I’m increasingly more aware of how rare it is to stumble upon a band that can utterly transfix my wandering attention span the way Serenity did about a month ago with the release of their spectacular fourth album, War of Ages. The band hails from Austria, a country far more regarded in metal circles as a purveyor of death and black metal bands, most notably Belphegor. Serenity then must be the black sheep of their countrymen, as they specialize in a style of progressive power metal informed by the obvious influences of Kamelot, Sonata Arctica, and maybe even a touch of Avantasia’s latter day hard rock epic strut. This is not to say they are merely the sum of their parts, as Serenity have an identity all their own within the fundamentals of songwriting styles and lyrical concepts — but their influences are a good touchstone and filter for prospective listeners.
It might be hard to ignore the extent to which the Kamelot influence has affected Serenity, down to styles of album cover art, logo design, and band photography. Even the way guitarist and co-primary songwriter Thomas Buchberger prefers an emphasis on understated riffs, elegant melody, and reigned in soloing brings to mind the style of Kamelot guitarist Thomas (!) Youngblood. Vocalist Georg Neuhauser doesn’t sound like Roy Khan per say, but he at times reminds me of a mix between current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik, Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko, and Scorpion’s Klaus Meine… a blending that is refined into one of the smoothest vocal deliveries in modern power metal. So yeah, the influences are hard to ignore… but they’re not hard to accept, at least for me anyway. I try to look at it pragmatically, that all bands have influences and starting points, everyone is trying to be uniquely derivative (particularly in a genre like power metal), and only the best will succeed in forging their own identity — a feat which usually takes more than a few records. Serenity succeeded in achieving that by their second album, 2008′s Fallen Sanctuary, which speaks volumes about the level of their abilities as songwriters.
Yes of course I emphasized songwriting, because while the musicianship Serenity display is of the excellent proficiency you’d expect from a European power metal band, the Buchberger/Neuhauser songwriting partnership is the critical heart of Serenity’s success. For anyone who felt/feels that something could potentially be permanently lost from the brilliance that was the Khan/Youngblood songwriting legacy — I’m telling you that the Buchberger/Neuhauser combo strikes right to the heart of the style of music that you and I both love, crave, and sadly can’t seem to find enough of. I’m talking about crisp, melodic, melancholy, triumphant, elegant, and yes actually HEAVY power metal that is written with a head for ambition, an ear for tunefulness, and a writer’s heart for great lyrics. And even though War of Ages is the album that sucked me in as a new fan of the band, I’ve become addicted to the other three albums in their discography as well. And one of the more brilliant examples of all of these aforementioned attributes combining to supreme effect can be found on the bonus track (!) of their 2011 Death & Legacy album, “To India’s Shores”.
As a lyricist, Neuhauser faces the same hurdle Khan did in being an English-as-a-second language writer, but he seems to make a similar effort in the care and choosing of diction, in the use of imagery, and in not burying either his narrator’s voice or his own in piles of metaphors that many lyricists in metal tend to do. It rings of confidence in his writing abilities, and coupled with the fact that Serenity seem hell bent on their songs being narrative voices for historical figures of the past musing on philosophical topics of their own lives or time periods… a great deal of confidence is needed for sure. Don’t let the historical figures thing put you off. The approach isn’t nearly as academic as it might threaten to sound on paper (although Neuhauser has apparently finished a doctorate’s in history, so its an informed voice at work here). I’ll be honest, I don’t really find it all that much of an influence over me when I’m listening to these songs. Historical names aren’t mentioned, you aren’t bludgeoned over the head with dates, places, times, or events… the lyrics at work here could be about anyone’s modern day struggles, relationships, or inner turmoil (okay the new record does have song called “Legacy of Tudors”, but its so good that I’ll just allow the indulgence).
For the War of Ages album, the band made what I can only refer to as a savvy game changer of a decision. Enter into the Serenity lineup one Clémentine Delauney from Lyon, France, as the co-lead vocalist to pair alongside Neuhauser’s powerful voice. This isn’t a gimmick, as they have experimented with a handful of female guest vocalists for select tracks on previous albums — and while the songs and performances have been good (particularly a duet with the always excellent Amanda Somerville on Death and Legacy’s “Changing Fate”), the types of female voices they’ve attempted to pair with Neuhauser never seemed to measure up or alternatively, contrast well with his rich, distinctive tone. I know these women have their fans, but I’ve never been overly impressed with Charlotte Wessels, nor Ailyn from Sirenia, and while Somerville’s duet was excellent, her voice is as strong and full of character as Neuhauser’s and to me it seemed that when they would join together both voices would be fighting for space with no one winning out.
Delauney however, had been singing with the band as their live backing vocalist for a considerable time prior to her finally being invited into the band as a permanent co-vocalist — and her vocal intersections with Neuhauser are noticeably more developed and experienced in terms of tone, delivery, and pure resonance. I think the band suspected this would be the case, and must’ve thought to themselves that their ideas of duet vocals would work better in the future if they had a consistent set of voices pairing up. Smart thinking — because honestly I think she’s an exceptional vocalist, possessing a soprano voice that is effortlessly melodic, rich, and deep yet capable of being ethereal, light, and even fragile when the song calls for it. She utilizes all those strengths on the epic opening track of the War of Ages album, “Wings of Madness”, where her vocals float above Neuhauser’s in the emotional chorus — only to swoop down to darker depths on her own solo verse (her eerily drawn out vocals there remind me of the haunting abilities of Sinéad O’Connor). I’m told that she penned around half of the lyrics on the new album as well, which means that she’s had a direct hand in crafting vocal melodies alongside Neuhauser and I really love that… Because when you’ve listened to a ton of power metal, you can spot the difference between a singer writing the vocal melodies as opposed to an overreaching guitarist, or bassist attempting to dictate what the vocalist does (hello Timo Tolkki and Steve Harris!).
I’ve been checking out the tour dates for the band and they’re disappointingly slim, even for Europe… (I have no delusions about the band getting to launch a full tour in the States — I’ll post a very grateful retraction if that ever happens). I’m not sure what the problem is, but I could venture to guess that these guys have day jobs, and that they try to fit Serenity in whenever they can. That’s understandable and to be expected given the state of things in the industry, but I hope they can do more then just a ten date headliner tour of clubs in Europe. But if that doesn’t, or can’t happen then I’d just have one word of advice for the band if they ever happened to read this: Write more songs, record more albums, document your art with a sense of urgency and ambition. You know its an uphill battle if you’re hoping to headline arenas or chart singles, there are very few Nightwish success stories in your chosen genre. So instead, strike while the creative irons are hot and get this stuff on tape. Build your artistic legacy.
