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Insomnium: At The Heart Of Winter

October 23, 2016

This was a dicey proposition from the press release alone. The exact wording that left me feeling uneasy was “it is a concept album made up of one epic 40-minute song”. What the heck? Did the Insomnium guys get confused and show up to Moonsorrow’s rehearsal space, shrug their shoulders and say “Screw it!”? This was such uncharted territory for a band who despite delivering consistently cohesive albums on a sonic and lyrical level (in aesthetic values at the least), is not exactly known for writing full blown, narrative-driven concept albums. Insomnium has always operated in a broad, expansive thematic field, their lyrical subject matter able to deftly shift between plainly written outpourings of introverted despair or the usage of folk allegory and natural imagery to communicate an intensely personal feeling. Their best album, 2011’s One For Sorrow, was a shifting, undulating collection of light and shade, moods and temperaments across a collection of songs about the memory of loss and the ache of loneliness. But this new album Winter’s Gate, their seventh overall, is based on a short story by vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen about a band of vikings that set out to discover a fabled island west of Ireland as winter approaches. Word is that Sevänen actually won a few literary awards for the original Finnish version of the short story, so its got some literary academia cred behind it. But even the finest storytelling won’t amount to much in the context of a metal album if the music doesn’t pull you in, let alone a singular forty minute track… and on that note, a bit of clarity is needed.

I’m not sure how all of you are consuming this album, but I got two copies —- somehow I landed a promo invite for this album thanks to a kind PR rep despite not being a regular for Century Media releases, and then my deluxe edition book arrived in the mail. So here’s the thing, on the physical edition of Winter’s Gate you get the album as one track at 40:02 in length, no cuts or segmentation at all —- yeeesh. However, on the promo copy, the album is divided up into chapters (titled “Winter’s Gate Pt. 1” and onwards through seven). This was curious, so I did some looking around and it turns out that perhaps the band or label was forced to make some cuts for the digital release of this album, and I wonder if its due to track length limitations on these various platforms such as iTunes or Spotify (perhaps caching such a long song is a problem?). Notice that audiobooks sold over iTunes are heavily segmented, even massive ones like The Silmarillion or the Game of Thrones stuff (maybe I’m way off on that theory, just speculating). What’s clear is that the band preferred to have this album consumed as one long, singular track ala Crimson by Edge of Sanity, their admitted inspiration for its structure (and perhaps not coincidentally, Dan Swano handles the mixing of this album!).

As for myself, faced with two options in listening experiences, I opted for convenience’s sake and went with the segmented digital copy. Firstly it would help me because often times in reviewing I’ll play the album straight through, and then go through it again in reverse order just to see if my opinion isn’t being strongly influenced by the first couple tracks (a long standing practice that isn’t talked about much publicly was/is to front load an album with what’s considered the best material and thus get the over burdened rock/metal press to peg glowing reviews, however skewed —- see Sepultura’s Roots). Anyway, that being the case, you might find it frustrating that I refer to particular sections of “Winter’s Gate” by the chapter instead of marking the time that you’d find in the 40:02 single player. I apologize in advance for that, but I do actually wish they’d sliced this up on the physical release a bit. I get why they chose not to, but if I only had the physical copy to play or rip to my laptop, it’d be a frustrating thing for me to get to my favorite chapter of the album, or a particularly awesome moment I really wanted to hear right then. That is a criticism I’m leveling at the band right away, because I applaud ambition (even if a forty minute song on paper sounds dreadful) and I love the guts it took to do something daring like this album when it could so easily backfire —- but a little detail like slicing the piece into skip-able sections shouldn’t be viewed as a concession to low attention spans in the iPod age, but simply as a considerate feature for your passionate fans.

I’m happy to say that all my fears about what this album could have sounded like are allayed, and in fact, Winter’s Gate might just be Insomnium’s most gripping, powerful piece of music to date. It’d be pure speculation to suggest that it was a purposeful internal reaction to the somewhat mixed reception of 2014’s Shadows Of A Dying Sun, but it sounds like a band having a sense of urgency about their art. That idea of urgency is most vividly heard in the increase of raw brutality that streaks across the album like that bear’s paws across Leo’s back in The Revenant, barreling at us in the form of harsher, more guttural vocals by Sevänen, and a surprising second wave of Norwegian black metal injection that courses through much of this material. That particular facet begins straight away, where blastbeats and furious tremolo riffing combine in a violent musical bed over which more traditional Insomnium-esque lead guitar melodies spiral upon at a slightly slower tempo. In other words, its a merging of Finnish melo-death mournful melody and Norwegian black metal hypnosis into something truly unique, and you’ve never heard Insomnium sound this heavy or impactful before. Its a satisfying combo, particularly when they add in flourishes of Gothenburg, or let’s be more specific, Jesper Stromblad-ian speed-picking riff flurries as a just-as-frenetic yet lighter shade to the black metal furor. My first playthrough of the album had me grinning like an idiot only a few minutes in “Winter’s Gate Pt. 2”.

And it was right around that time where we are treated to our first tastes of a more recognizable, classic Insomnium sound (approximately 8:43 for you folks with the single track), with guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala abruptly shifting away from a staggeringly brutal passage into a flowing, beautifully written, lilting open chord sequenced solo over chiming acoustic guitar. We also get our first dose of Friman’s excellent clean vocals, suitably downcast in tone but still built on tuneful melodies and helped along by his perfect enunciation that pairs well with only the slightest tinge of an accent. This chapter ends with swirling, long guitar sustains, like leaves stirred up by gusts of autumnal winds, quietly falling into a hush from which rises “Winter’s Gate Pt.3” (at the 12:52 mark). This section really reminded me of Porcupine Tree, not only for the syncopated rhythm section with playfully bouncy bass and dancing guitar lines, but for the paintbrush strokes of keyboard generated atmospherics that move in and out of audible range like waves lapping a shoreline. Vanhala has mentioned in interviews to referring to this chapter’s guitar solo as his “Dire Straits moment”, and its easy to hear why he’s characterizing it as such. It caps off an overall lovely 5:52 minutes of delicate musicality largely built upon progressive rock touchstones and dynamics (I say delicate because even Sevänen’s harsh vocals are a little more subdued when he comes back in towards the end).

Its not only a welcome musical interlude that is engaging and oddly comforting, but it sets up my favorite moment of the album in “Winter’s Gate Pt.4” (begins at the 18:45 mark). Friman has steadily been growing in confidence as a clean vocalist since his work on One For Sorrow, with his largest leaps marking some of Shadows of a Dying Sun’s finest moments (“Lose To Night”), and on this particular chapter he fully realizes his potential. His clean vocals during this section range from Mikael Akerfeldt earthiness in the beginning of the chapter (“Still I bear the flowers…”) to near Pink Floydian epic layering towards the chapter’s emotional crescendo (“I walk with my head down…”). Listen to this chapter with headphones, because there’s some impressive acoustic guitar work going on underneath all the heavy layers of riffs and aggressive vocals that absolutely needs to be heard. I also love the sombre, twilight conjuring use of piano to mark the beginning of “Winter’s Gate Pt.5”, as the instrument is an Insomnium staple at this point and it’d be strange not to hear it. What it introduces is the march towards some of the most dark, intensely heavy music the band has ever done —- cue up 29:36 where a classic Insomnium bittersweet melody unfurls into a blisteringly fierce section, Sevänen’s vocals delving down into previously unheard death-doom territory over tremolo riff sequences.

