As Therion fans, we’re right in the middle of a glorious time period where contrary to the past decade of mostly silence, new music is being released at a nearly year or two clip that hearkens back to their late 90s run of continuous yearly album releases. The band’s newest effort is part two of the ongoing Leviathan trilogy, of which part one premiered in January of 2021 and wound up topping last year’s albums of the year list in a landslide. At the time of it’s release, Christofer Johnsson detailed out in interviews the overall plan for the trilogy, with the first album being the more epic, bombastic songs, while the second album would focus on the band’s more dark and melancholic side (album three to follow is said to be a diverse album collecting the more adventurous, heavier, and even folk-ier songs from the Leviathan sessions). The overall conceit for the Leviathan era is that Johnsson eyed this as a final frontier for the band, having tackled all the ambitious projects they’ve wanted to in the past (particularly with the recent metal opera Beloved Antichrist), they set about trying to write material that their fans would have wanted, something previously anathema to their process. Johnsson has described it himself as the challenge of trying to write a classic Therion “hits” album, and you get the gist of what he’s talking about, of trying to reimagine the essence of their most beloved and popular songs (because yeah there’s no actual chart hits in the Therion catalog to speak of singles wise). It’s an idea that is as wildly ambitious to me as any zany French pop covers album or grandiose metal opera, largely because it’s so infrequently done even within the tradition bound world of metal, to purposefully attempt such a thing.
The Leviathan sessions yielding more songs than Johnsson had anticipated is what’s led to this one album becoming a trilogy, and I’m grateful for that, it seemingly making up for all the quiet years in one fell swoop. And more specifically to Leviathan II, this album’s focus on the band’s more softer, melancholic side is something that I really appreciate because so much of those glorious late 90s albums were loaded with music in this vein. Classic gems such as “Birth of Venus Illegitima”, “Clavicula Nox”, “Raven of Dispersion”, “Eternal Return”, “Ship of Luna” — just to name a few, these were the songs that really made me fall in love with the band when I first discovered them sometime in 2000-ish when I randomly stumbled upon the band in a record store. Don’t get me wrong, I love their metal side, from the early death metal to the symphonic metal bombast, but Johnsson has always had a magical way with the band’s softer melancholic side, writing beautiful melodies and crafting for them inspired arrangements. It’s within this dichotomy that Therion’s sound exists, making them one of the most compelling artists in the symphonic metal world (and legit pioneers deserving of that title). And though Leviathan II touches upon the same fundamental elements that characterized those aforementioned classics, it also picks up where its immediate predecessor left off in being a very vocal driven album, as opposed to the very instrumental forward nature of late 90s Therion.
There are a couple moments on this album where this Leviathan I / Gothic Kabbalah esque vocal melody driven approach meshes with that older instrumental forward style, namely on “Cavern Cold As Ice”, and the lead single “Pazuzu”. The former might just be the most instantly accessible song on the album, with uptempo metallic riffs setting a quickened pace and Spanish vocalist Rosalía Sairem’s plaintive, rose tinted voice narrarating the song with a hooky vocal melody and genuinely emotional inflection in her performance. It might be the most, how should I say this… snappy(?) Therion song ever recorded at a quick 3:25 run time, but in keeping with the Leviathan playbook, its direct and to the point even as it eschews sheer heaviness in favor of bittersweet melancholy. As wonderful as Sairem’s performance is there, Thomas Vikstrom shines on “Pazuzu”, his regal tenor and alternating rough hewn clean metal voice both combining to spectacular effect on a fantastic track. The guitar solo here at the 3:07 mark is the vintage Therion approach to guitars, right out of the Accept and Scorpions playbook of wild, tastefully articulated 80s metal tinged goodness. It’s an interesting choice as the first single because I think it’s a bit of a grower as a song overall, but it does have enough of a balance of uptempo rockin’ riffs and a haunting, mysterious aura that might make it the likely candidate to be picked if not the most representative of the rest of the album. As an interesting aside, they’ve also included an “AOR” version of “Pazuzu” here, with well… AOR styled hard rock vocals in place of the classical tenor in the original version, and its a coin flip in deciding which I prefer because both have their strengths. Eclipse vocalist Erik Mårtensson contributes to both, and I’m actually having trouble discerning which parts he’s singing compared to Vikstrom because their tones get fairly similar at points, but either way both guys deliver the goods.
The most classic sounding song here is clearly “Lunar Colored Fields”, with its gentle soprano vocal introduction and subdued, evocative string arrangement sounding all the world like something that would’ve fit perfectly on Vovin or Deggial in all their heavily instrumental glory. The choral vocals that spring up when the song steps up the tempo a bit in the middle bridge are vintage Therion, dramatic and impactful while still casting a regal glamour over the soundscape. That uplifting, ascending choir at the four minute mark recalls shades of something like “The Wondrous World of Punt” from Sirius B, sharing the same sonic feel of spiritual ecstasy that makes for a transcendent listening experience. Similarly the elegant and mysterious balladry of “Hades and Elysium” has that distinct late 90s Therion feel, and I think it might be my personal favorite on the album for its sheer simplicity and utter beauty. Longtime Therion soprano Lori Lewis and Leviathan I’s star alto/soprano Taida Nazraić team up on this song and exchange gorgeous vocal passages to weave together the dreamy starscape that blankets across every second of this piece. Lewis is a Therion institution, her continued presence on Therion albums even though she’s not a part of the live lineup anymore is credit to Johnsson knowing he shouldn’t let go of a killer talent if at all possible. Nazraić is heard on four songs across this album, and though she doesn’t have a star turn like on Leviathan I’s “Tuonela” or “Die Wellen der Zeit”, her presence is heard in impactful moments throughout. Of particular note on “Hades and Elysium” is the flute playing of frequent Haggard musician Cătălina Popa, who I remember from her excellent work on the recent Suidakra releases.
On the heavier side of this melancholy drenched album, there’s a few noteworthy cuts worth pointing out, particularly “Codex Gigas”, a meaty and cleverly structured slow burn built on doomier riffs and thundering percussion. Vikstrom owns this song, his rich vocals full of drama and splendor in that killer chorus, one of the most satisfying hooks in recent Therion memory, particularly towards the finale when he’s joined by the Hellscore choir in all their glory. The heaviest jam here is “Midnight Star” where thundering riffs anchor aggressive verse passages with Chiara Malvestiti’s operatic singing gliding over the top, and Vikstrom swooping in like a hawk during the chorus with some of his most heavy metal sounding vocals ever. The song abruptly changes it up halfway through into a quieter, moodier introspective passage, with ghostly choirs, spare chord sequences, and a gradually building grand finale that gently subsides with an accordion sounding folk finish on the keyboards. Similarly on the bizarre and heavy side of things, we get some near death metal vocals on “Lucifuge Rofocale” (courtesy of one Chris Davidsson apparently… Johnsson himself has long retired from handling vocals himself), a first for a Therion album in years (perhaps Sirius B / Lemuria was the last time this happened?). The vocals here by all involved (including Hellscore Choir’s founder Noa Gruman in a solo spot) are incredible, but the highlight on this song is lead guitarist Christian Vidal’s smoking solo that leads the outro, a complex, highly articulate figure that at one point syncs up with the choir in the background to satisfying effect. It’s been hard for Vidal to really shake off the shadow of Christian Niemann to my ears, the latter just cast that large of a presence on Therion’s music during his era, but Vidal has really begun to make his mark on the Leviathan albums.
I’ve thus far neglected to talk about the first two opening songs here, but that’s not because I find them inadequate, on the contrary they’re all incredibly sharp in their own right, but their uptempo nature threw me for a loop initially when I was expecting the album to open with that softer melancholic side. That aside, “Aeon of Maat” is a meaty, solid opening punch in the Therion tradition of prior openers such as “Rise of Sodom and Gomorrah” and “Seven Secrets of the Sphinx”, a rockin’ uptempo affair that’s built around a hooky riff-vocal dynamic. It’s actually more of a spiritual sibling to Leviathan I’s opener “The Leaf on the Oak of Far” especially for it’s 80s metal meets classical musicality aesthetic. The following song “Litany of the Fallen” is a far more reigned in cut, with a bright choir sung chorus shining through the chugging guitars of the verse sequences. Both it and the also choir heavy “Marijin Min Nar” might be my least favorite songs on the album, not because I think they’re bad, but they’re just outshined in contrast to their surrounding songs and perhaps because I’ve been so wowed by the individual vocal performances on both Leviathan albums so much that having a choir handle the leads instead leaves me feeling a bit detached from them (no slight on Hellscore choir of course who are tremendous). For the last song I’ve neglected to mention, I really enjoyed both the violin parts and lead guitar figures on “Alchemy of the Soul”, a meditative piece of music that is sublimely beautiful in moments and also hooky in that very direct, no frills way that Therion have been employing a lot throughout the Leviathan project at large.
To sum things up, I’ve come away very satisfied by Leviathan II, though it’s hard to compare it directly to it’s predecessor given that its song makeup is so purposefully different. It’s delivered what Johnsson promised it would, a reimagining of the band’s melancholic, softer side via new songs, and reminded me that Therion are one of the most unique sounding bands in metal history (haters be damned, a lot of people have dismissed Therion over the past decade or so because symphonic metal got flooded with bands who were inspired by Nightwish and Within Temptation, and Therion somehow got shoehorned in with them… which only points out the sheer ignorance of those doing the criticizing). There are songs on this album that I’m going to keep going back to time and time again, just as on Leviathan I and hopefully on Leviathan III. I’ll admit the fanboy in me is very nervous at all this talk from Johnsson about how this is the band’s final challenge… does that mean he’s envisioning this being the band’s last few albums? I certainly hope not. I wrote in my original review of Leviathan I that this purposeful look back at their classic sound has seemingly reinvigorated the band’s creative spirit, and that in a funny roundabout way, they’ve actually made music that sounds fresh, inspired, and even treading on new ground at moments with all the lead vocal heavy performances. They’re on a creative tear right now and I hope Johnsson realizes that and keeps the music going for a long time to come.
Running at three year release intervals since 2013, Tobias Sammet is back with the ninth Avantasia album, the ostentatiously titled The Paranormal Evening with the Moonflower Society (henceforth on this blog referred to as Moonflower Society), the follow-up to 2019’s German chart topper Moonglow. I was eagerly anticipating this release of course, I’ve been a fan of Tobias’ since before Avantasia was even a thing, discovering Edguy way back in 1999 after their Theater of Salvation and Savage Poetry re-recording releases here in the States. Really when I think about it, Tobias is perhaps the person whose career I’ve followed the longest from it’s inception, with my only missing Edguy’s arrival on the worldwide scene in 1997 by two years. His music has been a part of the fabric of my life for going on over two decades now, be it in either band, and with Avantasia in particular, he single handedly introduced me to a host of other singers whose bands I went on to check out and became a fan of. Every Avantasia album has either at best yielded album length masterworks, or at the very least offered up a handful of absolute gems worth revisiting over and over again. In short, I’m a massive fan and Tobias’ has had a major influence on me as a metal listener.
But being a massive fan shouldn’t blind one to faults, and Tobias isn’t immune from this either, his very singular, blinders-on focus simultaneously the source of his unbridled genius, and ultimately the cause of the myopia that sometimes limits his work. One of the interesting things about Moonflower Society is that it is a direct sequel to Moonglow, a continuation of that album’s thematic concept and storyline, even down to similarities in the cover art style. It brings to mind memories of the 2010 simultaneous release of The Wicked Symphony and Angel of Babylon, and like those two albums, here exists the urge to run a direct comparison to Moonglow by virtue of their interconnectedness. Like that album however, Moonflower Society has truly inspired moments of that aforementioned genius, from the jump too, smashing through the gates with the pensive, moody, Queensryche-ian paced “Welcome to the Shadows”. It’s a similar atypical opener to a power metal album in the same way that “Ghost in the Moon” was a gradually unfolding epic opening track on Moonglow, as opposed to the usual anthemic rocker we’re all expecting at that spot. Also like its predecessor, the title track here is a gorgeous slice of pomp and drama, this time with the immortal Bob Catley running shotgun on vocals, his finest Avantasia moment since “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” on 2016’s Ghostlights. Built on a Neal Schon-ian rhythmic riff, Tobias and Bob explode in a co-lead vocal during the refrain that is classic Sammet, with perfectly phrased lyrics meant for maximum hook factor and loaded with adrenaline pumping emotion.
One of the few new faces in the guest vocal lineup, Nightwish’s Floor Jansen is also the not so surprising homerun hitter this time around, with both of the tracks she duets on perhaps being the album’s best songs. There’s the uptempo, cathartic “Kill The Pain Away”, where Tobias juxtaposes a fairly straightforward rocking tune against a backdrop of Nightwish-ian symphonic bombast, a subtle but shrewd move to place Floor in a setting that is familiar to those who know her voice. The chorus is skillfully constructed, a speedy hook line that conjures up an incredible sense of urgency that matches the intensity of the lyrics (“Nobody there to kill the pain away…”). Even better is her appearance on the utterly magical “Misplaced Among the Angels”, a classic Sammet power ballad that rivals his best work in this vein, possibly even equaling past gems such as “The Story Ain’t Over” and “Farewell”. What his detractors of this more accessible song type get wrong when they peg it as “pop rock” is that it clearly owes more to classic AOR, not only the obvious Jim Steinman influence, but that late 80s / early 90s Bon Jovi melodicism, built on subtle turns of phrase and simple melodies artfully sketched. I love that kind of stuff and grew up on it so a song like this is comfort food to me, but I’d argue that this song transcends those descriptors based on the lead vocal performances by Tobias and Floor. It’s refreshing to hear her in a musical context that’s comfortable once again, because where she’s been sadly misused on the last Nightwish album, here Tobias sets her up with a vocal melody that highlights her strengths as a singer. She’s an obvious but inspired guest vocalist for the project as a whole, and I wondered for awhile if she’d ever get asked to do it considering she has been all over the Ayreon universe for awhile now.
I was also really moved by the Ronnie Atkins guested “Paper Planes”, a sorta kinda power ballad that took a few listens to really blossom for me but when it did, wow… it packed an emotional wallop. Given Ronnie’s health situation, there’s a serious gravitas to the lyrics in this song, particularly in the chorus where both men join together to sing “Flying away like a paper nothing / As I twist and turn, I’m light like a paper plane / Carried away like a trace of nothing / May the wind blow me its way like a paper plane”. Short but insistent piano phrases and moody guitar flourishes from Sascha Paeth are the perfect accompaniment to that whole passage — the effect is sombre, reflective, melancholic yet not dour. No lie, I think its one of Tobias’ best lyrical efforts in his career to date (and yeah, he’s not known for being a wordsmith for sure, but he stumbled on something really graceful here). And of course, long time Avantasia guest Michael Kiske sounds like a perfect fit on the very classic power metal speed run of “The Inmost Light”, basically a Helloween inspired moment for both singers to shine on like they have on past gems ala “Wastelands” and “Promised Land”. If I was slightly less excited by it, it’s likely because it feels like something I’ve heard before that wasn’t offering anything refreshing or new, but that’s a minor critique I suppose.
The biggest culprits for criticism however are equally tied into the guest vocalist choice as much as the songs in question just don’t hit the mark either. The only other new addition next to Floor is Ralf Scheepers on “The Wicked Rule the Night”, and although he delivers vocally like he always does, it’s a case of simply not fitting the band’s sound and vibe. Avantasia just shouldn’t get that heavy, it sounds stilted and awkward. And it was certainly a daring move six years back on Ghostlights to bring the much maligned Geoff Tate on board — Tobias however weaved together some black magic and made Tate’s cut on that album (the awesome “Seduction of Decay”) something that really turned our collective heads. Tate joined the touring company of the band, and also contributed to three songs on Moonglow, all three of which failed to ignite the same spark that his first appearance managed. They weren’t bad songs at the very least, but I’m afraid that “Scars”, the Tate cut on this album, might actually warrant being called below average, and I think it’s largely because Tobias just didn’t have much in the way of inspiration when it came to writing for Tate this time around. That’s the risk you run when you have repeat guests — a problem Tobias runs into with Eric Martin as well, who is on his third Avantasia album appearance as well and surfaces here on the decent but nothing spectacular “Rhyme and Reason”. It’s an awkward vocal moment for him, and seems to miss the mark in taking advantage of his more loose and bluesy tenor the way he was able to on 2013’s “What’s Left of Me”.
And look, I’m not arguing that Tobias shouldn’t have returning guest vocalists, because guys like Catley and the mighty Jorn Lande really feel like a part of the fabric of the Avantasia sound at this point. Jorn’s two moments here (“I Tame the Storm” and the Kiske joined “Arabesque”) are pretty good, not my favorite slices of Jorntasia but certainly enjoyable enough in the moment if not exactly hugely memorable. But I do feel like we’re coming towards an impasse where Tobias has to force himself to not simply add the touring company of Avantasia as the defacto vocal cast for the next album, which he’s essentially been doing for the past few records now. I believe he can and should separate the two, and find suitable replacements for the touring vocal roles to the best of his ability (a connected guy like him shouldn’t have a problem with that). But Avantasia needs to get adventurous again with the guest singers, in the same way that Arjen Lucassen seems to challenge himself to seek fresh voices for his projects. There’s a wealth of talented singers in the power metal scene who would be awesome picks for a future album, both veteran names and younger faces like Temperance’s Marco Pastorino, or hell Seven Spires Adrienne Cowan (how she, as a member of the recent touring company did not end up on this album is beyond my comprehension). Tobias believes this is the best album he’s written, and I don’t doubt his belief. But I hope he also believes that he needs to challenge himself every so often, to take some risks and see where it leads creatively. After all, wasn’t Avantasia itself such a risk twenty two years ago?
