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.

Autumn Harvest Pt II: New Music From Thrawsunblat, Amaranthe, Brainstorm, Wolfheart and More!

The new releases are plentiful throughout October, and fortunately I’ve been better about keeping on top of them this year than I have in the past. Some of these are albums I’ve been looking forward to for most of the year, the new Wolfheart being chief among them. I will admit to being extremely curious about Amaranthe’s Helix, their first post Jake Berg release and debut of new clean singer Nils Molin (of Dynazty fame). Some of you might remember that I wasn’t that keen on their last record Maximalism, which saw Berg’s input and role greatly diminished and as a result led to his departure (which had the silver lining of resulting in a really fun record by Cyhra, his new band with Jesper Stromblad). And of course there’s a new album by Germany’s trad metal stalwarts Brainstorm, a band I’ve been a fan of since way back in the early 2000s during the Metus Mortis / Soul Temptation era. There’s something appropriately fitting about these guys delivering a new record this particular year when I think power metal is in the midst of a sweeping artistic resurgence, a reminder that there are still older bands who have stayed relatively consistent with their style when many of their peers started incorporating hard rock / AOR stylings. But does the new album stack up against the staggering amount of excellent releases by newer power metal bands? I’ll tackle that and other burning questions in the reviews below!


Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

I’ve written about Canada’s Thrawsunblat before, with the band’s 2016’s album Metachthonia landing on that year’s best albums list. Borne out of the incense smoke of Woods of Ypres, former Woods guitarist Joel Violette along with Immortal Bird vocalist Rae Amitay (here on drums) have been quietly releasing amazingly strong blackened folk metal records since 2013, and its been interesting to behold the range of this project, from maritime folk infused charm to blistering black metal fury. Their folk aspect is at once inspired by and very removed from the European folk that we commonly associate with the idea of folk metal, with Violette embracing his native roots of all things Canadian and pushing to the fore folk music of Northeast Canada and in particular the Atlantic coast. I’m only passingly familiar with that kind of music, but I gather that its related to that strain of New Englander lyrical folk song that I’ve found across the years, not quite sea-shanty material but musically joyous all the same. The black metal sieve that Thrawsunblat run this folk music through results in something that is rather unique across the folk metal landscape, one very different from other North American black metal artists that are mostly from the Pacific Northwest.

All that being said about the band’s rich folk influences, Great Brunswick Forest is a surprising album for Violette and Amitay to release right now as a followup to what was a roiling, furious black metal affair in Metachthonia. Picking up where the band left off from the plaintive maritime folk of “Goose River (Mourner’s March)” and the gorgeous gem “Maritime Shores” from the Wanderer album, the new record is an entirely acoustic endeavor, except that it doesn’t behave like the way you’d expect a typical acoustic recording would. That means instead of ballads and forlorn laments, these songs are uptempo,  jaunty affairs, bright and bursting with chiming guitars, lively violins, and a swinging percussive attack. The album starts out with its most representative model of this in “Green Man of East Canada”, a song that owes its lyrical influence directly to folk music, with its tale of two strangers pausing to speak near a darkened wood. Violette is a sharp, nuanced lyricist, and you can tell that he really loves the vein of woodsy Canadian folk that he’s clearly tapping into here, relishing it with every line and stanza; “I’m no stranger to these lands, / Though they’re not my own. / I left with the changed tides /  To call this Brunswick kingdom home”.

Things get more adventurous musically with the aggressively uptempo “Here I Am A Fortress” and the chaotic frenzy heard in “Thus Spoke the Wind”. The former boasts some tremolo-esque acoustic guitar patterns amidst the most traditionally black metal song structure on the album, and the cross pollination of style and instrumental medium is strange to behold at first, but its such a well written song that you become accustomed to the jarring juxtaposition quickly. A key component in making experiments like this one successful is the fiddle playing of one Keegan MC, who is all over this album and really becomes the musical glue and stylistic motif throughout. He has a way of engaging his instrument to create moments of dissonance that support the acoustic tremolo sections and give them a dose of ringing, electric vibrancy. But its Amitay who steals the spotlight in “Thus Spoke…” with her unleashing a battery of what you might term acoustic blast beats during the middle instrumental passage, pushing the way forward for tremolo style acoustic guitar riffs and slicing fiddle blasts to barrel forward in the album’s heaviest, most astonishing section. It was a little chaotic to make heads or tails of at first, but now the song is a favorite of mine, and I always seem to pay attention to that instrumental break.

