You can almost feel the inevitability of Sabaton’s star turn happening this very moment, particularly here a week out from the release of their ninth and newest album, The Great War. There’s the increasing profile of the past few years with bigger tours overseas and even here in the States where they were absolutely packing out venues across the country. There’s the mainstream chart positions achieved with 2016’s The Last Stand, the big festival slots, and more recent in the mind of the metal world, their coming to the rescue at Hellfest with a last second, vocalist-impaired filling in for the tantrum throwing headliners Manowar. I mentioned this on Twitter the evening that event took place, but it almost felt like we were witnessing a changing of the guard in a very particular way. Those events just don’t happen in a vacuum in the metal world, they leave imprints and change perceptions, forge goodwill, and even create new fans. For example, I’ve never really been into Trivium’s music, but I can’t help but root for Matt Heafy with this upcoming black metal project he’s cooking up, because I’ve enjoyed him in podcast interviews and he just seems like a passionate fan of black metal music. That’s how things work within metal it seems, we’re rarely black and white on issues —- great bands can have terrible albums, you might still enjoy a song or two from a generally mediocre band, and you loved a band’s live show but their album did nothing for you or vice versa. You might, like many have, scoff at Sabaton’s schtick and over-the-top earnestness with which they go about it, but enough people love them despite or perhaps because of those things. To wit, as of this writing, The Great War has debuted at #1 in Germany, #11 in the U.K., and if early projections are to be believed, #5 in the US (turns out this was physical sales only… but still!), which would make it the highest charting power metal album in history.
Its worth mentioning that although its only been three years since The Last Stand, this gap marks the longest time between releases for the band since their debut. Not only is that remarkable for a band that tours as much as they do, but points to a more concerted focus here, the need for extra time to dig deep into the research process for one of the biggest conflicts in history. They’d touched on World War I before, with the Passchendaele tribute “The Price Of A Mile” from The Art of War and “Angels Calling” from Attero Dominatus, but The Great War deep dives on subject matter from the conflict that was admittedly new to me. I’d of course seen Lawrence of Arabia and knew about T.E. Lawrence, but I’ll admit that my knowledge of Francis Pegahmagabow, Osowiec Fortress, and Alvin York were nonexistent. I also only had a cursory knowledge of Manfred von Richthofen, aka The Red Baron, due to a once burning interest in aviation when I was a kid. Maybe what’s added the extra time in Sabaton’s album cycle this go round was the development of their YouTube channel Sabaton History, where many of these songs and others from their catalog are deep dived into with the help of YouTube historian Indy Neidells. Its an entirely separate endeavor from their music of course, but this level of depth and attention to detail (not to mention commitment to their subject matter) lends credibility to the band’s continuing historical focus. At this point its dishonest to criticize it as merely schtick, because I don’t think you can fake that kind of thing to this extent. Clearly this is a burning passion for Joakim Broden and Pär Sundström, and while the channel is not necessary to enjoy their records, it adds something to the experience of listening to those songs after you’ve watched their respective mini-documentary vids.
Case in point, there are three versions of The Great War, a normal songs only edition, a soundtrack version that’s mostly just an extra dressed up instrumental edition (Floor Jansen makes a special appearance here), and the “History Edition” —- the latter of which includes a little 20-30 second framing intro by a well spoken narrator to help set the scene. Now normally I dislike narration within albums, there are a few exceptions of course, but even the audiobook ripped narration the band threw into The Art of War got a little tiring after the millionth listen. I assume the band must’ve heard that before so they shrewdly provided options for the listening experience this time around, and surprisingly enough, it makes a hell of a difference. The history version brings a thematic cohesion to the full album listening experience that is well paced, sets the mood, and pulls you in to pay attention to the songs for more than just the hooks, and frankly the normal songs only edition feels a little empty without it. Why is this different from The Art of War? I’m not sure exactly and who knows, ten months from now I might only be listening to the songs only version, but I do know that I never felt as positively towards the narration on Art’ as I do on the new album. It is to The Great War’s credit however, that we can compare it to that seminal album for more reasons than just the narration.
This is one of the strongest Sabaton albums to date, a rebound from the one dimensional mood of The Last Stand, with a thematic and narrative cohesion that places it next to Carolus Rex, The Art of War, and Heroes. In songwriting terms, they’ve benefited greatly by the simple fact that the subject matter this time has the breadth to be both darkly agonizing and shimmeringly heroic. The latter are as epic, soaring, and thrilling as we’ve come to expect from Broden’s experienced songwriting chops, as evidenced on album highlight “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”. Its recounting of T.E. Lawrence’s grand desert adventures in Arabia leading the guerilla war against the Ottoman Empire is set to a suitably swashbuckling vocal melody and horse sprint tempo. The other highlight in this vein is the hammond organ accelerating waltz rhythm of “The Red Baron”, a track that sounds not only slightly anachronistic in a strange way, but sees the band stretching their sound in fresh musical territory. Broden’s vocals in the chorus zip around the gang vocal melody chanting “Higher!”, all while the bouncy, light-on-its-feet uptempo keyboard blitz creates the feeling of a song that’s as aerial as its subject matter. The band dips back into a little orchestral bombast for “Devil Dogs”, loading its chorus with ample symphonic weight and choral backing vocals, a striking musical counterpoint to the subject matter of the US Marines storied battle at the Battle of Belleau Wood. Running counter to all this upbeat major key celebratory tone is the darkened, slower vein of the album, providing a much needed balance that The Last Stand lacked and suffered as a result from. Broden and company deliver a career standout in “Great War”, boasting one of his most effectively written refrains, anthemic and powerful in the vocal cadence and sympathetic and tragic on a lyrical level.
Speaking of which, this is where Broden really shines as a writer, when he places the listener at a shoulder to shoulder perspective with a narrator. The personal, first-person narration happening in “Great War”, about a brother lamenting the loss of his two siblings in the war and his mother’s grief is the kind of detail oriented lyrical bent that I wish Broden would engage in more often. I understand that not every song can work with that kind of lyric writing, either due to syllabic or rhythmic constraints, but when it can work he should make an effort to accomplish that. Its what makes a song like The Pogues “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” or Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” so powerful and effective, that humanizing individual experience set against the backdrop of a grander, dehumanizing experience. Continuing down the darker, more somber vein of the album, there’s “The End of the War To End All Wars”, as purposefully lumbering and deadened a vocal approach as Broden’s ever mustered. Its contrasted with powerful blasts of horns and choral vocal lines during the refrain and the culminating mid-song bridge. Similarly brooding is “The Attack of the Dead Men”, where the vocal lines are built in rhythmic, percussive patterns that serve as their own form of microhook and would likely not work without Broden’s thick brogue. I’m particularly fond of the more mid-tempoed “A Ghost In The Trenches”, a song with sharply written lyrics, cleverly phrased: “Just another man and rifle, a marksman and a scout revealed / Makes his way from trench to trench alone, moving undetected”. Criticize him for all too often writing lyrics that read like plain historical recounting, but Broden’s unique gift is in his occasionally thoughtful diction and memorable phrasing in particular. And I love the choral vocal reading of “In Flanders Fields” as an album closer, a band-less affair that is poignant and entirely unexpected and a little gutsy.
There are a couple moments here that don’t live up to the rest, like the album opener “The Future of Warfare”, which is an excellent intro but a relatively middling song. Not the kind of tune begging for inclusion in the setlist perhaps, but it works in the context of the album. I will say that “82nd All The Way” strikes a little too close to “No Bullets Fly”, and critics of the band will likely pounce on it as an example of the band repeating themselves. Its a valid criticism and to be honest it did prevent me from being fully engrossed in an otherwise decent song, but then again, Sab’s gonna Sab; they’ll sound like themselves no matter how much innovation they dare to interject in an album. Bands that sound distinctly like themselves (AC/DC, Iron Maiden) seem to be more open to criticism for repeating themselves than bands whose influences are easily discernible. And I started out a little lukewarm on “Fields of Verdun”, which seemed a little too straightforward structurally and weirdly joyful in tone considering the subject matter, but lately I’ve come around to it largely due to the strength of that earworm of a hook. The band sounds terrific all throughout as you’d expect, but particular mention should be made for new guitarist Tommy Johansson (ReinXeed / Majestica), who is a perfect neo-classical foil for Chris Rörland’s more meat n’ potatoes approach. Johansson’s playing is lighter, sleeker, and a little more unexpected in terms of solos, he seems to zag where you expect the zig. The band as currently constructed seems to be at its best with the most talented lineup to date (no disrespect intended to previous guitarist Thobbe Englund who actually helped Broden with songwriting on “Fields of Verdun”). This is a welcome return to form for Sabaton, one of their strongest, most thematically cohesive albums to date, and its arrived when at the exact moment when they needed to hit one out of the park. Its the kind of album that justifies their recent ascent to the top of the metal world, in chart positions, headlining festival slots, and a legion of fans. Manowar, you can clear the hall now.
Days and weeks flying by, and just when I think I’m caught up, I realize I’m still behind the ever marching release calendar. This time around, in the ever challenging effort to keep up to date, I ran into some road blocks. One was the tragic passing of Andre Matos, which really derailed me for awhile. After a couple days where I couldn’t even bear the thought of listening to his voice because I was feeling pretty down about it to say the least, I took a few days to go on an Angra and Viper binge. That was therapeutic and insightful because I ended up reexamining the entire Angra catalog, even some of the later era Edu albums that I’d previously shrugged off. Anyway to business: Three releases are reviewed below, two from major bands that deserve a longer discourse than the one paragraph reviews I was dishing out on the last update —- and a band that’s new to me that has taken over my listening time in a major way. I’ve been gushing about them to anyone within earshot, and on the newest MSRcast as well, so its only fitting that I write a bit about it here. Also working on the premiere of a major feature I’m hopefully rolling out soon, and maybe some other non-reviews oriented fun stuff as well. Thanks for reading!
Darkthrone – Old Star:
The legendary status of a band like Darkthrone is never in question. They’ve been around for ages, and almost any metal fan acquainted with more underground music or just black metal in general knows their name and maybe even an album or two. Sometimes though, I wonder if our justifiably warm, and dare I say fuzzy feelings towards Fenriz and Nocturno Culto as anti-spotlight, fellow working class metalheads colors our feelings towards their recent releases. Don’t get me wrong, I hold the band in high esteem, but sometimes they release albums that just feel like stuff I’ve heard before, that was more exciting the first time I heard it. I read other people pouring out opulent praise for their new album on Twitter and elsewhere and begin to wonder what I’m missing. Or have they transcended into that place in the underground metal pantheon where every new release is just automatically lavished with gushing adoration and critical plaudits? Ihsahn once remarked in an interview something to the effect of what he would hate about recording new Emperor albums, namely, that they’d be automatically granted a critical respect and stature just because of the storied history behind the name on the album art.
One day after Old Star was released, I saw a few folks on Twitter labeling it their favorite album of the year so far. Is that really the take we’re going with a day after its release? Seems a little hyperbolic and oh also have you not listened to anything else this year? The joke enjoyed at my expense before this album was released was mentioning to a friend of mine how it had been a long time since the last Darkthrone album, thinking it was 2013’s genuinely exciting The Underground Resistance, completely forgetting 2016’s well… forgettable Arctic Thunder and its half-hearted plunge back into icy, black metal-ish waters. The sad thing is that three years from now when Darkthrone releases their next album (I’m just assuming they will), I’ll likely still look back on The Underground Resistance as my most recent lodestone bearing the memories of what I can so joyfully love about this band. I don’t think Old Star is a bad album, but its riff first stance has these songs struggling to find any purchase in terms of memorability. Fenriz remarked in the album’s press release that it was the most 80s sounding record they’d ever done, and maybe to him it is because he’s associating it with specific riff influences that will go over most of our heads. I mention that because the seemingly scattered assortment and placement of differing riffs in aggression, attitude, and even stylistic approach seems utterly random and forced in songs like “I Muffle Your Inner Choir”. They certainly achieved what the title preaches —- can I get a vocal melody here guys, or a hook of any kind?
Don’t look at me like that. Yes I said vocal melody and hooks in a Darkthrone review. The band at their best in their recent decade long span has delivered both in spades —- songs like “Too Old, Too Cold”, “Circle The Wagons”, “I Am the Working Class”, “Valkyrie”, “Leave No Cross Unturned”… you get the idea. All songs with pronounced hooks, mostly in the vocal department via catchy phrasing. Here on the new album, vocal patterning seems to be hardly an afterthought, the riffs being the central music motif we’re supposed to latch onto. That’s near impossible for me on a dud like “Alp Man”, which is as boring a Darkthrone song as I can recall. I wasn’t thrilled with the title track either, which never seemed to materialize any sort of internal logic or direction. There’s a nagging question underpinning this album’s scant six songs —- why are all of these so freaking lengthy? The shortest was 4:28 but should’ve been half that, and the rest easily eclipse 5 and 6 minutes in length. There’s no musical reason for them to so do, no grand buildup to a major bridge in the middle of them, nor any kind of natural Blind Guardian-esque need to embellish and beautify (this is ugly old Darkthrone we’re talking about after all). The length alone made repeat listening to this album for review purposes a chore, and I hate writing that about a Darkthrone record (mostly because it should make no sense in the first place). At no point did I ever truly hate anything on the album, but only once did I perk up and think “oh that’s cool” (during the middle of the “Duke of Gloat” and its nifty little faster tempo bridge). I know I’m in the minority, and most will dismiss me (and that’s fine), but Darkthrone sounds a little aimless and drifting here.
Aephanemer – Prokopton:
I have no one but Spotify to thank for this brilliant recommendation. I was listening to the latest Gloryhammer on it, and after it was finished playing through this album popped up, the service’s algorithm coming through in a big way. I should add that Aephanemer really has nothing in common with Gloryhammer, except maybe a penchant for melody and memorability in their songs. Oh sure there’s a subtle power metal influence here ala Wintersun or Brymir, but Toulouse, France’s Aephanemer blend together a distinctly Swedish strain of melodic death metal with stirring, uplifting symphonic swirls. Sometimes when you try to describe a band in text, it just comes across like more of something you’ve already heard before (“Oh, so its like Wintersun?” *slaps forehead*). I think what separates Aephanemer from any of its peers working with similar stylistic fusions is this band’s heavy tilt towards Gothenburg melodic death, rather than the more melancholic Finnish variety. Its enough of a distinctive difference that it allows their other fusions with symphonic elements and wildly creative melodic detours to combine into something I don’t think I’ve quite heard before (and that alone is as surprising as how unique this album sounds). This is the French four piece’s sophomore album, and it is a far more engaging and sophisticated continuation of what they began on their solid 2016 debut full length Momento Mori. Its not that common for the artistic gap between a debut and a sophomore album to be this wide, but for Aephanemer, this feels like they’ve graduated ahead of schedule.
One of the things I’m appreciating about this band is just how integral every member’s contributions feel —- vocalist/rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul is the natural centerpiece, her perfectly suited growling/screaming blend the right tone and color for the band’s music. She’s a bruising rhythm player too, her playing both appropriately full of sonic crunch and little dabs of thrashiness to prevent things from ever feeling anywhere near clinical. She’s accompanied by an astonishingly tight rhythm section in bassist Lucie Woaye Hune and drummer Mickaël Bonnevialle; the latter a vividly creative percussionist, spitting out fills and inventive patterns that are enjoyable in their own right, and Hune’s bass is an aggressive underbelly to Bascoul’s riffing, rumbling along audibly in the mix. Of course, the can’t miss element in all this is lead guitarist Martin Hamiche’s spectacularly energetic, fluid, and at times even gorgeous playing. His work across this album seems entirely natural and unrehearsed, even though I’m almost certain that every single note he’s playing was carefully crafted into place. His deft melodic phrasing is the glue that holds everything together and in a weird twist, he seems to weave in and around everyone else rather than simply lay atop their bed of sound as we’re so used to expecting from other bands. It should be pointed out that the mixing here was handled by none other than Dan Swanö, and he nailed a perfect balance for this album —- its one of the most crisp yet not clinical recordings you’ll likely hear, well ever.
The album begins with the title track and after a minute of pounding drum fueled introductory theatrics, we’re off into glorious melo-death territory. I’m enthralled by the way it sounds like the metallic attack here is being surrounded but never engulfed by the orchestral elements. Hamiche’s songwriting in this regard is superb, demonstrating that innate awareness of balance and layering. On the excellent “The Sovereign”, we’re treated to more of that precision balancing between the skyward shooting keyboard orchestral melodies, and the dizzying lead guitar work. We’re treated to a similar ear candy explosion on “Bloodline”, those gorgeous In Flames-ish harmonized guitars during the verses hitting the melo-death sweet spot in all of us and it seems like the orchestral melodies just keep escalating the pitch higher and higher. During the ecstatic mid-song bridge at the 2:57 mark, Hamiche’s self-professed classical influences radiate through like a ray of sun breaking through cloud cover. Its such a mighty, triumphant moment that I uttered awe inspired profanity when I first heard it sitting here at my desk however many weeks ago. I love the near panicky tempo and attack of the epic “If I Should Die”, which is just about the most perfect slice of Bodom meets In Flames inspired melo-death I’ve heard in ages. My favorite track right now (this is constantly shifting, it was “Dissonance Within” the other day) is “Back Again”, which is really this album summarized in an absolute stunner of a track, full of vicious riffs and darkened, melancholic laden melodies that tug on my heartstrings with every single listen. This is what I love about melodic death metal, that when perfectly executed, a single song can seemingly encapsulate so many boiling emotions. This is a must listen to album for 2019 (you can download it for free or pay what you want at their bandcamp —- no excuses!) and at this point, I have no doubt its going to be winding up on many year end lists, including mine.