The new releases have been piling up for the past couple months, and of course I’ve fallen behind. Hence ye old reviews codex, that possibly multi-part broad collection of reviews that span many months (some of these albums go back to mid-summer). In keeping true to my recent ethos not to force feed album listens when I’m not feeling it at the moment, some of these were things I had kept on the back burner until the moment arose to deep dive in again, and it’s an approach that works well for me, if not for metal PR agents promotional schedules. There’s likely going to be another one of these before year’s end because the calendar is still packed and I haven’t even yet discussed new albums by Queensryche and The Cult, speaking of which, I got to see them live again for the first time in over a decade the other week. That was a great show, a setlist full of classics, the band was incredibly tight and Ian Astbury sounded as great as ever. They’ve added a keyboardist/backing vocalist who really makes a difference in filling out their sound as a live band, giving Ian some extra melodic thrust on those hooks and filling in the extra vocal arrangements that were always missing when Ian had to do it solo. It was also my first time seeing a gig from the near stage vantagepoint of a VIP table, which a friend had decided to spring for. More than just the option of having a seat whenever I wanted, it was nice to have barriers preventing sweaty dudes from standing uncomfortably close to me, certainly the comfiest concert experience I’ve ever had. I don’t expect to make a habit of it though — comfort does not come cheap.
Megadeth – The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead!:
It hadn’t dawned on me until the release of this, Megadeth’s sixteenth studio album, that this had been the longest gap in between album releases for Mustaine, even counting that weird period in 2002 where he left his own band, only to regroup two years later with a Megadeth-labeled solo record of sorts in The System Has Failed (I mean… it was certainly more of a Megadeth sounding album than the turgid The World Needs A Hero). Such a long layover (pandemic assisted no doubt) had me nervous, thinking that their most recent superstar guitarist acquisition in Angra’s Kiko Loureiro might decide to bail given all the inactivity and instability (Mustaine’s cancer treatment delaying things, David Ellefson’s whole “situation”), but it’s nice to see him sticking around for a second album with the band because I thought he really lit a fire under Mustaine on Dystopia, which was a legitimately damn good Megadeth record. The classic leaning titling of The Sick, The Dying… And the Dead! conjures up memories of the band’s more teeth bared, snarky, aggressive attitude laden eras from the mid 80s through Countdown to Extinction, and there is so much of this album that actually does live up to that billing. The opening title track for example is as poison mouthed as you’d want it to be, Mustaine’s inimitable vocal necromancy at work in satisfyingly resilient fashion.
The absolute banger here is the classic “Life In Hell”, as vicious and fierce as so many Megadeth gems of yore (think “99 Ways To Die”, “Sweating Bullets”), not only for its cracking riff that is vintage Deth, but also for some of Mustaine’s most pointedly sharp lyrics in ages: “A couple drinks and then you’ll feel ok / A couple pills makes the world go away / What the hell, you’re gonna die anyway and you’ll say…”. Mustaine’s gift as a lyricist was never about poetic beauty, it was in his blunt sardonic wrath, and his depiction of self-destructive apathy here avoids being heavy handed (they did that on Cryptic Writings already, which I loved but it wasn’t vintage Mustaine), favoring a self-deprecating levity that just hits harder. The chorus here finishes the sentiment perfectly: “I’m a disease, and I’m addicted to myself, ha! / I’m all I need, I’m gonna live and die in hell”. It makes me cackle in delight every time I hear it. Like many, I also feel that “Night Stalkers” would’ve been a gem were it not for the Ice-T spoken word narration bit in the middle… that was just unnecessary. But there’s so much to celebrate here: the brutal assault of “Dogs of Chernobyl”, “We’ll Be Back” with its crazy lead pyrotechnics (Kiko is spectacular throughout this album), and the unpredictable dizzying turns of “Sacrifice”. I also really loved the Sammy Hagar cover of “This Planet’s On Fire” (featuring the Red Rocker himself), one of those classics that actually sounds better through the Deth filter and rings truer today. Not everything works here, there’s a little too much narration in parts, but this is a satisfyingly strong Megadeth record.
Aeternam – Heir of the Rising Sun:
Talk about a complete surprise, I didn’t see Aeternam listed on any of my upcoming albums lists and so didn’t even realize this was out until an hour before it dropped on midnight of September 2nd, and amidst all the Blind Guardian day excitement it got pushed to the backburner for a day while I went ham listening to the bards new one. Quietly, Aeternam have been putting together one of the strongest discographies of any melodic death metal outfit anywhere, with their four prior albums all being incredibly good to great depending on what you valued the most about their sound. For me, the band is at it’s best when they hit that perfect balance between their folk metal (as in Orphaned Land-esque Arabic/Middle-Eastern motifs) and melodic death sides, blending the two together seamlessly. The success of which varies from song to song on those previous albums but man when they got it right, they just owned that sound entirely. Well, somewhere along the way, vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy must have realized that he could make both of these elements gel far more effortlessly if he just amped up the symphonic metal aspect of the band’s sound. It was always there in the background, a sort of connective keyboard glue that helped everything meld together, but it’s by far the most noticeable shift on Heir of the Rising Sun.
And cat out of the bag, this has become my favorite Aeternam album as a whole to date, a conclusion I’m able to confidently arrive at mere days after it’s release. Developing into a nigh fully symphonic melodic death metal band here (something they hinted at on 2020’s Al Qassam) has afforded their songs the lush cinematic grandeur they’ve yearned to illustrate on prior albums, and allowed their heaviness to increase to Moongod levels as a result in order to offset all that melody. Perfect examples of this are the brilliant “Beneath the Nightfall” with its blackened thrash riff sequences, and the glorious “Irene” with its orchestral swells that unfold into beautiful Arabic folk guitar patterns. My personal favorite is the masterful “The Treacherous Hunt”, a knife’s edge balancing act between their extreme heaviness and soaring, transcendently epic melodies that combine in perhaps the best song of their career so far. A monumental album that hopefully won’t get lost amidst all the other big releases that came out that day.
The Halo Effect – Days of the Lost:
This was one of my most anticipated albums for 2022 ever since I had heard about these guys getting together. The guys in question are veterans of prior In Flames lineups including Jesper Stromblad and Niclas Engelin on guitars, Peter Iwers handling bass, Daniel Svensson picking up the sticks again, and Dark Tranquility’s Mikael Stanne on vocals (remember he was on Lunar Strain/Subterranean). This is clearly one of those projects where the names on paper just created it’s own gravity with the weight of expectations that any resulting album might not be able to escape, an entirely different set of expectations from fans than the guys themselves had. According to recent interviews with Stromblad and Engelin, it was a project that came about simply because as old friends they felt the urge to just hang out and play music together again. And to that point, some of these guys like Svensson had sworn off being in bands entirely, retiring as professional musicians and doing other things, heck last I heard Iwers was co-running that In Flames owned restaurant/bar (dunno if that’s still happening). Thus, in reality, these guys were going to naturally pick up where they left off, even if that wasn’t a conscious decision to do so or not —- meanwhile I suspect a large chunk of fans (myself included) expected a deliberate move towards recreating the classic mid-late 90s Gothenburg sound that we all love and crave a return to.
Long story short, that didn’t happen on Days of the Lost, which doesn’t mean its not a good album, because it certainly is. It is however a modern, fairly restrained take on melodic death metal ala recent Dark Tranquility (Stanne’s vocal choices certainly exacerbate that influence greatly). The frustrating thing that many have voiced about this record that I agree with are all the tiny Jesper-isms that get interjected throughout, like the darkly beautiful acoustic outro to “A Truth Worth Lying For “, the lead guitars on the very In Flames-ian “Gateways” (the album’s most old school moment happens during the abrupt mid-song shift lead riff progression), or the entirety of “Conditional”, easily the most classic and aggressive song on the album (see how those two things seem to go hand in hand?). At worst this album fades into the background where you don’t notice songs passing by, at it’s best it makes you long for what could have been. I hope they do another to deliver on that promised potential.
Brymir – Voices in the Sky:
Since their 2011 inception, Helsinki’s Brymir have been one of the most promising bands to come out of Finland, and indeed the wider symphonic metal scene worldwide. Crafting a fusion of symphonic blackened folk metal with bright, inspired power metal melodicism, they’ve finally to my ears fulfilled their potential with their newest effort, Voices in the Sky. And that’s not to suggest that I wasn’t impressed with 2019’s much lauded Wings of Fire, but I didn’t think it was the masterpiece I saw some people tagging it as. It suffered from getting a little too monotonous at points, the band leaning too hard on the symphonic black side of things and going break neck speed for most of that album. On the new album, they’ve allowed their sound to shift gears often with dynamic song structures, infusing more clean vocals (the epic, chanty, choral Ensiferum kind) and power metal elements into the mix to temper out their extreme side and let those heavier moments land more forceful impacts as a result.
As so often with bands who do fusions of two disparate or even complementary styles of metal, they often find themselves crafting their best songs when they’ve worked out how to best balance the various musical elements in their arsenal. The best moments here are perfect examples of that, the heavenly wash of choirs that usher along the title track for starters, and the outright aggressive slabs of unmelodic riffs that serve as battering rams throughout “Forged In War” that standout as inverse breathers from the richly melodic refrains. The best moments however are where Brymir ascend to the heavens, as on the folky, adrenaline rocketing “Fly With Me”, with its ascending hook sequence, and gorgeous, Dragonforce-esque guitar solos. My personal favorite here is “Herald of Aegir”, an emotional rush that recalls vintage Ensiferum/Wintersun, with an achingly emotional clean vocal passage that is as sweeping as the brilliant lead guitars that it skates atop. This album is a joy to experience, easily Brymir’s most accomplished and fully realized work to date.
Dynazty – Final Advent:
Slowly but surely, Dynazty have developed into one of the most reliable leading lights of the modern AOR movement. Of course, its a bit of a misnomer to classify them as such entirely, because there is a strong dose of power metal grandeur and theatricality to their sound, but the blending of these two styles put through a modern, Jacob Hansen produced filter has been their sound for these most recent two albums. It’s essentially a distillation of what they were attempting on previous albums but sanded off of some of the rough edges — which usually might be interpreted as a negative thing so I’ll stress that I don’t think that’s entirely the case here. I call them reliable because I can’t recall having heard a bad, awkward, or otherwise embarrassing song on this or their past few albums — things are pretty solid for the most part with one or two songs even standing out as notable highlights worth playlisting. I’d say the trouble with Dynazty is that it gets really hard to build a passionate following when you’re only delivering solid albums and never a truly great one.
The songs on Final Advent that I’d say qualify as aforementioned highlights include the power ballad (of course) “Yours”, a cousin of “Hologram” from 2020’s The Dark Delight, all anguished melodrama and a guitar solo midway through that’s phrasing is shatteringly emotional. There’s also a racing urgency to “All the Devils Are Here” that is vintage Dynazty in the best way, and I love the unorthodox, almost folky tinge to the lead guitar melodies in “The White” that gives it a different flavor from the rest of the album (Rob Love Magnusson and Mike Lavér are a talented guitar duo, and I wish they’d open up their palette with stuff like this more often). Vocalist Nils Molin (also of Amaranthe co-vocalist notoriety) of course sounds excellent throughout, his voice full of power and rugged inflection, though some might find his approach a little too heavy handed (and perhaps the band and he could both use a little loosening up, perhaps a rock n’ roll injection?). You’ll notice I haven’t really said anything specifically critical here, because there’s nothing to harp on to be honest. It’s a solid Dynazty album, albeit not a great one, and maybe that’s the larger criticism I’m edging around here, that I don’t exactly know what a truly great Dynazty album would sound like and that might be a bigger problem in the long run.
Xaon – The Lethean:
You always know a band is flying under the radar when they have zero reviews on their newest album on Metallum. Switzerland’s symphonic progressive death metallers Xaon released The Lethean back on July 1st and have yet to acquire a single review of not only their newest effort, but the two that have preceded it. And fair enough to everyone out there, because I myself didn’t know who this band was until my cohost Cary played the stellar, maybe best song of the year “If I Had Wings” on a recent MSRcast episode. My attention was immediately grabbed by that song, but you know how it is, I lollygagged a bit in terms of checking out the entire album for a few weeks. But the pull of that aforementioned song was too strong to resist for long, and I checked out the rest of the album in turn and wow… this is something special. Xaon get tagged as symphonic metal on Metallum, but I threw in the progressive tag above because there’s an unorthodox approach to the way these guys approach arrangements and songwriting structures in general, often eschewing traditional verse to prechorus to chorus sequences. Instead, as on the opener “The Hunt”, they utilize an almost metal equivalent to “movements” in ushering their songs along, where perhaps the rhythmic assault stays constant, but melodies abruptly shift and mutate along. The secret to Xaon’s success here is that each successive movement only escalates the dramatics at work within these rushing melodies via guitars or keyboard drive symphonics.
And then there’s the matter of their overall sound being different from what you’d expect from a band tagged as merely symphonic death — vocalist Rob Carson can run the gamut from guttural to melodeath screaming, but he mostly favors his clean vocals which are often anguished and twisted like Primodial’s Alan Averill, but at times soaring and downright gorgeous like a darker toned, more gravely Nick Holmes. I have to speak about “If I Had Wings” here briefly, because I’m sure I’ll be talking about it a few months from now as well: This is such an epic song (we overuse that term but it applies here), the kind of glorious, passion driven burst of creativity that few bands ever manage to unearth, and I am still enthralled by it after playing it repeatedly over the past few weeks. Carson is magnificent here, and if there’s one song you decide to check out first from this beast of an album, make it this one (it helps that it’s the single, wisely chosen guys). Ten tracks, no fillers, real creativity at work here, genuine conviction in the performances, and multifaceted in their abilities (check out “Telos” for their more reflective, Opeth-ian acoustic side that is actually affecting), Xaon is one of the year’s most satisfying discoveries for me.
Heilung – Drif:
If you’re even passingly aware of the cornucopia of reactor channels on YouTube, you’ll know that a live performance by the esoteric folk outfit Heilung has gone kinda viral in terms of being a popular reaction choice amongst that set. And its mostly for the members very primal, tribal garb laden appearance onstage and the fact that they’re playing unorthodox instruments and singing in styles that defy modern stylings. On their Wikipedia page, their project is self-described as “amplified history from early medieval northern Europe”, which is fairly accurate according to what I’ve heard (who knows, has an anthropologist verified that? Does it really matter anyway?). I’ll admit that at first I just felt a passing fascination with Heilung, simply because it was attracting so much reactor interest that and kind of prevented me from wanting to dive in further, feeling like it was something that might have been borderline gimmicky. I realize now that was a silly attitude to have, because having decided to check out their newest album Drif just as a pure audio experience (meaning I didn’t seek out the videos), I’ve really come to appreciate this album as a palette cleansing come down after listening to a lot of metal that’s still complex and thought provoking on its own merits.
Now I will clarify, that’s not including all of the album, because I could’ve done without the loud, irritating Stomp the Musical sounds in “Urbani” and the spoken word insanity of “Keltentrauer”. The stuff that I lean towards on this album is “Anoana” which reminds me of a darker, more medieval sounding mix of Loreena McKennitt, Enya, and Dead Can Dance (not quite so, but as a point of reference that’s the best I can do). I also loved the brightness of “Nikkal”, where choral vocals took center stage singing a melody that sounds elegiac, wistful, and unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. You’re probably getting the picture by now that none of this is metal, but Heilung are so folk metal adjacent, that even in the absence of heavy guitars or distortion of any kind really, you should still feel drawn to this as a metal fan. And look they threw a bone for you and named the last song “Marduk”, and to be honest, its echoing bells and whispered poetry I’d contend are more unnerving than anything put out by the band of the same name in ages. That’s not a shots fired thing by the way, it really sounds creepy as hell.
Sumerlands – Dreamkiller:
Hailing out of Philadelphia, Sumerlands had previously made a splash with their self-titled debut way back in 2016 with then vocalist Phil Swanson. It was an inspired eight song collection of traditional metal in the early to mid 80s mode, suitably rockin’ songs with inspired performances that seemed to be taking pages from several influences. The seeds were there for something really great to emerge, but as is the case with newer bands, sometimes it’s hard to capitalize on momentum and get a new record out quickly when stability is an issue. A vocalist change is a major thing, so is a worldwide pandemic, so here we are about six years later with Dreamkiller, their sophomore album and first with new vocalist Brendan Radigan. I was already pretty fired up about this one, having gotten to see Sumerlands live at Hells Heroes in April of 2022 where they laid on a spectacular set, Radigan every bit the inspired frontman in a live setting. Among others, it was a definite highlight of that evening, and taking that experience into account and now hearing Dreamkiller, Radigan really does fit the band better than Phil Swanson did. His vocals are like a mix of early 80s Ozzy and Klaus Meine with a the smoothness of Don Dokken, a tone that’s rich in expressiveness and commanding in every utterance. His approach lends a sense of comfort to the overall sound, rooting this in territory that feels familiar and even nostalgic even though these songs feel fresh and modern.
And the songwriting is the star here, Sumerlands guitarists Arthur Rizk and John Powers crafting riffs that are groove based, ultra hooky and incredibly satisfying with tight leads to punctuate them. The one two punch on this record sits in the middle of the tracklisting, with “Edge of the Knife” and “Force of a Storm” landing with the kind of infectious kinetic energy that characterized classics such as Dokken’s “Into the Fire” or WASP’s “Wild Child”. The former is one of the most infectious songs I’ve heard this year, a driving old-school rocker with a massive riff based hook and Radigan nailing the vocal line with emphatic gusto. I love the effects on those vocal harmonies laid over the top, it really harkens back to productions choices in the mid-80s that characterized a lot of those great records. Stepping on the gas a bit, “Force of a Storm” has a desperate urgency to its restless riffs and I love the keyed in explosion sounds in those transition moments — the kind of thing that would be utterly ridiculous if not applied exactingly. And that kind of sums up Sumerlands overall approach here, because their nods to their 80s trad metal influences are so overt yet applied so delicately, so natural sounding in their own idiom that they don’t end up sounding like anyone but themselves.