The absolute show stealer of a song here however is “Via Canadensis”, where I think Violette sneaks in some subtle electric guitar throughout to add some muted crunch to what is a joyful, perfect slice of folk metal. I get a very strong Woods 5 vibe from this song, and musically it wouldn’t have felt out of place on that album where David Gold played around with contrasting musical and lyrical clashes. Lyrically though, this is Violette at his most positive, singing during the refrain “On we go — to the standing stones we’ve yet to raise!”, and that lyric takes on a mythic quality during the nearly a capella mid-song bridge. Similarly, I love the lyrical sentiment and supporting musical sweep that pins together the second half of “Dark Sky Sanctuary”, where Violette delivers his most smooth vocal melody yet in a hooky, Vintersorg-ian chorus. Like the folk metal legend himself, Violette’s vocals are probably going to be hit and miss for some, but frankly most of these songs wouldn’t sound right with another singer, having been attuned to his voice in the writing process. But “Dark Sky Sanctuary” is the exception, as I could hear this slice of folk-pop magic being sung by anyone and everyone, including a female voice (hopefully at some point YouTube will yield a cover version of this). This a magical album, particularly in its arrival at this time of the year when autumn is making its strongest entrance in years. I can’t predict where Violette and Amitay will take Thrawsunblat next, but I’m absolutely over the moon about where they’ve been throughout their career.

Brainstorm – Midnight Ghost:

So we all have our comfort foods right? Mine would be mundane but occasionally essential things like sourdough bread with real butter, soft chocolate chip cookies in bar form like my mom used to make, or whole wheat toast spread with peanut butter and a drizzle of honey with a cup of coffee —- actually this is starting to sound like the ramblings of one that has recently begun another bout of carb kicking (dammit). But thankfully here’s my metal equivalent of comfort food back with a new release to help take the edge off, as Brainstorm has been consistent in familiarity and quality for the better part of two decades now. Its a little over-simplifying to refer to them as meat and potatoes metal, because underneath those chunky riffs and earwormy choruses is a Nevermore-esque progressive technicality. Singer Andy B. Frank is one of the most underrated/overlooked vocalists in metal, capable of an operatic tenor, as well as a gritty, Jon Oliva-esque snarl perfect for the kind of heavier trad that Brainstorm specialize in. They’re a perfect “centering” band, for those times when you feel you’ve gone too far on the avant-garde/blackgaze/ambient/noise/funeral doom end of the metal spectrum or perhaps too far down the Rhapsody/Freedom Call side and need a reminder of metal at its most melodic AND heavy; so you queue up a classic like Soul Temptation or Metus Mortis (or better yet, this still exceptional live set at Wacken 2004 that is the epitome of everything wonderful about our genre) to get yourself right.

Its commendable that Midnight Ghost is the band’s twelfth release, as they’ve been knocking out records at far more regular intervals than most metal bands, at times even delivering two in back to back years. Whats absolutely astonishing however, is that this may very well be the most inspired and accomplished album they’ve ever made, in a recording career that started way back in 1997. Because the core of their sound hasn’t changed over their career, aside from a more welcoming embrace of the choral vocal backed chorus and a touch more symphonic keyboard dressing, I’m speaking to the quality of the songwriting. This is evident in the instant ear-worm gratification of “Ravenous Minds”, as classic a Brainstorm song we’ve ever heard with Frank’s vocals delivered with a sense of empowering belief. He has such staggering strength as a vocalist, singing here with a wildly confident display of his range, from gruff lows to Queensryche-ian highs in that spectacular chorus. At this point, Frank knows the pivot points around his vocals so much that you can hear that awareness reflected in the songwriting, particularly in that everything flows around his crafting of the vocal melodies. You hear it in the string and piano intro to “Revealing the Darkness”, the melody previewing Frank’s epic, arcing vocal during the chorus. Founding guitarists Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric rattle off a machine gun spray of punctuating bursts that are always book ended by a meaty riff to round out a verse section. Its that commitment to heaviness that separates Brainstorm’s dalliances with prog-metal from that of bands such as Dream Theater and Seventh Wonder.