And if you’re a fan of music like this… well, I’m going to do something I almost never do, which is admonish you to actually buy the official physical release or legal download. Look, I love death and black metal as much as the next guy or girl, but for all the hundreds to thousands of death and black metal bands Austria has coughed up and choked on, she’s only given us one Serenity. Bands that make metal like this are rare, and I fear, growing rarer — so if you love this style of metal, actually show your support for the artists that are essentially underdogs in attempting to create it. I shelled out something just short of fifty American to grab this band’s catalog and I look forward to handing over more of my money in their name in the future. Its really hard to think of something else I’ve bought lately in my everyday life that I feel that good about.
First, a brief introduction…
The Metal Pigeon blog is a relatively small endeavor. I am a staff of one; the writer, editor, and publisher. I realized long before I wrote my first article here that I couldn’t compete with the amount of content published on a near daily basis by metal sites that had multiple writers on staff. But it hasn’t been a drawback for me, as I’ve always meant for this blog to operate exactly as it has been, with an emphasis on long form opinion and criticism, and quality over quantity. I dabble in reviews for album’s I’m excited about and look forward to, or for bands that come out of the woodwork to surprise me and make me a fan, but I’m not on major metal record company promo lists yet (if ever) and pretty much have to rely on Spotify, YouTube, and yes spending cash to get access to music. No big deal really, but that’s a huge reason why I don’t review every noteworthy new album that comes out, or have something to post about every single day.
But lately, I’ve noticed more than just the usual clutter of metal related subscriber list emails in my inbox. Smaller metal labels — mostly ones I haven’t heard of before — have begun to take notice of this little site, for good reasons I hope, and have started sending me promos of their artists’ new releases. Its been rather flattering as well as very cool, and honestly it all took me by complete surprise. See I have no delusions of grandeur about this blog. Its simply a better, broader, and more visible soapbox for me to voice my opinions, as opposed to the confines of some dusty metal web forum. But I am proud of it, its my own creation and I’m still blown away by the scores of people that keep coming back to read my stuff and comment on it, and in that small way its been a success.
But here’s the dilemma I had: The promos these labels were sending me are for artists I’ve never heard of, let alone listened to before, and wouldn’t it seem just a tad strange that all of a sudden I publish an article about band “x” that YOU’VE likely not heard of before either? All while suggesting that it was something I was eyeballing down the pike months in advance as a possible album to review? I don’t pretend to have my fingers on the pulse of the metal underground, there’s just way too many releases, labels, and bands to even attempt to try. My time-learned philosophy for metal music has been to let the cream rise to the top. If a band is putting out good stuff they will garner interest from the community at large and at some point I will hear about it, check it out myself, and subsequently write something about it. Point is I have no overwhelming urge to be amongst the first ones to listen to and discover a band — that’s something you tend to grow out of, and for good reason.
However, I have a backlog of promos sitting in my inbox, and I feel bad about not having done anything with them. It got real when a French label sent me a physical copy in a nice envelope, with classy French stamps, addressed to The Metal Pigeon. I began to think about how to do something about all these promos, after all these people are spending effort and now actual money to get this out to me! I know how much it sucks to work on something, put it out there, and have it be ignored by everyone. If someone sends me something to listen to, it doesn’t take much of an effort on my part to actually find a moment to listen to it.
So here’s my solution, The Metal Pigeon’s Pigeon Post, a randomly reoccurring feature in which I will listen to these promo copies of releases by artists unknown to me, from small labels you’ve likely never heard of either, and review them with total unabashed honesty — even if what I end up writing is not complimentary. I throw that out there so that if any promotional reps are reading this, you’ll know what you’re getting into. I don’t make a habit of slamming bands whose music I’m not into, and I do try to provide understandable reasons for any criticism I dish out, but I will call a spade a spade if I have to.
So onwards, the premiere edition of The Pigeon Post!
Eclectika – Lure of Ephemeral Beauty: This didn’t do much for me at first. So maybe its a good thing that I slacked off on the thinking up of a feature to talk about this album in, because time has slightly changed my opinion for the better. Eclectika is essentially a one man project based out of Corcelles-les-Monts, France, apparently a rather tiny hamlet in the middle of the Burgundy countryside. A suitably pleasant environment for creating atmospheric, symphonic, yet minimalist black metal right? In case you were wondering my nice envelope from France had this album in it.
Sebastien Regnier is the driving force behind the project, apparently handling most of the lead vocals and all the instruments, but he’s joined by two guest vocalists, the most notable of which is a female singer named Noemie Sirandre whose high operatic vocals are scattered throughout the album. On paper, music like this should be right up my street, and when I listen to these songs I find myself liking a riff here and there, noticing a well done atmospheric moment, and admiring the range of Sirandre.
The problem is that those things occur by themselves, in scattered moments and never at one time altogether. I know I sound like a broken record in my reviews, but quality songwriting trumps everything else! If you don’t have that, then all the cool sonic elements musically and production wise never have a chance to coalesce or gel into anything memorable. The worst offender here is a song called “Cyclic Anagnorisis”, which features a really great atmospheric intro + riff + harsh vocal entrance that gets you thinking that the ceiling is about to shake, but nothing develops. Operatic female vocals come in awkwardly, the riff never deviates into anything interesting, the underlying ill-chosen bass tone is mixed waaaay too loud (so much so that it becomes distracting). The guitar solo halfway through is a surprise and actually interesting, but can we get some ‘heavy’ on these rhythm guitars please? What am I listening to? It sounds like someone playing guitar through a Super Nintendo. I know that low budget productions have their limitations, but when the guitars on Entombed’s late 80′s demos can sound so massive and crushing, I wonder how much a guitar sound like Eclectika’s is marred not by financial limitations as it is by selection of a guitar amp and head.
Its baffling because when Eclectika get it right, as they do on the brutal, punishing “Les Sept Vertus Capitales”, extra crunch on the guitars would add extra power to what is an already awesome series of riffs. On this track, all the disparate elements that make up this band’s sound find their appropriate points of entry and overall place. Unfortunately it comes more than halfway through the album, a revelation that strikes you with an impact of suddenly realizing at age 50 than all the ingredients that make up a hamburger actually taste better when put on top of each other. Argh, okay so maybe I’m being a bit ridiculous, but you can tell that this band has some quality influences, Therion, Paradise Lost perhaps? I’m not sure about their choice of song titles, like “Handicapped Sex in a Mental Orgy”… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that. A metal band wearing industrial clothes is a terrible look — knock it off. But despite this being a critical review, the band accomplished the difficult task of capturing my attention: I am looking forward to what they do next. My earnest hope is that they work on the simple, yet challenging and demanding craft of songwriting… they’ve got all the ingredients ready, they just have to learn how to cook.
