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Catching Up With 2014: A Huge Reviews Roundup!

July 22, 2014

I got an email the other week asking me where my reviews for the newest Delain and Xandria albums were, and it was a good point, these albums were released in April and May respectively, so if this person’s belief was that I was simply late and lazy, well fair enough. So I replied back and told him that in all honesty, I never enjoyed Delain to any great extent and that I was simply unaware that Xandria had released a new album, but that I did enjoy their previous album. He replied back in regards to Xandria that I should get on it since I was a big Nightwish guy anyway, and as for the Delain album, okay so I’m not a fan of the band —- just review the album anyway. So with that riveting backstory in your mind, here are those reviews as well as a large batch of additional reviews for releases between April and now that I had either been listening to, or putting off listening to because I was too busy listening to the great music the year already yielded. Like someone finally paying his/her credit card down to zero, this is me squaring everything up (I say that while having three new releases staring me in the face, unlistened to).

Because there’s a lot of reviewing going on below, I decided to try something new and limit myself to a range of 300-400 words per album, which believe me was a difficult task for someone as obnoxiously loquacious as myself. See! Loquacious?! HELP ME!

 


 

Delain – The Human Contradiction: First things first, kudos to said reader who persuaded me to give Delain’s newest album a shot, because this was a band that had failed to impress me at any point in their career previously. In fact, their last album featured a single/video that actually made me cringe, the pallid “We Are the Others”, a heart on sleeve “anthem” directed squarely at the hearts of this band’s core audience, namely, disaffected rock/metal adoring teenage girls (and I suppose some guys as well). How can I be so blasé about a band like Delain while I sing the praises of the biggest female fronted band of them all in Nightwish? Simple: Because the latter is a vehicle for the self-centric artistic motivations and confessions of one Tuomas Holopainen, who also happens to be a uniquely brilliant songwriter whose lyrical voice I’m fascinated by. As we all know by now, the female voice singing Holopainen’s songs is less important than the actual content/context of songs themselves (be honest, when you read the lyrics of “Ever Dream”, do you innately hear Tuomas or Tarja’s voice?).

Conversely, female fronted bands like Delain and their brother band in Within Temptation (literally —- Delain’s core songwriter, Martijn Westerholt, is the brother of Within Temptation’s Robert Westerholt), as well as the lesser talented Lacuna Coil place a greater songwriting/lyrical contextual emphasis on their singer’s erm, well, feminine natures. Case in point, Delain’s vocalist Charlotte Wessels has penned nearly all of the lyrics throughout the band’s discography, and her perspective comes across as understandably female-orientated. In other words, its sometimes a little difficult for me to personally relate to the lyrics, and so I fall back to enjoying the music as simple heavy-melodic ear candy ala Amaranth. Thankfully the band finally delivers the goods in that department! Good to near great examples of pop songwriting abound, the hooks actually work, and there’s a handful of outright ear-wormy cuts such as “Your Body is a Battleground” and “Stardust”. There’s some inspired guest appearances as well, such as the aforementioned Nightwish’s Marco Hietala on the darkly lush “Sing to Me”, his rough yet melodic vocals a great complement to Wessels. Less impressive and necessary is Alissa White-Gluz’s growls on “The Tragedy of the Commons”, but maybe I’m just burnt out on her overall. Slight misstep forgiven —- this was a fun listen!

Takeaway: I’ll never fault a band for catering to their core audience as long as their integrity isn’t compromised, so more power to Delain in their quest to court empathy from the hearts of black lipsticked teens everywhere —- just pile on the quality hooks for me.

 

Nightmare – The Aftermath: I’ve always wanted to like France’s Nightmare. On paper I really should, since they’re supposedly right up my alley: They’re a hybrid trad/power metal band from a country that is fairly most associated with post-black metal ala Alcest; and their longtime vocalist Jo Amore is a fairly decent blend of Dio and Jorn Lande (himself a pretty good Dio stand-in). They also have the respectable career back story of coming back from a thirteen year absence in 1999 to give it another go after their record label in the mid-eighties flamed out and took the band’s enthusiasm with it. That fact alone has always had me rooting for them and giving each new release a few spins. So it was halfway through my fourth spin with this new album when I remembered why it took my American power metal fan’s guilt to muster enough patience to sit through a new Nightmare offering. I’m glad The Aftermath ended up in this reviews roundup, with an emphasis on these reviews being shorter, because I’d be stumped for what to really say in depth about this album. My biggest problem with Nightmare overall has always been their lack of good songwriting/songwriters —- not to suggest that there is “bad” songwriting on display here, this is passable metal that wouldn’t be a damp towel on the beer drinkin’ in the garage good times of your average pack of metal fans, but it doesn’t pass the most important test for me, namely the ability to enjoy the album by oneself in the car or on headphones. During my last play through, I actually reached a point where Amore’s vocals began to grate on me, and that was more a result of his having to sing over go nowhere riffs/melodies and aimless songs. Hooks in songwriting actually need to bell curve up, you know… resemble a friggin’ hook.

Takeaway: Ever see those guys in the Olympics who take a running start to backwards jump over the high bar only to clip it with their legs or back? That image is my review of this album.

 

Goatwhore – Constricting Rage Of The Merciless: This is the first Goatwhore album I’ve listened to since 2006’s A Haunting Curse, and I’m coming away pleasantly surprised. I was never personally big on Goatwhore, but I’ve enjoyed them in passing over the past decade plus because I grew up alongside friends and roommates who were VERY big on Goatwhore. My mind is going back in particular to one Bill Hendricks, who was big on all things NOLA metal related in general. He introduced myself and others to the feral pleasures of Goatwhore albums and live shows and it just became one of those touchstones that we randomly had in our metal educations. In the interest of full disclosure I’ve developed a bit of an inborn prejudice towards bands with purposefully schlock horror-ish names, I suppose because when you grow up it feels a lot more sillier to proudly proclaim that you listen to a band called Cannibal Corpse than it did in sixth grade. But I still appreciate a whole host of bands that fall under that “juvenile” tag (and let’s be honest, how mature did the name Megadeth ever seem really?).

The key for most of these bands is for them to understand in what milieu they work best in —- is it constantly shifting, morphing experimentation, or are they better served by playing it straight? Goatwhore have always played in the blurred lines between blackened death metal and thrash —- they exist in a sweet spot soaking in elements of all three to create a sound that is fierce, unrelenting, and jagged. The most surprising aspect of their new album is just how well produced it is, something I’d never really correlated to this band before (and that could just be me misremembering). The production was handled by Erik Rutan (yes that Rutan), who has done their past four albums and its easy to understand why they keep sticking with him. He’s able to get across that dirty, raw, grimy sound that is such a Goatwhore trademark while simultaneously keeping things “clean” —- you’re able to discern melodies, individual instrument tracks, and the vocals are neither buried in the mix or laid too far over the top. I’m not going to get into individual tracks, because there’s little to distinguish from track to track (could be a criticism?), but its a short, straight to the point, front to back listen that’s enjoyable for its particular style.

Takeaway: This is pretty much the definition of the kind of beer drinkin’ in the garage with your idiot metal buddies type of metal that I was referring to earlier in the Nightmare review. I’m sure Goatwhore won’t take offense.

 

Septicflesh – Titan: Remember how just a few sentences ago, I was going on a bit about bands with juvenile sounding names that might defy expectations by releasing adventurous, experimental music contrary to what you were expecting (ala Rotting Christ)? It must really be a Greek thing then, because Septicflesh is another band that hails from the inadequately governed mean streets of Athens, and they too play an unorthodox take on traditional death metal. Whereas Rotting Christ utilize heavy injections of Greek folk music and black metal repetitive hypnotics in their music, Septicflesh swing in the other extreme direction by infusing experimental symphonic elements into the fabric of their songwriting. Think modern day Therion’s classical trajectory meeting Behemoth’s blackened death metal, and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect here. I’m surprised at just how wonderfully challenging Titan is as a sheer musical experience. Simultaneously and conversely punishing, exultant, and beautiful —- there’s a lot to absorb here. But before I start going off with superlatives galore, I’m told by those who know that many a Septicflesh fan has found this album to be a step below their previous album, 2011’s The Great Mass, which I have not listened to. So with that in mind its perhaps fair to leave in the possibility of a different comparative opinion depending on your perspective.

