This was a dicey proposition from the press release alone. The exact wording that left me feeling uneasy was “it is a concept album made up of one epic 40-minute song”. What the heck? Did the Insomnium guys get confused and show up to Moonsorrow’s rehearsal space, shrug their shoulders and say “Screw it!”? This was such uncharted territory for a band who despite delivering consistently cohesive albums on a sonic and lyrical level (in aesthetic values at the least), is not exactly known for writing full blown, narrative-driven concept albums. Insomnium has always operated in a broad, expansive thematic field, their lyrical subject matter able to deftly shift between plainly written outpourings of introverted despair or the usage of folk allegory and natural imagery to communicate an intensely personal feeling. Their best album, 2011’s One For Sorrow, was a shifting, undulating collection of light and shade, moods and temperaments across a collection of songs about the memory of loss and the ache of loneliness. But this new album Winter’s Gate, their seventh overall, is based on a short story by vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen about a band of vikings that set out to discover a fabled island west of Ireland as winter approaches. Word is that Sevänen actually won a few literary awards for the original Finnish version of the short story, so its got some literary academia cred behind it. But even the finest storytelling won’t amount to much in the context of a metal album if the music doesn’t pull you in, let alone a singular forty minute track… and on that note, a bit of clarity is needed.
I’m not sure how all of you are consuming this album, but I got two copies —- somehow I landed a promo invite for this album thanks to a kind PR rep despite not being a regular for Century Media releases, and then my deluxe edition book arrived in the mail. So here’s the thing, on the physical edition of Winter’s Gate you get the album as one track at 40:02 in length, no cuts or segmentation at all —- yeeesh. However, on the promo copy, the album is divided up into chapters (titled “Winter’s Gate Pt. 1” and onwards through seven). This was curious, so I did some looking around and it turns out that perhaps the band or label was forced to make some cuts for the digital release of this album, and I wonder if its due to track length limitations on these various platforms such as iTunes or Spotify (perhaps caching such a long song is a problem?). Notice that audiobooks sold over iTunes are heavily segmented, even massive ones like The Silmarillion or the Game of Thrones stuff (maybe I’m way off on that theory, just speculating). What’s clear is that the band preferred to have this album consumed as one long, singular track ala Crimson by Edge of Sanity, their admitted inspiration for its structure (and perhaps not coincidentally, Dan Swano handles the mixing of this album!).
As for myself, faced with two options in listening experiences, I opted for convenience’s sake and went with the segmented digital copy. Firstly it would help me because often times in reviewing I’ll play the album straight through, and then go through it again in reverse order just to see if my opinion isn’t being strongly influenced by the first couple tracks (a long standing practice that isn’t talked about much publicly was/is to front load an album with what’s considered the best material and thus get the over burdened rock/metal press to peg glowing reviews, however skewed —- see Sepultura’s Roots). Anyway, that being the case, you might find it frustrating that I refer to particular sections of “Winter’s Gate” by the chapter instead of marking the time that you’d find in the 40:02 single player. I apologize in advance for that, but I do actually wish they’d sliced this up on the physical release a bit. I get why they chose not to, but if I only had the physical copy to play or rip to my laptop, it’d be a frustrating thing for me to get to my favorite chapter of the album, or a particularly awesome moment I really wanted to hear right then. That is a criticism I’m leveling at the band right away, because I applaud ambition (even if a forty minute song on paper sounds dreadful) and I love the guts it took to do something daring like this album when it could so easily backfire —- but a little detail like slicing the piece into skip-able sections shouldn’t be viewed as a concession to low attention spans in the iPod age, but simply as a considerate feature for your passionate fans.
I’m happy to say that all my fears about what this album could have sounded like are allayed, and in fact, Winter’s Gate might just be Insomnium’s most gripping, powerful piece of music to date. It’d be pure speculation to suggest that it was a purposeful internal reaction to the somewhat mixed reception of 2014’s Shadows Of A Dying Sun, but it sounds like a band having a sense of urgency about their art. That idea of urgency is most vividly heard in the increase of raw brutality that streaks across the album like that bear’s paws across Leo’s back in The Revenant, barreling at us in the form of harsher, more guttural vocals by Sevänen, and a surprising second wave of Norwegian black metal injection that courses through much of this material. That particular facet begins straight away, where blastbeats and furious tremolo riffing combine in a violent musical bed over which more traditional Insomnium-esque lead guitar melodies spiral upon at a slightly slower tempo. In other words, its a merging of Finnish melo-death mournful melody and Norwegian black metal hypnosis into something truly unique, and you’ve never heard Insomnium sound this heavy or impactful before. Its a satisfying combo, particularly when they add in flourishes of Gothenburg, or let’s be more specific, Jesper Stromblad-ian speed-picking riff flurries as a just-as-frenetic yet lighter shade to the black metal furor. My first playthrough of the album had me grinning like an idiot only a few minutes in “Winter’s Gate Pt. 2”.
And it was right around that time where we are treated to our first tastes of a more recognizable, classic Insomnium sound (approximately 8:43 for you folks with the single track), with guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala abruptly shifting away from a staggeringly brutal passage into a flowing, beautifully written, lilting open chord sequenced solo over chiming acoustic guitar. We also get our first dose of Friman’s excellent clean vocals, suitably downcast in tone but still built on tuneful melodies and helped along by his perfect enunciation that pairs well with only the slightest tinge of an accent. This chapter ends with swirling, long guitar sustains, like leaves stirred up by gusts of autumnal winds, quietly falling into a hush from which rises “Winter’s Gate Pt.3” (at the 12:52 mark). This section really reminded me of Porcupine Tree, not only for the syncopated rhythm section with playfully bouncy bass and dancing guitar lines, but for the paintbrush strokes of keyboard generated atmospherics that move in and out of audible range like waves lapping a shoreline. Vanhala has mentioned in interviews to referring to this chapter’s guitar solo as his “Dire Straits moment”, and its easy to hear why he’s characterizing it as such. It caps off an overall lovely 5:52 minutes of delicate musicality largely built upon progressive rock touchstones and dynamics (I say delicate because even Sevänen’s harsh vocals are a little more subdued when he comes back in towards the end).
Its not only a welcome musical interlude that is engaging and oddly comforting, but it sets up my favorite moment of the album in “Winter’s Gate Pt.4” (begins at the 18:45 mark). Friman has steadily been growing in confidence as a clean vocalist since his work on One For Sorrow, with his largest leaps marking some of Shadows of a Dying Sun’s finest moments (“Lose To Night”), and on this particular chapter he fully realizes his potential. His clean vocals during this section range from Mikael Akerfeldt earthiness in the beginning of the chapter (“Still I bear the flowers…”) to near Pink Floydian epic layering towards the chapter’s emotional crescendo (“I walk with my head down…”). Listen to this chapter with headphones, because there’s some impressive acoustic guitar work going on underneath all the heavy layers of riffs and aggressive vocals that absolutely needs to be heard. I also love the sombre, twilight conjuring use of piano to mark the beginning of “Winter’s Gate Pt.5”, as the instrument is an Insomnium staple at this point and it’d be strange not to hear it. What it introduces is the march towards some of the most dark, intensely heavy music the band has ever done —- cue up 29:36 where a classic Insomnium bittersweet melody unfurls into a blisteringly fierce section, Sevänen’s vocals delving down into previously unheard death-doom territory over tremolo riff sequences.
By the time we reach the concluding “Winter’s Gate Pt.7”, we’re somehow still not ready for the sheer violence that the band plunges you ear first in (specifically at the 34:31 mark), with Sevänen’s vocals exhanging guttural death-metal for the coarse, wind-strained harsh black metal barking more associated with Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson. If you’re following along with the lyrics and the storyline in general, this is around the time when it all hits the fan for our viking friends, but even if you’re not, the urgency and sense of madness conveyed by this awesome, eye-opening sequence is certainly heart pounding. The guitar work is inspired and tremendous, and the implementation of tremolo riffing isn’t a gimmick, it really does have a way of getting your hackles up as a listener —- funny how so many black metal bands never learned that tremolo picked passages work best when used alongside tempo accelerations and shifts and counterpoints… a melo-death band from Finland seems to understand that intuitively. If you want another example of tremolo passages being used in non-black metal music to powerful effect, check out Sweden’s own Falconer on their Armod album.
Something we should consider on the guitar front is Vanhala’s longer period of time within the lineup, he is in fact a co-songwriter all through the album, contributing to the music alongside Friman and Sevänen. Friman used to handle most of the music by himself, but he seemed stretched thin in spots for Shadows with some notable exceptions. I wonder if Vanhala’s integration in the music writing was the catalyst for injecting some much needed change with the way the guitar riffs and passages were envisioned and written (Vanhala is the primary songwriter for Omnium Gatherum whose music is considerably more uptempo and frenetic than Insomnium’s… well, until now perhaps). I’m absolutely thrilled that Insomnium pulled off the improbable here, and dare I suggest that they’ve made one of the most complete albums of the year. Its nicely concise, something I think the band needed after spending a decade in 55 minute plus territory through most of their albums, and despite the single track on the physical release being a significant flaw, the music here is strong enough to lock in most attention spans. Insomnium are a rather smart, intellectual bunch (check their bios), so credit to them for realizing that they had to shake things up somehow, even if that meant doing so in the riskiest way possible.
So remember a few years ago when I introduced a much trumpeted on-going series called The Metal Pigeon Recommends? No…? Well don’t feel bad. The premiere edition focusing on Falconer came out in October of 2013, and it wouldn’t be until nearly a year later in August of 2014 when I’d get the second edition out, focusing on the Scorpions post-1993 career. In my on-going effort to take a break from the new release review treadmill, it was well past time to bring this feature back to the blog. And though two years late, I’m happy to release the third iteration of this rather blog-defining feature, this time focusing on Finnish goth metal legends Sentenced. Now’s a good time to post that quote of myself from the series debut explaining this whole concept in the first place:
This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration and motivation in writing this blog, that being the exhilarating feeling of getting someone else into music that I think is great. Its a simple concept. I’ll take one band, pick out ten cuts that I think will make a fan out of you, have YouTube clips ready for all —- plus some commentary to go along with them.
My introduction to the band came in the form of 2002’s stunning The Cold White Light, an album I had on repeat for the better part of that year while I sought to revisit their older catalog album by album. They were unique to many ears, certainly to mine, a frayed-edges take on metallic hard rock with melancholy flowing through its veins —- the dirtier, darker, far more troubled cousin to their countrymen of H.I.M. whose goth-rock was just beginning to make females across Europe collectively swoon. Goth rock/metal as a concept wasn’t new to me, I had enjoyed a little Type O Negative and was totally mesmerized by The Cult. Sentenced were tagged as goth largely because they made music concerned with the darkness associated with loneliness, mortality, the fragility of life, and whether there was simply any meaning to it all. But those universal topics were put through a distinctively Finnish filter, both musically and lyrically, and you can bet that meant melancholy in huge doses, even when their lyrics were purposefully humorous or tongue-in-cheek (see “Excuse Me While I Kill Myself” for starters). Their album artwork and photography in their album liner notes also mirrored the tone of their music, all shots of desolate Scandinavian landscapes, lonely places with scant vegetation, and ice, lots of ice set against a backdrop of grey-blue skies. To an American living in the ecstatically bright city of Houston, Texas, Sentenced were fascinating just from their imagery alone.