Boneworm – s/t: Still not sure what to make of this resurgence in throwback doomy/Sabbathy metal that’s been popping up all over the place. The biggest local metal band in my home city of Houston is the recently signed to Napalm Records Venomous Maximus, who write good songs, have built up their following in a smart, savvy way, and yet seem to draw more hipsters to their live shows than actual metal fans. Whatever, its all about attracting an audience right? And they’re succeeding more than any other hard schlepping death metal band in our city’s infernal toilet of a local metal scene.
So maybe Portland’s Boneworm are on to something here. One glowing review on their bandcamp page described their music as “treacle-slow” (is it just me reading that as a Harry Potter reference?), and it certainly is paced similarly to traditional doom metal. But to me this is essentially sludge rock with a fondness for tritones, and when the gang shouted/barked vocals kick in, the whole affair takes on a punky vibe. And that’s when it sounds good —- I was interested in the parts where the vocals almost took on the challenge of delivering an actual hook. The final sections of “The Call” feature some attention grabbing vocal runs with alarming intensity, and I wanted more of that. Its everywhere else where my attention wanes.
I just don’t think I’m cut from the same type of cloth as these guys are when it comes to what inspires me musically and captures my imagination. To each his own and all that, and these guys got my attention with a really politely written email, and I certainly wish them well — but music like this is as exciting to me as doing laundry. On their page their lyrical concept is described with the following statement: “Which is the more terrifying, the intricate words of a sinister hex being cast, or plaintively being told that nothing matters because time is already against you?” Just so you don’t think I’m no fun at all, I actually take the bait for things like that more often than not, I like a band with ambition. But when you’re promising something bold like that, don’t attempt to deliver the goods with a musical approach that makes me go to the Bleacher Report to check out the latest picks in the NFL draft. Its boring. How about some vocal melodies? What if the musical tempo all of a sudden shifted in the middle of one of these fifteen minute long sludge n’ trudge behemoths? Something, anything to generate some interest.
When you’re on the outside looking in, as I suppose many people are with this particular style of rock/metal music, you find yourself wondering what kind of wiring the musicians creating this stuff are built with. Its as if I’m trying to understand an entirely different language. Am I missing something, and if so, I wonder if I could be talked into it? I lay this challenge down for fans of this style of music or indeed for the band and its fans: There’s a comment section below, someone help me see what I’m missing. Of course the thought occurs that maybe this is music meant for inebriated listening experiences —- to which I can only say: Fair.
Boil – aXiom: This is an interesting one, and perhaps a band that some of you may already know. This is Boil’s third album apparently, a fact I couldn’t find on the Encyclopedia Metallum… which I thought was strange until I started listening to them and realized that this was a blending of progressive metal and alternative rock stylings. The folks at the metal archives can be a choosy bunch I guess. If you absolutely detest anything alt-rock related, you might be put off by singer Jacob Løbner’s tendency to sound as much like Maynard as he does your stereotypical melo-death vocalist. First thought is that I’m surprised at how tolerant I am for that type of stuff these days, especially considering I’ve spent the past decade slowly getting away from anything associated with “alternative” and “modern rock”. Not out of arrogance or elitism mind you, but simply because the deeper you go into the metal world, a lot of rock starts to sound safe, sterile, played-out, and well… boring.
I guess we all come back around to our old interests at some point to indulge some sort of facsimile sweet tooth that we’ve been neglecting. Its why I go back and listen to Garbage’s Version 2.0 album every few years or so. Boil remind me at times of Soilwork, Tool, latter-day Amorphis, and American alternative rock in general — but its a smart mix because Boil focus on songwriting and when they get it right, they REALLY get it right: Cue “At the Center of Rage” and “Heretic Martyr”, two songs where the balance between the metal and alt-rock elements are handled thoughtfully. Løbner’s vocals soar when they need to, lower to a soft croon for delicate moments, only to get surprisingly guttural in moments. The closing cut, “Almost a Legend”, is another highlight with its excellent recurring melodic guitar motif set against a stately tempo, a sort of rhythmic power ballad that ebbs and flows.
Boil are well served by choosing Jens Bogren to helm the production (he’s done Opeth, Soilwork, Katatonia, and Kreator’s Phantom Antichrist just to name a few), as everything sounds clear and well separated, and the vocals are given just the right amount of attention in terms of the right amount of reverb and not overdoing the filters. I suspect this isn’t a band I would’ve found out on my own, because despite all our good intentions, inner bias towards superficial things like a band name, or style of cover art often have a role in determining what we’re willing to spend time checking out. I’m pleasantly surprised at my enjoyment of this record. While its not something that I will be listening to non stop, I can see it being an album I’ll come back to when I’m in the mood for this particular blending of musical styles.
A Hero For the World – s/t: Winners for the most ridiculous cover art and band name of 2013 thus far, A Hero For the World (that’s a mouthful dammit) deliver a debut album of rather typical modern power metal that is a mix of Firewind style musicality with Dragonforce goofball lyrics. I have a love for the best of this type of stuff, and a very high degree of tolerance for the mediocre versions. This band falls right above that mediocre category — they have promise but are mired in genre stereotypes to a fault. There are some occasional good moments on offer that suggest that on future releases they’ll manage to find their own sound and make a fan of me. Power metal is supported and nourished in Europe, its modern and ancestral home — so one reason to pay attention to the course of A Hero For the World’s career is that they actually hail from the Philippines. I applaud any new power metal band that steps onto the metal stage from a non-European territory, because lets face it, the very idea is not exactly welcome in local metal scenes anywhere in the United States.
I can hear some slight nods to the geographical cultural impact of the Philippines on a ballad like “Free Forever”, which is carried along by a slightly Asian sounding melody that is actually quite appealing, overriding the triteness of the lyrics. Sadly, there are no other infusions of the music of their region, something I’d think would add some uniqueness to their approach. Oh well, there’s nothing wrong with power metal for power metal’s sake, and whomever is the songwriting force in the band certainly has the budding talent to only get better. I think whats telling for me right now is that I really can’t think of anything else to say about this record… there’s nothing glaringly awful about it, but I highly doubt I’ll be coming back for more listens… there’s just better stuff out there in this vein. Keep trying dudes, I’ll check the next one out for sure.
Since I’m going to be talking about Tobias Sammet and Avantasia, I’ll point out that this isn’t a conventional review in the sense that I’m trying to help you decide whether or not to check this album out — because of course you should. Sammet possesses a nearly peerless songwriting ability within the power metal/hard rock spectrum, and with said ability has delivered a career’s worth of superb work through Edguy and of course his solo/all-star project Avantasia. Every Sammet penned album can be guaranteed to contain a small to large handful of gems, and for that fact alone I believe he is worthy of respect and yes even gratitude.
Speaking as a power metal fan, that level of consistency is a rare beast in a genre too often full of talented musicians who can’t write a decent tune. I became a fan of the man back in 2000 with Edguy’s seminal classic Mandrake, and both retrospectively and with each new release, Sammet continued to fill the soundtrack of my life with thundering, grandiose power metal epics and emotive, stirring ballads. Few others in power metal deliver the goods as well as he does.
