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Sonata Arctica: Pariah’s Child and the Reality of Expectations

April 10, 2014

I wonder if every new Sonata Arctica release shouldn’t come with a warning sticker on the front. I’m not quite sure exactly what the wording of the message would be, but it’d have to get its point across succinctly since there would be an obvious character limit. Perhaps we can impose some self-made restrictions upon ourselves to keep it short and sweet —- a twitter style 140 character limit then? Yeah we’ll go with that. Perhaps by the time I arrive at the conclusion of this review we’ll have a message for that sticker that does the job. But why the need for a warning sticker at all…? Its because post-2007 Sonata Arctica have the misfortune of being saddled with the weight of rather grand expectations, and perhaps because as fans we see our expectations through the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

If you enjoy Sonata Arctica’s music, you do so despite the occasionally cringe or giggle inducing lyric, the often clunky song titles, and Tony Kakko’s uniquely melodramatic worldview. You’re drawn in for the same reason everyone gets drawn in —- through Kakko’s ABBA-esque sense of melodicism, his knack for pop songcraft, and his ability to cut through typical metal bravado and interject a little pathos through emotionally transparent storytelling. When you listen to a classic like “Tallulah”, a shimmering ballad from their glory era, your heartstrings swell from the honeyed melodies and gorgeously layered backing vocals, regardless of the lyric “I see you walking hand in hand /With long haired drummer of the band”. You don’t view Kakko’s heavily Finn-accented English as a drawback, but rather part of his charm as a charismatic vocalist. That the band’s following has seemingly rivaled that of elder Finn-metal statesmen Stratovarius speaks to just how much of a profound impact they’ve made upon the sometimes ultra-finicky power metal fan community worldwide.

So when Tony Kakko goes on record and states that this new album will be a return to form (even down to the return of the original logo), its understandable that a fan’s expectation of this promise is defined by their own personal best-of Sonata Arctica playlist. We tend to remember the highlights of what has been a rather lopsided discography, one marked by a stellar beginning but continued on through a series of spottier efforts. I speak from personal experience here, having created my own best of Sonata Arctica iTunes playlist many years ago, usually adding a couple tracks from every subsequent new album since then. I humbly consider it to be a rather terrific kaleidoscope of the tiny details that makes Sonata Arctica one of metal’s most endearing artists. If I took the time to compile another playlist from what was left on the cutting room floor (so to speak), I’d imagine the impression one would get from that playlist would be of a band high on ambition, yet uncertain on how to achieve it, often to disastrous results. See this is a band whose highs are mountain peaks, while their lows often go below sea level —- maddening for their fans for sure, but perhaps better in the long run than being stuck in the staid plod of mediocrity.
 

And that’s a fairly accurate (if crude) way of analyzing each new Sonata Arctica album since 2007′s Unia, a line of demarcation for the band where they decided to branch out their sound and songwriting with some far flung experimentation. Its been a rocky ride ever since. Sure there have been gems on all these experimental era records, “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and “Alone in Heaven” from 2012′s Stones Grow Her Name come to mind immediately, but there’s a been a lot of “cutting room floor” playlist material as well. And if you take a look at the band’s discography, you’ll notice that with the release of Pariah’s Child, the band has evened up the number of albums in this post-2007 experimental era to those of their classic, golden era —- four a piece to be precise. Yep, I’m including this “return to form” album with the experimental era because Tony Kakko —- who has spent these past seven years experimenting —- can no longer relate to the natural boundary of tunnel vision he had during the band’s early years. He’s an internal songwriter at heart, and as a result suffers from a lack of external separation… simply put, its likely that he doesn’t see the experimenting we hear as being all that experimental. But to us outsiders, it seems for all the bluster about how Pariah’s Child would be a no-nonsense, classic Sonata Arctica power metal album, there sure is a lot of nonsense here.

Let’s just get the really bad stuff out of the way first, because its hard to ignore such a recklessly provocative song like “X Marks the Spot”. Fellow Sonata fans, ever wish you could be in the studio during the mixing process of the band’s albums and could jump up at any moment and slap the engineer’s hands away from the console, and possibly force him to delete entire tracks? Because that’s what I wish I could do every time I hear some godawful, corny dialogue stain the very fabric of what could be a decent song. This has become an alarming trend with this band, and those familiar with their discography will know of the many stained moments I’m referring to. This is the worst one yet: A Finnish guy who sounds like a born again televangelist from Texas (I should know!!!) speaking about how rock n’roll has saved him. The song underneath isn’t spectacular by any means (and parts of it sound far too similar to “Alone in Heaven”), but it could’ve been a passable album track without all the horrible spoken word audio. Instead we get the poster-child for the very worst of Tony Kakko’s inexplicable need to do crazy, crazy things to his songs. Its a song ruined, a track we’re all likely to skip over, keep off playlists and generally speaking try to forget. Thanks Tony.

Speaking of annoying spoken dialog, I can’t neglect to mention “Blood”, where we’re treated to monotone droning of scientific explanations of animal biology. The crime in this case is that this is actually a pretty good song, a warmly melodic verse that builds up into an aggressive bridge with frenetic percussion to a pretty fantastic chorus. Again, I have to ask —- Tony, why are you subjecting your songs to these distractions? Let the music speak for itself (a lot of bands could use this advice, I’m looking at you Seventh Wonder!). Unfortunately, its not simply those questionable decisions that detract from this album’s attempt at classic status. There’s the woefully overwrought and lyrically cliched ballad “What Did You Do In The War, Dad”, and yes the title is obviously indicative of the approach Kakko takes in the lyrics, that is, a back and forth dialog between a father and son. The real shame here isn’t so much the missed opportunity on Kakko’s part by addressing such a potentially rewarding topic with fists instead of surgeon’s hands, but the fact that underneath those on-the-nose lyrics are some really affecting melodies. This could’ve been a great song, and I’m disappointed that it only reminds me of another old clunker, “The Boy Who Wanted To Be a Puppet” (I’ll volunteer to help you with song titles Tony, I know I could do better than these).
 

I’m sure the most baffling track on the album is “Half A Marathon Man”, which actually has a nice Deep Purple/Rainbow-ish approach for the majority of the song, but they’re undermined by Kakko’s pointed lyrical American-isms. That in itself isn’t a deal breaker, but the sheer rock n’roll throwback approach is jarring, especially in the context of this supposed return to their power metal glory (of which I’m sure it’s abundantly clear by now that Pariah’s Child is not). And I can’t neglect to mention the utter mess that is the purported epic of the album, “Larger Than Life”, where the first five and a half promising minutes are blown completely out of the water by hearing an operatic choir sing the lines “So don’t take life so seriously”. Look, I tolerate a lot with Sonata Arctica, but I have a hard time swallowing the juxtaposition of an epic sounding collection of professional voices singing such mundane phrases. It simply doesn’t work, and tellingly the song unravels immediately after that, a directionless blast of orchestration and guitars that get blander as they go on…. at one point you realize that nothing is actually happening in the song, its just elevator music over tepid riffing. This song desperately needs a melodic motif that it can go back to or utilize in increments throughout —- instead it just comes off as a collection of leftover ideas that were cobbled together against an orchestral arrangement in the hopes that it would mesh together well. It didn’t, and instead can be officially considered the worst Sonata Arctica “epic” to date.

