March Mouthful: Queensryche, Children of Bodom, Tyr and More!

This was sneakily a loaded release calendar these past two months. Because I’ve been playing catch up a little bit after devoting so much attention to the Avantasia album, I was a little late getting to some of the major releases below. The following reviews compilation doesn’t even cover the full extent of my listening because there’s stuff that popped up on my radar, surprised me (like the Dream Theater record), but I had to just make a note of and intend to get back to later. Maybe I don’t need to listen to these albums as much as I do in order to review them, but I feel its the only way I can tell whether I really like or dislike something. Records aren’t movies, where you have a pretty good indication right away, or at least I don’t. Do movie critics watch movies over and over before issuing reviews on them? You know what, I’m rambling, its really early right now and I haven’t had coffee. So I’ll go get coffee, you probably already have coffee so keep reading below. Danke.


Beast In Black – From Hell With Love:

Perhaps the quickest power metal related success story since Sonata Arctica landed on the scene in 1999 and captivated the world, Finland’s Beast In Black are the subject of vitriolic scorn and some heated debate as to whether or not they can be called power metal at all. I try to stay away from those debates, other than to play devil’s advocate likely to the annoyance of the folks in the r/PowerMetal Discord community. Along with Sabaton, these guys provoke the biggest debates about what exactly defines power metal, with the implication being that their pop friendly productions move them into the realm of something called “arena metal”. Now I’m not naive, I know what that description is trying to get at, and I kind of agree with that argument to a certain extent, but mostly I think power metal fans (even you diehards that will scowl at reading this) should own all the tendencies of our favorite subgenre, shiny Max Martin-esque production warts and all. Why can’t power metal be both Blind Guardian, Pharaoh, and even Sabaton and Beast In Black? Why can’t there exist regional variants of power metal like the style of bands that are coming out of Italy as opposed to the tremendous resurgence we’re hearing out of American and Canadian bands? I believe that Judicator and Visigoth are power metal, they might just be better described as USPM in terms of a better genre label, as opposed to Ancient Bards who are definitely cut from the more flamboyant, cinematic Italian power metal cloth. This is the best time for power metal overall since its original glory era of 97-03, and that we’re even having debates like this is a good thing, because for awhile there the lack of new bands was really concerning.

Moving on from genre definitions just for a minute (!), one thing we can perhaps all agree on is that Beast In Black do what they do extremely well. Their sound from their first album to this one is a glossy, high production sheen coated focus on ultra catchy songwriting and wild, flying guitar solos. Vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos is a big part of why this band gets thrown in the power metal discussion, because his is a silken smooth voice that is capable of Narcis like highs yet also a gritty, almost Sebastian Bach-ian styled hard rock voice. His versatility is scary good, the kind of voice that could likely pinch hit for a number of power metal bands and melodic rock bands. He had more vocalist in the spotlight moments on their debut album Berserker, cuts like “Blind and Frozen” and the excellent ballad “Ghost In the Rain” where he took over entire songs on his own. On the new album he’s a little more restrained, leaning more towards meshing with the rest of the band in a deliberate move to a more 80s hard rock sounding direction. Ah that by now familiar tendency of power metal bands over the course of the last fifteen years —- but in the case of Beast In Black, its really the best move they could’ve made.

The retro 80s vibe comes in the increased usage of keyboard melody driven songs like “Cry Out For A Hero”, where a fast paced, unrelenting Jim Steinman-esque piano line sets the tempo underneath group vocal hooks. On the mid-tempo, hushed strut of “Die By the Blade”, we see the band channeling a keyboard riff that screams Van Halen or even Europe circa 1985, only to erupt in a chorus Hammerfall would feel comfortable with. Then there’s “True Believer”, which could’ve been on one of the Rocky or Karate Kid soundtracks were it not for the heavy production gloss, its the kind of song you’d expect from Power Quest (and that sentiment alone should speak volumes). Speaking of Rocky, the band actually covers “No Easy Way Out” from the Rocky IV soundtrack, as iconic an eighties song they could’ve picked, and they stay faithful to the original because why change something that’s already tailor made for your band? But lets not get lost in the 80s, because on “Sweet True Lies”, we’re hit over the head with some “baby babys” in a style that owes its inspiration to the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync (that Max Martin style coming back into play). Its an insidious song, in the most charming and ingratiating manner possible, a tune that will lodge itself in your cortex and you’ll be alright with that level of helplessness. There’s nothing really deep on this record, and the band doesn’t seem to exude a desire to head in that direction anytime soon. I’m okay with that, because this is who they are, and while I’m not going to champion them in particular, I’ve had a ton of fun listening to this thing and will likely continue to whenever I need a giant dose of the silly.

Rotting Christ – The Heretics:

My relationship to Greece’s Rotting Christ has been one defined by initial disregard, a lengthy absence, pleasant surprise and disappointment. That moment of surprise occurred with 2013’s irritatingly titled Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, which was one of my favorite albums of that year and still an album I’ve gone back to since on occasion. I skipped reviewing 2016’s Rituals, largely because I was so disappointed upon listening to it and hearing the band veer away from the more creatively melodic direction they explored on its predecessor and didn’t want to expend any further listening time to it at that moment. I did eventually go back to it and found it had a few gems tucked away (“Devadevam” is its absolute highlight) but my overall opinion still stood, it was a letdown relatively speaking. At some point I saw them live for the first time, opening for Mayhem and Watain here in Houston, and their setlist was geared towards those band’s crowds, leaning hard towards their death metal spectrum and further away from the weird folk/world music elements that I really wanted to hear. It was kind of a disappointment —- the smell of a rotting pig’s head from backstage didn’t help matters either (for real it was gag inducing). Suffice to say I was only mildly curious when I saw a new Rotting Christ record on the release schedule for late February.

This is one of those cases where I don’t think expectations or anticipation really affected my opinion of this record when I first started listening to it nearly a week ago, because I simply know what I wish to hear from this band. And to my delight, Rotting Christ have delivered exactly that on The Heretics, an album that bristles with creative songwriting, and clean toned riffs set to inventive rhythmic structures. Its all encased in a sonic palette that grabs hold of everything from spoken word vocal passages, Guns N’ Roses esque solo-ing, chanted choral arrays, and hypnotic percussion that often operates at its own tempo schedule, heedless of the pace of the other instruments. The stellar cut “Heaven And Hell And Fire” is a vivid example of almost all of these elements, and I just love the interplay between the rollicking drum patterns and in and out guitar slashing during the 2:27-3:04 moment after which a gloriously explosive solo rockets outward. There’s a sense of spatial awareness here that few bands ever really grasp, and Jens Bogren’s mixing job is fantastic for finding a way to not only preserve that aspect, but to seemingly fixate on ensuring that it comes through. My personal favorite is “Vetry zlye”, where Russian vocalist Irina Zybina blankets the song with a gorgeous (I’m guessing here) Greek lyric that reminds me a bit of Eluveitie in the best possible sense. On the more brutal end of the spectrum, “The Voice of the Universe” quakes with the unrelenting pounding of Themis Tolis martial percussive attack, and weirdly enough they’re almost working as the musical hook for the song. His natural interplay with his brother, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Sakis Tolis can’t be understated, because this kind of perfect, in lock-step sync just doesn’t happen with any drummer/guitarist pair. Maybe the best compliment I can offer The Heretics is that sometimes I feel like I’m listening to a lost Therion album, and I love that.

Traveler – Traveler:

The newest entrant into the North American pantheon of trad/power metal revivalists, Calgary’s Traveler hews the same path as their fellow Canadian’s in Cauldron, albeit juiced up with more NWOBHM git up and go speed. This is one of those rare times when I was in on the ground floor relatively speaking, having this promo pointed out by one of the powerful. a power metal podcast folks a few months ago —- a debut album that is arriving with a noticeable amount of buzz generated from their split EP with Finland’s Coronary in the summer of 2018. If you paid attention to the Gatekeeper debut that came out last spring, you’ll hear a striking similarity in Traveler’s vocalist, and that’s because both bands share Jean-Pierre Abboud at the mic. He’s almost a dead ringer for a combination of early Savatage Jon Oliva and Metal Church’s David Wayne, and takes a warts and all approach to his performance in the recording studio. That means that there are the odd bum notes, extra vibrato at the endings of lines, and an overall emphasis on attitude and feel more than technical proficiency, and that’s kind of the best way to go about things for this approach to metal.

The rest of the band strikes the right balance between precision and looseness, with guitarists Matt Ries and Toryin Schadlich creating razor sharp riffs, tight rhythmic density, and the odd dual guitar harmonization that just screams old school Maiden. But whether its the aggro, slightly ahead of the beat bassist and drummer or maybe just an overall production texture, there’s a feeling to Traveler that its all barely held together with the thinnest of threads. The highlight here is “Up to You”, a song that reminds me of High Spirits in its snappy chorus, and its pairing of a slightly off-balance vocal by Abboud and joyfully melodic guitar solos as punctuation marks. There’s also “Starbreaker”, as classic sounding any of these bands in this vein have ever come to sounding like a lost recording from the early 80s NWOBHM wake. From the worn out cassette recording texture present at the intro to the familiar riff progressions that you just seem to know where they’re heading, its a classic sounding song that actually could be a classic just due to how well its executed. I would love this band to cover something like “White Witch” from Savatage’s Hall of the Mountain King, because if there’s anyone that could do it convincingly, its Abboud and company. A crackling, fiery debut for these guys, it’ll be interesting to see if they stay in this lane or more towards something else in the future.

Týr – Hel:

Its been six years since the last Tyr album, kinda eye opening when I seem to remember these guys releasing something every other year or so for nearly a decade it seemed. I think if we’re all being honest though, the band hasn’t had the best track record with album length enterprises either, their best moments scattered across the entirety of their discography. I consider their first two records to the their strongest, and sometimes think that their debut with original vocalist Pól Arni Holm to be their most endearing (if not quite their best). But Heri Joensen is Tyr, his songwriting and vocals that have come to define this band’s unique sound and identity amongst a cluttered metal landscape where invoking viking and Norse imagery is all too commonplace. And despite a pair of major lineup changes (new guitarist, new drummer), the core sound is still as recognizable as ever on Hel, but I think the extended break from releases has done Joensen some good on the inspiration and songwriting front. The new album sees him taking some chances with the Tyr sound, injecting some fresh elements into the mix like the unexpected furious death metal vocals in the album opener “Gates of Hel” (I mean, if there’s any song you add those to, that’s the one). Its got a tight chorus on it too, as in tightly packed and smartly written, the kind of thing that defined some of their more memorable gems from albums past. In fact the first five songs on this tracklisting are genuinely inspired slices of Tyr-ian folk infused power metal, particularly the album highlight “Garmr” where we’re treated to the band’s most addictive song since “Hear the Heathen Call” (from 2009’s By the Light of the Northern Star).

The first stumble here is “Downhill Drunk”, whose title doesn’t inspire confidence unless you’re listening to something like Flogging Molly or some long lost Pogues song. Its not a terrible track, but really doesn’t have much in the way of melodic definition or a discernible hook, one of those tracks that’s just there, taking up space. Far more interesting is the subsequent “Empire of the North”, where a runaway chorus almost gets away from Joensen, but he manages to keep things together due to the strength of some awesome power metal guitar passages and a strong descending vocal hook in the aforementioned refrain. And I mentioned taking chances earlier, and I’m not exactly sure how to describe what’s happening on “Against the Gods” but its weird meshing of a quasi thrashy rhythmic barrage with a truly satisfying hook keeping it just accessible enough is something new and awesome for the band. Its paired up with another rock solid slab in “Fire and Flame” with its juxtaposing uptempo, martial percussion fueled intensity with slightly slower verses, an effect that magnifies a listener’s attention on each aspect. There’s a respectable amount of really excellent material on Hel, the problem is there’s just too much material on the album overall. Its well past an hour and change in length and that practically guarantees that some of it will be subpar, the case in point is the album’s closing package of “Songs of War” and “Alvur Kongur”, the latter of which I hoped to enjoy because I typically do for all their songs written in their native language. Again they’re not bad per say, but they fall flat which is a problem a band this good shouldn’t have. It begs the question on whether Tyr’s ultimate problem in composing albums is having a good sense of quality control and self restraint. I’m guessing no one was in the studio pointing out that maybe a tight 45′ would be better than packing everything that popped out in the writing process into the tracklisting.


Queensrÿche – The Verdict:

I just deleted an opening paragraph for this review because it was sounding too reviewer like and honestly I just can’t with a band like Queensryche. I’ve been listening to them since what, 1994-ish at least (possibly heard “Silent Lucidity” earlier than that, can’t confirm) with varying degrees of fandom/skepticism, including a pretty dark stretch from oh friggin’ 2005-2011. You should all know the backstory by now, realize that Todd LaTorre is the band’s vocalist, and understand that The Verdict is album number three in Queensryche 2.0, or is that 4.0? Does the departure of each original band member herald a new version number? So Chris DeGarmo leaving in ’98 would’ve resulted in 2.0, Geoff Tate getting fired/splitting in 2012 would’ve been 3.0, and now Scott Rockenfield taking a strangely undefined paternal leave that transformed into maybe he’s still in the band ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) is 4.0? Or its just that life is unpredictable and chaotic and here we are, Queensryche in 2019 and kick the Deep Purple version numbers idea to the curb? The major thing is that for the guys who are still here, LaTorre, Michael Wilton, Eddie Jackson and Parker Lundgren —- album three is put up or shut up time not only in the grand scheme of things for their legacy together, but for my patience as a fan who eagerly jumped back onboard after LaTorre joined. My initial enthusiasm for the band’s post-Tate journey definitely masked some critical flaws with their 2013 self-titled debut album (namely those song lengths… this is prog, not punk rock, maybe add a couple solos or something, reprise a chorus or work up a outro… anything?). The follow-up in 2015, Condition Human, was better despite some truly abysmal cover art (The Verdict’s lame attitude filled grim reaper isn’t much better), but in re-listening to it for the first time since that reviewing period, its uneven nature stands out even more now.

Thankfully, just like every band is supposed to hit their stride by their third record, the LaTorre fronted Queensryche has done just that on The Verdict. Oh and believe me this time I’m confident in declaring that, because its being done so in the face of a healthy dose of skepticism that they could pull it off, particularly without Rockenfield behind the kit. The overwhelming thought that runs through my mind in trying to assess this album is that it sounds like the most Rychian Queensryche album since 2003’s semi DeGarmo reunion Tribe, but really hearkens back to threads of Promised Land and even older era classics like Empire and Mindcrime. I know the latter is a lofty one to throw out there, but its the closest sonic profile that informs the songwriting and guitar approach of songs like “Blood of the Levant” and “Man the Machine”, the opening salvo on this album. I wrote in my review for Condition Human that its first two songs were the best one-two opening punch the band had managed in ages, but these two out muscle them like an Urak-hai arm wrestling Frodo. Its something of a minor miracle that we’re hearing a song as inspired as “Blood of the Levant” from these guys, with its perfectly balanced blend of aggressive riffs with eastern tinged guitar melodies. The mid-song pre-solo vocal shift by LaTorre is so strikingly reminiscent of what DeGarmo would write for Tate in the Empire era, a nostalgia blast they’ve never managed before. And the dual harmonized solo from Wilton and Lundgren is excellent, a simple repeating melody that is bright and evocative. It slams right into “Man the Machine”, which combines a slight modern metal stop-start riffing approach to an otherwise classic sounding Queensryche cut. Its propelled along an urgent, insistent guitar figure that leads into a wide open chorus, with LaTorre peppering his performance with well timed sharp highs that remind me of the kind of unpredictable vocal inflections Tate would sometimes veer off into.

