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.

Soundtracking Cataclysm: Sabaton’s The Great War

You can almost feel the inevitability of Sabaton’s star turn happening this very moment, particularly here a week out from the release of their ninth and newest album, The Great War. There’s the increasing profile of the past few years with bigger tours overseas and even here in the States where they were absolutely packing out venues across the country. There’s the mainstream chart positions achieved with 2016’s The Last Stand, the big festival slots, and more recent in the mind of the metal world, their coming to the rescue at Hellfest with a last second, vocalist-impaired filling in for the tantrum throwing headliners Manowar. I mentioned this on Twitter the evening that event took place, but it almost felt like we were witnessing a changing of the guard in a very particular way. Those events just don’t happen in a vacuum in the metal world, they leave imprints and change perceptions, forge goodwill, and even create new fans. For example, I’ve never really been into Trivium’s music, but I can’t help but root for Matt Heafy with this upcoming black metal project he’s cooking up, because I’ve enjoyed him in podcast interviews and he just seems like a passionate fan of black metal music. That’s how things work within metal it seems, we’re rarely black and white on issues —- great bands can have terrible albums, you might still enjoy a song or two from a generally mediocre band, and you loved a band’s live show but their album did nothing for you or vice versa. You might, like many have, scoff at Sabaton’s schtick and over-the-top earnestness with which they go about it, but enough people love them despite or perhaps because of those things. To wit, as of this writing, The Great War has debuted at #1 in Germany, #11 in the U.K., and if early projections are to be believed, #5 in the US (turns out this was physical sales only… but still!), which would make it the highest charting power metal album in history.

Its worth mentioning that although its only been three years since The Last Stand, this gap marks the longest time between releases for the band since their debut. Not only is that remarkable for a band that tours as much as they do, but points to a more concerted focus here, the need for extra time to dig deep into the research process for one of the biggest conflicts in history. They’d touched on World War I before, with the Passchendaele tribute “The Price Of A Mile” from The Art of War and “Angels Calling” from Attero Dominatus, but The Great War deep dives on subject matter from the conflict that was admittedly new to me. I’d of course seen Lawrence of Arabia and knew about T.E. Lawrence, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of Francis Pegahmagabow, Osowiec Fortress, and Alvin York were nonexistent. I also only had a cursory knowledge of Manfred von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron, due to a once burning interest in aviation when I was a kid. Maybe what’s added the extra time in Sabaton’s album cycle this go round was the development of their YouTube channel Sabaton History, where many of these songs and others from their catalog are deep dived into with the help of YouTube historian Indy Neidells. Its an entirely separate endeavor from their music of course, but this level of depth and attention to detail (not to mention commitment to their subject matter) lends credibility to the band’s continuing historical focus. At this point its dishonest to criticize it as merely schtick, because I don’t think you can fake that kind of thing to this extent. Clearly this is a burning passion for Joakim Broden and Pär Sundström, and while the channel is not necessary to enjoy their records, it adds something to the experience of listening to those songs after you’ve watched their respective mini-documentary vids.

Case in point, there are three versions of The Great War, a normal songs only edition, a soundtrack version that’s mostly just an extra dressed up instrumental edition (Floor Jansen makes a special appearance here), and the “History Edition” —- the latter of which includes a little 20-30 second framing intro by a well spoken narrator to help set the scene. Now normally I dislike narration within albums, there are a few exceptions of course, but even the audiobook ripped narration the band threw into The Art of War got a little tiring after the millionth listen. I assume the band must’ve heard that before so they shrewdly provided options for the listening experience this time around, and surprisingly enough, it makes a hell of a difference. The history version brings a thematic cohesion to the full album listening experience that is well paced, sets the mood, and pulls you in to pay attention to the songs for more than just the hooks, and frankly the normal songs only edition feels a little empty without it. Why is this different from The Art of War? I’m not sure exactly and who knows, ten months from now I might only be listening to the songs only version, but I do know that I never felt as positively towards the narration on Art’ as I do on the new album. It is to The Great War’s credit however, that we can compare it to that seminal album for more reasons than just the narration.

This is one of the strongest Sabaton albums to date, a rebound from the one dimensional mood of The Last Stand, with a thematic and narrative cohesion that places it next to Carolus Rex, The Art of War, and Heroes. In songwriting terms, they’ve benefited greatly by the simple fact that the subject matter this time has the breadth to be both darkly agonizing and shimmeringly heroic. The latter are as epic, soaring, and thrilling as we’ve come to expect from Broden’s experienced songwriting chops, as evidenced on album highlight “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”. Its recounting of T.E. Lawrence’s grand desert adventures in Arabia leading the guerilla war against the Ottoman Empire is set to a suitably swashbuckling vocal melody and horse sprint tempo. The other highlight in this vein is the hammond organ accelerating waltz rhythm of “The Red Baron”, a track that sounds not only slightly anachronistic in a strange way, but sees the band stretching their sound in fresh musical territory. Broden’s vocals in the chorus zip around the gang vocal melody chanting “Higher!”, all while the bouncy, light-on-its-feet uptempo keyboard blitz creates the feeling of a song that’s as aerial as its subject matter. The band dips back into a little orchestral bombast for “Devil Dogs”, loading its chorus with ample symphonic weight and choral backing vocals, a striking musical counterpoint to the subject matter of the US Marines storied battle at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Running counter to all this upbeat major key celebratory tone is the darkened, slower vein of the album, providing a much needed balance that The Last Stand lacked and suffered as a result from. Broden and company deliver a career standout in “Great War”, boasting one of his most effectively written refrains, anthemic and powerful in the vocal cadence and sympathetic and tragic on a lyrical level.