So as expected, there’s a lot on my mind regarding this record, and to better help myself keep all my thoughts in order I’ll be breaking this down into categorized, bite-sized chunks:
When it comes to the music on offer here, Sammet sticks with what his overall approach has developed into, which is a broadly scoped fusion of anthemic hard rock mixed with traditional power metal. I’m going to cautiously say that this was a good call. There are probably quite a handful of fans that would prefer to see a full on return to the quasi-neoclassical sound of The Metal Operas, and while I understand those wishes, I also appreciate that asking an artist to conjure up new music in a style and head space that he is over ten years removed from is simply unrealistic. While The Scarecrow Trilogy did feature some wonderfully decadent orchestral keyboard laden tracks, Sammet relied far more on unadorned hard rock — and that was a line crosser for many fans at the time, who felt that the name Avantasia should conjure up music that was entirely regal, and Euro-centric-ally classical. That being said, there does seem to be a knowing glance to The Metal Opera past that arrives in the presence of the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg on the album from front to back. The orchestra’s impact is felt throughout, providing an expansive bed of sound for even the more rock than metal cuts, giving them an appropriately epic feel.
Some really great songs:
But far more than the details of styles and sounds, its songwriting that matters the most to me, and Sammet digs up a couple of inarguable gems. The most obvious of these is the album standout “Savior in the Clockwork”, a surging ten minute monster with a chill inducing epic chorus that contains perhaps my favorite Sammet characteristic as of late: Goddamned awesome choir background vocals. They give what is already a great chorus that extra airtime with this huge soaring uplift — its pure ear candy and has been a prominent songwriting/production element in the past few Avantasia/Edguy albums. There’s a small but well known handful of vocalists that make up this choir, including the immensely likable Amanda Somerville, and quite frankly they should be talked about more in other reviews I’ve seen.
The award for most Avantasia-ian song goes to the truly exciting “Dweller in a Dream”, which harkens back to the classic pure symphonic metal style so vividly that you could probably slip it onto a burned copy of the first Metal Opera record and a newbie wouldn’t know it was a from another album. Maybe its the way Michael Kiske’s vocals finish Sammet’s refrain during the chorus, but I got flashbacks of 2000 — anyone else? And I’ll go ahead and blaspheme here (to some people), by saying that “Sleepwalking”, the most startlingly overt pop song Sammet has ever penned actually works surprisingly well; a semi-power ballad with a yearning, cinematic chorus that soars to those same dizzying heights that characterize so many of his past ballads. Producer/guitarist Sascha Paeth makes a wonderful contribution here with an elegantly simple guitar solo that softly echoes the primary melody and evokes a beautiful sentimentality.
Eric Martin / No lame interludes!:
And speaking of ballads, Sammet’s best decision on this album is to utilize Eric Martin’s seemingly ageless voice for the actual ballad, a classic piano and strings laden slow dance with a strong, emotionally stirring refrain and lush backing vocal arrangement. Martin’s voice is rich, suitably sandpapery, and inflected with just a touch of country that only enhances the heart wrenching qualities of Sammet’s composition by grounding it in an American southern earthiness.
Bonus points go to Sammet for good decision making on avoiding a concept album cliche of small non-song intervals, few bands can do them well and Sammet has had a sketchy record in the past when he’s tried it (the utterly obnoxious “Lucifer in Love” anyone?). To his credit he’s done a great job keeping that nonsense out of his past seven records, and I’ve noticed fewer and fewer bands doing it as well (hopefully this becomes a full fledged trend).
The Not So Good
Woeful filler and lyrics:
There are a couple songs that simply fall flat unfortunately, the first that comes to mind is the absolutely uninspired “The Watchmaker’s Dream”, which might just have one of the most boring choruses I’ve heard in years. Joe Lynn Turner is the guest vocalist on it, and while he’s a good singer, he comes off as rather indistinguishable here (more on that later), whereas someone with a bit more character in his voice could have possibly salvaged the track by making it their own. I could have lived without the other Kiske track on offer, “Where Clock Hands Freeze”, a total 180° from the excellent “Dwellers In a Dream”. Its this album’s version of the classic Helloween-inspired power metal speedster, and frankly its weak. Sammet has previously delivered the goods on these types of attempts on the past few albums, so its disconcerting to see him drop the ball here with Kiske — whats up with that? I could also have done without the quiet, orchestra only parts in “The Great Mystery”, which interrupt the flow of what is really a fantastic series of mini-songs folded into one long epic piece. Sammet included vague meandering orchestral parts on the title track for “The Scarecrow” album, and it struck me as lazy then as it does now — surely he can come up with a creative musical or lyrical bridge to serve as a connector for two disparate sections of a song. In other words cut it out with the faux atmospherics and stop boring us. You’re better than that Tobi.
I’ve always admired great lyricists in metal and elsewhere, and I feel that I’ve been rather patient and forgiving for the typicality of mediocre lyrics that permeate so much of metal. Power metal is unfortunately guilty of harboring some horrendous lyrical massacres, and my love of the overwhelming enjoyability of the genre has forced me to simply accept it as the norm. Sammet isn’t the worst lyricist in power metal — far, far from it — he often writes about interesting subject matter and has a particular English as a second language way with a phrase that is endearing. But I wouldn’t go out of my way to call him a good lyricist either; he overuses words, phrases, and imagery often, he relies on abstraction to a fault, and his tendency to use malapropisms is simply maddening. I let a lot of that go… especially when it comes to lyricists who aren’t writing in their native tongue, but sometimes I wish they’d make use of a proofreader every once in awhile.
So in the rather heavy, and aggressive “Invoke the Machine”, we get Ronnie Atkins trying to manfully bark out this travesty of a phrase: “Don’t you see what you are meant to be / Outside your cloud-cuckoo-land”. It almost, ALMOST… ruins the song for me. Maybe its just me but dammit that’s just embarrassingly bad — “cloud-cuckoo-land”? What is this, a Teletubbies album? What in the hell is that supposed to mean anyway?
The guest vocalist line-up:
No ones said it, but surely some have to be thinking it: This album would’ve been far better with different vocalists. This has to be the most ambivalence-inducing guest cast for an Avantasia album ever. And I know that it was going to be hard to top the absolutely stellar array of vocalists Sammet assembled for The Scarecrow Trilogy, so I do applaud his efforts in trying to diversify this lineup from previous casts. As I mentioned before, Eric Martin is a great choice, and I dig Ronnie Atkins and Bob Catley’s contributions as well. But Biff Byford, Joe Lynn Turner, Cloudy Yang, and to some extent Kiske himself were really uninspired choices here.
