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Make It Easier To Be A Fan: A Rant

March 27, 2018

So its been shaping up to be a pretty busy and expensive concert calendar this year. I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing at least five to six shows in the next two months, a couple of them power metal bands (Kamelot in May, Hammerfall in June). A few weeks ago, Iced Earth played here at the House of Blues for a weeknight show that got moved from the usual big room down to something the venue referred to as “The Bronze Peacock”, their tiny room for smaller shows (172 people max allowed). I never thought House of Blues would chance having a metal show in there, so close to all the civilized patrons dining in the next room, but apparently a dire situation of low ticket sales (rumored at a little over 100 for pre-sales) was the motivating factor. As an aside, I didn’t understand just leaving the show as is in the big room, given that the decision was made on short notice and no one else was going to be performing in there that night, but whatever. More pressing was the stark reality that Iced Earth had such shockingly low ticket sales and overall attendance, but to me it served as a microcosm for an ongoing problem in the small scale metal touring world that should concern all of us as fans.

 

I had planned to go to that show, but whereas I had bought advance tickets for all the other shows on my concert calendar, I skipped grabbing one for Iced Earth. It was to be a game time decision, based on whether or not I could get a few friends to go with to make an outing of it, and my general level of enthusiasm as well. The bill wasn’t all that exciting to be honest, with only Sanctuary on their Warrel Dane tribute tour and relative unknowns Kill Ritual as openers. The last time I saw Iced Earth in that venue was in 2012, when they pulled in a huge crowd doing a co-headlining jaunt with Symphony X and an up and coming Warbringer. It was fun, an “event” type of show that pulls in the dusty fans who rarely stray outside their own neighborhood, their concert days slowly fading into memory. Iced Earth would return again a few years later with Sabaton and Floor Jansen’s ReVamp as support, and the combination of enthusiasm for the headliners was nearly matched by the ever growing love for Sabaton in Texas (they are big down here, more on that later), it was at a smaller venue but the place was impressively packed and giddy, especially considering it was a Monday night. That was in 2014, only four years ago when Iced Earth was touring on the relatively weak Plagues of Babylon album too —- so what in the world was going on with the low attendance on the band’s tour stop here promoting a far more well received album in Incorruptible? Word on social media was that the same thing happened at a few more dates on the trek, signaling that the Houston show was far from an isolated instance.

 

 

But hey, Iced Earth is a trad/power metal band, and Houston and Texas in general is pretty solidly death metal country right? Something like this was perhaps bound to happen. In fact I remember the days when the very idea that a power metal band of any stripe would play in Houston seemed like a cruel joke —- indeed, the first major one to really entice us was Blind Guardian on their 2002 trek supporting A Night At the Opera, but sadly forces conspired to bungle that one right out of our hands on the day before Thanksgiving. Of course other bands in the genre had tested out the H-town waters before, most notably Iced Earth themselves in 1999 who cobbled together a small handful of fans at the same ill-fated club that their German brethren would have to cancel at three years later (for the record, it was the venue’s fault). But when Iced Earth finally returned to Houston in 2004 after a half decade long wait (and most of our first times regardless), they brought Children of Bodom and Hypocrisy in tow to the Engine Room, a converted warehouse downtown where damn near a thousand metalheads showed up. The venue held 800 uncomfortably, 900 if you didn’t mind not breathing, and while I was told by the door guy later that nearly a hundred walk-ups were rejected at the door for fear of violating fire code, it certainly felt like everyone who showed up was in that venue.

 

It was the tail end of the golden age of power metal, and Ripper Owens being in the band’s lineup certainly turned some heads, but Iced Earth had also released two back to back excellent records, and to add fuel to the fire, Children of Bodom were blowing up big too. I remember seeing Alexi Laiho mobbed in a circle of fans after the show when he was just trying to enjoy a smoke outside the bus, the members of Iced Earth taking the opportunity of distraction to slip into their own bus almost unnoticed. Exhausted and sweat drenched, I stood there dumbly gazing at the mob surrounding him, all eager to get their copy of Hatecrew Deathroll or Follow the Reaper signed and maybe grab a picture. They should’ve been there earlier during soundcheck around 3pm when he was stumbling around outside hungover and ran into me and two other guys who showed up obscenely early, talking to us and asking if we knew where he could buy some smokes around the area. I remember earlier in the day, before the doors opened, glancing down the line of metalheads that stretched on and on for a ridiculous number of blocks, my mind blown that this many people loved the same underground music I loved, and that Houston was apparently primed to be a hotbed for trad and power metal bands to get down here asap.

 

 

It didn’t exactly work out that way. Oh we had some big shows through the years —- Dragonforce in 2006 at the Meridian drew almost as many as Iced Earth (pre – “Through the Fire and Flames” blowing up even), where somehow my friends and I wound up in the lounge backstage watching ZP Theart and Herman Li trying to lure all too witting women back to their tour bus (it was more amusing than impressive, like Motley Crue without the roadies to do their corralling for them). They had a nascent but buzz worthy Between the Buried and Me with them, who won over the crowd easily. Kamelot with Roy Khan would storm that same venue one year later with Leaves Eyes in tow (hot off the success of the Vinland Saga) and drew an eye raising amount of people for an unforgettable show, the band at the peak of their powers and riding high off the momentum of The Black Halo and Ghost Opera. Nightwish post-Tarja also landed a month later with Paradise Lost and sold the place out with a ton of fans arriving from Mexico for a chance to see the band in a small club setting. But largely speaking, power metal avoided Houston like the plague for most of that decade, the European bands often skipping North America altogether or having disappointing debut tours (Therion and Edguy come to mind immediately here).

 

Around 2010, we started to notice some big power metal names popping up here a little more often —- Blind Guardian was back (they were here in 06′ playing a makeup date as well), Sonata Arctica and Epica came down, and even the odd Primal Fear and Hammerfall gig occurred. A lot of testing the waters. And in 2011 we had one of the biggest club shows in recent memory, with Sabaton supporting Accept at the Scout Bar with a crowd as dense as I can remember. I mention Sabaton first because it would be the opening salvo into six trips to H-town over the next six years, part of the band’s relentless push to break the United States. They made an impact that night with their infectious enthusiasm and humor, but when they came back to town headlining with only Alestorm and Powerglove as support months later, only about a hundred of us showed up to go nuts. I drove out to see them a year or so later in San Antonio for the opening show of their Carolus Rex world tour, the first with their new line-up, and once again it was about a hundred fans in attendance. Sabaton are great sports though, they play every show as if there’s thousands in the crowd, and that translated to an excellent reception, but they learned an important lesson. Even the best received live bands need to be a part of a killer package to sell tickets.

 

 

Sabaton ceased touring the States by themselves or with under powered touring partners, and in following up their 2014 trek supporting Iced Earth, they paired up with Nightwish a year later with Delain as support. It was three bands that would draw a fair amount of fans on their own pulling in a huge crowd together at a spacious downtown venue. When Sabaton returned a year later as a headliner, they brought along Delain and Battle Beast as support, and according my MSRcast co-host Cary it was so packed as to be downright uncomfortable, with no space to move among the biggest crowd that could possibly fit in the Scout Bar. They repeated the formula on last year’s tour as well, this time pairing up with Kreator for a co-headlining run with newcomers Cyhra as support —- the former coming off the success of sharing a headlining slot with Obituary and the latter drawing a few fans who were interested in what Jesper Stromblad was doing these days. I’m focusing a lot on Sabaton here for what I think should be an obvious reason: They’re the most successful power metal band in the United States since Dragonforce in the mid-aughts. Their success should be the model for other bands (particularly power metal bands) to follow when touring the United States, but clearly that isn’t happening. I’m at a loss as to why.

