Serenity Join the Crusades: The Lionheart Review

Would it be accurate to call this a surprise release? I heard rumors of Serenity working on a new album this year, but the idea that it would be released before the year was out seemed a little far fetched. Their previous album, Codex Atlanticus, was just released in January of 2016, and I suppose that does fall a few months shy of a two year mark, but simply put releases don’t tend to come this quickly —- record companies don’t like it. The short turnaround got me wondering if the band had even toured to support that album, I couldn’t remember… but sure enough they did a European tour of their own directly after its release. It seems to have been only a month or so, which might explain why they were able to get back to work on new material, perhaps feeling like they needed to ride the wave of creativity they were feeling after the critical success of that album (and it was a success to me anyway, remember “The Perfect Woman” landing on my top ten songs list). Then there’s also the added dimension of Lionheart being a concept/thematic album about… well Richard the Lionheart of course. Don’t these things usually need a little more time to work out? A longer bake time if you will. You’d probably be able to brush that aside considering that Serenity’s vocalist/songwriter Georg Neuhauser’s day job is that of a history professor, so presumably, all the research on such a topic had already been loaded into his brain long ago and this was a natural outsourcing of his passion. But as Angry Metal Guy smartly points out, Serenity’s take on Richard I comes off a bit slanted, biased, or even more dishearteningly, naive:

 

Googling Richard I for three minutes will show that he, like all regents and generals, was a complicated man who did complicated things for complicated reasons. But such a nuanced picture of the character is notable in its absence. Missing, for example, is a song about the massacre at Ayyadieh, where Richard I lion-heartedly executed 2,700 people—some accounts saying it was closer to 3,000, including women and children—because Saladin would not pay a ransom. Instead, Lionheart relies heavily on messages of unity and a lionization (see what I did there?) of Richard I. While “Massacre at Ayyadieh (I Executed 2,700 People Because Saladin Would Not Pay Me a Ransom)” makes a less inspiring song than “United” or “Stand and Fight,” it also makes a crucial point: who would write an uncritical concept album about The Crusades in 2017?

– Angry Metal Guy

 

 

As I’m sure I’ve pointed out before, I try to make a point of not reading other reviews of an album before penning my own, but I was late to this album, and during a bored, scrolling through my phone moment, I let my guard down and read his review. Angry Metal Guy doesn’t write as often as I’d like him to these days but that’s a stellar review (one I highly encourage you to read), and considering his site was one of the biggest influences on me starting my own blog, I make an exception for him without guilt. His larger point that Neuhauser’s lyrics seemed to rely on power metal’s proclivity towards positivity is what’s worth examining here. If you take a glance through the lyrics throughout this album, you’ll see a largely sympathetic take on Richard I, one that doesn’t offer a corresponding opposite view of his decisions and actions. I’m not saying Neuhauser should have written the soundtrack to Kingdom of Heaven here, but AMG delivers a valid criticism, and the overt romanticism that drenches every song on Lionheart actually works against it, makes it less likely to draw us in, particularly in the fraught, politically, racially charged climate of 2017. I’d immediately point out that I don’t detect anything malicious or nefarious in Neuhauser’s lyrics, and that’s reinforced in part because the formula he’s using on Lionheart is a damn near replica of the one he used for DaVinci on Codex Atlanticus. It worked there, because DaVinci is an interesting, engaging, well respected figure that largely avoids being seen in any particularly negative light today —- as a conceptual subject, he’s far better suited to power metal’s proclivity towards joyful euphoria.

 

 

All this wouldn’t really be much of an issue of course if the songs were on point, and some are nearly there, but for the most part this album sees Neuhauser missing his usual mark of excellence for the first time since I’ve become a fan. I’ve gone through this record well over a dozen times now over the course of a few weeks and its just not clicking with me. Many of the songs lack the sharpness, the well defined arcing hooks that he’s so adept at penning, with the exception of a few cuts. Opening song “United” comes across as the inspirational, horns bellowing call its supposed to be, its lyrics speaking of coming together to take up the holy crusade —- the sort of stuff power metal is meant to be the soundtrack for. Similarly on “Lionheart”, where “Jersualem unites us against Saladin”, Neuhauser delivers an impassioned vocal in the verse segments in particular, a slight phrasing twist in his delivery that reminds me of why I love him so much as a singer. Choir vocals backup the refrain here, bringing to mind a Blind Guardian influence that is noticeable all throughout the rest of this album. We get triumphant, punctuating horns in the chorus of “Hero”, a lyrical clunker but possessing enough strength in its vocal melodies to make you ignore the Enrique Iglesias reminders it will conjure in your mind.  This change in style and tone is appropriate for the subject matter, and on first listen I wasn’t too surprised to find the album’s first four cuts storming out of the gates in this mode. But it never lets up, the entire approach across the board sounds more epic and grand than we’re used to from Serenity, its all glory and light here. By the time I got to the fifth cut “Rising High”, I started to wonder where was this album’s “Wings of Madness”, or “Far From Home”, those doses of melancholy that I’ve come to expect.

 

For the bulk of their back catalog, like their spiritual cousins in Kamelot, Serenity were consistently working with light and shade, a splash of darkness to their sound to balance out their major key heavy songwriting. Even on Codex Atlanticus they had those more dark, introspective moments —- “Reasons” and “The Order” come to mind, and that was an album I thought was an abrupt about face from the darker tones of War of Ages to a brighter, cheerier sonic palette. Neuhauser pulled that off successfully because he had a couple musical factors changing; namely that Thomas Buchberger was no longer in the band, his thick guitar riffs dominating the bulk of the band’s earlier work, and as a result Neuhauser built up the songs around his vocal melodies, giving the album a noticeable Broadway vibe. So back to Lionheart, where songs like “Eternal Victory” midway through the album sport a few nice moments in the way of hooks and the odd nice riff or solo, a sameness begins to set in with all of these songs essentially mirroring one another. Another glorious paean to Richard I and his inevitable victory, got it. I didn’t actually realize that the sameness throughout the album was what might be dragging it down until I read Angry Metal Guy’s review, but his analysis of the lyrics really do sum it up: These songs all have the same theme of glory and victory, yadda yadda yadda, and that results in stylistic sameness throughout the album, and that ultimately results in a relatively unremarkable listening experience.

 

 

The first real difference in tone and even in song structure comes in the closing pair of tracks, “My Fantasy”, and “The Final Crusade”. The latter is a strange bird, featuring some harsh vocals that I suspect we all figured were coming at some point (every power metal band seems to do a little dip in them at some point), and while they don’t ruin what is a largely a good song, they fail to add anything to it. The strength of this track is the Broadway vibe of the chorus, bringing to mind hints of the last album, Neuhauser’s vocals soaring against the backdrop of a swooning symphony. He’s joined towards the end by Sleeping Romance vocalist Federica Lanna, her vocals a sweet, subdued tonic to his soaring theatrical delivery, though he does bury her sonically in the mix when their voices are supposed to be conjoining. The other song, “My Fantasy” might be the highlight of the album, a song that reminds me of the Death and Legacy era in its multi-faceted approach. A heavy riff progression sandwiches a wide open power ballad chorus where Neuhauser dreams up as glorious a hook as he’s ever conjured, his vocal progression bringing to mind the very best of Tony Kakko and Klaus Meine in his tone and vocal melody direction. Its also the only moment on the album where you could forget about the Richard I concept for a few minutes, because even though its written from the perspective of Richard while he’s imprisoned, its lyrics are vague enough to be malleable to anyone and anything. Neuhauser is such a gifted songwriter, he’s bound to deliver a gem per album at least, even when the rest of the affair is a surprising misstep. I’ll take it, and while I won’t recommend Lionheart as a must own, I’ll be happy to wait an extra year or so for a far greater Serenity album next time around.

 

 

 

Exit Eden: Symphonic Metal’s Double-Take Inducing Pop Experiment

This is a review that was written in early August that I thought I had lost permanently in a freak browser freezing accident, but apparently was saved through means I can’t really understand. Exit Eden is the four-piece vocal group that tackled a handful of pop/non-metal cover songs in the vein of symphonic metal —- the reaction towards it was mixed, as expected, but I’ve been surprised to see that over the past few weeks a more positive embrace of this album is taking hold. This is the unedited (except for grammar, hopefully) version of that original review, and my feelings on the album haven’t changed since, so I figured I’d repost this one. A fall reviews cluster is to follow this with a slew of reviews on albums that have dropped in the past few weeks/months.

 


 

It would be so easy to come at this project with an ample amount of cynicism and derision… expected even. A label/producer concocted “band” (the quotation marks for that piercing barb!) with four strikingly gorgeous female vocalists from the Euro/power metal scene, coming at you like the corset wearing version of Il Divo (or worse, The Tenors, who by the way have no business covering a song that can only be truly sung in its full glory by either Freddie himself or my lady Sarah Brightman!). That its a covers album is yet another reason you’d be forgiven for indulging in a little eye-rolling. Check out that tracklisting, okay “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, that’s a Steinman classic that could’ve been a Meatloaf song so its an easy shoe-in for the symphonic metal treatment —- but Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, her paean to bad girls feeling guilty? C’mon, that’s just pandering for clicks and algorithm placement on YouTube and Spotify right? A take on Lady Gaga’s alliterative dance pop “Paparazzi”, seems like an unlikely candidate for a project like this and perhaps thrown in only for eyebrow raising right? Look, you’d be forgiven for thinking all of these things —- and when we listened to some of this stuff whilst recording our MSRcast with Blues Funeral’s Maurice Eggenschwiler, both he and my cohost Cary scoffed at this entire affair. I didn’t blame them.

