In a much needed turnaround since my last update, the past month(ish) has provided a bounty of incredibly exciting new metal releases, some of which are the best albums I’ve heard this year. The headliner here is of course the new, much anticipated Helloween album with the reunited Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen onboard alongside Andi Deris. There’s not much suspense to be had in what I think about the record — it’s spectacular and beyond anything I expected the band to deliver, we’re talking a possible AOTY contender. What is surprising is just how they got there, and the choices they made on the record that resulted in a reunion album for the ages. More on that down below then. Rounding out the rest of the reviews below are new albums by veteran artists as well as a couple newer bands that I’m being introduced to via their debuts (which is unusual for me, being typically late to the party most of the time). It feels great to be excited about newer metal releases again, because it’s been a weird early summer that saw me deep diving into K-Pop (check out Mamamoo) — I guess I craved something entirely new to me. Yet simultaneously for a few weeks I couldn’t stop listening to Priest’s Turbo (I always had a soft spot for it but now I’m convinced it’s unfairly panned in retrospect still). Like I said, weird. Not gonna lie though, K-Pop summer is likely to continue, but now it’ll have to share time with a lot of the stuff covered below.
Helloween – Helloween:
The most anticipated release of the year lived up to the hype, how often can we really say that? I’m sure by now you’ve heard this record (because who needs a review to convince them to check out a new Helloween album?) and have realized that this is a way stronger effort than the band (even with this newly reinvigorated lineup) was ever expected to deliver. With Kai Hansen and Michael Kiske back in the fold alongside longtime vocalist Andi Deris, Helloween has mic-dropped their finest album since The Dark Ride and arguably a top five career album (some might challenge that assertion, but I think it can hang in there for a spot). I actually wish I didn’t listen to “Skyfall” when it was released all those weeks ago, because I’d have loved to hear it the way I heard the rest of this album — on release evening at midnight. When “Out For The Glory” was ripping along, with it’s classic Helloween tropes being unabashedly introduced (I still glory claw every time Kai descends with his “IRON MINIONS!”), I thought “Wow, sounds like something off the Keepers”. And despite the lead vocal split between Kiske and Deris, and the fact that when they team up on a lead, it’s hard for Kiske’s voice not to overpower things a touch, I’m honestly floored at how well these two guys sound together, particularly when they play off each other as on “Fear Of The Fallen”. Here they’re trading off lines, bouncing Kiske’s soaring tenor with Deris’ more emotive low to mid range approach to spectacular effect. The songwriting is superb, with particular attention to vocal melodies and who should be singing what and when. That the egos were laid bare for this is clearly evident here and on Deris led cuts like “Cyanide” and “Rise Without Chains” where Kiske steps back into more of an assisting lead vocal role. I really respect that there was an effort made to not just cast Deris aside as second fiddle or worse, an after thought, that he’s given equal time to Kiske — and of course he should, he’s been in the band longer than him by well over a decade. Whether the details of vocal splitting were arranged by whomever wrote an individual song, or more likely, by Deris and Kiske themselves, they get a lot of credit from me for making it work so well.
Helloween has been a songwriting roundtable for awhile now, with any member welcome to throw their idea into the mix and see it come through as a finished song on the record, and this roundtable free-for-all approach continues on Helloween. Actually not counting bonus tracks, Deris racks up the most credits on the album, complete with a doozy of a collab with Hansen on the awesome, ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. This is my personal favorite on the album, a classic slice of heavy metal expressly written about metal, and the act of rockin’, a made for stage anthem that they’ve cheekily layered some sampled crowd noise onto as a little guide for future audiences (“Make some noise!”). Deris is at his swagger-fueled best here, delivering the pounding chorus with conviction and his raspy edged voice is the perfect call for the aggressive tone set in the verses. Can we get more of these two writing together? Sascha Gerstner writes the Kiske centric “Angels”, which is richly dramatic and sends Kiske’s vocals spiraling skyward and falling back to earth, while an unorthodox arrangement unfolds below blending an almost Savatage-esque piano laced, stately paced melancholic swirl. The Deris/Kiske dueling tradeoff towards the end is one of the most spectacular moments on the album, and the acapella Kiske fade out is an inspired minor detail. Of course we have to mention “Robot King”, one of the most classic Helloween-y cuts here courtesy of Michael Weikath (he also penned “Out For The Glory”), because this is a fantastic Keeper-vibes gem with one of the most infectious passages on the album (“…robot king! / You’re the master race!…”). I’ve seen some nitpicking about the lyrics on “Down In The Dumps”, particularly the chorus… which I don’t really understand at all because I actually think its a funny way to phrase depression, especially in a refrain that sounds so bitingly angry as this one. This is an odd duck of a song but I love it, with its laid back My God Given Right era vibes in the verse jumping right to The Dark Ride in the chorus — only Helloween could pull off something this schizophrenic and make it gel.
