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ProgDaze: New November’s Doom / Ayreon / Pyramaze!

May 25, 2017

November’s Doom – Hamartia:

Chicago’s progressive doom/death metal stalwarts November’s Doom are an MSRcast favorite, which is no surprise to many of you who listen to our little podcast. But they’re favorites mainly because my cohost Cary the Metal Geek is perhaps their biggest fanboy this side of the Atlantic. And that’s okay, we’re all fanboys of something or another, and it was Cary’s enthusiasm for the band that led me to check them out a few years ago when I came on board as his cohost. I enjoyed their catalog and though I can’t honestly say I grew as attached to them as Cary was, I considered myself a new fan of theirs, particularly with the release of 2014’s Bled White. There seemed to be a slight shift on that album towards including something in the way of vocal melody’s that carried parts of songs, and a resulting musical shift to support that. We often throw around terms like progressive when a band tends to have more complex musicality in their songwriting or lengthier guitar solos, among other such cosmetic reasons. But November’s Doom really do embody the ideals of progressive music within their doom/death metal approach, because for better or worse, no two albums sound exactly alike throughout their discography and you can actually hear several paths of musical “progression” and development.

I’m bringing up those rather obvious ideas now because the band’s tenth and newest album Hamartia seems to have drawn flares of criticism for its abundance of clean melodic vocals across its ten songs. How this is a surprise to anyone who’s paid attention to the band is a little surprising and disappointing, because —- really?! They were telegraphing this for awhile now, and anyone who’s followed ‘Doom vocalist Paul Kuhr in his career overall knows he can deliver deep, rich clean vocals that have shades of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and Peter Steele (hello “The Memory Room”!). Also, when the songs are this great, does it really matter that Kuhr is leaning more on the clean vocals —- if anything its opened up the possibilities of the band’s sound, bringing in shades of light to mix beautifully with their innate command of dark sounds and textures. When I write that, I’m thinking of a song like “Ever After”, with its elegiac, mournful guitar passages that begin to whisper at the 3:44 mark, soon to cry out in gorgeous anguish. This is Opeth-ian level beauty, and one of the finest songs I’ve heard in awhile, my personal favorite on the album. Even when things go hard in the opposite direction, such as on “Waves in the Red Cloth” with its martial, pounding percussion, there’s still spaces for exquisite guitar passages that sound both beautiful and foreboding (check the 4:48 mark).

This is a cohesive album, with no weak songs dragging down one end or another, and held together with a musical palette that forms its own tonal motifs. Its warmer than past November’s Doom albums, more akin to the colors on its cover art, warm browns and shades of red, like a hazy sunset. When I was trying to think of other examples of band’s making similar tonal shifts with an album in comparison to the rest of their discography, I thought immediately of Enslaved’s RIITIIR (although I suppose Vertebrae could also fit the bill, RIITIIR had both similar tonal and structural shifts in its songwriting). Like Enslaved, November’s Doom has decided to take a couple giant steps forward in their progression rather than the one step per album they were taking throughout the progression of their career with each release. That in itself is what’s causing this relatively mild, comments section bound backlask to Hamartia, but its only been a month or so since people have heard the album. I’m thinking that with the benefit of time, everyone who is stubbornly shaking their head at these changes will get over it and come around, because for starters, its 2017 and every metal taboo has been broken by now. Bands that lighten their sound with clean vocals and more melody? Haven’t we all gotten over that in a post Opeth, Amorphis, and Anathema age? The reality is this: When I listen to Hamartia I’m hearing some of the finest songwriting I’ve heard all year, and a contender for the albums of the year list come December.

 

 

Ayreon – The Source: At long last, my first time writing a review for an Arjen Lucassen album, and not a coincidence that it comes with the first Ayreon release in four years, the first since I took up the co-host spot on the MSRcast. Once again, here’s an artist that MSRcast’s Cary is a die hard fanboy of, and he’s made no secret of this on the podcast. His enthusiasm for the man even got me to listen fairly closely to Lucassen’s 2015 release from his side project with Anneke van Giersbergen, The Gentle Storm. I enjoyed that album (The Diary) for the most part, it being a show case for the ex-Gathering vocalists immense talent, and it made me consider that perhaps I had changed in a way that allowed me to finally get into Lucassen’s songwriting. It is odd that such a huge Avantasia fan as myself has long held something like Ayreon at bay, because on paper it seems like it’d be right up my alley. The thing is that I have actually tried in the past, checking out Ayreon albums such as The Universal Migrator Pt I/II and The Human Equation but finding myself unable to connect, and with so much other stuff out there to listen to that was comparatively instantaneous, I just figured it wasn’t for me. But that can only last so long when your fellow power metal fans squeee at the news of yet another Lucassen release, particularly one that boasts two of my all time favorite vocalists in its guest roster, the legendary Hansi Kursch and Mr. Avantasia himself, Tobias Sammet. Also present are Tommy Karevik (Kamelot), Zaher Zorgati (Myrath), and Floor Jansen (Nightwish), so yeah, I was going to check this album out regardless.

So I’ve been sitting with this album for about two weeks now, listening to it fairly diligently, playing it straight through from start to finish each time —- its a concept album (duh), and there are moments where tracks segue into one another by design, so skipping around would be a disjointed listen. Here’s an introductory take: There are moments when I really do enjoy what I’m hearing, specific sections of songs or appearances of my favorite vocalists getting some time in the spotlight, but they’re frustratingly spread apart and often tend to end all too soon. And I’m not being purposefully dense. I understand that there’s a story line here that needs to be delivered and that every vocalist represents a character in this cast and that the voices have to switch up in order for the story to move along. I did read through the synopsis of the story line before plunging into the album, having the benefit of this being a prequel meant that I wasn’t too lost in the woods on that front, and its a fairly conventional sci-fi type thing (hard for me to judge in comparison to other Ayreon efforts… I’ll say that I’m not wild about how its written lyrically, more on that in a bit). At times some of the tracks on the album come across more as musical theater pieces rather than coherent songs, the worst offender being the album opener “The Day That The World Breaks Down”, a twelve minute long endurance test where everyone’s vocals are really nice when they’re happening, but I just can’t remember anything about them after the fact.

Some things do stick though, such as the rather epic chorus of “Sea of Machines”, sung by Pagan’s Mind vocalist Nils K. Rue, and its a spectacular early highlight. I do find myself wishing that Lucassen would’ve done more in the way of a grander build-up to it though, because he had the ingredients in place: A beautiful flute/acoustic guitar pairing serving as the intro soundtrack, along with Michael Eriksen’s (Circus Maximus) smooth vocals crooning us in. But in lieu of anything resembling an exciting verse structure, we get a musical drop-off, a lull in energy and tempo, and by the time the chorus hits again I get more of a weird Jethro Tull vibe rather than a prog-power adrenaline rush. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but it never seems to gel all that well —- the most noticeable defect coming during a Simone Simmons, Tobias Sammet, and Russell Allen trio of back to back to back quatrains. There’s hardly anything in the way of musical flow or even a recognizable verse pattern that could’ve glued one of those quatrains on the end as a dramatic bridge to catapult us into the air for the chorus. I’m not saying that it sinks the song overall, but I do feel that it could’ve been better, and that a chorus that well written deserves something more concrete in the way of a supporting structure around it.

All too frustratingly, that lack of structure around the album’s most potent refrains and choruses becomes a pattern. On “Star of Sirrah”, we get a Hansi Kursch/Tobias Sammet chorus that’s a fine pairing in vocal constrasts (and a callback to Edguy’s “Out of Control”), and its strong enough to overcome its lousy Russell Allen fed verse fragment built on some truly terrible lyrics (“You have all been chosen for your skills and expertise…” —- there’s simply no way to turn that into a musical phrase). On “Aquatic Race” we get a little bit of something resembling a more conventional song structure, yet its momentum is frequently stopped in its tracks with slow downs in tempo for ballad segments. When Russell Allen delivers his verse during the middle of the song, the percussion accelerates and you finally think we’re launching into something pulse pounding but once again a Simone Simons verse lands on you like a wet blanket, ruining the fun. I’m not knocking her vocal, its fine and all that, but its placement is just brutal. I’m going to sound like a broken record by the time this review is over, but I wonder if there’s anyone else who like me tends to hear a lot of these tracks as collections of vocal fragments rather than cohesive songs.

Its not a surprise then that the best moments on the album are those where Lucassen reigned in the musical theater approach and attempted to write more conventionally. The finest among these is “Journey to Forever”, which opens with its joyous refrain that seems to extend its influence to the connective verses and instrumental bridges that echo its melody. The only complaint then is just how infrequently that spectacular refrain is repeated and how awfully short the song is (clocking in at a mere three minutes, its not hard to imagine the intro being a verse longer to get this up to four). Then there’s the violin led “All That Was” which features a duet between Floor and Simone which gets some points for avoiding the beauty and the beast routine. Its a sugary sweet melody but a welcome rarity in an album that needs more of its ilk, and I got a real Gentle Storm vibe off this track which definitely endeared me to it. The usage of the violin melody as a recurring motif is a direct example of the kind of thing I wish Lucassen would employ more often, but with guitars and riffs! I also enjoyed “Into the Ocean”, the most Hammond drenched rocker on the album but boasting a hard, driving riff that is part Purple and a touch of Rainbow. Hansi Kursch handling the chorus here is a touch of brilliance, his honey on a pine cone vocals giving the chorus the energy spike it needs.

All in all, some good stuff, and a lot of frustrating stuff, and I realize that there’s going to be a few people who vehemently disagree with everything I’m saying. I totally get it, and I’m probably in the minority considering how popular Ayreon is among the prog/power metal set, so I can only conclude that its just my specific neediness for more conventional structure that is hampering a total embrace of the Ayreon catalog. Or… maybe I’m pulling on an annoying thread of truth about what Lucassen is trying to do here: He’s attempting to tell a fairly literal, cast based story that’s not actually a staged musical, so the only way to digest it as a fan and critic is to listen to it as a prog/power metal album. Bands like Blind Guardian and Kamelot have delivered relatively complex concept albums, the bards delivering one two years ago with Beyond the Red Mirror. But they were wise enough to keep the storyline specifics to the album booklet and allow the songs to serve as its thematic soundtrack. Kamelot simply had Roy Khan as a co-writer (aka the Michael Jordan of metal lyric writing) so that’s a bit unfair, but his work on Epica and The Black Halo serve as fine examples of how to lyrically sketch detailed scenes yet still stay within a melody line. And although this is too obvious a comparison and kinda taboo, Tobias Sammet found ways to handle multi-vocalist songs in Avantasia to great success. The secret was making sure each vocalist stayed within the bounds of the melody as defined by the song (check “The Seven Angels” and “The Scarecrow” for examples).

I’m not convinced that Lucassen’s has the lyrical talent to pull off the rather literal stories through music that he’s attempting on The Source. He’s ham handed and clunky in this specific facet, and all the musical window dressing that (often gorgeously) adorns his guest vocalists phrases can’t mask their inherent brokenness. The man is clearly an immense musical talent, and I can attest to the fact that he can pen a hell of a song when he restrains himself and focuses on the basic building blocks of songwriting (again thinking of The Gentle Storm). But in the sprawling, story-directed Ayreon project he is in desperate need of a co-writer to help him craft lyrics that are far more spare, economical, and skillfully deft enough to tell a story in a more poetic or rhythmic fashion. And he’d do well to consider crafting actual songs, not musical set pieces that would be better off as a stage play. Dream Theater delivered their worst album doing exactly that with The Astonishing —- when you allow your storyline to dictate your lyrics and thus your songwriting, you will flounder. You can’t have your sci-fi opera cake and eat it too in this case. Here’s the blueprint: Get a good writer to pen the storyline in a gorgeously detailed booklet, and let the album be songs that support or magnify aspects of that story. Have your all-star cast of vocalists, but don’t cram six to eight of them in a single song, limit the number to three a song tops, four if its an epic. Hansi Kursch had some nice moments on this album, but it left me wishing he had a song that could be HIS song, maybe shared with one other singer. You guys tell me, am I just missing the point?

 

 

Pyramaze – Contingent:

The welcome return of Pyramaze, who with 2015’s rather satisfying Disciples of the Sun made a play for many folks year end lists. This new album is their second with the versatile Terje Haroy, the Norwegian vocalist I credited with much of the success of that last album. Its also nice to see its only been a two year gap since then, considering the seven year gap that separated Disciples from its Matt Barlow helmed predecessor Immortal. Its a sign of the band laying down the groundwork to make a seriously prolific run, no doubt inspired by the frustration of the band’s earlier years when they enduring constant lineup changes. It also seems like the band has finally found a musical style they can call their own, a somewhat more streamlined take on what Evergrey are currently doing and what bands like Symphorce (remember them?) used to do. That means prog-power metal with an equal focus on songs driven by guitar riffs and those led by keyboard melodies, often both working in tandem on the same melody. Its a sound that’s proven difficult to get just right, band’s often missing the right combination of one or the other or not having that magical vocalist to bring it all together (like Haroy). I haven’t been this enthusiastic about a band in this vein in ages, and that they’re looking to stick around is encouraging. The question with Contingent is do they hit upon a “sophomore slump” so to speak, or does the rookie sensation Haroy have what it takes to deliver yet another awesome album?

The early signs were extremely encouraging, as pre-release single “A World Divided” was a homerun, a perfectly written slice of ear candy with an arcing chorus that turned the song into one of this year’s most addictive listens. And since our MSRcast discussions often delve into the quality of metal music videos, kudos to Pyramaze here for delivering a rather nice video here, that rare kind that executes a complicated script without looking out of its league and with a great band performance to pair with it. But its not alone among the quality songs here, as album opener “Land of Information” is exactly the kind of hard driving, up-tempo mix of loose hard rock styled guitar frills and dense, steel forged riffs that this album needed to get off to an electrifying start. There’s “Kingdom of Solace”, with perhaps the most cleverly sly hook on the album, its refrain doing a rhythmic shuffle between the percussion and the interplay of Haroy’s soaring call and response vocals. There’s an interesting tempo downshift when the chorus of “Nemesis” approaches, and not a lot of bands can make something like that work (Falconer is a rare example), but Pyramaze pull it off here, the refrain written beautifully —- to say nothing of the mid-song bridge that begins at the 2:15 mark which is a showstopper in its own right. There is unfortunately a bit of a slanted feel to this album however, in that the first half slightly outruns the second.

Its not that there aren’t good songs on the back end, but those first five are damn near excellent and unique among themselves as well. I never really felt that “Under Restraint” took off in the way it should have, being built on some skillfully painted atmospherics and solid verses, but they suffer from a chorus that just needed a little more work. Similarly in need of some fine tuning is “Symphony of Tears”, whose chorus seems unable to outshine the truly excellent bridge that precedes it. I also got too much of a nu-metal vibe on “Obsession”, and I realize that’s an aggravating description to read because it can say so many things. I guess there’s something about the lack of smoothness in that song, the shifts in the song are jarringly abrupt, and the guitar riffs get a little repetitive in that plodding, radio-rock way. Similarly, “20 Second Century” suffers from generic-itis, this time in the overly aggressive hard rock vibe of the pre/post verse riffs that don’t jibe with the ultra glossy feel of the primary vocal melodies and keyboards that fly along with Haroy. They’re all told not bad songs, they’re just not what I’d confidently term “good” songs either. Fortunately, the duet (with an unknown American vocalist Kristen Foss) “The Tides That Won’t Change” is simply superb, the kind of thing I was hoping to hear on this album, a braver stab at a ballad based on vocal melodies alone that Haroy’s vocals were seemingly destined for. Don’t let a few bumpy songs deter you, this is a must listen for prog-power fans this year, jump on it!

A Brief History of The Metal Pigeon (aka Roots, Pigeon Roots)

May 4, 2017

I can’t remember if it was the summer of 1987 or 88, but I do know that it started in Sacramento. We had family there, my dad’s older sister, her husband, and their kids who numbered all of six daughters. They were much older than my brother and I, the both of us still in elementary school (I had just started), so much so that the youngest among them had already entered high school. That disparity made those family visits a bit surreal for me. I was unable to get a handle on anything they talked about, and I’ve never been good with names so I hardly could keep any of theirs straight except for a pair of them that doted on me. This sounds bad I know, but to this day I’m not even sure if I’ve ever really had proper conversations with all of them. That’s not entirely unusual though, I have a handful of first cousins I’ve still never met, and a few others I’ve only met once (both my parents had a lot of siblings). I can’t imagine the kind of family dynamic you’d have with that many daughters, and I never really got to know them well enough to understand, but I knew that just like any family, they had their black sheep too.

 

megadeth_-_peace_sells-_but_whos_buying-_zpszkl3ylqfI knew this because on one early visit I went upstairs, entranced that they had a spiraled staircase and an actual bridge that connected the opposite sides of the second floor. It was like a playground, a bridge —- a freaking bridge in the middle of a suburban home! I had walked across it towards a bedroom with its door ajar, where I curiously poked my head in and unwittingly altered the future soundtrack to my life. On the walls were a myriad of posters, some of them vivid and colorful in those distinctly 80’s styles, but others had faces of dudes with wild hair, and what seemed like… girls makeup on. Among the panorama, three things stood out: there was a huge, huge poster of what I’d later recognize as the cover art for Megadeth’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, an Iron Maiden poster with Eddie glaring menacingly at me (memory suggests it could be the Killers cover art), and a picture of Bon Jovi with collective hairstyles that stood out as particularly outrageous. It was all compelling, and I stared transfixed for a long time, particularly at the Megadeth poster. What the hell was I looking at? It was fascinating! An older cousin poked her head around the door, “There you are!”. I asked her what all the stuff on the walls was, and she quirked a sour expression, “Oh I don’t know, this is Cindy’s room…”, that immediate sense of disapproval registering in my mind.

 

It was the start of something. No I didn’t go out and beg my mom for the new Megadeth album, I didn’t even know what Megadeth was. But a seed had been planted, the first fires of curiosity stoked in the engine of my metal fandom. I remembered her response for sure, but more importantly, I was left with a faint impression of a world that was mysterious, dangerous, and far more fantastical than the humdrum reality that family visits were entirely composed of. Sometime after this, at yet another aunt’s house where they actually had nascent cable services and MTV, I saw the video for Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” and my interest in rock music took off.

