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Hey everyone, just a quick heads up that I'm in the process of repairing all the broken image/You Tube links throughout the site. The recent Photobucket crisis hit me hard! All the older posts are affected right now, appreciate the patience while I fix things! - The Metal Pigeon

Wintersun Returns! Musing on The Forest Seasons

July 27, 2017

wintersunforestseasons300Awhile back in August of 2014, I wrote a piece on the continuing delays that surrounded Wintersun’s Time Pt II. It got noticed by a handful of their fans and linked on the band’s Facebook page where it made quite a stir (even eliciting a few disapproving comments from Jari Mäenpää himself). My main criticism in that piece was his attempt to deploy crowdfunding to circumvent his deal with Nuclear Blast who according to Mäenpää weren’t helping him achieve his artistic vision with adequate resources. Nuclear Blast had responded and the result was an ugly fight in the metal press, one that saw many people even outside of the Wintersun fandom taking sides. While I did side with Nuclear Blast to a certain extent, I think the source of my frustration was that I also considered myself a fan of the guy. The band’s 2004 self-titled debut was (and still is) an electric mix of speedy Swedish melo-death infused with Finnish power metal’s major key melodicism, christened with Yngwie-like guitar and keyboard theatrics that made the whole thing crackle with intensity. That album was only a couple months removed from another 2004 Mäenpää classic in Ensiferum’s Iron, the second of two incredible, pioneering albums he made with that band before leaving to pursue Wintersun full time that same year. In a span of just three years and change (’01-’04), Mäenpää had delivered three bonafide classics, exciting albums that made us rethink where metal could go and how it could sound. He seemed poised to among metal’s most admired prolific voices, like Therion’s Christofer Johnsson and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt before him, a guy who would knock out a flurry of awesome works in rapid succession over a decade. Instead, we wouldn’t hear anything new from him until 2012.

When Time I finally arrived in 2012, I found myself enjoying it, but wondering why it took eight years for just three songs proper (two of the album’s five tracks were instrumentals). Even if they were on the long side (13, 8 , and 12 minutes respectively), the lack of more than five tracks on the release made the whole thing come across as some kind of extended EP instead of an album proper. But no matter as I pointed out in my original review, because Time II was on the way, slated at the time for an early 2013 release (by whom, the label or band, no one’s really sure). Well, my snarky prediction that we might not see Time II until 2020 might not be so far off the mark, because in the intervening years Wintersun have focused on some touring and the launching of a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign to build Mäenpää’s much longed after Wintersun studio. Now as I pointed out above, my 2014 article took issue with the band’s attempt to crowdfund against the wishes of their label, but things have changed in the time since. In the autumn of 2016, the band and Nuclear Blast were able to come to terms and negotiate out a resolution that apparently has pleased both parties. No, The Forest Seasons isn’t Time II with a different title, we’re still being promised that far off epic, but at least Mäenpää has delivered new music in the meantime, realizing that another near decade wait would be inexcusable.

 

The resulting Indie-Go-Go crowdfunding campaign ran all of this past March. Instead of offering the usual run of merch n’ perks that most bands put up in exchange for donations, the only donation option was for “The Forest Package”, which was essentially the band’s new album The Forest Seasons, its instrumental twin plus a remastered version of Time I (and its instrumental version), as well as the remaster of the debut album along with the Live at Tuska 2013 live album. When this news went out I actually thought that it was a smart move, to just simply offer the die hard Wintersun fan a pre-order of the new album (essentially) plus a host of other Wintersun music that you could get a tidy amount for per person. It wouldn’t appeal to a casual fan like myself, and as a result I suspect many of us scoffed at the band’s overall stated goal of 750,000 Euros (a goal to be reached in chunks —- this being the first of three crowdfunding campaigns), but the band has gotten the last laugh as they netted € 428,310 in just March alone, more than halfway towards their goal. Kudos to them, seriously. I’m not against crowdfunding in metal, I think that its a valid way to go if a band can pull it off. With Mäenpää, the frustration was that he had started clamoring for a crowdfunding attempt after making his fans wait a decade, not to forget the numerous delays and social media posts that grated on everyone’s patience. Its a testament to the man’s music that so many didn’t hold that against him in March.

All that business related history aside, here we are with The Forest Seasons plum in our laps, and if its tracklisting looks a little familiar to you at first, its because Mäenpää has apparently found his preferred format for albums —- a couple songs, make em’ really long (I’d be willing to bet that Time II will follow this format closely). In this case Mäenpää has a built in excuse, that the album is patterned after Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, and accordingly so, Wintersun delivers four “suites” for four seasons. I just want to point out how utterly shocking it is that no one has attempted this in the history of metal until now (unless I overlooked something), because this is a concept that was begging to happen. And its one that really suits Mäenpää’s tendency towards melancholic melodies and vague, abstract, all-encompassing lyrics. Speaking of his lyrics, they’re ostensibly about the nature of these individual seasons albeit in a more metal fashion (particularly autumn and winter), mirroring the actual sonnets that Vivaldi wrote (supposedly) to accompany his famed violin suite. But what sets them apart and lends to their metal nature is that they seem to also speak to the condition of someone’s inner turmoil by use of metaphor, something my lyric loving self has to tip his hat to Mäenpää for. I love stuff like that.

The albums most enthralling moments are found in its first two suites, “Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring)”, and “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”, where we find Wintersun in peak form, at times eclipsing anything else they’ve ever done. You have to give “(Spring)” a few minutes into its fourteen minute long journey to really get going because there’s a lot here by way of the intro. Around the 6:27 mark a distant, dissonant riff emerges amidst the atmospheric quiet of stray keyboards and xylophone-like wind chimes, and transitions into the albums first proper headbanging riff progression. Towards the 12:32 mark, we finally get treated to that epic Mäenpää clean vocal, an almost baritone like quality that recalls the best of his work with Ensiferum. By the end of spring, I’m fully engaged and its a strong segue into summer which is not only the best suite of the four here, but in the running for Mäenpää’s most cohesive, devastatingly awesome work ever. Quite bluntly, I love everything about its twelve minutes, from the mournful strings that weep gently across the start of the piece, to the energetic, bouncy riffing that locks us in from the word go. There’s a riff progression motif you’ll hear just before the clean vocal chorus that so simple yet sounds so inspired. And after the mid-song atmospheric break, at the 7:19 mark, we’re treated to a riff sequence that’s the kind of thing people pony up nearly half a million Euros for. Stunning.

 

Riding such a high from the sounds of spring and summer, its a bit of a bummer that I couldn’t find as much enthusiasm for “Eternal Darkness (Autumn)”, and “Loneliness (Winter)”. You’d figure with the band’s name being Wintersun that these would be home runs, and while they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t inspire the same awe and grandeur of their more flowery siblings. With autumn we get the band’s most blistering attack ever, its furious black metal assault nearly running the gamut of the track’s fourteen minute run time. There are breaks here and there, the song being broken up into “parts”, transitioned by more breathable musical interludes. This piece instantly reminded me of fellow Finns Insomnium and their Winter’s Gate album, both in tonality and sheer aggression —- great for depicting the brutality of winter, which is what made Insomnium’s album so convincing, but I’m not so sure it was the wisest choice for the autumn sequence. The suite’s second half is so reminiscent of Dimmu Borgir riff sequences (complete with Tim Burton-esque orchestrations and Shagrath-like vocals) that I wonder if they weren’t a direct inspiration. Its a trying piece, one that is unforgiving in its attack and devoid of the Wintersun melodicism we all came for, and I just don’t think it succeeds on any level.

After that brutal assault, the quietude and near calm of the winter suite is indeed refreshing, but while Mäenpää’s clean vocals are nice in those moments that juxtapose them against his scathing harsh vox, a whole song built on them is perhaps too much. He’s not a bad clean vocalist (far from it), but he leans too hard on making every phrase sound pained and anguished here, which effectively saps them of all pain and anguish and just leaves them loooonnnngggg and drrrraaawwwnnn ouuuuutttttt. Things perk up quite wonderfully in the instrumental interlude that begins at the eight minute mark, culminating in a beautiful passage towards the tail end of an awesome guitar solo at 8:40. Here, the guitar melody is supported by a mimicking percussion pattern, heavy on the kicks, that gives everything a nice punch that the song desperately needed. Its a moment worth coming back for it, and to be fair, “Loneliness” certainly is captivating on a musical level, because I did enjoy listening to the instrumental version, so maybe it’ll just take some time to get on board with the vocals. I do get a Summoning vibe from parts of this song, a relatively obscure lo-fi black/viking metal one man project who I’ve seen thrown around here and there as a supposed influence for Mäenpää in writing this album.

