The Pigeon Post #2: Reviewing New Music from Civil War, October Falls, Pellek, Gyre, and ViolentorY
To those of you who are wondering what the hell “The Pigeon Post” is supposed to be, I’ll refer you to my introduction in its premiere edition many months back. For readers who prefer to preserve their retinas, its basically a recurring feature in which I can do a batch of shorter reviews (by my standards anyway) of promotional/advance release copies I get sent to me by various PR firms and record companies. I get into my ethics of why I’m doing it this way for now in that introduction, but suffice it to say, my main priority in writing about the things I write about on this blog is that they come from a genuine place of honesty and integrity —- whether its bands I’ve listened to for ages or as is the case here, artists I’m unfamiliar with. Basically what I’m saying is that I have no stake in the career trajectory of these artists or their associated business representatives, my opinion is being solicited, and for better or worse, I’m giving it. Time to open the mail!
Civil War – The Killer Angels (Despotz Records): Sometime shortly after the recordings for Sabaton’s last album Carolus Rex were complete, the band went through a little restructuring. Actually, it was a fairly major change: gone were guitarists Oskar Montelius, Rikard Sunden, drummer Daniel Mullback, and keyboardist Daniel Myhr. Sabaton as Joakim Brodén and Pär Sundström continued on with new members and impressively they’ve seemed to keep the machine rolling with nary a hitch. What then of their cast off former bandmates? The tentatively phrased reasons for their departure was their lack of ability to commit to the demands that being in a heavy touring band would require. I don’t know if that’s the real reason or not, but its curious that these guys have gone ahead and started their own band, and seem hell bent on touring just as much as they did in their previous outfit. Joining them on this crusade is vocalist Nils Patrik Johansson, of Wuthering Heights/Astral Doors/Lion’s Share fame, a singer whose vocals contrast wildly with Brodén’s booming baritone. Johansson is essentially a higher register Dio with a touch of Michael Kiske, and while those are awesome names I’m dropping, the mix of their vocals looks better on paper than in practice.
Basically, these guys seek to pick up where they left off with Sabaton: military history themed, keyboard laden, melody infused power metal that is heavy on glory and all that jazz. Fair enough, go with what you know but it does suggest that the Sabaton split was perhaps more acrimonious than both parties let on through interviews. Oh and here’s the problem with their game plan —- Sabaton’s Brodén is one of the finest songwriters around in modern metal, both in terms of his ability to craft truly sublime melodies, as well as gripping, poetic lyrics. I’m not sure who’s handling the songwriting duties for Civil War, but after listening through the songs on The Killer Angels debut multiple times, I have yet to remember a single chorus. That’s a problem in this style of metal, you really have to deliver the goods there. I’m listening to it as I write this and musically these guys are experienced pros, everything sounds tight and there are nice melodies here and there, but you can only spot them in the moment. Nothings sticking! The other major issue is their choice of vocalist. I can understand wanting to do a 180 away from Brodén’s distinctive lower registers, but Johansson is a poor choice. Maybe its just my previous experiences with him coloring my opinion as well (I’ve only mildly enjoyed him in Wuthering Heights), but I’m getting nothing out of his work here —- he’s technically proficient, but there’s nothing there emotionally.
Maybe I’m comparing these guys to Sabaton and I suppose that’s unfair, but its also natural. I don’t think this is a bad record in the sense that its unlistenable. I could see myself returning to this a year from now and giving it another shot, and maybe with a second release they’ll find their footing and put out something really good. I’m aggravated here because reading over this review I feel like I should be more specific and detailed —- but that’s the problem, it all just glazed over me, again and again. That being said, these guys get a pass from me, because their work in Sabaton contributed to so many records I really love, and I got to see them live and meet them as well. I look forward to what they do next.
October Falls – The Plague of a Coming Age (Debemur Morti): Really really late on this record, I think it came out in Spring. It sat in my inbox for awhile before I noticed that a lot of my usual metal website haunts were dishing out glowing reviews. This is October Falls’ fourth album, they’re from Finland yet sound like they should be from Sweden. I’ve seen Opeth thrown around a lot as a reference point for their sound, and while I’m not quite sure that’s a wholly accurate depiction, they do remind me at times of mid-period Katatonia. Anyway I’ve been enjoying the hell out of this album, its on regular rotation whenever I’m sitting here with the headphones on —- the kind of album that you set to play start to finish because its consistently good throughout. That could be seen as a weakness as well, for all its strengths as a seamless continuum of blackened (bleak-ened?) melodeath, there are no real standout tracks that jump up and slap you with their greatness. Oh there’s individual moments, such as the fantastic guitar melody at work towards the end of “Snakes Of The Old World”, and the awesome early Ulver-isms of “Boiling Heart Of The North” where we get our first real moment of quiet and space. Here guest vocalist Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis chimes in sounding rather un-Amorphis-like for an ear pleasing, echo-drenched clean vocal that still maintains the depressive tone set by the rest of the material. And I’m going to paraphrase Angry Metal Guy who described the sound of this album as a wet kind of heavy, like you’re listening to it from a distance through a cloud of fog. Guitars aren’t up front with heavy riffs, bass is more of a texture, and drums are slightly muted. There’s an ambient murkiness that suffuses the entire production, and I know that sounds dreadful, but trust me it works well.
