The Fall Reviews MegaCluster Part I: Swallow the Sun, Draconian and More!
Throughout the year, I’ve made not-so-veiled references to 2015 being the year with possibly the most noteworthy metal releases that we’ve ever seen. The sheer volume has been overwhelming. Here’s what I overlooked: that it wasn’t just going to be releases that were noteworthy to me, but releases that were noteworthy to everyone else as well. This year publicists, record labels, and bands themselves sent out more promos and emails than I ever expected, and before you mistake The Metal Pigeon blog as a beacon for traffic (it is not I assure you), I realize that most of them came because of my duties as co-host of the MSRcast podcast. Simply put, when blogs or metal writers I follow on Twitter talked about an album they loved, it happened to be a band I wasn’t aware of or expecting, and it went on my to-do list and my promo folder. No exaggeration, because I’ve kept count, I had 126 promos of individual new releases land on my metaphorical desk! Okay, so some of them were hard rock (apparently writing favorably about certain power metal bands makes you a hot target for any AOR oriented label) and some of them were bands I’d never heard of, but most were from established, popular metal bands.
So after going through them all, I whittled them down to a range of 15 to 20ish that I might want to talk about, hence the first of a multiple part Fall edition reviews cluster. Some of these might be albums released a few months or longer ago, but better late than never I suppose. Because there’s so many albums to discuss I’ll be trying (key word) to keep these on the shorter side, but some might go longer (yeah okay, the first one went really long). Bear with me, its going to be a crazy few weeks ahead.
Swallow The Sun – Songs From The North I, II & III: I’m not as big a Swallow the Sun aficionado as my MSRcast cohost Cary, but when he described this new triple disc thematic album to me on a recent episode of the podcast, I was all in. I love stuff like this, of a band running and gunning on ambition, throwing caution to the wind and doing something a record label would shake its head at (although perhaps in this age of struggling record sales, more projects like this are exactly what the industry needs to renew an interest in physical sales). I call this a thematic album in regards to its division of stylistic approaches across its three individual discs, not in regards to their lyrics, which effectively share similar Swallow the Sun(ny!) sentiments across the board (they’re a doomy melo-death band from Finland, you know the score). It goes like this: the first disc is a Swallow the Sun album done in the band’s normal/regular stylistic vein; the second disc is a largely acoustic album; and the third disc is an original album of rather extreme funeral doom —- I should hasten to point out that all three discs consist of entirely original new material (no re-records on that acoustic album, bonus points in my book). Its an intriguing proposition on paper, sort of like Opeth’s Deliverance / Damnation experiment taken a step further (and released simultaneously). If I’m being honest, I was more excited to hear the acoustic album, and that’s what I wound up listening to first. That’s certainly not intended to be a slight against their normal approach… its just that I hadn’t to this point really loved any of their past records like I have albums by Insomnium, Ominium Gatherum, and Amorphis.
Whats caught me off guard is how much I honestly am enjoying the first “normal” disc here. The songwriting on Songs From the North I is sharp, focused, riveting and full of darkly beautiful, evocative melodicism with just enough of a tempo kick in certain elements of the instrumentation to keep everything interesting on a sonic level. I’m not a big doom guy in general, because with the traditional stuff the slow tempos of everything just weigh on my interest and attention levels, but Swallow the Sun have always been intriguing because they attempted to mix melo-death musicality with doom metal structures. That means even when the tempos are at their doom-iest, there’s something captivating going on with the guitar patterns —- such as on the gorgeous opener “With You Came The Whole Of The World’s Tears”, a nine minute epic built on those aforementioned lead guitar patterns that move in procession over elongated rhythm and bass guitars that are structured like jutting pieces of a glacier moving down a mountain. Vocalist Mikko Kotamaki’s ushers everything along with one of the bleakest, fiercest doom/death vocal hybrids you’ll ever hear, his extreme voice having the flexibility to bend from relatively high-pitched screams to deep, rich guttural passages where he still maintains control and enunciation in the delivery of the lyrics. Furthermore, he demonstrates a smooth, emotive, accented clean vocal on the opener and in moments of songs such as “10 Silver Bullets” and my personal favorites for vocal work, “Heartstrings Shattering” and “From Happiness To Dust”.
