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Anti-Summery Jams: Suidakra, Grand Magus, and Katatonia

July 13, 2016

Three belated reviews of albums that I’ve been listening to over the past month and change, and then I’ll be taking advantage of the slow summer release schedule (that is, of interest to me rather) and writing more about a lot of the older metal stuff I’ve been revisiting, as well as some random metal related topics I’ve been putting off discussing for a long time now. Stepping off the review treadmill has never felt so liberating! Fear not though, I see some major releases on the way that will definitely get a throughout examination on this blog upon their release.


 

Suidakra – Realms of Odoric:

 

I almost jumped the gun with my review of the new Suidakra. The first couple spins when I received the promo a few weeks back had me feeling a bit antsy, a little impatient at moments, with an onset of encroaching dread that this new album by a band I had fallen in love in the interim period since their previous release wasn’t clicking with me for some unknown reason. I was supposed to issue a review of this in early June and given my feelings towards it at the time, it would’ve been vaguely negative (more likely, just a meandering complaint about how it wasn’t impacting me as instantaneously as Eternal Defiance, a 2013 Best Album of the Year). I figured I might be in need of a metal break so I took a few days to not listen to anything aside from podcasts and pop music, and a whole week later, I returned to the Realms of Odoric. It wasn’t instantaneous, but over a series of repeat listens I began to find its melodies lodging themselves in my memory, humming a guitar line or folk instrument melody here and there. Its a long held belief within the metal community and other music aficionados that often times the best albums take the most work to reveal themselves, the difference between a can of coke and a fine whiskey or wine. I do subscribe to that belief as well, but don’t discount the impact of instantaneous love of an album either (nor the idea that you’ll burn out on the latter quicker, not necessarily true).

So following that thought, is Realms of Odoric Suidakra’s best album then? I wouldn’t personally propose it as such, but its not as awful as some of the random reviews I’ve seen for it online. Its a step down from Eternal Defiance, being a relatively good album that sports some unfortunate bumps and bruises throughout its thirteen tracks. Some of those bruises come in the form of meandering, directionless instrumentals such as “Cimbric Requiem” (pretty, pleasant, but I’d rather have that space for another melo-death gem), and quasi-instrumentals such as the battle-readying “Creeping Blood” with spoken word dialogue, a marching percussion and riff sequence that stretches for two minutes without really resolving into anything memorable and whose fade out doesn’t really set up the following track “Undaunted” at all. Then there’s the intro cut “Into the Realm”, which actually does a good job of mixing suspense building atmospherics and riff fueled bombast into a minute long rallying cry, except that it seems like a missed opportunity that it fades out before feeding in properly to the first actual song on the album. I know I’ve been critical of bands overdoing things like intro tracks and small instrumentals, but they can be effective and even exciting when placed with a purpose, and Suidakra of all bands seems like they would know how to wield them. Its baffling that they’re committing these blunders.

There are other songs that don’t quite hit the mark for me, like the outro track “Remembrance”, a clean-sung, acoustic strummed lament over muted percussion and cello. By all rights it should hit me in the heartstrings… yet its a tease, a build up to nothing (dare I suggest it sounds incomplete, like it was the half finished intro to a song that never materialized). On Eternal Defiance, the band tried the same formula to stirring, inspiring effect with “Damnatio Memoriae”, one of my favorites from that album and a cut I’ll randomly revisit when I’m in a wistful mood. They’re quite capable of executing these ideas… I even enjoyed past instrumentals in the middle of album tracklists, such as on Caledonia and Emprise To Avalon. For whatever reason though, they’re all falling flat this time around, and that’s disappointing, though I don’t think they mar the entirety of the album. Lets talk about the good stuff then, because there’s plenty of it, the first song that comes to mind being the album launcher proper “The Serpent Within”, which is one of the band’s all-time finest moments. Its built on a mid-tempo riff and rhythm sequence, with a melancholic melody built on long, patient guitar sustains, a creative way to allow the song to breathe and unfurl naturally. The chorus is really inspired, with guest vocalist Matthias Zimmer of Perzonal War (I think! I was wrong on this before) providing clean vocals with an emotive performance. The lyrics throughout this song are a highlight of the band’s career, sparse yet poetic, with imagery that conjures up the ancient and eternal, “This life is but a spiral path / The serpent lurks inside”. That’s about as awesome a couplet as I’ve ever heard sung in a metal song, full of depth and thought provoking sentiment, and one that works as a visual metaphor as well. Well done, seriously.

There’s a handful of other earwormy cuts as well, “Hunter’s Horde” being the most traditionally Suidakra styled melo-death, with riffing that takes equally from black metal and Gothenburg and a semi-growled and clean sung vocal blend on the chorus for that extra pop. Wonderful longtime guest vocalist Tina Stabel returns on “Undaunted” and lead single “Pictish Pride”, the former boasting a bag-pipe led chorus as Stabel delivers one of the more gritty performances amongst her various Suidakra guest spots. I do enjoy the actual song “Pictish Pride” quite a bit, with its acoustic folk instrumentation intro and ability to work with a bouncy melody without devolving into folk metal cliches. I can’t say the same thing however for the music video the band wasted money on —- it has nothing to do with the album certainly, but my gods is it awful (who chose the lighting on the soundstage?… Suidakra deserves better). Also don’t sleep on “Dark Revelations”, a rather exciting experimental, almost Nightwish-y track built around symphonic guitar riff sequences. I’ll admit that it took me awhile to let the acoustic ballad “Braving the End” sink in, its certainly not one of the band’s best (“Mag Mell” being the standard bearer”) but its a pretty track in its own right and Stabel is always a joy to hear.

The Takeaway: Though not quite being the masterpiece I had hoped for after a nearly three year absence, this is still a good Suidakra album, just not my recommendation to be anyone’s first from the band. There was a time when these guys were releasing albums at a one year or two year interval, and I hope the next comes sooner than three years. A highly underrated and overlooked band that delivers consistently creative music.

 

Grand Magus – Sword Songs:

Similarly to Suidakra, Sweden’s doom n’ rollers Grand Magus were a band I got into relatively recently through their 2012 album The Hunt, an album that saw them transition slightly away from their earlier heavy doom influence and incorporate more of the traditional metal leanings that singer/songwriter “JB” Janne Christoffersson so clearly loves (your Priest, your Maiden, etc). But it was 2014’s Triumph and Power that really impressed me, landing on that year’s best albums list and remaining in regular rotation for me ever since. I love that album mainly due to the increased shift towards trad metal stylings that informed all of its songs, almost like the band injected their sound with an ample dose of classic era Manowar. Their newest, Sword Songs, seeks to continue where they left off and operate more in this newly unearthed traditional metal space, but it suffers from a few miscalculations. The first of which being the band’s choice of tempo on some of these tunes, take for example “Forged In Iron – Crowned In Steel”, where the verses kick along at a rather speedy pace, only to slow down for the chorus, a downshift in energy that just seems to work against the song. There’s an unusual number of more uptempo songs on this album that while not completely foreign to Grand Magus, certainly aren’t what they do best. On “Master of the Land”, they engage in the same downshifting of tempo during the refrain, and it just comes across as a bucket of water being poured over your head, your interest in the song diminishes almost instantly. A shame because the guitar solo in the middle is worth getting to, but not enough to salvage a rather mediocre song.

Grand Magus works best in the solid, mid-tempo groove n’ roll approach where Christoffersson can sing in a rhythmic strut. On “In For the Kill” he builds the hook from an alliterative dance during the chorus when he lays down a longer stress on the word “IN….” followed by “…forthekill” in quick succession. Its a small thing, but man oh man it makes the song work, gives it a swagger that a lot of metal bands couldn’t achieve even with their best Accept impersonations. The album’s opening duo of “Freja’s Choice” and “Varangian” is a one-two punch of classic Magus, a series of staggered riffs working as the hook for the former, while the latter uses an almost folky, Falconer-ish solo melody to work as its’ post-chorus outro hook. Almost there but not quite is “Last One to Fall”, where a strong chorus is left to drift amidst verse sections that can’t manage enough of a dramatic buildup. Its something that plagues a lot of this album, and I can’t tell sometimes if its just a error in tempo choice or just half-baked songwriting. Hard to believe the latter from a band that delivered such a knock out last time. I think one thing they should consider is shifting back towards some of their doom roots on the next go-round, because there’s precious little of that ingredient here, and I think its what is missing ultimately.

The Takeaway: A decent album from a band whose previous three albums were leaps and bounds better —- and in that regard its a disappointment. If you’re new, start with Triumph and Power, but if you’re just curious to hear a taste check out “In For the Kill”, a rockin’ party metal track if there ever was one.

 

Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts:

If you’ve been keeping up with Katatonia, I suppose it won’t be that much of a shock to hear just how far removed they sound from anything resembling metal on their newest album, the gorgeously titled The Fall of Hearts (sweet artwork too). Metal fans and media will still cover them due to the Anathema clause, that the contribution of a few early career death/doom metal albums hereby lock you into our collective conscience as a “metal” band even though you have nothing metallic amongst your new music at all. But of course its their songwriting complexity and stylistic choices of tone, subject matter where their metal roots still show, and that’s ultimately all that matters. Full disclosure, the last Katatonia album that I bought (and since have apparently lost) was The Great Cold Distance, which is about as perfect a depressive metal album as you can ever hope to hear and a perfect apex of their metallic, crunchy riffs that lingered from the mid-90s and their ever increasing adoption of progressive rock elements. On its 2009 follow up Night Is the New Day however, the band’s sound really shifted, and they kinda lost me and I fell out of the loop with them as a result. I suspect that if I went back and revisited it now, it wouldn’t be as awkward sounding as I remembered, and the good news is that The Fall of Hearts has persuaded me to do just that.

I’m surprised at the lack of surprise or faux-outrage with people hearing this new album, almost as if everyone just predicted the band’s sound getting this frigging soft, and well… quiet for lack of a better term. There’s some really wonderful stuff here despite the hushed atmosphere throughout, such as “Old Heart Falls”, the album’s first single and one of the best lyric videos by a metal band you’ll see (the lyrics being typed on a vintage typewriter, filmed in sepia). The chorus here is sublimely beautiful, with vocalist Jonas Renkse singing a poetic lyric “For every dream that is left behind me / I take a bow / With every war that will rage inside me / I hear the sound / Of another day in this vanishing life / Returned to dust / And every chance I’ve pushed away / Into the night”. If you’re into excellent lyrics, Katatonia is a band you should consider, and it appears that Renkse has only gotten better over time, because The Fall of Hearts is actually one of the year’s most impressive albums on a lyrical level, full of imaginative word play, imagery, and well considered rhythmic meter. But if its just the laid back jams you care about, check out “Residual”, a slow burning epic that gradually crescendos into an expansive, moody, dream sequence built off oscillating guitar patterns and sharp, jazzy drumming. Towards the end it shifts into a surprisingly aggressive riff-sequence that is a bit of a head nod to Tool and A Perfect Circle (don’t let that sway you negatively if you don’t like those bands). Closer “Passer” is the closest thing you’ll get to mid-period Katatonia heaviness, with its pummeling percussion and Enslaved like riff sequences. Best to regard this album as more of a late night, headphones on chill-out listen, and on that level, it succeeds with aplomb.

The Takeaway: I can’t say whether or not this is better than its predecessor Dead End Kings since I rather lamely ended up skipping that one, but this is actually a good listen judged on its own merits. It isn’t marred by any of the awkward, finding their footing that characterized Night Is the New Day for me, perhaps they’ve finally settled into a comfort zone with their full on progressive rock/metal blending.

The 2016 Mid-Year Reviews Codex!

May 26, 2016

There’s been more than a handful of new releases in this first half of 2016 that have gone unwritten about on the blog, but no longer! This is a collection massive haul of quick takes on all the other albums that I’ve managed to listen to from January through now, some more than others (for good reason in some cases), but no longer! Due to this being kind of a clearing the decks type feature, these are shorter, one to three paragraph reviews (for real this time) where I try to get to the gist of my opinion as succinctly as possible. If an album isn’t on this list, I either didn’t get to listen to it or only gave it a cursory listen —- not enough to form an opinion over. Also, I kinda run the gamut of emotions throughout the course of this entire piece and get a little impatient, off-topic, and well just plain nutty at spots, just a heads up. Might as well put the laundry in, you’re going to be here awhile.
 


 

Ihsahn – Arktis.:

If you were anything like me, then you found the past few releases from the legendary Ihsahn a bit patience-testing and at times, outright baffling. Ihsahn has always had a bit of an avant-garde streak in his black metal, most vividly witnessed in his Emperor days on their swansong, Prometheus, with its wildly scattered assemblage of zig-zag riffs and keyboard orchestration. His solo albums have been a bit mixed musically though, with his first two showing more of a traditional approach to songwriting with conventional structures (I enjoyed The Adversary and most of angL), and the following three reaching into more of his extreme avant garde interests with results that I found wanting. But on Artkis, his sixth album under his eponymous banner, he throws us a real curve ball, that is a record built on classic metal riffs and soaring, dare I say even melodic clean vocals. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, Ihsahn hasn’t written the next Maiden or Priest album, and he’s still writing music that is often surprising, veering off into unexpected directions, and challenging at its core. What’s changed is the language he’s using in doing so, almost as if he realized his venturing onto the outermost fringes of extremity with Das Seelenbrechen demanded a severely sharp contrast simply to get back to center.

Maybe I’m far off the mark in guessing his motives, but no matter the reasons why, I’m just happy Arktis happened, because its the first Ihsahn album that I’m absolutely loving in well over half a decade. There are tangible, meaty riffs to grab hold of on songs such as “Disassembled” and the soaring, skyward “Mass Darkness”. The latter is a gem, an instant contender to make this year’s Best Songs list and perhaps Ihsahn’s most accessible moment ever, built around a guitar figure that’s as memorable as his eyebrow raising clean vocals during the chorus. In addition to a classic metal influence, there’s shades of 70s prog-rock in ways we’ve never heard before, via the mellotron (or a reasonable emulation of one) on “My Heart Is Of The North”, recalling hints of bands such as Deep Purple and King Crimson. And there’s still loads of Ihsahn weirdness about, such as on “South Winds”, where his black metal vocals are set against a hushed, electronic pulsed backbeat —- a song that is still tuneful due to a chorus that lifts and thunders. Another favorite of mine is the very rollicking “Until I Too Dissolve”, which my MSRcast cohost Cary remarked as containing a Ratt-n-Roll riff! I’m not going to go that far, I’ll say its more mid-80s Tipton/Downing, but I get what he’s saying. The dreaded saxaphone does make a brief reappearance in “Crooked Red Line”, but its not to the detriment of the song overall (just don’t think I’m a fan of it being in metal), besides, everything else is so much fun I’m inclined to let it go here especially when its followed up by the gorgeous “Celestial Violence”.

The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar with Ihsahn outside of Emperor or in general, make this your point of entry (yes I know I risk black metal heresy here but this IS more accessible than Emperor, and everyone needs a way in). Regardless of your experience level, this is a must get for 2016.

 

 
Haken – Affinity:

I’ve been largely unfamiliar with England’s progressive rock/metal explorers Haken (pronounced “Hey-ken”), having seen their name here and there but always dismissing them as being just another in a big bunch of prog bands from the UK that all tend to sound the same to me. That was largely due to not giving them more than a cursory glance/listen, because as a result of longer attention on my end recently I’ve realized that Haken are a band with an inherent uniqueness, one that will force me to go back and take another look at their catalog. That is once I can stow away Affinity for a bit, which is proving an impossible task at the moment. This is an amazing piece of work, a sharply written blend of traditional prog-rock with metallic riffs, an 80s electronic motif that recalls the best hints of Rush post Moving Pictures, vivid melodies and an ear for hooks galore.

If there’s a stumbling block you’ll come upon, its likely going to be vocalist Ross Jennings, whose voice I now love but freely admit that it took me more than a few listens through to become comfortable with. I can’t even describe why that was the case, but if you listen to the should-be-a-single “Earthrise”, you’ll get an idea of what I’m referring to —- incidentally, that magnificent song is what really sold me on the band so perhaps you’re simply better off letting the album play through until you come to it naturally in the middle of the tracklisting. I guess one observation is that its not a metal voice, yet its not quite as perfectly melodic as Steven Wilson’s, Jennings has a distinctive slant on his approach that you’ll either accept or be unable to come to terms with. But these songs guys… so good, such artistry and a precision balancing of technicality, they’re clearly tremendous musicians, particularly drummer Ray Hearne, whose creative patterns and refreshingly aggressive approach are a huge source of power overall. I recently played a song from these guys on the last MSRcast episode and talked them up a bit, and you’ll likely be hearing more about them from me as the year goes on.

The Takeaway: One of the year’s first out of nowhere surprises, a contender to hit the Best Albums of the Year list, and a new band for me (and you) to delve into. Can’t recommend highly enough.

 

 
In Mourning – Afterglow:

Just like Haken above, Sweden’s In Mourning are another one of those names I’d seen in passing sometime ago yet they never really made a blip on my radar until now. They’re identified as progressive melodic death metal on the Metal Archives, and they certainly fit that bill on Afterglow, with the first track “Fire and Ocean” storming out of the gate with total Opeth-worship fury. That’s not a bad thing either, because they’re channeling Blackwater Park / Deliverance era Opeth, which is not only a hard thing to do but something that I didn’t realize I was deeply missing until I heard this song’s juxtaposition of deep, iceberg-like death metal vocal patterns courtesy of Tobias Netzell over shifting guitar beds, like the cracking of glacial ice underneath. Again, just like Ihsahn and Haken above, I played In Mourning on the latest MSRcast ep (probably should’ve spaced these albums apart on this list, oh well) —- my cohost Cary commented that Netzell’s vocals were slightly metalcore-ish. I didn’t agree and still don’t, but I have to admit that Netzell’s clean vocals on a cut like “The Grinning Mist” are perhaps more American-tinged in approach than Mikael Akerfeldt’s, whose death metal vocal style is clearly an influence at work throughout this album.

What I enjoy about this album is its blend of diverse song styles, tempos, moods, and guitar patterns —- you’re hard pressed to find a moment where you’re getting bored, and that’s half the battle when it comes to prog death metal. A song such as “Below Rise To The Above” manages the impressive trick of layering brutal death metal vocals over a semi-ballad melodic structure, long atmospheric guitar sustains, minimal riffing and some major key rays of sunlight amidst the gloom. If there is a drawback to In Mourning’s style, its that at times it presses a little too close to Opethian tendencies, take song lengths for example, the shortest cut here clocking in at 6 minutes, or that Netzell’s long sustained screams over accelerating riffs just pinch a bit too much of the magic sugar that made Akerfeldt and company so riveting. Influences are expected in metal, you should hear bits and pieces of where a band is coming from (this is after all a genre based on tradition), but when those influences are identifiable patterns and systemic in nature as opposed to mere paintbrush strokes and isolationist, then a band or artist isn’t pushing hard enough (and I wind up yearning to listen to Blackwater Park).

The Takeaway: Talented band with a quality new album that’s worth your attention span for a few YouTube clips at least. One thing I wanted to point out and applaud despite not being review-esque is their history of awesome album art, not only for Afterglow, but for the Lovecraftian theme on The Weight of Oceans, great taste in aesthetics just like another band we knOw! 

 

 

Wildernessking – Mystical Future:

I quite like minimalism in black metal, as much as I do its audacious, tiara adorned cousin symphonic black metal, and if the album art to the left wasn’t a dead giveaway, Wildernessking play a blend of furious second wave Norwegian black metal mixed with elements of post-BM and blackgaze. They’re from South Africa, which is a neat fact in that we typically don’t hear about a lot of bands making an impact from that particular country, so good for these guys for breaking out worldwide in a small way. I’ve been enjoying this album as a mood appropriate listen since the promo landed on the MSRcast desk a few months ago. When I say “mood-appropriate” I do mean it, because if you’re not receptive to the adjectives I threw out above, you won’t have the patience to deal with Mystical Future. I find that it works best as a background piece, something to listen to while you’re doing a mindless task, because its not background music, these are songs worthy of your attention and filled with emotional musical twists and scorching bleak vocals that are often blanketed by pretty guitar figures and moving melodies.

There is no obvious “single” or lyric-video cut here, but “I Will Go To Your Tomb” boasts the album’s most vivid, sharp melody, a guitar pattern that is more of a stream of conscious type affair than a predetermined pattern or hook. Frenetic percussion is its metallic foil, wild, unpredictable, and violent in its furious outbursts, particularly towards the second half when it accompanies the album’s most straight forward black metal section. Yet for all its high intensity moments, Mystical Future is largely a quiet, pensive, dreamy affair, such as on “To Transcend”, where isolated guitar sustains twist and bend in elegant figures against a stark atmospheric backdrop. This is Wildernessking’s calling card, at least on this album (I’ve yet to check out their debut nor the many EPs they’ve put out in the interim), but they play it well and with enough creativity to prevent it from being a wet blanket like many atmospheric black metal albums tend to be. And yeah, I love that artwork.

The Takeaway: With Agalloch sadly calling it quits just a few days ago, Wildernessking will be helping to fill a void for a post-black metal sound that is both rooted in tradition and simultaneously detached from it. Worth your time and attention.

 

 
Oceans of Slumber – Winter:

Houston’s own (!) Oceans of Slumber, my fellow H-town metallers, with a new album on Century Media Records! First of all, and I know we’ve spoken about this on the podcast, but we’re very proud, and rightfully so —- Oceans of Slumber are the first band in a long time to break out of the local scene and truly make an impact on metal media and fans across the nation and pond. They just did a European tour opening for My Dying Bride, likely to do more opening stints throughout the year and next, and that they’re doing so in supporting such a intriguing and well-done album such as Winter is even more reason that we’re excited down here. Oceans are notable for their inspired approach to progressive doom/death metal on a musical level, and for having one of the more unique female vocalists across metal in general, in Cammie Gilbert, whose bluesy/jazzy tinged vocals are a stark contrast to the music at work here. Its that facet in particular that keeps me returning to this album as a front to finish listening experience —- and I enjoy so much of it when I’m actively listening to it, but I can admit to having trouble to remembering a lot of the songs after the fact. Whether that last detail has clouded my view of the album is still a bit of a mystery to me, but a friend whose listened to the album as well came away with the same criticism.

The title track right out of the gate is actually highly memorable, due to its unique vocal/solo guitar near-ambient intro verse and Gilbert’s sheer dominance on the song, she steals the show and you couldn’t imagine any other female voice singing this particular tune. Ditto for “Turpentine”, where Gilbert’s “wooohooohoooo” vocal coos are as addictive as any fully formed chorus hook (except that these are just flavorful parts of the intro verse) —- her performance on this song is captivating, she’s got a gravitas to her voice that is gorgeously accented by her ability to sound sweet, almost like she’s singing an old standard. Speaking of old standards, Oceans pretty much knock out of the park their cover of the Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin”, giving the song a sense of dramatic urgency with heavy, smolderingly intense verse riffage and Queensryche-ian guitar sustains in the chorus. Guitarists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary deliver a twin harmony outro solo just after the second chorus that I got to see live at a benefit show here in Houston, and I believe my jaw actually dropped —- it sounds just as good on the album. One last observation, there’s a lot of short one and half to two minute long acoustic guitar/piano and vocal songs on this album, and those are great to hear on the album for the most part, but I never remember those in particular. They do however add a strong sense of musicality to an already musical batch of heavy, doomy, prog-death metal, so there is value, I just wonder if they should try scaling them back next time.

The Takeaway: Trust me when I tell you to buy this album that I’m not being a Houston homer… okay, there’s a little of that in there but if this wasn’t worth your time or money, I’d tell you regardless of the band’s H-Town status. Its a rich, diverse, really friggin interesting metal album that is big on musicality, refreshingly unique for a female fronted band, and worth it alone for the Moody Blues cover.

 

 

Avatarium – The Girl With The Raven Mask:

I’m new to Avatarium, ex-Candlemass bassist/founder Leif Edling’s new project that seeks to take elements of his doom metal songwriting and mix them with classic hard rock and metal elements. Having missed their 2013 debut, I can only go based on what The Girl With The Raven Mask is presenting me, which I can honestly say is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I really enjoy it, and other times I can identify moments where the songwriting doesn’t quite gel, but what keeps me coming back are the fierce, belting, Doro/Grace Slick styled vocals of unknown singer Jennie-Ann Smith. She’s the star of this album, capable of going full on Robert Plant on the title track, complete with “Immigrant Song” styled wailing screams —- and this is an interesting song coming from a guy like Edling, a fairly uptempo, rollicking hard rocker that reminds me of Catatonia (the Welsh rock band, not the Swedish metal one). Its placement on the tracklisting as the opener is a bit deceptive, because the following two songs are a little more in line with Edling’s doom-metal roots, both “The January Sea” and “Pearls and Coffins” being built around lazy, delicate melodic crawls. You’re hardly listening to the capably produced music underneath however, as once again Smith’s vocals are hypnotic, capturing all your attention.

There’s an aesthetic running through this album that I can’t quite put my finger on —- there’s definitely hints of 60s/70s musicality here, a ton of organ, mellotron, a theremin at one point (!) which all combine towards that old-school prog-rock era vibe. And the songs are written as to at times entirely separate the vocal melodies and musical patterns, so that Smith often sounds like she’s singing Jim Morrison-esque verses of poetry rather than simply carrying a tune. She’s actually great at that, convincing and passionate in her delivery, yet sometimes it all passes over as instantly and fleetingly, to me anyway (more on that in a second). What is strange about Avatarium’s overall sound that is likely to keep me coming back to investigate this album throughout the year are those scattered moments where they lean more alt-rock in guitar tone (and subsequently, melodic structure and pattern) such as on “Run Killer Run”, where a fantastic driving riff anchors the most sing-song styled jam on the album. I wound up wishing they’d had more of these kind of songs, with meaty hooks to grab hold of and firmly lodge in one’s upper recesses. Don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty, highly intriguing album that is captivating to listen to, but I suspect my own hangup with it is that while I can admire its construction and aesthetic while its playing, I can’t form an emotional attachment to anything here, and that’s either a songwriting problem or a Metal Pigeon problem. Shrug.

The Takeaway: Do listen to this and at the very least get to hear something really unusual in metal (well, unusual for those of us who don’t follow the doom metal scene with a sharper eye, I’m told there are others like Avatarium). I suspect a few of you might share in my inexplicable distance from these songs despite enjoying what I’m hearing on a sonic level —- for you others, this band might be a revelation.

 

Sunburst – Fragments of Creation:

Sunburst are heavy prog-metal tinged power metal group out of Greece, not an uncommon place for power metal love given their Iced Earth worship and for local heroes such as Gus G and Firewind. Its always been a little bit puzzling as to why Greece hasn’t produced more breakout bands in these stylistic veins (although the state of the Greek economy over the past decade and the apparent lack of reliable venues seems to form a reasonable hypothesis as to why), but Sunburst are seeking to be another ray of light (oy!) peeking out from the skies of this tiny country. And they get a lot right, for starters their vocalist Vasilis Georgiou has a voice that recalls strong flavors of Tommy Karevik, a little Roy Khan, and some Georg Neuhauser in there as spice —- but he’s not a composite, in fact, he has a distinct quality that in further records could see him separating himself as truly unique. He’s not quite there yet, but this is a debut, and Appetite styled brilliance is a rare thing when it comes to first times at bat. With time I think Sunburst could be a band really worth gushing over, but they have a guitar problem they need to address first.

Allow me to clarify, I think the lead guitar parts on Fragments are really, really awesome, full of flowing melodic goodness and carefully though out so as to create motifs that complement Georgiou’s excellent vocal melodies. But if sole guitarist Gus Drax (another Gus!) put as much thought and effort into his riff writing and rhythm guitars as he did his lead parts, Sunburst would be on another level. What bogs this album down is clunky, simplistic, and often ill-timed riffs that lack originality, give us a dose of standard chug-a-chuga without really going anywhere (you know the kind, like on a Disturbed album). The first thing you’ll hear, notice, and remember about these songs are the vocal melodies, upon which nearly everything revolves (and that’s fine), but if that’s to be the case, then reduce the rhythm guitars in the mix (way too in your face for not having anything memorable to offer). There’s one moment where he goes get this right, on “Symbol of Life” the rhythm sequences are fairly standard but unobtrusive and kinda rockin’ in their straight forward lean metal attack. Over such a bed, Georgiou owns the song with a wonderful vocal and Drax’s lead guitar motif is the perfect kind of splashy overload that we all geek out over. Sadly, there’s not enough of this perfect balance.

The Takeaway: A promising debut with a really talented vocalist and a guitarist that has a flair for crafting beautiful lead guitar work. If he can settle down and start writing rhythm beds that support the vocal melodies instead of trying to fight them for dominance then Sunburst could have a breakout sophomore album.

 

 
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again:

Finland’s quasi-thrash/power metal hybrid Thunderstone is back, well, back with original vocalist Pasi Rantanen after he left in 2007 and the band recorded a indifferently received album with another singer. I’m glad they reunited (I have no idea on why Rantanen left in the first place, if anyone has any info on that I’d love to be clued in), because for the kind of traditional metal/hard rock meets power metal songs guitarist Nino Laurenne is writing, Rantanen’s grizzled, raspy, rough n’ tough melodic croon was always the perfect complement. If there’s ever a band to have lived under the shadows of an entire country’s metal scene, its Thunderstone, whose sound seems to fit far better coming from England or even mainland Europe, Germany in particular. Overshadowed in their early years by the success of Stratovarius and then Nightwish and Sonata Arctica, Thunderstone never really seemed to capture mainstream Finnish attention until they were invited to take part in their country’s Eurovision qualifiers. It shot a few of their singles into the national top ten along with their next album, and then things promptly unraveled with the departures of Rantanen and longtime keyboardist Kari Tornack.

Ten years later, I don’t think its outrageous to suggest that Thunderstone is essentially starting over again, especially in the context of Finnish metal’s collective attention shifting from power metal to melodic death and depressive rock/metal. They have their work cut out for them, and unfortunately I don’t hear a potential single on this album as ear-wormy as “10,000 Ways”, although a song like “Fire and Ice” boasts a chorus that hints of past glories. Alright, I guess I’ll just let my frustration show, because I was thinking about this last night as I was listening through this album again, and maybe its simply because I do end up listening to such a large number of new releases but —- sometimes I think its only worth talking about music that really hits me in the heart and moves me. Because the alternative, which I’m doing right now, is attempting to dissect how a relatively ho-hum, average new album by a veteran band stacks up against their past few ho-hum, average albums. Thunderstone has never released anything we’d call close to a masterpiece, and while no band knocks it out of the park every time at bat, over time a lack of home runs makes you wonder why they’re on your team (arrrgggh baseball metaphors! How did that happen?!). Is this a listenable album? Sure, of course it is, professionally recorded and with a few songs that have hummable melodies and a nice hook or two. But is that really enough in the light of some of the really majestic, heart-stirring music I’ve already heard this year? I’m going to say that at this particular moment, no its not.

The Takeaway: A veteran hard rock/power metal band comes back with a new album with their original singer. If that’s enough to get you in the door then by all means walk on through, but at least to my ears, there’s nothing else worth adding.

