The 2019 Winter Blast: Swallow the Sun, Soilwork and More!

There’s an intimidating amount of highly anticipated new releases in these first few months of 2019, turning the old notion of the slow start to the release calendar on its head. I’ve also been introduced to or stumbled across a handful of intriguing releases by artists new to me, and the upcoming release calendar has a lot of albums by newer bands I’ve been told to check out so we’ll be venturing into a lot of uncharted territory in the future too. So without any further preamble lets get to it!


Swallow the Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light:

So I’ve sat with this album for a few weeks now, and I wanted to let it marinate for awhile before writing a review because I have to guard against the fact that in the intervening time between the release of 2015’s triple album Songs from the North I, II & III, I’ve become a massive fan of this band. I’ve gotten to see them play live twice in the intervening period, their hoodie has become my most worn metal apparel since that Nightfall’ Blind Guardian shirt I wore massive holes into, and I’ve deep dived into their discography repeatedly like a sugar addiction. I’ve been here before, where one’s enthusiasm for a band in general can color a new release in one’s own eyes, so I listened to this thing to death for the past few weeks, took a few days off, and have come back to it again to see if anything’s changed. But before I get to that, lets just talk about the elephants in the room with this record —- its the first album after the passing of founding guitarist/songwriter Juha Raivio’s partner Aleah Stanbridge. Its worth the mention because of just how much Raivio’s recent musical activities have been informed by it since her passing in April of 2016; the year end list making Trees of Eternity album, as well as the agonizing brutality of 2017’s Hallatar release. Its also the dawn of new guitarist Juho Räihä as a permanent member of the band (he has been their live guitarist standing in for Raivio for a few years now), replacing the band’s longtime guitarist Markus Jämsen. In 2016, the band’s longtime keyboardist Aleksi Munter also left, being replaced by Jaani Peuhu. Both Munter and Jämsen were in the band since 2001, practically founding members, so these aren’t necessarily inconsequential lineup changes.

This is a wildly surprising album, a confidently bold direction for the band to stride towards at this pivotal junction in their career. I mentioned Raivio’s musical mourning process on the Trees and Hallatar records; the wounded sorrow of the former and the pure rage of the latter, and it should be noted that this process continues here on When A Shadow… although in a tone that is at once still saddened yet also reverential and even hopeful in glimpses. Raivio accomplishes this by steering the musical direction of the band towards an arms wide embrace of gothic metal’s sweep and grandeur, incorporating a stylistic shift that brings to mind Paradise Lost and Sentenced’s sweeter moments, even reflecting a little Moonspell in the vocal approach. Far removed from the subdued clean vocals of Songs From The North Pt 2, here screamer/vocalist Mikko Kotamäki and keyboardist/backing vocalist Jaani Peuhu weave around each other with glorious melodic harmony vocals that cast a dramatic glamour over these songs. The complex and satisfying vocal layering is central to the impact of these songs, being written around both singers’ vocal melodies in a way that Swallow the Sun simply hasn’t tackled before so full on. Kotamäki is still a riveting screamer, full of blistering fury delivered with a razor sharp enunciation that ensures he’s landing every emotional gut punch. But its Peuhu who might be the quiet MVP of this record, his backing vocals (he’s so present everywhere on the album that he should really be considered a co-vocalist here) are utterly perfect in terms of tone and shading, and the vocal mix here by Jens Bogren is as lush as it needed to be.

Raivio’s lyrics across this album approach poetic levels of evocative imagery and storytelling, painting a dreamscape of vast reaches of starlit skies, endless black waters, fires and shadows, solitary temples and lonely places. His lyrics speak with a tone that is as reverential as it is grief stricken and lost, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard more convincingly pained and aching lyrics in extreme metal before (this is typically stuff that’s better handled by the Neko Cases of the music world). I would mention a specific example here, but what to pick, its all remarkable work. I will say that regarding both lyrics and music, “Here On The Black Earth” may just be my favorite Swallow The Sun song of all time, its escalating chord progression in the chorus is incredibly powerful stuff, and the gorgeous vocal harmonization of Kotamäki and Peuhu is as dazzling as the most ear candied Steven Wilson truffle. Looking back, I can say that although I really loved big chunks of Songs From The North (disc one was nearly flawless), I had difficulties cracking the album as a whole. Its partitioning of the band’s sound into three distinctive chapters (classic / mellow / funeral doom) seemed so final and conclusive even at the time, like a giant period at the end of a sentence. I suspect that Raivio felt the same way when he finally returned his attention to Swallow the Sun, and he felt that the only way forward musically (and perhaps emotionally as well) was to forge ahead with something radical (relatively speaking that is). His instincts were right, and I hope he knows deep down what myself and others have already figured out, that this is the greatest Swallow The Sun album to date. And I wish he never had to write it, that circumstances never resulted in this particular expression needing to surface, but I’m grateful for having it.


