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.

The Mid-Year Reviews Cluster Catch Up

So I spent most of the past month mistakenly thinking that this summer was a little light on quality new music, and to a certain extent that’s right in terms of May and June. Fortunately for me I’ve taken advantage of the lull to do some digging on stuff I might have missed in the past six months in general. I discovered these through a variety of different sources, but mostly from my friends at /r/powermetal and its corresponding Dischord chat as well as the USPM Connection Facebook group, all of whom helped me out with a ton of suggestions for albums I’ve missed (for better and worse). I’ve picked out a handful of the most interesting ones, so I guess these are somewhat reviews but kinda also just straight up recommendations that I think are worth your time. I’ve also reviewed the new Khemmis and Kobra and the Lotus, two bands that I had previously heard of but have never written about or investigated too much until now. The nature of how I came to hear most of these bands is a microcosm of the very essence of this blog’s founding mission, namely being a conduit for word of mouth recommendations, from others to me, and hopefully myself to you.

 


 

 

Exlibris – Innertia:

Before we begin, a little clarification is necessary because there are two active metal bands based only a few hundred kilometers apart in Europe sharing the same name. Well, almost. So there’s Ex Libris, the Dutch symphonic metal band helmed by ex-Xandria vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen that’s active once more and in the process of crowdfunding a new album. Then there’s Exlibris, and the modern power metal band from Poland, and that’s who we’re talking about here with their new album Innertia. Poland has had a small yet noticeable impact on the power metal scene, the most notable band being Crystal Viper. There’s some much smaller profile Polish bands such as Gutter Sirens and Night Mistress, the latter of whom incidentally shared a vocalist in Krzysztof Sokołowski with Exlibris for a couple years and a few albums. He was a fairly proficient vocalist, but Exlibris have finally decided to take a big step apart and forward by recruiting a singer of their own in Finland’s own Riku Turunen, who turns out to be a remarkable talent. This is my introduction to him, but damn what an introduction. He’s got a nice blend of influences in his vocals, a blast of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammett’s raw power with a dash of Timo Kotipelto’s penchant for endearing phrasing of specific words and phrases. I really love his work all over this album, and he’s arriving at a time when a lot of us are looking around at the power metal landscape and wondering where the next powerhouse vocalists are —- as it turns out, there’s a load of them all over the globe, they’re just not getting the recognition they should.

 

As impressive as Turunen is, I don’t want to minimize what the band has accomplished with Innertia, because this is one of the most dazzling modern power metal albums I’ve heard in awhile. Its riffs are thick, meaty and Tad Morose level heavy at moments, but the songwriting is quick on its feet, throwing changes and abrupt shifts this way and that which keep things from getting plodding or staid. There’s a few songs here that evoke tinges of Theocracy’s blistering yet melodic rhythmic attack, the album leading “Harmony of Spheres” comes to mind with its airplane takeoff acceleration and lush vocal lift on the bridge. The mid-song shift to a regal symphonic metal breakdown (as close as it gets to such a strange concept anyway) is a nice diversion, something to lock in our attention as the song hits its final minutes. These guys do a lot of that, little musical ideas tossed in here and there that work to maximize the overall impact rather than simply standout on their own. I mentioned the backing/layered vocals a second ago, and I love that they’re confident enough to write with them as a major component of the songwriting at times, as on “Gravity” whose refrain is classic call and response hard rock theatrics —- the strident lead vocals up close and personal while the backing vocals handle the progression of the vocal melody driving things forward. While guitarist Daniel Lechmański and keyboardist Piotr Sikora help Turunen out on backing vox on most tracks, guest vocalist Ann Charlotte Wikström is heard on many spots throughout with assists on lead vocal lines as on album highlight “Shoot For the Sun”. Its a spectacular song and it really shines towards the end when she weaves around Turunen in a twisting, enjoining vocal dance to finish the track —- a gorgeously sublime moment.

