The 2022 Summer-Fall Reviews Codex

The new releases have been piling up for the past couple months, and of course I’ve fallen behind. Hence ye old reviews codex, that possibly multi-part broad collection of reviews that span many months (some of these albums go back to mid-summer). In keeping true to my recent ethos not to force feed album listens when I’m not feeling it at the moment, some of these were things I had kept on the back burner until the moment arose to deep dive in again, and it’s an approach that works well for me, if not for metal PR agents promotional schedules. There’s likely going to be another one of these before year’s end because the calendar is still packed and I haven’t even yet discussed new albums by Queensryche and The Cult, speaking of which, I got to see them live again for the first time in over a decade the other week. That was a great show, a setlist full of classics, the band was incredibly tight and Ian Astbury sounded as great as ever. They’ve added a keyboardist/backing vocalist who really makes a difference in filling out their sound as a live band, giving Ian some extra melodic thrust on those hooks and filling in the extra vocal arrangements that were always missing when Ian had to do it solo. It was also my first time seeing a gig from the near stage vantagepoint of a VIP table, which a friend had decided to spring for. More than just the option of having a seat whenever I wanted, it was nice to have barriers preventing sweaty dudes from standing uncomfortably close to me, certainly the comfiest concert experience I’ve ever had. I don’t expect to make a habit of it though — comfort does not come cheap.


Megadeth – The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead!:

It hadn’t dawned on me until the release of this, Megadeth’s sixteenth studio album, that this had been the longest gap in between album releases for Mustaine, even counting that weird period in 2002 where he left his own band, only to regroup two years later with a Megadeth-labeled solo record of sorts in The System Has Failed (I mean… it was certainly more of a Megadeth sounding album than the turgid The World Needs A Hero). Such a long layover (pandemic assisted no doubt) had me nervous, thinking that their most recent superstar guitarist acquisition in Angra’s Kiko Loureiro might decide to bail given all the inactivity and instability (Mustaine’s cancer treatment delaying things, David Ellefson’s whole “situation”), but it’s nice to see him sticking around for a second album with the band because I thought he really lit a fire under Mustaine on Dystopia, which was a legitimately damn good Megadeth record. The classic leaning titling of The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead! conjures up memories of the band’s more teeth bared, snarky, aggressive attitude laden eras from the mid 80s through Countdown to Extinction, and there is so much of this album that actually does live up to that billing. The opening title track for example is as poison mouthed as you’d want it to be, Mustaine’s inimitable vocal necromancy at work in satisfyingly resilient fashion.

The absolute banger here is the classic “Life In Hell”, as vicious and fierce as so many Megadeth gems of yore (think “99 Ways To Die”, “Sweating Bullets”), not only for its cracking riff that is vintage Deth, but also for some of Mustaine’s most pointedly sharp lyrics in ages: “A couple drinks and then you’ll feel ok / A couple pills makes the world go away / What the hell, you’re gonna die anyway and you’ll say…”. Mustaine’s gift as a lyricist was never about poetic beauty, it was in his blunt sardonic wrath, and his depiction of self-destructive apathy here avoids being heavy handed (they did that on Cryptic Writings already, which I loved but it wasn’t vintage Mustaine), favoring a self-deprecating levity that just hits harder. The chorus here finishes the sentiment perfectly: “I’m a disease, and I’m addicted to myself, ha! / I’m all I need, I’m gonna live and die in hell”. It makes me cackle in delight every time I hear it. Like many, I also feel that “Night Stalkers” would’ve been a gem were it not for the Ice-T spoken word narration bit in the middle… that was just unnecessary. But there’s so much to celebrate here: the brutal assault of “Dogs of Chernobyl”, “We’ll Be Back” with its crazy lead pyrotechnics (Kiko is spectacular throughout this album), and the unpredictable dizzying turns of “Sacrifice”. I also really loved the Sammy Hagar cover of “This Planet’s On Fire” (featuring the Red Rocker himself), one of those classics that actually sounds better through the Deth filter and rings truer today. Not everything works here, there’s a little too much narration in parts, but this is a satisfyingly strong Megadeth record.

Aeternam – Heir of the Rising Sun:

Talk about a complete surprise, I didn’t see Aeternam listed on any of my upcoming albums lists and so didn’t even realize this was out until an hour before it dropped on midnight of September 2nd, and amidst all the Blind Guardian day excitement it got pushed to the backburner for a day while I went ham listening to the bards new one. Quietly, Aeternam have been putting together one of the strongest discographies of any melodic death metal outfit anywhere, with their four prior albums all being incredibly good to great depending on what you valued the most about their sound. For me, the band is at it’s best when they hit that perfect balance between their folk metal (as in Orphaned Land-esque Arabic/Middle-Eastern motifs) and melodic death sides, blending the two together seamlessly. The success of which varies from song to song on those previous albums but man when they got it right, they just owned that sound entirely. Well, somewhere along the way, vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy must have realized that he could make both of these elements gel far more effortlessly if he just amped up the symphonic metal aspect of the band’s sound. It was always there in the background, a sort of connective keyboard glue that helped everything meld together, but it’s by far the most noticeable shift on Heir of the Rising Sun.

And cat out of the bag, this has become my favorite Aeternam album as a whole to date, a conclusion I’m able to confidently arrive at mere days after it’s release. Developing into a nigh fully symphonic melodic death metal band here (something they hinted at on 2020’s Al Qassam) has afforded their songs the lush cinematic grandeur they’ve yearned to illustrate on prior albums, and allowed their heaviness to increase to Moongod levels as a result in order to offset all that melody. Perfect examples of this are the brilliant “Beneath the Nightfall” with its blackened thrash riff sequences, and the glorious “Irene” with its orchestral swells that unfold into beautiful Arabic folk guitar patterns. My personal favorite is the masterful “The Treacherous Hunt”, a knife’s edge balancing act between their extreme heaviness and soaring, transcendently epic melodies that combine in perhaps the best song of their career so far. A monumental album that hopefully won’t get lost amidst all the other big releases that came out that day.

The Halo Effect – Days of the Lost:

This was one of my most anticipated albums for 2022 ever since I had heard about these guys getting together. The guys in question are veterans of prior In Flames lineups including Jesper Stromblad and Niclas Engelin on guitars, Peter Iwers handling bass, Daniel Svensson picking up the sticks again, and Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne on vocals (remember he was on Lunar Strain/Subterranean). This is clearly one of those projects where the names on paper just created it’s own gravity with the weight of expectations that any resulting album might not be able to escape, an entirely different set of expectations from fans than the guys themselves had. According to recent interviews with Stromblad and Engelin, it was a project that came about simply because as old friends they felt the urge to just hang out and play music together again. And to that point, some of these guys like Svensson had sworn off being in bands entirely, retiring as professional musicians and doing other things, heck last I heard Iwers was co-running that In Flames owned restaurant/bar (dunno if that’s still happening). Thus, in reality, these guys were going to naturally pick up where they left off, even if that wasn’t a conscious decision to do so or not —- meanwhile I suspect a large chunk of fans (myself included) expected a deliberate move towards recreating the classic mid-late 90s Gothenburg sound that we all love and crave a return to.

Long story short, that didn’t happen on Days of the Lost, which doesn’t mean its not a good album, because it certainly is. It is however a modern, fairly restrained take on melodic death metal ala recent Dark Tranquility (Stanne’s vocal choices certainly exacerbate that influence greatly). The frustrating thing that many have voiced about this record that I agree with are all the tiny Jesper-isms that get interjected throughout, like the darkly beautiful acoustic outro to “A Truth Worth Lying For “, the lead guitars on the very In Flames-ian “Gateways” (the album’s most old school moment happens during the abrupt mid-song shift lead riff progression), or the entirety of “Conditional”, easily the most classic and aggressive song on the album (see how those two things seem to go hand in hand?). At worst this album fades into the background where you don’t notice songs passing by, at it’s best it makes you long for what could have been. I hope they do another to deliver on that promised potential.

Brymir – Voices in the Sky:

Since their 2011 inception, Helsinki’s Brymir have been one of the most promising bands to come out of Finland, and indeed the wider symphonic metal scene worldwide. Crafting a fusion of symphonic blackened folk metal with bright, inspired power metal melodicism, they’ve finally to my ears fulfilled their potential with their newest effort, Voices in the Sky. And that’s not to suggest that I wasn’t impressed with 2019’s much lauded Wings of Fire, but I didn’t think it was the masterpiece I saw some people tagging it as. It suffered from getting a little too monotonous at points, the band leaning too hard on the symphonic black side of things and going break neck speed for most of that album. On the new album, they’ve allowed their sound to shift gears often with dynamic song structures, infusing more clean vocals (the epic, chanty, choral Ensiferum kind) and power metal elements into the mix to temper out their extreme side and let those heavier moments land more forceful impacts as a result.

As so often with bands who do fusions of two disparate or even complementary styles of metal, they often find themselves crafting their best songs when they’ve worked out how to best balance the various musical elements in their arsenal. The best moments here are perfect examples of that, the heavenly wash of choirs that usher along the title track for starters, and the outright aggressive slabs of unmelodic riffs that serve as battering rams throughout “Forged In War” that standout as inverse breathers from the richly melodic refrains. The best moments however are where Brymir ascend to the heavens, as on the folky, adrenaline rocketing “Fly With Me”, with its ascending hook sequence, and gorgeous, Dragonforce-esque guitar solos. My personal favorite here is “Herald of Aegir”, an emotional rush that recalls vintage Ensiferum/Wintersun, with an achingly emotional clean vocal passage that is as sweeping as the brilliant lead guitars that it skates atop. This album is a joy to experience, easily Brymir’s most accomplished and fully realized work to date.

Dynazty – Final Advent:

Slowly but surely, Dynazty have developed into one of the most reliable leading lights of the modern AOR movement. Of course, its a bit of a misnomer to classify them as such entirely, because there is a strong dose of power metal grandeur and theatricality to their sound, but the blending of these two styles put through a modern, Jacob Hansen produced filter has been their sound for these most recent two albums. It’s essentially a distillation of what they were attempting on previous albums but sanded off of some of the rough edges — which usually might be interpreted as a negative thing so I’ll stress that I don’t think that’s entirely the case here. I call them reliable because I can’t recall having heard a bad, awkward, or otherwise embarrassing song on this or their past few albums — things are pretty solid for the most part with one or two songs even standing out as notable highlights worth playlisting. I’d say the trouble with Dynazty is that it gets really hard to build a passionate following when you’re only delivering solid albums and never a truly great one.

The songs on Final Advent that I’d say qualify as aforementioned highlights include the power ballad (of course) “Yours”, a cousin of “Hologram” from 2020’s The Dark Delight, all anguished melodrama and a guitar solo midway through that’s phrasing is shatteringly emotional. There’s also a racing urgency to “All the Devils Are Here” that is vintage Dynazty in the best way, and I love the unorthodox, almost folky tinge to the lead guitar melodies in “The White” that gives it a different flavor from the rest of the album (Rob Love Magnusson and Mike Lavér are a talented guitar duo, and I wish they’d open up their palette with stuff like this more often). Vocalist Nils Molin (also of Amaranthe co-vocalist notoriety) of course sounds excellent throughout, his voice full of power and rugged inflection, though some might find his approach a little too heavy handed (and perhaps the band and he could both use a little loosening up, perhaps a rock n’ roll injection?). You’ll notice I haven’t really said anything specifically critical here, because there’s nothing to harp on to be honest. It’s a solid Dynazty album, albeit not a great one, and maybe that’s the larger criticism I’m edging around here, that I don’t exactly know what a truly great Dynazty album would sound like and that might be a bigger problem in the long run.

Xaon – The Lethean:

You always know a band is flying under the radar when they have zero reviews on their newest album on Metallum. Switzerland’s symphonic progressive death metallers Xaon released The Lethean back on July 1st and have yet to acquire a single review of not only their newest effort, but the two that have preceded it. And fair enough to everyone out there, because I myself didn’t know who this band was until my cohost Cary played the stellar, maybe best song of the year “If I Had Wings” on a recent MSRcast episode. My attention was immediately grabbed by that song, but you know how it is, I lollygagged a bit in terms of checking out the entire album for a few weeks. But the pull of that aforementioned song was too strong to resist for long, and I checked out the rest of the album in turn and wow… this is something special. Xaon get tagged as symphonic metal on Metallum, but I threw in the progressive tag above because there’s an unorthodox approach to the way these guys approach arrangements and songwriting structures in general, often eschewing traditional verse to prechorus to chorus sequences. Instead, as on the opener “The Hunt”, they utilize an almost metal equivalent to “movements” in ushering their songs along, where perhaps the rhythmic assault stays constant, but melodies abruptly shift and mutate along. The secret to Xaon’s success here is that each successive movement only escalates the dramatics at work within these rushing melodies via guitars or keyboard drive symphonics.