So if we’re taking my appraisal literally, we’re looking at a fifty-fifty split on The Forest Seasons; but really its an intriguing listen overall, and for those first two suites, an exciting one at that. Whether or not Wintersun fans will agree enough to continue funding Mäenpää’s studio construction efforts will remain to be seen. They’re a contentious bunch at that, often found arguing with the man himself on the official Wintersun Facebook page where I’ve been an occasional lurker. A band shouldn’t be applauded just for releasing an album, but in this case it seems somewhat needed —- good on Mäenpää for releasing something worth discussing and debating, and for simply getting everyone to stop thinking about Time Pt II. I personally wouldn’t mind if there was yet another Wintersun album released before we even got to that one, so as to create more distance and perhaps lift the weight of expectations off of it just a little. I’m sure at some point in retrospect, Axl Rose would’ve loved to have released a new studio album in between 1991 and 2008, if only to give the much beleaguered Chinese Democracy a chance to breathe. This isn’t quite the same epic weight to carry, but Mäenpää could go a long way towards reclaiming any lost good will by being more consistent. This is definitely a start.

 

 

Edguy Looks Back On 25 Years With Monuments

July 20, 2017

Our lovable crazy Germans from the little town of Fulda are celebrating twenty-five years of rockin’, and in keeping with how these things are usually marked, we’re getting a career retrospective that spans two discs, as well as a third that’s a DVD with a few music videos and footage of a concert from 2004. I wouldn’t normally review these types of releases, because really, what is there to review apart from song selection? But as I did with Blind Guardian and their retrospective, Memories of a Time To Come, I tend to let that stance slide in the face of some of my favorite bands. The interesting thing about this release is noticeable just from looking at the tracklisting itself, to see that it spans the entirety of Edguy’s career, even from their first four (five if you include the Savage Poetry re-recording) albums back when they were on AFM Records. This is the first time that the band has re-released studio versions of those old songs that weren’t live recordings, suggesting that at some point they were able to purchase that catalog back (pure speculation here, maybe they always had it). There have been compilations before, the 2002 AFM double-live Burning Down the Opera (an underrated live record), and the 2009 Nuclear Blast live CD/DVD Fucking With F***, whose title walks the thin line between stupid and clever. There was also an utterly ridiculous cash grab released called The Singles, which wasn’t the hits compilation its title suggests, merely a full length compilation of the individual King of Fools, Lavatory Love Machine and Superheroes EPs.

I guess its no surprise to anyone for me to admit to owning every Edguy album, including the aforementioned live albums and EPs. I am quite the fan. So my real interest in Monuments is in the five brand new songs the band and label have wisely tacked on to the start of the compilation here in order to turn the heads of fans exactly like myself, and congrats to them, they’ve succeeded. Normally these types of compilations get the odd one or two new songs included, the least amount of effort to get something on the release to simultaneously act as fan bait and serve as a promotional vehicle (and they’re usually a re-polished cutting room floor track). So right off the bat I’ve gotta give the band credit for providing a whole EPs worth of new material here, although there’s some real b-side vibes going on in a few of the songs. Our first introduction to these came a month or so ago with the lyric video for “Ravenblack”, which I mildly liked upon first hearing it then, and actually really enjoy now. Its not earth shattering, but its got a patented Tobias Sammet quality hook in its chorus that’s strong and attention grabbing. Its verses remind me of a sonic collage of the past few Edguy albums, particularly in its use of a slowed down pre-chorus bridge (its likely just a common Sammet tendency that I’m picking up on).

Where “Ravenblack” reminds me of the very recent, pop-inflected, hard rock Edguy of their past few albums, so do the other four new songs, and that’s not only disappointing, but a real missed opportunity to do something fun. If they were hell bent on including five, why not actually take the time to develop five distinctly individual songs that somewhat echoed different styles and even eras of Edguy? So you’d get your hard rock “Ravenblack”, but you could also have a new ballad, done in the style of either a recent ballad (“Save Me”) or a classic styled one (“Wash Away the Poison”). Perhaps another song could be a slice of classic power metal in the vein of something off Mandrake or Theater of Salavation. Maybe the fourth song could’ve been developed into something epic and grand, recalling hints of the types of lengthy epics that have practically every Edguy album since the beginning? And the fifth song could’ve been another addition to the band’s growing roster of tongue-in-cheek humorous songs ala “Lavatory Love Machine” or “Save Us Now”. With the amount of ideas that Sammet must generate and stockpile throughout the years, he surely could’ve had seeds for all of the above. It would’ve been a nod to the fans and a self-aware wink to their own career, and before you get on my case and remind me that I once stated that Sammet’s power metal classicist leanings should be reserved for Avantasia, I’ll just say, if a slice of retro-Edguy isn’t allowed on a new studio album, isn’t a compilation album like this the perfect place for it?

 

If you’re wondering what the heck I’m referring to with that last sentence, basically in my review for Edguy’s 2014 album Space Police, I stumbled upon a revelation: “Sammet has rather conspicuously separated the veins of his songwriting approach into his two ongoing projects. Since 2006, Avantasia would receive (and monopolize) the far more serious, artistic vein, while Edguy’s increasing blendings of hard rock with traditional power metal served as a perfect soundtrack in which Sammet could further indulge his wacky, silly, Scorpions-inspired vein”. Of course, 2016’s Avantasia masterpiece Ghostlights confirmed my theory and saw that project lean harder in a classicist musical direction (not quite the Helloween inspired Metal Operas per say, but definitely miles away from anything hard rock-ish). That being said, this is a retrospective compilation album, and I feel like an exception or two could have been made in the new songs —- but now I’m going on about something imagined. What we got instead are mostly a couple songs similar in style and structure that adhere to the general Edguy sonic template of the past decade.

The best of the rest is clearly “Landmarks”, a speedy double-kick fed blitz that if you close your eyes, sounds like it possibly could have fit on Hellfire Club, but really reminds me of something that could have been off 2011’s Age of the Joker or 2009’s Tinnitus Sanctus. The buildup to the chorus is convincing, but the chorus is missing a certain something, an extra dose of uplift to really sell it or introduce an element of drama to the whole thing. Same goes for “The Mountaineer”, whose delightful lead guitar intro reappears as a teasing motif throughout, but can’t compensate for the underwhelming chorus that seems to drag the entire song down with its lack of energy or impact. Then there’s the fairly pedestrian, plodding “Wrestle the Devil”, with its unfocused verses built on hodge-podge Def Leppard-ian muted rhythmic guitar phrasing. Its just the very definition of filler, a song that’s not bad enough to remember, but not good enough to come back for. That also describes “Open Sesame”, which might be memorable for containing one of the band’s more uninspiring titles and refrain lyrics, so that’s something. Its a dud of a track, but in a weird sort of way, its the closest to a self-aware song about rocking out that they’ve ever done in a Scorpions kind of way. Normally I love that kind of stuff, but this needed to be better.

In summary, save your cash on this one, especially if like me you’re no longer a completionist. As for the rest of the compilation, it’d do for someone new to the band, but this is the age where you normally get into new bands by a buddy texting you the link to a YouTube video, or by reading something that gets you to hit up Spotify. These album length compilations aren’t quite the introduction that they used to be, and in fact a bad one could put a potential new fan off. As far as that’s concerned, Monuments is serviceable but severely flawed at the same time. So I’m going to have a little fun as a Tobias Sammet scholar, and go down the tracklisting and give a quick thought on each with a possible replacement track, because they might’ve consulted the die-hard fans for this project, as there’s some seriously questionable cuts here (but others that are inspired!). Here we go:

 

Disc 1 (first five cuts were the new songs)

 

6. “9-2-9” (from the album Tinnitus Sanctus):

  • Actually the strongest cut from the band’s disjointed, unfocused 2009 album, alongside the aching power ballad “Thorn Without A Rose”. Its far more in the pop-rock mold than a lot of old school fans would like, but its worth including here because its so sharply written, with a chorus that is both memorably melodic and lyrics that are actually non-cliched and interesting for the state of mind they present the narrator in. I really love this song and applaud the decision to add it to this compilation.

 

7. “Defenders of the Crown” (from the album Space Police):

  • One of the more puzzling choices on Monuments, it wasn’t even a highlight of the album it was originally birthed for, let alone a career spanning retrospective. Ideally we’d swap it with an older song but in trying to keep the balance of pre to post 2004 songs somewhat even, I’ll call up “Alone In Myself” from the same album, as it landed on that year’s top ten songs list and is one of my favorite Edguy songs ever. Its light gospel touch was inspired and fresh for a power metal ballad, and its lyrical subject matter addressed the subject of loneliness in a way few artists can.

 

8. “Save Me” (from the album Rocket Ride):

  • This one’s a keeper. Rocket Ride was a deeply divisive album that got a handful of things wrong, but just as many right, and none more so than “Save Me”, the soaring power ballad that remarkably became somewhat of a fan favorite. Its been well documented on this site anyway that I’m a big fan of ballads in metal, and that goes double for power metal. I know a lot of folks hate them, but I find that they’re so much more interesting backed with metallic instrumentation and the willingness to be epic. Ballads by balladeers and crooners can be nice, but mostly are pedestrian. Also, its just been a part of rock music tradition since The Beatles and songs like “Hey Jude” and Zeppelin with “Stairway to Heaven”, so let’s just all agree that they’re here to stay! *ducks*

 

9: “The Piper Never Dies” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • An undeniable Edguy classic, an instant contender for any top ten Edguy songs list debate, and quite possibly in the running for a hypothetical top ten best power metal epics list. Do you feel me? 