I want to clarify something for everyone before we start: I got into this band when they were well into their goth-metal era, having long abandoned their death metal roots of 1992’s Shadows of the Past and 1993’s North From Here. For the purposes of this article, I’m only going to be discussing the band’s 1996-onwards output, or more pointedly those albums with Ville Laihiala as vocalist, his rough and slurred baritone spurring a schismatic shift in their sound. With all due respect to those earlier works and the difficult 1995 transition album Amok, those records never commanded my attention the way their goth-metal approach did (I can appreciate them academically, with a metal historian’s perspective, but they don’t strike a chord emotionally). With that in mind, and in keeping with the format of these Recommends features, I’ve picked out ten Sentenced songs that I personally love and that have meant something to me (listed in order of their release date). I know that you die-hards out there will likely scoff at how few cuts from Down and Frozen ended up here, but as much as I love those albums I personally feel that the band only got better and better as they forged ahead. Now, bow your heads…
“Noose” (from 1996’s Down)
This was the dawn of that schismatic shift in sound I was mentioning up above, the first proper song on Laihiala’s debut as lead vocalist. He comes in over a confident series of crunchy, fuzzy riffs, with a voice all his own, full of rich character and glorious imperfections. Its not that he is a native Finnish speaker trying his best to deliver lyrics written in English —- the Finnish power metal scene was full of bands like that —- instead, its that his delivery is one part drunken bellowing, one part syrupy sweet vocal melody, and two parts full-on don’t give a $%^# attitude. I haven’t been able to dig up any old interviews with the band explaining how they came to settle on Laihiala’s voice as the perfect fit for the band, but I would love to get a glimpse into what their thought process was, because it was a gutsy move. When I introduce Sentenced to friends, nearly all of them have balked at the suggestion simply due to not liking Laihiala’s vocal style alone. And I get it, he’s a love it or leave it proposition, but seriously, his vocals are such a perfect fit for the grim yet wry lyric, “Yeah, I think I’ll put my head / into the Noose and let it all go…and so I will”. This was the spectacular highlight off an otherwise good album, one that saw main songwriter/lead guitarist Miika Tenkula and fellow guitarist/primary lyricist Sami Lopakka take their first run at becoming the dominant songwriting tandem they’d ultimately become.
“Farewell” (from 1998’s Frozen)
I think it could be argued that Frozen wasn’t as compelling overall as Down, the latter seeming to benefit its songwriters with the excitement of writing for a new voice and in a new style. But for all Frozen’s flaws, its spotty highlights shined bright, the most stirring of these being the oddly upbeat sounding, propulsive rocker “Farewell”. I say odd because the lyrics read as a suicide note, a theme that was explored later on this album in “The Suicider”, these two songs being seedlings for greater exploration on the theme on the next few albums. I’ve always found “Farewell” of particular interest because it was Laihiala’s first credit as a solo lyric writer (he had two co-lyricist credits on Down alongside Lopakka), and it suggests two things —- first, that Laihiala quickly took to the band’s penchant for all things depressing and despairing, and that Lopakka wasn’t territorial or over-protective of his role as chief lyricist… if the new guy had something good, he’d be all too happy to roll with it. And “Farewell” certainly was something good, Laihiala’s vocal melody leading the way alongside Tenkula’s almost jangly, Cure-like guitar patterns during the refrain. It was a lighter song, the beginning of something new for Sentenced, where they’d keep the heavy, dirty riffs for the verses and allow a chorus with a strong melody the space to soar.
“The River” (from 2000’s Crimson)
Sentenced delivered their first masterpiece in Crimson, a confident, hook-packed refinement of their goth-metal sound helped along by the best production quality they’d ever had. And to emphasize as much, the band was finally delivering softer, slower tempo songs that were able to burn with the smoldering intensity found in their faster, heavier counterparts. On “The River”, Tenkula demonstrates his ability to communicate with as few notes as possible, the clean plucked electric guitar pattern serving as a start to finish motif that is sombre, reflective, and full of regret. Lopakka occasionally joins in with a series of crunchy, gritted-teeth open chord blasts, while Laihiala gives one of his many truly awesome vocal performances. He’s the perfect voice for the narrator in “The River”, one who’s caught in the grip of alcohol addiction, reflecting on his situation during “Yet another morning / that feels like this /Yet another life’s bitter kiss”. There are a lot of songs in rock and metal that talk about addiction, but rarely do they ever come across so helpless and resigned, as Lopakka’s lyrics manage in the refrain: “What can I do now except continue / and open a bottle once more / What can I do now except see this through / and float with the stream, off the shore / see where the river will take me”.
When I listen to this song today, I can’t help but think of the tragic nature of Miika Tenkula’s passing in 2009. He was only 34, and while the official cause of death was never publicly released (I’ve read claims varying from a heart attack to kidney and liver failure from alcohol poisoning), it didn’t seem to come as a surprise to anyone in the Finnish metal scene. Sentenced were known for their predilection towards the bottle and in reveling in that particular aspect of their “Finnish-ness”, and I suspect its what largely led Lopakka to develop his hatred of touring, that the one hour on stage was awesome but filling the rest of the travel time was an exercise in self-destruction for nearly everyone in the band. The guys have been quiet about Tenkula’s death, and while I would think its out of respect for his family, I suspect a lot of it has to do with how Tenkula’s remaining years reportedly were spent. The band went into 2005’s The Funeral Album with the intention of it being their swansong, that the band had run its course and they wanted to go out on their terms. I’m sure everyone agreed to this, but while four of the five band members went on to other projects, Tenkula languished —- he had gotten noticeably heavier by the time the band filmed their farewell show on the Buried Alive DVD. Its not for me to start rumors, but quietly I’ve wondered whether he was simply depressed over the band ending and drank until his heart stopped working. He released no new music, there was no news of forthcoming projects. Life for Tenkula seemed to come to a halt —- unfortunately, we’ll never really know.
“Killing Me Killing You” (from 2000’s Crimson)
I had a massive internal debate about whether or not to order this list in chronological order as I have, or in order of what song I think an interested newcomer to Sentenced should try first. If I went with the latter, “Killing Me Killing You” would’ve been at the very top, without the slightest hesitation. This is the finest song Sentenced ever recorded, with Tenkula’s most elegant, all-encompassing, downright perfect melody distilled into a gorgeous piano line that he knew was so good, it starts off the song naked alongside Laihiala’s crooning vocal. Lopakka wisely wrote his lyrics to match the piano melody, and while the explosive and ultra-hooky chorus tends to get all the attention, I find the true heart of the song lies in its verses. These sections speak to a theme that is often at the heart of many goth rock/metal bands, the idea of lost romance or a romance going astray. Sentenced put their spin on this by talking about a romance being poisoned: “Baby, have you seen, there is a snake in our paradise / A serpent that’s wriggling between us / and freezing our feelings to ice”. But our narrator isn’t certain, and during the second verse he asks aloud in a heart-wrenching lyric: “Darling, do you feel, there is a storm coming our way / The burning light between us is already starting to fade”. Lyrical imagery tends to work best when its impressionistic —- you don’t need Laihiala to sing-tell you that storms bring wind, and winds can blow out candles, but its that unspoken imagery that your brain is processing in the background, making that lyric ache so much.
Part of the appeal of “Killing Me Killing You” to many fans is in how they were introduced to the song. Some through the album I’m sure, but a lot of us first saw its music video (somehow, way back before YouTube). Its one of the finest metal videos of the past twenty years, beautifully shot with a thoughtfully artistic concept. Dare I suggest that the slow-motioned shots at 1:56 of Laihiala singing atop that frigid dockside platform, wind whipping his hair in his face as the band hammers out the song in the background are the most iconic images of Sentenced… ever? I could go on and on about it, but I figure its a good time to bring in another perspective, this belonging to the late David Gold of the Sentenced-influenced Canadian band Woods of Ypres. Gold was an active participant on the Woods of Ypres Official Forum at Ultimate Metal, and in searching through his posts shortly after his passing, I came across the following post in a thread called “The Music Video that Changed Your Life!“. His choice of course was “Killing Me Killing You”, and he really said it all:
“I was 19 years old and had grown up on a steady diet of Metallica, Pantera and Slayer while living in Northern Ontario, Canada before I saw this video for the first time on the Much Music’s (Canada’s MTV before we had MTV) one and only metal show, the 30 minute a week program called “LOUD” which aired at 11:30 on Saturday night when “derds” as we were called, would most certainly be at home watching television, as I was. I believe this to be the first time I saw a video from a Finnish metal band and the one that “changed my life”. Being a Northern kid, I could identify with parts of the video such as the Finnish landscape, the woods, the frozen beach in the winter, and that cold blue of not only the sky but often seemingly of the air itself, and SENTENCED were metal, which I also thought I had figured out by then, but this band was more than what I had become familiar with and it was everything new about them to me that blew my mind. They were tall, long haired Finns, wearing all black, playing metal with piano and powerful, convincing clean singing. It was dark, classy, professional, a cleaner and more serious image of metal than the one I had known, seemingly focused on the atmosphere, the feeling the meaning, the message as the song itself rather than flashes of speed or displays of heaviness within its separate parts. It flowed. I felt it was to be taken more seriously and consumed on a deeper level that everything else I had known prior. The darkness, the cold, the class, the song writing, it was the metal that was all of what I wanted to aspire to become.
– David Gold / Woods of Ypres
Cross My Heart And Hope To Die (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
I consider the last three Sentenced albums to be amazing in their own particular ways, but its The Cold White Light that ranks as my personal favorite among them all. Maybe its slightly due to it being my introduction to the band, an album that I bought at one of the few record stores that had a decent metal section without hearing a second of it beforehand simply due to thinking the cover looked cool and different. The intro track aside, “Cross My Heart and Hope To Die” was the first shot across the bow, my first taste of this band that would soon become an obsession and what an introduction it was. Though drummer Vesa Ranta doesn’t get mentioned often for his (rather solid) musicianship, he was an integral part of what defined Sentenced, and here he stands by laying down thunderous, booming, almost tribal tom hits during the second verse. He shares the spotlight with Tenkula, whose sparse, fluid melodic clean plucked patterns etch emotional motifs that hang in the air and make the entire song pulse and breathe. Laihiala’s vocals are yearning and full of emotive inflection, and if he strains at times to finish a run of syllables without a breath, it only adds to the desperation of the narration. How can a song be about something so grim and dark such as contemplating suicide —- yet sound so full of life? That dichotomy was the essence of the band’s brilliance.
No One There (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
I would’ve linked the music video for “No One There” above, because alongside “Killing Me Killing You” it is one of the most well-executed metal videos in recent memory. My only gripe with it is that the music video was set to the single edit of the song, which cuts out an astonishing minute and a half plus from the song, and not just instrumental parts either —- a whole verse section is missing. The full length version of this song is absolutely essential to getting its complete experience, but I highly urge you to check out the video itself after you’ve listened to the song. Its depiction of an older aged couple dealing with daily existence is powerful imagery when juxtaposed with specific lyrics in the song, “It freezes my heart, my desperate heart / To think we both will die alone”. Taken on its own, it’d be an oversimplification to call this song depressing —- sure it can be, but its lyrics are contemplative and speculative about a topic we’ve all thought about but feel its too taboo to talk about. Its a credit to the songwriting here that we get a chorus that doesn’t repeat a single line, which is not only a rarity in modern songwriting but particularly astonishing in this instance because the chorus spans seven lines of lyrics. There’s the primary chorus, and a mirroring secondary chorus set to distinctively different lyrics all while acting as an outro bridge. My favorite detail is the piano melody underneath that is exposed as the guitars fade, leaving it to close out the song in solitary fashion —- in a clever way mirroring the isolation of the narrator. Amazing stuff.
