Autumn Harvest: Major Releases From Behemoth, Seventh Wonder, and Vreid

In the midst of working on a few big features, including but not limited to a very preliminary imagining of what the Best of 2018 list might wind up as (so I’m not, y’know, scrambling in December as usual), I’ve also made sure to listen to a couple new albums from some noteworthy artists that deserve timely reviews. There’s the new Behemoth album, which may very well be one of the most anticipated extreme metal albums ever in terms of pre-release buzz that surrounded it. Then there’s the long (loooong) awaited new album by Seventh Wonder, a band that got pushed to the background a bit when vocalist Tommy Karevik joined Kamelot. This will be the second album with Karevik’s vocals released this year, and intriguingly enough, the new Seventh Wonder was ready to go way back in the spring when Kamelot’s The Shadow Theory forced its release to be pushed back. I know that rankled a lot of Seventh Wonder / Tommy Karevik fans, and I’ll attempt to answer the open question here of was it worth the wait, and frankly, which band made better use of his voice? Finally there’s the new album by Vreid, a band I hadn’t listened to in nearly a decade(!) that we actually discussed briefly on the September MSRcast, but the album was still new to me and I’ve had a lot of time to digest it since. Lets get straight to it then:


Behemoth – I Loved You At Your Darkest:

Its interesting to see the spectrum of reactions to Behemoth’s newest and most daring release to date. That it has the benefit or misfortune (or both) of coming on the heels of their career watershed The Satanist adds an extra dose of intrigue to just how their fans and the greater media reaction at large will be. There was little obvious pressure with The Satanist, I recall very vividly the sentiment being that people were simply so happy that Nergal had come out of his cancer scare and that we were just plain fortunate to have a new Behemoth album at all in the first place. But surprise of surprises, it was a massively successful artistic leap, one applauded by almost everyone (there’s always a few naysayers) for the far more expressive and adventurous musical changes incorporated throughout. Gone was the stifling, suffocating density and overwhelming technical sheen of the Demigod through Evangelion era, replaced by a more organic, breathable sonic production and far more thoughtful and expressive songwriting to match. The adjective “mature” was tossed around a lot, and while its an overused cliche in music criticism, it really did fit in that context, you could sense that something profound had changed about Behemoth and more to the point, Nergal himself. 

We’ll look back on The Satanist the same way we’re starting to look back on Satyricon’s 2013 self-titled album, as the simultaneous end of a defining era for the band and the beginning of a new one. Satyricon’s Deep Calleth Upon Deep was one of the most haunting, rich, and deeply resonant black metal albums in years, and it doubled down on the stripped back, less dense sound of its predecessor, a choice that has changed and morphed the idea of the Satyricon sound in remarkable ways. Ditto for Behemoth with I Loved You At Your Darkest, which bypasses further nudging open the door that The Satanist cracked open by outright kicking it down. This is wildly diverse, loose, freeing album for not only the band’s sound, but in redefining the boundaries of what moods and emotions their music can now encompass. Nergal has clearly allowed the dark folk influences of his side project Me and That Man to flow through in a myriad of ways, but that’s a gross oversimplification. This is a bold, fearlessly expressive listening experience, from the opening children’s choral intro in “Solve” that resurfaces to glorious effect in “God = Dog”, to the almost Enigma-esque Gregorian chant swells that punctuate the refrains in both “Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica” and “Bartzabel”.

The changes aren’t all vocal based either, with the aforementioned “Ecclesia” suddenly dropping into a grey toned acoustic strumming sequence in its outro that right out of the folk metal playbook. There are also much larger swathes of these songs actually constructed with open chord sequences, often with cleanly arpeggiated progressions that are dreamily hypnotic. Its something we noticed Nergal incorporating more on The Satanist, but here he isn’t afraid to build entire tracks around them, “Bartzabel” a vivid example, but its also a big part of the inverse technique employed on “If Crucifixion Was Not Enough”. This is something that seems so obvious when you hear it, but bands have to grow into doing it —- minimizing the usage of blastbeats and waves of tremolo by packing them into shorter, thoughtfully employed bursts, instead of spreading them over everything like too much peanut butter overpowering too little jelly. The unsung hero here is drummer Inferno, who delivers the performance of a lifetime all throughout these twelve songs. His ability to be creative and diverse in his patterns, his choice of fills and the shift in reliance to floor toms and tribal sounding, emotionally charged percussion instead of simply battering our ears with a non-stop assault is the singular most important facet in Nergal’s ability to grow as an extreme metal songwriter and have it sound convincing and vital. One of the best albums of the year and to my tastes, the absolute pinnacle of Behemoth’s career, just stunning.

Vreid – Lifehunger:

Norway’s Vreid began life way back in 2004 after the tragic ending of Windir, and I remember at the time thinking that they were going to continue in the vein of what that band’s recently deceased founder Valfar had started. The first three albums somewhat did, though never really fully embracing the spirit that ran through Windir, something in retrospect we can see largely came from its founding member. I think my interest dropped off sometime after 2007’s I krig, it being the last album I can now remember listening to, and after that I was never reminded to check back in, or maybe I was but decided to skip it (aka the Soilwork effect). Its also perhaps not fair to always judge bands in the grim shadows of their former incarnations. I find myself doing the same with Thrawsunblat, who have a new album coming out later this week, which I’ll undoubtedly start comparing to Woods of Ypres and David Gold’s incredibly soulful songwriting. As is the way with these things, we find ourselves re-discovering artists through word of mouth recommendation, because Lifehunger was a complete surprise to me, sent in my direction via Cary the Metal Geek on our last MSRcast. I was mildly curious as to how we got a promo of this one, and surprise surprise, this album is being released on Season of Mist, the band’s first for the label. What a difference working PR makes!

The timing of this release is perhaps key to my enthusiasm in embracing it as fully as I have, because I’m sitting here writing this on the eve of a cold “northern wind” that’s supposed to blow through the streets of Houston and purify the hot, foul, stale vapors that drape this city like the heaviest wool blanket. If the cover art wasn’t enough to put you in an autumnal mood with its depiction of dead trees and a spooky moonlit silhouette of Death, the intro track “Flowers & Blood” should work, and its acoustic simplicity is a motif that we’ll hear throughout the album, almost like a rustic skeleton that binds all these songs together. But beyond essential folk metal ingredients, what really makes Lifehunger fascinating is the scope of its ambition, that the band chose to write without constraints and to put it bluntly, let themselves get really weird with it. The album opener proper “One Hundred Years” is perhaps the most conventional thing on the album and even it is loaded with passages where countermelodies spring up to disrupt the more familiar blackened folk metal tempo and riff structure. The title track jumps from an ominous marching tempo with almost doom metal inflected repetitive riffing to a furious uptempo attack, only to down shift again in the middle with a rock back-beat and a dirty Darkthrone vibe reminiscent of something off Circle the Wagons. One of my favorites for sheer unpredictability is “The Dead White”, not only for its myriad tempo shifts, but the Reinkaos-era Dissection vibe running throughout. Its a mix of smokey blackened folk with the coiled up energy of melodic death metal that results in a standout track, perhaps the best on the album.

 Vocalist Sture Dingsøyr still has every bit the fierce, biting blackened rasp he did on their earlier records, but its aged into something resembling modern day Satyr in tone, not a bad thing. He’s at his best on my personal favorite track, “Hello Darkness”, where he even attempts some strangled cleans that remind me of In Solitude or Year of the Goat. There’s a near-campy Halloween vibe in the first few minutes here, and normally that stuff might annoy me but I think I was so charmed by hearing it on my first listen through the album that its stuck to me in a good way. Whats even more lovable is the 70s Scorpions Uli-era semi-chimed riff at around the three minute mark. It was so unexpected and feels so out of place on what is largely a bleak album, a moment of warm tones and major chords conjuring up bright nostalgia. It actually sums up the album for me, a listening experience that kept me guessing all the way throughout, yet when Vreid just put their heads down and barrel relatively straight ahead as on “Black Rites in the Black Nights”, I’m not left disappointed. The actual blackened folk here is strong, confident and creatively written in its own right —- the unexpected surprises just add to the depth of the songwriting as a whole. I’ve been away from these guys so long that I can’t definitively say this is their best effort, but its the one I’ve loved the most. Its also somewhat comforting in the light of the nascent folk metal revitalization last year to hear a strong connection to their Windir roots running through Lifehunger, I suspect Valfar would be proud.

