The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part Two: The Albums

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.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part One: The Songs

This was a year bursting with awesome new releases, and I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I’ve never had this much difficultly in putting together my year end lists. Fortunately the songs were a little easier than the albums to sort through, and I’ve been able to narrow down a list that includes not only highlights from spectacular albums, but isolated gems from otherwise unremarkable releases. These were almost always songs that I listened to more often than others, verified by iTunes play counts and my own shaky memory, but others were just instantaneous nominees based on their initial impact. I tortured myself for a few days with the ordering here, reworking things several times before feeling satisfied. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed!

1.   Visigoth – “Warrior Queen” (from the album The Conqueror’s Oath)

On an album that made a Visigoth fan out of me, “Warrior Queen” was the unquestionable highlight for its combination of brawn and beauty. Built on 80s metal swagger, hard rock strut, thunderous riffs, and Jake Rogers gritty steel-cut voice, this would be a tremendous tune even without the emotive Jethro Tull moment in the middle. It comes in the form of a flute solo, courtesy of Rogers himself, accompanying his most Mathias Blad-ian vocal at the 3:44 mark, the cherry on the proverbial sundae. A song like this by a relatively new band shouldn’t work, it should reek of the worst kind of Manowar-isms, hamminess and self-importance —- but “Warrior Queen” is emblematic of something that’s seeping into the USPM/North American trad/power resurgence of these past few years: A sense of exuberance and fun with the very idea of metal itself, where cliches are comforts and cool ironic detachment is the worst kind of boring. 

2.   The Night Flight Orchestra – “Turn to Miami” (from the album Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough)

This was the culmination of six years worth of honing in on a perfect recreation of that late 70s/early 80s sound, not only in sound but in songwriting structure, vocal layering and slightly out of touch prog-rock pomposity. That “Turn to Miami” arrived on NFO’s fourth album is almost too perfect, their own path to a song like this mirroring the way we can imagine it would have for any successful band of that halcyon era. Its not the kind of song you throw on the debut or even the sophomore album. This tune arrives after a few gold and platinum albums, during that phase when the band is jet setting across the globe on private planes with champagne, parties on hotel rooftops with supermodels that go til sunrise, cocaine decorating the marble bathroom counter tops, and waking up to find David Coverdale passed out in an empty jacuzzi. NFO conjured up a sound here that’s glitzy, lush, and fervent with a huge assist from talented backing vocalists (the “Airline Annas”), and they also managed to dream up a music video that leaned into the idea of rich, self-important rockers wearing shoulder padded pastel sport coats selling a heady concept with barely disguised sexual overtones. 


3.   Kobra and the Lotus – “Let Me Love You” (from the album Prevail II)

The chief highlight from this year’s surprisingly strong Prevail II, “Let Me Love You” was the kind of song that Kobra and the Lotus had been needing to write for years now. An unabashedly emotive, some would say sappy song that pulled from the same vein of power rock that Pat Benatar and Heart mined in the 80s for inspiration. That this song has a hook that can rival the best of those artist’s major hits is a triumph for Kobra Paige and guitarist Jasio Kulakowski (who co-wrote this with former guitarist Jake Dreyer and producer Jacob Hansen, who seemingly can’t miss these days in his many many projects). Paige’s voice has that Doro-esque level of power but tempered with Ida Haukland’s range and emotive capability, and she knows how to time her inflections as well as Floor Jansen. While the band almost got there with last year’s single “Light Me Up” (from Prevail I), they’ve stumbled upon their first bonafide could-should-be radio hit… the question is whether that central guitar riff will be too heavy for programmers and leave this song in too commercial for metal / too metal for radio purgatory.