LaTorre pulls double duty on this record as well, being a more than competent drummer he stepped in for Rockenfield and honestly did a great job of it, taking care to honor the way their absentee drummer might have approached things on his own. That means there’s a plethora of sonic variety in the drum kit he’s using, and an emphasis on unorthodox fills, rhythmic variations in spots, insistent backbeats, and just an attention to detail that matches Queensryche’s modus operandi. I love the proggy-jazzy cymbal hits in “Light-Years”, one of the album’s stronger cuts because of its gorgeous chorus, laced with not only a stellar vocal from LaTorre, but those all too recognizable backing vocals from Jackson. We’ve seen flashes of him being brought back into the harmony vocal fold over the past two albums, but never in this declarative a fashion, and its something this band has missed for ages now. Surprisingly enough, its Lundgren who might have delivered the album’s absolute gem in “Dark Reverie”, a ballad that brings back memories of “I Will Remember”, built on lone semi-acoustic styled guitar passages and LaTorre’s haunted vocal melodies. This is one of the songs fans will point to when they’re trying to illustrate why The Verdict sounds more like Queensryche than the past however many albums past; because its not just that LaTorre can sound radically similar to Tate quite often, its how these songs just echo and reverberate everything we remembered about this band sounding like. This is Lundgren’s first solo songwriting credit to my knowledge, and its exciting to see him not only emphatically put himself out there, but write something that sounds DeGarmo-ian (the highest compliment I can think of really). I think he and LaTorre seem to understand something intrinsic about what made classic Queensryche sound the way it did, something the rest of the original members were too close to everything to decipher themselves. This isn’t a perfect album, there are a few weaker moments but not many, and no duds(!), but its the most fulfilling album they’ve made in ages. This version of the band has proven themselves with this record, and they’ve gained creative momentum here, lets hope it doesn’t take another four years to capitalize on it.

Children of Bodom – Hexed:

The most surprising aspect of Hexed, Children of Bodom’s jeez, tenth studio album now, isn’t that its actually very strong —- their best since Hatecrew Deathroll easily. Its that months out before even hearing a note of this, I felt myself expecting it to be good, in fact telling others that I think we were all gonna be taken off guard by how good it was. This isn’t like me, and by now you’ve heard me mention how high expectations have perhaps stacked the deck against many an album that I’ve reviewed as a mediocre disappointment, or vice-versa, that an album I’ve had little anticipation for is the one that blows me away and keeps me listening for most of the year. Our psychology clearly isn’t the most complex thing to figure out in matters like this, but I’ve somehow gone metaphysical now with Hexed and power of intention-ed it and myself together in one harmonious, universal, Deepak Chopra approved resonance. Or, maybe its simply that I suspected as much because the band’s last record, 2015’s I Worship Chaos actually had some decent stuff on it that made me feel that the band was slowly finding their way back to their best sonic identity. It still had some of the contaminant of boneheaded chug and industrial-ish wash from their wilderness years (in retrospect that spanned a little more than a decade, yikes), but for the first time in years I didn’t find myself rolling my eyes at what they were doing and hitting repeat.

With Hexed, I find myself void of all snark upon hearing the old school melodic death metal nature of “This Road” and “Under Grass and Clover”, the latter sounding like a lost bonus track from the Something Wild sessions, a sound I’ve wanted to hear represented again for eons now. Its not always about the density of the riffing that makes melodeath so distinctive, its how its written, and Laiho hearkens back to that spirit on that cut and on “Glass Houses”, another full speed banger with little micro dueling solos pitted against Janne Wirman’s ever distinctive keyboard frills. A Hatecrew vibe permeates “Hecate’s Nightmare”, its thick slabs of keyboard tipped riffage building up to a pummeling, grinding back and forth in the refrain that isn’t so much catchy as it is satisfying on a visceral level. So much of Bodom at their best works that way, you’re not looking for pop hooks but just a snappy, crisp sense of controlled, tightly channeled rage and venom. I know that’s a strange sentiment from the guy who could write a dissertation on Power Quest, but despite my barely disguised loathing for meatheaded heavy for heaviness’ sake bands, I still crave a form of heaviness in metal. I just want it to be delivered alongside other interesting musical elements, and that’s why melodeath has always been a beloved subgenre. With Hexed, Children of Bodom have managed to make themselves a part of that fix again, which new age inclinations aside, I can’t honestly say I ever saw happening again.

Nightswimming: Avantasia’s Moonglow

Its been just a little over three years since Tobias Sammet released Ghostlights, an album that stunned me and stayed with me during what turned out to be a darkly turbulent year, enough for me to call it 2016’s album of the year. In my personal Avantasia pantheon, it often tops the Metal Operas as my favorite album of all time (though sometimes when I get nostalgic, dips below them however briefly). It had some bold guest choices on there, with Tobias taking chances on the shaky Geoff Tate, a relatively obscure talent like Herbie Langhans, and Dee Snider (long before his Jasta helmed metallic resurrection) in addition to strong regulars like Jorn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, the great Bob Catley, and of course Michael Kiske. More impressively however, all thirteen of its songs landed knockout punches, each with their own unique sonic identity and sometimes strikingly distinct style —- it was Tobias’ most expertly crafted batch of songs in ages. I was completely surprised, seeing as how my expectations were as low as ever considering my lukewarm appraisal of 2013’s The Mystery of Time (I’ve gone back and listened to it recently, that opinion still stands). I think being surprised when you have low expectations doesn’t necessarily make a good album sound better than it would have had you heard it out of context, but it does make you appreciate whatever’s surprising you more.

With that mind, the opposite can also be true, and it seems to be the case with Moonglow, which has the misfortune of following the impeccable Ghostlights. But I wanna be clear, Moonglow is a good, at times even excellent album that actually distinguishes itself by having its own unique album spanning cohesive sound that seems to originate from its lyrical and thematic concept. That may seem obvious at first, but with post-Metal Opera era Avantasia the styles and songwriting approaches tended to fall into Tobias’ songwriting tropes (for better or worse). Here I’m referring specifically to the “roundness” or softness of the edges on this collection of songs, which largely tend to lack the sharp, hard angles that made up the sheer catchiness of the Ghostlights songs. This works for the better on a song such as album opener “Ghost In The Moon”, where a bouncy Jim Steinman-esque melody is carried along not by the guitars, but rather the rolling piano underneath all the vocal layers. Aside from the post chorus outro, the guitars in this song seem reactive, playing off the vocal melodies, which result in a more rock n’ roll affair than anything close to power metal. Its the album’s most poppy moment, and one of its best because those vocal melodies are simply awesome. The addition of gospel backing vocalists Bridget Fogle, Lerato Sebele, and Alvin Le Bass give the song a sense of joyful enthusiasm and uplifting energy. Tobias has of course used backing vocalists before to great effect (particularly on The Scarecrow trilogy), but this is noticeably different and refreshing.

Likewise I hear this rounded, flowing feel on another standout track, “Moonglow”, where Tobias engages in a duet with Blackmore’s Night vocalist Candice Night. This is one of the smartest guest picks Tobias has nabbed in awhile, eyebrow raising in its reach outside of the metal realm and steering away from obvious choices that we’ve all come to expect. Its a pretty song, again built on piano lines, this time sparsely performed in such a way that conduce a feel appropriate to the nighttime imagery of the song. It strikes me as a cousin to “Sleepwalking” off The Mystery of Time, the dreamlike verses and sunlit choruses for both, but I might love “Moonglow” just a touch more because Night’s vocal approach and clear ringing tone seems particularly suited to Tobias’ power balladry. The background keyboard atmospherics here are something that producers Sascha Paeth and Miro Rodenburg have used often in Avantasia, most notably on songs like “Lost In Space”, “Carry Me Over”, and the aforementioned “Sleepwalking” (basically, the poppier cuts). At this point its something of their production trademark, because you’ll hear variations of it on nearly every band they produce, and it could be tiring if overused (ahem… *stares at Kamelot*), but Tobias’ seems to know when its most effective and when he needs to keep the atmospheric wash at bay.

Similarly the Bob Catley star turn on “Lavender” is another piano driven affair, a drama rich slice of pomp rock that takes a more choral driven approach than his Ghostlights appearance on the masterful “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”. Where the latter was all heart stopping arcing melodies and gut wrenching epic starts and stops, “Lavender” is a rather more subtle tune. The chorus is well defined and appealing, though it lacks a magical transition from the verse/bridge sequence, and you get the feeling that Catley might’ve been underused. He’s a home run hitter, the guy who made “The Story Ain’t Over” such a spectacular why isn’t this on the album fan favorite. I actually like “Lavender” a good deal, and I don’t think its verses nor its chorus are lacking, but I suspect there’s something missing in terms of a powerful buildup, that maybe Tobias misfired when writing the bridge. Its partially redeemed by that magnificent dramatic mid-song detour at the 2:38-3:02 mark, and maybe I’m wrong but if he used that moment just a few more times throughout the song, it might’ve made the difference. Then again, as we’ll see on “The Piper At The Gates of Dawn”, that singular moment might be that much more appealing because of its rarity. In the case of “The Piper…” we’re treated to a magical musical moment at the 5:30 mark, one of the more gorgeous guitar solos on the album and in Avantasia’s history overall. I wish its opening motif were longer, or repeated a few times throughout what is a largely lackluster song, with verses that are strangely devoid of anything musical besides production wash and a drum beat. Its the weakest song on the album, yet has one of its most lovable moments. Strange.

The album’s preview/hype track was the guest vocalist monster “The Raven Child”, which has one of the more gorgeous opening sequences that sees Hansi Kursch and Tobias trade off lines. We got to hear these two together on Ayreon’s majestic “Journey to Forever” a few years ago, and this is spellbinding in similar ways, and a fitting return for Hansi to guest one of Tobias’ songs since his much loved appearance on Edguy’s “Out of Control” way back in the day. His vocal performance on those opening verse sections is the kind of bard-like balladry that we all have come to love him for, particularly in that little “woah-oh-oh” bit towards the end before the big dramatic musical exclamation mark. He and Jorn are a dominating presence on this track, with Tobias serving as the glue guy. Its an album highlight, continuing Tobias’ winning streak of lengthier Jorn-infused epics that will likely be concert staples ala “The Scarecrow”, “The Wicked Symphony”, and “Let The Storm Descend Upon You”. I was also surprised by how much I liked “Starlight”, a song that makes the best use of Ronnie Atkins vocals in a compact, aggressive rocker. I say surprised because I wasn’t that fond of Atkins’ previous solo turn on “Invoke The Machine” off Mystery, so its nice to have my doubts erased as to whether he could deliver as a standalone partner to Tobias. Its also one of the few songs here that really breaks free of that smooth, rounded feel, it being built on urgent tempos and some well timed quiet-loud dynamic shifts.

If I was surprised by Ronnie Atkins, I was reaffirmed by Geoff Tate’s once again excellent performance on a Tobias’ penned tune, because just like his debut on “Seduction of Decay” on Ghostlights, he sounds like his old self on “Invincible”. This is equal parts Tobias being unafraid to write Tate into his higher range that he seems to have avoided in his latter day Queensryche and now Operation: Mindcrime albums, and also just giving him a fully arcing chorus melody that is actually emotionally affecting. And on its direct follow-up track “Alchemy”, Tate sings over a rhythm structure that sits right in that mid-tempo pocket that allowed him to sound so convincing on so many Queensryche gems. The only downside here is that the chorus doesn’t match the intensity of the verses, and ends up feeling a little half-baked, an ugly negative drawback to the rounded, dare I suggest softened approach that yet again makes it presence known here. As far as other songs that suffer a bit in the songwriting department, I wasn’t wild about “Book of Shadows” even though it features Hansi and even Mille Petrozza. Just something about that chorus where it doesn’t seem to get the proper amount of lift under its wings. I do enjoy the contrast of Petrozza’s vocal part, and ultimately I wish he was given a larger role for the album, perhaps a song of his own to kick up the overall heaviness factor a bit. I also liked yet didn’t love the Michael Kiske “Requiem For A Dream”, and its largely due to a remarkable bridge/chorus that makes up for some pretty uninspired verse sections. Tobias has done better with Kiske before, and “Wastelands” is really the benchmark to my ears… unfortunately he didn’t quite get there this time.

I don’t know what to say about the Michael Sembello “Maniac” cover, because we’ve all heard the song before and if you’re like me you always thought it sucked and likely didn’t want one of your favorite artists touching it with a ten foot you know what. But its done, and I hate it and only listened to it long enough for reviewing purposes. I actually really love the bonus track for the deluxe editions in “Heart”, which was written as a tribute to Steve Perry era Journey and sounds the part. The roundness of this album that I’ve been vaguely harping on about throughout the review is both a blessing and a curse, dramatically shaping some songs for the better and hurting others. I think for me personally, this album faced a bit of an unfair uphill battle following up a record I loved so much, but at the end of the day lofty expectations don’t determine whether or not a song feels underwritten or that a chorus lacks some punch. I’ve enjoyed Moonglow for the most part, it has an interesting concept and sonic palette, and I definitely didn’t feel anywhere near the level of discontent as I did with The Mystery of Time. Something I was thinking about earlier was that its going to be well over five plus years since the last Edguy studio album, and having had two Avantasia albums in a row unexpectedly, I find myself longing a bit for his other songwriting side lately. I’d love something shockingly heavy, rollicking, and aggressive in the vein of Mandrake or Hellfire Club, it would be the perfect way to veer in the opposite direction.

Lords of Chaos: The Metal Pigeon Review

I honestly thought about skipping the theatrical release of Lords of Chaos, but when it arrived here on Friday, February 15th at the Alamo Drafthouse for its opening night showing, I figured what the hell. After all in December of 2009 I went to see Until The Light Takes Us at another Alamo Drafthouse, and there’s something about pecan porters and Belgian white ales and black metal films that just goes so well together. I had bought and read the book of course, way back when it first hit American bookstore shelves in the late 90’s and I poured over every page, only later to find out through various sources that a lot of the book was in dispute by those who were its subjects. Mostly Varg, but I recall reading a lot of criticism from the Mayhem camp, as well side figures like Ihsahn, Samoth, and Satyr who seemed to be outside the “inner circle” but close enough to know what was likely true and outright fabrication. As a result, I held a lot of prejudices against the book for quite some time (and to be honest still do), particularly in the overblown sensationalist aspect of propping up satanism as the central theme. I think it was a decade ago plus when we first started hearing that it would be turned into a film, and my primary thought beyond “that will never get made” was that the only way it could be any good is if it departed from the book in a meaningful way and attempted a more honest portrayal.

Cue Jonas Akerlund, probably the only director who was meant to handle a project like this, not only for his very brief stint in Bathory, but for the connection he’s maintained to metal in general even throughout his years directing videos for pop stars. Before the film started, well before the coming attractions, various music videos and strange film shorts by Akerlund were being played on the big screen, including his gritty video for Metallica’s “Turn The Page” and his glossier clip for Lady Gaga’s “John Wayne”. I wondered if they’d show his clip for Satyricon’s “Fuel For Hatred” considering its the only black metal band he’s done one for but no such luck. The Metallica clip was a good reminder of Akerlund’s tendencies though, a stark, unpolished bit of filmmaking through a humanist perspective. Its the struggle of a mom’s transient lifestyle living out of hotel rooms while working at a strip club during the evenings and hooking long after her daughter has gone to sleep. This aggressively hyper-realist perspective also informed his video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, where similarly the very ordinariness of the setting is a character in itself. In Lords of Chaos, there’s a moment when a domineering Varg barks at a young woman to disrobe, and its an uncomfortable, tension filled moment that is anything but sexy. She has a noticeable cyst that Akerlund makes sure viewers see, and the brightly lit room is quiet but for the sounds of a belt buckle hitting the floor after Varg growls “Are you deaf?” as he and Euronymous sit and watch.