 

But here’s the thing, despite all that, I kinda am having the best time when I listen to this album. Its ridiculous and absurd to a large degree, but its fun too, satisfyingly joyous for its musicality. I love symphonic metal because a long time ago I heard bands like Nightwish and Therion and realized that the sound of sweeping strings over a bed of thundering metal guitars was something I’d always wanted to hear. But I was scarcely provided the opportunity to until I directed my attention towards metal bands across the Atlantic way back in the late 90s. Its no coincidence that Exit Eden was dreamed up by a European production team, specifically the in-house studio producers at Elephant Studios in Flensburg, Germany. It figures, German producers just seem to have a knack for this kind of thing: Sarah Brightman’s longtime musical collaborator/producer is the German born Frank Peterson, who cut his teeth working with Michael Cretu (of Enigma fame). Oh then there’s Mr. Sascha Paeth himself, the man behind countless power metal productions at his Gate Studios in Ehmen, Germany —- and if you don’t know his work, I’ll just direct you here. Yeah, he’s involved in Exit Eden as well, as one of the guitarists at work in the band laying down the metal aspect of the soundscape here, and no doubt, helping on the symphonic end as well.

 

Paeth is also responsible for bringing on board Amanda Somerville as the first vocalist selected for the project, a wise choice because she possesses such a strong, powerful voice that can carry the majority of the load on any song she’s on. She was apparently instrumental in recruiting French vocalist Clementine Delauney (Visions of Atlantis, ex-Serenity) into the fold, a singer who I championed a few years ago in my review of Serenity’s War of Ages. She was spectacular on that album, the variety of songwriting giving her the opportunity to showcase a spectrum of vocal approaches, from delicate and breathy to otherworldly in a Sinead O’ Connor/Bjork vein. I was disappointed when she left that band, but both she and they rebounded fairly well. Her work on Visions of Atlantis 2016 EP Old Routes New Waters was promising, particularly for it’s hushed ballad “Winternight“, though it remains to be seen if that band will fully display her capabilities the way Serenity did. The other two vocalists filling out Exit Eden’s lineup are Brazil’s Marina La Torraca and German-American Anna Brunner, who apparently is Elephant Studios secretary who happened to lay down guide vocals on the demos for the project. La Torraca is best known for being Avantasia’s live backup vocalist during some shows in 2016, although she’s likely soon to be associated with Phantom Elite, Sander Gommans’ new project post-After Forever who are on the verge of releasing their debut album.

 

 

The music itself is well executed, with just enough of a balance between heavy, crunching metallic rock riffs (think Within Temptation) and computer/keyboard generated symphonic elements, but that’s to be expected given the caliber of the pros behind the scenes. And these are covers in the most strict, traditional sense —- there’s no changing up the melodies, no musical deconstructions, no slowing down tempos, its really just these songs as you’ve heard them in their original states but painted with symphonic metal colored paint. Some might find that annoying, but these songs relied primarily on the vocal melody in their original state, and unless you have a skilled composer reworking entire song structures (ala Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko or Therion’s Christofer Johnnson, both accomplished at reworking cover versions), then its best that Exit Eden played it this way. I guess the real question here is do all the song choices lend themselves to this approach? The answer is unsurprisingly no, because there’s a few that fall flat, one being Adele’s “Skyfall” which for some reason features a guest drop-in by Simone Simons of Epica. I’m not sure why, but “Skyfall” loses some of its sly charm in Exit Eden’s version, though I’ll venture that its because their more straight ahead approach diminishes the dreamy, 2am blurred vision feel of the original. You could practically see Adele in a smoky-hazed bar, hunched over the mic in the corner, crooning away —- Exit Eden’s feels practically clinical in comparison. And I thought the bizarre song selection of Visage’s “Fade to Black”, which is just… well for lack of a better term, bizarre! Never was fond of the original myself, and I hoped this version would change my mind but sadly it has not.

 

Where things actually work are on the big, bright, arcing pop songs with soaring choruses: Katy Perry’s “Firework”, Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, and yes even the Backstreet Boys faux-soul balladry of “Incomplete”. Regarding the latter, Exit Eden’s version towers over the original, which was always hampered by the sub par, often nasally voices of the individual Backstreet Boys singers themselves. Here the chorus is beefed up by a kick of guitars and see-sawing strings to give it extra heft, and the vocalists (I believe Delauney alongside Somerville backing up) deliver a rather passionate performance —- its a delight to hear, a good song finally given a proper recording. The Rhianna cover was also surprisingly successful, complete with an organic violin sound in the verses which was a shrewd choice because if you’ve heard the original, they were going to be the problematic area for any symphonic metal transition. I will say that the tone of the vocals during the bridge/chorus don’t really match what the lyrics in this tune are going on about —- for the most part, I’m nitpicking however and its entirely possible to ignore those aspects and just enjoy everything on a purely musical level. There’s a good showcase in one of the verses here of Anna Brunner’s more rough-hewn vocal ability, as she demonstrates a more Doro-influenced vocal that she uses in spots throughout the album. Its on Katy Perry’s “Firework” where everything, and I mean everything really come together for one harmonious outpouring. But its easy to see why, the original was such a perfect pop song, and the producers here have wisely avoided doing anything except adding a little more guitar and some nicely played symphonic beds.

 

Two other cuts worth getting starry-eyed over are the aforementioned expected take on “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with Amanda Somerville and Masterplan/At Vance vocalist Rick Altzi going back and forth on dueling vocals; and an unexpectedly majestic take on Bryan Adams eternal classic “Heaven”. About a decade ago I remember hearing a Euro-dance version of “Heaven” that I actually thought was fairly good despite the tackiness of the genre it was attached to, and hearing Exit Eden’s version just makes me think that its one of those songs that sound good when anyone does it. There’s a nicely stutter-stepped rush of guitars and orchestration when the chorus hits and it just lends a bucketful of gravitas to what’s already an impactful chorus. But its the verses I love —- and for the life of me I wish I could identify with absolute accuracy who’s singing in the second verse sequence, because she’s accenting all the right moments just perfectly. I really love this version, its as bright, hopeful and romantic as the original, but there’s a wash of melancholy that’s coming through the lead vocals that give the track a different kind of vibe that Adams’ vocals didn’t give it. It may be sacrilegious to say it, but I might prefer this rendition more? I’ll say it —- I do. Going back to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, Altzi gives his lines the right amount of that classic hard rock sandpaper feel and he’s a solid choice for the duet, not flashy, not showing off, just getting the job done convincingly. This is Somerville’s moment however, her best performance on the album and proof positive that she’s consistently one of the best vocalists in power metal today (regardless of gender).

 

 

The most daring experiment here (besides that Visage cover) is the opening cut, a challenging take on Depeche Mode’s dark, storming “Question of Time”. Now, I love Depeche Mode, and completely love that metal bands feel the same way and have responded throughout the years with some really excellent covers. Not sure how the guys in that band feel about it, but they’ve quietly influenced so many metal bands over the years. I’m ultimately undecided on whether or not I can enjoy this one, because while there’s nothing wrong with it as a cover, it just makes me want to hear the original (something that may simply speak to just how awesome Depeche Mode is). Its rivaled in its bold experimentation factor by “Paparazzi”, the iconic Lady Gaga hit, which definitely is interesting for its vocal choices. Instead of playing along with Gaga’s patented alliterative vocal rhythms, Exit Eden stretch them out, like a roller pin over a mound of dough. It results in a chorus that sounds very much like Tarja era Nightwish, with heavy vibrato undercurrents in the vocal approaches. Its also the heaviest track on the album by far, with extra thick guitars and little micro solos flying around in unexpected moments. Again, I’m not sure just how I feel about it, because while I enjoy the musicality, I wonder if it doesn’t lose its meaning in transition. I think a successful cover can do one of two things: Either bring the original meaning of the song with it, or give the song an entirely new context via a different approach (think about Therion’s gorgeous cover of Accept’s “Seawinds” vs their radically different reworking of ABBA’s “Summernight City” —- the former kept the bittersweet yearning of the original while the latter turned a shiny, happy, upbeat dance cut into something truly sinister).

 

Minor quibbles and philosophizing aside, bet you didn’t think a review on a project like this would end up being so lengthy. Truth is, neither did I, and that’s what makes Exit Eden and “Rhapsodies In Black” stand out. We’ve seen some pointless releases come out recently… Masterplan’s cover album of Helloween classics is one of them, Krokus’ entirely pointless Big Rocks was another. Covers albums generally fall in the pointless category, and it takes either a special band to make them convincing (Metallica’s Garage Inc for example, which was half compilation/half new) or a unique, fresh take to make them worthwhile (Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, their reworking of classic French pop covers and 2012’s Album of the Year!). Sometimes even a unique take isn’t enough if the execution isn’t there, as the tepid Maiden uniteD [sic] acoustic albums (albums!) have proven. But Exit Eden have managed to side step this with a release that is quirky, playful, and really quite fun. The band and their production team succeeded in this attempt where Within Temptation faltered on their The Q-Music Sessions —- you gotta pick the right songs and fully lean into the idea of a symphonic metal translation. This is worth your time for a Spotify play-through, you just might find yourself smiling despite your misgivings.

 

 

 

Two For February: Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus and Megadeth’s Dystopia

For all my bellyaching about 2015 and its overwhelming amount of new releases, it hasn’t exactly been a lighter load in these first one and a half months of 2016. Dozens upon dozens of new metal albums of all sub genres have come out in this relatively short time span and of course its impossible to listen to them all. I’ve managed a hefty amount though in just these few short weeks and if you read my recent Avantasia Ghostlights review, you’ll know that the year started off rather brilliantly. Seeing as how that was such an “event” album for myself and this blog and I gave it an accordingly lengthy review, I’ll try to shorten things up for all the other albums I was listening to alongside it. Here’s two relatively shorter reviews (but only just) for two major releases in my metalsphere. I’ll have a smaller, rapid-fire reviews series coming out soon looking at Abbath, Borknagar, and a host of others!


