The Bards And Their Songs: Blind Guardian’s Twilight Orchestra

Here it is. Finally. A project over two decades in the making that, let’s be honest… few Blind Guardian fans were ever truly clamoring for at the expense of say a regular, guitar based Blind Guardian record. I say this having been one of those fans who’s been aware of this project lurking in the shadows for ages now, my first direct recollection being an interview Hansi gave to Dr. Metal on The Metal Meltdown show on WRUW Cleveland way back in 2001 (I still have the audio of it). It was described then as being in its early infancy, although they had hopes to finish it in a few years (cue stifled laughter here), and it had its roots in unused music for Nightfall In Middle Earth as well as the music that the band presented to Peter Jackson in hopes of landing on the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. In the time since I first heard about this project, the bards have released four studio albums, two live albums and I’ve seen them in concert four times, Hansi and Marcus five with Demons and Wizards this past August. Credit where its due, they never committed the absolute blunder that I lambasted Therion for, who set aside all normal recording output to devote a decade to both a covers record and triple disc opera project. Hansi and Andre, who he co-wrote this project with, knew how their bread was buttered and were okay with this orchestral project taking the long route home, something they could afford to have sitting dormant for huge chunks of time while they worked on normal band projects. Perhaps Hansi’s only mistake was in publicly mentioning it at all, but even I would have a hard time assigning any blame for that, because there were really no consequences to talking about it. I say this as a die-hard Blind Guardian fan mind you, but we’d hear him talk about it when asked in interviews over the years, grunt at the info, and continue reading for details on the follow up to A Twist In The Myth or At The Edge of Time. And I suppose I should clarify a bit —- its not like I wasn’t interested at all in the project, because how could one not be curious? But what else could you do but shrug and wait? No one knew what this orchestral thing was even supposed to be.

What it immediately struck me as being upon my very first listen and reinforced in subsequent spins, is that of an audiobook with a built in soundtrack. There’s an hour and fifteen minutes running time here, twenty four tracks total, of which only eleven are actual “song” length pieces of music. Now those eleven tracks compromise an hour and four minutes of the running time, so its not like we’re being subjected to an actual audiobook, but the arrangement of the musical pieces amongst an array of tracks where voice actors spin forth dialogue with radio play styled sound effects is spread out in such a way that no two musical tracks ever line up back to back. This will undoubtedly frustrate anyone who felt bothered by the interludes in Nightfall In Middle Earth —- fortunately for myself, I wasn’t one of those people (the thirty seconds of “Lammoth” are essential!). But I think its fair to say that one’s tolerance level for stuff like this is going to be a huge factor on whether or not they enjoy listening to Legacy of the Dark Lands overall, and as a frequent listener of fantasy audiobooks, I’ve grown accustomed to this kind of listening experience. The meat of the album then are those aforementioned eleven pieces of music (let’s just call them songs from now on), and it really is simply multilayered Hansi with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the FILMharmonic Choir Prague and Vox Futura choir chiming in on occasion. Hansi is backed by the “BG Choir Company” which I’m assuming is made up of all the regular guys who have provided backing vocals on Blind Guardian records for awhile now. There are no guitars, so Marcus isn’t a part of this project, and though there are booming timpani’s and martial snare percussion, Frederick is also not involved. It’s strictly a Hansi and Andre joint with Charlie Bauerfiend as usual at the production helm.

The biggest reservations I had about the project heading into it was how would Hansi sound in a setting with just the orchestra, and my worries were slightly exacerbated with their decision to release “Point Of No Return” as the lead advance promotional track. It was yet another in a long line of examples of bands misfiring on what song to release first, because while I do enjoy its undeniably powerful, swellingly grandiose chorus, its connective tissue was the kind of orchestra for animation stuff I typically associate with Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes (you know what I’m talking about), and Hansi stringing together random blitzes of short vocal melodies for a dizzying amount of lyrics. That magnificent repeating chorus aside, it lacked any kind of cohesiveness overall, and I wondered if that’s how the rest of the album would sound. We’re so used to having Andre and Marcus delivering awesome riffs and interesting counter melodies to fill in the gaps between Hansi’s vocals. Would Hansi and Andre attempt to either over write vocal lines for Hansi to sing to make up for that, or perhaps try to use the orchestra itself as a fill-in for those guitars? On that advance song, it certainly sounded like they were doing both. But again, this is why I have a growing dislike of checking out preview tracks well before the album is released. Because while of course everything that I didn’t like about “Point of No Return” is still present within the song in the context of the album; the pacing and structure of the surrounding tracks go a long way towards mitigating those annoyances, as the song fits into the larger cohesive framework of the album. Its like comparing a nicely cooked, whole roast chicken that’s had time to sit after taking it out of the oven, its juices evenly redistributing throughout to ensure deliciousness —- to attempting to bake a slab of skinless, boneless chicken breast that was the isolated “Point Of No Return”. That piece of meat would taste better left attached to the bird.

To that end, I found my initial listening experience of this album in its entirety quite joyous, maybe it was just me responding to what is undeniably a cheerful, exuberant vibe emanating from it, but I really do believe there’s a heady dose of Blind Guardian magic to some of these songs. Take the gorgeous rise at the 2:20 mark in “The Great Ordeal”, an exquisitely triumphant moment that is the apex of what is one of the stronger melodic motifs at work on the album. The old Nightfall ideas resurface in “The Storm” and “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, and the former has a head turning moment from 2:38-2:55 where Hansi just breaks through everything to punch up with a mighty vocal thrust delivering the best lyrical stanza on the album: ” Gather up / I’m the storm / I’ll bind you / You’ll be the flame / I’m the spark / My wayward friends / You must come and find me / In the dark”. It’s a transcendent, attention grabbing moment that makes me stop what I’m doing every single time to hit rewind. It’s also one of those things that you realize keeps you coming back to the song again and again, yet you wish they’d have turned it into a proper repeating chorus. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Hansi is singing his face off throughout this album, he sounds full of conviction, passion, and emotion as he always does really, but there are a smattering of micro moments where he’s hitting “Another Holy War” esque levels of excellence. That aforementioned cheerful vibe is really felt on “Dark Cloud’s Rising”. which dare I suggest has an almost holiday/Christmassy feel to its melodic thru line, with even its darker, stomier mid-section sounding like a winter storm. The repeating lyrical element towards the end (“…the road goes on forevermore….”) sounds like something that could’ve been at home on a regular Blind Guardian album nestled between songs like “Curse My Name” and “War Of The Thrones”.