 

10. “Lavatory Love Machine” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • A ridiculous song by any standards, it was Edguy’s second stab at delivering a comically inclined song and ended up being the perfect vehicle to give their budding inclinations towards hard rock a test spin. Yes the lyrics are absurd, the mid-song “spoken word” pilot’s address is needless and awful, but dammit all if its not one of the catchiest hooks they’ve ever knocked out. The video was hilarious (again, except for the awful pilot’s address thing) —- I’ll always laugh at Tobias’ hitting a passenger on the nose whilst taking off his jacket or him tripping and stumbling towards the airline stewardess (also, in 2004 that was a relatively high budget video for a non-mainstream metal band). Humor started in Edguy with “Save Us Now” off Mandrake, and was a shocker in the context of that relatively dark and serious album, particularly coming right after Theater of Salvation, the band’s most serious and near spiritually inclined album as well. “LLM” was a signal that this was a permanent part of the band’s identity, a nod towards their Scorpions influences, and also a signal that their sound was about to change. A keeper.

 

11. “King of Fools” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • It could be argued that this was the band’s first legitimate “hit”, a song that made waves in Germany and even dented the charts there (they actually played this live on that country’s McDonald’s Chart Show, a sort of Top of the Pops for Deutchland at the time). It was their first and really only brush with genuine mainstream flirtation, and its easy to see why —- it was simple, basic, and had an easy hook. It played to a market that was becoming receptive to harder music again after the surprising success of Bon Jovi four years prior as well as Iron Maiden’s even more surprising transcendent comeback. I suppose on that ground it could merit consideration, but is it really more deserving than the awesome “Navigator” from the same album? I’ll lean in favor of the latter and vote to replace.

 

12. “Superheroes” (from the album Rocket Ride):

  • Following the template laid down on “King of Fools”, Edguy decided to try their hand at another potentially radio friendly tune in “Superheroes”, a lyrically nonsensical ode to rocker independence (I think). Its an okay song with a video that rivals “Lavatory Love Machine” in sheer silliness, but unlike that song’s self-deprecating message and 80s metal sense of swagger, “Superheroes” was far too saccharine for its own good. Voting to replace this one, my choice being the classic “Painting On the Wall” from Mandrake, that album’s sole single, one of Edguy’s finest songs ever and a glaring oversight here.

 

13. “Love Tyger” (from the album Space Police):

  • I love this song, and it still sounds as lively and fun as it did three years ago when it practically leaped out of the speakers upon my first pass through Space Police. Its the closest Edguy has come to morphing into The Darkness, but its one of their most fully realized hard rock/pop songs. Its also cleverly written, built on Sammet’s alliterative, repeating vocal pattern during the chorus, giving the song a tongue-in-cheek vibe all while swinging with real strut and swagger. It was the second single off the album, but perhaps should’ve been the lead —- that being said, I’m not sure if the band or label picked the track listing (seems like the label), but good on whomever for including this gem.

 

14. “Ministry of Saints” (from the album Tinnitus Sanctus):

  • Picks like this are what makes me think the label cobbled this track listing together and the band just grunted and said sure, because this is the clear winner for the most lackluster Edguy single ever. It was the lead off promotional choice for Tinnitus Sanctus, and despite its aggressiveness, it was a dud of a single. That it represented the band’s worst album has not endeared me to it over the years, it bores me still, but “Thorn Without A Rose” would be a fine replacement from the same album. That might risk things getting too ballad heavy for some folks tastes but I’m down for it!

 

15. “Tears of a Mandrake” (from the album Mandrake):

  • Yes, a keeper, and one of the band’s finest songs to boot. Seriously they could just put all of Mandrake on here and I’d have kept my mouth shut.

 

Disc 2

1. “Mysteria” (from the album Hellfire Club):

  • One of Edguy’s most aggressive moments, and a worthy inclusion to this compilation. I will point out that they might have considered including the version of this song with guest vocals from Mille Petrozza of Kreator. It was a bonus cut from the Japanese edition of Hellfire Club if I remember right, but his fiercely angry vocals made an excellent song even better.

 

2. “Vain Glory Opera” (from the album Vain Glory Opera):

  • Ah, finally something pre-1999! This was the first Edguy album where they really found their sound, having previously released the largely demo-based Savage Poetry and their “true” debut in Kingdom of Madness where they were just figuring things out. Its not a perfect album by any means, but it was certainly exciting stuff to hear in the late 90s. This is one of its standout moments, though it hasn’t aged as well as you’d hope, its a slice of Edguy history and deserves to be here.

 

3. “Rock of Cashel” (from the album Age of the Joker):

  • If you go back and read my best albums list from 2011, you’ll see Age of the Joker listed somewhere in the middle of the top ten. That was definitely a mistake, but the blog was barely a month or two old and I hadn’t really developed a process of testing myself against my own biases. Thus Edguy got listed with a mediocre album (though, one that was certainly better than Tinnitus Sanctus), and “Rock of Cashel” was certainly a highlight on it, along with the gorgeous ballad “Every Night Without You”. What this song in particular had going for it was its intriguing Celtic motif that ran throughout, but where such an element made it stand apart on that album, it doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny here against the band’s better efforts. If we’re picking a replacement from that same album and I can’t have that wonderful ballad, I’d pick “Breathe” or the weird but amusing synth rock of “Two Out Of Seven” as more exciting choices.

 

4. “Judas at the Opera” (from the Superheroes EP):

  • One of the more surprising left field inclusions on Monuments, “Judas At the Opera” was enough of a reason to spend the cash on mail ordering the Superheroes EP, featuring a vocal collab with one Michael Kiske, sort of a precursor to his return with Avantasia in 2008. I’ve always contended that Sammet is probably the best songwriter Kiske could ever have hoped for and this is a prime example. I will however point out something that never really bothered me until now, but I question the inclusion of the homophobic lyrics here. Given what I’ve come to know about Sammet throughout the years, it was a tongue in cheek lyric (and taken in context with the entirety of the song, it is a slightly humorous song), and he meant no serious offense. But hearing it now for the first time in awhile, it stands out as a glaring flaw on an otherwise awesome song. For that reason alone, I don’t know if it belongs on a compilation that’s supposed to represent the band’s best moments. Reluctantly would replace it with “The Asylum” from Rocket Ride, an overlooked epic that had both grit and gravitas.

 

5. “Holy Water” (from the King of Fools EP):

  • Yes, keeping this one, a thousand times yes. I will always wonder why the heck Edguy didn’t include “Holy Water” on either Mandrake or Hellfire Club, depending on when it was written. It has the feel of Mandrake era high drama but with Hellfire Club style hard rock guitars, and is so excellent that it could have been a single off either album. Its relgation to a b-side status for “King of Fools” no less was nothing short of the biggest oversight of Edguy’s career. This is a contender for the top ten Edguy songs list, and just a pure, joyous musical reminder of why we love bands that play music like this. At least its inclusion here redeems the mistake somewhat and gives the song another chance in the sun.

 

6. “Spooks in the Attic” (from the Superheroes EP):

  • Just like its fellow Superheroes EP lurker “Judas At the Opera”, this was one of those songs strong enough to warrant a purchase of that release by itself. Not only is “Spooks…” well written, but it has a kinetic energy flowing through it that is a combination of its urgent tempo, the incredibly well executed backing vocals, and some deft guitar work from Jens Ludwig and Dirk Sauer. This was one of the first displays of Sammet understanding that he had stumbled upon a great backing vocalist team whose work elevated his songwriting. Two of the key members of the future Avantasia group vocal recording sessions are present here, the immaculate Amanda Somerville and Thomas Rettke. An inspired pick.

 

7. “Babylon” (from the album Theater of Salvation):

  • Duh. “Babylon” stays, its an all-time power metal classic that transcends even Edguy. That unforgettable guitar melody has converted so many over to power metal that it deserves its own spot in any future power metal hall of fame. The lyrics make no sense, but that never mattered to anyone.

 

8. “The Eternal Wayfarer” (from the album Space Police):

  • This isn’t a bad song by any means (its downright awesome from 5:03 to 7:00), but it has no business being on this list because it wasn’t even in the top three best songs off Space Police. As an Edguy epic it doesn’t hit that sweet spot of over the top bombast and sailing on stormy seas drama. With that in mind, I’m going to replace it with another Edguy epic seeing as how we’re a little light on those on Monuments, and go with the transcendent, “Theater of Salvation”, which is one of my all-time favorite Sammet cuts. That song is so epic I have to brace myself every time I listen to it, because when that breathless guitar solo kicks in at 4:58, its an out of body experience.

 

9. “Out of Control” (from the album Vain Glory Opera):

  • An often overlooked gem from the late 90s that saw two titans of the power metal resurgence converge at an amazing time in both of their careers, “Out of Control” features Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch on guest vocals. He’s not all over the song, but chimes in for the refrain, a subtle inclusion that somehow makes all the difference in the world. That’s the power of Hansi. I’ve been using the word inspired too much during this review, but let’s give Sammet some credit here —- picking Hansi to elevate an already awesome song was certainly deserving of that adjective. (Just also want to point out that this was the first Edguy song I ever heard, back in 1999 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown radio show on Friday afternoons hosted by Doctor Metal. That show was massively influential in my becoming a power metal fan, in fact, I give Doc pretty much all the credit. The show is on terrestrial radio in Cleveland, but the station was pioneering in its early adoption of broadcasting on the internet starting in the late 90s, which is how I was able to listen it. Its still on the air on Tuesday afternoons, the Doc a constant source of what’s happening in power metal, give it a listen.)

