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.

Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 2!: Symphony X, Powerwolf, and More!

Back again with yet another Reviews Cluster, covering a sizable chunk of some of the noteworthy metal releases that have dropped in these broiling summer months. There are so many that I’m pretty sure I’ll need one more summertime edition of these things to get through everything I’ve had to listen to lately. Its not a bad problem to have, but it hasn’t made it easy to finish off the non-reviews pieces that I’ve also been working on. Some housekeeping for me and you then: Expect a string of non-reviews pieces next, stuff I’ve been working on for awhile and have consistently had to delay because of the flood of new releases. It may mean a delay on reviews for new albums for a bit (except for Iron Maiden’s upcoming The Book of Souls, which I anticipate having up shortly after its release),  but eventually I’ll get around to having most of the major releases covered. Its been a grinder of a year for new music, with barely enough time to delve into the last batch of releases before another rolls in. I will admit that I’m excluding over half of the promos I’ve listened through and am only reviewing the ones that are of distinct interest to me for better or worse —- there’s a point when you can get burned out reviewing albums and I’m trying to avoid that. And canning the chatter…. now!

 


 

Symphony X – Underworld:

Some of you who happened to catch the dawn of this blog back in December of 2011 will remember something I wrote about just how long it took me to get into Symphony X. Long story short, it was years upon years, even after seeing the band live on their Paradise Lost tour, a block that was only cleared through their 2011 album Iconoclast. You might also remember that it was the album that topped my best of list that year (I’ve since retroactively amended that list in my mind, giving the top spot to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum and second to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow, dropping Iconoclast to number three —- but I won’t change the published list, it was a authentic snapshot of that time… anyway…!). For whatever reason, in 2011 I happened to be more receptive to the band’s classically infused take on prog-metal, and their infusion of a thrash metal attack on both Iconoclast and Paradise Lost was ultimately what led to me really being able to sink my teeth into those records. It was Iconoclast in particular that I felt was really inspired, a near-perfect fusion of visceral heaviness in the form of an aggressive rhythm section, razor sharp guitar wizardry from Michael Romeo and really terrific songwriting.

It was going to be an uphill battle for Underworld in that regard, but you’d figure that a four year gap between its predecessor would help its cause. Maybe it does a bit, because I honestly think its a good album, but it lacks the wall-to-wall hooks/microhooks that made Iconoclast such a joy to listen to. Don’t misread my meaning, because there certainly hooks to be found, and Russell Allen delivers yet another excellent performance in singing them —- being that rare prog-metal singer able to make accessible a nominally high learning curve subgenre of metal with his more hard rock inspired approach. It also features what has quickly become my favorite Symphony X song to date, the wide-open power ballad “Without You”. Its the kind of song that Allen is so adept at, with panoramic melodies that rocket skyward in the refrain and with enough iterations of the chorus throughout the song for him to lay on various inflections and changeups. If the guitars were chunkier you’d figure it was Allen guesting on an Avantasia song or perhaps a stray cut from an Allen/Lande album.

Unfortunately the rest of the album that seems to blend together, lacking songs with any real sense of identity or memorable moments. Some are better than others, such as “In My Darkest Hour” with its Whitesnake-ian chorus (I suppose the verses are a little Dave Mustaine-ish, to nod to the Megadeth reference… I doubt its intentional however). I do enjoy the swift transitions that separate each section of “Run With the Devil”, suddenly moving from mid-paced thrash metal to an AOR-tailored bridge only to finish with a strangely alt-rock chorus. Its a weird clunky track that actually manages to stand out. Everything else however is just there, and it took me a long time to figure out why so much of this album failed to affect me at all. I suspect its because the band has capitulated on the degree of the heavy thrashy-ness they doubled down upon for Paradise Lost and particularly on Iconoclast. Here they’ve decided to merge the heavy era of the past eight years with their lighter, proggy era before 2007, and in effect dulling the impact of the album a bit (for me). That they had moved towards a heavier direction was ultimately what pulled me in, and their distancing away from that is whats pushing me out.

The Takeaway: Far be it for me to slap a negative adjective on this album, because I’m sure a lot of longtime Symphony X fans will love it, and its certainly as well performed, recorded, and produced as you’d expect it to be. But I wonder if others who got into the band with either of the previous two albums are feeling the same way I am —- not entirely disappointed, just relatively disinterested.

 

 

Powerwolf – Blessed and Possessed:

I’ve never written about Powerwolf before, which is odd for this blog considering they are one of the bigger power metal bands across the pond in the recent years. They’re almost at a Sabaton level of popularity in their home country of Germany, with their previous album Preachers of the Night topping the German Media Control chart (a feat not even accomplished by Blind Guardian or Manowar yet, both bowing at number two). They are an interesting bunch to be sure, a power metal band that wears black-metal styled corpse paint (actually their aesthetic probably owes more to King Diamond than Euronymous but close enough), sings about werewolves and y’know… werewolf culture, oh and their music is the kind of hyper-polished take on power metal that’s tailor made for arenas and Euro summer metal fests. They write catchy songs, with absolute intention of sculpting memorable choruses with easy to sing a long lyrics set to keyboard led melodies. As a major fan of Sabaton, I should really enjoy them —- right?

I’ll be diplomatic, I like a small handful of Powerwolf songs, particularly when the band indulges their Twisted Sister pop influences such as on “We Are the Wild”, as good an original song you’ll find on Blessed and Possessed. Its cliche-laden lyrics could be talking about werewolves (I’m sure they are) but they also work in that ever so eighties metal trope of addressing their fans… especially those in attendance at the show that night. Its fist-pumpingly goofy stuff, and I’d be right there in the midst of it, grinning like an idiot and raising my fist in the air in rhythm, drunkenly mis-shouting the lyrics. There are quite a few rather great concert choruses spread across these eleven tracks, the problem is that often the verses fail to stack up in relation: I’m referring to songs like “Dead Until Dark”, “Sanctus Dominus”, and “Army Of The Night”. Enjoyable choruses all, but the build up to them is so pedestrian, and so interchangeable, with nothing in their verses or bridges to hold onto and remember.

When I listen to a band like Blind Guardian, Sonata Arctica, Falconer, or even Sabaton, those are bands whose songs are loaded with twists and turns, structural writing meant to ramp up emotion or tension, and unusual singular moments of brilliance never to be repeated. Its just a whole other level of songwriting that Powerwolf has yet to achieve, or perhaps is not interested in aspiring to. I don’t have a problem with the band wanting to be the AC/DC of power metal if that’s their thing, but its worth noting that beyond the classics I’ve found AC/DC often quite boring. The entirely separate hit against Blessed and Possessed is that the promo version I received was for the limited edition that comes with a staggering ten (10!!!!) cover songs of metal bands past and present. That I enjoyed them more than the actual album they were attached to was my first hint that I might never be a Powerwolf fanatic. The covers are pretty entertaining, with great takes on Savatage’s “Edge of Thorns” and Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark” in particular. There’s not a lot of deviation from the originals, but Atilla Dorn seems to have a malleable enough voice to cover an array of his heroes.

The Takeaway: If you enjoyed anything they’ve done in the past, you’ll probably enjoy Blessed and Possessed, albeit with a feeling that you’ve been buying the same album over and over again. My advice to everyone else: Get on iTunes and download “We Are the Wild” and a handful of the covers on the bonus disc for your “Party Metal” playlist (I know you have one!).

 

 

Luciferian Light Orchestra – Luciferian Light Orchestra:

A few months ago Christofer Johnsson, the brain trust of Therion quietly released an album via a new side project of his called Luciferian Light Orchestra, a mysterious band that plays a deliberately 70s styled version of occult rock. In this case that means vintage sounding guitars and Hammond Organ aplenty with breathy, detached female vocals over the top. I describe the project as mysterious because Johnsson is the only listed member, credited with handling most of the music and contributing some backing vocals (can’t discern where though). Rumor has it that one of the lead female vocalists on board (I suspect there’s at least two lead vocalists, could totally be wrong about that) is Johnsson’s girlfriend Mina Karadzic. As for who else is on board? I have no idea, and have tried in vain to find out. One thing has been revealed however, that most of the alleged twenty plus collaborators on the album are members of the Dragon Rogue, a mystical order that will be familiar to fans of Therion — Its founder and spiritual leader, Thomas Karlsson, has been writing Therion’s lyrics since 1998.