This story is filled with ugliness and violence, and filmed without restraint in displaying that to the viewer. There’s the eerily distant manner in which we’re shown Dead’s suicide, without any emotional maneuvering via music, just a stark series of shots that show him sitting on the floor of his room slicing his wrists, forearms, and neck, stumbling to a desk to write a bloody suicide note as he’s gushing all over the place, and finally to his mattress where he sits against the wall, pulls the barrel of a gun to his head and fires without pause. Euronymous finding his body is a similarly disquieting sequence, the kind of reaction that seems rational and entirely illogical at once —- and when we come back to this later in the film, its surprisingly heartbreaking. Akerlund doesn’t glorify violence in the film, in fact his depiction of it is so upsetting that you’re wishing certain scenes didn’t linger as long as they did. When Faust is shown stabbing Magne Andreassen in Lillehammer Park, we seemingly see all 37 strikes he reportedly delivered, and its gruesome and terrible to take in. Worse yet is the final confrontation between Varg and Euronymous, a scene that is far more upsetting than I expected it to be, made worse not only for the sheer bloodiness, but for the senselessness of the whole thing. Akerlund’s style adds grit and grounding to all these depictions —- there are no action shots, nothing is remotely stylized, instead we get a single cam feel of someone simply recording actual violence happening mere feet from the lens. Its utterly disturbing.

All my reservations about the choice of cast and the decision to have them speak in English without any Norwegian accents in their speech were dispelled in the film’s first twenty minutes, when Rory Culkin’s surprisingly fantastic portrayal of Euronymous does the unlikely trick of charming the audience. I’m being serious. You can’t help but like Euronymous in this film, and I suspect that’s on purpose for the audience to forge some emotional connection onto a central character for plot purposes, but at the same time, you get the feeling that Øystein Aarseth hid a relatively decent person beneath the thick layers of angst, disaffection, and petulant jealousy. Akerlund splices in seemingly minor details to illustrate the point: Øystein’s affection for his little sister when she’s helping him color his hair black; his apparent love for a local kebab place he frequents so much that he knows the owner by name; laying on the couch next to his dad when his mother calls dinner (“spaghetti bolognese!”); the humorous exchange with a Norwegian postman he respectfully addresses; his relationship with girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira) where he allows for insecurity and vulnerability; and of course a handful of scattered moments where he attempts to deescalate the fallout resulting from his own provocations. Culkin nails playing both Øystein and Euronymous, his performance filled with subtlety in depicting what makes this young man essentially two personalities that sometimes merge, but in the films more emotionally resonant moments, repel away from one another in mutual disgust.

The casting turned out to be one of the film’s strongest aspects, with authentic feeling supporting turns from all the members of the inner circle, particularly Emory Cohen as Varg. I admit to feeling a moment of hesitation when he first appeared on screen, a dorky metalhead in a jean jacket with a Scorpions patch (man the Scorps got dragged through the mud in this movie) who gets the cold shoulder by an unimpressed Euronymous. But I quickly remembered that the earliest photos of Vikernes himself are pretty much exactly that, Akerlund did his homework here. Cohen’s presence gradually ebbs from uncertain and insecure to disturbingly confident, certain, and possessed. Vikernes will not be happy with his portrayal, but in reading interviews with Akerlund, most of the depictions came from knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources (in other words, not just the book), with the director citing Vikernes’ own statements as part of their source material. Vikernes has turned into an idiosyncratic narcissist in his later years as a YouTube celebrity, spreading his hate and racist diatribes for any impressionable goon to lionize, but he’s also been very specific about his perception of events and the way things went down, and to his chagrin, the film takes him at his word. There was no way for a guy like Vikernes to be portrayed as a hero, even when he’s telling Euronymous in the middle of a church they’re about to burn about what pagan sites stood at that spot before the Christians came. Remember this film screened at Cannes and Sundance, scores of non-metal audiences have seen this film who know nothing about black metal or its history or relevance —- they could probably see his point during that particular moment, he’s getting retribution in some way, but even that can’t redeem him from coming across as a maniacal sociopath.

This is ultimately a story about a group of young men and teenagers in a pre-internet world who become so involved with their own uniquely defined subculture that they began to get in over their heads in their attempts to stage rebellion against the traditional Christian Norwegian society they’ve grown up in. Within that framework, its a deeper story about the bonds of friendship and the forces that cause them to wither and tear apart. Akerlund juxtaposes Øystein’s strange but comradely kinship with Per Ohlin (Dead) versus his slowly decaying alliance with Varg, the former featuring some of the film’s best laughs (there are a few) while the latter crackles with a barely restrained tension. Euronymous cuts as mysterious and ambiguous a character onscreen as he seems to in black metal history where multiple accounts differ as to just who he was as Øystein. Watching the film, his likability was a strange thing for me to admit at first, because I could easily see why so many considered him egotistical, jealous and manipulative. In that respect he’s a mirror image of who Varg becomes, and two of those personalities could not co-exist in one clique. Despite that, there were hints at redemption for him —- subtle things that suggest he cares for his friends, worries over their well-being (even if that means at the expense of others), he even seems to know when its time to distance himself from everything altogether. I didn’t anticipate feeling a tinge of sadness at the end, but I did.

Now that Lords of Chaos is out in theaters, and those who hoped it would never be made have to live with its nagging presence, I hope most metal fans put aside their reservations and give it a shot. Its not a perfect film, there’s some awfully corny dialogue at times, the music is severely neglected, and some people might be put off by its schizophrenic shifts in tone. Yet despite those things, I think it should be stressed that the more people check this out and support it the more likely it is that we can have future metal related films, be they documentaries or biopics like this. All the criticism the recent Bohemian Rhapsody biopic received for being selective with the truth seems deserved, but they can’t level quite the same thing at Lords of Chaos. The former is a band approved vanity project aimed squarely at propagating their own magnificence with an audience that’s likely sympathetic at worst and die-hard fans at best. Akerlund’s film is an entirely different beast however, non-metal audiences don’t learn about why black metal is unique, how or why its different from death metal, they barely even get to hear what Mayhem sounds like —- instead they get a deeply disturbing, saddening tale that offers no answers in the way of virtue or morality. For us as metal fans who’ve known this story for seemingly ever now, we get a visualization of a slice of history we weren’t privy to ourselves. Let me be clear —- none of these guys were heroes or martyrs and don’t deserve to be treated as such, but its our history, we’re responsible for documenting it properly and processing it. Akerlund never stopped being a metal fan, and to the extent that Lords of Chaos is a fellow metalhead’s interpretation of this grim story, we should support it with the same enthusiasm we muster for new music or live shows, regardless of its Hollywood fingerprints.

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

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


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

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

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

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


Soilwork – Verkligheten:

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

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

Helevorn – Aamamata:

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

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

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

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

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

Within Temptation – Resist:

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

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

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

Things I Missed + Non-Metal Music Stuff

Hey everyone, back from a self-imposed break I purposefully wanted to take in starting start off 2019. I’ve given my ears a long layover from the release calendar grind and indulged in things I missed throughout last year (recommended to me by our two guests on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind episode and elsewhere). I think its a nigh impossible task for anyone to stay on top of everything, and one of the things that podcast demonstrated was just how many different directions all four of us spiraled off to listening wise. The resulting handful of recommendations below is a wildly diverse variety of approaches to metal, and I’ve tried to avoid going into review mode here so hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to just give them a shot on your own. And then there’s a handful of non-metal recommendations I’ve included as a bit of a bonus, the stuff I listened to last year to cleanse my musical palette after too much metal. I’ve only once written something about non-metal music here on the blog, an ignored review for the soundtrack to the PS3 game Journey. I’ve always wanted to write more about the non-metal side of what I listen to, because its a wide variety of stuff, but have feared scaring away readers or just confusing things. This seems like the perfect time and post to include some of that stuff, and hopefully someone will get something out of it (let me know in the comments below if you do!). For those that are wondering, new 2019 reviews are coming soon, including some major names early in the year —- thanks for reading!


Stuff I Missed in 2018


Harakiri For The Sky – Arson:

Introduced and recommended by Justin on the aforementioned MSRcast episode, my first taste of this strangely named Austrian two piece post-black metal band came that night during our recording session when we played two tracks from it before recording. I’m not normally into this kind of stuff, but I think Harakiri’s emphasis on riffery is a big part of why I’m slowly getting addicted to this album. While I can’t pinpoint individual songs yet, I find the entire record immersive in that deep, background kinda way, something that you hear reveal itself when you’re multitasking doing something else. I’ve seen Insomnium used as a touchstone in describing this album so often in various reviews that its reaching cliche status but its also incredibly spot on. They don’t crank up the sweetness on the melodic side of things in the same melodeath way the Finns do, but they apply the same principles of songwriting to strikingly different effect. This has been a big chunk of my soundtrack to the last few weeks during my little break, and while I haven’t investigated anything else they’ve done in the past yet, I will be making a point to move onto their back catalog soon.

1914 – The Blind Leading The Blind:

Recommended to me by Cary the Metal Geek, the Ukranian 1914 are newcomers by metal standards, this being their sophomore album a scant three years after their debut. They’re an intriguing band on a number of levels, the first being their absolutely stone faced committment to the lyrical and visual theme of World War I. Metal bands like Sabaton have made a career of exploring historical themes before, but 1914 deep dive into this history exclusively, focusing on the sheer brutality and carnage of that conflict with its introduction of mechanization and trench warfare in a way that is far more explicit than anything Joakim Broden would dare touch. Then there’s their blending of death metal riffs with an affinity for black metal’s sense of grandeur, often set to blistering tempos but just as often slowed down in doomy fashion to emulate the grinding march of slow moving machinery. There are a number of carefully chosen sound effects, samples, and audio dialogue interspersed throughout to conjure an atmosphere that is weirdly anachronistic. That coupled with fresh, fearless extreme metal songwriting that doesn’t care about subgenre rules and boundaries has made this one of my most listened to “missed” albums of 2018, one that everyone owes it to themselves to check out. Better late than never.

Elderwind – The Colder The Night:

I believe it was one of the guys in the r/PowerMetal Discord that recommended Elderwind to me, catching my attention with a description that was somewhere along the lines of “Wintersun meets Summoning”. And yeah, that’s about spot on, because we could simplify Elderwind as atmospheric black metal, but there’s a ton of stuff in that specific subgenre that sounds nothing like this. What informs The Colder The Night (so glad the band translated the title from the original Russian for the benefit of everyone) is a transcendent sense of tranquility and celebratory uplift, something I could easily hear associated with Wintersun and their similar use of keyboard heavy melodies and atmospherics. The band’s obvious debt to Summoning with their commitment to epic scope and meditative, hypnotic tempos are heard throughout, but unlike fantasy literature based themes, Elderwind write almost exclusively about nature and its ability to inspire and cause inward reflection. Actually, the album art here is as spot on a visual interpretation of Elderwind’s music as you can imagine, a still lake, clear skies to see the stars, and some travelers warming themselves by a fire to ward off the night chill. When the “super blood wolf moon” eclipse occurred last week, I had this record on my headphones as I stood outside in the cold staring up. It was mental insulation.

In The Woods… – Cease The Day:

This was a surprise to many of us at MSRcast / Metal Geeks, a release that not only impressed all of us who were on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind, but also George Tripsas of the Metal Geeks podcast (he the subject of that show’s George Hates Metal segment). Anything that swayed George had to be worth a further look, so I did, and I’ll admit that the surprisingly lengthy history of this Norwegian band was unknown to me. They started way back in 1991, with members of another storied gothic metal band you may or may not have heard of called Green Carnation (whom I’ve been told I need to check out as a Sentenced fan). No matter, the album we’re concerned with right now is Cease The Day, a progressive blackened doom album with a mix of Grutle Kjellson-ian harsh vocals and Dan Swano-esque clean singing. At times I’m even reminded of classic late 90s, early 2000s Opeth in parts, because similarly to Akerfeldt, these guys aren’t afraid of pushing melodies and harmonies up front in the mix. There’s an intelligence and thoughtfulness to the songwriting too, and on cuts like “Cloud Seeder” the band wisely knows when to strip things back to just a meaty, rockin’ riff. One of the most surprising, out of left field records that sailed under my radar last year.

Temperance – Of Jupiter And Moons:

Italy’s Temperance are one of those non-guilty pleasures, an unabashedly melodic power metal band that owes equal parts to their bombastic countrymen in Rhapsody as they do to vocal heavy Avantasia or Amaranthe. That they’re not quite a cross section of those bands is also testament to their ability to stand apart on their own songwriting strengths. There’s three singers here, guitarist/songwriter Marco Pastorino, and two solo lead vocalists in Michele Guaitoli and Alessia Scolletti, and they carry these songs on their backs. This is the kind of band that you simply have to love vocal melodies and ear candy to enjoy, because even though things are suitably metallic around them and the odd beefy riff cuts through their velvety cloth, its a vocalists showcase for sure. This album came out back in April of last year, and it was introduced to me just a few weeks ago when the folks in the aforementioned r/PowerMetal Discord were cobbling their best of lists together. There was a lot of interesting stuff popping up from various lists that I hadn’t heard yet, and some of it I really liked (shout out to the Guardians of Time record!), but I kept coming back to Temperance in particular for the sheer fun of it.


Non-Metal Stuff

After I cobbled together this list of non-metal recommendations, it dawned on me that all the artists I chose were women or in the case of Chvrches, a band fronted by a woman. I’m not entirely sure why that is, and I’m just realizing it now but I guess its safe to say that my non-metal music listening tends to lean this way a lot. I’m not against listening to a guy in this context, and many of the regular “rock” stuff I listen to falls into that category (Weezer, Wilco, and many other bands that don’t start with a “W” for that matter). Maybe its needing to seek a balance after listening to metal which is largely male dominated, or perhaps its simply coincidence that these awesome artists happened to be women. I’m open to further non-metal recommendations, lady or guy oriented.

Chvrches

Sometime in the mid to late 90s, as I was in the blossoming of an underground metal fandom, I also had friends who didn’t listen to metal or even rock at all. Through hanging out with them I was introduced wide-eyed to electronic music of all stripes, particularly when one of them made me a copy of both volumes of the Hackers soundtrack. I soon began making the odd purchase here and there, Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works, Paul Oakenfold, Orbital, Chicane, and even though its half-electronic the entire back catalog of pop masters Saint Etienne. It was all music that complemented my metal listening, even though I might not have realized it at the time, because I didn’t mention most of it to my metal loving friends. I’ve dropped in and out of that world as far as exploration goes over the years, there was always too much metal to listen to and not enough time. But two years ago I finally clicked on a Chvrches video that YouTube was recommending for me(!) when I was deep in a nostalgia trip and listening to BT’s “Remember”. I had seen the name so often throughout the past few years and always thought its spelling was some indie-rock band stealing a bit from metal culture so I would scoff and ignore it.