4.   Judicator – “Spiritual Treason” (from the album The Last Emperor)

Much has been said about Judicator’s obvious musical influence from Blind Guardian, so maybe it was a bit on the nose to feature the bard himself Mr. Hansi Kursch as a guest vocalist on “Spiritual Treason”. Yet credit the songwriting prowess of guitarist Tony Cordisco and vocalist John Yelland in crafting one of Hansi’s most electric and inspired guest vocalist spots to date. Keying in on Tales/Somewhere Far Beyond era Guardian in structure and spirit, this is a lean, muscular, speedy power metal epic the likes of which we’ve not heard Hansi sing on in ages. Yelland himself turns in a fine performance too, his slightly higher register a nice complement to Hansi’s, but Cordisco might actually get the star turn here —- from his frenetic riffery, his confident clean acoustic work, and that gorgeous multi-part solo. Andre Olbrich would be proud.

5.   Therion – “To Shine Forever” (from the album Beloved Antichrist)

This one stuck with me all throughout the year, the penultimate “song” on Therion’s massive, three disc/46 track behemoth opera Beloved Antichrist. Though many may have taken a single pass through this recording and rejected it as fast as a mouse click, I’ve found it to be a treasury of majestic musical moments. And the key term here is musical, set aside metal for a bit and just consider “To Shine Forever” as a beautiful, cinematic piece of music. This is a vivid slice of the kind of thing Therion has been captivating hearts and minds with from Theli onwards; chiming minor key acoustic guitars, sweepingly elegiac strings gracefully ushering the proceedings —- this time accompanying a pair of gorgeous classical voices entwined in a duet instead of Therion’s usual Accept meets Maiden rhythmic guitar attack. Its only flaw is that its too short, a mere 2:07 in run time, but its aching, longing emotional pulse, and its evocative lyrical poetry subsist long after its over.

6.   Omnium Gatherum – “The Frontline” (from the album The Burning Cold)

On a largely terrific album, “The Frontline” stood out for its almost retro Gothenburg sound and approach, instantly burning onto my mind with conjured up memories of classic era In Flames. It must’ve been the clean guitar patterns in the verse over Jukka Pelkonen’s slowly muttered vocals that brought me back to In Flames “Satellites and Astronauts” off Clayman, or maybe it was “Jester Script Transfigured” from Whoracle. Whatever it was, long suffering In Flames fans can instantly sniff out something that reminds us of that band’s long distant classic era, simply because few things sounded like it (even at the time). I’m not sure why OG, a Finnish band who has a very defined sound of their own stumbled onto this particular Swedish influence here, but it spawned an understated epic. The appeal of melodeath, regardless of country of origin is in its ability to convey incredible emotion without lyrics, and Markus Vanhala and Joonas Koto’s guitars cry out heart wrenching melancholy. They also merge their own OG sound into the mix at the 3:20 mark, with a keyboard lead into a guitar solo that rockets into the atmosphere. Forget crappy Christmas music, this is all the joy you need right here.

7.   Exlibris – “Shoot For the Sun” (from the album Innertia)

Arriving on the most convincing Euro-power metal album of the year, Exlibris’ Innertia, “Shoot For the Sun” is the kind of song that sounds so effortless, its melody so natural, yet so many bands struggle to write convincingly. It was the standout on an album completely void of mediocrity, and I’d find myself circling back to it for a few extra listens every time I played the album all the way through. The stars here are new vocalist Riku Turunen and guest vocalist Ann Charlotte Wikström, who pair together perfectly. Towards the end during that soaring, emotionally charged cliff hanger crescendo, both of their voices weave around each other in a dazzling display. Its rare for duets to find those moments, because its usually a trade off of vocal parts or two voices so uneven in power that one naturally outweighs the other. I’m particularly fond however of Turunen’s intro vocal, where you heard kaleidoscope shades of Timo Kotipelto and Tobias Sammett in tandem, a little detail that brings out the power metal fanboy in me.

