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The Mid-Year Reviews Cluster Catch Up

July 12, 2018

So I spent most of the past month mistakenly thinking that this summer was a little light on quality new music, and to a certain extent that’s right in terms of May and June. Fortunately for me I’ve taken advantage of the lull to do some digging on stuff I might have missed in the past six months in general. I discovered these through a variety of different sources, but mostly from my friends at /r/powermetal and its corresponding Dischord chat as well as the USPM Connection Facebook group, all of whom helped me out with a ton of suggestions for albums I’ve missed (for better and worse). I’ve picked out a handful of the most interesting ones, so I guess these are somewhat reviews but kinda also just straight up recommendations that I think are worth your time. I’ve also reviewed the new Khemmis and Kobra and the Lotus, two bands that I had previously heard of but have never written about or investigated too much until now. The nature of how I came to hear most of these bands is a microcosm of the very essence of this blog’s founding mission, namely being a conduit for word of mouth recommendations, from others to me, and hopefully myself to you.

 


 

 

Exlibris – Innertia:

Before we begin, a little clarification is necessary because there are two active metal bands based only a few hundred kilometers apart in Europe sharing the same name. Well, almost. So there’s Ex Libris, the Dutch symphonic metal band helmed by ex-Xandria vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen that’s active once more and in the process of crowdfunding a new album. Then there’s Exlibris, and the modern power metal band from Poland, and that’s who we’re talking about here with their new album Innertia. Poland has had a small yet noticeable impact on the power metal scene, the most notable band being Crystal Viper. There’s some much smaller profile Polish bands such as Gutter Sirens and Night Mistress, the latter of whom incidentally shared a vocalist in Krzysztof Sokołowski with Exlibris for a couple years and a few albums. He was a fairly proficient vocalist, but Exlibris have finally decided to take a big step apart and forward by recruiting a singer of their own in Finland’s own Riku Turunen, who turns out to be a remarkable talent. This is my introduction to him, but damn what an introduction. He’s got a nice blend of influences in his vocals, a blast of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammett’s raw power with a dash of Timo Kotipelto’s penchant for endearing phrasing of specific words and phrases. I really love his work all over this album, and he’s arriving at a time when a lot of us are looking around at the power metal landscape and wondering where the next powerhouse vocalists are —- as it turns out, there’s a load of them all over the globe, they’re just not getting the recognition they should.

 

As impressive as Turunen is, I don’t want to minimize what the band has accomplished with Innertia, because this is one of the most dazzling modern power metal albums I’ve heard in awhile. Its riffs are thick, meaty and Tad Morose level heavy at moments, but the songwriting is quick on its feet, throwing changes and abrupt shifts this way and that which keep things from getting plodding or staid. There’s a few songs here that evoke tinges of Theocracy’s blistering yet melodic rhythmic attack, the album leading “Harmony of Spheres” comes to mind with its airplane takeoff acceleration and lush vocal lift on the bridge. The mid-song shift to a regal symphonic metal breakdown (as close as it gets to such a strange concept anyway) is a nice diversion, something to lock in our attention as the song hits its final minutes. These guys do a lot of that, little musical ideas tossed in here and there that work to maximize the overall impact rather than simply standout on their own. I mentioned the backing/layered vocals a second ago, and I love that they’re confident enough to write with them as a major component of the songwriting at times, as on “Gravity” whose refrain is classic call and response hard rock theatrics —- the strident lead vocals up close and personal while the backing vocals handle the progression of the vocal melody driving things forward. While guitarist Daniel Lechmański and keyboardist Piotr Sikora help Turunen out on backing vox on most tracks, guest vocalist Ann Charlotte Wikström is heard on many spots throughout with assists on lead vocal lines as on album highlight “Shoot For the Sun”. Its a spectacular song and it really shines towards the end when she weaves around Turunen in a twisting, enjoining vocal dance to finish the track —- a gorgeously sublime moment.

 

The Sammett comparisons surface again in a positive way for much of “Incarnate”, and honestly it makes the Edguy/Avantasia fanboy inside nine kinds of giddy. I really love Sikora’s keyboard work, he’s really working a Jens Johansson approach here, not only for the flashy solos but in how he utilizes his keys largely as an orchestral instrument to help amplify Turunen’s vocal lines. His interplay with Lechmański’s guitarwork throughout the album is intriguing to behold on its own apart from the vocals, and when all three elements join up on the same melody as on the chorus for “Amorphous” the results are triumphant, fist in the air stuff. Great bands make choruses like these seem easy, but if you listen to enough mediocre, not-quite-there power/trad metal you’ll realize they’re enormously difficult. It takes vision to write something that has such a well-defined melodic arc, and I’d put Exlibris’ work on this album up there with the best of new Terje Haroy/Jacob Hansen era Pyramaze. I love that they’re not afraid of challenging themselves with complexity during their refrains either, as on “Origin of Decay” whose chorus is its own countermelody to the verse, a bold decision that works well, I enjoyed it so much that even the spoken word effects in the middle didn’t bother me (and they usually do). A day after I first heard this album I recorded a recent MSRcast where I prematurely spoke of Innertia as a casual summertime jam type of affair —- but subsequent listens have made a right fool out of me. I simply can’t say enough good things about this record right now, it came out of nowhere and just floored me. At this point I’m not just talking about Innertia being potentially the best power metal record of 2018, I’m talking about it being in the running for the best album of the year list period.

 

 

 

 

Kobra and the Lotus – Prevail II:

Another chapter in my ever expanding legacy of coming around to bands late, Kobra and the Lotus finally grabbed my attention with 2017’s Prevail. I heard that album when it came out last summer with a few cursory listens and came away surprised that I was enjoying parts of it, but it got lost in the shuffle of releases around the time and I never reviewed it. But there’s something happening here on its sequel that signals that perhaps the band is coming into their own creatively. Kobra Paige has always been an impressive vocalist, but for me this is the first time I’m hearing her vocals in a context that makes the most of their Doro-esque strength and vigor, her performance in this album at times even recalling the tensile flexibility of Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. The band shares credit in this too, giving her ample room to steer the melodic ship with her vocals, the often delightfully catchy riffs from Jasio Kulakowski working around her via accents and countermelodies. Its the sound of a band that has searched for and discovered its strengths over the course of a few albums and is now leaning into them hard.

 

The most vivid example of that realization is heard on “Let Me Love You”, as fine a single as we’ve heard all year and the kind of metal summertime jam where the lyrical matter doesn’t matter so much as the groove, the riff, and the killer hook does. I say lyrical matter doesn’t matter only because I don’t mind rock or metal bands singing about topics like love and romance, they’ve been doing it since Zeppelin and The Who. Yet a good many of the comments on YouTube for this song are from insecure boys opining that its subject matter is lame (or that dreaded dairy related adjective). Guys, its no more so than any other lyrical subject matter in metal, its 2018 and its past time to get over it. In fact, for the Metal Pigeon’s 2014 album of the year in Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter, a heavy emphasis on the subject of bad relationships was the emotional core that informed much of that album’s gorgeously manipulated rage and fury. Paige doesn’t quite achieve that same level of excellence all across Prevail II, but on this song she absolutely delivers in an angst-ridden paean to forlorn longing. She does the same on the Ville Valo meets Ann Wilson vibe of “Heartache” with a wonderful vocal on the chorus there, one written with exceptional care to squeeze every emotional drop from so few syllables.

 

On the heavier end, she’s gotten better at channeling mainline influences such as Halford and even a little Dickinson as her performances on “Human Empire” and “You’re Insane” can attest. Album opener “Losing My Humanity” is another highlight, being an example of one of my favorite trad metal songwriting techniques in a punishingly fast verse riff being followed by a slower tempo in the arena rock informed bridge and chorus. Its classic metal 101 but so challenging to pull off in a way that sounds effortless like it does here. A note about the production here, because I know that Jacob Hansen has his trademark sonic style that some find too polished and perfect (and its very apparent all over this album), but I think it really works for a band in this vein where the focus is on elevating Paige’s performances in a vocal melody driven context. Kobra and the Lotus have an intriguing future ahead of them, one that could end in either extreme because while I suspect their sound is accessible enough for anyone looking for well crafted melodic metal, its also a little too trad for alternative rock playlists and maybe even Active Rock and Sirius FM/Octane. They made a dent with “Light Me Up” last year, but a small one at that and its unfortunate that they’re not getting better results with the singles off Pt II. Its still early in the release cycle, so maybe a well chosen tour or two could change things, and I hope so because this album deserves more ears.

 

 

 

 

Thaurorod – Coast of Gold:

You ever have those moments where you’re at the grocery store, with your responsible list of low carb, sugar free groceries in your cart and you’re stocked up on organic chicken, avocados, bags of salad, some eggs (okay okay enough of the shopping list) and you pass by the cereal aisle and instead of  walking past like you’re supposed to you wander in and Assassin’s Creed past your better judgement to grab that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Yep, that’s me with the new (well, a February release) Thaurorod album, a blast of Euro-styled power metal cut from the late nineties glory era cloth. This is such a blatantly traditionalist power metal affair that it even goes for the jugular with the comic book-ish cover art featuring the band members drawn as enterprising seafarers (I guess?). Thankfully they steer clear of Alestorm territory, in fact this is actually a Finnish band but they sound closer to Freedom Call in sound and spirit rather than Sonata Arctica. What was interesting to learn upon closer inspection is that its kind of a side project of Joonas Pykälä-aho and Emil Pohjalainen from Amberian Dawn (drummer and guitarist respectively). Neither to my knowledge contribute to Amberian’s writing process so I take it they get their kicks here with a project that’s been going since 2005. This was one of the recommendations from the community at /r/PowerMetal, it came up when folks were discussing what they thought the best albums of the first half of the year were. I can easily understand why this was an oft-cited favorite, much like my Cinnamon Toast Crunch comparison, its the power metal equivalent to kiddish comfort food (the band name being a Tolkien reference is also a good way to get me to listen).

 

You’ll get my drift when you hear the album opener, suitably named “Power”, because this song is as the lyrics confirm, about “Power we need / Power we breathe / Power to break through the gates / To our dreams”. Oh and don’t misinterpret the tone of that sentence, because I’m not being snarky in anyway, I’m fully buying in here, even when the band makes the near fatal mistake of having built-in “hey! hey!” chant sections midway through the song (seriously, Thaurorod gets a pass because this song is so much fun, but note to bands, don’t do this!). Its power metal 101 to use “power” and “forever” liberally in lyrics, and these guys pack them both in a skyrocketing chorus. Pure power metal fun aside, there’s some depth and complexity to what they’re accomplishing on “24601”, a song that makes clever use of its title in a satisfyingly rhythmic way. What really sells it is the rough yet smooth vocals of Bosnian singer Andi Kravljača (if he sounds familiar its because he was on the first Seventh Wonder album pre-Tommy Karevik and did a stint with Silent Call for a few years), and he entirely makes up for the fact that they lifted the keyboard intro from Toto’s “Hold the Line”. I experienced a rush of joy listening to this record, and appreciate that the band just went for it full throttle, often in speed but always in displaying their clear cut love for all things classic power metal. Its not reinventing the wheel for sure, but its a pretty good wheel.

 

 

 

 

 

The Night Flight Orchestra – Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough:

The lovable Swedes are back yet again with a new album a little over a single year after the release of 2017’s Amber Galactic. It wasn’t but a few months ago that I was writing about them for the first time, not expecting that we’d get new music so quickly, but that facet alone is another detail in what makes The Night Flight Orchestra so convincing and compelling. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, rock bands would usually be releasing new music at a pretty swift clip, even the Scorpions only took two years between Animal Magnetism and Blackout, and that includes the delays from Klaus Meine almost losing his voice before the recording sessions. Iron Maiden of course knocked out three albums in yearly succession between 82-84, all while touring like madmen in between each release and somehow finding time to write and record new music rapidly, rest and vacations were considered part of the recording session experience (I suppose that’s why they’d decamp to the Bahamas but nevermind). The point is that back in that era to take three years or longer to do an album was seen as far too long to be away from your fans, it was just an aspect of rock culture that slowly ebbed away as the 90s came out and it was seen as okay to tour longer or use the EP or live album as a way to buy time. I’m not sure whether the band is doing it on purpose or not, but there’s something charming about Night Flight adhering to this ethos and work ethic, this being their fourth album in six years since the band’s inception —- pretty good for a “side project”.

 

That they’ve managed to get better and sound more confident with each passing release is also something to celebrate, and Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough expands upon the greater role of synths and keyboard driven melodies that we heard on Amber Galactic. Lead single/video track “Turn to Miami” is emblematic of this approach, with its suggestive, slinky synth lines and lyrics that declare “while the night is young / this is where we start”. Björn Strid is as usual accompanied by gorgeous backing vocals, provided here by the “Airline Annas” (Anna Brygård and Anna-Mia Bonde), a detail that might get overlooked in the artistic success of these songs. Its not to say that Strid isn’t a powerful and appealing clean vocalist in his own right, but the Airline Annas’ harmonies and independent vocal accompaniments layer on that extra sugar icing that buoy these songs from street level High Spirits throwback grit into something that is truly transcendent and of the spirit of that era. The hardest hitting song on the record is the title track, not only for its confident hard rock stridency, but because that chorus just impacts with precision, the Anna’s once again sealing its potency with well timed supporting harmonies.

 

And there’s something to “Lovers In the Rain”, a heavy synth drenched semi power ballad, the kind that had it come out in the early 80s would have irritated a few fans at first but slowly would win them over in private away from their buddies in the car. When it comes to “Barcelona”, we’re treated to a Journey-esque ode to one particular city that also serves as a metaphorical focal point for the narrator. Its the weakest song on the record but still manages to rock with early 80s conviction, and that says something about the overall quality of the album. The work this band has put into mining this particular vein of rock history has made them into one of the style’s strongest songwriting collectives. Case in point is just how interesting they manage to make the nine-minute plus “The Last of the Independent Romantics”, a running time that had me skeptical before I heard it. Here they marry the sounds of 80s rich royalty rock with the ambition of a 70s prog rock piece and keep it loaded with enough solid riffs and melodic shifts to keep us intrigued. This is a fun listen and if you haven’t gotten on board yet, this is the album to get first (and work your way backwards in order), Night Flight have transcended any jokey beginnings and have simply turned into a great band making a kind of music a lot of us miss.

 

 

 

 

 

Uada – Cult of a Dying Sun:

Portland’s Uada are an intriguing band, not for the hoods they wear in promo photos and apparently onstage as well (we’ll see, I’m catching them live in a few days time), but for their attempt at straddling the bridge connecting second wave black metal to its more melodically inclined modern evolution. This is their sophomore album, their debut Devoid of Light arriving in 2016 and in listening to the two back to back, you can see that they’ve made a significant leap in songwriting complexity in just this short span of time. The thing that I feel most critics of modern black metal miss is just how effective a crisp, clear production job can be to the overall impact of music as complex as this. Not everything should sound like a shrieking incoherent mess, and while that early second wave production style lent itself to what those artists were trying to accomplish (“Give me the wvurst microphone you have…”), a lot of us became fans of the modern style first and then went back to do our history homework with the more difficult to listen to stuff.

 

I have no idea what the members of Uada would cite as influences, and this being a short review I felt no need to research it, but I hear shades of Dissection (particularly in the wielding of melodic motifs throughout), a little Dimmu Borgir and even a bit of Inquisition. I’ve seen some criticism posted up about how these guys are aping Polish black metal band Mgla’s sound, and that’s some pretty accusatory stuff considering most metal bands are drawing influence from other metal bands. I took a listen to the last Mgla album to see what the fuss was about, and okay there’s some resemblance but honestly I prefer Uada for their deeper dive into unabashed melody. Take their melodic treatment of the tremolo buzzsaw cutting across most of “Snakes and Vultures”, its so earwormy in its own right that it works as the hook here, usurping the actual vocal refrain. And I love the almost melo-death approach on guitars in “Mirrors”, kind of a merging of two genres with its black metal song structure. This isn’t a perfect album, it starts off really strong for the first three tracks and then dips a bit in the middle (“The Wanderer” should have been left on the cutting room floor) only to perk up at the end, but its one of the few black metal records that’s intrigued me this year. Looking forward to seeing them, hoping for an entertaining show (remember, a good show needs anticipation or surprise!) and will be expecting even better things from these guys in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Khemmis – Desolation:

I had paid attention the last time Khemmis were making waves, about two years ago when they were in the spotlight for their sophomore release Hunted. I gave that album a shot and for some reason it just didn’t connect with me, and honestly their newest Desolation really took more than a handful of forced attempts at cracking its code before it finally started to grow on me. I’m not sure what my block is on this band (we briefly talked about this on the last MSRcast), but Desolation is the most accessible album for me from this band mainly because its the least doomy of all their work. I know its a bit ridiculous to come from having Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper on my best albums list last year, to now saying that Khemmis is giving me problems but that’s just the way my brain is working at the moment I guess. It was Adrian Begrand’s repeated Twitter statements on how “If you like traditional, escapist heavy metal, this is the one for you” that got me to stick with it, and kudos to him because I think I’m about 75-80% there. The stuff I’m responding positively to is the band’s increased trad metal infusion, particularly in the uptick in tempos all across these songs. There were flashes of that happening on their previous two albums, but here its the main feature, and it makes a huge difference in aligning their sound closer to bands like Grand Magus and Tyr, whom I both adore.

