The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2023 // Part Two: The Albums

Here it is, part two of the Best of 2023 feature, with my top ten albums of the year, as always kept to a short list of ten, despite my having a mess of assorted runners up and one hard cut that could theoretically be called number eleven. For any newcomers to the blog, I don’t bother with numbering past the top ten, because with a few exceptions of certain lists I’m really interested in, I’ve always found it hard to parse out how numbering things for personal taste based lists matters much after that. This year I’ll gladly recommend checking out the recently dropped 2023 recap episode by our friends at The Metal Exchange Podcast, whose lengthily numbered lists (one of the aforementioned exceptions) are interesting because they cover quite a bit of stuff that I had either only listened to a few times or not heard at all, and their tastes closely align with mine. For my part, this list was maybe one of the more agonized over with the exception of the top slot, whom I’ve suspected was going to sit atop there for months and months now. The year started off slow, but surged as the months went on and we all had to play catch up, and the size of nominee pool this year was way more crowded than it had been these past couple years. It was great to see that within power metal we see signs of maybe things starting to turn around, with some really promising new artists represented on the list below, after it seemed like the subgenre had started to lose it’s way over the past few years. It’s also striking to see that six of the top ten albums on my list are from artists that were either new or certainly new to me, one of those small details that spells great things for the health of metal overall (or perhaps just my relationship to it, either way). If you want to hear about those other album nominees that didn’t make it, as well as my cohost Cary’s best of picks, check out our upcoming 2023 recap episode of the MSRcast podcast. And finally, the list:


1. Sacred Outcry – Towers of Gold:

I was thinking about this recently, the hypothetical idea that my favorite band of all time, Iron Maiden, could have released a near perfect throwback sounding album in 2023 reminiscent of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and honestly, I’m still not sure it would be able to dislodge Towers of Gold from atop this list. That is just how genre defining this album is, a modern day power metal classic. One that in future discussions of essential power metal records, I’ll casually list alongside Keeper I&II, Nightfall in Middle Earth, Land of the Free, and frickin’ Ecliptica, just the whole damn list of records you love and know by heart and I don’t have the time and space to list right now! This is the most convincingly well done old school pure power metal record I’ve heard in ages, a complete start to finish compelling listening experience rife with intensity, grand drama, theatricality, and a level of emotion woven into the fabric of the songwriting that reminds me of when I first heard those classic Khan era Kamelot albums. Much of the attention of course is falling on what is seemingly a career renaissance defining performance for legendary vocalist Daniel Heiman, and rightfully so (more on him in a second), but to me the real star here is George Apalodimas’ songwriting and overall conceptual vision. The mythic storyline that serves as the musical and lyrical focal point throughout, of a band of adventurers who hungrily lust after the towers of gold they hear described by an old man at their inn is broad and vague enough to be filled in with grand impressionist brushstrokes, not detailed plot that can often bog down the songwriting in an effort to get across tiny details. Yet credit to Apalodimas here, because the premise of the lyrical narrative is still cleverly written in a first person style to create depth and immersion the way the best concept albums are (think Mindcrime), and not delivered like a children’s book of fables. It took me a few listens just taking everything in before some of the lyrics really began to pique my attention, but this was really the singular album in metal this year where I found my attention drifting to what Heiman was singing as opposed to just how he was singing it, a credit to the care and attention paid to the lyricism at work.

Of course let’s take a moment to talk about Mr. Heiman here, because he is a legendary power metal vocalist who not only commands interest in anything he does, but deserves his flowers here for turning in what maybe is one of the best performances in his career, alongside those Lost Horizon classics we all love. Consider his energizing, soaring tenor on galloping uptempo anthemic tunes such as “The Flame Rekindled” where he navigates highly rhythmic vocal lines and knows exactly where to pepper in those patented screams from the utter depths of his soul (what else can you call those?). I love some of the vocal decisions being made here, like an almost deliberately slower, stately approach to the vocal melody on “The Voyage” as the music surges ahead underneath, creating a billowing effect like you’re visualizing the wind hitting the sails of a ship at sea. The wild swings of his voice on “Into the Storm” are so rich and nuanced, really lending weight and gravitas to the storytelling, and of course the reason for a standing ovation here is his work on the best songs listee “Symphony of the Night”, where his he manages to somehow fit in distant screams into a performance that is achingly emotive while hushed and restrained, a masterclass in itself. This song is also a great example of the musical synergy coursing through this entire album, the guitar work by Steve Lado is wonderfully melodic, and expressively lyrical. Apalodimas’ own excellent bass work is actually a crucial element to many of these pieces, his playing reminds me of Eddie Jackson of Queensryche, a throbbing pulse that feeds so much of the sound being crafted here. And kudos to the technical drumming of Defkalion Dimos, who is a fill machine all throughout this album, and knows how to match the drama of the music when the intensity ramps up with a battering attack, but also creative patterns that are contrary to what you’d expect. Even though these guys are all new musicians to the project, with this as their first recording together, it all has the feel of a band that’s been playing together for a decade plus, and credit for that has to go to Apalodimas. I hope he can keep this lineup together, although I trust that he can deliver something great next time as well even if he’s unable to retain their services. I’m sure by now he knows that he’s achieved something spectacular with Towers of Gold, but just in case, here’s one more voice to join the already loud chorus of people proclaiming so.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

2.  Skyblazer – Infinity’s Wings:

This album really took a journey to wind up at this placement on this list. At first I was keeping it off entirely because it just seemed like such a homer pick for someone like myself who is a massive fan of Power Quest, which is (among a few others such as Crystallion and Freedom Call) the chief influence driving Johannes Skyblazer in this project. Then I sheepishly slid it in at number ten down there because I couldn’t deny the sheer amount of times I listened to it. Yet as the weeks went on and I kept refining and re-ordering the list as I listened to all the candidates and jostled things around, I realized that it would be entirely disingenuous of me to not have this much much higher. And I can’t really say why it took so long to reach that conclusion — maybe its because Infinity’s Wings is the least heaviest record on this largely extreme metal dominated list, or maybe it’s because of its unintentionally home studio sounding, semi-amateurish production (which I think is a charming strength of the album, but I know that might be a minority opinion). What I know for absolute certain however, is that my introduction to Skyblazer this year was downright poetic in that Power Quest unceremoniously announced their retirement with a simple press release in February, so this album felt like a passing of the torch for this particular style of power metal. Johannes nails what makes this keyboard driven, energetic, bright-toned, euphoric power metal sound so appealing, and he writes suitably anthemic songs to match, loaded with memorable hooks, soaring melodies, and sharp chord progressions. Unlike his heroes, who had the benefit of full band lineups and recording studios, Skyblazer is essentially a one man project, with Johannes handling all the songwriting, recording, and lead vocals on his own (with some assists from a few guests). Admitting in interviews that his audio production can’t compete with the bigger bands, he’s expressed hope that his attention to the songwriting would compensate, and I think he has achieved that in spades. The result is a unique sound, even apart from his influences although their spirit flows eagerly through this album. In a year where I loudly complained about the state of popular power metal as disheartening, dumb garbage, Infinity’s Wings was among a handful of defiantly earnest, heart on sleeve, shimmering jewels that showed me and others that there are still artists out there who remember why this style of music meant so much to many of us in the past, and can continue to going forward.

