Falconer’s Final Clarion Call: From A Dying Ember

I’m not sure where else to begin other than my own feelings in talking about Falconer’s newest, and seemingly last album, the appropriately titled From A Dying Ember. I’m saddened that we’re losing one of power metal’s leading lights —- scratch that, one of metal’s leading lights (and most unheralded). This is a band that I first discovered in 2001 thanks to that eternal program the Metal Meltdown on Cleveland’s WRUW hosted by my friend Dr. Metal. He was playing “Mindtraveller” of course, from their flawless debut album and I was immediately struck by how different this band sounded to the handfuls of other power metal bands that show had introduced me to. The singer wasn’t screaming full force into the microphone like a raging hellion ala Dickinson or Halford, his voice was reserved, smooth, and dare I say calm at points in it’s delivery and phrasing, very unmetal-like. I didn’t know at the time that said vocalist, Mathias Blad, was in fact a theater actor with no metal background whatsoever. His unorthodox vocal approach in conjunction with the band’s extra meaty riffs set to darker, folkier melodies, resulted in a heavier sound that hinted at influences that weren’t from the Helloween power metal family. And somehow it all just worked.

The band obviously wasn’t the same on those two mid-career records when Mathias had left and the rest of the band wanted to make a run at becoming a touring band. There were some good songs here and there (“Emotional Skies” in particular is a gem), as a songwriting talent like Stefan Weinerhall is a fount of inspiration even in less than ideal artistic circumstances. But it was clear that Blad was the key missing ingredient to make Falconer’s music so special and unique amidst the metal landscape. He returned and the band knocked out Northwind and Among Beggars and Thieves in quick succession, two albums that were to me just as magical and magnificent as the debut and Chapters From A Vale Forlorn. Then we got the unique and ultra-heavy experiment in all Swedish lyrics on Armod, an album that brought back the band’s extreme metal roots ala Mithotyn with some of the most punishingly heavy, and dare I say blackened songs ever. It was followed up with Black Moon Rising, an album that has aged far better than it’s initial impression would have suggested it would, some of its songs coming alive to when I came back to it years later. But that’s hardly surprising. Falconer’s gift was that they could be both instantaneous and yet rich in depth, some songs taking awhile to offer up their brilliance. Some people still don’t understand just how magnificent “Pale Light of A Silver Moon” is from Among Beggars, with that wordlessly joyful guitar explosion from the 1:05-1:37 mark. Some have yet to realize that Northwind contains one of the most emotionally engaging ballads in the metal genre ever in “Long Gone By”, a song so wistful and stirring that it’s hard not to be caught off guard by it every listen.

The band admirably enhances their incredible artistic legacy with the eleven songs on From A Dying Ember, which according to Weinerhall was written with an aim to be the most classic-molded Falconer album ever. He recently stated that he wanted to “…concentrate on having all Falconer elements present and really make sure that each element got full devotion. For example, the ballad should be as “ballady” as ever, and the folk song should sound as folky as possible, etc.” That meant that all the elements we loved the most about their work in the past would be amplified and stressed on this record, and it does come across that way. The opener “Kings And Queens” and “Redeem and Repent” are confident mid-tempo gems with plenty of thick slabs of chunky riffs balanced out with bright, lucid guitar melodies, reminiscent of material off the debut album. And I get shades of “Mindtraveller” in the accelerated pacing of the single “Desert Dreams”, which is at once catchy as all get out and entirely unusual in its unorthodox rhythmic structure. This is a stunning song by the way, a late career diamond that would have fit in on the debut or Chapters just fine, and its apex moment comes at the 3:35-3:50 mark when Blad drops in some overlaid vocals that add a wallop of satisfying emotion to an already brilliant chorus. I was driving around when I first listened to this song, and right around when Blad hit that extension on the end of “…the more I will looooooose”, I believe my exact exclamation was “Mathias you magnificent bastard!”. Stefan was certainly right on the money about having the folky song be as folky as possible, because “Bland Sump Och Dy” sounds like it could have been on Armod were it not for its slower, waltz-y tempo. It occurs to me that this is likely as close as we get to hearing what Blad sounds like when he’s singing at his gig with the theater company in Sweden. What’s so striking to notice here is how little difference there is in his vocal style here to the much heavier follow-up track “Fool’s Crusade”. Despite the latter’s near tremolo-sounding attack and its largely aggressive bent, Blad is smooth and in control as ever, even during the “…Crush the dream / And wake up / Ignorant One…. tension build and release sequence at the 3:07 mark.

The most ballady Falconer ballad that Stefan was referring to earlier is the showstopper “Rejoice the Adorned”, a piano and Blad affair that is extra potent in its tear-jerking capabilities due not only to the amazing vocal performance we’re treated to, but for the recognition of finality in those lyrics about loss and remembrance. I’m aware that it wasn’t written to be an epigraph on the band, but that’s how I’m internalizing it presently. It is on the same heartbreaking level as “Portals of Light”? Well, few things are, and it’s a different flavor of melancholy, but it’s a fine song for the band to bow out on as their last ballad. On the opposite end of things, there’s a pure metal jam on “Rapture”, the album’s final track (and I guess the career closer too), a visceral reminder how just how damn heavy and thundering this band can be despite their theatrical leanings. Stefan’s longtime co-founding bandmate drummer Karsten Larsson delivers a pummeling, primal performance here, a reminder of just how integral a part of the band’s sound he was all these years with powerful drumming in inventive, unrelenting fashion. I wanna take a sec to recognize bassist Magnus Linhardt, who as always is an audible and integral part of these songs, providing that rumbling foundation that cements nearly all of Falconer’s music in the heavier realm of sound. He’s been with the band since 2004, as has the wildly inimitable Jimmy Hedlund, whose lead guitarwork throughout the years I hold in as much esteem as Andrea Martongelli from Power Quest and Andre Olbrich from… well you know where. Hedlund’s style is infused with a shredder’s touch, but he incorporates it in fits and bursts into playing that is expressive, lyrical, and a complement to Stefan’s intense rhythm guitarwork.

I realize that this is probably sounding less like a review than the gushings of a fanboy, and I can admit that’s probably true. My consensus on this album is that its instantly more enjoyable than Black Moon Rising, far more “classic” Falconer than I ever expected the band could accomplish, although they’ve never really strayed far from what made them great in the first place. As a swan song, it’s everything a fan could hope for, and that its so accomplished also lends an air of gravity around the whole thing —- they’re going out on top. And when a band ends on a great record, and I do believe From A Dying Ember is a legit great Falconer record, a part of you can’t help but wonder what else they could accomplish in the future if they just stuck around a bit more. I said it at the top… I’m really saddened that the band is ending. I know that there are others who feel the same way, and I suppose on behalf of all of us, I should declare how grateful I am that we’re getting this fine of a send off. The gap between this release and the previous record is about six years, the longest between Falconer releases by a long shot. And to their credit, they saw this album through when they could have easily just talked away quietly a few years ago after they had made it clear there were going to be no more live gigs. This band has been a part of my life for nearly twenty years now, providing the soundtrack to so many days and nights, I really do feel like there’s a sense of loss I’m processing… and yes I realize that sounds overly dramatic but I’m just being honest here. I’ll blame my already stressed out emotional state for that, having been so busted to the floor already by the pandemic/lockdown and everything that came with it. This band always deserved more fans, more appreciation during their time for not only their uniqueness, but for their metal as hell resolution to do things their way, even if it meant being a studio project. I’ll just end this by expressing how grateful I am to be one of the few to have heard the clarion call. Thanks for the music Falconer.

Overheating: New Music From Paradise Lost, Katatonia, and More!

So in the midst of random days blurring together, the amount of new releases worth talking about has built up quietly but considerably. And having had a lot of time on my hands recently, I have been listening to a lot of new music as you’ll see below. But I’m sure you can imagine that my mind has been occupied with the kinds of things all of our minds are occupied with recently —- namely, the news: the lockdowns, reopening phases, and as of late, the protests that are still happening all across this country and beyond. So my time management took a bit of a hit in the face of seemingly endless hours to drift around aimlessly, or to go for sanity-preserving drives out and about just to get out of the house. Thankfully, I’m back at work finally, and I’m quite grateful for that, and so here’s some long overdue housekeeping: Many uber-condensed reviews of recent new releases (and one from earlier in the year), all music that’s been on my rotation this past long, long month and a half.

And if you’re wondering whether at the half year mark I’ve noticed any kind of theme or trend to the year’s musical output —- the answer is not really, and maybe that’s because time has been so abstractly dilated lately that I’m just not mentally equipped to perceive that yet. My great hope right now (for more than just music reviewing reasons mind you) is that the next six months are “normal” relative to what we’ve just gone through, and that normalcy will allow me the luxury of thinking about these kind of fun ideas and not worrying about, well everything I’d been worrying about for awhile now. I hope you all are doing as well as you can, don’t be afraid to hit up the comments section below with updates on your lives as well as thoughts about the albums below. Social media is so toxic lately, that we all might be in need of a better refuge to vent and scream into the void.

Sorcerer – Lamenting Of The Innocent:

Finally, Sorcerer’s follow up to the excellent The Crowning Of The Fire King (a Metal Pigeon 2017 Best Album of the Year) is here in Lamenting Of The Innocent. I hoped that they’d carry on with their special mix of gorgeous, transcendent melody and ominous, all-encompassing Candlemass-ian heaviness, and it seems like they’ve decided to not fix that which wasn’t broken. This band has two main draws for me, one is the jaw dropping vocals of Anders Engberg who I first came to notice with his live vocal performance on Therion’s 2001 Wacken Open Air recording, and next the ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann, who might be one of my favorite modern metal guitarists ever. His clear tone and richly melodic, flowing style was a perfect fit in Therion’s epic, expansive compositions and the same goes for his work in Sorcerer. Like Therion, Sorcerer lives and breathes in expansive, cinematic sound worlds, and you hear that on the title track, with its balancing of brutal, punishing guttural moments set against the backdrop of a cosmos-invoking, hypnotically swirling, melodic lead guitar. Niemann is an outright star on this track, his solo mid-way through built on unexpected figures and patterns, yet seamless and smooth. Its a stellar song, this album’s “Unbearable Sorrow” that I so loved from their last record, and its got stiff competition from “Deliverance” where Johan Längquist himself shows up as the guest vocalist. He does an incredible job alongside Engberg, particularly in their enjoined duet past the three minute mark in one of the album’s most emotional moments. Again, despite the beautiful cello accompaniment, somehow Niemann manages to steal the show on the instrumental side of things here, his melodic figures adding honeyed sweetness to the smoky, ghostly doomy balladry. This is a strong album throughout, no real dips or lulls, and Sorcerer is proving themselves to be a band that can transcend genres —- if you don’t normally enjoy doom metal, you’ll be surprised at the variety of tempos here, at the brightness of some of these sounds, and the unabashed bounty of melody that’s spilling over the sides here. Its doom metal put through a trad-metal filter, closer to the spirit of classic Candlemass than any of the newer styles that doom has morphed into over the years.

Paradise Lost – Obsidian:

It’s always interesting to consider what new releases will pop up at seemingly the perfect moment in relation to your life. As despite cooking up an Anti-Anxiety Power Metal playlist to combat all the mental fatigue I and many others are dealing with at the moment —- the truth is sometimes you just need something really dark and angry to work through these negative feelings in the most visceral way possible. Paradise Lost’s newest, the aptly named Obsidian, is a raw, bleak-toned, brutal and angry affair that’s loaded with memorably jagged, cutting riffs and Nick Holmes brooding, deadpanned vocals with plenty of those agonized death growls that punctuated 2014’s The Plague Within and Bloodbath’s recent The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn. You might recall that I wasn’t too wild on the last PL outing, Medusa, thinking it a bit too meandering and not really digging the reversion to the softer side of the band’s sound. That’s why I was enthusiastically nodding along to the driving, grinding rhythmic riffing that came barreling out the gates with the album opener “Darker Thoughts”, possibly my favorite cut on the album. Guitarist Greg Mackintosh’s darkly sombre, melancholic tone infuses his lead playing, that’s at once dissonant and unsettling yet gorgeous and shimmering at once. Aaron Aedy is crushing on rhythm guitar, sitting in a pocket that’s slightly behind the beat and aloof with its fuzzy tone, yet capable of reaching forward with alacrity whenever the aggression needs to ramp up a notch. The single “Fall From Grace” might be a close second as a favorite however, with its measured pacing and downcast choruses opening up into an unforgettable bridge sequence where Holmes laments “We’re all alone”, which is simultaneously haunting, depressing, and cathartic to hear. There’s a slight nod to the band’s 90s era I’m hearing on songs like “Forsaken”, and a much more noticeable nod to old gothic influences ala Sisters of Mercy on “Ghosts” —- so the band keeps its overriding death infused heaviness tempered to some degree. But that merger is what makes Paradise Lost such an engaging band, as particularly of late they’ve proven that they can reintroduce heaviness into their sound and not lose that dramatic, haunted touch that defined so much of their work in the late 90s and early aughts. This is an excellent album, not quite as gratifyingly crushing as The Plague Within, but few albums are —- its definitely a step up from Medusa to my tastes anyway, and I guess I’m finding out that I prefer my Paradise Lost fix grittier, grimier, and darker than some.

Fellowship – Fellowship (Ep):

Nascent UK power metal upstarts Fellowship are making quite an impression with their debut three song self-titled EP, available on Bandcamp. I know you’re probably wondering why a band would be worth writing about who’s only a mere three song EP into their career, but it’s justified given the truly inspired results they’ve managed in just these short fifteen plus minutes of music. They’re perhaps a bit of an odd duck coming from the UK, as despite the Maiden-ish twin guitar setup, their sound is closer to that twinkly sound of bands such as Sonata Arctica, Highlord, and Twilight Force. But as their vocalist Matthew Corry has intimated himself in comments made on r/PowerMetal, there’s outside influences at work here, particularly in the vocal melodies where you hear his pop-punk roots emerging in the way he manages phrasing, delivery, and lyrical meter. That combination can be heard in the highlight and leadoff track “Glint”, one of the best songs you’ll hear all year. It’s a rare example of a deeply introspective take on self-empowering lyrics in power metal that aren’t too attached to fantasy tropes or lost in the miasma of metaphysical psycho-babble that we sometimes hear in certain bands (*cough*Avantasia). That chorus alone is the kind of spectacular moment that gives me hope for this band’s continued artistic success, because if this is what they’re capable of right out of the gate, the well of inspiration must be deep. Equally excellent is “The Hours Of Wintertime”, where I was blown away by the energy building mid-song bridge sequence (“…and now I’m left here fighting on my own…”) —- these guys are skilled at maximizing the potency of their best melodies and refrains, wisely avoiding the one and done status that I’ve noticed veteran bands sometimes doing when overthinking songwriting. I get a real Power Quest Magic Never Dies era vibe on the mid-tempo keyboard driven “Hearts Upon the Hill”, particularly in the rhythmic strut of its verses (in fact, I hear a lot of PQ in their sound, but it’d be presumptuous to call them an influence). The band recently released a music video for their cover of Elton John’s Disney classic “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, and the band makes it their own and thensome, lifting the song from syrupy balladry to an energetic, starry-eyed wonder. It’s a great sign, because truly creative bands know how to re-imagine the songs they cover, not regurgitate them.

Fairyland – Osyrhianta:

Fairyland’s long decade plus wait for a new album has finally come to an end with the release of Osyrhianta, a wildly symphonic album that see’s the band picking up where they left off. I mean of course, the line up is different, but with Fairyland that’s to be expected. I’m not going to go into who’s in the band from last time and who’s not, because it’s an entirely different lineup to Score To A New Beginning, which had an almost entirely different lineup to The Fall Of An Empire… you get the idea. The important touchstones to mention however is the return of former drummer now bassist Willdric Lievin, whose participation seems to have paved the way for the return of Elissa Martin on guest vocals on the wistful semi-ballad “Eleandra” (heh, sorry if I got your hopes up there for a second). On primary vocal duty is current Wind Rose vocalist Francesco Cavalieri (yes from the “Diggy Diggy Hole” band), an interesting choice to be sure, but I gotta admit he oddly fits into Fairyland’s opulent oeuvre quite well, his slightly gruff edged vocals lending a bit of grit and heft to the band’s grand, flourishing melodies. At the still beating heart of Fairyland is keyboardist Philippe Giordana, and his songwriting style is still geared towards regal, heavily orchestral keyboard melodies directing the flow of traffic, with guitar solos complementing things to spectacular effect —- check the :40 second mark of “Across The Snow” for a gorgeous demonstration of this synergy. This is definitely not riff-oriented power metal, with Fairyland staying true to their Rhapsody-ian cinematic roots than leaning towards any of the current crop of modern Italian power metal bands making waves lately. In that sense this sounds like a record out of the early to mid 2000s, albeit with a glossier production job. And back then I wouldn’t have enjoyed this (I became a fan of Fairyland’s stuff only recently actually), wanting a heavier, riffier take on power metal than what the Italians were dishing out at the time, but I’ve grown to appreciate this particular vein of the subgenre, and am enjoying Osyrhianta quite a bit. It’s a little top heavy, with the back quarter of the album sounding somewhat repetitive, but that could be a testament to the quality of those first seven songs being genuinely excellent. A fun blast from the past that sounds thoroughly relevant in the power metal landscape today.