Blackbraid – Blackbraid I:
About a few years ago, pandemic starting time I guess, I started following a guy on Instagram who was making really cool bone art. You can Google that if you’re drawing a blank right now but I imagine most of you know what it is. Anyway so in addition to his art he’d post up pictures of himself around the area he was living, a rural seeming landscape, so I knew that he was of Native American heritage from not only appearance, but from the meaning of his artwork as well. Jump forward to my hearing about an awesome record from a new project called Blackbraid, imagine my surprise when I checked out their biography and realized it was masterminded by indeed the very same bone art guy I had been following for years on Instagram. His name is Sgah’gahsowáh (also goes by Jon) and in true one man black metal project fashion, he is credited for “everything” on this record (although drums are provided by the album’s recording engineer (and man of many bands) Neil Schneider. To be honest, it had never crossed my mind that black metal would seem to fit black metal so well, but Blackbraid I makes it seem like it was always a merging that was meant to be.
No burying the lede here, this is one of if not the most accomplished black metal releases I’ve heard this year. It hits the target of what I value the most in modern black metal productions, that being clarity in the mix in terms of instrumentation separation and discernible melodies, but also in avoiding sounding clinical. This album, despite all the razor sharp tremolo riffs, is streaked with a subtle earthen warmth that underscores much of its quick thirty-six minute run time. Its not just in those Native American folk music soaked instrumental tracks either, but in the way the melodies are unfolded in the blistering, full speed ahead black metal here. On my favorite cut “Sacandaga”, there’s a dynamic shift between tempered, deliberately paced sequences and sudden bursts of hyperkinetic speed, the effect being violent and uncontrollable. The aforementioned folk music pieces it should be pointed out aren’t just window dressing — being two of the six tracks here they factor into the album in a big way. I’d argue they give the entire record its spiritual or emotional center, setting the listener down in a headspace meant to reflect the lyrical settings explored here, of creeks, pastel skies, and hemlock forests. As imagery goes, its a refreshing difference to behold from tales of ice covered Norwegian mountains and permafrost, this being a truly Native American black metal perspective. I really love this record.
Seventh Wonder – The Testament:
I don’t know why I’ve had a hard time settling down to give this new (ish… it came out in June) Seventh Wonder album the time and attention it deserves. I’d listened to it intermittently over the past few months but only recently decided to buckle down and give it my undivided attention. And now that I have, I’ve come to realize what was perhaps preventing me from achieving this all these past few months gone, namely, that this album gets me restless partway through. I suspect this is largely due to the pervasive sameness that seems to be running through the length of this thing. Unlike older Seventh Wonder classics like Mercy Falls or the really wild The Great Escape, where song diversity was an integral part of the final tracklist, it feels like songs on this (and to a certain extent their 2018 album Tiara) really sound similar in their style, tempo and overall approach. Despite the band’s technical prowess leaning towards a breezier Dream Theater, their songs are written to be geared around Tommy Karevik’s vocal melodies almost exclusively. And this works for a while, certainly on these first three songs that shotgun the start of the album in the single-ready “Warriors”, the uptempo, almost dance-rock strut of “The Light”, and the Empire-era Queensryche invoking semi-ballad “I Carry the Blame”. The latter is certainly one of the best individual slices of hook laden prog-rock the band have dished up, making up in what it lacks in heaviness with layers of gorgeously honeyed vocals from Karevik.
But after the patience testing instrumental “Reflections” is followed by the grating “The Red River” (usually where I’ve checked out on past listens), it’s hard to keep focus on the rest of this record. I actually enjoy some parts of “Invincible”, mainly the hook factor in the chorus here, but man for a three and a half minute long song there are stretches here that I wish would hurry up and be done every time I play it. And I like the increase in aggression via the guitars in “Under a Clear Blue Sky” but they’re unfortunately lost in a song that is way too long with very little in the way of discernible connective tissue (ie melodies that I want to return to). The closer “Elegy” is certainly pretty in the moment, though it’s not something that I could see myself returning to on it’s own. I do feel that maybe I’m being too hard on this album, but in fairness to myself, I have given it the benefit of many months to land, and it just hasn’t quite gotten there. Still a good band, and I’m glad it’s an ongoing concern for Karevik given his Kamelot day job, but they’re not delivering in quite the same way they used to for me.
Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash:
I think there was always a part of me that felt Oceans of Slumber was meant to head down this path, that being the gradual and now sudden removal of harsh vocals from their repertoire. The moments that excited me the most from their past few albums were those where vocalist Cammie Gilbert got to simply steer the ship with her distinctive, richly emotive singing instead of playing point/counterpoint. Its not that the band didn’t deliver good material with their more extreme metal rooted stuff, its just that the alternative they were offering in small handfuls was so much more enticing. I’ve said this over and over again here and on the podcast already, but my favorite Oceans of Slumber moment has been the title track to The Banished Heart, particularly during its midsong bridge onwards, that finale passage has all the dramatic sweep and grandeur that seemed like a sound world they should be exploring more of. Here on Starlight And Ash, they’ve finally decided to do just that, terming their sound as southern gothic which is exactly the descriptor I’d have tagged that aforementioned epic section of “The Banished Heart” with had I thought of it first. I think I’ve been rather critical of this band throughout their past few albums, but I’m happy to say that it was really hard to find something to complain about here. Simply put, this is the album I’ve been waiting for Oceans of Slumber to make, one that genuinely feels as though they’ve discovered their own voice, they sound more comfortable here than they ever have, some of these songs sounding as though they were effortlessly written.
I’m thinking here of “The Hanging Tree”, where Gilbert channels a little mid-90s Natalie Merchant in her vocal tone over twangy guitars and a generous amount of space and silence. These songs are shorter than older Oceans, with no more progressive death metal on the agenda, gone are the six to seven minute run times, Gilbert having free reign to work in the context of more manageable, focused three to five minute pieces. The absolute gem here is the opener “The Waters Rising”, with it’s beautiful country-folk tinged acoustic guitars, throbbing electronic pulse underneath, and moody piano melody running through. Somehow this album hits heavier than any of their others, despite the general lack of aggressive riffs and metallic elements — it brings to mind Smashing Pumpkins Adore, both tonally and lyrically, a softer, more hushed album that was an absolute emotional wrecking ball. I love that they found a sound that feels very authentic to who and where they are as well. Southern gothic indeed. I’d always associated that term with Anne Rice’s vision of New Orleans, but in this album I can really feel how Houston fits into the mix, the smell of asphalt and car exhaust, the blanketing heat and restless humid nights. Oceans of Slumber have found their identity with Starlight and Ash.
Fallen Sanctuary – Terranova:
So Fallen Sanctuary is a side project involving Georg Neuhauser (Serenity / Warkings) and Temperance guitarist-vocalist-songwriter Marco Pastorino who I’ve long considered one of the better songwriters in the melodic power metal world over the past few years. Georg himself is no slouch in that department, capable of crafting vocal melodies that are hooky, memorable, and earwormy for whatever project he’s involved in — the Tony Kakko meets Klaus Meine vocal tone is also a strength. So on paper this was an intriguing pairing to consider, and I actually broke my tendency to not listen to the singles ahead of time for this album because I was so curious. The album itself got shafted for listening time when it came out due to other things crowding the schedule so I know this write up is really late, but I’ve been re-listening to it over the last week and kinda glad I did because I think at first I glossed over how well crafted this ended up being. I respect that they didn’t try to veer outside of their comfort zone, which might be a weird compliment, but leaning into one’s strengths isn’t a bad thing really, hence these songs being vocal melody driven affairs. The riffs aren’t particularly aggressive, instead settling in a muted, crunchy tone fitting for this approach to melodic power metal where they’re not the main attraction anyway.
On strong cuts such as “Broken Dreams” and the lead off cut “Terranova”, the mood is light, uplifting, and almost sunny, the former even giving us a little a cappella vocal intro that veers into AOR territory. A little darker is “Now and Forever”, a song that reminds me of something off Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus, a song that goes through a couple transitions with different hook laden elements to each (the mid song bridge has a terrific vocal melody by Neuhauser). For his part, Pastorini can be heard on backing vocals throughout, and he sounds great, but he mostly cedes the leads to Neuhauser. An exception might be the pretty but sparse acoustic ballad “I Can’t Stay”, where you can hear him chime through on the chorus and the contrast between the two men’s voices is distinct and vibrant in their differences. This is definitely an album meant for those who would dig this kind of thing on paper, it won’t change any minds in that regard, but I dig what these two guys do in general (Warkings excepted) and this is something I’ll probably return to when I need something AOR/power adjacent that’s a little chilled out.
We Blind Guardian fans have had to deal with a lot in the past few years. Set aside the vinyl manufacturing delay that pushed the release of this album back almost a full year, and let’s consider the fact that the band had finally settled upon a 2019 release date for their long labored over orchestral project that we’ve heard about for nearly two decades. This release in question extended a normally four year gap between studio albums to seven this time around (meaning studio albums proper, not lavish vanity projects that are up for debate on whether they were worth it). That wouldn’t have been such a long wait had 2015’s Beyond theRed Mirror been a truly excellent album, but while far from a disaster, it was certainly prone to being influenced by the band’s orchestral mindset with it’s heavily layered keyboard arrangements and progressive songwriting tendencies. In recent interviews, Hansi has admitted as much, that the Twilight Orchestra project impacted the band’s approach for a number of years and that their newest album, The God Machine, is in part a knowing reaction away from that. It should be said that this is good thing, the band’s awareness of having possibly overdosed their fanbase on all the orchestral stuff can only lead them towards a sound that is closer to the classic Blind Guardian archetype that we all know and love. It’s a small thing to remark on first, but notice that they’ve finally switched cover artists for the first time in over a decade, using a piece from the awesome Peter Mohrbacher instead of something from Felipe Machado (with respect to Felipe, a lot of fans felt the band had long needed a visual makeover), a change that is hard not to interpret as the bards themselves signaling the start of a new era.
But as The God Machine will prove, it’s rare that these types of artistic shifts can be executed at will, because a band like Blind Guardian tend to want to follow their own muse even when knowing they outta reign something in. Blind Guardian shifts their artistic direction the way an aircraft carrier turns around, relatively fast for their lumbering nature, but it still takes a bit — it’s not a Jetski. Consider their years long gradual transition from Teutonic thrashy speed metal in the late 80s and early 90s to the epic, genre defining power metal with Imaginations and Nightfall. When they’ve made sudden jumps in their musical approach it can be a shock to our system. Take their scaling back of the grandiose sugary sound they delivered on the uber layered and dense A Night at the Opera — they overcorrected with 2006’s A Twist in the Myth, and only really found their way back to an inspired equilibrium four years later on 2010’s At the Edge of Time. Part of the reason a lot of Blind Guardian fans have been sullen about the orchestral project is not only because it was a difficult listen, but because you couldn’t help but feel it had been derailing the hard hitting aspects of the band, you know… the metal, which had been a defining element of their classic sound. I think there are a lot of us who just felt relieved when the Twilight Orchestra was released, a feeling that maybe the band would have gotten that out of their system and started running lean again. Well… again, aircraft carrier here. Its never that easy with Blind Guardian.
To give immediate context to The God Machine in case you’re refusing to listen to it until reading this review for whatever sadistic reason, it sits at the crossroads between At the Edge of Time and Beyond the Red Mirror, really being a mix of the former’s classic power metal throwback approach and the latter’s more progressive songwriting tendencies. In other words, don’t come in here expecting the second coming of Imaginations, but there are moments that sometimes will recall hints of that glorious past, simply because one of its touchstone albums was recalling that very past. I feel like it has one foot firmly planted in Blind Guardian’s power metal sound while their progressive, epic songwriting is firmly grabbing a hold of its other leg, preventing it from making a full stride into that realm. This dichotomy unfolds throughout the album in unpredictable ways, because while the opener “Deliver Us From Evil” is a strong, classic-Guardian emulation built on a satisfying riff progression, raging Hansi screams, and those patented choral backing vocals — it’s immediately followed by the proggy arrangements heard in “Damnation”, though still very much rooted in the band’s more aggressive sound palette. And is it just me or does anyone else hear shades of A Night At the Opera here? There’s something about the way the choral vocals are layered in this staggered pattern in the prechorus and chorus that give me major 2002 vibes in a surprisingly welcome way. I appreciate how they tempered all the sudden zigzags in direction throughout this song with a powerfully weighty, anchoring refrain sequence that gives the whole thing a sense of purpose and direction.
Sometimes though we just simply get those glorious, soaring uncut gems where Hansi has always shined, as on the truly magnificent “Secrets of the American Gods”, as stirring and passionate a song the bards have ever crafted. This is based on the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods, a book I’ve reread likely over ten times now, and it’s a trip to see it’s Americana drenched storyline being alluded to in a Hansi-ian lyrical adaptation (where everything comes across as dramatic and millennia-spanning epic as the tales in The Silmarillion). Hear that chorus? That’s entirely Hansi’s wheelhouse, those lengthy lyrical phrases where his vocals have the time and space to stretch and bend words to his dramatic vision (notice throughout their entire catalog that the more shorter, clipped, and jumpy a Blind Guardian song’s lyrical stanzas are, the less effective he is at really unleashing what makes his vocals truly magical). Hansi being allowed to have a long runway is what turns “Let It Be No More” into an album highlight, elevating muted, dare I say meandering verses into something truly inspiring and heartrending when the refrain kicks in. It’s not quite a ballad in the traditional sense, but its the closest thing on The God Machine to such a thing (I too was hoping for a sequel to something like “Curse My Name” or “War of the Thrones” but I’ll take this as a more than suitable substitute). There is an alternate version of this song recorded as a bonus track for the digipak and other luxury editions of the album with “heavy vocals”, and its essentially a rawer lead from Hansi with less lush padding on the choral vocals during the refrain. I can’t decide which one I enjoy more, because both have their merits but typically I think you err on the side of rawer Hansi, which meant they picked the wrong version for a bonus track.
Where that Red Mirror progressive songwriting still lingers the most is on two cuts in particular (it popped up in fits and spurts on the songs mentioned previously too, just in more manageable doses), namely “Life Beyond the Spheres” and the album closer “Destiny”. Now there are some moments within these two songs that I do enjoy, certain musical motifs or lyrical passages or vocal melodies here and there, but as a whole they’re underwhelming. I can’t be the only one who wishes “Destiny” would’ve exploded in it’s mid-song instrumental bridge sequence, surely everything prior to it seemed to be building and building to something like that, a euphoric release of growing tension — it just never materializes (though Hansi partially redeems it with his unexpected vocal gusto at 5:26). As for “Life Beyond the Spheres”, this genuinely sounds like something left off Red Mirror, a weird, jumbled mix of neat ideas that don’t really seem to gel together at all. It’s a clunkily shifting track that lacks a memorable thru melody be it instrumental or vocal driven, and the chorus seems to just arrive without any fanfare like Kramer swinging open the door to Jerry’s apartment and waltzing in. Marcus’ rhythm guitar staccato riffing is a cool thing they could’ve built on, but like “Destiny” it’s just never leveraged into something that gets the heart beating faster. And this is where the progressive aspect of the band’s songwriting really trips them up, when songs become too heady instead of working off emotion and energy and instinct. The Blind Guardian that makes you glory claw in the air is the stuff that infects your love of pathos, drama, and penchant for theatricality, its not the stuff that you have to intellectualize like a Dream Theater album.
The song most reviewers are likely going to point to when referring to this as an “old school” Blind Guardian album is “Violent Shadows”, and for good reason (though it would be an inaccurate overall description for the album). Premiered during the virtual Wacken World Wide 2020 event that a lot of us caught live and freaked out over their truly old school setlist for the show, this was the song that sent thousands of hearts wildly beating out of control for the uber suggestive hint that we were getting Imaginations part two. And indeed it does sound like a forgotten cut from that era, or something that could’ve also been found on Somewhere Far Beyond. It’s built on a solid riff-vocal tradeoff, and has a fairly memorable hook going for it, I will however admit that at times I find it maybe a little too repetitive for it’s own good (I find myself wishing it would’ve had a more adventurous bridge sequence than just the small guitar solo moment). Just as good if not better in that old school Guardian spirit is “Blood of the Elves”, it’s pacing sometimes reminding me of “A Script For My Requiem”, with Andre’s solo here conjuring up familiar ghosts of the past in a welcome way. Similarly bone shaking is “Architects of Doom”, where a thundering series of riff sequences unfolds into something far more elegant than its aggressive opening assault was suggesting. This was a sneaky one, worming its way into my good graces after initially being indifferent to it, give it a couple listens to let it blossom (that’s really the central tenet for approaching this album as a whole btw).
I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned it on the blog, but one of the metrics I employ when evaluating a new album, particularly from a veteran band is what I call the playlist quotient: That being the number of songs from said album you would add into a real or hypothetical playlist you were making of the artist in question. It’s a helpful way to visualize your affection for an album in a wider angle, and allows you to get past being dazzled by one or two really great songs that might initially skew your impression of an album being better than it is. Case in point is Red Mirror, an album that I gave a critical yet decently complimentary review to at the time. But it fared below 50% on the playlist quotient, with only a pair of songs making my hypothetical Blind Guardian playlist (“The Throne”, “Distant Memories”), which from an eleven song long tracklist is not great. In comparison, 2010’s At the Edge of Time boasted eight tracks that made the playlist out of a ten track album, and that I’d still keep all of those choices on there is a huge testament to that album’s enduring greatness. And for a band that I have a tremendous amount of affection for, a metric like this really helps me in not letting my enthusiasm and inner fanboy cloud my judgement to where I’m just declaring it the album of the year just because its friggin’ Blind Guardian (to that end, At the Edge of Time was my 2010 album of the year with damn good reason).
