Some of you might remember another one of my recurring features, The Pigeon Post, where I review new albums that have accumulated in my inbox via record labels or PR agencies representing bands that I’m unfamiliar with. That’s the essence of the feature in a nutshell, a cards up on the table way of letting you know that I’m not trying to come off as some all knowing metal svengali —- and simultaneously reminding the aforementioned bands and their respective music business partners that they’re asking for my published solicited opinions for better or worse. If a band appears on The Pigeon Post, its one I’m hearing for the first time, and making sure my readers know that ahead of time is important to me for boring ethical reasons probably of no interest to anyone but myself. As long as my memory doesn’t fail me, no band should ever end up in this feature twice! Catch the previous two installments here, and then here (particularly the first installment if you want a more detailed explanation on the origins of the The Pigeon Post).
One quick note, I realize its been an age since the last installment of this feature, but 2014 has proven to be an intense year for new releases from bands long established (in other words, bands I’ve been familiar with), and I’m going to go ahead and use that as an excuse for why its taken me so long to turn my attention to this. I’d like to apologize to any bands or their respective labels/agencies who sent me promos that didn’t end up among the reviews below. I know there were quite a few that piled up and that backlog grew so out of control that I just had to make some random selections and move on. There’s only so many hours in a day I have to listen to music and its challenging enough making the most of them as is! Maybe I should talk to Fenriz about a job in the Norwegian Postal Service, he listens to music all day long at work right? Anyone have his number?
Solace of Requiem – Casting Ruin: This is a case where I halfway like a band’s sound and sonic approach in general, but find little in the way of compelling songwriting to keep me coming back. That’s a pretty harsh thing to state right off the bat in a review so I’ll add in these qualifiers: Solace of Requiem seem to simultaneously want to echo Dissection and Morbid Angel and Origin. Some will disagree with me here, but I find little in the way of meaningful intersections between those three bands or the styles they’ve come to represent. So sometimes Solace of Requiem hits me with something interesting in the way of blackened melo-deth, and then a section or so later they’re doing something that resembles technical death metal —- a genre I think I’ve simply gotten bored of. At any given point vocalist Jeff Sumrell might interrupt his rather good blackened grim vocals with outright boring death metal grunts, an alarming change up that isn’t musically justified. Its possible to stick to the former and keep it compelling, bands have been doing it for years, vocal changeups don’t impress anyone except the handful of guys at the local backyard death metal fest. If there was more in the way of musical motifs throughout the songwriting then I’d be able to accept such a glaring flaw, but the songs themselves are collages of riffs and percussion rather than songs with a story to tell.
These guys are out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, which like my current home city of Houston might mean that they are based in a place that lacks a strong, distinctive metal personality. In Houston’s metal scene for example, you’ll find everything from New York death metal copycats that brazenly wear NY death metal patches on their denim jackets; to Norwegian black metal worshippers (down to the corpse paint and spikes and keyboards); to Florida death metal copycats (this means they have some semblance of melody amidst their quest for bru/brootality), to indie-friendly doom metal bands (because they’re the only thing our local alternative newspaper covers it seems). That’s to name a few —- point is that Houston being a city of transients tends to have not so much a musical melting pot as a musical buffet. There’s something for everyone, and its all mostly unappetizing. I’ve been looking around online and it seems I’m not the only one that thinks Solace of Requiem lacks focus or direction, and its a shame because there’s obvious talent on display on Casting Ruin. But this is the band’s fourth album now, they’ve been around since 2001. At some point you’d figure that their influences would begin to shed and that they would find their own voice. What could be more important for any developing band?
Noble Beast – s/t: Without exaggeration, this debut album from St. Paul, Minnesota quartet Noble Beast is the best album I’ve ever gotten to review for The Pigeon Post, and daringly enough, might just be one of the best overall albums of 2014 —- no joke, its that good, shockingly so. First off, thanks to reader Eric, who emailed me about Noble Beast a long, long time ago where it was lost amid a clutter of piled up emails. Shamefully I read his midsummer follow-up email asking if I had checked them out yet and as of early September I still had not. Better late than never right? There’s so much to discuss here, how about for starters the fact that Noble Beast are in their very existence a rarity, that as an American power metal band. Unlike fellow countrymen Pharaoh whose take on power metal is very much informed by the grit and grime of American thrash, Noble Beast are clearly influenced by a distinctly European strain of power metal. Upon listening to this album, I’m hearing generous helpings of Blind Guardian, Iron Savior, and even a flavoring of Falconer. Even more startling is just how mature and developed they sound on this debut —- it sounds like the work of a band a few albums deep in their career. It makes sense when you do a little digging and see that a couple of these songs were around since 2010, when the band released their first and only demo. The time in between was spent wisely —- on honing their songwriting craft and creating a musical identity that is separable from their influences, yet willing to embrace them.
