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Fall Harvest: Records I Almost Missed + Assorted Ramblings

December 2, 2013

Yeah, I know its been a minute. What have I been up to this month to cause such a prolonged silence? Well, the Watain adventure late last month made me realize that I had slacked off mid-year in checking out some new releases by noteworthy bands, that concert’s opening bands In Solitude and Tribulation among them. So at the start of the month I began to tackle the laundry list of records released this year that I hadn’t checked out yet. With my mid/late December annual best of lists deadline approaching I really had to set myself to task and delay a couple articles I originally wanted published in November. There were about fourteen albums on that list that I’ve spent the past few weeks listening and re-listening to, some far more than others, and I’m glad I took the time to get to know some of them better. Its a tepid feeling of inadequacy when you come to an album a year or so late only to realize it should’ve been on it’s release year’s best of list. 2011 for me is a pretty glaring example, where top honors could have (and should have) gone to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow instead of Symphony X’s Iconoclast (still a great record though). I almost got it right in 2012, but slept on Woods of Ypres final, masterful album and so this year, I’m aiming for a higher level of vigilance. Chances are that I’ll probably miss something yet again.
 

But for sure it won’t be 2013 releases by Suidakra, Falkenbach, and the aforementioned In Solitude and Tribulation. The latter two I’ll get to in a little bit, but first I have to say that I’ve been absolutely floored by Suidakra and Falkenbach’s new records. I’ve been a long time admirer of Falkenbach’s low-fi take on folk metal for a quite a few years now but was stupidly ignorant of just how incredible of a band Suidakra has become over their past few releases. Delving deep into their catalog now on Spotify, I’m going back four albums deep and loving every single note of what they’re doing, but their new album, Eternal Defiance, sees them taking more risks with their blend of folk infused melodic death metal. This is a gem of an album, living up to the quality of its excellent predecessor Book of Dowth. Learning a bit about the bio of the band it was surprising to note that they hail from Germany, not Scandinavia, where melodic death metal has its roots and current artistic renaissance. Yet they’re singing about Celtic subject matter and tackling folk metal simultaneously without relying on genre tropes and the godawful musical attributes that define the goofy Korpiklaani, the truly terrible Alestorm, and the once great Finntroll.

Band founder, vocalist, and songwriter Arkadius (that’s Suidakra spelled backwards by the way) has seemingly forged a new strain of melodic death metal, in that he’s not rehashing the Gothenburg sound of yore, nor following the modern of path of moody, melancholy Finnish melo-death. Instead, Suidakra’s sound and songwriting is geared towards dare I suggest, almost modern power metal minded ideas of major key melodicism, where a Blind Guardian-esque touch of bombast twists and turns over a militantly marching bed of percussion. The folk metal aspect peeks its head out in inspired ways, such as instrumentation or simply full blown excursions into realms of pure acoustic folk, where ethereal female vocals chime in alongside well done clean male vocals. I’m hesitant to write too much about this album here, because yep — you guessed it, Eternal Defiance will have a spot on my best albums of 2013 list and I’ll probably go into more depth there. Suffice it to say that this is a rich, multifaceted work that pulls you in upon first listen and then continually unfolds in layers to reveal even more greatness underneath. You need to listen to this album.
 

Falkenbach flew in under my radar in the sense that I really had no idea they would even have a new album out this year. This is after all a band that is basically one guy, doesn’t play live, and has practically zilch when it comes to an online/social media presence. Their newest offering, Asa, is by an incredibly large margin their best record yet, as Vratyas Vakyas pushes his project’s sound into the welcome reaches of a clearer, professional production. This isn’t to say that past Falkenbach records sounded horrible, but they were coated with a wash of muddled atmospherics and distant drum sounds that often compromised the power of what were undeniably good songs. Here, Vakyas’ vocals are pushed to the front of the mix, his blackened grim vocals now possessing even more bite and rancor than before, and his gorgeous, plaintitive clean vocals are now full, lush, and emotionally affecting. Such is the case on the lead off single “Eweroun”, where delicate acoustic pluckings contrast elegantly against a patient bed of hypnotic, warm riffing —- all while Vakyas calming multitracked vocals take center stage. Its an inspired song, with a definite feel of rootsy authenticity that I find lacking in most modern folk metal. On the other side of the spectrum are fierce black metal tracks that hit with a heaviness and aggression previously not heard on Falkenbach records, such as “I Nattens Stilta” which still manages to surprise with a few prog elements thrown in as well. This is shaping up to be the most welcome yet unexpected comeback record of the year.
 

