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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.
 

Reviews Cluster! Ensiferum, Napalm Death, Marilyn Manson and more!

February 24, 2015

Back with more reviews of early 2015 releases! It wasn’t just all power metal so far in 2015, as the following reviews for Napalm Death, Marduk and even Ensiferum will attest to. There’s more reviews on the way too, including one for the just released Scorpions album Return to Forever (remember when they were gonna retire?), as well as the upcoming Steven Wilson solo album Hand. Cannot. Erase., expect those soon as well as some other non-reviews features!
 

Ensiferum – One Man Army: First a mild rant: There was a time around the late 90s and early to mid 2000s when folk metal wasn’t an overcrowded subgenre, when the balance between folk and metal was handled deftly by a small cadre of accomplished bands, and when their lyrical subject matter had depth and richness. I’m thinking of those heady times when folk metal meant Skyclad, Amorphis, Subway to Sally, Otyg/Vintersorg, Falkenbach, among a few others. It was a subgenre that was creating vital, shimmering music that was stretching the boundaries of what metal could sound like —- it was fresh and exciting, the sound of things you didn’t know you always wanted to hear. Ensiferum’s first two albums were part of this wonderful era, being near-perfect marriages of thrashy guitars, power metal songwriting, and folky instrumentation.

Sometime around the mid 2000s, folk metal lost its way. I’ll point the finger for the catalyzing moment being Finntroll’s “Trollhammaren” music video in 2004 from the otherwise excellent Nattfodd album. That single/video got a lot of attention and its upbeat, Finnish polka (humppa) laden sound seemed to break down barriers for major metal magazines to begin covering the subgenre. Labels noticed, and a horde of bands followed through, with increasingly upbeat takes on the style, boasting more and more outlandish band “concepts” until we finally arrived at the current hokey state of folk metal with the likes of Alestorm, Trollfest, and the dreadful Korpiklaani. Folk metal today is largely associated with songs about ale, beer, rum, partying, and what have you —- I realize that I’m oversimplifying and that there are some artists out there who are still doing great, inspired folk metal. But at least in my eyes, the genre took a walk down a sad, sad road.

Some years ago, Finntroll seemed to publicly demonstrate some semblance of shame for their role in this sordid mess, and released the very black metal Ur Jordens Djup, and supported it with a tour consisting of utterly brutal live performances. But I suppose fans of the new model of folk metal were too numerous to ignore, because when I saw Finntroll last in 2014, the band came on stage with every member sporting plastic elven ears. They humppa-ed it up that night. Gone was the ferocity experienced during the Ur Jordens Djup tour, instead the band kept things tame for their enthusiastic crowd which seemed to largely consist of people who would otherwise never set foot into a metal show. Clearly myself and a few other disoriented looking metal fans were the odd men out in this situation. I walked away more than a little disappointed.

Ensiferum have managed to keep out this proverbial quagmire by releasing a string of albums that are in keeping with the thematic tone of their first two classics, while simultaneously damaging their image by associating with those aforementioned bands who contributed to folk metal’s current state. Just this past week, Ensiferum announced a North American headlining tour with support coming from Korpiklaani and Trollfest. How wonderful. I could dream up a handful of better touring packages than that in my sleep. I remember catching Ensiferum headlining Paganfest in 2007 with support coming from Turisas, Tyr, and Eluveitie —- now I suppose a lot of blame could be placed upon Turisas for coming up with the ludicrous “battle metal” tag, but they’re generally a decent band that has delivered good to great albums —- point is, that was a fantastic bill.

The band’s choices are unfortunate considering that One Man Army is the closest they’ve come to replicating the magic of their early, Jari Maenpaa-led era. The title track for starters is one of the most fierce, unrelentingly brutal, thrash metal assault-on-your-senses that they’ve ever unleashed. Throughout the album in fact, Ensiferum seem to have consciously redressed the balance between their thrash/power metal foundation and their folk influenced melodicism. On “Two of Spades”, the song kicks off with a Megadeth-ian intro and riff progression, and Petri Lindroos’ vocal is almost Dave Mustaine-ian in its subtle snark, heard underneath his ferocious, rapid-fire roars. The thrash metal bookends an upbeat folk-metal bridge, the closest the band ventures to the party-metal territory of some of their peers. Its sandwiching in between slabs of thrash is what is welcome here, it stands out because its not overdone —- there’s room for moments like these, just sparingly. Another favorite of mine is “My Ancestor’s Blood”, a seriously groovy epic with dual clean and grim vocal layering (that chorus is magnificent!), while Lindroos and fellow guitarist Markus Toivonen conjure up some rather beautiful intermingling melodies.

The band’s primary songwriter, Toivonen seems to be feeling particularly inspired throughout the album, there’s not a half-baked tune to be found, and he even nails the ten minute plus epic “Descendants, Defiance, Domination”. I love its vaguely spaghetti-western sounding intro, and its gradual build up to Toivonen’s rather excellent mid-song clean vocals that duel with Lindroos’ grim counterpoint. I really love his solo vocal from the 8:06 minute mark, there’s something very fresh going on there though I can’t quite put my finger on it. Towards the end of the song, tin-whistle type instrumentation lends a touch of vibrant originality to the orchestral grandeur that unfolds. The keyboard work of Emmi Silvennoinen is instrumental in this, her additions more integral to the cohesion of the music than ever before —- no longer just relegated to window dressing. Something clicked within the band this go around, and its a welcome relief after hearing just how tired they sounded on Unsung Heroes. If only they could get a better booking agent.
 

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor: A week or so ago when recording MSRcast #165, our guest Dave mentioned just how surprised he was with the new Marilyn Manson album. It reminded me that I had recently read a story on some fancy non-metal music site about the raves and critical plaudits Manson’s new album was drawing. I had filed it away as something I’d perhaps get around to checking out on Spotify one dull afternoon, but Dave’s enthusiastic praise was enough to get me to include it as an item worth reviewing for the blog. I was never a Marilyn Manson fan in the slightest, even during his late 90s heyday. I thought he was all flash and no substance, and considered the music I’d heard from him as lightweight both sonically and artistically. I remember vividly ignoring a friends suggestion to pick up Mechanical Animals in a Best Buy cd section (remember those?!), choosing instead to get a replacement copy of So Far! So Good! So What!.  In fact, he ended up buying the album and we listened to it on the way home, and that marked the last time I listened to a Marilyn Manson album from start to finish, until now…

I can see why its getting the amount of high praise being thrown its way —- for a Manson album, this is exceptionally catchy in a way I’ve never heard his stuff before. Gone is any semblance of hard rock or metal, in favor of an industrial tinged dancy, swingy, loose rock n’ roll amalgam, like INXS remixed by Trent Reznor. Its an interesting listen, and I can easily see this album being licensed by Hollywood and TV studios out the wazzoo, probably in a crime series like CSI, The Blacklist or something of that ilk. The strutting, clawing “Deep Six” is the closest thing to heavy you’ll get here, with a chorus built on atonal guitar screeching and some semblance of riffing —- its not bad. Nor is “The Devil Beneath My Feet”, with its new wave guitar motifs and sly, image conjuring lyrics in the refrain “…when I wake up you best be gone / Or you better be dead”.

But for as good as it all sounds, I’m not sure Manson’s music is for me… I feel no reason to be compelled to return, there’s a lack of any emotional connection to what I’m hearing. That isn’t to say that everything I listen to connects with me emotionally, that’s not the case at all. I do however need to feel something; whether its a surge of adrenaline, or an appreciation of skill or artistry, or the simple quality of feeling like I’m being entertained. It could be his voice that’s doing it, a little goes a long way due to his relatively monotonous and non melodic tone (Its the same reason I think Tom Waits songs are better when performed by someone else). I dunno, I’m missing something here, but good for Manson —- he’s an interesting personality to have around and its nice to not see him fade away.
 

Napalm Death – Apex Predator – Easy Meat: I guess I never had planned on ever writing about Napalm Death on this blog, not because I don’t enjoy them —- I do, but because I figured that there wasn’t much to elaborate on. Napalm Death will always sound like Napalm Death to me. I grew up listening to them, first being introduced to their grindcore/metal blend via dubbed cassette tapes by various heavy music loving friends back in middle school. They were one of those bridge bands to extreme metal, alongside Morbid Angel and Death and Carcass. More than those bands, Napalm Death delivered the kind of sheer caterwauling noise that a young budding metal fan gravitated towards because it simply sounded like something that was made for you and all the reasons you enjoyed having your parents lament your taste in music. I enjoyed playing them in my battered, sticker covered boom box in my bedroom, imagining that even with my door closed, it still sounded like hell on the other side. Maybe its fair to say that I never developed much of an emotional attachment to their music, but I don’t think it was ever designed that way.

I’ve listened to Apex Predator – Easy Meat a handful of times now (like most of their albums, its easy on the running time), and the one thing that leaps out at me is that I can’t recall this band ever sounding this crisp, clear, and catchy. Take “How The Years Condemn”, where the percussion and harmonized guitars on the outro of the chorus actually sound, dare I suggest, melo-death-ish? Barney Greenway is as muzzled, and spittle-flyingly menacing as always, but he seems to be developing into a more appealing vocalist the older he gets. He has moments throughout this album where he approaches something resembling melody, and for a band that defined grindcore, that’s something new worth mentioning. The musical approach over all just seems, well, more musical for lack of a better term —- it could be the ultra-clear mix, but the band’s sound seems expansive here, reaching for new palettes even. Not just bedroom noise anymore I suppose.
 

Marduk - Frontschwein: By the time I had mentioned Marduk’s new album on the last MSRcast, I had only been able to listen to a fairly crappy quality stream once through. It sounded to me like typical Marduk, very consistent and largely good. Now having had a decent amount of time with the album in its proper form, I’m far more impressed with it. I didn’t pay much attention to Serpent Sermon (which I’ve been told I need to) so its difficult for me to throw out relative comparisons, but on its own Frontschwein is a rollicking affair —- black metal that is loaded with memorable riffs that are played midway between loose black n’roll and tight, tremolo black metal 101. Morgan Hakansson is one of the more underrated guitarists in the subgenre, his approach workmanlike in the best possible sense —- you never feel that his riffs are aimless or just filling out sound, they’re always the heart of these songs. On “Between the Wolf-Packs”, his repeated riff-motif is so catchy it almost detracts from everything else.

Vocalist Mortuus is as grim and fiery as ever, his particular tone a perfect complement to Hakansson. He even surprises on a song like “503”, approximating something resembling clean singing at certain spots, and on “Thousand-Fold Death” he spits out his grim, blackened vocals in such rabid, maniacally fast speeds that you think he’s on the verge of chewing his own tongue. I had also mentioned on the podcast my slight reservations regarding the album’s Nazi Germany iron cross sporting logo and just the war themed lyrics in general —- not that I was accusing the band of anything nefarious, but that they should be careful with iconography like that (and concepts like this as well). I’ve scanned through the lyrics, and they read like a black metal version of Sabaton, tales of battlefields and war torn mountains. Okay, so perhaps my concern was presumptive, especially considering that I am a Sabaton fan —- but this was a band that released an album called Panzer Division Marduk, which if you remember raised a ton of noise around its released about being sympathetic to NSBM beliefs. The band refuted it of course, but to once again draw from the same proverbial well for another album title/concept means that you get the scrutiny that comes with it.
 

Nightwish – Elan (EP): The first shot fired from the anticipation cannon that is Nightwish’s upcoming Endless Forms Most Beautiful album is as you’d expect, a clearly accessible pop-rock number with a smooth chorus and charming melody. Sometimes I wish they’d release something daring for their first singles, but considering this is the band that topped pop charts with “Nemo”, I suppose they know what they’re doing. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy “Elan” as a song, but it reminds me of “Amaranthe” in the sense that it will likely wind up as my least favored track on the album. That was not the case with Imaginaerum’s “Storytime”, which I still feel to this day is an adrenaline surging, rollercoaster of a single, it just has a propulsive feel that never lets up. What “Elan” and “Amaranthe” have in common is that steady backbeat, mid-tempo, standard (in Nightwish terms) buildup to the very hooky chorus, and that’s okay, but after such a diverse album like Imaginaerum it feels like a bit of a letdown. All that being said, Floor Jansen sounds great as expected, more Anette Olzon here than Tarja for comparison’s sake, and I really love her vocal extenuation at the 3:56 mark —- more of that on the album I hope.

The other new song on offer here (the other cuts making up the EP are a radio edit and alternative version of “Elan”, the latter of which basically amounts to an unmixed demo) is “Sagan”, referring to the famous scientist himself, as I hear his name in the song a few times. This might be a better representation of what to expect from the album, despite being a b-side, simply because Jansen gets to stretch her talents a bit more here. She’s unleashes some nimble vocal dexterity during the chorus where the phrasing gets particularly dense. The song has a nice melody, a decent hook and some interesting proggy keyboard noodling courtesy of Tuomas Holopainen that you don’t hear that much anymore in modern Nightwish. New guy Troy Donockley is a major player on both of these songs, his uilleann pipes chiming in all over the place. They sound great, but I do wonder if we’ll reach a point on the album where everything might sound the same due to their presence. I love them as an instrument, but they do impart a tone that inherently light and bouncy… will he be kept off songs that don’t need him or will he be shoehorned in? I’ll be paying close attention when the album drops.
 

Oh Yeah, Angra and Orden Ogan Released New Albums Too!

February 18, 2015

Hope everyone has been handling the winter well enough, its all fun and games until you catch the flu, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, which I currently have. Its slowed me down in terms of productivity, but its not the only thing to blame. I guess its fairly obvious that Blind Guardian monopolized nearly all of my listening time for the first month and a half of the year. It wasn’t just the amount that I devoted to their excellent new album Beyond the Red Mirror, but to the band’s entire discography in the weeks leading up to it. Its actually been difficult to quell my inner fandom and fit in time to listen to you know, other bands —- a distressing thing considering that so many notable releases came crashing out of the gate in 2015. I’m going to tackle two of the bigger ones right here, having felt that I’ve finally given each of them enough time to form a relatively solid opinion. If you’ve been as overwhelmed as I have, don’t look now, because March and April hold a string of major releases too. The march of time, it has begun!



 
Angra – Secret Garden: I was having a hard time determining where I stand with Angra… my history with the band really started with the Edu Falaschi Rebirth era and went backwards to explore their classic Andre Matos past. This was back in 2001 or so, and I was even more a fan of Rebirth’s subsequent followup, the near-perfect Temple of Shadows. But the next two albums pretty much lost me, and my interest in the band waned throughout the years. When I read that Edu went and jumped ship in 2012 I figured the scene was set for a potential Matos reunion, but it never materialized for various reasons, and that furthered my disillusionment. I was never a big fan of Fabio Leone or Rhapsody, disliking his particular vibrato and their songwriting approach, so I wasn’t enthusiastic about him joining the band. I quietly hoped that it would be similar to the Kamelot situation, Leone pinch hitting for a tour or two and the band getting a completely different permanent vocalist. Leone won the job however, Angra’s remaining original members Rafael Bittencourt and Kiko Loureiro apparently deeming him close enough to Matos to get the job done.

Their first collaboration together, Secret Garden, is one of those unexpected success stories that a veteran band is able to deliver every now and then, like an aging veteran with a low RBI suddenly cranking out a few doubles, maybe even a triple (to keep this loose baseball metaphor going). Here you get everything you’ve come to expect from this band; great musicianship with a modest amount of prog-rock noodling, well crafted hooks that lean more rock than pop, tribal-esque drumming in spots (its back!), and of course crystalline production. But then we got all that with Aqua (2010) and Aurora Consurgens (2006) right? I’m sure there are people reading this who really enjoyed those albums, but I feel the songwriting on Secret Garden is sharper, the songs fully realized, and some even near transcendent.