3.  Serenity – Nemesis AD:

Sometimes, the injection of new blood in a lineup can act as an immediate catalyst for creative growth in a band, as opposed to forcing growing pains that need to be endured. With the exception of one truly inspired album (2016’s Codex Atlanticus) in the immediate wake of longtime guitarist Thomas Buchberger’s departure in 2014, Serenity had been adrift creatively in the past few years — and it seemed like Georg Neuhauser might have felt that somewhat as well, launching new side projects with Warkings and Fallen Sanctuary. The latter of these projects saw him pair up with Temperance songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Marco Pastorini, and yielded a pretty enjoyable, hard rock meets AOR meets power metal record. Credit to Neuhauser then for realizing that Pastorini would give Serenity some needed juice, because Nemesis AD is their best album since War of Ages, hearkening back to the magic they had with the Buchberger lineup. I already discussed how 2023’s best songs list topper “Reflections (of AD)” made me giddy with euphoria, but I didn’t get to mention how “Ritter, Tod und Teufel (Knightfall)” brimmed with the kind of Sonata Arctica meets Kamelot prog-power bliss that echoed shades of their classic Death & Legacy album. Nor did I get to mention how glory-claw inducingly epic the Roy Khan duet “The Fall of Man” turned out (that Kamelot influence coming full circle), nor how utterly charming the sweepingly melodramatic and achingly sweet Broadway-inspired power ballad “Crowned by an Angel” was, a tune Tobias Sammet would have loved to have penned. Pastorini’s influence is felt all throughout this album, the songs are sharper, the melodies sweeter, and there’s an overall sense that this band feels creatively renewed once again.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

4.  Sorcerer – Reign of the Reaper:

Expansive, cinematic, spiritual, and downright Epic with a capital E, Sorcerer delivered the finest album of what has been a stellar string of solid to excellent releases since their full band resurrection in 2015. They are to my mind, ascending the heights of trad laden doom metal in terms of artistic output to justifiably be compared to the greats of the subgenre in Candlemass. Despite it’s late October release date, this album casts such a large shadow over this list, that it was one of the first candidates I wrote down when compiling the list, and an easy one to highlight for one of the these ten spots. So much went right on this album, and it was due to the band playing around with their epic doom metal formula a bit. Where they leaned very doomy on 2020’s Lamenting of the Innocent which I feel led in large part to that album’s tendency to drag — they reversed course for Reign of the Reaper, introducing more classic heavy metal songwriting into the mix and restricting the doomier parts of their sound to aspects such as guitar tone, dense riffing, and keyboard derived cinematic atmospheres. As a result, the songwriting got sharper, more reminiscent of the clinic they put on in 2017’s The Crowning of the Fire King, songs oriented around not only memorable hooks, but recurrent melodic motifs articulated by Kristian Niemann’s impeccable signature lead guitarwork (seriously he’s cemented himself as one of my all-time favorite guitarists). This lean towards more traditional metal also opened up things for vocalist Anders Engberg to craft some of his most soulful and expressive vocal performances to date, reminding me in many spots (especially those soft sung intros) of the great Ronnie James Dio. You’ve probably noticed that “Morning Star” landed high on the Best Songs of 2023, but the truth is that this entire album was filled with truly incredible songs with little amazing moments all their own and it’d take way too long to go through them all. Just trust me and put this on and let it spin if you haven’t already, it’s one of the most satisfying listens of the year.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

5.  Gatekeeper – From Western Shores:

Undoubtedly one of the strongest front to finish metal albums of the year, Gatekeeper pushed aside any notion of the sophomore slump with their stellar second album From Western Shores. I remember not feeling the buzz that came with their debut many years back, despite giving it a shot largely due to it’s Cruz Del Sur label pedigree, but this album really delivered on what I saw then as budding potential. Part of the success here is just how well new vocalist Tyler Anderson fits the band’s upgraded sound here, his Eric Adams meets Chris Black dichotomous approach meshing perfectly with the more polished production that the Gatekeeper guys have employed this time around. On that subject, the band’s musical DNA of stripped down epic USPM is still preserved here entirely, but the guitars are fuller, lusher, particularly leads and harmonies, and the rhythm section seems tighter than on the debut, giving all these songs a heft and weight that winds up being the central element to this album’s success. With that bedrock in place, guitarists Jeff Black and new guy Adam Bergen are left with free reign to run amok with a flurry of inspired melodies, tight harmonies, and impeccably satisfying solos. Anderson can veer from wild, David DeFeis style yowling moments to these very straight faced Manilla Road meets Dawnbringer style vocals where his tone approaches something akin to a style that would fit in on a stoner metal album, and he covers the spectrum in between, in his best moments here reminding me of 80’s Jon Oliva. This is masterfully done epic power metal with purposefully rougher edges, a heavy bottom end and bared teeth in riffs and attitude, all on a damn near perfect album.

6.  Cloak – Black Flame Eternal:

The yearly surprise out-of-leftfield album to make the list is becoming a Metal Pigeon tradition by this point, and this year the honor goes to Atlanta, Georgia’s Cloak, who delivered the most convincing and addictive extreme metal album of the year. Their sound is a blend of intense, grimy black metal with lush gothic metal melodic overtones in a fusion that is as inspired as anything we’ve seen in this space since Tribulation. This is their third album, and despite being on Season of Mist who have a pretty broad promotional reach, this band apparently sailed under the radars of both myself and others I know because we didn’t even play them on the MSRcast until this album came out. But better late than never of course, and although this album leapt out to me as ultra hooky and addictive the moment I listened to it, I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I started doing play count analytics and realized it was one of my most listened to albums in 2023, only second to Sacred Outcry in sheer numbers. I think the reason I came back to it repeatedly is that beyond the catchy riffs and clever blending of rockin’ heavy metal riffs into the whole gothic black metal mix, there is a tremendous amount of depth going on here. Take the two marching, rumbling epics that bookend the album, where the band confidently uses gradual tempo changes and spacious silence to build to impactful climaxes. And “With Fury and Allegiance” is built on such a excellent riff progression, simultaneously furious, melodic, and cinematic in it’s breadth (this song narrowly missed the best songs list). That explosive thrust that occurs at 3:36 (“Come silent night…”) was one of my favorite singular metal moments of the year, earning a fist pump every time I heard it no matter how ridiculous I must have looked.