 

As usual Khemmis keeps the albums concise and tight (only six tracks here, ranging from four to nine minutes), its a practice that I sometimes think other bands should adopt, getting back to a more mid-80s/vinyl level of quality control, but I’m digressing. The album that I’m enjoying kicks off after the opening doom-laden track “Bloodletting” on the subsequent”Isolation” which really reminds me of Candlemass crossed with Iron Maiden. There’s a dueling guitar solo segment partway through that’s just fantastic, full of vigor and vibrant melodicism. It also contains vocalist Phil Pendergast’s best, most emotive work —- at times displaying shades of Tyr’s Heri Joensen and even Dio’s penchant for theatricality and rhythmic timing. You’ll hear more of that on “Flesh to Nothing”, particularly in the build up during the verses, and I get a real Hetfield vibe on “The Seer” that works to enhance its bite. Of course harsh vocalist Ben Hutcherson is the counterpoint here, and his raspy sheet metal scream is on point tonally and provides a nice change-up from time to time. If I’m being honest I wouldn’t mind Khemmis going full clean vocals in the future, but that’s just my power/trad metal loving side coming out. I’m still digesting this album fully, but the good news is that its something I’m willingly coming back to and its riffs are thundering in my head long after I’ve finished listening.

 

 

 

 

Frozen Crown – The Fallen King:

This was a nice surprise, another touted recommendation from the peeps at /r/PowerMetal, Frozen Crown are a power metal band from Italy that sound like they could be from the States or Canada. Its not that they don’t have the ability to show a little flashiness ala Rhapsody and co., as principal songwriter Federico Mondelli and his fellow guitarist Talia Bellazecca have enough bottled up technical virtuosity to trade spitfire solos and flex creatively with complex melodic patterns. But rather than layer it on thick, they have an innate USPM sense of keeping things scaled down, stripped back to the essentials —- so we get shreddy riffs but also vocal melody driven songwriting built on the strength of the relatively unknown Giada Etro’s emotive, throaty singing as well as Mondelli’s own solid clean-harsh range. What’s smart about their pairing is that they avoid beauty and the beast tropes by rarely trading off verses… this is largely Etro’s domain, the songs are almost all written to support her ability to soar into higher registers, but Mondelli provides a nice change of pace in select situations and also sparks a nice harmonic duet in the ballad “Chasing Lights”. That song in particular is used as a cleverly disguised segue into the sharp, aggressive epic “Queen of Blades”, one of the occasions where both vocalists do trade off a bit yet the overall vibe I get is more Unleash the Archers, not Nightwish.

 

Speaking of Archers, Etro has a touch of Brittney Hayes’ timbre to her vocals, but also a little of Kobra Paige’s smoothness, that ability to make emotive sweeps with little changes. I hear both “Across the Sea”, as Nightwish-esque as things get here (muted keyboard adorned verses, transitional bridge/chorus that pops), and I love the choice Etro makes with the sped up phrasing at the :59 to 1:04 mark (“I’m feeling frozen, I can’t hear my heart beating”), something I’d imagine that the master of that technique in Mr. Tony Kakko would be proud of. Sometimes as on the closing track “Netherstorm” I get the feeling that the band is attempting to find a place where melo-death and power metal can merge (that intersection of Wintersun and Skyfire), and they have a moment towards the end where the riffs have that Gothenberg density and are complemented by a gorgeously fluid lead melody over the top. Its not quite the integration they seek, but I think they’ll get there with future albums. Oh yeah, this is a debut by the way, it actually came out in February, but being that their label support is relatively small (Scarlet Records in Italy) its telling that they’re making lasting impressions in the online power metal community —- enough for a handful of people to remember it all these months later when pressed for recommendations. Its too early to call it, but there’s something happening within power metal that might be described as a nascent revitalization. I’m looking around at the artistic triumphs coming from the genre in the last few years as well as young rising bands like this and its starting to feel as exciting as 1998 again. To quote Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

 

 

 

 

Hoth – Astral Necromancy:

Oh get ready, this is a strange but good one, and I mean really strange and really good. This has become one of my favorites for 2018 overall, something I’ve been unable to stop listening to in the slightest (cool cover art too for bonus points). If the name wasn’t a tip off, Hoth are steeped in Star Wars mythology, particularly in their first two albums (this one seems to blend in some other lyrical topics, mainly, erm…. necromancy), and while its surprising that no band has really taken and run with that theme in earnest, its more surprising as to how Hoth have decided to go about it. Their interpretation of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away is a soundscape of heavily major key infused black metal, and I’m not talking about symphonic arrangements ala Dimmu and others, but as in its core tremolo based guitar skeleton. We’ve talked about black metal set to major keys before, most notably in Deafheaven’s Sunbather, and it was a unique listening experience for sure, but I think that Hoth somehow make it even more interesting because they’re keeping with the darkness and not resorting to pastoral tones and colors. Make no mistake, the galaxy that Hoth want you to envision is bleak, unforgiving, icy cold (heh), and wickedly punishing.

 

On opener “Vengeance” they take a traditional black metal approach through the verses, but punctuate the bridge with some almost bark/shouted rhythmic vocal lines only to follow it up with a wildly noodley solo. Its a preview of things to come in that you’ll never really be able to predict where they’re going to take things musically —- unpredictability is their greatest strength. Take its jaw dropping follow-up “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” (that title is some Glen Cook level cosmic darkness!) where they switch up the attack with an almost trad/power metal rhythmic riff structure, one that reminds me of how Therion often surprises new listeners with their heavy 80s metal guitar approach instead of something more blackened or death metal-ish. I would call this a prog influenced track for its rising dramatic crescendo during the refrain but it might give you the wrong idea, this is very much a brutal and fierce piece of music. Elsewhere I was enthralled by their turn to pure power metal influences such as on “Ascension”, an appropriate title given the sudden sweeping nature of the guitar melodies herein, featuring a lead melody as gorgeous as anything conjured up by Opeth or Sorceror. It wouldn’t come as a surprise then for me to tell you that the guys on the /r/PowerMetal dischord recommended this one to me as well, and I find that harsh vocal based recommendations from power metal communities really hit me in my sweet spot (that ‘melodeath-ian nexus’ of everything I love about metal).

 

 

Lessons From Concert-Going

June 16, 2018

Its been a sweat filled, beer guzzling start to the summer for me, not only for the surprising intensity this early in our Houston HnH (heat and humidity), but for the four shows I’ve already attended in May and June alone, with one more on the horizon this next week (Hammerfall) and possibly another in July. As I’ve written before, I don’t normally write up show reviews because they’re usually uninteresting to read for anyone who wasn’t there, full of sycophantic blather about how the band “killed it” or any variation on butts being kicked. It was the type of stuff I loved reading when I was 18 —- the kind of die hard fan who’d show up to shows at 3pm to catch the band sound checking or loitering outside their bus. Back then I’d stay long after the headliners had left, not only to talk to the band members I hadn’t met before the gig, but to just linger and soak up the atmosphere and keep the night going. Such thoughts are unfathomable to me now, when the very thought of standing up front by the stage for all the openers just to be in a prime spot for the headliner sounds like a nightmare rather than a privilege. Most shows these days I don’t mind arriving to the venue a little bit later, to avoid rush hour traffic and miss an opener I didn’t care about, and I’ll usually leave right after the headliners make their final bow. Chances are I have to work the next day and/or my friggin knee is killing me. The in-show energy is reserved as well, kept for moments when I really get into it and with caution not to headbang my way into feeling awful in the morning. Moshing? No. Retired. Mosh retirement.

 

That being said, I do want to talk about something I’ve learned about the act of going to a metal show, or any show really, over the course of these past couple. Two were within five days of each other, one being an out of town trip with some rough conditions (more on that in a sec), and the other was a capstone celebration for a pair of friends who’d gotten married that same day. Ah concerts, things we music lovers look forward to sometimes more than album releases. You see the announcement months in advance, let yourself get excited and sometimes even fret about whether to buy the tickets ahead of time or trust in the low-ish attendance tendency of these small metal club shows to know you can just pay at the door the night of. Then you wait. Days before the show, you let yourself get excited again, start listening to the band you’re seeing to prepare a little, to whet the appetite to hear those songs live, and then its the show day and you’re standing there in front of a stage with a drum kit, some mics, and a few crew guys scurrying around setting everything up. Countless shows attended now and its never gotten old, and I’m always intrigued by every aspect of the shin-dig, from the way the bands choose to make their entrance, to the amount of dry ice fog they’re unfurling, to how much room they’re all gonna have to move around. Music nerd you see. I don’t think I’ve become jaded yet, even when I’m achingly tired, irritated that the soundcheck’s going on forever, and the openers were meh. I’m still at a show and damn its cool, its my decision to be there and I’m in a room full of (mostly) other people who get it.

 

In my experience, any disappointment surrounding a show is largely due to having to miss it thanks to some interceding combination of bad timing, unavoidable scheduling conflicts or the bummer of bummers, being strapped for cash. There is however that rare tragedy where you actually attend a show and walk out at the end feeling vaguely unsatisfied, or worse yet, apathetic and indifferent to what you’ve just witnessed. And look, we’re all a little hesitant to admit out loud when this happens for fear of looking and feeling like a sucker. The most egregious example however came during a December 2013 Finntroll headlining show. I had seen them way back in 2007 when Vreth had just joined up as the lead vocalist, and they were supporting their most vicious black metal infused album ever (Ur jordens djup). It was an incredible show, the band playing a tiny stage that barely rose a foot off the ground with all of us going nuts in front of them. My friend Matt got his shoulder dislocated at that show by a bruiser in the pit, dashed away to the back of the room, popped his shoulder back in place and bounded back in the crowd next to me. Insane. They rolled through two years later with Swallow the Sun and Moonsorrow and again it was all kinds of awesome brutality (sans injuries). The 2013 show however was abysmal. Gone was the raw, primal intensity that ran through those two performances, replaced instead with pandering to the Korpiklaani/Alestorm set, heavy on the keyboard humppa and the band all sporting fake elven ears. The band was going through the motions, Vreth was noticeably out of it, hungover or drunk as he admitted to my friends later. Not to get dramatic, but I don’t think any of us have listened to the band since.

 

 

Kamelot in Houston (May 2018) Credit: @wilkinson_image_designBut a band making a bad impression due to a combo of performance issues and aesthetic choices is admittedly an extreme outlier, and they certainly weren’t the problem when I left the House of Blues in Houston over a month ago on May 9th one song before Kamelot finished their headlining set. This is a band that can rightfully be called one of my favorite metal bands of the past decade plus, power metal stalwarts who towered mighty during their Roy Khan era, stumbled a bit after he left in 2011 but recovered with 2015’s excellent Haven album. I’ll say this, the band played well that night, Tommy Karevik was in as fine form of voice as he was on the past two times I’ve seen him, and they played to an appreciative audience. But I was a little unenthusiastic about the experience, mainly because I had taken a peek at the setlist ahead of time and noticed just how nearly identical it was to the last time I saw them in 2015. Nine songs were the same, and of the only four Khan era songs they played (down from seven the last time) all were cuts they had already played last time (and honestly on the tour before that back supporting Silverthorn in 2012 when I saw them in Austin). Now I get that three albums into the Karevik era, they’d naturally trim the Roy songs down a bit, but a little swapping in and out of classic Kamelot cuts would be preferable. Particularly for fans who’ve been around for awhile like myself. I was essentially seeing the same show from three years ago, with the exception of the new songs they added in from April’s The Shadow Theory.

 

What was missing from that Kamelot show was two factors that you at least require one of to be in play for a good concert experience —- namely, a sense of anticipation, or the element of surprise. The absolute best shows give you both, and those are rare gems that you should cherish and boast about loudly to friends during drunken reminiscing. With Kamelot, I knew the setlist going into it, and while I was mildly interested in hearing the new songs live, it wasn’t enough to overcome my dampened enthusiasm from knowing I was going to be hearing largely the same show yet again. There was zero sense of anticipation, but I bought the ticket well ahead of time, I was certainly not going to waste it. During the show however, there were no surprises —- the band played the same setlist that they were playing on every stop of their North American tour, no curve balls thrown in or new songs added or swapped out. The beats were the same within the show as well, Karevik with a piano only accompaniment for “Here Comes the Fall” so the rest of the band could take a water break, then there were the guest vocalist spots from Lauren Hart and Charlotte Wessels at all the expected moments. I know what you’re thinking, “Pigeon, this seems like disgruntled fan talk, not really a valid complaint about a band letting down an audience.” I’ll stop you right there. I am part of said audience. I take no especial pride in being a Kamelot fan longer than perhaps some of the other folks attending that show, but having that history with the band greatly exposed what was wrong with that show (and the band subsequently) to me whereas it may not have for someone excited to see them for the first time. Its the Iron Maiden dilemma just transposed to a smaller band (the grizzled Maiden show vet doesn’t need to hear “Iron Maiden” for the umpteenth time, but the fan seeing them for the first time is all about it).

 

My next show was a few weeks later, Tyr + Orphaned Land + Ghost Ship Octavius + Aeternam in Austin and it already had anticipation building up to feverish levels. It was a stupidly awesome bill, providing me with my first experience seeing Orphaned Land live, first time seeing the ascendant Aeternam (a Metal Pigeon Best of 2017 listee!), and another chance to see Tyr who I hadn’t seen since 2008 at Paganfest. I was hoping to rope in anyone to go check out the show with me but it would end up just being myself (my fellow MSRcast co-host having to bow out due to work obligations even though he badly wanted to go), so I made the road trip alone. Had to fight through a hot Texas Friday afternoon with rush hour traffic making it take well over an hour just to get out of Houston and its surrounding areas alone, but I made it to the venue just in time for doors to open. I was so incredibly giddy. I had blasted the combined Orphaned Land and Aeternam setlists on the way up to Austin, plus a spinning of Aeternam’s Moongod for the extra adrenaline. Both bands didn’t deviate from their expected setlists, but this time around the element of anticipation was so strong that knowing the songs ahead of time didn’t faze my enthusiasm. I was right upfront against the stage for Aeternam going nuts alongside one other guy while the rest of the crowd stood a little back, most voicing earlier within earshot about how they didn’t know who these guys were. One song in and they moved up with the pair of us, Aeternam winning them over with a no frills, heavy energy performance. I loved every second of it, this was a band that I didn’t realistically think would even tour, I didn’t even mind that they only got five songs worth of time.

 

 

Orphaned Land in Austin (May 2018)Seeing Orphaned Land take the stage made me feel a little like being eighteen again. It was surreal to finally see this band that I had been a massive fan of for such a long time since 2004 (more on that history here), and I’m not sure if there were any problems with the sound or if the band technically played well or not. I was on a high, just ecstatic that they were there and so was I, pressed against the stage and shouting along to these songs for the first time with other people who knew them (well, a good throng of us anyway, it was largely a Tyr crowd). At one point I made their guitarist Idan crack up when he saw how enthusiastic I was, giving him the metal horns (in my best Dio impersonation, throwing the horns directly at him). Their vocalist, the one and only Kobi Farhi said the band was going to be at their merch table directly after their set, and there I was, clutching a cold beer, with two Orphaned Land shirts slung over my shoulder (bought one for Cary, felt bad he was missing it), and shaking hands with every member of the band. I was admittedly a little star struck. Afterwards I ran into Achraf Loudiy from Aeternam in the stairwell/hallway of the venue and chatted for a bit, he remembered me from the crowd and seemed surprised that anyone knew who they were ahead of time. Oh I knew. He didn’t believe me when I told him I was jamming Moongod on the drive up from Houston. I’d like to think I helped him walk away with a good impression of Texas, enough to look forward to coming back one day (these guys work day jobs, he admitted its tough getting time off and schedules to line up).

 

The gig was already great, but it really was nice to be surprised (there it is!) with how solid Ghost Ship Octavius were live, like a groove based mid-period Paradise Lost, I enjoyed the rest of their set that I didn’t miss from hanging out with Orphaned Land in the back of the venue. Tyr were as enjoyable as I remembered, those excellent melodic group vocals being an absolute treat to experience live, and they played just about every classic Tyr cut you’d want to hear. I stumbled out at the end of the night achingly tired, having been up since 5am and having been to work earlier that day. A little detail about me, I’m really bad at tired long distance driving, prone to vision tunneling and highway hypnosis. I could chance it if someone was riding shotgun that could keep me awake and/or switch off with me, but that was no help to me this time. I had balked at the Austin weekend rates for hotels/motels when looking online, but someone tipped me off that the apartment complex literally right next to the venue had no entry gate and a load of guest parking spots where it would be safe to crash in your car for a few hours of sleep. I did this, occasionally woken up by a nearby car door shutting, but otherwise left alone. I left there sometime in the middle of the night well before dawn, a little better but still fatigued and made it thirty minutes outside of Austin to a Buc-ee’s in a highway town called Bastrop.

 

If you don’t know what a Buc-ee’s is, think of a 24 hour Texas sized gas station/convenience store with perhaps the cleanest restrooms you could imagine such a place having (seriously, they pride themselves on it). The parking lots of these highway Lothlóriens are obnoxiously large, and in the middle of the night, tired travelers often park at its far edges and get some sleep. The loitering State Troopers standing outside the store chatting and sipping coffee don’t care, they’d rather you sleep in your car there than wreck yourself or someone else on the road. I landed there and decked out for a few more hours, took advantage of everything Buc-ee’s can offer (cold water on my face, large coffee, protein snack kit and some cookies because I already had carb-y beers that night so screw it) and hit the road to Houston with podcasts playing to keep my mind focused. When I finally arrived home, I laid on my bed and felt the urge to once again hear the music that I had just heard that night, something that I never ever do. But I put on Orphaned Land and Aeternam and Tyr on shuffle and fell asleep to those bands, wanting to revisit such a great show in any way possible. It was a classic gig in my book, that perfect combination of anticipation and reward, it outweighed anything negative surrounding the show (the tiredness and the travel and having to go it solo).

