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

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


Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest:

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

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

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

Vreid – Lifehunger:

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

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

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

Seventh Wonder – Tiara:

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

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

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

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

Lessons From Concert-Going

Its been a sweat filled, beer guzzling start to the summer for me, not only for the surprising intensity this early in our Houston HnH (heat and humidity), but for the four shows I’ve already attended in May and June alone, with one more on the horizon this next week (Hammerfall) and possibly another in July. As I’ve written before, I don’t normally write up show reviews because they’re usually uninteresting to read for anyone who wasn’t there, full of sycophantic blather about how the band “killed it” or any variation on butts being kicked. It was the type of stuff I loved reading when I was 18 —- the kind of die hard fan who’d show up to shows at 3pm to catch the band sound checking or loitering outside their bus. Back then I’d stay long after the headliners had left, not only to talk to the band members I hadn’t met before the gig, but to just linger and soak up the atmosphere and keep the night going. Such thoughts are unfathomable to me now, when the very thought of standing up front by the stage for all the openers just to be in a prime spot for the headliner sounds like a nightmare rather than a privilege. Most shows these days I don’t mind arriving to the venue a little bit later, to avoid rush hour traffic and miss an opener I didn’t care about, and I’ll usually leave right after the headliners make their final bow. Chances are I have to work the next day and/or my friggin knee is killing me. The in-show energy is reserved as well, kept for moments when I really get into it and with caution not to headbang my way into feeling awful in the morning. Moshing? No. Retired. Mosh retirement.

 

That being said, I do want to talk about something I’ve learned about the act of going to a metal show, or any show really, over the course of these past couple. Two were within five days of each other, one being an out of town trip with some rough conditions (more on that in a sec), and the other was a capstone celebration for a pair of friends who’d gotten married that same day. Ah concerts, things we music lovers look forward to sometimes more than album releases. You see the announcement months in advance, let yourself get excited and sometimes even fret about whether to buy the tickets ahead of time or trust in the low-ish attendance tendency of these small metal club shows to know you can just pay at the door the night of. Then you wait. Days before the show, you let yourself get excited again, start listening to the band you’re seeing to prepare a little, to whet the appetite to hear those songs live, and then its the show day and you’re standing there in front of a stage with a drum kit, some mics, and a few crew guys scurrying around setting everything up. Countless shows attended now and its never gotten old, and I’m always intrigued by every aspect of the shin-dig, from the way the bands choose to make their entrance, to the amount of dry ice fog they’re unfurling, to how much room they’re all gonna have to move around. Music nerd you see. I don’t think I’ve become jaded yet, even when I’m achingly tired, irritated that the soundcheck’s going on forever, and the openers were meh. I’m still at a show and damn its cool, its my decision to be there and I’m in a room full of (mostly) other people who get it.

 

In my experience, any disappointment surrounding a show is largely due to having to miss it thanks to some interceding combination of bad timing, unavoidable scheduling conflicts or the bummer of bummers, being strapped for cash. There is however that rare tragedy where you actually attend a show and walk out at the end feeling vaguely unsatisfied, or worse yet, apathetic and indifferent to what you’ve just witnessed. And look, we’re all a little hesitant to admit out loud when this happens for fear of looking and feeling like a sucker. The most egregious example however came during a December 2013 Finntroll headlining show. I had seen them way back in 2007 when Vreth had just joined up as the lead vocalist, and they were supporting their most vicious black metal infused album ever (Ur jordens djup). It was an incredible show, the band playing a tiny stage that barely rose a foot off the ground with all of us going nuts in front of them. My friend Matt got his shoulder dislocated at that show by a bruiser in the pit, dashed away to the back of the room, popped his shoulder back in place and bounded back in the crowd next to me. Insane. They rolled through two years later with Swallow the Sun and Moonsorrow and again it was all kinds of awesome brutality (sans injuries). The 2013 show however was abysmal. Gone was the raw, primal intensity that ran through those two performances, replaced instead with pandering to the Korpiklaani/Alestorm set, heavy on the keyboard humppa and the band all sporting fake elven ears. The band was going through the motions, Vreth was noticeably out of it, hungover or drunk as he admitted to my friends later. Not to get dramatic, but I don’t think any of us have listened to the band since.

 

 

Kamelot in Houston (May 2018) Credit: @wilkinson_image_designBut a band making a bad impression due to a combo of performance issues and aesthetic choices is admittedly an extreme outlier, and they certainly weren’t the problem when I left the House of Blues in Houston over a month ago on May 9th one song before Kamelot finished their headlining set. This is a band that can rightfully be called one of my favorite metal bands of the past decade plus, power metal stalwarts who towered mighty during their Roy Khan era, stumbled a bit after he left in 2011 but recovered with 2015’s excellent Haven album. I’ll say this, the band played well that night, Tommy Karevik was in as fine form of voice as he was on the past two times I’ve seen him, and they played to an appreciative audience. But I was a little unenthusiastic about the experience, mainly because I had taken a peek at the setlist ahead of time and noticed just how nearly identical it was to the last time I saw them in 2015. Nine songs were the same, and of the only four Khan era songs they played (down from seven the last time) all were cuts they had already played last time (and honestly on the tour before that back supporting Silverthorn in 2012 when I saw them in Austin). Now I get that three albums into the Karevik era, they’d naturally trim the Roy songs down a bit, but a little swapping in and out of classic Kamelot cuts would be preferable. Particularly for fans who’ve been around for awhile like myself. I was essentially seeing the same show from three years ago, with the exception of the new songs they added in from April’s The Shadow Theory.

 

What was missing from that Kamelot show was two factors that you at least require one of to be in play for a good concert experience —- namely, a sense of anticipation, or the element of surprise. The absolute best shows give you both, and those are rare gems that you should cherish and boast about loudly to friends during drunken reminiscing. With Kamelot, I knew the setlist going into it, and while I was mildly interested in hearing the new songs live, it wasn’t enough to overcome my dampened enthusiasm from knowing I was going to be hearing largely the same show yet again. There was zero sense of anticipation, but I bought the ticket well ahead of time, I was certainly not going to waste it. During the show however, there were no surprises —- the band played the same setlist that they were playing on every stop of their North American tour, no curve balls thrown in or new songs added or swapped out. The beats were the same within the show as well, Karevik with a piano only accompaniment for “Here Comes the Fall” so the rest of the band could take a water break, then there were the guest vocalist spots from Lauren Hart and Charlotte Wessels at all the expected moments. I know what you’re thinking, “Pigeon, this seems like disgruntled fan talk, not really a valid complaint about a band letting down an audience.” I’ll stop you right there. I am part of said audience. I take no especial pride in being a Kamelot fan longer than perhaps some of the other folks attending that show, but having that history with the band greatly exposed what was wrong with that show (and the band subsequently) to me whereas it may not have for someone excited to see them for the first time. Its the Iron Maiden dilemma just transposed to a smaller band (the grizzled Maiden show vet doesn’t need to hear “Iron Maiden” for the umpteenth time, but the fan seeing them for the first time is all about it).

 

My next show was a few weeks later, Tyr + Orphaned Land + Ghost Ship Octavius + Aeternam in Austin and it already had anticipation building up to feverish levels. It was a stupidly awesome bill, providing me with my first experience seeing Orphaned Land live, first time seeing the ascendant Aeternam (a Metal Pigeon Best of 2017 listee!), and another chance to see Tyr who I hadn’t seen since 2008 at Paganfest. I was hoping to rope in anyone to go check out the show with me but it would end up just being myself (my fellow MSRcast co-host having to bow out due to work obligations even though he badly wanted to go), so I made the road trip alone. Had to fight through a hot Texas Friday afternoon with rush hour traffic making it take well over an hour just to get out of Houston and its surrounding areas alone, but I made it to the venue just in time for doors to open. I was so incredibly giddy. I had blasted the combined Orphaned Land and Aeternam setlists on the way up to Austin, plus a spinning of Aeternam’s Moongod for the extra adrenaline. Both bands didn’t deviate from their expected setlists, but this time around the element of anticipation was so strong that knowing the songs ahead of time didn’t faze my enthusiasm. I was right upfront against the stage for Aeternam going nuts alongside one other guy while the rest of the crowd stood a little back, most voicing earlier within earshot about how they didn’t know who these guys were. One song in and they moved up with the pair of us, Aeternam winning them over with a no frills, heavy energy performance. I loved every second of it, this was a band that I didn’t realistically think would even tour, I didn’t even mind that they only got five songs worth of time.

 

 

Orphaned Land in Austin (May 2018)Seeing Orphaned Land take the stage made me feel a little like being eighteen again. It was surreal to finally see this band that I had been a massive fan of for such a long time since 2004 (more on that history here), and I’m not sure if there were any problems with the sound or if the band technically played well or not. I was on a high, just ecstatic that they were there and so was I, pressed against the stage and shouting along to these songs for the first time with other people who knew them (well, a good throng of us anyway, it was largely a Tyr crowd). At one point I made their guitarist Idan crack up when he saw how enthusiastic I was, giving him the metal horns (in my best Dio impersonation, throwing the horns directly at him). Their vocalist, the one and only Kobi Farhi said the band was going to be at their merch table directly after their set, and there I was, clutching a cold beer, with two Orphaned Land shirts slung over my shoulder (bought one for Cary, felt bad he was missing it), and shaking hands with every member of the band. I was admittedly a little star struck. Afterwards I ran into Achraf Loudiy from Aeternam in the stairwell/hallway of the venue and chatted for a bit, he remembered me from the crowd and seemed surprised that anyone knew who they were ahead of time. Oh I knew. He didn’t believe me when I told him I was jamming Moongod on the drive up from Houston. I’d like to think I helped him walk away with a good impression of Texas, enough to look forward to coming back one day (these guys work day jobs, he admitted its tough getting time off and schedules to line up).

 

The gig was already great, but it really was nice to be surprised (there it is!) with how solid Ghost Ship Octavius were live, like a groove based mid-period Paradise Lost, I enjoyed the rest of their set that I didn’t miss from hanging out with Orphaned Land in the back of the venue. Tyr were as enjoyable as I remembered, those excellent melodic group vocals being an absolute treat to experience live, and they played just about every classic Tyr cut you’d want to hear. I stumbled out at the end of the night achingly tired, having been up since 5am and having been to work earlier that day. A little detail about me, I’m really bad at tired long distance driving, prone to vision tunneling and highway hypnosis. I could chance it if someone was riding shotgun that could keep me awake and/or switch off with me, but that was no help to me this time. I had balked at the Austin weekend rates for hotels/motels when looking online, but someone tipped me off that the apartment complex literally right next to the venue had no entry gate and a load of guest parking spots where it would be safe to crash in your car for a few hours of sleep. I did this, occasionally woken up by a nearby car door shutting, but otherwise left alone. I left there sometime in the middle of the night well before dawn, a little better but still fatigued and made it thirty minutes outside of Austin to a Buc-ee’s in a highway town called Bastrop.

 

If you don’t know what a Buc-ee’s is, think of a 24 hour Texas sized gas station/convenience store with perhaps the cleanest restrooms you could imagine such a place having (seriously, they pride themselves on it). The parking lots of these highway Lothlóriens are obnoxiously large, and in the middle of the night, tired travelers often park at its far edges and get some sleep. The loitering State Troopers standing outside the store chatting and sipping coffee don’t care, they’d rather you sleep in your car there than wreck yourself or someone else on the road. I landed there and decked out for a few more hours, took advantage of everything Buc-ee’s can offer (cold water on my face, large coffee, protein snack kit and some cookies because I already had carb-y beers that night so screw it) and hit the road to Houston with podcasts playing to keep my mind focused. When I finally arrived home, I laid on my bed and felt the urge to once again hear the music that I had just heard that night, something that I never ever do. But I put on Orphaned Land and Aeternam and Tyr on shuffle and fell asleep to those bands, wanting to revisit such a great show in any way possible. It was a classic gig in my book, that perfect combination of anticipation and reward, it outweighed anything negative surrounding the show (the tiredness and the travel and having to go it solo).

 

 

Satyricon Houston (May 2018)Four days later I was heading out to Satyricon at a venue north of downtown Houston I’d never been to before. With me were three friends, two of whom had just gotten officially married earlier that day. Yes they were going to a black metal concert on their wedding night, and the groom was fired up in particular about seeing the band for the first time (he is a big, big fan). We all had a good idea of the setlist ahead of time, my only quibble being that it seemed like they were skipping playing “Now Diabolical” on this tour. Its been said by the band no less that this would be their likely last North American tour, for reasons that they’ve not gone deeply into but I think are largely business oriented at heart. They don’t get big crowds in the US, not like those in Europe, and its understandable that this late in their career they’d want to avoid spending a lot of time and money for little reward. Whatever the reason, we knew this was the last chance we’d have to see them. I’d seen the band twice before, but was still left feeling that this was going to be a momentous, memorable show just for the magnitude of its finality for us. But sometimes the best part about a show is everything else around it not related to the band or the performance —- it was fun to experience a new (and cool) venue, hang out at the nice patio bar built right next to it before and after the show picking craft beers off a gaudy flatscreen TV menu. It was an altogether different kind of celebratory feel to see my newly married friends rockin’ out right up front and center in front of Satyr in a state of near delirium. I was happy that they were that ecstatic. The bonus was that the band did throw some surprises our way in the setlist (they played “Now Diabolical” for one), and Frost came out from behind his drum kit to lead us in some strange, foot stomping crowd chant while Satyr politely tried to hide his amused grin.