 

Serenity – Codex Atlanticus:

So those of you with sharp memories might remember that Austria’s Serenity leaped straight into my heart and atop my 2013 Best Albums of the Year list with their satisfyingly sweet epic, War of Ages. I found it an addictive album in its own right, but it had the added bonus of being my introduction to this wonderful band and their excellent back catalog that had gone under my radar for many years. I found myself comparing them to both Kamelot and Sonata Arctica; the latter because vocalist Georg Neuhauser reminded me so much of Tony Kakko in moments —- but the former because Neuhauser and guitarist Thomas Buchberger were a songwriting team that worked so well together that I was instantly reminded of the Roy Khan / Thomas Youngblood duo. Buchberger even shared a similar approach to guitar playing with Youngblood, preferring lean, sharp riff writing with highly melodic through lines and tastefully written solos. If they leaned a little too close to Kamelot in some spots, it was okay in my opinion, because at least I enjoyed their influences and they were managing to put their unique stamp on their own songwriting.

They had also brought in their spectacular touring singer Clementine Delauney to serve as co-vocalist on War of Ages, and she made the handful of songs she was on her own, with a malleable vocal style capable of being both breathy and ethereal, yet stormy and dark at the same time. The band had made a transition to being a five piece despite original keyboardist/co-songwriter Mario Hirzinger leaving the lineup (he would continue to contribute to the songwriting in a limited fashion), and I was already looking forward to their second album as a dual female/male vocalist band. So rather out of the blue on February 3rd, 2015 while working on a review for this blog, I glanced at The Metal Pigeon Facebook feed to see that independently both Buchberger and Delauney had announced they were leaving the band. It was a sinking moment as a fan, and I hate to see bands making music like Serenity’s suffer huge blows like the loss of a major songwriting partner. And as for Delauney herself, I thought she and the band were a complementary pairing and could dish out at least a few more albums together. Fast forward throughout the year and it seemed like Neuhauser, bassist Fabio D’Amore, and longtime drummer Andreas Schipflinger were determined to forge through these difficulties, playing some support dates for Stratovarius as well as a few festivals, Neuhauser even squeezing in his Phantasma side project (with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels), and in early October surprising us all by announcing their next album Codex Atlanticus had been finished.

Its been a long wait from October til now, and this was perhaps second to Avantasia for my most anticipated album of the first half of 2016. Serenity’s lineup is radically different, going from six members in the War of Ages publicity shots to four, the new guy being guitarist Cris Tian. Some things are similar, the lyrical focus on history for example is still present, except that instead of exploring a different subject with each song as on past albums, the band has decided to change things up in devoting an entire album to one subject, in particular the life of Leonardo DaVinci. The songs on Codex Atlanticus are like entries in his diary throughout his life, arrayed in no particular order, so some songs might be from a younger or older perspective. Its a cool idea, I was instantly reminded of Assassin’s Creed II where Da Vinci was a big part of the story line and you’d actually get to see him walking out and about in Florence. Neuhauser’s day job is as a high school history teacher and he’s pursuing a PhD candidate in history as well, so this stuff is right up his alley. From what I’ve gleaned from various interviews, Neuhauser wrote most of the album with contributions from D’Amore and Tian, along with longtime producer Jan Vacik helping out on the orchestral/symphonic side (for the first time it seems they’re not working with their other longtime producer Oliver Phillips). While Buchberger was as expected a no-show on this album despite hinting that he could contribute to songwriting in the future, ex-keyboardist Mario Hirzinger chipped in with some help on the lyrics.

 

serenitycaband_zpsbw6u0v8lAlright so enough backstory, how does Serenity hold up in this post-Buchberger era? I guess it depends on what you valued more about the band in their previous era, because Neuhauser’s vocals definitely take on a larger presence here, with all of the songs now being structured around his vocal melodies. He was certainly a large presence on older albums as well, but there he was often restricted with Buchberger and Hirzinger’s more progressive metal approach. That’s not a criticism of older albums, because the compromise worked well, but without their influence the songwriting on Codex Atlanticus is less technically inclined, owing more to classic power metal stylings rather than symphonic power metal tropes. That’s going to sound like a silly statement when you’re hearing keyboard orchestration all over this album, but put it this way, this album comes across as more Sonata Arctica rather than Kamelot —- one influence of the band edging out the other. It results in some awesome songs, such as the opener “Follow Me”, with its glory-claw inducing chorus where Neuhauser gets to demonstrate his mastery of vocal phrasing in singing “Here I am, here I stand / Nothing left to say / My destiny will stay with me in sorrow”. I love his choices on another excellent track, “Reason”, where he lands on specific enunciations with extra harmony vocal layers to give the lyrics an added dose of emotion. That kind of attention to detail is what separates power metal vocalists from their peers in other genres of metal, namely, an understanding of all the elements in a vocal track.

On the more purely symphonic front (because they don’t drift away from it completely), there’s “Iniquity” and “Caught In a Myth” where both songs balance an almost swashbuckling/derring-do orchestral bombast with Neuhauser’s sing-song vocal melodies. The latter really caught my attention with a spectacular co-joining of vocals and orchestra in a triumphant punctuation mark at the 5:02 mark (“Just go / Don’t hide…”), one of those sublime once a song moments that will keep me coming back. On the ballad front, because there had better be ballads (hey if you disagree, what are you doing reading a power metal review anyway?!) we’re treated to the rather traditionally Serenity sounding “My Final Chapter” and the charmingly Freddy Mercury-ish “Forgive Me”. Neuhauser loads up both with an array of vocal inflections at well chosen moments that elevate the songs from being merely pleasant to compelling listens (Tony Kakko disease if you will). But Neuhauser’s truly shining moment comes in the Broadway-sounding piano ditty / quasi-ballad “The Perfect Woman”, a gorgeous song about the Mona Lisa of course (who else would the perfect woman be?). I’ve never heard of a song about a painting before, none that I can recall anyway, and I love the ingenuity of the lyrical approach that Neuhauser and Hirzinger take here, that of Da Vinci marveling at his own creation in awe. The vocal melody here carries everything, and its one of Neuhauser’s finest performances, full of genuine enthusiasm and a flexing display of his soaring tenor on certain lines (“There’s no chance for me to stray / day by day”); also of note here is Amanda Somerville’s welcome presence, her role as Neuhauser’s duet partner a call back to the classic “Changing Fate” off Death & Legacy.

Worth noting is that for the first time Serenity utilizes two male lead vocalists this time around, as D’Amore takes the vocal helm solo for a couple of moments, notably on “Sprouts of Terror” and “Spirit In the Flesh”. In an interview, D’Amore said that he had to deliberately try a radically different vocal approach to his normal style in order to provide a sharper contrast to Neuhauser. Its an experiment that has me sitting on the fence, because initially I thought it worked, but over time I’ve found myself growing weary of hearing his voice. I think contrast for contrast’s sake doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly when there’s nothing happening lyrically that would demand it (ala different characters in Avantasia). I’m not so put off that I can’t listen to those songs anymore, but I’d have rather heard Neuhauser on them all the way through (he is a big selling point for the band after all). Schipflinger turns in the reliable, solid performance that he’s always managed, and more interestingly Tian manages to come through on the guitar front, even knocking out a few solos where I couldn’t tell the difference between him and Buchberger (not sure he’d like that observation but it just means that he fits in well). Overall Codex Atlanticus bodes well for the future of Serenity, and that’s a testament to Neuhauser’s growing strength as a songwriter, one whose confidence in his vocal melody development has allowed him to carry the band on his back when they needed him most… not all vocalists could manage that.

 


 

 

Megadeth – Dystopia:

Okay, so everyone knows the backstory on this one. The fifteenth Megadeth album, the new line-up aka mach umpteenth of the band (this time being Mustaine/Ellefson/Loureiro/Adler), and this being a rather pivotal sequel to the deservedly maligned Super Collider. What you probably don’t know due to no fault of your own is that I’m a longtime and rather passionate Megadeth fan. Its a fandom that’s waxed and waned over the years due to a variety of reasons but they were one of my earliest metal obsessions alongside Metallica and Iron Maiden, and seeing a poster of the cover art to Peace Sells on the wall of my cousin’s room in 1986 when I was a wee lad is one of my earliest metal related memories. One of the reasons that might be unknown to you is that I actually have never written about Megadeth on this blog except in passing references, the major reason being that I was too late and uninspired to cover 2011’s Thirteen, and well, just too disappointed to even discuss 2013’s Super Collider. I thought the two albums that preceded those two were merely average to good at best, the last Deth’ album I thought was worth fawning over being 2004’s The System Has Failed. Oh alright Endgame had a few really great moments. See… that’s what I mean about the waxing and waning.

Actually, let me do a ranking of how I rate the Megadeth back catalog just so you’ll know where I stand so you’ll be able to gauge the ultimate verdict of this review. No numbers, you all know I don’t do numerical review scores so I won’t bother with them for a discography ranking. I think you’ll get the gist regardless. Anyway this is how I consider the Megadeth catalog, from best to worst:

 

Rust In Peace: Sitting at the top where it should be, because duh, its one of the greatest metal albums of all tid! Its also on my do not listen to whilst driving list!

Countdown to Extinction: My intro to the band and one of the first metal albums I completely immersed myself in. I’ve never gotten tired of it.

Youthanasia: What?! Over Peace Sells?! Yes, because despite its Max Norman dictated slowed down tempos I still think this contains some of Mustaine’s finest songwriting.

Cryptic Writings: Put down whatever it is you’re about to throw at me, hear me out —- I listened to this thing relentlessly, and thought songs like “Use the Man”, “Trust” and “Secret Place” was the band at their most melodic, hooky best. Its an underrated album and that’s kind of a shame. Go back and listen to it, its better than you remember!

Peace Sells: The best of 80s era Megadeth, though not quite a perfect album. I was never entirely a fan of their production during this era, as I always felt Deth’ needed sonic clarity to do justice to their technical precision.

The System Has Failed: Mustaine’s return from one of the more bizarre rock n’roll injuries in history and his much needed comeback album (because there’s no way the band could’ve ended on The World Needs A Hero). It was the most ferocious they had sounded in years, full of conviction and ear worms a plenty such as “Die Dead Enough”, “Kick the Chair”, and “Of Mice and Men”.