 

10. “Land of the Miracle” (from the album Theater of Salvation):

  • If you have yet to listen to Theater of Salvation, trust me when I say this, you need to remedy that straight away. Its one of the all-time power metal classics and was a part of that late 90s power metal movement that established the genre and moved the hearts of so many fans who craved to hear music like this. Truthfully you could pick any cut off that album for this compilation and I’d be okay with it, and “Land of the Miracle” qualifies with particular honors as a fan favorite, particularly as a live sing-along. Its not my personal favorite Edguy ballad, but its the closest thing Edguy have to a “Bard’s Song”, and is deserving of its place here.

 

11. “Key to My Fate”  (from the album The Savage Poetry (re-recorded version)):

  • Wow, we’re just now getting to The Savage Poetry, an album that you’ll be forgiven for overlooking because the band doesn’t really play anything from it these days. A little history: the original Savage Poetry was the 1995 album length demo that got the band signed, and it was technically followed up by their “debut” album Kingdom of Madness in 1997. But the band almost immediately disavowed KoM as deeply flawed (and it was, albeit still listenable), and quickly surpassed it with Vain Glory Opera and of course, Theater of Salvation. I still remember hearing Sammet in an interview in 1999 with the aforementioned Doctor Metal on The Metal Meltdown explaining the decision to re-record the demo, that the songs deserved another chance to shine. He was right, because The Savage Poetry is an excellent power metal album that is overshadowed by being sandwiched between Theater and Mandrake and Avantasia’s The Metal Opera Pt 1. The ballads “Roses to No One”, “Sands of Time”, and the thunderous epic “Eyes of the Tyrant” are classics in my book. As is “Key to My Fate”, one of the band’s finest up-tempo cuts with as glorious a chorus you’ll ever hear.

 

12. “Space Police” (from the album Space Police):

  • I’m cool with this being here, because I loved this song on the album and its semi-nod to the power metal Edguy seems to fit well with everything here. Others might disagree, but I thought Space Police was a return to form for Edguy, and songs like this were a major reason why. Its admittedly a little weird with its spacey sound effects and its slow tempo drop just before the accelerating chorus, not to mention its bizarre lyrics. But with Space Police, Edguy became Sammet’s vehicle for indulging this looser, sillier, tongue-in-cheek rockin’ side of his musical inclinations, and he did it with confidence here.

 

13. “Reborn in the Waste” (unreleased 1995 demo, Savage Poetry):

  • As indicated above, this is apparently an unreleased song from the original Savage Poetry demo, which is a cool little bonus for the sake of the band’s history. As a song, its unremarkable, and its not surprising that it was left off the original Savage Poetry demo —- to me it actually sounds like something that could have fit in on Kingdom of Madness which is unrepresented here for good reason. If you’re wondering why I’d consider the original Savage Poetry demo to be better than Kingdom of Madness, at least in songwriting terms, well its the classic rock band affliction right? A band has all the time in the world to write their debut, but only months or less to knock out that all important sophomore release. Make no mistake, even though Kingdom is technically their debut as a signed professional band, it was spiritually their troubled second album. On their “third” attempt, they knocked out Vain Glory Opera, and we were off to power metal glory.

 

So this went a little long, but its been past time for a little Edguy retrospective, and Monuments provided the perfect excuse to indulge in a little fanboy-dom. While I won’t be buying it, it did cause me to go back and revisit the entire discography which was fun and surprising for what I found myself positively responding to or not. Albums I thought were okay at the time have not aged well (Age of the Joker chief among them), but there were more than a handful of excellent songs that I’d almost forgotten about just from years of not listening to the albums they were on, particularly on Rocket Ride. What I do hope Edguy does in keeping with this whole anniversary thing is finally come back to the States to give us long suffering fans a proper tour. Yes it’d be a club tour, but suck it up and team up with another power metal band (Dragonforce perhaps?) to make it workable financially and ensure a draw. They’ve only toured the States twice before (2005 and 2009, never in Texas btw), and seem to lack the will to play the smaller venues they’d likely have to. But they have fans here who deserve to see the band, and likewise, the band deserves to see them.

Their Glorious Return: Iced Earth’s Incorruptible and Vintersorg’s Till Fjälls del II

July 14, 2017

Its been an interesting month and a half in metal, mainly because I can’t remember the last time so many of my longtime favorite artists have released something within weeks of one another. One of which we’ll talk about sometime soon with their upcoming two-disc retrospective, but for now both Iced Earth and Vintersorg have new albums out. Iced Earth was one of the first non-mainstream metal bands I found my way to, by virtue of repeatedly seeing their album Dark Saga in the Best Buy racks circa 1996/97. On one of those trips to the old big box, I ended up picking it up out of sheer curiosity due to its cover constantly catching my eye, and it was a revelation, an almost symbiotic merging of Iron Maiden with Metallica. Little did I know initially (but would soon find out) that Iced Earth was one of the sole bands flying the flag of traditional metal throughout the early 90s. And then there’s Vintersorg, one Andreas Hedlund, whose Odenmarken’s Son and Cosmic Genesis was my introduction to folk-metal (frankly I didn’t even know such a thing existed until I got wind of those albums in 2000). He’s had an interesting, evolving discography throughout his solo project and his work in Borknagar, and the past few Vintersorg releases have seen him slowly coming back to a more rootsy, folkier sound as opposed to the proggy experimentation he was delving into a decade ago. That path has led him to create music that reminded him of his 1998 folk-metal landmark Till fjälls, and resultingly he realized that he had stumbled onto creating its direct sequel, nearly twenty years later.

 


 

Iced EarthIncorruptible:

I guess the first thing I should mention before discussing the new Iced Earth album is how much I flipped from my initial opinion of 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, which at the time of writing its review I thought was pretty solid. I listened to that album fairly consistently until I saw the band in concert on their North American trek a few months later, and that really was the last time I did until relatively recently for the purposes of preparing for this review. That’s never a good sign, for years to pass without revisiting an album is a sure sign that it was at best average and possibly even a little below that, right? My recent re-listens through Plagues have proven my original review to have been a little too generous, perhaps the beneficiary of just how enthralled I was with 2011’s still excellent Dystopia. I suspect now that there was a little confirmation bias creeping in, my fanboy-ism at the band’s third act succeeding so triumphantly with the addition of Stu Block that I let it influence my opinion of the music. The reality is that the band stumbled on Plagues, a record with a few highlights (the fun, romping cover of “The Highwaymen” being one of them), but largely a plodding, tiring, un-melodic affair (see the title track for an example of all three). In retrospect I wonder if the exhaustive touring cycle for Dystopia (the band’s longest ever) and the interruptions of stints opening for Volbeat on a desirable arena tour sapped the band’s reserves of energy all the way through the writing process of that album. Jon Schaffer has recently commented that he felt the album was rushed, and I can’t help but agree if he’s talking about the songwriting/pre-production period. The songs weren’t there.

So Incorruptible sees the band knowingly trying to rally, and Schaffer has stripped everything down its core elements more than ever. This is the first Iced Earth album not to feature a concept in any way (I’m not saying that every release they’ve put out was conceptual as a whole, but there were conceptual aspects to portions of every album). This is a telling feature, a way for the band to re-orient themselves to recapture their basic songwriting spirit, and despite vocalist Stu Block’s four songwriting credits, this is a largely Schaffer guided album. Ten songs (one surprisingly interesting instrumental) that are in many ways a prism though which the entire Iced Earth discography can be seen, with hints of previous eras coming to the fore with every track. It might even be a little disingenuous to characterize it as a back to basics album, because this was never a band that did anything basic —- concepts and grand ambition were always a defining trait of Schaffer’s vision for the band. More accurately, if there ever were an album deserving of a mid-career self-titling, this would be it (as loathsome as the very idea of a veteran band releasing a self-titled album is… ahem, Queensryche). Its a representative statement of the things this band can do, from galloping Maidenisms to thundering war-anthems to their distinctive approach to semi-ballads, this is Iced Earth 101 if you will.

And as an introductory course, it succeeds wildly. I haven’t had this much fun, real tangible joy in listening to an Iced Earth album since 2004’s The Glorious Burden. It barrels out the gates with the viking ode “Great Heathen Army” with a real sense of propulsion its aggressive streak that courses throughout the entire song. Block wrote the lyrics and vocal melody on this one, and he’s back in his Dystopia era form, crafting tight, sharp, memorable vocal melodies. The most vivid example of this comes on the next track and album highlight, “Black Flag”, a deftly written, Maiden-esque anthem about the golden age of piracy sans any trace of the Disney factor that has contaminated this subject matter in other bands such as the dreadful Alestorm. Its an adrenaline charged song, and my absolute favorite on the album —- that chorus is spectacularly written: “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. But the terrific lyricism doesn’t end there, as heard in the second verse: Stories foretold/ Of silver and gold / And the empires greed / Well god damn the queen / We’ll string up the kings / We’re rogues of the seas / The freest of men / Fly no colors at all / And our creed is our own…”. The alliterative rhyme scheme at work here is not only phonetically sound, but instantly memorable, set to a tightly controlled yet loose and lively melody. Its one of Iced Earth’s most inspired moments, not only of this album, but of their entire career (to this fan, its an all-time classic).