The insular nature of the project and the secrecy that shadows its individual parts only fuel the air of mysticism that oozes out of the nine songs on this self-titled debut. Your first impression listening to the album will probably match the one I had, that these songs while relatively simple and poppy for Johnsson are still loaded with a ton of Therion-isms. This makes sense when I read off the band’s one page official website that “the band is performing songs that Christofer Johnsson has written over the years but thought were too retro sounding for Therion.” Well, that explains the Therion-isms then. Its their hook-laden pop appeal that is the far more interesting trait running through the album, that a song like “Church of Carmel” can stick with me for hours upon hours throughout the day… typically speaking Therion songs don’t tend to do that (not a slight, I just find that I enjoy them more via actual playback as opposed to memory). Seriously, its a hypnotic, seductive, and charming song with a hyper-memorable chorus that is shoehorning itself into the best songs of the year conversation.

The rest of the album is no slouch either. I love the bizarre, hypnotically stoned-vocal approach of “Taste the Blood of the Altar Wine”, with its Heart meets Black Sabbath dark, smoky riffs and Deep Purple organ soundscapes. I’m also quite partial to the awesome guitar work and abrupt motif-changes of “Venus In Flames”, a Therion-ism that will smack you in the face. There’s some fantastic female lead vocal work on that song, with a voice that conjures up an actual witchy Stevie Nicks (albeit with a deeper register). There’s also something delightfully campy about its lyrics, particularly during the ending chant/refrain of “We hail Sathanas, Venus – Lucifer”. Perhaps I’m committing a faux-pas in assuming that the lyrics are to be interpreted literally, maybe I’m missing a grander metaphor at work —- with a guy like Johnsson at the helm I wouldn’t be surprised. Its just hard to take a song titled “Sex With Demons” with its lyrics specifically discussing sexual lucid dreams of unholy creatures of the night any other way. Actually this interview with Johnsson explains a ton regarding the lyrics if you’re interested (apparently Karlsson also assisted in penning most of these lyrics as well).

I was a little late on getting to this album, a rare occurrence for me when considering it was new music from the guy who gave me Therion, one of my favorite bands of all time. I had been wondering what Johnsson was doing in between random tour legs… writing that much talked about opera for one, but a part of me suspected he might also be hedging his bets a bit and slowly working on a new regular Therion album just in case. He very well might be, but with a significant portion of his time having gone into the LCO project I guess its not as much as I hoped he would. Am I disappointed? Not really, because this side project has been far more enjoyable than I could have ever suspected (occult rock and 70s throwback rock isn’t really my thing), I find myself listening to the album quite a bit, in the car, on headphones when out for the morning walk. Its a fun, loose, lively rock album that while not the deeply intense, spiritual experience of a fine Therion album, is still entertaining and artistic in a strange, unique way.

The Takeaway: Give this one a shot, even if that just means checking out the “Church of Carmel” or “Taste the Blood of the Alter Wine” music videos on YouTube. Its a strong set of songs done in a style that is annoying when handled by lesser talents —- but this is the guy who brought you Therion. That being said, I suspect that this will largely be a hard pass for some of you, but for you others there might be a hidden gem awaiting.

 

 

The Darkness – Last of Our Kind:

I’ve gone full disclosure on this before when I listed a song from The Darkness’ 2012 album Hot Cakes on that year’s best songs list (“She’s Just a Girl Eddie” in case you were wondering, and it still holds up!). I’ve enjoyed this band since learning about them shortly after their debut album was released stateside back in 2003. Their mix of Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Queen hits a sweet spot for me that few hard rock bands have ever managed to post-2000. Regardless of what you’ve thought about their image, their over-the-top stage show and their often times silly lyrics, The Darkness are consummate songwriters first and foremost. And I’ve never personally believed that they were a parody band, because their songwriting suggests an honest love of their influences that shine through, and an earnest attitude towards bright major key melodies, harmonized vocals, and openly bared sentiment. Any interview with either Justin or Dan Hawkins should be enough to clue you in on their baked in authenticity as fans of rock n’ roll, and their sense of humor is derived from their inherent British-ness. Despite sharing a similarity in their band names and the year of their debut album’s arrival, The Darkness had nothing else in common with all those bands of the post-millenium garage rock revival (you know… The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes, yawn, etc).

So their fourth album then, the aptly named Last of Our Kind, for certainly few bands are making music that sounds like this anymore, not even Def Leppard themselves. On the whole its an okay record, a bit more guitar-oriented than Hot Cakes (its closer to the debut in that regard), but that comes with its own drawbacks. What made Hot Cakes such a successful comeback album was its very honed in focus on making sure its choruses were shimmering and finely tuned for maximum memorability. That was an album loaded on catchy songs with sugar-pop hooks, largely vocal melody driven —- as a result the guitars took on more of a rear cockpit role and worked mainly to support them. On the new album the guitars are clearly the focus of attention, Justin and Dan trading off wild riffs and allowing their swirling, spiraling solos to be right up front. This is a facet most assuredly helped by Dan Hawkins serving as the album’s producer (a skill he honed during the band’s long hiatus) and defacto mix engineer. It works on the really simple, heavy attacks like “Barbarian” where the riff is the actual refrain, Justin’s vocals playing off it like a call and response. It works similarly well on the rather Cult-like “Open Fire”, with its gang-shouted chorus working as a breaker between verses rather than operating as a fully formed hook.

Where the increased emphasis on guitars tends to murky things up is on songs like “Roaring Waters”, where space that should be left for the development of a fully arcing chorus is shared with screaming guitar figures. Its not a bad song, but its not all that good either, nothing you want to come back for certainly… aren’t we listening to The Darkness for the don’t bore us get to the chorus mentality? If the chorus has nothing interesting to offer, what else are we left with? Again on “Mighty Wings”, the song is sabotaged by loading up layers of guitar wails over synth-based keyboard wash, leaving no space for vocals to maneuver. In this particular case though, I suspect its more that the song didn’t have much going on anyway… I tend to skip it whenever it pops up. On the utterly boring “Mudslide” (a name all too fitting for its sonic palette), we’re expected to enjoy a song built upon a riff so bereft of inspiration its hard to believe you’re not listening to a jam session at a rehearsal. This is all the undoing of what could’ve been a good album, that is a preponderance of songs built around the concept that the riff will be central to all things. Perhaps it was worth a try, but this is also why you use outside producers, to provide a sense of perspective about what you’re actually recording —- surely such a person would be able to tell the band what some random blogger is saying: “Your music works around vocal melodies, you’re not the Scorpions! Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken!”

Its in the more traditionally vocal led songs where the album really shines, such as on “Sarah O’ Sarah”, a sprightly, up-tempo tune with a charming brace of acoustic strumming and wonderfully endearing lyrics. It might be one of their all-time best songs, its lyrics purely in the Justin Hawkins trademark vein of bittersweet, “I’ll be patient, I’ll be strong / Until you see you’re wrong / Because I swallowed / Swallowed every lie you ever spat”. Later in the refrain, Hawkins flexes his creativity as a lyricist, “Sarah, oh Sarah / Make my heart burn / I’m lost within this labyrinth / Nowhere to turn”, which not only scores marks with me for the usage of labyrinth in perfect phonetic rhythm, but the imagery it inspires of a love-lorn fool unable to move on with his life. The power ballad “Conquerors” could be better, but I do enjoy its range of harmony vocals, with a point-counterpoint approach in it’s chorus. But its not as good as the title track, with its anthemic chorus and Thin Lizzy-esque guitar outro segue (the perfect order of things for this band). Its my second favorite tune on the record and perhaps the most archetypal moment on the album. I might normally dock a metal artist points for those, but I want familiarity in my hard rock bands.

The Takeaway: Toughie, but I’d recommend grabbing the title track and “Sarah O’ Sarah” off iTunes and leaving the rest behind. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of Hot Cakes instead, or even the rather underrated second album One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back. Both are front to back hard rock classics to my ears, with nary a misstep —- the debut is great as well.