8.   Judas Priest – “Guardians / Rising From Ruins” (from the album Firepower)

I think this would’ve been higher on this list had the album come out later in the year, because I burned myself out hard on playing this pairing over and over again. I’m including both “Guardians and “Rising From Ruins” as one entry because they are in essence one song, the former a direct intro for the latter and only arguable by the inclusion of a track separation marker on the album for whatever reason. I told the story of when I first heard this song on the MSRcast around that time (when was this? March-ish?) because I was actually driving to my cohost’s place to record a new episode of the podcast when it came on. Its in the middle of the album, the centerpiece ostensibly, and I was already more than impressed with everything I had been hearing, but this intro piece floored me. So jaw-droppingly beautiful is “Guardians”, with its crescendo piano and guitar buildup, so epic and goosebump inducing, that my only reaction was to start laughing like a right fool. I couldn’t stop, it was like my brain had been overcome by joy and was stuck in giddy mode. By the time “Rising From Ruins” came on I was already running through my mind what I was going to say about the record on the podcast —- a litany of superlatives, spittle flying in every direction as I’d rave like a prophet. Thankfully I composed myself to be a little more measured in the end, but these two pieces of music provoked one hell of an emotional reaction in me where few things do. 

9.   Suidakra – “Ode to Arma” (from the album Cimbric Yarns)

This was a special song on an experimental acoustic album that largely failed to move me otherwise, and a song that’s been in practically daily rotation since the album’s November release. Everything that works on “Ode to Arma”; the mystic tone, the pure emotive strength of Sebastian Jensen’s vocal, specific endearing lyrics, and the layering of unorthodox melodic arrangements are the very things that somehow work against the rest of the songs on the album —- in short, they struck gold here. Of particular note is the melodic shading by guest vocalist Sascha Aßbach, and the fragile piano utterances performed by Arkadius, both working to create a lushness to the soundscape that adds to the otherworldly feel at work. As I mentioned in my review for the album, I’m not too informed about the original fantasy concept underpinning things here. But the central lyric, “The farther you travel / the closer I hold in you my heart”, reminds me quite a bit of the stories of some RPGs I’ve played, even a little of Tolkien in certain Silmarillion steeped stories. Suidakra doesn’t really touch romantic themes all that much, but they handle it skillfully here, with ache and melancholy.

10.   Thrawsunblat – “Via Canadensis ” (from the album Great Brunswick Forest)

This was the most anthemic, joyful blast of woodsy, rustic noise on Thrawsunblat’s uniquely excellent acoustic blitz Great Brunswick Forest. That it starts off quirky, with those sharp frenetic attacking plucks of the strings in the acoustic guitar equivalent to a drum count-in is part of its incessant charm. Joel Violette also turns in one of his most captivating vocal hooks to date, built on the strength of the repeating “on we go” vocal fragment that sounds practically mythic when it lands during the nearly a capella bridge midway through. This is also his most positive lyric to date, a cathartic paean to the strength of spirit and moving forward. I particularly love when the electric guitar comes in, the band seemingly so charged by the song’s energy that they couldn’t help but unleash a blast of feedback and muted crunch to further rattle the cage. Drummer Rae Amitay’s aggressive performance here and throughout the album is worthy of praise on its own, and she seems to know just where to punctuate with an extra loud hit or three. This was a re-imagining of what folk metal could sound like, acoustic and woodsy sure, but uptempo and fierce.

An Unpopular Take on the Wintersun vs Nuclear Blast Debate

I’m sure that by now many of you have read all about the recent Wintersun vs Nuclear Blast public blowout and have come to form an opinion aligning towards one side or another. Even if you aren’t a fan of the band, its been an interesting debate to behold —- and wow is it a debate. On Facebook, on Twitter, and on various popular metal sites fans are saber rattling back and forth and with varying levels of vitriol, or in some cases, sarcastic apathy. That its such a huge headline is a testament to Wintersun’s popularity within metal worldwide, as well as a barometer for the passion of their fans. Most of the comments I’ve read have been leaning in support towards the Jari Mäenpää / Wintersun camp, with blasts of venom directed at Nuclear Blast and in particular their unapologetic response. That’s to be expected of course, given the now mythic rock n’ roll parable of bands being screwed by the suits at the label —- and also, you don’t usually find die-hard fans of a record label, let alone those willing to defend it at every turn. But there are a few things being overlooked in the discussions surrounding this issue and I feel the need to point them out. To better understand the delays behind Time II, its worth taking a look back at the production delays of its predecessor.