Green Carnation – Leaves Of Yesteryear:

This is yet another one of those long dormant veteran bands springing back to life that’s been so frequent as of late. I’ll confess that this was a name I’ve heard before, likely from my MSRcast cohost Cary, but can’t remember listening to until now when I stumbled upon them a bit ago on Spotify’s new metal releases playlist. Green Carnation are a prog-ish, sometimes metal and sometimes hard rock band from Norway on Season of Mist records, which isn’t surprising given the label’s roster these days but very far removed from its extreme metal roots. Although not entirely far removed I suppose, as this is the longtime, on-going project of ex-Emperor bassist and ex-Carpathian Forest guitarist Tchort, who handles guitar duties here as well. His work here is far removed from his extreme metal work, owing more to the 70s prog-rock guitar rock of Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth era Scorps. It’s a perfect partner to the slightly hazy, hard rock vocals of Kjetil Nordhus, who sounds a little more relaxed here than he does in his other gig as Tristania’s male co-vocal lead. The aforementioned prog dimensions of the band are most discernibly shown in the winding, often exploratory songwriting modes that take most of these tracks into eight plus minute lengths. Solos are allowed to blossom gradually, often to gorgeous effect as heard in “Leaves of Yesteryear”, and there’s often an uptempo yet unhurried balance going on in these songs that keeps you engaged, never checking out. I think the hard rock foundations of this band really do wonders to that end, because the most visceral and engaging factor that I enjoy about this album is its basic listenability. It’s that I find myself nodding my head along to the riffing, reveling in the awesome lead breaks that abound, and generally just rocking out to the catchiness of songs like the psychedelic soaked “Sentinels”, and the dirty blues-based edge of “Hounds”. This is tremendously satisfying, and a good one to check out if you’re in need of a dose of hard rock this summer.

Katatonia – City Burials:

The Swedish jelly to Opeth’s peanut butter in terms of bands who were once rooted in death metal but meandered out of it into something entirely more… cleaner we’ll say, Katatonia are back with yet another release that likely will frustrate longtime fans. The thing about Katatonia however is that I find their post-death metal experimentation and overall direction far more palatable and engaging than I do Mikael Akerfeldt and company’s recent outings. Katatonia have tended to describe their music not as a particular vein of metal, but as simply dark and heavy —- and even as they’ve continually lightened up the sonic aspect of their sound, those two definable traits have certainly never gone away. I was thrilled with how much I enjoyed 2016’s The Fall of Hearts, and I’m even more ecstatic to say that I might love City Burials a bit more. I think its accurate to say that this is ultimately a rock record with a metallic coating, because these songs are built more on rhythms and guitar figures that more loose, perhaps even spacier at times then your traditional metal based guitar approach. Songs like “Behind The Blood” have sly, slinky vocal hooks, where Jonas Renkse’s smooth but tortured voice eases from verse to chorus and so on with subtle inflections. That leads to eyebrow raising surprises whenever he elevates things with a shout or a yell, as in “Lacquer” when he raises his voice to an unexpectedly high pitch during the bridge sequence. But beyond Renkse’s hypnotic pull as a captivating vocalist, Katatonia works together as a whole —- this is as unified a band record as you might hear all year, all these elements working together towards a singular purpose, with no one really striving to stand out. Guitarists Anders Nyström and still new guy Roger Öjersson are laid back, restrained even, preferring minor flourishes even in lieu of having space for extended guitar solos. That might frustrate some listeners who want more of a livelier approach to things, and make no mistake, this is a laid-back album relative to, well everything else I’m reviewing in this article. This might be a mood based record for many, maybe even for me, as I do find myself listening to it in my grumpier, sadder moments.

Wolfheart – Wolves Of Karelia:

Finland’s most prolific blackened death-doom creator, Tuomas Saukkonen, has returned with the third Wolfheart record in the last three years, an incredible rate of output considering he also released a new Dawn of Solace record earlier this year in January. Wolfheart’s Wolves of Karelia is as full throated and impressive as the previous two, albeit in a more hammer-smash-face kind of way than the progressive metal experimenting of Tyhjyys, or the more emotionally resonant side of their sound displayed on Constellation of the Black Light. This new album is tied together with a lyrical theme (concept even?) focusing on the Winter War, a conflict that pitted Finland against the invading USSR at the dawn of World War II. Being a Finnish band, you can expect Wolfheart to bring perhaps a nationalist flair to its overview of this conflict, and indeed they do, never spelling things outright, but this is as close to Sabaton territory as they can come without loading up the keyboard lines and triumphant choruses. As Saukkonen bellows in “Hail of Steel”, “These lands belong to the north / These are the woods where wolves of Karelia rule”, and that’s kind of the theme we’re running with across these fittingly punishing, and straightforwardly brutal songs about defiance, the deathly cold, and the ravages of war. So on “Horizon On Fire”, the band’s more unrelenting, blistering side comes through, ditto for cuts such as “Born From Fire” and the album highlight “The Hammer”, as aggressive a song the band has ever done. I will admit that I longed for some more moments where we’d hear the Finnish melancholy influenced side of their sound, with the aptly named “Eye of the Storm” providing the only spell here. This imbalance makes Wolves the band’s heaviest album by far, but also prevents it from being among my favorites, as Constellation had more of that light and dark nuanced shading that I’ve come to love about Finnish bands.

Alestorm – Curse Of The Crystal Coconut:

It’s taken a long time to get to this point, where I’m actually reviewing a new Alestorm record. I’ve had a bit of a change of heart about this most ridiculous of bands, a perspective shift if you will, in large part due to talking to people who are fans of them and I suppose not taking myself so seriously either. Honestly Curse Of The Crystal Coconut was a breath of fresh air when I first heard it the other week, and these days anything that puts a smile on one’s face is greatly appreciated. I have no frame of reference in saying the following (given that I haven’t paid attention to Alestorm’s past few records apart from their debut), but some of these lyrics seem to be dripping with poison, aimed squarely at the band’s own fanbase. I’m thinking specifically of “Shit Boat (No Fans)” and “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew”, and they’re funny —- but yeah, I get the feeling that Chris Bowes might be a little over the band’s association with pirate imagery. Case in point is the lead off track and album highlight “Treasure Chest Party Quest”, where lyrics like “We’re only here to have fun, get drunk / And make loads of money / Cause nothing else matters to me” sort of say it all really. And here’s the thing, and this will sound judgemental, but I’ve see Alestorm live many times, I’ve seen their fanbase —- and truthfully, they kind of annoy me too. I get it. Moving on however, I will commend the level of musicianship here, there’s folk instrumentation aplenty, all very easy on the ears. There’s a rather astonishingly bold power metal moment on “Call Of The Waves”, with a truimphant chorus that surprised me by how stirring it is, so much so that I placed it on the Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist. I’ll recommend this for a lighthearted goof if you need it, and I’m betting lately we all do.

Myrath – Live In Carthage:

Myrath had a tough break when the whole pandemic situation hit, caught in the midst of a tour and thus getting stuck in the country they were in when travel restrictions started being enacted all over Europe. I’m not clear on the details, except to note that the band members have only just begun to make it home over the past couple weeks here (its now early June). In the midst of this, the digital release for their Live In Carthage live record/film came out and I was listening to this pretty intensely in early April. I don’t normally review live albums, as I don’t tend to listen to most of them anymore, but I found myself making an exception for Myrath, not only because I was curious about live renditions of some of my favorite songs of theirs being present here —- but also because Myrath’s sound was part of the tonic I needed to stave off negativity and anxiety that I was experiencing at that time. So much of their sound is built on major keys, be it in Zaher Zorgati’s often euphoric vocal melodies, that veer from that gorgeous Arabic phrasing that I love, to ultra emotive hard rock/power metal informed delivery heard on gems like “Sour Sigh” and “Wide Shut”. And I dunno, just like Orphaned Land, Myrath infusions of pan-Arabic music into their particular blend of prog metal and hard rock just speak to me, it takes me out of my environment and plugs me into modern day locales near the Meditteranean —- the clash of old and new that seems to characterize the cityscapes of Tunis, Cairo, Jaffa, and countless other places. Where I live in Houston, a relatively young city, we mark the passage of time seemingly by the development of new shopping centers, strip malls, and fast food places. Point is, it’s music that seems to connect me to an older, far more dramatic old meets new merging, an escape, but one that’s firmly locked in our real world. As for this live recording, as expected it’s cleanly recorded and mixed, a little too clean for some perhaps, but I enjoy the balance of soundboard recording and crowd mic-ing that the band was striving for in the mix. During the last chorus of “Storm Of Lies”, Zorgati backs off to let the Tunisian audience carry it on their own, and they loudly bellow “…don’t let me goooo!”, creating a transcendent moment for a song that is a plea for connection and not being alone.

Darktribe – Voici L’Homme:

So some of you might remember that I talked about this album on the MSRcast back in January when we were beginning to talk about the early 2020 releases. This is Darktribe’s third album, and it arrived on January 17th, and while I listened to it quite a bit around its release, it kind of slipped from my rotation and the next few crazy months happened. So around a week ago I was going through all the 2020 releases I’d listened to so far and this album grabbed my attention again, and I’ve realized that I never wrote about it here, and honestly I haven’t heard a lot of people (even in power metal circles) talking about it and that’s unfortunate. Darktribe hail from France, an unusual spot for a prog-power metal band whose sound is akin to Kamelot. But despite their music sharing the major keystones of that band —- a four-piece band with one guitarist/one bassist that employs a focused, economical, thick riffs in the front with vocal melody driven songs approach, Darktribe choose to liven up their sound with an ample splash of Euro-power. You hear that subtle addition in tracks like the album highlight “Back In Light” and the title track. The former is smooth and understated, with vocalist Anthony Agnello’s rich, smooth tenor delivering a slyly catchy chorus via some effortless melodic phrasing and never really launching his vocals skyward until just before guitarist Loïc Manuello’s joyful solo built on an articulately phrased progression and a wild bit of furious Kai Hansen-ing to punctuate it’s tailing off. On the latter, Manuello cleverly mirrors Agnello’s vocal melody about a half beat behind, creating a reinforcing of that melody that elevates that chorus even more than Agnello’s captivating delivery of lyrics in French manage alone. His employing his native tongue is a nice touch, because he sounds so extra confident in delivering it, not to say that his English is flawed (anything but). DarkTribe have a biblical/religious conceptual and lyrical theme running through their work much in the same way that Theocracy does. Don’t let that be a stumbling block, this is one of the most artistically significant releases of the year, and it’d be a shame if it got forgotten because of it’s unfortunate release date.

Boisson Divine – La Halha:

There’s always a record that comes out of nowhere every year, increasingly from band’s I’ve never heard of before, that manages to sweep me away before I knew what hit me. This year, it’s the summer’s most euphoric, life affirming release from a folk-metal quintet from the Gascon region of France with an odd name and a truly unique take on the genre. Boisson Divine don’t do folk metal like we’re used to, with dark overtones and often folded into an extreme metal patchwork ala Eluveitie, Manegarm, and many others. Their approach to the style is a bouncy, bright, almost celebratory take on traditional Gascony folk traditions married to meat and potatoes heavy metal with splashes of power metal’s neoclassical tendencies here and there. The closest comparison to come to mind would be if Flogging Molly were from Gascon, and played metal not punk —- and to lean into the folk metal genre a bit, at times I’m reminded of the playful stuff that Otyg did on their two albums way back in the day (ie, more folk than metal but still hard-hitting stuff). The mood here is noticeably, I dunno how to explain it… laid-back is not right, but I guess to say these songs are without anger is closer to the truth. As the band explains on their Bandcamp bio, their lyrics can be about historical figures, heritage, and legends, but also about everyday things like rugby and feasts. They emphasize the latter as much on the music video for “Liberat”, as soulful and unforgettable a single you’ll hear all year. The band hikes through what I’m assuming is their native countryside, pitches up a campfire, and gets to eating, drinking, and playing —- and that’s kind of the vibe I’m hearing throughout this record, that of enjoying and savoring simple, fine things in a pure way. It’s strangely the sentiment that we all could use right now, when everything about life seems extraordinarily complex, and we’re all too stuck inside our own heads, being isolated from friends and fun. I needed this record.

Familiar Forms Most Beautiful: Nightwish’s Human. :II: Nature

George Costanza once famously said of our current season, “Spring. Rejuvenation. Rebirth. Everything’s blooming. All that crap.” Jaded cynicism aside, I think that’s how most of us view spring (well, at least it was before 2020 happened), with a notion of positivity, possibility, and general optimism. I don’t think its a coincidence that Nightwish chose to release their long awaited new album Human. :II: Nature. during these months, even when it might have been the smarter play to delay it to the fall given the state of things and the lack of ability to start touring on it right away. A spring release makes sense for this album because like its predecessor Endless Forms Most Beautiful, also a spring release way back in 2015, the artistic content here is meant to be unveiled during this time, at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere (if you’re reading this in Brazil or Argentina, just bear with me). These two albums are tied to the same season for more than just release dates however. Their collective sound is unmistakably far more bright-skied and sunnier than the Nightwish of old, a trait further reflected in their shared humanism meets environmental lyrical perspective. Nightwish’s distant past was filled with songs about loss and longing, and the dark undercurrent of isolation and depression that swirls around the yearning for childhood innocence. That was likely the Nightwish that most of their legion of fans fell in love with, or grew alongside as the band transitioned out of their very early fantasy steeped themes. The Nightwish of Century Child, Once, and Dark Passion Play then. But it seems the fall and winter of songwriter Tuomas Holopainen’s moods are long past, and with Endless Forms Most Beautiful and now Human. :II: Nature., we’re settling in for what looks to be a lengthy spring turned summer.

The question to determine here is whether this new era of Nightwish is as compelling as the Nightwish of old, given the stark differences in the very essence of the band’s music from then and now. Oh sure, it’s still symphonic metal, and it still sounds like Nightwish for the most part(ish), and of course Holopainen is still as ambitious as ever in regards to the grandeur of his scope. This is a two disc album, its second disc being a thirty-one minute long series of continuously flowing instrumental music (more on this in a bit), while the first disc is the new Nightwish album proper. My first realization after listening through it a couple times was, “Only nine new actual songs on an album coming out five years after the last one? Okay…”. Relatedly, in the gulf of time between Nightwish’s last tour and the release of this album, the phenomenon of YouTube reaction videos temporarily gripped the world in its trendy maw; and Nightwish’s version of “Ghost Love Score” from their Showtime, Storytime live album/Blu-Ray was one of those central songs that everyone simply had to make a reaction video to. Views for the Nightwish video soared into the millions for a song that was merely an old fan favorite, but now was becoming something of an outsider’s phenomenon —- and for the band, an unlikely “hit” despite being over a decade old. Out of this, Floor Jansen became a magnet for “vocal coach reacts” gushing adoration, not only from the reactors themselves but from the comments sections for those videos, and her profile has only risen thanks to her being a judge on the Dutch reality TV show Beste Zangers, even managing a number one single in that country with her take on “The Phantom of the Opera”. Indeed her rise in the public eye both as a member of Nightwish and a star in her own right mirrors Tarja Turunen. But where Nightwish really leaned into Turunen being the face of the band during the Once era until it reached its breaking point, there seems to be a deliberate move towards the opposite end of the spectrum on their part now. Case in point is that she only delivers lead vocals on seven and a half out of the eight vocal-ed up tracks here (she shares split lead vocals with Marco Hietala on the final track “Endlessness”), with the album’s second single “Harvest” being sung entirely by the band’s multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley. Its a puzzling choice, and I wonder if other fans might not feel that she’s a little underutilized, or more speculatively, does she feel that way?