I include Kiske because his vocals only work if he’s getting exceptional songs, as he has on past efforts. And while I loved “Sleepwalking”, surely Amanda Somerville would have been a far better choice than Yang — who while not bad, suffers from awkward phrasing, spotty enunciation, and an all around weird approach to vocals… is she trying to be R&B, pop, rock, or none of the above? Hell if I know! As for Byford — I’ve never been a big fan and I can’t help but think when listening to his feature track here, “Black Orchid”, how much better it’d sound if Jorn was on vocals instead.
And while I realize that the guest vocalists on Avantasia albums are for the most part reflections of Sammet’s musical inspirations and interests, he has proven that he could stretch out before to spectacular results such as nabbing Roy Khan, or even Hansi Kursch himself on an old Edguy record. There’s a load of great talent out there, and maybe next time Sammet should set his sights wider to scope out some of the great contemporary vocalists out there in rock and metal that perhaps aren’t the traditional favorites (though no one would object to Bruce Dickinson… seriously how has that not happened yet?). I’m veering close into straight up nitpicking territory here I know, but this was the first time that an Avantasia guest list didn’t excite me (Martin being an exception), and I think that its been a bit of a damp towel on my enthusiasm for the album.
Despite initially looking forward to The Mystery of Time, I’ll confess that I was surprised that a new record was even in the works. Sammet all but put the project to bed after the 2010 mini-tour, citing that he felt he had done all he could under the Avantasia banner. So why the sudden change? Especially when its pretty much been a known certainty that his main band Edguy has indeed suffered in wake of the post-2006 resurgence of Avantasia. Look, like I said earlier, all his albums have their share of excellent moments, and the past few Edguy albums have been no exception. But I can’t honestly sit here and say that The Age of the Joker, Tinnitus Sanctus, and Rocket Ride can compare to earlier Edguy classics.
Its obvious to myself and other Sammet devotees that Avantasia has gotten most of his attention for the past half a decade now; consider that all of a sudden Avantasia’s total album count tallies at six, only three behind Edguy’s nine. In fact, since 2006, Sammet has delivered four full length Avantasia albums plus two EPs, while Edguy has only released three albums. If Avantasia has gotten the better half of Sammet’s songwriting for the past few years, its reasonable to say that Edguy has diminished in turn. Slowly, gradually, Avantasia has become Sammet’s main priority and Edguy is increasingly an afterthought.
There’s a fellow who goes by the name Empyreal on the Encyclopedia Metallum, whose reviews for various Edguy/Avantasia releases so often mirror my feelings as to why I love Sammet’s work so much. And as a fellow details obsessed devotee, Empyreal points out exactly what I was thinking about The Mystery of Time,
“A lot of these songs are more traditional rock-based ones, like Tobias usually does, even if they are markedly less “fun” sounding than he’s usually known for. I didn’t expect him to dive head-on into his new experiments without some forays back to the familiar territory, but it would help if some of these songs were better.“
I think that Empyreal is touching on something that has been bubbling under the surface for many Sammet fans, namely, it seems that the blend of rock and metal is tilting very far into rock and further and further away from anything remotely metal related. Heck, the new album is even subtitled as “A Rock Epic” for that matter, the era of the Metal Opera is long over apparently, as Sammet is deliberately distancing himself from a tag that admittedly does seem more and more burdensome. Now this wouldn’t even be an issue if the two bands didn’t sound so stylistically similar, but they’re becoming virtually indistinguishable in that regard. The hard rock infusions don’t bother me by themselves, but it does beg the question: Is there really that much of a difference between Edguy and Avantasia anymore? And to further that question, is Edguy relevant to Sammet, and if so, is there a way to get it out of the grand shadow cast by his larger than life side project?
Despite the newest Darkthrone masterwork only being a few weeks old in my listening rotation, I gotta be honest about feeling like I’ve been going through an all things extreme metal burnout lately. Regular readers of this blog probably won’t be surprised at hearing this, considering that I’m often talking about metal listening cycles in some form or fashion. I find it better for myself to be upfront about these things, not only for the blog’s sake but for my own overall enjoyment of metal’s sake. I don’t — as the road manager interviewed at Wacken in the Metal: A Headbangers Journey documentary claims to — wake up every morning and listen to just Slayer and Testament.
In other words, I love variety and diversity within the metal spectrum. Metal is a multifaceted form of music, and I enjoy pretty much most of its subgenres without discrimination. But why the burnout? I’m not sure… could be that I was listening to a ton of death and black metal at the end of 2012, and have frequented a good amount of local metal shows (which in the Houston area are almost always full of tepid, mediocre death metal)… whatever the reason, I knew something was amiss when I started listening to Foreigner on my iPod for my morning pick me up. Thankfully, three new albums from bands of differing styles are doing something fresh with their takes on extreme metal. Whats even better is that they collectively span the three major styles in this broadly tagged “extreme” category: black, death, and thrash.
In the case of Greece’s Rotting Christ, this was a band I hadn’t listened to in perhaps under a decade and had long ago written off as uninteresting (I’ve since checked out their back catalog on Spotify only to realize how wrong I was). Unbeknownst to me until now, they’ve been steadily pursuing a musical change of direction on their past couple albums, and its all led to the most radicalized experimentation of their career on Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy (Do What Thou Wilt), their eleventh studio album to date.
Quite simply put, I love this album. Its one of the more bizarre imaginings of black metal that I’ve ever heard really. These guys dig down deep into their Greek heritage for some dark musical inspirations that really separate them from the hordes of Norwegian copycats. Unexpected amounts of melodicism, unorthodox percussive rhythms, very inspired blackened vocal arrangements and original songwriting are just a few touchstones to remark upon. The obvious standout for its sheer accessibility is “Grandis Spiritus Diavolos”, a steadfast march in which the title phrase is repeated in staccato rhythm over a bed of ultra-melodic guitar riffs, some Uli Jon Roth-style solo accompaniment, and Therion-ish choir vocals. On “Cine Jubeste Si Lasa”, things get really bizarre with the addition of very ethnic, gypsy-like female vocals of Souzana Vougioukli that intertwine with Sakis Tolis’ ever blackened grim vocals to hypnotic effect. It took me awhile to process what was going on in the track, but its quickly become a favorite.
But there’s straight up rockin’ infused in here as well, such as in the title track, where pummeling drums are set against slower riffing guitars that tail off into hard rock styled twists. Its surprising but totally awesome, and it makes you envision someone putting Slash on stage with Abbath and telling him to just interject wherever he can. Oh and if you like your metal with a lot of spiritual-ish chanting in the background, this is your lucky day! I enjoy black metal for what it is — and its often dense and impenetrable music that demands your studious attention. And those aren’t negative attributes in my mind, they’re a part of the art. That being said its rare to come across a black metal album that is actually fun to listen to, and I can put this record alongside Sons of Northern Darkness in that regard.