And then there’s the matter of their overall sound being different from what you’d expect from a band tagged as merely symphonic death — vocalist Rob Carson can run the gamut from guttural to melodeath screaming, but he mostly favors his clean vocals which are often anguished and twisted like Primodial’s Alan Averill, but at times soaring and downright gorgeous like a darker toned, more gravely Nick Holmes. I have to speak about “If I Had Wings” here briefly, because I’m sure I’ll be talking about it a few months from now as well: This is such an epic song (we overuse that term but it applies here), the kind of glorious, passion driven burst of creativity that few bands ever manage to unearth, and I am still enthralled by it after playing it repeatedly over the past few weeks. Carson is magnificent here, and if there’s one song you decide to check out first from this beast of an album, make it this one (it helps that it’s the single, wisely chosen guys). Ten tracks, no fillers, real creativity at work here, genuine conviction in the performances, and multifaceted in their abilities (check out “Telos” for their more reflective, Opeth-ian acoustic side that is actually affecting), Xaon is one of the year’s most satisfying discoveries for me.

Heilung – Drif:

If you’re even passingly aware of the cornucopia of reactor channels on YouTube, you’ll know that a live performance by the esoteric folk outfit Heilung has gone kinda viral in terms of being a popular reaction choice amongst that set. And its mostly for the members very primal, tribal garb laden appearance onstage and the fact that they’re playing unorthodox instruments and singing in styles that defy modern stylings. On their Wikipedia page, their project is self-described as “amplified history from early medieval northern Europe”, which is fairly accurate according to what I’ve heard (who knows, has an anthropologist verified that? Does it really matter anyway?). I’ll admit that at first I just felt a passing fascination with Heilung, simply because it was attracting so much reactor interest that and kind of prevented me from wanting to dive in further, feeling like it was something that might have been borderline gimmicky. I realize now that was a silly attitude to have, because having decided to check out their newest album Drif just as a pure audio experience (meaning I didn’t seek out the videos), I’ve really come to appreciate this album as a palette cleansing come down after listening to a lot of metal that’s still complex and thought provoking on its own merits.

Now I will clarify, that’s not including all of the album, because I could’ve done without the loud, irritating Stomp the Musical sounds in “Urbani” and the spoken word insanity of “Keltentrauer”. The stuff that I lean towards on this album is “Anoana” which reminds me of a darker, more medieval sounding mix of Loreena McKennitt, Enya, and Dead Can Dance (not quite so, but as a point of reference that’s the best I can do). I also loved the brightness of “Nikkal”, where choral vocals took center stage singing a melody that sounds elegiac, wistful, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. You’re probably getting the picture by now that none of this is metal, but Heilung are so folk metal adjacent, that even in the absence of heavy guitars or distortion of any kind really, you should still feel drawn to this as a metal fan. And look they threw a bone for you and named the last song “Marduk”, and to be honest, its echoing bells and whispered poetry I’d contend are more unnerving than anything put out by the band of the same name in ages. That’s not a shots fired thing by the way, it really sounds creepy as hell.

Sumerlands – Dreamkiller:

Hailing out of Philadelphia, Sumerlands had previously made a splash with their self-titled debut way back in 2016 with then vocalist Phil Swanson. It was an inspired eight song collection of traditional metal in the early to mid 80s mode, suitably rockin’ songs with inspired performances that seemed to be taking pages from several influences. The seeds were there for something really great to emerge, but as is the case with newer bands, sometimes it’s hard to capitalize on momentum and get a new record out quickly when stability is an issue. A vocalist change is a major thing, so is a worldwide pandemic, so here we are about six years later with Dreamkiller, their sophomore album and first with new vocalist Brendan Radigan. I was already pretty fired up about this one, having gotten to see Sumerlands live at Hells Heroes in April of 2022 where they laid on a spectacular set, Radigan every bit the inspired frontman in a live setting. Among others, it was a definite highlight of that evening, and taking that experience into account and now hearing Dreamkiller, Radigan really does fit the band better than Phil Swanson did. His vocals are like a mix of early 80s Ozzy and Klaus Meine with a the smoothness of Don Dokken, a tone that’s rich in expressiveness and commanding in every utterance. His approach lends a sense of comfort to the overall sound, rooting this in territory that feels familiar and even nostalgic even though these songs feel fresh and modern.

And the songwriting is the star here, Sumerlands guitarists Arthur Rizk and John Powers crafting riffs that are groove based, ultra hooky and incredibly satisfying with tight leads to punctuate them. The one two punch on this record sits in the middle of the tracklisting, with “Edge of the Knife” and “Force of a Storm” landing with the kind of infectious kinetic energy that characterized classics such as Dokken’s “Into the Fire” or WASP’s “Wild Child”. The former is one of the most infectious songs I’ve heard this year, a driving old-school rocker with a massive riff based hook and Radigan nailing the vocal line with emphatic gusto. I love the effects on those vocal harmonies laid over the top, it really harkens back to productions choices in the mid-80s that characterized a lot of those great records. Stepping on the gas a bit, “Force of a Storm” has a desperate urgency to its restless riffs and I love the keyed in explosion sounds in those transition moments — the kind of thing that would be utterly ridiculous if not applied exactingly. And that kind of sums up Sumerlands overall approach here, because their nods to their 80s trad metal influences are so overt yet applied so delicately, so natural sounding in their own idiom that they don’t end up sounding like anyone but themselves.

Blackbraid – Blackbraid I:

About a few years ago, pandemic starting time I guess, I started following a guy on Instagram who was making really cool bone art. You can Google that if you’re drawing a blank right now but I imagine most of you know what it is. Anyway so in addition to his art he’d post up pictures of himself around the area he was living, a rural seeming landscape, so I knew that he was of Native American heritage from not only appearance, but from the meaning of his artwork as well. Jump forward to my hearing about an awesome record from a new project called Blackbraid, imagine my surprise when I checked out their biography and realized it was masterminded by indeed the very same bone art guy I had been following for years on Instagram. His name is Sgah’gahsowáh (also goes by Jon) and in true one man black metal project fashion, he is credited for “everything” on this record (although drums are provided by the album’s recording engineer (and man of many bands) Neil Schneider. To be honest, it had never crossed my mind that black metal would seem to fit black metal so well, but Blackbraid I makes it seem like it was always a merging that was meant to be.

No burying the lede here, this is one of if not the most accomplished black metal releases I’ve heard this year. It hits the target of what I value the most in modern black metal productions, that being clarity in the mix in terms of instrumentation separation and discernible melodies, but also in avoiding sounding clinical. This album, despite all the razor sharp tremolo riffs, is streaked with a subtle earthen warmth that underscores much of its quick thirty-six minute run time. Its not just in those Native American folk music soaked instrumental tracks either, but in the way the melodies are unfolded in the blistering, full speed ahead black metal here. On my favorite cut “Sacandaga”, there’s a dynamic shift between tempered, deliberately paced sequences and sudden bursts of hyperkinetic speed, the effect being violent and uncontrollable. The aforementioned folk music pieces it should be pointed out aren’t just window dressing — being two of the six tracks here they factor into the album in a big way. I’d argue they give the entire record its spiritual or emotional center, setting the listener down in a headspace meant to reflect the lyrical settings explored here, of creeks, pastel skies, and hemlock forests. As imagery goes, its a refreshing difference to behold from tales of ice covered Norwegian mountains and permafrost, this being a truly Native American black metal perspective. I really love this record.

Seventh Wonder – The Testament:

I don’t know why I’ve had a hard time settling down to give this new (ish… it came out in June) Seventh Wonder album the time and attention it deserves. I’d listened to it intermittently over the past few months but only recently decided to buckle down and give it my undivided attention. And now that I have, I’ve come to realize what was perhaps preventing me from achieving this all these past few months gone, namely, that this album gets me restless partway through. I suspect this is largely due to the pervasive sameness that seems to be running through the length of this thing. Unlike older Seventh Wonder classics like Mercy Falls or the really wild The Great Escape, where song diversity was an integral part of the final tracklist, it feels like songs on this (and to a certain extent their 2018 album Tiara) really sound similar in their style, tempo and overall approach. Despite the band’s technical prowess leaning towards a breezier Dream Theater, their songs are written to be geared around Tommy Karevik’s vocal melodies almost exclusively. And this works for a while, certainly on these first three songs that shotgun the start of the album in the single-ready “Warriors”, the uptempo, almost dance-rock strut of “The Light”, and the Empire-era Queensryche invoking semi-ballad “I Carry the Blame”. The latter is certainly one of the best individual slices of hook laden prog-rock the band have dished up, making up in what it lacks in heaviness with layers of gorgeously honeyed vocals from Karevik.

But after the patience testing instrumental “Reflections” is followed by the grating “The Red River” (usually where I’ve checked out on past listens), it’s hard to keep focus on the rest of this record. I actually enjoy some parts of “Invincible”, mainly the hook factor in the chorus here, but man for a three and a half minute long song there are stretches here that I wish would hurry up and be done every time I play it. And I like the increase in aggression via the guitars in “Under a Clear Blue Sky” but they’re unfortunately lost in a song that is way too long with very little in the way of discernible connective tissue (ie melodies that I want to return to). The closer “Elegy” is certainly pretty in the moment, though it’s not something that I could see myself returning to on it’s own. I do feel that maybe I’m being too hard on this album, but in fairness to myself, I have given it the benefit of many months to land, and it just hasn’t quite gotten there. Still a good band, and I’m glad it’s an ongoing concern for Karevik given his Kamelot day job, but they’re not delivering in quite the same way they used to for me.

Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash:

I think there was always a part of me that felt Oceans of Slumber was meant to head down this path, that being the gradual and now sudden removal of harsh vocals from their repertoire. The moments that excited me the most from their past few albums were those where vocalist Cammie Gilbert got to simply steer the ship with her distinctive, richly emotive singing instead of playing point/counterpoint. Its not that the band didn’t deliver good material with their more extreme metal rooted stuff, its just that the alternative they were offering in small handfuls was so much more enticing. I’ve said this over and over again here and on the podcast already, but my favorite Oceans of Slumber moment has been the title track to The Banished Heart, particularly during its midsong bridge onwards, that finale passage has all the dramatic sweep and grandeur that seemed like a sound world they should be exploring more of. Here on Starlight And Ash, they’ve finally decided to do just that, terming their sound as southern gothic which is exactly the descriptor I’d have tagged that aforementioned epic section of “The Banished Heart” with had I thought of it first. I think I’ve been rather critical of this band throughout their past few albums, but I’m happy to say that it was really hard to find something to complain about here. Simply put, this is the album I’ve been waiting for Oceans of Slumber to make, one that genuinely feels as though they’ve discovered their own voice, they sound more comfortable here than they ever have, some of these songs sounding as though they were effortlessly written.

I’m thinking here of “The Hanging Tree”, where Gilbert channels a little mid-90s Natalie Merchant in her vocal tone over twangy guitars and a generous amount of space and silence. These songs are shorter than older Oceans, with no more progressive death metal on the agenda, gone are the six to seven minute run times, Gilbert having free reign to work in the context of more manageable, focused three to five minute pieces. The absolute gem here is the opener “The Waters Rising”, with it’s beautiful country-folk tinged acoustic guitars, throbbing electronic pulse underneath, and moody piano melody running through. Somehow this album hits heavier than any of their others, despite the general lack of aggressive riffs and metallic elements — it brings to mind Smashing Pumpkins Adore, both tonally and lyrically, a softer, more hushed album that was an absolute emotional wrecking ball. I love that they found a sound that feels very authentic to who and where they are as well. Southern gothic indeed. I’d always associated that term with Anne Rice’s vision of New Orleans, but in this album I can really feel how Houston fits into the mix, the smell of asphalt and car exhaust, the blanketing heat and restless humid nights. Oceans of Slumber have found their identity with Starlight and Ash.