 

Look I get logistics. Every band has a different schedule, perhaps the availability of band members is limited due to day jobs or other musical activities. It could be an album release date affecting the timing of when a band will tour, or even more obscure details like radius or recency clauses. But in this over saturated touring market, metal bands need to be doing everything in their power to team up with other bands to create can’t miss live packages. The upcoming Hammerfall date in Houston with only Flotsam and Jetsam as support won’t draw as many fans as their co-headlining stop here a year ago with Delain, that’s nearly guaranteed. Half the crowd at last year’s show was wearing Delain t-shirts, and while I’d love to be proven wrong, I just don’t see it happening. It begs the question of why we couldn’t see an Iced Earth/Hammerfall co-headlining run (and sure, bring Flotsam along as support, that’d be a great bill)! I would’ve suggested a Kamelot/Iced Earth pairing, but Kamelot’s already been one step ahead, making their upcoming US run with who else but Delain and Battle Beast as direct support. They paired up with Dragonforce the last time I saw them, they’ve been all over this stacked bill approach for years now. The Kamelot/Delain show will be at the House of Blues, the very same venue Iced Earth got demoted at, and I’ll eat my words if this show gets the same treatment.

 

 

Booking agencies are failing their clients, and bands need to start taking matters into their own hands via direct communication with their peers to make sure their tours are attractive enough to get fans out of their houses on a weeknight. I knew a few people who went to the Iced Earth show (MSRcast Cary was one of them), but I know a handful of friends who decided to pass on it, and when asked why they replied with a litany of reasons —- they’d already seen the band before, the lineup wasn’t exciting, and there were too many other shows coming up to pay for. When I asked them if they’d have showed up to an Iced Earth / Hammerfall billing, the answer was a definitive yes. What more market research do you need? I myself passed on the Iced Earth show, and I’ll be honest, I felt a little guilty about it at first. I consider myself a champion of power metal in the States, particularly in a place like Texas where its not exactly beloved, but its increasingly harder to do everything a good fan does. You want to support bands by buying the albums, buying tickets to shows and even buying a t-shirt or a hoodie, sometimes you can’t do all three so you pick one and try to make good. But there’s only so much of a paycheck that can’t be diverted from bills and groceries, and bands need to realize that and begin attempting to make it easier on their fan bases.

 

I focused on power metal in my little rant here, but I’m seeing the same problem with various national death metal tours coming through town… its stupid that some of these bands aren’t pairing up together to share costs and pull in more people. Are they worried that pairing up will limit their merch sales per night? If I were a band, I’d rather gamble on selling more merch to a bigger audience pool in a stacked bill than gambling on a fewer number of my die-hards ponying up as a solo headliner. More bands on a bill might mean a smaller guarantee per band, we can acknowledge that. But that guarantee will get slashed if the show undersells on tickets anyway, particularly if the bar sales crash that night —- why chance that? Put together bills and touring packages that are must attend events, the kinds that people will remember for years to come. My most memorable shows were always stacked bills, whether it was Judas Priest/Heaven and Hell/Motorhead/Testament, or In Flames/Nevermore/Shadows Fall, or Maiden/Dio/Motorhead. There are loads more. I have memories from those shows that are seared forever, but I’ve forgotten tons more that weren’t as glorious. My advice to bands works on both fronts, to make it easier for your fans to be fans, and to combat over saturation in the same go. I’d hate to see bands write off certain markets just due to low ticket sales from an underwhelming bill or over loaded concert calendar. We want you all to keep coming back.

 

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Judas Priest: The Impact of Firepower

March 23, 2018

Judas Priest - FirepowerThere’s so many moments on Judas Priest’s Firepower that caused me to break into gleeful cackling, my surprise at what I was hearing having no other reasonable way to manifest itself when listening to the album alone in my car. In lieu of grabbing someone by the arm and shaking them profusely, or shouting a variety of expletives as adjectives to verbalize my bubbling thoughts, my growing enthusiasm manifested itself in absurd ways. My first time listening to it was when driving one evening to the MSRcast recording studio, and the moment that really set me off was “Guardians”, whose epic, isolated piano intro was harmonized by multi-tracked guitars in a wave of epic euphoria building majesty. Its pure, heroic melody recurs in the song it immediately feeds into, the soaring eagle that is “Rising From Ruins”, together the two songs forming as glorious a one-two punch as anything in the Priest catalog, recalling instantly the storied “Electric Eye/Hellion” pairing. I throw around the term inspired a lot on this blog (among many other adjectives I’m sure), but on the “Guardians/Rising From Ruins” duo, Priest tapped into that rare magic that exemplifies the unique ability of metal to convey emotions that are wholly foreign to other styles of music —- feelings of urgency, desperation, and conviction channeled through a funnel of raw power. Upon first hearing the pair, my mind was blown, and I spent the long drive-thru wait in the ritual pre-podcast-recording Starbucks run playing them on repeat. It took every bit of maturity and calm not to babble incoherently about it when I arrived at the studio, but if you heard the last MSRcast, you’ll hear bits of that leaking through.

 

By now the consensus is agreed that Firepower is a first rate Judas Priest album, with some claiming its their best since Painkiller, something I won’t disagree with in spirit. The overwhelming sentiment that I’ve detected being expressed among metal fans, bloggers, and journalists everywhere however is one of genuine astonishment, for what I suspect is largely credited towards the manner in which Priest pulled this off. Its not just an excellent album, its perhaps the best sounding recording in their catalog, the production team of old school Tom Allom (he helmed the production for British Steel thru Ram It Down) and modern metal recording guru Andy Sneap honing in on a sonic sweet spot that is vital, bracing, muscular, and crisp. For all the praise I heaped on Redeemer of Souls for Ritchie Faulkner’s revitalization of the Priest songwriting unit, the one knock against it I could agree to was its somewhat muddled, murky production. Its predecessors Nostradamus and Angel of Retribution were no better, both lumbering with this strange mix of weird reverb and flabby ambience that dulled riffs where they needed to be razor sharp. Halford would sometimes be pushed back farther in the mix than he needed to be, and it made him sound his age in moments. In general they suffered from what Maiden has been hamstrung by in continuing to work with Kevin Shirley, the sense that their albums could sound better if they simply remembered what they were supposed to sound like.

 

 

Production Team Tom Allom, Andy Sneap with Glen Tipton and Ritchie Faulkner It stuns me to say this, but Firepower may be a better album in terms of songwriting and production combined than any post-reunion Maiden album has been. Regarding production alone, perhaps Brave New World is its only near match, but I wonder if that’s due to how vibrant and lively it sounded relative to the dire thud of Virtual XI and The X Factor? Throughout their career arcs, its been natural for many to compare the two bands, and I’ve tried to avoid doing that myself, but with Firepower the comparison screams for examination: Maybe Maiden need to rattle their own cage with a shake up at the producer spot —- and although the first name I’d advise would be Andy Sneap himself, its could be a variety of people (Roy Z for instance…). Of course we wouldn’t even be discussing this if Ritchie Faulkner hadn’t worked out as a talented songwriter in replacing KK Downing, terrific production job or not. We’re paying attention because these new Priest songs have been sharper, hook-ier, meatier, and downright more Priest-ish than ever before because of his outsider perspective and his innate ability to use that to direct the band’s focus. I know they’ve been saying in interviews that Glenn had a lot to do with this album, and I do believe them, but in regarding the difference between Nostradamus’ two pretty decent songs and Redeemer of Souls being such a terrific front to back album, Faulkner was the not so secret weapon.

 

So back to Firepower, where you’d be forgiven for thinking “No Surrender” sounded like a prime-80s era Priest hidden treasure —- it has that electric sonic energy, the Big City Night/Restless and Wild street swagger, and Halford’s vocals are commanding. Or that the mid-song rhythm guitar breakdown in “Lightning to Strike” at the 2:25 mark that hearkens back to the polished thrash metal of Painkiller and late 80s Slayer. Sometimes everything works in such perfect lockstep its like imagining the interplay of drum patterns and riffs as some well oiled engine, as on the repeating verse riff sequence in “Never the Heroes”. It instantly conjures up the image of that iconic Tipton/Downing stage performance move, the classic synchronized back and forth movement set to the rhythm of the almighty riff. Throughout my years as a metal fan online, I’ve seen some snarky comments made here and there making fun of that stage move, to which I say, “Clear the hall!”. The Priest-ian riff-synch move is a heavy metal live show classic, an oft-neglected joyful ritual (Hammerfall are keeping the faith!), and to hear the band knocking out new material that will conjure up that stage move again with full on conviction is a gift to us as metal fans. Cherish it dammit!