 

California was the backdrop for all these moments, our family making an annual summer drive across I-10 West from Texas through New Mexico and Arizona, up to cities like Modesto, San Francisco, Fremont, and of course Sacramento. We’d spend weeks on these Ford Aerostar trips, and for whatever reason, out there I heard things I’d never hear back home in Houston: Guns N’ Roses in passing moments as the late 80s wound by, White Lion’s “Wait” playing from some guy’s car stereo as he idled in front of Vince’s Shellfish Co. packing warehouse that was directly across the tiny street from my grandmother’s even tinier San Bruno house. There’s more than a handful of songs I associate with that street, as well as the sight of the actual “South San Francisco The Industrial City” sign on the side of Sign Hill Park that you could see in the distance if you stood on something tall to see over the buildings. One windy, chilly sunset evening I heard the sonorous notes of what I’d later recall as Journey’s “Lights” drifting over some nearby fence while standing on the minuscule patch of grass that served as the backyard of that house. Names of relatives, phone numbers, addresses, these were things I could hardly remember (still can’t) —- but singing voices were seared upon my memories, and my recollection of the songs that carried them remained as vivid as the moment I first heard them.

 

It was more than just rock music that I soaked up on these trips, it was an entire musical pop culture education that spanned across genres. An uncle lived with my grandmother, and due to him the place had cable TV as well. Straining to hear over the house shaking roar of jets frequently taking off a few hundred yards away at San Francisco International, my brother and I saw videos from Bobby Brown, Madonna, Paula Abdul, and Phil Collins. I quietly loved all of it, especially Phil Collins, of whom we must’ve bought a cassette of because I distinctly remember listening to him in the Aerostar as it bounded across cracked roads, steep hills, and narrow avenues (we’d frequently find ourselves bounced out of our seats, no 80’s minivan has shocks good enough to make Bay Area driving comfortable). We listened to the oldies too, the only music my parents would tune the car radio to, and I got an education in Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, even Supertramp.  My parents were always unwittingly influential that way —- during the first four years of my life when we lived in Modesto, my mom would play ABBA in her Datsun 510, a detail she doesn’t remember (to be fair, she hardly ever remembers the names of musical artists) and along with Kenny Rogers and Crystal Gayle they compose most of my first musical memories.

 

I would return home from these long family trips with a head spinning full of melodies not easily forgotten. And I suspect now that the overwhelming pop influences that I picked up here would later direct me to better appreciate metal subgenres such as power metal, when most other Texan metal heads were only concerned with heaviness. But of course you’re a kid, and your attention span even in those pre-internet days is still in constant flux, so I’d be diverted by the rest of the endless summer’s allure: riding bicycles in the tracks we carved in the thicket of woods behind the neighborhood, ducking out the hottest hours of the day at various friends’ houses, and generally just exhausting ourselves in a variety of ways. The idea of owning music didn’t become a reality until much later in elementary school, when I started listening to a local Houston “mainstream rock” station called Rock 101 KLOL. They’d play your hard rock standards, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Montrose, Thin Lizzy, Scorpions, ZZ Top (whose drummer Frank Beard had a palatial estate just outside our neighborhood) —- but at night they’d let heavier stuff slip through, some Metallica, Queensryche, Pantera, and offbeat stuff like Faith No More. I’d frequently record hours of these broadcasts on my cassette deck boom box, failing to remember to stop during commercial breaks. It soon dawned on me that I should get proper copies of the stuff I heard on the radio and loved. I began exploring the record store at the mall, scoring treasures in both CD and cassette from the used bins.

 

Fast forward to the start of sixth grade, and I have my first run in with real metal heads, or headbangers, as they were legitimately called in those days. Chad and Eric, two metal t-shirt wearing guys in the percussion section of the symphonic band I was placed into after tryouts. I was assigned to the suspended cymbal, Chad and Eric on the snare drums, and a few other kids whose names escape me covered the timpani, the bass drum, and the xylophone. I’ve always been a friendly sort, so after band practice that first day I struck up conversation, albeit nervously considering they were a grade ahead of me. Chad was wearing a Metallica shirt, the …And Justice For All design. “Hey Metallica…,” I squeaked to Chad, “…I know them, I love ‘The Unforgiven’…”. He sneered and audibly scoffed, “Oh yeah? What, is the Black Album the only thing you’ve listened to?” I didn’t expect the hostility, I think I stammered out something unintelligible and Eric, being the nicer of the two, informed me succinctly, “They’ve been around a long time, they have older, better albums.” Chad was brusque, “Come talk to me when you’ve listened to Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning, and know more metal bands than just Metallica. Don’t be a poseur.” That word was a big deal in the mid-90s, the worst sort of insult. I was struck by an invisible hand, and chastened, I sauntered away, only later feeling enough resolve to grab my Metallica-loving friend Daniel in the hall to pester him into making me copies of whatever else he had.

 

He didn’t have much really, a Primus album (Sailing the Seas…), and Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven, but it was a start. Within a rapidly short period of time however, I bought up a plethora of new music from frequent trips to a used cd store and occasionally the Sam Goody’s in the mall. Megadeth became an obsession, I loved them even more than Metallica, although in those pre-Load days I’d have never said so out loud. It came in a flood and it came nearly at once: Iron Maiden, Metal Church, Suicidal Tendencies, Saigon Kick (The Lizard!), Queensryche, Ozzy, and Dio. Also older hard rock stuff too: Tesla, Van Halen, Dokken, Motorhead, and yes, still a love for Bon Jovi, particularly the neglected 90s albums. It was a combination of the enjoyment of the music itself, the rebellious image it presented, and also the uniqueness it brought to my own self-identity. Hard rock and metal were not en vogue in the mid-nineties in Houston, particularly not at the middle school I went to, where rap and to a lesser extent modern R&B music was predominant cultural force. We were outsiders there, a few scraggly kids with interests that everyone else deemed either weird or considered outdated, a viewpoint that really seemed to take hold during that time, that a pursuit of trends and being in fashion was the way to be “cool”. I think it was probably different a decade or so later, when the concept of retro permeated the sensibilities of pop culture and fashion.

 

Happening concurrently with that explosion in music buying was the dawning of a deep interest in rock and metal magazines, which I bought as often as I could spare the few bucks not reserved for actual music. Kerrang!, Metal Edge, the last years of RIP, Hit Parader, Circus, and a host of others were regular reading material, mainly at the magazine racks of the nearest bookstore. I stuck to magazines that had bands and names that I recognized, mostly mainstream rock/metal type stuff —- I’d curiously flip through Metal Maniacs and wonder why they weren’t writing about Metallica. Yeah, I was naive, more on that soon. The reading material became a compulsion, and in addition to the magazines I tore through any books on rock and metal that I could find, biographies being a particular favorite. I became a sponge for facts, memorizing band member’s names, line-up changes, chart positions, and entire backstories of favorite bands, Metallica and Iron Maiden in particular. In the summer of ’96, Metallica released Load, and I listened to it obsessively in a crappy Sony Discman, and my fandom of the band was at such a fever pitch that I loudly defended it to detractors among my circle of friends. I’d dodge their clumsy insult based diatribes by talking about lyrical depth, a specific moment in a favorite song, be it a riff or a melody, and would dare them to find a deeper, more meaningful Metallica song than “Bleeding Me”. I convinced no one of course, but I found in myself a conviction in my own beliefs, and confidence in my ability to argue intelligently about music.

 

In retrospect, it was likely around this time that I found my love of music criticism, both through envying the writers of the magazines I was reading, as well as forming my own arguments to defend albums that were under fire from fellow metal fans, both in person and online in early forum boards such as The Official Megadeth Forums and the old EncycMet forums (the latter used to be a thriving community, now its a junkyard for bots and spam). I learned a lot from older, salty veteran metalheads at these places, got pointed in the direction of bands I should check out, and would be generously linked to private FTPs to grab an MP3 of a band someone would think I’d enjoy. I got introduced to black metal this way, through someone passing me Dimmu Borgir’s “Mourning Palace”… it took hours to download that one song but it was totally worth it. Around this time, my old buddy Daniel had leaped headfirst into heavier stuff —- we had already listened to Cannibal Corpse and Gwar at his house, more of out shocking his conservative parents than any real enjoyment of the music, but soon he got his hands on a dubbed copy of albums by Death and Carcass. We sat and listened to Individual Thought Patterns and Heartwork, and of course Sepultura’s classic Chaos AD. Almost at once, I dove into the death metal pool, and still remember us bicycling from his house to the nearby 7-11, ostensibly to buy Jolt Cola (it was the only place that sold it), and instead spending my few dollars on that once perplexing magazine called Metal Maniacs. It was the dawn of a new era in my metal fandom.

 

I was in high school by this point and my musical tastes were flowering in a myriad of directions. An old elementary school friend named Greg and I reconnected over a shared love of the Smashing Pumpkins; a girl I briefly dated in the 9th grade introduced me to U2 which soon became a hidden obsession of mine; I was introduced to the elegant British pop of Saint Etienne via a computer-geek friend and his anglophile sister; to The Prodigy, Underworld, Aphex Twin, and other electronic “techno” music through a budding hacker buddy (hey, hacker culture was a big deal back then (Free Kevin!)); and I met Matt Roy, a good friend to this day and fellow metalhead who introduced me to Loreena McKennitt, the world traveling Celtic songstress whose Book of Secrets album was a quiet, nighttime revelation. In the halls of that high school, I ran into a familiar face one morning by our usual pre-class hangout spot, it was Chad from my old middle school percussion section. We both knew a big metalhead named Paul Saleeba (there were so few metal fans at my high school, we all knew each other in some way), and Saleeba and I were talking about whether we preferred death or black metal and whether the newly released Lords of Chaos book was true or not. Chad listened to me talk in detail about bands from Norway, and while he didn’t say anything directly, I noticed he no longer regarded me with the sneering contempt he once had. No one could call me a poseur by then.

 

The pre-social media, pre-Blabbermouth.net internet at that time was a patchwork of some individual band websites with message boards, some central online metal hubs that fans of all stripes congregated at, and also the burgeoning dawn of metal only internet radio. Starting around 98-99, I was a daily visitor at KNAC.com, HardRadio.com, and a host of other newly developing metal internet radio sites. Someone on a message board tipped me off to WRUW in Cleveland, who had a few weekly metal shows on their college radio roster, one of which changed my metal fandom by itself —- Dr. Metal’s The Metal Meltdown. I have a distinct memory of sitting one Friday afternoon and listening to all these bands I didn’t recognize but loving largely everything I heard. It was a revelation, and my introduction to power metal. The Doc threw out names I recognized, Helloween and Savatage, (both had new albums coming out around then), but those were bands I had previously only thought of as 80s metal bands, the ones that couldn’t survive unlike your Metallicas and Queensryches (how young and dumb I was!). Soon the Doc was throwing unfamiliar names my way, playing their newest cuts in rapid fire: Gamma Ray, a new band from Sweden called Hammerfall, Tad Morose, Royal Hunt, Pink Cream 69, Iron Savior, Edguy, Angra, and so many others. I recognized one band in particular though, Blind Guardian, whose “Lord of the Rings” I had heard weeks prior on Hardradio.com only to be left transfixed and frustrated for wanting more. He played songs off their newest album, Nightfall In Middle Earth, and I had a transcendent experience. My perspective on metal and music were forever changed.

 

My dive into power metal coincided not only with the flourishing of the Golden Age of Power Metal™ in the late 90s through early 2000s, but with the advent of getting a job(s) and my own car. I would immediately begin seeking out local record stores around town (its dizzying now to think of how many of them existed, albeit for only a short while longer), spending my paychecks there as well as ordering multiple titles from overseas distros at one time to save on shipping. I ordered albums from Germany, Italy, France, Japan (the most expensive single disc I ever bought was Sonata Arctica’s Orientation EP for 40 bucks from a Tokyo distro, totally worth it). The stateside merger of Nuclear Blast’s catalog with Century Media’s distro was a game changer, making previously unavailable albums accessible to stateside fans without exorbitant shipping costs and even the possibility of retail placement. I worked in the music section of a Borders Books and Music in those days and would make use of the company’s various distribution channels to get tons of stuff for myself, and even got hooked up with regional major label reps for bigger things (promos ahead of release dates, concert tickets… well, Def Leppard, Poison, and bands of that ilk, but it was something). The magazine addiction continued too, with frequent visits to a now defunct (and mourned) magazine shop called Superstand where I could grab import issues I couldn’t find anywhere else. It was the transformation of a budding obsession to a way of life.

 

Fast forward to the late summer of 2000, and my life was… to put it mildly, hectic. I was starting a new job, living in a new apartment, going to university for the first time, and was constantly driving back and forth across the traffic clogged expanse of Houston’s spaghetti bowl of freeways. I was also going through a rough time, feeling down at the departure of some friends, alienated from people around me and feeling utterly lost and adrift when on campus. I had gotten into the Gothenburg melodic-death metal scene earlier that summer, and In Flames’ new album Clayman was in its own lyrically clunky way expressing everything I was feeling during that period of time and I was listening to it almost non-stop (pausing only to listen to their other classics, The Jester Race, Whoracle, and Colony). I remember it was a chilly fall, and it turned into a frigid winter, the coldest I can remember in Houston terms. I associate those albums with getting in my car with the heater going, purposefully driving fast enough to blank out my mind to everything else while banging the steering wheel in time with the drums. One day while looking online in the computer lab at school, I found out In Flames was coming, Saturday, December 16th, —- here, to Houston! I resolved to go no matter what. I had been to concerts before, but this would be my first club show, complete with parking in a sketchy neighborhood!

 

It was a Saturday, with a gusty wind-chill putting the temperature around 40 something degrees, and in that late afternoon I walked towards the legendary Houston club Fitzgerald’s. I remember being severely unprepared for the cold, and I clutched my jacket around me, fingers growing ever more numb. Fitz’ basically looks like a very large house (it was previously a community center for the local Polish-American community shortly after WWII), and had been converted into a dance hall in the 70s, with the main stage upstairs —- but vestiges of the old home remained: an upstairs front facing balcony, and below it, an elevated wooden front porch. As I neared, I saw a familiar figure sitting on the steps, and when I was mere yards away from him it became clear that it was In Flames vocalist Anders Friden sitting on the steps, leaning against the wooden railings. I remember saying hello, and asked him how he was doing, how the tour was going. I was nervous, it was my first face to face with a musician that I was a fan of, let alone one whose albums I was completely immersed in at the time. I was stunned that I could just talk to him out there, no security pushing me away, no “backstage pass” needed, just two guys dressed in black sitting on a wooden porch.

 

He looked at me and grinned sheepishly, and said in a noticeable Swedish accent, “Oh man, you know, we partied really hard here last night …”. Here?! I thought. In Flames were here in Houston last night?! I asked him where they went to party but he shook his head and said, “… Don’t know, can’t remember… you guys have bullet proof windows at the Taco Bell drive-thru down here, that freaks us out man…”. I laughed, completely taken off guard. We chatted a few more minutes, me trying to reassure him that Houston wasn’t all that dangerous everywhere, though he seemed unconvinced. The bums loitering outside the convenience store across the street did little to reinforce my sentiments. I remember him commenting on how early I had arrived (it was only 4:30pm), and I told him this was my first club show and first time going to a show by myself. He seemed surprised at that, remarked that he hoped they delivered a good one. Right around then someone bellowed for him from inside and he got up and said “See you man” and went in. I sat there in stunned silence while a guy with an In Flames shirt was walking up to the venue to join me in the long, cold wait. A few minutes later we heard some familiar riffs as the band sound checked —- the guy outside freaked out, ecstatic that he was hearing an In Flames soundcheck. I didn’t tell him that he had just missed Anders sitting outside, it would’ve been a jerk move… instead I agreed with him about the awesomeness.

 

That show was epic. Like front and center pressed up against the stage, got handshakes with Jesper and Anders (who did recognize me from earlier), heard Jester Race songs played live, and got Jeff Loomis’ guitar pick kinda epic (oh yeah Nevermore and Shadows Fall opened). It meant so much to me to see In Flames that night in particular, it was cathartic in a way. I remember driving back in the wee hours that night, high on the experience, realizing that I needed more of that type of hit. What followed was an onslaught of going to shows, everything from touring bands to local death metal gigs in cramped record stores, and for awhile I kept count of how many I had notched. That count is lost to memory and time, and I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many shows I’ve been to by now. If I go too many months without seeing a show, I feel it in my gut, the start of a yearning that won’t go away until I feel the rumble of amplified guitars and kick drums in my chest again. People say you’re supposed to grow out of this stuff, being excited about music and seeing concerts. You’re not supposed to want to start a metal blog a decade after that first club show, your adult mind having settled down to adult interests like golf, dinner parties, and khaki pants. I guess in that sense, I’ve never really grown up, or at least grown up the way most people consider right. If you’re reading this (this far especially), you likely can relate a bit to that.

 

I started The Metal Pigeon in 2011 because social media quietly killed most of the forum communities that I was a part of, everyone (bands included) making the move over from standalone websites and official forums to Facebook. Even if no one read it, it would be my soapbox to continue doing what I had been doing informally since the late 90s, talking and writing about metal for the sheer love of it. Amazingly, more people than I ever imagined have visited this site and read what I’ve written, and some of you have surprisingly come back over and over. That alone stuns me. I also co-host the MSRcast, plunging into a form of media that was all but alien to me a few years ago, and have learned that my smarmy voice going on incessantly about metal has been heard in far off places such as Australia and Brazil, where an English teacher used the show to help his students learn conversational English(!). People have asked me in the past, “Why do you listen to metal?” My answers were always generic and obvious. But I suspect now that I never really had a choice in the matter. I was in the right house during the right time, seeing the right posters on a relative’s bedroom wall. I was in the right spots to hear the right songs around my grandmother’s house in San Bruno, to remember them and store them away in my mind. I had a lifetime of possibilities to lose interest, to turn towards something else, but apparently, every time one came near, the music guided me onward. It was never a destination, it has always been a path.

The 2017 Journal (Feb-March Edition): Talkin’ Amaranthe’s Maximalism

April 10, 2017

Yeah I know. One month into this 2017 journal experiment and I missed my first deadline at the end of February, I knew it would happen at some point, just hoped it wouldn’t be till later on. So, a broad recap of those past two months: February was rather quiet music wise, I only reviewed two albums and felt pretty blah about a host of others. I guess sometimes the journal will reflect that there simply wasn’t a lot to talk about metal wise during certain parts of the year. Unlike 2016 where the early months were packed full of new music, 2017 took its time getting going, with the majority of my attention being devoted towards releases from March. That most of these have been from new (to me) bands is particularly interesting, and hopefully a trend that continues throughout the year.
 