 

I think in considering my Austin experience (Tyr/Orphaned Land) and the Satyricon show, it was revealing in just how much I was able to enjoy them despite the solo nature of the former and the extremely social nature of the latter. I’m not a psychologist nor would I attempt to armchair that subject even a little, but being able to get rich, positive experiences out of both of them further reinforces my belief that you simply have to have one of those two crucial elements. Anticipation or surprise. And they can both manifest in a variety of unexpected ways —- surprises don’t always need to come from rotating setlists, or even from the band themselves. They could come from the venue, or the people you meet, or the energy you’re feeling during the show, maybe even the food you ate. One of my most memorable show memories was seeing Dio fronting Heaven and Hell in 2008 on the Metal Masters tour at an outdoor amphitheater, singing the opening lines to “Heaven and Hell” itself while blackened grey clouds in the distance behind the stage crackled with lightning. It was this unexpectedly epic backdrop to one of the most epic metal songs ever, with Ronnie James freakin’ Dio singing it in front of us. Unreal. Another was seeing Watain in Austin in the courtyard of an outdoor club under waves of torrential downpour, a small pocket of fans under the awning at the front of the stage and everyone else back inside the club itself, watching from the doorway. Ages back I had a bunch of free tickets to go see Poison at the same amphitheater I’d later see Dio conjure up storms at, and I convinced a bunch of co-workers at the time to go with me. We had a blast, sitting at the top of the hill, imbibing the mind altering substances of youth while laughing and attempting to snake dance along to “Talk Dirty to Me”.

 

Anticipation can sometimes be a hard thing to perceive correctly, it isn’t enough to merely tell yourself and others that you’re looking forward to going to a show, you have to internalize and feel it within. Case in point was seeing Insomnium the other night here in town. I went with two of the same friends I went to Satyricon with, we even had time to get some phở beforehand. All seemed well but our enthusiasm in seeing Insomnium was a little worn away by having to deal with a bill that was way too loaded, and not in the good way. Three decent to downright awful local bands played before tour openers Oceans of Slumber (the hometown band gone global) took the stage. The venue, my local favorite, also took the weird step of having tables out where the middle of the floor was which made it worryingly dangerous when some idiots tried to start a mosh pit among the oh, thirty to forty of us who were standing in front of the stage during Insomnium’s set. I was exhausted from working earlier that day, seemed like most of the crowd was as well (being a weeknight didn’t help), and despite the band playing extremely well and wringing out the most energy they possibly could from us, I didn’t feel that same kinetic spark that I did the first time I saw them while opening for Epica a few years back. It really wasn’t the band’s fault —- the crowd was weird. A mix of really exhausted people just standing in the back with beers in hand, some of us exhausted folks up front, our agitation exacerbated by mosh pit starters and terrible local metal bands (I may write about this at some point, but I’m over supporting local metal). One guy was simply waiting for “While We Sleep” to attempt to start his bro-pit like this was some hardcore show. He received a prompt telling off by MetalGeeks host RedVikingDave (seriously, no one piss off Dave, he’s frightening).

 

I’m about to see Hammerfall in a few days. I had a great time seeing them almost exactly a year ago at the same venue they’re going to be playing this coming week. It was an electric, highly enthusiastic performance that engendered a similar response from the crowd, Hammerfall is nothing if not masterful stage performers. I’ve been looking forward to it to a certain extent, but I know from hearing a friend talking about it that the setlist is largely the same. This time around I’m kinda okay with that because it was such a great setlist last year… doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know but I suspect that each band creates different levels of expectations for lack of a better term. One might suggest that it will be hard for Hammerfall to live up to last year’s show, that it might be the metaphorical second slice of pizza (no matter how good it is, its not as amazing as the first). I’m okay with accepting that as a possible reality, I’ll be heading into this show ready for anything and expecting that it will simply be a good time. It could be possible that there’s a third way of ensuring that a show is enjoyable, and that’s in surrendering one’s reliance on anticipation and surprise, but that might require a level of inner zen that I haven’t figured out how to unlock yet. Maybe getting to that show zen is about focusing less on the things that irritate you, and more on the things that captivated you when you were eighteen and everything onstage seemed a little mystical. Maybe it requires engaging one’s imagination —- so Hammerfall weren’t just bumming around their tour bus, rolling out of their bunks and clambering onto the stage. Nope, they were just standing on that hammer of ice from the “Blood Bound” video and some cosmic portal has opened up and suddenly they’re here in front of me, icicles clinging to their hair and frost covering their guitars…

 

Kamelot Meets Frasier: The Shadow Theory

Kamelot The Shadow TheoryOne of the year’s biggest releases, at least in the prog/power metal world, The Shadow Theory is Kamelot’s third album in the Tommy Karevik era, and their twelfth overall. It was on their third album Siége Perilous where they first introduced the much loved Roy Khan as their vocalist, but it wasn’t until its follow-up (The aptly named The Fourth Legacy) where Khan’s inclusion as a co-songwriter finally created the Kamelot magic we all love. The Khan/Thomas Youngblood songwriting duo wouldn’t suffer the expected sophomore slump either, delivering in succession albums that ranged from excellent (Karma, Ghost Opera) to downright masterful (Epica, The Black Halo). Similarly, Karevik’s first album with the band mirrored Khan’s nearly non-existent songwriting presence on Siége Perilous, as Silverthorn was an awkward, clunky affair that really could’ve used more of the new guy’s input. But just like Khan’s true unveiling on The Fourth Legacy, Karevik’s ground floor role in crafting the songs for his sophomore effort in Haven resulted in the band’s strongest album in a decade. I mention this emergent symmetry not only to point out just how much time I have on my hands to think about such things, but also to sketch out just where my expectation level was for The Shadow Theory.

 

Now I know what some of you are thinking, that this symmetry only works if you consider Haven on par with The Fourth Legacy, and truth be told Haven suffered from a few noticeable flaws, despite its largely excellent collection of songs. I wrote about this at length in my original review for that album, but the gist of it was that the band sounded inspired and reinvigorated when their songwriting leaned into Karevik’s ability to sing in higher registers. The songs that ended up being duds were the few that seemed to lack  major key melodies and power metal lift, and seemed to lean more towards an approach that I referred to as “faux-heaviness”. I’m thinking specifically of cuts like “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” and the dreadful, industrial tinged “Revolution” (my nominee for most disappointing Kamelot song of all time). But fears that maybe the album hadn’t aged well were dispelled when I was playing it in the weeks leading up to the release of The Shadow Theory, if anything, these recent spins have reinforced my belief that its one of the band’s strongest albums. Two weak songs aren’t enough to dislodge that status, but I might have been naive in thinking that they were simply vestiges of the downtuned, minor-key driven later Roy Khan era that Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai had gotten used to writing in.

 

 

Kamelot 2018What I’m realizing after the umpteenth listen through this new album is that Karevik’s mighty vocal power and ability to sing sustained vocals in a higher register weren’t quite enough to completely shake those darker tendencies from Kamelot’s songwriting approach. Not only does The Shadow Theory not hit the same major key heights as Haven, but it doesn’t hit the same sustained emotional heights either as a result. My theory last time around was based around the possibility that Youngblood and Palotai were in the process of breaking out of songwriting tendencies that were built up over time that naturally resulted in darker albums —- their way of adjusting to Khan’s increasing preference (and controversial speculation here, his declining range) for a lower to middle register vocal approach. But I think I may have overlooked something else entirely that smacked me in the face when I went back recently to read/watch a bunch of interviews with Youngblood. He said in response to several questions over those interviews that the band moved away from their more mythological/fantastical lyrical imagery because they found it limiting over time. In interviews for the new album, he was keen to discuss the Carl Jung based conceptual angle behind The Shadow Theory, relating it to the state of the world at present and how we relate to it (ie social media, etc). In one interview he even defended the band’s name, acknowledging the Arthurian mythology influence, but effectively brushing past it by suggesting the band had moved on topically (and that basically its just a brand name).

 

While those comments might hurt the heart of many an old school Kamelot devotee, I can see where he’s coming from. Its fair that the band would want to gradually evolve away from those types of lyrics, imagery, and concepts. I’d argue their first foray into really dark territory occurred as long ago as 2005 on the second half of their Faustian concept with The Black Halo, a darker, less playful affair than Epica, but perhaps more intense and haunting as a result. But even on those records, they framed the darkness in a literary landscape that put its characters in a relatively fantastical and mythic setting and time period. Even Silverthorn was set in the 19th century amidst the intrigue of a wealthy family (if the “Sacrimony” video was anything to go by), its gorgeous ballad “Song For Jolee” referring to a “…princess captured in a wooden frame”. The lyrics on some of the best songs on Haven also invoked this kind of old world, fantasy-steeped imagery, “Fallen Star” pleading to “the kings and the queens of the dawn”;  “End of Innocence” sees Karevik invoke Prince Charming with “A kiss on the lips / Turned the toad to a prince”. There’s more examples, but my point is that this kind of romantic, melodramatic, renaissance tinged imagery has continued despite the change in album art from royal purple hand drawn covers to more modern, metallic gray sci-fi inspired artwork; its a fundamental part of the band’s DNA, a part of their genetic code that pushes them towards rich melodicism, soaring choruses, and a sense of high drama.

 

 

Kamelot 2018Thematically and to a certain degree lyrically, The Shadow Theory sees the band attempting to try something entirely new by framing the album in a very modern, nearly science-fiction setting. In some sense its their music catching up to the visual style we’ve seen in some of their recent music videos, and its certainly reflected heavily in the dystopian drenched video for the first single “Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)”. Its a wise choice for a single as its one of the album’s best cuts, a spiritual cousin to previous storming album openers in “March of Mephisto”/”The Great Pandemonium”, and like those songs it uses strong imagery rooted in the band’s DNA to offset its larger, more abstract lyrical matter: “…In ambrosial grace / No applause for the old pantomime…”. Its a small thing to fixate on perhaps, given just how bracing this song is from a purely symphonic power metal perspective, but its also the introduction to The Shadow Theory’s far more modern lyrical concerns. The Jungian Shadow is a complex and in depth topic, worthy of being used as the basis for a thematic album (important to note that this is not a traditional concept album), but Kamelot very much use our modern day, real life problems of social media anxiety, technologically induced disassociation, negative group think, and media manipulation as the vehicle for exploring these ideas.

 

When they are able to strike a balance between this modern setting and the old world Kamelot DNA, they strike gold, as on “Ravenlight”, a song where Karevik sounds as close to Khan as he possibly can (perhaps a byproduct of said DNA…?). His lyrics during the verses are pure classic Kamelot, “Silent tears / In a sea of sorrow / If only God would talk to me / And promise me tomorrow”, and reinforced by beautiful imagery in the refrain, “In Ravenlight, you came to me / From silence rose, a symphony / of coming winters white”. Its a dark song, but it reminds me of the balance they were able to strike on the best moments on Poetry For The Poisoned, matching that darkness with decadent caramel drizzles of bright melody. We hear more of this on “Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)”, an epic symphonic ushered romp that sounds refreshingly like something from the Karma era, propelled by dueling vocal and string melodies that careen gracefully through the air. Karevik’s lyrics here are gorgeous, painting the portrait of a sunlit memory breaking through the oppressive hazy darkness, “Come day, come night, my crimson bride / Is dancing on the fields of gold”. I love this song, its regal and resplendent and reminds me of all the reasons I originally fell under this band’s spell.

 

 

Beyond the Black's Jennifer HabenPerhaps nowhere does the sunlight breakthrough more than on the glorious duet sung ballad “In Twilight Hours”, one that should be in serious consideration for our hypothetical top five Kamelot ballads discussion. Karevik delivers an impassioned vocal, and he’s matched in kind by Beyond The Black’s Jennifer Haben whose own vocals are the perfect balance of ethereal and earthy, resulting in a crystalline quality to her phrasing. Its a majestic song, centered around a cinematic, fully-arcing chorus crafted almost solely around their conjoined vocal melody —- but the emotional build up in the verses is perhaps more impressive, utilizing Palotai’s understated, sombre piano fragments and a sense of quiet, hushed dynamics that Kamelot have made a history of owning (recalling immediately classic ballads “Wander” and “On The Coldest Winter Night”). When Youngblood finally crashes in with his vocal melody echoing guitar solo, its almost cathartic in its emotional weight, the guitarist proving once again that his understanding of restraint and release is central to Kamelot’s musical power. I also really enjoyed “Stories Unheard”, a unique track that while not as magnetic as its peers described above, certainly has something charming working for it, a combination of its many disparate elements —- the music box emulating intro is immediately intriguing, keeping our attention long enough for the chorus to wallop us.