Speaking of which, this is where Broden really shines as a writer, when he places the listener at a shoulder to shoulder perspective with a narrator. The personal, first-person narration happening in “Great War”, about a brother lamenting the loss of his two siblings in the war and his mother’s grief is the kind of detail oriented lyrical bent that I wish Broden would engage in more often. I understand that not every song can work with that kind of lyric writing, either due to syllabic or rhythmic constraints, but when it can work he should make an effort to accomplish that. Its what makes a song like The Pogues “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” or Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” so powerful and effective, that humanizing individual experience set against the backdrop of a grander, dehumanizing experience. Continuing down the darker, more somber vein of the album, there’s “The End of the War To End All Wars”, as purposefully lumbering and deadened a vocal approach as Broden’s ever mustered. Its contrasted with powerful blasts of horns and choral vocal lines during the refrain and the culminating mid-song bridge. Similarly brooding is “The Attack of the Dead Men”, where the vocal lines are built in rhythmic, percussive patterns that serve as their own form of microhook and would likely not work without Broden’s thick brogue. I’m particularly fond of the more mid-tempoed “A Ghost In The Trenches”, a song with sharply written lyrics, cleverly phrased: “Just another man and rifle, a marksman and a scout revealed / Makes his way from trench to trench alone, moving undetected”. Criticize him for all too often writing lyrics that read like plain historical recounting, but Broden’s unique gift is in his occasionally thoughtful diction and memorable phrasing in particular. And I love the choral vocal reading of “In Flanders Fields” as an album closer, a band-less affair that is poignant and entirely unexpected and a little gutsy.

There are a couple moments here that don’t live up to the rest, like the album opener “The Future of Warfare”, which is an excellent intro but a relatively middling song. Not the kind of tune begging for inclusion in the setlist perhaps, but it works in the context of the album. I will say that “82nd All The Way” strikes a little too close to “No Bullets Fly”, and critics of the band will likely pounce on it as an example of the band repeating themselves. Its a valid criticism and to be honest it did prevent me from being fully engrossed in an otherwise decent song, but then again, Sab’s gonna Sab; they’ll sound like themselves no matter how much innovation they dare to interject in an album. Bands that sound distinctly like themselves (AC/DC, Iron Maiden) seem to be more open to criticism for repeating themselves than bands whose influences are easily discernible. And I started out a little lukewarm on “Fields of Verdun”, which seemed a little too straightforward structurally and weirdly joyful in tone considering the subject matter, but lately I’ve come around to it largely due to the strength of that earworm of a hook. The band sounds terrific all throughout as you’d expect, but particular mention should be made for new guitarist Tommy Johansson (ReinXeed / Majestica), who is a perfect neo-classical foil for Chris Rörland’s more meat n’ potatoes approach. Johansson’s playing is lighter, sleeker, and a little more unexpected in terms of solos, he seems to zag where you expect the zig. The band as currently constructed seems to be at its best with the most talented lineup to date (no disrespect intended to previous guitarist Thobbe Englund who actually helped Broden with songwriting on “Fields of Verdun”). This is a welcome return to form for Sabaton, one of their strongest, most thematically cohesive albums to date, and its arrived when at the exact moment when they needed to hit one out of the park. Its the kind of album that justifies their recent ascent to the top of the metal world, in chart positions, headlining festival slots, and a legion of fans. Manowar, you can clear the hall now.

The Neapolitan Reviews Pack: New Darkthrone, Gloryhammer, and Aephanemer!

Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!


Darkthrone – Old Star:

The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.

One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?

Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.

Aephanemer – Prokopton:

I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.

One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.

The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.

Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:

I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.

I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.

That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.

The First 2019 Summer Reviews Cluster: Myrath, Amon Amarth and More!

Too many new albums, not enough time, and somehow I still managed to get through a good many of them (though as usual, not all). How? By sneaking in listening sessions at the most inconvenient times when I’d usually just prefer silence or an episode of Bob’s Burgers as background noise. This might be the most economical, quick-dashed off reviews cluster to date in Metal Pigeon history, my focus here on being concise and straight to the point in one paragraph at most (with the exception of Myrath of course). Let me know in the comments below if I’ve forgotten something glaring or of course if you entirely disagree with something I’ve written! Again there’s more coming in the weeks ahead (with the exception of Sunn O)))’s much praised Life Metal… I tried, just not for me), so if you don’t see a particular album here yet, maybe it’ll show up down the line.


Myrath – Shehili:

This is only my second opportunity to review a new Myrath album, seeing as how I became a fan of the band in between the five year gap of 2011’s Tales of the Sands and 2016’s best albums list maker Legacy. In the review for the latter, I spent some lines pondering other ideas related to this band and their serving as a link to a geographic and cultural region that most listeners likely have few ties to outside of what they see on CNN. In light of recent news regarding possible war with Iran, I’d like to call attention to that sentiment once again although will refrain from rewriting it all out here. With Shehili, Myrath are back with a more regular release schedule in line with their first three albums, with the same line-up that recorded Legacy (its the second album for drummer Morgan Berthet). That to me is a pretty good indicator that there would be more of a continuity on Shehili with the more looser, celebratory, wild rock vibe that infused its predecessor rather than the prog-metal underpinnings of Tales. Typically speaking (though not always), when a band takes a long time between releases, five or more years lets say, expect that there’s going to be some deviation in sound from what they’d done before, for better or worse. Its just a natural byproduct of too much time passing in between songwriting sessions, new influences having time to creep into the mix, and a greater time to reflect on whats been done previously and what a songwriter would like to try doing next. The inverse typically works the opposite fashion, a band can carry over the essential musical variables they collected on a previous album to the new one because its what’s naturally on their brain in such a limited time after touring and immediately getting back to the studio process. Of course, we can all cite examples where both of these theories are blown apart, but Shehili would not be one of them.

That’s not to say that Shehili is a carbon copy of Legacy, but its built in the same muscular riffed, heavily orchestral, shimmering pop songwriting structures that defined the latter’s overall makeup. That’s largely a plus for me, seeing as I preferred the stuff they were doing on that album to the ones before it (I still enjoy the older stuff too), and with gems like “Wicked Dice” and “Stardust”, I get the same tingly feeling I felt three years ago. The former is maybe the best song on the album, with a compelling and deeply heavy, groove oriented rhythmic riff. The sudden rush of drama we hear in the chorus is one of the band’s most compelling moments, full of the kind of gravitas that Myrath handles so expertly. I love the depth of sound in “Stardust”, where the epic sweep of more straightforward symphonic orchestral elements support the theatrical push of vocalist Zaher Zorgati’s powerful performance. Its a rare Myrath song without an overtly Middle-Eastern sound palette, and surprisingly it works just based on the band’s raw musical abilities. Speaking of that distinctive palette however, I adore “Born To Survive” where the band marries slabs of groove oriented metal riffs to what sounds like a Berber folk music intro. Those trademark gorgeous Arabic violin melodies reappear during the chorus encircling the ascending vocal pattern, and its just pure ear candy for me. I could sit here and point out all the Middle-Eastern musical elements that I love but they’re so interwoven with nearly every facet of the band’s songwriting that isolating one over others seems random. Its in everything from the percussion fills, to the phrasing that guitarist Malek Ben Arbia employs in his creative lead guitar work, to Zorgati’s myriad vocal inflections. I’d say that nearly all my enjoyment from Myrath stems from their ability to marry that world of gorgeous ethnic sound to every facet of their songwriting —- the riffs and heaviness are just the pistachios on the baklava.