 

The Sammett comparisons surface again in a positive way for much of “Incarnate”, and honestly it makes the Edguy/Avantasia fanboy inside nine kinds of giddy. I really love Sikora’s keyboard work, he’s really working a Jens Johansson approach here, not only for the flashy solos but in how he utilizes his keys largely as an orchestral instrument to help amplify Turunen’s vocal lines. His interplay with Lechmański’s guitarwork throughout the album is intriguing to behold on its own apart from the vocals, and when all three elements join up on the same melody as on the chorus for “Amorphous” the results are triumphant, fist in the air stuff. Great bands make choruses like these seem easy, but if you listen to enough mediocre, not-quite-there power/trad metal you’ll realize they’re enormously difficult. It takes vision to write something that has such a well-defined melodic arc, and I’d put Exlibris’ work on this album up there with the best of new Terje Haroy/Jacob Hansen era Pyramaze. I love that they’re not afraid of challenging themselves with complexity during their refrains either, as on “Origin of Decay” whose chorus is its own countermelody to the verse, a bold decision that works well, I enjoyed it so much that even the spoken word effects in the middle didn’t bother me (and they usually do). A day after I first heard this album I recorded a recent MSRcast where I prematurely spoke of Innertia as a casual summertime jam type of affair —- but subsequent listens have made a right fool out of me. I simply can’t say enough good things about this record right now, it came out of nowhere and just floored me. At this point I’m not just talking about Innertia being potentially the best power metal record of 2018, I’m talking about it being in the running for the best album of the year list period.

 

 

 

 

Kobra and the Lotus – Prevail II:

Another chapter in my ever expanding legacy of coming around to bands late, Kobra and the Lotus finally grabbed my attention with 2017’s Prevail. I heard that album when it came out last summer with a few cursory listens and came away surprised that I was enjoying parts of it, but it got lost in the shuffle of releases around the time and I never reviewed it. But there’s something happening here on its sequel that signals that perhaps the band is coming into their own creatively. Kobra Paige has always been an impressive vocalist, but for me this is the first time I’m hearing her vocals in a context that makes the most of their Doro-esque strength and vigor, her performance in this album at times even recalling the tensile flexibility of Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. The band shares credit in this too, giving her ample room to steer the melodic ship with her vocals, the often delightfully catchy riffs from Jasio Kulakowski working around her via accents and countermelodies. Its the sound of a band that has searched for and discovered its strengths over the course of a few albums and is now leaning into them hard.

 

The most vivid example of that realization is heard on “Let Me Love You”, as fine a single as we’ve heard all year and the kind of metal summertime jam where the lyrical matter doesn’t matter so much as the groove, the riff, and the killer hook does. I say lyrical matter doesn’t matter only because I don’t mind rock or metal bands singing about topics like love and romance, they’ve been doing it since Zeppelin and The Who. Yet a good many of the comments on YouTube for this song are from insecure boys opining that its subject matter is lame (or that dreaded dairy related adjective). Guys, its no more so than any other lyrical subject matter in metal, its 2018 and its past time to get over it. In fact, for the Metal Pigeon’s 2014 album of the year in Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter, a heavy emphasis on the subject of bad relationships was the emotional core that informed much of that album’s gorgeously manipulated rage and fury. Paige doesn’t quite achieve that same level of excellence all across Prevail II, but on this song she absolutely delivers in an angst-ridden paean to forlorn longing. She does the same on the Ville Valo meets Ann Wilson vibe of “Heartache” with a wonderful vocal on the chorus there, one written with exceptional care to squeeze every emotional drop from so few syllables.