Endgame: I enjoyed Endgame when it came out, particularly the insta-classic “This Day We Fight”, and the album was the angriest sounding Megadeth album in ages. It was thrashy and heavy, but I felt at the time (and still do) that with a few exceptions, there was a noticeable lack of hooks amidst all the aggression. Lead single “Headcrusher” was kind of sprawling, all over the place, and only “The Right to Go Insane” really had something resembling the melodicism that I valued in Megadeth. Of the two Andy Sneap / Megadeth collaborations, this was the best one.

Thirteen: As I was writing this I took a re-listen to this one and yes, I’m reminded that it was a strong album with only a few average songs, it gets this high because of “New World Order” and “Public Enemy No. 1”. Amazing to think this album was nominated for three Grammy awards in consecutive years from 2011-2013 (and won none of course). Conversely, its this low on the list because I had to re-listen to it to remember large chunks of the album, but maybe that’s more due to how little I listened to it upon its release.

Killing Is My Business: Awful production, some okay-ish songs… I was never really sold on it as a spectacular debut however, and I still don’t feel that way in light of the remixed version even though it did clear up a lot of the original production flaws.

United Abominations: Merely mediocre, though I loved “Gears of War” and thought it deserved better than it got (it should’ve had a tremendous push for its video game tie-in but apparently that deal fell through for whatever reason). I didn’t see the point of the Cristina Scabbia duet on the remade “A Tout Le Monde”, aside from a transparent cross-promotional opportunity, it certainly didn’t sound better than the original.

So Far, So Good… So What!: A step down from Peace Sells and the second worst production in Megadeth history, this still had all-time classics (you know the ones), but I was never a fan of “Anarchy In the U.K.” in general, nor “502” which rivaled Exodus’ Impact Is Imminent for boneheaded-ness lyrically speaking. I was hoping the remaster would clear up some of the awful, thin, tinny production job but it only seemed to emphasize its worst elements (leading one to believe those Capitol remasters weren’t done from the analog masters).

Supercollider: Just one of the most inexplicable decisions ever —- on the heels of releasing a flurry of relatively Megadeth-ian sounding albums, Mustaine decided to go back to experimenting with a more… I don’t even know how to describe it. The ridiculous title track for example was awful and baffling —- where in his musical history were the seeds for such a song laid? It wasn’t all bad, “Kingmaker” was a decent song, but everything else was steeped in some sort of classic/mainstream rock marinade that ruined everything.

Risk: I know I know, you think this should be last, but hear me out! This is not the worst Megadeth album, despite its transparent attempt to break into the mainstream /modern rock charts and its highly amusing choice of producer in pop-country miscreant Dan Huff. Strip all that stuff away and consider the album as an isolated collection of songs from Mustaine and Marty Friedman that explored their more pop-driven instincts. It was an experiment that resulted in some truly awful stuff like “Crush ‘Em” and “I’ll Be There”, but also some unique and interesting stuff like “Wanderlust”, “Ecstasy”, “The Doctor Is Calling” and “Time Pt. I/II”.

The World Needs A Hero: Ah, the nadir of Megadeth! A reactionary album that proves that reactionary albums hardly ever work. Plodding, re-hashed, and uncertain of itself: This was the sound of Mustaine trying to remember how to write actual heavy metal again. It yielded a semi-decent ballad in “Promises” but even that was flawed… if Megadeth was to succeed in ballads as they did with “A Tout Le Monde”, they had to avoid attempting power ballads. Consider this not only the worst Megadeth album, but one of the worst metal albums of all time.

 

megadeth_dystopia_promo_shot_zpsyct91nusSo using the list above as a rubric, where does Dystopia fit in? I’m going to say, with a relatively high degree of confidence, that I’d slot it between Cryptic Writings and Peace Sells. Yep, you read that right, I’m considering Dystopia a top five Megadeth album, and its for good reason too. This is simply the fiercest, angriest, most convincingly Megadeth-y that the band has sounded in over a decade. Were I to remove myself from my nostalgia fed love for Cryptic Writings, I’d imagine I could comfortably slot this right below Youthanasia, its really that excellent. Mustaine in particular comes across as more plugged in and motivated both vocally and lyrically, and I wonder if that’s due to the divisive political climate we’re currently in (would make sense also considering how divided the country was in 2004 during the time of The System Has Failed). Musically the band is reinvigorated by the presence of Kiko Loureiro in particular, the ex-Angra guitarist being the creative partner that Mustaine has long missed since the departure of Friedman (certainly Al Pitrelli never fit the bill, Chris Poland was a recurrent flash in the pan, and Chris Broderick never quite seemed to gel). Loureiro comes in from a power metal background, and though you can argue that he has shredder level talent, he’s had years of experience in matching technical virtuosity with major key melodies, in other words, a Friedman-esque perfect match and foil for Mustaine’s thrashy guitar tendencies.

The album kicks the gate down right from the start, with a trio of some of the band’s best songs to date (and not coincidentally, the album’s first three singles). With “The Threat Is Real”, Megadeth have delivered their best album opener since “Trust”, Mustaine’s snarling, venomous delivery paired with a ridiculously catchy riff/vocal progression. Its sibling song “Dystopia” (tied together through their animated music videos) reminds me so much of Rust In Peace. We get alarming guitar melodies that conjure up a vivid sense of paranoia and fear, and later on the tempo slows down in an almost improvisational mid-song jam session built around funky, twisting rhythm patterns that usher along a frenetic solo —- its the kind of thing I’d imagine Friedman doing back in the day. Loureiro is simply stunning on this track, and he is equally as inspired on “Fatal Illusion”, giving his leads an Eastern-tinged accent. Ellefson and Adler cook up a thunderous rhythm section throughout, always in lockstep, and I’m impressed at how balanced the bass actually is in the mix on such a wildly guitar driven album. Ellefson in particular delivers an awesome groove on “Bullet to the Brain”, a mix of thrash and rhythmic alt-metal that works because of his distinctive bass lines. Adler is a terrific fit for Megadeth, full of fills and creative snare and cymbal usage —- and he gets that one thing that sometimes fails thrash drummers, that the music sounds more energetic when it sounds like the drummer might be slightly outpacing everyone else (it conveys an excitement that can’t be contained).

And I have to give the band kudos for sheer creativity in a gem like “Poisonous Shadows”, a slower, experimental song that demonstrates that they don’t have to step outside of their wheelhouse in order to cook up something different. Instead of playing around with goofy hard rock or pop, here they elect to use atmospheric strings and bring in a female vocalist named Farah Siraj to provide those eerie yet ethereal vocals that float over the top. I like Mustaine’s delivery choice here, going for a more desperate, sinister approach rather than trying to aim for melodic perfection. If he sang it straight the song would’ve sounded disjointed (as odd as that seems), instead his altering of his vocals actually sells the overall nightmare-like effect they were going for. And I quite enjoyed the highly syncopated “The Emperor”, with trademark Mustaine sarcasm in the verses and a hooky chorus. The decision to cover Fear’s “Foreign Policy” is yet another tip-off that Mustaine seemed far more lyrically aware and plugged in this time. Regardless of what you think of his politics, you can’t deny that he might be the best at vocalizing subject matter like this —- its an awesome cover, full of panic, aggression, and rage. And its an awesome album, one that’s kinda kick started my interest in Megadeth all over again (I’ve been on a Deth’ binge for the past few days). I really hope Loureiro sticks around, because he seems to have lit a fire within Mustaine, one that desperately needed to be lit, for everyone’s sake.

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part Two: The Albums

And finally, in the thrilling(!) conclusion, I present The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013, the second and final part of my overall best of the year feature (click here for Part One: The Songs). I listened to more new metal releases this year than any other, something I intended to do after missing the boat on so many excellent albums from the past two years until well after their release dates. The resulting list is as always what I consider to be the ten albums released this year that I enjoyed the most. I only ever do ten because it forces me to be critical, selective, and honest with myself. It also keeps me mindful of my listening habits and preferences throughout the year. After all whats a better gauge for how much you enjoyed an album than taking into account the number of times you’ve actually listened to it? And yeah, I do look at my iTunes stats to spot check myself just for kicks, but I really don’t have to —- I’m proud of what I enjoy and will gladly own up to any of it. Its been another great year for metal —- here’s what I thought made it so:

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013:

 

 

1. Serenity – War of Ages:

I know what you’re thinking. A prog-power metal album at the number one spot?! Wow, big surprise Pigeon! Fair enough, and your sarcasm is noted. But here’s the thing, my rule for these types of lists is that they have to be founded on the unflinching honesty of the present moment, as well as some incontrovertible truth, and so here’s the deal: This was my most listened to album of 2013—- far, far above other new releases, as well as any older records. War of Ages strikes me right in my musical heart, a record that encompasses the elements of what I love most about music across all genres. It has gorgeous melodies, smart songwriting, complex arrangements, and vocals that ring and soar. As a metal album, there’s heft and crunch provided by Thomas Buchberger’s less-is-more riff barrage, and the light symphonic arrangements that encircle everything else provide a sense of scale, tension, and drama.

 

Power metal has a generally accepted set of definitions, or aesthetic choices that collectively are its auditory makeup —- and ultimately that’s led to a certain amount of stagnation genre-wide over the years. But within the last decade there have emerged a small movement of artists that are trying to sidestep the traps that have developed from a result of time worn stylistic elements being overused to point of cliche. I believe Serenity are one of these select few that are knowingly aware of not only their strengths, but of what they need to do to sidestep cliches —- and its all reflected in their lean, refined approach to songwriting. They’ve had a core of songwriters in guitarist Thomas Buchberger and vocalist Georg Neuhauser that for three albums now have been making a run at equaling the near mythic legacy of Kamelot’s Youngblood/Khan era. But Serenity take chances and allow their newest member, co-vocalist Clementine Delauney to contribute to their songwriting process right away —- particularly in that she pens over half of the lyrics on War of Ages. Serenity have been on the cusp of challenging Kamelot’s claim to having the best lyrics in the genre for awhile now, and I think that with Delauney’s help they’re getting stronger and on a track to clear that hurdle a few albums from now.