Jansen’s vocals on the songs she does sing on are firmly locked into that mix of lightly emotive fragility and full throated belting, which works for these songs, but certainly puts to bed any notion that the band would utilize her classical soprano abilities. She’s at her best on “How’s The Heart?”, a uilleann pipes accompanied slice of cheery, mid-tempo pop, a close cousin to Endless Forms’ “Alpenglow” and “My Walden”. Her emotive choices during the chorus make the song and I also enjoy Donockley’s audible harmonizing as well, their voices working well as easy on the ears contrasts. And you don’t need me to tell you that Holopainen is a talented songwriter, and he can pen memorable melodies for days and that’s certainly the case here and elsewhere. The string and piano driven “Procession” is another beautiful example, with Jansen’s hushed vocals rising and falling in a bittersweet crescendo that tugs at the heartstrings. The lyrical framework on those two songs is rather appealing as well, with Holopainen appealing to humanistic ideals of empathy and collectivism in the former and a widescreen, panoramic view of biological history as a living memory on the latter. He’s always been a talented lyricist, his clunkiness in diction and phrasing forgivable in the greater context of his thematic choices and poetic framework. Take the opening track “Music”, which is the most slow burn intro for a Nightwish album ever, featuring a three minute long passage to start with that combines tribal drumming, sounds of wild animals echoing in the distance, before culminating in a choir vocal dramatic crescendo that reaches its apex with a heavenly orchestral swell. The band and Jansen should kick into high gear at that point right? But unexpectedly, Jansen begins on a delicate, calm, almost reserved vocal melody that she gently rolls out and gradually builds into an exultant crying out in the refrain. And in fully committing to the music as a metaphor for humanity’s coexistence with nature, this is as dynamic and adventurous a song as Holopainen has penned in awhile —- a rather bold and daring way to open the album.

Often times though, that progressive songwriting mindset completely overloads some tracks to a point where melodies suffer, and as a result that expected Nightwish emotive tugging of the heartstrings never materializes. The most egregious examples are “Pan” and “Tribal”, the former of which is as aggravating a Nightwish song as I can remember, with its attempts at dynamic quiet-loud tradeoffs doing more to grate on my nerves than anything else. And while “Tribal” has some surprisingly headbanging moments in its middle passages where drummer Kai Hahto and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen crank up the intensity with a tribal drumming + aggro-riff barrage, those rhythmic moments don’t make for a memorable song, particularly when lacking a memorable melodic motif. It’s also striking just how lackluster the first single “Noise” really is in comparison to previous premiere Nightwish singles, with Holopainen’s keyboard melody being the closest thing to a hook in a song built on rhythmic, alliterative vocals during the verses. Here Jansen’s abilities in the chorus seem a little wasted, with nothing in the way of a memorable melody even offered to her —- it all results in a song that sounds a little unfocused, or rather unfinished. I felt the same way about “Shoemaker”, which has so many little interesting micro-moments but nothing that collectively ties it all together, and I’m left wondering how Holopainen’s songwriting style has changed to favor this wild, throw everything in the blender approach as opposed to how he usually writes —- with focus, honing carefully designed melodic structures and discernible song structures. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be clear now that he’s at his best when he allows himself to write in a pop songwriter mode first and foremost, and then colors in the details with metallic elements, with film soundtrack music, and with ancillary elements like the aforementioned tribal drumming or folk music.

I haven’t mentioned bassist/co-lead vocalist Marco Hietala that much here, mostly because he’s hardly given any vocal parts on this album to shine with. His lone solo vehicle is “Endlessness” where he splits time with Jansen, and it’s not a bad song by any means, but it’s long, drawn out tempo makes a potentially epic melody simply tedious. Troy Donockley fairs better in the utterly bizarre but somewhat effective “Harvest”, arguably the most controversial Nightwish single since Anette Olzon’s debut with “Eva” in 2007. Simply taken as it is, in all its jangly poppiness, it’s an effective song with a memorable hook, and a decent melodic thru-line paired with some intriguing instrumentation, but it’s all just a little twee for Nightwish isn’t it? I think more people will wonder why Jansen wasn’t given lead vocals here, and its a good question. You can hear her vocals in the harmonies layered here, and she sounds like she could have handled the job on her own, which is not to suggest that Donockley isn’t a fine singer in his own right. I just think that having him handle lead vocals results in the song coming across as more Rusted Root neo-hippie zeal than anything I’d associate with Nightwish, where we were accustomed to male vocals only in the form of the tortured anguish of Hietala’s inimitable style. And then there’s the second disc, which is actually enjoyable on its own as background music for studying, working or whatever. I’m not going to break it down as its all instrumental (aside from its voiced-over moment reading from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot), and mostly because it’s all one homogenous whole. And besides, it’s more of a Pip Williams with his magnificent orchestra and choirs than anything Nightwish in nature. I’m sure that Holopainen wrote the backbones of melodies here and there, but Williams has been his longtime classical collaborator, and is here credited with arrangements alongside two other professional classical composers/conductors as well. There are as you’d expect, a lot of musicians who played on the instrumental works here, professionals all of them, and it certainly sounds like it. I don’t really know what else to say about this side of the album because its just so… much, and so strange at the same time. I guess its fine?

When I take a step back and consider the thematic similarity of this album to Endless Forms Most Beautiful, its clear just how much the latter is superior in every way, with it’s Oceanborn invoking blasts of keyboard driven symphonic metal married to (at the time) a new and refreshing concept. The Dawkins meets humanism of that album really worked as a singular concept, it was an album that had some rather convincingly shimmering, optimistic melodies —- but the key word there is singular. It’s kind of incredulous to consider that five years later, Holopainen stretched the concept out to encompass a sequel, albeit one that’s more bogged down by trying too hard with overly proggy song structures. I think Endless Forms worked well because at its heart it was kind of a throwback Nightwish album, coming on the heels of the wildly experimental (and I’d say successful) Imaginaerum. Its song structures —- barring the 24 minute mistake at the end —- were relatively straightforward, pop-drenched symphonic metal; and that style paired well with Holopainen’s sharp right thematic turn from childhood innocence and nostalgia to something entirely different and unexpected. It seemed like a natural place for the band to explore, given Holopainen’s publicly admitted interest in the writings of Dawkins and Sagan, but what he’s done on Human II Nature is essentially repeat himself in the most unfocused, rambling way possible. And frankly, he’s just not as good at mining this particular thematic vein for inspiration as he was at the old introspective, inner turmoil stuff. I can’t hold that against him persay, because everyone changes as they get older and maybe he just has emptied the well of everything he’s had to write about from that source, but what this new album clearly shows is that he needs to consider something else in the future for artistic inspiration. Green Day made a mistake in putting out 21st Century Breakdown, the lukewarm sequel to American Idiot that arrived five years earlier. Sure it had a few good songs, but it lacked the urgency, freshness, and creativity of its predecessor, all while trying to utilize the same thematic concept and lyrical inspiration. It feels like Nightwish made the same mistake, and time will tell if Holopainen is self-aware enough to realize that he’s not quite meant to be a spring/summer guy all the time.

New Music To The Rescue: Aeternam, Conception, Myrkur, and more!

With life settling into a strange and slower routine, I’ve had time to listen to stuff that came out in March and early April that I didn’t quite get around to right away with all the craziness happening a few weeks ago. It’s been a nice distraction, but also genuinely exciting in its own right because there’s new music from some big names covered down below, well —- big names in my book anyway. That includes blog favorites Aeternam, as well as the return of the mighty Roy Khan in Conception! Keeping these relatively short because I have a monster Nightwish review coming soon next in my more typical lengthier approach, and there ended up being quite the handful of releases in this update. Let me know what you think in the comments section below, what new or old music have you all been checking out lately?


Aeternam – Al Qassam:

I have been excited about a new Aeternam album ever since I saw them in Austin on their opening slot supporting Orphaned Land and Tyr on their 2018 North American tour, having been made a fan of theirs shortly before with the 2017 release of Ruin of Empires. They of course made that year’s best albums list, and we’ve promoted them fairly heavily on MSRcast in the past few years so I’d imagine most of you know about them already so I’ll spare the bio. Aeternam have their own approach to the arguably unfortunate but seemingly accepted genre tag of oriental metal. Their largely melodeath with hints of thrash approach is tempered with ample doses of Middle Eastern melodicism that is often delivered via lead guitar motifs rather than the largely string driven approach of their peers in Orphaned Land. That means that Aeternam’s sound is denser, thicker, and brutal in passages even though it’s still capable of being richly melodic even during more furious moments. You hear this contrast straight away on “The Bringer of Rain”, a song that’s equal parts rage filled aggression and epic, soaring, melodic majesty. On “Ascension”, vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy slams straight into a vicious riff and guttural roar from the three second mark, taking us for a ride that spans fierce, pummeling riffs backed by martial percussion and tribal drumming by Antoine Guertin. It’s easily the heaviest moment on the album, maybe the band’s heaviest moment since Moongod’s “Hubal, Profaner of Light”, yet still is structured around a twisting, sharp angled melodic through line. This is largely a far heavier album than Ruins of Empires which albeit suitably headbanging in its own right, was more of an exploration of the band’s cinematic side. On Al Qassam, it feels like the band are taking what they learned there, and marrying it to the straight ahead thunder of their 2012 classic Moongod, the fusion producing an album that’s both true to their sound and daringly experimental.

The latter side comes through in most of the songs here, even if they’re meant as breaks of sunlight amidst an otherwise darkened, metallic storm. Case in point is “Hanan Pacha”, a remarkably epic track built on throat-ripping vocal aggression from Loudiy and awesome riff interplay with his new lead guitarist Maxime Legault (who was in the band when I saw them live but is making his first recording appearance with them on this album). But this assault ceases towards the middle bridge of the song, with Loudiy clean singing over gorgeous acoustic guitars, inspired melodic flourishes from Legault and an epic string backdrop, all before swooping back down into a tunnel of pure brutality to close it out. Speaking of Loudiy’s clean vocals, he’s simply never sounded better at it than on this album, particularly on the should-be-a-single “Lunar Ceremony”, which starts out with an impassioned performance by him that is boldly upfront in the mix. This confidence in his abilities might be what prompted him to try singing this track entirely in cleans, a first for the band on a heavy song, demonstrating that they can mold and shape their sound in varying degrees. Despite the lack of guttural vocals here though, Aeternam avoid sounding in any way like their contemporaries in Myrath (not that it’d be a bad thing persay, I love Myrath), because of course, its all about the minor key laden riffing here, and that doesn’t fade into the background just because clean vocals are in the mix. On the most mellow cut on the album, “Palmyra Scriptures”, Loudiy is joined by Orphaned Land’s own Kobi Farhi who lays down a characteristically beautiful vocal performance in English, a striking counterpoint to Loudiy’s own Arabic language vocals. And I was really impressed by the creativity and breadth of songwriting shown in “Celestial Plains”, as varied and expansive a song as I’ve heard Aeternam ever cook up, built on grandiose orchestral cinematics, major chord clean vocal harmonies, all while still structured around a dramatic series of riff progressions. This is an excellent album by a band that seemingly doesn’t know how to make a bad one. They know their sound, they clearly love the style of music they’re creating, and so do I.

Heaven Shall Burn – Of Truth And Sacrifice:

I know that anything that resembles metalcore has tended to elude coverage on this blog, and that’s largely because I just think most of the genre is derivative to the point of exhaustion. But I have had some quiet appreciation for the style’s founders, as seen in my opening up about enjoying Hatebreed a couple years ago when their last album came out. I’ve felt the same way about Germany’s Heaven Shall Burn, having found myself impressed with footage of their sets at various Europoean metal fests, and enjoying a couple of their earlier records in small doses when the mood struck. I haven’t listened to a new Heaven Shall Burn record in ages, but this one landed in my Spotify recommends and honestly, I’ve been coming back to it again and again. I’ve likely missed a transition point somewhere, but I don’t remember this band being as heavily melo-death steeped as they sound on this new album. Amidst the pure andrenaline fueled fury in tracks like “Thoughts and Prayers” and “Eradicate”, there’s a surprising nod to Scandinavia in the syrupy melodies found in “My Heart and the Ocean”, and “Children of a Lesser God”. In the midst of the latter, the band slow things down to an Insomnium-styled moody, textural, introspective passage. Its followed up by a Fear Factory-hearkening industrial tinged assault in “La Resistance”, both songs featuring unexpected twists, a recurring theme through the album. Others will know the context better than I, but the band is experimenting here in a surprisingly expansive and unabashed manner. That they’ve gone for the double disc length approach with nearly 100 minutes of music on offer is a risky play, but I’ve found that my attention span hasn’t waned throughout it and that when its over I’m perfectly fine with hitting repeat and letting it fly again. This might be a surprise recommendation, but I think everyone should give this one a chance no matter their stance on metalcore.

Lucifer – Lucifer III:

I’ve kept a curious eye on Lucifer for the past few years, not only for the presence of the man behind Entombed’s Left Hand Path in Nicke Andersson, but for the earthy yet ethereal vocals of frontwoman Johanna Sadonis. I got into them after becoming a fan of the now defunct 60’s hard rock revivalists Purson, at that band’s one Houston gig actually in 2016 from the advice of a fellow attendee there. Lucifer had released their debut the year before, and it was intriguing enough, not quite as gripping as Purson, but I thought their throwback, occulty hard rock had potential. Fast forward to now and their helpfully titled third album, and I think they’ve finally realized a fully fleshed out version of what it is they’ve been trying to do. The improvements are subtle, but I hear growth in the intelligence of the songwriting, such as on the complex yet straightforwardly catchy “Midnight Phantom”. Sadonis and Andersson have gotten better at building up to the delivery of their memorable hooks, particularly with slowly escalating verse-bridge transitions, complemented by wonderfully dirty, buzzy riffs from Martin Nordin. Its at once heavier than anything they’ve done, yet still hits the same satisfying pop notes that they brought to the table with “California Sun” from their last record. We even get some metallic-doom level aggression on “Coffin Fever”, the extra heaviness being spread across these nine songs. Sometimes they run into the same problem that handicapped their first two albums, the meandering, lack of a payoff that characterizes a song like “Leather Demon”, but its not enough to sink what is easily their best album to date.

Myrkur – Folkesange:

Some of you might remember that I was so enthralled by Myrkur’s sophomore album Mareridt, it wound up making the top five in my 2017 Best Albums list. I wrote in that review that it succeeded in employing a more creative and natural folding in of the black metal elements than her debut album. But what really drew me back to it over and over was that she greatly expanded the depth and variety of the rustic, darkened folk music that was woven throughout the album. She’d introduced it on her debut of course, but it was kept separate from the black metal tracks, little interlude esque slices of respite amidst the Ulver-ian fury. That she found a way to integrate both elements was really exciting, and I still think its one of the best folk-metal albums in recent memory, vicious and entrancing in one package. Its kind of a surprise then that she’s chose to sharply veer away from that merging of her two musical worlds on its follow up, the appropriately titled Folkesange. This is a purely Scandinavian folk music album, with a lot of it’s gorgeous instrumentation played by Myrkur (Amalie Bruun) herself —- piano, violin, mandolas, lyres, and something called a nyckelharpa (sort of a Swedish hurdy-gurdy apparently). She layers these instruments together on tracks that are a mix of reworked old folk songs and some originals written in a traditional style. The only one I know for sure that Bruun crafted herself is the leadoff track and first single “Ella”, a richly evocative piece of music that throbs and pulses with a quality of ache and yearning I’ve come to associate with the music of Loreena McKennitt. I’ve got a suspicion that she’s also personally responsible for the excellent “Leaves of Yggdrasil”, which moves at a haunting, almost stately pace, Bruun’s truly spectacular vocal both ethereal and earthy. She’s brought in Heilung’s Christopher Juul to helm the production on this album, and he clearly understands these instruments and how to record them in such a way as to preserve their room filling texture. And it all largely works really well, I’ve enjoyed having this on lately, particular when I needed to chill out. I found the inclusion of her take on Joan Baez’s rendition of the Scottish ballad “House Carpenter” a weird, distracting choice however (it’s not bad, but it doesn’t really fit either), but its a minor quibble. This is, admittedly, a strange album to review in the regular sense, because there’s nothing metallic about it at all, so I kinda don’t know what to tell you there. Either you’ll be into this or it’s just not your cup of tea, I can only say it’s worth the time to find out.

Dynazty – The Dark Delight:

I don’t think I’ve ever written about Dynazty before, a band I came to know only due to vocalist Nils Molin’s prominent role as Jake Lundberg’s replacement in Amaranthe. In that role, Molin does a solid job, but in between their screamer Henrik Englund and of course Elize Ryd’s roles in the vocal department, we don’t get to hear much of Molin’s range, with his spots frequently coming in the form of vocal counterpoint to his fellow singers instead of a lead vocal role. In Dynazty however, Molin reveals himself to be an excellent, versatile singer, possessing a smooth tenor, a voice that sounds at home alongside hard rock and more power metal inclined fare. I was impressed with him on 2018’s Firesign, and perhaps even more impressed with his performances here on The Dark Delight (not in love with that title… sounds like a brand of dark chocolate but oh well). But Molin isn’t and shouldn’t the only focus here, because Dynazty is a pretty good band in their own right, with guitarists Rob Love Magnusson and Mike Lavér capable of seamlessly blending melodeath groove riffery with a looser hard rock inspired feel. This combination results in a sound that is capable of being thicker and darker along the lines of Kamelot or recent Pyramaze, but Molin can lift things into more soaring, shimmering, AOR territory with his vocal melody writing chops that remind me of, well, Jake Lundberg. Lead single “Waterfall” is a perfect example of this, a song that starts out in groove-riff territory but bursts skyward with the sudden onset of Molin’s strong chorus, all without the benefit of a transition bridge (that this works is a rarity in my experience). I’m absolutely loving the heartstring plucking power ballad “Hologram”, not only for its unusual lyrical bent that eschews sentimentality for a more abstract emotional perspective, but for Molin’s impeccable chorus, built on an interplay of a massive major key vocal hook and punctuating symphonic grandeur. Elsewhere on “Heartless Madness”, we hear that hard rockin’ sound that was so prominent on Firesign that seems to have been pushed a little bit to the backburner this time around. That’s okay though, because even in delivering a darker, more metallic album this time around, Dynazty still retains that AOR hard rock DNA in their songwriting, and damn, do I need that right now. This is a quality album, don’t miss it.