 

On the heavier end, she’s gotten better at channeling mainline influences such as Halford and even a little Dickinson as her performances on “Human Empire” and “You’re Insane” can attest. Album opener “Losing My Humanity” is another highlight, being an example of one of my favorite trad metal songwriting techniques in a punishingly fast verse riff being followed by a slower tempo in the arena rock informed bridge and chorus. Its classic metal 101 but so challenging to pull off in a way that sounds effortless like it does here. A note about the production here, because I know that Jacob Hansen has his trademark sonic style that some find too polished and perfect (and its very apparent all over this album), but I think it really works for a band in this vein where the focus is on elevating Paige’s performances in a vocal melody driven context. Kobra and the Lotus have an intriguing future ahead of them, one that could end in either extreme because while I suspect their sound is accessible enough for anyone looking for well crafted melodic metal, its also a little too trad for alternative rock playlists and maybe even Active Rock and Sirius FM/Octane. They made a dent with “Light Me Up” last year, but a small one at that and its unfortunate that they’re not getting better results with the singles off Pt II. Its still early in the release cycle, so maybe a well chosen tour or two could change things, and I hope so because this album deserves more ears.

 

 

 

 

Thaurorod – Coast of Gold:

You ever have those moments where you’re at the grocery store, with your responsible list of low carb, sugar free groceries in your cart and you’re stocked up on organic chicken, avocados, bags of salad, some eggs (okay okay enough of the shopping list) and you pass by the cereal aisle and instead of  walking past like you’re supposed to you wander in and Assassin’s Creed past your better judgement to grab that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Yep, that’s me with the new (well, a February release) Thaurorod album, a blast of Euro-styled power metal cut from the late nineties glory era cloth. This is such a blatantly traditionalist power metal affair that it even goes for the jugular with the comic book-ish cover art featuring the band members drawn as enterprising seafarers (I guess?). Thankfully they steer clear of Alestorm territory, in fact this is actually a Finnish band but they sound closer to Freedom Call in sound and spirit rather than Sonata Arctica. What was interesting to learn upon closer inspection is that its kind of a side project of Joonas Pykälä-aho and Emil Pohjalainen from Amberian Dawn (drummer and guitarist respectively). Neither to my knowledge contribute to Amberian’s writing process so I take it they get their kicks here with a project that’s been going since 2005. This was one of the recommendations from the community at /r/PowerMetal, it came up when folks were discussing what they thought the best albums of the first half of the year were. I can easily understand why this was an oft-cited favorite, much like my Cinnamon Toast Crunch comparison, its the power metal equivalent to kiddish comfort food (the band name being a Tolkien reference is also a good way to get me to listen).

 

You’ll get my drift when you hear the album opener, suitably named “Power”, because this song is as the lyrics confirm, about “Power we need / Power we breathe / Power to break through the gates / To our dreams”. Oh and don’t misinterpret the tone of that sentence, because I’m not being snarky in anyway, I’m fully buying in here, even when the band makes the near fatal mistake of having built-in “hey! hey!” chant sections midway through the song (seriously, Thaurorod gets a pass because this song is so much fun, but note to bands, don’t do this!). Its power metal 101 to use “power” and “forever” liberally in lyrics, and these guys pack them both in a skyrocketing chorus. Pure power metal fun aside, there’s some depth and complexity to what they’re accomplishing on “24601”, a song that makes clever use of its title in a satisfyingly rhythmic way. What really sells it is the rough yet smooth vocals of Bosnian singer Andi Kravljača (if he sounds familiar its because he was on the first Seventh Wonder album pre-Tommy Karevik and did a stint with Silent Call for a few years), and he entirely makes up for the fact that they lifted the keyboard intro from Toto’s “Hold the Line”. I experienced a rush of joy listening to this record, and appreciate that the band just went for it full throttle, often in speed but always in displaying their clear cut love for all things classic power metal. Its not reinventing the wheel for sure, but its a pretty good wheel.

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Flight Orchestra – Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough:

The lovable Swedes are back yet again with a new album a little over a single year after the release of 2017’s Amber Galactic. It wasn’t but a few months ago that I was writing about them for the first time, not expecting that we’d get new music so quickly, but that facet alone is another detail in what makes The Night Flight Orchestra so convincing and compelling. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, rock bands would usually be releasing new music at a pretty swift clip, even the Scorpions only took two years between Animal Magnetism and Blackout, and that includes the delays from Klaus Meine almost losing his voice before the recording sessions. Iron Maiden of course knocked out three albums in yearly succession between 82-84, all while touring like madmen in between each release and somehow finding time to write and record new music rapidly, rest and vacations were considered part of the recording session experience (I suppose that’s why they’d decamp to the Bahamas but nevermind). The point is that back in that era to take three years or longer to do an album was seen as far too long to be away from your fans, it was just an aspect of rock culture that slowly ebbed away as the 90s came out and it was seen as okay to tour longer or use the EP or live album as a way to buy time. I’m not sure whether the band is doing it on purpose or not, but there’s something charming about Night Flight adhering to this ethos and work ethic, this being their fourth album in six years since the band’s inception —- pretty good for a “side project”.