The interesting question here is that with Shehili coming relatively hot on the heels of Legacy, or at least soon enough to observe continuity between the two albums, how well does it hold up to its predecessor? I’d say fairly well, with a few caveats. Its a strong album on its own, but when things get a little too close comparison wise (at least from a fan’s eye point of view), Legacy has the upper hand. Take Shehili’s first single, “Dance”, definitely an enjoyable slice of rock n’ roll infused Myrath, but far too similar to Legacy’s “Believer” not to take immediate notice. Hell, there’s even the same split second pregnant pause just before Ben Arbia’s guitar solo in both songs. As much as “Dance” was a strong track, its not in the same league as “Believer” which had not only a euphoria inducing, life affirming chorus vocal melody, but the perfect build up to it in Zorgati’s lyrical cadence in the verses. It was swashbuckling and full of swagger, and “Dance” just doesn’t quite get to that same level. Similarly, the album stumbles ever so slightly on songs like “Monster In My Closet” which despite a dynamite chorus, features a series of verse sections that are more rhythmic than melodic, not playing to the band’s core strengths. I hear the same problem on “Darkness Arise”, which has some good ideas tucked within but they get a little lost amidst everything going on. I actually would have loved more of a lean towards the approach on “No Holding Back” and “Shehili”, both songs built on Zorgati’s inimitable ability to sound like he’s pouring everything he has into a singular expressive vocal melody. I guess the takeaway here from my perspective is basically, more melodrama infused melodies anchoring songs instead of rhythmic structures. That being said, this is still a tremendously enjoyable experience, Myrath just bring so much to the table that I love.

Ravenous E.H. – Eat the Fallen:

Ravenous E.H. (as in Eternal Hunger) are the latest in an ever growing line of new trad/power metal bands coming from the maple kissed north of Canada, in Calgary to be exact. That is starting to become a less and less surprising factoid, because Canada seems to be the new hotbed of metal talent within the past few years with no signs of slowing down. Ravenous E.H. tackle a familiar vein of power metal with cited inspiration from the likes of Hammerfall, Iced Earth, Grave Digger and Manowar but also claim to share a close affinity with modern day genre representatives like Judicator and Viathyn. Their debut full-length Eat the Fallen is fist in the air, headbanging stuff, and songs like “Strength of the Warrior” and “The Hunger Never Dies” do an admirable job of ringing familiar bells we’re all comfortable hearing. Jake Wright’s virtuosic guitar melodies are attuned to a wintry, folkish spirit, and vocalist Robert Antonius Voltaire has a vocal style that brings to mind the range of Matt Barlow with the baritone of Joakim Broden. There’s some genuinely exciting talent here, and the songwriting is far better than a debut often tends to be, at times even approaching true excellence. I think they find it on the album’s closer “Conquering the Sun”, a charging, martial ditty about armies crossing seas to kick in the gates somewhere (a tribute to the Dothraki and Unsullied perhaps?). There’s a fantastic chorus here, soaring with the help of choral gang vocal harmonies and made to stand out by wedging it in between slabs of punchy, regal melody adorned sections big on crunchy riffing. There’s something playful at work throughout this album too, just on the right side of swinging your beer horn and sloshing a little over the side in celebration. It’s gritty and grounded, full of enough melancholia to prevent it from joining the ranks of cheerful, chipper “battle metal” gaucheness. Lesser bands would have walked into that with their chins out.

Grand Magus – Wolf God:

Its been awhile since we’ve heard from Grand Magus, their last album Sword Songs coming three years ago, and perhaps too soon after its clearly superior predecessor Triumph and Power, a Metal Pigeon Best of 2014 list maker. This isn’t to say Sword Songs was an awful album, it had its share of solid moments, but it suffered from a series of bad decisions regarding the tempos on a handful of songs that either slowed things down to a point of draining their energy or sped them up in a way that this band simply doesn’t do well. Its a relief then to hear that they’ve decided to firmly plant themselves in mid-tempo rock n’ roll strut territory on Wolf God. Vocalist/guitarist Janne Christoffersson has seemed to always sound more at home in this rock n’ roll songwriting approach, with the metallic nature of the band’s sound coming in the thundering heaviness of the riffs and subject matter (add some Southern rock phrasing to the melodies, replace lyrics depicting the north and glorious battles with motorcycles and drinkin’ and Magus could sound like a pretty great American southern rock band). Its his wheelhouse, and I say that in a complimentary way. On songs like “Untamed” and “He Sent Them All To Hell” are built on ever-steady, in lock-step groove based riffs, while Christoffersson ushers things along with his lumbering, dryly impassioned vocal melodies. I’m big on “To Live And Die In Solitude”, particularly the stark storytelling in its lyrics, and also “Brother of the Storm” where stop-start riffing allows for Christoffersson to flex his soulful croon a little over ambient space. I kinda expected that Magus would rebound with this album, and glad to see my hunch was right, they’re too good a band to lay two semi-duds in a row.