But its hard to not be impressed by the epic trumpet stirrings of “The First Immortal”, or the heavy symphony wed passages in “Dogma”, all packed in between slicing riffs over a sophisticated rhythm section. I’m particularly fond of every moment in “Prometheus”, the grandoise highlight of this set, where the heaviest dirge like moments meet choir sung backing vocals and major key string sections. Its by no means a perfect album —- there were a few scattered sections in songs across the tracklisting where I thought they should’ve picked up the pace or added a differentiation here or there. And as good as those aforementioned tracks were, there was a lack of a definite clear-cut “great” song, the kind that symphonic metal masters like Therion (and yes, Nightwish) are so adept at delivering. Remember my mantra, it begins and ends with the songwriting.

Takeaway: If you’re like me and would’ve dismissed this band because of their admittedly stupid name, go against your instincts and give this a listen. But if you’re one of those who adamantly refuses to listen to bands with names like these, I suspect you’re one of those who thought John Carter was a great movie title.

 

Xandria – Sacrificum: This may sound strange, but I think one of the best things Germany’s Xandria has had going for them is that at any one point in time when I’ve listened to them, I’ve had no idea who their singer was. And they’ve had more than a few —- the new singer Dianne van Giersbergen is their fifth in the band’s now seventeen year history (for reals, on both accounts)! The side effect of a female fronted band having such a rotating cast of vocalists (particularly in the past couple years) is that the attention they receive is largely for the music itself rather than the appearance of the singer. If that sounds cynical, its because its a statement reflecting a great deal of reality —- after all, magazines don’t have those “Hottest Chicks In Metal”  features for no reason right?

But if you’re only just hearing of them with these past two albums like myself, don’t feel too bad, they didn’t really make an impact until the truly surprising Neverworld’s End in 2012, their only recording with the excellent Manuela Kraller. It was their first impact album, and elevated them into maybe potential first tier status alongside Nightwish, Within Temptation, and the like. Whether or not they can turn that maybe into a definitely depends largely on the success of Sacrificium, and the big question mark there is can Giersbergen succeed as the band’s new vocalist (and of course, is the songwriting as good or better than the last album)? For my tastes, I think they’ve nabbed victories on both those fronts, as I’ve been enjoying Sacrificium even more than the last one. Giersbergen sounds like a lighter toned Kraller, who was herself a near dead ringer for Tarja Turunen (albeit with less a pronounced accent).  The songwriting has managed to stay consistently sharp enough to produce a few really knockout hooks as on “Come With Me”, “Stardust”, and “Dreamkeeper”. And there’s a sense of adventure to the opening title track epic (always gutsy to start an album off with a ten minute track), as well as to the album’s string, piano, and vocal closer “Sweet Atonement”, a ballad that may not work entirely on a melodic level but is interesting to listen to regardless. I’ve found myself coming back to this album often —- sometimes to my surprise I’ll find one of its songs in my head throughout the day. A promising sign.

Takeaway: A great band for anyone who thought Nightwish died when Tarja was canned (I thought they got better really, so this is a double win for me). Also check out the Neverworld’s End album —- YouTube “Forevermore” and thank me profusely.

 

Brainstorm – Firesoul: My apologies to Andy B. Frank and the gang, it wasn’t that I willfully ignored you back in April, but your new album Firesoul had the misfortune of arriving directly in the midst of my receiving the new Edguy and Insomnium albums. Its not that I like those bands better… well, actually I do, but those were two releases that held the possibility of changing styles for both bands, for better or worse. I had to find out and so they immediately received my full attention, but in a way that’s complimentary towards you guys, because I’ve never had a reason to be concerned about what to expect on a new Brainstorm offering. You guys always deliver quality melodic power metal loaded with hooks and often impeccable choruses, and Andy sounds as ageless as ever. Consistency in producing good work is rare and admirable, and Brainstorm stand in the company of a select few in the power metal world in that regard. I love you guys.

Okay, with that out of way (hey I felt guilty!), here’s the thing about YOU not having listened to Brainstorm yet (because I know!): Cut it out, get with the program and get to YouTube, Spotify, or better yet just place an order for an album already. The new one’s a good place to start, it recalls some of the band’s best work from the Soul Temptation and Liquid Monster days. I’m speaking specifically of cuts like “Entering Solitude”, with its aggressively energetic, soaring chorus boasting a hook that is satisfying beyond belief. Using the word satisfying made me think of a Snickers bar, and perhaps that’s appropriate —- Brainstorm is the Snickers of power metal, they’re substantial on both the heaviness and melodic fronts, they’re a band with songwriters that understand how to perfectly balance those two elements to project, well, POWER. They’re like a steak and baked potato dinner… alright enough with the food metaphors, you get the idea. Other cuts worth praising here are the spectacular “Recall the Real”, “The Chosen” and the quasi-ballad “…And I wonder”, with its sneakily complex refrain and excellent guitar fills. That Brainstorm 2014 sounds just like Brainstorm in 2004 is not only a thing of wonder, its a blessing.

Takeaway: This is the most woefully under appreciated band in power metal next to the mighty Falconer. A decade plus of consistently solid to great releases should command everyone’s respect, and maybe that will start to happen finally. Also, Andy B. Frank’s name is fun to say!

 

Triptykon – Melana Chasmata: Tom G. Warrior is back yet again with his second Triptykon album, and its also one of the most complex, densely written records of the year —- and that could be a great thing or a horrible thing depending on how well you can digest this stuff. In case you’re out of the loop, Triptykon was born in 2008 from the ashes of Celtic Frost, and in spirit and in sound it serves as a spiritual successor to that legendary band. Personally I’ve been a fan of Warrior’s work in general, even finding a few things to like about the infamous Cold Lake album (no, not “Dance Sleazy”), so my perception of this album might be vastly different to newcomers who should probably start off with one of the classic Celtic Frost releases. Of course a familiarity in the complexities of bands like Emperor would be a plus in being able to process the sheer unorthodoxy that is on display here. I really do like this album and feel that its one of the stronger records of 2014 overall, but it took me well over a dozen spins front to back to even remotely begin to feel that way. And I don’t mean a dozen cursory spins, I mean a dozen sit down with your headphones strapped on and close your eyes kinda spins. Its a tough nut to crack.

There was always a blending of metal styles within Warrior’s approach to the classic Celtic Frost era: some proto-black metal stylings, death metal brutality, thrash metal riffage, and a doom metal approach to atmosphere. I loved Celtic Frost most when they amped up the trash metal and death metal vocals and kicked out some thundering, body shaking full on assaults. Suffice it to say, it took me a long time to get into 2006’s slow, brooding Monothiest, which was largely made up of foreboding doom influenced passages. I had hoped that Triptykon would be Warrior’s gradual move towards incorporating more upbeat, aggressively thrashy guitars into his songwriting again, but he’s two albums in now and it looks like he’s largely sticking to this dense, monolithic, doom laden style for good —- and I guess I’ll be okay with that. There are some specific metallic moments worth singling out however, like the second half of “Aurorae”, where the music transitions from its slow hypnotic chiming guitar figures to a decidedly crunchy if not entirely aggressive riff. The one overt concession to anything resembling old Celtic Frost is the blistering album opener, “Tree of Suffocating Souls”, where punishing riffs work as a bed for some of Warrior’s most brutal vocals in ages. Its a rare moment of sheer metallic indulgence.

Takeaway: Basically get used to the fact that Triptykon is a continuation of a version of Celtic Frost that largely severed ties to its classic era sound in search of something new, you’ll have to judge for yourself whether that’s a good or bad thing. I’m still waiting for him to write something nearly as awesome as “Wings of Solitude”.

