Reviews Cluster Summertime Edition Pt 2!: Symphony X, Powerwolf, and More!
Back again with yet another Reviews Cluster, covering a sizable chunk of some of the noteworthy metal releases that have dropped in these broiling summer months. There are so many that I’m pretty sure I’ll need one more summertime edition of these things to get through everything I’ve had to listen to lately. Its not a bad problem to have, but it hasn’t made it easy to finish off the non-reviews pieces that I’ve also been working on. Some housekeeping for me and you then: Expect a string of non-reviews pieces next, stuff I’ve been working on for awhile and have consistently had to delay because of the flood of new releases. It may mean a delay on reviews for new albums for a bit (except for Iron Maiden’s upcoming The Book of Souls, which I anticipate having up shortly after its release), but eventually I’ll get around to having most of the major releases covered. Its been a grinder of a year for new music, with barely enough time to delve into the last batch of releases before another rolls in. I will admit that I’m excluding over half of the promos I’ve listened through and am only reviewing the ones that are of distinct interest to me for better or worse —- there’s a point when you can get burned out reviewing albums and I’m trying to avoid that. And canning the chatter…. now!
Symphony X – Underworld: Some of you who happened to catch the dawn of this blog back in December of 2011 will remember something I wrote about just how long it took me to get into Symphony X. Long story short, it was years upon years, even after seeing the band live on their Paradise Lost tour, a block that was only cleared through their 2011 album Iconoclast. You might also remember that it was the album that topped my best of list that year (I’ve since retroactively amended that list in my mind, giving the top spot to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum and second to Insomnium’s One For Sorrow, dropping Iconoclast to number three —- but I won’t change the published list, it was a authentic snapshot of that time… anyway…!). For whatever reason, in 2011 I happened to be more receptive to the band’s classically infused take on prog-metal, and their infusion of a thrash metal attack on both Iconoclast and Paradise Lost was ultimately what led to me really being able to sink my teeth into those records. It was Iconoclast in particular that I felt was really inspired, a near-perfect fusion of visceral heaviness in the form of an aggressive rhythm section, razor sharp guitar wizardry from Michael Romeo and really terrific songwriting.
It was going to be an uphill battle for Underworld in that regard, but you’d figure that a four year gap between its predecessor would help its cause. Maybe it does a bit, because I honestly think its a good album, but it lacks the wall-to-wall hooks/microhooks that made Iconoclast such a joy to listen to. Don’t misread my meaning, because there certainly hooks to be found, and Russell Allen delivers yet another excellent performance in singing them —- being that rare prog-metal singer able to make accessible a nominally high learning curve subgenre of metal with his more hard rock inspired approach. It also features what has quickly become my favorite Symphony X song to date, the wide-open power ballad “Without You”. Its the kind of song that Allen is so adept at, with panoramic melodies that rocket skyward in the refrain and with enough iterations of the chorus throughout the song for him to lay on various inflections and changeups. If the guitars were chunkier you’d figure it was Allen guesting on an Avantasia song or perhaps a stray cut from an Allen/Lande album.
Unfortunately the rest of the album that seems to blend together, lacking songs with any real sense of identity or memorable moments. Some are better than others, such as “In My Darkest Hour” with its Whitesnake-ian chorus (I suppose the verses are a little Dave Mustaine-ish, to nod to the Megadeth reference… I doubt its intentional however). I do enjoy the swift transitions that separate each section of “Run With the Devil”, suddenly moving from mid-paced thrash metal to an AOR-tailored bridge only to finish with a strangely alt-rock chorus. Its a weird clunky track that actually manages to stand out. Everything else however is just there, and it took me a long time to figure out why so much of this album failed to affect me at all. I suspect its because the band has capitulated on the degree of the heavy thrashy-ness they doubled down upon for Paradise Lost and particularly on Iconoclast. Here they’ve decided to merge the heavy era of the past eight years with their lighter, proggy era before 2007, and in effect dulling the impact of the album a bit (for me). That they had moved towards a heavier direction was ultimately what pulled me in, and their distancing away from that is whats pushing me out.
