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Cradle of Filth Bring the Hammer Down

July 23, 2015

There’s a bit of history swirling around the release of Hammer of the Witches, the eleventh studio album by Cradle of Filth. Its the most noteworthy among the new metal albums that were released on July 10th, the world’s first global release day; and secondly, its Cradle of Filth’s first album without longtime guitarist Paul Allender. Some of you may remember that Allender’s departure in April of 2014 had me speculating about how it might be the best possible thing for the future of the band. I found Allender’s songwriting contributions to be growing ever more stale and repetitive, its like he was running of enthusiasm and as a result, inspiration. It was confirmed when I saw just how bored he seemed on stage when I caught them live on their North American trek with Satyricon in 2008, so much so that I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had bailed soon thereafter. But Allender stuck around through the recording and touring of 2012’s The Manticore and Other Horrors, an album that while certainly not awful, was hardly remarkable either. Its rare that you can look at a band’s current lineup and single out what’s not working, but Allender and Cradle were visibly no longer meant to be together, it was plain for everyone to see.

Cue in new guitarists Richard Shaw and Ashok (née Marek Šmerda); the former a relative unknown whose primary background is as a music teacher, while Ashok spent well over a decade with relatively low-profile Czech black metallers Root. Their road to joining the band isn’t particularly dramatic… a band like Cradle is well established, tours a lot, has plenty of contacts in the industry, so musicians (particularly guitarists) can be found easily. That they’re not known quantities is what is interesting here, that Dani chose not to make overtures to former CoF guitarists (of which there are many), nor extended invitations to other well known musicians is a bit surprising —- it would have been the easier option you’d think. To go with entirely new guys is a roll of the dice gamble, but good on Dani for going this route, because its resulted in the freshest, most vibrant, and enthralling Cradle of Filth album since Midian. It starts with the riffs, where Cradle has undergone a musical blood transfusion, as Shaw and Ashok make only the slightest of nods to the sounds, patterns, and motifs of the past. They’re committed to introducing heavier, chunkier rhythms, at times almost Behemoth-like death metal waves of crushing heaviness with thrash-metal spice thrown in to diffuse things every once in awhile.

This is evident on the first song out of the gate, “Yours Immortally”, my favorite Cradle song since “Nymphetamine”, an unrelentingly furious blast of speed and raw aggression. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard the band sound this raw, recalling the sound and spirit of their first three albums (albeit with meatier, muscular production). Another gem is “Deflowering The Maidenhead, Displeasuring The Goddess”, a perfect balance of speed, punishing riffs that avoid relying on quasi-tremolo patterns the way Allender did, and Dani’s gutturally aggressive vocals. Dani is on form here, taming back his reliance on ear-splitting high shrieks to primarily reside in a more death metal growl informed vocal mid-range. He’s sounding better than ever before throughout the entirety of the album, partially due to allowing the songs to be written around guitar patterns entirely and segmenting his vocal patterns in between them. Its a given that he’s going to be a love him or hate him proposition for most people, I have some metal loving friends who can’t stand his voice, but songs like these might be as good an introduction to him as ever.
 

Continuing this theme of a resurgent classic Cradle of Filth sound and spirit is “Blackest Magick in Practice” which is structurally simple enough to feel at home on a less symphonic album such as Midian. Melodies are twisted around a terrific series of riffs, each one building upon the other, before their explosive crest at the 2:38 mark where Ashok and Shaw go full on dual-lead Maiden. The only real arrangement present is a few keyboard flourishes and ethereal female vocals, both courtesy of Lindsay Schoolcraft, a relatively new member in the line-up continuing in the role that predecessors Sarah Jezebel Deva, Rosie Smith, and briefly Ashley Jurgemeyer and most recently Caroline Campbell vacated. Female vocalists have always been a requirement in the band’s sound, and with the exception of Deva who was a force of nature, they always tend to sound relatively similar. Schoolcraft is perhaps the best of the recent rotating cast however, with her powerful ability to dynamically range her vocals without losing any of her dramatic, theatrical stylings. She might be the best keyboardist they’ve had in a long time as well, as her work on “Onward Christian Soldiers” matches the intensity and awesome melodic riff sequences of Ashok and Shaw.

Alright, enough of the blow by blow review, because if you’ve read this far down on a Cradle of Filth review at this particular blog, then you’re likely interested in hearing the album or have heard it already or were hoping for a good trashing. Since its clear the latter isn’t going to happen, you might be leaning towards mildly curious, and here’s what I’ll tell you: Cradle of Filth have been around since 1991, they sound like they sound, and to their credit no one else even manages to emulate them (for better or worse I suppose). There is I believe a quiet, unspoken stigma around being past a certain age and still listening to Cradle of Filth albums. But I’d say that people who grew up with the band in their formative metal years are exempt (mainly because I’m one of them). We remember the brutal majesty of Cruelty and the Beast, or the rather groundbreaking gothic-black metal fusion of The Principle of Evil Made Flesh and Dusk and Her Embrace albums. We remember Midian, widely regarded as the band’s pinnacle, for its Maiden like galloping blend of classic metal through an extreme metal filter. In short, I keep coming back to new Cradle of Filth releases because I’m hoping for another one of those.

If you’ve never given the band a chance and aren’t under the age of say 21… it might be hard to embrace their music given the loudness of their image. Regardless of the band’s waning record sales in the era of digital piracy, their audiences remain rather young. I recall just how old I felt when I last saw them live, surrounded by teenagers with black fingernails and spiky wrist bracelets. The band’s image does speak more to that confused and searching period of teenagedom more than anything else, the same way Alice Cooper and Kiss attracted their audiences through their over the top imagery in the late 70s and Marilyn Manson did for another generation in the late 90s. Someone in their twenties or thirties might have a hard time not rolling their eyes when checking out the lyrics for Hammer of the Witches —- I get it, believe me. But here’s what I’ll counter with: In our concerted effort to give irony and self-aware hipsterdom the proverbial finger, isn’t Cradle of Filth’s unwavering dedication to remaining faithful to their particularly theatrical, gothic, and rather English take on extreme metal worth applauding, and even respecting? Aren’t those some of the qualities we admire in metal bands? If you’re new to the band, start with this album —- whats the harm? If you’re an old fan like myself, we have another classic on our hands.

 

Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 1 !: New Music from Paradise Lost, Helloween, Luca Turilli and More!

July 7, 2015

Well I’m not sure how it is where you are, but down in Houston summer is off to its usual vulgar start of high temps and higher humidity. Its understood around here that one should go outdoors during the day for unavoidable reasons only, spending most of the time inside an air conditioned structure until sundown (the parking lots of our local public parks are unbelievably packed at 8pm). Its a wise methodology, because having lived here most of my life I’ve come to learn that the heat during these summer months will get you very, very angry —- its just pervasive and oppressive. Not to mention that with football offseason at its most uninteresting and NBA free agency over, there’s little reason to listen to sports radio. The end result of all these brutal truths is that the amount of metal I listen to during these months increases dramatically, and when its not the summertime flavor of melodic/power metal or hard rock, its typically something fierce and aggressive (the better to match my heat-induced high blood pressure).

During years when summertime new releases are lean, I’ll usually find myself going back to old favorites and classic albums of yore. But the summer of 2015 is packed with new albums aplenty, with releases from up and comers like Perzonal War and Witchbound, and a slew of them from established veterans such as Helloween, Paradise Lost, Virgin Steele, Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody, and Pyramaze. Its been an overwhelming month and a half of repeated listening but I’ve managed to get a handle on this big first batch of new music. Simply because there’s so much to get through here, I’m going to try to keep these reviews as quick takes of 400(ish) words each, though that’s how all the review cluster articles were supposed to go and if you’ll recall the last two they certainly didn’t adhere to those guidelines. We’ll see how these fare in comparison —- onwards to catch up on May and June!
 


 

Helloween – My God Given Right: My initial indifference to this fifteenth studio album by power metal veterans Helloween was well documented on a recent episode of the MSRcast podcast. At the time I said that what brought the album down for me was its lightened tone, its greater emphasis on being hokey-jokey. Actually I shouldn’t have been surprised that Helloween was due to deliver something this light and fluffy at some point, their past few releases have subtly and not so subtly hinted at it.  A few weeks later I’m still largely of that opinion, but some of these songs have grown on me in a manner.

The obvious standout is the album’s second single “Lost In America”, a Maiden-esque guitar fueled anthem that only a German rock band could write about what essentially was a flight cancellation. Deris’ lyrical treatment is akin to Edguy’s Tobias Sammet and his infamous Helloween-like rocker “Lavatory Love Machine” —- complete with a lyric attributed to the airline pilot: “There’s a cloud / There’s a star / We should plunder the sky bar / We are lost / Lost in America”. My friend listened to the song once and came up with the perfect music video treatment for it, a Benny Hill styled edit of the band running around an airport while chased by security, affronted gaudy tourists as extras of course. Crazy German humor aside, its actually one of the strongest hooks I’ve heard this year, undeniable in its power to demand repeat spins just for the sheer fun of it.

There are a handful of other good cuts: “The Swing Of A Fallen World” takes us back to some of that stormy Dark Ride era moodiness; “Battle’s Won” has some terrific riffing on it’s verses but I find the chorus somewhat lacking in comparison; “My God-Given Right” is a pretty fierce straight-ahead rocker with some nice melodic guitar touches on the chorus; and I really enjoyed “Free World”, one of the many bonus tracks on the international edition which pushed the overall track listing here to sixteen new songs. Someone might hear that and think its great news, more music for less money —- and I’ll caution them to go back and consider the last Freedom Call release Beyond, where sixteen tracks were about 5 or 6 too many and diluted what could have been a truly great album. Helloween run into the same problem here, and according to a Deris quote from the album’s Wikipedia page the band had worked up 34 songs and had producer Charlie Bauerfeind and his team present the band with a whittled down tracklisting. I’m generally a fan of Bauerfeind, except I’ll be the first person to say that he’s not the go-to-guy when it comes to lessening excess and trimming the fat. They should’ve gotten a second opinion.

The Takeaway: The strange thing about My God Given Right is that when you have it on in the background while you’re doing something else, I dunno, the dishes or laundry for example, it actually comes off rather well —- light, unoffensive, catchy in some good spots. Its when you sit down and concentrate on it that you realize just how weak some of its constituent parts are. Spotify this first if you haven’t bought it yet.
 

 

Paradise Lost – The Plague Within: It seems that Nick Holmes recent stint recording the latest Bloodbath album was a pretty big influence on just how shockingly heavy this new Paradise Lost album turned out. Holmes was a curious choice for Bloodbath given that his performances on the past few Paradise Lost albums were more in the vein of a starker Amorphis / Sentenced approach. That resulting Bloodbath album, Grand Morbid Funeral, cast Holmes in the sonic vein of a crusty, smoky necromancer —- practically barking out his lyrics in the most bleak, death metal furor you forgot he was capable of. It was a good album, but he stole the show, injecting Bloodbath with a different flavor, one that was as brutal as Mikael Akerfeldt’s monolithic roar but distinct in its own right.

He tempers that approach only slightly here, allowing his vocals a dose of clarity in the way of enunciation, sort of like a really grim, death-metal touched James Hetfield. I know I’m mixing adjectives normally reserved for either black metal or death metal exclusively, but that’s part of Holmes gift as a vocalist, that he takes particulate elements from all kinds of extreme metal vocal styles and combines them through his own voice. The songwriting suits his favored approach (and according to interviews with Paradise Lost guitarist Greg Mackintosh the decision to get heavier was made after 2012’s Tragic Idol, an album that slightly hinted at a darkening of their sound). I could go on about individual songs here, but the truth is that there aren’t any weak ones —- this is without question one of the strongest, most cohesive albums of the year. But if you’re looking for YouTube-worthy glances, I’d recommend my personal favorites “No Hope In Sight” with its gorgeously melodic thru-lines, or “Cry Out” with its Metallica meets death metal fusion of straight ahead metal run through a grisly filter.

The Takeaway: One of the bigger surprises of the year, not that anyone was thinking that Paradise Lost would release a dud… but surely no one expected the bucket of water dose of heaviness that is The Plague Within. Fans of their Amorphis-ish past few albums might be taken back a bit by just how punishing it is, and if you’re not a fan of extreme metal vocals, Holmes approach could be a deal breaker. But its still Paradise Lost, the songwriting is inspired and Mackintosh rips off riffs that we haven’t heard from these guys since before Host. Just get it.
 

 

Pyramaze – Disciples of the Sun: Hey remember Pyramaze? That Danish prog-power band that Matt Barlow briefly joined to record an album with in 2007 before leaving for his second and apparently final stint with Iced Earth? That sole Barlow helmed album, titled Immortal, was to be their last for seven long years. In the interim, their line-up disintegrated: Founding guitarist Michael Kammeyer and longtime bassist Niels Kvist left the band, citing familial responsibilities, and Barlow’s replacement vocalist Urban Breed came and went, rejoining Swedish power metallers Bloodbound. Still standing were longtime keyboardist (and sole American in the lineup) Jonah Weingarten and drummer Morten Gade Sørensen, and with help from their longtime producer Jacob Hansen sitting in on guitar duties they’ve managed to rebuild a functional band line up with the addition of newbie Norwegian vocalist Terje Haroy.