It was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, because my simple aversion to a name (which I quite like now) nearly kept me from music that I now can’t do without. Chvrches are considered synth-pop as a simple genre tag, but to me they hearken back to what I loved about listening to electronic music in the 90’s, conjuring up that sense of futurism and looking at the world through a science fiction sheen tint. But its singer Lauren Mayberry’s crystalline vocals and skill at penning unforgettable vocal melodies that really pulled me in. Her two bandmates handle the electronics, creating stripped back electronic beds that pulse, shake, and shimmer in some Tokyo-esque fever dream of sound, but Lauren’s voice is simultaneously capable of sounding robotic and utterly human. I love all three of their albums, the latest one having been released in 2018, and I could easily have picked a song from any of them to post above as a sampler. I listened to the new album while driving around Austin in the middle of the night after last May’s Orphaned Land / Tyr concert there, half delirious with exhaustion and euphoria, it was the perfect tonic for the moment, and it soundtracked a lot of last year for me. But I’ve chosen my all-time favorite Chvrches song, “Leave A Trace”, from their 2015 sophomore record, because its the quintessence of everything I love about this band.

Florence and the Machine

I think there’s a lot of pop music out there that metal fans would appreciate mainly because of a shared depth in artistry, musicality, and sheer thoughtfulness in the songwriting. This is probably not news to some of you, but I know people who only listen to metal exclusively, and while I applaud their dedication, I wonder how they can only experience life in that one (admittedly very wide) musical/emotional spectrum. I have no idea where I stumbled onto Florence and the Machine some many years ago, but this band has been a salve that I reapply again and again when I need to feel something else. The emotional spectrum in this case can run the gamut of euphoria, deep affirmation, or as in the case of the gorgeous song above, ache and longing that only a voice like Florence Welch’s can conjure up. That her vocals are adorned with a kaleidoscope of rich musicality is what makes her music transcendent, and not just merely pleasing to the ear.

I went to see Florence and the Machine at the Woodlands Pavilion back in September, it was my first time getting to see her live. The “Machine”, her band that is pretty much stayed in one position on the stage, not drawing attention to themselves. Not being used to pop shows, that took a little getting used to, although to be fair some metal bands are cardboard cutouts on stage too. Florence on the other hand, was captivating to watch, seemingly constantly in motion while never sounding fatigued or out of breath. Her voice live rings right through your chest, she might have been one of the most powerful vocalists in a performance setting that I’ve ever seen. At one point she ran through the aisles in the crowd, passing within mere yards of me when she leaned against one of the pavilion support pillars next to our section. She was singing “What Kind of Man”, a horn punctuated rock anthem, and she somehow made the circuit around the amphitheater in the span of that three and half minutes. She told short quips about why she wrote some songs, politely asked in charming British humor if everyone could put away their phones (and they did!), and she played my favorite song off the new album, the one I posted above, and everyone forgot to breathe for five minutes.

Neko Case

I’ve been listening to Neko Case for awhile now, ever since I got a promo of Blacklisted way back in 2002 sometime. Think of a dark, alt-country Tori Amos without all the piano and you’re somewhere near the ballpark —- the truth is her voice is incomparable and unmistakable once you’ve heard it. That she writes such mellifluous songs with strange, evocative lyrics is what makes her a transcendent artist. Her music is warm toned, with a perfect balance of rustic, loose, live instrumentation and incredible richness in mixing and production. I’ve enjoyed every one of her albums, some more than others, case in point being my belief that she’ll never top 2009’s Middle Cyclone. The song I posted above is actually a cover of a Crooked Fingers song that was famously covered by The National and St. Vincent. On Neko’s version, she duets with its original songwriter, ‘Finger’s own Eric Bachmann in a stripped down version that swaps guitar for spare piano. If you’ve heard those previous two versions, you’ll know just how much Neko’s interpretation (and to his credit, Bachmann’s own performance on it) far surpasses them. Her instincts in knowing that piano would resonate more than formless acoustic guitar, and just how to handle the vocal layering in their duet to steep it in her musical world is genius. The result is a song that’s a sonic portrait of loneliness and heartbreak, awash in nostalgia that would make even Steven Wilson proud.

Sarah Brightman

Where to start here, and how to possibly keep this brief? I’ve been a huge, huge admirer of Sarah Brightman ever since an EMI rep gifted me with a free copy of her La Luna record way back in 2000 (and a promotional candle I still have #fanboy). She’s known for the eternal classic “Time To Say Goodbye” and for her role in the 80’s run of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, but I love her for her solo career that began in 1993. She has throughout her solo discography released thematic albums; the aquatic Dive, futuristic Fly, the classical London Symphony accompanied Timeless, the Italian aria steeped Eden, the lunar imagery of La Luna, the Middle-Eastern musical influence on Harem, a Gothic tinge on Symphony, the nostalgia-space race informed Dreamchaser, and last year’s spirituality informed Hymn. You get the idea. The themes are guides, not rails she has to cling to, so they might inform the lyrics, some of the music here and there, and certainly the photography and imagery of the album artwork (right up a metal fan’s alley). They make every release intriguing to dive into, but her evergreen angelic vocal ability and the influence of her longtime producer Frank Petersen (of Enigma/Gregorian fame) ensure that her sonic world is familiar and comforting.

Her new album is interesting in that its a purposeful throwback to her 1997 era, a classically drenched album that even revisits “Time To Say Goodbye”, this time slowed down and with the lyrics in complete English to really understand the sadness inherent in a song that most people think of as triumphant. She’s said in interviews regarding this album that it was a purposeful response to the bleakness of the emotional state of the world at the moment. She sought to return some of that lightness and euphoria back to her sound, which admittedly can run all across the emotional spectrum (her vocal hue often masks some really forlorn lyrics, think ABBA). I know some of you will back away slowly after reading this recommendation, but I think part of the reason I love Sarah’s work so much is the depth and artistry that informs the songs she chooses to sing, and as later in her career, the ones she helps to co-write. That and she practically defines the word epic, an aspect of metal I’m quite sure we all love. To that end, some of the most powerful moments of her musical catalog are gorgeously cinematic, stirring with such orchestral swell and grandeur that its enough to give you a knot in your throat. Even if the lyric she’s singing at the moment seems remote to you personally, her voice brings you to wherever she wants you to be with her, and you are powerless to fight it.

Loreena McKennitt

One of my oldest friends introduced me to Loreena McKennitt in 1997, when he bought her Book of Secrets album and I heard it at his house and was transfixed. For my younger self, that album was the first foray into buying non rock/pop music, but also the opening of a window to a larger world of cultural music that I’d quickly grow to love. Its an oversimplification to say that Loreena McKennitt is Celtic music, as she’s so often tagged in anything written about her. She’s interested in the history of the Celts and how their music has changed throughout history, but also of those other cultures they came into contact with. Her sound then is a mix of far ranging cultures all tethered together with the strength of her haunting voice. Case in point is the song posted above from last year’s Lost Souls, where subtle Spanish rhythms and acoustic guitar styles inform a rustic string led ballad. It was her first studio album in eight years, and although I’d rather not have near decade long waits for new music from her, its somewhat par for course with the way she works. Loreena actually travels to a range of countries and regions for research, and she gives you a taste of this in the diary entries she often places excerpts from in her liner notes, each entry from some wildly vivid locale. I’m pretty sure I read every single bit of the Book of Secrets liner notes a few times over, and to this day, its one of my favorite albums of all time full stop, I’d recommend starting there but you can’t go wrong with any of her stuff.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part Two: The Albums

This was undoubtedly the most difficult to narrow down year-end albums list I’ve ever had to put together. It involved whittling down a sizable nominee pool to the final ten, the last spot of which I must’ve switched out well over a dozen times, constantly rethinking myself out of making a final decision. As I’ve always done, I prefer to only list and discuss what I think were the ten best songs and albums in these lists, not my top 25 or 50 or more that some other sites do. I think sticking to a tight ten forces you to really think about what you listened to the most over the year, and more importantly what really blew you away instead of merely satisfied you. Albums that I really enjoyed at various points throughout the year aren’t here, not because they’ve fallen out of favor, but simply because there were other amazing releases crowding the field. It was a great year to be a metal fan. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed with this list! 

1.   Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs:

In a year packed full of remarkable new albums by newcomers and veterans alike, a few of which would’ve been able to top a year-end list at any other time, Orphaned Land’s conceptual Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs towered above them all —- and it wasn’t ever close. After I penned my original glowing review of the album, I wondered if its extremely early release date (January 26th) would’ve eroded my enthusiasm for it as the year wore on. Whenever that question would pop up at random times many months later, I’d give the album a spin and would have those doubts immediately erased. I even gave myself a wide berth from the band after seeing them live for the first time ever in Austin at a spellbinding show on their May tour with Týr and Aeternam, thinking that the intoxication surrounding that experience (and repeated listening thru their entire catalog) would’ve clouded my judgment. Yet even after that level of precaution; when I sit here now in December and consider everything I’ve listened to over the year, and think about the nine other records that made the cut out of the nominee pool, I can honestly say that I’ve never been as confident as I am right now about declaring that this is the unquestionable album of the year.

Here Orphaned Land leans harder than ever before into the incorporation of Middle-Eastern folk melodies and instrumentation, infusing it in every song, weaving it not only through moments of delicate beauty but around their most pummeling, aggression laden riffs. The result is their most perfect, most fully realized recording to date, a flawless fusion of those two disparate worlds of sound. The songs are wildly diverse in style, tempo, and structure, the melodies lush and vibrant, and Kobi Farhi turns in the most inspired vocal melodies and performances of his career. He also delivers some of his angriest lyrics ever, but smartly channels everything through the compelling concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, giving narrative shape and structure to what is ostensibly an anguished protest album. The co-MVPs here might be guitarists Chen Balbus and new guy Idan Amsalem; who together not only erase any worries over the departure of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, but put their stamp all over this album, unleashing waves of creative guitar and expressive bouzouki. The band also wisely chose to carry over from All Is One the use of an extensive supporting ensemble of choir singers, Middle Eastern percussionists and string players. It sounds like a lot. It sounds like it could be a mess in the wrong hands, but Orphaned Land has this music in their DNA. Their greatest strength is in knowing how to write songs that incorporate Middle Eastern folk melody as an integral, structural foundation of their music as opposed to mere window dressing. 

2.   Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

It’s not the time nor place to go into it here, but when I do eventually attempt to make my case in writing that we’re in the midst of a truly inspired global power metal resurgence in these past couple years, albums like Visigoth’s Conqueror’s Oath will be part of the bedrock on which I build my argument. Part of why I’ve found myself paying far more attention to newer power metal bands coming out of the States and Canada is their tendency to unabashedly wrap their arms around the genre’s traditions and tropes both, almost reveling in their over the top nature and yearning for epic storytelling (such as last year’s album of the year Apex by Unleash the Archers). Visigoth simplified their approach for their sophomore record, leaning harder in the Manilla Road / Manowar / Virgin Steele direction, and the result is the most outwardly joyful record of the year. It was also my most played album throughout the year, just perma-lodging itself in my playlist for those daily commutes to work, the long drive to the other side of Houston for gigs, and on the old headphones while ambling through the grocery store. Songs like “Warrior Queen” are full of inventive twists amidst the trad-and-true, glory claw raising thunder, and “Blades In The Night” is the kind of perfect, anthemic magic you wish more power metal bands could manage to achieve. You know an album is awesome when it makes waiting for your oil change to finish a pleasure.

3.   Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

I’m prepared now to expect the unexpected with Thrawsunblat, who chose to follow up 2016’s year end list making Metachthonia with this all acoustic album, the decision itself being somewhat eyebrow raising. That it wasn’t an album full of maritime balladry ala “Maritime Shores”/”Goose River” from their first album was perhaps the bigger surprise, because guitarist-vocalist Joel Violette seemed to be a natural at that style. Instead he and drummer Rae Amitay (also of Immortal Bird fame) worked up songs that were strikingly aggressive, uptempo, and energetic yet still woodsy, rustic, and incense smoke scented. Things veer from the lush prettiness of the title track to the anthemic spirituality of song of the year listee “Via Canadensis” to the violent, furious roil of “Thus Spoke The Wind”, where Violette and Amitay employ tremolo riffing and blastbeat accented percussion —- on acoustic instruments remember! This was a clever, inspired re-imagining of what folk metal could be, an expansion of the very definition of the genre. More than that however, it was a personal sounding album that echoed with strains of the northeastern Canadian folk music that inspired it.

4.   Therion – Beloved Antichrist:

For many, Therion’s massive, three-disc spanning opera (like, an actual opera!) Beloved Antichrist was an immediate write off. I’m almost positive that the majority of folks who managed to take the step of listening through its entirety the one time never went back to it, and most never got past hearing a single track on YouTube or Spotify, and hey, I get it. As I remarked in my massively deep diving review for this project back in February, few Therion fans were happy about the band taking a half decade plus leave of absence for this project. Understandably, they might’ve been a tad less forgiving than usual when initially hearing the thing, and at first I wasn’t either —- that is until I switched my mindset to okay, I’m listening to the soundtrack to a stage performance, not a metal album mode that I was finally able to begin appreciating what Therion had achieved here. There are a heap of musical treasures within this thing, moments I came back to throughout the year repeatedly (“To Shine Forever” landed on the best songs list). I do think one’s enjoyment of it hinges on whether you can appreciate not just classical music, but opera as a musical form itself. I had to check myself and make sure my Therion fanboy wasn’t showing in putting this so high on this list, but sure enough, it was one of my most played through albums this year according to iTunes playcounts. I’d put it on in the background night after night when working on other things, but sometimes I’d sit and really focus on the lyrics, and I got to know the plot pretty well and had fun with it. Its a gargantuan achievement in its own right, something that was labored over for years by a composer who had already proven himself to be a wizard at marrying metal and classical music. If anything, Therion’s pedigree should warrant your giving it a second chance.


5.   Hoth – Astral Necromancy:

This was truly one of the year’s out of left field, standout surprises. I’d never heard of Hoth before (the band, not the planet…), but they completely captured my attention with this compulsively listenable opus of intricate, shifting, and downright unpredictable melodic black metal. Hoth’s music is a contradiction; it’s icy in tone befitting the band’s name, as bleakly cold and unforgiving as you would want a two person black metal band to sound. Yet these songs are loaded with major chord sequences that jet out of nowhere with an almost power metal-ish joyfulness. You hear a nice cross-section of all those traits on “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” where seemingly triumphant, Blind Guardian-esque major key guitars inform the lead melodies over the top of that deathly cold tremolo riff underneath. Vocalist/lyricist Eric Peters has the perfect tone for these songs, withering and fell, like an actual necromancer’s voice careening down a snowy, windswept mountainside to chill your very heart. But again, no matter how awesome the black metal aspects are, what really grabs me are these perfectly written power metal soaked melodic counterweights, to add splashes of sharp colors to what is ostensibly a gray affair. You might be wondering why I’m so taken aback by the addition of melody to extreme metal, not exactly a new or fresh concept to be sure, but just give my enthusiasm the benefit of the doubt and listen to this record. Its likely that its very much unlike anything you’ve heard before.