Gloryhammer – Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex:
I suspect that the cracks in my demeanor towards Gloryhammer surfaced during the review for Space 1992 when I admitted to liking “Universe on Fire”. Reading back on that review now, I notice two things: For starters I didn’t give enough credit to the actual quality of power metal that is present in Gloryhammer’s music in terms of songwriting and musicianship. Clearly, for everything to sound as good and often inspired as it does on Legends… you require musicians that are committed to delivering that, and that’s something that I don’t think can be faked. Christopher Bowes is a talented songwriter, and even though he’d never admit to any band or songwriter specific power metal influences (I suspect largely because it’d put a crimp in the image he portrays in interviews where he dismisses everything about metal as self-serious and lame), you have to at the very least appreciate power metal to emulate it as well as he does. And secondly, maybe I wasn’t being entirely honest with myself and everyone else reading about just how much it was bugging me that newcomers were latching onto Gloryhammer as their introduction to power metal. Here was this band arriving on the scene with a campy, mostly humorous, over the top space opera storyline with its band members even playing characters —- and they were getting attention from mainstream media in a way that power metal rarely has (ditto for their peers in the much lesser Twilight Force, who got a Vice feature… although maybe that’s not worth so much these days). It grated on me that these outsider media outlets were only willing to accept power metal when it openly poked fun at itself, and in essence were willfully or naively disregarding two decades plus of amazing music by incredible artists (those being the ones who had the nerve to take themselves seriously). Look, I’ll admit now that it was wrong of me to hold that grudge against these bands themselves, rather than simply at the mainstream/non-metal media in question. They were the ones deserving of scorn, and I got it wrong.
I’ve come to realize all this because over the past year plus I’ve been reading and participating in discussions about all things power metal with the fine people at r/PowerMetal (both the subreddit and the associated Discord), as well as digesting a great pod that everyone should check out called .powerful – a power metal podcast. I’ve gotten to filter my thoughts through them and come out the other end with a far more open minded perspective, one that accepts Gloryhammer as a potential gateway band for power metal in the same way Dragonforce possibly was (and Sabaton currently is). One of the discord members, LarryBiscuit went to see the band in Arizona on their recent tour with Aether Realm, and he noticed that most of the fans there were Gloryhammer fans, not metal fans per se. That’s something I noticed every time I saw Alestorm and even a band like Sabaton. A great deal of people showing up are primarily fans of those bands exclusively at that time, meaning they don’t care about the opener or know about them, nor are they metal fans of any stripe in general. I’ve spoken to people at Sabaton gigs who fit that description, and its something I’ve kept in my mind ever since —- and that’s rushed up to slap me in the face recently. I’ve always resisted writing anything snarky about bands like Five Finger Death Punch and the like because I view them as gateway bands to metal, that necessary component to keeping all forms of metal healthy with new potential fans cycling in. And what I’ve come to fully accept now is that maybe its a great thing that Gloryhammer is drawing in these folks, maybe geeky leaning people who could possibly wonder what else is out there that sounds somewhat similar to that band. One can only hope that some of them will venture down that road.
That Gloryhammer aren’t exactly breaking new ground should be obvious —- you already know what they sound like even if you haven’t heard a note. What’s worth mentioning here however is just how well crafted these songs are, and how impressive specific performances are on this recording. First off, vocalist Thomas Winkler just gets better and better, this being his command performance to date. He’s simply one of the premiere vocal talents in power metal worldwide right now, capable of a theatrical slant to his delivery that befits his character Angus McFife XIII, at times reminding me of a more full throated Mathias Blad and Tobias Sammet crossover. He knows how to inject just the right amount of variance from one iteration of a chorus to another to keep things interesting, and those choices are important to keeping things sonically interesting even though these are some excellent, vocalist-proof hooks he’s working with. I wouldn’t mind hearing him in another context, just to get an idea of just how expansive he could be given different material. Guitarist Paul Templing might be a little underrated given that he’s handling seemingly both rhythm and leads. He’s dexterous enough a player to deliver both tight, packed, even at times thrash-tinged riffing, while tossing out some ear candied licks as verse cappers and juxtaposing accents to Bowes keyboard melodies. There’s honestly not a bad song among the bunch here, but the killer track is “Gloryhammer”, as excellent a song as Bowes has ever written, well structured and paced, and suitably epic in spirit and joyful at once. I even think they nailed its CGI music video, which has to be a first for any power metal band. I also adore “Masters of the Galaxy”, because that’s a chorus that just refuses to quit… it indeed was stuck in my head for a week straight. And you know a power metal record is solid when its twelve minute plus closing epic, “The Fires Of Ancient Cosmic Destiny”, is one of the best songs on the album, galactic evil wizard narration and all. One of the most fun albums of the year —- I finally get it.
Too many new albums, not enough time, and somehow I still managed to get through a good many of them (though as usual, not all). How? By sneaking in listening sessions at the most inconvenient times when I’d usually just prefer silence or an episode of Bob’s Burgers as background noise. This might be the most economical, quick-dashed off reviews cluster to date in Metal Pigeon history, my focus here on being concise and straight to the point in one paragraph at most (with the exception of Myrath of course). Let me know in the comments below if I’ve forgotten something glaring or of course if you entirely disagree with something I’ve written! Again there’s more coming in the weeks ahead (with the exception of Sunn O)))’s much praised Life Metal… I tried, just not for me), so if you don’t see a particular album here yet, maybe it’ll show up down the line.
Myrath – Shehili:
This is only my second opportunity to review a new Myrath album, seeing as how I became a fan of the band in between the five year gap of 2011’s Tales of the Sands and 2016’s best albums list maker Legacy. In the review for the latter, I spent some lines pondering other ideas related to this band and their serving as a link to a geographic and cultural region that most listeners likely have few ties to outside of what they see on CNN. In light of recent news regarding possible war with Iran, I’d like to call attention to that sentiment once again although will refrain from rewriting it all out here. With Shehili, Myrath are back with a more regular release schedule in line with their first three albums, with the same line-up that recorded Legacy (its the second album for drummer Morgan Berthet). That to me is a pretty good indicator that there would be more of a continuity on Shehili with the more looser, celebratory, wild rock vibe that infused its predecessor rather than the prog-metal underpinnings of Tales. Typically speaking (though not always), when a band takes a long time between releases, five or more years lets say, expect that there’s going to be some deviation in sound from what they’d done before, for better or worse. Its just a natural byproduct of too much time passing in between songwriting sessions, new influences having time to creep into the mix, and a greater time to reflect on whats been done previously and what a songwriter would like to try doing next. The inverse typically works the opposite fashion, a band can carry over the essential musical variables they collected on a previous album to the new one because its what’s naturally on their brain in such a limited time after touring and immediately getting back to the studio process. Of course, we can all cite examples where both of these theories are blown apart, but Shehili would not be one of them.
That’s not to say that Shehili is a carbon copy of Legacy, but its built in the same muscular riffed, heavily orchestral, shimmering pop songwriting structures that defined the latter’s overall makeup. That’s largely a plus for me, seeing as I preferred the stuff they were doing on that album to the ones before it (I still enjoy the older stuff too), and with gems like “Wicked Dice” and “Stardust”, I get the same tingly feeling I felt three years ago. The former is maybe the best song on the album, with a compelling and deeply heavy, groove oriented rhythmic riff. The sudden rush of drama we hear in the chorus is one of the band’s most compelling moments, full of the kind of gravitas that Myrath handles so expertly. I love the depth of sound in “Stardust”, where the epic sweep of more straightforward symphonic orchestral elements support the theatrical push of vocalist Zaher Zorgati’s powerful performance. Its a rare Myrath song without an overtly Middle-Eastern sound palette, and surprisingly it works just based on the band’s raw musical abilities. Speaking of that distinctive palette however, I adore “Born To Survive” where the band marries slabs of groove oriented metal riffs to what sounds like a Berber folk music intro. Those trademark gorgeous Arabic violin melodies reappear during the chorus encircling the ascending vocal pattern, and its just pure ear candy for me. I could sit here and point out all the Middle-Eastern musical elements that I love but they’re so interwoven with nearly every facet of the band’s songwriting that isolating one over others seems random. Its in everything from the percussion fills, to the phrasing that guitarist Malek Ben Arbia employs in his creative lead guitar work, to Zorgati’s myriad vocal inflections. I’d say that nearly all my enjoyment from Myrath stems from their ability to marry that world of gorgeous ethnic sound to every facet of their songwriting —- the riffs and heaviness are just the pistachios on the baklava.
The interesting question here is that with Shehili coming relatively hot on the heels of Legacy, or at least soon enough to observe continuity between the two albums, how well does it hold up to its predecessor? I’d say fairly well, with a few caveats. Its a strong album on its own, but when things get a little too close comparison wise (at least from a fan’s eye point of view), Legacy has the upper hand. Take Shehili’s first single, “Dance”, definitely an enjoyable slice of rock n’ roll infused Myrath, but far too similar to Legacy’s “Believer” not to take immediate notice. Hell, there’s even the same split second pregnant pause just before Ben Arbia’s guitar solo in both songs. As much as “Dance” was a strong track, its not in the same league as “Believer” which had not only a euphoria inducing, life affirming chorus vocal melody, but the perfect build up to it in Zorgati’s lyrical cadence in the verses. It was swashbuckling and full of swagger, and “Dance” just doesn’t quite get to that same level. Similarly, the album stumbles ever so slightly on songs like “Monster In My Closet” which despite a dynamite chorus, features a series of verse sections that are more rhythmic than melodic, not playing to the band’s core strengths. I hear the same problem on “Darkness Arise”, which has some good ideas tucked within but they get a little lost amidst everything going on. I actually would have loved more of a lean towards the approach on “No Holding Back” and “Shehili”, both songs built on Zorgati’s inimitable ability to sound like he’s pouring everything he has into a singular expressive vocal melody. I guess the takeaway here from my perspective is basically, more melodrama infused melodies anchoring songs instead of rhythmic structures. That being said, this is still a tremendously enjoyable experience, Myrath just bring so much to the table that I love.
Ravenous E.H. – Eat the Fallen:
Ravenous E.H. (as in Eternal Hunger) are the latest in an ever growing line of new trad/power metal bands coming from the maple kissed north of Canada, in Calgary to be exact. That is starting to become a less and less surprising factoid, because Canada seems to be the new hotbed of metal talent within the past few years with no signs of slowing down. Ravenous E.H. tackle a familiar vein of power metal with cited inspiration from the likes of Hammerfall, Iced Earth, Grave Digger and Manowar but also claim to share a close affinity with modern day genre representatives like Judicator and Viathyn. Their debut full-length Eat the Fallen is fist in the air, headbanging stuff, and songs like “Strength of the Warrior” and “The Hunger Never Dies” do an admirable job of ringing familiar bells we’re all comfortable hearing. Jake Wright’s virtuosic guitar melodies are attuned to a wintry, folkish spirit, and vocalist Robert Antonius Voltaire has a vocal style that brings to mind the range of Matt Barlow with the baritone of Joakim Broden. There’s some genuinely exciting talent here, and the songwriting is far better than a debut often tends to be, at times even approaching true excellence. I think they find it on the album’s closer “Conquering the Sun”, a charging, martial ditty about armies crossing seas to kick in the gates somewhere (a tribute to the Dothraki and Unsullied perhaps?). There’s a fantastic chorus here, soaring with the help of choral gang vocal harmonies and made to stand out by wedging it in between slabs of punchy, regal melody adorned sections big on crunchy riffing. There’s something playful at work throughout this album too, just on the right side of swinging your beer horn and sloshing a little over the side in celebration. It’s gritty and grounded, full of enough melancholia to prevent it from joining the ranks of cheerful, chipper “battle metal” gaucheness. Lesser bands would have walked into that with their chins out.
Grand Magus – Wolf God:
Its been awhile since we’ve heard from Grand Magus, their last album Sword Songs coming three years ago, and perhaps too soon after its clearly superior predecessor Triumph and Power, a Metal Pigeon Best of 2014 list maker. This isn’t to say Sword Songs was an awful album, it had its share of solid moments, but it suffered from a series of bad decisions regarding the tempos on a handful of songs that either slowed things down to a point of draining their energy or sped them up in a way that this band simply doesn’t do well. Its a relief then to hear that they’ve decided to firmly plant themselves in mid-tempo rock n’ roll strut territory on Wolf God. Vocalist/guitarist Janne Christoffersson has seemed to always sound more at home in this rock n’ roll songwriting approach, with the metallic nature of the band’s sound coming in the thundering heaviness of the riffs and subject matter (add some Southern rock phrasing to the melodies, replace lyrics depicting the north and glorious battles with motorcycles and drinkin’ and Magus could sound like a pretty great American southern rock band). Its his wheelhouse, and I say that in a complimentary way. On songs like “Untamed” and “He Sent Them All To Hell” are built on ever-steady, in lock-step groove based riffs, while Christoffersson ushers things along with his lumbering, dryly impassioned vocal melodies. I’m big on “To Live And Die In Solitude”, particularly the stark storytelling in its lyrics, and also “Brother of the Storm” where stop-start riffing allows for Christoffersson to flex his soulful croon a little over ambient space. I kinda expected that Magus would rebound with this album, and glad to see my hunch was right, they’re too good a band to lay two semi-duds in a row.
Tanagra – Meridiem:
I’ve had a hell of a time wrapping my mind around this album, not because of any complexity or inaccessibility on its part —- Portland, Oregon’s Tanagra are a progressive power metal band and that’s familiar territory obviously. No, in this case its that I can’t quite figure out if I actually like the vocals of Tom Socia or not, which is a strange place to be after a couple weeks of fairly consistent listening. This is Tanagra’s sophomore album, they’re yet another among many newer North American bands playing a vein of melodic metal to come on the scene lately, having released their debut in 2015. The easy comparison here is Dream Theater in terms of degrees of light and dark, overall medium weight in heaviness, dramatic injection of keyboards, and of course a distinctive toned vocalist. But I enjoy Tanagra’s songwriting far more than DT’s, and there’s more of a Euro-power influence to the riffing that firmly anchors these songs in a trad/power posture than the loose, jazzy feel of other prog-metal bands. Socia is an absolute mystery though, because the mono-tonality in his clean voice is sometimes off putting and alternatively enjoyable in quick succession (or simultaneously in spots). When he leans into his more aggressive style, as on “Across the Ancient Desert”, he showcases a nicely gruff side to his vocal that is a perfect blend of melodic and metallic, and I’m really fond of all those moments. Look for this to be on a future MSRcast episode where I’ll try to sort out my thoughts on it more —- this is a quality record for certain, just a confusing one.
Månegarm – Fornaldarsagor:
The Swedish folk metal legends return after a four year absence, longer if 2015’s self-titled affair felt as off to you as it did to me. I only remember enjoying the acoustic ballads because that album’s muddy guitar tone annoyed me, and thankfully the Månegarm guys decided to abandon it on Fornaldarsagor in favor of a much more classic sounding approach. That decision and some other X factors resulted in crisply produced batch of blackened folk metal that is far darker and more convincingly brutal than I’ve heard this band ever sound. It barrels out of the gates that way with “Sveablotet”, a near perfect synthesis of everything the band does well —- rich Scandinavian folk melodies on violin and hurdy gurdy alongside flawlessly executed clean electric guitar, accompanied by harmonized group vocalization that recalls a little of Tyr and the brighter moments of Vintersorg, melded together with grizzled, smoky battlefield black metal. What Månegarm have always done so well however is to keep things accessible, with moments such as the wordless guitar melody refrain at the 3:30 mark of “Hervors arv” being ear candy I’ll return to over and over again. Vocalist Erik Grawsiö is still capable of his uncanny ability to blend together a gruff singing technique into some Johan Hegg-esque growls. This album is loaded with so many noteworthy musical moments in that vein, but my favorite slice has to be the entirety of “Ett sista farval”, whose melody is emblematic of the reason many of us love this subgenre in the first place. A return to form for Månegarm, and another shot in the arm for the slow revitalization of folk metal as a whole.
Riot City – Burn The Night:
Canada’s latest volley in the recent power/trad metal resurgence (I really need to come up with a name for that, any suggestions?), Alberta’s Riot City take their cue from classic early-mid 80s period Judas Priest and maybe a generous splash of Exciter here and there. There’s a level of technicality on the guitar work on “Warrior of Time” that instantly brings to mind the meticulous writing style of Tipton and Downing. Its all the more impressive when considering these guys are a four piece, the twin guitars provided by Roldan Reimer and Cale Savy, the latter handling lead vocals in a strikingly fierce emulsion of Halford and David Wayne. He has that chilling, eerily calm colder clean tone when singing melodically, and can turn it to Painkiller-esque hellion screams seemingly on a dime. If he’s capable of pulling this all off in a live setting, that’s a show I have to see for myself. There’s not a bum track in the bunch among these eight songs (keeping things old school with the classic vinyl album length here, a tight 37), and a few notable highlights battling it out for the best: “Burn the Night” is an absolute ripper, a blazing fast slice of classic speed metal with attention to razor sharp riffs and unrelenting intensity from start to finish. But I’m just as partial to “In The Dark” for its subtle shades of Euro-influence in those Helloween inspired guitar melodies wedged in the verses. I’m also digging the “Hot Rockin'” vibe on “Livin’ Fast”, a song that screams 1983 and would be tons of fun to gloryclaw along to at a gig. I just wonder what the idea of living fast means in 2019, or are Riot City purely soaking in the nostalgia hot tub and to hell with lyrical depth? Fair enough if that’s the case —- but Riot City’s challenge on future releases will be to expand on their influences that are so front and center on this excellent debut.