Speaking of 2016 however (that year that just won’t go away), it may not have been lost on some of you that I had never written a review for Amaranthe’s Maximalism that came out in October. I remember that we ended up talking about it vaguely on the MSRcast as well as its sister podcast Metal Geeks, but that was the extent of my public discourse on a band that I’ve been pretty vocal about supporting, at least in a devil’s advocate/contrarian way (although its probably not too contrarian if I genuinely enjoy their music). Why was this? Particularly when I was so loquacious on their previous albums The Nexus and Massive Addictive. Well Maximalism was a more radical amalgam of Amaranthe’s disparate influences than anyone, including me, could ever imagine, and I’ll admit that my first few listens threw me into a state of confusion. I remember just how uncomfortable the album initially made me feel because my pop-loving self was responding to several aspects of it, but my analytical metal reviewer side was going “No… nope… guys this is going too far…”. I leaned in favor of shelving it until I could clear my decks of other new releases and properly consider it with the benefit of time. Come February, I found myself listening to it anew.

To kill the suspense, I’ll admit up front that the album has grown on me considerably, and while its not my favorite of theirs (that being 2014’s Massive Addictive), it does have enough hooky ear candy to be fun. But I’m weird like that, and have a high tolerance level for the band’s pop inclinations, even when they overwhelm everything else. And wow, was Maximalism full of those (making good on the meaning behind its title); from the Queen meets Gary Glitter stomp of “That Song”, to the most EDM they’ve ever sounded with the Ibiza remix ready “Maximize”. Those two songs represent the spear tips of what has been a further shifting away in sound from as I once described it, a “blend of Euro-pop/American radio-rock with metalcore-lite dressing”, towards a more overtly stadium rock/dance approach. But the rest of the album is more wide ranging than their previous three in terms of every aspect of their sound —- the metalcore tracks are the heaviest they’ve done, the aforementioned pop structured tracks are more hooky and contagious than anything they’ve done before, and the electronic textures that previously would accent their songs have been laid on as thick as possible. Stupid me, the band even advertised this: They called the album Maximalism. Duh.
 

This 360 degree expansion of their sound makes for a wild and unpredictable album for sure, and also one that will further disgust and appall their critics. We’ve discussed the latter quite often so I’ll avoid it here, suffice to say that perhaps Amaranthe deserve credit for staying in their own lane and not trying out passing trends in hope of catching something that sticks (such as adopting a faux Gothic approach in an attempt to win over Within Temptation/Nightwish fans). But an album like Maximalism is also one that honestly confuses me, as much as I do enjoy it, because I can’t fathom for what audience something like “That Song” was aimed at. Hey I’m not picking on it, it really grew on me after my initial balking at its sheer audacity, but its arguably the most divisive song of their career, and to release it as the first single was a ballsy (and possibly reckless) move. Not only are its lyrics as awkward as a gawky teenager at his first middle school dance, but its hard to know for what audience it was geared towards. Now… I realize I’m making an assumption, being that Amaranthe aren’t simply expressing themselves artistically through which “That Song” was a natural byproduct of that process. But c’mon, lets get real here, it was their first single, and this is a band that does have a sound with the potential to achieve mainstream radio/chart success, and regardless of the band’s own intentions, that much is inarguable. If you haven’t heard it yet, take a listen:
 



 
So lets ask the hidden-elephant-in-the-room question: Does anyone think that “That Song” sounds like something that would fly on American modern rock radio? For all its commercial sheen, I think existing formats work against it, and though only the band and their management can confirm whether or not it was serviced to terrestrial/satellite radio as a single, its lack of impact on any American radio chart speaks volumes. I couldn’t even find any concrete evidence of it making an impact on Liquid Metal, SiriusXM Octane, and any other major satellite radio shows. This is a step backwards from the dent they made in 2014 with “Drop Dead Cynical” off Massive Addictive, which actually hit #1 on Octane. It was a single that seemed to strike that sweet spot within the American radio mindset that has allowed a band like The Pretty Reckless to actually have major radio hits (as opposed to just YouTube video views). The disparity between these two songs might seem negligible upon first glance, but if you take another back to back listen to both singles, you’ll get a sense of why “That Song” has failed to be anything but for prospective fans. Now my perspective is limited to being an American based rock/metal fan, who’s observed its rock radio culture for many years as much as possible from the outside in. Why the single hasn’t taken off in the wildly diverse radio markets of Europe, I have no idea, but the fact that it hasn’t should worry Amaranthe and Spinefarm Records.

And then only recently, news came from the Amaranthe camp that clean vocalist Jake E Berg (Joacim Lundberg) was going to sit out the upcoming tours —- not unusual for guys in metal bands with children at home. But in February the break soon turned into his permanent exit, an odd turn of occurrences for someone who was a huge part of the band’s songwriting. I was honestly stunned, because I’ve always viewed Berg and co-founding guitarist Olof Morck as the nucleus of the band, both musically and conceptually. Elize Ryd had become a part of that team in recent years, and judging from statements from Berg himself in a Bravewords exclusive, her increased role in the songwriting team might have edged him out:

The first two albums (self-titled debut and The Nexus) were exactly what I wanted the band to sound like; a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice. Different elements combined, but the main thing in the music was the metal base. On the Massive Addictive album it started to change into something else that I didn’t really control, and you can hear the songs that I was more involved in working on are very metal. When we started working on the Maximalism album I found that it wasn’t the Amaranthe I had helped create at the start. It wasn’t my vision at all and I realized that I had to be true to myself.

– Jake E Berg (Bravewords February 8th, 2017)

 
After I read this interview, I went back through Maximalism only to realize that sure enough, Berg just didn’t seem to be on a lot of the album the way he was in the past. Ryd and surprisingly screamer Henrik Englund were the dominant voices throughout, and it did seem that Berg’s vocal role had been minimized overall. I guess I hadn’t noticed it before because he was on the album’s most prominent tracks, and he has a starring role on “Break Down and Cry”, one of the stronger tracks in the latter half of the album. But to his point, he laments the band’s drifting away from their central metal sound, and while many will scoff (or politely say, that’s debatable) I get what he’s trying to articulate. This doesn’t sound like the Amaranthe of the first two albums, where everything was fused together in some kind of Magic Bullet audio blender —- as I pointed out before, the disparity on Maximalism is very noticeable. Some of these songs are essentially pop/dance songs with guitar window dressing, free from metallic riffs serving as structural song elements. Regarding his take on Massive Addictive being the start of Amaranthe’s musical identity crisis, I’m a bit surprised, because their touching on classic 80s pop/rock on that album (“True”, “Over and Done”, “Trinity”) was a refreshing change up, and he really stole the show on the ballads in particular, his voice hitting emotive inflections you never expected him too. But its his perspective that matters most, and he felt otherwise.
 

I’ll say this plainly here, but Berg’s departure is a huge blow for this bandSure, he wasn’t the most powerful vocalist and could sound thin in live situations, but his performances on the albums were always spot on. He has gone on to form a new band called Cyhra with ex-In Flames stalwarts Peter Iwers and freakin’ Jesper Stromblad (the fanboy in me is squeeing), a strange combination for sure but one I’m completely excited for. He has also surprisingly relaunched Dreamland, his old Swedish power metal band that made some minor waves back in 2005 via a pretty decent debut in Future’s Calling (purists will remember this as Ryd’s first time singing with Berg on “Fade Away”). Time will tell how Berg’s departure affects Morck and Ryd’s songwriting approach (if at all), but clearly his decision was unforeseen by even the band members themselves. Ryd seemed genuinely surprised, and the experience has led to her recent interviews being far more revealing and introspective than I’d ever expected to come from her. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but this could simply be a situation where Morck and Ryd found themselves naturally leaning in their more pop centric direction without realizing how it was alienating their songwriting partner —- a natural drifting apart as opposed to something personal or intentional. Either way, its a shame.

They probably don’t realize it, but I think Amaranthe are at a crossroads here. While their accomplishments are certainly nothing to so glibly dismiss, registering only a half a million in total sales over their entire four album discography is probably not as much as their management and label had hoped for. They should’ve been burning up the charts in Germany, but even there they have yet to crack the top 80. In Sweden they have only just hit the top five nationally (keep in mind that In Flames have regular number one albums here). This is baffling, but maybe there’s a lesson lurking amidst the confusion here —- that in creating a sound that could attempt to straddle genre boundaries and reach out towards extremely varied audiences, they under extended in both directions over time. Maybe there was a limit to the number of people who were liable to get hooked in through pop hooks and stay for the heavier end of the band’s sound. And maybe they were just too bizarre for radio programmers to see how to fit them in, and perhaps their overly glossy Patric Ullaeus videos simply turned more than a handful of people off (proving this —- their best video, for “True”, was devoid of Ullaeus’ annoying penchant for glitz and glam). The video for “That Song” features Ryd in dance-pop choreography mode, complete with backing dancers moving in unison, inter cut with Ryd dancing whilst holding headphones to her ear. Its a bold series of visuals, nicely filmed ones at that. But its the kind of imagery that is alien to most young rock and metal fans, imagery that leaves them feeling left out, defeating the point of heavy music in the first place.

 

The Bounty of Spring! New Music March!

March 28, 2017

The bounty of spring indeed, because this month I’ve found myself going through at least eight new releases, a few of which aren’t listed in the reviews below but might be up later sometime. Some of these are also late February releases that I had overlooked that month or simply thought were coming out in March (or more accurately, I didn’t get around to listening to until recently). There’s a lot to get to and I’ve tried to keep things short and concise for you and me both, so we’ll apply that to this preamble too. Begin!

 


 

Wolfheart – Tyhjyys:

On the latest episode of the MSRcast, listen to my cohost Cary and I collectively slap our foreheads in bafflement at not knowing that Wolfheart was the newest project from Tuomas Saukkonen. I did have vague stirrings that I had remembered the band name somewhere, but laziness compelled me not to do a simple Google search on it (or I got distracted by Twitter, both likely culprits). Saukkonen is the restless spirit behind Black Sun Aeon (an MSRcast favorite), Before the Dawn, Dawn of Solace, and the short lived RoutaSielu melo-death project. He’s the Chris Black type (he of High Spirits, Dawnbringer, and Pharaoh fame), the kind of musician who operates under a project/band name until he feels its run its course, upon which he creates a new moniker, and begins to record under that for however long he feels its inspiration. These projects have been different enough musically to warrant such divisions, though they are almost always cooked up in a Finnish broth of blackened doom along with melodic death metal structures. Whereas Black Sun Aeon was a very Finnish extreme take on gothic metal, Saukkonen leans in an altogether new direction here, more towards the progressive simplicity of latter day Enslaved. Its a natural fit because one of his trademarks is his clever and engaging use of minimalism as a guide in his songwriting, allowing for the usage of empty space to create tension and to amplify heavier passages.

Case in point is the single “The Flood”, an acoustic led epic that recalls mid-period Opeth for its delicate patterns and understated minor key melodicism. I love a track that’s so confident in its overall strength that it allows for moments of sparsely adorned quietude where the drums are the dominating instrument, helped by Joonas Kauppinen’s jazz-inflected fills (check 2:04 – 2:26). That aforementioned Enslaved influence can’t help but be heard on a cut like “Boneyard”, whose main riff is a mish-mash of tremolo picking and modern day prog-metal, book ending a chorus that’s elevated by a bed of forceful keyboard atmospherics. Wolfheart’s keyboard usage is multi-faceted, not only serving as quasi-orchestral arrangements at times, but as purposefully artificial in tone as on “The Rift”, to conjure up a complementary melody to the rhythm guitar riff that brings to mind Omnium Gatherum and Insomnium (not bad touchstones to have). Unlike those fellow Finnish artists however, who occasionally swim in tones that can be described as warm, or summery (as in the honeyed melodies of One For Sorrow), Wolfheart choose to work with decidedly wintry sounds. That’s not a bad thing because they have the songwriting chops to keep it interesting, but for folks who can’t handle an overload of that stuff, it could act as a stumbling block. That being said there’s not a weak track on this album, and with only seven songs (excluding one rather well written instrumental intro) they could hardly afford one.

The Takeaway: Modern day Enslaved meets Blackwater era Opeth while being bear hugged by Metallica-esque accessibility. Worth a shot for extreme metal neophytes and old hands alike.

 

 

Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:

Evocation aren’t exactly the most known name in death metal, despite existing in some spirit or another since 1991(!). There were demos and more demos in those early days, then a sudden implosion that halted any activity for years upon years. This halt in momentum prevented their ascent to the region defining status of their fellow Swedish death metal peers in Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and Unleashed. They eventually returned in 2007 with their long overdue debut album Tales From the Tomb, and went on to release three more between then and 2012. They were largely built upon that expected SDM template of buzzsaw guitars and dirty riffs, albeit with hellish vocals caught between a melo-death scream and something far more guttural. Eschewing any guest appearance by the cookie monster, Evocation presented a far more accessible take on this style of death metal, something later co-opted by Grave on their excellent Endless Procession of Souls. But its been five years since then, and while that gap of time might have frustrated anyone who felt like the band was a bit on a roll, those were four relatively uneven albums, with 2010’s Apocalypse being the only one I ever go back to. So I’m happy to report that the break has been beneficial for Evocation, with The Shadow Archetype easily being the best, most confident album of their career. If there’s any justice in the metal world, everyone will recognize this and perhaps even those in the non-metal worlds will give it the Gorguts Colored Sands treatment.

This is an addictive, refreshingly simple and direct re-imagining of the Evocation sound, a distillation of the band’s strengths into a cohesive, brutally effective death metal tonic. The sonics here are deep, raw, and dirty yet recorded with unbelievably wide dynamic range and instrument separation —- take the opener “Condemned to the Grave”, where ominous lead guitar motifs cleanly glide over riffs that hit you with the force of a monster truck smashing over junkyard cars. If you’re getting hints of At the Gates and The Haunted at moments, such as on “Modus Operandi”, you’re not hearing things. I suspect that the band deliberately kept reinforced the Gothenburg influence they’d picked up through the years and use it as a way to explore further melodicism within their traditionally straight ahead Swedish death metal approach (“Survival of the Sickest” being a prime example of the latter). This helps to explain the acoustic instrumental “Blind Obedience“, the most Gothenburg/Jesper Stromblad-ian thing they’ve ever attempted. I can’t pick a favorite track here, because this is a flawless album from start to finish, but I’ll give a special nod to “Children of Stone” for its mix of complex songwriting and structure held in check by ferocious guitar riffs that practically slam their way into action during transitions from verse to chorus and back again. What a song, what an album.

The Takeaway: A must listen to for 2017, one of the early contenders for the album of the year list.

 

 

Immolation – Atonement:

Immolation have always been a unique specimen among modern American death metal bands, and to be more precise, from their hometown New York death metal scene at that. They certainly don’t sound like any of the NYDM bands I’ve heard, especially not the ones approved by those few dudes at local death metal shows around Houston and Texas in general sporting those silly NYDM brotherhood patches on their ripped jean jacket vests. I’ve idly wondered if those guys would consider Immolation false metal based on how far they stick out from other bands from the region (transcended more like), but never had a real inclination to strike up a conversation with any of them. Probably for the better. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Immolation on the blog before because I didn’t actually pen a review for 2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy, feeling a little blah about that album in general (I’ll be revisiting it soon to see if that’s changed); but I was a huge fan of their 2010 masterpiece, Majesty and Decay. That’s in my top five death metal albums of all time, an astonishing album of brutal death metal that was more oppressive in spirit than in overwhelming walls of sound, a key to its success. It would always be a difficult benchmark to top, and I wonder if that’s something that was on the band’s collective conscience this time around, four years after Kingdom of Conspiracy.

On Atonement, the first thing I noticed before playing the album was the cover art, purposefully more colorful and vivid than their past three releases (including the 2011 Scion A/V presents Providence EP), as well as the reintroduction of their old school logo. I went in expecting some reversion to an older school sound, bracing to hear evidence of the band I once enjoyed purposefully packed away from sight and sound. That turns out to not be the case, and I’m at a loss to explain the cosmetic changes surrounding the album because Atonement is still Immolation fully engaged in their modern mode. That is, death metal written with intelligence, thought, and attention to detail. There’s still an oppressive atmosphere pervading everything, but the instrumentation is still clearly defined, with space and breathing room allowed for everything even during the most intense and hectic passages. A true highlight here is “The Power of Gods”, which features a cleverly written ascending scale pattern that both serves as a hook and a motif at the same time. Equally impressive is the title track, with its deft intro riff pattern repeated throughout as a moving anchor tethering strains of furious, roiling chaotic noise in all directions. There’s musical curiosities as well, such as the bizarre guitar figures that adorn “Thrown to the Fire”, almost treading into non-sludgy sludge-doom territory (if that makes any sense!). Vocalist Ross Dolan is on fine form throughout, but he always is, an ageless wonder in the world of brutal death metal, of particular note is his menacing energy on “When the Jackals Come”, delivering its eponymous lyrics with enough clarity so there’s no mistaking his meaning. Yikes.

The Takeaway: A return to form, if not a confusing way to go about it. No its not as awesome as Majesty and Decay, but few albums are… if you’re new to the band, I highly recommend starting there and then moving to this.

 

 

Bloodbound – War of Dragons:

I’ve never been able to get my head around Bloodbound, mostly because they can’t seem to do the same themselves, so thoroughly schizophrenic have they been over the course of their career. So here’s where I have to use caution, because I do love that a band like Bloodbound exists because its 2017 and we need all the new blood (no pun!) we can get to keep this beloved subgenre going. But good grief, they’ve really taken a turn for the worse here and have succumbed to a rather disheartening recent trend within power metal to amplify the style’s most egregious tendencies to the max. I’m thinking about those purposefully silly bands like Gloryhammer and Twilight Force, because there’s no way songs titled “Tears of a Dragonheart” and “Dragons are Forever” can be excused as anything else. I’m not anti-dragon, but that’s just goddamned silly (edit – this might be the most ridiculous sentence I’ve ever written). Are you kidding me with this stuff Bloodbound? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, because as alluded to above, these guys have been all over the place stylistically and thematically since their debut album. Yet the lineup on War of Dragons is still three-fifths of the band that recorded the truly inspired Tabula Rasa…so what happened?