 

Nuclear Blast’s response to Mäenpää ‘s allegations that the label is the cause for Time II’s delay can best be characterized as being rather patient. They really could have nailed him to the wheel by revealing facts and figures about their level of financial commitment to Wintersun over the years. In case you needed refreshing, Wintersun released their debut on Nuclear Blast in 2004, and then proceeded to take eight long years to produce a follow-up. Emphasis on the word produce, because the saga that was the making of Time I revolved around Mäenpää’s penchant for turning studio perfectionism into procrastination. Remember that the album was half finished in an actual recording studio with drums, bass, and guitars recorded by the time the initial November 2006 release date passed. This was a band making progress, even while suffering from an initial delay —- which was understandable and generally accepted by their fans at the time. Mäenpää however insisted that the synths, guitar solos, and vocals would be finished at his own home studio, and so the years began to trickle by. The next major update came when Mäenpää went public about needing a more powerful computer to handle all the orchestrations he was layering, and as we’ve found out since, Nuclear Blast provided the additional funding for this equipment. By the time Mäenpää had finally managed to progress to the mixing phase, it was late 2011, and yet another year would pass until its release in October of 2012.

 

In all this time spent waiting for that release, Wintersun’s popularity blossomed and echoed, their debut continued to sell well, particularly in South America and Japan. The continued recording delays however made it difficult to take advantage of that popularity through touring (the odd one-off festival appearance aside), and so tangible income was virtually non-existent. Most labels wouldn’t pony up for tour support in the wake of a declining music industry, much less so for a band whose new album was now perennially delayed —- particularly when they had already reinvested in its recording costs. Its hard to fault Nuclear Blast for Time I‘s near decade long delay, as by all accounts they lived up to their end of the bargain. Mäenpää himself said as much in an interview with Radio Metal:

 

Of course they gave me some hard times! (laughs) With good intentions, though. But they believed in me and in our band, and they supported us as much as they could. Of course they couldn’t give a 100,000€ budget, because we’re still a very small metal band. It was just impossible to give us millions! (laughs) But they definitely helped us as much as they could all these years. They always helped me get the new equipment and the new computers I needed.

 

 

In the same interview, Mäenpää claims that most of the delays were due to technical problems with the recording process, particularly in the lack of computer processing power. He admits to being naive at the start of the recording process in thinking that he could do everything at home on his own home computer:

 

 

I was a bit naive at the beginning. I didn’t realize that making those orchestrations would take so much computer power. Actually, I didn’t have much experience, or any experience at all, to record music with computers. After the first album, I got my first computer programs and sample libraries, and I started learning on the go. I learned quickly, but I also realized quickly that this stuff needs a lot of power! These orchestrations are usually made with much bigger computers, like those soundtrack composers use, like ten computers linked together. I could only afford one computer, and I had to work with that. It was time-consuming, the process was very slow. It took a lot of time.

 

 

If you read the above quote and immediately thought to yourself, “Well why didn’t he just cut his losses and go back into a professional recording studio with knowledgeable engineers who could help him get what he wanted?”, you are not alone. Mäenpää  knew going into Time I‘s recording process that his songs were meant to be long, complex, and requiring massive layers of keyboard orchestration, yet his whole approach to the recording process was backwards. As many metal bands with symphonic elements to their music have already known, a home studio is best for tracking rough demos of songs, crafting rudimentary keyboard sketches for future symphonic elements, and occasionally even recording album quality bass and guitar work. Drums are best recorded at a professional studio, and there the rough homemade keyboard sketches can now be translated into studio quality keyboard orchestrations with a professional at the helm of software and hardware designed to handle it. Mäenpää failed to understand that basic, common sense laden schematic and allowed a measure of self-delusion and grandeur to lead him to believe that he could accomplish an orchestral production with little to zero skills as a recording engineer. Okay, so the album finally came out, and one could look back on that experience and say “Lesson learned”. Incredibly, Mäenpää is all too eager to repeat history with Time II, insisting on being allowed to handle the production all by himself yet again.