Those latter two aforementioned songs might just be some of the best examples of microcosms for why the first disc is as rich, diverse, and practically flawless as it is. On “Heartstrings Shattering”, the band builds around Kotamaki’s cleanly sung laments, guitars echoing off the end of his lyrics like further continuations of sentiments they couldn’t set to words. His extreme metal vocal passages are layered in between those clean vocal passages, some of them sung by guest female vocalist and past contributor to the band Aleah Stanbridge (who incidentally also serves as the photographer for the individual art on each of the albums packaging within —- the ones with the model wearing tree branch/antlers, photography that contributes massively to just how excellent the overall design/packaging of the album turned out). Her vocals are a delicate, nuanced counterpoint to all the aggression we’re getting, yet her tone seems just shy of being ethereal because its mixed with a touch of despair that helps keep her in tone with the music… something a lot of other bands tend to get wrong by simply going the beauty and the beast route when it doesn’t suit the music. Here Stanbridge is a part of the fabric of the song as a whole, her appearance is sudden but not jarring, and the music doesn’t shift in tempo or tone to accommodate her because it simply doesn’t need to. As for “From Happiness to Dust”, sweet maria, listen to how unconventional yet perfect that open chord sequenced chiming guitar motif is when introduced at the :33 second mark. Its employed relatively sparingly throughout the song’s near nine minutes, but every occurrence seems like a religious experience. Its on the list as a song of the year candidate.
The first disc is such a towering achievement, that it threatens to overshadow the inspired Songs From the North II, the band’s all acoustic work. Its the perfect autumn chill out disc, a collection of minor key hushed lullabyes built on hypnotic acoustic guitar patterns, draped with keyboard built string arrangements, with Kotamaki’s delicate clean vocals adrift over the the top. That description might seem like its all a little mechanical or by the numbers, but once again the band’s songwriting here wins the day. Certain songs fall further in the “acoustic chill out” spectrum than others, such as “Away”, a song that sleepily sways along, drawing you into its almost relaxing, serene ambient nature. Others are more built on James Taylor-esque simple hooks, as on “Pray For the Winds to Come”, where guitarists Juha Raivio and Markus Jamsen deliver a lilting guitar motif built on chiming chords that actually serves as a strong hook, Kotamaki slipping his vocals in between their strongest accents. He’s joined by another female vocalist on the titular “Songs From the North”, one Kaisa Vala, who sings the refrain in Finnish with a relatively bright and cheery vocal tone —- believe me it works, not only because it better suits the complexities of Finnish language consonants but because in this case her voice is a warming accent to relatively frosty verses (musically and lyrically speaking —- the song is essentially a love letter to the Finnish wilderness).
Its interesting to me that I went into this album looking forward to hearing the acoustic disc the most, in fact I listened to it first, and its a lovely listen don’t get me wrong… but I’ve been realizing that its the first “regular” disc that’s been getting most of the spins lately. Its the more dynamic of the two, its longer length pieces having more peaks and valleys, more differentiation with songwriting structures and composition whereas the acoustic album tends to run at a very specific and unchanging speed for the most part. Of course this is to say nothing of this set’s third, “extreme funeral doom” disc… look, I’ve given it more than a handful of spins, and maybe its just that this particular flavor of metal isn’t for me (historically, that’s the way its been for my relationship with funeral doom) but I’m just having a hard time getting into it. It has its moments, such as on “Empires of Loneliness”, where the tempos of both the rhythm guitars and percussion alternate with speedier attacks to contrast to the sludge-paced tempo and overly extreme doom vocals (which I suppose Kotamaki does well). There’s also some really intriguing guitar work on the back end of “Abandoned By The Light” in the form of melodic figures that act as defacto solos of a sort… I almost wish they were utilized on the first disc in some other form. But on other more unforgiving tracks, “Gathering of the Black Moths” and “7 Hours Late” to name a pair, I’m just unable to find anything redeeming in their funeral procession-like tempos and overly droning vocalizations that they apparently require, but someone will —- its obvious that they are well done.