Rocka Rolla! Judas Priest’s Surprising Redeemer of Souls

July 9, 2014

I didn’t know what to make of the K.K. Downing announcement way back in 2011 declaring that he was hanging up his guitar and retiring from Judas Priest —- and apparently, music altogether. Maybe this makes me sound like a jerk, but I wasn’t really bothered one way or another, because unlike the recent albums of Iron Maiden, which have individually enthralled me in their own wonderful ways, Priest hadn’t really wowed me with any of their recent post-reunion work. Okay, I’ll admit that I really loved hearing some of the Angel of Retribution songs in concert when the band played Houston with Heaven and Hell back in 2008 (in particular the ballad off that album, “Angel”, really was something incredible live). But the follow-up in 2008, Nostradamus, was a head-scratcher of a conceptual album —- the sound of a band overreaching their abilities. Look, there was little chance of anyone ever mistaking Judas Priest for Andrew Lloyd Weber (or heck, Queensryche circa 1988), but save for a couple pretty good songs in “Prophecy”, “Persecution”, and the catchy title track I found that the rest of the album was a wash. I think that there were a couple problems with Priest’s comeback plan in general, the first being that they simply waited too long to make a reunion happen, whereas Maiden’s timing with the dawn of the millennium was nigh-perfect, and secondly the artistic output wasn’t coming fast enough. By the time Downing left the band, Priest had only done two studio albums with Halford —- hardly the amount needed to redevelop a writing partnership. ‘Priest classic’ was back for six years, and apparently only six.
 

So Halford and Glenn Tipton had to pick up the pieces of this whole situation. Not only were Priest down a guitarist in a distinctively two guitarist band, but they also had lost a major songwriting partner in Downing. They recruited Richie Faulkner to fill in on guitar for the Epitaph world tour (remember all that noise about it being Judas Priest’s last world tour?), and during that trek they began to realize that they had stumbled onto a potential candidate to permanently replace Downing. The real test would be the writing process, of which they purposefully slowed down and refused to declare a release date to the press. Faulkner was not averse to writing ideas on the road, which was new to Halford and Tipton. The results of jamming on the road followed by spending the next two years carefully working together as a newly gelling writing team resulted in a lengthy delay to, well, July 2014. And its finally here, the first Judas Priest album in history to not feature K.K. Downing’s riffs and songwriting, and Priest’s first new album in six long years. And here’s the funny thing, I wasn’t anticipating this album at all, had marginal hopes for it at best, and had already developed a nitpicky pre-release criticism about the artwork looking too “on the nose” —-  yet here I am, writing the following words that will tell you that this is the best Judas Priest album since Painkiller. I’ll put it another way, this might very well be a classic Judas Priest album. Unbelievable.

If you’re haven’t listened to this album yet and am wondering what’s behind such an audacious claim, I’m going to point to Ritchie Faulkner himself. The new kid’s (he’s only 34) contributions to the songwriting process course all throughout every song on this thirteen track long reinvention of the classic Priest sound. That it’s thirteen tracks long and of a high caliber throughout is perhaps the most surprising feature of Redeemer of Souls, I got past the first six songs with a goofy grin on my face and thought “well its probably gonna slip a little from here on out”, but no, it just kept going strong! There’s an infectious enthusiasm running through these songs that is impossible to not be affected by —- a very tangible sense of joy and euphoria and revelry in sounding fresh and revitalized. Faulkner is the key behind this, because he plays off Tipton in a far more wild and uninhibited rock n’ roll way than Downing ever did. That isn’t a knock on Downing —- he was of course crucial to creating the Judas Priest sound we all know and love —- but there were patches of staleness over the past four studio albums. Faulkner is well versed enough in the classic Priest guitar attack to be able to fall into lock step alongside Tipton for the band’s trademark dual rhythm assaults, but he’s also a freewheelin’ riffer/soloist that is capable of adding in unexpected frills and runs to further complement Tipton’s ever razor sharp attack. This is some of the most impressive guitar work as a tandem in Priest history.
 

The album opens with a track that proves as much, as Faulkner and Tipton are all over “Dragonaut”, an anthemic beast of a song that matches classic syncopated Priest riffage with blazing tradeoff solos. The bottom end is beefed up as well —- the band simply sounds heavier than I remember, an attribute accentuated by carefully crafted songwriting on display here, where guitars are allowed to breath, Halford has plenty of space to work with, and the hooks land right in your gut. It’s followed by the pre-release title track single which I somehow managed to avoid listening to in the months preceding the album release, a likeable mid-tempo stomper that clears the palette for one of the best songs on the album, the truly inspired “Halls of Valhalla”. I love everything about this song, from the distant echo-ing intro to the aggressively complex stick work of Scott Travis, to Halford’s most satisfying lyric and vocal take since the Painkiller days. He sounds ageless here, unleashing classic Halford-ian panoramic screams you didn’t know a sixty-something had in him, while delivering deft vocal work on the verses segments, a grand metal orator. It would perhaps be a misappropriation to say that Priest were influenced by modern trad or power metal, but one can’t help hearing hints of Blind Guardian for example on a song like this (and not just because of the “Valhalla” reference). That perfect song is followed by the nearly as epic “Sword of Damocles” which features one of the most surprising misdirections in Priest history: A bluesy bend to the  guitar passages makes you think we’re in for a road-warrior type anthem, but the chorus unfolds with an uplifting, surging melodic hook with a Manowar-ian lyric, “Truth will find its reward / If you live and die by the sword!”. Somewhere in Jersey, Joey DeMaio is shaking his fist in a jealous rage.

There are simply too many good to great songs on here to get into a lengthy track by track discussion —- and the thing about a good Priest album is that its meant to be experienced, not dissected. This isn’t intricately layered and produced extreme or progressive metal, its simple, straightforward traditional metal with the expected Priest tendencies. Songs like “March of the Damned”, “Crossfire”, and “Hell & Back” are your steady mid-tempo, fat riff led British blues-metal rockers. But you’ll also get a few really excellent uptempo, speedier cuts of the Painkiller era cloth like “Metalizer”, and the truly inspired “Battle Cry”. And they deliver the goods on the classic Priest metallic take on the power ballad (being that there’s more emphasis on the power than the ballad) on the complex yet accessible “Cold Blooded”, the moody and dark “Secrets of the Dead” (I love the guitar work in the middle solos), and the album closer “Beginning of the End” is one of the more unique Priest tracks ever, an electric guitar led ballad that recalls the opening sections of “Blood Red Skies” —- Its a nicely calm way to end what is a very frenetic, non-stop album. Halford seems to speak of the band’s future on that final song when he sings “Its over now, because I know its the beginning… of the end”. Can it Halford, the fans deserve at least at least one more Faulkner infused Priest album, hell, maybe you make up for the atrocity that was “Lochness” and give us two more! But I’m being selfish and petty —- we should just be grateful for … nope, I’m okay with being selfish and petty.
 


 

Another Night in the City: The Return of Chicago’s High Spirits

July 4, 2014

Longtime readers of the blog will have by now taken note of just how much the seasons tend to shift my listening habits around, and they’ll also note just how much I dislike summer in general. If you think that’s an unusual attitude to have, I’ll remind you that I live in Houston, Texas —- but there are silver linings to the oppressive heat and humidity of a Texan summer. One of which is just how well wild, classic styled hard rock pairs with the rising mercury, case in point being the timely arrival of You Are Here, a new album by the Chicago based rock band High Spirits. Okay, they’re in a band in that they play live, but in reality High Spirits is the work of one highly motivated musician in Chris Black. You may have heard his other work before as well —- he moonlights as the drummer for Pharaoh, whose 2012 album Bury the Light came in second on that year’s best of list, and he’s also the sole mastermind behind Dawnbringer, whose excellent Into the Lair of the Sun God placed eighth on that very same list! I guess you can say that I’m a fan of the guy. I was enthralled by the last High Spirits album, Another Night, as much by the music as well as the throwback album cover featuring a very eighties logo design slapped on top of a neon splashed portrait of nighttime Chicago. All of that combined was the very essence of the “Big City Night” that one Klaus Meine once sang about, and if you’re not getting a serious Scorpions vibe when you listen to High Spirits, you’re hopeless. The German greats, alongside a heady dose of Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, radio ready Rush, and classic NWOBHM spice make up the ingredients of Chris Black’s rock n’ roll cocktail.