Its absolutely commendable that the veterans in the band managed to rally and keep the flame burning to release this long delayed / awaited new album —- I’d talk more about that, except that its the new guy Haroy who utterly steals the show here. He’s simply one of the best new vocal talents in metal, regardless of genre, with a voice that takes equal parts from Chris Cornell and Tom Englund (Evergrey). That’s a gross oversimplification though, because Haroy delivers one of the year’s best overall vocal performances on Disciples of the Sun, his voice is just… massive, capable of soaring, tenor built choruses yet still possessing a thundering, booming heaviness. He’s a recent addition too, apparently only joining the ranks within the past year or so, and his seamless adaptability to the material on this album is a testament to just how well the songwriters in the band have spent the intervening years.

The songwriting borders on great, often surpassing it and as in the case of the title track —- transcending it. The chorus on “Disciples of the Sun” is so monumentally epic, so full of vigor and life that its immediately made my rough list for Songs of the Year candidates. Its not alone, being followed immediately by the uptempo, Symphony X-ish “Back For More”, where Weingarten and Hansen dual wield an ear-wormy melody to perfection, but allowing Haroy space to mimic it with his vocal take. Sometimes Haroy’s vocal melodies dominate certain songs, such as on “Genetic Process”, where the instrumentation surrounds him like an orchestra around a soprano. Its a great song, moody and heavy albeit with a sun bright chorus that places a ton of trust in a rookie singer. The wait was long but fruitful, and for many of you I’m sure Pyramaze will be coming across as essentially a new band —- what a debut then.

The Takeaway: Another of 2015’s astounding surprises, Pyramaze come out of nowhere to unleash an album that’s worth your time and money. With a new vocalist and new songwriting team to boot, its hard to compare it to their other works (unfair really), but this is for anyone who enjoys Evergrey, Symphony X, or even Kamelot.
 

 

Virgin Steele – Nocturnes of Hellfire & Damnation: On a recent episode of the MSRcast, I blurted out blindly that I had heard promising rumblings about the new Virgin Steele. Where did I glean said rumblings? Oh the usual assortment of forums I lurk at, coupled with the general sense of heaviness and epic pomp that pervaded the pre-release lyric video for “Lucifer’s Hammer”. Boy was I ever wrong. My first clue should’ve been my wary reticence at hearing David DeFeis’ vocal choices on said lyric video… I’ll just be honest about this, I have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes with Virgin Steele, no idea why vocalizations like this would meet with approval. You can’t blame me for my lack of knowledge —- this is a band with limited web presence who haven’t released a new album since 2010’s dreadful The Black Light Bacchanalia, their last good effort to my ears anyway dating all the way back to The House of Atreus Act I/II around 99-00′. My only conclusion is that DeFeis has simply taken over production duties for Virgin Steele in the past decade and as a result he is the band’s songwriting and de facto editor.

Here’s something I’ve learned having to do my own editing for this blog over these past few years… no matter how diligent a job I think I’ve done correcting grammatical or punctuation errors, I’ll always miss a few here and there. I’ll go back and read old articles I’ve written just for reference or just the hell of it and find myself coming across sentences that make no sense (and my OCD about it will result in ninja edits). With DeFeis serving as the band’s producer, and the power structure in the band obviously starting and ending with him, who’s there to politely suggest that DeFeis recent fascination with the falsetto is getting over the top? Who’s there to tell him that no one wants to hear a respected metal vocalist make noises similar to actual alley cats? Oh you think I’m joking do you? Go and YouTube “Queen of the Damned” and enjoy those first twenty seconds. Is there a redeemable song on the album?… Perhaps a riff or two here or there, and “Demolition Queen” is officially the leading contender for worst song of 2015, so that might be worth listening to. I guess it depends if you’re the kind of person who likes watching extreme sports blooper vids. Hey, sometimes you can’t turn away.

The Takeaway: No. Just no. (If you’re mildly curious the entire album is up on YouTube and Spotify, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
 

 

Witchbound – Tarot’s Legacy: Don’t let the admittedly crude cover art put you off, and no this isn’t a Cradle of Filth clone despite how much the cover model seems to resemble Dani Filth circa 1997 (no I’m not trying to be meanspirited —- the model’s name is Vanessa Vergissmeinnicht and she’s quite lovely). Witchbound is an intriguing project for a few reasons, the first of which will interest hardcore power metal fans who enjoy the genre’s history: Witchbound is a new project created by both the ex-Stormwitch bassist and guitarist Ronny Gleisberg and Stefan Kauffman, respectively. Both were original members of that band’s early 80’s lineup alongside recently deceased Stormwitch founder Lee Tarot. Their monikers might be a tad unrecognizable, because for whatever reason during the Stormwitch era they went under Americanized versions of their names (for marketing reasons perhaps?).

Tarot’s untimely passing was the galvanizing force behind the creation of Witchbound, his old friends and bandmates rallying together in an effort to complete Tarot’s final musical works. Things like this have been done before for other deceased musicians, and they’re always well meaning, while almost always garnering some kind of press and media attention. In this case, there’s very little of that —- a fact that makes Witchbound’s efforts all the more poignant. Unless you’re a metal historian, chances are that Stormwitch isn’t a name that’s familiar to you: They never really blew up in any way in during their heyday, their exposure to American audiences was limited to import mail order catalogs (I don’t even think they had an American distribution deal), and they were never able to crack their home country of Germany like their peers in Grave Digger, Accept, Helloween, and later Blind Guardian. So what Witchbound has finished is an album called Tarot’s Legacy, its songs either written entirely or co-written by Tarot himself, as a grand gesture to a career cut short.

The other intriguing thing about this album is that its really, really great, perhaps Tarot’s finest work as a songwriter. With the help of the gruff yet richly melodic vocals of Thorsten Lichtner, the band powers through fifty minutes of music that boasts not only muscular aggression in terms of heaviness, but also a rich instrumental diversity with the infusion of acoustic passages and eastern sounding motifs (which work towards complementing the loosely metaphysical lyrical theme going on here). Think a less proggy version of Brainstorm’s take on power metal and you’re nearly there, with a dose of Suidakra’s musicality here and there as a spice. Songs like “Mauritania” and “Mandrake’s Fire” are propulsive, adrenaline-fueling uptempo gems, and the ballads here are unbelievable, Lichtner doing a wonderful job on “Trail of Stars” and the gorgeous, shimmering “Sands of Time” —- the latter is a shoe-in for the Songs of the Year list. These are inspired performances, the sound of friends trying to honor their friend’s legacy the best way they can.

The Takeaway: It may be out of nowhere, and difficult to believe if you judge books (or albums) by their covers, but Tarot’s Legacy is one of the strongest albums of the year, certainly one of the best power metal albums of 2015. I’ve seen so few people talking about this release so this is my meager attempt at picking up the slack —- check this album out.
 

 

Perzonal War – The Last Sunset: This one is for those of you pining for a new Metallica fix (and unlikely to get one soon). The unfortunately named Perzonal War is a thrash / trad-metal band from Germany who believe it or not have released six full lengths prior to 2015’s The Last Sunset, the first I’m hearing from them. There are a lot of metal bands out there, and its amazing how many of them go unnoticed by those of us who consider ourselves up on the genre —- again proving my “cream rises to the top theory” (tweet me if you want an explanation at your own risk!). With the aid of a better PR firm, a promo copy of this album landed in the MSRcast email account, and into my skeptical hands (hey, intentional misspellings are hard for me to overlook). Its a bit of a triumph then that this is a surprisingly fun mix of modern day thrash and blatant Metallica aping, down to vocalist/guitarist Mathias Zimmer’s slightly German-tinged but otherwise spot on James Hetfield impression.

I suppose that could be taken as a slight, but I mean it in a good way… certainly Perzonal War won’t win praise for originality, but they execute what they want to do rather well and Zimmer’s flexible vocal talent is a big reason for that. My favorite Zimmer / Hetfield moment is by far “Speed of Time”, a song that could’ve been at home on The Black Album or even Load / ReLoad, down to the rather minimalist use of melodic guitar variations to usher in the chorus. But then Zimmer surprises with a voice entirely his own on “What Would You Say?”, a relatively spacier song with metronomic guitar repetition in the verses and a refrain that reminds me of Tyr or Grand Magus. Sometimes when I’m listening to this album I get the notion in my head that it could’ve been the Metallica album to follow the Load era if someone had introduced Hetfield and Kirk Hammet to a few melodic death metal bands in timely fashion. Maybe its that the guitar work often owes more to Gothenburg or Tampa even rather than the SF Bay Area —- just a feeling though.

The Takeaway: No frills, solid musicianship (sometimes even near spectacular), Hetfield-ian vocals, and a rather muscular take on thrash… that’s The Last Sunset in a nutshell. The German Metallica then? Sorry Mille.
 

 

Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody – Prometheus Symphonia Ignis Divinus: I’m a frequent lurker of the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group, a surprisingly active group of a couple thousand metal fans, most of them indeed based in the United States, who talk pretty much nothing but power metal and all its associated topics. One of those topics recently was the release of this album specifically, and not a debate about whether or not it was good, but generally more along the lines of just how great is it? Full disclosure here is that I’ve never been a Rhapsody fan, even before the 2006 name change. It wasn’t for lack of trying either, they were such a big name in the power metal scene there was no way I could attempt to ignore them, but time and time again each new album failed to hook me. I wasn’t entirely sure what the 2011 splitting into two camps meant for either version of Rhapsody in the musical sense, was one going to become a touch more straightforward in their musical approach while the other spiraled out of control?

If I had to put money on who would go the latter route, it would’ve been on Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody. Turilli always struck me as the musical heart of Rhapsody and since his incarnation is typically viewed as the more legitimate of the two versions (Nuclear Blast put their eggs in his basket, a telling move), I figured he would be the one to carry on into further cinematic-inspired realms. I was right and wrong, Turilli has done exactly that but so has Alex Staropoli and Fabio Lione with their Rhapsody of Fire. The flight attendant asked Jerry. “More anything?”  He cried out, “More everything!” Seinfeld references aside, Turilli is winning the war of one upmanship, as his Prometheus album is the most operatically and cinematically drenched offering to date (to me at least, and if I’m naively wrong on that, correct me Rhapsody fans). Its all very impressive sounding, quite immaculately recorded and there’s a ton going on musically, more than mere descriptive sentences can capture. Stay far away if you absolutely hate opera, although I’ve found that its the few songs sung in Italian that tend to be the most interesting such as the suitably theater-esque “Notturno”, a ballad that sounds like its meant to be an aria. If Turilli really set out to craft an actual stage opera and left the metal elements behind I think he could do well at it… he’s got a knack for the stuff on the same level that Christofer Johnsson from Therion does.

But here’s a good example of why I tend to get tripped up on anything Rhapsody related: There’s a song on the album called “One Ring to Rule Them All”, and a quick glance at the lyrics will tell you that its directly about Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Now, I consider myself a Tolkien aficionado, the kind of aficionado that has read The Silmarillion more times than I care to admit in public. I’ve heard Tolkien set to metal in the form of Blind Guardian’s many masterpieces, and what that band’s Tolkien-related work does so well is carve out a vivid, original soundtrack to set his stories against. Turilli’s Tolkien-related song here sounds no different than any of the other songs on the album, there’s nothing to set it apart —- I can’t tell the difference between it and the title track about, y’know, Prometheus. If you can’t make Tolkien interesting to me then I just have to wonder if I’ll ever find something to truly enjoy on your albums. Maybe more of the purely Italian operatic stuff, because at least that’s something that seems to come from an inspired place, and that’s ultimately what I need to detect to be interested in a band… honest inspiration.

The Takeaway: I hope Rhapsody fans can understand my disconnect here, the truth is I don’t honestly know whether or not this is a good album or not. What I do know is that its not for me, anyone else got a fan’s inside take on it?
 

The Belated Review of Faith No More’s Sol Invictus

June 30, 2015

This has been a problematic review to write to say the least. First there were the technical difficulties with a dying laptop to contend with which contributed to the stop/start, piece by piece manner in which it was coming together. Then there was the problem of my ever changing feelings about the album itself, spanning an array of differing, opposing opinions —- sometimes simultaneously. The result was an unfocused, rambling mess that I ended up scraping not just once, but three times. At some point I just decided to skip Sol Invictus as an album to write about altogether, only to come back to it a week later with the realization that it would be disingenuous to myself to ignore the reality of a new album by Faith No More, a band that I loved as much as Maiden, or Megadeth. And that’s exactly what Faith No More were, one of my favorite bands of all time, my obsession with them delving deep and for a considerable length of time. How could I not address the arrival of an album that I long thought impossible, the culmination of a reunion that six years ago seemed as unlikely as Axl Rose becoming prolific?

Faith No More as a band reminded me so much of my high school era misfit circle of friends, a bunch of semi-dirtbag kids with a fondness for absurd, lunatic humor and metal who couldn’t fit in anywhere else, even among stereotypically “weird” school cliques like the theater kids. Our lack of ability to adapt to other groups meant that we somehow found ourselves together, at the bottom of the high school social ladder —- not that we paid it much notice… we didn’t know who the most popular kids in our class were then and didn’t care to find out because we were engrossed in our own worlds. Similarly, Faith No More were a rock band that didn’t fit in with any of their peers —- not their 1992 tour mates Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, not even with other more alternative rock based weirdos like Jane’s Addiction or Smashing Pumpkins (and certainly not with the Nirvanas and Soundgardens). It was just a part of their DNA, they were too weird, a little too unique, and they absolutely didn’t care about fitting in at all. Their classic Mike Patton / Billy Gould / Roddy Bottum / Mike Bordin / Jim Martin The Real ThingAngel Dust era lineup was a witches brew of bizarre personalities that clashed, numerous unresolved conflicts, and general tension so thick it was entirely noticeable to everyone who worked with or around them.