The album highlight for me is “War Feeds War”, ostensibly the album’s true opener, and like “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, one of the few tracks on the album to have a distinguishable melodic thru line running across most of its entire length. I really wish Hansi and Andre decided to write more stuff in this vein, because the memorability factor goes up when you have a long, gradually developing vocal melody to really pull you in. During that opening verse sequence, you can really get a feel for just how the orchestra could carry rhythmic, riff like structures through its brass section. Those horns slice through layers of vocals and strings like a broadsword and I would’ve relished more moments where they’d been allowed to work their magic in a forward, aggressive approach. We get a frustratingly brief glimpse of this again in “Nephilim” at the 1:06 mark, but its gone before it develops into something promising and worse yet we’re never treated to it again. Why can’t these songs have repeating hooks or motifs? They can’t tell me that it can’t be done because even though I know next to nothing about classical music composition and the limits of what an orchestra can achieve, I know I’ve heard some damn fine muzak symphony recordings of Celine Dion and Queen songs through the speakers of my local pho place. And perhaps more convincingly, Blind Guardian themselves wrote an orchestral piece built on solid hooks and melodic thru lines in “Wheel of Time” off the At The Edge Of Time album. In re-listening to that song, one can hear that large swaths of it are entirely carried by the orchestral swagger provided by none other than The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. There the guitars are often providing an added textural crunch and injection of power, but melodically it’s mostly the symphony at work (the Andre guitar solo an obvious exception). Hansi’s vocals there are memorable not only for their crescendo establishing rise, but in his epic duel with the orchestra in the chorus, where horns punctuate his pauses, seemingly goading him to sing on. On an album full of incredible songs, it was the capstone, and a genuinely complementary merger of metallic and orchestral elements.

I suppose it’s unfair to ask “Why aren’t there more songs like Wheel of Time on this orchestral album”, but it’s one worth letting hang in the air for a second. I know the answer by the way… it’s the same damn thing that kills the mood in Ayreon albums for me. It’s the damn plot. Because you see while “Wheel of Time” was rather cleverly structured around a chorus spun on rhythmically rhyming lyrics in a nod to the song title’s proverbial wheel allusion, the verses were structured through equal length lyrical lines in the stanza. They were long enough to allow Hansi about five syllables worth of melodic phrasing and emoting, and that consistent structure allowed the orchestra to simultaneously keep rhythmic time and also add in some variation and color through the string section. The lyrics were a broad look at the themes and motivations of the Wheel of Time universe and its chief protagonist Rand al’Thor, and they didn’t need to delve deeper than that. Similarly, the lyrics of Nightfall In Middle Earth were written with a cognizance that the source material was either known, or easily available to those who wanted to know it. As a result, the band focused not on pure storytelling and plot (though its touched on in brief, quick glimpses), but on the emotional pulses that were the undercurrent of that incredibly anguished saga. On Legacy Of The Dark Lands, the band is telling a story that is actually the sequel to the Markus Heitz novel “Die Dunklen Lande (The Dark Land). The orchestral album bears the weight of continuing a story that began in a novel, and while some of this may be disseminated in those short non-musical segues, the bulk of it falls to Hansi and company to sing forth into existence. As a result, they’re handicapped in the songwriting scope of the project in that hooks and memorability are sacrificed for the sake of advancing a story through the lyrics.

I haven’t read the Heitz novel myself, though others have picked up the English ebook translation recently and the reviews are mixed. I’m sure it’s a decent enough slice of fantasy literature, and the premise is certainly intriguing enough on its own (set during the Thirty Years War, seemingly in an alternate universe where magic exists in our “real world”), but try as I might, the confusion factor is a big deal here. I have no frame of reference for who’s speaking in the voice acted narrative sequences, nor do Hansi’s lyrics ever really get specific with who the narrator is supposed to be or what’s their motivation in that particular moment. We’re aware of a plot being advanced, however clunkily, but there’s nothing really pulling me in to further investigate the story on my own. Setting aside opera and musical theater where we have the benefit of visuals to help tell a story that we can physically perceive, a studio recording is a difficult medium in which to tell a story that would be better served put to paper. And here’s the paradox of Hansi and Andre’s chosen approach here, that they’re trying to tell a story and create a wonderful, memorable body of music at the same time, but you can’t do both successfully due to the constraints of the medium. But if Heitz had himself written the sequel, or heck, if Hansi and Andre simply decided to write an orchestral album that was inspired by the story of the original “Die Dunklen Lande” book, thus being freed of the need to put down the plot in the lyrics, I guarantee they’d have cooked up more memorable songs. Basically they tried to do two things at once, and might not have succeeded in either, but of course that’s down to how well you enjoy the music, which is after all, chief among the reasons we’re even talking about this in the first place.