Tanagra – Meridiem:

I’ve had a hell of a time wrapping my mind around this album, not because of any complexity or inaccessibility on its part —- Portland, Oregon’s Tanagra are a progressive power metal band and that’s familiar territory obviously. No, in this case its that I can’t quite figure out if I actually like the vocals of Tom Socia or not, which is a strange place to be after a couple weeks of fairly consistent listening. This is Tanagra’s sophomore album, they’re yet another among many newer North American bands playing a vein of melodic metal to come on the scene lately, having released their debut in 2015. The easy comparison here is Dream Theater in terms of degrees of light and dark, overall medium weight in heaviness, dramatic injection of keyboards, and of course a distinctive toned vocalist. But I enjoy Tanagra’s songwriting far more than DT’s, and there’s more of a Euro-power influence to the riffing that firmly anchors these songs in a trad/power posture than the loose, jazzy feel of other prog-metal bands. Socia is an absolute mystery though, because the mono-tonality in his clean voice is sometimes off putting and alternatively enjoyable in quick succession (or simultaneously in spots). When he leans into his more aggressive style, as on “Across the Ancient Desert”, he showcases a nicely gruff side to his vocal that is a perfect blend of melodic and metallic, and I’m really fond of all those moments. Look for this to be on a future MSRcast episode where I’ll try to sort out my thoughts on it more —- this is a quality record for certain, just a confusing one.

Månegarm – Fornaldarsagor:

The Swedish folk metal legends return after a four year absence, longer if 2015’s self-titled affair felt as off to you as it did to me. I only remember enjoying the acoustic ballads because that album’s muddy guitar tone annoyed me, and thankfully the Månegarm guys decided to abandon it on Fornaldarsagor in favor of a much more classic sounding approach. That decision and some other X factors resulted in crisply produced batch of blackened folk metal that is far darker and more convincingly brutal than I’ve heard this band ever sound. It barrels out of the gates that way with “Sveablotet”, a near perfect synthesis of everything the band does well —- rich Scandinavian folk melodies on violin and hurdy gurdy alongside flawlessly executed clean electric guitar, accompanied by harmonized group vocalization that recalls a little of Tyr and the brighter moments of Vintersorg, melded together with grizzled, smoky battlefield black metal. What Månegarm have always done so well however is to keep things accessible, with moments such as the wordless guitar melody refrain at the 3:30 mark of “Hervors arv” being ear candy I’ll return to over and over again. Vocalist Erik Grawsiö is still capable of his uncanny ability to blend together a gruff singing technique into some Johan Hegg-esque growls. This album is loaded with so many noteworthy musical moments in that vein, but my favorite slice has to be the entirety of “Ett sista farval”, whose melody is emblematic of the reason many of us love this subgenre in the first place. A return to form for Månegarm, and another shot in the arm for the slow revitalization of folk metal as a whole.

Riot City – Burn The Night:

Canada’s latest volley in the recent power/trad metal resurgence (I really need to come up with a name for that, any suggestions?), Alberta’s Riot City take their cue from classic early-mid 80s period Judas Priest and maybe a generous splash of Exciter here and there. There’s a level of technicality on the guitar work on “Warrior of Time” that instantly brings to mind the meticulous writing style of Tipton and Downing. Its all the more impressive when considering these guys are a four piece, the twin guitars provided by Roldan Reimer and Cale Savy, the latter handling lead vocals in a strikingly fierce emulsion of Halford and David Wayne. He has that chilling, eerily calm colder clean tone when singing melodically, and can turn it to Painkiller-esque hellion screams seemingly on a dime. If he’s capable of pulling this all off in a live setting, that’s a show I have to see for myself. There’s not a bum track in the bunch among these eight songs (keeping things old school with the classic vinyl album length here, a tight 37), and a few notable highlights battling it out for the best: “Burn the Night” is an absolute ripper, a blazing fast slice of classic speed metal with attention to razor sharp riffs and unrelenting intensity from start to finish. But I’m just as partial to “In The Dark” for its subtle shades of Euro-influence in those Helloween inspired guitar melodies wedged in the verses. I’m also digging the “Hot Rockin'” vibe on “Livin’ Fast”, a song that screams 1983 and would be tons of fun to gloryclaw along to at a gig. I just wonder what the idea of living fast means in 2019, or are Riot City purely soaking in the nostalgia hot tub and to hell with lyrical depth? Fair enough if that’s the case —- but Riot City’s challenge on future releases will be to expand on their influences that are so front and center on this excellent debut.

Enforcer – Zenith:

Its been intriguing to contemplate the dramatic evolution of Enforcer on Zenith, because I’ve associated them with hyper speed riffing and wild hard rock tones mixed with early 80s metallic attack —- to such a point that I have an archetype in mind of what they “sound like” (even if I can’t ever really remember a single song). Oh I like the band enough, I saw them live when they were supporting 2015’s From Beyond and enjoyed them thoroughly, particularly when singer/guitarist Olof Wikstrand attempted to kick a drunken, bottle throwing idiot in the face from the stage but thankfully missed and comically kicked the guy’s popcorn out of his hand (I know… popcorn, the Scout Bar is a quirky little venue). They were energetic and an absolute blast at that show, and it was easy to see why they stuck to their formula for their studio records. So I’ll be eager to hopefully catch them this coming fall on their next swing through town to see if and how these new songs come across live, because tunes like “Regrets”, “Sail On”, and “Zenith of the Black Sun” deviate in a striking way from the Enforcer playbook. The latter is hard not to compare to Hammerfall, and while I’m able to enjoy its mid-tempo classic power metal approach for what it is, its also illustrative of why Hammerfall is so damn awesome at this type of thing. Enforcer just can’t quite get the interlocking musical rhythm that these verses demand, but you could envision their fellow countrymen doing something terrific with them. I was a little more resistant to “Sail On”, whose chorus comes across as deliberately trying to invoke Styx that you wonder if its a weird inside joke among the band. Its to the point of distraction, but the song’s loose, strummed rhythmic structure also feels a little unsettled, like the band isn’t comfortable in this mode. I do think they nailed the power ballad “Regrets”, which is a close cousin to something The Night Flight Orchestra would tackle, a tune that will annoy many but genuinely please a few of us more inclined to the sappy stuff. This is merely scratching the surface of the strangeness of this album, and would you believe me if I told you there’s only a single track among its total ten songs that rings of classic Enforcer?! Its like the band decided to collect all their experimenting over the years and save it for one puzzling new album. One of the year’s weirdest releases but also one I’ll keep investigating.