 

 

Rob Halford 2018I see no weak tracks here, not in the middle when things could naturally get toned down a bit (they’ve wisely placed the “Guardians”/”Rising From Ruins” combo in the center of the tracklisting), and certainly not towards the end where one of the most vicious cuts Priest has written in decades is unleashed in “Traitors Gate”. I love the tempo acceleration in Halford’s vocal delivery during the opening of the chorus (“…out of the dark / into the light…”), and the major key melodicism of the instrumental section towards the end, which is as unexpected here as it was during the break in “Ram It Down”. Halford has rarely sounded this fierce, so absolutely brutal and withering —- its a little crazy to think he’s sounding this awesome this late in the game. While the bulk of the credit goes to the metal god himself, you’ve got to again look to the Allom/Sneap production team in finding a way to make Halford sound younger than he’s sounded, well… maybe ever. And then there’s the haunting, doomy ballad “Sea of Red”, speaking about the carnage of war with the gravity it demands, almost hearkening to Maiden’s relatively recent “For the Greater Good of God” with its acoustic strummed intro bed. Its old school in spirit though, bringing up memories of Coverdale era Purple’s “Soldier of Fortune”, while simultaneously mirroring the album closing duty and spirit of “Beginning of the End” from Redeemer, another Sabbathy ballad.

 

 

Judas Priest 2018Its by now been a week or two since this album was released, and while the press has properly conveyed just how earthshaking a release this is and the band seems to know it too, I wonder if we’re still some months or years away from truly defining its impact on the band’s ultimate legacy. No longer can it be written that Painkiller was the last high point, that the band limped on through the Ripper years and when Halford rejoined, they staggered on with some semi-decent records before calling it a day. I’ll hammer this point again and again, that Ritchie Faulkner rejuvenated the Judas Priest songwriting machine and with his tenure in the lineup, they’ve released two knock out albums back to back including this one which is downright intimidating in its blistering attack. Its a case not only for the greatest concluding chapter a legacy metal (or rock) band has ever had on a creative level (Maiden’s post-reunion commercial success is hard to match), but also for the argument that new blood in long running bands can work to maximize the potential of a legacy sound. Fellow Brits Cradle of Filth enjoyed similar creative renewal with their past two efforts with new six stringers in the band, and its been a marvel to behold. Draw whatever conclusions you may from this, but its been a revelation as a fan of so many bands that have changed members and lost certain core songwriting teams. It begs the question: Who’s next up?

Tear Down The Walls! New Music From Angra, Lione/Conti, Visigoth and More!

March 11, 2018

Here we are again, with a sequel to February’s Throw Open the Gates! review blitz, this time with more albums from these first two months and change of 2018. It has certainly proved to be the busiest opening release salvo of any year in recent memory, and things don’t seem to be slowing down in the next few months. There’s a few things that I didn’t review here that we’ve covered on our last two recent episode of the MSRcast, so you might also want to check those out if you are on the hunt for new music. A lot of these releases have been amazing, but not all —- I’ve got your back though, just think of me as your new release concierge. A lengthier look at the new Judas Priest album is next on the agenda, and I’m sure there’s going to be yet another of these multi-review clusters coming out relatively soon too. Headphones ready…

 


 

 

Lione / Conti – Lione / Conti:

Weirdly, Fabio Lione is at the vocal helm of two albums released within the span of a month, well okay one and a half albums. Just before the release of Angra’s OMNI (reviewed below), he and Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody/Trick or Treat vocalist Alessandro Conti released their Frontiers Records (of course!) debut duets album. If that phrase conjures up images of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett dancing cheek to cheek, or Sinatra and Bono cozying up at a bar drinking shots of something, then you’re actually not far off the mark —- these guys are indeed trading off vocal runs in true duet fashion. Frontiers does a lot of these types of projects, thinking of course of the Allen/Lande pairing, but also the recent Timo Tolkki star studded solo project, as well as the Kiske/Somerville stuff. This time the “staff writer” is Italian guitarist Simone Mularoni (of Italian prog-metallers DMG), who counterbalances the Italian penchant for high gloss factor power metal with an ample dose of AOR styled hard rock. Now I get the draw —- this is basically two generations of Rhapsody vocalists coming together for a vocalists duel (whatever that might mean), and on paper its bound to attract the ears of many a power metal fan. And to their credit, Frontiers Records does often deliver good records behind these so transparently obvious they’re ridiculous ideas, in fact, I still love those Magnus Karlsson’s Free Fall albums.

 

The tricky bit with this Lione/Conti extravaganza rests on how you answer this one question, and maybe its just me but… don’t these guys sound exactly alike? Luca Turilli didn’t just randomly pick Conti off a list of available vocalists to front his new version of Rhapsody, he did it because he could continue writing in the same mode he had been during his time in the original incarnation of Rhapsody of Fire. It was honestly only when watching the music video for “Ascension” when I was finally able to tell who was singing what, and even then I couldn’t discern any reasonable variations in their voices to help me throughout the rest of the album. I’m not sure if this is even a stumbling block when it comes to enjoying this album or not, because even though I’m really only hearing one voice to my ears, I’m rather liking Mularoni’s meat and potatoes approach. It mirrors the last Rhapsody of Fire album Into The Legend, with its stripped down songwriting that seemed to maximize hooks and memorable melodies at the expense of grandeur and ambition. Songs like “Destruction Show” work because of awesome guitar hooks to keep everything focused and concise, and “You’re Falling” has a nice Queensryche vibe to its vocal melody arrangement. Its a solid listening experience in full if you’re in the mood for straight ahead AOR tinged Italian power metal, but as they really could’ve used either Lione or Conti for the project alone, the duets aspect of this fails hard.

 

 

 

 

Angra – ØMNI:

So I’ve given this new Angra album a decent amount of playtime, enough I think for it to fully reveal itself, and I gotta say I’m a little ambivalent overall. In retrospect, Secret Garden was a far more interesting album than we gave it credit for, and its varied collection of vocals might have played a part in that. Not only did Fabio Lione have his debut turn there, but Rafael Bittencourt also added his excellent, rough-edged voice to several songs as well, that’s not to mention the guest turns by Simone Simons and the amazing Doro Pesch. It wasn’t perfect, but it was surprising and kept you guessing. ØMNI is a far more straightforward affair, with Lione getting most of the vocal time although Bittencourt does pop up and there are a few guests, including Alissa White-Gluz on “Black Widow’s Web”, a song that absolutely didn’t need growling vocals but, well, here we are. I enjoyed “Insania” for its beautiful guitarwork and stirring melody, despite shaking my head at just how silly the term “Insania” is (isn’t that what Geoff Tate’s wine was called?). Someone once told me that it was the Latin version of “Insane” and it took me an incredible amount of patience to simply grunt and nod. Moving on, “The Bottom of My Soul” is such an excellent tune, and not coincidentally Bittencourt’s on lead vocals —- is it wrong to suggest that maybe the band sounds better when he’s singing? I’m sure that’s fighting the spirit of their legacy and the impressive work of the Andre Matos and to a lesser degree, the Edu Falaschi years, but damn he sounds great.

 

Lione’s best work comes on “Always More”, a lovely ballad with some unusual guitar tones at work in absolutely gorgeous, simple melodies, combining with an ascending vocal melody that makes use of his effortless ability to hit higher registers. Regarding the departure of Kiko Loureiro, its hard to gauge —- I’m going on the assumption that Bittencourt penned most of the music here, but the now Megadeth guitarist does pop up in a guest spot on the single “War Horns”. I can only say that there’s enough shred factor here to satisfy the most ardent prog-power guitar fanboy out there, and at times Angra even sounds more like Dream Theater considering the tonality of Lione. The last two tracks on the album invoke the title, being the concluding companion pieces to what apparently is a concept album (about a science fiction future in 2046), but they fall flat, being neither heavy or melodic or heady enough to inspire any particular emotion. A rough ending for the album overall, and not a way to get people invested into the album’s concept. Maybe this will grow on me over the coming months, there’s some stuff worth coming back for, but I just find myself wanting to listen to Secret Garden again.