By the time we reach the concluding “Winter’s Gate Pt.7”, we’re somehow still not ready for the sheer violence that the band plunges you ear first in (specifically at the 34:31 mark), with Sevänen’s vocals exhanging guttural death-metal for the coarse, wind-strained harsh black metal barking more associated with Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson. If you’re following along with the lyrics and the storyline in general, this is around the time when it all hits the fan for our viking friends, but even if you’re not, the urgency and sense of madness conveyed by this awesome, eye-opening sequence is certainly heart pounding. The guitar work is inspired and tremendous, and the implementation of tremolo riffing isn’t a gimmick, it really does have a way of getting your hackles up as a listener —- funny how so many black metal bands never learned that tremolo picked passages work best when used alongside tempo accelerations and shifts and counterpoints… a melo-death band from Finland seems to understand that intuitively. If you want another example of tremolo passages being used in non-black metal music to powerful effect, check out Sweden’s own Falconer on their Armod album.

Something we should consider on the guitar front is Vanhala’s longer period of time within the lineup, he is in fact a co-songwriter all through the album, contributing to the music alongside Friman and Sevänen. Friman used to handle most of the music by himself, but he seemed stretched thin in spots for Shadows with some notable exceptions. I wonder if Vanhala’s integration in the music writing was the catalyst for injecting some much needed change with the way the guitar riffs and passages were envisioned and written (Vanhala is the primary songwriter for Omnium Gatherum whose music is considerably more uptempo and frenetic than Insomnium’s… well, until now perhaps). I’m absolutely thrilled that Insomnium pulled off the improbable here, and dare I suggest that they’ve made one of the most complete albums of the year. Its nicely concise, something I think the band needed after spending a decade in 55 minute plus territory through most of their albums, and despite the single track on the physical release being a significant flaw, the music here is strong enough to lock in most attention spans. Insomnium are a rather smart, intellectual bunch (check their bios), so credit to them for realizing that they had to shake things up somehow, even if that meant doing so in the riskiest way possible.



Late Summer Reviews! Sabaton / Belakor / Thrawsunblat / High Spirits 

October 6, 2016

Fall is here, though you wouldn’t know it here in H-town quite yet. But the autumnal equinox is still a noteworthy occasion to mark, and as you likely know I spent the summer really giving myself a break from the review treadmill with positive results. I got to enjoy a lot of older records from various bands that hadn’t been played in ages, and I was able to devote a greater amount of attention to the handful of new music I did listen to. The ones I listened to the most are reviewed below, but there were a host of others that I’m passing on reviewing (new albums by Iron Savior, Dark Funeral, Volbeat, Rage, Nails, Fates Warning, Running Wild, Vicious Rumors, Evergrey to name a few off the top of my head) —- regarding the latter, some of them were pretty good, most kinda meh and nothing that really stood up and grabbed my attention (although Nails is indeed an interesting band). As I sit here waiting for the cool winds to blow in, the leaves to turn color and drop off these damned trees I’m busy making time with the new Insomnium, Darkthrone, and Alcest albums. And I just experienced Blind Guardian’s “Imaginations For North America” tour stop here the other day, meeting yet another one of the bards in the process (Andre Olbrich —- squeeeee!). Its going to be a busy fall metal wise, a lot of late year albums and a handful of concerts coming up! But it’ll be nice for things to be hectic again, I love this time of year. Pumpkin spice me up!


Sabaton – The Last Stand:

It struck me during my first few weeks listening to Sabaton’s latest cannon-shot, the thematically dictated The Last Stand, that the opinions surrounding this album tended to fall into two camps. Either you are a fan of the band and welcomed the album with varying degrees of affection and favor, or you have tended to be a Sabaton critic, and arguably pointed out that the band’s sound had not changed all that much in eight albums. Both opinions are equally valid, but whether or not the latter could be interpreted as a true criticism is something that’s up for debate. Without meaning to come across as snarky, are we really going to criticize a band for playing in their ballpark? Do we do that to death metal and black metal bands? To classic bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest? I know I know, a band should be expected to progress within the context of their sound, and I agree and can argue that Sabaton has done that in the past —- that being said, the hardest thing for any band to achieve is to create an identifiable sound all their own, and no one can argue Sabaton hasn’t managed that.

The way I hear things, Sabaton made some pretty interesting strides with their last two albums on the musical front, particularly with the increased choral elements on 2012’s Carolus Rex, alongside its symphony draped arrangements. But they also veered off into unexpected territory on 2014’s Heroes, with a spaghetti-western Ennio Morricone motif on “To Hell and Back”, and a throwback period-piece take on the piano ballad for “The Ballad of Bull”. They are capable of expanding or stretching their sound, but they’re wisely sticking to their wheelhouse for the most part because it simply works. And by “works”, I really mean that vocalist/main songwriter Joakim Broden is metal’s most consistent, quality songwriter going on well over an entire decade now. This isn’t an easy feat, but somehow the man has been able to tap into a seemingly endless well of musical inspiration to craft immensely catchy, hook laden songs with a propensity for high drama and adrenaline rushes.

For The Last Stand, he either by accident or design leaned towards an old school, or classic if you will Sabaton sound —- that being the keyboard heavy Primo Victoria/Attero Dominatus era. Its an interesting choice that works largely due to how lean and attacking these songs are —- take “Last Dying Breath”, where the keyboard “horn sections” actually work as the song’s musical hook, not allowing the intensity of the verse sections to slow down for a huge, protracted chorus. Kinda reminds me of “Nuclear Attack” from Attero Dominatus. Speaking of expanding musically however, how about a hat tip towards “Blood of Bannockburn”? I’ll confess that I wasn’t wild about the song when it premiered as a lyric video a few months back, but it sounds far better on the album (Nuclear Blast and their crappy quality audio uploads) and it boasts a melody delivered on actual bagpipes, befitting the subject matter of the song. But largely, this is a throwback album for Sabaton musically, and you can hear that shining through on ultra catchy cuts like “Shiroyama”, as ear-wormy and addictive a song you’ll hear all year. I’m a bit mystified as to why Broden doesn’t get more credit for his skill in this particular facet of songwriting —- maybe its that Sabaton shy away from technicality or overt complexity in their songs, but to me the ability of writing memorable melodies is so paramount. Its something a great deal of power metal bands even struggle with.

I like the interesting group vocal shouts/grunts in “Sparta”, you guessed it, a song about the famed 300 (think they made a movie about this awhile ago), as they tend to fall into a stomping pattern that actually paints a picture of the Spartans martial movements. Similarly I loved the usage of actual sounds of guns and artillery in “The Lost Battalion”, which conspire to add to the suffocating feeling of being trapped in the Argonne Forest, where its likely all that those soldiers heard for those six days. Give the band credit for being mindful of little details like that, they’re not included just for show, but tend to have a greater purpose. That of course brings up the topic of lyrics, this time bound by the overall thematic link of famous last stands in military history. Again I’ll mention the idea of this album being a throwback, lyrically as well, with subject matter anchored to stories of various historical battles and their gritty details (just like older albums). Its an about face from Heroes, where the focus was on non-violent acts of heroism (a theme that I still laud as admirable in its originality and spirit), as well as from Carolus Rex which was their first actual narrative concept album about the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire.

I guess one could view The Last Stand as a “regular” Sabaton album in that respect, and to some it may seem like regression as a result. But I think pairing the decision to go back to a more “regular” thematic approach (for lack of a better adjective) along with revisiting an older mode of the Sabaton musical style is smart, shrewd, and actually gives this album a bit of a looser, free-wheelin’ spirit that sets it apart from the gravitas of its two predecessors. If the last two albums were a more sombre, serious Sabaton approaching complex topics with delicacy and appropriate musical accompaniment, then The Last Stand is more of just a slamming, full-on power metal album with an aim to reset things for both the band and their audience. I’ll be honest, while I can honestly say I think this is a good album with some truly great moments (“Shiroyama”, “The Lost Batallion”, “Last Dying Breath” in particular), it didn’t grab me on the intellectual level that Carolus Rex did, nor the intensely emotional level that Heroes did.

