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Reading Between the Lines: Iron Maiden’s The Book of Souls

September 19, 2015

To say that I am at once overwhelmed, apprehensive, and more than a little doubtful of my capability to write eloquently about Iron Maiden’s new album, The Book of Souls, is to say the very least. Perhaps I haven’t said it enough in the past, but among all the bands I honestly deem my favorites only Iron Maiden stands well above the rest —- unquestionably my most loved band of all time, heedless of genre. They’re my most loved for a litany of reasons; for not only their vast array of stunning albums and enthralling songs, but for the astonishing story of their actual band history, the individual personalities involved, their often demonstrated sense of humor, and their steadfast, unwavering commitment to their distinctive stamp on metal —- never chasing trends, never compromising their vision. You could call me a fanboy and I’d likely nod in agreement, but there’s a unique trait among Maiden’s diehards (even the fanboys/girls) not often seen in fans of other bands, namely, the willingness to admit that not everything the band touches is gold, that there have been shaky albums, that there exist some songs that can rightfully be deemed clunkers.

Yet that attention to detail and willingness to admit the fallibility of our heroes is set against a backdrop of the sense of their impending mortality as a functioning band. Its not clear whether or not The Book of Souls will be the final Iron Maiden studio album, but its getting late in the game, the band knows it, we know it, and consider that by the time the as expected world touring for this album is finished, another 2-3 years will have passed (at least). The five year gap between this and 2010’s The Final Frontier was the longest period of time in between any two Iron Maiden albums, and it was devastating in terms of the band’s future longevity. To the band’s credit, they’ve made respectable use of their post reunion time: three years separated Brave New World to Dance of Death to A Matter of Life and Death, four separating the latter to The Final Frontier… a well paced clip for a veteran metal band whose tours have become gargantuan, media-stirring events in themselves, certainly leaps better than Metallica’s two studio albums in the past fifteen years. But at some point in the future, sooner or later, we’ll read an announcement that the mightiest of them all will be calling it a day, and when that occurs thousands upon thousands of Maiden fans across the world will feel a somber gravity deep in their guts, the opening of a yearning chasm that won’t ever close. No, I don’t think I’m exaggerating.

There will only ever be one Iron Maiden, a band so uniquely singular that they’ve inspired entire subgenres in their wake, and whose remaining years as a functioning unit —- for me anyway, are to be cherished and savored. Its impossible to be all things to all people all the time, and not everyone has been as thrilled with the post-Bruce/Adrian reunion as legions of others and I have. For those people, some of whom I know and respect greatly, there are still the tours to be enjoyed, but I feel a touch of sympathy for them in that they haven’t found something to love in the handful of post-reunion albums. For me, Maiden’s post-2000 studio albums have been about a veteran band that seemed strained and tired in the mid-90s finding renewed purpose, vigor, and creative vitality. They began to stretch their wings creatively, incorporating more of their oft-cited Jethro Tull influences into their songwriting and even instrumentation, as well as continuing to tell vivid and imaginative stories through their lyrics. A couple years back there was the release of a new Maiden compilation album, this one titled From Fear to Eternity: The Best of 1990 – 2010 —- and not only did I believe it to be an entirely justifiable release, but I felt that they missed a handful of gems that could’ve made the final tracklisting.

So when yet another new post-reunion Maiden album has taken up residence in our eardrums, there’s a few ways that it will typically be interpreted depending on the particularity of the audience. I’ll get specific: Maiden die-hards, faithful, lifers, etc (or use your own adjective!) will rejoice and give the album the benefit of many repeat listens, understanding that the band has largely transitioned into a more progressive rock influenced direction; a sound that is light years away from say the Dianno-era revivalism of 1990’s No Prayer for the Dying. Some of these die hard fans will love every iota of the new album and defend it quite passionately, while the bulk of the others will find much to enjoy about it while conceding that it may have weak spots here and there. A handful might even lament that it doesn’t do much for them, but that they’ll keep coming back to it over time, a fair enough response. But what they will all share is an appreciation for the mere fact that a band that started producing classics before many of us were born is still around in the year 2015, delivering an interesting new album written internally among long tenured band members (no outside songwriters here), and performed and recorded with eyes and ears towards both tradition and adventure. They can relish that the band is perhaps even more popular now than they were in the 80s, allowing them to be a part of a flourishing era in Maiden history.

Then there’s the cynics, mostly found online, who’ll loudly proclaim that the band should’ve retired after Seventh Son, or that any old bands still kicking around should give it up (as if ageism is suddenly an acceptable thing in metal, a genre built upon layers of tradition and acknowledging influences). Maybe this is just my thing, but I reserve a large amount of skepticism towards anyone who looks upon the very idea of a new Maiden album with anything resembling negativity —- because it begs the question: Where is their joy? What happened to their desire to be genuinely excited about new music by a legendary band, and more distressingly, are they still a metal fan at all? I’ve been pretty open about not being a Slayer fan, both here and on the MSRcast, but I’m aware of and interested in their new album. I wasn’t ever the biggest Ozzy with Black Sabbath fan (I know, look I prefer the Dio albums) but I was glad to listen to 13 and even enjoyed a good bit of it. I gave Metallica hell on this very blog about their constant delays in releasing a new album, but its largely motivated by my desire to see them make a great record again, for me to reconnect with a band that has long been a stranger to me. Its not uncommon that with the overwhelming presence of social media and its continuous stream of opinions that we’ll all get a bit jaded, cynical, distracted, overwhelmed, or just plain over it —- but when it is something that has roots in our upbringing as metal fans, don’t we owe it to ourselves to try to suppress those tendencies?