 

 

Satyricon Houston (May 2018)Four days later I was heading out to Satyricon at a venue north of downtown Houston I’d never been to before. With me were three friends, two of whom had just gotten officially married earlier that day. Yes they were going to a black metal concert on their wedding night, and the groom was fired up in particular about seeing the band for the first time (he is a big, big fan). We all had a good idea of the setlist ahead of time, my only quibble being that it seemed like they were skipping playing “Now Diabolical” on this tour. Its been said by the band no less that this would be their likely last North American tour, for reasons that they’ve not gone deeply into but I think are largely business oriented at heart. They don’t get big crowds in the US, not like those in Europe, and its understandable that this late in their career they’d want to avoid spending a lot of time and money for little reward. Whatever the reason, we knew this was the last chance we’d have to see them. I’d seen the band twice before, but was still left feeling that this was going to be a momentous, memorable show just for the magnitude of its finality for us. But sometimes the best part about a show is everything else around it not related to the band or the performance —- it was fun to experience a new (and cool) venue, hang out at the nice patio bar built right next to it before and after the show picking craft beers off a gaudy flatscreen TV menu. It was an altogether different kind of celebratory feel to see my newly married friends rockin’ out right up front and center in front of Satyr in a state of near delirium. I was happy that they were that ecstatic. The bonus was that the band did throw some surprises our way in the setlist (they played “Now Diabolical” for one), and Frost came out from behind his drum kit to lead us in some strange, foot stomping crowd chant while Satyr politely tried to hide his amused grin.

 

I think in considering my Austin experience (Tyr/Orphaned Land) and the Satyricon show, it was revealing in just how much I was able to enjoy them despite the solo nature of the former and the extremely social nature of the latter. I’m not a psychologist nor would I attempt to armchair that subject even a little, but being able to get rich, positive experiences out of both of them further reinforces my belief that you simply have to have one of those two crucial elements. Anticipation or surprise. And they can both manifest in a variety of unexpected ways —- surprises don’t always need to come from rotating setlists, or even from the band themselves. They could come from the venue, or the people you meet, or the energy you’re feeling during the show, maybe even the food you ate. One of my most memorable show memories was seeing Dio fronting Heaven and Hell in 2008 on the Metal Masters tour at an outdoor amphitheater, singing the opening lines to “Heaven and Hell” itself while blackened grey clouds in the distance behind the stage crackled with lightning. It was this unexpectedly epic backdrop to one of the most epic metal songs ever, with Ronnie James freakin’ Dio singing it in front of us. Unreal. Another was seeing Watain in Austin in the courtyard of an outdoor club under waves of torrential downpour, a small pocket of fans under the awning at the front of the stage and everyone else back inside the club itself, watching from the doorway. Ages back I had a bunch of free tickets to go see Poison at the same amphitheater I’d later see Dio conjure up storms at, and I convinced a bunch of co-workers at the time to go with me. We had a blast, sitting at the top of the hill, imbibing the mind altering substances of youth while laughing and attempting to snake dance along to “Talk Dirty to Me”.

 

Anticipation can sometimes be a hard thing to perceive correctly, it isn’t enough to merely tell yourself and others that you’re looking forward to going to a show, you have to internalize and feel it within. Case in point was seeing Insomnium the other night here in town. I went with two of the same friends I went to Satyricon with, we even had time to get some phở beforehand. All seemed well but our enthusiasm in seeing Insomnium was a little worn away by having to deal with a bill that was way too loaded, and not in the good way. Three decent to downright awful local bands played before tour openers Oceans of Slumber (the hometown band gone global) took the stage. The venue, my local favorite, also took the weird step of having tables out where the middle of the floor was which made it worryingly dangerous when some idiots tried to start a mosh pit among the oh, thirty to forty of us who were standing in front of the stage during Insomnium’s set. I was exhausted from working earlier that day, seemed like most of the crowd was as well (being a weeknight didn’t help), and despite the band playing extremely well and wringing out the most energy they possibly could from us, I didn’t feel that same kinetic spark that I did the first time I saw them while opening for Epica a few years back. It really wasn’t the band’s fault —- the crowd was weird. A mix of really exhausted people just standing in the back with beers in hand, some of us exhausted folks up front, our agitation exacerbated by mosh pit starters and terrible local metal bands (I may write about this at some point, but I’m over supporting local metal). One guy was simply waiting for “While We Sleep” to attempt to start his bro-pit like this was some hardcore show. He received a prompt telling off by MetalGeeks host RedVikingDave (seriously, no one piss off Dave, he’s frightening).

 

I’m about to see Hammerfall in a few days. I had a great time seeing them almost exactly a year ago at the same venue they’re going to be playing this coming week. It was an electric, highly enthusiastic performance that engendered a similar response from the crowd, Hammerfall is nothing if not masterful stage performers. I’ve been looking forward to it to a certain extent, but I know from hearing a friend talking about it that the setlist is largely the same. This time around I’m kinda okay with that because it was such a great setlist last year… doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know but I suspect that each band creates different levels of expectations for lack of a better term. One might suggest that it will be hard for Hammerfall to live up to last year’s show, that it might be the metaphorical second slice of pizza (no matter how good it is, its not as amazing as the first). I’m okay with accepting that as a possible reality, I’ll be heading into this show ready for anything and expecting that it will simply be a good time. It could be possible that there’s a third way of ensuring that a show is enjoyable, and that’s in surrendering one’s reliance on anticipation and surprise, but that might require a level of inner zen that I haven’t figured out how to unlock yet. Maybe getting to that show zen is about focusing less on the things that irritate you, and more on the things that captivated you when you were eighteen and everything onstage seemed a little mystical. Maybe it requires engaging one’s imagination —- so Hammerfall weren’t just bumming around their tour bus, rolling out of their bunks and clambering onto the stage. Nope, they were just standing on that hammer of ice from the “Blood Bound” video and some cosmic portal has opened up and suddenly they’re here in front of me, icicles clinging to their hair and frost covering their guitars…

 

Scandinavian Summer: The Return of At The Gates and Amorphis

June 3, 2018

The two biggest releases in the month of May, I was of course wanting to give them an ample amount of listening time before writing anything and the busy nature of the month (including concerts and one out of town trip!) lent towards the drawn out time frame from their release date till now. I’m glad I waited because I was a little high on one and not so much on the other and its been interesting to see how an extra week or so has leveled off both of those opinions with different insights that came to me later on. With as high profile as these have been I feel like I took my eye off the rest of the release radar for this month and possibly June, so if anyone has any tips on what I should be paying attention to right now please drop me a recommendation in the comments!

 


 

Amorphis – Queen of Time:

I was surprised when Amorphis announced that a new album would be landing in our laps this summer, but quickly realized that its release date would fall just under three years since the September 2015 release of Under The Red Cloud, an album that was so magnificently brilliant it took hold of my album of the year spot. I think that album had so dominated my listening time for a good half a year after first hearing it that it made it feel like it was just released last year-ish. I put the album and indeed the band on a long break after seeing them live later in April 2017, something that needs doing after so intense a period of listening to an album you’re obsessing over along with the band’s entire back catalog as a side effect of that enthusiasm. I learned that lesson way back in the early aughts with Opeth and Blackwater Park, particularly considering how soon Deliverance and Damnation and even Ghost Reveries followed —- I couldn’t so much as look at an Opeth album cover for a good long while (a few years actually). That being said I feel like I had a healthy level of anticipation for this one, optimistic that it would be a good album (remember my Amorphis as the New England Patriots of Finnish metal comparison?… no? Dammit.), but a little skeptical that they’d be able to go the distance towards a masterpiece like they did last time around. I was right on the last part, Queen of Time is certainly nowhere near the level of inspired artistry we heard on Red Cloud, and it can rightly be described as a good, even very good album, but somehow something isn’t clicking with me here and I’m having a hard time figuring out what.

 

One thing is clear after all these many listens, that Amorphis is clearly running with open arms towards the highly melodic side of their sound that they expanded on Red Cloud. That means ample melodies, some bordering on what can perhaps be described as sugary or at the least a little sweet, a load of Tomi Joutsen’s clean vocals, and the bulk of the songs being set in a mid-tempo groove. On “Daughter of Hate” they even balance a ferocious melo-death attack with a laid back jazzy section replete with backbeat on the percussion and that recent mistress heard operating around various parts of Scandinavia, the saxophone. I alternate between being okay with it and other times being largely annoyed by its presence, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t mind the odd bit of sax (I grew up liking INXS for starters and then there’s its star role in Queensryche’s Promised Land to consider). More than that though, I couldn’t get into the almost twee sounding melody propelling “Message In The Amber”, unfortunate because its brutal middle section is entirely worth sitting through the rest of the song for. The placement of various sections within the song seem disjointed as well, lacking anything in the way of needed transitions or cues. This songwriting dysmorphia is also evidenced on “Grain of Sand”, where we hear some good ideas but nothing ever gels or coalesces into a greater whole. There’s something just generally frustrating about how songs like “Wrong Direction” and “The Golden Elk” turned out, because you get the feeling that they could have been excellent had they just locked in on a few things. I love the Arabic strings towards the end of the latter, but they came in far too late and probably should’ve been used more throughout the song, as they are now they strike me as an afterthought.

 

But more often than not, Amorphis flash that brilliance we’ve all fallen in love with, be it on the synth dressed “The Bee” with its lurching, punching Jousten growled verses that stomps and beats its chest emphatically. It’s status as the best song on the album might be challenged by “Heart of the Giant”, an energetic song with a surprising rhythmically structured chorus that seems to swoop in from out of nowhere. Similarly, “Pyres On the Coast” drives a rumbling buildup to a swiftly moving orchestral motif that arrives without warning but is compulsively re-listenable. And I’m of course a fan of the duet here featuring one Anneke van Giersbergen on “Amongst Stars”, although it does by virtue of her vocal tone skirt near that saccharine territory I was talking about before. She’s just such a great foil to Joutsen though that it hardly matters, particularly when the chorus she’s belting out is as lovely as this. The folky whistles on this song I believe might come from Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann which is a cool little detail, and the addition of them makes it sound like a lost track to van Giersbergen’s collaboration with Arjen in The Gentle Storm. This was a Santeri Kallio penned tune, a perfect example of his preferred songwriting approach with largely uptempo songs built around his bright, harmonious keyboard melodies. He and founding guitarist Esa Holopainen once again split the songwriting duties fairly evenly, with Holopainen’s contributions coming in on the heavier end (a distinction that really was magnified on Red Cloud). I could attempt to draw some kind of conclusion that it seems like my tastes fell more in line with Kallio’s songs on this album, but it was the other way around last time so I’m not sure if there’s anything to really learn from that.

 

What has become clear to me however is that I just don’t find this album as addictive as I was hoping for, to take that full on plunge back into Amorphis’ world once again. It reminds me so much of their 2013 Circle album in that light, where a few songs really stood out and I’d listen to them repeatedly, but the album itself was a trying experience. I think Queen of Time is a stronger album than that one, but only because they’re really running with this whole extreme melodicism thing which is right up my power metal street. I’m not getting down on the band as a result of this however, nor on myself; it was always going to be a tall order to follow up Red Cloud, and I knew that going in. And besides, who can tell what album is going to trigger that kind of intense reaction in any of us? For all I know someone may experience this album as their Amorphis masterpiece and think Red Cloud was a misstep (they’re wrong of course…). Going back to that Patriots analogy for a second, that team made it back to the Super Bowl yet again this past February and seemed likely to cruise to another championship, only to lose to the Eagles and their upstart second string quarterback Nick Foles. So close yet so far and all that. Its hard to win a title, just look at how challenging its been for Lebron James who’s only won 3 out of the how many trips to the NBA Finals? If there’s any band that can deliver another masterpiece at some point in the future its Amorphis, whose discography is void of anything I’d call bad or terrible. Each new album has at least yielded a small handful of classics to throw onto the old playlist, and that’s something to be grateful for as a fan (as a Rockets fan, trust me you gotta find small victories). I’ll be seeing the band live in October, and you better believe I’ll be all in at that show.

 

 

 

 

At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself:

This might seem stupidly arbitrary, but I had a good feeling about this newest At The Gates album when I saw the title. Look at it, it practically screams early-90s At The Gates pretension, cue The Red In The Sky Is Ours and With Fear I Kiss The Burning Darkness. When I was first getting introduced to melo-death, those album titles were thrown my way like life preservers by magazines, the scant metal websites around back then and the few metalheads I knew who were already in the know about such things. Those titles were mystical to me, just like Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin At Dusk, or Darkthrone’s A Blaze In the Northern Sky. I love a lengthy, vague, somewhat mystical album title. Maybe this was me just grabbing for something to be excited about, because I was already on shaky ground confidence wise considering how non-existent my relationship to their 2014 comeback album At War With Reality has been since I first reviewed it. To put it bluntly, I don’t think I listened to it again after finishing writing that review, I just never felt the urge to go back to it. For the purposes of putting this new album in context, I did go back and give it a once over, and my feelings largely remained the same as what I put down in my original review —- there were some decent songs, a few really awesome riffs, and a whole lotta paint by numbers At The Gates… it was the sound of a band trying to sound like what it thought it was supposed to sound like to everyone else. It wouldn’t have been half as glaring had Carcass not had their own glorious return just a year prior with Surgical Steel, a record that was as confident, thoroughly of the moment, and also as forward looking as a comeback album could possibly be. It was such a phenomenal record that five years on Carcass have yet to follow it up, and though I’m sure that At The Gates were proud of At War With Reality, I’m glad they’re not letting it be the last word on a storied career.

 

On To Drink From The Night Itself, At The Gates once again return to the spirit of a band trying to explore the internal limits of their sound. This is an audience challenging album, often times working at tempos that aren’t the breakneck pace of most of At War With Reality or Slaughter of the Soul, some of the most intriguing songs finding other ways than solely speed to project intensity. Take “A Stare Bound In Stone”, an early album highlight where circular riff sequences create a sense of hypnosis, new guitarist Jonas Stålhammar and band vet Martin Larsson playing in mechanical lockstep. The abrupt mid-song lone guitar led drop-out begins a passage of waves and waves of tremolo infused riffing that crash down. My personal favorite is “Palace of Lepers”, particularly for its euphoric, syrupy sweet classic melo-death riff payoff around the three minute mark, and that they let it carry on through the fade out is a nice detail. I could see how a song like “Daggers of Black Haze” might strike some as too slow or meandering seeming, but I think the melody they’re coaxing in that primary riff motif is interesting in its own right, and again with the beautiful mid-song transition (this time at the 2:33 mark), a little classic Gothenburg Scandinavian folk in that acoustic sounding sequence. There’s a real sense of the band attempting to morph or shape the limits of the At The Gates stylistic boundaries, as on “The Colours of the Beast” which is unlike anything we’ve heard them attempt, a staggeringly powerful lumbering riff based monster that rattles the interior cabin of your car if you’re like me listening to it a near full blast.

 

Of course there’s the lone exception to all this new freshness, that being the title track turned music video, and I’ll say right up front that its a fun, adrenaline rocketing tune, the kind of thing that At The Gates is identified with. The only complaint might be that its a little too close to “Blinded By Fear”, as in really frigging close (that riff is just one or two minor adjustments from being a carbon copy —- guitarists help me out here!). The jarring dichotomy between it and the rest of the songs is precisely why the album speaks to the band’s growth here. The former is a slice of past glories more in keeping with At War With Reality, and everything else is a bit of a strange journey into unknown places with only the slightest of head nods to the ancient past of their first two albums. When I listen to “Labyrinth of Tombs” and its interweaving guitar motifs or “Seas of Starvation” with its rumbling bass riffing and epic, elegiac guitar fragments, I hear a side of the band that I’d never expected (the string section blast at the end of “The Mirror Black” being another whoa moment). I will say that there are some production issues going on here that crop up more in some songs than others, particularly with how muffled the drum sound seems to get whenever everything else is pouring on top of it. Tomas Lindberg, as fine of form in gravelly voice as he ever is also gets a little cramped in the mix, with guitars taking a bite out of his fierceness in some critical spots. I am surprised at just how little I noticed Anders Björler’s absence, with the new guy fitting in remarkably well, not surprising I guess given Anders comments on why he decided to leave in the first place. For the rest of the band, they’ve found their footing after a long reunion process, and it finally feels like they’re really, really back.

 

Mass Darkness: New Music From Dimmu Borgir and Ihsahn!

May 14, 2018

Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

So I could go the expected route and start off this review of the new Dimmu Borgir album Eonian by leveling a flurry of criticism at them for taking eight years to release something new. I did it with Therion recently, and in cases like theirs and of course the much discussed Wintersun the criticism can be warranted from a fan’s point of view. But other times its worth pausing to consider just how helpful a long hiatus can be for an artist’s career, not just for the obvious financial reasons of artificially building up interest for lucrative festival appearances and tour offers, but in allowing the creative process to reset and take stock. I know for me there was a feeling that the band had wandered off into the wilderness for their past two releases (something I actually felt started on 2003’s Death Cult Armageddon, despite its many fun moments). Their fascination with heavily orchestrated productions kinda spiraled out of control, and although I think the song “Dimmu Borgir” from 2010’s Abrahadabra was a triumph of dark majesty, the rest of the album was one heck of an overcooked chicken dinner. Eight years has given the band a new perspective on just how they should apply orchestral elements to their sound (judiciously is the answer) and has allowed them to rediscover some of the charm of the signature sonic elements of their classic Enthrone Darkness Triumphant album.