Dark Forest – Oak, Ash, & Thorn:

I’m a recent convert to England’s Dark Forest, having been introduced to the band as recently as late December with their 2016 opus Beyond The Veil, one of the most unusual and refreshing power metal albums I’ve heard in awhile. They have a unique sound, at once a mix of a rootsier, more rugged Falconer with splashes of Skyclad and a vocalist who reminds me of the versatile Bruce Dickinson we heard on his many solo albums. That vocalist, one Josh Winnard, is on his third album with the band, having joined the band in 2012 replacing former singer Will Lowry-Scott who was only on board for an EP and the band’s sophomore album (before him, founding guitarist Christian Horton handled vocal duties for their demos and s/t debut album). I haven’t gone back to see how Lowry-Scott nor Horton measured up at the vocal helm, but really I can’t imagine this band’s songs without Winnard’s rather distinctive vocals in the mix —- to me he’s that integral a part of their overall sound. Strike another similarity to Maiden and Dickinson in that regard. I think its fair to say that I haven’t been this intrigued and enthralled by a British metal band since Dragonforce. Their sound is difficult to pinpoint, but Oak, Ash, & Thorn provides examples aplenty, as on the surging, gloriously melodic “Relics”, a whimsy-folk infused song with Maiden-esque guitar patterns and an elating quality to its melodies. There’s an almost Elvenking-like playfulness to the lead off single “The Midnight Folk”, not only in its effervescent lead guitar motifs, but in Winnard’s almost punk-tinged approach to the vocals during the chorus. There’s always a slightly rough, jagged edge to his singing, and it really shows up here in a charming way (particularly in the “whoas” sailing in from the background) that reminds me of Damna’s approach. The martial percussion and machine gun riffing sequence that sits in the middle of the instrumental “Heart of the Rose” is another moment that exemplifies what Dark Forest can pull off so well, highlighted in those paintbrush strokes of bright, chiming guitar figures that adorn the rhythm track. Dark Forest aren’t polished. That ruggedness, that textural “roughness” you hear is a quality that’s at once purposeful and unavoidable. Its no wonder they’re signed to Cruz Del Sur Music, who gravitate towards non-traditional traditional artists in this vein. I enjoyed this record quite a bit, but not nearly as much as I did Beyond The Veil —- let that be your introduction to Dark Forest, and then come back to this.

Conception – State of Deception:

Well here we are, talking about one of the more surreal things to come across The Metal Pigeon inbox in recent memory in one of the strangest times we’re all collectively living through. I’m speaking of course of a new full length album featuring the one and only Roy Khan, who is back with Conception for their first album since their 1997 (at the time) swan song Flow. You’ll remember that I reviewed their single two years ago, my impression being largely favorable, though admittedly I was simply a little overjoyed to hear Roy singing again. Finally we have the first full length album with Roy on vocals since his Kamelot finale in 2010’s Poetry For The Poisoned, and while its a relief that he’s back in as tangible a way as this, your enjoyment of this album might depend a little on whether you are more of a Roy fan or a Kamelot fan, or of course, a Conception fan. I say that because with the exception of a couple songs/moments that I’ll get to below, this is first and foremost a Conception album. That means a lot of groove based, rhythm-forward, prog-metallic elements in the songwriting, as opposed to the symphonic accompanied stylings we were so used to hearing Roy sing alongside with in Kamelot. The first thing that leaps out when I think about State of Deception is that its decidedly a grower, a record that’s gonna take more than a couple listens to really gel for most of us I’d bet. There’s nothing as immediately hooky as “Flow”, “Reach Out”, or “Angel (Come Walk With Me)” from its predecessor, but Roy and his co-songwriter/guitarist Tore Østby deliver a couple gems here whose addictive qualities are a little more layered. The first among them is the lead off single “Waywardly Broken”, which rides on a classic Conception rhythmic riff progression and rumbling, pulsing bass line, and some tension building keyboard layering. Khan’s inimitable expressiveness is on full display here, and he sounds brighter, sharper here than he did on anything on the Dark Symphony EP two years ago (with the exception of “Feather Moves”, which weirdly seems to be lifted from the aforementioned 2018 single entirely, not even re-recorded, though it’s listed as remastered).

We hear some classic Roy vocal ingenuity in “She Dragoon”, boasting the heaviest attack on the album, and Khan ushering things along like the master vocal melody writer he is, this time using an alliterative twist on some of his lyrics that’s a technique I usually associate with pop acts like Lady Gaga and Chvrches (that’s not a negative comparison in my mind, it’s just something new out of the playbook for Roy). There’s a transcendent moment here, at the 3:49 mark where gorgeous backing vocals deliver an earworm of a hook, while Roy accent sings over the top. Its propulsive and exciting, the kind of thing that made me sit up and take notice the first time around. And I really love “The Mansion”, a slow grower of a ballad that might be the most Kamelot-sounding thing here, complete with a guest vocal drop in by Elize Ryd. That chorus is classic Roy though, all uplift and ethereality, with the keyboard orchestration sweeping us along in a rapturous accompaniment. The lyrics here are a nice reminder of the kind of skills Roy has in this department, with creative imagery and inspired storytelling. Of course, here he’s not dealing with the typical Kamelot-ian epic concepts that some of us might really crave (raises hand), but Conception was never about that kind of thing anyway. I wasn’t as wild about the second single “By The Blues” however, and not for a lack of trying either —- but so many listens on, I just can’t shake the association I’m getting here with Dedicated To Chaos era Queensryche (or more accurately, Tateryche). The lyrical choices might have a lot to do with that, because some of the diction here just seems a little out of Roy’s wheelhouse. Maybe that’s just the lyric snob in me resurfacing again though. It should be said that there’s really only seven new songs on offer here discounting the repeat track and the minute long intro track —- it has me wondering if the band wasn’t thinking of the EP and this album as one long project completed over spans of time that had to be broken up into pieces due to crowdfunding reasons. It does leave me with a sense of slight dissatisfaction however with State of Deception on the whole, because it’s a quality Conception record, but it could have been much stronger.

The Power!: New Music From Demons & Wizards, Seven Spires, and More!

The slow start to the year in January quickly evaporated with an onslaught in February, and we’ve gotten some big names in the mix too (well, relatively speaking of course). Chief among them is the fifteen years plus in the waiting third Demons & Wizards album, Hansi Kursch and Jon Schaffer’s side-project that has taken on an almost legendary air in the interim period. You heard it in the murmuring crowd on their recent North American tour, and I felt it myself —- a sort of disbelief that we were seeing these two major figures in power metal history standing onstage together. That’s a lot to live up to, not only with the show itself, but with an album that we’ve heard more than a few estimated release dates for during that time. We’re also getting new releases from Finland’s genre-bending Amberian Dawn, who are stretching the limits of power metal to its poppiest extreme yet, and of course the once power metal supergroup Serious Black that’s more of a honed in melodic metal vehicle for the mighty Urban breed. Lastly, there’s the sophomore album by Seven Spires, a band who is on two major support slots in North America this year for very relatively different audiences. Intrigued? I thought so!

Demons & Wizards – III:

I guess I’ve put this off long enough. This review was originally going to be one of the long ones, you know, my 1200 plus word excursions going in depth on an album’s backstory, details, and hidden nuances. Forget that. I simply can’t summon the interest. I’ll get right to the point here, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to write the following —- but this album bored me and is a chore to listen to. An absolute chore. I’m gravely disappointed. Not only because of the pedigree of the two musicians involved; not only because of the precedent set by their prior two albums —- one of which was pretty good (and sounding better by the minute) while the other I’d consider a power metal classic —- but also because I was so hyped for this thing after witnessing the band live in Dallas last August on their North American tour. That was a great show, and to hear songs like “Tear Down The Wall” and “Fiddler On The Green” in person was a dream I’d never imagined being possible come true. As a result, I allowed myself the luxury of getting hyped for this album, and yeah, I suppose the near fifteen year wait also added a bit to that. There’s been a lot written and spoken about that span of time in between this album, the creatively titled III, and 2005’s Touched By The Crimson King (now that’s an album title!), and it should be made clear to everyone that it had no impact on adding anything of value to the songwriting that went into these new songs. Jon and Hansi’s day jobs kept Demons & Wizards on the sideline until they could eventually find an opportunity to carve out a block of time to devote to it. The reasoning is rational enough on the surface, but I’m starting to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just working on material slowly through the years, passing ideas back and forth until they finally accumulated an album’s worth of material. Would we really care if any of the songs had begun in 2006 as opposed to being recent creations, entirely “fresh” and new? I’m guessing no as long as they were good.

So what’s wrong with this album then? I’m afforded the luxury of being vague here, simply because this one criticism applies to nearly everything on here barring a moment or two, but this album sounds entirely disconnected. The debut album began as an in-person collaboration between Jon and Hansi, and the limits of technology at the time forced it to largely remain that way, despite the pair working on it via mailed recordings as well. The follow-up had to be done under a tighter time schedule, and Schaffer’s gone on record as stating it as a reason for his slight dissatisfaction with the overall result. But whereas the songs on the debut really felt like they were cooked up together, the result being a natural fusion of the two songwriter’s tendencies and styles, Crimson King felt divided due to being largely written separately by Jon and Hansi in geographic isolation. I used to think that was the album’s achilles heel, but as the years have gone on, I think it actually worked to its benefit. To me, half of that albums songs sound like Schaffer led tunes, and the other half Kursch’s —- meaning that some songs lean hard in an Iced Earth direction (“Terror Train”, “Crimson King”, “Seize The Day”, “Dorian”), whereas others are clearly more Blind Guardian tinged (“Beneath These Waves”, “Wicked Witch”, “Love’s Tragedy Asunder”, “Down Where I Am”, “Lunar Lament”). The result was a largely strong collection of songs, because each of the songwriter’s hard leans towards their strengths ensured that at least the melodies would be affecting. It would be inaccurate to say that Jon and Hansi each wrote half of Crimson King on their own, these were collaborations after all and Jon did pen music for all the tracks, and Hansi did write his own vocal melodies for all the songs. I’m more referring to the songwriting structures present in all those songs, as they provide strong context clues as to what came to dominate a song first in its early songwriting stages, the riff or the vocal melody?

Fast forward to III, where it’s clear that the riff came first, always and to a fault. As confirmed by the dozens of interviews Jon and Hansi have done for the album, they largely wrote this album geographically isolated from one another just like they did for Crimson King. This time however, I think they made a critical error in the division of responsibilities in the songwriting department. Simply put, they got too diplomatic for their own good. According to those interviews, Jon wrote the music, Dropboxed the tracks to Hansi, who would write vocal melodies for them. I’m certain there was some passing the songs back and forth after that point, but given that these hooks never really get that “lift” like we’re expecting and the verses just aimlessly merge into the refrains like a texting driver at a rush hour intersection, I’m not 100% certain of that either. When Jon writes for Iced Earth, he builds a song with vocal melodies in his mind as well, and will communicate a sketch of that idea to his vocalist (who may or may not have the leeway to change things). Of course Iced Earth songs are melodic, but they’re largely chiseled that way via shaping the tone and direction of riffs, not pure melodies in the sense that say… Tobias Sammet writes Avantasia’s songs on keyboards first. When Hansi writes for Blind Guardian, he and Andre work in tandem, sometimes with the vocal melody coming first, sometimes with a guitar melody coming first. Point is that their work is more melodically guided, and riffs and heaviness are worked in around that. Listening to III, I get the feeling that Jon didn’t want to tread on Hansi’s boots, and created riff driven songs with some melodic structures, but largely left space for Hansi to guide things with his vocal melodies. Subsequently, Hansi was given half-finished tracks that he had to figure out how to shoehorn lead vocal melodies therein, and likely didn’t pass any of them back to Jon and say “Yeah I have nothing for this one”. If you’re followed this train of thought this far, you might be of the opinion that I’m overthinking this —- you’re likely right, but I had to dig deep to potentially understand why, oh why I haven’t been able to get into this album after umpteen listens. I might even be wrong on all of the rationale above, but it’s all I can offer by way of explanation right now.

There were a few worthwhile moments, the entirety of “Wolves In Winter” being the best song on offer here and comparable to the band’s work on their prior two records. A near perfect merging of the heavy riff first approach with a classic Hansi vocal melody during the refrain results in a stellar track, at once unique with its primal, grunting, rhythmic tick and familiar in the sense that Hansi sounds powerful and confident as we’ve heard him countless times before. And I’m somewhat partial to most of “Diabolic”, which has elements that drag for sure (the long intro and outro for starters), but also displays one of the more convincing riff structures on the album in terms of pairing intensity with a melodic motif. I think there’s a good idea somewhere in “New Dawn”, where Hansi captures my attention every now and then, particularly his “I cleanse it with fire” lyrical motif towards the end (if only the rest of the song could match his intensity). I’m also in the minority in being somewhat into “Midas Disease”, not for its dumb, mawkish AC/DC tribute inherent in it’s plodding hard rock rhythms, but for Hansi’s spot on Blackie Lawless impersonation throughout, sounding for all the world like a distant echo from The Headless Children. As for the rest of these songs… I’m just baffled. I have thumped my head against them for countless listens now and am coming away with nothing but bruises and a growing loathing for the mere act of listening to this album. Out of respect for Jon and Hansi, I will shelve this for awhile and return to it in a year or two’s time to give it another shot. Reinforcing my theory that things may have been too diplomatic all around for this album, both Jim Morris and Charlie Bauerfiend were involved in the production at some stage, which just seems weird. The prescription for the next time around, should there be one, might be for Jon to largely write half the songs on the album and Hansi to nearly entirely pen the other half —- or, heck, here’s a thought, book a flight and get in a room and write the entire album together for once.

Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:

You might have seen the name Seven Spires listed on a few high profile tours this year and idly wondered who and what they were all about. Their biggest claim to fame heading into the release of their sophomore album Emerald Seas is that their vocalist/keyboardist Adrienne Cowan was the backing vocalist on Avantasia’s recent Moonglow world tour. Her role on that tour was certainly the reason why I first noticed the band and checked out their 2017 debut album Solveig when that tour was announced. I came away thinking it was an interesting record that flashed some nice ideas here and there, the kind of thing that a few albums down the road could see Seven Spires hone into a well defined sound and deliver a possibly great album (provided they could stay together for that time). The last thing I expected was that the band was talented enough to make that leap in fully realizing their sound and songwriting approach a mere one album later. So much for the sophomore slump, because Emerald Seas might just be the most exciting, creative, and thoughtfully written album we see this year. I’ve been stunned and knocked sideways by how much I love this album, and I’ve actively had to force myself to take days off from listening to it so I could squeeze in listening time for other releases. You might have noticed that Seven Spires is going to be opening for Insomnium this spring as well as Amaranthe in the fall, and they’re able to fit into both slots quite well because they blend together progressive symphonic power metal and a blackened vocal take on melo-death.

Cowan has the vocal talent to make these genre blendings sound seamless, transitioning between three voices —- a soaring, heartwarming crystalline tone that can move to a gritty, belting rock n’ roll voice, and of course go deeper in a grim vocal that reminds me strongly of Dani Filth’s midrange delivery. You hear this right away in “Ghost of A Dream”, where she displays all three approaches within the context of a handful of ultra-memorable vocal melody structures. This is also the song where you might be wondering what other band’s vibes you’re being reminded of, and the answer on the tip of your brain is Kamelot. There’s a depth to Seven Spires musicality illustrated here and throughout the album that brings to mind Kamelot’s Epica era. I’m thinking here specifically of the Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar figures that flare up alongside Cowan’s lithe vocals in the verses, as well as the elegant accordion style adornment in the background recall Roy Khan’s narrative vocal masterpiece in “Lost And Damned” off that album. Guitarist Jack Kosto also has a Thomas Youngblood-ian sense of how to keep his riffs muscular but largely simple when set against the backdrop of Cowan’s grandiose, cinematic orchestral keyboard backdrops. This artful approach to symphonic metal yields songs like “Every Crest”, where an almost Broadway styled vocal melody can swing suddenly into a brutal, utteringly convincing harsh vocal passage with a Hans Zimmer inspired slant to the orchestral arrangement. During the former, bassist Peter de Reyna shows off some nimble jazzy structures figures underneath Cowan’s vocals, and alongside drummer Chris Dovas’ thoughtful battery and Kosto’s knack for neoclassical styled shredding and spectacular soloing, this band unexpectedly injects frequent doses of stunning technicality throughout the album. It’s a subtle detail, but it works to add a sense of vitality and boiling emotional swell to the album in the same way that Dialith achieved with their infusion of gritty, intense melodic death riffs to their symphonic metal oeuvre.