 

 

 

 

Tengger Cavalry – Cian Bi:

A few years ago I was introduced to Tengger Cavalry’s particular take on folk metal with their mixing of Mongolian throat singing and nomadic Asian traditional instrumentation. I was immediately intrigued and checked out a few albums on YouTube, and while I enjoyed what I heard, it was a difficult proposition to simply work into casual listening. Tengger Cavalry is one of those rare breeds of folk metal bands that don’t give you an easy entry way into their sound, there are no instantly accessible tailored singles that can draw a bigger crowd, no “Trollhammaren”. They’ve been unapologetic about their sound, and its also worth noting that the metal aspect of their folk metal seems largely devoid of allegiance to one particular metal style, being just straightforward heavy riffs, plain and simple. Their newest album, Cian Bi, is simultaneously their weirdest yet most straightforward album to date —- its also, shockingly, their last. Just the other week, band founder Nature (yes) Ganganbaigal issued a rough statement throwing the blame on ex-Century Media president and current M Theory Audio owner Marco Barbieri. I’m not well informed enough to make any judgements either way but that’s a bummer, and you have to wonder if Nature is dissolving Tengger Cavalry in name only to terminate any existing business agreements, and will regroup under a different name doing the same type of music.

 

One can only hope, because I’ve been enjoying this new album far more than just the passing casual listens I had with their back catalog. I don’t know if its their best work overall, but there’s something deeply appealing about this bizarre mish mash of elements. Of particular note is just how hard hitting some of the riffs gluing everything together can be, case in point are cuts like “The Old War”, and the pummeling “One Tribe, Beyond Any Nation”. The latter is my personal favorite, featuring a gorgeous melody played on a morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), an incredibly appealing instrument that I’m glad I now know the name of —- all blockaded by some seriously brutal, Rammstein-esque riffage. Besides the traditional instrumentation, Nature’s uncanny vocal ability is also a huge draw for me, as in “Ride Into Grave and Glory” where he switches between the throat singing and his clean rock/metal vocals. It might be an acquired taste for some, but even his “normal” vocals have character, a rustic quality that brings to mind grassy steppes and gritty, grimy back alleys in dense cities all at once. This is a listening experience best beheld start to finish, with the album as the soundtrack to your thoughts or random mindless activity. There’s a spiritual aspect to this blend of folk metal that’s hard to define and even harder to shake.

 

 

 

 

Visions of Atlantis – The Deep & The Dark:

Austria’s Visions of Atlantis have been off most radars since 2013, when they underwent a major lineup shift, not their first one but certainly their most dramatic. The most important change was the addition of ex-Serenity vocalist Clementine Delauney and The Dragonslayer (Siegfried Samer of the uber fun Dragony) on co-lead vocals. At the band’s core has always been drummer/founder Thomas Caser, and with the addition of new guitarist and bassist Christian Douscha and Herbert Glos respectively, we’re on to Visions of Atlantis Mach 7583234419! Well, close enough anyway. We did get a taste of what the Delauney/Samer pairing could sound like with the 2016 Old Routes New Waters EP, a re-recording of several older songs including the ballad “Winternight”, whose recording and video ended up being a thoughtful memorial to the sadly departed original vocalist Nicole Bogner, but The Deep & The Dark is clearly the debut that Caser and company have been striding towards all these years. Given his predilection towards the band’s concept being about seafaring and adventure, and with a fantastically dramatic vocalist like Samer at the forefront, I was expecting an album rich in dramatics, heavy on theatricality, and songwriting that pushed the band’s sound forward.

 

We get that, in brief flashes here and there, but unfortunately, the album suffers from the band’s chief structural flaw within its various lineups, that being the lack of a consistent songwriter. Throughout this band’s history, its songwriting has been generated by a mix of band members, the biggest slice of this coming from ex-keyboardist Martin Harb, but Caser himself isn’t this band’s Tuomas Holopainen. But Caser clearly is the driving force behind maintaining the vision of what this sound should be, at least in theory, that being Nightwish inspired dual male/female vocalist driven symphonic metal. The problem is that whomever is part of the songwriting team for the band at any particular time writes towards that mode, and the results sound like either too many cooks in the kitchen, or various emulations of musical approaches that have been done before. In other words, its symphonic metal by the numbers, and this is a genre where bands really need distinctive musical voices to emerge within their lineups to push their music hard in a particular direction or angle. You might be able to compensate for a lack of this if you’ve got really strong hooks by the armful, but that’s a tall order. Samer’s Dragony is a great example of the latter, their 2015 album Shadowplay doesn’t break new ground, but damn is it a fun listen, full of fist-raising choruses and glorious over the top nonsense.

 

You might think that given these comments I didn’t enjoy The Deep & The Dark at all, but that’s not entirely true. The title track that kicks off the album is a fine emulation of Nightwish, sounding strikingly similar to that band’s Anette Olzon era. And “Return to Lemuria” features a charming bit of Sonata Arctica esque keyboard sugar icing on a verse/chorus that hits heavy on one’s nostalgia factor, sounding like a cut that could’ve been suitable for The Neverending Story soundtrack. Delauney is on fine form on those cuts, her voice the right amount of ethereal and breathy and even with some deft melodic phrasing on certain lyrics to make them extra effective. But a juxtaposition of vocals in “Ritual Night” between her and Samer just doesn’t generate the kind of excitement it should, and I don’t know if its so much their fault as opposed to the song simply lacking anything in the way of hard hitting drama. The “Book of Nature” is yet another example of this homogenized quality to the overall songwriting hampering the vocalists ability to conjure up pulse racing excitement, which is kind of the point of symphonic power metal in the first place! This is a band in desperate need of a sharper songwriter, someone who can channel and mold the talents that they have at the vocal helm. Serenity’s Georg Neuhauser and Thomas Buchberger made Delauney sound positively enchanting on War of Ages, and its disappointing to not hear the same thing here. A frustrating under use of talent, and given the band’s history, I don’t see it changing.

 

 

 

 

 

Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

Utah’s Visigoth burst onto the scene in 2015 with their strong debut The Revenant King, whose stellar “Dungeon Master” we played on the MSRcast around that time. I remember listening to the rest of the album thinking that if they had a few more songs in the spirit of that spectacular cut, they’d really have a fun album. As it was, that song and a Manilla Road cover (“Necropolis”) were the most direct things on the album, the rest of the band’s punchy, vibrant USPM being folded into epic song lengths with extended instrumental passages and grand, broad-sword inspired prog. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the album, but I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to. Fortunately, Visigoth have leaned into their strengths on The Conqueror’s Oath and stripped their sound down to its meat and bones trad metal roots, meaning more Manilla Road, early Manowar and Virgin Steele. This is such a fun record, eight quick cutting daggers of thunderous, unabashedly melodic, anthemic glory —- one of the most satisfying listens to come out of USPM in ages. Its not just that they’re capable of smile inducing glory paeans in “Steel and Silver”, but of inspired musical shifts like the gentle dip into Jethro Tull-esque flute accompanied balladry at the 3:40 mark of “Warrior Queen”. Vocalist (and flutist!) Jake Rogers the Tony Kakko x-factor, a knack for hooky lyrical phrasing, and the admirable talent to drape a memorable vocal melody over nearly everything he sings. Tonally he reminds me of a cross between the plantative Chris Black (High Spirits / Dawnbringer) and Janne Christoffersson from Grand Magus, with a little Eric Adams penchant for bellowing theatrics to power things out.

