The Neapolitan Reviews Pack: New Darkthrone, Gloryhammer, and Aephanemer!

Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!


Darkthrone – Old Star:

The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.

One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?

Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.

Aephanemer – Prokopton:

I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.

One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.

The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.

Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:

I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.

I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.

That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.

The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part II: Everything Else I Didn’t Get To Earlier

Here we are, a final load of new releases from all over 2015 that I didn’t get around to reviewing upon their release for one reason or another, all stuff I’ve been listening to in varying amounts over the past few weeks and months. There’s way more on here than on part one of the Fall Reviews MegaCluster simply because I’ve committed to keeping these a bit shorter in length (200-400ish words, for realsies this time). But whereas last time all the reviews tended to be positive, that’s not quite the case here. I whittled down all the entries in the MegaCluster from a larger pool of about 30-40 albums —- chances are there’s going to be something I’ve missed that you had hoped to have reviewed here. But if I decided to eliminate something from the chosen few, its mainly because I didn’t get to spend enough time listening to it and you know me, I have a big problem with reviews where its obvious that the writer only listened to an album once. So here we go, the final reviews for 2015, the most exhausting year in metal I can ever remember.

 


 

 

 

Kylesa – Exhausting Fire:

I didn’t know much about Kylesa heading into the promo for Exhausting Fire, this their seventh studio album since their formation in 2001. I’ve learned since then that they’re from Savannah, Georgia, joining Christian power metallers Theocracy as the only metal bands I’ve known to come from the peach state. Well, is calling them metal going too far? I’m not really sure, because their mix of sludgey, doomy riffs is unrelentingly heavy and undeniably metal. Its during the other times, when their more spacey, reverb effect laden alternative rock side comes out where the issue gets clouded —- and the presence of dual gender vocals from bassist Philip Cope and guitarist Laura Pleasants harkens more to a rock feel for me than anything I’ve heard in metal. But I think that’s precisely why I’ve been so interested in this album since I first heard it back in September, because it simply doesn’t sound like anything else out there. I’m not even confident that I can describe it adequately with any sort of extravagant adjective abuse or metaphor, you really just have to listen to these guys.

And they’re worth listening to, because a song like “Shaping the Southern Sky” is so incredible, with a riff progression so catchy it will take mighty forces (like Abba!) to dislodge it from your head. I love Pleasants’ vocals here, her voice reminding me of a more aggressive Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), made all the more alluring with some reverse echo effects on her vocals to make her sound like she’s singing to you from beneath the surface of a swimming pool. As a three piece, Kylesa make an impressive racket, drummer Carl McGinley is jacked up on something, hopefully just adrenaline, but his beautifully recorded percussion is some of the most savage you’ll hear on any album this year. Together with Cope, they form a dominating rhythm section, fat with bottom end that physically shakes your speakers in rude rumbles. Pleasants’ guitar work is best described as heavily distorted psychedelia, a lot of cleanly picked patterns that float up gently as in “Falling”, or support more bass driven tunes like “Night Drive” with bizarre accents and exclamation points. When she and Cope join together for dual lead vocal passages, they don’t so much harmonize as simply sing next to one another (if that makes any sense), their voices never overlapping, one seemingly a split-nanosecond behind the other. It all amounts to a trippy experience, and fair warning if that’s not your thing… I suppose its worth saying that you need to be somewhat in the mood for music like this, but those moods do exist and luckily for us so does this out of nowhere crazy fun album.

 

The Takeaway: Dive right in if you’re a fan of sludge metal/rock, or even stoner doom in any of its incarnations. Tread carefully if you normally prefer more straight ahead melodic experiences, because while Kylesa do write melodic songs, they’re buried under layers of sonic debris (you’ll hear what I mean). Still that being said, worth your time to stream somewhere for free, and I wouldn’t recommend that if it wasn’t.