7.  Keep of Kalessin – Katharsis:

Talk about an album that shook the jaded metalhead right out of me when I first listened to it back in what, April? It was just one album among a long list of them I was playing while talking a walk in a park on one of our nicer spring days. I suppose I’ll forever associate the album with my memory of that day, because I remember it was really the first album of the whole year that really thrilled me in that basic, fundamental way of just being a metal fan. This album was not only aggressively heavy in blasts, and full of all the meaty riffs and excellent scream/harshes that have characterized the band’s sound all these many years — but it just swept over me with it’s grandiosity and sense of adventure. I hear this combination most vividly in songs such as “Hellride” with its skyrocketing upward surge when the chorus hits, that rare kind of moment that I love when sustained intensity is compounded with a blast of even more intensity. The band’s sense of melodicism seemed to spill over the edges everywhere here, as on the Enthrone Darkness Triumphant invoking “War of the Wyrm”, where the inclusion of a semi-spoken word section actually enhanced the dramatic sweep of the song, rather than sucking all the momentum out like most bands tend to do when trying it. That melodicism characterized the Best Songs of 2023 listee “Journey’s End”, a bittersweet, emotive ballad that served as a perfect mid-album meditation and mood changer. And I was struck by how much power metal influence seemed to creep into the whole affair here, particularly on the epic “Throne of Execration”, where I felt major Blind Guardian/Andre Olbrich vibes happening on the harmonized lead guitars that poured a gorgeous melody out over the top towards the outro of the song. This was genuinely a multi-faceted album that hit all my metal sweet spots in various moments, molded together by creative and inspired songwriting and the feel of listening to something expansive, far reaching, and ambitious.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2023)

8.  Moonlight Sorcery – Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle:

It’s not very often that you can aptly describe a black metal album as sounding magical, and dare I go further, sparklingly magical(!), but Finland’s Moonlight Sorcery achieves exactly that in a combination of symphonic power metal inspired ultra melodicism via keyboard synths and neoclassical guitar leads strewn across Horned Lord of the Thorned Castle. And maybe its the fact that I’ve been reading up on moon druids for DnD recently (nerd!), but this amalgam of sounds really does live up to the band’s name, sounding for all the world like the soundtrack to a swords and sorcery fantasy adventure-RPG videogame at times (blackened vocals aside). I was recommended this album by several people gushing about it all at once around October, and it’s rare that something manages to grab so many people’s attentions all at once these days when we’re usually all on different pages regarding everything. Guitarist and main songwriter Matti Meri-Huhti (credited as “Loitsumestari Taikakallo” here) seems to be the architect of this fusion, and I’d be a little shocked if he wasn’t a major Yngwie Malmsteen fan at some point in his life because his leads remind me of the Swedish master, tastefully articulated and thoughtfully patterned. Hearing this kind of lead playing set against the backdrop of pretty faithful, yet polished up second wave Norwegian black metal is such a refreshing and novel contrast. There have been examples where other artists have tried something close to this, but nothing that ever went all in on that sharp of a contrast the way Moonlight Sorcery have accomplished here. The culminating apex here for me is “Into the Silvery Shadows of the Night”, a hauntingly beautiful stately dirge with a mystical sounding lead melody ushering us during the outro. This is without a doubt one of the most memorable black metal albums of the last five, possibly ten years, definitely an easy one to return to.

9.  Immortal – War Against All:

In the spirit of not overthinking this one, this second post Abbath Immortal album just flat out rocked me ever since it’s release this summer, somehow managing to outdo the triumphant 2018 comeback Northern Chaos Gods. And you know, Demonaz has always had the right to lay claim to being at least fifty percent of the formula that made Immortal so successful, but what’s shocking is just how he’s managed to shake off the notion that Abbath was largely the musical driving force in the band. This new album sees Demonaz continuing the look back towards the band’s early, more blistering paced releases, while dropping a nod towards the mid-paced era they’d start to explore towards the turn of the millennium. That he manages to accomplish this while keeping the production crisp and pristine (yet not polished) is a testament to how well he understands what made those great Immortal records so undeniably appealing to audiences beyond black metal. Songs such as “War Against All”, “Blashyrkh My Throne”, and “Wargod” are catchy as all get out, and have that thrashy edge that I often wish more black metal bands would employ. I also appreciate that he hasn’t tried to stray from the tried and true fantastical Immortal style, going all in on the band’s mythos and fantasy steeped tales, as on “No Sun” with it’s tale of the mountain of evil (where there rises no sun, duh). I’ve seen people take some sideswipes at Demonaz for continuing the Blashyrkh mythos throughout the lyrics, and I want to shout at them to clear the hall — the imagery informs the sound and vice versa, its grim and frostbitten and that’s why we loved this band and all their classic albums. That Demonaz convincingly continues that spirit on War Against All is something to appreciate and cherish, not jadedly dismiss.

10.  Majesties – Vast Reaches Unclaimed:

Considering all the hype and subsequent disappointment of the recent In Flames “return to form” nonsense that occurred earlier in the year, my lack of enthusiasm for the recent Insomnium album, and also counting the semi-bummer that was The Halo Effect’s debut album last year, I had felt myself jaded about the prospect of anything genuinely interesting hitting me from the melodic death metal space this year. Enter in this under the radar release from Majesties, a Minneapolis based side project from the two dudes from Antiverse, guitarists Carl Skildum and Matthew Kirkwold (who plays bass here), joining together with vocalist/guitarist Tanner Anderson from the vaunted Obsequiae (I loved The Palms of Sorrowed Kings, sadly discovering it well after it’s 2019 release). Um, these guys must be kindred spirits to me in craving old school sounding Gothenburg melodeath with no core or modern melodic death influences whatsoever, because Vast Reaches Unclaimed is pure musical comfort food. Sounding like a cross between Lunar Strain era In Flames, Skydancer era Dark Tranquility, and a lost Gates of Ishtar album, this is a revisitation of a sound that few can imitate and whose progenitors have long abandoned. These guys just get it, the harmonized leads, the density of the crunchy riffing, Anderson’s perfectly mixed vocals (lower than the guitars, somewhat distant and appropriately hoarse as a sharp contrast to all the vibrant melody happening). A true longform, full album listening experience, I’ve returned to this album again and again almost as a nostalgia soaked soundtrack to go about my day to. It’s genuinely difficult to pick a favorite song here or stand out riff because it just keeps on coming, like an ever flowing stream (heyo!). This might be the first thing I’ve heard since… well, first hearing classic melodeath back in the day, that really took me back to the feeling I experienced when first stumbling onto those classic records and that awesome sound I love so much.

