The 2017 Journal: January Recap + Most Anticipated
So I woke up the morning after the Super Bowl with a hangover that I didn’t properly anticipate and a general feeling that I never wanted to look at pizza, wings, and salty snacks ever again (though of course I did —- leftovers!). It took one large Dunkin Donuts coffee and kolache (don’t judge me) to get me feeling clear-headed enough to realize that everything finally seemed 2017-ish. The 2016 NFL season was over —- congrats to the Patriots… again, Boston fans will be even more insufferable than they’ve already been, hope you’re grateful for your success because as a Houstonian I damn well know what Atlanta fans must be feeling right now (to those of you from our cousin city who fit that bill, look… the pain won’t ever truly go away, but I can say that it does fade with time). That Monday morning also marked the release of our MSRcast’s final 2016 recap episode, a long overdue purging of our final takes on all things metal last year. With all that in mind, I felt more motivated than ever to really give a serious look at 2017 on the metal front. But I wanted to go about doing that somewhat differently this year than just the usual postings of reviews over and over again.
If you were wondering what the “journal” aspect of this post was going to be about, well what I’d like to try for 2017 is exactly that, a monthly recap of not only whats going on in the metal world but of what’s going on in my metal world. That was always supposed to be the original aim of this site, to discuss metal through my filters and experiences, and though I do feel I accomplish that often, sometimes that aspect can get lost when I hop on the endless reviews treadmill cycle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to stop writing long form album reviews at all, but I think it’ll be interesting for me (and hopefully you) if I recap each month this year with a loose journal entry that might not only have some small micro-reviews as you’ll see below, but also just a random mess of stuff I’ve been thinking about metal-wise both musically and even industry wise. There’s been a lot of times where I’ll have thoughts and opinions on stuff that I don’t ever get to air (unless I remember them while recording the podcast, an unreliable method at best), so at least this way I can jot them down in these journals and then at the end of the month sort and assemble them in some coherent, readable manner. Thinking on this now, these journals are probably more for me than you but hopefully they’re worth a few minutes of your time anyway!
Of course, this process should begin with a recap of the first month I seemed to have skipped over as I was still publishing the Best of 2016 lists during January. I always give myself a music break after those are done because they tend to demand intensive listening and also I get distracted easily with sports radio around that time (especially this year with the Super Bowl being here in H-town). But it was kind of a quiet month for metal wasn’t it? I mean, on the news front I suppose it was momentous that Black Sabbath seems to have played its final two shows and is apparently over, but we all knew that was coming months ago. On the new release front, the only things that caught my attention were new albums by Sepultura, Kreator, and Xandria. There were two hard rock releases I checked out, Gotthard’s Silver and Krokus’ Big Rocks, both bands being Switzerlands biggest rock exports. Gotthard always releases good AOR albums and this one is pretty solid if you like their style (and Steve Lee’s replacement), but I’d steer clear of the new Krokus —- its one of those dreaded classic rock covers albums that we don’t need at all. Yawn.
So regarding that new Sepultura, Machine Messiah, I didn’t actually realize this was coming out until a week after it was released, but since then I’ve been throwing it in regular rotation just to see if there’s something there. Full disclosure, I have not been a fan of the Derrick Green era (hot take I know), not because I hold anything against him as a vocalist, he’s quite good actually —- but Calavera-era Sepultura’s brilliance was the sum of its parts. Quite bluntly, they’ve been a different sounding band entirely from Against onward, and I’ve yet to latch onto any of the albums released during this era. I remember being utterly confused by 2013’s The Mediator Between Head and Hands Must Be the Heart with its much mentioned return of Ross Robinson as producer. It was a baffling album, one that seemed intent on borrowing from every metal subgenre imaginable yet void of any semblance of an idea on how to merge them all together. It seems like the only consistent hallmark of all these Green era releases is the band’s tendency to sound almost like a different band every album and sometimes every other song.
Well, that approach might work for artists like Faith No More or Steven Wilson… not so much for Sepultura, and its sad to say that Machine Messiah falls into the same trap. There’s some okay stuff here, “Phantom Self” has an urgency to its thrash metal attack and a little Myrath-esque Arabic motif going on musically that is vivid and unexpected. It should have been the album opener, but instead the band went with a cutting room floor nominee in the title track; a plodding, atmospheric, drawn out affair where Green sounds a lot like Mike Patton and the whole thing just ends up testing your patience, well mine anyway. I’ll be interested in talking to my cohost Cary about this one, because we don’t mention modern Sepultura too often on the podcast, though I suppose the reason is self-evident. We do however talk a great deal about our love for Kreator and even proclaim a fond, strange admiration for their weird mid-90s albums. But it was 2012’s Phantom Antichrist that really got me fired up about latter day Kreator, because that was a flat out masterpiece of modern thrash, and it was their injection of melo-death that really made that album sound fresh and inspired. I was kinda nervous when the first single for their new album Gods of Violence (the title track) seemed to lack that element, and as it turns out, that ended up being my least favorite song on the album.
Thankfully the four and a half years they’ve taken to release a new album didn’t sever them entirely from their renewed approach, because most of this album is highly enjoyable, built on brutal, speedy riffing and loaded with hooks. The melodicism is still there, except this time it seems like they’re taking a page from classic metal styles as opposed to melo-death for that particular influence. The high point comes early with “World War Now”, one of the most vicious Kreator tracks in recent memory, built around a toupee blowing, sweepingly fast bridge-chorus transition where Mille sounds as frighteningly angry as he possibly can. I was surprised at how much I actually liked “Satan Is Real”, a title and lyric that makes me cringe inwardly but somehow they’ve put together a song that works around it, built off mid-tempo structures and a melody that owes more to Blind Guardian and Accept. Similarly owing to a power/folk metal influence is “Hail to the Hordes” which features a intro melody that reminds me of Tyr and Ensiferum more than anything thrash metal related. Its an interesting branch out for Mille and company, and that melody that runs through it brings to mind modern day Suidakra with its inherent European folk sensibility. I was on the fence about shelling out to see the band when they swing through Houston in March (just paid 500 bucks for Maiden tickets), but now I’m definitely going.