 

Then there’s the flip side, and its far more problematic here than on Haven, where the band leans into a darker musical approach, one where the melodies don’t get the spotlight, shunted aside for pure metallic aggression. I’ve said this before, but heavy riffs and pinch harmonics aren’t why we listen to this band —- there’s loads of other bands who do that well, but few can match Kamelot at their own strength. We get a dose of this aggression in “Kevlar Skin”, and it makes for an underwhelming song, with a hook that never seems to take off under the weight of its awkward melodic angle and lack of adequate build up in the verses or via a bridge. I’m not wild on the lyrics either, the imagery very sci-fi inspired, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but I just think the choice of diction limits the direction this vocal melody can head in. I might be the only one harping on these things and many of you might disagree, but I’m sensing a correlation here. Similarly on “Mindfall Remedy”, we’re blasted to a load of quasi-industrial sound effects that don’t do much for the actual song, which is already hampered by an underwhelming, under cooked refrain. Its the kind of chorus that certainly sounds like its supposed to be a chorus, yet lacks anything in the way of a discernible hook. The metalcore vocals courtesy of Lauren Hart (Once Human) are just texture at this point, although she did a fine job on “Phantom Divine”. I do sometimes wonder if the band ever realizes how transparent their decision to use female vocalists for every guest vocal spot is getting…

 

 

Tommy KarevikI really wanted to enjoy “The Proud and the Broken”, and in brief flashes I do, but overall it fails to move me as the apparent epic of the album. I’m not sure what the problem is here beyond the lack of a more definable vocal melody, because it has an interesting intro and fine middle instrumental passage (just one of those songs that doesn’t quite gel perhaps). I did notice the thematic similarities between it and Orphaned Land’s “Take My Hand” off their recent Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs album, not in exact diction, but in the spirit of what its lyrics are trying to say. Entirely coincidental of course, but its interesting how one song works so well and the other falls flat due to not making all the requisite emotional connections (lyrical and musical). We’ll skip the pointless closing instrumental “Ministrium (Shadow Key)”, only pausing to wonder why anyone felt that this was a better inclusion than the relatively decent bonus track “The Last Day of Sunlight” (which is noteworthy for its utterly bizarre musical hook during the verses and a chorus boasting a really nice Karevik moment). The other lackluster cuts were “Amnesiac” and “Burns to Embrace”; the former ruined by an anemic chorus and a wash of industrial sound effect nonsense, the latter by a lack of an actual melody of any kind in the verses (what the hell guys?).

 

Those lackluster moments are scattered pretty evenly across the tracklisting, and it ends up creating a picture of a really spotty listening experience. I sometimes wonder if an album is better off being a bit lopsided, with half excellent material and the other half ho-hum… does that leaves a better impression on us as fans rather than something like this, where its like eating an under cooked pancake? The moments I enjoyed on this album will find their way to my iPod’s Kamelot playlist of course, but I’m disappointed that they’ve taken a step back with The Shadow Theory. This is just one die-hard fan’s opinion, but I really think they need to reevaluate their overall stylistic approach and do something to shake things up. It could be seen as nitpicking on my part, but I’ve seen quite a few people comment that this album is more of the same, sort of a Haven part two. As I’ve pointed out, the band’s DNA is still intact, but they keep trying to edge in this direction where they’re pulling away from their roots, and at a certain point that’s more harmful then helpful (particularly when its been happening for four albums in a row now). I’d love to see Kamelot do an about face and embrace that older spirit that defined their glory era, though I know Youngblood has expressed no interest in doing so. Kamelot’s darker direction and the resultant songwriting seems to be lacking the firepower to keep things interesting for a full album. Take a page from Priest and look to the past for inspiration, this is metal after all, its okay to do that.

Kamelot’s Path to Haven

For many of us, this particular Kamelot album has been a long time coming. I suspect that quite a few of you felt the same way that I did when considering their 2012 Tommy Karevik-fronted debut Silverthorn —- that it was a difficult album to judge for better or worse considering that it had largely been written before Karevik had joined up. It was known that he had handled the writing of his own vocal melodies and lyrics in Seventh Wonder, and was quite good at it to say the least. Now for a lot of bands, this wouldn’t be a big deal because either the guitarist, or bassist, or keyboardist even would be serving alone as the primary songwriter. Not so with Kamelot, as founding guitarist and songwriter Thomas Youngblood spent over a decade co-writing with Roy Khan —- who in addition to being one of the greatest metal voices of all time, was also gifted with savant-like abilities in vocal melody development and lyric writing. Together they were the second coming and fully realized promise of Chris DeGarmo and Geoff Tate of classic era Queensryche, sharing similarities in their respective styles and deliveries; and in penning masterful prog-metal with crisp, clean, melodic guitars and emotive, soaring vocals with intelligent, thoughtful lyricism.

 

Youngblood and Khan were a pair of songwriters so attuned to each other that they unleashed not just one, but four outright masterworks in continuous succession from The Fourth Legacy thru The Black Halo (a feat that had not been accomplished in melodic metal since Iron Maiden’s 82-88 “Golden Era”). Khan’s departure in 2010 meant not only the loss of the band’s signature voice, but half of their songwriting engine. During the much speculated upon vocalist search, I suspected that Kamelot’s primary candidate requirement would be a singer who had also proven themselves in a songwriting capacity, to help fill that particular aspect of the void left by Khan. Considering that, the field of potential vocalists was reduced greatly, and at the top of my own (and many others’) list of suspects to be given the job was Karevik himself. He was the only logical choice: His tone and timbre was remarkably similar to Khan’s, Youngblood himself had stated a preference for the inflections present in Scandinavian accents, and Karevik had a resume full of songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal melody development.

 

With that in mind, its difficult to understand then why Youngblood and his newly adapted songwriting partners keyboardist Oliver Palotai and producer Sascha Paeth began writing without waiting for their new vocalist, but I would wager it was market forces. A full time band needs income from touring, which meant that the clock was ticking in terms of having to write and record a new album as soon as possible, vocalist or not. It was a gamble that paid off with an album that satisfied those concerns, but I believe failed in the greater context of actually being a good Kamelot album. With Silverthorn, Youngblood, Paeth, and Palotai engaged in a guessing game exercise in songwriting, the same kind faced by Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen for their post-Tarja Turunen album Dark Passion Play. Writing songs without knowing the tone and timbre of your future vocalist is an incredibly difficult challenge, one that rarely ensures optimal results.

 

 

When Karevik finally got to tackle his vocals, he did the best he could with clumsily constructed spacing for bridges and choruses. Rarely did he have enough room to unfurl a properly developed refrain, and the hooks suffered as a result. His vocal melodies were often forced to lay upon riffs that worked against him, resulting in awkward sonic pairings. The entire affair was hammered over with enough adjustments and editing to make it passable and listenable, but it lacked the natural smoothness and melodic flow that normally defined a good Kamelot album. One of the few exceptions was “Song For Jolee”, a stirring ballad that Karevik was able to get involved with in a greater capacity, writing the song around the strength of his vocal melody and a particularly haunting lyric. Alongside the similarly vocal melody-led “Solitaire”, it was a brief demonstration of the dramatic impact that Karevik could make if he was given a ground floor role in the songwriting.

 

It certainly made it clear to me that his second album with the band would be the far more accurate portrait of where the band was in their post-Khan evolution. That open question made Haven the most intriguing new release of 2015 for me, the very definition of a make or break situation that I nervously anticipated. I’ll be honest, I was still nervous even after my initial listen all the way through, but Haven has proven to harbor the trademarks of an expensive, well made perfume: underneath its initial sharp top notes are long lingering, pleasantly fragrant middle and base notes. Now thirty plus listens later, I feel confident about contextualizing its place in the band’s discography, and in deeming it their greatest album since The Black Halo —- a distinction I wouldn’t throw out without careful consideration. It is obviously far more accomplished than Silverthorn, with Karevik’s distinctive input in the songwriting directly translating into songs being written around the vocal melodies, the proper order of things in the Kamelot universe.

 

But perhaps more important than that is just how impactful his expansive vocal range is, urging the band to return to writing in largely major keys, with Karevik technically able to operate (with seeming effortlessness) in higher registers. Khan devotees (of which I consider myself to be) may balk at that statement for what it implies, but its the flip side of what is a rather uncomfortable topic for many Kamelot fans, namely, Khan’s degrading vocal range over the years. A few years ago, before Karevik was even announced as the successor, I wrote something for this blog called The Legacy of Roy Khan, a tribute of sorts as to why he was truly brilliant, and to why his void would be deeply felt by the band. Towards the end of the piece I briefly mentioned Khan’s declining range, but skipped over it perfunctorily, so as not to dwell so much on the very real difficulties he faced as a performer (a great deal of which was documented through live show recordings thrown on YouTube). It simply didn’t seem right to focus on it given the nature of the piece.

 

 

Yet its Karevik’s performance on Haven that drags this shadowy topic back into the light, as well as revealing a larger truth about the band in general —- that Khan’s declining range provoked a fundamental change in Kamelot’s sound and songwriting, a change that became habitual and they’ve yet to fully withdraw from. We can trace back Khan’s lowering vocal range to as early as The Black Halo, where he began to transition away from singing mostly in upper registers to settling into a comfortable mid-range with a few exceptions (“Serenade” and “Moonlight” come to mind immediately as that album’s upper register standouts). On Ghost Opera, this continued in large part, with Khan operating in a slightly lower register, even on a song like “Anthem” that required him to hit a few highs (studio effects on those vocals were noticeable, whether or not they were covering something up is entirely debatable). Where a song like “Up From the Ashes” should have had lead vocals that zoomed upwards through its soaring, arcing chorus, Khan hardly wavered from his mid-range delivery. Instead the band used layers of backing choral vocals to take care of the upper register work, a choir assembled of Gate Studios’ vets Amanda Somerville and both Robert and Cinzia Hunecke Rizzo, frequent choir contributors to Rhapsody, Avantasia, Edguy, etc, and all singers capable of filling in those high notes.

 

Even more noticeable than on the albums was Khan’s live performances beginning on the Ghost Opera tour. I myself attended their September 9th, 2007 Houston concert and despite my giddiness at seeing the band live for the first time, I was surprised to hear them down tuning for older songs in addition to new ones. They avoided included anything in their setlist from The Fourth Legacy, nothing all too surprising by considering its age and the vast amount of songs they had to choose from, but it was very telling in what the band viewed as the easy exclusions. When Poetry For the Poisoned was released in 2010, the common discussion from fans was just how dark the album sounded —- and it wasn’t just something felt in its admittedly depressing lyrics, but in its even more down tuned approach. Guitar tone alone wasn’t simply what was affecting us all, it was that such a change in tone was prompting Youngblood to think about songwriting differently —- heavier, chunkier riffs and rhythms to work better with Khan’s new register, slower tempos better suited to such sonic changes, and Palotai providing suitably darker atmospherics to work as adhesive.

 

 

The band as a songwriting unit had downshifted their approach away from their classic symphonic power metal approach of the late nineties / early aughts, and when fans would wish aloud for a return to a “classic” Kamelot sound, they were knowingly or unknowingly yearning for Khan to sing in a higher register again, something that could cause those tempos to pick up the pace once more —- they were hoping to go back in time in other words. There was spectacular work on those last two Khan era albums, by him in particular —- he still sounded great as a singer, and his vocal melodies and lyrics were always on point. But the tour supporting Poetry was the all too visible sign that Khan’s actual voice was deteriorating, and that he was incapable of even mid-ranged performances at times. The damning evidence is still on YouTube for anyone to relive (and I hated doing so for the purposes of pure research), and when he abruptly quit the tour it was hardly surprising despite our initial shock… for everyone who was paying attention, the end was in sight.

 

Both Youngblood and Palotai, as the surviving core of the writing team spent those final five to six Khan era years growing accustomed to the changes in the band’s sound, too accustomed it would seem. When they wrote for Silverthorn the tendency to down tune, rely on chunky riffing, and mid-paced tempos lingered on with a few exceptions. Its unfair to fault them, as the machinations of a creative process are hard to alter immediately, and the human tendency to rely upon developed habits is hard to shake. Nevertheless its one that they will have to, because in Karevik they have a vocalist whose natural register is higher, and who operates in that space with an ease that always seemed to elude Khan. If you’ve heard Karevik in Seventh Wonder, you’ll have heard him deliver vocals that seem to effortlessly dance across the top of major chords, deftly moving with an almost R&B influenced sense of alliteration and cadence —- he’s inherently poppier than Khan, less operatically inclined.

 

 

With a vocalist like Karevik, Kamelot can make its way back towards a sound that resembles its classic era, one replete with all the trimmings of their trademark symphonic power metal stylings that many of us have missed so much. The good news is that with a big chunk of the songs off Haven they’re well on their way. The bad news is that this flip side to the legacy of Roy Khan continues to plague a portion of their songwriting, in specific moments hampering the best use of Karevik’s abilities. Consider the not awful but rather clunky “Citizen Zero”, where the sludge-y tempo prevents the verse sections from developing into anything interesting, its down tuned riffs and overly aggressive approach resulting in heaviness that seemed forced and frankly boring. This faux-heaviness disrupts the structure of “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)”, wedging a bright, uptempo chorus in between two slabs of formless verses composed of floating keyboard atmospherics and meandering, un-melodic riffing.

 

The worst offender might be “Revolution”, as much an example of what not to do in a Kamelot song as there ever has been. No need to comment on the presence of the overused Alissa White-Gluz, whose aggressive vocals are indistinguishable from any other harsh vocalist (male or female), particularly when the biggest problem is the forced faux-heaviness of the guitar riffs. Youngblood is a supreme talent, one of the defining musicians of the genre and someone whose artistic legacy is already secure. He’s better than this quite frankly, and he of all people should know that we listen to his band for the melodies, not the riffs (this isn’t Melechesh!). This is the song that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps been singled out as the Japanese bonus track (more on that later). The last song to suffer from echoes of the past is “My Therapy”, where Karevik’s skillful treatment of the vocal melody (particularly in the chorus) saves the song from relatively lackluster verses fragments set to beds of uninspired riffs.

 

 

The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.