This is the rare album with no weak songs, nothing resembling filler, but there are a couple of absolute gems that shine greater than the others, namely “Unmapped Darkness” and “Succumb”. The former is the grandest and boldest example of the band’s almost effortless swagger at pulling off the arms wide, cinematic expansiveness that its hopeful lyrics speak to. Cowan claims Roy Khan as one of her biggest influences, and her lyric writing abilities come pretty damn close to his in terms of diction, imagery, and phrasing. She’s really friggin good at this stuff. Take the chorus of “Succumb”, easily the catchiest moment on the album, where she eschews generic ideas in favor of “And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone / And I pray one day our stars align / So I might hold you one more time…”. That’s Khan level poetic abilities on display, and you guys know how I feel about the master himself (I’m not making this comparison lightly). Consider me a Cowan lyrical fanboy now, because this album has captivated me on that level completely, telling a story about a seafarer and the beast that’s chasing him. Its rare that a storyline intrigues me on any level within a metal album, but there’s something charming and rare about the one that Cowan has sketched out here —- it’s allowed for the variety of moods and emotions displayed amidst the differing songwriting styles and approaches. To wit, the gorgeous moonlit piano ballad “Silvery Moon” is a personal favorite here, the kind of thing I’d more associate with a stage play rather than a symphonic metal band, but Cowan’s lyrics are heartbreakingly poignant, and paint an evocative series of pictures in my mind. I could go in detail about the lyrical gems scattered throughout this record, in addition to its unforgettable melodies, but I promised myself I’d keep this short —- also, this isn’t the last I’ll be writing about Emerald Seas this year…

Amberian Dawn – Looking For You:

I became a fan of Finland’s once symphonic metallers Amberian Dawn in 2015 with the release of Innuendo, not so much because of the band’s still present symphonic metal palette, but for the strange, inexplicable ABBA influences scattered throughout the album. It was an interesting moment to be introduced to the band, who were finding their way with the still relatively new vocalist Capri Virkkunen who joined one album prior, after the departure of longtime classically inclined singer Heidi Parviainen. Capri possessed an entirely different voice, more a velvety, sonorous pop-rock voice as opposed to anything resembling classical training. It was Amberian’s Tarja to Annette moment, and band founder/keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppälä saw an opening to move away from a symphonic metal direction that he’d run with for four albums now with varying results and modest public interest, towards a more overtly pop driven approach inspired by the Swedish quartet. Capri had previously spent some time singing in an ABBA cover band, in addition to trying out for Eurovision a couple times, so her pop credentials were rooted in that classical European dramatic mode that made those ABBA hits so emotionally engaging. It also helped that her vocals sounded like a perfect blending of Agnetha and Frida, from tone to the clarity of her diction and phrasing. She and Seppälä seemed to be of one mind in this, because they increased the amount of pop-driven songwriting on the 2017 follow-up Darkness of Eternity. It seemed inevitable that they’d at some point have to just abandon the band’s symphonic metal roots… clearly they were having more fun heading in the opposite direction.

Fast forward to Looking For You, Capri’s fourth proper album with the band, and they’d pretty much done exactly that. Oh there’s still a nod to their symphonic metal past, on “Symphony Nr. 1 Part 3 – Awakening”, an entertaining to say the least duet with Fabio Lione which is actually the third installment in this song-suite over the past couple Capri fronted albums. But that one cut aside, Seppälä goes all in on the ABBA-worship this time, with the rest of the album working in that sophisticated pop songwriting mode. Capri is the star throughout, her mature, resonant voice clearly made for the theatrical, drama-rich lyrical delivery this kind of classic pop influence requires. The apex here is the title track, a sugary dance-beat fuelled pop confection built around a finely defined vocal melody that weaves effortlessly from verse to bridge to chorus. Capri’s the ringleader here, her urgency in tone is the cue for the extra crunch from the guitars, and really the band as a whole. There’s a very true to seventies-ABBA era pop approach to the lyrics here, with vague, hopeful sentiments expressed through a staging of a very specific scene —- “Late at night / Wondering where you are tonight / I feel the sadness in my heart”. I hear shades of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Day Before You Came” influencing this particular lyrical approach that Seppälä and Capri are writing with. It continues on “Two Blades”, another ultra catchy uptempo gem, where the narrator speaks about her relationship that is all smiles to the world around them, yet crumbling on the inside: “They don’t know how it feels to be / Forgotten in the hours of the night / Hiding in the shadows and being lost / And left behind for a lifetime”. I love the juxtaposition at the 2:38 mark of that satisfyingly crunchy riff sliding beneath Capri crooning “I am, I am the sun…”. This is pop songwriting at its classicist best, with a lyrical approach that is inviting and universal in its portraits of desperation and urgency. Its the kind of thing I find lacking in a lot of modern pop music (with some notable exceptions).

So maybe you’re thinking at this point, c’mon Pigeon, ABBA-metal? Why does this have to be a thing? And my answer is a very simple, “Why not?”. Here’s the thing about Amberian Dawn laid out bluntly, they’re simply more interesting and unique since they’ve been exploring music in this vein than they ever were as a symphonic metal band. I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in those older albums, but it’s generally stuff that feels overdone to the point of exhaustion. And here’s another thing —- no one, and I mean no one, is writing pop music in this classic ABBA mold, not even in the pop music world. As an outright fan of that band, I welcome new music in that vein, particularly if its as delightfully faithful, convincing, and skillfully executed as Amberian Dawn are managing to do. There’s plenty of bands out there doing symphonic metal, some are even pulling it off rather well (see Dialith’s Extinction Six), but only Amberian Dawn is giving me the sugar high I crave with sophisti-pop hooks ala a re-worked/refreshed “Cherish My Memory”. It also serves to give the band a unique identity, something that they had trouble finding in their previous style. Capri has a unique voice within metal, a classic pop voice that she’s used to develop a stage career in addition to her vocation as a music teacher. In that vein she’s sympatico with Falconer’s Mathias Blad, another theatrical stage performer who moonlights as a singer in a metal band, using a non-metallic voice to create something really unique and special within metal. To really drive the point home, Amberian Dawn cheekily laid down a cover of the Swedish masters’ “Lay All Your Love On Me” in the middle of the tracklisting here, and not only is it a perfectly executed cover (immediately preferable to Avantasia’s), it’s a bold declaration of intent and a giant middle finger to anyone who’s thinking of throwing stones.

Serious Black – Suite 226:

So apparently I’m one of the few weirdos that actually thought Serious Black’s 2016 sophomore effort Mirrorworld was a fine slice of Euro-tinged power metal. I’ve read pretty much nothing but verbal abuse hurled towards it in the years since its release, from reviews I’ve gone back and read, to the fine folks on the r/PowerMetal subreddit having their daggers sharpened for it. I can see why those attacks would come at the expense of Mirrorworld’s follow-up, 2017’s Magic, although it too contained a few good tunes (I still stan “Binary Magic” and ” amidst the overall cringe on display), but I do have a theory as to why Serious Black has endured a brunt of negativity over the course of their entire existence. It largely has to do with their vocalist Urban breed, who is nearly universally beloved in the power metal community for his masterful work with Tad Morose and briefly, Bloodbound. On his defining work with those two bands, Urban sang over heavier, darker, far more metallic power metal than he does in Serious Black, which is a little closer to happy-boi Helloween and Freedom Call on the spectrum than it is to Khan-era Kamelot or say, Pyramaze. That’s not to say Serious Black is all sugary highs and syrupy sweet melodies, but there’s a slightly sunny-ish disposition streaking through their four albums in terms of melodic tone and sometimes even lyrical approach that I think a lot of Urban fans are put off by. It’s certainly not for any decline in the man’s vocal ability, because he still sounds as powerful and ageless as ever, but this band’s material does send his voice into sharply different directions than some are used to.

For those of us who are used to Urban in this context, we’re treated to a rebound record for Serious Black with Suite 226, a concept album about a mental patient locked in a psych ward (apparently). Largely gone are the weirdly pop-rock affectations of Magic, replaced instead by a welcome return of darkness and perhaps the most marked uptick in aggression in the band’s short history. Right out of the gate, “Let It Go” is the most Dave Mustaine-channeling that we’ve ever heard Urban, and with the blistering, furious riffing from Dominik Sebastian speeding along underneath, the whole thing sounds downright Megadeth-ian. That energy doesn’t dissipate heading into the first single “When The Stars Are Right”, which for all its loaded poppiness in that excellent chorus is still bookended by some dense riffing, and a tight rhythmic attack on the bottom end by bassist Mario Lochert and Ramy Ali on drums (who is a longtime veteran talent in the more obscure side of Euro power metal and a quality replacement for Alex Holzwarth). On a more mid-tempo cut like “Solitude Etude”, the band opts to employ a darker, more downcast mood along with Urban delivering a melancholic vocal melody. They do this again on the notably more poppy “Fate Of All Humanity”, and in lieu of straightforward aggression, the moodier, more introspective approach is still a welcome relief from what we can reasonably label as Serious Black’s default blue skies disposition. Urban delivers an unforgettable hook in the chorus here, and its still as poppy as power metal can get, but its a subdued sweetness, tempered by the lyrical concerns of the concept running through these lyrics.

And it’s strange, because I don’t think I picked up on this overall shift in mood and approach my first few listens through this album. I was here for Urban and the hooks, and we’re of course treated to those in spades, but it was deeper listening that revealed the aggression and darkness buried underneath. Take “Castiel”, arguably the album’s best cut and one of the finest songs the band has ever written, it’s built on major-minor chord dichotomy and a seriously swaggering chorus that owes more to classic heavy metal than Europower. I love the delay that Urban playfully tags onto the end of the second iteration of the chorus, making that slamming Accept-ian riff just hit you with full force when it breaks back in. There’s some heavyweight metallic grit happening in that tune but the addictiveness of the chorus really deafened me to it for the first few listens. The opposite happened on “Heaven Shall Burn”, an obviously heavy tune that is sneakily one of the strongest songs on the record, boasting a hook that’s slyly catchy despite its purposefully awkward approach. The most uplifting thing on the album is “Way Back Home” and amidst the downcast vibe it actually stands out just by its marked shift in tone alone. I’m more impressed by “We Still Stand Tall”, which is similarly more upbeat in tone and disposition, but is still underscored by a current of gritty heaviness anchoring it firmly to earth. The two songs that close out the album, “Come Home” and the title track swing us back to the darker side of the album, and they’re fine in that context, although I’m finding myself more liable to grow impatient with their slower, meandering sections and skip out of them. That minor complaint aside, I’m honestly surprised and maybe a little relieved that Serious Black found their footing again after such a worrying release. Give this one a few chances.

Defeat Or Defiance: Serenity’s The Last Knight

It’s an interesting moment for our Austrian friends in Serenity here in the wake of the release of their seventh album The Last Knight. They’re having to follow up the extremely divisive Lionheart, an album that I was largely critical of in my review and still feel that way for the most part. Setbacks have plagued this endeavor from the get go, starting with the mixed reception to the “Set The World On Fire” single a few months ago, and a somewhat better yet problematic reception for the most recent single in “My Kingdom Comes” which got tagged with being a rip off of Kamelot’s “Veil of Elysium” (I can kind of hear what people are talking about), suffice to say it’s been an inauspicious launch for the new album. I think if we look back on the band’s career, they had a stretch from 2008-13 that a broad swath of the power metal community would agree on (both at the time and retrospectively) as being one of excellence, where the band captured our ears and hearts with their Kamelot meets Sonata Arctica blend of Euro-power. So I was quite worried then in 2015 when they announced that they’d be working on a new album without their longtime guitarist and co-songwriter Thomas Buchberger, as well as the departure of contributing vocalist Clementine Delauney. But they surprised us with Codex Atlanticus, which I thought was a really fun and exciting experiment for them, the album length concept of the life of Leonardo Da Vinci inspiring vocalist Georg Neuhauser to take command of the songwriting process with a greater emphasis on vocal melodies and symphonic elements propelling the songs. It was the most major key forward album of their career, a lush, verdant, theatrical affair that at times had splashes of broadway in its sound (check “The Perfect Woman”). As a fan, it filled me with confidence that the guitarist change and more importantly, the loss of one of the band’s major songwriters wasn’t going to impact them that much. Then Lionheart happened.

The problem with Lionheart, I suspect, stems in large part due to its lyrical theme about the crusades of King Richard I of England. The battle and glory soaked lyrical approach that Neuhauser chose to depict seemed to push him towards giving these songs a heavier, more aggressive footing. That wasn’t inherently a bad idea, but my theory is that without the knowing finesse of his old bandmate Buchberger on guitar to add the heaviness factor without taking too much away from the band’s overall melodicism, that trademark Serenity yin-yang balance slipped out of Neuhauser’s grasp. Sure it still sounded like the band, but Christian Hermsdörfer’s riffs were too upfront in the mix while being relatively simplistic and chug-a-chug to justify their prominent role, a distracting annoyance that plagued the album as a whole. To make matters worse, almost every song seemed to mirror each other in tone and sentiment —- all brash bravado and epic battle hymn and none of the light and shadow shading of the band’s pre-Codex material (barring “My Fantasy” towards the end of the album which finally offered a welcome heaping of melancholy to cut the incessant cheer). The dichotomy of unnecessarily aggro-riffing with a triumphant tone without any fluctuation was a jarring experience, and made potentially good songs sound severely flawed. The result is an album that is still regarded as largely below average, and that’s me putting it diplomatically, I won’t tell you what some of the guys at r/PowerMetal have to say about it. So why the step back in time to revisit these last two albums? Because newcomers to the band might not notice, but I tend to think its helpful for longtime listeners of a band to have a sense of context in considering a band’s newest effort, not only to check themselves against negative prejudices, but alternatively, to suss out exactly why it is they might have negative feelings towards new material.

For my part, I’ll just come out and say that The Last Knight is a rebound from the woeful Lionheart, though not as strongly as I would’ve liked. First of all, is this singular figure biography approach for a whole album just going to be the way things are going forward for Serenity now? They’ve always written about historical figures on their older albums, but they were a jumble of topics and ideas, which seemed like a wiser way to go about things. But Neuhauser seems hell bent on putting his history doctorate to full use and has devoted the band’s last three records to singular figures, this time focusing on Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. I’m not too familiar with his biography, but it does seem that the impact of this topic on the songwriting this time around has conjured up a more nuanced blend of light and dark that we’re used to in the Serenity DNA. That in itself makes this a more layered, deeper album than the surface level rah-rah glory worship of its predecessor, but also takes advantage of the band using Sascha Paeth as producer for the first time ever. Paeth is used to working with shifting tones, a blurring of major and minor keys with his experience producing for Kamelot and writing for Avantasia, and he does an admirable job here of highlight the band’s strengths. Neuhauser brings back that old school Serenity feel with onpoint songwriting on cuts like “Wings of Pride” and “Call to Arms”. The former has a romantic blush to its frenetic, speedy power metal tempos, as well as an appealing balance of loud/quiet dynamics and a chorus that is stirring. The latter is quintessential Serenity, with an unforgettable melodic hook built into Neuhauser’s soaring, powerful vocals in the chorus. They’re tracks immediately worth seeking out if you were one of the few put off by the album’s singles.

Speaking of which, yeah, you know that I keep banging on about how bands tend to pick the worst tracks to preview an album? I present exhibit number 35,432. And truth be told, I actually think “Set The World On Fire” is a really fun, quality song with an unforgettable hook —- the flashpoint that is setting off alarm bells amongst the power metal community is the sonic production gimmickry that is similar to what Beast In Black is doing. I’ve identified this as being either the vocal effect on Neuhauser’s voice in the vocal only intro, the easy, simplistic musical bed in the verses, or more accurately the moment at the 2:50 mark where Herbie Langhans joins in for a guest vocal spot and is backlit by some seriously glaring modern production gloss that sounds like an electronically generated rhythmic pulse. But all those things together don’t overshadow what I think is a wonderfully vibrant, fully arcing chorus that is right in Neuhauser’s wheelhouse as an expressive vocalist, leaving him lots of room for inflections and emoting. And in rejection of those Beast In Black comparisons, it’s one song people, and I can’t hear any of those same details anywhere else on the record. That being said, if it were simply an album cut instead of the highlighted first single, I think the reception to it would have nowhere near the amount of accusatory venom its been bitten with. A better choice might have been what turned out to be the second single in “Souls and Sins”, a moody, mid-tempo groove based cut that reminds me of the subtle complexity that defined the songs on War of Ages. Here we have an example of Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer being on the same page in terms of how to balance a gritty, grounded heaviness without smothering the power of the vocal melody in carrying the melodic load.