I applaud Swallow the Sun’s ambition in their approach to this project, its the kind of the thing that makes you excited to be a metal fan —- seriously, what other genre will you get something like this? In their attempt they’ve not only created some truly remarkable music, but renewed my interest in their work. Its the old story repeated once more: I find myself loving something new from an established band whom I had largely been ambivalent to, and its going to get me looking to revisit their back catalog to see if I’m now receptive to something amazing that I’ve missed. I never internalize that as self-chastening, instead I embrace it, it means there’s another band out there doing incredible stuff that I can proudly call myself a fan of.
The Takeaway: The only stain here is that I’m left thinking about how that problematic third disc might tarnish some of the luster on those first two —- this would be a feisty candidate for the album of the year list but I can’t just ignore how I feel about the funeral doom stuff, I mean, they made it part of the album concept! I guess we’ll see how it shakes out a few weeks from now.
Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos: I can’t remember when I started to tune out Children of Bodom… it was certainly after 2006’s abominable Are You Dead Yet?, where the band’s unfortunate turn towards incorporating industrial influences and veering away from their Finnish power metal influences left us with an album as sterile, formless, and dry as you can imagine. I would half-heartedly pay attention to the releases that followed, but sometime after either 2008’s Blooddrunk or 2011’s Relentless Reckless Forever I decidedly tuned out. I can’t remember listening to 2013’s Halo of Blood (I had to do a search on my own site to see if I had even written about it, I had not) and recently I asked a friend who paid more attention whether or not it was any good —- Bodom were his gateway into metal band and I trusted his opinion, but he hemmed and hawed a bit and that told me all I needed to know. When I got this promo, I thought about passing on it for a second but then I took a look at the cover art —- hmm… pretty nice, actually reminds me a bit of classic melo-death covers albeit with the traditional Bodom mascot. It also suddenly reminded me of one of my favorite virtues of being a metal fan, that of checking out or even buying an album simply because the cover art was compelling (see Myrkyr below), and so based on that alone, I decided to give I Worship Chaos a shot.
And I’m glad I did, because I never really thought that I would find myself enjoying anything by this band again apart from going back and spinning their first four albums again. Seeing as how I’m limited in my context as to how Halo of Blood might have helped set up a return to form that I’m hearing here, I can only guess that the band’s return to embracing their power metal influences is a new development. Its only guesswork here whether or not any of that has something to do with the departure of Roopa Latvala, as the band recorded this album as a four piece, Alexi Laiho handling all the guitar parts himself. Being that he’s always been the sole songwriter, perhaps the burden of shouldering both dual rhythm and lead parts caused Laiho to instinctively return to his “safe” roots of Malmsteen/Tolkki influenced guitar work with all their melodic bends and tails and rely less on the thrashier approach he’d been using for many of their previous questionable albums. Songs like “I Hurt”, “My Bodom (I am The Only One)”, and “Morrigan” are more instantly memorable than I’ve heard since the days of “Needled 24/7” (well, and all of the Hatecrew Deathroll album really), as Janne Wirman’s trademark keyboards are given space up front for once and Laiho seems all to happy to interplay with them, bouncing his riffs off of them with precision rather than just laying down messy riffs over the top. Its a trio of songs that launch the album on an adrenaline-pumping note, one of their best opening salvos in ages.
Even when things slow down, the songwriting seems sharp enough now to keep things compelling, as on “Prayer For The Afflicted”, where Laiho affixes addictive twists on to his monstrous riffs, so that each iteration throughout the song sounds a little different. And perhaps my favorite is the relatively glacial (for Bodom standards) “All For Nothing”, a dreamily-atmospheric tune that is built on Warmen’s tinkling keyboards and rather Finnish-y soundscapes. I love the mid-song bridge that turns into an extraordinarily epic guitar/keyboard solo at the 3:38 mark, because while I can’t quite put my finger on why, it reminds me of something off Hatebreeder (could it be the actual keyboard tone?). As a song, its a microcosm for why I think this album works so well, that it seems Laiho has returned to a songwriting style that has edged closer to complexity in riffs, arrangements, and overall structure —- I simply think he writes better when he allows himself the indulgence of being a child of the shredder school, of allowing his guitar figures to splurge on extra notes, like he’s making it rain (so to speak). The hope is that he realizes that he’s stumbled back into something he should hold onto for dear life.