Soilwork – Verkligheten:

Now admittedly I haven’t been following Soilwork at all since 2005’s Stabbing the Drama, and although I enjoyed the records that preceded it I was never a big fan. So I have no context to compare the difficultly titled Verkligheten to, except to say this is not what I remembered this band sounding like the last time I checked in. And I might have heard one or two of their singles on YouTube or Spotify playlists over the past few years, looked up and thought “Oh Soilwork”, but if they sounded as strikingly different as the stuff on this album I must’ve not been paying attention. The obvious theory here is that vocalist Bjorn Strid’s time moonlighting with his other band The Night Flight Orchestra has rubbed off immensely on Soilwork, to such an extent that some of these songs feature hooks that might have felt right at home on Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough. I have become a big fan of that band lately, really enjoying all their records and I think that Strid just feels more at home in that milieu, not only as a frontman and performer but as a songwriter as well. His personality broke out in the Night Flight context, and it made me realize how much I didn’t know who he was in Soilwork really.

This Night Flight influence soaks into cuts like the music video dressed “Stålfågel”, where harmony backing vocals from Alissa White-Gluz (because of course apparently, at least they had a different role for her than we’re used to) coat the song in a hard rock sheen much like the “Airline Annas” did on the last NFO record. Its an undeniably catchy earworm of a song, and I really love its escalating approach in the verses, with Strid stressing emphasis at just the right moments to keep the drama heightened. On “Full Moon Shoals”, we’re treated to yet another maybe this was meant for another band slice of melodic hard rock, and all the overdubbed screaming vocals can’t really disguise it, particularly when we’re “oooh ooohh”-ing in the chorus. Not that I think the band is trying to disguise it, nor should they because I think bleed over is natural, but they run that Edguy/Avantasia risk where both bands start to sound sonically similar even if the lyrical tone moves further and further apart. In fact, my main criticism of this album is that they didn’t lean hard enough in that direction, and I find myself losing interest in the more standard modern melo-death stuff on the album, sure its heavy and there are a few good riffs thrown around, but I want more of those melodic choruses. I came away intrigued enough by this outing to definitely check out whatever Strid serves up next as Soilwork, but I’m far more eager for more neon lights, Camaro convertibles, palm trees, and pastel sport jackets from the Night Flight world.

Helevorn – Aamamata:

This was a random discovery I stumbled upon when reading the subject line of a random email in my inbox that said “For fans of Swallow the Sun…”, and that was enough to get me to click through to hear the promo, expecting to hear some watered down version of that supposed influence. And its fair to say that fans of Swallow the Sun will likely enjoy Helevorn, but they’re so much more than a copy of that band, in fact I think this band’s influences pull far more from 90s gothic metal like Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and particularly their countrymen in Moonspell. I hear it not only in the songwriting structure, where juxtaposing elements slide alongside each other in purposefully jarring ways, but in the guitar tone that vividly recalls the sound heard on Wolfheart, Irreligious, or even later Moonspell records like Extinct. Its a bit unfair to reduce a new band to what one’s own perception of their influences are, but for one its a hard habit to break and secondly its maybe the easiest way in for anyone new, as was the case with me and that email subject heading.

The variety of songwriting here is of particular note, because Helevorn can veer from a doom laden sense of aggression to a velvety dreamscape (as in album closer “La Sibil-la” with its Spanish acoustics, string beds and echoing vocals). Vocalist Josep Brunet alternates his distinctive clean vocals with a throaty growl, and often shifts into a talking vocal approach that is redolent of gothic metal and rock vocalists all around, that purposeful slowing of the voice to draw a listener’s attention to the lyrics. He’s got a rustic, dignified, somewhat aged quality to his vocal that is particularly appealing, at once lending some elder authority to both his extreme vocals as well as clean singing (major hints of Nick Holmes on both counts). I love that Draconian’s Heike Langhans drops in for a solo vocal appearance on “The Path To Puya”, and the effect when Brunet and the band come surging in to back her up is strong and powerful. I’m not sure who the clean vocalist is on the Spanish lyric semi-ballad “Nostrum Mare (Et deixo un pont de mar blava)” but she’s a highlight moment on the album all her own, particularly when the guitars sweep in underneath with a truly inspired solo. The key word with Aamamata is emotion, because its wringing out of every note throughout this record, and its refreshing to hear something new (well, to me anyway, this band has been around for over two decades) that is hearkening back to that late 90s style of gothic metal without taking on the sometimes watered down trappings that come with it. Can’t recommend this album enough.

Ancient Bards – Origine – The Black Crystal Saga Part 2:

For as much of a power metal fan I consider myself to be, I’ve always been somewhat allergic to the Italian variety. Not that I think its unlistenable or crudely done, quite the opposite actually, but its just never hit me with the same impact of other approaches coming from elsewhere. That long maintained tendency seems to be changing for the better with newer bands such as Frozen Crown with their debut last year as well as through the work of Ancient Bards, whom I’ve been passingly aware of the last few years. Though I was a few years late, their first three records really demonstrated something of a sharp songwriting sensibility that favored a hooks-first approach over a tired need to thrust storylines to the forefront (a critical flaw of Rhapsody’s music to me anyway). As a direct sequel to their concept/storyline driven debut, Origine is a little more darker toned in its overall vibe, but is still operating in that neo-classically informed mode of power metal bombast. They’re also rounding that corner where they’re not afraid to introduce some unexpected influences into the mix.