Its interesting to note that many reviewers are touting this as October Falls most accessible release. They all point to the monolithic approach these guys took on earlier records, where for example a track listing could number three to four songs —- of ten minute plus lengths. The structure of this new record is far more conventional, nine tracks, the longest hitting the seven minute mark. Yet I wonder if people really listen to a record like this by skipping around various tracks. This is one of those albums that I can’t imagine driving to… and thus can’t imagine enjoying in spaced out chunks as on the random play of an iPod. Its far too hypnotic and enclosed in its own specific world of sound to be digested in that manner, and so it makes me think that all this talk of the album being accessible is a side-effect of what amounts to a cosmetic decision. In any case I don’t think I’m jumping the gun here to say that this will end up on my top ten albums of the year list somewhere, its really that damn good. Finland’s on a roll lately.
Pellek – Ocean of Opportunity (self-released/independent): This is an interesting one. Pellek is the performer/stage name of the Norwegian vocalist Per Fredrik Åsly. It is also the name of his band (think Van Halen or more accurately, Dio), a vehicle for smoothly crooned melodic power metal ala Sonata Arctica and Seventh Wonder with their heavy emphasis on layered vocals. The striking detail of Pellek’s bio is that a few years ago he was a contestant on the Norwegian version of The X-Factor. I’ve not seen any footage of his time on that show, where he was apparently branded as the rock guy but ended up displaying a musical reach that extended to classic and contemporary metal. He became a recurring fixture on Scandinavian television after The X-Factor, often appearing alongside Swede Tommy Johansson (vocalist/guitarist of ReinXeed and Swedish Karaoke competition star in his own right). The two collaborated on parts of a compilation put together by Johansson called Swedish Hitz Goes Metal, which as you guessed it set cuts by the likes of ABBA, Roxette, and others to rock/power metal stylings. Keep in mind that there’s no official, easily digestible English bio for this guy, this is pretty much me doing my limited amount of Google research and to be honest its still all a bit confusing. I have no real indication of just how popular Pellek is in his native country, but I do know that his prolific array of YouTube uploads of himself covering rock and metal songs do garner some tens of thousands of views.
So anyway, this is Pellek the band’s sophomore album, I have not heard their first so I walked into this completely unaware —- and was pleasantly surprised. If my earlier description of Pellek’s sound piqued your interest, you’ll find a decent amount of stuff to enjoy here. There’s nothing mind bendingly awesome going on, but there’s a level of songwriting craftsmanship being achieved here that is mildly compelling. I’m referring in particular to cuts like the glorious “Northern Wayfarer”, a well executed syth line propelled rocker that supplements a catchy as hell chorus with percussive riffing, and an excellent acoustic dropped midsection that greatly enhances the epic aura of the song. The “Sea Of Okhotsk” has a striking verse and chorus that are purely dependent on the vocal melody, the underlying instrumentation working to conjure up an Oriental styled soundscape. Things do get a little too flowery for me on “Gods Pocket”, a tune so cheerful it makes Power Quest sound like a dark cloud… heavier riffing on the second verse here can’t disguise what essentially sounds like a children’s song set to rock guitars. There’s of course a ballad on offer here, the kind that can only be enjoyed by those of us who love our fair share of power metal ballads.
Pellek is clearly the star here, his vocals seem to take center stage on every song, but that’s not to marginalize the efforts of his backing band, who provide consistent, quality power metal musicianship all across the board (yet lack the creative signatures of say Sonata Arctica, or Nightwish.As for the rest… I dunno, there’s something just innocuously enjoyable about this whole affair. There are moments when I’m reminded of sounds of J-Pop and classic video game music, not in a blatant Dragonforce-d way, but more in the subtle textures that were recurring motifs in the work of the aforementioned Power Quest. Its an interesting feature that spices up what would otherwise be a fairly standard collection of Euro power metal. I’m surprised someone with Pellek’s past exposure and publicity remains unsigned, perhaps that’s by design but its a rarity in this genre. A nice surprise overall.