 

His demand to Nuclear Blast is for the label to fund the construction of a full-time Wintersun studio (as opposed to the apartment based home recording studio he used for Time I). Mäenpää elaborates on the reasons why in his statement:

 

Building a professional studio for Wintersun would give us the freedom to make music nonstop. It would upgrade our album sound significantly and most importantly speed up the album making process significantly. This would even raise our live game. With proper pre-production, able to tweak our live sounds and setup properly we would sound pretty incredible live. We would also be able to rehearse more and that would allow us to be able to play live more often and come to places where we normally have not been able to come. The studio would allow us to have more time for everything.

 

That only sounds reasonable if you aren’t aware of Mäenpää’s history with self-recording, and even then barely so —- the costs of building a recording studio from scratch are incredibly high. You’re talking about purchasing or leasing a building, buying multiple computers with high powered processing capability, hard drives galore, numerous speakers, guitar rigs/cabinets, recording consoles (go ahead and Google some prices), soundproofing construction work for a drum room, a practice room (presumably, since he’s talking about using the place for live rehearsals/pre-production), and installing security systems (because duh). Nuclear Blast understandably denied this request, and there are rumors that they had already paid Mäenpää the recording budget for Time II in full (where did that money go?). As these concerns have been leaked to fans, someone of course suggested a Kickstarter campaign. We aren’t privy to the details of Wintersun’s record contract, but its likely that a Kickstarter campaign would violate a few things. Nuclear Blast does have a business model they typically adhere to, and its hard to fault them for sticking to it in this case. I see it this way: They are the company that have invested monetarily in Wintersun and getting the fruits of that investment has proven to be way more difficult than needs be. Why should they allow Mäenpää a contract-breaking, risk free way out of the debt they have incurred on his behalf? This is a business after all.

 

Consider the recording history of another Nuclear Blast artist in Therion, who have been with the label since the release of 1995’s Lepaca Kliffoth. If you’re unfamiliar with their music, Therion create heavily symphonic, organically recorded string-drenched metal with a variety of male/female backing choir vocals. One listen to any one of their albums post 1995 will give you a general idea of the complexity that is involved in the recording process of a Therion album, but before I give you a more specific example, consider this: Therion’s recording strategy over the early years of their deal with Nuclear Blast was fragmented into specific goals, the largest of which was the continual construction of their own recording studio, Modern Art, which was achieved over time by directing portions of their recording budgets towards its creation over the course of many years and albums. They bet on themselves and their continual touring that they’d sell enough of each album to repay Nuclear Blast every time, and they did.

 

Other successful metal bands also worked hard at achieving similar goals in business relationships, such as Blind Guardian (with Virgin Records Germany) who established their own Twilight Hall studio over many years and continue to record there today. Back to Therion, their success at this strategy culminated in Nuclear Blast giving them a 100,000 Euro budget for the recording of their 2004 twin albums Sirius B and Lemuria. The sessions for these albums included a total of over 170 musicians including a full symphony and various operatic vocalists, a wide variety of different musical instruments, as well as a few special studios to record those specific elements in. The main recording work was of course done at their home base of Modern Art studios. Two albums delivered in one recording process that took an amazingly short nine months and cost less than Mariah Carey’s in-studio catering budget. Oh, and they’re both masterpieces that make Time I‘s production sound like child’s play.

 

That’s how you do it, that’s the blueprint right there. You don’t take eight years to deliver your second album, and then publicly call out your record company for not plunking down a truckload of cash for a recording studio (that would cost far more than 100,000 Euros). You continually release a series of albums in a reasonable amount of time, tour furiously in between each, and grow your band as a small business that can repay the investments made by your record company while saving for your own investments (like a recording studio). You get with the program and realize that there are many professional recording studios where many well known symphonic metal bands like Nightwish, Kamelot, and Avantasia (to name a few obvious choices) go to get some fairly spectacular results. There are skilled engineers and producers that can work with you can help you achieve what you want —- Miro Rodenberg from The Gate studios in Germany comes to mind —- and most importantly, they can help you achieve it in a time frame you can afford. I want to know about all the meetings that Nuclear Blast had with Mäenpää where they tried to persuade him to let a professional studio and engineer help him finish. Labels have relationships with those studios, there’s a rapport and trust there built on past experiences. Mäenpää could’ve had his studio by now if he wasn’t consumed by his own nitpicking need for perfectionism and control. You tell me if I’m being unreasonable.