Speaking of other bands, I can’t be the only one who hears a real Iced Earth Horror Show era meets Judas Priest Firepower vibe on “Jeanne Boulet (1764)”, from the aggressive, neo-thrashy attack to the “iter” ending of the lyric in the refrain, its a mash-up of sounds that are pieced together in a very different way for Brainstorm. Its been interesting to hear these influences pop up on this album and bleed through Brainstorm’s normally solid musical wall that they’ve spent a career erecting around themselves. From the moment I first heard them, this was a band that didn’t necessarily wear direct influences on their sleeves, only the general gist of those influences. That they sound more relatable to other German metal bands of all subgenres than say Maiden or Priest or Metallica is a testament to the way they’ve carved out a sonic niche of their own. Frank reminds me more of Mille Petrozza, Rage’s Peavy Wagner and a touch of Hansi Kursch than anything, but even those three singers combined aren’t an accurate representation of his vocals. I can’t believe that I’m getting to say this about his work on Midnight Ghost, but its thrilling to declare that he’s never sounded better. Brainstorm knows what they’re about, and their artistic success depends almost entirely on Frank’s inimitable talents, and its thrilling as a fan to hear them unexpectedly deliver an album this confident and masterful so late in the game. Far from comfort food, this is a meal at that really expensive steakhouse you’ve been waiting and saving for. One of the best albums of the year – write it down.

Amaranthe – Helix:

I won’t even pretend that I wasn’t highly curious about the state of Amaranthe circa 2018 in their post Joacim Lundberg state. Lundberg if you didn’t remember (or preferred not to… you haters) was one of the Swedish sextet’s founding vocalists, their clean male vocalist who had as equally big a hand in the songwriting as guitarist Olof Morck and fellow vocalist Elize Ryd. I first started listening to Amaranthe’s debut out of sheer curiosity in 2011 because you simply could not avoid hearing mention of this band that was cooking up this crazy melo-death/power metal/ pop mash-up. What became clear to me as I veered from somewhat agahst/mildly curious to rather appreciative of their frankly audacious metallic pop, was that Lundberg was a central figure in the formulation of their sound. He described his own contribution to the band’s sound as “melodic Bon Jovi type vocals” and he crafted vocal melodies in that vein that were able to both contrast and complement Ryd’s sugary pop voice. At times he would sing alongside her, in effect providing co-lead vocals that lent a needed earthiness to the melody, while he also had moments where his solo lead vocals would color however briefly the band’s sound with gritty hard rock energy. Of course the band’s two harsh vocal screamers in Andreas Solveström and since 2013 Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson were the melo-death element when Morck’s Soilwork-esque straight to the point riffing was taken into account. It all somehow largely worked, almost improbably so, a kaleidoscope of sound that was difficult to classify yet appealing beyond reason, particularly on 2014’s Massive Addictive.