Well line-up changes happened first of all, with the 2010 exit of vocalist Urban Breed bringing in current vocalist Patrik Selleby. Lost in that transition was not only Breed’s rather unique aggressive mid-range vocal approach, but his innate talent as a songwriter, writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies during his time in Tad Morose and bringing that talent to his two Bloodbound albums as well. Selleby is a far more conventional power metal voice, a good one at that with an impressive upper register, but he’s far more dependent on predictable power metal vocal patterns. Its hard to figure out if he’s the reason for the band’s increasingly simplified songwriting formula over the course of these past three albums but I’d equally point the finger at Bloodbounds three remaining original members. As a forgiving power metal fan, I can’t shake the feeling that these guys are looking for a straight shot to the most accessibility the subgenre can provide, and that means following whatever route that currently seems to be working for others. Only that can explain the increase in Gloryhammer-esque hamminess that characterizes War of Dragons on a lyrical level, and also the co-opting of Sabaton styled keyboard lines that mirror the vocal melody. That works for Sabaton because its part of their organic, original sound —- and the hamminess works for Gloryhammer because of their overall package. Bloodbound has no identity of their own anymore, and maybe the loss of Breed’s signature lyrical depth and intelligent vocal melody design on Tabulsa Rasa suggests they never did.

The Takeaway: The McDonalds of power metal then. 

 

 
Mors Principium Est – Embers of a Dying World:

The lesser noticed little brother of Finnish melodic death metal (relative to Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum that is), Mors Principium Est are now on album number six, which is not remarkable in its own right except to suggest that they’ve had plenty of time to direct their sound in a more focused, organic direction. That actually is the feeling I’ve gotten from Embers of a Dying World, that the band is still in love with the Gothenburg template (nothing inherently wrong with that), but has this time around stumbled upon a way to incorporate more of a Finnish approach to their melo-death. That doesn’t mean they’re copying their brothers, but this is the most noticeably different sounding album in their discography, owing to Gothic-tinged keyboard arrangements, mournful melodies set to slower tempos in places, as well as the surprising inclusion of an actual ballad here in “Death Is The Beginning”. Its a bold experiment, one that I’m surprised they haven’t tried earlier, and here they include female vocals for the first time that I can remember, and it works really well. Check out “The Drowning” for a vivid example of just how much the band is stretching into unfamiliar territory —- a slightly below mid-tempo synth groove with Queensryche meets melo-death lead guitar drapery with playfully subtle tempo accelerations in the glide-in and out of its addictive chorus. This isn’t the Mors we once knew, yet they still sound like themselves, a challenge for any band to achieve.

This expansion of their palette I believe is a direct result of guitarist Andy Gillion’s gradually increasing songwriting influence since he joined up in 2011. His first two albums with the band displayed flashes of this transforming influence, but here he fully blossoms, and it seems that longtime vocalist Ville Viljanen and bassist Teemu Heinola are happy to let him take most of the songwriting reins. Its an odd quirk that its taken a British guitarist to coax out more of a Finnish sound from Mors, but Gillion brings a brashness, a boldness that the band has needed both musically and personality wise. Case in point, check out his tour diary for the band’s stay on this year’s 70000 Tons cruise; he’s an outgoing, upbeat, and playful personality. This is all just idle speculation, but he seems to have loosened up the band in general, and I can hear this affect Viljanen on Embers more than anyone, his performances here are the best of his career. He’s been one of the best melo-death voices for a long time, possessing that perfect condensed scream-growl vocal, but on new songs like “Apprentice of Death” and “Into the Dark”, he tries new approaches, invoking more of a blackened Satyr vibe. Its a subtle change, but it suits him and helps those two songs breathe. The whole band is breathing easier on Embers in fact, this is one of the nicer surprises this year.

The Takeaway: This may be up for vicious debate, but this is certainly my favorite Mors Principium Est album, so full of unexpected twists and turns yet not sounding like they’ve transformed into anyone else.

First Timers: New Albums by Battle Beast and Aeternum

February 26, 2017

Here’s a quick pair of reviews from two bands making their Metal Pigeon blog debut, an unremarkable feat I know, but it does reflect something I’ve noticed about these first eight weeks of 2017. That being that most of the new music I’ve been listening to has either been from bands I’ve never reviewed, or simply bands I’ve never heard of before. It seems like “new” is quickly becoming this year’s theme, as I’ll have a handful of reviews for relatively unknown bands coming in March when a slew of new albums are released, but for now check out a bit of what February had to offer:

 


 

Battle Beast – Bringer of Pain:

For as much as we (I) go on and on about how Finland is the new center of the melo-death universe and how bands such as Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, and Amorphis are making melancholy incredibly appealing to us outsiders, its not all there is to Finnish metal. And I’m not talking about the country’s theatrical power metal vein ala Nightwish and Sonata Arctica and their forebears in Stratovarius either. There’s a third strain —- not a major one, but certainly one that’s been around long enough to warrant being identified as its own slow-growing subset, and its the sound we hear on the newest Battle Beast album, Bringer of Pain. I’m talking about this fusion of hard rock and trad metal with glam-rock roots first heard in Hanoi Rocks, The 69 Eyes (well… until recently that is when they decided they were going to be H.I.M.), Lovex,  Lordi, and many others. There’s some spillover to Sweden as well, making this a partially Scandinavian phenomenon, but Finland is where it just seems to lean heavier. Normally I’m game for this vein of hard rock/metal, but I ran into a stumbling block with Battle Beast when I was first introduced to them via Dr. Metal’s Metal Meltdown show years back —- the doc was a big fan, and he promoted them often but nothing really sank in with me from what I heard on his show.

When they released 2015’s Unholy Savior, it went un-reviewed here at the blog, largely I think because I never really could figure out what the band was trying to accomplish. That’s a silly way to phrase it (they want to rock of course dammit!), but you know what I mean: One song they’re trying for epic, standing on the mountaintop power metal (“Lionheart”, “Speed and Danger”) and the next they’re writing pop-inflected cuts that felt at home on old Sandra and Berlin albums (“Touch In The Night”). I didn’t want to criticize them for being diverse, because rarely is that a negative thing, but both approaches were also quite different from the more Judas Priest-influenced straight ahead style that characterized their first two albums. In retrospect I might also have been still in full-on adoration mode for Triosphere, another Scandinavian melodic metal band with a female vocalist that had just released 2014’s Album of the Year winning The Heart of the Matter, an album that was vibrant and diverse, yet whose songs were stylistically bound together with the band’s musical and songwriting approach. In comparison, Battle Beast’s approach came across as forced and trite.

I think I was onto something there, because this same personality disorder pops up in startling ways on Bringer of Pain —- which is why I’m surprised at how I still enjoyed listening to this album despite them. It helps that the songwriting has improved in the areas that they do best. That’s a vague statement, but I hear it embodied in songs such as “Familiar Hell”, the most overtly pop-influenced song on the album and one that brings to mind a merging of Motley Crue with Roxette (practically distinct from verse to chorus!), as well as “We Will Fight” with its old-school synth lines setting that delightful 80s mood during the verses before the Warlock-esque chorus and outro riffage. Speaking of which Doro is a useful touchstone here, and vocalist Noora Louhimo channels her above all else, that raspy rock n’ roll vocal which seems born of leather, diesel fuel, and long drives across the autobahn. She exerts herself fully on “Lost In Wars”, the album’s most intriguing song with its stormy moodiness and Amorphis vocalist Tomi Joustsen’s duet guest spot alongside. There’s a few throwbacks to the Priest-driven style of Steel, as in “King For A Day” and “Bringer of Pain”, the latter of which seems to channel Painkiller almost exclusively. They’re both pretty decent rockers, but they’re distracting from the more pop-rock feel of the rest of the album (hence my psychological diagnosis for the band).

The strength of the album is indeed found in the more Roxette-ish of the cuts, namely “Straight To The Heart”, “Beyond the Burning Skies”, the aforementioned “Familiar Hell”, and the spectacular balladry of “Far From Heaven”. In short, all the songs where Louhimo is allowed to extend her femininity into her vocal performance and sharply contrast it with the brusqueness of her rock n’ roll instincts as well as the band’s knack with a gritty, catchy riff. Regarding “Far From Heaven”, you guys know I’m a sucker for ballads, particularly 80s-inspired power balladry like this, and while I get that they’re not for everyone, there’s no denying this is as awesome an ode to their glorious heyday as we’ve heard in awhile from anyone. She even gives a little R&B flair towards its final minute with improvised vocal runs, sounding all the world like Laura Branigan or Tina Turner, its an awesome moment. But here comes the personality disorder once again in “Dancing With The Beast”, a head-scratching bit of synth-pop that never really takes off on its own and just sits awkwardly adrift in the tracklisting. I’d be surprised if anyone actually enjoyed that song, and hopefully the band learns to play more to its strengths and not jump around so much stylistically on future albums. I’ll break it down in a fairly simple equation, Battle Beast at their best = Doro/Warlock + (Motley Crue x Roxette).

 

 
Aeternam – Ruins of Empires:

If you’ve already listened to the newest MSRcast, you’ll have heard my initial reaction to these guys as it was my co-host Cary who introduced me to them the night we recorded that episode. Aeternam is a four-piece from Quebec that is playing a style of metal that is commonly referred to as Oriental metal or Middle-Eastern metal, obviously more of a commentary on its sound as opposed to being solely about a band’s geographical location. As a subgenre, its small but bubbling, with leading lights Orphaned Land, Myrath, Melechesh, Khalas and Amaseffer out in front with a smattering of bands on the periphery. Typically all these bands have roots of some sort within the Middle East geographical region, but due to the difficulties of actually playing heavy music in those countries (Orphaned Land a major exception), output has been limited and most of these bands have had to relocate to Europe and North America to simply have the infrastructure to make international waves. Aeternam fall into that camp, their roots with this Oriental metal sound sourcing through vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy who was born in Morocco before emigrating to Canada. From the few interviews I’ve read, he brings the cultural influences into the songwriting process that he shares with fellow members Antoine Guertin (drums) and Maxime Boucher (bass) —- how exactly all that works in the kind of detailed minutia that I’d really love to know is still unknown to me… all songs are credited to “Aeternam”, though it seems Loudiy is the key figure here.

No matter, because the influences are pretty obvious, and more importantly, their vision is surprisingly clear. Aeternam infuse basic melo-death with Behemoth-esque brutality, a Septic Flesh-ian progressiveness to their death metal, while wrapping it up in a cinematic grandeur that you’d normally associate with Therion. What’s surprising is that they actually pull this off, because as I observed aloud in the podcast, this could’ve been a total cluster$#@&. They’re unafraid of allowing melody to drive these songs, as you’ll hear on the album opener “Damascus Gate”, whose Gothenburg verses are book ended by Arabic violin melodies and feed into a convincingly strong clean vocal chorus. Loudiy is just as strong a pure singer as he is a powerful growler, recalling both Matt Heafy and Nergal respectively, and you never get the feeling that the clean vocals are forced (if they seem to have a shade less unique character than say Orphaned Land’s Kobi Farhi, well keep in mind these guys are living in North America after all). His performance on “Sun Shield” is particularly crushing on both fronts, with growling vocals that are percussive in their syncopation, energetic in their execution and setup a satisfyingly clean vocal hook.

The stuff that really makes me keep coming back to this album however are its expansive, cinematic, and often solemn moments where the cultural folk influences outshine the metal surrounding them. On “The Keeper of Shangri-La”, tribal drums and acoustic guitars played in Arabic scales and patterns serve as the soundtrack for Loudiy’s impassioned clean vocals, singing about a long forgotten land “…in a garden of eternal bloom / Forever in silence”. Its a nice break in the tracklisting from the first three uptempo heavy songs, and it serves as a refocusing for the album before launching into the album highlight “Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel”, a symphony propelled epic built around a chanting chorus. This is a gorgeous, expansive song that owes more to the musical theatrics of Dimmu Borgir or Therion than any melo-death band, and the traditional percussion and acoustic strumming that mark the mid-song bridge are an unexpected delight. Similarly, the folk instrumentation that fuses together in the lovely “Nightfall on Numidia” is recorded with precision, with thoughtful melodies at work guiding everything together towards Loudiy’s vocal duet with Moroccan vocalist Hind Fazazi. There’s actually a handful of guest vocalists all across this record, a couple people in the choir and a tenor and soprano helping throughout, and you’ll notice these little details here and there in addition to the diverse instrumentation.

This is Aeternam’s third album, their first in five years and it was time well spent, these songs apparently having gone through a long gestation period that served them well. I’m trying not to exaggerate too much here, but this really is one of the straight up most enjoyable Oriental metal albums I’ve ever heard. They actually have carved out their own lane here as well, as their drummer Antoine observed, “We’re not as brutal as Nile, not as raw as Melechesh, not as soft as Orphaned Land, and not as symphonic as Amaseffer”. You can’t help but hear some of those aforementioned bands’ elements in Ruins of Empires, if only because the shadow they exert over the subgenre is so long, but I also hear Aeternam synthesizing all these disparate influences into a cohesive central sound that honestly hasn’t been done in Oriental metal up til now. At the risk of overstating things, I think this is the genre moving forward a bit, becoming wider, more accessible and yes even more metal. When Orphaned Land’s All Is One was released, some longtime fans bemoaned the band getting a little softer, moving away from their metallic sound. Myrath is simply a non-starter for some folks because of the glossy production and prog-power clean vocals, while to others, Melechesh’s extremity is simply too much to handle. Enter Aeternam to fill the void left at the center of that triangle.

The 2017 Journal: January Recap + Most Anticipated

February 7, 2017

So I woke up the morning after the Super Bowl with a hangover that I didn’t properly anticipate and a general feeling that I never wanted to look at pizza, wings, and salty snacks ever again (though of course I did —- leftovers!). It took one large Dunkin Donuts coffee and kolache (don’t judge me) to get me feeling clear-headed enough to realize that everything finally seemed 2017-ish. The 2016 NFL season was over —- congrats to the Patriots… again, Boston fans will be even more insufferable than they’ve already been, hope you’re grateful for your success because as a Houstonian I damn well know what Atlanta fans must be feeling right now (to those of you from our cousin city who fit that bill, look… the pain won’t ever truly go away, but I can say that it does fade with time). That Monday morning also marked the release of our MSRcast’s final 2016 recap episode, a long overdue purging of our final takes on all things metal last year. With all that in mind, I felt more motivated than ever to really give a serious look at 2017 on the metal front. But I wanted to go about doing that somewhat differently this year than just the usual postings of reviews over and over again.

If you were wondering what the “journal” aspect of this post was going to be about, well what I’d like to try for 2017 is exactly that, a monthly recap of not only whats going on in the metal world but of what’s going on in my metal world. That was always supposed to be the original aim of this site, to discuss metal through my filters and experiences, and though I do feel I accomplish that often, sometimes that aspect can get lost when I hop on the endless reviews treadmill cycle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to stop writing long form album reviews at all, but I think it’ll be interesting for me (and hopefully you) if I recap each month this year with a loose journal entry that might not only have some small micro-reviews as you’ll see below, but also just a random mess of stuff I’ve been thinking about metal-wise both musically and even industry wise. There’s been a lot of times where I’ll have thoughts and opinions on stuff that I don’t ever get to air (unless I remember them while recording the podcast, an unreliable method at best), so at least this way I can jot them down in these journals and then at the end of the month sort and assemble them in some coherent, readable manner. Thinking on this now, these journals are probably more for me than you but hopefully they’re worth a few minutes of your time anyway!

Of course, this process should begin with a recap of the first month I seemed to have skipped over as I was still publishing the Best of 2016 lists during January. I always give myself a music break after those are done because they tend to demand intensive listening and also I get distracted easily with sports radio around that time (especially this year with the Super Bowl being here in H-town). But it was kind of a quiet month for metal wasn’t it? I mean, on the news front I suppose it was momentous that Black Sabbath seems to have played its final two shows and is apparently over, but we all knew that was coming months ago. On the new release front, the only things that caught my attention were new albums by Sepultura, Kreator, and Xandria. There were two hard rock releases I checked out, Gotthard’s Silver and Krokus’ Big Rocks, both bands being Switzerlands biggest rock exports. Gotthard always releases good AOR albums and this one is pretty solid if you like their style (and Steve Lee’s replacement), but I’d steer clear of the new Krokus —- its one of those dreaded classic rock covers albums that we don’t need at all. Yawn.

 

So regarding that new Sepultura, Machine Messiah, I didn’t actually realize this was coming out until a week after it was released, but since then I’ve been throwing it in regular rotation just to see if there’s something there. Full disclosure, I have not been a fan of the Derrick Green era (hot take I know), not because I hold anything against him as a vocalist, he’s quite good actually —- but Calavera-era Sepultura’s brilliance was the sum of its parts. Quite bluntly, they’ve been a different sounding band entirely from Against onward, and I’ve yet to latch onto any of the albums released during this era. I remember being utterly confused by 2013’s The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart with its much mentioned return of Ross Robinson as producer. It was a baffling album, one that seemed intent on borrowing from every metal subgenre imaginable yet void of any semblance of an idea on how to merge them all together. It seems like the only consistent hallmark of all these Green era releases is the band’s tendency to sound almost like a different band every album and sometimes every other song.

Well, that approach might work for artists like Faith No More or Steven Wilson… not so much for Sepultura, and its sad to say that Machine Messiah falls into the same trap. There’s some okay stuff here, “Phantom Self” has an urgency to its thrash metal attack and a little Myrath-esque Arabic motif going on musically that is vivid and unexpected. It should have been the album opener, but instead the band went with a cutting room floor nominee in the title track; a plodding, atmospheric, drawn out affair where Green sounds a lot like Mike Patton and the whole thing just ends up testing your patience, well mine anyway. I’ll be interested in talking to my cohost Cary about this one, because we don’t mention modern Sepultura too often on the podcast, though I suppose the reason is self-evident. We do however talk a great deal about our love for Kreator and even proclaim a fond, strange admiration for their weird mid-90s albums. But it was 2012’s Phantom Antichrist that really got me fired up about latter day Kreator, because that was a flat out masterpiece of modern thrash, and it was their injection of melo-death that really made that album sound fresh and inspired. I was kinda nervous when the first single for their new album Gods of Violence (the title track) seemed to lack that element, and as it turns out, that ended up being my least favorite song on the album.