 

 

Stratovarius – Eternal:

Its been an eventful road towards album number fifteen for Finland’s original power metal export. We all know about the mid-2000’s intra-band turmoil that ultimately resulted in one spectacularly awful album and the departure of founding guitarist Timo Tolkki so I’ll sidestep the historical recap here. My own fandom of Stratovarius seemed to wane during that era as well, and not just because I found the whole thing silly and distasteful, but because at that time I happened to become a huge fan of Kamelot. After hearing albums like Epica and The Black Halo, it was hard to enjoy any of Stratovarius’ albums as much as I once did (and in a quirky bit of personal history I gave my entire Stratovarius collection to my current MSRcast cohost Cary!). Maybe that comes off as elitist but I still like the band and a smattering of their older classic songs (of which there are many), and ever since they moved on without Tolkki I’ve been quietly rooting for them. But Polaris (2009), Elysium (2011), and Nemesis (2013) didn’t wow me, they had their moments but even those seemed fleeting and dare I suggest, by the numbers? I didn’t even bother reviewing the latter two, mainly because I felt that I’d have nothing to say about them one way or another —- and I was trying to be conscious of the fact that perhaps they lost a key songwriting ingredient when Tolkki left. For better or worse, he was a major songwriting force for them, and it seems to have been a process of trial and error in determining who would fill the void within the band.

The answer it seems is not bassist Lauri Porra as Polaris seemed to suggest, but a largely contributions by Tolkki’s successor in guitarist Matias Kupiainen and the songwriting team-up of vocalist Timo Kotipelto with his solo project collaborator and ex-Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen, coupled with a song or two from Porra and longtime keyboardist Jens Johansson. Interestingly enough the Kotipelto/Liimatainen collaboration provides music for three songs entirely and lyrics for nearly the rest of them (save for songs penned solely by Johansson), and I suppose the band as a whole felt that those two guys were onto something with the pair of songs they contributed to the Nemesis album. Its a rarity in metal, let alone power metal for a band to have this many songwriters on board contributing whole songs to an album, and noteworthy for that alone I suppose. Whats encouraging is how surprised I am by how satisfying many of these songs are, they’ve got me paying attention for the first time in forever. I’m particularly fond of “My Eternal Dream” with its mix of minor and major key alterations, and a chorus that recalls the band’s classic Visions album. Ditto for “Shine In the Dark”, a relatively poppy song for Stratovarius but one where Kotipelto and Liimatainen dreamed up some awesome layered vocal melodies (great bridge on this one). Porra’s contribution “Lost Without A Trace” is fantastic as well, with a chorus built on a beautiful, emotional ascending vocal run that reminds you of just how talented Kotipelto truly is. Personal favorite comes in the oddly titled “My Line of Work”, another Kotipelto/Liimatainen number built on an addictive melodic riff pattern that enticingly reminds me of classic Sonata Arctica, which is never a bad thing.

 

The Takeaway: I gave this a cursory listen when it came out back around September or whenever (that month is covered in a haze now) and shelved it in favor of other priority releases… and I kinda regret it now. This is a feisty, swagger-filled, melodic-in-all-the-right-spots, truly excellent Stratovarius album; their first front to finish must listen since 2000’s Infinite, and that’s something I never thought I’d be able to say again. Glad to see the old masters refusing to go quietly in the night!

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Innuendo:

I’m a late comer to Amberian Dawn apparently, seeing as they’ve been around since 2006, have just released their seventh studio album Innuendo —- their second with vocalist Capri Virkkunen (so I’ve essentially missed an entire era of their history with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen). I could swear its a name that I’ve been familiar with, as in someone might’ve pointed them out to me and I had a conversation about them but never got around to actually listening to their music… it was probably Doctor Metal, because its usually Doctor Metal. I feel pretty lousy about missing out all this time, but once again this is another proven example of the cream rises to the top theory —- that a band doing good work will eventually reach my ears through word of mouth, and that its mostly okay to not be in on the ground floor of discovery (and now I get an entire discography to explore). What bugs me more than that however is that Amberian Dawn is a preciously rare example of a female fronted metal band doing something original and not just attempting to fit into the Nightwish / Epica / (insert band here) mold. I’ve read that primary songwriter/keyboardist Tuomas Seppala’s main influences are Ritchie Blackmore, Malmsteen, and Dio, and I totally hear those aspects, but it all makes complete sense when you throw in his non-metal inspiration of ABBA. Of course. Add to that Virkkunen’s pure pop background —- she started off in the late nineties releasing a pair of solo pop albums, made a few runs at Eurovision, and actually played the part of Frida Lyngstad in an ABBA musical (not sure if this was an off-broadway version of Mamma Mia or not). I noticed she has a Roxette cover on YouTube, now it really makes sense.