So where does The God Machine end up on the playlist quotient? Definitely better then Red Mirror but not quite scaling those lofty heights reached by AtEoT. Without question “Secrets of the American Gods”, “Let It Be No More”, and “Damnation” are instant adds, songs that I don’t think I’d see myself hitting skip on when they came up on shuffle. I’d also toss on there “Violent Shadows”, “Blood of the Elves” and “Deliver Us From Evil”, but could see myself hitting skip if the moment wasn’t quite right. So six songs out of a nine song album is a fairly strong showing, three if you really forced me to make hard cuts but all told I’d consider that a success as well. This was a good, solid, at times genuinely excellent step in the right direction for Blind Guardian. It does however feel like a band that’s trying to regain their footing after being lost in the orchestral wilds for so long, like Thingol standing in the woods of Nan Elmoth for frigging ages and eventually stumbling out in a semi-daze (albeit without the whole surprise I now have a goddess as a wife! thing). As a fan, I’m encouraged to hear where next they could possibly take this newfound sense of musical liberation, if not back to their roots entirely (which I’ll admit is an unfair and unlikely proposition), then perhaps somewhere new and exciting with their metallic natures leading the way forward. But its the bards we’re talking about, we’ll be along for the caravan and campfire sit arounds regardless.
There has been a handful of new albums that have shook me over the past month and a half that have come across my desk, and I mean literally. These all lean towards the heavier, extreme end of the metal spectrum, and I guess that’s just what I’ve been really into here lately as the brutal summer months arrive to envelope us in oppressive, withering heat. There’s the new album by leathered veterans Kreator after yet another lengthy five year wait, and a new album by Thormesis who were a band that I was pretty nuts over back in 2019 with their last album, and an armful of new records from band’s I’m entirely new too which is always encouraging. I haven’t been to any metal gigs since the last update, but there’s a bunch of tours coming up that are really tempting to buy tickets to, and I slated to see Moonspell and Swallow the Sun in late August which will also be my return to one of my favorite venues in town. It’s been also fun to check out some of the Hellfest footage on the YouTube ARTE channel, and the way they’ve segmented upcoming band’s performances as save-able video premieres is really convenient and something I’d hope other fests like Wacken would adopt (having to tune into a singular livestream feed seems like something that should have changed a few years ago now, our entertainment is literally all on demand now). Seeing Blind Guardian finally perform all of Somewhere Far Beyond was a treat to behold, I never thought we’d get to hear “Ashes to Ashes” live for starters. Although I can’t really imagine physically surviving going to Hellfest even for one weekend, let alone both, it’s nice to feel a part of this massive event from the comfort of one’s desk or couch. Anyway onto the reviews, and drop a line in the comments section on how you are all handling hell on ear— I mean summer! Yay… summer.
Kreator – Hate über alles:
Maybe it was the context of when I first checked out this album that really sold it for me, right after a particularly frustrating and exhausting day at work while driving in search of a tasty iced coffee on an afternoon where my car thermometer read 105°F. In that state of hellish existence, I really enjoyed the heck out of Hate über alles, tapping in rhythm on my steering wheel and pounding the passenger seat next to me for emphasis, but even now, some time later while listening to it at my desk, I think this album holds up to that initial positive impression. This is leagues better than 2017’s decent but sometimes flat Gods of Violence, an album that did not live up to the hype that 2012’s melodic death infused Kreator inspired with the truly excellent Phantom Antichrist. There’s a fire and intensity to Mille Petrozza that seemed missing from the last one, both in his lyrics and his impassioned vocals, not to mention some of the strongest songwriting they’ve delivered since Violent Revolution. It’s been interesting to see the varying opinions I’ve seen on this album, and as someone pointed out on a review in Metallum, there’s really no winning for legendary bands releasing new music. Fans want the band to recapture the essence and energy of a bygone era, and also want something new and fresh to the band’s sound so that it doesn’t sound like something they’ve heard before. I’ve seen some people complain about the lingering injection of melodeath in the Kreator sound over the past two albums post Phantom, and that’s puzzling to me, because as on “Strongest of the Strong” here, I think they’ve done a fantastic job at infusing that into their classic thrash sound. In fact the more melodic Kreator allow themselves to be, the richer and deeper their songwriting strikes me, with this album’s best cuts being those that allow for Sami Yli-Sirniö’s articulate lead melodies to flow over the top of Petrozza’s ever reliably crunchy riffing. This isn’t a deep dive review so while I won’t track by track it, I’ll point out “Demonic Future” (love that Maiden-y riff in the chorus), “Conquer And Destroy” has a gorgeous intro melody and rips into the most Kreator-y assault on the album, and I love the marching drive of “Crush the Tyrants” despite everyone complaining that it sounds like Sabaton (hey last time I checked, Sabaton didn’t invent the mid-tempo, just saying… where is everyone hearing this supposed Sabaton reference? Get real people…). This is a quality Kreator album for anyone willing to embrace it, quality songs, a mix of their classic sound and newer melodeath update, and Mille sounds like he’s reinvigorated from a lyric perspective.
Einvigi – Yö kulje kanssani:
I enjoy some atmo-black, but it’s rare that I recommend any records from that subgenre here on the blog, mostly because I tend to come to these albums far later than their initial release via recommendations from people or Spotify and by that time it’s a moot point. But I’m arriving right on time with Finland’s Einvigi and their late April release, Yö kulje kanssani. This is a refreshingly light on it’s feet, almost airy yet still substantial atmo-black record that reminds me more of stuff like Steven Wilson and weirdly enough, The Cranberries (musically) than it does Alcest or any of the French pioneers of this particular subgenre. Einvigi’s approach to guitars certainly come bearing riffs with dissonant tremolo passages and heavily distorted fuzzy wash (particularly that Alcest-ian effect of sounding like its coming over some distant fog-covered hill) but their real charm is heard in their jangly, strumming approach. Maybe its just my own individual point of reference, but I can’t help but hear other non-metallic influences shining through here, and my own filter is really clocking a lot of early 90s alternative sounding guitar melodies (I swear the intro to “Takauma” sounds like it could’ve been something from Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?). The Smiths, Stephen Street’s production style… maybe even a little Smashing Pumpkins circle 92-96 — these are the sounds that I’m hearing when I play through Yö kulje kanssani, and there’s a warm nostalgic comfort to that. Maybe that’s why despite being a big fan of several Alcest records, and a few other atmo-black bands and albums here and there, its always leaning towards more of an appreciation of their objective qualities. Meaning that they’re albums I loved listening to because they were loaded with ear candy or just remarkable musical artistry. But I’ve been replaying this Einvigi album because it’s cutting a little deeper than those others, songs such as “De Profundis” and “Hirviöiden valtakunnassa” filled with the kind of watercolor beauty of Countless Skies’ Glow. But it’s somewhat futile to point out a killer song here, because this really is one of those recordings where its all meant to be a greater whole, to be digested at once so you fall under it’s spell and find that your emotional state is affected and your mood altered. It’s the kind of album you can describe as high art and primal all at once.
Thormesis – If Mania Never Ends:
Thormesis are back after delivering one of 2019’s best albums of that year in The Sixth, a reformation of their older style into something fresh and new that was at once blistering and full of rage and also pensive and melancholic. It’s sequel picks up where it left off, this time incorporating clean vocals in more lead vocal moments as opposed to just serving as a counterpoint to harshes and some peppered in melodeath growls. I’m not sure when the band started describing their sound as “atmospheric metal”, but that descriptor definitely fits for If Mania Never Ends as well as it’s predecessor. The Harakiri For the Sky adjacent soundscapes we got on The Sixth have been pushed over a bit for the introduction of a Finnish inspired, almost Insomnium-esque approach at times. The moody, somber epic “Still the Claim” is the most vivid sample of this infusion, and its smartly paced not to linger too long in one specific passage or another before jumping off to the next. It seems like this is a heavier album than The Sixth in terms of extremes, it’s sonic peaks such as “Cold and Soundless” and “You Are the Parting” having a fiercer, sharper attack than anything on the previous album where the main focus was all-encompassing atmospherics. One of Thormesis most fascinating aspects is how they blur the lines between black metal and melodeath death metal, being neither one and yet reflecting aspects of both styles. On the incredibly emotive “Anemone” you can hear this in the grinding stomp of that introductory verse passage with it’s melodeath assault and how it transitions gradually over the next few minutes into brightly lit progressive metal with black metal vocals underpinning things. At their most inspired, Thormesis manage to paint not so much with the watercolors of Einvigi, but with more primal streaks of raw emotion in violent, ugly, and also gorgeous fashion. This is definitely a progression of their sound, and although I prefer it’s predecessor for the meditative quality that album had as a whole, this is a worthy continuation of that sound.
Gladenfold – Nemesis:
This was a random stumble upon in the bowels of Spotify, a new to me melodic death metal band from Finland who are a surprising mix of Children of Bodom keyboard dramatics driven melo-death (with harshes that remind me of Alexi Laiho’s phrasing but a little more tightened up on the delivery) swirled together with a dose of rather convincing power metal ala Kamelot or classic era Sonata. Their secret weapon in this is that vocalist Esko Itälä is apparently capable of doing both with real skill, his harshes plenty satisfying on a purely sonic level and his clean power metal vocals possessed of a clear, deep, sonorous timbre. At times his singing voice reminds me of a deeper Matthew Corry of UK symphonic power metallers Fellowship, and that might be a random reference but there’s something to the way both of these singers can deliver earnest expressions in their approach to a vocal melody. Gladenfold’s merging of Finnish melodeath and power metal really comes loaded with some major early 2000s vibes, and also plays right into my wheelhouse, but what made me instantly hooked on Nemesis is just how artfully they’ve combined these elements together. Take for example the quick, blistering transitions from melodic to brutal and vice versa on the awesome “Chiara’s Blessing”; or the intensity of that ultra densely packed melodeath riffing on “Revelations” as a bed for Itälä’s harsh/clean switch ups in the verses. The songwriting throughout Nemesis feels well thought out, full of depth and intricate passages that more often than not do venture interesting roads, towards satisfying hooks in the refrains or really monumental musical peaks and valleys. The tucked away gem that really won me over was the Blind Guardian meets modern day Borknagar merger happening in “Tapestry of Creation”, where a beautiful acoustic build up explodes into something that would’ve sounded at home on Winter’s Thrice. I also have a soft spot for the ballad “Saraste” which evokes the best of Suidakra’s indulgent acoustic vibes with the aforementioned Blind Guardian’s bard-esque legacy of balladry into a beautiful piece of music that is the kind of thing you should wish someone would be playing live at the Renaissance festival. Gladenfold have been around for more than a few years (a 2014 debut but they’ve been a thing since 2004!) and it seems like most people are discovering them with Nemesis (their third album) like myself. Looks like I have some homework listening to do.
The Spirit – Of Clarity and Galactic Structures:
Relative newcomers, Germany’s The Spirit are a black metal duo that offer a refreshing take on mining the genre, not through the classic second wave mold of hyperspeed tremolo buzzsaw guitars and a battery of blastbeats, instead opting for a more dynamic songwriting approach that evokes Satyricon’s post-2000’s midtempo output. The first thing that struck me when listening through this album for the first time was just how much I was getting Now, Diabolical vibes not only from vocalist MT’s (no real name provided) very Satyr-esque vocal tone of charcoal black grit and hoarseness, but from the duo’s resolve to stick to a steady, mid-tempo pace as the centering focus of most of these songs. I suppose one could point out that their two man nature also naturally evokes comparisons to Satyr and Frost, but there’s plenty of two man black metal outfits out there, and few if any have taken to tapping this particular style of black metal as a source of inspiration (which is puzzling, but works to The Spirit’s advantage in sticking out from the pack). I should emphasize that this isn’t a purely copycat situation either, The Spirit blending that source of inspiration with complex layering and enough sudden directional shifts that give me some slight Dissection vibes as well. Take the intro to “Celestial Fire” for example, with a seriously Reinkaos-vibe lead pattern to open things up, only to careen headlong into a downhill frenzied pace that is still locked into a headbanging rhythm, never descending into an indecipherable mess. Drummer MS doesn’t rely on black metal tropes such as blast beats and traditional patterns, preferring to employ unorthodox hits and fills that really give the percussion throughout it’s own personality. Current favorite is “The Climax of Dejection”, where you get a real feel for just how multifaceted and complex their songwriting approach can, mixing traditional metal riffs with black metal sounding bends, chords, and tonality. I also love that MT’s ability to deliver enunciative vocals that are both decipherable lyrically and still bleak as all hell, making the lyrics on this album as much a part of the fabric of the recording from a literal standpoint as well as a textural one. This is a really strong black metal record that is refreshing in how it’s mining a source of inspiration that is relatively untapped, and for how they’re putting their own stamp on it.
Kvaen – The Great Below:
This was a nice surprise, a sufficiently brutal slab of blackened, Dissection-y folk tinged metal that fuses in bits of melodeath, straight ahead death, and finds a way to be really tuneful and unrelentingly aggressive at the same time. Kvaen is a one man project courtesy of one lone Swede named Jakob Björnfot, who according to Metallum is responsible for “everything” on this album. Björnfot isn’t a well known name for anything before this, but hopefully Kvaen changes that because he’s got this style of music flowing through his veins. As a guitarist, his approach seems to favor thrashy, speed driven riffing that’s equal parts Kreator and early, early Metallica. It keeps cuts such as the awesome title track and “Damnation’s Jaw” flowing with a wild, headbanging energy that I don’t normally associate with black metal. Even when he does turn towards a more traditional black metal riff structure as on “Sulphur Fire”, Björnfot seems to have an innate sense of keeping it reigned in, to not resort to cliched hypnotic/droning riff sequences as a crutch — instead he uses tremolo riffing as a spice, a flavoring. I love the simplicity and primal nature of this approach, as on “Ensamvarg” where we get into a meaty, fist pumping riff straightaway with a nice, fat, thundering tail to end the verse. His cinematic songwriting instincts are on full display here, employing keyboard/synth as a subtle coloring in assisting a key change, something that feels more natural than hearing a horribly out of tune keyboard melody distract from everything else around it. I also wanna point out the guitar solo here (and elsewhere throughout the album for that matter), because Björnfot is a damn good guitarist and he has an incredible instinct for knowing when to go for broke and go nuts and when to lean more towards the understated and tasteful as he does here to conclude the song. He’s a really strong harsh vocalist as well, his vocals on the right mix of charcoal with a hint of gravel. There’s a host of guest appearances on this album, some impressive names to boot too, but I’ll let you discover those on your own because truth be told they might be a clever initial draw, but you’ll be hitting repeat because of Björnfot’s songwriting and musicianship alone. Seriously one of the flat out best extreme metal (hard to know what to peg this as, it’s such a mish-mash of subgenres in the best possible way) albums of the year, and a likely contender for winding up on many best albums lists at the end of the year.
A lot has happened since my last update on the metal front, namely that I’ve seen an armful of bands live within the past month and a half. In April I finally had my pandemic delayed opportunity to see Seven Spires live and they did not disappoint, despite having a setlist that was limited in scope and set length to focus on the last album and just a few songs from the much beloved Emerald Seas (come to think of it, I don’t think they did anything from Solveig). I even got to say hello to Adrienne and Jack who were on the floor watching Firewind with the rest of us after their set — funnily enough, those two were also at the Rotting Christ/Borknagar show the other night here on the Devastation For the Nation’s Houston stop, although I didn’t see them personally and only found out through her Instagram story later. Oh yeah, getting to see Borknagar live for the first time was as my buddy Maurice at the show commented, a definite “bucket list” moment. Despite no Vintersorg in the lineup (and thus none of his era’s songs getting an airing), it was still an unforgettable experience and they were brilliant on stage in their own inimitable way. I’d seen ICS Vortex live way back in the day with Dimmu, but he was definitely way more in his own element here, his stage presence more attuned to being in a jam based band than the rigidity we’ve come to expect from black metal bands live. I also can’t express how surreal it was to see Oystein Brun in person, not that he’s a big celebrity even in the metal sense, but because this is a guy I’ve known about for twenty years now never thinking I’d get to see him play live.
What else? Oh yeah, of course, the epic two day Hells Heroes IV Fest that happened over the course of April 22nd-23rd where I got to see Candlemass for the first time ever (speaking of bucket list) on Friday night as the downstairs headliner, and High Spirits on Saturday night as the upstairs headliner. There were other tremendous bands I saw that weekend, Eternal Champion was brilliant live, I really loved Sumerlands who were way more fierce live than I was expecting, and getting to see Midnight again (who were the secret special guests) was a treat. I know Midnight had an album released back in March, and it sounds you know, like Midnight and it’s pretty good, but this is a band that I think is that rare bird that is best experienced live because they might be one of the best live performers in metal as a whole right now, just pure intensity and adrenaline when they’re onstage). On a recent MSRcast, we talked a bit in depth about the Hells Heroes experience, and quite a bit about how the expansion of an outdoor seating/merch/chilling area made the entire fest way more manageable and pleasant on a personal energy level than it was back in 2019, and I have to give praise to the organizers for that. It’s a great event and everyone should consider buying a ticket and coming down for it (that is, after I’ve bought mine of course).