I’m thinking right off the bat about “Storm of Emotions”, where it seems Leone and Bittencourt trade off lead vocals, the guitarist’s deeper, darker voice giving the mid-song bridge a bit of tortured drama that Leone simply can’t achieve. Its a stellar song, with a soaring yet heavyweight chorus that will sound great with a few thousand South American fans screaming along. And I’ll give credit to Leone where its due, his performance on this album is perhaps his best, Angra’s songwriting style forces him to reign it in and stick to a mid-tempo range. Whereas Leone had to do that with Kamelot on tour as well, their music was too dark for his vocal tone; Angra’s lighter, brighter approach tends to give his more helium based vocal tendencies room to play. He’s pretty great on “Newborn Me”, the single and album opener which is about as archetypal modern Angra as you can get —- notice his lack of extreme vibrato, even in spots where he would usually let it occur, one wonders if he wasn’t coached out of that in the studio here. His abilities really flex on “Black Hearted Soul”, the kind of old school power metal speedster that Rhapsody could just never seem to get right.

Its interesting that in Leone’s first outing as lead vocalist, he’s not given all of the running time. In addition to Bittencourt’s rather lengthy lead vocal sections (take a listen to his star-turn in the rather great “Violet Sky”… is it wrong that I sometimes wish he was handling all the lead vocals?), the actual title track of the album is sung largely by Simone Simons, who does a serviceable job to a relatively unremarkable song. Usually I enjoy her guest vocal spots, but there’s something missing on that song, perhaps its that she’s missing a proper duet partner to bounce off of ala Kamelot. It reminds me too much of an Epica song and that’s seemingly going to be an eternal stumbling block for me. The other guest vocal track fares much better, starring the one and only Doro Pesch in a duet with Bittencourt, “Crushing Room” is a slow burning bruiser of a song with a heart rending chorus.

Bittencourt takes the lead again on the album’s best cut, and one of Angra’s greatest gems of all time —- “Silent Call” is a moody, gentle ballad that has an eternal hook and a vocal melody that could melt the iciest of hearts. I would guess that Leone is providing backing vocal support on the lead in “ooohs”, but he’s seemingly buried in the mix. No matter, because Bittencourt’s lead will lock-in your attention with a gravity that only the best ballads can muster, his vocal rich and full of emotive infections. There’s something poignant and hopeful about this song, its melody able to tug your heartstrings without having to lean on melancholy, a very rare thing for rock and metal bands in general. Its so good I can’t see it missing the best songs of the year list (its early yet, but I’ll be listening to this gem years from now, a good sign surely). Still, that’s four songs out of ten where Leone wasn’t the lead vocalist, kind of unusual when you’re trying to introduce a “new” singer, but Bittencourt’s performances alone seem to justify it.

The band chose to depart from longtime producer Dennis Ward on Aqua, and here they skip to yet another new producer in Jens Bogren, who’s far more known for producing extreme metal artists. He unsurprisingly does a good job, although sometimes I wonder if a little less sheen and polish would’ve benefited the guitar sound —- more wild rock instead of Dream Theater-y tech in other words. Its a minor complaint for an otherwise strong album which is not a home run mind you, but the bases are loaded.
 


 

 

Orden Ogan – Ravenhead: Germany’s Orden Ogan is one of the more promising “new” bands in power metal, making a tremendous splash with 2012’s To The End album. I describe them as “new”, despite their first album being released over a decade ago in 2004… because in power metal, any band that arrived post-2000 is considered new in my book. That and they didn’t really reach my radar until their last album, a fantastic slice of classic 90s Blind Guardian, Rage, and a touch of Immortal-esque guitarwork. Those three bands are Orden’s musical touchstones as I hear them, vocalist/guitarist Sebastian Levermann sounding like a dead ringer for Rage’s Peavy Wagner, while the guitars sound like Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen decided to have a jam with Abbath. The riffing is sharp, precise, but on the right side of thrash-meets-technicality, and the songwriting is engineered to provide maximum hook impact during the choruses. One wonders why Thomen Stauch didn’t simply join these guys when he left Blind Guardian all those years ago, because they’re doing exactly what you’d figure he wanted his previous band to continue doing. Okay, so Orden Ogan won’t win any awards for originality, but they make up for that in their superior execution of a style that is damn difficult to get right.

I’ll say this right off the bat, Ravenhead isn’t as great as To The End, but that was going to be a tall order. It is a perfectly good album, with a handful of very good songs, but nothing that stands out as powerfully as “The Things We Believe In” or “Land of the Dead”, or with the shimmering melodies of “Take This Light” (which despite its cringe worthy lyrics was an incredibly affecting ballad). Its not for lack of trying though, because they get really close on the album opener title track “Ravenhead” where layered harmony vocals give the unbelievably catchy chorus an adrenaline kick. I like the mid-song change up on the slower bridge, replete with keyboard orchestrations and chanting vocals, its a nice twist that lends a bit of “epic” depth the song. The next track was the album’s lead single, the awfully named “F.E.V.E.R.”, and though I understand why they chose to release it first, with its ear-wormy call and response lyric, I think they overestimated just how endearing this song came out. Parts of it just feel unfinished, with riffs covering up moments where there should have been additional verse fragments. I was somewhat unimpressed with the song when I first saw the music video and after many repeat listens I think they should’ve gone with “Ravenhead” as the video song; but oh well, choosing singles is a challenge for any band or label.

There’s a real old-school Blind Guardian moment in “The Lake” at the 2:12 mark, where the band speeds up into a bridge built on cascading lead vocals and ultra-melodic guitar work, a fragment that reminds me of the middle of Guardian’s “Ashes to Ashes”. These out of nowhere change ups are noticeably absent in the work of inferior bands, but you’ll find a plethora of them in songs by the aforementioned Blind Guardian, Falconer, Nightwish, Sonata Arctica —- all the heavyweights in other words. As a songwriter alone Levermann belongs in those ranks, the fact that he’s an excellent guitarist and impassioned vocalist is just icing on the cake. Another surprising moment is the intro to “Here at the End of the World”, where we’re treated to a decidedly melo-death guitar barrage that owes more to In Flames and Dark Tranquility than German power metallers. Rest assured, the song veers sharply back into power metal soon after, with a chorus that is as BIG as they could envision it. My favorite song is “A Reason To Give”, a folky half power ballad, half stomping rocker with the album’s most memorable refrain. If this song doesn’t sell on you the band or Levermann’s talent as a vocalist, then you’ll have a hard time with anything else they do.

A couple criticisms though, they should’ve lost the squeaky old lady voice that introduced “Evil Lies In Every Man”, for while the song itself is half-baked at best, the aggravation that the intro causes prevents me from wanting to go back to the song at all. Its mid-tracklisting placement is bothersome as well, particularly when a really good song like “Sorrow Is Your Tale” is pushed so far back. I also wish that the instrumental “In Grief and Chains” was developed into something more fully realized, I’m not saying that it had to be transformed into a lyric laden song, but its a great riff/melody that seems tossed out on its own. I think with a little extra work it could’ve been the basis for a remarkable song, and that seems a shame. The album closer “Too Soon” suffers from the exact opposite, a song so overproduced that it loses any and all impact. Levermann over sings the chorus here, and the layered vocals weren’t necessary at all. The concluding guitar solo is fantastic, but it would’ve been way more dramatic if the rest of the song was stripped down, say piano and vocal only —- I’m just spitballing here, but as it is I didn’t enjoy it.

Orden Ogan’s gutsiest move this year was coming out with this album around the same time as Blind Guardian’s new one, and they’ll likely be overshadowed as a result. Its hard not to compare the two bands due to one’s influence over the other, but Orden didn’t do themselves any favors in not postponing their release towards, say March. If you haven’t heard the band at all yet, try To The End first, and if you have… well, Ravenhead’s worth a listen but if the budgets tight you can feel justified in holding off.

 


 

Blind Guardian Take Us Beyond the Red Mirror

February 5, 2015

There are so many things to discuss in regards to a new Blind Guardian album that I had trouble deciding where to begin. I settled on getting the obvious stuff out of the way first, namely, that four years (five on paper) has yet again separated their newest effort from its predecessor, in this case 2010’s highly acclaimed At the Edge Of Time. Four years in the rock and metal world is twice as long as the average 2-3 year gap between most artists’ releases, but the extended length of time for Blind Guardian is reasonably well accounted for: Multiple leg world tours take up a year and a half or more, and the writing, recording/production of one of their albums requires a longer gestation period than your typical meat n’ potatoes metal band. They’re not quite the obsessive perfectionists ala Axl Rose or Wintersun’s Jari Maenpaa, nor do they have the lackadaisical attitude of Tool, whom seem to regard new albums as a chore (and whose results have yet to justify the excessive time taken); no Blind Guardian are actually working productively in some form or fashion in the period between album releases, and fans have grudgingly gotten accustomed to these lengthy wait times ever since 1998.

This longer wait between albums most obviously raises anticipation, but I often wonder if it distorts expectations as well. Take At the Edge of Time for example, it was viewed as a return to form, a sort of throwback to their early 90s speed/lean metal approach combined with a grand orchestral backdrop that made it both their most hard hitting work in a decade as well as their most atmospherically epic. It was a complete 180° from the stripped down experimentation of A Twist in the Myth, itself a departure from A Night At the Opera’s grandiose excess. I can personally attest that the musical changes present in each of these four albums came as a surprise upon their release; there was little to nothing in each of their predecessors that would’ve foreshadowed those changes. I suspect its why At the Edge of the Time was so warmly received, because it differed so much from A Twist in the Myth’s odd blending of hard rock inspired sounds, toned down arrangements, and accessible songwriting. After four years of sporadic attempts at getting more into Myth’s eccentricities with partial success, I was blown away by the vastly different flavor of Blind Guardian that At the Edge of Time was presenting, in a very good way that is.

For better and worse a Blind Guardian fan’s post-2006 dilemma is that we’re unable to foreshadow what the bards will do next, because unlike most other bands they don’t gradually phase-in change over successive albums released in shorter intervals. Quite contrarily, Blind Guardian shifts their approach rather wildly and with zero mechanisms for forewarning, and as fans our last impression of what they did musically is already four years old (at least!) by the time something new comes around —- its why “And Then There Was Silence” was such a shock to the system when it was released as a single in 2002. When had you ever heard anything like that in the band’s bag of tricks? Never is the answer. Four years is long enough for the band to internally develop a new direction, but its also long enough for fans to tend to lose a sense of context in regards to what modern Blind Guardian should, or more importantly, could sound like. Its the price you pay for brilliance —- if Hansi Kursch and Andre Olbrich need two and a half years to write and record another great album as opposed to six to eight months, who are we to question their methods?
 

I mention all that because chances are that when you first hear Beyond the Red Mirror, the band’s tenth studio album in their now twenty-five year plus career, you’re liable to ask yourself just what am I listening to now? What you’re listening to is the most asymmetrically complex album that Blind Guardian have ever written, with songwriting that makes the tunes on At the Edge of Time seem poppy in comparison. Upon your first few listens, you’ll find it difficult to discern melodies, patterns, or anything resembling a prototypical hook throughout a large chunk of the album. I certainly did, but this being a new Blind Guardian album, you’ve gotta give it the extra time and attention it deserves and treat yourself to many repeat spins in order to let the experience sink in, wash over you, or whatever metaphor you subscribe to. Its another in a long line of surprises that have come with each of their past five releases, and the band offers no apologies, this is the music they came up with and you can take it or leave it.

If you’re still having trouble digesting what you’re hearing, perhaps it might help to frame the album as a mix of A Night at the Opera’s songwriting complexity with At the Edge of Time’s orchestral/choral bombast. Andre packs in the aggressive riffs and wild melodic zig-zags as only he can, but they’re denser, closer together, less anthemic and structured more as swirling patterns that support Hansi’s vocals, which drive the bulk of the melodies in these songs. Typically, a Blind Guardian song finds its balance between the melody being ushered along in equal parts by Andre and Hansi working in tandem (usually in the case of the vocals picking up where the guitars leave off during the chorus) —- except in the case of A Night at the Opera and this album, where Hansi’s vocals serve as the primary driving melodic thru-line for the song, the instrumentation left to play around it. It may seem a strange call back, a 2015 release sharing something so structurally important with an album released in 2002, and I don’t really have an explanation for why it worked out that way. I’m guessing that the band doesn’t either.

What this means of course is that you won’t find a direct spiritual successor to At the Edge of Time’s anthemic “Tanelorn”, or “Wheel of Time”, but you’ll find bits and pieces that remind you of them. Take the most radical song, the lead off nine-minute epic “The Ninth Wave”, where a solo choir intro clashes with futuristic sound effects, a strangely affecting buildup that helps to unleash one of the most purely anthemic choruses on the album. Hansi’s jump back in after the first chorus is equally dramatic as he shouts “To Muriel’s fire, walk with me!”, one of those fist-raising moments that you’ll get at least a few times an album with these guys. Andre’s extended guitar passages in the middle of the song are a treat, full of explosive solos and lead runs that rocket away from any motifs heard before within the song, a brave thing to do when the easier way out would be simply mimicking the vocal melody.

The other equally radical epic is the concluding song, “The Grand Parade”, a waltzing semi-power ballad that skips along on Frederik Ehmke’s rhythmic percussion and a gorgeous orchestral arrangement where strings and horns chime together in opulent fashion. Here Andre and fellow guitarist Marcus Siepen eschew riffs in favor of long Brian May-esque sustains, channeling their Queen fandom to its expressive best, suitable for a song that sounds like a celebration. This one took me awhile to wrap my head around, but its become one of my favorites on the album not only for its awesome, majestic chorus, but simply for the fact that its such an unusual Blind Guardian song. Unusually, “The Ninth Wave” and  “The Grand Parade” share a length of exactly 9:30, serving as symmetrical bookends —- whether that is by design or sheer accident is a mystery, but this is a concept album after all (more on that in a bit) so its worth noting.
 

Another one that took me a touch longer to get into was the song “At the Edge of Time” (I’ve read an interview where Hansi speaks on why they titled a song after their last album, but its a bit difficult to summarize in a sentence, suffice to say there IS a reason). The song starts out with an intro that features one of the album’s singular shining moments, at the :57 second mark, Hansi beautifully dreams out the lyrics “Who’ll grant me wings to fly? / And will I have another try?”. Its a simple lyric on the surface, but its unanswerable question is evocative in the very essence of what its asking —- and Hansi’s phrasing and emotive delivery just bowls me over every time I hear it. Moments like that are what I wish I could instantly summon whenever someone asks me why Blind Guardian is so great (if I haven’t slapped them across the head by then). Perhaps the song I still have trouble with is “Sacred Mind”, particularly in the chorus where I get the feeling Hansi might’ve over sung just a touch. Its not a bad song by any means, but there’s a monotone-ness to the chorus melody that prevents the song from reaching a higher emotional place.

Of course, some songs are easier to crack than others, such as the advance single “Twilight of the Gods”, which sounds grander, bolder, and more punchy here than on the YouTube lyric video release (its time for labels to reconsider the low quality of their lyric video uploads). The limited edition/vinyl copy of the album has an additional song within the middle of the track listing called “Distant Memories”, a beautifully lush and wonderfully written power ballad in the vein of “Noldor” and “War of the Thrones”. Why this song was kept as an exclusive track and not featured on the jewel case edition of the album is kind of a head scratcher, because its one of the most instantly accessible songs here. Hansi’s vocal is almost aching in the refrain where he sings “They’re just caught in distant memories /Then these fools will fade away / They may not fear the fall”. Its quickly become a favorite of mine and that shouldn’t come as a surprise to some of you, knowing that I’m a sucker for ballads.