Amon Amarth – Berserker:

I initially was blasé about the prospect of a new Amon Amarth record, and if I’m being honest its been awhile since I’ve been remotely interested in them, having never reviewed them for the blog before now. I’ve certainly listened to their many recent albums when they were initially released, more out of obligation than anything, and I should add that I don’t dislike the band. But at some point Amon went from being an exciting melo-death / power metal mashup to well… just more of that. I know, I know, they’re viking metal, but that’s an ideological label, not one that in any way describes their musical approach. Replace Johan Hegg’s consistent gruff/grim growling vocals with a Jorn Lande or Joacim Cans, and you have a bonafide power metal band because Amon’s melodies are bound tightly together between vocals and guitars. I decided to give Berserker a shot because I rather enjoyed the pre-release promo track “Raven’s Flight”, hearing something a little more aggressive in the opening guitar sequence and subsequent Gothenburg-ian percussive riff that reminded me of the signature moment in Dark Tranquility’s “Terminus”. Its a rare moment when the band seems to lean a little more aggressive, and that’s long overdue. Amon has for ages now needed their own Axioma Ethica Odini, that being Enslaved’s 2011 brief foray into a next level of speed, aggression and fury that we hadn’t heard from them before or since. While we don’t get that entirely on this album, its encouraging to hear Amon at least making a meager attempt.

Melodies have never been Amon Amarth’s weakness, they’ve always had an armload for each album and there’s no lack here. I’m particularly fond of the story driven “Mjölner, Hammer of Thor” with its dual guitar harmonies serenading Hegg’s growling melody (a strange thing to write but apt enough). The really fun moment is the pummeling bass driven assault that arrives at the 2:10 mark, something that I think could’ve been absolutely devastating if it were just a little faster, a little dirtier, and a touch heavier. If they could outsource moments like that to Unleashed or say Evocation, we’d be onto something awesome here. The heaviness returns in “Shield Wall”, as straightforward death metal as Amon might actually get, even though its speeds are just a notch above mid-tempo. The refrain here is excellent, nicely rumbling and propulsive, and the mid-song bridge with Tyr-ish battle drums pounding away is a nice Viking touch. But more often than not I just wish some of these songs would pick up the pace a little, such as “Crack the Sky” and “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge”, the latter of which has a few nice riffs that could’ve been more effective with more push behind them. I know this is a weird criticism coming from me, the power metal guy, about a band that has wholehearted power metal vibes bursting out of every song. Shouldn’t I be embracing that aspect? Again —- they do a fine job of those things… but I also grew up listening to death and black metal, and sometimes I wonder why Amon are a death metal band at all if they’re not going to better harness the potential of power that style can bring to the table. Insomnium had the right idea with Winter’s Gate, to use aggression, speed, and fury like a battering ram at certain well chosen moments —- not all the time, but enough to make it matter. There’s good stuff on this album, but every time I take a pass through its entirety, I’m left wanting for something more exciting. More of the same old with Amon Amarth I guess.

Springtime Metals: New Music From Eluveitie, Thormesis, Devin and More!

Alright back to music! Thanks for indulging the little detour I had to go on with the last update, and though I’m hoping it will be the first and last of its kind, you kinda get the feeling that it won’t be unfortunately. The good news is that the metal release calendar marches on, and its been a busy few weeks trying to juggle listening time for everything that’s caught my ear. The big release I’m reviewing below is obviously the new Devin Townsend album Empath, and we went pretty in-depth on the upcoming newest MSRcast episode that should be up very soon, in addition to discussing recent concerts I’ve been to. Speaking of, I found out I’m driving to Dallas in August to see Demons & Wizards, and let me tell you, as a Houstonian, driving to Dallas is something I’d only do for a select few artists. Hansi should be honored! Oh and Game of Thrones’ final season premieres tomorrow so even though its officially spring, I’m happy to say Winter Is Coming!


Battle Beast – No More Hollywood Endings:

After becoming very familiar with Finland’s glam meets power metal export Battle Beast with 2017’s Bringer of Pain, I felt an almost zen-like state of awareness in approaching their new album. I’ve achieved this mental clarity in part through observing and participating in critical discussions about them with the r/PowerMetal community and generally feeling less confused about the band’s own schizophrenic tendencies that had left me puzzled in the past. I think what really helped however was seeing them live for the first time on the Kamelot tour in 2018, where simply watching their performance provided some insight into how this band sees itself and their music post Anton Kabanen (now Mr. Beast In Black in case you didn’t remember). My takeaway was equal parts Roxette / Dokken / and Twisted Sister, which is inherently fine, but it was good to get clarity (creating emotional epics ala Tuomas Holopainen isn’t their bag). Now I’m not sure how much thought the band put into titling the album No More Hollywood Endings, but its striking that both the cover art and arms wide, grandiose, arena ready anthems on this album directly contradict it in sound and spirit. The move towards this centering of their sound was suggested on their last record, and consolidates here on moving away from the Judas Priest-ian influences of their early records and more towards the Roxette meets Sabaton vibes that they’ve realized vocalist Noora Louhimo does better than most. She’s a phenomenal singer in terms of pure tone, grit, and delivery; the kind of voice that is able to coat a veneer of believability over the most lackluster lyric.

These songs place Louhimo front and center not only in the mix, but in the center of the overall songwriting approach, a wise decision that allows keyboardist Janne Björkroth, guitarists Juuso Soinio and relative new guy Joona Björkroth (who’s also the founding guitarist for Brymir, whom I review below) to lean hard towards pomp-tinged Avantasian power metal as on the opening rush of “Unbroken” and “Eden”, but also veer off towards the sultry modern pop meets glitter rock mash up in “Unfairy Tales”. The latter pulses and struts on the back of a fat, ultra-processed riff in the mold of Bon Jovi’s “Its My Life”, blossoming into skyward chorus that would’ve yielded a straight up hit in the 80s. And that’s not just Louhimo’s uncanny similarity to Ann Wilson as a vocalist suggesting that, but the actual construction of that stepladder nature of the bridge, and runway sized room available for the vocal hook in the refrain. This largely retro feel continues on the shoulder-padded, too many bracelets on two wrists Bonnie Tyler vibe of “Endless Summer”, and while I’m all too happy to eat this melodic jello with a plastic spoon, your tolerance may or may not be up for it. But its not all nostalgia soaked throwbackery, as the band gets a little inventive on the title track, concocting a strange waltz with ABBA-inspired guitar melodies and dance-pop keyboard motifs, reminiscent of something you’d hear Amberian Dawn dabble in with their unabashed love for the glorious Swedes. I particularly enjoy the drama of Louhimo’s vocal melody here, veering wildly from romantic anguish to Broadway stylized theatrics, and utterly ridiculous video aside, I thought it was a rare experiment from this band that actually worked. They have a track record of trying ambitious stuff like this and falling on their face, so this is progress —- in fact the whole record is surprisingly solid and at times even worthy of a roadtrip playlist inclusion or two.