Fallen Sanctuary – Terranova:

So Fallen Sanctuary is a side project involving Georg Neuhauser (Serenity / Warkings) and Temperance guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Marco Pastorino who I’ve long considered one of the better songwriters in the melodic power metal world over the past few years. Georg himself is no slouch in that department, capable of crafting vocal melodies that are hooky, memorable, and earwormy for whatever project he’s involved in — the Tony Kakko meets Klaus Meine vocal tone is also a strength. So on paper this was an intriguing pairing to consider, and I actually broke my tendency to not listen to the singles ahead of time for this album because I was so curious. The album itself got shafted for listening time when it came out due to other things crowding the schedule so I know this write up is really late, but I’ve been re-listening to it over the last week and kinda glad I did because I think at first I glossed over how well crafted this ended up being. I respect that they didn’t try to veer outside of their comfort zone, which might be a weird compliment, but leaning into one’s strengths isn’t a bad thing really, hence these songs being vocal melody driven affairs. The riffs aren’t particularly aggressive, instead settling in a muted, crunchy tone fitting for this approach to melodic power metal where they’re not the main attraction anyway.

On strong cuts such as “Broken Dreams” and the lead off cut “Terranova”, the mood is light, uplifting, and almost sunny, the former even giving us a little a cappella vocal intro that veers into AOR territory. A little darker is “Now and Forever”, a song that reminds me of something off Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus, a song that goes through a couple transitions with different hook laden elements to each (the mid song bridge has a terrific vocal melody by Neuhauser). For his part, Pastorini can be heard on backing vocals throughout, and he sounds great, but he mostly cedes the leads to Neuhauser. An exception might be the pretty but sparse acoustic ballad “I Can’t Stay”, where you can hear him chime through on the chorus and the contrast between the two men’s voices is distinct and vibrant in their differences. This is definitely an album meant for those who would dig this kind of thing on paper, it won’t change any minds in that regard, but I dig what these two guys do in general (Warkings excepted) and this is something I’ll probably return to when I need something AOR/power adjacent that’s a little chilled out.

A Brief Summer Recap ft. Unleash The Archers, Judicator and more!

Hail to everyone. I know its been awhile. I took a bit of an unexpected hiatus for a few months here when I ran right into the first real bout of writer’s block I’ve ever faced while writing this blog. I tried to give myself time to sort it out, even discovering in the midst of recording a recent MSRcast that maybe I was just devoid of inspiration due to not having been to a show in awhile, but the most important thing I figured was to not put myself under pressure to write anything just to have something new out. That point about not having been to a show in ages (Amorphis in autumn of last year to be exact) is one to speak about for a bit, because its only been now during this pandemic ensured period of no fun that I’ve come to realize just how much going to shows were like my energizer battery. Not just as a metal fan either, but for life in general, they were events to get excited about and look forward to, to plan over and revel in when their date actually arrived. Shows are also breaks in the often slow, miasma of the everyday grind; concentrated blasts of life that can positively affect your mental well being —- people who don’t go won’t know, but they’re the best anti-depressant around. Their absence has slowly chipped away at my enthusiasm level for nearly everything, particularly paired with not having hung out with friends in person for ages, it all just adds up. And as mentioned before, we have kept the MSRcast going during this time, but even doing that digitally is just a disruptive headspace from the way we’ve normally done it, in person at the MSRcast studios. During our virtual fantasy football draft recently, a friend of mine replied to my hope of “Should be a fun season” with “Man nothing is fun anymore”. And yeah, I get that sentiment. I realize that things could be worse for all of us, but as they are now, its been a tough slog of a year, and that has to affect most of us mentally.

We’re lucky then as metal fans, that the bands we’re interested in, either as fans of or just curious about seem to keep pushing through this dark saga (heyyo!) with creative output and interesting content to soothe us however temporarily. Besides new music, I know there’s a ton of bands doing digital only shows, selling e-tickets to them, and I hope some of those have been great for whomever bought tickets. The Amorphis show was very good, my cohost Cary sharing his virtual ticket with me so I could check it out. I particularly enjoyed Blind Guardian’s set at the lavishly produced Wacken World Wide digital festival a few weeks ago, where they played as convincing and passionate a performance as I can remember seeing from them. Their setlist was loaded with nothing but classics, and they debuted a new song that was as compelling as anything it was sandwiched between, boding exciting things for the upcoming album. Recently, Therion just announced that we’ll be getting their first new proper studio album in a decade in early December, dubbed Leviathan, and I couldn’t be more excited. I had previously expressed fears that Christofer Johnsson’s commitment to staging his Beloved Antichrist opera would take too long and continue to delay another Therion record, but I’m glad that he maybe took my advice (hah!) and prioritized it over anything else. There’s a lot of intriguing records coming down these last few months of this hell year, so at least we have plenty of distractions to keep us occupied and perhaps even inspired as we close out these next few months. But right now, I’m going to do a little summer recap here of stuff that’s come out since I’ve been on hiatus —- mind you this isn’t all that I listened to, but I’ll be honest, I devoted a great deal of time to simply listening to whatever I wanted to listen to and not worrying about the release calendar so much. Please let me know in the comments below if there’s something I missed that I need to pay more attention to however.

Unleash The Archers – Abyss:

You might remember that UtA climbed the mountain to claim my 2017 Album of the Year spot with their aptly named Apex, a bracing collection of trad meets power metal that hit hard with aggression and married epic musical passages with unforgettable hooks. It earned that number one spot by simply being my most listened to album of that year, often an undeniable factor in determining which release actually belongs there amidst favoritism bias and whatnot. I wasn’t that wild on UtA before the album, probably like so many others, but became a fan after hearing it and was incredibly eager to hear how they’d follow it up, and had to give a little nod to the doubts I’d see surfacing in discussions online about whether or not this band had another excellent album in them. After all, it took them four tries to go from relatively mediocre to spectacular —- the question lurking underneath all of that success surrounding Apex was whether or not it really the start of the band realizing their sound and potential, or merely a fluke. If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that watching and/or predicting what bands do in situations like this, following up a revered and successful record and analyzing the decisions made is kind of my wheelhouse, the nerdiest part of my fandom. But I’ll confess I had no idea what UtA could or should do beyond simply repeating the formula for Apex, because I couldn’t see anything in their past that they should return to, so I did think they were somewhat liable to fall flat on their face for this album just given the limited vision of what they could do.

Turns out that Brittney and company were thinking a few steps ahead, and instead of replicating the sound of Apex, they used its concept to springboard this album into another world of sound entirely. The Matriarch and the Immortal’s struggle that defined the loose concept of Apex continues here, but whereas it was bound to the grittiness of nature and the Earth on that album, the story here shifts to the expansiveness of space and planetary scale. The shrewd move here is that this shift (clearly illustrated in the differences in the album artwork) have allowed the band to make subtle but strong changes to their sound, adding in a strong keyboard/synth dimension that would have sounded out of place on Apex, but is woven into the tapestry of the cosmic reaching storyline laid out on Abyss. With this combination, the shift to what is clearly a lighter toned sound on Abyss, devoid of the aggressive, Iced Earth-ian tendencies of its predecessor is far more natural of a transition —- coming across less like a calculated move to avoid repeating themselves and rather a way to branch out their sound into uncharted territory. All they had to do to ensure this would work is to simply bring the hooks, and they’ve delivered in spades on that front. From the jump, segueing from the very effective intro “Waking Dream” we get one of the band’s best ever songs in the title track, a nearly seven minute epic that is built around Hayes incredible vocal prowess. She carries the song on a hook built around her ability to draw out and bend words to her vocal melody almost effortlessly. I love the transition change up at the four minute mark that she uses to usher in the dueling guitar solos from Andrew Kingsley and Grant Truesdell. These guys deserve special mention for delivering the goods throughout this album, particularly in how they’ve brightened up their tones and made adjustments to their approach from the gun-metal grey riffage to bright, somewhat psychedelic inspired motifs they’ve woven in all throughout here.

The standout track “Through Stars” is a vivid example of this new sound world for UtA, a song built on a gorgeous keyboard synth backdrop that glitters and sparkles while the band takes an almost laid back, reactionary approach as counterpoint, slightly behind Scott Buchanan’s rock steady beat. The combined group harmony vocals here are really nice, particularly in the closing minute of the song, with what sounds like a multitracked Hayes along with Kingsley and Truesdell combining for an almost Beach Boys invoking approach. We hear that same tendency in “Legacy”, where I get really strong Coheed and Cambria vibes throughout from Hayes vocal performance to the unorthodox, progressive spaciness to the song despite all the extremity of riffs and barrages of drum fills. Now I actually enjoy a little bit of what Coheed and Cambria do, particularly in their more pop-punkier moments, so this could be a hurdle for anyone who doesn’t. But as I mentioned before, this sonic shift towards a brighter palette really works here, these songs seem like natural extensions of the band’s sound into territory that they’ve only previously hinted at in the briefest of glimpses. There’s still aggressive trad metal fury to be found however, as “Soulbound” is a personal favorite from the album with its partially growled vocals (one of the guitarists I’m guessing?) interjected with Hayes on the verses over a bed of thrashy riffs. I love the extra highs we hear on her multi tracked vocals that are distanced about a half a second behind the lead vocal, it just adds to the intensity. I’d recommend avoiding the distracting, perplexing video for “Faster Than Light” and just sticking to the song itself, because its a superb track, the chorus boasting one of their catchiest moments on the album with a guitar solo that Yngwie would be proud of.

I was surprised at just how well the inter-band duet between Hayes and Kingsley worked on “Carry The Flame”. with the latter boasting a rich, hard rock voice that really works within the shiny arena rock chorus that’s tucked away at the core of this song. There are strong Dokken vibes throughout this song (and that’s a positive dammit) with a little 80s invoking sparkle that really put their combined vocals over the top on that fat, massive hook. Its this kind of adventurous spirit that dominates this entire record and has made it a pleasure to take in. So often it seems like bands follow up excellent albums with something that lacks cohesion or direction, or worse, tries to do too much. Credit where it’s due, UtA did neither and have delivered an album that, dare I say it, might be an overall better album than Apex —- more diverse, more ambitious, yet still delivering the goods in terms of memorable sequences and massive hooks. I’m genuinely surprised but happy about it, and it’s saying something that after so many listen throughs of Abyss, I’m still enjoying it as its playing right now as I finish this review. Normally that’s about the time when I’m relieved to take a break from hearing an album so much, but I can see myself playing this again tomorrow, and the next day. This paired along with the band’s smartly executed cover of the Stan Roger’s classic “Northwest Passage” last year, demonstrates that the band has clearly moved into a confident, reassured phase of their musical career, and maybe it’s time to give them the benefit of the doubt in the future.

Judicator – Let There Be Nothing:

One of the leading lights in the burgeoning North American power/trad metal movement that’s coalesced over the past few years, Judicator has run into some disheartening news lately —- namely, that founding guitarist and co-songwriter Tony Cordisco has recently left the band. I’m not sure what the reasons are exactly, the statement he and the band released seem to suggest geography issues as well as the classic “personal differences” cited by Cordisco. Its well known around the power metal community that vocalist John Yelland is outspoken about his views on certain socio-political topics, so there’s been some idle speculation that some of that might have played a part. For me, I’m not that bothered by that stuff (if I were, I probably wouldn’t listen to Iced Earth, or Megadeth for that matter), but what does concern me is the loss of the band’s principal music writer and how it will impact their future output in either direction. We recently saw Serenity weather this exact storm fairly well when founding guitarist Thomas Buchberger left the band after War of Ages, but they were able to rebound with the strong, vocal melody driven Codex Atlanticus, thanks to Georg Neuhauser’s ability to step in as the principal songwriter. The band’s sound changed however, and after delivering one fine album, we’re starting to see some slightly diminishing returns in the memorable riffs department, with their sound heavily attenuated to his vocals now rather than sharing a balance with the guitars. For Judicator, this news coming on the heels of releasing their follow up to the year end list making The Last Emperor has to rock the confidence of most fans. The band recently released a statement of their own mentioning that their songwriting for the next album will be headed up by Yelland and new guitarist Balmore Lemus (who’s also in NovaReign) and that they’re already into the songwriting process for it. At least its nice to know they’re not going to be twisting in the wind for awhile, but Cordisco’s way with a riff was a huge, huge part of the band’s sound in addition to Yelland’s Hansi Kursch like vocal ability.