 

Manowar and Grand Magus are two perfectly suited reference points for what Visigoth have accomplished on this album, where thundering displays of power are at the forefront but the songwriting approach still leaves some room for tasteful musicality. On “Traitor’s Gate”, they utilize a twangy acoustic build up to ratchet up the mystery and tension before unleashing a thundering assault and some lyrics that are begging to be bellowed out loud in unison at a show (“Die like the dog you are!”). I love the middle bridge where Rogers unleashes a wry bit of clever vocal phrasing (“By spite and thunder /
Torn asunder…”), possibly out Manowar-ing Joey DeMaio with its fist in the air magnetism. My personal favorite has to be “Blades in the Night”, where I really feel that Visigoth is reaching into the same well of early 80s inspirations that fuel most of High Spirit’s Scorpions-esque hard rock. The chorus is the star here of course, deceptively simple but so effective, it was ringing in my head all day after first hearing it.  Rogers gets to stretch out here as well, delivering a fantastic performance that’s inspired and even beautiful in its lyrical qualities, reminding me a little of the great Mathias Blad in spots. This would almost be a perfect album, but I’ll agree with damn near every review I’ve seen where “Salt City” is singled out —- its not a terrible cut, and I get why they wanted it in here (hometown tribute and all) but its placement throws off the pacing of the album and I’d rather have had another slice of the same pie the rest of the seven tracks made up. A minor blemish though, one that’s easily forgivable considering the sheer quality of this album. Visigoth have arrived, bar the gates!

 

Beloved Antichrist: Therion Redefine The Metal Opera

February 26, 2018

You might not know this, but I’m a massive Therion fan, as in they’re one of my top five favorite metal bands of all time kinda massive. Sadly, in the seven years this blog has been going, I’ve gotten to write about them just a handful of times. Now that’s partially my own fault for not getting around to doing that retrospective I’d planned for them years back, but its mostly because the band’s last studio release was way back in 2012 with their classic French pop covers art project Les Fleurs du Mal, and their last studio album of original material two years prior to that with Sitra Ahra. Previously, their longest gap between releases was three years, but to their credit we did get a warning —- founder/guitarist Christofer Johnsson telling us way back in September of 2012 that “there won’t be any new regular album… not until we have finished the rock (metal) opera, performed it live as much as we can, taken a break and then put together a regular album again. That will take a couple of years, for sure. So we are closing an era and opening a new period that will be quite different”. It was a fairly surprising statement that at the time stunned and dismayed many Therion fans, myself included, because I think we all wondered why this opera project had to come at the expense of new Therion music. But it was out of our control, and so began the long wait, and good god what a wait its been. I didn’t think he meant six years! Maybe he didn’t either.

 

I gave Wintersun’s Jari Maenpaa a fair amount of criticism for his continued delays regarding Time II, and even referenced Therion’s Christofer Johnsson as an example within the symphonic metal world of someone to replicate in terms of logistics and finances. I bring this up here because I can feel that a few of you might remember that and all too rightfully want to throw that back in my face right now. I still think my example of Johnsson’s operating methods in terms of recording complicated material was absolutely spot on in relation to Wintersun’s Time II dilemma, but it raises the question: Does Johnsson deserve to be equally criticized for the significant amount of time he’s taken to release a project that is sharply dividing opinions within the fan base and greater metal community in general? I think it can be argued that yes, taking six years (eight if we account for original material) to release something that isn’t a new album in the traditional sense is far too long, and though no one disputes Johnsson’s right to do that, we don’t have to like it! Here I’ll point out that I’ve been hearing about Blind Guardian’s yet to be released “orchestral project” since late 2001, when I first heard Hansi mention it in an interview promoting the then newly released “And Then There Was Silence” single. Yes, that project has been cooking in the background for nearly two decades(!), its genesis taking root in the writing sessions for 1998’s Nightfall In Middle Earth. It hasn’t had a vice grip around the band’s activities however —- they’ve moved along at their new album every four-five years standard clip, even delivering a straight up masterpiece with 2010’s At The Edge of Time. I’ve seen the band live four times here in Houston in that intervening time as well, they’ve been regularly touring the world with each release. And whenever they’re asked, they tell us the same thing: Work on their orchestral project continues, it’ll be released when its done.

 

 

It might be unfair to bring up the Blind Guardian example, because everyone works differently, and maybe Johnsson is the kind of artist who wants to only focus on one thing with maximum intensity for a lengthy period of time. I get that, and respect it. I just wonder if he ever considered the other route, of making this a long burning project that he’d work on in the off-times from normal Therion albums and tours, even if it did take twenty plus years? The discussion is moot of course, because here we are with Beloved Antichrist in its finished, recorded form, but there are plans to stage this somewhere and ambitions to see it take on a life of its own as an opera entity separate from Therion. We’re realistically looking at another three to four years before a new Therion album could potentially come to fruition… that’ll make it ten plus years since Sitra Ahra, a heck of a timescale for any rock/metal band not named Guns N’ Roses. The reactions that I’ve seen to Beloved Antichrist have been as polarizing as you’d expect, and on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group they were particularly blunt and forthright with their nearly overwhelming disapproval. I was even provided with some insight by a classically trained soprano as to why in her opinion Therion’s opera was terrible even by opera standards, never mind the metal ones. I should add that all the opinions on this group were stated pretty respectfully… you can only imagine the stuff written elsewhere.

 

One of the recurrent themes among all those on that Facebook group who discussed Beloved Antichrist unfavorably was what can only be best described as ‘bewilderment meets impatience’. The criticism I saw frequently repeated was that the rhythm guitars came across as plodding, repetitive, and used more as a percussive/tempo device than an inspired riff delivery system. I understood that criticism because I too focused on the guitars during my initial first few listens through the entirety of the opera, honestly for awhile there it felt like all I was hearing was simplistic rhythm guitar and a load of operatic vocals in pieces of music that felt untethered to anything —- be it a melody or a motif. Everything sounded rather amorphous, that is a big mess of sound that was hard to get a hold of, to find something that hooked you. What was exacerbating that impression was the daunting length of this project itself, spanning three discs and clocking in at just over three hours of music, it was certainly understandable that many people took a single pass through it (or maybe even skipped around), and decided that once was enough. Metal fans do have a tendency to be patient and follow the principle that it often takes multiple listens for something complex to reveal itself, but I think the three hour running time was a hurdle that was too lengthy for many to attempt.

 

 

The thing is that Beloved Antichrist is really an opera —- I know that might be stating the obvious but it needs to be reiterated again: It is an OPERA. Full stop. What we’re listening to here is the soundtrack to an opera that has yet to be staged, not a “metal opera” in the way we’ve come to know them via Avantasia or Ayreon, which have always struck me as more theatrically inclined concept albums closer to musical theater than anything resembling opera. Okay so if we view it in this light, where does that leave you and me as metal fans? I don’t know about you, but my experience with opera is limited to watching a few of them on PBS during those late night insomnia years, and I actually did enjoy them (they were subtitled) and didn’t click off after a few minutes. The one thing I remember absolutely not digging were the parts where dialogue was being sung, seemingly without regard to crafting a melody, an aspect I can now recognize as the “recitative”. But that’s really it, I know precious little about the history, structure, and appreciation of opera. I know what arias are, mostly because I have an unabashed love of Sarah Brightman’s solo albums, which tended to feature the inclusion of a few arias from various operas in addition to her original material. I’ve been a fan of hers dating back twenty years now, when I first saw her on PBS (yes, again) singing “Time To Say Goodbye” with Andrea Bocelli. She was my gateway into classical music alongside film soundtracks, and through her I started listening to Maria Callas, Anna Netrebko, and José Cura. Its not much of a classical education, but its a start.

