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.