 

Continuing the brilliance is “Insomnia”, an uptempo song built off Palotai’s inventive, swinging keyboard figures and finished by a multi-layered Karevik vocal performance that is simply astounding. On the chorus, he soars above himself, setting his lead vocal underneath waves of his own layered vocal arrangement, apparently fit to serve as his own choir. Those familiar with Karevik’s layering work on Mercy Falls and The Great Escape will feel as if the styles of the two bands are merging here, the multi-layered vocal flurries of Seventh Wonder meeting the dark symphony of Kamelot. And as if to further justify his inclusion in ground level songwriting, consider just how much he improves “Veil of Elysium”, arguably the spiritual successor to Silverthorn’s “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)”. If you hadn’t noticed the similarities between both songs, take a moment to listen to them back to back and notice just how much more developed the song sounds now with Karevik able to expand on the chorus. Rather than being forced to shoehorn lyrics on top of a space reserved for a vocal melody, on “Veil of Elysium” he weaves the vocal melody around the phrasing of his diction, their very consonant structure providing the poetic meter within: “One day I know we will meet again / In the shade of a life to die for”. He also finds the time to serve up a particularly Khan-like piece of simple lyrical beauty, “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his treatment of the last line at the 1:04 mark being a prime example of his nimbleness as a singer.

 

 

The gorgeous, Troy Donockley’s pipes-assisted “Under Grey Skies” is a gem of a ballad, built almost entirely off Karevik’s vocal melodies, with help from the welcome Charlotte Wessels (Delain). She’s a breath of fresh air for the band’s choice of female collaborators, possessing a voice that is lighter than Simone Simons and more at home when set atop such cozy, acoustic guitar-plucked balladry. Some may find the lyrics here a little too cloying, but Karevik wisely avoids cliche diction and couches his romantic subtext in a stanza sung by Wessels, giving some respite to anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a guy sing them lines about kisses n’ stuff (if you feel guilty right about now you’re likely one of them). As a duet its a triumph, my favorite parts arriving towards the end when Karevik and Wessels trade off soaring layered vocals, singing under and around one another. Youngblood’s mid-song guitar solo here is note perfect, building off the vocal melody motif and extenuating it to sublime effect.

 

The highlights continue on the second half of the album, with “End of Innocence” proving itself to play along with the unusual coincidence of bands producing great songs under that particular title. I’m most struck by how well Youngblood manages to balance a dose of heavy guitar riffs without overpowering the melodies worked up by Palotai and Karevik. The MVP here might be Palotai, who answers the heaviness of the guitars with jaunty, symphonic keys that usher along a melody that works as a flamboyant counterpoint to successfully balance things out. Once again, Karevik knocks one out of the park with his choice vocal inflections and change-ups on the recurring chorus line, “And why must a hero die young / Not to be gone and forgotten” —- each time he gives it a new flavor. We’re treated to some Middle-Eastern flair in “Beautiful Apocalypse”, a song that took me a few listens to come around to. What sold it was Karevik’s simply stunning transition from gritty and tortured to smooth and sonorous (and back again), best exemplified at the 1:10 to 1:43 mark. Its one of the most dexterous things I’ve ever heard him accomplish.

 

A different kind of Khan influence creeps up on “Here’s to the Fall”, where Karevik sounds so eerily similar to his predecessor (particularly to open the song), that I wonder if Khan didn’t drop by the studio at any point to lay down some vocal fragments. This is of course the ability that won Karevik the job and was more frequently heard on Silverthorn, but here he uses it to great effect until the 3:10 mark, where the Tommy Karevik we’ve been hearing all album long pops up again in his more Seventh Wonder influenced mode. If Khan did drop by the studio, I’ll find out eventually, I don’t know how but I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t something sneaky going on (I’m only partially joking)! Normally I’d prefer an acoustic guitar/vocal pairing with keyboard embellishment  (think in the vein of “Glory” from The Fourth Legacy) rather than solely keyboards/vocals, but Palotai does a nice job here of creating a moody atmosphere that actually works. I mentioned the Japanese bonus track earlier, one “The Ties That Bind”, a hooky, tuneful yet heavy-riff fueled song with a chorus that doesn’t quite arc fully, yet is infinitely better for the album proper than “Revolution”.

 

 

If like me you received the expanded edition of the album with a second disc full of alternate renditions and instrumental tracks, you’ll have probably indulged in the piano version of “End of Innocence” and the acoustic guitar version of “Veil of Elysium”. These songs, so uptempo and electric on the album are hushed here, left to operate only on the strength of their defining characteristic: their vocal melodies. Its a further testament to Karevik’s contributions to this album, that his melodies are strong enough to be the actual skeleton of a working song… one can call it practically Khan-esque even. And a final thought on Youngblood himself, who deserves individual praise alongside Palotai and Karevik for trusting his collaborators enough to breathe new life into his band. I’ve always regarded his style as being directly influenced by Chris DeGarmo (among others surely) in that during their respective classic eras they both wrote in crisp, clear melodic lines with razor sharp precision, anchored by a mindset that was unconcerned with any sort of “heavy factor”.

 

The difference was that DeGarmo eventually got off that train and ventured into lighter, jangly, less riff-based directions —- whereas Youngblood found himself having to forcibly get heavier, chunkier, and less melodic as a result. Both of them are tremendously gifted songwriters and guitarists, and in their work one attribute directly correlated with the other. They both operate best when writing and performing in what I call the DeGarmo gold standard, that thoughtful mix of melodic writing filtered through crisp riffing and clear open chord sequences. It may be too far gone for DeGarmo to ever bother returning, but Youngblood can easily find his way back to that standard. The first step is realizing that he now has a vocalist capable of hitting the highs needed to bring Kamelot’s sound back to its classically infused, symphonic metal roots… a return to their primordial musical waters so to speak. They’re halfway there with Haven. Karevik is the savior of the band’s sound, I suspect they’d surely be lost without him. Behind Bruce Dickinson, I can think of no better or more important replacement vocalist in the history of metal.

 

Pour Some Sugar On Everything: Amaranthe Return With Massive Addictive

Depending on your perspective of Amaranthe, you’re either really excited for Massive Addictive, or really, really agitated at the mere thought that this unlikely band of Swedes has gotten popular and successful enough to warrant a third album. They are certainly notorious for the sheer contentiousness that surrounds any discussion of who they are and what they do. When I reviewed the band’s previous album, The Nexus, I dug into the career bios for band founders Olof Morck and Jake E Berg, both profiles of musicians that had toiled in relative obscurity for a decade of time before meeting up with Elize Ryd and arriving simultaneously (I’m assuming) at their viola! moment. A cynic could look at Morck and Berg’s creation of Amaranthe as a concoction geared towards commercial viability and broader appeal than anything either had been involved with in the past. They also wouldn’t be that far off the mark. There is something about Amaranthe’s conscious marketing design that raises red flags among the most forgiving of critics and metal fans —- check out one of their numerous absurdly flashy music videos (all directed by that king of gloss, Patric Ullaeus) and try to remember that they’re a metal band.

 

Beyond image, the band’s self-described “EDM meets metal” approach is built upon a softened metalcore foundation that will resonate with rock audiences (and rock radio at that), along with pure pop songwriting that supplies massive hooks with catchy verses, and two appealing clean singers that do enough to keep the attention of those put off by the rather tame growling vocalist. The “EDM” aspect of their sound only comes into play through the sheen studio production they coat all over their studio albums. In other words, its not interwoven into the fabric of their songwriting the way it was for say, the indie band Tegan and Sara, when they co-wrote two crossover EDM/indie rock songs with DJs Morgan Page and Tiesto; or for a band like The Prodigy who married hard rock sounds with pure techno long before anyone realized it could be done. There’s nothing really wrong with Amaranthe’s approach, except that it exposes their “EDM” tag as somewhat of a misnomer, and to a particularly cynical critic, it could be seen as an easy out for the band to simultaneously disguise and justify just how slick and polished their take on metal is. I’ll provide a more forgiving perspective, one in which the band has grabbed hold of their new hybrid “EDM/Metal” label as an easy, painless way to deflect critics and for the band to distance themselves from other female fronted metal peers that operate in more classicist territory ala Within Temptation.

 

All that considered, its amazing just how successfully Amaranthe works as a Frankenstein-esque project, stitching together disparate parts to create something that actually works (surely a monster to many). Morck and Berg combine their experiences in both power metal and melo-death to serve as their musical palette, and are malleable in their songwriting to sketch out smart, unobtrusive, accentuating uses for harsh vocals (courtesy of new screamer Henrik Englund), as well plenty of spotlight time for the completely un-metal Elize Ryd’s sugary, ABBA-Swede pop vocals. Ryd is obviously a necessary component in this whole equation, as its through her unremarkable but pleasant vocals that the band channels their poppiest sensibilities, allowing Berg to deliver his clean vocals as a melodic counterpoint or harmony double up. In typical Amaranthe fashion, Englund’s harsh vocals tend to be used as a counterpoint —- he’s only given one opportunity to handle lead vocals (on “An Ordinary Abnormality”), but of course he’s kept off the chorus. Ryd and Berg command the vocal spotlight of Amaranthe, and it has to be said that their voices tend to sound great together, his vocals are melodic and capable enough of soaring highs as hers, but he’s working in a slightly lower register so as to be complementary, not overpowering. I’ve always had mixed feelings on Ryd, finding her the least impressive vocalist of the three —- and I’ve long contended that she’s used metal as an easier springboard to fame and notoriety than she would have had through trying to make it as a pure pop singer. Its not a criticism, just an honest observation that I’m confident other discerning metal fans would agree with. Do an eye/ear test —- does she radiate metal in any way? Kudos to Morck and Berg for sculpting out a role for her and selling it convincingly (seriously, props).

 

On Massive Addictive, the band don’t change up the formula they first dreamed up on their debut and expanded on The Nexus, seeking only to further refine the elements that worked and ditch the clunky stuff that didn’t (there’s nothing as awful as the bubblegum “Electroheart” on here). The album’s pop highlight is “Trinity”, the second single that smartly balances chunky-riffs and harsh vocals with a exquisitely sculpted chorus boasting a hook that absolutely will not leave your head. Its musical candy, and that’s what we’re here for right? To rot our ears with the musical equivalent of junk food, because try as I might I cannot understand what these lyrics mean in the slightest —- are they talking about their roles as three singers? Hmmm… no that doesn’t seem to fit. What about this stanza, “As we break the chains of might / In dependence of the fire / Give up, this ground sterilized for all time” —- anyone got any ideas? There’s a huge suspicion on my part that Amaranthe often write lyrics phonetically, choosing words for their alliterative value within the context of a lyrical line or stanza rather than their inherent meaning. Its like how Paul McCartney used dummy lyrics for “Yesterday” (“Scrambled eggs, oh, you’ve got such lovely legs”), except that in this case Amaranthe never bothered to go back and revise their diction and you know, actually say something with most of these songs. On “Dynamite”, another album highlight through its rhythmic micro-hooks, we’re given another dose of nonsense in the lyrics during the refrain: “Come on believe me /You can’t deny /From the blaze in my eyes /I am hypnotized and /I can achieve it /I will arise /Like the fire in the sky /I am dynamite”. Look, I know I’m a lyrical grouch of the highest order (imagine me in a trash can and call me Oscar… actually don’t), and I’m aware that this approach works for pop music, but a little more effort on the lyrics of these upbeat tracks wouldn’t go amiss.

 

Its the slower, mid-paced ballads where the band executes particularly well in all aspects, lyrics included, such as on the surprisingly restrained “True”, where Ryd and Berg are at their emotive best. There’s a wonderful chorus to enjoy there: “This is the time for chasing my desires / Whats in my heart is true”, where both words and melody are extremely well written and emotive, highlighting some really deft songwriting. The same goes for another excellent ballad, “Over and Done”, this more of the embittered and love-lorn variety where a nicely done lyric crops up as well: “Over and done, a changing of seasons / The sun that ignited all our feelings is down”. Berg takes the lead here and its worth noting just how much he stands out apart from other male clean vocalists within metal through his ability to appeal to fans of simple rock music. I suppose I’m suggesting that he has a slightly Americanized bent to his vocals, and that statement in itself will turn off many who are used to power metal’s varied cultural accents and intonations. Fair enough, but it still leaves him as a rarity within metal, alongside other singers like Tom Englund of Evergrey in their ability to crossover to a radio format (surely a boon in Amaranthe’s case). I’m also very partial to the album closer “Exhale”, a catchy song built upon a heavily alliterative chorus where the lyrics are actually well written and seem to suggest someone’s search for spirituality. There’s a pattern here: When the band attempts to write fast, uptempo songs they’re so concerned with the ear-wormy factor in all aspects that they relegate lyrical meaning as an afterthought. I suppose that’s all irrelevant when they’re played live to a dancing crowd (er… no, that’d be headbanging right? What do they do at Amaranthe shows?).