Journalist Steffan Chirazi wrote of the band’s cast of characters in his brilliant essay in the liner notes of the Who Cares A Lot retrospective compilation,

“…Faith No More only ever did what they wanted, despite the polar opposite personalities within the creative process. Gould was a quiet pressure cooker who would blow his stack every few months in spectacular fashion; Bottum was the floating carefree sort; Bordin would go wherever the comfort and ease of passage seemed greatest; Patton seemed to enjoy the thrill of pissing everybody off in any way necessary; and Martin would often belligerently refuse to entertain his bandmates, just because.”

But through that they persevered and managed to make truly great music on classic albums that were always surprising in their change of musical style and direction. Their pop-infused commercial breakthrough The Real Thing sounded entirely different from their previous two punk-influenced Chuck Mosley helmed efforts, not a stretch when considering it was Patton’s debut as vocalist. Yet instead of delivering a commercially inclined follow-up, the band released Angel Dust, an album so gleefully weird and schizophrenic that it caused their most metalhead leaning member, guitarist Jim Martin, to abruptly quit the band at the end of its supporting tour. This wild musical and stylistic shift from album to album continued: 1995’s King For A Day… Fool For A Lifetime sounded completely different to Angel Dust, and its follow up in 1998’s Album of the Year was another about face in a more cinematic, noir-ish direction. Always changing, no two albums sounding alike, they were a record companies worst nightmare (as has been documented in their interviews from back then), but to me their unapologetic weirdness shone like a beacon in the often staid and conservative patterns that most metal and hard rock bands adhered to.
 

When they reunited with the Album of the Year lineup around 2009, it seemed like a miracle, some strange confluence of planetary events that somehow got them all to see eye to eye for the first time in their career. In interviews they seemed friendly towards each other, and even happy to be playing with one another again. I expected it would mean a run of tour dates here and there, the odd festival or two and that would be it. The band seemed to think so as well, except that the touring stretched into runs of tour dates in consecutive years, which meant that they quickly grew tired of going on stage and kicking out nothing but old songs. Thus began their gradual lessening of resistance to writing and eventually recording new music, and when it was announced that they were actively in the studio I was over the moon. I don’t know what I was expecting in terms of the end result, seventeen years is a long time between new albums, and I doubt the band really knew either.

This lack of relative perspective due to such a great span of time between releases is ultimately what defines Sol Invictus, for better and worse. Now only a fool would expect the band to go back and listen to what they were doing on Album of the Year and make a conscious writing decision to move away from that —- its likely that it was daunting enough to simply sit in a room and see if they could write together creatively. In that regard the album is a triumph, but as part of the larger Faith No More legacy it tends to fall disappointingly short because so much of the music on here sounds like stuff we’ve heard before. I’ve waffled back and forth to varying degrees on this, but when I hear songs like “Rise of the Fall”, “Cone of Shame”, “Separation Anxiety”, “Sunny Side Up”, “Superhero”, and even the opening title track itself, I’m hearing music that sounds like it could’ve come from King For a Day or Album of the Year, or even more alarmingly, stuff that could’ve been on a Tomahawk album (Patton’s more straight ahead rock side project). That doesn’t mean its inherently bad music (in fact there’s nothing on the album that I could describe as below average), as I’ve found small moments on all those aforementioned songs that I enjoy: Patton’s delightful “I’m only happy when I’m pissing you off” lyric on “Cone of Shame” for starters; the Italian sounding cinescapes on “Rise of the Fall” are evocative; and piano n’ bass jazz verses of “Sunny Side Up” are a welcome change from guitar riffs.

Yet overall I just feel like I’ve heard most of this before, in some other permutation or another —- the moments where they do seem to be venturing into fresh territory are few, but they stand out as the album’s best songs. There’s the early lead-off single “Motherfucker”, it was what provided me with a heady dose of optimism leading up to the album’s release, a three and a half minute pop-perfect single with martial snare percussion and the band’s typically perverse mix of setting rather vulgar language to hypnotic rhythms and a sweetly gorgeous melody. I love it and its one of the band’s all-time greatest songs, its lyrical cadence a prime example of why reviewers who deeply analyze Patton’s lyrics just completely get it wrong (he’s always written his lyrics with phonetics and rhyme structure in mind first, coherence a distant second, something he’s confirmed in interviews quite frequently when asked about the meaning of specific songs —- so many writers ignore this fact). Check this snippet of his work in “Motherfucker”: “Bloated, promoted in an ode to pomp and style / Moistened in the feed while we choke upon the bile / Corner in the market on the geese without the bones / Hushing out the public in a strike without a drone”, a stanza of lyrics not only phonetically matched but set to an alliterative pattern as well… I’m open to all interpretations of what hidden meanings anyone thinks they hold though.
 

You’d expect that with my emphasis on quality lyricism that Patton’s approach would be anathema to me, but I find it refreshing because he does care about his lyrics and pays attention to them, just in a different way than most others. A similar example can be found in another of the album’s better tracks, “Black Friday”, where over chiming acoustic strumming and uptempo bass Patton dots out “It’s a ride at the salad bar / Predatory lenders / Safari missions far / But you paid for them / To kill your mom”… in context of the music and Patton’s phrasing they work but on paper they read off like pure nonsense, a Faith No More trademark by now. Its followed by “Matador”, one of the more musically adventurous songs on the album, replete with beautiful piano chords and excellent complementary guitar work by Jon Hudson. Faith No More’s musicianship has always been pretty great, nothing to nerd out about, just the kind of quality work a seasoned bunch of pros can deliver: Gould’s bass work is nicely audible as always and he’s kinda a joy to listen to in general, weaving in between keyboards and guitars deftly to allow his personality to rumble through; Bottum’s keyboards are present on most of the album delivering surprising, counterpoint driven patterns; Bordin is on point with percussion as always; and Hudson actually does a pretty inspired job in handling guitar duties, never overshadowing anyone else but sliding in just enough.

Its Patton who is the star of the album though, his voice is ageless and whether he’s screaming at full force or crooning at his smoothest (something that I missed during his years focusing on Fantomas and Tomahawk) he always sounds spectacular. Its nice to hear him in this context once again, with a band that seems ultimately to be his perfect fit, even in the moments where they don’t seem to be firing on all cylinders. As I’ve been listening to this album for a month plus now (can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve spun through it), I’ve felt that my initial mixed to negative reaction has simmered down a bit. I was even enjoying large chunks of it as I was writing this particular review, spinning through it twice more. Its not a bad album by any means, but I’m still firmly sticking by my assessment that its a relatively weaker album in relation to its predecessors simply because it sounds so much like some of them. Faith No More were great because you could never predict what they were going to sound like, you were always surprised, and the music was always great regardless. I feel confident that if they try again with another studio album, they’ll find there way back to that operating state of mind —- that Sol Invictus was the sound of the band clearing out the cobwebs so to speak. There was a part of me that so badly wanted this to be something I could consider as one of the year’s best albums, but once again I’m reminded of the folly of my own expectations.
 

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again

June 28, 2015

Hey everyone, sorry for the considerable delay and the Chumbawamba reference. Week-plus long gaps between updates aren’t unusual for this blog but a month-plus gap certainly is. It wasn’t intentional, just the unfortunate side effect of my old laptop finally giving into whatever was ailing it —- a busted internal fan for a start —- and as a result absolutely refusing to multi-task without the system simply grinding to an irritating halt. The reality is that its near impossible for me to write pieces for this blog without a multi-tabbed Firefox and iTunes running simultaneously, and after seven years of the laptop being a slow but trusty workhorse, I realized it was time to put it to pasture. But I’m back with a brand new laptop packing a considerably heftier amount of power (Intel i5 + running my OS off my shiny new internal SSD drive!) and am ready to get back into writing mode!

I’m behind so expect the next few updates to be playing catch up: A belated review of Faith No More’s Sol Invictus is gonna arrive first, followed by a two part monstrous Summertime Reviews Cluster (part two will come in late July/early August…. part one is big enough *cough* nine albums! *cough*), followed by another edition of The Metal Pigeon Recommends, as well as my long worked upon Bruce Dickinson retrospective that I stupidly promised on Instagram back in, jeez, March I think. So yeah, that’s a rough look at the upcoming weeks/months, but expect some surprises here and there as well because I feel the need to unleash a flurry of updates to make up for lost time in a way. Not sure where that will take us but we’ll find out together! By the way for those of you who follow me on Twitter, I know my Tweet-A-Day attempts for May and June went down like the Hindenburg but I’ll be making another run at it in July (declaring it here might help me remember more!). Follow me on Twitter and Instagram both @TheMetalPigeon (Facebook too but all I do is post article updates there). Here’s to a more active second half of 2015!

Kamelot’s Path to Haven

May 19, 2015

For many of us, this particular Kamelot album has been a long time coming. I suspect that quite a few of you felt the same way that I did when considering their 2012 Tommy Karevik-fronted debut Silverthorn —- that it was a difficult album to judge for better or worse considering that it had largely been written before Karevik had joined up. It was known that he had handled the writing of his own vocal melodies and lyrics in Seventh Wonder, and was quite good at it to say the least. Now for a lot of bands, this wouldn’t be a big deal because either the guitarist, or bassist, or keyboardist even would be serving alone as the primary songwriter. Not so with Kamelot, as founding guitarist and songwriter Thomas Youngblood spent over a decade co-writing with Roy Khan —- who in addition to being one of the greatest metal voices of all time, was also gifted with savant-like abilities in vocal melody development and lyric writing. Together they were the second coming and fully realized promise of Chris DeGarmo and Geoff Tate of classic era Queensryche, sharing similarities in their respective styles and deliveries; and in penning masterful prog-metal with crisp, clean, melodic guitars and emotive, soaring vocals with intelligent, thoughtful lyricism.

Youngblood and Khan were a pair of songwriters so attuned to each other that they unleashed not just one, but four outright masterworks in continuous succession from The Fourth Legacy thru The Black Halo (a feat that had not been accomplished in melodic metal since Iron Maiden’s 82-88 “Golden Era”). Khan’s departure in 2010 meant not only the loss of the band’s signature voice, but half of their songwriting engine. During the much speculated upon vocalist search, I suspected that Kamelot’s primary candidate requirement would be a singer who had also proven themselves in a songwriting capacity, to help fill that particular aspect of the void left by Khan. Considering that, the field of potential vocalists was reduced greatly, and at the top of my own (and many others’) list of suspects to be given the job was Karevik himself. He was the only logical choice: His tone and timbre was remarkably similar to Khan’s, Youngblood himself had stated a preference for the inflections present in Scandinavian accents, and Karevik had a resume full of songwriting, lyric writing, and vocal melody development.

With that in mind, its difficult to understand then why Youngblood and his newly adapted songwriting partners keyboardist Oliver Palotai and producer Sascha Paeth began writing without waiting for their new vocalist, but I would wager it was market forces. A full time band needs income from touring, which meant that the clock was ticking in terms of having to write and record a new album as soon as possible, vocalist or not. It was a gamble that paid off with an album that satisfied those concerns, but I believe failed in the greater context of actually being a good Kamelot album. With Silverthorn, Youngblood, Paeth, and Palotai engaged in a guessing game exercise in songwriting, the same kind faced by Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen for their post-Tarja Turunen album Dark Passion Play. Writing songs without knowing the tone and timbre of your future vocalist is an incredibly difficult challenge, one that rarely ensures optimal results.

 
When Karevik finally got to tackle his vocals, he did the best he could with clumsily constructed spacing for bridges and choruses. Rarely did he have enough room to unfurl a properly developed refrain, and the hooks suffered as a result. His vocal melodies were often forced to lay upon riffs that worked against him, resulting in awkward sonic pairings. The entire affair was hammered over with enough adjustments and editing to make it passable and listenable, but it lacked the natural smoothness and melodic flow that normally defined a good Kamelot album. One of the few exceptions was “Song For Jolee”, a stirring ballad that Karevik was able to get involved with in a greater capacity, writing the song around the strength of his vocal melody and a particularly haunting lyric. Alongside the similarly vocal melody-led “Solitaire”, it was a brief demonstration of the dramatic impact that Karevik could make if he was given a ground floor role in the songwriting.

It certainly made it clear to me that his second album with the band would be the far more accurate portrait of where the band was in their post-Khan evolution. That open question made Haven the most intriguing new release of 2015 for me, the very definition of a make or break situation that I nervously anticipated. I’ll be honest, I was still nervous even after my initial listen all the way through, but Haven has proven to harbor the trademarks of an expensive, well made perfume: underneath its initial sharp top notes are long lingering, pleasantly fragrant middle and base notes. Now thirty plus listens later, I feel confident about contextualizing its place in the band’s discography, and in deeming it their greatest album since The Black Halo —- a distinction I wouldn’t throw out without careful consideration. It is obviously far more accomplished than Silverthorn, with Karevik’s distinctive input in the songwriting directly translating into songs being written around the vocal melodies, the proper order of things in the Kamelot universe.

But perhaps more important than that is just how impactful his expansive vocal range is, urging the band to return to writing in largely major keys, with Karevik technically able to operate (with seeming effortlessness) in higher registers. Khan devotees (of which I consider myself to be) may balk at that statement for what it implies, but its the flip side of what is a rather uncomfortable topic for many Kamelot fans, namely, Khan’s degrading vocal range over the years. A few years ago, before Karevik was even announced as the successor, I wrote something for this blog called The Legacy of Roy Khan, a tribute of sorts as to why he was truly brilliant, and to why his void would be deeply felt by the band. Towards the end of the piece I briefly mentioned Khan’s declining range, but skipped over it perfunctorily, so as not to dwell so much on the very real difficulties he faced as a performer (a great deal of which was documented through live show recordings thrown on YouTube). It simply didn’t seem right to focus on it given the nature of the piece.