 

Having said all that, I’ll freely admit that I do enjoy Wintersun’s music, and I want to see the release of Time II happen, but I can’t in good conscience agree with what Mäenpää or his fans are asking for here. It would set an incredibly damaging precedent for Nuclear Blast to agree to a Wintersun kickstarter campaign, as well as painting them in a poor light business wise within industry circles. If your impression of the people at Nuclear Blast is one of suits and accountants, I’d suggesting getting a grip on some perspective. Yes they have a business to run but if they were really all about the money, they wouldn’t be in the heavy metal business would they? I think that the people at that label are pretty similar to most of us, they’re metal fans who happened to love it enough to make a career of it. I’ll receive no benefits for siding with Nuclear Blast on this issue believe me, and some of you will vehemently disagree with my stance —- I’m fine with that. If you’re an agitated fan who was previously venting their anger at Nuclear Blast for what you see as an injustice, I’d like to think I’ve given you something to chew on. I look forward to talking more Wintersun in 2020!

 

I’ll get to work, after one more episode…

 

If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been absent from posting anything new for almost a whole month here. And while I’m grateful for the couple of emails I received from a few folks asking me why the hell I’ve been lollygagging(!) around and not updating, I must confess: I needed a break. Not that this blog’s output has been particularly prolific, as I’ll always favor quality over quantity, longer more in-depth writing rather than short bursts of message board quality troll like commentary, nevertheless I was starting to feel like I needed some time to catch up on the rapidly piling up stack of new music I hadn’t properly digested yet. I was still listening to metal during the last month, but doing so freely, as opposed to the schedule laid out by various album release dates. There was a lot of revisiting an individual artist’s back catalog, checking out releases from bands I had stopped paying attention to for the past few years to see what they’ve been up to, as well as just deciding to listen to some personally designated classic albums — there was a lot of repeat listens to Therion’s Symphony Masses for example.

 

In addition to all that, I just felt the urge to indulge in some interests away from metal for a little bit. Its something that I think a lot of us who write about music or various other topics go through every now and then but keep to ourselves. But the reality is that sometimes you just need to spend a few days in a row crashing on the couch after work to watch yet another complete season of Mi-5 on Netflix, catch up on 360 games, or just tune everything out and read a book. I think I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time in the past feeling privately ashamed that I’ll occasionally wake up with Good Morning America or NPR instead of (insert thrash/death/black metal classic here), but I’ve gotten older to such a point where that kind of thinking is uncomfortably childish. Perhaps it is simply growing into adulthood, but I’d like to think that my lack of one hundred percent focus on all things metal is far more beneficial than not. I’m sure this concept isn’t exactly a revelation to many of you, but it has been to me over the past few years, and its taken time to adjust. When I decided to author a metal blog, I knew going in that things would get difficult when I hit these speed bumps, but I think that going forward I finally have an idea of how to creatively embrace those brief lapses in metal concentration for the purposes of this blog.

 

 

With that being said, its about to pass a half a year since I first launched, and I’d like to take a moment to thank those of you who have been reading (or at least subscribing and ignoring – I’ll take it!). I’ve already had far more viewership than I could have possibly imagined at such an early stage, and hope to continue to build on that in the months and years to come. Here’s whats coming up this week and beyond:

  • A comprehensive look back at the past month of new releases by Sabaton, Dragonforce, Sonata Arctica, Grand Magus, Kreator, and Burzum.
  • I’ll ponder the potential of a Roy Khan-less Kamelot, examine just how vital his role was in the band’s artistic successes, and discuss how he will be extremely difficult, and perhaps near impossible to replace.
  • Crazy from the Heat! Metal and the arrival of summer.

 

 

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