The Mid-Year Reviews Cluster Catch Up

So I spent most of the past month mistakenly thinking that this summer was a little light on quality new music, and to a certain extent that’s right in terms of May and June. Fortunately for me I’ve taken advantage of the lull to do some digging on stuff I might have missed in the past six months in general. I discovered these through a variety of different sources, but mostly from my friends at /r/powermetal and its corresponding Dischord chat as well as the USPM Connection Facebook group, all of whom helped me out with a ton of suggestions for albums I’ve missed (for better and worse). I’ve picked out a handful of the most interesting ones, so I guess these are somewhat reviews but kinda also just straight up recommendations that I think are worth your time. I’ve also reviewed the new Khemmis and Kobra and the Lotus, two bands that I had previously heard of but have never written about or investigated too much until now. The nature of how I came to hear most of these bands is a microcosm of the very essence of this blog’s founding mission, namely being a conduit for word of mouth recommendations, from others to me, and hopefully myself to you.

 


 

 

Exlibris – Innertia:

Before we begin, a little clarification is necessary because there are two active metal bands based only a few hundred kilometers apart in Europe sharing the same name. Well, almost. So there’s Ex Libris, the Dutch symphonic metal band helmed by ex-Xandria vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen that’s active once more and in the process of crowdfunding a new album. Then there’s Exlibris, and the modern power metal band from Poland, and that’s who we’re talking about here with their new album Innertia. Poland has had a small yet noticeable impact on the power metal scene, the most notable band being Crystal Viper. There’s some much smaller profile Polish bands such as Gutter Sirens and Night Mistress, the latter of whom incidentally shared a vocalist in Krzysztof Sokołowski with Exlibris for a couple years and a few albums. He was a fairly proficient vocalist, but Exlibris have finally decided to take a big step apart and forward by recruiting a singer of their own in Finland’s own Riku Turunen, who turns out to be a remarkable talent. This is my introduction to him, but damn what an introduction. He’s got a nice blend of influences in his vocals, a blast of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammett’s raw power with a dash of Timo Kotipelto’s penchant for endearing phrasing of specific words and phrases. I really love his work all over this album, and he’s arriving at a time when a lot of us are looking around at the power metal landscape and wondering where the next powerhouse vocalists are —- as it turns out, there’s a load of them all over the globe, they’re just not getting the recognition they should.

 

As impressive as Turunen is, I don’t want to minimize what the band has accomplished with Innertia, because this is one of the most dazzling modern power metal albums I’ve heard in awhile. Its riffs are thick, meaty and Tad Morose level heavy at moments, but the songwriting is quick on its feet, throwing changes and abrupt shifts this way and that which keep things from getting plodding or staid. There’s a few songs here that evoke tinges of Theocracy’s blistering yet melodic rhythmic attack, the album leading “Harmony of Spheres” comes to mind with its airplane takeoff acceleration and lush vocal lift on the bridge. The mid-song shift to a regal symphonic metal breakdown (as close as it gets to such a strange concept anyway) is a nice diversion, something to lock in our attention as the song hits its final minutes. These guys do a lot of that, little musical ideas tossed in here and there that work to maximize the overall impact rather than simply standout on their own. I mentioned the backing/layered vocals a second ago, and I love that they’re confident enough to write with them as a major component of the songwriting at times, as on “Gravity” whose refrain is classic call and response hard rock theatrics —- the strident lead vocals up close and personal while the backing vocals handle the progression of the vocal melody driving things forward. While guitarist Daniel Lechmański and keyboardist Piotr Sikora help Turunen out on backing vox on most tracks, guest vocalist Ann Charlotte Wikström is heard on many spots throughout with assists on lead vocal lines as on album highlight “Shoot For the Sun”. Its a spectacular song and it really shines towards the end when she weaves around Turunen in a twisting, enjoining vocal dance to finish the track —- a gorgeously sublime moment.

 

The Sammett comparisons surface again in a positive way for much of “Incarnate”, and honestly it makes the Edguy/Avantasia fanboy inside nine kinds of giddy. I really love Sikora’s keyboard work, he’s really working a Jens Johansson approach here, not only for the flashy solos but in how he utilizes his keys largely as an orchestral instrument to help amplify Turunen’s vocal lines. His interplay with Lechmański’s guitarwork throughout the album is intriguing to behold on its own apart from the vocals, and when all three elements join up on the same melody as on the chorus for “Amorphous” the results are triumphant, fist in the air stuff. Great bands make choruses like these seem easy, but if you listen to enough mediocre, not-quite-there power/trad metal you’ll realize they’re enormously difficult. It takes vision to write something that has such a well-defined melodic arc, and I’d put Exlibris’ work on this album up there with the best of new Terje Haroy/Jacob Hansen era Pyramaze. I love that they’re not afraid of challenging themselves with complexity during their refrains either, as on “Origin of Decay” whose chorus is its own countermelody to the verse, a bold decision that works well, I enjoyed it so much that even the spoken word effects in the middle didn’t bother me (and they usually do). A day after I first heard this album I recorded a recent MSRcast where I prematurely spoke of Innertia as a casual summertime jam type of affair —- but subsequent listens have made a right fool out of me. I simply can’t say enough good things about this record right now, it came out of nowhere and just floored me. At this point I’m not just talking about Innertia being potentially the best power metal record of 2018, I’m talking about it being in the running for the best album of the year list period.

 

 

 

 

Kobra and the Lotus – Prevail II:

Another chapter in my ever expanding legacy of coming around to bands late, Kobra and the Lotus finally grabbed my attention with 2017’s Prevail. I heard that album when it came out last summer with a few cursory listens and came away surprised that I was enjoying parts of it, but it got lost in the shuffle of releases around the time and I never reviewed it. But there’s something happening here on its sequel that signals that perhaps the band is coming into their own creatively. Kobra Paige has always been an impressive vocalist, but for me this is the first time I’m hearing her vocals in a context that makes the most of their Doro-esque strength and vigor, her performance in this album at times even recalling the tensile flexibility of Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. The band shares credit in this too, giving her ample room to steer the melodic ship with her vocals, the often delightfully catchy riffs from Jasio Kulakowski working around her via accents and countermelodies. Its the sound of a band that has searched for and discovered its strengths over the course of a few albums and is now leaning into them hard.

 

The most vivid example of that realization is heard on “Let Me Love You”, as fine a single as we’ve heard all year and the kind of metal summertime jam where the lyrical matter doesn’t matter so much as the groove, the riff, and the killer hook does. I say lyrical matter doesn’t matter only because I don’t mind rock or metal bands singing about topics like love and romance, they’ve been doing it since Zeppelin and The Who. Yet a good many of the comments on YouTube for this song are from insecure boys opining that its subject matter is lame (or that dreaded dairy related adjective). Guys, its no more so than any other lyrical subject matter in metal, its 2018 and its past time to get over it. In fact, for the Metal Pigeon’s 2014 album of the year in Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter, a heavy emphasis on the subject of bad relationships was the emotional core that informed much of that album’s gorgeously manipulated rage and fury. Paige doesn’t quite achieve that same level of excellence all across Prevail II, but on this song she absolutely delivers in an angst-ridden paean to forlorn longing. She does the same on the Ville Valo meets Ann Wilson vibe of “Heartache” with a wonderful vocal on the chorus there, one written with exceptional care to squeeze every emotional drop from so few syllables.

 

On the heavier end, she’s gotten better at channeling mainline influences such as Halford and even a little Dickinson as her performances on “Human Empire” and “You’re Insane” can attest. Album opener “Losing My Humanity” is another highlight, being an example of one of my favorite trad metal songwriting techniques in a punishingly fast verse riff being followed by a slower tempo in the arena rock informed bridge and chorus. Its classic metal 101 but so challenging to pull off in a way that sounds effortless like it does here. A note about the production here, because I know that Jacob Hansen has his trademark sonic style that some find too polished and perfect (and its very apparent all over this album), but I think it really works for a band in this vein where the focus is on elevating Paige’s performances in a vocal melody driven context. Kobra and the Lotus have an intriguing future ahead of them, one that could end in either extreme because while I suspect their sound is accessible enough for anyone looking for well crafted melodic metal, its also a little too trad for alternative rock playlists and maybe even Active Rock and Sirius FM/Octane. They made a dent with “Light Me Up” last year, but a small one at that and its unfortunate that they’re not getting better results with the singles off Pt II. Its still early in the release cycle, so maybe a well chosen tour or two could change things, and I hope so because this album deserves more ears.

 

 

 

 

Thaurorod – Coast of Gold:

You ever have those moments where you’re at the grocery store, with your responsible list of low carb, sugar free groceries in your cart and you’re stocked up on organic chicken, avocados, bags of salad, some eggs (okay okay enough of the shopping list) and you pass by the cereal aisle and instead of  walking past like you’re supposed to you wander in and Assassin’s Creed past your better judgement to grab that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Yep, that’s me with the new (well, a February release) Thaurorod album, a blast of Euro-styled power metal cut from the late nineties glory era cloth. This is such a blatantly traditionalist power metal affair that it even goes for the jugular with the comic book-ish cover art featuring the band members drawn as enterprising seafarers (I guess?). Thankfully they steer clear of Alestorm territory, in fact this is actually a Finnish band but they sound closer to Freedom Call in sound and spirit rather than Sonata Arctica. What was interesting to learn upon closer inspection is that its kind of a side project of Joonas Pykälä-aho and Emil Pohjalainen from Amberian Dawn (drummer and guitarist respectively). Neither to my knowledge contribute to Amberian’s writing process so I take it they get their kicks here with a project that’s been going since 2005. This was one of the recommendations from the community at /r/PowerMetal, it came up when folks were discussing what they thought the best albums of the first half of the year were. I can easily understand why this was an oft-cited favorite, much like my Cinnamon Toast Crunch comparison, its the power metal equivalent to kiddish comfort food (the band name being a Tolkien reference is also a good way to get me to listen).

 

You’ll get my drift when you hear the album opener, suitably named “Power”, because this song is as the lyrics confirm, about “Power we need / Power we breathe / Power to break through the gates / To our dreams”. Oh and don’t misinterpret the tone of that sentence, because I’m not being snarky in anyway, I’m fully buying in here, even when the band makes the near fatal mistake of having built-in “hey! hey!” chant sections midway through the song (seriously, Thaurorod gets a pass because this song is so much fun, but note to bands, don’t do this!). Its power metal 101 to use “power” and “forever” liberally in lyrics, and these guys pack them both in a skyrocketing chorus. Pure power metal fun aside, there’s some depth and complexity to what they’re accomplishing on “24601”, a song that makes clever use of its title in a satisfyingly rhythmic way. What really sells it is the rough yet smooth vocals of Bosnian singer Andi Kravljača (if he sounds familiar its because he was on the first Seventh Wonder album pre-Tommy Karevik and did a stint with Silent Call for a few years), and he entirely makes up for the fact that they lifted the keyboard intro from Toto’s “Hold the Line”. I experienced a rush of joy listening to this record, and appreciate that the band just went for it full throttle, often in speed but always in displaying their clear cut love for all things classic power metal. Its not reinventing the wheel for sure, but its a pretty good wheel.

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Flight Orchestra – Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough:

The lovable Swedes are back yet again with a new album a little over a single year after the release of 2017’s Amber Galactic. It wasn’t but a few months ago that I was writing about them for the first time, not expecting that we’d get new music so quickly, but that facet alone is another detail in what makes The Night Flight Orchestra so convincing and compelling. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, rock bands would usually be releasing new music at a pretty swift clip, even the Scorpions only took two years between Animal Magnetism and Blackout, and that includes the delays from Klaus Meine almost losing his voice before the recording sessions. Iron Maiden of course knocked out three albums in yearly succession between 82-84, all while touring like madmen in between each release and somehow finding time to write and record new music rapidly, rest and vacations were considered part of the recording session experience (I suppose that’s why they’d decamp to the Bahamas but nevermind). The point is that back in that era to take three years or longer to do an album was seen as far too long to be away from your fans, it was just an aspect of rock culture that slowly ebbed away as the 90s came out and it was seen as okay to tour longer or use the EP or live album as a way to buy time. I’m not sure whether the band is doing it on purpose or not, but there’s something charming about Night Flight adhering to this ethos and work ethic, this being their fourth album in six years since the band’s inception —- pretty good for a “side project”.