Thankfully, there are some gems on Pariah’s Child, ones that I’ve already added to my permanent Sonata Arctica best of playlist. The sharpest of these is the lead single, “The Wolves Die Young”, which sounds better on the album mix than it did for the video (maybe the fact that the video was terrible clouded my judgement?). Credit to commenter Garret, who told me to give the song a little bit of time to open up. It certainly did, with its effortlessly melodic chorus and nicely layered backing vocals, its the kind of pop song that Kakko writes so well, and that encapsulates the very best qualities of Sonata Arctica. I’m also quite fond of “Running Lights”, despite its silly car screeching sound effects at the start (completely unnecessary, this isn’t Operation: Mindcrime), its the kind of romantically nostalgic lyric that recalls the best moments of the band’s Ecliptica/Silence era, “And they enter the night when /The young ones need no sleep / Laughing at the lights they keep running /Becoming color of the night”. And I have to admit that “Cloud Factory” has grown on me, its melody is charming and invokes an almost Japanese quality, but again we have to deal with a questionable Kakko experimental songwriting moment when he caps off a rather brilliant mid-song bridge with a wild jaunt into big-top circus territory. A minor gripe perhaps, but its the kind of silliness that makes you think twice before adding the song to the road trip playlist you’re assembling for you and your buddies.

It was with great relief and an almost yearning joy that I embraced the most unadorned track on Pariah’s Child, the sparse, delicately folded ballad “Love”, perhaps the band’s greatest to date. So excellent is the songwriting at work here, so confident is Kakko in his lyrical approach that his vocals kick in before the :01 second mark, over beautifully soft piano melodies. This is Sonata Arctica! What a fantastic song —- nothing I say about it could do justice to its status as a diamond among gems. You wonder why Kakko couldn’t employ a similar display of subtle imagery that he offers in the lyric “Oh I love the face you try to hide in your hands” in songs like “What Did You Do In The War, Dad”. Maybe one of the things we’re learning is that Kakko is at his best when he’s writing about love, the losing or gaining of (or in this case, the appreciating).

Certainly we’ve learned that he’s to be taken with a grain of sea salt when making claims of returning to any type of classic Sonata Arctica era. The reality is that experimentation has slowly become a habit of his that he’s unable to ween away from, just as expecting another Silence or Winterheart’s Guild is a habit that we as fans have made, well, habitual. Perhaps the warning label we were considering earlier should be something like:
 

 
Or maybe it should simply read, “Old habits die hard”.

 

Metallica’s Baffling Decision Making

March 26, 2014

I’m sure some of you read the various news items about Metallica debuting a new song during their gig in Bogotá, Colombia on Sunday, March 16th. The new, presumably unfinished track was presented as “The Lords of Summer”, and it was captured on a variety of mobile phones and even a professional camera crew (apparently standard operating crew for Metallica these days). Its not surprising that the mere inclusion of a new song in the band’s setlist would attract a lot of media attention —- this is after all a band that has only mustered up enough creativity to release four proper studio albums in the past twenty-three years. If you detect some snark there, well —- I won’t go out of my way to keep it hidden. That this is the first time I’ve written about the biggest metal band in the world, Metallica, on what is a metal blog is admittedly strange, but I’ve only written about Iron Maiden once before and they’re my favorite band of all time (fingers crossed for a new album this year!).

Full disclosure will reveal that I was a pretty rabid Metallica fan in my formative years, as I would wager a lot of us were. I was even a fan of their Load/ReLoad period, though I wasn’t too much of a Metallica apologist to not be able to concede that those two albums should have been released as one, distilling the best from both. My fandom waned in the next six years after that era however, particularly with the fascinating mess of St. Anger, an album so abysmally remedial that I barely even recognized what I was listening to. I still remember my brief flashes of denial —- trying to listen to “Frantic” and simply will myself into enjoying it. It was a lost cause, not helped by the fact that I had by then heard too much in the way of far superior metal of all types being released by talented artists who were also capable of releasing records every other year. It was a sad commentary on the state of Metallica in 2003 that the documentary on the making of their new album was far more compelling than their music. What happened to the band that just a half decade prior had penned “Bleeding Me”, or “The Outlaw Torn”?

A brief aside: I am a firm believer in the hypothesis that it was Iron Maiden, not Metallica nor any other band, that spearheaded the resurgence of all things metal around the turn of the millennium. I’d have to get into a fairly lengthy explanation to detail my thinking behind that statement (and perhaps I will one day), but I feel that Maiden’s reunion had a tremendously positive affect on the metal community and associated industries all around the world. It wasn’t just the major media attention that Maiden’s resurgence attracted; it was partially responsible for the sea-change in temperament towards metal that affected the disposition of American promoters who became willing to take chances on booking European metal bands for their first Stateside treks. Or that cleared the pathways for previously mail-order only metal labels like Century Media or Nuclear Blast to ink retail distribution deals with companies like Caroline or EMI. It became tremendously cheaper and easier to be a metal fan living Stateside after the Maiden reunion —- look I know it wasn’t all due to Maiden. The success of European bands like Hammerfall, Nightwish, Dimmu Borgir, etc, etc (the list goes on) certainly helped as well but again, it was Maiden’s resurgence that made new opportunities possible for many of those artists.
 


Swinging back to Metallica now and fast forwarding to 2008, they decided that perhaps the best thing to do in a resurgent metal landscape of 2008 was to record an album of material that harkened back to an archetypal Metallica sound. It may seem on paper like a smart decision, and even retrospectively I’d still think that it was the only reasonable direction they could have ventured in —- except that it didn’t work out that way. Oh sure, Death Magnetic has its defenders, supporters, and apologists —- but lets call a spade a spade, this was a dim shadow of what Metallica once was. Most of the songs were lifeless, one of them was a motif recycled not for the second, but third(!) time, and there was a distinct sense of uncertainty and lack of direction in the details (even in the cover art and album title…. seriously, what are they trying to convey?). I remember wondering if it was just that my own tastes in metal had moved on, but that idea was negated by the fact that I still enjoyed the hell out of new Iron Maiden albums, and always found something to enjoy in new records by other bands of the same era such as Megadeth, or Helloween. So what was it that made Metallica’s new music come off to me as uninspired and clunky?

I think the answer, ultimately, is that there was little in the way of artistic continuity. Metallica’s writing sessions for the Black Album took place in 1990, and after its gargantuan mega-tour the Load/ReLoad sessions occurred around 1995 with some touch-ups in the two years afterwards. Touring and various projects such as S&M and Garage, Inc took up the intervening years. Metallica wouldn’t work on a collection of new material until those dysfunctional, therapist guided, captured on documentary sessions for St. Anger a whole seven years later. It would be nearly six years before they reconvened once again for Death Magnetic —- simply put, this is a band that tours and tours and tours, and I’ll argue that despite its financial benefits their incessant touring has come at the cost of their artistry. I’m not suggesting that its wise for Metallica to scale back its touring, these guys obviously understand where their huge paychecks come from. What I am saying however, is if the band is interested in making continually better original music, they would do well to realize that they need to attempt its creation more often. How do they relate to one another musically speaking when they haven’t attempted to write new material in half-decade long spans? At what point do you overdo touring?
 


I’ll argue that the case in point that answers that question is the band’s current touring activity —- that’s right, Metallica is on a South American tour as we speak. In fact, they have tour dates lined up all through the spring and summer up to August. Promoting what you ask? I dunno… Metallica I guess. This is a band that has waffled on going back to the studio for a proper studio album, only pausing in their incessant tour schedule to commit ear murder with their ill-conceived and executed Lulu album with the late Lou Reed (for all our sakes I’ll just avoid talking about it at all here, suffice to say it was a time-sink —- as in black hole, the astronomical object). So now, in 2014 every band member has finally mentioned something in the press as to this year being the perfect time for Metallica to start cooking up a new album, okay, great! Except that they’re not in a rehearsal room, and certainly not in a recording studio. How do you write an album on the road when you’ve been unable to do so in the past? Does this mean that the next Metallica album won’t start getting assembled until the fall of this year, when the band is finally off the road? Does any of this sound like the plan of a band hell bent on delivering a truly great work of recorded art?