Seventh Wonder – Tiara:

There’s something satisfying about getting to evaluate both Tommy Karevik fronted bands’ new releases essentially back to back within the same calendar year. Kamelot released The Shadow Theory in April and we heard the power metal institution run smack into a creative wall, a disappointment considering how artistically successful they were on 2015’s Haven. Without regurgitating what I went into detail in explaining in my reviews for those albums, I think there’s a feeling among the power metal constituency that Kamelot are a little too attached to the darker imagery they’re using these days in a vain attempt to try to capture perhaps a broader audience (and failing spectacularly at it commercially speaking, but that’s another matter). I’ve accused the band of trying to shoe-horn in something I’ve termed faux-heaviness, which The Shadow Theory was loaded with and characterized Haven’s few weak moments. What does that have to do with Karevik’s role as their vocalist? Well, everything. That comes into sharp relief once you hear him back in his ‘home turf’ of the unapologetically heart-on-sleeve prog metal of Seventh Wonder. Karevik’s performances on both his band’s newest albums is a night and day contrast, and since its football Sunday as I’m writing this, I’ll ask aloud: Do you hand off the ball to the running back 40 times a game if you have Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at quarterback? You don’t need to be a football expert to know the answer to that question, and you only need to be passingly familiar with Karevik’s work in Seventh Wonder to know that like the legend that he ended up replacing in Kamelot, he understands how to craft vocal melodies and has a range as gorgeously soaring as a Rodger’s hail mary. Put the ball in his hands.

Let’s put the comparison’s aside for a bit though, because there’s also the fact that this is Seventh Wonder’s first album in eight fricken years, a byproduct of Karevik’s limited availability, so that’s enough reason to be excited. This isn’t a band that needed Wintersun or even Blind Guardian-esque timescales between albums to create the next one, there were only at most two year gaps between each of their previous four albums, including the back to back greatness of Mercy Falls and The Great Escape. Seventh Wonder purists were indeed right to be concerned with just how much Karevik’s prolonged abscences and creative responsibilities elsewhere would detract from this band (a lot as it turned out). Fortunately for them, the rest of Seventh Wonder spent the intervening years working on this album as their main musical priority, with Karevik taking part during the breaks from Kamelot related activity. With the luxury of time on their side, they had to ability to compose what turns out to be the most intricate, melodically diverse, and conceptually ambitious concept record of their career. They haven’t strayed from their inherent sonic identity, adhering to their rather uniquely streamlined approach to prog-metal with Andreas Söderin’s 70s prog-rock keyboards almost acting as connective tissue amidst the staccato riffs and rumblings of guitarist Johan Liefvendahl and bassist/co-lyricist Andreas Blomqvist. Despite the majority of the songwriting here being hyper-centered around the vocal melodies, their roles are crucial within the sound of this band, and as on past albums they find various scattered little moments for their own star turns. I’ll be honest though, one of the things I’ve identified as a weakness for this band here and on past records is that I can find myself tuning out during some of their relatively few extended instrumental breaks. Even though they’re not as noodle heavy as Dream Theater, they’re still working from a prog foundation in style, so instead of purposeful sustained riffing, or clearly outlined melodic motifs, the musical beds during the more uptempo/metal tracks work as rhythmic exercises, which is hardly captivating by itself.

With Karevik getting the lions share of the spotlight however, we’re far more attuned to process this album through his vocal melodies, inflection choices, and of course his and Blomqvist’s lyric writing abilities. I’m not going to detail out the concept here, because Google for one and also its just too much to talk about, but its tilted enough towards centering around specific characters and their emotions and that’s plenty of ammo for great lyrics. I’m thinking specifically of album highlight “Tiara’s Song (Farewell Pt 1)”, the most gloriously pop drenched moment here, its chorus something right out of the Ayreon / Avantasia grand gesture oeuvre: “Farewell Tiara, this song is yours / From Sahara to the seven seas it soars”. There’s a really inspired bit of album making in the connective sequel track “Goodnight (Farewell Pt 2), where that chorus is revisited by the mechanic of storytelling itself, with us hearing what appears to be a celebratory nighttime campfire singalong, heard amidst the din of people laughing and conversing while crickets chirp in the trees. Tiara has been selected to be humanity’s savior, and they’re giving her a farewell party, raising glasses to her name. Its a perfect lead in to “Beyond Today (Farewell Pt 3)” where we get to hear directly from the heroine herself, and this is where Karevik is just magic as a lyricist and emotive singer. He can deliver gut-wrenching emotion with vocal inflection and choices in phrasing, and sells us on the very relatable idea that Tiara’s inner dialogue on the eve of her solo journey into outer space to represent all of humanity is preoccupied with very human, very teenage girl thoughts: “I wonder will I ever say / Hey, if you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine / A perfect stranger in a ticket line / Just like in the movies, will he put his hand in mine?” Its not the first time we’ve been treated to this kind of ultra aware songwriting from Karevik and company, but few bands do it as boldly and fearlessly as Seventh Wonder.

I’ve enjoyed this album more than I thought I would, and I don’t know why I was initially low on expectations… perhaps it was that The Shadow Theory really bummed me out on anything and anyone associated with it. Hearing Karevik in this context however has renewed my confidence that Kamelot really did grab the right guy (certainly Haven was no fluke), but they just have to loosen up a bit and let him be a little closer to the vocalist we’re hearing right here. And to be fair, Karevik has come out recently and talked about why the approach he takes in Kamelot is so different to his Seventh Wonder style, and he made a few interesting points. First that Kamelot write in a different style altogether, which may be debatable given what we know about the earlier records with Roy (they were as theatrical, playful and major key as anything done by Seventh Wonder), and second that he feels uninhibited when composing vocal melodies for Seventh Wonder because he knows he won’t have to tour on those songs for any length of time. The latter is a band that for all purposes is a very popular studio project that occasionally does a festival date or two. Its a bitter pill to swallow in even considering the implication here, that Kamelot’s touring schedule might be affecting just how Karevik approaches his performances in the band. I’m not entirely convinced, because his work on Haven was closer to what we hear on Tiara than The Shadow Theory. Seventh Wonder definitely released the stronger album this year, by a mile even, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, even digging into the concept which usually isn’t my forte. This is just wishful fan-thinking, but I’d hope that hearing the record themselves would light a fire under the rest of Kamelot for the future.

Kamelot Meets Frasier: The Shadow Theory

Kamelot The Shadow TheoryOne of the year’s biggest releases, at least in the prog/power metal world, The Shadow Theory is Kamelot’s third album in the Tommy Karevik era, and their twelfth overall. It was on their third album Siége Perilous where they first introduced the much loved Roy Khan as their vocalist, but it wasn’t until its follow-up (The aptly named The Fourth Legacy) where Khan’s inclusion as a co-songwriter finally created the Kamelot magic we all love. The Khan/Thomas Youngblood songwriting duo wouldn’t suffer the expected sophomore slump either, delivering in succession albums that ranged from excellent (Karma, Ghost Opera) to downright masterful (Epica, The Black Halo). Similarly, Karevik’s first album with the band mirrored Khan’s nearly non-existent songwriting presence on Siége Perilous, as Silverthorn was an awkward, clunky affair that really could’ve used more of the new guy’s input. But just like Khan’s true unveiling on The Fourth Legacy, Karevik’s ground floor role in crafting the songs for his sophomore effort in Haven resulted in the band’s strongest album in a decade. I mention this emergent symmetry not only to point out just how much time I have on my hands to think about such things, but also to sketch out just where my expectation level was for The Shadow Theory.