How to sum this up? There’s so much here that its been an overwhelming experience just to soak this album in on endless repeating listens. Truthfully speaking, when I have it on in the background and am busy working on other things, I find it an enjoyable listening experience. There are a myriad of micro moments that capture my attention briefly in a positive way, but they’re scattered across the album in haphazard fashion, and my attention span wanes when they’re lacking, as on the entirety of “In The Red Dwarf’s Tower”, which is the chief example of everything I could do without on a project like this. I certainly didn’t like that “Harvester of Souls” was a worse version of “At The Edge of Time” from Beyond The Red Mirror, and can’t understand why they reused the music at all. But Hansi sounds great throughout, and the orchestra sounds wonderful and dynamic (my friends in the r/PowerMetal Discord have been ripping apart the instrumental mixing of this record, but my ears are dumb to that kind of detail —- though I have heard an interview with the mastering engineer for this album state that the vinyl version is the best sounding one shrug). As I was researching this project and listening to any Hansi interview I could get my hands on, my heart would leap whenever he’d confirm that the next Blind Guardian album was already written and they were going to begin production this coming January. I realized after awhile that my reaction kinda said it all really —- I’m more excited about the next proper studio album a year out than the new orchestral album that just dropped a week ago. I’m relieved that I didn’t actively dislike Legacy Of The Dark Lands on the whole (that would’ve been a painful review to write), but I’m a little discouraged at my middling reaction towards an album that Hansi has been calling in those aforementioned interviews his and Andre’s greatest career achievement. After two decades plus of time and a heck of a lot of money devoted to it’s making, he’s earned the right to feel that way, but I know and you know that his and Andre’s defining achievement is Nightfall In Middle Earth. And it wasn’t the guitars that made that record truly spectacular —- it was the inspiration and passion that the band felt for the Tolkien source material, that they transferred through us like a conduit.

Oh Yeah, Angra and Orden Ogan Released New Albums Too!

Hope everyone has been handling the winter well enough, its all fun and games until you catch the flu, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, which I currently have. Its slowed me down in terms of productivity, but its not the only thing to blame. I guess its fairly obvious that Blind Guardian monopolized nearly all of my listening time for the first month and a half of the year. It wasn’t just the amount that I devoted to their excellent new album Beyond the Red Mirror, but to the band’s entire discography in the weeks leading up to it. Its actually been difficult to quell my inner fandom and fit in time to listen to you know, other bands —- a distressing thing considering that so many notable releases came crashing out of the gate in 2015. I’m going to tackle two of the bigger ones right here, having felt that I’ve finally given each of them enough time to form a relatively solid opinion. If you’ve been as overwhelmed as I have, don’t look now, because March and April hold a string of major releases too. The march of time, it has begun!

 


 

Angra_SecretGarden_zpswudxbqfpAngra – Secret Garden: I was having a hard time determining where I stand with Angra… my history with the band really started with the Edu Falaschi Rebirth era and went backwards to explore their classic Andre Matos past. This was back in 2001 or so, and I was even more a fan of Rebirth’s subsequent followup, the near-perfect Temple of Shadows. But the next two albums pretty much lost me, and my interest in the band waned throughout the years. When I read that Edu went and jumped ship in 2012 I figured the scene was set for a potential Matos reunion, but it never materialized for various reasons, and that furthered my disillusionment. I was never a big fan of Fabio Leone or Rhapsody, disliking his particular vibrato and their songwriting approach, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about him joining the band. I quietly hoped that it would be similar to the Kamelot situation, Leone pinch hitting for a tour or two and the band getting a completely different permanent vocalist. Leone won the job however, Angra’s remaining original members Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro apparently deeming him close enough to Matos to get the job done.

Their first collaboration together, Secret Garden, is one of those unexpected success stories that a veteran band is able to deliver every now and then, like an aging veteran with a low RBI suddenly cranking out a few doubles, maybe even a triple (to keep this loose baseball metaphor going). Here you get everything you’ve come to expect from this band; great musicianship with a modest amount of prog-rock noodling, well crafted hooks that lean more rock than pop, tribal-esque drumming in spots (its back!), and of course crystalline production. But then we got all that with Aqua (2010) and Aurora Consurgens (2006) right? I’m sure there are people reading this who really enjoyed those albums, but I feel the songwriting on Secret Garden is sharper, the songs fully realized, and some even near transcendent.

I’m thinking right off the bat about “Storm of Emotions”, where it seems Leone and Bittencourt trade off lead vocals, the guitarist’s deeper, darker voice giving the mid-song bridge a bit of tortured drama that Leone simply can’t achieve. Its a stellar song, with a soaring yet heavyweight chorus that will sound great with a few thousand South American fans screaming along. And I’ll give credit to Leone where its due, his performance on this album is perhaps his best, Angra’s songwriting style forces him to reign it in and stick to a mid-tempo range. Whereas Leone had to do that with Kamelot on tour as well, their music was too dark for his vocal tone; Angra’s lighter, brighter approach tends to give his more helium based vocal tendencies room to play. He’s pretty great on “Newborn Me”, the single and album opener which is about as archetypal modern Angra as you can get —- notice his lack of extreme vibrato, even in spots where he would usually let it occur, one wonders if he wasn’t coached out of that in the studio here. His abilities really flex on “Black Hearted Soul”, the kind of old school power metal speedster that Rhapsody could just never seem to get right.

Its interesting that in Leone’s first outing as lead vocalist, he’s not given all of the running time. In addition to Bittencourt’s rather lengthy lead vocal sections (take a listen to his star-turn in the rather great “Violet Sky”… is it wrong that I sometimes wish he was handling all the lead vocals?), the actual title track of the album is sung largely by Simone Simons, who does a serviceable job to a relatively unremarkable song. Usually I enjoy her guest vocal spots, but there’s something missing on that song, perhaps its that she’s missing a proper duet partner to bounce off of ala Kamelot. It reminds me too much of an Epica song and that’s seemingly going to be an eternal stumbling block for me. The other guest vocal track fares much better, starring the one and only Doro Pesch in a duet with Bittencourt, “Crushing Room” is a slow burning bruiser of a song with a heart rending chorus.

Bittencourt takes the lead again on the album’s best cut, and one of Angra’s greatest gems of all time —- “Silent Call” is a moody, gentle ballad that has an eternal hook and a vocal melody that could melt the iciest of hearts. I would guess that Leone is providing backing vocal support on the lead in “ooohs”, but he’s seemingly buried in the mix. No matter, because Bittencourt’s lead will lock-in your attention with a gravity that only the best ballads can muster, his vocal rich and full of emotive infections. There’s something poignant and hopeful about this song, its melody able to tug your heartstrings without having to lean on melancholy, a very rare thing for rock and metal bands in general. Its so good I can’t see it missing the best songs of the year list (its early yet, but I’ll be listening to this gem years from now, a good sign surely). Still, that’s four songs out of ten where Leone wasn’t the lead vocalist, kind of unusual when you’re trying to introduce a “new” singer, but Bittencourt’s performances alone seem to justify it.