I’m chiefly referring to the extra dose of pop (beyond you know, normal power metal levels of “pop”) soaking into cuts like “Home of the Rejects” or “Aureum Legacy”, where vocalist Sara Squadrani shoulders the verses with an almost Broadway sensibility guiding her vocal melody. She’s at her most confident sounding on this record, putting herself out there vocally in a way that is daring in its escaping the constraints of the rigid power metal structure Ancient Bards largely operates in. Her standout and standalone moment is, well, as Cary the Metal Geek put it on our recent MSRcast —- the Disney Princess ready ballad “Light”. Its an apt description, because I could envision that in the hands of say Idina Menzel, this could be the show-tune hit on the upcoming Frozen 2. The song has been met with equal parts effusive praise and eye-rolling, with most of the audible groans coming from power metal purists who think this kind of balladry has no place on a power metal record. I just disagree, and Squadrani’s crystalline voice is perfect for a tune like this and her performance here is incredibly affecting. On a side note, they boldly chose it as a music video track, a risky move for any metal band these days when balladry has zero commercial truck with the public and risks alienating returning fans, but I gotta say, its certainly a pretty clip. This is another fun entry into the discography of one of the strongest new power metal bands to arrive on the scene in the past decade, more proof that there’s more to Italian power metal than I ever expected.

Within Temptation – Resist:

So I really wanted to take my time with this album and give it an honest airing in lieu of all the bad press its been getting since its December delay and subsequent pillaging in the recent flurry of reviews I’ve seen for it. If you recall my review for their last album in 2013, the bewildering Hydra, had a few withering criticisms of their then current musical direction and decision to include a handful of guest vocalists (I think it was four at least if I’m remembering right) for whatever reason. Remembering that review and juxtaposing it with Sharon Den Adel’s My Indigo solo project last year (where she revealed during its promotion that she battled writer’s block for Within Temptation), a record she described as “needing” to write really put the unfocused nature of Hydra in perspective. That record, with its forced duets and half-baked songwriting was the result of a band that had external stresses and was under the gun to get something released. The five year break that separates Hydra and Resist, the longest in their history, should probably have come after the promotional cycle for 2011’s The Unforgiving. The smart play for Within Temptation would’ve been to come storming back with an album that played to their strengths ala their first three albums, but instead they’ve chosen to pursue a path that pushes them further away from their core sound than they’ve ever been.

It really starts and ends with Den Adel’s preferences it seems. I did listen to her My Indigo record out of curiosity, and it was a decent albeit aggressively safe slice of modern indie toned pop. It was interesting to hear where Den Adel’s preferences lay when it comes to choices like production, because when we’ve heard Within Temptation get increasingly glossier and overproduced over the years, one wondered if it was the natural arc of their musical career, or a collective band decision, or something else. I’m starting to think that Den Adel just feels more comfortable in the world of modern production gloss, because for an album that was supposed to be her emotionally vulnerable solo record, I had hoped to hear something a little more vulnerable and stripped down. So it goes with Resist, where the production gloss has heightened to another level to such a degree that it completely dwarfs any metallic aspects going on underneath those layers. This is ostensibly supposed to be a dark, dystopian sci-fi themed record, and it is that, but not in the sense of heavy riffs and grand sweeping strings leading the way. Instead the sound of Resist owes more to the production flourishes of EDM and modern synth-pop artists like Chvrches, with the songwriting locked into a style that resembles alternative rock far more than symphonic metal. Speaking of the Scottish synth-pop band (if you saw my last blog update you’ll know I’m a big fan), Within Temptation even ape them a bit on their newest music video for “Raise Your Banner”, its chaotic showdown premise strikingly reminiscent of Chvrches video for “Miracle”. Its really hard to avoid the comparison.

The problem with this path for Within Temptation is that its simply not what they do well, whereas a band like Chvrches is specifically designed for this approach, two electronic musicians on synths and samplers while Lauren Mayberry pours her heart out up front. There’s spacing in their music, starts and stops, an innate understanding of how to manipulate EDM rhythms, song structures, tempo shifts, and the almighty “drop”. Within Temptation has three guitarists in the band…. why? What we hear on Resist is a dense wall of ultra-processed, noticeably compressed, amorphous sound. Its a black hole for riffs, with only passing few moments where one can hear multiple guitar patterns or solos. These songs seem to be stuck in one tempo as well, casting a sameness over the entire record. It does sound different from Hydra that’s for sure, but that apparently came at the cost of sounding entirely like one long song, something that its guest vocalists hardly budge. The Jacoby Shaddix guest spot on “The Reckoning” is decent in spots, particularly when they’re both singing together in the post chorus, but its the weakest of these type of songs they’ve cooked up in their catalog. The only other standout here is “Holy Ground” for how awkward Den Adel’s vocalizations come across. I think I get what Den Adel and Co were aiming for here, a futuristic soundscape which mirrored the theme of the album, but that’s not how they have excelled as a band. The real revolutionary move here would’ve been to scale down, get back to basics with a guitar forward album with swirling orchestral accompaniments. It would’ve been a striking study in contrasts against the dystopian sci-fi theme they’re so adamant about. I think its time to put that hope to bed permanently though, because like it or not this is likely how Within Temptation will sound going forward.