 

Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional:

My MSRcast co-host balked when I listed Hatebreed as one of the band’s we were going to play on our recent episode of the show, but he has no one to blame but himself. It was he that introduced me to Hatebreed vocalist Jamey Jasta’s podcast The Jasta Show, simply one of the most illuminating metal/heavy music based discussion podcasts available. The show captured my attention with its musician to musician access, providing a level of friendly, open conversation that no conventional interview could provide. It helped that Jasta is immensely likeable as a personality (something I even thought during his tenure as the MTV2 Headbanger’s Ball host a decade ago), and that he already knew most of his interviewees and vice versa via touring with them at some point or by crossing paths with them behind the scenes in the music industry, or simply by reputation. Its a show worth delving into especially if you enjoy hearing more industry/business related discussion in regards to the music industry and just how bands operate in general.

So what does this have to do with the new Hatebreed album? Well, my enjoyment of the podcast quickly turned into curiosity about what my opinion of Jasta’s music with Hatebreed would be now, in 2016, when I had previously written them off as hardcore/metalcore in the past (which they unabashedly were and still are to a certain extent). I watched a load of their music videos on YouTube, and found myself enjoying the songs simply for what they were, as Jasta himself describes, “caveman metal” built around heavy riffs, syncopated vocal delivery and shouted gang vocals, structured around precision songwriting that aims for the most catchy assault on your speakers and ear drums possible. Its music meant for live shows, mosh pits, and visceral physicality —- but within that are Jasta’s lyrics, mostly motivational based calls to action, and he’s really good at it. After buying Perseverance I found myself listening to it before work as a motivational tool, and as blood-pumping, adrenaline spiking workout music. I started to relish the idea of Hatebreed as music with a practical application —- I might not listen to it with headphones on with deep concentration, but it really hit the spot in those particular situations and just as a heavy metal palette cleanser of pure, unadorned heaviness. I know that some of you are shaking your heads at this right now, but give songs like “I Will Be Heard”, “Perseverance”, “In Ashes They Shall Reap”, “This Is Now” and newer singles like “A.D.” and “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” a shot.

Since this is an album review after all, I should probably speak about The Concrete Confessional a bit. It is certainly not deviating that much from what this band is known for, but one thing worth mentioning is just how thrashy these guitarists are getting on some of their riffs. Take “A.D.” for example, which sounds more like what modern day Slayer should sound like mixed with a little Kreator in those minor-keyed, subtle melodies. That’s not a surprise to me anymore, seeing as how Jasta constantly throws out his love for Kreator, Destruction, and plenty of other thrash metal mainstays on the podcast. You’ll be harder pressed to find an angrier, more vicious sounding single in metal this year than this one, with Jasta tearing apart the commonly touted idea of the American dream with his perfectly-timed verbal assault (what he lacks in vocal tone variation he more than makes up for with his ability to understand how well chosen lyrics with percussive syllabic structures make his delivery so potent). Its follow up single “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” is a little more metalcore-ish in its approach and stop-start moments, but its still addictive and will stick in your head, and its lyrical sentiments are admirable despite their biologically inadvisable suggestion of “No Sleep! No Rest!” (because seriously guys, 8 hours…). I’m actually impressed with the consistency of the album overall, there are at least five potential other singles here, and that should say something about the band’s songwriting strengths if nothing else.

The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar, The Concrete Confessional isn’t a bad place to start with Hatebreed, especially if you’re keen on some thrashy guitars now and then. This is a band that has been leaning more metal than core over their past few releases, although the ‘core is still an important (and vital) aspect of their sound. Just give it a shot, this album or the band in general, what do you have to lose but a few minutes spent not watching videos of Corgi puppies?

 

 
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures:

Ah Brainstorm, one of power metal’s chunkier, heavier leading lights. At least they were for awhile from the turn of the millennium through 2008’s Downburst, but since then the band has released three albums of wavering, shaky, brow-furrowing quality. I’m not exactly sure what happened, because this is a band that at one point was knocking out full length albums with nary a filler track on offer and a killer single or three apiece. Did they run out of creative fuel? It certainly seemed like it, and you’d expect that with a band dealing with a plethora of lineup changes, but that wasn’t the case with Brainstorm whose members have been solidly in place with the exception of a bassist change in 2007 (a non-songwriting member at that). In trying to gain some context for this album I went back and listened to 2014’s Firesoul which I actually remember enjoying initially, but hearing it now I can’t figure out why I was so impressed back then. The good news straight away is that I’m enjoying Scary Creatures a bit more than any of their past three albums. The bad news is that its still not hitting the adrenaline spiking heights of Metus Mortis, Soul Temptation, or Liquid Monster.

The album is front loaded with both the music video fueled single and lyric video adapted second single, “The World to See” and “How Much Can You Take” respectively. Its a wise choice because they’re both reminiscent of classic Brainstorm, ear-wormy, hook laden and propulsive in that particular way that only German heavy metal can be, and it gets you in a receptive headspace for the rest of the album, which is sometimes hit and miss. I will say there are more hits here though, such as the album closer “Sky Among the Clouds” which is a refreshing injection of a shades lighter melody (alongside a very 80s rock inspired guitar solo) that gives the song an unusual vibe relative to the rest of the album. Then there’s the very epic “Caressed By the Blackness”, where we’re treated to a far more complex songwriting arrangement that Brainstorm is typically known for, with a chorus with shifting vocal layers where Andy B. Frank’s bellowed backing tracks soar to the heavens. Frank’s voice is ageless, he sounds the exact same as when I first heard him back in 2002, must be something about German singers perhaps —- he’s on fine form throughout and about seventy-five percent of the reason why we’re listening at all (no disrespect intended to the other guys). There’s a handful of seemingly filler-esque cuts that plague the middle of this album and might cause a wandering attention span to develop at some point, but its at least a sign of a potential turnaround from a band that should never have lost their way.

The Takeaway: Worth a listen on Spotify or YouTube, but I’m not sure if I can really recommend buying Scary Creatures particularly if you haven’t grabbed those aforementioned classic era Brainstorm releases yet. This is an easy band to root for, really nice guys, honest metal, some moments of brilliance through their career —- I have high hopes for the next one because they seem to have found their footing a bit here.

 

 
Exmortus – Ride Forth:

I’ve spent a lot of years ignoring Exmortus, on purpose really, though I’ve been aware of talk around them and have in the past tried to get into their sound because on paper it should something I’d enjoy. And I do… to a certain extent, I’ll get to that in a second. If you’re in the dark here, Exmortus play a hyper, shredder-inspired, technical riff oriented blend of thrash and melodic death metal with a hint of neo-classical stylings ala Noise Records roster circa 1988. This is music that rarely, if ever, demonstrates an ability to breath and relax. Its up-tempo nearly all the time, built around skittish, almost nervous riffing (nerves like a Viking might appear over the next hill swinging a battle axe), with vocals that are fairly monotone in their raw, black-metal forged growling vocal attack. I’m not sure who’s singing for these guys at the moment, they’ve gone a heap of lineup changes seemingly at every position including vocalists, but he’s a competent enough growler on a technical level. What he lacks is any hint of emotional resonance, there are no moments here where he loosens the iron-tight grip on his enunciations and delivery to allow a little genuine emotion (such as, I dunno, anger or rage) break through. Anders Friden was good at that back in the classic In Flames days, and with growling vocals I consider him to be a benchmark of quality.

The thing about precision in metal, whether it be vocals or guitars or drums, is that it always works better when you treat it like a baseline from which you can vary and dip in intensity and adherence —- that’s where the excitement comes from (listen to 80s Priest if you need a primer, and you shouldn’t). That’s ultimately the problem with Exmortus, because there’s so much here that does pop out as potentially enjoyable, but its never given space or a little added jolt of energy to come alive and breathe. Its like watching an NBA game where all you get is fundamental basketball, set plays, unwavering game tempo, mid-range two pointers, hook shots, lay-ups, and free throws. What you’re yearning for is a steal and a fast break down the court with an explosive dunk to finish and get the crowd really amped up and waving those white towels (or whatever the heck they’re waving these days). I can’t say Ride Forth is a bad album, but I’m not sure its a good one either, simply because I can’t friggin tell —- that makes me a bad reviewer but you tell me, what am I supposed to be reviewing here? I’m actually really interested in what everyone thinks of this album in particular because maybe it boils down to me missing something critical. Why did I review this? Because a very friendly PR person requested it and I’ve been putting off those requests far enough, and hopefully this doesn’t prevent them from sending me more stuff in the future but I’m coming up empty on this one.

The Takeaway: I don’t know. I’m actually at a loss as to what I think, but maybe it goes back to what I was saying with Thunderstone and how difficult it is to write about music that doesn’t move the needle positively or negatively.

 

 
Rhapsody of Fire – Into The Legend:

My immediate reaction to seeing this release arrive as a promo earlier in the year was somewhere along the lines of “What the hell… another Rhapsody album?!”. I was of course recalling that ex-Rhapsody of Fire’s guitarist Luca Turilli released his own Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody album just last year with Prometheus, Symphonia Ignis Divinus. I actually wrote a review for that one, my first for any Rhapsody related release ever, and I think it was an honest assessment of what that album did for me on a purely musical level, but I didn’t bother at the time to research just why they were two Rhapsody bands in the first place nor what it could mean for the sound of either project. This time around, I’ve gone back and read a few press statements, some interviews, a little quick research on just what the schism in the Rhapsody world really entailed and have come away simultaneously baffled and yet a little more receptive to what it is I’m hearing. Bear with me.

So Rhapsody (of Fire) was founded by keyboardist Alex Staropoli and guitarist Luca Turilli, and from 1997’s Legendary Tales through 2011’s From Chaos to Eternity, their music was set to their own fantasy universe —- one that involved albums groups into sagas that could span over many albums (if I’m getting it right, its ordering was The Emerald Sword Saga, followed by its sequel The Dark Secret Saga). Regardless of what I thought of their music during this time, I will say now that its a heck of an achievement, a life’s work type of thing that is laudable for its sheer ambition and for both men’s tenacity in finishing it while dealing with all sorts of legal problems (copyright suit over the Rhapsody name, the contractual mess with Magic Circle *cough* Manowar’s label). But I guess it sort of took the wind right out of their sails, because by 2011 with the release of From Chaos to Eternity, Staropoli and Turilli agreed to a mutual split, stating that working together “was not the same anymore”. But instead of agreeing that one guy should keep the Rhapsody name and the other create something new, they decided in their amicable split to share the name the way they’re currently doing —- and thus becoming the LA Guns of power metal. So here’s the obvious question: Aren’t you guys risking splitting or splintering your market? If I’m a promoter, and I’ve booked Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire one year, and then Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody comes sauntering along in the early part of the following year, do I really see much of a difference? Rhapsody is in both names, and in booking two Rhapsody shows so close together I’m taking a huge risk on that second booking —- confused fans might stay home thinking they’d already seen the band not too long ago.

Think about how this could be affecting festival organizers and their relationships with promoters in the regional area. Proximity in booking shows for particular markets is something that promoters look at —- its why its hard for a band who was on a package tour with a bunch of other bands to come back through to the same city four to five months later on their own headline tour. Because they’ve already saturated that particular market’s demand, and they have to let some time lapse or a new release come out in order to reset the demand for that area. Blargh! Its infuriating! Why didn’t Turilli just form his own non-Rhapsody named project? Luca Turilli’s Sweet Jams or something, anything other than the dreaded R word?! Okay, rant over, here’s something to be encouraged about: I think that being freed from the conceptual/fantasy storyline has actually made Rhapsody of Fire sound better (I actually might need to hit up their 2013 album in order to reinforce this theory), because Into the Legend is the first Rhapsody album that I’ve actually enjoyed to a notable degree. Its got some actual meaty, metal riffs, and apparently Fabio Lione is writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies and it really shows —- there’s a naturalness to his delivery and he’s carrying a majority of the material here on his own back. He doesn’t have to shoehorn in lyrics to tell a story, he can just write y’know, regular lyrics, a radical concept for this band. The songwriting is far more attuned to classic power metal templates and that helps to restrain the normally grandiose factor that spirals Rhapsody’s sound out of control (it also succeeds in keeping the keyboard arrangements more precise, focused and purposeful). I’m impressed.

The Takeaway: My opinion could be entirely contrary to what long time Rhapsody fans are thinking, but for me, this might be a case of less is more. No grand interwoven story dominating what the lyrics have to be, thus not impacting the vocal melodies directly, and allowing Rhapsody to simply be a straight up power metal band for once. I actually had fun listening to this, so take that for what its worth to you!

 

 
Abbath – Abbath:

It seems pretty damned silly to come out with a review for an album I recieved in January and have been listening to for the past five months now and already discussed on my other outlet, the MSRcast. But, this being the reviews codex, its either gotta be here or nowhere at all and it would be silly not to considering how much I have gone back to it time and again. No backstory here, you’ve all likely heard that Immortal and Abbath have parted ways (stupidly I might add, on the part of Demonaz and Horgh), and Abbath is the first out of the gate with his own new album. I suspected upon hearing “To War” and “Winter Bane” in particular, that I was hearing cuts from a once-future Immortal album that never happened, because let there be no man who attempts to tell me those aren’t Immortal songs. They’re also incredible, brutally punishing, slicing cuts of sharpened black metal built on riffs that only Abbath devises. His sound is so distinctive at this point, that I often use him as a reference point in sussing out other bands sounds (“hmm… this sounds Abbath-y”), his very name becoming an adjective in metal writer circles and having the potential to turn into a verb (I’m working on that!). As for what era of Immortal these songs seem tied to, I’d say they’re picking up where All Shall Fall left off, but with flashes of Sons of Northern Darkness hook factor splashed across the board (they’re far catchier than anything off the last Immortal album in truth).

I hear this album as one divided by each song’s original destination, because just like those two mentioned above, there are a handful of other cuts that absolutely sound like they belonged on a future Immortal record, and others that find Abbath dabbling in looser riffing, more rock n’ roll influenced songwriting. As to the former, songs like “Ocean of Wounds” built upon classic Immortal hypnotic riff sequences, riffs that deviate higher or lower in tone but are relatively static while Abbath’s inimitable vocals dance over the top. Up tempo cuts like “Count the Dead” and “Fenrir Hunts” are amazing, the latter being a personal favorite, its viciousness and accelerating speed reminding me of At the Heart of Winter. But take a listen to “Roots of the Mountain”, and you’ll hear Abbath in a different light, one where he employs a slower, looser approach to his rhythm guitar playing, one that lacks his typical intensity and tightness. At a certain point during the song, things get a little black metal meets ZZ Top (speaking guitar wise). I’m not wild on the song but its alright in a change of pace type of way. Far more interesting is “Eternal”, which at times sounds like a punk rock / Immortal crossover with its raw, first-take sounding guitar riffs and uber-aggressive patterning —- this is definitely a song specifically crafted for the idea of an Abbath solo album. Ditto for “Riding on the Wind”,  a cover of an oft-forgotten Judas Priest cut where Abbath’s vocal choices recall Alexi Laiho during Children of Bodom’s covers of “Poison” or “Rebel Yell”. Kudos for not choosing something obvious to cover, and kudos in general for simply getting new music out, Abbath is a worldwide treasure in metal and he was being cooped up for too long.

The Takeaway: I’m kinda glad I waited on reviewing this because my initial reaction was simply one of sheer joy that we had new Abbath-related music to listen to. It had been six years, and many more before that —- I suspect now that my bias in that regard would’ve over-inflated any verdict I’d have issued. As it is now, this is a good, not great album, albeit with moments that are at times majestic and reminiscent of classic Immortal.

 

The Flowering Of Spring!: (Or I’m Back With Reviews of Myrath, Borknagar and Omnium Gatherum!)

April 16, 2016

Hey everyone, I’m back from a short, self-imposed exile. I briefly mentioned it on the most recent episode of the MSRcast, but I think the overwhelming amount of new albums last year which continued on into early 2016 was threatening to burn me out on writing reviews altogether. The recent Blind Guardian piece was a pleasure to immerse myself in, and I’m hoping to do more of that kind of non-review oriented stuff in the near future (several of them exist in near/half/almost finished states already). So I took a break for a few weeks to just listen to whatever I wanted to listen to, older stuff, non-metal stuff, and sure enough even some really excellent new metal albums that I simply couldn’t get enough of (a few of them I’ll discuss below) —- all without worrying about release dates and getting reviews done on time. So this is a collection of reviews for three major releases that normally would’ve been out a month and a half ago, all of them written now with a few weeks of listening time baked in. These are a little on the lengthy side due to how much more I focused on them above all other releases, but I have another batch of reviews on the way that will be on the shorter, punchier side (those covering new music by Oceans of Slumber, Amon Amarth, Rhapsody of Fire, Brainstorm, Ex Mortus, a 2015 missed Dawn of Destiny release, and maybe a few more). It feels good to be back writing, and I can’t wait to finish the non-reviews stuff I’m also working on. Thanks for the patience this past month!

 


 

 

myrathlegacy_zpspxugdo3vMyrath – Legacy: Tunisia’s greatest (and perhaps only) metal export Myrath return with their first new album in five years with Legacy, one of my most anticipated albums of the year. I was sold on this band with 2011’s Tales of the Sands, an album that was largely spectacular, the sound of a band that had found their distinctive style and the songwriting chops to match. Well, five years is an eternity in metal, and Myrath seem to have spent the time wisely because Legacy is a truly inspired breath of fresh air that is pushing the boundaries of what oriental metal can sound like. If you’re unfamiliar with the band, they play a blend of prog-metal with minor-scaled Arabic melodies and motifs built around the inclusion of instruments such as violins, violas, the lute, and the ney. In that sense they’re similar to Orphaned Land, except that their Israeli counterparts began as a death metal band and have gradually expanded their sound away from that as their vocalist Kobi Farhi has developed his clean singing voice. Myrath meanwhile have been all about clean delivery from the very start, even predating the arrival of their uniquely talented longtime and current singer Zaher Zorgati, whose innate abilities at channeling traditional Arabic vocals alongside his Russell Allen-esque pipes makes him one of the most unique vocalists in metal.

On Legacy (which by the way is what the name Myrath actually translates to) the band wisely doesn’t over complicate things, choosing to allow their songwriting to naturally progress as it has over the course of their last four albums. And with that means continuing their ever gradual simplification of their sound, allowing their well crafted melodies to take a greater role in place of prog-metal song structures, which have been slightly pushed to the background in spots. Prog-metal aficionados might balk at that, but its a smart move —- think about why people are so interested and listen to Myrath in the first place. Its not because they’re the second coming of Symphony X, but instead because their traditionally imbued sound is so intriguing and captivating in its own right. Like Orphaned Land, we came for the metal and stayed for the native sounds of Israel and Pan-Arabia, those alluring melodies that speak of cultures that most of us only understand on a surface level. I went on about this idea at length in my review for Orphaned Land’s All Is One, that it was my interest in that band’s music that led me to seeking out non-metal Middle Eastern folk music as well as any non-metal music that was unfamiliar to me. It’d be impossible for Myrath to have quite the same effect on me as Orphaned Land did —- that was a result of a combination of things, timing key among them, but what Myrath succeeds in doing with Legacy is reminding me of the rush I felt when realizing that I was interested in exploring other music, the world’s music as it were.

This is an album characterized by simplicity, a facet that’s demonstrated right away with the instrumental “Jasmin” that bleeds into the euphoric “Believer”, the album’s first single (presented in a glossy, Prince of Persia-esque music video to boot). As an opening salvo, its as bold a statement as they have ever made, leaping directly at you with a sharply sculpted Arabic string melody accompanying Zorgati’s chant-sung traditional vocal. He does that quite often throughout the album, and he’s quite talented at it, sending his voice to float atop whatever bed of music is going on underneath (and its characteristically Arabic sounding, as opposed to the more condensed, compressed Jewish/Yiddish chant-singing found in Orphaned Land’s music). What makes the song work however is its mid-tempo groove that’s phonetically reinforced by Zorgati’s prog-power tinged clean vocals during the verse sections, his phrasing as rhythmic as Morgan Berthet’s dynamic percussion underneath. That chorus though —- you could actually pencil it in as the hook for a Middle Eastern pop single and it’d fit perfectly, something I say only to reinforce just how skilled the band is at writing that sort of thing. Its also works as a warning for anyone who’s too timid or afraid of losing “cred” by listening to a band that’s so unabashed about their desire to play with hooks and ear candy. I’m quite the fan if you couldn’t tell, and “Believer” is one of the year’s finest metal singles thus far. Its their “All Is One”, one of those rare life-affirming songs that drags metal into a space of positive emotions.

Its not however the only wonderfully ear-candied moment on the album either, as my current favorite is the morosely titled “I Want to Die”, a slowly spiraling strings and acoustic guitars powered ballad that sees Zorgati delivering an incredibly emotional vocal throughout. Instruments dance around him, the strings zipping under and alongside during the verses, acoustic guitar filling in space with light, soft pluckings, traditionally structured percussion brushed across in an accenting role —- everything then suddenly surging together for the explosive chorus. A quick glance at the lyrics will clue you in on this being a song about heartbreak, and while the diction and poetics aren’t on the level of Roy Khan, they’re carefully written so as to maximize Zorgati’s ability to bend them to his will. He makes these lyrics better by virtue of his performance and his interpretation of what syllables to stress and bend in that distinctive manner that we can accurately peg as his trademark (in metal anyway). Another example of that is on the following song “Duat”, where he makes the most of lines such as “Relieve me / Leave me here I’m dying / Isis knows how to bring me back to life” —- first of all that’s a reference to Isis the deity (just in case you were wondering), and while I think these are perfectly fine lyrics, they might test another metal fan’s capacity for melodrama, and I’d think they’d have a point if the vocalist in question were say Russell Allen, but here Zorgati’s vocal-isms are convincing enough. Something also occurs to me while I’m listening to “Endure the Silence”, another track with a decadent chorus, that most of these songs are actually love songs, the narrator either expressing his devotion to the object of his affection or lamenting a loss thereof (with the exception of the song referencing Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen). Its up to us I suppose whether we want the object to be a woman, a country, or a community.

I suppose we’re touching on something there with that last bit. You all watch the news, and are certainly aware of what’s going on in regions such as Syria, Iraq, and even Libya and Yemen. This is a band from Tunisia that I’m told ostensibly lives in France these days, and if so that means they’re served with a multitude of perspectives on what’s going on in Europe at the moment with the refugee crisis of the past year and a half. I’m not going to assume that those things influenced the writing of their music, maybe they didn’t at all, but I detect an openness in their lyrics that suggest they might be speaking to a larger idea or theme. Sagely perhaps, Myrath keep things relatively vague, allowing their music to be flexible to audiences of all kinds, and that might be their greatest strength. When all of Europe is feeling the tension spurred by terrorism in Paris and Brussels, waves of refugees, and anti-Islamic sentiment, here’s a band from the birthplace of the Arab Spring making art with western music that is being embraced by fans from vastly different parts of the world. I’m not naive enough to believe that music can completely change things, it rarely ever does, but it can help to chip away at an individual’s own reticence about other cultures, and help to springboard their interest in learning about them. With regard to the Middle-East, there are so few cultural links that exist right now to help facilitate communication between differing peoples, yet among those few are a handful of metal artists. I find that incredible, and something that few other musical genres can claim. Bands such as Myrath and Orphaned Land have fans in Israel, Tunisia, Egypt, Europe, the UK, and even here in Texas, and that’s a small victory if nothing else.

 
 

Borknagar – Winter Thrice:

I’ve enjoyed Borknagar since sometime in 2001, when I was introduced to the band via their then newly released album Empiricism. I was led there by my initial interest in Vintersorg, who had just joined up with his Norwegian countrymen to provide lead vocals in place of I.C.S. Vortex who had just left to join Dimmu Borgir. Vortex did three years as Borknagar’s black metal screamer, and he took over the slot after the departure of one Kristoffer Rygg, aka known as Garm from Ulver, who decided that he wanted to focus only on his primary band. Funnily enough all three men find themselves joining together on a pair of cuts from Borknagar’s newest and most ambitious album to date. Now this album has been out for a few months now, and you’ve all likely heard it —- and what you’re hearing is the sound of Borknagar further streamlining their sound away from the largely avant-garde keyboard atmospherics of the Empiricism/Epic/Origins/Universal era and more in tune with the bleak, wind-swept melodicism found on their previous album Urd and its signature track “The Earthling”. There’s still keyboards present, providing a counter-melody to the lead vocal (or guitar) melodies, but its more informed by a stripped down, 70’s prog-rock approach rather than the swirling, bat-crazy orchestral hurricanes that so characterized much of late 90s second wave black metal (ala Emperor). Some of you might be smirking at the mention of stripped down and 70’s in relation to prog-rock keyboards, but its basically more King Crimson and less Rick Wakeman, you jokers.

Let’s get back to the mention of all those ridiculously talented vocalists on one track, because “Winter Thrice” is not only the title track but the album’s first single and excellent music video. The latter provides us with a visual breakdown of who’s singing what, just in case you’re new to the band and can’t discern their voices quite yet: First we get Lazare (aka Lars Nedland) who really should get co-billing alongside his band mates as one of the amazing voices here; the next verse is sung by Vortex in that wonderfully strange, warped clean voice of his; and after a nice electro-clean chord sequence we’re treated to a rare black metal sighting of Garm, here delivering the song’s most affecting lyric passage (“I have wandered the skies…”) in a sweetly smooth croon that reminds me of a mix of Mike Patton and Mikael Akerfeldt. Its just a thrilling sequence overall, exciting in as much for its star studded succession of vocalists as it is for being one of the band’s most direct and disarmingly accessible passages to date. It all builds up to explode with Vintersorg’s ever blistering black metal anti-chorus (it can be argued that Garm was actually singing the hook, and that Vintersorg is delivering its outro bridge —- but whatever, this is black metal by one of the genre’s more unconventional craftsmen… we shouldn’t be looking for conventional songwriting). After Vintersorg’s traumatic accident over a year ago, its nice to hear him sound like himself here (although its reported by some that he recorded this before the accident —- that being said he has had time to heal and recently had surgery that seems successful enough for him to be currently working on a sequel to Till fjälls(!)). Suffice to say he’s still one of the most convincing and identifiable harsh vocalists in extreme metal, with something inimitable in the way he screams.

Vintersorg has his share of clean vocals too, because you don’t neglect a resource like that, and so he pops up in a fascinating and harmonious duet with Lazare and possibly Vortex (it gets difficult to discern between the latter two at times) on “The Rhyme of the Mountain”. Remember a paragraph ago when I mentioned the band was weaning itself away from avant-garde chaos and leaning more towards classic prog-rock stylings and songwriting? Cue mark 3:20 during this song and you’ll get a vivid example of what I mean —- an abrupt mid-song bridge sequence of harmonized vocals cooing a sparse, gorgeous melody. Its not even meant to serve as a counterpoint to the harsh vocals, because clean vocal verses build up to it as well as follow it. This is actually a defining trademark of the songs on this album, and perhaps more than any other recording of theirs in the past, Borknagar here work with almost equal parts clean to harsh vocals, something that’s not altogether shocking, but still a bold move. I love it personally, and it makes songs such as “Cold Runs the River” embed in my mind with strong, swinging hooks and inspired open chord guitar sequences that are unexpected but pleasant surprises. In the Lazare fronted “Panorama”, we’re treated to a jarringly poppy chorus in fairly short order, but whose recurrence is abruptly interrupted by a keyboard driven instrumental passage that recalls Hammond organ sounds of the 70s (in fact, that organ sound dominates much of the song, at times taking over the key melody entirely… I get reminded of Uriah Heep). We’re treated to another clean vocal mid-song bridge sequence in “When Chaos Calls” at the 3:42 mark, this one clearly sculpted by Vintersorg, recalling vivid moments from his vocal work on his own solo albums (particularly Visions From the Cosmic Generator in this case), and seriously, is there anyone better at crafting moments like these?

Founding guitarist Oystein Brun, still the primary songwriter on the credits seems fairly happy these days to allow the external influences of his band mates transform Borknagar’s sound into something that is simultaneously far removed from the The Olden Domain era, yet subtly familiar and knowing. At times, there are strong hints of the past that crop up violently such as on “Terminus”, where the sudden and sharp mood shifts lurch the band into full on black metal, blastbeat laden fury that recalls the violence of Empiricism (albeit without the ultra-crisp drum recording of that album). This might actually be my current favorite right now, because I can’t get enough of its last three minutes, from Garm’s resurfacing with a highly emotive and then hushed vocal, to Jens Ryland and Brun’s tremendous restraint on their guitar work to allow simple ambient space to fill the backdrop, to Vintersorg’s best clean vocal moment on the album, re-singing Garm’s final passage (“Raised to seek, grown to see / The flames of creation and prosperity…”). I suspect that with the impact of their video for “The Earthling”, hitting over 377k views on YouTube, and subsequently the video for “Winter Thrice” hitting over 300k in just a fragment of the time in comparison, word is getting out to formerly in the dark metal fans that Borknagar is one of those critically acclaimed bands they should have knowledge of. I really do think a sea-change occurred with Urd, an album that delivered a vein of accessibility that allowed both critics and potential fans to take a longer listen as opposed to simply being turned off by the utter weirdness of their past work (hey, as much as some of us love it, older Borknagar was a tough sell to many). As in the case of Enslaved, it could simply be a case of a band’s potential audience finally maturing and Borknagar issuing their most accessible work at the right time. Good for the band, good for those newcomers, and with songs as excellent as these, good for us who’ve been here all along.

 
 

Omnium Gatherum – Grey Heavens:

A leading light in Finland’s melo-death revival is back with a new album, and just like their neighbors in Borknagar, they’ve stumbled upon the discovery that their sound could actually benefit by allowing their music to breathe more. I’ve enjoyed Omnium Gatherum’s past works to varying degrees, with the accomplished New World Shadows being a favorite in terms of albums, and pegging “The Unknowing” from 2013’s Beyond as their absolute best song (I enjoyed the album as well, but that song was outrageously awesome with that ascending/descending scale pattern). The slight stumbling block I’d have with the band was their tendency to sound rather obsidian for large stretches of time through a song or even album. Vocalist Jukka Pelkonen’s rigid, ultra-coarse melo-death growls played a big factor in that, his voice often lacking any hints of warmth or push and pull. Now this actually works for the band overall simply because he’s an unfailingly strong presence that can compete with the technicality that guitarists Joonas Koto and Markus Vanhala imbue their dense riff sequences with, thus preventing either guitars or vocals from dominating the sound alone. But that being said, for as much as I enjoyed their music, I found myself far more drawn to the comparatively paint-brushed, loosely woven melo-death of countrymen Insomnium.

