More Catching Up With 2014: Opeth, Accept, Hammerfall and More!
I so enjoyed the format of the first Catching Up With 2014 reviews roundup that I decided to tackle a slew of new releases with the same quick strike/takeaway format. Yes I just dropped a full length solo review for the new Dragonforce album a few days ago, but I’m thinking that issuing single release reviews one by one could get tiring for both you and I (and its worth mentioning here that I have some non-reviews based updates in the works). Certainly one can argue that the arrival of a new Opeth album should warrant its own individual, in-depth review at the very least, and I was planning on it until earlier today when during another listen through I decided that my opinion might be more clear if I forced myself to keep my thoughts concise and focused (as in 400-500ish words — I totally break this rule right away too). So the aforementioned new Opeth, alongside “new” (relatively speaking) releases by Accept, Vintersorg, Unisonic, Anathema, and the mighty Hammerfall are on the docket this time. Its a sequel, like Ghostbusters 2 (only without that gross looking pink slime, walking Stay Pufts, and that creepy painting of Vigo the Carpathian —- yamahama!). Lets get to it:
Opeth – Pale Communion: The Opeth we knew is long gone, and I’m actually thinking that it might be okay. Hear me out on this for a second —- I was NOT a fan of Heritage, and I was also perhaps willfully ignorant of what that album was signaling. On paper it was a good idea, a prog-rock album with seventies influences by a prog-death metal band that had always exhibited that specific influence in their catalog, even produced a few masterpieces in doing so. After my initial few spins through it I remember tempering my reaction by reasoning with myself that it was going to be a one-off experiment in the Opeth canon, and so not to overreact. It was a muddied, ambling mess that lacked crisp songwriting and coherent melodicism; it was the sound of Mikael Akerfeldt over extending (or over thinking) his abilities. But it was alarming then to realize that on Heritage’s supporting tour, the band was largely shying away from past material that emphasized their death metal sound, and Akerfeldt’s public comments towards extreme metal in the media were raising the ire of some, and disheartening others. I sympathized with many of the disaffected and honestly internalized the band’s disinterest in metal as something akin to losing touch with a friend. I summed up my feelings on the whole thing in a little more detail earlier this year when discussing “The Cusp of Eternity” single.
As with most of these situations, our reactions are often too extreme and emotionally premature. The logical fallacy of Heritage that many like myself failed to grasp was, “Would you like this album if the songwriting was great?”, the unspoken next question being “Or did you just like Opeth because of the growling vocals?”. No, of course not you banana brain, you loved Opeth because of Akerfeldt’s unorthodox but intelligent approach to songwriting, his very distinct melancholic melodicism, and the way it was all put together by an always incredibly talented supporting cast (that’s me calling myself a banana brain by the way, but feel free to join me!). The artistic success of their new follow-up album, Pale Communion, is that it hits the mark on all of those positive qualities I listed above, as well as helping to contextualize the role of Heritage and Watershed in the Opeth narrative —- being that Watershed was the bridging record that shed the majority of harsh vocals, and Heritage shed the presence of metallic riffs. When I listen to Pale Communion, I hear moments of transcendence similar to others that Opeth have provided throughout their career, such as in the musical motif of “Faith In Others” (the album’s best song), where a simple, lonely, repeating piano/guitar figure at the 3:11 mark sends chills throughout. I hear them in “Eternal Rains Will Come” where Akerfeldt delivers a sweeping vocal performance that anchors the song as progressive rock elements dance around it, or in the glorious refrain to “Cusp of Eternity”, where a wordless vocal harmony says more than any lyric could. And again in the clean toned soloing over gentle plucked acoustic rumblings in “Moon Above, Sun Below”, a song that seems like it could’ve been recorded during the Still Life sessions.
Its not all great however, as there are a couple trips to Heritage territory with the utterly skipable Spinal Tap’s Jazz Odyssey that is “Goblin” —- I get that its a tribute to the 70’s prog band of the same name, but its the kind of meandering, unfocused, pointless exercise in excess that people get mad at Dream Theater for. The same stylistic choice pops up in the middle of “River”, an otherwise lovely (if perhaps too light and breezy) song that is marred by a couple minute long 70s styled prog ramble. I understand that this is what Akerfeldt is into, and hey, fair enough. But I’ll call it like I hear it, and wow is it boring! Whatever happened to simply writing a good guitar solo to fill a mid-song bridge? Don’t look at me like that, he used to write those all the time! One other thing, and maybe this is just based on preferences because I suppose it could be argued that most of Opeth’s music is best listened to when you’re really in the mood for it, but there were times listening to this album when it sounded very alive and vital —- and other times when it was leaning towards falling flat and washing over me. This is a delicate observation to express so bear with me: Its a good album (for the most part), but I suspect that Opeth loses something when their music lacks a varying range of sonic dynamics. In other words, when they stay in this light-toned, semi-ballad/semi-rock auditory space, their music (even the good songs) suffer from listener degradation in terms of interest level. Whenever I play “Dirge For November” from Blackwater Park, my ears perk up and I’m captivated merely by the range of dynamics alone; I’m not certain I can say the same thing about songs from Pale Communion.