Guilt and Regret (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
Sentenced blurred the line between the idea of the “rocker” and the ballad (/blatant Scorpions reference), with songs like “No One There” and “Killing Me Killing You” treading the territories of both. Their songwriting approach didn’t shy away from utilizing non-metal instruments such as the piano, and few used to it such captivating effect in creating downcast, melancholic laments. Similarly, “Guilt and Regret” is a quasi-ballad built on a captivating vocal melody and a supporting piano line underneath. Guitars crash in for the refrain and for the furious, anguished guitar solo that follows, but the musical highlight comes during the mid-song bridge at the 2:10 mark, where a head-spinningly gorgeous acoustic guitar solo is ushered out. I found this moment so hypnotically beautiful, I remember rewinding it a dozen or so times after first hearing it —- and its not just that the acoustic guitar melody is so lovely, so full of ache and emotion that lyrics can’t convey, but that its helped along to the finish line by a perfectly complemented rush of electric guitar with a flourish all its own. I love that moment, and I love this song. Its lyrics are admittedly odd and some might say ham-handed, with a narrator citing guilt and regret as his “inbred brothers” with whom he buries their “little sister Hope”. Ham-handed or not, its the gloomiest song about a hangover ever.
You Are The One (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)
Sentenced didn’t write love songs, or at least they didn’t until they produced this underrated gem from The Cold White Light. Lighter in tone than anything else they’ve ever done, it was an open window into the pure romanticism that would sometimes course underneath the layers of grim bleakness and despair that characterized their music. Written largely in major keys, its lighter feel is heard in Tenkula’s clean plucked melodic figures that float upwards, and particularly the chiming, lilting acoustic guitars that ring throughout the bridge, giving way to an almost alternative rock guitar fueled chorus. Its a strange mix-up for Sentenced that really works, largely because Laihiala’s vocals remain as rough around the edges as ever, despite him attempting to deliver his best soft-hearted croon. This is also one among a number of songs on this album where Tenkula really gets to demonstrate just how amazing he was when it came to delivering guitar solos. He just seemed to have a knack for writing clear, lucid, flowing solos with strong melodic thru-lines, check the 2:28 mark here for proof —- one melodic figure leads into another before the band kicks in behind him and he explodes into a flurry of semi-technicality with an unexpected finish at its end. Incredibly underrrated as a guitarist, Tenkula was a master of transforming raw emotion into lyrical figures and solos, and this album is full of them.
Drain Me (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)
Finally we arrive at the swansong, The Funeral Album, which the band wrote and released with the full intention of it being their last statement, and indeed it comes across that way with head nods to their death metal past (“Where Waters Fall Frozen”), and a tracklist concluding eulogy that comments on the end of the band’s career in metaphorical terms and ends with an emotional instrumental passage. I do love this album quite a bit, though it isn’t as strong song to song as The Cold White Light —- its high points are incredible however, and “Drain Me” is chief among them. Its actually one of their most accessible moments, built on a strong melodic guitar hookline that’s ushered along by fuzzy-heavy riffs and a chorus underscored by a restrained lead melody that later breaks out into a wild, careening solo. Laihiala is actually the sole songwriter here, one of a handful of solo-penned songs by him throughout Sentenced’s discography and its barely disguised sexual lyrics foreshadow the more direct, hard-rock approach he’d further explore in his other band Poisonblack. I’ve never been wild on the lyrics of “Drain Me”, coming across as vaguely misogynistic (I guess it all depends on perspective) —- but I suppose you have to give Laihiala credit for keeping things vague enough to match Sentenced’s general lyrical tone. It’d be hypocritical for me to rebuff it for that reason alone, after all Appetite For Destruction is one of my all-time favorite albums, and also with a melody and hook this strong, I’d simply be lying to myself.
We Are But Falling Leaves (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)
The ballad of The Funeral Album, “We Are But Falling Leaves” is also its most richly poetic lyrical moment, with Lopakka likening the passage of time to the seasons (“Think of your lifetime as one year / Look autumn is here / Getting colder, the winter’s impending”) and our own lives as falling, autumnal leaves (“We are but falling leaves in the air hovering down / On our way we are spinning around”). Instrumentation kept to a minimum during the verses, coming in full force during the refrain to hit like a sledgehammer, the song’s most remarkable musical moment is Tenkula’s guitar solo at the 2:30 mark, with a string of isolated clean notes giving way to one of his most emotional, expressive solos ever. The natural imagery of this song reminds me of something I’ve neglected to talk about, that being drummer Vesa Ranta’s stunning photography that filled the liner notes of both The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. If you follow him on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see more examples of what I’m talking about, but Ranta is a master of capturing the natural beauty of the Finnish countryside, its often rich and bountiful landscapes and its sometimes desolate and barren locales as well. The liner notes/booklets of both albums were incredibly fascinating to look at simply because of his photographs and the overall art direction that they inspired —- and others took notice, as I observed awhile back when I deciphered the influence of Sentenced on their countrymen in Insomnium.
Its promising that Insomnium is one of the few carrying that influence down the line, because Poisonblack is over, Charon has disbanded, Wood of Ypres ended tragically… bands in this vein are growing few and far between. There’s still Vesa Ranta’s sometimes incredible The Man Eating Tree, who have produced a number of fine singles, and of course Amorphis is still releasing amazing new music, though they don’t quite cross completely over into the darkened musical and lyrical realms that Sentenced so completely inhabited. The fact is that there’s a void in Sentenced’s place, something further emphasized by Tenkula’s untimely passing, and maybe there will always be a void. No band so embodied this particular vein of metal or gothic metal (whatever you want to label it) so fully and passionately. Though they were around in demo form since 1990, they really only started to burn as bright as they did during their 1995-2005 run with Laihiala on vocals, a lineup combination that seemed to bring out the best in Lopakka and Tenkula as songwriters. It was a quick burn though, and I still felt that they had a few more great albums in them. I wish the band was still around, and more than that I wish Miika Tenkula was still alive and making new music, but all that we can do is remember his work and try to let others in on one of metal’s finest secrets. Sentenced is dead, long live Sentenced!
Three belated reviews of albums that I’ve been listening to over the past month and change, and then I’ll be taking advantage of the slow summer release schedule (that is, of interest to me rather) and writing more about a lot of the older metal stuff I’ve been revisiting, as well as some random metal related topics I’ve been putting off discussing for a long time now. Stepping off the review treadmill has never felt so liberating! Fear not though, I see some major releases on the way that will definitely get a throughout examination on this blog upon their release.
Suidakra – Realms of Odoric:
I almost jumped the gun with my review of the new Suidakra. The first couple spins when I received the promo a few weeks back had me feeling a bit antsy, a little impatient at moments, with an onset of encroaching dread that this new album by a band I had fallen in love in the interim period since their previous release wasn’t clicking with me for some unknown reason. I was supposed to issue a review of this in early June and given my feelings towards it at the time, it would’ve been vaguely negative (more likely, just a meandering complaint about how it wasn’t impacting me as instantaneously as Eternal Defiance, a 2013 Best Album of the Year). I figured I might be in need of a metal break so I took a few days to not listen to anything aside from podcasts and pop music, and a whole week later, I returned to the Realms of Odoric. It wasn’t instantaneous, but over a series of repeat listens I began to find its melodies lodging themselves in my memory, humming a guitar line or folk instrument melody here and there. Its a long held belief within the metal community and other music aficionados that often times the best albums take the most work to reveal themselves, the difference between a can of coke and a fine whiskey or wine. I do subscribe to that belief as well, but don’t discount the impact of instantaneous love of an album either (nor the idea that you’ll burn out on the latter quicker, not necessarily true).
So following that thought, is Realms of Odoric Suidakra’s best album then? I wouldn’t personally propose it as such, but its not as awful as some of the random reviews I’ve seen for it online. Its a step down from Eternal Defiance, being a relatively good album that sports some unfortunate bumps and bruises throughout its thirteen tracks. Some of those bruises come in the form of meandering, directionless instrumentals such as “Cimbric Requiem” (pretty, pleasant, but I’d rather have that space for another melo-death gem), and quasi-instrumentals such as the battle-readying “Creeping Blood” with spoken word dialogue, a marching percussion and riff sequence that stretches for two minutes without really resolving into anything memorable and whose fade out doesn’t really set up the following track “Undaunted” at all. Then there’s the intro cut “Into the Realm”, which actually does a good job of mixing suspense building atmospherics and riff fueled bombast into a minute long rallying cry, except that it seems like a missed opportunity that it fades out before feeding in properly to the first actual song on the album. I know I’ve been critical of bands overdoing things like intro tracks and small instrumentals, but they can be effective and even exciting when placed with a purpose, and Suidakra of all bands seems like they would know how to wield them. Its baffling that they’re committing these blunders.
There are other songs that don’t quite hit the mark for me, like the outro track “Remembrance”, a clean-sung, acoustic strummed lament over muted percussion and cello. By all rights it should hit me in the heartstrings… yet its a tease, a build up to nothing (dare I suggest it sounds incomplete, like it was the half finished intro to a song that never materialized). On Eternal Defiance, the band tried the same formula to stirring, inspiring effect with “Damnatio Memoriae”, one of my favorites from that album and a cut I’ll randomly revisit when I’m in a wistful mood. They’re quite capable of executing these ideas… I even enjoyed past instrumentals in the middle of album tracklists, such as on Caledonia and Emprise To Avalon. For whatever reason though, they’re all falling flat this time around, and that’s disappointing, though I don’t think they mar the entirety of the album. Lets talk about the good stuff then, because there’s plenty of it, the first song that comes to mind being the album launcher proper “The Serpent Within”, which is one of the band’s all-time finest moments. Its built on a mid-tempo riff and rhythm sequence, with a melancholic melody built on long, patient guitar sustains, a creative way to allow the song to breathe and unfurl naturally. The chorus is really inspired, with guest vocalist Matthias Zimmer of Perzonal War (I think! I was wrong on this before) providing clean vocals with an emotive performance. The lyrics throughout this song are a highlight of the band’s career, sparse yet poetic, with imagery that conjures up the ancient and eternal, “This life is but a spiral path / The serpent lurks inside”. That’s about as awesome a couplet as I’ve ever heard sung in a metal song, full of depth and thought provoking sentiment, and one that works as a visual metaphor as well. Well done, seriously.
There’s a handful of other earwormy cuts as well, “Hunter’s Horde” being the most traditionally Suidakra styled melo-death, with riffing that takes equally from black metal and Gothenburg and a semi-growled and clean sung vocal blend on the chorus for that extra pop. Wonderful longtime guest vocalist Tina Stabel returns on “Undaunted” and lead single “Pictish Pride”, the former boasting a bag-pipe led chorus as Stabel delivers one of the more gritty performances amongst her various Suidakra guest spots. I do enjoy the actual song “Pictish Pride” quite a bit, with its acoustic folk instrumentation intro and ability to work with a bouncy melody without devolving into folk metal cliches. I can’t say the same thing however for the music video the band wasted money on —- it has nothing to do with the album certainly, but my gods is it awful (who chose the lighting on the soundstage?… Suidakra deserves better). Also don’t sleep on “Dark Revelations”, a rather exciting experimental, almost Nightwish-y track built around symphonic guitar riff sequences. I’ll admit that it took me awhile to let the acoustic ballad “Braving the End” sink in, its certainly not one of the band’s best (“Mag Mell” being the standard bearer”) but its a pretty track in its own right and Stabel is always a joy to hear.
The Takeaway: Though not quite being the masterpiece I had hoped for after a nearly three year absence, this is still a good Suidakra album, just not my recommendation to be anyone’s first from the band. There was a time when these guys were releasing albums at a one year or two year interval, and I hope the next comes sooner than three years. A highly underrated and overlooked band that delivers consistently creative music.
