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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.
 

Kingdom Hearts: Sonata Arctica Look Back With Ecliptica Revisited

November 9, 2014

 

A few Fridays ago on a balmy Houston evening, I witnessed Sonata Arctica perform for the first time. I was excited, not only because I had missed a pair of chances to see them live in the past, but in large part because I had been revisiting the band’s classic era catalog in the week leading up to it —- a mix of dutiful homework and genuine affection for those albums that I had loved so much throughout the band’s early years. It was also somewhat of a banner night for power metal in Houston with Delain and Xandria also on the bill. Outside in the lengthy line and inside in the darkened venue, there was a palpable sense of giddy anticipation from almost everyone in the crowd. I knew something was a little different when most everyone was packed together in a shapeless mound of humanity in front of the stage long before the local opener, collectively staring at a perturbed roadie setting up gear instead of assuming the typical heads down, phones out pose.

My pre-show impression of Sonata Arctica as a live act was colored by various live YouTube clips (most recorded on inadequate phone cameras I know). In those various clips it often seemed that either the keyboard was mixed far too low, or the guitar was horribly muddied. I also noticed a distinct lack of the swelling harmony/ back up vocals that are such an integral part of the band’s studio releases. A lack of live backing vocals for a power metal band is often a critical error —- as much as I loved seeing Blind Guardian live, a clunky crowd sing-a-long could not prove to be an effective replacement for hundreds of multi-tracked Hansi Kursh’s. I always considered Kamelot’s One Cold Winter’s Night live recording setup as the best possible standard for a power metal band: In lieu of having anyone else in the band who could actually sing apart from Roy Khan, Kamelot hired three backup vocalists to ensure that their harmonized choruses would soar. It is however a fantastically expensive luxury to have (even for a single show), and quite impractical to expect a European band to bring over additional musicians for a North American tour. Some bands are fortunate to have harmony vocalists built into their lineup like Sabaton, and others aren’t so lucky. So with those factors in mind regarding Sonata, I braced myself for a slight letdown by tempering my expectations. The stage lights went down and voices around me bellowed in triumph, and the super hyped up guy I had been talking power metal with in between sets leaned over and shook my shoulder with alcohol fueled glee.
 

Tony Kakko was a vocal magician that night, and a performer unlike any I had ever witnessed. He leapt and bounded across the stage with relentless energy, and threw himself into the lyrics with physical movements that mirrored or reacted to the words he was singing. His voice was accordingly sonorous, full, soaring, and capable of an impressive dexterity in adapting harmony laden lines to a solo vocal approach. When he needed us to help out on the choruses he directed our voices himself, and classics as such “Full Moon” and “Replica” felt like celebrations of power metal’s proclivity in creating joyful euphoria. Newer songs from albums that I had been critical of on this blog such as “Losing My Insanity” and “Blood” actually sounded better live, brimming with a vitality that I now associate with their studio versions. Even the dreaded “X Marks the Spot” was actually fun because Kakko simply sold it so well, his skill as a front man keeping me rapt with attention as he seemed to act out the lyrics. I was caught off guard in realizing that the song actually has a rather good chorus that I had seemingly blocked out before (my feelings on the studio version’s horrible dialogue still stand). I was even stunned that Kakko had the guts to perform such a naked ballad such as “Love” from the recent Pariah’s Child, but he somehow managed to convince a room full of some pretty convincing looking metal fans that it was okay to sway back and forth to a delicate, gorgeous, emotionally soaked song. I lingered long after the show, fan babbled to the Xandria guys a bit, and found myself not wanting to leave. As it always seems, magical nights like that are rare, and over far too quickly.

That the set list was generously full of classics from the band’s debut album Ecliptica was not a random occurrence. As Kakko himself pointed out on stage, the band was celebrating their fifteen year anniversary and in addition to loading their set with songs from that watershed era , they were going to be releasing their re-recording of the album at the end of the month. I spent the weeks leading up to the show listening to that album in particular, and reveling in every second of what can only in retrospect be dubbed an actual masterpiece. Upon its 1999 release, Ecliptica became a hit in Finland (and Japan) in large part due to the tangible influence of native countrymen Stratovarius’ championing efforts, and the market’s hunger for a Hammerfall-fueled resurgent interest in soaring, melodic power metal. I myself was a frustrated metal fan reliant upon newly developing Stateside mail orders to acquire back catalog from any European metal band I could find. I was listening to a weekly college radio show called the Metal Meltdown out of Cleveland that was introducing me to wonderful new stuff at an alarming rate (in that my wallet was continually emptying) —- in one week the show played new music from a trio of bands I had never heard of: Edguy, Nightwish, and Sonata Arctica. It was like water to a lost traveler in the Sahara. It was a year of classic power metal  releases. It was a wonderful time to be a fan.
 