The Spring 2018 Reviews Cluster

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

 


 

 

Judicator – The Last Emperor:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Light The Torch – Revival:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Nightwish – Decades:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 


 

 

Lione / Conti – Lione / Conti:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Angra – ØMNI:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Tengger Cavalry – Cian Bi:

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

Visions of Atlantis – The Deep & The Dark:

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

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

 

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

 

Beloved Antichrist: Therion Redefine The Metal Opera

You might not know this, but I’m a massive Therion fan, as in they’re one of my top five favorite metal bands of all time kinda massive. Sadly, in the seven years this blog has been going, I’ve gotten to write about them just a handful of times. Now that’s partially my own fault for not getting around to doing that retrospective I’d planned for them years back, but its mostly because the band’s last studio release was way back in 2012 with their classic French pop covers art project Les Fleurs du Mal, and their last studio album of original material two years prior to that with Sitra Ahra. Previously, their longest gap between releases was three years, but to their credit we did get a warning —- founder/guitarist Christofer Johnsson telling us way back in September of 2012 that “there won’t be any new regular album… not until we have finished the rock (metal) opera, performed it live as much as we can, taken a break and then put together a regular album again. That will take a couple of years, for sure. So we are closing an era and opening a new period that will be quite different”. It was a fairly surprising statement that at the time stunned and dismayed many Therion fans, myself included, because I think we all wondered why this opera project had to come at the expense of new Therion music. But it was out of our control, and so began the long wait, and good god what a wait its been. I didn’t think he meant six years! Maybe he didn’t either.

 

I gave Wintersun’s Jari Maenpaa a fair amount of criticism for his continued delays regarding Time II, and even referenced Therion’s Christofer Johnsson as an example within the symphonic metal world of someone to replicate in terms of logistics and finances. I bring this up here because I can feel that a few of you might remember that and all too rightfully want to throw that back in my face right now. I still think my example of Johnsson’s operating methods in terms of recording complicated material was absolutely spot on in relation to Wintersun’s Time II dilemma, but it raises the question: Does Johnsson deserve to be equally criticized for the significant amount of time he’s taken to release a project that is sharply dividing opinions within the fan base and greater metal community in general? I think it can be argued that yes, taking six years (eight if we account for original material) to release something that isn’t a new album in the traditional sense is far too long, and though no one disputes Johnsson’s right to do that, we don’t have to like it! Here I’ll point out that I’ve been hearing about Blind Guardian’s yet to be released “orchestral project” since late 2001, when I first heard Hansi mention it in an interview promoting the then newly released “And Then There Was Silence” single. Yes, that project has been cooking in the background for nearly two decades(!), its genesis taking root in the writing sessions for 1998’s Nightfall In Middle Earth. It hasn’t had a vice grip around the band’s activities however —- they’ve moved along at their new album every four-five years standard clip, even delivering a straight up masterpiece with 2010’s At The Edge of Time. I’ve seen the band live four times here in Houston in that intervening time as well, they’ve been regularly touring the world with each release. And whenever they’re asked, they tell us the same thing: Work on their orchestral project continues, it’ll be released when its done.

 

 

It might be unfair to bring up the Blind Guardian example, because everyone works differently, and maybe Johnsson is the kind of artist who wants to only focus on one thing with maximum intensity for a lengthy period of time. I get that, and respect it. I just wonder if he ever considered the other route, of making this a long burning project that he’d work on in the off-times from normal Therion albums and tours, even if it did take twenty plus years? The discussion is moot of course, because here we are with Beloved Antichrist in its finished, recorded form, but there are plans to stage this somewhere and ambitions to see it take on a life of its own as an opera entity separate from Therion. We’re realistically looking at another three to four years before a new Therion album could potentially come to fruition… that’ll make it ten plus years since Sitra Ahra, a heck of a timescale for any rock/metal band not named Guns N’ Roses. The reactions that I’ve seen to Beloved Antichrist have been as polarizing as you’d expect, and on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group they were particularly blunt and forthright with their nearly overwhelming disapproval. I was even provided with some insight by a classically trained soprano as to why in her opinion Therion’s opera was terrible even by opera standards, never mind the metal ones. I should add that all the opinions on this group were stated pretty respectfully… you can only imagine the stuff written elsewhere.