 

While Eonian isn’t quite a return to old school Dimmu Borgir, it hearkens to that spirit in their more streamlined musical approach, particularly in bringing back that old “Mourning Palace” keyboard approach —- you know what I’m talking about, the church organ gone evil. I hear it in the opening strains of the awesome “Interdimensional Summit”, as lean and pointed a single as they’ve ever released, boasting an earworm of a choral vocal hook amidst a bed of sharp, jumpy rhythmic shifts. Galder’s solo here is as gorgeous and memorable as something off a Therion album, and maybe its just my memory getting the better of me, but I can’t recall him doing something quite like it before. Another standout is “Aetheric”, a microcosm of the band’s better merging of symphonic bombast with streamlined leanness. Keyboards pair with lead guitars to create a spellbinding, otherworldly melody while waves of orchestra burst in to raise the tension and give us a little adrenaline kick. There’s a very Satyricon-esque riff at work throughout most of this tune as well, an unexpected though welcome surprise, one that I think actually works well with Dimmu’s overall approach (is dabbling in black n’ roll a potential way for them to lean next time?). The gloriously epic passage here is the 2:25-4:30 stretch, a lengthy but note perfect masterclass in the potential for symphonic metal’s emotional power. From just these two tracks alone, we’re getting work that could be placed alongside the handful of other truly great moments they’ve managed in a lengthy career. And before you think that’s a lot of hyperbole over two songs, the rest of the album holds up just as well, including the much discussed experimental nature of “Council of Wolves and Snakes”, although being a track that took me a few listens to really unlock and understand, I’ve been addicted to its slower, dreamscape invoking passage from the 2:45 mark onwards.

 

What’s striking about this album overall is just how much of a pure joy its been to listen to, something I can only best describe as being a fun listening experience. Its a playful record, both aware of when its invoking old Dimmu in pointed moments and slyly sliding in something unexpected when you aren’t ready for it. They bring back that aforementioned black n’ roll riff to “Lightbringer”, but segue it into a clever mystical keyboard vs tremolo riff sequence, and Shagrath narrates with vocals that haven’t aged a day, full of fierce bite and crisp enunciation. I also think “I Am Sovereign” is one of the more inventive moments on the album, veering from an urgent, regal march built around dizzying orchestral fragments that swirl like fevered dervishes that descend into a primitive thick riffed stop/start punctuation mark. I particularly enjoyed the lyrics on this one, a sort of reverse meditative musing on knowledge and understanding, very cosmic in the way its stated yet using personal language, a tricky thing to do. The band saves their biggest orchestral blast for “Alpha Aeon Omega”, a battering ram of a track, full of rapid, punishing percussion under gushing waves of symphonic swirl and color. Silenoz has notably stated that this time around the symphonic parts were more symphonic, and the black metal parts sounded more black metal, and I think he’s right —- essentially he’s suggesting there’s more definition between the two. That was a lesson hard learned I think from their past few albums where perhaps even the band themselves started to lose track of what kind of song structures they had hidden underneath those walls of noise. What Eonian succeeds in doing is simplifying the merger of these two worlds of sound, getting back to basics in essence (you shouldn’t go into this album expecting the band to reinvent the wheel, they’re doing enough by reinventing themselves).

 

I’m a little surprised that many others aren’t seeing it this way, the album is getting mixed reviews across the board, but then again a band this well known is never going to please everyone, and its been so long since we’ve had new Dimmu Borgir that I suspect most writers/reviewers/ fans don’t even know what they want from a new album by them. That’s the other side of the coin in staying away from new music for so long, that an audience can become disconnected with the band’s overall artistic milieu. Most folks simply aren’t going back and listening to the band’s catalog in preparation for hearing the new album, or revisiting the last album to see where they left off —- and I’m not suggesting that anyone should have (or even that I did… I did not by the way). But it does leave one with only their memories and vague, fleeting impressions of what Dimmu should sound like in their mind’s ear, so I’ve taken the criticism of this album with a huge grain of pink Himalayan salt. One review complained that the album sounded like it had been written over eight years, and that every song seemed so different than the rest that time was the only way that diversity could be explained (is that a criticism even?). Others simply stated that the band was up to their usual tricks of overblown symphonic bombast, opinions that can be immediately discarded since we know that’s just objectively not true. Some even criticized the album for sounding too happy (because apparently major keys in metal equal happiness —- didn’t know that, thanks guys!). Ignore all of the reviews panning this album, give it more time if it hasn’t gelled with you yet, its definitely loaded with some ‘immediate’ moments but its largely built on finesse and detail. Its the most fun I’ve had listening to a Dimmu album since Enthrone Darkness Triumphant and I don’t even blanch at discussing them side by side.

 

 

 

 

Ihsahn – Àmr:

If relatively more straightforward, traditionally structured black metal like Dimmu’s is like a dark, bitter beer, then Ihsahn’s more nuanced, progressive approach to the style is more like wine. That’s a terrible, awful comparison, trite and unhelpful overall, but maybe its worth throwing out here now for the few of you who are uninitiated to the solo career of the Emperor brain trust. Knowing personally a few craft beer connoisseurs and a wine expert who could likely give the sommelier test a go, I don’t want to tick anyone off, but wine is generally viewed as something more sophisticated. And having that mindset going into an album like Àmr will help you ready yourself to the odd nature of Ihsahn’s electronic bleeps and blops, his erratic time signatures, and his deconstruction of prototypical song structures. I’ve had an up and down time with his solo works, but I really enjoyed 2016’s relatively linear Arktis., particularly its excellent year end list making single “Mass Darkness”. This new album seems to continue in that spirit, much to my relief, although this time the heaviness and riffs take a backseat to clean vocal melodies, something that really is unexpected given Ihsahn’s publicly stated anxieties about his skill as a pure singer. He’s pushing himself vocally on this album like he’s never done before, his voice at times reminding me of early years Mikael Akerfeldt. Of course his black metal vocals are also present, sounding as distinctive in their ash coated blackened rasp as ever, the opening track “Lend Me The Eyes Of Millennia” being a fairly representative calling card for his overall solo style. Its a furious song, menacing in tone and surreal due to its separation of time signatures via different instruments where dirge strings, tremolo riff passages, and Ihsahn’s bleak vocals are each operating at their own tempos.

 

Yet the heart of Àmr comes out on “Arcana Imperii” where we get treated to Ihsahn’s most convincingly well sung clean vocal to date, arriving in the chorus complete with syrupy harmonies and little embellishments on repeated phrases. Yes I know thats the kind of thing singers do all the time, which is all the more reason why its so striking when its friggin Ihsahn doing it. The music in these sequences is largely devoid of riffing, Ihsahn opting for an openness and spacing between notes, the ambient keyboard work filling in textural gaps. There’s a noticeable Leprous influence on “Sámr”, in its deliberate rhythmic shuffle but also in the airplane takeoff clean vocal he unleashes for the refrain, sounding as lithe and elegant as his brother-in-law Einar. I get a jazzy feel from this cut, something that reminds me of “Evidence” from Faith No More’s King For A Day record (well, if only in shades musically speaking), and its one of those subtle cuts that soon becomes an earworm that lingers long after the album finishes playing. It was on “One Less Enemy” where I started to take notice of drummer Tobias Ørnes Andersen’s amazing work here, and really all over the album; he plays with a progressive ear towards jazzy fills and slightly off-beat patterns, even his decisions on cymbal timing are intriguing. What a bizarre track that one is as well, built largely on a keyboard sound motif that I could only describe as something that could come from a theremin.

 

We get an excellent groove based riff on “In Rites Of Passage”, the album’s other overly black metal laden cut, this time with Ihsahn directly layering clean vocals atop his grim ones. I thought the very UK electronica instrumental tinges midway through were interesting bits of texture simply because they don’t seem all that out of place on an album that is constantly shifting, pulsing, and undulating in ways that metal albums typically don’t. And “Marble Soul” is an example of how despite Ihsahn having made a career out of steering clear of A-B-A-B pop songwriting structures, he is now all these albums later willing to appropriate that structure on a whim to serve a musical idea. This is a catchy track, still unsettling in its abrasive black metal parts, but that’s one smooth, sing-songy chorus (it would find its way to me in the grocery store of all places while I was roaming the aisles listening to a podcast). This is a head space album, one of those records you just put on and absorb without casting judgement as you listen —- its supposed to fill a room the way the best ambient electronic music can, and indeed it shares similarities in palette to that stuff. The details start to surface over time, but for them to appear you have to kind of mentally surrender in a way that we don’t ever do for typical metal records. I keep thinking back to that Bell Witch album from late last year, how it might have unlocked a part of my music listening brain that was previously blocked at times. Maybe a couple years ago I would have had a hard time with this album, impatient for something to happen (right away!). Now I feel almost at peace with the abstract nature of this stuff… that in itself is a trippy feeling.

 

The Spring 2018 Reviews Cluster

April 22, 2018

We’ve had a few really solid months in terms of quality metal output, and I’ve been somewhat on top of most things this year which is a change from my usual flailing around. I’ve likely missed something somewhere but given the amount of time already spent listening to music, I don’t think I could cram anymore in. Here’s a few of the things I thought were noteworthy and worth talking briefly about, the ones that didn’t make it in this time might see the light of day next go round. If you really think I’m missing something that needs to be heard by all means let me know in the comments below, I need all the help I can get!

 


 

 

Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Tucson’s Judicator are the latest in a volley of trad/power metal shots fired from the States, and with The Last Emperor they might actually win enough critical acclaim to become a fixture on the scene. Theirs is a decidedly European leaning take on the style, heavily influenced by classic mid-period era Blind Guardian. This shouldn’t come as a surprise once you hear this record, but its worth mentioning that their founding members met at a Blind Guardian show in 2012, and having first hand experience myself at just how magical those shows are in particular, I wonder why more power metal bands haven’t blossomed in their wake. Anyway, at the heart of Judicator are vocalist John Yelland and guitarist Tony Cordisco, both working as primary songwriters together, Cordisco working up the music and Yelland crafting his own vocal melody ideas. Their new album is actually my introduction to the band, arriving typically late to the party (this is album number four for them, three if you consider the first to be what it really is, a demo), I was introduced to them via the accumulated murmurings at the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the /r/powermetal subreddit. Everyone seemed to be eagerly anticipating its March 30th release above anything else, so like a kid elbowing his way through a throng watching the news on TV at a storefront window, I had to see what everyone was going on about. Two tracks in and I was immediately sold and bought the album from their Bandcamp a day before its official release.

 

It shouldn’t take long to sell you on it either, the opening title track being a near perfect microcosm of hearing their obvious influences shining through yet also detecting their own personality coming through. Midway through, they abruptly skip away from a very Blind Guardian-esque, layered vocal laden mid-tempo passage to a sudden gear shift into speed metal with group shouted backing vocals, a combination that reminds me of a metalcore approach (albeit without sounding ‘core). I imagine its impossible to write a review about these guys and not mention the influence of the ‘Bards, and while other bands have shown that influence before (Persuader anyone?), the really impressive thing about Judicator is just how that influence manifests itself —- the folky vocal passage towards the end of “Take Up Your Cross”. Yelland isn’t so much a dead ringer for Hansi in tone as he is in approach, something heard in his choice in diction, phrasing, and of course the innate sense of when to layer a vocal with heaps of harmonies. You get to directly hear that contrast on “Spiritual Treason” where Hansi himself shows up for a guest vocal spot, as ringing an endorsement of Judicator as you could envision. Its a fantastic track, epic in scope and feel, and while the two singers complement each other really well, the star here might be the songwriting itself, crisp, bracing and energetically bouncing along (its been awhile  since we’ve heard Hansi in something this lean and mean).

 

Nine Circles published a nice interview with Yelland and Cordisco, one worth checking out if only for the glimpse into the tons of behind the scenes work that American power metal bands have to go through. The insight into this album however yielded a few surprising details, the first being that this is the band’s first album without harsh vocals and ballads both. There are softer dips into folky acoustic territory scattered throughout The Last Emperor, and they sounded so excellent that I wondered why these guys weren’t trying their hand at a longer piece composed in that vein —- I’ll have to dig into their discography to find that then. Its not a knock against this album though, because I get what they were trying to do in maintaining a certain level of energy throughout (somewhat similar to what Visigoth recently accomplished on Conqueror’s Oath). Reading Cordisco’s description of how he approached the songwriting here only reinforces what I felt when hearing the album for the first time, that there’s a real methodical level of thought that went into the songwriting here, even down to tiny details like sudden riff progression changes and the design of hooks (vocal and musical both). This was a real surprise, a knockout album from a band that wasn’t even on my radar until recently. It gives me hope for the future of power metal which seems to be flourishing into a new renaissance recently with the likes of Visigoth, Triosphere, and Unleash the Archers.

 

 

 

Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages:

I’ve had a soft spot for Finland’s Barren Earth ever since being introduced to the project with their 2012 album The Devil’s Resolve (a Metal Pigeon Top Ten that year!), it being an intriguing mix of melancholic melo-death with very 70s prog-rock elements. At the time, Opeth had just undergone their neo-prog transition with the Heritage album and I wasn’t feeling it, so I was all to eager to fly the flag for Barren Earth pulling off the sound I wanted Opeth to be doing. But that’s an oversimplification of what they do, even if the comparison is completely justifiable, and as we heard on 2015’s On Lonely Towers they were forging a unique identity of their own. And that’s important because one of the things that always gets everyone’s attention about the band’s lineup is its supergroup of Finnish metal aura (two parts Moonsorrow, former ex and now current Amorphis, and the Finnish guitarist for Kreator). Since I missed out on reviewing On Lonely Towers, its worth pointing out here that it was their first without Swallow the Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamäki at the helm, and to his credit he was a big part of what made me love their previous album so much. His replacement is Clouds vocalist Jón Aldará, a vocalist whose clean vocals are a little more rich with emotive phrasing, not a bad thing by any means but one of the things I loved about Kotamäki’s cleans is his somewhat emotionally detached, distant approach. It lent an air of mystery to his performances with Barren Earth, whereas Aldará (damn these guys’ accented names!) puts almost the equal and opposite emphasis into emoting, something that tends to diminish its own power if done too often.

 

As far as melo-death vox go however, Aldará is on par with his predecessor, his tone having the right texture (somewhat blackened, nice crunch… what a weird way to describe the human voice). On “Further Down” you get a good balance of both his styles, and its a catchy track too, with a chorus boasting a memorable vocal hook and a nicely written major key guitar sequence that sets everything up. It was the major standout after my first couple listens to the album, and unfortunately, that’s kind of the problem with A Complex of Cages in the grand scheme of things. After a few weeks listening through it, giving it space, coming back to see if anything else would unlock, I’m realizing that its one of those albums that just isn’t sticking. Its a solid album when I’m actively listening to it, but apart from that one track I’m finding it difficult to have anything else stay with me long after I’m done. Now sometimes that’s fine, as was the case with Bell Witch’s Mirror Reaper, but those are outliers, and I remember how much The Devil’s Resolve would linger long after listening to it. Oddly enough the only other track that came close to having some kind of return value was the ten minute epic, “Solitude Pith” for its fantastic ending passage at the 7:40 minute mark. These are the reviews I hate to write the most, because the album’s not bad by any means, and its got interesting moments scattered throughout, but ultimately I feel like I’ve given it a fair amount of time and its failed to make a lasting impression. I’m going to revisit it in a few months and see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

Light The Torch – Revival:

I don’t normally listen to bands like these, but lately I’ve become a supporter of Howard Jones just as a human being, his appearances on the Jasta Podcast being so endearing that I’ve found myself rooting for him. His is an interesting story, not just for his time in Killswitch Engage’s rise to fame but in his battling depression, the brutal physical effects of diabetes type II, as well as crippling social anxiety. His current band has been known as the Devil You Know, but legal problems with their former drummer prompted a name change as an easy out, and so we have Revival, the first album in this mach 2.0 version of the band. The style here is more modern hard rock than metalcore, but sees a meshing of various elements largely due to Jones’ expressive and distinct clean vocals. Curiosity made me start listening to this album, and I started using it as a palette cleanser after so much more involved and complicated music I’ve been constantly listening to (Nightwish comp aside, the rest of the albums in this post are proof of that). Its definitely a simpler brand of heavy music at its fundamental core, focusing on anthemic choruses and vocal melody centered songwriting.

 

The riffs are fairly standard, not a lot of texture to them and sometimes that’s a keen reminder as to why I don’t normally bother too much with this genre of music as a whole, an example being “The God I Deserve”, with its turgid, bland slabs of distortion not really saying much besides filling in the vocal gaps. But lets not get ahead of ourselves here with too much musically focused analysis, because I doubt the people who really love stuff like this are fawning over the guitarists in particular. The attraction here is Jones himself, and on the opener and video track “Die Alone” which boasts about as positive sounding and anthemic (any good synonyms to replace that adjective with?) a slice of groove metal can be, they lean on their greatest strength. Its an addictive hook, and Jones has something inherently likable about his clean vocal approach, capable of being booming and rich at the same time, never losing an ounce of power. His growls are fine, and they add shades of color and complexity that’s badly needed in the face of the straightforward attack of the band, but if he did more of this kind of harmonized type clean singing in Killswitch, I might’ve been more of a fan. He showcases this again on “The Safety of Disbelief”, a strong bit of songwriting with some rather well executed self-reflecting lyrics. The themes here are a more personal slant on what Hatebreed does, a lot of purging of inner turmoil and self doubt, and it works. Not my usual cup of tea but it was a nice change of pace.