That being said, its the right album for the band at their career at this particular point (and I know most people reading this won’t necessarily care about that). It charted in the States at #63, one of the highest positions for a power metal band alongside Dragonforce, Iced Earth, and Nightwish (#17 in the UK!); they just played at Ozzfest meets Knotfest in what signals to be a breakthrough moment for them with American promoters; and they’re opening for Trivium in North America in a huge score of a support slot this fall. This “reset” album is the perfect introduction for all the new fans they’ll have coming through, and Sabaton have worked hard, they deserve it. That they have vocal detractors online is merely a consequence of their widespread notoriety, and few bands can be all things to all people —- but if you’ve seen the band live you already know why all those criticisms don’t matter, because the impact Sabaton have on audiences from the stage is something no smug internet snark can deteriorate. I’ll find myself coming back to this album again and again, its a worthy addition to their already deep catalog, just not my favorite, but I’m sure its some fifteen year old kid’s album of the year.


Be’lakor – Vessels:

New Zealand’s own Be’lakor were one of 2012’s biggest surprises for me, their spectacular album Of Breath and Bone smashing into that year’s top ten albums list at number three. I was new to them, and it was a revelation to learn that a band from the southern hemisphere was creating a fresh take on melodic death metal. My enthusiasm for that album has not waned, I’ve consistently gone back to it when the mood strikes, so much so that I felt I was close to wearing it out sometime last year. Thankfully, the band is back after a Blind Guardian esque gap of time between releases with Vessels, an album that simultaneously sounds strikingly different from its predecessor, and comfortingly similar all at once. That paradox is the source of why I’ve had a hard time collecting my thoughts about this album, but I think I might have come to some way of sussing it out (I guess we’ll find out here…). With that said, I’m glad I took a longer time to get around to reviewing this one, mainly because my opinion has evolved a bit from when I first heard it back in July to now.

At first I thought it was the cover art that was affecting my interpretation of the sound, that the warmness I getting from the overall tones of Vessels was due to the imagery of lit torches, and that my mind was playing tricks on me. Nope, its not that at all —- this is indeed a warmer toned album compared to the subtle coldness heard on Of Breath and Bone, its melodies a hue brighter with an increased emphasis on major key flourishes. Its still the Be’lakor I came to know and love however, dense melodic death metal that eschews traditional structures of verses and choruses in favor of recurring instrumental hooks and leitmotifs. Alongside the new mode of melodic death metal being forged in Finland by Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, Ghost Brigade, and to some extent Swallow the Sun, Be’lakor should be recognized as a major force in the revitalization of a once glorious genre. The 1990s source of melodic death metal from Gothenburg was used and abused by American and British bands in the creating of metalcore to such a degree that the original genre was left a dry well. Its this motley collection of artists from such disparate parts of the world that are redefining what melodic death metal could sound like, to spectacular results.

How they’re doing this is a far more difficult thing to suss out, but Be’lakor for one doesn’t hide its progressive influences —- time shifts, tempo changes, and free-form song structures abound to such a degree that you can’t help but hear echos of Tool, Opeth, even Dream Theater (really only in structure). On a piece (I feel less comfortable calling these tracks “songs”… if you hear the album you’ll know why) such as “An Ember’s Arc” the band transitions from a cleanly plucked acoustic intro to a tension building staccato riff sequence only to plume outward in the most dreamy, hushed musical sigh you can imagine, isolated notes rising and drifting off into the ether. Its a subversion of expectations, that just when you think they’re going to blow the roof off the place with you in the blast radius, they instead gently push you onto a comfy bed and tuck you under plush blankets where you dream of Emmy Rossum feeding you grapes by an infinity pool. And make no mistake, I’m not suggesting its boring (far from it), merely trying to point out just how skillfully the dynamics of these songs are crafted and performed. The explosion does occur, like the rudest alarm clock of all time, waking you with a gorgeous lead melody rising out of the silence that ushers along a brutal, pummeling blast beat fueled passage.

Its almost impossible for me to pick out favorites from this album, simply because my favorite moments are all over the place, scattered hither and yon. If I had to pick though “Roots to Sever” would be a hard one to ignore, its beautiful, ultra-melodic lead guitar melody guiding us through the entirely of the piece over shifting, undulating rhythm section. I noticed that there’s a new drummer in the lineup (one Elliot Sansom), a stunner because I hadn’t notice a drop in creative quality on that front, even though previous sticksman Jimmy Vanden Broek was the unheralded MVP on Of Breath and Bone. Credit the band for understanding how their music is best recorded and mixed as well, because one of the joys of Be’lakor is getting to hear interesting bass guitar in an extreme context, bassist and original member John Richardson crafting basslines that add far more creativity to the music than merely keeping in lockstep with the drums. I started off not sure if I completely enjoyed Vessels as much as the last one, but repeat listens over these past few months have slowly changed my mind, its a compelling, addictive album and a worthy follow up.


Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

Though I’ve not written specifically about Woods of Ypres and their brief but monumental career (yet), I’ve been a posthumous admirer of their works and their gone too soon founder David Gold. I unfortunately came to know about the band well after Gold’s death in late 2011, and only through their last album, Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light. It was released a little over a month after his passing, and with Gold as the lyricist, its meditative songs about life, existence, meaning, and death took on an entirely different perspective and gravitas to everyone who heard the album. Five years on and it still has that same power for me and anyone else I’ve talked about the album to… I think I’ve avoided writing about Woods 5 for that reason (though having admitted that out loud, that’s probably the exact reason I should write about it). An important person who contributed greatly to the artistic success of Woods 5 was Gold’s sole bandmate, guitarist Joel Violette, who penned the music for six tracks on the album. He was a newcomer to the Woods of Ypres lineup, the band itself being a rotating cast of assorted musicians too long to recount here, but Violette was different —- something clicked between he and Gold that allowed the latter to share songwriting duties with his newfound partner. Violette’s contributions on the album are spectacular, emotionally affecting moments, his music coaxing out some of Gold’s finest lyrics ever.

Sadly, the collaboration was short-lived, and what seemed like a promising joining of talents resulted in only one album —- albeit a masterpiece at that. There was something else that Gold and Violette collaborated on briefly however, and that was Thrawsunblat, Violette’s own project that sought to forge melodic black metal with more of a maritime folk influence. Gold played drums on their demo “Canada 2010”, but that was the extent of his involvement. After Gold’s passing and Woods of Ypres ending as a result, Violette decided to run with the idea of making Thrawsunblat a full time project, and in some small way it was a tribute to Gold who had come up with the band name. Another detail that I view as a tribute was that Violette named Thrawsunblat’s first proper album Thrawsunblat II: Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings, thus retroactively making his and Gold’s initial demo release the first Thrawsunblat album and also in keeping with Woods of Ypres numerical convention for titling albums (a subtle yet touching tribute I think). And that album is worth seeking out, not only for its awesome folk-black metal mix that sounds in some ways like a continuation of the Woods of Ypres sound, but for its completely acoustic slices of maritime folk that are right up my musical alley.