The Schaffer-ian semi-ballad makes its welcome return as well, in the form of “Raven Wing”, a track whose sound profile is so similar to The Dark Saga that you’d swear it was a Japanese bonus track from that album. There’s a nod to classics such as “I Died For You” and “Melancholy (Watching Over Me)” in its intro segue, but then it unfolds into a mid-tempo stomper built on slabs of gritty, earthen riffs with open chord sustains. The guiding melody is left to Block, who has always reminded me of a meeting point between Matt Barlow and Tim Owens vocal approaches, and he recalls both in varying shades here. That’s not a knock on Block, and in a way, I suspect that Schaffer’s writing style naturally results in his vocalist having to sing in a way that recalls touches of the past (because how else could this song be sung… can’t go too low, a baritone would clash with the tonality of the music, nor can you go too high, a helium touched vocal would sound bizarrely out of place). It simultaneously a comforting slice of Iced Earth nostalgia and yet still reverberates as something fresh and genuine. The same can be said for “The Veil”, whose similar semi-ballad composition gives Block one of his shining moments, a chorus where his emotional range is on full display (the harmony layering later in the track is satisfyingly sweet).

 

When the initial preview track “Seven Headed Whore” was first released, I was a bit taken aback by what I believe I described as its modern day Slayer vibe. Now after having sat with it for a few months and hearing it in the context of the album, particularly as a change of pace after those aforementioned preceding semi-ballads, it holds up a little better. It actually feels like a spiritual cousin to “Violate” from Dark Saga, which also wasn’t my favorite track on that album but helped to inject some welcome variation in a largely mid-tempo album. I’ve read some criticism online of its overtly political lyrical theme, and Schaffer’s had his share of critics and derision when he discusses his views on, well, everything in interviews. All that aside, I’ve always found Schaffer to be one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and engaging interview subjects in metal (his half-hour interview on the bonus disc of Horror Show is a classic). I consider myself a patriotic American citizen, no more or less than others, and it was with Iced Earth that I first heard metal that spoke to that (thinking of classics like “Ghost of Freedom” off Horror Show, and “1776” from Something Wicked). Schaffer’s music was the motivating factor in getting me reading about the civil war for the first time and understanding its historical importance. He’s a valuable voice in metal, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what he’s said.

Its being said that perhaps Incorruptible is a little too front loaded, that the second half doesn’t hold up as well, and while I mostly disagree with that I can concede that “Relic (Part 1)” isn’t the most captivating song. Its not bad, and I like the different delivery that Block takes on some of the verse segments, but it could benefit from being a little shorter and its chorus a little punchier (its all a little too mid-tempo-y throughout, a sharp variation could’ve helped here). I’m also not sure if its deserving of a sequel, as indicated by its title but hey, we’ll see how that turns out next time. I do love the melody at work in the instrumental “Ghost Dance (Awaken the Ancestors)” (again quipping on the title, does an instrumental really need a parenthetical?), but I feel like this could have been turned into a fantastic proper song if they had just given it a little more time. That being said, they did the instrumental thing right, leaning hard on a melody that is strong enough to carry a tune without words (and hey, its another nod to the structure of past Iced Earth albums). The rounding out tracks “Defiance” and “Brothers” are beefy, reliably catchy workhorse numbers that don’t detract from the overall album quality, particularly the former with its Priest-ian vocal bridge. And while its intro runs a little long for my liking, I do love “Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862) for its thunderous, Glorious Burden-esque battle scaping vocal narration (“Forward! Clear the way!”). Frankly, there’s no one better at crafting inspiring, ultra-melodic, patriotically themed guitar melodies than Schaffer.

The overall result here is a win for Iced Earth, a rebound from the rushed and tired Plagues of Babylon and at the same time, a sort of career retrospective set to new music. The latter detail is particularly noteworthy when considering this is their last album on their current Century Media contract (their second stint with the label after some time away, and presumably, after having repaired a frayed relationship). In the time leading up to the pre-production for this album, Schaffer bought a building in which to house the band’s rehearsal space, recording studio (primary tracking only, not mixing), merch warehouse, and general business offices (Wintersun’s wet dream in other words?). It was a decided move towards perhaps seeing the next Iced Earth album released entirely independent of a record label, and Schaffer clearly relishes that possibility. If anyone can make it happen, Schaffer certainly can, and he’s seen his contemporaries try it in differing ways: Blind Guardian owning their own Twilight Hall recording studios to make multi-year long sessions possible; Kamelot self-releasing Poetry For the Poisoned in North America; Therion’s Christofer Johnsson betting on his mortgage in self-financing the French pop covers album Les Fleurs du Mal (and succeeding!). I know this is business talk all of a sudden, but the next Iced Earth album will certainly be interesting in more ways than just the music. For now, Incorruptible is more than enough to sustain us til then.

 

Vintersorg – Till fjälls, del II:

Still can’t believe this is here. The idea of a sequel to Till Fjalls just seemed to good to be true, particularly since I thought surely we’d get the fourth album in the four elements cycle Vintersorg had been locked into since 2011 first. And certainly I never thought that Vintersorg was the kind of artist interested in revisiting something so deep from his musical past, particularly when he’d ventured so far away from his native Scandinavian folk roots in the pursuit of a more progressive driven direction. Vintersorg is unique for more than a handful of reasons, but among the most important of those are his central presence in the history and formation of folk-metal as a subgenre, both through his namesake project but also through the two albums he released with Otyg. Then there’s also the fact that he is criminally overlooked by the metal media as a whole, never given the proper due, respect, or attention by the big print media publications. The fact that it wasn’t until minute 38 of the 42 minute running time of Lock Horns “Folk Metal” debate/discussion that Vintersorg was put up on the board still rankles in my mind as a slap in the face to those of us who’ve long known about Mr. V (as his longtime Ultimate Metal Official Vintersorg Forum members know him to post as). To guest host Natalie Zed’s great credit, she seemed to immediately recognize it as a glaring omission and immediately corrected the oversight (she’s the real deal when it comes to folk metal knowledge by the way, see her reviews on Angry Metal Guy). Hopefully, with the release of this unexpected but breath of fresh Norwegian winter air sequel, heads will turn and we can start getting Mr. V some deserved respect (dammit).

For anyone not following the story, in hearing this album you’d be surprised to know that less than three years ago, Vintersorg was uncertain about his future as a vocalist in general. He suffered a traumatic brain injury by falling off a ladder, the damage being three cracks in his skull, brain hemorrhaging, and dysfunction in his ear. When he chimed in personally for an update in April of 2015, he claimed to be uncertain of when he could even attempt a return to music. Its been said that most (if not all) of his vocals on Borknagar’s early 2016 Winter Thrice release were actually recorded sometime in 2014 before the accident, so Till Fjalls del II might actually be the first post-accident vocals we’re hearing from the man. Well, I’m pleased to hear him sounding on top form here, not only from an artistic and fan standpoint but from a personal one as well. This album is not only a triumph for his fans, but for Mr. V himself, he’s gotta feel really good about his performance here —- because in many ways, Till Fjalls del II is superior to the original, in both songwriting execution as well as the more obvious upgrade on the sonic level. It might be jumping the gun to call it yet another one of his masterpieces, but damn it all if it doesn’t feel like it is one. And in a year when real, gritty, spiritual folk metal seems to be making a long overdue comeback (check King of Asgard and Wolfheart’s releases), Till Fjalls del II is like hearing the horn of the Rohirrim at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Our rescue from the dumb comic pageantry of Korpiklanni, Equilibrium, modern day Finntroll and Leaves Eyes may very well be at hand.

 

I know I rail against that kind of stuff hard, but it wasn’t an attitude I came to easily. For years I gave a lot of those bands leeway and a ton of patience, but where they ended up is so far from what I loved about folk-metal in the first place. In the liner notes of the awesome 2000 release Cosmic Genesis, Vintersorg thanked Carl Sagan, and delivered the still shiver inducing lyrics “In heaven I am a wild ox / On Earth I am a lion… The Scientist of darkness / Older than the constellations…” (on “The Enigmatic Spirit”). In summary, it was so much more elevated, thoughtful, and yes, spiritual than the bizarre, troll cosplaying, beer drinking singalongs that the bulk of the genre degenerated into after Finntroll released their “Trollhammaren” single in 2004. I feel this return to that older spirit when listening to Till Fjalls del II, even more than I did in spare, momentary glimpses on his past three “elements” albums where he did slowly incorporate more of his old folk stylings. Those albums, particularly Solens Rotter and Orkan found Vintersorg trying to regain his footing in songwriting in a less convoluted, progressive structure. They were still infused with the avant-garde quality of Visions From the Spiral Generator and The Focusing Blur, and as a result were at times murky and difficult.