The Takeaway: Is I Worship Chaos on the same level as classics such as their first four albums? Not quite, but its as close as they’ve been in well over a decade, and that’s worth celebrating and acknowledging. For the future, I’ll be paying attention again.
Myrkur – M: Ah yes, finally Myrkur. An album that drummed up no small amount of controversy upon its early fall release a few months ago mostly due to the identity of the person behind the band. It was known that Myrkur was a one woman band, but when that woman was revealed to be Danish model Amalie Bruun a lot of the usual internet nonsense began to occur. I suspected that a lot of these debates about Bruun’s validity as a black metal musician (she was getting some flack in metal circles for being one half of indie-pop band Ex-Cops) were thinly veiled jabs at her gender. That she was a model flirting with mainstream circles seemed to only add fuel to the fire —- never mind that this debut album was produced by Ulver’s own Kristoffer Rygg aka Garm and featured some rather credible black metal musicians in the fold such as Mayhem’s Teloch on guitar and Oyvind of Nidingr on drums. Never mind that Bruun has been a musician for as long as she’s been a model, having began her recording career in 2006. Just under twenty years after Nightwish came on the scene, why is there still the merest hint of sexism in metal? Hmm… I guess I should amend that, seeing as how despite the prevalence of tight corsets and sometimes myopic fandom, power metal audiences have long since accepted women in metal as equals (last year’s Triosphere anyone?), it seems that extreme metal audiences are the ones with the real problem. Funny that for all of black metal’s malleability, for its adoption by the hip indie set as yet another musical subgenre they can lay claim to and enjoy ironically or post-ironically (or whatever the hell they’re doing now), its the subgenre with the single largest gender gap in music… and I mean all of music.
Anyway, gender politics aside, I’ve been revisiting this album every now and then since I first heard it way back in September when I originally intended to publish a review for it. I couldn’t quite decide if I liked it enough based on its own merits or I was just reacting positively towards it due to feeling annoyed by the hate Bruun was receiving (and before you think it, its certainly not my intention to paint myself as some social justice warrior… ugh, the very idea). It was also one of those rare impulse purchases I made at Houston’s supposedly best record store (Cactus Music… hardly any metal to speak of, tons of indie rock) just based on its gorgeous cover art and my memory springing to life at the sight of the band name on the record label sticker on the front. I hardly ever buy an album these days without hearing something from it first, but I remembered liking the Myrkur EP from last year and the very notion of buying blind took me back to those old heady days of record store pillaging, before high speed internet, iTunes and Spotify. I was enthralled on the car ride back by what I was hearing from the very first song “Skøgen skulle dø”, Bruun’s ethereal, delicate vocals introducing a crush of sorrowful violins and accompanying strings, all drenched in melancholic splendor. The guitars were slightly fuzzy, muted just enough to be subservient to Bruun’s vocals and some tremolo picked leads, all mixed to sound like they were coming some distance away from a foggy moor. It was lush sounding, and actually evoked the dreamlike feeling I got from staring at the cover art. I drove around a little extra just to finish the album in my car.
So back to the present day, and my finally coming to a conclusion that I’ve been trying to avoid all this time: I enjoy Myrkur more for the clean vocal led, folk infused “songs” (quoted because at times they’re quasi-instrumentals) rather than for its black metal components. I find myself wishing that pieces such as “Vølvens spådom” were longer (1:38), because her usage of intertwined vocal layering here is imaginative and almost reverent in the atmosphere it conjures up, and Garm should get a ton of credit for that in how he’s approached the mixing. In fact, he’s a touchstone for all the aspects of Myrkur with his first three Ulver albums, seeing as how the mix of black metal and acoustic/atmospheric passages remind me of Bergtatt. I played the album for a black metal loving friend of mine, sure he would scoff at it, but he surprised me and told me he too actually enjoyed the clean, folky passages more, that he wanted an album full of those (Myrkur’s very own Kveldssanger I suppose). Its not that the black metal stuff is bad at all, its not, and Bruun is a capable second-wave styled black metal grim screamer, its just that I can’t help but be unmoved by those tracks, there’s a feeling that I’ve already heard it all before. This would make sense to me only if I didn’t find myself loving Blut Aus Nord’s ode to second wave black metal with 2014’s Memoria Vetusta III (number four on last year’s best albums list). I guess I can put it this way, Bruun and her band definitely hit all the right notes on the black metal side of things, but maybe that’s just it… it sounds like black metal just for the sake of being black metal, as if there’s no real underlying reason for it to sound that way at all.
