Sweeping Up 2014: The Year’s Last Batch of New Releases and Other Stuff
Here’s whats frustrating: The year is winding down, the release calendar is dropping off in favor of 2015, yet I’m still catching up on a slew of albums that dropped in October and November (and earlier than that). “Catching Up” has been a recurring theme for this blog in 2014, and its due in large part because so many important and major new albums came out during this year —- the kind that demanded at least a few weeks worth of my attention at a time. As a result a lot of albums by bands I wasn’t nearly as familiar with were pushed aside to the “Get Around to It” playlist on my iTunes and I’m just NOW getting around to them! Even more frustrating is the fact that a select few of these late albums are simply so great that they’re vying in contention for late consideration onto a best of 2014 list that was largely sorted in my mind —- and in part in rough drafts. First world problem? Absolutely, and I’m grateful to have it. Here then is my final rapid fire attempt at hopefully sweeping up (and thus finally “catching up”) everything on my 2014 plate. I say this knowing that in 2015 I’ll stumble onto something I missed this year and will be slapping my forehead about it, the way it always goes.
Rapid Fire Quick Takes:
Triosphere – The Heart Of The Matter: You’ll be forgiven for not having heard of this Norwegian female fronted prog/power metal band, as this new album is only their third since their inception in 2004 and four years removed from its predecessor at that. Okay so while they’re not exactly prolific, I’ll forgive them because The Heart of the Matter might just be one of the best female fronted metal albums I’ve ever heard. If you’re trying to imagine their sound, you might be getting it wrong, because Triosphere have a difference maker in vocalist/bassist Ida Haukland, whose vocals come across as a distinctive blend of Ann Wilson, Doro Pesch, and just a touch of Coverdale-esque theatricality. I’ll be honest, when I first jumped into this album blindly it took me a few songs to realize that I was listening to a female vocalist —- ridiculous I know, but Haukland’s vocals are largely deep, raspy, aggressive and downright leathery that I just figured it was a dude singing (a side effect of associating female metal vocals as being typically light, ethereal and very feminine in tone, not a comment on Haukland herself). What I did realize right away however was that this mystery vocalist was impressing me with such a tremendous display of talent. There’s so much to digest here, but I’ve made multiple passes through the album and have yet to skip a track. The songwriting here is tremendous —- hook driven for sure, but textured and intelligently layered, and the riffs are as wild as often as they show restraint. Its a late drop in the 2014 release calendar (December 2nd), and might get lost in the shuffle with every blog and website trying to write up their year end lists, but they really shouldn’t be passing this album up.
Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen: There’s something utterly hypnotic about Primordial’s music, particularly when the band is at their best. If my few spins of Where Greater Men Have Fallen are any indication, then the band has come really closing to matching their career high watershed on 2007’s To The Nameless Dead. While their 2012 effort Redemption At The Puritan’s Hand was good, it didn’t captivate me like its predecessor nor like this new album —- in large part I think due to the band’s return to a grittier, heavier, and far more aggressive stance. There’s something bracing about the riffs here, and they slam right into you on the title track that kicks off the album, one of the most punishing songs the band has penned in a long time. As if sensing that they had allowed their natural inclination towards epic, expansive cinematic arrangements take over too much of their sound on the last album, Primordial have reversed direction here ala Enslaved’s Axioma Ethica Odini album. A song like “Born to Night”, with its incredible sledgehammer riffage is so much more effective because of the vivid juxtaposition of that heaviness coming directly after the delicate, eastern-motif tinged open chord patterns that make up its minutes long intro. As ever, vocalist A. A. Nemtheanga comes across as a love him or leave him proposition, his wild, unrestrained vocals are as characteristically bold as ever and he does nothing to make them easier to digest. He’s such a unique voice within metal though, a rare thing amidst a landscape made of copycats. If it helps you, imagine his vocals coming from someone with arms outstretched overlooking some Irish cliffside.
Vanishing Point – Distant Is The Sun: There’s a really incredible song on Vanishing Point’s fifth and newest album (also their first in seven years(!)) called “Let The River Run” and its so well written, boasts such a joyously melodic chorus that the band knowingly decided to start the song with it. Smart move lads, now if you could somehow manage to get it into the hands of American radio programmers you might have a surprise hit on your hands. Hell I know you’re in Australia, so you might wanna try there first —- is there rock radio in Australia? Nevermind. Point is that its one of the best songs I’ve heard all year and that’s saying something with 2014 chalk full of really great individual songs from a wide variety of metal bands. I’m sure not everyone will agree and will particularly find the Eagles-esque acapella sung intro as cloying or (that other c-word so often used to describe power metal that I find so annoying I won’t ever use it) —- but forget them, that’s their loss (forged by their own insecurity and cynicism —- snap!). Not sure if I’d be a criticism to mention how much the band’s performance overall reminds me of Evergrey, but perhaps they wouldn’t mind that comparison. That similarity is unfortunately what seems to be preventing me from really connecting with the rest of the album. Don’t get me wrong… its very well done for what it is and I’m going to keep giving it a shot, but somehow this particular approach to prog-tinged power metal eludes my interest. What a song though.