But with Grey Heavens it seems like the band has naturally progressed away from songwriting that coats a piece of music in both heavy drenchings of both vocals and music, there’s actually a bit of give and take between those two strong elements that was only glimpsed previously in fleeting moments. I mentioned one of those above, “The Unknowing”, where Pelkonen’s vocals were timed to dive in gaps instead off slamming against the rest of the band. I think these are tricky things to learn for a lot of melo-death bands, and even tougher to discern as fans and explain in writing… but if we think of melo-death as primarily a dual lead guitar melody constructed artform, then those melodies deserve equal or almost equal spotlight time as the vocals, and the power of both can either overwhelm or diminish when they’re simultaneously hitting a listener at once. Think about classic In Flames albums, those songs on Whoracle or Colony or even The Jester Race —- there was a dance going on, guitars-vocals-guitar-vocals-guitars and on and on. Omnium Gatherum don’t exactly do a recreation of that formula here, but they’ve learned to give their individual sonic elements a bit more space. Take the title track “Frontiers”, where Aapo Koivisto’s keyboards actually work solo as the refrain, a wordless chorus that is not only a clever sonic earworm, but the light to the darkness of those brutal verse sections where Pelkonen matches his raw power to that of Koto’s and Vanhala’s.

Much of the album in fact is characterized by this smarter, more aware mode of songwriting, and it bears fruit with mounds of hooks and earworms. Even on the lengthiest track, the nearly eight minute “Majesty and Silence”, the band treat us to fresh, inspired ambient passages built on drizzles of acoustic guitar and cloudy sky inspired keyboards to serve as a balance to the more weighty, aggressive sections. On “The Great Liberation”, Pelkonen sings over chugging rhythm guitar while a lone lead melodic figure darts in and out quickly, both guitars then joining together in an entirely separate section to deliver their more frenetic, hyper-speed riff sequences in dazzling fashion. My MSRcast cohost Cary was mentioning during our recording session how he felt this was the catchiest Omnium Gatherum release to date, and I agree, but I think what that observation reveals is that the band has gotten better at displaying its hook-writing capability, and Koivisto has stepped up his game in order to further cement his keyboards as an integral part of melodic through lines within the songs, rather than just as coloring for the background. I think they’ve come to realize that writing better paced songs and separating segments of their songs with potentially opposing musical elements makes for a far more listenable song. Cary posited the idea that perhaps Vanhala’s recent stint as Insomnium’s second guitarist is playing a role, and that a good deal of their songwriting essence has rubbed off on him. Its an interesting theory, one that’s plausible for sure —- whatever the case may be, its resulted in the best album of their career.

Forgotten Bard Songs: Ten Overlooked Blind Guardian Gems

March 7, 2016

 

 

 

Some of you might recall that I attended the Houston stop of Blind Guardian’s 2015 North American trek on Wednesday, November 25th. It was an unforgettable night —- out on Thanksgiving Eve with friends who were equally passionate about Blind Guardian, amidst a giddy crowd tipsy with the revelry of not having to work the next day (they don’t call it Blackout Wednesday for nothing), and the bards playing with more vigor and energy than in any of the other two times I’ve seen them live (2006 and 2010 for those keeping count). The band was nearing the end of their North American tour, to come to a close two shows and three days later in Orlando, which made their performance all the more gratifying: That one of our most treasured metal bands was committed to delivering excellence even when they were likely nearing exhaustion from being on the road for over a month straight. When they told us we were being recorded for inclusion in a future live album, we sang even louder, blowing out our voices by attempting to hit every note ourselves and keeping up the pace during Hansi’s ridiculously long crowd only outros for “Valhalla” and “The Last Candle”. It was a devastating set list full of classics, and the kind of joyous, celebratory mood that only a truly transcendent band can inspire.

It was one of the most satisfying highlights of my concert going history, one that’s been hard to shake. In the next few weeks and now months, I’ve begun to revisit the entirety of the band’s catalog from start to finish. In the process, I’ve gone over the setlist we got in Houston, and thought about what inclusions I’d love to hear in my idealized Blind Guardian show. I’ve realized that most of the songs I’ve picked out were ones that didn’t get talked about much by the Blind Guardian fanbase as a whole. I don’t think its due to anyone disliking them either —- I suspect its just that they tend to get overshadowed by the widely hailed classics on their respective albums whenever the subject of your favorite Blind Guardian songs comes up in various Facebook comment threads or message board discussions. I did a bit of checking on Setlist.Fm and realized that with an exception or two, most of the songs I’ve picked out are ones that hardly get played live at all. Their lacking presence on the band’s set lists tour after tour has perhaps largely contributed to their status as deep-cuts, a grouping of songs every band has, and whose fans’ only hope at hearing them live is for An Evening with… styled tour (hello Iron Maiden and most of Somewhere In Time). So here’s my alphabetically ordered list of what I consider the ten best of Blind Guardian’s overlooked songs, those gems still hidden beneath Smaug’s long, foreboding shadow.

 


 

“Another Holy War” (from Imaginations From the Other Side)

 

 

Were we to have a hypothetical, NCAA March Madness-styled contest for the most “metal” metal song of all time, I’d select “Another Holy War” as my candidate. It’d soar through early rounds with ease, get through the sweet sixteen and elite eight on some nail biters, have a truly epic OT victory in the final four, and would be in a jump ball, anyone’s game showdown with Maiden’s “The Evil That Men Do” for the championship (on this issue there is a no debate! /#Papi#Seinfeld). So how can such a devastatingly awesome, powerful, and adrenalizing metal classic be considered underrated? I’ll refer you to Blind Guardian’s Setlist.fm statistics, where they have played this gem a mere sixteen documented times! Sixteen! Once in 95 shortly after Imaginations was released, then most famously as part of their 2003 Blind Guardian Festival setlist (as captured on the ‘Looking Glass live DVD), and finally only at a smattering of festivals afterwards (most recently at a show in Stockholm in 2010). And I get it —- this is a damn tough song to pull off live, not only because you need at least two solid back-up singers to fill in the backing vocal parts during the chorus, but also because in its original studio incarnation Hansi actually sings over himself quite often.

His lead vocals on the pre-chorus lyric “I am your light on through the night” gets overlapped by the first words of the chorus (“Why am I born”), as well as his epic vocal extensions at the end of verse lyrics such as “I will die before my vision ends”, where in his own inimitable way he gets as much passion out of that final word as possible (see the 1:51 mark for reference). In fact, you’re hard pressed to find moments where vocal sections don’t overlap one another by at least a second or two, and they all contribute towards building this palpable sense of violent urgency throughout the song, that Hansi is racing ahead of his band members and its out of his control. Its all by design of course, a result of the band’s pure devotion to their studio craft… that nothing, not even the complications of a playing a song live could alter their course in sculpting a piece of music to achieve exactly what they envision. And what they envision out of “Another Holy War” is a concentrated barrage of rage with Hansi as its physical manifestation. His performance is masterful, unlike anything we’ve ever heard in metal and the only piece of evidence you need to put prejudiced extreme metal fans who pooh-pooh power metal in their place. His half sung, half screamed vocal extensions of certain lyrics here are what his status as a living legend are built upon (refer to 3:22-3:27, and 3:42-:3:46 for further evidence), and that oh so sweet outro guitar melody beginning at the 4:02 mark matched with Thomen Stauch’s classic battlefield snare percussion is the 24k gold band this diamond is set in.

 

 

“A Past and Future Secret” (from Imaginations From the Other Side)

 

Before you spit out your coffee and thunderously ask aloud how I can consider “A Past and Future Secret” as forgotten, I’ll ask you to consider that I’m coming at this from an American Blind Guardian fan’s perspective. Since the band has been touring on our shores since 2002, they’ve aired the song Stateside only once back on November 15th, 2002 at the ProgPower III festival in Atlanta, Georgia (incidentally, their first American show ever). Meanwhile, every single show here has featured the much loved “The Bard’s Song” —- and rightly so, its a classic and no one’s complaining about it. And I get it, most metal shows only have room for one ballad unless you’re Nightwish or Sonata Arctica and even then two is pushing it (it being the patience of a general standing room audience, I for one welcome all belligerent displays of balladry). We love “The Bard’s Song” for its simplicity, for the easiness of it’s vocal melody and how it can be strummed on an acoustic guitar in someone’s garage, or by a campsite at the RenFest —- its by nature a portable song, you don’t even need the guitar. But I’m going to step out on a ledge here and suggest that between the two ballads, “A Past and Future Secret” is actually the better song, both in composition and execution, and a better representative of how malleable, rich, and multifaceted the band’s sound is.

Its secret weapon is Hansi’s lyrical perspective, actually setting the scene by endearing to an audience around him, “Listen crowd I’ll tell you everything!” —- though who “I” is the subject of some debate. Some feel the narrator is Sir Bedivere, or an alternation between Merlin and Arthur, while others simply assign the narrator as a bard, shifting in various perspectives as he unfolds this tale of Arthurian drama. Regardless of how you see it, it paints a picture, and gives you a sense of being in a physical place as a listener that defines your experience when listening to it. Andre’s opening acoustic guitar figure is lilting, romantic, and instantly memorable, becoming the motif from which every other guitar and keyboard pattern swirls off of. But its in the layering and juxtaposition of the vocals where the song truly becomes an epic, in those gently mixed down full throated Hansi screams that seem to echo off in the distance. He peppers them in throughout the song, culminating in its climatic apex at the 2:34 mark when he passionately declares “I will wait and guard / The future king’s throne!”, his extension on the final word sending shivers down our spines. Even more than that, I love the call and response section towards the three minute mark, when he passionately sings “It was nice but now it’s gone” like some tortured madman a great distance away bellowing to the open air, his voice sounding like its crossed hills and rivers to get to us.

Also worth noting are Thomen’s martial percussion patterns, soft drumming on snares, a deeply ringing suspended cymbal, and booming array of timpani. Thomen doesn’t seem to get enough credit for his imaginative approach to percussion in general, but go back and really pay attention to what he’s doing on those albums and you’ll realize that he drives a lot of their classic moments in the same way that Andre did with his guitar fluidity. What you get on “A Past and Future Secret” that you don’t quite get on “The Bard’s Song” is Blind Guardian on full display, using every trick up their sleeve including Hansi’s crazy powerful Imaginations-era vocal ability (no one ever sounded so melodic yet so brutal at the same time) to create not an opulent, thundering metal epic, but a delicate, brushstroke ballad that makes you emotional about a lyric that comes from myth and fantasy. With “The Bard’s Song”, its simple and direct lyrics could be transferable to our actual lives, but in “A Past and Future Secret”, we suspend our disbelief and step willingly into another world to hear fictional characters’ memories.

 

 

“Ashes to Ashes” (from Somewhere Far Beyond)

 

 

There’s a moment directly in the middle of this song when it deviates from its tense, palm-muted riff fueled verse and chorus and daringly goes into something of an extended bridge, it starts and ends from 2:56 to 3:17 —- but the precise moment that really does it for me is at the introduction of the lyric, “…Obey my call to the cemetery / And don’t be afraid / To step into the dark…”. Its a transcendent moment. Take a second to rewind back to 2:56 to listen to it again, listen to that build up, Hansi’s choice of extended phrasing around the word “cemetery”, the way Andre’s lead guitars gush forth underneath it all during the next two lines beginning at the 3:07 mark, almost mirroring the vocal melody itself in order to better support Hansi’s emotionally charged performance. There’s something about that small little part, that little deviation in the trajectory of the song that has always captivated me and that I have long associated as a characteristic of truly great bands —- to have the confidence to implement such a remarkable musical moment only once in a song as opposed to hitting it again and again. I’m not suggesting that the rest of the song is weak in comparison, its not, but that part has been the reason “Ashes to Ashes” has stuck in my mind all these years.

I have to note here that “Ashes to Ashes” was written about the death of Hansi’s father, marking one of the few times he turned inward as a lyricist albeit still writing with an eye towards the fantastical. This might be a stretch but hear me out: I’ve always felt that the reason that moment sounded so emotional to me was because of how much it truly contrasted with the stony stoicism of the rest of the song. This contrast not only exists in the music but in the lyrics as well, notice how the bulk of the song’s lyrics seem to be about Hansi’s rationalization of death: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust / The life clock strikes and you obey / Like a candle light that fades… Time isn’t here to stay”. Its hard not to notice how even the vocal approach to those lines is purposefully detached, like its being chanted from afar (the combined choir vocal approach helps). Yet in sharp contrast there’s far more raw emotion in Hansi’s lead vocal during the build up to that extended bridge, as his lyrical perspective turns inward while expressing regret, “Morning is whispering in my head / Too late to say goodbye / Too late”, and of course how ten seconds later we reach our cataclysmic bridge where everything from the music, lyrics, and vocal approach combined just seems to reach an emotional apex.

Diving further into those lyrics its hard not to view the entire bridge as a dialogue between Hansi and his father, perhaps not directly but metaphysically, and in its own way being the place in the song where that aforementioned rational stoicism melts away and you hear the emotional grief of a son trying to make peace with the loss of a father. Its followed directly by yet another injection of that stony, detached chorus, like he’s trying to pull himself together after such an emotional outburst. Look I realize I’m getting into a hyper-textual interpretation here, and I doubt that Hansi had all these things in mind when he was writing this song, but that’s kinda the point —- subconsciously this is how he ended up writing this song, and how it affected me. Before I knew that this song was about Hansi’s father, I always regarded its narrator as being really confused about how to feel concerning the concept of death, and as a result often thought of “Ashes to Ashes” as confusing in itself. But after I learned of its origins, I still regarded its narrator in the same way, only this time the song made perfect sense.

 

“Lionheart” (from A Twist In The Myth)

 

 

One of the things I’ve been doing in my revisiting Blind Guardian’s catalog is give a lot of extra attention to A Night at the Opera and A Twist in the Myth, both albums that I had been neglecting in the past few years. The former had the benefit of coming to me anew, with its remixed version appearing on the band’s recent boxset, but unfortunately the Nuclear Blast released Myth didn’t get the same treatment, barring “This Will Never End” in its remixed state on the Memories of a Time to Come best of/remix collection. Why that was the case is puzzling… if you’re going to remix one song, why not do all of them for an album that needed it just as much as its predecessor (if not more so)? I get that the Traveler’s Guide To Space and Time boxed set was a Virgin Germany release and that Myth obviously couldn’t be included on that, but if you’re going through the trouble of updating your entire catalog, how about nudging the guys at Nuclear Blast into re-releasing that album with a new mix as a selling point? Part of me wonders if Nuclear Blast had to pony up for licensing fees for all those Virgin era Blind Guardian classics for re-release on the Memories compilation and they felt they had spent enough already (because while three songs were re-recorded, everything else on the set was simply remixed). Possible interview question for Hansi perhaps?

Anyway, A Twist In the Myth is understandably tagged as the worst of latter day Blind Guardian (oh hell, lets just say post 1990 Blind Guardian), with some songs that never took off (“Carry the Blessed Home”, “Straight Through the Mirror”), a radical change in style and sound (“Another Stranger Me”, “Fly”), and just an overall feeling that the whole affair was a bit underwhelming. I remember debating my theory at the time of its release with another Blind Guardian fan, that Myth was a deliberately different production approach in direct reaction to how A Night At the Opera was perceived as overproduced. He argued that no one could reasonably say that Myth was under produced, but I think we settled on both agreeing that it was badly produced. It seems weird to say that about a Charlie Bauerfeind album, but in retrospect it seemed that both Bauerfeind and the band had to take those first two albums together as a sort of calibration period that finally resulted in them getting on the same page for 2010’s At the Edge of Time. Even now when I go back through it front to finish, I hear those production side blemishes: Hansi’s vocals seem at times over-processed; the choral vocals aren’t pushed up in the mix enough; the guitars sometimes fall back into the mix to be buried under the keyboard arrangements; and speaking of which, the keyboard built arrangements can be all over the place, with a preponderance of odd sound effects instead of pure orchestral accompaniment.

On “Lionheart”, all those tendencies popped up in possibly the worst configuration —- yet for all its flaws, it rises on the strength of being one of the band’s best ever songs, with a chorus that could level a shopping mall. Built upon a truly inspired series of overlapping vocal melodies where the verses are just as compelling as the refrain, no time is wasted in a long instrumental build up as twenty-seven seconds in we hear Hansi usher us in with an ambiguous lyric, “Speak to me / It all would be easier / I want to talk to you”. What you don’t really hear with clarity due to its muddled mix is the repeating chant of the underneath backing vocals singing “Just let me out of here”, a sonic tidbit that requires some good headphones to detect. Let me pause here and again just marvel at how easily this band seems to conjure up vocal melodies that sound epic on the surface, and resonate with us beyond a surface level, and that’s just the intro! Frederik Ehmke delivers a monstrous percussion performance here, just pummeling us with double kick and furious, battle-inspired drum patterns that violently shake all throughout. And Andre’s inventiveness pops up in wonderful ways, such as his alliterative riff sequence (see :45-:53) during the pre-chorus bridge. As for the chorus itself, try listening to this song while reading along with the lyrics and see how many lines you’ve been missing simply because they’ve been submerged by a faulty vocal mix. You don’t get to hear huge chunks of whats actually being sung, not with clarity anyway. Its a shame because I dare anyone to deny this song’s greatness —- but its begging for a remix, for it to never get one would be a disservice to all Blind Guardian fans.

 

 

“Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)” (from Nightfall In Middle-Earth)

 

 

Its understandable that the first songs you’d think of when considering Nightfall in Middle-Earth would be “Mirror Mirror”, “Nightfall”, “Time Stands Still (At the Iron Hill)”, or even “Into the Storm” —- because duh! (insert pic of Batman slapping Robin here). It would however be a crime if you began to neglect listening to the rest of the album in some sort of misguided yet gallant attempt to create a best of Blind Guardian playlist on your iPod. The truth is I could’ve picked from a number of forgotten deep cuts off Nightfall, and in fact almost chose “The Eldar”, that doomy gloomy piano ballad that was imagined as Finrod Felagund’s dying lament of regret and farewell (its power is slightly diminished when you consider that things worked out for him in the afterlife with that whole getting to return to Valinor to live for eternity with his long sundered love Amarië kinda thing). But if we’re taking the concept of the album and its source material at heart, then no other song should stand out more for its sheer heartbreaking passion and sentiment than “Noldor (Dead Winter Reigns)”, as it so perfectly captures that agonizing path that led the Noldor towards war and destruction.

First there’s its opening guitar figure, composed of romantic yet somber notes that serve as the bedrock for the see-saw melody that is draped over the song’s refrain. The Savatage-esque theatrical drop in of every other instrument briefly suggests that we’re in for something uptempo, but then those choir vocals kick in and we abruptly shift to something more mid-tempo, the unfolding of a moody, bi-polar song that at times quietly seethes and then furiously lashes out in a sonic tantrum. So erratic is the structure of the music here that at times it seems like you’re listening to entirely different songs, such as the shift from those aforementioned choir vocals to Hansi’s solo verse vocal, “We were lost / On grinding ice / In fear and hunger…”, all the way back again to the pummeling speed metal uproar during “(You) can’t escape / From my damnation / (Nor) run away / From isolation”. That pre-chorus transitions to a bridge that contains one of Hansi’s most glorious vocal moments ever, namely, his primal high note extension on the last word of the lyric “Hear my words / Fear my curse” hitting you like a shockwave completely out of nowhere. When you try to explain why Blind Guardian may just be the best metal band of all time to some plebeian, its difficult to articulate just how utterly majestic a specific moment like this one is —- words can’t come to mind that sufficiently describe it (and around that time the person you’re talking to nods and changes the subject).

The awesome final note of that bridge by the way transitions into one of the band’s most beautiful and underrated choruses. It seems silly to ask this, but are we collectively underrating Hansi as a lyricist? Because I’ve rarely heard, read, pondered over a stanza of lyrics as perfect as “I know where the stars glow / The sky’s unclouded / Sweet the water runs my friend”, a brushstroke of imagery that affects you for its cosmic spirituality, but then deepens in significance if you’ve read The Silmarillion (or seen the iconic cover art that graces its most common edition). The vocal melody that those words are sung to, with the help of lush layered lead vocals and group choral vocals all works in tandem to glorious effect —- its a chorus that tugs at me spiritually. The lyrics that immediately follow pay homage to J.R.R. Tolkien’s authorship directly, “(But) Noldor / Blood is on your hands / Tears unnumbered / You will shet and dwell in pain”, with its knowing reference to the prophecy of doom spoken by Mandos upon the Noldor after their kinslaying at Alqualonde: “Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains.” Yes I posted the whole quote (that’s not even all of it), because its an awesome moment in the book, and you should read it (dammit!).

Its worth delving into the lyrical perspectives here, because “Noldor” is essentially a metaphysical dialogue between Mandos (one of the Valar, he being the Lord of Doom aka afterlife) and Fingolfin. Oh if there’s ever a sympathetic figure in The Silmarillion, its Fingolfin. The backstory is a little too involved to get into here, but essentially Fingolfin and his people are in a rough spot, having participated in the kinslaying of the Teleri (elf-on-elf violence) due to their sworn allegiance to the increasingly rage-maddened Feanor in their act to leave the paradise of Aman and depart to Middle-Earth to go after Morgoth (who has just stolen the Silmarils, oh and killed Finwe, the father of Fingolfin and Feanor). Feanor and his people departed on the stolen Teleri ships first, but instead of sending them back for Fingolfin’s people, he burns them after reaching the far shore. Fingolfin sees the fires in the distance and realizes that he and his host will have to go the long way around to Middle-Earth, on foot, through the icy wasteland of the Helcaraxe (the “grinding ice” we hear about in the song). Why would Feanor do such a thing? Because despite Fingolfin’s sworn allegiance, he still distrusts his younger brother —- Fingolfin is born from another mother; he at one time in the past stood against Feanor’s selfishness in withholding the light of the Silmarils from the Valar, and that up to no good Morgoth worm-tongued words of distrust to Feanor regarding Fingolfin’s supposed intentions to be the heir of Noldor (all lies of course). Also Feanor is by this point out of his mind, so blinded by grief and his rage at the loss of the Silmarils that he’s not quite thinking clearly.

I think its interesting that Hansi chose to contrast Fingolfin with Mandos’ prophecy of doom rather then Feanor, who gets his own perspective song in “The Curse of Feanor”. It goes to show just how well Hansi understood the source material that he could achieve an even greater emotional impact by honing in on the remorse felt by Fingolfin at this juncture —- losing many of his people along the brutal march through the Helcaraxe, feeling enormous guilt for the Kinslaying, yet still feeling bound to his oath: “See my eyes / Are full of tears / And a cruel price / We’ve paid / But still I can’t claim / That I’m innocent”. His perspectives are kept to the verses, while Mandos’ takes over the rest of the song. Its hard to tell if that gorgeous chorus is a split between him and Fingolfin, or if its just all Mandos —- I’m inclined to think the latter, because of course the place with sweet waters, unclouded skies, and glowing stars that he’s referring to is Arda, home of the Valar and the place from which the Noldor who left are banished from. When I hear the Mandos perspective lyric “And the lost / Who will not reach the / House of spirits / (Will) grow old and weary”, I think of Galadriel much later on in the third age, lone surivor of the Noldor who left Arda, with her bleak outlook on any possibility of returning to Arda, with the guilt for all she’s seen for thousands of years weighing down upon her. From one fan of The Silmarillion to another, Hansi is communicating some of the unwritten emotion present in Tolkien’s true masterpiece. Thanks Hansi!

 

 

“Precious Jerusalem” (from A Night At the Opera)

 

 

So much attention has been paid to the fourteen minute long epic that is “And Then There Was Silence” before and after the release of A Night At the Opera that it sometimes seems as if the rest of the album has been sitting in its shadow. Certainly no other track from the album was played live on the band’s recent American tour, and it ranks as the most played song from this album since its release in 2002 (again according to Setlist.fm stats). Now let me preface this by saying, I do adore that song —- for weeks and months from its CD single release in November 2001 til the album release in March 2002, it was the only new Blind Guardian I had to listen to (well, that and its b-side “Harvest of Sorrow”). And boy did my Blind Guardian loving friends and I listen to it, over and over and over again, up until when the album was finally released and we were so burned out on it that we skipped over it during spins. I gave it a long miss for many years, honestly only hearing it when the band played it live in 2006 and 2010, and when they re-recorded it for the Memories of a Time to Come collection. Hearing it in a fresh recording gave me new appreciation for it, witnessing it performed live again bolstered that enthusiasm, and lately I’ve found myself humming various sections of it at random.

A year after the re-recording of “And Then There Was Silence” came another surprise: a completely remixed version of A Night At the Opera on the band’s A Traveler’s Guide to Space and Time boxed set. The band had murmured about the possibility of remixing it in interviews for years, and for awhile I chalked it up to wishful thinking (on their part and mine). Alongside many others I had always felt that the original release was a tad overcooked; perhaps too much compression of certain layers in the recording, too many vocal tracks, whatever it was —- the album could be a chore to listen to, an aural equivalent to an Australian’s nightmare, as Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith would put it. The remix breathed new life into its songs, adding space between instrumentation, bringing up interesting musical elements that had been trapped behind walls of noise, loosening up the layering of choral vocals so they could pop more. On the whole, I thought it was a triumph… oh, except for the deleting of one of the most epic moments from the best song on the album. Yes I’m referring to “Precious Jerusalem”, finally we’re here! Before I heap praise upon it, I have to take issue with the band and ask: Why was the decision made in the remixed album to delete the line “Let’s celebrate the dawning of the sun” at the 1:23 mark? Its such an integral musical segue from the intro verse to that first glorious rendition of the chorus that its absence in the remixed version seems unnaturally empty and incomplete. For the purposes of this article and you the reader, I’ve linked the original version above (and while I love and recommend the remixed album over the original, I’d urge everyone to replace the remixed “Precious Jerusalem” with the original for their tracklisting).

The band has elected to avoid touching “Precious Jerusalem” live, likely due to the necessity of the song needing a strong backing choir to even get close to pulling it off. The patterns of the vocal melodies are reminiscent of “Another Holy War” in a fittingly similar way (both songs lyrically seem to touch on the same topic) in that bridges and choruses begin while the previous verse, bridge, or chorus is finishing up on its last line. It works towards the same effect here, to build up tension and deliver epic payoffs, and it succeeds on both counts. I’ve always loved the lyric on the dramatic bridge, “I’ve gone beyond but there’s no life / And there is nothing how it seems / I’ve gone beyond but there’s no life / There is no healing rain in Eden”, its imagery suggestive of both physical and spiritual journeys. But its the chorus that houses the song’s emotional core, “I turn to you oh my precious Jerusalem / Deny your prophets their passion and treat them like fools / I turn to you oh my poor old Jerusalem / Deny my love but you can’t change fate”, with Hansi and his longtime choir emoting and inflecting just enough on that third repeating line to give it an extra dose of ache —- it sounds like these guys are pained singing this song, in a good way. Oh one other vocal related thing, how brilliant is Hansi at understanding alliteration and the value of repetition when he sings “I’ve found myself in desert lands in desert lands / But you’ve been on my mind”? Repeating “in desert lands” twice not only works syllabic-ally but reinforces the unending and repetitive nature of what we think of as Middle-East desert landscapes. It has a passionate yet tortured quality to its overstatement, so when he follows by singing “…you’ve been on my mind”, it makes you wonder —- for how long?

 

 

“Theatre of Pain” (from Somewhere Far Beyond)

 

 

Easily the most cinematic song off Somewhere Far Beyond (and the band’s career at that point), “Theatre of Pain” was also one of the album’s mid-tempo numbers alongside “The Quest For Tanelorn”, the aforementioned “Ashes to Ashes”, and the epic title track. In tandem they redefined the band’s sound, building the path that lead them away from mostly speed/thrash metal and paving the way for the birth of their classic sound on Imaginations From the Other Side. What sets “Theatre of Pain” apart from those however is its panoramic use of keyboard orchestration to create a Hollywood-esque backdrop for Andre, Marcus and Thomen to play off of. So prominent was the orchestral arrangement for this song, that the band delivered a “classic version” on their 1996 rarities collection Forgotten Tales that pushed up both Andre’s lead guitars and the keyboards to the forefront. There was a time when I preferred the classic version, but over time I’ve come back around to the more raw, desperate push and pull of the original. Hard to believe that a song that the band saw fit to release in two incarnations can be overlooked by the fanbase at large but I hardly ever seen anyone mention it as a favorite. I guess its the price it pays for being on an album with “The Bard’s Song” and “Time What Is Time” (although I guess its not that surprising considering that once again, the band rarely plays it live).

I had a hard time coming up with an adjective for this song besides cinematic, but perhaps its a little swashbuckling? Not in the dumb Alestorm kind of way, but in the sense that its streaked with a touch of adventurous spirit in its see-saw swagger and overtly fantastical lyrics. Speaking of the lyrics, they’re apparently inspired by a 1979 sci-fi novel called The Merman’s Children by Poul Anderson, a book that I’ve never read but seems interesting its in premise. Needless to say, its hard to grow attached to lyrics that are so specific to unknown subject matter as they are here, but there are some standout moments, the most vivid to me being the chorus itself: “Don’t fear your last step / From the theatre of pain / And the children will love your singing”. To be honest, I have no idea what those lines mean, their specificity is the only aspect I can critique —- but their reassuring intention and tone seem obvious enough. And despite you asking yourself while listening to it one day, “Just what is a theater of pain anyway?” as I did, its Hansi’s delivery and the well timed joining in of the chorus vocals that have always made this a feel-good Blind Guardian song.

 

 

“The Curse of Feanor” (from Nightfall In Middle-Earth)

 

 

Lost amidst a dense tracklisting between”Into the Storm”, “Nightfall”, and “Mirror Mirror” is this severely overlooked / under-discussed gem. Funnily and cruelly enough, the band unleashed their debut airing of this song just one show after their Houston date in Atlanta. It was hard to be bitter about it at the time while still riding high on the excitement of the show, and of course any cursory understanding of the tragedy of Feanor in The Silmarillion should be a warning for holding grudges and being selfish —- that being said, I still can’t help feeling a little robbed of hearing this glorious anthem live. But hey, I’m happy for my Atlanta brethren, it was about time the band played this in concert and its nice to see that an American audience got a live debut of a song for once (no I’m not gritting my teeth!). This is one of the most aggressive songs off Nightfall, just punishing you with heavy, barreling riffs and percussion after Andre’s joyously opulent lead guitar intro. At first listen someone might expect this to unfold in a fairly standard manner, with a cliche power metal chorus to follow, but Blind Guardian are nothing if not tricksters. We hit the bridge, and our racetrack tempo slows down, Hansi’s vocals briefly turn to a gentle hush, all before aggressively building towards the chorus where another tempo shift occurs, this time to a mid-tempo, almost stately march. Its in that chorus where Hansi once again displays his masterful command of the song’s source material in crafting a perspective based chorus that brings you right into the heart of Feanor’s despair and fury. The lyrics in the chorus are flawless, “Don’t fear the eyes of the dark lord / Morgoth I cried / All hope is gone but I swear revenge / Hear my oath / I will take part in your damned fate”. Its partly addressed to his followers in the house of Finwe, but also to himself and aloud in the air to Morgoth, quite a lot for one chorus to be getting on with.