 

 

Royal Hunt – XIII: The Devil’s Dozen:

Like clockwork, another Royal Hunt album lands in our laps, this being the third with vocalist DC Cooper since their reunion on 2011’s Show Me How to Live. In keeping with modern era Royal Hunt, it sticks with the AOR blend of melodramatic hard rock mixed with classically infused power metal, though far more leaning towards the former than the latter. I’ve been viewing this AOR element as a way for songwriter/guitarist Andre Andersen to steer the ship back towards a more melodic meets progressive direction ala the classic original DC Cooper era in the mid-nineties that gave us masterpieces like Paradox. After Cooper left and John West took over the vocal helm, it really did seem like the band got heavier, a little more metallic in their sonic approach, but it affected the songwriting in a meandering, heavy on the prog kinda way. They were good albums and West was a solid replacement, but I missed Cooper as well as the sheer fun and hook laden sensibility his era provided.

I’ve been relatively satisfied with the DC Cooper era Mark II, except that sometimes the AOR elements are so overpowering that they soften the impact of what is still a power METAL band. Its relatively similar to what Silent Force has been going through recently, though not quite as dramatic. That’s not to suggest there aren’t convincingly heavy power metal songs here, because tunes like “How Do You Know and the absolutely epic “A Tear In The Rain” are every bit as aggressive and hard hitting as anything the band has ever done. I’m stressing this quality in regards to Royal Hunt not only because the injection of hard rock and AOR devices into traditional power metal has become something of an enduring yet overdone trend in the past decade, but because the rather distinctive style, sonic palette, and mood of Royal Hunt has typically demanded that the band walk that fine line between uplifting melodicism and dark, somber symphonics.

So when the band chooses to use a hard rock meter to pattern out a riff instead of relying on a classic power metal approach, as on “So Right So Wrong”, the results skew a little more towards pedestrian melodic metal rather than the gloriously pompous grandeur we’ve all grown to love and expect from Royal Hunt. Don’t get me wrong, its a good song, obviously catchy and well written, but I can imagine it being a little more intense, perhaps even a tad more uptempo. I’m talking about the kind of intensity heard on a song like “May You Never (Walk Alone)”, as classic a Royal Hunt tune I’ve heard in years. Rollicking tempos, furiously unrestrained percussion, and a grandiose, aggressive keyboard arrangement fuel the energy in this gem of a track, allowing Cooper to deliver his vocal like a wildman. Andersen is still as adept as ever at writing magnetic riffs paired with synth lines, such as on “Way Too Late”, a brooding juggernaut of an epic with an ascending chorus that sees Cooper hitting some high notes he rarely visits. The album tends to alternate these strong moments with weak ones, preventing one side from being dominant, but the overall effect is one of inconsistency.

The Takeaway: Royal Hunt die hards will snap this one up, as they should, but newcomers might do better with its two immediate DC Cooper fronted predecessors. Of course it must be reiterated that newcomers should have already picked up 1997’s classic Paradox. Its a seminal album in power metal history and Royal Hunt’s finest hour.

 

 

To Die For – Cult:

Ah the return of To/Die/For… I feel like its 2003 all over again! I’ve always had a soft spot for these Finns and their synth heavy blend of pop and gothic metal, with their predilection towards recording unusual covers (seriously they’ve done a handful… remember their take on Sandra’s “In The Heat of the Night”). They never quite reached the ranks of affection that I reserved for their countrymen in Sentenced (being that the two were stylistically similar to a degree), and later on Insomnium and Ghost Brigade. But their initial prolific run from 1999 to 2006 yielded some pretty good records with a few remarkable singles, and a some really fun gothic metal dressed takes on U2’s “New Year’s Day”, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Its a Sin”, the Scorpions’ “Passion Rules the Game” (respected their song choice here, but the execution was lacking), the Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight”, and yet another (I Just) cover in their spin on Ozzy’s “(I Just) Want You”. Unlike those aforementioned bands of fellow Finnish countrymen, To/Die/For never really released a masterpiece of an album, always playing better as a singles band. I suppose it was what prevented me from really paying close attention to their activities throughout the years. After awhile I thought they had broken up, and it turns out they briefly did for a few months in 2009, but reunited and made a so-so album in 2011 called Samsara (had no idea!).

Throughout all these years the core of To/Die/For has remained intact, that being vocalist Jarno Peratalo and guitarist Juha-Pekka Sutela, the rest of the five piece lineup being filled out by relatively new members. I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to Samsara, but if the new album is any indication, then either Peratalo or Sutela or both have been listening to some of the grittier records by their fellow countrymen who are operating in a relatively similar style. On Cult, gone is the upfront presence of bright synth keyboards that characterized the band’s sound in the past —- instead, the guitars are murkier, darker-toned, more reliant on minor key melodies with long, modulating sustains on guitar. Now granted the latter is a fundamental characteristic of Finnish melodic metal (death or power metal), but do a side by side comparison of a To/Die/For oldie like “Hollow Heart” and the single from this album “In Black” and you’ll hear what I’m referring to. Modern To/Die/For owes more to post 2003 Amorphis, the last Ghost Brigade album, and those last two classic Sentenced albums than anything from a gothic rock milieu ala HIM (more fellow countrymen!).

Over at Angry Metal Guy, much of the discussion surrounded the seeming decline of Peratalo’s vocal talents, and indeed he does sound vastly different. His deep voiced clean vocals of the past now more resemble Poisonblack-era Ville Laihiala (really intense resemblance between the two voices here), and the change is a pretty good suspect for the musical shift towards a dirtier, darker, heavier style. This is the most metallic I’ve ever heard To/Die/For, and while it does tend to take away from their rather distinctive identity, it does yield some pretty good songs. Actually, I’m quite taken by the first three songs that open the album in a Finnish depressive salvo, from the aforementioned “In Black” to the furious, expansive melancholy of “Screaming Birds” (my personal favorite —- love the guitar solo from the 4:10-4:38 mark!), and the far more traditional (ie synth heavy) “Unknown III” which serves as a tribute to Tonmi Lillman (former To/Die/For, Lordi, and Sinergy drummer) with its raw, open-nerve ending lyrics: “Now you’re in the unknown / Your name’s written in stone / I just want you to know / You really had meaning / You know sometimes…. sometimes I still / Get wrapped up in the feeling / I don’t belong here”. Peratalo is joined on that refrain by a female vocalist named Linnea Kelin, who adds an subtle touch of additional pathos to an already emotive lyric.

There’s other good stuff too, “You” is a throwback to the band’s far more gothic rock drenched stylings of the past, despite Peratalo’s harsher vocals. And I love the direct simplicity of “Let It Bleed”, which might be setting some kind of record for the quickest launch into a song’s chorus in the history of metal (mere seconds). If anything its the two dirge-like ballads “Mere Dream” and the album closer “End of Tears” that fall flat, with no real discernible thru-melody to carry them while awash on a river of keyboard atmospherics. And in keeping with tradition, the band unloads another unusual cover tune, this time its a clunky take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”, which was a snazzy dance-pop number in the 80s but one of those songs that didn’t really need a rock/metal makeover. Its really the first of their covers to fall completely on its face, and that it winds up in the middle of the album ruins an otherwise nicely flowing song selection. I guess overall I’m more at peace with Peratalo’s changing vocals than the folks over at Angry Metal Guy were, because it seems that both he and Sutela knew exactly how to compensate for that change and adjust their songwriting approach accordingly. What they lost in originality they made up for with some really terrific songs.

The Takeaway: Much better than you’d probably be expecting from a band only releasing their second album in nearly a decade. Maybe its just me and my unabashed love of Finnish melancholy (it certainly does seem to strike a chord within me) but this is a surprisingly strong set a songs with only a few blemishes to skip over. Worth the time to investigate.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2012!

Before I started The Metal Pigeon, my end of year lists used to be relatively private, only meant for me and anyone else within earshot who’d listen. But I chose to start a blog and with the power of social networking and the viral nature of the internet, my opinions are now very much up for public discussion and dissection. So it didn’t come as a surprise to me that I took a bit of flak for my 2011 end of year list for various reasons. Regardless, I was happy with myself for delivering an honest appraisal of what I listened to and enjoyed most that year.