A year ago, the talk online was about how Norwegian black metal was stale and that American bands were making black metal fresh again (despite essentially rebranding French black metal ideas, but nevermind) with shoegaze and indie influences. Rotting Christ on the other hand don’t subscribe to addition by subtraction — they isolate what they love about black metal and reshape it to reflect their native musical language. And in doing so, they show that you don’t have to remove the metal from black metal in order to freshen things up a bit.
And then there’s new kids on the block Cnoc An Tursa, who defy cheeky boy-band references with what sounds to me like a perfect melding of folk-infused thrash ala early Ensiferum with some of the most excellent blackened vocals that I’ve heard in recent memory. I’ve seen these guys tagged as viking metal or folk metal, and that’s a gross oversimplification. First of all, forget the Viking stuff, these guys are a Scottish band that emphasize a musical and lyrical focus on their nation’s history and culture in a rather eloquent fashion.
They draw upon the well of great Scottish poetry for their lyrical inspiration, as in “Bannockburn”, which depicts the battle that was central to the Robert Burns poem of the same name (and they do so in rather Burns-ian language themselves). On other tracks they essentially set a beloved Scottish poem to a bleak, wintry, blackened folk sound scape as with “Culloden Moor”, which works far better than the idea looks on paper. This is enthralling stuff, and whats great for these guys is that their original lyrics match the tone and consistency of the historic national poetry that they clearly treasure.
My favorite moment is “Ettrick Forest In November”, which is the Sir Walter Scott poem set to a blistering, epic as all hell, Bathory meets Moonsorrow explosion of atmospheric, melodic thrash. I’m throwing that term around a lot — thrash, because I hear it in the vocal approach, and in the attack of the guitars, their crunch and the suitably gritty production that emphasizes it. Its all done without sacrificing the cleanliness of the thoughtful keyboard driven atmospherics. No fronting, this could be surprisingly high on my best of 2013 list come December.
Finally, there’s been the newest release by Finland’s Omnium Gatherum, a band that I was initially introduced to through their highly acclaimed 2011 New World Shadows album. It took me quite awhile to really sink into that album, not because I found it lacking — the opposite actually, there was so much going on that was just way different from anything else I’d come to expect from melodic death metal. Odd drum patterns, alternately shifting tempos, bleak-washing atmospherics, and of course the obsidian vocals of Jukka Pelkonen. This is a weird comparison, but once I finally broke through with repeated listens, it felt like I had cracked the secrets of a musical Rubik’s cube — suddenly it all made sense and sounded right. So getting a chance to hear new music from these guys with that hurdle behind me has been a real pleasure.
Their new album, Beyond, is to me an even better collection of music than it’s predecessor. Whether its on the lead single, “The Unknowing”, with its sweeping arpeggio based musical refrain that is as cinematic as it is memorable, or on the breathy, acoustic laced “Luoto” and its buildup to the hooky rock guitar driven “New Dynamic”; this album delivers with a diverse range of songs that stretch the band’s trademark sound. This is especially true on the clean vocal laden “Who Could Say”, in which Pelkonen seems to draw on equal parts Sentenced and Amorphis. There are of course some classic styled melo-death moments, like my favorite on “The Sonic Sign”, where the guitar work includes beautifully harmonized dual leads playing a melodic refrain that you will not be able to dislodge from your head.
The strangest thing about Omnium Gatherum to me is the mood they create with their musical palette — its really hard to describe. I suppose I think of typical melo-death as bringing to mind dark, brooding, ominous, and often metaphysical imagery. Conversely the bright, modern, sleek, and yes even positive sounds of Omnium work to conjure up an entirely different head space, one that takes some getting used to. Or maybe that’s just my own weird way of interpreting things. To say Omnium has been a challenging listen for me is an understatement… there was a time where I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see what others saw about them. I won’t lie, Insomnium is still my favorite melodic death metal band and the one I crave the most, but Omnium intrigue me and keep me coming back for more listens. No one else sounds remotely like them.
There will be many — so so many reviews, opinions, forum rants, and of course YouTube comments that will take some pretty sharp, barbed digs with the metal pitchfork to this band and their new album The Nexus. Amaranthe offend many with a combination of sounds that hands tallied most metal fans would agree should not have ever been attempted. I’ve seen the old “just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done” line more than a few times in the past couple days. Conversely, this is a band with a surprisingly large contingent of often quite vocal supporters, many of them writing reviews for well known print and digital publications, and of course, they’ll be out there in full force online, equalizing the rebukes and jeers with various expressions of high praise — some of which will be ludicrously exaggerated. So here’s where I’ll step in, to offer a perspective from a fairly neutral middle ground.
Cards out, I’ll admit that I do enjoy Amaranthe’s deftly cobbled together blend of Euro-pop/American radio-rock with metalcore-lite dressing on a purely surface level — the same way I enjoy the ear candy pop of say Lady GaGa. In other words, this isn’t music that affects me on any sort of deeper level other than that I have a fondness for catchy hooks set to techno-y dance rhythms, pleasing vocals and harmony arrangements, and a memorable melody or two. Not exactly the criteria combination one usually takes into account when appreciating a metal album, and that’s exactly the point. Remove the modern In Flames-lite heavy guitar riffing, the growling/screaming vocals of Andreas Solveström, and you’ll be left with whats essentially pure dance-pop.
So are we reviewing, criticizing, lambasting, or praising this album as a metal album when at its core its anything but? And if so, to what degree is that distorting our emotional response when we hear this music? The metal-related elements are present nonetheless —- but for what purpose? I suppose really, they serve to make Amaranthe’s music distinguishable from other dance-pop driven acts. No one to my knowledge has really done this kind of mash-up before, and while I won’t suggest handing the band a trophy for innovation, they do stand out as a result of the merging of these two disparate musical genres. Face it, after Finnish polka with death metal infusions, at some point, Amaranthe was bound to happen.
I first became aware of Amaranthe after reading the infamous Angry Metal Guy review of their eponymous debut album, a scathing indictment loaded with derision that essentially labeled the album as a record label/producer hit seeking concoction. It was the most scathing review I’d ever read on the site and out of pure curiosity I had to check out what was sure to be a disaster among disasters. Greater than my surprise that I actually found myself beginning to enjoy the album over those initial repeat listens, was the lack of any kind of reactionary feelings towards the numerous folks who were disparaging it. Their reactions were fair I thought, as I could understand all their criticisms, as well as accusations of disingenuous motives of the band/label/producer/etc. But it was what it was, I enjoyed music by a band that was loathed by many, and as it would seem over time, loved equally as much by others. Who makes up those others by the way is really hard to define. Case in point are the striking clips of Amaranthe’s 2012 appearance at Wacken Open Air, in which camera pans across the audience reveal an equal amount of enthusiastic guys and girls, and more than a few of them sporting the t-shirts of some far heavier bands.