 

 

 

 

Nightwish – Decades:

I’m not sure if the more apt critique of Nightwish’s new career spanning retrospective is its utterly bizarre tracklisting, or once again my pointing out just how inane it is for a band to spend money making these compilations in the first place. Granted, the costs of such a project are lower than that of a studio album for the most part —- we’re talking primarily the costs of design packaging here, and presumably Nightwish had already made the arrangements long ago to be allowed to re-release parts of their Spinefarm past back catalog on a newer label arrangement. Whatever the business arrangements, Nightwish made the shrewd decision to promote the hell out of the fact that this was a band curated release, with the tracklisting picked out by Tuomas Holopainen himself and the liner notes as detailed and fan pleasing as you could imagine. So pleased and confident were they that they gave away copies to every single ticket buyer of their recent US tour, a nice little tie-in with the tour bearing the same name. I did scan their social media a bit to see fan responses to the free surprise gift vary from giddy to pleasantly surprised to “This is nice but I don’t own a disc player…”. Well then, the very fundamental issue indeed.

 

I’ll wonder aloud and ask you to join me, “Couldn’t this have been accomplished by simply having the band curate their own Spotify playlist, perhaps with some audio commentary tracks thrown in as a nice bonus? Oh wait, they did that —- Spotify has done a series called “Metal Talks” in which artists do that very thing for their newest release and Nightwish recorded one with Tuomas and Troy Donockley, and I found their commentary incredibly fascinating, Tuomas in particular going into details that few interviews manage to drag out of him. If you consider that Decades release on Spotify itself is in fact a glorified playlist, then its mission accomplished without the need for a physical release of any kind, but Decades was released on CD and vinyl. I don’t have a problem with that, I just hope it was worth it and that they won’t take a bath on it financially. I’ve written about my own internal first world struggle with my physical music collection, and the in past few months we’ve seen new reports about how Best Buy and Target might remove CDs from their stores by the summer (and articles reporting that vinyl and cd sales are beating digital downloads for the first time in years). I guess I admire the spirit behind a physical release like this, but am torn on the question of its necessity (though clearly others would disagree still), a debate largely informed by my own ongoing conflicted feelings regarding physical media.

 

Anyway, lets talk songs, because for die-hard fans I can easily imagine Decades being a flawed tracklisting, and its not well chosen for newcomers as well. I know Tuomas calls “The Greatest Show on Earth” his best work ever, that 24 minute long monolith that closed out their last album and is his Richard Dawkins narrated dream come true. To me and many others, it was the first one of his epics that didn’t seem quite gelled together, suffering from severe bloat in many passages and not enough in the way of strong motifs to keep me coming back (the spoken word was a chore as well). I’d actually argue that “Song of Myself” or or especially “Meadows of Heaven” were more apt choices as far as modern epics go, both hitting a particular core facet of Nightwish mythology in a more compact, memorable way. The tracklisting is in reverse chronological order, and as we travel through the recent albums, I wonder about the “Amaranthe” inclusion (surely one of the weaker songs of Dark Passion Play), and the lack of “The Crow, the Owl and the Dove” (some of Tuomas’ finest lyrics). The other chief glaring omission is “Everdream”, one of the band’s most beloved and iconic Tarja era gems, a song as central to Nightwish fans as “Nemo” or “Ghost Love Score” (both rightfully represented here). Only two songs from Century Child seems a bit strange, and I guess everyone could nitpick on what older songs should have made the cut but the ones they picked seem fine to me. Its just an unsatisfying overview in general however. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone in lieu of just directing them to a single studio album alone. It worked for the rest of us, it’ll work for them.

 

 

 

 

Primordial – Exile Amongst The Ruins:

I’ve had a meandering relationship with this band, really liking them upon my first introduction with the ever more incredible The Gathering Wilderness, their classic 2005 Celtic folk metal masterpiece. That enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over the years with their subsequent albums until 2014’s Where Greater Men Have Fallen, an album that saw them up the aggression level just enough to shake up their sound. A friend of mine who also likes them recently observed that he would forget about Primordial for years until the next album came around, where he’d pay attention to it, until he’d likely forget about it once again. It didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy those albums, but that for some undefinable reason, Primordial couldn’t stick with him the way other bands did. I think I’m in the same boat, because even though ‘Greater Men’ was a Metal Pigeon Top Ten Album in 2014, I haven’t really gone back and given it a proper listen through until now when prepping for this review. I’m coming into Exile Amongst The Ruins with that in the back of my mind, maybe even allowing it to amplify my expectations for an album in an unfair way by raising the bar too high. If the last album was a top ten list maker yet not something I’ve revisited out of pure enjoyment, then this one has to be something truly special right?

 

Well yes and no, because I certainly know that I’ll be adding a few gems from this one to my iPod (lately I’ve cobbled together my own ‘best of’ Primordial playlist in hopes of keeping the flame burning so to speak). The first one being “To Hell or the Hangman” which is a tightly wound ball of energy on a vibrating string of a guitar figure, propelled forward like a bullet train. Alan Averill’s ever wild, unrestrained vocals here are delivered like he’s standing on a rocky Irish cliff side, arms wide open while singing into gale force winds. Its the very definition of a kinetic song, and a vivid portrait of Primordial at their best, especially in the way it evokes that Celtic spirit without actually resorting to cultural cliches (ie a lot of bagpipes, fiddles, and over the top Celtic melodies). Then there’s “Stolen Years”, where a deceptively laid back succession of floating, lazy guitar chords create a hazy atmosphere, broken through by an overlaid guitar figure a few notes higher. At the 2:45 mark the build up unfurls into a slow motion crashing wave, all the emotional weight behind the guitar melodies only furthered by Averill’s incredibly moving vocal. There are other good moments scattered throughout, but there’s also a lot of times where you’re waiting for something to happen, to materialize into a memorable passage (this band doesn’t really do hooks) or instrumental sequence and it just never gets there. They don’t entirely derail what is a relatively good album, loose and lively in a way they haven’t been in years, but it also results in a feeling that everything is a little too unfocused.

 

 

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart:

This is about a month late, but I thought since they’re fellow Houstonians and perhaps the biggest metal export from our city to date I’d give The Banished Heart an extended period of listening time. I’m glad I did because the first thing I heard from the album was the album opener and first single/video “The Decay of Disregard” and it just wasn’t working for me for whatever reason. To be honest, it still is one of the weaker tracks here and certainly a puzzling choice for the album opener, the slow, sludgy parts in the middle a little too meandering for my tastes. On the flip side, their choice for the title track as the second video release was spot on, despite its nine minute plus running time. This is Oceans of Slumber at their best, Cammie Gilbert pushing her vocals to their utmost emotional wrangling effectiveness, the usage of delicate, sad, and downright haunting piano courtesy of drummer Dobber Beverly in the middle passage reinforces the gravity of Gilbert’s heartbroken lyrics. At the 5:10 mark, he plays a figure that is pure Blackwater Park era Opeth in spirit, a beautiful melody awash in nostalgia and regret, and I find that I’m realizing he’s as much a talent on piano as he is with his always interesting percussion patterns. The song opens ups after that with the introduction of synth driven strings and an inspired bit of heavenly choral vocal effects helping to propel what is Gilbert’s watershed vocal performance. This was the first Oceans of Slumber tune I really could say I loved, even considering everything from Winter, and they even nailed the video for it, its visual aesthetic nicely understated, Texan in setting (those endless fields!), and darkly dramatic when it had to be.

 

On the heavier end of the spectrum, there’s a highlight in “A Path to Broken Stars” with its triplet infused riffs and intense sense of urgency. Gilbert has gotten better at learning how to develop her vocal patterns to mesh better with the heavier aspect of the bands’ sound, something that Winter needed. Here she doesn’t try to match the riffs rhythmically, being content to sing in a higher register at an entirely slower tempo, an old symphonic metal trick but it works for a reason. This is also a different shade of her vocal ability, something that could be classified as a little more ethereal, and it really works for her. What you don’t get so much throughout the album are her more bluesy inflected vocal stylings, but I think the songwriting helped to dictate the direction on that, and perhaps she and the band have simply grown into a new sound. Not everything is perfect here, there’s some songs that could use a little trimming, some where they don’t make enough use of a particularly impactful riff (thinking specifically of “Fleeting Vigilance”, and I wasn’t particularly taken with the closing cover tune “The Wayfaring Stranger”. I’ve heard countless versions of it before, its a pretty common folk song (Cash did it), but the digital effects and the telephone vocals here seems like distractions from what could’ve been a really fine recording. Oh well, the band’s gelled more and gotten better and they’re on the right track, that’s a good path to be on.

 

 

 

 

Panopticon – The Scars of Man on the Once Nameless Wilderness I and II:

Quietly in the middle of March, a new double album was released by Panopticon, better described as a project rather than a band given its solitary member, one Austin Lunn. Sort of like a Kentuckian equivalent to Vintersorg, I’ve been an admirer of his albums for awhile now, particularly 2015’s Autumn Eternal and the groundbreaking 2012 release Kentucky. If you’re not familiar, in a nutshell Lunn fuses Appalachia folk/bluegrass with blistering, second wave inspired Norwegian black metal. Now in truth, sometimes these aren’t pure fusions as they are juxtaposing individual tracks featuring each alongside the other, but its been interesting to see him continually strive throughout his discography to actually musical infuse his black metal strains with overtones of American folk. He might have finally nailed it though, because in the week I’ve been listening to this album, I’ve never been as captivated, intrigued, and flat out entranced by Panopticon as I am here. This album blindsided the heck out of me too, not even realizing it was released until I saw an update by the folks at No Clean Singing mentioning how Lunn wasn’t making it available ahead of time for reviewing purposes (the reason being that Autumn Eternal was leaked beforehand in a severely degraded quality and that rightfully pissed him off —- no problem with me by the way though, I rarely if ever get reviews up before an album has been released).

 

The consequence of such an odd album release approach is that this one is flying under a few radars, but I expect that will change as the mid-year best of lists some places publish get posted, in addition to old fashioned word of mouth. The instrumental folk intro of “Watch the Lights Fade” is a perfect mood setter, but in the blistering fury of “En Hvit Ravns Død” we get our first glimpse of how he’s integrating the two worlds of his soundscapes. The middle interlude of sad, discordant country violins and the sounds of forest creatures create a rustic ambiance throughout, and on “Blåtimen” and “Sheep in Wolves Clothing” Lunn uses overlaid lead guitar to create folky countermelodies set against the piles of tremolo riffs burning underneath. What he really excels at is using understated, minor key American folk as the tapestry for all the connective bits where the black metal is held at bay, and stepping back from this album in particular I’ve started to realize that it represents the very heart of his sound. The black metal ebbs and flows, and on disc two here it goes away completely. Its not meant to be the center of attention anymore like it once was, and I get the feeling that this is the kind of album that Lunn has been striving towards all this time. The rustic folk/alt-country of the second disc is gonna be an acquired taste for some, but I really enjoy it personally; it reminds me of Uncle Tupelo both in its lyrical perspective of down and out rural America but also in its lo-fi production wash. This is an album you owe it to yourselves to experience personally, too much for a simple review like this to convey. A magnum opus.

 

Kamelot Meets Frasier: The Shadow Theory

April 13, 2018

Kamelot The Shadow TheoryOne of the year’s biggest releases, at least in the prog/power metal world, The Shadow Theory is Kamelot’s third album in the Tommy Karevik era, and their twelfth overall. It was on their third album Siége Perilous where they first introduced the much loved Roy Khan as their vocalist, but it wasn’t until its follow-up (The aptly named The Fourth Legacy) where Khan’s inclusion as a co-songwriter finally created the Kamelot magic we all love. The Khan/Thomas Youngblood songwriting duo wouldn’t suffer the expected sophomore slump either, delivering in succession albums that ranged from excellent (Karma, Ghost Opera) to downright masterful (Epica, The Black Halo). Similarly, Karevik’s first album with the band mirrored Khan’s nearly non-existent songwriting presence on Siége Perilous, as Silverthorn was an awkward, clunky affair that really could’ve used more of the new guy’s input. But just like Khan’s true unveiling on The Fourth Legacy, Karevik’s ground floor role in crafting the songs for his sophomore effort in Haven resulted in the band’s strongest album in a decade. I mention this emergent symmetry not only to point out just how much time I have on my hands to think about such things, but also to sketch out just where my expectation level was for The Shadow Theory.

 

Now I know what some of you are thinking, that this symmetry only works if you consider Haven on par with The Fourth Legacy, and truth be told Haven suffered from a few noticeable flaws, despite its largely excellent collection of songs. I wrote about this at length in my original review for that album, but the gist of it was that the band sounded inspired and reinvigorated when their songwriting leaned into Karevik’s ability to sing in higher registers. The songs that ended up being duds were the few that seemed to lack  major key melodies and power metal lift, and seemed to lean more towards an approach that I referred to as “faux-heaviness”. I’m thinking specifically of cuts like “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” and the dreadful, industrial tinged “Revolution” (my nominee for most disappointing Kamelot song of all time). But fears that maybe the album hadn’t aged well were dispelled when I was playing it in the weeks leading up to the release of The Shadow Theory, if anything, these recent spins have reinforced my belief that its one of the band’s strongest albums. Two weak songs aren’t enough to dislodge that status, but I might have been naive in thinking that they were simply vestiges of the downtuned, minor-key driven later Roy Khan era that Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai had gotten used to writing in.

 

 

Kamelot 2018What I’m realizing after the umpteenth listen through this new album is that Karevik’s mighty vocal power and ability to sing sustained vocals in a higher register weren’t quite enough to completely shake those darker tendencies from Kamelot’s songwriting approach. Not only does The Shadow Theory not hit the same major key heights as Haven, but it doesn’t hit the same sustained emotional heights either as a result. My theory last time around was based around the possibility that Youngblood and Palotai were in the process of breaking out of songwriting tendencies that were built up over time that naturally resulted in darker albums —- their way of adjusting to Khan’s increasing preference (and controversial speculation here, his declining range) for a lower to middle register vocal approach. But I think I may have overlooked something else entirely that smacked me in the face when I went back recently to read/watch a bunch of interviews with Youngblood. He said in response to several questions over those interviews that the band moved away from their more mythological/fantastical lyrical imagery because they found it limiting over time. In interviews for the new album, he was keen to discuss the Carl Jung based conceptual angle behind The Shadow Theory, relating it to the state of the world at present and how we relate to it (ie social media, etc). In one interview he even defended the band’s name, acknowledging the Arthurian mythology influence, but effectively brushing past it by suggesting the band had moved on topically (and that basically its just a brand name).

 

While those comments might hurt the heart of many an old school Kamelot devotee, I can see where he’s coming from. Its fair that the band would want to gradually evolve away from those types of lyrics, imagery, and concepts. I’d argue their first foray into really dark territory occurred as long ago as 2005 on the second half of their Faustian concept with The Black Halo, a darker, less playful affair than Epica, but perhaps more intense and haunting as a result. But even on those records, they framed the darkness in a literary landscape that put its characters in a relatively fantastical and mythic setting and time period. Even Silverthorn was set in the 19th century amidst the intrigue of a wealthy family (if the “Sacrimony” video was anything to go by), its gorgeous ballad “Song For Jolee” referring to a “…princess captured in a wooden frame”. The lyrics on some of the best songs on Haven also invoked this kind of old world, fantasy-steeped imagery, “Fallen Star” pleading to “the kings and the queens of the dawn”;  “End of Innocence” sees Karevik invoke Prince Charming with “A kiss on the lips / Turned the toad to a prince”. There’s more examples, but my point is that this kind of romantic, melodramatic, renaissance tinged imagery has continued despite the change in album art from royal purple hand drawn covers to more modern, metallic gray sci-fi inspired artwork; its a fundamental part of the band’s DNA, a part of their genetic code that pushes them towards rich melodicism, soaring choruses, and a sense of high drama.

 

 

Kamelot 2018Thematically and to a certain degree lyrically, The Shadow Theory sees the band attempting to try something entirely new by framing the album in a very modern, nearly science-fiction setting. In some sense its their music catching up to the visual style we’ve seen in some of their recent music videos, and its certainly reflected heavily in the dystopian drenched video for the first single “Phantom Divine (Shadow Empire)”. Its a wise choice for a single as its one of the album’s best cuts, a spiritual cousin to previous storming album openers in “March of Mephisto”/”The Great Pandemonium”, and like those songs it uses strong imagery rooted in the band’s DNA to offset its larger, more abstract lyrical matter: “…In ambrosial grace / No applause for the old pantomime…”. Its a small thing to fixate on perhaps, given just how bracing this song is from a purely symphonic power metal perspective, but its also the introduction to The Shadow Theory’s far more modern lyrical concerns. The Jungian Shadow is a complex and in depth topic, worthy of being used as the basis for a thematic album (important to note that this is not a traditional concept album), but Kamelot very much use our modern day, real life problems of social media anxiety, technologically induced disassociation, negative group think, and media manipulation as the vehicle for exploring these ideas.

 

When they are able to strike a balance between this modern setting and the old world Kamelot DNA, they strike gold, as on “Ravenlight”, a song where Karevik sounds as close to Khan as he possibly can (perhaps a byproduct of said DNA…?). His lyrics during the verses are pure classic Kamelot, “Silent tears / In a sea of sorrow / If only God would talk to me / And promise me tomorrow”, and reinforced by beautiful imagery in the refrain, “In Ravenlight, you came to me / From silence rose, a symphony / of coming winters white”. Its a dark song, but it reminds me of the balance they were able to strike on the best moments on Poetry For The Poisoned, matching that darkness with decadent caramel drizzles of bright melody. We hear more of this on “Vespertine (My Crimson Bride)”, an epic symphonic ushered romp that sounds refreshingly like something from the Karma era, propelled by dueling vocal and string melodies that careen gracefully through the air. Karevik’s lyrics here are gorgeous, painting the portrait of a sunlit memory breaking through the oppressive hazy darkness, “Come day, come night, my crimson bride / Is dancing on the fields of gold”. I love this song, its regal and resplendent and reminds me of all the reasons I originally fell under this band’s spell.