6.   Elvenstorm – The Conjuring:

Storming out of the apparently secret power metal stronghold of Grenoble, France(?!), Elvenstorm sailed under many radars way back in July when they released the most vicious, devastatingly aggressive album of thrashy, speedy power metal this year. If you only hear the intro melody and first riff sequence on album opener “Bloodlust”, you’ll probably think these guys are from Germany, so indebted to Kreator and early 90s speed metal tinged Blind Guardian is their rocketing guitar attack. But then you’ll hear vocalist Laura Ferreux swoop in, with her wild, almost punk edged melodic vocal and that français accent echoing off canyon walls. She’s likely to be a make or break proposition for many, her vocals often unnerving raw, but I think she’s one of the strengths of this record, her careening voice matching the intensity of Michael Hellström’s explosive riffing. Like Visigoth with Conqueror’s Oath, there’s an infectious enthusiasm here for old school metal, that bullet belt attitude and defiant strut. What makes Elvenstorm stand apart from anyone else is their straight-faced manner of going about it, something one could almost think of as charming. There’s a passion and intensity ripping through these expertly crafted songs —- that they hit me with something resembling the force of a hurricane is why The Conjuring is on this list.

7.   Exlibris – Innertia:

Soaring out of Warsaw as if in protest of all the attention we’re lavishing onto the great power metal pouring out of Canada and the States lately, Poland’s Exlibris dropped the best Euro-power album of the year in Innertia. This was my introduction to the band, and it turns out to be perhaps the best possible point of entry as its the debut of new singer Riku Turunen, the absolute tour de force of this album. Call him the Patrick Mahomes of power metal in 2018, but I haven’t been this bowled over by a new vocal talent in the scene in ages. His voice has the pure raw power of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammet with the distinctive pronounciation inflections of Timo Kotipelto. You might have already read about best song listee “Shoot For the Sun”, where he proves himself as a leading man in an ever soaring duet, but check out his jaw dropping range in “Incarnate” or his command of theatrics in “No Shelter”. Beyond amazing vocal performances, these are simply expertly crafted songs, structured around earwormy hooks yet loaded with progressive metal twists and turns. Daniel Lechmański’s guitars sound meaty ala Tad Morose or Brainstorm, and his riffs and chord progressions are all intriguing in their balance of straight ahead rockin’ and rich complexity. Speaking of balance, his having to bounce off of keyboardist Piotr Sikora instead of another guitarist seems to be a source of fruitful inspiration between the two. There’s a push and pull going on between each of their lead melody lines that refuses to sit quietly in Turunen’s immense shadow. 

8.   Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods:

I really didn’t think Demonaz and Horgh could pull it off, rather naively thinking that an Abbath-less Immortal record was more likely to be a disaster than anything close to a success. And in my defense, what reasonable Immortal fan could think that Abbath’s departure would somehow make a new Immortal album better? It seems illogical on the face of it. But sometimes weird things happen, and there’s nothing weirder in 2018 than Immortal Mach 2 turning in the band’s best album since Sons of Northern Darkness, and maybe even a top three Immortal album overall. This is just a relentless, tireless rush of old school second wave black metal reminiscent of the band’s first four albums but tempered with the riff density and cold, crisp production of the post At the Heart of Winter era. Demonaz’ ice demon approach on vocals is pitch perfect for this blend of Immortal, grim and fierce but with a lengthy drawn out utterance that’s coupled with a surprising degree of enunciation, unlike Abbath’s bizarre frog gargoyle barking approach. The nine minute epic “Mighty Ravendark” barely missed out on making the best songs of the year list; its about as perfect an Immortal song as I can imagine, with an epic buildup and satisfying (dare I say hooky?) refrain built on clever vocal phrasing. I really can’t think of any time in recent memory when a band has lost a key member and somehow thrived as a result… I’d have to go back to what, Metallica perhaps? Iron Maiden after Dianno? Call it a comeback, maybe even the greatest comeback.

9.   Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Yet another in an increasingly longer line of excellent releases from North American power metal bands, The Last Emperor was my introduction to Arizona’s Judicator. As it turns out, it was the perfect introduction too, being their most early 90s Blind Guardian era inspired work, including a guest appearance by the bard Mr. Hansi Kursch himself. A lot has been written about this very apparent influence, and its hard to ignore for sure, but there’s so much more going on here than mere hero worship. Guitarist Tony Cordisco aimed to write songs that were not only tight and concise, but purposefully and methodically energetic throughout. There are no ballads here, although brief dips into acoustic territory help to spice up the intros or bridges of certain songs to keep things varied. Its intriguing to hear an American power metal band so infatuated with the traditional European interpretation of the style. I can hear jagged edges at the corners of Judicator’s sound, little things like the sharp teeth on that straight ahead attacking riff sequence in “Raining Gold”, or the early Iced Earth influence that comes through in vocalist John Yelland’s aggro counterpoint to Hansi in “Spiritual Treason”. Judicator also seems to be filling a sonic space in power metal that was long ago left vacant by the Blind Guardians and Helloweens and Edguys of the world, one I had long ago hoped would be filled by the now sadly quieted Persuader and Savage Circus. I don’t mind if my power metal bias is showing here, because Judicator is assuming the mantle of this specific style in the here and now as a recently formed power metal band delivering an amazing new album this year. This is the stuff that will keep the genre going strong into the future. Consider me grateful.

10.   Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

This one might raise a few eyebrows, but I just could not deny how much I listened to Eonian throughout the year. It was an album that I would listen to when in the mood for something fierce and biting, but also when I wanted something orchestral and epic, as well as melodic and complex. I consider myself a Dimmu fan, but I had been critical of them throughout the years, not completely enjoying an album since 2001’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia. Not only was this the first time since then I could say that I loved a new Dimmu album from front to back, but its honestly up there right next to Enthrone Darkness Triumphant as my second favorite of all their albums. The inspired songwriting in “I Am Sovereign” reminds me of that legendary album’s sense of playfulness with black metal song structures; here with an inversion of blazing riffing in the chorus instead of the verses, with regal string punctuations that would sound at home in a Carach Angren song. The band took care to increase the distinctiveness of their major sonic elements this time around, instead of the usual symphonic black metal mash up they had been doing. On Eonian, the black metal parts sound more black metal than ever, and the orchestral parts lean just as hard into their majestic symphonic grandeur. Its a subtle distinction that allowed them to sharpen their songwriting, to shape these songs with muscular force and gorgeous expressiveness. Its a shame that just like Cradle of Filth with their truly excellent past two albums, Dimmu seems to be getting glossed over this year as having released more of the same. Those are lazy opinions from people who haven’t listened close enough. This is a career rejuvenating work from one of the genre’s most creative artists.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part One: The Songs

This was a year bursting with awesome new releases, and I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I’ve never had this much difficultly in putting together my year end lists. Fortunately the songs were a little easier than the albums to sort through, and I’ve been able to narrow down a list that includes not only highlights from spectacular albums, but isolated gems from otherwise unremarkable releases. These were almost always songs that I listened to more often than others, verified by iTunes play counts and my own shaky memory, but others were just instantaneous nominees based on their initial impact. I tortured myself for a few days with the ordering here, reworking things several times before feeling satisfied. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed!

1.   Visigoth – “Warrior Queen” (from the album The Conqueror’s Oath)

On an album that made a Visigoth fan out of me, “Warrior Queen” was the unquestionable highlight for its combination of brawn and beauty. Built on 80s metal swagger, hard rock strut, thunderous riffs, and Jake Rogers gritty steel-cut voice, this would be a tremendous tune even without the emotive Jethro Tull moment in the middle. It comes in the form of a flute solo, courtesy of Rogers himself, accompanying his most Mathias Blad-ian vocal at the 3:44 mark, the cherry on the proverbial sundae. A song like this by a relatively new band shouldn’t work, it should reek of the worst kind of Manowar-isms, hamminess and self-importance —- but “Warrior Queen” is emblematic of something that’s seeping into the USPM/North American trad/power resurgence of these past few years: A sense of exuberance and fun with the very idea of metal itself, where cliches are comforts and cool ironic detachment is the worst kind of boring. 

2.   The Night Flight Orchestra – “Turn to Miami” (from the album Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough)

This was the culmination of six years worth of honing in on a perfect recreation of that late 70s/early 80s sound, not only in sound but in songwriting structure, vocal layering and slightly out of touch prog-rock pomposity. That “Turn to Miami” arrived on NFO’s fourth album is almost too perfect, their own path to a song like this mirroring the way we can imagine it would have for any successful band of that halcyon era. Its not the kind of song you throw on the debut or even the sophomore album. This tune arrives after a few gold and platinum albums, during that phase when the band is jet setting across the globe on private planes with champagne, parties on hotel rooftops with supermodels that go til sunrise, cocaine decorating the marble bathroom counter tops, and waking up to find David Coverdale passed out in an empty jacuzzi. NFO conjured up a sound here that’s glitzy, lush, and fervent with a huge assist from talented backing vocalists (the “Airline Annas”), and they also managed to dream up a music video that leaned into the idea of rich, self-important rockers wearing shoulder padded pastel sport coats selling a heady concept with barely disguised sexual overtones. 


3.   Kobra and the Lotus – “Let Me Love You” (from the album Prevail II)

The chief highlight from this year’s surprisingly strong Prevail II, “Let Me Love You” was the kind of song that Kobra and the Lotus had been needing to write for years now. An unabashedly emotive, some would say sappy song that pulled from the same vein of power rock that Pat Benatar and Heart mined in the 80s for inspiration. That this song has a hook that can rival the best of those artist’s major hits is a triumph for Kobra Paige and guitarist Jasio Kulakowski (who co-wrote this with former guitarist Jake Dreyer and producer Jacob Hansen, who seemingly can’t miss these days in his many many projects). Paige’s voice has that Doro-esque level of power but tempered with Ida Haukland’s range and emotive capability, and she knows how to time her inflections as well as Floor Jansen. While the band almost got there with last year’s single “Light Me Up” (from Prevail I), they’ve stumbled upon their first bonafide could-should-be radio hit… the question is whether that central guitar riff will be too heavy for programmers and leave this song in too commercial for metal / too metal for radio purgatory.

4.   Judicator – “Spiritual Treason” (from the album The Last Emperor)

Much has been said about Judicator’s obvious musical influence from Blind Guardian, so maybe it was a bit on the nose to feature the bard himself Mr. Hansi Kursch as a guest vocalist on “Spiritual Treason”. Yet credit the songwriting prowess of guitarist Tony Cordisco and vocalist John Yelland in crafting one of Hansi’s most electric and inspired guest vocalist spots to date. Keying in on Tales/Somewhere Far Beyond era Guardian in structure and spirit, this is a lean, muscular, speedy power metal epic the likes of which we’ve not heard Hansi sing on in ages. Yelland himself turns in a fine performance too, his slightly higher register a nice complement to Hansi’s, but Cordisco might actually get the star turn here —- from his frenetic riffery, his confident clean acoustic work, and that gorgeous multi-part solo. Andre Olbrich would be proud.

5.   Therion – “To Shine Forever” (from the album Beloved Antichrist)

This one stuck with me all throughout the year, the penultimate “song” on Therion’s massive, three disc/46 track behemoth opera Beloved Antichrist. Though many may have taken a single pass through this recording and rejected it as fast as a mouse click, I’ve found it to be a treasury of majestic musical moments. And the key term here is musical, set aside metal for a bit and just consider “To Shine Forever” as a beautiful, cinematic piece of music. This is a vivid slice of the kind of thing Therion has been captivating hearts and minds with from Theli onwards; chiming minor key acoustic guitars, sweepingly elegiac strings gracefully ushering the proceedings —- this time accompanying a pair of gorgeous classical voices entwined in a duet instead of Therion’s usual Accept meets Maiden rhythmic guitar attack. Its only flaw is that its too short, a mere 2:07 in run time, but its aching, longing emotional pulse, and its evocative lyrical poetry subsist long after its over.

6.   Omnium Gatherum – “The Frontline” (from the album The Burning Cold)

On a largely terrific album, “The Frontline” stood out for its almost retro Gothenburg sound and approach, instantly burning onto my mind with conjured up memories of classic era In Flames. It must’ve been the clean guitar patterns in the verse over Jukka Pelkonen’s slowly muttered vocals that brought me back to In Flames “Satellites and Astronauts” off Clayman, or maybe it was “Jester Script Transfigured” from Whoracle. Whatever it was, long suffering In Flames fans can instantly sniff out something that reminds us of that band’s long distant classic era, simply because few things sounded like it (even at the time). I’m not sure why OG, a Finnish band who has a very defined sound of their own stumbled onto this particular Swedish influence here, but it spawned an understated epic. The appeal of melodeath, regardless of country of origin is in its ability to convey incredible emotion without lyrics, and Markus Vanhala and Joonas Koto’s guitars cry out heart wrenching melancholy. They also merge their own OG sound into the mix at the 3:20 mark, with a keyboard lead into a guitar solo that rockets into the atmosphere. Forget crappy Christmas music, this is all the joy you need right here.

7.   Exlibris – “Shoot For the Sun” (from the album Innertia)

Arriving on the most convincing Euro-power metal album of the year, Exlibris’ Innertia, “Shoot For the Sun” is the kind of song that sounds so effortless, its melody so natural, yet so many bands struggle to write convincingly. It was the standout on an album completely void of mediocrity, and I’d find myself circling back to it for a few extra listens every time I played the album all the way through. The stars here are new vocalist Riku Turunen and guest vocalist Ann Charlotte Wikström, who pair together perfectly. Towards the end during that soaring, emotionally charged cliff hanger crescendo, both of their voices weave around each other in a dazzling display. Its rare for duets to find those moments, because its usually a trade off of vocal parts or two voices so uneven in power that one naturally outweighs the other. I’m particularly fond however of Turunen’s intro vocal, where you heard kaleidoscope shades of Timo Kotipelto and Tobias Sammett in tandem, a little detail that brings out the power metal fanboy in me.

8.   Judas Priest – “Guardians / Rising From Ruins” (from the album Firepower)

I think this would’ve been higher on this list had the album come out later in the year, because I burned myself out hard on playing this pairing over and over again. I’m including both “Guardians and “Rising From Ruins” as one entry because they are in essence one song, the former a direct intro for the latter and only arguable by the inclusion of a track separation marker on the album for whatever reason. I told the story of when I first heard this song on the MSRcast around that time (when was this? March-ish?) because I was actually driving to my cohost’s place to record a new episode of the podcast when it came on. Its in the middle of the album, the centerpiece ostensibly, and I was already more than impressed with everything I had been hearing, but this intro piece floored me. So jaw-droppingly beautiful is “Guardians”, with its crescendo piano and guitar buildup, so epic and goosebump inducing, that my only reaction was to start laughing like a right fool. I couldn’t stop, it was like my brain had been overcome by joy and was stuck in giddy mode. By the time “Rising From Ruins” came on I was already running through my mind what I was going to say about the record on the podcast —- a litany of superlatives, spittle flying in every direction as I’d rave like a prophet. Thankfully I composed myself to be a little more measured in the end, but these two pieces of music provoked one hell of an emotional reaction in me where few things do. 

9.   Suidakra – “Ode to Arma” (from the album Cimbric Yarns)

This was a special song on an experimental acoustic album that largely failed to move me otherwise, and a song that’s been in practically daily rotation since the album’s November release. Everything that works on “Ode to Arma”; the mystic tone, the pure emotive strength of Sebastian Jensen’s vocal, specific endearing lyrics, and the layering of unorthodox melodic arrangements are the very things that somehow work against the rest of the songs on the album —- in short, they struck gold here. Of particular note is the melodic shading by guest vocalist Sascha Aßbach, and the fragile piano utterances performed by Arkadius, both working to create a lushness to the soundscape that adds to the otherworldly feel at work. As I mentioned in my review for the album, I’m not too informed about the original fantasy concept underpinning things here. But the central lyric, “The farther you travel / the closer I hold in you my heart”, reminds me quite a bit of the stories of some RPGs I’ve played, even a little of Tolkien in certain Silmarillion steeped stories. Suidakra doesn’t really touch romantic themes all that much, but they handle it skillfully here, with ache and melancholy.