 

In my best songs of 2013 list, I pointed out the album opener “Wings of Madness” as a particularly glorious highlight among many on this set, but the band really hits their stride in the second half of the album with a continuous streak of wildly diverse gems. Beginning with the quasi-ballad “Symphony of the Quiet”, where Neuhauser is able to flex his vocal dexterity over a moody piano bed and pronounced strings, almost Queen-like in its grandiose build up. It comes as a sharp contrast when the hard rock of “Tannenberg” kicks in, particularly in it’s strutting chorus where Delauney joins Neuhauser in a lead vocal duet —- her lilting vocals echoing his a split second behind. A lesser band wouldn’t be able to deliver such an upbeat, even fun sounding moment with nearly as much conviction. Ditto for the “Legacy of Tudors”, where the band really lets loose with an unexpected a capella intro, followed by a classically infused chorus where the vocal melodies are seemingly set to a waltz. On the closer, “Royal Pain”, Delauney takes another star turn with her emotionally shimmering delivery in the refrain —- perhaps the best moment by any female vocalist in metal this year.

 

Yes, I have grown up with European/American power metal as a part of my worldview of what metal can sound like. My appreciation for it sits alongside my love for death and black metal (check the rest of this list for proof). No, you don’t need to own a shiny, frilly-sleeved puffy shirt to be a fan of this music, or fall into some cliched stereotype that is so often thrown at those who enjoy power metal (nerd, basement dweller, etc, etc). All you need is an ability to appreciate music that is able to take you away from the often mundane realities of the daily grind, to remove yourself from the sheer staggering volume of irony, sarcasm, and self-awareness that engulfs society. Its the same reason you watch Game of Thrones and can’t explain why you love it so much: Escapism is something we all need and at times don’t realize how little of it we actually get. Serenity is a band made up of individuals that wake up each day and deal with the same amount of tedious crap that we all do; but when they get together and make music, they create a sound that seems like its coming from the pages of a book, of a world that we wish we could touch.

 

 

2. Suidakra – Eternal Defiance:

Germany’s Suidakra have a few important characteristics shared by many truly great bands: They aren’t easily categorized, and they don’t sound like anyone else. They’ve been perfecting a marriage of melo-death and folk metal for a long time now, and while that may not seem particularly distinctive on paper, its the way they’ve interpreted those sounds into something truly original that sets them apart. For starters they have nothing in common with Gothenburg melo-death or its stylistic traditions, and even more importantly they avoid the now cliche and trite “folk” sounds associated with Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Alestorm, and any other band of that ilk. And having seen what that genre turned into… it’s a smart move (before I get hate for that, I just saw Finntroll live the other week, and my concert enthusiasm plummeted when I saw them come out on stage dressed as elves, pointy ears and all).

 

I’d argue that their sound has more in common with fellow countrymen Blind Guardian than anyone else —- powerful and unafraid of being bombastic, as well as willing to indulge in pure balladry without a trace of self consciousness. This album is full of inspired work that exemplifies both traits: Take the militant headbanging stomp of “March of Conquest”, where lead vocalist Arkadius’ grim, harsh delivery contrasts with the clean female singing of Tina Stabel. Its one of the album’s catchiest moments, built around a folk inspired melody that is dressed up in brutal guitar riffs, juxtaposed by a chorus with a bagpipe arrangement that doesn’t overpower everything else. Stabel is a distinctive voice among female metal singers —- as opposed to being lithe and ethereal, her vocals are raspier and filled with what I can only describe as a metal attitude. And what I love in particular about Suidakra’s approach to songwriting is their embrace of diversity, such as the sudden mid-song drop in “Dragon’s Head” into near acoustic territory, replete with military snare drumming, distant orchestration, and possibly even a banjo being plucked!

 

Some may not enjoy the full on balladry of a song like “The Mindsong”, with its near maudlin lyrics about saucy, seductive Queens beckoning Roman rulers to come hither in their dreams but its a solidly crafted tune and I enjoy it for what it is. I have a high ballad tolerance remember? But those who didn’t enjoy that one will surely appreciate the rustic, elegantly understated “Damnatio Memoriae”, where Sebastian Hintz handles clean vocals with some of the best sung lyrics of the year: “Reflecting his desires / To roam the world / To travel from sky to sky / To make his mark in time”. I love that song and I really love the cover of “Mrs. McGrath” they decided to add on to the end of the digipak editions of the album. Yes its the traditional Irish ballad made popular recently by Bruce Springsteen, but Suidakra make it their own with a half acoustic, half metallic approach and unlike Springsteen, they deliver it with the original lyrics. Its almost swashbuckling with its organic instrumentation and an absolutely jaw dropping vocal by Stabel. I wish more metal bands would try their hand at unusual cover song choices like this from outside the instead of treating us to the umpteenth version of some metal classic.

 

 

3. Satyricon – Satyricon:

I’ve been fiddling with the damn ordering of this list on and off for the past couple weeks now, and a short while ago this was a few spots further down, but as I’ve gone through re-listening to all the albums on this list I realized something about Satyricon’s self-titled “comeback” record: This might be the bravest album of 2013. Tagging a record with that kind of adjective is confusing so I’ll explain briefly: Satyricon went away four years ago promising to come back musically renewed, having felt that they had taken the Now, Diabolical/Age of Nero era sound as far as it could go. Well that was already a rather simplistic sound when compared to their earlier, more symphonically infused back catalog, as well as in relation to releases by their fellow popular black metal peers. So the natural way to leap into a new sound Satyricon was to plunge back into the past with all the orchestral dressing of classics like Nemesis Divina, right?

 

Well not according to Satyr, who decided that the way forward into new sonic territory was to examine the structure of black metal itself and poke holes in it. Unlike the recent trend of American bands to copy the French and infuse black metal with shoegaze (or is it really the other way around?), Satyr has created a collection of songs that are built on the concept of addition by subtraction. Gone are the buzzsaw like guitars of the past, the hyper aggressive riffs and vocals, as well as the direct, in-your-face songwriting approach. Satyricon’s new sound is best described as muted, sparse, even spacey. The guitars mostly play open chord sequences, and when the rare riff pops up, its markedly less aggressive sounding than what we’re accustomed to a black metal riff sounding like. These songs are mostly atmospheric in nature, with a sense of awareness regarding the spatial relationships of instruments —- such as little in the way of multi-tracking or layering for example. The theory I summed up in my original review of this album is that “This is the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression.” In all honesty I have to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to this album in full, but when the mood does strike I’m consistently amazed at what the band has accomplished here. Its unlike any album I’ve ever heard, black metal, metal, or anything.

 

 

4. Carcass – Surgical Steel:

You should all be aware of this album by now, and yes its worthy of all the hype and high placement on year end lists. This is one of those rare occasions where a reunion album actually manages to add to a legacy, not only by remaining true to the sounds of the most beloved era of the band’s history, but by delivering song really great songs that tower among Carcass’ best ever. I’m referring specifically to a handful of cuts here, such as “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System”, “The Master Butcher’s Apron”, “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, and of course the instant fan favorite “Captive Bolt Pistol”. If you haven’t heard the record by now (seriously?), imagine the melodicism of Heartwork with just a slightly crisper, more modern production. I wonder if the scattered naysayers of this record are more upset by that than anything. I had a hard time imagining that Carcass would come back sounding closer to their earlier Symphonies era. Maybe on the next record?

 

Anyway Bill Steer is the star here, flying all over the fretboard, turning in riffs and wild solos as only he can —- his sound is so identifiable its almost like a trademark at this point. Jeff Walker’s vocals don’t miss a step either, he sounds as vicious and snarling as ever… ageless I think I said when I reviewed this album upon release, listening to him alone you’d think this was recorded in the mid-nineties. New drummer Daniel Wilding actually manages to outdo Ken Owen, as crazy as that reads on paper. He’s inventive, has fills aplenty, and plays off Steer’s riffs in unexpected ways. I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a few sentences gushing about the finest moment on the record, “316L Grade Surgical Steel”, which might be my all-time favorite Carcass song now. which is five minutes of metal perfection. My favorite moment comes towards the song’s end starting at 4:20 where Walker snarls out the catchiest, fiercest passage on the album. What an incredible album. Steel your heart!!!

 

 

5. Falkenbach – Asa:

The biggest surprise of the year for me personally, Falkenbach’s Vratyas Vakyas delivers the best album of his now two decade spanning career. What makes it so is equal parts excellent songwriting and a new emphasis on a clear, crisp, vocals-up-front mix and production. This is the first Falkenbach record that sounds equally as good on my car stereo as it does on headphones, something that couldn’t be said about past records. And when it comes to songs, Vakyas provides an array of styles and tempos, all inventive and unique in their own right. There’s an almost old school sounding black metal track in “Wulfarweijd”, which has a rather catchy riff buried underneath suitably blackened vocals courtesy of longtime Falkenbach screamer Tyrann / Philip Breuer (news to me, I always thought Vakyas did the screams). On other more mid-tempo songs, like “Bluot Fuer Bluot”, and “Bronzen Embrace”, I’m almost getting a Moonsorrow meets Otyg vibe.

 

Then there’s the Ulver-ian half-acoustic, sitting around the fire hymns of “Eweroun”, and ““Mijn Laezt Wourd”, two absolute gems that sail along on the power of Vakyas’ best clean vocal performances to date. “Eweroun” made my best songs of 2013 list, but its companion song could just as easily have been in it’s place there. Both have stirring, majestic, almost spiritual melodies set against a backdrop of warm, fuzzy, hypnotic riffing and delicate acoustic guitar. I love stuff like this and really appreciate it when someone just “gets” how to do it so well. I like that Vakyas has stayed true to his vision and refused to veer off into the cartoonish direction a lot of folk metal has gone into —- he doesn’t need to. Much like Suidakra’s Arkadius, Vakyas is one of folk metal’s pioneers, and his music connects to our ideas and conceptions of nature, the earth, and existence. Its criminal that this record is going to be overlooked by so many.