 

 

Beyond the Black's Jennifer HabenPerhaps nowhere does the sunlight breakthrough more than on the glorious duet sung ballad “In Twilight Hours”, one that should be in serious consideration for our hypothetical top five Kamelot ballads discussion. Karevik delivers an impassioned vocal, and he’s matched in kind by Beyond The Black’s Jennifer Haben whose own vocals are the perfect balance of ethereal and earthy, resulting in a crystalline quality to her phrasing. Its a majestic song, centered around a cinematic, fully-arcing chorus crafted almost solely around their conjoined vocal melody —- but the emotional build up in the verses is perhaps more impressive, utilizing Palotai’s understated, sombre piano fragments and a sense of quiet, hushed dynamics that Kamelot have made a history of owning (recalling immediately classic ballads “Wander” and “On The Coldest Winter Night”). When Youngblood finally crashes in with his vocal melody echoing guitar solo, its almost cathartic in its emotional weight, the guitarist proving once again that his understanding of restraint and release is central to Kamelot’s musical power. I also really enjoyed “Stories Unheard”, a unique track that while not as magnetic as its peers described above, certainly has something charming working for it, a combination of its many disparate elements —- the music box emulating intro is immediately intriguing, keeping our attention long enough for the chorus to wallop us.

 

Then there’s the flip side, and its far more problematic here than on Haven, where the band leans into a darker musical approach, one where the melodies don’t get the spotlight, shunted aside for pure metallic aggression. I’ve said this before, but heavy riffs and pinch harmonics aren’t why we listen to this band —- there’s loads of other bands who do that well, but few can match Kamelot at their own strength. We get a dose of this aggression in “Kevlar Skin”, and it makes for an underwhelming song, with a hook that never seems to take off under the weight of its awkward melodic angle and lack of adequate build up in the verses or via a bridge. I’m not wild on the lyrics either, the imagery very sci-fi inspired, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but I just think the choice of diction limits the direction this vocal melody can head in. I might be the only one harping on these things and many of you might disagree, but I’m sensing a correlation here. Similarly on “Mindfall Remedy”, we’re blasted to a load of quasi-industrial sound effects that don’t do much for the actual song, which is already hampered by an underwhelming, under cooked refrain. Its the kind of chorus that certainly sounds like its supposed to be a chorus, yet lacks anything in the way of a discernible hook. The metalcore vocals courtesy of Lauren Hart (Once Human) are just texture at this point, although she did a fine job on “Phantom Divine”. I do sometimes wonder if the band ever realizes how transparent their decision to use female vocalists for every guest vocal spot is getting…

 

 

Tommy KarevikI really wanted to enjoy “The Proud and the Broken”, and in brief flashes I do, but overall it fails to move me as the apparent epic of the album. I’m not sure what the problem is here beyond the lack of a more definable vocal melody, because it has an interesting intro and fine middle instrumental passage (just one of those songs that doesn’t quite gel perhaps). I did notice the thematic similarities between it and Orphaned Land’s “Take My Hand” off their recent Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs album, not in exact diction, but in the spirit of what its lyrics are trying to say. Entirely coincidental of course, but its interesting how one song works so well and the other falls flat due to not making all the requisite emotional connections (lyrical and musical). We’ll skip the pointless closing instrumental “Ministrium (Shadow Key)”, only pausing to wonder why anyone felt that this was a better inclusion than the relatively decent bonus track “The Last Day of Sunlight” (which is noteworthy for its utterly bizarre musical hook during the verses and a chorus boasting a really nice Karevik moment). The other lackluster cuts were “Amnesiac” and “Burns to Embrace”; the former ruined by an anemic chorus and a wash of industrial sound effect nonsense, the latter by a lack of an actual melody of any kind in the verses (what the hell guys?).

 

Those lackluster moments are scattered pretty evenly across the tracklisting, and it ends up creating a picture of a really spotty listening experience. I sometimes wonder if an album is better off being a bit lopsided, with half excellent material and the other half ho-hum… does that leaves a better impression on us as fans rather than something like this, where its like eating an under cooked pancake? The moments I enjoyed on this album will find their way to my iPod’s Kamelot playlist of course, but I’m disappointed that they’ve taken a step back with The Shadow Theory. This is just one die-hard fan’s opinion, but I really think they need to reevaluate their overall stylistic approach and do something to shake things up. It could be seen as nitpicking on my part, but I’ve seen quite a few people comment that this album is more of the same, sort of a Haven part two. As I’ve pointed out, the band’s DNA is still intact, but they keep trying to edge in this direction where they’re pulling away from their roots, and at a certain point that’s more harmful then helpful (particularly when its been happening for four albums in a row now). I’d love to see Kamelot do an about face and embrace that older spirit that defined their glory era, though I know Youngblood has expressed no interest in doing so. Kamelot’s darker direction and the resultant songwriting seems to be lacking the firepower to keep things interesting for a full album. Take a page from Priest and look to the past for inspiration, this is metal after all, its okay to do that.

Make It Easier To Be A Fan: A Rant

March 27, 2018

So its been shaping up to be a pretty busy and expensive concert calendar this year. I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing at least five to six shows in the next two months, a couple of them power metal bands (Kamelot in May, Hammerfall in June). A few weeks ago, Iced Earth played here at the House of Blues for a weeknight show that got moved from the usual big room down to something the venue referred to as “The Bronze Peacock”, their tiny room for smaller shows (172 people max allowed). I never thought House of Blues would chance having a metal show in there, so close to all the civilized patrons dining in the next room, but apparently a dire situation of low ticket sales (rumored at a little over 100 for pre-sales) was the motivating factor. As an aside, I didn’t understand just leaving the show as is in the big room, given that the decision was made on short notice and no one else was going to be performing in there that night, but whatever. More pressing was the stark reality that Iced Earth had such shockingly low ticket sales and overall attendance, but to me it served as a microcosm for an ongoing problem in the small scale metal touring world that should concern all of us as fans.

 

I had planned to go to that show, but whereas I had bought advance tickets for all the other shows on my concert calendar, I skipped grabbing one for Iced Earth. It was to be a game time decision, based on whether or not I could get a few friends to go with to make an outing of it, and my general level of enthusiasm as well. The bill wasn’t all that exciting to be honest, with only Sanctuary on their Warrel Dane tribute tour and relative unknowns Kill Ritual as openers. The last time I saw Iced Earth in that venue was in 2012, when they pulled in a huge crowd doing a co-headlining jaunt with Symphony X and an up and coming Warbringer. It was fun, an “event” type of show that pulls in the dusty fans who rarely stray outside their own neighborhood, their concert days slowly fading into memory. Iced Earth would return again a few years later with Sabaton and Floor Jansen’s ReVamp as support, and the combination of enthusiasm for the headliners was nearly matched by the ever growing love for Sabaton in Texas (they are big down here, more on that later), it was at a smaller venue but the place was impressively packed and giddy, especially considering it was a Monday night. That was in 2014, only four years ago when Iced Earth was touring on the relatively weak Plagues of Babylon album too —- so what in the world was going on with the low attendance on the band’s tour stop here promoting a far more well received album in Incorruptible? Word on social media was that the same thing happened at a few more dates on the trek, signaling that the Houston show was far from an isolated instance.

 

 

But hey, Iced Earth is a trad/power metal band, and Houston and Texas in general is pretty solidly death metal country right? Something like this was perhaps bound to happen. In fact I remember the days when the very idea that a power metal band of any stripe would play in Houston seemed like a cruel joke —- indeed, the first major one to really entice us was Blind Guardian on their 2002 trek supporting A Night At the Opera, but sadly forces conspired to bungle that one right out of our hands on the day before Thanksgiving. Of course other bands in the genre had tested out the H-town waters before, most notably Iced Earth themselves in 1999 who cobbled together a small handful of fans at the same ill-fated club that their German brethren would have to cancel at three years later (for the record, it was the venue’s fault). But when Iced Earth finally returned to Houston in 2004 after a half decade long wait (and most of our first times regardless), they brought Children of Bodom and Hypocrisy in tow to the Engine Room, a converted warehouse downtown where damn near a thousand metalheads showed up. The venue held 800 uncomfortably, 900 if you didn’t mind not breathing, and while I was told by the door guy later that nearly a hundred walk-ups were rejected at the door for fear of violating fire code, it certainly felt like everyone who showed up was in that venue.

 

It was the tail end of the golden age of power metal, and Ripper Owens being in the band’s lineup certainly turned some heads, but Iced Earth had also released two back to back excellent records, and to add fuel to the fire, Children of Bodom were blowing up big too. I remember seeing Alexi Laiho mobbed in a circle of fans after the show when he was just trying to enjoy a smoke outside the bus, the members of Iced Earth taking the opportunity of distraction to slip into their own bus almost unnoticed. Exhausted and sweat drenched, I stood there dumbly gazing at the mob surrounding him, all eager to get their copy of Hatecrew Deathroll or Follow the Reaper signed and maybe grab a picture. They should’ve been there earlier during soundcheck around 3pm when he was stumbling around outside hungover and ran into me and two other guys who showed up obscenely early, talking to us and asking if we knew where he could buy some smokes around the area. I remember earlier in the day, before the doors opened, glancing down the line of metalheads that stretched on and on for a ridiculous number of blocks, my mind blown that this many people loved the same underground music I loved, and that Houston was apparently primed to be a hotbed for trad and power metal bands to get down here asap.

 

 

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Oh we had some big shows through the years —- Dragonforce in 2006 at the Meridian drew almost as many as Iced Earth (pre – “Through the Fire and Flames” blowing up even), where somehow my friends and I wound up in the lounge backstage watching ZP Theart and Herman Li trying to lure all too witting women back to their tour bus (it was more amusing than impressive, like Motley Crue without the roadies to do their corralling for them). They had a nascent but buzz worthy Between the Buried and Me with them, who won over the crowd easily. Kamelot with Roy Khan would storm that same venue one year later with Leaves Eyes in tow (hot off the success of the Vinland Saga) and drew an eye raising amount of people for an unforgettable show, the band at the peak of their powers and riding high off the momentum of The Black Halo and Ghost Opera. Nightwish post-Tarja also landed a month later with Paradise Lost and sold the place out with a ton of fans arriving from Mexico for a chance to see the band in a small club setting. But largely speaking, power metal avoided Houston like the plague for most of that decade, the European bands often skipping North America altogether or having disappointing debut tours (Therion and Edguy come to mind immediately here).

 

Around 2010, we started to notice some big power metal names popping up here a little more often —- Blind Guardian was back (they were here in 06′ playing a makeup date as well), Sonata Arctica and Epica came down, and even the odd Primal Fear and Hammerfall gig occurred. A lot of testing the waters. And in 2011 we had one of the biggest club shows in recent memory, with Sabaton supporting Accept at the Scout Bar with a crowd as dense as I can remember. I mention Sabaton first because it would be the opening salvo into six trips to H-town over the next six years, part of the band’s relentless push to break the United States. They made an impact that night with their infectious enthusiasm and humor, but when they came back to town headlining with only Alestorm and Powerglove as support months later, only about a hundred of us showed up to go nuts. I drove out to see them a year or so later in San Antonio for the opening show of their Carolus Rex world tour, the first with their new line-up, and once again it was about a hundred fans in attendance. Sabaton are great sports though, they play every show as if there’s thousands in the crowd, and that translated to an excellent reception, but they learned an important lesson. Even the best received live bands need to be a part of a killer package to sell tickets.

 

 

Sabaton ceased touring the States by themselves or with under powered touring partners, and in following up their 2014 trek supporting Iced Earth, they paired up with Nightwish a year later with Delain as support. It was three bands that would draw a fair amount of fans on their own pulling in a huge crowd together at a spacious downtown venue. When Sabaton returned a year later as a headliner, they brought along Delain and Battle Beast as support, and according my MSRcast co-host Cary it was so packed as to be downright uncomfortable, with no space to move among the biggest crowd that could possibly fit in the Scout Bar. They repeated the formula on last year’s tour as well, this time pairing up with Kreator for a co-headlining run with newcomers Cyhra as support —- the former coming off the success of sharing a headlining slot with Obituary and the latter drawing a few fans who were interested in what Jesper Stromblad was doing these days. I’m focusing a lot on Sabaton here for what I think should be an obvious reason: They’re the most successful power metal band in the United States since Dragonforce in the mid-aughts. Their success should be the model for other bands (particularly power metal bands) to follow when touring the United States, but clearly that isn’t happening. I’m at a loss as to why.

 

Look I get logistics. Every band has a different schedule, perhaps the availability of band members is limited due to day jobs or other musical activities. It could be an album release date affecting the timing of when a band will tour, or even more obscure details like radius or recency clauses. But in this over saturated touring market, metal bands need to be doing everything in their power to team up with other bands to create can’t miss live packages. The upcoming Hammerfall date in Houston with only Flotsam and Jetsam as support won’t draw as many fans as their co-headlining stop here a year ago with Delain, that’s nearly guaranteed. Half the crowd at last year’s show was wearing Delain t-shirts, and while I’d love to be proven wrong, I just don’t see it happening. It begs the question of why we couldn’t see an Iced Earth/Hammerfall co-headlining run (and sure, bring Flotsam along as support, that’d be a great bill)! I would’ve suggested a Kamelot/Iced Earth pairing, but Kamelot’s already been one step ahead, making their upcoming US run with who else but Delain and Battle Beast as direct support. They paired up with Dragonforce the last time I saw them, they’ve been all over this stacked bill approach for years now. The Kamelot/Delain show will be at the House of Blues, the very same venue Iced Earth got demoted at, and I’ll eat my words if this show gets the same treatment.

 

 

Booking agencies are failing their clients, and bands need to start taking matters into their own hands via direct communication with their peers to make sure their tours are attractive enough to get fans out of their houses on a weeknight. I knew a few people who went to the Iced Earth show (MSRcast Cary was one of them), but I know a handful of friends who decided to pass on it, and when asked why they replied with a litany of reasons —- they’d already seen the band before, the lineup wasn’t exciting, and there were too many other shows coming up to pay for. When I asked them if they’d have showed up to an Iced Earth / Hammerfall billing, the answer was a definitive yes. What more market research do you need? I myself passed on the Iced Earth show, and I’ll be honest, I felt a little guilty about it at first. I consider myself a champion of power metal in the States, particularly in a place like Texas where its not exactly beloved, but its increasingly harder to do everything a good fan does. You want to support bands by buying the albums, buying tickets to shows and even buying a t-shirt or a hoodie, sometimes you can’t do all three so you pick one and try to make good. But there’s only so much of a paycheck that can’t be diverted from bills and groceries, and bands need to realize that and begin attempting to make it easier on their fan bases.

 

I focused on power metal in my little rant here, but I’m seeing the same problem with various national death metal tours coming through town… its stupid that some of these bands aren’t pairing up together to share costs and pull in more people. Are they worried that pairing up will limit their merch sales per night? If I were a band, I’d rather gamble on selling more merch to a bigger audience pool in a stacked bill than gambling on a fewer number of my die-hards ponying up as a solo headliner. More bands on a bill might mean a smaller guarantee per band, we can acknowledge that. But that guarantee will get slashed if the show undersells on tickets anyway, particularly if the bar sales crash that night —- why chance that? Put together bills and touring packages that are must attend events, the kinds that people will remember for years to come. My most memorable shows were always stacked bills, whether it was Judas Priest/Heaven and Hell/Motorhead/Testament, or In Flames/Nevermore/Shadows Fall, or Maiden/Dio/Motorhead. There are loads more. I have memories from those shows that are seared forever, but I’ve forgotten tons more that weren’t as glorious. My advice to bands works on both fronts, to make it easier for your fans to be fans, and to combat over saturation in the same go. I’d hate to see bands write off certain markets just due to low ticket sales from an underwhelming bill or over loaded concert calendar. We want you all to keep coming back.

 

Judas Priest: The Impact of Firepower

March 23, 2018

Judas Priest - FirepowerThere’s so many moments on Judas Priest’s Firepower that caused me to break into gleeful cackling, my surprise at what I was hearing having no other reasonable way to manifest itself when listening to the album alone in my car. In lieu of grabbing someone by the arm and shaking them profusely, or shouting a variety of expletives as adjectives to verbalize my bubbling thoughts, my growing enthusiasm manifested itself in absurd ways. My first time listening to it was when driving one evening to the MSRcast recording studio, and the moment that really set me off was “Guardians”, whose epic, isolated piano intro was harmonized by multi-tracked guitars in a wave of epic euphoria building majesty. Its pure, heroic melody recurs in the song it immediately feeds into, the soaring eagle that is “Rising From Ruins”, together the two songs forming as glorious a one-two punch as anything in the Priest catalog, recalling instantly the storied “Electric Eye/Hellion” pairing. I throw around the term inspired a lot on this blog (among many other adjectives I’m sure), but on the “Guardians/Rising From Ruins” duo, Priest tapped into that rare magic that exemplifies the unique ability of metal to convey emotions that are wholly foreign to other styles of music —- feelings of urgency, desperation, and conviction channeled through a funnel of raw power. Upon first hearing the pair, my mind was blown, and I spent the long drive-thru wait in the ritual pre-podcast-recording Starbucks run playing them on repeat. It took every bit of maturity and calm not to babble incoherently about it when I arrived at the studio, but if you heard the last MSRcast, you’ll hear bits of that leaking through.