The unusual and of course brilliant feature of “The Curse of Feanor” is how that chorus seems to be extended by virtue of a mid-chorus bridge where a brief guitar solo introduces a tempo change in the rhythm section and Hansi delivers another searing lyric, “I will always remember their cries / Like a shadow which covers the light / I will always remember the time /But it’s past / I cannot turn back the time / (I) don’t look back / There’s still smoke near the shore / But I arrived / Revenge be mine”. Okay there’s a lot to point out here: First, how about another shining example of Hansi’s choice to repeat a word or phrase for dramatic effect ala “Precious Jerusalem”, in this case how he repeats the “I” in the first line “I will always remember their cries” —- its a small thing I know, but it makes Hansi’s interpretation of Feanor come alive, become tangible and almost conversational (even though its real use is for the vocals to synch in better with the guitars swooping in). How about “Like a shadow which covers the light”, a general bit of imagery that can speak to the non-informed listener yet also speaks directly about the stolen Silmarils? And I’ve always loved the inclusion of “There’s still smoke near the shore”, because it reinforces what was suggested with “I will always remember their cries” —- that Hansi’s interpretation of Feanor brings with it some remorse for the kinslaying at Alqualonde. Is it too much for someone to get Hansi on a podcast and just talk The Silmarillion for an hour or so, is it really that hard? I’ll even take a print interview, but enough questions about tour dates and recording processes. Let’s talk to the man about Fingolfin (go-with-the-flow rube or saintly hero?); Glaurung’s candidacy for greatest fictional jerk of all time; Feanor or Turin Tarambar? (who was dealt the worse hand?); why couldn’t Morgoth have found Gondolin with some aerial scouting by one of his flying baddies?; and what were the real estate prices like in the Blessed Realm anyway?

 

 

“The Maiden And The Minstrel Knight” (from A Night At the Opera)

 

 

This might be THE most overlooked Blind Guardian song of all time, not only because the band has ignored it live, but because it rather unjustly seems absent from any discussion I’ve seen regarding fan favorites. If we’re to go by the lyrics alone then we can consider this to be the bards’ first and only love song, a surprise considering the depth of their catalog. But hey, being Blind Guardian this isn’t just a regular love song, its based on the tragic romance of Tristan and Isolde of course! Many years ago, one bleary night around two in the morning while lying beached-whale-like in bed, I caught an opera performance of this on PBS that was subtitled. I remember it vividly for being the first opera I actually watched from start to finish (because it was 2am and the remote control was somewhere over there *points vaguely*), and surprisingly enough I actually enjoyed it in some small way. Anyway, Hansi essentially took a few important moments from this classic story and stitched together two perspectives of different characters. Without getting into the story (because its been awhile), we get a little bit of King Marke of Cornwall and his “testing” of his soon to be betrothed Isolde’s innocence, and we get Tristan who in his grievously wounded state is crying out for his true and sundered love (Isolde!). Look, you get the idea.

What A Night at the Opera brought in spades was an aggressive expansion of the band’s sound that a lot of people just lazily term as “progressive” —- which yes it was, but the band opened up their sound by reducing their usage of straight ahead metallic riffs, building songs around vocal melodies and lead guitar motifs, as well as increasing the role of keyboard designed orchestrations. All of which are cornerstones of “The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight”, which is largely built around Hansi’s lead vocal melody alone, so much so that you’ll notice hardly any instrumentation during the beginning verse apart from keyboards that echo his tune. Its a daring way to write a ballad, one that gets even more daring when the group vocals join in during the chorus (“Will you still wait for me? / Will you still cry for me?”), as Hansi cedes his spotlight at a moment in which most other vocalists would want to seize it. Guitars don’t kick in until the 2:12 mark, and despite the punctuating kick they deliver, they’re still secondary in nature even considering Andre’s excellent solo that works as the set up for the song’s best moment. That moment spans nearly a minute from 3:14 to 4:12, where intertwining lead vocal melodies work alongside group vocal layers to create breathlessly beautiful harmonic bliss. The lyrics during this segment speak of loss and ache, and despite their call and response nature between Hansi and the choir they seem to read as one long run-on train of thought.

 

 

“War of the Thrones (Piano Version)” (from At the Edge of Time)

 

 

Had this blog existed in 2010, Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time would have sat atop 2010’s Best Albums of the Year list. It was the return of the bard’s classic speed and power metal styles infused and expanded with their post-2002 experimentation. It boasted not just one, but two supreme epics in “Sacred Worlds” and “Wheel of Time”, as well as neck-snapping cuts like “Tanelorn (Into the Void) and “Ride Into Obsession”, which seemed like modern distillations of the band’s early 90s era. Even the slow burning cuts were compelling, “Control The Divine” and “Road of No Release” were twisting and complex with their inspired tempo/riff changes; “Valkyries” soared with its cinematics; “A Voice In The Dark” brought us a quintessential Blind Guardian classic; and “Curse My Name” was a stirring, jangly acoustic guitar driven ballad in the vein of “A Past and Future Secret” that saw Hansi delivering a passion filled lead vocal. But what really caught my ear at that time and still now was the gorgeous, subdued piano ballad “War of the Thrones”, an unusually delicate song in that its subject matter was the violent and bloody tale of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

It was interesting in itself that they decided to match one to the other, because anyone’s first thought would be that any Game of Thrones inspired Blind Guardian song would be brutal and heavy, but in a strange way, it was a perfect pairing. Its been a mystery as to why it hasn’t gotten a live airing, nor is it talked about that much by fans in general. If you can guess which character(s) the lyrical perspective of this song is based on, you’re far better off than I. Some people say Jon Snow, but that doesn’t necessarily add up all the way through. One person on SongMeanings suggested Coldhands, and I’ve heard another suggestion that its actually from Ned Stark’s perspective, as he realizes his time is coming to an end. No matter which you choose there are details that don’t correlate, but does it really matter overall when the lyrics speak of doom but the melodies are sprightly, lilting, and dare I suggest happy?

That dichotomy might be the most appealing aspect of “War of the Thrones”, and it starts off at the very onset a few seconds in, with a lone piano dancing into one of the most singularly beautiful moments in Blind Guardian’s catalog, a tinkling melodic figure that could melt icicles (at the :08 second mark to be exact, but the buildup is just as affecting). Hansi’s lead vocals throughout are a balanced blend of sublimely melodic with aggressive accents on specific words for dramatic effect. Lyrically, you’re not supposed to feel as uplifted as you are when the chorus comes around, with its major keys and orchestral swells and Andre and Marcus’ dancing acoustic guitars. Maybe its fair to say that strong melodies will overrule lyrical direction in most cases, and Blind Guardian is no exception. The clincher begins at the 3:45 mark and runs to the very end of the song, where they extend the melodic line of the chorus through to a layered harmony vocal, Hansi directing the choir with additional setups for the group choral vocals. Its my favorite moment on the album, and of the band’s catalog in general, as Hansi sings “Leave a fee for the tiller man / And the river behind” while he and his select group of studio vocalists extend the final syllable on “behind” longer than a normal band would ever think to do. Seriously, who thinks of that?! Its a sequence that brings to mind Renaissance Fairs for me, as I vividly remember listening to the song with friends while driving up to one, its cheerful harmonies begging for a sing-a-long. Its also emblematic of the nature of Blind Guardian, to not shy away from all manner of emotion, nor from wearing their heart on their sleeve.

 

Two For February: Serenity’s Codex Atlanticus and Megadeth’s Dystopia

February 19, 2016

For all my bellyaching about 2015 and its overwhelming amount of new releases, it hasn’t exactly been a lighter load in these first one and a half months of 2016. Dozens upon dozens of new metal albums of all sub genres have come out in this relatively short time span and of course its impossible to listen to them all. I’ve managed a hefty amount though in just these few short weeks and if you read my recent Avantasia Ghostlights review, you’ll know that the year started off rather brilliantly. Seeing as how that was such an “event” album for myself and this blog and I gave it an accordingly lengthy review, I’ll try to shorten things up for all the other albums I was listening to alongside it. Here’s two relatively shorter reviews (but only just) for two major releases in my metalsphere. I’ll have a smaller, rapid-fire reviews series coming out soon looking at Abbath, Borknagar, and a host of others!


 

Serenity – Codex Atlanticus:

So those of you with sharp memories might remember that Austria’s Serenity leaped straight into my heart and atop my 2013 Best Albums of the Year list with their satisfyingly sweet epic, War of Ages. I found it an addictive album in its own right, but it had the added bonus of being my introduction to this wonderful band and their excellent back catalog that had gone under my radar for many years. I found myself comparing them to both Kamelot and Sonata Arctica; the latter because vocalist Georg Neuhauser reminded me so much of Tony Kakko in moments —- but the former because Neuhauser and guitarist Thomas Buchberger were a songwriting team that worked so well together that I was instantly reminded of the Roy Khan / Thomas Youngblood duo. Buchberger even shared a similar approach to guitar playing with Youngblood, preferring lean, sharp riff writing with highly melodic through lines and tastefully written solos. If they leaned a little too close to Kamelot in some spots, it was okay in my opinion, because at least I enjoyed their influences and they were managing to put their unique stamp on their own songwriting.

They had also brought in their spectacular touring singer Clementine Delauney to serve as co-vocalist on War of Ages, and she made the handful of songs she was on her own, with a malleable vocal style capable of being both breathy and ethereal, yet stormy and dark at the same time. The band had made a transition to being a five piece despite original keyboardist/co-songwriter Mario Hirzinger leaving the lineup (he would continue to contribute to the songwriting in a limited fashion), and I was already looking forward to their second album as a dual female/male vocalist band. So rather out of the blue on February 3rd, 2015 while working on a review for this blog, I glanced at The Metal Pigeon Facebook feed to see that independently both Buchberger and Delauney had announced they were leaving the band. It was a sinking moment as a fan, and I hate to see bands making music like Serenity’s suffer huge blows like the loss of a major songwriting partner. And as for Delauney herself, I thought she and the band were a complementary pairing and could dish out at least a few more albums together. Fast forward throughout the year and it seemed like Neuhauser, bassist Fabio D’Amore, and longtime drummer Andreas Schipflinger were determined to forge through these difficulties, playing some support dates for Stratovarius as well as a few festivals, Neuhauser even squeezing in his Phantasma side project (with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels), and in early October surprising us all by announcing their next album Codex Atlanticus had been finished.

Its been a long wait from October til now, and this was perhaps second to Avantasia for my most anticipated album of the first half of 2016. Serenity’s lineup is radically different, going from six members in the War of Ages publicity shots to four, the new guy being guitarist Cris Tian. Some things are similar, the lyrical focus on history for example is still present, except that instead of exploring a different subject with each song as on past albums, the band has decided to change things up in devoting an entire album to one subject, in particular the life of Leonardo DaVinci. The songs on Codex Atlanticus are like entries in his diary throughout his life, arrayed in no particular order, so some songs might be from a younger or older perspective. Its a cool idea, I was instantly reminded of Assassin’s Creed II where Da Vinci was a big part of the story line and you’d actually get to see him walking out and about in Florence. Neuhauser’s day job is as a high school history teacher and he’s pursuing a PhD candidate in history as well, so this stuff is right up his alley. From what I’ve gleaned from various interviews, Neuhauser wrote most of the album with contributions from D’Amore and Tian, along with longtime producer Jan Vacik helping out on the orchestral/symphonic side (for the first time it seems they’re not working with their other longtime producer Oliver Phillips). While Buchberger was as expected a no-show on this album despite hinting that he could contribute to songwriting in the future, ex-keyboardist Mario Hirzinger chipped in with some help on the lyrics.

 

serenitycaband_zpsbw6u0v8lAlright so enough backstory, how does Serenity hold up in this post-Buchberger era? I guess it depends on what you valued more about the band in their previous era, because Neuhauser’s vocals definitely take on a larger presence here, with all of the songs now being structured around his vocal melodies. He was certainly a large presence on older albums as well, but there he was often restricted with Buchberger and Hirzinger’s more progressive metal approach. That’s not a criticism of older albums, because the compromise worked well, but without their influence the songwriting on Codex Atlanticus is less technically inclined, owing more to classic power metal stylings rather than symphonic power metal tropes. That’s going to sound like a silly statement when you’re hearing keyboard orchestration all over this album, but put it this way, this album comes across as more Sonata Arctica rather than Kamelot —- one influence of the band edging out the other. It results in some awesome songs, such as the opener “Follow Me”, with its glory-claw inducing chorus where Neuhauser gets to demonstrate his mastery of vocal phrasing in singing “Here I am, here I stand / Nothing left to say / My destiny will stay with me in sorrow”. I love his choices on another excellent track, “Reason”, where he lands on specific enunciations with extra harmony vocal layers to give the lyrics an added dose of emotion. That kind of attention to detail is what separates power metal vocalists from their peers in other genres of metal, namely, an understanding of all the elements in a vocal track.

On the more purely symphonic front (because they don’t drift away from it completely), there’s “Iniquity” and “Caught In a Myth” where both songs balance an almost swashbuckling/derring-do orchestral bombast with Neuhauser’s sing-song vocal melodies. The latter really caught my attention with a spectacular co-joining of vocals and orchestra in a triumphant punctuation mark at the 5:02 mark (“Just go / Don’t hide…”), one of those sublime once a song moments that will keep me coming back. On the ballad front, because there had better be ballads (hey if you disagree, what are you doing reading a power metal review anyway?!) we’re treated to the rather traditionally Serenity sounding “My Final Chapter” and the charmingly Freddy Mercury-ish “Forgive Me”. Neuhauser loads up both with an array of vocal inflections at well chosen moments that elevate the songs from being merely pleasant to compelling listens (Tony Kakko disease if you will). But Neuhauser’s truly shining moment comes in the Broadway-sounding piano ditty / quasi-ballad “The Perfect Woman”, a gorgeous song about the Mona Lisa of course (who else would the perfect woman be?). I’ve never heard of a song about a painting before, none that I can recall anyway, and I love the ingenuity of the lyrical approach that Neuhauser and Hirzinger take here, that of Da Vinci marveling at his own creation in awe. The vocal melody here carries everything, and its one of Neuhauser’s finest performances, full of genuine enthusiasm and a flexing display of his soaring tenor on certain lines (“There’s no chance for me to stray / day by day”); also of note here is Amanda Somerville’s welcome presence, her role as Neuhauser’s duet partner a call back to the classic “Changing Fate” off Death & Legacy.

Worth noting is that for the first time Serenity utilizes two male lead vocalists this time around, as D’Amore takes the vocal helm solo for a couple of moments, notably on “Sprouts of Terror” and “Spirit In the Flesh”. In an interview, D’Amore said that he had to deliberately try a radically different vocal approach to his normal style in order to provide a sharper contrast to Neuhauser. Its an experiment that has me sitting on the fence, because initially I thought it worked, but over time I’ve found myself growing weary of hearing his voice. I think contrast for contrast’s sake doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly when there’s nothing happening lyrically that would demand it (ala different characters in Avantasia). I’m not so put off that I can’t listen to those songs anymore, but I’d have rather heard Neuhauser on them all the way through (he is a big selling point for the band after all). Schipflinger turns in the reliable, solid performance that he’s always managed, and more interestingly Tian manages to come through on the guitar front, even knocking out a few solos where I couldn’t tell the difference between him and Buchberger (not sure he’d like that observation but it just means that he fits in well). Overall Codex Atlanticus bodes well for the future of Serenity, and that’s a testament to Neuhauser’s growing strength as a songwriter, one whose confidence in his vocal melody development has allowed him to carry the band on his back when they needed him most… not all vocalists could manage that.

 


 

 

Megadeth – Dystopia:

Okay, so everyone knows the backstory on this one. The fifteenth Megadeth album, the new line-up aka mach umpteenth of the band (this time being Mustaine/Ellefson/Loureiro/Adler), and this being a rather pivotal sequel to the deservedly maligned Super Collider. What you probably don’t know due to no fault of your own is that I’m a longtime and rather passionate Megadeth fan. Its a fandom that’s waxed and waned over the years due to a variety of reasons but they were one of my earliest metal obsessions alongside Metallica and Iron Maiden, and seeing a poster of the cover art to Peace Sells on the wall of my cousin’s room in 1986 when I was a wee lad is one of my earliest metal related memories. One of the reasons that might be unknown to you is that I actually have never written about Megadeth on this blog except in passing references, the major reason being that I was too late and uninspired to cover 2011’s Thirteen, and well, just too disappointed to even discuss 2013’s Super Collider. I thought the two albums that preceded those two were merely average to good at best, the last Deth’ album I thought was worth fawning over being 2004’s The System Has Failed. Oh alright Endgame had a few really great moments. See… that’s what I mean about the waxing and waning.

Actually, let me do a ranking of how I rate the Megadeth back catalog just so you’ll know where I stand so you’ll be able to gauge the ultimate verdict of this review. No numbers, you all know I don’t do numerical review scores so I won’t bother with them for a discography ranking. I think you’ll get the gist regardless. Anyway this is how I consider the Megadeth catalog, from best to worst:

 

Rust In Peace: Sitting at the top where it should be, because duh, its one of the greatest metal albums of all tid! Its also on my do not listen to whilst driving list!

Countdown to Extinction: My intro to the band and one of the first metal albums I completely immersed myself in. I’ve never gotten tired of it.

Youthanasia: What?! Over Peace Sells?! Yes, because despite its Max Norman dictated slowed down tempos I still think this contains some of Mustaine’s finest songwriting.

Cryptic Writings: Put down whatever it is you’re about to throw at me, hear me out —- I listened to this thing relentlessly, and thought songs like “Use the Man”, “Trust” and “Secret Place” was the band at their most melodic, hooky best. Its an underrated album and that’s kind of a shame. Go back and listen to it, its better than you remember!

Peace Sells: The best of 80s era Megadeth, though not quite a perfect album. I was never entirely a fan of their production during this era, as I always felt Deth’ needed sonic clarity to do justice to their technical precision.

The System Has Failed: Mustaine’s return from one of the more bizarre rock n’roll injuries in history and his much needed comeback album (because there’s no way the band could’ve ended on The World Needs A Hero). It was the most ferocious they had sounded in years, full of conviction and ear worms a plenty such as “Die Dead Enough”, “Kick the Chair”, and “Of Mice and Men”.

Endgame: I enjoyed Endgame when it came out, particularly the insta-classic “This Day We Fight”, and the album was the angriest sounding Megadeth album in ages. It was thrashy and heavy, but I felt at the time (and still do) that with a few exceptions, there was a noticeable lack of hooks amidst all the aggression. Lead single “Headcrusher” was kind of sprawling, all over the place, and only “The Right to Go Insane” really had something resembling the melodicism that I valued in Megadeth. Of the two Andy Sneap / Megadeth collaborations, this was the best one.

Thirteen: As I was writing this I took a re-listen to this one and yes, I’m reminded that it was a strong album with only a few average songs, it gets this high because of “New World Order” and “Public Enemy No. 1”. Amazing to think this album was nominated for three Grammy awards in consecutive years from 2011-2013 (and won none of course). Conversely, its this low on the list because I had to re-listen to it to remember large chunks of the album, but maybe that’s more due to how little I listened to it upon its release.

Killing Is My Business: Awful production, some okay-ish songs… I was never really sold on it as a spectacular debut however, and I still don’t feel that way in light of the remixed version even though it did clear up a lot of the original production flaws.

United Abominations: Merely mediocre, though I loved “Gears of War” and thought it deserved better than it got (it should’ve had a tremendous push for its video game tie-in but apparently that deal fell through for whatever reason). I didn’t see the point of the Cristina Scabbia duet on the remade “A Tout Le Monde”, aside from a transparent cross-promotional opportunity, it certainly didn’t sound better than the original.

So Far, So Good… So What!: A step down from Peace Sells and the second worst production in Megadeth history, this still had all-time classics (you know the ones), but I was never a fan of “Anarchy In the U.K.” in general, nor “502” which rivaled Exodus’ Impact Is Imminent for boneheaded-ness lyrically speaking. I was hoping the remaster would clear up some of the awful, thin, tinny production job but it only seemed to emphasize its worst elements (leading one to believe those Capitol remasters weren’t done from the analog masters).

Supercollider: Just one of the most inexplicable decisions ever —- on the heels of releasing a flurry of relatively Megadeth-ian sounding albums, Mustaine decided to go back to experimenting with a more… I don’t even know how to describe it. The ridiculous title track for example was awful and baffling —- where in his musical history were the seeds for such a song laid? It wasn’t all bad, “Kingmaker” was a decent song, but everything else was steeped in some sort of classic/mainstream rock marinade that ruined everything.

Risk: I know I know, you think this should be last, but hear me out! This is not the worst Megadeth album, despite its transparent attempt to break into the mainstream /modern rock charts and its highly amusing choice of producer in pop-country miscreant Dan Huff. Strip all that stuff away and consider the album as an isolated collection of songs from Mustaine and Marty Friedman that explored their more pop-driven instincts. It was an experiment that resulted in some truly awful stuff like “Crush ‘Em” and “I’ll Be There”, but also some unique and interesting stuff like “Wanderlust”, “Ecstasy”, “The Doctor Is Calling” and “Time Pt. I/II”.

The World Needs A Hero: Ah, the nadir of Megadeth! A reactionary album that proves that reactionary albums hardly ever work. Plodding, re-hashed, and uncertain of itself: This was the sound of Mustaine trying to remember how to write actual heavy metal again. It yielded a semi-decent ballad in “Promises” but even that was flawed… if Megadeth was to succeed in ballads as they did with “A Tout Le Monde”, they had to avoid attempting power ballads. Consider this not only the worst Megadeth album, but one of the worst metal albums of all time.

 

megadeth_dystopia_promo_shot_zpsyct91nusSo using the list above as a rubric, where does Dystopia fit in? I’m going to say, with a relatively high degree of confidence, that I’d slot it between Cryptic Writings and Peace Sells. Yep, you read that right, I’m considering Dystopia a top five Megadeth album, and its for good reason too. This is simply the fiercest, angriest, most convincingly Megadeth-y that the band has sounded in over a decade. Were I to remove myself from my nostalgia fed love for Cryptic Writings, I’d imagine I could comfortably slot this right below Youthanasia, its really that excellent. Mustaine in particular comes across as more plugged in and motivated both vocally and lyrically, and I wonder if that’s due to the divisive political climate we’re currently in (would make sense also considering how divided the country was in 2004 during the time of The System Has Failed). Musically the band is reinvigorated by the presence of Kiko Loureiro in particular, the ex-Angra guitarist being the creative partner that Mustaine has long missed since the departure of Friedman (certainly Al Pitrelli never fit the bill, Chris Poland was a recurrent flash in the pan, and Chris Broderick never quite seemed to gel). Loureiro comes in from a power metal background, and though you can argue that he has shredder level talent, he’s had years of experience in matching technical virtuosity with major key melodies, in other words, a Friedman-esque perfect match and foil for Mustaine’s thrashy guitar tendencies.

The album kicks the gate down right from the start, with a trio of some of the band’s best songs to date (and not coincidentally, the album’s first three singles). With “The Threat Is Real”, Megadeth have delivered their best album opener since “Trust”, Mustaine’s snarling, venomous delivery paired with a ridiculously catchy riff/vocal progression. Its sibling song “Dystopia” (tied together through their animated music videos) reminds me so much of Rust In Peace. We get alarming guitar melodies that conjure up a vivid sense of paranoia and fear, and later on the tempo slows down in an almost improvisational mid-song jam session built around funky, twisting rhythm patterns that usher along a frenetic solo —- its the kind of thing I’d imagine Friedman doing back in the day. Loureiro is simply stunning on this track, and he is equally as inspired on “Fatal Illusion”, giving his leads an Eastern-tinged accent. Ellefson and Adler cook up a thunderous rhythm section throughout, always in lockstep, and I’m impressed at how balanced the bass actually is in the mix on such a wildly guitar driven album. Ellefson in particular delivers an awesome groove on “Bullet to the Brain”, a mix of thrash and rhythmic alt-metal that works because of his distinctive bass lines. Adler is a terrific fit for Megadeth, full of fills and creative snare and cymbal usage —- and he gets that one thing that sometimes fails thrash drummers, that the music sounds more energetic when it sounds like the drummer might be slightly outpacing everyone else (it conveys an excitement that can’t be contained).

And I have to give the band kudos for sheer creativity in a gem like “Poisonous Shadows”, a slower, experimental song that demonstrates that they don’t have to step outside of their wheelhouse in order to cook up something different. Instead of playing around with goofy hard rock or pop, here they elect to use atmospheric strings and bring in a female vocalist named Farah Siraj to provide those eerie yet ethereal vocals that float over the top. I like Mustaine’s delivery choice here, going for a more desperate, sinister approach rather than trying to aim for melodic perfection. If he sang it straight the song would’ve sounded disjointed (as odd as that seems), instead his altering of his vocals actually sells the overall nightmare-like effect they were going for. And I quite enjoyed the highly syncopated “The Emperor”, with trademark Mustaine sarcasm in the verses and a hooky chorus. The decision to cover Fear’s “Foreign Policy” is yet another tip-off that Mustaine seemed far more lyrically aware and plugged in this time. Regardless of what you think of his politics, you can’t deny that he might be the best at vocalizing subject matter like this —- its an awesome cover, full of panic, aggression, and rage. And its an awesome album, one that’s kinda kick started my interest in Megadeth all over again (I’ve been on a Deth’ binge for the past few days). I really hope Loureiro sticks around, because he seems to have lit a fire within Mustaine, one that desperately needed to be lit, for everyone’s sake.

 

 

 

 

Avantasia Searches For Immortality With Ghostlights

February 4, 2016

I can’t remember ever anticipating an album with such a nervous bracing for a potential disappointing letdown, as I have with this seventh iteration of Tobias Sammet’s metal/rock opera shenanigan machine. Over the years there’s been a slow erosion to my confidence level in Sammet’s output —- from the wavering quality of the past few Edguy albums from merely okay to mediocre and back to okay again, to the stunning realization that I simply didn’t enjoy most of the last Avantasia album The Mystery of Time. Once his biggest fanboy this side of the Atlantic, I’ve had to start qualifying reviews and random conversations with friends with statements such as “Well, he always delivers a few gems each album”, or the old standard, “Give it time, it’ll probably grow on you (and me)”. But if I’m honest with myself and all of you, I’ve long thought that 2001’s Mandrake was the last time Sammet released a flawless, front to back masterpiece. Its such a long time ago that we tend to forget that it was hot on the heels of his Avantasia debut, The Metal Opera Part I, an album that upon its release was widely recognized as a monumental work in power metal history and an emblematic marker that we were then experiencing the subgenre’s golden era. For those of us in the late 90’s who were aware of this golden era as it was happening, we viewed Sammet as one of a few central figures in a larger, multi-band fueled wave of classic power metal releases —- he had already ripped off masterpieces in 1999’s Theater of Salvation and 1998’s Vain Glory Opera, and in the wake of Mandrake, he seemed nigh unstoppable.

Yet suddenly Sammet missed out on perfection for the first time in years with 2002’s The Metal Opera II, which though much loved by most of us, admittedly felt inferior as a sequel. On the Edguy track, 2004’s Hellfire Club was a thrilling, inventive, yet schismatic album with a few songs that fell short (we tend to overpraise this album because of how aggressive it was, but it also had the distinction of introducing hard rock elements into the band’s sound, something a segment of fans would later lament). Post Hellfire Club, things got complicated: Subsequent Edguy releases began to infuse Sammet’s childhood roots of 80s pop-metal, AOR, and arena rock —- thus pushing out most of the traditional power metal elements the band’s earlier records were based on. When Sammet announced in late 2006 that he was resurrecting the Avantasia project, I think many of us thought that it’d be his power metal outlet, even if we weren’t getting The Metal Opera “Part III”. This isn’t intended to be a history lesson, but indulge me for a bit: Sammet unleashed a trio of Avantasia albums over the following years that were far more in line stylistically with the AOR/hard rock/pop-rock explorations he was continuing in Edguy, and power metal was limited to usage as a flavoring throughout most of The Scarecrow Trilogy. While a very vocal segment of his fanbase cried foul and openly yearned for the power metal glory days of the turn of the millennium, I found myself alongside a host of others who didn’t mind Sammet’s stylistic choices and found much to love about both Edguy and Avantasia releases during this period.

Yet even with that said, all those releases had their share of flaws (even the aforementioned Scarecrow Trilogy, which I loved), and I began to develop a theory or three on just why that was the case. First, I suspect that Sammet’s exploration into expanding his songwriting palette via stylistic change was a process that was bound to inevitably produce some filler. I have no reasonable explanation as to why crafting hard rock/AOR styled songs would be trickier than penning classicist power metal as it seemed to be for Sammet —- maybe that’s just the way he was wired. The point is that the actual process yielded positive, mediocre, and negative results, proof that he was still finding his footing while the missteps were being documented on the records. Just go back and listen to how utterly schizophrenic Edguy albums such as Rocket Ride, Tinnitus Sanctus and The Age of the Joker were. Secondly, I think that he was potentially spreading himself too thin on the songwriting front —- consider that from 2008-2013, he ushered out four Avantasia albums with two Edguy albums sandwiched in between. Thirdly, I think in that aforementioned span of years, Sammet was having trouble finding a way to separate the now musically identical Avantasia and Edguy, an array of guest vocalists being the only element separating the two projects. It made me question why he felt a need to keep Edguy around at all, considering the lopsided ratio of albums being released by both bands.
 

Sammet seemed determined to resolve that specific identity crisis with his 2013/2014 releases for both projects, in strikingly opposite ways. The first was Avantasia’s 2013 album The Mystery of Time, an album I slightly criticized at the time and now view almost entirely as an overreach on Sammet’s part to re-incorporate power metal elements into the fold, complete with a heavy reliance on actual orchestration. The idea wasn’t bad in itself, as the fantasy-steeped concept of the album seemed to lend itself to a more Metal Opera-ish stylistic leaning, except that Sammet came bearing an arm load of hard rock songs that at times sounded at odds with such ornate, lush, orchestral draping. And his crew of guest vocalists didn’t click with the material they were given (Eric Martin being the lone exception). It was in The Mystery of Time’s contrast to 2014’s new Edguy album, Space Police, where Sammet seemed to magnify just how he had settled on compartmentalizing his musical ideas into his separate projects, as I observed in my original review: “Sammet has rather conspicuously separated the veins of his songwriting approach into his two ongoing projects. Since 2006, Avantasia would receive (and monopolize) the far more serious, artistic vein, while Edguy’s increasing blendings of hard rock with traditional power metal served as a perfect soundtrack in which Sammet could further indulge his wacky, silly, Scorpions-inspired vein.” I think this shift in thought freed up Sammet (regardless of whether it was a conscious decision or not) to not only deliver his most confident, assured, and best Edguy album in well over a decade, but to justify both bands sharing nearly identical stylistic palettes.

The surprising artistic success of Space Police and its showing of strength on the songwriting front was a great sign for Sammet having reestablished a connection to Edguy. It wasn’t a perfect album by any means, but it had an identity that was in sharp contrast to Avantasia, and it seemed to be a statement of what Edguy is now a vehicle for —- fun, sometimes silly hard rock / traditional heavy metal that only rarely takes itself seriously. Its guesswork as to when he came to this realization, but I suspect that subtitling The Mystery of Time as “A Rock Opera” and not a “Metal Opera” was a quiet nod to anyone paying attention that there was no going back to the power metal days (also he has now released more albums in his hard rock/AOR/trad metal style than he has of classicist power metal). I say all that to set the stage for Ghostlights, an album that I’ve been considering ever since its announcement as a potential crossroads for Sammet —- the question being, does his success in compartmentalizing his projects carry over from Edguy to Avantasia and translate into masterful songwriting once again or was Space Police the last few drops from a well of inspiration that’s potentially run dry? I’m so relieved and happy to report that the bucket was plunged down the well and came up overflowing, and not only that, but in Ghostlights, Sammet has created his first front to finish classic since Mandrake.