The Takeaway: Far be it for me to slap a negative adjective on this album, because I’m sure a lot of longtime Symphony X fans will love it, and its certainly as well performed, recorded, and produced as you’d expect it to be. But I wonder if others who got into the band with either of the previous two albums are feeling the same way I am —- not entirely disappointed, just relatively disinterested.
Powerwolf – Blessed and Possessed: I’ve never written about Powerwolf before, which is odd for this blog considering they are one of the bigger power metal bands across the pond in the recent years. They’re almost at a Sabaton level of popularity in their home country of Germany, with their previous album Preachers of the Night topping the German Media Control chart (a feat not even accomplished by Blind Guardian or Manowar yet, both bowing at number two). They are an interesting bunch to be sure, a power metal band that wears black-metal styled corpse paint (actually their aesthetic probably owes more to King Diamond than Euronymous but close enough), sings about werewolves and y’know… werewolf culture, oh and their music is the kind of hyper-polished take on power metal that’s tailor made for arenas and Euro summer metal fests. They write catchy songs, with absolute intention of sculpting memorable choruses with easy to sing a long lyrics set to keyboard led melodies. As a major fan of Sabaton, I should really enjoy them —- right?
I’ll be diplomatic, I like a small handful of Powerwolf songs, particularly when the band indulges their Twisted Sister pop influences such as on “We Are the Wild”, as good an original song you’ll find on Blessed and Possessed. Its cliche-laden lyrics could be talking about werewolves (I’m sure they are) but they also work in that ever so eighties metal trope of addressing their fans… especially those in attendance at the show that night. Its fist-pumpingly goofy stuff, and I’d be right there in the midst of it, grinning like an idiot and raising my fist in the air in rhythm, drunkenly mis-shouting the lyrics. There are quite a few rather great concert choruses spread across these eleven tracks, the problem is that often the verses fail to stack up in relation: I’m referring to songs like “Dead Until Dark”, “Sanctus Dominus”, and “Army Of The Night”. Enjoyable choruses all, but the build up to them is so pedestrian, and so interchangeable, with nothing in their verses or bridges to hold onto and remember.
When I listen to a band like Blind Guardian, Sonata Arctica, Falconer, or even Sabaton, those are bands whose songs are loaded with twists and turns, structural writing meant to ramp up emotion or tension, and unusual singular moments of brilliance never to be repeated. Its just a whole other level of songwriting that Powerwolf has yet to achieve, or perhaps is not interested in aspiring to. I don’t have a problem with the band wanting to be the AC/DC of power metal if that’s their thing, but its worth noting that beyond the classics I’ve found AC/DC often quite boring. The entirely separate hit against Blessed and Possessed is that the promo version I received was for the limited edition that comes with a staggering ten (10!!!!) cover songs of metal bands past and present. That I enjoyed them more than the actual album they were attached to was my first hint that I might never be a Powerwolf fanatic. The covers are pretty entertaining, with great takes on Savatage’s “Edge of Thorns” and Ozzy’s “Shot in the Dark” in particular. There’s not a lot of deviation from the originals, but Atilla Dorn seems to have a malleable enough voice to cover an array of his heroes.
The Takeaway: If you enjoyed anything they’ve done in the past, you’ll probably enjoy Blessed and Possessed, albeit with a feeling that you’ve been buying the same album over and over again. My advice to everyone else: Get on iTunes and download “We Are the Wild” and a handful of the covers on the bonus disc for your “Party Metal” playlist (I know you have one!).
Luciferian Light Orchestra – Luciferian Light Orchestra: A few months ago Christofer Johnsson, the brain trust of Therion quietly released an album via a new side project of his called Luciferian Light Orchestra, a mysterious band that plays a deliberately 70s styled version of occult rock. In this case that means vintage sounding guitars and Hammond Organ aplenty with breathy, detached female vocals over the top. I describe the project as mysterious because Johnsson is the only listed member, credited with handling most of the music and contributing some backing vocals (can’t discern where though). Rumor has it that one of the lead female vocalists on board (I suspect there’s at least two lead vocalists, could totally be wrong about that) is Johnsson’s girlfriend Mina Karadzic. As for who else is on board? I have no idea, and have tried in vain to find out. One thing has been revealed however, that most of the alleged twenty plus collaborators on the album are members of the Dragon Rogue, a mystical order that will be familiar to fans of Therion — Its founder and spiritual leader, Thomas Karlsson, has been writing Therion’s lyrics since 1998.