The band chose to depart from longtime producer Dennis Ward on Aqua, and here they skip to yet another new producer in Jens Bogren, who’s far more known for producing extreme metal artists. He unsurprisingly does a good job, although sometimes I wonder if a little less sheen and polish would’ve benefited the guitar sound —- more wild rock instead of Dream Theater-y tech in other words. Its a minor complaint for an otherwise strong album which is not a home run mind you, but the bases are loaded.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s99o09I7jNs&w=560&h=315]

 

 


 

 

OrdenOganRav_zpsftimq17qOrden Ogan – Ravenhead: Germany’s Orden Ogan is one of the more promising “new” bands in power metal, making a tremendous splash with 2012’s To The End album. I describe them as “new”, despite their first album being released over a decade ago in 2004… because in power metal, any band that arrived post-2000 is considered new in my book. That and they didn’t really reach my radar until their last album, a fantastic slice of classic 90s Blind Guardian, Rage, and a touch of Immortal-esque guitarwork. Those three bands are Orden’s musical touchstones as I hear them, vocalist/guitarist Sebastian Levermann sounding like a dead ringer for Rage’s Peavy Wagner, while the guitars sound like Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen decided to have a jam with Abbath. The riffing is sharp, precise, but on the right side of thrash-meets-technicality, and the songwriting is engineered to provide maximum hook impact during the choruses. One wonders why Thomen Stauch didn’t simply join these guys when he left Blind Guardian all those years ago, because they’re doing exactly what you’d figure he wanted his previous band to continue doing. Okay, so Orden Ogan won’t win any awards for originality, but they make up for that in their superior execution of a style that is damn difficult to get right.

I’ll say this right off the bat, Ravenhead isn’t as great as To The End, but that was going to be a tall order. It is a perfectly good album, with a handful of very good songs, but nothing that stands out as powerfully as “The Things We Believe In” or “Land of the Dead”, or with the shimmering melodies of “Take This Light” (which despite its cringe worthy lyrics was an incredibly affecting ballad). Its not for lack of trying though, because they get really close on the album opener title track “Ravenhead” where layered harmony vocals give the unbelievably catchy chorus an adrenaline kick. I like the mid-song change up on the slower bridge, replete with keyboard orchestrations and chanting vocals, its a nice twist that lends a bit of “epic” depth the song. The next track was the album’s lead single, the awfully named “F.E.V.E.R.”, and though I understand why they chose to release it first, with its ear-wormy call and response lyric, I think they overestimated just how endearing this song came out. Parts of it just feel unfinished, with riffs covering up moments where there should have been additional verse fragments. I was somewhat unimpressed with the song when I first saw the music video and after many repeat listens I think they should’ve gone with “Ravenhead” as the video song; but oh well, choosing singles is a challenge for any band or label.

There’s a real old-school Blind Guardian moment in “The Lake” at the 2:12 mark, where the band speeds up into a bridge built on cascading lead vocals and ultra-melodic guitar work, a fragment that reminds me of the middle of Guardian’s “Ashes to Ashes”. These out of nowhere change ups are noticeably absent in the work of inferior bands, but you’ll find a plethora of them in songs by the aforementioned Blind Guardian, Falconer, Nightwish, Sonata Arctica —- all the heavyweights in other words. As a songwriter alone Levermann belongs in those ranks, the fact that he’s an excellent guitarist and impassioned vocalist is just icing on the cake. Another surprising moment is the intro to “Here at the End of the World”, where we’re treated to a decidedly melo-death guitar barrage that owes more to In Flames and Dark Tranquility than German power metallers. Rest assured, the song veers sharply back into power metal soon after, with a chorus that is as BIG as they could envision it. My favorite song is “A Reason To Give”, a folky half power ballad, half stomping rocker with the album’s most memorable refrain. If this song doesn’t sell on you the band or Levermann’s talent as a vocalist, then you’ll have a hard time with anything else they do.

A couple criticisms though, they should’ve lost the squeaky old lady voice that introduced “Evil Lies In Every Man”, for while the song itself is half-baked at best, the aggravation that the intro causes prevents me from wanting to go back to the song at all. Its mid-tracklisting placement is bothersome as well, particularly when a really good song like “Sorrow Is Your Tale” is pushed so far back. I also wish that the instrumental “In Grief and Chains” was developed into something more fully realized, I’m not saying that it had to be transformed into a lyric laden song, but its a great riff/melody that seems tossed out on its own. I think with a little extra work it could’ve been the basis for a remarkable song, and that seems a shame. The album closer “Too Soon” suffers from the exact opposite, a song so overproduced that it loses any and all impact. Levermann over sings the chorus here, and the layered vocals weren’t necessary at all. The concluding guitar solo is fantastic, but it would’ve been way more dramatic if the rest of the song was stripped down, say piano and vocal only —- I’m just spitballing here, but as it is I didn’t enjoy it.

Orden Ogan’s gutsiest move this year was coming out with this album around the same time as Blind Guardian’s new one, and they’ll likely be overshadowed as a result. Its hard not to compare the two bands due to one’s influence over the other, but Orden didn’t do themselves any favors in not postponing their release towards, say March. If you haven’t heard the band at all yet, try To The End first, and if you have… well, Ravenhead’s worth a listen but if the budgets tight you can feel justified in holding off.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Yn6fR7CAD0&w=560&h=315]

 

Spring Cleaning Part Deux!: New Music from Dawn of Destiny / Sinbreed / Gamma Ray / Eldritch