Other favorite moments… lets see, how about the entirety of “The Holy Grail”, the heaviest and fastest song on the album, where you get a “Tanelorn” meets “A Voice in the Dark” vibe. I love the way the choral chant of “Magna eterna! /Magna eterna sings!” sounds a lot like “Run like hell now! Run like hell now!” (or is that just me?). Then there’s the sneakily catchy “Ashes of Eternity”, a song that grows on you after many listens and features one of those aforementioned shining moments of pure brilliance, towards its end at the 4:23 mark when Hansi exults “I won’t lie / While bright eyes are turning pale / Your sands run low”. Not only is the callback to “Bright Eyes” something that makes you smile, but the delivery of that lyric and its subsequent passage is so dramatic in its timing, its placement, and its execution that it makes you wish it was the chorus of the song and not just an isolated moment. And of course, I have to mention the delicate intro to “Miracle Machine”, where Hansi sings over a lonely sounding piano, only backed up by his own multi-tracked vocals. I quite like the song, though in Blind Guardian’s piano ballad history it falls short of the standards set by “War of the Thrones” and “The Eldar”.
 

Saving the best for last, there’s my two favorite songs on the album, “The Throne” and “Prophecies”. The former is a seven minute masterpiece; a perfect storm of great riffs, battle horns, Hollywood symphonics, and angelic choral sections. It also boasts the album’s most ear wormy chorus amidst all that bombast, a simple couplet that is simultaneously catchy and pulse pounding, “We must serve the fire / We must confess we are liars!”. Its on a level of excellence as that of “Wheel of Time” or “Sacred Worlds” from At the Edge of Time, one of those all too perfect gems where the verses are as compelling as the mighty refrain. “Prophecies” is a perfectly crafted case study in mid-tempo understatement, where the line between verse and chorus is blurred as a result of Hansi’s almost effortless lead vocal —-  his narrative voice here is the song’s greatest strength, the backup vocalists only chiming in to punctuate specific lines in the refrain. Its worth noting that “Prophecies” was initially my least favorite song after my first few listens of the album, probably due to my thinking that its lack of any kind of build up suggested a directionless nature. Your favorites will likely change in similarly tumultuous fashion.

If you didn’t know by now, Beyond the Red Mirror is a concept album in the vein of Nightfall, a song by song unfolding of a storyline. Its connected to the song “As the Story Ends” from the Imaginations album, and deals with the consequences of a boy who refused to jump through a portal to another world. In the digibook edition of the album, the band provides beautiful artwork that is directly tied into the fantastical concept of this album. There’s also a few lengthy short stories and poetic etchings courtesy of Hansi that serve as narrative guides —- they’re interesting reading, although I should probably emphasize that this is all entirely optional on your part. Enjoying the album as an aural experience alone is a viable option, but if you want to delve into the conceptual storyline there’s plenty to tuck into. I’ve given it all a few looks and read a thread on the band’s official forum that dissected it further, but the discussion participants were still having disagreements on just how the story fits together so I suppose I’ll just wait for them to hash it all out (hey I’m already behind on other albums!).

A few days after getting the album, I tweeted out that people should have patience and not give up if they were having difficulty getting into it. Now, more than twenty-five complete playthroughs later I can’t emphasize enough just how dependent this album is on your ability to press play once more. Listen after listen, songs that went right past me began to open up bit by bit, like peeling the layers off an onion. This is Blind Guardian’s most inaccessible album alongside A Night at the Opera in that its so deeply intricate that your brain needs time to interpret everything its hearing, a process that by definition requires repeat listens. The opposite of pop music then. But despite its inaccessibility, Beyond the Red Mirror is also perhaps their most rewarding album. I’m at a loss to explain how a band on their tenth album begins to make the most challenging music of their career, because things don’t usually work that way. Nor am I at that point yet where I can honestly say that this is my favorite Blind Guardian album, or even that I enjoy it more than At the Edge of Time —- which I love a thousand times over. But there’s something here that will undoubtedly keep me coming back, perhaps secrets that I haven’t uncovered just yet.
 

Traveler In Time: Memories of a Blind Guardian Fan

January 28, 2015



 
It was a slightly chilly afternoon —- Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 to be exact —- under fading sunlight when I got to shake the hand of the one and only Hansi Kursch. An hour or so earlier, my two goofball buddies and I had barreled in my car down the Houston freeways to a venue called Warehouse Live that skirted the eastern edge of downtown Houston, a nominally sketchy area at the best of times. I was gunning the accelerator, despite knowing full well that the show wouldn’t start until many, many hours later in the evening. My subconscious reason for this might have been the fact that none of us had tickets yet. Yeah I know, and if you’ve slapped your forehead and muttered “Idiots!” under your breath already, well, under normal circumstances I’d agree with you —- but there was a perfectly valid reason for this. See this particular date on Blind Guardian’s “Sacred Worlds And Songs Divine Tour” was supposed to be held in San Antonio, but the actual location of the show was being shuffled around last minute and I was sending frantic emails to both the promoters and band management in trying to find out what the real deal was. Turns out no one would know until two days before the scheduled date, when the band confirmed that the show was officially moved to Houston.
 
We rejoiced! Not only because we wouldn’t have to make a furious post-work drive to San Antonio, but mostly because Houston finally won one. All the years of H-town being passed over, cancelled, or postponed by various metal tours in flux —- we finally had something swing OUR WAY! Not only that, but it was the biggest swing we could’ve possibly imagined, Blind Guardian was returning to Houston, they were in our city! This has greater impact if you know that Blind Guardian had tremendously bad luck with Houston in the past. The band had to cancel the Houston date on their 2002 North American trek in support of A Night At the Opera (and their first Stateside tour to boot), a show that was scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving (the irony!), all because the venue’s promoter goofed and couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain. I was gutted. My friends were gutted. That night of the cancelled show, we got provocatively drunk and briefly debated the merits of throwing lit trash cans through the venue’s front windows. Four years later we would finally get another opportunity to see them here in Houston on their tour for A Twist In the Myth, and the band actually came and played a pretty good show at a different crappy venue. However the entire band was dealing with a really nasty case of the flu and were understandably too exhausted to do anything in the way of encores or shaking a few hands after the show. It was bittersweet in that sense. We finally got to see them live, but it would be in Houston of all places when the band would feel like ancient death… of course…

Naturally in my mind I was expecting something to go wrong, and chief on that list of possible disasters was the notion, however remote, that we’d get to the venue late only to find a lengthy line and a sold out sign on the front of the box office window. I recklessly exited the freeway and drove over numerous potholes, ignoring the fact that I was also super hungry (and the grumblings from said goofball friends echoing similar statements) —- because the only thing I wanted to do at that moment was give some disinterested box office girl my twenty odd bucks in return for a little stub of paper with Blind Guardian printed on it. Venue in sight, with black night-liner tour bus parked at its side (phew!). Haphazardly park, exit, hustle-walk to the front of venue and its hopefully open box office window. The girl was as disinterested as possible, but did confirm that we were the first idiots buying tickets that day when I asked. I looked at the time on my phone —- 4:45 pm. Tickets in hand, I finally agreed to increasingly loud declarations that we head to the nearest Freebirds, one of those made-to-order big burrito places. We began to walk back towards my car, and it just after that when one of the most surreal moments of my life occurred.
 
I remember walking behind my friends, they got in the car first, but I was slowed down by rubbernecking at the tour bus itself, looking for signs of life within those heavily tinted front windows. There was one major sign of life, a short haired guy just outside the bus on the sidewalk taking what looked like a pair of shoes out of a bag. I didn’t think much of it initially, the guy looked like a roadie or a tour manager perhaps, and I got in my car and started to slowly pull backwards out of my parking spot and lurch forward towards the tour bus. An increasingly closer view prompted me to register what I was seeing by muttering the following aloud: “I think that’s Hansi…”. I was scoffed at on the notion that the man had short hair, but my fellow compatriots were not as plugged into the detailed minutiae of the band’s current profile as I was, I knew that Hansi had recently cut his hair. I made one of the best decisions of my life and awkwardly jutted the car into an awful, diagonally parked position —- half on the sidewalk mind you —- and clumsily got out of the car, hearing one of my two friends exclaim “Holy shit it is Hansi!”

The funniest thing about this burned in memory is just how particularly alarmed Hansi looked at that precise moment: He had stopped his particularly mundane activity, in this case, slapping his black boots in hand together to get what appeared to be a whole lot of mud off. He was partially bent over, looking directly at us with a look that was startled and wondering if he should jump back in the tour bus, arms frozen in mid-boot slap. It was the kind of look that immediately made me register the sudden, near-violent nature of our approach with a dawning realization that Hansi probably had a pretty good idea of just what part of town he was currently in. We could’ve been Houston thugs at that moment for all he knew. But it must’ve been our random mix of metal t-shirts, uncontrollable grins, and peacemaking hand waves that eased his disposition —- just a bunch of goofy fans (likely what he was thinking himself). I’ll confess that I can’t recall the particular words that first left my mouth, but that thankfully they weren’t “You’re Hansi!”. With handshakes all around, we welcomed him to Houston, and expressed just how insanely happy we were that the show wasn’t cancelled and that the band was actually here. He was gracious beyond belief. I remember him half-joking that “You guys might be the only people in the audience tonight.” The date’s city switch was sure to leave a lot of people scrambling, and I expressed to him my faith that Houston would rally.
 
The whole exchange lasted a few minutes, and towards its end I had considered asking him for a picture, but realized that I’d left my phone in the car. We told him he’d see us in the crowd for sure and said goodbye, and I remember walking back to the car as if in slow motion. A wellspring of thoughts were bubbling in my mind: I had just met the man responsible for so much music that impacted me not only as a metal fan, but as a music lover in general. I had just shook hands with Hansi Kursch. I had a conversation with Hansi frickin’ Kursch. I wanted so badly to turn around and start babbling something, anything, about what his music had done for me —- but of course, that’s not how you play those situations. The man had just stepped out of his tour bus to clean his boots off, he was cool enough to unexpectedly talk with us for a couple minutes, and he was as genuinely nice and friendly as he always had come across in the audio interviews I had heard of him. He didn’t deserve to have to deal with some random, awkward moment of fan-gushing. Still, fragments of glorious Blind Guardian songs were flying through my mind, along with all those memories of particular moments I associated with them. Speaking of memories…

It was on an internet radio website called Hardradio where I first discovered Blind Guardian, through a random airing of the orchestral version of their classic ballad “Lord of the Rings” from the Forgotten Tales album. This was late 1998, in the dawn of the turn of the millennium pop-metal nostalgia revival that would resurrect many forgotten bands’ careers as surprisingly successful live performers, so the station was mostly playing music of that ilk. It had seemed that nine times out of ten I would randomly tune in to their internet feed and hear stuff like Jackyl, Warrant, or Kix. I was generally okay with it, because at that time I was an equal parts hard rock aficionado as I was a mainstream metal fan; all to happy to explore Tesla’s back catalog as I was Metal Church’s. European metal hadn’t really sunk in as something that I should’ve known about, in fact, I was (however ignorantly) certain of the notion that American and British bands were mostly the only ones worth knowing.
 

Its likely that upon hearing “Lord of the Rings” initial acoustic pluckings I thought it was a dopey love ballad by one of those bands, but that was immediately cast aside when Hansi sang in his clarion voice, “There are signs on the ring / which make me feel so down…”. His voice was so unique, richly melodic yet still gruff, and with a slight timbre that I’d never heard before —- a completely original voice that was singing about something Tolkien related of all things! By the time the song was at its emotional high point with background vocal swells of “Slow down and I sail on the river / Slow down and I walk to the hill”, I was astonished, just completely overwhelmed by one of the most breathtaking songs I’d ever heard. I launched into an internet search to find out everything possible about the band, and need I remind you this was late nineties internet —- information was scarce, and MP3s were even scarcer. In my search however I eventually found my way to a few more of the band’s songs, and also discovered a hugely important radio show in my metal development called The Metal Meltdown with Dr. Metal —- a guy based in Cleveland who was one of the few American media people with his ear to the ground for European metal bands (and whose show I still listen to and rely on to this day).

Perhaps most pressingly I found out that the band had just inked an agreement with Century Media to issue their back catalog in the States. Physically obtaining their albums happened relatively slowly, I’d feast on one for months on end and eventually manage to get my hands on another. Once I started working as a music department staffer at a Borders Books and Music, obtaining albums became all too easy by tapping into the company’s distribution network and their unusually deep access to import companies. At one point I shelled out sixty bucks for an import mail order of Forgotten Tales, still the most expensive single disc album I’ve ever bought. The end result of this was the expansion and deepening of my metal fandom from merely on-the-radar bands fed to me through various rock and metal magazines to far more underground artists, most of whom had fanbases overseas but were complete unknowns in the States. Blind Guardian threw open the doors of European metal for me, and not just for power metal; it was through them that I discovered In Flames and the Gothenburg melo-death sound, the amazing power metal talent coming out of Finland at that time, as well as Norwegian black metal (and its history) —- just to name a few things.
 

More fundamentally in regards to power metal, Blind Guardian’s music was infused with an emphasis on melodicism that I had only heard before in Iron Maiden, and in small doses elsewhere. My immersion into their albums made me realize something fundamental about myself as a metal and music fan —- that I valued melody as much as heaviness, abrasiveness, and shock value. When I was younger, rock and metal was attractive noise because of its inherently rebellious nature, its counter-culture spirit, and the feeling of inclusion it seemed to project. As I grew out of those teenaged years and shed most of its self-conscious trappings, I was left with a simple love for the music itself, and a craving for more of the elements within it that I particularly enjoyed. Andre Olbrich’s guitarwork was one of these elements, and the way he played was truly a style of his own making —- borrowing equally from Brian May, Yngwie, and Chris DeGarmo (of classic era Queensryche), he channeled his influences to create vivid, intense musical backdrops that reflected everything from speed metal, Queen-esque theatricality, and romantic medieval themes (which I didn’t even know I loved until I heard Blind Guardian).

In Hansi, I found a vocalist that I enjoyed as much as Bruce Dickinson on a purely technical level, but perhaps loved even more for the sheer bloody passion he could deliver through his voice. When I’d hear his verse line-extending screams in “Another Holy War”, I’d shake with adrenaline (to this day still). He transfixed me with his abilities as a truly original lyricist as well, presenting his songs through the voice of an well-traveled narrator in a way that did justice to his fan appointed title as a “bard”. I saw it in obvious gems like “A Past and Future Secret” and of course”The Bard’s Song”, but in more creative narrative framing such as the entirety of the Nightfall in Middle-Earth album. So transfixed was I by his dramatization of events and perspectives from Tolkien’s source material, that I actually bought a copy of The Silmarillion and forced myself to keep at its dense, biblical text until I finally began to enjoy it. I’ve now read it more times than the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit combined, I sometimes even fall asleep with the unabridged audiobook playing on my headphones like a maniac. I’d like to think that Hansi would be proud, or worried.

 
I don’t need to go on about why Blind Guardian is great. If you’ve read this far, you know damn well why. But I don’t think that I’ve associated more personal memories with one band than I have with the bards. I’d ride around with their discs as a near permanent in-car rotation in those lo-tech days before iPods, and amidst hour long plus commutes to and from school, work, home, and various excursions all over Houston I’d repeatedly soak in every second of their discography. I have fond memories of laughing deliriously while driving when my buddy Matt pointed out how angry Hansi sounded during the second verse of their cover of “Surfin’ USA” (he’s REALLY angry that everybody’s gone surfin’), and how every time that song would come on we’d mime his imaginary rage. On their cover of “Spread Your Wings”, we got a kick out of the way Hansi pronounced “honey”, imagining he was standing with the characters of Winnie the Pooh and motioning us over a cartoon hill (“Come on haaaanie!”). Every time I was down and needed a pick me up, I could listen to that song and it’d help a bit.

I remember my excitement on the release day of A Night At the Opera, at an actual record store where a copy was specifically held just for me… I couldn’t tear the plastic off fast enough. Speaking of which, I vividly recall just how stunned I felt upon first hearing the “And Then There Was Silence” single, sitting in my room with headphones on with the lyric sheet in front of me. I remember the time I was huddled around a fire during a teeth-chatteringly cold night while camping at the Texas Renaissance Festival as Imaginations played out of a portable mini-disc player, downing awful whiskey and loving it. I remember with fondness the New Years Eve spent on a friend’s apartment balcony, a bunch of us drunkenly swaying and singing along to “The Bard’s Song” at the top of our lungs (written warnings were issued the next day). I remember how cheerful it felt to first hear those gorgeous final vocal melodies in “War of the Thrones”, and how I listened to that song on repeat over and over while singing along to them every time.