The insular nature of the project and the secrecy that shadows its individual parts only fuel the air of mysticism that oozes out of the nine songs on this self-titled debut. Your first impression listening to the album will probably match the one I had, that these songs while relatively simple and poppy for Johnsson are still loaded with a ton of Therion-isms. This makes sense when I read off the band’s one page official website that “the band is performing songs that Christofer Johnsson has written over the years but thought were too retro sounding for Therion.” Well, that explains the Therion-isms then. Its their hook-laden pop appeal that is the far more interesting trait running through the album, that a song like “Church of Carmel” can stick with me for hours upon hours throughout the day… typically speaking Therion songs don’t tend to do that (not a slight, I just find that I enjoy them more via actual playback as opposed to memory). Seriously, its a hypnotic, seductive, and charming song with a hyper-memorable chorus that is shoehorning itself into the best songs of the year conversation.
The rest of the album is no slouch either. I love the bizarre, hypnotically stoned-vocal approach of “Taste the Blood of the Altar Wine”, with its Heart meets Black Sabbath dark, smoky riffs and Deep Purple organ soundscapes. I’m also quite partial to the awesome guitar work and abrupt motif-changes of “Venus In Flames”, a Therion-ism that will smack you in the face. There’s some fantastic female lead vocal work on that song, with a voice that conjures up an actual witchy Stevie Nicks (albeit with a deeper register). There’s also something delightfully campy about its lyrics, particularly during the ending chant/refrain of “We hail Sathanas, Venus – Lucifer”. Perhaps I’m committing a faux-pas in assuming that the lyrics are to be interpreted literally, maybe I’m missing a grander metaphor at work —- with a guy like Johnsson at the helm I wouldn’t be surprised. Its just hard to take a song titled “Sex With Demons” with its lyrics specifically discussing sexual lucid dreams of unholy creatures of the night any other way. Actually this interview with Johnsson explains a ton regarding the lyrics if you’re interested (apparently Karlsson also assisted in penning most of these lyrics as well).
I was a little late on getting to this album, a rare occurrence for me when considering it was new music from the guy who gave me Therion, one of my favorite bands of all time. I had been wondering what Johnsson was doing in between random tour legs… writing that much talked about opera for one, but a part of me suspected he might also be hedging his bets a bit and slowly working on a new regular Therion album just in case. He very well might be, but with a significant portion of his time having gone into the LCO project I guess its not as much as I hoped he would. Am I disappointed? Not really, because this side project has been far more enjoyable than I could have ever suspected (occult rock and 70s throwback rock isn’t really my thing), I find myself listening to the album quite a bit, in the car, on headphones when out for the morning walk. Its a fun, loose, lively rock album that while not the deeply intense, spiritual experience of a fine Therion album, is still entertaining and artistic in a strange, unique way.
The Takeaway: Give this one a shot, even if that just means checking out the “Church of Carmel” or “Taste the Blood of the Alter Wine” music videos on YouTube. Its a strong set of songs done in a style that is annoying when handled by lesser talents —- but this is the guy who brought you Therion. That being said, I suspect that this will largely be a hard pass for some of you, but for you others there might be a hidden gem awaiting.