Most of the attention on the band falls on the obvious eye candy appeal of front woman/lead vocalist Elize Ryd, about whom I tend to agree with the prevailing critical opinion: She’s a pop singer who has been seeking her rise to fame; and hitching a ride aboard the metal train has been a quick way to stand out and get there. Who knows, she may actually enjoy metal but its difficult to believe that she has a metallic bone in her body. That may be a judgmental perspective, but one can infer a certain amount of accurate information from observation. I think she’s actually one of the more uninteresting people in the band’s lineup, as I’m far more intrigued by the back stories of both guitarist Olof Mörck, and clean vocalist Jake E, who in addition to being the band’s founders also work together as it’s primary songwriters (contrary to the speculation that the band must’ve had Swedish hitmaker Max Martin tied up to a chair in a recording studio somewhere). Here are two guys who until now have both languished far and long in relative obscurity within the metal world.
When you see the term “supergroup” applied to Amaranthe, its a total misnomer. While Mörck is fairly central to the Dragonland project, their music never attracted much notice beyond hardcore power metal devotees, and those of us who were enthralled with their take on Limahl’s “The Neverending Story” (yes THAT song) from 2002′s Holy War album. Mörck’s time in Nightrage has been limited to their post-2006 era, being the replacement for founding member Gus G. and arriving well after the acclaimed Tomas Lindberg era. Jake E. meanwhile is often noted as being a former member of Dream Evil, yet his time in the band yielded no recorded output, being only a brief stint as the band’s vocalist for six months. His tenure with the now-on-hiatus melodic power metal band Dreamland attracted little notice apart from being associated with Hammerfall’s Joacim Cans early in their development. I’ll avoid getting into the blips of time that the remaining Amaranthe members have been in their oft-cited past bands.
Point is that for Mörck and Jake E., they had put in a decade’s worth of time and dedication into various metal projects that ultimately were fruitless in terms of notoriety, creative and commercial (relatively speaking) success. When they got together and thought up the idea for Amaranthe, I imagine that for them the writing was on the wall that they might not have a lot of chances left; in addition to seeing a potentially golden opportunity with Ryd, who at the time had only guest vocalist appearances on her resume. The gambit worked, and one album and world tour later these two guys finally found their first taste of real success, commercially and even critically speaking. Was it a “sell out” move by both of them? I have a hard time throwing that term at anyone these days, especially within metal where paying your dues means a lot more than just playing jangly guitar in some coffeehouse in the Village. Ultimately its the songwriting of both men that is propelling Amaranthe, and the irony here is that two guys from pure power metal backgrounds are finally finding success only by mingling with pop music (perhaps something they realized had to be done considering the vocal style of Ryd —- operatic, classical… these terms don’t apply here).
On The Nexus, they seem to be following the don’t fix it if it isn’t broken blueprint, which is shrewd and smart, yet subject to a touch of the sophomore slump. And before I delve into that let me just state that this album isn’t a mind changer by any means. Whatever you felt after listening to that first album is likely what you’re going to feel if you decide to listen to this one. As I mentioned before, I completely understand why so many find this stuff distasteful, and if you’re one of those people, you’d do yourself no favors subjecting your ears to this album. For those of us who did find some enjoyment in their debut, new songs like “Invincible”, “Future on Hold”, “Stardust”, and “Infinity” with its dual lead vocal harmonies offer similarly pleasing melodic ear candy. I’m usually pretty big on quality lyrics, and they’re only serviceable at best here. Sometimes its hard to tell what some of these songs are going on about; but it doesn’t factor into the enjoyment level one way or another.
There are however a few tracks that seem to be indistinguishable, a misstep that they managed to avoid on their debut. As well as a startlingly awful moment with the utterly misguided “Electroheart”, a song so bad I can’t fathom why no one in that recording studio spoke up to say “guys, this is shit”. Whats even more unfortunate than it’s ultra bubblegum melody at work throughout is the fact that Andreas Solveström finds himself having to scream out the words “Electro Heart!” Its an embarrassing display that simply ends up being more ammunition for their detractors to utilize. Fire away guys… they earned the abuse with that one. Another noteworthy flaw is the overall absence of any remotely organic sound palettes, as this thing is over synthesized to a fault: The highlight of their overall-better debut album was the shimmering solo piano and vocal led “Amaranthine”, a stirring ballad that had space to breathe with a simple vocal melody that was effectively the backbone of the song. The ballad on The Nexus is “Burn With Me”, which while easy enough to envision being played on American rock radio, comes drowned in sound effects and lacks the ethereal nature of its predecessor.
Despite the hate and the over the top adulation this band receives, I think one important aspect of their success is forgotten amidst the back and forth. Amaranthe has a place within metal as an accessible gateway band for younger or uninitiated listeners. A teenager who is into regular rock could stumble upon this, get drawn in by the male and female clean vocals, catchy pop hooks, and find the admittedly mild toned screaming vocals easy on their palette. One thing leads to another and they’ll stumble upon heavier bands, perhaps someone touring alongside Amaranthe, or an Elize Ryd connection like Kamelot, and then a few bands later they find themselves listening to Omnium Gatherum, Insomnium, then At the Gates, then Nile… its possible. And a lot more likely than just having that person listen to Black Seeds of Vengeance and think its the greatest thing in the world (I’m sure its happened once but its unlikely). Awhile back I spotlighted a brilliant article written by Tom Dare of Metal Hammer, in which he argued that underground/experimental metal was interdependent with more mainstream/cover star metal.
He summarized it succinctly,
New young fans get into metal through the cover stars. I could try and tell you I got into metal through Anaal Nathrakh and Nasum on their debut albums, but I’d be lying, and obviously so… The reality is that metal needs all of its aspects, be they experimental and obtuse, crushing and horrible or catchy as an airborne variant of herpes in the Underworld… You don’t need to necessarily like it yourself, but if you think the end of the metal spectrum you love would be better off without the more/less marketable material, you’re madder than a collaboration between Deathspell Omega and Kate Bush.
- Tom Dare
I’ve come to a downer of a realization in that I am experiencing an ever increasing disinterest in the new music being released by one of my favorite artists ever, the prolific and amazing Steven Wilson. He’s worthy of those two adjectives still, the first because its true (Porcupine Tree/ Solo Albums/ Blackfield/ Bass Communion/ No Man/ Storm Corrosion/ various production work), and the second because to me and many others, he’s responsible for some of the most inspired, interesting, and emotive music that I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, period.
