The Metal Pigeon Recommends – Part One: Falconer
Hey everyone, took a bit of a break there —- had been listening to a lot of metal in September and took some time earlier this month to indulge my other musical listening habits. But I’m back with something that I’ve been thinking about doing for a little while now; that is a recurring feature I’m simply calling The Metal Pigeon Recommends. Its pretty much exactly what it sounds like… or maybe not. See there are bands I love that you probably love, and then there are bands I love that you probably don’t —- at least not yet. Maybe you’ve tried them once before and couldn’t get into them, or perhaps you’ve heard of them but were put off by the genre or cover art (or heck even the band name), or maybe you simply haven’t heard of them at all.
This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration for this blog, 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. Oh and this feature is for bands and artists that are distinctively out of left field that I feel don’t get the attention they really deserve, or are otherwise challenging the preconceptions of what metal fans can enjoy. Point being that I wouldn’t expect a Recommends: Metallica feature anytime soon.
First up is Falconer, an often overlooked power metal band from Mjölby, Sweden that boasts one of the most uniquely individual styles within metal as a whole. Its a direct result of a combination of two very different musicians. There’s guitarist, primary songwriter, and band founder Stefan Weinerhall and his musical background writing for black, death, and thrash metal bands, such as his own short lived, yet revered Mithotyn project. Then there’s vocalist Mathias Blad, a Swedish stage actor and singer, who came into Falconer with no prior experience in heavy metal at all. In fact, Blad’s musical background consists of years of study at both Gothenburg’s Balettakademien, and The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He is in other words, a very serious professional stage actor, a veteran of the Swedish theater, whose work keeps him tied firmly to home base.
His inability to tour led to a brief departure from Falconer after their first two studio albums, when Weinerhall and the rest of the band attempted to launch Falconer as a live entity. The intermittent two albums recorded with vocalist Kristoffer Göbel were shaky at best, Falconer’s style being diluted as a result of having to adjust their sound to fit Göbel’s voice. The band has since written those non-Blad fronted albums off, Weinerhall even going as far as calling them “really bad”. They brought Blad back into the fold despite his heavy duty theater workload, picked up where they left off with him musically speaking, and happily accepted their future as a studio project —- as Weinerhall states: “That’s his [Blad’s] job and we have to respect that. We’d rather have him in the band and not tour than not have him at all. It’s a price I’m very willing to pay.”
The Clarion Call (from Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, 2002)
The centerpiece of Falconer’s sophomore album, “The Clarion Call” is a standout example of Weinerhall’s seemingly effortless ability to create epic, stirring power metal with unconventional songwriting. A wildly melodic intro ushers in well spaced staccato riffing over loudly rumbling bass lines, forming the bed for Blad to carry out the tune through his effortless vocal melodies. And when I say effortless, listen to this track and really think about how much this guy differs from your typical clean metal vocalist. Blad’s theater background has him trained to use his instrument as smoothly as possible, with space for dramatic flexing and emoting. He never extends or strains his voice even when going to higher registers as a regular metal vocalist would. The beauty of this approach is that Weinerhall understands this going in as a songwriter and guitarist, and compensates for the lack of aggression in Blad’s vocals by amping up the heavy in his riffs, and particularly in the band’s rhythm section.
Blad’s vocals aren’t “air-raid siren” like to be sure, but they’re crystal clear, capable of ranging from baritone lows to soaring tenor highs, all while maintaining perfect enunciation. His ability to inflect emotion at will is on full display during the song’s namesake moment, when all instrumentation subsides and Blad is left to sing a cappella —- his own clarion call so to speak. I’ve probably listened to this song hundreds of times now, but I’ll always get chills at that part. Weinerhall is an interesting, oft-inspired lyricist, who draws upon history and dark fantasy in seemingly equal amounts, but no matter the inspiration he always finds an interesting perspective to frame his lyrics from or in regard to. Here is a song that could apply within the pages of the dark, medieval fantasy novel you’re reading, or to our modern political climate as well.