I’m also fond of the Death & Legacy era recalling “Queen of Avalon” with its medieval accents, and the richly beautiful power ballad “My Farewell”, which only gets better the more you listen to its various nuances. The opening “Invictus” is also the kind of Lionheart-esque thing that would have ruined this album were it full of its duplicates, but in an isolated moment, this slice of pomp and glory actually works as an energetic appetizer. Less effective yet still passable is “Keeper Of The Knights”, a song that isn’t short on urgency in its attacking tempo, but seems to lack a quality hook to go along with it. The glaring problem children of the album should be readily apparent to any experienced Serenity fan —- it’s all the tracks where the band is stepping out of the sweet spot that defines their sound, that nexus between a thick, dark sound and bright, soaring melodicism. The aforementioned “My Kingdom Comes” features dreadful screaming vocals, and this isn’t the first time the band has experimented with them, but they really have no place in the band’s palette. There’s also a haphazard approach to the staggering of tempos throughout this song, with no real flow or discernible reason as to why each tempo shift occurs at all. In other words, its a hot mess. Ditto for “Down to Hell”, where we’re treated to an unnecessarily aggro riff for aggro riff’s sake —- which not only isn’t impressive coming from a band that we’re all locked into for the melodies, but doesn’t do much to distract from the absolutely lackluster songwriting displayed here. That may be a harsh reaction to a song that simply isn’t that good, but the sooner Neuhauser and Hermsdörfer realize that they should take every pain to avoid following Kamelot into heavy riff edginess territory, the better off future Serenity albums will be. That being said, this album deserves a serious, focused look from disgruntled Serenity fans who wrote it off because of their initial impressions. It’s all too easy with streaming to just move onto the next thing, but this is a band we’ve loved in the past, and they’re owed the benefit of extra time.

Last Call: The Final Reviews Of 2019

Here we are, on the doorstep of Thanksgiving and at the natural end of the 2019 metal release calendar. If you’re releasing your album in December, fire your label because most of us are on the verge of publishing our best of lists for the year and drinking as much Bailey’s as possible. These are my final reviews for the year, for releases that arrived in the autumn months of September through November, and crammed together at that. I know for sure that I’m missing some notable names here, and I simply ran out of time, like actual tangible time to listen to so many records while also giving a massive amount of attention to headline grabbing artists like Blind Guardian and Insomnium (oh and also, you know, real life stuff like work, studying, sleeping, and whatnot). In keeping with the way I’ve handled these bundled up reviews dumps throughout this year, these are smaller reviews, meant for a quicker read than your typical Metal Pigeon deep dive. And while I’m going to write more about this in the upcoming best of features, its worth emphasizing here just how much truly spectacular music we’ve had to come to grips with this year. These past three months have certainly lived up to their predecessors in terms of bringing quality and quantity. And while this blog is calling time on 2019 with this final new music update, on the upcoming MSRcasts we’ll be discussing at length a ton of stuff that I haven’t covered here, particularly albums that we’ve missed from earlier in the year that we’re only now getting around to.

Dawn Of Destiny – The Beast Inside:

It kinda stunned me that its been four years since Dawn of Destiny’s last record, 2015’s eminently listenable To Hell. This four year gap between that record and their newest, The Beast Inside, represents the longest time they’ve gone in between releasing albums (even lapping the three gap between 2009-12 caused by the departure of original vocalist Tanja Maul). I didn’t notice the absence largely in part to just how much new music I have spilling into my lap at any given month in any given year, with seemingly no let up —- a luxury of a problem for sure, but it does tend to cause the kind of inattentiveness to a band’s activities that me fifteen years ago would’ve scoffed at. Five years ago, I placed the band’s 2014 record F.E.A.R. at the number three spot on that year’s best albums list, and its been one of those albums that I’ve revisited so much since then that I can’t help but feel it’s in the conversation for one of my favorite albums of this past decade. That F.E.A.R. and To Hell were merely a year apart hearkened back to the band’s first three albums, also released in rapid succession one year after another —- this was clearly a band that was loaded with creativity, weren’t encumbered by a lengthy touring schedule, and were prepossessed with a desire to release as many albums as possible, and in doing so establish an artistic legacy despite their low profile on the international metal scene. I spell all this out because I’m wondering if that kind of rapid fire release schedule was the secret motor to the band’s artistic success in some forward momentum sustaining kind of way. Because for its strengths, The Beast Inside is a bit of a let down in comparison to its two immediate predecessors. Maybe taking too much time in between releases is the band’s kryptonite.

Given bassist/co-vocalist Jens Faber’s pedigree as a songwriter however, we’re guaranteed a handful of strong moments on this album. First among these is the album opener “The Beast Inside A Beauty”, a constantly shifting, redirecting slice of gothic tinged melodrama built on throbbing basslines, DoD’s always surprisingly crunchy riffs and a powerful vocal performance by Jeanette Scherff. Her staccato delivery, seemingly effortless, deft, and incredibly rich in tone is one of the most addictive aspects to the band’s sound, and she elevates a song like “It’s My Fate”, which is a bit of a left turn from DoD’s gothic power metal pomp with its strange pacing and instrumentation. But surprisingly, the two best songs on the album see Scherff sharing co-lead vocal duties with Faber in dramatic, enchanting duets: “Fight Your Inner Demons” is the kind of dark, moody theatrical power balladry that would’ve felt at home on F.E.A.R.; and “Peace Of Mind” is a branching out into experimental territory that actually works rather well. Faber takes the lead vocal and has improved as a singer, reminding me here of a smoother Alice Cooper on the verses while soaring alongside Scherff in the spectacularly epic chorus. It’s the killer cut on an album otherwise bogged down by a lot of songs that leave me simply wanting to return to their older albums for my fix of high melodrama. There’s nothing here I can point to as glaringly offensive, but I can’t help but wonder if its rust that’s preventing some of these songs from shining the way I’ve grown used to DoD appearing. I’m hoping that the band will be back with something new in their customary quick turnaround fashion and I’ll be heaping praises on them once again.

Kobra And The Lotus – Evolution:

The usage of the term evolution to describe any band’s changing sound from an album to album is one of the more overused in the vocabulary at this point. I think its been invoked so often that we’ve all lost sight of what its meaning is actually supposed to apply to —- gradual change over a lengthy period of time. When you do an about face in your musical approach from fairly serious in tone progressive hard rock/metal to the radio rock driven approach that Kobra and the Lotus have employed on their newest album, you don’t get to simply call it Evolution and not have someone call bs on it. You changed, you made a decision to change, not evolve. This was a late September release, and I heard it for the first time back then on release day, and was so baffled at what I heard that I immediately shelved it and vowed to come back at another time when I was less busy and more mentally prepared to process just what the hell this band had done to their sound. If you’ll recall, I came on board with Prevail I/II, the latter of which found itself popping up on my best songs of 2018 list with the incredible “Let Me Love You”. The refined melodicism of that pair of albums was an exciting place for this band, a merging of old influences and modern production flourishes and metallic crunch, kinda their sweet spot. It was helmed by producer wunderkind Jacob Hansen, who has proved himself to be quite skilled at merging the sometimes disparate worlds of gritty heaviness and refined melodicism into something excitingly whole. Weirdly premonitory, on the topic of the band’s future I spelled out the following —- “…the question is whether that central guitar riff will be too heavy for programmers and leave this song in too commercial for metal / too metal for radio purgatory.” I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one asking that question, whether it was the band themselves or their management, or the terribad advice of industry folks, radio programmers, booking agents and the like.

Whomever is to blame for the nudge, its the band themselves that acted on the advice and cooked up really meaningless pap like “Get the Fuck Out of Here”, which sounds far worse than its title would suggest. And I’ve never been a fan of dropping profanity in lyrics, not because I’m some puritanical church boy who’s easily offended, but because I think its lowest common denominator language that really has no place in a recorded artform where an artist has time to think about what they’re trying to say. I do think there are exceptions to this rule, but they’re few and far between and not reliant on genre either, because I think profanity in hip-hop also works to the same detrimental effect —- can you express an idea in a more intelligent manner? I’m fine with someone using it in everyday speech, in that off handed way that we all engage in here and there, but what am I getting out of it in a song? Onto a less juvenile but no less schlocky cut like “Burn!”, which is the album’s first single and thus a good indicator of the thought process for this album as a whole —- we get a generic riff progression, sterile production with none of the rough edge we were treated to on Prevail, and an electronica wash used by Amaranthe and more nauseatingly, modern In Flames. Production here was handled by the radio rock inclined Michael Baskette, who’s associated with Alter Bridge and Linkin Park, so smooth and polished is the blueprint. There’s a lone call back to the band’s previously gritter approach, the ballad “Wash Away”, and its worth adding to a playlist with the Prevail and High Priestess songs. As for the rest of this… what a disappointment. I noticed the press release for the album bafflingly stated: “No longer bound by old formulas and expectations from the past”, to which I can only wonder who they feel was holding them back. Their fans? The press release also stated “Each song feels like an Active Rock hit in the making”, which I guess kind of says it all really.

Blut Aus Nord – Hallucinogen:

France’s most enigmatic black metal band is back with their most unexpected, and bewildering in a good way album to date. The last we heard from Blut Aus Nord was 2017’s Deus Salutis Meæ, an inscrutably dense affair that largely sounded to me like one long industrial noisescape. It was not what I wanted to hear after being so taken with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III, a top ten album of the year listee and mid-90s second wave Norwegian black metal revisitation. Well, push both of those aside for Hallucinogen, because Vindsval and company have cooked up something entirely new here, a merging of black metal tremolo riffs with a looser, more rock directed rhythmic structure through which they inject ample amounts of major chord melody. Its not so much Deafheaven’s Sunbather as it is borrowing a little from the progressive rock world of Steven Wilson and Tool, with maybe a splash of fellow countrymen Alcest to help things mesh well. The vocals here are buried deep in the mix, more so than usual with Blut, and so for that reason its hard not to hear Hallucinogen as largely an instrumental and textural affair. That’s not a bad thing, because this is a captivating listen, a record that I always intend to put on as a soundtrack to some other mental activity and wind up paying more attention to regardless. If the cover art wasn’t a big tip off, the music certainly points to a central motif running throughout that’s informing the musical path here, that of a sense of discovery and exploration through the world of psychedelic stimulation. The melodic lead guitar figures on “Sybelius” are a vivid example of what I’m referring to, this isn’t a typical sound palette for a band known for dabbling in extreme black metal and noise. But its not just its burstingly melodic nature that characterizes Hallucinogen, its how emotionally charged that melodicism comes across that has resulted in this being one of the most fascinating albums of the year.

Alcest – Spiritual Instinct:

Alcest have over the past decade plus since their 2007 debut rarely failed to impress me. There was the 2014 misfire with the entirely non-metallic dream pop of Shelter, and thankfully they kept that exploration confined to one album because otherwise we’d have never gotten 2016’s year end list maker masterwork Kodama. Neige said at the time of Kodama’s release that his return to the band’s pioneering black gaze sound on that album was in large part because he wanted their new music to be punchier (something they lost entirely on Shelter). It’s interesting then to see that on its follow up, Spiritual Instinct, he’s doubling down on that desire instead of reactively shifting away from it purely to do something different for the sake of it. I say they’re doubling down on the punchiness factor because this is the heaviest, most aggressive Alcest album to date —- almost as if Neige opened his closet and rediscovered his lost black leather jacket and he and drummer Winterhalter drove around France listening to Accept records one day. Simply put, Neige is laying down some pretty excellent riffs throughout, particularly on the first four songs. On “Les jardins de minuit” at the 5:56 mark, I’m hearing the first full blown headbanging passage in an Alcest record. That happens again with the rumbling rhythmic groove riffing on “Protection”, and the propulsive Tool meets Porcupine Tree fusion on “Sapphire”. I will say that overall, for all it’s fun Neige plays non-tremolo metal riffs glory, Spiritual Instinct can’t quite match the beautiful artistry of Kodama. That album had so much going on within its gorgeous songs, particularly with its infusion of Japanese folk music motifs. Maybe Neige just wanted to get back to basics on this new one, and that’s fair enough, its a solid, at times really impressive record. Just not their greatest.

Wilderun – Veil Of Imagination:

I’m new to Wilderun, but the ceaseless chatter surrounding the Halloween night release of this album in the r/PowerMetal circles motivated me to check the band out. The peeps there listen to all kinds of metal, but general consensus on extreme metal releases are few and far between, so that was enough of a signal that perhaps this Wilderun band was something special. And they’re definitely a unique merger of sounds, that of blistering Blackwater Park era Opeth with Pink Floyd-ian spacey prog passages, cinematic ambient noises, effects, and a general panoramic feel to how this music is presented. And wow, is this definitely an experience that I associate more with something like a film soundtrack rather than a metal record. The opening cut is a fourteen minute plus opus that starts with spoken dialogue and an acoustic, folky guitar intro piece, and is joined by flutes and enchanting choral vocals —- all before the cold water of a shaking tremolo riff pierces the serenity. The metallic attack here can be shocking heavy, but it’s well balanced, with crisp instrument definition in the mix and a pretty sweet drum sound throughout, at the forefront of the recording but never overpowering the rhythm and lead guitars. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy this album’s metallic nature, but its everything else going on in Wilderun’s musical palette that’s really the draw here. This band is the brainchild of former Immortal Bird guitarist Evan Anderson Berry, and he deserves props not only for being a seriously excellent growler and clean vocalist ala Mikael Akerfeldt, but for his skill at coordinating so many diverse musical elements in a single album (and at times in a single song or even section). Its unfortunate that they released this record so late in the year because myself and others likely didn’t get to have enough time to spend listening to it yet —- I’m on week three and I’m still finding new things on each and every listen. I guess this is more of a recommendation than a review… I’m not at a stage where I can say I’ve fully digested this album and know every nook and cranny by heart and have a firm grasp on its strengths and weaknesses. What I can say is that I never tire of listening to it, and it is certainly one of the most adventurous listening experiences you’ll ever encounter, this year or any year. Check this one out in full, but if you want a bite sized go-to sample, hit up the epic “Far From Where Dreams Unfurl”, which is the song that’s perhaps most representative of the album as a whole, and also a gorgeous, sweepingly grand piece of music.

Cyhra – No Halos In Hell:

You might recall that I was surprisingly impressed with Cyhra’s debut, Letters To Myself, two years ago. That such an unlikely pairing of Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg actually worked and produced some compellingly emotional modern metal, was a minor triumph. My only real complaints with that record as I recall were that I didn’t care for the abundance of slower, ballady material through the back half of the album, feeling like it dampened the excitement generated by the hook factor of the uptempo tracks. As per Lundberg’s own description of his voice paired with melodeath type guitars (i.e., Bon Jovi meets Soilwork), Cyhra found a realized sound rather quickly on those uber catchy, high energy songs, with Stromblad finding just enough space to weave in some of his unmistakable melodic signature lead bursts that we came to appreciate during his tenure with In Flames. Lundberg for his part proved himself to be quite adept at penning a razor sharp vocal hook, and we were finally able to get some clarity on just how vital a songwriter he was for Amaranthe. I looked forward to a second album, wondering if the band would amp up the heaviness the next time around. What they’d established on Letters was a good baseline, a balance of syrupy pop melodies with the splashy melodic technicality of one of melodeath’s pioneering architects. Yet the question that hung in the air was which way would the band lean further towards on future releases?

It doesn’t take more than one listen of No Halos In Hell to immediately pick up on the fact that the band has stuck with the formula of the first album, down to including way more songs than necessary resulting in a heavily diluted tracklisting. But unevenness in song quality is the least of the problems here, because while their debut had about seven to eight songs that were playlist worthy, repeat listeners —- No Halos has at best three to four, and that’s pushing it. I’m not sure how best to articulate why these songs just seem to fall flat, because the performance quality is up to snuff regarding Lundberg’s vocals and the rest of the band’s musical contributions. Stromblad seems a little more subdued throughout however, and that might be a major contributing factor, his signature guitar stylings not as bright and bursting as they were on the debut. I suspect that Lundberg is trying to branch out in his writing of melodic vocal melodies, and while that’s admirable in a vacuum, its not exactly what Cyhra needed right now. The songs that work here, such as “Battle From Within”, “Hit Me”, I Am The One”, and “Out Of My Life” have quick striking hooks in their refrains that are packed tightly between concise verse passages. But long drawn out soft ballady such as “Lost In Time” just does not work here, and perhaps it would have in an Amaranthe context, with Elize Ryd’s sugary tone carrying some of the lines in a duet. Not even a “full band” version further down the tracklisting can save it, and while you can hear what Lundberg was going for in the chorus, its just too flat of a hook to capture the heartstrings. Its a cliche, but the sophomore slump seems to be very much real here, and its down to the band playing it safe and repeating themselves when they probably should’ve looked to shake things up a little more on this one. My advice, for what its worth (and coming from a fan): Let Jesper cut loose, give him more extended solo sections, limit the slower/softer songs to one or two, and allow your heaviness to directly contrast with those aforementioned smooth Bon Jovi-type vocals. Cyhra’s sound has potential, but they gotta turn the key to unlock it —- otherwise they risk it growing stale really fast.