 

 

6. Orphaned Land – All Is One:

I doubt there is anyone who appreciated Orphaned Land’s All Is One album as much as I did. I wrote at length about my rather complex history with Orphaned Land earlier this year, and long story short I felt grateful to have another chance to really connect with the band that broadened my musical horizons well beyond metal. I’m aware that much of the band’s middle east following is due to their lyrical concepts and message of unification, peace, and brotherhood. I don’t have a strong opinion on that aspect of the band’s work as a distant American —- I think its a good thing in general of course, and I admire a metal band that dares to be purely positive without any trace of self consciousness, but my attraction to Orphaned Land has always been musical first and foremost. This is not a perfect album, (but then they’ve yet to realize one of those), it is however a really great one. I already gushed about the title track and “Brother” in my Best Songs of 2013 feature, so I’ll avoid repeating myself on both of them here. The rest of the album is just as interesting, filled with the kind of musically adventurous Oriental metal that this band has really pioneered.

 

Take the rich, cultural instrumentation and vocals in “Ya Benaye”, there is so much going on here musically that I couldn’t even begin to name all the instruments, I just know that its a beautiful, soulfully laid back moment of respite amidst an album full of drama, tension, and yeah, some fairly metallic riffs. Likewise in the instrumental “Freedom”, where the guitar vs oud interplay of Yossi Sassi and new guy Chen Balbus eventually turns into jaw-droppingly beautiful bouzouki outro (or hell maybe I got those instruments backwards, either way I want more of it). Speaking of guitars, those two guys turn in the best guitar dual guitar performance on any record released this year —- their ability to play off each other and complement one another is simply stunning, and a huge pull of this album’s appeal. Of course Kobi Farhi is his inimitable self here, delivering some fine vocals to some really excellent lyrics. And the decision to shell out for a full choir and string section was worth the additional expense, they lend a fullness to the sound that was lacking on past records. There’s so much to enjoy here, and the good news is that we’re promised a new studio record in a relatively short (for Orphaned Land standards) time frame —- I can’t wait.

 

 

7. Rotting Christ – Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy:

This is the most bizarre album on this list, I’m not even sure I did it justice in my original review for it earlier in the year. Rotting Christ is a band that I had callously written off many, many years ago for reasons I can’t remember. This album brought me back into the fold as a cemented fan, and its the sheer audacious sense of anything goes, unpredictable blend of what I guess are Greek folk music elements mixed with a unique vision of black metal. Song structures here are uncommonly strange, eschewing traditional verse/chorus structures in favor of Burzum-esque repetition, except that instead of aiming for the hypnotic riff sequencing, Rotting Christ favor a vibrant, shouted vocal chant style approach. There’s a high degree of melodicism going on here as well, guitars deliver ultra-melodic riffs and are often laced over an intense bed of furious percussion, often not matching tempos which creates a very unique effect upon your sensibilities as a listener.

 

Perhaps what makes Rotting Christ’s take on black metal sound so refreshing is their rejection of genre tropes, such as blurring blast beats, tremolo riffs, and aural density. In contrast, the songs on this album have ample space to breath, to sound muscular, and to have sonic identities of their own. Take “Cine iubeşte şi lasă”, where Gypsy-like female vocals usher the song along over slicing guitar riffs and a chanting choir bed. Then there’s the Therion meets Rammestein march of “Iwa Voodoo”, where melodic guitar figures sit between brutal, gutturally chanted male choirs. I wrote in my review of this album that I found it fun to listen to, and I still feel that way. Its one of the catchiest records of the year for metal of all genres, and I can’t tell whether its solely by design or it just tends to turn out that way. Next to Therion, I can’t think of a band that’s come from the ranks of extreme metal that composes music with such interesting song structures. For all it’s accessibility, I have a hard time explaining this album in words —- just go listen to it yourself and you’ll understand why.

 

 

8. In Solitude – Sister:

I imagine that by now you’ve seen this record pop up on many year end metal lists, and have either scoffed or wondered what the big deal is. I got to see these guys alongside Tribulation as openers for Watain a few months ago, and they were an impressive live band, so much so that I was moved enough to check this album out as well as revisit their past two records. I found that Sister has held my attention far more than their previous more straight up retro-metal records could. I do hate using that term to describe anything I’m listening to, but really In Solitude was doing little more than Mercyful Fate worship back then. They must’ve gotten tired of hearing that, because they purposefully distort their sound here with a substantial infusion of goth-rock and post-punk aural aesthetic. Vocalist Pelle Ahman even adopts a looser, more punk-inflected lead vocal delivery to match their new musical approach. If all this strikes you as purposeful affectation to be suspicious of, I suppose I can understand that sentiment but then I’d pose the question of what’s a band that is accused of simply mimicking the past supposed to do other than try to redefine their own sound?

 

All questions of motive and intent aside, In Solitude know how to write some really fantastic songs. A track like “Pallid Hands” hums along on the back of a guitar riff that reminds me of The Cult’s “Rain”, heck even Ahman’s vocals sometimes come off a bit Ian Astbury-ish. I love the inclusion of their cover of an obscure Swedish post-punk band called Cortex, with the rollicking, jaunty “Jesus I Betong” (yes that’s the title). On the propelling title track, Ahman’s vocal delivery rests a half beat behind the guitars, creating the effect of loose, wild rock n’ roll more than anything remotely metal, which is okay seeing as how the song is rather excellent. There are metallic elements mixed in throughout this record, but they’re more textures and retro metal stylistic nods than anything outright heavy in the way of riffs. I can’t help but find myself enjoying it all, though I have to be in the mindset to accept the fact that its far less sonically heavy than even the shiniest of power metal.

 

 

9. October Falls – The Plague of a Coming Age:

This album was a complete surprise, being one of the few promo copies I received and reviewed in the second edition of my Pigeon Post series. I really walked in blind, with no background on the band nor having heard any of their past work. To be honest, I still haven’t checked out the band’s back catalog because I’m so engrossed in this album, a strange blend of melodic death with blackened vocals, under a doomy, atmospheric blanket. Its almost a mix of Katatonia, Agalloch, and early era Opeth, minus a lot of the clean vocals (though there are some). As I was listening to it over these past few months I realized just how much these riffs bring to mind that classic Opeth sound of yore, and how much I’ve missed that. This isn’t to say that October Falls is simply ripping off Akerfeldt and company, but they both seem to tap into a shared vein of beautiful melancholia. When listened to on headphones outdoors in cold weather, this album is as good as hot coffee.

 

This is a full album experience —- one really needs to sit down, pay attention, and listen to this thing from start to finish. Skipping around tracks tends to ruin the atmosphere that is gradually building as the album progresses. But if I’m going to point out highlights you might want to check out, then start with the title track where Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis does guest clean vocals midway through under a wash of well done studio effects that have him sounding distant, almost faded out. Its a great moment, preceded by another stellar track in “Snakes of the Old World”, where gorgeous, swirling guitar melodies convey anguished emotion with as few notes as possible. I’m re-listening to this album as I type this, and every song has some awesome, isolated moment buried in the cocoon of each song —- they’re all worth writing about. Like I said, this album expects your full attention, and with the amount of thought and craft put into it, I think it deserves nothing less.

 

 

10. Tribulation – The Formulas of Death:

I ended up being wrong in my early predictions for this record, which I’ve been listening to regularly since seeing them open for Watain a few months ago. I had figured that it would end up on a lot of the bigger best-of metal lists around the internet —- which it didn’t, turns out the band’s profile is lower than I thought. Secondly, I didn’t see myself having this album on my list at all, not that I didn’t enjoy it, but because it was taking me awhile to come around to acclimating to the band’s penchant for indulging in purely instrumental sections. But Tribulation really has great songwriting in spades here, particularly in the sense that they know and value a catchy riff or three, and are able to utilize them to create mesmerizing, hypnotic songs while using a variety of open chord flourishes as atmospheric soundscapes. Such as “Wanderer in the Outer Darkness” with its epic length and shifting riff sections which build up to unleash pure metal fury with one of the most killer riffs of the year around the 4:34 mark. Another highlight is the uptempo, aggressive “When the Sky is Black With Devils”, where a series of classic sounding riffs usher along the album’s most brutal vocal sections. “Randa” might be the best song here, a wild rocker that has the instrumental vibe of early, pre-Dickinson Maiden. And I’m slowly coming around to some of the aforementioned atmospheric, instrumental sections, which when planned out well add a lot to the creepy, near haunted vibe of the album. Give this one time and patience and it’ll reward you, its at the very least one of the most intriguing releases of the year.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part One: The Songs

And farewell to another year that’s flown by too quickly. Of course that means its time for anyone and everyone in metal writing, print or digital, to indulge their egos a bit and draft up their end of year lists. Now most writers will never own up to it but I’m a rather shameless sort, and will freely admit that I love creating these lists. I put an inordinate amount of thought into drafting them and end up changing around the entries and numerical ordering countless times before I ever hit publish. Self-indulgent? Absolutely. But I also hope that people who in anyway remotely enjoy reading what I write will check out my lists as a way to get into bands or albums they’ve not heard before. That’s ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing about music, expressing your enthusiasm and passion for something to others and hoping they’ll hear what you hear.

 

As you can see from the title, to make everything more readable, I’m separating the best songs and albums of 2013 into separate articles (the albums list is on it’s way soon). Of course, some bands will overlap on both lists, with undeniable crowning jewels from great records being represented, but doing this separate list for just songs alone allows for a spotlight to be shined on those songs that were gems on releases that may not have necessarily made the best albums of the year cut. Anyway to quote Marti DeBergi, “Enough of my yakking”!