All these years later, its understandably difficult to remember just how strikingly different and fresh Ecliptica and its 2001 follow-up Silence sounded amidst that newly forming power metal resurgence. Sure the band were noticeably influenced by Stratovarius, but where their countrymen played it straight and safe with their take on European power metal, Sonata Arctica displayed a tendency to wildly lean in odd, unexpected directions —- both musically and lyrically. There was something quite charmingly naive and innocent about their approach, as if they were so enamored with their ability to create songs worthy of a record deal that they didn’t bother to pay attention towards sticking to standard genre rules. This was a very young band for starters (scarcely out of their teens), consisting of musicians all to eager to lean on speed and flashy solos, and they had the talent to pull it off, particularly long-departed guitarist Jani Liimatainen. Yet Sonata’s sound all started with the songwriting genius of Kakko himself, who throughout his career has displayed his knack for crafting indelible melodies with sharp hooks, and incredibly focused songwriting that flirted with a variety of tempos. He was a keyboardist, and his songs were built with that instrument serving as the framework for his songwriting, which also meant that melodies had to come first before riffs (often a hallmark of the most melodic of power metal bands). He’s of the same caliber of talent as his good friend Tuomas Holopainen of Nightwish; or Tobias Sammett of Edguy/Avantasia; or Hansi Kursch of Blind Guardian: All power metal songwriters who are masters of their craft to such an extent that they simultaneously define and defy the genre. In that regard, Kakko was both a trail blazer and someone who was practically impossible to copy.

As a singer, he was capable of projecting emotive inflections in the simplest of vocal melodies, to such an extent that every song had the potential to come across as some autobiographical account of personal tragedy about a lost-love, or worse. When I first began to listen to the band, I didn’t get around to really investigating the lyrics in the album booklets until after many dozens of listens. I was convinced that these songs were based in part from real life experiences —- and as absolutely ridiculous as that sounds to you today, consider that hardly anyone in power metal at the time was tackling such first person, introverted, real-world subject matter in such an earnest way. Sure you’d occasionally find a love ballad on a random power metal album pre-1999, Stratovarius had a couple in fact, but they were usually paint-by-numbers affairs lyrically speaking, filled with flowery, vague, open-ended diction meant to apply to anyone in particular. In short, they weren’t telling stories. Kakko has been a storyteller throughout his career, a lyricist who writes with an eye for detail and tangible imagery rather than metaphysical conceits. Think about your favorite Sonata Arctica songs… I’m thinking right now of a gem like “Tallulah” from Silence, where Kakko writes from the perspective of a love lorn narrator: “You take my hand and pull me next to you, so close to you / I have a feeling you don’t have the words / I found one for you, kiss your cheek, say bye, and walk away / Don’t look back cause I am crying”. This kind of lyrical perspective was startlingly bold and evocative for a power metal band, so much so that I figured something that gritty and real had to be inspired from his personal life, right?
 

As it turns out, Kakko was a lyricist of the Joe Elliot mold, he being the famed lead singer of Def Leppard. When I was a budding rock fan in the early nineties, I read an interview with Elliot where he admitted that his lyrics were pure fiction, despite his narrative perspective almost always being in the first person with seemingly autobiographical overtones. I know its not a revolutionary concept, and that many other bands have utilized such a lyrical strategy to ratchet up the tension and passion in their music (Journey comes to mind immediately), but Elliot was the first famous musician that I had ever read such an admission from. Reading it then was a bit of a revelation for me, and made me pay attention to lyric writing in rock music with greater attention, to not be so gullible, and to think about things like narration and perspective and diction in a new light. It made me pay greater attention to Metallica’s Load for example, while many upon its release were writing it off as a sell-out move towards alternative rock, I found myself thinking that it featured James Hetfield’s most thoughtful and resonant lyric writing. So it was with great surprise that I found myself hoodwinked by Kakko, who in the very first interview I had ever read with him revealed that his lyrics were purely fictionalized. Doh! This has of course carried on throughout his career, as he recently pointed out in a late September interview on the Metal Meltdown radio show regarding his penchant for writing songs about relationships and love, “I write a lot of stories, these are not my diary entries by any means. I’ve been with my wife for eighteen years. We started dating back in ’96, the same year this band got started so she’s been there the whole time”.