Of course we have to mention “Skyfall”, which is a Hansen penned latter day Helloween classic, featuring an extended chorus passage that sounds like it’d fit in on one of Avantasia’s Metal Operas (a little power metal inception here, who is influenced by whom??!). Hansen hasn’t been shy about his influences over the years, so the David Bowie “Space Oddity” influenced middle bridge sequence isn’t entirely unexpected, but it’s still an eye-opening transitional moment and something that feels really fresh, inspired, and joyful. It’s also seamlessly woven in, complete with a easy transition back into a traditional metal guitar solo sequence that rockets us back into high speed power metal territory. That’s the kind of move that only an assured, veteran songwriter tends to pull off successfully, and not often at that — it alone might notch this as the best thing Hansen has written in awhile. And though it’s the album closer, I want to point out that on Spotify anyway, we’re treated to two more excellent bonus tracks by default (a glaring fault of these streaming services is that there’s rarely any indication of what is and isn’t a bonus track). Both “Golden Times” and particularly “Save My Hide” are satisfying, album tracklist worthy cuts that I’m considering part of this overall album experience anyway, particularly the latter with its kick down the doors chorus opening that’s full of charging bull attitude and hard rock swagger to the max. We’re definitely going to discuss this album more at the end of the year, how could we not? I just wanna mention now though that twenty years ago when Kiske not-so-secretly finally returned to metal on Tobias Sammet’s first Metal Opera (Ernie!), I was stunned and grateful, because he seemed so disconnected from metal for awhile. But even then, I’d have never dreamed that we’d get another Helloween album with him and Hansen back on board, Weikath seemed to dismiss the idea and things just seemed too distant. I got a little emotional during my first playthrough of this somewhere between that midnight release and 1am, not like teardrop inducing, but I had a moment there halfway through the album where everything felt too surreal for me to process. I’m still processing it as I type this, but this time it’s more about how frigging great this album turned out to be. Unreal.
Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen – Silver Lake By Esa Holopainen:
This is a welcome surprise, largely due to me not knowing that Esa Holopainen was planning on trying his hand at a solo album. I suppose it’s pandemic time well spent, a window where he could focus time away from Amorphis without hurting the band’s usual touring/recording schedule. The naming of this project is unusual, not quite a band name yet more than just his name on the cover as per the usual solo album modus operandi, and the concept of Silver Lake seems like something that can be expanded upon for continuing releases in the future. The idea isn’t new here, essentially Esa writing songs with different guest vocalists on board, providing a different style, approach, and mood on their respective songs. The guest list is inspired both on paper and in execution, with vocals from Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse on two emotionally charged bookending cuts, a more prog-rock bent on the Bjorn Strid sung “Promising Sun” (boasting one of the strongest hooks on the album), and of course the show stopper herself Anneke Van Giersbergen on the gorgeous “Fading Moon” (a sister song to her glorious guest spot on “Amongst Stars” off the last Amorphis record). Holopainen’s expressive playing, at once melancholic and uplifting is the constant throughout the entirety of the album, and his songwriting DNA is of course omnipresent throughout. What I suspect separates this from his work with Amorphis is the more melodic progressive rock nature of these songs compared to the battering ram approach that is still part of Amorphis’ attack. That’s not to say things don’t get heavy any (in fact, Tomi Joutsen makes an appearance on “In Her Solitude” with his brutal bark and deep, guttural growls), but this is a far more contemplative and restrained affair than the full on emotional wringer that Amorphis delivers. Key example is “Storm”, a song about peaceful resignation and contentment sung by Swedish vocalist Hakan Hemlin, a song that I’m still on the fence about (I love the melodies, but sometimes the vocal melody gets too close to cloying). I’ve enjoyed listening to this record on it’s own merits, Holopainen is a fascinating songwriter, and this is clearly meant to be a window into his inner world. It’s worth peering in.