 

What I’ve learned since however is that a published best of list is often a temporal thing in terms of the albums on it and what number you rank them at. That 2011 list was accurate for the time frame it was published within, but come now to a full year later and I’ve realized that it was severely lacking in its estimation of what I really considered the best albums of that year — simply because I was late to the party on several key releases (Insomnium, Man-Eating Tree, and Theocracy for example). So having said that, I am certain that this 2012 best of list will aggravate just as many people as my 2011 list did, and equally as certain that I’ll miss several releases that I’ll realize should’ve been on it come next December. Oh well.

 

Its a challenge to keep up with new releases if you aren’t on promo lists, and special thanks go to my favorite metal websites and blogs (Angry Metal Guy, the Metal Meltdown Show, and Metal Rules in particular) and the excellence that is Spotify for keeping me musically updated. I’ve expanded this year into two parts, first albums, and then songs (the idea for the latter being that sometimes you’ll find a gem that’s worth talking about on an otherwise average to good album). So settle in, here we go!

 


 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2012:

 

1. Therion – Les Fleurs Du Mal:

When the French critic and poet Charles Baudelaire published his first book of poetry in 1857, he ruffled quite a few scandalized feathers within mainstream French society due to the then taboo themes of sexuality and mortality that permeated his work. Six of the worst offenders were deemed unfit for publication and soon deleted from the next printing of the collection. Over a hundred and fifty years later, a metal band from Sweden who share a not dissimilar esoteric personality with Baudelaire himself find themselves ruffling the feathers (leathers?) of the metal community over a new album that shares its namesake with the poet’s greatest work.

 

While its unlikely that anything off Therion’s latest record, a collection of covers of old French pop songs, will be banned or deleted, the album as a whole has been met with the digital age equivalency, that is a furious panning across the internet. But like the reaction to Baudelaire’s poems, this was merely the initial reaction upon the album’s release, and while these critics were loudly heard, their opinions were not universally shared among all Therion fans or metalheads who were understandably interested in the album’s unusual description. As weeks passed by, something really interesting happened — the subsequent reviews were increasingly more favorable than not, and it seemed that latecomers who wondered if the album could really be as awful an experiment as those first initial reviewers proclaimed it was found themselves more impressed than they thought they’d be.

 

I wrote in my initial review of Les Fleurs Du Mal that Therion fans would have to make do with this “art-project” album because it would apparently be years before a new “regular” Therion album was released. Now I look back at that statement with bafflement and regret, because what Therion has done with this album is redefine the idea behind what metal should, and could sound like. This is an album that has an unexplainable allure, a pull to it that I can’t really explain in any meaningful way. My first listening experience was as expected, surreal and marked with amusement at what I was hearing. But I found some ear-catching melodies in a handful of tracks that I latched on to and marveled at how, French language aside, the whole affair sounded very Therion-esque. This is a band that has developed its own unique musical language across a spectrum of albums throughout their career. And while to the uninitiated certain tendencies and nuances may seem jarring, unexpected, and bizarre even, fans of Therion’s original work revere such things as definable trademarks that set the band apart from well… everyone really. As I kept listening to this album, out of an incessant need to hear it again and again, I began to realize that Therion had achieved something truly great — the convincing interpretation of such a disparate musical genre as classic French pop through their own metal based Therion language — all without losing in translation the sound, style, and spirit of the originals.

 

Therion has a long history of dabbling in covers, and what is remarkable about their impressive list of remade songs on previous albums and EPs has been an innate ability to tear a song apart and rebuild it from the ground up in the classic Therion style. Whether it was with their operatic, cinematic take on the Scorpions “Crying Days”, their epic, yet delicate rendition of what was Accept’s clunky ballad “Sea Winds”, or their powerful re-imagining of ABBA’s lesser known classic “Summer Night City”, Therion’s Christofer Johnsson proved himself to be metal’s most radically creative interpreter of song. Yet on Les Fleurs Du Mal, Johnsson chose instead to preserve the core of the original songs and to retain their essence as much as possible to ensure that they were recognizable — well, in a manner of speaking. The reality is that except for those musically clued-in listeners in France, or erstwhile or current Francophiles, these relatively obscure songs aren’t recognizable to most of us in the English speaking world. We haven’t heard the originals to make comparisons to, and as a result are not filled with predispositions towards these songs, negatively or positively — its really all new to most of us (they are on YouTube however and are worth checking out after the fact).

 

Our unfamiliarity is part of Johnsson’s underlying strategy: These are foreign cover songs in a language that is new even for Therion, French chansons and yé-yé music, but because they are reinterpreted through the right amount of Therion’s musical language we find ourselves enjoying the music of a genre that perhaps we would normally ignore, or even disdain. It all illustrates another motive of Johnsson’s art-project element of this album, to demonstrate that the attributes that separate one style of music from another are often times not so far apart or drastically different. I hear in this album the core things I love about Therion, the only major difference being that the normally dark, epic, and cinematic moods the band usually dabbles in are here replaced by love-lorn melancholy, dramatic longing, and a subtle literate sophistication.  This is a front to back exhilarating, darkly beautiful, and addictive listening experience, and its not only the best album of 2012, but one of the greatest entries in the Therion canon.

 

 

2. Pharaoh – Bury the Light:

This album is so excellent that upon its initial release in early 2012, I had it as my album of the year by a mile. I figured that while there was still a lot of the year left, it was unlikely that anything would be able to top the sheer metal greatness that is Bury the Light. Make no mistake, just because its not number one on my list, doesn’t mean that I feel its value as a listening experience has diminished. These guys are part of the minority population within metal of US power metal bands, but before you let that pigeonholing genre label turn you off, know that this is not power metal in the modern Euro style, instead Pharaoh draw more from old-school American and Euro trad metal influences and their sound at times comes off as more thrash-influenced than anything. For more specifics check out the original review, there are too many details to adequately cover in this short space.

 

Pharaoh has metal’s jack of all trades Chris Black on drums, so its not surprising that a band that features in its ranks the mind behind High Spirits and Dawnbringer also focuses on crafting a reinvigorated approach to an old style. In all the reviews I’ve read for this album the one thing that hasn’t been stressed enough is just how well Pharaoh is able to look to the past for musical inspiration and come up with something fresh, way more so than the scores of fashionably-retro-thrash bands popping up everywhere. Personally what I took away from every listen of Bury the Light was this feeling of what it first felt like when I was being introduced to heavy music — in the sense that I found simple joys in the most meat and potatoes of metal. After so many years of hearing countless bands and albums, its sometimes hard to find excitement in old styles and motifs that you may think are being drawn from a dry well. Pharaoh proves that notion to be wrong, and gives me hope that metal will always be able to look backwards to go forwards — if it needs to.

 

 

 

3. Be’lakor – Of Breath and Bone:

Proving that its not just Finland that is taking over as the country behind the melodic death metal resurgence, Be’lakor hail from Melbourne, Australia, a country more known for barroom AC/DC-ish rock bands than anything extreme metal related. If anyone has a hope in changing that perception, its Be’lakor, and albums like this one will do it. They are clearly influenced by whats going on in Scandinavia, as well as some nods to the original Gothenburg sound as well, but what these guys seem so adept at doing is making you forget about that as you listen. The music here doesn’t invoke old wintry, desolate landscapes — instead it paints abstractly, with musical light and shade that move against each other, often over frenetic rhythms that are set against a modernistic Gothic inspired storyline etched throughout the lyrics.

 

As expected there’s tons of great melody here, and it serves as the songwriting anchor for the band’s sound, as opposed to being merely window dressing. Whats unexpected however is the bizarre nature of the rhythm section and its insistent shifting both in terms of tempo, as well as the tendency to have syncopation both in the guitars and percussion. Something that took me a few listens to catch was the realization that these guys are eschewing the standard verse/chorus format. Songs start in one direction and follow it for awhile before veering off somewhere else without ever returning. It all results in an unsettling sensation, but its kept in check by their ability to craft songs with memorable motifs throughout that are haunting in their eerie, dark beauty.