 

Thankfully the four and a half years they’ve taken to release a new album didn’t sever them entirely from their renewed approach, because most of this album is highly enjoyable, built on brutal, speedy riffing and loaded with hooks. The melodicism is still there, except this time it seems like they’re taking a page from classic metal styles as opposed to melo-death for that particular influence. The high point comes early with “World War Now”, one of the most vicious Kreator tracks in recent memory, built around a toupee blowing, sweepingly fast bridge-chorus transition where Mille sounds as frighteningly angry as he possibly can. I was surprised at how much I actually liked “Satan Is Real”, a title and lyric that makes me cringe inwardly but somehow they’ve put together a song that works around it, built off mid-tempo structures and a melody that owes more to Blind Guardian and Accept. Similarly owing to a power/folk metal influence is “Hail to the Hordes” which features a intro melody that reminds me of Tyr and Ensiferum more than anything thrash metal related. Its an interesting branch out for Mille and company, and that melody that runs through it brings to mind modern day Suidakra with its inherent European folk sensibility. I was on the fence about shelling out to see the band when they swing through Houston in March (just paid 500 bucks for Maiden tickets), but now I’m definitely going.

Finally we come to Xandria, a band that I was only briefly familiar with before I saw them live opening for Sonata Arctica and Delain back in 2014. I came away impressed that night, particularly with their new vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen who sounded as good as I’ve ever heard a symphonic metal soprano sound live. I had reviewed their most recent album, Sacrificium, earlier that year and although I thought it was mostly good, I gave them a pass on it because it was their first with Dianne. Their previous singer had left just before the recording sessions were due to begin, a tough spot for any band and vocalist to be in. It was a slightly similar situation to what Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen experienced when writing music for an unknown vocalist on Dark Passion Play. He benefited on its followup Imaginaerum with all around more focused and sharper songwriting due to knowing he was writing for Anette Olzon’s voice. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that Xandria’s next album would also benefit from being created with Dianne’s vocals in mind.

 

Its the extent to which they’ve benefited that is truly astounding here, because I think Theater of Dimensions is not only Xandria’s best album to date, but one of the most satisfying symphonic metal albums I’ve heard in the past half decade overall. Primary songwriter/guitarist Marco Heubaum has crafted a batch of songs that are altogether far more confident than anything they’ve done prior, shifting the band’s sound from a purely symphonic power metal approach to one that incorporates folk influences and fully embraces the Shakespearean theatricality they briefly flirted with on past gems like “Forevermore”. Dianne’s voice is malleable, not only capable of a gorgeous, ringing soprano style but also interweaving simpler, straightforward melodic vocals whenever it fits the song or lyric better. Her “operatic” tone (for lack of a better adjective) is rich and powerful even when skyrocketing towards those high notes, as on the chorus of “Where The Heart Is Home”. And as I mentioned before, she can restrict her approach to better mesh with a duet partner, such as Bjorn Strid (Soilwork) on “We Are Murderers (We All)”.

Maybe its just me, but I get the feeling that Xandria is channeling Century Child-era Nightwish here, at least aesthetically speaking. I hear it in the overall darker tone of these songs and the willingness to let go of more overt power metal song structures. This influence comes through loud and clear in “Queen Of Hearts Reborn”, where Dianne’s solo intro is swiftly taken over by a dramatic, choral-vocal led chorus done in that classic Holopainen call and response bombastic mode. I have no problem with influences being this overt (they’re pulling from the best after all), and although this is all speculation on my part, perception is largely truth in terms of thinking about what music is eliciting from us. Its why “Solsbury Hill” keeps getting used for rom-com trailers when its really a song about Peter Gabriel feeling like he was trapped in Genesis; one has nothing to do with the other, but you can’t deny it works well as the backdrop to Patrick Dempsey’s smug face. This album had me grinning the first time I listened through it, even its few cringe-worthy moments (some bits of dialogue, and one really awkward yet catchy lyric) were endearing in the grand scheme of the entire album. There’s an audaciousness here that I respect, and a truism as well: The greatest, most accomplished symphonic metal albums should be absolutely insufferable to those who hate the genre.

 


Okay, so those were some micro-reviews for what I listened to in January, so how about a look ahead? I have a love/hate thing with “most anticipated” lists, and I’ve been guilty of writing them myself and talking about them on the podcast too, but they’re hard to make compelling and usually no one cares anyway. So here’s what I’ll do, make this quick and breezy, a bullet points approach to the whole concept:

A few of my most anticipated albums of 2017 in no order:

Blind Guardian – TBA Orchestral Album (Seriously, I’ve been hearing about this since the early press interviews for the “And Then There Was Silence” single back in 2001… I’ll have to fact check that with Dr. Metal but I’m reasonably sure that’s the first time they mentioned it. Enough already! Just release it! I only list this here because two years ago, Hansi cited 2017 as the most likely date. That and enough already!)

Power Quest – TBA (Steve Williams just announced that the band inked with Inner Wound Records, the new album’s slated for October… I need more new happy metal. I said it…)

Iced Earth  – Incorruptible (Not sure if that’s a working title, don’t particularly care, just make a better album than Plagues of Babylon!)

Wintersun – The Forest Seasons (This one not so much for myself, but for the poor, haggard masses of Wintersun fans who’ve been starving for a new album for yet another half-decade span.)

Eluveitie – Evocation II: Visions (This is supposed to be the sequel to their all-acoustic album they released in 2009, but I’m curious as to how its going to sound without Anna Murphy. From the impact she made on their last proper album, I have a feeling they’re going to miss her more than they realize.)

Ayreon – The Source (Not really… I’m just putting this on here to see if MSRcast Cary notices. I’ll have no shortage of reminders as to when its coming out because he likely won’t stop talking about it on the podcast (hah!). Ahhhh I’ll listen to it, calm down Cary.)

Arch Enemy – TBA (I haven’t been wild on this band in years and years, but I’m actually looking forward to what they can cook up with Jeff Loomis involved in the songwriting process from the ground up.)

Satyricon – TBA (Their atmopsheric self-titled release in 2013 was certainly interesting, but I’m kind of hoping for something more uptempo, intense, and muscular.)


Alright, that’s about it for the ones I can come up off the top of my head, and because of that they’re likely the only ones worth listing here. Moving on with 2017! I’ll have another entry at the end of February (or early March talking about February… you know how I am). Will try to have some other writings on the blog in between then, thanks for bearing with me and reading tolerating this!

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 // Part Two: The Albums

January 15, 2017

Here we are, halfway into January and I’m just now delivering the final words on 2016, but that’s fitting for a year that was pockmarked by delays in updating the blog. I scaled back my reviewer work load last year because 2015’s sheer insane quantity of releases had me nearing burnout stages. It was a beneficial move as a music fan, and a handicap as a blogger, but the hope is that I balanced things out enough to keep an even keel on the writing front going forward. So though the pool of releases I listened to was far less (and less is relative, I’m talking about a scaling down from 120-ish in 2015 to 60-70 in 2016), I felt like I was able to spend longer amounts of time with the ones that captured my attention in one way or another. This list represents the ten best of that pool, selected for not only just how much I listened to them or for their excellence, but also how they affected me personally. As always, I keep these lists to a simple ten instead of twenty-five or fifty to force myself to make difficult cuts and really think about what I loved the most, not just what I happened to listen to. Thanks for reading throughout the year and being patient with me, I hope you’re back for all of 2017!
 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Albums of 2016:

 
 

1.   Avantasia – Ghostlights:

Like Lebron James with the Cavs, and the entirety of the Chicago Cubs, Avantasia/Edguy founder Tobias Sammet found himself in 2016 rallying from a deficit. His was an artistic one, that being the 2013 Avantasia release The Mystery of Time, where for the second time in half a decade he was floundering on the songwriting front (Edguy’s 2008 album Tinnitus Sanctus being the first such misstep). That album lacked in several aspects, namely an uninspiring roster of guest vocalists either contributing to or exposing songwriting that seemed forced, and at its worst, half-baked. At the time I wondered whether or not he was spreading himself thin over his two bands, both massive enough that each required lengthy touring commitments that could possibly detract from quality rest and time at home to focus on songwriting at his usual caliber of excellence. I also wondered at just how similar the two projects were beginning to sound, with both The Mystery of Time and Edguy’s The Age of the Joker (2011) sharing similarities for their heavy reliance on orchestral arrangements. There was also the confusion of lyrical subject matter, with Edguy albums receiving equal numbers of Scorpions-esque songs with silly and humorous subject matter in addition to the more typical, serious work. He’d address that problem by compartmentalizing: He launched Edguy into a more leaner, hard rock path with 2014’s Space Police, with a largely tongue-in-cheek, loose, comic approach to the lyrics. Left unanswered was whether he’d further differentiate the two bands by leaning hard in the other direction with a future Avantasia album.

Lean hard he did, and it paid off better than anyone could’ve predicted, because Ghostlights is the greatest Avantasia album of them all (yes, including The Metal Opera Pt I/II). Sammett rolled the dice a bit here as well, picking guest vocalists that quite honestly had me shaking my head no when I first learned of them —- Geoff Tate, Dee Snider, Robert Mason (Warrant/Lynch Mob)… I just didn’t see it working. I had the same feeling when I first saw the guest vocalist listing for The Mystery of Time, a lack of excitement and anticipation that felt empty. This time however, Sammett’s songwriting was renewed, full of confidence and purpose, and in his masterful way he dug deep to deliver songs that brought out the absolute best in each of them. Geoff Tate sounds like his old self again on “Seduction of Decay”, an addictive, Queensryche-ean thriller built on a supremely epic chorus where his vocals carry the load admirably. On “The Haunting”, Snider embodies his character with real dramatic verve and melodic range, while Jorn Lande’s eternal voice brings darkening clouds and swirling winds on “Let the Storm Descend Upon You”. Largely absent are the hard rock tendencies that so confused previous Avantasia albums with Edguy ones, replaced with a darker toned orchestral arrangement throughout that further ingrains this album with its own unique identity.

Lande has one of the album’s three star turn moments on “Lucifer”, as magnificent a piece as Sammett has ever dreamed up, built on Broadway piano balladry that stutter steps into a rocketing, spiraling out-of-control blast of heavy metal theater. The other belongs to another unusual vocalist choice, Sinbreed’s Herbie Langhans, who delivers the album’s most accessible pop-gem in “Draconian Love”, singing in a lower register than we’re used to hearing him in, and it works perfectly in contrast to Sammett’s straight-ahead dual lead vocal as they deliver an absolute ear-worm of a chorus. Of course I’ve already gushed about Sammett’s duet with Bob Catley on “Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” (alongside Ghostlights it marks the first time the same artist has topped both my songs and albums lists), but its worth reiterating here just how gorgeous and aching this song is. I should also commend Sharon Den Adel’s work on “Isle of Evermore” which might get unfairly compared to her earlier Avantasia contribution  (“Farewell” from The Metal Opera), but her vocal here is delicate and shattering, perfect for a ballad that is more about lamentation than triumph. Ah, there’s so much I could point out, but then this would be an album review (which I’ve already written) —- to sum it up, this was my most listened to album all year, and my most loved. Gritty comeback Tobias, one for the ages.

 

 
2.   Alcest – Kodama:

People have written a lot over the years about the beauty of Alcest’s music, and how its sonic deconstruction of black metal has liberated the genre forward into exciting new directions. Maybe too much was written, so that their distinctly French take on black metal was spread so far and wide to such an extent that copycats sprung up in every corner of the world. In the past few years, they’ve almost become an after thought in elitist metal circles whereas lesser bands who’ve been directly influenced by these pioneering Frenchmen have soaked up the limelight for themselves. There was a time when I myself tried to brush off Alcest, albeit in a willfully ignorant manner —- that is until I heard their 2012 masterpiece Les Voyages de l’Âme, and was unable to ignore them any further. It was a hypnotic album, full of music that demanded adjectives that metal writing doesn’t usually inspire… beautiful, elegant, breathy, meditative, dreamy… descriptors that could easily apply to the new Enya album (which was fantastic by the way). Fascinatingly enough, when Alcest attempted to distance themselves from metal entirely on 2014’s Shelter, they made the most listless, flat, and boring album of their career. They’ve since returned to embrace their black metal influences on Kodama, and it signals to us that Neige perhaps understands that he paints more skillfully when he has all the colors available to him, not just the bright and cheerful ones.

I’m going to have to police myself in not getting too flowery with my descriptions here, because its such an easy temptation with Alcest because that’s the headspace their music puts you in. The theme that encompasses this album is far more interesting to comment on anyway —- “Kodama” itself is a reference to creatures found in Princess Mononoke, a film whose central conflict between the natural and human worlds also tied into Neige’s growing fascination with Japan. Specifically he was intrigued by how such a technologically immersed society still holds onto and embraces nature, tradition, and spirituality. As a result Kodama shimmers with cultural influences, down to the flavor of the melodies themselves, imbued with Japanese folk patterns that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I wrote in greater detail about this in my original review, so here I’ll just use one moment as an example of why I love this album so much. At the end of “Eclosion”, around the mid six minute mark, the song spirals into a closing instrumental sequence, but instead of opting for a grandiose finish Alcest isn’t afraid to employ a minimalist approach —- allowing the song to hush to an end as lonely notes flutter upwards. It took a few listens before I caught the realization that it was merely the same melody that had been played throughout the entire song simply stripped of distortion and aggression. Deconstruction as an art form, not just an art term.

 

 

3.  Trees of Eternity – Hour of the Nightingale:

There’s a sentiment in the minds of many as we slog on through December, that being done with 2016 would be a welcome relief. From poisoned politics to natural disasters to the passing of beloved celebrities, icons, and artists, it was a rough twelve months indeed. For us in the metal world, there’s likely no one that endured as much raw grief and pain as Swallow the Sun’s founding guitarist Juha Raivio. He had to endure the tragedy of the passing of his longtime partner, Aleah Liane Stanbridge, who sadly lost her battle with cancer in April. She’s not a name that’s well known even among the metal world at large, but anyone who paid attention to the last Amorphis album Under The Red Cloud or Swallow the Sun’s triple disc Songs From the North would’ve heard her beautiful voice on some of their songs. She was also an experienced professional photographer, shooting a various range of projects —- the most notable and recent being the covers of the aforementioned Swallow the Sun album. Trees of Eternity was a project she and Raivio dreamed up many years ago actually, releasing a demo in 2013 and actually recording their one and only full length album in 2014. There’s scant details to go on except what Raivio has chosen to state himself on his social media, but at one point the album was rejected by a prominent metal label (who knows why), and it was shelved indefinitely. Credit to Raivio for pulling together the emotional fortitude needed to finally release what would be called Hour of the Nightingale (and credit Svart Records for coming to the rescue) in November of 2016. Its simultaneously a tribute to Aleah’s memory, and a reminder of what we’ve all lost as a result.

Trees of Eternity aren’t that far removed from the mellower, more quietly introspective side of Swallow the Sun, albeit with Aleah’s shimmering, ethereal vocals cascading throughout. This is an album built on calming tempos, rises and swells, slow building crescendos, and an almost dreamy sonic palette. That’s not to say it can’t get heavy —- Raivio’s guitars at times hit with force and a satisfying crunch (see the single “Broken Mirror” for this), but generally a cut such as the lullabye-esque “Sinking Ships” is far more representative. When things do veer into heavier directions, its that distinct Swallow the Sun mold of doom metal washing over everything, and its Aleah’s vocals that contrast with its tone so perfectly, yet still complementing its mood and spirit. I was taken aback by how much I immediately fell under the spell of Nightingale, first listened to on a nighttime drive to the MSRcast studios to record an episode of the podcast. I immediately blubbered to my co-host Cary about how this might be something to talk about when it came time to put our year end lists together. I briefly wondered if it was the circumstances surrounding the album’s backstory that were influencing my opinion —- but the truth is that this has been on heavy rotation since then, usually played at night when its power is far more manifest. This is a bittersweet experience, a perfect melodic doom metal album that was released with heavy hearts, and one that leaves a lasting shadow over ours as we listen.

 

 
4.   Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional:

It seems that every year that I’ve been doing this blog, and probably in the years preceding that, I’ve gotten into a band that I’d ignored or dismissed altogether before. In 2016, that band was surprisingly Hatebreed, a road I was led on when my MSRcast co-host Cary recommended that I check out vocalist Jamey Jasta’s podcast The Jasta Show. I was instantly hooked, and soon enough curious to give old Hatebreed another listen as they were one of those bands that I had long ago pegged as that other heavy music (hardcore/punk/whatever) that wasn’t meant for the likes of me. I listened to their Perseverance album on Spotify and was completely surprised that I was enjoying it, and that soon extended to their other albums too. It was music that was getting me back in tune with the idea of just enjoying heaviness as a tangible quality —- nothing complicated going on, just very heavy riffing and screaming vocals that was simple but extremely catchy (Jasta even refers to his music as “neanderthal metal”), with hooks arranged for maximum impact on your adrenal glands. It was like a palette cleanser in a way during a year filled with wildly diverse metal releases. By April, I was actually anticipating the release of a new Hatebreed album so much that I bought the digital download on release day.

What’s astounding about The Concrete Confessional is how it might actually be my favorite Hatebreed album of them all, and though I’m too new to the party to suggest it might be their best… I very well think it is. More than any other album, this was my soundtrack to 2016 —- a pissed off, vicious, scathing, and intelligent lyrical attack upon government, society, and modern culture set to ferocious thrash metal guitars . That attribute is the most surprising facet of the album, that it actually comes across as more post-1990 Slayer than Converge or old Rise Against. Take “A.D.” (a best songs listee!), where guitarists Frank Novinec and Wayne Lozinak unleash riffs at breakneck speed, even completing the aforementioned Slayer comparison with an evil Jeff Hanneman sounding bridge at the 1:33 mark. Or going the other direction, listen to the outpouring of melodicism present in “Something’s Off”, with guitars that owe more to Iron Maiden-esque sensibilities as the provide the musical refrain throughout. More than just the music though, it was Jasta’s always inspired way with words in conveying the rage that we all tend to feel and sometimes can’t properly express. I listened to this album constantly, it was a refuge and a comfort, the soundtrack to stressful days and restless nights.

