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Kamelot’s Path to Haven

May 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 15, 2015

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Endless Forms of Nightwish

April 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capricious Nords: Enslaved Return With In Times

March 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 14, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Those Crazy Germans! The Scorpions’ Return to Forever

March 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 18, 2015

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

Blind Guardian Take Us Beyond the Red Mirror

February 5, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traveler In Time: Memories of a Blind Guardian Fan

January 28, 2015



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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