Why am I going on about such things? Because the album had only been out a mere day before I saw inane, dismissive takes (mostly found on comment sections of popular metal news sites and Facebook… believe it or not Twitter commenters are actually more insightful, despite only having 140 characters to work with) disparaging the album with a single adjective or snarky remark. It was as if some people believed that their sense of perception has been honed to a finely sharpened point thanks to the sheer amount of technological distractions on their phones and tablets, and that only one cursory listen of a new album is sufficient to render an opinion. Let me assure you, that for as loaded an album as The Book of Souls is in all its 92 packed minutes, it is not anywhere near enough. I’ve just hit my 32nd play through according to iTunes, and the first thing to come to mind from what I’ve learned about the album is that your best approach is to listen to disc one and two separately, as in take a generous break in between both. This was a strategy suggested by Adrien Begrand in his brilliant Popmatters review, now confirmed and absolutely endorsed by me. He’s right, 92 minutes of dense prog infused metal is too much to digest at once, even if its Maiden, because you’ll eventually lose track of what you’ve enjoyed and what you didn’t and things might start to blur together. Be patient, give yourself breaks, listen on speakers and headphones, and listen to other things to cleanse your palette.

This is not a perfect album, nor a masterpiece as I’ve seen proclaimed by many of the rabid faithful, because one thing a lot of spins in a concentrated period of time can prove is that the good stuff gets better and the not so good stuff just sticks out more. Angry Metal Guy seemed to hit the nail on the head in his recent Maiden career retrospective (recommended by the way, its terrific) when he said “I finally put my finger on the bane of Iron Maiden – an invention known as the compact disc”, pointing the finger at the band’s well-meaning yet possibly artistically detrimental attitude of giving the fans’ their money’s worth. I can’t argue with him, for as much as I’ve enjoyed the post-reunion albums I have felt that they could all benefit with a track or two left off as b-sides (if they still do that sort of thing). Also I take into account that I consider Seventh Son of a Seventh Son to be the band’s only perfect album, with its moderate LP-sized 44 minutes (also the length of No Prayer For the Dying, so LP-sized albums aren’t a perfect tonic all the time by any means). Double albums were always rare things, and now increasingly so, due largely I suspect to so many bands having the benefit of the knowledge that rarely do they ever work all that well. In interviews surrounding this release, Maiden made it clear that they didn’t care about such risks.

The Book of Souls has many high points, and they all seem to share defining traits that have characterized Maiden’s best work, that is metal that is tension fueled, high energy, and played with a sense of urgency regardless of the actual tempo, tone, and volume of the song. The best of them all is one of Maiden’s most poignant in “Tears of a Clown”, their tribute to the recently departed Robin Williams. Musically its a close cousin to The Final Frontier’s “Coming Home”, a steady mid-paced groover with Nicko’s best fills and frills showcase in ages, but its lyrically where Steve’s touching lyrics really hit home: “We saw the sadness in his eyes / It came as no surprise / And now of course we’ll never know”. In his interview with the CBC radio show Q, Bruce revealed that it was only after he had finished recording the song that he found out about its subject matter, which is pretty incredible considering the performance he turns in here, emotion pouring out of every note. To my knowledge, Maiden might be the first band to have recorded a song specifically about Williams’ tragic passing —- its made them a lot of headlines in non-metal media outlets, so its all the more gutsy that their take on it is steeped in melancholy and even grim acceptance: “Maybe it’s all just for the best / Lay his weary head to rest / Was forever feeling drowned / Tears of a clown”. In a single succinct quatrain, Harris puts into words what many of us (certainly myself for one) had briefly considered regarding Williams.

Bruce also triumphs on the album opener “If Eternity Should Fail”, which apparently started life as a potential song for a future Bruce solo album, and indeed it does structurally and musically owe more to his solo works than anything Maiden-related. Its recorded in drop D for one, a first for the band, and its entire aura seems like it could’ve fit at home on The Chemical Wedding or Tyranny of Souls. Its verses lack the traditional Maiden gallop or rhythmic Maiden march, instead relying on more traditional, straight ahead metal riffs that impact like a sledgehammer. The chorus is magnificent, you can hear echoes of Bruce’s solo writing style all throughout, particularly with the major keyed intonations during the lines “Waiting in line for the ending of time / If eternity should fail”. This might be one of my favorite Maiden album openers of all time, stormy and brooding, explosive and violent, its lyrics speaking vaguely of human mortality and the dawn of time. I wondered what the lyrics were about exactly and found Dickinson mentioning in an interview that the song was to be part of a concept album he was working on, about a machine that steals peoples’ souls (the awesome spoken word at the end is supposed to introduce a character named Doctor Necropolis). Harris was taken enough with the song to insist on it being adapted as a Maiden track, and to keep the conceptual narration ending despite it being unrelated to anything else on the album, and I agree with him, it was a great call. I will find myself wondering what it would’ve sounded like as part of Bruce’s future solo record though.