 
Yet its Karevik’s performance on Haven that drags this shadowy topic back into the light, as well as revealing a larger truth about the band in general —- that Khan’s declining range provoked a fundamental change in Kamelot’s sound and songwriting, a change that became habitual and they’ve yet to fully withdraw from. We can trace back Khan’s lowering vocal range to as early as The Black Halo, where he began to transition away from singing mostly in upper registers to settling into a comfortable mid-range with a few exceptions (“Serenade” and “Moonlight” come to mind immediately as that album’s upper register standouts). On Ghost Opera, this continued in large part, with Khan operating in a slightly lower register, even on a song like “Anthem” that required him to hit a few highs (studio effects on those vocals were noticeable, whether or not they were covering something up is entirely debatable). Where a song like “Up From the Ashes” should have had lead vocals that zoomed upwards through its soaring, arcing chorus, Khan hardly wavered from his mid-range delivery. Instead the band used layers of backing choral vocals to take care of the upper register work, a choir assembled of Gate Studios’ vets Amanda Somerville and both Robert and Cinzia Hunecke Rizzo, frequent choir contributors to Rhapsody, Avantasia, Edguy, etc, and all singers capable of filling in those high notes.

Even more noticeable than on the albums was Khan’s live performances beginning on the Ghost Opera tour. I myself attended their September 9th, 2007 Houston concert and despite my giddiness at seeing the band live for the first time, I was surprised to hear them down tuning for older songs in addition to new ones. They avoided included anything in their setlist from The Fourth Legacy, nothing all too surprising by considering its age and the vast amount of songs they had to choose from, but it was very telling in what the band viewed as the easy exclusions. When Poetry For the Poisoned was released in 2010, the common discussion from fans was just how dark the album sounded —- and it wasn’t just something felt in its admittedly depressing lyrics, but in its even more down tuned approach. Guitar tone alone wasn’t simply what was affecting us all, it was that such a change in tone was prompting Youngblood to think about songwriting differently —- heavier, chunkier riffs and rhythms to work better with Khan’s new register, slower tempos better suited to such sonic changes, and Palotai providing suitably darker atmospherics to work as adhesive.

 
The band as a songwriting unit had downshifted their approach away from their classic symphonic power metal approach of the late nineties / early aughts, and when fans would wish aloud for a return to a “classic” Kamelot sound, they were knowingly or unknowingly yearning for Khan to sing in a higher register again, something that could cause those tempos to pick up the pace once more —- they were hoping to go back in time in other words. There was spectacular work on those last two Khan era albums, by him in particular —- he still sounded great as a singer, and his vocal melodies and lyrics were always on point. But the tour supporting Poetry was the all too visible sign that Khan’s actual voice was deteriorating, and that he was incapable of even mid-ranged performances at times. The damning evidence is still on YouTube for anyone to relive (and I hated doing so for the purposes of pure research), and when he abruptly quit the tour it was hardly surprising despite our initial shock… for everyone who was paying attention, the end was in sight.

Both Youngblood and Palotai, as the surviving core of the writing team spent those final five to six Khan era years growing accustomed to the changes in the band’s sound, too accustomed it would seem. When they wrote for Silverthorn the tendency to down tune, rely on chunky riffing, and mid-paced tempos lingered on with a few exceptions. Its unfair to fault them, as the machinations of a creative process are hard to alter immediately, and the human tendency to rely upon developed habits is hard to shake. Nevertheless its one that they will have to, because in Karevik they have a vocalist whose natural register is higher, and who operates in that space with an ease that always seemed to elude Khan. If you’ve heard Karevik in Seventh Wonder, you’ll have heard him deliver vocals that seem to effortlessly dance across the top of major chords, deftly moving with an almost R&B influenced sense of alliteration and cadence —- he’s inherently poppier than Khan, less operatically inclined.

 
With a vocalist like Karevik, Kamelot can make its way back towards a sound that resembles its classic era, one replete with all the trimmings of their trademark symphonic power metal stylings that many of us have missed so much. The good news is that with a big chunk of the songs off Haven they’re well on their way. The bad news is that this flip side to the legacy of Roy Khan continues to plague a portion of their songwriting, in specific moments hampering the best use of Karevik’s abilities. Consider the not awful but rather clunky “Citizen Zero”, where the sludge-y tempo prevents the verse sections from developing into anything interesting, its down tuned riffs and overly aggressive approach resulting in heaviness that seemed forced and frankly boring. This faux-heaviness disrupts the structure of “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)”, wedging a bright, uptempo chorus in between two slabs of formless verses composed of floating keyboard atmospherics and meandering, un-melodic riffing.

The worst offender might be “Revolution”, as much an example of what not to do in a Kamelot song as there ever has been. No need to comment on the presence of the overused Alissa White-Gluz, whose aggressive vocals are indistinguishable from any other harsh vocalist (male or female), particularly when the biggest problem is the forced faux-heaviness of the guitar riffs. Youngblood is a supreme talent, one of the defining musicians of the genre and someone whose artistic legacy is already secure. He’s better than this quite frankly, and he of all people should know that we listen to his band for the melodies, not the riffs (this isn’t Melechesh!). This is the song that should’ve been left on the cutting room floor, or perhaps been singled out as the Japanese bonus track (more on that later). The last song to suffer from echoes of the past is “My Therapy”, where Karevik’s skillful treatment of the vocal melody (particularly in the chorus) saves the song from relatively lackluster verses fragments set to beds of uninspired riffs.

 
The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.

Continuing the brilliance is “Insomnia”, an uptempo song built off Palotai’s inventive, swinging keyboard figures and finished by a multi-layered Karevik vocal performance that is simply astounding. On the chorus, he soars above himself, setting his lead vocal underneath waves of his own layered vocal arrangement, apparently fit to serve as his own choir. Those familiar with Karevik’s layering work on Mercy Falls and The Great Escape will feel as if the styles of the two bands are merging here, the multi-layered vocal flurries of Seventh Wonder meeting the dark symphony of Kamelot. And as if to further justify his inclusion in ground level songwriting, consider just how much he improves “Veil of Elysium”, arguably the spiritual successor to Silverthorn’s “Sacrimony (Angel of Afterlife)”. If you hadn’t noticed the similarities between both songs, take a moment to listen to them back to back and notice just how much more developed the song sounds now with Karevik able to expand on the chorus. Rather than being forced to shoehorn lyrics on top of a space reserved for a vocal melody, on “Veil of Elysium” he weaves the vocal melody around the phrasing of his diction, their very consonant structure providing the poetic meter within: “One day I know we will meet again / In the shade of a life to die for”. He also finds the time to serve up a particularly Khan-like piece of simple lyrical beauty, “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his treatment of the last line at the 1:04 mark being a prime example of his nimbleness as a singer.

 
The gorgeous, Troy Donockley’s pipes-assisted “Under Grey Skies” is a gem of a ballad, built almost entirely off Karevik’s vocal melodies, with help from the welcome Charlotte Wessels (Delain). She’s a breath of fresh air for the band’s choice of female collaborators, possessing a voice that is lighter than Simone Simons and more at home when set atop such cozy, acoustic guitar-plucked balladry. Some may find the lyrics here a little too cloying, but Karevik wisely avoids cliche diction and couches his romantic subtext in a stanza sung by Wessels, giving some respite to anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a guy sing them lines about kisses n’ stuff (if you feel guilty right about now you’re likely one of them). As a duet its a triumph, my favorite parts arriving towards the end when Karevik and Wessels trade off soaring layered vocals, singing under and around one another. Youngblood’s mid-song guitar solo here is note perfect, building off the vocal melody motif and extenuating it to sublime effect.

The highlights continue on the second half of the album, with “End of Innocence” proving itself to play along with the unusual coincidence of bands producing great songs under that particular title. I’m most struck by how well Youngblood manages to balance a dose of heavy guitar riffs without overpowering the melodies worked up by Palotai and Karevik. The MVP here might be Palotai, who answers the heaviness of the guitars with jaunty, symphonic keys that usher along a melody that works as a flamboyant counterpoint to successfully balance things out. Once again, Karevik knocks one out of the park with his choice vocal inflections and change-ups on the recurring chorus line, “And why must a hero die young / Not to be gone and forgotten” —- each time he gives it a new flavor. We’re treated to some Middle-Eastern flair in “Beautiful Apocalypse”, a song that took me a few listens to come around to. What sold it was Karevik’s simply stunning transition from gritty and tortured to smooth and sonorous (and back again), best exemplified at the 1:10 to 1:43 mark. Its one of the most dexterous things I’ve ever heard him accomplish.

A different kind of Khan influence creeps up on “Here’s to the Fall”, where Karevik sounds so eerily similar to his predecessor (particularly to open the song), that I wonder if Khan didn’t drop by the studio at any point to lay down some vocal fragments. This is of course the ability that won Karevik the job and was more frequently heard on Silverthorn, but here he uses it to great effect until the 3:10 mark, where the Tommy Karevik we’ve been hearing all album long pops up again in his more Seventh Wonder influenced mode. If Khan did drop by the studio, I’ll find out eventually, I don’t know how but I’m still not entirely convinced there wasn’t something sneaky going on (I’m only partially joking)! Normally I’d prefer an acoustic guitar/vocal pairing with keyboard embellishment  (think in the vein of “Glory” from The Fourth Legacy) rather than solely keyboards/vocals, but Palotai does a nice job here of creating a moody atmosphere that actually works. I mentioned the Japanese bonus track earlier, one “The Ties That Bind”, a hooky, tuneful yet heavy-riff fueled song with a chorus that doesn’t quite arc fully, yet is infinitely better for the album proper than “Revolution”.

 
If like me you received the expanded edition of the album with a second disc full of alternate renditions and instrumental tracks, you’ll have probably indulged in the piano version of “End of Innocence” and the acoustic guitar version of “Veil of Elysium”. These songs, so uptempo and electric on the album are hushed here, left to operate only on the strength of their defining characteristic: their vocal melodies. Its a further testament to Karevik’s contributions to this album, that his melodies are strong enough to be the actual skeleton of a working song… one can call it practically Khan-esque even. And a final thought on Youngblood himself, who deserves individual praise alongside Palotai and Karevik for trusting his collaborators enough to breathe new life into his band. I’ve always regarded his style as being directly influenced by Chris DeGarmo (among others surely) in that during their respective classic eras they both wrote in crisp, clear melodic lines with razor sharp precision, anchored by a mindset that was unconcerned with any sort of “heavy factor”.

The difference was that DeGarmo eventually got off that train and ventured into lighter, jangly, less riff-based directions —- whereas Youngblood found himself having to forcibly get heavier, chunkier, and less melodic as a result. Both of them are tremendously gifted songwriters and guitarists, and in their work one attribute directly correlated with the other. They both operate best when writing and performing in what I call the DeGarmo gold standard, that thoughtful mix of melodic writing filtered through crisp riffing and clear open chord sequences. It may be too far gone for DeGarmo to ever bother returning, but Youngblood can easily find his way back to that standard. The first step is realizing that he now has a vocalist capable of hitting the highs needed to bring Kamelot’s sound back to its classically infused, symphonic metal roots… a return to their primordial musical waters so to speak. They’re halfway there with Haven. Karevik is the savior of the band’s sound, I suspect they’d surely be lost without him. Behind Bruce Dickinson, I can think of no better or more important replacement vocalist in the history of metal.
 

Reviews Cluster Blowout!: Releases By Melechesh, Kiske/Somerville, Subterranean Masquerade and More!

May 15, 2015

I realize its been few and far between in terms of updates to the blog over the past two months, and while I’ve never promised an end to these occasional bouts of silence —- I always try to keep a valid reason for their occurrence. As ever that reason tends to lay somewhere in between being overwhelmed by so many new albums coming out in a short span of time, and my inescapable longing to either linger on a particularly captivating recent release, or to simply revisit older classics. Its been a bit of all three for me as of late, as I kept stumbling onto one intriguing new album after another only to set each one aside after my attention was directed elsewhere, not a good thing when you’re trying to write reviews for them. Also I haven’t been able to quit Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase., an album that I feel will stick with me far longer than I ever anticipated, and it led me to go through his catalog all over again, from Porcupine Tree to Blackfield.

Long story short, I got distracted along the way (the Nightwish release further delayed matters) and a lot of reviews that should have been out many weeks ago had to be delayed until I could go back and re-listen to them yet again. Quality over quantity is probably the worst way to go for a blog in this SEO-driven, microsecond attention span era of online communication, but hopefully somewhere along the way I’ll stumble onto a metal writer’s version of some Garrison Keillor meets Andy Rooney persona to justify it all (hmm… actually not sure about that). The reviews below aren’t all of the new albums I got to check out in the past few months, just the ones I really felt were worth talking about (for better or worse, mostly better). Also I should mention that I checked and as of this publication date all of these albums are available on Spotify, so if you want you can listen along with each review or better yet try before you buy.



 
Subterranean Masquerade – The Great Bazaar: You’ll be forgiven for not knowing who these guys are, given that this January release is only their second full length album since the band’s inception in 1997 (there were also two EPs somewhere in there). Its a full ten years since their 2005 debut Suspended Animation Dreams, an album I’ve not listened to yet but might have to take a peek at if its anywhere near as satisfying as The Great Bazaar. This is prog-metal, in that particular vein where things get a little eccentric and weird. Thankfully it seems that their primary songwriter and guitarist Tomer Pink understands that most fundamental thing that can often elude an ambitious bunch of prog musicians —- no one will care if the songs are garbage.