This is an album brimming with confidence, full of vibrantly diverse songs with their own individual personalities, and loaded with shimmering, transcendent melodies and addictive hooks. It starts from the onset, with the Eurovision German preliminaries contending (!) lead single “Mystery of Blood Red Rose”, a Jim Steinman-esque vehicle meant for Meatloaf to actually guest on but as his management railroaded those plans, Sammet lays down lead vocals and delivers a worthy performance. As a pop-laden song it sees Sammet stretching his comfort zone a bit, weaving in Bat Out of Hell styled piano pastiche instead of relying on the semi Bon Jovi-ian vibe that so often laces his singles of this type. Sure they’ve used piano before, even on another Meatloaf-y number in “The Story Ain’t Over” in 2007, but here its delivered in runs of wild, loose glissando. It works well as an intro piece, setting a playful and fun tone for the album. Its on the epic thunderstorm of the following song “Let the Storm Descend Upon You” where we get our first guest vocalist spots with the returning Ronnie Atkins (Pretty Maids), the surprising Robert Mason (Warrant/ex-Lynch Mob) and of course the King of Kings himself, Jorn Lande. Mason is an inspired left field choice, and Atkins sounds far more comfortable here than he ever did on The Mystery of Time’s “Invoke the Machine”, and of course Jorn just makes everything better. This is the monstrous epic of the album, clocking in at over twelve minutes… and it took me awhile to realize that, perhaps the best compliment I can offer towards Sammet’s songwriting on this particular cut. Its so effortlessly packed with adrenaline-kicked riffs, smartly-paced lead vocal runs, and a diving-swinging-swooping theater of the dramatic —- its classic Avantasia.
 

Speaking of guest vocalists, this is the area from where most of my skepticism towards this album came before hearing it, and its ultimately its most positive x-factor. One of my major criticisms of The Mystery of Time was just how mismatched the guest vocalists sounded with the songs given to them —- and I understand the argument that Sammet has to walk a fine line in balancing giving a guest singer a song that sounds too much like the band they’re known for, at the risk of losing the identity of Avantasia. I tend to reject that argument however for two reasons: The first being that its only all too natural for a listener acquainted with that guest singer’s primary band to hear shades of said band bleeding into their Avantasia role, especially considering they’ve been brought on board for their known voice after all. The bigger reason is that Sammet has proven himself to be capable of writing in such a distinctive voice that his songwriting tendencies are powerful enough to balance out even the strongest guest vocalists. On Ghostlights, Sammet has righted the ship in all respects, and my initial balking at seeing the names Dee Snider and Geoff Tate seems judgmental and foolish now (I believe I audibly scoffed at them on a past MSRcast episode). Snider is nigh unrecognizable to me, but that’s likely because I haven’t kept up with him musically over the years. He sounds terrific on “The Haunting”, with a leathery yet theatrical delivery on a slow burner of a song that recalls Alice Cooper’s guest spot on “The Toy Master” off The Scarecrow.
 

My surprise at Snider’s excellent performance was nothing compared to the alarm I felt at truly enjoying the much maligned Tate on “Seduction of Decay”, considering my initial bellyaching. I checked out a few interviews with Sammet in promotion for this album, he’s stated that the song came together first which then spurred the idea of bringing in Tate. Its a gutsy choice but you have to hand it to Sammet, it really does work, with this being Tate’s overall best vocal performance since some of his work on Queensryche’s Tribe album. And I’m a little proud of myself for setting aside all preconceived notions and feelings I had about him overall and allowing myself to be receptive to this song. Tate sounds particularly rejuvenated vocally here, perhaps due more to the higher quality of vocal melodies that Sammet has him working with, ones that make the best use of Tate’s distinctive phrasing. He even unleashes a bit of that forgotten upper register in a surprising show of force —- more proof that Tate needs a high caliber songwriter to get the best out of him (such as his former bandmate Chris DeGarmo). If Tate is the most vivid surprise among guest vocalists, then Herbie Langhans is the dark horse that snuck in under the radar. We’ve known that Langhans has some serious vocal power from his two albums in Sinbreed (and those of you who remember Seventh Avenue), but what he turns in here on “Draconian Love” is more akin to a subdued, smoother Ville Laihiala ala Sentenced. Its one of my favorite songs on the album, having a darkly romantic, almost gothic feel that’s a perfect foil for such a tremendously catchy chorus. Sammet starts off the refrain with his questioning shout “Where are you now, where are you now / Leaving me down here, lost in the waves”, and its delivery is perfectly satisfying, an unrolled welcome mat for Langhans to finish “You shed draconian love, you shed draconian love”. Its a case study in the art of successfully employing repetition and alliterative sequencing, the sort of thing Lady Gaga built her early hits upon (in other words, this is a ridiculously catchy song).
 

Likewise just as successful a song-to-vocalist pairing exists in Marco Hietala’s (Nightwish) “Master of the Pendulum”, where we’re treated to an aggressive, uptempo metallic bruiser. Hietala is another inspired choice, not the first guy you’d think of when pondering guests on a future Avantasia album either. He delivers one of my favorite moments on the album during the lines, “I lead the horse to the water and I make it drink / I‘m here to force precision just on everything”, which is about an accurate a characterization of his force of personality vocal delivery as I can imagine. Robert Mason crops up again on “Babylon Vampyres”, this time leaning more on his rock n’ roll delivery, a combination that matches well with Sammet’s lead vocal,  and talk about catchy, that chorus has not quit my head for the better part of a week. He’s also given a small but crucial part on the album closer / five-singer barrage in the delightfully sentimental “Wake Up to the Moon”, where he sings alongside a plethora of the album’s cast. Atkins has another role on “Unchain the Light”, where he gets to showcase his more rustic vocal texture, perhaps because he’s set in sharp contrast to the legend himself Michael Kiske. Its a satisfying song, with a unique sound palette that elevates it from being just another “rocker” and into something altogether more thoughtful and resonant. And I’ve long awaited the return of Sharon Den Adel to the Avantasia lineup, and she’s here in fine form on “Isle of Evermore”, not quite the dramatic, sharply angled power ballad that was “Farewell” from the first Metal Opera, but a beautiful song nonetheless —- one that’s written more in the style of her modern Within Temptation singing voice as opposed to her Mother Earth-era pop-classical approach. Its well placed in the tracklisting, a mid-album breather that is built around delicate keys, atmospherics and a subtly haunting refrain.

I don’t normally write song by song album reviews, but Ghostlights is a veritable treat bag of Halloween ear candy, lacking skippable tracks or anything bothersome. I’ll repeat that last part again —- nothing bothered me (me!)! And saving the best stuff for last, we have a trio of titanic tracks, not coincidentally involving Michael Kiske, Jorn Lande, and the immortal Bob Catley. First up is the truly remarkable “Ghostlights”, Kiske’s greatest singular Avantasia moment right alongside “Wastelands” from The Wicked Symphony, one of those speedy, Helloween-soaked gems that Sammet molds perfectly. Kiske is the kind of singer who needs a airport runaway length of rhythmic timing for his particular delivery, especially when you’re trying to get the most power metal styled delivery out of him. He’s not a rapid fire singer, instead allowing the music to outpace him while he steadily extends syllables and enunciation in his trademark smooth half singing half belting. He soars here, and Sammet and Jorn work around him smartly, ceding the spotlight to him and only coming in as counterpoints and fills. My favorite moment here actually involves Sammet on lead as the counterpoint to Kiske in the chorus, singing “thunder and rain and the wind in my face”, a line that is syncopated so perfectly, it brings a smile to my face every time I mentally (or audibly) sing along. Its a gem of a song, a joyous blast of power metal nostalgia that could’ve easily been on the Metal Operas. With that in mind, I marvel at Sammet’s personal success in bringing his hero, the once anti-metal Kiske, back to singing music like this and apparently enjoying it more than he ever has (to such a degree that it prompted the Kai Hansen reunion).

Jorn gets his star turn on the majestic, simply stunning “Lucifer”, a piano ballad turned power ballad that might be both he and Sammet’s finest moment working together. There’s a wonderful moment where Sammet and Jorn join voices together during the first iteration of the refrain, and its just spine-tingling in its effect. Dramatic in its confident, sturdy, string-laden build up, stirring in its lyrical beauty, this is a masterpiece and the first of two early bookmarks for potential songs of the year. And somehow, fittingly, its Mr. Bob Catley who guests on the album’s best song “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”, a flawless diamond that’s in the conversation for the greatest Avantasia song of all time. Bold praise I know, but here’s the thing folks —- this song is the epitome of why you and I and everyone else listens to Avantasia. Its why we keep coming back album after album with an eagerness that we reserve for precious few other artists, because of the possibility of magical moments like this. Catley of course was the co-lead vocalist on “The Story Ain’t Over”, perhaps the greatest song to be released as a b-side in power metal history and one that the band ended up turning into a bit of a live favorite during their 2008 festival tour. Sammet just seems to be keyed into what kind of song Catley would sound spectacular on, one that features earnest vocals and heartbreaking lyrics that demonstrate a palpable sense of yearning. On “…Obsidian Skies”, he and Catley join in on a surging, insistent, wide-eyed chorus with a simply beautiful lyric, “Dark is the night, scarlet the moon / Sacred the light in the haze reflecting within / Blazing the trail… 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 could go on and on about this song but I’m sure I’ll be talking about it more later in the year on the best songs list, its simply magical.
 

I experienced something while listening to this album the other night as I drove around Houston under an uncommonly clear night sky. It stemmed from feelings of utter happiness at being able to appreciate what really did feel like…at the risk of overstating it, a gift —- an album that actually thrilled me beyond mere aesthetic appeal and typical reviewer think-speak of judging an album’s artistic merit. It took me a second to realize that I was being hit with blasts of nostalgia —- that the music I was hearing was taking me there. But nostalgia is a tricky thing, something that tends to come at us in notes of bittersweet (or at least for me), reminders of not only the passage of time but of no way to return. Yet the nostalgia Ghostlights was conjuring up was a little different, in fact, it was making me remember the feelings I’d have when I was a kid and I worried about nothing and loved everything. I have these memories of specific days from my childhood, scattered across those blurry years, where everything would go right and I’d feel genuinely happy or thrilled about the sequence of events. I don’t get many of those days anymore as an adult, and I suspect many of you feel the same. It was in the middle of “…Obsidian Skies” when I realized that I was into every second of this album, that everything about it was hitting me right in that sweet spot of everything I love about music in general. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this is an album I’m already treasuring for bringing me back to that mental headspace, and I’m grateful to Tobias Sammet for that. Its been a relief to write about Ghostlights without any qualifiers whatsoever —- I’ll say this plainly, this is a masterpiece for the ages.
 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2015 // Part Two: The Albums

January 18, 2016

And we’re here, closing the book on 2015 with a look back at the best albums of the year! I’d like to think that this will be my last word on this crazy, release loaded year but I know that I missed a lot of albums due to being overwhelmed with new music all throughout the year (so don’t be surprised to see something else pop up in the future about a lost or forgotten 2015 gem). Like I said in the preamble to my best songs list, this was the most exhausting year in metal that I can ever remember, and I usually try to get these lists out in the middle of December but simply playing catch-up pushed me into the holidays and beyond. Thanks to everyone for the patience you had for my unpredictable updating throughout such a turbulent year, and for continuing to read the blog and participating too —- when you guys leave comments on articles or Twitter or Facebook, it motivates me to keep writing! When I started this blog I didn’t think I’d have one regular reader, let alone a whole community of smart, incredibly friendly metal aficionados with really interesting takes. I hope this list was worth all your waiting!

I’ll boil down the list criteria by saying that I selected this year’s chosen ten from a larger pool of twenty-two shortlisted albums. In considering their placement on the list, I heavily weighed and took into consideration my iTunes/iPod play counts, and though they’re not always the determining factor, they’re almost always the tiebreaker as well as a way to keep myself honest. I like to limit year end lists to ten because it forces me to scrutinize harder and make tough cuts, and because I think lists that go to twenty-five or fifty albums are ridiculous in that the order of numbers past ten doesn’t really mean anything or tend to have any logic behind it. There were a handful of albums that I gave relatively good reviews of throughout the year that don’t appear here, and I’m okay with that because these ten really are the most deserving of another round of glowing praise. Read on!
 

 



 

 
 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2015:

 

 

1.  Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud:

In case you missed my Amorphis / New England Patriots analogy in my original review for Under The Red Cloud, we sit here just a day removed from the Patriots once again making the AFC championship game, a win away from their second Super Bowl appearance in a row, so do yourself a favor and give it a glance. It may be a nutty comparison, but I think it illustrates just how impressive this band’s run has been with delivering quality albums year after year since their recruitment of Tomi Joutsen as lead vocalist (and for awhile before that too). These guys are like the Patriots, perennial (so to speak) post-season contenders, and that means that they always harbor the possibility of getting hot and making that run to a championship (or in Amorphis’ case, releasing the third masterpiece of their career). For you non-sports guys and gals… don’t worry, the analogy stops here: Simply put, this was not only the album that I listened to the most in 2015 (which is saying something considering it was released in September) but in my estimation the only flawless album to be released all year. You’d think that would make it a shoe-in for this number one spot, but it had some serious competition with the runner-up below… my nod going to Amorphis on the basis that it would be utterly dishonest for an album that I never skip tracks on to get bumped below one that I do.

The band hit upon something magical with Under The Red Cloud, an album that seems to run on a distinctive sound separate from anything else they’ve done —- there are recurring melodic themes and motifs at work here that while never entirely repeating are suggestive enough of each other to make everything sound cohesive. That its lyrical subject matter is not based on the Kalevala is also something of a distinction, the album instead being a loose collection of songs about the theme of existing and living in the troublesome modern world today, hence the ominous Red Cloud of the title. The lyrics continue to be outsourced to Finnish poet/artist Pekka Kainulainen, translated by one Ike Vil, and then given to Joutsen to adapt into vocal melodies —- a three part process that has to ensure that the original intent and perspective is not lost in translation. That perspective was a huge factor in a lyric geek such as myself falling in love with this album, because as I noted in the original review, they came across as if “you’re listening to words that could be recited by someone sitting around a flickering campfire telling you long remembered stories”. Kainulainen rarely relies on metaphysical ideas in his poetry-lyrics, instead choosing to paint emotive scenes with gritty, concrete imagery such as found in nature, a vivid example showing up in the very first verse of the album on the title track:

I retired to a towering mountain
Laid down in a circle of stones
For three days and for three nights
I listened to the skull of a bear
The sun burnt its sigil into my chest
The rain washed the evil away
Time spun itself around me
The moon cast its silvery shell

This approach gives the album a earthen, windswept, ancient feel that seems to influence its often Eastern sounding melodies. Joutsen is also perfect as their interpreter, introducing inflection on all the right words or syllables, and his accented vocal giving them a gravity that they deserve (their impact would be diminished if they were being sung by some American radio-rock schlep).

Joutsen also comes bearing surprises on this album, namely, the surprising amount of full on death growling vocals that are on display across nearly all of the album. Its an unexpected change of direction for a band that had been largely moving away from death metal tendencies as recently as Skyforger, even though its usage popped up here and there on 2013’s Circle. Only lead-off single “Sacrifice” goes without Joutsen’s doomy-death metal vocals on Under The Red Cloud , and that’s likely the reason its the first single. It also happens to be one of the album’s best songs, with a rather stunning music video to boot, one that makes terrific use of the always surprising Scandinavian countryside (kinda looks like Texas in some parts apparently). Joutsen’s ability to deliver incredible clean vocal melodies over phonetically dense lyrics such as “Come when the sun has gone away / When the warmth has gone” is one of the major reasons he should be name dropped in any conversation about best metal vocalists working today. Guitarist Esa Holopainen is of course one of a small few of Finnish musicians who are masters of expressing melancholy through their melodies, and he does not disappoint here, his eloquent guitar motif brushing the song with autumnal colors. I love Holopainen as a songwriter because like his surname sharer in Nightwish, he brings an armload of hooks and awesome choruses to the table, and his songs on the album are testament to that.

His songwriting partner in crime is keyboardist Santeri Kallio, who this time brings in a handful of uptempo, expansive, and bright songs to serve as the yang to Holopainen’s more dark, brutal, melancholic yin. For all of Holopainen’s innate ability to serve up memorable singles, Kallio is matching him step for step on this album, bringing to the table songs with keyboard forged melodic motifs that are captivating and hypnotic in their own right. His best one to date is also my personal favorite of the album, the cascading, rollicking, punchy and brutal “Bad Blood”, the most headbanging-inducing song of the year. Its startling to hear such a keyboard driven song also be so utterly heavy, but Kallio is talented enough to balance its pop sensibilities with the heaviness of the guitars by allowing Joutsen to shoulder the burden of the primary melody when the keyboards fade. Kallio also works wonders on the majestic, folky “Tree of Ages”, featuring Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann on flute and tin whistle —- and if the smoky, acoustic intro doesn’t draw you in, the almost folk-dance like quality to the guitar work during the pre-chorus bridge most definitely will. I love that this song is simultaneously loaded with pretty, delicately performed melodies yet also brutal in a near guttural way, with Joutsen delivering one of his heaviest melo-death vocal performances to date. Its a microcosm of the entire album, a perfect witches brew of everything Amorphis do so well and only like they can. This was from start to finish an enthralling album, one I was listening to everyday for weeks unending it seemed, and one I’m happy to call the album of the year (or their Vince Lombardi Trophy!).
 

 

2.  Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.:

Where to start with this one? I guess the only surprising thing about seeing it on this year end list is that its not sitting at the top of it, and I’ll get to that in a bit. Its worth saying that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is one of the few albums released in 2015 that truly deserves all the praise heaped upon it (and praise has been heaped, in heaping amounts!). Its been a long time since an album has drawn me so fully into its backstory, delivered such a compelling and sensory overloading media experience, with its songs leaving me emotionally drained and listless. That it happened at all was the first shock to my system that Steven Wilson delivered with this one, because truth be told I was kind of on the outside looking in with him. I explained it in my original review in greater detail, but suffice it to say I was not the biggest fan of his last two solo outings, and I missed Porcupine Tree terribly (because their last album, 2009’s The Incident, was the last work by Wilson that I really felt some sort of interest in). It’d be presumptuous to say that this album restored my faith in Wilson’s work —- I didn’t lose faith in him producing interesting work (plenty of people loved those albums that I didn’t care for), I had lost faith in my ability to appreciate his work, and he restored that by telling me a story that left me chilled, saddened, and also hopeful and determined.

That story was about two characters, the fictional H. at the heart of Hand. Cannot. Erase., and the very real Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died in her London flat and whose body went undiscovered for over two years. I was first introduced to her story in an interview with Wilson just before the album came out, where he mentioned having seen a 2011 documentary about Vincent called Dreams of a Life. I sought out and watched the documentary myself, and was shaken by what it revealed, but I was more intrigued by Wilson’s own reaction to the story and how it mirrored my own. Vincent’s story was baffling and tragic because she wasn’t a “little old bag lady” as Wilson summarily put it, she was actually a well-heeled, popular, attractive young woman who seemed to be at the center of the social circles she flitted in. Wilson recalled his own experiences as a young musician living in the heart of London, a vast, major metropolis, and how he didn’t even know the names of his neighbors in the flat he lived in. In my review, I quoted him: “If you really want to disappear, go and live in the heart of the biggest city, surround yourself with millions of other people. Go right to the place where the most people live and you will disappear.” I brought it up with my MSRcast co-host Cary when we were recording an episode one night, and he confessed that he didn’t know who his neighbors were either —- on a street he’s lived on for years! I thought about my own apartment, how I didn’t even know the people who lived across the breezeway from me. It was an alarming realization.

The album took these thoughts of mine and put them through an emotional thresher, as I sat down with my Blu-Ray edition and in a darkened room watched the life of H. flit across my screen in photographs. Wilson’s character is not an exact replication of Vincent in fiction form (in fact H.’s biography is quite different), but she’s clearly inspired by her, and Wilson detailed it out to an extreme length —- the deluxe hardback book edition of the album featured photographs, diary entries, actual newspaper clippings printed on faux newsprint, and letters telling the more detailed story of H.’s life. In setting her story to music, Wilson wanted to reflect the urban setting his character was living in, and so he dreamed up a schizophrenic hodgepodge of sugary pop, hypnotic trip-hop, quiet English folk, avant-garde noise and tied it all together with progressive rock with a little splash of Porcupine Tree’s flirtations with metal. No one song sounds the same on this album, and yet for the most part they are all equally as compelling, each one a snapshot of a slice of H.’s life at a different point in time. Take for example the title track, which bounces and blooms as a sunny pop song about relationships and love, that is until you read deeper into its lyrics, narrated by H.: “It’s not you, forgive me if I find I need more space / Cause trust means we don’t have to be together everyday”. Wilson doesn’t come out and clonk you on the head with a megaphone yelling about how his character has anti-social, isolating tendencies —- he creates illustrations that show you.

There’s so much about this album that I purely love that its hard to narrow down specifics, but “Perfect Life” deserves a brief mention because not only is it the album’s most adventurous track (I’ve been favorably comparing it to Saint Etienne a lot, and if you’re unfamiliar with that band, well, you know what you need to do), but it evokes nostalgia in the way that only Wilson can. Its dreamy, atmospheric video of H. and her temporary foster sister (or a vague representation of them) playing in sun soaked hills and fields was the best music video I’ve seen in years. I was also enraptured by “3 Years Older” and its wistful folk-rock, with devastatingly brutal lyrics about growth and age. I’ve spoken at length about my love for “Happy Returns”, but not nearly as much about the musically charming but lyrically haunting “Routine”, where Wilson turns daily chores into poetic lyricism: “And keep making beds and keep the cat fed / Open the Windows let the air in / And keep the house clean and keep the routine / Paintings they make still stuck to the fridge”. I guess the stopper in why it ultimately isn’t my overall best album of the year is because I wasn’t too wild on the jazz-funk-prog of “Home Invasion” or “Regret #9”. They’re not bad by any means, but I only hear them in untouched album spins, meaning they don’t ever receive distinct attention from me on their own merits. It was hard to justify giving the title to an album that I found musical flaws with when there proved another that had none. That being said, no album took me on such an emotional journey or left me with so many unanswered questions as this one, and its the spiritual album of the year for that alone.
 

 

 

3.  Draconian – Sovran:

At the beginning of 2015, I thought that it would be the year of the legends, the veterans that were slated to release new albums and were going to show up in force, delivering one masterpiece after another in defiance of the passage of time and changing tastes. That didn’t quite happen as magnanimously as I hoped, but what did happen that was entirely a surprise was a changing of the tide in female fronted metal. A subgenre that had grown stale with cliched sounds of classical sopranos and/or lightweight voices has found a new group of talented singers with raw emotion and gravitas in their vocal styles. To be fair, I think this is something that really started off under the radar for the past three years or so, but its in surveying the landscape of 2015 in which we’re able to clearly see how this facet of metal has changed for the better. Realize that while I say that, I’m acknowledging that the best female fronted metal album did not come from my beloved Nightwish, who released a strong album to be sure, but one that failed to thrill me as much as I had hoped (or as much as 2011’s Imaginaerum did). No, the honor for the best female vocal metal album goes to gothic/doom metallers Draconian for Sovran, and its simply one of the year’s most compelling listens. Its probably presumptuous of me to insist upon this being the best album of their career as well, because I’m relatively new to the band, having been introduced to them sometime after their last release (2011’s A Rose for the Apocalypse)… but seriously, its the best album of their career.

I suppose that’s also my way of suggesting that if you’re new to Draconian, start here first, and never mind that its their first with new vocalist Heike Langhans. She’s replacing their original and longtime vocalist Lisa Johansson, but the differences between the two are far more subtle than the obvious stylistic differences between say Tarja and Anette in the Nightwish transition (or another Finnish band, as you’ll soon learn when you scroll down below). That isn’t to say they’re interchangeable, because Langhans’ voice comes across as a touch deeper, and smoother than Johansson’s higher register, and as a result sounding more naturally ethereal. I prefer her style because it seems like the band responds to it better —- Sovran is a testament to that. This is such an organic sounding album, and one that’s innately an emotional one, its sound reflecting loneliness, sadness, empathy, yearning, even cosmic emptiness to name the most apparent aspects, all blended together. Its a sound that’s conveyed as equally through Langhans’ enchanting singing as it is through the lead guitar tone of Johan Ericson, his long sustaining open chord patterns filling in the emotional frequency where Langhans’ leaves off. Strangely, by shifting their songwriting further away from their doom oriented past and leaning a little more towards gothic metal, Draconian has actually gotten more rhythmic and heavier as a result; their rhythm section working in tandem to build hypnotic, groove oriented beds where tempo shifts seem far more natural than they ever have on past records.

In my original review, I gushed about Langhans’ abilities to introduce duality in her performance, pointing out how her distant, detached ice queen delivery on “Stellar Tombs” contrasted with her burning, fiery vocal on “Rivers Between Us”. She has a plethora of brilliant moments across the album, such as her ascending, almost soothingly sung warning during the bridge of “Dusk Mariner” at the 4:56-5:25 mark (followed immediately by a gorgeously emotive guitar solo, again serving as another example of lead guitar working as a lyrical instrument). In the middle of “No Lonelier Star”, she projects convincingly bleak desperation during the 4:15-5:12 bridge, demonstrating her ability to dial up intensity and squeeze the most out of the lyrical mood, something that is undervalued in metal where we often get preoccupied about the technicality of vocal deliveries. But my absolute favorite moment is on the anguished ballad (or as close to it as you’re gonna get on Sovran) “Rivers Between Us”, during the 2:50-4:12 mark, where guest vocalist Daniel Anghede (of Crippled Black Phoenix) delivers an awesome Sentenced-like lyric “Let me take the noose from our necks and carry us home / Still so alive, even after you die, transcending with time”. When Langhans’ joins him a little later to sing “Wake me slowly or watch me fall”, the music skips a few beats and they’re both a cappela for a moment before Ericson joins them with yet another superbly dark and sweet guitar fragment. On Sovran, Draconian seem to be finishing each others’ sentences, and what a haunting story they’re telling.
 

 

 

4.  Jorn Lande and Trond Holter – Dracula: Swing Of Death:

I remember with a tinge of regret how I quietly snickered at the news that Jorn Lande was going to release an album called Dracula: Swing of Death. Of course he would I thought, this was the same guy who released an album called Bring Heavy Rock to the Land (why it wasn’t spelled Lande I’ll never understand!), so a concept album about Dracula? Yep, sounded about right. This was sometime in late 2014, and a few months later in February of 2015 I was eating my snarky words. It only took a few complete spins of this admittedly oddball, out of nowhere, one-off (presumably) project before I realized that I was listening to something spectacular. I didn’t know much about Trond Holter before this album, but have learned since that he’s been a jack of all trades guitarist for various projects including a long term stint as one fourth of the Norwegian glam rock band Wig Wam (Eurovision contestants themselves). I’m not all too clear on how or why or when this collaboration got started, but I suppose that’s less important than talking about why it actually works. It works because Holter’s songwriting style is wild, unabashed hard rock tempered with pop smarts (as in big, fat, huge hooks), and it complements Jorn’s perfectly suited vocals. And it really works because both Holter and Jorn are shrewd enough to realize that writing a concept album about Dracula is a little silly, and therefore the music should be, well, a little silly.

So instead of adhering to the straight-faced power metal approach Jorn has taken in Masterplan and Avantasia, Holter mashes up glammy hard rock, a little power metal virtuosity, and a huge helping of ’50s/’60s rock n’ roll pastiche ala Meatloaf to create an old-school rock opera —- one I haven’t heard executed so brilliantly since Green Day’s masterful American Idiot. So on the title track “Swing of Death”, we’re treated to an intro of jazzy, snappy percussion and jaunty piano (think Shakey’s Pizza), and Jorn singing along in his best rockabilly strut —- all before the song explodes with the entrancing backing vocals of Lena Floitmoen Borresen supporting Jorn during the refrain. She’s the hidden MVP of this album, a guest musician that doesn’t get top billing but ends up on five of its ten songs, with lead vocal parts on four of them. Her voice is Rent on Broadway meets 80s pop-rock rasp, a perfect mix that makes her lead parts on “Save Me” come across so charmingly retro, loose and carefree in their delivery. It might be the best song on the album, Borresen’s honeyed vocal on the chorus an earworm as big as Ancalagon the Black, and she’s a fantastic duet partner for Jorn, not so much singing with him in its climatic final minutes as they’re singing to each other. Its such a lush, vibrant, and yes fun(!) moment that I can’t help but smile every time I hear it.

Holter deserves praise here as well, because these are terrific songs and he seems to have an innate sense of when to lean a little more rock n’ roll and when to tighten up with some power metal-esque musicianship. Check out the flurry of speedy old-world styled acoustic guitar runs in “Masquerade Ball”, a song that lives up to its title, with unorthodox songwriting that ditches any use of a chorus in favor of musical motifs and lyrical storytelling —- Jorn is in his element here, playing up to his role of Dracula with aplomb and gusto. Towards the end of the adrenaline injected rocker “Queen of the Dead”, Holter serves up some more unexpected guitar virtuosity with a classically inspired extended solo that draws on equal parts Van Halen as it does Malmsteen. And once again I’ll come back to Borresen’s tremendous contributions, such as on “River of Tears” where she solo floats a sugary, sparkling chorus in between Jorn’s heavy metal thunder verses. The mid-song bridge here at the 2:05 mark is a vivid highlight of just how playful the tone of this album can get, with Jorn’s sly vocals slinking around like Nosferatu in his castle in black and white, while Holter channels Brian May over some ragtime piano. Everything just comes together so well, the music serves the concept and the concept allows for the music to be as unrestrained, playful, and joyful as it sounds —- this might be one of the most fully realized albums of the year. My skepticism about it turned to surprise, to giddy happiness, and now to conviction. If you haven’t given this a shot, you’re not being fair to yourself.
 

 

 

5.  Amberian Dawn – Innuendo:

There’s always a sleeper hit of the year. One of those releases that sneaks up on the other albums competing for a spot on the year end list and before long you’re knocking off an early year favorite to make room for it. In this case Amberian Dawn sneaked in relatively late to the party in October (certainly not as late as last year’s December surprise list topper Triosphere), and it wasn’t until November that it finally dawned on me that I had been giving it a lot of repeat spins without even realizing it… hey, it was a crazy year guys. Finland’s Amberian Dawn have been around since 2006, are on their second vocalist —- the supremely talented Capri Virkkunen, and my first exposure to them comes on their seventh studio album Innuendo. Better late than never I suppose, and in this case I think I’m catching the band at a pivotal moment, one where they are finding a uniqueness to their sound that is setting them apart from anyone else in the female vocal-led metal world. On a cursory listen of this album you’ll hear very slickly produced, almost glossy power metal with strong pop songwriting fundamentals (strong hooks and a lot of major keys), but give the album more time and you’ll hear that the tone and timbre of Amberian Dawn both musically and vocally is unlike anything else being done in metal.