10.   Thrawsunblat – “Via Canadensis ” (from the album Great Brunswick Forest)

This was the most anthemic, joyful blast of woodsy, rustic noise on Thrawsunblat’s uniquely excellent acoustic blitz Great Brunswick Forest. That it starts off quirky, with those sharp frenetic attacking plucks of the strings in the acoustic guitar equivalent to a drum count-in is part of its incessant charm. Joel Violette also turns in one of his most captivating vocal hooks to date, built on the strength of the repeating “on we go” vocal fragment that sounds practically mythic when it lands during the nearly a capella bridge midway through. This is also his most positive lyric to date, a cathartic paean to the strength of spirit and moving forward. I particularly love when the electric guitar comes in, the band seemingly so charged by the song’s energy that they couldn’t help but unleash a blast of feedback and muted crunch to further rattle the cage. Drummer Rae Amitay’s aggressive performance here and throughout the album is worthy of praise on its own, and she seems to know just where to punctuate with an extra loud hit or three. This was a re-imagining of what folk metal could sound like, acoustic and woodsy sure, but uptempo and fierce.

Suidakra Unplugged: Cimbric Yarns

I’ve been a recent convert to Suidakra, having heard the name throughout the years but only really investigating around five years back with 2013’s Eternal Defiance, an album that landed high on that year’s best albums list. It wasn’t their best album I’d realize upon investigating their back catalog, but it was impactful on me at that time, I played it constantly and loved its merging of a more subdued melo-death approach with bright, almost power metal infused Celtic folk metal. At times throughout their career, the band has leaned closer towards one of those poles than the other, always swaying back and forth from album to album. Lately, Arkadius Antonik had been fond of including one or two fully realized acoustic folk songs in the midst of the past few albums, and they were almost always spectacular. The rare exception came on the band’s last proper studio album, 2015’s Realms of Odoric, where “Braving The End” was a bit unfocused. That aberration with its weird Nick Cave soundalike male vocals made me a little worried when I heard that the next record would be all acoustic. Its the kind of idea that sounds cool in theory but is always harder to pull off convincingly —- I think back to how underwhelming Opeth’s Damnation sounded midway through, or how bewildering and difficult Borknagar’s Origin turned out.

But its not impossible to accomplish: Eluveitie pulled it off last year with Evocation II, and very recently Thrawsunblat knocked it out of the park with Great Brunswick Forest. There’s no one way to go about it, but the general rule is to pick a direction and lean hard into it, without hesitation or tentativeness in one’s sound or songwriting approach. In Eluveitie’s case they chose to focus on the bright, shimmery, uptempo nature of the European folk music at the heart of their folk-melodeath hybrid and the result was music that could’ve felt at home at a renaissance faire, fun and colorful (I’m not alone in thinking this, I was just at the Texas Renaissance Festival this past weekend where one of the acoustic bands did a cover of “Inis Mona”). Thrawsunblat made the bold decision to not attempt to emulate the excellent “Maritime Shore” acoustic lament from their first album, and instead decided to eschew balladry and approach their acoustic album as if they were writing for a regular metal album, albeit one recorded acoustically. The result was a surprising, wildly aggressive and punchy album that only served to reinforce the band’s Canadian maritime folk roots, demonstrating how it informed all aspects of their sound, not just the slower, softer side. Coming back to Suidakra’s Cimbric Yarns then, its readily apparent after many listens that Arkadius didn’t really hone in on a specific plan of attack for these songs, other than to write them as narrative-vocal driven. That creates a consistent thematic feel across the album, and these songs do feel bound together as a result, but it takes a songwriter that is specifically talented in writing with that kind of approach to make it work across ten continuous tracks. Arkadius is awesome at cranking out his very particular blend of melo-death, with its epic lifts and aggressive jabs, but Blind Guardian-esque narrative focused acoustic balladry? That’s not really his forte, and it shows. 

The stellar exception to that statement is the album highlight and first single “Ode to Arma”, which was a little difficult to decipher on first listen but had enough charm to keep me hitting repeat on YouTube before the album’s release where I quickly grew to love it. Its a majestic and melancholic song, that combination of emotions that Arkadius has managed to convey the best in his previous rare acoustic moments. Its strength is in longtime Suidakra contributing vocalist Sebastian Jensen’s clean, emotive lead vocal. He has a smooth, hefty voice, with frayed edges towards the end of phrasings, its closest comparison perhaps is perhaps Dan Swano. Here, his vocal lines are introduced, punctuated, and dance partner swung around with delicate yet confidently performed acoustic guitar patterns. It sounds like a sad song and the title and lyrics reinforce this, and it serves as a good reminder that this is an album with a story, though how much we’re expected to know about these characters is up in the air. I think its hard to expect fans to have an emotional attachment to a fantasy world created just for an album… those attachments usually come in literature or film first, and songs can serve to build on those ideas or concepts. Ask even the most die hard Blind Guardian fan if he or she really did a deep dive on the story line for Beyond the Red Mirror —- its not impossible, but highly unlikely.

The tambourine beat led “At Nine Light Night” is another highlight, the most traditionally structured ballad you might expect that would wind up on an acoustic Suidakra record. I think the weird Dracula’s castle keyboard orchestration towards the end could’ve been left on the mixing room floor, but that minor quibble aside this is as stirring and elegant as songs in this vein can be. But the problems surface in tracks that should be tent poles for the album, like the solid ideas presented in “Snakehenge” that are marred by woeful melodic choices and under cooked songwriting. Where Jensen was the star of “Ode to Arma”, he’s a liability here, his voice jarringly at odds with the nature of this particular melody. And one wonders, if they heard these problems in the recording process, why not beef up the guitars with some added layers or maybe re-write the lyrics so his vocal lines are so awkward in connecting to the music? The particularly glaring line here is “… arise brave people, join the cause!”, and though the concept of rhyming is often over emphasized in songwriting to a fault, it does help to bend to that core principle a little and particularly in terms of meter. Similarly, “A Day and Forever” commits the unforgivable sin of somehow making the wonderful Tina Stabel sound out of place and kind of hard to listen to. There’s nothing about the underlying guitar patterns that support her vocal melody, or even complement it or melodically respond to her lyrics. I do love the sped up acoustic run after the first verse, as well as the subtle orchestration that soon supports it, and the use of banjo here is excellent. But the compelling gravitas Stabel had on previous albums (and the awesome cover of the traditional “Mrs. McGrath”) isn’t present here, and I think that’s a shame.

I’m loathe to criticize Suidakra at all, but I’ve done it before for 2015’s Realms of Odoric, and the truth is that the band’s catalog has been consistently inconsistent. Arkadius is capable of amazing things but sometimes it just doesn’t come through, and one wonders if it comes with the territory of his prolific output. There’s a feeling across Cimbric Yarns that this was an album that needed a longer gestation period, more thought given to how these songs should be written and whether it really was critical to impart much of a storyline here. Isn’t it possible for projects like this to be created as soundtracks to a book we haven’t read or a movie we haven’t seen yet? I ask this aloud because I’ve become wary of bands foisting their concepts ahead of the ideal end goal of writing amazing songs. This album is connected to the storyline in the debut album of the Realms of Odoric side project Arkadius has with artist Kris Verwimp, though how exactly I’m not sure. Again I’ll ask, who is deep diving into this storyline? What is this fantasy world and why should I invest so much in it when its not readily available for me to process? These are pressing questions on my mind as a fan lately because I used to want to give bands the time of day and really attempt to immerse myself in their concept albums, but at some point I had to admit… I didn’t know what the hell the storylines for the first two Avantasia albums were about. I kind of still don’t! But I damn well know exactly what Hansi is referring to in the various songs of Nightfall In Middle Earth, because its not packing the entirety of its storyline within its running time —- there’s an easily accessible (albeit not readable, perhaps) story in print that anyone can optionally turn to if they really want to go in depth. Those songs don’t spell out entire events, they’re merely emotional reactions to those events described elsewhere (a bardic notion if you will). Again, I really hated the acceptance of my reaction towards this album, which boils down to me yanking a mere two songs out of its tracklisting to throw on the iPod. I like Arkadius a lot, he seems like a genuinely great, wonderful, friendly guy and he’s a fellow Houston Texans fan to boot (!), so in that spirit I’ll just say I’m looking forward to the next proper Suidakra album and will be rooting for him.

Autumn Harvest Pt II: New Music From Thrawsunblat, Amaranthe, Brainstorm, Wolfheart and More!

The new releases are plentiful throughout October, and fortunately I’ve been better about keeping on top of them this year than I have in the past. Some of these are albums I’ve been looking forward to for most of the year, the new Wolfheart being chief among them. I will admit to being extremely curious about Amaranthe’s Helix, their first post Jake Berg release and debut of new clean singer Nils Molin (of Dynazty fame). Some of you might remember that I wasn’t that keen on their last record Maximalism, which saw Berg’s input and role greatly diminished and as a result led to his departure (which had the silver lining of resulting in a really fun record by Cyhra, his new band with Jesper Stromblad). And of course there’s a new album by Germany’s trad metal stalwarts Brainstorm, a band I’ve been a fan of since way back in the early 2000s during the Metus Mortis / Soul Temptation era. There’s something appropriately fitting about these guys delivering a new record this particular year when I think power metal is in the midst of a sweeping artistic resurgence, a reminder that there are still older bands who have stayed relatively consistent with their style when many of their peers started incorporating hard rock / AOR stylings. But does the new album stack up against the staggering amount of excellent releases by newer power metal bands? I’ll tackle that and other burning questions in the reviews below!


Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

I’ve written about Canada’s Thrawsunblat before, with the band’s 2016’s album Metachthonia landing on that year’s best albums list. Borne out of the incense smoke of Woods of Ypres, former Woods guitarist Joel Violette along with Immortal Bird vocalist Rae Amitay (here on drums) have been quietly releasing amazingly strong blackened folk metal records since 2013, and its been interesting to behold the range of this project, from maritime folk infused charm to blistering black metal fury. Their folk aspect is at once inspired by and very removed from the European folk that we commonly associate with the idea of folk metal, with Violette embracing his native roots of all things Canadian and pushing to the fore folk music of Northeast Canada and in particular the Atlantic coast. I’m only passingly familiar with that kind of music, but I gather that its related to that strain of New Englander lyrical folk song that I’ve found across the years, not quite sea-shanty material but musically joyous all the same. The black metal sieve that Thrawsunblat run this folk music through results in something that is rather unique across the folk metal landscape, one very different from other North American black metal artists that are mostly from the Pacific Northwest.

All that being said about the band’s rich folk influences, Great Brunswick Forest is a surprising album for Violette and Amitay to release right now as a followup to what was a roiling, furious black metal affair in Metachthonia. Picking up where the band left off from the plaintive maritime folk of “Goose River (Mourner’s March)” and the gorgeous gem “Maritime Shores” from the Wanderer album, the new record is an entirely acoustic endeavor, except that it doesn’t behave like the way you’d expect a typical acoustic recording would. That means instead of ballads and forlorn laments, these songs are uptempo,  jaunty affairs, bright and bursting with chiming guitars, lively violins, and a swinging percussive attack. The album starts out with its most representative model of this in “Green Man of East Canada”, a song that owes its lyrical influence directly to folk music, with its tale of two strangers pausing to speak near a darkened wood. Violette is a sharp, nuanced lyricist, and you can tell that he really loves the vein of woodsy Canadian folk that he’s clearly tapping into here, relishing it with every line and stanza; “I’m no stranger to these lands, / Though they’re not my own. / I left with the changed tides /  To call this Brunswick kingdom home”.

Things get more adventurous musically with the aggressively uptempo “Here I Am A Fortress” and the chaotic frenzy heard in “Thus Spoke the Wind”. The former boasts some tremolo-esque acoustic guitar patterns amidst the most traditionally black metal song structure on the album, and the cross pollination of style and instrumental medium is strange to behold at first, but its such a well written song that you become accustomed to the jarring juxtaposition quickly. A key component in making experiments like this one successful is the fiddle playing of one Keegan MC, who is all over this album and really becomes the musical glue and stylistic motif throughout. He has a way of engaging his instrument to create moments of dissonance that support the acoustic tremolo sections and give them a dose of ringing, electric vibrancy. But its Amitay who steals the spotlight in “Thus Spoke…” with her unleashing a battery of what you might term acoustic blast beats during the middle instrumental passage, pushing the way forward for tremolo style acoustic guitar riffs and slicing fiddle blasts to barrel forward in the album’s heaviest, most astonishing section. It was a little chaotic to make heads or tails of at first, but now the song is a favorite of mine, and I always seem to pay attention to that instrumental break.

The absolute show stealer of a song here however is “Via Canadensis”, where I think Violette sneaks in some subtle electric guitar throughout to add some muted crunch to what is a joyful, perfect slice of folk metal. I get a very strong Woods 5 vibe from this song, and musically it wouldn’t have felt out of place on that album where David Gold played around with contrasting musical and lyrical clashes. Lyrically though, this is Violette at his most positive, singing during the refrain “On we go — to the standing stones we’ve yet to raise!”, and that lyric takes on a mythic quality during the nearly a capella mid-song bridge. Similarly, I love the lyrical sentiment and supporting musical sweep that pins together the second half of “Dark Sky Sanctuary”, where Violette delivers his most smooth vocal melody yet in a hooky, Vintersorg-ian chorus. Like the folk metal legend himself, Violette’s vocals are probably going to be hit and miss for some, but frankly most of these songs wouldn’t sound right with another singer, having been attuned to his voice in the writing process. But “Dark Sky Sanctuary” is the exception, as I could hear this slice of folk-pop magic being sung by anyone and everyone, including a female voice (hopefully at some point YouTube will yield a cover version of this). This a magical album, particularly in its arrival at this time of the year when autumn is making its strongest entrance in years. I can’t predict where Violette and Amitay will take Thrawsunblat next, but I’m absolutely over the moon about where they’ve been throughout their career.

Brainstorm – Midnight Ghost:

So we all have our comfort foods right? Mine would be mundane but occasionally essential things like sourdough bread with real butter, soft chocolate chip cookies in bar form like my mom used to make, or whole wheat toast spread with peanut butter and a drizzle of honey with a cup of coffee —- actually this is starting to sound like the ramblings of one that has recently begun another bout of carb kicking (dammit). But thankfully here’s my metal equivalent of comfort food back with a new release to help take the edge off, as Brainstorm has been consistent in familiarity and quality for the better part of two decades now. Its a little over-simplifying to refer to them as meat and potatoes metal, because underneath those chunky riffs and earwormy choruses is a Nevermore-esque progressive technicality. Singer Andy B. Frank is one of the most underrated/overlooked vocalists in metal, capable of an operatic tenor, as well as a gritty, Jon Oliva-esque snarl perfect for the kind of heavier trad that Brainstorm specialize in. They’re a perfect “centering” band, for those times when you feel you’ve gone too far on the avant-garde/blackgaze/ambient/noise/funeral doom end of the metal spectrum or perhaps too far down the Rhapsody/Freedom Call side and need a reminder of metal at its most melodic AND heavy; so you queue up a classic like Soul Temptation or Metus Mortis (or better yet, this still exceptional live set at Wacken 2004 that is the epitome of everything wonderful about our genre) to get yourself right.