I haven’t heard of Tomer Pink before admittedly, nor most of the other musicians that make up the band’s ranks except for one Paul Kuhr, yes that Kuhr, of November’s Doom. He’s here providing his particularly heavy vocals as a sharp contrast to clean vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (ex-Green Carnation, Tristania), and both guys do a tremendous job of injecting passion into nearly everything they touch. There’s not much to say in regards to the backgrounds of the other guys, save for one of them being the current drummer for Orphaned Land (percussion, he played on the All Is One album). It is worth mentioning that largely everyone save the two vocalists seems to hail from Israel, making this somewhat of an oriental metal band, in theory and in essence. It doesn’t take long for that distinctive, culturally inspired sound to pop up on the album opener “Early Morning Mantra”, in the form of traditional sounding percussion and Arabic motifs in the keyboard generated strings.

So by now you’re probably thinking, “Okay, so they’re like a mashup of Orphaned Land and Myrath”, to which I’ll respond, “Whoa, hold the phone there Radar”. It doesn’t take long for “Early Morning Mantra” to unveil its strange, surreal layering of sounds, and once you get to the 5:27 mark the sounds of a full blown ska section will utterly baffle your sense of comprehension. Not so smug now are we? Listen, in all seriousness, I’m not kidding you about just how head-spinningly eccentric/eclectic this album winds up being! That aforementioned “ska section” actually works like a charm, a moment of pure musical joy that etches a smile on your face just for the sheer cheek of it all. And you never know when an electric violin-type sound will pop up, flanked by Kuhr’s jagged vocals, followed by some delicate piano, or acoustic guitar figures, or what sounds like a soulful woodwind instrument (you’ll know it when you hear it, its like hearing a saxophone made of birch)!

The victory here is that all these cra-cra sounds are all woven together to shape definable and often moving songs. My absolute favorite is the oriental string melody led “Blanket of Longing”, a contender to make the best songs of the year list. Coming off like a mash up of Myrath, Evergrey, and Steven Wilson (told you I had his music on the brain), its a song that is built on a brilliantly layered cushion of separate yet complementary melodic structures. In the chorus however the vocal melody takes over and Nordhus soars effortlessly above it all, taking the listener with him via an emotional carpet ride of a lyric: “Often I go back to that picture of my little boy / And I just can’t cry anymore”. On the very ethnic-folk infused “Specter”, I’m surprised by random moments of sparse acoustic strumming over keyboard melodies that remind me of prog-rock Kansas or Styx. I can’t even begin to describe the fusion of sounds and styles in the album closer and epic “Father and Son”, except perhaps to compare it to what I imagine would be the sounds of… you know… an actual bazaar. Clever word play in the title then.

The Takeaway: One of the most surprising, out of nowhere salvos fired in the first half of 2015. You might not enjoy it if you don’t like the sounds of bands like Orphaned Land, Melechesh, or even Myrath —- but seriously who doesn’t? Highly, highly recommended.

 
Kiske/Somerville – City of HeroesThis is the second album in this duet-centric collaboration between vocalists Michael Kiske and Amanda Somerville, their first being issued in the now distant 2010. You all know Kiske of course, and likely have an opinion on him and his rather distinctive vocal style which is about as love it or leave it as it gets in power metal. Somerville on the other hand some of you might not be as familiar with, although chances are that you’ve already heard her somewhere along the way. She’s a fixture in the European melodic/power metal scenes as an excellent backing vocalist, occasional lead vocal drop in, and vocal coach. Her lengthy list of appearances includes luminaries such as Avantasia, Kamelot, and Epica to name a few, alongside a handful of her own solo projects/collaborations. As an aficionado of backing vocals on power metal albums, I’m happy to see her name on the credits of an album —- and I became quite the fan in general through viewing her rather excellent behind the scenes tour diaries that have become a fixture for nearly all of her tours (the Avantasia diaries are particularly intriguing).

What you get here is a relatively uncomplicated album full of the type of hooky, pop-infused take on melodic power metal that lands in the comfort zone of both vocalists. To call it an artistic collaboration would be generous however, because neither Kiske nor Somerville write the music or lyrics (Somerville lands a credit on a song she co-wrote with her husband Sander Gommans, longtime guitarist for After Forever). This project falls in line with other Frontiers Records operations, namely that one of the labels contracted professional musician/songwriters on staff cooks up a batch of songs appropriate for the project, which in this case are Primal Fear’s Magnus Karlsson and Mat Sinner. Take a closer look at many Frontiers releases and you’ll notice the same formula at work —- it presents an interesting internal debate for anyone attempting to review these albums. Should the lyric content weigh as heavily as it would in an album written by the performers themselves? Are we going to place a greater emphasis on how well the vocals turned out as a opposed to the actual guitar melodies?

The answer is of course far less complicated than the questions themselves. This is a album with no other purpose other than enjoyment itself, and that might come across as disingenuous to some, and perfectly fine for others. I think something to consider is that given Kiske’s history of distancing himself from metal in order to explore his artistic side, his willingness to sing lines like “I stole my daddy’s car only to be cool / I slammed the brakes and acted like a fool” speaks volumes about his personal connection to anything on here. Lets just get the negative stuff out of the way first by saying that the lyrics all across the album are either passable to well below average. Its a shame too because at times their clunky-ness can detract from an otherwise enjoyable vocal melody, and while it doesn’t occur all the time, it happens often enough to stop a couple songs dead in their tracks. The previously quoted “Rising Up” is one of them, but its joined by the strange ballad “Ocean of Tears” (nothing egregious, they’re just generic lyrics), and the title track “City of Heroes” (pretty baffling, it comes across as something that could’ve been written in hopes of making the Justice League soundtrack).

The good news is that the melodies and vocal hooks are strong enough to ignore all the iffy stuff and actually work in tandem to create a rather satisfying album. Satisfying in the way that a maple donut might be on a Saturday morning, when you feel justified by having eaten oatmeal all week. You’ll notice a pattern amidst all the catchiness, that Kiske tends to handle the bulk of the verses solo while Somerville gets the choruses (they do try to mix it up now and then, but this is largely the formula). Kiske is actually present on the choruses alongside Somerville, but he’s buried far below her in the mix, something that didn’t set well with my MSRcast cohost Cary. I can see where he’s coming from, but I suspect its also due to just how powerful her vocals are compared to his, her voice laden with a deep richness that Kiske’s lacks. Consider this something to put on Spotify for light, breezy summertime listening, preferably when BBQ-ing or “acting like a fool”.

The Takeaway: One of the better Frontiers Records songwriter-for-hire penned albums with two very accomplished vocalists. Given the label its on you should know what to expect, loads of sugary melodies and hooky hooks. I do enjoy the Roxette vibe on “After the Night Is Over”.

 
Thurisaz – The Pulse of Mourning: I wasn’t familiar with Belguim’s Thurisaz heading into this, although they’ve been around since 2000 with a handful of albums released in the interim. From what I can tell having read a few reviews of their older work, The Pulse of Mourning appears to be a turning point for the band in finding their own sound. That isn’t to say that you can’t hear their influences, because some of them are pretty up front —- Opeth for one, but also hints of Enslaved, Katatonia, and perhaps even some Dan Swano projects. Thurisaz deliver a modern take on progressive symphonic-kissed black metal. I’m not sure if they’re brothers or not, but both Peter and Mattias Theuwen handle vocals and guitar together (though I’m not sure which one handles either the grim or clean vocals, perhaps they both do everything?!) and they form the nucleus of a band whose lineup has remained unchanged save for a succession of rotating bassists.

The MVP of the album just might be keyboardist Kobe Cannière, as his work is present on every song on the album including the instrumental based ambient pieces that serve as segues. He has a light touch, creating subtle orchestral swells and solo piano melodies that dress up the band’s kinetic riffing with beautiful ornamentation. For an example of this look no further than the awesome “Rays of Light”, where there are times when its the keyboard driving the song forward with a gorgeous melody over sustained riffing, an unusual twist for a two guitar band. The clean vocal passages on that song are one of the highlights of the album, a sort of mix of modern day Enslaved’s Herbrand Larsen with touches of old school Mikael Akerfeldt. Cannière’s work is also a major core of the overall mood of the album, which is imbedded in the handful of those aforementioned instrumental tracks. My description of them as ambient was not meant to imply they were electronic sounding in anyway, in fact they’re incredibly analog in their palettes —- lonely hushed piano sonatas, cellos set to ethereal female voices —- its all interesting stuff, though one wonders if there are too many of them.

I’ve been going back and forth on how I feel about the way the album is sequenced, in that perhaps the band’s placement of said instrumental tracks actually short circuits the mood they’re trying to achieve. An epic song like “In All Remembrance”, with its Insomnium-esque melodic guitar riffs and sparkling keyboard work should immediately follow the beautiful slow burn of “One Final Step”. They’re separated by a minute and change long instrumental that really might’ve worked better as an album outro. These might be minor quibbles, but the band clearly feels that their instrumental songs are important (there wouldn’t be as many of them otherwise), and in that light they aren’t working the way they should, as pretty as they all are. I’ll gladly exchange a pair of them for another great actual song, and I suppose in this regard Thurisaz runs into a problem that is usually reserved for power metal bands, where an eye towards album cohesion does more harm than good. Still, this is an album worthy of your attention.

The Takeaway: I suspect this might be a lot of people’s first time hearing music by Thurisaz, and I think everyone will be surprised at just how developed and mature they sound. I guess a few albums of working out the kinks in relative obscurity is good for making a first impression at least. Not only was I impressed, but my MSRcast co-host Cary was impressed as well, enough that we’ve featured the band on our latest episode.

 
Jorn Lande & Trond Holter – Dracula: Swing of Death: Silently I’ve been enjoying this album for months now, never really intending upon writing an actual review for it until I began to realize that it would be a tad disingenuous not to give Jorn and his musical collaborator Trond Holter their due credit for taking up a nice slice of my attention this year. And why should I hide that I’ve been listening to an opera forged out of pompous hard-rock meets symphonic power metal with a touch of rock n’ roll pastiche? Sans the latter element, weren’t the last four Avantasia albums pretty much built on that musical template? Yes to all four, and I enjoyed the heck out of most of those records. First things first, I realize that this album as a conceptual whole is pretty damn silly —- I get it! But I have to confess that I have no real justifiable reasoning as to why Jorn taking on Dracula is silly while Blind Guardian taking on anything they’ve done is badassed —- I’m not even going to attempt to argue that those two are comparable (even though *cough* theyreallyare *cough*). If any of you are familiar with the Angry Metal Guy blog, you knew that this album had to be one spectacular listen, for better or worse, when Steel Druhm (one of the more tolerant Jorn supporters I’ve ever seen) admitted that parts of this thing made him cringe.

If you read Druhm’s review, you’ll notice that he was confident that the album was on the right track two songs in, praising “Walking on Water” for its sturdy Jorn-friendly muscular rock and relatively serious take on the conceptual matter (and for good reason, its a terrific song). Where Druhm fell off however was on the next song, the wildly jaunty Broadway-esque “Swing of Death”, describing it as “poppy hair metal tinged with regret” (a line I can see myself quoting in the future). So here’s the thing: Where Druhm saw this sudden turn towards musical theater stylings as the album’s biggest failing, I see it as its saving grace, a tongue-in-cheek approach towards presenting a happily ludicrous concept. Songs like “Swing of Death”, the female vocal duet in “River of Tears”, and the grand balladry of “Save Me” remind me of Green Day’s American Idiot —- an album that I loved instantly upon its release for its arms wide embrace of rock n’ roll pastiches. Whereas Green Day infused elements of 50s and 60s rock and rockabilly on that album to spectacular effect, Holter relies on a Jorn friendly influence of classic Jim Steinman songwriting (ala Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell). And quite frankly, I love it.

I love the choice of Lena Fløitmoen as Jorn’s female duet partner, as her beautifully melodic yet frail vocals prove a delicious sonic contrast to Jorn’s rich, roaring David Coverdale. Some of the album’s best singular moments are when Fløitmoen sings solo, her voice reminding me at times of one time Meatloaf duet partner Marion Raven. And of course there’s Holter’s music, an accomplished nuts and bolts mix of ear candied melodies, a dash of heavy riffing, furious guitar solo-ing a plenty, and some interesting surprises such as a balalaika sounding instrument on “Masquerade Ball”. His songwriting is on point as his hooks manage to hook you, and he never allows anything to get particularly cloying —- granted the lyrics could be better on a couple songs (or most of the album), but there’s nothing that stood out to me as being egregious. Put it this way, these lyrics are no more ridiculous than a lot of power metal records, and in that spirit its actually a fun listen. I’m not a Broadway guy by any means, but I can feel that theatricality bleeding into these songs, and at the very least I can appreciate the epic bombast that they are often striving for. I love straightfoward power metal, but sometimes I wish other bands could allow themselves to be playful like this (well not exactly like this, but you know what I mean).

The Takeaway: Screw it, I’m not going to be embarrassed about saying that I completely enjoy this. It hasn’t received the same amount of spins that Blind Guardian, Nightwish, or Enslaved have this year, but I have been going back to consistently since January and that’s saying something. Its a lighthearted, fun romp through a metal meets rock n’ roll pastiche sonic landscape. And dammit, Jorn’s voice is just so satisfying to listen to!

 
Monox – Perception Changes: This is the debut album by a band from Croatia that offers a slightly eccentric take on prog-death. I say eccentric because this is indeed technical music at times, with complex riffing and poly rhythmic bass and percussion patterns. But its also music that at times is surprisingly melodic for the cloth its cut from, and the band’s vocalist, Tonko Vukonić, chooses instead a growling style that has more in common with Grutle Kjellson than Chris Barnes. Vukonić is an interesting topic in his own right, one of those rare figures in metal that has the potential to be a very convincing frontman. I say this because my first exposure to Monox was via their shockingly great music video for the song “Perfect Sky”.

