Spring Cleaning Part One : New Music from Iron Savior / Freedom Call / Behemoth / Grand Magus
Apologies for the delay, the daily minutia of everyday life prevented me from publishing sooner. Also, I’ve learned that a negative drawback produced by a continuous flurry of new releases like we’re experiencing in these early months of 2014 is that it exposes what a terrible job I sometimes do in terms of managing my listening time. See, I have a hard time force feeding myself to listen to albums if I’m not in the mood to be receptive towards them (for good or bad). Sometimes I want to listen to anything but music, and chose instead to listen to the new Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me episode, or back episodes of the Nerdist Podcast, or catch up with sports radio. I’ve long considered that I’m simply not very good at handling the abundance of choice that we all currently preside over, but that’s another topic altogether.
Why am I making a point of telling you all this? Because it partially explains why my reviews of these four February releases are arriving in this third week of March, and this is only half of the new albums I’ve been juggling! With every album I review for The Metal Pigeon blog, I make an effort to hold myself to multiple front to back spins of an album with enough time allotted to formulate an honest opinion. Just when I was feeling like I had a grasp on the new Behemoth and Grand Magus albums, along came the release dates for both Freedom Call and Iron Savior, so I decided to give myself a little extra time to catch up and now I’m sweeping out a load of opinions with one big broom. Part two coming soon! Here we go!
Iron Savior – Rise of the Hero: I was so blown away by Iron Savior’s previous offering, 2011’s The Landing, that I met this album with a great degree of trepidation that only comes with metal fan experience. See its not at all unexpected or out of the ordinary that a veteran band should find another spark of inspiration many albums into their career —- it happened with Accept and their near masterpiece Blood of the Nations in 2010 for example. However, it is highly unlikely that such a resurgence carries over into more than one album, again I’ll reference Accept by pointing to the rather mediocre follow up they delivered in 2012’s Stalingrad. Iron Savior unfortunately walks into this same trap, and in unusually clumsy fashion as well. I honestly don’t understand some of the thinking behind a few of the songwriting choices on this record.
So many of these songs have the exact same tempo and structure, and while its a decent template, it gets utilized way too much here. There are good riffs to be found but they’re spread apart over the entirety of the record and never consolidated to make one knockout track. I’m thinking of songs like “Firestorm”, “Iron Warrior”, and “Thunder From the Mountains” —- is it just me or does anyone else have a hard time distinguishing one from another? This is a twelve track, eleven song album that probably could’ve fared better being only an eight or nine song record. Maybe this is naive, but isn’t the music industry getting to a point where its far more cost feasible to focus on smaller track listings of better material than worrying about trying to give people more bang for their buck? Compact discs full of filler at twenty dollar price tags was one of the main reasons the bottom fell out of the recording industry once peer to peer file sharing rose in prominence. Of course Piet Sielck has his own recording studio, so I guess that argument is dead upon arrival.
I’m irritated at this album, actually bothered by how much its just blah to me. I want to be swayed and moved, I loved the first few Iron Savior albums, I even thought they handled Kai’s departure well on 2002’s Condition Red. When the band entered a mid period lull, they would still come up with a few occasional gems throughout each record, and as I mentioned before, they really seemed to right the ship with their last record in a big way. I’m disappointed to say that Rise of the Hero is startlingly the first Iron Savior album that does not contain at least one sure fire killer track, and that’s alarming. To be fair, there are some ideas that are relatively interesting and halfway to good on here, some even bizarre, like “Dance With Somebody” —- an oddly catchy song if you can get past the jarring juxtaposition of silly lyrics about dancing set against a fairly tight array of riffs (way more tight than dancing would suggest, but whatever). Then there’s “Dragon King” with its hard rocking strut and unabashedly AOR chorus, its the only song I’d consider loading onto the iPod. Unfortunately, after more than seven spins, I’ve yet to come away with any lasting impression of the music on this record, a really bad sign —- I can’t remember these songs when I’m not playing them. That speaks volumes.
Freedom Call – Beyond: On paper I should enjoy the work of Freedom Call more than I actually do, as they are one of the happiest sounding bands in the genre alongside the now defunct Power Quest —- whom I loved. But what Power Quest had in spades compared to their European mainland cousins was the sheer pop songwriting brilliance of Steve Williams, who through his simple yet ultra-melodic keyboard lines not emulated and transcended the best of the eighties pop-rock bands he loved. Freedom Call is by this point the sole project of the only remaining original member, vocalist and guitarist Chris Bay, who does good work in his own particular milieu, if nothing truly remarkable. Freedom Call albums are predominantly spotty affairs, but they will usually guarantee a handful of good songs, an on occasion, some really great ones. They receive my attention as a power metal fan in spite of their flaws, mainly because I feel so passionately about the era they were born in.
