The Belated Fall Reviews Cluster: Darkthrone, Sonata, Theocracy, Alcest!
This is late incoming, oh I know, but better late than never right? This was supposed to come out in November but some real life stuff got in the way and exhaustion claimed most of what spare time was left. So while that left little time for writing, I did manage to get some extra listening time on all these releases below which proved critical in changing my opinion on one or two. This isn’t all that I listened to (hardly), but we’re running out of 2016 so this will be the last cluster of the year —-with that in mind, you might be hearing about a few albums not listed here on the upcoming Best of 2016 double feature. I’ll keep this preamble short, only to mention that I’ll have a hard look at the new Metallica coming next, with the year end lists following closely. This has been a rough year for the blog in terms of the update schedule, and one of my resolutions in 2017 is to simply write and publish more. Thanks for everyone who’s patiently stuck with me!
Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder:
If you have any interest in Darkthrone whatsoever (and I think you should), you’ve probably heard by now that this new album is something of a shift in style for them. That’s true to a certain extent, it is markedly different from their past three to four releases which found them delving deep into an almost black n’ roll approach to experimenting with more classic 80s metal stylings on 2013’s The Underground Resistance. But where those albums were taking the band into new, explored territory (for them anyway), Arctic Thunder is an about face to the black metal Darkthrone of the turn of the millennium, recalling the style of Plaguewielder and Hate Them. I imagine that for a lot of people the news that Darkthrone was returning to black metal brought about hopes of the band returning to their early, second wave style of A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Transilvanian Hunger, sort of what Blut Aus Nord did with their awesome and majestic Memoria Vetusta III. That would’ve required a severe and intentional handicapping of the sonics in the recording however, and I just don’t think that either Fenriz or Ted (Nocturno Culto) are all that interested in recreating the past like that.
In fact, sonics are the only thing that Arctic Thunder has with their black metal past, because even though it is far more grim and frost bitten than recent albums, you can’t tell me that middle riff that accelerates in “Inbred Vermin” is a black metal riff —- it sounds like it could be lifted off a mid to late 80s thrash album (not being Fenriz, I can’t pinpoint exactly what band and album it was inspired by). But this is a cleanly produced album, for all its first-take approach, Ted’s guitars are upfront, fresh and often crisp, full of nuance and intricacy in the actual execution of the riffs —- and Fenriz’s drumming is as full bodied and loud (the complete antithesis of the approach to drums in most early second wave Norwegian black metal). I had a strange time with this album as a listener, at first loving it due to its radical departure from what they had been doing and for the pleasure of hearing a colder, darker Darkthrone once again. That actually lasted awhile, a few weeks in fact. But over time I’d begun find myself longing to hear Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance, and when I went through those albums again I realized what Arctic Thunder was lacking (and it always comes back to this) —- hooky, memorable songs.
There are a few moments that fit that bill, “Tundra Leach” serving as an excellent album opener, with a bleak, dirty sounding riff that accelerates into tremolo flourishes. There’s an awesome moment midway through where an abrupt shift occurs —- built on pounding, tribal beat percussion and a classic metal riff that takes us into Metallica’s “Creeping Death” territory (think of the moments before “Die! By my hand…!”). Then there’s “Boreal Fiends” which successfully takes on the same approach, hitting you with a memorable riff straight away, this time with loud/quiet dynamics in between verses, only to lead to an about face mid-song. That shift, at the 4:18 mark, is as grin inducing as it is unexpected, Fenriz coming back from a funeral doom tempo with a cowbell accented over a meaty, flat out heavy riff. The guitar solo that follows is a surprise as well, a rare blast of technicality and intricacy from a band that is essentially built from large, wet slabs of uncut riffs stacked hither and yon. The thing I’ve realized after umpteen listens to this album however is that there’s not enough of that kind of variety, not enough surprises. For instance I like the main riff on “Burial Bliss”, it coming across as a sort of black metal take on the Misfits, but the song lacks a hook in a bad way, being one of the chief examples of how things can get repetitive here rather quickly. I have no problem with the band returning to this more blackened approach, but they clearly need another album to fully re-acclimate.
Alcest – Kodama:
Some of you might remember that Alcest was a Metal Pigeon Best of 2012 finisher with their magnificent Les Voyages de l’Âme, the album that made a fan of me with its panoramic scope and sweeping beauty. Beauty of course is a key word when discussing Alcest, because they don’t shy away from it, their albums chock full of melodies that can only be described as such. If you’re not familiar at all, Alcest is the pioneer of French black metal, which took the atmospherics of second wave Norwegian black metal ala Burzum’s Filosofem and deconstructed its metallic nature, replacing harsh, atonal riffing with dreamy, shoe-gaze inspired melodicism. They use guitars and keyboards in equal measure, whatever it takes really, to achieve a sound that is the aural equivalent of a watercolor painting, where most metal regardless of subgenre is more akin to a construction project (foundations, walls, etc… you get the idea). On that aforementioned album, they blossomed into that rare metal band that could make fans of non-metal folks, particularly if they’d ever been a fan of Sigur Ros, Porcupine Tree, or even Smashing Pumpkins for that matter (that band’s influence on Alcest is under discussed and overlooked).