 

A few Thursdays ago, I sat down to listen to this behemoth of a recording with that thought process in mind: “I’m listening to the soundtrack of a play that hasn’t been staged yet”. It wasn’t me trying to learn Finnish in one day, it was just a simple, subtle shift in mindset to prepare myself for how I would try to process what I was hearing. It worked. Suddenly the simplistic rhythm guitars weren’t grabbing my attention first and foremost, but everything else was. I heard the melodies circulating through the string sections, the dramatic punctuation of the horn sections and pounding timpani, and I was paying attention to a story being told through the vocalists. Within that I found some beautiful music —- a stellar example coming in early on the third track “Through Dust, Through Rain”, where an instrument I can’t quite define accompanies a gorgeous soprano vocal, backed by an ebb and flow of quiet strings. There’s a moment here where a lonely piano figure breaks through fleetingly, like a ray of sun through the overcast and its so lonely sounding, so effective at stirring up feelings of melancholy and heartbreak. These micro moments are why I’m a Therion fan, because somehow Johnsson has an endless supply of them, even if they have no metallic context whatsoever. Its an early highlight, and although its not technically an aria (being a dialogue between two characters rather than one), its something that I could see sung out of context in a classical program by someone like Sarah Brightman no less (is my fanboy showing?).

 

 

These moments of musical bliss are scattered everywhere, as on the opening strings during “Signs Are Here”, serene yet suggestive of some tumult down the road. Then there’s the choral vocal hook in “Never Again”, with just enough of a catchy, solidly Therion-ized guitar riff anchoring things underneath to provide it with a gritty earthiness. There’s a wild display of sturm und drang on “The Crowning of Splendour”, pitting its male operatic vocal leads against a spiraling build up of guitars and a thunderous orchestral arrangement. Another male lead vocal moment worth hearing again is on “Our Destiny”, which is structured far more closely to a verse/chorus format than any other piece of music here. Its very Therion-esque too, from its charismatic vocal melody to the distinctive melodic signatures present in its expressive guitar passages (even a brief glimpse of a guitar solo here!). It has a martial drum segue into “Anthem”, where Thomas Vikstrom as Seth (the Antichrist) leads us with a solo vocal over somber strings, and this sequence soon runs headlong into an explosive metal passage that invokes memories of an old Therion classic in “Wine of Aluqah”, down to the percussive tempos and the wild guitar patterns. The love dialogue in “Jewels From Afar” between Helena and Seth is set to bright major chords loosely strummed on chiming acoustic guitars, a welcome break from riff based rhythmic structures that results in some pretty melodies.

 

If you’re looking for another Therion-ized to the max slice of music, revisit “The Arrival of Apollonius” with its very Secret of the Runes style mid-tempo rhythm guitar structures and epic choral vocals. There’s some remarkable detail here: An affecting solemn horn intro and nimble female operatic vocals during the 2:08 – 2:23 stretch to name a pair. Regarding the latter, the staccato guitars actually work pretty well in this passage, they have purpose and a even deliver a nice tail-off at the end of the riff sequence. Those looking for riffs will find a solid one in “Night Reborn” as well as “Temple of New Jerusalem”, the latter of which got the focus track treatment with a lyric video. Its simple yet hooky riff pattern segues into an actual bridge and chorus sequence, joining “Our Destiny” as the most traditional song on offer. The chorus was a little lacking to me overall, but the unexpectedly joyful guitar outburst at the 3:30 mark is worth coming back for. But guitars don’t always steal the show: I love the usage of piano on “Dagger of God”, the keys expressive and elegant; and the conjoined bombastic orchestral effort on “The Lions Roar” is impactful, those thundering timpanis and french horns working in concert to effect grandeur and majesty. And its the choir vocals that make “Bringing the Gospel” so compelling, and I appreciate that the rhythm guitar goes in unpredictable directions here, altering its staccato patterns with accelerating riffing. And I wish that the intro sequence of “Laudate Dominum” could repeat throughout its entire five minute running time, those sweeping strings follow an absolutely beautiful melody, sprightly and refreshing amidst so much darkness throughout the rest of the opera.

 

 

But I’m over here going on about all these other instruments, and you’re probably wondering “Where’s the metal at Pigeon?”. Well check out “Behold Antichrist” for an awesome circular riff and the Therion-ized lead guitar overlays and solos that definitely push this more towards the metal end of the opera metal spectrum, particular at the 2:04 mark with an amazing Christian Vidal solo. I get Gothic Kabbalah flashbacks when listening to “Cursed By The Fallen”, not only from its female soloists but its juxtaposing beefy trad metal riffs alongside woodwind led musical bridges. The heaviest metallic moment comes in “Astral Sophia”, with its doomy, darkened riffing and foreboding male choral vocals, the song taking on quiet/loud dynamics throughout quite effectively. And then there’s “Shoot Them Down!”, which is described by Johnsson as being the music for a street revolution scene, and he purposefully invoked what he describes as “Motörhead-goes-opera”. Its a solid, 80s influenced throwback riff that anchors the song in a set tempo and is able to sustain interest on its own without vocal help. Speaking of riffs, “Rise to War” has an excellent one hidden behind its operatic intro, striking at the 1:33 minute mark like something off an Accept album. There’s metal aplenty to be found here, but its rarely concentrated in one spot as you can see, hence the push and pull of a true metal opera.

 

Not everything works as a standalone musical piece, and although most of these pieces of music are dialogues between one or more characters, you really can play spot the recitative. Scenes such as “Pledging Loyalty”, “What Is Wrong?”, and in particular “Morning Has Broken” are tough listens. Regarding the latter, its vocal melody is so drawn out and tortured, the vocalists almost sound like they’re singing out of tune. To his credit, Johnsson has found a way to incorporate dialogue in a way that is largely interesting and engaging on a musical level, with short melodies that support chunks of dialogue or wrap around them. But every now and then you’ll stumble upon something where he just couldn’t pull it off well enough, and while it may be perfectly functional in the context of a stage performance, these pieces of music stick out in the context of this soundtrack. The inverse is also true in singling out scenes where the music is absolutely sublime, even daring to challenge some of the greatest work Therion has ever recorded. I’m thinking specifically of the epic vocal duet on “Seeds of Time” and the opera highlight of highlights “To Shine Forever”, both towards the end of the tracklisting. The former is an elegiac, melancholic performance from Vikstrom and Chiara Malvestiti as Johanna in what has to be the opera’s final act aria. I simply love “To Shine Forever” however, with its heartbreaking blend of chiming minor key acoustic guitars, sweeping brushstroke strings, and by far the most affecting choral vocal melody on Beloved Antichrist.

 

 

Okay, enough dissection… I knew that was going to take a long time (46 tracks!) but the truth is that my own evidence of enjoying this work won’t really matter a ton to most of you. There’s a couple things I understand now about Beloved Antichrist, and the first is that it simply won’t be for some people and that doesn’t make those people wrong in the slightest. If you heard this expecting a metal opera more in line with what Avantasia has been terming operas with their many albums, I understand being under or overwhelmed by this thing. If you were wanting a new Therion album in the vein that we’re all accustomed to and you walked away from this after one listen thinking its an utter abomination, you’re justified in that opinion. Heck one of the hallmarks of classic Therion is being able to enjoy the instrumental aspect of the band on an equal level to the vocal arrangements, and this opera is mostly a vocal affair due to its very nature. Is it what I wanted out of a six/eight year absence of new Therion music? No not really, but its what we got, and as a die-hard fan who’s gotten so much out of their previous work on a personal level, the least I could do here was give it more than a couple tries. It paid off for me to a degree, but its understandable that it won’t for everyone.

 

I’ll point out one final thing though —- remember when the Lord of the Rings soundtracks were released a few months before each of the three movies eventually debuted in the Decembers of 2001-2003? I’d eagerly buy them on their release dates and pour through them, and they’d get me excited for the movies and I would think “Yeah, these sound good”. But they didn’t really mean as much to me then as they did after I had seen their corresponding films and had a chance to attach pieces of music to those epic scenes that melted mine and many other geeks’ hearts. The Stranger Things soundtrack would just be a weird mix of classic 80s songs and bizarre electronic music if we listened to it without watching the show and being charmed stupid. And without Top Gun’s electric volleyball and Tom Cruise hi-fiving Anthony Edwards montage, Kenny Loggins “Playing With The Boys” would be… well, still a terrible song… okay so it doesn’t work for everything. But you get the gist. Context helps, particularly with soundtracks! If you hated Beloved Antichrist upon first listen, maybe check out its stage production (hopefully that happens) if you’re in Europe somewhere, or for an easier method, come back to this in a few months when in the mood for something classical.