There is also the recent slate of new music to cover, and I’ll be honest I’ve been listening to some albums far more than others. Månegarm and Lords of the Trident really occupied a lot of my metal listening time for the past few weeks, along with finding myself dipping back into Bruce Dickinson’s solo catalog (his speaking gig that I saw back in, what February(?) has apparently lingered in my mind since). I was jamming a bit of Dragonforce and Spires in the wake of that terrific gig, and went off on a post Hells Heroes tangent with some of the bands I got to see there as well. Recently its been Therion because they’ve dropped a new single and I couldn’t resist checking it out — it sent me on an indulgent spree of spinning their classic late 90s masterworks. This means I’m of course behind on new music, but thankfully I have people like Christian and Justin sorting through a mess of new music and I can afford to be a bit picky by really focusing on their recommendations, some which are landing and some not so much (opinions?!). Anyway here’s some of that in no real order below:
Månegarm – Ynglingaättens öde:
It feels like its been ages since an album has captured my heart and imagination the way the newest album by veteran Swedish OG folk metallers Månegarm has. This was a release day discovery, with me stumbling around the metal release calendar that Friday morning looking for anything interesting that had come out, and seeing this on it. I was utterly blown away from the very first song and all throughout this nine track masterpiece (I try not to use that term unless its warranted, and it absolutely is here), Ynglingaattens ode being a likely contender for the album of the year spot, because seriously this might be the most giddily surprised I’ve felt about anything metal wise since Seven Spires Emerald Seas. I’ve been a fan of the band since Havets vargar way back in 2000 when folk metal was exploding out of Scandinavia and Europe and felt nascently raw, vital, and fresh. I have in the past few years pointed out how there has been a quiet resurgence of both new and veteran folk metal artists who are releasing really strong records that harken back to that era, before the genre became bloated with gimmickry and goofiness. Thankfully Månegarm has been part of combating that nonsense for a good while now, with their 2019 album Fornaldarsagor landing on that year’s best albums list here, their most inspired offering in well over a decade. And they pick up right where they left off on this new album, slightly stepping away from Fornaldarsagor’s more blackened aggression to make room for more of their rootsy Scandinavian folk melodies this time around.
As if to prove that statement wrong, the album opener “Freyrs blod” comes striking out with a vicious frenetic aggression that would suggest otherwise at first. At around the two minute mark however, guitarist Markus Andé introduces subtle but gorgeous, grandiose sounding melodic progressions to accompany vocalist Erik Grawsiö’s soaring, leather worn clean vocals. I’m almost positive my eyebrows raised when I first heard this moment, it made me really sit up and take notice and by the time the hushed, folk string adorned vocal passage unfolded a minute and a half later, I was completely entranced. This is a ten minute song, something I honestly didn’t even realize until writing this review, because it doesn’t feel like ten minutes and not once was I aware of it’s length, a success in and of itself. It’d easily be the best track on an incredible album if it weren’t for the beautifully autumnal power ballad “En snara av guld”, with its sweetly melancholic violin accompaniment and a stunning vocal melody by Grawsiö. He’s joined here by his daughter Lea Grawsiö Lindström who turns in a really haunting performance, her voice a strikingly innocent yet mature counterpart to Grawsiö’s rougher textures. In the more purely folk ballad realm is the serene “Hågkomst av ett liv”, where recent Manegarm collaborator Ellinor Videfors sings wistfully to a lamenting melody with a subtle accompaniment by Grawsiö. I love that the band really dove deep on the folk side of their sound on this album, because I’ve always thought they had one of the most skillful and subtle touches when it came to working it into their overall sound. The melodies are brighter and more shimmering throughout this album, there’s a confidence here that suggests a comfortableness with their sonic identity — the result is an album that sounds spiritual, meditative and full of life.
Lords of the Trident – The Offering:
I love this album, and in classic Metal Pigeon fashion, it reached up from the inky blackness and slapped me without warning to become one of my most listened to records of the year thus far. The fifth album from Wisconsin based power metal goofs Lords of the Trident, The Offering represents a maturing and deepening of the band’s adventurous riff based power metal sound. There were hints that something like this was brewing on their 2018 effort Shadows From the Past, with some of those songs being incredibly solid, though I felt the album still felt a bit uneven throughout. That inadequacy is addressed here with not only a complete lack of any discernible weak spots across the board (a titanic accomplishment considering its 13 song track length), but with the band seemingly landing on a sound and overall approach that really rings true to them. This is power metal that is at once built on aggressive riffage, but at times plays on a balance of laid back hard rockin’ groove juxtaposed with strident, classic Edguy invoking adventurous power metal drive and gusto. The game changer lies not only on the instrumental front, but in how vocalist Fang VonWrathenstein (née Tyler Christian) has improved in leaps and bounds. Christian turns in a vocal performance here that is impassioned and rich, full of power but still capable of nuance and emotive inflections in his approach. It’s maybe my favorite vocal performance of the year overall, because it’s reminding me so much of a cross between Urban Breed and I dunno, maybe a lighter toned smoother vocalist like Tommy Karevik. His tone and delivery seems to be weighty and full of gravitas here, a more serious approach than he was dishing out on previous albums (which I’ll be honest, might have been why I wasn’t keen on their earlier stuff). The band is matching him too, turning out compositions that qualify this as a serious metal album despite the band members’ silly aliases. Songs like “Offering to the Void” and “Legend” have this beautifully vivid grandeur to them, soaring and majestic but still understated in their tonal color. Even when they cut loose with a wild rocker like on “Acolyte” or “Feed the Wolves”, there’s an intensity and precision here that is commanding my attention. Can’t say enough good things about this record, I’m really impressed and kinda relieved that a new power metal album has gotten me so fired up (there had been a concerning drought recently).
Trick or Treat – Creepy Symphonies:
Trick or Treat has been the Italian alternative for despondent fans of classic era Helloween, Gamma Ray, and Edguy who’ve longed for those bands to return to their lighter, more purist power metal sounds (though in fairness, Helloween has sorta gotten there). I’ve enjoyed their records on a mostly passing level since they debuted way back in 2006 with the unforgettably titled Evil Needs Candy Too, and have followed them since with a particular focus on seeing where Alessandro Conti’s various musical pursuits have led. While Conti’s classic power metal vocals are understandably the star attraction here, the band has really stepped up their efforts on the songwriting front this go around. One of the highlights here has them stretching their wings a bit on the power ballad front on “Peter Pan Syndrome (Keep Alive)” whose worrying title thankfully was disguising a gloriously uplifting, heartwarming gem the likes of which I’ve really missed hearing. I get major Avantasia with Kiske vibes on “Crazy”, and that’s a credit to Conti’s unnatural ability to sound a lot like the Helloween frontman when he hits a certain inflection. Conti and guitarist Guido Benedetti split the songwriting duties fairly evenly it seems across Creepy Symphonies, but there’s really a merging of styles with these two guys, a synchronicity in the way they’re approaching songwriting. In other words, Benedetti is just as liable to deliver songs with amply soaring vocals with arcing choruses as Conti is, there’s no discernible differences in approach that creates a noticeable dichotomy within the album. And I kinda like that because that consistency has yielded a truly fun, vibrant, and cheer inducing listening experience all throughout this album. Easily one of the strongest Euro-power albums I’ve heard in awhile alongside the Planeswalker album that came out earlier in the year.
Saidan – Onryō II: Her Spirit Eternal:
I’ve been addicted to this record as soon as I first checked it out, and in the weeks since that happened I’ve seen more and more people online talking about it here and there. Tennessean black metal duo Saidan deserve the traction, because this is kinda what I’ve been craving in black metal in a big way. On Twitter recently, user @VVolvenDaughterwrote“The thing black metal is missing is bangers. It’s an album genre, and good at atmosphere, but is distinctly lacking in standout songs that make you completely wreck your neck”, and while there are certainly exceptions to that statement, I largely agree with her. This is not to say that all black metal should be composed of attempts to write “bangers” either, because many of the black metal albums I do love are mostly textural, deeply layered, atmospheric experiences (cue Alcest and many other atmo-black records, as well as a majority of the second wave of black metal for that matter). But yeah, black metal could do with a crop of bands who understand the power of a headbanging worthy riff that stands out from the din of furious noise its usually buried by. When I saw Midnight at Hells Heroes, their blackened take on punky metallic speed metal was so effective at firing up the entire crowd live, and more recently, Rotting Christ’s hypnotic but arena ready riffs were absolutely commanding in a live situation. We were all banging our heads. And what I think Saidan get absolutely right on Onryō, their second album, is landing on that intersection between a densely layered, very much atmospheric experience while somehow being catchy as all get out with actual memorable riff sequences that cut through everything and smack you about the face. Take “Yuki Onna” for example, that melancholic yet aggressive intro riff repeating sequence is beguiling enough, but when the mid-song post bridge switch into a chugging, thunderous lumberjack of a riff kicks in, it’s deeply satisfying. There’s an excitement coursing through these songs, even the quiet interlude length cut with the odd name (“Kate”), where a tautly strung together clean guitar melody provides a tense backdrop for some breathy distant sounding melodic vocals. The truly killer moment is the entirety of the closing track “I Am The Witch”, where my only complaint is that the frigging awesome riff that kicks in at the five minute mark only sticks around for a minute before fading off to the conclusion (we needed a longer run of that one dammit). The sharpest and most hooky black metal album of the past two years easy, and that’s high praise considering the excellent records that have been delivered in that time frame.
Thunder – Dopamine:
This has been a nice surprise, a really strong new album by England’s hidden hard rock titans Thunder, a band that I’ll be honest, sort of fell off my radar over the past decade-ish plus. I first got into Thunder when I blindly bought a used cassette of their 1990 classic Backstreet Symphony way back in the mid-90s because the band name sounded vaguely metallic and the little band pic on the insert seemed to verify this as well. I had no idea who they were or where they came from (based on their sound I think for awhile I thought they were an American band), but I really loved that record and the band’s Bad Company meets classic GnR meets Tesla sound in general. I’d pick up a handful of their albums in the same secondhand way in scattershot fashion over the years and always enjoyed them, especially Laughing On Judgement Day, but looking over their discography page on Wikipedia now, I realize I’ve missed a ton of releases, particularly surprisingly high charting ones from the past handful of years. They’re a top ten charting band in the UK again, and clearly have experienced a revival of sorts, much like Magnum has recently with their past few efforts. If these other recent albums are anything like Dopamine, I can see why: This is confident, assured straight up hard rock from a veteran band that isn’t trying to be anything other than who they truly are. Songs like “One Day We’ll Be Free Again”, “The Western Sky”, and “Across the Nation” have that same recognizable no-frills hard rock attitude and swagger as anything off the first two albums, a refreshing sound to hear when lately I’ve been bouncing between all kinds of complexly layered extreme metal and densely layered K-Pop. I was particularly taken by the sparse piano adorned ballad “Is Anybody Out There?”, a great showcase that demonstrates guitarist Luke Morley’s songwriting abilities translate just as sharply with pure melodies as they do in cranking out memorable riffs. Vocalist Danny Bowes is nothing short of incredible here, emotive in his delivery and phrasing, landing on satisfying vocal runs and deftly handling delicate melodies. These two guys have a long track record together, and like similar duos in rock history (your Bob Catley/Tony Clarkin, your Jeff Keith/Frank Hannon pairings), they’re comfortable enough with each other to seemingly play to each other’s strengths. I’ve loved diving back into this really overlooked band (here in the States that is), and this has been a joy to listen to.
As I’m writing this, the new Scorpions record has dropped today and sounds like something plucked from the early 80s, and in the news Russia is being a belligerent antagonist on the world stage yet again. If I wasn’t lucid, I could be deceived that we were traveling backwards in time for better or worse. Dark times aside, that Scorpions record is certainly something I’m going to be diving into on the blog very soon, but before I do, I ought to clear the decks of everything I’ve been listening to metal-wise for the past month and a half. I took some time in January to investigate records I’d missed in 2021, but have spent the rest of the time since digging into the flurry of new music these first two months have yielded. Part one of this coverage was done on the recent episode of MSRcast, and I’ll be talking with Cary on our next episode about our having just seen Bruce Dickinson’s An Evening With spoken word show here in our backyard of Stafford, Texas the other night. Covered below is everything else I didn’t really get to on the podcast, but be sure to let me know in the comments section if there’s something I’ve egregiously overlooked new music wise.
Amorphis – Halo:
There are many people who loved the last Amorphis album Queen of Time, I was not one of them. I didn’t exactly hate it, because it had some spectacular moments (the Anneke van Giersbergen duet “Amongst Stars” for one), but it was a let down for me after Under The Red Cloud and before that, Circle and The Beginning of Times. The thing that was frustrating about it was that it was hard to pin down what exactly felt off to me about it. I wondered if it wasn’t that there was an imbalance in the band’s melodic and aggressive sides, something leaning too much in one direction or another, but that didn’t make sense because Red Cloud was indeed their most melodic leaning album to date and I thought that was a masterpiece. Pushing past uncertainty, I’d say I’ve found more to enjoy here, but only slightly more — it doesn’t have a singular cut as spectacular as Queen of Time’s aforementioned glorious duet, but Halo’s heavier moments ring more convincing to me. Album opener “Northwards” has a crushing, intense attack built on a hypnotically rhythmic riff sequence, with Tomi Joutsen’s guttural narration pushing the way forward. The little bit of 70s Hammond organ shimmying in the middle like some long lost Deep Purple cut works really well as a dynamic shift in tone, especially with keeping it fairly uncomplicated and simple and not spiraling off into frenzied weirdness like so much recent Opeth. The multi-faceted “The Wolf” is a satisfying blast of brutality juxtaposed with some cosmic spaciness that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Slightly mellower but very much vintage Amorphis, the title track is an achingly beautiful Esa Holopainen lead melody draping across a frenetic assault underneath, Joutsen taking a more serenely mournful approach on vocals rather than one of angst and fury. I also thought “On the Dark Waters” had a compulsive quality to its rhythmic strut and a really sweetly dark chorus melody that worked with Joutsen’s vocal tone in that really inimitable way that only Amorphis could pull off (also dig the sitar-ish melodies in that mid-song bridge sequence).
And while “The Moon” isn’t as compelling as some of their previous singles, it’s still got that mid-tempo Amorpi-groove on lock and there’s a dramatic build up to a chorus that is good in the moment, if not ultimately memorable. But that song hints at the more concerning deficiencies that are noticeable on songs like “When the Gods Came” and “Seven Roads Come Together”, where there are good elements in place in the buildup to what should be a fantastic refrain, only for everything to either fail to launch or unravel entirely. Take the former, this album’s “Wrong Direction” in that it’s chorus vocal melody comes off as so misdirected that it brings the whole song down with it. The offending line is Joutsen singing “…they taught us how to live our lives”… a line that just hangs there without any musical support, not to mention as a melodic idea it feels incomplete or just incorrect as is. Regarding “Seven Roads…”, it’s one of those moments where I really love everything about the song except that refrain, and I’m sorry, but when you’re escalating tempos alongside some tension building orchestration, I need that refrain to pay off hard. This might be the most aggravating moment on an album that has it’s fair share of frustrating ones, because this song could’ve been the highlight on Halo but it falls short in it’s most critical moment. And then there’s other tunes that are you know, just there, such as “A New Land”, “Windmane”, and “War” which I honestly can’t remember after I’m done listening to them. Sometimes I get the feeling that Amorphis has found itself in a bit of a cycle where they’re trying too hard to sound like modern day Amorphis, shoehorning in clean vocal choruses or verses where maybe a song would be better served by just leaning harder full tilt in a more aggressive direction. In summation, at least it’s a step above Queen of Time, but not much of one, and that’s slightly concerning and I’m left a little underwhelmed still.
Battle Beast – Circus of Doom:
Battle Beast’s sixth album, Circus of Doom, is an interesting case study in a band mid-career stumble onto something genuinely inspired. I say it’s interesting because its really not that different from their past two albums on a stylistic level, but there is an almost imperceptible shift happening with these songs. Their last album was met with some scathing criticism for the band’s perceived stepping over the line between hooky pop-metal and just egregious, commercial pop. Now I actually enjoyed some of that record, but I do recognize where some of those criticisms might be coming from, and seemingly so does the band. As if realizing they hit the limits of where they could go with that aspect of their sound, they’ve retreated just a bit here, but not to the Priest-ian roots of their early albums. Instead on songs here such as “Eye of the Storm”, “Wings of Light”, “Master of Illusion”, and “Armageddon”, the band shifts their pop direction away from the Roxette-ian Swedish-tinged merger with 80s American hard rock of No More Hollywood Endings and leans hard into late era Abba (think the dark melodrama of the Swedes Super Trouper and The Visitors eras… full on Swedish then). It’s an incredibly shrewd move, and that ABBA influence allows the band to stay affixed to a poppy songwriting approach while painting in darker colors that accentuate Noora Louhimo’s incredibly emotive, raspy vocals. You really hear how this combination is maximized on “Where Angels Fear to Fly”, where we get an almost regal, Savatage-ian chorus that at first seems to stand apart from the tempered hard rock strut of the verses, but which Louhimo is able to merge together towards the end of the song with her vocals alone. It sounds like the band has realized that the best way to go about finding their sound is to simply elevate her ability to sound damn fantastic. Her voice is tailor made for this hard rockin/late era ABBA crossroads, and they’d do well to stay in this pocket for future albums. Honestly, the band has never sounded better.