Hey everyone, back again with the second installment of my attempt at plowing through the rather intimidatingly high number of noteworthy metal releases that have come out in just this first quarter of 2014. This really is becoming the year of power metal releases (although I’m told by someone in the know that the new Blind Guardian won’t be out until early 2015, major bummer). Power metal has dominated so much of my metal listening time as of late that I’ve only been able to review one extreme metal album this year (Behemoth’s The Satanist, in the first part of this feature). That of course will change with the upcoming Insomnium album (I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve anticipating that one), and hopefully the new Opeth album will arrive on time and make me love that band once again, but I’ve got enough to be going on with until then! Yes I know the Dawn of Destiny review is a tad longer than the others, but it was worth the extra white space. Straight to the point then:

 


 

 

Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R.: Almost every year, there’s a band that appears on my radar from seemingly out of nowhere, stunning me with an album so good that I have to kick myself for not realizing that they’ve been in existence for more than a few years already. Its the “cream rises to the top” metaphor in action —- a good band producing excellent work will ultimately reach my ears due to word of mouth. Its how most of us get to know the bands we love in the first place amidst a flood of metal releases. Its impossible to listen to everything, and if you try to get in on the ground floor of every promising new band, you really do run the risk of burning yourself out (as well as preventing yourself from enjoying what you’ve already heard), particularly if you make a habit of writing about metal bands.

 

Case in point is Germany’s Dawn of Destiny, a female fronted power metal band with a propensity for dark, moody drama. Fair warning, this is the only album I’ve heard from these guys as of yet, so I can’t review it based on its relative progression from its predecessors, but I can honestly say that I’ve been listening to it regularly for a few weeks now. What makes them stand out to me from the ever lengthening laundry list of female fronted metal bands are equally the vocal style of Jeanette Scherff, and the hook-minded songwriting of bassist and band founder Jens Faber. Scherff is unique in the area of female metal vocalists in that her voice avoids the polarities of being either commandingly operatic, or delicate and breathy. She resides in what is a largely unexplored middle ground, sounding at times like Ann Wilson fronting a metal band —- she certainly has the same level of power as Wilson, and at times an uncannily similar tone. Faber also contributes vocals, his abilities spanning from doomy death grunts to a rather uniquely strained clean vocal approach, he’s actually a good complement to Scherff.

 

Their individual talents are obvious, but its the quality songwriting by Faber that really melds everything together in an incredibly appealing way. He’s a confident songwriter, one who knows his melodies and hooks are so strong that he can allow himself to play around with some prog-metal ideas like tempo shifts, abrupt sideways ventures, and playful key changes. There are so many standout songs here, such as the goth-tinged “End this Nightmare”, with its softly building verses that glide over muted riffing and desolate keyboards to explode in a wonderfully grand chorus where Scherff’s vocals soar in a bombastic crescendo (Tuomas Holopainen would be proud!). Just as impressive are the lighter, poppier songs such as “Finally”, where Scherff and Faber trade off verse fragments only to join together on lead harmonies during the chorus, an impressive display of frenetically delivered precise enunciation over accelerating drum tempos. The finale of that track segues almost seamlessly into “Prayers”, another pop gem, where Scherff’s strong, confident vocals command your attention throughout (particularly on those strident verses). I love how unafraid Faber is of indulging his pop instincts here —- “Prayers” sometimes comes off as a tune that could fit in perfectly on the soundtrack to The Neverending Story, and that’s meant entirely as a compliment!

 

Its worth noting that the song off this album that initially caught my attention was actually one that paired Faber on co-lead vocals alongside guest vocalist Jon Oliva. Titled “No Hope For the Healing”, it serves as the centerpiece of the album; a wild Savatage-worthy epic with a chorus that grabs you by the throat. Faber’s vocals interplay excellently with Oliva’s chilling leads, particularly on the chorus where he sings the primary lyric hook with a soaring delivery —- both guys do a great job. Outside of Avantasia, I find that male/male duets are infrequent within metal, particularly ones this well executed (Oliva’s presence seems to inspire many songwriters, see his star guest spots on the Kamelot and yes, Avantasia records). Faber also takes center stage vocally on the lengthy “One Last Time”, which clocks in just under ten minutes. Normally these types of attempts are misses, but Faber nails it by packing in a plethora of relentlessly catchy refrains amidst his numerous tempo shifts and section changes.  But Scherff dominates the bulk of the album, and I really can’t get enough of her voice, she’s that good, and a breath of fresh air in a rather same-y female vocal arena.

 

The best thing I can say about F.E.A.R. is that I can play it straight through without skipping a single track, impressive for a record of thirteen songs. Bonus points to the band for having a big fat ZERO for the number of instrumental interlude tracks that they could have easily thrown on here —- this is after all a concept album (or at least a storyline driven affair, from what I gather lyrically). However I really could’ve done without the first 1:12 of the opening song “And with Silence Comes the Fear”, where the band commits what is by now becoming a bit of a Metal Pigeon no-no, the dreaded spoken word section. The music that comes right after it would have been a perfect start to the album, and I have to remind myself to fast forward ahead to it (as I’m sure anyone who listens to this record will). If any of you read my previous post, a review of Sonata Arctica’s new album, you’ll know that I’m beginning to have a rather low tolerance for spoken word shenanigans in my metal. Its rarely done well, and usually fails to offer anything in the way of replay value (Blind Guardian’s intro for Nightfall in Middle Earth is compulsory listening however!). Still, its only one misstep. Dawn of Destiny have released one of the best records of the year, a certain contender to make my Best of 2014 list, hopefully more people and media take note and these guys get some proper attention.

 

 

Sinbreed – Shadows: You’d be forgiven for never having heard of these guys before Marcus Siepen of Blind Guardian fame decided to join up with them. He wasn’t the first link to the mighty bards however, as Sinbreed has actually been an ongoing project of current Blind Guardian drummer Frederik Ehmke’s since 2005, together with vocalist Herbie Langhans, and guitarist Flo Laurin. They released an album back in 2010, and I’ll totally admit to missing that one (hey, Blind Guardian’s own At the Edge of Time cast a pretty large shadow over my listening time that year). What really got my attention, and that of many others was Siepen deciding to participate in this project —- after all, we’re talking about a guy who has been content to play only in one band for nearly thirty years with practically zero interest in doing anything else outside of that. Siepen is often forgotten when people pontificate about the supreme awesomeness that is Blind Guardian, as lead guitarist Andre Olbrich tends to take most of the glory (and to be honest, as a primary songwriter he probably should). However Siepen has been the Izzy to Olbrich’s Slash throughout Blind Guardian’s discography, at least playing-wise, being a razor sharp rhythm player who can deftly interplay with Olbrich’s twists, turns, and Brian May-isms.