Coming back to what happened the other night then, when the guys figured that a stadium full of fans who in their heart of hearts really just want to hear anything pre-Black Album at the show, would be perfect guinea pigs to ear-test this raw version of a new song they’ve been working on. A couple things: The debuting of new material in a live setting before the release of the recorded version has been a pet peeve of mine for countless years, no matter what the band, no matter what the subgenre. Metal is a form of music that is best appreciated on record —- there may be some of you that will instantly feel the need to argue against that, but think for a moment of where your metal fandom began. Most of you will attest that it began upon hearing the studio version of a song, whether it was from the actual album itself, or as heard on a music video, or hell even on an episode of Beavis and Butthead. My rock and metal fandom began with hearing studio versions of songs by Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Megadeth, Iron Maiden… I didn’t see those bands live until after the fact.

You may go to a metal show, see a support act you’ve never heard before and walk away impressed enough to go check out their record —- it happens to me too. But I guarantee you that you’ll enjoy that band way more the next time you see them live, having had time and opportunity to listen to their recorded albums, so that you recognize and know the songs when they’re played live in front of you. Its always a more rewarding experience to have some familiarity with a band’s music before you see them live —- they have the possibility of becoming transcendent experiences. Because of metal’s usually complex nature, there’s a lot going on within the music that your ears need to decipher. Most great metal records need more than a casual spin to reveal themselves to you, with all their carefully layered instrumentation and intricacies. Metal has spread, persevered, and made its greatest artistic advances as a form of recorded music —-less so as live performances.
 

When a band plays live, there are so many factors that can audibly affect the performance of a song, the acoustics of the venue, the noise of the crowd, bad mixing, the sound guy sucks, etc. I was mildly annoyed when Kamelot debuted their first Tommy Karevik era song at a European festival —- crap sound and all —- when you took a listen to the versions plastered over YouTube you could hardly make heads or tails of anything. I’m sure it was worse for the fans in the crowd, what exactly were they supposed to be hearing that they could comprehend, if anything? When you take a look at some of the videos of “The Lords of Summer” performance, you’ll see some of those lucky fans that got to be invited on stage to watch the gig from the wings, and most are cautiously bobbing their heads during the song. A few just look confused, and you can imagine how many people are taking the moment to head to the concessions or hit the head. And this brings me to the moral of this little quibble, and this goes for all metal (and rock) bands: STOP PREVIEWING NEW SONGS LIVE! And to Metallica, this tour leg of yours is called “Metallica By Request”, no one in Bogotá requested a demo!

The actual song itself is described as “epic” by Rolling Stone, those experts of all things metal. I’m going to have to keep myself in check when using that term in the future if that’s what it means. I’m not trying to come off as a curmudgeon, though I probably am, but I hear no difference in the aimless, wandering, mediocre riffs of “The Lords of Summer” than those heard on the past two Metallica albums. Its boring, uninspiring, and frankly comes off as a parody of a Metallica song. Lars Ulrich has stated that there’s no guarantee that the song will remain in its current state, and he stated a prior instance in 2006 where Death Magnetic demos were aired live before before the album’s release. The demos were chopped up and transfigured by the time they actually made it on the album. Which begs the question: Why play these demo songs live at all —- what is to be gained from this? I don’t understand the creative thinking behind this, especially when its yielded the results it has for the past few albums. Ulrich states, “We like to leave the studio and get out and be inspired by playing some shows…We’ve done that a lot in the last few album cycles. So getting out and playing is a vital part of writing and creating.” Huh? What were the other four to five years of touring behind Death Magnetic about then?
 

This is a band that doesn’t understand how to continue as a creative unit anymore. Years wasted on vanity projects (the 3-D movie, the atrocious S&M, Lulu) and overkill on touring has depleted their sense of what it means to be individuals in a metal band playing metal music. I would even go as far to suggest that their lifestyles make it difficult for them to relate to their fans, largely a blue collar bunch. When you live in a mansion on the coast of the richest neighborhood in the Bay Area, with a multimillion dollar art collection on hand and bottles of wine at the ready, its hard to relate to a fan of yours that works a soul crushing job with terrible pay. That’s not Metallica’s fault, nor their responsibility. What is their responsibility however is to own up to the fact, and perhaps reassess how they approach songwriting, perspective, and what it is they want to express through words and music.

I mentioned enjoying a good bit of the material on the Load records, and I feel its because I could sense the band was still writing about things that mattered to them personally, that musically and lyrically the band was exploring and allowing itself to evolve. St. Anger was a confused mess made worse through horrible production, but one album amidst a band crises could be forgiven. Death Magnetic however was a devolution, a move towards fan service that betrayed the guiding principle that should carry a successful band through its later years. You can still remain true to your sound as long as you are writing songs with conviction and belief —- there are many other multimillionaire artists out there that continue to do so (Iron Maiden included). When I listen to Death Magnetic, I hear sounds that remind me of what Metallica sounds like, but I don’t hear the passion and fire that molded those sounds into moving music. They’ve lost something in that sense, and they’re not going to find it on the road.

Spring Cleaning Part One : New Music from Iron Savior / Freedom Call / Behemoth / Grand Magus

March 19, 2014

Apologies for the delay, the daily minutia of everyday life prevented me from publishing sooner. Also, I’ve learned that a negative drawback produced by a continuous flurry of new releases like we’re experiencing in these early months of 2014 is that it exposes what a terrible job I sometimes do in terms of managing my listening time. See, I have a hard time force feeding myself to listen to albums if I’m not in the mood to be receptive towards them (for good or bad). Sometimes I want to listen to anything but music, and chose instead to listen to the new Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me episode, or back episodes of the Nerdist Podcast, or catch up with sports radio. I’ve long considered that I’m simply not very good at handling the abundance of choice that we all currently preside over, but that’s another topic altogether.

Why am I making a point of telling you all this? Because it partially explains why my reviews of these four February releases are arriving in this third week of March, and this is only half of the new albums I’ve been juggling! With every album I review for The Metal Pigeon blog, I make an effort to hold myself to multiple front to back spins of an album with enough time allotted to formulate an honest opinion. Just when I was feeling like I had a grasp on the new Behemoth and Grand Magus albums, along came the release dates for both Freedom Call and Iron Savior, so I decided to give myself a little extra time to catch up and now I’m sweeping out a load of opinions with one big broom. Part two coming soon! Here we go!
 

Iron Savior - Rise of the Hero: I was so blown away by Iron Savior’s previous offering, 2011′s The Landing, that I met this album with a great degree of trepidation that only comes with metal fan experience. See its not at all unexpected or out of the ordinary that a veteran band should find another spark of inspiration many albums into their career —- it happened with Accept and their near masterpiece Blood of the Nations in 2010 for example. However,  it is highly unlikely that such a resurgence carries over into more than one album, again I’ll reference Accept by pointing to the rather mediocre follow up they delivered in 2012′s Stalingrad. Iron Savior unfortunately walks into this same trap, and in unusually clumsy fashion as well. I honestly don’t understand some of the thinking behind a few of the songwriting choices on this record.

