal choruses or verses where maybe a song would be better served by just leaning harder full tilt in a more aggressive direction. In summation, at least it’s a step above Queen of Time, but not much of one, and that’s slightly concerning and I’m left a little underwhelmed still.
Battle Beast – Circus of Doom:
Battle Beast’s sixth album, Circus of Doom, is an interesting case study in a band mid-career stumble onto something genuinely inspired. I say it’s interesting because its really not that different from their past two albums on a stylistic level, but there is an almost imperceptible shift happening with these songs. Their last album was met with some scathing criticism for the band’s perceived stepping over the line between hooky pop-metal and just egregious, commercial pop. Now I actually enjoyed some of that record, but I do recognize where some of those criticisms might be coming from, and seemingly so does the band. As if realizing they hit the limits of where they could go with that aspect of their sound, they’ve retreated just a bit here, but not to the Priest-ian roots of their early albums. Instead on songs here such as “Eye of the Storm”, “Wings of Light”, “Master of Illusion”, and “Armageddon”, the band shifts their pop direction away from the Roxette-ian Swedish-tinged merger with 80s American hard rock of No More Hollywood Endings and leans hard into late era Abba (think the dark melodrama of the Swedes Super Trouper and The Visitors eras… full on Swedish then). It’s an incredibly shrewd move, and that ABBA influence allows the band to stay affixed to a poppy songwriting approach while painting in darker colors that accentuate Noora Louhimo’s incredibly emotive, raspy vocals. You really hear how this combination is maximized on “Where Angels Fear to Fly”, where we get an almost regal, Savatage-ian chorus that at first seems to stand apart from the tempered hard rock strut of the verses, but which Louhimo is able to merge together towards the end of the song with her vocals alone. It sounds like the band has realized that the best way to go about finding their sound is to simply elevate her ability to sound damn fantastic. Her voice is tailor made for this hard rockin/late era ABBA crossroads, and they’d do well to stay in this pocket for future albums. Honestly, the band has never sounded better.
Planeswalker: Sozos Michael & Jason Ashcraft – Tales of Magic:
In the depths of power metal fan communities, this was a much anticipated album despite its lower profile, independent release. Jason Ashcraft is of course the guitarist and founder of Helion Prime, one of the more well known leading lights of North American power metal in the past few years and Sozos Michael is an excellent melodic vocalist from Greece who you might recognize because he sang on Helion’s second album after Heather Michele Smith’s departure in 2016. You might remember that I didn’t think 2021 was all that stellar of a power metal year (a largely pervasive sentiment it seems), but it looks like this year is getting an early start on rectifying that deficiency with this and other recent debuts (Power Paladin, and even a full length Fellowship album due sometime soon). Simply put, Planeswalker’s Tales of Magic is maybe the most satisfying classic Euro-power metal release in the past twelve months and perhaps longer. Clocking in at a tidy six tracks and forty-two minutes of original music (minus a punchy cover of Kiss’ “A Million To One” at the end as a bonus), Ashcraft and Sozos have crafted a superb record of anthemic, triumphant Euro-power with some North American trad-metal influences heard in the riff sequences here and there (see the surprisingly death metal tinged riffage at the 1:40 mark of “Oath of the Gatewatch”). Ashcraft is a talented songwriter in terms of putting together a framework of melodic yet aggressive riffing and some really dizzying, glorious solos, but it’s been proven that he shines brightest when paired with a vocalist who understands how to develop their own vocal melodies. That’s not a knock on Ashcraft by the way, it’s certainly the way things worked with Thomas Youngblood and Roy Khan and with Ashcraft’s own prior experiences with Heather Michele Smith. This sounds like a true collaboration, with Sozos and Ashcraft sometimes joining together on a shared melody (“Tales of Magic”, “The Spark”), or at times Sozos doing the piloting alone as on the theatrical stage play of “Shadow of Emeria”. The two killer cuts here are the back to back daggers of “Blackblade” and “The Forever Serpent”, two songs that had me glory clawing in the car down the freeway. Ashcraft’s layered lead melody in “Blackblade” is inspiring in a euphoric, head rush kind of way, particularly when he lets it ring and repeat to close out the song. And “The Forever Serpent” is just a beast of a song, one of those instant power metal classics that exemplify the potential of power metal to inspire and make you feel genuinely happy for a few minutes. Consider this the year’s first (and hopefully not last) must listen, can’t skip power metal classic.