Subterranean Masquerade – Mountain Fever:
The avant-garde, ever-changing lineup of Subterranean Masquerade is back with their fourth full length release, coming after the weird mish-mash quarantine EP last year (titled appropriately, The Pros & Cons Of Social Isolation). I probably should’ve reviewed that one, because I did check it out when it was released and it was the debut of the band’s new vocalist Davidavi Dolev, who with his appearance on this new album suggests that he might be the band’s long term solution post Kjetil Nordhus. I really love Dolev’s vocals, he’s a versatile singer, capable of inflecting aching emotion during impassioned moments and dipping down into quieter, hushed moments while still sounding clear and emotive. I can only guess that he’s handling the sprinkling of growls that are found throughout here and there whenever the band decides to shift into a more metallic attack for a moment. I say a moment because this band’s M.O. is basically to keep you guessing at all times, an approach they themselves describe as “polychromatic arrangements”, and yeah I agree that’s a fine way to phrase it. More than ever before though, the band’s merging of metal, loose rock n’ roll, and Middle-Eastern folk instrumentation put through a prog filter is distilled into it’s finest album to date. On their past couple efforts, I always felt like there were moments where they went a little too far in a direction that I couldn’t really follow, but Mountain Fever is a sharply written, deftly executed collection of terrifically inspired songs. There’s a spiritual feel to songs like “Snake Charmer” with its gorgeously aching string arrangements; and “Mangata” with its delicate acoustic melody that dances alongside what I can only guess is an oud or buzuq (I have a hard time distinguishing these instruments but god do I love listening to either one); and “Ascend” which closes out with my favorite vocal performance on the album in it’s last few minutes. These more introspective moments are countered by the pure aggression of “For The Leader, With Strings Music” (cheeky title that) and the euphorically bright “Ya Shema Evyonecha” where dense, urgent metallic riffing is countered by beautiful folk instrumentation in a vibrant bridge sequence. This is a fascinating album — you get immediately pulled in by the hooks, but come back for repeat listens because there’s simply so much going on within these songs that you can’t take it all in at once. One of the best albums of the year no doubt.
King Of Asgard – Svartrviðr:
One of Sweden’s finest folk metal exports are back with their fifth new album Svartrviðr (your guess is as good as mine on the pronunciation), their follow up to 2017’s genuinely excellent Taudr. The heart of the band is one Karl Beckmann (vocals/guitar), formerly of the Swedish folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, that some might remember from their late 90s run where they delivered a pair of folk metal classics in their short run and promptly disbanded, after which former guitarist Stefan Weinerhall and drummer Karsten Larsson linked up with a theater singer named Mathias Blad and formed Falconer. The rest is, well, you know the saying. Beckmann formed King Of Asgard in 2008 and after a few demos, released the band’s debut two years later. The band’s sound from the jump has really been a continuation of where Mithotyn left off, that revelatory fusion of black metal elements and rustic, roots-in-earth folk melodicism. This approach to folk music is something I’ve been delighted to see a return to from several artists over the past five years, a slowly growing alternative to the kitschy, campy dreck that folk metal turned to in the mid-2000s (and lingered far too long after). There’s a focused, almost meditative quality to the music on this album, designed to be listened to in one attentive sitting, with relatively lengthy songs that are built on cyclic tremolo riffs that pull you into a semi-lulled state, adding elements little by little, or alternatively, deconstructing themselves over time. Beckmann is a fine guitarist, joined here in tandem by Ted Sjulmark (of Grimner), together weaving folk inspired melodies that are often as foreboding sounding as they are gorgeous. But he’s just as impressive as a vocalist, his grim vocals earthen, gritty, and seemingly textural on purpose, a lost folk metal art — countered with a baritone bellow that suits the somber, downcast mood that this album is entrenched in. His clean vocals are a highlight on the title track, a resigned, sullen slow march set to pounding percussion that explodes midway through into an Enslaved-esque expansive progressive black metal passage. A personal favorite here is “Rifna” (as apt a name this song could have), built on a repeating riff figure that pulls you into it’s hypnotic trance, and Beckmann introduces some fantastic, eerie vocal layering effects midway through that really give the song a haunted, ghostly quality. It’s rare that a band delivers two incredibly solid albums back to back, but King Of Asgard do just that here, with Svartrviðr maybe getting the edge as the better of the two, but go back and check out Taudr as well.