 
Mostly I just remember the band always being there, particularly during darker times when all I wanted was an escape. Here on the eve of a new Blind Guardian album release, I find it comforting to know that hasn’t changed at least. Its not lost on me that the last time Blind Guardian released an album way back in 2010, there were people, places, and situations that were in my life that simply aren’t there anymore. It happens less frequently to me these days, but when people question why you’re still an obsessed metal fan as an adult, all you really can to point to is your own personal relationship to the music you love. There are no cliques, no scenes, no one you’re trying to impress or piss-off —- the only thing that matters is whats going on internally when its just you by yourself in your car, listening to whatever you’re listening to.

Blind Guardian are one of the few metal bands that belong to a specific subgenre yet manage to transcend it and crossover to other metal fans. As Brad Sanders of Invisible Oranges so eloquently pointed out, “Their discography is like a completely crossed-out to-do list of things to put in your music if you don’t want the metal intelligentsia to take you seriously, and yet they’re the only power metal band I can put on with a carload of trve-kvlt warriors without having control of the stereo wrested from my hands.” Sanders attributes this to the band’s complete lack of cynicism —- and I’ll add a lack of irony and self-awareness to the list. Blind Guardian run on a love of pure imaginative storytelling, fantastical or otherwise, and pass this on to their listeners in the form of expressively earnest music. Its why they are loved in the manner they are, with devotion that most bands could never appreciate, let alone muster.

So I reached my car door and briefly looked back —- Hansi had begun to climb back into the bus, boots relatively less muddied. I wanted to sit there and let it soak in a for a minute, but after the initial round of expletive laden exclamations of triumph and joy, I was firmly ordered to hit the gas. Burritos waited somewhere in the distance, and we had to get back relatively soon to ensure a good spot in line. The stereo came on, playing Blind Guardian of course. We agreed that we had handled ourselves well, and no one did or said anything embarrassing —- it was about as much as we ever analyzed anything we’d ever said. Well then, let this serve as my ex post facto potentially embarrassing fan gushing treatise —- the stuff I wanted to say to Hansi at that moment but kept wisely bottled up instead. Delusional I’m not, I know he’s not going to read this, but its actually more for me than it is for anyone else. Traveler in time for life.
 

Looking Ahead at 2015!

January 14, 2015

Happy New Years everyone! Alright I’m a little late, but I wanted to let those year end lists marinate out there for a bit before issuing another update, as well as allowing myself a little break from any kind of “required” listening. How have I spent my intervening few weeks off listening wise? Oh you know, a little sweeping balladry from Sarah Brightman, revisiting classic Celtic-punk albums by The Pogues, reveling in Basil Poledouris’ epic score for Conan the Barbarian (the original 1982 classic, mind you), and metal-wise blanketing myself with loads of classic Blind Guardian as a side effect of my now unrestrained anticipation for their new album. Regarding the latter, its our favorite bards who instantly win the crown for the most anticipated album of 2015 —- I mean, who are we kidding here? The German legends may be skirting the edge of their regular four year studio release schedule (that ‘2015’ is going to throw off the 98-02-06-10 symmetry of their last four albums), but in these final weeks leading up to the release of Beyond the Red Mirror, I’m remembering everything I love about the band and all is forgiven. That being said, what are the runners up as my most anticipated metal releases/events?

As it turns out, the number of potential/possible/likely 2015 releases from major metal names is quite lengthy. So I’m going to try something new and lay out my most anticipated in a rather rapid fire list in alphabetical order with a thought or two about what I expect, or (more importantly) am hoping for:

 


 

Angra – Secret Garden: One of the first cannon shots of 2015 is the debut of Fabio Lione in his role as Angra’s third official vocalist, being the successor to Edu Falaschi who left in 2012. Look, I wasn’t wild about the Edu era although it had its occasionally good to great moments, but I’m completely un-enthused about the very idea of the Lione era. I was never sold on Rhapsody (of Fire ™), in large part owing to how little I found to like about Lione’s thin, wafery delivery. I respected the heck out of the guy for helping out Kamelot on their Khan-less tour a few years back, despite having to acknowledge that his vocals were completely wrong for the band’s tone and mid-tempo stylings. So on paper Angra should be a better fit for him than his stint in Kamelot, but the pre-release single “Newborn Me” is completely underwhelming so far. It won’t be long before I drop a review of this one, Angra daring to challenge Blind Guardian with a January release (the very idea…).
 

Cradle of FilthHammer Of The Witches (working title): In the past few years, the idea of a new Cradle album was met with a sad level of indifference from myself and as it seemed many others. Paul Allender’s role as guitarist was long past its expiration date, heard in recycled riffs and uninspired songwriting. Yet his departure in 2014 was surprising as it was enticing —- with all due respect to Allender, its now transparently obvious that he wanted to move on years before but the relatively steady nature of Cradle’s existence and operations kept him around for years and albums longer. The new guitarists, two guys named Ashok and Richard Shaw (there’s some dichotomy for you) are relatively unknown quantities, but Dani’s recent quote held some promise, “It’s gone back to the twin-guitar harmonies — very fast and ornate and atmospherically spooky, but lots of melody. I think it’s gonna surprise a lot of people.” A new lineup, fresh blood at the guitar spot —- it worked for fellow British metallers Judas Priest in a big way. Its make or break time for Cradle, I demand something in the vein of Midian!
 

The Darkness – Cliffhanger (tentative title): Yeah, yeah I know —– “Dear Pigeon, why are you wasting my eye strength on a fairly ludicrous joke band that’s barely even hard rock, let alone metal in any way, shape, or form?”. Longtime readers however will remember that The Darkness actually ended up on my best songs of 2012 list with a gem off their excellent Hotcakes album. And let me address a few things that tend to linger on about this band: They’re not a joke band, check their cited influences, actually listen to their music, and you’ll realize the Hawkins brothers bleed classic Thin Lizzy, Queen, AC/DC, and a splash of Def Leppard. More importantly, they write wonderfully catchy songs with clever hooks and turns of phrase, with loose, Izzy n’ Slash melodic guitar interplay. Are they full of a particularly British sense of humour? Absolutely, but its part of their charm, their music is made with such attention to craft and detail that it demonstrates a conviction that a “joke” band simply wouldn’t bother with.
 

Dimmu Borgir – TBA: It will likely be just over five long years since the release of Dimmu’s last album, the unfortunately titled but otherwise decent Abrahadabra. I loved the eponymous “Dimmu Borgir” off that album, one of the band’s catchiest singles in years (it had a pretty decent music video too), but the majority of the album made me wonder how much there was possibly left to explore in their heavily symphonic black metal style. I’m not really sure what to expect from these guys now, but it really seems like a stylistic evolution ala Satyricon might be in order. Blut Aus Nord just dropped a new album of classic Norwegian second wave black metal that is bracing, fresh, and revitalized… proving in one fell swoop that there’s still life left in the old traditions. Maybe the way forward for Dimmu is to look back in order to progress their sound. More of the same from them would be disappointing in a way, especially after a five year gap.
 

Enslaved – In Times: Due in early March, the next Enslaved album is right up there among my most anticipated of 2015, this despite the band’s frustrating lack of Texas tour dates on yet another “North American” tour. That aside, I’m eager to hear what direction these guys veer off into this time. Their last album RIITIIR (a 2012 year end lister) was a blending of the progressive tendencies of 2008’s Vertebrae with traditional metal and rock elements, a stark contrast to the more punishingly straightforward black metal of 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini. To say that the band has been on a seesaw of stylistic shifts is an understatement —- Enslaved is simply the most unpredictable band in metal today. Personally I’m hoping for a return to a more primal, moodier, mid-career era sound, akin to the Viking infused charm of Below the Lights and Isa. If you’re new to Enslaved, consider the latter two albums your assigned homework.
 

Faith No More – TBA: If the band’s 2014 single “Motherfucker” was any indication, we’re in for a treat. I love the way that song didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard from the band in their 90s heyday, yet still sounded unmistakably like Faith No More in all their ugly, beautiful, and baffling glory. It also put to rest any remote moaning about the lack of Jim Martin’s involvement, as Jon Hudson is as creative and adaptable a guitarist as the band needs (surely his work on Album of the Year should’ve sold people on that). More promising is that the band are recording the new album entirely on their own without the involvement of a record label, and given what they got away with when on a major label, who knows what juxtapositions and bizarreness we’ll get from song-to-song. I’m just so happy to have the band back, their work felt incomplete upon their disbandment in 1998, and there are precious few bands that have the kind of personality that FNM had in spades. Maybe a Metal Pigeon Recommends feature is in order for these guys prior to the album release… something I’ll keep in mind.
 

Iron Maiden – TBA: Much like Dimmu Borgir, a five year gap will separate Maiden’s upcoming album from its predecessor, too long of a time in my opinion for a band whose members are pushing 60 (if not already past it). Its been frustrating to have this blog out for so many years now with absolutely zero writing on my favorite band of all time (I mean seriously, I’d have expected a Bruce solo album in the interim at least). Maiden has apparently been busy recording, the proof of which was delivered in the form of a cryptic fan club Christmas card in December that featured Eddie walking into a studio. Their last effort, The Final Frontier was a great album, with songs that harkened back to their Brave New World style with a splash of Somewhere Back In Time’s futuristic keyboard arrangements. Sure Steve Harris does tend to get a little long-winded, but its my slight hope that Bruce and Adrian might get more involved in the songwriting and balance out his longer compositions with some of their concise, catchy songwriting-duo magic.
 

Nightwish - Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Second only to Blind Guardian as my most anticipated album of 2015, I have the highest of hopes for the debut of Floor Jansen as the third Nightwish vocalist. She is perhaps the most adaptable of them all, capable of classical operatics, as well as the wildly versatile pop-rock accessibility of Anette Olzon. Having seen Jansen with the band in concert myself, I thought her most valuable resource as a vocalist was her ability to project power in a way that both Olzon and Tarja were unable to. Simply put, she can belt it out when she wants to, an ability that immediately makes her the metalized equal to Marco Hietala’s soaring, accented tenor. Of course Tuomas Holopainen’s songwriting will be my primary focus of attention, and judging by his choice of song titles, cited inspirational reading, and guest narrator in Richard Dawkins —- we’re in for a thematic album at the very least (something entirely new for the band). Its hard to envision a Nightwish album better than 2011’s Imaginaerum, but here’s to Holopainen giving it his best shot.
 

Queensryche – TBA: While Queensryche’s self-titled debut with new vocalist Todd LaTorre was a solid return to form, it had severe flaws. The most glaring of which was song length, most of the cuts on the album hovering in the three to four minute range that could’ve benefited from additional verses or expanded guitar solos. Now with all the legal battle drama behind them, this is Queensryche’s time to truly get back to their progressive metal roots —- especially with their debut at Wacken Open Air (finally!) only eight months away. This is a band that needs to be out there touring with actual modern metal artists, not 80s glam-rock bands, and hopefully their time at Wacken will yield fruit in that regard as well as serve as their re-introduction to the European metal audience as a whole. Oh and getting the album out before that show would be good too.
 

Scorpions – Return to Forever: This is surprising on a number of levels, as 2010’s Sting in the Tail was supposed to be the band’s final studio album, and its subsequent tour was to be their last ever. Even as recently as their late 2013 MTV Unplugged in Athens the band was demonstrably in winding down mode, delving into deep cuts from their discography for that album as well as openly discussing their career in retrospective terms in interviews surrounding the project. An additional phase of their winding down was to step briefly into the studio to flesh out some song ideas stockpiled in the past and quietly release them —- this idea apparently has blown up into a full-fledged new studio album with a world tour on its heels to follow. I guess I’m okay with this… it does lend a bit of irony to their song “The Best Is Yet to Come”,  it being the closing song on the track listing of that aforementioned “final” album. One wonders if Return to Forever will be their swansong, or they’ll stick around for one more.
 



 
Noteworthy Metal Related Events:

Savatage at Wacken Open Air: Fifteen years after the last Savatage tour, the band is getting back together for a last hurrah on the biggest stage in the metal universe. Or is it really the last? Chris Caffery recently suggested otherwise, and its anyone’s guess as to whether or not that will be a tour or a brand new studio album. Seeing as how I’m going to have to check out the Wacken performance on the livecast, I’m hoping for a subsequent North American tour. Oh and if they’re going to do this Wacken show without getting some additional cameras in there for a DVD recording, I will be a tad annoyed. Needless to say this is one of the most widely anticipated metal events of the year.
 

Nightwish / Sabaton / Delain in Houston: Yeah this is a personal one, or maybe not if you’re catching one of the many tour dates this amazing bill will be stopping at on its spring North American trek. This will mark my third time seeing Nightwish, the second time I’ll be seeing Delain, and jeez… the seventh or eighth time I’ll have witnessed Sabaton and their high adrenaline stage performance. Should be one to remember.
 

Will Immortal release their new album: I guess I should be asking, is Abbath going to win the rights to the Immortal name so he can release the album that he’s already recorded with other musicians? Read up on this if you are just now hearing of it, but it basically boils down to Abbath vs Demonaz/Horgh over the rights to the Immortal trademark. I’m firmly on the side of Abbath in this dispute, because after all its his vocals and his riffs that make up the bulk of the band’s discography that we love so much. He is for all intents and purposes Immortal —- and even though Demonaz has been the band’s lyricist, we’re not talking Louise Gluck levels of poetic brilliance here, I’m sure Abbath can more than manage them on his own. If Abbath’s accusations about Demonaz and Horgh’s feet dragging are true, then its appalling to hear of them trying to deny everyone a new album with lengthy legal proceedings.
 

And that wraps it up, hope it helps a little in setting the metal stage for 2015 —- here’s to a great year for everybody!
 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part Two: The Albums

December 23, 2014

This was an exciting year to be a metal fan, particularly if like me you made it a habit to check out as many new releases from established and up and coming artists as you possibly could. Its not an exaggeration for me to say that I listened to more new metal albums in 2014 than any other year —- easily surpassing even last year’s nutty total. It was an especially prolific year for power metal, with nearly every major band within the subgenre releasing new albums or singles. As far back as February I was speculating on 2014 possibly being a resurgent year for power metal —- so was it? Well, yes and no. There were some disappointments from a few veteran bands, but these were made up for with pleasant surprises from relatively new artists. And of course there were still quite a few extreme metal artists who offered up a handful of great records.

Consider the following ten albums on this list a very agonized over distillation of what I thought were the absolute best of the year. Most year end metal lists go up to twenty five or even fifty entries —- I limit myself to ten to force myself to be critical, selective, and honest with myself about what I enjoyed the most. A shorter list also helps to give weight to the ordering of entries, and you can be sure that the top spot means a great deal. I definitely look at album play counts when narrowing down my nominees as they provide an honest statistic about my listening habits, but I also consider other far more intangible factors as well (such as… you know, artistry and stuff). This is part two of my 2014 Best Of feature, so be sure to check out Part One: The Songs if you missed it. Enough of my incessant prattling! On with the list!

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2014:

 

 1. Triosphere – The Heart of the Matter:

Its not an uncommon occurrence to discover a great band that I haven’t heard before; its one of the frequent perks of writing a metal blog. It is however extremely rare for that discovery to come in the form of an album that is absolutely flawless and perfect in all aspects. Norway’s Triosphere were a late entry in the 2014 album release calendar, November and December for Europe and the States respectively, a major misstep for AFM Records that has already ensured that it slipped under the radar of many metal writers. I consider myself lucky that I am not among them, because here’s what I learned: This is the best metal album of the year, regardless of subgenre, regardless of your preference for accessibility or extremity, and regardless of any preconceptions you might have about a female fronted metal band.