 

That they’ve managed to get better and sound more confident with each passing release is also something to celebrate, and Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough expands upon the greater role of synths and keyboard driven melodies that we heard on Amber Galactic. Lead single/video track “Turn to Miami” is emblematic of this approach, with its suggestive, slinky synth lines and lyrics that declare “while the night is young / this is where we start”. Björn Strid is as usual accompanied by gorgeous backing vocals, provided here by the “Airline Annas” (Anna Brygård and Anna-Mia Bonde), a detail that might get overlooked in the artistic success of these songs. Its not to say that Strid isn’t a powerful and appealing clean vocalist in his own right, but the Airline Annas’ harmonies and independent vocal accompaniments layer on that extra sugar icing that buoy these songs from street level High Spirits throwback grit into something that is truly transcendent and of the spirit of that era. The hardest hitting song on the record is the title track, not only for its confident hard rock stridency, but because that chorus just impacts with precision, the Anna’s once again sealing its potency with well timed supporting harmonies.

 

And there’s something to “Lovers In the Rain”, a heavy synth drenched semi power ballad, the kind that had it come out in the early 80s would have irritated a few fans at first but slowly would win them over in private away from their buddies in the car. When it comes to “Barcelona”, we’re treated to a Journey-esque ode to one particular city that also serves as a metaphorical focal point for the narrator. Its the weakest song on the record but still manages to rock with early 80s conviction, and that says something about the overall quality of the album. The work this band has put into mining this particular vein of rock history has made them into one of the style’s strongest songwriting collectives. Case in point is just how interesting they manage to make the nine-minute plus “The Last of the Independent Romantics”, a running time that had me skeptical before I heard it. Here they marry the sounds of 80s rich royalty rock with the ambition of a 70s prog rock piece and keep it loaded with enough solid riffs and melodic shifts to keep us intrigued. This is a fun listen and if you haven’t gotten on board yet, this is the album to get first (and work your way backwards in order), Night Flight have transcended any jokey beginnings and have simply turned into a great band making a kind of music a lot of us miss.

 

 

 

 

 

Uada – Cult of a Dying Sun:

Portland’s Uada are an intriguing band, not for the hoods they wear in promo photos and apparently onstage as well (we’ll see, I’m catching them live in a few days time), but for their attempt at straddling the bridge connecting second wave black metal to its more melodically inclined modern evolution. This is their sophomore album, their debut Devoid of Light arriving in 2016 and in listening to the two back to back, you can see that they’ve made a significant leap in songwriting complexity in just this short span of time. The thing that I feel most critics of modern black metal miss is just how effective a crisp, clear production job can be to the overall impact of music as complex as this. Not everything should sound like a shrieking incoherent mess, and while that early second wave production style lent itself to what those artists were trying to accomplish (“Give me the wvurst microphone you have…”), a lot of us became fans of the modern style first and then went back to do our history homework with the more difficult to listen to stuff.