Metallica and Kamelot Return!

Kamelot – The Awakening:

So I was planning to do a rather technical deep dive on this new Kamelot album, titled The Awakening (lets note that this is not in fact a concept album based on the famed Kate Chopin novel of the same name, although that sounds like a promising idea in general for any symphonic metal band), but after spending a considerable amount of time with it over the past few weeks I’ve realized that maybe a blow by blow dissection of this album isn’t what anyone, let alone myself, want or need. I’ll just be up front in saying that this isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but to it’s credit its a step in the right direction after the abysmal affair that was The Shadow Theory in 2018 (but after a five year gap, its certainly not a big enough step). Let’s just do this simply, by breaking down what Kamelot did right here, and what they did wrong (or more accurately have continued to do wrong).

First the positive stuff: Tommy seems increasingly unleashed to maximize his vocal talent and accentuate his strengths, a welcome change from how stifled and constrained his performances felt on the last album. It’s not a coincidence that the best songs here are examples of this in action, in particular the glorious opener “The Great Divide”, as old school power metal as the band have leaned in a long, long time (interestingly enough Jani Liimatainen is one of the co-writers on this tune, which might explain the classicist feel going on that we’ve heard him bring to the table with Cain’s Offering, The Dark Element, and last year’s collab with Tony Kakko). I’ll also single out “Eventide” as one of Tommy’s smoothest verse to chorus transitions, and there’s something irresistible about the ease of his vocal uplift on that soaring hook. Equally impressive for different reasons was his performance on “The Looking Glass”, where he did some different things with his vocals, taking a little more of a theatrical bent here and there that reminded me of the way his predecessor Roy Khan told a story with his intonation and delivery on all those classic songs. To cut to the quick of it, the band sounds way better when they lean towards major key, soaring power metal where Tommy gets to shine and flex his chords a bit.

Kamelot falters however in the same frustrating way they’ve been faltering artistically for the past many albums now (a decent chunk of Haven being an exception), that being their insistence in continuing their edgy, darker musical approach that just seems entirely at odds with Tommy’s entire personality and vocal presence. This stuff worked when it was introduced way the hell back in the Roy Khan era with The Black Halo, because Khan was a convincing vocalist for that particular approach, his voice deep and resonant enough to put genuine grit and gravitas to his vocals and the characters he was inhibiting. Even on the somewhat criticized Ghost Opera and Poetry For the Poisoned, where they continued that style, he was able to craft vocal melodies that made incredibly dramatic magic with his lower registers. At the time it was a refreshing change of pace for power metal at large, with few bands save Tad Morose and a couple others daring to dabble in anything less than polished and shiny Euro-power. However when Khan left, Thomas Youngblood and company stuck with this artistic palette, I’m guessing because it had delivered to the band a more marketable image that they could associate with rather than the regal toned power metal of their Fourth Legacy thru Epica era. We see evidence of this in the maddingly similar music video visual styles they’ve employed over the past decade plus, with one virtually indistinguishable from another. It’s all this edgy futuristic sci-fi goth, post-apocalyptic yawn inducing dreck, and the music of course has to fit that image.

I’ll admit that I had some slight hopes that after going through a five year gap between albums during which we all collectively went through the pandemic, that Kamelot might do an abrupt change, take the chance to shake things up a bit. You’d figure all that time sitting around in dour circumstances would inspire the band to do something else, anything remotely different in style and tone, but I guess not. In Kamelot’s case it really couldn’t hurt to consider the old adage that sometimes one needs to go backwards in order to go forwards. A little of that old school magic could really reinvigorate their sound (I’m talking about a full embrace of it, not just the drips and drabs that they’ve scattered across this album). The faux tough guy hardo act with songs like “One More Flag in the Ground” has never resonated with me, and by this point after a decade plus full of the stuff they’ve spread it so thin it barely has any substance left. The irony is that commercially the band has slipped over the past couple releases in markets like the USA and the UK where that kind of thing is largely aimed at. The chart positions and sales have gotten lower and lower. Kamelot, I’m urging you — embrace romanticism again, reconsider your entire visual approach, crawl out of the darkness and breathe some fresh air again. I suspect there’s quite a few of us who’ll be waiting on the other side.

Metallica – 72 Seasons:

Alright! Twelve years of The Metal Pigeon and my second Metallica album review! It’s a milestone of sorts I’d say, although one loaded with a ton of criticism that I’ve largely already written about at length and won’t reintroduce here anew. Deserving still of criticism is the band’s rate of fire on new music output, it still takes them ages, and I still think that works to their detriment in the grand scheme of things, but I think we’re past the point of no return on that front. Too much time has passed and the band is too set in their way of working (or rather, mostly touring). All that said, I think I had the same vague sense of trepidation with the approach of Metallica’s newest, 72 Seasons, as most veteran metalheads — with a jaded, arms folded stoicism. As far as advance singles go, “Lux Æterna” wasn’t the worst choice that they could’ve put out, though it does sound far more fitting within the context of the album. I’d say the most valid criticism of it as a single is that it was the obvious choice from the tracklist, the shortest, most radio format friendly cut (a mere 3:25 run time), and out there on it’s own it felt a little underwhelming as a preview, whereas on the album sandwiched right in the middle of things, its a blast of excitement when it hits.

Were Metallica truly gutsy, they would’ve picked the album opener title track “72 Seasons” as the lead off single, because not only is it the best song on the album as a whole, but I’d argue it’s the best singular tune the band has delivered since some of the more smoky, deep cuts off 1996s Load. That deep rumbling Trujillo bass intro leading into a rollicking, thrash-tinged sequence is one of the more adrenaline pumping starts to a Metallica album in long memory. I love that Hetfield’s barking vocals here sound like vintage angry Hetfield circa 89-96, deep and booming but with that sharp, slicing bite that gave so much of classic Metallica cuts their visceral, emotional impact. And really, the whole band just slams in this song, Hammett even delivering a rare interesting guitar solo here that works as a minor detour and melodic complement to all the aggression surrounding it. Lars turns in a fiery, well thought out attack caught halfway between groove and solid quasi-thrash pummeling — its not flashy, but it doesn’t have to be and frankly shouldn’t because as is it serves the best interests of this song. I really love this song, and it just bowled me over the first time I put the album on, putting a grin on my face as I drove around pumping my fist to a new Metallica album which was a small joy to realize while it was happening.