Enforcer – Zenith:
Its been intriguing to contemplate the dramatic evolution of Enforcer on Zenith, because I’ve associated them with hyper speed riffing and wild hard rock tones mixed with early 80s metallic attack —- to such a point that I have an archetype in mind of what they “sound like” (even if I can’t ever really remember a single song). Oh I like the band enough, I saw them live when they were supporting 2015’s From Beyond and enjoyed them thoroughly, particularly when singer/guitarist Olof Wikstrand attempted to kick a drunken, bottle throwing idiot in the face from the stage but thankfully missed and comically kicked the guy’s popcorn out of his hand (I know… popcorn, the Scout Bar is a quirky little venue). They were energetic and an absolute blast at that show, and it was easy to see why they stuck to their formula for their studio records. So I’ll be eager to hopefully catch them this coming fall on their next swing through town to see if and how these new songs come across live, because tunes like “Regrets”, “Sail On”, and “Zenith of the Black Sun” deviate in a striking way from the Enforcer playbook. The latter is hard not to compare to Hammerfall, and while I’m able to enjoy its mid-tempo classic power metal approach for what it is, its also illustrative of why Hammerfall is so damn awesome at this type of thing. Enforcer just can’t quite get the interlocking musical rhythm that these verses demand, but you could envision their fellow countrymen doing something terrific with them. I was a little more resistant to “Sail On”, whose chorus comes across as deliberately trying to invoke Styx that you wonder if its a weird inside joke among the band. Its to the point of distraction, but the song’s loose, strummed rhythmic structure also feels a little unsettled, like the band isn’t comfortable in this mode. I do think they nailed the power ballad “Regrets”, which is a close cousin to something The Night Flight Orchestra would tackle, a tune that will annoy many but genuinely please a few of us more inclined to the sappy stuff. This is merely scratching the surface of the strangeness of this album, and would you believe me if I told you there’s only a single track among its total ten songs that rings of classic Enforcer?! Its like the band decided to collect all their experimenting over the years and save it for one puzzling new album. One of the year’s weirdest releases but also one I’ll keep investigating.
Amon Amarth – Berserker:
I initially was blasé about the prospect of a new Amon Amarth record, and if I’m being honest its been awhile since I’ve been remotely interested in them, having never reviewed them for the blog before now. I’ve certainly listened to their many recent albums when they were initially released, more out of obligation than anything, and I should add that I don’t dislike the band. But at some point Amon went from being an exciting melo-death / power metal mashup to well… just more of that. I know, I know, they’re viking metal, but that’s an ideological label, not one that in any way describes their musical approach. Replace Johan Hegg’s consistent gruff/grim growling vocals with a Jorn Lande or Joacim Cans, and you have a bonafide power metal band because Amon’s melodies are bound tightly together between vocals and guitars. I decided to give Berserker a shot because I rather enjoyed the pre-release promo track “Raven’s Flight”, hearing something a little more aggressive in the opening guitar sequence and subsequent Gothenburg-ian percussive riff that reminded me of the signature moment in Dark Tranquility’s “Terminus”. Its a rare moment when the band seems to lean a little more aggressive, and that’s long overdue. Amon has for ages now needed their own Axioma Ethica Odini, that being Enslaved’s 2011 brief foray into a next level of speed, aggression and fury that we hadn’t heard from them before or since. While we don’t get that entirely on this album, its encouraging to hear Amon at least making a meager attempt.
Melodies have never been Amon Amarth’s weakness, they’ve always had an armload for each album and there’s no lack here. I’m particularly fond of the story driven “Mjölner, Hammer of Thor” with its dual guitar harmonies serenading Hegg’s growling melody (a strange thing to write but apt enough). The really fun moment is the pummeling bass driven assault that arrives at the 2:10 mark, something that I think could’ve been absolutely devastating if it were just a little faster, a little dirtier, and a touch heavier. If they could outsource moments like that to Unleashed or say Evocation, we’d be onto something awesome here. The heaviness returns in “Shield Wall”, as straightforward death metal as Amon might actually get, even though its speeds are just a notch above mid-tempo. The refrain here is excellent, nicely rumbling and propulsive, and the mid-song bridge with Tyr-ish battle drums pounding away is a nice Viking touch. But more often than not I just wish some of these songs would pick up the pace a little, such as “Crack the Sky” and “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge”, the latter of which has a few nice riffs that could’ve been more effective with more push behind them. I know this is a weird criticism coming from me, the power metal guy, about a band that has wholehearted power metal vibes bursting out of every song. Shouldn’t I be embracing that aspect? Again —- they do a fine job of those things… but I also grew up listening to death and black metal, and sometimes I wonder why Amon are a death metal band at all if they’re not going to better harness the potential of power that style can bring to the table. Insomnium had the right idea with Winter’s Gate, to use aggression, speed, and fury like a battering ram at certain well chosen moments —- not all the time, but enough to make it matter. There’s good stuff on this album, but every time I take a pass through its entirety, I’m left wanting for something more exciting. More of the same old with Amon Amarth I guess.
Alright back to music! Thanks for indulging the little detour I had to go on with the last update, and though I’m hoping it will be the first and last of its kind, you kinda get the feeling that it won’t be unfortunately. The good news is that the metal release calendar marches on, and its been a busy few weeks trying to juggle listening time for everything that’s caught my ear. The big release I’m reviewing below is obviously the new Devin Townsend album Empath, and we went pretty in-depth on the upcoming newest MSRcast episode that should be up very soon, in addition to discussing recent concerts I’ve been to. Speaking of, I found out I’m driving to Dallas in August to see Demons & Wizards, and let me tell you, as a Houstonian, driving to Dallas is something I’d only do for a select few artists. Hansi should be honored! Oh and Game of Thrones’ final season premieres tomorrow so even though its officially spring, I’m happy to say Winter Is Coming!
Battle Beast – No More Hollywood Endings:
After becoming very familiar with Finland’s glam meets power metal export Battle Beast with 2017’s Bringer of Pain, I felt an almost zen-like state of awareness in approaching their new album. I’ve achieved this mental clarity in part through observing and participating in critical discussions about them with the r/PowerMetal community and generally feeling less confused about the band’s own schizophrenic tendencies that had left me puzzled in the past. I think what really helped however was seeing them live for the first time on the Kamelot tour in 2018, where simply watching their performance provided some insight into how this band sees itself and their music post Anton Kabanen (now Mr. Beast In Black in case you didn’t remember). My takeaway was equal parts Roxette / Dokken / and Twisted Sister, which is inherently fine, but it was good to get clarity (creating emotional epics ala Tuomas Holopainen isn’t their bag). Now I’m not sure how much thought the band put into titling the album No More Hollywood Endings, but its striking that both the cover art and arms wide, grandiose, arena ready anthems on this album directly contradict it in sound and spirit. The move towards this centering of their sound was suggested on their last record, and consolidates here on moving away from the Judas Priest-ian influences of their early records and more towards the Roxette meets Sabaton vibes that they’ve realized vocalist Noora Louhimo does better than most. She’s a phenomenal singer in terms of pure tone, grit, and delivery; the kind of voice that is able to coat a veneer of believability over the most lackluster lyric.
These songs place Louhimo front and center not only in the mix, but in the center of the overall songwriting approach, a wise decision that allows keyboardist Janne Björkroth, guitarists Juuso Soinio and relative new guy Joona Björkroth (who’s also the founding guitarist for Brymir, whom I review below) to lean hard towards pomp-tinged Avantasian power metal as on the opening rush of “Unbroken” and “Eden”, but also veer off towards the sultry modern pop meets glitter rock mash up in “Unfairy Tales”. The latter pulses and struts on the back of a fat, ultra-processed riff in the mold of Bon Jovi’s “Its My Life”, blossoming into skyward chorus that would’ve yielded a straight up hit in the 80s. And that’s not just Louhimo’s uncanny similarity to Ann Wilson as a vocalist suggesting that, but the actual construction of that stepladder nature of the bridge, and runway sized room available for the vocal hook in the refrain. This largely retro feel continues on the shoulder-padded, too many bracelets on two wrists Bonnie Tyler vibe of “Endless Summer”, and while I’m all too happy to eat this melodic jello with a plastic spoon, your tolerance may or may not be up for it. But its not all nostalgia soaked throwbackery, as the band gets a little inventive on the title track, concocting a strange waltz with ABBA-inspired guitar melodies and dance-pop keyboard motifs, reminiscent of something you’d hear Amberian Dawn dabble in with their unabashed love for the glorious Swedes. I particularly enjoy the drama of Louhimo’s vocal melody here, veering wildly from romantic anguish to Broadway stylized theatrics, and utterly ridiculous video aside, I thought it was a rare experiment from this band that actually worked. They have a track record of trying ambitious stuff like this and falling on their face, so this is progress —- in fact the whole record is surprisingly solid and at times even worthy of a roadtrip playlist inclusion or two.
Brymir – Wings of Fire:
Hailing from Finland, Brymir is one of those bands that I forgot I heard before for a reason I can’t hope to remember. Maybe its because their name was too close to Houston’s own Brimwylf or maybe its because I remember their debut coming out on Spinefarm in 2011 with a lot of hype behind them proclaiming them to be the next Wintersun. I barely remember anything from their debut, so that clearly wasn’t the case, and I must’ve just slept on their 2016 sophomore effort, but I’m glad to see they’ve sliced the gap of time between releases even further with Wings of Fire, their third album. More than that though, I’m beyond glad that this is a seriously thrilling affair, a thoroughly convincing slice of epic melodic death metal strutting around the castle with its symphonic metal overcoat. I’ve been listening to this consistently for the past couple weeks, and it took me a minute for it to dawn on me that I was finding myself missing it when I skipped it for a few days earlier this past week. I can’t speak for the past, but right now is all that matters, and on Wings of Fire, Brymir come across to me as the heavier end of Wintersun spiced with a little Children of Bodom and Suidakra for thrashy spice and smoky pagan flavor respectively. I think this particular vein of melodic meets extreme metal is particularly difficult to pull off this well, because there’s always the trap that you’ll lapse into pretentiousness if you’re not self-aware during the songwriting process. Brymir seem to have that awareness in spades however, and I love that their choice for the cover art is vividly anime influenced, suggesting they have a good feel for the visual spark their music might be conjuring in some of our minds’ eyes.
About that music then, there’s so much worth pointing out here, but overriding everything is that I find the band’s sense of wildly adventurous pomp lovable and refreshingly devoid of pretentious that can so easily cloud a merging of this specific kind of musical approach. You get a sense of that right from the opening gates of “Gloria in Regum”, a perfectly blended mix of orchestral surge and clamor, pummeling rhythm section and a ripping solo at the 2:52 mark. Or in the stuttering effect laid on top of the vocals in “Hails From the Edge” at the 2:25 mark that sounds like its something pulled from the BT playbook. Speaking of vocals, Brymir screamer Viktor Gullichsen has an approach that could arguably be described as a blackened version of what Jari Maenpaa or Mors Principium Est’s Ville Viljanen does, which is really the right way to go for Brymir’s melodic approach (grunting death metal vocals would just distract). The well chosen single, “Ride On, Spirit”, is one of the album’s highlights, a mix of a quiet folk intro and blasting symphonic backed riffing that erupts like a volcano. I also enjoyed Noora Louhima’s guest vocals on “Anew”, despite that songs borderline questionable spoken narration that uncomfortably sounds like Timo Tolkki speaking from on high. My personal favorite however is “Chasing the Skyline”, not only for its melancholy, distant sounding opening, but for that absolute stunner of a chorus that is just on the right side of ridiculous (noticeable Stratovarius / early Nightwish vibes popping up here, love it). A spectacularly fun album that I can’t stop listening to.
Devin Townsend – Empath:
I suspect that Empath will the point of entry for a lot of new fans to the wide and frankly weird world of Devin Townsend. In the months and weeks leading up to its release, I had noted an inordinate amount of buzz surrounding this album, much of which involved its striking cast of guest artists, but also on its rather risky, expensive price tag it cost to make it. Maybe I hadn’t paid attention before with his previous albums, but I’m usually a fairly astute observer of these things, and nevermind that my MSRcast co-host Cary the Metal Geek might be the biggest fan of Devin’s in all of Texas —- so I’ve heard about Devin’s releases before, but not with this level of volume. Going back to the album’s price tag for a minute because that is an eyebrow raising amount ($170,000 of his own money, not counting the amount the label put in for promotion) for an independent metal album in 2019, I wonder if that’s not fueling some of the extra interest that I’ve detected surrounding its release. I suspect that metal fans in particular love the idea of a band or album that is rife with ambition, and the media buzz around this album is drawing in a few more ears, with the knowledge that Devin has been vocal about needing this album to succeed in order to continue financially (enough to provoke even the most passive person to click on a link to a YouTube video to find out for themselves if he might just be able to). In 2004 when the music industry wasn’t in as quite a transformative state as it is today, Therion spent 100,000 Euros on recording two albums in Lemuria and Sirius B. While that wasn’t even a minor headline back then, and it was money Nuclear Blast provided for a recording budget, it still had to be recouped, so the band avoided music videos, toured for years and managed to pull it off. With Empath, Devin is already in the hole to the record company as well as himself, spending all of the 150k he managed to net from re-signing his back catalog. Yikes. The early good news however is that the album is landing some of his highest positions to date, particularly in the third largest music market of Germany where he’s nearly cracked the top ten.
As for myself, I think all of the above drove my interest in giving Empath particular attention that I’d never given to any prior Devin release, even setting aside knowing that it’d be a big topic on an episode of MSRcast. This album has been a challenge to wrap my mind around admittedly, my first impressions just being somewhere in the ballpark of “this is a lot”. And it still is to be truthful, I still have trouble processing all of the 23:33 running time of the epic “Singularity”, even though its opening five minute “Adrift” passage is so gorgeous I’ve come back to it over and over. The rest of it is a challenging listen, but there are little spots here and there where my interest is piqued, things I wish he’d repeat a few more times or develop into something larger (the Anneke van Giersbergen vocal passage in the “Here Comes The Sun!” suite is one of them). I realize that track was a large chunk of the album’s 74 minute running time, so that might be something of a black mark on the album so many listens into it, but its one that I feel okay about letting go. I enjoyed most of Nightwish’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful while simultaneously decrying the disjointed nature of its 24 minute closer “The Greatest Show On Earth”. Conversely, I found enjoyment in Empath’s far more concise yet utterly weird tracks, such as “Sprite”, with its almost trance influenced approach towards electronically manipulated repeating vocal lines, strange jumble of rhythmic sounds and jarring musical elements that barrel their way forward without warning. I’ve been re-discovering my love of 90s and early 2000s electronic music lately, particularly trance and progressive house and I have a feeling that listening to all that stuff lately has groomed my headspace to easily accept something unorthodox along these lines.
I’m of course relatively unaware of the musical directions Devin’s explored throughout his back catalog, but I was impressed enough by the bold, whimsical theatricality of “Why?”, a song that might be my favorite on the record. It actually reminded me of something off the aforementioned Therion and their Beloved Antichrist opera from last year, a tune that seems more classical aria than pop ballad as we know it. His vocals here are rich and emotive despite their purposeful over the top nature, particularly at the 3:10 mark during the heightened swell of the songs climax —- he could be a guest tenor on a Sarah Brightman record during that sequence. On the complete opposite end, “Hear Me” was a compelling uber-aggressive moment ala Strapping Young Lad, and it was interesting to hear how Chad Kroeger’s guest vocals fit into the chaos (it sounded good, but its a little hard to discern his voice from Devin’s). The percussion here courtesy of Samus Paulicelli is dizzying by the way, and its worth checking out this clip of him recreating his recording. Then there’s the love it or hate it proposition of “Spirits Will Collide” with its heart on sleeve lyrics that are admirable in their anti-suicide plea, sort of a spiritual cousin to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”. I’ve seen a decent amount of polarizing reactions to this one, and while I’m one of the few who don’t go towards either end, I think its a well constructed song in terms of its pop hook actually affecting sparking a listener’s pathos if they’re personally inclined to allow it. As some of you know, I listen to Sarah Brightman records, so this is the kind of syrup I’ll gladly pour over my pancakes, except that I think the song is diminished a bit with the harsher vocals. I’d love to see an alternate version surface, something more in the vein of this cover. It feels like it could’ve been a home run power ballad but maybe there was some thought that it might’ve been a little too much. I appreciate Devin’s admitting that Enya was an influence on the choral verse melodies, because I heard the structure of “Only Time” straight away on first listen. One of the most buzzed about albums this year is definitely worth all the noise, and for his sheer creativity alone, I hope he makes his money back.
Thormesis – The Sixth:
This was something brought to my attention via Justin of the Mindfudge Podcast when he guested on a recent MSRcast episode, and I’ve been binging this album ever since. Thormesis are a German band that have delivered five apparently unremarkable albums of epic pagan black metal ala Moonsorrow sung in their native language, thus going fairly unnoticed by most of the metal world. Now full disclosure, I haven’t had a chance to check out their back catalog, but I’m trusting the opinion of someone who has, so take my appraisal of their back catalog with a grain of salt. What matters is explaining why they’ve really hit upon something remarkable with The Sixth, and that’s at once a simple and complicated proposition. There so many elements at play here, furious tremolo riffing over frenetic blastbeat passages, hard rock influenced splashes of lead guitar overlays, an Ensiferum-esque way with pagan metal styled choral vocals, and a noticeable post-rock production wash (dare I say black-gaze-ish?) that permeates the pores of these songs. What brings all these together in as compelling a manner as they are is the satisfyingly earwormy sense of melody that’s ingrained in the songwriting. Yes this is an album full of discordant chord progressions and abrupt tempo shifts, the sort of thing that makes black metal the extreme noise chamber it can often be, but on The Sixth, Thormesis grab hold of those seemingly uncontrollable elements and tame them with some of the strongest melodies I’ve heard on an extreme metal album in recent memory.