Its commendable that Midnight Ghost is the band’s twelfth release, as they’ve been knocking out records at far more regular intervals than most metal bands, at times even delivering two in back to back years. Whats absolutely astonishing however, is that this may very well be the most inspired and accomplished album they’ve ever made, in a recording career that started way back in 1997. Because the core of their sound hasn’t changed over their career, aside from a more welcoming embrace of the choral vocal backed chorus and a touch more symphonic keyboard dressing, I’m speaking to the quality of the songwriting. This is evident in the instant ear-worm gratification of “Ravenous Minds”, as classic a Brainstorm song we’ve ever heard with Frank’s vocals delivered with a sense of empowering belief. He has such staggering strength as a vocalist, singing here with a wildly confident display of his range, from gruff lows to Queensryche-ian highs in that spectacular chorus. At this point, Frank knows the pivot points around his vocals so much that you can hear that awareness reflected in the songwriting, particularly in that everything flows around his crafting of the vocal melodies. You hear it in the string and piano intro to “Revealing the Darkness”, the melody previewing Frank’s epic, arcing vocal during the chorus. Founding guitarists Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric rattle off a machine gun spray of punctuating bursts that are always book ended by a meaty riff to round out a verse section. Its that commitment to heaviness that separates Brainstorm’s dalliances with prog-metal from that of bands such as Dream Theater and Seventh Wonder.

Speaking of other bands, I can’t be the only one who hears a real Iced Earth Horror Show era meets Judas Priest Firepower vibe on “Jeanne Boulet (1764)”, from the aggressive, neo-thrashy attack to the “iter” ending of the lyric in the refrain, its a mash-up of sounds that are pieced together in a very different way for Brainstorm. Its been interesting to hear these influences pop up on this album and bleed through Brainstorm’s normally solid musical wall that they’ve spent a career erecting around themselves. From the moment I first heard them, this was a band that didn’t necessarily wear direct influences on their sleeves, only the general gist of those influences. That they sound more relatable to other German metal bands of all subgenres than say Maiden or Priest or Metallica is a testament to the way they’ve carved out a sonic niche of their own. Frank reminds me more of Mille Petrozza, Rage’s Peavy Wagner and a touch of Hansi Kursch than anything, but even those three singers combined aren’t an accurate representation of his vocals. I can’t believe that I’m getting to say this about his work on Midnight Ghost, but its thrilling to declare that he’s never sounded better. Brainstorm knows what they’re about, and their artistic success depends almost entirely on Frank’s inimitable talents, and its thrilling as a fan to hear them unexpectedly deliver an album this confident and masterful so late in the game. Far from comfort food, this is a meal at that really expensive steakhouse you’ve been waiting and saving for. One of the best albums of the year – write it down.

Amaranthe – Helix:

I won’t even pretend that I wasn’t highly curious about the state of Amaranthe circa 2018 in their post Joacim Lundberg state. Lundberg if you didn’t remember (or preferred not to… you haters) was one of the Swedish sextet’s founding vocalists, their clean male vocalist who had as equally big a hand in the songwriting as guitarist Olof Morck and fellow vocalist Elize Ryd. I first started listening to Amaranthe’s debut out of sheer curiosity in 2011 because you simply could not avoid hearing mention of this band that was cooking up this crazy melo-death/power metal/ pop mash-up. What became clear to me as I veered from somewhat agahst/mildly curious to rather appreciative of their frankly audacious metallic pop, was that Lundberg was a central figure in the formulation of their sound. He described his own contribution to the band’s sound as “melodic Bon Jovi type vocals” and he crafted vocal melodies in that vein that were able to both contrast and complement Ryd’s sugary pop voice. At times he would sing alongside her, in effect providing co-lead vocals that lent a needed earthiness to the melody, while he also had moments where his solo lead vocals would color however briefly the band’s sound with gritty hard rock energy. Of course the band’s two harsh vocal screamers in Andreas Solveström and since 2013 Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson were the melo-death element when Morck’s Soilwork-esque straight to the point riffing was taken into account. It all somehow largely worked, almost improbably so, a kaleidoscope of sound that was difficult to classify yet appealing beyond reason, particularly on 2014’s Massive Addictive.

That balance of elements that made everything gel together was disrupted when Lundberg’s role was gradually diminished on 2016’s Maximalism, the result being a sound that leaned too far in the pop direction and resulted in an album that was oddly disconnected, a jumble of random ideas. In my review for that record, which was written after Lundberg had already left the band, I predicted that his departure would be a huge blow for Amaranthe. When Lundberg resurfaced soon after in Cyhra with ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad, their debut was loaded with the same kind of quality vocal melody writing that characterized Lundberg’s work in Amaranthe. It was a fun, strong, and ear-wormy album in a way that was in keeping with Lundberg’s desire to marry those aforementioned Bon Jovi type vocals to melo-death guitars. I mention that because it helps to put into context Amaranthe’s attempt to retreat into the style of the first two and a half (ish) albums, and why that attempt feels unfocused and often empty. That’s not to say that Helix isn’t at times successful, because a song like “Countdown” is every bit the satisfying merger of electro-pop and fuzzy metallic guitars into a direct, focused chorus that is packed as tight as a fun-sized Snickers. And Ryd reaches something approaching inspired on “Dream”, a song that borrows from the tempo and temperature of the quasi-power ballad “Burn With Me” from Massive Addictive, her vocals shining in a duet with new co-vocalist Nils Molin (who’s also in Dynazty, if that name was ringing a bell). Molin is a safe but misguided choice for the band, and that’s not a criticism of Molin as a vocalist, because he’s clearly a talented singer and his work in Dynazty is far better a showcase than what he delivers on Helix. The problem is that his style is all wrong for this band, far more suited to the soaring power metal of his other band and lacking anything resembling an actual rock voice that Lundberg provided.

But elsewhere on the album, its honestly hard to come up with anything resembling a successful example of why I started listening to this band in the first place. Things feel off all over the place —- the lead single “365” is a half baked version of “That Song” from Maximalism, and as controversial as the latter was upon its release, at least it had something interesting going for it with its Queen inspired stomp. With “365” the rhythmic strut never materializes, the vocal melody isn’t nearly as hooky as it should be, and everything just feels like a mess. Similarly unfocused is “Inferno”, which attempts to recreate the sound of the band’s first two albums, but again there’s not enough strength in the vocal melody to make it worth basing a song around it. Molin sticks out in a particularly bad way here, just this out of place voice singing an unconvincing lyric. And look I know, even when Lundgren was in the band Amaranthe’s lyrics hardly ever made sense, but his voice somehow sold what he was singing regardless. The intro verses for songs like the title track and “Breakthrough Starshot” really illustrate why Molin seems so out of place, when he’s forced to sing lyrics that are at best abstractions when he’s used to delivering relatively more literate lyrics in Dynazty. This might improve with his next album with the band, but I get the sense that he doesn’t quite know how to tackle these lyrics, how to get emotionally invested in them and in turn where to place inflection points.

Lets not glide past “Breakthrough Starshot” either, this being the sequel that the awful “Electroheart” never needed but we’re unfortunately getting. Its actually miles better than that atrocity ever was, with an actual memorable hook that will reverberate throughout your brain all day. When fellow metal critics sharpen their knives for this band, its because of songs like this, where for some reason Wilhelmsson is screaming out the lyric “My expectation is the accelerated / Another journey to the breakthrough starshot” —- just, WHAT NOW?!  Ryd’s vocal interjection in the hook via her “yeah yeah’s” reminds me of something I’d have heard from a Britney Spears single in the late 90s (and probably did), but that’s not the kind of pop Ryd should be evoking within the context of Amaranthe, who owe more to Euro-pop and EDM than American bubblegum dreck. Perhaps more awful than “…Starshot” however is the weirdly titled “GG6”, where Wilhelmsson takes the lead and delivers the most maddeningly non-nonsensical lyrics you’ll ever hear, complete with a baffling barrage of profanity that just comes across as lazy and dumb. Everything else on the album is just meh, ho-hum paint by numbers attempts at landing a chorus worth remembering; “Iconic” gets the closest but its still lukewarm, and the ballad “Unified” is where we feel Lundberg’s absence the most. Morck is a talented musician and songwriter, but its more clear than ever that Lundberg was the brainchild behind making the band’s vocal melodies work. They’ve lost the magic ingredient that made their weird metallic amalgam work, and that’s probably going to be news to many who think of Ryd or Morck as the heart and soul of this band.

Wolfheart – Constellation of the Black Light:

Wolfheart’s Tuomas Saukkonen has been releasing records at perhaps a nearly unrivaled clip since his Before the Dawn days from the early aughts onwards, at times with various side projects popping up throughout various years. There have been years where he’s released more than one album, and only two years since 2003 where he hasn’t released anything (2005 and 2014, although during the latter he did chair the producer’s role for a Rain of Acid record). That kind of staggering level of artistic productivity has yielded somewhere in the range of 15-16 complete albums and a host of EPs and splits/singles. I got introduced to him through his Black Sun Aeon melodic doom project, and soon after stumbled onto the fact that said project was already over and he’d forged a new band in Wolfheart, who are already at album number four since their inception in 2013. One of the things my MSRcast co-host and I had been raving about last year was the band’s brilliant release Tyhjyys, which was one of the host of folk-metal gems that 2017 unearthed in a nascent revitalization of that subgenre. I shouldn’t have been surprised that we’d get a follow-up so quickly in little over a year, given Saukkonen’s track record, but its still stunning to consider the turnaround time given just how different Constellation of the Black Light is from its predecessor.

Whereas Tyhjyys was a diverse album, full of songs with slower, more moody, shifting tempos and a utilization of silence and space that made songs like “The Flood” so hypnotic, Black Light sees Wolfheart making the leap into a more wintry, primal, furious style of blackened melodic death metal. I know its going to be an on the nose comparison for many reasons, but its their equivalent to Insomnium’s surprisingly aggressive epic Winter’s Gate. This is a level of aggression that Saukkonen has dabbled in before in brief glimpses and the occasional full song, but here he keeps it as his primary weapon, with only shades of Tyhjyys folkiness and quietude used as accents. The opening track epic “Everlasting Fall” uses a mix of both in its intro passages, but erupts into one of the more violent explosions I’ve heard Saukkonen unleash, propelled along by Joonas Kauppinen’s unrelenting blast beats. The song’s emotional pulse is heard in Olli Savolainen’s keyboards, producing a backdrop of sound that is more Porcupine Tree dreamscape than anything owing to orchestral impulses. I can hear a guitar in there mirroring what the keyboards are doing, and I think I caught sight of that two Saturdays ago in October when I caught Wolfheart live on their tour with Mors Principium Est and headliners Carach Angren. Its a ten minute opening piece, which isn’t shocking in this kind of metal anymore, but it is new for Wolfheart, their longest song to date though it certainly doesn’t feel like it. And its actually the most representative song on the record at that, showcasing the range that they’ll explore throughout the rest of the album and preparing us for the neck-snapping brutality that follows on “Breakwater”.

Its might seem surprising at first if you saw the Napalm Records backed lush music video for “Breakwater” being ushered out as the first single for this album, because this is as uncompromising a black metal attack as Wolfheart have concocted. Wildly spiraling tremolo riffing, blast beats, all with Saukkonen veering between death metal brutality and a blackened rasp in his vocal approach. Its not exactly the kind of insta-catchy single that Napalm is known for having its bands release first, but then they must have known what they were getting into before signing the band. This is Wolfheart’s first release for the growing “major” metal label, a sign that they’re moving up in the world a touch, and have the budget required to fly to Iceland with a small film crew and drones to shoot what is a spectacular looking Skyrim tribute. Things will make sense around the time Saukkonen first stumbles upon the waterfall in the video, when the song downshifts into something moodily mid-tempo, yet still shifting and undulating with its melodic guitar lines, ala Insomnium once again. Its on the far more subdued “The Saw” where we finally get a taste of that old Wolfheart sound, with its stop start riff sequences, thick vocal layers and a major key melodicism pouring through the lead guitar melody. I have detected a little impatience on my part when sitting through “Defender”, which isn’t a bad song by any means, being a straightforward melo-death affair, with a head-nodding worthy riff progression, but its lacking in impacts and surprises. It would’ve been the start of a lopsided album were it not for the rejuvenating ability of “Warfare” and the following “Valkyrie” to close out the album.

Those concluding two songs might actually be one long song, because they feel connected in sound and spirit. The latter has one of the more satisfying opening riffs, a percussive rhythmic piece that is the kind of battle call that a band like Suidakra likes to use quite often. That everything suddenly ends on a lone piano delivering a dirge-like melodic fragment is classic Finnish metal to a tee, from not only a melo-death perspective but also from legends like Sentenced, a Finnish calling card if you will. This is a quality, deep dive worthy album that was released at the perfect time because there’s just something extra special about hearing this kind of wintry music during the first breaths of autumn in the air. I got a big dose of cold Finland this past month, seeing no less than five bands from the country within that time frame. The Carach/Mors/Wolfheart gig was everything a great show in a dingy venue could be, shortcuts and all: The bands were traveling light on that tour, packed into one tour bus with notable cuts to band lineups to save on money. Wolfheart ran keyboards through a laptop, Mors ran their absent bassist through another laptop, and well of course Carach Angren could hardly afford to bring a string quartet with them so they too used the laptop. For all I knew it was the same one. That didn’t matter, and Wolfheart were as intense and crushing onstage as this album would have you believe, and well received for a band on their first North American trek. I was a little surprised that they didn’t play anything off Tyhjyys, leaning on two songs apiece from every other album including the new one. The hope is that with Napalm’s promotional engine supporting them, they’ll find their way back here on another few supporting tours. I’ll be there for sure.

Conception – re:conception:

I usually don’t review individual songs or single releases, with few exceptions, and Conception’s first new music in what, twenty-one friggin years certainly qualifies. Their EP is coming out in a few weeks and this single has two pieces of music that will be on that release and one exclusive track, “Feather Moves”. I’ll talk more about the songs at length on the review for the EP in the future but I just wanted to chime in here to talk about the stunning realization that we’re hearing Roy Khan’s vocals once again. Most of you have read that piece I did on Khan many years ago about the giant hole he was leaving behind not only in Kamelot but in progressive / power metal in general with his at the time retirement. The nature of his departure from Kamelot, the cryptic statement he released at the time —- everything really pointed towards a permanent exit, and I just couldn’t help but be a little selfish about it, thinking of all the great lyrics and vocal melodies we were being denied. When news broke that he was heard (literally) in a Norwegian rehearsal studio jamming with his former Conception bandmates, the classic lineup at that, I may or may not have gone into full on denial mode. But with April’s Pledgemusic campaign announcement, everything was confirmed and so was the utter joy at not having to watch another year tick by where Khan’s talents were being utilized.