Yes Triosphere is indeed a female fronted metal band —- a progressive power metal one, led by bassist/vocalist Ida Haukland. But they don’t sound like many other female fronted metal bands, as Haukland’s voice can best be compared to a blending of Ann Wilson and Doro Pesch, with hints of Coverdale’s inflection and Dio’s theatricality. She’s a stylistic rarity in an era when female vocals in metal usually mean light, airy, delicate, and that oft-used adjective, ethereal. Haukland is also unique among male and female vocalists in being a sonically powerful vocalist with both high and low range, all while capably demonstrating a mastery of melody. It would be an oversimplification to say that her tone is only raspy or leathery, because its also smooth, distinct, and enunciative. To say she is the undisputed star of this album would perhaps detract from the clockwork-like, precision machinery of the band as a whole, but certainly without her The Heart of the Matter would not be the special album it is.

Equally as key in the Triosphere lineup is guitarist Marius Silver Bergensen who is the band’s primary songwriter in cooperation with Haukland; he composes the music, she writes the lyrics and creates the vocal melodies. Together they weave a dark, stormy, and feverish take on progressive power metal that is both technically brilliant and emotionally resonant. Bergensen seems to be a smart guy in that his songwriting works around Haukland’s natural talent at creating fully formed vocal melody driven hooks. He’s a tremendous guitarist, and shows it off alongside fellow guitarist Tor Ole Byberg in brief flashes of technicality during riffs and in wild, unrestrained, hard rock inspired soloing. Triosphere weave technicality into the fabric of their guitar melodies throughout, but they know when to turn it up and tone it down, a result of marrying their approach with Kamelot-like simplicity where the melody has to remain preserved. Drummer Ørjan Aare Jørgensen lays down a tremendous performance, spicing up a thrash metal fueled percussive attack with proggy, jazzy fills and accents. There’s virtuosity teeming throughout these songs, but its used as an accent rather than the main attraction, the band subtly hinting that they could do more, if they wanted.

Ultimately its the start to finish array of great songs that steal the show here, and there’s a handful of absolute gems: “Steal Away the Light” is as excellent a pure heavy metal song as you will ever hear, with its Roxette-meets-Dio soaring, triple-segmented chorus built around Haukland’s incredible range. There’s the epic, tension fueled “The Sphere”, where her vocals practically scream heartbreak as she sings “Can you feel me like I feel you / A heartbeat where the sound of my soul shines through”. When I listen to that chorus, I realize that its Haukland’s perfect choices in enunciation that really drive home the powerful emotional response that line manages to conjure, and she does that all over the album and puts on a masterful display of how to make the most of every single line. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite song, “Breathless”, where the band really turns up the Roxette vibe with a fun, punchy, poppy chorus built around clever alliteration. Haukland sings “I know you think / You know the name / Of this game we are playing” with half-second pauses in between each line, giving the chorus a rock n’ roll stutter strut that you don’t normally hear in prog-metal. Its the kind of thing you hear the first time and smile over.

Much of Haukland’s lyrics deal with past and current relationships, or at least the conceptual idea of one where heartbreak is a central theme. It may not sound like very “metal” subject matter, but its refreshing in a strange way, perhaps because such a focused concentration suggests that its inspired by real personal experiences. You can perceive her attention to detail in regards to penning lyrics that while direct and straightforward, are full of depth and purpose. With a few more releases we could see Haukland blossom as a lyricist, possibly reaching Roy Khan levels of diction and imagery (she already has quite a bit in common with her fellow Norwegian). I called this album perfect, and take my word for it, there are no fillers to be found —- and there’s a raw, kinetic energy that flows throughout the album from the very start, every subsequent song picking up where the other left off. Triosphere don’t get bonus points for their uniqueness as a non-operatic female fronted metal band; they made it to number one on my list simply because they created an album that I couldn’t find anything wrong with, an album with nothing to complain about and everything to get excited by. The Heart of the Matter is a beautiful, aggressive, elegantly chaotic masterpiece.
 

 

2. Ghost Brigade – IV – One With the Storm:

Yet another in the waltzin’-into-class-late crew, Finland’s Ghost Brigade slipped this one in relatively late in the 2014 release calendar (must be a Scandinavian thing?). If you recall from a couple years ago, this pack of downtrodden Finns made my 2011 Best Albums list with Until Fear No Longer Defines Us, the album that introduced me to their take on Sentenced/Katatonia inspired melancholic metallic rock. Three years later, they’re finally back with its successor and have managed to land a higher placing on this list with an album that’s more metal and less rock. Its slightly amusing that the further Ghost Brigade have shifted away from what made me enjoy them in the first place has somehow resulted in a better, sharper, more compelling album. Its never the best metric to compare one album to another, but I can honestly say I love One With The Storm far more than I ever did its predecessor.

Not everything has changed, there are still many moments where Manne Ikonen demonstrates his melodic voice with his heavily accented clean singing, but they’re now equaled in play time with his raw, harsh, tortured screaming. He has to fight for space too, because the clearer, crisper production the band has chosen to employ here pushes the instrumentation right up against his vocals, and together they clash back and forth as on the album opener “Wretched Blues”. Its a huge reversal from their previous albums, where everything sat underneath Ikonen’s vocals in a hazy fuzz —- no more. Guitars pour aggression and beautiful, melancholic melodies all over these songs, and they take center stage, often times their musical patterns and figures serving as a song’s refrain such as on the brutal melo-death of “Stones and Pillars”. Some of those guitar figures are heart rending in their ability to touch your emotional nerves, as on the acoustic finger plucked intro to “Elama On Tulta”, where its abruptly followed by a wave of heavy melodicism that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sentenced’s The Cold White Light.

I included the brilliant “Departures” on Part One of this year’s Best Of feature, it being the album’s most accessible slice of metallic rock, but there’s a wealth of melodic vocal treasures to be found elsewhere. A particular favorite comes in the track “The Knife”, where steady mid-paced slabs of gargantuan riffs with suitably throat worn harsh vocals are contrasted with a wide open, cinematic chorus where Ikonen laments in his melodic best “Another year / Another wasted season”. As you can probably tell, much of Ghost Brigade’s lyrical approach deals with your typical Finnish appropriate topics of loneliness, isolation, and general feel-baddery (screw you spell check!), and they just do it oh so well. Take the introspective “Disembodied Voices”, where over a bed of moody, hushed atmospherics and cleanly plucked electric guitar figures Ikonen croons “They said time heals / In a year or so you’ll be alright / Time doesn’t heal / It only makes you forget”. In the hands of a lesser band and vocalist (and I can think of many American radio “rock” bands that could fit the bill) those lyrics would sound contrived and false, but Ghost Brigade understand what kind of soundtrack they need, and Ikonen understands that their delivery needs to be understated, passive even.

My high play count of One With The Storm may have spiraled out of control with its release coming square in these darkening autumnal months, but I have no doubt I’d feel this strongly about its cohesive artistic triumph were it released way back in spring or summer. I think the band has finally stumbled onto a formula they ought to consider sticking to for another release or two. Evening out the guitars with the vocals in the mix has really gone a long way towards giving their sound a surge of power, and its forced Ikonen to balance out his melodic singing voice with his equally riveting (if not superior) melo-death harsh vocals. Ultimately though, it always comes back to the songwriting and Ghost Brigade delivered a handful of gems here, an accomplishment that is even more impressive considering the vast array of diverse tempos and song structures they chose to employ. They outdid themselves, surprised the hell out of me, and somehow managed to release the best metal album out of Finland in 2014.
 

 

3. Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R.:

Until Triosphere came along, Dawn of Destiny laid claim to being the biggest out-of-nowhere surprise of the year. I had never heard of the band before (and apparently, neither did anyone else), but it was the appearance of Jon Oliva as a guest vocalist on the stellar “No Hope For the Healing” that caused my buddy Doctor Metal of The Metal Meltdown Show to play the band on his show one Friday afternoon. It wasn’t just the presence of the Mountain King that grabbed my attention, it was the absolutely fantastic songwriting on display as well. I was convinced and took a chance on the album, and after one pass through I had the kind of smug, self-satisfied, doofus grin that I’m sure we all tend to get after suggesting an unknown restaurant that turns out to be great and having your friends begrudgingly give you the nod of approval. If I wrote my original review of the album with that same grin on my face, I apologize.

Its not a stretch to say that this was my frontrunner to take the top spot on this list for most of the year before some tougher competition came along. That’s because like Triosphere, Dawn of Destiny are a rarity in the world of female fronted metal bands, as their vocalist Jeanette Scherff is neither operatic or light and ethereal, instead her vocals come from a mid-ranged rock style reminiscent of Ann Wilson or Pat Benatar. No need to scroll up to check whether you’re remembering seeing Ann Wilson’s name before, as I used her to describe Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. Both Haukland and Scherff are tremendously gifted vocalists and modern trailblazers of a sort as a budding handful of female singers bucking the metal establishment, but Scherff leans in a smoother, more refined direction (there’s no Doro influences with her). As great as she is, its bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber who is the true star of the album, as his songs are deliciously hooky, ornately arranged slices of dramatic power metal. On F.E.A.R. (if you’re dying to know, its an acronym for “Forgotten, Enslaved, Admired, Released”), Faber has compiled a selection of near perfect power metal songs where everything revolves around major key builds and truly memorable choruses.

Where to start? How about the stormy, tense drama of “End This Nightmare” where Scherff shares lead vocals with Faber, a distinctive and powerful singer in his own right. The chorus here is Meatloaf-meets-metal, the kind of joyously over-the-top chorus that is so skillfully written and deftly performed that it threatens to go off the rails but never does. Then there’s the one two punch of “Finally” and “Prayers”, the best back to back tracklisted tandem you’ll hear all year. The former is an aggressively uptempo vocal duet where both singers deliver unbelievably challenging vocal lines with near perfect enunciative choices and imaginative melodies, while “Prayers” is its 80’s inspired pure-pop cousin —- built on Scherff’s almost staccato delivery of the verse vocal lines. The chorus is a blast, a carefree merging of her vocals with Faber’s in a singalong that ascends like a spiral staircase. And there are so many moments like that, where Faber’s songwriting throws caution to the wind and interweaves vocal lines in unexpectedly delightful fashion, or allows the rather reigned-in, straightforward power metal guitars of Veith Offenbächer to explode in jawdroppingly gorgeous solos.

Should I mention that its a concept album? I’m not so sure its needed as a selling point, because although I’ve followed along with the lyrics and can honestly say that its a cohesive, well-told story —- I don’t think its necessary at all when it comes to simply enjoying F.E.A.R. as a musical experience. I began listening to this album back in March and have kept going back to it throughout the year. Granted there was a slight hiccup, the first minute twelve of the opening track features some rather awful spoken word dialogue that was actually gnawing at my conscience every time I considered placing the album atop this list (its that bad, and here’s to no more terrible spoken word on metal albums in 2015!). I was saved from having to deliberate that choice thanks to Triosphere and Ghost Brigade, but one lousy mistake aside, Dawn of Destiny were serious contenders for the throne.
 

 

4. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry:

Dense, layered, and nostalgic might be suitable adjectives for Blut Aus Nord’s return to second wave black metal after some time in the desert doing weird, not so great experiments with industrial music. Some quick history: Blut Aus Nord is the musical project of a notoriously reclusive Frenchman under the moniker of Vindsval, who was apparently just 15 when he released the project’s debut Ultima Thulée in 1995. Its sequel released a year later was titled Memoria Vetusta I: Fathers of the Icy Age, and together they were viewed upon as left-field classics emulating the black metal pouring out of Norway at that time. When Vindsval returned in 2001, he did so with a style that owed more to noise and industrial music, and continued in this vein even throughout Memoria Vetutsa II in 2009 and beyond. His unorthodox style won him a lot of praise in this lengthy era, particularly from big-platform publications —- but if you were one of those few that preferred his take on classic 90s black metal, you were out of luck.

So its not an overstatement to say that Memoria Vetutsa III: Saturnian Poetry is the most unexpected album by a veteran artist in 2014, being Vindsval’s return to pure, classicist second wave black metal with zero (ZERO!) industrial elements. The x-factor is that this album is recorded in the pristine, crisp, un-muddied production style that he’s become accustomed to working with in the preceding 777 trilogy, and its like being hit over the head with a frying pan in making you realize that hey, classicist second wave black metal actually sounds better without awful, muted production! This means that Vindsval’s waves of windswept tremolo riffs aren’t buried in the mix, instead they’re the main attraction, and they’re so excellent, so perfectly sculpted that you begin to remember why you loved this style in the first place. And I believe for the first time, Vindsval brings aboard a real drummer in Gionata Potenti (aka Thorns) whose unyielding, punishing attack gives the entire album the feel of a real band at work. The result is a complete about face from the cold, distant icy feel of the industrial era, instead presenting a earthy warmth, like you’re sitting around a mountainside campfire with each listen. This album single-handedly has reignited my interest in black metal as a whole, and made me dust off an Emperor classic or two.

 

 
 

 5. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls:

Its slightly disturbing that so many metal writers are overlooking that with Redeemer of Souls, Judas Priest have created their best work since 1990’s Painkiller. I want to believe that whats stopping many from realizing this is the pallor cast over by 2008’s tepid Nostradumus, but that would imply that they simply hadn’t bothered to listen to the new album (and that would be poor form for metal writers anywhere, this is Judas Priest we’re talking about). Or is it that in an era where extremity in metal is prized more than traditionalism and given more artistic merit, new music by Priest is considered antiquated or sin of sins, un-hip? I’m not sure what everyone else’s problem is, and granted, I’ve seen Redeemer of Souls pop up on a few other year end lists by websites or publications that aren’t so expressly concerned with demographics and credibility. Kudos to them for realizing what most of the metal world immediately picked up on.

Priest don’t earn their spot on this list simply by virtue of Redeemer being better than its four predecessors, they’re here because of new guitarist Ritchie Faulkner, who stepped out of K.K. Downing’s shadow as more than just a replacement guitarist when he co-wrote this entire album alongside Glenn Tipton and Rob Halford. He turned out to be a veritable fountain of youth, ushering the band back to the very spiritual essence of what made them legends. Priest albums aren’t exercises in intellectual aggrandizing, they’re inherently simple, straight forward affairs built on having a plethora of tight riffs, hummable melodies, and hooky choruses galore. Faulkner brought all these things to the table and in doing so seemed to emphasize that the band didn’t have to out-do itself, or compete with others. The result is an album that is brimming with good to great to masterful songwriting, there are no duds or mediocre tracks on offer here. And its not just the band’s British Steel / Screaming For Vengeance era that is invoked, as there is a distinct Sad Wings of Destiny / Sin After Sin vibe to songs like “Secrets of the Dead” and the echoing balladry of “Beginning of the End”. The production could’ve been a little more compressed, less cleanly modern, and more eighties-sounding —- the opposite of what Blut Aus Nord did in other words. Its the only blemish on an otherwise astounding album.
 

 

6. Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen:

I can completely understand the notion that Ireland’s Primordial is a difficult band to get into, most likely due to the unusual, eerie, scream-sung vocal style of Alan Averill (aka A. A. Nemtheanga). He used to be my stumbling block as well, I liked what the band was doing musically but couldn’t get around him. A long time ago I wrote on this blog that I suspected it was due to my wanting Primordial to be more of a Riverdance-meets-black metal type of affair —- a silly concept in retrospect but a purely reactionary one. For a band tagged “Irish black metal”, Primordial sure weren’t like what I imagined that label to sound like. So here’s my advice to newcomers, step one: Forget any subgenre labels, and lets just call Primordial a metal band from Ireland (one of very few, and a stellar one at that). Step two is harder, but worth the effort: Think of Averill’s vocals as the metal version of Dave King’s from the Irish-American punk band Flogging Molly sung by a hooded necromancer standing atop some moss strewn Irish cliff side overlooking a fog-shrouded valley. Hey, we’re metal fans, we’re supposed to be a receptive and imaginative audience, so get to work.