 

 
5.   Haken – Affinity:

This was a surprise and a reprimand at once, a wooden spoon smacking of thy hand that I hadn’t listened to Haken sooner, even though they were already recommended to me by a few people (and they were right, the previous album The Mountain was excellent). As with Alcest above, Haken put a lot of thought into their albums, and Affinity is no exception, being a thematic album about man and machine and the idea of artificial intelligence. And just like Alcest, they filter this concept into the fabric of the music itself to better depict the theme —- in the case of Affinity by infusing their prog-rock with 80s electronic music influences that remind us of Rush, and early 80s Toto and Van Halen. What I love about prog-bands such as Haken is the admirable attention to detail in ambitious projects like these, from the Atari/Nintendo styled electronic bridge in the song “1985”, to the album artwork that references classic tech/computing advertising of the 80s (which cleverly employs the birds that graced the cover of The Mountain). Together all these aesthetic details accumulate into a larger, cohesive experience, one that allows the actual songs to have gravitas and intellectual weight behind them.

Speaking of, the songs here are magnificent, from sprawling epics like “The Architect” to pop gems such as “Earthrise” (a best songs listee!). The former features a guest spot by Einar Solberg of Leprous (who also had an awesome drop in moment on the recent Ihsahn album) and runs the gamut from fierce metal passages to futuristic sounding prog moments that remind of Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet. I’ve gushed about “Earthrise” enough already, but it really is an incredible song, with the kind of chorus that present day Anathema would be proud of. My other major favorite is “1985”, the keystone song of the album (being written first, it inspired the direction the band took for the project) that at times sounds more like Rush than Rush themselves, and has an amazing chorus that switches from a soaring, major key vocal melody to the fattest, heaviest bottom end bass and guitar riff that you never expected. I could point out other moments just like that, but to cover it in a nutshell, these songs just keep you guessing and surprised at every bend. That wild diversity is a trademark of Haken’s, a glimpse of their vivid creativity and imagination, and their willingness to bend both the rules of prog-rock and their listeners’ expectations.

 

 
6.   Myrath – Legacy:

One of the most positive leaning metal albums in a year full of anger and despondency, Myrath’s Legacy was a much needed refuge. The prog-power yang to Orphaned Land’s death metal yin in the small but growing niche of “oriental metal” from the Middle-East, Myrath made a huge artistic leap forward with Legacy. Five years separated it from its 2011 predecessor Tales Of The Sands, and the band honed their songwriting in that span of time —- toning down the prog-metal flourishes (which to be fair they never really overdid), leaning far more on pop accessibility, and strongly emphasizing their cultural folk musical elements. The latter comes in the form of Arabic melodies delivered via an actual string section, and they actually carry the musical load of a majority of these songs, the guitars often taking a backseat. This doesn’t make things less metallic, but guitarist Malek Ben Arbia simplifies his approach, approaching his guitar work in a manner that’s more Kamelot than Symphony X. On the best songs listee, “Believer”, this approach pays dividends in delivering the most cinematic and earwormy cut of their career, the strings and Arabic-phrased choral vocals working in tandem to deliver a knockout hook.

Speaking of vocals, Zaher Zorgati is one of the more expressive and unique singers in heavy music, rhythmic in his lyrical phrasing, able to bend the English language in appealing ways by virtue of his accent and sheer ingenuity —- and he drops moments that ache with authenticity when he sings in Arabic as in “Nobody’s Lives”. We’ve all heard those metal albums where bands attempt to add in some pan-Arabic sounds, be it through awful keyboard orchestrations that pull from schlocky Hollywood movie soundtracks or by simply playing a few bent notes or phrases. Myrath transcend all that with songwriting that is steeped in the cultural music they grew up with. They’re a Tunisian band (recently relocated to France) and Legacy is streaked with imprints of the Jasmine Revolution in its optimism and beautifully expressed yearning for freedom. Its was a surprise to read the lyrics and realize that most of these tracks were indeed love songs, the unnamed narrator expressing either his devotion or lamenting his loss thereof. Whether the subject of these love songs was left up to the listener only Myrath themselves know, but they could easily be about a woman, a country, or an ideal. In that sense, I think they succeed in making something really fresh, much like Orphaned Land’s All Is One, where Orientalist imagery is manipulated to discuss issues that matter to people —- and not just to those in the Middle-East, but all people.

 

 
7.   Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

Born from the smoky woods and rocky shores of New Brunswick, Thrawsunblat unleashed the finest folk-metal album of the year, a strange thing to say about a band from Canada but there you go. They’re likely to have sailed under more than a few radars, and I hope Metachthonia‘s presence on this list changes that in a small way, because they really are worth your time. Thrawsunblat can be considered a spiritual sibling to Woods of Ypres and its departed founder David Gold, who co-founded this band as a side project with ex-Woods guitarist Joel Violette. I’ll refer you to my original review if you’re interested in details about this project’s origin, but suffice to say Violette has turned the band into his main priority in the years since. He delivered a promising debut album in 2013 that merged a fresh, maritime folk influence with rootsy black metal, yielding some awesome songs in the process (“Maritime Shores” and “We, The Torchbearers” to name a pair). This sound is the blazing of a new trail in both North American black metal and folk metal, a merging of sounds from both sides of the Atlantic much in the same way that Panopticon has done so from Appalachia. His second album, Metachthonia, is a further refinement of this relatively new sound, one that pushes the black metal extremity forward and more seamlessly interweaves the still rich folk influences.

I believe I originally referred to Moonsorrow and Borknagar as touchstones in Metachthonia‘s particular black metal strain, and I still stand by those comparisons. They both have that roots in the earth warmth to their sounds (moreso in Borknagar’s later albums Urd and Winter Thrice), despite their capacity for raw fury, and I hear that coming through in Violette’s songs. He has an uncanny way to marry minor key built melodies with his often atonal vocal lines to astonishingly tuneful and melodic results, such as in “She Who Names The Stars” where the album’s most blistering passages lurk. You get another taste of that in “Dead of Winter”, where Violette wields dissonance like a malleable piece of clay and fashion out the most hooky tremolo riffs this side of Ulver. As a vocalist, he instantly reminds me of Gold himself in both clean and grim vocals, and I wonder if he’s not channeling that (either consciously or somehow subconsciously). I can’t deny that I started investigating Thrawsunblat because of the Gold connection directly, but with Metachthonia Violette has found a voice all his own.

 

 
8.   Insomnium – Winter’s Gate:

As I mentioned in my intro, I haven’t read many best of lists as of yet, a lesson I learned a few years back when first publishing my own lists to not allow others to influence me. Most of those come out in early to mid December we all knew my list wasn’t getting up that soon! But I will be going around scoping out what everyone else picked out on various metal and non-metal publications and blogs, and I’ll be surprised and a little suspicious of any list that doesn’t feature Insomnium’s bold and daring Winter’s Gate. I describe it as such because its such an abrupt departure from their self-made Finnish take on melo-death —- polished, pristinely recorded, full of melancholic melody set to a tempo that hovered around mid-tempo and contemplative. For this narrative concept album, the Insomnium guys got meaner, darker, faster, heavier, and at times, downright brutal. They managed this by injecting their sound with ample doses of black metal tremolo riffing and blastbeat percussion, while vocalist Niilo Sevänen pushed his vocals to a level that can only be described as ferocious, his guttural screaming racing towards you with the intention of a hungry wolf in pursuit of his prey.

This was an album of risks, not only for the aforementioned sonic changes, but for the fearlessness in crafting one forty minute song and releasing it as a singular track (for the physical album, the digital release was broken into seven “parts”, presumably for the purposes of streaming/iTunes sales). If you were one of those physical album buyers like myself, you simply had to submit yourself to a complete album listening experience without the luxury of skipping tracks whenever your twitchy, media-overloaded brain got an impulse to. You were rewarded with one of those rare albums where a flowery description such as “musical journey” was actually applicable, and while this was enhanced by following along with the lyrics and the Sevänen crafted short story it was set to, the high drama of the music was enough to keep our attention on its own. I’ve yet to talk to someone who was “meh” about Winter’s Gate (if you were, by all means post in the comments below!), because I just don’t think anyone expected this out of them. I think most people were lukewarm about 2014’s Shadows From A Dying Sun, and it seems the band also felt that they were slipping into complacency. Its not my favorite Insomnium album (that honor still goes to One For Sorrow), but I wouldn’t fault anyone for saying its theirs.

 

 
9.   Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

Only a little over a month separates this from my original published review of Theocracy’s long-awaited Ghost Ship, but unlike in 2014 where the album of the year winner Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter was released in December (and was the most unexpected dark horse in Metal Pigeon history), I’d actually been listening consistently to the new Theocracy since late October when it was released. The delay in publishing my review ended up delivering a more accurate take on the album, because it was definitely a grower. At first it wasn’t registering in the same instantaneous manner that their previous two albums were, but as I sussed out in that review, this was largely due to Matt Smith and company injecting these songs with progressive metal elements and stepping away from the pure Euro-power metal track they’d previously been running on. This is an album that deserves the benefit of extra listens and a touch of patience, because there is such a wealth of musical ear candy to rot your ears with here (I mean that in the best way) if you just allow these songs the time to sink into you.

The uptempo, seemingly joyous sounding “Castaway” was listed as one of the year’s best songs, but it was only one highlight among many, such as “Currency In A Bankrupt World”, where the vocals channel Sebastian Bach/Skid Row circa 1992’s Slave to the Grind, while the guitar patterns during the verses expertly channel vintage Queensryche. Smith’s an exceptional vocalist, his highs capable of registers that stop just short of helium heights, still retaining power and downright grit and grime. He has the vibrato of late 90s Tobias Sammett and actually might be a better technical vocalist overall in comparison thanks to his American born ease with pronunciation and phrasing. The band he’s built around his songs excels not only technically, but in achieving that difficult middle ground between surgical technical precision and rock n’ roll swagger, their performances exuberant and barely restrained. Its such a wonder that Theocracy are an American band, despite their European musical foundation, and they’re continuing to succeed while many European bands have lost their way. And also that I, as a secular/non-religious person am able to find myself connecting with music and even lyrics that are written by a devout Christian, for the purposes of expressing and exploring his faith. Metal succeeds where religion cannot.

 

 
10.   Death Angel – The Evil Divide:

I was absolutely convinced that I had written a review for this album shortly after its early summer release, but a trawl backwards through the archives proves me wrong. Strange that… but I guess I thought I did based on just how much I’ve listened to this album over the second half of 2016, returning to it again and again. I’ve only paid attention to a few fellow bloggers 2016 lists (I like to avoid the possibility of influencing my own), but I did watch BangerTV’s Lock Horns Best of 2016 show, and before they aired that they released a Best Thrash Albums of 2016 episode —- asking aloud the question, “(The)Year of Thrash?”. Perhaps they’re right because as that episode suggests, it was a banner year for thrash metal across the spectrum of the subgenre, from the big four to old vanguards such as Testament and newer bands ala Vektor. I’ve never been the biggest Death Angel fan, lamenting the thin vocals of their early records while loving the musicianship and yet finding that their post-reunion albums weren’t catching my attention either despite vocalist Mark Osegueda’s much deepened range. So I was caught entirely off guard by how much I loved The Evil Divide, an album that is a watershed for the band creatively —- full of risks and rewarding payoffs, as well as a truly convincing display of aggression that matched Hatebreed in terms of viciousness for 2016 releases.

Album opener “The Moth” is one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick down the door songs you’ll ever hear, with that perfect mix of speed and thrashy rhythmic syncopation throughout. The muscular build up to the refrain built on tribal drum beats is somehow one-upped by the fierceness of the chorus, with blazing fast riffs that accelerate nearly out of control as crisp, precision hit gang vocals land, “We die together!”. But the real gem on the album is “Lost”, perhaps Death Angel’s finest moment ever, mid-tempo(!) in its groove and built upon an ascending melodic bridge/chorus that sees Osegueda carrying a song with his vocals alone. He’s a convincing mid-tempo vocalist, full of grit and yet able to somehow smooth that into an actual minor key melody that you could really call a hook. Its almost Hetfield-ian in its pacing and delivery, and that’s surprising not only for its unexpectedness but also for just how carefully it was written. That’s something that defines the entirety of this album, a sense of confidence and purpose in its craftsmanship. We get that feeling because the heaviness doesn’t feel cheap or gimmicky, it feels like a long carried weight, finally unburdened.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 // Part One: The Songs

January 4, 2017

Time yet again for the culmination of a year’s worth of metal listening, writing, and audibly opining (on the MSRcast) into the annual year end best of lists! Sometime ago I quietly added a link to the main page of the blog up above called “Recurring Features” that handily compiles all the other previous year end lists together in one place, so be sure to check those out if you haven’t yet. For the past few years, I’ve been splitting up the songs and albums lists, and so in continuing that tradition, I’m eager to present part one of The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 — the songs! These ten songs were culled from a nominees pool of 23 songs this year, and they’re in part isolated gems off flawed albums as well as highlights from the very best albums of the year. I had fun with this list, while agonizing over the albums list (isn’t that always the way?), hope everyone has fun going through it as well!

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2016:

 

1.   Avantasia – “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” (from the album Ghostlights)

 


 
The year’s most surprising artistic comeback success story, Avantasia’s Ghostlights was littered with superb, often stunning songs that were not only expertly written and constructed as only Tobias Sammett could manage, but fun to listen to as well. And at specific moments, they were downright transcendent —- the case in point, the Bob Catley led heart string tugging “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”, a power ballad that might well be a spiritual sibling to the fan favorite “The Story Ain’t Over” (from the Lost In Space Pt 1 EP). Sammett has a magical rapport with Catley, or more accurately, as a songwriter writing for Catley —- channeling Magnum’s sense of dramatic pomp with his own inherent Jim Steinman-esque way with theatricality. Catley is an apt narrator, his raspy yet melodic vocals able to imbue any lyric with a rock n’ roll inspired joie de vivre and yet an appropriate amount of gravitas. Meanwhile Sammett’s ability to let it soar vocally is still unparalleled in power metal. Sure, he doesn’t have the unlimited range that he did during the late 90s/early 00s, but he understands how to pen lyrics and vocal patterns that provide trajectory and lift on a Steve Perry esque level.

This is an absolute gem of a song, with a chorus so rich and beautiful, so aching with indefinable magic that the first time I heard it whilst driving around, I had to pull over in a nearby parking lot just to get my mind right. I’m not being dramatic either, I can vividly recall that memory and the overwhelming rush of what I can only describe as joyous childhood nostalgia that I felt upon listening to it again, and again, and again. It helped that it was near sunset and with a partially overcast sky overhead, and such a backdrop and musically stirred emotional state mirrored the actual lyrics/title of the song. Sammett’s lyrics are stately and romantic in nature, full of atmospheric imagery and a sense of the narrator’s yearning: “Dark is the night, scarlet the moon / Sacred the light in the haze reflecting within…Be still my restless heart / Obsidian’s the sky / Inward you look as you halt / Be still restless heart —- I’m on my way”. I’ll be the first to admit that its not a perfect song, its verses not quite matching the glory of the refrain resulting in a somewhat see-saw song, but that chorus is so unbelievably perfect, I’m willing to forgive what would ordinarily be a major flaw for lesser songwriters. Here, the verses set the mood, almost tempering our expectations, all before that arcing, soaring, perfect chorus rockets us to sheer happiness.

 
 

2.   Ihsahn – “Mass Darkness” (from the album Arktis.)

 


 
Yet another in a long line of 2016 surprises, Ihsahn returned with his sixth and perhaps most accessible solo album since The Adversary with Arktis., an album that owed perhaps more to classic metal song craft  (read: riffs n’ hooks) than it did to his post-black metal avant garde experimentation. I enjoyed the album a great deal, some tracks more than others ( the saxophone solo wasn’t so bad this time around!), but I was totally blown away by “Mass Darkness”, an uptempo, three minute long adrenaline rush of arena ready black metal that is miles away from the usual dense and complex songwriting Ihsahn usually engages in. Its the best chorus of his career, featuring a genuine hook built upon guest vocalist Matt Heafy’s (Trivium and noted black metal fanboy) repeated refrain “Give in!… Give in to darkness!”, with lyrics that are some of the most convincingly parent-worrying in ages. What’s really special here is that for all its accessibility, “Mass Darkness” still very much retains Ihsahn’s DNA, heard in unusual guitar effects, counter-intuitive musical patterns, a solo that owes more to Wagner than Tipton, and a sense of dark theatricality  that permeates the entire song. Give in indeed.

 

 
3.    Haken – “Earthrise” (from the album Affinity)

 


 
I was properly introduced to London-based prog-metallers Haken this year through Affinity, having been aware of the band’s name in passing for awhile now. Having no idea or expectations of what to expect, I played through the album and came away more than impressed with the entire affair, especially its prog-metal exploration of 80s influences such as Rush, Toto, and Van Halen. There was one song I kept coming back around to in return trips to the album, and I’d always have to play it first, last, and a few extra times in the middle, and that was the cinematic “Earthrise”. Best described as 90s alternative rock in a prog blender (well, perhaps not the best description…), this is the hookiest track on the album and one of the most uplifting songs I heard in all of 2016. Not quite a power ballad and not quite rockin’ in its tempo, it played somewhere in the middle, built on bouncy rhythms and interlocking synth parts with some excellent, sprightly percussion dancing all throughout. Vocalist Ross Jennings takes a little getting used to (some people don’t enjoy his vocals when he’s not letting it rip from his throat), and you’ll either likely know right away what your tolerance level is for unusual vocalists when you hear him. I enjoyed his earnestness in this song, and wasn’t surprised to see through iTunes statistics that this was my second most played song of 2016.