 

 

The album isn’t without missteps though, nothing gravely serious but there are a handful of tracks that either don’t work as pop songs or have annoying tendencies that overpower their enjoyable parts. I’m referring specifically to “Danger Zone”, where a boy-band grade chorus is sandwiched between some very boring harsh vocal led verses; as well as “Unreal”, a song that reminds me of the worst aspects of modern day In Flames with the album’s flattest chorus to boot. There’s also something bothersome about “Skyline”, where I guess my expectations were higher because the title reminded me of Bioshock Infinite (skylines… some of you get it) —- a strange reason to cite but also I’m simply bored by the song, unlike the game. Still, on a twelve track album, there are seven songs that deliver precisely what you’d want from Amaranthe , and four of those are actually pretty great. Not a bad ratio overall, and Massive Addictive is the sound of a band getting better at what they’re doing —- even if it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve written in the past about the value of Amaranthe as a gateway band for non-metal fans to enter our world, and with this album that gateway has only gotten bigger. If someone gets hooked in with a song like “Trinity”, only to find themselves checking out Kamelot via Ryd’s connections to that band, which causes them to love a masterpiece such as The Black Halo as much as I do —- that’s a win. Metal needs gateway bands to survive, and even though Amaranthe are pushing the boundaries of acceptability in our beloved genre, they surely deserve some grudging acknowledgement for filling that role.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part One: The Songs

And farewell to another year that’s flown by too quickly. Of course that means its time for anyone and everyone in metal writing, print or digital, to indulge their egos a bit and draft up their end of year lists. Now most writers will never own up to it but I’m a rather shameless sort, and will freely admit that I love creating these lists. I put an inordinate amount of thought into drafting them and end up changing around the entries and numerical ordering countless times before I ever hit publish. Self-indulgent? Absolutely. But I also hope that people who in anyway remotely enjoy reading what I write will check out my lists as a way to get into bands or albums they’ve not heard before. That’s ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing about music, expressing your enthusiasm and passion for something to others and hoping they’ll hear what you hear.

 

As you can see from the title, to make everything more readable, I’m separating the best songs and albums of 2013 into separate articles (the albums list is on it’s way soon). Of course, some bands will overlap on both lists, with undeniable crowning jewels from great records being represented, but doing this separate list for just songs alone allows for a spotlight to be shined on those songs that were gems on releases that may not have necessarily made the best albums of the year cut. Anyway to quote Marti DeBergi, “Enough of my yakking”!

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2013:

 

1. Darkthrone – “Leave No Cross Unturned” (from the album The Underground Resistance)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0tsFqTulM8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The extent to which this song towered over the rest of the tracks from Darkthrone’s excellent The Underground Resistance is such that whenever I think upon that album, the monstrous, cyclonic riff that anchors this battleship of a song is the ONLY thing that comes to mind. This song, more than any other released this year by anyone else epitomizes to me the pure, untarnished, unapologetic, hell bent for leather spirit of metal as I know it and have grown up loving. Its not just the King Diamond-esque vocals from Fenriz that encompass so much of this thirteen minute long epic, or the brutal series of incredible, bone shaking riffs one after another courtesy of Nocturno Culto seemingly on a mission to destroy, or the slammingly heavy midsection bridge at 4:24 —- its everything all together. I contend, with some expectation of hatred at the very idea, that this is Darkthrone’s heaviest song to date.

 

Its typical of Darthrone’s contrary spirit then that this song could only come now, many albums past Darkthrone’s turning of their backs on the traditional black metal sound. They’ve also moved on past the crust punk/black n’ roll they dabbled in for some years and have seemingly embraced traditional heavy metal. Gone too are the murky, muddled productions of past albums, replaced here by a crispness and clarity never before heard with Darkthrone music. There are some out there that speculate that these guys are taking the piss, purposefully trolling the black metal fans with their current musical incarnation. I reject those notions out of hand not only because the band have come across as rather earnest about their current direction in interviews, but simply because music that sounds this genuinely in love with heavy metal in all its ugly glory doesn’t know the meaning of irony.

 

 


2. Amorphis – “Hopeless Days” (from the album Circle)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdKt1aw4BK8&w=560&h=315]

 

The shining gem on Amorphis’ 2013 effort, “Hopeless Days” is everything you’d want in a song built in this particular style of depressive, melancholic metallic hard rock. There were quite a few good songs on that record, but none as powerful and churning with dramatic ache as this one. Powerful percussion ushers you along over a bed of building riffs that explode in a supremely catchy chorus all whilst elegantly tinkling piano plays underneath —- a subtle yet brilliant juxtaposition. Vocalist Tomi Joutsen delivers his best vocal and lyric during this emotionally stirring moment: “I was born a captive / A captive of the night / In between / Hopeless days”.  Gotta love the scale climbing guitar lines that kick in during and after the solo —- Esa Holopainen might just be the most underrated guitarist coming out of Finland right now. When Sentenced called it a day in 2005, I was worried that my supply of this type of rock inflected metal would dry up, but there seems to be a strong contingent of bands working in the same medium, Amorphis amongst the best of them. My iTunes count says I’ve played this song alone 79 times while the rest of the album’s songs sit at 30-40 (sometimes I wonder if the iTunes play counts of writers from taste maker websites would really back up their best metal of the year lists). Play count 80 starting…NOW!

 

 

3. Orphaned Land – “All Is One” / “Brother” (from the album All Is One)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bds3FALcR7M&w=280&h=225] [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsPb1-uPIic&w=280&h=225]

 

How can two songs take one spot? Because they are to me inseparable, both in my mind as representations of my favorite moments on Orphaned Land’s surprisingly great All Is One album, and as micro representations of the core of the band’s progression through simplification both musically and lyrically. With the title track serving as both the lead off single and first song on the album track listing proper, Orphaned Land in four minutes and thirty seconds crafted a brilliant, euphoria inducing epic that perfectly encompassed their spiritual ideology (agree or disagree with it). What makes the song truly effective however are not just the direct, declarative lyrics, or the artfully done Middle Eastern instrumentation —- but the band’s embrace of clear, anthemic melodies and hair raising choral vocals ala Blind Guardian during the chorus. The infusion of that particular kind of power metal element is new for the band, as is their shift to a leaner, more direct method of songwriting, a complete 180 from the complex progressive metal of their last two records.

 

These newly embraced principles work to possibly greater effect on “Brother”, where singer Kobi Farhi’s inspired lyrics threaten to overshadow some truly great music going on underneath. The lyrics, as widely discussed by now, are intended to be the words of Issac to his brother Ishmael. Its a gutsy song for an Israeli to write, let alone record and perform on stage, as it’s lyrics essentially serve as an extended metaphor of the relationship between Jews and Muslims, brother faiths of the same Abrahamic father. Its a heavyweight topic to tackle but here its done with elegance, subtle apologetic notes, and a passionate vocal courtesy of Farhi that registers as the album’s highlight moment. The beautiful guitar interplay of Yossi Sassi and Chen Balbus that is to be found all throughout this album is the band’s best to date, particularly during the instrumental section where the guitars kick into an almost Slash-esque mellow solo. The band delivered an incredible one-two punch with both of these songs, and managed to wrangle an old fan like me back into the fold.

 

 

4. Serenity – “Wings of Madness” (from the album War of Ages)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX5jsf3v9vw&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity stunned me this year with their spectacular War of Ages album, and this inspired lead off track (and first single) was the highest among many high points to be found on the set.  “Wings of Madness” is a complex, multifaceted masterpiece that twists and turns around the dramatic vocal duets of co-vocalists Georg Neuhauser and Clementine Delauney. The latter is the newest member of the band and the undeniable star on this particular song (and perhaps the entire album), her vocals equipped with both a light ethereal touch and a dark, rich, almost Lisa Gerrard-like quality that she can blend together at will. The song’s music video seems to suggest that the lyrics are about the infamous Countess Bathory and her blood bathing lifestyle (everyone’s got their thing). This is a band that directs its lyrical bent towards characterizations or accounts of historical figures, and as such, the quatrain in the chorus is unnervingly eerie and appropriate: “No sun is shining in your eyes / A shadow growing in disguise / I can’t stand the silence / Embracing you at night”. One of the many things I appreciate about Serenity is their commitment to a higher standard of lyricism than the power metal norm —- similar to what Roy Khan was instilling during his tenure in Kamelot.

 

 

5. Queensryche – “In This Light” (from the album Queensryche)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LGaEOP86Kc&w=560&h=315]

 

That Queensryche was able to find a viable, credible future sans Geoff Tate was in itself a remarkable feat, but their creation of an album that is worthy enough to stand alongside their first six bonafide classics is still mind-boggling. This year’s self-titled comeback record was full of the classic elements long missed from Queensryche releases, and the band found that new members like guitarist Parker Lundgren and of course, life-saver vocalist Todd LaTorre could contribute to the songwriting process from the word go. Truthfully speaking, while I enjoyed the album, I had to admit it did have an array of weaknesses mostly stemming from the album’s length, and some songs that could’ve used a few more minutes. “In This Light” however stands out as a pristine moment, a deftly penned stately rocker with a chorus that could’ve come from the band’s Empire era. I mentioned in my original review for the album that this song was “a sort of distant cousin to “Another Rainy Night” and “One and Only”. Its perhaps the most accessible song on the record, yet also the most thoughtful, its lyrics a reflective paean on despair and hope.” Its curious to me that they haven’t released this as a single yet.

 

 

6. Omnium Gatherum – “The Unknowing” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik&w=560&h=315]

 

These guys released a pretty solid record earlier this year with Beyond, but the highlight of the album was this singular gem, an arpeggio fueled, cinematic slice of melodic death metal nirvana. Not only is the guitar work stunning throughout in a general breathtaking sense, but they buoy a melody that is strangely melancholic and uplifting at the same time. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s vocals here feature an extra degree of crisp clarity that is normally buried in his obsidian delivery (an acquired taste I admit). The Finns really have something going on right now with the amazing slate of fresh takes on melodic death metal that is very far removed from the now old-school Gothenburg scene in neighboring Sweden. Insomnium also released a fantastic new song this year that I reviewed earlier which will narrowly miss a placement on this list —- but its just more mounting evidence that both these promising torch bearers of modern melodic death metal have found a way to distance themselves from the negative associations that the original melo-death sound has unfortunately found with American metalcore.

 

 

7.  Týr – “The Lay of Our Love” (from the album Valkyrja)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zd2rYcxXBM&w=560&h=315]

 

This was a bold, gutsy move for  Týr, a band whose previous attempts at anything close to balladry were blanketed by singing in their native Faroese language, about subject matter that was really anyone’s guess.  But Valkyrja is a thematic album about the role of the woman as Goddess and wife, in the life of a Viking warrior —- and to the band’s credit they are lyrically adventurous about it throughout. Not only are the lyrics in “The Lay of Our Love” essentially about a rather sentimental subject, in this case a pair of lovers sundered by impending death, but the music at work here is pure power balladry (I mean that in a good way!). I’m not sure whats my favorite part, the delicately plucked acoustic intro or the wild, passionate guitar solo mid-way through that ranks amongst the band’s best. Liv Kristine of Leaves Eyes fame is the lithe, delicate female voice you’re hearing, and her performance here is just immense. Its a shame that I seem to only be able to really appreciate her work when its in guest spots like these, but she contrasts well with Heri Joensen’s deep, soaring vocals.  Týr should continue being brave with experiments like these if the payoffs are anything close to this.

 

 

8. Avantasia – “Saviour in the Clockwork” (from the album The Mystery of Time)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=USkP6pT8UYI&w=560&h=315]

 

I pointed out in my review for Avantasia’s most recent album that in the past half decade Tobias Sammet has now released nearly double the amount of Avantasia releases in comparison to his main band Edguy. At some point, both of the projects were going to start blurring together stylistically due to having the same songwriter driving each, and as expected that is exactly what is happening with both of the newest Avantasia and Edguy releases. They’re still good albums, but at this point the only musical difference between both bands is the presence of guest vocalists in Avantasia, and you’ve gotta wonder if that will be enough in the long run. Of course, if you’re like me and just consider yourself more of a Tobias Sammet fan than a distinct fan of either one of his bands then you won’t really care all that much about such details as long as he keeps delivering the goods. Well, the bad news was that The Mystery of Time is the most uneven album in Avantasia’s now vast discography. The good news is that it did contain a handful of distinctive Sammet homeruns, including this awe-inspiring epic featuring vocals from Joe Lynn Turner, Biff Byford, and of course Michael Kiske. Its got all the elements a Sammet fan wants: thundering bombast, excellent songwriting, and lush vocal arrangements particularly in the group choir vocals during the chorus.

 

 

9. Falkenbach – “Eweroun” (from the album Asa)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mA5nN65B_eg&w=560&h=315]

 

I consider it a good quality that this song conjures up the feeling of sitting by some intense campfire under the stars at midnight (… ah lets face it, I’m really thinking of Skyrim). Gone are the murky, lo-fi productions of past albums —- 2013 Falkenbach has taken a page from Darkthrone’s playbook: Sometimes the way to progress your sound forward is to fully capture it in a pristine form, not hide it under layers of hiss and microphones. Sole member and creator Vratyas Vakyas’s vocals are the selling point on “Eweroun” (translated as “Evermore”), his plaintive, spacious clean vocals ushering in the song with a vocal melody I can only describe as soothing. He sets this over a bed of warm muted riffing, simple percussion patterns, and chiming acoustic guitars. The hook is not a traditional chorus either, but simply an altered acoustic guitar figure. Vakyas apparently pens most of his lyrics in old Norse, and a look at the translation of the lyrics seems to suggest an allusion to the passage of time set against the backdrop of changing seasons. It all conjures up a rather spiritual feel, and its not much of a stretch to actually call it something close to spiritual folk metal.