Amid all the time-lapsed shots of gorgeous cityscape scenery and cloudy skies with sun rays poking through is Vukonić’s attention grabbing presence. Whether in performance mode in a blackened set with his fellow bandmates or overlooking a panoramic (Croatian?) urban vista in a super wide, near silhouette shot, Vukonić is the center of our attention and a wholly compelling performer. I obviously haven’t seen the band live so who knows if this video performance translates to the actual stage but you’d have to think that it does. And his vocal approach actually reminds me of Alan Averill of Primordial, a sort of unrestrained, out of control style that defies your typical metal singing approach (the difference between the two being screaming vs singing obviously). Well call me a new fan, because there’s just something really perfect about his delivery for these strange, proggy songs that while still punishing and laden with aggression are about as unorthodox as death metal gets.

We spoke about Monox and “Perfect Sky” on the latest episode of the MSRcast, and my co-host Cary commented on how he was surprised that this band was up my alley. To be honest so was I, and I wondered if it was just good timing in listening to it right on the heels of a bunch of power metal, but the more I spin this album I feel like I can identify the attributes that are causing it to pique my interest. The thing about modern death metal that bores me is the wall of sound approach where the sonics seem almost flattened, all of the instrumentation layered right against each other —- a trait owing more to unimaginative songwriting rather than actual audio engineering. What songs like “Shimmering Lights” and “Have I Conspired Again Against I” is that their sledgehammer heaviness is full and rounded —- the percussion is reactive, playing against dirty guitar riffs and moving in lockstep with a bass sound that’s not only audible, but the integral glue to the whole of these parts. More importantly, there’s actual texture to the songs, provided by the breathable space between the instrumentation.

I’ve seen some descriptions thrown around online that these guys are melodic death metal, and while I can understand why that tag is added, I don’t think its entirely accurate. Melo-death as a subgenre is defined by songwriting written around melody and the ushering of that melody as a motif throughout the song. Monox use melody as one would use cinnamon or turmeric in cooking up a curry (for a lunchtime example), its a spice and used sparingly. Make no mistake, these are riff based songs, but you’ll be hard pressed to find more than just a handful of examples where even repeating riffs are used as a motif. I described Monox as prog-death metal not only because of their unorthodox time signature changes, but because the band’s injection of melody is almost always unexpected and in strange places —- they don’t solely use it to make their choruses pop, they use it lyrically, as a way to alter the mood of the song itself.

The Takeaway: Color me surprised and impressed, and its audacious to say that a band on its debut effort might’ve released one of the best albums of the year, but this is close.

 
Melechesh – Enki: Ah Melechesh, my other favorite band from the Middle East, my humblest of apologies for shelving your newest album Enki for a few weeks because of other things in the hopper. As has been demonstrated time and time again, this is a band that has a hard time disappointing me, I don’t even think they’d know how to try. Its because with the slight exception of Absu (and its ex-Melechesh drummer/vocalist Proscriptor) there is no other band on the planet that delivers precisely their brand of blistering intensity, hypnotic swirling dervish riffs, and exotic sounding, Eastern-tinged melodies. Even their cover art is spectacular, the kind of vibrant, colorful, artful design that perfectly represents their sound. They are one of the rare bands operating in metal that have yet to release a mediocre album, and in that respect, its actually harder to write a review for them. What helps this time is that Enki is not only their first album in five years, their largest gap of time in between new releases, but its their best work since the 2003 masterpiece Sphynx.

This success as ever revolves around the unbelievable guitar tandem of Ashmedi and Moloch, as much a Murray/Smith tandem of extreme metal as there ever has been. Their riffs are serpentine, snaking around each other in indecipherable patterns, and they’re percussive as well, with a staccato-like rhythm to their picking that is one of those intangible qualities that practically screams that this is metal as hell. And there’s all the other sounds they conjure up, such as eastern-motif open chord structures that slowly unwind and float up into the ether like incense smoke. They create those with typical six stringers, but also with a host of diverse instruments spanning the sitar, bouzouki, and saz. All of these sounds are definable within the context of the songs, but they’re also more than just window dressing, often acting as primary vehicles for the delivery of a melody that simply demands its particular distinctive sound.

What makes Enki standout for me far more than 2010s The Epigenesis and 2006s Emissaries is the degree to which the band has slightly expanded the boundaries of their sound. And lets not gloss over that, because its a hard thing for an extreme metal band to do: Go too far and you risk diluting your musical identity (like a myriad of possible bands). Melechesh avoid that by not making changes to their sound, their palette is as identifiably colorful as ever, but instead in their songwriting. There’s stuff here I’ve never heard before from the band such as the almost tribal-esque flavor in the Max Calavera guested track “Lost Tribes”, where a Pantera-syled riff works underneath Calavera’s broad brutal vocal that runs alongside Ashmedi’s fierce snarl. Dare I suggest that the song almost comes across as Chaos A.D. era Sepultura —- an accessible way to utilize the talents of a vocalist like Calavera.

There’s a sense of reckless adventurism to songs like “Metatron and Man”, where a Megadeth-like approach makes it a far more directly thrash-y song than you’d expect. On “Doorways to Irkala” you’ll get a full eight minute long treatment of acoustic Eastern instrumentation, a gutsy move that actually pays off as a segue into the bizarrely power metal-esque epic “The Outsiders”. Speaking of power metal-esque, how about the tremendous “The Palm the Eye and Lapis Lazuli”, where one of the band’s catchiest guitar figures to date acts as a repeater throughout, making this one of the most melodic Melechesh songs ever. I love the post-chorus bridge at the 2:30 mark where we’re treated to almost Myrath-like guitarwork —- where has that been all this time?! All that being said, Melechesh are firing on all cylinders even when sticking to their standard operating procedure, especially on songs like “The Pendulum Speaks” and “Tempest Temper Entill Enraged”. With the exception of the latter, they’ve really slowed down their overall tempo across the board, allowing for their songwriting to develop unchained from the often times limiting regulations of speed metal.

The Takeaway: The album that Melechesh needed to make at this point in their career, a mini-rejuvenation of sorts. Its unlikely that they’ll ever replace Sphynx in my overall ordering of their discography but Enki is solidly behind it —- its simply the best album they’ve released in well over a decade.
 

The Endless Forms of Nightwish

April 15, 2015

Few bands in metal have inspired the unrestrained devotion and adoration of it’s fanbase the way Nightwish have. Such a fiery bond is subject to various temperaments, as the band themselves found out through the course of two vocalist changes. That they are widely (if erroneously) recognized as the first female vocal led power/symphonic metal band only serves as fuel for this burning intensity. Their success in the late 90’s and early 00’s spawned countless imitators, other newly formed bands that wanted to put their own spin on what really did feel like a fresh style of metal, with inspired females keen to try their hand at singing over heavy guitars and sweeping orchestras. Ushered along by a signing craze from metal labels all over, female fronted metal bands went from a mere handful to a plethora in the blink of an eye. But few, if any of them have ever managed to attain the near mythic status and storied history of the mother of them all.

Nightwish fans today fall into two basic camps, those that are aficionados of a particular era or vocalist past, and those who see the band as something greater than its constituent parts, including vocalists. This latter group is far more inclined to acknowledge the very apparent reality that Nightwish largely exists as a vehicle for the songwriting of its keyboardist, songwriter, founder, and guiding force Tuomas Holopainen. I myself fall into this latter camp, for despite being introduced to the band during the Tarja Turunen era shortly after the release of Wishmaster, I found myself becoming a bigger fan of the band after her departure. It didn’t take me long to realize after listening to their 2007 first post-Tarja Turunen release Dark Passion Play that I had always been more of a fan of Holopainen. Their 2011 follow-up Imaginaerum hit the nail on the head for me, a thirteen-track treatise of perfection that backed up my argument that Holopainen’s songwriting was able to blossom and flourish without Turunen’s limiting (albeit powerful) vocal style.

Nightwish and their fans share a relationship that is at once devotional and divisive, and also detached and myopic. The band’s most personal works (such as the entirety of the Century Child album) are the kinds of rare records that forge molten emotional bonds with fans. Holopainen’s autobiographical lyrics inspired this devotion, and with it came the kind of rabid fandom that became a hyper protective community, for better and worse. The band learned firsthand of the latter during the media and fan firestorm that resulted from their 2005 open letter dismissal of original vocalist Tarja Turunen. In an attempt to get ahead of the inevitable media war-of-words and fallout between the two parties, the band erred in underestimating just how exposed its own fans’ nerve endings were. Holopainen was himself skittish around the media and private by nature, and as the band leader he found the fallout particularly torturous. For many fans even nearly ten years later, that damage has yet to be undone —- click on any YouTube clip of the band’s Turunen era and scroll down to the comments section for the most surface of glimpses.

Since that cataclysmic event Nightwish have conducted most of their inner workings with an eye towards privacy and security. Unmoved by the pleas of fans lamenting the loss of Turunen, the band circled the wagons around their organization and approached future decisions with a touch of tunnel vision. The band wouldn’t shut their fans out completely, offering up some behind the scenes looks in the form of photo galleries, social media updates, video blogs —- but their content was carefully controlled. It was a gamble, but the commercial success of the Anette Olzon era justified Nightwish’s new approach in the face of a semi-divided fanbase that consisted of very vocal fans sympathetic to Turunen. And in demonstrating their commitment to not repeating the errors of the past, Nightwish handled the October 2012 falling out with Olzon with single press statement that offered no details. The timing of their announcement in declaring fill-in vocalist Floor Jansen as an official permanent member was also interesting to note —- occurring long after the Imaginaerum tour was over, in between album cycles where the requests and expectations for media availability would be relatively low.
 

For Nightwish fans, the announcement of Jansen brought along expectations that the band would make use of her operatic vocal capability on the new studio album, as she had demonstrated on several older songs on the tour. I myself took note of the general tone and tenor of the reactions on the band’s Facebook page around that time, and most of them were from fans salivating at the thought of a Wishmaster or Century Child sequel. Its likely that many long sundered fans of the band’s Turunen era were eyeballing Jansen as the closest possible thing to their dream reunion. As a bigger fan of the pop-vocal infused Olzon era, I too wondered how the band was going to balance their expanded musicality with the undeniable fan craving for hearing something soprano-oriented being belted out by Jansen. As heard in the Showtime, Storytime concert video, Jansen was able to bounce from one style to another in varying moments, though she typically stuck to her rock-inflected delivery. A retrospective viewing of that concert makes me realize that it was far more foretelling of what the new album would bring than anyone realized.

Nightwish have responded to their fans’ expectations in rather typical fashion, by ignoring them altogether of course. Holopainen’s vision for Endless Forms Most Beautiful takes precedence over everything, its songs forming a loosely-stitched thematic album about spirituality through science and reason, inspired largely by the writings of biologists Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin. It’s songs didn’t require operatic vocals —- quite the contrary in fact, Jansen’s vocals on the album are far closer to the pop stylings of the Olzon era. This has confused some and upset many, the hope that Jansen would bring the band back to its classicist roots taking another massive blow. Certainly not everyone felt this way, but it does seem that Nightwish will yet again have to bear the brunt of their most vocal critics, their own diaspora of fans. That unfortunate truth about fans is that they can be rather myopic as well in their own regard.

So I’ll argue here that those fans affronted by the vocal decisions on Endless Forms are focusing on a singular aspect of the album to their own detriment. The very thing they are decrying is the mechanism that allows these songs to form yet another first-rate Nightwish album, and might I add —- an album that musically reaches back to touchstones of the past such as Oceanborn and Once. It might be that its coming off the heels of the wildly eccentric, diverse Imaginaerum album, but there is a musical unity present throughout the new album that reinforces its thematic concept and somehow bleeds the feel of old school Nightwish. Take the album opener “Shudder Before the Beautiful” where a sprinting orchestral arrangement slightly outpaces guitars, drums, and vocals —- a spectacular effect that ushers along what actually plays like a duel between Holopainen’s furious keyboard wizardry and Emppu Vuorinen’s wild guitar solos. Talk about old school, that’s the kind of Finnish power metal trademarks that you’re hard pressed to find anyone doing these days.
 

Perhaps its the largely uptempo feel of the album that’s responsible for the old-school resonance that I’m feeling. The band hasn’t done away with Dark Passion Play/Imaginaerum era live orchestras and cinematic arrangements, they’re still present and rather glorious in most moments, but they’re utilized this time more for amping up the energy of rollickingly speedy tracks like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, “Weak Fantasy”, and the title track. This is a triumvirate of songs that underscore Holopainen’s gift as a songwriter, not in that he expertly juxtaposes soaring melodic ear candy over a frenetic rhythms but that he can do it in such diverse ways with varying degrees of heaviness and aggression. The vicious, snarling “Weak Fantasy” might be the best song on the album, with its tension building usage of solo string sections and a furious pummeling courtesy of pinch-hitting Wintersun drummer Kai Hahto. I get enthralled after the post-folk breakdown at 3:37 where the orchestra descends with a sweeping crescendo alongside Marco Hietala’s always wonderfully passionate vocals —- few others can pull off such riveting drama through the tenor of their voice alone.