Where “If Eternity Should Fail” sees the band being daring and trying new things, they still know how to sound spectacularly like classic Maiden, such as on the near flawless “The Red and the Black”. Chances are it’ll be one of the first songs to really pop in the middle of the album, a prediction reinforced by the injection of plenty of galloping bass, swashbuckling vocal swings by Bruce, dueling lead guitars on beautifully melodic motifs that usher us along to familiar “Heaven Can Wait” styled “whooa ooohhhs!”. The recurrence of that golden Maiden-ism doesn’t feel forced, because if you’ve really paid attention you’ll know that they don’t utilize it all too often —- here its a treat, a lyric-less chorus that quivers with euphoria, the kind of song I’m chomping at the bit to hear live. All three guitarists erupt in a glorious soloing trade-off towards the end, while managing to maintain the intensity of the song as a whole. Similarly in the Janick Gers penned “Shadows of the Valley”, guitars take center stage with deft, quick motifs that work as tail end outro to a vocally dominated chorus, working as a punctuation mark for the song. Gers’ songwriting contributions to Maiden’s past twenty five years have been greatly undervalued, he’s been consistently knocking out quality stuff like this.

There are however a handful of cuts where either the recorded-live-in-studio approach works against the song, or where the songwriting itself needed extra work to help sculpt something better than the end result. For the former, take a minute to imagine if “The Great Unknown” were recorded with a little more in the way of clarity with regards to the guitar lines (and to a similar extent, Bruce’s vocals as well). The band has been using this quick takes / live jamming in studio recording approach since A Matter of Life and Death and while it works for the most part, there are have been moments even on that record and its followup where a little more musical definition would’ve allowed a melody to come through better. This extra definition could simply come in the form of choosing a better take (though we read reports that many of the final results were one take performances, a questionable call by producer Kevin Shirley), or by merely sitting down Adrian, Dave, or Janick to do some overdubs or track layering. For “The Great Unknown”, I’m specifically referring to the 2:23 – 3:06 mark where you can hear a trace of what this melody is supposed to be, but it sounds like its lost in the messiness of a live recording take that needed to be redone. At the 2:45 mark, the song shifts into what could be a very epic moment, but you just can’t hear it it soaring through the way it practically begs to —- its a gross miscalculation that they didn’t consider adding in a few guitar overdubs. This of course recurs throughout the song whenever this part pops up again, but if you’re interested in hearing what the actually melody does sound like, skip to the 4:10 – 4:31 mark. Its a solo I know, but hear that recording quality? Maiden’s melodies demand that kind of clarity to sound crisp and vivacious, and on studio albums they should be recorded to reflect that all the time!

As for the songs that needed some extra time in the songwriting oven, there’s the strangely empty sounding “When the River Runs Deep”, the unevenness of “The Book of Souls”, and the could’ve been amazing “The Man of Sorrows” (yet another Bruce solo career reference!). Lets tackle them in reverse order: I really wanted to love “The Man of Sorrows”, but I suspect where it all goes flat is that its nicely dramatic intro verse and exceptional bridge section doesn’t explode into an expected chorus right away, instead the song shifts to yet another expanded verse section set to a bed of plodding riffs that don’t really seem to have any melodic sequence to them. By the time the chorus rolls around, the song has lost any momentum it built up with that dramatic bridge (refer to 1:54 – 2:25 if you’re wondering what I’m talking about). The atmosphere of the song is cool, the outro mirroring the intro is a nice touch, but the song never really seems to take off in the middle. The same can’t quite be said for the title track, which at ten minutes plus has enough time for some really inspired moments in small pockets, but can’t sustain itself over its lumbering length. I love the recurring bridge part, can’t say the same for the chorus however, but quite enjoyed the shift towards rampaging Maiden-styled rocker in the final few minutes. As for “When the River Runs Deep”, its not a bad song per say (kinda reminds me of “El Dorado”, but then I liked that song) but it seems to be lacking in the guitar department —- seriously, listen to that chorus, is that just one guitar blandly riffing underneath? In a three guitar band that’s the best they came up with there?! Where are the other two guys?! It ends up sounding flat and… well, lazy.

And it comes as a shock and disappointment that its the two much trumpeted Bruce/Adrian co-written songs in “Death and Glory” and “Speed of Light” that first caught my attention as songs that seemed to be severely lacking. Setting aside their collaborations in the late 90s on Bruce’s solo albums Accident of Birth and The Chemical Wedding, these two haven’t actually written as a pair alone for Maiden since “Moonchild” on Seventh Son —- yes they’ve co-written on many Maiden songs since then, but always in conjunction with another band member (mostly Steve). When it was first leaked that we were going to be treated to not just one, but two Bruce/Adrian compositions, I think most of us had echoes of “Two Minutes to Midnight” ringing in our ears, a tantalizing promise of Adrian’s pop sensibilities with Bruce’s gift for lyrical storytelling. But neither of these two new songs hit upon either touchstone: “Death and Glory” seems lackadaisical, tired even, with its directionless open chord guitar blasts in the chorus making the song sound more like loose, boogie-based rock n’ roll than the soundtrack to soaring aerial combat as per the lyrics. On “Speed of Light”, the ill-advised choice for the first single, Bruce sings about space, time, and event horizons albeit in metaphysical fashion over a riff progression that recalls “Sea of Madness” from Somewhere In Time. Its does its job as a serviceable, rockin’ tune with a memorable chorus, except that its not nearly as melodic as it should be —-Bruce’s vocals straining in the chorus seem to be a pale substitute for something that’s lacking in the songwriting here. I was deaf to this song’s flaws when I first heard it premiere, so hungry for new Maiden I gobbled it up and loved every second of it —- but its in context with the rest of the album where its overall deficiency is exposed.