Brymir – Wings of Fire:

Hailing from Finland, Brymir is one of those bands that I forgot I heard before for a reason I can’t hope to remember. Maybe its because their name was too close to Houston’s own Brimwylf or maybe its because I remember their debut coming out on Spinefarm in 2011 with a lot of hype behind them proclaiming them to be the next Wintersun. I barely remember anything from their debut, so that clearly wasn’t the case, and I must’ve just slept on their 2016 sophomore effort, but I’m glad to see they’ve sliced the gap of time between releases even further with Wings of Fire, their third album. More than that though, I’m beyond glad that this is a seriously thrilling affair, a thoroughly convincing slice of epic melodic death metal strutting around the castle with its symphonic metal overcoat. I’ve been listening to this consistently for the past couple weeks, and it took me a minute for it to dawn on me that I was finding myself missing it when I skipped it for a few days earlier this past week. I can’t speak for the past, but right now is all that matters, and on Wings of Fire, Brymir come across to me as the heavier end of Wintersun spiced with a little Children of Bodom and Suidakra for thrashy spice and smoky pagan flavor respectively. I think this particular vein of melodic meets extreme metal is particularly difficult to pull off this well, because there’s always the trap that you’ll lapse into pretentiousness if you’re not self-aware during the songwriting process. Brymir seem to have that awareness in spades however, and I love that their choice for the cover art is vividly anime influenced, suggesting they have a good feel for the visual spark their music might be conjuring in some of our minds’ eyes.

About that music then, there’s so much worth pointing out here, but overriding everything is that I find the band’s sense of wildly adventurous pomp lovable and refreshingly devoid of pretentious that can so easily cloud a merging of this specific kind of musical approach. You get a sense of that right from the opening gates of “Gloria in Regum”, a perfectly blended mix of orchestral surge and clamor, pummeling rhythm section and a ripping solo at the 2:52 mark. Or in the stuttering effect laid on top of the vocals in “Hails From the Edge” at the 2:25 mark that sounds like its something pulled from the BT playbook. Speaking of vocals, Brymir screamer Viktor Gullichsen has an approach that could arguably be described as a blackened version of what Jari Maenpaa or Mors Principium Est’s Ville Viljanen does, which is really the right way to go for Brymir’s melodic approach (grunting death metal vocals would just distract). The well chosen single, “Ride On, Spirit”, is one of the album’s highlights, a mix of a quiet folk intro and blasting symphonic backed riffing that erupts like a volcano. I also enjoyed Noora Louhima’s guest vocals on “Anew”, despite that songs borderline questionable spoken narration that uncomfortably sounds like Timo Tolkki speaking from on high. My personal favorite however is “Chasing the Skyline”, not only for its melancholy, distant sounding opening, but for that absolute stunner of a chorus that is just on the right side of ridiculous (noticeable Stratovarius / early Nightwish vibes popping up here, love it). A spectacularly fun album that I can’t stop listening to.

Devin Townsend – Empath:

I suspect that Empath will the point of entry for a lot of new fans to the wide and frankly weird world of Devin Townsend. In the months and weeks leading up to its release, I had noted an inordinate amount of buzz surrounding this album, much of which involved its striking cast of guest artists, but also on its rather risky, expensive price tag it cost to make it. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention before with his previous albums, but I’m usually a fairly astute observer of these things, and nevermind that my MSRcast co-host Cary the Metal Geek might be the biggest fan of Devin’s in all of Texas —- so I’ve heard about Devin’s releases before, but not with this level of volume. Going back to the album’s price tag for a minute because that is an eyebrow raising amount ($170,000 of his own money, not counting the amount the label put in for promotion) for an independent metal album in 2019, I wonder if that’s not fueling some of the extra interest that I’ve detected surrounding its release. I suspect that metal fans in particular love the idea of a band or album that is rife with ambition, and the media buzz around this album is drawing in a few more ears, with the knowledge that Devin has been vocal about needing this album to succeed in order to continue financially (enough to provoke even the most passive person to click on a link to a YouTube video to find out for themselves if he might just be able to). In 2004 when the music industry wasn’t in as quite a transformative state as it is today, Therion spent 100,000 Euros on recording two albums in Lemuria and Sirius B. While that wasn’t even a minor headline back then, and it was money Nuclear Blast provided for a recording budget, it still had to be recouped, so the band avoided music videos, toured for years and managed to pull it off. With Empath, Devin is already in the hole to the record company as well as himself, spending all of the 150k he managed to net from re-signing his back catalog. Yikes. The early good news however is that the album is landing some of his highest positions to date, particularly in the third largest music market of Germany where he’s nearly cracked the top ten.

As for myself, I think all of the above drove my interest in giving Empath particular attention that I’d never given to any prior Devin release, even setting aside knowing that it’d be a big topic on an episode of MSRcast. This album has been a challenge to wrap my mind around admittedly, my first impressions just being somewhere in the ballpark of “this is a lot”. And it still is to be truthful, I still have trouble processing all of the 23:33 running time of the epic “Singularity”, even though its opening five minute “Adrift” passage is so gorgeous I’ve come back to it over and over. The rest of it is a challenging listen, but there are little spots here and there where my interest is piqued, things I wish he’d repeat a few more times or develop into something larger (the Anneke van Giersbergen vocal passage in the “Here Comes The Sun!” suite is one of them). I realize that track was a large chunk of the album’s 74 minute running time, so that might be something of a black mark on the album so many listens into it, but its one that I feel okay about letting go. I enjoyed most of Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful while simultaneously decrying the disjointed nature of its 24 minute closer “The Greatest Show On Earth”. Conversely, I found enjoyment in Empath’s far more concise yet utterly weird tracks, such as “Sprite”, with its almost trance influenced approach towards electronically manipulated repeating vocal lines, strange jumble of rhythmic sounds and jarring musical elements that barrel their way forward without warning. I’ve been re-discovering my love of 90s and early 2000s electronic music lately, particularly trance and progressive house and I have a feeling that listening to all that stuff lately has groomed my headspace to easily accept something
unorthodox along these lines.