Planeswalker: Sozos Michael & Jason Ashcraft – Tales of Magic:
In the depths of power metal fan communities, this was a much anticipated album despite its lower profile, independent release. Jason Ashcraft is of course the guitarist and founder of Helion Prime, one of the more well known leading lights of North American power metal in the past few years and Sozos Michael is an excellent melodic vocalist from Greece who you might recognize because he sang on Helion’s second album after Heather Michele Smith’s departure in 2016. You might remember that I didn’t think 2021 was all that stellar of a power metal year (a largely pervasive sentiment it seems), but it looks like this year is getting an early start on rectifying that deficiency with this and other recent debuts (Power Paladin, and even a full length Fellowship album due sometime soon). Simply put, Planeswalker’s Tales of Magic is maybe the most satisfying classic Euro-power metal release in the past twelve months and perhaps longer. Clocking in at a tidy six tracks and forty-two minutes of original music (minus a punchy cover of Kiss’ “A Million To One” at the end as a bonus), Ashcraft and Sozos have crafted a superb record of anthemic, triumphant Euro-power with some North American trad-metal influences heard in the riff sequences here and there (see the surprisingly death metal tinged riffage at the 1:40 mark of “Oath of the Gatewatch”). Ashcraft is a talented songwriter in terms of putting together a framework of melodic yet aggressive riffing and some really dizzying, glorious solos, but it’s been proven that he shines brightest when paired with a vocalist who understands how to develop their own vocal melodies. That’s not a knock on Ashcraft by the way, it’s certainly the way things worked with Thomas Youngblood and Roy Khan and with Ashcraft’s own prior experiences with Heather Michele Smith. This sounds like a true collaboration, with Sozos and Ashcraft sometimes joining together on a shared melody (“Tales of Magic”, “The Spark”), or at times Sozos doing the piloting alone as on the theatrical stage play of “Shadow of Emeria”. The two killer cuts here are the back to back daggers of “Blackblade” and “The Forever Serpent”, two songs that had me glory clawing in the car down the freeway. Ashcraft’s layered lead melody in “Blackblade” is inspiring in a euphoric, head rush kind of way, particularly when he lets it ring and repeat to close out the song. And “The Forever Serpent” is just a beast of a song, one of those instant power metal classics that exemplify the potential of power metal to inspire and make you feel genuinely happy for a few minutes. Consider this the year’s first (and hopefully not last) must listen, can’t skip power metal classic.
Nocturna – Daughters of the Night:
If you listened to the last MSRcast, you’ll hear the moment when I realize during the recording that Nocturna is yet another project of Italian power metal wunderkind Federico Mondelli (Frozen Crown, Volturian, etc). I don’t know the motivation for this new project, but it’s not too far off from what he’s doing with his wife Giada Etro in Frozen Crown, albeit with a more symphonic, darker themed approach with two lead vocalists in Rehn Stillnight and Grace Darkling. These two women both have relatively similar melodic singing tones, an unusual approach for any band to take, They both seem to veer between a classically informed approach ala Dianne Van Giersbergen and relatively straightforward melodic vocals, but together in tandem it creates an approach that is actually somewhat refreshing in comparison to the standard beauty and the beast vocal duo tropes found in the genre. Some of these songs are pretty darn good in their own right, with Mondelli seemingly having saved his best riffs for this project (the last Frozen Crown record left a lot to be desired). The clear example of this is “Daughters Of The Night”, which sees some furious riffing bookending a truly gorgeous layered vocal duet during the refrain. Similarly on “Blood of Heaven” Mondelli serves up a thrashy bed of power metal guitars that is a fantastic push against Stillnight and Darkling’s combined melodic vocals, which aren’t sugary, but certainly are lush and full. As a songwriter, Mondelli feels far more in his element here than in Frozen Crown where it seems like he’s still trying to figure out how all the pieces are supposed to fit together. And maybe it’s the singular focus on vocal melodies that does the trick, as on “Darkest Days”, which sounds worryingly glittering and fragile until the chorus sees both singers pulling the song together with an incredibly tight, nimbly delivered vocal melody. There’s something fresh and (using the F-word here) fun, about this album. It’s dual vocal approach is unique within the genre, even in comparison to other clean vocal groups like Temperance. Hoping we get another record and that this isn’t just a one-off.
Dawn of Solace – Flames Of Perdition:
The irony of this album being covered in the same article as the Amorphis review is that Flames of Perdition is solely responsible for why I’m late in publishing this damn thing. I spent so much time listening to this record that repeat listens of the new Amorphis kept getting pushed to the backburner, because when it comes to dark, slightly depressive melodic metal this was where I was turning to these past few weeks. Dawn of Solace if you didn’t already know is yet another project of Wolfheart guitarist/vocalist Tuomas Saukkonen, pairing himself here with a gifted Finnish singer named Mikko Heikkilä (who sang in Saukkonen’s now defunct Black Sun Aeon) who sounds like a less nasally Tuomas Tuominen (of The Man-Eating Tree, another um, Finnish band). Contrary to his more brutal side shown in Wolfheart, Dawn Of Solace really sees Saukkonen exploring more groove based, clean vocal territory, stepping away from the mic for the most part (he provides some growls) to let Heikkilä steer these songs with some really incredible vocal performances. There’s a desperation to his vocal approach that feels understated and worn in, and it matches the relatively straightforward riff based mid-tempo rhythm work that Saukkonen builds these songs around. His songwriting often mixes in crisp acoustic guitars as melodic guiderails with Sentenced-esque melodic doom laden riffs piled underneath like wood for a bonfire. The album opener “White Noise” illustrates this combination’s simple but elegant effectiveness, allowing Heikkilä the space to take the reins with vocal melodies that are expressive and tell a story. My favorite moment on the record might be the title track itself, a piano dirge intro that softly shakes out into a darkly comforting acoustic ballad. Saukkonen lets this gorgeousness unfold while utilizing silence in scattered pulses, only to hit you with a sudden burst of cinematic noise around the two minute mark in a dramatic flourish. The push and pull tension in this song and in others such as “Black Shores” is at times unsettling and disquieting, but always compelling to experience. I think this album has a meditative quality to it that gives it an emotional resonance that I’ve been longing for in a metal record for awhile now. Get this in your headphones before the cold weather drifts away.
Magnum – The Monster Roars:
This one almost snuck by me, arriving with little advance fanfare or media buzz which isn’t exactly surprising given Magnum’s veteran status and their almost non-existence on this side of the Atlantic as a known quantity. It’s a bummer because classic rock fans would really love what the band has been doing lately, their last two albums being in particular fantastic examples of a late career artistic renaissance (The Serpent Rings was a 2020 album of the year listee). That record in particular was everything I could have wanted out of a Magnum record, an Avantasia influenced, power metal invoking classic that was built on sweeping melodies, some incredibly passionate performances from vocalist Bob Catley and a sense of grandeur that reminded me of On A Storytellers Night on steroids. I suppose it was inevitable then that The Monster Roars would be a bit of a letdown as a follow-up, although there are certainly moments here that remind me of what they were capable of on the last two records. I think the problem with The Monster Roars as it pertains to what I want are that the band has slightly shifted their approach to a more rootsy hard rockin’ feel rather than the dramatic and epic bombast heard on those records. Lead single “I Won’t Let You Down” is a vivid example of this, a song that is caught between a escalating keyboard arrangement that seems to want to take things to new heights, only to see the song retreat to a slower, somewhat meandering guitar pattern in a jarring shift. Other songs in this laid back mode just never seem to take off, like “Can’t Buy Yourself A Heaven”, where the chorus feels almost underdeveloped. Songs like “The Day After the Night Before” have some cool passages, only for their momentum to be halted with a sudden turn into a blander, less exciting area. Frustrating might be too harsh a criticism, but unsatisfying certainly describes my feelings on most of these songs. I’ll give credit to “Remember” though for being an absolute Magnum classic, the playful piano buildup, the tambourine adorned chorus with an awesome driving riff and Catley magic. I also enjoyed the Savatage vibe of “All You Believe In”, and the rare instance of an accompanying horn section in “No Steppin’ Stones” is a blast (seriously a cool throwback to something that is unmistakably out of fashion but I still kinda love). Other Magnum fans might really love this album, but the monster wasn’t roaring for me I guess.
Remember when summer wasn’t a time of abysmal heat-death either through dehydration, or forest fires all around the world, or apparently, historic flooding in Europe and China? The Metal Pigeon remembers. I remember that as a kid I used to ride my bike outside nearly all day with likely never a thought to gulping down water continuously so as not to pass out. I remember it being hot, but like summery hot, shorts and t-shirts hot, never oppressive blanket of humidity and painful sun kind of hot. I know I made it my resolution not to use weather related post titles this year, and I have kept true to that, but I said nothing about not remarking on it. The axiom here in Houston is that you get through summer by not complaining, by merely accepting that its hotter than hell, and through acceptance comes a kind of surrender, and through surrender, peace. It sounds like hippie talk, but the truth is that it actually works because its a mindset thing. Until August that is. August ruins everything. Its the most despised month for me (the hottest month by far, everyone seems anxiety riddled, pre-season football… its like the tepid version of what you really wanna watch), and so as August rolls in, my zen acceptance of sweating hither and yon comes to an end. Fortunately there do seem to be a plethora of new metal releases to keep me distracted, but in the meantime, let’s look back at the soundtrack to these past few pre-August weeks when I wasn’t an agitated mess of a human being.
Darkthrone – Eternal Hails……:
Darkthrone returns with their 18th (or 19th, I dunno) studio album Eternal Hails…... (that’s six dots to be precise) which marks a return to a two year gap between releases (2019’s Old Star) as opposed to the three year clip they’ve been maintaining for nearly a decade now. That kind of thing might seem trivial, the circumstances of touring and album gestation times tend to be unpredictable and vary for any band between albums, but remember that the pandemic likely didn’t affect Darkthrone activities that much — after all, these guys don’t do gigs. The likely explanation for a decrease in the gap between albums is that something transpired to increase the band’s enthusiasm for writing new music, perhaps newfound inspiration? I’ve been hesitantly leaning towards that explanation when considering this album because it is way more interesting than Old Star, at times even crackling with an excitement and intensity that matches Circle The Wagons and The Underground Resistance. The problem is that this is still an album that frustrates by spending way too much time on riffs that can only be described as plodding, if not laid back to a fault. An example is “Wake Of The Awakened”, where after a slow, trodden build up (there’s a lot of that going on throughout the album) the band kick it up a gear at the four minute mark, with uptempo trad metal riffs that I really wish they’d employ more of. That fantastic riff that comes in at around the 7:30-7:40 mark… it’s exactly what I wanted for most of the song, and though its cool that we get it as an outro, its also a headscratcher — why were you guys sitting on this? Same goes on “Voyage To A Northpole Adrift” (what a title), where the song leaps free of its slow, meandering riff built prison into blissful heavy metal, Priest-ian territory at the 3:40 mark, and you kind of just wonder, “Guys, why didn’t you just start the song here?”. Look I get it, there’s a place for slower, doomier metal within a black metal (or crust-black whatever you wanna call modern Darkthrone), but here’s the reality — Darkthrone just isn’t good at that stuff. There’s a lethargy that seems to linger around those minutes when they’re in that mode where you’re hoping something else will happen, gimme a drum fill for god’s sake Fenriz! That’s why the introduction of the Moog synth passages, particularly in “Lost Arcane City Of Uppakra” were a breath of fresh air, not only because of their novelty within the Darkthrone context, but because the melody being painted via that instrument really does sound creepily inspired. It’s the closest thing on this album that mirrors that unorthodox wash of color on the album artwork. I was as patient with this album as I was with the new At The Gates record that I reviewed below, but between the two I arrived at strikingly different conclusions.
Suidakra – Wolfbite:
I’ll admit that I didn’t have the highest of expectations going into Wolfbite, this the 14th studio album from Germany’s folk-melodeath pioneers Suidakra. This is one of those bands who has so many albums that I adore that I can overlook the ones that I don’t, but even I’ll admit that Realms Of Odoric and Cimbric Yarns were underwhelming and for the latter, challenging listens. The band’s last truly spectacular album is debatably 2011’s Book Of Dowth (although I’ll contend that 2013’s Eternal Defiance deserves consideration despite its unfortunate production defects (ie a loudness wars casualty), and its really been difficult to gauge what determines the likelihood of an artistically successful album for the band, given that Arkadius has been the consistent songwriting voice for ages now. Whatever changed this time around, it worked, because Wolfbite is one of the band’s finest hours, a record that is as charged up in its melodeath ferocity as it is inspired in it’s folk metal roots. I was a little stunned to behold it all upon first listen, but this is just flat out an incredibly strong outing for Arkadius and company from beginning to end. Consider “Resurgence”, where bagpipes anchor the melody in a mournful wailing cry, while Arkadius and Sebastian Jensen’s riffs are assisted with the deft, nimble violin performance of one time Eluveitie member Shir-Ran Yinon. Everything pauses to take a breath for a moment at the 2:38 mark before Arkadius comes screaming back in over a headbanging riff, a moment that is so damned satisfying. This album is packed with little one-off details like that, such as the awesome classic melo-death riff moment at the 1:58 mark in “Redemption”, something right out of the 1995 Gothenburg playbook that just feels comforting to hear being done in 2021 (I realize that’s a weird adjective to throw out at a melodeath song but it’s the truth). And beyond just the musicality on display here, credit needs to be given to the clean vocals of Jensen who turns in his strongest performance in that role to date. He had some remarkable moments on Cimbric Yarns as well, but he’s on another level here, particularly on “A Shrine For Ages”, the brooding, almost waltz-like semi-ballad where it sounds like I’m listening to a lost cut from the Dowth era. The spiraling upwards guitar solo climax midway through is gorgeous enough, but its the aching, melancholic acoustic melody in the verses that really make this one of the prettiest Suidakra cuts in ages. Intense and focused, this is one of the best melodeath albums to come out in the past few years, a visceral reminder of just how fantastic this particular vein of metal can be in its most punishing, angry, and melancholic form.
At The Gates – The Nightmare of Being:
I’m glad I spent a month mulling The Nightmare Of Being, this the seventh At the Gates album and second album where Jonas Björler has taken full control of the songwriting reigns in the void left behind by his brother Anders who as you might remember, decided to leave in 2018. I say glad because this is admittedly a difficult album right off the bat, and requires a few listens to get past the strangeness of it all. Underneath all of that is the best album the band has delivered since their reunion, though one that couldn’t have come without the two that preceded it. It almost feels like with Anders leaving, he took his straightforward, more direct to the throat approach ala The Haunting with him — in other words, leaving Tomas Lindberg and Jonas to get weird with it. It makes sense to me that way, because 2018’s To Drink From The Night Itself really did feel like a record that was torn between aiming for the Terminal/Slaughter dartboard like 2014’s At War With Reality clearly was, and in branching out towards more experimental areas that the band was tentatively venturing out towards. There’s a dynamic between the two Björler brothers that I’ve never been able to decipher (and I suspect only they really know), but it is surprising to consider that Jonas might be the one in favor of chucking the band’s now oft-lifted musical DNA in favor of something a little murkier, slower, and more contemplative. There’s a classic, coiled spring intensity to “Touched By The White Hands Of Death” via the riff progressions and Tomas’ echo-y, screaming in a cell sounding vocals; and “The Fall Into Time” is perhaps the most epic and cinematic composition the band has ever penned, built on a simple chord descending chord sequence that is downright foreboding. Another unconventional gem is “Cosmic Pessimism”, with dare I say jangly guitar lines that crest and fall in their dynamics, eventually exploding underneath Tomas’ demon-barked lyric “…We do not live, we are lived!” As I mentioned above, I took my time with this album, only listening to it when the mood struck, and in that spirit I think I got more out of a fewer number of listens. I thought of that approach when I heard that particular lyric again on my playthrough of the album this morning, sandwiched as it was between K-Pop this and K-Pop that. Take your cue from me, don’t force this one down your ears if you’re not in the mood, instead give it time when you’re feeling patient and receptive. Or just play it right after listening to Red Velvet’s “Peek-A-Boo”.
Wizardthrone – Hypercube Necrodimensions:
Not content with his giddy pirate themed folk/power metal project in Alestorm, nor songwriting for the exuberant Euro-power metallers in Gloryhammer, Christopher Bowes has another splashy project to delight or annoy you with (depending on your mood I guess). Wizardthrone is his symphonic melodic death metal detour, an unabashed ode to Bal-Sagoth as it’s primary influence, but also tempered by a surprising amount of power metal melodicism. On “Frozen Winds Of Thyraxia”, the lead guitar melodies lean far more towards Wintersun than they do Dimmu Borgir, and it makes for a brighter sounding atmosphere than you’d expect, melody drenched and easily listenable. And I’d argue that’s not a bad thing, because even though Aether Realm’s Jake Jones spews his best shredded throat grim vocals here, replete with the requisite “bleghs” that you’d expect, this is largely a theatrical affair. Spoken word dramatics appear throughout “Incantation of the Red Order”, and if you can tolerate that kind of thing, it does help to space out the composition a bit, giving space to the more menacing moments during the verses and allowing the orchestral pomp and grandeur to stand out more when it appears as a mid-song bridge. That’s one of the album’s strengths, sonic diversity in dynamics and song structures, and it helps to keep your attention a bit more than if it was just battering you with spooky keys and blastbeats for 5 minutes straight at a time. It results in an album where I’m able to remember that “Of Tesseractual Gateways and the Grand Duplicity of Xhul” (jesus Chris… these song titles… the “Xhul track” then) starts out with an almost Rotting Christ-like primal death metal passage, sounding vaguely Middle Eastern with guitars that reminded me at once of Melechesh. I can also pinpoint “Forbidden Equations Deep…” (track 4 dammit) as the one that starts with a Blind Guardian blast of guitars and a keyboard melody within that sounds very close to a theremin. In summation, there’s a lot of diversity on the album and that’s really to its strength, it lends it replay value, and I didn’t ever really get bored sitting through it. What Hypercube Necrodimensions really lacks is similarly the kind of gut punch that Bal-Sagoth could never quite deliver (mostly due to the thinness of their symphonic black metal approach), which is why I suppose I was never that big on them, even though it felt like I should have been. I kept waiting for Wizardthrone to deliver a really heavy, punishing riff to batter me relentlessly, and it briefly appeared for a moment on the title track, only to disappear before it could really leave a mark. The result is an album that is admittedly interesting to listen to, with some incredible artwork to gawk at, but doesn’t move me one way or another. More heaviness or more melody, I dunno what the answer is for the next album, but I hope they pick a direction and head towards it.