Throw Open the Gates! Watain, Summoning, Tribulation, and More!

February 11, 2018

I had a vague notion that this year would be front loaded (and maybe back loaded too) with a ton of new noteworthy releases, but this January really has been like none other in recent memory. Most of my time was preoccupied with Orphaned Land’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs, but the rest was spent trying to catch up on everything else. This is the first part of a series of smaller reviews covering these albums, with hopefully another post covering the rest of them coming soon. In between I have to tackle the mighty triple disc behemoth from Therion so… yeah, that’ll take awhile. There’s a lot of metal to cover and the next few months don’t look like it’ll slow down so I’ll try my best to keep up!

 

 


 

 

Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse:

I had to check to make sure I was getting the date of the last Watain album right —- its really been five years since The Wild Hunt, an album that while largely good, was a bit of a letdown coming after 2010’s viciously earthshaking Lawless Darkness. That’s an album that is seen by many black metal aficionados as something of a recent masterpiece, so it could be argued that The Wild Hunt was never going to live up to the expectations it created (how many bands knock out one masterpiece after another —- seriously though, promotional hype aside?). My problem with it as I recall was that its experimentation fell flat, particularly in their attempts to slow down the tempos more and at one point even try their hand at a road ballad (“They Rode On”). I think it was good of them to try those things, however meandering and at times just boring they ended up. What we and they should be certain of by now is that the Watain sound works better when its this fierce, uptempo ball of fury just barreling forward at full speed with a stop/start tempo change here and there to set things up.

 

The band returns to this formula for Trident Wolf Eclipse, an album that seems deliberately focused on achieving the spirit of Lawless Darkness, and they almost succeed. What’s holding it back is the thing that made this a really tough album to get into at first, and that’s the strange decision to have this kinda murky, muddy production quality through the whole affair. I had a hard time pinning down this problem at first, but a friend who’s a huge Watain fan pointed it out (“The production sucks!”), and sure enough when you compare this album to their previous outings, there’s a real problem here. It prevents everything from sounding as potent and slicing as it should, and this is a band where you should really feel the riffs on a visceral level. And then there’s just the overall problem that there’s nothing here that stands out, apart from the excellent “Towards the Sanctuary” and opener “Nuclear Alchemy”, two songs that do feel like they were left off Lawless Darkness. Everything else is okay, a fairly consistent barrage of speed and aggression with the occasional slightly slower passage, but there’s little that commands my attention. I’ve gone through this album a fair few times now, and I’m still having trouble deciphering whether its the production that’s keeping things from being too exciting, or that the songwriting just isn’t up to snuff. If its the former, that’s unfortunate but maybe it’ll grow on me in the future —- if its the latter, then we’re still seeing something of a hangover from 2013.

 

 

 

 

Summoning – With Doom We Come:

I’ve been listening to Summoning for a long, long time —-  my first exposure to them was in 2001 when a Tolkien loving friend bought Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame on a whim after inspecting the tracklisting and seeing a bevy of Lord of the Rings references in its song titles (as oddly coincidental as it is that he would stumble upon that album in person, its even stranger that a Summoning album was in a store in Houston, Texas to begin with). The context of this introduction is worth mentioning I feel, because around that time he and I had both undertaken a re-reading of all of Tolkien’s works in preparation for that year’s December release of The Fellowship of the Ring (although, that re-reading had been going on for some time, thanks to Blind Guardian stoking those fires a few years prior). He immersed himself in Summoning’s music and I followed suit, both of us getting copies of their previous album Stronghold and for me at least, having it be background to many a chapter read (and the de facto soundtrack to the hours drained playing Shadowbane aka the greatest MMORPG of all tid).

 

They were powerful, majestic experiences, and fully formed examples of minimalism in black metal long before the advent of blackgaze or post-black metal. The band was at its best on ‘Mortal Heroes, where they found the perfect balance of  golden epic pomp to counteract their ever bleak nature, particularly on “A Distant Flame Before the Sun”, a bleak re-working of the Tolkien/Bilbo Baggins song “I Sit Beside The Fire And Think”. They get close to those moments on With Doom We Come, even though this album largely follows the more subdued and darker tone of 2013’s Old Mornings Dawn. I’m thinking of songs like “Night Fell Behind”, where mournful horns pop up throughout to counteract the sombre singular-note keyboard melody that ambles along at its dreamy pace. Similarly on “Carcharoth”, an interesting mix of keyboard generated orchestral elements are used in juxtaposition to an isolated fragmentary melody to create a mysterious soundscape. Its hard to pull this stuff off convincingly, and Summoning have made a career of doing it. But a few solid moments aside, I wasn’t as enamored with this album as I’d hoped for, large parts of it seem to pass by without me taking much notice (a danger in ambient based music). Seen in retrospect with my lack of enthusiasm for Old Mornings Dawn, and we’re hitting a 14 year drought of something truly excellent from Protector and Silenius. Maybe its time for them to shake things up, to try something bold to re-imagine the Summoning sound.

 

 

 

 

Tribulation – Down Below:

I guess I failed to review Tribulation’s 2015 album The Children of the Night, which is weird to realize now considering I listened to it when it came out (new Nightwish and Kamelot albums came out around the same time, so maybe that explains why it slipped through the cracks). Anyway, what that album showed was the sound of this Swedish death metal outfit embracing a blend of goth rock, traditional metal, and psychedelia elements in their already progressive sound. It was a strikingly more song driven album compared to its predecessor, meaning that melodies were front and center to everything as opposed to the riff driven approach of their first two albums. Take that template, and further strip away most of the old death metal tendencies besides vocalist Johannes Andersson’s raw throated vocal approach and you’ll have a good picture of what to expect on Down Below. I’ve seen a lot of comparisons to Ghost being thrown around in regards to this, but that’s a bit of a stretch… Ghost is exuberantly melodic, working with major key melodies like they’re some kind of silky shirted power metal band from Finlandia. I get the spirit of the comparison, buts its waaaaay off.

 

Now I’ll grant you that Tribulation have upped their production quality, this is as clean and dare I suggest polished as they’ve ever sounded, but their application of melody is still subdued and restrained, used to sketch out the fragments of a song’s skeleton rather than lay things on thick with multi-tracked harmonies and piles of sound. On the album highlight “Nightbound”, its the clean melodic motif on lead guitar that keeps repeating in the background that serves as the actual hook, and its pristine quality allows the rhythm guitar upfront to play a little more relaxed, looser, and grittier. Andersson’s hoarse yet always intelligible vocals careen wildly across, working in tandem with the rhythm guitar in a way that’s half rock n’ roll strut and half goth-metal Nick Cave just going off the rails and ignoring song structure altogether. This is an approach that’s repeated in varying degrees through the album —- there always being something in the way of a simple yet artful melodic figure played with precision to create a sense of structure, and the rest of the band delivering a shimmying, swaying, at times ragged performance around it. On another personal favorite, “The World”, Tribulation unleash a Sentenced-esque sense of musicality, heavy on dark dramatics and major-minor chord shifts to create a sense of the grand and epic. There’s something really charming about this album, about its intentional imperfections and its just right mix of salty and sweet melodic approach that has me coming back again and again.

