Better Late Than Never: New music from Porcupine Tree and more!

Well its been a minute, but it’s been an incredibly busy month or so for me personally and yeah, things just got away from me (like days and weeks and stuff). I have done a considerable amount of listening over the many weeks that have elapsed since my last blog entry, but I have covered a bunch of stuff on the MSRcast that hasn’t been mentioned here so make sure you check those new episodes out. Discussed below are the records I kinda wanted to go a little deeper on and talk about in more detail. Of course there’s some really intriguing and monumental records coming down the pike: the new, long awaited Blind Guardian album of course which will get its own deep dive here, but also the highly anticipated by myself new project from the old In Flames gang + Mikael from Dark Tranquility called The Halo Effect. I am in the process of checking out the new Arch Enemy and Amon Amarth, but have only just begun and you know, given my interest in their recent output, I might not be moved to really say anything on it (I’m hoping otherwise), also I’m still trying to catch up on the Seventh Wonder and Oceans of Slumber releases that came out a couple weeks ago… they got shunted aside time wise and I never got to give them their proper due. Look I’ll admit I’ve been a bit of a mess this year but hell, the motto for 2022 is… ^^ well you know.


Porcupine Tree – Closure/Continuation:

I wanted to make sure I took my time digesting this at once long anticipated and yet still surprising that it even happened new Porcupine Tree album, aptly named Closure/Continuation. I guess we should’ve learned our lesson about bands we’d never expect to get back together after Duff and Slash made their way back to Guns N’ Roses, or certainly after Faith No More reunited or more shocking than either of those, ABBA came together to release a new album. Porcupine Tree was due, and it’s timing could not be more perfect for both fans or for Steven Wilson himself, whose last album seemed a little too self-indulgent for most and who could likely benefit from returning to something a little familiar. This version of Porcupine Tree features Wilson rejoined by longtime members Gavin Harrison on drums and Richard Barbieri on keyboards (ex-bassist Colin Edwards was not included in the reunion, for reasons that are wildly speculated about in the PT subreddit but I’ll not bore you with here, Wilson handled bass on this album btw). And though I wasn’t one of those who spent this intervening decade clamoring for a band reunion, I’m glad its happened because 2009’s The Incident was even at the time of its release, a relatively underwhelming album that hasn’t aged all that well. Wilson is right in his dim view of it in interviews over the years, and its nice for things to not have to end on that musical note if indeed this album leans more towards “closure” than “continuation”.

To that end, I find this album is more of an amalgam of all the previous Porcupine Tree records put together, with spacey, swirling progressive mood pieces from the mid 90s, touchstones of poppier elements from the late 90s and early aughts ala Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia and the more metallic leanings of Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet. It feels as a whole like a complete Porcupine Tree album, reflecting on all the sides of the group that seem familiar, yet accomplishing this feat with really strong material, songs that feel fresh and inspired. The aggressive riff progression in “Rats Return” is really something that I could’ve envisioned on Blank Planet, but the backing vocal/keyboard eerily mashed up arrangement that floats over the top prevents things from becoming too metallic in nature, keeping it firmly in weirdo prog-rock territory. It’s nice that despite all of Wilson’s statements in interviews about how rock guitar didn’t inspire him that much, that the majority of this record is built on exactly that. The strongest tracks are “Dignity” with it’s English folk-rock influences in those gentle verses, and my personal favorite “Of The New Day” is vintage Wilson balladry, achingly melancholic vocal melodies and quietly strummed acoustic guitars awash with layered of moody guitars and keyboards. When Wilson and Barbieri do incorporate more electronics, as on “Walk the Plank”, I find that its far more interesting and engaging than most of the stuff Wilson was attempting to do on The Future Bites (where tellingly the best song on the album was the piano ballad “12 Things I Forgot”). And I don’t mean to dump on Wilson’s solo work here, longtime readers will know that I loved Hand. Cannot. Erase, but I hope this experience has been satisfying for him as a composer, and perhaps a little bit of a perspective shift that hey, it doesn’t make you boring to like guitars, drums, bass and vocals together. All the wheels have been invented already, just focus on making the best ones that you can with your abilities.