Disappointingly for me, Alcest decided to abandon their blackgaze approach for 2014’s Shelter, leaving us with a record full of bright, sunlit post-rock that was certainly pretty, but was noticeably lacking the expansive vision and bottomless depth of Alcest in their full glory. I’m sure they’re glad they made that record, one that pushed them in a way to expand their sound and to see what could come of it artistically. What I suspect they realized however, was that the darkness that comes from their black metal origins and influences is not something that’s easily shed. Without it, they sounded to me like another post-rock/shoegaze band, a good one certainly, but as an Alcest album Shelter was merely pretty on a surface level, it never pulled me in deeper. Thankfully, they’ve happily returned with their full complement of influences on display, as they demonstrate here with the awe-inspiring Kodama. Thus proving that the darkness they explore through black metal aesthetics is the key to their unlocking that cosmic door from which spills their transcendent sound.
This album is simultaneously a return to form and a departure, the latter being the injection of a album wide pronounced Japanese influence; not only for the album title (“kodama” literally means both “tree spirit” and “echo”) and the accompanying artwork that depicts a Japanese woman in some uncomfortable looking waters, but mostly for the Japanese folk melodies that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I could pinpoint an example but that would be a little silly, because this influence is coursing through almost every riff, melody, and extended musical passage of Kodama —- unlike a lot of cases where metal bands will use cultural music as window dressing and stick to their own sound otherwise, Alcest here submerge their songwriting into this wellspring of Japanese musical inspiration entirely. Frontman, vocalist, guitarist, and all around songwriter Neige is on record about the purpose of his doing so, that the album is directly inspired by the animated film Princess Mononoke, and that in his words, its about “the confrontation of the natural world and the human world”. That was something he witnessed firsthand when Alcest played in Japan a few years ago, stating, “Japan has a hyper technologic society, always ahead of its time, full of crazy items, gadgets, etc, but yet people there are very attached to tradition, nature, and spirituality.” Of course, if you’ve seen the film (you should, its a classic), its easy to tie Neige’s own observation and tie it into the film’s narrative, both boiling down to this idea of duality and how we all deal with it in various forms.
I love the intellectual depth of conceptual albums like this, in many ways reminding me of 2015’s almost album of the year, Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson. Its the stuff that concept albums should be made of, instead of what we usually get in rock and metal —- mostly paper-thin surface narratives of ridiculous stories that have little to no meaningful echo to them whatsoever. I’m not trying to be snooty here, I love many albums that meet that description to a tee, but when a zillion other bands deliver their own version of it, it gets a little boring, trite, and dumb (after awhile you stop paying attention to bands’ concepts altogether). And setting the concept aside, Kodama is a musical wonder as well, eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse pop formatting in favor of longer tracks with more of a storytelling song structure. Hardly anything repeats, but somehow all of its seven tracks and forty-right minutes are captivating —- the parts that sound like a build up actually deliver pay-offs, and there’s an equal balance of light and shadow as heavy riffs run headlong into transcendent ethereal sequences.
On the first single and most representative track matching the preceding description, “Oiseaux De Proie, a loose, jazzy mid-song bridge plunges dramatically into perhaps the album’s most up-tempo, accelerated moment (check the 5:50 mark). Its an adrenaline rush, largely due to how unexpected it was. This lack of foreshadowing is what keeps your attention rapt throughout Kodama, because you never really know what’s around the next minute mark. And I love how Neige does unexpected things texturally as well, such as the prominent use of the bass as a primary melodic instrument in the opening/title track, a quirky choice that creates separation with the higher pitched guitar accents that drift and careen above it. He also uses minimalist guitar to hearken to that Japanese sound that was discussed earlier on “Eclosion”, the patterns and phrasing and sleek, clean tones mimicking that country’s native folk melodies. I also love the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream influences that wash all over that track towards the middle bridge onwards —- Neige acknowledges them as a major influence and there are times when you can close your eyes and imagine this as something from their mid-90s era output. That actually might be my favorite on the album, its peaceful lone-guitar fade out saying more in those few delicate notes than many bands manage in an entire song. Ditto for closing instrumental “Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées”, with its descending chord patterns blossoming into one of the year’s most memorable musical moments. Make no mistake, this will be on my album of the year list, only question is how high.
Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour:
Its kind of unfortunate that I have to write this review before I’ll be seeing the band live here in Houston come mid-December, because as you might remember from their last album Pariah’s Child, I ended up enjoying most of its songs far more after I had heard their live airing a few months after my initial review. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy that album at all before the concert, but moreso that Tony Kakko’s impressive live performance both as a vocalist and a performance artist helped me see why he made the choices he did on the album as a songwriter. So I wonder, how much will my opinion change on songs like “Life”, or “We Are What We Are”, “Fairytale”, and “Closer to an Animal” (those being the primary cuts they seem to be pulling from this disc). They’re not bad songs by any means, the former being the first music video filmed for the album, with a chorus built on some amusing lyrical self-criticism by Kakko, who sings, “Life is better alive”, a lyric we could tear to pieces if it weren’t followed immediately by “It is a dumb thing to say / But the fact won’t wane away”, which in a nutshell encapsulates the theme of the song. Sonata Arctica have never been ones to shy away from positivity as a lyrical theme, particularly as of late —- it does not however make for a hook as strong as “The Wolves Die Young”.
But where Pariah’s Child was in some ways meant to be a classicist Sonata album (that’s debatable), The Ninth Hour isn’t explicitly held to such guidelines because its a part concept album, or thematic album to be more precise. The Stratovarius influence over Sonata Arctica looms particularly large here with the theme of environmentalism and reigning in of humanity’s careless destruction of the planet. If you weren’t familiar with Stratovarius albums around the turn of the millennium, that’s pretty much what those guys sang about for a handful of ’em. So a thematic leaning song like “We Are What We Are” is given license to be a bit more expansive, less concerned with delivering those knockout Sonata hooks we love in favor of non-romantic balladry that leans more towards White Lion’s “When the Children Cry” than “Tallulah”. It only works because despite its too slow for slow dancing pace and downtrodden vibe, Kakko’s melody is charmingly simple and beautiful, almost lullaby-esque. Similarly on “White Pearl, Black Oceans Pt II” (a sequel to the original much beloved fan classic from Reckoning Night), Kakko allows a more overwhelmingly lyrical songwriting approach to govern things, which makes sense considering the narrative nature of the song in continuing a story. But in 2016, that means its a track that is substantially slower than its predecessor, lacking the midtempo and uptempo change ups that so characterized the original. Some might not like that, but I think the melody really works here, used as more of a Broadway show centerpiece complete with mimicking orchestral arrangement.
Not everything is slowed down though, there’s the surprisingly heavy and accelerating “Fly. Navigate. Communicate”, which took me awhile to get into but I now can appreciate for its striking aggression alongside its subtle lyrical hook. And “Rise A Night” is a classic uptempo slice of Sonata power metal with a nice verse and lead in bridge, only to meet a middling, aimless chorus that lacks a defining hook, a trait that handicaps the entire song sadly. Then there’s the strongly starting “Fairytale” where the inverse is the problem —- we’re treated to a memorable hook that doesn’t hit as hard as it could due to there being no build up to it via tempo shift or fully formed bridge. Of course when it comes to Sonata Arctica albums post 2004, we’re not expecting complete perfection, just some moments of perfection… and here’s where The Ninth Hour is worryingly deficient. There’s nothing here that I’d really consider adding to my Sonata playlist on the iPod, and there usually is at least a track or two per album. I’d give a huge maybe to the charming ballad “Candle Lawns”, but I’ve really gotta be in the mood for it. I honestly don’t know what to make of this album, and I know that makes for a crappy review —- but there’s nothing here that is shockingly bad like we’ve had in spots on the past three albums. In fact, its all just sounds alright, but I know I don’t often come back to revisit an album that’s just “alright”. Maybe I’ll have more to say after I see them two weeks from now.
Theocracy – Ghost Ship:
I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Atlanta based Theocracy and its 98-01 era Tobias Sammet channeling vocalist/songwriter Matt Smith for a few years now. I got into them with 2011’s As The World Bleeds, an album of power metal songwriting perfection of such magnitude I strongly believe its one of the classics of the genre. I had first heard of the band way back in 2003 with their self-titled debut which was promising despite its flaws, but I promptly cut my interest when I learned that the band was outwardly Christian. Sure enough, the lyrics checked out, and I naively wrote the band off. In my defense I was young, stupid(er), and not mature enough to reconcile that it was okay to enjoy a band that was outwardly religious in their lyrics if I enjoyed their music in general. Looking back now, I suppose I thought it was anathema, to be into metal and subgenres like black metal which were largely about the darker stuff in life while simultaneously listening to something so religiously positive, so opposite in spirit. Never mind that I enjoyed U2 with all their Christian background, nor that I was conveniently ignoring the strongly religious overtones of Edguy’s classic Theater of Salvation. In between, I missed 2008’s Mirror of Souls, another quality release with some excellent songwriting, and when I finally did come around in 2011, I chickened out on publishing a fully written piece on Theocracy (if I remember right it was about whether or not it hypocritical to like their music without sharing their views on faith… guess the jury’s still out there). So essentially, no one has really known about how much I’ve loved this feisty prog-power metal band’s music, when I’ve been all too eager to champion any really worthwhile American bands of this genre. In all… Theocracy deserved better from me.