 

 

10. Lord – “Digital Lies” (from the album Digital Lies)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UR38tX6z6iI&w=560&h=315]

 

You may not have heard of Lord before, but many of you might remember Dungeon from Australia, the rather underrated power/trad metal band who in addition to building up a solid catalog of quality albums over the span of a decade  also provided us with one of metal’s great covers in their take on Toto’s “Hold the Line”. Lord then is ex-Dungeon vocalist Tim Grose’s project born out of the ashes of his former band. They launched in 2003 and have done a few decent records now, but their 2013 release Digital Lies shows the band taking determined strides towards potential greatness. This title track from the effort is one jewel among many featured on the release that crackles with the kind of excitement that is harder and harder to find with newer power metal releases (and worryingly so at that). Over a rock steady bed of aggressive, pulsing bass and pounding riffs is a striking contrast between almost Alexi Laiho-ish vocals in the verse, and Grose’s wide open, soaring tenor in the chorus. He’s always been an excellent vocalist, displaying a heft and weight to power metal vocal delivery that is so often found lacking amongst the European ranks —- but his ability to switch it up here at will is even more impressive. Check out this song, and if you like it do yourself the favor of grabbing the album, its one of the better power metal records released this year.

 

Fall Harvest: Records I Almost Missed + Assorted Ramblings

Yeah, I know its been a minute. What have I been up to this month to cause such a prolonged silence? Well, the Watain adventure late last month made me realize that I had slacked off mid-year in checking out some new releases by noteworthy bands, that concert’s opening bands In Solitude and Tribulation among them. So at the start of the month I began to tackle the laundry list of records released this year that I hadn’t checked out yet. With my mid/late December annual best of lists deadline approaching I really had to set myself to task and delay a couple articles I originally wanted published in November. There were about fourteen albums on that list that I’ve spent the past few weeks listening and re-listening to, some far more than others, and I’m glad I took the time to get to know some of them better. Its a tepid feeling of inadequacy when you come to an album a year or so late only to realize it should’ve been on it’s release year’s best of list. 2011 for me is a pretty glaring example, where top honors could have (and should have) gone to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow instead of Symphony X’s Iconoclast (still a great record though). I almost got it right in 2012, but slept on Woods of Ypres final, masterful album and so this year, I’m aiming for a higher level of vigilance. Chances are that I’ll probably miss something yet again.

 

Suidakra 16.02.2013 Session
Krefeld – Burg Linn, Germany

But for sure it won’t be 2013 releases by Suidakra, Falkenbach, and the aforementioned In Solitude and Tribulation. The latter two I’ll get to in a little bit, but first I have to say that I’ve been absolutely floored by Suidakra and Falkenbach’s new records. I’ve been a long time admirer of Falkenbach’s low-fi take on folk metal for a quite a few years now but was stupidly ignorant of just how incredible of a band Suidakra has become over their past few releases. Delving deep into their catalog now on Spotify, I’m going back four albums deep and loving every single note of what they’re doing, but their new album, Eternal Defiance, sees them taking more risks with their blend of folk infused melodic death metal. This is a gem of an album, living up to the quality of its excellent predecessor Book of Dowth. Learning a bit about the bio of the band it was surprising to note that they hail from Germany, not Scandinavia, where melodic death metal has its roots and current artistic renaissance. Yet they’re singing about Celtic subject matter and tackling folk metal simultaneously without relying on genre tropes and the godawful musical attributes that define the goofy Korpiklaani, the truly terrible Alestorm, and the once great Finntroll.

 

Band founder, vocalist, and songwriter Arkadius (that’s Suidakra spelled backwards by the way) has seemingly forged a new strain of melodic death metal, in that he’s not rehashing the Gothenburg sound of yore, nor following the modern of path of moody, melancholy Finnish melo-death. Instead, Suidakra’s sound and songwriting is geared towards dare I suggest, almost modern power metal minded ideas of major key melodicism, where a Blind Guardian-esque touch of bombast twists and turns over a militantly marching bed of percussion. The folk metal aspect peeks its head out in inspired ways, such as instrumentation or simply full blown excursions into realms of pure acoustic folk, where ethereal female vocals chime in alongside well done clean male vocals. I’m hesitant to write too much about this album here, because yep — you guessed it, Eternal Defiance will have a spot on my best albums of 2013 list and I’ll probably go into more depth there. Suffice it to say that this is a rich, multifaceted work that pulls you in upon first listen and then continually unfolds in layers to reveal even more greatness underneath. You need to listen to this album.

 

Falkenbach flew in under my radar in the sense that I really had no idea they would even have a new album out this year. This is after all a band that is basically one guy, doesn’t play live, and has practically zilch when it comes to an online/social media presence. Their newest offering, Asa, is by an incredibly large margin their best record yet, as Vratyas Vakyas pushes his project’s sound into the welcome reaches of a clearer, professional production. This isn’t to say that past Falkenbach records sounded horrible, but they were coated with a wash of muddled atmospherics and distant drum sounds that often compromised the power of what were undeniably good songs. Here, Vakyas’ vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, his blackened grim vocals now possessing even more bite and rancor than before, and his gorgeous, plaintitive clean vocals are now full, lush, and emotionally affecting. Such is the case on the lead off single “Eweroun”, where delicate acoustic pluckings contrast elegantly against a patient bed of hypnotic, warm riffing —- all while Vakyas calming multitracked vocals take center stage. Its an inspired song, with a definite feel of rootsy authenticity that I find lacking in most modern folk metal. On the other side of the spectrum are fierce black metal tracks that hit with a heaviness and aggression previously not heard on Falkenbach records, such as “I Nattens Stilta” which still manages to surprise with a few prog elements thrown in as well. This is shaping up to be the most welcome yet unexpected comeback record of the year.

 

As I wrote in my previous article, In Solitude really wowed me with their performance in Austin opening for Watain. Now when I listen to their newest album, Sister, I wish I took the time to learn those songs in advance of the concert because I’m hearing great moments that I remembered from their set that night, and good shows are made great by knowing the songs yourself ahead of time. My previous reservations about In Solitude’s prior releases were that while they sounded good and there was generally a decent amount of songs worth going back for, the band was essentially aping Mercyful Fate. Generally speaking, this isn’t something worth crucifying a good band for, not when there are already loads of dopey revisionist thrash bands out there making fools of themselves in puffy eighties styled sneakers. But it was a factor in preventing me from getting into the band completely, and I found myself hoping they’d transition into an original sound or at least a new take on their influences in the future. The good news is that they wasted no time in doing so, and the great news is that they’re unearthing a truly original sound in the process by embracing their post-punk influences and toning back the metal classicism a great deal.

 

On Sister, a song like “A Buried Sun” moves along not on the back of tight riffage, but on airy, spaced out chord sequences that recall pre-Electric era The Cult, and heck, even The Cure. “Lavender” goes one higher, sounding like The White Stripes stop/start guitars married to the dark psychedelia of Bauhaus —- it may be the album’s most genre bending moment, as far from metal as the band is willing to go but a good song nonetheless. On the other hand, the title track is the most propulsive and downright catchy thing they’ve ever penned and its also the most metal moment on the record, with dark descending riffs that lend a classic doomy heaviness to the song. Vocalist Pelle Ahman is quickly becoming one of the more unique vocalists genre wide, his once shameless King Diamond impersonations now finding the usefulness of subtlety and variety and as a result he’s a far more expressive vocalist here —- at times recalling the wild rock n’ roll looseness of an Ian Astbury (sans the “woomon”‘s and “baby”s).  This isn’t an album that I’d recommend for someone wanting hard hitting, direct metal —- but its a successful and very interesting revamp of a band’s musical approach, the sound of a square peg trying to get out of a square hole.

 

The other band that night, the doomy Tribulation, have a new record out called The Formulas of Death, which is plenty riff heavy yet shares In Solitude’s new found penchant for airy infusions of dark psychedelic swirls. I’m still a bit undecided on this one, but a good sign is that I’m intrigued enough to keep coming back to it. They alternate between a doom laden crushing blend of death and black metal without succumbing to genre tropes, or even displaying any obvious influences, and when they hit it hard its gripping stuff. Check out a track like “When the Sky is Black with Devils”, which musically comes across as a mix of Dissection meets latter day Darkthrone. Like In Solitude, Tribulation choose to employ riffs in a far more restrained fashion, featuring long sustains and riffs that aren’t super tight. At times their musical attack brings to mind a blackened version of those early classic Maiden tradeoffs between Murray and Smith —- loose and almost hard rock-ish while simultaneously precise and focused. I love the aggressive moments found on tracks like “Spectres” and “Suspira de Profundis”, but admittedly I find the soft, spacey moments that permeate throughout to be an occasional strain on my patience. When I have the album on in the background and am focused on something else primarily, I find myself enjoying the record as a whole and even admiring those moments of quiet, but when I begin to really focus on what I’m listening to, I find them lacking in musicality —- quiet noodling should still have purpose, direction, and melody. Maybe that’s just going to be my hangup, but it comes and goes, and that further confuses my overall take on this album.

 

I get the feeling that Tribulation will wind up on many reviewers/bloggers best of 2013 lists, some are already short listing it as the album of the year. There usually are one or two albums that end up being a consensus pick of critics genre wide, and far be it for me to suggest that most of these folks don’t truly enjoy the album. Good albums are deservedly recognized as such, but in the past few years in particular I’ve found that the consensus pick of each year has fallen flat for me. And I think that’s where I differ in my end of year analysis and list creation from other sites, blogs, and critics. If a record doesn’t net an emotional or at least a compulsive response from me, then I find it hard to say that its the best album of the year, regardless of how innovative or genre-bending it is. I got a lot of flack a few years ago for publicly questioning NPR’s best metal records of 2011 list, in particular from fans of Cormorant, whose album Dwellings took the top spot on that list. It also appeared on just about every other critical list of metal records for that year, particularly from major mainstream media outlets. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it was an album worth checking out, it was certainly an interesting listen —- but that’s all I got out of it. The responses of that fan base to my list were scathing as expected, and that was fair enough, but my list was an honest one for the time. Of course as I admitted earlier, you’ll rarely get it right in retrospect, but as long as its honest in the moment, how wrong could it be?

 

So when I’m looking at candidates for the best songs and albums of 2013 articles I’m going to be putting up relatively soon (this month I promise!), I’m taking a few things into account: Firstly that this list really matters to no one but myself and perhaps a few other readers, but its going to be on the internet for all time. And secondly, that just like in these two years previous, I’m going to be opening myself up to the potential for a lot of criticism for the album’s list in particular. As the folks at Angry Metal Guy will attest to, this year started off dreadfully slow in terms of the quantity of excellent releases and there were some disappointments that cropped up along the way. 2013 has been heavily back loaded in a bizarre way, but how that has factored into list building is that I’m finding myself seriously going back to reconsider albums released earlier in the year and taking a look at how much I actually listened to them. The results surprised me, in good and not so good ways… some records I thought would be at the forefront of any album of the year list have dropped off for example. The other main takeaway is that its been a quietly strong year for metal, not the blockbuster that was 2011 and 2010, but definitely not the total disaster many bloggers were scouting out earlier in the year.

 

One major disappointment worth noting that I never commented on before is what in the wild hell happened to Blabbermouth? Website redesigns are totally understandable and even welcome when done right but that site was for better or worse the center of my and most other heavy music fans’ online experience. Its been my homepage for years and was always part of the daily new scouring routine. The old design’s iconic news feed scrolling section is now replaced by a far more inconvenient “highlights” feature, mostly featuring Kerry King’s unwelcome face. There are fewer articles on each page of the site, making navigating a chore, and forget about trying to remember how far back you’ve gone because there’s no easy way to judge unless your memory is spot on (mine isn’t). I’m starting to utilize Twitter and Facebook more and more for metal news on essentials like releases and tour dates, but those aren’t perfect systems for those. I find myself actively looking less and less at Blabbermouth even for entertainment value, which was of course one of it’s most dutiful roles, a sort of TMZ for the metal world. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I enjoyed being a spectator to the comment feeds as well, where stupidity and snark would collide in a misguided, often hilarious display of the worst of our fan-doms. With the comments sections now tied into Facebook, anonymity on the site is non-existent, and while some commenters have no problem presenting themselves as oafs and buffoons, the majority of people commenting on individual articles are turning Blabbermouth into a mild version of NPR.org (where complete sentences and paragraph length discussions do a poor job of masking one of the more abhorrent comment sections anywhere online… the ones brimming with irony and smug self satisfaction). Bring back the privacy curtains and trolling idiots I say, god knows we need something to laugh at in this genre.

 

One more thing (I wonder if there’s anyone reading this far), Manowar has announced a 2014 North American tour consisting of nine select shows in February. First, the routing: There’s a couple dates in the midwest, one in Minnesota, two in California and oddly enough two in Texas (Dallas and my current location, Houston). Screw you Florida and the majority of the North East and North West says Joey DeMaio! I can’t tell you how much I loath it when bands come over to only do a handful of dates…. this is the United States of America, a world tour within a world tour. Do a proper 20-30 shows and criss-cross the goddamned land. Kudos to them for scheduling dates in Texas, no proper tour can be called an American tour without hitting Texas in my estimation, but two shows back to back in Dallas and Houston? Fans in either city would drive to the other and meanwhile I’m sure your fans in the very metal friendly but geographically isolated Arizona and New Mexico and El Paso really appreciated that. Why not just be cool to your long suffering American fanbase and do a full fledged club tour of the entire country? Because this is Manowar and they can’t be bothered to play shows in their own backyard unless there’s a huge incentive to do so.