In the past half decade, retro metal has seemingly come and gone en vogue, and from my point of view, very few of those bands managed to stamp their own identity on their music. What separates High Spirits from the pack is that while the music has sonic touchstones to classic bands and eras bygone, there is no attempt at emulation —- in other words, Black is making music for today, not in a vain attempt to recreate 1982. I think that one of the aspects of Black’s musical design here that most vividly brings to mind the past is his complete lack of irony, and his utter disregard for what happened to rock music in the 1990s (you know, when a great deal of joy was sucked out of it). Hipsters be wary, this is genuine rock music made with honest intentions —- Black has stated his desire to see High Spirits grow, for them to be able to tour longer and more extensively. Again I’m reminded of the Scorpions, a band born of a time when there was no shame in hoping to play bigger venues, to have more intricate staging, to play wild rock n’ roll in the manner it was meant to be played in. I’ve read that High Spirits live shows are unabashed in their sincerity, both from band and audience alike, they are an active experience, not an event to be afraid of publicly showing your love for a style of music that a lot of unwitting people think is dead.
 

Whats utterly bananas about Chris Black and his work in High Spirits is that he is everything that you hear on the albums: All instruments, all vocals (including harmonies and overdubs). As I mentioned above, he has a band that he takes out live for small runs of select dates, but on album High Spirits is an entirely one man show. It doesn’t sound like it, and that’s testament to Black’s songwriting skills and overall artistry in understanding band dynamics in aspects of rock music —- as in the interplay between rhythm and lead guitars. Take the album opener “When the Lights Go Down”, with its loose yet tight riffing complemented by scorching lead fragments at the tail end of choruses. The songwriting here is razor sharp, Black has a wonderful and rare ability to pen adrenaline soaked, speedy choruses that outpace their verse section anchors (for further proof, check out “Full Power” on the band’s debut album). These are the kinds of songs that cause speeding tickets. Black slows down the tempo a touch on the next track, “I Need Your Love”, where the swinging rhythm guitar and the amped up speed in the pre-chorus bridge just smacks of the classic riffing of Rudolf Schenker. Black’s vocals are unusual for this type of music, while he’s skilled enough to carry melodies and hold notes, his tone is raw, punky even, and his delivery is borderline laid back. If I can provide some adequate frame of reference, its basically the exact opposite of Sebastian Bach’s histrionics —- Black’s approach to singing is workmanlike in serving the song only (I mean that in a positive way).

There’s plenty more in the way of good songs on offer as well, most notably the eponymous “High Spirits”, an infectious high speed rocker with crunchy riffs and a propulsive rhythm bed, and a chorus that lives up to its name. Its a jubilant song, like much of the material on You Are Here. The closest thing to a ballad on the album is the slightly moody “I Will Run”, with its juxtaposition of lonely solo guitar patterns in the intro followed immediately by a slamming riff bed upon which Black paints a bleakly romantic picture of gritting one’s teeth in the face of adversity, to “take to the stars and the streetlights”. Of course all this praise isn’t to suggest that the band has no critics or its share of criticism, the biggest being Black’s tendency to live in worlds of relatively lo-fi production. If you’re expecting booming bass, thundering drums, and intense dynamics you’ll be disappointed. Black tends to like his guitars compressed and a tad fuzzy, with the lead parts mixed up top while the vocals at times seem to sink beneath everything else. There are moments when a chorus could be made to “pop” more if it was simply mixed to be more up front, but this is a production choice that benefits the album in particular moments as well. If you’re used to listening to fuzzy alt-rock, or indie dream-pop or even old school early proto metal bands of the 70s, you’ll be able to handle High Spirits’ production. This is great summer music, evocative of the sound of car tires and beer bottles clinking, the dirty, mucky feel of hot concert venues, and of walking out of those venues to smell the nighttime rain on steaming pavement. My associations of this band’s music with this time of the year are so strong that to be honest… I’m not sure if I’ll be listening to it come November, but for right now its pretty much perfect.
 

Falconer Rising: The Return of Power Metal’s Best Kept Secret

June 19, 2014

If you’ve been needing something to be thankful for lately, here’s something: Stefan Weinerhall, guitarist/songwriter of power metal’s mighty Falconer is still writing and recording music. I only bring this up because it appears that this was in doubt for quite a long period of time following the release of the band’s last album, 2011’s Armod. For a short while, all we had to go on in terms of evidence that points to this was Weinerhall’s own cryptically worded message in the latest press release announcing their new album, in which he stated, “After an eight-month complete break from music on the verge of quitting it, I finally returned with a feeling of hunger, power and commitment to the songwriting.” But in a recent interview with Zach Fehl of Metal Insider, Weinerhall expanded on that slightly by making reference to the years since Armod being punctuated by personal tragedies, the pluralization there seemingly emphasizing just how much of a personal crossroads Weinerhall found himself at. But he explains that the time apart from music made the heart grow fonder, as it does, and nostalgia kicked in for him and the result was a journey back through music, resulting in the eighth and newest Falconer album, Black Moon Rising. I’m glad that Weinerhall made it back from his personal and musical abyss, because there are power metal bands by the dozens and dozens, but none of them sound anything like Falconer. They are one of power metal’s uncut emeralds amidst ordinary gems.

Some of you might remember my earlier feature on Falconer, in which I aimed to present to the reader ten select cuts from the band’s discography in an attempt to make a fan out of them. It also might have demonstrated that my love of the band has run long and deep, and that the promise of a new Falconer album is a major metal event in my world. I’ll preface my comments on Black Moon Rising by saying that I found Armod to be a satisfying listen, if not an ultimately compelling one. I think part of it was that the Swedish language vocals were somewhat inhibiting for a band that I’m normally accustomed to understanding every word and syllable (with Mathias Blad’s non-metal, theatrical approach towards singing, that vocal clarity has become something of a band trademark —- it’s “absence” was noticeable). The other factor might have been that Armod was distinctively heavier, faster, and more aggressive than any other album in the band’s discography up til that point, even at times approaching the stylistic tendencies found in black metal (blastbeats anyone?). It heralded the full realization of a musical shift that had started to develop on 2008’s Among Beggars and Thieves, on songs like the excellent “Pale Light of Silver Moon”. I wasn’t opposed to Falconer getting faster or more aggressive —- they were always a heavy band from their debut onwards, but where songs on Among Beggars and Thieves would merely dabble in a little extra ooomph, Armod went whole hog with it and the classic melodic trademarks we were all used to got pushed to the wayside.

With all the previous talk of nostalgia and a band returning from the brink of death, you’d expect Black Moon Rising to come off as a slice of classic Falconer (and if you need a discography reference point, I’m referring to the triumvirate of Falconer, Chapters of a Vale Forlorn, and Northwind), but startlingly enough this album sounds like its picking up exactly where Armod left off in terms of musical direction and overall aggressiveness. Yes I know its sung in English and that should make it different enough, and on the whole its a fairly good album, but its not a great album —- its missing so much of what makes a classic Falconer album. The last of those classics, Northwind, was a diverse collection of songs with different tempos, styles, dynamics, and ever changing song structures. A frenzied track like “Spirit of the Hawk” would be immediately followed by the slow, stomping, almost Oriental sounding “Legend and the Lore”, itself followed by the mid-tempo Celtic-tinged wistful rocker “Catch the Shadows”. On Black Moon Rising, the album passes by like a blur of frenetic tremolo riffs over blastbeat level percussion with nary a moment to pause and catch it’s breath. I am aware of the irony of a review on a metal blog decrying an album for being too fast, too aggressive, too… well, heavy, but in Falconer’s case its coming at the price of their innate melodic strengths. Its a detriment.

As I said above though, this is still a good album, a testament to Weinerhall’s skill as a master songwriter that he’s still able to hammer out at least one classic and a few close-to’s here. The classic comes in the form of the most obviously Falconer sounding song on offer, “Halls and Chambers”, a rare moment where the tremolo riffing ceases long enough to provide sections of space and structure to a chorus that the album’s best. This could’ve been an outtake from the band’s debut or Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, its that evocative of the musical spirit of that era. Fellow guitarist Jimmy Hedlund and Weinerhall even get to indulge in a wild, unbridled classic Falconer styled guitar solo after the chorus and later on in the song, a bit of delicate acoustic guitar on a quiet bridge. Similarly, “At the Jester’s Ball” is a welcome departure from excessive aggression and speed, with its playful tempo shifts and almost waltz-like rhythmic structure within the chorus, where the always unhurried Blad delivers one of his most dexterous vocals to date in his lyrical verse to refrain transition: “I am dancing in the waltz, come join in one and all”. I love the way he leans on his inflection of the word “dancing” there… its a sleek and smooth maneuver that eases in the rest of the line like a see-saw shifting down towards one side. Speaking of Blad himself for a moment, the man is as expected on top form here, seemingly ageless it seems, a boon granted by his non-metal vocal approach —- he still has incredible range, and his delivery is all his own within the metal world, no one touches this guy.
 