 

That they’ve managed to get better and sound more confident with each passing release is also something to celebrate, and Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough expands upon the greater role of synths and keyboard driven melodies that we heard on Amber Galactic. Lead single/video track “Turn to Miami” is emblematic of this approach, with its suggestive, slinky synth lines and lyrics that declare “while the night is young / this is where we start”. Björn Strid is as usual accompanied by gorgeous backing vocals, provided here by the “Airline Annas” (Anna Brygård and Anna-Mia Bonde), a detail that might get overlooked in the artistic success of these songs. Its not to say that Strid isn’t a powerful and appealing clean vocalist in his own right, but the Airline Annas’ harmonies and independent vocal accompaniments layer on that extra sugar icing that buoy these songs from street level High Spirits throwback grit into something that is truly transcendent and of the spirit of that era. The hardest hitting song on the record is the title track, not only for its confident hard rock stridency, but because that chorus just impacts with precision, the Anna’s once again sealing its potency with well timed supporting harmonies.

 

And there’s something to “Lovers In the Rain”, a heavy synth drenched semi power ballad, the kind that had it come out in the early 80s would have irritated a few fans at first but slowly would win them over in private away from their buddies in the car. When it comes to “Barcelona”, we’re treated to a Journey-esque ode to one particular city that also serves as a metaphorical focal point for the narrator. Its the weakest song on the record but still manages to rock with early 80s conviction, and that says something about the overall quality of the album. The work this band has put into mining this particular vein of rock history has made them into one of the style’s strongest songwriting collectives. Case in point is just how interesting they manage to make the nine-minute plus “The Last of the Independent Romantics”, a running time that had me skeptical before I heard it. Here they marry the sounds of 80s rich royalty rock with the ambition of a 70s prog rock piece and keep it loaded with enough solid riffs and melodic shifts to keep us intrigued. This is a fun listen and if you haven’t gotten on board yet, this is the album to get first (and work your way backwards in order), Night Flight have transcended any jokey beginnings and have simply turned into a great band making a kind of music a lot of us miss.

 

 

 

 

 

Uada – Cult of a Dying Sun:

Portland’s Uada are an intriguing band, not for the hoods they wear in promo photos and apparently onstage as well (we’ll see, I’m catching them live in a few days time), but for their attempt at straddling the bridge connecting second wave black metal to its more melodically inclined modern evolution. This is their sophomore album, their debut Devoid of Light arriving in 2016 and in listening to the two back to back, you can see that they’ve made a significant leap in songwriting complexity in just this short span of time. The thing that I feel most critics of modern black metal miss is just how effective a crisp, clear production job can be to the overall impact of music as complex as this. Not everything should sound like a shrieking incoherent mess, and while that early second wave production style lent itself to what those artists were trying to accomplish (“Give me the wvurst microphone you have…”), a lot of us became fans of the modern style first and then went back to do our history homework with the more difficult to listen to stuff.

 

I have no idea what the members of Uada would cite as influences, and this being a short review I felt no need to research it, but I hear shades of Dissection (particularly in the wielding of melodic motifs throughout), a little Dimmu Borgir and even a bit of Inquisition. I’ve seen some criticism posted up about how these guys are aping Polish black metal band Mgla’s sound, and that’s some pretty accusatory stuff considering most metal bands are drawing influence from other metal bands. I took a listen to the last Mgla album to see what the fuss was about, and okay there’s some resemblance but honestly I prefer Uada for their deeper dive into unabashed melody. Take their melodic treatment of the tremolo buzzsaw cutting across most of “Snakes and Vultures”, its so earwormy in its own right that it works as the hook here, usurping the actual vocal refrain. And I love the almost melo-death approach on guitars in “Mirrors”, kind of a merging of two genres with its black metal song structure. This isn’t a perfect album, it starts off really strong for the first three tracks and then dips a bit in the middle (“The Wanderer” should have been left on the cutting room floor) only to perk up at the end, but its one of the few black metal records that’s intrigued me this year. Looking forward to seeing them, hoping for an entertaining show (remember, a good show needs anticipation or surprise!) and will be expecting even better things from these guys in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Khemmis – Desolation:

I had paid attention the last time Khemmis were making waves, about two years ago when they were in the spotlight for their sophomore release Hunted. I gave that album a shot and for some reason it just didn’t connect with me, and honestly their newest Desolation really took more than a handful of forced attempts at cracking its code before it finally started to grow on me. I’m not sure what my block is on this band (we briefly talked about this on the last MSRcast), but Desolation is the most accessible album for me from this band mainly because its the least doomy of all their work. I know its a bit ridiculous to come from having Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper on my best albums list last year, to now saying that Khemmis is giving me problems but that’s just the way my brain is working at the moment I guess. It was Adrian Begrand’s repeated Twitter statements on how “If you like traditional, escapist heavy metal, this is the one for you” that got me to stick with it, and kudos to him because I think I’m about 75-80% there. The stuff I’m responding positively to is the band’s increased trad metal infusion, particularly in the uptick in tempos all across these songs. There were flashes of that happening on their previous two albums, but here its the main feature, and it makes a huge difference in aligning their sound closer to bands like Grand Magus and Tyr, whom I both adore.

 

As usual Khemmis keeps the albums concise and tight (only six tracks here, ranging from four to nine minutes), its a practice that I sometimes think other bands should adopt, getting back to a more mid-80s/vinyl level of quality control, but I’m digressing. The album that I’m enjoying kicks off after the opening doom-laden track “Bloodletting” on the subsequent”Isolation” which really reminds me of Candlemass crossed with Iron Maiden. There’s a dueling guitar solo segment partway through that’s just fantastic, full of vigor and vibrant melodicism. It also contains vocalist Phil Pendergast’s best, most emotive work —- at times displaying shades of Tyr’s Heri Joensen and even Dio’s penchant for theatricality and rhythmic timing. You’ll hear more of that on “Flesh to Nothing”, particularly in the build up during the verses, and I get a real Hetfield vibe on “The Seer” that works to enhance its bite. Of course harsh vocalist Ben Hutcherson is the counterpoint here, and his raspy sheet metal scream is on point tonally and provides a nice change-up from time to time. If I’m being honest I wouldn’t mind Khemmis going full clean vocals in the future, but that’s just my power/trad metal loving side coming out. I’m still digesting this album fully, but the good news is that its something I’m willingly coming back to and its riffs are thundering in my head long after I’ve finished listening.

 

 

 

 

Frozen Crown – The Fallen King:

This was a nice surprise, another touted recommendation from the peeps at /r/PowerMetal, Frozen Crown are a power metal band from Italy that sound like they could be from the States or Canada. Its not that they don’t have the ability to show a little flashiness ala Rhapsody and co., as principal songwriter Federico Mondelli and his fellow guitarist Talia Bellazecca have enough bottled up technical virtuosity to trade spitfire solos and flex creatively with complex melodic patterns. But rather than layer it on thick, they have an innate USPM sense of keeping things scaled down, stripped back to the essentials —- so we get shreddy riffs but also vocal melody driven songwriting built on the strength of the relatively unknown Giada Etro’s emotive, throaty singing as well as Mondelli’s own solid clean-harsh range. What’s smart about their pairing is that they avoid beauty and the beast tropes by rarely trading off verses… this is largely Etro’s domain, the songs are almost all written to support her ability to soar into higher registers, but Mondelli provides a nice change of pace in select situations and also sparks a nice harmonic duet in the ballad “Chasing Lights”. That song in particular is used as a cleverly disguised segue into the sharp, aggressive epic “Queen of Blades”, one of the occasions where both vocalists do trade off a bit yet the overall vibe I get is more Unleash the Archers, not Nightwish.

 

Speaking of Archers, Etro has a touch of Brittney Hayes’ timbre to her vocals, but also a little of Kobra Paige’s smoothness, that ability to make emotive sweeps with little changes. I hear both “Across the Sea”, as Nightwish-esque as things get here (muted keyboard adorned verses, transitional bridge/chorus that pops), and I love the choice Etro makes with the sped up phrasing at the :59 to 1:04 mark (“I’m feeling frozen, I can’t hear my heart beating”), something I’d imagine that the master of that technique in Mr. Tony Kakko would be proud of. Sometimes as on the closing track “Netherstorm” I get the feeling that the band is attempting to find a place where melo-death and power metal can merge (that intersection of Wintersun and Skyfire), and they have a moment towards the end where the riffs have that Gothenberg density and are complemented by a gorgeously fluid lead melody over the top. Its not quite the integration they seek, but I think they’ll get there with future albums. Oh yeah, this is a debut by the way, it actually came out in February, but being that their label support is relatively small (Scarlet Records in Italy) its telling that they’re making lasting impressions in the online power metal community —- enough for a handful of people to remember it all these months later when pressed for recommendations. Its too early to call it, but there’s something happening within power metal that might be described as a nascent revitalization. I’m looking around at the artistic triumphs coming from the genre in the last few years as well as young rising bands like this and its starting to feel as exciting as 1998 again. To quote Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

 

 

 

 

Hoth – Astral Necromancy:

Oh get ready, this is a strange but good one, and I mean really strange and really good. This has become one of my favorites for 2018 overall, something I’ve been unable to stop listening to in the slightest (cool cover art too for bonus points). If the name wasn’t a tip off, Hoth are steeped in Star Wars mythology, particularly in their first two albums (this one seems to blend in some other lyrical topics, mainly, erm…. necromancy), and while its surprising that no band has really taken and run with that theme in earnest, its more surprising as to how Hoth have decided to go about it. Their interpretation of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is a soundscape of heavily major key infused black metal, and I’m not talking about symphonic arrangements ala Dimmu and others, but as in its core tremolo based guitar skeleton. We’ve talked about black metal set to major keys before, most notably in Deafheaven’s Sunbather, and it was a unique listening experience for sure, but I think that Hoth somehow make it even more interesting because they’re keeping with the darkness and not resorting to pastoral tones and colors. Make no mistake, the galaxy that Hoth want you to envision is bleak, unforgiving, icy cold (heh), and wickedly punishing.

 

On opener “Vengeance” they take a traditional black metal approach through the verses, but punctuate the bridge with some almost bark/shouted rhythmic vocal lines only to follow it up with a wildly noodley solo. Its a preview of things to come in that you’ll never really be able to predict where they’re going to take things musically —- unpredictability is their greatest strength. Take its jaw dropping follow-up “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” (that title is some Glen Cook level cosmic darkness!) where they switch up the attack with an almost trad/power metal rhythmic riff structure, one that reminds me of how Therion often surprises new listeners with their heavy 80s metal guitar approach instead of something more blackened or death metal-ish. I would call this a prog influenced track for its rising dramatic crescendo during the refrain but it might give you the wrong idea, this is very much a brutal and fierce piece of music. Elsewhere I was enthralled by their turn to pure power metal influences such as on “Ascension”, an appropriate title given the sudden sweeping nature of the guitar melodies herein, featuring a lead melody as gorgeous as anything conjured up by Opeth or Sorceror. It wouldn’t come as a surprise then for me to tell you that the guys on the /r/PowerMetal dischord recommended this one to me as well, and I find that harsh vocal based recommendations from power metal communities really hit me in my sweet spot (that ‘melodeath-ian nexus’ of everything I love about metal).

 

 

Lessons From Concert-Going

Its been a sweat filled, beer guzzling start to the summer for me, not only for the surprising intensity this early in our Houston HnH (heat and humidity), but for the four shows I’ve already attended in May and June alone, with one more on the horizon this next week (Hammerfall) and possibly another in July. As I’ve written before, I don’t normally write up show reviews because they’re usually uninteresting to read for anyone who wasn’t there, full of sycophantic blather about how the band “killed it” or any variation on butts being kicked. It was the type of stuff I loved reading when I was 18 —- the kind of die hard fan who’d show up to shows at 3pm to catch the band sound checking or loitering outside their bus. Back then I’d stay long after the headliners had left, not only to talk to the band members I hadn’t met before the gig, but to just linger and soak up the atmosphere and keep the night going. Such thoughts are unfathomable to me now, when the very thought of standing up front by the stage for all the openers just to be in a prime spot for the headliner sounds like a nightmare rather than a privilege. Most shows these days I don’t mind arriving to the venue a little bit later, to avoid rush hour traffic and miss an opener I didn’t care about, and I’ll usually leave right after the headliners make their final bow. Chances are I have to work the next day and/or my friggin knee is killing me. The in-show energy is reserved as well, kept for moments when I really get into it and with caution not to headbang my way into feeling awful in the morning. Moshing? No. Retired. Mosh retirement.