The Takeaway: I still enjoy listening to the entirety of M in general, but I think Bruun would be better served by forging more of a heavier identity that she can truly call her own. Looking forward to what she does next with the project.
Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall – Kingdom of Rock: Power metal’s favorite hired gun is at it again, this time returning with another chapter of his own eponymous project (the first self-titled Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall album was released in 2013). Karlsson has been on somewhat of a hot streak lately, with his songwriting work on the recent Kiske/Somerville album and his role as a songwriting partner in Primal Fear alongside Mat Sinner and Ralph Scheepers, just to name a few of his wide ranging list of projects. He is actually directly employed by Frontiers Records to work as a songwriter for many of their collaboration albums, side projects and what have you, a guitarist who is able to write for a variety of voices —- that kind of versatility is something to be prized in a songwriter, despite your views on any metal related project not being entirely 100% home spun by the band. After listening to no small handful of Karlsson penned albums however, its gotten easier to pinpoint where his comfort zone lies, that is in AOR styled hard rock with power metal flourishes (rarely does he write from a purely power metal base). So what separates Magnus Karlsson’s Freefall from the many other non-Primal Fear projects he’s worked on? Not much really —- he brings on a variety of vocalists on board, some of them from said projects he’s worked on (Jorn, Michael Kiske) and a bunch from the hard rock/AOR world (Tony Harnell of TNT/Skid Row fame, David Readman of Pink Cream 69, Rick Altzi of At Vance / Masterplan, Harry Hess from Harem Scarem) and gives them songs that individually suit their vocals.
Karlsson is upfront about that facet of his relationship with guest vocalists, that he bends his songwriting to their style, which isn’t always the case in multi-vocalist / one songwriter projects. For example with Tony Martin (yep that one), he delivered a song that touches on Martin’s work with Sabbath, the main riff even having that Iommi-esque extension during the chorus (Martin co-wrote on this one, the only song that ended up as a writing collaboration). And there’s a Rainbow-esque gem with Joe Lynn Turner called “No Control” that is the most satisfying performance that I’ve heard from him since “Stone Cold”. A friend of mine and I were listening to that one when in my car the other day and we briefly discussed how the lyrics seemed relevant to the early 80s, yet slightly questionable in our modern era, judge for yourself “…you better stay away / ‘Cause I’ve got no control…”. This is nitpicking, and maybe I’m just being a cheeky bastard, but what exactly is the narrator insinuating here? Where does this lack of control factor in? In the early 80s wouldn’t this clearly be a reference to his bad-boy demeanor, that he can’t be tied down to one woman and he’s gonna hurt this poor girl he’s addressing? I’d like to think so, and perhaps Karlsson decided to do a little time travel songwriting with Turner on board, but in 2015 the lyric comes off a little criminal-y.
The two best vocal performances however are from an entirely unknown vocalist and one with lead vocals from Karlsson himself. On the latter, “Walk This Road Alone”, Karlsson delivers a surprisingly convincing performance as a vocalist, his style equal parts Joey Tempest and Tony Harnell, and he injects enough passion into his delivery to make you consider that perhaps these particular lyrics aren’t entirely built from cliches. My favorite is the album’s only female fronted song, “The Right Moment”, with vocals courtesy of newcomer Rebecca De La Motte of whom absolutely nothing is known. She’s got a real Ann Wilson thing going on with her voice, maybe not as rough-hewn, but very similar in essence —- and Karlsson gives her an explosive song with a chorus that seems straight out of the kind of 80s hard edged pop-rock that makes us adore Pat Benatar and Roxette (don’t deny it). I’d take an album of Karlsson writing new material entirely for De La Motte’s vocals, she’s a legitimate talent and the metal world can always use another rock oriented female vocalist to inject some diversity into its ranks. I hope she gets some traction with this, if only to guest on other people’s records. Here’s hoping someone sends her song over to Tobias Sammet sometime in the future.