I figured I’d save any words for “Empire of the Clouds” for last, considering that it very well could be the final Maiden track we ever get. Its a doozy, a Bruce solo-penned eighteen minute long epic about the ill-fated 1930 maiden (no!) voyage of the Airship R101 composed on keyboard and actually recorded by Bruce himself on piano (!) in the studio. The subject matter isn’t surprising, as a tragic story about one of the worst accidents in aviation history seems fitting for Maiden and even more so considering Bruce’s piloting career. Its a spiritual cousin to “The Journeyman”, the band’s first acoustic guitar based cut from Dance of Death, but here Maiden supplements Bruce’s piano with electric guitar figures that softly echo melodies or complement them. On paper that sounds like it shouldn’t work, and to a certain extent it doesn’t —- because not even a fifteen stanza long lyric demands eighteen minutes of actual running time. There are some moments towards the end that could’ve used someone saying “we can lose this bit, and this other bit here”, but alas, this is Maiden, and this song is why The Book of Souls is a double album. That being said, I really do love this song, its first few minutes are delightful, beautiful and rich in their simplicity. Dickinson’s lyrics are inspired, he’s clearly in love with the source material. The dynamic band interjection at 8:35 is tremendous, the guitar melodies at 10:34 are flag-wavingly epic — it all just comes together really well. There’s so much to love about it, I can forgive the extra minute or two they should’ve shaved off. Its a song that deserves your time, attention, and most importantly patience.

I suppose I could say the same thing about the entire album though, because even all those extra listens and delays in my reviewing the album as a result didn’t cause me to ignore its errors. Setting aside the issue of length for a second, I think this is the album where the idea of recording live as a band in the studio and keeping the mistakes has run its course. Nicko stated in a recent interview that he loved that there were little drumming mistakes in “Speed of Light”, and other musical errors in other parts of the album, that they added to the “vibe”. I disagree entirely. Leave the live performances for the stage, and sit every individual member down in a chair with their instrument and carefully record their parts, record overdubs, simply record carefully! Let the songwriting take care of the “vibe” the next time around, it worked for twenty plus years for god sake! Put in context with its similarly recorded successors I’d have to rank this one a bit below The Final Frontier and A Matter of Life and Death, despite those albums’ both needing their own bit of overdubs and length editing. Speaking of length, Angry Metal Guy was right: Maiden’s great achilles heel in the CD era is their inability to discipline themselves and self-edit. That being said, I find myself willing to take all the extra minutes and seconds I can get… because I feel there’s a sense of finality ringing somewhere distant. I really hope this isn’t the last one, this band has so much more to say, so many great songs left unwritten. But all things come to an end, and if The Book of Souls is that end, I’ll be okay saying bon voyage.

Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 2!: Symphony X, Powerwolf, and More!

August 25, 2015

Back again with yet another Reviews Cluster, covering a sizable chunk of some of the noteworthy metal releases that have dropped in these broiling summer months. There are so many that I’m pretty sure I’ll need one more summertime edition of these things to get through everything I’ve had to listen to lately. Its not a bad problem to have, but it hasn’t made it easy to finish off the non-reviews pieces that I’ve also been working on. Some housekeeping for me and you then: Expect a string of non-reviews pieces next, stuff I’ve been working on for awhile and have consistently had to delay because of the flood of new releases. It may mean a delay on reviews for new albums for a bit (except for Iron Maiden’s upcoming The Book of Souls, which I anticipate having up shortly after its release),  but eventually I’ll get around to having most of the major releases covered. Its been a grinder of a year for new music, with barely enough time to delve into the last batch of releases before another rolls in. I will admit that I’m excluding over half of the promos I’ve listened through and am only reviewing the ones that are of distinct interest to me for better or worse —- there’s a point when you can get burned out reviewing albums and I’m trying to avoid that. And canning the chatter…. now!

Symphony X – Underworld: Some of you who happened to catch the dawn of this blog back in December of 2011 will remember something I wrote about just how long it took me to get into Symphony X. Long story short, it was years upon years, even after seeing the band live on their Paradise Lost tour, a block that was only cleared through their 2011 album Iconoclast. You might also remember that it was the album that topped my best of list that year (I’ve since retroactively amended that list in my mind, giving the top spot to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum and second to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow, dropping Iconoclast to number three —- but I won’t change the published list, it was a authentic snapshot of that time… anyway…!). For whatever reason, in 2011 I happened to be more receptive to the band’s classically infused take on prog-metal, and their infusion of a thrash metal attack on both Iconoclast and Paradise Lost was ultimately what led to me really being able to sink my teeth into those records. It was Iconoclast in particular that I felt was really inspired, a near-perfect fusion of visceral heaviness in the form of an aggressive rhythm section, razor sharp guitar wizardry from Michael Romeo and really terrific songwriting.

It was going to be an uphill battle for Underworld in that regard, but you’d figure that a four year gap between its predecessor would help its cause. Maybe it does a bit, because I honestly think its a good album, but it lacks the wall-to-wall hooks/microhooks that made Iconoclast such a joy to listen to. Don’t misread my meaning, because there certainly hooks to be found, and Russell Allen delivers yet another excellent performance in singing them —- being that rare prog-metal singer able to make accessible a nominally high learning curve subgenre of metal with his more hard rock inspired approach. It also features what has quickly become my favorite Symphony X song to date, the wide-open power ballad “Without You”. Its the kind of song that Allen is so adept at, with panoramic melodies that rocket skyward in the refrain and with enough iterations of the chorus throughout the song for him to lay on various inflections and changeups. If the guitars were chunkier you’d figure it was Allen guesting on an Avantasia song or perhaps a stray cut from an Allen/Lande album.