Takeaway: If you’re able to accept Opeth’s transition from prog-death metal to simply prog-rock, then you’ll find that Pale Communion accomplishes what Heritage could not, namely providing something compelling to listen to. Take a listen to it, its the least you can do for a band that delivered masterpiece after masterpiece for a quite a few years there. Oh one more thing, I normally love Travis Smith’s work but man does that cover art leave a lot to be desired. And yeah I know this review was well over 800 words, but I make the rules and I can break them!
Accept – Blind Rage: Four years ago, Germany’s storied metal veterans Accept released a knockout of an album from seemingly out of nowhere; Blood of Nations was as unexpected as it was awesome. I still listen to that record whenever I need an Accept fix (and the fact that I reach for it over Balls to the Walls or Russian Roulette is surprising even to myself). Keep in mind that it was their first album in fourteen years; they were coming off a long period of relative inactivity consisting of two aborted reunions with original vocalist Udo Dirkschneider, and they were enlisting a rather unknown American replacement vocalist in Mark Tornillo. It all seemed like a recipe for mediocrity on paper, but somehow, Wolf Hoffman and company rediscovered their musical mojo. I saw them live on that tour here in Houston, and they were satisfying perfect that night even when down a guitarist (Herman Frank was injured during a fall on stage in San Antonio the night before). But I’ll admit, I thought they stumbled a bit on the 2012 follow-up Stalingrad —- granted there were a couple really strong songs, but the record felt rushed with ideas undeveloped and lacking cohesion (the band admitted as much in interviews later on).
Band’s frequently make mistakes like that, believing that the best way to keep momentum going after a particularly successful project is to dash back into the studio rather than risk the possibility of stagnation from an extended period of time off. Here’s the thing: sometimes that plan works, but only if the creation of the art is the primary focus at hand. When you make the U2-ian mistake of scheduling tours and promotional activities before completing the writing/recording of the album, you run the risk of forcing yourself to pull it out of the oven before its fully cooked. That works for baking deliciously soft chocolate chip cookies, not for delivering great metal records. Thankfully, the band have purposefully taken their time with Blind Rage, as this is an album that matches the intensity of Blood of the Nations and at times even surpasses it on a songwriting level. Speaking towards the latter, listen to the multifaceted nature of “Dark Side of My Heart”, as a song that plays with traditional mid-tempo Accept elements in an unexpectedly straightforward pop approach, down to the eighties glam-rock nature of the chorus (which is excellent). The result is a song that is moody, dark, and laced with tension yet pocketing one of the album’s most gleefully memorable hooks. As far as demonstrations of sheer aggression and intensity, we’re treated to the album opener and first single “Stampede”, whose suddenly accelerating chorus is devastatingly heavy in itself. I also love the Queensryche-ian “The Curse”, where Tornillo takes center stage in his best vocal performance to date in a truly epic song.
Takeaway: The most satisfying aspect of this album is the lack of anything remotely resembling a “dud” —- sure there are songs you’ll like more than others, but nothing that should make you hit skip. And hey congrats to Accept for notching their first number one album on the German Media Control charts with this one, it was a long time coming. See, the takeaways don’t always have to be snarky or silly —- oh I’ve ruined it haven”t I?
Vintersorg – Naturbål: While writing this review, Firefox tanked out on me, gobbling up what I wrote. Serves me right for running both Spotify and iTunes at the same time, I know… I need a new laptop. But I’m thinking that the crash actually did both you and I a favor, because I was really going on a bit with some unnecessary background info and essentially doing a whole lotta rambling. So I’ll spare you that nonsense and break it down like this: Vintersorg is a project that is really hard to love (or like even). You’ve gotta be committed, and you’ve gotta put in the time and the work, and I really mean work by the way —- this is complex, often obtuse avant garde folk/progressive black metal that is often maddeningly messy. A good Vintersorg song will reveal itself to you after many, many repeat listens after which your brain might begin to be able to process what you’re actually listening to (the not so good songs will just continue to exist as a spaghetti bowl of sound). I myself became a fan with his most accessible album, Comic Genesis, way back upon its release in 2000 when a friend of mine played it for me proclaiming it to be the next best thing to Blind Guardian. I was sold, and proceeded to buy up the existing Vintersorg catalog, as well as that of his pure folk-metal side project Otyg (oh, Vintersorg is a guy, real name Andreas Hedlund, I probably should’ve mentioned that at the top). But Vintersorg moved away from the accessibility of Cosmic Genesis’ to wildly avant garde songwriting approaches through his next few albums, and I toughed it out and found things to enjoy on them, but they certainly weren’t what I originally signed up for.