Your efforts will be rewarded with Where Greater Men Have Fallen, which equals the band’s 2007 seminal classic To The Nameless Dead in songwriting brilliance, and leap frogs it in terms of being their most punishing and aggressive music to date. That matters, because the band was in need of a little diversity in their sonic approach, and it arrives right out of the gate with the title track and its rumbling, earthquaking drums, searingly tremolo-ish riffs, and overall brisk pace. Similarly on “Seed of the Tyrants”, the band goes full on black metal with an intro blast of Averill’s loud proclaimation of “Traitors!”, followed by blistering, full-on blastbeats and tremolo riffs that sound like they were straight out of a Watain record. I’m quite fond of the awesomely titled “Wield Lightning to Split the Sun”, where you hear more of the band’s oft buried folk metal influences come to the surface with an acoustic guitars and drums intro. The most accessible song if you’re looking for a YouTube suggestion is “Ghost of the Charnel House”, which boasts a hook built around clever guitar phrasing, fittingly so… this isn’t a band where vocal melodies are pronounced or relied upon. Most of the time the instrumentation does its own thing and Averill floats over the top, Sluagh-like you might say.
 

 

7. Sabaton – Heroes:

Some would say this is a homer pick, particularly a pair of goofball friends of mine who enjoy trolling my Sabaton fandom with unrestrained glee (its okay, they go to the band’s shows just the same). But Sabaton are deserving candidates to wind up here, this time not just because Joakim Broden continues to make a case for being the most skillful songwriter in power metal today; but because with Heroes the band did something daringly bold. Here was a case of a band that’s made its legion of fans on triumphant anthems depicting war, battles, destruction, and the might of armies and kings. One of the criticisms they’ve faced in the past is that in writing solely about those topics, they pander to an audience and use patriotism as an advertising agent. I think its a bogus critique, because its proponents are suggesting that Broden has to qualify his lyrics with politically neutral counterpoints, as if somehow his audience will misappropriate a song like “Ghost Division” (his audience hasn’t, but the critics have). Sabaton had the concept for Heroes floating around for awhile apparently, but their timing was well chosen —- they simply had to deliver something different, and it came in the form of their first album largely dedicated to examples of non-violent heroism, where humanity triumphed over warfare.

You’ll see examples of this littered throughout the album: a German fighter pilot escorting a crippled American bomber to safety (“No Bullets Fly”); an Australian medic carrying twelve injured American soldiers down a mountain to safety under withering fire (“The Ballad of Bull”); a Polish hero who willingly became a prisoner of Auschwitz in order to gather evidence of war crimes, and escaped to deliver his report (“Inmate 4859″) —- to name a handful. The thematic success doesn’t detract from the fact that Broden still delivered the goods in the songwriting department. There are your supremely catchy, traditionally structured future Sabaton classics such as “Resist and Bite” and “Soldier of 3 Armies”; and there’s some rather gutsy experimentation in the form of 1940s musical pastiche. The new guitarists Chris Rörland and Thobbe Englund were an unproven, unknown quantity in terms of how well they’d be able to create guitar parts to complement Broden’s keyboard written structures, but their work here is an unmitigated success. Riffs are intense and tightly constructed, their melodies shimmer, and their soloing is vivid and flavorful. I keep wondering Sabaton will ever stumble as I’m sure their critics hope they will, but Heroes works as an argument to suggest they won’t.
 

 

8. Grand Magus – Triumph and Power:

This was a recurring listen throughout the year when I wanted something straightforwardly catchy, but more minor key and aggressive than your average power metal release. Sweden’s Grand Magus are not power metal, nor are they folk/viking metal despite their name and imagery —- they’re just metal. Long having abandoned their doomy roots, the band loosely exist in a trad metal palette these days and add in measured amounts of rock n’ roll rattle and shake. Vocalist Janne Christoffersson grabs your attention by virtue of the songs being constructed around his vocal melodies, and with the fact that the quality of his voice is more hard rock baritone than say, air raid siren Bruce Dickinson. The band is also a three piece, so its fairly no-frills, just the meat and potatoes of solid riffs, hummable vocal melodies, and rock-steady percussion.

Album highlight “Steel Versus Steel” is a good gauge of the kind of magic Grand Magus conjure up with a purposeful emphasis on simplicity, the mid-tempo pace set by seemingly swingin’ drums. The chorus is magic, as Christoffersson belts out “And in the end it’s steel versus steel / The final lock and the final key”, the guitars echoing the strutting vocal melody with staccato riffing. It narrowly missed appearing on my Best Songs of 2014 list (too many to list this year). The band gets more adventurous on the title track, where slowly sung verses dramatically build up to a gusher of a chorus, punctuated by a “Hail! Victory!”, its an incredibly fun moment. It gets heavier too, with the punishing “Dominator” which should ring strangely familiar to fans of Glen Cook’s The Black Company series (though I doubt that was on purpose). And I really, really love “The Hammer Will Bite”, not just for its strangely sorrowful sounding intro, but for its monstrously wild and glory-claw inducing chorus where Christoffersson sounds like a Swedish James Hetfield: “The hammer will bite – no other choice than surrender /
Bow to the might – a fiery death from above… Yeaaah!”. One of the few albums I covered this year that can instantly appeal to power and extreme metal fans alike.
 

 

9. Behemoth – The Satanist:

There’s already so much written about this album, and its ended up on so many year end lists that it might seem superfluous to see it yet again, but if you’re one of the few that slept on The Satanist one you really need to get on it. Its not overhyped, and its praise is not exaggerated; but its propensity to thrill you is perhaps entirely dependent on your tolerance for extreme metal. I use that term instead of labeling Behemoth’s sound with more specificity because now more than ever, this is a band that doesn’t fit in anywhere. On The Satanist, the band mixes their take on death metal with a little black metal in the form of a bleaker vocal approach, blast beats, and some quasi-tremolo riffing; finished with a touch of hard rock simplicity to produce a concoction that is brutal, violent, and feverish in its unyielding intensity.

That said, the band has evolved past the need for sheer brutality for brutality’s sake. In its place are atmospheric soundscapes and warm instrumentation, a combination that culminates in this being the most human sounding Behemoth album to date. Its a relief for me, because the tech-y coldness on their past albums was a stumbling block for me in trying to enjoy them —- and not only that, but Nergal simply delivers better songs here. One of his best is the title track, with its blackened, stop-start Metallica-esque riffs and oddly tuneful refrain. Of course there’s the music video famous “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, its guitar patterns reminding me of latter day Enslaved and providing the album’s most hummable riff. My favorite is still “O Father O Satan O Sun!”, whose primary riff and guitar melody are quite indebted to Judas Priest in the best possible way. The multi-tracking of Nergal’s vocals here are an inventive way to make them sound far more otherworldly and terrifying than you’d anticipate, a technique not often seen in extreme metal. I think everyone who’s wanted to hear this album has heard it by now, but power/prog metal fans should let their guard down and give it a few listens, its as ornate and fully arranged as a Blind Guardian album, just using a different palette.
 

 

10. Noble Beast – Noble Beast:

There are a handful of nominees that didn’t make the final cut of this list, the last few I was really deliberating over included Dragonforce’s Maximum Overload and Darkenhold’s Castellum —- both deserving in their own spectacular ways. But I just couldn’t ignore Noble Beast, a relatively unknown American band that came out of nowhere with a near perfect album of polished, thunder-heavy power metal with songwriting so developed and accomplished it ranks in my mind as one of the best debut albums in recent memory. Vocalist Rob Jalonen sounds like a symbiosis of Falconer’s Mathias Blad with his smooth baritone and the sandpaper-roughness of Iron Savior’s Piet Sielck —- with a splash of Hansi Kursch added to account for those throat-ripping screams. And if the European-ness of those names is any hint, then I’ll confirm that yes, Noble Beast owe more to their European heroes than they do to other American power metal bands whose lineage lies in thrash metal (your Pharaohs, your Iced Earths, etc).

It takes a supreme grinch to deny the sheer metal joy of the album opener “Iron Clad Angels”, with its arcing, soaring chorus built on Jalonen’s muscular vocal and some truly frenetic guitar work. The martial stomp of “The Dragon Reborn” with its extenuating choir vocal lines and ultra-melodic guitar twists seem like a lost Blind Guardian track, but there’s more than just reminders of other bands flowing throughout these songs. On “Nothing To Repent”, the band marries thrash metal aggression and riffs with some startlingly prog-rock song structures, a combination that works despite its disparity. There’s the arena-rock thunder and lightning of “Peeling Back the Veil”, with a stellar chorus and great Mathias Jabs/Rudolf Schenker styled guitar work and Maiden-esque twin soloing. And I love the inventiveness of throwing in some acoustic strumming in the verses of “We Burn”, creating some playful folky looseness in a song built on slamming riffage. Jalonen does double duty on guitar alongside a fellow named Matt Hodsdon, and together they dip and weave around each other like a power metal Slash and Izzy —- their interplay might be the most underrated aspect of the album.  More people need to hear this album, and hopefully there will be a second one.
 
 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part One: The Songs

December 16, 2014

Sometimes in the mid-December barrage of lists for the best albums of the year, the best songs released this year get ignored and forgotten. Of course its likely that a handful of said songs played a key role in their respective album winding up on a “best albums” list, but what about the really great songs on the not-so-great albums? As with the past few years, I’ve committed to giving songs in both of those categories a chance to get another look via an end of the year retrospective. What makes a song one of my best of the year? It could be anything from simply masterful songwriting, great lyricism, or even a courageous attempt at a stylistic shift or experiment (of course, it still has to be a great song). To force myself to make honest choices, I limit the list to ten, and the order of the list has as much to do with play counts as it does the more intangible qualities I listed above. Now to quote Monty Python to myself: “Get on with it!”

 

 
 
The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2014:
 
 

1. Insomnium – “Lose to Night” (from the album Shadows of a Dying Sun)
 


 

Its safe to say that Insomnium’s Shadows of a Dying Sun was my most anticipated album of 2014, and while it ultimately didn’t live up to the glorious heights of its predecessor One For Sorrow, it was still a very, very good album with some truly spectacular moments. The moment that stuck with me the most was the troubled ballad “Lose to Night”, and I’m going to do something I hardly ever do and quote what I wrote about it in my original review:

The untarnished gem on this album is “Lose to Night”, a song with an achingly beautiful chorus and note-perfect encapsulating verses. This is my most listened to song on an album that I must have spun at least a few dozen times by now, its the track that practically bleeds out the core musical identity of this band. Everything about it is perfect to me, from its tribal-esque intro drum patterns, to the circular guitar melodies within the verses where Sevanen growl-speaks about a litany of regrets, to Friman’s shining clean vocal performance in the chorus with that delicately hook laden vocal melody. I love that during said chorus, subtly buried in the mix is an electric guitar gently echoing Friman’s vocal melody beat for beat, along with Sevanen’s distant growls adding just the right touch of stormy intensity. I love that its a song about the decay of a relationship, but Friman’s prose is sparse and interpretative enough for it to apply to any circumstance —- the narrator could be speaking to his parents, or his sibling, or his past. I love that instead of associating a barren heart with romance, Friman dishes a curve ball by singing “No more fear in me / This heart’s stone inside”, while adding that “Every day must lose to night / Fade and die”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here but these strike me as very Finnish in their inherent nature —- slightly gloomy yes, but beautiful sentiments despite their despairing tone.

Insomnium, as well as a few other fellow Finnish metal artists seem to have a grasp on illustrating bleak, inner turmoil better than any other artist within the genre. It must be something about living there that does it, a result of their cultural identity and environment perhaps? I don’t know and I’d bet that they don’t either, but what is amazing to me is how their artistic interpretations can sound so vivid and true to people thousands of miles away in places that are quite unlike Finland (ahem, like Houston, Texas for starters). This is a haunting song, and that’s precisely what it has done to me —- I wouldn’t be able to shake it off if I tried.
 

 
2. Allen/Lande – “Lady of Winter” (from the album The Great Divide)
 


 

Something just occured to me a second ago when considering this singular masterpiece on Allen/Lande’s newest album —- maybe I love this song so much because it reminds me of Dio. It should be him singing this song, or at the least this should be a time-worn Dio classic that Jorn Lande decided to cover. Like many, I miss the departed legendary vocalist and metal icon, and maybe its more that I miss his particularly distinctive stylistic choices. On “Lady of Winter” you’ll get a sense of what I mean when you hear Lande croon out the lyrics in the second verse: “Winter lady crystal tears /In the shadow drawing near / Will you show me all your fear?”. It was noted that Lande himself contributed to writing lyrics and vocal melodies for this album, and if he did so on “Lady of Winter” then its no mystery who he was channeling.

Whats more surprising however is that The Great Divide was penned by ex-Stratovarius guitarist Timo Tolkki as opposed to Magnus Karlsson who handled the previous three Allen/Lande albums. I can’t begin to remember the last time I enjoyed a Tolkki penned song, but kudos to him for keeping his extravagant tendencies in check and delivering one of the flat out greatest pure heavy metal songs I’ve heard in a long time. The album was okay, certainly passable, but “Lady of Winter” with its huge, monumentally towering chorus is the sort of gem that will be on my iPod for years to come. Its also the sort of metal song that I’m always afraid everyone will stop making one day, and so thankfully my fears are abated.
 

 

3. Falconer – “At the Jester’s Ball” (from the album Black Moon Rising)
 


 

To understand just how truly masterful Falconer guitarist/songwriter Stephan Weinerhall and vocalist Mathias Blad truly are at their craft, take a listen to the chorus on this deep cut off 2014’s Black Moon Rising. Blad’s effortless clarion vocals skip and shuffle in a most waltz-like manner across Weinerhall’s ballroom imagery, “I am dancing in the waltz, come join in one and all” —- the song’s narrator a self-professed hypocritical, power-hungry misanthrope gleefully reveling in the chaos of corruption. Falconer leaned a little too much on aggression for Black Moon Rising to succeed as a whole, but there were a few moments when Weinerhall dialed back the heaviness to allow some songs to breathe —- the method in which their first four Blad-helmed albums were so excellently written. As on those albums, “At the Jester’s Ball” and “Halls and Chambers” were songs in which the melodies were placed well into the spotlight, and Blad was given ample room to let his voice blossom in its inimitably theatrical manner. This song makes the list not only because it was one of my most played in 2014, but because it gave me hope that Falconer hadn’t completely lost their mojo.
 

 

4. Sabaton – “No Bullets Fly” (from the album Heroes)
 


 

This was not only the most musically riveting song on Sabaton’s surprisingly anti-war Heroes, but lyrically told a story that was emotionally bracing in its depiction of human decency bridging the divide between enemies. Its the story of Franz Stigler, an ace German fighter pilot one confirmed kill away from earning a Knights Cross, who chose to escort a crippled American B-17 back to friendly territory. Stigler had pulled level with the damaged aircraft and could actually see the wounded crew and pilot through the shredded airframe —- he was overcome with a wave of humanity that prevented him from carrying out his military imperative to destroy the plane. His presence prevented German batteries from firing upon it and once they were across the North Sea he offered the injured American pilot Charles Brown a salute and turned back. There’s quite a bit of information on the details of the story on the internet, and its worth reading up, but Sabaton’s musical treatment ratchets up the lump in throat quotient by incalculable amounts. The tempo itself emulates the lyrical depiction of two aircraft searing through the sky side by side, and Joakim Broden’s vocals are the perfect narrative device. You’ve gotta love the chorus, with its backing vocal shouted chants of ““Killing Machine!… B-17!”, they’re a strange juxtaposition when paired with Broden’s lead vocal singing ““Honor in the sky!… Flying Home!… Said goodbye to the Cross he deserved!”. The best part about this story? Stigler and Brown met forty-seven years later and became friends.
 