Suffice it to say that when I finally got around to reading the lyrics, I had some other forehead slapping revelations. Take an Ecliptica classic such as “Full Moon”, which upon a cursory hearing could seemingly be about the emotional troubles and turmoils of a complex relationship told in a very romanticized, metaphor-laden manner. Kakko’s emotional vocals sell it that way dammit! But no, its actually about a man on the cusp of his werewolf transformation trying to isolate himself away from his wife during the full moon (“Run away run away run away!”). There is no larger metaphor there, but I suppose in its own juvenile, kooky way it works as a love song. Similarly there is no actual person named Dana, a fictional character in Kakko’s lyrical universe whose name was culled from Dana Scully of The X-Files (Kakko was a huge fan, as am I). Feel free to read into the lyrics of “Letter to Dana” what you will in that light, but I don’t recall Gillian Anderson posing for anything naughtier than the cover of FHM magazine. Likewise, the “Mary-Lou” of the Ecliptica Japanese bonus track is just a made-up character in a rather distressing tale of teenage pregnancy, yet one that’s sweetly sung. I could go on and on reciting examples of misinterpreted Sonata Arctica lyrics, but the point is that these were all songs sung with such emotional resonance that they started to mean whatever I selfishly wished them to. I’m reasonably confident that other Sonata fans have felt the same way. Why else would we get so throat lumpy and something-in-my-eye about so many of these wonderful songs?  I believe its because Kakko sang them with a passion and intensity that to this day seems embedded with painful experience —- despite all proof to the contrary. So powerful is his natural talent that I found myself haunted by a Bette Midler song I couldn’t have cared less about before.
 

With all that in consideration, I think its okay for any of us to ask why the band is re-recording Ecliptica at all. Well, the short answer is that the aptly dubbed Ecliptica Revisited was done at the request of the band’s longtime Japanese record label, a request the band agreed to as a gesture of goodwill towards a company that had stuck by them since the beginning. Kakko has even commented publicly that the contract they signed for the release stipulated that the re-recording had to be 94% identical to the original release, essentially meaning that they couldn’t re-work the songs into transformed versions or acoustic strip downs. For Kakko, this stipulation not only made it easier for the re-recording to be completed, but helped him to contextualize this release as a simple tribute to the original, as well as a more accurate representation of how these songs are performed live today. Typically within the metal community regardless of subgenre, a re-recording is frowned upon, not only for the often cloudy nature of the reason for it’s existence but more for the larger threat it presents to the legacy of the original. Most of the opinions I’ve seen regarding Ecliptica Revisited seem to align with that way of thinking, and I certainly understand some fans’ puzzlement and frustration (although I think its a waste of energy to get up in arms over a release that clearly will not be replacing the original recording).

As far as how enjoyable the re-recording sounds, well… that depends entirely on what you’re expecting from it. It would be a bit dense to expect an absolutely perfect, note-for-note recreation —- you have to walk into this expecting that certain melodies will be altered, the high notes might not be as high, and there might even be a key change or two. We’re factoring in a difference of fifteen years, the numerous adjustments that have been made over time to the way these songs have been played live, as well as the simple truth that no two recordings can sound alike (different band members, recording facilities, equipment, microphones, etc). Oddly enough I was really excited about this release, I think in large part because it gave me an excuse to simply spend a justifiable chunk of listening time with all these old songs I love so much. I spent the past few weeks going back and comparing the original and this re-recording with back to back listens, in an attempt to try to scope out what I liked about each over the other (a behavior one friend of mine deemed “maniacal”), and came up with an litany of notes.

I’ll spare you the bulk of them, but I’ll clear the decks of my negative impressions right away: I won’t fault the band or Kakko in particular for failing to realize this, but the slight tempo adjustments slowing most of these songs down a touch severely impacted a few in particular, effectively muting their original energy. This is acutely felt on “8th Commandment” and “UnOpened”, where the slower pace drags down Kakko’s vocal delivery in the refrains, zapping the songs of their original broiling anger (and yes, their sense of fun and exuberance). Similarly on “Replica”, a personal favorite of mine, Kakko tends to put the brakes on his delivery of the chorus, robbing the song of its original sense of urgency. I should note that this re-recorded version of “Replica” is almost identical to the manner in which they played it here in Houston, and in a live setting this slower pace worked in the sense that Kakko was able to use the extra time to play the performer and guide us in our sing-a-long. In fact you can hear the pauses where you can just imagine him gesturing to the crowd to join in —- it works in the context of a show where you’re just thrilled to be a part of the song in a meager way, but here on record it comes off as lacking. Its interesting to note that if you compare the song lengths of the originals to the re-recordings, you’ll see that the majority of the track lengths on Ecliptica Revisited have been extended by an average of ten seconds, the cumulative effect of all this slowing down business.
 