So many of these songs have the exact same tempo and structure, and while its a decent template, it gets utilized way too much here. There are good riffs to be found but they’re spread apart over the entirety of the record and never consolidated to make one knockout track. I’m thinking of songs like “Firestorm”,  “Iron Warrior”, and “Thunder From the Mountains” —- is it just me or does anyone else have a hard time distinguishing one from another? This is a twelve track, eleven song album that probably could’ve fared better being only an eight or nine song record. Maybe this is naive, but isn’t the music industry getting to a point where its far more cost feasible to focus on smaller track listings of better material than worrying about trying to give people more bang for their buck? Compact discs full of filler at twenty dollar price tags was one of the main reasons the bottom fell out of the recording industry once peer to peer file sharing rose in prominence. Of course Piet Sielck has his own recording studio, so I guess that argument is dead upon arrival.

I’m irritated at this album, actually bothered by how much its just blah to me. I want to be swayed and moved, I loved the first few Iron Savior albums, I even thought they handled Kai’s departure well on 2002′s Condition Red. When the band entered a mid period lull, they would still come up with a few occasional gems throughout each record, and as I mentioned before, they really seemed to right the ship with their last record in a big way. I’m disappointed to say that Rise of the Hero is startlingly the first Iron Savior album that does not contain at least one sure fire killer track, and that’s alarming. To be fair, there are some ideas that are relatively interesting and halfway to good on here, some even bizarre, like “Dance With Somebody” —- an oddly catchy song if you can get past the jarring juxtaposition of silly lyrics about dancing set against a fairly tight array of riffs (way more tight than dancing would suggest, but whatever). Then there’s “Dragon King” with its hard rocking strut and unabashedly AOR chorus, its the only song I’d consider loading onto the iPod. Unfortunately, after more than seven spins, I’ve yet to come away with any lasting impression of the music on this record, a really bad sign —- I can’t remember these songs when I’m not playing them. That speaks volumes.
 

Freedom Call – Beyond: On paper I should enjoy the work of Freedom Call more than I actually do, as they are one of the happiest sounding bands in the genre alongside the now defunct Power Quest —- whom I loved. But what Power Quest had in spades compared to their European mainland cousins was the sheer pop songwriting brilliance of Steve Williams, who through his simple yet ultra-melodic keyboard lines not emulated and transcended the best of the eighties pop-rock bands he loved. Freedom Call is by this point the sole project of the only remaining original member, vocalist and guitarist Chris Bay, who does good work in his own particular milieu, if nothing truly remarkable. Freedom Call albums are predominantly spotty affairs, but they will usually guarantee a handful of good songs, an on occasion, some really great ones. They receive my attention as a power metal fan in spite of their flaws, mainly because I feel so passionately about the era they were born in.

Freedom Call are one of many power metal bands that arose during the genre’s spectacular European mainland rebirth in the late nineties. Now eight albums into a career many never saw going this long, they are one of the genre’s enduring veterans. Whenever people accuse power metal bands of having only commercially minded interests, I’ll point out to them the careers of Freedom Call and Power Quest, who have eluded high chart positions, significant sales figures, and media attention —- ironic given their predilection towards writing undeniably catchy, ear wormy music. They’ve gone as long as they have with their too-commercial-its-noncommercial take on power metal for the sheer want of creating the music they want to hear, all while knowing and accepting that they are uncool and very unmarketable —- tell me, what is more metal than that?

So regarding Beyond, fans of the band’s early period should rejoice, gone are the hard rock stylings of the past few releases as the band returns to a more traditional power metal sound. Right away it seems as if it works: This is the best opening to a Freedom Call album that I can remember —- the first five songs are rather great. Both “Union of the Strong” and “Heart of a Warrior” have a fiery kick to their uptempo, aggressive deliveries, the latter being a particular favorite with its Europe (the band) like tendencies. And “Come On Home” has an almost Irish punk style feel to its melody lines and choir-shouted vocals, and I’m rather keen on a cappella vocal sections being utilized more within metal as they are here. The title track is really worth checking out, featuring a beautifully melodic piano fed intro with cascading melodies that swiftly transition into string orchestral accompaniment, its the most epic track on the record. But the best song here by far is “Follow Your Heart”, a Power Quest caliber melodic gem that has a chorus that practically defines the essence of positive power metal.

And then we have the rest of the album, there are fourteen tracks total and about six too many as filler abounds. You wonder if Bay’s dual role as band member and producer in the studio has contributed to that over the years, because it certainly has here. There just doesn’t seem to be anyone in their camp that can point out that perhaps its better to release an eight to ten track album of mostly great stuff, rather than a twelve to fourteen track album that is severely undercooked in parts. My advice to Bay would be to look at doing the next album with an outside producer in mind, it might be an expense that is hard to justify on paper but I’d imagine that it would yield positive musical results. This is a band that has pretty much self produced throughout their career, with both longtime (and now departed) drummer Dan Zimmermann and Bay sharing producer duties. They’ve used Sascha Paeth and Charlie Bauerfiend as mixing engineers before, why not try working with either one in an expanded capacity?
 

Behemoth – The Satanist: This came as a total surprise, not it’s release mind you, but just the fact that in 2014 Behemoth may have just released the best album of their career, and for sure a contender for being considered one of the best albums of 2014. My history with this band is spotty at best, I’ve largely found their discography to be inconsistent, and for a few records, even uninteresting. I have always appreciated that they try their best not to be pigeon holed into one specific subgenre of metal, instead choosing to play with both black, death, and doom metal stylings… its just that those kinds of mergers require a rather steady hand at the songwriting helm, which I’ve never suspected Behemoth of having. The band’s songwriter is frontman, guitarist, and vocalist —- Nergal, who seems to have approached this album with a dose of inspiration undoubtedly gleaned from his near-fatal brush with leukemia in late 2010. On The Satanist, Nergal infuses not only death and black metal stylings, but adds in doses of ambient noise and even hard rock simplicity together in one of the most alluring and provocative blendings in recent memory.

I think what I’m enjoying the most about this record is the fact that it actually sounds quite different from Behemoth as I remember them. Gone is the sheer brutality for brutality’s sake, and Nergal seems to eschew any focus on technicality in favor of a more visceral focus on organic soundscapes and instrumentation, as well as an atmosphere that borders on cinematic, even theatrical. The guitars aren’t layered quite as heavily as in the past, nor are the vocals, where Nergal favors a far more black metal approach —- a choice that works in concert with another black metal trait these songs have, a focus on hypnotic, repeating riffs and motifs. Drummer Inferno can still pummel us with blast beats, but here he holds back, only using them in rare, blistering moments. Instead he utilizes space, plays with interesting percussive patterns that can breath and not suffocate the song themselves.

Everyone’s talking about “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, with its artfully provocative video (seemingly a Behemoth trademark at this point), and its a good song to serve as the album opener and single, its the most representative track on offer. But I’m more taken with the title track and the album closer “O Father O Satan O Sun!”, with their mid-paced tempos and dare I say even catchy prog-rock riffs and accessible vocal approach. Don’t get me wrong, these are certainly extreme metal songs, but they’re open and immediate in ways that demonstrate Behemoth’s willingness to ease the learning curve for their music. On “The Satanist”, Nergal’s vocals are percussive to match the riff sequences, an effect that results in some headbanging passages —- against a backdrop of almost Cradle-esque ambient arrangements. But my favorite is “O Father…”, with its almost Judas Priest-esque guitars that usher us into a procession of excellent verses all carried by Nergal pairing his blackened vocals alongside almost angelic sounding female background vocalists. The chorus is dynamic, shifting tempos and accelerating into wild, flashy rock n’ roll guitar soloing —- this isn’t something I typically associate with Behemoth. In fact, I get a real flashback to Enslaved’s recent Riitiir album when listening to this, both bands endeavoring to expand their sound by subtracting elements in their music.