 

 

 

4. Sabaton – Carolus Rex:

This was a watershed moment for Sabaton, in terms of ambition, sonic production, and of course, quality songwriting. Joakim Brodén IS one of the best songwriters in metal to come about in the last ten years, and so the hooks and memorability quotient is never in doubt when it comes to a new Sabaton release. What was in doubt upon first hearing of the unusual concept behind Carolus Rex was whether or not the band had the ability to deliver a bi-lingual concept/thematic album that wasn’t weighed down by its own lofty aspirations. We should never have wavered in belief, because Brodén not only masterfully crafted a compelling lyrical story of the rise and fall of the Great Swedish Empire and one of its more iconic rulers, Charles XII, but reinvigorated Sabaton’s musical attack to match the grandness of the theme as well. Lush keyboard orchestral arrangements, smartly executed choral vocal sections, and a spot on production job by Peter Tägtgren were all locked into matching the nationalistic epic march of the historical narrative.

 

It was said that the lyrics on the Swedish version were far superior due to the language’s ability to weave in greater nuance, subtlety, and religious overtones; compared to the straightforward historical bent of the English lyrics, and though that may be true for native Swedish speakers, the rest of us hardly noticed. In fact I’d go as far as to say that this album featured some of Brodén’s most deft word play and intelligent diction choices to date. He has a way of crafting lyrics that when set to his stirring, rousing, powerfully anthemic melodies find a way to simultaneously fill you with adrenaline, melancholy, triumph, and exuberance often at the same time. I’m about to see these guys live again for the fourth time in two years (!), and I’m honestly hoping that they play most of this album. Sabaton gets a lot of flak online for being exactly who they are, a poppy, at times simple power metal band that obsesses about World War II and all things war related. To those detractors, here’s something different subject matter wise and this is the band delivering arguably the best shot in their cannon thus far. You owe it to yourself to pay attention to this history lesson.

 

 

 

5. Barren Earth – The Devil’s Resolve:

This came out of nowhere for me personally, I hadn’t even heard of the project until this release, but I owe it to my recent resurgent interest in all things Finnish melo-death for having stumbled onto this brilliant gem of an album. Barren Earth can be called a super group of sorts in Finland, in that they’re two parts Moonsorrow, two parts ex-Amorphis, and one part Swallow the Sun. To the rest of us, they’re just a relatively new band who are part of the resurgent melodic death metal landscape. Like their fellow countrymen, Barren Earth aren’t content to merely recycle old Gothenburg tropes, instead they’ve managed to find their own unique sound by melding into their work what naturally feels comfortable given their members’ other musical experiences. There’s generous portions of folk-metal infusions laden throughout, some slight doom touches, and even some progressive rock influences particularly within the guitar work.

 

In fact, whats most striking about The Devil’s Resolve is its retro-without-sounding-retro 70’s prog-rock style and production, no better example than on the lead-off single “The Rains Begin”, where ELO-ish keyboards anchor the melody against Mikko Kotamäki’s light and airy clean vocals (and whose death vocals here are far more upfront and untouched by production wash than they ever were in Swallow the Sun). I’ll throw this out there, and I think many will agree: This is the kind of album that Opeth should, and possibly could have made with Heritage. If you were one of those people who were intrigued by Akerfeldt’s descriptions of that album before its release, and massively disappointed after listening to it, you will find what you were hoping for in The Devil’s Resolve. Barren Earth seem to remember something that the Opeth founder forgot — its all about quality songwriting, everything else comes after. This is a highly satisfying album.

 

 

 

6. Anathema – Weather Systems:

Before anyone starts to yell about how can I possibly include modern day prog-rock Anathema in any metal-related context I’ll remind them of this: Most metal sites cover new Anathema releases, as once a band has been a part of the metal world, it seems we find it hard to let go of them — and also, I see no difference between Anathema’s recent output and something like Opeth’s Heritage, which found its way on to many sites’ best of 2011 lists (geez thats the second time I’ve mentioned that record). And finally, to be blunt, its the Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2012, not the best metal albums of 2012 (even though they’re generally all metal-related anyway).

 

So yeah Anathema, while I was always lukewarm on these guys’ doom metal past, preferring the more refined Paradise Lost as my English doom cup of tea, I’ve found a newly realized admiration for their post-metal work. I was enamored with much of 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, though I found the album on the whole to be severely lopsided in favor of the first half. The follow-up here then directly remedies that defect with a front to back album of excellence. Its slightly darker and yes, even at moments heavier than its predecessor as well, yet still presents beautifully written songs that are elegantly arranged, with an ear towards minimalism in all respects — the key to modern day Anathema’s sonic success is a less-is-more approach. This is music that is haunting, elegiac, yet brimming with hopefulness — the entire record seems to be a meditation on mortality, and as such it has a cohesiveness that really captures your attention.

 

The clear standouts here are the twin album openers “Untouchable Pt 1 & 2”, songs you’ll revisit again and again, but not to be overlooked are the gems “The Gathering of the Clouds”, and “The Beginning of the End”. Vocalists Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas share a more balanced split on vocals here, with Douglas even carrying a few songs herself — she is a strength that they’ve realized was under utilized on the last record. A lot has been written about how emotional this music can get, and at times it may even skirt the edges of being a touch maudlin for some listeners, something that I suppose is left up to everyone’s personal tolerance for that kind of stuff. Weather Systems is deserving of a wider audience, and it does seem to be getting some looks from mainstream media, a first for Anathema. Look at it as spiritual music for us metal heads.

 

 

 

7. Kreator – Phantom Antichrist:

This is arguably the best 21st century Kreator album to date. That it took a few releases and perhaps a touch of inspiration from other extreme metal styles to achieve says more about just how difficult it is to successfully reinvent/reinvigorate your sound than it does about any lack of inspiration on Kreator’s part. If there’s a band that knows anything about failed reinventions, its Mille Petrozza and company. Through much of the nineties, the band released record after record of various flavors of misguided quasi-industrial-maybe-doomy-metal. The rebound started with Violent Revolution eleven years ago but like a struggling pro football team trying to rebuild, it takes several incremental successes built over a span of years to get back to championship-caliber form again.

 

With Phantom Antichrist, the band found a refreshing mix with an extra dose of Gothenburg-esque melody in such heart attack inducing tracks as “Death to the World”, “Your Heaven, My Hell”, “Civilisation Collapse”, and of course the truly stellar title track. Of course some Kreator fans will never be happy, much like fans of any metal band who created their classics in the 80s, and as such some have found reason to complain about the band’s increased focus on melodicism. With songs this detrimental to your neck and spine, I can’t understand those complaints…great songwriting trumps everything in my book.

 

 

 

8. Dawnbringer – Into the Lair of the Sun God:

Chris Black is one of metal’s more enigmatic musicians, a low-profile Chicagoan whose involvement in a multitude of projects means he is releasing new albums at a rapid pace, and all of which are actually really, really good. Whereas he shares the creative role in the above listed Pharaoh with Aymar and guitarist Matt Johnsen, Black is the sole creative force behind projects like the Scorpions-style rock of High Spirits, and the now-on-the-radar Dawnbringer (who have apparently existed since 1999!).  If you’re not familiar this is musically speaking a mix of classic metal and NWOBHM traditions, all laid as foundation for Black’s dry, at times almost punk rock-ish deadpan vocals. Its hard to put a finger on why, but somehow none of it sounds purposefully retro, possibly because there is a single-mindedness to the whole enterprise that almost guarantees that irony and self-aware winking isn’t allowed in the Dawnbringer world.

 

Case in point is that Into the Lair of the Sun God is a concept album, in the most direct Mindcrime-ean terms. It is literally from start to finish the tale of a battle-less solitary warrior who is apparently insulted by the sun (sorry… Sun) and decides to seek his revenge — on the Sun. Musically there is a direct line to classic Maiden, Priest, but also 70s era classic hard rock — its not groundbreaking or original in spirit by any means, but thats not the point. Black is nothing if not a traditionalist who cares more about quality songwriting in that old school metal style that he clearly adores. That this album is a Profound Lore release is a credit to the people at that label for being able to see that not all of the bands on their roster need to be Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy clones. If you’re noticing a theme developing this year on metal sites and blogs best of lists, with bands that make old school traditions fresh again, its really something that’s been bubbling under for awhile now — its only now just boiling over and grabbing its well deserved share of attention.