 
My favorite song of the moment is “In Ruins”, a moderately fast song that slows down long enough for some classic Dio era Sabbath-isms on guitar, as well as a chorus as sharp as the sword’s edge. Weinerhall knows how to conjure up some beautiful drama, as he shows on his expertly crafted opening line during the refrain, “In Ruins —- are the pillars of eden!” Following just behind are “There’s a Crow on the Barrow” and “Dawning of a Sombre Age”, the former one of Weinerhall’s ultra-speedy, tremolo laced cuts that manages to keep its melodic integrity perfectly preserved with its injection of Blad’s expansive, cinematic vocalizations during the refrain. The latter is a slow building, surging, and oddly anthemic song (given its title and lyrics), where Hedlund and Weinerhall trade off hard rock-tinged riffs and melodic twists to satisfying effect. I also have to mention how the album closer “The Priory” has been growing on me —- its an odd bird of a song but its diversity here is the key to its success, Blad sounds incredible on the refrain (can’t tell if those are vocal effects or if his voice is just that awesomely capable). What I do miss on this album is the presence of a good, old school styled Falconer ballad. They give it a shot on “Scoundrel and the Squire”, but it just sounds like a b-side grade cousin to Chapters From a Vale Forlorn’s “Lament of a Minstrel”, down to the mid-tempo pace and heavy, thudding riffs. The difference is that the latter had beautiful melodic thru lines and rock n’ roll swing and verve, while the former just plods along. That being said, even if it had worked, I would still have missed Falconer’s penchant for acoustic laden balladry… I hope those come back.

So there it is, after many many repeat listens, the most fair verdict I can lay down for a new album by a band that I’m simply relieved to have back. I’ll reiterate, its a good record, but one for existing fans only. If you’re new to the band, check out one of the three classics I mentioned earlier in the review, you can’t go wrong with any of them. Wow, this is sounding like a sales pitch… not where I usually like to go in writing but dammit, this is Falconer, a merely good album by them is considered a career misstep, so you should probably check yourself if you haven’t ingratiated yourself into their discography by now.

Quick Takes: Floor Jansen’s Open Letter, Paul Allender Leaves Cradle of Filth, and Opeth’s New Single

June 2, 2014

Sorry, I didn’t have a better title than the above, sometimes just getting to the point works better than anything. I don’t normally comment on news stories (even though I just did with Metallica a few weeks ago), but some things have popped up in the past few days that caught my attention and I felt the need to dish some opinions on them:

Floor Jansen’s Open Letter: As I’m sure most of you are aware through Blabbermouth’s eye catching select headlines feature at the top of their site, newly ordained Nightwish (and ReVamp) vocalist Floor Jansen recently posted an open letter to her fans explaining her point of view on personal fan interaction. Blabbermouth extolled the virtue of their name by naturally extrapolating the most quotable line from said open letter to headline their article, ” Nightwish singer Floor Jansen: “I am not an arrogant bitch”. For the past few years the comments sections of Blabbermouth articles have been more of a draw than the articles themselves, a tendency that didn’t waver even when the site implemented commenting through Facebook profiles alone (thus precluding anonymity). I read the original article, and then braced myself for the hellstorm that awaited when I scrolled further down. The comments were as expected, highly divisive and vitriolic in the extreme.

There’s a twitter profile out there called Don’t Read Comments, which pops up periodically on my feed once a day to remind me and thousands of others in a sagely manner that its not worth our time to read internet comment sections. I mentally nod and agree with the tweet, appreciate its usually humorous undertone, and proceed to wind up reading a comments section somewhere on the internet within the next ten minutes. I’d blame myself if only it wasn’t such a scalded in reflex by now. The very notion of social media is based upon the contextualization of comments, Facebook and Twitter are collections of our own comments and those of others that we’re interested (er… in seeing comment). If you’re about to go back to the original article and make the same mistake I made by reading the comments, put the brakes on you sadist. I’ll save you the trouble by telling you that you’ll come off with a lower impression of metal fans. I certainly did.

I’m not going to put up a counterargument to what Jansen wrote in her open letter, because she has every right to feel that way and to set boundaries that are within her comfort zone. I’m taking a guess here, but its likely that her appointment to Nightwish’s storied vocalist position has increased her profile to such a degree that she’s encountering a higher volume of fan interactions. That’s to be expected, and if you notice the first sentence of her letter, she makes references to “nightmares and many worried thoughts” —- unless that’s for dramatic effect I’d think that this has the makings of an alarming situation. She’s been on tour in the States with Iced Earth and Sabaton, opening their countrywide trek and finding herself in a strange position. Jansen is arguably the most famed individual on the tour, yet her band opens first, and there’s a tendency to expect that as the opening band, you’ll make yourself available to anyone and everyone after your set (this isn’t my expectation mind you, but a familiar tradition within metal shows anywhere). I saw the Houston date of this particular tour, and sure enough Jansen and her band were meeting people by the buses well after Iced Earth had finished playing. Jansen seemed comfortable and took photos with people and signed stuff, and generally everyone seemed pretty happy.

I was with a couple friends a short distance away, one of whom was intent upon meeting Jon Schaffer (he never came out of the bus, but we did get to have an extended conversation with Stu Block next to a food truck strangely hidden behind the venue). At one point Jansen had drifted off towards the direction of her tour bus, standing a good distance away from the throng of waiting fans. The same friend now urged me to go meet Jansen as she was by herself and had actually turned around scanning the crowd while smiling as if waiting for one last person to run up to her for a photo. I waved off his obnoxious urgings, simply because I felt no real necessity to meet her, and it might’ve taken away time from someone who really did (as it turned out no one else stepped up and she ended up scooting back to her bus). I’m not telling you that to make myself look better, but just to paint a picture. She struck me as someone who was personable, affable, and was genuinely enjoying the experience. I wonder if other tour stops on the trek were as laid back and pleasant, or if they became uncomfortable and she had to back off. If this tour was in South America I could understand, as fans there are super passionate and that can be construed as aggressive behavior — but us meek North Americans? Really? Its hard to comprehend.

Perhaps this open letter is more motivated by something else she indicated —- internet rumors of her being “rude”. If that is what has really gotten her upset, her open letter is only adding fuel to the fire. Her letter was written in English, and its very readable and clear. What it lacks however is levity, a casual tone, and perhaps even a hint of self-deprecating wit to soften its impact to the hordes of internet readers that have already formed an impression of her one way or another after reading it. I say that knowing that some things shouldn’t be softened —- but as I pointed out before, I have no problem with her message. But as her bandmates in Nightwish learned through brutal experience, posting an open letter is a form of PR, and in this case, its a heady dose of negative PR for Jansen. I think she’d have been better off by avoiding the open letter route, shrugging off the rumors (which only a small percentage of people tend to take seriously anyway), and going about her policies when meeting fans. Look there’s no way around it, telling someone who’s stoked to meet you to not touch you is just going to come off badly. Jansen is absolutely within her rights to make the request, but she has to realize that there will be fallout from it, and thanks to the internet, a lot of people will hear about it. I hope she finds a way to persevere through this. She was the right choice for Nightwish, hopefully she finds that Nightwish was the right choice for her.
 