 

One of the recurrent themes among all those on that Facebook group who discussed Beloved Antichrist unfavorably was what can only be best described as ‘bewilderment meets impatience’. The criticism I saw frequently repeated was that the rhythm guitars came across as plodding, repetitive, and used more as a percussive/tempo device than an inspired riff delivery system. I understood that criticism because I too focused on the guitars during my initial first few listens through the entirety of the opera, honestly for awhile there it felt like all I was hearing was simplistic rhythm guitar and a load of operatic vocals in pieces of music that felt untethered to anything —- be it a melody or a motif. Everything sounded rather amorphous, that is a big mess of sound that was hard to get a hold of, to find something that hooked you. What was exacerbating that impression was the daunting length of this project itself, spanning three discs and clocking in at just over three hours of music, it was certainly understandable that many people took a single pass through it (or maybe even skipped around), and decided that once was enough. Metal fans do have a tendency to be patient and follow the principle that it often takes multiple listens for something complex to reveal itself, but I think the three hour running time was a hurdle that was too lengthy for many to attempt.

 

 

The thing is that Beloved Antichrist is really an opera —- I know that might be stating the obvious but it needs to be reiterated again: It is an OPERA. Full stop. What we’re listening to here is the soundtrack to an opera that has yet to be staged, not a “metal opera” in the way we’ve come to know them via Avantasia or Ayreon, which have always struck me as more theatrically inclined concept albums closer to musical theater than anything resembling opera. Okay so if we view it in this light, where does that leave you and me as metal fans? I don’t know about you, but my experience with opera is limited to watching a few of them on PBS during those late night insomnia years, and I actually did enjoy them (they were subtitled) and didn’t click off after a few minutes. The one thing I remember absolutely not digging were the parts where dialogue was being sung, seemingly without regard to crafting a melody, an aspect I can now recognize as the “recitative”. But that’s really it, I know precious little about the history, structure, and appreciation of opera. I know what arias are, mostly because I have an unabashed love of Sarah Brightman’s solo albums, which tended to feature the inclusion of a few arias from various operas in addition to her original material. I’ve been a fan of hers dating back twenty years now, when I first saw her on PBS (yes, again) singing “Time To Say Goodbye” with Andrea Bocelli. She was my gateway into classical music alongside film soundtracks, and through her I started listening to Maria Callas, Anna Netrebko, and José Cura. Its not much of a classical education, but its a start.

 

A few Thursdays ago, I sat down to listen to this behemoth of a recording with that thought process in mind: “I’m listening to the soundtrack of a play that hasn’t been staged yet”. It wasn’t me trying to learn Finnish in one day, it was just a simple, subtle shift in mindset to prepare myself for how I would try to process what I was hearing. It worked. Suddenly the simplistic rhythm guitars weren’t grabbing my attention first and foremost, but everything else was. I heard the melodies circulating through the string sections, the dramatic punctuation of the horn sections and pounding timpani, and I was paying attention to a story being told through the vocalists. Within that I found some beautiful music —- a stellar example coming in early on the third track “Through Dust, Through Rain”, where an instrument I can’t quite define accompanies a gorgeous soprano vocal, backed by an ebb and flow of quiet strings. There’s a moment here where a lonely piano figure breaks through fleetingly, like a ray of sun through the overcast and its so lonely sounding, so effective at stirring up feelings of melancholy and heartbreak. These micro moments are why I’m a Therion fan, because somehow Johnsson has an endless supply of them, even if they have no metallic context whatsoever. Its an early highlight, and although its not technically an aria (being a dialogue between two characters rather than one), its something that I could see sung out of context in a classical program by someone like Sarah Brightman no less (is my fanboy showing?).

 

 

These moments of musical bliss are scattered everywhere, as on the opening strings during “Signs Are Here”, serene yet suggestive of some tumult down the road. Then there’s the choral vocal hook in “Never Again”, with just enough of a catchy, solidly Therion-ized guitar riff anchoring things underneath to provide it with a gritty earthiness. There’s a wild display of sturm und drang on “The Crowning of Splendour”, pitting its male operatic vocal leads against a spiraling build up of guitars and a thunderous orchestral arrangement. Another male lead vocal moment worth hearing again is on “Our Destiny”, which is structured far more closely to a verse/chorus format than any other piece of music here. Its very Therion-esque too, from its charismatic vocal melody to the distinctive melodic signatures present in its expressive guitar passages (even a brief glimpse of a guitar solo here!). It has a martial drum segue into “Anthem”, where Thomas Vikstrom as Seth (the Antichrist) leads us with a solo vocal over somber strings, and this sequence soon runs headlong into an explosive metal passage that invokes memories of an old Therion classic in “Wine of Aluqah”, down to the percussive tempos and the wild guitar patterns. The love dialogue in “Jewels From Afar” between Helena and Seth is set to bright major chords loosely strummed on chiming acoustic guitars, a welcome break from riff based rhythmic structures that results in some pretty melodies.