Grand Magus – Sword Songs:
Similarly to Suidakra, Sweden’s doom n’ rollers Grand Magus were a band I got into relatively recently through their 2012 album The Hunt, an album that saw them transition slightly away from their earlier heavy doom influence and incorporate more of the traditional metal leanings that singer/songwriter “JB” Janne Christoffersson so clearly loves (your Priest, your Maiden, etc). But it was 2014’s Triumph and Power that really impressed me, landing on that year’s best albums list and remaining in regular rotation for me ever since. I love that album mainly due to the increased shift towards trad metal stylings that informed all of its songs, almost like the band injected their sound with an ample dose of classic era Manowar. Their newest, Sword Songs, seeks to continue where they left off and operate more in this newly unearthed traditional metal space, but it suffers from a few miscalculations. The first of which being the band’s choice of tempo on some of these tunes, take for example “Forged In Iron – Crowned In Steel”, where the verses kick along at a rather speedy pace, only to slow down for the chorus, a downshift in energy that just seems to work against the song. There’s an unusual number of more uptempo songs on this album that while not completely foreign to Grand Magus, certainly aren’t what they do best. On “Master of the Land”, they engage in the same downshifting of tempo during the refrain, and it just comes across as a bucket of water being poured over your head, your interest in the song diminishes almost instantly. A shame because the guitar solo in the middle is worth getting to, but not enough to salvage a rather mediocre song.
Grand Magus works best in the solid, mid-tempo groove n’ roll approach where Christoffersson can sing in a rhythmic strut. On “In For the Kill” he builds the hook from an alliterative dance during the chorus when he lays down a longer stress on the word “IN….” followed by “…forthekill” in quick succession. Its a small thing, but man oh man it makes the song work, gives it a swagger that a lot of metal bands couldn’t achieve even with their best Accept impersonations. The album’s opening duo of “Freja’s Choice” and “Varangian” is a one-two punch of classic Magus, a series of staggered riffs working as the hook for the former, while the latter uses an almost folky, Falconer-ish solo melody to work as its’ post-chorus outro hook. Almost there but not quite is “Last One to Fall”, where a strong chorus is left to drift amidst verse sections that can’t manage enough of a dramatic buildup. Its something that plagues a lot of this album, and I can’t tell sometimes if its just a error in tempo choice or just half-baked songwriting. Hard to believe the latter from a band that delivered such a knock out last time. I think one thing they should consider is shifting back towards some of their doom roots on the next go-round, because there’s precious little of that ingredient here, and I think its what is missing ultimately.
The Takeaway: A decent album from a band whose previous three albums were leaps and bounds better —- and in that regard its a disappointment. If you’re new, start with Triumph and Power, but if you’re just curious to hear a taste check out “In For the Kill”, a rockin’ party metal track if there ever was one.
Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts:
If you’ve been keeping up with Katatonia, I suppose it won’t be that much of a shock to hear just how far removed they sound from anything resembling metal on their newest album, the gorgeously titled The Fall of Hearts (sweet artwork too). Metal fans and media will still cover them due to the Anathema clause, that the contribution of a few early career death/doom metal albums hereby lock you into our collective conscience as a “metal” band even though you have nothing metallic amongst your new music at all. But of course its their songwriting complexity and stylistic choices of tone, subject matter where their metal roots still show, and that’s ultimately all that matters. Full disclosure, the last Katatonia album that I bought (and since have apparently lost) was The Great Cold Distance, which is about as perfect a depressive metal album as you can ever hope to hear and a perfect apex of their metallic, crunchy riffs that lingered from the mid-90s and their ever increasing adoption of progressive rock elements. On its 2009 follow up Night Is the New Day however, the band’s sound really shifted, and they kinda lost me and I fell out of the loop with them as a result. I suspect that if I went back and revisited it now, it wouldn’t be as awkward sounding as I remembered, and the good news is that The Fall of Hearts has persuaded me to do just that.
I’m surprised at the lack of surprise or faux-outrage with people hearing this new album, almost as if everyone just predicted the band’s sound getting this frigging soft, and well… quiet for lack of a better term. There’s some really wonderful stuff here despite the hushed atmosphere throughout, such as “Old Heart Falls”, the album’s first single and one of the best lyric videos by a metal band you’ll see (the lyrics being typed on a vintage typewriter, filmed in sepia). The chorus here is sublimely beautiful, with vocalist Jonas Renkse singing a poetic lyric “For every dream that is left behind me / I take a bow / With every war that will rage inside me / I hear the sound / Of another day in this vanishing life / Returned to dust / And every chance I’ve pushed away / Into the night”. If you’re into excellent lyrics, Katatonia is a band you should consider, and it appears that Renkse has only gotten better over time, because The Fall of Hearts is actually one of the year’s most impressive albums on a lyrical level, full of imaginative word play, imagery, and well considered rhythmic meter. But if its just the laid back jams you care about, check out “Residual”, a slow burning epic that gradually crescendos into an expansive, moody, dream sequence built off oscillating guitar patterns and sharp, jazzy drumming. Towards the end it shifts into a surprisingly aggressive riff-sequence that is a bit of a head nod to Tool and A Perfect Circle (don’t let that sway you negatively if you don’t like those bands). Closer “Passer” is the closest thing you’ll get to mid-period Katatonia heaviness, with its pummeling percussion and Enslaved like riff sequences. Best to regard this album as more of a late night, headphones on chill-out listen, and on that level, it succeeds with aplomb.
The Takeaway: I can’t say whether or not this is better than its predecessor Dead End Kings since I rather lamely ended up skipping that one, but this is actually a good listen judged on its own merits. It isn’t marred by any of the awkward, finding their footing that characterized Night Is the New Day for me, perhaps they’ve finally settled into a comfort zone with their full on progressive rock/metal blending.
There’s been more than a handful of new releases in this first half of 2016 that have gone unwritten about on the blog, but no longer! This is a
collection massive haul of quick takes on all the other albums that I’ve managed to listen to from January through now, some more than others (for good reason in some cases), but no longer! Due to this being kind of a clearing the decks type feature, these are shorter, one to three paragraph reviews (for real this time) where I try to get to the gist of my opinion as succinctly as possible. If an album isn’t on this list, I either didn’t get to listen to it or only gave it a cursory listen —- not enough to form an opinion over. Also, I kinda run the gamut of emotions throughout the course of this entire piece and get a little impatient, off-topic, and well just plain nutty at spots, just a heads up. Might as well put the laundry in, you’re going to be here awhile.
Ihsahn – Arktis.:
If you were anything like me, then you found the past few releases from the legendary Ihsahn a bit patience-testing and at times, outright baffling. Ihsahn has always had a bit of an avant-garde streak in his black metal, most vividly witnessed in his Emperor days on their swansong, Prometheus, with its wildly scattered assemblage of zig-zag riffs and keyboard orchestration. His solo albums have been a bit mixed musically though, with his first two showing more of a traditional approach to songwriting with conventional structures (I enjoyed The Adversary and most of angL), and the following three reaching into more of his extreme avant garde interests with results that I found wanting. But on Artkis, his sixth album under his eponymous banner, he throws us a real curve ball, that is a record built on classic metal riffs and soaring, dare I say even melodic clean vocals. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, Ihsahn hasn’t written the next Maiden or Priest album, and he’s still writing music that is often surprising, veering off into unexpected directions, and challenging at its core. What’s changed is the language he’s using in doing so, almost as if he realized his venturing onto the outermost fringes of extremity with Das Seelenbrechen demanded a severely sharp contrast simply to get back to center.
Maybe I’m far off the mark in guessing his motives, but no matter the reasons why, I’m just happy Arktis happened, because its the first Ihsahn album that I’m absolutely loving in well over half a decade. There are tangible, meaty riffs to grab hold of on songs such as “Disassembled” and the soaring, skyward “Mass Darkness”. The latter is a gem, an instant contender to make this year’s Best Songs list and perhaps Ihsahn’s most accessible moment ever, built around a guitar figure that’s as memorable as his eyebrow raising clean vocals during the chorus. In addition to a classic metal influence, there’s shades of 70s prog-rock in ways we’ve never heard before, via the mellotron (or a reasonable emulation of one) on “My Heart Is Of The North”, recalling hints of bands such as Deep Purple and King Crimson. And there’s still loads of Ihsahn weirdness about, such as on “South Winds”, where his black metal vocals are set against a hushed, electronic pulsed backbeat —- a song that is still tuneful due to a chorus that lifts and thunders. Another favorite of mine is the very rollicking “Until I Too Dissolve”, which my MSRcast cohost Cary remarked as containing a Ratt-n-Roll riff! I’m not going to go that far, I’ll say its more mid-80s Tipton/Downing, but I get what he’s saying. The dreaded saxaphone does make a brief reappearance in “Crooked Red Line”, but its not to the detriment of the song overall (just don’t think I’m a fan of it being in metal), besides, everything else is so much fun I’m inclined to let it go here especially when its followed up by the gorgeous “Celestial Violence”.
The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar with Ihsahn outside of Emperor or in general, make this your point of entry (yes I know I risk black metal heresy here but this IS more accessible than Emperor, and everyone needs a way in). Regardless of your experience level, this is a must get for 2016.
Haken – Affinity:
I’ve been largely unfamiliar with England’s progressive rock/metal explorers Haken (pronounced “Hey-ken”), having seen their name here and there but always dismissing them as being just another in a big bunch of prog bands from the UK that all tend to sound the same to me. That was largely due to not giving them more than a cursory glance/listen, because as a result of longer attention on my end recently I’ve realized that Haken are a band with an inherent uniqueness, one that will force me to go back and take another look at their catalog. That is once I can stow away Affinity for a bit, which is proving an impossible task at the moment. This is an amazing piece of work, a sharply written blend of traditional prog-rock with metallic riffs, an 80s electronic motif that recalls the best hints of Rush post Moving Pictures, vivid melodies and an ear for hooks galore.
If there’s a stumbling block you’ll come upon, its likely going to be vocalist Ross Jennings, whose voice I now love but freely admit that it took me more than a few listens through to become comfortable with. I can’t even describe why that was the case, but if you listen to the should-be-a-single “Earthrise”, you’ll get an idea of what I’m referring to —- incidentally, that magnificent song is what really sold me on the band so perhaps you’re simply better off letting the album play through until you come to it naturally in the middle of the tracklisting. I guess one observation is that its not a metal voice, yet its not quite as perfectly melodic as Steven Wilson’s, Jennings has a distinctive slant on his approach that you’ll either accept or be unable to come to terms with. But these songs guys… so good, such artistry and a precision balancing of technicality, they’re clearly tremendous musicians, particularly drummer Ray Hearne, whose creative patterns and refreshingly aggressive approach are a huge source of power overall. I recently played a song from these guys on the last MSRcast episode and talked them up a bit, and you’ll likely be hearing more about them from me as the year goes on.
The Takeaway: One of the year’s first out of nowhere surprises, a contender to hit the Best Albums of the Year list, and a new band for me (and you) to delve into. Can’t recommend highly enough.
In Mourning – Afterglow:
Just like Haken above, Sweden’s In Mourning are another one of those names I’d seen in passing sometime ago yet they never really made a blip on my radar until now. They’re identified as progressive melodic death metal on the Metal Archives, and they certainly fit that bill on Afterglow, with the first track “Fire and Ocean” storming out of the gate with total Opeth-worship fury. That’s not a bad thing either, because they’re channeling Blackwater Park / Deliverance era Opeth, which is not only a hard thing to do but something that I didn’t realize I was deeply missing until I heard this song’s juxtaposition of deep, iceberg-like death metal vocal patterns courtesy of Tobias Netzell over shifting guitar beds, like the cracking of glacial ice underneath. Again, just like Ihsahn and Haken above, I played In Mourning on the latest MSRcast ep (probably should’ve spaced these albums apart on this list, oh well) —- my cohost Cary commented that Netzell’s vocals were slightly metalcore-ish. I didn’t agree and still don’t, but I have to admit that Netzell’s clean vocals on a cut like “The Grinning Mist” are perhaps more American-tinged in approach than Mikael Akerfeldt’s, whose death metal vocal style is clearly an influence at work throughout this album.