Paul Allender Leaves Cradle of Filth: Not to sound like a jerk or anything, but why didn’t this happen years ago? Cradle of Filth have been in a creative tailspin for the past half a decade (possibly longer, depends who you ask) and one of the major reasons I feel is that their songwriting began to stagnate. Dani Filth may be the creative force behind the band, but it was Allender who was doing the bulk of the riff writing since 2000’s Midian, and therein was the problem. I saw them with Satyricon back in 2008 and it looked like Allender didn’t even want to be on stage, and frankly I found myself agreeing with him —- I wanted him off too, he was bumming me out. Its not yet confirmed whether or not Allender left the band of his own volition as my headline suggests or whether he was forced out, but either way, I hope that Dani finds a replacement that has some creative fire to infuse into a sound that is now an echo of what it once was. I have never really written about Cradle on the blog, but they were one of the extreme metal (hard to call them black metal these days) bands that I took a shine to in the late nineties and I still love their classic records.

By classics I’m referring specifically to Dusk and Her Embrace, Cruelty and the Beast, and the gloriously Maiden-ized Midian, Allender’s sole indisputable riff packed masterpiece. They had a couple interesting moments during the aughts with a few scattered songs here and there; certainly “Nymphetamine” was a great track (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Liv Kristine may just be the best guest female vocalist in metal), and I didn’t mind certain songs off Thornography (including their cover of “Temptation”). Their last three albums just left me feeling rather unmoved however, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. When you finish listening to an album and can think of nothing to say about it one way or another, that’s a bad sign. The chart positions have declined, as have sales, and Cradle are no longer guaranteed large audiences —- somewhere along the way, their shtick wore thin because the music backing it was no longer compelling. I’m not particularly fond of the gothic, Tim Burton-esque trappings that came with the band, but I accepted it as part of the package. Perhaps now its time for a rethink, for Dani to redefine himself as a vocalist and explore his range more (no more high shrieks for high shrieks sake). A new guitarist that could double as a cooperative songwriting partner should be someone who seeks not to replicate the band’s existing sound, but tear it all down and build something new. Its long past time, I hope it happens.
 

Opeth’s New Single, “Cusp of Eternity”: If you were reading the blog a few years ago, you’ll remember that I wasn’t very fond of Opeth’s last offering, the retro-psychedelic Heritage, and not because I was one of those disappointed by Mikael Akerfeldt’s retreat from all things death metal. The idea of that album that were bandied about before its releases were actually rather intriguing to me, and I was looking forward to it, having loved the softer moments on various Opeth records throughout their discography. I hoped that it would not be a repeat performance of Damnation, their nearly all acoustic album that ended up being a bit of a yawner in retrospect. But Heritage fell flat with me on all levels, the songwriting just wasn’t there —- songs were disjointed, lacked bridges and overall musical continuity. When the negative fallout occurred over that album’s release, I didn’t go out of my way to burn the band, but suffice to say I didn’t go see them live when their setlists revealed that they were avoiding older material. Through the press it seemed that Akerfeldt had tired of metal and was even at times close to disparaging it. Its hard to hold that against a guy who’s given us so many monumental death metal records, so I let it all slide. But I knew that there was no going back for this band, that in their hearts, they’d moved on from metal.

Turns out my intuition was correct on that front, the new song isn’t metal in the slightest, in fact its seemingly a continuation of the Heritage born exploration of progressive rock sounds of the 70s (perhaps that is an oversimplification, but I’ll make amends for it when I review the album as a whole). But here’s the thing: I actually really like “Cusp of Eternity”! This is a compelling, rhythmically heavy uptempo song with a set of great guitar tones, fluidly melodic patterns, and lush Steven Wilson produced vocal arrangements. Akerfeldt himself sounds fantastically eerie, and I love the distant effects on the guitar outro following the chorus, something I feel I haven’t heard from Opeth in forever. I’ve been playing this on repeat quite a bit today and its just working for me. I know I’m supposed to be a music reviewer and talk about this in greater detail, but screw it, my mind is half shuttered on a Monday so I’ll just let my more immediate reactions come to the surface. The truth is that I haven’t felt this excited about a new Opeth song since “Coil” from Watershed. If Pale Communion turns out to be one of the best albums of the year, there will be few others as greatly surprised as myself. You’ve got my attention Akerfeldt —- well played!
 

 

 

I’ll Pretend Its Autumn: Insomnium’s Shadows of the Dying Sun

May 23, 2014

Finland’s melodic death metal brush artists Insomnium are perhaps my most beloved metal “discovery” within the past few years. I stumbled across them some time after the release of their 2011 album One For Sorrow, an elegiac, melancholy touched masterpiece. I think its easy for writers to throw that term around often, it happens quite a bit within metal reviewer circles —- but I really mean it in relation to that album. I was transfixed by every note within, and when I worked my way backwards through their discography, eagerly devouring the similarly styled Across the Dark (2009) and the noticeably more aggressive Above the Weeping World (2006), my appreciation for the band grew stronger and deeper. By October of 2012 I had my first opportunity to see the band live, who had an opening slot for Alestorm (the very idea) and Epica. I’ll never forget that show, I wrote earnestly about my experience that night in an admittedly unnoticed article published later in December of that year that discussed the musical links I traced between Insomnium and Sentenced. Reading it over now, I wonder why I didn’t discuss how deeply I felt connected to the band’s music that night, even on the drive to and from the venue, racing along the highways while staring out at a rapidly darkening, grey-clouded autumn sky. I’m not a religious person for the most part, but something spiritual was going on that day, it was as if Insomnium’s music was painting in the world around me as I perceived it.

After Insomnium had played, I thought I might stick around for Epica since I’d coughed up over twenty bucks for the ticket, but Alestorm made me throw in the towel, and I headed outside into the cold night chill. I was walking towards my car and had to move around one of the nightliner tour buses parked outside, and as I rounded the corner I walked past a couple guys that looked familiar. I stopped after a few steps while craning back to look at them, only realizing after my eyes had adjusted to the dark that I’d walked past Insomnium. There they were, all four of them, just casually hanging outside like they hadn’t just put on one of the all time great live performances that I’d ever witnessed. I sauntered over to them and we all said hellos and shook hands, and we began to converse about the typical things —- how they liked the audience,  how was the tour going, etc. They were quite friendly, seemingly rather surprised that some fan had apparently only come to see them play, and they talked at great length. At some point during this conversation, I remember just actively realizing what a vivid impression their music had upon me in various ways that day and its a memory haze blur as to how exactly I told them of this, but I did. I think I behaved like a normal human being (fairly sure), but I briefly let them know, and they replied with genuine appreciation. They shook my hand again after hearing of it, and I told them good night. When I got in my car and pulled out onto the road I felt invincible, and that somehow for a few hours that night, the world made sense to me.
 

I tell you all that not only to rectify the lack of detail in that older Insomnium/Sentenced article, but to express to you just how deep my personal roots have grown with this band. I’m writing an album review on the surface, but I’m almost pained to write one for fear of deconstructing the album past the point of —- well, the way I want to enjoy it. In keeping with the way I handled my previous review, for Sabaton’s Heroes, I’ll just come right out and declare this: This is a great Insomnium record, filled with the kind of emotionally charged songwriting and artistry that we now expect from the band. But then haven’t I already expressed that I felt their past three albums were great? Yes I have, and if that nullifies any sense of relative objectivity for you then I’m sorry. And really, what else can I say? This is a band on a roll, with an unshakeable sense of identity and a musical nucleus of guitarist/vocalist Ville Friman and vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevanen that is perhaps the strongest in melodic death metal since the Stromblad-Gelotte pairing during the classic In Flames era.

Speaking of identity in particular, Insomnium weren’t preternaturally gifted —- their first three albums were made of good, solid melodic death metal with some certain flashes of brilliance; you can see retrospectively that some unpopped kernel was there, trying to figure its way out. It happened with their fourth album, Above the Weeping World, their first truly great record where they began to trickle in this flood of musical melancholy —- a robust sense of definable emotion that was inherently very Finnish. Their next two albums, Across the Dark and One For Sorrow fully revealed the extent of this transformation —- all traces of Gothenberg removed from their take on melodic death metal as the band’s songwriting had transitioned away from being built around riffs. Instead they created songs by first painting with melodies, even allowing vocal melodies to carry the weight of choruses through clean vocals; there was a sense of space, of delicacy, and of musical texture. Tempos were slowed, there was an noticeable eagerness in their wanting to craft songs with unorthodox rhythms and percussive patterns —- they were in short redefining what melodic death metal could sound like.