Its sequel, the third Thrawsunblat album Metachthonia, is a slight departure however from the project’s initial musical vision; this time owing more to blistering Norwegian black metal influences such as Borknagar and the darker folk-metal of Moonsorrow. Gone are the concise song lengths of its predecessor, instead Violette and company have constructed longer compositions reaching progressive metal lengths. The tracklisting is pared down to six tracks as a consequence, half of what Wanderer had, but at the album clocking in at two minutes shy of an hour you never feel like this is an EP disguised as a full-length album. I think the major difference that can be pointed to in describing Metachthonia’s different approach is that the folk influences are pushed back from the musical foreground a bit —- on the last album they took up entire songs themselves and were pronounced influences on most songs melodies. Here you’ll get shades of that maritime folk influence in various details, such as the clean vocals of the epic opener “Fires That Light The Earth”, Violette at times sounding eerily like Gold himself. His harsh vocals however remind me of one Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg), lean, razor sharp and just pure burning, white hot fire.

On “She Who Names The Stars”, Violette lays down a series of furious tremolo patterned black metal riffs that roll together in gathering intensity, resulting in the most violent sounding song on the album. Its tempting to cite Ulver as a major influence here but what gets in the way of that are the tone and direction of the overlaid lead guitar motifs, owing more to Violette’s self-identified Pacific Northwest folk roots. Said roots peek their head out for a brief star turn towards the end of the track, during its final fifty seconds, where cello and clean electric notes combine in a dare I say, charming melody? There’s a similar moment during the second half of “Dead of Winter”, where an acoustic passage becomes the overriding motif for Violette’s lead guitar patterns thereafter. I love how effortlessly and unapologetically these songs shift from absolute black metal fury to shimmering, folk melody driven sequences. That tendency towards diversity and contrast was a trait I admired about Woods of Ypres and I’m glad to hear that it influenced Violette. His band mates are actually former Woods collaborators Rae Amitay on drums, Brendan Hayter on bass, and session cello player Raphael Weinroth-Browne (who laid down those heartbreaking cello accompaniments on Woods 5), and there’s a sense that this is a project born out of both a void and a calling —- not just to honor the musical spirit of their departed friend, but to continue where he left off.


High Spirits – Motivator:

Ah well some of you might remember that I love me some High Spirits, the somewhat retro straight ahead hard rock meets early 80s metal influences project by one Chris Black (Dawnbringer, many others). I was introduced to the project via their 2011 debut Another Night, an album that put Scorpions worship front and center (and that’s alright with me). But the follow-up, 2014’s You Are Here fell a little flat for me, mainly due to lacking much in the way of memorable riffs, melodies, and hooks (barring a few good songs). To be honest I wasn’t even expecting another High Spirits album so soon, figuring Black was working on one of his many other projects, but Motivator sounds like a record that was simply begging to be released, full of the same vitality and energy that coursed throughout their debut. Simply put, these are rocking songs and they’re pretty much all on point, hitting all the classicist nerves that one would want out of a band that is earnest about their love for the sound of the early 80s, where hard rock and metal met in an amorphous blending where subgenres and labeling did not exist yet. And check out that cover art too, the visual cousin to Another Night with its neon framed night time cityscape —- look I know it sounds strange but I’ve long contended that there’s a certain undefinable aspect to the sound of 80s Scorpions songs that always reminded me of an airport at sunset. Lo and behold! Chris Black knows what I’m talking about!

The songs, where to start? How about the cover art referencing opener “Flying High”, its Scorpions hat-tips lovingly obvious in that joyous backbeat on the drums, and that very Schenker/Meine trait of guitars outpacing the tempo of the vocal lines. There’s a surprising Maiden influence on “Reach For the Glory”, its opening twin lead melodies sounding like the rock n’ roll cousin to “Aces High”, and frankly they’re just as addictive. The guitars give a little Thin Lizzy treatment on those fragmentary melodies in “This Is the Night”, the same way Gorham and Robertson would punctuate Phil Lynott’s vocals with little five to ten second solos. My favorite has to be “Haunted By Love”, with its Pat Benatar-ish opening riff (cue “Heartbreaker”) and stop/start, sublime chorus that just takes me back to my initial days of exploring so many classic hard rock bands —- a real On Through The Night era Def Leppard feel to that one, particularly in the backing vocals. I know I keep referencing old bands, but its something I can’t help when it comes to High Spirits, because for me that’s half the fun when it comes to this band and their retro-fresh take on a sound that should never die. Black’s relatively monotone vocals are what actually keep High Spirits firmly locked in the present however, because they’re certainly impassioned, but he lacks the vocal range to pull off the acrobatics that we commonly associate with this type of music. But I think that’s a good thing, Black’s inadvertent way of dragging the past up off the booze soaked pavement of the Sunset Strip and stumbling towards the future.


The Metal Pigeon Recommends – Part Three: Sentenced

August 22, 2016

So remember a few years ago when I introduced a much trumpeted on-going series called The Metal Pigeon Recommends? No…? Well don’t feel bad. The premiere edition focusing on Falconer came out in October of 2013, and it wouldn’t be until nearly a year later in August of 2014 when I’d get the second edition out, focusing on the Scorpions post-1993 career. In my on-going effort to take a break from the new release review treadmill, it was well past time to bring this feature back to the blog. And though two years late, I’m happy to release the third iteration of this rather blog-defining feature, this time focusing on Finnish goth metal legends Sentenced. Now’s a good time to post that quote of myself from the series debut explaining this whole concept in the first place:

This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration and motivation in writing this blog, that being the exhilarating feeling of getting someone else into music that I think is great. Its a simple concept. I’ll take one band, pick out ten cuts that I think will make a fan out of you, have YouTube clips ready for all —- plus some commentary to go along with them.

My introduction to the band came in the form of 2002’s stunning The Cold White Light, an album I had on repeat for the better part of that year while I sought to revisit their older catalog album by album. They were unique to many ears, certainly to mine, a frayed-edges take on metallic hard rock with melancholy flowing through its veins —- the dirtier, darker, far more troubled cousin to their countrymen of H.I.M. whose goth-rock was just beginning to make females across Europe collectively swoon. Goth rock/metal as a concept wasn’t new to me, I had enjoyed a little Type O Negative and was totally mesmerized by The Cult. Sentenced were tagged as goth largely because they made music concerned with the darkness associated with loneliness, mortality, the fragility of life, and whether there was simply any meaning to it all. But those universal topics were put through a distinctively Finnish filter, both musically and lyrically, and you can bet that meant melancholy in huge doses, even when their lyrics were purposefully humorous or tongue-in-cheek (see “Excuse Me While I Kill Myself” for starters). Their album artwork and photography in their album liner notes also mirrored the tone of their music, all shots of desolate Scandinavian landscapes, lonely places with scant vegetation, and ice, lots of ice set against a backdrop of grey-blue skies. To an American living in the ecstatically bright city of Houston, Texas, Sentenced were fascinating just from their imagery alone.