Freedom Call are one of many power metal bands that arose during the genre’s spectacular European mainland rebirth in the late nineties. Now eight albums into a career many never saw going this long, they are one of the genre’s enduring veterans. Whenever people accuse power metal bands of having only commercially minded interests, I’ll point out to them the careers of Freedom Call and Power Quest, who have eluded high chart positions, significant sales figures, and media attention —- ironic given their predilection towards writing undeniably catchy, ear wormy music. They’ve gone as long as they have with their too-commercial-its-noncommercial take on power metal for the sheer want of creating the music they want to hear, all while knowing and accepting that they are uncool and very unmarketable —- tell me, what is more metal than that?
So regarding Beyond, fans of the band’s early period should rejoice, gone are the hard rock stylings of the past few releases as the band returns to a more traditional power metal sound. Right away it seems as if it works: This is the best opening to a Freedom Call album that I can remember —- the first five songs are rather great. Both “Union of the Strong” and “Heart of a Warrior” have a fiery kick to their uptempo, aggressive deliveries, the latter being a particular favorite with its Europe (the band) like tendencies. And “Come On Home” has an almost Irish punk style feel to its melody lines and choir-shouted vocals, and I’m rather keen on a cappella vocal sections being utilized more within metal as they are here. The title track is really worth checking out, featuring a beautifully melodic piano fed intro with cascading melodies that swiftly transition into string orchestral accompaniment, its the most epic track on the record. But the best song here by far is “Follow Your Heart”, a Power Quest caliber melodic gem that has a chorus that practically defines the essence of positive power metal.
And then we have the rest of the album, there are fourteen tracks total and about six too many as filler abounds. You wonder if Bay’s dual role as band member and producer in the studio has contributed to that over the years, because it certainly has here. There just doesn’t seem to be anyone in their camp that can point out that perhaps its better to release an eight to ten track album of mostly great stuff, rather than a twelve to fourteen track album that is severely undercooked in parts. My advice to Bay would be to look at doing the next album with an outside producer in mind, it might be an expense that is hard to justify on paper but I’d imagine that it would yield positive musical results. This is a band that has pretty much self produced throughout their career, with both longtime (and now departed) drummer Dan Zimmermann and Bay sharing producer duties. They’ve used Sascha Paeth and Charlie Bauerfiend as mixing engineers before, why not try working with either one in an expanded capacity?
Behemoth – The Satanist: This came as a total surprise, not it’s release mind you, but just the fact that in 2014 Behemoth may have just released the best album of their career, and for sure a contender for being considered one of the best albums of 2014. My history with this band is spotty at best, I’ve largely found their discography to be inconsistent, and for a few records, even uninteresting. I have always appreciated that they try their best not to be pigeon holed into one specific subgenre of metal, instead choosing to play with both black, death, and doom metal stylings… its just that those kinds of mergers require a rather steady hand at the songwriting helm, which I’ve never suspected Behemoth of having. The band’s songwriter is frontman, guitarist, and vocalist —- Nergal, who seems to have approached this album with a dose of inspiration undoubtedly gleaned from his near-fatal brush with leukemia in late 2010. On The Satanist, Nergal infuses not only death and black metal stylings, but adds in doses of ambient noise and even hard rock simplicity together in one of the most alluring and provocative blendings in recent memory.
I think what I’m enjoying the most about this record is the fact that it actually sounds quite different from Behemoth as I remember them. Gone is the sheer brutality for brutality’s sake, and Nergal seems to eschew any focus on technicality in favor of a more visceral focus on organic soundscapes and instrumentation, as well as an atmosphere that borders on cinematic, even theatrical. The guitars aren’t layered quite as heavily as in the past, nor are the vocals, where Nergal favors a far more black metal approach —- a choice that works in concert with another black metal trait these songs have, a focus on hypnotic, repeating riffs and motifs. Drummer Inferno can still pummel us with blast beats, but here he holds back, only using them in rare, blistering moments. Instead he utilizes space, plays with interesting percussive patterns that can breath and not suffocate the song themselves.