Finally we come to Xandria, a band that I was only briefly familiar with before I saw them live opening for Sonata Arctica and Delain back in 2014. I came away impressed that night, particularly with their new vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen who sounded as good as I’ve ever heard a symphonic metal soprano sound live. I had reviewed their most recent album, Sacrificium, earlier that year and although I thought it was mostly good, I gave them a pass on it because it was their first with Dianne. Their previous singer had left just before the recording sessions were due to begin, a tough spot for any band and vocalist to be in. It was a slightly similar situation to what Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen experienced when writing music for an unknown vocalist on Dark Passion Play. He benefited on its followup Imaginaerum with all around more focused and sharper songwriting due to knowing he was writing for Anette Olzon’s voice. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that Xandria’s next album would also benefit from being created with Dianne’s vocals in mind.
Its the extent to which they’ve benefited that is truly astounding here, because I think Theater of Dimensions is not only Xandria’s best album to date, but one of the most satisfying symphonic metal albums I’ve heard in the past half decade overall. Primary songwriter/guitarist Marco Heubaum has crafted a batch of songs that are altogether far more confident than anything they’ve done prior, shifting the band’s sound from a purely symphonic power metal approach to one that incorporates folk influences and fully embraces the Shakespearean theatricality they briefly flirted with on past gems like “Forevermore”. Dianne’s voice is malleable, not only capable of a gorgeous, ringing soprano style but also interweaving simpler, straightforward melodic vocals whenever it fits the song or lyric better. Her “operatic” tone (for lack of a better adjective) is rich and powerful even when skyrocketing towards those high notes, as on the chorus of “Where The Heart Is Home”. And as I mentioned before, she can restrict her approach to better mesh with a duet partner, such as Bjorn Strid (Soilwork) on “We Are Murderers (We All)”.
Maybe its just me, but I get the feeling that Xandria is channeling Century Child-era Nightwish here, at least aesthetically speaking. I hear it in the overall darker tone of these songs and the willingness to let go of more overt power metal song structures. This influence comes through loud and clear in “Queen Of Hearts Reborn”, where Dianne’s solo intro is swiftly taken over by a dramatic, choral-vocal led chorus done in that classic Holopainen call and response bombastic mode. I have no problem with influences being this overt (they’re pulling from the best after all), and although this is all speculation on my part, perception is largely truth in terms of thinking about what music is eliciting from us. Its why “Solsbury Hill” keeps getting used for rom-com trailers when its really a song about Peter Gabriel feeling like he was trapped in Genesis; one has nothing to do with the other, but you can’t deny it works well as the backdrop to Patrick Dempsey’s smug face. This album had me grinning the first time I listened through it, even its few cringe-worthy moments (some bits of dialogue, and one really awkward yet catchy lyric) were endearing in the grand scheme of the entire album. There’s an audaciousness here that I respect, and a truism as well: The greatest, most accomplished symphonic metal albums should be absolutely insufferable to those who hate the genre.
Okay, so those were some micro-reviews for what I listened to in January, so how about a look ahead? I have a love/hate thing with “most anticipated” lists, and I’ve been guilty of writing them myself and talking about them on the podcast too, but they’re hard to make compelling and usually no one cares anyway. So here’s what I’ll do, make this quick and breezy, a bullet points approach to the whole concept:
A few of my most anticipated albums of 2017 in no order:
Blind Guardian – TBA Orchestral Album (Seriously, I’ve been hearing about this since the early press interviews for the “And Then There Was Silence” single back in 2001… I’ll have to fact check that with Dr. Metal but I’m reasonably sure that’s the first time they mentioned it. Enough already! Just release it! I only list this here because two years ago, Hansi cited 2017 as the most likely date. That and enough already!)
Power Quest – TBA (Steve Williams just announced that the band inked with Inner Wound Records, the new album’s slated for October… I need more new happy metal. I said it…)
Iced Earth – Incorruptible (Not sure if that’s a working title, don’t particularly care, just make a better album than Plagues of Babylon!)
Wintersun – The Forest Seasons (This one not so much for myself, but for the poor, haggard masses of Wintersun fans who’ve been starving for a new album for yet another half-decade span.)
Eluveitie – Evocation II: Visions (This is supposed to be the sequel to their all-acoustic album they released in 2009, but I’m curious as to how its going to sound without Anna Murphy. From the impact she made on their last proper album, I have a feeling they’re going to miss her more than they realize.)
Ayreon – The Source (Not really… I’m just putting this on here to see if MSRcast Cary notices. I’ll have no shortage of reminders as to when its coming out because he likely won’t stop talking about it on the podcast (hah!). Ahhhh I’ll listen to it, calm down Cary.)
Arch Enemy – TBA (I haven’t been wild on this band in years and years, but I’m actually looking forward to what they can cook up with Jeff Loomis involved in the songwriting process from the ground up.)
Satyricon – TBA (Their atmopsheric self-titled release in 2013 was certainly interesting, but I’m kind of hoping for something more uptempo, intense, and muscular.)
Alright, that’s about it for the ones I can come up off the top of my head, and because of that they’re likely the only ones worth listing here. Moving on with 2017! I’ll have another entry at the end of February (or early March talking about February… you know how I am). Will try to have some other writings on the blog in between then, thanks for bearing with me and
reading tolerating this!