I want to clarify something for everyone before we start: I got into this band when they were well into their goth-metal era, having long abandoned their death metal roots of 1992’s Shadows of the Past and 1993’s North From Here. For the purposes of this article, I’m only going to be discussing the band’s 1996-onwards output, or more pointedly those albums with Ville Laihiala as vocalist, his rough and slurred baritone spurring a schismatic shift in their sound. With all due respect to those earlier works and the difficult 1995 transition album Amok, those records never commanded my attention the way their goth-metal approach did (I can appreciate them academically, with a metal historian’s perspective, but they don’t strike a chord emotionally). With that in mind, and in keeping with the format of these Recommends features, I’ve picked out ten Sentenced songs that I personally love and that have meant something to me (listed in order of their release date). I know that you die-hards out there will likely scoff at how few cuts from Down and Frozen ended up here, but as much as I love those albums I personally feel that the band only got better and better as they forged ahead. Now, bow your heads…


“Noose” (from 1996’s Down)

This was the dawn of that schismatic shift in sound I was mentioning up above, the first proper song on Laihiala’s debut as lead vocalist. He comes in over a confident series of crunchy, fuzzy riffs, with a voice all his own, full of rich character and glorious imperfections. Its not that he is a native Finnish speaker trying his best to deliver lyrics written in English —- the Finnish power metal scene was full of bands like that —- instead, its that his delivery is one part drunken bellowing, one part syrupy sweet vocal melody, and two parts full-on don’t give a $%^# attitude. I haven’t been able to dig up any old interviews with the band explaining how they came to settle on Laihiala’s voice as the perfect fit for the band, but I would love to get a glimpse into what their thought process was, because it was a gutsy move. When I introduce Sentenced to friends, nearly all of them have balked at the suggestion simply due to not liking Laihiala’s vocal style alone. And I get it, he’s a love it or leave it proposition, but seriously, his vocals are such a perfect fit for the grim yet wry lyric, “Yeah, I think I’ll put my head / into the Noose and let it all go…and so I will”. This was the spectacular highlight off an otherwise good album, one that saw main songwriter/lead guitarist Miika Tenkula and fellow guitarist/primary lyricist Sami Lopakka take their first run at becoming the dominant songwriting tandem they’d ultimately become.


“Farewell” (from 1998’s Frozen)

I think it could be argued that Frozen wasn’t as compelling overall as Down, the latter seeming to benefit its songwriters with the excitement of writing for a new voice and in a new style. But for all Frozen’s flaws, its spotty highlights shined bright, the most stirring of these being the oddly upbeat sounding, propulsive rocker “Farewell”. I say odd because the lyrics read as a suicide note, a theme that was explored later on this album in “The Suicider”, these two songs being seedlings for greater exploration on the theme on the next few albums. I’ve always found “Farewell” of particular interest because it was Laihiala’s first credit as a solo lyric writer (he had two co-lyricist credits on Down alongside Lopakka), and it suggests two things —- first, that Laihiala quickly took to the band’s penchant for all things depressing and despairing, and that Lopakka wasn’t territorial or over-protective of his role as chief lyricist… if the new guy had something good, he’d be all too happy to roll with it. And “Farewell” certainly was something good, Laihiala’s vocal melody leading the way alongside Tenkula’s almost jangly, Cure-like guitar patterns during the refrain. It was a lighter song, the beginning of something new for Sentenced, where they’d keep the heavy, dirty riffs for the verses and allow a chorus with a strong melody the space to soar.
“The River” (from 2000’s Crimson)

Sentenced delivered their first masterpiece in Crimson, a confident, hook-packed refinement of their goth-metal sound helped along by the best production quality they’d ever had. And to emphasize as much, the band was finally delivering softer, slower tempo songs that were able to burn with the smoldering intensity found in their faster, heavier counterparts. On “The River”, Tenkula demonstrates his ability to communicate with as few notes as possible, the clean plucked electric guitar pattern serving as a start to finish motif that is sombre, reflective, and full of regret. Lopakka occasionally joins in with a series of crunchy, gritted-teeth open chord blasts, while Laihiala gives one of his many truly awesome vocal performances. He’s the perfect voice for the narrator in “The River”, one who’s caught in the grip of alcohol addiction, reflecting on his situation during “Yet another morning / that feels like this /Yet another life’s bitter kiss”. There are a lot of songs in rock and metal that talk about addiction, but rarely do they ever come across so helpless and resigned, as Lopakka’s lyrics manage in the refrain: “What can I do now except continue / and open a bottle once more / What can I do now except see this through / and float with the stream, off the shore / see where the river will take me”.

When I listen to this song today, I can’t help but think of the tragic nature of Miika Tenkula’s passing in 2009. He was only 34, and while the official cause of death was never publicly released (I’ve read claims varying from a heart attack to kidney and liver failure from alcohol poisoning), it didn’t seem to come as a surprise to anyone in the Finnish metal scene. Sentenced were known for their predilection towards the bottle and in reveling in that particular aspect of their “Finnish-ness”, and I suspect its what largely led Lopakka to develop his hatred of touring, that the one hour on stage was awesome but filling the rest of the travel time was an exercise in self-destruction for nearly everyone in the band. The guys have been quiet about Tenkula’s death, and while I would think its out of respect for his family, I suspect a lot of it has to do with how Tenkula’s remaining years reportedly were spent. The band went into 2005’s The Funeral Album with the intention of it being their swansong, that the band had run its course and they wanted to go out on their terms. I’m sure everyone agreed to this, but while four of the five band members went on to other projects, Tenkula languished —- he had gotten noticeably heavier by the time the band filmed their farewell show on the Buried Alive DVD. Its not for me to start rumors, but quietly I’ve wondered whether he was simply depressed over the band ending and drank until his heart stopped working. He released no new music, there was no news of forthcoming projects. Life for Tenkula seemed to come to a halt —- unfortunately, we’ll never really know.

“Killing Me Killing You” (from 2000’s Crimson)

I had a massive internal debate about whether or not to order this list in chronological order as I have, or in order of what song I think an interested newcomer to Sentenced should try first. If I went with the latter, “Killing Me Killing You” would’ve been at the very top, without the slightest hesitation. This is the finest song Sentenced ever recorded, with Tenkula’s most elegant, all-encompassing, downright perfect melody distilled into a gorgeous piano line that he knew was so good, it starts off the song naked alongside Laihiala’s crooning vocal. Lopakka wisely wrote his lyrics to match the piano melody, and while the explosive and ultra-hooky chorus tends to get all the attention, I find the true heart of the song lies in its verses. These sections speak to a theme that is often at the heart of many goth rock/metal bands, the idea of lost romance or a romance going astray. Sentenced put their spin on this by talking about a romance being poisoned: “Baby, have you seen, there is a snake in our paradise / A serpent that’s wriggling between us / and freezing our feelings to ice”. But our narrator isn’t certain, and during the second verse he asks aloud in a heart-wrenching lyric: “Darling, do you feel, there is a storm coming our way / The burning light between us is already starting to fade”. Lyrical imagery tends to work best when its impressionistic —- you don’t need Laihiala to sing-tell you that storms bring wind, and winds can blow out candles, but its that unspoken imagery that your brain is processing in the background, making that lyric ache so much.

Part of the appeal of “Killing Me Killing You” to many fans is in how they were introduced to the song. Some through the album I’m sure, but a lot of us first saw its music video (somehow, way back before YouTube). Its one of the finest metal videos of the past twenty years, beautifully shot with a thoughtfully artistic concept. Dare I suggest that the slow-motioned shots at 1:56 of Laihiala singing atop that frigid dockside platform, wind whipping his hair in his face as the band hammers out the song in the background are the most iconic images of Sentenced… ever? I could go on and on about it, but I figure its a good time to bring in another perspective, this belonging to the late David Gold of the Sentenced-influenced Canadian band Woods of Ypres. Gold was an active participant on the Woods of Ypres Official Forum at Ultimate Metal, and in searching through his posts shortly after his passing, I came across the following post in a thread called “The Music Video that Changed Your Life!“. His choice of course was “Killing Me Killing You”, and he really said it all:

“I was 19 years old and had grown up on a steady diet of Metallica, Pantera and Slayer while living in Northern Ontario, Canada before I saw this video for the first time on the Much Music’s (Canada’s MTV before we had MTV) one and only metal show, the 30 minute a week program called “LOUD” which aired at 11:30 on Saturday night when “derds” as we were called, would most certainly be at home watching television, as I was. I believe this to be the first time I saw a video from a Finnish metal band and the one that “changed my life”. Being a Northern kid, I could identify with parts of the video such as the Finnish landscape, the woods, the frozen beach in the winter, and that cold blue of not only the sky but often seemingly of the air itself, and SENTENCED were metal, which I also thought I had figured out by then, but this band was more than what I had become familiar with and it was everything new about them to me that blew my mind. They were tall, long haired Finns, wearing all black, playing metal with piano and powerful, convincing clean singing. It was dark, classy, professional, a cleaner and more serious image of metal than the one I had known, seemingly focused on the atmosphere, the feeling the meaning, the message as the song itself rather than flashes of speed or displays of heaviness within its separate parts. It flowed. I felt it was to be taken more seriously and consumed on a deeper level that everything else I had known prior. The darkness, the cold, the class, the song writing, it was the metal that was all of what I wanted to aspire to become.