The Takeaway: A solid sophomore effort from Karlsson with what is essentially his solo project, the least Frontiers Records could do for the guy considering all the albums he’s written for the label. If you really enjoy this kind of thing then consider this one a safe bet, but if you’re limited to merely adding some fun, ultra catchy singles to a road mix, go on iTunes and download “No Control” and “The Right Moment” —- the most essential cuts here.
Draconian – Sovran: I believe it was a regular reader at this blog, Robert if I’m not mistaken, who pushed me to check out Draconian a few years ago or so, a band whose name I had seen in passing here and there and never bothered to investigate (forehead slap here). Once I did, I found a band that I liked on a surface level —- they were intriguing and often brilliant on their more recent albums like A Rose For the Apocalypse and Turning Season Within, their earlier albums less so (they had their moments, but at times the overtly doom laden approach wore on my patience). Due to the Great Album Barrage of 2015 it escaped my notice that the band was even releasing a new album this year. Once again it was my MSRcast cohost Cary who started playing the just received promo for this sixth Draconian album one night while we were sorting out our show notes for that episode. He hadn’t heard it yet either and as it played in the background we canned our inane chatter more and more and simply listened to a couple songs. I think at some point we both looked up at each other and nodded the “yeah… this is awesome” nod.
We’ve since rambled about it on the show in effusive praise and embarrassing gushing, but in Sovran Draconian have created the first utterly compelling, hypnotic, and inspired masterpiece of their career. Its always surprising when it happens too, certainly the band can’t predict it, and its obviously something that can be debated but I’ll have a hard time believing someone who attempts to argue that this isn’t the band’s greatest achievement. It leans a bit further away from their doom roots and more towards an overall gothic atmosphere but it feels as if they’ve actually gotten heavier as a result, the band beefing up their rhythm section’s bottom end to deliver a more metallic bed of sound over which longtime growler Anders Jacobsson and new female vocalist Heike Langhans trade off the role of lead singer. And its Langhans who steals the show on this album —- her vocals a bit more on the sleekly ethereal side compared to departed singer Lisa Johansson —- as most of these songs showcase her grabbing the majority of the vocal parts. She’s simultaneously capable of channeling a distant, frozen ice queen and a heart-on-sleeve, melancholy touched maiden (I completely deserve the nun’s ruler on my hand for going for such obvious imagery for female vocalists, but sometimes it really works). This dichotomy is illustrated rather well on “Stellar Tombs” and “Rivers Between Us”; the former seeing Langhans deliver proclamations during the verses in a remote, detached tone, while pouring every ounce of emotion into the latter in a brilliantly framed duet with clean male vocalist Daniel Anghede (Crippled Black Phoenix). Her voice was meant for this band.
As for everyone else, Draconian always manages to balance the relationship between vocals and music quite nicely, primary songwriters (and band founders) Jacobsson and lead guitarist Johan Ericson keeping it at about a 70/30 ratio. So you’ll get songs where Langhan’s vocal melody is carrying the load, but there are also times when the primary melody is guitar based and everyone works around it. Its a trademark feature of a really talented band that knows the limits of its sound and style… you’ll notice lesser female fronted bands in same genre (relatively speaking) almost always relying on their vocalist to solely carry the melody, a tendency that illustrates how paper thin their songwriting strength is (Lacuna Coil anyone?). It sounds to me as if the rhythm section parts were written to be more interlocking on the uptempo, heavier moments —- take the final 2-3 minutes of “Dishearten”, where they launch into an almost latter day Maiden giddy up and gallop with some Brave New World era lead figures. Speaking of lead guitar, Ericson might have delivered one of the best performances of the year on the album as a whole, his minor keyed laden approach being willfully bent in all manner of ways, he’s as much as joy to listen to as Langhan’s vocals. And kudos to Jacobsson if he is indeed still the primary lyricist here, because once again he demonstrates his mastery of employing simple, evocative imagery into smartly structured phrasing, all while keeping an eye towards creating a mini-narrative in every song. He’s an underrated lyricist, and for that matter Draconian is an underrated band, though not for long if everyone else is paying attention now.
The Takeaway: Without pretense, one of the best albums of the year —- if you haven’t heard Sovran yet make sure you do so before the year is out, you don’t want this to end up on your list of things you missed in 2015.