What separates Till Fjalls del II from those is Vintersorg’s wholesale adapting of old-school folk metal rhythmic structures, including its reliance on intertwined acoustic guitar crafted melodies. Take “Allt Mellan Himmel Och Jord”, where the raw black metal drops away to be replaced by a compelling acoustic folk guitar/piano passage that dramatically shifts the songs direction. Or take the beautiful “Vårflod”, where open chord acoustic pluckings usher in the gorgeous female vocals of folk metal legend (and former/maybe current Otyg violinist/vocalist) Cia Hedmark. This is not only my favorite song from the album, but one of my favorite cuts all year period —- the slowed down, drawn out refrain, built on Vintersorg’s inimitable vocal delivery is just peak majestic folk metal. I love it. Mattias Marklund’s underrated guitarwork is as distinctive and unapologetically melodic as ever, but he gets downright Guns N’ Rosian on “Lavin” during a mid-song solo, showing off a side to his playing that we’ve never heard before. It made me laugh giddily when I first heard it, being so unexpected but awesome.

It is on the whole, far more brutal than the original Till Fjalls ever was, but that’s more down to Vintersorg drawing on all the influences in his career that he’s accumulated since 1998. So we get moments where the progressive touches come to the fore, and others where Borknagar-esque black metal just stampedes all over the place, its all just part of who he is now. In one of the few interviews he’s done for this album, he remarked that when he was sitting down to write this music, ostensibly for the next and final elemental album, he realized that the stuff that was coming out had the swing and folky-step of his old classics. He unintentionally stumbled into making Till Fjalls II, which was described in his official statement in the press release for the album as: “…a heartfelt return to snow capped mountains, pure nature-inspired mysticism, Nordic folklore and real black metal with a captivating epic streak”. Heartfelt is the key word I’m latching onto there, because its exactly what I feel when listening to this, and where the past few Vintersorg albums haven’t moved me as much as I wanted, this one has rocked me to my core. Don’t be surprised to see this on the best albums of the year list, its really that excellent. It’ll certainly be the soundtrack to what I can only hope will be a bitter cold winter.

 

Photobucket ruffled my feathers!

June 30, 2017

mpavatQuick little note here in case you’re wondering what the heck happened to the images all across the blog and/or why you’re seeing some awful looking photobucket upgrade notice in place of them. So here’s the deal, this morning (6/30) I and many other now irate Photobucket users discovered that they have changed the terms of their service overnight and with nary a hint of warning to their existing userbase that “3rd party hosting” was no longer allowed unless you ponied up for an upgrade plan. Well, the upgrade plan they’re offering costs 400 bucks a year. Yeah, no thanks.

So things across themetalpigeon.com will be broken for a little bit, image wise anyway. And while I’m looking into options for future third party image hosting that I can trust, I’ve internalized all the images into my existing WordPress account and will be trying to steadily fix them throughout all my posts from the very inception of this site. This is perhaps the only moment in this blog’s history when my slow update habits might help me out, so I’m sorta relishing that. It’ll also give me a chance to fix some expired YouTube video embeds that have been deleted too. Silver linings I guess —- at first I was angry, then confused, and now just ready to get stuff done. Thanks for everyone’s patience and understanding.

PS…  new Iced Earth and Vintersorg reviews on the way!

The 2017 Journal: Apr-May-June (Maiden + Live Shows n’ More)

June 29, 2017

So seeing as how the 2017 monthly journal went from a monthly to two-month thing in its first two iterations, it should be no surprise to see the April, May, and June entries packed here together in a triple feature. There’s no excuse except that the other blog updates took up the bulk of my writing time, and that publishing these in their respective months slipped by me. The sad thing is that I actually did write the April and May entries within the time frame of those months… just never finished polishing them up. So here they both are, extremely late (but what else is new?) but re-written a touch to actually be readable. Unlike the Feb/March edition, which was a long piece on the state of Amaranthe and their 2016 album Maximalism that I had only gotten around to delving into during that time span, the April and May entries are more a random collection of observations I had during those months. In reading over them now I can see a thread running through both of them, the central theme being the changing of the tangible experience of being a metal fan today. The June entry is about the Iron Maiden show I attended on June 21st in Houston, essentially my post-show documenting of what was a phenomenal experience. I hope some of you get something out of reading these, because the point of the journal experiment for me is to write stuff that is largely self-centered, and these are certainly in that vein for better or worse.

 


April: (Reflecting on the state of my physical music collection, aka “These Boxes Are Heavy”)

Had some extended time off in the middle of this month, a stay-cation of sorts, and went through my own bout of spring cleaning (as you do around this time of year). In addition to the regular vacuuming, wiping, dusting, spraying, incense-burning, etc, my cleaning involved the continuation of a major project I’d begun just a few years ago —- the compacting of my physical music collection. Compacting? Yes. See at its height, my physical music collection (nearly all CDs) comprised close to 1,700 items, the result of a twenty year plus obsession with a completionist’s eye for detail. This was particularly true from oh… I’d say ’96-07, the height of which came around the turn of the millennium. I’ll give you a small example of the depths to which this went: Take Cradle of Filth, a band that I consider myself a fan of since hearing Cruelty and the Beast in 1998. I promptly bought up all their catalog prior to that album and entrenched myself in their work. During the three year gap between Midian and its follow-up Damnation and a Day, Cradle put out a few “stop-gap” releases, the double live album Live Bait for the Dead and a two-disc compilation album called Lovecraft & Witch Hearts, both in the summer of 2002. There was also a DVD released earlier that year in April, a live show/behind the scenes documentary called Heavy, Left-Handed and Candid, of which I had pre-ordered from their website an autographed copy.

 

Now consider that the concert that the Live Bait for the Dead double live album was culled from was the exact same show filmed for Heavy, Left-Handed and Candid. Anyone who’s been to a Cradle of Filth show, particularly in that era will certainly attest that they were very visual experiences —- the band in full make-up, a regalia of stage performers doing creepy things, all very visually theatrical. Between the two releases, the obvious get would be the DVD right? You’d want to have a visual document of that kind of performance, and frankly, Cradle’s already difficult to decipher style of extreme metal is challenging enough on studio albums, let alone something you’d want to process on a live album. Well, I bought both. Why? I have no idea, but in retrospect I can say that 2002 me would’ve felt a little guilty and perhaps aggrieved at not having a complete Cradle of Filth collection. I ended up watching the DVD quite a few times —- the live album… I think I went through it once and shelved it permanently. And lets not forget the compilation album Lovecraft & Witch Hearts, which I bought because it contained a second disc full of rarities, b-sides, and covers. Now the Iron Maiden and Sodom covers are complete gems, but I already had both of them on my double disc edition of Cruelty and the Beast. In fact, pointless remixes aside, most of the stuff on that bonus disc were found on the limited editions of the other Cradle albums I had. As for the first disc, it was a best of, and not the song selection that I would’ve picked either. All in all, it was a wash but I bought it anyway. Why? (Because I had a problem!)

It was compulsive collecting behaviors like the example above that largely contributed to me amassing a physical music collection that was as detailed as it was impractical, particularly as the years rolled on through the age of downloadable new albums and streaming services. I got my first iPod (a 2nd gen Nano) around 2006 and loaded its 4GB up with a rotating selection of as many albums I could pack into it, and with a AUX cable for my car, I stopped taking most of my CDs out of their cases for any other reason except ripping them to iTunes. Not only was my car CD player going unused, but the long abused stereo system I had at home was getting dusty as well —- good quality headphones and a laptop were the only music listening equipment I needed apparently. It did take sometime for my physical music habit to abate, but I slowly started finding myself not leaping at every single release any band I was even a moderate fan of. I’d buy albums off iTunes, and when I did buy physical releases, they were only the special editions of albums, your gatefold editions, box and book editions with tons of artwork. At times I felt the old guilt return, but in smaller, more easy swatted away doses. When I started The Metal Pigeon in 2011 and started getting on record company/PR firm promo email lists, I wasn’t surprised to find that everything was being done digitally now, albums distributed through website apps like Haulix and Dropbox. In the entire time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve only had one physical release mailed to me (from France! Shout out to Sebastien Regnier of Eclectika!), a far cry from when I used to take home armloads of physical promos from running the music department of a Borders (not coincidentally a large reason the physical collection ballooned to such absurd numbers).

So over the years, I’ve moved a few times, and like everyone else who’s moved, I learned that I had a lot of junk that I simply didn’t need. I threw away or donated more stuff than I ever realized I had, and made the decision to sell off chunks of my physical music collection —- mostly the non metal/rock stuff that was simply taking up room that I never listened to anyway. It was a helpful decision, as it cut the collection down to just over half of what it was, but I couldn’t bring myself to part with the metal/rock stuff. It was hard earned, and in its own small way a tangible stitching of my history as a fan. Two years ago however, I moved again, and this time the absurdity of having 7-8 arm achingly heavy boxes of jewel cased CDs to move was too much. I never wanted to go through that again and had further downsized the majority of my possessions as a whole, so I dragged my age old CD towers and racks out to the trash. I resolved to not have the physical collection on display anymore, mostly because it felt pointless, a waste of space that not even I looked at all that often anymore. I still wanted to keep the discs and the artwork though, so I bought a couple huge CD binders, and began the slow, monotonous process of ripping out the CD booklets, the back tray artwork inlet, and the discs themselves and slotting them in. Dear god what a tedious process it turned out to be.