Dialith – Atrophy (EP):
In a weird coincidence with my K-Pop listening, Dialith are back with a release strategy that owes more to the approach taken by Korean Idol groups than anything metal related. Their new EP Atrophy is the first in a series of three planned releases, with another EP of songs to follow at some point, after which they both will be combined and packed along with more new songs to ultimately make up the full length sequel to their 2019 Metal Pigeon Album Of The Year Extinction Six. That’s not dissimilar to the way the K-Pop R&B group Mamamoo for example released four EPs to piece together their overall concept for their Four Seasons, Four Colors conceptual project — a strategy that owes more to continually releasing material to prevent your audience from moving on to something else and also just keeping up with the competition from other artists releasing music. Well, it’s not a perfect comparison I’ll admit, because metal bands tend to be afforded years by fans to get their next record together, sometimes to their own detriment, with fanbases that are often unreasonably patient (see Wintersun and until recently, Therion). But there is something to be said about maintaining momentum even in the slower moving metal world, and when a global pandemic interrupts the gains you should have gotten after an incredible debut record, kyboshing touring plans (if there were any) and the possibility of playing showcase festival gigs, you risk having people forget about you. Dialith explained their strategy in a post on their Instagram as a way to keep them in people’s radars while not being out of the spotlight for the lengthier amount of time it would take to assemble an entire album together. Presumably, this means they can focus their work on two or three songs at a time, instead of hurrying themselves into a sophomore slump in an effort to just get something out. As they say, bands have their entire life to get the debut record written, and only months for that all important follow up. And with the lead off song “Ignite The Sky”, Dialith sound more sparkly than they ever did on Extinction Six, with keyboard runs that sound downright synth-pop oriented and offer a brighter, more dewy-eyed take on the band’s core sonic identity. Alasdair Wallace Mackie still lays down thicker, denser, heavier riffs than you’d expect a symphonic metal band to have, and Krista Sion is the perfect shade of icy in her delivery. The other two songs here, “Sweet As Wine” (don’t let the title fool you) and “Undertow” are closer to the darker, angrier tone we heard on the debut, with battering riffs and a rhythmic aggression that is still just, shocking (for lack of a better description) to hear from a symphonic metal band. We’re not going to be forgetting Dialith anytime soon.
Pharaoh – The Powers That Be:
This was another release where like At The Gates’ new record, I wanted to give it time to gel in my mind a bit, because my first listen was a little underwhelming. It didn’t help that I’ve been looking forward to this album for years and years now, the band’s last effort being the absolutely incredible Bury The Light way the heck back in 2012. And right off the bat lets just acknowledge that The Powers That Be was going to have a hard time living up to the expectations that album created, no matter when it was released. But that it took nine years to get a follow up doesn’t help matters for sure, creating a situation where opinions about the new record will be impacted by the amount of time it took to deliver it. And of course, this isn’t really a full time band either, with its members (most notably Chris Black of High Spirits and Dawnbringer) participating in other projects and doing other things (though as far as I can tell, Tim Aymar isn’t in any other bands right now, correct me if I’m wrong), but still, nine years is a hell of a long time to go between releases. My guess is it takes that long because there’s so much songwriting input from everyone in the band that maybe this time around it just resulted in a freak slowdown, but that’s pure speculation. There is a noticeably thrashier bent to the introductory title track though than I was expecting to hear, with the guitars being more technical than I’d ever noticed on a Pharaoh record before, and that kind of set the tone for the rest of the album on my first few listens I think. Through that filter, I think a lot of the melodies that are brimming under the surface of some of the songs midway through the album tend to get suppressed until you unlock them with future listens. Like “We Will Rise” has a really inspired Maiden-spiked guitar solo section midway through that I think I glossed over initially but now have come to really appreciate — and “Freedom” has a weird Helloween meets Pharaoh mashup vibe going on that I dismissed as clunky at first. It’s now one of the highlights of the record, it’s gang shouted “no, no!” vocals perfect for the old school, united against the world lyrical theme going on. I kept waiting for this album’s “The Spider’s Thread” to reveal itself, but the closest we got this outing is “When The World Was Mine”, which is a fine song as is but seems like it could have benefited from one or two more memorable melodies to firmly affix it in one’s memory. This is a good Pharaoh record, a worthy addition to their catalog, but not something that sounds like it earned those nine years in between… I guess I just wanted something that blew my mind the way the last one did. This could be a Pigeon problem.
Powerwolf – Call Of The Wild:
Powerwolf are back with another new album, although what differentiates this album from 2018’s The Sacrament Of Sin is something that only the most passionate fan could possibly detect, and I’d even have to contest that. For all the flack that their contemporaries in Sabaton receive for sounding samey throughout their career (and lately, that criticism is warranted on their post-pandemic drip-drip song rollout), at least Sabaton have made some significant album-wide shifts at times in their career. There was orchestral grandeur adorning Carolus Rex to match the splendor of those songs about the rise and fall of the Swedish king’s empire; and on the recent The Great War, the band often slowed down their attack at times, muddied up the rhythmic attack to mirror the sludge and trudge of World War I. Powerwolf have never, not to my memory anyway, attempted to coalesce the musical approach to an album into some kind of cohesive, narrative musical vision. It’s just another platter of songs ala Powerwolf mode, and you’re paying far closer attention than I if you can tell what song comes from what album. And truthfully, this wouldn’t be a problem if these songs were mostly hitting the target, but they’re not — when they do, as on the album highlight “Dancing With The Dead”, Powerwolf is as compelling as mainstream metal can possibly be, the stuff that ripples through crowds at European festivals and compels smiles and singalongs. That song’s chorus holds the answer, namely that Atilla Dorn’s vocal power really comes through when he has a vocal melody/lyric that allows him to be the ghoulish narrator that he was meant to be. With longer lines full of syllabic variation, his rich vocal tone, distinct in pronounciation and character is allowed to flourish, like a German Ozzy Osbourne being backed by Maiden-esque melodies that linger around like proper earworms. But when they get it wrong, as on the absolutely abysmal “Beast Of Gevaudan”, where the rhythmic structure is percussive, almost staccato-like, thus leaving Atilla with little to do but mirror it in his vocal delivery, which quickly becomes tiresome. It doesn’t help that the song has major Sabaton vibes, which is not a great sound profile for Powerwolf. They’ve fallen into this staccato trap quite often throughout their discography, and it just never, ever sounds good, and I wish someone would point out the difference between these two songs to them. That’s not to say a band shouldn’t have rhythmic variation within an album, because of course they should, but knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses is something that a band on album number, what, eight, should realize by now. Caught in the middle of these two extremes are the rest of the nine songs on the album, and none of them made enough of an impression on me (yet? maybe?) to warrant remarking on. Just meh.
I didn’t plan on writing a one year pandemic anniversary piece, because honestly who the hell wants to remember the past year, let alone mark the anniversary of something that turned everyone’s lives inside out in various ways? But I guess the answer to that simple question is, well, we want to remember it, at least our subconscious minds do anyway. I was having a discussion with someone at the end of March about my feeling generally grumpy, anxious, and uninspired throughout the month, and they said they were suffering from the same thing, and added, “But you know… trauma anniversary and all.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but looked it up on Twitter later, and sure enough, there was a torrent of tweets written about our collective and personal trauma anniversaries and how if you were feeling bad for whatever reason, this might be a hidden in plain sight culprit. I thought it was social media created nonsense at first, but as the idea lingered in my mind, it started to dawn on me that my listening habits had already shifted to possibly hint at this being the case.
Some of you might remember that in early April of 2020, I created a Spotify playlist called The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, and alongside my own picks, I solicited a ton of song suggestions from various power metal fans from the r/PowerMetal community and Twitter. I made it out of necessity for myself, and made it public to attempt to help anyone else out who needed shimmery, sugary, upbeat and inspiring power metal as much as I did to combat all the daily stress and anxiety we experienced in those early pandemic months. I don’t wanna bum anyone out by getting into details, but I was stressed about my job, money, and was one of the luckier ones in the end considering a ton of my friends and family members lost their jobs. Then there was the anxiety of just not seeing anyone or being able to hang out with friends. I suspect most of us made it through by binging content that was familiar and comforting, be it something like Parks and Rec, The Office, Good Mythical Morning or in my case videos of city walking tours filmed in the pre-pandy times. And so with music, I quickly found I didn’t want to listen to anything bleak or dark, I was getting enough of that from every second of the day thanks.
Enter the playlist. I can’t emphasize enough how much I relied on the music contained on this list. I’ll always remember going out for drives in April and May of 2020 around the rural country roads near me, blasting it full volume and glory clawing at perfect choruses and epic moments. It started to become a loud form of meditation, where I’d just lose myself in the music and focus on it so much I’d be mouthing along to any lyrics I knew (quite a bit as it turned out) and at times even singing along. No one was around to hear how bad that was anyway. Those were my brief escapes before I had to come back home and face reality, whilst keep myself busy doing anything but scouring social media for news updates like some self-flagellation aficionado. I could make it a few days, but then I’d start to feel antsy and claustrophobic and anxious yet again, and so into the car I went, for another therapy session. It was the only thing I wanted, nay, needed to hear. I actually grew up becoming a fan of extreme metal subgenres long before power metal was even called power metal, and many classic death, melodeath, and even black metal albums have been mainstays for me throughout my life when I was going through tough times. But something about the pandemic hit different, and I just knew that power metal in its most Euro-swag laden, pomp and glory drenched splendor was the only thing that would help then.
My favorite long-winded quote about power metal was written ages back by a reviewer named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum, who spoke of it’s “proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity”. A mouthful yes but it’s sentiment was proven true in 2020 and even now a year on. I have such warm feelings towards the classic songs and albums that make up the genre, both old and new. And I feel tremendous gratitude towards the bands who make them, choosing to play a terminally uncool style of music that with rare exception, isn’t going to earn most of them a steady paycheck or even a full time income. I follow a lot of those musicians on Instagram, and it was surreal to see them dealing with the same personal anxieties and financial worries as I was during the lockdown (many of them still dealing with all of that in European countries), all while their music was helping to keep me from absolutely losing it over here.
I’m really proud that a lot of people still listen to the playlist a year later, it’s almost at 100 followers, and we’re over 300 songs and counting. I had eased off listening to it the past many months, due to trying to soak up as much new music as possible, but sure enough when March rolled around, I found myself dipping back into it often. I got to thinking about how there are certain songs on that playlist that just stand out among all the others as being particularly impactful on me, the flag bearers in other words for the playlist’s feel good powers. In no particular order at all (just like the playlist itself), I’ve collected some thoughts on my ten favorite of these songs below in an effort to highlight them a bit and maybe even help someone take a closer look at a band they’ve previously ignored.
Nocturnal Rites – “Still Alive”
One of the best songs in the Rites’ catalog, “Still Alive” has been a feel-good classic to me since I first heard it in 2005, and in my mind the entire Grand Illusion album it hails from was one of the last great records from that wave of really heavy, groove based power metal that around the turn of the millenium (thinking of stuff like Brainstorm, Tad Morose, etc). Jonny Lindqvist’s vocals always struck me as a little Mark Boals-ish with a little David Coverdale splash on certain phrasings, especially here, the end result being a hard rock edge to Euro-power swag. His vocals are a joy to behold here, spitting defiance and tinged with never say die spirit. The volume gets maxed out whenever this pops up on the playlist.
Masterplan – “Spirit Never Die”
This was the first song I added to the playlist upon creation, the only reason it’s not number one in the list is that I thought Hammerfall would make a better opener if someone wasn’t listening to it on shuffle. Look, everyone knows this song, and if you don’t, better late than never. It’s got Jorn on vox, it’s got Roland Grapow on guitars, and a hook that inspires Tony Kakko’s eyes closed musical ecstasy face you see on the playlist icon. The way Jorn vocalizes that “woaaaahhh” after the “leaving the future behind me!” line in the chorus is deserving of a full power stance, glory claw raised to the sky. How do you not feel better while listening to this gem?
Galneryus – “In The Cage”
I’m not going to pretend that this song’s lyrics (what I can decipher of them) make any kind of sense in relation to keeping one’s spirits up, in fact, it seems like Yama-B is referring to some kind of romantic heartbreak or something like it (eternal longing, you get the drift). It really doesn’t matter, because this song’s power is in Syu’s incredibly melodic leads and that unforgettable recurring melody that is just pure joy given musical form. Some people rag on Galneryus for their AOR tendencies as heard here, and those people can clear the hall. That influence works as an open canvass for Syu’s expressive playing, and Galneryus catalog is loaded with so many spectacular and generally underappreciated moments (it took me a long to discover these guys as well). I can’t emphasize enough just how much I love this song, it always cheers me up.
Stormwarrior – “Heading Northe”
The title track and flag bearer for Stormwarrior’s best album, “Heading Northe” in many ways exemplifies everything I love about metal in one perfect anthem of defiance, standing one’s ground, and the triumph over adversity. Equal parts speed metal tempos, power metal melodicism, and punk rock edge courtesy of Lars Ramcke’s gritty vocals, it’s one of the most satisfyingly glorious songs in metal history. Last year when I came back to work in a post-pandemic landscape, I’d often find myself jamming this on the way back home. There was something about feeling exhausted, blaring this at top volume, and careening down the freeway while shouting along to “And the north wind fills my heart again / Withe the flame that missed so long” while making grand hand gestures towards cars around you.
Freedom Call – “One Step Into Wonderland”
I think it’s only natural that metal’s most bouncily cheerful sounding band would have been a go-to during all of this, and there’s a number of Freedom Call songs that I could have singled out (so many that I had to limit how many I threw on the playlist just to maintain artist variety). But for me, “One Step Into Wonderland” resonated more than any other partly for Chris Bay’s surreal vision of a happy, care free “eden” conveyed in his admittedly over the top lyrics. The chorus here is magnificent, and the key moment is imbibing that line of “take away all sorrow and pain” like Bay is a some wise mystic and you’re his pupil trying to achieve transcendence and ride off into “wonderland” on the back of a giant cartoon bunny.
Lost Horizon – “Think Not Forever”
It’s kinda wild that the best Lost Horizon song (I said it!) would have the most pointedly appropriate lyrics of anything on this playlist. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and when I was building the playlist it was a no-brainer for it’s lyrics urging patience and determination, sentiments that everyone needed for a variety of reasons. This was on repeat, multiple times a day for the first couple weeks of everything last year, and continual rotation throughout the rest of the year. It’s just ultra distilled power metal essence bottled into six minutes that feels like three, with an unforgettable riff and an absolutely wild solo midway through. Also Heiman’s intro vocal scream is the kind of cathartic lunacy that can make a bad day bearable.
Visigoth – “Necropolis”
I’d always loved Manilla Road’s “Necropolis” and thought of it as a trad metal anthem despite the ridiculously zany Skeletor-esque vocals. When Visigoth covered it on their debut, it was remade into a beefier, more metallic sounding mold thanks to Jake Roger’s weighter, grittier delivery. Given the context of it’s lyrics, someone on the internet once sussed out the difference between both versions as The Wizard (Manilla Road) and The Warrior (Visigoth) teaming up to infiltrate the mystical necropolis. No matter the band though, I always thought of these lyrics as a metaphor for depression, despite all the specific fantasy imagery scattered throughout the third verse. The first four lines here are almost a mantra: “Through the jungle by the river Styx / I’ve journeyed long and far this day / Lurking shadows in the parapets / Will never make me turn away”.
Bloodbound – “Nosferatu”
This Urban Breed era Bloodbound classic has always been a favorite of mine, not only for it’s serious Maiden songwriting vibes, but for Breed’s untouchable vocals. Sure it doesn’t fit the vibe of the playlist, lacking the sugariness or upbeat positivity of most of the music on there, but I felt like the playlist needed some escapism too and this was one of the songs that immediately came to mind. It’s a vivid reminder that much of metal’s power to get us through the grind is to distract us from all the real world stuff we’re dealing with when the music stops. Also that escalating guitar melody is Tomas Olsson’s crowning achievement, a work of art worthy of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.
Galderia – “Shining Unity”
Galderia is a French power metal band that sounds like they should come from Germany for all their Gamma Ray/Freedom Call vibes, and sometimes I’ll hear bits of Japanese power metal’s neoclassical tendencies come through as well, as on the hyper-driven “Shining Unity”. This is one of those songs that always seems to come on when I’m driving on the freeway, hitting 60-70 mph, speeds at which it feels appropriate to listen to a song that’s built on a perfect balance of relentless speed and glorious technical precision. The group vocals here are so strong, emphatic, and empowering, that you can’t help but get a rush just listening to that chorus. I have no idea what inspired these lyrics, but the utopian pipe dream they envision of a united humankind “alive in harmony” is nice to live in for five minutes before returning to… you know, *gestures* all this.
Bruce Dickinson – “Tears Of The Dragon”
Years back I had started writing up a Bruce Dickinson solo career retrospective, because that aspect of his musical output has been nonexistent since 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls, and I never really had a chance otherwise to write about just how much I love his solo records. I never finished it of course, but I was reminded of that fandom whenever this aching gem would pop up in the playlist. Bruce wrote this song about the unexpected change in his life upon leaving Maiden and embarking on something new and unknown, and that’s kind of how things felt for a lot of us last year and even now. It’s all contained in that metaphor of throwing oneself in to the sea, letting the waves wash over him (us), only in this case it’s not an Edna Pontellier ending-it-all kind of thing, but more a surrendering to the currents of life vibe.
This is an obviously delayed batch of reviews for albums that have come out in January and February, it was actually supposed to come out the other week but as I’m sure you all saw, hell froze over down here in Houston and the rest of greater Texas. I was dealing with intermittent power outages for days and internet being knocked out, along with cell towers clogged with traffic — a situation which magnified the weakness of relying on streaming for one’s music instead of physical media (then again, you know… no electricity). So some of these reviews are older, some just finished hours before publishing this thing, I have a feeling that my opinions might shift over time on some of these albums because I just haven’t gotten a lot of time with them as I’d prefer due to having to play catch up with records released within the last two weeks. So consider these general impressions right now for everything except that Steven Wilson album (I listened to it to death and am glad I can shelve it for awhile), and that new Tribulation record. Hope everyone reading this weathered their own winter storms well enough, and I hope you’ve been able to get the vaccine if you want it. It really does feel like the beginning of the end for all this, and maybe we’ll be talking about shows that aren’t cancelled at some point this year. Also I’ve forced myself to stop referencing the weather or the passing of seasons in my article titles from now on, and it’s proving more challenging than I thought, so the unimaginative result above is what I have to offer for the moment.