I’m not too clear on who the primary songwriter is within the band’s ranks, but they clearly have a truly gifted talent at the helm. These are fully realized, exceedingly well written songs that just sound as if they were worked and honed by a craftsman. Verses are engaging and full of musical diversity, tempo shifts and progressive change-ups; bridges are actually built to lead in and out of chorus sections with their own identity —- and the choruses themselves are built upon fully arcing hooks. I’m going to give you the link to their bandcamp page, because I want you to hear what I’m going on about. Take a listen to the album opener “Iron Clad Angels”, and join me in marveling at just how huge that chorus vocal melody is, or on “Dragon Reborn” where the verses march with a military parade shuffle that heightens the tension and explode in a refrain that is so satisfying precision sharp that I couldn’t help smiling in dumb glee when listening along (also, if I took this song alone and played it to my Blind Guardian loving buddies and told them it was from the German band’s upcoming new album, they’d have totally believed me… that’s not a criticism of Noble Beast by the way). I really love the way the band incorporates subtle strumming acoustic guitar work in the verses of the non-ballad epic “We Burn”, its a fresh idea that I’ve honestly not heard done so well before. Every single song on this album is at the very least good, and more often than not they’re hovering near great status.
As excellent as all the band members are at delivering superior musicianship, particularly in terms of guitar work, its vocalist Rob Jalonen that has the standout performance to behold. His tone is a mix of Hansi Kursch and Piet Sielck, the kind of synthesis that practically demands that you play some type of epic power metal lest you offend someone in Europe or South America by a refusal to play ball. Jalonen’s public musical history shows only an affiliation with similarly power metal-esque projects, but I wonder if at some point in his early musical development he tried putting together say an alt-country band ala Wilco, or Lucero or something like that. I imagine him being abducted by a pair of silent, long haired guys in Maiden and Dream Evil tees and being driven around St. Paul against his will while Imaginations From the Other Side played on an endless loop. Sounds like a scene from Metalocalypse. The reality is probably far more in line with the rest of us, and its okay to embrace that as well. As a power metal fan in the States, I take a particularly distinctive pride in seeing one of my own countrymen plant the metaphorical flag for the subgenre in American soil with such an incredible effort. But like the original European stuff that blew our collective minds and made regular rock seem timid and pedestrian, Noble Beast’s slice of perfect power metal should know no boundaries. Europe, South America and Japan —- you’ve been warned.
Darkenhold – Castellum: If you’re in a black metal band from France, chances are you sound something similar to Alcest right? That being the dreamy shoegaze-laden, swirling, fuzzy flavor of black metal that put the country on the map (for good reason) and was later copied by an embarrassing amount of American black metallers (you know its true). Darkenhold are a rare French black metal band that apparently wants nothing to do with the Neige sound and choose to instead pursue a far more traditional strain in line with second wave Norwegian black metal. And judging from a few spins of their newest, Castellum, they’re actually managing to deliver a pretty convincing take on it —- this is a band that I would’ve easily pegged as Norwegian (on that note, still not sure what language the lyrics are in… but its not that pressing of an issue). They really go for a straight down the middle, early 90s approach that takes bits and pieces from Mayhem, Immortal, Burzum, and early Satyricon in equal parts. That may strike some as an exercise in redundancy but I’ve got to give it to these guys, their songs are packed with catchy riffs and a well considered balance between sheer aggression and atmospherics (mostly in the form of clean electric passages with some acoustic undertones… not a lot in the way of keyboards here).
They also chose to limit their nostalgic perspective when it came to the production, because unlike the purposefully lo-fi nature of those early 90s black metal classics, Castellum is mixed to be sharp, present, and discernible. That means that you can hear separation between the bass, rhythm and lead guitars, and the vocals sit on top of them instead of being buried down below. Percussionist Aboth (Abbath might not be amused!) is a particular highlight in terms of performance, he’s not flattening these songs to death with unending blastbeats. Instead he alternates between a variety of approaches and tempo shifts —- in “Glorious Horns” he punctuates an epic, stop-start intro with an old-school classic metal sensibility, lesser drummers would’ve overplayed in that moment, and his restraint throughout the album is commendable. I’m genuinely surprised here —- I didn’t expect to be this entertained by a purposeful stylistic throwback. This is their third album, and as per music industry lore a band’s third album is where they really hit their stride… obviously I haven’t heard their first two to compare but Castellum really works. I was curious to see a band picture and looked them up on the Metal Archives, they look oddly enough like a cross between Alcest and Hammerfall —- I don’t know if that’s good or band but its certainly interesting. By the way, their band name literally means “dark hold” right? Dimmu Borgir might suggest that these guys limit their Norwegian worship to the music and find a moniker in their native French language perhaps?