As I wrote in my previous article, In Solitude really wowed me with their performance in Austin opening for Watain. Now when I listen to their newest album, Sister, I wish I took the time to learn those songs in advance of the concert because I’m hearing great moments that I remembered from their set that night, and good shows are made great by knowing the songs yourself ahead of time. My previous reservations about In Solitude’s prior releases were that while they sounded good and there was generally a decent amount of songs worth going back for, the band was essentially aping Mercyful Fate. Generally speaking, this isn’t something worth crucifying a good band for, not when there are already loads of dopey revisionist thrash bands out there making fools of themselves in puffy eighties styled sneakers. But it was a factor in preventing me from getting into the band completely, and I found myself hoping they’d transition into an original sound or at least a new take on their influences in the future. The good news is that they wasted no time in doing so, and the great news is that they’re unearthing a truly original sound in the process by embracing their post-punk influences and toning back the metal classicism a great deal.

On Sister, a song like “A Buried Sun” moves along not on the back of tight riffage, but on airy, spaced out chord sequences that recall pre-Electric era The Cult, and heck, even The Cure. “Lavender” goes one higher, sounding like The White Stripes stop/start guitars married to the dark psychedelia of Bauhaus —- it may be the album’s most genre bending moment, as far from metal as the band is willing to go but a good song nonetheless. On the other hand, the title track is the most propulsive and downright catchy thing they’ve ever penned and its also the most metal moment on the record, with dark descending riffs that lend a classic doomy heaviness to the song. Vocalist Pelle Ahman is quickly becoming one of the more unique vocalists genre wide, his once shameless King Diamond impersonations now finding the usefulness of subtlety and variety and as a result he’s a far more expressive vocalist here —- at times recalling the wild rock n’ roll looseness of an Ian Astbury (sans the “woomon”‘s and “baby”s).  This isn’t an album that I’d recommend for someone wanting hard hitting, direct metal —- but its a successful and very interesting revamp of a band’s musical approach, the sound of a square peg trying to get out of a square hole.
 

The other band that night, the doomy Tribulation, have a new record out called The Formulas of Death, which is plenty riff heavy yet shares In Solitude’s new found penchant for airy infusions of dark psychedelic swirls. I’m still a bit undecided on this one, but a good sign is that I’m intrigued enough to keep coming back to it. They alternate between a doom laden crushing blend of death and black metal without succumbing to genre tropes, or even displaying any obvious influences, and when they hit it hard its gripping stuff. Check out a track like “When the Sky is Black with Devils”, which musically comes across as a mix of Dissection meets latter day Darkthrone. Like In Solitude, Tribulation choose to employ riffs in a far more restrained fashion, featuring long sustains and riffs that aren’t super tight. At times their musical attack brings to mind a blackened version of those early classic Maiden tradeoffs between Murray and Smith —- loose and almost hard rock-ish while simultaneously precise and focused. I love the aggressive moments found on tracks like “Spectres” and “Suspira de Profundis”, but admittedly I find the soft, spacey moments that permeate throughout to be an occasional strain on my patience. When I have the album on in the background and am focused on something else primarily, I find myself enjoying the record as a whole and even admiring those moments of quiet, but when I begin to really focus on what I’m listening to, I find them lacking in musicality —- quiet noodling should still have purpose, direction, and melody. Maybe that’s just going to be my hangup, but it comes and goes, and that further confuses my overall take on this album.
 