Fortunately the tempo downshift doesn’t hurt all the songs, in fact helping some songs to breathe easier and feel better paced. Cry heresy if you must but I actually find the vocal take on the re-recording of that eternal classic “My Land” far better than the original: Kakko’s enunciation and pacing is better, and the lyrics are more discernible as a result; I also love the alteration he made at 2:30 on the lyric “You can’t keep me away forever”, on the original that line only appears at the end and he doesn’t satisfyingly lean on the “forever” like he does here. I also really love what they’ve added to “Full Moon”, the intro is still as delicate and beautiful as it originally was, but the band gets heavier in the buildup to the galloping verses, giving the song a darker, stormier vibe. The chorus is as bright as ever though, and what I find so incredibly wonderful about Kakko’s vocal approach on it is that he seems to be reveling in its history as a fan favorite. I know its a subtle thing I’m trying to relay, but I hear it in the way he delivers that classic chorus with all its inherent poppiness in such a celebratory manner. Not surprisingly, its the balladry of  “Letter to Dana” that benefits the most from the re-recording, with guitars multi-tracked in choice spots, better vocal phrasing, and a greater emphasis on making those lead guitars really capture the epic sweep in a Slash-esque way. Unfortunately, it is a bit of a misstep and a shame that they didn’t turn up the harpsichord effects at 4:25 —- that was such an epic moment in the original and although you can still faintly hear them underneath, they’re not nearly as goose bump inducing here. I also think “Destruction Preventer” comes off a little better here, as they sanded off all the rough edges (Kakko’s wildly high pitched yelps) and added layers of extra guitars and harmony vocals.

All told its likely that some of you won’t hear things the same way I did, and my impression could by colored by the very vivid association I have of certain re-recorded songs sounding similar to their live renditions. If that’s really it, then all I can offer is the suggestion for you to catch the band in concert on a future tour. But we are comparing apples to apples here right? Ecliptica in its original recording is a masterpiece of melodic power metal, or at least as near close to one as you can get (I definitely put it up there), and it would’ve been fine without a re-recording. Yet it doesn’t diminish in the light of this one, in fact, I think its helped me to remember just how special these songs are.  I can’t recall the last time I’ve listened to the entire Sonata Arctica catalog as intently as I have in the past month, and I’ve found myself grateful for the opportunity to have my interest renewed. Maybe that coupled with seeing them live has given me a greater tolerance for the flaws of recent albums, and a greater sense of appreciation for all the collective gems and rubies they’ve given to me. Their best work captures the essence of what I love so much about power metal’s potential to uplift my spirits even through the saddest lyric. Its amazing to consider that they’re now regarded as a veteran band within the genre, when for seemingly the longest time they were the up and comers. Fifteen years was a lifetime ago. Happy anniversary Sonata Arctica.

Pour Some Sugar On Everything: Amaranthe Return With Massive Addictive

October 27, 2014

Depending on your perspective of Amaranthe, you’re either really excited for Massive Addictive, or really, really agitated at the mere thought that this unlikely band of Swedes has gotten popular and successful enough to warrant a third album. They are certainly notorious for the sheer contentiousness that surrounds any discussion of who they are and what they do. When I reviewed the band’s previous album, The Nexus, I dug into the career bios for band founders Olof Morck and Jake E Berg, both profiles of musicians that had toiled in relative obscurity for a decade of time before meeting up with Elize Ryd and arriving simultaneously (I’m assuming) at their viola! moment. A cynic could look at Morck and Berg’s creation of Amaranthe as a concoction geared towards commercial viability and broader appeal than anything either had been involved with in the past. They also wouldn’t be that far off the mark. There is something about Amaranthe’s conscious marketing design that raises red flags among the most forgiving of critics and metal fans —- check out one of their numerous absurdly flashy music videos (all directed by that king of gloss, Patric Ullaeus) and try to remember that they’re a metal band.

Beyond image, the band’s self-described “EDM meets metal” approach is built upon a softened metalcore foundation that will resonate with rock audiences (and rock radio at that), along with pure pop songwriting that supplies massive hooks with catchy verses, and two appealing clean singers that do enough to keep the attention of those put off by the rather tame growling vocalist. The “EDM” aspect of their sound only comes into play through the sheen studio production they coat all over their studio albums. In other words, its not interwoven into the fabric of their songwriting the way it was for say, the indie band Tegan and Sara, when they co-wrote two crossover EDM/indie rock songs with DJs Morgan Page and Tiesto; or for a band like The Prodigy who married hard rock sounds with pure techno long before anyone realized it could be done. There’s nothing really wrong with Amaranthe’s approach, except that it exposes their “EDM” tag as somewhat of a misnomer, and to a particularly cynical critic, it could be seen as an easy out for the band to simultaneously disguise and justify just how slick and polished their take on metal is. I’ll provide a more forgiving perspective, one in which the band has grabbed hold of their new hybrid “EDM/Metal” label as an easy, painless way to deflect critics and for the band to distance themselves from other female fronted metal peers that operate in more classicist territory ala Within Temptation.
 