 

On Sinbreed’s Shadows, he continues his blistering rhythm guitar attack but gets more time in the lead guitar category by the band’s tendency towards songwriting with lead harmonies in mind. This is meat and potatoes, riff-packed Euro-power metal like you’d expect, but slightly heavier and more minor key aggressive than many other bands in the genre. Think modern day Accept (particularly with Langhans dead-ringer vocal similarity to Mark Tornillo) mixed with the bottom heavy crunch of Falconer. And if that sounds like something that would bore you out of sheer familiarity, you might really want to give Shadows a try. There are some pretty good songs on offer here, no real duds, and awesome riffs a plenty. I’m particularly fond of “Leaving the Road”, where the band lets in a few rays of major key melodicism in the chorus as Langhans really shows off the potential of his range. Special kudos for the title track as well, which features an earworm of a refrain sandwiched between the most thrashy verse sections on the entire album. I also rather enjoyed the NWOBHM-ish intro to “London Moon”, a song that seems like it could’ve been a Maiden b-side in the Killers era (for the record I love Maiden’s b-sides).

 

This isn’t a complex album —- well, some of the riffs can be, but songwriting wise this is as basic as metal tends to get. But simplicity can be a hard thing to pull off, particularly in terms of delivering conviction. Sinbreed do an admirable job in that regard, and while this most likely won’t be a record that makes a lot of year end lists, I’ll probably be adding a few songs from it to my “road metal” playlist. Here’s hoping that this isn’t the last we hear of Siepen and Ehmke in 2014 —- new Blind Guardian album please! Don’t break the four year circle guys (wink)!

 

 

Gamma Ray – Empire of the Undead: Sometimes the problem writing reviews is that you stumble across an album where you really just don’t know what else you can state other than the obvious. I’ll shake my head and say, “No dummy, remember we’re assuming the reader hasn’t heard this album yet”, and force myself to continue. Now other than that you know I sometimes talk to myself while writing, you’ll perhaps empathize with me when you remember that Gamma Ray simply hasn’t changed much from album to album in the past decade. In fact, increases in production quality aside, Gamma Ray albums have been fairly linear affairs from one to the other, and that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been good —- but it does get hard to discuss in any remotely in-depth manner the particular intricacies of a new Gamma Ray offering.

 

You know Kai Hansen, you know how he writes for this band, and if you’ve forgotten then song titles like “Hellbent” (for metal, in case you were wondering), or “Empire Of The Undead” (what is this the Walking Dead? I’d like something a little more substantial from a guy like Kai, not horror cliches) will remind you soon enough. But being Kai Hansen, he will throw some curve balls our way that will either make you admire his free wheeling devil may care approach, or shake your head at his shenanigans. Take “Time For Deliverance” , a surprisingly mellow, Freddy Mercury inspired piano ballad that even features Queen-like layered backing vocals. When I first began listening to this track, I found myself rooting for it to work midway through, but sadly it lacks the required knockout hook in the refrain that would put it over the top. Everything sounds pretty, and Kai’s attempts at mellow vocals are not half bad, but without a strong chorus all these surrounding elements are simply cast adrift (also I’m not so sure Mercury himself would be utilizing words like deliverance, but I digress). I applaud the attempt, because its one of the only interesting things happening here.

 

I think my problem with modern day Gamma Ray (and I’m including the halfway successful attempt at a sequel to Land of the Free from a few years ago) is that Hansen seems so caught up in this idea that Gamma Ray had to “heavy” up their sound in the past decade, and in turn its led him down some songwriting dead ends. What made Somewhere Out In Space so truly great was its sense of wild, playful, uninhibited fun. The songwriting was a loose blend of classic power metal and 80’s Euro rock, the guitars blurring the line between riff and sustained melodic figures —- an insane song like “Beyond the Black Hole” felt like the sound of your head lifting off from your body. That particular era of Gamma Ray’s discography was close to perfect, and perhaps its unfair of me to compare new records to it (I suppose it brings to mind the discussion we had on Sonata Arctica last time). But that’s where I am with the band; I’m always interested in hearing their new stuff, I’m glad they’re still around and wish they’d tour the States more often, but their new stuff makes me long for the past, especially since those sounds of the past are getting harder and harder to find among any of the power metal elite.

 

 

Eldritch – Tasting the Tears: Eldritch have long been Italy’s metal secret, a band not named Rhapsody or Lacuna Coil that sails under the radar whilst releasing quality prog/power metal albums in fairly rapid succession. They don’t get a lot of press, not even in their home country, the glory being left for their overhyped and overblown countrymen. I myself always forget that Eldritch are from Italy, not the UK or Stateside, mainly due to Terence Holler’s vocals sounding like a blend of James LaBrie and Sebastian Bach. I have to admit I missed their last album Gaia’s Legacy, so I’m not sure how this new one measures up in terms of progression, but it certainly sounds like the Eldritch I remember. Take the more metallic side of Dream Theater, tone down the progressive noodling, increase the emphasis on catchy vocal hooks with some fairly strong melodic twists and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect here.