Verjagen – When The Sun Sets Over This Mortal World:
Verjagen are a fresh face on the map of melodic death metal, I hesitate to call it a scene because well… are there even scenes anymore? Not geographically speaking anyway, but I digress. These guys are from Finland as well, but their sound has rather little to do with fellow countrymen like Insomnium or even Mors Principium Est, but more owing to blending traditional metal and some thrash elements with that core Swedish Gothenburg sound. The result is a sound that is at once familiar and yet unorthodox and fresh, because when listening to this (debut) album I feel like I’m being reminded of something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whatever it is, I’ve been enjoying this record for the past few weeks now, songs like “Life Of War” and “Gritty Night” providing a blend of extreme aggression filtered with enough meaty, hooky riffs to latch onto for that headbanging element. The band uses melody as an accent, rather than the main attraction as usually the case with Gothenburg styled melo-death, and vocalist Otto-Aaron Timonen dishes out gravel throated, barking screaming vocals that are punishingly heavy ala Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There are moments where melodies take precedent over heaviness, as on the album highlight “Exit Plan” where we’re treated to an inspired chorus that’s slowed down and unfurls into an expansive, cinematic keyboard painted refrain that is genuinely majestic. I get some Dark Tranquility vibes on “Feast For The Dead” with its dramatic synth keyboard arrangements behind all the riffery, and Timonen does have a Mikael Stanne tinge to his vocals at points. The best part about this album is that it’s solid from front to back, something that is reinforced by its relatively succinct, eight track/forty-two minute run time. I’ve found myself listening to it while driving, and that’s been a tough task for most metal recently (again, except for Turbo for some reason) during K-Pop summer. I haven’t seen that many people talking about Verjagen yet, in fact, I think I might be one of the first to review this one and that in itself is a rarity. Worth checking out if you’ve been looking for a different twist on melo-death.
Bloodbound – Creatures Of The Dark Realm:
This was a frustrating listen, and I say that as someone who has quietly been rooting for Bloodbound ever since their fantastic debut in 2005 with the Urban Breed on vox classic Nosferatu. After Breed’s departure post Tabula Rasa, the band has been fronted by Patrik Johansson (Selleby… or whatever the heck he wants to be called by now), and the output has taken a noticeable nosedive to my tastes anyway. But being an amiable fellow, I think I’ve just bided my time with the band for the past decade, giving Johansson the benefit of the doubt as a vocalist. He has an appealing tone, a nicely melodic delivery and clearly has the range needed for Euro power. I guess I figured that the onus fell on the founding guitarist Olsson brothers to write material that really maximized the best use of his talents. But with a full decade of the Johansson era in the books, with six albums to its name, and I’m starting to suspect that Johansson really is the problem with Bloodbound’s direction all these years. On Creatures Of The Dark Realm, he’s actually managed to irritate me with his penchant for singsongy-ness that degenerates damn near every chorus into a Hobbits dancing around the kitchen, pointed elbows swinging back and forth silly jig melody. Take “Kill Or Be Killed” for example, one would expect a song with that title to bring the heat, a little straight to the throat heavy metal that matched the ugliness of it’s title — but instead it boasts one of the most childishly cheerful melodies you’ll ever hear, one that comes across as downright insufferable in the wider context of the album (largely because this pattern is repeated throughout). The same defect hampers any sense of excitement and danger in songs like “The Gargoyle’s Gate”, “When Fate Is Calling”, “Ever Burning Flame”, and hell let’s be real, most of the album. Occasionally, band and vocalist find their footing together (albeit however briefly), such as on “March Into War” where the vocals lock into an appealing rhythmic build-up to a chorus that is actually somewhat effective. I dunno, there might be another moment here that was interesting, but clearly not interesting enough for me to remember. One of the most disappointing releases in the genre in sometime, or maybe its just my not-so-secret desire to see Urban Breed (a recent free agent from Serious Black) reunite with his old bandmates for another album — either way, avoid this.