That balance of elements that made everything gel together was disrupted when Lundberg’s role was gradually diminished on 2016’s Maximalism, the result being a sound that leaned too far in the pop direction and resulted in an album that was oddly disconnected, a jumble of random ideas. In my review for that record, which was written after Lundberg had already left the band, I predicted that his departure would be a huge blow for Amaranthe. When Lundberg resurfaced soon after in Cyhra with ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad, their debut was loaded with the same kind of quality vocal melody writing that characterized Lundberg’s work in Amaranthe. It was a fun, strong, and ear-wormy album in a way that was in keeping with Lundberg’s desire to marry those aforementioned Bon Jovi type vocals to melo-death guitars. I mention that because it helps to put into context Amaranthe’s attempt to retreat into the style of the first two and a half (ish) albums, and why that attempt feels unfocused and often empty. That’s not to say that Helix isn’t at times successful, because a song like “Countdown” is every bit the satisfying merger of electro-pop and fuzzy metallic guitars into a direct, focused chorus that is packed as tight as a fun-sized Snickers. And Ryd reaches something approaching inspired on “Dream”, a song that borrows from the tempo and temperature of the quasi-power ballad “Burn With Me” from Massive Addictive, her vocals shining in a duet with new co-vocalist Nils Molin (who’s also in Dynazty, if that name was ringing a bell). Molin is a safe but misguided choice for the band, and that’s not a criticism of Molin as a vocalist, because he’s clearly a talented singer and his work in Dynazty is far better a showcase than what he delivers on Helix. The problem is that his style is all wrong for this band, far more suited to the soaring power metal of his other band and lacking anything resembling an actual rock voice that Lundberg provided.

But elsewhere on the album, its honestly hard to come up with anything resembling a successful example of why I started listening to this band in the first place. Things feel off all over the place —- the lead single “365” is a half baked version of “That Song” from Maximalism, and as controversial as the latter was upon its release, at least it had something interesting going for it with its Queen inspired stomp. With “365” the rhythmic strut never materializes, the vocal melody isn’t nearly as hooky as it should be, and everything just feels like a mess. Similarly unfocused is “Inferno”, which attempts to recreate the sound of the band’s first two albums, but again there’s not enough strength in the vocal melody to make it worth basing a song around it. Molin sticks out in a particularly bad way here, just this out of place voice singing an unconvincing lyric. And look I know, even when Lundgren was in the band Amaranthe’s lyrics hardly ever made sense, but his voice somehow sold what he was singing regardless. The intro verses for songs like the title track and “Breakthrough Starshot” really illustrate why Molin seems so out of place, when he’s forced to sing lyrics that are at best abstractions when he’s used to delivering relatively more literate lyrics in Dynazty. This might improve with his next album with the band, but I get the sense that he doesn’t quite know how to tackle these lyrics, how to get emotionally invested in them and in turn where to place inflection points.

Lets not glide past “Breakthrough Starshot” either, this being the sequel that the awful “Electroheart” never needed but we’re unfortunately getting. Its actually miles better than that atrocity ever was, with an actual memorable hook that will reverberate throughout your brain all day. When fellow metal critics sharpen their knives for this band, its because of songs like this, where for some reason Wilhelmsson is screaming out the lyric “My expectation is the accelerated / Another journey to the breakthrough starshot” —- just, WHAT NOW?!  Ryd’s vocal interjection in the hook via her “yeah yeah’s” reminds me of something I’d have heard from a Britney Spears single in the late 90s (and probably did), but that’s not the kind of pop Ryd should be evoking within the context of Amaranthe, who owe more to Euro-pop and EDM than American bubblegum dreck. Perhaps more awful than “…Starshot” however is the weirdly titled “GG6”, where Wilhelmsson takes the lead and delivers the most maddeningly non-nonsensical lyrics you’ll ever hear, complete with a baffling barrage of profanity that just comes across as lazy and dumb. Everything else on the album is just meh, ho-hum paint by numbers attempts at landing a chorus worth remembering; “Iconic” gets the closest but its still lukewarm, and the ballad “Unified” is where we feel Lundberg’s absence the most. Morck is a talented musician and songwriter, but its more clear than ever that Lundberg was the brainchild behind making the band’s vocal melodies work. They’ve lost the magic ingredient that made their weird metallic amalgam work, and that’s probably going to be news to many who think of Ryd or Morck as the heart and soul of this band.