Nocturna – Daughters of the Night:
If you listened to the last MSRcast, you’ll hear the moment when I realize during the recording that Nocturna is yet another project of Italian power metal wunderkind Federico Mondelli (Frozen Crown, Volturian, etc). I don’t know the motivation for this new project, but it’s not too far off from what he’s doing with his wife Giada Etro in Frozen Crown, albeit with a more symphonic, darker themed approach with two lead vocalists in Rehn Stillnight and Grace Darkling. These two women both have relatively similar melodic singing tones, an unusual approach for any band to take, They both seem to veer between a classically informed approach ala Dianne Van Giersbergen and relatively straightforward melodic vocals, but together in tandem it creates an approach that is actually somewhat refreshing in comparison to the standard beauty and the beast vocal duo tropes found in the genre. Some of these songs are pretty darn good in their own right, with Mondelli seemingly having saved his best riffs for this project (the last Frozen Crown record left a lot to be desired). The clear example of this is “Daughters Of The Night”, which sees some furious riffing bookending a truly gorgeous layered vocal duet during the refrain. Similarly on “Blood of Heaven” Mondelli serves up a thrashy bed of power metal guitars that is a fantastic push against Stillnight and Darkling’s combined melodic vocals, which aren’t sugary, but certainly are lush and full. As a songwriter, Mondelli feels far more in his element here than in Frozen Crown where it seems like he’s still trying to figure out how all the pieces are supposed to fit together. And maybe it’s the singular focus on vocal melodies that does the trick, as on “Darkest Days”, which sounds worryingly glittering and fragile until the chorus sees both singers pulling the song together with an incredibly tight, nimbly delivered vocal melody. There’s something fresh and (using the F-word here) fun, about this album. It’s dual vocal approach is unique within the genre, even in comparison to other clean vocal groups like Temperance. Hoping we get another record and that this isn’t just a one-off.
Dawn of Solace – Flames Of Perdition:
The irony of this album being covered in the same article as the Amorphis review is that Flames of Perdition is solely responsible for why I’m late in publishing this damn thing. I spent so much time listening to this record that repeat listens of the new Amorphis kept getting pushed to the backburner, because when it comes to dark, slightly depressive melodic metal this was where I was turning to these past few weeks. Dawn of Solace if you didn’t already know is yet another project of Wolfheart guitarist/vocalist Tuomas Saukkonen, pairing himself here with a gifted Finnish singer named Mikko Heikkilä (who sang in Saukkonen’s now defunct Black Sun Aeon) who sounds like a less nasally Tuomas Tuominen (of The Man-Eating Tree, another um, Finnish band). Contrary to his more brutal side shown in Wolfheart, Dawn Of Solace really sees Saukkonen exploring more groove based, clean vocal territory, stepping away from the mic for the most part (he provides some growls) to let Heikkilä steer these songs with some really incredible vocal performances. There’s a desperation to his vocal approach that feels understated and worn in, and it matches the relatively straightforward riff based mid-tempo rhythm work that Saukkonen builds these songs around. His songwriting often mixes in crisp acoustic guitars as melodic guiderails with Sentenced-esque melodic doom laden riffs piled underneath like wood for a bonfire. The album opener “White Noise” illustrates this combination’s simple but elegant effectiveness, allowing Heikkilä the space to take the reins with vocal melodies that are expressive and tell a story. My favorite moment on the record might be the title track itself, a piano dirge intro that softly shakes out into a darkly comforting acoustic ballad. Saukkonen lets this gorgeousness unfold while utilizing silence in scattered pulses, only to hit you with a sudden burst of cinematic noise around the two minute mark in a dramatic flourish. The push and pull tension in this song and in others such as “Black Shores” is at times unsettling and disquieting, but always compelling to experience. I think this album has a meditative quality to it that gives it an emotional resonance that I’ve been longing for in a metal record for awhile now. Get this in your headphones before the cold weather drifts away.
Magnum – The Monster Roars:
This one almost snuck by me, arriving with little advance fanfare or media buzz which isn’t exactly surprising given Magnum’s veteran status and their almost non-existence on this side of the Atlantic as a known quantity. It’s a bummer because classic rock fans would really love what the band has been doing lately, their last two albums being in particular fantastic examples of a late career artistic renaissance (The Serpent Rings was a 2020 album of the year listee). That record in particular was everything I could have wanted out of a Magnum record, an Avantasia influenced, power metal invoking classic that was built on sweeping melodies, some incredibly passionate performances from vocalist Bob Catley and a sense of grandeur that reminded me of On A Storytellers Night on steroids. I suppose it was inevitable then that The Monster Roars would be a bit of a letdown as a follow-up, although there are certainly moments here that remind me of what they were capable of on the last two records. I think the problem with The Monster Roars as it pertains to what I want are that the band has slightly shifted their approach to a more rootsy hard rockin’ feel rather than the dramatic and epic bombast heard on those records. Lead single “I Won’t Let You Down” is a vivid example of this, a song that is caught between a escalating keyboard arrangement that seems to want to take things to new heights, only to see the song retreat to a slower, somewhat meandering guitar pattern in a jarring shift. Other songs in this laid back mode just never seem to take off, like “Can’t Buy Yourself A Heaven”, where the chorus feels almost underdeveloped. Songs like “The Day After the Night Before” have some cool passages, only for their momentum to be halted with a sudden turn into a blander, less exciting area. Frustrating might be too harsh a criticism, but unsatisfying certainly describes my feelings on most of these songs. I’ll give credit to “Remember” though for being an absolute Magnum classic, the playful piano buildup, the tambourine adorned chorus with an awesome driving riff and Catley magic. I also enjoyed the Savatage vibe of “All You Believe In”, and the rare instance of an accompanying horn section in “No Steppin’ Stones” is a blast (seriously a cool throwback to something that is unmistakably out of fashion but I still kinda love). Other Magnum fans might really love this album, but the monster wasn’t roaring for me I guess.
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 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.