 

Now I know what some of you are thinking, that this symmetry only works if you consider Haven on par with The Fourth Legacy, and truth be told Haven suffered from a few noticeable flaws, despite its largely excellent collection of songs. I wrote about this at length in my original review for that album, but the gist of it was that the band sounded inspired and reinvigorated when their songwriting leaned into Karevik’s ability to sing in higher registers. The songs that ended up being duds were the few that seemed to lack  major key melodies and power metal lift, and seemed to lean more towards an approach that I referred to as “faux-heaviness”. I’m thinking specifically of cuts like “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” and the dreadful, industrial tinged “Revolution” (my nominee for most disappointing Kamelot song of all time). But fears that maybe the album hadn’t aged well were dispelled when I was playing it in the weeks leading up to the release of The Shadow Theory, if anything, these recent spins have reinforced my belief that its one of the band’s strongest albums. Two weak songs aren’t enough to dislodge that status, but I might have been naive in thinking that they were simply vestiges of the downtuned, minor-key driven later Roy Khan era that Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai had gotten used to writing in.

 

 

Kamelot 2018What I’m realizing after the umpteenth listen through this new album is that Karevik’s mighty vocal power and ability to sing sustained vocals in a higher register weren’t quite enough to completely shake those darker tendencies from Kamelot’s songwriting approach. Not only does The Shadow Theory not hit the same major key heights as Haven, but it doesn’t hit the same sustained emotional heights either as a result. My theory last time around was based around the possibility that Youngblood and Palotai were in the process of breaking out of songwriting tendencies that were built up over time that naturally resulted in darker albums —- their way of adjusting to Khan’s increasing preference (and controversial speculation here, his declining range) for a lower to middle register vocal approach. But I think I may have overlooked something else entirely that smacked me in the face when I went back recently to read/watch a bunch of interviews with Youngblood. He said in response to several questions over those interviews that the band moved away from their more mythological/fantastical lyrical imagery because they found it limiting over time. In interviews for the new album, he was keen to discuss the Carl Jung based conceptual angle behind The Shadow Theory, relating it to the state of the world at present and how we relate to it (ie social media, etc). In one interview he even defended the band’s name, acknowledging the Arthurian mythology influence, but effectively brushing past it by suggesting the band had moved on topically (and that basically its just a brand name).

 

While those comments might hurt the heart of many an old school Kamelot devotee, I can see where he’s coming from. Its fair that the band would want to gradually evolve away from those types of lyrics, imagery, and concepts. I’d argue their first foray into really dark territory occurred as long ago as 2005 on the second half of their Faustian concept with The Black Halo, a darker, less playful affair than Epica, but perhaps more intense and haunting as a result. But even on those records, they framed the darkness in a literary landscape that put its characters in a relatively fantastical and mythic setting and time period. Even Silverthorn was set in the 19th century amidst the intrigue of a wealthy family (if the “Sacrimony” video was anything to go by), its gorgeous ballad “Song For Jolee” referring to a “…princess captured in a wooden frame”. The lyrics on some of the best songs on Haven also invoked this kind of old world, fantasy-steeped imagery, “Fallen Star” pleading to “the kings and the queens of the dawn”;  “End of Innocence” sees Karevik invoke Prince Charming with “A kiss on the lips / Turned the toad to a prince”. There’s more examples, but my point is that this kind of romantic, melodramatic, renaissance tinged imagery has continued despite the change in album art from royal purple hand drawn covers to more modern, metallic gray sci-fi inspired artwork; its a fundamental part of the band’s DNA, a part of their genetic code that pushes them towards rich melodicism, soaring choruses, and a sense of high drama.

 

 

Kamelot 2018Thematically and to a certain degree lyrically, The Shadow Theory sees the band attempting to try something entirely new by framing the album in a very modern, nearly science-fiction setting. In some sense its their music catching up to the visual style we’ve seen in some of their recent music videos, and its certainly reflected heavily in the dystopian drenched video for the first single “Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)”. Its a wise choice for a single as its one of the album’s best cuts, a spiritual cousin to previous storming album openers in “March of Mephisto”/”The Great Pandemonium”, and like those songs it uses strong imagery rooted in the band’s DNA to offset its larger, more abstract lyrical matter: “…In ambrosial grace / No applause for the old pantomime…”. Its a small thing to fixate on perhaps, given just how bracing this song is from a purely symphonic power metal perspective, but its also the introduction to The Shadow Theory’s far more modern lyrical concerns. The Jungian Shadow is a complex and in depth topic, worthy of being used as the basis for a thematic album (important to note that this is not a traditional concept album), but Kamelot very much use our modern day, real life problems of social media anxiety, technologically induced disassociation, negative group think, and media manipulation as the vehicle for exploring these ideas.

 

When they are able to strike a balance between this modern setting and the old world Kamelot DNA, they strike gold, as on “Ravenlight”, a song where Karevik sounds as close to Khan as he possibly can (perhaps a byproduct of said DNA…?). His lyrics during the verses are pure classic Kamelot, “Silent tears / In a sea of sorrow / If only God would talk to me / And promise me tomorrow”, and reinforced by beautiful imagery in the refrain, “In Ravenlight, you came to me / From silence rose, a symphony / of coming winters white”. Its a dark song, but it reminds me of the balance they were able to strike on the best moments on Poetry For The Poisoned, matching that darkness with decadent caramel drizzles of bright melody. We hear more of this on “Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)”, an epic symphonic ushered romp that sounds refreshingly like something from the Karma era, propelled by dueling vocal and string melodies that careen gracefully through the air. Karevik’s lyrics here are gorgeous, painting the portrait of a sunlit memory breaking through the oppressive hazy darkness, “Come day, come night, my crimson bride / Is dancing on the fields of gold”. I love this song, its regal and resplendent and reminds me of all the reasons I originally fell under this band’s spell.

 

 

Beyond the Black's Jennifer HabenPerhaps nowhere does the sunlight breakthrough more than on the glorious duet sung ballad “In Twilight Hours”, one that should be in serious consideration for our hypothetical top five Kamelot ballads discussion. Karevik delivers an impassioned vocal, and he’s matched in kind by Beyond The Black’s Jennifer Haben whose own vocals are the perfect balance of ethereal and earthy, resulting in a crystalline quality to her phrasing. Its a majestic song, centered around a cinematic, fully-arcing chorus crafted almost solely around their conjoined vocal melody —- but the emotional build up in the verses is perhaps more impressive, utilizing Palotai’s understated, sombre piano fragments and a sense of quiet, hushed dynamics that Kamelot have made a history of owning (recalling immediately classic ballads “Wander” and “On The Coldest Winter Night”). When Youngblood finally crashes in with his vocal melody echoing guitar solo, its almost cathartic in its emotional weight, the guitarist proving once again that his understanding of restraint and release is central to Kamelot’s musical power. I also really enjoyed “Stories Unheard”, a unique track that while not as magnetic as its peers described above, certainly has something charming working for it, a combination of its many disparate elements —- the music box emulating intro is immediately intriguing, keeping our attention long enough for the chorus to wallop us.