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2013:

 

1. Darkthrone – “Leave No Cross Unturned” (from the album The Underground Resistance)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0tsFqTulM8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The extent to which this song towered over the rest of the tracks from Darkthrone’s excellent The Underground Resistance is such that whenever I think upon that album, the monstrous, cyclonic riff that anchors this battleship of a song is the ONLY thing that comes to mind. This song, more than any other released this year by anyone else epitomizes to me the pure, untarnished, unapologetic, hell bent for leather spirit of metal as I know it and have grown up loving. Its not just the King Diamond-esque vocals from Fenriz that encompass so much of this thirteen minute long epic, or the brutal series of incredible, bone shaking riffs one after another courtesy of Nocturno Culto seemingly on a mission to destroy, or the slammingly heavy midsection bridge at 4:24 —- its everything all together. I contend, with some expectation of hatred at the very idea, that this is Darkthrone’s heaviest song to date.

 

Its typical of Darthrone’s contrary spirit then that this song could only come now, many albums past Darkthrone’s turning of their backs on the traditional black metal sound. They’ve also moved on past the crust punk/black n’ roll they dabbled in for some years and have seemingly embraced traditional heavy metal. Gone too are the murky, muddled productions of past albums, replaced here by a crispness and clarity never before heard with Darkthrone music. There are some out there that speculate that these guys are taking the piss, purposefully trolling the black metal fans with their current musical incarnation. I reject those notions out of hand not only because the band have come across as rather earnest about their current direction in interviews, but simply because music that sounds this genuinely in love with heavy metal in all its ugly glory doesn’t know the meaning of irony.

 

 


2. Amorphis – “Hopeless Days” (from the album Circle)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdKt1aw4BK8&w=560&h=315]

 

The shining gem on Amorphis’ 2013 effort, “Hopeless Days” is everything you’d want in a song built in this particular style of depressive, melancholic metallic hard rock. There were quite a few good songs on that record, but none as powerful and churning with dramatic ache as this one. Powerful percussion ushers you along over a bed of building riffs that explode in a supremely catchy chorus all whilst elegantly tinkling piano plays underneath —- a subtle yet brilliant juxtaposition. Vocalist Tomi Joutsen delivers his best vocal and lyric during this emotionally stirring moment: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”.  Gotta love the scale climbing guitar lines that kick in during and after the solo —- Esa Holopainen might just be the most underrated guitarist coming out of Finland right now. When Sentenced called it a day in 2005, I was worried that my supply of this type of rock inflected metal would dry up, but there seems to be a strong contingent of bands working in the same medium, Amorphis amongst the best of them. My iTunes count says I’ve played this song alone 79 times while the rest of the album’s songs sit at 30-40 (sometimes I wonder if the iTunes play counts of writers from taste maker websites would really back up their best metal of the year lists). Play count 80 starting…NOW!

 

 

3. Orphaned Land – “All Is One” / “Brother” (from the album All Is One)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bds3FALcR7M&w=280&h=225] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsPb1-uPIic&w=280&h=225]

 

How can two songs take one spot? Because they are to me inseparable, both in my mind as representations of my favorite moments on Orphaned Land’s surprisingly great All Is One album, and as micro representations of the core of the band’s progression through simplification both musically and lyrically. With the title track serving as both the lead off single and first song on the album track listing proper, Orphaned Land in four minutes and thirty seconds crafted a brilliant, euphoria inducing epic that perfectly encompassed their spiritual ideology (agree or disagree with it). What makes the song truly effective however are not just the direct, declarative lyrics, or the artfully done Middle Eastern instrumentation —- but the band’s embrace of clear, anthemic melodies and hair raising choral vocals ala Blind Guardian during the chorus. The infusion of that particular kind of power metal element is new for the band, as is their shift to a leaner, more direct method of songwriting, a complete 180 from the complex progressive metal of their last two records.

 

These newly embraced principles work to possibly greater effect on “Brother”, where singer Kobi Farhi’s inspired lyrics threaten to overshadow some truly great music going on underneath. The lyrics, as widely discussed by now, are intended to be the words of Issac to his brother Ishmael. Its a gutsy song for an Israeli to write, let alone record and perform on stage, as it’s lyrics essentially serve as an extended metaphor of the relationship between Jews and Muslims, brother faiths of the same Abrahamic father. Its a heavyweight topic to tackle but here its done with elegance, subtle apologetic notes, and a passionate vocal courtesy of Farhi that registers as the album’s highlight moment. The beautiful guitar interplay of Yossi Sassi and Chen Balbus that is to be found all throughout this album is the band’s best to date, particularly during the instrumental section where the guitars kick into an almost Slash-esque mellow solo. The band delivered an incredible one-two punch with both of these songs, and managed to wrangle an old fan like me back into the fold.

 

 

4. Serenity – “Wings of Madness” (from the album War of Ages)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX5jsf3v9vw&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity stunned me this year with their spectacular War of Ages album, and this inspired lead off track (and first single) was the highest among many high points to be found on the set.  “Wings of Madness” is a complex, multifaceted masterpiece that twists and turns around the dramatic vocal duets of co-vocalists Georg Neuhauser and Clementine Delauney. The latter is the newest member of the band and the undeniable star on this particular song (and perhaps the entire album), her vocals equipped with both a light ethereal touch and a dark, rich, almost Lisa Gerrard-like quality that she can blend together at will. The song’s music video seems to suggest that the lyrics are about the infamous Countess Bathory and her blood bathing lifestyle (everyone’s got their thing). This is a band that directs its lyrical bent towards characterizations or accounts of historical figures, and as such, the quatrain in the chorus is unnervingly eerie and appropriate: “No sun is shining in your eyes / A shadow growing in disguise / I can’t stand the silence / Embracing you at night”. One of the many things I appreciate about Serenity is their commitment to a higher standard of lyricism than the power metal norm —- similar to what Roy Khan was instilling during his tenure in Kamelot.

 

 

5. Queensryche – “In This Light” (from the album Queensryche)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LGaEOP86Kc&w=560&h=315]

 

That Queensryche was able to find a viable, credible future sans Geoff Tate was in itself a remarkable feat, but their creation of an album that is worthy enough to stand alongside their first six bonafide classics is still mind-boggling. This year’s self-titled comeback record was full of the classic elements long missed from Queensryche releases, and the band found that new members like guitarist Parker Lundgren and of course, life-saver vocalist Todd LaTorre could contribute to the songwriting process from the word go. Truthfully speaking, while I enjoyed the album, I had to admit it did have an array of weaknesses mostly stemming from the album’s length, and some songs that could’ve used a few more minutes. “In This Light” however stands out as a pristine moment, a deftly penned stately rocker with a chorus that could’ve come from the band’s Empire era. I mentioned in my original review for the album that this song was “a sort of distant cousin to “Another Rainy Night” and “One and Only”. Its perhaps the most accessible song on the record, yet also the most thoughtful, its lyrics a reflective paean on despair and hope.” Its curious to me that they haven’t released this as a single yet.

 

 

6. Omnium Gatherum – “The Unknowing” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik&w=560&h=315]

 

These guys released a pretty solid record earlier this year with Beyond, but the highlight of the album was this singular gem, an arpeggio fueled, cinematic slice of melodic death metal nirvana. Not only is the guitar work stunning throughout in a general breathtaking sense, but they buoy a melody that is strangely melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s vocals here feature an extra degree of crisp clarity that is normally buried in his obsidian delivery (an acquired taste I admit). The Finns really have something going on right now with the amazing slate of fresh takes on melodic death metal that is very far removed from the now old-school Gothenburg scene in neighboring Sweden. Insomnium also released a fantastic new song this year that I reviewed earlier which will narrowly miss a placement on this list —- but its just more mounting evidence that both these promising torch bearers of modern melodic death metal have found a way to distance themselves from the negative associations that the original melo-death sound has unfortunately found with American metalcore.

 

 

7.  Týr – “The Lay of Our Love” (from the album Valkyrja)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zd2rYcxXBM&w=560&h=315]

 

This was a bold, gutsy move for  Týr, a band whose previous attempts at anything close to balladry were blanketed by singing in their native Faroese language, about subject matter that was really anyone’s guess.  But Valkyrja is a thematic album about the role of the woman as Goddess and wife, in the life of a Viking warrior —- and to the band’s credit they are lyrically adventurous about it throughout. Not only are the lyrics in “The Lay of Our Love” essentially about a rather sentimental subject, in this case a pair of lovers sundered by impending death, but the music at work here is pure power balladry (I mean that in a good way!). I’m not sure whats my favorite part, the delicately plucked acoustic intro or the wild, passionate guitar solo mid-way through that ranks amongst the band’s best. Liv Kristine of Leaves Eyes fame is the lithe, delicate female voice you’re hearing, and her performance here is just immense. Its a shame that I seem to only be able to really appreciate her work when its in guest spots like these, but she contrasts well with Heri Joensen’s deep, soaring vocals.  Týr should continue being brave with experiments like these if the payoffs are anything close to this.

 

 

8. Avantasia – “Saviour in the Clockwork” (from the album The Mystery of Time)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USkP6pT8UYI&w=560&h=315]

 

I pointed out in my review for Avantasia’s most recent album that in the past half decade Tobias Sammet has now released nearly double the amount of Avantasia releases in comparison to his main band Edguy. At some point, both of the projects were going to start blurring together stylistically due to having the same songwriter driving each, and as expected that is exactly what is happening with both of the newest Avantasia and Edguy releases. They’re still good albums, but at this point the only musical difference between both bands is the presence of guest vocalists in Avantasia, and you’ve gotta wonder if that will be enough in the long run. Of course, if you’re like me and just consider yourself more of a Tobias Sammet fan than a distinct fan of either one of his bands then you won’t really care all that much about such details as long as he keeps delivering the goods. Well, the bad news was that The Mystery of Time is the most uneven album in Avantasia’s now vast discography. The good news is that it did contain a handful of distinctive Sammet homeruns, including this awe-inspiring epic featuring vocals from Joe Lynn Turner, Biff Byford, and of course Michael Kiske. Its got all the elements a Sammet fan wants: thundering bombast, excellent songwriting, and lush vocal arrangements particularly in the group choir vocals during the chorus.