The Darkness – Last of Our Kind: I’ve gone full disclosure on this before when I listed a song from The Darkness’ 2012 album Hot Cakes on that year’s best songs list (“She’s Just a Girl Eddie” in case you were wondering, and it still holds up!). I’ve enjoyed this band since learning about them shortly after their debut album was released stateside back in 2003. Their mix of Def Leppard, AC/DC, and Queen hits a sweet spot for me that few hard rock bands have ever managed to post-2000. Regardless of what you’ve thought about their image, their over-the-top stage show and their often times silly lyrics, The Darkness are consummate songwriters first and foremost. And I’ve never personally believed that they were a parody band, because their songwriting suggests an honest love of their influences that shine through, and an earnest attitude towards bright major key melodies, harmonized vocals, and openly bared sentiment. Any interview with either Justin or Dan Hawkins should be enough to clue you in on their baked in authenticity as fans of rock n’ roll, and their sense of humor is derived from their inherent British-ness. Despite sharing a similarity in their band names and the year of their debut album’s arrival, The Darkness had nothing else in common with all those bands of the post-millenium garage rock revival (you know… The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, The White Stripes, yawn, etc).
So their fourth album then, the aptly named Last of Our Kind, for certainly few bands are making music that sounds like this anymore, not even Def Leppard themselves. On the whole its an okay record, a bit more guitar-oriented than Hot Cakes (its closer to the debut in that regard), but that comes with its own drawbacks. What made Hot Cakes such a successful comeback album was its very honed in focus on making sure its choruses were shimmering and finely tuned for maximum memorability. That was an album loaded on catchy songs with sugar-pop hooks, largely vocal melody driven —- as a result the guitars took on more of a rear cockpit role and worked mainly to support them. On the new album the guitars are clearly the focus of attention, Justin and Dan trading off wild riffs and allowing their swirling, spiraling solos to be right up front. This is a facet most assuredly helped by Dan Hawkins serving as the album’s producer (a skill he honed during the band’s long hiatus) and defacto mix engineer. It works on the really simple, heavy attacks like “Barbarian” where the riff is the actual refrain, Justin’s vocals playing off it like a call and response. It works similarly well on the rather Cult-like “Open Fire”, with its gang-shouted chorus working as a breaker between verses rather than operating as a fully formed hook.
Where the increased emphasis on guitars tends to murky things up is on songs like “Roaring Waters”, where space that should be left for the development of a fully arcing chorus is shared with screaming guitar figures. Its not a bad song, but its not all that good either, nothing you want to come back for certainly… aren’t we listening to The Darkness for the don’t bore us get to the chorus mentality? If the chorus has nothing interesting to offer, what else are we left with? Again on “Mighty Wings”, the song is sabotaged by loading up layers of guitar wails over synth-based keyboard wash, leaving no space for vocals to maneuver. In this particular case though, I suspect its more that the song didn’t have much going on anyway… I tend to skip it whenever it pops up. On the utterly boring “Mudslide” (a name all too fitting for its sonic palette), we’re expected to enjoy a song built upon a riff so bereft of inspiration its hard to believe you’re not listening to a jam session at a rehearsal. This is all the undoing of what could’ve been a good album, that is a preponderance of songs built around the concept that the riff will be central to all things. Perhaps it was worth a try, but this is also why you use outside producers, to provide a sense of perspective about what you’re actually recording —- surely such a person would be able to tell the band what some random blogger is saying: “Your music works around vocal melodies, you’re not the Scorpions! Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken!”
Its in the more traditionally vocal led songs where the album really shines, such as on “Sarah O’ Sarah”, a sprightly, up-tempo tune with a charming brace of acoustic strumming and wonderfully endearing lyrics. It might be one of their all-time best songs, its lyrics purely in the Justin Hawkins trademark vein of bittersweet, “I’ll be patient, I’ll be strong / Until you see you’re wrong / Because I swallowed / Swallowed every lie you ever spat”. Later in the refrain, Hawkins flexes his creativity as a lyricist, “Sarah, oh Sarah / Make my heart burn / I’m lost within this labyrinth / Nowhere to turn”, which not only scores marks with me for the usage of labyrinth in perfect phonetic rhythm, but the imagery it inspires of a love-lorn fool unable to move on with his life. The power ballad “Conquerors” could be better, but I do enjoy its range of harmony vocals, with a point-counterpoint approach in it’s chorus. But its not as good as the title track, with its anthemic chorus and Thin Lizzy-esque guitar outro segue (the perfect order of things for this band). Its my second favorite tune on the record and perhaps the most archetypal moment on the album. I might normally dock a metal artist points for those, but I want familiarity in my hard rock bands.