I’m of course relatively unaware of the musical directions Devin’s explored throughout his back catalog, but I was impressed enough by the bold, whimsical theatricality of “Why?”, a song that might be my favorite on the record. It actually reminded me of something off the aforementioned Therion and their Beloved Antichrist opera from last year, a tune that seems more classical aria than pop ballad as we know it. His vocals here are rich and emotive despite their purposeful over the top nature, particularly at the 3:10 mark during the heightened swell of the songs climax —- he could be a guest tenor on a Sarah Brightman record during that sequence. On the complete opposite end, “Hear Me” was a compelling uber-aggressive moment ala Strapping Young Lad, and it was interesting to hear how Chad Kroeger’s guest vocals fit into the chaos (it sounded good, but its a little hard to discern his voice from Devin’s). The percussion here courtesy of Samus Paulicelli is dizzying by the way, and its worth checking out this clip of him recreating his recording. Then there’s the love it or hate it proposition of “Spirits Will Collide” with its heart on sleeve lyrics that are admirable in their anti-suicide plea, sort of a spiritual cousin to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”. I’ve seen a decent amount of polarizing reactions to this one, and while I’m one of the few who don’t go towards either end, I think its a well constructed song in terms of its pop hook actually affecting sparking a listener’s pathos if they’re personally inclined to allow it. As some of you know, I listen to Sarah Brightman records, so this is the kind of syrup I’ll gladly pour over my pancakes, except that I think the song is diminished a bit with the harsher vocals. I’d love to see an alternate version surface, something more in the vein of this cover. It feels like it could’ve been a home run power ballad but maybe there was some thought that it might’ve been a little too much. I appreciate Devin’s admitting that Enya was an influence on the choral verse melodies, because I heard the structure of “Only Time” straight away on first listen. One of the most buzzed about albums this year is definitely worth all the noise, and for his sheer creativity alone, I hope he makes his money back.

Thormesis – The Sixth:

This was something brought to my attention via Justin of the Mindfudge Podcast when he guested on a recent MSRcast episode, and I’ve been binging this album ever since. Thormesis are a German band that have delivered five apparently unremarkable albums of epic pagan black metal ala Moonsorrow sung in their native language, thus going fairly unnoticed by most of the metal world. Now full disclosure, I haven’t had a chance to check out their back catalog, but I’m trusting the opinion of someone who has, so take my appraisal of their back catalog with a grain of salt. What matters is explaining why they’ve really hit upon something remarkable with The Sixth, and that’s at once a simple and complicated proposition. There so many elements at play here, furious tremolo riffing over frenetic blastbeat passages, hard rock influenced splashes of lead guitar overlays, an Ensiferum-esque way with pagan metal styled choral vocals, and a noticeable post-rock production wash (dare I say black-gaze-ish?) that permeates the pores of these songs. What brings all these together in as compelling a manner as they are is the satisfyingly earwormy sense of melody that’s ingrained in the songwriting. Yes this is an album full of discordant chord progressions and abrupt tempo shifts, the sort of thing that makes black metal the extreme noise chamber it can often be, but on The Sixth, Thormesis grab hold of those seemingly uncontrollable elements and tame them with some of the strongest melodies I’ve heard on an extreme metal album in recent memory.

We hear this on the very first measures of the album opener “Sonnen”, with its tail-riff segmenting approach to the verse passages (check the :25 second and 1:17 marks). Its something from the hard rock playbook that not only gives a clear, discernible structure to an otherwise chaotic rhythmic attack, but serves as the song’s motif, an approach I often wish more black metal bands would employ. But there’s so much more here to unpack, the gorgeous, melancholy keyboard fragments that gently glide over everything three minutes in, and the lead vocal duet between guitarists Tino Krüger and Benjamin Rupp, who apparently share vocal duties throughout the album. The worryingly titled “Their Morbid Drunken Ways” initially conjured up images of some kind of Finntroll level disaster, but thankfully its more along the lines of Sentenced in its melancholic, aching melody that’s loosely draped across a mid-tempo, Katatonia-esque quiet and thunder juxtaposing. I hear that same Sentenced / Insomnium melodic tone in the opening phrasings in “Chor der Toten”, which might be my favorite song on the album. And its not only because of that awesome rock guitar bend at 2:11 that steers us away from one of the album’s most fierce passages to a beautiful, satisfying guitar solo; its the dramatic, isolated tremolo fragment stirring in the ether that builds up to that visceral explosion at the 4:07 mark, like a roller coaster careening down from top of the highest hill. These are songs largely built around musical hooks, not conventional pop formatted vocal hooks, but there are times when the band get daring enough to employ unconventional vocal motifs such as on “One Tear For Every Last Burning Soul”, where clean vocals erupt in something like funeral wailing. It sounds weird but trust me it works, particularly when its fit in between crystalline synths and soaring, emotional guitarwork. If you’ve been looking for something to blow you away in the first half of this year, you need to check this out regardless of your tolerance for black metal because The Sixth is a transcendent release.