Gyre – Second Circle (Monolithic Records): First of all, these guys have managed to manipulate the lettering of their chosen band name to look like the face of Cthulhu, which is awesome looking (and a fine marketing tie in!). Anyway, Gyre play a slightly technical, progressive blend of deathcore, which could mean absolutely nothing to you without a certain amount of experience in understanding what the connotations are to having “core” tagged on the end there. If I had to guess I would say the band must really hate that label now, but when I was doing research on these guys I’d see it thrown around everywhere. There seems to be an earnest attempt to transcend the limitations of that style and it comes in the small corners of these songs, the moments of time which are not filled with djent riffing.
Its like the band is interested in the textural depth of bands like Deftones, or even Opeth, yet can’t seem to allow themselves enough space within their interlocked framework of riffs to fully explore that potential of their sound. I could spend a paragraph worth of space going into the minutiae of what this sounds like but this is a particular style of music that I have always had a hard time writing about without boring myself, much less you, so I’ll just refer you here so you can take a listen. The strange thing is that there’s something to these songs that I find rather enjoyable. I try not to put a lot of weight on my first impressions, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed these songs as a headphones listening experience. The production values here are very, very good —- a trait that only enhances the “progressive” tag that Gyre seem to court. Lyrically there are some heady themes being addressed here, and the few lyrics I’ve seen are thoughtful and well done. Its a shame then that no one will give them much thought because the vocal approach here is far more conducive as an instrument, lacking the breadth to give words and phrases enough enunciation to register beyond mere sound.
As enjoyable an aural experience it was, I have a hard time rating this EP so highly when it comes to appreciating it on the values of songwriting itself. I suspect this is what forms my overall apathy towards this particular subgenre of metal. Yes these are songs with structures but there’s such an inane amount of riffs for riffs sake that I lose sight of what the song is supposed to be. When you listen to a Death song, you understand what it is you’re listening to even though it written with extreme metal language. Riffs have a musical definition, and tempo changes have purpose or direction. When you listen to Emperor, yes its a wall of sound, but these are layers upon layers of cohesive music, and if you listen repeatedly your mind will finally process them all individually and at once to beautiful effect. Years later you’ll find yourself telling your buddy how you think In the Nightside Eclipse is rather catchy at times. No matter how many times I listen to the four cuts on Gyre’s Second Circle, the riffs were always the same violent collision of riffs, nothing more, nothing less. But maybe that’s the way its supposed to be, aural chaos for aural chaos’ sake and its my problem that I can’t find the value in that. I would blame it on getting older, except that I’ve always felt that way towards core and djent oriented styles. Still, fantastic logo.
ViolentorY – Theory of Life (self-released/independent): Hailing from Bulgaria, the awfully named ViolentorY play a less keyboard drenched Children of Bodom-ish take on melo-death with power metal leanings. Think latter period CoB mixed with the wild vocal theatrics of classic Sinergy (except with a dude singer) and Tarot. This is their debut album, having premiered with an EP a year ago and even though I’ve pretty much summed up their sound in one sentence, its enjoyable stuff overall. Sometimes being an obvious product of your influences works well if you know what bits to pick and choose. Take vocalist Dimitar Belchev, who comes off as a mix of Alexi Laiho and Marco Hietala. As weird as that sounds it really works, and is a suitable complement to a musical approach that is heavy on symphonic melody.
I have a particular fondness for the oddly titled “Power Source”, a rock-steady slow builder of keyboard atmospherics and heavy riffs that culminate in the album’s best chorus where Belchev pours his guts out and almost gets all Jon Oliva on us. Its a killer moment that I’ll be coming back to this album for. They get close to the same level of awesomeness with “Master of Dreams”, an uptempo, King Diamond-ish slice of great tension building verses and soaring refrains. There is budding pop songwriting talent within the band (I’ll be honest I have no idea who’s doing the songwriting here) that will hopefully continue to get better and better. Its not all good though, as they misstep with “Over You”, which does seem to be exactly what its Europe-ish title suggests, a love lorn power ballad in which they try to channel Dio’s adamant statement to “Walk Away!” from the evil woman (Look out! Tonight!) except without the verve and panache of the master himself. And there is a bit of filler in the second half of the album that’s unfortunate, as everything starts off so well.
Its a shame about that band name… you’d think things like that wouldn’t matter but let’s face it, it is rather silly. I hope people don’t let it put them off if they come across it. And Theory of Life sounds like an album title by an American post-grunge band, and song titles like “XperiMental”, and “Psychical Decay” made me groan but now I’m just being a jerk. Hey its late and I’ve been writing for a long time! Seriously I like what ViolentorY is doing and while this album is far from perfect, its a promising debut. These guys are unsigned, but you can hear this album on YouTube I believe, go check out “Power Source” for sure.