 

Much like Sinbreed’s Shadows, Eldritch deliver a consistent experience here, no real lows and a few standout cuts: I’m particularly fond of the title track, with its rather old school Stratovarius styled keyboards and Megadeth gun-metal grey guitar tones. And I wonder if I’m not the only one who feels that album opener “Inside You” could’ve been culled from Dream Theater’s Falling Into Infinity, down to the extending vocalizations of “I—-” in the chorus and the overall prog-meets-catchy song structure (really love the guitar solo that follows the instrumental break). Speaking of catchy songs, its worth noting that four cuts from this album clock in at under four minutes each, a rare feat for a prog-metal band, but something that I rather like. Rather than load down good songs with unnecessary instrumental baggage, Eldritch keep them lean and straight to the point, such as in “Waiting for Something”, which comes the closest to resembling a song you could hear on modern rock radio. If there’s a slight misstep here, its in the piano laced ballad “Iris”, which isn’t a bad song at all but just feels lacking —- piano ballads really need greater definition in their melodic hook (a bell curve instead of a small wave). As such the Goo Goo Dolls still hold the crown for greatest song with that name. Overall Tasting the Tears is a satisfying listen, if not quite a spectacular one.

Iced Earth Return with Plagues of Babylon

I just realized something —- this will be only the third time I’ve written solely about Iced Earth in the history of this blog, the first being Dystopia‘s inclusion on the Best of 2011 list, and the second being a 2012 gig report that turned into trip down memory lane back to 2004 when I saw Iced Earth cram close to a thousand Houstonians in a sweltering converted warehouse on the Glorious Burden tour during their Ripper Owens era. I only point it out because its a surprisingly small number for a band that is among my longest running fandoms, as well as an important part of my breaking away from mainstream metal in order to explore the European power metal scene in earnest. I’m certain everyone is aware of the many upheavals within the lineup the past few years but its worth pointing out yet again what a huge shot in the arm the addition of Stu Block has been —- simply in terms of making Iced Earth a fully functioning band again.

Unlike the sporadic live shows in the final years of the Barlow era, Iced Earth is now doing their longest full length world tours yet, and in the span of the past three years have released two studio albums and one live album/dvd. The music has also improved, the difference in quality night and day from the final Barlow offering, The Crucible of Man in 2008, to 2011’s Stu Block debut Dystopia. As I wrote in that linked 2012 article, the band looked fired up on stage, Jon Schaffer in particular looking noticeably happier. I felt happier myself witnessing that. It was a rebirth of a band that I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for in addition to simply being a fan, as I’d always felt that the struggle of Iced Earth to sustain themselves as an American power metal band during the dry spell of the mid-nineties mirrored what many of us stateside fans had to endure as well.

I was encouraged to hear by the middle of 2013 just how quickly the band was able to finish writing and start the recording of Plagues of Babylon, their second effort with Block. It was a sign that the Block-Schaffer partnership wasn’t fraying from the demands of the road, and that they were eager to parlay that enthusiasm into productive work. And tellingly on Plagues, they’ve either consciously or subconsciously brought their live sound to the recording studio. This is a noticeably rawer and grittier Iced Earth than we’ve heard on their past couple releases (specifically I’m referring to all their albums since 2001’s Horror Show). Speaking broadly, there’s a sense that they have carried the effects of their long touring over into the studio —- Iced Earth have always been far heavier and even thrashier live on stage than they’ve been on record. Here the band goes easy on layered choral vocals during refrains and excessive displays of major key melodicism, instead opting for gun metal grey riffs with slight melodic variations alongside mostly solitary lead vocals that recall to mind their classic Something Wicked and Dark Saga period. Overall there is a very stripped down and “live” approach being employed —- and its a darker album as a result.

 

The first four songs on the tracklisting are particularly apparent examples, the highlight among them being the adrenaline pumping “Democide”, as thrash metal-y as Iced Earth have sounded in years. Block’s solo lead vocals seem heftier and far more menacing here than on Dystopia, and again it reminds me of how he sounded when I saw him live. Its ironic then that Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch turns up in a guest spot on “Among the Living Dead”, where he doesn’t really add his trademark wall of sound vocal layering approach to the mix, instead merely offering up his own solo vocal counterpoints to Block’s. Honestly it took me a few listens to even spot Kursch’s usually instantly recognizable voice, and even after many, many listens I wonder if his talents are going under utilized here. But these thoughts are put aside by the time “The End?” kicks in, where Schaffer and lead guitarist Troy Seele deliver a lushly melodic array of guitar work to introduce some contrast to Block’s brutal take on clean vocals —- here he even delivers a near black metal styled scream midway through.

The band amps up the multitracked vocals on semi-ballad “If I Could See You”, a track that recalls “I Died For You” off the Dark Saga in a big way, not a bad thing mind you but its just another thing that ties this album’s sonic feel back to that era. And I particularly love the lush vocal layering on “Cthulhu”, where the refrain is so well written that it bleeds out emotion, despite being a song about a gigantic, mind-boggling octopus beast-god. Again referencing the past, it’s a quality song that would sound right at home on Horror Show (musically and thematically as well). But let’s face facts, eleven albums into their career no one is expecting Iced Earth to reinvent themselves, only to deliver the metallic goods so to speak. I think I could speak for Iced Earth fans if I suggest that all we want is a consistently good to great record that delivers all the trademarks we expect, with a high level of energy, and Plagues does deliver in that regard. Its not all perfect… I feel that the back to back pairing of both “Peacemaker” and “Parasite” tend to fall largely flat, but two out of twelve isn’t bad.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9unWRsD2QQM&w=560&h=320]

 

 

Now to discuss the obvious album highlight, which may irk some as its a cover, but the band’s take on “Highwayman” is nothing short of spectacular. This is of course the Jimmy Webb penned namesake track of the eighties super group of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash The song was fitting both lyrically and structurally for those singers, four country stars long pegged as outsiders in their own genre, four verses for each of them. Iced Earth invite some friends to flesh out their version of the classic, with Schaffer himself handling the first verse on lead vocals, followed by Symphony X’s Russell Allen, then Block, and finally rounded out by the distinctive country-punk twang of Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen. It really works, Schaffer has occasionally done some lead vocals on Iced Earth tracks here and there, so he has the chops to do it and sounds commanding here. Allen is of course a long ranged vocal dynamo, who even adds some of his trademark vocal run extensions despite only singing a few lines. Block’s verse might by my favorite, about the dam builder “Across the river, deep and wide / Where steel and water did collide”, his delivery touched with a hint of outlaw country and rock n’ roll abandon. Poulsen is admittedly an acquired taste, but I don’t mind a little Volbeat here and there and in small doses such as the concluding verse here he is a refreshing change up. They all do a great job.

