Hope everyone has been handling the winter well enough, its all fun and games until you catch the flu, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, which I currently have. Its slowed me down in terms of productivity, but its not the only thing to blame. I guess its fairly obvious that Blind Guardian monopolized nearly all of my listening time for the first month and a half of the year. It wasn’t just the amount that I devoted to their excellent new album Beyond the Red Mirror, but to the band’s entire discography in the weeks leading up to it. Its actually been difficult to quell my inner fandom and fit in time to listen to you know, other bands —- a distressing thing considering that so many notable releases came crashing out of the gate in 2015. I’m going to tackle two of the bigger ones right here, having felt that I’ve finally given each of them enough time to form a relatively solid opinion. If you’ve been as overwhelmed as I have, don’t look now, because March and April hold a string of major releases too. The march of time, it has begun!
Angra – Secret Garden: I was having a hard time determining where I stand with Angra… my history with the band really started with the Edu Falaschi Rebirth era and went backwards to explore their classic Andre Matos past. This was back in 2001 or so, and I was even more a fan of Rebirth’s subsequent followup, the near-perfect Temple of Shadows. But the next two albums pretty much lost me, and my interest in the band waned throughout the years. When I read that Edu went and jumped ship in 2012 I figured the scene was set for a potential Matos reunion, but it never materialized for various reasons, and that furthered my disillusionment. I was never a big fan of Fabio Leone or Rhapsody, disliking his particular vibrato and their songwriting approach, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about him joining the band. I quietly hoped that it would be similar to the Kamelot situation, Leone pinch hitting for a tour or two and the band getting a completely different permanent vocalist. Leone won the job however, Angra’s remaining original members Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro apparently deeming him close enough to Matos to get the job done.
Their first collaboration together, Secret Garden, is one of those unexpected success stories that a veteran band is able to deliver every now and then, like an aging veteran with a low RBI suddenly cranking out a few doubles, maybe even a triple (to keep this loose baseball metaphor going). Here you get everything you’ve come to expect from this band; great musicianship with a modest amount of prog-rock noodling, well crafted hooks that lean more rock than pop, tribal-esque drumming in spots (its back!), and of course crystalline production. But then we got all that with Aqua (2010) and Aurora Consurgens (2006) right? I’m sure there are people reading this who really enjoyed those albums, but I feel the songwriting on Secret Garden is sharper, the songs fully realized, and some even near transcendent.
I’m thinking right off the bat about “Storm of Emotions”, where it seems Leone and Bittencourt trade off lead vocals, the guitarist’s deeper, darker voice giving the mid-song bridge a bit of tortured drama that Leone simply can’t achieve. Its a stellar song, with a soaring yet heavyweight chorus that will sound great with a few thousand South American fans screaming along. And I’ll give credit to Leone where its due, his performance on this album is perhaps his best, Angra’s songwriting style forces him to reign it in and stick to a mid-tempo range. Whereas Leone had to do that with Kamelot on tour as well, their music was too dark for his vocal tone; Angra’s lighter, brighter approach tends to give his more helium based vocal tendencies room to play. He’s pretty great on “Newborn Me”, the single and album opener which is about as archetypal modern Angra as you can get —- notice his lack of extreme vibrato, even in spots where he would usually let it occur, one wonders if he wasn’t coached out of that in the studio here. His abilities really flex on “Black Hearted Soul”, the kind of old school power metal speedster that Rhapsody could just never seem to get right.
Its interesting that in Leone’s first outing as lead vocalist, he’s not given all of the running time. In addition to Bittencourt’s rather lengthy lead vocal sections (take a listen to his star-turn in the rather great “Violet Sky”… is it wrong that I sometimes wish he was handling all the lead vocals?), the actual title track of the album is sung largely by Simone Simons, who does a serviceable job to a relatively unremarkable song. Usually I enjoy her guest vocal spots, but there’s something missing on that song, perhaps its that she’s missing a proper duet partner to bounce off of ala Kamelot. It reminds me too much of an Epica song and that’s seemingly going to be an eternal stumbling block for me. The other guest vocal track fares much better, starring the one and only Doro Pesch in a duet with Bittencourt, “Crushing Room” is a slow burning bruiser of a song with a heart rending chorus.
Bittencourt takes the lead again on the album’s best cut, and one of Angra’s greatest gems of all time —- “Silent Call” is a moody, gentle ballad that has an eternal hook and a vocal melody that could melt the iciest of hearts. I would guess that Leone is providing backing vocal support on the lead in “ooohs”, but he’s seemingly buried in the mix. No matter, because Bittencourt’s lead will lock-in your attention with a gravity that only the best ballads can muster, his vocal rich and full of emotive infections. There’s something poignant and hopeful about this song, its melody able to tug your heartstrings without having to lean on melancholy, a very rare thing for rock and metal bands in general. Its so good I can’t see it missing the best songs of the year list (its early yet, but I’ll be listening to this gem years from now, a good sign surely). Still, that’s four songs out of ten where Leone wasn’t the lead vocalist, kind of unusual when you’re trying to introduce a “new” singer, but Bittencourt’s performances alone seem to justify it.