I’m quite keen on rectifying this here, even in a shorter, abbreviated review, although I might not have done the band a service had I reviewed this album shortly after first hearing it in mid-October. For whatever reason, I was having a devil of a time getting into Ghost Ship for the first few weeks I had it, and maybe it was due to other things competing for my attention (one of which may have been the ultra-negativity of the 2016 election… maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear something bright and positive just then…?). That seems so absurd and unlikely now given how much I’ve been enjoying these songs on their own merits, and that last bit is crucial to those of you who are already familiar with their past albums: In short, as hard as it might be, don’t compare this album to As The World Bleeds! You will of course, its only natural, but I say that for two reasons; first, …Bleeds was a uniquely excellent album, a perfecting of a specific type of aggressive power metal and dense, solid production that Edguy first introduced with 2000’s Mandrake; and secondly, because Theocracy has greatly expanded their sound intro far more progressive areas with Ghost Ship, toning down the pure Euro-step power metal influences and increasing their Queensryche influenced tendencies a bit. This is a far reaching, thorough permeation, affecting all the songs on the new album across the board, and maybe it makes them less instantly accessible —- though it must be stressed, that accessibility is still there, it just requires more listens than their previous albums.
You’ll hear that accessibility most vividly on leaner cuts such as the title track or on the lyrics contrasting cheerfulness of “Castaway”. Regarding the former, Smith is among those few in power metal circles so gifted at peppering his already hook-laden songs with those glory-claw raising micro-hooks like the ones heard at the :40 second and 2:02 minute marks. They come via his simply changing the key of his vocal delivery of a verse lyric mid-phrase, from a not-quite minor key to an abrupt, full-on MAJOR key. Its such musical ear-candy, and mark of a talented songwriter who knows how to utilize the technical prowess of his band and his vocal ability to inject these viscerally energy packed moments into the fiber of these songs. That awareness as a songwriter, to keep his songs dancing on two feet like a boxer in his fighting stance, unpredictable and ready to strike at a moment with a flourish of a micro-hook or ultra-melodic figure or accent is what keeps our attention even through lengthy epics such as the nine-minute “Easter”. Midway through we shift from a thunderous, choral vocal backed section into a solo acoustic guitar sequence with a gorgeous, arcing melody at the 6:38 mark that will always have me returning to this song. That’s the kind of attention to detail that characterized the best of Tobias Sammet’s lengthier epics back in the classic Edguy era (think “Theater of Salvation” and “The Pharaoh”).
Of course its not just the minor details that make these songs work. They’re carefully crafted with strong melodies and semi-technical instrumentation, with often gorgeous guitar work from Val Allen Wood and Jonathan Hinds, as well as soaring vocals via Smith’s helium tinged tenor. As I sit here listening to this album for the millionth time, I wonder if Smith’s English as birth language familiarity is his secret to songwriting success as an American well-versed in writing in the European vein of power metal. Theocracy can bring the wood, but they never get really heavy like Iced Earth, Pharaoh, or even Kamelot —- all fellow American power metal bands who utilize thrash metal elements or in Kamelot’s case, prog-rock and mid-tempo time signatures. Those American and British stylistic influences temper their power metal and make it easy for them to match their vocal melodies to lyrics in a suitable manner (I realize Roy Khan is of Norwegian decent, and he of course wrote most of Kamelot’s beautiful lyrics, but he’s an outlier in this case). Theocracy is a rare duck being an American band coming from the Edguy/Avantasia/Gamma Ray/ Helloween school of power metal, all of whom are guilty of lyrical atrocities. Smith’s songwriting from a lyrics to vocal melody perspective is so effortless, so smooth, that it actually helps the melodies flow like water —- there’s nary an awkward pause. His lyrics are finely written, and seemingly always set to melodies that fit them perfectly like a glove. That pairing is likely to be the litmus test for most people, can they allow themselves to enjoy those melodies despite them being set to (very finely written) spiritual lyrics. I definitely can.