Wolfheart – Constellation of the Black Light:

Wolfheart’s Tuomas Saukkonen has been releasing records at perhaps a nearly unrivaled clip since his Before the Dawn days from the early aughts onwards, at times with various side projects popping up throughout various years. There have been years where he’s released more than one album, and only two years since 2003 where he hasn’t released anything (2005 and 2014, although during the latter he did chair the producer’s role for a Rain of Acid record). That kind of staggering level of artistic productivity has yielded somewhere in the range of 15-16 complete albums and a host of EPs and splits/singles. I got introduced to him through his Black Sun Aeon melodic doom project, and soon after stumbled onto the fact that said project was already over and he’d forged a new band in Wolfheart, who are already at album number four since their inception in 2013. One of the things my MSRcast co-host and I had been raving about last year was the band’s brilliant release Tyhjyys, which was one of the host of folk-metal gems that 2017 unearthed in a nascent revitalization of that subgenre. I shouldn’t have been surprised that we’d get a follow-up so quickly in little over a year, given Saukkonen’s track record, but its still stunning to consider the turnaround time given just how different Constellation of the Black Light is from its predecessor.

Whereas Tyhjyys was a diverse album, full of songs with slower, more moody, shifting tempos and a utilization of silence and space that made songs like “The Flood” so hypnotic, Black Light sees Wolfheart making the leap into a more wintry, primal, furious style of blackened melodic death metal. I know its going to be an on the nose comparison for many reasons, but its their equivalent to Insomnium’s surprisingly aggressive epic Winter’s Gate. This is a level of aggression that Saukkonen has dabbled in before in brief glimpses and the occasional full song, but here he keeps it as his primary weapon, with only shades of Tyhjyys folkiness and quietude used as accents. The opening track epic “Everlasting Fall” uses a mix of both in its intro passages, but erupts into one of the more violent explosions I’ve heard Saukkonen unleash, propelled along by Joonas Kauppinen’s unrelenting blast beats. The song’s emotional pulse is heard in Olli Savolainen’s keyboards, producing a backdrop of sound that is more Porcupine Tree dreamscape than anything owing to orchestral impulses. I can hear a guitar in there mirroring what the keyboards are doing, and I think I caught sight of that two Saturdays ago in October when I caught Wolfheart live on their tour with Mors Principium Est and headliners Carach Angren. Its a ten minute opening piece, which isn’t shocking in this kind of metal anymore, but it is new for Wolfheart, their longest song to date though it certainly doesn’t feel like it. And its actually the most representative song on the record at that, showcasing the range that they’ll explore throughout the rest of the album and preparing us for the neck-snapping brutality that follows on “Breakwater”.

Its might seem surprising at first if you saw the Napalm Records backed lush music video for “Breakwater” being ushered out as the first single for this album, because this is as uncompromising a black metal attack as Wolfheart have concocted. Wildly spiraling tremolo riffing, blast beats, all with Saukkonen veering between death metal brutality and a blackened rasp in his vocal approach. Its not exactly the kind of insta-catchy single that Napalm is known for having its bands release first, but then they must have known what they were getting into before signing the band. This is Wolfheart’s first release for the growing “major” metal label, a sign that they’re moving up in the world a touch, and have the budget required to fly to Iceland with a small film crew and drones to shoot what is a spectacular looking Skyrim tribute. Things will make sense around the time Saukkonen first stumbles upon the waterfall in the video, when the song downshifts into something moodily mid-tempo, yet still shifting and undulating with its melodic guitar lines, ala Insomnium once again. Its on the far more subdued “The Saw” where we finally get a taste of that old Wolfheart sound, with its stop start riff sequences, thick vocal layers and a major key melodicism pouring through the lead guitar melody. I have detected a little impatience on my part when sitting through “Defender”, which isn’t a bad song by any means, being a straightforward melo-death affair, with a head-nodding worthy riff progression, but its lacking in impacts and surprises. It would’ve been the start of a lopsided album were it not for the rejuvenating ability of “Warfare” and the following “Valkyrie” to close out the album.