We hear this on the very first measures of the album opener “Sonnen”, with its tail-riff segmenting approach to the verse passages (check the :25 second and 1:17 marks). Its something from the hard rock playbook that not only gives a clear, discernible structure to an otherwise chaotic rhythmic attack, but serves as the song’s motif, an approach I often wish more black metal bands would employ. But there’s so much more here to unpack, the gorgeous, melancholy keyboard fragments that gently glide over everything three minutes in, and the lead vocal duet between guitarists Tino Krüger and Benjamin Rupp, who apparently share vocal duties throughout the album. The worryingly titled “Their Morbid Drunken Ways” initially conjured up images of some kind of Finntroll level disaster, but thankfully its more along the lines of Sentenced in its melancholic, aching melody that’s loosely draped across a mid-tempo, Katatonia-esque quiet and thunder juxtaposing. I hear that same Sentenced / Insomnium melodic tone in the opening phrasings in “Chor der Toten”, which might be my favorite song on the album. And its not only because of that awesome rock guitar bend at 2:11 that steers us away from one of the album’s most fierce passages to a beautiful, satisfying guitar solo; its the dramatic, isolated tremolo fragment stirring in the ether that builds up to that visceral explosion at the 4:07 mark, like a roller coaster careening down from top of the highest hill. These are songs largely built around musical hooks, not conventional pop formatted vocal hooks, but there are times when the band get daring enough to employ unconventional vocal motifs such as on “One Tear For Every Last Burning Soul”, where clean vocals erupt in something like funeral wailing. It sounds weird but trust me it works, particularly when its fit in between crystalline synths and soaring, emotional guitarwork. If you’ve been looking for something to blow you away in the first half of this year, you need to check this out regardless of your tolerance for black metal because The Sixth is a transcendent release.
Eluveitie – Ategnatos:
I have to admit, even with the hindsight of enjoying Eluveitie’s first post major lineup schism release in the largely acoustic Evocation II: Pantheon, that I didn’t expect this band to emerge stronger after the loss of vocalist / multi-instrumentalist Anna Murphy, guitarist Ivo Henzi, and drummer Merlin Sutter. They might have nailed that acoustic album out of the park, even bettering the first volume, but the real test would come when the band returned to its melodeath meets folk metal core sound. I’m not gonna keep you in suspense, they really have pulled it off, convincingly I might add. And I’m beginning to wonder if the key to this successful transition was simply stumbling upon the right vocalist in Fabienne Erni as Murphy’s replacement. I raved about Erni’s vocals on Evocation II, her vibrant, lightened vocal tone a perfect match for that album’s material in giving it a breezy, brighter feel than I suspect Murphy would have been able to. It turns out her voice pairs equally as well next to pummeling rhythm sections and Gothenburg patterned riffing as on “Deathwalker”, an early in the tracklisting highlight and my current favorite on the record. Chrigel Glanzmann is still obsidian throated in his melodeath delivery here, but his side by side vocal duet with Erni on the chorus over intense riffing works surprisingly well, her voice powerful enough to hold her own against his and still sound strikingly opposite in tone and texture. Its a compelling song, and a fairly perfect portrait of everything that makes Eluveitie so distinct and unique even amongst other folk metal artists.
There’s another standout cut in “The Raven Hill”, where Erni’s hypnotic lead vocal entrance sets a mystical mood that amplifies the already elevated strong folk tendencies coming through here. Hurdy-gurdy from Michalina Malisz, fiddle courtesy of Nicole Ansperger, and Matteo Sisti on bagpipes work up a gorgeous, rustic folk melody that’s echoed by Glanzmann’s trademark whistles. Even here his harsh vocals are met stride for stride with Erni’s excellent vocals, and I particularly like the ending echoing the intro, with her guiding the way out of this smoky wood we’ve all obviously been hanging out in. There’s a few cuts on here that are pretty much full on melodeath with Glanzmann at the helm, and as on previous Eluveitie albums I’m generally fine with them, although they’ve never been the best cuts on the records and that’s the same situation here. I’m a fan of this band for the folk metal elements, and they tend to come around more when Erni’s at the very least taking a 50/50 role at the vocal helm as on the darker, aggressive “Threefold Death” and the pop soaked “Breathe”. In that respect, “Rebirth” is another album highlight for cleverly managing those elements so well, and for Erni’s handling of her vocal melody. It was also a risky but nice touch to add in a few little instrumental vignettes like “The Silvern Glow”, things I usually tend to frown upon but Eluveitie wisely kept these very much tied to the acoustic spirit of the music in Evocation II, kinda linking these two albums together based on its identical line-up. This is a sixteen track long album but if you subtract those few cuts its still a more than respectable thirteen song proper album, with a meaty running time. Its been awesome to see this band make its full comeback from a rough patch in its lineup history, and they’ve made an album that lives up to the best of their catalog.
Cellar Darling – The Spell:
Its uncanny that once again a new Eluveitie and Cellar Darling album are not only appearing back to back in one of my review clusters, but that yet again its not because I’m trying to be deliberately provocative by doing so —- in fact, these two albums were released within two weeks of each other. Its a close mirroring of what happened in 2017 with Eluveitie’s Evocation II: Pantheon and Cellar Darling’s debut This Is The Sound. Being that I’m a reviewer that is always going to get to albums late, after I’ve listened to them enough times to feel comfortable writing about them, a side by side comparison is too intriguing to pass up. However, a note of advice to both bands, particularly Cellar Darling, you both are on Nuclear Blast Records, surely it can’t be that hard to coordinate with the label to steer clear of each other and give yourselves some breathing room around your release dates. Its not that I think discerning fans can’t separate the two albums and make their own value judgments, but the proximity can only provoke a direct comparison to their ears too, and so many of those fans were upset when Anna Murphy / Merlin Sutter / Ivo Henzi and Eluveitie split, and considering the reason for the split was each side not liking the other’s ideas about musical direction —- well, don’t be surprised if some of those fans feel the burden of that conflict on themselves in hearing both of these records. I wasn’t all that bothered by the split myself, intrigued certainly, and I felt sympathy for Murphy and company, enough to hope that Cellar Darling would be something I’d really enjoy. Their debut was a shaky start, but I think most of us were willing to forgive that and hope for more interesting material the second go round, but on The Spell the band finds themselves with no new ideas, a worrying sign. You can see where this is headed, and its a bummer to say that The Spell isn’t an improvement on its predecessor.
I wish I could offer up a highlight here, but truthfully I’ve struggled to find one for these past few weeks, and I’ve internally groaned every time I’ve had to make another pass through the album to see if anything else clicked. The most emergent song from these hesitant listening sessions has been “Insomnia”, which marries a metallic degree of heavy riffing to isolated hurdy gurdy melodies to set up a soaring chorus where Murphy reminds us just how well she can get her rather earthy voice sailing through the air. I’d like the song more if it retained a sense of kinetic flow throughout, instead of the ambient passages within where nothing interesting is really happening. When you have a genuinely affecting hook, plug it in as often as you can without coming across like Haddaway. I also liked the dirty, ground in feel of “Freeze”, where Murphy’s vocals merge with a distant rhythmic grumble to come across like a close cousin to The Cranberries “Zombie” (before that awful radio rock band decided to ruin that song for everyone). A similar problem crops up on “Love”, which has a pretty solid hook that gets plugged a little more, but the connective tissue is missing in terms of crafting a compelling song from start to finish. But its a song like “Drown” that I have a really hard time with, its aimless riffing and lack of any kind of binding melody (even in the vocals) just result in a soupy mess of ideas that go nowhere. On the title track, Murphy juxtaposes elements of a pop chorus with a high pitched delivery of a specific line in a manner that is certainly memorable, but not exactly enjoyable. There’s a similar problem with “Hang”, where Murphy explores the full sweep of her vocal range, and she sounds great to her credit, but the song lacks a compelling motif to tie everything together (but given its lyrical narrative, perhaps that was intentional?). I’ve toned down what was initially a scathing review because I began to consider that a lot of Murphy’s fans will love this kind of stuff and might find it perfect for them. But for myself, it really puts the entire Eluveitie split into perspective and has me siding with them —- if this more bland, generic rock riff direction was what the Cellar Darling crew had in mind for the direction in their previous band, then I don’t blame the Eluveitie camp for balking. They’ve doubled down on what the essence of that band’s sound to deliver two really excellent folk-metal albums, and Cellar Darling are doing… whatever this is.
This was sneakily a loaded release calendar these past two months. Because I’ve been playing catch up a little bit after devoting so much attention to the Avantasia album, I was a little late getting to some of the major releases below. The following reviews compilation doesn’t even cover the full extent of my listening because there’s stuff that popped up on my radar, surprised me (like the Dream Theater record), but I had to just make a note of and intend to get back to later. Maybe I don’t need to listen to these albums as much as I do in order to review them, but I feel its the only way I can tell whether I really like or dislike something. Records aren’t movies, where you have a pretty good indication right away, or at least I don’t. Do movie critics watch movies over and over before issuing reviews on them? You know what, I’m rambling, its really early right now and I haven’t had coffee. So I’ll go get coffee, you probably already have coffee so keep reading below. Danke.
Beast In Black – From Hell With Love:
Perhaps the quickest power metal related success story since Sonata Arctica landed on the scene in 1999 and captivated the world, Finland’s Beast In Black are the subject of vitriolic scorn and some heated debate as to whether or not they can be called power metal at all. I try to stay away from those debates, other than to play devil’s advocate likely to the annoyance of the folks in the r/PowerMetal Discord community. Along with Sabaton, these guys provoke the biggest debates about what exactly defines power metal, with the implication being that their pop friendly productions move them into the realm of something called “arena metal”. Now I’m not naive, I know what that description is trying to get at, and I kind of agree with that argument to a certain extent, but mostly I think power metal fans (even you diehards that will scowl at reading this) should own all the tendencies of our favorite subgenre, shiny Max Martin-esque production warts and all. Why can’t power metal be both Blind Guardian, Pharaoh, and even Sabaton and Beast In Black? Why can’t there exist regional variants of power metal like the style of bands that are coming out of Italy as opposed to the tremendous resurgence we’re hearing out of American and Canadian bands? I believe that Judicator and Visigoth are power metal, they might just be better described as USPM in terms of a better genre label, as opposed to Ancient Bards who are definitely cut from the more flamboyant, cinematic Italian power metal cloth. This is the best time for power metal overall since its original glory era of 97-03, and that we’re even having debates like this is a good thing, because for awhile there the lack of new bands was really concerning.
Moving on from genre definitions just for a minute (!), one thing we can perhaps all agree on is that Beast In Black do what they do extremely well. Their sound from their first album to this one is a glossy, high production sheen coated focus on ultra catchy songwriting and wild, flying guitar solos. Vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos is a big part of why this band gets thrown in the power metal discussion, because his is a silken smooth voice that is capable of Narcis like highs yet also a gritty, almost Sebastian Bach-ian styled hard rock voice. His versatility is scary good, the kind of voice that could likely pinch hit for a number of power metal bands and melodic rock bands. He had more vocalist in the spotlight moments on their debut album Berserker, cuts like “Blind and Frozen” and the excellent ballad “Ghost In the Rain” where he took over entire songs on his own. On the new album he’s a little more restrained, leaning more towards meshing with the rest of the band in a deliberate move to a more 80s hard rock sounding direction. Ah that by now familiar tendency of power metal bands over the course of the last fifteen years —- but in the case of Beast In Black, its really the best move they could’ve made.
The retro 80s vibe comes in the increased usage of keyboard melody driven songs like “Cry Out For A Hero”, where a fast paced, unrelenting Jim Steinman-esque piano line sets the tempo underneath group vocal hooks. On the mid-tempo, hushed strut of “Die By the Blade”, we see the band channeling a keyboard riff that screams Van Halen or even Europe circa 1985, only to erupt in a chorus Hammerfall would feel comfortable with. Then there’s “True Believer”, which could’ve been on one of the Rocky or Karate Kid soundtracks were it not for the heavy production gloss, its the kind of song you’d expect from Power Quest (and that sentiment alone should speak volumes). Speaking of Rocky, the band actually covers “No Easy Way Out” from the Rocky IV soundtrack, as iconic an eighties song they could’ve picked, and they stay faithful to the original because why change something that’s already tailor made for your band? But lets not get lost in the 80s, because on “Sweet True Lies”, we’re hit over the head with some “baby babys” in a style that owes its inspiration to the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync (that Max Martin style coming back into play). Its an insidious song, in the most charming and ingratiating manner possible, a tune that will lodge itself in your cortex and you’ll be alright with that level of helplessness. There’s nothing really deep on this record, and the band doesn’t seem to exude a desire to head in that direction anytime soon. I’m okay with that, because this is who they are, and while I’m not going to champion them in particular, I’ve had a ton of fun listening to this thing and will likely continue to whenever I need a giant dose of the silly.
Rotting Christ – The Heretics:
My relationship to Greece’s Rotting Christ has been one defined by initial disregard, a lengthy absence, pleasant surprise and disappointment. That moment of surprise occurred with 2013’s irritatingly titled Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού, which was one of my favorite albums of that year and still an album I’ve gone back to since on occasion. I skipped reviewing 2016’s Rituals, largely because I was so disappointed upon listening to it and hearing the band veer away from the more creatively melodic direction they explored on its predecessor and didn’t want to expend any further listening time to it at that moment. I did eventually go back to it and found it had a few gems tucked away (“Devadevam” is its absolute highlight) but my overall opinion still stood, it was a letdown relatively speaking. At some point I saw them live for the first time, opening for Mayhem and Watain here in Houston, and their setlist was geared towards those band’s crowds, leaning hard towards their death metal spectrum and further away from the weird folk/world music elements that I really wanted to hear. It was kind of a disappointment —- the smell of a rotting pig’s head from backstage didn’t help matters either (for real it was gag inducing). Suffice to say I was only mildly curious when I saw a new Rotting Christ record on the release schedule for late February.
This is one of those cases where I don’t think expectations or anticipation really affected my opinion of this record when I first started listening to it nearly a week ago, because I simply know what I wish to hear from this band. And to my delight, Rotting Christ have delivered exactly that on The Heretics, an album that bristles with creative songwriting, and clean toned riffs set to inventive rhythmic structures. Its all encased in a sonic palette that grabs hold of everything from spoken word vocal passages, Guns N’ Roses esque solo-ing, chanted choral arrays, and hypnotic percussion that often operates at its own tempo schedule, heedless of the pace of the other instruments. The stellar cut “Heaven And Hell And Fire” is a vivid example of almost all of these elements, and I just love the interplay between the rollicking drum patterns and in and out guitar slashing during the 2:27-3:04 moment after which a gloriously explosive solo rockets outward. There’s a sense of spatial awareness here that few bands ever really grasp, and Jens Bogren’s mixing job is fantastic for finding a way to not only preserve that aspect, but to seemingly fixate on ensuring that it comes through. My personal favorite is “Vetry zlye”, where Russian vocalist Irina Zybina blankets the song with a gorgeous (I’m guessing here) Greek lyric that reminds me a bit of Eluveitie in the best possible sense. On the more brutal end of the spectrum, “The Voice of the Universe” quakes with the unrelenting pounding of Themis Tolis martial percussive attack, and weirdly enough they’re almost working as the musical hook for the song. His natural interplay with his brother, guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Sakis Tolis can’t be understated, because this kind of perfect, in lock-step sync just doesn’t happen with any drummer/guitarist pair. Maybe the best compliment I can offer The Heretics is that sometimes I feel like I’m listening to a lost Therion album, and I love that.
Traveler – Traveler:
The newest entrant into the North American pantheon of trad/power metal revivalists, Calgary’s Traveler hews the same path as their fellow Canadian’s in Cauldron, albeit juiced up with more NWOBHM git up and go speed. This is one of those rare times when I was in on the ground floor relatively speaking, having this promo pointed out by one of the powerful. a power metal podcastfolks a few months ago —- a debut album that is arriving with a noticeable amount of buzz generated from their split EP with Finland’s Coronary in the summer of 2018. If you paid attention to the Gatekeeper debut that came out last spring, you’ll hear a striking similarity in Traveler’s vocalist, and that’s because both bands share Jean-Pierre Abboud at the mic. He’s almost a dead ringer for a combination of early Savatage Jon Oliva and Metal Church’s David Wayne, and takes a warts and all approach to his performance in the recording studio. That means that there are the odd bum notes, extra vibrato at the endings of lines, and an overall emphasis on attitude and feel more than technical proficiency, and that’s kind of the best way to go about things for this approach to metal.
The rest of the band strikes the right balance between precision and looseness, with guitarists Matt Ries and Toryin Schadlich creating razor sharp riffs, tight rhythmic density, and the odd dual guitar harmonization that just screams old school Maiden. But whether its the aggro, slightly ahead of the beat bassist and drummer or maybe just an overall production texture, there’s a feeling to Traveler that its all barely held together with the thinnest of threads. The highlight here is “Up to You”, a song that reminds me of High Spirits in its snappy chorus, and its pairing of a slightly off-balance vocal by Abboud and joyfully melodic guitar solos as punctuation marks. There’s also “Starbreaker”, as classic sounding any of these bands in this vein have ever come to sounding like a lost recording from the early 80s NWOBHM wake. From the worn out cassette recording texture present at the intro to the familiar riff progressions that you just seem to know where they’re heading, its a classic sounding song that actually could be a classic just due to how well its executed. I would love this band to cover something like “White Witch” from Savatage’s Hall of the Mountain King, because if there’s anyone that could do it convincingly, its Abboud and company. A crackling, fiery debut for these guys, it’ll be interesting to see if they stay in this lane or more towards something else in the future.
Týr – Hel:
Its been six years since the last Tyr album, kinda eye opening when I seem to remember these guys releasing something every other year or so for nearly a decade it seemed. I think if we’re all being honest though, the band hasn’t had the best track record with album length enterprises either, their best moments scattered across the entirety of their discography. I consider their first two records to the their strongest, and sometimes think that their debut with original vocalist Pól Arni Holm to be their most endearing (if not quite their best). But Heri Joensen is Tyr, his songwriting and vocals that have come to define this band’s unique sound and identity amongst a cluttered metal landscape where invoking viking and Norse imagery is all too commonplace. And despite a pair of major lineup changes (new guitarist, new drummer), the core sound is still as recognizable as ever on Hel, but I think the extended break from releases has done Joensen some good on the inspiration and songwriting front. The new album sees him taking some chances with the Tyr sound, injecting some fresh elements into the mix like the unexpected furious death metal vocals in the album opener “Gates of Hel” (I mean, if there’s any song you add those to, that’s the one). Its got a tight chorus on it too, as in tightly packed and smartly written, the kind of thing that defined some of their more memorable gems from albums past. In fact the first five songs on this tracklisting are genuinely inspired slices of Tyr-ian folk infused power metal, particularly the album highlight “Garmr” where we’re treated to the band’s most addictive song since “Hear the Heathen Call” (from 2009’s By the Light of the Northern Star).