 

That being said, I do want to talk about something I’ve learned about the act of going to a metal show, or any show really, over the course of these past couple. Two were within five days of each other, one being an out of town trip with some rough conditions (more on that in a sec), and the other was a capstone celebration for a pair of friends who’d gotten married that same day. Ah concerts, things we music lovers look forward to sometimes more than album releases. You see the announcement months in advance, let yourself get excited and sometimes even fret about whether to buy the tickets ahead of time or trust in the low-ish attendance tendency of these small metal club shows to know you can just pay at the door the night of. Then you wait. Days before the show, you let yourself get excited again, start listening to the band you’re seeing to prepare a little, to whet the appetite to hear those songs live, and then its the show day and you’re standing there in front of a stage with a drum kit, some mics, and a few crew guys scurrying around setting everything up. Countless shows attended now and its never gotten old, and I’m always intrigued by every aspect of the shin-dig, from the way the bands choose to make their entrance, to the amount of dry ice fog they’re unfurling, to how much room they’re all gonna have to move around. Music nerd you see. I don’t think I’ve become jaded yet, even when I’m achingly tired, irritated that the soundcheck’s going on forever, and the openers were meh. I’m still at a show and damn its cool, its my decision to be there and I’m in a room full of (mostly) other people who get it.

 

In my experience, any disappointment surrounding a show is largely due to having to miss it thanks to some interceding combination of bad timing, unavoidable scheduling conflicts or the bummer of bummers, being strapped for cash. There is however that rare tragedy where you actually attend a show and walk out at the end feeling vaguely unsatisfied, or worse yet, apathetic and indifferent to what you’ve just witnessed. And look, we’re all a little hesitant to admit out loud when this happens for fear of looking and feeling like a sucker. The most egregious example however came during a December 2013 Finntroll headlining show. I had seen them way back in 2007 when Vreth had just joined up as the lead vocalist, and they were supporting their most vicious black metal infused album ever (Ur jordens djup). It was an incredible show, the band playing a tiny stage that barely rose a foot off the ground with all of us going nuts in front of them. My friend Matt got his shoulder dislocated at that show by a bruiser in the pit, dashed away to the back of the room, popped his shoulder back in place and bounded back in the crowd next to me. Insane. They rolled through two years later with Swallow the Sun and Moonsorrow and again it was all kinds of awesome brutality (sans injuries). The 2013 show however was abysmal. Gone was the raw, primal intensity that ran through those two performances, replaced instead with pandering to the Korpiklaani/Alestorm set, heavy on the keyboard humppa and the band all sporting fake elven ears. The band was going through the motions, Vreth was noticeably out of it, hungover or drunk as he admitted to my friends later. Not to get dramatic, but I don’t think any of us have listened to the band since.

 

 

Kamelot in Houston (May 2018) Credit: @wilkinson_image_designBut a band making a bad impression due to a combo of performance issues and aesthetic choices is admittedly an extreme outlier, and they certainly weren’t the problem when I left the House of Blues in Houston over a month ago on May 9th one song before Kamelot finished their headlining set. This is a band that can rightfully be called one of my favorite metal bands of the past decade plus, power metal stalwarts who towered mighty during their Roy Khan era, stumbled a bit after he left in 2011 but recovered with 2015’s excellent Haven album. I’ll say this, the band played well that night, Tommy Karevik was in as fine form of voice as he was on the past two times I’ve seen him, and they played to an appreciative audience. But I was a little unenthusiastic about the experience, mainly because I had taken a peek at the setlist ahead of time and noticed just how nearly identical it was to the last time I saw them in 2015. Nine songs were the same, and of the only four Khan era songs they played (down from seven the last time) all were cuts they had already played last time (and honestly on the tour before that back supporting Silverthorn in 2012 when I saw them in Austin). Now I get that three albums into the Karevik era, they’d naturally trim the Roy songs down a bit, but a little swapping in and out of classic Kamelot cuts would be preferable. Particularly for fans who’ve been around for awhile like myself. I was essentially seeing the same show from three years ago, with the exception of the new songs they added in from April’s The Shadow Theory.

 

What was missing from that Kamelot show was two factors that you at least require one of to be in play for a good concert experience —- namely, a sense of anticipation, or the element of surprise. The absolute best shows give you both, and those are rare gems that you should cherish and boast about loudly to friends during drunken reminiscing. With Kamelot, I knew the setlist going into it, and while I was mildly interested in hearing the new songs live, it wasn’t enough to overcome my dampened enthusiasm from knowing I was going to be hearing largely the same show yet again. There was zero sense of anticipation, but I bought the ticket well ahead of time, I was certainly not going to waste it. During the show however, there were no surprises —- the band played the same setlist that they were playing on every stop of their North American tour, no curve balls thrown in or new songs added or swapped out. The beats were the same within the show as well, Karevik with a piano only accompaniment for “Here Comes the Fall” so the rest of the band could take a water break, then there were the guest vocalist spots from Lauren Hart and Charlotte Wessels at all the expected moments. I know what you’re thinking, “Pigeon, this seems like disgruntled fan talk, not really a valid complaint about a band letting down an audience.” I’ll stop you right there. I am part of said audience. I take no especial pride in being a Kamelot fan longer than perhaps some of the other folks attending that show, but having that history with the band greatly exposed what was wrong with that show (and the band subsequently) to me whereas it may not have for someone excited to see them for the first time. Its the Iron Maiden dilemma just transposed to a smaller band (the grizzled Maiden show vet doesn’t need to hear “Iron Maiden” for the umpteenth time, but the fan seeing them for the first time is all about it).

 

My next show was a few weeks later, Tyr + Orphaned Land + Ghost Ship Octavius + Aeternam in Austin and it already had anticipation building up to feverish levels. It was a stupidly awesome bill, providing me with my first experience seeing Orphaned Land live, first time seeing the ascendant Aeternam (a Metal Pigeon Best of 2017 listee!), and another chance to see Tyr who I hadn’t seen since 2008 at Paganfest. I was hoping to rope in anyone to go check out the show with me but it would end up just being myself (my fellow MSRcast co-host having to bow out due to work obligations even though he badly wanted to go), so I made the road trip alone. Had to fight through a hot Texas Friday afternoon with rush hour traffic making it take well over an hour just to get out of Houston and its surrounding areas alone, but I made it to the venue just in time for doors to open. I was so incredibly giddy. I had blasted the combined Orphaned Land and Aeternam setlists on the way up to Austin, plus a spinning of Aeternam’s Moongod for the extra adrenaline. Both bands didn’t deviate from their expected setlists, but this time around the element of anticipation was so strong that knowing the songs ahead of time didn’t faze my enthusiasm. I was right upfront against the stage for Aeternam going nuts alongside one other guy while the rest of the crowd stood a little back, most voicing earlier within earshot about how they didn’t know who these guys were. One song in and they moved up with the pair of us, Aeternam winning them over with a no frills, heavy energy performance. I loved every second of it, this was a band that I didn’t realistically think would even tour, I didn’t even mind that they only got five songs worth of time.

 

 

Orphaned Land in Austin (May 2018)Seeing Orphaned Land take the stage made me feel a little like being eighteen again. It was surreal to finally see this band that I had been a massive fan of for such a long time since 2004 (more on that history here), and I’m not sure if there were any problems with the sound or if the band technically played well or not. I was on a high, just ecstatic that they were there and so was I, pressed against the stage and shouting along to these songs for the first time with other people who knew them (well, a good throng of us anyway, it was largely a Tyr crowd). At one point I made their guitarist Idan crack up when he saw how enthusiastic I was, giving him the metal horns (in my best Dio impersonation, throwing the horns directly at him). Their vocalist, the one and only Kobi Farhi said the band was going to be at their merch table directly after their set, and there I was, clutching a cold beer, with two Orphaned Land shirts slung over my shoulder (bought one for Cary, felt bad he was missing it), and shaking hands with every member of the band. I was admittedly a little star struck. Afterwards I ran into Achraf Loudiy from Aeternam in the stairwell/hallway of the venue and chatted for a bit, he remembered me from the crowd and seemed surprised that anyone knew who they were ahead of time. Oh I knew. He didn’t believe me when I told him I was jamming Moongod on the drive up from Houston. I’d like to think I helped him walk away with a good impression of Texas, enough to look forward to coming back one day (these guys work day jobs, he admitted its tough getting time off and schedules to line up).

 

The gig was already great, but it really was nice to be surprised (there it is!) with how solid Ghost Ship Octavius were live, like a groove based mid-period Paradise Lost, I enjoyed the rest of their set that I didn’t miss from hanging out with Orphaned Land in the back of the venue. Tyr were as enjoyable as I remembered, those excellent melodic group vocals being an absolute treat to experience live, and they played just about every classic Tyr cut you’d want to hear. I stumbled out at the end of the night achingly tired, having been up since 5am and having been to work earlier that day. A little detail about me, I’m really bad at tired long distance driving, prone to vision tunneling and highway hypnosis. I could chance it if someone was riding shotgun that could keep me awake and/or switch off with me, but that was no help to me this time. I had balked at the Austin weekend rates for hotels/motels when looking online, but someone tipped me off that the apartment complex literally right next to the venue had no entry gate and a load of guest parking spots where it would be safe to crash in your car for a few hours of sleep. I did this, occasionally woken up by a nearby car door shutting, but otherwise left alone. I left there sometime in the middle of the night well before dawn, a little better but still fatigued and made it thirty minutes outside of Austin to a Buc-ee’s in a highway town called Bastrop.

 

If you don’t know what a Buc-ee’s is, think of a 24 hour Texas sized gas station/convenience store with perhaps the cleanest restrooms you could imagine such a place having (seriously, they pride themselves on it). The parking lots of these highway Lothlóriens are obnoxiously large, and in the middle of the night, tired travelers often park at its far edges and get some sleep. The loitering State Troopers standing outside the store chatting and sipping coffee don’t care, they’d rather you sleep in your car there than wreck yourself or someone else on the road. I landed there and decked out for a few more hours, took advantage of everything Buc-ee’s can offer (cold water on my face, large coffee, protein snack kit and some cookies because I already had carb-y beers that night so screw it) and hit the road to Houston with podcasts playing to keep my mind focused. When I finally arrived home, I laid on my bed and felt the urge to once again hear the music that I had just heard that night, something that I never ever do. But I put on Orphaned Land and Aeternam and Tyr on shuffle and fell asleep to those bands, wanting to revisit such a great show in any way possible. It was a classic gig in my book, that perfect combination of anticipation and reward, it outweighed anything negative surrounding the show (the tiredness and the travel and having to go it solo).

 

 

Satyricon Houston (May 2018)Four days later I was heading out to Satyricon at a venue north of downtown Houston I’d never been to before. With me were three friends, two of whom had just gotten officially married earlier that day. Yes they were going to a black metal concert on their wedding night, and the groom was fired up in particular about seeing the band for the first time (he is a big, big fan). We all had a good idea of the setlist ahead of time, my only quibble being that it seemed like they were skipping playing “Now Diabolical” on this tour. Its been said by the band no less that this would be their likely last North American tour, for reasons that they’ve not gone deeply into but I think are largely business oriented at heart. They don’t get big crowds in the US, not like those in Europe, and its understandable that this late in their career they’d want to avoid spending a lot of time and money for little reward. Whatever the reason, we knew this was the last chance we’d have to see them. I’d seen the band twice before, but was still left feeling that this was going to be a momentous, memorable show just for the magnitude of its finality for us. But sometimes the best part about a show is everything else around it not related to the band or the performance —- it was fun to experience a new (and cool) venue, hang out at the nice patio bar built right next to it before and after the show picking craft beers off a gaudy flatscreen TV menu. It was an altogether different kind of celebratory feel to see my newly married friends rockin’ out right up front and center in front of Satyr in a state of near delirium. I was happy that they were that ecstatic. The bonus was that the band did throw some surprises our way in the setlist (they played “Now Diabolical” for one), and Frost came out from behind his drum kit to lead us in some strange, foot stomping crowd chant while Satyr politely tried to hide his amused grin.