All that considered, its amazing just how successfully Amaranthe works as a Frankenstein-esque project, stitching together disparate parts to create something that actually works (surely a monster to many). Morck and Berg combine their experiences in both power metal and melo-death to serve as their musical palette, and are malleable in their songwriting to sketch out smart, unobtrusive, accentuating uses for harsh vocals (courtesy of new screamer Henrik Englund), as well plenty of spotlight time for the completely un-metal Elize Ryd’s sugary, ABBA-Swede pop vocals. Ryd is obviously a necessary component in this whole equation, as its through her unremarkable but pleasant vocals that the band channels their poppiest sensibilities, allowing Berg to deliver his clean vocals as a melodic counterpoint or harmony double up. In typical Amaranthe fashion, Englund’s harsh vocals tend to be used as a counterpoint —- he’s only given one opportunity to handle lead vocals (on “An Ordinary Abnormality”), but of course he’s kept off the chorus. Ryd and Berg command the vocal spotlight of Amaranthe, and it has to be said that their voices tend to sound great together, his vocals are melodic and capable enough of soaring highs as hers, but he’s working in a slightly lower register so as to be complementary, not overpowering. I’ve always had mixed feelings on Ryd, finding her the least impressive vocalist of the three —- and I’ve long contended that she’s used metal as an easier springboard to fame and notoriety than she would have had through trying to make it as a pure pop singer. Its not a criticism, just an honest observation that I’m confident other discerning metal fans would agree with. Do an eye/ear test —- does she radiate metal in any way? Kudos to Morck and Berg for sculpting out a role for her and selling it convincingly (seriously, props).
 

On Massive Addictive, the band don’t change up the formula they first dreamed up on their debut and expanded on The Nexus, seeking only to further refine the elements that worked and ditch the clunky stuff that didn’t (there’s nothing as awful as the bubblegum “Electroheart” on here). The album’s pop highlight is “Trinity”, the second single that smartly balances chunky-riffs and harsh vocals with a exquisitely sculpted chorus boasting a hook that absolutely will not leave your head. Its musical candy, and that’s what we’re here for right? To rot our ears with the musical equivalent of junk food, because try as I might I cannot understand what these lyrics mean in the slightest —- are they talking about their roles as three singers? Hmmm… no that doesn’t seem to fit. What about this stanza, “As we break the chains of might / In dependence of the fire / Give up, this ground sterilized for all time” —- anyone got any ideas? There’s a huge suspicion on my part that Amaranthe often write lyrics phonetically, choosing words for their alliterative value within the context of a lyrical line or stanza rather than their inherent meaning. Its like how Paul McCartney used dummy lyrics for “Yesterday” (“Scrambled eggs, oh, you’ve got such lovely legs”), except that in this case Amaranthe never bothered to go back and revise their diction and you know, actually say something with most of these songs. On “Dynamite”, another album highlight through its rhythmic micro-hooks, we’re given another dose of nonsense in the lyrics during the refrain: “Come on believe me /You can’t deny /From the blaze in my eyes /I am hypnotized and /I can achieve it /I will arise /Like the fire in the sky /I am dynamite”. Look, I know I’m a lyrical grouch of the highest order (imagine me in a trash can and call me Oscar… actually don’t), and I’m aware that this approach works for pop music, but a little more effort on the lyrics of these upbeat tracks wouldn’t go amiss.