 

If you’re looking for another Therion-ized to the max slice of music, revisit “The Arrival of Apollonius” with its very Secret of the Runes style mid-tempo rhythm guitar structures and epic choral vocals. There’s some remarkable detail here: An affecting solemn horn intro and nimble female operatic vocals during the 2:08 – 2:23 stretch to name a pair. Regarding the latter, the staccato guitars actually work pretty well in this passage, they have purpose and a even deliver a nice tail-off at the end of the riff sequence. Those looking for riffs will find a solid one in “Night Reborn” as well as “Temple of New Jerusalem”, the latter of which got the focus track treatment with a lyric video. Its simple yet hooky riff pattern segues into an actual bridge and chorus sequence, joining “Our Destiny” as the most traditional song on offer. The chorus was a little lacking to me overall, but the unexpectedly joyful guitar outburst at the 3:30 mark is worth coming back for. But guitars don’t always steal the show: I love the usage of piano on “Dagger of God”, the keys expressive and elegant; and the conjoined bombastic orchestral effort on “The Lions Roar” is impactful, those thundering timpanis and french horns working in concert to effect grandeur and majesty. And its the choir vocals that make “Bringing the Gospel” so compelling, and I appreciate that the rhythm guitar goes in unpredictable directions here, altering its staccato patterns with accelerating riffing. And I wish that the intro sequence of “Laudate Dominum” could repeat throughout its entire five minute running time, those sweeping strings follow an absolutely beautiful melody, sprightly and refreshing amidst so much darkness throughout the rest of the opera.

 

 

But I’m over here going on about all these other instruments, and you’re probably wondering “Where’s the metal at Pigeon?”. Well check out “Behold Antichrist” for an awesome circular riff and the Therion-ized lead guitar overlays and solos that definitely push this more towards the metal end of the opera metal spectrum, particular at the 2:04 mark with an amazing Christian Vidal solo. I get Gothic Kabbalah flashbacks when listening to “Cursed By The Fallen”, not only from its female soloists but its juxtaposing beefy trad metal riffs alongside woodwind led musical bridges. The heaviest metallic moment comes in “Astral Sophia”, with its doomy, darkened riffing and foreboding male choral vocals, the song taking on quiet/loud dynamics throughout quite effectively. And then there’s “Shoot Them Down!”, which is described by Johnsson as being the music for a street revolution scene, and he purposefully invoked what he describes as “Motörhead-goes-opera”. Its a solid, 80s influenced throwback riff that anchors the song in a set tempo and is able to sustain interest on its own without vocal help. Speaking of riffs, “Rise to War” has an excellent one hidden behind its operatic intro, striking at the 1:33 minute mark like something off an Accept album. There’s metal aplenty to be found here, but its rarely concentrated in one spot as you can see, hence the push and pull of a true metal opera.

 

Not everything works as a standalone musical piece, and although most of these pieces of music are dialogues between one or more characters, you really can play spot the recitative. Scenes such as “Pledging Loyalty”, “What Is Wrong?”, and in particular “Morning Has Broken” are tough listens. Regarding the latter, its vocal melody is so drawn out and tortured, the vocalists almost sound like they’re singing out of tune. To his credit, Johnsson has found a way to incorporate dialogue in a way that is largely interesting and engaging on a musical level, with short melodies that support chunks of dialogue or wrap around them. But every now and then you’ll stumble upon something where he just couldn’t pull it off well enough, and while it may be perfectly functional in the context of a stage performance, these pieces of music stick out in the context of this soundtrack. The inverse is also true in singling out scenes where the music is absolutely sublime, even daring to challenge some of the greatest work Therion has ever recorded. I’m thinking specifically of the epic vocal duet on “Seeds of Time” and the opera highlight of highlights “To Shine Forever”, both towards the end of the tracklisting. The former is an elegiac, melancholic performance from Vikstrom and Chiara Malvestiti as Johanna in what has to be the opera’s final act aria. I simply love “To Shine Forever” however, with its heartbreaking blend of chiming minor key acoustic guitars, sweeping brushstroke strings, and by far the most affecting choral vocal melody on Beloved Antichrist.

 

 

Okay, enough dissection… I knew that was going to take a long time (46 tracks!) but the truth is that my own evidence of enjoying this work won’t really matter a ton to most of you. There’s a couple things I understand now about Beloved Antichrist, and the first is that it simply won’t be for some people and that doesn’t make those people wrong in the slightest. If you heard this expecting a metal opera more in line with what Avantasia has been terming operas with their many albums, I understand being under or overwhelmed by this thing. If you were wanting a new Therion album in the vein that we’re all accustomed to and you walked away from this after one listen thinking its an utter abomination, you’re justified in that opinion. Heck one of the hallmarks of classic Therion is being able to enjoy the instrumental aspect of the band on an equal level to the vocal arrangements, and this opera is mostly a vocal affair due to its very nature. Is it what I wanted out of a six/eight year absence of new Therion music? No not really, but its what we got, and as a die-hard fan who’s gotten so much out of their previous work on a personal level, the least I could do here was give it more than a couple tries. It paid off for me to a degree, but its understandable that it won’t for everyone.