Bloodbound – Stormborn: There’s a been a newly resurgent strain within power metal as of the past few years, of bands that adamantly push the boundaries of what critics of power metal would say are the subgenre’s more ludicrous, over-the-top tendencies. That is to say, bands who embrace the “glory” aspect of power metal and turn that attribute up to the nth degree. Bloodbound are so adamant about being one of these bands, that they often forgo important things that other bands in that category (Hammerfall, Orden Ogan, Powerwolf, etc) tend to remember, such as the employing the wisdom of not trying to make every song sound as epic as you can possibly can. The bands that can pull that off I can only count on one hand (Nightwish and Blind Guardian come to mind), and even they have the good graces to reign it in and diversify their songwriting approach. Bloodbound deliver very technically competent, well produced uptempo power metal that really lacks any sort of grit and weight. Its all a little too anti-septic, and they really need a bit of grime in their sound to make what they’re trying to do work. Its like how Orden Ogan tends to play around with Immortal-esque black metal riffing and darken their sound in doing so. I’d like to enjoy Bloodbound, but have found nothing of substance here. I’m left feeling like this is the kind of stuff critics of power metal point to as examples of how the subgenre is full of music that is trite and vapid.
Serious Black – As Daylight Breaks: One of the more out of nowhere band formations and subsequent album releases of 2014, Serious Black is a cobbled together melodic/power metal supergroup of sorts (although I am loathe to use that terminology). It features ex-Blind Guardian drummer Thomen Stauch who finally rebounds after the ill-fated Savage Circus project and teams him up with Masterplan’s Roland Grapow (also ex member of some band called Helloween), alongside ex-Bloodbound (heyo!)/ex-Tad Morse vocalist Urban Breed. Speaking of the latter, Breed seems to be the wildcard amongst the lineup (which features a few more guys in addition to the ones I mentioned) seeing as how he’s in seemingly handfuls of bands/projects at the moment, but surprisingly enough his vocals really work well as a sandpaper grit layer on top of what is some very smooth, slick melodic power metal. The biggest surprise here is just how good some of these songs are, I’m talking serious hooks and big, shimmering melodies. For a supergroup/sideproject? I’m not kidding, take a listen to “Sealing My Fate” which has one of the most elegant melodies I’ve heard this year, played on both piano and guitar to great effect. I’m also fond of the driving, urgent “Older and Wiser” —- Breed’s vocal layering on the ultra-catchy chorus is a wonderful moment. All told As Daylight Breaks is an often catchy, nearly always bright and upbeat melodic power metal album with AOR flourishes that I’ll find myself coming back to. Supergroups aren’t always crap I guess.
Evergrey “King of Errors” Video: I mentioned Evergrey in the above blurb on Vanishing Point’s new album, and if you took anything away from that, its that I’m not particularly wild on Evergrey. I don’t dislike them, but all my attempts at enjoying their stuff have failed save for two (now, three) songs: “Recreation Day”, “Wrong”, and now this newest single from their recently released Hymns For the Broken. That was an album I avoided reviewing for the same reasons I avoid writing about Epica —- to repeatedly discuss how you can’t enjoy a bands’ work is tiring for both myself and you the reader. I will however break that tendency to offer a compliment to both Evergrey and the director of the “King of Errors” music video, the often frequently criticized (on this blog that is) Patric Ullaeus. Simply put, Evergrey delivers a really good song and Ullaeus a really superb music video, the kind no one really makes anymore in an age of digital post-production, photoshop, CGI, and the dreaded green screen.
The video starts off with vocalist Tom Englund in various states of distress in nature, flailing along a river in a raging current for example, but upon hitting the bridge to the first chorus we’re treated to a helicopter shot panorama of the band playing atop the Eriksberg gantry crane in Gothenburg, Sweden. Its a beautiful scene, shot in black and white which helps to give it a tonal quality that manages to match the mood of the song itself. I’m reminded of Tyr’s oft-forgotten music video for “Hail to the Hammer”, in which a helicopter was also used to capture the band and a stone-spelling of er… “Hail to the Hammer”. Tyr didn’t benefit from the tremendous film quality employed by Ullaeus for this production however, and to that point, I’m just surprised and amazed to see something from the man that doesn’t involve boring pyrotechnics or extravagant light displays as a band mimes to their song. If he continues to branch out like this then I’ll find myself having an about face on the work produced by his Revolver film company. He’s getting competition from some other independent studios in Europe that cater to metal bands, the i-Code team in Serbia comes to mind. Still kudos are earned and deserved: great location scouting, great filming, great concept and a shot in the arm of ambitious music video ideas in general. They still exist!
Blind Guardian – “Twilight of the Gods”: Finally! The gulf of four years between new Blind Guardian music is nearly over, and the first sign of hope comes in the form of a lyric video for pre-release focus track (aka the new marketing term for a “single”) “Twilight of the Gods”. To say its about what we were expecting is not necessarily a negative opinion, just an accurate one —- this is modern day Blind Guardian heavily leaning on the wildly melodic, epic direction taken on 2010’s At the Edge of Time album. The song itself is pretty good, if not quite great seeing as how the verses seem cluttered and choppy compared to the smooth, wide-open expansiveness of the chorus where Hansi lets it loose. The main criticism could come on the actual quality of the upload itself —- what was this encoded at? It sounds fairly thin and though it could be reason for alarm, I remember all too well that the early snippets from the Blind Guardian pre-album single release four years ago suffered similar audio problems that were corrected by the time I was listening to the studio album itself. This is a veteran band that knows how it should sound, as well as what its fans want to hear. I’m not suggesting that Blind Guardian have turned into crowd-pleasing yes men, but that their aims and our desires match, a rarity for any band and fanbase.