Those albums also seemed to be the apotheosis of that particular avenue for the band in that I regard them as musical siblings, they share musical and structural commonalities and seem to fit together —- so much so that I suspected it was unlikely that they’d attempt a third repeat performance. In confirming my hypothesis, Shadows of the Dying Sun is as much a departure as it is a continuation of its immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously a further exploration of the softened melodic brush strokes of Across the Dark and One For Sorrow as it is a throwback to the sheer brutal intensity of Across the Weeping World —- and its a near faultless marriage. I’m not sure whether or not it was a conscious decision, but the band have definitely increased the tempos and aggression on an almost album wide basis. There’s a songwriting move back towards sharp, tight melodic riffs while still keeping the new-era layers of expressive clean guitar melodies. The semi-introductory track “The Primeval Dark” is a big hint towards this trajectory, with its soft atmospherics serving as a tension heightening backdrop to the marching, grinding, half growled/half instrumental passages that act as a build up to the kickoff of the album proper.
 



 
That kickoff being the multifaceted “While We Sleep”, which starts off with some melodic vocals courtesy of Friman before transitioning into Sevanen’s monstrously deep death vocals, all while Friman and fellow guitarist Markus Vanhala create beautifully swirling guitar patterns juxtaposed over sharp, cutting riffs. I love that the mid-song guitar solo here isn’t kicked off in a wild Scorpions-esque electric overdrive, but builds slowly, with gently fluttering acoustic guitar chords that usher in a vivid electric guitar solo sans distortion. Its just one of the ways in which Friman is a thoughtful composer, he could’ve really gone for the big Slash-styled moment there, but tempered it back in accordance with the credo of only giving the song what it needs at any given moment, and in keeping with the tone set by his pensive lyrics. As we segue into the final outro where Sevanen growls the despairing lyric “We need to slow down, so I can catch you / We need to slow down, so you can catch me”, the lost wild rock n’ roll guitar solo finally shows up and its a stunningly expressive emotional release —- one of my favorite moments on the album. Looking at these two songs as a pair its worth noting that they’re keeping in the tradition of the past three Insomnium albums having similarly styled one-two punch opening combos.
 

The next two tracks, “Revelation” and “Black Heart Rebellion” are as starkly contrasting as day and night; the former is a dreamy blend of acoustic guitars and slower, patient tempos with crescendoing clean electric melodic runs, Sevanen’s vocal performance at times softening to a near spoken word whisper. Its a startlingly spiritual lyric at work here too, a Sevanen penned hymn that seems to touch on the Cosmos-themed concepts of being aware of one’s own place in the universe, that “This is the gift of man / The key to see it all / The hidden wonders / Hope in despair”. Alternately in both music and lyrics, “Black Heart Rebellion” is perhaps the most punishing and brutal track on the album, with its black metal like flurry of near tremolo riffs, blastbeat percussive tempos, and Sevanen’s vicious growling about the parallels between “Morning star, angel of the dawn” and “Desolate is the path of self-believers”. Yet Friman still writes in moments of space for quiet melodic reflections, such as Vanhala’s hushed solo at 4:53 —- the kind of thing that is such a distinctive Insomnium signature, their musical calling card if you will. The lengthiest track on the album is the similarly black metal-touched “The River”, where I love the way the guitars anticipate the vocals by a fraction of a second at the 1:27 mark and the resulting effect crackles with excitement. Those stately verse sections unleash into a tremolo riff fueled chorus section with some surprising melodic change-ups.

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

I have other favorites as well, “The Promethean Song” being chief among them, its chiming acoustics and slow tempo-ed bed of bass heavy guitars preceding a Sevanen/Friman vocal trade off where the latter opens up his pipes to higher ranges than we’ve seen from him before. He sounds good, really good actually, and he knows how to write vocal melodies that suit his tone (a rare skill in guitarist first songwriters). I adore the bridge section that occurs at the 4:00 minute mark with accented drumming, Sevanen’s harshly barked out vocals and perhaps the album’s best guitar solo. Then there’s the title track serving as the album closer, its a bass driven, rumbling beast of a song where heavy guitars suddenly swing up and crunch down to usher in a rather inspired Sevanen / Friman vocal duet on the refrain, “And I feel it in my heart / And I know it in my mind / That’s all there is, ever will be”. Its another song where Friman ruminates upon the stardust-y nature of our existence, a sentiment I entertain myself with on occasion and feel rather connected to. Incidentally, Friman makes his rent by working a day job as a scientific researcher, so if you’ve been wondering at the inclusion of science meets spirituality themes within the lyrics, that goes a long way towards explaining it. And of course there’s “Ephemeral”, which we heard late last year as a standalone single, and its dressed up here in a few more layers of guitars and production work, but still sounds just as vibrant, fresh, and ear wormingly catchy as it did originally. It features my favorite lyric on the album, “Dying doesn’t make this world dead to us / Breathing doesn’t keep the flame alive in us”, and its a rarity among Insomnium’s catalog —- a truly anthemic song.

I’ll curb this now to prevent it from being a track by track dissection, its already more review than I ever wanted it to be. On a personal level I’m still just allowing myself to experience the album as a continuum where the band’s musical sound palette affects me on a raw emotional level. That’s the kind of thing that I’ll never really be able to express within the context of a review, and its where the large majority of my enjoyment of Insomnium comes from. I was asked by a friend who was eager to hear the album how I thought it stacked up when compared to One For Sorrow, and apart from mentioning the obvious uptick in aggression and overall heaviness, it was a question that I really couldn’t answer. I loved One For Sorrow not only because I thought it was a masterpiece, but because it was the album that reintroduced me to this band and made me a devout fan, and because the music on that album came to me at the perfect moment in my life when I was receptive enough to appreciate it. That’s a lot for a follow-up album to live up to, and that’s why I’ve chosen not to compare Shadows of the Dying Sun directly to it —- its a beautiful, inspired album on its own, and that’s enough. I’m sure that others won’t have a problem giving a more objectified opinion, but there’s a fine line I’m walking here in regards to discussing personal connections to a band’s work. Music can often serve as a mask, a way for you to have your feelings expressed without opening your own dumb mouth. There’s that Oscar Wilde quote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
 

Into the Fire: Sabaton Begin a New Era with Heroes

May 14, 2014

There’s so much to discuss in regards to Sabaton’s newest album, Heroes, a ten track paean to specific acts of heroism in wartime, and a strong contender to be the band’s best album to date. Let’s just get that out of the way first: Heroes is a great Sabaton record, not perfect… but really, really great. I usually avoid disclosing my overall consensus on an album until midway through a review, because after all, I’d like you all to keep reading throughout. Yet the story of this record is worth discussing in depth even though you know where my opinion stands. Its simultaneously a story of the self-driven perseverance of two friends and band mates and their vindication in the wake of what could have been crippling circumstances; as well as a collage of moments where humanity triumphed over the waste and destruction of warfare. Regarding the latter, this is a turning point for Sabaton, whose previous albums were largely made up of metallic anthems either depicting the intensity of war and its participants (for example, “Ghost Division”, “Into the Fire” or “Primo Victoria”), or paying homage to war heroes exclusively (“White Death”). There’s a bit of that on Heroes as well (certainly the cover art reinforces that), but surprisingly enough the album largely consists of songs honoring those moments when non-violence prevailed over all.

The last time Sabaton released an album was in 2012, with the thematic departure of Carolus Rex, whose release was clouded with inter-band strife —- resulting in four of the band’s members departing shortly after the recording sessions were complete. An American tour was coming up, and remaining members vocalist Joakim Brodén and bassist Pär Sundström had to scramble to assemble a new lineup. It wasn’t even certain if these new guys would last through the duration of the album’s touring cycle, much less stick around to participate on any future albums. I was there at the Sunday night San Antonio gig that kicked off the Carolus Rex world tour and served as the debut of new Sabaton guitarists Chris Rörland and Thobbe Englund, and drummer Robban Bäck. The new guys were obviously nervous, but so were Broden and Sundstrom. When they took the stage to a relatively small crowd of about fifty of us, they played as though they were in front of thousands —- Broden and Sundstrom leading the stage performances. By the end of that show, the nerves had noticeably dissipated, Broden was communicating his appreciation for the strong support, and I was marveling at just how well the new guys were gelling live in such a short time.
 