 

Then there’s the flip side, and its far more problematic here than on Haven, where the band leans into a darker musical approach, one where the melodies don’t get the spotlight, shunted aside for pure metallic aggression. I’ve said this before, but heavy riffs and pinch harmonics aren’t why we listen to this band —- there’s loads of other bands who do that well, but few can match Kamelot at their own strength. We get a dose of this aggression in “Kevlar Skin”, and it makes for an underwhelming song, with a hook that never seems to take off under the weight of its awkward melodic angle and lack of adequate build up in the verses or via a bridge. I’m not wild on the lyrics either, the imagery very sci-fi inspired, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but I just think the choice of diction limits the direction this vocal melody can head in. I might be the only one harping on these things and many of you might disagree, but I’m sensing a correlation here. Similarly on “Mindfall Remedy”, we’re blasted to a load of quasi-industrial sound effects that don’t do much for the actual song, which is already hampered by an underwhelming, under cooked refrain. Its the kind of chorus that certainly sounds like its supposed to be a chorus, yet lacks anything in the way of a discernible hook. The metalcore vocals courtesy of Lauren Hart (Once Human) are just texture at this point, although she did a fine job on “Phantom Divine”. I do sometimes wonder if the band ever realizes how transparent their decision to use female vocalists for every guest vocal spot is getting…

 

 

Tommy KarevikI really wanted to enjoy “The Proud and the Broken”, and in brief flashes I do, but overall it fails to move me as the apparent epic of the album. I’m not sure what the problem is here beyond the lack of a more definable vocal melody, because it has an interesting intro and fine middle instrumental passage (just one of those songs that doesn’t quite gel perhaps). I did notice the thematic similarities between it and Orphaned Land’s “Take My Hand” off their recent Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs album, not in exact diction, but in the spirit of what its lyrics are trying to say. Entirely coincidental of course, but its interesting how one song works so well and the other falls flat due to not making all the requisite emotional connections (lyrical and musical). We’ll skip the pointless closing instrumental “Ministrium (Shadow Key)”, only pausing to wonder why anyone felt that this was a better inclusion than the relatively decent bonus track “The Last Day of Sunlight” (which is noteworthy for its utterly bizarre musical hook during the verses and a chorus boasting a really nice Karevik moment). The other lackluster cuts were “Amnesiac” and “Burns to Embrace”; the former ruined by an anemic chorus and a wash of industrial sound effect nonsense, the latter by a lack of an actual melody of any kind in the verses (what the hell guys?).

 

Those lackluster moments are scattered pretty evenly across the tracklisting, and it ends up creating a picture of a really spotty listening experience. I sometimes wonder if an album is better off being a bit lopsided, with half excellent material and the other half ho-hum… does that leaves a better impression on us as fans rather than something like this, where its like eating an under cooked pancake? The moments I enjoyed on this album will find their way to my iPod’s Kamelot playlist of course, but I’m disappointed that they’ve taken a step back with The Shadow Theory. This is just one die-hard fan’s opinion, but I really think they need to reevaluate their overall stylistic approach and do something to shake things up. It could be seen as nitpicking on my part, but I’ve seen quite a few people comment that this album is more of the same, sort of a Haven part two. As I’ve pointed out, the band’s DNA is still intact, but they keep trying to edge in this direction where they’re pulling away from their roots, and at a certain point that’s more harmful then helpful (particularly when its been happening for four albums in a row now). I’d love to see Kamelot do an about face and embrace that older spirit that defined their glory era, though I know Youngblood has expressed no interest in doing so. Kamelot’s darker direction and the resultant songwriting seems to be lacking the firepower to keep things interesting for a full album. Take a page from Priest and look to the past for inspiration, this is metal after all, its okay to do that.

Serenity: The Refined Elegance of Austria’s Finest

I’m increasingly more aware of how rare it is to stumble upon a band that can utterly transfix my wandering attention span the way Serenity did about a month ago with the release of their spectacular fourth album, War of Ages. The band hails from Austria, a country far more regarded in metal circles as a purveyor of death and black metal bands, most notably Belphegor. Serenity then must be the black sheep of their countrymen, as they specialize in a style of progressive power metal informed by the obvious influences of Kamelot, Sonata Arctica, and maybe even a touch of Avantasia’s latter day hard rock epic strut. This is not to say they are merely the sum of their parts, as Serenity have an identity all their own within the fundamentals of songwriting styles and lyrical concepts — but their influences are a good touchstone and filter for prospective listeners.

 

It might be hard to ignore the extent to which the Kamelot influence has affected Serenity, down to styles of album cover art, logo design, and band photography. Even the way guitarist and co-primary songwriter Thomas Buchberger prefers an emphasis on understated riffs, elegant melody, and reigned in soloing brings to mind the style of Kamelot guitarist Thomas (!) Youngblood. Vocalist Georg Neuhauser doesn’t sound like Roy Khan per say, but he at times reminds me of a mix between current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik, Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko, and Scorpion’s Klaus Meine… a blending that is refined into one of the smoothest vocal deliveries in modern power metal. So yeah, the influences are hard to ignore… but they’re not hard to accept, at least for me anyway. I try to look at it pragmatically, that all bands have influences and starting points, everyone is trying to be uniquely derivative (particularly in a genre like power metal), and only the best will succeed in forging their own identity — a feat which usually takes more than a few records. Serenity succeeded in achieving that by their second album, 2008’s Fallen Sanctuary, which speaks volumes about the level of their abilities as songwriters.

 

 

Yes of course I emphasized songwriting, because while the musicianship Serenity display is of the excellent proficiency you’d expect from a European power metal band, the Buchberger/Neuhauser songwriting partnership is the critical heart of Serenity’s success. For anyone who felt/feels that something could potentially be permanently lost from the brilliance that was the Khan/Youngblood songwriting legacy — I’m telling you that the Buchberger/Neuhauser combo strikes right to the heart of the style of music that you and I both love, crave, and sadly can’t seem to find enough of. I’m talking about crisp, melodic, melancholy, triumphant, elegant, and yes actually HEAVY power metal that is written with a head for ambition, an ear for tunefulness, and a writer’s heart for great lyrics. And even though War of Ages is the album that sucked me in as a new fan of the band, I’ve become addicted to the other three albums in their discography as well. And one of the more brilliant examples of all of these aforementioned attributes combining to supreme effect can be found on the bonus track (!) of their 2011 Death & Legacy album, “To India’s Shores”.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suCXuj3B0U?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

As a lyricist, Neuhauser faces the same hurdle Khan did in being an English-as-a-second language writer, but he seems to make a similar effort in the care and choosing of diction, in the use of imagery, and in not burying either his narrator’s voice or his own in piles of metaphors that many lyricists in metal tend to do. It rings of confidence in his writing abilities, and coupled with the fact that Serenity seem hell bent on their songs being narrative voices for historical figures of the past musing on philosophical topics of their own lives or time periods… a great deal of confidence is needed for sure. Don’t let the historical figures thing put you off. The approach isn’t nearly as academic as it might threaten to sound on paper (although Neuhauser has apparently finished a doctorate’s in history, so its an informed voice at work here). I’ll be honest, I don’t really find it all that much of an influence over me when I’m listening to these songs. Historical names aren’t mentioned, you aren’t bludgeoned over the head with dates, places, times, or events… the lyrics at work here could be about anyone’s modern day struggles, relationships, or inner turmoil (okay the new record does have song called “Legacy of Tudors”, but its so good that I’ll just allow the indulgence).

 

 

For the War of Ages album, the band made what I can only refer to as a savvy game changer of a decision. Enter into the Serenity lineup one Clémentine Delauney from Lyon, France, as the co-lead vocalist to pair alongside Neuhauser’s powerful voice. This isn’t a gimmick, as they have experimented with a handful of female guest vocalists for select tracks on previous albums — and while the songs and performances have been good (particularly a duet with the always excellent Amanda Somerville on Death and Legacy’s “Changing Fate”), the types of female voices they’ve attempted to pair with Neuhauser never seemed to measure up or alternatively, contrast well with his rich, distinctive tone. I know these women have their fans, but I’ve never been overly impressed with Charlotte Wessels, nor Ailyn from Sirenia, and while Somerville’s duet was excellent, her voice is as strong and full of character as Neuhauser’s and to me it seemed that when they would join together both voices would be fighting for space with no one winning out.