The Takeaway: Toughie, but I’d recommend grabbing the title track and “Sarah O’ Sarah” off iTunes and leaving the rest behind. Do yourself a favor and grab a copy of Hot Cakes instead, or even the rather underrated second album One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back. Both are front to back hard rock classics to my ears, with nary a misstep —- the debut is great as well.
Royal Hunt – XIII: The Devil’s Dozen: Like clockwork, another Royal Hunt album lands in our laps, this being the third with vocalist DC Cooper since their reunion on 2011’s Show Me How to Live. In keeping with modern era Royal Hunt, it sticks with the AOR blend of melodramatic hard rock mixed with classically infused power metal, though far more leaning towards the former than the latter. I’ve been viewing this AOR element as a way for songwriter/guitarist Andre Andersen to steer the ship back towards a more melodic meets progressive direction ala the classic original DC Cooper era in the mid-nineties that gave us masterpieces like Paradox. After Cooper left and John West took over the vocal helm, it really did seem like the band got heavier, a little more metallic in their sonic approach, but it affected the songwriting in a meandering, heavy on the prog kinda way. They were good albums and West was a solid replacement, but I missed Cooper as well as the sheer fun and hook laden sensibility his era provided.
I’ve been relatively satisfied with the DC Cooper era Mark II, except that sometimes the AOR elements are so overpowering that they soften the impact of what is still a power METAL band. Its relatively similar to what Silent Force has been going through recently, though not quite as dramatic. That’s not to suggest there aren’t convincingly heavy power metal songs here, because tunes like “How Do You Know and the absolutely epic “A Tear In The Rain” are every bit as aggressive and hard hitting as anything the band has ever done. I’m stressing this quality in regards to Royal Hunt not only because the injection of hard rock and AOR devices into traditional power metal has become something of an enduring yet overdone trend in the past decade, but because the rather distinctive style, sonic palette, and mood of Royal Hunt has typically demanded that the band walk that fine line between uplifting melodicism and dark, somber symphonics.
So when the band chooses to use a hard rock meter to pattern out a riff instead of relying on a classic power metal approach, as on “So Right So Wrong”, the results skew a little more towards pedestrian melodic metal rather than the gloriously pompous grandeur we’ve all grown to love and expect from Royal Hunt. Don’t get me wrong, its a good song, obviously catchy and well written, but I can imagine it being a little more intense, perhaps even a tad more uptempo. I’m talking about the kind of intensity heard on a song like “May You Never (Walk Alone)”, as classic a Royal Hunt tune I’ve heard in years. Rollicking tempos, furiously unrestrained percussion, and a grandiose, aggressive keyboard arrangement fuel the energy in this gem of a track, allowing Cooper to deliver his vocal like a wildman. Andersen is still as adept as ever at writing magnetic riffs paired with synth lines, such as on “Way Too Late”, a brooding juggernaut of an epic with an ascending chorus that sees Cooper hitting some high notes he rarely visits. The album tends to alternate these strong moments with weak ones, preventing one side from being dominant, but the overall effect is one of inconsistency.
The Takeaway: Royal Hunt die hards will snap this one up, as they should, but newcomers might do better with its two immediate DC Cooper fronted predecessors. Of course it must be reiterated that newcomers should have already picked up 1997’s classic Paradox. Its a seminal album in power metal history and Royal Hunt’s finest hour.
To Die For – Cult: Ah the return of To/Die/For… I feel like its 2003 all over again! I’ve always had a soft spot for these Finns and their synth heavy blend of pop and gothic metal, with their predilection towards recording unusual covers (seriously they’ve done a handful… remember their take on Sandra’s “In The Heat of the Night”). They never quite reached the ranks of affection that I reserved for their countrymen in Sentenced (being that the two were stylistically similar to a degree), and later on Insomnium and Ghost Brigade. But their initial prolific run from 1999 to 2006 yielded some pretty good records with a few remarkable singles, and a some really fun gothic metal dressed takes on U2’s “New Year’s Day”, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Its a Sin”, the Scorpions’ “Passion Rules the Game” (respected their song choice here, but the execution was lacking), the Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight”, and yet another (I Just) cover in their spin on Ozzy’s “(I Just) Want You”. Unlike those aforementioned bands of fellow Finnish countrymen, To/Die/For never really released a masterpiece of an album, always playing better as a singles band. I suppose it was what prevented me from really paying close attention to their activities throughout the years. After awhile I thought they had broken up, and it turns out they briefly did for a few months in 2009, but reunited and made a so-so album in 2011 called Samsara (had no idea!).