What I enjoy about this album is its blend of diverse song styles, tempos, moods, and guitar patterns —- you’re hard pressed to find a moment where you’re getting bored, and that’s half the battle when it comes to prog death metal. A song such as “Below Rise To The Above” manages the impressive trick of layering brutal death metal vocals over a semi-ballad melodic structure, long atmospheric guitar sustains, minimal riffing and some major key rays of sunlight amidst the gloom. If there is a drawback to In Mourning’s style, its that at times it presses a little too close to Opethian tendencies, take song lengths for example, the shortest cut here clocking in at 6 minutes, or that Netzell’s long sustained screams over accelerating riffs just pinch a bit too much of the magic sugar that made Akerfeldt and company so riveting. Influences are expected in metal, you should hear bits and pieces of where a band is coming from (this is after all a genre based on tradition), but when those influences are identifiable patterns and systemic in nature as opposed to mere paintbrush strokes and isolationist, then a band or artist isn’t pushing hard enough (and I wind up yearning to listen to Blackwater Park).
The Takeaway: Talented band with a quality new album that’s worth your attention span for a few YouTube clips at least. One thing I wanted to point out and applaud despite not being review-esque is their history of awesome album art, not only for Afterglow, but for the Lovecraftian theme on The Weight of Oceans, great taste in aesthetics just like another band we knOw!
Wildernessking – Mystical Future:
I quite like minimalism in black metal, as much as I do its audacious, tiara adorned cousin symphonic black metal, and if the album art to the left wasn’t a dead giveaway, Wildernessking play a blend of furious second wave Norwegian black metal mixed with elements of post-BM and blackgaze. They’re from South Africa, which is a neat fact in that we typically don’t hear about a lot of bands making an impact from that particular country, so good for these guys for breaking out worldwide in a small way. I’ve been enjoying this album as a mood appropriate listen since the promo landed on the MSRcast desk a few months ago. When I say “mood-appropriate” I do mean it, because if you’re not receptive to the adjectives I threw out above, you won’t have the patience to deal with Mystical Future. I find that it works best as a background piece, something to listen to while you’re doing a mindless task, because its not background music, these are songs worthy of your attention and filled with emotional musical twists and scorching bleak vocals that are often blanketed by pretty guitar figures and moving melodies.
There is no obvious “single” or lyric-video cut here, but “I Will Go To Your Tomb” boasts the album’s most vivid, sharp melody, a guitar pattern that is more of a stream of conscious type affair than a predetermined pattern or hook. Frenetic percussion is its metallic foil, wild, unpredictable, and violent in its furious outbursts, particularly towards the second half when it accompanies the album’s most straight forward black metal section. Yet for all its high intensity moments, Mystical Future is largely a quiet, pensive, dreamy affair, such as on “To Transcend”, where isolated guitar sustains twist and bend in elegant figures against a stark atmospheric backdrop. This is Wildernessking’s calling card, at least on this album (I’ve yet to check out their debut nor the many EPs they’ve put out in the interim), but they play it well and with enough creativity to prevent it from being a wet blanket like many atmospheric black metal albums tend to be. And yeah, I love that artwork.
The Takeaway: With Agalloch sadly calling it quits just a few days ago, Wildernessking will be helping to fill a void for a post-black metal sound that is both rooted in tradition and simultaneously detached from it. Worth your time and attention.
Oceans of Slumber – Winter:
Houston’s own (!) Oceans of Slumber, my fellow H-town metallers, with a new album on Century Media Records! First of all, and I know we’ve spoken about this on the podcast, but we’re very proud, and rightfully so —- Oceans of Slumber are the first band in a long time to break out of the local scene and truly make an impact on metal media and fans across the nation and pond. They just did a European tour opening for My Dying Bride, likely to do more opening stints throughout the year and next, and that they’re doing so in supporting such a intriguing and well-done album such as Winter is even more reason that we’re excited down here. Oceans are notable for their inspired approach to progressive doom/death metal on a musical level, and for having one of the more unique female vocalists across metal in general, in Cammie Gilbert, whose bluesy/jazzy tinged vocals are a stark contrast to the music at work here. Its that facet in particular that keeps me returning to this album as a front to finish listening experience —- and I enjoy so much of it when I’m actively listening to it, but I can admit to having trouble to remembering a lot of the songs after the fact. Whether that last detail has clouded my view of the album is still a bit of a mystery to me, but a friend whose listened to the album as well came away with the same criticism.
The title track right out of the gate is actually highly memorable, due to its unique vocal/solo guitar near-ambient intro verse and Gilbert’s sheer dominance on the song, she steals the show and you couldn’t imagine any other female voice singing this particular tune. Ditto for “Turpentine”, where Gilbert’s “wooohooohoooo” vocal coos are as addictive as any fully formed chorus hook (except that these are just flavorful parts of the intro verse) —- her performance on this song is captivating, she’s got a gravitas to her voice that is gorgeously accented by her ability to sound sweet, almost like she’s singing an old standard. Speaking of old standards, Oceans pretty much knock out of the park their cover of the Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin”, giving the song a sense of dramatic urgency with heavy, smolderingly intense verse riffage and Queensryche-ian guitar sustains in the chorus. Guitarists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary deliver a twin harmony outro solo just after the second chorus that I got to see live at a benefit show here in Houston, and I believe my jaw actually dropped —- it sounds just as good on the album. One last observation, there’s a lot of short one and half to two minute long acoustic guitar/piano and vocal songs on this album, and those are great to hear on the album for the most part, but I never remember those in particular. They do however add a strong sense of musicality to an already musical batch of heavy, doomy, prog-death metal, so there is value, I just wonder if they should try scaling them back next time.
The Takeaway: Trust me when I tell you to buy this album that I’m not being a Houston homer… okay, there’s a little of that in there but if this wasn’t worth your time or money, I’d tell you regardless of the band’s H-Town status. Its a rich, diverse, really friggin interesting metal album that is big on musicality, refreshingly unique for a female fronted band, and worth it alone for the Moody Blues cover.
Avatarium – The Girl With The Raven Mask:
I’m new to Avatarium, ex-Candlemass bassist/founder Leif Edling’s new project that seeks to take elements of his doom metal songwriting and mix them with classic hard rock and metal elements. Having missed their 2013 debut, I can only go based on what The Girl With The Raven Mask is presenting me, which I can honestly say is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I really enjoy it, and other times I can identify moments where the songwriting doesn’t quite gel, but what keeps me coming back are the fierce, belting, Doro/Grace Slick styled vocals of unknown singer Jennie-Ann Smith. She’s the star of this album, capable of going full on Robert Plant on the title track, complete with “Immigrant Song” styled wailing screams —- and this is an interesting song coming from a guy like Edling, a fairly uptempo, rollicking hard rocker that reminds me of Catatonia (the Welsh rock band, not the Swedish metal one). Its placement on the tracklisting as the opener is a bit deceptive, because the following two songs are a little more in line with Edling’s doom-metal roots, both “The January Sea” and “Pearls and Coffins” being built around lazy, delicate melodic crawls. You’re hardly listening to the capably produced music underneath however, as once again Smith’s vocals are hypnotic, capturing all your attention.
There’s an aesthetic running through this album that I can’t quite put my finger on —- there’s definitely hints of 60s/70s musicality here, a ton of organ, mellotron, a theremin at one point (!) which all combine towards that old-school prog-rock era vibe. And the songs are written as to at times entirely separate the vocal melodies and musical patterns, so that Smith often sounds like she’s singing Jim Morrison-esque verses of poetry rather than simply carrying a tune. She’s actually great at that, convincing and passionate in her delivery, yet sometimes it all passes over as instantly and fleetingly, to me anyway (more on that in a second). What is strange about Avatarium’s overall sound that is likely to keep me coming back to investigate this album throughout the year are those scattered moments where they lean more alt-rock in guitar tone (and subsequently, melodic structure and pattern) such as on “Run Killer Run”, where a fantastic driving riff anchors the most sing-song styled jam on the album. I wound up wishing they’d had more of these kind of songs, with meaty hooks to grab hold of and firmly lodge in one’s upper recesses. Don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty, highly intriguing album that is captivating to listen to, but I suspect my own hangup with it is that while I can admire its construction and aesthetic while its playing, I can’t form an emotional attachment to anything here, and that’s either a songwriting problem or a Metal Pigeon problem. Shrug.
The Takeaway: Do listen to this and at the very least get to hear something really unusual in metal (well, unusual for those of us who don’t follow the doom metal scene with a sharper eye, I’m told there are others like Avatarium). I suspect a few of you might share in my inexplicable distance from these songs despite enjoying what I’m hearing on a sonic level —- for you others, this band might be a revelation.
Sunburst – Fragments of Creation:
Sunburst are heavy prog-metal tinged power metal group out of Greece, not an uncommon place for power metal love given their Iced Earth worship and for local heroes such as Gus G and Firewind. Its always been a little bit puzzling as to why Greece hasn’t produced more breakout bands in these stylistic veins (although the state of the Greek economy over the past decade and the apparent lack of reliable venues seems to form a reasonable hypothesis as to why), but Sunburst are seeking to be another ray of light (oy!) peeking out from the skies of this tiny country. And they get a lot right, for starters their vocalist Vasilis Georgiou has a voice that recalls strong flavors of Tommy Karevik, a little Roy Khan, and some Georg Neuhauser in there as spice —- but he’s not a composite, in fact, he has a distinct quality that in further records could see him separating himself as truly unique. He’s not quite there yet, but this is a debut, and Appetite styled brilliance is a rare thing when it comes to first times at bat. With time I think Sunburst could be a band really worth gushing over, but they have a guitar problem they need to address first.
Allow me to clarify, I think the lead guitar parts on Fragments are really, really awesome, full of flowing melodic goodness and carefully though out so as to create motifs that complement Georgiou’s excellent vocal melodies. But if sole guitarist Gus Drax (another Gus!) put as much thought and effort into his riff writing and rhythm guitars as he did his lead parts, Sunburst would be on another level. What bogs this album down is clunky, simplistic, and often ill-timed riffs that lack originality, give us a dose of standard chug-a-chuga without really going anywhere (you know the kind, like on a Disturbed album). The first thing you’ll hear, notice, and remember about these songs are the vocal melodies, upon which nearly everything revolves (and that’s fine), but if that’s to be the case, then reduce the rhythm guitars in the mix (way too in your face for not having anything memorable to offer). There’s one moment where he goes get this right, on “Symbol of Life” the rhythm sequences are fairly standard but unobtrusive and kinda rockin’ in their straight forward lean metal attack. Over such a bed, Georgiou owns the song with a wonderful vocal and Drax’s lead guitar motif is the perfect kind of splashy overload that we all geek out over. Sadly, there’s not enough of this perfect balance.
The Takeaway: A promising debut with a really talented vocalist and a guitarist that has a flair for crafting beautiful lead guitar work. If he can settle down and start writing rhythm beds that support the vocal melodies instead of trying to fight them for dominance then Sunburst could have a breakout sophomore album.
Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again:
Finland’s quasi-thrash/power metal hybrid Thunderstone is back, well, back with original vocalist Pasi Rantanen after he left in 2007 and the band recorded a indifferently received album with another singer. I’m glad they reunited (I have no idea on why Rantanen left in the first place, if anyone has any info on that I’d love to be clued in), because for the kind of traditional metal/hard rock meets power metal songs guitarist Nino Laurenne is writing, Rantanen’s grizzled, raspy, rough n’ tough melodic croon was always the perfect complement. If there’s ever a band to have lived under the shadows of an entire country’s metal scene, its Thunderstone, whose sound seems to fit far better coming from England or even mainland Europe, Germany in particular. Overshadowed in their early years by the success of Stratovarius and then Nightwish and Sonata Arctica, Thunderstone never really seemed to capture mainstream Finnish attention until they were invited to take part in their country’s Eurovision qualifiers. It shot a few of their singles into the national top ten along with their next album, and then things promptly unraveled with the departures of Rantanen and longtime keyboardist Kari Tornack.