Everyone’s talking about “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, with its artfully provocative video (seemingly a Behemoth trademark at this point), and its a good song to serve as the album opener and single, its the most representative track on offer. But I’m more taken with the title track and the album closer “O Father O Satan O Sun!”, with their mid-paced tempos and dare I say even catchy prog-rock riffs and accessible vocal approach. Don’t get me wrong, these are certainly extreme metal songs, but they’re open and immediate in ways that demonstrate Behemoth’s willingness to ease the learning curve for their music. On “The Satanist”, Nergal’s vocals are percussive to match the riff sequences, an effect that results in some headbanging passages —- against a backdrop of almost Cradle-esque ambient arrangements. But my favorite is “O Father…”, with its almost Judas Priest-esque guitars that usher us into a procession of excellent verses all carried by Nergal pairing his blackened vocals alongside almost angelic sounding female background vocalists. The chorus is dynamic, shifting tempos and accelerating into wild, flashy rock n’ roll guitar soloing —- this isn’t something I typically associate with Behemoth. In fact, I get a real flashback to Enslaved’s recent Riitiir album when listening to this, both bands endeavoring to expand their sound by subtracting elements in their music.
I’m sure there are power metal fans that will skip right over this review and even some extreme metal fans that find an album with a title like The Satanist to be too on the nose. But power metal fans might find that complexity within this recording rewarding, there are melodies to be found as well —- if you give the album more than just a cursory listen. And as for those who find Behemoth’s insistence on public blasphemy in any shape or form (including album titles) too schlocky, well I can see your point, I’m not particularly impressed by those kinds of things, especially when in 2014 it feels like we’ve seen it all and there’s nothing surprising about it. But I do admire the band’s commitment to being artistic in all aspects of their art, be it in music videos as well as album titles and artwork —- it takes far more work than just the standard black jeans/black button up shirt combo that is the default setting for a lot of metal bands. And its a rare, wonderful moment when those aspects of a band coincide with an album that is this rewarding on an artistic level.
Grand Magus – Truimph and Power: I’ve grown to enjoy Grand Magus through their previous album, 2012’s The Hunt, it wasn’t a perfect record, but it had very high highs and no lows. I checked out the rest of their discography and found myself liking the older albums a little less, I wasn’t wild about their doomy past I suppose. Lucky for me the band seems hell bent on moving further and further away from those stylings and more into traditional metal territory on their newest, Truimph and Power. There are still doomy moments present, but they’re more touches and flourishes, ingrained within song structures themselves instead of being central to them. Apologies perhaps to fans of their older works, but this is an album that is hitting me right in my comfort zone.
The record opens with the one two punch of “On Hooves of Gold” and “Steel Versus Steel”, both rockin’, mid tempo stompers with highly memorable refrains. The former features a rather tastefully done acoustic intro, before hammering you with martial drums, simple yet effective riffage and Janne Christoffersson’s excellent vocal melodies. While the latter track boasts one of the album’s best choruses, all set to a hard rock bed of riffs and rhythm, to such a degree that its difficult to call it metal at some points (despite the subject matter very much suggesting otherwise). There’s something very satisfying about hearing a three piece band deliver music that other musicians would usually deliver in five piece band setups (at the least). It means that Grand Magus have to work hard at keeping melodies pure and instantaneously appealing, there’s little to no layering at work here —- either they work or they don’t. And I don’t think I’ve ever heard lyrics about the clash of battle set to such a loose, dare I say relaxed bed of music —- somehow it works.
The highlight is the title track, with its slow, tension building rise to an absolutely epic chorus, with the album’s best lyrics “For the triumph and the power / Spoils of war / For the hunger and desire / A blood red throne!” Its a euphoric moment, the kind that makes you long for seeing them live, when you can throw your glory claw in the air and act like a total goof. And check out the cascading guitar transitions in “Holmgång”, where they’re more of a player in the song’s refrain than the vocals are —- I love stuff like that! The album closer “The Hammer Will Bite” is one of the rare moments where the lead vocals are supplemented by layering and the effect is brilliant, elevating an already killer chorus. Honestly almost every song on here works for one reason or another, there are only two cuts that could’ve been left off, namely the instrumental “Ymer” which is nice sounding but nothing all too compelling, and the just above average “Fight”, which sounds like one of the merely good tracks off The Hunt. This is a pretty great record all told however, and is already a candidate to make the end of the year list.