Its Report Card Time: New Sabaton, Kreator, Sonata Arctica and more!
Here at The Metal Pigeon I’ll review new albums that I personally take an interest in, and if you’ve read any of them you’ll notice that I don’t favor utilizing a numerical point system to determine its worth. I guess I worry that I’ll be tempted to ease up on the damage I dish out through a number to a band that I traditionally like — if say their new album is mediocre. By forcing myself to stick to a written explanation of an album’s merits and demerits, I can at least keep myself honest. But it struck me that I had a ton of new albums that I had just finished listening through at the same time that most school terms are ending for the summer – and inspiration struck! Its report card time, and The Metal Pigeon is out to see who has and hasn’t made the grade!
Sabaton – Carolus Rex: This is without exaggeration Sabaton’s best work, topping their former pinnacle in 2008’s The Art of War through an excellently framed concept, tremendously inspired songwriting, a greater emphasis on guitarwork (no longer taking a backseat to the keyboards), and a fully realized orchestral and choir arrangement that gives these songs about great Swedish kings and battles the sound of the regal, the austere, and of course, the fury, futility, and glory of battle. Obtaining Peter Tatgren’s services for the production of the entire album (not just the mixing as before) seems to have resulted in a work that is very much woven together, a collection of songs that are bound by a shared sonic palette. Sabaton’s traditionally metallic, somewhat mechanized style is merged with symphonic power metal-esque arrangements that are normally found on albums by Kamelot or Rhapsody of Fire. Songs like “Killing Ground” and “Poltava” are classic galloping Sabaton, with smart songwriting, clever twists and of course, great riffing and guitar melodies. “The Carolean’s Prayer” is a far more ambitious attempt at an epic than these guys have ever tried before, and they pull it off incredibly well – with a mid-song shift in direction that mixes in to supreme dramatic effect choral vocals sung in Swedish (taken of course from the alternate Swedish version of this album).
Speaking of the Swedish language version, while I have no reason to doubt the opinion of the Angry Metal Guy who being a Swede has excellent insight when comparing the two versions of this album, I must say, for my tastes the English lyrics on offer here are some of Sabaton’s finest. Take for example the very metal and adrenaline raising chorus of “Carolus Rex”, which is from the perspective of the young King Charles XII, in which he declares “I was chosen by heaven! Say my name when you pray – to the skies! See Carolus rise!” In one fell swoop singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén manages to convey to us listeners just how goddamned crazy old Charles really was (I recommend doing a little history reading online, seriously the guy was a nutter), yet at the same time, bold, brash, confident, and brilliant enough to lead Sweden to superpower status. Yes I know I’m geek about lyrics, but bravado is such an overdone and often ineffective lyrical slant within metal that when you hear it being tackled in a new and fresh way that is backed up and framed by history – its damn riveting, hair raising stuff!
In a recent interview with The Gauntlet, Brodén admitted that the Swedish version of the album was filled with far more subtlety and nuance than the English version, and that even narrative perspectives had to be changed in translation for certain songs (see the previously linked Angry Metal Guy’s review for a far more detailed explanation). That being the case however, well us non-Swedes can only enjoy what we can hear, and while the Swedish version is a nice bonus, its only just that, and I’m here to tell you that the English version of this album delivers a gripping, and powerful narrative of the rise and fall of the Stormaktstiden. Sabaton’s tight musicianship, sharp, smart songwriting courtesy of uniquely baritone voiced singer/primary songwriter Joakim Brodén are the obvious keys to their success, their quiet strength has been Brodén’s superior abilities as a lyricist who understands the nuances of language and displays a mastery of diction and storytelling to achieve pulse raising emotional impacts.