Ten years later, I don’t think its outrageous to suggest that Thunderstone is essentially starting over again, especially in the context of Finnish metal’s collective attention shifting from power metal to melodic death and depressive rock/metal. They have their work cut out for them, and unfortunately I don’t hear a potential single on this album as ear-wormy as “10,000 Ways”, although a song like “Fire and Ice” boasts a chorus that hints of past glories. Alright, I guess I’ll just let my frustration show, because I was thinking about this last night as I was listening through this album again, and maybe its simply because I do end up listening to such a large number of new releases but —- sometimes I think its only worth talking about music that really hits me in the heart and moves me. Because the alternative, which I’m doing right now, is attempting to dissect how a relatively ho-hum, average new album by a veteran band stacks up against their past few ho-hum, average albums. Thunderstone has never released anything we’d call close to a masterpiece, and while no band knocks it out of the park every time at bat, over time a lack of home runs makes you wonder why they’re on your team (arrrgggh baseball metaphors! How did that happen?!). Is this a listenable album? Sure, of course it is, professionally recorded and with a few songs that have hummable melodies and a nice hook or two. But is that really enough in the light of some of the really majestic, heart-stirring music I’ve already heard this year? I’m going to say that at this particular moment, no its not.
The Takeaway: A veteran hard rock/power metal band comes back with a new album with their original singer. If that’s enough to get you in the door then by all means walk on through, but at least to my ears, there’s nothing else worth adding.
Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional:
My MSRcast co-host balked when I listed Hatebreed as one of the band’s we were going to play on our recent episode of the show, but he has no one to blame but himself. It was he that introduced me to Hatebreed vocalist Jamey Jasta’s podcast The Jasta Show, simply one of the most illuminating metal/heavy music based discussion podcasts available. The show captured my attention with its musician to musician access, providing a level of friendly, open conversation that no conventional interview could provide. It helped that Jasta is immensely likeable as a personality (something I even thought during his tenure as the MTV2 Headbanger’s Ball host a decade ago), and that he already knew most of his interviewees and vice versa via touring with them at some point or by crossing paths with them behind the scenes in the music industry, or simply by reputation. Its a show worth delving into especially if you enjoy hearing more industry/business related discussion in regards to the music industry and just how bands operate in general.
So what does this have to do with the new Hatebreed album? Well, my enjoyment of the podcast quickly turned into curiosity about what my opinion of Jasta’s music with Hatebreed would be now, in 2016, when I had previously written them off as hardcore/metalcore in the past (which they unabashedly were and still are to a certain extent). I watched a load of their music videos on YouTube, and found myself enjoying the songs simply for what they were, as Jasta himself describes, “caveman metal” built around heavy riffs, syncopated vocal delivery and shouted gang vocals, structured around precision songwriting that aims for the most catchy assault on your speakers and ear drums possible. Its music meant for live shows, mosh pits, and visceral physicality —- but within that are Jasta’s lyrics, mostly motivational based calls to action, and he’s really good at it. After buying Perseverance I found myself listening to it before work as a motivational tool, and as blood-pumping, adrenaline spiking workout music. I started to relish the idea of Hatebreed as music with a practical application —- I might not listen to it with headphones on with deep concentration, but it really hit the spot in those particular situations and just as a heavy metal palette cleanser of pure, unadorned heaviness. I know that some of you are shaking your heads at this right now, but give songs like “I Will Be Heard”, “Perseverance”, “In Ashes They Shall Reap”, “This Is Now” and newer singles like “A.D.” and “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” a shot.
Since this is an album review after all, I should probably speak about The Concrete Confessional a bit. It is certainly not deviating that much from what this band is known for, but one thing worth mentioning is just how thrashy these guitarists are getting on some of their riffs. Take “A.D.” for example, which sounds more like what modern day Slayer should sound like mixed with a little Kreator in those minor-keyed, subtle melodies. That’s not a surprise to me anymore, seeing as how Jasta constantly throws out his love for Kreator, Destruction, and plenty of other thrash metal mainstays on the podcast. You’ll be harder pressed to find an angrier, more vicious sounding single in metal this year than this one, with Jasta tearing apart the commonly touted idea of the American dream with his perfectly-timed verbal assault (what he lacks in vocal tone variation he more than makes up for with his ability to understand how well chosen lyrics with percussive syllabic structures make his delivery so potent). Its follow up single “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” is a little more metalcore-ish in its approach and stop-start moments, but its still addictive and will stick in your head, and its lyrical sentiments are admirable despite their biologically inadvisable suggestion of “No Sleep! No Rest!” (because seriously guys, 8 hours…). I’m actually impressed with the consistency of the album overall, there are at least five potential other singles here, and that should say something about the band’s songwriting strengths if nothing else.
The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar, The Concrete Confessional isn’t a bad place to start with Hatebreed, especially if you’re keen on some thrashy guitars now and then. This is a band that has been leaning more metal than core over their past few releases, although the ‘core is still an important (and vital) aspect of their sound. Just give it a shot, this album or the band in general, what do you have to lose but a few minutes spent not watching videos of Corgi puppies?
Brainstorm – Scary Creatures:
Ah Brainstorm, one of power metal’s chunkier, heavier leading lights. At least they were for awhile from the turn of the millennium through 2008’s Downburst, but since then the band has released three albums of wavering, shaky, brow-furrowing quality. I’m not exactly sure what happened, because this is a band that at one point was knocking out full length albums with nary a filler track on offer and a killer single or three apiece. Did they run out of creative fuel? It certainly seemed like it, and you’d expect that with a band dealing with a plethora of lineup changes, but that wasn’t the case with Brainstorm whose members have been solidly in place with the exception of a bassist change in 2007 (a non-songwriting member at that). In trying to gain some context for this album I went back and listened to 2014’s Firesoul which I actually remember enjoying initially, but hearing it now I can’t figure out why I was so impressed back then. The good news straight away is that I’m enjoying Scary Creatures a bit more than any of their past three albums. The bad news is that its still not hitting the adrenaline spiking heights of Metus Mortis, Soul Temptation, or Liquid Monster.
The album is front loaded with both the music video fueled single and lyric video adapted second single, “The World to See” and “How Much Can You Take” respectively. Its a wise choice because they’re both reminiscent of classic Brainstorm, ear-wormy, hook laden and propulsive in that particular way that only German heavy metal can be, and it gets you in a receptive headspace for the rest of the album, which is sometimes hit and miss. I will say there are more hits here though, such as the album closer “Sky Among the Clouds” which is a refreshing injection of a shades lighter melody (alongside a very 80s rock inspired guitar solo) that gives the song an unusual vibe relative to the rest of the album. Then there’s the very epic “Caressed By the Blackness”, where we’re treated to a far more complex songwriting arrangement that Brainstorm is typically known for, with a chorus with shifting vocal layers where Andy B. Frank’s bellowed backing tracks soar to the heavens. Frank’s voice is ageless, he sounds the exact same as when I first heard him back in 2002, must be something about German singers perhaps —- he’s on fine form throughout and about seventy-five percent of the reason why we’re listening at all (no disrespect intended to the other guys). There’s a handful of seemingly filler-esque cuts that plague the middle of this album and might cause a wandering attention span to develop at some point, but its at least a sign of a potential turnaround from a band that should never have lost their way.
The Takeaway: Worth a listen on Spotify or YouTube, but I’m not sure if I can really recommend buying Scary Creatures particularly if you haven’t grabbed those aforementioned classic era Brainstorm releases yet. This is an easy band to root for, really nice guys, honest metal, some moments of brilliance through their career —- I have high hopes for the next one because they seem to have found their footing a bit here.
Exmortus – Ride Forth:
I’ve spent a lot of years ignoring Exmortus, on purpose really, though I’ve been aware of talk around them and have in the past tried to get into their sound because on paper it should something I’d enjoy. And I do… to a certain extent, I’ll get to that in a second. If you’re in the dark here, Exmortus play a hyper, shredder-inspired, technical riff oriented blend of thrash and melodic death metal with a hint of neo-classical stylings ala Noise Records roster circa 1988. This is music that rarely, if ever, demonstrates an ability to breath and relax. Its up-tempo nearly all the time, built around skittish, almost nervous riffing (nerves like a Viking might appear over the next hill swinging a battle axe), with vocals that are fairly monotone in their raw, black-metal forged growling vocal attack. I’m not sure who’s singing for these guys at the moment, they’ve gone a heap of lineup changes seemingly at every position including vocalists, but he’s a competent enough growler on a technical level. What he lacks is any hint of emotional resonance, there are no moments here where he loosens the iron-tight grip on his enunciations and delivery to allow a little genuine emotion (such as, I dunno, anger or rage) break through. Anders Friden was good at that back in the classic In Flames days, and with growling vocals I consider him to be a benchmark of quality.
The thing about precision in metal, whether it be vocals or guitars or drums, is that it always works better when you treat it like a baseline from which you can vary and dip in intensity and adherence —- that’s where the excitement comes from (listen to 80s Priest if you need a primer, and you shouldn’t). That’s ultimately the problem with Exmortus, because there’s so much here that does pop out as potentially enjoyable, but its never given space or a little added jolt of energy to come alive and breathe. Its like watching an NBA game where all you get is fundamental basketball, set plays, unwavering game tempo, mid-range two pointers, hook shots, lay-ups, and free throws. What you’re yearning for is a steal and a fast break down the court with an explosive dunk to finish and get the crowd really amped up and waving those white towels (or whatever the heck they’re waving these days). I can’t say Ride Forth is a bad album, but I’m not sure its a good one either, simply because I can’t friggin tell —- that makes me a bad reviewer but you tell me, what am I supposed to be reviewing here? I’m actually really interested in what everyone thinks of this album in particular because maybe it boils down to me missing something critical. Why did I review this? Because a very friendly PR person requested it and I’ve been putting off those requests far enough, and hopefully this doesn’t prevent them from sending me more stuff in the future but I’m coming up empty on this one.
The Takeaway: I don’t know. I’m actually at a loss as to what I think, but maybe it goes back to what I was saying with Thunderstone and how difficult it is to write about music that doesn’t move the needle positively or negatively.
Rhapsody of Fire – Into The Legend:
My immediate reaction to seeing this release arrive as a promo earlier in the year was somewhere along the lines of “What the hell… another Rhapsody album?!”. I was of course recalling that ex-Rhapsody of Fire’s guitarist Luca Turilli released his own Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody album just last year with Prometheus, Symphonia Ignis Divinus. I actually wrote a review for that one, my first for any Rhapsody related release ever, and I think it was an honest assessment of what that album did for me on a purely musical level, but I didn’t bother at the time to research just why they were two Rhapsody bands in the first place nor what it could mean for the sound of either project. This time around, I’ve gone back and read a few press statements, some interviews, a little quick research on just what the schism in the Rhapsody world really entailed and have come away simultaneously baffled and yet a little more receptive to what it is I’m hearing. Bear with me.
So Rhapsody (of Fire) was founded by keyboardist Alex Staropoli and guitarist Luca Turilli, and from 1997’s Legendary Tales through 2011’s From Chaos to Eternity, their music was set to their own fantasy universe —- one that involved albums groups into sagas that could span over many albums (if I’m getting it right, its ordering was The Emerald Sword Saga, followed by its sequel The Dark Secret Saga). Regardless of what I thought of their music during this time, I will say now that its a heck of an achievement, a life’s work type of thing that is laudable for its sheer ambition and for both men’s tenacity in finishing it while dealing with all sorts of legal problems (copyright suit over the Rhapsody name, the contractual mess with Magic Circle *cough* Manowar’s label). But I guess it sort of took the wind right out of their sails, because by 2011 with the release of From Chaos to Eternity, Staropoli and Turilli agreed to a mutual split, stating that working together “was not the same anymore”. But instead of agreeing that one guy should keep the Rhapsody name and the other create something new, they decided in their amicable split to share the name the way they’re currently doing —- and thus becoming the LA Guns of power metal. So here’s the obvious question: Aren’t you guys risking splitting or splintering your market? If I’m a promoter, and I’ve booked Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire one year, and then Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody comes sauntering along in the early part of the following year, do I really see much of a difference? Rhapsody is in both names, and in booking two Rhapsody shows so close together I’m taking a huge risk on that second booking —- confused fans might stay home thinking they’d already seen the band not too long ago.