 

I’ll point out one final thing though —- remember when the Lord of the Rings soundtracks were released a few months before each of the three movies eventually debuted in the Decembers of 2001-2003? I’d eagerly buy them on their release dates and pour through them, and they’d get me excited for the movies and I would think “Yeah, these sound good”. But they didn’t really mean as much to me then as they did after I had seen their corresponding films and had a chance to attach pieces of music to those epic scenes that melted mine and many other geeks’ hearts. The Stranger Things soundtrack would just be a weird mix of classic 80s songs and bizarre electronic music if we listened to it without watching the show and being charmed stupid. And without Top Gun’s electric volleyball and Tom Cruise hi-fiving Anthony Edwards montage, Kenny Loggins “Playing With The Boys” would be… well, still a terrible song… okay so it doesn’t work for everything. But you get the gist. Context helps, particularly with soundtracks! If you hated Beloved Antichrist upon first listen, maybe check out its stage production (hopefully that happens) if you’re in Europe somewhere, or for an easier method, come back to this in a few months when in the mood for something classical.

Stuff I Missed From Other People’s Lists

Before we plunge directly headlong into discussing 2018 music, I’ve been having a blast listening to all the recommendations from other year end 2017 lists from writers/sites I’ve respected over the years. Some of the albums on these lists have just bounced right off me, but many have piqued my interest, so below are a couple things I’ve stumbled upon late that maybe you hadn’t heard yet either. Its my blog companion piece to the two MSRcasts we’ve recently recorded focusing on a slew of releases we missed. On the horizon are reviews for albums I’m already listening to in addition to these latecomers from last year, namely the new Watain, Summoning, and the upcoming Orphaned Land album. If the jam packed release schedule for this first quarter means anything, its hopefully going to be a good year!

 


 

 

Serenity In Murder – Eclipse:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ud2bgZstWws&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Its rare that bands from Japan ever light up my radar, let alone ones that dish out such satisfying melo-death as the oddly named Serenity In Murder on their third album Eclipse. Most J-Metal in my experience has been either in the Loudness inspired vein (largely a thing of the past these days), or stuff that’s musically influenced by X Japan and the ongoing neo-visual kei style. While I have enjoyed quite a bit of that stuff to a certain extent (Versailles’ wild, sometimes clunky take on symphonic power metal being the latest that I can remember), particularly for the musicality that Japanese rock and metal bands seem to innately possess, the vocal styles have always been my ultimate stumbling block. Maybe I just haven’t heard the right band yet, but most Japanese singers to my ears sound better when singing in Japanese, but are glaringly off-key and oddly phrased when trying English. A friend recently pointed out that this might be a byproduct of the shape of the Japanese language in pronunciation in comparison to English —- something only a linguist could perhaps really explain.

 

Serenity In Murder get around this with the expertly scream-growled melodeath vocals of Emi Akatsu, her approach having the fierceness of Angela Gossow and the obsidian shades of Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. Despite her fairly crisp enunciating, this is a heavily layered and dense listen, brick walled too (try to avoid cranking it at max), Akatsu’s English vocals are more of a texture here, which suits the music rather well I think. Whats really fun about Serenity In Murder is the sheer unrelenting attack of everything —- they’re going full throttle on speed, aggression and melody. And wow the melody, its here in wild, majestic, colorful splashes that coat damn near everything with a power metal playfulness. They remind me a lot of the melodies that run through the soundtracks of Japanese anime and videogames, the band making heavy use of piano/keys to carry primary motifs alongside the riffs and lead guitars. If you like what you hear above in “Dancing Flames”, check out “Dreamfall” next, I can’t decide which of the two are my favorite, but this album has been a joy to listen to these past few weeks.

 

 

 

 

Æther Realm – Tarot:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bw3UygAi2oo&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I really really wish I had been introduced to this back in June, because although I’ve only been jamming it for a little over two weeks now, I think its addicting qualities could have seen it land a spot on the shortlist for the best albums of the year. Aether Realm (normal spelling works for Google!) sound like their members are probably from Helsinki or Tampere, but these guys are actually from the land that James Taylor famously had on his mind. Geography aside, Aether Realm play melodic death metal with strong folk overtones, think Ensiferum and a toned down Wintersun. This means intense, ultra-tight riffing and a crisp, clean production that allows room for not only keyboard orchestral elements but massive group choral vocals ala Jari and company. There’s an accessibility running throughout this album that has as much to do with how awesome some of these riffs are in addition to simply strong songwriting. When I consider the Ensiferum album released a few months after this one, I marvel at how a relatively new band like these guys could get damn near close to perfecting a sound that has escaped its originators. The key to Aether Realm’s success is their ability to incorporate a variety of songwriting styles and musical elements to captivating effect —- no two songs sound the same really.