The first stumble here is “Downhill Drunk”, whose title doesn’t inspire confidence unless you’re listening to something like Flogging Molly or some long lost Pogues song. Its not a terrible track, but really doesn’t have much in the way of melodic definition or a discernible hook, one of those tracks that’s just there, taking up space. Far more interesting is the subsequent “Empire of the North”, where a runaway chorus almost gets away from Joensen, but he manages to keep things together due to the strength of some awesome power metal guitar passages and a strong descending vocal hook in the aforementioned refrain. And I mentioned taking chances earlier, and I’m not exactly sure how to describe what’s happening on “Against the Gods” but its weird meshing of a quasi thrashy rhythmic barrage with a truly satisfying hook keeping it just accessible enough is something new and awesome for the band. Its paired up with another rock solid slab in “Fire and Flame” with its juxtaposing uptempo, martial percussion fueled intensity with slightly slower verses, an effect that magnifies a listener’s attention on each aspect. There’s a respectable amount of really excellent material on Hel, the problem is there’s just too much material on the album overall. Its well past an hour and change in length and that practically guarantees that some of it will be subpar, the case in point is the album’s closing package of “Songs of War” and “Alvur Kongur”, the latter of which I hoped to enjoy because I typically do for all their songs written in their native language. Again they’re not bad per say, but they fall flat which is a problem a band this good shouldn’t have. It begs the question on whether Tyr’s ultimate problem in composing albums is having a good sense of quality control and self restraint. I’m guessing no one was in the studio pointing out that maybe a tight 45′ would be better than packing everything that popped out in the writing process into the tracklisting.
Queensrÿche – The Verdict:
I just deleted an opening paragraph for this review because it was sounding too reviewer like and honestly I just can’t with a band like Queensryche. I’ve been listening to them since what, 1994-ish at least (possibly heard “Silent Lucidity” earlier than that, can’t confirm) with varying degrees of fandom/skepticism, including a pretty dark stretch from oh friggin’ 2005-2011. You should all know the backstory by now, realize that Todd LaTorre is the band’s vocalist, and understand that The Verdict is album number three in Queensryche 2.0, or is that 4.0? Does the departure of each original band member herald a new version number? So Chris DeGarmo leaving in ’98 would’ve resulted in 2.0, Geoff Tate getting fired/splitting in 2012 would’ve been 3.0, and now Scott Rockenfield taking a strangely undefined paternal leave that transformed into maybe he’s still in the band ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ) is 4.0? Or its just that life is unpredictable and chaotic and here we are, Queensryche in 2019 and kick the Deep Purple version numbers idea to the curb? The major thing is that for the guys who are still here, LaTorre, Michael Wilton, Eddie Jackson and Parker Lundgren —- album three is put up or shut up time not only in the grand scheme of things for their legacy together, but for my patience as a fan who eagerly jumped back onboard after LaTorre joined. My initial enthusiasm for the band’s post-Tate journey definitely masked some critical flaws with their 2013 self-titled debut album (namely those song lengths… this is prog, not punk rock, maybe add a couple solos or something, reprise a chorus or work up a outro… anything?). The follow-up in 2015, Condition Human, was better despite some truly abysmal cover art (The Verdict’s lame attitude filled grim reaper isn’t much better), but in re-listening to it for the first time since that reviewing period, its uneven nature stands out even more now.
Thankfully, just like every band is supposed to hit their stride by their third record, the LaTorre fronted Queensryche has done just that on The Verdict. Oh and believe me this time I’m confident in declaring that, because its being done so in the face of a healthy dose of skepticism that they could pull it off, particularly without Rockenfield behind the kit. The overwhelming thought that runs through my mind in trying to assess this album is that it sounds like the most Rychian Queensryche album since 2003’s semi DeGarmo reunion Tribe, but really hearkens back to threads of Promised Land and even older era classics like Empire and Mindcrime. I know the latter is a lofty one to throw out there, but its the closest sonic profile that informs the songwriting and guitar approach of songs like “Blood of the Levant” and “Man the Machine”, the opening salvo on this album. I wrote in my review for Condition Human that its first two songs were the best one-two opening punch the band had managed in ages, but these two out muscle them like an Urak-hai arm wrestling Frodo. Its something of a minor miracle that we’re hearing a song as inspired as “Blood of the Levant” from these guys, with its perfectly balanced blend of aggressive riffs with eastern tinged guitar melodies. The mid-song pre-solo vocal shift by LaTorre is so strikingly reminiscent of what DeGarmo would write for Tate in the Empire era, a nostalgia blast they’ve never managed before. And the dual harmonized solo from Wilton and Lundgren is excellent, a simple repeating melody that is bright and evocative. It slams right into “Man the Machine”, which combines a slight modern metal stop-start riffing approach to an otherwise classic sounding Queensryche cut. Its propelled along an urgent, insistent guitar figure that leads into a wide open chorus, with LaTorre peppering his performance with well timed sharp highs that remind me of the kind of unpredictable vocal inflections Tate would sometimes veer off into.
LaTorre pulls double duty on this record as well, being a more than competent drummer he stepped in for Rockenfield and honestly did a great job of it, taking care to honor the way their absentee drummer might have approached things on his own. That means there’s a plethora of sonic variety in the drum kit he’s using, and an emphasis on unorthodox fills, rhythmic variations in spots, insistent backbeats, and just an attention to detail that matches Queensryche’s modus operandi. I love the proggy-jazzy cymbal hits in “Light-Years”, one of the album’s stronger cuts because of its gorgeous chorus, laced with not only a stellar vocal from LaTorre, but those all too recognizable backing vocals from Jackson. We’ve seen flashes of him being brought back into the harmony vocal fold over the past two albums, but never in this declarative a fashion, and its something this band has missed for ages now. Surprisingly enough, its Lundgren who might have delivered the album’s absolute gem in “Dark Reverie”, a ballad that brings back memories of “I Will Remember”, built on lone semi-acoustic styled guitar passages and LaTorre’s haunted vocal melodies. This is one of the songs fans will point to when they’re trying to illustrate why The Verdict sounds more like Queensryche than the past however many albums past; because its not just that LaTorre can sound radically similar to Tate quite often, its how these songs just echo and reverberate everything we remembered about this band sounding like. This is Lundgren’s first solo songwriting credit to my knowledge, and its exciting to see him not only emphatically put himself out there, but write something that sounds DeGarmo-ian (the highest compliment I can think of really). I think he and LaTorre seem to understand something intrinsic about what made classic Queensryche sound the way it did, something the rest of the original members were too close to everything to decipher themselves. This isn’t a perfect album, there are a few weaker moments but not many, and no duds(!), but its the most fulfilling album they’ve made in ages. This version of the band has proven themselves with this record, and they’ve gained creative momentum here, lets hope it doesn’t take another four years to capitalize on it.
Children of Bodom – Hexed:
The most surprising aspect of Hexed, Children of Bodom’s jeez, tenth studio album now, isn’t that its actually very strong —- their best since Hatecrew Deathroll easily. Its that months out before even hearing a note of this, I felt myself expecting it to be good, in fact telling others that I think we were all gonna be taken off guard by how good it was. This isn’t like me, and by now you’ve heard me mention how high expectations have perhaps stacked the deck against many an album that I’ve reviewed as a mediocre disappointment, or vice-versa, that an album I’ve had little anticipation for is the one that blows me away and keeps me listening for most of the year. Our psychology clearly isn’t the most complex thing to figure out in matters like this, but I’ve somehow gone metaphysical now with Hexed and power of intention-ed it and myself together in one harmonious, universal, Deepak Chopra approved resonance. Or, maybe its simply that I suspected as much because the band’s last record, 2015’s I Worship Chaos actually had some decent stuff on it that made me feel that the band was slowly finding their way back to their best sonic identity. It still had some of the contaminant of boneheaded chug and industrial-ish wash from their wilderness years (in retrospect that spanned a little more than a decade, yikes), but for the first time in years I didn’t find myself rolling my eyes at what they were doing and hitting repeat.
With Hexed, I find myself void of all snark upon hearing the old school melodic death metal nature of “This Road” and “Under Grass and Clover”, the latter sounding like a lost bonus track from the Something Wild sessions, a sound I’ve wanted to hear represented again for eons now. Its not always about the density of the riffing that makes melodeath so distinctive, its how its written, and Laiho hearkens back to that spirit on that cut and on “Glass Houses”, another full speed banger with little micro dueling solos pitted against Janne Wirman’s ever distinctive keyboard frills. A Hatecrew vibe permeates “Hecate’s Nightmare”, its thick slabs of keyboard tipped riffage building up to a pummeling, grinding back and forth in the refrain that isn’t so much catchy as it is satisfying on a visceral level. So much of Bodom at their best works that way, you’re not looking for pop hooks but just a snappy, crisp sense of controlled, tightly channeled rage and venom. I know that’s a strange sentiment from the guy who could write a dissertation on Power Quest, but despite my barely disguised loathing for meatheaded heavy for heaviness’ sake bands, I still crave a form of heaviness in metal. I just want it to be delivered alongside other interesting musical elements, and that’s why melodeath has always been a beloved subgenre. With Hexed, Children of Bodom have managed to make themselves a part of that fix again, which new age inclinations aside, I can’t honestly say I ever saw happening again.
Its been just a little over three years since Tobias Sammet released Ghostlights, an album that stunned me and stayed with me during what turned out to be a darkly turbulent year, enough for me to call it 2016’s album of the year. In my personal Avantasia pantheon, it often tops the Metal Operas as my favorite album of all time (though sometimes when I get nostalgic, dips below them however briefly). It had some bold guest choices on there, with Tobias taking chances on the shaky Geoff Tate, a relatively obscure talent like Herbie Langhans, and Dee Snider (long before his Jasta helmed metallic resurrection) in addition to strong regulars like Jorn Lande, Ronnie Atkins, the great Bob Catley, and of course Michael Kiske. More impressively however, all thirteen of its songs landed knockout punches, each with their own unique sonic identity and sometimes strikingly distinct style —- it was Tobias’ most expertly crafted batch of songs in ages. I was completely surprised, seeing as how my expectations were as low as ever considering my lukewarm appraisal of 2013’s The Mystery of Time (I’ve gone back and listened to it recently, that opinion still stands). I think being surprised when you have low expectations doesn’t necessarily make a good album sound better than it would have had you heard it out of context, but it does make you appreciate whatever’s surprising you more.
With that mind, the opposite can also be true, and it seems to be the case with Moonglow, which has the misfortune of following the impeccable Ghostlights. But I wanna be clear, Moonglow is a good, at times even excellent album that actually distinguishes itself by having its own unique album spanning cohesive sound that seems to originate from its lyrical and thematic concept. That may seem obvious at first, but with post-Metal Opera era Avantasia the styles and songwriting approaches tended to fall into Tobias’ songwriting tropes (for better or worse). Here I’m referring specifically to the “roundness” or softness of the edges on this collection of songs, which largely tend to lack the sharp, hard angles that made up the sheer catchiness of the Ghostlights songs. This works for the better on a song such as album opener “Ghost In The Moon”, where a bouncy Jim Steinman-esque melody is carried along not by the guitars, but rather the rolling piano underneath all the vocal layers. Aside from the post chorus outro, the guitars in this song seem reactive, playing off the vocal melodies, which result in a more rock n’ roll affair than anything close to power metal. Its the album’s most poppy moment, and one of its best because those vocal melodies are simply awesome. The addition of gospel backing vocalists Bridget Fogle, Lerato Sebele, and Alvin Le Bass give the song a sense of joyful enthusiasm and uplifting energy. Tobias has of course used backing vocalists before to great effect (particularly on The Scarecrow trilogy), but this is noticeably different and refreshing.
Likewise I hear this rounded, flowing feel on another standout track, “Moonglow”, where Tobias engages in a duet with Blackmore’s Night vocalist Candice Night. This is one of the smartest guest picks Tobias has nabbed in awhile, eyebrow raising in its reach outside of the metal realm and steering away from obvious choices that we’ve all come to expect. Its a pretty song, again built on piano lines, this time sparsely performed in such a way that conduce a feel appropriate to the nighttime imagery of the song. It strikes me as a cousin to “Sleepwalking” off The Mystery of Time, the dreamlike verses and sunlit choruses for both, but I might love “Moonglow” just a touch more because Night’s vocal approach and clear ringing tone seems particularly suited to Tobias’ power balladry. The background keyboard atmospherics here are something that producers Sascha Paeth and Miro Rodenburg have used often in Avantasia, most notably on songs like “Lost In Space”, “Carry Me Over”, and the aforementioned “Sleepwalking” (basically, the poppier cuts). At this point its something of their production trademark, because you’ll hear variations of it on nearly every band they produce, and it could be tiring if overused (ahem… *stares at Kamelot*), but Tobias’ seems to know when its most effective and when he needs to keep the atmospheric wash at bay.
Similarly the Bob Catley star turn on “Lavender” is another piano driven affair, a drama rich slice of pomp rock that takes a more choral driven approach than his Ghostlights appearance on the masterful “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”. Where the latter was all heart stopping arcing melodies and gut wrenching epic starts and stops, “Lavender” is a rather more subtle tune. The chorus is well defined and appealing, though it lacks a magical transition from the verse/bridge sequence, and you get the feeling that Catley might’ve been underused. He’s a home run hitter, the guy who made “The Story Ain’t Over” such a spectacular why isn’t this on the album fan favorite. I actually like “Lavender” a good deal, and I don’t think its verses nor its chorus are lacking, but I suspect there’s something missing in terms of a powerful buildup, that maybe Tobias misfired when writing the bridge. Its partially redeemed by that magnificent dramatic mid-song detour at the 2:38-3:02 mark, and maybe I’m wrong but if he used that moment just a few more times throughout the song, it might’ve made the difference. Then again, as we’ll see on “The Piper At The Gates of Dawn”, that singular moment might be that much more appealing because of its rarity. In the case of “The Piper…” we’re treated to a magical musical moment at the 5:30 mark, one of the more gorgeous guitar solos on the album and in Avantasia’s history overall. I wish its opening motif were longer, or repeated a few times throughout what is a largely lackluster song, with verses that are strangely devoid of anything musical besides production wash and a drum beat. Its the weakest song on the album, yet has one of its most lovable moments. Strange.
The album’s preview/hype track was the guest vocalist monster “The Raven Child”, which has one of the more gorgeous opening sequences that sees Hansi Kursch and Tobias trade off lines. We got to hear these two together on Ayreon’s majestic “Journey to Forever” a few years ago, and this is spellbinding in similar ways, and a fitting return for Hansi to guest one of Tobias’ songs since his much loved appearance on Edguy’s “Out of Control” way back in the day. His vocal performance on those opening verse sections is the kind of bard-like balladry that we all have come to love him for, particularly in that little “woah-oh-oh” bit towards the end before the big dramatic musical exclamation mark. He and Jorn are a dominating presence on this track, with Tobias serving as the glue guy. Its an album highlight, continuing Tobias’ winning streak of lengthier Jorn-infused epics that will likely be concert staples ala “The Scarecrow”, “The Wicked Symphony”, and “Let The Storm Descend Upon You”. I was also surprised by how much I liked “Starlight”, a song that makes the best use of Ronnie Atkins vocals in a compact, aggressive rocker. I say surprised because I wasn’t that fond of Atkins’ previous solo turn on “Invoke The Machine” off Mystery, so its nice to have my doubts erased as to whether he could deliver as a standalone partner to Tobias. Its also one of the few songs here that really breaks free of that smooth, rounded feel, it being built on urgent tempos and some well timed quiet-loud dynamic shifts.
If I was surprised by Ronnie Atkins, I was reaffirmed by Geoff Tate’s once again excellent performance on a Tobias’ penned tune, because just like his debut on “Seduction of Decay” on Ghostlights, he sounds like his old self on “Invincible”. This is equal parts Tobias being unafraid to write Tate into his higher range that he seems to have avoided in his latter day Queensryche and now Operation: Mindcrime albums, and also just giving him a fully arcing chorus melody that is actually emotionally affecting. And on its direct follow-up track “Alchemy”, Tate sings over a rhythm structure that sits right in that mid-tempo pocket that allowed him to sound so convincing on so many Queensryche gems. The only downside here is that the chorus doesn’t match the intensity of the verses, and ends up feeling a little half-baked, an ugly negative drawback to the rounded, dare I suggest softened approach that yet again makes it presence known here. As far as other songs that suffer a bit in the songwriting department, I wasn’t wild about “Book of Shadows” even though it features Hansi and even Mille Petrozza. Just something about that chorus where it doesn’t seem to get the proper amount of lift under its wings. I do enjoy the contrast of Petrozza’s vocal part, and ultimately I wish he was given a larger role for the album, perhaps a song of his own to kick up the overall heaviness factor a bit. I also liked yet didn’t love the Michael Kiske “Requiem For A Dream”, and its largely due to a remarkable bridge/chorus that makes up for some pretty uninspired verse sections. Tobias has done better with Kiske before, and “Wastelands” is really the benchmark to my ears… unfortunately he didn’t quite get there this time.
I don’t know what to say about the Michael Sembello “Maniac” cover, because we’ve all heard the song before and if you’re like me you always thought it sucked and likely didn’t want one of your favorite artists touching it with a ten foot you know what. But its done, and I hate it and only listened to it long enough for reviewing purposes. I actually really love the bonus track for the deluxe editions in “Heart”, which was written as a tribute to Steve Perry era Journey and sounds the part. The roundness of this album that I’ve been vaguely harping on about throughout the review is both a blessing and a curse, dramatically shaping some songs for the better and hurting others. I think for me personally, this album faced a bit of an unfair uphill battle following up a record I loved so much, but at the end of the day lofty expectations don’t determine whether or not a song feels underwritten or that a chorus lacks some punch. I’ve enjoyed Moonglow for the most part, it has an interesting concept and sonic palette, and I definitely didn’t feel anywhere near the level of discontent as I did with The Mystery of Time. Something I was thinking about earlier was that its going to be well over five plus years since the last Edguy studio album, and having had two Avantasia albums in a row unexpectedly, I find myself longing a bit for his other songwriting side lately. I’d love something shockingly heavy, rollicking, and aggressive in the vein of Mandrake or Hellfire Club, it would be the perfect way to veer in the opposite direction.