 

5. Edguy – “Alone In Myself” (from Space Police: Defenders of the Crown)
 


 

Tucked away in the middle of a pretty good yet admittedly inconsistent Edguy album was this glowing gem, a gospel-touched power ballad about loneliness and isolation written as only Tobias Sammet can. He’s proven throughout his career to be a tremendously gifted songwriter, and he’s one of the few power metal songwriters truly adept at writing emotional, stirring, and affecting ballads. As Edguy has leaned more in a rock direction in the past half a dozen years, he has adapted his once traditionally structured balladry to incorporate looser, more eighties-rock inspired musical elements. Here he expands his repertoire by including an almost 90s R&B meets soulful gospel motif in the song’s masterful chorus, juxtaposed against arena-rock ready verses built on Def Leppard Hysteria era pounding percussion and rhythmic guitar picking.

The mood created is one that has become something of a Sammet trademark by now, a song that’s simultaneously wistfully melancholic while still coming across as hopeful, and dare I say —- even inspirational. I’m a sucker for background vocals as many of you know, I find them to be delicious ear candy when done right and I love the decision here to approach them differently in the chorus. The choral sung “oooohs” in the refrain build up to one of Sammet’s most passionately sung turn of phrases in “No matter how hard I pray, I’m lost in translation”, while the organ-styled keyboards provide the underlying soundtrack to this unlikely church confessional.
 

 

6. Ghost Brigade - “Departures” (from the album IV – One With The Storm)
 


 

My favorite moment on an incredible album, Ghost Brigade deliver one of the most urgent, passionate songs of the year with “Departures”. It treads similar territory to fellow Finnish bands like Insomnium, namely loss, regret, loneliness and despair —- but it done it in a way that is refreshingly unapologetic about its pop sensibility. This was the most accessible moment on a rather heavy, harsh vocal-fueled album, but it still has plenty of attack in its hook-laden passages. Consider vocalist Manne Ikonen’s performance as he alternates between tortured, guttural screaming vocals to add a touch of intensity to his distinctly plaintive rock inflected clean vocals. I’ve seen some people suggest that Ikonen gets close to yarling with his vocal choices here, but I’m unconvinced. There’s something deeper, darker, and less suggestive of affectation in his tone —- and truthfully I can’t imagine the song with another singer. The verses here are anchored by dirty bass and sharp percussion, and they lay down a framework upon which the band lets loose on the chorus with melancholic guitar figures over heavy, sustained riffs. At times I’m reminded of the kind of Finnish rock now championed by Amorphis, but created and perfected by the long-departed Sentenced. A perfect song for when you’re having a crappy day and need some empathy.
 

 

7. Freedom Call – “Follow Your Heart” (from the album Beyond)
 


 

I was seriously thinking of nominating the title track of this album for this list, with its Blind Guardian-esque epic grandeur and gorgeous melody. Yet every time I considered Freedom Call’s surprisingly vibrant new album, I was reminded of this soaring, majestic paean to freewill and weathering the storms of life. This song brims with the kind of bouncy,kinetic energy so often found only in dance laden pop music, fueled by adrenaline surging backing vocal chants and wild Kai Hansen-inspired hard rock meets metal guitars. With Power Quest nothing but a memory at the moment, Freedom Call are perhaps the last men standing in this most marginalized of power metal strains —- that of ultra melodic, major key riddled, positive attitude infused “happy” power metal (its detractors know it by its given name “flower metal”). I apologize in advance, but once again I feel the need to quote myself,  this time regarding Freedom Call and their musical spirit:

“Whenever people accuse power metal bands of having only commercially minded interests, I’ll point out to them the careers of Freedom Call and Power Quest, who have eluded high chart positions, significant sales figures, and media attention —- ironic given their predilection towards writing undeniably catchy, ear wormy music. They’ve gone as long as they have with their too-commercial-its-noncommercial take on power metal for the sheer want of creating the music they want to hear, all while knowing and accepting that they are uncool and very unmarketable —- tell me, what is more metal than that?

 

 
8. Sonata Arctica – “Cloud Factory” (from the album Pariah’s Child)
 


 

I have no delusions about this one, I know it will inspire some scrutiny and scoffing but let me explain. It could be argued that the best album released by Sonata Arctica this year was their re-recording of Ecliptica, and if you read my original review of Pariah’s Child you would think I’d feel the same. Time has changed my mind however and I now look upon that album with a little bit of fondness and understanding, largely felt by seeing them performing a few of it’s songs in an October concert here in Houston. It was seeing and hearing those select new songs that made me realize that what I perceived as strange choices in modern Sonata Arctica albums were actually an extension of frontman Tony Kakko’s own particular brand of humor and expression. His stage mannerisms helped to give “Cloud Factory” a sense of directional narration and it made me appreciate a complexity within its lyrics that I hadn’t noticed before.

That isn’t to say that I thought it was a dud beforehand —- its one of the best songs the band has delivered in years with its slightly Japanese sounding melody and wonderful mid-song bridge at the 2:42 mark (which is promptly followed by one of those aforementioned “strange choices”, yet it works in context of the lyrics). I strongly considered placing the major-key fueled, heart-string tugging sappy ballad “Love” on this list, but as brave as that song is in its boldly sung sentiment it didn’t have the musical complexity of “Cloud Factory”. But both songs are perfect amalgams that represent exactly who Kakko is as a songwriter: He’s the Rivers Cuomo of metal, a man so willing to present raw, open nerve endings through his unflinching delivery of lyrics many would consider too heart-on-sleeve, too emotionally naked. Both men are willing to intermix truth and fiction in their songwriting, and its that mask that hides the mirror.
 

 

9. Anathema – “Ariel” (from the album Distant Satellites)
 


 

It would be disingenuous of any of us to begin to exclude new Anathema music from year end metal list consideration simply because of their stylistic shift towards modern progressive rock. Yes the vocals may be softer and sweeter, the melodies more gentle and hushed —- but the complexity and thought behind them has roots that extend far back into the band’s Peaceville three doom metal past. It would also just be plain wrong to ignore a song as singularly beautiful as “Ariel”, the highlight of their rather good Distant Satellites album. The band has been on a creative tear since their comeback in 2010, and they’ve seemed to find their milieu in soundscapes like this one, one of delicate piano and strings, and panoramic washes of screaming Porcupine Tree-esque guitars.

The echoing, soaring voices of Lee Douglas and Vincent Cavanagh are powerful enough to get solo turns each, but its when they join together for the song’s emotionally dizzying climax that they transcend genre and labels. Guitarist Daniel Cavanagh turns in the most inspired performance of his career during the song’s outro-solo; a wild, unrestrained moment of passion where its mirroring of the primary melody seems to continue the sentiments that both singers could not express. Anathema play with live emotional ammunition —- there’s nothing faked or phony here, certainly nothing that is subject to the shallowness of self-aware ironic detachment. That they’ve ceased to be a metal band sonically is arguable sure, but in spirit they’re still very much one of us.
 

 

10. Vintersorg – “Rymdens brinnande öar” (from the album Naturbål)
 


 

I mentioned in my original review for the latest Vintersorg album that his work isn’t the most accessible or instantly palatable. His albums take time and patience to sit through repeated listens before they begin to reveal themselves to you, and even then you have to be in the right head space to be receptive to it. Sounds daunting, and take it from a decade long disciple of his strange blend of avant-garde, folk-black metal —- it is. But occasionally Vintersorg will surprise even me with a blast of poppy goodness so catchy and memorable that it requires no time at all to enjoy. Case in point was this gem, a hummable duet with an enchanting female vocalist named Frida Eurenius that boasts a refrain so beautiful and breezily effortless that you wonder if Vintersorg could just potentially knock out songs like this all day and specifically chooses NOT to. I could see that happening, he has always been geared towards hyper-progressive ideas within his songwriting, a mad scientist that piles on layers of swirling sound and keyboard washes under furious black metal screams… even his distinctive clean vocals have been sung in Swedish since 2004, making them practically indecipherable for most of us. Take a moment to enjoy this brief respite from his madness then, and to revel in one of the most ear-pleasing choruses of the year.
 

Sweeping Up 2014: The Year’s Last Batch of New Releases and Other Stuff

December 9, 2014

Here’s whats frustrating: The year is winding down, the release calendar is dropping off in favor of 2015, yet I’m still catching up on a slew of albums that dropped in October and November (and earlier than that). “Catching Up” has been a recurring theme for this blog in 2014, and its due in large part because so many important and major new albums came out during this year —- the kind that demanded at least a few weeks worth of my attention at a time. As a result a lot of albums by bands I wasn’t nearly as familiar with were pushed aside to the “Get Around to It” playlist on my iTunes and I’m just NOW getting around to them! Even more frustrating is the fact that a select few of these late albums are simply so great that they’re vying in contention for late consideration onto a best of 2014 list that was largely sorted in my mind —- and in part in rough drafts. First world problem? Absolutely, and I’m grateful to have it. Here then is my final rapid fire attempt at hopefully sweeping up (and thus finally “catching up”) everything on my 2014 plate. I say this knowing that in 2015 I’ll stumble onto something I missed this year and will be slapping my forehead about it, the way it always goes.
 



 
Rapid Fire Quick Takes:

Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter: You’ll be forgiven for not having heard of this Norwegian female fronted prog/power metal band, as this new album is only their third since their inception in 2004 and four years removed from its predecessor at that. Okay so while they’re not exactly prolific, I’ll forgive them because The Heart of the Matter might just be one of the best female fronted metal albums I’ve ever heard. If you’re trying to imagine their sound, you might be getting it wrong, because Triosphere have a difference maker in vocalist/bassist Ida Haukland, whose vocals come across as a distinctive blend of Ann Wilson, Doro Pesch, and just a touch of Coverdale-esque theatricality. I’ll be honest, when I first jumped into this album blindly it took me a few songs to realize that I was listening to a female vocalist —- ridiculous I know, but Haukland’s vocals are largely deep, raspy, aggressive and downright leathery that I just figured it was a dude singing (a side effect of associating female metal vocals as being typically light, ethereal and very feminine in tone, not a comment on Haukland herself). What I did realize right away however was that this mystery vocalist was impressing me with such a tremendous display of talent. There’s so much to digest here, but I’ve made multiple passes through the album and have yet to skip a track. The songwriting here is tremendous —- hook driven for sure, but textured and intelligently layered, and the riffs are as wild as often as they show restraint. Its a late drop in the 2014 release calendar (December 2nd), and might get lost in the shuffle with every blog and website trying to write up their year end lists, but they really shouldn’t be passing this album up.
 


 

Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen: There’s something utterly hypnotic about Primordial’s music, particularly when the band is at their best. If my few spins of Where Greater Men Have Fallen are any indication, then the band has come really closing to matching their career high watershed on 2007’s To The Nameless Dead. While their 2012 effort Redemption At The Puritan’s Hand was good, it didn’t captivate me like its predecessor nor like this new album —- in large part I think due to the band’s return to a grittier, heavier, and far more aggressive stance. There’s something bracing about the riffs here, and they slam right into you on the title track that kicks off the album, one of the most punishing songs the band has penned in a long time. As if sensing that they had allowed their natural inclination towards epic, expansive cinematic arrangements take over too much of their sound on the last album, Primordial have reversed direction here ala Enslaved’s Axioma Ethica Odini album. A song like “Born to Night”, with its incredible sledgehammer riffage is so much more effective because of the vivid juxtaposition of that heaviness coming directly after the delicate, eastern-motif tinged open chord patterns that make up its minutes long intro. As ever, vocalist A. A. Nemtheanga comes across as a love him or leave him proposition, his wild, unrestrained vocals are as characteristically bold as ever and he does nothing to make them easier to digest. He’s such a unique voice within metal though, a rare thing amidst a landscape made of copycats. If it helps you, imagine his vocals coming from someone with arms outstretched overlooking some Irish cliffside.
 


 

Vanishing Point – Distant Is The Sun: There’s a really incredible song on Vanishing Point’s fifth and newest album (also their first in seven years(!)) called “Let The River Run” and its so well written, boasts such a joyously melodic chorus that the band knowingly decided to start the song with it. Smart move lads, now if you could somehow manage to get it into the hands of American radio programmers you might have a surprise hit on your hands. Hell I know you’re in Australia, so you might wanna try there first —- is there rock radio in Australia? Nevermind. Point is that its one of the best songs I’ve heard all year and that’s saying something with 2014 chalk full of really great individual songs from a wide variety of metal bands. I’m sure not everyone will agree and will particularly find the Eagles-esque acapella sung intro as cloying or (that other c-word so often used to describe power metal that I find so annoying I won’t ever use it) —- but forget them, that’s their loss (forged by their own insecurity and cynicism —- snap!). Not sure if I’d be a criticism to mention how much the band’s performance overall reminds me of Evergrey, but perhaps they wouldn’t mind that comparison. That similarity is unfortunately what seems to be preventing me from really connecting with the rest of the album. Don’t get me wrong… its very well done for what it is and I’m going to keep giving it a shot, but somehow this particular approach to prog-tinged power metal eludes my interest. What a song though.
 


 

Bloodbound – Stormborn: There’s a been a newly resurgent strain within power metal as of the past few years, of bands that adamantly push the boundaries of what critics of power metal would say are the subgenre’s more ludicrous, over-the-top tendencies. That is to say, bands who embrace the “glory” aspect of power metal and turn that attribute up to the nth degree. Bloodbound are so adamant about being one of these bands, that they often forgo important things that other bands in that category (Hammerfall, Orden Ogan, Powerwolf, etc) tend to remember, such as the employing the wisdom of not trying to make every song sound as epic as you can possibly can. The bands that can pull that off I can only count on one hand (Nightwish and Blind Guardian come to mind), and even they have the good graces to reign it in and diversify their songwriting approach. Bloodbound deliver very technically competent, well produced uptempo power metal that really lacks any sort of grit and weight. Its all a little too anti-septic, and they really need a bit of grime in their sound to make what they’re trying to do work. Its like how Orden Ogan tends to play around with Immortal-esque black metal riffing and darken their sound in doing so. I’d like to enjoy Bloodbound, but have found nothing of substance here. I’m left feeling like this is the kind of stuff critics of power metal point to as examples of how the subgenre is full of music that is trite and vapid.
 


 

Serious Black – As Daylight Breaks: One of the more out of nowhere band formations and subsequent album releases of 2014, Serious Black is a cobbled together melodic/power metal supergroup of sorts (although I am loathe to use that terminology). It features ex-Blind Guardian drummer Thomen Stauch who finally rebounds after the ill-fated Savage Circus project and teams him up with Masterplan’s Roland Grapow (also ex member of some band called Helloween), alongside ex-Bloodbound (heyo!)/ex-Tad Morse vocalist Urban Breed. Speaking of the latter, Breed seems to be the wildcard amongst the lineup (which features a few more guys in addition to the ones I mentioned) seeing as how he’s in seemingly handfuls of bands/projects at the moment, but surprisingly enough his vocals really work well as a sandpaper grit layer on top of what is some very smooth, slick melodic power metal. The biggest surprise here is just how good some of these songs are, I’m talking serious hooks and big, shimmering melodies. For a supergroup/sideproject? I’m not kidding, take a listen to “Sealing My Fate” which has one of the most elegant melodies I’ve heard this year, played on both piano and guitar to great effect. I’m also fond of the driving, urgent “Older and Wiser” —- Breed’s vocal layering on the ultra-catchy chorus is a wonderful moment. All told As Daylight Breaks is an often catchy, nearly always bright and upbeat melodic power metal album with AOR flourishes that I’ll find myself coming back to. Supergroups aren’t always crap I guess.
 