 

Delauney however, had been singing with the band as their live backing vocalist for a considerable time prior to her finally being invited into the band as a permanent co-vocalist — and her vocal intersections with Neuhauser are noticeably more developed and experienced in terms of tone, delivery, and pure resonance. I think the band suspected this would be the case, and must’ve thought to themselves that their ideas of duet vocals would work better in the future if they had a consistent set of voices pairing up. Smart thinking — because honestly I think she’s an exceptional vocalist, possessing a soprano voice that is effortlessly melodic, rich, and deep yet capable of being ethereal, light, and even fragile when the song calls for it. She utilizes all those strengths on the epic opening track of the War of Ages album, “Wings of Madness”, where her vocals float above Neuhauser’s in the emotional chorus — only to swoop down to darker depths on her own solo verse (her eerily drawn out vocals there remind me of the haunting abilities of Sinéad O’Connor). I’m told that she penned around half of the lyrics on the new album as well, which means that she’s had a direct hand in crafting vocal melodies alongside Neuhauser and I really love that… Because when you’ve listened to a ton of power metal, you can spot the difference between a singer writing the vocal melodies as opposed to an overreaching guitarist, or bassist attempting to dictate what the vocalist does (hello Timo Tolkki and Steve Harris!).

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2QH9L42OY0?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

 

I’ve been checking out the tour dates for the band and they’re disappointingly slim, even for Europe… (I have no delusions about the band getting to launch a full tour in the States — I’ll post a very grateful retraction if that ever happens). I’m not sure what the problem is, but I could venture to guess that these guys have day jobs, and that they try to fit Serenity in whenever they can. That’s understandable and to be expected given the state of things in the industry, but I hope they can do more then just a ten date headliner tour of clubs in Europe. But if that doesn’t, or can’t happen then I’d just have one word of advice for the band if they ever happened to read this: Write more songs, record more albums, document your art with a sense of urgency and ambition. You know its an uphill battle if you’re hoping to headline arenas or chart singles, there are very few Nightwish success stories in your chosen genre. So instead, strike while the creative irons are hot and get this stuff on tape. Build your artistic legacy.

 

And if you’re a fan of music like this… well, I’m going to do something I almost never do, which is admonish you to actually buy the official physical release or legal download. Look, I love death and black metal as much as the next guy or girl, but for all the hundreds to thousands of death and black metal bands Austria has coughed up and choked on, she’s only given us one Serenity. Bands that make metal like this are rare, and I fear, growing rarer — so if you love this style of metal, actually show your support for the artists that are essentially underdogs in attempting to create it. I shelled out something just short of fifty American to grab this band’s catalog and I look forward to handing over more of my money in their name in the future. Its really hard to think of something else I’ve bought lately in my everyday life that I feel that good about.

Kamelot – Silverthorn: Is It the Start or End of an Era?

Here we are, on the eve of the American release of Kamelot’s long anticipated new album Silverthorn, their first with new vocalist Tommy Karevik of Seventh Wonder, and only their third album in their career without the vocals of longtime frontman Roy Khan. Speaking of whom, for those of you who had read my article a few months back discussing the loss and legacy of Khan from the lineup, you’ll know that I expressed a healthy degree of skepticism about a Khan-less Kamelot — even though I have become a great admirer of Karevik’s work in Seventh Wonder. I said then that we wouldn’t be able to accurately determine the failure or success of Kamelot’s decision to partner with Karevik until we could listen to a complete full length. For a band that had suffered the departure of a major songwriter such as Khan, it could really be the only true test. I’ve only had Silverthorn for just under a week, but have had it on heavy rotation daily in that short amount of time. I figure for an album that I’m placing a tremendous amount of weight upon (some might say unreasonably so), it was only fair that I give it more than just the standard multiple listens.

 

I’ll start this off by declaring rather simply that this is the best Kamelot album on offer since 2005’s masterpiece The Black Halo. Karevik’s input as a new primary songwriting force alongside band leader/guitarist Thomas Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai has rejuvenated the Kamelot sound both into fresh sonic territory, as well as back to its classic Khan-led period.   Gone are the murky, downcast tones of predecessor Poetry for the Poisoned, and there is a togetherness, a continuity that 2007’s Ghost Opera sorely lacked. Those were good albums that had their share of gems apiece, but were slightly marred by a spotty collection of songs that either overreached musically or seemed undercooked melodically. But Silverthorn is not wholly immune from that lingering condition, as there are some tracks that seem unfulfilled and what one could describe as borderline filler, namely the albums title track, its lengthy album concluding trilogy epic “Prodigal Son”, and yes, its lead off single “Sacrimony” (of which in an earlier review of the track itself I hoped would prove to the weakest song on the album).

 

A couple comments about two of these three troublemakers: First of all, until its last few minutes “Prodigal Son” is a bit of an all over hazy mess, and makes me wish that Youngblood would let go of the need to come up with these types of self-contained “trilogies” that he’s been doing in a fruitless attempt to equal or better their great “Elizabeth Trilogy” from the classic Karma album. “Elizabeth” worked because it was in essence three separate equal-length songs of varying degrees of awesome. “Prodigal Son” suffers in that it seems as though kernels of potentially good ideas were stitched together with atmospheric keyboard orchestration to create an illusion of cohesion. It didn’t work, you can see the seams and to be blunt about there’s nothing particularly epic that stands out overall. Moving on to the title track “Silverthorn”, we come upon the most blatant instance of filler on the album, a bland chorus that unless I’m mistaken is essentially a watered down retread of “Moonlight” from The Black Halo (seriously, even in the way the choirs are arranged, go listen to them back to back). Its not a sin for bands to recycle familiar motifs or styles from older works but filler is filler and its gotta be called out. Finally its worth singling out the two pointless instrumentals that bookend the album on opposite sides — lets lose those for the next record guys, because unless they’re gonna be as great as the very lovely violin-y intro track “Solitaire” from Ghost Opera, I don’t want to hear them.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQVTk-z3Jw8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

What makes Silverthorn work however are the inclusion of solid, rocking, classic-Kamelot-styled tracks such as “Ashes to Ashes”, “Torn”, the pompous “Veritas”, and the gorgeous emotional swell of “My Confession”. Speaking of these as a group, they’re not all that far removed from the dark stylings of the past two albums, heavy chug-a-chug rhythm sections, richly dark keyboard arrangements and all. What makes them sound fresh and popping with energy is Youngblood’s purposeful shift back to a more cleaner, uplifting guitar tone and melodic approach that really harkens back to the best of their Khan era work. This singular element was sorely missing from most of the recent albums and its presence all over the majority of this album is smile inducing. “Ashes to Ashes” is an awesome mid-paced crunchy stomper, where Karevik’s nimble vocals provide clever nuance in a chorus that is sneakily catchy — this is the headbanger of the record. The hooky, multifaceted “My Confession” works not only because of the addictive keyboard riffs of Palotai, but the brightly soaring chorus guided by one of Karevik’s best performances that reaches into high registers yet never wavers in its smooth delivery.

 

 

But here’s what I’ve been really wanting to talk about, namely, what makes Silverthorn shine, the true gems of the album. There’s a handful here that start off with the hauntingly perfect “Song for Jolee”, which turned out to be the first song that Karevik and the band collaborated on, as well as being the driving force that led to his invitation to join to the band. This might sit right alongside Kamelot’s Khan-era ballad masterpieces, its that great. Delicate keys tinkle out the fragments of a melody over a bed of orchestration, and Karevik’s emotive vocals usher the song along in a sparse, elegant fashion, with deft, nimble melodies that are built upon the melodic twists and turns provided by the lyrics themselves — in other words, nothing sounds forced. Honestly I don’t know if Khan could do it any better, and while I hesitate to have to compare the two vocally, this is the first moment on the album where Karevik’s vocals sound completely his own. This isn’t to say that he’s ripping off Khan, but there are moments throughout the entirety of the album where he does sound strikingly similar in terms of phrasing. I’ll give him some leeway because for starters their voices are relatively similar, and secondly because the nature of Kamelot’s songwriting is going to naturally bring about memories of Khan. On “Song For Jolee”, Karevik establishes his voice as its own, and fans of Seventh Wonder will recall touches of his work in that band’s ballads.