Its the slower, mid-paced ballads where the band executes particularly well in all aspects, lyrics included, such as on the surprisingly restrained “True”, where Ryd and Berg are at their emotive best. There’s a wonderful chorus to enjoy there: “This is the time for chasing my desires / Whats in my heart is true”, where both words and melody are extremely well written and emotive, highlighting some really deft songwriting. The same goes for another excellent ballad, “Over and Done”, this more of the embittered and love-lorn variety where a nicely done lyric crops up as well: “Over and done, a changing of seasons / The sun that ignited all our feelings is down”. Berg takes the lead here and its worth noting just how much he stands out apart from other male clean vocalists within metal through his ability to appeal to fans of simple rock music. I suppose I’m suggesting that he has a slightly Americanized bent to his vocals, and that statement in itself will turn off many who are used to power metal’s varied cultural accents and intonations. Fair enough, but it still leaves him as a rarity within metal, alongside other singers like Tom Englund of Evergrey in their ability to crossover to a radio format (surely a boon in Amaranthe’s case). I’m also very partial to the album closer “Exhale”, a catchy song built upon a heavily alliterative chorus where the lyrics are actually well written and seem to suggest someone’s search for spirituality. There’s a pattern here: When the band attempts to write fast, uptempo songs they’re so concerned with the ear-wormy factor in all aspects that they relegate lyrical meaning as an afterthought. I suppose that’s all irrelevant when they’re played live to a dancing crowd (er… no, that’d be headbanging right? What do they do at Amaranthe shows?).
 

The album isn’t without missteps though, nothing gravely serious but there are a handful of tracks that either don’t work as pop songs or have annoying tendencies that overpower their enjoyable parts. I’m referring specifically to “Danger Zone”, where a boy-band grade chorus is sandwiched between some very boring harsh vocal led verses; as well as “Unreal”, a song that reminds me of the worst aspects of modern day In Flames with the album’s flattest chorus to boot. There’s also something bothersome about “Skyline”, where I guess my expectations were higher because the title reminded me of Bioshock Infinite (skylines… some of you get it) —- a strange reason to cite but also I’m simply bored by the song, unlike the game. Still, on a twelve track album, there are seven songs that deliver precisely what you’d want from Amaranthe , and four of those are actually pretty great. Not a bad ratio overall, and Massive Addictive is the sound of a band getting better at what they’re doing —- even if it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve written in the past about the value of Amaranthe as a gateway band for non-metal fans to enter our world, and with this album that gateway has only gotten bigger. If someone gets hooked in with a song like “Trinity”, only to find themselves checking out Kamelot via Ryd’s connections to that band, which causes them to love a masterpiece such as The Black Halo as much as I do —- that’s a win. Metal needs gateway bands to survive, and even though Amaranthe are pushing the boundaries of acceptability in our beloved genre, they surely deserve some grudging acknowledgement for filling that role.
 

The Metal Pigeon on Podcasts!

October 13, 2014

I don’t like to pretend that any of you follow my every move in the world of metal blogging, social media, and related activities. So I’ll safely assume that most of you are unaware that I’ve been co-hosting a metal podcast for a few months now. Its called the MSRcast (named after the long defunct zine Mainstream Resistance) and I join its founder and host Cary G to discuss and debate current events and releases in metal, as well as anything else that’s running through our minds at that moment. MSRcast is going onto its ninth year of existence which might very well make it one of the longest running metal related podcasts out there. In the handful of times I’ve appeared on its episodes throughout this year, first as a guest and finally as an official co-host, the show has undergone a shift in format away from being loaded with music in favor of more discussion and debate. It was a natural progression I think, in that we were trying to keep episode lengths reasonable for podcasts (meaning in the hour and a half-ish range) and we had to make a choice between trimming the amount of songs we played or keeping our chatter to a minimum. Seeing as how the latter would never happen (never!), we decided to cut the amount of songs by half, and to play them one at a time within the flow of our discussions instead of in multi-song blocks.

The change has surprisingly resulted in some immediate positive feedback from existing listeners of the show and we’re rather proud of the new format as well. I’ve bounced around in sampling various metal podcasts/vidcasts for the past few years and disappointingly few of them managed to be compelling to me in any meaningful way. So many of them have well meaning hosts that come across as uninformed, or having vague takes that lack depth. The worst of them are far more concerned with demonstrating the amount of alcohol they can consume while recording —- as if that somehow adds anything worthwhile for the listener. Most of them are simply long playlists, which I find boring —- I want to know why these songs are being presented, what is the context behind them? The majority of podcasts that I love to listen to tend to be non-metal in nature, and they were my guideposts in helping to forge this new format for MSRcast. I love the analytical nature of the guys behind the Grantland NFL podcast and the B.S. Report; as well as the joyful creativity of the Nerdist podcast, The Indoor Kids, and You Made It Weird. Bringing those approaches to a metal discussion is fun, and something that I hope translates.