Those concluding two songs might actually be one long song, because they feel connected in sound and spirit. The latter has one of the more satisfying opening riffs, a percussive rhythmic piece that is the kind of battle call that a band like Suidakra likes to use quite often. That everything suddenly ends on a lone piano delivering a dirge-like melodic fragment is classic Finnish metal to a tee, from not only a melo-death perspective but also from legends like Sentenced, a Finnish calling card if you will. This is a quality, deep dive worthy album that was released at the perfect time because there’s just something extra special about hearing this kind of wintry music during the first breaths of autumn in the air. I got a big dose of cold Finland this past month, seeing no less than five bands from the country within that time frame. The Carach/Mors/Wolfheart gig was everything a great show in a dingy venue could be, shortcuts and all: The bands were traveling light on that tour, packed into one tour bus with notable cuts to band lineups to save on money. Wolfheart ran keyboards through a laptop, Mors ran their absent bassist through another laptop, and well of course Carach Angren could hardly afford to bring a string quartet with them so they too used the laptop. For all I knew it was the same one. That didn’t matter, and Wolfheart were as intense and crushing onstage as this album would have you believe, and well received for a band on their first North American trek. I was a little surprised that they didn’t play anything off Tyhjyys, leaning on two songs apiece from every other album including the new one. The hope is that with Napalm’s promotional engine supporting them, they’ll find their way back here on another few supporting tours. I’ll be there for sure.

Conception – re:conception:

I usually don’t review individual songs or single releases, with few exceptions, and Conception’s first new music in what, twenty-one friggin years certainly qualifies. Their EP is coming out in a few weeks and this single has two pieces of music that will be on that release and one exclusive track, “Feather Moves”. I’ll talk more about the songs at length on the review for the EP in the future but I just wanted to chime in here to talk about the stunning realization that we’re hearing Roy Khan’s vocals once again. Most of you have read that piece I did on Khan many years ago about the giant hole he was leaving behind not only in Kamelot but in progressive / power metal in general with his at the time retirement. The nature of his departure from Kamelot, the cryptic statement he released at the time —- everything really pointed towards a permanent exit, and I just couldn’t help but be a little selfish about it, thinking of all the great lyrics and vocal melodies we were being denied. When news broke that he was heard (literally) in a Norwegian rehearsal studio jamming with his former Conception bandmates, the classic lineup at that, I may or may not have gone into full on denial mode. But with April’s Pledgemusic campaign announcement, everything was confirmed and so was the utter joy at not having to watch another year tick by where Khan’s talents were being utilized.

He simply sounds excellent on these two songs (one instrumental, yeah… I know), his voice rich and full of that ability to inflect incredible amounts of emotion in a single phrase. To Conception’s credit, they’re really picking up where they left off on Flow, with heavily rhythmic, undulating (I sure love that word lately it seems) riff progressions and impassioned songwriting. Tore Østby is shredding all over the place, with little interjections and micro-solos to fill in the vocal gaps, and the rhythm section of bassist Ingar Amlien and drummer Arve Heimdal playing in unconventional, groove oriented, almost poly-rhythmic patterns. But wisely, Khan is left to direct traffic with his vocal melodies, singularly able to shift the tone of a song from dark and stormy to angelic and uplifting as we get to hear on the chorus to “Grand Again”. There’s a filter on his voice in select moments on this song, nothing that’s distracting, in fact it actually adds to the song but I would like to hear something on the EP that really sees him cut loose. His range does not appear to be diminished in the slightest, I’d even say he sounds close to Ghost Opera era Kamelot here. Hopefully the time off did him good in that regard, to lay off the heavy touring and simply rest his vocal chords. There’s folks voicing concerns about the future of Tommy Karevik’s own golden pipes due to Kamelot’s touring schedule, but I think that’s a long way off, being that he’s almost a decade under Khan in age. There’s a morality tale here for career bands, to reconsider making a living from being on the road and go the semi-professional route like our guy Tuomas Saukkonen from Wolfheart. At the end of the day, its about an artistic legacy right?

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