It was an inconspicuous debut —- though an auspicious one. The tour plowed on, and when I caught the band almost a year later back in Houston, they were firing on all cylinders, the new guys even equaling Broden in their stage performances. I’ve seen them a few times since then, most recently the other week opening for Iced Earth, this time with another new drummer Hannes van Dahl as replacement for Bäck who had to leave for paternity reasons —- and my impressions were further reinforced. Having seen both eras of their lineups, I feel that the current incarnation is the definitive lineup, and that’s not to discredit former band members, but the new guys just seem to “get” what Broden and Sundstrom have in mind when it comes to their live performance. The real question however that lingered throughout was just how this massive lineup change would affect a new recording? In terms of songwriting, there didn’t seem a reason to be concerned since Broden has always served as Sabaton’s musical scribe, but he composes on keyboards and leaves the guitars to his bandmates —- how would the new guys mesh with what he gave them? Exceedingly well as it turns out, and I gather this not only from my takeaway from listening to the album itself, but from comments made by Broden and Sundstrom themselves, who in a recent interview with Spain’s Metalovision mentioned their surprise at how quickly their new guitarists figured out and recorded their parts (apparently in only four days). It wasn’t guaranteed that Heroes would be a great album —- that Sabaton have accomplished this is a testament to the artistic bonds formed while touring Carolus Rex.
 

As far as what makes it great, listen first to five absolutely excellent standout tracks in “Night Witches”, “No Bullets Fly”, “The Ballad of Bull”, “Resist and Bite”, and album closer “Hearts of Iron”. In typical Sabaton fashion, what makes these songs so great is not only their precision honed array of hooks and musical ear candy, but the interesting subject matter and Broden’s skilled ability at lyric writing. One of the most gripping back stories is found on “No Bullets Fly”, honoring an incident in which a crippled American B-17 was escorted back to friendly territory by a German ace fighter pilot named Franz Stigler who was one confirmed kill away from qualifying for the Knights Cross. He said that he maneuvered alongside the  B-17 and could actually see through the damaged air frame and look directly at the faces of its injured pilot, Charles Brown and remaining crew. He made a choice that could’ve gotten him executed had his superiors found out —- he escorted the B-17 back to the North Sea, his presence preventing German anti-aircraft batteries from firing upon the American craft. Upon reaching the sea Stigler saluted the American crew and turned back. Forty-seven years later, the two pilots would finally meet and became good friends.  As a kid I grew up wanting to be nothing more than a fighter pilot, and I loved reading about the history of aerial combat —- and I’m torn between being annoyed with myself for not hearing of this particular story earlier, but very gratified that I got to hear about it through Sabaton’s monstrously epic, adrenaline pounding celebration of human decency. It sounds like an odd juxtaposition because it is: Group shouted vocals yelling “Killing Machine!… B-17!” during the chorus envelope the humanitarian sentiments of “Honor in the sky!… Flying Home!… Said goodbye to the Cross he deserved!” Its quickly become one of my favorite Sabaton songs.
 

I’d be remiss not to discuss in greater detail my love of the songs “The Ballad of Bull” and “Hearts of Iron”, two songs about non-violent humanitarian action in the middle of utter chaos. Again its refreshing to hear Sabaton’s scope increasing, their views on the concepts of heroism being greater than just focusing on combative actions. Broden’s lyrics are often startlingly direct, and they certainly are here, but I feel that it works better for the song —- what could he possibly couch in a metaphor? Some may be put off by the former’s piano drenched balladry, in fact a fellow metal critic/radio host friend of mine stated that he thought the piano on it was too “processional”, or too formal for his preferences. I can see where he’s coming from, but for me, that is precisely why I love it so much. I love that the heavy emphasis on naked piano seems to evoke a musical pastiche of the 1940s (or at least my impression of it), and its heavily pronounced major keys seem fitting to match such a near mythical tale of gallant individual heroism. Maybe its also that I simply love piano as an instrument, and amidst an album full of heavy, breakneck guitars, its arrival is a welcome contrast.

As for “Hearts of Iron”, its a song concerning the bravery of the German 9th and 12th armies in late April 1945, who facing certain destruction at the hands of the Soviets ignored orders to stand their ground; instead they fought to create and protect a corridor headed west across the Elbe river through which 25,000 civilian and soldier refugees could escape to surrender to western forces. It takes a certain amount of guts to pen a song in which you depict heroism from Nazi German forces, but as a lyricist Broden is deftly aware of this, “It is not about Berlin / It is not about the Reich / It’s about the men who fought for them / What peace can they expect?” Its one of Sabaton’s most tragic yet uplifting songs, with a chorus that tightens your chest with its noble sentiments, “Its the end / The war has been lost / Keeping them safe til the river’s been crossed”. Broden has made a career out of painting lyrical portraits of the vivid shock and terror of battle through multiple narrative perspectives and points of view —- on Heroes he branches out as a lyricist with a very un-metal-like appeal towards moments of human morality (just so there’s no confusion, I consider that to be a good thing).
 

Of course, that’s not to suggest that the band have entirely left tradition behind, as “Resist and Bite” is one of the band’s best songs to date and falls in line behind old classics like “40:1″ and “Uprising” as us against them celebrations of sacrifice (though in this case it’s about the Belgian infantry resistance to the Nazis). I was driving along the spaghetti bowl of Houston freeways listening to the album this past weekend, and when this song came on I blew past the speed limit and barely saw a highway patrol car on the shoulder just in time —- a very close call! Its got that kind of adrenaline surging, pulse poundingly dramatic (and ultra-catchy) chorus that defines epic and makes you look like a maniac to other passing vehicles. The guitar solos in this track are worth mentioning —- on the entire album in fact, Englund and Rorland trade back and forth wildly melodic, furious soloing that is always complementary to the primary melody at work. Similar in old school theme is “Soldier of 3 Armies”, about Lauri Törni who as the title suggests fought for Finland during the Winter War, Germany in World War II against the Soviets, and the United States (in Vietnam as a Green Beret no less… and man, did this guy hate the Soviets or what?). Its a strong track that is a spiritual cousin to “White Death” from Coat of Arms.

The rest of the album fills up nicely with solid songs brimming with catchy hooks, interesting one-off musical moments, and of course loads of melody. I’m not sure if “To Hell and Back”, a song about the legendary World War II hero Audie Murphy, was the best choice for the lead off single (“Resist and Bite” fits the bill better), but its a good song nonetheless and its whistling motif has a real Scorpions call back to it. If there’s a tune on here that can merely be described as decent or good, its “Inmate 4859″ —- about Polish resistance hero Witold Pilecki. Its a bit lumbering, the chorus is a touch too close to the verse in tempo, structure, and design (a very un-Sabaton quality), but it does have a nice guitar solo led bridge in the middle that is very pleasing to the ear. Again, not a bad song by any stretch, but it and a track like “Far From the Fame” just don’t live up to the high bar set by the other truly classic songs here —- but seriously, for any metal record seven out of ten isn’t a bad ratio.

My spirits have been buoyed by the artistic success of this album, I now know that Sabaton will be able to sustain any major lineup shocks and upheavals (though here’s hoping no more come). This is one of the most impressive bands in metal, they’re self-managed, they tour like they’re possessed, they have a great respect for their American audiences and actively seek to make a dent in the market Stateside, and they’re aware of their own identity in a way most bands are not. And they’ve also released one of the best records of the year so far, something I wasn’t predicting a few months ago. They get a lot of flak from more than a handful of popular metal sites, whether its for their subject matter, or their major key melodicism, or their pristine productions —- all criticisms that are actually the band’s biggest strengths. Critics will be critics, metal bands can’t all sound purposefully lo-fi and full of black metal tropes. Sabaton’s growing popularity is a testament to the honest nature of their audiences —- that there can be metal fans who are unapologetic about what qualities they enjoy in their heavy music, unaffected by trends or flavors of the month. I noticed it when I turned in any direction towards the crowd at the Iced Earth / Sabaton show the other week, real enthusiasm untempered by internet angst. There’s hope after all.