 

By now the consensus is agreed that Firepower is a first rate Judas Priest album, with some claiming its their best since Painkiller, something I won’t disagree with in spirit. The overwhelming sentiment that I’ve detected being expressed among metal fans, bloggers, and journalists everywhere however is one of genuine astonishment, for what I suspect is largely credited towards the manner in which Priest pulled this off. Its not just an excellent album, its perhaps the best sounding recording in their catalog, the production team of old school Tom Allom (he helmed the production for British Steel thru Ram It Down) and modern metal recording guru Andy Sneap honing in on a sonic sweet spot that is vital, bracing, muscular, and crisp. For all the praise I heaped on Redeemer of Souls for Ritchie Faulkner’s revitalization of the Priest songwriting unit, the one knock against it I could agree to was its somewhat muddled, murky production. Its predecessors Nostradamus and Angel of Retribution were no better, both lumbering with this strange mix of weird reverb and flabby ambience that dulled riffs where they needed to be razor sharp. Halford would sometimes be pushed back farther in the mix than he needed to be, and it made him sound his age in moments. In general they suffered from what Maiden has been hamstrung by in continuing to work with Kevin Shirley, the sense that their albums could sound better if they simply remembered what they were supposed to sound like.

 

 

Production Team Tom Allom, Andy Sneap with Glen Tipton and Ritchie Faulkner It stuns me to say this, but Firepower may be a better album in terms of songwriting and production combined than any post-reunion Maiden album has been. Regarding production alone, perhaps Brave New World is its only near match, but I wonder if that’s due to how vibrant and lively it sounded relative to the dire thud of Virtual XI and The X Factor? Throughout their career arcs, its been natural for many to compare the two bands, and I’ve tried to avoid doing that myself, but with Firepower the comparison screams for examination: Maybe Maiden need to rattle their own cage with a shake up at the producer spot —- and although the first name I’d advise would be Andy Sneap himself, its could be a variety of people (Roy Z for instance…). Of course we wouldn’t even be discussing this if Ritchie Faulkner hadn’t worked out as a talented songwriter in replacing KK Downing, terrific production job or not. We’re paying attention because these new Priest songs have been sharper, hook-ier, meatier, and downright more Priest-ish than ever before because of his outsider perspective and his innate ability to use that to direct the band’s focus. I know they’ve been saying in interviews that Glenn had a lot to do with this album, and I do believe them, but in regarding the difference between Nostradamus’ two pretty decent songs and Redeemer of Souls being such a terrific front to back album, Faulkner was the not so secret weapon.

 

So back to Firepower, where you’d be forgiven for thinking “No Surrender” sounded like a prime-80s era Priest hidden treasure —- it has that electric sonic energy, the Big City Night/Restless and Wild street swagger, and Halford’s vocals are commanding. Or that the mid-song rhythm guitar breakdown in “Lightning to Strike” at the 2:25 mark that hearkens back to the polished thrash metal of Painkiller and late 80s Slayer. Sometimes everything works in such perfect lockstep its like imagining the interplay of drum patterns and riffs as some well oiled engine, as on the repeating verse riff sequence in “Never the Heroes”. It instantly conjures up the image of that iconic Tipton/Downing stage performance move, the classic synchronized back and forth movement set to the rhythm of the almighty riff. Throughout my years as a metal fan online, I’ve seen some snarky comments made here and there making fun of that stage move, to which I say, “Clear the hall!”. The Priest-ian riff-synch move is a heavy metal live show classic, an oft-neglected joyful ritual (Hammerfall are keeping the faith!), and to hear the band knocking out new material that will conjure up that stage move again with full on conviction is a gift to us as metal fans. Cherish it dammit!

 

 

Rob Halford 2018I see no weak tracks here, not in the middle when things could naturally get toned down a bit (they’ve wisely placed the “Guardians”/”Rising From Ruins” combo in the center of the tracklisting), and certainly not towards the end where one of the most vicious cuts Priest has written in decades is unleashed in “Traitors Gate”. I love the tempo acceleration in Halford’s vocal delivery during the opening of the chorus (“…out of the dark / into the light…”), and the major key melodicism of the instrumental section towards the end, which is as unexpected here as it was during the break in “Ram It Down”. Halford has rarely sounded this fierce, so absolutely brutal and withering —- its a little crazy to think he’s sounding this awesome this late in the game. While the bulk of the credit goes to the metal god himself, you’ve got to again look to the Allom/Sneap production team in finding a way to make Halford sound younger than he’s sounded, well… maybe ever. And then there’s the haunting, doomy ballad “Sea of Red”, speaking about the carnage of war with the gravity it demands, almost hearkening to Maiden’s relatively recent “For the Greater Good of God” with its acoustic strummed intro bed. Its old school in spirit though, bringing up memories of Coverdale era Purple’s “Soldier of Fortune”, while simultaneously mirroring the album closing duty and spirit of “Beginning of the End” from Redeemer, another Sabbathy ballad.

 

 

Judas Priest 2018Its by now been a week or two since this album was released, and while the press has properly conveyed just how earthshaking a release this is and the band seems to know it too, I wonder if we’re still some months or years away from truly defining its impact on the band’s ultimate legacy. No longer can it be written that Painkiller was the last high point, that the band limped on through the Ripper years and when Halford rejoined, they staggered on with some semi-decent records before calling it a day. I’ll hammer this point again and again, that Ritchie Faulkner rejuvenated the Judas Priest songwriting machine and with his tenure in the lineup, they’ve released two knock out albums back to back including this one which is downright intimidating in its blistering attack. Its a case not only for the greatest concluding chapter a legacy metal (or rock) band has ever had on a creative level (Maiden’s post-reunion commercial success is hard to match), but also for the argument that new blood in long running bands can work to maximize the potential of a legacy sound. Fellow Brits Cradle of Filth enjoyed similar creative renewal with their past two efforts with new six stringers in the band, and its been a marvel to behold. Draw whatever conclusions you may from this, but its been a revelation as a fan of so many bands that have changed members and lost certain core songwriting teams. It begs the question: Who’s next up?

Tear Down The Walls! New Music From Angra, Lione/Conti, Visigoth and More!

March 11, 2018

Here we are again, with a sequel to February’s Throw Open the Gates! review blitz, this time with more albums from these first two months and change of 2018. It has certainly proved to be the busiest opening release salvo of any year in recent memory, and things don’t seem to be slowing down in the next few months. There’s a few things that I didn’t review here that we’ve covered on our last two recent episode of the MSRcast, so you might also want to check those out if you are on the hunt for new music. A lot of these releases have been amazing, but not all —- I’ve got your back though, just think of me as your new release concierge. A lengthier look at the new Judas Priest album is next on the agenda, and I’m sure there’s going to be yet another of these multi-review clusters coming out relatively soon too. Headphones ready…

 


 

 

Lione / Conti – Lione / Conti:

Weirdly, Fabio Lione is at the vocal helm of two albums released within the span of a month, well okay one and a half albums. Just before the release of Angra’s OMNI (reviewed below), he and Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody/Trick or Treat vocalist Alessandro Conti released their Frontiers Records (of course!) debut duets album. If that phrase conjures up images of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett dancing cheek to cheek, or Sinatra and Bono cozying up at a bar drinking shots of something, then you’re actually not far off the mark —- these guys are indeed trading off vocal runs in true duet fashion. Frontiers does a lot of these types of projects, thinking of course of the Allen/Lande pairing, but also the recent Timo Tolkki star studded solo project, as well as the Kiske/Somerville stuff. This time the “staff writer” is Italian guitarist Simone Mularoni (of Italian prog-metallers DMG), who counterbalances the Italian penchant for high gloss factor power metal with an ample dose of AOR styled hard rock. Now I get the draw —- this is basically two generations of Rhapsody vocalists coming together for a vocalists duel (whatever that might mean), and on paper its bound to attract the ears of many a power metal fan. And to their credit, Frontiers Records does often deliver good records behind these so transparently obvious they’re ridiculous ideas, in fact, I still love those Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall albums.

 

The tricky bit with this Lione/Conti extravaganza rests on how you answer this one question, and maybe its just me but… don’t these guys sound exactly alike? Luca Turilli didn’t just randomly pick Conti off a list of available vocalists to front his new version of Rhapsody, he did it because he could continue writing in the same mode he had been during his time in the original incarnation of Rhapsody of Fire. It was honestly only when watching the music video for “Ascension” when I was finally able to tell who was singing what, and even then I couldn’t discern any reasonable variations in their voices to help me throughout the rest of the album. I’m not sure if this is even a stumbling block when it comes to enjoying this album or not, because even though I’m really only hearing one voice to my ears, I’m rather liking Mularoni’s meat and potatoes approach. It mirrors the last Rhapsody of Fire album Into The Legend, with its stripped down songwriting that seemed to maximize hooks and memorable melodies at the expense of grandeur and ambition. Songs like “Destruction Show” work because of awesome guitar hooks to keep everything focused and concise, and “You’re Falling” has a nice Queensryche vibe to its vocal melody arrangement. Its a solid listening experience in full if you’re in the mood for straight ahead AOR tinged Italian power metal, but as they really could’ve used either Lione or Conti for the project alone, the duets aspect of this fails hard.

 

 

 

 

Angra – ØMNI:

So I’ve given this new Angra album a decent amount of playtime, enough I think for it to fully reveal itself, and I gotta say I’m a little ambivalent overall. In retrospect, Secret Garden was a far more interesting album than we gave it credit for, and its varied collection of vocals might have played a part in that. Not only did Fabio Lione have his debut turn there, but Rafael Bittencourt also added his excellent, rough-edged voice to several songs as well, that’s not to mention the guest turns by Simone Simons and the amazing Doro Pesch. It wasn’t perfect, but it was surprising and kept you guessing. ØMNI is a far more straightforward affair, with Lione getting most of the vocal time although Bittencourt does pop up and there are a few guests, including Alissa White-Gluz on “Black Widow’s Web”, a song that absolutely didn’t need growling vocals but, well, here we are. I enjoyed “Insania” for its beautiful guitarwork and stirring melody, despite shaking my head at just how silly the term “Insania” is (isn’t that what Geoff Tate’s wine was called?). Someone once told me that it was the Latin version of “Insane” and it took me an incredible amount of patience to simply grunt and nod. Moving on, “The Bottom of My Soul” is such an excellent tune, and not coincidentally Bittencourt’s on lead vocals —- is it wrong to suggest that maybe the band sounds better when he’s singing? I’m sure that’s fighting the spirit of their legacy and the impressive work of the Andre Matos and to a lesser degree, the Edu Falaschi years, but damn he sounds great.

 

Lione’s best work comes on “Always More”, a lovely ballad with some unusual guitar tones at work in absolutely gorgeous, simple melodies, combining with an ascending vocal melody that makes use of his effortless ability to hit higher registers. Regarding the departure of Kiko Loureiro, its hard to gauge —- I’m going on the assumption that Bittencourt penned most of the music here, but the now Megadeth guitarist does pop up in a guest spot on the single “War Horns”. I can only say that there’s enough shred factor here to satisfy the most ardent prog-power guitar fanboy out there, and at times Angra even sounds more like Dream Theater considering the tonality of Lione. The last two tracks on the album invoke the title, being the concluding companion pieces to what apparently is a concept album (about a science fiction future in 2046), but they fall flat, being neither heavy or melodic or heady enough to inspire any particular emotion. A rough ending for the album overall, and not a way to get people invested into the album’s concept. Maybe this will grow on me over the coming months, there’s some stuff worth coming back for, but I just find myself wanting to listen to Secret Garden again.

 

 

 

 

Tengger Cavalry – Cian Bi:

A few years ago I was introduced to Tengger Cavalry’s particular take on folk metal with their mixing of Mongolian throat singing and nomadic Asian traditional instrumentation. I was immediately intrigued and checked out a few albums on YouTube, and while I enjoyed what I heard, it was a difficult proposition to simply work into casual listening. Tengger Cavalry is one of those rare breeds of folk metal bands that don’t give you an easy entry way into their sound, there are no instantly accessible tailored singles that can draw a bigger crowd, no “Trollhammaren”. They’ve been unapologetic about their sound, and its also worth noting that the metal aspect of their folk metal seems largely devoid of allegiance to one particular metal style, being just straightforward heavy riffs, plain and simple. Their newest album, Cian Bi, is simultaneously their weirdest yet most straightforward album to date —- its also, shockingly, their last. Just the other week, band founder Nature (yes) Ganganbaigal issued a rough statement throwing the blame on ex-Century Media president and current M Theory Audio owner Marco Barbieri. I’m not well informed enough to make any judgements either way but that’s a bummer, and you have to wonder if Nature is dissolving Tengger Cavalry in name only to terminate any existing business agreements, and will regroup under a different name doing the same type of music.

 

One can only hope, because I’ve been enjoying this new album far more than just the passing casual listens I had with their back catalog. I don’t know if its their best work overall, but there’s something deeply appealing about this bizarre mish mash of elements. Of particular note is just how hard hitting some of the riffs gluing everything together can be, case in point are cuts like “The Old War”, and the pummeling “One Tribe, Beyond Any Nation”. The latter is my personal favorite, featuring a gorgeous melody played on a morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), an incredibly appealing instrument that I’m glad I now know the name of —- all blockaded by some seriously brutal, Rammstein-esque riffage. Besides the traditional instrumentation, Nature’s uncanny vocal ability is also a huge draw for me, as in “Ride Into Grave and Glory” where he switches between the throat singing and his clean rock/metal vocals. It might be an acquired taste for some, but even his “normal” vocals have character, a rustic quality that brings to mind grassy steppes and gritty, grimy back alleys in dense cities all at once. This is a listening experience best beheld start to finish, with the album as the soundtrack to your thoughts or random mindless activity. There’s a spiritual aspect to this blend of folk metal that’s hard to define and even harder to shake.

 

 

 

 

Visions of Atlantis – The Deep & The Dark:

Austria’s Visions of Atlantis have been off most radars since 2013, when they underwent a major lineup shift, not their first one but certainly their most dramatic. The most important change was the addition of ex-Serenity vocalist Clementine Delauney and The Dragonslayer (Siegfried Samer of the uber fun Dragony) on co-lead vocals. At the band’s core has always been drummer/founder Thomas Caser, and with the addition of new guitarist and bassist Christian Douscha and Herbert Glos respectively, we’re on to Visions of Atlantis Mach 7583234419! Well, close enough anyway. We did get a taste of what the Delauney/Samer pairing could sound like with the 2016 Old Routes New Waters EP, a re-recording of several older songs including the ballad “Winternight”, whose recording and video ended up being a thoughtful memorial to the sadly departed original vocalist Nicole Bogner, but The Deep & The Dark is clearly the debut that Caser and company have been striding towards all these years. Given his predilection towards the band’s concept being about seafaring and adventure, and with a fantastically dramatic vocalist like Samer at the forefront, I was expecting an album rich in dramatics, heavy on theatricality, and songwriting that pushed the band’s sound forward.

 

We get that, in brief flashes here and there, but unfortunately, the album suffers from the band’s chief structural flaw within its various lineups, that being the lack of a consistent songwriter. Throughout this band’s history, its songwriting has been generated by a mix of band members, the biggest slice of this coming from ex-keyboardist Martin Harb, but Caser himself isn’t this band’s Tuomas Holopainen. But Caser clearly is the driving force behind maintaining the vision of what this sound should be, at least in theory, that being Nightwish inspired dual male/female vocalist driven symphonic metal. The problem is that whomever is part of the songwriting team for the band at any particular time writes towards that mode, and the results sound like either too many cooks in the kitchen, or various emulations of musical approaches that have been done before. In other words, its symphonic metal by the numbers, and this is a genre where bands really need distinctive musical voices to emerge within their lineups to push their music hard in a particular direction or angle. You might be able to compensate for a lack of this if you’ve got really strong hooks by the armful, but that’s a tall order. Samer’s Dragony is a great example of the latter, their 2015 album Shadowplay doesn’t break new ground, but damn is it a fun listen, full of fist-raising choruses and glorious over the top nonsense.

 

You might think that given these comments I didn’t enjoy The Deep & The Dark at all, but that’s not entirely true. The title track that kicks off the album is a fine emulation of Nightwish, sounding strikingly similar to that band’s Anette Olzon era. And “Return to Lemuria” features a charming bit of Sonata Arctica esque keyboard sugar icing on a verse/chorus that hits heavy on one’s nostalgia factor, sounding like a cut that could’ve been suitable for The Neverending Story soundtrack. Delauney is on fine form on those cuts, her voice the right amount of ethereal and breathy and even with some deft melodic phrasing on certain lyrics to make them extra effective. But a juxtaposition of vocals in “Ritual Night” between her and Samer just doesn’t generate the kind of excitement it should, and I don’t know if its so much their fault as opposed to the song simply lacking anything in the way of hard hitting drama. The “Book of Nature” is yet another example of this homogenized quality to the overall songwriting hampering the vocalists ability to conjure up pulse racing excitement, which is kind of the point of symphonic power metal in the first place! This is a band in desperate need of a sharper songwriter, someone who can channel and mold the talents that they have at the vocal helm. Serenity’s Georg Neuhauser and Thomas Buchberger made Delauney sound positively enchanting on War of Ages, and its disappointing to not hear the same thing here. A frustrating under use of talent, and given the band’s history, I don’t see it changing.