Upon the Grave of Guilt (from Falconer, 2001)
The lead off track from Falconer’s debut, this is a rollicking, fast paced riff monster that pits Weinerhall’s furious attack against Blad’s understated calm, a juxtaposition that is jarring at first but soon sounds second nature. I laugh when I see people write off Falconer as typical “flower metal” —- they’re clearly not listening well or at all, this stuff is sonically heavier than a lot of black metal out there. People who get hung up on Blad’s vocals are failing themselves in not seeing what else he’s bringing to the table. Take for instance just how important it is in this track to hear with perfect enunciation the powerful lyric, “My past is darkening my future / As my present dies / Every morning is a step towards / The edge of my soul’s demise”. This is a song about having deep, repressed guilt at the end of one’s life, and Blad’s sombre reading of the lyrics and knack for dramatic flair is chilling when he rounds off the final refrain of the chorus at the 4:17 mark (all capped off with some really excellent acoustic guitar work). Also, you gotta love that middle bridge section at 3:06 where Blad’s multi-tracked vocals are layered together for an awesome ear candy explosion. The riff storm right after is so sledgehammer that I can practically envision Weinerhall on stage leaning forward as the onslaught begins. What an awesome headbanging moment.
Svarta Ankan (from Armod, 2011)
The lead off track from their most recent album, Armod, which the band had recorded entirely in Swedish (with a few English versions as bonus tracks), “Svarta Ankan” is disarmingly heavy. Listen to that introductory assault, that could practically be the start of a black or death metal song, and that element of pure, unbridled aggression that Falconer has at their disposal is one of their greatest assets. Forget the usual power metal tropes and sonic redundancies, Falconer know how to tear down the walls if they want to and they often do. Their use of double kick in an extreme metal pattern is a calling card that few other power metal bands would even attempt (in fact there’s even black metal styled tremolo riffing over blast beats to be found on the Mithotyn-esque “Griftefrid”, another great track on this album). The extreme metal tendencies of “Svarta Ankan” aren’t even its best feature, for that I’ll direct you to 2:46, where there is a sudden, swooping mid-song drop into an enchanting acoustic bridge featuring duet vocals between Mathias and his sister Heléne. Of course, Hedlund and Weinerhall get in on the epicness with their excellent outro solos, both melancholic and uplifting at the same time —- as all the best Falconer solos are.
Portals of Light (from Chapters From a Vale Forlorn, 2002)
There are many Falconer fans who would easily nominate this as perhaps the band’s finest moment, an emotionally resonant lament set as a character perspective of a person who has just lost their “gentle rose of mine”. The lyrics are poignant, spare and touching, and the decision to forgo guitars for the intro in favor of a solitary piano makes the opening lines even more gripping. Blad is at his most delicate, tender best here, and when the chorus kicks in, his slowly soaring vocals are only matched by the beautiful combination of sustained guitar notes and sweeping strings. This is a fine set of lyrics, and with Blad as the interpreter I don’t know if I’ve heard as much emotion squeezed out of two lines anywhere else as I do here when he sings in the chorus “I feel so astray inside / As I know you’re far away”. His pacing, delivery, and inflection are masterful, and the multi-tracked vocal layering during the final run of the chorus is plain goosebump inducing, I know there are people out there who have some sort of aversion to slow, soft, or ballady songs within metal. I don’t know whether its because they mask their insecurities with aggressive music and find their presence threatening, or that they’re afraid of what others will think if they catch them listening to one. Don’t be one of those people.
Catch the Shadows (from Northwind, 2006)
The charm of this Celtic-tinged, odd ball track is in its sheer variety of songwriting shifts, first from jaunty, mandolin fueled harmonies to speedy, hyper riffing passages overlain with Blad’s chanting choral vocals. Weinerhall has been quoted as saying that Jethro Tull is his favorite band, and primary influence for Falconer, and it really shows here. I love the comparative “lightness” of this track in relation to most of the Falconer catalog —- there’s almost a classic rock feel at work here. The middle drops at 2:26 and 3:19 of piano and vocals are those ear candied moments that Weinerhall is so skilled at penning, And he and Hedlund seem to be able to load up every ounce of their playing with micro hooks left and right, even their tailing off guitar melodies is inventive and interesting. Blad, as ever is on fine form throughout, and we get to see a rare glimpse of him having to surge forward his singing to his head voice during the chorus. Ian Anderson would be proud.
Pale Light of Silver Moon (from Among Beggars and Thieves, 2008)
One of the band’s speedier tracks (right out of the gate in fact), “Pale Light of Silver Moon” features in my opinion the best Falconer guitar solo to date, and you don’t have to wait that long for it. At the 1:05 mark second guitarist Jimmy Hedlund and Weinerhall trade off in a spectacularly written dual harmonized guitar solo that is richly melodic. It comes without any warning, and without any context, it’s just, “Hey! Here’s a mind melting awesome solo barely one minute into the song!” I love unexpected surprises like that, and we’re treated to an encore performance just over a minute later at 2:29, which is almost the inverse of the previous solo —- but still wildly melodic and fun. I also enjoy their usage of near tremolo riffing for the instrumental verse sections of the song, which in combined effect with thundering kick drums create a frenzied pace throughout. This is one of Falconer’s far more complex arrangements in terms of abrupt shifts, halts, and twists, yet it all works towards a highly memorable effect.