I’m sure there are power metal fans that will skip right over this review and even some extreme metal fans that find an album with a title like The Satanist to be too on the nose. But power metal fans might find that complexity within this recording rewarding, there are melodies to be found as well —- if you give the album more than just a cursory listen. And as for those who find Behemoth’s insistence on public blasphemy in any shape or form (including album titles) too schlocky, well I can see your point, I’m not particularly impressed by those kinds of things, especially when in 2014 it feels like we’ve seen it all and there’s nothing surprising about it. But I do admire the band’s commitment to being artistic in all aspects of their art, be it in music videos as well as album titles and artwork —- it takes far more work than just the standard black jeans/black button up shirt combo that is the default setting for a lot of metal bands. And its a rare, wonderful moment when those aspects of a band coincide with an album that is this rewarding on an artistic level.
 

Grand Magus – Truimph and Power: I’ve grown to enjoy Grand Magus through their previous album, 2012′s The Hunt, it wasn’t a perfect record, but it had very high highs and no lows. I checked out the rest of their discography and found myself liking the older albums a little less, I wasn’t wild about their doomy past I suppose. Lucky for me the band seems hell bent on moving further and further away from those stylings and more into traditional metal territory on their newest, Truimph and Power. There are still doomy moments present, but they’re more touches and flourishes, ingrained within song structures themselves instead of being central to them. Apologies perhaps to fans of their older works, but this is an album that is hitting me right in my comfort zone.

The record opens with the one two punch of “On Hooves of Gold” and “Steel Versus Steel”, both rockin’, mid tempo stompers with highly memorable refrains. The former features a rather tastefully done acoustic intro, before hammering you with martial drums, simple yet effective riffage and Janne Christoffersson’s excellent vocal melodies. While the latter track boasts one of the album’s best choruses, all set to a hard rock bed of riffs and rhythm, to such a degree that its difficult to call it metal at some points (despite the subject matter very much suggesting otherwise). There’s something very satisfying about hearing a three piece band deliver music that other musicians would usually deliver in five piece band setups (at the least). It means that Grand Magus have to work hard at keeping melodies pure and instantaneously appealing, there’s little to no layering at work here —- either they work or they don’t. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard lyrics about the clash of battle set to such a loose, dare I say relaxed bed of music —- somehow it works.

The highlight is the title track, with its slow, tension building rise to an absolutely epic chorus, with the album’s best lyrics “For the triumph and the power / Spoils of war / For the hunger and desire / A blood red throne!” Its a euphoric moment, the kind that makes you long for seeing them live, when you can throw your glory claw in the air and act like a total goof. And check out the cascading guitar transitions in “Holmgång”, where they’re more of a player in the song’s refrain than the vocals are —- I love  stuff like that! The album closer “The Hammer Will Bite” is one of the rare moments where the lead vocals are supplemented by layering and the effect is brilliant, elevating an already killer chorus. Honestly almost every song on here works for one reason or another, there are only two cuts that could’ve been left off, namely the instrumental “Ymer” which is nice sounding but nothing all too compelling, and the just above average “Fight”, which sounds like one of the merely good tracks off The Hunt. This is a pretty great record all told however, and is already a candidate to make the end of the year list.
 

The Metal Pigeon on the MSRcast!

February 26, 2014


Many months ago, Cary G. from the long running metal podcast MSRcast asked if I’d like to be a guest on his show, and many, many months later we somehow managed to get the planets to align to make it happen. For those who don’t know, MSRcast is the audio evolution of the now defunct Mainstream Resistance zine which once upon a time found its way into many a Texas metal fans’ sweaty, moist palms. There are very few metal based podcasts that I enjoy listening to, and MSRcast and its sister show Metalgeeks are both part of that select group. I was asked to be a guest on their 2013 rewind, and yes I know its nearly March but hey, one more look back couldn’t hurt right? You can listen to them by following the links provided below and using their web based player, or download it from their site directly as an mp3 file, or simply do what I do for my podcast needs and find them in the iTunes store, hit subscribe and you’ll auto-download every new episode! What — you’ve never listened to podcasts before? Maybe its time to get with it! I’ll let it go this time because I’m such a nice guy!
 

MSRcast 149: 2013 Rewind Part One /ft The Metal Pigeon!

 
MSRcast 150: 2013 Rewind Part Two /ft The Metal Pigeon!

 

Talking Heads: Within Temptation Baffles with Hydra

February 25, 2014

I’ve learned through these past few years doing The Metal Pigeon that the hardest reviews to write are the ones for releases that I don’t feel strongly about one way or another. Case in point is the amount of days I’ve been putting off publishing this review for the newest Within Temptation album, Hydra, simply because I’ve felt unsatisfied about my own written response (I’ve re-written this thing about three times now, and this fourth and final time is me just being blunt and hopefully not coming across as a jerk). Full disclosure before I begin: I generally enjoy what Within Temptation does —- which is polished, semi-symphonic metallic pop-rock crowned with the ear pleasing vocals of Sharon Den Adel. There have been some missteps along the way (the insipid “What’ve You Done Now?” duet with Keith Caputo comes to mind), but generally speaking Within Temptation have done rather well in their chosen style. I’ve never really considered them a metal band, but they get thrown into our world due to the semi-doom stylings of their debut album and simply by association (at least for me… I first heard of them through Den Adel’s guest spot on the first Avantasia album). But that’s okay, because over the past decade plus they’ve delivered a handful of albums with catchy, well crafted songs that ring with conviction.

This however, is not one of those albums. Within Temptation have always possessed a commercially friendly sound, but on albums like Mother Earth (2000), its follow up The Silent Force (2004), and the surprisingly excellent The Unforgiving (2011), that characteristic seemed like a natural byproduct of the band’s songwriting ability to use dramatic, epic sound palettes in crafting self contained pop format songs. Den Adel’s vocal melodies were central in importance, while the riffs and orchestral arrangements would work to support them by encapsulating them (for example on tracks like “Stand My Ground”, or “Angels”). Of course the caveat here is that such a strategy only worked as long as the vocal melodies were strong enough to carry the song alone —- and on those records, they generally were. When the band gets it wrong, as on The Heart of Everything (2007) and yes, on Hydra, the results are largely uninspiring. Compound this with a series of misguided guest vocalist additions and you have a near disaster of an album.

Let’s start with those questionable guest vocalists first. I remember feeling mildly concerned that their usage of the aforementioned Caputo as a guest vocalist on The Heart of Everything would mark the start of a potentially negative trend, but surprisingly The Unforgiving was guest-free. I guess they’re making up for the lack thereof on that album becauseHydraboasts an unseemly four guest singers, none of whom on paper inspire confidence. The results are worse on record —- where to start? Let’s take “And We Run”, a song where a promising verse really needs an actual developed bridge to the Den Adel sung chorus, but I suppose that’s rapper Xzibit’s job, with his post chorus raps full of nonsensical lyrics and atonal delivery that completely derail any hope of this being a good song. Its one of those songs where you wonder if someone in the recording process or mixing phase was silently thinking to themselves, “I think this should be a b-side”. Not faring much better is the lame “Dangerous”, where ex-Killswitch Engage screamer Howard Jones gives us his best alternative rock voice, which is a shade more tolerable than his regular style. The song itself seems to have the potential to be something decent, the vocal melody is salvageable, but its marred by clumsy, embarrassingly bad lyrics.
 