His swan song with the band, Let There Be Nothing, is a testament to his skill as a riff-based progressive power metal songwriter. Cordisco’s signature blend of aggressive, USPM-tinged riffing with EUPM informed splashes of color in his progressions and motifs continues in a far more expansive and adventurous way than he’s ever demonstrated before. While the songs on The Last Emperor were tight, compact slices of propulsive, hooky as hell prog-power, Cordisco and Yelland chose to veer hard in the opposite direction here, favoring lengthier compositions and more patient build ups. We see that from the outset in the title track with its delicately building intro passage and series of riff progressions that transition to the main riff motif, a Cordisco gem in its own right, building a bed for Yelland to closely follow with some inspired, powerful layered vocal leads. There’s a tempo downshifting bridge towards the back end of the song that changes up the routine and introduces some headbanging worthy passages into the mix, these more proggy passages being a recurrent element throughout the album. The lengthiest song here, “Amber Dusk” is almost Iced Earth-ian in its implementation of these various down/up shifts in tempo and riff progression changeups, complete with one of Cordisco’s most colorful leads to date, a focused spiraling flurry of notes bouncing off his guitar like a tightly compressed spring let loose. The shorter songs on the album provide that link to The Last Emperor’s compulsively hooky addictiveness, with “Gloria” being one of the band’s all-time best offerings in that regard. The song is a split between Yelland’s vocal hook and some uptempo riff progressions where Cordisco lays down a bed for guest lead vocalist Mercedes Victoria to shine. I’m on the fence about whether I like this album more than The Last Emperor, but absolutely sure that its very, very good in its own right. As a finale, Cordisco is bowing out at the top of his game.

Finntroll – Vredesvävd:

Finntroll are back with their first album in, jeez, seven years. And though that certainly is a long time between releases, its actually okay in my view for the band to have taken the extra time to seemingly wait for some inspiration to flow. Its not that 2013’s Blodsvept was a bad album by any means, but it was heavy on the humppa influences and major keys in a way that was just continuing more of the same that they had delivered on Nifelvind three years prior. I’m not against that particular musical vein in principal, but it has to be accommodated appropriately, with the right amount of brutality to counter its sickly sweet tendency to overwhelm a listener with the audio equivalent of a tummy ache. My personal experiences with Finntroll have been back and forth and confusing, first being introduced to the band way back in 2001 with Jaktens Tid (dating myself more and more every time I look backwards it seems) and having seen them live a few times since then. Their best live outing here was on the tour supporting Ur jordens djup in 2007, a brutal, no-frills, attitude filled show that was heavy on the black metal presence in their sound, seemingly a rejection of the folk metal genre that was exploding after the success of “Trollhammaren”. The last time I saw them however, in 2014 on an ill-fated night, they were in full on Korpiklaani mode, boasting plastic elven ears and leaning heavy on the humppa, with a crowd that was largely made up of the kinds of people who didn’t seem to typically attend metal shows. I guess somewhere along the way the band made adjustments geared towards the audience that was showing up for one side to their sound. For all the reasons I dislike most gimmicky folk metal in favor of the rustic, natural sounding stuff that I tend to champion, I find Finntroll more to my liking when they lean towards their heavier, blackened side —- and thankfully, that is what they’ve done with Vredesvävd, their most unadorned, straight ahead blackened folk offering in their entire career. Sure the Finnish folk elements are there, and that’s fine, but they’re counterbalanced by an ample dose of Watain-esque black metal fury, such as on the ripping “Att döda med en sten”. I’ve enjoyed listening to this album more than I expected I would, maybe solely due to the heavier shift the band has made in their sound. Whatever it is, its been a welcome return to a sound I’ve not really enjoyed in a long, long time.

Oceans of Slumber – Oceans Of Slumber:

Coming back with their fourth album and their first after a major lineup change which saw three members depart and new guys join the team, are Houston’s own Oceans of Slumber. Founding members Sean Gary (guitars, harsh vocals), Anthony Contreras (guitars), and bassist Keegan Kelly said adieu, and incoming members Semir Ozerkan (bass), Jessie Santos (guitars), and Alexander Lucian (guitars) arrived just in time for the creation process of the band’s “Mark 3” era self-titled debut. I’ve long been critical of bands delivering self-titled albums that aren’t their debut, and this is no exception (give the album a title, its not that hard), but I suppose a massive transfusion of half your band’s roster is as good a reason as any. And though the self-titled mid-career album is supposed to signal a rebirth of sorts, possibly a redefining of a band’s sound, or a return to their roots —- what we get here is really the band picking up where they left off with Winter and The Banished Heart. To my ears, its more of a blending of those two, returning a bit of the brighter, more major key melodicism of the former with the bleak, depressive tone of the latter. This is most concisely heard on the album standout “A Return To the Earth Below”, where we get bright, swirling, chiming psychedelic guitars in the first half of the song as vocalist Cammie Gilbert glides over the top. The doomy guitars in the hook that jut in suddenly are a strong counterpoint, and help form one of the band’s most memorable refrains to date, and the combination serves as a segue to the far more doom-tempoed second half of the song. On “Pray For Fire”, one of the more epic length cuts here, the band plays to their strengths in marrying Opeth-ian acoustics to dreamy melodies that build up to a propulsive, rhythmic hook bed that works spectacularly well thanks to Gilbert’s dexterity as a vocalist. And the band’s song choices and execution of covers has been impeccable to date, and their take on Type O Negative’s “Wolf Moon” here might actually be superior to the original. I’ve on the whole enjoyed this record way more than The Banished Heart, even though it lacks a moment as transcendent as the title track of that aforementioned album —- the new record is aided by a brightening of their sound, and I think maybe even the band has realized that they sound way better dallying with both darkness and the light.

The Spring 2018 Reviews Cluster

We’ve had a few really solid months in terms of quality metal output, and I’ve been somewhat on top of most things this year which is a change from my usual flailing around. I’ve likely missed something somewhere but given the amount of time already spent listening to music, I don’t think I could cram anymore in. Here’s a few of the things I thought were noteworthy and worth talking briefly about, the ones that didn’t make it in this time might see the light of day next go round. If you really think I’m missing something that needs to be heard by all means let me know in the comments below, I need all the help I can get!

 


 

 

Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Tucson’s Judicator are the latest in a volley of trad/power metal shots fired from the States, and with The Last Emperor they might actually win enough critical acclaim to become a fixture on the scene. Theirs is a decidedly European leaning take on the style, heavily influenced by classic mid-period era Blind Guardian. This shouldn’t come as a surprise once you hear this record, but its worth mentioning that their founding members met at a Blind Guardian show in 2012, and having first hand experience myself at just how magical those shows are in particular, I wonder why more power metal bands haven’t blossomed in their wake. Anyway, at the heart of Judicator are vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco, both working as primary songwriters together, Cordisco working up the music and Yelland crafting his own vocal melody ideas. Their new album is actually my introduction to the band, arriving typically late to the party (this is album number four for them, three if you consider the first to be what it really is, a demo), I was introduced to them via the accumulated murmurings at the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the /r/powermetal subreddit. Everyone seemed to be eagerly anticipating its March 30th release above anything else, so like a kid elbowing his way through a throng watching the news on TV at a storefront window, I had to see what everyone was going on about. Two tracks in and I was immediately sold and bought the album from their Bandcamp a day before its official release.

 

It shouldn’t take long to sell you on it either, the opening title track being a near perfect microcosm of hearing their obvious influences shining through yet also detecting their own personality coming through. Midway through, they abruptly skip away from a very Blind Guardian-esque, layered vocal laden mid-tempo passage to a sudden gear shift into speed metal with group shouted backing vocals, a combination that reminds me of a metalcore approach (albeit without sounding ‘core). I imagine its impossible to write a review about these guys and not mention the influence of the ‘Bards, and while other bands have shown that influence before (Persuader anyone?), the really impressive thing about Judicator is just how that influence manifests itself —- the folky vocal passage towards the end of “Take Up Your Cross”. Yelland isn’t so much a dead ringer for Hansi in tone as he is in approach, something heard in his choice in diction, phrasing, and of course the innate sense of when to layer a vocal with heaps of harmonies. You get to directly hear that contrast on “Spiritual Treason” where Hansi himself shows up for a guest vocal spot, as ringing an endorsement of Judicator as you could envision. Its a fantastic track, epic in scope and feel, and while the two singers complement each other really well, the star here might be the songwriting itself, crisp, bracing and energetically bouncing along (its been awhile  since we’ve heard Hansi in something this lean and mean).

 

Nine Circles published a nice interview with Yelland and Cordisco, one worth checking out if only for the glimpse into the tons of behind the scenes work that American power metal bands have to go through. The insight into this album however yielded a few surprising details, the first being that this is the band’s first album without harsh vocals and ballads both. There are softer dips into folky acoustic territory scattered throughout The Last Emperor, and they sounded so excellent that I wondered why these guys weren’t trying their hand at a longer piece composed in that vein —- I’ll have to dig into their discography to find that then. Its not a knock against this album though, because I get what they were trying to do in maintaining a certain level of energy throughout (somewhat similar to what Visigoth recently accomplished on Conqueror’s Oath). Reading Cordisco’s description of how he approached the songwriting here only reinforces what I felt when hearing the album for the first time, that there’s a real methodical level of thought that went into the songwriting here, even down to tiny details like sudden riff progression changes and the design of hooks (vocal and musical both). This was a real surprise, a knockout album from a band that wasn’t even on my radar until recently. It gives me hope for the future of power metal which seems to be flourishing into a new renaissance recently with the likes of Visigoth, Triosphere, and Unleash the Archers.

 

 

 

Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages:

I’ve had a soft spot for Finland’s Barren Earth ever since being introduced to the project with their 2012 album The Devil’s Resolve (a Metal Pigeon Top Ten that year!), it being an intriguing mix of melancholic melo-death with very 70s prog-rock elements. At the time, Opeth had just undergone their neo-prog transition with the Heritage album and I wasn’t feeling it, so I was all to eager to fly the flag for Barren Earth pulling off the sound I wanted Opeth to be doing. But that’s an oversimplification of what they do, even if the comparison is completely justifiable, and as we heard on 2015’s On Lonely Towers they were forging a unique identity of their own. And that’s important because one of the things that always gets everyone’s attention about the band’s lineup is its supergroup of Finnish metal aura (two parts Moonsorrow, former ex and now current Amorphis, and the Finnish guitarist for Kreator). Since I missed out on reviewing On Lonely Towers, its worth pointing out here that it was their first without Swallow the Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamäki at the helm, and to his credit he was a big part of what made me love their previous album so much. His replacement is Clouds vocalist Jón Aldará, a vocalist whose clean vocals are a little more rich with emotive phrasing, not a bad thing by any means but one of the things I loved about Kotamäki’s cleans is his somewhat emotionally detached, distant approach. It lent an air of mystery to his performances with Barren Earth, whereas Aldará (damn these guys’ accented names!) puts almost the equal and opposite emphasis into emoting, something that tends to diminish its own power if done too often.