Its Jansen who shines on the other two tracks, providing them vocals that veer between ethereal lightness and leather-lunged rock n’ roll grit. On “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, Jensen doesn’t play the beauty to Hietala’s beast, instead her Doro Pesch-esque vocals work with his to amp up the aggression of the song tenfold. I get a bit of a “Slaying the Dreamer”/”Master Passion Greed” vibe here, particularly the latter in regards to the stop-start nature of the doomy, violent orchestral booms. Shifting in tone, she plays the cheerful, charming narrator in “Endless Forms Most Beautiful”, her effortlessly bouncy vocals a stark contrast to a seriously aggressive rhythm section. Vuorinen and Hietala even share a rather nasty guitar/bass solo section here, unleashing a rumbling monster truck of a dual-riff that comes as a total surprise. Vuorinen gets some criticism in guitarist corners for playing what is largely the same riff-pattern in the same guitar tone throughout the entirety of the band’s catalog. I don’t personally feel the criticism is entirely warranted, because being the sole guitarist, he is largely responsible for the band’s metallic elements —- that being said he is far more reigned in on this album than on Imaginaerum, where he had room to experiment.

A rapidly rising favorite of mine is “Alpenglow”, a song that boasts the album’s most snappy, ear-wormy chorus, along with a twisted vocal segment from Jansen that really, really reminds me of Olzon’s vocal theatrics on “Scaretale” off Imaginaerum. Multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley is present throughout the album, chiming in with uilleann pipes, bodhran, low whistles, and bouzouki —- but his standout track is “My Walden” where he dominates the soundscape with a flurry of Celtic-tinged melodies. The first two minutes of the song are fairly standard in approach, but its the latter half of the song where the band indulges in a folky-jam session that I almost wish encompassed the entire track. I suspect it would’ve made the song standout more as a result and also given Donockley a platform for longer running melodies and motifs. Much to my surprise he isn’t on every track here, at least not blatantly so, as was my fear when discussing the Élan single a few weeks ago. Even more surprising is my feeling that he’s being underutilized somehow… that might be one to chew on, I could change my mind on it. I’m all for his presence on Nightwish albums, but I’ve yet to suss out what his contributions are within on a more fundamental level as a permanent member.
 

The aforementioned “Élan” is effectively the same version as on the single, and within the context of the album it actually sounds better, though I’m less convinced of its effectiveness as the lead off single (“Alpenglow” would’ve been a better choice, a more daring yet similarly catchy cut). The thematic-bending “Edema Ruh” (something from a fantasy series I’ve never read) is an okay song with a relatively generic chorus (by Holopainen standards), but its slightly redeemed by some interesting guitar work by Vuorinen. And I’m torn about the sole ballad on offer, “Our Decades In the Sun”, because during the moments when its working it is as gorgeous and beautiful as anything the band has ever done. The problem might be that the song is too delicate for its own good, its sections often left without connecting musical glue, and the silky string arrangements unable to muster enough momentum to bind everything together. Its actually Vuorinen’s stormy guitar interjection at 2:07 that provides the song with its only dose of electrical current, a brilliant moment that ought to make you shiver. I enjoy listening to it overall, but its not in the ballpark of the band’s best ballads, and its a shame because it had the qualities to perhaps be their best.

And here comes the axe… look, I’m as enthusiastic as can be about the theme of the album, having read books by Dawkins myself and generally sharing the same perspective as Holopainen on science and reason and the grandeur they have shown us. That being said, the grand epic of the album, a twenty-four minute behemoth titled “The Greatest Show on Earth” absolutely falls flat for me. I don’t mind that Dawkins is a narrative voice here, because the words he’s speaking are poetic and beautiful, but perhaps he would’ve been more effective at the end of the track, serving as the non-musical coda for the album. Instead his speaking parts and the musical sections of the song are chopped up into relatively non-conforming parts that simply come across as choppy and cluttered in their sequencing. As for the musical sections themselves, there’s only one that truly shines, from the 12:00 to 13:47 minute mark where Jansen and Hietala trade off vocals in a staccato rhythm fueled speed run. The other sections seem to lack any sort of definition, let alone micro-hooks, which are essential for longer set pieces like this —- you need those ear candy moments to keep your attention and to make you want to come back. And I could entirely do away with “The Eyes of Sharbat Gula”, which is more mood piece than instrumental (it does little to match up to the power of the original photograph its in reference to).

And now back to that non-operatic vocals thing —- simply listen to this album and you’ll understand that there was no room for it. That won’t appease anyone disappointed with the album as a result however, because the argument could always be “Well Tuomas should make an effort to write songs in that style”. But that’s the thing, he can’t —- if he tried and he wasn’t completely into it they would come off sounding half-baked and uninspired. The reason we’re all Nightwish fans is because of his songwriting, and his songs have always been for better or worse authentic portraits of his interests, feelings, or passions at that time. On Imaginaerum, the wide-open fantasy/imagination concept of the album influenced his songwriting towards a diverse array of styles and sounds. It might even be accurate to frame that album as more directed by the music rather than the lyrics. On Endless Forms, its the other way around because the lyrics are far more important to the crux of the thematic core, perhaps a reason why Holopainen endeavored to have them sung as clearly as possible. Maybe the next album will be thematic in a way that lends itself to soprano-styled vocals… its possible, but it shouldn’t define your enjoyment of a modern day Nightwish album. If the vocal style is that important to you, then you’re expecting the wrong things from the wrong band.
 

Capricious Nords: Enslaved Return With In Times

March 22, 2015

So I’ve finally gotten to listen Enslaved’s new album enough times to confidently offer up an opinion, but the first thought that comes to mind is that they have sneakily become metal’s most hard to predict band. I can never anticipate what they’re going to try next, and am always more than a little surprised when I finally get to hear what that is. The thing is, if you laid out their discography on a timeline, there’s a reasonable amount of linearity: the early 90s second wave Norwegian black metal roots, the switch to English language lyrics on 2001’s Monumension, the introduction of progressive elements on Below the Lights and Isa and the full blown era of prog-rock infusions ala Pink Floyd/King Crimson with 2009’s Vertebrae and onwards.

Its in this latter era where the band have decided to throw out curveballs left and right, such as their reversion back to almost completely brutal, punishing black metal on Axioma Ethica Odini, a move that made some of us think that they had stretched the boundaries of their sound far enough and were making a move back towards their roots. But then RIITIIR happened, a big collossal “What the Hell?!” full of some rather Alice in Chains inspired hard rock melody, opulent Slash-esque guitar solos and more Herbrand Larsen than you’ve ever bargained for. It was a good, at times great album, and it set in concrete the idea that the band would remain vastly unpredictable from now on.

Their newest, In Times, is a further reinforcement of that notion; its certainly heavier than RIITIIR and at times matches the feral intensities of Axioma, but its simultaneously more smoothly melodic than anything off of Vertebrae. Its bothersome to me to have to contextualize a new album in relation to a string of its past predecessors, mainly because if you haven’t heard those other albums you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about. It just happens to be the easiest way to frame things with a band as diabolically complex as Enslaved. That actually got me thinking though, that perhaps In Times is an ideal starting point for anyone new to the band —- of which I’m sure there must be a few people around (right?).

I say this because not only is In Times a phenomenal album, perhaps my personal favorite of theirs since Isa, but its their most accessible and representative album as well. There are only six songs here, and they’re all over eight minutes a piece, which may seem long and tedious on paper I know —- the band sidestep that by all but eliminating their more tedious, proggy-exploration moments that they’ve been prone to indulging in recently. The result is an album big on heavy riffs, wildly unrestrained guitar work, colorful washes of keyboard accompaniment, and a fifty/fifty mix of brutal and clean vocals that deliver hooks galore. It almost seems like I’m describing a Blind Guardian album (uh… minus the brutal vocals thing).
 

Its fair to say that In Times outright success is due in large part to the aforementioned Herbrand Larsen widening his range and scope as the band’s clean co-vocalist. In the past, Larsen’s moments tended to work like Dimmu Borgir-ian spot fills; those moments of cinematic, heavens opening up juxtaposition sandwiched in between brutal vocal sections. He had a particularly distinctive delivery in these moments, one that he repeated over and over and over again. There was a samey-ness to his singing, a monotone uniformity throughout the run of his vocal lines that almost came across as an instrument rather than actual singing, a role normally reserved for extreme metal vocals. He did attempt to change slightly, as seen on RIITIIR’s more accessible moments, incorporating in a little more in the way of variations in delivery, but it was still largely Larsen working in a comfort zone. Here however, he takes his quantum leap, a complete re-working of his role as co-vocalist and in the sculpting of his vocal melodies.

This stems from the songwriting itself, where clean vocal passages are underscored by a rhythm section that actually plays rhythmically in the standard sense. Take his vocal passages in “Building With Fire”, where Larsen sings over what comes across as almost alternative rock styled staggered riffing —- this is not to say it “sounds” like that, the guitar tone is rather typically modern Enslaved. Its a small touch, but one that allows Larsen to carry the song entirely on his own, rather than be subject to the irregular riff patterns that Grutle Kjellson can growl over with relative ease. An expanded role for Larsen means that these songs are not lacking in vocal hook laden refrains, a feature that allows the band to play around with degrees of heaviness and sonic brutality in a myriad of creative ways. On the album opener “Thurisaz Dreaming”, Larsen is emotive and expressive in his extended refrain sections, a perfect foil for Kjellson’s screaming bookends. He gets a star turn on “One Thousand Days of Rain”, its chorus the most gloriously pop moment of Enslaved’s twenty plus year career. Its elegantly worded refrain of “Wandering down the icy path / The sun is dying / The mother is crying” will stay with you after your first listen, forming the delicious nougat center of a great song you’ll keep coming back to again and again.

On that very song, Larsen trades off verses and sometimes single lines with Kjellson, over the undulating pulse of accelerating waves of melodic riffs and open chord figures. Kjellson (or Brutal Grutle as I enjoy calling him) delivers his extreme vocals like the bowling ball of howling fury that he always is, his voice far more wild and unrestrained than someone like Shagrath, or even Nergal. His tone is entirely his own, he sounds only like himself, and he doesn’t really change his approach (depending on your perspective, that’s either for better or worse I suppose). What he does succeed in achieving is a sense of agelessness, there’s no sense that his ability to reach peak intensity has diminished. His ability to deliver vocals like these this late in his career is a testament to whatever he’s been doing to keep his throat working.
 

As always, the musicianship is just utterly impressive, drummer Cato Bekkevold a force of nature unto himself, his fills and accent choices entrancing in their own right. I love his cymbal work towards the end of “Building With Fire”, or his militant snare drumming in “Nauthir Bleeding”, and his overall creative vision towards his role within Enslaved’s sound. He never smothers anything in double bass when its not needed, and keeps blast beats in reserve as something to be used sparingly only. But its guitarists Ivar Bjornson and Arve Isdal who really capture my attention. Isdal (“Ice Dale”) is an interesting guitarist within extreme metal, a guy more influenced by non-metal avant-pop players like U2’s Edge and Floyd’s David Gilmour, even alternative rock players like John Frusciante and Trey Spruance. Those seem like silly names to throw around as influences for a Norwegian guy in a band called Enslaved, but when you listen to his largely open chord permutations, you can hear that they ring true. Bjornson brings the proverbial sledge hammer in the form of muscular, cleanly written riffs, and here he sculpts them like a master smith at work. Check out the devastating high note progression in “Building With Fire” at the 1:53 minute mark, its one of my favorite moments on the album and I can’t get enough of how those open chord sequences flow directly into teeth gnashing outro riffs.

There are times when you know that you’ll keep coming back to an album weeks and months from now, and I will return to In Times with little effort needed. It wasn’t that way with RIITIIR, a record I found I had to be precisely in the mood for. Sometimes accessible doesn’t necessarily equate to something negative, and here Enslaved have the potential to cross over into a few other pools of potential listeners. I actually think I need to give it a few days of rest before listening again, I might be on the verge of overplaying it (five complete play throughs for this review alone). It is easily in contention for that distant album of the year list which I realize now is an absurdly short eight months away. All my earlier talk of Enslaved’s unpredictability means that I have no idea how they’re going to follow this album up a few years from now. Its actually not too crazy to suggest that they might revisit some of their earlier Viking/folk influenced sounds of eras bygone. That being said, unpredictability works both ways, there’s no guarantee I’ll enjoy the next thing they do as much as this one, so I’ll savor this while it lasts.
 

The Uncomfortable Reflections of Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase.

March 14, 2015

I think I’ve come to a dawning realization about my relationship as a fan and listener towards Steven Wilson’s work: Very succinctly told, I greatly prefer either his pure pop and/or metal-influenced styles, the and/or added in because often times they’re one and the same (or they’re pushed right up against each other). Its in Wilson’s more “prog” sounding moments where I tend to lose focus as a listener, or perhaps more accurately, patience. Its why I felt left out of the loop with his past two solo releases, 2013’s The Raven That Refused to Sing and even more so on its 2011 predecessor Grace For Drowning. The former was a sweepingly dark, 70s progressive rock inspired album that in homage to its influencing era, had a myriad of wandering instrumental explorations that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t (cue “The Holy Drinker”). I generally thought of it as a good album, a slight rebound from the jazz odyssey that was most of Grace For Drowning, an album lauded by many, but one that only caused me to miss the relative linearity of Porcupine Tree.