Its taken me about two years to get it done, only bothering to tackle it in spurts when I summoned enough motivation during bouts of intense cleaning, but this past week I finally saw it through, the last of the jewel cased CDs shoved into a massive cloth zip-up binder that’s certainly heavy, but not unwieldy. I sat on my couch, watching Netflix with my remaining box of CDs on the floor and a big garbage bag next to it that steadily filled with useless plastic. I used to be so obsessive about the state of my jewel cases, replacing broken or dented ones with nicer ones taken from albums deemed less important. Now they were tossed aside like corn husks, cracked tabs and all and thrown out with something resembling scorn. I had even begun to loathe the name, “jewel cases”, as if they were these hidden treasures of an ancient empire, these jewels to be coveted. Nope, they had become as superfluous as CD longboxes, as cassettes, as boxed PC games (do they even produce those anymore?). Also tossed out were the generic, same cover art as the booklet slipcases that so many jewel cased albums often came in, the most pointless kind of packaging. The only physical albums I have now are a pretty substantial collection of special format editions, those non-jewel cased items such as numerous digipacks and boxed sets.

 

But in the days that have passed since I’ve finished, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I miss the idea of buying physical music and actually maintaining a collection. Its absurd to think the latter now, particularly when I’ve just finished condensing 95% of it into two massive black-cloth, zipper binders. Sure the core collection is still there, and I can flip through it, all those key rock and metal albums that are markers of my history as a fan of this music as well as a huge part of my personal history —- but the fact that I don’t add to the collection quite as frequently as I used to is bumming me out. Last year, I bought a total of only ten physical releases. Ten! The rest of my purchased music was digital downloads from iTunes and Bandcamp, and of course most of my consumption tends to come from Spotify and of course, digital promos. And my no jewel cases policy prevents me from simply buying some releases because its not released in a “special” format (ie your digipacks or book-formats) such as the recent awesome November’s Doom album Hamartia. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine mentioned how he missed going to record stores and actually buying a physical copy of something, he didn’t even know what he wanted specifically, he just missed that feeling. I get it. Every now and then I’ll go out to the few remaining music stores in Houston, all indie places, and browse through, not knowing what I’m even looking for, just hoping that something will catch my eye. The metal selection is usually pretty threadbare, but I’m open to anything. Most of the time I leave without buying anything. The physical product I do buy is almost always ordered from an online distro.

As everything we do gets digitized and streamed, I’ve joined everyone else in letting go of most physical entities, even shedding most of the meager DVD collection I had because its easier to call it up on my phone from Netflix and its ilk and cast it to my TV. Digital life is more convenient in all ways, it allows us to de-clutter our lives and living spaces, but it has created an unexpected void of the tangible nature of physically owning something. I recently read a book by Marie Condo called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a best-selling treatise on the Japanese philosophy of zen in living spaces. Condo’s through line throughout her recommendations for organizing, cleaning, and discarding is the underlying question of: Does this object spark your joy? If it doesn’t, you thank it for its service and get rid of it. She also frequently reminds you that nostalgia is not your friend, and that most of our clutter derives from this emotion and our inability to deal with it. That’s a problem for most metalheads I imagine, because our physical music collections are built on the very essence of nostalgia, not practicality. My MSRcast co-host Cary has a room upstairs at his home that is filled from floor to ceiling with physical copies of music, but he’d be the first to admit, he dials up everything he needs on his computer, hardly ever going up there to grab a disc. As someone on the opposite end of the spectrum now, I can feel good about the space I’ve regained and the ease that my future self will enjoy when I have to move someday, but I think I haven’t quite figured out how to square the downsizing with maintaining that spark of joy.

 


May: (Big shows vs small shows and love for H-Towns “Scout Bar”)

 

This past Sunday, Metallica played a humongous show at NRG Stadium, the same place they held the Super Bowl in February and the home of the Houston Texans. A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook from his mid-bowl level seats and I’ve shared it here. Get a load of that scale and size, as well as the nominal view, which is the best you could hope for with a ticket that’s still nearing (or past) the 100$ mark. Now from what I’ve heard, everyone who went thought it was a great time, that the bands (Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat were also there) sounded good and there’s no doubting that Metallica always delivers a spectacle. I’m not sure how the folks in the upper bowl felt, nor the people who bought the cheaper tickets far opposite the stage, because I’ve been to Texans games there and sat in the end zone areas. Lemme tell you, when the teams are playing at the opposite end of the field from where you are, its like watching ants, and you end up watching the big screen TVs anyway. When I was in my formative metal fan years, I bought a Ross Halfin’s book of photographs of Metallica, which featured the best of his career’s work with the band from the 80s through the mid 90s. It was filled with a myriad of work, from promotional photoshoots and outtakes, backstage shots of the band just coming off stage in sitting in their sweat drenched garb in an arena locker room, as well as the band in far flung places like Thailand, catching the local riverboats. But mostly, it was just awe-inspiring shots of Hetfield standing on an enormous stage somewhere, in front of an immense crowd, kind of like the one in the Houston picture above. I loved those shots in particular, because they were simultaneously a repudiation of the mainstream that so often ignored metal as a whole, in a “look how many people love the band I love” kind of way —- but they also inspired a feeling of affirmation, that I wasn’t alone in my fanaticism but a part of something greater. I wanted to be in those crowds, screaming back at Hetfield with my metal horns raised.

All these years later, having attended countless (seriously, countless) shows of all shapes and sizes, if I’m being honest, its been the smaller, gritty, club-sized shows that I prefer. First, consider just how spoiled metal fans are relative to fans of more popular genres of music, particularly here in the States. We get to see many of our favorite bands in small venues simply because that’s the nature of most touring metal bands who don’t get the big draws of your Nickelback or Foo Fighters. Frequently these happen at clubs that become favorite haunts, nice places to sip beer as well as enjoy live music with nice beer selections at reasonable prices (no ten dollar Bud Lights like the local amphitheater). If you’re hoping to meet a particular musician and nab a picture, you pay a relatively small upgrade fee for a VIP meet and greet (not hundreds or thousands like fans of pop stars do) or you just go old school and show up early to catch them walking in for soundcheck or stay late and loiter by the buses. Most metal bands are so laid back, they’ll be out and about in the venue anyway after the show, and you can just come up and say hello. Our experiences are richer too, the small shows are more intimate, more intense if you don’t mind the pits, and more about the music itself.

I haven’t talked about this on the blog (though certainly have on the MSRcast a bit), but I’ve been to a few shows these past few months, Kreator/Obituary/Midnight/Horrendous back in late March, Amorphis with Swallow the Sun in April which was the closest to my birthday that a show has ever fallen, and most recently Hammerfall last week (**retro-edit** May 15th to be exact). In case you were wondering, I skipped the recent Sabaton headlining tour that went through Houston, the first time I’ve missed the band on a tour since I first saw them open for Accept way back in 2012. It was a mere three days after the Hammerfall show and in the midst of a packed schedule that week, but as I learned from friends who went, it was obscenely oversold, the place so packed full of bodies that it was described to me as “uncomfortable”. Now as much as it does suck to hear that my friends had less than a good time there, its also amazing that a European power metal band was able to draw that many Houstonians to a show on a weekday night! Its a highwater mark for the local metal scene in my view, and a sign that power metal’s audience has grown in my city, which is welcome news.

 

Most of these shows took place at a venue called the Scout Bar, which has for the past half a decade taken over as Houston’s primary metal show provider. Its located down the road from NASA near the southeastern border of Houston and League City. Its so far away from downtown itself, that you’d be forgiven for thinking you had left Houston proper, but that’s just how wide the city spawl is. The underlying facet about this geography lesson is to consider just how far most metal fans have to drive just to reach the venue, because if you live anywhere but near mid-town or downtown, you’re essentially driving across the span of Houston itself to and fro. The volume of shows I see here compared to more centrally located venues is entirely lopsided, in fact, out of the past eight shows I’ve seen since November 2016, only one has been at another place. Its also an odd duck of a venue, lodged in what was supposed to be an upscale waterside shopping area (there’s a huge creek behind it), with the shopping center punctuated by huge atrium style open air outdoor seating areas where presumably restaurants and cafes would seat those guests who wanted to see and be seen. Those grand plans never materialized, and the shopping center is now a mishmash of random local businesses, tiny eateries, and of course, a loud as hell rock/metal club that uses said atrium as its outdoor smoking area.