 

 
4.   Myrath – “Believer” (from the album Legacy)

 


 
I think we’ve all been bombarded with enough talk about how 2016 was a seemingly downcast and darkened year for society, be it through everyone’s endless lamenting over celebrity deaths, the very understandable grief over terrible tragedies all around the world, and of course, *cough* presidential elections. I’ve been guilty of wallowing in it as well, and though I’ve tried to distance myself a bit from all that stuff, the truth is that 2016 was a bit of a crap year for me personally as well. So in looking back, I’m amused to find that I somewhat subconsciously began favoring very positive or happy or downright euphoric music over dark and grim stuff. Enter Myrath, whose Legacy album was one of the early 2016 releases and whose lead off single “Believer” never really left my rotation for any extended period of time. Euphoric is really the best adjective for this song, a celebratory rush of positivity, which only sounds corny if you’ve never really been in need of it. Its also a perfect microcosm of Myrath’s impressively Middle-Eastern infused take on metal, with sweeping violins playing ethnically informed arrangements in between the band’s epic, ambitious progressive metal. Vocalist Zaher Zorgati has a perfect voice for the band,  accented clean vocals to welcome newcomers (his pronunciation of “bandwagon” is certainly interesting), but powerful enough to give his lyrics about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and throwing away yesterday a real sense of belief and passion. The music video (linked above) was kickstarter-ed, and while the song is better off without it, we can’t begrudge them some Prince of Persia fanboying, as tempting as it may be to say something…

 

 
5.   Hatebreed – “A.D.” (from the album The Concrete Confessional)

 


 
Hitting with the force of a gut punch, or perhaps that black and white footage of the cannon ball slamming into the fat guy’s stomach, Hatebreed’s “A.D.” was my go-to during a year when I was frequently in the mood for something raging and snarlingly angry. More than any other band, this was the sound of rage incarnate, and its one of the catchiest and heaviest songs of 2016, at times owing more to thrash metal ala post-1990 Slayer than anything hardcore related. Its lyrics are startlingly open ended despite their specificity, “It’s time to rethink this dream you call American / Corrupt beliefs that some will call their heritage”, a sentiment that could apply to fans around the world in addition to those of us here in the States. Vocalist Jamey Jasta has a precision oriented way with rhythmic syncopation in his lyrics and vocal patterns, just check out the 2:04 mark onwards when he sings “Now hear the media fools discuss the killer’s mind / Staring at the screen to tell us what they find / Manifesto, dollar worship, get on your knees / So they can sell us a cure for the American disease”. That syncopation alone adds that extra teeth gritting power to already sharpened, well written lyrics. The crazy thing about The Concrete Confessional is that it had two other cuts that were in the nominee pool for best songs of the year, a fact that surprised me as much as it likely has you.

 

 
6.   Serenity – “The Perfect Woman” (from the album Codex Atlanticus)

 


 
Serenity’s first post-Thomas Buchberger album was certainly far from flawless, but it wasn’t the complete disaster that it could have been say for other bands when a key songwriter leaves the lineup. Crucial in this was vocalist Georg Neuhauser’s longtime role as co-songwriter and the primary writer of the vocal lines throughout the Serenity catalog. He shrewdly realized that without Buchberger writing songs built around his Kamelot-ian riffs, songs for Codex Atlanticus would have to be written largely around his vocal melodies first and foremost. But he’s a gifted vocalist, and has an inborn knack for understanding where a melody should go and how it should direct the arrangement of the song, from guitar parts to orchestral arrangements (the Tony Kakko gene in other words). Nowhere was this more evident than on the spectacular Broadway balladry of “The Perfect Woman”, a song ostensibly about Leonardo DaVinci painting The Mona Lisa. I mention Broadway, and yes, this song owes a lot to songwriting for musical theater, taking into account everything from the speed up vocal gymnastics during “I got a sensation that my creation in a quite disturbing way / Has come to life”, while jubilant horns punctuate behind him with musical exclamation marks —- down to the decision to throw in female vocals on the second verse (courtesy of the always on point Amanda Somerville) that serve as a sort of audience chorus in a perspective shift away from Georg’s first person take on Da Vinci’s own thoughts. Its a strange moment but weirdly amusing in its own way, and one I’m glad to have.

 

 
7.   Purson – “Electric Landlady” (from the album Desire’s Magic Theatre)

 


 
Winner of the most clever music/lyric video of 2016 award, metal or otherwise (and let’s be real, calling Purson metal is stretching genre definitions… but they’re here by association), “Electric Landlady” was also the band’s quintessential calling card off Desire’s Magic Theatre, their incense smoke love letter to 60s psychedelic rock. Its a bouncy number, built on nimble guitar lines with a slight crunch (but not too much!) and all the Hammond dressing that psych-rock of this ilk requires wrapped in studio production that is decidedly analog sounding (if there’s anything digital here, its cleverly disguised). I was fortunate enough to see Purson live earlier in late April of 2016 here in Houston towards the beginning of their US tour, which I believe was a mix of supporting shows and solo headliners. We got one of the latter, and it was at a local haunt named Rudyards, upstairs in the venue’s small live music room where no more than 70 people could probably fit comfortably. It was a fun night, and Purson were extremely entertaining and convincing as a live band —- little did I know that it’d be there last trip to Houston. Purson only just recently announced their breakup for “personal reasons”, and that’s a shame because they had the potential to blow up in a big way. We’ll always have this song and its gorgeous, tribute to 1960’s groovy, swingin’ London visual companion.

 

 
8.   Suidakra – “The Serpent Within” (from the album Realms of Odoric)

 


 
I have such affection for Suidakra since becoming a die hard fan of theirs back in 2013 through their awesome (and Metal Pigeon Best Albums list winner) Eternal Defiance. Since then, I’ve poured through their immense back catalog, gained a basket full of favorite songs across the spectrum of their discography and have declared them to be one of the new leading lights in modern melodic death metal (even though they’ve been doing this for nearly two decades now). Simply put, no one else sounds like them, with their blending of folk elements and melo-death, as well as their arms wide open embrace of power metal sensibilities in the way of hooks and clean vocals. I love bands who can honor traditions yet still imprint their own identity upon things. So it was a slight let down when I finally published my review of the highly anticipated Realms of Odoric, that I knew it wouldn’t find its way to the best albums list for 2016. That being said, I haven’t been able to quit “The Serpent Within” —- like at all… its one of my most listened to songs of all 2016 releases according to iTunes and its that mesmerizing chorus that’s pulling me back in every time. Arkadius Antonik’s lyrics here hit a poetic nerve, as I love the line during the chorus “This life is but a spiral path / The serpent lurks inside”. The entire song is a lyrical gem constructed with fantasy motifs, yet able to work as a real world meditation on the value of solitude and inward peace as a bulwark against modernity.

 

 
9.   Katatonia – “Old Heart Falls” (from the album The Fall of Hearts)

 


 
I’m not sure if I ever managed to resolve my feelings about Katatonia’s The Fall of Hearts, and that’s kinda par for the course with my relationship with their more recent albums. They’re all pretty good, certainly have their moments but as whole, cohesive works they somehow fail to impress me across the board. Ditto for this new album which I really gave the benefit of a couple weeks of regular listening, often times for the simple pleasure of hearing “Old Heart Falls”, perhaps one of the most beautiful and rich slices of doomy, depressive rock you’ll ever hear. Its seemingly difficult for bands to write songs with perfect buildups, but Katatonia manage that here: vocals accompanied only by wounded guitar notes floating into the ether over a bed of 70s prog keyboards usher us in, then the rhythm section slips in behind a descending chord figure that continues through ascension. The bridge comes after a soft pause, audible bass setting the mood with simple patterns, and then distortion comes, slowly growing louder and Jonas Renkse’s sublime vocal melody careens forward, set to thoughtful lyrics, “For every dream that is left behind me… / …With every war that will rage inside me…”. Its hypnotic and alluring despite its bleak-hearted subject matter and downcast perspective. Try as they might, American bands rarely get music like this right… its just something that comes natural to Scandinavians, and that’s okay. Bonus points for the stylish, austere, and inventive lyric video.

 

 
10.   Borknagar – “Winter Thrice” (from the album Winter Thrice)

 


 
When this album first came out I figured it would be in regular rotation throughout the year, being a relatively strong and intriguing listen throughout. But the truth is that it sort of fell off for me after the first few months for reasons I’m still uncertain about. That didn’t happen with 2012’s Urd, an album that I contend could vie with Empiricism for their best ever. That album gave us the Best Songs list makin’ “The Earthling”, which is my favorite Borknagar song of all tid(!), and fortunately Winter Thrice throws its own contender for that spot in the mix with its star studded title track. I use the term “star” loosely of course, but in black metal terms, a single song with vocal parts by Lars Nedland, ICS Vortex, Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm), and of course Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg) can aptly be described as studded by something or another. Its a tremendous series of performances, each vocal filled with enough personality to be discernible from one another and nuanced in their own manner. The song itself is epic, with angular riffs and brutal screaming vocals stacked against each other in frigid formation, unfazed by the warm fires of the lead guitars and soaring clean vox lines. It also received a gorgeous music video treatment with Garm playing the role of the jarl in Whiterun…er, somewhere in Norway!
 

The Wait: Metallica’s Hardwired To Self Destruct

December 20, 2016

metallicahardwired_zpsxsvnu4arIt’s difficult to know where to begin in reviewing a new Metallica album. I’ve listened to Hardwired…To Self Destruct many dozens of times, and have watched the album wide collection of music videos that the band released (in one of the more interesting and expensive promotional stunts in metal history). I’ve read a plethora of reviews across a variety of metal and non-metal sites, and the comments sections under them as well. As expected with such a polarizing band, opinions seem to range across a spectrum, but I think that the underlying problem in reviewing a new Metallica album is that we’re all a little clueless on what a new Metallica album is supposed to sound like. This isn’t our fault obviously, it’s Metallica’s —- which is what naturally happens when a band takes half decade to near decade long gaps in between studio albums. The trouble has been though, that this affected not only the public and fan perception of new Metallica music, but the band’s creative process as well.

Over two years ago, I wrote about my frustration with Metallica’s continuing new album delay as that spring marked the beginning of the longest gap of time between proper studio albums in the band’s history. They were on the cusp of passing their seemingly standard 5 years, 3-6 months n’ change gaps between albums (with slight deviations, that was the amount of time between ReLoad to St. Anger to Death Magnetic). The time span from the release date of Death Magnetic to Hardwired is a staggering 8 years, 2 months, and 6 days. There’s never really been an official reason given for why the band allowed such a lapse of time to occur, even though they’ve at times questioned it in the press themselves. The answer seems obvious enough however: too much touring, too many ancillary band projects (3d movie, an ill-conceived experimental album with Lou Reed, a financially disastrous festival that required more touring to make up the losses), and we can probably tack on weeks upon weeks of time off to recover from all these activities, and pretty soon five years spirals into eight. These were the choices Metallica made. Fine, fair enough, but as I explained in my piece two years ago, they came with consequences. Artistic ones.

How does a band who takes so long in reconvening for songwriting collaborations, let alone releasing albums, expect to maintain anything in the way of artistic continuity within their own relationships with each other? In Bill Flanagan’s excellent biography U2 At The End of the World, he depicts how that band’s extra long gap of time between their monumental 1987 blockbuster The Joshua Tree and 1991’s artistic rebirth of Achtung Baby almost threatened the band’s very existence as a functioning creative unit. On The Joshua Tree, the band tempered their arty arena rock with Americana musical and literary influences. Achtung Baby saw them reinventing their sound by embracing European dance textures and rhythms. But in between those studio albums, the band had spent time working on, releasing, and promoting their Rattle and Hum concert film and its accompanying soundtrack, a mix of live cuts and a few originals that further focused on American roots music. That process left them physically and mentally exhausted as well as at an artistic dead end. U2 took a year plus break from each other through 1989 and 1990, after which they reconvened to find that their aim to launch a new musical direction was at odds with one another.

 

u2trabant_zpsb924jcvpSinger and guitarist Bono and Edge, respectively, found themselves exploring then cutting edge dance and house music, the Manchester scene, and other new forms of popular music sprouting up around the time. Drummer and traditionalist Larry Mullen Jr however went back to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and a load of other bands he missed in the late 70s while he and his bandmates were knee deep in post-punk. The former pair came into the studio talking in the abstract about textures, deconstructing their sound, and incorporating new production techniques that were making traditional rock music sound antiquated by comparison. This was to bassist Adam Clayton’s irritation, who at one point wondered where the songs were and whether or not Bono and Edge had written any. Each faction expressed surprise at their bandmates’ differing perspectives. Tensions boiled and nearly split the band up before they were able to work things out. The point of this non-metal anecdote is to point out how easy it is for a band to jeopardize its creative momentum when they cease communication about artistic matters —- and that’s from a case where the end result turned out pretty well (to say the least).

In Metallica’s case over the past twenty five years, every new album (counting Load and ReLoad as one big songwriting session for the most part) has been a complete revision of their sound, often to murky or embarrassing ends. I personally thought Load was (and remains) a fine experimental album, full of songwriting depth and Hetfield’s most personal, poetic lyrics to date. It was too long and had filler, and its best songs should’ve been combined with ReLoad’s to make one really excellent album (a problem that rears its ugly head twenty years later, more on that below). But St. Anger was a travesty, not only for its tin can production but for its awful, group-therapy produced lyrics and neanderthal approach to metal. It was the very opposite of the impressive artistic heights they achieved with “Until It Sleeps” and “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn”. Then there was Death Magnetic, where the band brought in another therapist-like outsider in the form of Rick Rubin to tell them to write music like the old days, a recommendation that failed because of its inherent shortsightedness. It was a dismal album, full of songs that sounded like they were impersonating Metallica. And if we must talk about the time sink of Lulu, well, lets just say it sounded like Lou Reed was holding Metallica hostage at gunpoint forcing them to be the backing band for his terrible songs.

What outsiders such as Rubin failed to realize was that the secret to Metallica’s success during their classic first five albums era was exactly what sustained a band like U2 through its glory years —- a regular frequency of writing new music and communication between band members about music and direction. By frequency I mean treating the creative process as a muscle that needed to be worked consistently rather than allowed to wither from disuse. The 80s-early 90s were a prolific time for Metallica, mostly because they were a new band on the rise and they simply had to be, but it strengthened them creatively. And by communication, I’m thinking back to all those anecdotes by Hetfield of how Cliff Burton would always recommend new music to him, even non-metal stuff —- a cumulative effect that produced huge changes in his songwriting approach. Its easy to see in retrospect just how much that could have played into the musical leap into maturity from Kill Em’ All to Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. That was simply a band that worked hard at being creative, as opposed to the Metallica of the last twenty years, who’s seemingly allergic to the very concept.
 

metallica_-_load_cover_zpsac9xhdqdOkay, enough pontificating. What I have realized right now however is that this isn’t really going to be a review in the traditional sense. Everyone of you already has listened to and dissected this album in your own fashion, and your opinions aren’t going to be swayed by anything I say here. That might not be the case with other bands where I could persuade you to give an album a second chance, or the benefit of extra listens. Nope, you already know what you personally want from a new Metallica album. In fact, me writing anything about this album is largely for my own edifice, to put myself through a process where I gave the album (and the band) the respect of time and attention. I do think its worth keeping in mind that all of our wants and expectations regarding Hardwired are likely to be different, so I’ll lay out mine here. What I always loved most about Metallica was Hetfield’s songwriting and his pure, impassioned, and often poetic manner of conveying darkness or inner turmoil. Whether that came in the form of aggressive, up-tempo thrash metal or mid-tempoed, epics such as “The Unforgiven” or “Until It Sleeps”, or beautiful, aching balladry ala “Nothing Else Matters”, “Hero of the Day”, or “Low Man’s Lyric”. He was one of the original poets in metal as a whole, standing shoulder to shoulder with Dio in my book for lyricism that at times for me was far more intriguing than the riffs he played under them.

I can’t express how surprised I was that I didn’t completely dislike this album. I say this with full acknowledgement of my inclination to not like it beforehand just due to how annoyed I was with the delays and their past two offerings (three if we count most of ReLoad). Don’t get me wrong, this is a severely flawed album, in dire need of an editor —- in fact, allow me to play one right now. Let’s grab this tracklisting here… okay, we’ll keep all of the first disc, and then from disc two let’s keep “Spit Out The Bone” and scrap the other five songs. That’s only seven tracks? Eh, who cares, its still a 43 minute tracklisting. Seriously, that second disc sans the last track should never have made the final tracklisting, everything from “Confusion” to “Murder One” is meandering, with riffs that lead nowhere interesting and choruses that seem half-baked. “Am I Savage” is head shakingly terrible, and an unfortunate assault on a Diamond Head classic made popular by Metallica’s own cover version (only Megadeth’s “When” was a worse Diamond Head re-appropriation). I applaud Metallica’s thinly veiled attempt at making up for the lengthy delays in giving their fans a double disc album, a sort of make up offering along with the third disc found on the limited edition where they unload some pretty fun covers of classic metal (Dio, Maiden, Purple). Interestingly enough, they fell into the same trap Iron Maiden did with their last album, also a double disc —- the misguided notion that they don’t need someone that serves as an editor in their recording process.
 

metallica_zpslmweznujBut those seven tracks we just isolated? Not too shabby, in fact, downright fun at moments and hinting at the genius of old in small, fleeting moments. Regarding the latter, Metallica come really close to delivering a home run with “Moth Into Flame”, Hetfield’s morbid musing on the life of departed singer Amy Winehouse. His barked vocals sound like they were lifted straight from 1991, sharp, angular and full of vigor, and simply put, few in metal are as good at syncopating their lyrical delivery to match the rhythm of chugging riffs underneath as Hetfield is. Its the song I’ve kept coming back to, even when not listening to the album, those verses stuck in my head long after. Its also Kirk Hammett’s best solo, a small thing, but complementary to the song, a rarity on an album where he is really the weakest link throughout (whether its attributed to him losing his song ideas on his lost phone years ago or not… his solos seem phoned in for the most part, whatever happened to the guitarist we once knew?). Everyone’s fawning over “Spit Out The Bone”, and it certainly is very fun, though I reject the notion that its the best song the band has done since Justice (as I’ve seen many declare), that’s a lame opinion from people who can’t get past the populism of the black album nor acknowledge the artistry of Load (both have phenomenal songs, just not thrash metal songs… get over it).

I really enjoy “Atlas, Rise!”, and it features one of Hetfield’s most intriguing lyrics in quite a long time, with mythical imagery possibly serving as a greater metaphor for something else (and open enough to allow everyone to fill in their own blanks). The riffing here is imaginative, clean and concise and full of memorable hints of melody, and the dual lead guitar solo is inspired. Kudos must be given to Lars on our seven song tracklisting too —- he’s good when he wants to be, nowhere near as awful as many claim. I’d argue that his groove based, almost swinging approach to most of these songs works in their favor, particularly on “Now That We’re Dead”, a song that took a few spins to grow on me but has a swagger to it that I find appealing. I will say that as much as I like “Dream No More” on a musical level, I find Lovecraft based lyrics from Hetfield at this point in his life a bit unconvincing, sort of as if he was just dishing out a bit of fan service. Maybe I’m wrong and he really is reading the stuff at home even now, but it seemed far more genuine when he was in his early twenties and was writing songs about it because it was on his brain. Oh well, nitpicking, we could do that for a lot of things but its still a decent song, if not in need of a slight tempo increase. I’ll keep these seven songs though, and Metallica should too —- as building blocks for another album. Don’t allow five years further to elapse (you don’t have that luxury anymore!), simply put, build on the chunk of artistic success you carved out of nothing here, and get momentum going for another album in two or three years.