 

As far as melo-death vox go however, Aldará is on par with his predecessor, his tone having the right texture (somewhat blackened, nice crunch… what a weird way to describe the human voice). On “Further Down” you get a good balance of both his styles, and its a catchy track too, with a chorus boasting a memorable vocal hook and a nicely written major key guitar sequence that sets everything up. It was the major standout after my first couple listens to the album, and unfortunately, that’s kind of the problem with A Complex of Cages in the grand scheme of things. After a few weeks listening through it, giving it space, coming back to see if anything else would unlock, I’m realizing that its one of those albums that just isn’t sticking. Its a solid album when I’m actively listening to it, but apart from that one track I’m finding it difficult to have anything else stay with me long after I’m done. Now sometimes that’s fine, as was the case with Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper, but those are outliers, and I remember how much The Devil’s Resolve would linger long after listening to it. Oddly enough the only other track that came close to having some kind of return value was the ten minute epic, “Solitude Pith” for its fantastic ending passage at the 7:40 minute mark. These are the reviews I hate to write the most, because the album’s not bad by any means, and its got interesting moments scattered throughout, but ultimately I feel like I’ve given it a fair amount of time and its failed to make a lasting impression. I’m going to revisit it in a few months and see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

Light The Torch – Revival:

I don’t normally listen to bands like these, but lately I’ve become a supporter of Howard Jones just as a human being, his appearances on the Jasta Podcast being so endearing that I’ve found myself rooting for him. His is an interesting story, not just for his time in Killswitch Engage’s rise to fame but in his battling depression, the brutal physical effects of diabetes type II, as well as crippling social anxiety. His current band has been known as the Devil You Know, but legal problems with their former drummer prompted a name change as an easy out, and so we have Revival, the first album in this mach 2.0 version of the band. The style here is more modern hard rock than metalcore, but sees a meshing of various elements largely due to Jones’ expressive and distinct clean vocals. Curiosity made me start listening to this album, and I started using it as a palette cleanser after so much more involved and complicated music I’ve been constantly listening to (Nightwish comp aside, the rest of the albums in this post are proof of that). Its definitely a simpler brand of heavy music at its fundamental core, focusing on anthemic choruses and vocal melody centered songwriting.

 

The riffs are fairly standard, not a lot of texture to them and sometimes that’s a keen reminder as to why I don’t normally bother too much with this genre of music as a whole, an example being “The God I Deserve”, with its turgid, bland slabs of distortion not really saying much besides filling in the vocal gaps. But lets not get ahead of ourselves here with too much musically focused analysis, because I doubt the people who really love stuff like this are fawning over the guitarists in particular. The attraction here is Jones himself, and on the opener and video track “Die Alone” which boasts about as positive sounding and anthemic (any good synonyms to replace that adjective with?) a slice of groove metal can be, they lean on their greatest strength. Its an addictive hook, and Jones has something inherently likable about his clean vocal approach, capable of being booming and rich at the same time, never losing an ounce of power. His growls are fine, and they add shades of color and complexity that’s badly needed in the face of the straightforward attack of the band, but if he did more of this kind of harmonized type clean singing in Killswitch, I might’ve been more of a fan. He showcases this again on “The Safety of Disbelief”, a strong bit of songwriting with some rather well executed self-reflecting lyrics. The themes here are a more personal slant on what Hatebreed does, a lot of purging of inner turmoil and self doubt, and it works. Not my usual cup of tea but it was a nice change of pace.

 

 

 

 

Nightwish – Decades:

I’m not sure if the more apt critique of Nightwish’s new career spanning retrospective is its utterly bizarre tracklisting, or once again my pointing out just how inane it is for a band to spend money making these compilations in the first place. Granted, the costs of such a project are lower than that of a studio album for the most part —- we’re talking primarily the costs of design packaging here, and presumably Nightwish had already made the arrangements long ago to be allowed to re-release parts of their Spinefarm past back catalog on a newer label arrangement. Whatever the business arrangements, Nightwish made the shrewd decision to promote the hell out of the fact that this was a band curated release, with the tracklisting picked out by Tuomas Holopainen himself and the liner notes as detailed and fan pleasing as you could imagine. So pleased and confident were they that they gave away copies to every single ticket buyer of their recent US tour, a nice little tie-in with the tour bearing the same name. I did scan their social media a bit to see fan responses to the free surprise gift vary from giddy to pleasantly surprised to “This is nice but I don’t own a disc player…”. Well then, the very fundamental issue indeed.

 

I’ll wonder aloud and ask you to join me, “Couldn’t this have been accomplished by simply having the band curate their own Spotify playlist, perhaps with some audio commentary tracks thrown in as a nice bonus? Oh wait, they did that —- Spotify has done a series called “Metal Talks” in which artists do that very thing for their newest release and Nightwish recorded one with Tuomas and Troy Donockley, and I found their commentary incredibly fascinating, Tuomas in particular going into details that few interviews manage to drag out of him. If you consider that Decades release on Spotify itself is in fact a glorified playlist, then its mission accomplished without the need for a physical release of any kind, but Decades was released on CD and vinyl. I don’t have a problem with that, I just hope it was worth it and that they won’t take a bath on it financially. I’ve written about my own internal first world struggle with my physical music collection, and the in past few months we’ve seen new reports about how Best Buy and Target might remove CDs from their stores by the summer (and articles reporting that vinyl and cd sales are beating digital downloads for the first time in years). I guess I admire the spirit behind a physical release like this, but am torn on the question of its necessity (though clearly others would disagree still), a debate largely informed by my own ongoing conflicted feelings regarding physical media.

 

Anyway, lets talk songs, because for die-hard fans I can easily imagine Decades being a flawed tracklisting, and its not well chosen for newcomers as well. I know Tuomas calls “The Greatest Show on Earth” his best work ever, that 24 minute long monolith that closed out their last album and is his Richard Dawkins narrated dream come true. To me and many others, it was the first one of his epics that didn’t seem quite gelled together, suffering from severe bloat in many passages and not enough in the way of strong motifs to keep me coming back (the spoken word was a chore as well). I’d actually argue that “Song of Myself” or or especially “Meadows of Heaven” were more apt choices as far as modern epics go, both hitting a particular core facet of Nightwish mythology in a more compact, memorable way. The tracklisting is in reverse chronological order, and as we travel through the recent albums, I wonder about the “Amaranthe” inclusion (surely one of the weaker songs of Dark Passion Play), and the lack of “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” (some of Tuomas’ finest lyrics). The other chief glaring omission is “Everdream”, one of the band’s most beloved and iconic Tarja era gems, a song as central to Nightwish fans as “Nemo” or “Ghost Love Score” (both rightfully represented here). Only two songs from Century Child seems a bit strange, and I guess everyone could nitpick on what older songs should have made the cut but the ones they picked seem fine to me. Its just an unsatisfying overview in general however. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in lieu of just directing them to a single studio album alone. It worked for the rest of us, it’ll work for them.

 

 

 

 

Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins:

I’ve had a meandering relationship with this band, really liking them upon my first introduction with the ever more incredible The Gathering Wilderness, their classic 2005 Celtic folk metal masterpiece. That enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over the years with their subsequent albums until 2014’s Where Greater Men Have Fallen, an album that saw them up the aggression level just enough to shake up their sound. A friend of mine who also likes them recently observed that he would forget about Primordial for years until the next album came around, where he’d pay attention to it, until he’d likely forget about it once again. It didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy those albums, but that for some undefinable reason, Primordial couldn’t stick with him the way other bands did. I think I’m in the same boat, because even though ‘Greater Men’ was a Metal Pigeon Top Ten Album in 2014, I haven’t really gone back and given it a proper listen through until now when prepping for this review. I’m coming into Exile Amongst The Ruins with that in the back of my mind, maybe even allowing it to amplify my expectations for an album in an unfair way by raising the bar too high. If the last album was a top ten list maker yet not something I’ve revisited out of pure enjoyment, then this one has to be something truly special right?

 

Well yes and no, because I certainly know that I’ll be adding a few gems from this one to my iPod (lately I’ve cobbled together my own ‘best of’ Primordial playlist in hopes of keeping the flame burning so to speak). The first one being “To Hell or the Hangman” which is a tightly wound ball of energy on a vibrating string of a guitar figure, propelled forward like a bullet train. Alan Averill’s ever wild, unrestrained vocals here are delivered like he’s standing on a rocky Irish cliff side, arms wide open while singing into gale force winds. Its the very definition of a kinetic song, and a vivid portrait of Primordial at their best, especially in the way it evokes that Celtic spirit without actually resorting to cultural cliches (ie a lot of bagpipes, fiddles, and over the top Celtic melodies). Then there’s “Stolen Years”, where a deceptively laid back succession of floating, lazy guitar chords create a hazy atmosphere, broken through by an overlaid guitar figure a few notes higher. At the 2:45 mark the build up unfurls into a slow motion crashing wave, all the emotional weight behind the guitar melodies only furthered by Averill’s incredibly moving vocal. There are other good moments scattered throughout, but there’s also a lot of times where you’re waiting for something to happen, to materialize into a memorable passage (this band doesn’t really do hooks) or instrumental sequence and it just never gets there. They don’t entirely derail what is a relatively good album, loose and lively in a way they haven’t been in years, but it also results in a feeling that everything is a little too unfocused.

 

 

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart:

This is about a month late, but I thought since they’re fellow Houstonians and perhaps the biggest metal export from our city to date I’d give The Banished Heart an extended period of listening time. I’m glad I did because the first thing I heard from the album was the album opener and first single/video “The Decay of Disregard” and it just wasn’t working for me for whatever reason. To be honest, it still is one of the weaker tracks here and certainly a puzzling choice for the album opener, the slow, sludgy parts in the middle a little too meandering for my tastes. On the flip side, their choice for the title track as the second video release was spot on, despite its nine minute plus running time. This is Oceans of Slumber at their best, Cammie Gilbert pushing her vocals to their utmost emotional wrangling effectiveness, the usage of delicate, sad, and downright haunting piano courtesy of drummer Dobber Beverly in the middle passage reinforces the gravity of Gilbert’s heartbroken lyrics. At the 5:10 mark, he plays a figure that is pure Blackwater Park era Opeth in spirit, a beautiful melody awash in nostalgia and regret, and I find that I’m realizing he’s as much a talent on piano as he is with his always interesting percussion patterns. The song opens ups after that with the introduction of synth driven strings and an inspired bit of heavenly choral vocal effects helping to propel what is Gilbert’s watershed vocal performance. This was the first Oceans of Slumber tune I really could say I loved, even considering everything from Winter, and they even nailed the video for it, its visual aesthetic nicely understated, Texan in setting (those endless fields!), and darkly dramatic when it had to be.

 

On the heavier end of the spectrum, there’s a highlight in “A Path to Broken Stars” with its triplet infused riffs and intense sense of urgency. Gilbert has gotten better at learning how to develop her vocal patterns to mesh better with the heavier aspect of the bands’ sound, something that Winter needed. Here she doesn’t try to match the riffs rhythmically, being content to sing in a higher register at an entirely slower tempo, an old symphonic metal trick but it works for a reason. This is also a different shade of her vocal ability, something that could be classified as a little more ethereal, and it really works for her. What you don’t get so much throughout the album are her more bluesy inflected vocal stylings, but I think the songwriting helped to dictate the direction on that, and perhaps she and the band have simply grown into a new sound. Not everything is perfect here, there’s some songs that could use a little trimming, some where they don’t make enough use of a particularly impactful riff (thinking specifically of “Fleeting Vigilance”, and I wasn’t particularly taken with the closing cover tune “The Wayfaring Stranger”. I’ve heard countless versions of it before, its a pretty common folk song (Cash did it), but the digital effects and the telephone vocals here seems like distractions from what could’ve been a really fine recording. Oh well, the band’s gelled more and gotten better and they’re on the right track, that’s a good path to be on.

 

 

 

 

Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II:

Quietly in the middle of March, a new double album was released by Panopticon, better described as a project rather than a band given its solitary member, one Austin Lunn. Sort of like a Kentuckian equivalent to Vintersorg, I’ve been an admirer of his albums for awhile now, particularly 2015’s Autumn Eternal and the groundbreaking 2012 release Kentucky. If you’re not familiar, in a nutshell Lunn fuses Appalachia folk/bluegrass with blistering, second wave inspired Norwegian black metal. Now in truth, sometimes these aren’t pure fusions as they are juxtaposing individual tracks featuring each alongside the other, but its been interesting to see him continually strive throughout his discography to actually musical infuse his black metal strains with overtones of American folk. He might have finally nailed it though, because in the week I’ve been listening to this album, I’ve never been as captivated, intrigued, and flat out entranced by Panopticon as I am here. This album blindsided the heck out of me too, not even realizing it was released until I saw an update by the folks at No Clean Singing mentioning how Lunn wasn’t making it available ahead of time for reviewing purposes (the reason being that Autumn Eternal was leaked beforehand in a severely degraded quality and that rightfully pissed him off —- no problem with me by the way though, I rarely if ever get reviews up before an album has been released).