Her rich, dramatic, soaring vocal ability is perfect for the kind of dramatic yet upbeat, slightly symphonic metallic pop-rock that Seppala writes, and Virkkunen apparently functions as the sole lyricist, a rarity for most bands like this where the songwriter handles both the music and lyrics (ala Tuomas Holopainen). She’s a talented lyricist, writing convincingly about a range of emotions while adapting them to Seppala’s melodies quite nicely (I’m not wowed as much as I was by Triosphere’s Ida Haukland who seemed to have broader palette diction-wise, but Virkkunen offers some spectacular moments with clever phrasing). I’m a sucker for the kind of pomp and circumstance dramatic flair of “Fame & Gloria” and “Innuendo”, the latter of which features a really incredible major key shift in its bridge to chorus that’s surprisingly inventive. I’m very attached to “The Court of Mirror Hall”, where the ABBA influence really shines through and you could swear you’re listening to a forgotten cut by the Swedish gods, its got a rhythmic strut to its riff patterns that I love and Virkkunen’s alliterative vocal melodies are masterful. Speaking of channeling ABBA, how about the piano ballad “Angelique” and the ultra happy “Knock Knock Who’s There?” —- and look, I get that might be a bad thing for those of you who have no interest in anything that sounds remotely like ABBA (but let’s get one thing clear here, if all you know is “Dancing Queen” then go do your homework… I’m not kidding!). As you’d expect in a pop heavy context like this, the guitars are subservient to the keyboard and vocal melodies, but Emil Pohjalainen fills in the background really well, like a more refined Emppu Vuorinen, and sometimes as on “The Witchcraft” he’s able to steal the show with some delightful Malmsteen-esque patterns strewn across the song. But the album belongs to Virkkunen, who establishes herself as a supreme talent in the ranks of female vocalists in metal… she’s certainly got a fan in me.

 

The Takeaway: Check yourself for your pop tolerance levels before diving into this one but if you’re up for it then I definitely can’t recommend this enough. Fans of Amaranthe should take heed certainly, as well as those of you who thought Nightwish’s time with Anette Olzon yielded some pretty awesome results.

 

 

 

Hair of the Dog – The Siren’s Song:

For awhile there I couldn’t even remember where, when, or how I heard about Hair of the Dog, a Swedish throwback metallic, doom-kissed hard rock band that shockingly seem to be unsigned (they’re selling the album via bandcamp). I’ve narrowed it down to simply being a random promo that the MSRcast received that I loaded into my unruly new music iTunes playlist, because I certainly remember that it was a song called “You Soft Spoken Thing” that made me stop what I was doing and take notice of what I was listening to. Boasting one of the most amazing riffs I’ve heard all year, its representative of what Hair of the Dog are all about, that is a 70s inspired brew of Thin Lizzy, The Doors, and Black Sabbath put through a doom metal and psychedelic rock filter. These guys are from Edinburgh, Scotland, and while that’s not entirely implausible, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from I dunno… New Orleans, or Nashville even. Musically speaking its hard to detect any discernible UK characteristics to their sound, both musically and vocally —- their singer/guitarist Adam Holt sounds at times like a more controlled Jim Morrison if he was a southern rocker. His lyrics at times even owe more to regional American dialects than to anything from Scotland, and I’m not trying to suggest that’s he’s being disingenuous, because this kind of rock tends to be universal (take a listen to Gotthard, from Switzerland of all places), but its just a facet of this band that I find incredibly surprising.