This new format began with our October 3rd release of MSRcast episode 157 where we discussed everything from Opeth’s Pale Communion, a slew of power metal releases, and a brief musing on the U2 album release controversy. And we’ve just released MSRcast episode 158 (that’s quick for us!), where we’re joined by Dave of the Metal Geeks podcast (more on that show in a sec) to discuss everything from the upcoming Sanctuary album, Jesper Stromblad’s social media bombshell, new music from Allen/Lande and Bloodbath as well as the Behemoth and Mastodon controversies.  That’s just a small fraction of what we actually managed to get to, its a loaded episode and I hope you guys check it out. We’re on iTunes (just search for us through the iTunes store and hit subscribe —- it helps us and makes things easier for you), and you can easily find us on our host sponsor’s website at Metal Injection dot net. I also dropped in on the newest episode of Metal Geeks, the sister show to MSRcast, to discuss a ton of topics about videogames, movies, TV shows and anything else that fits under their huge umbrella of “geek” related discussion. It was a blast to record and I can’t wait to drop in on more of them! Give these episodes a try, throw them on the iPod/iPhone or whatever you use and play them on your commute, or better yet on your headphones at work! We’ll make the time go by faster I promise.

Jesper Strömblad On Leaving In Flames + The Tragedy of Siren Charms

October 6, 2014

I was a week or so late in listening to In Flames newest album, Siren Charms, which came out way back on September 9th. I had put it off not only due to being busy catching up on records by bands that I actually still harbored affection for, but in large part because I was rather disoriented by the pre-release single “Through Oblivion”. When I finally sat down to listen to the full album, I was so thoroughly disappointed by what I was hearing that I decided to not waste any more time on it. I was going to stick to that plan until I read through the flurry of news articles published last week regarding recent social media comments by ex-In Flames guitarist and founder Jesper Strömblad. As the story goes, Strömblad had invited fans on his Facebook page to ask him anything, and as expected the majority of the questions were in regards to his departure from In Flames in 2010. He decided to write a post to address this ultimate question for everyone and in doing so he delivered a revelation that I don’t think many were expecting (certainly not I). I’ll let Strömblad speak for himself for clarity’s sake:
 

“Will I ever return to In Flames? No one never knows what the future brings,but the chances are slim as they embarked on a different musical journey,they have a solid lineup and Im on a totally different path in life right now. I would never go into details why I quit, but there is always one official story and there is the other……Alcohol is a quite small part of it. That can also answer the next question, what do I think of their new stuff. Listen to The Resistance and that explains a bit of it. We simply went different directions. I need to stand behind and feel inspired with what I do 100%, I owe it to the fans and obviously the band. All respect to In Flames and their new approach, but for me the band was a guitar/riff based melo-death band. And Its not anymore, but still amazing musicianship and I don’t think its wrong. But its not the vision I had when we started out.” – Jesper Strömblad, 9/30/14

 
Sometimes, as in the recent situation with Queensrÿche, its hard for entrenched, long-time band members who are reliant upon the band’s touring activities to provide the bulk of their income to simply walk away due to musical differences or general dissatisfaction. I mention that because In Flames transition to its modern sound really started way back on 2004’s Soundtrack to Your Escape (and it could be legitimately argued that it began on 2002’s Reroute to Remain), and as such that means that Strömblad stuck through at least six years and three albums of increasingly drastic musical changes that veered sharply away from the band’s classic era “guitar/riff based melo-death”, as the man himself so succinctly described it. Comparatively the guys in Queensrÿche had to endure a decade’s worth of Geoff Tate’s hideous transforming of that band into a shell of its former self before they found a viable way to extricate themselves by doing a little firing/hiring. Strömblad didn’t have a similar option within In Flames. Complicating matters was the fact that the band was his creation, and it was an increasingly lucrative job after all  —- I completely understand why he stuck it out as long as he did. When it was announced that he was leaving the band, an on-going battle with alcoholism was listed as the sole factor in his decision to walk away from a rock n’ roll lifestyle. A clean break perhaps… one even publicly lauded by the remaining band members as they (genuinely, I’m sure) wished Strömblad well in his recovery attempts. Of course in light of Strömblad’s recent comments, I’ve seen more than a few internet jokers suggesting that Strömblad has inadvertently revealed the cause for his alcoholism.
 