– David Gold / Woods of Ypres


Cross My Heart And Hope To Die (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

I consider the last three Sentenced albums to be amazing in their own particular ways, but its The Cold White Light that ranks as my personal favorite among them all. Maybe its slightly due to it being my introduction to the band, an album that I bought at one of the few record stores that had a decent metal section without hearing a second of it beforehand simply due to thinking the cover looked cool and different. The intro track aside, “Cross My Heart and Hope To Die” was the first shot across the bow, my first taste of this band that would soon become an obsession and what an introduction it was. Though drummer Vesa Ranta doesn’t get mentioned often for his (rather solid) musicianship, he was an integral part of what defined Sentenced, and here he stands by laying down thunderous, booming, almost tribal tom hits during the second verse. He shares the spotlight with Tenkula, whose sparse, fluid melodic clean plucked patterns etch emotional motifs that hang in the air and make the entire song pulse and breathe. Laihiala’s vocals are yearning and full of emotive inflection, and if he strains at times to finish a run of syllables without a breath, it only adds to the desperation of the narration. How can a song be about something so grim and dark such as contemplating suicide —- yet sound so full of life? That dichotomy was the essence of the band’s brilliance.

No One There (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

I would’ve linked the music video for “No One There” above, because alongside “Killing Me Killing You” it is one of the most well-executed metal videos in recent memory. My only gripe with it is that the music video was set to the single edit of the song, which cuts out an astonishing minute and a half plus from the song, and not just instrumental parts either —- a whole verse section is missing. The full length version of this song is absolutely essential to getting its complete experience, but I highly urge you to check out the video itself after you’ve listened to the song. Its depiction of an older aged couple dealing with daily existence is powerful imagery when juxtaposed with specific lyrics in the song, “It freezes my heart, my desperate heart  / To think we both will die alone”. Taken on its own, it’d be an oversimplification to call this song depressing —- sure it can be, but its lyrics are contemplative and speculative about a topic we’ve all thought about but feel its too taboo to talk about. Its a credit to the songwriting here that we get a chorus that doesn’t repeat a single line, which is not only a rarity in modern songwriting but particularly astonishing in this instance because the chorus spans seven lines of lyrics. There’s the primary chorus, and a mirroring secondary chorus set to distinctively different lyrics all while acting as an outro bridge. My favorite detail is the piano melody underneath that is exposed as the guitars fade, leaving it to close out the song in solitary fashion —- in a clever way mirroring the isolation of the narrator. Amazing stuff.

Guilt and Regret (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

Sentenced blurred the line between the idea of the “rocker” and the ballad (/blatant Scorpions reference), with songs like “No One There” and “Killing Me Killing You” treading the territories of both. Their songwriting approach didn’t shy away from utilizing non-metal instruments such as the piano, and few used to it such captivating effect in creating downcast, melancholic laments. Similarly, “Guilt and Regret” is a quasi-ballad built on a captivating vocal melody and a supporting piano line underneath. Guitars crash in for the refrain and for the furious, anguished guitar solo that follows, but the musical highlight comes during the mid-song bridge at the 2:10 mark, where a head-spinningly gorgeous acoustic guitar solo is ushered out. I found this moment so hypnotically beautiful, I remember rewinding it a dozen or so times after first hearing it —- and its not just that the acoustic guitar melody is so lovely, so full of ache and emotion that lyrics can’t convey, but that its helped along to the finish line by a perfectly complemented rush of electric guitar with a flourish all its own. I love that moment, and I love this song. Its lyrics are admittedly odd and some might say ham-handed, with a narrator citing guilt and regret as his “inbred brothers” with whom he buries their “little sister Hope”. Ham-handed or not, its the gloomiest song about a hangover ever.

You Are The One (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

Sentenced didn’t write love songs, or at least they didn’t until they produced this underrated gem from The Cold White Light. Lighter in tone than anything else they’ve ever done, it was an open window into the pure romanticism that would sometimes course underneath the layers of grim bleakness and despair that characterized their music. Written largely in major keys, its lighter feel is heard in Tenkula’s clean plucked melodic figures that float upwards, and particularly the chiming, lilting acoustic guitars that ring throughout the bridge, giving way to an almost alternative rock guitar fueled chorus. Its a strange mix-up for Sentenced that really works, largely because Laihiala’s vocals remain as rough around the edges as ever, despite him attempting to deliver his best soft-hearted croon. This is also one among a number of songs on this album where Tenkula really gets to demonstrate just how amazing he was when it came to delivering guitar solos. He just seemed to have a knack for writing clear, lucid, flowing solos with strong melodic thru-lines, check the 2:28 mark here for proof —- one melodic figure leads into another before the band kicks in behind him and he explodes into a flurry of semi-technicality with an unexpected finish at its end. Incredibly underrrated as a guitarist, Tenkula was a master of transforming raw emotion into lyrical figures and solos, and this album is full of them.

Drain Me (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)

Finally we arrive at the swansong, The Funeral Album, which the band wrote and released with the full intention of it being their last statement, and indeed it comes across that way with head nods to their death metal past (“Where Waters Fall Frozen”), and a tracklist concluding eulogy that comments on the end of the band’s career in metaphorical terms and ends with an emotional instrumental passage. I do love this album quite a bit, though it isn’t as strong song to song as The Cold White Light —- its high points are incredible however, and “Drain Me” is chief among them. Its actually one of their most accessible moments, built on a strong melodic guitar hookline that’s ushered along by fuzzy-heavy riffs and a chorus underscored by a restrained lead melody that later breaks out into a wild, careening solo. Laihiala is actually the sole songwriter here, one of a handful of solo-penned songs by him throughout Sentenced’s discography and its barely disguised sexual lyrics foreshadow the more direct, hard-rock approach he’d further explore in his other band Poisonblack. I’ve never been wild on the lyrics of “Drain Me”, coming across as vaguely misogynistic (I guess it all depends on perspective) —- but I suppose you have to give Laihiala credit for keeping things vague enough to match Sentenced’s general lyrical tone. It’d be hypocritical for me to rebuff it for that reason alone, after all Appetite For Destruction is one of my all-time favorite albums, and also with a melody and hook this strong, I’d simply be lying to myself.
We Are But Falling Leaves (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)

The ballad of The Funeral Album, “We Are But Falling Leaves” is also its most richly poetic lyrical moment, with Lopakka likening the passage of time to the seasons (“Think of your lifetime as one year / Look autumn is here / Getting colder, the winter’s impending”) and our own lives as falling, autumnal leaves (“We are but falling leaves in the air hovering down / On our way we are spinning around”). Instrumentation kept to a minimum during the verses, coming in full force during the refrain to hit like a sledgehammer, the song’s most remarkable musical moment is Tenkula’s guitar solo at the 2:30 mark, with a string of isolated clean notes giving way to one of his most emotional, expressive solos ever. The natural imagery of this song reminds me of something I’ve neglected to talk about, that being drummer Vesa Ranta’s stunning photography that filled the liner notes of both The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. If you follow him on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see more examples of what I’m talking about, but Ranta is a master of capturing the natural beauty of the Finnish countryside, its often rich and bountiful landscapes and its sometimes desolate and barren locales as well. The liner notes/booklets of both albums were incredibly fascinating to look at simply because of his photographs and the overall art direction that they inspired —- and others took notice, as I observed awhile back when I deciphered the influence of Sentenced on their countrymen in Insomnium.