They’re a trio, just guitar, bass, and drums, and they make the most out of that framework. Drummer Jon Holt (relation?) and bassist Iain Thomson make up an admirable rhythm section, but its Adam Holt whose guitar work demands most of the attention here. He’s just a superb riffer, and if he’s responsible for the songwriting (which seems likely) then apply that superlative to that as well. Personal favorites include “The Spell” where Holt kicks up the acceleration on a riff sequence that actually becomes the refrain; and “Don’t Know My Name” with its very Sabbath-esque riffs and quiet/loud verse to chorus dynamics (I get a real Doors vibe from this one). I quite like the eerie, backwoods swamp feel of the clean plucked intro to “My Only Home”, as well as the spooky, Blue Oyster Cult quality to “The Siren’s Song Pt.1” where Holt paints haunting melodic motifs with a minimalist’s brush, conjuring up gorgeous atmospherics with just a few notes. I’m surprised I enjoyed this album as much as I did, its a good collection of music in this particular style, but if I’m being honest its stuff I don’t normally listen to (feeling like I burned myself out on “rock” a long time ago, as strange as that sounds). That speaks volumes to me about the quality of the songwriting here, because ultimately that’s what its all about —- there are loads of bands that sound close to Hair of the Dog, but few of them have the chops to deliver compelling songs.
The Takeaway: One of those random out of nowhere albums that grabbed my attention in a year jammed full of releases, a feat in itself. This is exactly as described, so don’t head into this expecting something like Grand Magus, because Hair of the Dog is very much rock n’ roll with an emphasis on the roll. If you’re missing that in your rotation, you’d be negligent in not at least sampling this.

 

 

 

Circle II Circle – Reign of Darkness:

I have a soft spot for Zak Stevens’ post-Savatage project, the ever rotating cast that is Circle II Circle, not only because they charmingly seem to have attained some sort of perennial live slot at Wacken, but because after all these years they really are alone in creating this distinctive type of metal. One listen to a cut off this album will serve as enough of an example as to what I’m talking about —- largely minor key American styled melodic metal of the mid-tempo variety. Think 90s Savatage (duh!) and maybe a bit of Saigon Kick (for the  guitar tones anyway), and you’re pretty much on target for an accurate description of what Stevens and company are up to. Circle II Circle’s first two albums were largely written by his old Savatage bandmates Jon Oliva and Chris Caffrey, and they were pretty great as a result. Since then however, Stevens writing partner is his longtime bassist Mitch Stewart, who has the ability to hit upon some inspired riffs which lead to Stevens developing a few excellent vocal melodies or hooks. They’ve been working in tandem for five albums now, so they’ve developed a rapport and it seems like when they’re at their best they are outdoing themselves continually. Their problem is ultimately consistency, they can’t quite seem to spread that success across an entire album, and its been that way since 2006’s Burden of Proof.

Case in point is that there are really only a small handful of truly awesome cuts here, but man are they awesome: First up is the album opener (sans intro track, ugh) “Victim of the Night”, as classic sounding a Circle II Circle song as they’ve ever written with total minor key darkness on the verse and bridge section and a marginally brighter chorus (but only just). Somehow Stevens is able to hoist appealing, hummable vocal melodies above such an aggressive bed of riffs, with the band joining in on backup vocals to give that chorus a little bit of a lift. Even better is “Untold Dreams”, a semi-ballad that turns into an aggressive mid-tempo stomper with some of the album’s best moments. I love the way the backing vocals join in with Stevens at the end of the line “There’s a reason that I’ll always be… alone” (check the :47 second mark), their combined vibratos (or Stevens’ layered vocal tracks, whichever) making that a moment worth rewinding over and over for. The verses here are satisfyingly alliterative and the chorus is simply hookwormy, the kind that Stevens excels at like no one else. You’ll find another addictive chorus payoff in “Somewhere”, although some of the build up to it leaves a lot to be desired its still worth the effort because the vocal melody there is achingly emotive. The band gets a nice groove going on “Taken Away” with emphatic synchronous riffing leaving a lot of room for Stevens to carry the melodic load, I just wish there was a stronger hook at work here. As for everything else, its really just there, as in its unoffensive but not inspiring either —- just like the past four albums. Back in 2012 the band released a compilation album called Full Circle: The Best of Circle II Circle, and it was a near perfect cross-section of no frills American melodic metal. Circle II Circle’s unfortunate problem is their inability to write such a compilation album at will.