 

I have no idea what the members of Uada would cite as influences, and this being a short review I felt no need to research it, but I hear shades of Dissection (particularly in the wielding of melodic motifs throughout), a little Dimmu Borgir and even a bit of Inquisition. I’ve seen some criticism posted up about how these guys are aping Polish black metal band Mgla’s sound, and that’s some pretty accusatory stuff considering most metal bands are drawing influence from other metal bands. I took a listen to the last Mgla album to see what the fuss was about, and okay there’s some resemblance but honestly I prefer Uada for their deeper dive into unabashed melody. Take their melodic treatment of the tremolo buzzsaw cutting across most of “Snakes and Vultures”, its so earwormy in its own right that it works as the hook here, usurping the actual vocal refrain. And I love the almost melo-death approach on guitars in “Mirrors”, kind of a merging of two genres with its black metal song structure. This isn’t a perfect album, it starts off really strong for the first three tracks and then dips a bit in the middle (“The Wanderer” should have been left on the cutting room floor) only to perk up at the end, but its one of the few black metal records that’s intrigued me this year. Looking forward to seeing them, hoping for an entertaining show (remember, a good show needs anticipation or surprise!) and will be expecting even better things from these guys in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Khemmis – Desolation:

I had paid attention the last time Khemmis were making waves, about two years ago when they were in the spotlight for their sophomore release Hunted. I gave that album a shot and for some reason it just didn’t connect with me, and honestly their newest Desolation really took more than a handful of forced attempts at cracking its code before it finally started to grow on me. I’m not sure what my block is on this band (we briefly talked about this on the last MSRcast), but Desolation is the most accessible album for me from this band mainly because its the least doomy of all their work. I know its a bit ridiculous to come from having Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper on my best albums list last year, to now saying that Khemmis is giving me problems but that’s just the way my brain is working at the moment I guess. It was Adrian Begrand’s repeated Twitter statements on how “If you like traditional, escapist heavy metal, this is the one for you” that got me to stick with it, and kudos to him because I think I’m about 75-80% there. The stuff I’m responding positively to is the band’s increased trad metal infusion, particularly in the uptick in tempos all across these songs. There were flashes of that happening on their previous two albums, but here its the main feature, and it makes a huge difference in aligning their sound closer to bands like Grand Magus and Tyr, whom I both adore.

 

As usual Khemmis keeps the albums concise and tight (only six tracks here, ranging from four to nine minutes), its a practice that I sometimes think other bands should adopt, getting back to a more mid-80s/vinyl level of quality control, but I’m digressing. The album that I’m enjoying kicks off after the opening doom-laden track “Bloodletting” on the subsequent”Isolation” which really reminds me of Candlemass crossed with Iron Maiden. There’s a dueling guitar solo segment partway through that’s just fantastic, full of vigor and vibrant melodicism. It also contains vocalist Phil Pendergast’s best, most emotive work —- at times displaying shades of Tyr’s Heri Joensen and even Dio’s penchant for theatricality and rhythmic timing. You’ll hear more of that on “Flesh to Nothing”, particularly in the build up during the verses, and I get a real Hetfield vibe on “The Seer” that works to enhance its bite. Of course harsh vocalist Ben Hutcherson is the counterpoint here, and his raspy sheet metal scream is on point tonally and provides a nice change-up from time to time. If I’m being honest I wouldn’t mind Khemmis going full clean vocals in the future, but that’s just my power/trad metal loving side coming out. I’m still digesting this album fully, but the good news is that its something I’m willingly coming back to and its riffs are thundering in my head long after I’ve finished listening.

 

 

 

 

Frozen Crown – The Fallen King:

This was a nice surprise, another touted recommendation from the peeps at /r/PowerMetal, Frozen Crown are a power metal band from Italy that sound like they could be from the States or Canada. Its not that they don’t have the ability to show a little flashiness ala Rhapsody and co., as principal songwriter Federico Mondelli and his fellow guitarist Talia Bellazecca have enough bottled up technical virtuosity to trade spitfire solos and flex creatively with complex melodic patterns. But rather than layer it on thick, they have an innate USPM sense of keeping things scaled down, stripped back to the essentials —- so we get shreddy riffs but also vocal melody driven songwriting built on the strength of the relatively unknown Giada Etro’s emotive, throaty singing as well as Mondelli’s own solid clean-harsh range. What’s smart about their pairing is that they avoid beauty and the beast tropes by rarely trading off verses… this is largely Etro’s domain, the songs are almost all written to support her ability to soar into higher registers, but Mondelli provides a nice change of pace in select situations and also sparks a nice harmonic duet in the ballad “Chasing Lights”. That song in particular is used as a cleverly disguised segue into the sharp, aggressive epic “Queen of Blades”, one of the occasions where both vocalists do trade off a bit yet the overall vibe I get is more Unleash the Archers, not Nightwish.