Think about how this could be affecting festival organizers and their relationships with promoters in the regional area. Proximity in booking shows for particular markets is something that promoters look at —- its why its hard for a band who was on a package tour with a bunch of other bands to come back through to the same city four to five months later on their own headline tour. Because they’ve already saturated that particular market’s demand, and they have to let some time lapse or a new release come out in order to reset the demand for that area. Blargh! Its infuriating! Why didn’t Turilli just form his own non-Rhapsody named project? Luca Turilli’s Sweet Jams or something, anything other than the dreaded R word?! Okay, rant over, here’s something to be encouraged about: I think that being freed from the conceptual/fantasy storyline has actually made Rhapsody of Fire sound better (I actually might need to hit up their 2013 album in order to reinforce this theory), because Into the Legend is the first Rhapsody album that I’ve actually enjoyed to a notable degree. Its got some actual meaty, metal riffs, and apparently Fabio Lione is writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies and it really shows —- there’s a naturalness to his delivery and he’s carrying a majority of the material here on his own back. He doesn’t have to shoehorn in lyrics to tell a story, he can just write y’know, regular lyrics, a radical concept for this band. The songwriting is far more attuned to classic power metal templates and that helps to restrain the normally grandiose factor that spirals Rhapsody’s sound out of control (it also succeeds in keeping the keyboard arrangements more precise, focused and purposeful). I’m impressed.
The Takeaway: My opinion could be entirely contrary to what long time Rhapsody fans are thinking, but for me, this might be a case of less is more. No grand interwoven story dominating what the lyrics have to be, thus not impacting the vocal melodies directly, and allowing Rhapsody to simply be a straight up power metal band for once. I actually had fun listening to this, so take that for what its worth to you!
Abbath – Abbath:
It seems pretty damned silly to come out with a review for an album I recieved in January and have been listening to for the past five months now and already discussed on my other outlet, the MSRcast. But, this being the reviews codex, its either gotta be here or nowhere at all and it would be silly not to considering how much I have gone back to it time and again. No backstory here, you’ve all likely heard that Immortal and Abbath have parted ways (stupidly I might add, on the part of Demonaz and Horgh), and Abbath is the first out of the gate with his own new album. I suspected upon hearing “To War” and “Winter Bane” in particular, that I was hearing cuts from a once-future Immortal album that never happened, because let there be no man who attempts to tell me those aren’t Immortal songs. They’re also incredible, brutally punishing, slicing cuts of sharpened black metal built on riffs that only Abbath devises. His sound is so distinctive at this point, that I often use him as a reference point in sussing out other bands sounds (“hmm… this sounds Abbath-y”), his very name becoming an adjective in metal writer circles and having the potential to turn into a verb (I’m working on that!). As for what era of Immortal these songs seem tied to, I’d say they’re picking up where All Shall Fall left off, but with flashes of Sons of Northern Darkness hook factor splashed across the board (they’re far catchier than anything off the last Immortal album in truth).
I hear this album as one divided by each song’s original destination, because just like those two mentioned above, there are a handful of other cuts that absolutely sound like they belonged on a future Immortal record, and others that find Abbath dabbling in looser riffing, more rock n’ roll influenced songwriting. As to the former, songs like “Ocean of Wounds” built upon classic Immortal hypnotic riff sequences, riffs that deviate higher or lower in tone but are relatively static while Abbath’s inimitable vocals dance over the top. Up tempo cuts like “Count the Dead” and “Fenrir Hunts” are amazing, the latter being a personal favorite, its viciousness and accelerating speed reminding me of At the Heart of Winter. But take a listen to “Roots of the Mountain”, and you’ll hear Abbath in a different light, one where he employs a slower, looser approach to his rhythm guitar playing, one that lacks his typical intensity and tightness. At a certain point during the song, things get a little black metal meets ZZ Top (speaking guitar wise). I’m not wild on the song but its alright in a change of pace type of way. Far more interesting is “Eternal”, which at times sounds like a punk rock / Immortal crossover with its raw, first-take sounding guitar riffs and uber-aggressive patterning —- this is definitely a song specifically crafted for the idea of an Abbath solo album. Ditto for “Riding on the Wind”, a cover of an oft-forgotten Judas Priest cut where Abbath’s vocal choices recall Alexi Laiho during Children of Bodom’s covers of “Poison” or “Rebel Yell”. Kudos for not choosing something obvious to cover, and kudos in general for simply getting new music out, Abbath is a worldwide treasure in metal and he was being cooped up for too long.
The Takeaway: I’m kinda glad I waited on reviewing this because my initial reaction was simply one of sheer joy that we had new Abbath-related music to listen to. It had been six years, and many more before that —- I suspect now that my bias in that regard would’ve over-inflated any verdict I’d have issued. As it is now, this is a good, not great album, albeit with moments that are at times majestic and reminiscent of classic Immortal.
For all my bellyaching about 2015 and its overwhelming amount of new releases, it hasn’t exactly been a lighter load in these first one and a half months of 2016. Dozens upon dozens of new metal albums of all sub genres have come out in this relatively short time span and of course its impossible to listen to them all. I’ve managed a hefty amount though in just these few short weeks and if you read my recent Avantasia Ghostlights review, you’ll know that the year started off rather brilliantly. Seeing as how that was such an “event” album for myself and this blog and I gave it an accordingly lengthy review, I’ll try to shorten things up for all the other albums I was listening to alongside it. Here’s two relatively shorter reviews (but only just) for two major releases in my metalsphere. I’ll have a smaller, rapid-fire reviews series coming out soon looking at Abbath, Borknagar, and a host of others!
Serenity – Codex Atlanticus:
So those of you with sharp memories might remember that Austria’s Serenity leaped straight into my heart and atop my 2013 Best Albums of the Year list with their satisfyingly sweet epic, War of Ages. I found it an addictive album in its own right, but it had the added bonus of being my introduction to this wonderful band and their excellent back catalog that had gone under my radar for many years. I found myself comparing them to both Kamelot and Sonata Arctica; the latter because vocalist Georg Neuhauser reminded me so much of Tony Kakko in moments —- but the former because Neuhauser and guitarist Thomas Buchberger were a songwriting team that worked so well together that I was instantly reminded of the Roy Khan / Thomas Youngblood duo. Buchberger even shared a similar approach to guitar playing with Youngblood, preferring lean, sharp riff writing with highly melodic through lines and tastefully written solos. If they leaned a little too close to Kamelot in some spots, it was okay in my opinion, because at least I enjoyed their influences and they were managing to put their unique stamp on their own songwriting.
They had also brought in their spectacular touring singer Clementine Delauney to serve as co-vocalist on War of Ages, and she made the handful of songs she was on her own, with a malleable vocal style capable of being both breathy and ethereal, yet stormy and dark at the same time. The band had made a transition to being a five piece despite original keyboardist/co-songwriter Mario Hirzinger leaving the lineup (he would continue to contribute to the songwriting in a limited fashion), and I was already looking forward to their second album as a dual female/male vocalist band. So rather out of the blue on February 3rd, 2015 while working on a review for this blog, I glanced at The Metal Pigeon Facebook feed to see that independently both Buchberger and Delauney had announced they were leaving the band. It was a sinking moment as a fan, and I hate to see bands making music like Serenity’s suffer huge blows like the loss of a major songwriting partner. And as for Delauney herself, I thought she and the band were a complementary pairing and could dish out at least a few more albums together. Fast forward throughout the year and it seemed like Neuhauser, bassist Fabio D’Amore, and longtime drummer Andreas Schipflinger were determined to forge through these difficulties, playing some support dates for Stratovarius as well as a few festivals, Neuhauser even squeezing in his Phantasma side project (with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels), and in early October surprising us all by announcing their next album Codex Atlanticus had been finished.
Its been a long wait from October til now, and this was perhaps second to Avantasia for my most anticipated album of the first half of 2016. Serenity’s lineup is radically different, going from six members in the War of Ages publicity shots to four, the new guy being guitarist Cris Tian. Some things are similar, the lyrical focus on history for example is still present, except that instead of exploring a different subject with each song as on past albums, the band has decided to change things up in devoting an entire album to one subject, in particular the life of Leonardo DaVinci. The songs on Codex Atlanticus are like entries in his diary throughout his life, arrayed in no particular order, so some songs might be from a younger or older perspective. Its a cool idea, I was instantly reminded of Assassin’s Creed II where Da Vinci was a big part of the story line and you’d actually get to see him walking out and about in Florence. Neuhauser’s day job is as a high school history teacher and he’s pursuing a PhD candidate in history as well, so this stuff is right up his alley. From what I’ve gleaned from various interviews, Neuhauser wrote most of the album with contributions from D’Amore and Tian, along with longtime producer Jan Vacik helping out on the orchestral/symphonic side (for the first time it seems they’re not working with their other longtime producer Oliver Phillips). While Buchberger was as expected a no-show on this album despite hinting that he could contribute to songwriting in the future, ex-keyboardist Mario Hirzinger chipped in with some help on the lyrics.
Alright so enough backstory, how does Serenity hold up in this post-Buchberger era? I guess it depends on what you valued more about the band in their previous era, because Neuhauser’s vocals definitely take on a larger presence here, with all of the songs now being structured around his vocal melodies. He was certainly a large presence on older albums as well, but there he was often restricted with Buchberger and Hirzinger’s more progressive metal approach. That’s not a criticism of older albums, because the compromise worked well, but without their influence the songwriting on Codex Atlanticus is less technically inclined, owing more to classic power metal stylings rather than symphonic power metal tropes. That’s going to sound like a silly statement when you’re hearing keyboard orchestration all over this album, but put it this way, this album comes across as more Sonata Arctica rather than Kamelot —- one influence of the band edging out the other. It results in some awesome songs, such as the opener “Follow Me”, with its glory-claw inducing chorus where Neuhauser gets to demonstrate his mastery of vocal phrasing in singing “Here I am, here I stand / Nothing left to say / My destiny will stay with me in sorrow”. I love his choices on another excellent track, “Reason”, where he lands on specific enunciations with extra harmony vocal layers to give the lyrics an added dose of emotion. That kind of attention to detail is what separates power metal vocalists from their peers in other genres of metal, namely, an understanding of all the elements in a vocal track.
On the more purely symphonic front (because they don’t drift away from it completely), there’s “Iniquity” and “Caught In a Myth” where both songs balance an almost swashbuckling/derring-do orchestral bombast with Neuhauser’s sing-song vocal melodies. The latter really caught my attention with a spectacular co-joining of vocals and orchestra in a triumphant punctuation mark at the 5:02 mark (“Just go / Don’t hide…”), one of those sublime once a song moments that will keep me coming back. On the ballad front, because there had better be ballads (hey if you disagree, what are you doing reading a power metal review anyway?!) we’re treated to the rather traditionally Serenity sounding “My Final Chapter” and the charmingly Freddy Mercury-ish “Forgive Me”. Neuhauser loads up both with an array of vocal inflections at well chosen moments that elevate the songs from being merely pleasant to compelling listens (Tony Kakko disease if you will). But Neuhauser’s truly shining moment comes in the Broadway-sounding piano ditty / quasi-ballad “The Perfect Woman”, a gorgeous song about the Mona Lisa of course (who else would the perfect woman be?). I’ve never heard of a song about a painting before, none that I can recall anyway, and I love the ingenuity of the lyrical approach that Neuhauser and Hirzinger take here, that of Da Vinci marveling at his own creation in awe. The vocal melody here carries everything, and its one of Neuhauser’s finest performances, full of genuine enthusiasm and a flexing display of his soaring tenor on certain lines (“There’s no chance for me to stray / day by day”); also of note here is Amanda Somerville’s welcome presence, her role as Neuhauser’s duet partner a call back to the classic “Changing Fate” off Death & Legacy.