Saor – Origins:

Andy Marshall, the man behind the Saor project is back with his fifth album under this banner, with Origins being the follow-up to 2019’s absolutely stunning Forgotten Paths. That album was my introduction to Saor, and it made enough of an impression on me that I went backwards investigating his other work under the banner. As expected, Saor’s production values have only increased dramatically with each new album, those first two being fairly raw, with 2016’s Guardians being the first glimpse at the more modern, cleaned up production that he’d fully realize on Forgotten Paths. The great thing is that Origins has somehow taken that approach to the next level, being the most clear and crisp sounding record that Marshall has ever made. This is important chiefly because the kind of rustic, folk infused atmospheric black metal he is writing truly demands production that has room for both depth, and a cinematic grandeur that your prototypical raw black metal recording does not allow. Case in point is the album opener here “Call of the Carnyx”, with its reverb laden lead guitar melodies to start, and lush keyboard layering, and incredibly meaty, devastating riffing — all perfectly balanced in the superb mixing job by Lasse Lammert of Germany’s LSD Studios. The ending of this song by the way, where Marshall comes roaring back in with those distant sounding yet still unbelievable fierce grim vocals is such an adrenaline inducing passage, the kind of moment where headbanging is the only natural response. Cue up that grandeur I was talking about for “Fallen” where Marshall introduces some bagpipes (I believe keyboard engineered but hey it still sounds the part), a perfect complement to the dramatic, highland clan guitar melodies and pounding drumbeats, while Marshall layers on some rather well done clean vocal harmonies that I didn’t think he was capable of.

There’s a mystical streak running through the songwriting on this album, a striking change from the more earthy, grounded, inward feelings imbued on Forgotten Paths. Conversely, Origins is all wide open skies, winds rippling through mountains, and a sense of wide open spaces, these songs almost a reflection of their inherent spirituality. You hear this quite vividly on “The Ancient Ones”, an album highlight with it’s well balanced mix of atmospherics, subtle folk melodies in those terrific lead parts, and in the interplay between chanted backing vocal theatrics and Marshall’s ever blistering grim vocal attack. The thing that makes all of this work so well is kinda hard to define, because on one hand Marshall isn’t reinventing atmospheric black metal persay, so many bands try to do this same style of atmo-black and yet so few seem to have his particular touch and skill at melding together so many disparate elements. He has a light hand when it comes to infusing the folk elements here, leaving them as melodic imprints heard via guitar or muted sounding keyboards rather than big spectacles imposed on the music via distinctly separate musical elements (there’s no humppa bits barging into the frame unwelcomely). The scaling back of black metal elements and replacing them with heavier, chunkier riffing is also crucial to Origins success, allowing for not only more instantly engaging riff sequences, but in providing the rest of the musical elements with enough spacing to breathe on their own. Full stop, I’ve been addicted to this album since it came out, just finding it a thoroughly engaging, beautiful work of art that has expanded the possibilities of Saor’s sonic potential for future releases. You don’t have to enjoy atmo-black to get into this either, its one of those records that easily transcends its subgenre.

Dawn of Destiny – Of Silence:

One of Germany’s buried treasures, Dawn of Destiny have been a favorite of mine since they grabbed my attention with 2014’s Best Albums listee F.E.A.R., their second album with the phenomenal vocal talents of Jeanette Scherff at the helm. Since then they’ve laid down a pair of quality follow-ups, but have yet to match F.E.A.R.’s brilliance — until now that is. Their eighth album overall, Of Silence contains some of the band’s most inspired work, with bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber penning some truly powerful stuff here. The basic Dawn of Destiny blueprint is still in place here, a thundering heavy/power metal framework infused with significant doses of gothic metal and gritty hard rock. Sounds weird but its like if Type O Negative or Sentenced had a baby with Heart, not only for the very noticeable Ann Wilson vibes in Scherff’s rich vocal tone, but for the downcast, at times outright melancholic feelings being explored throughout these songs. The album opens up with the eight minute multifaceted epic “We Are Your Voice”, which leans about as theatrical as Dawn of Destiny gets, a lot of dramatic surges of guitars to punctuate forlorn lyrics and some truly phat riffs to bookend passages. Its a strong song to kick things off, and doesn’t feel like eight minutes, but track two is where the album really finds its groove to my ears, with “Judas In Me” where guitarist Veith Offenbächer keeps things anchored with a gritty, Accept-ian slab of riffage. Faber’s counterpoint lead vocal in the chorus to offset Scherff is one of the album’s most addictive moments, working in tandem to cook up a hook that is incredibly memorable and satisfying.