 

 

9. Falkenbach – “Eweroun” (from the album Asa)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA5nN65B_eg&w=560&h=315]

 

I consider it a good quality that this song conjures up the feeling of sitting by some intense campfire under the stars at midnight (… ah lets face it, I’m really thinking of Skyrim). Gone are the murky, lo-fi productions of past albums —- 2013 Falkenbach has taken a page from Darkthrone’s playbook: Sometimes the way to progress your sound forward is to fully capture it in a pristine form, not hide it under layers of hiss and microphones. Sole member and creator Vratyas Vakyas’s vocals are the selling point on “Eweroun” (translated as “Evermore”), his plaintive, spacious clean vocals ushering in the song with a vocal melody I can only describe as soothing. He sets this over a bed of warm muted riffing, simple percussion patterns, and chiming acoustic guitars. The hook is not a traditional chorus either, but simply an altered acoustic guitar figure. Vakyas apparently pens most of his lyrics in old Norse, and a look at the translation of the lyrics seems to suggest an allusion to the passage of time set against the backdrop of changing seasons. It all conjures up a rather spiritual feel, and its not much of a stretch to actually call it something close to spiritual folk metal.

 

 

10. Lord – “Digital Lies” (from the album Digital Lies)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR38tX6z6iI&w=560&h=315]

 

You may not have heard of Lord before, but many of you might remember Dungeon from Australia, the rather underrated power/trad metal band who in addition to building up a solid catalog of quality albums over the span of a decade  also provided us with one of metal’s great covers in their take on Toto’s “Hold the Line”. Lord then is ex-Dungeon vocalist Tim Grose’s project born out of the ashes of his former band. They launched in 2003 and have done a few decent records now, but their 2013 release Digital Lies shows the band taking determined strides towards potential greatness. This title track from the effort is one jewel among many featured on the release that crackles with the kind of excitement that is harder and harder to find with newer power metal releases (and worryingly so at that). Over a rock steady bed of aggressive, pulsing bass and pounding riffs is a striking contrast between almost Alexi Laiho-ish vocals in the verse, and Grose’s wide open, soaring tenor in the chorus. He’s always been an excellent vocalist, displaying a heft and weight to power metal vocal delivery that is so often found lacking amongst the European ranks —- but his ability to switch it up here at will is even more impressive. Check out this song, and if you like it do yourself the favor of grabbing the album, its one of the better power metal records released this year.

 

Serenity: The Refined Elegance of Austria’s Finest

I’m increasingly more aware of how rare it is to stumble upon a band that can utterly transfix my wandering attention span the way Serenity did about a month ago with the release of their spectacular fourth album, War of Ages. The band hails from Austria, a country far more regarded in metal circles as a purveyor of death and black metal bands, most notably Belphegor. Serenity then must be the black sheep of their countrymen, as they specialize in a style of progressive power metal informed by the obvious influences of Kamelot, Sonata Arctica, and maybe even a touch of Avantasia’s latter day hard rock epic strut. This is not to say they are merely the sum of their parts, as Serenity have an identity all their own within the fundamentals of songwriting styles and lyrical concepts — but their influences are a good touchstone and filter for prospective listeners.

 

It might be hard to ignore the extent to which the Kamelot influence has affected Serenity, down to styles of album cover art, logo design, and band photography. Even the way guitarist and co-primary songwriter Thomas Buchberger prefers an emphasis on understated riffs, elegant melody, and reigned in soloing brings to mind the style of Kamelot guitarist Thomas (!) Youngblood. Vocalist Georg Neuhauser doesn’t sound like Roy Khan per say, but he at times reminds me of a mix between current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik, Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko, and Scorpion’s Klaus Meine… a blending that is refined into one of the smoothest vocal deliveries in modern power metal. So yeah, the influences are hard to ignore… but they’re not hard to accept, at least for me anyway. I try to look at it pragmatically, that all bands have influences and starting points, everyone is trying to be uniquely derivative (particularly in a genre like power metal), and only the best will succeed in forging their own identity — a feat which usually takes more than a few records. Serenity succeeded in achieving that by their second album, 2008’s Fallen Sanctuary, which speaks volumes about the level of their abilities as songwriters.

 

 

Yes of course I emphasized songwriting, because while the musicianship Serenity display is of the excellent proficiency you’d expect from a European power metal band, the Buchberger/Neuhauser songwriting partnership is the critical heart of Serenity’s success. For anyone who felt/feels that something could potentially be permanently lost from the brilliance that was the Khan/Youngblood songwriting legacy — I’m telling you that the Buchberger/Neuhauser combo strikes right to the heart of the style of music that you and I both love, crave, and sadly can’t seem to find enough of. I’m talking about crisp, melodic, melancholy, triumphant, elegant, and yes actually HEAVY power metal that is written with a head for ambition, an ear for tunefulness, and a writer’s heart for great lyrics. And even though War of Ages is the album that sucked me in as a new fan of the band, I’ve become addicted to the other three albums in their discography as well. And one of the more brilliant examples of all of these aforementioned attributes combining to supreme effect can be found on the bonus track (!) of their 2011 Death & Legacy album, “To India’s Shores”.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suCXuj3B0U?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

As a lyricist, Neuhauser faces the same hurdle Khan did in being an English-as-a-second language writer, but he seems to make a similar effort in the care and choosing of diction, in the use of imagery, and in not burying either his narrator’s voice or his own in piles of metaphors that many lyricists in metal tend to do. It rings of confidence in his writing abilities, and coupled with the fact that Serenity seem hell bent on their songs being narrative voices for historical figures of the past musing on philosophical topics of their own lives or time periods… a great deal of confidence is needed for sure. Don’t let the historical figures thing put you off. The approach isn’t nearly as academic as it might threaten to sound on paper (although Neuhauser has apparently finished a doctorate’s in history, so its an informed voice at work here). I’ll be honest, I don’t really find it all that much of an influence over me when I’m listening to these songs. Historical names aren’t mentioned, you aren’t bludgeoned over the head with dates, places, times, or events… the lyrics at work here could be about anyone’s modern day struggles, relationships, or inner turmoil (okay the new record does have song called “Legacy of Tudors”, but its so good that I’ll just allow the indulgence).

 

 

For the War of Ages album, the band made what I can only refer to as a savvy game changer of a decision. Enter into the Serenity lineup one Clémentine Delauney from Lyon, France, as the co-lead vocalist to pair alongside Neuhauser’s powerful voice. This isn’t a gimmick, as they have experimented with a handful of female guest vocalists for select tracks on previous albums — and while the songs and performances have been good (particularly a duet with the always excellent Amanda Somerville on Death and Legacy’s “Changing Fate”), the types of female voices they’ve attempted to pair with Neuhauser never seemed to measure up or alternatively, contrast well with his rich, distinctive tone. I know these women have their fans, but I’ve never been overly impressed with Charlotte Wessels, nor Ailyn from Sirenia, and while Somerville’s duet was excellent, her voice is as strong and full of character as Neuhauser’s and to me it seemed that when they would join together both voices would be fighting for space with no one winning out.

 

Delauney however, had been singing with the band as their live backing vocalist for a considerable time prior to her finally being invited into the band as a permanent co-vocalist — and her vocal intersections with Neuhauser are noticeably more developed and experienced in terms of tone, delivery, and pure resonance. I think the band suspected this would be the case, and must’ve thought to themselves that their ideas of duet vocals would work better in the future if they had a consistent set of voices pairing up. Smart thinking — because honestly I think she’s an exceptional vocalist, possessing a soprano voice that is effortlessly melodic, rich, and deep yet capable of being ethereal, light, and even fragile when the song calls for it. She utilizes all those strengths on the epic opening track of the War of Ages album, “Wings of Madness”, where her vocals float above Neuhauser’s in the emotional chorus — only to swoop down to darker depths on her own solo verse (her eerily drawn out vocals there remind me of the haunting abilities of Sinéad O’Connor). I’m told that she penned around half of the lyrics on the new album as well, which means that she’s had a direct hand in crafting vocal melodies alongside Neuhauser and I really love that… Because when you’ve listened to a ton of power metal, you can spot the difference between a singer writing the vocal melodies as opposed to an overreaching guitarist, or bassist attempting to dictate what the vocalist does (hello Timo Tolkki and Steve Harris!).

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2QH9L42OY0?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

I’ve been checking out the tour dates for the band and they’re disappointingly slim, even for Europe… (I have no delusions about the band getting to launch a full tour in the States — I’ll post a very grateful retraction if that ever happens). I’m not sure what the problem is, but I could venture to guess that these guys have day jobs, and that they try to fit Serenity in whenever they can. That’s understandable and to be expected given the state of things in the industry, but I hope they can do more then just a ten date headliner tour of clubs in Europe. But if that doesn’t, or can’t happen then I’d just have one word of advice for the band if they ever happened to read this: Write more songs, record more albums, document your art with a sense of urgency and ambition. You know its an uphill battle if you’re hoping to headline arenas or chart singles, there are very few Nightwish success stories in your chosen genre. So instead, strike while the creative irons are hot and get this stuff on tape. Build your artistic legacy.

 

And if you’re a fan of music like this… well, I’m going to do something I almost never do, which is admonish you to actually buy the official physical release or legal download. Look, I love death and black metal as much as the next guy or girl, but for all the hundreds to thousands of death and black metal bands Austria has coughed up and choked on, she’s only given us one Serenity. Bands that make metal like this are rare, and I fear, growing rarer — so if you love this style of metal, actually show your support for the artists that are essentially underdogs in attempting to create it. I shelled out something just short of fifty American to grab this band’s catalog and I look forward to handing over more of my money in their name in the future. Its really hard to think of something else I’ve bought lately in my everyday life that I feel that good about.

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