 

The Takeaway: I hate recommending someone to avoid listening to Circle II Circle, and for anyone new to the band I’d encourage them to check out the first two albums at the least, or even the respectably put together Full Circle compilation album. Download “Untold Dreams” and “Victim of the Night” off iTunes from this one for sure though.

 

 

 

Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable:

Credit goes to Fenriz and his amazing downloadable pirate radio show broadcasts, its through one of those episodes that I found out about Year of the Goat via a strikingly catchy song called “Riders of Vultures”. It appears at the end of this album but its not the only remarkable aspect of what may be one of the strongest records of the year. Whether or not you’ll find enjoyment in it depends on how much you’ve been able to get into this recent wave of retro occult rock. I’m of course referring to bands like Ghost, The Devil’s Blood, Orchid, Blues Pills (you get the idea); all rock and metal artists who’ve to varying degrees adapted a distinct sensibility born in the 70s, when the idea of introducing occult themes and marrying them to a distinct sound was entirely new territory. If you’ve been skeptical of some of the recent revivals (such as the odious purist 80s thrash metal wave) like I have then you might be naturally wary of this, but the occult rock revival seems to have a little more promise to it mainly because there’s so many styles of metal it can be mixed with —- In Solitude showed us as much with their excellent Sister album two years ago.

In fact, the aforementioned fellow Swedes might be the most apt to compare Year of the Goat to, as both In Solitude’s vocalist Pelle Ahman and Goat’s own creepy crooner Thomas Sabbathi share strong similarities in their singing styles, fragile and wavery while melodic. Sabbathi’s relatively flawed voice is strangely perfect for the type of loose, jangly, Blue Oyster Cult invoking rock n’ roll that Goat deliver here —- yes rock n’ roll, because while there are definitely metal riffs and songwriting tendencies to be found, there’s no way that a song like “The Wind” can’t be considered as such. The drums are played loose yet with an focus to its timekeeping back-beat, and bassist Tobias Resch plays off him like they’ve been jamming for a decade, keeping in rhythm, flourishing here and there to fill in voids —- they dance around each other gleefully. I like that the band is built on dual guitarists, Marcus Lundberg and Don Palmroos are a terrific tandem, moving from aggressive riffs to strum-based rhythm guitar, spitting out darkly gorgeous open chord patterns at will and generally just being more creative than other bands of this ilk tend to be. They’re as much a joy to listen to as Sabbathi, I particularly love their work on “Pillars of the South”, built upon their ascending and descending minor key harmonized riffing, dressed up during verses by spare harmonic patterns and finishing the song with wild Gn’R styled soloing. Their songwriting approach reminds me of the best qualities of The Darkness, that is writing with an eye towards memorable melodies, being unafraid of indulging in major chord hook-craft, all while playing loose and wild on guitars and vocals yet crisp and tight in the rhythm section. They seem to have figured out what their sweet spot is stylistically, allowing them to concentrate on quality songwriting to get the most out of it.

 

The Takeaway: I’ve been listening to this for nearly three months now in recurring fashion. Just when I think I’ve probably heard it enough I’ll hear one of its songs in my head and that craving will lead me right back into playing the entire thing all the way through. I’ve been skittish on the occult rock wave that seems to have brought record deals to countless bands, but The Unspeakable is an undeniably fantastic album, I even think I’m enjoying it more than In Solitude’s Sister which speaks volumes.