Novembers Doom – Nephilim Grove:

America’s hardest working doom metal vets are back with a follow up to 2017’s double year end list making Hamartia. That was a special album, the band choosing to explore their more melancholic and expressively emotional side. It reminded me of stuff like Charon, Sentenced, and Katatonia. It met with a surprising amount of vocal resistance from some fans, who felt that the band’s headfirst dive into pure melodicism was not what they signed up for, but a newbie like myself loved it. I’m a little less keen on Nephilim Grove then, in large part to the band’s retreat from the Hamartia approach and abrupt march back towards a more death-doom groove metal vein. Of course the possibility exists that there just wasn’t enough left to mine from that Hamartia style, and to force it for a second album would’ve produced less than inspired results, so I can’t fault the band for that if its the case. The possibility exists that a die-hard November’s Doom fan like my MSRcast co-host Cary will feel differently about this new album, and that I’m the odd man out for this round, which I can live with. And I should say, after having sat with Nephilim Grove for a few weeks, that its a solid slab of speaker rattling metal, more uptempo than the doom tag suggests, with tunes like “Petrichor” and “The Witness Marks” set to uptempo, attacking rhythms. Paul Kuhr of course sounds fantastic, his clean baritone as bleak and discomfiting as ever, and his growls fierce and crisply enunciated. The most satisfying cut here is “Adagio”, and he turns in an awesome performance delivering both vocal styles in direct, quick succession during the chorus. I dunno… if you haven’t listened to this yet but have enjoyed the band before, chances might be high that you’ll be all about this record, I’m very interested to hear Cary’s thoughts on it (we’ll be discussing it on our next podcast). Chalk this up to maybe being a Metal Pigeon problem, not a Novembers Doom one.

The Bards And Their Songs: Blind Guardian’s Twilight Orchestra

Here it is. Finally. A project over two decades in the making that, let’s be honest… few Blind Guardian fans were ever truly clamoring for at the expense of say a regular, guitar based Blind Guardian record. I say this having been one of those fans who’s been aware of this project lurking in the shadows for ages now, my first direct recollection being an interview Hansi gave to Dr. Metal on The Metal Meltdown show on WRUW Cleveland way back in 2001 (I still have the audio of it). It was described then as being in its early infancy, although they had hopes to finish it in a few years (cue stifled laughter here), and it had its roots in unused music for Nightfall In Middle Earth as well as the music that the band presented to Peter Jackson in hopes of landing on the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack. In the time since I first heard about this project, the bards have released four studio albums, two live albums and I’ve seen them in concert four times, Hansi and Marcus five with Demons and Wizards this past August. Credit where its due, they never committed the absolute blunder that I lambasted Therion for, who set aside all normal recording output to devote a decade to both a covers record and triple disc opera project. Hansi and Andre, who he co-wrote this project with, knew how their bread was buttered and were okay with this orchestral project taking the long route home, something they could afford to have sitting dormant for huge chunks of time while they worked on normal band projects. Perhaps Hansi’s only mistake was in publicly mentioning it at all, but even I would have a hard time assigning any blame for that, because there were really no consequences to talking about it. I say this as a die-hard Blind Guardian fan mind you, but we’d hear him talk about it when asked in interviews over the years, grunt at the info, and continue reading for details on the follow up to A Twist In The Myth or At The Edge of Time. And I suppose I should clarify a bit —- its not like I wasn’t interested at all in the project, because how could one not be curious? But what else could you do but shrug and wait? No one knew what this orchestral thing was even supposed to be.

What it immediately struck me as being upon my very first listen and reinforced in subsequent spins, is that of an audiobook with a built in soundtrack. There’s an hour and fifteen minutes running time here, twenty four tracks total, of which only eleven are actual “song” length pieces of music. Now those eleven tracks compromise an hour and four minutes of the running time, so its not like we’re being subjected to an actual audiobook, but the arrangement of the musical pieces amongst an array of tracks where voice actors spin forth dialogue with radio play styled sound effects is spread out in such a way that no two musical tracks ever line up back to back. This will undoubtedly frustrate anyone who felt bothered by the interludes in Nightfall In Middle Earth —- fortunately for myself, I wasn’t one of those people (the thirty seconds of “Lammoth” are essential!). But I think its fair to say that one’s tolerance level for stuff like this is going to be a huge factor on whether or not they enjoy listening to Legacy of the Dark Lands overall, and as a frequent listener of fantasy audiobooks, I’ve grown accustomed to this kind of listening experience. The meat of the album then are those aforementioned eleven pieces of music (let’s just call them songs from now on), and it really is simply multilayered Hansi with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the FILMharmonic Choir Prague and Vox Futura choir chiming in on occasion. Hansi is backed by the “BG Choir Company” which I’m assuming is made up of all the regular guys who have provided backing vocals on Blind Guardian records for awhile now. There are no guitars, so Marcus isn’t a part of this project, and though there are booming timpani’s and martial snare percussion, Frederick is also not involved. It’s strictly a Hansi and Andre joint with Charlie Bauerfiend as usual at the production helm.

The biggest reservations I had about the project heading into it was how would Hansi sound in a setting with just the orchestra, and my worries were slightly exacerbated with their decision to release “Point Of No Return” as the lead advance promotional track. It was yet another in a long line of examples of bands misfiring on what song to release first, because while I do enjoy its undeniably powerful, swellingly grandiose chorus, its connective tissue was the kind of orchestra for animation stuff I typically associate with Merrie Melodies or Looney Tunes (you know what I’m talking about), and Hansi stringing together random blitzes of short vocal melodies for a dizzying amount of lyrics. That magnificent repeating chorus aside, it lacked any kind of cohesiveness overall, and I wondered if that’s how the rest of the album would sound. We’re so used to having Andre and Marcus delivering awesome riffs and interesting counter melodies to fill in the gaps between Hansi’s vocals. Would Hansi and Andre attempt to either over write vocal lines for Hansi to sing to make up for that, or perhaps try to use the orchestra itself as a fill-in for those guitars? On that advance song, it certainly sounded like they were doing both. But again, this is why I have a growing dislike of checking out preview tracks well before the album is released. Because while of course everything that I didn’t like about “Point of No Return” is still present within the song in the context of the album; the pacing and structure of the surrounding tracks go a long way towards mitigating those annoyances, as the song fits into the larger cohesive framework of the album. Its like comparing a nicely cooked, whole roast chicken that’s had time to sit after taking it out of the oven, its juices evenly redistributing throughout to ensure deliciousness —- to attempting to bake a slab of skinless, boneless chicken breast that was the isolated “Point Of No Return”. That piece of meat would taste better left attached to the bird.

To that end, I found my initial listening experience of this album in its entirety quite joyous, maybe it was just me responding to what is undeniably a cheerful, exuberant vibe emanating from it, but I really do believe there’s a heady dose of Blind Guardian magic to some of these songs. Take the gorgeous rise at the 2:20 mark in “The Great Ordeal”, an exquisitely triumphant moment that is the apex of what is one of the stronger melodic motifs at work on the album. The old Nightfall ideas resurface in “The Storm” and “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, and the former has a head turning moment from 2:38-2:55 where Hansi just breaks through everything to punch up with a mighty vocal thrust delivering the best lyrical stanza on the album: ” Gather up / I’m the storm / I’ll bind you / You’ll be the flame / I’m the spark / My wayward friends / You must come and find me / In the dark”. It’s a transcendent, attention grabbing moment that makes me stop what I’m doing every single time to hit rewind. It’s also one of those things that you realize keeps you coming back to the song again and again, yet you wish they’d have turned it into a proper repeating chorus. Let’s not kid ourselves here, Hansi is singing his face off throughout this album, he sounds full of conviction, passion, and emotion as he always does really, but there are a smattering of micro moments where he’s hitting “Another Holy War” esque levels of excellence. That aforementioned cheerful vibe is really felt on “Dark Cloud’s Rising”. which dare I suggest has an almost holiday/Christmassy feel to its melodic thru line, with even its darker, stomier mid-section sounding like a winter storm. The repeating lyrical element towards the end (“…the road goes on forevermore….”) sounds like something that could’ve been at home on a regular Blind Guardian album nestled between songs like “Curse My Name” and “War Of The Thrones”.

The album highlight for me is “War Feeds War”, ostensibly the album’s true opener, and like “Dark Cloud’s Rising”, one of the few tracks on the album to have a distinguishable melodic thru line running across most of its entire length. I really wish Hansi and Andre decided to write more stuff in this vein, because the memorability factor goes up when you have a long, gradually developing vocal melody to really pull you in. During that opening verse sequence, you can really get a feel for just how the orchestra could carry rhythmic, riff like structures through its brass section. Those horns slice through layers of vocals and strings like a broadsword and I would’ve relished more moments where they’d been allowed to work their magic in a forward, aggressive approach. We get a frustratingly brief glimpse of this again in “Nephilim” at the 1:06 mark, but its gone before it develops into something promising and worse yet we’re never treated to it again. Why can’t these songs have repeating hooks or motifs? They can’t tell me that it can’t be done because even though I know next to nothing about classical music composition and the limits of what an orchestra can achieve, I know I’ve heard some damn fine muzak symphony recordings of Celine Dion and Queen songs through the speakers of my local pho place. And perhaps more convincingly, Blind Guardian themselves wrote an orchestral piece built on solid hooks and melodic thru lines in “Wheel of Time” off the At The Edge Of Time album. In re-listening to that song, one can hear that large swaths of it are entirely carried by the orchestral swagger provided by none other than The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. There the guitars are often providing an added textural crunch and injection of power, but melodically it’s mostly the symphony at work (the Andre guitar solo an obvious exception). Hansi’s vocals there are memorable not only for their crescendo establishing rise, but in his epic duel with the orchestra in the chorus, where horns punctuate his pauses, seemingly goading him to sing on. On an album full of incredible songs, it was the capstone, and a genuinely complementary merger of metallic and orchestral elements.

I suppose it’s unfair to ask “Why aren’t there more songs like Wheel of Time on this orchestral album”, but it’s one worth letting hang in the air for a second. I know the answer by the way… it’s the same damn thing that kills the mood in Ayreon albums for me. It’s the damn plot. Because you see while “Wheel of Time” was rather cleverly structured around a chorus spun on rhythmically rhyming lyrics in a nod to the song title’s proverbial wheel allusion, the verses were structured through equal length lyrical lines in the stanza. They were long enough to allow Hansi about five syllables worth of melodic phrasing and emoting, and that consistent structure allowed the orchestra to simultaneously keep rhythmic time and also add in some variation and color through the string section. The lyrics were a broad look at the themes and motivations of the Wheel of Time universe and its chief protagonist Rand al’Thor, and they didn’t need to delve deeper than that. Similarly, the lyrics of Nightfall In Middle Earth were written with a cognizance that the source material was either known, or easily available to those who wanted to know it. As a result, the band focused not on pure storytelling and plot (though its touched on in brief, quick glimpses), but on the emotional pulses that were the undercurrent of that incredibly anguished saga. On Legacy Of The Dark Lands, the band is telling a story that is actually the sequel to the Markus Heitz novel “Die Dunklen Lande (The Dark Land). The orchestral album bears the weight of continuing a story that began in a novel, and while some of this may be disseminated in those short non-musical segues, the bulk of it falls to Hansi and company to sing forth into existence. As a result, they’re handicapped in the songwriting scope of the project in that hooks and memorability are sacrificed for the sake of advancing a story through the lyrics.

I haven’t read the Heitz novel myself, though others have picked up the English ebook translation recently and the reviews are mixed. I’m sure it’s a decent enough slice of fantasy literature, and the premise is certainly intriguing enough on its own (set during the Thirty Years War, seemingly in an alternate universe where magic exists in our “real world”), but try as I might, the confusion factor is a big deal here. I have no frame of reference for who’s speaking in the voice acted narrative sequences, nor do Hansi’s lyrics ever really get specific with who the narrator is supposed to be or what’s their motivation in that particular moment. We’re aware of a plot being advanced, however clunkily, but there’s nothing really pulling me in to further investigate the story on my own. Setting aside opera and musical theater where we have the benefit of visuals to help tell a story that we can physically perceive, a studio recording is a difficult medium in which to tell a story that would be better served put to paper. And here’s the paradox of Hansi and Andre’s chosen approach here, that they’re trying to tell a story and create a wonderful, memorable body of music at the same time, but you can’t do both successfully due to the constraints of the medium. But if Heitz had himself written the sequel, or heck, if Hansi and Andre simply decided to write an orchestral album that was inspired by the story of the original “Die Dunklen Lande” book, thus being freed of the need to put down the plot in the lyrics, I guarantee they’d have cooked up more memorable songs. Basically they tried to do two things at once, and might not have succeeded in either, but of course that’s down to how well you enjoy the music, which is after all, chief among the reasons we’re even talking about this in the first place.

How to sum this up? There’s so much here that its been an overwhelming experience just to soak this album in on endless repeating listens. Truthfully speaking, when I have it on in the background and am busy working on other things, I find it an enjoyable listening experience. There are a myriad of micro moments that capture my attention briefly in a positive way, but they’re scattered across the album in haphazard fashion, and my attention span wanes when they’re lacking, as on the entirety of “In The Red Dwarf’s Tower”, which is the chief example of everything I could do without on a project like this. I certainly didn’t like that “Harvester of Souls” was a worse version of “At The Edge of Time” from Beyond The Red Mirror, and can’t understand why they reused the music at all. But Hansi sounds great throughout, and the orchestra sounds wonderful and dynamic (my friends in the r/PowerMetal Discord have been ripping apart the instrumental mixing of this record, but my ears are dumb to that kind of detail —- though I have heard an interview with the mastering engineer for this album state that the vinyl version is the best sounding one shrug). As I was researching this project and listening to any Hansi interview I could get my hands on, my heart would leap whenever he’d confirm that the next Blind Guardian album was already written and they were going to begin production this coming January. I realized after awhile that my reaction kinda said it all really —- I’m more excited about the next proper studio album a year out than the new orchestral album that just dropped a week ago. I’m relieved that I didn’t actively dislike Legacy Of The Dark Lands on the whole (that would’ve been a painful review to write), but I’m a little discouraged at my middling reaction towards an album that Hansi has been calling in those aforementioned interviews his and Andre’s greatest career achievement. After two decades plus of time and a heck of a lot of money devoted to it’s making, he’s earned the right to feel that way, but I know and you know that his and Andre’s defining achievement is Nightfall In Middle Earth. And it wasn’t the guitars that made that record truly spectacular —- it was the inspiration and passion that the band felt for the Tolkien source material, that they transferred through us like a conduit.

Ever Colder: Insomnium’s Heart Like A Grave

Almost a decade ago, Insomnium went from being a name I’d see occasionally tossed around online to one of my favorite modern metal bands, the kind you spend years obsessing over. Their 2011 album One For Sorrow hit me with the kind of emotional impact that had only been felt a few times in my history as a metal fan, and almost single handedly made the idea of melo-death relevant to me again. I went back through their discography, played the older records on repeat until I burned their melodies in my brain, and leapt at the chance to see them live on their tour opening for Epica and Alestorm. I detailed a little bit of this state of mind in the intro to my review for 2014’s Shadows of A Dying Sun, recounting not only my conversation with the band outside their tour bus, but how their music really became the soundtrack to a specific kind of environment. That was a late November gig, a rare day with the autumn chill pleasantly in the air (hoodie weather, as we call it in Houston) and grey overcast skies. There’s a half joking rule amongst a few friends of mine that you don’t listen to Opeth until November, I’m not sure if it was the song “Dirge For November” that brought this about, but I have to admit, Blackwater Park sounds sweeter in that space between Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps less rigidly, so too with Insomnium.

But Heart Like A Grave’s strength as an aching, bittersweet meditation on the toil of existence, loneliness, temporality, and decay is not a result of its autumn release date, but on being Insomnium’s most melodic offering to date. Its a melodicism that we associate with all these Finnish bands as a whole but frustratingly, credit is not often given to its source, that being the melancholic wellspring that was dug up on those early Amorphis and Sentenced records in the mid-90s. As for the latter, Sentenced have been a singularly overlooked influence on Insomnium that I’ve long banged on about (even writing on it), their signature bittersweet major/minor key melodies rippling through other Finnish bands like Charon and To/Die/For. Sentenced were cited as the sole reason that David Gold even put together Woods of Ypres, and that Sentenced DNA is clearly heard and felt throughout that band’s chaotic mix of extreme metal and more gothic stylings. Back to Insomnium —- I’m not just hearing what I want to hear, hell the cover art and title of Heart Like A Grave looks and sounds like a long lost Sentenced album between 2001-2005. Said cover, as well as the deluxe edition’s accompanying photography book was shot by none other than Sentenced’s drummer Vesa Ranta, who as a longtime professional photographer also designed and shot Sentenced’s gorgeous cover/sleeve art for The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. But musically speaking, I’ve always heard big and small strains of this influence throughout Insomnium’s older records, but here the band worked it deeper into the bedrock of their songwriting than ever before.