And then there’s the much ballyhooed Tarja Turunen (billed these days simply as “Tarja”) collaboration, “Paradise (What About Us)”, a song that is disappointing on a few levels. First I suppose I should remark on just how well Tarja’s English pronunciations sound these days, to the untrained ear her traded off verses with Den Adel would be nearly indistinguishable. That’s also part of the problem —- their verses are patterned so similarly that there really isn’t an apparent juxtaposition of voices on the song (unless you count Tarja’s operatic accents during the middle bridge section —- which I don’t). Songwriting wise, there’s some solid rhythmic variations going on in the verse sections that you wish were expanded upon. It’s the chorus that fails me, not only because its repeated countless times in favor of… you know, actual songwriting variations, but its simply weak, unable to pull sufficiently from the wellspring of drama that has fueled so many Within Temptation choruses past. To me personally, its yet another sad piece of proof that Tarja’s vocals will never have the benefit of the kind of songwriting platforms Tuomas Holopainen crafted for her in Nightwish —- she simply does not sound good anywhere else.

The only guest vocalist spot that sort of works, and that’s primarily due to the strength of the song, is Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner on “The Whole World is Watching”, of which I still can’t believe no one representing the band didn’t try to get on NBC during the Sochi Olympics. Do I have to draw you guys a picture? Despite its maudlin lyrics, this is one of the stronger songs on the record as an above average ballad, but I suppose that depends on your tolerance level for these things. Pirner has always been a rather expressive singer (certainly among most of the Minneapolis rock bands of that era), but just like the other guests he’s a puzzling choice for co-vocalist, albeit one of the more believable ones. I suppose I can see a younger Within Temptation enjoying “Runaway Train” back in the day, but wasn’t there someone with a far more distinctive and powerful voice they could’ve called upon? And I wonder why all the increased emphasis on guest vocalists all of a sudden anyway? A cynical perspective would highlight them as examples of a band wanting to trade in on a guest vocalist’s fan base, but only in the case of Tarja is that really a potential reality here. I’m baffled honestly.
 

Thankfully its not all bad. The album opener “Let It Burn” is a decent song, reminiscent of the same surging energy that ran throughout The Unforgiving, with tension building verses that explode in a exuberant refrain. The highlight of the album however is “Silver Moonlight”, the one track that sees the band refreshingly reconnecting with their metallic roots. There are actual metal riffs at work here! Some pretty good ones at that, making a change from what has become the band’s typical reliance on big dumb power chords. Here Sharon Den Adel flexes her soaring vocals to greater heights, and guitarist Robert Westerholt makes his co-vocalist return with some impressively doomy death vocals. Ironic that this ends up being the best track on an album full of guest vocalists. There’s also “Covered By Roses”, where the Gothic imagery of the title is matched by the content of the lyrics, full of references to castles, falling stars, wine, sadness, beauty —- it winds up sounding like an outtake from The Silent Force (that’s a good thing). Is that an actual fluid guitar solo I hear at the end there? I knew these guys still had some real musicality hiding under all these layers of production gloss! On an album this dire, I’ll take every encouraging sign I can get. I could’ve done without the awkward, half-baked “Dog Days”, a song that might’ve benefited from a producer who would’ve called the terrible lyrics into question. Oh well… I’m getting tired of listening to this record honestly, so moving on.

There’s a bonus disc on some editions of Hydra that contain a handful of covers taken from the band’s questionable The Q-Music Sessions (see Wikipedia for more info on this), and some “evolution” tracks of songs from the album (essentially, gradual fades of demos to finished versions). I just want to focus on the idea of these covers here, let’s see: Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive”, Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”, Enrique Iglesias’ “Dirty Dancer”, and Passenger’s “Let Her Go”. Both “Dirty Dancer” and “Radioactive” sound silly, they’re completely divorced from their original sound palette and while that was the point —- flatly I find them unlikeable. Faring little better is “Summertime Sadness”, as the upbeat Goth-rock orchestral arrangement conjured up for the cover is an inadequate backdrop when compared to the original’s eerie, smoky trip-hop palette. Much better by far is the band’s take on Passenger’s “Let Her Go”, and yes the lyrics are strange when sung by a woman, though Den Adel’s vocals are far superior to Mike Rosenberg’s. Something strikes me as odd about the inclusion of these four tracks as bonus cuts. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I’m not surprised that three of them are very recent hits… and major major hits at that (I’m talking Lebron jamming to his Beats headphones type of hits). And they’re being re-re-released here for emphasis.
 

I know the intention behind The Q-Music Sessions was to celebrate a radio station’s anniversary (huh?!) and to see if the band could quickly adapt a song to their style —- however, the entire affair struck me at the time as the most dubious exercise in crass commercialism. What’s even more surprising was the lack of anyone calling them out on it. I have no problem with a band wanting to get bigger, to sell more records, to gain more fans, and to generally secure their livelihood. I do feel however, that what Within Temptation have done by agreeing to the concept of their stunt with this radio station is inherently disingenuous. They’re not releasing a covers record of songs culled from their influences growing up, they’re simply covering pop radio hits. Was it really such a challenge to deliver such half-baked covers? When they released all these finished covers as an album, the YouTube uploads quickly followed —- you can’t say the band isn’t shrewd. How many of those covered artists’ fans have checked out these YouTube-d covers by this odd Dutch rock band? How many of those fans will in turn check out Hydra due to simple fandom flattery? How far does something like this go you may ask? Den Adel even recently appeared on a European chat show with a bewildered looking Lana Del Rey. Crossover indeed.
 

Catching Up: New Music from Persuader / Silent Force / Royal Hunt / Primal Fear

February 17, 2014

In continuing the theme of 2014 being the year of power metal, the past couple months have given us a handful of new releases by established artists from the genre to delve into. Among these are two bands back with their first new albums in over half a decade. Sweden’s Persuader were last heard from on 2006′s admittedly lackluster When Eden Burns, the first slight misstep within their largely fantastic discography. The German quintet of Silent Force haven’t released a record since 2007, and are also sporting three new band members while moving forward without longtime vocalist D.C. Cooper. If you haven’t been keeping up, he’s been back with Royal Hunt since 2011, and they’ve just released only their fourth album with him on vocals, despite his first joining the band way back in 1995(!). And then there’s Germany’s Primal Fear, who might just be one of the most hardworking bands in genre, ushering in one album/tour cycle after another with no stop in regularity. They return with their tenth album in sixteen years, a breathless pace for any band to keep (and that’s not counting compilations or live albums). Lets get into it:
 

Persuader – The Fiction Maze: I’m glad I took my time with this album, because perhaps my initial exuberance at the mere fact that I was finally listening to a new Persuader record would have colored my initial impressions had I reviewed it right away. Speaking of taking one’s time, eight years is an eternally long time between albums in the metal world, and kind of a shame in Persuader’s case because despite my limited enjoyment of When Eden Burns, I had no doubt that they’d right the ship and get back to delivering modern day classics in just a year or two. Clearly that didn’t happen… so why such a long wait for this new album?

It’s ironically Blind Guardian’s fault (Persuader vocalist Jens Carlsson is a dead ringer for Hansi Kursch), as former Guardian sticksman Thomen Stauch persuaded (hah!) Carlsson and guitarist Emil Norberg to join him in the bizarre power metal Frankenstein that was Savage Circus. Stauch left Blind Guardian due to being unhappy with the band’s current symphonic-heavy direction, and he yearned for a return to their early nineties era musical style. Alongside Iron Savior’s Piet Sielck, the Persuader guys stuck around long after Stauch himself went on a hiatus for personal reasons, and a great deal of time passed in which they managed to release a few records to mild acclaim. I think the best way to consider all this is to state that the very obvious sentiment that where many were clamoring and hoping for new Persuader all these years, few have done the same for Savage Circus. Hindsight then.