Unfortunately the rest of the album that seems to blend together, lacking songs with any real sense of identity or memorable moments. Some are better than others, such as “In My Darkest Hour” with its Whitesnake-ian chorus (I suppose the verses are a little Dave Mustaine-ish, to nod to the Megadeth reference… I doubt its intentional however). I do enjoy the swift transitions that separate each section of “Run With the Devil”, suddenly moving from mid-paced thrash metal to an AOR-tailored bridge only to finish with a strangely alt-rock chorus. Its a weird clunky track that actually manages to stand out. Everything else however is just there, and it took me a long time to figure out why so much of this album failed to affect me at all. I suspect its because the band has capitulated on the degree of the heavy thrashy-ness they doubled down upon for Paradise Lost and particularly on Iconoclast. Here they’ve decided to merge the heavy era of the past eight years with their lighter, proggy era before 2007, and in effect dulling the impact of the album a bit (for me). That they had moved towards a heavier direction was ultimately what pulled me in, and their distancing away from that is whats pushing me out.

The Takeaway: Far be it for me to slap a negative adjective on this album, because I’m sure a lot of longtime Symphony X fans will love it, and its certainly as well performed, recorded, and produced as you’d expect it to be. But I wonder if others who got into the band with either of the previous two albums are feeling the same way I am —- not entirely disappointed, just relatively disinterested.


Powerwolf – Blessed and Possessed: I’ve never written about Powerwolf before, which is odd for this blog considering they are one of the bigger power metal bands across the pond in the recent years. They’re almost at a Sabaton level of popularity in their home country of Germany, with their previous album Preachers of the Night topping the German Media Control chart (a feat not even accomplished by Blind Guardian or Manowar yet, both bowing at number two). They are an interesting bunch to be sure, a power metal band that wears black-metal styled corpse paint (actually their aesthetic probably owes more to King Diamond than Euronymous but close enough), sings about werewolves and y’know… werewolf culture, oh and their music is the kind of hyper-polished take on power metal that’s tailor made for arenas and Euro summer metal fests. They write catchy songs, with absolute intention of sculpting memorable choruses with easy to sing a long lyrics set to keyboard led melodies. As a major fan of Sabaton, I should really enjoy them —- right?

I’ll be diplomatic, I like a small handful of Powerwolf songs, particularly when the band indulges their Twisted Sister pop influences such as on “We Are the Wild”, as good an original song you’ll find on Blessed and Possessed. Its cliche-laden lyrics could be talking about werewolves (I’m sure they are) but they also work in that ever so eighties metal trope of addressing their fans… especially those in attendance at the show that night. Its fist-pumpingly goofy stuff, and I’d be right there in the midst of it, grinning like an idiot and raising my fist in the air in rhythm, drunkenly mis-shouting the lyrics. There are quite a few rather great concert choruses spread across these eleven tracks, the problem is that often the verses fail to stack up in relation: I’m referring to songs like “Dead Until Dark”, “Sanctus Dominus”, and “Army Of The Night”. Enjoyable choruses all, but the build up to them is so pedestrian, and so interchangeable, with nothing in their verses or bridges to hold onto and remember.

When I listen to a band like Blind Guardian, Sonata Arctica, Falconer, or even Sabaton, those are bands whose songs are loaded with twists and turns, structural writing meant to ramp up emotion or tension, and unusual singular moments of brilliance never to be repeated. Its just a whole other level of songwriting that Powerwolf has yet to achieve, or perhaps is not interested in aspiring to. I don’t have a problem with the band wanting to be the AC/DC of power metal if that’s their thing, but its worth noting that beyond the classics I’ve found AC/DC often quite boring. The entirely separate hit against Blessed and Possessed is that the promo version I received was for the limited edition that comes with a staggering ten (10!!!!) cover songs of metal bands past and present. That I enjoyed them more than the actual album they were attached to was my first hint that I might never be a Powerwolf fanatic. The covers are pretty entertaining, with great takes on Savatage’s “Edge of Thorns” and Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark” in particular. There’s not a lot of deviation from the originals, but Atilla Dorn seems to have a malleable enough voice to cover an array of his heroes.

The Takeaway: If you enjoyed anything they’ve done in the past, you’ll probably enjoy Blessed and Possessed, albeit with a feeling that you’ve been buying the same album over and over again. My advice to everyone else: Get on iTunes and download “We Are the Wild” and a handful of the covers on the bonus disc for your “Party Metal” playlist (I know you have one!).


Luciferian Light Orchestra – Luciferian Light Orchestra: A few months ago Christofer Johnsson, the brain trust of Therion quietly released an album via a new side project of his called Luciferian Light Orchestra, a mysterious band that plays a deliberately 70s styled version of occult rock. In this case that means vintage sounding guitars and Hammond Organ aplenty with breathy, detached female vocals over the top. I describe the project as mysterious because Johnsson is the only listed member, credited with handling most of the music and contributing some backing vocals (can’t discern where though). Rumor has it that one of the lead female vocalists on board (I suspect there’s at least two lead vocalists, could totally be wrong about that) is Johnsson’s girlfriend Mina Karadzic. As for who else is on board? I have no idea, and have tried in vain to find out. One thing has been revealed however, that most of the alleged twenty plus collaborators on the album are members of the Dragon Rogue, a mystical order that will be familiar to fans of Therion — Its founder and spiritual leader, Thomas Karlsson, has been writing Therion’s lyrics since 1998.