I’ll just come right out and say that I love this album because of its deep, overt ABBA-influence, a tendency reinforced by primary songwriter/guitarist Tuomas Seppala and Virkkunen’s unabashed love for the Swedish pop institution. Listening to Innuendo, you get the feeling this is a style of songwriting that Seppala has been wanting to deliver for a long time, and he now finds himself paired with a singer who feels the same way. Its interesting to note that Virkkunen had even performed in an ABBA related musical sometime after her attempt at a conventional pop career didn’t take off (oh yeah she also performed in a few Eurovisions, to further the ABBA connection I’m making). Seppala is on record as stating them as influences, in fact he even posted a shot from their “Happy New Year” music video on the band’s Facebook page on New Year’s Eve (not sure how many people got that reference, I sure did!). This is a relatively new development, started in part on Virkkunen’s first album as vocalist, 2014’s Magic Forest, which seemed to be a bridging album from the band’s more operatic vocally inclined albums with previous singer Heidi Parviainen. In fact, to me it seems like Amberian Dawn’s shift from Parvianen’s classical approach to Virkkunen’s pop-rock belting closely mirrors their countrymen in Nightwish with their changing from Tarja Turunen to Anette Olzon.

Like Nightwish with Olzon on board, Amberian Dawn has been able to begin a transformation of their sound away from the limitations of symphonic power metal. Seppala now writes with more of an ear towards pop, of the sophisticated and complex variety, the kind that Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson perfected more than three decades ago. I hear shades of “Money, Money, Money” in “The Court Of Mirror Hall”, and a little “I Have A Dream” in “Angelique”, and composites of various ABBA classics on gems like “Innuendo” and especially “Knock Knock Who’s There” (whose title seems like a tongue in cheek homage towards ABBA songtitles like “Honey, Honey” and “I do, I do, I do, I do, I do”). That particular song is an absolute joy to listen to, with Seppala’s songwriting lean, sharp and with hooks built into hooks —- most coming in the form of Virkkunen’s own backing vocal tracks that are layered to create the effect of her singing with a partner. I can’t get enough of the timbre of her voice, seemingly a perfect blending of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. And look, don’t let your takeaway here be that Amberian Dawn have nothing original to offer —- I think what they’re doing here is bold and fresh, taking an often ignored influence on metal and embracing it. This is very much an album built upon a metallic foundation, but one that’s not afraid to embrace other genres and mix things up. Virkkunen might be the surprise talent of the year, her versatility as a dramatic singer and rock n’ roll belter reminding me of how refreshing it was to first hear Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. These ladies are changing the sound of female fronted metal and its long overdue and fantastic.
 

 
 

6.  Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror:

Argh, it hurts not to see this higher, it really does. Long before I started The Metal Pigeon, I was keeping lists of my best metal albums of the year, and our bards took top honors in 2010 for At The Edge of Time, an album that I’m not afraid to speak of in the same breath as Imaginations or Nightfall. Its doubly frustrating because there’s so much awesome packed into this album that it rightly deserves to be on this list, but it has flaws that can’t be ignored. The bad stuff out of the way first? Alright, lets get this over with: I wasn’t thrilled about the production (although fellow Guardian fans have told me my contention lies mostly at the fault of the mastering job, I’m not an audiophile so I’m really flying blind on that debate) because at times the plethora of sound the band is trying to force together at once becomes a cluttered mess of layers of sound without any room to breathe. I talked a bit about this in greater detail on my hat tip to “Distant Memories” (the runner-up for Best Song of the Year), but examples abound on the album where you want the crashes to crash louder, the orchestra to swell over the guitars, or vice-versa for that matter. I also found that despite all my repeated efforts, I was unable to fully love “Sacred Mind” with its underachieving chorus despite its amazing intro section and first verse (in my original review I speculated that Hansi might’ve over-sung the chorus, I now realize that he actually under developed its vocal melody). And I think I’ve come to the conclusion that “At the Edge of Time” (with a small exception), “Miracle Machine”, and “Ninth Wave” are underwhelming —- not bad, not skip-able, just underwhelming for various reasons I don’t have the space to get into here.

But the greatness that is Blind Guardian shows up in majestic moments, though you have to put in the time to discover them, because Beyond the Red Mirror is their most inaccessible album to date, even more so than A Night at the Opera which sounds positively anthemic compared to this. Look no further than the track I just criticized as a whole for the album’s singular best moment, at the :57 second mark of “At the Edge of Time”, for which I wrote in my original review:

“Hansi beautifully dreams out the lyrics “Who’ll grant me wings to fly? / And will I have another try?”. Its a simple lyric on the surface, but its unanswerable question is evocative in the very essence of what its asking —- and Hansi’s phrasing and emotive delivery just bowls me over every time I hear it. Moments like that are what I wish I could instantly summon whenever someone asks me why Blind Guardian is so great…”

The most gloriously, Guardian-esque epic might be “The Throne”, a song that races along at an insistent clip and is invigorated with a sense of urgency in all facets. Its chorus is incendiary with the explosive manner it delivers its hook, group choirs and Wagnerian orchestral bombast working in tandem. Speaking of, “The Grand Parade” is a lot to take in, but once you do you’ll be able to separate its layers upon layers of sound to uncover the celebration the band has put to music. Its an incredible collision of the band merging together riff based song sections with choral vocal melody led arrangements, particular in the chorus where these elements seem to run perpendicular to one another —- somehow it all works. And in digging up another isolated, one-shot only example of “how did they ever dream that up?” we have “Ashes of Eternity” at the 4:23 mark, where the way they’ve written Hansi’s vocal melody during ““I won’t lie / While bright eyes are turning pale / Your sands run low” is the kind of jaw dropping moment that you get everyone in the room to shut up for (while pointing to the speaker with a goofy grin on your face of course). What can I say, its Blind Guardian —- you know this is worth listening to. Its not perfect, but its the most adventurous Blind Guardian album to date, one that will challenge you as a fan to listen closer and longer. I doubt anyone will complain about that.
 

 

 

7.  Kamelot – Haven:

Clearly the best album of the fledgling Tommy Karevik era (if it wasn’t better than the flawed Silverthorn, we’d be talking about the possible end of the band as we knew them), Kamelot also knocked out one of the year’s strongest albums in 2015 with Haven. This is due in large part to the increased role of Tommy Karevik in the songwriting process (if you really want to dive into the meaty reasons, I’ll refer you to my original review), a tangible change that you’ll notice upon the opening moments of the album in “Fallen Star”, one of the year’s best songs. Karevik’s higher registers allows the band to return somewhat to their Karma/Epica/The Black Halo era, prompting Thomas Youngblood and Oliver Palotai to write more major key melodies, while allowing Karevik the space to fully develop his vocal melodies —- space largely denied to him on Silverthorn. So when you hear “Veil of Elysium” and think to yourself, “this could’ve been on Karma“, you’re not alone in that feeling. What makes Karevik a special vocalist is his Karevik-isms that Seventh Wonder fans are all too familiar with; for instance while singing the lyric “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his deft vocal inflections during the 1:00-1:06 mark give the line an extra dose of ache and sympathy. He’s half the fun of listening to Seventh Wonder classics like Mercy Falls and The Great Escape, having an innate sense of R&B/pop inflection that loosen up a performance a more standard prog-metal vocalist would’ve played straight.

Conversely, Karevik also sounds increasingly like himself, drifting further and further away from mirroring the Khan-esque timbre that so many people have marveled at him having. On a song like “End of Innocence” he sings in a style that I have an incredibly hard time imagining Roy Khan singing in, particularly during its chorus. It actually sounds like something that could be on a Seventh Wonder album, albeit with a little less jazzy-prog in the music underneath, and that’s what Kamelot and Karevik should sound like together. For all the praise fans were showering him with for being akin to Khan in all things, I guarantee you they’d change their minds if that’s all he ever did during his run in Kamelot. This positive change is also heard on tunes like “Beautiful Apocalypse” and the epic, yearning “Under Grey Skies”, a song that I’ve grown to love more and more for its very audacity (hey it almost sounds like a Broadway number at points, a gorgeous one at that). This is the duet with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels who proves a good counterpoint to Karevik, her high register able to sweetly swirl around his soaring tenor at the end when they join their vocals together (her performance here is worth noting, her well placed accents on specific words makes a great performance transcendent). When this album came out, I thought it would be higher up this list, but some fatal flaws exist in “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” where the success of the aforementioned Wessels duet really puts into perspective just how pointless Alissa White-Gluz’s inclusion here ended up being. And of course there’s the abominable “Revolution”, in consideration for the worst Kamelot song of all time (and I got to hear it live in December —- it wasn’t any better and its motives were entirely transparent). Still, the future looks bright for one of power metal’s greatest acts.
 

 

 

8.  Swallow the Sun – Songs From the North I, II & III:

I love bands with ambition, even if they don’t quite execute the way they planned or simply fall flat on their face. Finland’s doom-death brigade Swallow the Sun thankfully fell into the former category with their attempt at swinging for the fences with the monstrous triple disc work, Songs From the North I, II, & III. The band seemed to take a page from Opeth’s Deliverance / Damnation playbook and divided each chapter into a slice of their sound albeit in a more exacting manner. So we got the first chapter in the form of a typical Swallow the Sun album full of heavy / soft dynamics; a second chapter that was largely chilled out acoustic balladry (I feel like some clean electric is also used, in addition to the obvious keyboard sonics); and a third chapter that dramatically slows down the tempos, turns up the heaviness and becomes something akin to funeral doom. I wasn’t wild on the concept of the latter when I first read about the album concept but I figured it wasn’t enough to keep me away from such an intriguing project. If you read my review in the original Fall MegaCluster you’ll remember my mentioning that I wasn’t the biggest Swallow the Sun fan before this, having only enjoyed them in small fits and starts in the past. The good news is that Songs From the North changed all that, and they were able to do it largely on the strength of the first chapter aka their “regular album”.

That regular album is just about perfect too, book-ended with two brilliant tracks in “With You Came The Whole Of The World” and my album favorite “From Happiness To Dust”, the latter featuring one of the most elegiac and heartbreaking guitar motifs I’ve heard all year. Then there’s the superb duet between ‘Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamaki and guest singer Aleah Stanbridge on the dreamy, lovelorn “Heartstrings Shattering”, as devastating a treatise on emotional abandonment and loneliness as you’ll ever hear. Another favorite is “10 Silver Bullets”, possibly the most uptempo song on the album with its hypnotic opening riff sequence and its loud to really loud dynamics in the most brutal refrain that I can remember hearing in forever (its not so much a chorus as it is a good pummeling). I’ve never heard Kotamaki as wildly unrestrained and vicious sounding as he manages to come across in specific moments here, not to mention his increasingly skillful clean delivery, which is showcased far better across this and the second chapter than at any other point in his career. Oh yeah, the second, acoustic chill out chapter is also a major reason the album is on this list, because songs like “Heart Of A Cold White Land”, “Songs From the North” and “Away” are fog-drenched laments that I kept returning to throughout the year. But while I’ve been appreciating the funeral doom third disc a little more since my original review, I’m still far from liking it to a point that I’ll return to it alone. It prevented this album from being higher on this list but didn’t diminish my admiration of the band in shooting for the moon here.
 

 

9.  Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable:

I think Sweden’s Year of the Goat have filled a rock n’ roll shaped void that’s existed for years and years in my conscience with their excellent new sophomore album The Unspeakable. Their ghoulish, mysterious take on occult rock with a sprinkling of metallic spice is the first band from that burgeoning movement that I’ve personally drawn a connection to, and they hit a sweet spot that has been vacated by older bands such as The Cult, H.I.M., and the recently broken up In Solitude. The latter is a great touchstone for anyone who is uninitiated into Goat’s musical orgy, as their vocalist Thomas Sabbathi shares a lot in common with In Solitude’s Pelle Ahman stylistically (Sabbathi is a little more controlled in his delivery but their timbres are pretty darn close). What separates them from the rest of their peers is just how vital, fresh, and very modern they sound. Where other bands are hell bent on emulating studio/production sounds from the 70s to enhance the throwback feel of their albums, Year of the Goat don’t particularly care if their music sounds, ya know, new.

They also don’t care about doing unconventional things, like releasing an album with a twelve minute plus track as its opener on an album full of 3 to 5 minute jams. The song in question, “All He Has Read” has aspects that sound both old school and unnervingly modern, with classic metal / NWOBHM elements folded right alongside almost metalcore riffs (don’t panic!) and a rich, textural guitar led intro that would’ve fit right at home on the last Watain album. Its an epic track, and the album is book-ended by another in “Riders of Vultures”, actually the song that I was introduced to the band with on Fenriz’s essential pirate radio show (you should be listening to this already). The latter is a smoky, slowly strutting powerhouse built on some really inspired guitar lines via Goat’s own Izzy n’ Slash, Marcus Lundberg and Don Palmroos. The lead guitar mirrors Sabbathi’s tortured vocal melody with long open-note sustains while ferocious rhythm guitar snakes its way underneath —- you could picture this being the soundtrack to some black light adorned, pole-dancer equipped, smoke cloud filled nightclub (on TV of course… *cough*). Its almost a religious experience when the song opens up at the 3:10 mark, where haunting background vocals chant their wordless refrain while a guitar solo ushers in bells of doom and presumably the bacchanal that comes with. The shorter cuts are just as brilliant, with “The Wind” getting honored on the Best Songs List, but “Black Sunlight”, “Pillars of the South”, and “Vermin” (with its charming and quirky use of cowbell) are just as magnificent. Don’t let the occult rock thing put you off, this is actually a fun album to listen to —- a heady blending of Gn’R guitars, The Cult’s hard rock strut, and H.I.M.’s dark romance (don’t let that put you off either).
 

 

 

10.  Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful:

Such is the monumental songwriting ability of Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen that even when he fails to deliver a grand slam, he’s still hitting a home run. Said grand slam was in my estimation 2011’s Imaginaerum, an album that was diverse, colorful, surprising, epic as all get out and incredibly fun(!). It was their second effort with Anette Olzon on vocals, and it proved that Holopainen needed the space of two albums to not only find his footing writing for her ABBA-esque poppier voice, but more importantly for him to get used to writing outside of the constraints of Tarja Turunen’s operatic singing style —- a facet that defined the limits of their sound. Understanding this bit of history is crucial to putting Endless Forms Most Beautiful into context as their debut album with Floor Jansen. A valid criticism of the album is that Jansen, despite an overall strong performance, seems reserved and bottled up, forced to sing in a mid-range, pop-driven style that ignores her classical soprano abilities as well as her more rock oriented belting (although she does some of this on the album). This is by no means her fault, but I’ll argue that its not really Holopainen’s fault either, its simply a result of the difficulty in having to write for a new singer in an already established band —- you play it safer, write a little more conservatively… in other words, write what you know.

So its not a surprise that the band suggested in interviews that their new album was old-school Nightwish in spirit, more closer to their sophomore classic Oceanborn in style and spirit. It made sense not only stylistically but strategically as well, a way to write relatively direct, easily accessible songs that still allowed for their grandiose, Pip Williams fueled orchestral arrangements to flourish albeit in a more interwoven manner (as opposed to their more cinematic role in Imaginaerum and Dark Passion Play). Holopainen would benefit in being able to write songs with bright melodies, strong hooks, with space for creative ear worms all while being allowed to service his thematic lyrics above all else —- quietly the biggest reason why Jansen ended up singing in a Olzon-esque pop voice. Holopainen stated back when Olzon was introduced to the band that they chose a singer that deliberately didn’t sound like Turunen in order to avoid comparisons between the two —- but fans compared Olzon and Turunen anyway, some were even divided on loyalties. Jansen’s overall body of work suggests that she’s capable of being a midpoint between the styles of the previous two Nightwish vocalists; but Holopainen’s refusal to return to using classical styled vocals even when having the opportunity to do so is indicative of a sea change in how the band now operates, that thematic concepts dictate the music and lyrics, not their vocalist.

Still, that approach can’t ignore the fact that Jansen is new, and I think nine times out of ten a band will have growing pains adapting to it (Nightwish included, Dark Passion Play is a prime example too), but because Holopainen is so ridiculously amazing as a songwriter we still get a shimmering, rich, beautiful album. Brilliant songs abound, from “Alpenglow” to “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” to “Shudder Before the Beautiful” to the Best Songs list-maker “Weak Fantasy”. I have an even greater appreciation for the delicately folded ballad “Our Decades In The Sun” than I did when I first reviewed the album, with its transitional, stormy guitar and orchestra middle bridge at the 2:05 mark being a glorious one-shot moment that I keep coming back for. So why isn’t the album higher on the list or being hailed here as a masterpiece? Well songs like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, “Edema Ruh”, “My Walden”, and lead-off single “Élan” are merely average to good and while I don’t skip them on a full length play through, they’re not on my iPod. But the biggest culprit is the band’s twenty-four minute mess, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, which has a little over a minute and a half’s worth of interesting music to offer (from the 12:00 to 13:47 minute mark), a hugely disproportionate ratio. It doesn’t even touch “Song of Myself” from Imaginaerum or even the slightly clumsy “The Poet and the Pendulum” from Dark Passion Play on the Nightwish epic scale, and for a song trumpeted by the band to be the album’s centerpiece, it fails utterly. It was surprising considering Holopainen’s pedigree, where was any semblance of a melodic motif? The silver lining here is that just like with Olzon or even Kamelot with Tommy Karevik, Nightwish should fare much better in their second round with Jansen… who knows, we might even hear her bust out the soprano!
 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2015 // Part One: The Songs

January 9, 2016

Finally! The beginning of the end to the most exhausting year of new metal releases I can ever remember. This is the first of the two-part year end Best of list I compile, a little delayed this time (in keeping with the 2015 theme), and this might actually be the more difficult of the two in selecting and narrowing down. My year end songs of the year list is always problematic because ultimately there is some crossover with the forthcoming best albums list, since some of these songs were key to making those albums the best of the year. But the songs list has to also represent those isolated gems that were discovered on otherwise flawed or not so great albums, and keeping the balance between the two is always tricky. In sticking with tradition and forcing myself to be very selective and honest, these lists are limited to ten, but they were narrowed down from a shortlisted pool of about 20-25 entries. Anyway, you know the drill by now, so to quote Kramer: “Giddy up!”

 

 
 
The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2015:

 

 

1.  Steven Wilson – “Happy Returns” (from the album Hand. Cannot. Erase.)  



 
I had suspected for awhile that this emotional gut-punch from Steven Wilson’s 2015 masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase. would wind up atop this list, despite competition from some strong contenders below. Its up here because its aching, emotive, transcendent, bleak, beautiful, sorrowful, melancholic, dreamy, nostalgic, and a whole list of adjectives more. Its also the emotional apex of the album, both in its musical approach and in its lyrical perspective/situation within the content of the album’s storyline (and if you’re unaware of what that is, I’ll refer you to my original write-up on the album). Whats clever is that it comes disguised as a pop-song, complete with a little McCartney styled ““doo-doo-doo-do” and some relatively simple acoustic guitar strummed chords. It serves as a hook in lieu of an actual chorus, because our narrator is in no state to say anything that she’d have to repeat —- the words she delivers are spare, direct, and heart-shattering in their immediacy: “Hey brother, happy returns / It’s been a while now / I bet you thought that I was dead”. The framing device is that Wilson’s isolated, living-alone-in-the-city female narrator (simply referred to as H.) is perhaps finally reaching out to a long sundered member of her family via writing a letter. Maybe she’s replying to a received Christmas card, hence the invocation of the phrase “happy returns” (more common in British English than American as a response to “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year”), or maybe she’s initiating contact herself —- we’re never told and its left to the imagination.

Whats not left to us to decipher is her emotional state —- teetering on the edge of hopelessness she tells her brother, “I feel I’m falling once again / But now there’s no one left to catch me”. One of the most devastating verses you’ll ever hear sits precisely in the heart of the song, from the 1:32-1:58 mark, its lyrics filled with the kind of sorrow borne from regret and despair: “Hey brother, I’d love to tell you / I’ve been busy / But that would be a lie / Cause the truth is / The years just pass like trains / I wave but they don’t slow down, don’t slow down”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this song throughout the year, but every time I’m completely emotionally engaged, and I’ll tell you… that imagery of the passing train just hits me like I’m standing on the tracks myself. This is not an easy song to listen to. You can’t let it play when your iPod is on shuffle because you’re simply not ready for its gravity, it will sink you and only cause you to play it again and again because your mood will have shifted and the Dream Evil song that was supposed to come next would sound like static in your current state of mind. Its a song that’s haunted, and like any ghost worth its name it begins to haunt you.

There was another song from the same album that I shortlisted as one of the Best Songs of 2015, that being “Perfect Life”, the other sibling related song, being about the narrator’s one-time foster sister before the divorce of her parents. It would’ve been the most bizarre entry to one of my year end lists to date, a Saint Etienne styled bass n’ drum construct with female narration and Wilson’s repeating coda arranged as more of a trip-hop affair than anything resembling rock or metal. Similarly “Happy Returns” is quite far removed from those two genres, but its inclusion on this list I believe is warranted not only because of the simple fact that I reviewed the album, but because Wilson’s connections to metal are long and deep. Set aside his production work with Opeth and Orphaned Land, or even his role in helping once doom-metallers Anathema evolve into their current progressive rock state. The man’s approach to music in terms of songwriting, musicianship, arrangement, and thematic vision shares so much in common with the values of many metal artists. Speaking of Anathema, longtime readers will remember their inclusion on this list not once, but twice in the past few years. As was the case with my Anathema inclusions, I simply couldn’t be dishonest with myself (and you by extension) and exclude a song from this kind of list simply because it didn’t sound remotely metallic. If its inclusion here prompts someone to further investigate more of Steven Wilson’s music, then I’m further justified in my decision.

 

 

2. Blind Guardian – “Distant Memories” (from the album Beyond the Red Mirror)  



 
I was puzzled by Blind Guardian’s decision to release an abridged “standard” version of their newest album Beyond the Red Mirror, because the limited/earbook/vinyl editions of the album came with two additional tracks in “Doom” and “Distant Memories”. They were technically bonus tracks in that regard, except that this was a concept album, and they actually fit into the storyline devised by Hansi, to such an extent that when placed back into the overall skeleton of the album “Distant Memories” ended up at track number six, altering the entire standard edition sequencing (see the differences for yourself). I get that you need something to entice fans to splurge on the special editions of a new album, but usually that comes in the form of b-sides or a cover song or two. It shouldn’t come at the expense of the album’s most brilliant moment, and its unfortunate that there might be fans out there enjoying the “standard” edition of the new Blind Guardian album without realizing that they are missing out. And man would they be missing out, because “Distant Memories” is not just the best song on the album, its one of the most beautiful songs the band has ever written, a kinetically charged quasi-power ballad that seems out of time and place.

It starts out fairly casually, with Andre’s playful guitar figures dancing over some subtle woodwinds, but then the band crashes in and Hansi takes over the director’s chair with a vocal melody so impatient to display its own brilliance that we’re treated to the chorus at the :44 second mark. Said chorus is only one of the highlights in this glorious epic, but its one you will return to forever, even if you don’t really understand what its lyrics are going on about in terms of the album’s concept. They’re mysterious even when taken out of context: “But still they don’t know / They’re just caught in distant memories / Then these fools will fade away / They may not fear the fall”, yet despite their opaqueness I still find them captivating and entrancing because its the manner in which they’re sung that gives them their power. On the back of Frederik’s thundering drums, Andre and Marcus’ rhythmic guitar phrasing, majestic swells of a distant orchestra, and the sweet rivers of choral background vocals, Hansi delivers his deceptively simple lead vocal with sublime extensions of line-ending syllables. Every part is integral, the combination of everything building up to a sound that I don’t even think there’s adequate language to describe —- you listen to it and tell me, that’s not a happy sounding chorus right? Yet its not sad or angry either, its simultaneously all of those things at once and none of them at the same time. When I consider those lyrics, I think that our narrator is expressing some type of disappointment, perhaps even resignation, but the music they’re sung over says otherwise.

That ability to create music that defies written interpretation is what makes Blind Guardian not just one of the greatest metal bands of all time, but one of the greatest bands of all time —- all genres. Period. Stop. Okay, on the back of such effusive praise, why isn’t this listed at the number one spot on this list? Well I have a small gripe about the production, and the sequence that best exemplifies what I’m thinking of cues in at the 3:07-3:41 mark. We’re treated to a heart-stopping, adrenaline-racing increase in tempo and intensity in Hansi’s vocal delivery, “Whatever the cost / It will not be redeemed…”, and we can hear the orchestra swell in reaction, about to slam us against the wall with some Hollywood inspired/James Horner/Howard Shore/Michael Kamen styled sturm und drang. And it happens, sort of… you can hear it happening but thanks to an unforgivable oversight in the mix at this exact moment, you don’t feel the jolt and thrust of the booming timpani, the anger of the brass section, the near panicked notes of the woodwinds and strings in an attempt to keep everyone together. They all just get compressed and pushed below, buried under guitars and layers of vocals at a time when they should be threatening to over take the whole she-bang altogether. For quite a few people, this was a recurring complaint about the album as a whole, and one I hope will urge the band to revisit it a few years down the line in the form of a remix as they have with most of their catalog.

 

 

3.  Angra – “Silent Call” (from the album Secret Garden)  



 
There’s a reflective, almost meditative quality to this spare ballad found at the end of Angra’s Secret Garden, built on the interplay of Rafael Bittencourt’s impassioned lead vocal melody and the backing vocals that snake around him in lush layers. Its in one of those layers where we presumably hear new Angra vocalist Fabio Leone, who has been seen providing backup vocal support on this song at live shows and spots on television shows where they’ve taken a fancy to airing out the tune. They’d be silly not to, this could and should easily be a smash hit back home in Brazil —- its an easy song to love (just take a look at how many cover versions have already sprouted up on YouTube in the span of a year). In my original review of Secret Garden I noted how odd it was that much of the album didn’t feature Leone on lead vocals alone, often casting him as a partner with a guest like Simone Simons or Bittencourt himself (the latter enjoying his own duet with Doro Pesch on the excellent “Crushing Room”). Its not the expected way in which you’d want to indoctrinate your new vocalist or introduce him to your fans, but then it seems that years of various band-related problems of all sorts have pushed Bittencourt to a place where he’s discarding all expectations, structures, and rules. He gets away with it for the most part on the album largely on the strength of his own lead vocal performances —- I’m honestly asking, why can’t Bittencourt just handle the lead vocals himself? I love his voice.

What makes “Silent Call” such a poignant, emotive, and wistful song is found within its lyrics, with a narrator attempting to describe the feeling he has when staring at transcendent scenes of natural beauty. We’re placed alongside him with the line “I find myself lost in the Swedish night / Sunset it’s crying in the sky”, and in case you’re wondering, yes the album was recorded at at Fascination Street Studios in Orebro, Sweden (Jens Bogren country!). I’m particularly fond of the phrasing of “New day, sunrise / Sound the trumpets of the dawn” and Bittencourt’s vocal melody during its delivery, almost see-saw like in its ascending and descending crescendos. His ultra impassioned inflections during the final verse are all exposed nerve endings, raw in their intensity: “Spread my wings and fly / Only guided by faith / Through the darkness or light / May have the “whys?” / It’s always the same” —- its the kind of performance that suggests an expression of frustration. I like the idea of a song written about being unable to effectively communicate a kind of spiritual feeling received from witnessing something that can’t adequately be described by language. All our narrator can do is merely mention whats running through his mind during the experience, such as “…an old bag full of recent memories / Many laughs and many cries”, but that’s enough, the melodies at work here are all we need as listeners to be transported to that specific time and place.

 

 
4.  Witchbound – “Sands of Time” (from the album Tarot’s Legacy)  



 
Witchbound caught my attention in 2015 due to the curious circumstances of their formation —- they’re essentially a band formed in tribute to the recently deceased Stormwitch founder Lee Tarot. Former original Stormwitch members Ronny Gleisberg and Stefan Kauffman joined together with a handful of other ex-Stormwitch guys (from different eras of the band) and a fantastic unknown vocalist in Thorsten Lichtner to finish the final songs that Tarot had left behind unrecorded. In my original review, I wrote of the project’s inception:

Things like this have been done before for other deceased musicians, and they’re always well meaning, while almost always garnering some kind of press and media attention. In this case, there’s very little of that —- a fact that makes Witchbound’s efforts all the more poignant. Unless you’re a metal historian, chances are that Stormwitch isn’t a name that’s familiar to you: They never really blew up in any way in during their heyday, their exposure to American audiences was limited to import mail order catalogs (I don’t even think they had an American distribution deal), and they were never able to crack their home country of Germany like their peers in Grave Digger, Accept, Helloween, and later Blind Guardian.

 
As heartwarming as the spirit and intention of the project is, it wouldn’t be on this list unless it contained something truly fantastic —- and the real surprise is that the entire album is totally worth your time and attention, containing perhaps Tarot’s finest songwriting to date. Its muscular, traditional German heavy metal that’s spiced up with diverse instrumentation and songwriting styles. There’s triumphant, fist-pumping metallic anthems such as “Mandrake’s Fire” and “Mauritania”, but also thoughtfully composed balladry such as “Trail of Stars”. The diamond among the bunch was the shimmering, utterly gorgeous “Sands of Time”, a power ballad built on a slowly escalating bass line, chiming acoustic guitar patterns and tension building riffs. It crests when Lichtner explodes on the chorus, with a melody that soars to the very heights its referencing in its lyric: “Staring at the stars each night, waiting for a sign / Writing down four lines – a vision to rhyme…”. Credit to Lichtner on this one, because his phrasing here is impeccable, and he really just owns the vocalist role all over the album, delivering incredible performances and sounding better to my ears than original Stormwitch vocalist Andy Aldrian ever did. He’s the MVP performance wise on the album, but Tarot himself gets the overall MVP for penning such inspired songs. With “Sands of Time”, he may have delivered his best one ever, with a degree of complexity to its Medici-referencing lyrics as well as an undeniable hook that would’ve sounded at home on an Avantasia album. I’d like to think that Tarot would’ve loved what these guys did with his unfinished songs, if he only had a chance to hear them. I know I did.

 

 

5.  Subterranean Masquerade – “Blanket of Longing” (from the album The Great Bazaar)  



 
Quietly the multi-national Subterranean Masquerade released one of the most satisfyingly melodic, complex, and challenging albums of the year. I had no idea that this was their second album (first in a decade though), nor any idea who Tomer Pink was, the guitarist and songwriter at the heart of this band that consists of members from Israel, Norway and the United States. Those last two are Kjetil Nordhus and Paul Kuhr (of Tristania and November’s Doom respectively), Nordhus handling clean vocal leads with his accented prog-rock delivery while Kuhr delivers the brutality in his distinctive doom-death vocal style. The band’s sound is a diverse blend of ethnic Middle-Eastern music, progressive rock ala Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, and Oriental metal in the vein of Orphaned Land (whose Kobi Farhi does guest vocals on two tracks on the album). It was an album that came out of nowhere, just a random promo I got one day that I had no background on. I kept coming back to the album throughout the year, finding it a pleasure to listen to for its sheer force of personality and some seriously excellent songwriting by Pink. His best one is the emotionally charged semi-ballad “Blanket of Longing”, itself a microcosm for the band’s overall sound, containing a little bit of everything they’re capable of. The real star here is Nordhus, whose clean lead vocals are simply superb, his emotive inflections during the chorus particular stirring: “Often I go back to that picture of my little boy / And I just can’t cry anymore…”. When I hear prog-metal written and performed like this, I know why other more technicality focused prog-rock/metal bands fail to move me. It should always start with a melody worth remembering, not one forgettable riff after another.