Protokult – No Beer In Heaven: Jeez… what can I say about Protokult? If the title of their debut album doesn’t give it away, this Toronto based, dual-gender vocal helmed folk metal band dabbles in a style that is geared towards those who find Alestorm and the dreadful Korpiklaani palatable. That’s the audience they’re going to get anyway with their choice of album title, despite that their sound actually leans closer towards a not yet fully realized blending of Arkona and Turisas. Its a debut album, so its easy to be forgiving of the sense that if things go right for Protokult, their third and fourth albums won’t sound anything like the musical crockpot that is No Beer In Heaven. Some of these songs are so unfocused that they’re actually jarringly atonal, such as “Heaven Cast Me Out”, where an effective keyboard melody is wasted by vocal lines that are aimless and lacking definable hooks. Co-vocalist Ekaterina Pyatkova is a distinctive, sharp, angular operatic soprano that reminds me of an early Tarja Turunen. On those early Nightwish songs off Angels Fall First that never quite gelled, Turunen’s vocals often spiraled off into an unstructured mess. It was on the subsequent Ocean Born when Tuomas Holopainen began to harness his songwriting abilities together with Turunen’s vocal capacity where he was first able to display both of their respectively brilliant abilities. The same needs to happen for Pyatkova, and hopefully from within the band a songwriter will emerge that can deliver the goods in that sense because she has tremendous raw talent.
There are flashes and moments on the album where I can spot the seeds for something good, such as on “Sol Intention”, where male vocalist Martin Drozd delivers clean vocals that sound like a merging of Danzig and Peter Steele. I want to like him more as a harsh/extreme vocalist, but he often dithers between semi-clean/semi-extreme styles in a way that is frustrating (I wonder if he’ll grow on me over time in that sense). One track I do think has some promise is “Gorale”, which reminds me of a blend of Eluveitie or Arkona with Lepaca Kliffoth-era Therion with its woodwind laced intro gradually unfolding into an epic, guitar-fueled, stomping finish. Its not a great song, but I can see more of a future in them pursuing that direction than in following their impulse to be silly for silliness sake in tracks like “Water of Life”, or the now immortalized in a music video “Get Me A Beer!”. Speaking of the latter, the video is as ridiculous as you’d imagine it would be, but there’s something about it that endeared me to the band. Maybe its their wide-eyed attempt at face-pulling shenanigans, or the angry band manager shtick, or the comic suddenness in which beer-googles earns Drozd a slap across the face. I found myself smiling despite absolutely deploring the song and its trite subject matter —- somehow I’m actually rooting for this ragtag bunch of Canadians! On that note, I felt like the head-slap earning statement expressed by one band member at the end was meant for me: “You know, I think I’m just going to have a glass of apple juice.”
Voyager – V: I sat down with this album fully expecting to dislike everything about it, and my inborn prejudices towards modern progressive metal’s tendency to rely on djent and noise-related nonsense was pervading my mind before I actually hit play. Its always such a gratifying experience to be proved wrong in these situations. The manner in which Voyager’s V, (their fifth album now, hence the title, geddit?), is described by reviewers all around the internet and in blurbs that I received from their PR agency is exactly the sort of language that tends to describe bands that do everything but write interesting music (at least for me). Thankfully, the reality is that for all Voyager’s shininess, their Intel factory uber clean guitar chugging, and their keyboard built atmospherics —- this is a band that is smart and savvy enough to realize that its all a waste without sharp, melodically driven, hook-LADEN songwriting. They have that in spades, and I think what makes the songwriting work in terms of playing to their musical strengths is the fact that their singer Daniel Estrin has smooth, expressive, yet powerful range and capacity to use his vocal melodies to anchor most of these songs. The instrumentation is impressive for sure, if you can tolerate its anti-septic delivery and approach, but it all surrounds Estrin’s vocals as the central element of nearly all of these songs.
It works, and I commend them for keeping a lid on excessive instrumental sections that lesser bands would splatter all over the place. Whether or not the Australian guys and gal in Voyager would like to admit it, they’re writing pop songs and dressing them up in prog-metal clothes, and hang on a second, that’s entirely okay! Take the single, “Hyperventilating”, where delicate clean electric lazy strumming is juxtaposed to frenetic riffs during the chorus —- sounds heavy right? Yet its Estrin’s very un-aggressive vocal dexterity in extending syllables and bending them to his will that results in his carrying the actual melody with the lyric “My everything is fading… I’m hyperventilating”. Is it just me or does his syllabic extensions give off a Dolores O’Riordan vibe? I like that the band isn’t afraid of getting away from ze rockin’, as on “Summer Always Comes Again”, a lovely piano-led ballad swelled by keyed-in strings that reminds me of late nineties era Porcupine Tree. The percussive surge towards the song’s end is a nice surprise and raises the euphoria level before suddenly dropping off…I’m wishing it was a longer song. I should also take a line here to point out that Estrin is a fairly skillful lyricist, which is always a rarity in metal in general. He’s not exceedingly poetic like a Roy Khan, but he has a way with clear, concise diction and phrasing. Its a good thing too, because his vocal style certainly lends itself to be easily decipherable, and any embarrassingly bad lyrics would clearly stand out. Estrin manages to avoid that faux-pas, and Voyager manages to shove another one of my preconceptions into the gutter where it belongs.