 

 

 

Leaves’ Eyes – King Of Kings:

I’ve always wanted to enjoy Leaves’ Eyes more than I actually do. I even saw them live once when they opened for Kamelot in 2007 (could be wrong about that year) and thought they were rather fun to see, Liv Kristine being an engaging frontwoman and Alexander Krull being the undeniable presence he always has been. Their studio albums are always produced well, sound great and their songwriting is largely good… a lame adjective sure but perhaps its the underlying issue, because they’ve never really done anything I can honestly call great. That trend continues with the history drenched King of Kings, a semi-concept album about the sagas of Harald Fairhair, Norway’s first king (which reminds me of Sabaton’s own Carolus Rex concept album, also about a king). While the subject matter does interest me, there’s nothing musically going on to distinguish it from the five other Leaves Eyes albums (especially the Celtic music soaked “Vengeance Venom”, why not go for something more Norwegian sounding as a cultural music touchstone to better serve the concept?). I cringe at having to criticize albums like this too, because I realize how increasingly rare it will be going forward to have new music released in this vein as the music industry continues to shrink and artists have to scale back their activities due to finances. Incidentally this is Leaves’ Eyes first album for AFM Records, having parted ways with Napalm, their label since the band’s inception. Seems counter intuitive for Napalm considering the roster they’ve been trying to cultivate, but maybe the band got tired of middling chart positions —- while on Napalm they had yet to really crack Germany (finally hitting number 15 on the Media Control charts there with this new album).

Its hard to deny the appeal of pop-driven songs like “The Waking Eye” and “King of Kings”, both advance songs (music video and lyric video respectively) for good reason. It struck me as I was listening to the latter along to its lyrics that one of the reasons I loved Sabaton’s aforementioned Carolus Rex so much was that its music really synced with the dramatic impact of the lyrics. Think about the title track and how its chorus (“I was chosen by heaven / Say my name when you pray / To the skies…”) came in with a sudden forcefulness, a slight increase in vocal delivery tempo backed up by a muscular layer of backing vocals. When you listen to “King of Kings”, ostensibly about the same kind of topic, the chorus seems relatively laissez-faire, entirely working against its lyrics: “Hail the forces / The first king of Norway / King of kings / Hail the fairest of Norsemen / The dragon / Victorious”. Far be it for me to assume anything on behalf of the songwriter, but I’d expect something with a little more gusto, a little more drive. Kristine sounds great however, so if you ignore the lyrics its all ice cream, but that disconnect that I’m perceiving here really detracts from any attempt at getting into the album’s concept. The Sabaton track was vivid and thrilling, its first person perspective really helped in pulling us into this lunatic’s worldview —- in contrast this Leaves’ Eyes song comes across a little like a cursory history lesson. Everywhere else things move along predictably, though there’s a fun, heavy guitar riff in “Edge of Steel” towards the end that perks up an otherwise unremarkable song. Also “Blazing Waters” seems to be an example of what these guys and gal should be trying more of, that is injecting a heck of a lot more aggression and uptempo riffing throughout. I’m sure a few people will read this review and disagree vehemently, and out of the admiration and respect I have for both Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull, I’m glad for that.

 

The Takeaway: Really did try with this one, giving it a few months to sink in by coming back to it every so often. It didn’t take, and I think its far inferior to Vinland Saga (still their best album to my ears). If you’ve enjoyed their previous albums in any substantial way you’ll be fine, otherwise consider Amberian Dawn for something a little different and unique in the way of female fronted metal (oh and Draconian as well!).