 

The consequence of such an odd album release approach is that this one is flying under a few radars, but I expect that will change as the mid-year best of lists some places publish get posted, in addition to old fashioned word of mouth. The instrumental folk intro of “Watch the Lights Fade” is a perfect mood setter, but in the blistering fury of “En Hvit Ravns Død” we get our first glimpse of how he’s integrating the two worlds of his soundscapes. The middle interlude of sad, discordant country violins and the sounds of forest creatures create a rustic ambiance throughout, and on “Blåtimen” and “Sheep in Wolves Clothing” Lunn uses overlaid lead guitar to create folky countermelodies set against the piles of tremolo riffs burning underneath. What he really excels at is using understated, minor key American folk as the tapestry for all the connective bits where the black metal is held at bay, and stepping back from this album in particular I’ve started to realize that it represents the very heart of his sound. The black metal ebbs and flows, and on disc two here it goes away completely. Its not meant to be the center of attention anymore like it once was, and I get the feeling that this is the kind of album that Lunn has been striving towards all this time. The rustic folk/alt-country of the second disc is gonna be an acquired taste for some, but I really enjoy it personally; it reminds me of Uncle Tupelo both in its lyrical perspective of down and out rural America but also in its lo-fi production wash. This is an album you owe it to yourselves to experience personally, too much for a simple review like this to convey. A magnum opus.

 

The 2016 Mid-Year Reviews Codex!

There’s been more than a handful of new releases in this first half of 2016 that have gone unwritten about on the blog, but no longer! This is a collection massive haul of quick takes on all the other albums that I’ve managed to listen to from January through now, some more than others (for good reason in some cases), but no longer! Due to this being kind of a clearing the decks type feature, these are shorter, one to three paragraph reviews (for real this time) where I try to get to the gist of my opinion as succinctly as possible. If an album isn’t on this list, I either didn’t get to listen to it or only gave it a cursory listen —- not enough to form an opinion over. Also, I kinda run the gamut of emotions throughout the course of this entire piece and get a little impatient, off-topic, and well just plain nutty at spots, just a heads up. Might as well put the laundry in, you’re going to be here awhile.


 

Ihsahn – Arktis.:

If you were anything like me, then you found the past few releases from the legendary Ihsahn a bit patience-testing and at times, outright baffling. Ihsahn has always had a bit of an avant-garde streak in his black metal, most vividly witnessed in his Emperor days on their swansong, Prometheus, with its wildly scattered assemblage of zig-zag riffs and keyboard orchestration. His solo albums have been a bit mixed musically though, with his first two showing more of a traditional approach to songwriting with conventional structures (I enjoyed The Adversary and most of angL), and the following three reaching into more of his extreme avant garde interests with results that I found wanting. But on Artkis, his sixth album under his eponymous banner, he throws us a real curve ball, that is a record built on classic metal riffs and soaring, dare I say even melodic clean vocals. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, Ihsahn hasn’t written the next Maiden or Priest album, and he’s still writing music that is often surprising, veering off into unexpected directions, and challenging at its core. What’s changed is the language he’s using in doing so, almost as if he realized his venturing onto the outermost fringes of extremity with Das Seelenbrechen demanded a severely sharp contrast simply to get back to center.

Maybe I’m far off the mark in guessing his motives, but no matter the reasons why, I’m just happy Arktis happened, because its the first Ihsahn album that I’m absolutely loving in well over half a decade. There are tangible, meaty riffs to grab hold of on songs such as “Disassembled” and the soaring, skyward “Mass Darkness”. The latter is a gem, an instant contender to make this year’s Best Songs list and perhaps Ihsahn’s most accessible moment ever, built around a guitar figure that’s as memorable as his eyebrow raising clean vocals during the chorus. In addition to a classic metal influence, there’s shades of 70s prog-rock in ways we’ve never heard before, via the mellotron (or a reasonable emulation of one) on “My Heart Is Of The North”, recalling hints of bands such as Deep Purple and King Crimson. And there’s still loads of Ihsahn weirdness about, such as on “South Winds”, where his black metal vocals are set against a hushed, electronic pulsed backbeat —- a song that is still tuneful due to a chorus that lifts and thunders. Another favorite of mine is the very rollicking “Until I Too Dissolve”, which my MSRcast cohost Cary remarked as containing a Ratt-n-Roll riff! I’m not going to go that far, I’ll say its more mid-80s Tipton/Downing, but I get what he’s saying. The dreaded saxaphone does make a brief reappearance in “Crooked Red Line”, but its not to the detriment of the song overall (just don’t think I’m a fan of it being in metal), besides, everything else is so much fun I’m inclined to let it go here especially when its followed up by the gorgeous “Celestial Violence”.

The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar with Ihsahn outside of Emperor or in general, make this your point of entry (yes I know I risk black metal heresy here but this IS more accessible than Emperor, and everyone needs a way in). Regardless of your experience level, this is a must get for 2016.

 

 

Haken – Affinity:

I’ve been largely unfamiliar with England’s progressive rock/metal explorers Haken (pronounced “Hey-ken”), having seen their name here and there but always dismissing them as being just another in a big bunch of prog bands from the UK that all tend to sound the same to me. That was largely due to not giving them more than a cursory glance/listen, because as a result of longer attention on my end recently I’ve realized that Haken are a band with an inherent uniqueness, one that will force me to go back and take another look at their catalog. That is once I can stow away Affinity for a bit, which is proving an impossible task at the moment. This is an amazing piece of work, a sharply written blend of traditional prog-rock with metallic riffs, an 80s electronic motif that recalls the best hints of Rush post Moving Pictures, vivid melodies and an ear for hooks galore.

If there’s a stumbling block you’ll come upon, its likely going to be vocalist Ross Jennings, whose voice I now love but freely admit that it took me more than a few listens through to become comfortable with. I can’t even describe why that was the case, but if you listen to the should-be-a-single “Earthrise”, you’ll get an idea of what I’m referring to —- incidentally, that magnificent song is what really sold me on the band so perhaps you’re simply better off letting the album play through until you come to it naturally in the middle of the tracklisting. I guess one observation is that its not a metal voice, yet its not quite as perfectly melodic as Steven Wilson’s, Jennings has a distinctive slant on his approach that you’ll either accept or be unable to come to terms with. But these songs guys… so good, such artistry and a precision balancing of technicality, they’re clearly tremendous musicians, particularly drummer Ray Hearne, whose creative patterns and refreshingly aggressive approach are a huge source of power overall. I recently played a song from these guys on the last MSRcast episode and talked them up a bit, and you’ll likely be hearing more about them from me as the year goes on.

The Takeaway: One of the year’s first out of nowhere surprises, a contender to hit the Best Albums of the Year list, and a new band for me (and you) to delve into. Can’t recommend highly enough.

 

 

In Mourning – Afterglow:

Just like Haken above, Sweden’s In Mourning are another one of those names I’d seen in passing sometime ago yet they never really made a blip on my radar until now. They’re identified as progressive melodic death metal on the Metal Archives, and they certainly fit that bill on Afterglow, with the first track “Fire and Ocean” storming out of the gate with total Opeth-worship fury. That’s not a bad thing either, because they’re channeling Blackwater Park / Deliverance era Opeth, which is not only a hard thing to do but something that I didn’t realize I was deeply missing until I heard this song’s juxtaposition of deep, iceberg-like death metal vocal patterns courtesy of Tobias Netzell over shifting guitar beds, like the cracking of glacial ice underneath. Again, just like Ihsahn and Haken above, I played In Mourning on the latest MSRcast ep (probably should’ve spaced these albums apart on this list, oh well) —- my cohost Cary commented that Netzell’s vocals were slightly metalcore-ish. I didn’t agree and still don’t, but I have to admit that Netzell’s clean vocals on a cut like “The Grinning Mist” are perhaps more American-tinged in approach than Mikael Akerfeldt’s, whose death metal vocal style is clearly an influence at work throughout this album.

What I enjoy about this album is its blend of diverse song styles, tempos, moods, and guitar patterns —- you’re hard pressed to find a moment where you’re getting bored, and that’s half the battle when it comes to prog death metal. A song such as “Below Rise To The Above” manages the impressive trick of layering brutal death metal vocals over a semi-ballad melodic structure, long atmospheric guitar sustains, minimal riffing and some major key rays of sunlight amidst the gloom. If there is a drawback to In Mourning’s style, its that at times it presses a little too close to Opethian tendencies, take song lengths for example, the shortest cut here clocking in at 6 minutes, or that Netzell’s long sustained screams over accelerating riffs just pinch a bit too much of the magic sugar that made Akerfeldt and company so riveting. Influences are expected in metal, you should hear bits and pieces of where a band is coming from (this is after all a genre based on tradition), but when those influences are identifiable patterns and systemic in nature as opposed to mere paintbrush strokes and isolationist, then a band or artist isn’t pushing hard enough (and I wind up yearning to listen to Blackwater Park).

The Takeaway: Talented band with a quality new album that’s worth your attention span for a few YouTube clips at least. One thing I wanted to point out and applaud despite not being review-esque is their history of awesome album art, not only for Afterglow, but for the Lovecraftian theme on The Weight of Oceans, great taste in aesthetics just like another band we knOw! 

 

 

Wildernessking – Mystical Future:

I quite like minimalism in black metal, as much as I do its audacious, tiara adorned cousin symphonic black metal, and if the album art to the left wasn’t a dead giveaway, Wildernessking play a blend of furious second wave Norwegian black metal mixed with elements of post-BM and blackgaze. They’re from South Africa, which is a neat fact in that we typically don’t hear about a lot of bands making an impact from that particular country, so good for these guys for breaking out worldwide in a small way. I’ve been enjoying this album as a mood appropriate listen since the promo landed on the MSRcast desk a few months ago. When I say “mood-appropriate” I do mean it, because if you’re not receptive to the adjectives I threw out above, you won’t have the patience to deal with Mystical Future. I find that it works best as a background piece, something to listen to while you’re doing a mindless task, because its not background music, these are songs worthy of your attention and filled with emotional musical twists and scorching bleak vocals that are often blanketed by pretty guitar figures and moving melodies.

There is no obvious “single” or lyric-video cut here, but “I Will Go To Your Tomb” boasts the album’s most vivid, sharp melody, a guitar pattern that is more of a stream of conscious type affair than a predetermined pattern or hook. Frenetic percussion is its metallic foil, wild, unpredictable, and violent in its furious outbursts, particularly towards the second half when it accompanies the album’s most straight forward black metal section. Yet for all its high intensity moments, Mystical Future is largely a quiet, pensive, dreamy affair, such as on “To Transcend”, where isolated guitar sustains twist and bend in elegant figures against a stark atmospheric backdrop. This is Wildernessking’s calling card, at least on this album (I’ve yet to check out their debut nor the many EPs they’ve put out in the interim), but they play it well and with enough creativity to prevent it from being a wet blanket like many atmospheric black metal albums tend to be. And yeah, I love that artwork.

The Takeaway: With Agalloch sadly calling it quits just a few days ago, Wildernessking will be helping to fill a void for a post-black metal sound that is both rooted in tradition and simultaneously detached from it. Worth your time and attention.

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – Winter:

Houston’s own (!) Oceans of Slumber, my fellow H-town metallers, with a new album on Century Media Records! First of all, and I know we’ve spoken about this on the podcast, but we’re very proud, and rightfully so —- Oceans of Slumber are the first band in a long time to break out of the local scene and truly make an impact on metal media and fans across the nation and pond. They just did a European tour opening for My Dying Bride, likely to do more opening stints throughout the year and next, and that they’re doing so in supporting such a intriguing and well-done album such as Winter is even more reason that we’re excited down here. Oceans are notable for their inspired approach to progressive doom/death metal on a musical level, and for having one of the more unique female vocalists across metal in general, in Cammie Gilbert, whose bluesy/jazzy tinged vocals are a stark contrast to the music at work here. Its that facet in particular that keeps me returning to this album as a front to finish listening experience —- and I enjoy so much of it when I’m actively listening to it, but I can admit to having trouble to remembering a lot of the songs after the fact. Whether that last detail has clouded my view of the album is still a bit of a mystery to me, but a friend whose listened to the album as well came away with the same criticism.