Evergrey “King of Errors” Video: I mentioned Evergrey in the above blurb on Vanishing Point’s new album, and if you took anything away from that, its that I’m not particularly wild on Evergrey. I don’t dislike them, but all my attempts at enjoying their stuff have failed save for two (now, three) songs: “Recreation Day”, “Wrong”, and now this newest single from their recently released Hymns For the Broken. That was an album I avoided reviewing for the same reasons I avoid writing about Epica —- to repeatedly discuss how you can’t enjoy a bands’ work is tiring for both myself and you the reader. I will however break that tendency to offer a compliment to both Evergrey and the director of the “King of Errors” music video, the often frequently criticized (on this blog that is) Patric Ullaeus. Simply put, Evergrey delivers a really good song and Ullaeus a really superb music video, the kind no one really makes anymore in an age of digital post-production, photoshop, CGI, and the dreaded green screen.

The video starts off with vocalist Tom Englund in various states of distress in nature, flailing along a river in a raging current for example, but upon hitting the bridge to the first chorus we’re treated to a helicopter shot panorama of the band playing atop the Eriksberg gantry crane in Gothenburg, Sweden. Its a beautiful scene, shot in black and white which helps to give it a tonal quality that manages to match the mood of the song itself. I’m reminded of Tyr’s oft-forgotten music video for “Hail to the Hammer”, in which a helicopter was also used to capture the band and a stone-spelling of er… “Hail to the Hammer”. Tyr didn’t benefit from the tremendous film quality employed by Ullaeus for this production however, and to that point, I’m just surprised and amazed to see something from the man that doesn’t involve boring pyrotechnics or extravagant light displays as a band mimes to their song. If he continues to branch out like this then I’ll find myself having an about face on the work produced by his Revolver film company. He’s getting competition from some other independent studios in Europe that cater to metal bands, the i-Code team in Serbia comes to mind. Still kudos are earned and deserved: great location scouting, great filming, great concept and a shot in the arm of ambitious music video ideas in general. They still exist!
 


 

Blind Guardian – “Twilight of the Gods”: Finally! The gulf of four years between new Blind Guardian music is nearly over, and the first sign of hope comes in the form of a lyric video for pre-release focus track (aka the new marketing term for a “single”) “Twilight of the Gods”. To say its about what we were expecting is not necessarily a negative opinion, just an accurate one —- this is modern day Blind Guardian heavily leaning on the wildly melodic, epic direction taken on 2010’s At the Edge of Time album. The song itself is pretty good, if not quite great seeing as how the verses seem cluttered and choppy compared to the smooth, wide-open expansiveness of the chorus where Hansi lets it loose. The main criticism could come on the actual quality of the upload itself —- what was this encoded at? It sounds fairly thin and though it could be reason for alarm, I remember all too well that the early snippets from the Blind Guardian pre-album single release four years ago suffered similar audio problems that were corrected by the time I was listening to the studio album itself. This is a veteran band that knows how it should sound, as well as what its fans want to hear. I’m not suggesting that Blind Guardian have turned into crowd-pleasing yes men, but that their aims and our desires match, a rarity for any band and fanbase.
 


 

Catching Up On 2014 Part III (Sounds of Autumn Edition): At The Gates, Ghost Brigade and More!

November 17, 2014

If you’ve been keeping up with the blog throughout the year, you’ll remember I’ve done a pair of these batches of smaller reviews in an attempt to play catch up with the overwhelming amount of new releases I’ve had backlogged. This year has seen a constant flurry of new albums and I’ve been playing catch up all year, jumping reviews around to match release dates, postponing others… in short I’ve been trying in vain to get my metal house in order before the December Best of features start arriving and fouling up your Facebook and Twitter feeds (or maybe you love them like I do!). Anyway you know the drill with this feature by now, shorter reviews (400-500ish words) for a handful of new and new-ish 2014 releases that I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time listening to repeatedly. Seriously, I’m sort of glad to be done with these for the time being, regardless of whether I enjoyed them or not. On to the next batch!
 

At The Gates – At War With Reality:  I suppose back story isn’t really needed here, I mean you’re all smart, together, with-it metal fans that already know this is At The Gates first new music in nineteen years. I’ll admit that for the longest time after their initial reunion began in 2006 I never anticipated anything new in the way of a studio album from them. I saw them live in 2008 and they looked pretty comfortable doing the classics and I figured that would be it, Emperor-style reunion touring for us newer generation of metal fans that never saw them in their initial incarnation, healthy profits, and satisfaction all around. The At The Gates legacy didn’t have the same problem that Carcass did with theirs —- Slaughter of the Soul was a watershed classic, Swansong was anything but. It was understandable that Carcass would want to try their hand at crafting an album far more worthy of closing their discography upon, and the resulting Surgical Steel was so utterly fantastic, it should be considered the modern day reunion album benchmark (it is by me). So it comes as something of a gamble that At The Gates have chosen to follow up Slaughter of the Soul with At War With Reality, and I’ve seen plenty of other reviewers assert that the band’s greatest strength is in not caring what others make of their legacy at all. Okay, that’s fair —- but then again the band themselves would never have a hand in “defining” it to begin with, that’s our job as fans.

Straight to the point then, this is my take: I think At War With Reality is a good album, not great, certainly not up to the genre defining level of Slaughter of the Soul or Terminal Spirit Disease, but as good as you can reasonably expect a new At The Gates album to sound. If it sounds a little too familiar, keep in mind that the Björler brothers are the creators of a sound that has been pilfered again and again within melodic death metal as well as metalcore. Vocalist Tomas Lindberg sounds as ferocious as ever, if not a little deeper in range. His performance is consistent and well executed throughout, but he’s restrained on these songs, rarely letting himself escape his solid comfort zone. The same goes for the songwriting itself, which is composed of an array of riffs that seem fine while I’m listening to them, yet I have a hard time remembering any shortly after I’m done listening. Its not for a lack of effort either, I expect to remember a handful of riffs or melodies after twenty plus listens —- and that’s perhaps the biggest knock on At War With Reality. I suspect they played it a little too safe in the songwriting sessions, sticking to a sound they’re comfortable with but extenuating it over the majority of the tracklisting. The outliers are the sole gems here, “Order From Chaos”, and the album closer “The Night Eternal”. The latter is an adventurously epic song built on some creative minor key guitar patterns and a Dissection-esque sense of cinematic melody. More of that please, it gives me hope that there’s some far more creative stuff that could possibly wind up on a future album (granted, no one in the band has mentioned doing another one).

Takeaway: Sometimes I got the feeling that this effort leaned a little too close to The Haunted, and maybe that was to be expected (see the Sanctuary review below) with the Björler brothers history. It must be hard to determine what to include or cut out in a reunion album, especially one made nearly two decades later, but Carcass showed that it wasn’t impossible. At The Gates falls short, and while it won’t tarnish their legacy, it won’t help it either.
 

Ghost Brigade – IV: One With The Storm: The last time we heard from Finland’s Ghost Brigade was way back in 2011 with their rather good Until Fear No Longer Defines Us, a top ten album on this blog that year. Their newest, One With The Storm, is even better in large part because the band left behind their mid-period Katatonia worship for a looser, more Sentenced-influence take on depressive melodic rock as well as a clearer, fresher approach to mixing and production. This is such a great sounding record, that it enhances the impact of the band’s decision to get heavier in all respects. This isn’t a selling point by itself, but a noticeable change in the band’s sonic identity —- they’re no longer content to let the music simmer beneath the always excellent vocals of Manne Ikonen, instead the riffs and melodies clash right up against him, fighting for space in the best possible sense.

Take the exciting album opener “Wretched Blues”, which is surprising enough with its accelerating, near Opeth-esque intensity, and deep-throated death vocal intro long before you reach the beautiful, repeating guitar figures that serve as the musical refrain. The sweeping, elegant guitar solo that outros the song is one of my favorite moments on any album this year. But the standout song here is “Departures”, a simply gorgeous slice of melodic Finnish rock in the vein of Sentenced, Amorphis, and The Man-Eating Tree. Its centers around Ikonen’s emotionally charged refrain (“If only I knew how to forgive / If only I knew how to let go / If only I knew how to own what I am”), and its a song that has kept popping in my head for the past few weeks. Nearly as equal in stature is “Disembodied Voices”, where a forlorn two minute long lament gives way for a massive crush of heavy noise and wailing guitars as Ikonen’s vocals shift from despondent to chillingly bitter. I’d venture to say that most of the album leans towards the band’s doomy/death metal side, tracks such as “The Knife”, and “Anchored” only feature clean, soaring, melodic vocals in isolated moments. It feels like the band has developed a sense of identity in that regard, unafraid of displaying both sides of their sound in equal measure and prominence. A brave and well executed step forward.

Takeaway: Its stunning to even think this, but in a year with new Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum albums, Ghost Brigade may have delivered the best album out of Finland in 2014. Consider this a strong recommendation to listen to this, you’ll be doing yourself a favor (its particularly suitable music for this wonderful cold front that’s been chilling our bollocks off!).
 

While Heaven Wept – Suspended At Aphelion: First of all, While Heaven Wept’s newest album scores the award for best cover art of the year hands down, take a long gander at that sleeve in high res on Google Images… its just flat out jaw dropping. Secondly, I’ve been waiting for this album with a great amount of anticipation, having been sold on them a year or two ago with the song “Vessel” from their 2009 album Vast Oceans Lachrymose. I didn’t find its follow up album, Fear of Infinity nearly as compelling, but they’ve managed to win the benefit of the doubt in my mind. If you’re unfamiliar, this prog-meets-power-meets-doom metal band from Virginia of all places is keen on grand, epic scale music with lyrical themes (and artwork) to match. I expect that there might be a few metal fans out there who take umbrage with While Heaven Wept’s manner of tracklisting, sequencing, and envisioning of albums in general. There are usually not many actual tracks, two songs are often paired up and folded into one long song, there are short instrumentals including intro and outro tracks, and the overall album length is sometimes maddeningly short (forty minutes here, ten of which are instrumental). I’ll admit that its slightly frustrating for me as well, but the band clearly intends for their albums to be listened to from start to finish, and in truth they work better that way (this is prog-metal after all).

On Suspended At Aphelion, the band continues with their trademark of creating delicate atmospherics, but they’re also surprisingly heavy in moments, using aggressive riffing and harsh vocals as a light/shade to their normal clean vocal led passages sung by James LaBrie dead-ringer Rain Irving (he’s actually much better than LaBrie, calm down). Both elements are on display in the album opener “Icarus And I/Ardor”, and its a whirlwind juxtaposition of disparate musical elements that actually works. By the time the twelve minute plus song settles into its almost hypnotic outro, you’ve heard the range of styles that this band is capable of traversing. If you’re looking for another “Vessel” here, the quasi-power ballad “Heartburst” might come the closest in overall majesty, if falling short in its approach. Its a quiet, piano led affair, where tinkling keys playfully create a bed for Irving to lay down some truly great vocal lines, all building up to a towering crescendo where all the instruments come crashing in. The obnoxiously titled “The Memory Of Bleeding/Souls In Permafrost/Searching The Stars” is my personal favorite here, the latter section featuring some rather memorable and expressive vocal passages, its just a shame that it couldn’t be its own individual track. I commend them for sticking to their guns, but I’d love to one day get something new from these guys a little more geared towards accessibility.

Takeaway: I want to like this band more than I can actually claim to, and this album is good for what it is, but its failed to really excite me on the level I assume it really wants to —- an emotional one.
 

Sanctuary – The Year The Sun Died: You’d be forgiven for glancing back at the album art when experiencing your initial few minutes of Sanctuary’s first new album in twenty-five years. It sounds an awful lot like a theoretical new Nevermore album than anything resembling the power metal infused thrash of the Sanctuary’s pair of late eighties albums. What makes it strange is that original guitarist Lenny Rutledge is back in the fold and handled most of the songwriting, and yet there is an overall Jeff Loomis vibe to the guitar work that is hard to ignore. I’ve considered the possibility that my brain is playing tricks on me, that Warrel Dane’s vocals being mixed far up front (similar to Nevermore), and the overall modern production of the album is subliminally suggesting a likeness that isn’t really there. I’m not going to harp on this though, but suffice to say, it was difficult at times to wrap my head around the reality that this is indeed a Sanctuary album.

If we accept that this is how the band will sound in 2014, you’re left with a really well written, thrashier flavor of Nevermore that perhaps you’ve always hoped for. There were times on Nevermore’s last two albums where I thought their prog influence was creeping too far into their overall sound. That’s not a problem on The Year The Sun Died. Here the songs frequently attack heavier, faster, and with a greater emphasis on presenting memorable riffs and vocal sections before lengthy solos or technicality. This is particularly felt on the pre-release single “Arise and Purify”, one of the best songs of the year, where Dane sounds fiercer than he ever did in Nevermore, his multi-tracked vocals in the refrain showcasing an inspired blending of his vocal range. I’m also really fond of the title track, where the vocal lines twist around in surprising ways, keeping me riveted. The most old-school sounding song is “I Am Low”, where the songwriting harkens back to a classicist approach towards 80s styled power metal ala Queensryche and Fates Warning down to the chant-like sound effects. I waver on that song a bit, sometimes wishing it was a touch faster if only to amp up its energy. I don’t really have any major quibbles however, there isn’t a lot to nitpick here: Good songwriting with some nearly great flashes, excellent performances from everyone on board, and its kinda nice to hear Dane’s vocals in something this intense again.

Takeaway: This is the best Nevermore album since Dead Heart in a Dead World —- ah, couldn’t resist. I’ve really enjoyed this album, granted it never had me jumping out of my seat but I never found a reason to cut it off midway through. There’s also a great Doors cover of “Waiting For the Sun” on the limited edition. Dane has a proven penchant for adapting oldies into rather interesting metal cover versions, and this might be the best one yet.
 

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry: I’m a self-professed newbie when it comes to Blut Aus Nord’s vast and intimidatingly titled back catalog, but I’ve been intrigued enough by the writings of fellow reviewers whose opinions I trust to give the band repeated chances. Their recent handful of releases were a trilogy of albums and series of EPs under the overarching title of 777, and they were united musically through a rather bleak, unforgiving, and frankly unlikeable blend of industrial elements with densely layered avant-garde black metal. The hype meter on the band (actually, just the project of one reclusive Frenchman known as Vindsval) was through the roof during the years spanning those releases, and I felt like I was missing out on something that seemingly everyone was raving about. As I’ve come to discover today, a few years removed from that period, there were quite a few others who felt the same way I did. But in reading what they wrote, it seemed that I should’ve been checking out far older Blut Aus Nord albums in the Memoria Vetusta series of albums as they fell more in line with a style of black metal more inclusive of epic melodies and expansive soundscapes. My cup of tea in other words.

How convenient that I checked my email a few weeks ago to see that the band’s label had sent me a promo for the latest in the Memoria Vetusta series, part three aka Saturnian Poetry. Finally, this is a Blut Aus Nord I can enjoy, one that is built on early Ulver-styled black metal buzzsaw riffing, and an Emperor influenced sense of beautiful melodicism and grand scope. The vocals are as grim as you’d expect, and mixed lower than the guitars so as to allow the music to do the narrating, but that’s not to say this is lo-fi in any way —- in fact, this might be the best sounding black metal album of its kind that I’ve ever heard. The guitars may be massively layered blasts of minor key tremolo riffs built in shimmering waves of noise, but they’re shockingly clear to boot, you can actually differentiate patterns and melodies with incredible ease. This is the kind of listening experience that you simply have to allow to wash over you, its hard to point out individual songs as standout tracks. I will say that “Metaphor of the Moon” is a personal favorite though, with its oddly major key guitar accents and Falkenbach styled choral vocal effects. The most immediately accessible moments can be found on “Tellus Mater”, where the riffs are enticingly close to Gothenburg melo-death; as well as on “Paien”, where catchy patterns of riffs separate midway through the song to create a sense of welcome space amidst the overall intensity. This is the most second wave any black metal album has sounded in a long time, and its not even from Norway. Go figure.

Takeaway: Its been a slow, quiet year for black metal —- for myself anyway, but I suspect in general as well. The few releases that have come my way have been pretty good, but this might be the best of them all. If you were turned off by Blut Aus Nord before, seriously consider giving this one a chance.