The insular nature of the project and the secrecy that shadows its individual parts only fuel the air of mysticism that oozes out of the nine songs on this self-titled debut. Your first impression listening to the album will probably match the one I had, that these songs while relatively simple and poppy for Johnsson are still loaded with a ton of Therion-isms. This makes sense when I read off the band’s one page official website that “the band is performing songs that Christofer Johnsson has written over the years but thought were too retro sounding for Therion.” Well, that explains the Therion-isms then. Its their hook-laden pop appeal that is the far more interesting trait running through the album, that a song like “Church of Carmel” can stick with me for hours upon hours throughout the day… typically speaking Therion songs don’t tend to do that (not a slight, I just find that I enjoy them more via actual playback as opposed to memory). Seriously, its a hypnotic, seductive, and charming song with a hyper-memorable chorus that is shoehorning itself into the best songs of the year conversation.

The rest of the album is no slouch either. I love the bizarre, hypnotically stoned-vocal approach of “Taste the Blood of the Altar Wine”, with its Heart meets Black Sabbath dark, smoky riffs and Deep Purple organ soundscapes. I’m also quite partial to the awesome guitar work and abrupt motif-changes of “Venus In Flames”, a Therion-ism that will smack you in the face. There’s some fantastic female lead vocal work on that song, with a voice that conjures up an actual witchy Stevie Nicks (albeit with a deeper register). There’s also something delightfully campy about its lyrics, particularly during the ending chant/refrain of “We hail Sathanas, Venus – Lucifer”. Perhaps I’m committing a faux-pas in assuming that the lyrics are to be interpreted literally, maybe I’m missing a grander metaphor at work —- with a guy like Johnsson at the helm I wouldn’t be surprised. Its just hard to take a song titled “Sex With Demons” with its lyrics specifically discussing sexual lucid dreams of unholy creatures of the night any other way. Actually this interview with Johnsson explains a ton regarding the lyrics if you’re interested (apparently Karlsson also assisted in penning most of these lyrics as well).

I was a little late on getting to this album, a rare occurrence for me when considering it was new music from the guy who gave me Therion, one of my favorite bands of all time. I had been wondering what Johnsson was doing in between random tour legs… writing that much talked about opera for one, but a part of me suspected he might also be hedging his bets a bit and slowly working on a new regular Therion album just in case. He very well might be, but with a significant portion of his time having gone into the LCO project I guess its not as much as I hoped he would. Am I disappointed? Not really, because this side project has been far more enjoyable than I could have ever suspected (occult rock and 70s throwback rock isn’t really my thing), I find myself listening to the album quite a bit, in the car, on headphones when out for the morning walk. Its a fun, loose, lively rock album that while not the deeply intense, spiritual experience of a fine Therion album, is still entertaining and artistic in a strange, unique way.

The Takeaway: Give this one a shot, even if that just means checking out the “Church of Carmel” or “Taste the Blood of the Alter Wine” music videos on YouTube. Its a strong set of songs done in a style that is annoying when handled by lesser talents —- but this is the guy who brought you Therion. That being said, I suspect that this will largely be a hard pass for some of you, but for you others there might be a hidden gem awaiting.


The Darkness – Last of Our Kind: I’ve gone full disclosure on this before when I listed a song from The Darkness’ 2012 album Hot Cakes on that year’s best songs list (“She’s Just a Girl Eddie” in case you were wondering, and it still holds up!). I’ve enjoyed this band since learning about them shortly after their debut album was released stateside back in 2003. Their mix of Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Queen hits a sweet spot for me that few hard rock bands have ever managed to post-2000. Regardless of what you’ve thought about their image, their over-the-top stage show and their often times silly lyrics, The Darkness are consummate songwriters first and foremost. And I’ve never personally believed that they were a parody band, because their songwriting suggests an honest love of their influences that shine through, and an earnest attitude towards bright major key melodies, harmonized vocals, and openly bared sentiment. Any interview with either Justin or Dan Hawkins should be enough to clue you in on their baked in authenticity as fans of rock n’ roll, and their sense of humor is derived from their inherent British-ness. Despite sharing a similarity in their band names and the year of their debut album’s arrival, The Darkness had nothing else in common with all those bands of the post-millenium garage rock revival (you know… The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes, yawn, etc).

So their fourth album then, the aptly named Last of Our Kind, for certainly few bands are making music that sounds like this anymore, not even Def Leppard themselves. On the whole its an okay record, a bit more guitar-oriented than Hot Cakes (its closer to the debut in that regard), but that comes with its own drawbacks. What made Hot Cakes such a successful comeback album was its very honed in focus on making sure its choruses were shimmering and finely tuned for maximum memorability. That was an album loaded on catchy songs with sugar-pop hooks, largely vocal melody driven —- as a result the guitars took on more of a rear cockpit role and worked mainly to support them. On the new album the guitars are clearly the focus of attention, Justin and Dan trading off wild riffs and allowing their swirling, spiraling solos to be right up front. This is a facet most assuredly helped by Dan Hawkins serving as the album’s producer (a skill he honed during the band’s long hiatus) and defacto mix engineer. It works on the really simple, heavy attacks like “Barbarian” where the riff is the actual refrain, Justin’s vocals playing off it like a call and response. It works similarly well on the rather Cult-like “Open Fire”, with its gang-shouted chorus working as a breaker between verses rather than operating as a fully formed hook.