I honestly thought about skipping the theatrical release of Lords of Chaos, but when it arrived here on Friday, February 15th at the Alamo Drafthouse for its opening night showing, I figured what the hell. After all in December of 2009 I went to see Until The Light Takes Us at another Alamo Drafthouse, and there’s something about pecan porters and Belgian white ales and black metal films that just goes so well together. I had bought and read the book of course, way back when it first hit American bookstore shelves in the late 90’s and I poured over every page, only later to find out through various sources that a lot of the book was in dispute by those who were its subjects. Mostly Varg, but I recall reading a lot of criticism from the Mayhem camp, as well side figures like Ihsahn, Samoth, and Satyr who seemed to be outside the “inner circle” but close enough to know what was likely true and outright fabrication. As a result, I held a lot of prejudices against the book for quite some time (and to be honest still do), particularly in the overblown sensationalist aspect of propping up satanism as the central theme. I think it was a decade ago plus when we first started hearing that it would be turned into a film, and my primary thought beyond “that will never get made” was that the only way it could be any good is if it departed from the book in a meaningful way and attempted a more honest portrayal.
Cue Jonas Akerlund, probably the only director who was meant to handle a project like this, not only for his very brief stint in Bathory, but for the connection he’s maintained to metal in general even throughout his years directing videos for pop stars. Before the film started, well before the coming attractions, various music videos and strange film shorts by Akerlund were being played on the big screen, including his gritty video for Metallica’s “Turn The Page” and his glossier clip for Lady Gaga’s “John Wayne”. I wondered if they’d show his clip for Satyricon’s “Fuel For Hatred” considering its the only black metal band he’s done one for but no such luck. The Metallica clip was a good reminder of Akerlund’s tendencies though, a stark, unpolished bit of filmmaking through a humanist perspective. Its the struggle of a mom’s transient lifestyle living out of hotel rooms while working at a strip club during the evenings and hooking long after her daughter has gone to sleep. This aggressively hyper-realist perspective also informed his video for The Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”, where similarly the very ordinariness of the setting is a character in itself. In Lords of Chaos, there’s a moment when a domineering Varg barks at a young woman to disrobe, and its an uncomfortable, tension filled moment that is anything but sexy. She has a noticeable cyst that Akerlund makes sure viewers see, and the brightly lit room is quiet but for the sounds of a belt buckle hitting the floor after Varg growls “Are you deaf?” as he and Euronymous sit and watch.
This story is filled with ugliness and violence, and filmed without restraint in displaying that to the viewer. There’s the eerily distant manner in which we’re shown Dead’s suicide, without any emotional maneuvering via music, just a stark series of shots that show him sitting on the floor of his room slicing his wrists, forearms, and neck, stumbling to a desk to write a bloody suicide note as he’s gushing all over the place, and finally to his mattress where he sits against the wall, pulls the barrel of a gun to his head and fires without pause. Euronymous finding his body is a similarly disquieting sequence, the kind of reaction that seems rational and entirely illogical at once —- and when we come back to this later in the film, its surprisingly heartbreaking. Akerlund doesn’t glorify violence in the film, in fact his depiction of it is so upsetting that you’re wishing certain scenes didn’t linger as long as they did. When Faust is shown stabbing Magne Andreassen in Lillehammer Park, we seemingly see all 37 strikes he reportedly delivered, and its gruesome and terrible to take in. Worse yet is the final confrontation between Varg and Euronymous, a scene that is far more upsetting than I expected it to be, made worse not only for the sheer bloodiness, but for the senselessness of the whole thing. Akerlund’s style adds grit and grounding to all these depictions —- there are no action shots, nothing is remotely stylized, instead we get a single cam feel of someone simply recording actual violence happening mere feet from the lens. Its utterly disturbing.
All my reservations about the choice of cast and the decision to have them speak in English without any Norwegian accents in their speech were dispelled in the film’s first twenty minutes, when Rory Culkin’s surprisingly fantastic portrayal of Euronymous does the unlikely trick of charming the audience. I’m being serious. You can’t help but like Euronymous in this film, and I suspect that’s on purpose for the audience to forge some emotional connection onto a central character for plot purposes, but at the same time, you get the feeling that Øystein Aarseth hid a relatively decent person beneath the thick layers of angst, disaffection, and petulant jealousy. Akerlund splices in seemingly minor details to illustrate the point: Øystein’s affection for his little sister when she’s helping him color his hair black; his apparent love for a local kebab place he frequents so much that he knows the owner by name; laying on the couch next to his dad when his mother calls dinner (“spaghetti bolognese!”); the humorous exchange with a Norwegian postman he respectfully addresses; his relationship with girlfriend Ann-Marit (played by Sky Ferreira) where he allows for insecurity and vulnerability; and of course a handful of scattered moments where he attempts to deescalate the fallout resulting from his own provocations. Culkin nails playing both Øystein and Euronymous, his performance filled with subtlety in depicting what makes this young man essentially two personalities that sometimes merge, but in the films more emotionally resonant moments, repel away from one another in mutual disgust.
The casting turned out to be one of the film’s strongest aspects, with authentic feeling supporting turns from all the members of the inner circle, particularly Emory Cohen as Varg. I admit to feeling a moment of hesitation when he first appeared on screen, a dorky metalhead in a jean jacket with a Scorpions patch (man the Scorps got dragged through the mud in this movie) who gets the cold shoulder by an unimpressed Euronymous. But I quickly remembered that the earliest photos of Vikernes himself are pretty much exactly that, Akerlund did his homework here. Cohen’s presence gradually ebbs from uncertain and insecure to disturbingly confident, certain, and possessed. Vikernes will not be happy with his portrayal, but in reading interviews with Akerlund, most of the depictions came from knowledge gleaned from a variety of sources (in other words, not just the book), with the director citing Vikernes’ own statements as part of their source material. Vikernes has turned into an idiosyncratic narcissist in his later years as a YouTube celebrity, spreading his hate and racist diatribes for any impressionable goon to lionize, but he’s also been very specific about his perception of events and the way things went down, and to his chagrin, the film takes him at his word. There was no way for a guy like Vikernes to be portrayed as a hero, even when he’s telling Euronymous in the middle of a church they’re about to burn about what pagan sites stood at that spot before the Christians came. Remember this film screened at Cannes and Sundance, scores of non-metal audiences have seen this film who know nothing about black metal or its history or relevance —- they could probably see his point during that particular moment, he’s getting retribution in some way, but even that can’t redeem him from coming across as a maniacal sociopath.
This is ultimately a story about a group of young men and teenagers in a pre-internet world who become so involved with their own uniquely defined subculture that they began to get in over their heads in their attempts to stage rebellion against the traditional Christian Norwegian society they’ve grown up in. Within that framework, its a deeper story about the bonds of friendship and the forces that cause them to wither and tear apart. Akerlund juxtaposes Øystein’s strange but comradely kinship with Per Ohlin (Dead) versus his slowly decaying alliance with Varg, the former featuring some of the film’s best laughs (there are a few) while the latter crackles with a barely restrained tension. Euronymous cuts as mysterious and ambiguous a character onscreen as he seems to in black metal history where multiple accounts differ as to just who he was as Øystein. Watching the film, his likability was a strange thing for me to admit at first, because I could easily see why so many considered him egotistical, jealous and manipulative. In that respect he’s a mirror image of who Varg becomes, and two of those personalities could not co-exist in one clique. Despite that, there were hints at redemption for him —- subtle things that suggest he cares for his friends, worries over their well-being (even if that means at the expense of others), he even seems to know when its time to distance himself from everything altogether. I didn’t anticipate feeling a tinge of sadness at the end, but I did.
Now that Lords of Chaos is out in theaters, and those who hoped it would never be made have to live with its nagging presence, I hope most metal fans put aside their reservations and give it a shot. Its not a perfect film, there’s some awfully corny dialogue at times, the music is severely neglected, and some people might be put off by its schizophrenic shifts in tone. Yet despite those things, I think it should be stressed that the more people check this out and support it the more likely it is that we can have future metal related films, be they documentaries or biopics like this. All the criticism the recent Bohemian Rhapsody biopic received for being selective with the truth seems deserved, but they can’t level quite the same thing at Lords of Chaos. The former is a band approved vanity project aimed squarely at propagating their own magnificence with an audience that’s likely sympathetic at worst and die-hard fans at best. Akerlund’s film is an entirely different beast however, non-metal audiences don’t learn about why black metal is unique, how or why its different from death metal, they barely even get to hear what Mayhem sounds like —- instead they get a deeply disturbing, saddening tale that offers no answers in the way of virtue or morality. For us as metal fans who’ve known this story for seemingly ever now, we get a visualization of a slice of history we weren’t privy to ourselves. Let me be clear —- none of these guys were heroes or martyrs and don’t deserve to be treated as such, but its our history, we’re responsible for documenting it properly and processing it. Akerlund never stopped being a metal fan, and to the extent that Lords of Chaos is a fellow metalhead’s interpretation of this grim story, we should support it with the same enthusiasm we muster for new music or live shows, regardless of its Hollywood fingerprints.
There’s an intimidating amount of highly anticipated new releases in these first few months of 2019, turning the old notion of the slow start to the release calendar on its head. I’ve also been introduced to or stumbled across a handful of intriguing releases by artists new to me, and the upcoming release calendar has a lot of albums by newer bands I’ve been told to check out so we’ll be venturing into a lot of uncharted territory in the future too. So without any further preamble lets get to it!
Swallow the Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light:
So I’ve sat with this album for a few weeks now, and I wanted to let it marinate for awhile before writing a review because I have to guard against the fact that in the intervening time between the release of 2015’s triple album Songs from the North I, II & III, I’ve become a massive fan of this band. I’ve gotten to see them play live twice in the intervening period, their hoodie has become my most worn metal apparel since that Nightfall’ Blind Guardian shirt I wore massive holes into, and I’ve deep dived into their discography repeatedly like a sugar addiction. I’ve been here before, where one’s enthusiasm for a band in general can color a new release in one’s own eyes, so I listened to this thing to death for the past few weeks, took a few days off, and have come back to it again to see if anything’s changed. But before I get to that, lets just talk about the elephants in the room with this record —- its the first album after the passing of founding guitarist/songwriter Juha Raivio’s partner Aleah Stanbridge. Its worth the mention because of just how much Raivio’s recent musical activities have been informed by it since her passing in April of 2016; the year end list making Trees of Eternity album, as well as the agonizing brutality of 2017’s Hallatar release. Its also the dawn of new guitarist Juho Räihä as a permanent member of the band (he has been their live guitarist standing in for Raivio for a few years now), replacing the band’s longtime guitarist Markus Jämsen. In 2016, the band’s longtime keyboardist Aleksi Munter also left, being replaced by Jaani Peuhu. Both Munter and Jämsen were in the band since 2001, practically founding members, so these aren’t necessarily inconsequential lineup changes.
This is a wildly surprising album, a confidently bold direction for the band to stride towards at this pivotal junction in their career. I mentioned Raivio’s musical mourning process on the Trees and Hallatar records; the wounded sorrow of the former and the pure rage of the latter, and it should be noted that this process continues here on When A Shadow… although in a tone that is at once still saddened yet also reverential and even hopeful in glimpses. Raivio accomplishes this by steering the musical direction of the band towards an arms wide embrace of gothic metal’s sweep and grandeur, incorporating a stylistic shift that brings to mind Paradise Lost and Sentenced’s sweeter moments, even reflecting a little Moonspell in the vocal approach. Far removed from the subdued clean vocals of Songs From The North Pt 2, here screamer/vocalist Mikko Kotamäki and keyboardist/backing vocalist Jaani Peuhu weave around each other with glorious melodic harmony vocals that cast a dramatic glamour over these songs. The complex and satisfying vocal layering is central to the impact of these songs, being written around both singers’ vocal melodies in a way that Swallow the Sun simply hasn’t tackled before so full on. Kotamäki is still a riveting screamer, full of blistering fury delivered with a razor sharp enunciation that ensures he’s landing every emotional gut punch. But its Peuhu who might be the quiet MVP of this record, his backing vocals (he’s so present everywhere on the album that he should really be considered a co-vocalist here) are utterly perfect in terms of tone and shading, and the vocal mix here by Jens Bogren is as lush as it needed to be.
Raivio’s lyrics across this album approach poetic levels of evocative imagery and storytelling, painting a dreamscape of vast reaches of starlit skies, endless black waters, fires and shadows, solitary temples and lonely places. His lyrics speak with a tone that is as reverential as it is grief stricken and lost, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard more convincingly pained and aching lyrics in extreme metal before (this is typically stuff that’s better handled by the Neko Cases of the music world). I would mention a specific example here, but what to pick, its all remarkable work. I will say that regarding both lyrics and music, “Here On The Black Earth” may just be my favorite Swallow The Sun song of all time, its escalating chord progression in the chorus is incredibly powerful stuff, and the gorgeous vocal harmonization of Kotamäki and Peuhu is as dazzling as the most ear candied Steven Wilson truffle. Looking back, I can say that although I really loved big chunks of Songs From The North (disc one was nearly flawless), I had difficulties cracking the album as a whole. Its partitioning of the band’s sound into three distinctive chapters (classic / mellow / funeral doom) seemed so final and conclusive even at the time, like a giant period at the end of a sentence. I suspect that Raivio felt the same way when he finally returned his attention to Swallow the Sun, and he felt that the only way forward musically (and perhaps emotionally as well) was to forge ahead with something radical (relatively speaking that is). His instincts were right, and I hope he knows deep down what myself and others have already figured out, that this is the greatest Swallow The Sun album to date. And I wish he never had to write it, that circumstances never resulted in this particular expression needing to surface, but I’m grateful for having it.
Soilwork – Verkligheten:
Now admittedly I haven’t been following Soilwork at all since 2005’s Stabbing the Drama, and although I enjoyed the records that preceded it I was never a big fan. So I have no context to compare the difficultly titled Verkligheten to, except to say this is not what I remembered this band sounding like the last time I checked in. And I might have heard one or two of their singles on YouTube or Spotify playlists over the past few years, looked up and thought “Oh Soilwork”, but if they sounded as strikingly different as the stuff on this album I must’ve not been paying attention. The obvious theory here is that vocalist Bjorn Strid’s time moonlighting with his other band The Night Flight Orchestra has rubbed off immensely on Soilwork, to such an extent that some of these songs feature hooks that might have felt right at home on Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough. I have become a big fan of that band lately, really enjoying all their records and I think that Strid just feels more at home in that milieu, not only as a frontman and performer but as a songwriter as well. His personality broke out in the Night Flight context, and it made me realize how much I didn’t know who he was in Soilwork really.
This Night Flight influence soaks into cuts like the music video dressed “Stålfågel”, where harmony backing vocals from Alissa White-Gluz (because of course apparently, at least they had a different role for her than we’re used to) coat the song in a hard rock sheen much like the “Airline Annas” did on the last NFO record. Its an undeniably catchy earworm of a song, and I really love its escalating approach in the verses, with Strid stressing emphasis at just the right moments to keep the drama heightened. On “Full Moon Shoals”, we’re treated to yet another maybe this was meant for another band slice of melodic hard rock, and all the overdubbed screaming vocals can’t really disguise it, particularly when we’re “oooh ooohh”-ing in the chorus. Not that I think the band is trying to disguise it, nor should they because I think bleed over is natural, but they run that Edguy/Avantasia risk where both bands start to sound sonically similar even if the lyrical tone moves further and further apart. In fact, my main criticism of this album is that they didn’t lean hard enough in that direction, and I find myself losing interest in the more standard modern melo-death stuff on the album, sure its heavy and there are a few good riffs thrown around, but I want more of those melodic choruses. I came away intrigued enough by this outing to definitely check out whatever Strid serves up next as Soilwork, but I’m far more eager for more neon lights, Camaro convertibles, palm trees, and pastel sport jackets from the Night Flight world.
Helevorn – Aamamata:
This was a random discovery I stumbled upon when reading the subject line of a random email in my inbox that said “For fans of Swallow the Sun…”, and that was enough to get me to click through to hear the promo, expecting to hear some watered down version of that supposed influence. And its fair to say that fans of Swallow the Sun will likely enjoy Helevorn, but they’re so much more than a copy of that band, in fact I think this band’s influences pull far more from 90s gothic metal like Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride, and particularly their countrymen in Moonspell. I hear it not only in the songwriting structure, where juxtaposing elements slide alongside each other in purposefully jarring ways, but in the guitar tone that vividly recalls the sound heard on Wolfheart, Irreligious, or even later Moonspell records like Extinct. Its a bit unfair to reduce a new band to what one’s own perception of their influences are, but for one its a hard habit to break and secondly its maybe the easiest way in for anyone new, as was the case with me and that email subject heading.
The variety of songwriting here is of particular note, because Helevorn can veer from a doom laden sense of aggression to a velvety dreamscape (as in album closer “La Sibil-la” with its Spanish acoustics, string beds and echoing vocals). Vocalist Josep Brunet alternates his distinctive clean vocals with a throaty growl, and often shifts into a talking vocal approach that is redolent of gothic metal and rock vocalists all around, that purposeful slowing of the voice to draw a listener’s attention to the lyrics. He’s got a rustic, dignified, somewhat aged quality to his vocal that is particularly appealing, at once lending some elder authority to both his extreme vocals as well as clean singing (major hints of Nick Holmes on both counts). I love that Draconian’s Heike Langhans drops in for a solo vocal appearance on “The Path To Puya”, and the effect when Brunet and the band come surging in to back her up is strong and powerful. I’m not sure who the clean vocalist is on the Spanish lyric semi-ballad “Nostrum Mare (Et deixo un pont de mar blava)” but she’s a highlight moment on the album all her own, particularly when the guitars sweep in underneath with a truly inspired solo. The key word with Aamamata is emotion, because its wringing out of every note throughout this record, and its refreshing to hear something new (well, to me anyway, this band has been around for over two decades) that is hearkening back to that late 90s style of gothic metal without taking on the sometimes watered down trappings that come with it. Can’t recommend this album enough.