Lord of the Lost vocalist Chris Harms joins for a duet on the driving “Childhood”, and hearing his gothic rock vocals in a more earthy, gritty soundscape than the more shiny and produced stylings of his day job band actually steers his voice towards reminding me a little of JP Leppäluoto of Charon. It’s a strong song, with a fully realized refrain that blends Harms and Scherff rather tastefully in intertwined melodies, as opposed to the beauty and the beast trading off dynamic. And for a band that is ostensibly a power metal meets gothic oeuvre, they can really lay the proverbial wood when they want to, with “Say My Name” hitting with the force of a jackhammer, Offenbächer serving up an almost thrashy riff sequence and a wild lead guitar solo towards the latter half of the song. My absolute favorite on the album is the much more subdued, almost power balladry packaged anguish of “Little Flower” (major Charon vibes on that title and lyrics herein), where Faber delivers his best lyrical refrain and melody. There’s something really poignant happening in the lyrics here, with simple metaphors serving a magnified purpose, and Scherff’s impassioned voice just made for songs like this, all painful experience and unrestrained yearning. And kudos has to be given to Faber for his lead vocals on “Run”, where he really shines as a co-vocalist, and though his parts are limited in scope throughout the band’s catalog as a whole, he really has a good sense of when to employ them and when to let Scherff handle things on her own. Not only is this the band’s best album in nearly a decade, it’s at once comfortingly familiar and also a bit of a wing stretcher creatively. Faber strips things down to the meaty essentials at some points, and also takes the band into some fresh progressive territory in others, it all makes for a challenging and rewarding listen.

Fellowship – The Saberlight Chronicles:

At long last, one of the most promising power metal bands to debut in the past decade have delivered their debut album after stoking all of our collective fires a few years ago with their self-titled three song independently released EP. It made such an impact on myself and the entire power metal sphere at r/PowerMetal that it found itself of many people’s best of 2020 lists, including mine where “Glint” was my second favorite song of the year behind Seven Spires immortal “Succumb”. Going the label route this time with Italian power metal institution Scarlet Records, The Saberlight Chronicles folds in the three cuts found on the debut EP (wisely, leaving those off would’ve been a mistake) with nine other entirely new songs, with no lousy intro tracks and no interludes by the way. The question at the heart of this album is do these nine new songs live up to the standard set by those original three (“Glint”, “The Hours of Wintertime”, and “Hearts Upon the Hill”)? And you know how it goes, its rare that there’s a clear cut answer to something like that because I think for starters its hard to live up to hype in general, and there was a lot of expectation put upon this album in the sense that Fellowship was being heralded by some as potential saviors of EUPM (if you believed that EUPM is in need of a savior, another discussion altogether). I feel there is enough stuff here that equals the brilliance displayed on those aforementioned three cuts to say that yeah, Fellowship live up to their potential for the most part here, with a handful of songs present that I’m less enthusiastic about.

First it should be said that vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry straight up delivers across the board, turning in incredible vocal performances in his Tony Kakko-ian emotive vocal style and penning some truly moving lyrics, his chief strength that many of us picked up on in the early days and championed him for. He might never hit the heights that he landed on with the glorious exuberance of his refrain in “Glint”, but he gets very close with “Silhouette” here, Corry evocative in his poetic diction without couching it in bizarre metaphors or imagery… you get his meaning yet find it subtle enough to be open to other interpretations. I really love “Oak and Ash”, sort of the wayward sibling track to “Glint”, where our narrator finds himself unabashedly seeking validation from others. Its refreshing also to find a power metal lyricist that uses grandeur and fantastical imagery as a graceful metaphorical touchstone to talk about real inner turmoil, all with a truly authentic and distinct narrative voice. It’s a very Roy Khan-esque way of going about it. Guitarists Sam Browne and Brad Wosko deserve commendation for their work throughout here, with really beautiful melodies and gorgeously articulated leads that make these songs swirl and dazzle beyond just Corry’s awesome vocal lines. They really explode on “Atlas”, with a spectacularly designed bridge instrumental that has the electricity of Dragonforce and the tempered restraint of Falconer or Kamelot all at once. This is an admirable debut album, likely the strongest UK power metal debut in well over a decade and this band has so much to offer if they keep kicking out new albums down the road. Get in on them now.