 

The incentive by the way are out of proportion ticket prices. The Manowar shows are 75 dollars for advance tickets or 100 bucks on the day of the show at the box office. Maybe the size of the venues being scheduled (a lot of small theaters like House of Blues) can justify these prices but the reality is that the band is simply taking advantage of scarcity. Manowar regularly schedules full length European tours that see them play in venues such as hockey arenas, soccer stadiums, and at the very least, big big halls (clear em!). They rarely play their own home country and make it point to utilize that scarcity to their economic advantage. Look, I understand economics and supply and demand, the reality is that they’re charging 75 bucks a pop because some people will pay 75 bucks a pop. Do I think they’ll sell out all 1000 tickets for the Houston House of Blues at those prices? Certainly not. I honestly think they’ll be lucky to get 200-300 people in there but there’s more to this issue than just money.

 

For a band who loudly proclaims to be all about their fans and the only metal band that matters, how about showing American fans the same respect that fellow countrymen Kamelot do, with reasonable tours of scaled down production in small clubs for 20 to 30 bucks a ticket so those people who are balking at those prices can cough up the money. The reality is that 75 bucks is a lot of money these days for nearly all of us. Nightwish, a band that can make a really nice career out of scheduling arena tours in Europe and South America toured Stateside last year in a coast to coast tour where base general admission tickets were 30 bucks. They even varied up their setlist a bit as a way of making it up to American audiences who didn’t get to experience their elaborate European stage productions. Getting to see a band that normally plays huge venues in a small club setting, mere yards away from you is a great experience, and they do it without demanding outrageous prices for entry (yes I’m aware Nightwish offered a VIP package for close to 100 bucks on that same tour, but it was entirely optional and you essentially bought a guaranteed meet and greet with the band —- a fair enough proposition in my eyes, as regular ticket holders weren’t being gouged in anyway.)

 

I enjoy some Manowar every now and then, as good time music for hanging out with like minded metal loving friends at get-togethers and such. They’ve made a couple good, not great albums, and their recent output has been dubious at best but always worth the odd catchy song or two. Are they worth 75 dollars? That’s for everyone to decide for themselves but I personally bristle at the idea of American audiences being screwed over in 2013 like that. For a long time it was pretty hard being a metal fan in this country, you’d have to import everything at huge mark ups, bands wouldn’t dare come to our shores for tours because just the very idea itself would lose money, and we had to put up with non-stop barrages of cancellations due to post 9-11 visa issues. Manowar is an American band, but they aren’t particularly welcoming to their fellow countrymen or seemingly at all grateful for the support they’ve had here. I’ll be seeing three shows for certain in the winter and spring of 2014; Amon Amarth with Enslaved; Dark Tranquility with Omnium Gatherum; and Iced Earth with Sabaton and ReVamp. I did the math, all three of those tickets combined cost less than the 86 dollars it would cost to see Manowar. I feel good about where my moneys going.

Serenity: The Refined Elegance of Austria’s Finest

I’m increasingly more aware of how rare it is to stumble upon a band that can utterly transfix my wandering attention span the way Serenity did about a month ago with the release of their spectacular fourth album, War of Ages. The band hails from Austria, a country far more regarded in metal circles as a purveyor of death and black metal bands, most notably Belphegor. Serenity then must be the black sheep of their countrymen, as they specialize in a style of progressive power metal informed by the obvious influences of Kamelot, Sonata Arctica, and maybe even a touch of Avantasia’s latter day hard rock epic strut. This is not to say they are merely the sum of their parts, as Serenity have an identity all their own within the fundamentals of songwriting styles and lyrical concepts — but their influences are a good touchstone and filter for prospective listeners.

 

It might be hard to ignore the extent to which the Kamelot influence has affected Serenity, down to styles of album cover art, logo design, and band photography. Even the way guitarist and co-primary songwriter Thomas Buchberger prefers an emphasis on understated riffs, elegant melody, and reigned in soloing brings to mind the style of Kamelot guitarist Thomas (!) Youngblood. Vocalist Georg Neuhauser doesn’t sound like Roy Khan per say, but he at times reminds me of a mix between current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik, Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko, and Scorpion’s Klaus Meine… a blending that is refined into one of the smoothest vocal deliveries in modern power metal. So yeah, the influences are hard to ignore… but they’re not hard to accept, at least for me anyway. I try to look at it pragmatically, that all bands have influences and starting points, everyone is trying to be uniquely derivative (particularly in a genre like power metal), and only the best will succeed in forging their own identity — a feat which usually takes more than a few records. Serenity succeeded in achieving that by their second album, 2008’s Fallen Sanctuary, which speaks volumes about the level of their abilities as songwriters.

 

 

Yes of course I emphasized songwriting, because while the musicianship Serenity display is of the excellent proficiency you’d expect from a European power metal band, the Buchberger/Neuhauser songwriting partnership is the critical heart of Serenity’s success. For anyone who felt/feels that something could potentially be permanently lost from the brilliance that was the Khan/Youngblood songwriting legacy — I’m telling you that the Buchberger/Neuhauser combo strikes right to the heart of the style of music that you and I both love, crave, and sadly can’t seem to find enough of. I’m talking about crisp, melodic, melancholy, triumphant, elegant, and yes actually HEAVY power metal that is written with a head for ambition, an ear for tunefulness, and a writer’s heart for great lyrics. And even though War of Ages is the album that sucked me in as a new fan of the band, I’ve become addicted to the other three albums in their discography as well. And one of the more brilliant examples of all of these aforementioned attributes combining to supreme effect can be found on the bonus track (!) of their 2011 Death & Legacy album, “To India’s Shores”.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suCXuj3B0U?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

As a lyricist, Neuhauser faces the same hurdle Khan did in being an English-as-a-second language writer, but he seems to make a similar effort in the care and choosing of diction, in the use of imagery, and in not burying either his narrator’s voice or his own in piles of metaphors that many lyricists in metal tend to do. It rings of confidence in his writing abilities, and coupled with the fact that Serenity seem hell bent on their songs being narrative voices for historical figures of the past musing on philosophical topics of their own lives or time periods… a great deal of confidence is needed for sure. Don’t let the historical figures thing put you off. The approach isn’t nearly as academic as it might threaten to sound on paper (although Neuhauser has apparently finished a doctorate’s in history, so its an informed voice at work here). I’ll be honest, I don’t really find it all that much of an influence over me when I’m listening to these songs. Historical names aren’t mentioned, you aren’t bludgeoned over the head with dates, places, times, or events… the lyrics at work here could be about anyone’s modern day struggles, relationships, or inner turmoil (okay the new record does have song called “Legacy of Tudors”, but its so good that I’ll just allow the indulgence).

 

 

For the War of Ages album, the band made what I can only refer to as a savvy game changer of a decision. Enter into the Serenity lineup one Clémentine Delauney from Lyon, France, as the co-lead vocalist to pair alongside Neuhauser’s powerful voice. This isn’t a gimmick, as they have experimented with a handful of female guest vocalists for select tracks on previous albums — and while the songs and performances have been good (particularly a duet with the always excellent Amanda Somerville on Death and Legacy’s “Changing Fate”), the types of female voices they’ve attempted to pair with Neuhauser never seemed to measure up or alternatively, contrast well with his rich, distinctive tone. I know these women have their fans, but I’ve never been overly impressed with Charlotte Wessels, nor Ailyn from Sirenia, and while Somerville’s duet was excellent, her voice is as strong and full of character as Neuhauser’s and to me it seemed that when they would join together both voices would be fighting for space with no one winning out.

 

Delauney however, had been singing with the band as their live backing vocalist for a considerable time prior to her finally being invited into the band as a permanent co-vocalist — and her vocal intersections with Neuhauser are noticeably more developed and experienced in terms of tone, delivery, and pure resonance. I think the band suspected this would be the case, and must’ve thought to themselves that their ideas of duet vocals would work better in the future if they had a consistent set of voices pairing up. Smart thinking — because honestly I think she’s an exceptional vocalist, possessing a soprano voice that is effortlessly melodic, rich, and deep yet capable of being ethereal, light, and even fragile when the song calls for it. She utilizes all those strengths on the epic opening track of the War of Ages album, “Wings of Madness”, where her vocals float above Neuhauser’s in the emotional chorus — only to swoop down to darker depths on her own solo verse (her eerily drawn out vocals there remind me of the haunting abilities of Sinéad O’Connor). I’m told that she penned around half of the lyrics on the new album as well, which means that she’s had a direct hand in crafting vocal melodies alongside Neuhauser and I really love that… Because when you’ve listened to a ton of power metal, you can spot the difference between a singer writing the vocal melodies as opposed to an overreaching guitarist, or bassist attempting to dictate what the vocalist does (hello Timo Tolkki and Steve Harris!).

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2QH9L42OY0?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

I’ve been checking out the tour dates for the band and they’re disappointingly slim, even for Europe… (I have no delusions about the band getting to launch a full tour in the States — I’ll post a very grateful retraction if that ever happens). I’m not sure what the problem is, but I could venture to guess that these guys have day jobs, and that they try to fit Serenity in whenever they can. That’s understandable and to be expected given the state of things in the industry, but I hope they can do more then just a ten date headliner tour of clubs in Europe. But if that doesn’t, or can’t happen then I’d just have one word of advice for the band if they ever happened to read this: Write more songs, record more albums, document your art with a sense of urgency and ambition. You know its an uphill battle if you’re hoping to headline arenas or chart singles, there are very few Nightwish success stories in your chosen genre. So instead, strike while the creative irons are hot and get this stuff on tape. Build your artistic legacy.

 

And if you’re a fan of music like this… well, I’m going to do something I almost never do, which is admonish you to actually buy the official physical release or legal download. Look, I love death and black metal as much as the next guy or girl, but for all the hundreds to thousands of death and black metal bands Austria has coughed up and choked on, she’s only given us one Serenity. Bands that make metal like this are rare, and I fear, growing rarer — so if you love this style of metal, actually show your support for the artists that are essentially underdogs in attempting to create it. I shelled out something just short of fifty American to grab this band’s catalog and I look forward to handing over more of my money in their name in the future. Its really hard to think of something else I’ve bought lately in my everyday life that I feel that good about.

Perception and Acceptability with Amaranthe’s The Nexus

There will be many — so so many reviews, opinions, forum rants, and of course YouTube comments that will take some pretty sharp, barbed digs with the metal pitchfork to this band and their new album The Nexus. Amaranthe offend many with a combination of sounds that hands tallied most metal fans would agree should not have ever been attempted. I’ve seen the old “just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done” line more than a few times in the past couple days. Conversely, this is a band with a surprisingly large contingent of often quite vocal supporters, many of them writing reviews for well known print and digital publications, and of course, they’ll be out there in full force online, equalizing the rebukes and jeers with various expressions of high praise — some of which will be ludicrously exaggerated. So here’s where I’ll step in, to offer a perspective from a fairly neutral middle ground.

 

Cards out, I’ll admit that I do enjoy Amaranthe’s deftly cobbled together blend of Euro-pop/American radio-rock with metalcore-lite dressing on a purely surface level — the same way I enjoy the ear candy pop of say Lady GaGa. In other words, this isn’t music that affects me on any sort of deeper level other than that I have a fondness for catchy hooks set to techno-y dance rhythms, pleasing vocals and harmony arrangements,  and a memorable melody or two. Not exactly the criteria combination one usually takes into account when appreciating a metal album, and that’s exactly the point. Remove the modern In Flames-lite heavy guitar riffing, the growling/screaming vocals of Andreas Solveström, and you’ll be left with whats essentially pure dance-pop.

 

So are we reviewing, criticizing, lambasting, or praising this album as a metal album when at its core its anything but? And if so, to what degree is that distorting our emotional response when we hear this music? The metal-related elements are present nonetheless —- but for what purpose? I suppose really, they serve to make Amaranthe’s music distinguishable from other dance-pop driven acts. No one to my knowledge has really done this kind of mash-up before, and while I won’t suggest handing the band a trophy for innovation, they do stand out as a result of the merging of these two disparate musical genres. Face it, after Finnish polka with death metal infusions, at some point, Amaranthe was bound to happen.

 

I first became aware of Amaranthe after reading the infamous Angry Metal Guy review of their eponymous debut album, a scathing indictment loaded with derision that essentially labeled the album as a record label/producer hit seeking concoction. It was the most scathing review I’d ever read on the site and out of pure curiosity I had to check out what was sure to be a disaster among disasters. Greater than my surprise that I actually found myself beginning to enjoy the album over those initial repeat listens, was the lack of any kind of reactionary feelings towards the numerous folks who were disparaging it. Their reactions were fair I thought, as I could understand all their criticisms, as well as accusations of disingenuous motives of the band/label/producer/etc. But it was what it was, I enjoyed music by a band that was loathed by many, and as it would seem over time, loved equally as much by others. Who makes up those others by the way is really hard to define. Case in point are the striking clips of Amaranthe’s 2012 appearance at Wacken Open Air, in which camera pans across the audience reveal an equal amount of enthusiastic guys and girls, and more than a few of them sporting the t-shirts of some far heavier bands.