Its promising that Insomnium is one of the few carrying that influence down the line, because Poisonblack is over, Charon has disbanded, Wood of Ypres ended tragically… bands in this vein are growing few and far between. There’s still Vesa Ranta’s sometimes incredible The Man Eating Tree, who have produced a number of fine singles, and of course Amorphis is still releasing amazing new music, though they don’t quite cross completely over into the darkened musical and lyrical realms that Sentenced so completely inhabited. The fact is that there’s a void in Sentenced’s place, something further emphasized by Tenkula’s untimely passing, and maybe there will always be a void. No band so embodied this particular vein of metal or gothic metal (whatever you want to label it) so fully and passionately. Though they were around in demo form since 1990, they really only started to burn as bright as they did during their 1995-2005 run with Laihiala on vocals, a lineup combination that seemed to bring out the best in Lopakka and Tenkula as songwriters. It was a quick burn though, and I still felt that they had a few more great albums in them. I wish the band was still around, and more than that I wish Miika Tenkula was still alive and making new music, but all that we can do is remember his work and try to let others in on one of metal’s finest secrets. Sentenced is dead, long live Sentenced!


The New Metal Media(um)

August 13, 2016

If you’ve been a regular listener of the podcast I co-host, the Mainstream Resistance podcast (MSRcast @ iTunes) you’ll have heard me mentioning The Jasta Show every so often. That is Jasta as in Jamey Jasta, vocalist of Hatebreed, and his show is actually a long form, conversational styled podcast where he interviews someone from the world of heavy music. It was something first brought to my attention by my co-host Cary, who listened to an episode where Jasta interviewed a favorite of his, Devin Townsend of course. He was impressed and thought highly enough of it to mention it during one of our podcast recordings. So I looked over the list of archived episodes, picked out the Duff McKagan one, and soon found myself hooked. Its proved itself to be the podcast I’ve been waiting for without realizing it, bringing the non-interview conversational approach of popular podcasts like The Nerdist, WTF with Marc Maron, and many others to the world of metal. Jasta himself is key to this concept, being like Chris Hardwick and Maron, a guy who’s plugged into his particular industry’s world, someone who knows a lot of its players and big names and has been entrenched in it himself long enough to garner the respect of nearly all his peers.

You might remember Jasta for his stint as the host of MTV2’s Headbanger’s Ball from 2003–2007. I had the opportunity to tune in to that show quite often during that time and I found him to be an engaging interviewer, not only for his surprising talent as a TV host, but mainly for his credibility factor as a fellow musician of heavy music. It was a lot easier for bands to come on the show and feel at ease with Jasta at the helm rather than a carefully auditioned and manicured personality, or worse, someone who wasn’t all too interested in heavy music altogether. The same could be said for the original incarnation of Headbangers Ball back in its early-mid 90s run with Riki Rachtman, an on and off musician who co-owned a club called The Cathouse frequented by the days biggest stars such as his good friend Axl Rose. Rachtman was one of the ‘boys, an outsider with no television experience who despite his good audition, certainly flaunted his “in” with many major rock stars to MTV producers as an undeniable selling point. Rachtman and Jasta knew their guests off camera, hung out with them, partied with them, and in Jasta’s case, toured with them as well. Its that credibility factor that makes The Jasta Show such a compelling listen —- you’re eavesdropping on a conversation full of inside jokes between old buddies like Howard Jones from Killswitch Engage, or hearing Jasta recall hanging out with Derrick Green in Rio, marveling that gorgeous could-be-supermodel women were clamoring for a picture with the Sepultura frontman.

Now funny stories and tales of the road are one thing, entertaining though they are, but the reason I feel compelled to discuss The Jasta Show here is mainly because of just how inside baseball Jasta wants his podcast to be. Open and frank discussion of the state of the heavy music industry and its ins and outs and realities are not shied away from, in fact, Jasta seems to encourage and facilitate discussion towards those topics. The aforementioned McKagan episode was chock full of this stuff, ranging from topics as wide ranging as over saturation of markets by excessive touring, the royalty rates of Spotify, why younger generations aren’t buying digital downloads, to how bands should look to run their operations as a small business. At one point, McKagan reveals that Guns N’ Roses actually had Geffen Records audited in 1994, and discovering that the legendary label hadn’t paid the band for approximately 6 million albums —- Geffen offered a settlement, payment for two million albums, or the choice for the band to sue the label with all the expensive costs that such a court case would guarantee. The band settled, and McKagan’s view of who and what labels were changed (he’d subsequently go on study business in college once he left Guns N’ Roses for the express purpose of understanding the contracts he’d signed… read his autobiography, its fantastic). Its just one example of otherwise hidden info you wouldn’t get anywhere else, largely because no one before has ever really steered a documented conversation with someone from Guns in that direction.

The McKagan episode only scratches the surface of deep industry talk that Jasta gets his guests to engage in. A few times he’s had on purely industry people like Vicky Hungerford, the promoter of UK’s Bloodstock festival, or Live Nation promoter Andy Copping, frequent booker of heavy hitters like AC/DC and one of the guys behind the Download Festival. In these discussions, Jasta and his guests delve deep into the economics of rock and metal festivals, what determines booking and running order, who are the future headliners of major European festivals (or arena tours for that matter). Its not a starters guide either, conversations aren’t dumbed down for our ease as relative outsiders. I’ve gone through over half of Jasta’s 189 episodes to date, and often times I’ve found myself having to think rather quickly about the context of what a particular word that I didn’t quite understand was used in. The first time I heard Jasta mention “syncs”, it took me a second to decipher that he was referring to synchronization rights, which are licensing deals artists or labels can make for a song’s placement in TV/advertising/videogames. Until I listened to The Jasta Show, I didn’t realize (though surely should have) that there was such a thing as a “radius clause”, built into most live performance contracts between artists and promoters —- that being a specified amount of time and/or distance that the artist could not perform within the vicinity of the agreed upon date and venue. I’ve learned more about the concert industry from this podcast alone than I have in my years as a curious fan doing whatever scant and meager research I could on the subject.

He leans heavily on guests from American based bands, largely I suspect due to his band Hatebreed’s tendency to play alongside them on touring lineups, but a few people from the European metal scene have popped up from time to time. Most episodes I find myself coming away with a newfound liking for a particular guest who I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to before. I was impressed with Trivium’s Matt Heafy, a thoughtful, well-spoken guy whose albums I’ll be willing to give a chance to now, in fact, I’ve gone and listened to music from every guest on the show who I walked away with a good impression of. With most of the bands, my opinion on their music doesn’t really budge, but I’ve still benefited from my internal prejudices being dissolved by hearing the artist have a non-promotional oriented discussion. With Jasta in particular, I actually went back and gave Hatebreed a second chance and found that I actually really enjoy their music now (check my review of The Concrete Confessional). He himself is a model for how most of the metal world should relate to one another, embracing the diversity of all subgenres and being open to different kinds of heavy music. This from the singer of Hatebreed, who was initially viewed as outside of the metal genre coming from a Connecticut hardcore band (they’ve long since transcended that limiting tag). I actually think the guests are secondary to my interest in the show, because ultimately what Jasta has to say himself is just as or more compelling.