 

Take “Temperance” where I was captivated by a beautifully played acoustic passage that’s deeply affecting in the way that the best metal ballads can be (the clean vocals here are just the right tenor of American folk). The monstrous nineteen minute epic “The Sun, The Moon, The Star” starts off with what I’m sure are Nintendo midi sounds, perhaps a not so subtle nod to some of these guys old musical influences. Its an impressive piece of songwriting overall, one that never feels as long as its actual length and is always changing, shifting from pummeling aggression with Wintersun levels of virtuosity on guitar and similarly vicious growling vocals to carefully crafted keyboard orchestrations. I wish I could identify who the clean vocalist was between bassist Vincent Jones and guitarist Heinrich Arnold —- he’s got a stellar voice and a good ear for just how to deliver those epic, folk metal inspired yearning vocals. My only complaint on the album is a slightly personal one, but just can’t get behind “King of Cups”, with Chris Bowles on guest vocals. The subject of drinking in a folk/viking metal context is so passe that not even this admittedly catchy take on it can prevent me from rolling my eyes, and of course the Alestorm guy has to be involved. A minor quibble though, one that I’m all to happy to overlook. Get this album.

 

 

 

 

Night Flight Orchestra – Amber Galactic:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puLWLR28LDg&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I was introduced to these guys sometime earlier in the year by my MSRcast co-host Cary on a lark —- he had seen a music video of theirs pop-up on the Nuclear Blast YouTube channel and it was a piece of kitschy throwback glory. The video was for “Something Mysterious” and its unabashedly indulgent early 80s look and feel (check that VHS grade quality and dated overlay graphics) immediately won me over, and when I got a chance I nabbed their May release Amber Galactic. Its been one of those random albums that I’d go back to every now and then as a musical antidote to the usual slurry of metal albums I’d been listening to for reviewing purposes. I’d always have to shelve it for something else before long, but over the rest of the year I racked up a substantial amount of time listening to the album not only as a palette cleanser, but just because these songs were so addicting and downright charming. If you’re completely unaware of their lineup, you’ll be surprised to learn that the smooth crooning vocalist here is the very same Björn “Speed” Strid of Soilwork growler fame alongside Arch Enemy bassist Sharlee DeAngelo.

 

What they and their fellow NFO bandmates have managed to craft over this project’s three albums is a detailed, rose-tinted, affectionate look back at a bygone era of transitional rock music. The touchstones here span the the birth of AOR hard rock in the late 70s through the introduction of synths in the 80s, notes of Toto and The Police on opposite ends and everything in between. I love that they’ve found themselves here, focusing on this particular era for their musical influence, because I’ve always felt its overlooked for the Zeppelin / Sabbath dominated early to mid 70s in general. So instead of Jimmy Page worship and any attempts at writing their own psychedelic epics, we get a High Spirits-esque focus on tight songwriting, precision guitar harmonies, and understated female backing vocalists on “Gemini” and “Josephine”. I hear tinges of Night Run era UFO in the aforementioned “Something Mysterious”, that low-key bass pulse humming through the rhythm section, contrasted by lonely drivin’ around the city at night keyboard melodies. This is just a grin inducing, super fun album to jam when you need something easy and comforting, songs you feel you’ve heard before even though its your first time listening to them.

 

 

 

 

Spirit Adrift – Curse of Conception:

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGMC6UK3rNA&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Coming from Arizona of all places is the classic metal/doom machine Spirit Adrift, whose Curse of Conception is their second album release in little over a one year span(!), their debut having arrived in 2016. If Pallbearer was a little too slow moving and meandering for you (as they seem to be for me… ironic I know given my placing Bell Witch on my 2017 top ten albums list), Spirit Adrift might be the middle ground you’re looking for. Think doom metal’s bleak colors and ominous crushing volume of sound played with a touch more urgency, with riffs that resemble the tone and structure of classic Metallica. Vocalist/songwriter Nate Garret has a plaintive voice, almost reminiscent of Chris Black of Dawnbringer/High Spirits, typically a type of voice that I don’t really find myself gravitating to for most bands. The exceptions for both Dawnbringer and Spirit Adrift is due to just how endearing their songwriting and rich musicality come across, that hard to master alchemy of preserving classic sounds and styles yet somehow conjuring something new from them.

 

Take a listen to the title track to get an idea of what I’m trying (and hopefully succeeding in) to convey, with its Ride the Lightning lead guitar tones leading us into a drawn out slow motion verse sequence. The uptick in tempo at the 1:18 mark is kicked off a riff progression that is straight out of the classic metal playbook, and its something we’ve heard a thousand times before in our nascent metal listening years but it just sounds so explosive here. When we get to the solo around the four minute mark you start wondering if your Spotify player actually did switch over to Metallica when you weren’t looking, so reminiscent of Kirk Hammet’s mid-80s style is the playing here. I hate just referring to one band as a reference point, but I also get that Metallica feeling on the gorgeous “Starless Age”, a dramatic power-ballad that ascends on the type of chord progressions that James Hetfield would’ve approved of back in 1986. My MSRcast cohost Cary would chastise me if I didn’t mention Trouble here, and he’d know better than I but there definitely are some shades of that band. There’s so much to love here, but I’ll end on a particular favorite: The intro to “Graveside Invocation”, with its staggered, pounding percussion and half doom half battle ready chord progression is the kind of minor detail I will never stop being a dork about.

 

 

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