 

 
6.  Luciferian Light Orchestra – “Church of Carmel” (from the album Luciferian Light Orchestra)



 
Its a subtle bit of irony that in an era when new retro occult metal and rock bands are getting signed left and right after the success of Ghost, one of the most intriguing projects in that vein comes from a musician that predates all those guys, namely, Therion’s Christofer Johnsson. This is a side project of his with a handful of musician friends, the only known name we have from this bunch being vocalist/photographer Mina Karadzic. According to whomever runs Therion’s social media (I suspect Johnsson himself on all fronts) Karadzic does not handle lead vocals on this particular song so I have no name to place to the gorgeous, breathy singing that adorns this gem. I’ve seen a couple people point to one Mari Paul, a relatively unknown Finnish vocalist who does seem to match the description of the woman singing in its music video, so credit to her if that’s true because the lead vocal at work here truly makes this a stellar slice of atmospheric yet hooky occult rock. There’s something seductive both sensually and spiritually about the vocal melody and the lyrics, the latter specific in its audience: “Young girl, come close / Undress and pray”. Longtime Therion lyricist Thomas Karlsson penned the lyrics on the album, and he draws upon his extensive experience in esoteric studies to inform his lyrical imagery (“A naked altar / and a priest with horn / a shade of Abbé Boullan / kneel and drink the Lord”). A part of me feels that the lyrical content here is partially tongue-in-cheek, but with a hook this magnificent we should all be joining in on the Sabbath anyway.

 

 

7.  Kamelot – “Fallen Star” (from the album Haven)  



 
Look I know I just did it above but normally I try to avoid quoting myself —- it makes me uncomfortable and I fear it could come across as a little egotistical, but I raved about this song when I first reviewed Haven and everything I wrote about it then I still feel now, so take it away Ghost of Metal Pigeon Past:

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

Any guesses as to how bummed I was that the band didn’t play this on the recent Houston stop of their North American trek with Dragonforce? It would’ve been one thing to simply not hear it, but two of the three tunes they did play from Haven were my least favorite from what was largely an excellent album (I’m referring to “Revolution” and “Here’s To The Fall” —- the latter gets a pass because Tommy announced that he was singing it in tribute to his recently departed grandfather, but the former was just as meh live as it was on the album). I hope that Youngblood and company realize that the best way forward on future albums to continually cede more songwriting space to Karevik, he seemed to have a hand on about 75% of Haven, and its very noticeable what songs he had a direct role in shaping primary melodies and motifs. If every vocalist has a signature song or calling card, I nominate “Fallen Star” as Karevik’s for his Kamelot career (wouldn’t want to offend any Seventh Wonder die-hards out there!).

 

 

8.  Nightwish – “Weak Fantasy” (from the album Endless Forms Most Beautiful)  



 
Tuomas Holopainen rarely fails to find someway to astound me, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard “Weak Fantasy”, driving around on various errands while playing the album through for the first time. I was in a shopping center parking lot maneuvering around to find an exit, nodding my head in rhythm Emppu’s sledgehammer riffs and marveling at how powerful Floor Jansen’s voice sounded right alongside the mighty co-lead vocals of Marco Hietala when the folky mid-song bridge kicked in and then 3:34-4:31 happened. I had to pull over into an empty area of the parking lot and simply sit there and let everything wash over me —- the violently swooping in strings, sounding as if they were the soundtrack to some hyper exaggerated ballroom waltz, Marco’s passionate vocal eruption while singing some of Tuomas’ most vitriolic lyrics ever. I hope it was as jaw dropping a moment for others as it was for me, because few songwriters are as attuned to conducting pure, broiling, emotional drama as our guy Tuomas. Oh make no mistake, you’re reading the blog of someone who is an unabashed Holopainen homer, and just like homers in sports fandom, we can criticize our rooting interest, dissect their decision making, persevere through their low points, and ignore their weaker tendencies. Why? Because we know that said rooting interest is capable of providing us with victorious moments like “Weak Fantasy”, songs that justify our allegiance. If I keep going on this particular allegorical road I’ll start questioning my time as a Houston Texans fan, because how crazy is being a fan of a football team? Wishing and hoping through years and decades of futility in hopes of one glorious moment of euphoria? In musical terms, Holopainen has already won a few Super Bowls.

 

 

9.  Year of the Goat – “The Wind” (from the album The Unspeakable)  



 
These charismatic Swedes released a hell of a fantastic rock n’ roll record this year in the vein of Blue Oyster Cult meets In Solitude, and there was quite the handful of awesome moments that could’ve ended up on this list. I was first drawn to the album thanks to Fenriz playing the seven minute plus “Riders of Vultures” on his pirate SoundCloud radio show, and truthfully that song is so awesome that it could’ve ended up on this list. But its “The Wind” that really shows Year of the Goat for the authentic rock n’ roll band that they are, purposeful emphasis on the roll part, because one of the biggest reasons I grew disinterested in rock music as a genre was that most of its new artists had no idea what a rhythm section in rock could do. I lay the blame at a combination of post-grunge and nu-metal, where the definition of rock was transformed to mean loud/soft dynamics, lazy atonal riffs, basic bass playing, uninspired drumming, and a song that found its hook in a vocalist’s knack for yarling out a melodic phrase or two. Thankfully Year of the Goat have arrived on the scene to show these radio rock idiots that yes, Maroon 5 might actually know what they’re talking about when referencing Mick Jagger and his “moves”. On “The Wind”, the rhythm section grooves, laying down a backbeat n’ rumble you can actually sway or dare I suggest… dance to (or at least move in vague accordance to, I know we’re all headbangers here). Dual guitars spit out riffs like a jam session with Izzy n’ Slash and Billy Duffy of the Cult, while vocalist Thomas Sabbathi shifts between a Ville Valo croon and a more metallic Peter Murphy or Nick Cave for the rockin’ bits. Turns out Gene Simmons was really, really wrong.

 

 

10.  Faith No More – “Motherfucker” (from the album Sol Invictus)  



 
While I wasn’t over the moon about Faith No More’s long awaited comeback album Sol Invictus, much to my disappointment, I still love its pre-release single “Motherfucker” for being one of the band’s sharpest, daring, and yes —- greatest songs of their career. Its inherently a pop song, with a convergence of hooks in Patton’s repeating vocal motif (“Get the motherfucker on the phone, the phone…”) and his wild, almost out of sync crooning soaring over the top (“Hello motherfucker, my lover / You saw it coming”). But as a pop song, its built out of strange building materials, not your typical Top 40 fluff and production gloss. First there’s Puffy’s nearly martial snare percussion, keeping us on the march throughout the verses, almost a micro-hook in itself. Roddy provides the atmosphere via keyboard arrangements built on stray notes, echoing like some distant grandfather clock, and I’m pretty sure those weird recurring noises that pop up later on are his doing too. Billy Gould’s personality laden bass rumbles all throughout… one of the things I loved about Faith No More’s sound was that it was so bass reliant, Gould plays as if he’s a guitarist, using his bass to convey melodies as opposed to purely working as a time keeper, much like another great bass player in a little band called Iron Maiden. He and guitarist Jon Hudson go nuts towards the end, the latter unwinding a pent up solo that doesn’t exactly flourish out majestically so much as crawl out, complaining out of frustration. Its a song that would’ve sounded at home on Angel Dust or King For A Day, and that’s a small victory in itself.

 

The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part II: Everything Else I Didn’t Get To Earlier

December 28, 2015

Here we are, a final load of new releases from all over 2015 that I didn’t get around to reviewing upon their release for one reason or another, all stuff I’ve been listening to in varying amounts over the past few weeks and months. There’s way more on here than on part one of the Fall Reviews MegaCluster simply because I’ve committed to keeping these a bit shorter in length (200-400ish words, for realsies this time). But whereas last time all the reviews tended to be positive, that’s not quite the case here. I whittled down all the entries in the MegaCluster from a larger pool of about 30-40 albums —- chances are there’s going to be something I’ve missed that you had hoped to have reviewed here. But if I decided to eliminate something from the chosen few, its mainly because I didn’t get to spend enough time listening to it and you know me, I have a big problem with reviews where its obvious that the writer only listened to an album once. So here we go, the final reviews for 2015, the most exhausting year in metal I can ever remember.
 


 

 

Kylesa – Exhausting Fire: I didn’t know much about Kylesa heading into the promo for Exhausting Fire, this their seventh studio album since their formation in 2001. I’ve learned since then that they’re from Savannah, Georgia, joining Christian power metallers Theocracy as the only metal bands I’ve known to come from the peach state. Well, is calling them metal going too far? I’m not really sure, because their mix of sludgey, doomy riffs is unrelentingly heavy and undeniably metal. Its during the other times, when their more spacey, reverb effect laden alternative rock side comes out where the issue gets clouded —- and the presence of dual gender vocals from bassist Philip Cope and guitarist Laura Pleasants harkens more to a rock feel for me than anything I’ve heard in metal. But I think that’s precisely why I’ve been so interested in this album since I first heard it back in September, because it simply doesn’t sound like anything else out there. I’m not even confident that I can describe it adequately with any sort of extravagant adjective abuse or metaphor, you really just have to listen to these guys.

And they’re worth listening to, because a song like “Shaping the Southern Sky” is so incredible, with a riff progression so catchy it will take mighty forces (like Abba!) to dislodge it from your head. I love Pleasants’ vocals here, her voice reminding me of a more aggressive Hope Sandoval (Mazzy Star), made all the more alluring with some reverse echo effects on her vocals to make her sound like she’s singing to you from beneath the surface of a swimming pool. As a three piece, Kylesa make an impressive racket, drummer Carl McGinley is jacked up on something, hopefully just adrenaline, but his beautifully recorded percussion is some of the most savage you’ll hear on any album this year. Together with Cope, they form a dominating rhythm section, fat with bottom end that physically shakes your speakers in rude rumbles. Pleasants’ guitar work is best described as heavily distorted psychedelia, a lot of cleanly picked patterns that float up gently as in “Falling”, or support more bass driven tunes like “Night Drive” with bizarre accents and exclamation points. When she and Cope join together for dual lead vocal passages, they don’t so much harmonize as simply sing next to one another (if that makes any sense), their voices never overlapping, one seemingly a split-nanosecond behind the other. It all amounts to a trippy experience, and fair warning if that’s not your thing… I suppose its worth saying that you need to be somewhat in the mood for music like this, but those moods do exist and luckily for us so does this out of nowhere crazy fun album.

 

The Takeaway: Dive right in if you’re a fan of sludge metal/rock, or even stoner doom in any of its incarnations. Tread carefully if you normally prefer more straight ahead melodic experiences, because while Kylesa do write melodic songs, they’re buried under layers of sonic debris (you’ll hear what I mean). Still that being said, worth your time to stream somewhere for free, and I wouldn’t recommend that if it wasn’t.
 

 
 

Stratovarius – Eternal: Its been an eventful road towards album number fifteen for Finland’s original power metal export. We all know about the mid-2000’s intra-band turmoil that ultimately resulted in one spectacularly awful album and the departure of founding guitarist Timo Tolkki so I’ll sidestep the historical recap here. My own fandom of Stratovarius seemed to wane during that era as well, and not just because I found the whole thing silly and distasteful, but because at that time I happened to become a huge fan of Kamelot. After hearing albums like Epica and The Black Halo, it was hard to enjoy any of Stratovarius’ albums as much as I once did (and in a quirky bit of personal history I gave my entire Stratovarius collection to my current MSRcast cohost Cary!). Maybe that comes off as elitist but I still like the band and a smattering of their older classic songs (of which there are many), and ever since they moved on without Tolkki I’ve been quietly rooting for them. But Polaris (2009), Elysium (2011), and Nemesis (2013) didn’t wow me, they had their moments but even those seemed fleeting and dare I suggest, by the numbers? I didn’t even bother reviewing the latter two, mainly because I felt that I’d have nothing to say about them one way or another —- and I was trying to be conscious of the fact that perhaps they lost a key songwriting ingredient when Tolkki left. For better or worse, he was a major songwriting force for them, and it seems to have been a process of trial and error in determining who would fill the void within the band.

The answer it seems is not bassist Lauri Porra as Polaris seemed to suggest, but a largely contributions by Tolkki’s successor in guitarist Matias Kupiainen and the songwriting team-up of vocalist Timo Kotipelto with his solo project collaborator and ex-Sonata Arctica guitarist Jani Liimatainen, coupled with a song or two from Porra and longtime keyboardist Jens Johansson. Interestingly enough the Kotipelto/Liimatainen collaboration provides music for three songs entirely and lyrics for nearly the rest of them (save for songs penned solely by Johansson), and I suppose the band as a whole felt that those two guys were onto something with the pair of songs they contributed to the Nemesis album. Its a rarity in metal, let alone power metal for a band to have this many songwriters on board contributing whole songs to an album, and noteworthy for that alone I suppose. Whats encouraging is how surprised I am by how satisfying many of these songs are, they’ve got me paying attention for the first time in forever. I’m particularly fond of “My Eternal Dream” with its mix of minor and major key alterations, and a chorus that recalls the band’s classic Visions album. Ditto for “Shine In the Dark”, a relatively poppy song for Stratovarius but one where Kotipelto and Liimatainen dreamed up some awesome layered vocal melodies (great bridge on this one). Porra’s contribution “Lost Without A Trace” is fantastic as well, with a chorus built on a beautiful, emotional ascending vocal run that reminds you of just how talented Kotipelto truly is. Personal favorite comes in the oddly titled “My Line of Work”, another Kotipelto/Liimatainen number built on an addictive melodic riff pattern that enticingly reminds me of classic Sonata Arctica, which is never a bad thing.

 

The Takeaway: I gave this a cursory listen when it came out back around September or whenever (that month is covered in a haze now) and shelved it in favor of other priority releases… and I kinda regret it now. This is a feisty, swagger-filled, melodic-in-all-the-right-spots, truly excellent Stratovarius album; their first front to finish must listen since 2000’s Infinite, and that’s something I never thought I’d be able to say again. Glad to see the old masters refusing to go quietly in the night!
 

 
 

Amberian Dawn – Innuendo: I’m a late comer to Amberian Dawn apparently, seeing as they’ve been around since 2006, have just released their seventh studio album Innuendo —- their second with vocalist Capri Virkkunen (so I’ve essentially missed an entire era of their history with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen). I could swear its a name that I’ve been familiar with, as in someone might’ve pointed them out to me and I had a conversation about them but never got around to actually listening to their music… it was probably Doctor Metal, because its usually Doctor Metal. I feel pretty lousy about missing out all this time, but once again this is another proven example of the cream rises to the top theory —- that a band doing good work will eventually reach my ears through word of mouth, and that its mostly okay to not be in on the ground floor of discovery (and now I get an entire discography to explore). What bugs me more than that however is that Amberian Dawn is a preciously rare example of a female fronted metal band doing something original and not just attempting to fit into the Nightwish / Epica / (insert band here) mold. I’ve read that primary songwriter/keyboardist Tuomas Seppala’s main influences are Ritchie Blackmore, Malmsteen, and Dio, and I totally hear those aspects, but it all makes complete sense when you throw in his non-metal inspiration of ABBA. Of course. Add to that Virkkunen’s pure pop background —- she started off in the late nineties releasing a pair of solo pop albums, made a few runs at Eurovision, and actually played the part of Frida Lyngstad in an ABBA musical (not sure if this was an off-broadway version of Mamma Mia or not). I noticed she has a Roxette cover on YouTube, now it really makes sense.

Her rich, dramatic, soaring vocal ability is perfect for the kind of dramatic yet upbeat, slightly symphonic metallic pop-rock that Seppala writes, and Virkkunen apparently functions as the sole lyricist, a rarity for most bands like this where the songwriter handles both the music and lyrics (ala Tuomas Holopainen). She’s a talented lyricist, writing convincingly about a range of emotions while adapting them to Seppala’s melodies quite nicely (I’m not wowed as much as I was by Triosphere’s Ida Haukland who seemed to have broader palette diction-wise, but Virkkunen offers some spectacular moments with clever phrasing). I’m a sucker for the kind of pomp and circumstance dramatic flair of “Fame & Gloria” and “Innuendo”, the latter of which features a really incredible major key shift in its bridge to chorus that’s surprisingly inventive. I’m very attached to “The Court of Mirror Hall”, where the ABBA influence really shines through and you could swear you’re listening to a forgotten cut by the Swedish gods, its got a rhythmic strut to its riff patterns that I love and Virkkunen’s alliterative vocal melodies are masterful. Speaking of channeling ABBA, how about the piano ballad “Angelique” and the ultra happy “Knock Knock Who’s There?” —- and look, I get that might be a bad thing for those of you who have no interest in anything that sounds remotely like ABBA (but let’s get one thing clear here, if all you know is “Dancing Queen” then go do your homework… I’m not kidding!). As you’d expect in a pop heavy context like this, the guitars are subservient to the keyboard and vocal melodies, but Emil Pohjalainen fills in the background really well, like a more refined Emppu Vuorinen, and sometimes as on “The Witchcraft” he’s able to steal the show with some delightful Malmsteen-esque patterns strewn across the song. But the album belongs to Virkkunen, who establishes herself as a supreme talent in the ranks of female vocalists in metal… she’s certainly got a fan in me.

 

The Takeaway: Check yourself for your pop tolerance levels before diving into this one but if you’re up for it then I definitely can’t recommend this enough. Fans of Amaranthe should take heed certainly, as well as those of you who thought Nightwish’s time with Anette Olzon yielded some pretty awesome results.
 

 
 

Hair of the Dog – The Siren’s Song: For awhile there I couldn’t even remember where, when, or how I heard about Hair of the Dog, a Swedish throwback metallic, doom-kissed hard rock band that shockingly seem to be unsigned (they’re selling the album via bandcamp). I’ve narrowed it down to simply being a random promo that the MSRcast received that I loaded into my unruly new music iTunes playlist, because I certainly remember that it was a song called “You Soft Spoken Thing” that made me stop what I was doing and take notice of what I was listening to. Boasting one of the most amazing riffs I’ve heard all year, its representative of what Hair of the Dog are all about, that is a 70s inspired brew of Thin Lizzy, The Doors, and Black Sabbath put through a doom metal and psychedelic rock filter. These guys are from Edinburgh, Scotland, and while that’s not entirely implausible, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from I dunno… New Orleans, or Nashville even. Musically speaking its hard to detect any discernible UK characteristics to their sound, both musically and vocally —- their singer/guitarist Adam Holt sounds at times like a more controlled Jim Morrison if he was a southern rocker. His lyrics at times even owe more to regional American dialects than to anything from Scotland, and I’m not trying to suggest that’s he’s being disingenuous, because this kind of rock tends to be universal (take a listen to Gotthard, from Switzerland of all places), but its just a facet of this band that I find incredibly surprising.

They’re a trio, just guitar, bass, and drums, and they make the most out of that framework. Drummer Jon Holt (relation?) and bassist Iain Thomson make up an admirable rhythm section, but its Adam Holt whose guitar work demands most of the attention here. He’s just a superb riffer, and if he’s responsible for the songwriting (which seems likely) then apply that superlative to that as well. Personal favorites include “The Spell” where Holt kicks up the acceleration on a riff sequence that actually becomes the refrain; and “Don’t Know My Name” with its very Sabbath-esque riffs and quiet/loud verse to chorus dynamics (I get a real Doors vibe from this one). I quite like the eerie, backwoods swamp feel of the clean plucked intro to “My Only Home”, as well as the spooky, Blue Oyster Cult quality to “The Siren’s Song Pt.1” where Holt paints haunting melodic motifs with a minimalist’s brush, conjuring up gorgeous atmospherics with just a few notes. I’m surprised I enjoyed this album as much as I did, its a good collection of music in this particular style, but if I’m being honest its stuff I don’t normally listen to (feeling like I burned myself out on “rock” a long time ago, as strange as that sounds). That speaks volumes to me about the quality of the songwriting here, because ultimately that’s what its all about —- there are loads of bands that sound close to Hair of the Dog, but few of them have the chops to deliver compelling songs.
 

The Takeaway: One of those random out of nowhere albums that grabbed my attention in a year jammed full of releases, a feat in itself. This is exactly as described, so don’t head into this expecting something like Grand Magus, because Hair of the Dog is very much rock n’ roll with an emphasis on the roll. If you’re missing that in your rotation, you’d be negligent in not at least sampling this.
 

 
 

Circle II Circle – Reign of Darkness: I have a soft spot for Zak Stevens’ post-Savatage project, the ever rotating cast that is Circle II Circle, not only because they charmingly seem to have attained some sort of perennial live slot at Wacken, but because after all these years they really are alone in creating this distinctive type of metal. One listen to a cut off this album will serve as enough of an example as to what I’m talking about —- largely minor key American styled melodic metal of the mid-tempo variety. Think 90s Savatage (duh!) and maybe a bit of Saigon Kick (for the  guitar tones anyway), and you’re pretty much on target for an accurate description of what Stevens and company are up to. Circle II Circle’s first two albums were largely written by his old Savatage bandmates Jon Oliva and Chris Caffrey, and they were pretty great as a result. Since then however, Stevens writing partner is his longtime bassist Mitch Stewart, who has the ability to hit upon some inspired riffs which lead to Stevens developing a few excellent vocal melodies or hooks. They’ve been working in tandem for five albums now, so they’ve developed a rapport and it seems like when they’re at their best they are outdoing themselves continually. Their problem is ultimately consistency, they can’t quite seem to spread that success across an entire album, and its been that way since 2006’s Burden of Proof.

Case in point is that there are really only a small handful of truly awesome cuts here, but man are they awesome: First up is the album opener (sans intro track, ugh) “Victim of the Night”, as classic sounding a Circle II Circle song as they’ve ever written with total minor key darkness on the verse and bridge section and a marginally brighter chorus (but only just). Somehow Stevens is able to hoist appealing, hummable vocal melodies above such an aggressive bed of riffs, with the band joining in on backup vocals to give that chorus a little bit of a lift. Even better is “Untold Dreams”, a semi-ballad that turns into an aggressive mid-tempo stomper with some of the album’s best moments. I love the way the backing vocals join in with Stevens at the end of the line “There’s a reason that I’ll always be… alone” (check the :47 second mark), their combined vibratos (or Stevens’ layered vocal tracks, whichever) making that a moment worth rewinding over and over for. The verses here are satisfyingly alliterative and the chorus is simply hookwormy, the kind that Stevens excels at like no one else. You’ll find another addictive chorus payoff in “Somewhere”, although some of the build up to it leaves a lot to be desired its still worth the effort because the vocal melody there is achingly emotive. The band gets a nice groove going on “Taken Away” with emphatic synchronous riffing leaving a lot of room for Stevens to carry the melodic load, I just wish there was a stronger hook at work here. As for everything else, its really just there, as in its unoffensive but not inspiring either —- just like the past four albums. Back in 2012 the band released a compilation album called Full Circle: The Best of Circle II Circle, and it was a near perfect cross-section of no frills American melodic metal. Circle II Circle’s unfortunate problem is their inability to write such a compilation album at will.

 

The Takeaway: I hate recommending someone to avoid listening to Circle II Circle, and for anyone new to the band I’d encourage them to check out the first two albums at the least, or even the respectably put together Full Circle compilation album. Download “Untold Dreams” and “Victim of the Night” off iTunes from this one for sure though.
 

 
 

Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable: Credit goes to Fenriz and his amazing downloadable pirate radio show broadcasts, its through one of those episodes that I found out about Year of the Goat via a strikingly catchy song called “Riders of Vultures”. It appears at the end of this album but its not the only remarkable aspect of what may be one of the strongest records of the year. Whether or not you’ll find enjoyment in it depends on how much you’ve been able to get into this recent wave of retro occult rock. I’m of course referring to bands like Ghost, The Devil’s Blood, Orchid, Blues Pills (you get the idea); all rock and metal artists who’ve to varying degrees adapted a distinct sensibility born in the 70s, when the idea of introducing occult themes and marrying them to a distinct sound was entirely new territory. If you’ve been skeptical of some of the recent revivals (such as the odious purist 80s thrash metal wave) like I have then you might be naturally wary of this, but the occult rock revival seems to have a little more promise to it mainly because there’s so many styles of metal it can be mixed with —- In Solitude showed us as much with their excellent Sister album two years ago.

In fact, the aforementioned fellow Swedes might be the most apt to compare Year of the Goat to, as both In Solitude’s vocalist Pelle Ahman and Goat’s own creepy crooner Thomas Sabbathi share strong similarities in their singing styles, fragile and wavery while melodic. Sabbathi’s relatively flawed voice is strangely perfect for the type of loose, jangly, Blue Oyster Cult invoking rock n’ roll that Goat deliver here —- yes rock n’ roll, because while there are definitely metal riffs and songwriting tendencies to be found, there’s no way that a song like “The Wind” can’t be considered as such. The drums are played loose yet with an focus to its timekeeping back-beat, and bassist Tobias Resch plays off him like they’ve been jamming for a decade, keeping in rhythm, flourishing here and there to fill in voids —- they dance around each other gleefully. I like that the band is built on dual guitarists, Marcus Lundberg and Don Palmroos are a terrific tandem, moving from aggressive riffs to strum-based rhythm guitar, spitting out darkly gorgeous open chord patterns at will and generally just being more creative than other bands of this ilk tend to be. They’re as much a joy to listen to as Sabbathi, I particularly love their work on “Pillars of the South”, built upon their ascending and descending minor key harmonized riffing, dressed up during verses by spare harmonic patterns and finishing the song with wild Gn’R styled soloing. Their songwriting approach reminds me of the best qualities of The Darkness, that is writing with an eye towards memorable melodies, being unafraid of indulging in major chord hook-craft, all while playing loose and wild on guitars and vocals yet crisp and tight in the rhythm section. They seem to have figured out what their sweet spot is stylistically, allowing them to concentrate on quality songwriting to get the most out of it.

 

The Takeaway: I’ve been listening to this for nearly three months now in recurring fashion. Just when I think I’ve probably heard it enough I’ll hear one of its songs in my head and that craving will lead me right back into playing the entire thing all the way through. I’ve been skittish on the occult rock wave that seems to have brought record deals to countless bands, but The Unspeakable is an undeniably fantastic album, I even think I’m enjoying it more than In Solitude’s Sister which speaks volumes.
 

 
 

Leaves’ Eyes – King Of Kings: I’ve always wanted to enjoy Leaves’ Eyes more than I actually do. I even saw them live once when they opened for Kamelot in 2007 (could be wrong about that year) and thought they were rather fun to see, Liv Kristine being an engaging frontwoman and Alexander Krull being the undeniable presence he always has been. Their studio albums are always produced well, sound great and their songwriting is largely good… a lame adjective sure but perhaps its the underlying issue, because they’ve never really done anything I can honestly call great. That trend continues with the history drenched King of Kings, a semi-concept album about the sagas of Harald Fairhair, Norway’s first king (which reminds me of Sabaton’s own Carolus Rex concept album, also about a king). While the subject matter does interest me, there’s nothing musically going on to distinguish it from the five other Leaves Eyes albums (especially the Celtic music soaked “Vengeance Venom”, why not go for something more Norwegian sounding as a cultural music touchstone to better serve the concept?). I cringe at having to criticize albums like this too, because I realize how increasingly rare it will be going forward to have new music released in this vein as the music industry continues to shrink and artists have to scale back their activities due to finances. Incidentally this is Leaves’ Eyes first album for AFM Records, having parted ways with Napalm, their label since the band’s inception. Seems counter intuitive for Napalm considering the roster they’ve been trying to cultivate, but maybe the band got tired of middling chart positions —- while on Napalm they had yet to really crack Germany (finally hitting number 15 on the Media Control charts there with this new album).

Its hard to deny the appeal of pop-driven songs like “The Waking Eye” and “King of Kings”, both advance songs (music video and lyric video respectively) for good reason. It struck me as I was listening to the latter along to its lyrics that one of the reasons I loved Sabaton’s aforementioned Carolus Rex so much was that its music really synced with the dramatic impact of the lyrics. Think about the title track and how its chorus (“I was chosen by heaven / Say my name when you pray / To the skies…”) came in with a sudden forcefulness, a slight increase in vocal delivery tempo backed up by a muscular layer of backing vocals. When you listen to “King of Kings”, ostensibly about the same kind of topic, the chorus seems relatively laissez-faire, entirely working against its lyrics: “Hail the forces / The first king of Norway / King of kings / Hail the fairest of Norsemen / The dragon / Victorious”. Far be it for me to assume anything on behalf of the songwriter, but I’d expect something with a little more gusto, a little more drive. Kristine sounds great however, so if you ignore the lyrics its all ice cream, but that disconnect that I’m perceiving here really detracts from any attempt at getting into the album’s concept. The Sabaton track was vivid and thrilling, its first person perspective really helped in pulling us into this lunatic’s worldview —- in contrast this Leaves’ Eyes song comes across a little like a cursory history lesson. Everywhere else things move along predictably, though there’s a fun, heavy guitar riff in “Edge of Steel” towards the end that perks up an otherwise unremarkable song. Also “Blazing Waters” seems to be an example of what these guys and gal should be trying more of, that is injecting a heck of a lot more aggression and uptempo riffing throughout. I’m sure a few people will read this review and disagree vehemently, and out of the admiration and respect I have for both Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull, I’m glad for that.

 

The Takeaway: Really did try with this one, giving it a few months to sink in by coming back to it every so often. It didn’t take, and I think its far inferior to Vinland Saga (still their best album to my ears). If you’ve enjoyed their previous albums in any substantial way you’ll be fine, otherwise consider Amberian Dawn for something a little different and unique in the way of female fronted metal (oh and Draconian as well!).
 

 
 

Gloryhammer – Space 1992: Rise of the Chaos Wizards: I was told that I’d be remiss not to issue a review for the much ballyhooed Gloryhammer, a side project from Christopher Bowes of the abysmal Alestorm. I thought this was supposed to be a one-off thing, as they released a debut album in 2013 that I heard a few tracks from but I guess this is Bowes way of taking a break from half-hearted “pirate” metal and mediocre live shows. Kudos to him for that at least, because Gloryhammer is a far more intriguing project simply because he’s working with a better group of musicians, most noticeably vocalist Thomas Winkler, a relatively unknown guy from Switzerland who is actually pretty excellent, with incredible range and diversity in his singing styles. I know that most of the folks on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group were all about this Space 1992 album when it first dropped all those months ago. I saw a few posts on the group’s wall about it possibly being the best album of 2015 and that really did force my hand in actually hunting down a promo and giving it a shot despite my original intentions to ignore it entirely. I don’t know what I was expecting, I knew what I was walking into —- how much could I enjoy an album of self-professed “satirical power metal” anyway? As it turns out, not much at all.