The band follows it up with two damn near as convincing gems in “Shadows Follow” and “Screaming Suicide”, creating the band’s best three song opening salvo since Justice (I wasn’t ever wild on “Sad But True” so The Black Album doesn’t qualify for this). Regarding the former, this sometimes flip flops with “72 Seasons” as my favorite cut on the album, there being something really satisfying about Hetfield’s cadence on the vocal lines during the verses, that sharp spittle flying bark and bite attack. His lyrics here are also truly some of his best in ages, for all three of these songs really, but I can’t help but love that line “On I run / still my shadows follow” — it’s such a simple idea thematically, but so eloquently phrased as to create a picture in your mind that most of us can relate to I’d think. Actually I’ll expand on this lyrical discussion by stating that I think this album is Hetfield’s finest batch of lyrics as a collective whole since the Load album (which barring a few songs was a masterwork of lyric writing on Hetfield’s part in my book). Much has been discussed, largely by him, of his personal trials and tribulations that have changed things in his life since Hardwired, and it’s refreshing to hear him approach these subjects in a way that avoids clunkiness, awkward word choice, instead feeling like a direct conduit with his raw emotions.

Things hit speed bumps when we reach “Sleepwalk My Life Away”, “You Must Burn!”, and “Crown of Barbed Wire”, three mid-tempo set plodders that make you eyeball that 1hr 17min runtime and wish that the band had a more vocal editor in the studio during the album sequencing and urged them to leave those for b-sides. The riffs here seem to be aiming for a groove metal adjacent approach, but rather than locking you into said groove, I find myself growing angsty at how plodding they feel, how unfocused and fuzzy everything comes across. Working as a palette cleanser to those middle of the tracklist duds is “Chasing Light” which has one of the most effective, sharpened choruses on the album with a fantastic vocal trade off hook. I also loved “If Darkness Had a Son”, where we get that classic sounding Metallica vocal hook from James, a call and response out of the darkness that is written with precision and maximum earwormy-ness. The album has a strong closing run overall really, “Too Far Gone?” and “Room of Mirrors” are rockin’ songs that have specific parts I find worth coming back for, and I always find myself nodding my head along.

Much has been made of the very Sabbath influenced doom tinged closer “Inamorata”, the album’s lengthiest song clocking in at over eleven minutes, the band’s longest song in their career. I’m giving it semi-high marks because it does present something kinda unique among the album and in Metallica’s career in general, harkening back in a way to their cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Astronomy” they did on Garage, Inc all those years ago. As for the length, there is a mid-song bridge dropout where everything comes to a hush, only to build back up into a cascade of rather gorgeously phrased guitar parts that seem like a true interplay between Hetfield and Hammett. It’s not a song I’m losing my mind over, but I did enjoy it and applaud the band hitting a different stride here. Speaking of Hammett… he’s the weak link on this album, because with a few exceptions including “Inamorata”, his solos are so repetitive, full of overpoured wah pedal and seemingly directionless phrasing. He’s come out swinging against the criticism lately but I think it’s warranted — because seriously Kirk, I get that you think it’s a direct line to your emotional gut, but it’s tiresome for everyone else. I’m surprised the band doesn’t suggest he ditch the pedal, if only to offer some sonic variance for the sake of introducing freshness when that guitar solo hits. It’s weird to single out a member for poor performance on a Metallica album and not have it be Lars, but the Dane was absolutely solid this outing. And props to Hetfield on a fine return to form, as much as he can get these days anyway. I was incredibly surprised at how much I enjoyed this.

New albums from Insomnium, Enslaved and other new music thoughts!

There have been a few big names out with new records in this first quarter of the year, of particular note the Finnish melodeath titans Insomnium and Norway’s Enslaved, who if you’ve been following for any length of time will likely be aware of their far too proggy black metal approach over the course of the past decade plus. Despite my blah-dom over Enslaved’s recent albums (more or less anyway, there’s usually a track or two that has been worth hailing at least), I’m still interested in what they’re putting out if only because of the memory that still lingers of what they’ve delivered long in the past (I mean Axioma was thirteen years ago at this point, Ruun even longer!). The two bands are also embarking on a US trek that sees them getting as close to me as Austin, and I briefly considered going, but the list of other shows and events I’m attending in April is a bit too much to squeeze in another out of town trip (already heading up to Austin earlier in that week for another event). I will commend the bands on putting together a seriously value laden tour, two headliner worthy bands going the co-headline route is smart and something more bands really need to get together and do now that ticket service fees just seem to be skyrocketing higher and higher (gotta give The Cure’s Robert Smith props for shining a spotlight on this topic with his recent skirmish with Ticketmaster). Co-headlining packages makes a tour more feasible for the bands involved, helps fans save money and not have to pick and choose gigs, and just seems to be a win/win all around.

Insomnium’s newest, Anno 1696, is a lot like Winter’s Gate (2016) in that it’s based on a short story by bassist/vocalist Niilo Sevänen, this one loosely based on or inspired by the Torsåker witch trials (which by the way… brutal stuff), and in my opinion featuring a sound that also borrows a bit from the band’s more extreme blackened leanings on that album. It does not go full bore black metal however, keeping things reigned in a bit more in the traditional Insomnium mode, but this is decidedly a darker and more aggressive album than Heart Like A Grave (2019), which was an album I absolutely adored (it made that year’s top ten albums list). Like that album, this was largely a Marcus Vanhala written affair, with Sevänen handling lyrics, but founding guitarist Ville Friman popped back up on two songs and Jani Liimatainen contributed to a pair as well. I’ll admit that I miss the days when Friman was the creative musical force behind the band, his last real album wide input coming on Winter’s Gate and particularly Shadows of a Dying Sun before that. He’s scaled back his involvement largely due to his day job and that’s understandable, and to Vanhala’s credit as Heart Like A Grave has shown, he has been more than capable of fitting right into the Insomnium style and writing to suit this band’s creative approach rather than bringing over ideas from Omnium Gatherum. And I’ll be honest, Shadows was a bit of a letdown overall, but the best parts of that album had Friman’s very distinct tell-tale DNA, that unmistakable way of expressing melancholia that characterized so much of classics such as One For Sorrow and Across the Dark.