 

 

 

Gloryhammer – Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards:

I was told that I’d be remiss not to issue a review for the much ballyhooed Gloryhammer, a side project from Christopher Bowes of the abysmal Alestorm. I thought this was supposed to be a one-off thing, as they released a debut album in 2013 that I heard a few tracks from but I guess this is Bowes way of taking a break from half-hearted “pirate” metal and mediocre live shows. Kudos to him for that at least, because Gloryhammer is a far more intriguing project simply because he’s working with a better group of musicians, most noticeably vocalist Thomas Winkler, a relatively unknown guy from Switzerland who is actually pretty excellent, with incredible range and diversity in his singing styles. I know that most of the folks on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group were all about this Space 1992 album when it first dropped all those months ago. I saw a few posts on the group’s wall about it possibly being the best album of 2015 and that really did force my hand in actually hunting down a promo and giving it a shot despite my original intentions to ignore it entirely. I don’t know what I was expecting, I knew what I was walking into —- how much could I enjoy an album of self-professed “satirical power metal” anyway? As it turns out, not much at all.

Before you type that comment, I’ll point out one crucial thing: I’m not against anyone having fun, which seems to be the intent of this project (if not to capitalize on some sort of limited potential for irony-seeking cross-over success ala Dragonforce in 2006). I’m someone who thinks Manowar’s “Kings of Metal” is a fun album, grin-inducing in its best moments and containing a few songs worthy of fist-pumping and headbanging at a party or your buddy’s garage at 2am (if not quite at a $100 per ticket Manowar gig). And I’ll admit that when listening through this album I couldn’t help but enjoy “Universe on Fire” for its simple yet incredibly effective hook and refrain. But if Gloryhammer somehow stands out to you as an example of power metal done right… I’ll have to politely disagree. The knock on power metal has always seemed to be just how seriously its artists take their work, often times placing inordinate amounts of importance on their own made up story lines, or in the case of Dragonforce (one of the genre’s most popular exports, like it or not) the ludicrousness of how nonsensical the lyrics could be. We as power metal fans have heard these same old jabs time and time again, but what we get that everyone else on the outside looking in can never seemingly understand is that power metal is one of the last bastions in music that is free from irony and self-awareness.

That’s what allows me to connect with honest, open nerve ending songwriting such as on Avantasia’s twin releases The Wicked Symphony / Angel of Babylon, or sink deep into the fantastical, imaginative world of Nightwish as a metaphor for childhood nostalgia and lost innocence —- because I know that I’m listening to music that was created without a shred of irony, self-awareness, and detached cool. I get nothing out of the smirking, self-satisfied, satirical nature of Gloryhammer —- and maybe you do —- but to me its an exercise in pointlessness. Bowes only artistic ambition seems to be ascending to the title of metal’s Weird Al Yankovic. Congratulations, you’ve succeeded, and in the process we know nothing about what you really have to say as a musician and artist. One could argue, why does anyone have to say anything as an artist? Weird Al Yankovic just wants to make people laugh —- and you’d be right, he’s a funny guy… so am I supposed to be laughing or smirking while listening to Gloryhammer? Should I knowingly nod and say aloud, “Hah, these guys are taking the piss out of power metal bands like those idiots in Rhapsody, with their so-called cinematic Hollywood metal and stories of kingdoms and dragons and silky shirted Italian guys”. You know what, at least Rhapsody did something original and did it with conviction. They care about the stories they set to music and no one can deny they’ve worked hard at turning them into musical reality, regardless of whether or not you enjoy them or think they’re silly (and to be clear, I’m not really a fan). With all due respect to the USPMC guys because I really do enjoy the group, but if this is your best album of the year, you’re not looking hard enough for meaningful metal.

 

The Takeaway: No.