Inside the Scout Bar, you’ll find one of the strangest setups for a music venue that you’ve ever seen. Imagine that when you walk through the door, pass by the box-office foyer and walk into the club proper that the stage is directly off to your right. That’s right, the stage is placed against the front of the venue, turned around, while the bars are at the very back. This opposite day madness was utterly bewildering to me the first time I visited many years ago, and still doesn’t make sense except that there’s really no other way they could’ve configured things if you really look at the internal architecture. There’s a space for the sound booth directly opposite the stage, crammed in on the floor which takes up space which prevents the floor from being a nice rectangle of open moshing room —- there is no shape that describes its layout. Two bars, one at the very back on an elevated platform, and one with a respectable seating area that is off to the left of the door that we entered the club through. Obviously you can gather that there’s no backstage (where would it be?!)… there is a quasi green-room upstairs but I’ve rarely seen anyone use it. Bands either head back to the tour buses after playing, but most of them just hang out in the venue among the crowd or by the merch tables near the bar.

And in accepting all this weirdness, I can honestly say that its become my favorite venue. I have a collection of happy memories there, seeing bands like Sonata Arctica, Amorphis, Sabaton, Accept, Hammerfall, Insomnium, and countless others there for the first time. There was the night my idiot friends and I hung out with Stu Block of Iced Earth by a grilled cheese truck that was parked next to the venue (everyone getting a laugh out of a roadie taking Jon Schaffer’s order from a cell phone, the tour bus mere yards away). There was the time my friends’ band Brimwylf opened up for Sabaton and I was manning their merch table, side by side with Sabaton’s merch guy who could not have been nicer and more generous. Then there were all the amazing shows themselves, the small space naturally creating a more loose, comfortable, intimate vibe. Besides all the memories, the sound is great, and there’s just something charming about the fact that the bands walk from their tour buses directly into the front door and walk onstage. Its a venue that seems to urge concert goers and the bands themselves to remove themselves of pretense. Case in point: Were you to be standing outside in front of the venue when the headlining band walked off stage for the encore, you’d see the band members standing outside the venue’s front door, clad in stage garb, lingering awkwardly for a minute or two, and then walking back in to screams and hollers to deliver those final songs. What a scene.

 


June: (Troopin’ It: Iron Maiden @ Toyota Center 6/21/17)

So now that I’ve had the benefit of a few days to recover, I just wanted to report a little something about the Iron Maiden show at the Toyota Center here in Houston on Wednesday. It was a strange and surreal experience for a few reasons: First, I was seeing the band in an indoor arena for the first time ever, after all my previous four Maiden shows occurring at the outdoor Woodlands, Texas based pavilion amphitheater. We (myself and three friends) had bought floor/Standing Room Only tickets, and there was some thought to getting to the venue early to see if it was possible to get a semi-decent place as close to the stage as possible. We figured that we’d have to nudge, cajole, push, threaten, and elbow our way through a dense, immobile crowd to get remotely close to the front. I won’t bore you with details about how early we got there, but suffice to say, when we finally clambered down the arena steps from the concourse-level to walk across the floor that the Houston Rockets built, there was only perhaps 3 rows of people deep at the front of the arena. We causally walked by the enormous soundboard area, gated off and surrounded by a sea of empty space and just joined the rest of the eager throng standing agape at the stage in front of us.

I’ll help set the scene a bit. We were at most, I’d say 25-30 feet from the lip of the stage, so close that the staging didn’t even look that big from where we were (oh it was big, trust me, this was just how friggin’ close we were). I turned to my compatriots with a ridiculous grin I couldn’t control and stammered, “I can’t believe we’re going to see Iron Maiden this close, what the hell?!”. It felt indecent, and in the murky depths of my brain I felt we were going to be found out and promptly escorted outside, so when those three wandered off to the concessions for beers I almost berated them for abandoning such an absurdly good crowd position. That was my unspoken job you see —- hold the line, hold our spots with my presence. They returned and didn’t even have a difficult time getting to where I was, there was only a loosely scattered mess of people behind me by that point. This was my first time standing in the middle of an arena, unless you count my high school graduation at another venue, but that was different because there weren’t nearly as many people there as there would be at Maiden, plus half the arena was curtained off back then. This was far more bizarre, standing there looking on either side of us to see walls of slowly filling seats rise up from the ground and go up and up. Later when the venue was totally packed and Bruce was addressing the crowd in between songs, the house lights came on briefly and I turned around to see the panorama of a truly staggering mass of people sitting in that rising wall and it was slightly vertigo inducing. Clearly this was the biggest show I’d ever been to.

 

Damn near everyone we knew was at this show too, including my MSRcast cohost Cary and his wife, who I mistakenly thought were going to be on the floor with us but turns out were sitting in the lower deck, directly in line with us. They were so close they spotted us and we waved to each other as I tried to mime “Wtf? Why no down here with us?” in my best metal show version of charades. A few rows above him, our boisterous friend Trucker Matt (his name is Matt, but we’ve known a lot of Matts in our time, so everyone of them gets a variation on it —- he is not a trucker) was there with a date(!), which is probably one of the best ideas he’s ever had. He hooted and hollered at us, waving like a maniac and even in an arena that size, jeezus I could hear him. I’m not sure during what part of the show he took the picture, but he snapped a shot of the crowd directly in his line of sight and captured my ballcap wearing buddy Jason turned towards him, as if he knew the picture was being taken (I’m somewhere behind Jason to the right I think, seemingly lost in this particular picture however). Our friend Maurice and his wife were around somewhere too (he of the Houston doom band Blues Funeral and MSRcast guest), with him having both seated tickets and standing room only access (long story) and deciding to run to and fro from his wife in the seats and his buddies on the floor, can’t imagine how tiring that must’ve been. And of course there was our good friend Brent Bailey and his wife Lindsey, who we literally ran into halfway through Maiden’s set as Brent practically crashed into us, as excitable as only he can get, practically grabbing my shirt collar and shaking me like a madman screaming about how awesome this was. Excitable Brent is perhaps the most excitable person in the entire arena, I assure you. There were loads more people there that I recognized and ran into after the show —- this being perhaps the must-see metal event in Houston for all of 2017, even more so than the Metallica show. It just had that feel, that permeating joy that was etched into everyone’s face.

I don’t really write show reviews, as some of you might know, and besides this is a journal entry anyway. You damn well know that Maiden were amazing! That they played with passion and vigor that shames most bands twenty, thirty years their juniors. You know that Eddie came out and chased Janick around until Bruce literally ripped the beast’s heart out of its chest, and that everyone in the crowd wore delirious smiles, giddy with the utter silliness of it all. Surely you know that Bruce Dickinson ran and leapt all over the stage, never once seeming like a man who’d spent the better part of the last few years enduring chemo while battling cancer. You’re aware that when they played classics like “Fear of the Dark”, we all sang along to the melody, and you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we did the same for a newer song like “The Red and the Black”. But did you know just how much friggin heat I felt on my face when the pyrotechnics flared up the moment the show opener “If Eternity Should Fail” kicked into its first heavy riff? Did you know just how much my legs were absolutely on fire from standing in a compressed space surrounded by fellow Maiden fans (that crowd got pretty dense after all)? Bet you didn’t know just how much energy I had to summon to rally through the encore, when the only thing my body wanted to do was collapse (seriously, I don’t know how I made it back up those arena stairs).

Standing there so close to the stage, I saw Steve Harris so vividly in front of me when he went for his machine gun stance, that I remember seeing a drop of sweat plummet from the tip of his nose to the neck of his bass. And when Bruce ran on the catwalk closest to our area of the stage, I felt so close that I could shout his name and he’d hear it over the din of the band. He waved the British Union Jack during the Trooper from the same spot, and I could’ve counted the damn holes in the tattered flag if I really tried. It was (and I know I’ve used this word a lot here) surreal. I had enjoyed seeing Maiden before, particularly in 2012 on the Maiden England tour when they played most of Seventh Son of A Seventh Son (aka my favorite metal album of all tid), and we had really good seats, center stage, certainly a little further back then we were this night, but close all the same. Something was different about that show however. You had a lot of space between you and the row of amphitheater seats in front of you, and hell… there were seats to begin with. This time, as close as we were standing, and without the inhibitions that the presence of seats places on the crowd, the atmosphere was more electric, the experience more visceral in intensity and enthusiasm. My buddy Jon said that it felt like we were at a club show at the Scout Bar, and Maiden were playing that night. Utterly surreal.

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

May 25, 2017

November’s Doom – Hamartia:

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

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

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

 

 

Ayreon – The Source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Pyramaze – Contingent:

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

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

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

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

May 4, 2017

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

April 10, 2017

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

The Bounty of Spring! New Music March!

March 28, 2017

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

 


 

wolfheart_tyhjyys_zpszbazutp9Wolfheart – Tyhjyys:

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

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

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

 

 

evocationtheshadowcd_zpsbkma3mt7Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:

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

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

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

 

 

Immolation-Atonement_zpsmgophuf4Immolation – Atonement:

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

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

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

 

 

bloodboundwod_zpsqsygakq1Bloodbound – War of Dragons:

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

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

The Takeaway: The McDonalds of power metal then. 

 

 

morsprincipest_eoadw_zpsnlupp2qyMors Principium Est – Embers of a Dying World:

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

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

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

First Timers: New Albums by Battle Beast and Aeternum

February 26, 2017

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

 


 

Battle Beast – Bringer of Pain:

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

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

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

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

 

 

Aeternam – Ruins of Empires:

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

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

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

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