 

I think in considering my Austin experience (Tyr/Orphaned Land) and the Satyricon show, it was revealing in just how much I was able to enjoy them despite the solo nature of the former and the extremely social nature of the latter. I’m not a psychologist nor would I attempt to armchair that subject even a little, but being able to get rich, positive experiences out of both of them further reinforces my belief that you simply have to have one of those two crucial elements. Anticipation or surprise. And they can both manifest in a variety of unexpected ways —- surprises don’t always need to come from rotating setlists, or even from the band themselves. They could come from the venue, or the people you meet, or the energy you’re feeling during the show, maybe even the food you ate. One of my most memorable show memories was seeing Dio fronting Heaven and Hell in 2008 on the Metal Masters tour at an outdoor amphitheater, singing the opening lines to “Heaven and Hell” itself while blackened grey clouds in the distance behind the stage crackled with lightning. It was this unexpectedly epic backdrop to one of the most epic metal songs ever, with Ronnie James freakin’ Dio singing it in front of us. Unreal. Another was seeing Watain in Austin in the courtyard of an outdoor club under waves of torrential downpour, a small pocket of fans under the awning at the front of the stage and everyone else back inside the club itself, watching from the doorway. Ages back I had a bunch of free tickets to go see Poison at the same amphitheater I’d later see Dio conjure up storms at, and I convinced a bunch of co-workers at the time to go with me. We had a blast, sitting at the top of the hill, imbibing the mind altering substances of youth while laughing and attempting to snake dance along to “Talk Dirty to Me”.

 

Anticipation can sometimes be a hard thing to perceive correctly, it isn’t enough to merely tell yourself and others that you’re looking forward to going to a show, you have to internalize and feel it within. Case in point was seeing Insomnium the other night here in town. I went with two of the same friends I went to Satyricon with, we even had time to get some phở beforehand. All seemed well but our enthusiasm in seeing Insomnium was a little worn away by having to deal with a bill that was way too loaded, and not in the good way. Three decent to downright awful local bands played before tour openers Oceans of Slumber (the hometown band gone global) took the stage. The venue, my local favorite, also took the weird step of having tables out where the middle of the floor was which made it worryingly dangerous when some idiots tried to start a mosh pit among the oh, thirty to forty of us who were standing in front of the stage during Insomnium’s set. I was exhausted from working earlier that day, seemed like most of the crowd was as well (being a weeknight didn’t help), and despite the band playing extremely well and wringing out the most energy they possibly could from us, I didn’t feel that same kinetic spark that I did the first time I saw them while opening for Epica a few years back. It really wasn’t the band’s fault —- the crowd was weird. A mix of really exhausted people just standing in the back with beers in hand, some of us exhausted folks up front, our agitation exacerbated by mosh pit starters and terrible local metal bands (I may write about this at some point, but I’m over supporting local metal). One guy was simply waiting for “While We Sleep” to attempt to start his bro-pit like this was some hardcore show. He received a prompt telling off by MetalGeeks host RedVikingDave (seriously, no one piss off Dave, he’s frightening).

 

I’m about to see Hammerfall in a few days. I had a great time seeing them almost exactly a year ago at the same venue they’re going to be playing this coming week. It was an electric, highly enthusiastic performance that engendered a similar response from the crowd, Hammerfall is nothing if not masterful stage performers. I’ve been looking forward to it to a certain extent, but I know from hearing a friend talking about it that the setlist is largely the same. This time around I’m kinda okay with that because it was such a great setlist last year… doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know but I suspect that each band creates different levels of expectations for lack of a better term. One might suggest that it will be hard for Hammerfall to live up to last year’s show, that it might be the metaphorical second slice of pizza (no matter how good it is, its not as amazing as the first). I’m okay with accepting that as a possible reality, I’ll be heading into this show ready for anything and expecting that it will simply be a good time. It could be possible that there’s a third way of ensuring that a show is enjoyable, and that’s in surrendering one’s reliance on anticipation and surprise, but that might require a level of inner zen that I haven’t figured out how to unlock yet. Maybe getting to that show zen is about focusing less on the things that irritate you, and more on the things that captivated you when you were eighteen and everything onstage seemed a little mystical. Maybe it requires engaging one’s imagination —- so Hammerfall weren’t just bumming around their tour bus, rolling out of their bunks and clambering onto the stage. Nope, they were just standing on that hammer of ice from the “Blood Bound” video and some cosmic portal has opened up and suddenly they’re here in front of me, icicles clinging to their hair and frost covering their guitars…

 

Mass Darkness: New Music From Dimmu Borgir and Ihsahn!

Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

So I could go the expected route and start off this review of the new Dimmu Borgir album Eonian by leveling a flurry of criticism at them for taking eight years to release something new. I did it with Therion recently, and in cases like theirs and of course the much discussed Wintersun the criticism can be warranted from a fan’s point of view. But other times its worth pausing to consider just how helpful a long hiatus can be for an artist’s career, not just for the obvious financial reasons of artificially building up interest for lucrative festival appearances and tour offers, but in allowing the creative process to reset and take stock. I know for me there was a feeling that the band had wandered off into the wilderness for their past two releases (something I actually felt started on 2003’s Death Cult Armageddon, despite its many fun moments). Their fascination with heavily orchestrated productions kinda spiraled out of control, and although I think the song “Dimmu Borgir” from 2010’s Abrahadabra was a triumph of dark majesty, the rest of the album was one heck of an overcooked chicken dinner. Eight years has given the band a new perspective on just how they should apply orchestral elements to their sound (judiciously is the answer) and has allowed them to rediscover some of the charm of the signature sonic elements of their classic Enthrone Darkness Triumphant album.

 

While Eonian isn’t quite a return to old school Dimmu Borgir, it hearkens to that spirit in their more streamlined musical approach, particularly in bringing back that old “Mourning Palace” keyboard approach —- you know what I’m talking about, the church organ gone evil. I hear it in the opening strains of the awesome “Interdimensional Summit”, as lean and pointed a single as they’ve ever released, boasting an earworm of a choral vocal hook amidst a bed of sharp, jumpy rhythmic shifts. Galder’s solo here is as gorgeous and memorable as something off a Therion album, and maybe its just my memory getting the better of me, but I can’t recall him doing something quite like it before. Another standout is “Aetheric”, a microcosm of the band’s better merging of symphonic bombast with streamlined leanness. Keyboards pair with lead guitars to create a spellbinding, otherworldly melody while waves of orchestra burst in to raise the tension and give us a little adrenaline kick. There’s a very Satyricon-esque riff at work throughout most of this tune as well, an unexpected though welcome surprise, one that I think actually works well with Dimmu’s overall approach (is dabbling in black n’ roll a potential way for them to lean next time?). The gloriously epic passage here is the 2:25-4:30 stretch, a lengthy but note perfect masterclass in the potential for symphonic metal’s emotional power. From just these two tracks alone, we’re getting work that could be placed alongside the handful of other truly great moments they’ve managed in a lengthy career. And before you think that’s a lot of hyperbole over two songs, the rest of the album holds up just as well, including the much discussed experimental nature of “Council of Wolves and Snakes”, although being a track that took me a few listens to really unlock and understand, I’ve been addicted to its slower, dreamscape invoking passage from the 2:45 mark onwards.

 

What’s striking about this album overall is just how much of a pure joy its been to listen to, something I can only best describe as being a fun listening experience. Its a playful record, both aware of when its invoking old Dimmu in pointed moments and slyly sliding in something unexpected when you aren’t ready for it. They bring back that aforementioned black n’ roll riff to “Lightbringer”, but segue it into a clever mystical keyboard vs tremolo riff sequence, and Shagrath narrates with vocals that haven’t aged a day, full of fierce bite and crisp enunciation. I also think “I Am Sovereign” is one of the more inventive moments on the album, veering from an urgent, regal march built around dizzying orchestral fragments that swirl like fevered dervishes that descend into a primitive thick riffed stop/start punctuation mark. I particularly enjoyed the lyrics on this one, a sort of reverse meditative musing on knowledge and understanding, very cosmic in the way its stated yet using personal language, a tricky thing to do. The band saves their biggest orchestral blast for “Alpha Aeon Omega”, a battering ram of a track, full of rapid, punishing percussion under gushing waves of symphonic swirl and color. Silenoz has notably stated that this time around the symphonic parts were more symphonic, and the black metal parts sounded more black metal, and I think he’s right —- essentially he’s suggesting there’s more definition between the two. That was a lesson hard learned I think from their past few albums where perhaps even the band themselves started to lose track of what kind of song structures they had hidden underneath those walls of noise. What Eonian succeeds in doing is simplifying the merger of these two worlds of sound, getting back to basics in essence (you shouldn’t go into this album expecting the band to reinvent the wheel, they’re doing enough by reinventing themselves).

 

I’m a little surprised that many others aren’t seeing it this way, the album is getting mixed reviews across the board, but then again a band this well known is never going to please everyone, and its been so long since we’ve had new Dimmu Borgir that I suspect most writers/reviewers/ fans don’t even know what they want from a new album by them. That’s the other side of the coin in staying away from new music for so long, that an audience can become disconnected with the band’s overall artistic milieu. Most folks simply aren’t going back and listening to the band’s catalog in preparation for hearing the new album, or revisiting the last album to see where they left off —- and I’m not suggesting that anyone should have (or even that I did… I did not by the way). But it does leave one with only their memories and vague, fleeting impressions of what Dimmu should sound like in their mind’s ear, so I’ve taken the criticism of this album with a huge grain of pink Himalayan salt. One review complained that the album sounded like it had been written over eight years, and that every song seemed so different than the rest that time was the only way that diversity could be explained (is that a criticism even?). Others simply stated that the band was up to their usual tricks of overblown symphonic bombast, opinions that can be immediately discarded since we know that’s just objectively not true. Some even criticized the album for sounding too happy (because apparently major keys in metal equal happiness —- didn’t know that, thanks guys!). Ignore all of the reviews panning this album, give it more time if it hasn’t gelled with you yet, its definitely loaded with some ‘immediate’ moments but its largely built on finesse and detail. Its the most fun I’ve had listening to a Dimmu album since Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and I don’t even blanch at discussing them side by side.

 

 

 

 

Ihsahn – Àmr:

If relatively more straightforward, traditionally structured black metal like Dimmu’s is like a dark, bitter beer, then Ihsahn’s more nuanced, progressive approach to the style is more like wine. That’s a terrible, awful comparison, trite and unhelpful overall, but maybe its worth throwing out here now for the few of you who are uninitiated to the solo career of the Emperor brain trust. Knowing personally a few craft beer connoisseurs and a wine expert who could likely give the sommelier test a go, I don’t want to tick anyone off, but wine is generally viewed as something more sophisticated. And having that mindset going into an album like Àmr will help you ready yourself to the odd nature of Ihsahn’s electronic bleeps and blops, his erratic time signatures, and his deconstruction of prototypical song structures. I’ve had an up and down time with his solo works, but I really enjoyed 2016’s relatively linear Arktis., particularly its excellent year end list making single “Mass Darkness”. This new album seems to continue in that spirit, much to my relief, although this time the heaviness and riffs take a backseat to clean vocal melodies, something that really is unexpected given Ihsahn’s publicly stated anxieties about his skill as a pure singer. He’s pushing himself vocally on this album like he’s never done before, his voice at times reminding me of early years Mikael Akerfeldt. Of course his black metal vocals are also present, sounding as distinctive in their ash coated blackened rasp as ever, the opening track “Lend Me The Eyes Of Millennia” being a fairly representative calling card for his overall solo style. Its a furious song, menacing in tone and surreal due to its separation of time signatures via different instruments where dirge strings, tremolo riff passages, and Ihsahn’s bleak vocals are each operating at their own tempos.

 

Yet the heart of Àmr comes out on “Arcana Imperii” where we get treated to Ihsahn’s most convincingly well sung clean vocal to date, arriving in the chorus complete with syrupy harmonies and little embellishments on repeated phrases. Yes I know thats the kind of thing singers do all the time, which is all the more reason why its so striking when its friggin Ihsahn doing it. The music in these sequences is largely devoid of riffing, Ihsahn opting for an openness and spacing between notes, the ambient keyboard work filling in textural gaps. There’s a noticeable Leprous influence on “Sámr”, in its deliberate rhythmic shuffle but also in the airplane takeoff clean vocal he unleashes for the refrain, sounding as lithe and elegant as his brother-in-law Einar. I get a jazzy feel from this cut, something that reminds me of “Evidence” from Faith No More’s King For A Day record (well, if only in shades musically speaking), and its one of those subtle cuts that soon becomes an earworm that lingers long after the album finishes playing. It was on “One Less Enemy” where I started to take notice of drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen’s amazing work here, and really all over the album; he plays with a progressive ear towards jazzy fills and slightly off-beat patterns, even his decisions on cymbal timing are intriguing. What a bizarre track that one is as well, built largely on a keyboard sound motif that I could only describe as something that could come from a theremin.