 

 

 

Deafheaven – New Bermuda:

I was asked by Morroweird (@michrzesz) on Twitter what I thought about the newest Deafheaven album, released back in early October. I hadn’t listened to it by the time he’d asked me later that month and honestly didn’t plan on it, having felt like I said all I ever wanted to say about Deafheaven already. But I’m an easy sell if someone actually wants my opinion (as opposed to me just forcefully throwing it out there), so I finally got around to giving it a few spins. First off I’ll have to acknowledge just how wrong my prediction was, as Morroweird pointed out, that the band would retreat further away from the metal aspects of their sound. Much to my surprise they’ve done the exact opposite, and though I could only guess at their motivations, I’m not sure they did themselves any favors here. For all my criticism of Deafheaven as a media darling, I had to admit that their 2013 album Sunbather had a few really stellar moments where their mix of dreamy shoegaze meshed with their major key take on black metal. Songs like “Dreamhouse” and the instrumental “Irresistible” were worth all the hoopla, even if the second half of the album lost my interest a bit. I’m re-listening to Sunbather right now as I type this sentence… its a strong record, as annoying as that still is to admit. I could’ve listened to an album full of nothing but melodies like those found in “Irresistible” actually.

So this followup then is simultaneously disappointing on a musical level and equally as puzzling for the absurd amount of praise its getting. My best of 2015 features are coming up next —- I purposefully delayed them to avoid getting lost in the flurry of year end lists that pollute your browser come early to mid December —- and I’ve stopped myself from looking at ANY year end lists (even Angry Metal Guy’s so you know I’m serious) until mine are complete just so I can make it easy on myself by not getting distracted with albums that I missed. But I’ve taken a gander at the New Bermuda page on Wikipedia and did a Google search and see it lighting up a ton of the usual suspects year end lists (Pitchfork (big surprise Stosuy), SPIN (Artists of the Year apparently), Stereogum, Rolling Stone). I’m suspecting the band to be an easy inclusion for a lot of these editors compiling these lists based on their name alone (imagine what they had to contend with in 2014 with no new Deafheaven to heap limitless praise upon, must’ve been tough), because if they were listening to the same album I was, I don’t see how anyone could dub this the best of the year by a long shot. Deafheaven have upped their metallic attack, relying more on integrated riff sequences with the occasional breath of air in the form of jangly open chord strumming. Instead of the fuzzy, dreamy hues of the last album we’re treated to what is largely a bleak, dark grey affair, one that seems out to impress upon people the validity of their self-professed metal roots.

Alright, its certainly more black metal than anything they’ve done before. The opener “Brought to the Water” sounds like pretty standard second wave Norwegian black metal until it reaches a few bridge sequences in the middle where bent chords shift away from the frenetic percussion and riffage to attempt to create some sort of dichotomous tonal separation (ie they try to start something and fail). Its an uninteresting clunker of a song, aimless and drifting in its meandering, slower moments, the only cool part coming at 5:38 when Kerry McCoy lurches in on a power chord to start the metal section again. The needlessly ten minute long “Luna” is essentially more of the same, except that its softer parts are even more meandering, serving only to work as foils to the introduction of a heavy sequence (this time an escalating chord progression). George Clarke’s vocals are once again a tinny, repetitive, pointless exercise —- are there people out there that enjoy his style and simultaneously dislike Dani Filth? Because a criticism of one is a criticism of the other (and to be fair to Dani, he does have a range and deviates within it a lot… Clarke seems unable). There’s actually a pretty good riff midway through “Baby Blue” but it doesn’t really set anything up and is repeated without purpose (no vocals over the top, so I assume the riff is supposed to convey something musical?… except that its not). Frustrating. The best part of the album comes at the 5:25 mark of “Come Back”, where the song shifts from more proving they can do it black metal to a largely hushed, ambient passage with soft, wistful guitar playing (they sound more comfortable doing this to be honest). Is it that they’re trying too hard or just didn’t realize that they had stumbled onto an actual sound they could work with on their last album? This is one of the more confusing releases of the year. Sorry Morroweird, I gave it a shot but didn’t expect to dislike this as much as I did.

 

The Takeaway: Avoid like the plague and check out Sunbather for a few interesting moments here and there. I think Deafheaven miscalculated, and whatever it was that they’re trying to accomplish here is misguided… they should’ve played to their strengths and drifted away from metallic elements, only using them as a brush or tone when needed. It worked for Alcest apparently. Not surprised that it made year end lists of mainstream publications though…they do have demographics to think about.

 

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