Lord of the Blacksmiths (from Falconer, 2001)
First of all, listen to that monster intro riff —- how someone from Fox Sports has not heard that and appropriated it for usage on NFL Sundays is beyond me. Secondly anyone who’s toiled at the forge in Skyrim while sorting through an overloaded inventory for various ores and ingots to turn into their mighty weapons of war —- this song’s for you. The rhythm section is on full attack here, a bruising and battering frenzy of heavy bottom end, while Weinerhall’s (who by the way played bass as well on this first album) guitars alternate between traditional metal pacing and thrashy staccato runs. Blad’s vocals are purely outstanding on the chorus, his normally calm reserve breaking for a moment as he goes higher and higher in registers as he yells about alloys of metal (Haha! Yes!). You’ll forgive the lyric about “power belts and magic rings” when 3:34 kicks in and the band throws in sounds approximating —- well, what else, a hammer hitting a freaking anvil! To the Skyforge!
Legend and the Lore (from Northwind, 2006)
Blad’s comeback album, Northwind, was laden with gems throughout and might rightfully be called the best Falconer album front to back. This track was perhaps the most overlooked highlight of a superb collection of songs. A dazzling display of flexible songwriting prowess, Weinerhall sets medieval instrumentation against the backdrop of what is essentially the rhythm of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, interspersed by Blad’s narrative vocals over guitar riffs that mimic the underlying thundering percussion boom. The chorus isn’t even vocal, the song’s refrain forming purely from the waltzy harpsichord led melody line —- a ballsy and inventive move. There’s a totally gorgeous, epic outro dual guitar solo at 2:40, where Weinerhall and Hedlund harmonize with a flute (well…keyboard flute). I know I’ve said it already, but I love Weinerhall’s natural gift at finding the most ultra melodic way of saying something, be it in a melody line for a song, the lead-in to a bridge, or in his guitar solos. He’s a meticulous craftsman who doesn’t often indulge in meaningless flurries of notes —– his preferred method is to plot out everything note for note, where even solos can squeeze out magnitudes of emotion.
Mindtraveller (from Falconer, 2001)
If Falconer were more well known, the solo guitar intro here would their iconic moment, an ominous ten second harbinger that is supplemented by thundering kick and toms before finally exploding in wonderful racketing symphony of crunchy guitar riffs and Blad bellowing some wild lyrics about “Crossing great rivers / In search of the knowledge of the Gods”. I’ll tell you straightaway that I have no idea what he’s on about when he says “I am the Mindtraveller”, but I’ve become accustomed to imagining some detached giant triangular head with spiraling eyes and an inconvenient floaty flight path. Don’t get me wrong, I love this song and its utterly bizarre lyrics, but I chalk this one up to a ‘make of them what you will’ type situation. Like sometimes when I’m at work, I wish I could just drop everything and turn into the Mindtraveller to float on out over the Houston streets towards said “deep valleys and forests” —- but I digress. This is simply a really fun song with some surprising tempo changes such as in the chorus, where everything speeds up, vocals included. This is harried as you’ll ever hear Blad singing, and his clarity and control are freaking awesome to behold.
Long Gone By (from Northwind, 2006)
Another great Falconer ballad —– and there are many more that I’m not including on this list (in fact, I could probably fill this list with ten other great Falconer tracks and still fulfill the aim of this feature, they’re that deep with awesome songs). What I love about this ballad in contrast to the overwhelming emotional rawness of “Portals of Light” is its laid back feel, and almost effortless musical approach. An old school Gn’R-esque sustained guitar figure opens up the track and acoustic guitars chime in over orchestral swells while Blad sings the memorable opening lines “We dwell in a time, of neither night nor day”. I love that imagery in particular, because it conjures up to me the idea of a sunset and when lyrics can paint pictures in suggestive ways as opposed to spelling everything out, i find that they resonate with me that much more. Blad’s gentle delivery throughout the song is peaceful, endearing, almost lullabye-like in its sheer effortlessness. The spectacular guitar solo at 2:17 is one of the band’s most nostalgia inducing moments, its placement and style harken to a classic Scorpions vibe, and it certainly complements the overall wistful lyrical themes going on. There’s some thoughtful songwriting at work here.