 

We get an excellent groove based riff on “In Rites Of Passage”, the album’s other overly black metal laden cut, this time with Ihsahn directly layering clean vocals atop his grim ones. I thought the very UK electronica instrumental tinges midway through were interesting bits of texture simply because they don’t seem all that out of place on an album that is constantly shifting, pulsing, and undulating in ways that metal albums typically don’t. And “Marble Soul” is an example of how despite Ihsahn having made a career out of steering clear of A-B-A-B pop songwriting structures, he is now all these albums later willing to appropriate that structure on a whim to serve a musical idea. This is a catchy track, still unsettling in its abrasive black metal parts, but that’s one smooth, sing-songy chorus (it would find its way to me in the grocery store of all places while I was roaming the aisles listening to a podcast). This is a head space album, one of those records you just put on and absorb without casting judgement as you listen —- its supposed to fill a room the way the best ambient electronic music can, and indeed it shares similarities in palette to that stuff. The details start to surface over time, but for them to appear you have to kind of mentally surrender in a way that we don’t ever do for typical metal records. I keep thinking back to that Bell Witch album from late last year, how it might have unlocked a part of my music listening brain that was previously blocked at times. Maybe a couple years ago I would have had a hard time with this album, impatient for something to happen (right away!). Now I feel almost at peace with the abstract nature of this stuff… that in itself is a trippy feeling.

 

The Spring 2018 Reviews Cluster

We’ve had a few really solid months in terms of quality metal output, and I’ve been somewhat on top of most things this year which is a change from my usual flailing around. I’ve likely missed something somewhere but given the amount of time already spent listening to music, I don’t think I could cram anymore in. Here’s a few of the things I thought were noteworthy and worth talking briefly about, the ones that didn’t make it in this time might see the light of day next go round. If you really think I’m missing something that needs to be heard by all means let me know in the comments below, I need all the help I can get!

 


 

 

Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Tucson’s Judicator are the latest in a volley of trad/power metal shots fired from the States, and with The Last Emperor they might actually win enough critical acclaim to become a fixture on the scene. Theirs is a decidedly European leaning take on the style, heavily influenced by classic mid-period era Blind Guardian. This shouldn’t come as a surprise once you hear this record, but its worth mentioning that their founding members met at a Blind Guardian show in 2012, and having first hand experience myself at just how magical those shows are in particular, I wonder why more power metal bands haven’t blossomed in their wake. Anyway, at the heart of Judicator are vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco, both working as primary songwriters together, Cordisco working up the music and Yelland crafting his own vocal melody ideas. Their new album is actually my introduction to the band, arriving typically late to the party (this is album number four for them, three if you consider the first to be what it really is, a demo), I was introduced to them via the accumulated murmurings at the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the /r/powermetal subreddit. Everyone seemed to be eagerly anticipating its March 30th release above anything else, so like a kid elbowing his way through a throng watching the news on TV at a storefront window, I had to see what everyone was going on about. Two tracks in and I was immediately sold and bought the album from their Bandcamp a day before its official release.

 

It shouldn’t take long to sell you on it either, the opening title track being a near perfect microcosm of hearing their obvious influences shining through yet also detecting their own personality coming through. Midway through, they abruptly skip away from a very Blind Guardian-esque, layered vocal laden mid-tempo passage to a sudden gear shift into speed metal with group shouted backing vocals, a combination that reminds me of a metalcore approach (albeit without sounding ‘core). I imagine its impossible to write a review about these guys and not mention the influence of the ‘Bards, and while other bands have shown that influence before (Persuader anyone?), the really impressive thing about Judicator is just how that influence manifests itself —- the folky vocal passage towards the end of “Take Up Your Cross”. Yelland isn’t so much a dead ringer for Hansi in tone as he is in approach, something heard in his choice in diction, phrasing, and of course the innate sense of when to layer a vocal with heaps of harmonies. You get to directly hear that contrast on “Spiritual Treason” where Hansi himself shows up for a guest vocal spot, as ringing an endorsement of Judicator as you could envision. Its a fantastic track, epic in scope and feel, and while the two singers complement each other really well, the star here might be the songwriting itself, crisp, bracing and energetically bouncing along (its been awhile  since we’ve heard Hansi in something this lean and mean).

 

Nine Circles published a nice interview with Yelland and Cordisco, one worth checking out if only for the glimpse into the tons of behind the scenes work that American power metal bands have to go through. The insight into this album however yielded a few surprising details, the first being that this is the band’s first album without harsh vocals and ballads both. There are softer dips into folky acoustic territory scattered throughout The Last Emperor, and they sounded so excellent that I wondered why these guys weren’t trying their hand at a longer piece composed in that vein —- I’ll have to dig into their discography to find that then. Its not a knock against this album though, because I get what they were trying to do in maintaining a certain level of energy throughout (somewhat similar to what Visigoth recently accomplished on Conqueror’s Oath). Reading Cordisco’s description of how he approached the songwriting here only reinforces what I felt when hearing the album for the first time, that there’s a real methodical level of thought that went into the songwriting here, even down to tiny details like sudden riff progression changes and the design of hooks (vocal and musical both). This was a real surprise, a knockout album from a band that wasn’t even on my radar until recently. It gives me hope for the future of power metal which seems to be flourishing into a new renaissance recently with the likes of Visigoth, Triosphere, and Unleash the Archers.

 

 

 

Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages:

I’ve had a soft spot for Finland’s Barren Earth ever since being introduced to the project with their 2012 album The Devil’s Resolve (a Metal Pigeon Top Ten that year!), it being an intriguing mix of melancholic melo-death with very 70s prog-rock elements. At the time, Opeth had just undergone their neo-prog transition with the Heritage album and I wasn’t feeling it, so I was all to eager to fly the flag for Barren Earth pulling off the sound I wanted Opeth to be doing. But that’s an oversimplification of what they do, even if the comparison is completely justifiable, and as we heard on 2015’s On Lonely Towers they were forging a unique identity of their own. And that’s important because one of the things that always gets everyone’s attention about the band’s lineup is its supergroup of Finnish metal aura (two parts Moonsorrow, former ex and now current Amorphis, and the Finnish guitarist for Kreator). Since I missed out on reviewing On Lonely Towers, its worth pointing out here that it was their first without Swallow the Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamäki at the helm, and to his credit he was a big part of what made me love their previous album so much. His replacement is Clouds vocalist Jón Aldará, a vocalist whose clean vocals are a little more rich with emotive phrasing, not a bad thing by any means but one of the things I loved about Kotamäki’s cleans is his somewhat emotionally detached, distant approach. It lent an air of mystery to his performances with Barren Earth, whereas Aldará (damn these guys’ accented names!) puts almost the equal and opposite emphasis into emoting, something that tends to diminish its own power if done too often.

 

As far as melo-death vox go however, Aldará is on par with his predecessor, his tone having the right texture (somewhat blackened, nice crunch… what a weird way to describe the human voice). On “Further Down” you get a good balance of both his styles, and its a catchy track too, with a chorus boasting a memorable vocal hook and a nicely written major key guitar sequence that sets everything up. It was the major standout after my first couple listens to the album, and unfortunately, that’s kind of the problem with A Complex of Cages in the grand scheme of things. After a few weeks listening through it, giving it space, coming back to see if anything else would unlock, I’m realizing that its one of those albums that just isn’t sticking. Its a solid album when I’m actively listening to it, but apart from that one track I’m finding it difficult to have anything else stay with me long after I’m done. Now sometimes that’s fine, as was the case with Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper, but those are outliers, and I remember how much The Devil’s Resolve would linger long after listening to it. Oddly enough the only other track that came close to having some kind of return value was the ten minute epic, “Solitude Pith” for its fantastic ending passage at the 7:40 minute mark. These are the reviews I hate to write the most, because the album’s not bad by any means, and its got interesting moments scattered throughout, but ultimately I feel like I’ve given it a fair amount of time and its failed to make a lasting impression. I’m going to revisit it in a few months and see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

Light The Torch – Revival:

I don’t normally listen to bands like these, but lately I’ve become a supporter of Howard Jones just as a human being, his appearances on the Jasta Podcast being so endearing that I’ve found myself rooting for him. His is an interesting story, not just for his time in Killswitch Engage’s rise to fame but in his battling depression, the brutal physical effects of diabetes type II, as well as crippling social anxiety. His current band has been known as the Devil You Know, but legal problems with their former drummer prompted a name change as an easy out, and so we have Revival, the first album in this mach 2.0 version of the band. The style here is more modern hard rock than metalcore, but sees a meshing of various elements largely due to Jones’ expressive and distinct clean vocals. Curiosity made me start listening to this album, and I started using it as a palette cleanser after so much more involved and complicated music I’ve been constantly listening to (Nightwish comp aside, the rest of the albums in this post are proof of that). Its definitely a simpler brand of heavy music at its fundamental core, focusing on anthemic choruses and vocal melody centered songwriting.

 

The riffs are fairly standard, not a lot of texture to them and sometimes that’s a keen reminder as to why I don’t normally bother too much with this genre of music as a whole, an example being “The God I Deserve”, with its turgid, bland slabs of distortion not really saying much besides filling in the vocal gaps. But lets not get ahead of ourselves here with too much musically focused analysis, because I doubt the people who really love stuff like this are fawning over the guitarists in particular. The attraction here is Jones himself, and on the opener and video track “Die Alone” which boasts about as positive sounding and anthemic (any good synonyms to replace that adjective with?) a slice of groove metal can be, they lean on their greatest strength. Its an addictive hook, and Jones has something inherently likable about his clean vocal approach, capable of being booming and rich at the same time, never losing an ounce of power. His growls are fine, and they add shades of color and complexity that’s badly needed in the face of the straightforward attack of the band, but if he did more of this kind of harmonized type clean singing in Killswitch, I might’ve been more of a fan. He showcases this again on “The Safety of Disbelief”, a strong bit of songwriting with some rather well executed self-reflecting lyrics. The themes here are a more personal slant on what Hatebreed does, a lot of purging of inner turmoil and self doubt, and it works. Not my usual cup of tea but it was a nice change of pace.

 

 

 

 

Nightwish – Decades:

I’m not sure if the more apt critique of Nightwish’s new career spanning retrospective is its utterly bizarre tracklisting, or once again my pointing out just how inane it is for a band to spend money making these compilations in the first place. Granted, the costs of such a project are lower than that of a studio album for the most part —- we’re talking primarily the costs of design packaging here, and presumably Nightwish had already made the arrangements long ago to be allowed to re-release parts of their Spinefarm past back catalog on a newer label arrangement. Whatever the business arrangements, Nightwish made the shrewd decision to promote the hell out of the fact that this was a band curated release, with the tracklisting picked out by Tuomas Holopainen himself and the liner notes as detailed and fan pleasing as you could imagine. So pleased and confident were they that they gave away copies to every single ticket buyer of their recent US tour, a nice little tie-in with the tour bearing the same name. I did scan their social media a bit to see fan responses to the free surprise gift vary from giddy to pleasantly surprised to “This is nice but I don’t own a disc player…”. Well then, the very fundamental issue indeed.

 

I’ll wonder aloud and ask you to join me, “Couldn’t this have been accomplished by simply having the band curate their own Spotify playlist, perhaps with some audio commentary tracks thrown in as a nice bonus? Oh wait, they did that —- Spotify has done a series called “Metal Talks” in which artists do that very thing for their newest release and Nightwish recorded one with Tuomas and Troy Donockley, and I found their commentary incredibly fascinating, Tuomas in particular going into details that few interviews manage to drag out of him. If you consider that Decades release on Spotify itself is in fact a glorified playlist, then its mission accomplished without the need for a physical release of any kind, but Decades was released on CD and vinyl. I don’t have a problem with that, I just hope it was worth it and that they won’t take a bath on it financially. I’ve written about my own internal first world struggle with my physical music collection, and the in past few months we’ve seen new reports about how Best Buy and Target might remove CDs from their stores by the summer (and articles reporting that vinyl and cd sales are beating digital downloads for the first time in years). I guess I admire the spirit behind a physical release like this, but am torn on the question of its necessity (though clearly others would disagree still), a debate largely informed by my own ongoing conflicted feelings regarding physical media.