The Belated Fall Reviews Cluster: Darkthrone, Sonata, Theocracy, Alcest!

December 8, 2016

This is late incoming, oh I know, but better late than never right? This was supposed to come out in November but some real life stuff got in the way and exhaustion claimed most of what spare time was left. So while that left little time for writing, I did manage to get some extra listening time on all these releases below which proved critical in changing my opinion on one or two. This isn’t all that I listened to (hardly), but we’re running out of 2016 so this will be the last cluster of the year —-with that in mind, you might be hearing about a few albums not listed here on the upcoming Best of 2016 double feature. I’ll keep this preamble short, only to mention that I’ll have a hard look at the new Metallica coming next, with the year end lists following closely. This has been a rough year for the blog in terms of the update schedule, and one of my resolutions in 2017 is to simply write and publish more. Thanks for everyone who’s patiently stuck with me!


 

 
Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder:

If you have any interest in Darkthrone whatsoever (and I think you should), you’ve probably heard by now that this new album is something of a shift in style for them. That’s true to a certain extent, it is markedly different from their past three to four releases which found them delving deep into an almost black n’ roll approach to experimenting with more classic 80s metal stylings on 2013’s The Underground Resistance. But where those albums were taking the band into new, explored territory (for them anyway), Arctic Thunder is an about face to the black metal Darkthrone of the turn of the millennium, recalling the style of Plaguewielder and Hate Them. I imagine that for a lot of people the news that Darkthrone was returning to black metal brought about hopes of the band returning to their early, second wave style of A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Transilvanian Hunger, sort of what Blut Aus Nord did with their awesome and majestic Memoria Vetusta III. That would’ve required a severe and intentional handicapping of the sonics in the recording however, and I just don’t think that either Fenriz or Ted (Nocturno Culto) are all that interested in recreating the past like that.

In fact, sonics are the only thing that Arctic Thunder has with their black metal past, because even though it is far more grim and frost bitten than recent albums, you can’t tell me that middle riff that accelerates in “Inbred Vermin” is a black metal riff —- it sounds like it could be lifted off a mid to late 80s thrash album (not being Fenriz, I can’t pinpoint exactly what band and album it was inspired by). But this is a cleanly produced album, for all its first-take approach, Ted’s guitars are upfront, fresh and often crisp, full of nuance and intricacy in the actual execution of the riffs —- and Fenriz’s drumming is as full bodied and loud (the complete antithesis of the approach to drums in most early second wave Norwegian black metal). I had a strange time with this album as a listener, at first loving it due to its radical departure from what they had been doing and for the pleasure of hearing a colder, darker Darkthrone once again. That actually lasted awhile, a few weeks in fact. But over time I’d begun find myself longing to hear Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance, and when I went through those albums again I realized what Arctic Thunder was lacking (and it always comes back to this) —- hooky, memorable songs.

There are a few moments that fit that bill, “Tundra Leach” serving as an excellent album opener, with a bleak, dirty sounding riff that accelerates into tremolo flourishes. There’s an awesome moment midway through where an abrupt shift occurs —- built on pounding, tribal beat percussion and a classic metal riff that takes us into Metallica’s “Creeping Death” territory (think of the moments before “Die! By my hand…!”). Then there’s “Boreal Fiends” which successfully takes on the same approach, hitting you with a memorable riff straight away, this time with loud/quiet dynamics in between verses, only to lead to an about face mid-song. That shift, at the 4:18 mark, is as grin inducing as it is unexpected, Fenriz coming back from a funeral doom tempo with a cowbell accented over a meaty, flat out heavy riff. The guitar solo that follows is a surprise as well, a rare blast of technicality and intricacy from a band that is essentially built from large, wet slabs of uncut riffs stacked hither and yon. The thing I’ve realized after umpteen listens to this album however is that there’s not enough of that kind of variety, not enough surprises. For instance I like the main riff on “Burial Bliss”, it coming across as a sort of black metal take on the Misfits, but the song lacks a hook in a bad way, being one of the chief examples of how things can get repetitive here rather quickly. I have no problem with the band returning to this more blackened approach, but they clearly need another album to fully re-acclimate.

 

 
Alcest – Kodama:

Some of you might remember that Alcest was a Metal Pigeon Best of 2012 finisher with their magnificent Les Voyages de l’Âme, the album that made a fan of me with its panoramic scope and sweeping beauty. Beauty of course is a key word when discussing Alcest, because they don’t shy away from it, their albums chock full of melodies that can only be described as such. If you’re not familiar at all, Alcest is the pioneer of French black metal, which took the atmospherics of second wave Norwegian black metal ala Burzum’s Filosofem and deconstructed its metallic nature, replacing harsh, atonal riffing with dreamy, shoe-gaze inspired melodicism. They use guitars and keyboards in equal measure, whatever it takes really, to achieve a sound that is the aural equivalent of a watercolor painting, where most metal regardless of subgenre is more akin to a construction project (foundations, walls, etc… you get the idea). On that aforementioned album, they blossomed into that rare metal band that could make fans of non-metal folks, particularly if they’d ever been a fan of Sigur Ros, Porcupine Tree, or even Smashing Pumpkins for that matter (that band’s influence on Alcest is under discussed and overlooked).

Disappointingly for me, Alcest decided to abandon their blackgaze approach for 2014’s Shelter, leaving us with a record full of bright, sunlit post-rock that was certainly pretty, but was noticeably lacking the expansive vision and bottomless depth of Alcest in their full glory. I’m sure they’re glad they made that record, one that pushed them in a way to expand their sound and to see what could come of it artistically. What I suspect they realized however, was that the darkness that comes from their black metal origins and influences is not something that’s easily shed. Without it, they sounded to me like another post-rock/shoegaze band, a good one certainly, but as an Alcest album Shelter was merely pretty on a surface level, it never pulled me in deeper. Thankfully, they’ve happily returned with their full complement of influences on display, as they demonstrate here with the awe-inspiring Kodama. Thus proving that the darkness they explore through black metal aesthetics is the key to their unlocking that cosmic door from which spills their transcendent sound.

This album is simultaneously a return to form and a departure, the latter being the injection of a album wide pronounced Japanese influence; not only for the album title (“kodama” literally means both “tree spirit” and “echo”) and the accompanying artwork that depicts a Japanese woman in some uncomfortable looking waters, but mostly for the Japanese folk melodies that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I could pinpoint an example but that would be a little silly, because this influence is coursing through almost every riff, melody, and extended musical passage of Kodama —- unlike a lot of cases where metal bands will use cultural music as window dressing and stick to their own sound otherwise, Alcest here submerge their songwriting into this wellspring of Japanese musical inspiration entirely. Frontman, vocalist, guitarist, and all around songwriter Neige is on record about the purpose of his doing so, that the album is directly inspired by the animated film Princess Mononoke, and that in his words, its about “the confrontation of the natural world and the human world”. That was something he witnessed firsthand when Alcest played in Japan a few years ago, stating, “Japan has a hyper technologic society, always ahead of its time, full of crazy items, gadgets, etc, but yet people there are very attached to tradition, nature, and spirituality.” Of course, if you’ve seen the film (you should, its a classic), its easy to tie Neige’s own observation and tie it into the film’s narrative, both boiling down to this idea of duality and how we all deal with it in various forms.

I love the intellectual depth of conceptual albums like this, in many ways reminding me of 2015’s almost album of the year, Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson. Its the stuff that concept albums should be made of, instead of what we usually get in rock and metal —- mostly paper-thin surface narratives of ridiculous stories that have little to no meaningful echo to them whatsoever. I’m not trying to be snooty here, I love many albums that meet that description to a tee, but when a zillion other bands deliver their own version of it, it gets a little boring, trite, and dumb (after awhile you stop paying attention to bands’ concepts altogether). And setting the concept aside, Kodama is a musical wonder as well, eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse pop formatting in favor of longer tracks with more of a storytelling song structure. Hardly anything repeats, but somehow all of its seven tracks and forty-right minutes are captivating —- the parts that sound like a build up actually deliver pay-offs, and there’s an equal balance of light and shadow as heavy riffs run headlong into transcendent ethereal sequences.

On the first single and most representative track matching the preceding description, “Oiseaux De Proie, a loose, jazzy mid-song bridge plunges dramatically into perhaps the album’s most up-tempo, accelerated moment (check the 5:50 mark). Its an adrenaline rush, largely due to how unexpected it was. This lack of foreshadowing is what keeps your attention rapt throughout Kodama, because you never really know what’s around the next minute mark. And I love how Neige does unexpected things texturally as well, such as the prominent use of the bass as a primary melodic instrument in the opening/title track, a quirky choice that creates separation with the higher pitched guitar accents that drift and careen above it. He also uses minimalist guitar to hearken to that Japanese sound that was discussed earlier on “Eclosion”, the patterns and phrasing and sleek, clean tones mimicking that country’s native folk melodies. I also love the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream influences that wash all over that track towards the middle bridge onwards —- Neige acknowledges them as a major influence and there are times when you can close your eyes and imagine this as something from their mid-90s era output. That actually might be my favorite on the album, its peaceful lone-guitar fade out saying more in those few delicate notes than many bands manage in an entire song. Ditto for closing instrumental “Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées”, with its descending chord patterns blossoming into one of the year’s most memorable musical moments. Make no mistake, this will be on my album of the year list, only question is how high.

 

 
Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour:

Its kind of unfortunate that I have to write this review before I’ll be seeing the band live here in Houston come mid-December, because as you might remember from their last album Pariah’s Child, I ended up enjoying most of its songs far more after I had heard their live airing a few months after my initial review. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy that album at all before the concert, but moreso that Tony Kakko’s impressive live performance both as a vocalist and a performance artist helped me see why he made the choices he did on the album as a songwriter. So I wonder, how much will my opinion change on songs like “Life”, or “We Are What We Are”, “Fairytale”, and “Closer to an Animal” (those being the primary cuts they seem to be pulling from this disc). They’re not bad songs by any means, the former being the first music video filmed for the album, with a chorus built on some amusing lyrical self-criticism by Kakko, who sings, “Life is better alive”, a lyric we could tear to pieces if it weren’t followed immediately by “It is a dumb thing to say / But the fact won’t wane away”, which in a nutshell encapsulates the theme of the song. Sonata Arctica have never been ones to shy away from positivity as a lyrical theme, particularly as of late —- it does not however make for a hook as strong as “The Wolves Die Young”.

But where Pariah’s Child was in some ways meant to be a classicist Sonata album (that’s debatable), The Ninth Hour isn’t explicitly held to such guidelines because its a part concept album, or thematic album to be more precise. The Stratovarius influence over Sonata Arctica looms particularly large here with the theme of environmentalism and reigning in of humanity’s careless destruction of the planet. If you weren’t familiar with Stratovarius albums around the turn of the millennium, that’s pretty much what those guys sang about for a handful of ’em. So a thematic leaning song like “We Are What We Are” is given license to be a bit more expansive, less concerned with delivering those knockout Sonata hooks we love in favor of non-romantic balladry that leans more towards White Lion’s “When the  Children Cry” than “Tallulah”. It only works because despite its too slow for slow dancing pace and downtrodden vibe, Kakko’s melody is charmingly simple and beautiful, almost lullaby-esque. Similarly on “White Pearl, Black Oceans Pt II” (a sequel to the original much beloved fan classic from Reckoning Night), Kakko allows a more overwhelmingly lyrical songwriting approach to govern things, which makes sense considering the narrative nature of the song in continuing a story. But in 2016, that means its a track that is substantially slower than its predecessor, lacking the midtempo and uptempo change ups that so characterized the original. Some might not like that, but I think the melody really works here, used as more of a Broadway show centerpiece complete with mimicking orchestral arrangement.

Not everything is slowed down though, there’s the surprisingly heavy and accelerating “Fly. Navigate. Communicate”, which took me awhile to get into but I now can appreciate for its striking aggression alongside its subtle lyrical hook. And “Rise A Night” is a classic uptempo slice of Sonata power metal with a nice verse and lead in bridge, only to meet a middling, aimless chorus that lacks a defining hook, a trait that handicaps the entire song sadly. Then there’s the strongly starting “Fairytale” where the inverse is the problem —- we’re treated to a memorable hook that doesn’t hit as hard as it could due to there being no build up to it via tempo shift or fully formed bridge. Of course when it comes to Sonata Arctica albums post 2004, we’re not expecting complete perfection, just some moments of perfection… and here’s where The Ninth Hour is worryingly deficient. There’s nothing here that I’d really consider adding to my Sonata playlist on the iPod, and there usually is at least a track or two per album. I’d give a huge maybe to the charming ballad “Candle Lawns”, but I’ve really gotta be in the mood for it. I honestly don’t know what to make of this album, and I know that makes for a crappy review —- but there’s nothing here that is shockingly bad like we’ve had in spots on the past three albums. In fact, its all just sounds alright, but I know I don’t often come back to revisit an album that’s just “alright”. Maybe I’ll have more to say after I see them two weeks from now.

 

 
Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Atlanta based Theocracy and its 98-01 era Tobias Sammet channeling vocalist/songwriter Matt Smith for a few years now. I got into them with 2011’s As The World Bleeds, an album of power metal songwriting perfection of such magnitude I strongly believe its one of the classics of the genre. I had first heard of the band way back in 2003 with their self-titled debut which was promising despite its flaws, but I promptly cut my interest when I learned that the band was outwardly Christian. Sure enough, the lyrics checked out, and I naively wrote the band off. In my defense I was young, stupid(er), and not mature enough to reconcile that it was okay to enjoy a band that was outwardly religious in their lyrics if I enjoyed their music in general. Looking back now, I suppose I thought it was anathema, to be into metal and subgenres like black metal which were largely about the darker stuff in life while simultaneously listening to something so religiously positive, so opposite in spirit. Never mind that I enjoyed U2 with all their Christian background, nor that I was conveniently ignoring the strongly religious overtones of Edguy’s classic Theater of Salvation. In between, I missed 2008’s Mirror of Souls, another quality release with some excellent songwriting, and when I finally did come around in 2011, I chickened out on publishing a fully written piece on Theocracy (if I remember right it was about whether or not it hypocritical to like their music without sharing their views on faith… guess the jury’s still out there). So essentially, no one has really known about how much I’ve loved this feisty prog-power metal band’s music, when I’ve been all too eager to champion any really worthwhile American bands of this genre. In all… Theocracy deserved better from me.

I’m quite keen on rectifying this here, even in a shorter, abbreviated review, although I might not have done the band a service had I reviewed this album shortly after first hearing it in mid-October. For whatever reason, I was having a devil of a time getting into Ghost Ship for the first few weeks I had it, and maybe it was due to other things competing for my attention (one of which may have been the ultra-negativity of the 2016 election… maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear something bright and positive just then…?). That seems so absurd and unlikely now given how much I’ve been enjoying these songs on their own merits, and that last bit is crucial to those of you who are already familiar with their past albums: In short, as hard as it might be, don’t compare this album to As The World Bleeds! You will of course, its only natural, but I say that for two reasons; first, …Bleeds was a uniquely excellent album, a perfecting of a specific type of aggressive power metal and dense, solid production that Edguy first introduced with 2000’s Mandrake; and secondly, because Theocracy has greatly expanded their sound intro far more progressive areas with Ghost Ship, toning down the pure Euro-step power metal influences and increasing their Queensryche influenced tendencies a bit. This is a far reaching, thorough permeation, affecting all the songs on the new album across the board, and maybe it makes them less instantly accessible —- though it must be stressed, that accessibility is still there, it just requires more listens than their previous albums.

You’ll hear that accessibility most vividly on leaner cuts such as the title track or on the lyrics contrasting cheerfulness of “Castaway”. Regarding the former, Smith is among those few in power metal circles so gifted at peppering his already hook-laden songs with those glory-claw raising micro-hooks like the ones heard at the :40 second and 2:02 minute marks. They come via his simply changing the key of his vocal delivery of a verse lyric mid-phrase, from a not-quite minor key to an abrupt, full-on MAJOR key. Its such musical ear-candy, and mark of a talented songwriter who knows how to utilize the technical prowess of his band and his vocal ability to inject these viscerally energy packed moments into the fiber of these songs. That awareness as a songwriter, to keep his songs dancing on two feet like a boxer in his fighting stance, unpredictable and ready to strike at a moment with a flourish of a micro-hook or ultra-melodic figure or accent is what keeps our attention even through lengthy epics such as the nine-minute “Easter”. Midway through we shift from a thunderous, choral vocal backed section into a solo acoustic guitar sequence with a gorgeous, arcing melody at the 6:38 mark that will always have me returning to this song. That’s the kind of attention to detail that characterized the best of Tobias Sammet’s lengthier epics back in the classic Edguy era (think “Theater of Salvation” and “The Pharaoh”).

Of course its not just the minor details that make these songs work. They’re carefully crafted with strong melodies and semi-technical instrumentation, with often gorgeous guitar work from Val Allen Wood and Jonathan Hinds, as well as soaring vocals via Smith’s helium tinged tenor. As I sit here listening to this album for the millionth time, I wonder if Smith’s English as birth language familiarity is his secret to songwriting success as an American well-versed in writing in the European vein of power metal. Theocracy can bring the wood, but they never get really heavy like Iced Earth, Pharaoh, or even Kamelot —- all fellow American power metal bands who utilize thrash metal elements or in Kamelot’s case, prog-rock and mid-tempo time signatures. Those American and British stylistic influences temper their power metal and make it easy for them to match their vocal melodies to lyrics in a suitable manner (I realize Roy Khan is of Norwegian decent, and he of course wrote most of Kamelot’s beautiful lyrics, but he’s an outlier in this case). Theocracy is a rare duck being an American band coming from the Edguy/Avantasia/Gamma Ray/ Helloween school of power metal, all of whom are guilty of lyrical atrocities. Smith’s songwriting from a lyrics to vocal melody perspective is so effortless, so smooth, that it actually helps the melodies flow like water —- there’s nary an awkward pause. His lyrics are finely written, and seemingly always set to melodies that fit them perfectly like a glove. That pairing is likely to be the litmus test for most people, can they allow themselves to enjoy those melodies despite them being set to (very finely written) spiritual lyrics. I definitely can.