 

 

9. Enslaved – RIITIIR:

I had an up and down relationship with this album, loving it immediately upon release and then tiring of it quickly. After putting it away for a few months I came back to it and was surprised at how much more I enjoyed it and was able to see through to the album’s core strengths. Its hard to understand why stuff like that happens, but if I were to guess I’d say that its because this is a good to great at moments album that you really need to be in the mood to listen to. It doesn’t have the straight forward accessibility to override a person’s mood or temperament like Axioma Ethica Odini had, but when you’re in the right frame of mind for it these songs leap out at you. There’s great stuff here, the hypnotic, addictive near drone lull of “Veilburner”, the utterly bizarre title track, and my personal favorite, the otherworldly AIC-meets-Gn’R-meets-Borknagar fusion of “Materal”, where it seems like Slash himself has a terrific guest solo spot.

 

Enslaved find a perfect melding of Axioma punch and the controversial Vertebrae’s soundscapes and simultaneously deliver some of their most memorable hooks to date. Contrary to most reviews I’ve seen of this record online, I don’t really believe that Enslaved is really breaking new ground or anything remotely resembling that type of hyperbole — they have however managed to expand the boundaries of their sound. And while this isn’t their best work by a long shot, its in their top five for me, and I recommend anyone who felt put off by its strangeness at first to give it another shot sometime down the road. There is something to be said within the context of metal about the redeeming value of albums that take awhile to sink in.

 

 

 

10. Alcest – Les Voyages De L’âme:

Well I really have no excuses here. I believe at some point or another I’ve taken a pot shot or two at the worshiping of so-called black metal coming out of France. Alcest are one of, if not THE key figure in that musical movement, and though I don’t believe I’ve ever said anything about them directly, they were certainly among the culprits in my mind. The thing is that this album came out really early this year, and a friend of mine who loves these guys was playing them in his car on the way to some show somewhere, and I found myself enjoying it despite myself. I couldn’t remember what album it was when I got home but I figured that he was playing me the newest one — fast forward eleven months later and when I look at my ITunes play count this album has gotten so many spins that I simply couldn’t ignore the fact that I had quietly been enjoying Les Voyages De L’âme way more than I realized (that title by the way translates in to “The Voyages of the Soul”, not “The Lame Voyages” — you were thinking it).

 

It would serve throughout the year as my soundtrack to writing articles, playing Skyrim, general internet nonsense, and at times in the car as I’d drive to work. Upon thinking about what albums would be on this list, I tried in vain to think of another album that I could have justifiably placed at my ten spot, but the reality is that you can’t lie to yourself. Whereas past Alcest albums failed me and couldn’t keep my attention (might be time for a revisit), this is perhaps the band’s most instantly accessible work to my ears. I won’t go into adjective filled sentences here about what they sound like, you’re not an idiot, you know what this band is about by now just from seeing their name enough. What I will say is that songs like “Autre Temps” and “Faiseurs De Mondes” are undeniable in their beauty and epic majesty. If you like myself had found no truck with Alcest in the past, their latest might be what you were waiting for all along.

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2012:

 

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

 

1. Anathema – “Untouchable Pt I/II”: The opening duo from the Weather Systems record is one of many high points on a near flawless album. It may be too light and positive for many metal heads, and it is a complete 180 from Anathema’s Peaceville doom days, but they’ve found their footing here and seem comfortable in it. I know I’m squeezing two songs into one spot here, but both parts are inseparable really — a gorgeous pairing that I’ll never tire of.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6hzsrqyGPs?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

2. The Darkness – “She’s Just a Girl, Eddie”: I love the Darkness, I have no shame in admitting it. I was thrilled when they came back and finally released new music. I believe that I’m in a small minority when I say that I don’t believe that The Darkness are as have-a-laugh and ironic as most people seem to believe. The mix of Def Leppard/Queen/AC/DC rock n’ roll that these Englishmen crank out can’t be done as well as they do it without there existing some genuine love for the stuff. I believed that back when they first came out, and I believe it now. These guys write well-crafted, lyrically deft, and humorous songs that don’t skimp on the hooks. I grew up listening to pop-rock like Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Europe long before I listened to heavy metal, and a  love of straight-up hard rock has never left me. This album cut off their newest, Hotcakes, is an oddly touching paean to their once heart-broken drummer, Eddie, and its a personal highlight off of a fantastic album.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbWYtuSaWL0?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

3. Wisdom – “Heaven and Hell”: This rousing singalong by Hungarian trad/power metallers Wisdom can rightfully claim its title as the owners of the second best song named “Heaven and Hell”. It was the highlight off their most recent album Judas, and it boasted a fairly tasteful music video to boot. The draw here aside from the exceptionally catchy hook is new vocalist Gábor Nagy’s unique blend of prime Ozzy, Dio, and slight Hansi Kursch. This is one of those songs that was tailor made for a field of fist pumping maniacs at Wacken — anyone wanna buy me a plane ticket?

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZMY-YXLa38?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

4. Sabaton – “Carolus Rex”: “I was chosen by heaven/ Say my name when you pray / To the skies — see Carolus rise!” The chorus of the title track of Sabaton’s masterful new album is alone filled with the kind of bombastic, pompous, chest pounding bravado that only heavy metal could deliver (rappers have nothing on Charles XII of Sweden). This song encompasses not only the near genius lunacy of the former ruler of the Swedish Empire, but also the spirit of the new album as a whole. One of their best singles and perhaps the most pounding, adrenaline-inducing song of the year.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqRF1JS63Mc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

5. Kamelot – “Song for Jolee”: One of two emotional high points on the new Silverthorn album, their first with new vocalist Tommy Karevik, Kamelot adds another spectacular ballad to their repertoire. Many might wonder after all the articles I published about Kamelot’s situation this year, why they eluded the top ten albums list, and really there was just too much in the way of competition. Silverthorn was a good album, and a nice start for the band charting a future without the mighty Roy Khan, but it wasn’t great and had some flaws. This song however hinted that they’re possibly only a few albums away from delivering another great one.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2QrnT–2mI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

6. Grand Magus – “The Hunt”: There was a lot to love on these Stockholm lads sixth album, in particular this storming title track. This was an easy album to enjoy right out of the gate but also an easy one to over play and tire of. Grand Magus’ major drawback is that their high points are so high that everything else on offer starts to blend in together and sound the same. Still, I keep some choice songs off this album on my Ipod at all times, and its this track that has me singing loudly out of tune the most.

 

 

 

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

 

7. Borknagar – “The Earthling”: I love this song, and believe that its more stripped down, metallic attack is the direction that Borknagar should further explore on upcoming releases. It boasts one of the most euphoric and powerful refrains of any Borknagar song to date and in typical Norwegian progressive black metal fashion, it comes towards the end of the song. Its worth the wait, and singer Vintersorg is in prime form using his heavily accented clean vocals to deliver soaring lines that meditate on the relationship between nature and man. Freaking sweet music video too. Nice one guys.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98-yil0olG8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

8. Pharaoh – “The Year of the Blizzard”: This is the centerpiece of Pharaoh’s awesome Bury the Light album and in a way a perfect microcosm of everything great about this band. While my initial favorite on the record was “The Spider’s Thread” for its unforgettable fade out refrain, “The Year of the Blizzard” features sparse acoustics, blisteringly frenetic near thrash metal, and gorgeous solos (the best one coming at the 5:15 mark, an emotional, fluid, and elegant guitar solo that bites down to the core of what we love about the epicness of metal). Guitarist Matt Johnsen will in all likelihood go unnoticed by most guitar enthusiast magazines and sites, but he’ll get a major shout out from me —- someone get that guy a trophy.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir_BVxBz5do?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

9. Orden Ogan – “The Things We Believe In”: These German power metallers clearly take major inspiration from the mighty Blind Guardian, which is no bad thing of course, but doesn’t net the points for originality. It doesn’t matter however when you have songs as straight up fun as this one. Their new album, To The End, is chalk full of anthemic choruses and surprisingly some hyper-intense Immortal-like riffing. But its a bit of a mixed bag overall, with some filler here and there, and one ballad that has some seriously cringe worthy lyrics (and I’m a guy who tolerates a lot in that department) despite its good melody. But generally speaking, this is the kind of band you listen to for some good time, singalong, drinking metal. We’ll leave the serious German power metal to the original bards.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXhyzGc7_pc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

10. Asphyx – “Deathhammer”: These guys narrowly missed my top ten albums list this year with their release of the same name, a convincingly brutal assault on the ear drums in that classic Entombed style. This was the best pure death metal album of the year, even topping Grave with their solid Endless Procession of Souls, and it was this song in particular that served as their consideration for nomination. Asphyx are grim traditionalists in every aspect, even down to details such as an insistence on a mud n’ blood production. These songs wouldn’t work half as well if they were recorded with the pristine precision of a band like Nile. Darkthrone’s Dutch death metal cousins then.