 

Anyway, lets talk songs, because for die-hard fans I can easily imagine Decades being a flawed tracklisting, and its not well chosen for newcomers as well. I know Tuomas calls “The Greatest Show on Earth” his best work ever, that 24 minute long monolith that closed out their last album and is his Richard Dawkins narrated dream come true. To me and many others, it was the first one of his epics that didn’t seem quite gelled together, suffering from severe bloat in many passages and not enough in the way of strong motifs to keep me coming back (the spoken word was a chore as well). I’d actually argue that “Song of Myself” or or especially “Meadows of Heaven” were more apt choices as far as modern epics go, both hitting a particular core facet of Nightwish mythology in a more compact, memorable way. The tracklisting is in reverse chronological order, and as we travel through the recent albums, I wonder about the “Amaranthe” inclusion (surely one of the weaker songs of Dark Passion Play), and the lack of “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” (some of Tuomas’ finest lyrics). The other chief glaring omission is “Everdream”, one of the band’s most beloved and iconic Tarja era gems, a song as central to Nightwish fans as “Nemo” or “Ghost Love Score” (both rightfully represented here). Only two songs from Century Child seems a bit strange, and I guess everyone could nitpick on what older songs should have made the cut but the ones they picked seem fine to me. Its just an unsatisfying overview in general however. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in lieu of just directing them to a single studio album alone. It worked for the rest of us, it’ll work for them.

 

 

 

 

Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins:

I’ve had a meandering relationship with this band, really liking them upon my first introduction with the ever more incredible The Gathering Wilderness, their classic 2005 Celtic folk metal masterpiece. That enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over the years with their subsequent albums until 2014’s Where Greater Men Have Fallen, an album that saw them up the aggression level just enough to shake up their sound. A friend of mine who also likes them recently observed that he would forget about Primordial for years until the next album came around, where he’d pay attention to it, until he’d likely forget about it once again. It didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy those albums, but that for some undefinable reason, Primordial couldn’t stick with him the way other bands did. I think I’m in the same boat, because even though ‘Greater Men’ was a Metal Pigeon Top Ten Album in 2014, I haven’t really gone back and given it a proper listen through until now when prepping for this review. I’m coming into Exile Amongst The Ruins with that in the back of my mind, maybe even allowing it to amplify my expectations for an album in an unfair way by raising the bar too high. If the last album was a top ten list maker yet not something I’ve revisited out of pure enjoyment, then this one has to be something truly special right?

 

Well yes and no, because I certainly know that I’ll be adding a few gems from this one to my iPod (lately I’ve cobbled together my own ‘best of’ Primordial playlist in hopes of keeping the flame burning so to speak). The first one being “To Hell or the Hangman” which is a tightly wound ball of energy on a vibrating string of a guitar figure, propelled forward like a bullet train. Alan Averill’s ever wild, unrestrained vocals here are delivered like he’s standing on a rocky Irish cliff side, arms wide open while singing into gale force winds. Its the very definition of a kinetic song, and a vivid portrait of Primordial at their best, especially in the way it evokes that Celtic spirit without actually resorting to cultural cliches (ie a lot of bagpipes, fiddles, and over the top Celtic melodies). Then there’s “Stolen Years”, where a deceptively laid back succession of floating, lazy guitar chords create a hazy atmosphere, broken through by an overlaid guitar figure a few notes higher. At the 2:45 mark the build up unfurls into a slow motion crashing wave, all the emotional weight behind the guitar melodies only furthered by Averill’s incredibly moving vocal. There are other good moments scattered throughout, but there’s also a lot of times where you’re waiting for something to happen, to materialize into a memorable passage (this band doesn’t really do hooks) or instrumental sequence and it just never gets there. They don’t entirely derail what is a relatively good album, loose and lively in a way they haven’t been in years, but it also results in a feeling that everything is a little too unfocused.

 

 

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart:

This is about a month late, but I thought since they’re fellow Houstonians and perhaps the biggest metal export from our city to date I’d give The Banished Heart an extended period of listening time. I’m glad I did because the first thing I heard from the album was the album opener and first single/video “The Decay of Disregard” and it just wasn’t working for me for whatever reason. To be honest, it still is one of the weaker tracks here and certainly a puzzling choice for the album opener, the slow, sludgy parts in the middle a little too meandering for my tastes. On the flip side, their choice for the title track as the second video release was spot on, despite its nine minute plus running time. This is Oceans of Slumber at their best, Cammie Gilbert pushing her vocals to their utmost emotional wrangling effectiveness, the usage of delicate, sad, and downright haunting piano courtesy of drummer Dobber Beverly in the middle passage reinforces the gravity of Gilbert’s heartbroken lyrics. At the 5:10 mark, he plays a figure that is pure Blackwater Park era Opeth in spirit, a beautiful melody awash in nostalgia and regret, and I find that I’m realizing he’s as much a talent on piano as he is with his always interesting percussion patterns. The song opens ups after that with the introduction of synth driven strings and an inspired bit of heavenly choral vocal effects helping to propel what is Gilbert’s watershed vocal performance. This was the first Oceans of Slumber tune I really could say I loved, even considering everything from Winter, and they even nailed the video for it, its visual aesthetic nicely understated, Texan in setting (those endless fields!), and darkly dramatic when it had to be.

 

On the heavier end of the spectrum, there’s a highlight in “A Path to Broken Stars” with its triplet infused riffs and intense sense of urgency. Gilbert has gotten better at learning how to develop her vocal patterns to mesh better with the heavier aspect of the bands’ sound, something that Winter needed. Here she doesn’t try to match the riffs rhythmically, being content to sing in a higher register at an entirely slower tempo, an old symphonic metal trick but it works for a reason. This is also a different shade of her vocal ability, something that could be classified as a little more ethereal, and it really works for her. What you don’t get so much throughout the album are her more bluesy inflected vocal stylings, but I think the songwriting helped to dictate the direction on that, and perhaps she and the band have simply grown into a new sound. Not everything is perfect here, there’s some songs that could use a little trimming, some where they don’t make enough use of a particularly impactful riff (thinking specifically of “Fleeting Vigilance”, and I wasn’t particularly taken with the closing cover tune “The Wayfaring Stranger”. I’ve heard countless versions of it before, its a pretty common folk song (Cash did it), but the digital effects and the telephone vocals here seems like distractions from what could’ve been a really fine recording. Oh well, the band’s gelled more and gotten better and they’re on the right track, that’s a good path to be on.

 

 

 

 

Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II:

Quietly in the middle of March, a new double album was released by Panopticon, better described as a project rather than a band given its solitary member, one Austin Lunn. Sort of like a Kentuckian equivalent to Vintersorg, I’ve been an admirer of his albums for awhile now, particularly 2015’s Autumn Eternal and the groundbreaking 2012 release Kentucky. If you’re not familiar, in a nutshell Lunn fuses Appalachia folk/bluegrass with blistering, second wave inspired Norwegian black metal. Now in truth, sometimes these aren’t pure fusions as they are juxtaposing individual tracks featuring each alongside the other, but its been interesting to see him continually strive throughout his discography to actually musical infuse his black metal strains with overtones of American folk. He might have finally nailed it though, because in the week I’ve been listening to this album, I’ve never been as captivated, intrigued, and flat out entranced by Panopticon as I am here. This album blindsided the heck out of me too, not even realizing it was released until I saw an update by the folks at No Clean Singing mentioning how Lunn wasn’t making it available ahead of time for reviewing purposes (the reason being that Autumn Eternal was leaked beforehand in a severely degraded quality and that rightfully pissed him off —- no problem with me by the way though, I rarely if ever get reviews up before an album has been released).

 

The consequence of such an odd album release approach is that this one is flying under a few radars, but I expect that will change as the mid-year best of lists some places publish get posted, in addition to old fashioned word of mouth. The instrumental folk intro of “Watch the Lights Fade” is a perfect mood setter, but in the blistering fury of “En Hvit Ravns Død” we get our first glimpse of how he’s integrating the two worlds of his soundscapes. The middle interlude of sad, discordant country violins and the sounds of forest creatures create a rustic ambiance throughout, and on “Blåtimen” and “Sheep in Wolves Clothing” Lunn uses overlaid lead guitar to create folky countermelodies set against the piles of tremolo riffs burning underneath. What he really excels at is using understated, minor key American folk as the tapestry for all the connective bits where the black metal is held at bay, and stepping back from this album in particular I’ve started to realize that it represents the very heart of his sound. The black metal ebbs and flows, and on disc two here it goes away completely. Its not meant to be the center of attention anymore like it once was, and I get the feeling that this is the kind of album that Lunn has been striving towards all this time. The rustic folk/alt-country of the second disc is gonna be an acquired taste for some, but I really enjoy it personally; it reminds me of Uncle Tupelo both in its lyrical perspective of down and out rural America but also in its lo-fi production wash. This is an album you owe it to yourselves to experience personally, too much for a simple review like this to convey. A magnum opus.

 

Tear Down The Walls! New Music From Angra, Lione/Conti, Visigoth and More!

Here we are again, with a sequel to February’s Throw Open the Gates! review blitz, this time with more albums from these first two months and change of 2018. It has certainly proved to be the busiest opening release salvo of any year in recent memory, and things don’t seem to be slowing down in the next few months. There’s a few things that I didn’t review here that we’ve covered on our last two recent episode of the MSRcast, so you might also want to check those out if you are on the hunt for new music. A lot of these releases have been amazing, but not all —- I’ve got your back though, just think of me as your new release concierge. A lengthier look at the new Judas Priest album is next on the agenda, and I’m sure there’s going to be yet another of these multi-review clusters coming out relatively soon too. Headphones ready…

 


 

 

Lione / Conti – Lione / Conti:

Weirdly, Fabio Lione is at the vocal helm of two albums released within the span of a month, well okay one and a half albums. Just before the release of Angra’s OMNI (reviewed below), he and Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody/Trick or Treat vocalist Alessandro Conti released their Frontiers Records (of course!) debut duets album. If that phrase conjures up images of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett dancing cheek to cheek, or Sinatra and Bono cozying up at a bar drinking shots of something, then you’re actually not far off the mark —- these guys are indeed trading off vocal runs in true duet fashion. Frontiers does a lot of these types of projects, thinking of course of the Allen/Lande pairing, but also the recent Timo Tolkki star studded solo project, as well as the Kiske/Somerville stuff. This time the “staff writer” is Italian guitarist Simone Mularoni (of Italian prog-metallers DMG), who counterbalances the Italian penchant for high gloss factor power metal with an ample dose of AOR styled hard rock. Now I get the draw —- this is basically two generations of Rhapsody vocalists coming together for a vocalists duel (whatever that might mean), and on paper its bound to attract the ears of many a power metal fan. And to their credit, Frontiers Records does often deliver good records behind these so transparently obvious they’re ridiculous ideas, in fact, I still love those Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall albums.

 

The tricky bit with this Lione/Conti extravaganza rests on how you answer this one question, and maybe its just me but… don’t these guys sound exactly alike? Luca Turilli didn’t just randomly pick Conti off a list of available vocalists to front his new version of Rhapsody, he did it because he could continue writing in the same mode he had been during his time in the original incarnation of Rhapsody of Fire. It was honestly only when watching the music video for “Ascension” when I was finally able to tell who was singing what, and even then I couldn’t discern any reasonable variations in their voices to help me throughout the rest of the album. I’m not sure if this is even a stumbling block when it comes to enjoying this album or not, because even though I’m really only hearing one voice to my ears, I’m rather liking Mularoni’s meat and potatoes approach. It mirrors the last Rhapsody of Fire album Into The Legend, with its stripped down songwriting that seemed to maximize hooks and memorable melodies at the expense of grandeur and ambition. Songs like “Destruction Show” work because of awesome guitar hooks to keep everything focused and concise, and “You’re Falling” has a nice Queensryche vibe to its vocal melody arrangement. Its a solid listening experience in full if you’re in the mood for straight ahead AOR tinged Italian power metal, but as they really could’ve used either Lione or Conti for the project alone, the duets aspect of this fails hard.