Before you type that comment, I’ll point out one crucial thing: I’m not against anyone having fun, which seems to be the intent of this project (if not to capitalize on some sort of limited potential for irony-seeking cross-over success ala Dragonforce in 2006). I’m someone who thinks Manowar’s “Kings of Metal” is a fun album, grin-inducing in its best moments and containing a few songs worthy of fist-pumping and headbanging at a party or your buddy’s garage at 2am (if not quite at a $100 per ticket Manowar gig). And I’ll admit that when listening through this album I couldn’t help but enjoy “Universe on Fire” for its simple yet incredibly effective hook and refrain. But if Gloryhammer somehow stands out to you as an example of power metal done right… I’ll have to politely disagree. The knock on power metal has always seemed to be just how seriously its artists take their work, often times placing inordinate amounts of importance on their own made up story lines, or in the case of Dragonforce (one of the genre’s most popular exports, like it or not) the ludicrousness of how nonsensical the lyrics could be. We as power metal fans have heard these same old jabs time and time again, but what we get that everyone else on the outside looking in can never seemingly understand is that power metal is one of the last bastions in music that is free from irony and self-awareness.

That’s what allows me to connect with honest, open nerve ending songwriting such as on Avantasia’s twin releases The Wicked Symphony / Angel of Babylon, or sink deep into the fantastical, imaginative world of Nightwish as a metaphor for childhood nostalgia and lost innocence —- because I know that I’m listening to music that was created without a shred of irony, self-awareness, and detached cool. I get nothing out of the smirking, self-satisfied, satirical nature of Gloryhammer —- and maybe you do —- but to me its an exercise in pointlessness. Bowes only artistic ambition seems to be ascending to the title of metal’s Weird Al Yankovic. Congratulations, you’ve succeeded, and in the process we know nothing about what you really have to say as a musician and artist. One could argue, why does anyone have to say anything as an artist? Weird Al Yankovic just wants to make people laugh —- and you’d be right, he’s a funny guy… so am I supposed to be laughing or smirking while listening to Gloryhammer? Should I knowingly nod and say aloud, “Hah, these guys are taking the piss out of power metal bands like those idiots in Rhapsody, with their so-called cinematic Hollywood metal and stories of kingdoms and dragons and silky shirted Italian guys”. You know what, at least Rhapsody did something original and did it with conviction. They care about the stories they set to music and no one can deny they’ve worked hard at turning them into musical reality, regardless of whether or not you enjoy them or think they’re silly (and to be clear, I’m not really a fan). With all due respect to the USPMC guys because I really do enjoy the group, but if this is your best album of the year, you’re not looking hard enough for meaningful metal.

 

The Takeaway: No.
 

 
 

Deafheaven – New Bermuda: I was asked by Morroweird (@michrzesz) on Twitter what I thought about the newest Deafheaven album, released back in early October. I hadn’t listened to it by the time he’d asked me later that month and honestly didn’t plan on it, having felt like I said all I ever wanted to say about Deafheaven already. But I’m an easy sell if someone actually wants my opinion (as opposed to me just forcefully throwing it out there), so I finally got around to giving it a few spins. First off I’ll have to acknowledge just how wrong my prediction was, as Morroweird pointed out, that the band would retreat further away from the metal aspects of their sound. Much to my surprise they’ve done the exact opposite, and though I could only guess at their motivations, I’m not sure they did themselves any favors here. For all my criticism of Deafheaven as a media darling, I had to admit that their 2013 album Sunbather had a few really stellar moments where their mix of dreamy shoegaze meshed with their major key take on black metal. Songs like “Dreamhouse” and the instrumental “Irresistible” were worth all the hoopla, even if the second half of the album lost my interest a bit. I’m re-listening to Sunbather right now as I type this sentence… its a strong record, as annoying as that still is to admit. I could’ve listened to an album full of nothing but melodies like those found in “Irresistible” actually.

So this followup then is simultaneously disappointing on a musical level and equally as puzzling for the absurd amount of praise its getting. My best of 2015 features are coming up next —- I purposefully delayed them to avoid getting lost in the flurry of year end lists that pollute your browser come early to mid December —- and I’ve stopped myself from looking at ANY year end lists (even Angry Metal Guy’s so you know I’m serious) until mine are complete just so I can make it easy on myself by not getting distracted with albums that I missed. But I’ve taken a gander at the New Bermuda page on Wikipedia and did a Google search and see it lighting up a ton of the usual suspects year end lists (Pitchfork (big surprise Stosuy), SPIN (Artists of the Year apparently), Stereogum, Rolling Stone). I’m suspecting the band to be an easy inclusion for a lot of these editors compiling these lists based on their name alone (imagine what they had to contend with in 2014 with no new Deafheaven to heap limitless praise upon, must’ve been tough), because if they were listening to the same album I was, I don’t see how anyone could dub this the best of the year by a long shot. Deafheaven have upped their metallic attack, relying more on integrated riff sequences with the occasional breath of air in the form of jangly open chord strumming. Instead of the fuzzy, dreamy hues of the last album we’re treated to what is largely a bleak, dark grey affair, one that seems out to impress upon people the validity of their self-professed metal roots.

Alright, its certainly more black metal than anything they’ve done before. The opener “Brought to the Water” sounds like pretty standard second wave Norwegian black metal until it reaches a few bridge sequences in the middle where bent chords shift away from the frenetic percussion and riffage to attempt to create some sort of dichotomous tonal separation (ie they try to start something and fail). Its an uninteresting clunker of a song, aimless and drifting in its meandering, slower moments, the only cool part coming at 5:38 when Kerry McCoy lurches in on a power chord to start the metal section again. The needlessly ten minute long “Luna” is essentially more of the same, except that its softer parts are even more meandering, serving only to work as foils to the introduction of a heavy sequence (this time an escalating chord progression). George Clarke’s vocals are once again a tinny, repetitive, pointless exercise —- are there people out there that enjoy his style and simultaneously dislike Dani Filth? Because a criticism of one is a criticism of the other (and to be fair to Dani, he does have a range and deviates within it a lot… Clarke seems unable). There’s actually a pretty good riff midway through “Baby Blue” but it doesn’t really set anything up and is repeated without purpose (no vocals over the top, so I assume the riff is supposed to convey something musical?… except that its not). Frustrating. The best part of the album comes at the 5:25 mark of “Come Back”, where the song shifts from more proving they can do it black metal to a largely hushed, ambient passage with soft, wistful guitar playing (they sound more comfortable doing this to be honest). Is it that they’re trying too hard or just didn’t realize that they had stumbled onto an actual sound they could work with on their last album? This is one of the more confusing releases of the year. Sorry Morroweird, I gave it a shot but didn’t expect to dislike this as much as I did.

 

The Takeaway: Avoid like the plague and check out Sunbather for a few interesting moments here and there. I think Deafheaven miscalculated, and whatever it was that they’re trying to accomplish here is misguided… they should’ve played to their strengths and drifted away from metallic elements, only using them as a brush or tone when needed. It worked for Alcest apparently. Not surprised that it made year end lists of mainstream publications though…they do have demographics to think about.
 

The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part I: Swallow the Sun, Draconian and More!

November 25, 2015

Throughout the year, I’ve made not-so-veiled references to 2015 being the year with possibly the most noteworthy metal releases that we’ve ever seen. The sheer volume has been overwhelming. Here’s what I overlooked: that it wasn’t just going to be releases that were noteworthy to me, but releases that were noteworthy to everyone else as well. This year publicists, record labels, and bands themselves sent out more promos and emails than I ever expected, and before you mistake The Metal Pigeon blog as a beacon for traffic (it is not I assure you), I realize that most of them came because of my duties as co-host of the MSRcast podcast. Simply put, when blogs or metal writers I follow on Twitter talked about an album they loved, it happened to be a band I wasn’t aware of or expecting, and it went on my to-do list and my promo folder. No exaggeration, because I’ve kept count, I had 126 promos of individual new releases land on my metaphorical desk! Okay, so some of them were hard rock (apparently writing favorably about certain power metal bands makes you a hot target for any AOR oriented label) and some of them were bands I’d never heard of, but most were from established, popular metal bands.

So after going through them all, I whittled them down to a range of 15 to 20ish that I might want to talk about, hence the first of a multiple part Fall edition reviews cluster. Some of these might be albums released a few months or longer ago, but better late than never I suppose. Because there’s so many albums to discuss I’ll be trying (key word) to keep these on the shorter side, but some might go longer (yeah okay, the first one went really long). Bear with me, its going to be a crazy few weeks ahead.
 



Swallow The Sun – Songs From The North I, II & III: I’m not as big a Swallow the Sun aficionado as my MSRcast cohost Cary, but when he described this new triple disc thematic album to me on a recent episode of the podcast, I was all in. I love stuff like this, of a band running and gunning on ambition, throwing caution to the wind and doing something a record label would shake its head at (although perhaps in this age of struggling record sales, more projects like this are exactly what the industry needs to renew an interest in physical sales). I call this a thematic album in regards to its division of stylistic approaches across its three individual discs, not in regards to their lyrics, which effectively share similar Swallow the Sun(ny!) sentiments across the board (they’re a doomy melo-death band from Finland, you know the score). It goes like this: the first disc is a Swallow the Sun album done in the band’s normal/regular stylistic vein; the second disc is a largely acoustic album; and the third disc is an original album of rather extreme funeral doom —- I should hasten to point out that all three discs consist of entirely original new material (no re-records on that acoustic album, bonus points in my book). Its an intriguing proposition on paper, sort of like Opeth’s Deliverance / Damnation experiment taken a step further (and released simultaneously). If I’m being honest, I was more excited to hear the acoustic album, and that’s what I wound up listening to first. That’s certainly not intended to be a slight against their normal approach… its just that I hadn’t to this point really loved any of their past records like I have albums by Insomnium, Ominium Gatherum, and Amorphis.

Whats caught me off guard is how much I honestly am enjoying the first “normal” disc here. The songwriting on Songs From the North I is sharp, focused, riveting and full of darkly beautiful, evocative melodicism with just enough of a tempo kick in certain elements of the instrumentation to keep everything interesting on a sonic level. I’m not a big doom guy in general, because with the traditional stuff the slow tempos of everything just weigh on my interest and attention levels, but Swallow the Sun have always been intriguing because they attempted to mix melo-death musicality with doom metal structures. That means even when the tempos are at their doom-iest, there’s something captivating going on with the guitar patterns —- such as on the gorgeous opener “With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears”, a nine minute epic built on those aforementioned lead guitar patterns that move in procession over elongated rhythm and bass guitars that are structured like jutting pieces of a glacier moving down a mountain. Vocalist Mikko Kotamaki’s ushers everything along with one of the bleakest, fiercest doom/death vocal hybrids you’ll ever hear, his extreme voice having the flexibility to bend from relatively high-pitched screams to deep, rich guttural passages where he still maintains control and enunciation in the delivery of the lyrics. Furthermore, he demonstrates a smooth, emotive, accented clean vocal on the opener and in moments of songs such as “10 Silver Bullets” and my personal favorites for vocal work, “Heartstrings Shattering” and “From Happiness To Dust”.

Those latter two aforementioned songs might just be some of the best examples of microcosms for why the first disc is as rich, diverse, and practically flawless as it is. On “Heartstrings Shattering”, the band builds around Kotamaki’s cleanly sung laments, guitars echoing off the end of his lyrics like further continuations of sentiments they couldn’t set to words. His extreme metal vocal passages are layered in between those clean vocal passages, some of them sung by guest female vocalist and past contributor to the band Aleah Stanbridge (who incidentally also serves as the photographer for the individual art on each of the albums packaging within —- the ones with the model wearing tree branch/antlers, photography that contributes massively to just how excellent the overall design/packaging of the album turned out). Her vocals are a delicate, nuanced counterpoint to all the aggression we’re getting, yet her tone seems just shy of being ethereal because its mixed with a touch of despair that helps keep her in tone with the music… something a lot of other bands tend to get wrong by simply going the beauty and the beast route when it doesn’t suit the music. Here Stanbridge is a part of the fabric of the song as a whole, her appearance is sudden but not jarring, and the music doesn’t shift in tempo or tone to accommodate her because it simply doesn’t need to. As for “From Happiness to Dust”, sweet maria, listen to how unconventional yet perfect that open chord sequenced chiming guitar motif is when introduced at the :33 second mark. Its employed relatively sparingly throughout the song’s near nine minutes, but every occurrence seems like a religious experience. Its on the list as a song of the year candidate.
 

The first disc is such a towering achievement, that it threatens to overshadow the inspired Songs From the North II, the band’s all acoustic work. Its the perfect autumn chill out disc, a collection of minor key hushed lullabyes built on hypnotic acoustic guitar patterns, draped with keyboard built string arrangements, with Kotamaki’s delicate clean vocals adrift over the the top. That description might seem like its all a little mechanical or by the numbers, but once again the band’s songwriting here wins the day. Certain songs fall further in the “acoustic chill out” spectrum than others, such as “Away”, a song that sleepily sways along, drawing you into its almost relaxing, serene ambient nature. Others are more built on James Taylor-esque simple hooks, as on “Pray For the Winds to Come”, where guitarists Juha Raivio and Markus Jamsen deliver a lilting guitar motif built on chiming chords that actually serves as a strong hook, Kotamaki slipping his vocals in between their strongest accents. He’s joined by another female vocalist on the titular “Songs From the North”, one Kaisa Vala, who sings the refrain in Finnish with a relatively bright and cheery vocal tone —- believe me it works, not only because it better suits the complexities of Finnish language consonants but because in this case her voice is a warming accent to relatively frosty verses (musically and lyrically speaking —- the song is essentially a love letter to the Finnish wilderness).

Its interesting to me that I went into this album looking forward to hearing the acoustic disc the most, in fact I listened to it first, and its a lovely listen don’t get me wrong… but I’ve been realizing that its the first “regular” disc that’s been getting most of the spins lately. Its the more dynamic of the two, its longer length pieces having more peaks and valleys, more differentiation with songwriting structures and composition whereas the acoustic album tends to run at a very specific and unchanging speed for the most part. Of course this is to say nothing of this set’s third, “extreme funeral doom” disc… look, I’ve given it more than a handful of spins, and maybe its just that this particular flavor of metal isn’t for me (historically, that’s the way its been for my relationship with funeral doom) but I’m just having a hard time getting into it. It has its moments, such as on “Empires of Loneliness”, where the tempos of both the rhythm guitars and percussion alternate with speedier attacks to contrast to the sludge-paced tempo and overly extreme doom vocals (which I suppose Kotamaki does well). There’s also some really intriguing guitar work on the back end of “Abandoned By The Light” in the form of melodic figures that act as defacto solos of a sort… I almost wish they were utilized on the first disc in some other form. But on other more unforgiving tracks, “Gathering of the Black Moths” and “7 Hours Late” to name a pair, I’m just unable to find anything redeeming in their funeral procession-like tempos and overly droning vocalizations that they apparently require, but someone will —- its obvious that they are well done.

I applaud Swallow the Sun’s ambition in their approach to this project, its the kind of the thing that makes you excited to be a metal fan —- seriously, what other genre will you get something like this? In their attempt they’ve not only created some truly remarkable music, but renewed my interest in their work. Its the old story repeated once more: I find myself loving something new from an established band whom I had largely been ambivalent to, and its going to get me looking to revisit their back catalog to see if I’m now receptive to something amazing that I’ve missed. I never internalize that as self-chastening, instead I embrace it, it means there’s another band out there doing incredible stuff that I can proudly call myself a fan of.

The Takeaway: The only stain here is that I’m left thinking about how that problematic third disc might tarnish some of the luster on those first two —- this would be a feisty candidate for the album of the year list but I can’t just ignore how I feel about the funeral doom stuff, I mean, they made it part of the album concept! I guess we’ll see how it shakes out a few weeks from now.
 

Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos: I can’t remember when I started to tune out Children of Bodom… it was certainly after 2006’s abominable Are You Dead Yet?, where the band’s unfortunate turn towards incorporating industrial influences and veering away from their Finnish power metal influences left us with an album as sterile, formless, and dry as you can imagine. I would half-heartedly pay attention to the releases that followed, but sometime after either 2008’s Blooddrunk or 2011’s Relentless Reckless Forever I decidedly tuned out. I can’t remember listening to 2013’s Halo of Blood (I had to do a search on my own site to see if I had even written about it, I had not) and recently I asked a friend who paid more attention whether or not it was any good —- Bodom were his gateway into metal band and I trusted his opinion, but he hemmed and hawed a bit and that told me all I needed to know. When I got this promo, I thought about passing on it for a second but then I took a look at the cover art —- hmm… pretty nice, actually reminds me a bit of classic melo-death covers albeit with the traditional Bodom mascot. It also suddenly reminded me of one of my favorite virtues of being a metal fan, that of checking out or even buying an album simply because the cover art was compelling (see Myrkyr below), and so based on that alone, I decided to give I Worship Chaos a shot.

And I’m glad I did, because I never really thought that I would find myself enjoying anything by this band again apart from going back and spinning their first four albums again. Seeing as how I’m limited in my context as to how Halo of Blood might have helped set up a return to form that I’m hearing here, I can only guess that the band’s return to embracing their power metal influences is a new development. Its only guesswork here whether or not any of that has something to do with the departure of Roopa Latvala, as the band recorded this album as a four piece, Alexi Laiho handling all the guitar parts himself. Being that he’s always been the sole songwriter, perhaps the burden of shouldering both dual rhythm and lead parts caused Laiho to instinctively return to his “safe” roots of Malmsteen/Tolkki influenced guitar work with all their melodic bends and tails and rely less on the thrashier approach he’d been using for many of their previous questionable albums. Songs like “I Hurt”, “My Bodom (I am The Only One)”, and “Morrigan” are more instantly memorable than I’ve heard since the days of “Needled 24/7” (well, and all of the Hatecrew Deathroll album really), as Janne Wirman’s trademark keyboards are given space up front for once and Laiho seems all to happy to interplay with them, bouncing his riffs off of them with precision rather than just laying down messy riffs over the top. Its a trio of songs that launch the album on an adrenaline-pumping note, one of their best opening salvos in ages.

Even when things slow down, the songwriting seems sharp enough now to keep things compelling, as on “Prayer For The Afflicted”, where Laiho affixes addictive twists on to his monstrous riffs, so that each iteration throughout the song sounds a little different. And perhaps my favorite is the relatively glacial (for Bodom standards) “All For Nothing”, a dreamily-atmospheric tune that is built on Warmen’s tinkling keyboards and rather Finnish-y soundscapes. I love the mid-song bridge that turns into an extraordinarily epic guitar/keyboard solo at the 3:38 mark, because while I can’t quite put my finger on why, it reminds me of something off Hatebreeder (could it be the actual keyboard tone?). As a song, its a microcosm for why I think this album works so well, that it seems Laiho has returned to a songwriting style that has edged closer to complexity in riffs, arrangements, and overall structure —- I simply think he writes better when he allows himself the indulgence of being a child of the shredder school, of allowing his guitar figures to splurge on extra notes, like he’s making it rain (so to speak). The hope is that he realizes that he’s stumbled back into something he should hold onto for dear life.

The Takeaway: Is I Worship Chaos on the same level as classics such as their first four albums? Not quite, but its as close as they’ve been in well over a decade, and that’s worth celebrating and acknowledging. For the future, I’ll be paying attention again.
 

Myrkur – M: Ah yes, finally Myrkur. An album that drummed up no small amount of controversy upon its early fall release a few months ago mostly due to the identity of the person behind the band. It was known that Myrkur was a one woman band, but when that woman was revealed to be Danish model Amalie Bruun a lot of the usual internet nonsense began to occur. I suspected that a lot of these debates about Bruun’s validity as a black metal musician (she was getting some flack in metal circles for being one half of indie-pop band Ex-Cops) were thinly veiled jabs at her gender. That she was a model flirting with mainstream circles seemed to only add fuel to the fire —- never mind that this debut album was produced by Ulver’s own Kristoffer Rygg aka Garm and featured some rather credible black metal musicians in the fold such as Mayhem’s Teloch on guitar and Oyvind of Nidingr on drums. Never mind that Bruun has been a musician for as long as she’s been a model, having began her recording career in 2006. Just under twenty years after Nightwish came on the scene, why is there still the merest hint of sexism in metal? Hmm… I guess I should amend that, seeing as how despite the prevalence of tight corsets and sometimes myopic fandom, power metal audiences have long since accepted women in metal as equals (last year’s Triosphere anyone?), it seems that extreme metal audiences are the ones with the real problem. Funny that for all of black metal’s malleability, for its adoption by the hip indie set as yet another musical subgenre they can lay claim to and enjoy ironically or post-ironically (or whatever the hell they’re doing now), its the subgenre with the single largest gender gap in music… and I mean all of music.

Anyway, gender politics aside, I’ve been revisiting this album every now and then since I first heard it way back in September when I originally intended to publish a review for it. I couldn’t quite decide if I liked it enough based on its own merits or I was just reacting positively towards it due to feeling annoyed by the hate Bruun was receiving (and before you think it, its certainly not my intention to paint myself as some social justice warrior… ugh, the very idea). It was also one of those rare impulse purchases I made at Houston’s supposedly best record store (Cactus Music… hardly any metal to speak of, tons of indie rock) just based on its gorgeous cover art and my memory springing to life at the sight of the band name on the record label sticker on the front. I hardly ever buy an album these days without hearing something from it first, but I remembered liking the Myrkur EP from last year and the very notion of buying blind took me back to those old heady days of record store pillaging, before high speed internet, iTunes and Spotify. I was enthralled on the car ride back by what I was hearing from the very first song “Skøgen skulle dø”, Bruun’s ethereal, delicate vocals introducing a crush of sorrowful violins and accompanying strings, all drenched in melancholic splendor. The guitars were slightly fuzzy, muted just enough to be subservient to Bruun’s vocals and some tremolo picked leads, all mixed to sound like they were coming some distance away from a foggy moor. It was lush sounding, and actually evoked the dreamlike feeling I got from staring at the cover art. I drove around a little extra just to finish the album in my car.

So back to the present day, and my finally coming to a conclusion that I’ve been trying to avoid all this time: I enjoy Myrkur more for the clean vocal led, folk infused “songs” (quoted because at times they’re quasi-instrumentals) rather than for its black metal components. I find myself wishing that pieces such as “Vølvens spådom” were longer (1:38), because her usage of intertwined vocal layering here is imaginative and almost reverent in the atmosphere it conjures up, and Garm should get a ton of credit for that in how he’s approached the mixing. In fact, he’s a touchstone for all the aspects of Myrkur with his first three Ulver albums, seeing as how the mix of black metal and acoustic/atmospheric passages remind me of Bergtatt. I played the album for a black metal loving friend of mine, sure he would scoff at it, but he surprised me and told me he too actually enjoyed the clean, folky passages more, that he wanted an album full of those (Myrkur’s very own Kveldssanger I suppose). Its not that the black metal stuff is bad at all, its not, and Bruun is a capable second-wave styled black metal grim screamer, its just that I can’t help but be unmoved by those tracks, there’s a feeling that I’ve already heard it all before. This would make sense to me only if I didn’t find myself loving Blut Aus Nord’s ode to second wave black metal with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III (number four on last year’s best albums list). I guess I can put it this way, Bruun and her band definitely hit all the right notes on the black metal side of things, but maybe that’s just it… it sounds like black metal just for the sake of being black metal, as if there’s no real underlying reason for it to sound that way at all.

The Takeaway: I still enjoy listening to the entirety of M in general, but I think Bruun would be better served by forging more of a heavier identity that she can truly call her own. Looking forward to what she does next with the project.
 

Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall – Kingdom of Rock: Power metal’s favorite hired gun is at it again, this time returning with another chapter of his own eponymous project (the first self-titled Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall album was released in 2013). Karlsson has been on somewhat of a hot streak lately, with his songwriting work on the recent Kiske/Somerville album and his role as a songwriting partner in Primal Fear alongside Mat Sinner and Ralph Scheepers, just to name a few of his wide ranging list of projects. He is actually directly employed by Frontiers Records to work as a songwriter for many of their collaboration albums, side projects and what have you, a guitarist who is able to write for a variety of voices —- that kind of versatility is something to be prized in a songwriter, despite your views on any metal related project not being entirely 100% home spun by the band. After listening to no small handful of Karlsson penned albums however, its gotten easier to pinpoint where his comfort zone lies, that is in AOR styled hard rock with power metal flourishes (rarely does he write from a purely power metal base). So what separates Magnus Karlsson’s Freefall from the many other non-Primal Fear projects he’s worked on? Not much really —- he brings on a variety of vocalists on board, some of them from said projects he’s worked on (Jorn, Michael Kiske) and a bunch from the hard rock/AOR world (Tony Harnell of TNT/Skid Row fame, David Readman of Pink Cream 69, Rick Altzi of At Vance / Masterplan, Harry Hess from Harem Scarem) and gives them songs that individually suit their vocals.

Karlsson is upfront about that facet of his relationship with guest vocalists, that he bends his songwriting to their style, which isn’t always the case in multi-vocalist / one songwriter projects. For example with Tony Martin (yep that one), he delivered a song that touches on Martin’s work with Sabbath, the main riff even having that Iommi-esque extension during the chorus (Martin co-wrote on this one, the only song that ended up as a writing collaboration). And there’s a Rainbow-esque gem with Joe Lynn Turner called “No Control” that is the most satisfying performance that I’ve heard from him since “Stone Cold”. A friend of mine and I were listening to that one when in my car the other day and we briefly discussed how the lyrics seemed relevant to the early 80s, yet slightly questionable in our modern era, judge for yourself “…you better stay away / ‘Cause I’ve got no control…”. This is nitpicking, and maybe I’m just being a cheeky bastard, but what exactly is the narrator insinuating here? Where does this lack of control factor in? In the early 80s wouldn’t this clearly be a reference to his bad-boy demeanor, that he can’t be tied down to one woman and he’s gonna hurt this poor girl he’s addressing? I’d like to think so, and perhaps Karlsson decided to do a little time travel songwriting with Turner on board, but in 2015 the lyric comes off a little criminal-y.

The two best vocal performances however are from an entirely unknown vocalist and one with lead vocals from Karlsson himself. On the latter, “Walk This Road Alone”, Karlsson delivers a surprisingly convincing performance as a vocalist, his style equal parts Joey Tempest and Tony Harnell, and he injects enough passion into his delivery to make you consider that perhaps these particular lyrics aren’t entirely built from cliches. My favorite is the album’s only female fronted song, “The Right Moment”, with vocals courtesy of newcomer Rebecca De La Motte of whom absolutely nothing is known. She’s got a real Ann Wilson thing going on with her voice, maybe not as rough-hewn, but very similar in essence —- and Karlsson gives her an explosive song with a chorus that seems straight out of the kind of 80s hard edged pop-rock that makes us adore Pat Benatar and Roxette (don’t deny it). I’d take an album of Karlsson writing new material entirely for De La Motte’s vocals, she’s a legitimate talent and the metal world can always use another rock oriented female vocalist to inject some diversity into its ranks. I hope she gets some traction with this, if only to guest on other people’s records. Here’s hoping someone sends her song over to Tobias Sammet sometime in the future.

The Takeaway: A solid sophomore effort from Karlsson with what is essentially his solo project, the least Frontiers Records could do for the guy considering all the albums he’s written for the label. If you really enjoy this kind of thing then consider this one a safe bet, but if you’re limited to merely adding some fun, ultra catchy singles to a road mix, go on iTunes and download “No Control” and “The Right Moment” —- the most essential cuts here.
 

Draconian – Sovran: I believe it was a regular reader at this blog, Robert if I’m not mistaken, who pushed me to check out Draconian a few years ago or so, a band whose name I had seen in passing here and there and never bothered to investigate (forehead slap here). Once I did, I found a band that I liked on a surface level —- they were intriguing and often brilliant on their more recent albums like A Rose For the Apocalypse and Turning Season Within, their earlier albums less so (they had their moments, but at times the overtly doom laden approach wore on my patience). Due to the Great Album Barrage of 2015 it escaped my notice that the band was even releasing a new album this year. Once again it was my MSRcast cohost Cary who started playing the just received promo for this sixth Draconian album one night while we were sorting out our show notes for that episode. He hadn’t heard it yet either and as it played in the background we canned our inane chatter more and more and simply listened to a couple songs. I think at some point we both looked up at each other and nodded the “yeah… this is awesome” nod.

We’ve since rambled about it on the show in effusive praise and embarrassing gushing, but in Sovran Draconian have created the first utterly compelling, hypnotic, and inspired masterpiece of their career. Its always surprising when it happens too, certainly the band can’t predict it, and its obviously something that can be debated but I’ll have a hard time believing someone who attempts to argue that this isn’t the band’s greatest achievement. It leans a bit further away from their doom roots and more towards an overall gothic atmosphere but it feels as if they’ve actually gotten heavier as a result, the band beefing up their rhythm section’s bottom end to deliver a more metallic bed of sound over which longtime growler Anders Jacobsson and new female vocalist Heike Langhans trade off the role of lead singer. And its Langhans who steals the show on this album —- her vocals a bit more on the sleekly ethereal side compared to departed singer Lisa Johansson —- as most of these songs showcase her grabbing the majority of the vocal parts. She’s simultaneously capable of channeling a distant, frozen ice queen and a heart-on-sleeve, melancholy touched maiden (I completely deserve the nun’s ruler on my hand for going for such obvious imagery for female vocalists, but sometimes it really works). This dichotomy is illustrated rather well on “Stellar Tombs” and “Rivers Between Us”; the former seeing Langhans deliver proclamations during the verses in a remote, detached tone, while pouring every ounce of emotion into the latter in a brilliantly framed duet with clean male vocalist Daniel Anghede (Crippled Black Phoenix). Her voice was meant for this band.

As for everyone else, Draconian always manages to balance the relationship between vocals and music quite nicely, primary songwriters (and band founders) Jacobsson and lead guitarist Johan Ericson keeping it at about a 70/30 ratio. So you’ll get songs where Langhan’s vocal melody is carrying the load, but there are also times when the primary melody is guitar based and everyone works around it. Its a trademark feature of a really talented band that knows the limits of its sound and style… you’ll notice lesser female fronted bands in same genre (relatively speaking) almost always relying on their vocalist to solely carry the melody, a tendency that illustrates how paper thin their songwriting strength is (Lacuna Coil anyone?). It sounds to me as if the rhythm section parts were written to be more interlocking on the uptempo, heavier moments —- take the final 2-3 minutes of “Dishearten”, where they launch into an almost latter day Maiden giddy up and gallop with some Brave New World era lead figures. Speaking of lead guitar, Ericson might have delivered one of the best performances of the year on the album as a whole, his minor keyed laden approach being willfully bent in all manner of ways, he’s as much as joy to listen to as Langhan’s vocals. And kudos to Jacobsson if he is indeed still the primary lyricist here, because once again he demonstrates his mastery of employing simple, evocative imagery into smartly structured phrasing, all while keeping an eye towards creating a mini-narrative in every song. He’s an underrated lyricist, and for that matter Draconian is an underrated band, though not for long if everyone else is paying attention now.

The Takeaway: Without pretense, one of the best albums of the year —- if you haven’t heard Sovran yet make sure you do so before the year is out, you don’t want this to end up on your list of things you missed in 2015.