The title track right out of the gate is actually highly memorable, due to its unique vocal/solo guitar near-ambient intro verse and Gilbert’s sheer dominance on the song, she steals the show and you couldn’t imagine any other female voice singing this particular tune. Ditto for “Turpentine”, where Gilbert’s “wooohooohoooo” vocal coos are as addictive as any fully formed chorus hook (except that these are just flavorful parts of the intro verse) —- her performance on this song is captivating, she’s got a gravitas to her voice that is gorgeously accented by her ability to sound sweet, almost like she’s singing an old standard. Speaking of old standards, Oceans pretty much knock out of the park their cover of the Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin”, giving the song a sense of dramatic urgency with heavy, smolderingly intense verse riffage and Queensryche-ian guitar sustains in the chorus. Guitarists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary deliver a twin harmony outro solo just after the second chorus that I got to see live at a benefit show here in Houston, and I believe my jaw actually dropped —- it sounds just as good on the album. One last observation, there’s a lot of short one and half to two minute long acoustic guitar/piano and vocal songs on this album, and those are great to hear on the album for the most part, but I never remember those in particular. They do however add a strong sense of musicality to an already musical batch of heavy, doomy, prog-death metal, so there is value, I just wonder if they should try scaling them back next time.

The Takeaway: Trust me when I tell you to buy this album that I’m not being a Houston homer… okay, there’s a little of that in there but if this wasn’t worth your time or money, I’d tell you regardless of the band’s H-Town status. Its a rich, diverse, really friggin interesting metal album that is big on musicality, refreshingly unique for a female fronted band, and worth it alone for the Moody Blues cover.

 

 

Avatarium – The Girl With The Raven Mask:

I’m new to Avatarium, ex-Candlemass bassist/founder Leif Edling’s new project that seeks to take elements of his doom metal songwriting and mix them with classic hard rock and metal elements. Having missed their 2013 debut, I can only go based on what The Girl With The Raven Mask is presenting me, which I can honestly say is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I really enjoy it, and other times I can identify moments where the songwriting doesn’t quite gel, but what keeps me coming back are the fierce, belting, Doro/Grace Slick styled vocals of unknown singer Jennie-Ann Smith. She’s the star of this album, capable of going full on Robert Plant on the title track, complete with “Immigrant Song” styled wailing screams —- and this is an interesting song coming from a guy like Edling, a fairly uptempo, rollicking hard rocker that reminds me of Catatonia (the Welsh rock band, not the Swedish metal one). Its placement on the tracklisting as the opener is a bit deceptive, because the following two songs are a little more in line with Edling’s doom-metal roots, both “The January Sea” and “Pearls and Coffins” being built around lazy, delicate melodic crawls. You’re hardly listening to the capably produced music underneath however, as once again Smith’s vocals are hypnotic, capturing all your attention.

There’s an aesthetic running through this album that I can’t quite put my finger on —- there’s definitely hints of 60s/70s musicality here, a ton of organ, mellotron, a theremin at one point (!) which all combine towards that old-school prog-rock era vibe. And the songs are written as to at times entirely separate the vocal melodies and musical patterns, so that Smith often sounds like she’s singing Jim Morrison-esque verses of poetry rather than simply carrying a tune. She’s actually great at that, convincing and passionate in her delivery, yet sometimes it all passes over as instantly and fleetingly, to me anyway (more on that in a second). What is strange about Avatarium’s overall sound that is likely to keep me coming back to investigate this album throughout the year are those scattered moments where they lean more alt-rock in guitar tone (and subsequently, melodic structure and pattern) such as on “Run Killer Run”, where a fantastic driving riff anchors the most sing-song styled jam on the album. I wound up wishing they’d had more of these kind of songs, with meaty hooks to grab hold of and firmly lodge in one’s upper recesses. Don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty, highly intriguing album that is captivating to listen to, but I suspect my own hangup with it is that while I can admire its construction and aesthetic while its playing, I can’t form an emotional attachment to anything here, and that’s either a songwriting problem or a Metal Pigeon problem. Shrug.

The Takeaway: Do listen to this and at the very least get to hear something really unusual in metal (well, unusual for those of us who don’t follow the doom metal scene with a sharper eye, I’m told there are others like Avatarium). I suspect a few of you might share in my inexplicable distance from these songs despite enjoying what I’m hearing on a sonic level —- for you others, this band might be a revelation.

 

 

Sunburst – Fragments of Creation:

Sunburst are heavy prog-metal tinged power metal group out of Greece, not an uncommon place for power metal love given their Iced Earth worship and for local heroes such as Gus G and Firewind. Its always been a little bit puzzling as to why Greece hasn’t produced more breakout bands in these stylistic veins (although the state of the Greek economy over the past decade and the apparent lack of reliable venues seems to form a reasonable hypothesis as to why), but Sunburst are seeking to be another ray of light (oy!) peeking out from the skies of this tiny country. And they get a lot right, for starters their vocalist Vasilis Georgiou has a voice that recalls strong flavors of Tommy Karevik, a little Roy Khan, and some Georg Neuhauser in there as spice —- but he’s not a composite, in fact, he has a distinct quality that in further records could see him separating himself as truly unique. He’s not quite there yet, but this is a debut, and Appetite styled brilliance is a rare thing when it comes to first times at bat. With time I think Sunburst could be a band really worth gushing over, but they have a guitar problem they need to address first.

Allow me to clarify, I think the lead guitar parts on Fragments are really, really awesome, full of flowing melodic goodness and carefully though out so as to create motifs that complement Georgiou’s excellent vocal melodies. But if sole guitarist Gus Drax (another Gus!) put as much thought and effort into his riff writing and rhythm guitars as he did his lead parts, Sunburst would be on another level. What bogs this album down is clunky, simplistic, and often ill-timed riffs that lack originality, give us a dose of standard chug-a-chuga without really going anywhere (you know the kind, like on a Disturbed album). The first thing you’ll hear, notice, and remember about these songs are the vocal melodies, upon which nearly everything revolves (and that’s fine), but if that’s to be the case, then reduce the rhythm guitars in the mix (way too in your face for not having anything memorable to offer). There’s one moment where he goes get this right, on “Symbol of Life” the rhythm sequences are fairly standard but unobtrusive and kinda rockin’ in their straight forward lean metal attack. Over such a bed, Georgiou owns the song with a wonderful vocal and Drax’s lead guitar motif is the perfect kind of splashy overload that we all geek out over. Sadly, there’s not enough of this perfect balance.

The Takeaway: A promising debut with a really talented vocalist and a guitarist that has a flair for crafting beautiful lead guitar work. If he can settle down and start writing rhythm beds that support the vocal melodies instead of trying to fight them for dominance then Sunburst could have a breakout sophomore album.

 

 

Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again:

Finland’s quasi-thrash/power metal hybrid Thunderstone is back, well, back with original vocalist Pasi Rantanen after he left in 2007 and the band recorded a indifferently received album with another singer. I’m glad they reunited (I have no idea on why Rantanen left in the first place, if anyone has any info on that I’d love to be clued in), because for the kind of traditional metal/hard rock meets power metal songs guitarist Nino Laurenne is writing, Rantanen’s grizzled, raspy, rough n’ tough melodic croon was always the perfect complement. If there’s ever a band to have lived under the shadows of an entire country’s metal scene, its Thunderstone, whose sound seems to fit far better coming from England or even mainland Europe, Germany in particular. Overshadowed in their early years by the success of Stratovarius and then Nightwish and Sonata Arctica, Thunderstone never really seemed to capture mainstream Finnish attention until they were invited to take part in their country’s Eurovision qualifiers. It shot a few of their singles into the national top ten along with their next album, and then things promptly unraveled with the departures of Rantanen and longtime keyboardist Kari Tornack.

Ten years later, I don’t think its outrageous to suggest that Thunderstone is essentially starting over again, especially in the context of Finnish metal’s collective attention shifting from power metal to melodic death and depressive rock/metal. They have their work cut out for them, and unfortunately I don’t hear a potential single on this album as ear-wormy as “10,000 Ways”, although a song like “Fire and Ice” boasts a chorus that hints of past glories. Alright, I guess I’ll just let my frustration show, because I was thinking about this last night as I was listening through this album again, and maybe its simply because I do end up listening to such a large number of new releases but —- sometimes I think its only worth talking about music that really hits me in the heart and moves me. Because the alternative, which I’m doing right now, is attempting to dissect how a relatively ho-hum, average new album by a veteran band stacks up against their past few ho-hum, average albums. Thunderstone has never released anything we’d call close to a masterpiece, and while no band knocks it out of the park every time at bat, over time a lack of home runs makes you wonder why they’re on your team (arrrgggh baseball metaphors! How did that happen?!). Is this a listenable album? Sure, of course it is, professionally recorded and with a few songs that have hummable melodies and a nice hook or two. But is that really enough in the light of some of the really majestic, heart-stirring music I’ve already heard this year? I’m going to say that at this particular moment, no its not.

The Takeaway: A veteran hard rock/power metal band comes back with a new album with their original singer. If that’s enough to get you in the door then by all means walk on through, but at least to my ears, there’s nothing else worth adding.

 

 

Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional:

My MSRcast co-host balked when I listed Hatebreed as one of the band’s we were going to play on our recent episode of the show, but he has no one to blame but himself. It was he that introduced me to Hatebreed vocalist Jamey Jasta’s podcast The Jasta Show, simply one of the most illuminating metal/heavy music based discussion podcasts available. The show captured my attention with its musician to musician access, providing a level of friendly, open conversation that no conventional interview could provide. It helped that Jasta is immensely likeable as a personality (something I even thought during his tenure as the MTV2 Headbanger’s Ball host a decade ago), and that he already knew most of his interviewees and vice versa via touring with them at some point or by crossing paths with them behind the scenes in the music industry, or simply by reputation. Its a show worth delving into especially if you enjoy hearing more industry/business related discussion in regards to the music industry and just how bands operate in general.

So what does this have to do with the new Hatebreed album? Well, my enjoyment of the podcast quickly turned into curiosity about what my opinion of Jasta’s music with Hatebreed would be now, in 2016, when I had previously written them off as hardcore/metalcore in the past (which they unabashedly were and still are to a certain extent). I watched a load of their music videos on YouTube, and found myself enjoying the songs simply for what they were, as Jasta himself describes, “caveman metal” built around heavy riffs, syncopated vocal delivery and shouted gang vocals, structured around precision songwriting that aims for the most catchy assault on your speakers and ear drums possible. Its music meant for live shows, mosh pits, and visceral physicality —- but within that are Jasta’s lyrics, mostly motivational based calls to action, and he’s really good at it. After buying Perseverance I found myself listening to it before work as a motivational tool, and as blood-pumping, adrenaline spiking workout music. I started to relish the idea of Hatebreed as music with a practical application —- I might not listen to it with headphones on with deep concentration, but it really hit the spot in those particular situations and just as a heavy metal palette cleanser of pure, unadorned heaviness. I know that some of you are shaking your heads at this right now, but give songs like “I Will Be Heard”, “Perseverance”, “In Ashes They Shall Reap”, “This Is Now” and newer singles like “A.D.” and “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” a shot.

Since this is an album review after all, I should probably speak about The Concrete Confessional a bit. It is certainly not deviating that much from what this band is known for, but one thing worth mentioning is just how thrashy these guitarists are getting on some of their riffs. Take “A.D.” for example, which sounds more like what modern day Slayer should sound like mixed with a little Kreator in those minor-keyed, subtle melodies. That’s not a surprise to me anymore, seeing as how Jasta constantly throws out his love for Kreator, Destruction, and plenty of other thrash metal mainstays on the podcast. You’ll be harder pressed to find an angrier, more vicious sounding single in metal this year than this one, with Jasta tearing apart the commonly touted idea of the American dream with his perfectly-timed verbal assault (what he lacks in vocal tone variation he more than makes up for with his ability to understand how well chosen lyrics with percussive syllabic structures make his delivery so potent). Its follow up single “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” is a little more metalcore-ish in its approach and stop-start moments, but its still addictive and will stick in your head, and its lyrical sentiments are admirable despite their biologically inadvisable suggestion of “No Sleep! No Rest!” (because seriously guys, 8 hours…). I’m actually impressed with the consistency of the album overall, there are at least five potential other singles here, and that should say something about the band’s songwriting strengths if nothing else.

The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar, The Concrete Confessional isn’t a bad place to start with Hatebreed, especially if you’re keen on some thrashy guitars now and then. This is a band that has been leaning more metal than core over their past few releases, although the ‘core is still an important (and vital) aspect of their sound. Just give it a shot, this album or the band in general, what do you have to lose but a few minutes spent not watching videos of Corgi puppies?