I get the feeling that Tribulation will wind up on many reviewers/bloggers best of 2013 lists, some are already short listing it as the album of the year. There usually are one or two albums that end up being a consensus pick of critics genre wide, and far be it for me to suggest that most of these folks don’t truly enjoy the album. Good albums are deservedly recognized as such, but in the past few years in particular I’ve found that the consensus pick of each year has fallen flat for me. And I think that’s where I differ in my end of year analysis and list creation from other sites, blogs, and critics. If a record doesn’t net an emotional or at least a compulsive response from me, then I find it hard to say that its the best album of the year, regardless of how innovative or genre-bending it is. I got a lot of flack a few years ago for publicly questioning NPR’s best metal records of 2011 list, in particular from fans of Cormorant, whose album Dwellings took the top spot on that list. It also appeared on just about every other critical list of metal records for that year, particularly from major mainstream media outlets. Don’t get me wrong, I think that it was an album worth checking out, it was certainly an interesting listen —- but that’s all I got out of it. The responses of that fan base to my list were scathing as expected, and that was fair enough, but my list was an honest one for the time. Of course as I admitted earlier, you’ll rarely get it right in retrospect, but as long as its honest in the moment, how wrong could it be?

So when I’m looking at candidates for the best songs and albums of 2013 articles I’m going to be putting up relatively soon (this month I promise!), I’m taking a few things into account: Firstly that this list really matters to no one but myself and perhaps a few other readers, but its going to be on the internet for all time. And secondly, that just like in these two years previous, I’m going to be opening myself up to the potential for a lot of criticism for the album’s list in particular. As the folks at Angry Metal Guy will attest to, this year started off dreadfully slow in terms of the quantity of excellent releases and there were some disappointments that cropped up along the way. 2013 has been heavily back loaded in a bizarre way, but how that has factored into list building is that I’m finding myself seriously going back to reconsider albums released earlier in the year and taking a look at how much I actually listened to them. The results surprised me, in good and not so good ways… some records I thought would be at the forefront of any album of the year list have dropped off for example. The other main takeaway is that its been a quietly strong year for metal, not the blockbuster that was 2011 and 2010, but definitely not the total disaster many bloggers were scouting out earlier in the year.
 

One major disappointment worth noting that I never commented on before is what in the wild hell happened to Blabbermouth? Website redesigns are totally understandable and even welcome when done right but that site was for better or worse the center of my and most other heavy music fans’ online experience. Its been my homepage for years and was always part of the daily new scouring routine. The old design’s iconic news feed scrolling section is now replaced by a far more inconvenient “highlights” feature, mostly featuring Kerry King’s unwelcome face. There are fewer articles on each page of the site, making navigating a chore, and forget about trying to remember how far back you’ve gone because there’s no easy way to judge unless your memory is spot on (mine isn’t). I’m starting to utilize Twitter and Facebook more and more for metal news on essentials like releases and tour dates, but those aren’t perfect systems for those. I find myself actively looking less and less at Blabbermouth even for entertainment value, which was of course one of it’s most dutiful roles, a sort of TMZ for the metal world. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I enjoyed being a spectator to the comment feeds as well, where stupidity and snark would collide in a misguided, often hilarious display of the worst of our fan-doms. With the comments sections now tied into Facebook, anonymity on the site is non-existent, and while some commenters have no problem presenting themselves as oafs and buffoons, the majority of people commenting on individual articles are turning Blabbermouth into a mild version of NPR.org (where complete sentences and paragraph length discussions do a poor job of masking one of the more abhorrent comment sections anywhere online… the ones brimming with irony and smug self satisfaction). Bring back the privacy curtains and trolling idiots I say, god knows we need something to laugh at in this genre.