 

The cascading refrain of “Falling Like the Fahrenheit” is perhaps the albums most rewarding moment; a rich, layered vocal that is impressive not only for guiding its effortless melodies over rather tricky words, but for the way that it seems to soar purely on the strength of the vocal phrasing — the sombre, stately pacing of the music underneath hardly shifts in tempo in transition from verse to bridge to chorus. The album’s most sublime moment however is the following track, the instant classic “Solitaire”, where a bracing, surging verse section launches you forward into the album’s most urgent, epic, melodically triumphant, and lyrically beautiful chorus — a moment where Karevik’s lyrics nearly match the sheer brilliance of the mighty Khan: “Sometimes when I’m out of reach / And sometimes when I’m there / That is when our souls agree and join in solitaire /Sometimes when my will to love has gone away / That is when I hear your name”. The joyous guitar riff that follows those words is Youngblood circa 2000-2005, a moment of indulgence in the sounds of the band’s past that now sound refreshing and vital.

 

 

One final note about Karevik, as I’m sure that most of the reviews online and in various media will focus on his vocals, and perhaps not so much on what he brings to the table as a songwriter in terms of vocal melodies and the quality of his lyrics. Those were the aspects of Roy Khan that really solidified my love of the band and were the things that I feared Kamelot would suffer from the most. Having been a recent convert to the great work Karevik has done in Seventh Wonder, in particular through their latest album, The Great Escape, I found that I was relatively pleased with his contributions to Silverthorn, albeit more for his choices in vocal melodies rather than sheer lyrical poetry. Don’t get me wrong, he delivers good lyrics overall, and in addition to the great lines of “Solitaire”, there’s a really excellent couplet in the chorus for “Song for Jolee” worth mentioning: “One look in the mirror to see / Whats real and fake, Jolee”. That’s Khan-esque in its simple, elegant, and evocative nature. But he does hit and miss throughout the album, for instance I didn’t find the lyrics of “Sacrimony” to be the best they could have been, and perhaps it was the rushed way that song was put together that resulted in that (it was reportedly the final song written for the album). All said, it was a fine effort by Karevik for the first time around, and knowing what he has done in Seventh Wonder gives me confidence that he will be even better on the next album. He might never replace Khan in that regard, the void is too great, but he seems to understand the level of quality that Kamelot fans demand, and maybe that’s all we should be asking of him as a lyricist, and as a vocalist.

Nightwish/Kamelot in Austin: Karevik and Jansen Hit Their Stride

 

I figured I’d follow up my previous blog entry about Anette Olzon’s abrupt departure from Nightwish with something a little more positive and music related, namely, a few quick thoughts about the Nightwish/Kamelot performance on October 10th at Emo’s in Austin, Texas. By now forums, Reddit, and a ton of other places online have been filling up with talk of just how Floor Jansen and Tommy Karevik have been handling their new roles respectively as the vocalists of Nightwish and Kamelot. To be accurate, Karevik has had a longer gestation period (going on a few months) as Roy Khan’s official replacement — Jansen has had a scant ten days and seven shows to acclimate herself to her new role and the band’s setlist. Most fans are understanding of this fact, knowing that over time and subsequent performances, she’d get better and find the right vocal approach for each song, but this being the internet, there have been a fair share of grumblers, nit-pickers, and cries for Tarja. I went into Wednesday night’s show with a mind to focus on both Karevik and Jansen in particular and to try to just come away with a honest fan’s take.

 

Kamelot was first, walking out in front of a backdrop of the cover of their upcoming “Silverthorn” release. They started off with what struck me as a surprise, two songs from the Ghost Opera record followed immediately by “The Great Pandemonium” from their most recent, Poetry for the Poisoned. There’s nothing inherently wrong about those choices but you’d figure that a band on tour with a new vocalist would try to shoot from the earlier classic era material straight off the bat in a fast approach to try to win over skeptics. Regardless, from the word go Karevik blew me away with his near perfect singing, seemingly effortless reach of higher registers, and his ability to inflect emotion into all the requisite moments that Roy Khan had so pinned down on the records.

 

The band surprised me by bringing out “Seasons End” for this tour, a bonus track left off the initial non-Japanese Ghost Opera releases and one of the band’s true gems. Karevik and guest touring vocalist Elize Ryd (Amaranthe) sang together a powerful rendition of the song and traded off solo A cappella sections of the refrain towards the end only to join back in together for one ultimate climactic chorus. The rest of Kamelot’s short set (they were opening after all) was excellent, but it was “Seasons End” that really sold me on their choice of Karevik — at least as a live vocalist. I hate to say it, because I love the mighty Khan, but Karevik really did appear to be a genuinely better vocalist on stage, and as a frontman he was engaging and didn’t miss a cue and just as importantly he seems to have calmed down on his European tour habits of trying to over hype the crowd. Now comes the album on October 30th, the final test.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTrAyYteTTw&w=560&h=315]

 

 

As for Nightwish, I got the feeling from talking to people in the line outside and in the crowd in the venue that most fans in attendance were pretty much fine with the decision to replace vocalists mid-tour, generally not out of any real malice towards Olzon but just out of the simple satisfaction of being able to see the band live at all. Nightwish has toured the States before, but the tours have been few and far between, and who knows how many years it will be even before the next Nightwish album is out. The fact that the tour wasn’t canceled was seen as something of a miracle by those who were aware of the details of the band’s recent situation. As far as thoughts about the new vocalist… I saw a few After Forever shirts out there, but got the impression that most people didn’t know all that much about Floor Jansen.

 

So I’ll go out on a limb here and say something blunt that might bite me in the ass later down the line: I think Nightwish have found their permanent vocalist. If its not Floor Jansen, then they might as well just openly state that they’ll be using a rotating cast of female singers from this point onwards. She was not only surprisingly great, but there were stunningly amazing moments such as on “Ever Dream” where she delivered the song’s chorus in its true to original spirit of ever increasing high notes. I looked over to the right side of the stage during those moments to see Nightwish guitarist Emppu Vuorinen grinning in reaction in what appeared to be genuine surprise. Jansen was recovering from a cold during the first few shows of this tour but she said in a recent online posting that she’s now able to belt everything out at her full capacity. It certainly sounded that way.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXdrBCOLHX4&w=560&h=315]

 

 

The biggest surprise of the night was an airing of the “Once” album cut and fan favorite “Ghost Love Score”, which hadn’t been played since 2009. Interestingly enough my view was somewhat blocked at this point by longtime Nightwish manager Ewo Pohjola who quietly slipped into the audience to watch the band try its first attempt at performing this song with Jansen. They pulled it off, as well as the rest of the largely Imaginaerum based set list. The only moment that could be pointed out for possibly losing the crowd was “Slow Love Slow”, which works incredibly well on the album with all its moody subtleties, but doesn’t seem to translate as well live. My only other gripe would have to be the morphing of “Nemo” into an acoustic rendition, as opposed to the full dramatic flair of the original. With a singer that good, you should let her open up on your biggest hit — just saying.

 

Kamelot’s Silverthorn: First Listen of the Lead Single “Sacrimony”

So yea, I realize that “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)” has been in Kamelot’s recent setlists throughout the summer festival season and that there are recorded live versions floating around YouTube. I also realize that they’ve been of godawful sound quality and it was really hard to make heads or tails of what this new song and lead off single from the Silverthorn album actually sounded like. But today marks the official release of perhaps the most highly anticipated metal single of 2012 — and Tommy Karevik’s Kamelot studio debut — and I’ve been listening to it periodically throughout the day to form an impression.