Where the increased emphasis on guitars tends to murky things up is on songs like “Roaring Waters”, where space that should be left for the development of a fully arcing chorus is shared with screaming guitar figures. Its not a bad song, but its not all that good either, nothing you want to come back for certainly… aren’t we listening to The Darkness for the don’t bore us get to the chorus mentality? If the chorus has nothing interesting to offer, what else are we left with? Again on “Mighty Wings”, the song is sabotaged by loading up layers of guitar wails over synth-based keyboard wash, leaving no space for vocals to maneuver. In this particular case though, I suspect its more that the song didn’t have much going on anyway… I tend to skip it whenever it pops up. On the utterly boring “Mudslide” (a name all too fitting for its sonic palette), we’re expected to enjoy a song built upon a riff so bereft of inspiration its hard to believe you’re not listening to a jam session at a rehearsal. This is all the undoing of what could’ve been a good album, that is a preponderance of songs built around the concept that the riff will be central to all things. Perhaps it was worth a try, but this is also why you use outside producers, to provide a sense of perspective about what you’re actually recording —- surely such a person would be able to tell the band what some random blogger is saying: “Your music works around vocal melodies, you’re not the Scorpions! Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken!”

Its in the more traditionally vocal led songs where the album really shines, such as on “Sarah O’ Sarah”, a sprightly, up-tempo tune with a charming brace of acoustic strumming and wonderfully endearing lyrics. It might be one of their all-time best songs, its lyrics purely in the Justin Hawkins trademark vein of bittersweet, “I’ll be patient, I’ll be strong / Until you see you’re wrong / Because I swallowed / Swallowed every lie you ever spat”. Later in the refrain, Hawkins flexes his creativity as a lyricist, “Sarah, oh Sarah / Make my heart burn / I’m lost within this labyrinth / Nowhere to turn”, which not only scores marks with me for the usage of labyrinth in perfect phonetic rhythm, but the imagery it inspires of a love-lorn fool unable to move on with his life. The power ballad “Conquerors” could be better, but I do enjoy its range of harmony vocals, with a point-counterpoint approach in it’s chorus. But its not as good as the title track, with its anthemic chorus and Thin Lizzy-esque guitar outro segue (the perfect order of things for this band). Its my second favorite tune on the record and perhaps the most archetypal moment on the album. I might normally dock a metal artist points for those, but I want familiarity in my hard rock bands.

The Takeaway: Toughie, but I’d recommend grabbing the title track and “Sarah O’ Sarah” off iTunes and leaving the rest behind. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of Hot Cakes instead, or even the rather underrated second album One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back. Both are front to back hard rock classics to my ears, with nary a misstep —- the debut is great as well.


Royal Hunt – XIII: The Devil’s Dozen: Like clockwork, another Royal Hunt album lands in our laps, this being the third with vocalist DC Cooper since their reunion on 2011’s Show Me How to Live. In keeping with modern era Royal Hunt, it sticks with the AOR blend of melodramatic hard rock mixed with classically infused power metal, though far more leaning towards the former than the latter. I’ve been viewing this AOR element as a way for songwriter/guitarist Andre Andersen to steer the ship back towards a more melodic meets progressive direction ala the classic original DC Cooper era in the mid-nineties that gave us masterpieces like Paradox. After Cooper left and John West took over the vocal helm, it really did seem like the band got heavier, a little more metallic in their sonic approach, but it affected the songwriting in a meandering, heavy on the prog kinda way. They were good albums and West was a solid replacement, but I missed Cooper as well as the sheer fun and hook laden sensibility his era provided.

I’ve been relatively satisfied with the DC Cooper era Mark II, except that sometimes the AOR elements are so overpowering that they soften the impact of what is still a power METAL band. Its relatively similar to what Silent Force has been going through recently, though not quite as dramatic. That’s not to suggest there aren’t convincingly heavy power metal songs here, because tunes like “How Do You Know and the absolutely epic “A Tear In The Rain” are every bit as aggressive and hard hitting as anything the band has ever done. I’m stressing this quality in regards to Royal Hunt not only because the injection of hard rock and AOR devices into traditional power metal has become something of an enduring yet overdone trend in the past decade, but because the rather distinctive style, sonic palette, and mood of Royal Hunt has typically demanded that the band walk that fine line between uplifting melodicism and dark, somber symphonics.

So when the band chooses to use a hard rock meter to pattern out a riff instead of relying on a classic power metal approach, as on “So Right So Wrong”, the results skew a little more towards pedestrian melodic metal rather than the gloriously pompous grandeur we’ve all grown to love and expect from Royal Hunt. Don’t get me wrong, its a good song, obviously catchy and well written, but I can imagine it being a little more intense, perhaps even a tad more uptempo. I’m talking about the kind of intensity heard on a song like “May You Never (Walk Alone)”, as classic a Royal Hunt tune I’ve heard in years. Rollicking tempos, furiously unrestrained percussion, and a grandiose, aggressive keyboard arrangement fuel the energy in this gem of a track, allowing Cooper to deliver his vocal like a wildman. Andersen is still as adept as ever at writing magnetic riffs paired with synth lines, such as on “Way Too Late”, a brooding juggernaut of an epic with an ascending chorus that sees Cooper hitting some high notes he rarely visits. The album tends to alternate these strong moments with weak ones, preventing one side from being dominant, but the overall effect is one of inconsistency.