Worth noting is that for the first time Serenity utilizes two male lead vocalists this time around, as D’Amore takes the vocal helm solo for a couple of moments, notably on “Sprouts of Terror” and “Spirit In the Flesh”. In an interview, D’Amore said that he had to deliberately try a radically different vocal approach to his normal style in order to provide a sharper contrast to Neuhauser. Its an experiment that has me sitting on the fence, because initially I thought it worked, but over time I’ve found myself growing weary of hearing his voice. I think contrast for contrast’s sake doesn’t make a lot of sense, particularly when there’s nothing happening lyrically that would demand it (ala different characters in Avantasia). I’m not so put off that I can’t listen to those songs anymore, but I’d have rather heard Neuhauser on them all the way through (he is a big selling point for the band after all). Schipflinger turns in the reliable, solid performance that he’s always managed, and more interestingly Tian manages to come through on the guitar front, even knocking out a few solos where I couldn’t tell the difference between him and Buchberger (not sure he’d like that observation but it just means that he fits in well). Overall Codex Atlanticus bodes well for the future of Serenity, and that’s a testament to Neuhauser’s growing strength as a songwriter, one whose confidence in his vocal melody development has allowed him to carry the band on his back when they needed him most… not all vocalists could manage that.
Megadeth – Dystopia:
Okay, so everyone knows the backstory on this one. The fifteenth Megadeth album, the new line-up aka mach umpteenth of the band (this time being Mustaine/Ellefson/Loureiro/Adler), and this being a rather pivotal sequel to the deservedly maligned Super Collider. What you probably don’t know due to no fault of your own is that I’m a longtime and rather passionate Megadeth fan. Its a fandom that’s waxed and waned over the years due to a variety of reasons but they were one of my earliest metal obsessions alongside Metallica and Iron Maiden, and seeing a poster of the cover art to Peace Sells on the wall of my cousin’s room in 1986 when I was a wee lad is one of my earliest metal related memories. One of the reasons that might be unknown to you is that I actually have never written about Megadeth on this blog except in passing references, the major reason being that I was too late and uninspired to cover 2011’s Thirteen, and well, just too disappointed to even discuss 2013’s Super Collider. I thought the two albums that preceded those two were merely average to good at best, the last Deth’ album I thought was worth fawning over being 2004’s The System Has Failed. Oh alright Endgame had a few really great moments. See… that’s what I mean about the waxing and waning.
Actually, let me do a ranking of how I rate the Megadeth back catalog just so you’ll know where I stand so you’ll be able to gauge the ultimate verdict of this review. No numbers, you all know I don’t do numerical review scores so I won’t bother with them for a discography ranking. I think you’ll get the gist regardless. Anyway this is how I consider the Megadeth catalog, from best to worst:
Rust In Peace: Sitting at the top where it should be, because duh, its one of the greatest metal albums of all tid! Its also on my do not listen to whilst driving list!
Countdown to Extinction: My intro to the band and one of the first metal albums I completely immersed myself in. I’ve never gotten tired of it.
Youthanasia: What?! Over Peace Sells?! Yes, because despite its Max Norman dictated slowed down tempos I still think this contains some of Mustaine’s finest songwriting.
Cryptic Writings: Put down whatever it is you’re about to throw at me, hear me out —- I listened to this thing relentlessly, and thought songs like “Use the Man”, “Trust” and “Secret Place” was the band at their most melodic, hooky best. Its an underrated album and that’s kind of a shame. Go back and listen to it, its better than you remember!
Peace Sells: The best of 80s era Megadeth, though not quite a perfect album. I was never entirely a fan of their production during this era, as I always felt Deth’ needed sonic clarity to do justice to their technical precision.
The System Has Failed: Mustaine’s return from one of the more bizarre rock n’roll injuries in history and his much needed comeback album (because there’s no way the band could’ve ended on The World Needs A Hero). It was the most ferocious they had sounded in years, full of conviction and ear worms a plenty such as “Die Dead Enough”, “Kick the Chair”, and “Of Mice and Men”.
Endgame: I enjoyed Endgame when it came out, particularly the insta-classic “This Day We Fight”, and the album was the angriest sounding Megadeth album in ages. It was thrashy and heavy, but I felt at the time (and still do) that with a few exceptions, there was a noticeable lack of hooks amidst all the aggression. Lead single “Headcrusher” was kind of sprawling, all over the place, and only “The Right to Go Insane” really had something resembling the melodicism that I valued in Megadeth. Of the two Andy Sneap / Megadeth collaborations, this was the best one.
Thirteen: As I was writing this I took a re-listen to this one and yes, I’m reminded that it was a strong album with only a few average songs, it gets this high because of “New World Order” and “Public Enemy No. 1”. Amazing to think this album was nominated for three Grammy awards in consecutive years from 2011-2013 (and won none of course). Conversely, its this low on the list because I had to re-listen to it to remember large chunks of the album, but maybe that’s more due to how little I listened to it upon its release.
Killing Is My Business: Awful production, some okay-ish songs… I was never really sold on it as a spectacular debut however, and I still don’t feel that way in light of the remixed version even though it did clear up a lot of the original production flaws.
United Abominations: Merely mediocre, though I loved “Gears of War” and thought it deserved better than it got (it should’ve had a tremendous push for its video game tie-in but apparently that deal fell through for whatever reason). I didn’t see the point of the Cristina Scabbia duet on the remade “A Tout Le Monde”, aside from a transparent cross-promotional opportunity, it certainly didn’t sound better than the original.
So Far, So Good… So What!: A step down from Peace Sells and the second worst production in Megadeth history, this still had all-time classics (you know the ones), but I was never a fan of “Anarchy In the U.K.” in general, nor “502” which rivaled Exodus’ Impact Is Imminent for boneheaded-ness lyrically speaking. I was hoping the remaster would clear up some of the awful, thin, tinny production job but it only seemed to emphasize its worst elements (leading one to believe those Capitol remasters weren’t done from the analog masters).
Supercollider: Just one of the most inexplicable decisions ever —- on the heels of releasing a flurry of relatively Megadeth-ian sounding albums, Mustaine decided to go back to experimenting with a more… I don’t even know how to describe it. The ridiculous title track for example was awful and baffling —- where in his musical history were the seeds for such a song laid? It wasn’t all bad, “Kingmaker” was a decent song, but everything else was steeped in some sort of classic/mainstream rock marinade that ruined everything.
Risk: I know I know, you think this should be last, but hear me out! This is not the worst Megadeth album, despite its transparent attempt to break into the mainstream /modern rock charts and its highly amusing choice of producer in pop-country miscreant Dan Huff. Strip all that stuff away and consider the album as an isolated collection of songs from Mustaine and Marty Friedman that explored their more pop-driven instincts. It was an experiment that resulted in some truly awful stuff like “Crush ‘Em” and “I’ll Be There”, but also some unique and interesting stuff like “Wanderlust”, “Ecstasy”, “The Doctor Is Calling” and “Time Pt. I/II”.
The World Needs A Hero: Ah, the nadir of Megadeth! A reactionary album that proves that reactionary albums hardly ever work. Plodding, re-hashed, and uncertain of itself: This was the sound of Mustaine trying to remember how to write actual heavy metal again. It yielded a semi-decent ballad in “Promises” but even that was flawed… if Megadeth was to succeed in ballads as they did with “A Tout Le Monde”, they had to avoid attempting power ballads. Consider this not only the worst Megadeth album, but one of the worst metal albums of all time.
So using the list above as a rubric, where does Dystopia fit in? I’m going to say, with a relatively high degree of confidence, that I’d slot it between Cryptic Writings and Peace Sells. Yep, you read that right, I’m considering Dystopia a top five Megadeth album, and its for good reason too. This is simply the fiercest, angriest, most convincingly Megadeth-y that the band has sounded in over a decade. Were I to remove myself from my nostalgia fed love for Cryptic Writings, I’d imagine I could comfortably slot this right below Youthanasia, its really that excellent. Mustaine in particular comes across as more plugged in and motivated both vocally and lyrically, and I wonder if that’s due to the divisive political climate we’re currently in (would make sense also considering how divided the country was in 2004 during the time of The System Has Failed). Musically the band is reinvigorated by the presence of Kiko Loureiro in particular, the ex-Angra guitarist being the creative partner that Mustaine has long missed since the departure of Friedman (certainly Al Pitrelli never fit the bill, Chris Poland was a recurrent flash in the pan, and Chris Broderick never quite seemed to gel). Loureiro comes in from a power metal background, and though you can argue that he has shredder level talent, he’s had years of experience in matching technical virtuosity with major key melodies, in other words, a Friedman-esque perfect match and foil for Mustaine’s thrashy guitar tendencies.
The album kicks the gate down right from the start, with a trio of some of the band’s best songs to date (and not coincidentally, the album’s first three singles). With “The Threat Is Real”, Megadeth have delivered their best album opener since “Trust”, Mustaine’s snarling, venomous delivery paired with a ridiculously catchy riff/vocal progression. Its sibling song “Dystopia” (tied together through their animated music videos) reminds me so much of Rust In Peace. We get alarming guitar melodies that conjure up a vivid sense of paranoia and fear, and later on the tempo slows down in an almost improvisational mid-song jam session built around funky, twisting rhythm patterns that usher along a frenetic solo —- its the kind of thing I’d imagine Friedman doing back in the day. Loureiro is simply stunning on this track, and he is equally as inspired on “Fatal Illusion”, giving his leads an Eastern-tinged accent. Ellefson and Adler cook up a thunderous rhythm section throughout, always in lockstep, and I’m impressed at how balanced the bass actually is in the mix on such a wildly guitar driven album. Ellefson in particular delivers an awesome groove on “Bullet to the Brain”, a mix of thrash and rhythmic alt-metal that works because of his distinctive bass lines. Adler is a terrific fit for Megadeth, full of fills and creative snare and cymbal usage —- and he gets that one thing that sometimes fails thrash drummers, that the music sounds more energetic when it sounds like the drummer might be slightly outpacing everyone else (it conveys an excitement that can’t be contained).
And I have to give the band kudos for sheer creativity in a gem like “Poisonous Shadows”, a slower, experimental song that demonstrates that they don’t have to step outside of their wheelhouse in order to cook up something different. Instead of playing around with goofy hard rock or pop, here they elect to use atmospheric strings and bring in a female vocalist named Farah Siraj to provide those eerie yet ethereal vocals that float over the top. I like Mustaine’s delivery choice here, going for a more desperate, sinister approach rather than trying to aim for melodic perfection. If he sang it straight the song would’ve sounded disjointed (as odd as that seems), instead his altering of his vocals actually sells the overall nightmare-like effect they were going for. And I quite enjoyed the highly syncopated “The Emperor”, with trademark Mustaine sarcasm in the verses and a hooky chorus. The decision to cover Fear’s “Foreign Policy” is yet another tip-off that Mustaine seemed far more lyrically aware and plugged in this time. Regardless of what you think of his politics, you can’t deny that he might be the best at vocalizing subject matter like this —- its an awesome cover, full of panic, aggression, and rage. And its an awesome album, one that’s kinda kick started my interest in Megadeth all over again (I’ve been on a Deth’ binge for the past few days). I really hope Loureiro sticks around, because he seems to have lit a fire within Mustaine, one that desperately needed to be lit, for everyone’s sake.