Sonata Arctica – Stones Grow Her Name: It could have worse, far, far worse for Sonata Arctica. If I had written this article say a scant few weeks ago I would’ve graded this as an F. Such is the sheer bizarreness of some of the material on display here, its nagging presence threatening to drown the whole album in an ocean of negative sentiment and resentment. But thanks to the passage of time and some stout-hearted listening sessions, the cream of the album rose to the top and I found some reasons to have hope for this band, in addition to dishing out a barely passing grade. To be honest, I’m not sure what’s happened to these guys over the past few years, for although I’ve been checking out each new release I haven’t kept up with any interviews or the reasons for their seemingly numerous multitude of lineup changes. I guess the latter doesn’t matter much if Tony Kakko is still the primary songwriter, but one has to wonder when listening to some of this album’s most dire moments if he’s lost his focus. The bands first three albums up through about half of their fourth (Reckoning Night) were back to back classics, with nary a filler track in sight and despite the presence of ever cringe worthy spoken dialogue (seriously, they need to stop with that stuff). Their successive albums each would have a few truly excellent gems amidst a bed of mediocre filler, and I think for my part, and I’m sure many other fellow longtime admirers, we were inclined to give the band a pass simply because of what they had proved to be capable of in the past. The Metallica syndrome then. I won’t spend time here discussing the terrible stuff on offer here, there’s plenty of it as well as a few mediocre filler tracks as well, but I’ll gladly point out the gems worth seeking out on ITunes or some other legit download service, they are songs worth paying for. Namely, “Only the Broken Hearts (Make You Beautiful)” and lead off single “I Have a Right” both shimmer with classic Kakko melodies and thoughtful, always unabashed lyrics. Grab them and load them up alongside the rest of their classics.
Kreator – Phantom Antichrist: In what is a solid contender for the album of the year spot, Kreator have done something with Phantom Antichrist that seems to elude many a veteran band — that is, to find a way back to the authenticity of your original sound and spirit by focusing on the strengths of your classic sound while folding in fresh new ideas that not only complement but enhance that sound. The past few records have been respectable, but not remarkable, but in retrospect you can regard them as building blocks away from their misguided batch of records in mid to late nineties. This album makes such a profound impact that you’re hard pressed not to view the past few Kreator records as tests and trial runs for the supreme masterwork delivered here. These are not just solid songs, they are heart-stoppingly great at their best and adrenaline inducing the rest of the time. Here songwriter and vocalist Mille Petrozza aims to infuse a healthy dose of Gothenburg-esque melodicism into Kreator’s thrash metal attack and build the songs around this newfound element to jawdropping effect. The melodies aren’t run of the mill Gothenburg-isms either, but fresh and inspired in their own right, and they only serve to enhance the impact of Kreator’s trademark brutality by emphasizing memorability and catchiness. Those seeking a repeat of Pleasure to Kill will not get what they want, but an open mind will allow those expectations to be brushed away upon the hearing the grin inducing chorus of the album opener and title track. There are too many highlights here to adequately list: the blistering “Death to the World”, the quiet to loud explosion found within “Your Heaven, My Hell”, and of course the classic sounding title track just to name the obvious highlights. Someone get copies of this to everyone in the “Big Four”.
Dragonforce – The Power Within: If you’re a fan of these guys, full time or part time, then I have some good and relieving news for you. They’re gonna be fine with the new guy. More than fine really. Yes, this is the same meticulously produced, shimmering, hyper-actively fast, guitar melody driven “extreme power metal” that they have won a reputation for and it would have been folly to think that an element as relatively decentralized as the vocals would beggar changes to that formula. Except that, in a promising way, they’ve managed to introduce some new elements into their typical formula, and those are best seen in the singles “Cry Thunder”, and “Seasons”. Its amusing that something as simple as slowing down the tempo a bit and focusing more on allowing good riffs space to breath could inject such a freshness to the typical Dragonforce sound. “Cry Thunder” builds from rock steady riffage to a swelling bridge, whereupon new vocalist Marc Hudson finally breaks free of the guitars in an uplifting chorus. On “Seasons” he takes center stage and the guitars work around his key lead vocal, which yes I know doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary, but for these guys its certainly different. It works, in part due to a catchy as hell chorus, but also in large part to the fact that the slower tempo-ed breathable verse structures with guitars in a supporting role really enhance the rock n’ roll feel going on (read: less clinical sounding). The fact that they throw in an acoustic version of this song as a bonus track and it actually sounds just as great stripped down is proof that if these guys continue in this less maniacal direction, their songwriting is bound to benefit. There’s nothing wrong with their fast style, its just that flurries of notes compacted together at unmeasurable BPMs was all they were doing for awhile. I’m enjoying this album in a casual way, its good summer music, and while it doesn’t touch the audacious brilliance of their 2002 classic Sonic Firestorm, its a good start in what I hope will be a further investigated new direction.