 

Those of you who had read my recent article on The Legacy of Roy Khan know that I had voiced my concern about how a Khan-less Kamelot could potentially suffer without his tremendous songwriting input. It was worrisome because with all due respect to Thomas Youngblood, the early Kamelot records without Khan’s songwriting presence were mediocre at best. Word was out that Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai had already been working on 6-7 songs as early as January 2012 — would they even bother to wait for their new vocalist’s input?  I loved what Karevik brought to the table in Seventh Wonder in terms of his rather skillful ability to create memorable and soaring vocal melodies and arrangements and I wanted this injected into the new Kamelot material.

 

Well it was good news that was recently provided to us by Kamelot France as revealed in their interview with Youngblood:

 

KF: Last January 2012 you revealed that 6 or 7 songs were already co-written with Oliver; when and how did Tommy step into the process?

Youngblood: Around February, we started sending him ideas for songs. Song for Jolee was the first one, then Solitaire and so on. He worked closely with Sascha (Paeth, producer) in Wolfsburg on the vocals and lyrics. For the most part he did all the lyrics along with Sascha. I did some lyrics and we all worked together on the concept and storyline.

 

That comes as bit of a relief, and one hell of a smart decision because upon the very first listen to “Sacrimony” its clear that Karevik’s input is all over the vocal melodies for the song, particularly its surging, arcing chorus. The song is a juxtaposition between slow crawling verse sections marked by stop start riffing and atmospheric keyboard soundscapes that leap up into a swoopingly fast chorus section. Karevik is eventually joined by Amaranthe vocalist Elize Ryd who appears on a tension raising bridge section, the songs most brilliant moment — their two voices in succession pushing the chorus to a greater height. But then there’s a passage in the middle of the song preceding the solo section in which The Agonist’s Alissa White-Gluz delivers a raspy-grim vocal that just comes off as fairly pointless.  A strange outro concludes the last half a minute or so with a plucked guitar figure alongside the distorted voice of a child singing “Ring Around the Rosie” — its fine but I find it to be a less than satisfying way to end a song… though I guess you could call that nitpicking.

 

My overall take on “Sacrimony” can be summed up by saying that if this ends up being the worst song off the Silverthorn album, then Kamelot will be in good shape, and I certainly hope that is the case. Its not a bad song per say, I really enjoy the chorus and in particular the sweeping drama of the bridge that precedes it. Its everything else in the verse sections that come off as slightly clunky in that aggravating way that suggests had more time been invested in working on the song, it perhaps could have been molded into something far smoother. Kamelot doesn’t do abrupt and jarring all that well, one of their trademarks is flow and smoothness. It should be noted that in the very same Kamelot France interview Youngblood noted that “Sacrimony” was the last song written for the album, the bulk of it apparently composed in a day, with Karevik adding vocal melodies over the top later. Its clear when listening to it that perhaps they didn’t leave enough room for him to weave in more fluid verse melodies. One can only hope that the other songs didn’t suffer the same fate.

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvWT-7l6vJU&w=560&h=315]

 

 

Kamelot: The Legacy of Roy Khan

 

 

 

Timing can be a tricky thing. I had been thinking a lot about Kamelot recently, and the reality of their future without their now ex-vocalist, the mighty Roy Khan. I had to admit, as a fan of the band I’ve harbored worries —- the loss of a vocalist is a shakeup that few bands can endure with continued creative and commercial success and this is amplified in the case of the vocalist being very distinctive. So I had begun to write a piece on my doubts, and the reasons for them and had planned on it being published just before Kamelot announced their new vocalist. Of course, on the day I planned to publish, Kamelot lifted the curtains on the identity of Khan’s long speculated upon replacement: namely Seventh Wonder’s own Tommy Karevik. Well, I’m proud to say that I called it (among others certainly), Karevik had long been one of the candidates on most fans shortlists, he was certainly my favored choice and its not exactly a surprise that he’s been given the position. It makes sense, he seems to fit in with the band vocally, and he did fill in for Khan on select shows in 2010 to proven success. I feel a touch more confident with the band going forward with Karevik, in that they’ll be able to release something that is not a jarring stylistic departure due to a new vocalist being radically different (i.e. Blaze Bailey and The X Factor). My confidence is restrained however, by my speculation of the larger possibility that Kamelot’s future will be defined not by what they have gained, but by what they have lost.

 

 

Roy Khan’s emotive and expressive vocals are by this point well-known to most of the metal community at large. His smooth delivery, subtle accent, and near perfect inflection and timbre were one of Kamelot’s defining attributes during his tenure with the band. He wielded attributes rarely found in power metal vocalists: richness, texture, depth, and a touch of melancholy. Soon after being introduced to the band through their sixth album Epica, it became apparent to me that there was more to Kamelot than just a great voice; there was intelligent and articulate songwriting at the heart of their music. In this I saw the continuing evolution of a stylistic legacy that the once mighty Queensryche had long ago abandoned. Khan and band founder/guitarist Thomas Youngblood were to me the second coming of the untouchable Geoff Tate/Chris DeGarmo songwriting team that had penned so much of the classic music that I loved in the ‘Ryche. The jump in songwriting quality from Kamelot’s first two albums with original vocalist Mark Vanderbilt (as well as the first Khan vocal-helmed album Siége Perilous), to Khan’s songwriting debut in the masterful The Fourth Legacy was simply immeasurable. Soon after hearing more Khan-Youngblood classic albums such as Karma, and Epica sequel The Black Halo, the deficiencies of many other bands in the genre grew to disproportionate sizes in my eyes. Many of the power metal bands I was listening to in earnest prior to discovering Kamelot now seemed dramatically inferior in comparison; their lyrics trite, subject matter shallow, and musically lacking. I was finding it harder and harder to enjoy many of them to the degree that I once did. In my initiations with Kamelot’s discography, I discovered that Khan’s role as a songwriter and lyricist was a huge factor in the quantum leap that Kamelot took from being a Crimson Glory-soundalike to a truly remarkable, original, and fresh force in modern power metal.

 

Khan’s songwriting legacy within Kamelot is deep and full of nuance. By becoming Kamelot’s lyricist he brought to the songs a poet’s gift, the ability for the band’s songs to shine beyond the music. As for his newly found songwriting partner Thomas Youngblood, he pushed the guitarist to rethink and expand his vision of Kamelot’s sound, right down to fundamentals such as tempos and song structure. His talent for creating vocal melodies and imagining the surrounding harmony arrangements with all their intricacies and subtleties melded with Youngblood’s natural talent for cranking out melodic yet powerful and tastefully restrained riffage, and as a result pushed the guitarist’s budding creativity.  Conversely, as seen on The Fourth Legacy album, Youngblood had a more straight ahead metal oriented songwriting approach than that of Tore Østby (Khan’s former Conception band mate and primary songwriter), and this urged Khan to get inventive in terms of how he’d develop and place vocal melodies, as well as adapt the phrasing of his smoother than most delivery to faster, heavier, more aggressively oriented metal. These results were often beautifully intricate, such as in the spectacular “Nights of Arabia” and “The Shadow of Uther”, where the verses and chorus feature alternating vocal tempos and styles to supreme dramatic effect. A further nod to creative expansion was introduced within the band’s repertoire in the form of spare, haunting, acoustic ballads. There Khan’s ability to carry a song’s melody on his vocal chords alone was put on full glorious display, as in “The Sailorman’s Hymn” and “Glory”, both moments where Khan’s lyrical storytelling abilities were allowed to blossom while Youngblood proved that he was as capable of delicate, spacious, finger-plucking as he was flashy, furious soloing. The two band mates meshed together on that album and challenged and improved each other, and it was only the beginning of a jaw dropping body of collaborative work.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_5X3FwzVeI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