But I suppose its fair to say that most of that music comes within the context of Porcupine Tree and Blackfield, and the former is on hiatus and Wilson’s songwriting involvement in the latter has waned incredibly with their third release. It seems his priority for the past few years has been his solo work, and I actually enjoyed a good bit of Wilson’s first solo album, Insurgentes. Soon after came his second solo set, Grace For Drowning, and I was surprised to find myself loving only a couple of tracks from that album (the sparse ballads “Postcard”, “Deform to Form a Star”, and “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye”). And well… its the internet dammit — so you see loads of people on social media everywhere proclaiming the sheer genius, the great artistry of the album and think to yourself, “Huh, it must be me then”. Yes, a selfish, naive, and maybe melodramatic perspective, but an honest one still. I’d read interviews with Wilson where he’d be discussing the more jazz centric role he was investigating with his new band on that album and silently yearn for something else from him that was… well, not that.
So while I wondered like many others if Wilson had sown his solo oats and would be dutifully reuniting with his Porcupine Tree brethren, it was announced that his third solo album was finished and would be released relatively soon. Well, things are what they are, and if this is what Wilson is doing these days, so be it. He’s one of those artists in my musical world from which I’ll easily buy an album without hearing a note beforehand, he’s come through for me so many times (and one thing about buying Steven Wilson albums is that he delivers the goods on the packaging). So, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) arrives with a flurry of mainstream attention and critical praise from all corners that is unlike anything a Steven Wilson project has ever seen, even with Porcupine Tree. And to get right to the point, there are some really spectacular moments on here that I quite enjoy, but they’re often sandwiched between what I’ll just politely call A.D.D. moments where my mind wanders and I’m distracted by Reddit yet again. So I’m probably going to be the one to spoil the party a little bit, and say about the album: I don’t love it.
Maybe you’ll be along with me in the minority, and find yourself agreeing when I say that the sublime moments here seem isolated, remote, and often fleeting. I’m referring to moments such as the beautiful, sparsely strummed mid-section of the opener “Luminol”, the classic Wilson-esque balladry of “Drive Home”, or the best moments of “The Pin Drop” and “The Watchmaker”. The album closer title track is certainly haunting in its lyric, yet I find the music somehow lacking… atmospheric yes but emotive all its own? I’m not so sure. And I fail to understand the excitement and hype about the album centerpiece, “The Holy Drinker”, a ten minute plus barrage of wild instrumentation with no coherent order among any of it. Do people really get off on free form saxophone? I’m not trying to be pedantic, I’m really curious… I find the instrument irritating most of the time. My overall feeling about the album is hard to put into perspective because on the whole I think that I may be finding more to enjoy here than on the chaotic, free-for-all that was Grace For Drowning, as its a much more song driven affair (no real jazz odysseys to be found here… thank god). Yet at the same time, I feel that I really love those few aforementioned Grace For Drowning cuts whereas I merely like the albeit, greater amount of good material here.
And I guess whats alarming as a fan of the guy is that the deeper he goes into his solo prog explorations, the further away he’s getting from what drew me to him in the first place. I’ll admit, I found Wilson’s music through Porcupine Tree’s heavier, more metal-inflected albums starting with In Absentia and Deadwing, but I went backwards in the catalog and loved everything from the Pink Floyd-ian The Sky Moves Sideways to the pure pop of Lightbulb Sun. The conduit through all of those albums was I suppose, relatively linear song structures, where even the intensely prog-rock moments and ambient soundscapes were held in check by a commitment to either a rock/metal backbone, or a pop songwriting driven focus. He loses me musically with the jazz perspective, and while I wish I could say I’m able to clue into that world, I simply can’t. The aggravating head-scratcher about The Raven That Refused To Sing is that it actually is a careful step back towards relative linearity… so where does that leave me?
P.S.: I want Porcupine Tree back.
There’s a moment on the new Darkthrone record, the typically Fenriz-esque titled The Underground Resistance, where you might smile and think to yourself, “These cheeky bastards.” Its at the start of “Valkyrie”, where Metallica-esque acoustic guitars chime in a ghost version of the reoccurring melody that carries this really bad-assed musical ode to classic metal of the 80s. Its a moment that I speculate was left in purely to piss off those people who tend to allow themselves to get pissed off over newer Darkthrone music.
I’m sure Fenriz would disagree, but you tell me if there’s a more self-aware artist within extreme metal today? Of Darkthrone, it is generally accepted that Fenriz is the contextual historian, the purist, the idealist — whereas Nocturno Culto, or Ted as I’ll refer to him from now on is the band’s charismatic spiritual force, and the one who you can really believe is fairly oblivious to the perspectives of fans, critics, and anyone else who has an opinion of his band’s works. I wonder if Ted’s approach to Darkthrone is the driving force to keep the music going. Don’t get me wrong, I like Fenriz — (he’s such an endearing personality, how could anyone remotely into metal not?) but I get the feeling that if the whole operation were left up to him, he’d be far more didactic about songwriting and the end results wouldn’t be nearly as fist-pumpingly awesome as the ones we’re getting on The Underground Resistance.
This is not a black metal record. This is a balls to the walls pure heavy metal album in a kaleidoscope of classic metal styles fused together through grimy Darkthrone mirrors. Much has been made, positively and negatively, of the King Diamond-esque wailing vocals found on the pre-release track “Leave No Cross Unturned” (Fenriz has gone on record in saying the vocal was more influenced by Geoff Tate circa 1984 but hell it sounded like the King to me and everyone else). That was as good as any moment from this fairly short album to single out as a microcosm of what Darkthrone are trying to achieve here, but the wider perspective that I gained after hearing the five other cuts is that this is easily the most extroverted, outward music the band has ever made.
I won’t go into typical topics like catchiness and what style the riffs are molded from, because you’re an educated reader and know about the musical path that these guys have been walking down for the past couple albums now. Whats surprising and different about this album is just how much the guys have really reigned in the punkier aspects of their attack, tightened up the riffing, and for the first time ever cleaned up the production (seriously cleaned UP!). The end result of all this is a serious muscling up of the Darkthrone sound, and without realizing that I wanted it, Darkthrone have given me the album that I’ve been craving from them. As much as I have loved and appreciated newer Darkthrone, especially 2010′s Circle the Wagons, I’ve always felt that sonically they were miles away from the musical approach of 80s metal artists that Fenriz himself so championed. What happened with this album is that someone barged into Fenriz’s apartment, threw off whatever was on the turntable and put on a rotation of Stained Class, the first two Metal Church records, and Don’t Break the Oath and yelled at him to only listen to these from now on.
Its absurdly early to be talking about the best albums of 2013, but you’ll see this on a lot of lists to be sure, and of course, you’ll see it left off the lists of a lot of curmudgeons as well. Some people can’t handle Darkthrone’s adamant refusal to return to pure black metal and as a result will not be able to accept reality, which is this: The Underground Resistance is the BEST Darkthrone album of the past decade, and perhaps their most enjoyable record ever. If you don’t have fun listening to this, you’re wrong.