 

Dividing Opinions: A Look at New Albums From Enslaved and Therion

 

 

 

So they’re finally here, two new albums from perhaps two of the more radical leaning metal bands out there today. Radical here means pushing the boundaries of their genre, redefining their sounds over time, pissing people off, you know the drill. Pissing people off? Oh yeah, in fact I’m hard pressed to think of a band within metal that consistently manages to confuse, baffle, and alternatively delight their fanbases apart from maybe Opeth. Enslaved’s RIITIIR and Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal are both the follow-ups to 2010 predecessors, but dates and timing aren’t the only things they have in common. Both are albums that have already met with sharply divided opinions, from fans and critics alike. I don’t normally like to read reviews of albums that I myself am about to write about, preferring to go in with an clear head, but the extra time I felt I needed to process both of these records resulted in my curiosity getting the better of me. Now I’ll weigh in on both of them to tell you if I come down on the side of love or hate or worse!

 


 

 

Enslaved – RIITIIR:

I’ll be honest about the low expectations I had for this album, as I firmly believed that there was no way that the band could top what they had done on 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini, an album that hit me with the force of a grizzly bear and left me happily dazed in a modern black metal stupor for weeks afterward. I quietly thought that the album was a refreshing move away from its prog-drenched predecessor Vertebrae back into more visceral, impact-heavy black metal territory. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it all that made it even better — the band did get a lot of praise for Vertebrae after all, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see them continue in that vein.  Now this being the follow-up to Axioma, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to see them attempt a part two of that album, in the same aggressive, up-tempo vein… I expected them to really. But Enslaved is nothing if not surprising lately, as RIITIIR sees the band heading once more into prog-influenced soundscapes and slower tempos, in fact its not a stretch to say that the majority of this record is mid-tempoed.

 

Depending on your temperament and patience for that sort of thing, this album may come across as plodding and at times meandering. But I’ll argue the opposite, and say that this is just as sharp a set of songs as those on Axioma, albeit with obvious differences in the brutality department. Unlike Vertebrae, which really did come across to me as largely unfocused and hell, just plain boring — the songs on this album boast memorable melodies, clever hooks, and the best clean vocals on any Enslaved album to date. Opener “Thoughts Like Hammers” is the most meh thing on offer here, excitingly fast at times yes but the chorus isn’t as striking as whats to follow such as on the excellent “Death in the Eyes of Dawn” and “Veilburner” — where Larsen’s expressive, emotive clean vocals elevate the songs into a sound that I can only describe as depressingly uplifting. “Veilburner” is the best of the two, Grutle’s awesome grim vocals set against the albums heaviest splash of stop-start riffage, juxtaposed to a killer chorus that has the album’s best refrain “I found myself crawling, looking for an out”. I can’t emphasize just how great the clean vocals are on this album — and considering that they had been in the past a bit of a weak spot (certain songs notwithstanding, such as “Isa”), the fact that I find myself humming them in my head long after I’ve ceased listening to the album is saying something.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoMInT2Ysi0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I love the swinging riff in the title track, and the build up to that awesome pay off mid way through the song where Grutle barks over a bed of clean vocals chanting “Hail the flames inside you”. The absolute masterpiece of the album however is “Materal”, an epic track where thundering AC/DC-ish drums pound out an opening drawl from Larsen that sounds more akin to Alice in Chains than Enslaved. This startlingly different  melodic passage recurs alternatively between ugly, soaring black metal tremolo interludes, building up into the album’s most awesomely bizarre moment ever, a Guns N’ Roses-esque wailing guitar solo that seems so surreal you’ll be checking the album booklet to make sure Slash isn’t guesting. The tribal drum laden, Grutle-led assault that immediately follows is the most headbangingly awesome moment on the record, a satisfying series of differing elements that combines to great effect. If I had to pin down the most striking feature of this album, albeit just one thing, it would have to be the greater presence of rock guitar — there’s not a lot sound wise here that will remind you of classic black metal sounds, or even classic Enslaved sounds really.

 

This album has met with some rather surprising criticism, I’ve seen it called everything from meandering and unfocused, to pretentious and a product of trying to do too much. I guess I understand where those opinions are coming from, because I could have easily seen myself dismissing this album upon my initial listen perhaps if my expectations were for something else. But my expectations when I first hit play were pretty much nothing but a clean slate, I didn’t know what I wanted or hoped to hear, and maybe that was the best thing that could’ve happened. Its fair to say that while I don’t love this album, I am highly enthusiastic about it and enjoy it when I’m in a welcoming mood for its strange mix of sounds blending modern rock elements with prog-influenced black metal.

 

 

 

Therion – Les Fleurs du Mal:

This is a strange one. You can’t really call it a proper follow-up to 2010’s Sitra Ahra, because well, it isn’t really a proper Therion album.  Their last album really was the start of a new era for Therion. Gone were the long tenured Niemann brothers and in were new permanent members Thomas Vikström and Lori Lewis, the band’s first permanent vocalists. While their additions to the band were welcome, the music on Sitra Ahra was widely inconsistent, a few good songs amidst a sea of unfocused filler — not to mention that band leader Christofer Johnsson was headed back into a more prog-driven direction, as opposed to the almost pop-oriented rock and metal of the great 2007 Gothic Kabbalah album. The lack of the Niemann’s presence on guitar and bass was felt deeply, and the whole affair just seemed messy and unfocused. I was looking forward to see what this new look Therion could do on their second try, but apparently, a new “regular” Therion album will be years away as Johnsson has stated that he’s working on a real rock opera that will apparently take many years to compose. So where does that leave a proper follow up to Sitra Ahra? Well…either far, far in the future or right now with Les Fleurs du Mal, depending on your perspective and willingness to accept this truly bizarre, as described “art-project” of an album.

 

A word of forewarning: This album does not contain original material as written by Therion. Instead, it is a collection of covers of French chansons done up in the Therion style. You know what I mean, Edith Piaf type stuff, French women crooning about lost love and regrets, that sort of thing. Sound interesting? It is. Let no one call this album boring and unoriginal. Hate it or love it Therion is breaking new ground here, as this is truly something I can say that I’ve never heard before, much less envisioned hearing. And here’s the kicker, its actually really goddamned good. Yes these are Swedes singing in French, so you’ll have to get past that right away. I’ve seen some criticism from European fans discussing the vocalist’s deficiencies in French pronunciations… as if most of us could notice? Leave it to the internet to provide us with people who could bitch about anything. One thing struck me right away after a few listens to this record: Even though these are all covers of French ballads, the band really diversifies their approach to all of them and the result is an album that ranges from fast, aggressive metal, to delicate balladry, to songs with almost danceable waltz-y melodies, to slow, doomy dirges that recall to mind Candlemass (seriously!). The variety on display here is what really makes the album fun to listen to.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6uLIN46AHE&w=560&h=315]

 

 

There’s some truly beautiful music going on here, such as on the clear stand-out track “Une fleur dans le cœur”, which Therion adds haunting acoustic guitars and synth driven strings to create a swelling, nostalgic sounding ballad thats interspersed with metallic guitar flourishes. The female singing on this track is gorgeous, and while my years of French in school don’t help me in understanding much about the lyrics, there’s a pathos going on in the inflections of the vocal that is really moving. “Initials B.B.” has the most striking and memorable musical refrain, an orchestral motif that is repeated over and over throughout the track, only spaced out by bits of rock riffing and a lazy French female vocal that seems to be more dialogue based than anything. Its weird but it works. I absolutely love the ultra-melodic guitar driven melodies that lace together “Dis-moi poupée”, they remind me of traditional Therion funnily enough and honestly this track wouldn’t have felt out of place on the classic Vovin or Deggial albums. There’s a lot of highlights here, more than I should probably list, but if I had to pick the weirdest one that actually works, it would have to be “Je n’ai besoin que de tendresse”, a cover of the sixties French pop singer Claire Dixon’s biggest hit — the original being a bouncy, sugary pop number that sounded like it was sung by a fifteen year old girl. Here Therion transform it into a super fast, metalized rocker with wild vocals (from whom I believe is Snowy Shaw but can’t be sure), the songs shimmering melody morphed into a really awesome riff.