Borknagar – Urd: Gritty, Earthy, Epic

 

 

The first thing that popped in my mind upon listening to Borknagar’s newly released Urd was “where the hell has this Borknagar been for the past few albums?”. The last album by them that I truly enjoyed in its entirety was 2001’s fierce astral black metal masterpiece Empiricism, it was a precision blending of sharp, blackened riffs, thoughtful clean vocal melodies, and the strong keyboard driven atmospherics that have become their trademark. But the follow up albums seemed to forget the recipe to this formula; 2004’s Epic was a spotty affair, and 2010’s Universal was… I hate to say it, somewhat boring – barring a few songs that had some semblance of memorability. The stopgap all acoustic album, 2006’s Origins, was an interesting idea, and I so wanted to enjoy its execution, but sadly I found it lacking in strong songwriting and melodies. It seemed throughout this period that the band was inclined towards inheriting the proggy soundscapes of vocalist Vintersorg’s solo albums (of which I am a fan), but were unable to reconcile them with their traditionally earthy black metal foundations, often resulting in songs with overblown keyboard weirdness, lack of memorable melodies, and songwriting that wandered all over the place and could not keep its focus.

 

 

What Borknagar has done with Urd then, is a thorough addressing of all those deficiencies. This is a stunningly great record, devoid of filler tracks, and containing the most emotive and powerful songwriting of the band’s career to date. The keys here are in their efforts to refine and simplify their songwriting, as well as using a light touch when it comes to keyboard and studio engineered atmospherics. There seems to be a conscious effort to create strong, memorable melodies and revisit them in creative ways throughout the song without having to fall back on a standard verse-chorus-verse format — in a way they work more as motifs than hooks. In keeping with the title of the album, the sound here is grounded in a grittier, earthier style that seems more conducive in invoking imagery of the natural world.  I always respected the band’s interest in cosmology, physics, and all other things science — but after four albums in a row of it, and its corresponding influence on their sound at the time, a change was direly needed. The stronger emphasis on clean vocals here is unexpected, but its the distribution of vocal talent throughout the record that is a greater surprise, as its not just the Mr. V show anymore but what appears to be a full on divvying up of the lead vocal duties between Vintersorg, ICS Vortex, and Lars Nedland, all of whom have a particular distinction to their vocal character.

 

There is nary a dip in momentum from start to finish, and the band should be commended for good decisions in track sequencing. There are a few highlights that stand above the rest however, beginning with “Roots”, one of the heaviest tracks on offer and perhaps the catchiest. The brief shift away from its fantastic chorus to launch into the epic of rush of speed metal drumming and classic tremolo sweeping riffs laid under chanting vocals at the 2:45 mark is so damn compelling you’ll find yourself rewinding to it over and over again. The epic on the album (not only in length) is the complex “The Winter Eclipse”, which juxtaposes crushingly heavy riffs and searing harsh-grim vocals by Vintersorg against all three vocalists joining in with clean vocal harmonization on the chorus. The absolute standout however has to be “The Earthling”, where the initial slow tempos and ethereal chanting give way to a furious blast of black metal fury that alternates with almost swinging guitar melodies — this all works its way up to a grand, sweeping finish at the 5:59 mark that is such a satisfyingly climactic payoff, its no wonder they decided to only include this part once and as a finale at that (I feel a lesser band would have employed it as a chorus).

 

This is the biggest surprise of the year so far, and a strong contender for album of the year. I’m happy I’m enjoying this so much and not ho-huming about it like the past few albums. Welcome back Borknagar.

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