Ancient Bards – Origine – The Black Crystal Saga Part 2:
For as much of a power metal fan I consider myself to be, I’ve always been somewhat allergic to the Italian variety. Not that I think its unlistenable or crudely done, quite the opposite actually, but its just never hit me with the same impact of other approaches coming from elsewhere. That long maintained tendency seems to be changing for the better with newer bands such as Frozen Crown with their debut last year as well as through the work of Ancient Bards, whom I’ve been passingly aware of the last few years. Though I was a few years late, their first three records really demonstrated something of a sharp songwriting sensibility that favored a hooks-first approach over a tired need to thrust storylines to the forefront (a critical flaw of Rhapsody’s music to me anyway). As a direct sequel to their concept/storyline driven debut, Origine is a little more darker toned in its overall vibe, but is still operating in that neo-classically informed mode of power metal bombast. They’re also rounding that corner where they’re not afraid to introduce some unexpected influences into the mix.
I’m chiefly referring to the extra dose of pop (beyond you know, normal power metal levels of “pop”) soaking into cuts like “Home of the Rejects” or “Aureum Legacy”, where vocalist Sara Squadrani shoulders the verses with an almost Broadway sensibility guiding her vocal melody. She’s at her most confident sounding on this record, putting herself out there vocally in a way that is daring in its escaping the constraints of the rigid power metal structure Ancient Bards largely operates in. Her standout and standalone moment is, well, as Cary the Metal Geek put it on our recent MSRcast —- the Disney Princess ready ballad “Light”. Its an apt description, because I could envision that in the hands of say Idina Menzel, this could be the show-tune hit on the upcoming Frozen 2. The song has been met with equal parts effusive praise and eye-rolling, with most of the audible groans coming from power metal purists who think this kind of balladry has no place on a power metal record. I just disagree, and Squadrani’s crystalline voice is perfect for a tune like this and her performance here is incredibly affecting. On a side note, they boldly chose it as a music video track, a risky move for any metal band these days when balladry has zero commercial truck with the public and risks alienating returning fans, but I gotta say, its certainly a pretty clip. This is another fun entry into the discography of one of the strongest new power metal bands to arrive on the scene in the past decade, more proof that there’s more to Italian power metal than I ever expected.
Within Temptation – Resist:
So I really wanted to take my time with this album and give it an honest airing in lieu of all the bad press its been getting since its December delay and subsequent pillaging in the recent flurry of reviews I’ve seen for it. If you recall my review for their last album in 2013, the bewildering Hydra, had a few withering criticisms of their then current musical direction and decision to include a handful of guest vocalists (I think it was four at least if I’m remembering right) for whatever reason. Remembering that review and juxtaposing it with Sharon Den Adel’s My Indigo solo project last year (where she revealed during its promotion that she battled writer’s block for Within Temptation), a record she described as “needing” to write really put the unfocused nature of Hydra in perspective. That record, with its forced duets and half-baked songwriting was the result of a band that had external stresses and was under the gun to get something released. The five year break that separates Hydra and Resist, the longest in their history, should probably have come after the promotional cycle for 2011’s The Unforgiving. The smart play for Within Temptation would’ve been to come storming back with an album that played to their strengths ala their first three albums, but instead they’ve chosen to pursue a path that pushes them further away from their core sound than they’ve ever been.
It really starts and ends with Den Adel’s preferences it seems. I did listen to her My Indigo record out of curiosity, and it was a decent albeit aggressively safe slice of modern indie toned pop. It was interesting to hear where Den Adel’s preferences lay when it comes to choices like production, because when we’ve heard Within Temptation get increasingly glossier and overproduced over the years, one wondered if it was the natural arc of their musical career, or a collective band decision, or something else. I’m starting to think that Den Adel just feels more comfortable in the world of modern production gloss, because for an album that was supposed to be her emotionally vulnerable solo record, I had hoped to hear something a little more vulnerable and stripped down. So it goes with Resist, where the production gloss has heightened to another level to such a degree that it completely dwarfs any metallic aspects going on underneath those layers. This is ostensibly supposed to be a dark, dystopian sci-fi themed record, and it is that, but not in the sense of heavy riffs and grand sweeping strings leading the way. Instead the sound of Resist owes more to the production flourishes of EDM and modern synth-pop artists like Chvrches, with the songwriting locked into a style that resembles alternative rock far more than symphonic metal. Speaking of the Scottish synth-pop band (if you saw my last blog update you’ll know I’m a big fan), Within Temptation even ape them a bit on their newest music video for “Raise Your Banner”, its chaotic showdown premise strikingly reminiscent of Chvrches video for “Miracle”. Its really hard to avoid the comparison.
The problem with this path for Within Temptation is that its simply not what they do well, whereas a band like Chvrches is specifically designed for this approach, two electronic musicians on synths and samplers while Lauren Mayberry pours her heart out up front. There’s spacing in their music, starts and stops, an innate understanding of how to manipulate EDM rhythms, song structures, tempo shifts, and the almighty “drop”. Within Temptation has three guitarists in the band…. why? What we hear on Resist is a dense wall of ultra-processed, noticeably compressed, amorphous sound. Its a black hole for riffs, with only passing few moments where one can hear multiple guitar patterns or solos. These songs seem to be stuck in one tempo as well, casting a sameness over the entire record. It does sound different from Hydra that’s for sure, but that apparently came at the cost of sounding entirely like one long song, something that its guest vocalists hardly budge. The Jacoby Shaddix guest spot on “The Reckoning” is decent in spots, particularly when they’re both singing together in the post chorus, but its the weakest of these type of songs they’ve cooked up in their catalog. The only other standout here is “Holy Ground” for how awkward Den Adel’s vocalizations come across. I think I get what Den Adel and Co were aiming for here, a futuristic soundscape which mirrored the theme of the album, but that’s not how they have excelled as a band. The real revolutionary move here would’ve been to scale down, get back to basics with a guitar forward album with swirling orchestral accompaniments. It would’ve been a striking study in contrasts against the dystopian sci-fi theme they’re so adamant about. I think its time to put that hope to bed permanently though, because like it or not this is likely how Within Temptation will sound going forward.
Hey everyone, back from a self-imposed break I purposefully wanted to take in starting start off 2019. I’ve given my ears a long layover from the release calendar grind and indulged in things I missed throughout last year (recommended to me by our two guests on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind episode and elsewhere). I think its a nigh impossible task for anyone to stay on top of everything, and one of the things that podcast demonstrated was just how many different directions all four of us spiraled off to listening wise. The resulting handful of recommendations below is a wildly diverse variety of approaches to metal, and I’ve tried to avoid going into review mode here so hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to just give them a shot on your own. And then there’s a handful of non-metal recommendations I’ve included as a bit of a bonus, the stuff I listened to last year to cleanse my musical palette after too much metal. I’ve only once written something about non-metal music here on the blog, an ignored review for the soundtrack to the PS3 game Journey. I’ve always wanted to write more about the non-metal side of what I listen to, because its a wide variety of stuff, but have feared scaring away readers or just confusing things. This seems like the perfect time and post to include some of that stuff, and hopefully someone will get something out of it (let me know in the comments below if you do!). For those that are wondering, new 2019 reviews are coming soon, including some major names early in the year —- thanks for reading!
Stuff I Missed in 2018
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson:
Introduced and recommended by Justin on the aforementioned MSRcast episode, my first taste of this strangely named Austrian two piece post-black metal band came that night during our recording session when we played two tracks from it before recording. I’m not normally into this kind of stuff, but I think Harakiri’s emphasis on riffery is a big part of why I’m slowly getting addicted to this album. While I can’t pinpoint individual songs yet, I find the entire record immersive in that deep, background kinda way, something that you hear reveal itself when you’re multitasking doing something else. I’ve seen Insomnium used as a touchstone in describing this album so often in various reviews that its reaching cliche status but its also incredibly spot on. They don’t crank up the sweetness on the melodic side of things in the same melodeath way the Finns do, but they apply the same principles of songwriting to strikingly different effect. This has been a big chunk of my soundtrack to the last few weeks during my little break, and while I haven’t investigated anything else they’ve done in the past yet, I will be making a point to move onto their back catalog soon.
1914 – The Blind Leading The Blind:
Recommended to me by Cary the Metal Geek, the Ukranian 1914 are newcomers by metal standards, this being their sophomore album a scant three years after their debut. They’re an intriguing band on a number of levels, the first being their absolutely stone faced committment to the lyrical and visual theme of World War I. Metal bands like Sabaton have made a career of exploring historical themes before, but 1914 deep dive into this history exclusively, focusing on the sheer brutality and carnage of that conflict with its introduction of mechanization and trench warfare in a way that is far more explicit than anything Joakim Broden would dare touch. Then there’s their blending of death metal riffs with an affinity for black metal’s sense of grandeur, often set to blistering tempos but just as often slowed down in doomy fashion to emulate the grinding march of slow moving machinery. There are a number of carefully chosen sound effects, samples, and audio dialogue interspersed throughout to conjure an atmosphere that is weirdly anachronistic. That coupled with fresh, fearless extreme metal songwriting that doesn’t care about subgenre rules and boundaries has made this one of my most listened to “missed” albums of 2018, one that everyone owes it to themselves to check out. Better late than never.
Elderwind – The Colder The Night:
I believe it was one of the guys in the r/PowerMetal Discord that recommended Elderwind to me, catching my attention with a description that was somewhere along the lines of “Wintersun meets Summoning”. And yeah, that’s about spot on, because we could simplify Elderwind as atmospheric black metal, but there’s a ton of stuff in that specific subgenre that sounds nothing like this. What informs The Colder The Night (so glad the band translated the title from the original Russian for the benefit of everyone) is a transcendent sense of tranquility and celebratory uplift, something I could easily hear associated with Wintersun and their similar use of keyboard heavy melodies and atmospherics. The band’s obvious debt to Summoning with their commitment to epic scope and meditative, hypnotic tempos are heard throughout, but unlike fantasy literature based themes, Elderwind write almost exclusively about nature and its ability to inspire and cause inward reflection. Actually, the album art here is as spot on a visual interpretation of Elderwind’s music as you can imagine, a still lake, clear skies to see the stars, and some travelers warming themselves by a fire to ward off the night chill. When the “super blood wolf moon” eclipse occurred last week, I had this record on my headphones as I stood outside in the cold staring up. It was mental insulation.
In The Woods… – Cease The Day:
This was a surprise to many of us at MSRcast / Metal Geeks, a release that not only impressed all of us who were on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind, but also George Tripsas of the Metal Geeks podcast (he the subject of that show’s George Hates Metal segment). Anything that swayed George had to be worth a further look, so I did, and I’ll admit that the surprisingly lengthy history of this Norwegian band was unknown to me. They started way back in 1991, with members of another storied gothic metal band you may or may not have heard of called Green Carnation (whom I’ve been told I need to check out as a Sentenced fan). No matter, the album we’re concerned with right now is Cease The Day, a progressive blackened doom album with a mix of Grutle Kjellson-ian harsh vocals and Dan Swano-esque clean singing. At times I’m even reminded of classic late 90s, early 2000s Opeth in parts, because similarly to Akerfeldt, these guys aren’t afraid of pushing melodies and harmonies up front in the mix. There’s an intelligence and thoughtfulness to the songwriting too, and on cuts like “Cloud Seeder” the band wisely knows when to strip things back to just a meaty, rockin’ riff. One of the most surprising, out of left field records that sailed under my radar last year.
Temperance – Of Jupiter And Moons:
Italy’s Temperance are one of those non-guilty pleasures, an unabashedly melodic power metal band that owes equal parts to their bombastic countrymen in Rhapsody as they do to vocal heavy Avantasia or Amaranthe. That they’re not quite a cross section of those bands is also testament to their ability to stand apart on their own songwriting strengths. There’s three singers here, guitarist/songwriter Marco Pastorino, and two solo lead vocalists in Michele Guaitoli and Alessia Scolletti, and they carry these songs on their backs. This is the kind of band that you simply have to love vocal melodies and ear candy to enjoy, because even though things are suitably metallic around them and the odd beefy riff cuts through their velvety cloth, its a vocalists showcase for sure. This album came out back in April of last year, and it was introduced to me just a few weeks ago when the folks in the aforementioned r/PowerMetal Discord were cobbling their best of lists together. There was a lot of interesting stuff popping up from various lists that I hadn’t heard yet, and some of it I really liked (shout out to the Guardians of Time record!), but I kept coming back to Temperance in particular for the sheer fun of it.
After I cobbled together this list of non-metal recommendations, it dawned on me that all the artists I chose were women or in the case of Chvrches, a band fronted by a woman. I’m not entirely sure why that is, and I’m just realizing it now but I guess its safe to say that my non-metal music listening tends to lean this way a lot. I’m not against listening to a guy in this context, and many of the regular “rock” stuff I listen to falls into that category (Weezer, Wilco, and many other bands that don’t start with a “W” for that matter). Maybe its needing to seek a balance after listening to metal which is largely male dominated, or perhaps its simply coincidence that these awesome artists happened to be women. I’m open to further non-metal recommendations, lady or guy oriented.
Sometime in the mid to late 90s, as I was in the blossoming of an underground metal fandom, I also had friends who didn’t listen to metal or even rock at all. Through hanging out with them I was introduced wide-eyed to electronic music of all stripes, particularly when one of them made me a copy of both volumes of the Hackers soundtrack. I soon began making the odd purchase here and there, Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works, Paul Oakenfold, Orbital, Chicane, and even though its half-electronic the entire back catalog of pop masters Saint Etienne. It was all music that complemented my metal listening, even though I might not have realized it at the time, because I didn’t mention most of it to my metal loving friends. I’ve dropped in and out of that world as far as exploration goes over the years, there was always too much metal to listen to and not enough time. But two years ago I finally clicked on a Chvrches video that YouTube was recommending for me(!) when I was deep in a nostalgia trip and listening to BT’s “Remember”. I had seen the name so often throughout the past few years and always thought its spelling was some indie-rock band stealing a bit from metal culture so I would scoff and ignore it.
It was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, because my simple aversion to a name (which I quite like now) nearly kept me from music that I now can’t do without. Chvrches are considered synth-pop as a simple genre tag, but to me they hearken back to what I loved about listening to electronic music in the 90’s, conjuring up that sense of futurism and looking at the world through a science fiction sheen tint. But its singer Lauren Mayberry’s crystalline vocals and skill at penning unforgettable vocal melodies that really pulled me in. Her two bandmates handle the electronics, creating stripped back electronic beds that pulse, shake, and shimmer in some Tokyo-esque fever dream of sound, but Lauren’s voice is simultaneously capable of sounding robotic and utterly human. I love all three of their albums, the latest one having been released in 2018, and I could easily have picked a song from any of them to post above as a sampler. I listened to the new album while driving around Austin in the middle of the night after last May’s Orphaned Land / Tyr concert there, half delirious with exhaustion and euphoria, it was the perfect tonic for the moment, and it soundtracked a lot of last year for me. But I’ve chosen my all-time favorite Chvrches song, “Leave A Trace”, from their 2015 sophomore record, because its the quintessence of everything I love about this band.
Florence and the Machine
I think there’s a lot of pop music out there that metal fans would appreciate mainly because of a shared depth in artistry, musicality, and sheer thoughtfulness in the songwriting. This is probably not news to some of you, but I know people who only listen to metal exclusively, and while I applaud their dedication, I wonder how they can only experience life in that one (admittedly very wide) musical/emotional spectrum. I have no idea where I stumbled onto Florence and the Machine some many years ago, but this band has been a salve that I reapply again and again when I need to feel something else. The emotional spectrum in this case can run the gamut of euphoria, deep affirmation, or as in the case of the gorgeous song above, ache and longing that only a voice like Florence Welch’s can conjure up. That her vocals are adorned with a kaleidoscope of rich musicality is what makes her music transcendent, and not just merely pleasing to the ear.
I went to see Florence and the Machine at the Woodlands Pavilion back in September, it was my first time getting to see her live. The “Machine”, her band that is pretty much stayed in one position on the stage, not drawing attention to themselves. Not being used to pop shows, that took a little getting used to, although to be fair some metal bands are cardboard cutouts on stage too. Florence on the other hand, was captivating to watch, seemingly constantly in motion while never sounding fatigued or out of breath. Her voice live rings right through your chest, she might have been one of the most powerful vocalists in a performance setting that I’ve ever seen. At one point she ran through the aisles in the crowd, passing within mere yards of me when she leaned against one of the pavilion support pillars next to our section. She was singing “What Kind of Man”, a horn punctuated rock anthem, and she somehow made the circuit around the amphitheater in the span of that three and half minutes. She told short quips about why she wrote some songs, politely asked in charming British humor if everyone could put away their phones (and they did!), and she played my favorite song off the new album, the one I posted above, and everyone forgot to breathe for five minutes.
I’ve been listening to Neko Case for awhile now, ever since I got a promo of Blacklisted way back in 2002 sometime. Think of a dark, alt-country Tori Amos without all the piano and you’re somewhere near the ballpark —- the truth is her voice is incomparable and unmistakable once you’ve heard it. That she writes such mellifluous songs with strange, evocative lyrics is what makes her a transcendent artist. Her music is warm toned, with a perfect balance of rustic, loose, live instrumentation and incredible richness in mixing and production. I’ve enjoyed every one of her albums, some more than others, case in point being my belief that she’ll never top 2009’s Middle Cyclone. The song I posted above is actually a cover of a Crooked Fingers song that was famously covered by The National and St. Vincent. On Neko’s version, she duets with its original songwriter, ‘Finger’s own Eric Bachmann in a stripped down version that swaps guitar for spare piano. If you’ve heard those previous two versions, you’ll know just how much Neko’s interpretation (and to his credit, Bachmann’s own performance on it) far surpasses them. Her instincts in knowing that piano would resonate more than formless acoustic guitar, and just how to handle the vocal layering in their duet to steep it in her musical world is genius. The result is a song that’s a sonic portrait of loneliness and heartbreak, awash in nostalgia that would make even Steven Wilson proud.