 

Most of the attention on the band falls on the obvious eye candy appeal of front woman/lead vocalist Elize Ryd, about whom I tend to agree with the prevailing critical opinion: She’s a pop singer who has been seeking her rise to fame; and hitching a ride aboard the metal train has been a quick way to stand out and get there. Who knows, she may actually enjoy metal but its difficult to believe that she has a metallic bone in her body. That may be a judgmental perspective, but one can infer a certain amount of accurate information from observation. I think she’s actually one of the more uninteresting people in the band’s lineup, as I’m far more intrigued by the back stories of both guitarist Olof Mörck, and clean vocalist Jake E, who in addition to being the band’s founders also work together as it’s primary songwriters (contrary to the speculation that the band must’ve had Swedish hitmaker Max Martin tied up to a chair in a recording studio somewhere). Here are two guys who until now have both languished far and long in relative obscurity within the metal world.

 

 

When you see the term “supergroup” applied to Amaranthe, its a total misnomer. While Mörck is fairly central to the Dragonland project, their music never attracted much notice beyond hardcore power metal devotees, and those of us who were enthralled with their take on Limahl’s “The Neverending Story” (yes THAT song) from 2002’s Holy War album. Mörck’s time in Nightrage has been limited to their post-2006 era, being the replacement for founding member Gus G. and arriving well after the acclaimed Tomas Lindberg era. Jake E. meanwhile is often noted as being a former member of Dream Evil, yet his time in the band yielded no recorded output, being only a brief stint as the band’s vocalist for six months. His tenure with the now-on-hiatus melodic power metal band Dreamland attracted little notice apart from being associated with Hammerfall’s Joacim Cans early in their development. I’ll avoid getting into the blips of time that the remaining Amaranthe members have been in their oft-cited past bands.

 

Point is that for Mörck and Jake E., they had put in a decade’s worth of time and dedication into various metal projects that ultimately were fruitless in terms of notoriety, creative and commercial (relatively speaking) success. When they got together and thought up the idea for Amaranthe, I imagine that for them the writing was on the wall that they might not have a lot of chances left; in addition to seeing a potentially golden opportunity with Ryd, who at the time had only guest vocalist appearances on her resume. The gambit worked, and one album and world tour later these two guys finally found their first taste of real success, commercially and even critically speaking. Was it a “sell out” move by both of them? I have a hard time throwing that term at anyone these days, especially within metal where paying your dues means a lot more than just playing jangly guitar in some coffeehouse in the Village. Ultimately its the songwriting of both men that is propelling Amaranthe, and the irony here is that two guys from pure power metal backgrounds are finally finding success only by mingling with pop music (perhaps something they realized had to be done considering the vocal style of Ryd —- operatic, classical… these terms don’t apply here).

 

 

On The Nexus, they seem to be following the don’t fix it if it isn’t broken blueprint, which is shrewd and smart, yet subject to a touch of the sophomore slump. And before I delve into that let me just state that this album isn’t a mind changer by any means. Whatever you felt after listening to that first album is likely what you’re going to feel if you decide to listen to this one. As I mentioned before, I completely understand why so many find this stuff distasteful, and if you’re one of those people, you’d do yourself no favors subjecting your ears to this album. For those of us who did find some enjoyment in their debut, new songs like “Invincible”, “Future on Hold”, “Stardust”, and “Infinity” with its dual lead vocal harmonies offer similarly pleasing melodic ear candy. I’m usually pretty big on quality lyrics, and they’re only serviceable at best here. Sometimes its hard to tell what some of these songs are going on about; but it doesn’t factor into the enjoyment level one way or another.

 

 

There are however a few tracks that seem to be indistinguishable, a misstep that they managed to avoid on their debut. As well as a startlingly awful moment with the utterly misguided “Electroheart”, a song so bad I can’t fathom why no one in that recording studio spoke up to say “guys, this is shit”. Whats even more unfortunate than it’s ultra bubblegum melody at work throughout is the fact that Andreas Solveström finds himself having to scream out the words “Electro Heart!” Its an embarrassing display that simply ends up being more ammunition for their detractors to utilize. Fire away guys… they earned the abuse with that one. Another noteworthy flaw is the overall absence of any remotely organic sound palettes, as this thing is over synthesized to a fault: The highlight of their overall-better debut album was the shimmering solo piano and vocal led “Amaranthine”, a stirring ballad that had space to breathe with a simple vocal melody that was effectively the backbone of the song. The ballad on The Nexus is “Burn With Me”, which while easy enough to envision being played on American rock radio, comes drowned in sound effects and lacks the ethereal nature of its predecessor.

 

Despite the hate and the over the top adulation this band receives, I think one important aspect of their success is forgotten amidst the back and forth. Amaranthe has a place within metal as an accessible gateway band for younger or uninitiated listeners. A teenager who is into regular rock could stumble upon this, get drawn in by the male and female clean vocals, catchy pop hooks, and find the admittedly mild toned screaming vocals easy on their palette. One thing leads to another and they’ll stumble upon heavier bands, perhaps someone touring alongside Amaranthe, or an Elize Ryd connection like Kamelot, and then a few bands later they find themselves listening to Omnium Gatherum, Insomnium, then At the Gates, then Nile… its possible. And a lot more likely than just having that person listen to Black Seeds of Vengeance and think its the greatest thing in the world (I’m sure its happened once but its unlikely). Awhile back I spotlighted a brilliant article written by Tom Dare of Metal Hammer, in which he argued that underground/experimental metal was interdependent with more mainstream/cover star metal.

 

He summarized it succinctly,

New young fans get into metal through the cover stars. I could try and tell you I got into metal through Anaal Nathrakh and Nasum on their debut albums, but I’d be lying, and obviously so… The reality is that metal needs all of its aspects, be they experimental and obtuse, crushing and horrible or catchy as an airborne variant of herpes in the Underworld… You don’t need to necessarily like it yourself, but if you think the end of the metal spectrum you love would be better off without the more/less marketable material, you’re madder than a collaboration between Deathspell Omega and Kate Bush.

– Tom Dare

Kamelot – Silverthorn: Is It the Start or End of an Era?

Here we are, on the eve of the American release of Kamelot’s long anticipated new album Silverthorn, their first with new vocalist Tommy Karevik of Seventh Wonder, and only their third album in their career without the vocals of longtime frontman Roy Khan. Speaking of whom, for those of you who had read my article a few months back discussing the loss and legacy of Khan from the lineup, you’ll know that I expressed a healthy degree of skepticism about a Khan-less Kamelot — even though I have become a great admirer of Karevik’s work in Seventh Wonder. I said then that we wouldn’t be able to accurately determine the failure or success of Kamelot’s decision to partner with Karevik until we could listen to a complete full length. For a band that had suffered the departure of a major songwriter such as Khan, it could really be the only true test. I’ve only had Silverthorn for just under a week, but have had it on heavy rotation daily in that short amount of time. I figure for an album that I’m placing a tremendous amount of weight upon (some might say unreasonably so), it was only fair that I give it more than just the standard multiple listens.

 

I’ll start this off by declaring rather simply that this is the best Kamelot album on offer since 2005’s masterpiece The Black Halo. Karevik’s input as a new primary songwriting force alongside band leader/guitarist Thomas Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai has rejuvenated the Kamelot sound both into fresh sonic territory, as well as back to its classic Khan-led period.   Gone are the murky, downcast tones of predecessor Poetry for the Poisoned, and there is a togetherness, a continuity that 2007’s Ghost Opera sorely lacked. Those were good albums that had their share of gems apiece, but were slightly marred by a spotty collection of songs that either overreached musically or seemed undercooked melodically. But Silverthorn is not wholly immune from that lingering condition, as there are some tracks that seem unfulfilled and what one could describe as borderline filler, namely the albums title track, its lengthy album concluding trilogy epic “Prodigal Son”, and yes, its lead off single “Sacrimony” (of which in an earlier review of the track itself I hoped would prove to the weakest song on the album).

 

A couple comments about two of these three troublemakers: First of all, until its last few minutes “Prodigal Son” is a bit of an all over hazy mess, and makes me wish that Youngblood would let go of the need to come up with these types of self-contained “trilogies” that he’s been doing in a fruitless attempt to equal or better their great “Elizabeth Trilogy” from the classic Karma album. “Elizabeth” worked because it was in essence three separate equal-length songs of varying degrees of awesome. “Prodigal Son” suffers in that it seems as though kernels of potentially good ideas were stitched together with atmospheric keyboard orchestration to create an illusion of cohesion. It didn’t work, you can see the seams and to be blunt about there’s nothing particularly epic that stands out overall. Moving on to the title track “Silverthorn”, we come upon the most blatant instance of filler on the album, a bland chorus that unless I’m mistaken is essentially a watered down retread of “Moonlight” from The Black Halo (seriously, even in the way the choirs are arranged, go listen to them back to back). Its not a sin for bands to recycle familiar motifs or styles from older works but filler is filler and its gotta be called out. Finally its worth singling out the two pointless instrumentals that bookend the album on opposite sides — lets lose those for the next record guys, because unless they’re gonna be as great as the very lovely violin-y intro track “Solitaire” from Ghost Opera, I don’t want to hear them.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQVTk-z3Jw8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

What makes Silverthorn work however are the inclusion of solid, rocking, classic-Kamelot-styled tracks such as “Ashes to Ashes”, “Torn”, the pompous “Veritas”, and the gorgeous emotional swell of “My Confession”. Speaking of these as a group, they’re not all that far removed from the dark stylings of the past two albums, heavy chug-a-chug rhythm sections, richly dark keyboard arrangements and all. What makes them sound fresh and popping with energy is Youngblood’s purposeful shift back to a more cleaner, uplifting guitar tone and melodic approach that really harkens back to the best of their Khan era work. This singular element was sorely missing from most of the recent albums and its presence all over the majority of this album is smile inducing. “Ashes to Ashes” is an awesome mid-paced crunchy stomper, where Karevik’s nimble vocals provide clever nuance in a chorus that is sneakily catchy — this is the headbanger of the record. The hooky, multifaceted “My Confession” works not only because of the addictive keyboard riffs of Palotai, but the brightly soaring chorus guided by one of Karevik’s best performances that reaches into high registers yet never wavers in its smooth delivery.

 

 

But here’s what I’ve been really wanting to talk about, namely, what makes Silverthorn shine, the true gems of the album. There’s a handful here that start off with the hauntingly perfect “Song for Jolee”, which turned out to be the first song that Karevik and the band collaborated on, as well as being the driving force that led to his invitation to join to the band. This might sit right alongside Kamelot’s Khan-era ballad masterpieces, its that great. Delicate keys tinkle out the fragments of a melody over a bed of orchestration, and Karevik’s emotive vocals usher the song along in a sparse, elegant fashion, with deft, nimble melodies that are built upon the melodic twists and turns provided by the lyrics themselves — in other words, nothing sounds forced. Honestly I don’t know if Khan could do it any better, and while I hesitate to have to compare the two vocally, this is the first moment on the album where Karevik’s vocals sound completely his own. This isn’t to say that he’s ripping off Khan, but there are moments throughout the entirety of the album where he does sound strikingly similar in terms of phrasing. I’ll give him some leeway because for starters their voices are relatively similar, and secondly because the nature of Kamelot’s songwriting is going to naturally bring about memories of Khan. On “Song For Jolee”, Karevik establishes his voice as its own, and fans of Seventh Wonder will recall touches of his work in that band’s ballads.

 

The cascading refrain of “Falling Like the Fahrenheit” is perhaps the albums most rewarding moment; a rich, layered vocal that is impressive not only for guiding its effortless melodies over rather tricky words, but for the way that it seems to soar purely on the strength of the vocal phrasing — the sombre, stately pacing of the music underneath hardly shifts in tempo in transition from verse to bridge to chorus. The album’s most sublime moment however is the following track, the instant classic “Solitaire”, where a bracing, surging verse section launches you forward into the album’s most urgent, epic, melodically triumphant, and lyrically beautiful chorus — a moment where Karevik’s lyrics nearly match the sheer brilliance of the mighty Khan: “Sometimes when I’m out of reach / And sometimes when I’m there / That is when our souls agree and join in solitaire /Sometimes when my will to love has gone away / That is when I hear your name”. The joyous guitar riff that follows those words is Youngblood circa 2000-2005, a moment of indulgence in the sounds of the band’s past that now sound refreshing and vital.

 

 

One final note about Karevik, as I’m sure that most of the reviews online and in various media will focus on his vocals, and perhaps not so much on what he brings to the table as a songwriter in terms of vocal melodies and the quality of his lyrics. Those were the aspects of Roy Khan that really solidified my love of the band and were the things that I feared Kamelot would suffer from the most. Having been a recent convert to the great work Karevik has done in Seventh Wonder, in particular through their latest album, The Great Escape, I found that I was relatively pleased with his contributions to Silverthorn, albeit more for his choices in vocal melodies rather than sheer lyrical poetry. Don’t get me wrong, he delivers good lyrics overall, and in addition to the great lines of “Solitaire”, there’s a really excellent couplet in the chorus for “Song for Jolee” worth mentioning: “One look in the mirror to see / Whats real and fake, Jolee”. That’s Khan-esque in its simple, elegant, and evocative nature. But he does hit and miss throughout the album, for instance I didn’t find the lyrics of “Sacrimony” to be the best they could have been, and perhaps it was the rushed way that song was put together that resulted in that (it was reportedly the final song written for the album). All said, it was a fine effort by Karevik for the first time around, and knowing what he has done in Seventh Wonder gives me confidence that he will be even better on the next album. He might never replace Khan in that regard, the void is too great, but he seems to understand the level of quality that Kamelot fans demand, and maybe that’s all we should be asking of him as a lyricist, and as a vocalist.

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