 

 

 

 

Angra – ØMNI:

So I’ve given this new Angra album a decent amount of playtime, enough I think for it to fully reveal itself, and I gotta say I’m a little ambivalent overall. In retrospect, Secret Garden was a far more interesting album than we gave it credit for, and its varied collection of vocals might have played a part in that. Not only did Fabio Lione have his debut turn there, but Rafael Bittencourt also added his excellent, rough-edged voice to several songs as well, that’s not to mention the guest turns by Simone Simons and the amazing Doro Pesch. It wasn’t perfect, but it was surprising and kept you guessing. ØMNI is a far more straightforward affair, with Lione getting most of the vocal time although Bittencourt does pop up and there are a few guests, including Alissa White-Gluz on “Black Widow’s Web”, a song that absolutely didn’t need growling vocals but, well, here we are. I enjoyed “Insania” for its beautiful guitarwork and stirring melody, despite shaking my head at just how silly the term “Insania” is (isn’t that what Geoff Tate’s wine was called?). Someone once told me that it was the Latin version of “Insane” and it took me an incredible amount of patience to simply grunt and nod. Moving on, “The Bottom of My Soul” is such an excellent tune, and not coincidentally Bittencourt’s on lead vocals —- is it wrong to suggest that maybe the band sounds better when he’s singing? I’m sure that’s fighting the spirit of their legacy and the impressive work of the Andre Matos and to a lesser degree, the Edu Falaschi years, but damn he sounds great.

 

Lione’s best work comes on “Always More”, a lovely ballad with some unusual guitar tones at work in absolutely gorgeous, simple melodies, combining with an ascending vocal melody that makes use of his effortless ability to hit higher registers. Regarding the departure of Kiko Loureiro, its hard to gauge —- I’m going on the assumption that Bittencourt penned most of the music here, but the now Megadeth guitarist does pop up in a guest spot on the single “War Horns”. I can only say that there’s enough shred factor here to satisfy the most ardent prog-power guitar fanboy out there, and at times Angra even sounds more like Dream Theater considering the tonality of Lione. The last two tracks on the album invoke the title, being the concluding companion pieces to what apparently is a concept album (about a science fiction future in 2046), but they fall flat, being neither heavy or melodic or heady enough to inspire any particular emotion. A rough ending for the album overall, and not a way to get people invested into the album’s concept. Maybe this will grow on me over the coming months, there’s some stuff worth coming back for, but I just find myself wanting to listen to Secret Garden again.

 

 

 

 

Tengger Cavalry – Cian Bi:

A few years ago I was introduced to Tengger Cavalry’s particular take on folk metal with their mixing of Mongolian throat singing and nomadic Asian traditional instrumentation. I was immediately intrigued and checked out a few albums on YouTube, and while I enjoyed what I heard, it was a difficult proposition to simply work into casual listening. Tengger Cavalry is one of those rare breeds of folk metal bands that don’t give you an easy entry way into their sound, there are no instantly accessible tailored singles that can draw a bigger crowd, no “Trollhammaren”. They’ve been unapologetic about their sound, and its also worth noting that the metal aspect of their folk metal seems largely devoid of allegiance to one particular metal style, being just straightforward heavy riffs, plain and simple. Their newest album, Cian Bi, is simultaneously their weirdest yet most straightforward album to date —- its also, shockingly, their last. Just the other week, band founder Nature (yes) Ganganbaigal issued a rough statement throwing the blame on ex-Century Media president and current M Theory Audio owner Marco Barbieri. I’m not well informed enough to make any judgements either way but that’s a bummer, and you have to wonder if Nature is dissolving Tengger Cavalry in name only to terminate any existing business agreements, and will regroup under a different name doing the same type of music.

 

One can only hope, because I’ve been enjoying this new album far more than just the passing casual listens I had with their back catalog. I don’t know if its their best work overall, but there’s something deeply appealing about this bizarre mish mash of elements. Of particular note is just how hard hitting some of the riffs gluing everything together can be, case in point are cuts like “The Old War”, and the pummeling “One Tribe, Beyond Any Nation”. The latter is my personal favorite, featuring a gorgeous melody played on a morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), an incredibly appealing instrument that I’m glad I now know the name of —- all blockaded by some seriously brutal, Rammstein-esque riffage. Besides the traditional instrumentation, Nature’s uncanny vocal ability is also a huge draw for me, as in “Ride Into Grave and Glory” where he switches between the throat singing and his clean rock/metal vocals. It might be an acquired taste for some, but even his “normal” vocals have character, a rustic quality that brings to mind grassy steppes and gritty, grimy back alleys in dense cities all at once. This is a listening experience best beheld start to finish, with the album as the soundtrack to your thoughts or random mindless activity. There’s a spiritual aspect to this blend of folk metal that’s hard to define and even harder to shake.

 

 

 

 

Visions of Atlantis – The Deep & The Dark:

Austria’s Visions of Atlantis have been off most radars since 2013, when they underwent a major lineup shift, not their first one but certainly their most dramatic. The most important change was the addition of ex-Serenity vocalist Clementine Delauney and The Dragonslayer (Siegfried Samer of the uber fun Dragony) on co-lead vocals. At the band’s core has always been drummer/founder Thomas Caser, and with the addition of new guitarist and bassist Christian Douscha and Herbert Glos respectively, we’re on to Visions of Atlantis Mach 7583234419! Well, close enough anyway. We did get a taste of what the Delauney/Samer pairing could sound like with the 2016 Old Routes New Waters EP, a re-recording of several older songs including the ballad “Winternight”, whose recording and video ended up being a thoughtful memorial to the sadly departed original vocalist Nicole Bogner, but The Deep & The Dark is clearly the debut that Caser and company have been striding towards all these years. Given his predilection towards the band’s concept being about seafaring and adventure, and with a fantastically dramatic vocalist like Samer at the forefront, I was expecting an album rich in dramatics, heavy on theatricality, and songwriting that pushed the band’s sound forward.

 

We get that, in brief flashes here and there, but unfortunately, the album suffers from the band’s chief structural flaw within its various lineups, that being the lack of a consistent songwriter. Throughout this band’s history, its songwriting has been generated by a mix of band members, the biggest slice of this coming from ex-keyboardist Martin Harb, but Caser himself isn’t this band’s Tuomas Holopainen. But Caser clearly is the driving force behind maintaining the vision of what this sound should be, at least in theory, that being Nightwish inspired dual male/female vocalist driven symphonic metal. The problem is that whomever is part of the songwriting team for the band at any particular time writes towards that mode, and the results sound like either too many cooks in the kitchen, or various emulations of musical approaches that have been done before. In other words, its symphonic metal by the numbers, and this is a genre where bands really need distinctive musical voices to emerge within their lineups to push their music hard in a particular direction or angle. You might be able to compensate for a lack of this if you’ve got really strong hooks by the armful, but that’s a tall order. Samer’s Dragony is a great example of the latter, their 2015 album Shadowplay doesn’t break new ground, but damn is it a fun listen, full of fist-raising choruses and glorious over the top nonsense.

 

You might think that given these comments I didn’t enjoy The Deep & The Dark at all, but that’s not entirely true. The title track that kicks off the album is a fine emulation of Nightwish, sounding strikingly similar to that band’s Anette Olzon era. And “Return to Lemuria” features a charming bit of Sonata Arctica esque keyboard sugar icing on a verse/chorus that hits heavy on one’s nostalgia factor, sounding like a cut that could’ve been suitable for The Neverending Story soundtrack. Delauney is on fine form on those cuts, her voice the right amount of ethereal and breathy and even with some deft melodic phrasing on certain lyrics to make them extra effective. But a juxtaposition of vocals in “Ritual Night” between her and Samer just doesn’t generate the kind of excitement it should, and I don’t know if its so much their fault as opposed to the song simply lacking anything in the way of hard hitting drama. The “Book of Nature” is yet another example of this homogenized quality to the overall songwriting hampering the vocalists ability to conjure up pulse racing excitement, which is kind of the point of symphonic power metal in the first place! This is a band in desperate need of a sharper songwriter, someone who can channel and mold the talents that they have at the vocal helm. Serenity’s Georg Neuhauser and Thomas Buchberger made Delauney sound positively enchanting on War of Ages, and its disappointing to not hear the same thing here. A frustrating under use of talent, and given the band’s history, I don’t see it changing.

 

 

 

 

 

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

Utah’s Visigoth burst onto the scene in 2015 with their strong debut The Revenant King, whose stellar “Dungeon Master” we played on the MSRcast around that time. I remember listening to the rest of the album thinking that if they had a few more songs in the spirit of that spectacular cut, they’d really have a fun album. As it was, that song and a Manilla Road cover (“Necropolis”) were the most direct things on the album, the rest of the band’s punchy, vibrant USPM being folded into epic song lengths with extended instrumental passages and grand, broad-sword inspired prog. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the album, but I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. Fortunately, Visigoth have leaned into their strengths on The Conqueror’s Oath and stripped their sound down to its meat and bones trad metal roots, meaning more Manilla Road, early Manowar and Virgin Steele. This is such a fun record, eight quick cutting daggers of thunderous, unabashedly melodic, anthemic glory —- one of the most satisfying listens to come out of USPM in ages. Its not just that they’re capable of smile inducing glory paeans in “Steel and Silver”, but of inspired musical shifts like the gentle dip into Jethro Tull-esque flute accompanied balladry at the 3:40 mark of “Warrior Queen”. Vocalist (and flutist!) Jake Rogers the Tony Kakko x-factor, a knack for hooky lyrical phrasing, and the admirable talent to drape a memorable vocal melody over nearly everything he sings. Tonally he reminds me of a cross between the plantative Chris Black (High Spirits / Dawnbringer) and Janne Christoffersson from Grand Magus, with a little Eric Adams penchant for bellowing theatrics to power things out.

 

Manowar and Grand Magus are two perfectly suited reference points for what Visigoth have accomplished on this album, where thundering displays of power are at the forefront but the songwriting approach still leaves some room for tasteful musicality. On “Traitor’s Gate”, they utilize a twangy acoustic build up to ratchet up the mystery and tension before unleashing a thundering assault and some lyrics that are begging to be bellowed out loud in unison at a show (“Die like the dog you are!”). I love the middle bridge where Rogers unleashes a wry bit of clever vocal phrasing (“By spite and thunder /
Torn asunder…”), possibly out Manowar-ing Joey DeMaio with its fist in the air magnetism. My personal favorite has to be “Blades in the Night”, where I really feel that Visigoth is reaching into the same well of early 80s inspirations that fuel most of High Spirit’s Scorpions-esque hard rock. The chorus is the star here of course, deceptively simple but so effective, it was ringing in my head all day after first hearing it.  Rogers gets to stretch out here as well, delivering a fantastic performance that’s inspired and even beautiful in its lyrical qualities, reminding me a little of the great Mathias Blad in spots. This would almost be a perfect album, but I’ll agree with damn near every review I’ve seen where “Salt City” is singled out —- its not a terrible cut, and I get why they wanted it in here (hometown tribute and all) but its placement throws off the pacing of the album and I’d rather have had another slice of the same pie the rest of the seven tracks made up. A minor blemish though, one that’s easily forgivable considering the sheer quality of this album. Visigoth have arrived, bar the gates!

 

The Bounty of Spring! New Music March!

mpavatThe bounty of spring indeed, because this month I’ve found myself going through at least eight new releases, a few of which aren’t listed in the reviews below but might be up later sometime. Some of these are also late February releases that I had overlooked that month or simply thought were coming out in March (or more accurately, I didn’t get around to listening to until recently). There’s a lot to get to and I’ve tried to keep things short and concise for you and me both, so we’ll apply that to this preamble too. Begin!