The Takeaway: Royal Hunt die hards will snap this one up, as they should, but newcomers might do better with its two immediate DC Cooper fronted predecessors. Of course it must be reiterated that newcomers should have already picked up 1997’s classic Paradox. Its a seminal album in power metal history and Royal Hunt’s finest hour.


To Die For – Cult: Ah the return of To/Die/For… I feel like its 2003 all over again! I’ve always had a soft spot for these Finns and their synth heavy blend of pop and gothic metal, with their predilection towards recording unusual covers (seriously they’ve done a handful… remember their take on Sandra’s “In The Heat of the Night”). They never quite reached the ranks of affection that I reserved for their countrymen in Sentenced (being that the two were stylistically similar to a degree), and later on Insomnium and Ghost Brigade. But their initial prolific run from 1999 to 2006 yielded some pretty good records with a few remarkable singles, and a some really fun gothic metal dressed takes on U2’s “New Year’s Day”, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Its a Sin”, the Scorpions’ “Passion Rules the Game” (respected their song choice here, but the execution was lacking), the Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight”, and yet another (I Just) cover in their spin on Ozzy’s “(I Just) Want You”. Unlike those aforementioned bands of fellow Finnish countrymen, To/Die/For never really released a masterpiece of an album, always playing better as a singles band. I suppose it was what prevented me from really paying close attention to their activities throughout the years. After awhile I thought they had broken up, and it turns out they briefly did for a few months in 2009, but reunited and made a so-so album in 2011 called Samsara (had no idea!).

Throughout all these years the core of To/Die/For has remained intact, that being vocalist Jarno Peratalo and guitarist Juha-Pekka Sutela, the rest of the five piece lineup being filled out by relatively new members. I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to Samsara, but if the new album is any indication, then either Peratalo or Sutela or both have been listening to some of the grittier records by their fellow countrymen who are operating in a relatively similar style. On Cult, gone is the upfront presence of bright synth keyboards that characterized the band’s sound in the past —- instead, the guitars are murkier, darker-toned, more reliant on minor key melodies with long, modulating sustains on guitar. Now granted the latter is a fundamental characteristic of Finnish melodic metal (death or power metal), but do a side by side comparison of a To/Die/For oldie like “Hollow Heart” and the single from this album “In Black” and you’ll hear what I’m referring to. Modern To/Die/For owes more to post 2003 Amorphis, the last Ghost Brigade album, and those last two classic Sentenced albums than anything from a gothic rock milieu ala HIM (more fellow countrymen!).

Over at Angry Metal Guy, much of the discussion surrounded the seeming decline of Peratalo’s vocal talents, and indeed he does sound vastly different. His deep voiced clean vocals of the past now more resemble Poisonblack-era Ville Laihiala (really intense resemblance between the two voices here), and the change is a pretty good suspect for the musical shift towards a dirtier, darker, heavier style. This is the most metallic I’ve ever heard To/Die/For, and while it does tend to take away from their rather distinctive identity, it does yield some pretty good songs. Actually, I’m quite taken by the first three songs that open the album in a Finnish depressive salvo, from the aforementioned “In Black” to the furious, expansive melancholy of “Screaming Birds” (my personal favorite —- love the guitar solo from the 4:10-4:38 mark!), and the far more traditional (ie synth heavy) “Unknown III” which serves as a tribute to Tonmi Lillman (former To/Die/For, Lordi, and Sinergy drummer) with its raw, open-nerve ending lyrics: “Now you’re in the unknown / Your name’s written in stone / I just want you to know / You really had meaning / You know sometimes…. sometimes I still / Get wrapped up in the feeling / I don’t belong here”. Peratalo is joined on that refrain by a female vocalist named Linnea Kelin, who adds an subtle touch of additional pathos to an already emotive lyric.

There’s other good stuff too, “You” is a throwback to the band’s far more gothic rock drenched stylings of the past, despite Peratalo’s harsher vocals. And I love the direct simplicity of “Let It Bleed”, which might be setting some kind of record for the quickest launch into a song’s chorus in the history of metal (mere seconds). If anything its the two dirge-like ballads “Mere Dream” and the album closer “End of Tears” that fall flat, with no real discernible thru-melody to carry them while awash on a river of keyboard atmospherics. And in keeping with tradition, the band unloads another unusual cover tune, this time its a clunky take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”, which was a snazzy dance-pop number in the 80s but one of those songs that didn’t really need a rock/metal makeover. Its really the first of their covers to fall completely on its face, and that it winds up in the middle of the album ruins an otherwise nicely flowing song selection. I guess overall I’m more at peace with Peratalo’s changing vocals than the folks over at Angry Metal Guy were, because it seems that both he and Sutela knew exactly how to compensate for that change and adjust their songwriting approach accordingly. What they lost in originality they made up for with some really terrific songs.

The Takeaway: Much better than you’d probably be expecting from a band only releasing their second album in nearly a decade. Maybe its just me and my unabashed love of Finnish melancholy (it certainly does seem to strike a chord within me) but this is a surprisingly strong set a songs with only a few blemishes to skip over. Worth the time to investigate.


Cradle of Filth Bring the Hammer Down

July 23, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

July 7, 2015

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Belated Review of Faith No More’s Sol Invictus

June 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again

June 28, 2015

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

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

Kamelot’s Path to Haven

May 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Endless Forms of Nightwish

April 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capricious Nords: Enslaved Return With In Times

March 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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