One more thing (I wonder if there’s anyone reading this far), Manowar has announced a 2014 North American tour consisting of nine select shows in February. First, the routing: There’s a couple dates in the midwest, one in Minnesota, two in California and oddly enough two in Texas (Dallas and my current location, Houston). Screw you Florida and the majority of the North East and North West says Joey DeMaio! I can’t tell you how much I loath it when bands come over to only do a handful of dates…. this is the United States of America, a world tour within a world tour. Do a proper 20-30 shows and criss-cross the goddamned land. Kudos to them for scheduling dates in Texas, no proper tour can be called an American tour without hitting Texas in my estimation, but two shows back to back in Dallas and Houston? Fans in either city would drive to the other and meanwhile I’m sure your fans in the very metal friendly but geographically isolated Arizona and New Mexico and El Paso really appreciated that. Why not just be cool to your long suffering American fanbase and do a full fledged club tour of the entire country? Because this is Manowar and they can’t be bothered to play shows in their own backyard unless there’s a huge incentive to do so.
 

The incentive by the way are out of proportion ticket prices. The Manowar shows are 75 dollars for advance tickets or 100 bucks on the day of the show at the box office. Maybe the size of the venues being scheduled (a lot of small theaters like House of Blues) can justify these prices but the reality is that the band is simply taking advantage of scarcity. Manowar regularly schedules full length European tours that see them play in venues such as hockey arenas, soccer stadiums, and at the very least, big big halls (clear em!). They rarely play their own home country and make it point to utilize that scarcity to their economic advantage. Look, I understand economics and supply and demand, the reality is that they’re charging 75 bucks a pop because some people will pay 75 bucks a pop. Do I think they’ll sell out all 1000 tickets for the Houston House of Blues at those prices? Certainly not. I honestly think they’ll be lucky to get 200-300 people in there but there’s more to this issue than just money.

For a band who loudly proclaims to be all about their fans and the only metal band that matters, how about showing American fans the same respect that fellow countrymen Kamelot do, with reasonable tours of scaled down production in small clubs for 20 to 30 bucks a ticket so those people who are balking at those prices can cough up the money. The reality is that 75 bucks is a lot of money these days for nearly all of us. Nightwish, a band that can make a really nice career out of scheduling arena tours in Europe and South America toured Stateside last year in a coast to coast tour where base general admission tickets were 30 bucks. They even varied up their setlist a bit as a way of making it up to American audiences who didn’t get to experience their elaborate European stage productions. Getting to see a band that normally plays huge venues in a small club setting, mere yards away from you is a great experience, and they do it without demanding outrageous prices for entry (yes I’m aware Nightwish offered a VIP package for close to 100 bucks on that same tour, but it was entirely optional and you essentially bought a guaranteed meet and greet with the band —- a fair enough proposition in my eyes, as regular ticket holders weren’t being gouged in anyway.)

I enjoy some Manowar every now and then, as good time music for hanging out with like minded metal loving friends at get-togethers and such. They’ve made a couple good, not great albums, and their recent output has been dubious at best but always worth the odd catchy song or two. Are they worth 75 dollars? That’s for everyone to decide for themselves but I personally bristle at the idea of American audiences being screwed over in 2013 like that. For a long time it was pretty hard being a metal fan in this country, you’d have to import everything at huge mark ups, bands wouldn’t dare come to our shores for tours because just the very idea itself would lose money, and we had to put up with non-stop barrages of cancellations due to post 9-11 visa issues. Manowar is an American band, but they aren’t particularly welcoming to their fellow countrymen or seemingly at all grateful for the support they’ve had here. I’ll be seeing three shows for certain in the winter and spring of 2014; Amon Amarth with Enslaved; Dark Tranquility with Omnium Gatherum; and Iced Earth with Sabaton and ReVamp. I did the math, all three of those tickets combined cost less than the 86 dollars it would cost to see Manowar. I feel good about where my moneys going.

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