The band chose to depart from longtime producer Dennis Ward on Aqua, and here they skip to yet another new producer in Jens Bogren, who’s far more known for producing extreme metal artists. He unsurprisingly does a good job, although sometimes I wonder if a little less sheen and polish would’ve benefited the guitar sound —- more wild rock instead of Dream Theater-y tech in other words. Its a minor complaint for an otherwise strong album which is not a home run mind you, but the bases are loaded.
Orden Ogan – Ravenhead: Germany’s Orden Ogan is one of the more promising “new” bands in power metal, making a tremendous splash with 2012’s To The End album. I describe them as “new”, despite their first album being released over a decade ago in 2004… because in power metal, any band that arrived post-2000 is considered new in my book. That and they didn’t really reach my radar until their last album, a fantastic slice of classic 90s Blind Guardian, Rage, and a touch of Immortal-esque guitarwork. Those three bands are Orden’s musical touchstones as I hear them, vocalist/guitarist Sebastian Levermann sounding like a dead ringer for Rage’s Peavy Wagner, while the guitars sound like Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen decided to have a jam with Abbath. The riffing is sharp, precise, but on the right side of thrash-meets-technicality, and the songwriting is engineered to provide maximum hook impact during the choruses. One wonders why Thomen Stauch didn’t simply join these guys when he left Blind Guardian all those years ago, because they’re doing exactly what you’d figure he wanted his previous band to continue doing. Okay, so Orden Ogan won’t win any awards for originality, but they make up for that in their superior execution of a style that is damn difficult to get right.
I’ll say this right off the bat, Ravenhead isn’t as great as To The End, but that was going to be a tall order. It is a perfectly good album, with a handful of very good songs, but nothing that stands out as powerfully as “The Things We Believe In” or “Land of the Dead”, or with the shimmering melodies of “Take This Light” (which despite its cringe worthy lyrics was an incredibly affecting ballad). Its not for lack of trying though, because they get really close on the album opener title track “Ravenhead” where layered harmony vocals give the unbelievably catchy chorus an adrenaline kick. I like the mid-song change up on the slower bridge, replete with keyboard orchestrations and chanting vocals, its a nice twist that lends a bit of “epic” depth the song. The next track was the album’s lead single, the awfully named “F.E.V.E.R.”, and though I understand why they chose to release it first, with its ear-wormy call and response lyric, I think they overestimated just how endearing this song came out. Parts of it just feel unfinished, with riffs covering up moments where there should have been additional verse fragments. I was somewhat unimpressed with the song when I first saw the music video and after many repeat listens I think they should’ve gone with “Ravenhead” as the video song; but oh well, choosing singles is a challenge for any band or label.
There’s a real old-school Blind Guardian moment in “The Lake” at the 2:12 mark, where the band speeds up into a bridge built on cascading lead vocals and ultra-melodic guitar work, a fragment that reminds me of the middle of Guardian’s “Ashes to Ashes”. These out of nowhere change ups are noticeably absent in the work of inferior bands, but you’ll find a plethora of them in songs by the aforementioned Blind Guardian, Falconer, Nightwish, Sonata Arctica —- all the heavyweights in other words. As a songwriter alone Levermann belongs in those ranks, the fact that he’s an excellent guitarist and impassioned vocalist is just icing on the cake. Another surprising moment is the intro to “Here at the End of the World”, where we’re treated to a decidedly melo-death guitar barrage that owes more to In Flames and Dark Tranquility than German power metallers. Rest assured, the song veers sharply back into power metal soon after, with a chorus that is as BIG as they could envision it. My favorite song is “A Reason To Give”, a folky half power ballad, half stomping rocker with the album’s most memorable refrain. If this song doesn’t sell on you the band or Levermann’s talent as a vocalist, then you’ll have a hard time with anything else they do.
A couple criticisms though, they should’ve lost the squeaky old lady voice that introduced “Evil Lies In Every Man”, for while the song itself is half-baked at best, the aggravation that the intro causes prevents me from wanting to go back to the song at all. Its mid-tracklisting placement is bothersome as well, particularly when a really good song like “Sorrow Is Your Tale” is pushed so far back. I also wish that the instrumental “In Grief and Chains” was developed into something more fully realized, I’m not saying that it had to be transformed into a lyric laden song, but its a great riff/melody that seems tossed out on its own. I think with a little extra work it could’ve been the basis for a remarkable song, and that seems a shame. The album closer “Too Soon” suffers from the exact opposite, a song so overproduced that it loses any and all impact. Levermann over sings the chorus here, and the layered vocals weren’t necessary at all. The concluding guitar solo is fantastic, but it would’ve been way more dramatic if the rest of the song was stripped down, say piano and vocal only —- I’m just spitballing here, but as it is I didn’t enjoy it.
Orden Ogan’s gutsiest move this year was coming out with this album around the same time as Blind Guardian’s new one, and they’ll likely be overshadowed as a result. Its hard not to compare the two bands due to one’s influence over the other, but Orden didn’t do themselves any favors in not postponing their release towards, say March. If you haven’t heard the band at all yet, try To The End first, and if you have… well, Ravenhead’s worth a listen but if the budgets tight you can feel justified in holding off.