Friman’s songwriting is heard here on the album highlight “Lilian” and on the companion EP (included in the deluxe edition of the album) cut “Stained In Red”. Where the latter is set to a surprisingly fiery and aggressive uptempo rhythmic assault and splashes of melody thrown around like wild paintbrush strokes, the former is a tried and true Friman classic, all cascades of aching melodies draping over a storming progressive riff sequence. I really have trouble putting together in words just why Friman’s writing style is so affecting, but to me it’s what makes Insomnium’s sound so special, similarly to what Jesper Stromblad did for all those classic first five In Flames albums. But my two other favorite cuts from the album are a Vanhala tune in “Godforsaken” and a Sevänen/Liimatainen collaboration in “Starless Paths”. The former features accent vocals by Johanna Kurkela (aka Mrs. Tuomas Holopainen) and contains my favorite elegiac lead guitar melodies and a gripping, emotionally wrought outro vocal melody sequence. And “Starless Paths” really has to be one of the band’s best ever epics, the longest song on the album here at nearly eight minutes, it is built with several distinctive movements and never feels like it’s dragging or repeating itself, a genuine surprise (also the most Winter’s Gate adjacent moment on the record).

There’s enough dynamic variety on the album as a whole to keep things engaging throughout, songs such as “The Witch Hunter” and “The Unrest” having really earthen, rustic acoustic passages that are really effective at tempering all the aggression they’re sandwiched between. My only real meh reaction on the album unfortunately came on the collaboration with Rotting Christ’s Sakis Tolis in “White Christ”, which wasn’t a terrible tune, but felt a little plodding with nothing to offer in the way of mighty hooks or melodies (Tolis felt a little under utilized as well, I’m not exactly sure what he was supposed to bring to the song considering how lively he sounds in his main band and how muted he came across here). But over all, Anno 1696 is a solid, at times very good Insomnium album, though not living up to the dare I say masterpiece territory that Heart Like a Grave was knocking at the door of. They should try to get the three extra songs from the limited edition on the streaming services, because I do feel that despite increasing the overall tracklisting from a tidy eight to eleven, they do add quite a bit to the overall experience and don’t feel like mere b-sides left on the cutting room floor.

I have a bit less to say about the new Enslaved album Heimdal, and not because I dislike it entirely, though I still have an overall less than enthusiastic take on it as a whole. To get into what I liked about it straight away, it sounds like they have brought a slightly deeper guitar tone to the album than the relatively cleaner one they were using on Utgard, and that’s a good thing. It actually works well with the Sabbath-ian riffs they have going on in the opener “Behind the Mirror” and the strangely arranged “Forest Dweller”. I quite liked the latter, surprising even myself because it does contain one of those morose, flat sounding clean vocal passages that Enslaved has become so fond of that normally try my patience. I wonder if all the acoustic guitar here and there and strange, otherworldly arrangements make the song feel a lot more akin to folk metal that’s making it stand out to me as an album highlight. The best riff on the album belongs to “Kingdom”, that repeating intro figure is damn excellent and despite some detours into bumpy territory, the song largely remains engaging throughout. I enjoyed the urgent aggression on “Congelia” and the strange Nintendo sounding keyboard accompaniment that bounced alongside the riff midway through (I do think they could’ve tightened this song by a minute or two and made it better). And well, frankly the last three songs on the album I tend to zone out on each pass through so I guess that’s an accurate indicator of my interest level for those. I dunno Enslaved, you do you I guess, and I’ll keep hoping you’ll ditch the progressive meanderings and just get back to something that feels vital, urgent, and headbanging worthy.

Apart from spending time with the big names (ICYMI, I did a deep dive on the new In Flames album last update), there’s been a mix of new releases worth talking about however briefly. On the symphonic metal front, I actually thought the new Xandria album The Wonders Still Awaiting, the band’s first with new vocalist Ambre Vourvahis is fairly strong. It’s eerie just how similar their situation is to Nightwish’s during the Tarja to Anette transition, because former vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen was similarly of the classically inclined vocalist mode that has so defined Tarja, and Nightwish made the switch to a more mainstream adjacent vocalist in Anette Olzon. To her credit Vourvahis does possess some quasi-classical vocalist ability, though seemingly out of van Giersbergen’s league, but she makes up for it with a voice that’s adaptable to either pop or rock, even handling the extreme metal screams on the record. This has naturally lent a bit of a shift to songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Marco Heubaum’s approach to new material, writing stuff that’s far less classically influenced. It’s how Nightwish pushed the classical stuff to be window dressing on Dark Passion Play and to a lesser extent, Imaginareum during the Anette era. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what van Giersbergen brought to this band, and her second album with the band, Sacrificium was a minor symphonic metal masterpiece, genuinely inspired and the kind of thing that breathed a little new life into an old formula. But it’s a wise move here, if you can’t outdo that album nor get a better or on par vocalist in the mold of van Giersbergen, don’t even try, just pivot into different direction. I think there will be a faction of their fans who aren’t enthusiastic about where they’re heading with Vourvahis, but just as many who will be along for the ride. I’m not saying this is the band’s best effort by any means, but the band avoided disaster here (who am I kidding, the band is all new members anyway, I’m talking about Marco specifically).

I found myself surprisingly just as enthusiastic about the new Delain album, largely I suspect because I’m not sure what I was expecting here really. Their new vocalist Diana Leah sounds rather good, she’s a talented singer and has a natural warmth in her tone that I quite enjoy. The guest vocalists Paolo Ribaldini and Marco Hietala (yep that one) do inspired appearances as well, and the songwriting is as tight and compact as the Martijn Westerholt has been known to deliver. I’m not an expert on this band, despite having seen them live at least six or eight times by now (have lost count it’s been so many), but one of my sneaking suspicions was that Charlotte Wessels might have been responsible for a lot of the lyrical cringe that prevented me from really engaging with their work in the past (“We Are the Others” springs to mind… good god). Now I’m not saying Wessels time in the band wasn’t without it’s merits, 2014’s The Human Contradiction was a solid record. But the new album, Dark Waters, might just be the best thing I’ve heard under the Delain banner, leaning into it’s fairly straightforward symphonic metal meets pop approach without apology. The aforementioned guest vocalists make a duo appearance on “Invictus” and damn if it’s not a really good song, just pompous grandeur with enough metallic teeth marks to convince someone they got bit. Put it this way, if I somehow see Delain on a package tour again for the umpteenth time, I’ll pay attention this go around instead of hanging in the back for most of their set.