Eluveitie – Ategnatos:

I have to admit, even with the hindsight of enjoying Eluveitie’s first post major lineup schism release in the largely acoustic Evocation II: Pantheon, that I didn’t expect this band to emerge stronger after the loss of vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Anna Murphy, guitarist Ivo Henzi, and drummer Merlin Sutter. They might have nailed that acoustic album out of the park, even bettering the first volume, but the real test would come when the band returned to its melodeath meets folk metal core sound. I’m not gonna keep you in suspense, they really have pulled it off, convincingly I might add. And I’m beginning to wonder if the key to this successful transition was simply stumbling upon the right vocalist in Fabienne Erni as Murphy’s replacement. I raved about Erni’s vocals on Evocation II, her vibrant, lightened vocal tone a perfect match for that album’s material in giving it a breezy, brighter feel than I suspect Murphy would have been able to. It turns out her voice pairs equally as well next to pummeling rhythm sections and Gothenburg patterned riffing as on “Deathwalker”, an early in the tracklisting highlight and my current favorite on the record. Chrigel Glanzmann is still obsidian throated in his melodeath delivery here, but his side by side vocal duet with Erni on the chorus over intense riffing works surprisingly well, her voice powerful enough to hold her own against his and still sound strikingly opposite in tone and texture. Its a compelling song, and a fairly perfect portrait of everything that makes Eluveitie so distinct and unique even amongst other folk metal artists.

There’s another standout cut in “The Raven Hill”, where Erni’s hypnotic lead vocal entrance sets a mystical mood that amplifies the already elevated strong folk tendencies coming through here. Hurdy-gurdy from Michalina Malisz, fiddle courtesy of Nicole Ansperger, and Matteo Sisti on bagpipes work up a gorgeous, rustic folk melody that’s echoed by Glanzmann’s trademark whistles. Even here his harsh vocals are met stride for stride with Erni’s excellent vocals, and I particularly like the ending echoing the intro, with her guiding the way out of this smoky wood we’ve all obviously been hanging out in. There’s a few cuts on here that are pretty much full on melodeath with Glanzmann at the helm, and as on previous Eluveitie albums I’m generally fine with them, although they’ve never been the best cuts on the records and that’s the same situation here. I’m a fan of this band for the folk metal elements, and they tend to come around more when Erni’s at the very least taking a 50/50 role at the vocal helm as on the darker, aggressive “Threefold Death” and the pop soaked “Breathe”. In that respect, “Rebirth” is another album highlight for cleverly managing those elements so well, and for Erni’s handling of her vocal melody. It was also a risky but nice touch to add in a few little instrumental vignettes like “The Silvern Glow”, things I usually tend to frown upon but Eluveitie wisely kept these very much tied to the acoustic spirit of the music in Evocation II, kinda linking these two albums together based on its identical line-up. This is a sixteen track long album but if you subtract those few cuts its still a more than respectable thirteen song proper album, with a meaty running time. Its been awesome to see this band make its full comeback from a rough patch in its lineup history, and they’ve made an album that lives up to the best of their catalog.

Cellar Darling – The Spell:

Its uncanny that once again a new Eluveitie and Cellar Darling album are not only appearing back to back in one of my review clusters, but that yet again its not because I’m trying to be deliberately provocative by doing so —- in fact, these two albums were released within two weeks of each other. Its a close mirroring of what happened in 2017 with Eluveitie’s Evocation II: Pantheon and Cellar Darling’s debut This Is The Sound. Being that I’m a reviewer that is always going to get to albums late, after I’ve listened to them enough times to feel comfortable writing about them, a side by side comparison is too intriguing to pass up. However, a note of advice to both bands, particularly Cellar Darling, you both are on Nuclear Blast Records, surely it can’t be that hard to coordinate with the label to steer clear of each other and give yourselves some breathing room around your release dates. Its not that I think discerning fans can’t separate the two albums and make their own value judgments, but the proximity can only provoke a direct comparison to their ears too, and so many of those fans were upset when Anna Murphy / Merlin Sutter / Ivo Henzi and Eluveitie split, and considering the reason for the split was each side not liking the other’s ideas about musical direction —- well, don’t be surprised if some of those fans feel the burden of that conflict on themselves in hearing both of these records. I wasn’t all that bothered by the split myself, intrigued certainly, and I felt sympathy for Murphy and company, enough to hope that Cellar Darling would be something I’d really enjoy. Their debut was a shaky start, but I think most of us were willing to forgive that and hope for more interesting material the second go round, but on The Spell the band finds themselves with no new ideas, a worrying sign. You can see where this is headed, and its a bummer to say that The Spell isn’t an improvement on its predecessor.

I wish I could offer up a highlight here, but truthfully I’ve struggled to find one for these past few weeks, and I’ve internally groaned every time I’ve had to make another pass through the album to see if anything else clicked. The most emergent song from these hesitant listening sessions has been “Insomnia”, which marries a metallic degree of heavy riffing to isolated hurdy gurdy melodies to set up a soaring chorus where Murphy reminds us just how well she can get her rather earthy voice sailing through the air. I’d like the song more if it retained a sense of kinetic flow throughout, instead of the ambient passages within where nothing interesting is really happening. When you have a genuinely affecting hook, plug it in as often as you can without coming across like Haddaway. I also liked the dirty, ground in feel of “Freeze”, where Murphy’s vocals merge with a distant rhythmic grumble to come across like a close cousin to The Cranberries “Zombie” (before that awful radio rock band decided to ruin that song for everyone). A similar problem crops up on “Love”, which has a pretty solid hook that gets plugged a little more, but the connective tissue is missing in terms of crafting a compelling song from start to finish. But its a song like “Drown” that I have a really hard time with, its aimless riffing and lack of any kind of binding melody (even in the vocals) just result in a soupy mess of ideas that go nowhere. On the title track, Murphy juxtaposes elements of a pop chorus with a high pitched delivery of a specific line in a manner that is certainly memorable, but not exactly enjoyable. There’s a similar problem with “Hang”, where Murphy explores the full sweep of her vocal range, and she sounds great to her credit, but the song lacks a compelling motif to tie everything together (but given its lyrical narrative, perhaps that was intentional?). I’ve toned down what was initially a scathing review because I began to consider that a lot of Murphy’s fans will love this kind of stuff and might find it perfect for them. But for myself, it really puts the entire Eluveitie split into perspective and has me siding with them —- if this more bland, generic rock riff direction was what the Cellar Darling crew had in mind for the direction in their previous band, then I don’t blame the Eluveitie camp for balking. They’ve doubled down on what the essence of that band’s sound to deliver two really excellent folk-metal albums, and Cellar Darling are doing… whatever this is.

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