Sunrise – Equilibria:
About a month ago, Ukraine’s chief power metal export Sunrise released their first album in five years, Equilibria. It’s been the usual dose of lineup changes for this band, with the only original (and constant) member being vocalist Konstantin Naumenko aka Laars. I’m not going to get into the whole history of the lineup changes (the sheer amount of guitarists that have been in this band year in year out is ridiculous) but you can imagine this is what lent itself to the extended lead up time to this new album. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be for Laars to contend with this seemingly every album or even in between albums as it sometimes seems to be. Then there’s the fact that they’re independent, launching relatively successful crowdfunding campaigns to get funding for these recordings… it’s gotta be alot on one’s plate. Credit to him though because Equilibria does indeed hit the same benchmarks of quality songwriting and fantastic performances that have defined this band during their four album run (yep, only 4 albums since 2007 is what an unstable lineup will yield). Laars also handled mixing, mastering… the whole production basically, not to mention being the band’s major songwriter alongside new guitarist Maksym Vityuk and keyboardist (and spouse) Daria Naumenko. The appeal here isn’t rocket science, Laars’ vocal tone and approach is a sweet spot between Tony Kakko with a splash of Timo Kotipelto, and Sunrise deliver a vocal melody driven, keyboard soaked take on speedy, fleet of foot power metal ala classic era Sonata Arctica. There are an armful of gems here, the anti-anxiety vibes of “Wings Of A Dreamer” (added to the playlist!), the dual lead vocals with Daria on the mid-tempo proggy vibes of the title track, and a oddity (but personal fave) in “Call My Name” whose brooding power ballad structure reminds me of a cross between the Scorpions and something off Winterheart’s Guild. Right around the middle of this album, there’s a patch of songs that really strike me as more progressive metal influenced than the band’s power metal roots, which I’m not sure if I entirely enjoy or not (its not bad mind you, but everything gets a bit mid-paced for too long). One of these is a banger though, “The Bridge Across Infinity”, striking some Khan era Kamelot notes at times during the chorus, and delivering a really nice balance between our two lead vocalists. If you’ve never heard of this band, I would recommend starting with their 2009 classic Trust Your Soul which featured all-time power metal gems like “All This Time” and “Man In The World”, but Equilibria is a pretty strong addition to their catalog on it’s own. I just hope for Laars’ sake that this lineup can stick around for awhile so the next album can get underway sooner.
Ildaruni – Beyond Unseen Gateways:
I know I talked about this on a recent episode of MSRcast, but I figured I should write about it since Ildaruni’s Beyond Unseen Gateways is one of those albums that I haven’t been able to quit coming back to this year. Coming as a recommendation from the gang at r/PowerMetal, this debut album is one of the most fascinating extreme metal releases I’ve heard this year, being a fusion of Melechesh-esque blistering Eastern inspired black metal, with more of a methodical Rotting Christ rhythmic attack as the foundation instead of full on speed demon tempo mode. Ildaruni only just formed in 2018, and both of the songs on that year’s inaugural demo are here in “Towards Subterranean Realms” and “Treading the Path of Cryptic Wisdom”, and the musical foundations they laid out on those two songs is really the template for the exploration that occurs on the rest of the album. On the latter, the band isn’t afraid to temper extremity with some Maiden inspired gallop and twin harmonized leads just for funsies; or as on “Towards Subterranean Realms”, introduce some bread and butter mid-tempo chugging rhythm guitar to clear the decks and get heads nodding. As so many smarter extreme metal bands are demonstrating, a little rockin’ helps maximize the impact of extremity, a mid-song palette cleansing to break up the monotony of nonstop tremolo and blast beat batteries. And Ildaruni are full of such little deviations to keep us guessing throughout, including the infusion of unorthodox folk instrumentation in unexpected moments. On “Exalted Birth”, a bagpipe chimes in midway through before the guitar solo, delivering a folk melody that is distinctly not Celtic-sounding. I love that the instrumentation choice there doesn’t match the expectation of how you’d expect it to be used, in some mock-Braveheart arrangement — its a subtle choice, but I could have easily envisioned a Middle-Eastern string instrument playing that melody instead of a bagpipe. Ildaruni hail from Armenia, a country that exists at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, so it makes sense that they’d be pulling influences from a myriad of differing directions. And it’s really hard to pin their sound down as just one thing or the other, and I mean that as a compliment, Beyond Unseen Gateways is as unpredictable as it is epic, and it’s easily my favorite black metal record in a long time.