Alright so a more rapid fire rundown of recent new stuff:

Riverside – ID.Entity: I think I’ve flirted in the past with the idea of Riverside being the natural successors to Porcupine Tree in the heavier prog-rock side of the prog spectrum, but they’ve really claimed that title with this new album. It’s simultaneously sad and exciting to say that I enjoyed this record way more than the recent Porcupine Tree reunion album. There’s just something very direct and punchy about these songs, despite all their very progressive time changes and veering off into different directions. It’s like Riverside are capable of doing all those very prog things while still keeping the reins on a song’s fundamental groove, riff, or melodic throughline. Go check out “Friend or Foe?” and tell me that’s not a damn hooky riff.

Lovebites – Judgement Day / Galneryus – Between Dread and Valor / Ethereal Sin – Time of Requiem Part. 2: Unleashed in the East! Erm…in other words, a handful of new albums by some storied Japanese bands in the power metal/symphonic power vein. I’m assuming everyone knows about Galneryus already, and the new album is a solid slice of what they do best. I really enjoyed the hell out of it even though I do acknowledge some of the production issues here that have the r/PowerMetal gang bent out of shape a tad. The new Lovebites is incredibly exciting, and songwriting wise it flows way better than their last two records (which I felt were great, but had a lot of jarringly awkward transitions). There was some fear that with founding member/bassist Miho leaving the group a few years back, they’d lose some of that NWOBHM/Iron Maiden influence that has so characterized their sound, but I don’t hear that here. If anything, I just hear a band that’s refined their sound to flow better, without sacrificing the jagged edges that give their attack the bite it’s always had. I’ll admit however that I was far more intrigued by the new album by longtime symphonic power/melodeath outfit Ethereal Sin, a band that’s new to me (thanks Christian!). This sounds like a mashup of Lovebites and Serenity In Murder, and I’m here for it — genuinely one of the more viscerally exciting albums I’ve heard this year. Search for it on Spotify by artist name because the album and song titles are listed in Japanese, but do give it a shot, I keep coming back to it.

Marauder – Metal Constructions VII: So this weirdly titled slab of old school metal was a happy surprise, a really well executed no frills, ample aggression filled collection of stuff that reminds me of equal parts Metal Church, Accept, and Armored Saint. A song like “Strike Back Again” hits that perfect sweet spot of furious, headbanging rage and impeccable melodic vocal melodies with well crafted supporting guitar melodies. I said this title was weird, and yeah there aren’t Metal Constructions I-VI that predate this album (shrug), but Marauder is a band that’s been around for awhile now… long enough to be called veterans anyway.

Frozen Crown – Call of the North: This is a rebound from 2021’s Winterbane, which was a worrying moment for this young band, but thankfully guitarist/songwriter Federico Mondelli sharpened his knives here. It’s a solid power metal album that accents the melodic two lead vocalist approach that Frozen Crown aims for, with Giada Etro sounding solid but my hat tip going to Mondelli’s lead vocals scattered throughout, with his moments on “Black Heart” really showing just how good he can be as a singer. I had fun listening to this overall, even though it didn’t blow me away like Crowned In Frost did in 2019.

That’s it for this update, there’s more albums I’ve listened to in the past few weeks/months that I just haven’t gotten enough time with or had “sink in” yet that will likely be covered in the next cluster-y update like this. Also the new Kamelot has only been out a week so I’m still ruminating on that one for a possible deep dive and the new Keep of Kalessin is raising my eyebrows as well so look forward to something on that.

Foregone Conclusions: Have In Flames returned to their Gothenburg roots?

There’s been such a steady murmur of anticipation about this album that I simply couldn’t ignore it like I had the past couple In Flames albums. Of course the single that started all this chatter, “State of Slow Decay”, was released way the hell back in summer of 2022, and it’s undeniably Gothenburg-ish, At the Gates-ian trademark riff sequences got everyone’s attention and had metalheads all over nudging their friends to ask, “Have you heard the new In Flames?”. But I was cautious, refusing to listen to the single itself, but reading opinions from people who had and reading comments online here and there. When a couple months later they released the second single from the album, “The Great Deceiver”, this low grade buzz became audibly louder, and I felt myself digging in harder, because I wasn’t about to let this band make a fool of me like they had for years and years straight when I’d eagerly buy each new album in the post-Reroute to Remain era hoping that it would be the one where the band would turn things around (for the record, I stopped after 2011’s Sounds of a Playground Fading… god that album title, yeeesh).

Recently however, I gave into curiosity as the album release drew nearer and listened to both of the initial singles one night (they went on to release three more in between then and release day… dudes, that’s about half the album, a bit much no?). I was reticent about sharing my opinion on them until I heard the album as a whole but I had to admit that I understood why folks were either intrigued and even a little hopeful. Hell even the album art was suggestive, far more metal-esque than anything they’ve slapped on an album jacket since I dunno, are going back as far as Colony here? Why am I being so cagey about this dumb album you wonder? Because at one point, In Flames really meant a whole heck of a lot to me, I discovered them a few months after Clayman was released and within a couple weeks had already acquired the entirety of their back catalog and would spend the next year obsessing over them and anything else coming out of Gothenburg past and present. The pinnacle was seeing In Flames do a headlining gig that December, a tale I detailed in an autobiographical piece a few years ago. Their music helped me through a rough time and I was incredibly attached to those first five albums, so I gave them a lengthy benefit of doubt when it came to future output, even though it mostly left a bad taste in my mouth.

Now having had time to process Foregone in full over the course of a week, I think that it’s fair to say its the band’s best album of their Reroute to Remain-present day era. It is arguably the best modern In Flames album alongside Come Clarity (and perhaps even slightly edging it), but it is most certainly not a return to “form” if what we mean by form is the sound of their classic first five albums. And I’ll emphasize that last bit, because anyone trying to convince you otherwise is either lying to themselves and you, or doesn’t really understand the difference between the band’s musical approach during their classic era to everything that came in the wake of Reroute (whose album title only looks more precient in retrospect). The difference, in a nutshell, is as follows: Classic era In Flames (Lunar Strain thru Clayman) was written with lead guitar melodies and/or riff sequences as the central motif of a song, often times serving as a hook or refrain, while vocalists Mikael Stanne and subsequently Anders Friden screamed around them. Modern In Flames (ie anything Reroute and onwards) is written around Anders Friden’s vocal melodies as the central refrain, leaving the lead guitars to work around his (often clean) vocal parts. Clayman is a bit of a transition album between these two eras, because while tunes like “Swim”, “Square Nothing” and others were firmly in the old school In Flames mode, you saw the band experimenting with Anders led songs such as “Only For The Weak”, “Pinball Map” and “Bullet Ride” (and because he was only tentatively trying out clean vocals here, these were largely screamed choruses and didn’t sound all that shocking or out of place).