So does the band rebound with The Fiction Maze? In large part yes, this is a far superior album to When Eden Burns, yet it fails to match the visceral intensity of their past classics The Hunter and Evolution Purgatory. The album opens with its best track, the absolutely storming “One Lifetime”, where a thunderous introduction with aggressive melo-death riffing and tension building verses usher in the band’s most devastating chorus to date. This is classic Persuader, playing to their strengths and showcasing their natural talents as hook first songwriters. Not quite as stunning, yet still great are the lead off single “Son of Sodom”, “Deep in the Dark”, and “Sent to the Grave”; the latter of which boasts 2014′s most compulsively earwormy chorus (Carlsson’s vocal phrasing here is inspired).

But there’s some weaker stuff here as well, including a couple of clunkers in “War” (which is a shame as it follows “One Lifetime”), “Worlds Collide”, and most notably the insipidly titled “InSect”. Their interspersed placement among the tracklisting is distracting and disrupts the flow of the album into a continuously up and down experience. I see myself loading up the best tracks on the iPod and avoiding further listens to the album as a whole —- maybe next time we’ll get a start to finish classic. Hopefully it won’t take eight years.
 

Silent Force – Rising From Ashes: I know that I’ve used a lot of screen space lately on discussing subgenres, styles, and just what characterizes metal. You’ll forgive me however if I delve right into a puzzling question that arises upon my umpteenth listen of Silent Force’s Rising From Ashes: Why is it that nearly every power metal/trad metal band that winds up on AFM records eventually ends up transitioning to a more hard rock style? If you know your power metal history, you’ll realize that this actually started with Edguy leaving AFM back in 2001 after Mandrake was released, their next album was 2004′s very much hard rock injected Hellfire Club —- their first for their new label Nuclear Blast. Maybe that’s where it started, but its become something of an unspoken phenomenon, but I’m not wrong in my observations. I can only idly speculate at what the source behind this influence is —- the label bosses perhaps?

This doesn’t mean that the results are automatically doomed to failure. More often than not, the natural extension for a power metal band looking to loosen up their traditionally tightly wound sound is to add more wild, unrestrained hard rock influences into the mix. The concerning thing is that its become a major trend over the past half a decade, and there are so few power metal bands going the opposite direction when seeking new inspiration (for example, mixing in more technicality, or getting heavier by adding in extreme metal elements… Falconer is a good example of the latter). Anyway, Rising From Ashes is worlds apart from their last album with D.C. Cooper, 2007′s Walk the Earth, as new vocalist Michael Bormann boasts a bluesy, Coverdale-ish rasp that is a striking contrast to Cooper’s smooth tenor. As far as hard rock vocalists go, he’s top tier and sounds practically ageless (he’s bounced around various projects since 1993). Founding guitarist Alexander Beyrodt apparently decided that it was enough of a contrast that he had to scale back the band’s more traditional power metal leanings in favor of lean, muscled up hard rock riffs, a simplified approach to songwriting and a shift from fantasy inspired lyrical themes to a more hard rock friendly range of topics about relationships and heartbreak.

It actually works surprisingly well on spectacular tracks like “Circle of Trust”, “Anytime Anywhere”, and the very Whitesnake-ian “Turn Me Loose”. The former is the best track on the record, featuring an explosive chorus complete with gang shouted vocals (although the workable lyrics tend to veer close to self-help/counseling territory). All three boast refrains that will get stuck in your head —- but unlike past Silent Force records, the entire song seems built around them in a simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus format, and seemingly long gone are the prog-metal elements of records past. That means a tremendous lack of lengthy, flashy Beyrodt solos, no delicate piano or acoustic guitar intros, no sudden shifts in tempo or structure, and no more of the adventurous elements that made albums like Walk the Earth or Worlds Apart so compelling.

It honestly just sounds like a totally different band at times (or much like Beyrodt’s side project in Voodoo Circle, which makes the whole thing even more puzzling). The rest of the tracks on this album reinforce that loss, and while they’re all generally decent enough, they pass over you without much of an impact. The magic of those earlier releases seems to be gone, and I’m going to go ahead and suggest their choice of vocalist contributed to that. Bormann is an undeniable talent, and he could sound great singing your shopping list, but they really needed to get someone who could’ve continued in the same milieu as Cooper. Sometimes heading in the opposite direction with a replacement vocalist works out, but not if that direction pulls the band along with it as well.
 

Royal Hunt - A Life to Die For: Good news for those hoping that the Hunt would maintain the momentum built back up with 2011′s Show Me How to Live, their long hoped for reunion album with D.C. Cooper. Their newest is as good, if not better and as a nice little bonus provides us with the best production to ever grace an album in their overwhelming discography. If you’ve gotten used to hearing Cooper’s far more metallic attack in Silent Force over the years, his approach in Royal Hunt might throw you. He showcases a far more theatrical, almost Freddy Mercury-ian flamboyance in his vocals on all his work in this band (and to my ears at least, it sounds like he picked up right where he left off on the 1998 masterpiece Paradox). Keyboard and composer André Andersen doesn’t shake up the formula all that much, so you know what you’re getting on an essential level: progressive, complex songwriting with an emphasis on strong hooks, prominent keyboard melody lines, and of course stellar upfront vocals.

This time Andersen added some actual string players to fatten up the orchestral elements normally handled by his keys alone. The results are noticeable, especially on standout tracks like “One Minute Left to Live” where they play off Andersen’s keys in dramatic fashion. That track is also a strong example of how its entirely possible to make melodic prog-metal both technically complex and accessibly catchy, possibly something born of a European tradition since its an aspect lost on American bands like Dream Theater. The same goes for “Sign of Yesterday”, a melodramatic quasi-power ballad where stately strings usher Cooper’s vocals in waltz like rhythms before revealing an almost circular, sweeping chorus. On “Running Out of Tears”, Cooper is joined by harmonized counterpoint female vocals, a delicate touch that adds depth to an already strong refrain. As I’m listening to the album again while writing this review, I can’t help but just appreciate how great it is having Cooper back with Andersen. The latter’s songwriting style always seemed to lend itself to an ultra smooth voice and while the John West / Mark Boals eras had their good moments, they simply don’t hold a candle to Cooper.
 

Primal Fear – Delivering the Black: Its getting harder and harder to review new Primal Fear albums. I’ve always enjoyed their Judas Priest-influenced (worship?) take on power metal, they make consistently solid albums (never truly great), and there’s not much to complain about. And that’s kind of the problem… (here it comes)… they have a tendency to largely play it safe to a fault sometimes. Don’t expect Delivering the Black to signal a drastic change of that tendency, and I suppose its fair to state that the band is entirely comfortable with that. I did however think 2012′s Unbreakable was the most inspired record they had delivered in the past ten years —- the reasons being hard to define except to surmise that they were firing on all cylinders songwriting wise. It was the first time I could remember being able to play through a Primal Fear album without skipping around.