I’ve written about In Flames once before, and as I expressed in that article, In Flames’ musical discography can be viewed as consisting of two distinct eras: The classic 1994-2000 era where the songs were written around the primary guitar-based melodies, and the Friden influenced 2002-present day era where the vocal melodies took prevalence within the songwriting. Its not just a simple case of substituting one for another, as the change to vocal-melody driven songwriting effectively nullified most of the elements that made us In Flames fans in the first place. Its been a suspicion of mine and many others that this seismic shift within the band’s musical approach had their source in the band’s vocalist Anders Friden. That’s not exactly breaking news to any fan of classic era In Flames —- if the metalcore meets Depeche Mode mess that was his Passengers side project didn’t clue you in, then certainly the prevalence of clean singing within new In Flames material was the biggest flag waver. It couldn’t have been all on Friden, because if everyone else in the band felt the opposite, he’d have surely been removed or left of his own accord at some point, right? These days it appears increasingly obvious via songwriting credits that In Flames guitarist Bjorn Gelotte has been Friden’s major partner within the band’s ranks helping him to mold their vocal driven style. Friden has made some recent comments that give credence to that theory, stating in an recent interview:
 

I think [Jesper’s departure] was bigger for people outside than it was for the band. I think Jesper, mentally, had already been out of the band for a few years before he left. He was actually not touring for almost a year-and-a-half before we made the decision and he exited the band. On a friendship level, it’s hard. I miss the guy, but at the same time, it just didn’t work. People should know: Both Björn and I have done 10 out of 11 In Flames albums. We know how an In Flames album should be done. Musically, it didn’t change as much as people think. – Anders Friden in Alternative Press, 2014

 
Strömblad’s revelation makes me wonder as to how long he was feeling alienated within his own band. I also am more inclined to believe that there was gradual shifting of power within the lineup from Strömblad (who essentially was the lead music writer during their classic era) to Friden beginning around the Reroute to Remain era. All of this speculation is purely retrograde and of no real consequence of course, but we’re fans and that’s what we do. His comments come as somewhat of a relief to myself in that they help to suggest a sequence of events that explain why a great band capable of writing majestic, breathtaking, folk-infused melo-death could shift so far away from what made them great. It contextualizes those few moments I would hear on those post-2002 albums that would perk my ears up with their vague recollections of their classic era, such as the guitar solo in “Come Clarity”, or on “Vanishing Light”, where the guitars drove the melody as in the old days. They were moments where Strömblad was breaking through to interject some old school spirit into the mix.  I also feel a certain amount of gratitude and sympathy for Strömblad in general: Gratitude for what he’s done for me as a metal fan with that classic era of flawless work, and sympathy for the way it seems he was slowly ousted from his own band. He wrote in this post that listening to his new band The Resistance would provide all the answers anyone needs as to his view on current In Flames —- and while I’m not entirely sold on that project’s one album, it does harken to shades of his Ceremonial Oath past with its slightly melodic take on death metal. Its certainly a lot closer to what I really want to hear from him than he was capable of achieving during his final years with In Flames.

As for Siren Charms, I’ve listened through it a few times and keep coming to the same conclusion: This is the sound of a band that has little to no interest in metal anymore. Some melodic guitar figures aside, it bears scant resemblance to even their modern metal era work. Vocal melodies are the back bones of these songs, and the possibility of interesting guitar work is given limited, fractional space at best. More disconcertingly, the songwriting is more prone to uninteresting, plodding, meandering riffs that to serve as a rhythmic backdrop for Friden’s wavering vocal work in bridge sections. In fact he hardly screams at all on the album, and when he does its simply to accentuate a repeating chorus in order to spice things up —- the rest of the time he is firmly fixed in clean vocals mode. Granted, there are moments where he delivers his best work to date in that vocal style, but those of us who have seen him live in the recent past know that its a mirage: He sounds decent in a recording studio with the aid of overdubs, punch-ins, and the ability to get the best possible take. He is hopelessly miserable at emulating those results on stage however, and its in those live situations where the band further distances itself from their classic era. Friden’s reluctance to play older songs is justified by his most likely truthful observation that there are more fans of their post-2002 work at their shows than people clamoring for their old classics. Its slightly tragic for those of us that used to call ourselves fans of the band, because there aren’t many reasons to see their live shows anymore, let alone buy their new albums.

My personal irony here is that after the release of 2011’s Sounds of a Playground Fading, I accused the band of hypocrisy for mocking fans who clamored for a return to their classic sound while simultaneously repeating themselves musically for their past few albums. It seems In Flames has taken criticism like that to heart, as no one can deny that Siren Charms is a new direction indeed. There’s hope for us Strömblad fans however, as he also mentioned that he’s working on a solo album, and here’s hoping its something that taps into that classic era spirit. I met Strömblad outside of a dusty venue in Houston on their 2003 Reroute to Remain tour, and I mentioned to him that he should consider recording an instrumental solo album, maybe something half electric and half acoustic (because no one did drop in acoustic interludes like Strömblad). He just smiled and asked “Who would be interested in that? Just you?”, and proceeded to walk inside for sound check.

Just me and legions of forgotten In Flames fans Jesper —- legions.