The medium that he’s chosen to do his show in was a deliberate choice. He was initially offered a radio show, but in keeping with much of what he preaches as music business common sense on his podcast, he turned it down when he realized that he could be the recipient of ad revenue himself if he, rather than a corporate network, owned the show. Its also a medium that, while having grown in the world of heavy music and metal, was largely void of a big name metal podcast that had a comparable audience to that of the popular comedy podcasts. Being the co-host of one of the longest running metal podcasts, I know that most of the metal ones have extremely limited audiences, even those associated with bigger websites. The Jasta Show was the first metal podcast hosted by a guy in a big name band, able to draw a large audience from day one (his show started in summer 2014, and yes I realize Chris Jericho’s Talk Is Jericho started in 2013, but his guests tend to lean more wrestling than rock/metal). Why aren’t more people in Jasta’s position doing shows like his? I think, largely, because they don’t realize that they can. Yes Bruce Dickinson had his BBC Rock Show for a few years, the wonderful Fenriz has his NTS Radio affiliated “pirate” Radio Fenriz shows (essential listening if you want a curated hour of music from a guy who listens to thousands of releases a year for all our collective benefit), but no one else has a show like Jasta’s with an emphasis on heavy music informed conversation.

Right alongside my newfound interest in The Jasta Show, I was starting to pay more attention to the activities of another guy who was trying to do something new in metal media, one Sam Dunn, the famed anthropologist-turned-documentarian whose Banger Films company turned an eye towards new media in the form of YouTube. They established BangerTV a few years ago simply as a place to put up trailers for their films and VH1 series Metal Evolution, along with scattered interview outtakes from those projects. At some point, they looked around at what other people were doing with YouTube in terms of original content and decided to try their hand at it, and announced their intentions in September of 2015. Two months later they premiered their first series of YouTube original content in Lock Horns, a live web show in which Dunn and his invited guests would restructure and reshape the “metal family tree” that was so prominently displayed in Metal: A Headbangers Journey and the Metal Evolution VH1 series. Being live, viewers on YouTube could throw in their two cents on the discussion about what bands should or should not be under a particular subgenre branch of the metal tree, and Dunn and his producer take notice, reading many of the comments verbatim in all their fanboyish glory. The episodes are archived, so people who couldn’t catch the live premiere can always check them out later (I’ve only managed to catch one live myself).

Let’s step back a bit for a second —- when it came to Dunn’s documentaries, I recall being excited that someone was finally doing something like it on metal, yet simultaneously disappointed at the same time. His first, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey premiered in 2005, and at the time I felt vindicated as a metal fan that we were getting a serious portrayal in a cinematic medium, yet dismayed that so much of my own metal experience wasn’t really represented within it. There were only glancing looks at extreme metal or power metal, but it was a 90 minute film, so I could understand it to some degree. Years later, their Metal Evolution series on VH1 sought to delve deeper into metal’s broad spectrum by focusing each of its eleven episodes on a particular era or subgenre of metal. I was surprised and impressed that power metal was chosen as one of the topics, but wildly agitated at how Dunn admitted to being uninformed of the genre. One of my early articles that never ended up being published on this blog was a critique of that very episode, specifically on how and why he was bereft of knowledge of major bands that were quite clearly known to the rest of us here in the States (your Iced Earth, Blind Guardian, Hammerfall, etc). At the end of the episode, he excused his lack of knowledge on power metal as a result of its being tied to European festival culture —- a plausible theory, yet not completely waterproof. I’d never been to any European metal fests, yet I was a record buying participant of the late nineties/early aughts golden era of the genre right from my bedroom in Houston, Texas (a wasteland for a power metal fan). Dunn hailed from Canada, and it seemed strange to me that he had a far more tunnel visioned experience as a fellow North American metal fan than I did.

My opinion was naive —- I must have subconsciously realized it at the time because I actually finished writing the article but couldn’t bring myself to hit the publish button. One day I found myself at my parents place watching VH1 on their satellite and catching an episode of That Metal Show, you know, the goofy, classic rock pandering disaster starring Eddie Trunk and comedians Jim Florentine and Don Jamieson. It annoyed me in general, because even if the guests were good, the format was godawful and the “interviews” were lowest common denominator stuff. It was like every bad cliche about people at Metallica shows rolled into a glossy, manicured presentation, down to the buffoonish audience who lapped it up and misguidedly thought of Trunk as a “metal expert” (even though he largely ignores anything resembling non-mainstream metal and doesn’t pay attention to bands formed after 1992 unless they were a new band by someone established… Chickenfoot anyone?). I was suddenly struck with the realization of how much Dunn’s documentaries, on film and TV, were so deserving of far more praise than I had ever given him in conversations with fellow metal fans and friends. His approach was always thoughtful, full of discourse about the actual music and the reasons why it was created, in search of something with greater substance than just stories of excess and debauchery. But I missed my window to do that, a few years had lapsed and Metal Evolution was old news to just about everyone in the metal scene.

So in a way, this is kind of an unsolicited apology to Dunn and an urging to anyone reading this to jump aboard the Lock Horns train. Its a fun watch, at times utterly compelling in its ability to get you shouting at your screen over why no one, guest or live audience has mentioned Vintersorg during the Folk-Metal episode (they finally did!). Camera work and sometimes audio are a little spotty, but it is an operation in its infancy and I actually prefer this DIY, rough n’ tumble production approach to something overtly glossy and plastic. The heart of the show is conversation, intellectual discourse about the actual music of the subgenres and bands that we love and so feverishly quibble over. Its a unifying experience to be a part of such a discussion, even as a passive watcher long after the live episode airing. Sometimes the discussion within an episode will give birth to another episode, as was the case when bands like Nightwish, Sonata Arctica, and Rhapsody were deemed too symphonic for the regular power metal branch, thus growing the metal tree with a symphonic power metal branch all its own. The Early Black Metal episode had the live audience getting raucous about the inclusion of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir (they too got the boot). These are the kinds of conversations that we used to hold only in forgotten message boards, now largely abandoned in the wake of Facebook and Twitter. Lock Horns is a centralized place to hold this debate, and a cultural touchstone for metal fans of all flavors (remember my metal as ice cream theory?). Its become one of my favorite YouTube watches, a show I will only view on my TV with YouTube pulled up through the Xbox, sitting on the couch with an iced tea or beer in hand, attention full-on.

Lock Horns fills a void on YouTube, a place long devoid of quality metal content. There are occasional moments of promise, such as Infidel Amsterdam’s channel and some stray things here and there that are actually creative such as Brutally Delicious or The Metal Voice. I used to get emails from people asking me to check out their vidcast show they’d put on YouTube, or a video version of their podcast, and I would. All of them were well meaning, most of them were relatively unwatchable however for one reason or another. A round table discussion of what was the best Metallica album with a single 360 microphone, one camera, and bad lighting is not exactly compelling viewing, especially when the panelists are inebriated and the clicking of beer bottles tunes out the actual talking. Yes that was sent to me and I’m not trying to be condescending, just being honest. Point is that Lock Horns really is groundbreaking, a show with a modicum of budget behind it that’s really going for the jugular in terms of creating outlets for in-depth metal debate with an emphasis on the music and on putting its history together. It and The Jasta Show are just two endeavors using new media to document and archive parts of our metal past, and we need more things like them out there. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that metal has no governing body, no organizational control structure or educational institution instructing us to document our history —- outsiders don’t care, they never will, we have to do it ourselves.

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 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 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.