Where to start here, and how to possibly keep this brief? I’ve been a huge, huge admirer of Sarah Brightman ever since an EMI rep gifted me with a free copy of her La Luna record way back in 2000 (and a promotional candle I still have #fanboy). She’s known for the eternal classic “Time To Say Goodbye” and for her role in the 80’s run of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, but I love her for her solo career that began in 1993. She has throughout her solo discography released thematic albums; the aquatic Dive, futuristic Fly, the classical London Symphony accompanied Timeless, the Italian aria steeped Eden, the lunar imagery of La Luna, the Middle-Eastern musical influence on Harem, a Gothic tinge on Symphony, the nostalgia-space race informed Dreamchaser, and last year’s spirituality informed Hymn. You get the idea. The themes are guides, not rails she has to cling to, so they might inform the lyrics, some of the music here and there, and certainly the photography and imagery of the album artwork (right up a metal fan’s alley). They make every release intriguing to dive into, but her evergreen angelic vocal ability and the influence of her longtime producer Frank Petersen (of Enigma/Gregorian fame) ensure that her sonic world is familiar and comforting.
Her new album is interesting in that its a purposeful throwback to her 1997 era, a classically drenched album that even revisits “Time To Say Goodbye”, this time slowed down and with the lyrics in complete English to really understand the sadness inherent in a song that most people think of as triumphant. She’s said in interviews regarding this album that it was a purposeful response to the bleakness of the emotional state of the world at the moment. She sought to return some of that lightness and euphoria back to her sound, which admittedly can run all across the emotional spectrum (her vocal hue often masks some really forlorn lyrics, think ABBA). I know some of you will back away slowly after reading this recommendation, but I think part of the reason I love Sarah’s work so much is the depth and artistry that informs the songs she chooses to sing, and as later in her career, the ones she helps to co-write. That and she practically defines the word epic, an aspect of metal I’m quite sure we all love. To that end, some of the most powerful moments of her musical catalog are gorgeously cinematic, stirring with such orchestral swell and grandeur that its enough to give you a knot in your throat. Even if the lyric she’s singing at the moment seems remote to you personally, her voice brings you to wherever she wants you to be with her, and you are powerless to fight it.
One of my oldest friends introduced me to Loreena McKennitt in 1997, when he bought her Book of Secrets album and I heard it at his house and was transfixed. For my younger self, that album was the first foray into buying non rock/pop music, but also the opening of a window to a larger world of cultural music that I’d quickly grow to love. Its an oversimplification to say that Loreena McKennitt is Celtic music, as she’s so often tagged in anything written about her. She’s interested in the history of the Celts and how their music has changed throughout history, but also of those other cultures they came into contact with. Her sound then is a mix of far ranging cultures all tethered together with the strength of her haunting voice. Case in point is the song posted above from last year’s Lost Souls, where subtle Spanish rhythms and acoustic guitar styles inform a rustic string led ballad. It was her first studio album in eight years, and although I’d rather not have near decade long waits for new music from her, its somewhat par for course with the way she works. Loreena actually travels to a range of countries and regions for research, and she gives you a taste of this in the diary entries she often places excerpts from in her liner notes, each entry from some wildly vivid locale. I’m pretty sure I read every single bit of the Book of Secrets liner notes a few times over, and to this day, its one of my favorite albums of all time full stop, I’d recommend starting there but you can’t go wrong with any of her stuff.
This was undoubtedly the most difficult to narrow down year-end albums list I’ve ever had to put together. It involved whittling down a sizable nominee pool to the final ten, the last spot of which I must’ve switched out well over a dozen times, constantly rethinking myself out of making a final decision. As I’ve always done, I prefer to only list and discuss what I think were the ten best songs and albums in these lists, not my top 25 or 50 or more that some other sites do. I think sticking to a tight ten forces you to really think about what you listened to the most over the year, and more importantly what really blew you away instead of merely satisfied you. Albums that I really enjoyed at various points throughout the year aren’t here, not because they’ve fallen out of favor, but simply because there were other amazing releases crowding the field. It was a great year to be a metal fan. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed with this list!
1. Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs:
In a year packed full of remarkable new albums by newcomers and veterans alike, a few of which would’ve been able to top a year-end list at any other time, Orphaned Land’s conceptual Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs towered above them all —- and it wasn’t ever close. After I penned my original glowing review of the album, I wondered if its extremely early release date (January 26th) would’ve eroded my enthusiasm for it as the year wore on. Whenever that question would pop up at random times many months later, I’d give the album a spin and would have those doubts immediately erased. I even gave myself a wide berth from the band after seeing them live for the first time ever in Austin at a spellbinding show on their May tour with Týr and Aeternam, thinking that the intoxication surrounding that experience (and repeated listening thru their entire catalog) would’ve clouded my judgment. Yet even after that level of precaution; when I sit here now in December and consider everything I’ve listened to over the year, and think about the nine other records that made the cut out of the nominee pool, I can honestly say that I’ve never been as confident as I am right now about declaring that this is the unquestionable album of the year.
Here Orphaned Land leans harder than ever before into the incorporation of Middle-Eastern folk melodies and instrumentation, infusing it in every song, weaving it not only through moments of delicate beauty but around their most pummeling, aggression laden riffs. The result is their most perfect, most fully realized recording to date, a flawless fusion of those two disparate worlds of sound. The songs are wildly diverse in style, tempo, and structure, the melodies lush and vibrant, and Kobi Farhi turns in the most inspired vocal melodies and performances of his career. He also delivers some of his angriest lyrics ever, but smartly channels everything through the compelling concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, giving narrative shape and structure to what is ostensibly an anguished protest album. The co-MVPs here might be guitarists Chen Balbus and new guy Idan Amsalem; who together not only erase any worries over the departure of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, but put their stamp all over this album, unleashing waves of creative guitar and expressive bouzouki. The band also wisely chose to carry over from All Is One the use of an extensive supporting ensemble of choir singers, Middle Eastern percussionists and string players. It sounds like a lot. It sounds like it could be a mess in the wrong hands, but Orphaned Land has this music in their DNA. Their greatest strength is in knowing how to write songs that incorporate Middle Eastern folk melody as an integral, structural foundation of their music as opposed to mere window dressing.
2. Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:
It’s not the time nor place to go into it here, but when I do eventually attempt to make my case in writing that we’re in the midst of a truly inspired global power metal resurgence in these past couple years, albums like Visigoth’s Conqueror’s Oath will be part of the bedrock on which I build my argument. Part of why I’ve found myself paying far more attention to newer power metal bands coming out of the States and Canada is their tendency to unabashedly wrap their arms around the genre’s traditions and tropes both, almost reveling in their over the top nature and yearning for epic storytelling (such as last year’s album of the year Apex by Unleash the Archers). Visigoth simplified their approach for their sophomore record, leaning harder in the Manilla Road / Manowar / Virgin Steele direction, and the result is the most outwardly joyful record of the year. It was also my most played album throughout the year, just perma-lodging itself in my playlist for those daily commutes to work, the long drive to the other side of Houston for gigs, and on the old headphones while ambling through the grocery store. Songs like “Warrior Queen” are full of inventive twists amidst the trad-and-true, glory claw raising thunder, and “Blades In The Night” is the kind of perfect, anthemic magic you wish more power metal bands could manage to achieve. You know an album is awesome when it makes waiting for your oil change to finish a pleasure.
3. Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:
I’m prepared now to expect the unexpected with Thrawsunblat, who chose to follow up 2016’s year end list making Metachthonia with this all acoustic album, the decision itself being somewhat eyebrow raising. That it wasn’t an album full of maritime balladry ala “Maritime Shores”/”Goose River” from their first album was perhaps the bigger surprise, because guitarist-vocalist Joel Violette seemed to be a natural at that style. Instead he and drummer Rae Amitay (also of Immortal Bird fame) worked up songs that were strikingly aggressive, uptempo, and energetic yet still woodsy, rustic, and incense smoke scented. Things veer from the lush prettiness of the title track to the anthemic spirituality of song of the year listee “Via Canadensis” to the violent, furious roil of “Thus Spoke The Wind”, where Violette and Amitay employ tremolo riffing and blastbeat accented percussion —- on acoustic instruments remember! This was a clever, inspired re-imagining of what folk metal could be, an expansion of the very definition of the genre. More than that however, it was a personal sounding album that echoed with strains of the northeastern Canadian folk music that inspired it.
4. Therion – Beloved Antichrist:
For many, Therion’s massive, three-disc spanning opera (like, an actual opera!) Beloved Antichrist was an immediate write off. I’m almost positive that the majority of folks who managed to take the step of listening through its entirety the one time never went back to it, and most never got past hearing a single track on YouTube or Spotify, and hey, I get it. As I remarked in my massively deep diving review for this project back in February, few Therion fans were happy about the band taking a half decade plus leave of absence for this project. Understandably, they might’ve been a tad less forgiving than usual when initially hearing the thing, and at first I wasn’t either —- that is until I switched my mindset to okay, I’m listening to the soundtrack to a stage performance, not a metal album mode that I was finally able to begin appreciating what Therion had achieved here. There are a heap of musical treasures within this thing, moments I came back to throughout the year repeatedly (“To Shine Forever” landed on the best songs list). I do think one’s enjoyment of it hinges on whether you can appreciate not just classical music, but opera as a musical form itself. I had to check myself and make sure my Therion fanboy wasn’t showing in putting this so high on this list, but sure enough, it was one of my most played through albums this year according to iTunes playcounts. I’d put it on in the background night after night when working on other things, but sometimes I’d sit and really focus on the lyrics, and I got to know the plot pretty well and had fun with it. Its a gargantuan achievement in its own right, something that was labored over for years by a composer who had already proven himself to be a wizard at marrying metal and classical music. If anything, Therion’s pedigree should warrant your giving it a second chance.
5. Hoth – Astral Necromancy:
This was truly one of the year’s out of left field, standout surprises. I’d never heard of Hoth before (the band, not the planet…), but they completely captured my attention with this compulsively listenable opus of intricate, shifting, and downright unpredictable melodic black metal. Hoth’s music is a contradiction; it’s icy in tone befitting the band’s name, as bleakly cold and unforgiving as you would want a two person black metal band to sound. Yet these songs are loaded with major chord sequences that jet out of nowhere with an almost power metal-ish joyfulness. You hear a nice cross-section of all those traits on “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” where seemingly triumphant, Blind Guardian-esque major key guitars inform the lead melodies over the top of that deathly cold tremolo riff underneath. Vocalist/lyricist Eric Peters has the perfect tone for these songs, withering and fell, like an actual necromancer’s voice careening down a snowy, windswept mountainside to chill your very heart. But again, no matter how awesome the black metal aspects are, what really grabs me are these perfectly written power metal soaked melodic counterweights, to add splashes of sharp colors to what is ostensibly a gray affair. You might be wondering why I’m so taken aback by the addition of melody to extreme metal, not exactly a new or fresh concept to be sure, but just give my enthusiasm the benefit of the doubt and listen to this record. Its likely that its very much unlike anything you’ve heard before.
6. Elvenstorm – The Conjuring:
Storming out of the apparently secret power metal stronghold of Grenoble, France(?!), Elvenstorm sailed under many radars way back in July when they released the most vicious, devastatingly aggressive album of thrashy, speedy power metal this year. If you only hear the intro melody and first riff sequence on album opener “Bloodlust”, you’ll probably think these guys are from Germany, so indebted to Kreator and early 90s speed metal tinged Blind Guardian is their rocketing guitar attack. But then you’ll hear vocalist Laura Ferreux swoop in, with her wild, almost punk edged melodic vocal and that français accent echoing off canyon walls. She’s likely to be a make or break proposition for many, her vocals often unnerving raw, but I think she’s one of the strengths of this record, her careening voice matching the intensity of Michael Hellström’s explosive riffing. Like Visigoth with Conqueror’s Oath, there’s an infectious enthusiasm here for old school metal, that bullet belt attitude and defiant strut. What makes Elvenstorm stand apart from anyone else is their straight-faced manner of going about it, something one could almost think of as charming. There’s a passion and intensity ripping through these expertly crafted songs —- that they hit me with something resembling the force of a hurricane is why The Conjuring is on this list.
7. Exlibris – Innertia:
Soaring out of Warsaw as if in protest of all the attention we’re lavishing onto the great power metal pouring out of Canada and the States lately, Poland’s Exlibris dropped the best Euro-power album of the year in Innertia. This was my introduction to the band, and it turns out to be perhaps the best possible point of entry as its the debut of new singer Riku Turunen, the absolute tour de force of this album. Call him the Patrick Mahomes of power metal in 2018, but I haven’t been this bowled over by a new vocal talent in the scene in ages. His voice has the pure raw power of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammet with the distinctive pronounciation inflections of Timo Kotipelto. You might have already read about best song listee “Shoot For the Sun”, where he proves himself as a leading man in an ever soaring duet, but check out his jaw dropping range in “Incarnate” or his command of theatrics in “No Shelter”. Beyond amazing vocal performances, these are simply expertly crafted songs, structured around earwormy hooks yet loaded with progressive metal twists and turns. Daniel Lechmański’s guitars sound meaty ala Tad Morose or Brainstorm, and his riffs and chord progressions are all intriguing in their balance of straight ahead rockin’ and rich complexity. Speaking of balance, his having to bounce off of keyboardist Piotr Sikora instead of another guitarist seems to be a source of fruitful inspiration between the two. There’s a push and pull going on between each of their lead melody lines that refuses to sit quietly in Turunen’s immense shadow.
8. Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods:
I really didn’t think Demonaz and Horgh could pull it off, rather naively thinking that an Abbath-less Immortal record was more likely to be a disaster than anything close to a success. And in my defense, what reasonable Immortal fan could think that Abbath’s departure would somehow make a new Immortal album better? It seems illogical on the face of it. But sometimes weird things happen, and there’s nothing weirder in 2018 than Immortal Mach 2 turning in the band’s best album since Sons of Northern Darkness, and maybe even a top three Immortal album overall. This is just a relentless, tireless rush of old school second wave black metal reminiscent of the band’s first four albums but tempered with the riff density and cold, crisp production of the post At the Heart of Winter era. Demonaz’ ice demon approach on vocals is pitch perfect for this blend of Immortal, grim and fierce but with a lengthy drawn out utterance that’s coupled with a surprising degree of enunciation, unlike Abbath’s bizarre frog gargoyle barking approach. The nine minute epic “Mighty Ravendark” barely missed out on making the best songs of the year list; its about as perfect an Immortal song as I can imagine, with an epic buildup and satisfying (dare I say hooky?) refrain built on clever vocal phrasing. I really can’t think of any time in recent memory when a band has lost a key member and somehow thrived as a result… I’d have to go back to what, Metallica perhaps? Iron Maiden after Dianno? Call it a comeback, maybe even the greatest comeback.
9. Judicator – The Last Emperor:
Yet another in an increasingly longer line of excellent releases from North American power metal bands, The Last Emperor was my introduction to Arizona’s Judicator. As it turns out, it was the perfect introduction too, being their most early 90s Blind Guardian era inspired work, including a guest appearance by the bard Mr. Hansi Kursch himself. A lot has been written about this very apparent influence, and its hard to ignore for sure, but there’s so much more going on here than mere hero worship. Guitarist Tony Cordisco aimed to write songs that were not only tight and concise, but purposefully and methodically energetic throughout. There are no ballads here, although brief dips into acoustic territory help to spice up the intros or bridges of certain songs to keep things varied. Its intriguing to hear an American power metal band so infatuated with the traditional European interpretation of the style. I can hear jagged edges at the corners of Judicator’s sound, little things like the sharp teeth on that straight ahead attacking riff sequence in “Raining Gold”, or the early Iced Earth influence that comes through in vocalist John Yelland’s aggro counterpoint to Hansi in “Spiritual Treason”. Judicator also seems to be filling a sonic space in power metal that was long ago left vacant by the Blind Guardians and Helloweens and Edguys of the world, one I had long ago hoped would be filled by the now sadly quieted Persuader and Savage Circus. I don’t mind if my power metal bias is showing here, because Judicator is assuming the mantle of this specific style in the here and now as a recently formed power metal band delivering an amazing new album this year. This is the stuff that will keep the genre going strong into the future. Consider me grateful.
10. Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:
This one might raise a few eyebrows, but I just could not deny how much I listened to Eonian throughout the year. It was an album that I would listen to when in the mood for something fierce and biting, but also when I wanted something orchestral and epic, as well as melodic and complex. I consider myself a Dimmu fan, but I had been critical of them throughout the years, not completely enjoying an album since 2001’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia. Not only was this the first time since then I could say that I loved a new Dimmu album from front to back, but its honestly up there right next to Enthrone Darkness Triumphant as my second favorite of all their albums. The inspired songwriting in “I Am Sovereign” reminds me of that legendary album’s sense of playfulness with black metal song structures; here with an inversion of blazing riffing in the chorus instead of the verses, with regal string punctuations that would sound at home in a Carach Angren song. The band took care to increase the distinctiveness of their major sonic elements this time around, instead of the usual symphonic black metal mash up they had been doing. On Eonian, the black metal parts sound more black metal than ever, and the orchestral parts lean just as hard into their majestic symphonic grandeur. Its a subtle distinction that allowed them to sharpen their songwriting, to shape these songs with muscular force and gorgeous expressiveness. Its a shame that just like Cradle of Filth with their truly excellent past two albums, Dimmu seems to be getting glossed over this year as having released more of the same. Those are lazy opinions from people who haven’t listened close enough. This is a career rejuvenating work from one of the genre’s most creative artists.