Even within the lengthy discography of that storied and now defunct band, I preferred the songs with either good riffs or great melodies —- I could stand to lose most of the wandering progressive stuff, not out of any particular disdain, but just because there was a lot of it and sometimes a song didn’t need to be over seven minutes long. I was introduced to Porcupine Tree by listening to “Blackest Eyes” on a Classic Rock sampler disc, and found it a perfect blend of heavy, metallic riffing with a gorgeous, shimmering melody that fed a pop-informed chorus. I enjoyed the album it came from, 2001’s In Absentia, but loved the album that came before, one Lightbulb Sun, which lacked the heavy riffs but made up for it in being the record where Wilson honed in on his spectacular gift for writing pop songs. It wouldn’t be until 2007’s Fear of  a Blank Planet when I thought he had finally delivered a complete record that catered to me; one that was dark, unsettling, heavy, and splashed with just the right mix of progressive elements and pop ear candy. But with the end of Porcupine Tree, Wilson’s lessening involvement with the pop-oriented Blackfield project, and the onset of a solo career that I viewed as a mixed bag, I began to wonder if Steven Wilson was progressing right out of my limits of being a fan.
 

So Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a reminder to me of that old adage about expectations. Actually I don’t really know a particular phrase or saying that could apply here, but its enough to say that I didn’t expect to love this album as much as I do. In the few weeks that I’ve known it, its become one of my favorite Steven Wilson related albums of all time, second perhaps only to Fear of a Blank Planet. Its worth me taking a moment here to briefly comment on its thematic/conceptual subject matter, because it makes the album resonate that much more. Wilson had at some point viewed a 2011 documentary called Dreams of a Life, which was the story of the life of one Joyce Carol Vincent; an attractive, intelligent, outgoing young woman who died in her London flat, and her body went undiscovered for three years. She had friends, she had family, yet for reasons unknown even to them, no one missed her or bothered to check up on her. I actually went out of my way to view the documentary a few days ago and its one of the most surreal films I’ve ever seen, the sort of thing that lingers in your mind.

Wilson’s storyline on Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a fictionalized, loosely inspired by version of Vincent’s story, about a young woman named H. who follows a similar road towards isolation and loneliness. There’s a deluxe hard back book based edition of the album thats filled with photographs, diary entries, actual newspaper clippings, and letters telling the more detailed story of H.’s life (its a seriously impressive package). I myself went with the single disc Blu-Ray edition, which sets the album to a slideshow backdrop of many of those same book bound photographs… it was great to be able to sit on my couch for the better part of an hour and get immersed in an audio/visual experience like that, but its not necessary to enjoy the album alone. In an interview with Faceculture, Wilson touched on the fundamental thematic core of the album, how a tragedy like Vincent’s could only have happened in the middle of a vast metropolis like London as a opposed to a smaller community. In his MetalSickness interview, Wilson expanded on that, “If you really want to disappear, go and live in the heart of the biggest city, surround yourself with millions of other people. Go right to the place where the most people live and you will disappear.”
 

I live on the southwestern border of Houston and its outlying suburbs, right in the midst of highways, urban expansion, too many parking lots and gas stations, the lot of it. I hardly know my neighbors, and almost never speak to any of them besides the occasional hello when passing by. In some slight way, I feel that I can relate to Wilson’s own autobiographical views that he instilled into his character. Its what makes a song like “Happy Returns” echo so resolutely within me, despite its rather detailed lyrical perspective being solely H.’s own words. It could be one of Wilson’s greatest singular accomplishments, a song as delicately beautiful and shatteringly epic as In Absentia’s “Collapse the Light into Earth”. And despite all its obvious melancholia, its essentially a pop song, built on simple chord patterns and a McCartney-esque “doo-doo-doo-do” refrain. Its emotional gut punch comes in the lyric “The years just pass like trains / I wave but they don’t slow down”, as vivid a portrait of helplessness against the transience of life as I’ve ever heard.

Its equal in greatness partner is the non-instrumental album opener “3 Years Older”, an acoustic/electric hybrid epic of English prog that is reminiscent of The Incident’s “Time Flies”. Here Wilson staggers folky, strummed chords with plaintive vocals next to passages with surprisingly funky, wild guitar work courtesy of guitar virtuoso Guthrie Govan. Its full of those particular kinds of Wilson moments that have defined his entire career —- it could be the sudden layering in of a harmony vocal to give a lyric some added richness, or simply his mastery of how to craft melodies that are evocative, or dreamlike. Sitting next to it on the tracklisting is the title track, which is quite possibly Wilson’s poppiest song since “Blackest Eyes”. Instead of being built on heavy, metallic riffing, “Hand Cannot Erase” is almost electro-pop in its palette, with guitars that sound like they’ve been lifted from U2 circa 1997, or from a Florence and the Machine backing track. Wilson’s vocal here is delivered at his earnest, wide-eyed best, with lyrics that you could imagine selling well on radio or some CW television show about over-dramatized teens. That’s not me detracting from it, quite the contrary, I’m puzzled as to why this wasn’t the first single.
 

That honor went to the very ambient, drone-like “Perfect Life”, which I love for the simple reason that its female spoken word guided first half reminded me of the British pop band Saint Etienne. They have a discography full of assorted moments with neutral voiced Sarah Cracknell waxing poetic about all manner of things. Its an important moment in the song because its our first introduction to H.’s words herself, as she describes the memory of the six months she spent with her adoptive foster-sister. As Wilson explained in the aforementioned Faceculture interview, the imagery of some of H.’s memories comes directly from Wilson’s own childhood, such as “Sometimes we would head down to Blackbirds moor / to watch the barges on Grand Union in the twilight”. Its one of those universal truths I’ve read from great fiction writers, that to make something feel universal, or relatable to everyone, the author is best served by simply focusing on making his character more specific, with more intimate details, possibly even autobiographical details from the author’s own life. It sounds contrary in theory, but it works. By the way, the video for this song is stunningly good (psst, its linked at the bottom).

This is the rare album in Wilson’s discography where even his progged out moments are interesting and complex in only good ways. Take the epic, nine-minute “Routine”, where Wilson is joined by Israeli vocalist Ninet Tayeb in a duet built across subsequent passages, Wilson taking leads in some, Tayeb in others, only joining together at the very end to softly sing “Don’t ever let go / Try to let go”. Its a cleverly written song about some kind of loss suffered by the narrator and her psychological process to acknowledge it. So she states, “Keep cleaning keep ironing /Cooking their meals on the stainless steel hob /Keep washing keep scrubbing /Long until the dark comes to bruise the sky”. There was even enough diversity in the thirteen plus minute “Ancestral” to prevent me from getting too antsy, but it comes out being the weakest cut on the album simply because its at times more of an extended jam session rather than a song. Its okay though, the rest of the album is nothing but songcraft of the highest order.

I’m simultaneously relived and thrilled about Hand. Cannot. Erase. and what it means for me personally. Its audible proof that my relationship as a listener with Wilson’s new work isn’t dimming, that he’s still capable of delivering music that enthralls me, and that I’m still receptive enough to realize that. Its also one of the more haunting, and thought-provoking albums I’ve come across in recent memory (and if you really want a taste of how deep it gets, check out H.’s blog entries on handcannoterase.com). It has a conceptual story that is frightening in its mirroring of reality, and its addressing of what it could potentially mean to live in an age of social networking, with no need to go outside of our homes, and how tempting it might be to simply withdraw from the real world. When I listen to this album and think about the thoughts and motives of its narrator and her real life inspiration, I can’t help but think about myself and how with a few decisions here and there, it could be me spiraling down into isolation. It could be any of us.
 


 

Those Crazy Germans! The Scorpions’ Return to Forever

March 2, 2015

Its been a little under five years since the Scorpions released Sting In The Tail, the album that they decided halfway through its production would be their last. And in some respects it was, as far as being a truly fresh, organic batch of songs purposefully written for its release. It was a fine album as well, perhaps their strongest overall in twenty years, featuring a handful of gems that for me at least were comparable to their 80s/early 90s classics (check this retrospective for details). The last song on that album’s tracklisting was the rather excellent, wistful power ballad titled “The Best Is Yet To Come”; a title that could either be taken metaphorically as the band’s hopeful affirmation of their post-rock n’ roll lives, or literally as in this probably isn’t our last studio album. It certainly wasn’t going to be their last release, as the 2013 MTV Unplugged set proved, but in interviews the band seemed adamant that they had recorded their last studio album. It was around the promo tour for those unplugged shows that Klaus Meine let slip that the band was considering digging in the vaults for some unfinished material, stuff from the 80s, 90s, and even 00’s that they had been unable to utilize on the albums they were supposed to have been on. It was the kind of thing that sounded like it was meant for a boxed set, or perhaps as bonus tracks on yet another best of compilation —- it usually is for most bands.

So you’ve got to give credit to the Scorpions for firstly having the hutzpah for pulling a KISS and risking flack or scorn; and secondly for taking those unfinished riffs and song fragments and deciding to write a brand new studio album around them. If you’re prone to taking wide angle lenses to things like I am, you might consider this attempt a brave move at marrying the past and present, an actual merging of old and new. And they must’ve had a lot of old riffs clanking around, because with all the bonus tracks from the various editions of Return to Forever tallied up with the original twelve song track listing, the Scorpions are releasing nineteen new songs. Nineteen! That’s a double album by prog band standards, and by leaps and bounds the longest Scorpions studio album to date, clocking in at just over an hour. By anyone’s reasonable standards its close to impossible for an album that long to be filler free, and unfortunately, the Scorpions haven’t had the best track record of making wall to wall classic albums. Here I rate it about a sixty-forty ratio in favor of above average to good songs, and a couple potentially great ones amidst set against a set of almosts and not quites.
 

The good stuff first then, which is found as early as the album’s lead off single “We Built This House”, which is not a PBS program but instead a paean to the durability of the band’s fifty year career. I say this based on my viewing of the promotional EPK the band made where they spoke a little about each song on the album —- despite the lyrics clearly referring to a significant other known as “baby”. How they reconcile both perspectives is beyond me… maybe the verses are meant for the ladies (or the lads, whatever) and the chorus is just about the Scorpions themselves? I’m being pedantic, the Scorpions have earned the right to bend metaphors however they’d like, and the most important things here are the melody and the hooks. Its built on the classic Scorpions pattern of quiet/loud dynamics, a hushed verse that explodes into an arena ready chorus, but it does seem to be one of the few entirely new songs, its music penned by the band’s longtime Swedish producers (and MTV Unplugged musicians) Mikael Andersson and Martin Hansen. The other haus-titled song, “House of Cards”, is actually built on the back of a resurrected melody, its acoustic balladry reminiscent of the band’s early 90s Crazy World / Face the Heat era.

A personal favorite that might not be for everybody is the playful, sing-songy “Catch Your Luck and Play”, where a riff that reminds me of the “Rhythm of Love” swings back and forth and opens up in a chorus replete with “heys!” and “oohs!”. Its a glam rock styled approach that’s unusual for the Scorpions, but I like its sheer cheekiness —- there are moments in there when I’m reminded of The Darkness. Its chorus is new, but the skeleton of the song dates back to 1986-1988’s Savage Amusement era. Its paired alongside another oldie turned new, the very Blackout-ish “Rock n’ Roll Band”, an uptempo, adrenaline fueled rocker that is built on a classic, lean and muscled Rudolf Schenker riff. I was a bit put off by the clunky lyrics, but the guitars won me over here, its just a highly infectious riff and its kind of a shame that it didn’t make it onto one of their eighties records. Speaking of the lyrics, do yourself a favor and checkout the band member’s commentary on the EPK video, Klaus’ meandering description of this song’s origins are typical Scorpions —- something about riding around on the sunset strip, offloading into some gentleman’s club somewhere and when questioned as to their identity, loudly proclaiming “we’re in a rock n’ roll band!”. Modern rock bands would make this come off as sad, lazy, and appallingly pathetic. Klaus and company make it charming, affable even, a band of crazy Germans with Euro-tight shirts and thinning hairlines strutting around like cocksure roosters. This is the residue of an increasingly lost art form.
 

There’s a handful of other good songs; “Rollin’ Home, a laid back rocker with a Def Leppard-ish stomp; the ridiculously titled “Hard Rockin’ the Place”, built on a riff from the Blackout era; a handful of decent ballads in “Gypsy Life”, “Eye of the Storm” (being the newest of the ressurected song ideas, from the Humanity Hour 1 era in 2007); a Meine solo-penned lonely sounding number in “Who We Are”; and the panoramic “When the Truth is a Lie” —- again, all above average in quality, but nothing you’d hate yourself for missing. Where things get murky is with the vanilla alternative rock styled guitar rock of “The World We Used to Know”, a song that sounds like it came from the Eye II Eye sessions; as well as the blandness of the album opener “Going Out With a Bang” where chest thumping bravado fails to move me like the more emotional reflections on calling it quits found on Sting In the Tail. Its also unfortunate that “Dancing With the Moonlight” doesn’t seem to live up to its title, especially when you consider songs by the same title by other artists (Thin Lizzy comes to mind immediately). It has a cool backstory about the turbulence laden flight endured by the Scorpions, Alice Cooper and others that happened to also double as Meine’s birthday celebration. The song is somewhat paint by numbers however, with boring verses and a chorus that never seems to take off (heyo!).

So yeah, a lot of music to sift through, I don’t even think I covered all the songs but you get the point. Its a mixed bag, and with nineteen songs potentially on offer that’s about as good as it was going to get. I’m not sure why there was such an emphasis within the band to usher these out all at once. Surely a narrower focus on a smaller pool of candidates would’ve made more sense, such as sticking to the regular edition’s twelve song tracklisting. Maybe the Scorpions are just kinda over the whole studio process by now and wanted this to be a grand finale of everything they could’ve potentially delivered. In that case, its a successful project, just not their most listenable one. If you’re looking to celebrate the Scorpions 50th anniversary, get Sting in the Tail and just check this one out on Spotify. The band was writing great, fresh songs for most of the last decade… so much so that they really didn’t need to dig around in the past.