Grand Magus – The Hunt: Hell yeah! Was my reaction upon first hearing the title track of this album played on a favorite metal radio show. Long have I been exposed to Grand Magus and time and time again it just didn’t sink in for me, but this song made me seek this record out in its entirety. And like a hammer slamming a nail through cheap balsa wood, Grand Magus has finally lodged itself in my mind as the awesome musical entity I’ve long suspected they are. I’m successfully enjoying their previous release lately as well, proceeding to work my way backwards through their discography. Every single song on this record is compelling, addictive, and plain rockin’ — in that excellent-for-driving around under the blazing Texas sun whilst nodding, headbanging, and hitting air cymbals way. I’m sure the following statements will raise the eyebrows of any who are already familiar with these guys, but the most apt comparison I can make for this three piece Swedish group is that they’re like a dirtier, grittier, doomier, more rock n’roll infused Falconer. The comparison to their fellow Swedes is not only relegated to the music, for vocalist Janne “JB” Christoffersson is similar in approach to Falconer’s Mathias Blad — they both sing in a mid-range delivery with a few exceptions, they both favor a far more restrained approach (no wild Kiske-esque screams to be found here), and generally speaking they have a similar timbre to their voice and accent. I’m firmly calling this a good thing by the way, so if you’re one of those unfortunate folks who can’t enjoy Mathias Blad led Falconer, don’t let the comparison turn you off. Christoffersson’s vocals are sandpaper smooth, and his timing, phrasing, and lyrics are a perfect complement to Grand Magus’ unique mix of power metal musicality and doom metal informed pacing. It seems on this new record they’ve taken an extra step away from their doom metal influences and have embraced the sounds of traditional American hard rock a bit more — an approach that recalls to mind the best of Dio’s mid 80’s solo work. Oh yeah, the album also has some of the most badassed cover art seen in awhile. This album has already been on heavy rotation, and I’m positive I’ll be listening to it all summer long. Gotta love it when a band finally clicks for you, and the records that do it are usually pretty special. The Hunt definitely is.
Burzum – Umskiptar: This is depressing. After two ferocious, forward looking, and downright inspired post-prison albums (Belus and Fallen), Varg commits the inexcusable sin of simply boring us to sleep. Seriously, I fucking fell asleep listening to this. And many rounds of periodic repeat listens haven’t changed my mind, on the contrary, I’ve begun to dread those moments where I decide: “okay time to man up and give it another shot”. Forget it, I’m done. Things were promising in the early going — I had first heard what most folks had heard with the leak of the album’s first track proper, “Jóln (Deities)”, to YouTube and figured that we’d be in for something akin to Fallen part two. It suffices to say that the song serves as the albums only highlight (barely). The rest is an unsorted mess of murky, formless, meandering sonic textures and plodding guitars. Any riffs are few and far between, and to make matters worse, the latter third of the album is a delightful soup of spoken word and atmospherics. Appetizing for sure! There’s a cool moment at the very start of “Alfadanz” with an eerie tinkling piano and a guitar riff that mimics it, but sadly the track proceeds to limp along shortly afterwards, almost stubbornly refusing any injections of energy or excitement. Its all a damn shame too because he was riding on a stream of creative momentum and stretching the boundaries of what was possible for Burzum in a musical context. He overreaches here, and we all suffer for it.