Steven Wilson – THE FUTURE BITES™:
So I’d normally write a longer, full length review for someone like Steven Wilson, an artist that I consider myself to be a fairly big fan of. And that I’m opting for the shorter format this time isn’t a slight on The Future Bites, but more a result of circumstances. See this album was supposed to come out in June of 2020, but was delayed till January 29th, 2021 (for reasons that seem a bit academic now given the ongoing state of the pandemic). In the interim, Wilson released no fewer than five singles from the album’s nine song tracklisting, leaving only four fresh cuts by the time the album was released. A bit anticlimactic and seeing as how the earliest single release dates back to March 2020… I feel like I’ve lived with this album for nearly a year now, my excitement level for it falling a little flat as time went on. So in reassessing it here as a whole, I had to return to the album with fresh ears and an open mind, because let’s be honest, like many of you, hearing “Personal Shopper” and “Eminent Sleaze” for the first time was jarring to say the least. Fortunately they weren’t representative of the sound of the entire record, in fact there’s a healthy dose of classic era Wilson-ism to be found throughout, and some stuff reminiscent of Blackfield too.
I just wanna say, while I respect the concept of the album and even find it fascinating… I’m not entirely sure as to why Bowie/Prince worship was the sonic vehicle Wilson chose to explore it in. Take those aforementioned two songs, and a cut like “Self” for example, with their heavy usage of group R&B backing vocals — am I wrong in thinking that Wilson just doesn’t possess the kind of songwriting style to successfully work those in? And if you’re going to experiment with stuff like that, why do it on an album largely crafted by yourself without the benefit of musical collaborators well versed on that style and approach? On Grace For Drowning, where Wilson explored more jazz-based elements, he brought in players who knew that style of music. It would only stand to reason that he’d have done something similar when attempting R&B infusions, because I just don’t think he has the rhythmic songwriting awareness (for lack of a better term) to pull them off convincingly. When Duff McKagan recently put out his rustic, stripped down, outlaw country injected solo album “Tenderness”, he worked with Shooter Jennings and a host of musicians skilled in performing in that vein to get it right. It resulted in a fairly convincing album in sonics and stylistic aspects, regardless of whatever you thought about McKagan’s own songwriting. Wilson has tried on a broad swathe of styles throughout his career to stellar and mixed results, but he usually is cognizant of his own limitations. It’s strange that he didn’t recognize them this time around.
Where The Future Bites excels is on its more conventional, classic Wilson sounding cuts, such as “Man Of The People” and “12 Things I Forgot”, one of Wilson’s more lovely, poignant guitar-pop moments. The former actually reminds me of something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Porcupine Tree’s Fear Of A Blank Planet, a mix of tension building electronic pulses, and drug-addled pensive dreamyness. The latter is one of my favorite latter-day Wilson cuts, a simple yet heartstring plucking acoustic strummed ballad built on delicate melodies and a glorious wall of harmony vocals. It’s lyrics are particularly curious, almost a self-deprecating yet unapologetic letter to fans who criticize Wilson for the music he’s making now. That particularly comes through in the chorus lyric where he sings, “…something I lost / and I know what it meant to you… what I sang to you”, and though I doubt Wilson will ever admit to that interpretation if asked, that’s what I’m taking away from it anyway. And I don’t consider myself one of those disgruntled fans, despite the assessment of this particular album. I enjoyed about half of 2017’s To The Bone, and thought 2014’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. was Wilson’s career defining masterpiece. He’s done great work since the indefinite hiatus of Porcupine Tree, and I’m confident he’s gonna deliver something else in the future that I love. But I think Wilson’s wheelhouse for my particular taste is that nexus between prog rock and pop that made us love songs like “Trains”, “Lazarus”, “Collapse The Light Into the Earth”, “Happy Returns”, etc etc. Songs that showcased his ability to tap into raw emotional veins flowing with nostalgia, memory and yearning, regardless of how musically adventurous they were or weren’t.
Harakiri For The Sky – Mære:
I realized something about Harakiri For The Sky when listening to Maere (I can’t be bothered to copy and paste that symbol every time sorry) for the umpteenth time these past few weeks. I enjoy the hell out of this band when listening to their music, but I’ll be the first to admit that I have trouble remembering a single melody, song structure, or lyric after the fact. I’ve been pondering what to make of this, because it’s something I dealt with when becoming a fan of the band on their last record (2018’s Arson). That was a record I really enjoyed, talked to others about enthusiastically, and have kept listening to for a long time afterwards, but for the life of me I can’t remember much about it. Ditto for Maere. This is packed with frenetic, hyper rhythms, incredible percussion, explosive blasts of guitars whose melodies are sharp enough to slice through the clamor and grab your attention, even if they don’t make a lasting imprint like, oh I dunno, the lead melody from “Fear Of The Dark” or something. Harakiri’s music is considered post-black, largely I suspect due to V. Wahntraum’s vocals being mixed in that distant, screaming in the middle of a field kind of way, but they’re way more engaging that most bands tagged as that genre. There is a moment here that breaks through however, at the 3:40 mark in “Us Against December Skies” when the chaos pauses to let a simple repeating riff sequence unfold to awesome, fist-pumping effect. It’s a moment that wouldn’t stand out as much on any other band’s record, but because Harakiri hardly pause for, well… anything, it feels particularly momentous. I get the feeling that just like Arson, I’ll be returning to this record again and again throughout this year, reminding myself out of necessity of why I enjoy it so much.
Accept – Too Mean To Die:
With Too Mean To Die, Accept vocalist Mark Tornillo delivers his fifth album with the band, half way to matching Udo’s ten (we often forget about those three 90s records, understandably so). I don’t know if Mark will get to ten of his own, but it’s kind of remarkable that he’s gotten to five given the way things usually work with replacement vocalists in established veteran bands (see Tim Owens and Blaze Bailey). But he’s such a natural fit, that honestly I feel like his motorcycle greased, Americanized hard rock approach is just as much Accept-ian as Udo’s sardonic German churl. That he’s revitalized Wolf Hoffman’s passion for songwriting within the Accept vein is as much a testament to his impact as are his vocal capabilities. This is yet another quality Accept album — not earthshaking in any way mind you, and perhaps lacking the vibrant punch of Blood Of The Nations and Blind Rage, but I’m enjoying it a touch more than The Rise Of Chaos and Stalingrad. It is a bit frontloaded however, with the album getting off to a strong start with the clumsy yet endearing “Zombie Apocalypse”, it’s oafish lyrics made palatable with a rock solid hook. Can we seriously kick this beaten down lyrical idea to the curb? Zombies, really? Didn’t Hammerfall try this awhile back (I hate The Walking Dead for popularizing this, though I will admit the Max Brooks book was a fresh way of looking at it). The album highlight here is the title track, coming on with Painkiller-ish aggression and fury, and I also found a personal favorite in the slightly glam-rock aping “Overnight Sensation” (sadly it was not a cover of the Motorhead song as I was hoping). As I hinted before, the second half of the record does lose a bit of the bite and sense of fun that the first half had, with songs like “How Do We Sleep” coming on a bit paint by numbers, but not enough to diminish what is largely a quality record.
Labyrinth – Welcome To The Absurd Circus:
In the wake of finally coming around to Italian power metal in the past few years (even to a point of starting to appreciate Rhapsody to a greater degree), it’s nice to come at this new album by one of the OGs of the Italian style in Labyrinth rather than one of the many newer bands I’ve become fans of. I last listened to new Labyrinth in 2010 with their sequel to Return To Heaven Denied, swayed by the hype surrounding Olaf Thorsen’s return to the lineup. I spaced on 2017’s Architecture Of A God (which is pretty solid hearing it now), but in keeping up with Vision Divine through the past few years I feel like I have a somewhat decent pulse on the direction that Thorsen’s songwriting would be steering Labyrinth in. Of course longtime guitarist Andrea Cantarelli and the great Roberto Tiranti have a hand in that, but Thorsen’s presence in these songs is unmistakable. Tracks like “The Absurd Circus”, “As Long As It Lasts”, and “One More Last Chance” marry his energetic blasts of neoclassical guitar with smooth AOR-styled melodies. A peak moment arrives at the mid-song guitar solo in the Queensryche-ian “Den Of Snakes”, where a joyous, accelerating guitar figure breaks out at the 4:22 mark, reminding me of something Edguy would do in the Theater of Salvation era. Tiranti of course is stellar throughout as always, particularly shining on the power ballad “A Reason To Survive”, his vocals ageless and even a bit Khan-esque in these more emotive moments. This is a top tier Labyrinth album, sleek, bold, and confident. It won’t best Heaven Denied of course, but few albums could. It’s only stumbling block is cover art as terrible as Maiden’s Dance Of Death… c’mon guys, its 2021, there’s no excuse anymore.
Einherjer – North Star:
If you’ve dabbled in folk metal or looked for the sometimes stupidly tagged “viking metal”, you’ve surely come across Einherjer, a band that is as frustrating as any in terms of consistency throughout their two era-ed career. Not only is Einherjer’s songwriting track record spotty and unpredictable, but their records seem to sound different from one another in terms of pure sonics, as in recording quality and mixing decisions. When I listened to them in the early aughts before their self imposed near-decade long exile, they were one of a small handful of bands doing music in this particular vein — folk tinged, blackened metal with partially harsh/clean blended vocals. They stood out in other words. But as the years went on and more bands who dabbled in this style got signed, Einherjer’s uniqueness wore off, and I’ll be honest, the last record I remember really enjoying was 2014’s Av Oss, For Oss. It was no coincidence that I was reminded of that record when listening to North Star, it bears striking similarity in the production approach as well as the reined in mix. But I’ll offer that North Star is a far better record just on the strength of it’s songwriting alone, the band settling on a heavily blackened groove based approach. It’s one that reminds me of mid-period Satyricon ala Now, Diabolical by the way of Viking folk influences that just seem to exude off our Norwegian friends like someone bathing in an entire bottle of Drakkar Noir. It starts with Grimar’s vocals being reigned in, his approach built on Satyr like grim-hued harshes, with a lyrical approach that is economical, lean and focused on textural aggression. Simply put, he sounds menacing throughout, his delivery laden with venom and bite. Adding to this is the dual guitar attack of new guy Tom Enge and relatively new guy Ole Sønstabø, who embrace dagger like riffing, simple and direct, straight to the gut, their only indulgences being the splashy solo or occasional countermelody. A vivid example of this is their tandem work in “Ascension”, where their riff sequences are purposeful, focused and honed in on delivering a razor’s edge throughout. A special mention needs to be made for “Chasing The Serpent”, as satisfying a song I’ve heard this year, a moody stomper that delivers a memorable, shout along payload. Highly recommended if you need a blackened fix (but don’t actually want black metal per say).
Nervosa – Perpetual Chaos:
I’ve come to admire Nervosa and their new album Perpetual Chaos quite a bit, first for the daunting story of the challenges bandleader Prika Amaral had to overcome in it’s making (and frankly, how quickly she was able to accomplish that), and second for the actual album that I’ve been listening to over the past few weeks. I’ve felt a disconnect with thrash over the past couple years, and I’m sure anyone who cared enough to pay attention to the albums I covered on the blog in that time could sense that. If I’m being honest the last thrash records that really affected me were Death Angel’s The Evil Divide and of course Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic. So its a bit of a surprise and a relief to know that I can still find enjoyment in a genre that I kinda feared was slipping away from me recently. In making Perpetual Chaos, Amaral had to recruit an entirely new lineup to replace her two departing, foundational bandmates, who left in April 2020 just as the pandemic was beginning. She shrewdly chose to replace them with European based musicians, likely not only for talent’s sake (bassist Mia Wallace did a short stint playing with Abbath during the Outstrider era), but there’s a huge financial/strategic advantage to moving the band’s base of operations to the EU, with bandmembers already citizens which can make touring dramatically easier when things open up. And they all gel together surprisingly well for an album written via distance under lockdown, with nary a weak moment here. Things really start cooking in the second half, with strong songs like “Until The Very End”, “Time To Fight” (the clear highlight here for me with its punk meets Kreator vibes), and the awesome “Rebel Soul”. The latter features Flotsam’s Erik AK, and its great to finally have a guest appearance like this live up on record to the potential it had on paper. Didn’t expect to enjoy a thrash metal record this much in 2021, but I’m glad the theme of the year so far seems to be surprises.
Epica – Omega:
I’ve normally skipped new Epica albums throughout the time I’ve had this blog, getting around to listening to them long after their release date when a review wouldn’t make a lot of sense. And usually my opinion on Epica albums has been a fairly consistent “Eh, it’s ok I guess”. For whatever reason, Epica’s music has just bounced off me for the most part and failed to engage me in the same way their influences, contemporaries, and namesake’s inspiration (in Kamelot) have. I remember liking most of The Divine Conspiracy and even paying attention when I saw them live in an opening slot on that tour (if I recall correctly, Amanda Somerville was handling lead vocals for that run). My biggest criticism of their overall discography is mainly the band’s reliance on a singular mode of attack, that being layers upon layers of overblown orchestral pomp. When that’s all you do, it can get a bit tiring. It’d be like Nightwish doing nothing but Wishmaster over and over again, only fattening up the layers each time. So color me surprised that with Omega, Epica seem to have breathed new life into their sound by choosing to scale things back, stripping away the layering to let their music breathe a bit. I’ve honestly been enjoying songs like the instantly catchy “Abyss Of Time”, the eastern melody tinged “Seal Of Solomon”, and the sweetly poppy “Freedom – The Wolves Within”. These songs are the opposite of the new Nightwish album, lean and straight to the point, and loaded with enough counter-balanced aggression from Mark Jansen (who somehow sounds heavier than I remembered) to prevent things from becoming syrupy. Though speaking of the latter quality, I’ll add a special mention for the spectacular ballad “Rivers”, which is the most effective and emotional one I’ve heard the band ever pull off. Surprise really does seem to be the running theme this year, because I didn’t see myself being this delighted with a new Epica album, but here we are.
Tribulation – Where The Gloom Becomes Sound:
I love this album, and this band really. Ever since getting into them via 2013’s The Formulas Of Death, and then subsequently seeing them live at a memorable Austin gig on their tour opening for Watain, I’ve been consistently impressed with them. Their last record, 2018’s Down Below, was a solid album that saw the band expanding their gloom n’ roll sound to be noticeably more polished, with an emphasis on placing melodies front and center and scraping away some of the rougher, jagged edges of their sound. That in itself is a delicate balancing act and its nice to see a band recognize when they’ve landed on the blend that works for them. On the appropriately titled Where The Gloom Becomes Sound, Tribulation pick up where they left off, with the new album being in part a continuation of the sound they narrowed down on Down Below, and at the same time serving as a rejection that they were transitioning into their Swedish contemporaries Ghost (whom I and others were so keen to compare them to last time around). With excellent cuts like “Hour Of The Wolf” and “Funeral Pyre”, they’re succeeding in pairing Adam Zaars’ earwormy guitar hooks amidst creepily atmospheric dynamics. His contributions throughout the album are incredibly balanced, bringing in gushing sweetness on the solo during “Elementals” while maintaining enough of a charcoal-hued palette to prevent things in general from ever becoming saccharine. And vocalist Johannes Andersson is still Tribulation’s core sonic identity; his vocals ever bleak, laced with just enough reverb to make them sound like they’re echoing off the walls of a cave. I’ve been compulsively returning to this album time and again these past few weeks, it’s simply really satisfying, and a reminder that it’s not always a bad thing when bands give you more of the same.
Todd LaTorre – Rejoice In The Suffering:
So I’ve spent a few weeks with this album now, Todd LaTorre’s first solo album after a career serving as one of metal’s best replacement vocalists (Queensryche and Crimson Glory). With the aid of Craig Blackwell, a Tampa musician friend of his, LaTorre cobbled together an album of ostensibly full-on metal songs, breaking away from the prog-tinge that Queensryche is known for. The result is an album that sounds a bit like a less thrashy Testament fronted by Tim Ripper Owens, with LaTorre getting into that Painkiller vocal mode more often than not. There is of course, an instant delight in hearing this, as I’m guessing most of us felt when we first heard it. I will say that surprise was tempered a bit by knowing how heavy the last Queensryche album tended to get in moments, at times perhaps too heavy for that band’s sound and skillset (debatable I know, but I guess I like my Ryche mid-tempo, thoughtful, and a bit more dynamic). The curious thing about Rejoice is that I find the non-full throttle songs to be the most engaging, tracks like “Apology” with its slowed down, moodier vibes, and the strong Dokken-esque qualities in “Vexed”, with its wild, sunset strip chorus. The slow burning semi-ballad “Crossroads To Infinity” is another intriguing track, with a pretty solid hook in the chorus that I wish was a tad more satisfyingly tight. Everything else on offer is you know, solid attitude spiked metal, and there’s nary a bad or terrible moment among them. The problem I suppose is that there’s nothing overtly spectacular about them either, and I sort of wonder at the praise that’s being thrown towards this album from most people I’ve seen discuss it (though in fairness to LaTorre, he’s an easy guy to root for). But when I hear a song like the thrash-centric “Dogmata”, I’m not so much surprised that LaTorre can do it, but more unmoved by it’s aggression. This could be a ‘Pigeon is getting jaded about heaviness’ problem, but there’s many new records that are quite heavy that get me plenty excited. So yeah, I might be the odd one out here on this record, because everyone I’ve talked to about it loves it.