I keep mentioning Khan’s superlative abilities as a lyricist, and in truth the quality of lyrics don’t seem to be something that most metal fans fixate upon in general for reasons that are easy enough to understand. Most average metal bands get by on rather clunky, clumsy, and often lazy lyrics that work in a utilitarian way at best, while the appreciation of the music itself takes center stage. With Kamelot, Khan’s crystal clear vocals placed up front in the mix naturally put the spotlight upon his lyrics and he connected to listeners with his innate ability to tell stories, create interesting narrative perspectives, and offer elegant poetic verse and inventive phrasing. I’m not the only one who noticed, on the Amazon.com page for the Epica album the prolific reviewer LordChimp wrote: “Khan — in addition to being a prime singer is an outstanding lyricist, full of evocative colors and depth and beautiful diction”. Well put, and he’s not the only one who’s noticed: Kamelot fans have been vocal about their appreciation not only for Khan’s poetic voice, but for his ability to craft detailed concept albums with intricately woven stories, and imaginative narrative perspectives —- and never having it sound forced, or crammed in just for the sake of fitting it all in somehow.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jn4nzFmyNfw&w=560&h=315]

 

 

They’re referring to moments such as in the ballad “Wander”, where Khan paints a memory of a meeting between the concept album’s tragic protagonists in a setting that is depicted by simple, evocative phrases: “I recall one summers night / Within the month of June / Flowers in mahogany hair / And smell of earth in bloom”. The disconsolate narrator reflects upon the bittersweet agony of this memory in the gently soaring chorus, “Silently we wander / Into this void of consequence / My shade will always haunt her / But she will be my guiding light”. Those last two poignant lines, juxtaposition the path of the two protagonists lives in a starkly elegant manner, and serve as foreshadowing within the greater context of Epica’s Faustian storyline. In the album’s watershed song “Lost and Damned”, Khan twists and bends the verse lyrics to fit over accordion, piano and strings played in loose waltz-like rhythms only to dramatically plunge headlong into one of the band’s most bracing, urgent choruses. The lyrics deliver an appreciable musing on the workings of fate without having to clonk us on the head and actually use the terms fate, or destiny: “Don’t ask why / Don’t be sad / Sometimes we all must alter paths we planned / Only try — Understand / I want to save you / From the Lost and Damned”. Against the Faustian backdrop of the Epica storyline, this song is not only a pivotal moment of action for the album’s protagonist, Ariel, but a brilliantly executed set piece within the story. It is literally Ariel standing in front of the object of his affection, as she weeps, speaking the lyrics out to her, and we know this simply due to Khan deftly penning “Helena don’t you cry / Believe me; I do this for you / Heed my decision now / I will be gone tomorrow noon”. I could sit here listing countless other examples of similar literary devices and dramatic technique found within Khan’s lyrics across his entire spectrum of work with the band, but it’d take forever and this isn’t meant to be a literature lecture —- just one fan’s passion about what the guy brought to metal.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwCnOCYhHuI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

When Steph Perry of Rocknotes interviewed Khan back in 2009, she mentioned to him “In the song “Temples Of Gold”, there’s the lyric “little did we know that they were life itself, the days passing by”. That’s just pure poetry. You don’t even need a song behind it“. Khan responded,

 

The lyrics have always been really important to me. There’s so many bands that, I don’t know how they feel about it themselves of course but there’s a lot of bands that I feel don’t put enough into the lyrics. They focus on the music and song and everything’s great but the lyrics seem to be lacking something. There’s other bands that have brilliant lyrics too and much better lyrics for that matter. In our genre I feel there’s a lot of lyrics that definitely could have been more worked on let’s put it that way. I guess it’s just that I like to play with words, I like to say things in ways that make people stop and think. It’s very important to me. I really like writing lyrics. It doesn’t always take that long though, even though people may think that [laughs].

 

His comments regarding his dedication to his craft speak volumes, and he is diplomatic about his perceptions of the lyrics found in other bands’ work, particularly within similar genres —- perhaps too diplomatic. He schooled them all, and ruined Stratovarius for me (sorry Kotipelto!). I consider Khan’s role in Kamelot as vitally important, he was half of the driving force that helped to shape the sound, style, and vision of the band’s work. Their last two albums, Ghost Opera and Poetry for the Poisoned, while not on the same peerless level as their conceptual predecessors, were still packed with memorable songs of sweeping drama, and Khan’s trademark ear for vocal melody and unforgettable lyrics. He never dropped the ball in that regard; where it counted for artistry’s sake, in the studio and forever documented on record.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately he seemed to struggle with the toll a punishing live schedule was taking on his vocal chords as well as the effects of age (older songs had been noticeably tuned down live to compensate for his diminishing range), and performances had been slightly spotty in his last few years on the road. He seemed to be making a resurgence in the spring/summer of 2010, where his documented live appearances sounded fresh and revitalized, but soon after the hammer was dropped: Khan went on hiatus, citing burnout and exhaustion, and a little over six months later his statement confirming his resignation was officially released. By this point, the stunning shock had worn off and it didn’t come as a surprise, just a profoundly depressing acceptance. There was a curious footnote to that statement,

 

I am eternally thankful for everything you and KAMELOT have given me and equally sorry that it has to end here. The good news is; God was there after all…”     – Roy Khan

 

 

Many of Kamelot’s songs dealt thematically with universal themes such as love, death, hope, despair, and faith —- in particular the loss and search for faith. Its been interesting as a fan to go back through the albums, and see that particular theme crop up over and over, in a way that I had not noticed before. No one will ever accuse Kamelot of being a religious band, certainly not a Christian band, but it does seem that Khan was quietly embedding a great deal of his personal struggles into his lyrics, even on up to his final album with them, as seen in “Once Upon a Time”: “I won’t stay to stand in line / Or wait for God to shine all over me / I wait for the storm”. His former band mate Youngblood was unable to adequately explain his former singer’s religious awakening, but did credit it with leading the singer down his path to leaving Kamelot. In a recent Q&A by the guitarist on the band’s Facebook page, he unloaded a stunner about Khan’s present activities: “Before making the final choice on the new singer, we did correspond via email. I know he’s in good health, working in Norway. When he quit Kamelot he also chose to quit the music business and seems to be very happy.” Never say never, but that sounds to me like the end of a music career, and while I suppose I’m glad the guy is apparently happy, I find it tragic in the sense that he still has a world of talent that will potentially remain untapped. I was at least hoping for a Conception reunion, a solo album, a guest appearance, anything! Sadly, its a quiet end to a deafening career.

 

 

Some Kamelot fans grew nervous (and some irate) that Fabio Leone, the band’s choice as a long term touring fill-in could even be considered as Khan’s replacement, and while I admired the guy’s effort when I caught the band live, I quietly agreed with them. Enter Tommy Karevik. I’ve been listening to The Great Escape by Karevik’s previous (and apparently still current) band Seventh Wonder. It and its immediate predecessor Mercy Falls have been striking a chord with me that I’ve been unable to get from them in the past. I’m not sure why, maybe its my subconscious projecting its hopes about a Karevik-fronted Kamelot that’s doing it… regardless, I’m enjoying them, though not loving them. Karevik was apparently chosen on the grounds that he is also a primary songwriter for Seventh Wonder, and a lyricist as well. While I can see some skill in his lyric writing in these songs, its a far cry from the sheer quality that Kamelot fans are used to, or at least this one anyway. He has a pretty good voice, and as I mentioned before, his takes on Kamelot songs when filling in for Khan live were strong. Its unfair to compare him to Roy but to be frank about it, he has huge shoes to fill. A great, passionate new album that showcases his writing abilities in a way that pushes Kamelot forward is the only way to step out of Khan’s immense shadow. I hope he and the guys pull it off, I don’t want my admiration for the band to diminish, and as for Roy Khan himself, I hope he makes a return to music, in any form. If he doesn’t, I’m glad I got to see him live, and glad that he stuck around long enough to build what can rightly be called a legacy.

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