As a follow-up Delivering is a touch underwhelming in comparison, but it does have its fair share of carry over excellence from its predecessor. As on Unbreakable with the undeniably awesome “Where Angels Die”, the longer songs here seem to fare better, namely, “One Night in December”, and the lead single “When Death Comes Knocking”. Kudos to the band for adding to the latter some unexpected musical flair in the form of middle eastern instrumentation midway through, it actually works for some bizarre reason. The former track is the traditional epic of the album, and they’ve been on a such a roll with them lately I almost encourage the band to seek out crafting a smaller tracklisted album full of these Sad Wings of Destiny influenced lengthier cuts. Its songwriting is complex and multifaceted, while sonically there are just enough subtle orchestral swells to make your hair stand on end at times. Guitarist Magnus Karlsson seems to have really found his place within the songwriting ranks of the band in the past couple albums, he’s likely one of the major reasons for their turnaround lately. A tip of the hat as well to Alex Beyrodt (yes the very same Beyrodt of Silent Force), who has been helping the band on second guitarist duties (I guess he’s officially in the band now?).

There’s of course a ballad on offer here too, “Born with a Broken Heart”, and if you enjoy power metal ballads then you should appreciate Primal Fear’s career long track record of tackling these. There’s just something about Ralf Scheepers’ leathery vocals softening for gorgeous, delicate orchestral melodies that supersedes any reservations about the admittedly trite lyrics (you don’t listen to Primal Fear for in depth lyricism). The rest of the album is largely good despite a few fillers here and there, but that’s to be expected, though I wasn’t wild about the closer “Inseminoid” —- whatever that title is supposed to mean. It could’ve been left as a b-side for Japan which would have made the ballad the closer. Oh well, nitpicking is futile. I suppose the fact that I wouldn’t mind hearing a good handful of these songs live when I see the band in May is a good sign for my overall appraisal.
 

Iced Earth Return with Plagues of Babylon

February 11, 2014

I just realized something —- this will be only the third time I’ve written solely about Iced Earth in the history of this blog, the first being Dystopia‘s inclusion on the Best of 2011 list, and the second being a 2012 gig report that turned into trip down memory lane back to 2004 when I saw Iced Earth cram close to a thousand Houstonians in a sweltering converted warehouse on the Glorious Burden tour during their Ripper Owens era. I only point it out because its a surprisingly small number for a band that is among my longest running fandoms, as well as an important part of my breaking away from mainstream metal in order to explore the European power metal scene in earnest. I’m certain everyone is aware of the many upheavals within the lineup the past few years but its worth pointing out yet again what a huge shot in the arm the addition of Stu Block has been —- simply in terms of making Iced Earth a fully functioning band again.

Unlike the sporadic live shows in the final years of the Barlow era, Iced Earth is now doing their longest full length world tours yet, and in the span of the past three years have released two studio albums and one live album/dvd. The music has also improved, the difference in quality night and day from the final Barlow offering, The Crucible of Man in 2008, to 2011′s Stu Block debut Dystopia. As I wrote in that linked 2012 article, the band looked fired up on stage, Jon Schaffer in particular looking noticeably happier. I felt happier myself witnessing that. It was a rebirth of a band that I’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for in addition to simply being a fan, as I’d always felt that the struggle of Iced Earth to sustain themselves as an American power metal band during the dry spell of the mid-nineties mirrored what many of us stateside fans had to endure as well.

I was encouraged to hear by the middle of 2013 just how quickly the band was able to finish writing and start the recording of Plagues of Babylon, their second effort with Block. It was a sign that the Block-Schaffer partnership wasn’t fraying from the demands of the road, and that they were eager to parlay that enthusiasm into productive work. And tellingly on Plagues, they’ve either consciously or subconsciously brought their live sound to the recording studio. This is a noticeably rawer and grittier Iced Earth than we’ve heard on their past couple releases (specifically I’m referring to all their albums since 2001′s Horror Show). Speaking broadly, there’s a sense that they have carried the effects of their long touring over into the studio —- Iced Earth have always been far heavier and even thrashier live on stage than they’ve been on record. Here the band goes easy on layered choral vocals during refrains and excessive displays of major key melodicism, instead opting for gun metal grey riffs with slight melodic variations alongside mostly solitary lead vocals that recall to mind their classic Something Wicked and Dark Saga period. Overall there is a very stripped down and “live” approach being employed —- and its a darker album as a result.
 

The first four songs on the tracklisting are particularly apparent examples, the highlight among them being the adrenaline pumping “Democide”, as thrash metal-y as Iced Earth have sounded in years. Block’s solo lead vocals seem heftier and far more menacing here than on Dystopia, and again it reminds me of how he sounded when I saw him live. Its ironic then that Blind Guardian vocalist Hansi Kursch turns up in a guest spot on “Among the Living Dead”, where he doesn’t really add his trademark wall of sound vocal layering approach to the mix, instead merely offering up his own solo vocal counterpoints to Block’s. Honestly it took me a few listens to even spot Kursch’s usually instantly recognizable voice, and even after many, many listens I wonder if his talents are going under utilized here. But these thoughts are put aside by the time “The End?” kicks in, where Schaffer and lead guitarist Troy Seele deliver a lushly melodic array of guitar work to introduce some contrast to Block’s brutal take on clean vocals —- here he even delivers a near black metal styled scream midway through.

The band amps up the multitracked vocals on semi-ballad “If I Could See You”, a track that recalls “I Died For You” off the Dark Saga in a big way, not a bad thing mind you but its just another thing that ties this album’s sonic feel back to that era. And I particularly love the lush vocal layering on “Cthulhu”, where the refrain is so well written that it bleeds out emotion, despite being a song about a gigantic, mind-boggling octopus beast-god. Again referencing the past, it’s a quality song that would sound right at home on Horror Show (musically and thematically as well). But let’s face facts, eleven albums into their career no one is expecting Iced Earth to reinvent themselves, only to deliver the metallic goods so to speak. I think I could speak for Iced Earth fans if I suggest that all we want is a consistently good to great record that delivers all the trademarks we expect, with a high level of energy, and Plagues does deliver in that regard. Its not all perfect… I feel that the back to back pairing of both “Peacemaker” and “Parasite” tend to fall largely flat, but two out of twelve isn’t bad.
 



 
Now to discuss the obvious album highlight, which may irk some as its a cover, but the band’s take on “Highwayman” is nothing short of spectacular. This is of course the Jimmy Webb penned namesake track of the eighties super group of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash The song was fitting both lyrically and structurally for those singers, four country stars long pegged as outsiders in their own genre, four verses for each of them. Iced Earth invite some friends to flesh out their version of the classic, with Schaffer himself handling the first verse on lead vocals, followed by Symphony X’s Russell Allen, then Block, and finally rounded out by the distinctive country-punk twang of Volbeat’s Michael Poulsen. It really works, Schaffer has occasionally done some lead vocals on Iced Earth tracks here and there, so he has the chops to do it and sounds commanding here. Allen is of course a long ranged vocal dynamo, who even adds some of his trademark vocal run extensions despite only singing a few lines. Block’s verse might by my favorite, about the dam builder “Across the river, deep and wide / Where steel and water did collide”, his delivery touched with a hint of outlaw country and rock n’ roll abandon. Poulsen is admittedly an acquired taste, but I don’t mind a little Volbeat here and there and in small doses such as the concluding verse here he is a refreshing change up. They all do a great job.

This was among the first major metal releases of the year, and one of the first cannon shots representing what might be a banner year for power metal. With Plagues of Babylon, 2014 seems to be getting off to a strong start. Its not the best Iced Earth record ever, but its a solid, at times great album that I’m anticipating will sound even better on April 28th when I see them once again in Houston. I’m looking forward to finding out how my back and neck will hold up.