 

This album was apparently too out there for Nuclear Blast, Therion’s longtime record label. I can totally understand why they passed on agreeing to an idea like this. They gave the band their permission to release this on their own through independent financing and according to Johnsson himself he took out a 75000 Euro bank loan to pay for the project. By releasing it independently, the band has assured that all the proceeds from sales will go back in their pocket, and I hope they sell enough to cover the costs. I’ve also read through non-official sources that this album is part of a larger art project that is tied together with the work of French poet Charles Baudelaire, hence it being named after a collection of his poetry — so maybe there’s more to the Les Fleurs du Mal project that we haven’t seen yet. While I applaud the effort and clearly am having fun listening to this thing repeatedly, I gotta wonder out of mild curiosity, with Johnsson’s announcement that this will be Therion’s last tour in a long while, how the hell is this guy going to pay his bills let alone recoup the costs of the bank loan?

 

For Therion fans, this is the last new music we’re gonna get from these guys in a long while, so I urge an open mind before going in to listen to this album. There’s a lot to enjoy here, just brace yourself.

The Metal Pigeon’s Most Anticipated of 2012

Even though February is almost over, I’ve only just recently felt as if I’ve closed my book on metal in 2011. I suppose its always the way with me, it takes me a good bit of time to process all the year end lists on websites, blogs and magazines. I’ve spent most of the past few weeks playing catchup on stuff I missed, and haven’t give much attention to whats on the horizon. Really quickly, here’s some random thoughts on my five most anticipated metal releases/events of 2012:

 

Therion – TBA: I honestly didn’t expect this to be announced so soon after their last release, given that Therion do like to take their time with new albums, but perhaps something was urging Christofer Johnsson to shorten the wait time for the follow up – some internal nagging that was telling him what many Therion fans already knew, that 2010’s Sitra Ahra didn’t live up to expectations. The expectations were, at least from this fan’s point of view, that there would be an appropriately epic and breathtaking series of songs to conclude what had become a quadrilogy (with Sirius B, Lemuria, and Gothic Kabbalah). They were hitting home runs with those prior three albums, without exaggeration I consider all three to be some of the most wonderfully unique music I’ve ever listened to, in all genres, ever. So all my gross salivating over Sitra Ahra leading up to its release date quickly ran dry when I listened to the album for the first time.

 

One of the hallmarks of Therion has always been their ability to temper their extravagant, bombastic symphonic and progressive tendencies with restraint and elegance. Here it seemed, however, that Johnsson had lost his handle on whatever internal mechanism he’d always had that allowed him to say “Eh, thats overdoing it”, or “That sounds garish, even for us”. Guest vocalists delivered jarringly bad or ill fitting vocal takes that ruined potentially great songs, arrangements that in the past would be tempered by space or silence were instead overloaded to ruin. Not all was bad, the title track, “Unguentum Sabbati”, and the truly excellent “Kali Yuga III” were three songs that made me long for what could have been. So why have so much anticipation for this upcoming album from a band that just released an average at best album? The hope anyway, is that with the new album representing a clean slate, lineup wise as well as conceptually, Johnsson will feel comfortable in re-simplifying his approach and veering away from the apparent need to outdo each previous album’s bombast. Also, as fanboy-ish as it sounds, I don’t believe Therion can put out an average record twice in a row – they’re just that great overall.  The previous time they released an “average” record, they followed it up with a masterpiece in Theli. History repeats itself?

 

Burzum – Umskiptar: You have to hand it to Varg, he delivered the goods upon his release from incarceration with Belus and Fallen, both excellent albums. I was far more impressed with the latter and its strikingly unique approach on certain tracks. Who says Norwegian black metal is stale and uninspired? They must have not heard “Jeg Faller”, or “Valen”. The development of his signature sound was pushed to unexpected new directions, and Varg found out that he wasn’t adverse to vocal melodies either (!). My first listen to Fallen took me by complete surprise, it was like hearing the classic Burzum sound yet unlike it at the same time. A complete surprise in many respects. And this is why the recently announced Umskiptar is so high on my list of the most anticipated albums to be released this year (the jawdropping cover art doesn’t hurt either). In fact, the only thing that will top my surprise at hearing Fallen for the first time will be if Umskiptar doesn’t make my top ten of 2012.

 

 

 

Wintersun – Time: I know what you’re thinking, what makes me think that this will be the year that extreme metal’s own Chinese Democracy will finally be released? Call it a hunch, but enough time has passed already for Jari Mäenpää to get his technical situation sorted (I won’t go into the stupid details for those who don’t know them, only will pause to wonder why his record label, Nuclear Blast, won’t pony up a small check to pay for his hardware upgrade to finally help them get this damn thing released and recoup the budget?!). The reality at this point is that its a very fair question to ask if anyone will really care once it is released. Invariably it will be met with its fair share of criticism, the kind due any album that overstays its time in the oven and can’t meet the nigh insurmountable expectations its created. Its similarities to Axl Rose’s long delayed grandiose commercial bomb are eerily similar, an insanely multi-tracked production overseen by a perfectionist nutter, rumored problems with both the studios and equipment, and even Monty Python-esque train wreck humor in the form of noisy construction next door. I look forward to finally hearing the thing however, and I think 2012 is finally the year we’ll have the opportunity, if only for the fact that by May it will be six full years since production first began, and I don’t see Nuclear Blast willing to wait any longer than that. Admittedly, I’m far more interested in hearing Time simply because it has taken so long to complete, than I am because I’m some die hard Wintersun fan (how can you be a die hard fan of a band with just one album released in ’04?) If there actually are many others out there who are similarly curious, then perhaps both Wintersun and Nuclear Blast will find that it was worth all the time and trouble.

 

Iron Maiden’s “Maiden England” World Tour: On Saturday, August 18th, I will attend Iron Maiden’s final stop of the North American leg of their newly announced “Maiden England” world tour, a show which promises to echo its VHS namesake’s classic setlist as well as other songs from that era. In essence this is a sequel to the “Somewhere Back in Time” world tour of 2008, just advancing up the timeline of the band’s golden 80s era a bit. Well, I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is in fact my favorite band of all time, the kind of favorite band that underlines and anchors so many things I love about metal as a whole. Having another chance to see them before their soon impending retirement is not something that I take lightly — I’m very well aware that this could be the last time I get to see the mighty Maiden, and the fact that Houston gets the final tour date is all the more sweeter. When I first heard the news, it buoyed me for the rest of the workday and beyond, I felt giddy and wanted the show to be that night. I actually hadn’t listened to Maiden in a good many months but that day I went home and watched a few Maiden DVDs and had flashes of the rush I experienced upon seeing them live for the very first time. This is a purely self-centered addition to this list, but I think deep down, I’m anticipating this show more than any actual albums this year.

 

Darkthrone – TBA: I loved Circle the Wagons and quite frankly, can’t understand the animosity some fans feel towards the past few Darkthrone releases. Is it really all that far removed from the band’s 90’s pure black metal output? It still sounds like Darkthrone to me, albeit a bit more experimental in some areas (see “Circle the Wagons”, “These Treasures Will Never Befall You”) — and much to the chagrin of those who dislike the newer stuff, Fenriz has mentioned offhandedly that the newer material will echo the aforementioned songs. I view it as a welcome stylistic shift, I love those songs, as well as the rest of that record. I’ve checked my I-Tunes count play and see that its my most listened to album in their discography, even over Transilvanian Hunger. Haters be damned, I love new Darkthrone and hope they keep on the track of making the purists mad. I don’t always feel that way about a lot of bands but in this case, the songwriting seems to keep getting better as a result. Full speed ahead Gylve.

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