 

Speaking of Archers, Etro has a touch of Brittney Hayes’ timbre to her vocals, but also a little of Kobra Paige’s smoothness, that ability to make emotive sweeps with little changes. I hear both “Across the Sea”, as Nightwish-esque as things get here (muted keyboard adorned verses, transitional bridge/chorus that pops), and I love the choice Etro makes with the sped up phrasing at the :59 to 1:04 mark (“I’m feeling frozen, I can’t hear my heart beating”), something I’d imagine that the master of that technique in Mr. Tony Kakko would be proud of. Sometimes as on the closing track “Netherstorm” I get the feeling that the band is attempting to find a place where melo-death and power metal can merge (that intersection of Wintersun and Skyfire), and they have a moment towards the end where the riffs have that Gothenberg density and are complemented by a gorgeously fluid lead melody over the top. Its not quite the integration they seek, but I think they’ll get there with future albums. Oh yeah, this is a debut by the way, it actually came out in February, but being that their label support is relatively small (Scarlet Records in Italy) its telling that they’re making lasting impressions in the online power metal community —- enough for a handful of people to remember it all these months later when pressed for recommendations. Its too early to call it, but there’s something happening within power metal that might be described as a nascent revitalization. I’m looking around at the artistic triumphs coming from the genre in the last few years as well as young rising bands like this and its starting to feel as exciting as 1998 again. To quote Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

 

 

 

 

Hoth – Astral Necromancy:

Oh get ready, this is a strange but good one, and I mean really strange and really good. This has become one of my favorites for 2018 overall, something I’ve been unable to stop listening to in the slightest (cool cover art too for bonus points). If the name wasn’t a tip off, Hoth are steeped in Star Wars mythology, particularly in their first two albums (this one seems to blend in some other lyrical topics, mainly, erm…. necromancy), and while its surprising that no band has really taken and run with that theme in earnest, its more surprising as to how Hoth have decided to go about it. Their interpretation of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is a soundscape of heavily major key infused black metal, and I’m not talking about symphonic arrangements ala Dimmu and others, but as in its core tremolo based guitar skeleton. We’ve talked about black metal set to major keys before, most notably in Deafheaven’s Sunbather, and it was a unique listening experience for sure, but I think that Hoth somehow make it even more interesting because they’re keeping with the darkness and not resorting to pastoral tones and colors. Make no mistake, the galaxy that Hoth want you to envision is bleak, unforgiving, icy cold (heh), and wickedly punishing.

 

On opener “Vengeance” they take a traditional black metal approach through the verses, but punctuate the bridge with some almost bark/shouted rhythmic vocal lines only to follow it up with a wildly noodley solo. Its a preview of things to come in that you’ll never really be able to predict where they’re going to take things musically —- unpredictability is their greatest strength. Take its jaw dropping follow-up “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” (that title is some Glen Cook level cosmic darkness!) where they switch up the attack with an almost trad/power metal rhythmic riff structure, one that reminds me of how Therion often surprises new listeners with their heavy 80s metal guitar approach instead of something more blackened or death metal-ish. I would call this a prog influenced track for its rising dramatic crescendo during the refrain but it might give you the wrong idea, this is very much a brutal and fierce piece of music. Elsewhere I was enthralled by their turn to pure power metal influences such as on “Ascension”, an appropriate title given the sudden sweeping nature of the guitar melodies herein, featuring a lead melody as gorgeous as anything conjured up by Opeth or Sorceror. It wouldn’t come as a surprise then for me to tell you that the guys on the /r/PowerMetal dischord recommended this one to me as well, and I find that harsh vocal based recommendations from power metal communities really hit me in my sweet spot (that ‘melodeath-ian nexus’ of everything I love about metal).

 

 

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