So when I listen to the first single here, “State of Slow Decay”, I get that people flipped out about the Gothenburg elements, but despite those (and they are warm and familiar to hear, as strange as that might sound), I still hear a song built around an Anders’ clean vocal chorus, which lands like a sinking stone. It’s just not a good hook, it takes all the energy that was ripping through the verse segments and pumps the brakes on everything hard, coming across as anti-climatic more than anything. A more suitably old school adjacent track is the third single “Foregone Pt 1”, which seems to pivot around that very Whoracle/Colony riff during the verse build up, and even though we get the expected Anders led vocal chorus, its actually fairly intense and energetic in it’s shape and his aggressive delivery. This is definitely the closest they’ve gotten to touching upon that old school spirit and it was genuinely a thrill to hear it — this is really what I wanted The Halo Effect’s debut to sound like. Worth mentioning here is the unconventionally patterned “The Great Deceiver”, where I did get a bit of whiplash to a sound that really reminded me of something that could’ve been on Clayman, with Anders semi-clean/largely screamed chorus and a really simple yet deft and effective riff pattern that is one of the most addictive things they’ve cooked up in years. If the rest of the album was more in line with the approach taken on these two songs, I think people would be flipping out about this record way more than they were hoping to.

The truth is that this album is largely rooted in the sound of modern In Flames, with a noticeable step up in the overall aggression levels (I had to go back and slog through I, The Mask and Battles to determine that for godssake). And in fairness, I do enjoy some modern In Flames, the aforementioned Come Clarity was a relatively decent post-Reroute Jesper Stromblad era album (though it’s not aged nearly as well as I’d hoped), and I liked some sporadic songs from the albums that followed after that), and I can honestly say that there are a few modern In Flames songs on Foregone that I think are legit some of their best in that vein. As far as clean vocal Anders goes, I don’t think he’s ever sounded as good as he does on “Pure Light of Mind”, his vocals hitting an quasi-falsetto tone in the verses and a really solid, modern rock approach that actually suits him in the chorus which is itself an incredibly satisfying vocal melody. It’s that rare semi-power ballad that the band have tried before but never been able to quite pull off, and the clean vocals here are a boon to the song, not a hinderance. Similarly effective is “A Dialogue In B Flat Minor”, where Anders goes clean on the pre-chorus and chorus together, and though some may find those lyrics in the refrain a bit corny, it somehow works as a memorable earworm. I could easily see many hating this song with a passion, it’s so close to everything we tend to detest about modern In Flames (and it could be that I’m just a sucker for a really well written hook and am giving it a pass on the cringe factor).

Elsewhere on the album however, I found that most of these songs weren’t all together that remarkable, at times walking that fine line between boring and aggravating. A song like “Cynosure” really sounds like something that could’ve fit into any of their past six albums, with a few cool musical elements grabbing your attention, but the band failing to mold it into a cohesive whole. Ditto for “In The Dark”, where thick growling vocals can’t mask a dreadful hook, and the mid-song abrupt transition fails to make up the deficit (though I’ll admit the twin guitar solo towards the end is a nice moment). And did anyone get real “The Quiet Place” flashbacks when hearing “Meet Your Maker”? I can’t help but hear echoes of that song every time this track comes on (as you might have guessed, not exactly a ringing endorsement then). I didn’t mind “Bleeding Out” nearly as much, even though Anders leans a little too close to that whining tone in the chorus here that I can’t help but be irked by at this point. And “End the Transmission” is a decent album closer, built on a chunky riff that segues into a rather unusual pre-chorus/chorus that works despite sounding clunky on the surface. There actually aren’t any songs I completely dislike on the album as a whole, but most of this stuff falls in the category of “Eh, it’s alright”. In short, there’s nothing here that genuinely excites me.

In the past few years, I’ve avoided listening to pre-release singles by metal bands for the most part, usually because they’re a flawed indicator of the album as a whole and I don’t want my opinion going in to be negatively influenced. In the case of Foregone, listening to those first two singles a couple weeks ago might have worked in my favor because they really helped realign my expectations for what the reality was likely going to be, in comparison to people’s fanciful hopes. I’m actually glad that I didn’t hear the instrumental album opening track, “The Beginning of All Things That Will End”, as my first taste of this album — because that actually is the best song on the album in terms of going back to the sound of those first five In Flames albums. It’s not earthshaking either, but I’ll always associate the sound of prettily melancholic Scandinavian folk melodies played on acoustic with a somber cello swooping in underneath as a trademark of those hallowed Stromblad driven classics. Had I heard it first, I would have really been let down by the rest of Foregone, and this review might have been angrier and harsher, but as it is, that instrumental just makes me sad. Because it’s clear that Anders and Bjorn (Gelotte), the remaining two members from that classic era, know what they would have to do in order to really go back to that old sound (they got damn close on “Foregone, Pt 1”), but for reasons known only to themselves, they simply won’t do it. And maybe they genuinely can’t, not for a whole album. Maybe that DNA left when Jesper left the band… but he’s not putting it to use in The Halo Effect, and dammit, no other band has come forward to claim that incredible sound and do it anew, and I’ve been craving it’s return for over twenty years now and am still hungry.

In Remembrance: Therion Conjures the Past on Leviathan II

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.

Getting Paranormal with Avantasia

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 2022 Summer-Fall Reviews Codex

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


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

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

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

Aeternam – Heir of the Rising Sun:

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

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

The Halo Effect – Days of the Lost:

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

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

Brymir – Voices in the Sky:

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

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

Dynazty – Final Advent:

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

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

Xaon – The Lethean:

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

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

Heilung – Drif:

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

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

Sumerlands – Dreamkiller:

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

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

Blackbraid – Blackbraid I:

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

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

Seventh Wonder – The Testament:

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

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

Oceans of Slumber – Starlight and Ash:

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

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

Fallen Sanctuary – Terranova:

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

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

Constructing The God Machine: Blind Guardian Returns

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 the Red 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.

All the Heaviness: New Music from Kreator, Kvaen, Einvigi, and more!

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.

Catching Up: Recent Metal Gigs and New Albums

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 @VVolvenDaughter wrote “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.

Scroll to top