Since the release of 2007’s Solens Rotter, Vintersorg has moved back into a more folk-metal driven style, yet it still carries much of the avant-garde strangeness that is by now a Vintersorg trademark. His past few releases have all been part of a quadrilogy of albums all individually focusing on a particular elemental —- this new one, Naturbål (translated as “nature’s bonfire”) is the third in this series, and perhaps the most instantly enjoyable. When I say instant, temper your expectations a touch because the very concept is relative in regards to Vintersorg (as in its relatively accessible compared to some of his other crazy stuff). The big factor in this is a greater collection of expansive, melodic choruses with some unusual female vocal accompaniment —- a nice surprise and a change of pace. On the album opener “Ur aska och sot”, a furious black metal boil gives way to a rather poppy chorus with harmonized vocals. I treasure moments like this, because Vintersorg has so rarely as of late let his voice soar in this particular fashion that so recalls the Cosmic Genesis era. He lets it go again on my favorite song here, “Rymdens brinnande öar”, where a very talented female vocalist by the name of Frida Eurenius accompanies Vintersorg on the beautiful refrain where the music slows down, vocals are given space and together their voices weave magic. I’m saying it right now, this will make my best songs of the year list, its that excellent. Good stuff happens on the non-duet tracks as well, as on “Överallt och ingenstans”, a song that slightly harkens back to his Otyg folk metal purist roots.
Takeaway: I’ll be honest, I’m still working on this record for the most part —- I’ve estimated about ten full length playthrough’s at the very least, usually done on headphones for maximum effect. I wasn’t kidding about the work part, Vintersorg albums are meant to be unraveled. I honestly can’t say whether its worth your time or not. How about this, go YouTube “The Enigmatic Spirit” and “Cosmic Genesis” songs and see if you like them. If you do, it might be time to roll up your sleeves.
Unisonic – Light of Dawn: Unisonic is one of those projects where expectations may need to be tempered and aligned to reality. Understandably there is the shadow of Keeper-era Helloween bearing down upon both Michael Kiske and Kai Hansen, but if you walked into the band’s 2012 debut expecting a mirror of those gloried albums then you had no one to blame but yourself for not paying attention. There’s a couple things to point out there in relation to the confused reception that debut received: Firstly, both Kiske and even Hansen had embraced aspects of AOR rock in their post-Helloween careers, Kiske more so of course, but Hansen himself was involved a great deal of power metal records with Iron Savior and Gamma Ray that were far, far more poppy than anything he did with Helloween. That the pair’s reunion was brought about while on tour for Avantasia (the king of AOR drenched metal thesedays) should speak volumes to that effect. Secondly, I think a lot of people were infatuated with idea of Hansen/Kiske being some magical songwriting pairing, when in reality Michael Weikath had a fair amount of input on that front back in the Helloween days. So the first Unisonic album was often a laid, back, drivin’ in the sun pop-rock record more than anything, and it when judged on its own merits it was a rather good, albeit spotty affair. Power metal, however, it was not.
So here’s the M. Night Shyamalan twist! The band’s new album Light of Dawn is actually an uptempo, aggressive, ultra melodic slice of modern power metal with some light AOR sprinklings for flavor. The other shocker is that Hansen is nowhere to be found on the songwriting credits, with the bulk of the album save a couple songs being written by bassist Dennis Ward (of Pink Cream 69 fame, he also contributed a great deal to the debut, although my favorites off that album were indeed penned by Hansen). The absence of Hansen in the songwriting is a puzzler on a basic level, but Ward’s material is so strong and capable of harnessing Kiske’s melodic strengths that I don’t mind at all. Great songs abound, where to start? How about “Your Time Has Come”, “Night of the Long Knives”, and “Not Gonna Take Anymore” with their perfect balance of heavy riffs and extreme melodicism? The former is the most traditional power metal song here and its a gem that I honestly feel could’ve fit in perfectly on one of the Keeper albums. My personal highlight is the semi-ballad “When the Deed Is Done”, which features a wonderful guitar motif that kicks off the song and chimes back in as a coda. Kiske’s vocals are soaringly ethereal here, and indeed all over this album he delivers some truly spectacular performances. All across the board, this is a exceptional effort, and surprisingly its starting to feel like one of the stronger albums of the year.
Takeaway: If you disliked their first album, give this a shot —- it leans heavier and faster, and the lead off track is a time traveler of a song straight from 1988. As far as AOR-leaning hard rock/power metal hybrids go, I’m hard pressed to find an album released this year that matches the quality of Light of Dawn. Calm down fellow Edguy fans.