 

 

Brainstorm – Scary Creatures:

Ah Brainstorm, one of power metal’s chunkier, heavier leading lights. At least they were for awhile from the turn of the millennium through 2008’s Downburst, but since then the band has released three albums of wavering, shaky, brow-furrowing quality. I’m not exactly sure what happened, because this is a band that at one point was knocking out full length albums with nary a filler track on offer and a killer single or three apiece. Did they run out of creative fuel? It certainly seemed like it, and you’d expect that with a band dealing with a plethora of lineup changes, but that wasn’t the case with Brainstorm whose members have been solidly in place with the exception of a bassist change in 2007 (a non-songwriting member at that). In trying to gain some context for this album I went back and listened to 2014’s Firesoul which I actually remember enjoying initially, but hearing it now I can’t figure out why I was so impressed back then. The good news straight away is that I’m enjoying Scary Creatures a bit more than any of their past three albums. The bad news is that its still not hitting the adrenaline spiking heights of Metus Mortis, Soul Temptation, or Liquid Monster.

The album is front loaded with both the music video fueled single and lyric video adapted second single, “The World to See” and “How Much Can You Take” respectively. Its a wise choice because they’re both reminiscent of classic Brainstorm, ear-wormy, hook laden and propulsive in that particular way that only German heavy metal can be, and it gets you in a receptive headspace for the rest of the album, which is sometimes hit and miss. I will say there are more hits here though, such as the album closer “Sky Among the Clouds” which is a refreshing injection of a shades lighter melody (alongside a very 80s rock inspired guitar solo) that gives the song an unusual vibe relative to the rest of the album. Then there’s the very epic “Caressed By the Blackness”, where we’re treated to a far more complex songwriting arrangement that Brainstorm is typically known for, with a chorus with shifting vocal layers where Andy B. Frank’s bellowed backing tracks soar to the heavens. Frank’s voice is ageless, he sounds the exact same as when I first heard him back in 2002, must be something about German singers perhaps —- he’s on fine form throughout and about seventy-five percent of the reason why we’re listening at all (no disrespect intended to the other guys). There’s a handful of seemingly filler-esque cuts that plague the middle of this album and might cause a wandering attention span to develop at some point, but its at least a sign of a potential turnaround from a band that should never have lost their way.

The Takeaway: Worth a listen on Spotify or YouTube, but I’m not sure if I can really recommend buying Scary Creatures particularly if you haven’t grabbed those aforementioned classic era Brainstorm releases yet. This is an easy band to root for, really nice guys, honest metal, some moments of brilliance through their career —- I have high hopes for the next one because they seem to have found their footing a bit here.

 

 

Exmortus – Ride Forth:

I’ve spent a lot of years ignoring Exmortus, on purpose really, though I’ve been aware of talk around them and have in the past tried to get into their sound because on paper it should something I’d enjoy. And I do… to a certain extent, I’ll get to that in a second. If you’re in the dark here, Exmortus play a hyper, shredder-inspired, technical riff oriented blend of thrash and melodic death metal with a hint of neo-classical stylings ala Noise Records roster circa 1988. This is music that rarely, if ever, demonstrates an ability to breath and relax. Its up-tempo nearly all the time, built around skittish, almost nervous riffing (nerves like a Viking might appear over the next hill swinging a battle axe), with vocals that are fairly monotone in their raw, black-metal forged growling vocal attack. I’m not sure who’s singing for these guys at the moment, they’ve gone a heap of lineup changes seemingly at every position including vocalists, but he’s a competent enough growler on a technical level. What he lacks is any hint of emotional resonance, there are no moments here where he loosens the iron-tight grip on his enunciations and delivery to allow a little genuine emotion (such as, I dunno, anger or rage) break through. Anders Friden was good at that back in the classic In Flames days, and with growling vocals I consider him to be a benchmark of quality.

The thing about precision in metal, whether it be vocals or guitars or drums, is that it always works better when you treat it like a baseline from which you can vary and dip in intensity and adherence —- that’s where the excitement comes from (listen to 80s Priest if you need a primer, and you shouldn’t). That’s ultimately the problem with Exmortus, because there’s so much here that does pop out as potentially enjoyable, but its never given space or a little added jolt of energy to come alive and breathe. Its like watching an NBA game where all you get is fundamental basketball, set plays, unwavering game tempo, mid-range two pointers, hook shots, lay-ups, and free throws. What you’re yearning for is a steal and a fast break down the court with an explosive dunk to finish and get the crowd really amped up and waving those white towels (or whatever the heck they’re waving these days). I can’t say Ride Forth is a bad album, but I’m not sure its a good one either, simply because I can’t friggin tell —- that makes me a bad reviewer but you tell me, what am I supposed to be reviewing here? I’m actually really interested in what everyone thinks of this album in particular because maybe it boils down to me missing something critical. Why did I review this? Because a very friendly PR person requested it and I’ve been putting off those requests far enough, and hopefully this doesn’t prevent them from sending me more stuff in the future but I’m coming up empty on this one.

The Takeaway: I don’t know. I’m actually at a loss as to what I think, but maybe it goes back to what I was saying with Thunderstone and how difficult it is to write about music that doesn’t move the needle positively or negatively.

 

 

Rhapsody of Fire – Into The Legend:

My immediate reaction to seeing this release arrive as a promo earlier in the year was somewhere along the lines of “What the hell… another Rhapsody album?!”. I was of course recalling that ex-Rhapsody of Fire’s guitarist Luca Turilli released his own Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody album just last year with Prometheus, Symphonia Ignis Divinus. I actually wrote a review for that one, my first for any Rhapsody related release ever, and I think it was an honest assessment of what that album did for me on a purely musical level, but I didn’t bother at the time to research just why they were two Rhapsody bands in the first place nor what it could mean for the sound of either project. This time around, I’ve gone back and read a few press statements, some interviews, a little quick research on just what the schism in the Rhapsody world really entailed and have come away simultaneously baffled and yet a little more receptive to what it is I’m hearing. Bear with me.

So Rhapsody (of Fire) was founded by keyboardist Alex Staropoli and guitarist Luca Turilli, and from 1997’s Legendary Tales through 2011’s From Chaos to Eternity, their music was set to their own fantasy universe —- one that involved albums groups into sagas that could span over many albums (if I’m getting it right, its ordering was The Emerald Sword Saga, followed by its sequel The Dark Secret Saga). Regardless of what I thought of their music during this time, I will say now that its a heck of an achievement, a life’s work type of thing that is laudable for its sheer ambition and for both men’s tenacity in finishing it while dealing with all sorts of legal problems (copyright suit over the Rhapsody name, the contractual mess with Magic Circle *cough* Manowar’s label). But I guess it sort of took the wind right out of their sails, because by 2011 with the release of From Chaos to Eternity, Staropoli and Turilli agreed to a mutual split, stating that working together “was not the same anymore”. But instead of agreeing that one guy should keep the Rhapsody name and the other create something new, they decided in their amicable split to share the name the way they’re currently doing —- and thus becoming the LA Guns of power metal. So here’s the obvious question: Aren’t you guys risking splitting or splintering your market? If I’m a promoter, and I’ve booked Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire one year, and then Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody comes sauntering along in the early part of the following year, do I really see much of a difference? Rhapsody is in both names, and in booking two Rhapsody shows so close together I’m taking a huge risk on that second booking —- confused fans might stay home thinking they’d already seen the band not too long ago.

Think about how this could be affecting festival organizers and their relationships with promoters in the regional area. Proximity in booking shows for particular markets is something that promoters look at —- its why its hard for a band who was on a package tour with a bunch of other bands to come back through to the same city four to five months later on their own headline tour. Because they’ve already saturated that particular market’s demand, and they have to let some time lapse or a new release come out in order to reset the demand for that area. Blargh! Its infuriating! Why didn’t Turilli just form his own non-Rhapsody named project? Luca Turilli’s Sweet Jams or something, anything other than the dreaded R word?! Okay, rant over, here’s something to be encouraged about: I think that being freed from the conceptual/fantasy storyline has actually made Rhapsody of Fire sound better (I actually might need to hit up their 2013 album in order to reinforce this theory), because Into the Legend is the first Rhapsody album that I’ve actually enjoyed to a notable degree. Its got some actual meaty, metal riffs, and apparently Fabio Lione is writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies and it really shows —- there’s a naturalness to his delivery and he’s carrying a majority of the material here on his own back. He doesn’t have to shoehorn in lyrics to tell a story, he can just write y’know, regular lyrics, a radical concept for this band. The songwriting is far more attuned to classic power metal templates and that helps to restrain the normally grandiose factor that spirals Rhapsody’s sound out of control (it also succeeds in keeping the keyboard arrangements more precise, focused and purposeful). I’m impressed.

The Takeaway: My opinion could be entirely contrary to what long time Rhapsody fans are thinking, but for me, this might be a case of less is more. No grand interwoven story dominating what the lyrics have to be, thus not impacting the vocal melodies directly, and allowing Rhapsody to simply be a straight up power metal band for once. I actually had fun listening to this, so take that for what its worth to you!

 

 

Abbath – Abbath:

It seems pretty damned silly to come out with a review for an album I recieved in January and have been listening to for the past five months now and already discussed on my other outlet, the MSRcast. But, this being the reviews codex, its either gotta be here or nowhere at all and it would be silly not to considering how much I have gone back to it time and again. No backstory here, you’ve all likely heard that Immortal and Abbath have parted ways (stupidly I might add, on the part of Demonaz and Horgh), and Abbath is the first out of the gate with his own new album. I suspected upon hearing “To War” and “Winter Bane” in particular, that I was hearing cuts from a once-future Immortal album that never happened, because let there be no man who attempts to tell me those aren’t Immortal songs. They’re also incredible, brutally punishing, slicing cuts of sharpened black metal built on riffs that only Abbath devises. His sound is so distinctive at this point, that I often use him as a reference point in sussing out other bands sounds (“hmm… this sounds Abbath-y”), his very name becoming an adjective in metal writer circles and having the potential to turn into a verb (I’m working on that!). As for what era of Immortal these songs seem tied to, I’d say they’re picking up where All Shall Fall left off, but with flashes of Sons of Northern Darkness hook factor splashed across the board (they’re far catchier than anything off the last Immortal album in truth).

I hear this album as one divided by each song’s original destination, because just like those two mentioned above, there are a handful of other cuts that absolutely sound like they belonged on a future Immortal record, and others that find Abbath dabbling in looser riffing, more rock n’ roll influenced songwriting. As to the former, songs like “Ocean of Wounds” built upon classic Immortal hypnotic riff sequences, riffs that deviate higher or lower in tone but are relatively static while Abbath’s inimitable vocals dance over the top. Up tempo cuts like “Count the Dead” and “Fenrir Hunts” are amazing, the latter being a personal favorite, its viciousness and accelerating speed reminding me of At the Heart of Winter. But take a listen to “Roots of the Mountain”, and you’ll hear Abbath in a different light, one where he employs a slower, looser approach to his rhythm guitar playing, one that lacks his typical intensity and tightness. At a certain point during the song, things get a little black metal meets ZZ Top (speaking guitar wise). I’m not wild on the song but its alright in a change of pace type of way. Far more interesting is “Eternal”, which at times sounds like a punk rock / Immortal crossover with its raw, first-take sounding guitar riffs and uber-aggressive patterning —- this is definitely a song specifically crafted for the idea of an Abbath solo album. Ditto for “Riding on the Wind”,  a cover of an oft-forgotten Judas Priest cut where Abbath’s vocal choices recall Alexi Laiho during Children of Bodom’s covers of “Poison” or “Rebel Yell”. Kudos for not choosing something obvious to cover, and kudos in general for simply getting new music out, Abbath is a worldwide treasure in metal and he was being cooped up for too long.

The Takeaway: I’m kinda glad I waited on reviewing this because my initial reaction was simply one of sheer joy that we had new Abbath-related music to listen to. It had been six years, and many more before that —- I suspect now that my bias in that regard would’ve over-inflated any verdict I’d have issued. As it is now, this is a good, not great album, albeit with moments that are at times majestic and reminiscent of classic Immortal.

 

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