This was among the first major metal releases of the year, and one of the first cannon shots representing what might be a banner year for power metal. With Plagues of Babylon, 2014 seems to be getting off to a strong start. Its not the best Iced Earth record ever, but its a solid, at times great album that I’m anticipating will sound even better on April 28th when I see them once again in Houston. I’m looking forward to finding out how my back and neck will hold up.

Wintersun’s Time I: A Review Without Puns

I’m not going to get into a history lesson here on the maddeningly long span of time (don’t… just, don’t) and events that marked this album’s journey to this one day, when it has finally met its release date. I will however take a moment to put the release of Time I in perspective, in order to illustrate  just why the near Chinese Democracy-like series of delays and pratfalls surrounding the album’s creation are such a big deal. Wintersun’s only other album, their self-titled debut, was released on September 13th of 2004, and for those of you too young to remember, here’s a short list of stuff that’s worth mentioning: In 2004, there was no YouTube; MySpace was the height of social media; Facebook had not yet been opened to the general public; the first I-Phone was still years away; Twitter had not yet been dreamed of; the term “App” had not yet entered our popular vocabulary; the world had not heard of Barack Obama; George W. Bush was still serving his first term, and Dimebag Darrell (R.I.P.) was still alive and rocking.

 

In summary, 2004 was a long goddamned time ago and those of us who have been waiting the long wait for a follow up to that excellent debut should be forgiven for getting a bit agitated, annoyed, apathetic, and just plain “blah” over the years. Genuine enthusiasm is really hard to keep up for that long a time. It was noticeable that in the days following July4th, when the official release date was announced that fan response was muted overall, and even my own lack of excitement for the album came as a surprise. Maybe it was all just a subconscious lowering of expectations, or maybe it was just being realistic. But as expected you can’t dampen people’s curiosity for long, as the release date got closer and the Nuclear Blast hype generator was switched on, fan excitement and anticipation for this album has launched an upward trajectory in particular through social media. As the accolades from the European press pour in with all manner of praise and hyperbole, I find myself far more interested in the opinions of fellow fans who have had to bite the patience bullet all these years.

 

Time I features the first half of a promised eighty minutes of new Wintersun music painstakingly crafted by vocalist/guitarist Jari Mäenpää. The most noticeable thing that can be said about whats on offer here is that the original Wintersun blend of melodic death metal with a touch of power metal has been turned on its head. Gone are the guitar driven styles of the debut, where riffs and six string virtuosity were the meat and potatoes of the songs — on Time I ornately layered orchestral keyboard arrangements are at the forefront of everything. As a result this new sound Wintersun is very much epic power metal blended with a heavy shot of melo-death. Yes there are still some heavy, punishing guitar riffs (in a crunchier tone than you’ll be expecting), but there’s more clean vocals here than grim screams — more orchestral bombast than wild, out of control guitar solos. You didn’t think he’d spend all this time just to write an exact copy of the first album right? Of course not, and while this may not exactly be night and day from old school Wintersun, it is something that can fairly be called a progression. Some people might not be able to get past this genre bending hurdle and I can understand why they would feel that way.

 

 

Fortunately for the rest of us who enjoy our over the top, ridiculously bombastic power metal, Time I delivers ear candy in loads. There’s only three real songs on this album, two being instrumentals, but the the length of those three ranging from eight to thirteen minutes makes up for the shallow track count. It clocks in at just over forty minutes of music and while that is relatively short for an album I find that I’m not dissatisfied with the length — this is only part one after all. The centerpiece here is “Sons of Winter and Stars”, a suite of four separate song sections of urgent pacing, soaring choruses delivered in Mäenpää’s unique deep timbre, amidst a clash of keyboard orchestras, guiding riffs, and an overload of melodies both Japanese and Scandinavian folk inspired. There’s quiet moments too where string backed atmospheric sections provide a backdrop to eerily sung vocals, the lyrics of which concern… well you could probably take a guess at it: the unrelenting march of time, vastness, longing, and despair. No ones really making a big deal about this being a thematic album, but you get the gist from listening to his very discernible words that there are some unifying themes at work within the lyrics. It all works and matches the sheer epic reach of the music quite well, and honestly what else was he going to sing about anyway?

 

My first impressions upon hearing this album was that I found myself genuinely having fun listening to it. I’ve been able to put this on repeat and catch multiple listens all the way through a few times in a row without tiring of it or feeling like its a chore to listen to — that’s a harder feat to accomplish than it seems. I suppose I’m biased with my power metal love, but this is the kind of stuff that’s right up my street. There’s only so many times one can use the words epic and bombastic to describe this record, but they are apt terms and are the record’s core strengths. Mäenpää doesn’t write the catchiest choruses, or deliver exceptionally heavy music even, but he does craft emotional, melancholic melodies on such an exceptional scale that he is in the top tier of songwriters within modern day metal. If I were to point out a particular highlight of this album, it’d have to be Mäenpää’s incredible clean vocals, they are deeper and more resonant than anything he has recorded for the debut or his work in Ensiferum. When I’m not listening to the album, its usually the passages with those clean vocal melodies than come racing back into my head.

 

This is a great record — or a great first half of a record. Time II is supposed to be coming out in early 2013 and once that’s out we’ll be able to put these two pieces together to see if the second half dampens the energy of the first. My doubts are erased however regarding Mäenpää’s abilities to continue to create musically diverse, engaging, and satisfying slabs of metal. The approach has changed for Wintersun but the results haven’t, and for that alone Mäenpää should be applauded. Does it sound like it was worth all those years of incubation? No it doesn’t. There’s nothing on offer here arrangement wise that hasn’t been matched or bettered by recent albums from Blind Guardian or Nightwish, but then again Wintersun didn’t have their budgets either. Oh well, better late than never they say, and Wintersun releasing one of the most fun-to-listen-to albums of 2012 is a victory worth acknowledging.

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