 


 

wolfheart_tyhjyys_zpszbazutp9Wolfheart – Tyhjyys:

On the latest episode of the MSRcast, listen to my cohost Cary and I collectively slap our foreheads in bafflement at not knowing that Wolfheart was the newest project from Tuomas Saukkonen. I did have vague stirrings that I had remembered the band name somewhere, but laziness compelled me not to do a simple Google search on it (or I got distracted by Twitter, both likely culprits). Saukkonen is the restless spirit behind Black Sun Aeon (an MSRcast favorite), Before the Dawn, Dawn of Solace, and the short lived RoutaSielu melo-death project. He’s the Chris Black type (he of High Spirits, Dawnbringer, and Pharaoh fame), the kind of musician who operates under a project/band name until he feels its run its course, upon which he creates a new moniker, and begins to record under that for however long he feels its inspiration. These projects have been different enough musically to warrant such divisions, though they are almost always cooked up in a Finnish broth of blackened doom along with melodic death metal structures. Whereas Black Sun Aeon was a very Finnish extreme take on gothic metal, Saukkonen leans in an altogether new direction here, more towards the progressive simplicity of latter day Enslaved. Its a natural fit because one of his trademarks is his clever and engaging use of minimalism as a guide in his songwriting, allowing for the usage of empty space to create tension and to amplify heavier passages.

Case in point is the single “The Flood”, an acoustic led epic that recalls mid-period Opeth for its delicate patterns and understated minor key melodicism. I love a track that’s so confident in its overall strength that it allows for moments of sparsely adorned quietude where the drums are the dominating instrument, helped by Joonas Kauppinen’s jazz-inflected fills (check 2:04 – 2:26). That aforementioned Enslaved influence can’t help but be heard on a cut like “Boneyard”, whose main riff is a mish-mash of tremolo picking and modern day prog-metal, book ending a chorus that’s elevated by a bed of forceful keyboard atmospherics. Wolfheart’s keyboard usage is multi-faceted, not only serving as quasi-orchestral arrangements at times, but as purposefully artificial in tone as on “The Rift”, to conjure up a complementary melody to the rhythm guitar riff that brings to mind Omnium Gatherum and Insomnium (not bad touchstones to have). Unlike those fellow Finnish artists however, who occasionally swim in tones that can be described as warm, or summery (as in the honeyed melodies of One For Sorrow), Wolfheart choose to work with decidedly wintry sounds. That’s not a bad thing because they have the songwriting chops to keep it interesting, but for folks who can’t handle an overload of that stuff, it could act as a stumbling block. That being said there’s not a weak track on this album, and with only seven songs (excluding one rather well written instrumental intro) they could hardly afford one.

The Takeaway: Modern day Enslaved meets Blackwater era Opeth while being bear hugged by Metallica-esque accessibility. Worth a shot for extreme metal neophytes and old hands alike.

 

 

evocationtheshadowcd_zpsbkma3mt7Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:

Evocation aren’t exactly the most known name in death metal, despite existing in some spirit or another since 1991(!). There were demos and more demos in those early days, then a sudden implosion that halted any activity for years upon years. This halt in momentum prevented their ascent to the region defining status of their fellow Swedish death metal peers in Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and Unleashed. They eventually returned in 2007 with their long overdue debut album Tales From the Tomb, and went on to release three more between then and 2012. They were largely built upon that expected SDM template of buzzsaw guitars and dirty riffs, albeit with hellish vocals caught between a melo-death scream and something far more guttural. Eschewing any guest appearance by the cookie monster, Evocation presented a far more accessible take on this style of death metal, something later co-opted by Grave on their excellent Endless Procession of Souls. But its been five years since then, and while that gap of time might have frustrated anyone who felt like the band was a bit on a roll, those were four relatively uneven albums, with 2010’s Apocalypse being the only one I ever go back to. So I’m happy to report that the break has been beneficial for Evocation, with The Shadow Archetype easily being the best, most confident album of their career. If there’s any justice in the metal world, everyone will recognize this and perhaps even those in the non-metal worlds will give it the Gorguts Colored Sands treatment.

This is an addictive, refreshingly simple and direct re-imagining of the Evocation sound, a distillation of the band’s strengths into a cohesive, brutally effective death metal tonic. The sonics here are deep, raw, and dirty yet recorded with unbelievably wide dynamic range and instrument separation —- take the opener “Condemned to the Grave”, where ominous lead guitar motifs cleanly glide over riffs that hit you with the force of a monster truck smashing over junkyard cars. If you’re getting hints of At the Gates and The Haunted at moments, such as on “Modus Operandi”, you’re not hearing things. I suspect that the band deliberately kept reinforced the Gothenburg influence they’d picked up through the years and use it as a way to explore further melodicism within their traditionally straight ahead Swedish death metal approach (“Survival of the Sickest” being a prime example of the latter). This helps to explain the acoustic instrumental “Blind Obedience“, the most Gothenburg/Jesper Stromblad-ian thing they’ve ever attempted. I can’t pick a favorite track here, because this is a flawless album from start to finish, but I’ll give a special nod to “Children of Stone” for its mix of complex songwriting and structure held in check by ferocious guitar riffs that practically slam their way into action during transitions from verse to chorus and back again. What a song, what an album.

The Takeaway: A must listen to for 2017, one of the early contenders for the album of the year list.

 

 

Immolation-Atonement_zpsmgophuf4Immolation – Atonement:

Immolation have always been a unique specimen among modern American death metal bands, and to be more precise, from their hometown New York death metal scene at that. They certainly don’t sound like any of the NYDM bands I’ve heard, especially not the ones approved by those few dudes at local death metal shows around Houston and Texas in general sporting those silly NYDM brotherhood patches on their ripped jean jacket vests. I’ve idly wondered if those guys would consider Immolation false metal based on how far they stick out from other bands from the region (transcended more like), but never had a real inclination to strike up a conversation with any of them. Probably for the better. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Immolation on the blog before because I didn’t actually pen a review for 2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy, feeling a little blah about that album in general (I’ll be revisiting it soon to see if that’s changed); but I was a huge fan of their 2010 masterpiece, Majesty and Decay. That’s in my top five death metal albums of all time, an astonishing album of brutal death metal that was more oppressive in spirit than in overwhelming walls of sound, a key to its success. It would always be a difficult benchmark to top, and I wonder if that’s something that was on the band’s collective conscience this time around, four years after Kingdom of Conspiracy.

On Atonement, the first thing I noticed before playing the album was the cover art, purposefully more colorful and vivid than their past three releases (including the 2011 Scion A/V presents Providence EP), as well as the reintroduction of their old school logo. I went in expecting some reversion to an older school sound, bracing to hear evidence of the band I once enjoyed purposefully packed away from sight and sound. That turns out to not be the case, and I’m at a loss to explain the cosmetic changes surrounding the album because Atonement is still Immolation fully engaged in their modern mode. That is, death metal written with intelligence, thought, and attention to detail. There’s still an oppressive atmosphere pervading everything, but the instrumentation is still clearly defined, with space and breathing room allowed for everything even during the most intense and hectic passages. A true highlight here is “The Power of Gods”, which features a cleverly written ascending scale pattern that both serves as a hook and a motif at the same time. Equally impressive is the title track, with its deft intro riff pattern repeated throughout as a moving anchor tethering strains of furious, roiling chaotic noise in all directions. There’s musical curiosities as well, such as the bizarre guitar figures that adorn “Thrown to the Fire”, almost treading into non-sludgy sludge-doom territory (if that makes any sense!). Vocalist Ross Dolan is on fine form throughout, but he always is, an ageless wonder in the world of brutal death metal, of particular note is his menacing energy on “When the Jackals Come”, delivering its eponymous lyrics with enough clarity so there’s no mistaking his meaning. Yikes.

The Takeaway: A return to form, if not a confusing way to go about it. No its not as awesome as Majesty and Decay, but few albums are… if you’re new to the band, I highly recommend starting there and then moving to this.

 

 

bloodboundwod_zpsqsygakq1Bloodbound – War of Dragons:

I’ve never been able to get my head around Bloodbound, mostly because they can’t seem to do the same themselves, so thoroughly schizophrenic have they been over the course of their career. So here’s where I have to use caution, because I do love that a band like Bloodbound exists because its 2017 and we need all the new blood (no pun!) we can get to keep this beloved subgenre going. But good grief, they’ve really taken a turn for the worse here and have succumbed to a rather disheartening recent trend within power metal to amplify the style’s most egregious tendencies to the max. I’m thinking about those purposefully silly bands like Gloryhammer and Twilight Force, because there’s no way songs titled “Tears of a Dragonheart” and “Dragons are Forever” can be excused as anything else. I’m not anti-dragon, but that’s just goddamned silly (edit – this might be the most ridiculous sentence I’ve ever written). Are you kidding me with this stuff Bloodbound? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, because as alluded to above, these guys have been all over the place stylistically and thematically since their debut album. Yet the lineup on War of Dragons is still three-fifths of the band that recorded the truly inspired Tabula Rasa…so what happened?

Well line-up changes happened first of all, with the 2010 exit of vocalist Urban Breed bringing in current vocalist Patrik Selleby. Lost in that transition was not only Breed’s rather unique aggressive mid-range vocal approach, but his innate talent as a songwriter, writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies during his time in Tad Morose and bringing that talent to his two Bloodbound albums as well. Selleby is a far more conventional power metal voice, a good one at that with an impressive upper register, but he’s far more dependent on predictable power metal vocal patterns. Its hard to figure out if he’s the reason for the band’s increasingly simplified songwriting formula over the course of these past three albums but I’d equally point the finger at Bloodbounds three remaining original members. As a forgiving power metal fan, I can’t shake the feeling that these guys are looking for a straight shot to the most accessibility the subgenre can provide, and that means following whatever route that currently seems to be working for others. Only that can explain the increase in Gloryhammer-esque hamminess that characterizes War of Dragons on a lyrical level, and also the co-opting of Sabaton styled keyboard lines that mirror the vocal melody. That works for Sabaton because its part of their organic, original sound —- and the hamminess works for Gloryhammer because of their overall package. Bloodbound has no identity of their own anymore, and maybe the loss of Breed’s signature lyrical depth and intelligent vocal melody design on Tabulsa Rasa suggests they never did.

The Takeaway: The McDonalds of power metal then. 

 

 

morsprincipest_eoadw_zpsnlupp2qyMors Principium Est – Embers of a Dying World:

The lesser noticed little brother of Finnish melodic death metal (relative to Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum that is), Mors Principium Est are now on album number six, which is not remarkable in its own right except to suggest that they’ve had plenty of time to direct their sound in a more focused, organic direction. That actually is the feeling I’ve gotten from Embers of a Dying World, that the band is still in love with the Gothenburg template (nothing inherently wrong with that), but has this time around stumbled upon a way to incorporate more of a Finnish approach to their melo-death. That doesn’t mean they’re copying their brothers, but this is the most noticeably different sounding album in their discography, owing to Gothic-tinged keyboard arrangements, mournful melodies set to slower tempos in places, as well as the surprising inclusion of an actual ballad here in “Death Is The Beginning”. Its a bold experiment, one that I’m surprised they haven’t tried earlier, and here they include female vocals for the first time that I can remember, and it works really well. Check out “The Drowning” for a vivid example of just how much the band is stretching into unfamiliar territory —- a slightly below mid-tempo synth groove with Queensryche meets melo-death lead guitar drapery with playfully subtle tempo accelerations in the glide-in and out of its addictive chorus. This isn’t the Mors we once knew, yet they still sound like themselves, a challenge for any band to achieve.

This expansion of their palette I believe is a direct result of guitarist Andy Gillion’s gradually increasing songwriting influence since he joined up in 2011. His first two albums with the band displayed flashes of this transforming influence, but here he fully blossoms, and it seems that longtime vocalist Ville Viljanen and bassist Teemu Heinola are happy to let him take most of the songwriting reins. Its an odd quirk that its taken a British guitarist to coax out more of a Finnish sound from Mors, but Gillion brings a brashness, a boldness that the band has needed both musically and personality wise. Case in point, check out his tour diary for the band’s stay on this year’s 70000 Tons cruise; he’s an outgoing, upbeat, and playful personality. This is all just idle speculation, but he seems to have loosened up the band in general, and I can hear this affect Viljanen on Embers more than anyone, his performances here are the best of his career. He’s been one of the best melo-death voices for a long time, possessing that perfect condensed scream-growl vocal, but on new songs like “Apprentice of Death” and “Into the Dark”, he tries new approaches, invoking more of a blackened Satyr vibe. Its a subtle change, but it suits him and helps those two songs breathe. The whole band is breathing easier on Embers in fact, this is one of the nicer surprises this year.

The Takeaway: This may be up for vicious debate, but this is certainly my favorite Mors Principium Est album, so full of unexpected twists and turns yet not sounding like they’ve transformed into anyone else.

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