 

 

 

 

 

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

Utah’s Visigoth burst onto the scene in 2015 with their strong debut The Revenant King, whose stellar “Dungeon Master” we played on the MSRcast around that time. I remember listening to the rest of the album thinking that if they had a few more songs in the spirit of that spectacular cut, they’d really have a fun album. As it was, that song and a Manilla Road cover (“Necropolis”) were the most direct things on the album, the rest of the band’s punchy, vibrant USPM being folded into epic song lengths with extended instrumental passages and grand, broad-sword inspired prog. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the album, but I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. Fortunately, Visigoth have leaned into their strengths on The Conqueror’s Oath and stripped their sound down to its meat and bones trad metal roots, meaning more Manilla Road, early Manowar and Virgin Steele. This is such a fun record, eight quick cutting daggers of thunderous, unabashedly melodic, anthemic glory —- one of the most satisfying listens to come out of USPM in ages. Its not just that they’re capable of smile inducing glory paeans in “Steel and Silver”, but of inspired musical shifts like the gentle dip into Jethro Tull-esque flute accompanied balladry at the 3:40 mark of “Warrior Queen”. Vocalist (and flutist!) Jake Rogers the Tony Kakko x-factor, a knack for hooky lyrical phrasing, and the admirable talent to drape a memorable vocal melody over nearly everything he sings. Tonally he reminds me of a cross between the plantative Chris Black (High Spirits / Dawnbringer) and Janne Christoffersson from Grand Magus, with a little Eric Adams penchant for bellowing theatrics to power things out.

 

Manowar and Grand Magus are two perfectly suited reference points for what Visigoth have accomplished on this album, where thundering displays of power are at the forefront but the songwriting approach still leaves some room for tasteful musicality. On “Traitor’s Gate”, they utilize a twangy acoustic build up to ratchet up the mystery and tension before unleashing a thundering assault and some lyrics that are begging to be bellowed out loud in unison at a show (“Die like the dog you are!”). I love the middle bridge where Rogers unleashes a wry bit of clever vocal phrasing (“By spite and thunder /
Torn asunder…”), possibly out Manowar-ing Joey DeMaio with its fist in the air magnetism. My personal favorite has to be “Blades in the Night”, where I really feel that Visigoth is reaching into the same well of early 80s inspirations that fuel most of High Spirit’s Scorpions-esque hard rock. The chorus is the star here of course, deceptively simple but so effective, it was ringing in my head all day after first hearing it.  Rogers gets to stretch out here as well, delivering a fantastic performance that’s inspired and even beautiful in its lyrical qualities, reminding me a little of the great Mathias Blad in spots. This would almost be a perfect album, but I’ll agree with damn near every review I’ve seen where “Salt City” is singled out —- its not a terrible cut, and I get why they wanted it in here (hometown tribute and all) but its placement throws off the pacing of the album and I’d rather have had another slice of the same pie the rest of the seven tracks made up. A minor blemish though, one that’s easily forgivable considering the sheer quality of this album. Visigoth have arrived, bar the gates!

 

Beloved Antichrist: Therion Redefine The Metal Opera

February 26, 2018

You might not know this, but I’m a massive Therion fan, as in they’re one of my top five favorite metal bands of all time kinda massive. Sadly, in the seven years this blog has been going, I’ve gotten to write about them just a handful of times. Now that’s partially my own fault for not getting around to doing that retrospective I’d planned for them years back, but its mostly because the band’s last studio release was way back in 2012 with their classic French pop covers art project Les Fleurs du Mal, and their last studio album of original material two years prior to that with Sitra Ahra. Previously, their longest gap between releases was three years, but to their credit we did get a warning —- founder/guitarist Christofer Johnsson telling us way back in September of 2012 that “there won’t be any new regular album… not until we have finished the rock (metal) opera, performed it live as much as we can, taken a break and then put together a regular album again. That will take a couple of years, for sure. So we are closing an era and opening a new period that will be quite different”. It was a fairly surprising statement that at the time stunned and dismayed many Therion fans, myself included, because I think we all wondered why this opera project had to come at the expense of new Therion music. But it was out of our control, and so began the long wait, and good god what a wait its been. I didn’t think he meant six years! Maybe he didn’t either.

 

I gave Wintersun’s Jari Maenpaa a fair amount of criticism for his continued delays regarding Time II, and even referenced Therion’s Christofer Johnsson as an example within the symphonic metal world of someone to replicate in terms of logistics and finances. I bring this up here because I can feel that a few of you might remember that and all too rightfully want to throw that back in my face right now. I still think my example of Johnsson’s operating methods in terms of recording complicated material was absolutely spot on in relation to Wintersun’s Time II dilemma, but it raises the question: Does Johnsson deserve to be equally criticized for the significant amount of time he’s taken to release a project that is sharply dividing opinions within the fan base and greater metal community in general? I think it can be argued that yes, taking six years (eight if we account for original material) to release something that isn’t a new album in the traditional sense is far too long, and though no one disputes Johnsson’s right to do that, we don’t have to like it! Here I’ll point out that I’ve been hearing about Blind Guardian’s yet to be released “orchestral project” since late 2001, when I first heard Hansi mention it in an interview promoting the then newly released “And Then There Was Silence” single. Yes, that project has been cooking in the background for nearly two decades(!), its genesis taking root in the writing sessions for 1998’s Nightfall In Middle Earth. It hasn’t had a vice grip around the band’s activities however —- they’ve moved along at their new album every four-five years standard clip, even delivering a straight up masterpiece with 2010’s At The Edge of Time. I’ve seen the band live four times here in Houston in that intervening time as well, they’ve been regularly touring the world with each release. And whenever they’re asked, they tell us the same thing: Work on their orchestral project continues, it’ll be released when its done.

 

 

It might be unfair to bring up the Blind Guardian example, because everyone works differently, and maybe Johnsson is the kind of artist who wants to only focus on one thing with maximum intensity for a lengthy period of time. I get that, and respect it. I just wonder if he ever considered the other route, of making this a long burning project that he’d work on in the off-times from normal Therion albums and tours, even if it did take twenty plus years? The discussion is moot of course, because here we are with Beloved Antichrist in its finished, recorded form, but there are plans to stage this somewhere and ambitions to see it take on a life of its own as an opera entity separate from Therion. We’re realistically looking at another three to four years before a new Therion album could potentially come to fruition… that’ll make it ten plus years since Sitra Ahra, a heck of a timescale for any rock/metal band not named Guns N’ Roses. The reactions that I’ve seen to Beloved Antichrist have been as polarizing as you’d expect, and on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group they were particularly blunt and forthright with their nearly overwhelming disapproval. I was even provided with some insight by a classically trained soprano as to why in her opinion Therion’s opera was terrible even by opera standards, never mind the metal ones. I should add that all the opinions on this group were stated pretty respectfully… you can only imagine the stuff written elsewhere.

 

One of the recurrent themes among all those on that Facebook group who discussed Beloved Antichrist unfavorably was what can only be best described as ‘bewilderment meets impatience’. The criticism I saw frequently repeated was that the rhythm guitars came across as plodding, repetitive, and used more as a percussive/tempo device than an inspired riff delivery system. I understood that criticism because I too focused on the guitars during my initial first few listens through the entirety of the opera, honestly for awhile there it felt like all I was hearing was simplistic rhythm guitar and a load of operatic vocals in pieces of music that felt untethered to anything —- be it a melody or a motif. Everything sounded rather amorphous, that is a big mess of sound that was hard to get a hold of, to find something that hooked you. What was exacerbating that impression was the daunting length of this project itself, spanning three discs and clocking in at just over three hours of music, it was certainly understandable that many people took a single pass through it (or maybe even skipped around), and decided that once was enough. Metal fans do have a tendency to be patient and follow the principle that it often takes multiple listens for something complex to reveal itself, but I think the three hour running time was a hurdle that was too lengthy for many to attempt.

 

 

The thing is that Beloved Antichrist is really an opera —- I know that might be stating the obvious but it needs to be reiterated again: It is an OPERA. Full stop. What we’re listening to here is the soundtrack to an opera that has yet to be staged, not a “metal opera” in the way we’ve come to know them via Avantasia or Ayreon, which have always struck me as more theatrically inclined concept albums closer to musical theater than anything resembling opera. Okay so if we view it in this light, where does that leave you and me as metal fans? I don’t know about you, but my experience with opera is limited to watching a few of them on PBS during those late night insomnia years, and I actually did enjoy them (they were subtitled) and didn’t click off after a few minutes. The one thing I remember absolutely not digging were the parts where dialogue was being sung, seemingly without regard to crafting a melody, an aspect I can now recognize as the “recitative”. But that’s really it, I know precious little about the history, structure, and appreciation of opera. I know what arias are, mostly because I have an unabashed love of Sarah Brightman’s solo albums, which tended to feature the inclusion of a few arias from various operas in addition to her original material. I’ve been a fan of hers dating back twenty years now, when I first saw her on PBS (yes, again) singing “Time To Say Goodbye” with Andrea Bocelli. She was my gateway into classical music alongside film soundtracks, and through her I started listening to Maria Callas, Anna Netrebko, and José Cura. Its not much of a classical education, but its a start.

 

A few Thursdays ago, I sat down to listen to this behemoth of a recording with that thought process in mind: “I’m listening to the soundtrack of a play that hasn’t been staged yet”. It wasn’t me trying to learn Finnish in one day, it was just a simple, subtle shift in mindset to prepare myself for how I would try to process what I was hearing. It worked. Suddenly the simplistic rhythm guitars weren’t grabbing my attention first and foremost, but everything else was. I heard the melodies circulating through the string sections, the dramatic punctuation of the horn sections and pounding timpani, and I was paying attention to a story being told through the vocalists. Within that I found some beautiful music —- a stellar example coming in early on the third track “Through Dust, Through Rain”, where an instrument I can’t quite define accompanies a gorgeous soprano vocal, backed by an ebb and flow of quiet strings. There’s a moment here where a lonely piano figure breaks through fleetingly, like a ray of sun through the overcast and its so lonely sounding, so effective at stirring up feelings of melancholy and heartbreak. These micro moments are why I’m a Therion fan, because somehow Johnsson has an endless supply of them, even if they have no metallic context whatsoever. Its an early highlight, and although its not technically an aria (being a dialogue between two characters rather than one), its something that I could see sung out of context in a classical program by someone like Sarah Brightman no less (is my fanboy showing?).

 

 

These moments of musical bliss are scattered everywhere, as on the opening strings during “Signs Are Here”, serene yet suggestive of some tumult down the road. Then there’s the choral vocal hook in “Never Again”, with just enough of a catchy, solidly Therion-ized guitar riff anchoring things underneath to provide it with a gritty earthiness. There’s a wild display of sturm und drang on “The Crowning of Splendour”, pitting its male operatic vocal leads against a spiraling build up of guitars and a thunderous orchestral arrangement. Another male lead vocal moment worth hearing again is on “Our Destiny”, which is structured far more closely to a verse/chorus format than any other piece of music here. Its very Therion-esque too, from its charismatic vocal melody to the distinctive melodic signatures present in its expressive guitar passages (even a brief glimpse of a guitar solo here!). It has a martial drum segue into “Anthem”, where Thomas Vikstrom as Seth (the Antichrist) leads us with a solo vocal over somber strings, and this sequence soon runs headlong into an explosive metal passage that invokes memories of an old Therion classic in “Wine of Aluqah”, down to the percussive tempos and the wild guitar patterns. The love dialogue in “Jewels From Afar” between Helena and Seth is set to bright major chords loosely strummed on chiming acoustic guitars, a welcome break from riff based rhythmic structures that results in some pretty melodies.

 

If you’re looking for another Therion-ized to the max slice of music, revisit “The Arrival of Apollonius” with its very Secret of the Runes style mid-tempo rhythm guitar structures and epic choral vocals. There’s some remarkable detail here: An affecting solemn horn intro and nimble female operatic vocals during the 2:08 – 2:23 stretch to name a pair. Regarding the latter, the staccato guitars actually work pretty well in this passage, they have purpose and a even deliver a nice tail-off at the end of the riff sequence. Those looking for riffs will find a solid one in “Night Reborn” as well as “Temple of New Jerusalem”, the latter of which got the focus track treatment with a lyric video. Its simple yet hooky riff pattern segues into an actual bridge and chorus sequence, joining “Our Destiny” as the most traditional song on offer. The chorus was a little lacking to me overall, but the unexpectedly joyful guitar outburst at the 3:30 mark is worth coming back for. But guitars don’t always steal the show: I love the usage of piano on “Dagger of God”, the keys expressive and elegant; and the conjoined bombastic orchestral effort on “The Lions Roar” is impactful, those thundering timpanis and french horns working in concert to effect grandeur and majesty. And its the choir vocals that make “Bringing the Gospel” so compelling, and I appreciate that the rhythm guitar goes in unpredictable directions here, altering its staccato patterns with accelerating riffing. And I wish that the intro sequence of “Laudate Dominum” could repeat throughout its entire five minute running time, those sweeping strings follow an absolutely beautiful melody, sprightly and refreshing amidst so much darkness throughout the rest of the opera.

 

 

But I’m over here going on about all these other instruments, and you’re probably wondering “Where’s the metal at Pigeon?”. Well check out “Behold Antichrist” for an awesome circular riff and the Therion-ized lead guitar overlays and solos that definitely push this more towards the metal end of the opera metal spectrum, particular at the 2:04 mark with an amazing Christian Vidal solo. I get Gothic Kabbalah flashbacks when listening to “Cursed By The Fallen”, not only from its female soloists but its juxtaposing beefy trad metal riffs alongside woodwind led musical bridges. The heaviest metallic moment comes in “Astral Sophia”, with its doomy, darkened riffing and foreboding male choral vocals, the song taking on quiet/loud dynamics throughout quite effectively. And then there’s “Shoot Them Down!”, which is described by Johnsson as being the music for a street revolution scene, and he purposefully invoked what he describes as “Motörhead-goes-opera”. Its a solid, 80s influenced throwback riff that anchors the song in a set tempo and is able to sustain interest on its own without vocal help. Speaking of riffs, “Rise to War” has an excellent one hidden behind its operatic intro, striking at the 1:33 minute mark like something off an Accept album. There’s metal aplenty to be found here, but its rarely concentrated in one spot as you can see, hence the push and pull of a true metal opera.

 

Not everything works as a standalone musical piece, and although most of these pieces of music are dialogues between one or more characters, you really can play spot the recitative. Scenes such as “Pledging Loyalty”, “What Is Wrong?”, and in particular “Morning Has Broken” are tough listens. Regarding the latter, its vocal melody is so drawn out and tortured, the vocalists almost sound like they’re singing out of tune. To his credit, Johnsson has found a way to incorporate dialogue in a way that is largely interesting and engaging on a musical level, with short melodies that support chunks of dialogue or wrap around them. But every now and then you’ll stumble upon something where he just couldn’t pull it off well enough, and while it may be perfectly functional in the context of a stage performance, these pieces of music stick out in the context of this soundtrack. The inverse is also true in singling out scenes where the music is absolutely sublime, even daring to challenge some of the greatest work Therion has ever recorded. I’m thinking specifically of the epic vocal duet on “Seeds of Time” and the opera highlight of highlights “To Shine Forever”, both towards the end of the tracklisting. The former is an elegiac, melancholic performance from Vikstrom and Chiara Malvestiti as Johanna in what has to be the opera’s final act aria. I simply love “To Shine Forever” however, with its heartbreaking blend of chiming minor key acoustic guitars, sweeping brushstroke strings, and by far the most affecting choral vocal melody on Beloved Antichrist.

 

 

Okay, enough dissection… I knew that was going to take a long time (46 tracks!) but the truth is that my own evidence of enjoying this work won’t really matter a ton to most of you. There’s a couple things I understand now about Beloved Antichrist, and the first is that it simply won’t be for some people and that doesn’t make those people wrong in the slightest. If you heard this expecting a metal opera more in line with what Avantasia has been terming operas with their many albums, I understand being under or overwhelmed by this thing. If you were wanting a new Therion album in the vein that we’re all accustomed to and you walked away from this after one listen thinking its an utter abomination, you’re justified in that opinion. Heck one of the hallmarks of classic Therion is being able to enjoy the instrumental aspect of the band on an equal level to the vocal arrangements, and this opera is mostly a vocal affair due to its very nature. Is it what I wanted out of a six/eight year absence of new Therion music? No not really, but its what we got, and as a die-hard fan who’s gotten so much out of their previous work on a personal level, the least I could do here was give it more than a couple tries. It paid off for me to a degree, but its understandable that it won’t for everyone.

 

I’ll point out one final thing though —- remember when the Lord of the Rings soundtracks were released a few months before each of the three movies eventually debuted in the Decembers of 2001-2003? I’d eagerly buy them on their release dates and pour through them, and they’d get me excited for the movies and I would think “Yeah, these sound good”. But they didn’t really mean as much to me then as they did after I had seen their corresponding films and had a chance to attach pieces of music to those epic scenes that melted mine and many other geeks’ hearts. The Stranger Things soundtrack would just be a weird mix of classic 80s songs and bizarre electronic music if we listened to it without watching the show and being charmed stupid. And without Top Gun’s electric volleyball and Tom Cruise hi-fiving Anthony Edwards montage, Kenny Loggins “Playing With The Boys” would be… well, still a terrible song… okay so it doesn’t work for everything. But you get the gist. Context helps, particularly with soundtracks! If you hated Beloved Antichrist upon first listen, maybe check out its stage production (hopefully that happens) if you’re in Europe somewhere, or for an easier method, come back to this in a few months when in the mood for something classical.