He simply sounds excellent on these two songs (one instrumental, yeah… I know), his voice rich and full of that ability to inflect incredible amounts of emotion in a single phrase. To Conception’s credit, they’re really picking up where they left off on Flow, with heavily rhythmic, undulating (I sure love that word lately it seems) riff progressions and impassioned songwriting. Tore Østby is shredding all over the place, with little interjections and micro-solos to fill in the vocal gaps, and the rhythm section of bassist Ingar Amlien and drummer Arve Heimdal playing in unconventional, groove oriented, almost poly-rhythmic patterns. But wisely, Khan is left to direct traffic with his vocal melodies, singularly able to shift the tone of a song from dark and stormy to angelic and uplifting as we get to hear on the chorus to “Grand Again”. There’s a filter on his voice in select moments on this song, nothing that’s distracting, in fact it actually adds to the song but I would like to hear something on the EP that really sees him cut loose. His range does not appear to be diminished in the slightest, I’d even say he sounds close to Ghost Opera era Kamelot here. Hopefully the time off did him good in that regard, to lay off the heavy touring and simply rest his vocal chords. There’s folks voicing concerns about the future of Tommy Karevik’s own golden pipes due to Kamelot’s touring schedule, but I think that’s a long way off, being that he’s almost a decade under Khan in age. There’s a morality tale here for career bands, to reconsider making a living from being on the road and go the semi-professional route like our guy Tuomas Saukkonen from Wolfheart. At the end of the day, its about an artistic legacy right?

Autumn Harvest: Major Releases From Behemoth, Seventh Wonder, and Vreid

In the midst of working on a few big features, including but not limited to a very preliminary imagining of what the Best of 2018 list might wind up as (so I’m not, y’know, scrambling in December as usual), I’ve also made sure to listen to a couple new albums from some noteworthy artists that deserve timely reviews. There’s the new Behemoth album, which may very well be one of the most anticipated extreme metal albums ever in terms of pre-release buzz that surrounded it. Then there’s the long (loooong) awaited new album by Seventh Wonder, a band that got pushed to the background a bit when vocalist Tommy Karevik joined Kamelot. This will be the second album with Karevik’s vocals released this year, and intriguingly enough, the new Seventh Wonder was ready to go way back in the spring when Kamelot’s The Shadow Theory forced its release to be pushed back. I know that rankled a lot of Seventh Wonder / Tommy Karevik fans, and I’ll attempt to answer the open question here of was it worth the wait, and frankly, which band made better use of his voice? Finally there’s the new album by Vreid, a band I hadn’t listened to in nearly a decade(!) that we actually discussed briefly on the September MSRcast, but the album was still new to me and I’ve had a lot of time to digest it since. Lets get straight to it then:


Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest:

Its interesting to see the spectrum of reactions to Behemoth’s newest and most daring release to date. That it has the benefit or misfortune (or both) of coming on the heels of their career watershed The Satanist adds an extra dose of intrigue to just how their fans and the greater media reaction at large will be. There was little obvious pressure with The Satanist, I recall very vividly the sentiment being that people were simply so happy that Nergal had come out of his cancer scare and that we were just plain fortunate to have a new Behemoth album at all in the first place. But surprise of surprises, it was a massively successful artistic leap, one applauded by almost everyone (there’s always a few naysayers) for the far more expressive and adventurous musical changes incorporated throughout. Gone was the stifling, suffocating density and overwhelming technical sheen of the Demigod through Evangelion era, replaced by a more organic, breathable sonic production and far more thoughtful and expressive songwriting to match. The adjective “mature” was tossed around a lot, and while its an overused cliche in music criticism, it really did fit in that context, you could sense that something profound had changed about Behemoth and more to the point, Nergal himself. 

We’ll look back on The Satanist the same way we’re starting to look back on Satyricon’s 2013 self-titled album, as the simultaneous end of a defining era for the band and the beginning of a new one. Satyricon’s Deep Calleth Upon Deep was one of the most haunting, rich, and deeply resonant black metal albums in years, and it doubled down on the stripped back, less dense sound of its predecessor, a choice that has changed and morphed the idea of the Satyricon sound in remarkable ways. Ditto for Behemoth with I Loved You At Your Darkest, which bypasses further nudging open the door that The Satanist cracked open by outright kicking it down. This is wildly diverse, loose, freeing album for not only the band’s sound, but in redefining the boundaries of what moods and emotions their music can now encompass. Nergal has clearly allowed the dark folk influences of his side project Me and That Man to flow through in a myriad of ways, but that’s a gross oversimplification. This is a bold, fearlessly expressive listening experience, from the opening children’s choral intro in “Solve” that resurfaces to glorious effect in “God = Dog”, to the almost Enigma-esque Gregorian chant swells that punctuate the refrains in both “Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica” and “Bartzabel”.

The changes aren’t all vocal based either, with the aforementioned “Ecclesia” suddenly dropping into a grey toned acoustic strumming sequence in its outro that right out of the folk metal playbook. There are also much larger swathes of these songs actually constructed with open chord sequences, often with cleanly arpeggiated progressions that are dreamily hypnotic. Its something we noticed Nergal incorporating more on The Satanist, but here he isn’t afraid to build entire tracks around them, “Bartzabel” a vivid example, but its also a big part of the inverse technique employed on “If Crucifixion Was Not Enough”. This is something that seems so obvious when you hear it, but bands have to grow into doing it —- minimizing the usage of blastbeats and waves of tremolo by packing them into shorter, thoughtfully employed bursts, instead of spreading them over everything like too much peanut butter overpowering too little jelly. The unsung hero here is drummer Inferno, who delivers the performance of a lifetime all throughout these twelve songs. His ability to be creative and diverse in his patterns, his choice of fills and the shift in reliance to floor toms and tribal sounding, emotionally charged percussion instead of simply battering our ears with a non-stop assault is the singular most important facet in Nergal’s ability to grow as an extreme metal songwriter and have it sound convincing and vital. One of the best albums of the year and to my tastes, the absolute pinnacle of Behemoth’s career, just stunning.

Vreid – Lifehunger:

Norway’s Vreid began life way back in 2004 after the tragic ending of Windir, and I remember at the time thinking that they were going to continue in the vein of what that band’s recently deceased founder Valfar had started. The first three albums somewhat did, though never really fully embracing the spirit that ran through Windir, something in retrospect we can see largely came from its founding member. I think my interest dropped off sometime after 2007’s I krig, it being the last album I can now remember listening to, and after that I was never reminded to check back in, or maybe I was but decided to skip it (aka the Soilwork effect). Its also perhaps not fair to always judge bands in the grim shadows of their former incarnations. I find myself doing the same with Thrawsunblat, who have a new album coming out later this week, which I’ll undoubtedly start comparing to Woods of Ypres and David Gold’s incredibly soulful songwriting. As is the way with these things, we find ourselves re-discovering artists through word of mouth recommendation, because Lifehunger was a complete surprise to me, sent in my direction via Cary the Metal Geek on our last MSRcast. I was mildly curious as to how we got a promo of this one, and surprise surprise, this album is being released on Season of Mist, the band’s first for the label. What a difference working PR makes!

The timing of this release is perhaps key to my enthusiasm in embracing it as fully as I have, because I’m sitting here writing this on the eve of a cold “northern wind” that’s supposed to blow through the streets of Houston and purify the hot, foul, stale vapors that drape this city like the heaviest wool blanket. If the cover art wasn’t enough to put you in an autumnal mood with its depiction of dead trees and a spooky moonlit silhouette of Death, the intro track “Flowers & Blood” should work, and its acoustic simplicity is a motif that we’ll hear throughout the album, almost like a rustic skeleton that binds all these songs together. But beyond essential folk metal ingredients, what really makes Lifehunger fascinating is the scope of its ambition, that the band chose to write without constraints and to put it bluntly, let themselves get really weird with it. The album opener proper “One Hundred Years” is perhaps the most conventional thing on the album and even it is loaded with passages where countermelodies spring up to disrupt the more familiar blackened folk metal tempo and riff structure. The title track jumps from an ominous marching tempo with almost doom metal inflected repetitive riffing to a furious uptempo attack, only to down shift again in the middle with a rock back-beat and a dirty Darkthrone vibe reminiscent of something off Circle the Wagons. One of my favorites for sheer unpredictability is “The Dead White”, not only for its myriad tempo shifts, but the Reinkaos-era Dissection vibe running throughout. Its a mix of smokey blackened folk with the coiled up energy of melodic death metal that results in a standout track, perhaps the best on the album.

 Vocalist Sture Dingsøyr still has every bit the fierce, biting blackened rasp he did on their earlier records, but its aged into something resembling modern day Satyr in tone, not a bad thing. He’s at his best on my personal favorite track, “Hello Darkness”, where he even attempts some strangled cleans that remind me of In Solitude or Year of the Goat. There’s a near-campy Halloween vibe in the first few minutes here, and normally that stuff might annoy me but I think I was so charmed by hearing it on my first listen through the album that its stuck to me in a good way. Whats even more lovable is the 70s Scorpions Uli-era semi-chimed riff at around the three minute mark. It was so unexpected and feels so out of place on what is largely a bleak album, a moment of warm tones and major chords conjuring up bright nostalgia. It actually sums up the album for me, a listening experience that kept me guessing all the way throughout, yet when Vreid just put their heads down and barrel relatively straight ahead as on “Black Rites in the Black Nights”, I’m not left disappointed. The actual blackened folk here is strong, confident and creatively written in its own right —- the unexpected surprises just add to the depth of the songwriting as a whole. I’ve been away from these guys so long that I can’t definitively say this is their best effort, but its the one I’ve loved the most. Its also somewhat comforting in the light of the nascent folk metal revitalization last year to hear a strong connection to their Windir roots running through Lifehunger, I suspect Valfar would be proud.

Seventh Wonder – Tiara:

There’s something satisfying about getting to evaluate both Tommy Karevik fronted bands’ new releases essentially back to back within the same calendar year. Kamelot released The Shadow Theory in April and we heard the power metal institution run smack into a creative wall, a disappointment considering how artistically successful they were on 2015’s Haven. Without regurgitating what I went into detail in explaining in my reviews for those albums, I think there’s a feeling among the power metal constituency that Kamelot are a little too attached to the darker imagery they’re using these days in a vain attempt to try to capture perhaps a broader audience (and failing spectacularly at it commercially speaking, but that’s another matter). I’ve accused the band of trying to shoe-horn in something I’ve termed faux-heaviness, which The Shadow Theory was loaded with and characterized Haven’s few weak moments. What does that have to do with Karevik’s role as their vocalist? Well, everything. That comes into sharp relief once you hear him back in his ‘home turf’ of the unapologetically heart-on-sleeve prog metal of Seventh Wonder. Karevik’s performances on both his band’s newest albums is a night and day contrast, and since its football Sunday as I’m writing this, I’ll ask aloud: Do you hand off the ball to the running back 40 times a game if you have Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at quarterback? You don’t need to be a football expert to know the answer to that question, and you only need to be passingly familiar with Karevik’s work in Seventh Wonder to know that like the legend that he ended up replacing in Kamelot, he understands how to craft vocal melodies and has a range as gorgeously soaring as a Rodger’s hail mary. Put the ball in his hands.

Let’s put the comparison’s aside for a bit though, because there’s also the fact that this is Seventh Wonder’s first album in eight fricken years, a byproduct of Karevik’s limited availability, so that’s enough reason to be excited. This isn’t a band that needed Wintersun or even Blind Guardian-esque timescales between albums to create the next one, there were only at most two year gaps between each of their previous four albums, including the back to back greatness of Mercy Falls and The Great Escape. Seventh Wonder purists were indeed right to be concerned with just how much Karevik’s prolonged abscences and creative responsibilities elsewhere would detract from this band (a lot as it turned out). Fortunately for them, the rest of Seventh Wonder spent the intervening years working on this album as their main musical priority, with Karevik taking part during the breaks from Kamelot related activity. With the luxury of time on their side, they had to ability to compose what turns out to be the most intricate, melodically diverse, and conceptually ambitious concept record of their career. They haven’t strayed from their inherent sonic identity, adhering to their rather uniquely streamlined approach to prog-metal with Andreas Söderin’s 70s prog-rock keyboards almost acting as connective tissue amidst the staccato riffs and rumblings of guitarist Johan Liefvendahl and bassist/co-lyricist Andreas Blomqvist. Despite the majority of the songwriting here being hyper-centered around the vocal melodies, their roles are crucial within the sound of this band, and as on past albums they find various scattered little moments for their own star turns. I’ll be honest though, one of the things I’ve identified as a weakness for this band here and on past records is that I can find myself tuning out during some of their relatively few extended instrumental breaks. Even though they’re not as noodle heavy as Dream Theater, they’re still working from a prog foundation in style, so instead of purposeful sustained riffing, or clearly outlined melodic motifs, the musical beds during the more uptempo/metal tracks work as rhythmic exercises, which is hardly captivating by itself.

With Karevik getting the lions share of the spotlight however, we’re far more attuned to process this album through his vocal melodies, inflection choices, and of course his and Blomqvist’s lyric writing abilities. I’m not going to detail out the concept here, because Google for one and also its just too much to talk about, but its tilted enough towards centering around specific characters and their emotions and that’s plenty of ammo for great lyrics. I’m thinking specifically of album highlight “Tiara’s Song (Farewell Pt 1)”, the most gloriously pop drenched moment here, its chorus something right out of the Ayreon / Avantasia grand gesture oeuvre: “Farewell Tiara, this song is yours / From Sahara to the seven seas it soars”. There’s a really inspired bit of album making in the connective sequel track “Goodnight (Farewell Pt 2), where that chorus is revisited by the mechanic of storytelling itself, with us hearing what appears to be a celebratory nighttime campfire singalong, heard amidst the din of people laughing and conversing while crickets chirp in the trees. Tiara has been selected to be humanity’s savior, and they’re giving her a farewell party, raising glasses to her name. Its a perfect lead in to “Beyond Today (Farewell Pt 3)” where we get to hear directly from the heroine herself, and this is where Karevik is just magic as a lyricist and emotive singer. He can deliver gut-wrenching emotion with vocal inflection and choices in phrasing, and sells us on the very relatable idea that Tiara’s inner dialogue on the eve of her solo journey into outer space to represent all of humanity is preoccupied with very human, very teenage girl thoughts: “I wonder will I ever say / Hey, if you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine / A perfect stranger in a ticket line / Just like in the movies, will he put his hand in mine?” Its not the first time we’ve been treated to this kind of ultra aware songwriting from Karevik and company, but few bands do it as boldly and fearlessly as Seventh Wonder.

I’ve enjoyed this album more than I thought I would, and I don’t know why I was initially low on expectations… perhaps it was that The Shadow Theory really bummed me out on anything and anyone associated with it. Hearing Karevik in this context however has renewed my confidence that Kamelot really did grab the right guy (certainly Haven was no fluke), but they just have to loosen up a bit and let him be a little closer to the vocalist we’re hearing right here. And to be fair, Karevik has come out recently and talked about why the approach he takes in Kamelot is so different to his Seventh Wonder style, and he made a few interesting points. First that Kamelot write in a different style altogether, which may be debatable given what we know about the earlier records with Roy (they were as theatrical, playful and major key as anything done by Seventh Wonder), and second that he feels uninhibited when composing vocal melodies for Seventh Wonder because he knows he won’t have to tour on those songs for any length of time. The latter is a band that for all purposes is a very popular studio project that occasionally does a festival date or two. Its a bitter pill to swallow in even considering the implication here, that Kamelot’s touring schedule might be affecting just how Karevik approaches his performances in the band. I’m not entirely convinced, because his work on Haven was closer to what we hear on Tiara than The Shadow Theory. Seventh Wonder definitely released the stronger album this year, by a mile even, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, even digging into the concept which usually isn’t my forte. This is just wishful fan-thinking, but I’d hope that hearing the record themselves would light a fire under the rest of Kamelot for the future.

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