The extra dosage of this distinctly Finnish melodicism results in a tradeoff, this being the least overall aggressive album in the band’s discography, yet also the most emotionally deep and engaging. Not that you wouldn’t think lack of aggression was a factor once the opening riff to “Valediction” kicked in, it being the most outwardly attack-mode element on the album. I’ll admit that I was a little nonplussed about this song when it was first released as a music video a month or two ago. I’ve been vocal lately about being loathe to listen to preview tracks or watch music videos ahead of the album release, because it always seems that either the bands pick the wrong song from the album for this purpose, or more puzzlingly, the song doesn’t seem to work outside the context of the album. For whatever reason, “Valediction” is one of those songs, where it was “fine” in its music video form a few months ago, but mysteriously blossomed into an undeniable album highlight in the context of the album in full. Its a captivating song, built on the strength of Ville Friman (along with new co-clean vocalist/guitarist Jani Liimatainen) delivering gorgeous clean vocal melody passages that bookend Niilo Sevanen’s guttural thunder in the chorus. The accompanying dual lead melody is richly sweet, full of palpable emotional resonance, providing a striking juxtaposition against Sevanen’s all too bleak lyric: “Tonight, the world is burning / Black smoke hides the skies…”. The band carries this balancing act all throughout the record, because lyrically speaking, this is as bleak and downcast as Insomnium have ever been, gazing inward deeper than ever, while setting that perspective against the backdrop of an outside world that seems more uncertain than before.

This album is also loaded with the kind of abrupt one-off moments that made the songs on Across the Dark and One For Sorrow so memorable. I’m thinking of the decision to interrupt the dirty, grinding groove of “Neverlast” with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous dual guitar detour at the 2:17 mark. It’s the kind of choice that turns a merely good song into something excellent, and we hear another example of this on the epic, churning title track “Heart Like A Grave”. Its an album highlight not only for Friman and Liimatainen as vocalists, but in being perhaps one of the best things Markus Vanhala has written for any of his bands. A highly charged quasi-ballad, it turns into a revelatory gem at the 4:36 mark, where a desperately urgent yet exuberant lead melody surges forward and serves as the backdrop to Sevanen’s most passionately growled lyric on the album: “Years of disappointment / and disillusion / All I see in the mirror now / Is an old man with heart like a grave”. Vanhala was also the songwriter on another album standout, “Pale Morning Star”, where we’re treated to yet another gorgeous mid-song shift in direction, a wailing, aching guitar melody cut adrift, seemingly fluttering and gently swaying as though it were a kite in the wind. The fascinating storyline to this album’s construction is in its egalitarian approach to the division of songwriting duties, falling amongst four of the band’s five members, including new guy Liimatainen (yes he’s that Jani, of the first five Sonata Arctica records fame). The new guy delivers the music on “Mute Is My Sorrow”, writing a classic sounding Insomnium song with a bright, acoustic intro and rhythmically dynamic grooves, and he makes a co-writing appearance on two other cuts. Sevanen and Vanhala split the bulk of the songs, almost equally although Sevanen handles the majority of the lyrics. The biggest surprise here is that Friman is left with “Valediction” as his sole songwriting credit (music and lyrics), shocking because he alongside Sevanen was one of the band’s defining songwriters and architects on Insomnium’s albums up to this point. Its simultaneously bizarre, confusing, and thrilling that Heart Like A Grave sounds so emphatically like Insomnium despite one of its defining voices being so scaled back in the construction of the album.

This is a beautiful, haunting, anguished and ultimately comforting record, and the closest thing to the spirit of Sentenced’s last two albums that I’ve heard since the original funeral Finns called it a day. That matters a whole heck of alot to me, because while I felt that way when I first heard One For Sorrow, I have to admit that the years haven’t been good to Shadows Of A Dying Sun, and for a time that concerned me. For as positive as my review of that album was at the time of its release in 2015, I’ve found myself listening to it less and less as time has gone by, with only a few songs from it still on my playlist. I listened to it for the first time in full a little bit ago and there is something stifling about its glossier production approach that mutes the power of some of those songs, that tends to mesh them all together in one amorphous sound profile. I think if I’m being honest with myself, I felt that some of its songwriting also lacked the bold melodic inspiration that I’d come to associate with the band. It was an album written to be an Insomnium album in the mold of its immediate predecessors, but perhaps the band had run with one approach for an album too long and it showed in the songwriting quality. Its follow-up, the deliberately blackened and far more brutal Winter’s Gate was the extreme deviation that the band needed, not only in that they delivered an awesome record with it, but it helped them grab some distance from their “classic” sound so that they could come at it once again with some freshness. They’ve done just that with Heart Like A Grave, possibly the most inspired and poignant chapter in an already emotionally loaded discography —- and a fitting soundtrack to colder nights and pumpkin spice.

In The Heart of Summer: New Music From Abbath, Frozen Crown, and More!

Back with the most recent collection of accumulated reviews for albums that I’ve been listening to lately, and these really stretch the gamut in terms of release dates and the actual date that I started listening to them. The new Frozen Crown album for instance came out in March but got lost in the shuffle around then and didn’t resurface on my playlist until July (disappointed in myself for that one), and there’s some early summer stuff here that I wanted to have more time with. To change things up after the recent spate of lengthier reviews, I’m doing the shorter format once again (probably a recurring thing, bouncing between the varying lengths, it keeps things interesting for me). If you’ve been reading the site for awhile, you might guess that shorter reviews are harder for me to write, because it forces me to boil things down to the very essence, rather than spilling the broth everywhere on your screen. Disastrous metaphor I know —- its late, sue me.


Frozen Crown – Crowned In Frost:

It was barely a year ago that I was introduced to Italy’s Frozen Crown, who released their debut album, The Fallen King, in February of 2018. It became a favorite of mine, and made me reconsider my slight hesitancy to Italian power metal, something helped along by the recent strong offering from Ancient Bards. Its not all too surprising that they’re back so soon with yet another studio offering, I’m learning to expect this type of shorter lag time release schedule now from bands with limited touring availability and day jobs. What is surprising however, is how much of a leap in songwriting strength the band has achieved in such a short time. I’ll still have my personal favorites from their debut, but Crowned In Frost boasts so much more in terms of accomplished songwriting and a stronger stylistic identity, the band coming damn close to their unstated sonic vision of a Sonata Arctica / Wintersun fusion. It opens with two outright bangers, the first being lead off single “Neverending”, which mixes some nice, tight melo-death riff patterning under vocalist Giada Etro’s powerful straight ahead classicist power metal vocal approach. I compared her before to a mix of Brittney Hayes from Unleash the Archers and Kobra Paige, but she also possesses Tony Kakko’s innate sense of what to do with phrasing and syllabic timing. She turns in a devastating performance on “In The Dark”, her voice full of lift and soaring strength, and folks this song… this is a perfect example of what I love about power metal’s very essence. Four minutes and forty-four seconds of adrenalizing, empowering, spirit lifting fireworks that every band should hope to achieve.

They nearly reach these same heights again on the more melo-deathy infused “Winterfall”, where guitarist Federico Mondelli adds in some pretty solid melo-death growling vox and he and fellow guitarist Talia Bellazecca join in for some crushing tandem riffing in that satisfyingly dense melo-death style. The middle bridge here seems like a step into fresh songwriting territory for the band, a slower, epic build that seems reminiscent of UtA’s Apex. I hear this same similarity on “Unspoken”, a song that is at once a straight ahead, full-on rocker but there’s some complexity going on in the disparity between the tempos of guitars and vocals that’s a time-honored tendency of bands who are increasing in confidence and awareness as songwriters. Mondelli is a flourishing talent in this regard, and “Lost In Time” is one of those songs that points to this, the kind of almost ballad that is damn difficult for even experienced, veteran bands to pull off. The only real stumble on this record is minor, but I just felt a little too much repetition in “Battles In The Night”, which was perhaps more apparent given how unique and explorative the rest of these songs were (there’s also three relatively pointless instrumental tracks that they should start ditching on their next record, but we’ll let that slide for now). And its refreshing to hear a balanced mix on this record, Filippo Zavattari’s bass is clearly audible throughout and it was nice to not have the guitars fighting Etro for space up front. I can’t recommend this one enough, its the fun, frosty album this summer needed and everyone into power metal should be onboard the Frozen Crown dragon by now. These new crop of power metal bands are delivering new music at an alarmingly rapid rate (see Visigoth and Judicator), and we might be in the midst of a second golden age of power metal already.

Bewitcher – Under the Witching Cross:

Recently I went to see Striker play a gig on their tour with Holy Grail, wanting to experience the exuberant joyful performance that I witnessed a year ago when they opened for Unleash the Archers. They delivered, although the sound guy didn’t and left my ears ringing the next day while I looked for earplugs on Amazon, but the opening band on the tour more than made up for it. Portland’s Bewitcher pulled off that rare trick of impressing me when I knew nothing about their music going into it, and came away a fan not only of their intense, ferocious live performance, but of their songwriting as well. The description on Metallum says “Black/Speed Metal”, and yeah that’s about as accurate a summation as one could provide. Matt Litton’s (aka Unholy Weaver of Shadows & Incantations [!]) vocals never really stray into blackened death territory, having more in common with 80s thrash punkiness than anything resembling death metal’s gutturality. The track to YouTube preview is “Rome Is On Fire”, a compulsively addictive, head bashing battering ram of hooky riffing and delightfully spartan lyrics about the brewing wickedness in the declining Roman Empire. But I’m also partial to the title track, coming across as Riot trad-speed meat n’ potatoes meets Bathory’s smoke and fire. That the album sounds as kinetic and vital as the Bewitcher did live is a testament to not only the engineer here for the mix, but to the band who’s writing songs in a cross pollinated style where its often too easy to overdo the grime factor. Bewitcher seems to value memorability above all else, where its the melody guides the riffs, and that means they have to ensure that melodic brightness shows up on this recording, even if that means dialing back the dirtiness. Those looking for something more Entombed or Evocation might disregard this as too polished and compromised, but I think of it more as a solution to a tricky to master blend of metal.

Abbath – Outstrider:

I’m kinda glad I waited on writing a review for Outstrider, long after I discussed it on the podcast and expressed my then difficulty in deciding how I felt about the album at that time. The one thing I knew for certain was that I enjoyed the new Immortal album far more, but was questioning if that was even a fair comparison to make. Well, to answer that latter question now —- of course it freaking is! And no, its not just because direct comparisons are the meat on the bone for content succubi like myself, but because its a natural process that most fans of classic Immortal put themselves through whether they went public with their opinions or not. But the more instructive comparison is to pit Outstrider to Abbath’s self-titled debut, the latter being hamstrung perhaps by its half All Shall Fall followup and half Abbath plays rock n’ roll mishmash that prevented anything resembling album cohesion. The new album is a gigantic leap in improvement in that regard, seeing Abbath turn in a collection of songs forged in a fiery, speed-riffed black metal mold reminiscent of At The Heart of Winter. Oh sure, there’s some leftover hard rock styling imprinted on scattered moments here, like the wild guitar solo in the middle of “The Artifex”, but they’re more tasteful accents than structural shifts in the songwriting approach. The album works best however when Abbath remembers his old strength, to paraphrase Gandalf’s words to Théoden (nerd alert!), as on the highlight “Scythewinder” —- here he marries unrelentingly violent, battering ram verse passages to a dramatic, primal tempo-ed drum pounding middle bridge. Its a bracing reminder of just how good Abbath can be when he gets downright meat n’ potatoes-y with his songwriting, mixing in caveman styled slabs of simplified riffs and spacing to give the blistering black metal fury a little more definition. There’s more of this on “Hecate”, one of the catchiest songs on the album with a riff based hook one could almost call poppy for Abbath (almost). I also thought “Harvest Pyre” sounded better on my umpteenth listen whereas I was tending to dismiss it early on when first listening to the album, not sure why exactly, although I’m hearing several things coming to the surface here that I know I missed initially. I will admit however that there is a sense of frustration infusing my overall opinion here, the unshakeable feeling that this sounds like a fine transition album but that Abbath still sounds like he’s a little unfocused. At times these songs sound way too busy, that a little stripping down of excess riffs and some rearranging would go a long way to injecting some memorability in the mix. The only way to test that transition album theory unfortunately is to wait for the next one and hope its better. That and compare it to the next Immortal album of course.

Turilli / Lione Rhapsody – Zero Gravity: Rebirth And Evolution:

Lately I’ve been coming away relatively impressed by recent Rhapsody releases in any incarnation. Alex Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire has been putting out head turning records, particularly the highly enjoyable re-recordings collection Legendary Years in 2017, as well as this year’s The Eighth Mountain (for which I have no good excuse for forgetting to review). I’ve also enjoyed to a certain extent Luca Turilli’s two releases under his Rhapsody banner, though 2016’s Prometheus was a challenge to get into. More immediate then is the debut album from this third version of Rhapsody which sees Turilli reuniting with ex-Rhapsody/current Angra vocalist Fabio Lione. Its a collection of highly accessible songs in a style of Rhapsody that seems distilled of all excess pomp and grandeur, seemingly to match the more narrowly defined science meets futurism theme of the album title and lyrics. We gushed about the Elize Ryd duet “D.N.A. (Demon and Angel)” on a recent MSRcast, but there’s so much more here to love, particularly the rushing operatic pulse in “Zero Gravity”, where I’ve never heard Lione sound as nimble and versatile as a vocalist. He’s also terrific on “Multidimensional”, where he’s assisted by backing vocalist Emilie Ragni who turns in some incredible work herself all over this album, her voice a perfect complement to Lione, providing a higher register assist to really nail those epic, climbing refrains. The epic, Queen-influenced “I Am” is perhaps my favorite original (oh you’ll see) on the album, showcasing a layering of complex arrangements on piano and vocal harmonies and of course neo-classical wizardry on guitar that speaks to Turilli’s undiminished ability to weave these elements together into something that’s nothing short of beautiful. But weirdly enough, the track that really made me freak out was the cover of Josh Groban’s “Oceano” which is a bonus track at the end of the album, which for a few minutes I thought was a Turilli original and was demanding aloud why he wasn’t writing more material in this vein. Heh, well for good reason apparently, but Lione brings the house down on this beautiful slice of operatic pop, and the lightly metallic instrumentation gives it a boost of power the original sadly lacks. Would it be asking too much for these two to deliver an album of nothing but popera covers? Surely I’m not the only one who’d be into that right… right guys?

Idle Hands – Mana:

Perhaps the most simultaneously lovable and aggravating albums of the year, Idle Hands much buzzed about debut album took well over a few months to completely grow on me. It wasn’t for lack of an immediate fascination with the band’s Sisters of Mercy meets Tribulation amalgam of sound, or the truly inspired songwriting at work here, but more vocalist / guitarist Gabriel Franco’s penchant for irritating vocal eruptions. Its been a recurring complaint with newcomers to Mana, and one I’m glad to say becomes less of an issue over time (some of you might recall me complaining about it on the MSRcast a few weeks ago) if you just listen past them. Hopefully everyone has patience enough to indulge in these songs despite that annoying characteristic, because Franco is a compelling songwriter, a lyricist whose awkward directness reminds me of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and latter day Sentenced. His sense of melodicism and seemingly innate ability to craft indelible hooks results in some of the most addictive, earwormy songs I’ve heard this year. Its the icing on the cake that they’re all relatively unique as well: “Give Me To The Night” is a racing, full-throttled metallic rocker with post-punk lead guitar sensibilities; while my personal favorite “Jackie” is like someone dipped the poppiest slice of Charon in a fondue made of The Cult circa 1985. The song that’s got the peeps in the r/PowerMetal Discord fired up calling this the AOTY is “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?”, which Sonata Arctica cringe title aside, really is an unconventional epic. I’m kinda hooked on Franco’s pre-solo “8…7…6…” countdown before lead guitarist Sebastian Silva unleashes a gorgeous, fluid, character rich solo. In fact, Silva’s playing is perhaps the unheralded performance MVP of the album, even though most of the attention goes towards Franco’s stoic, stentorian vocals. His guitar approach actually reminds me of Roy Z’s work in Tribe of Gypsies at times, loose and quick on its feet, slightly Latin-tinged without leaning on cliches, and full of swagger and attitude. There’s so much to love about this album, and its been one I’ve been returning to for months now (this was a May release), I might have my minor gripes about Franco’s plethora of out of nowhere grunts and shouts, but they do kinda grow on you strangely. Push past them, ignore any cringe factor the lyrics might conjure for you and let yourself be treated to one of the finest collection of goth-metal songs ever recorded.

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