Anathema – Distant Satellites: Metal writers/reviewers/bloggers cover Anathema these days in part because of the band’s past metal heritage as part of the Peaceville three of English doom metal, but I believe the greater reason is that this band has been on a tear since 2010 in terms of releasing amazing new music that’s really worth talking about. If you haven’t gotten to enjoy their past two efforts you’re doing yourself a disservice (“Untouchable” Pts 1 & 2 together from 2012’s Weather Systems topped my list of that year’s best songs). Their newest is a continuation of the bright, progressive rock they’ve been exploring on those recent albums and it may be the most cohesive and consistent album they’ve put together yet. Yes this stuff is about as far as you can get from metal in terms of actual sound within rock music, there are no riffs to be found here for the most part, but the complexity and layering found within the songwriting speaks to something that metal fans of all stripes could possibly appreciate.
I will say right off that Distant Satellites lacks an absolutely undeniable anthem like the aforementioned “Untouchable”, but it does have a handful of gems that lean more towards subtler, hushed, moody rumination. I’m speaking specifically of the album highlight “Ariel”, a slow burning ballad build on a simple repeating piano figure that crescendos upwards when accompanied by echoing guitars and shimmering orchestration. Female vocalist Lee Douglas is the star here, with Vincent Cavanagh supplying emotive backup vocals —- these two work as beautifully as any dual vocalist tandem out there right now. Cavanagh’s voice has gotten richer during this latter era of Anathema’s career, and Douglas sounds like an earthier version of Belle and Sebastian’s Sarah Martin. The “Lost Song” three song trilogy is another exceptional body of work built upon beautiful melodies and fluid movements (more than ever, the band is experimenting with alternative song structures). Organic instrument purists might find the back half of the album slightly off-putting with its increased emphasis on electronic music elements, but I find that it works because Anathema utilize them the same way they do their guitars, with restraint and purpose. Steven Wilson pops in to mix a couple songs (he’s mixed/produced their last two albums) and its fitting to note that Porcupine Tree might be the most apt comparison for Anathema these days.
Takeaway: Another quality album from a band that seems to ooze it lately. Its far less uptempo and way more minor key than their previous two releases, and as a result it takes longer to get into, but the chilled out, spacey vibe is fitting for late summer nights. Hey I’m a mood music person okay!
Hammerfall – (r)Evolution: First off, just for my own sanity’s sake, I’m going to refer to Hammerfall’s new album as Revolution, I don’t care if its incorrect, I hate purposeful grammatical cuteness like the kind being employed here. And I’ll just cut to the chase here, because you likely know who Hammerfall is and what they’re all about —- this is neither the best Hammerfall album, nor the worst, and that ultimately might be its achilles. There are going to be a lot of fans who will highly rate Revolution solely because it comes as the long awaited follow-up to 2011’s Infected, as experimental an album as a band like Hammerfall can make. That album’s release predated The Metal Pigeon blog, so I never wrote about it, but while I didn’t find it nearly as annoying as some did, it was admittedly not what I wanted to hear from them either. The band seemed to sense that from the majority of their fanbase as well and so after their brief hiatus decided to make a concerted effort to harken back to the Glory to the Brave/Legacy of Kings classic era, replete with the return of Andreas Marschall handling the cover art, which also sees the return of their mascot Hector the Knight.
I’m not the biggest Hammerfall fan, but I appreciate a good many of their songs and albums and really respect what they did for power metal as a whole in the late 90s/early 00s. Those two aforementioned classic albums are of course untouchable, and since Hammerfall themselves are directly drawing parallels to them I suppose its okay to say that Revolution isn’t in their league. Part of that may be the lack of former songwriting partner Jesper Strömblad’s technicality and melo-death guitar patterns within the songwriting that so flourished within those releases (yes that Strömblad), but the bigger reason is that these new songs lack the continuous kinetic energy of those classics of yore. Don’t get me wrong, Revolution has some rather good to nearly great songs such as “Hector’s Hymn” (that majesty in that chorus!), “Wildfire”, and “Live Life Loud” —- the latter two with their indelible chanted choir vocals as only Hammerfall can deliver. There’s a truly great solo in the middle of “Origins” as well, reminding us that guitarist Oscar Dronjak is capable of some really incredible moments. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of “meh” moments on here, like “Evil Incarnate” or “Winter Is Coming”… not bad songs mind you, but lacking anything resembling fully formed hooks or other melodic ear candy. And those two things are pretty much what we come to Hammerfall’s table for, and while its not the end of the world if they can’t deliver a full meal of that, I’m definitely feeling hungry here.
Takeaway: Right after my umpteenth play through of this album as I wrote this review I immediately put on Glory to the Brave, and perhaps that’s not fair to throw out there, but it did make me realize that I was dead-on about the lack of raw, kinetic energy within Revolution. They were trying to harken back to that era but these new songs are too slow, too breathable, too reliant on mid-tempo gallops. Perhaps they should’ve fully committed and thrown out a timely phone call to Jesper…