Throughout all these years the core of To/Die/For has remained intact, that being vocalist Jarno Peratalo and guitarist Juha-Pekka Sutela, the rest of the five piece lineup being filled out by relatively new members. I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to Samsara, but if the new album is any indication, then either Peratalo or Sutela or both have been listening to some of the grittier records by their fellow countrymen who are operating in a relatively similar style. On Cult, gone is the upfront presence of bright synth keyboards that characterized the band’s sound in the past —- instead, the guitars are murkier, darker-toned, more reliant on minor key melodies with long, modulating sustains on guitar. Now granted the latter is a fundamental characteristic of Finnish melodic metal (death or power metal), but do a side by side comparison of a To/Die/For oldie like “Hollow Heart” and the single from this album “In Black” and you’ll hear what I’m referring to. Modern To/Die/For owes more to post 2003 Amorphis, the last Ghost Brigade album, and those last two classic Sentenced albums than anything from a gothic rock milieu ala HIM (more fellow countrymen!).
Over at Angry Metal Guy, much of the discussion surrounded the seeming decline of Peratalo’s vocal talents, and indeed he does sound vastly different. His deep voiced clean vocals of the past now more resemble Poisonblack-era Ville Laihiala (really intense resemblance between the two voices here), and the change is a pretty good suspect for the musical shift towards a dirtier, darker, heavier style. This is the most metallic I’ve ever heard To/Die/For, and while it does tend to take away from their rather distinctive identity, it does yield some pretty good songs. Actually, I’m quite taken by the first three songs that open the album in a Finnish depressive salvo, from the aforementioned “In Black” to the furious, expansive melancholy of “Screaming Birds” (my personal favorite —- love the guitar solo from the 4:10-4:38 mark!), and the far more traditional (ie synth heavy) “Unknown III” which serves as a tribute to Tonmi Lillman (former To/Die/For, Lordi, and Sinergy drummer) with its raw, open-nerve ending lyrics: “Now you’re in the unknown / Your name’s written in stone / I just want you to know / You really had meaning / You know sometimes…. sometimes I still / Get wrapped up in the feeling / I don’t belong here”. Peratalo is joined on that refrain by a female vocalist named Linnea Kelin, who adds an subtle touch of additional pathos to an already emotive lyric.
There’s other good stuff too, “You” is a throwback to the band’s far more gothic rock drenched stylings of the past, despite Peratalo’s harsher vocals. And I love the direct simplicity of “Let It Bleed”, which might be setting some kind of record for the quickest launch into a song’s chorus in the history of metal (mere seconds). If anything its the two dirge-like ballads “Mere Dream” and the album closer “End of Tears” that fall flat, with no real discernible thru-melody to carry them while awash on a river of keyboard atmospherics. And in keeping with tradition, the band unloads another unusual cover tune, this time its a clunky take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”, which was a snazzy dance-pop number in the 80s but one of those songs that didn’t really need a rock/metal makeover. Its really the first of their covers to fall completely on its face, and that it winds up in the middle of the album ruins an otherwise nicely flowing song selection. I guess overall I’m more at peace with Peratalo’s changing vocals than the folks over at Angry Metal Guy were, because it seems that both he and Sutela knew exactly how to compensate for that change and adjust their songwriting approach accordingly. What they lost in originality they made up for with some really terrific songs.
The Takeaway: Much better than you’d probably be expecting from a band only releasing their second album in nearly a decade. Maybe its just me and my unabashed love of Finnish melancholy (it certainly does seem to strike a chord within me) but this is a surprisingly strong set a songs with only a few blemishes to skip over. Worth the time to investigate.