 

 

 

 

In Vain – Currents:

Norway’s In Vain were on my radar sometime after their 2013 release Ænigma, an album that I never wrote about due to discovering it a year past its release date, but one I ended up listening to quite a bit over the past few years whenever I was in the mood for something proggy yet still hooky and impactful (you’d figure Enslaved would be the go to there but I’ve burnt out quite a few of their albums and others are just too heavy on the prog to satisfy this urge). I just did a guest hosting appearance on an episode of MSRcast’s sister podcast Metal Geeks where I’m fairly certain we referred to these guys as a Finnish band —- a glaring mistake in retrospect because of course they’re from Norway… its written in their musical DNA! Rather than crafting darkly sweetened melo-death with painterly, sweeping guitars ala Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum and their brethren, In Vain display that Norwegian sensibility of progressive death metal heard in fore bearers Enslaved and Borknagar. It means that these songs are at times driven by both riff progressions, and alternately their guitar and/or vocal melodies, sometimes all at once. To add to these bands’ similarities, at times, clean vocalist/keyboardist Sindre Nedlund sounds like a mix of ICS Vortex, Herbrand Larsen, and his brother Lazare (whose Solefald project features In Vain as its backing band). I don’t think as an American metal fan, I’ll ever be able to truly understand just how small and insular the worlds of Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish metal really are. It just doesn’t work that way here in the States.

 

On Currents, In Vain certainly place a greater emphasis on clean vocals, but they’ve managed to prevent that from scaling back their heaviness factor, resulting in an album that’s strikingly aggressive and hooky. On “En Forgangen Tid (Times of Yore, Pt II)”, they place a gorgeous Norwegian lyric clean vocal melody over a bed of long sustained guitar figures that remind me of Opeth circa Blackwater Park, the tempo paced at a giant’s march with its doom-laden rhythmic approach. In Vain work well with these types of contrasts, and not all of them are vocal centric: There’s an excellent guitar motif throughout “As The Black Horde Storms”, a song that approaches quasi black metal territory with its near tremolo riffed passages and grim vocals (its possible that this is a guest vocal spot but I can’t confirm it). There is one major confirmed guest vocal drop in however, that being Trivium’s Matt Heafy on “Soul Adventurer”, this guy really making the rounds as of late. I like Heafy generally however, and thought he was quite good on Dragonforce’s last outing and of course he helped make Ihsahn’s “Mass Darkness” into a Metal Pigeon Song of the Year listee. I think he must have a couple different shades to his vocal approach because he’s hitting a lower register than I’m used to here (I’m not all too familiar with the spectrum of his work in Trivium). The result is pretty good, nothing I’m freaking out about —- its like hearing an Americanized version of Vintersorg, and to say its unusual is a fair appraisal I think. Time will tell if I wind up listening to this as much as its predecessor, but its made a strong impression overall.

 

 

 

 

Leaves Eyes – Sign of the Dragonhead:

Its been over two years since the last time we had new music from Leaves Eyes —- in that time Liv Kristine and Alexander Krull had a very acrimonious and public divorce/fall-out, and the band went on the road with newly recruited Finnish vocalist Elina Siirala. I’m pretty sure I’m remembering this right, but I saw the band two times with her at the helm between then and now, the band opening a few North American tours for others as a way to not only introduce Siirala to their fans, but also perhaps test out the waters before committing to a recording. I know that I at least mentioned it on the MSRcast, if not in writing here on the blog, but I walked away from those shows rather unimpressed with Siirala within the greater context of the band. I had seen Leaves Eyes with Liv way back in 2007 opening for Kamelot, and she was magnificent that night, her delicate, graceful, downright elegant stage performance winning me over. I still wasn’t too wild on their albums (the Vinland Saga the exception) but I could at least say that they were able to translate to the stage what they were trying to accomplish live. Maybe things will change on future tours, but Siirala seemed out of place onstage, or perhaps it was that she was so strikingly different from Liv and I had a hard time accepting that.

 

As a vocalist however, Siirala has a strong, rich, almost Tarja-esque vocal ability, and she can siren it out live. And that’s the most striking thing about Sign of the Dragonhead, that she delivers the most forceful, pronounced, and strident lead vocal performance heard on any Leaves Eyes album period. Case in point is the opening title track, a slice of strut and stomp symphonic metal that’s about as meat and potatoes as this genre gets, but it boasts a pretty strong hook. Her voice is noticeably without accent, a rarity for a Finnish singer, but apparently she lives in London and you have to wonder if that’s been a factor in changing her voice to something that is very Euro-neutral. On the gentle, folk-instrument accompanied ballad “Fairer Than The Sun”, she delivers a command performance, controlled and precise, and what it might lack in distinct character, it makes up for in sheer strength. Another highlight is the weirdly different “Riders On the Wind”, where I’m hearing a folky-rockin’ vibe unlike anything I’ve heard from the band before. I had to double check to make sure it wasn’t an old Jethro Tull cover or something like that, and I wish the band would try to spread their wings a bit more like this and get adventurous. It works here, and “Riders” and the folk-laden “Winter Nights” are stark contrasts to nearly everything else on offer, which is largely more of the same. There’s nothing wrong per say with cuts like “Across the Sea” and “Jomsborg”, but it just feels like we’ve heard their kind before. A promising start with a new vocalist, but hopefully just a stepping stone to something greater.

 

 

Songs of Bravery: Orphaned Land’s Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs

January 30, 2018

Like other bands I absolutely love, I find the task of reviewing the new Orphaned Land album a daunting proposition, because there’s so much of my own emotional response I have to consider and somehow weigh before writing something that makes a lick of sense. Its been this way with new music from Maiden, Blind Guardian, Insomnium, etc… and will likely be this way for the upcoming Therion album as well. Its been five years since the band’s last album, the masterful, career-defining All Is One; an album that captured my heart so fully that it dragged me back to my fanboy state that existed with this band well over a decade ago. To quickly recap my personal history with this band (I go into much greater detail in that All Is One review): I was introduced to them and hooked in with 2004’s Mabool, quickly bought up their back catalog, consequentially explored other Middle Eastern/Arabic music (metal and non-metal) because I loved the sounds of it and needed more, and spent over half a decade waiting for a new Orphaned Land album. When that follow up arrived in 2010’s The Never Ending Way of ORwarriOR, I could not get into it and felt greatly disappointed —- whether in myself or towards the band I still can’t really say. Three years later, All Is One was our relationship therapy, an album that was so magnificent in all its aspects that it renewed my enthusiasm for the band tenfold. It made me go back and reconsider ORwarriOR, which I found a new appreciation for even though its still below its predecessor and successor in my overall affection.

 

It was going to be hard for Orphaned Land to follow-up All Is One, it was a watershed release for more than just its musical content too —- being founding guitarist Yossi Sassi’s last album with the band whose sound he had a massive role in pioneering. I thought that was a massive blow to the band’s artistic fortunes for the future, the only potential salvation being that All Is One was also the introduction of guitar wizard Chen Balbus into the lineup. Together he and Yossi traded flashes of brilliance back and forth across that album through inspired songwriting and emotionally expressive playing. When Yossi announced his departure, it was only natural that Chen would move up to fill that creative void and claim a greater share of the songwriting responsibility alongside vocalist Kobi Farhi. In essence, Chen is Yossi’s “replacement”, and newcomer Idan Amsalem is Chen’s replacement, the newer new kid in the band. Fans are always leery of big lineup shifts like these, particularly of integral members like Yossi, but Chen’s continued presence in the lineup gave me a little bit of confidence that they’d be able to make this transition. And make it they have, because after intensively listening to Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs on countless repeat spins, the discussion really should be about whether it is leapfrogging All Is One to claim the title of the band’s best album to date.

 

 

I’m taking it as a given that everyone knows what Orphaned Land generally sounds like, its metal merged with Middle-Eastern instrumentation, melodies, and patterns. That’s a simplistic explanation but generally sums it up —- the thing is, a lot of bands can employ those sounds as window dressing and have (not naming any names here!). But Orphaned Land were the first to really do this in not only an authentic way, but in an interconnected way, meaning that it was enmeshed within their songwriting approach and integral to their sonic identity. It was called Oriental Metal by both the band and the metal community around the world, and one of the unique facets of this style of metal as others have gone down its path is that its entirely malleable to different subgenres. So we have the founders in Orphaned Land who for their first four albums merged traditional sounds with progressive death metal; but bands like Melechesh and Odious merged it with black metal; Aeternam are merging it with Gothenburg melodic death metal, and the likes of Myrath and Amaseffer merged with it clean vocal progressive metal with some power metal influences. I bring all this up because Orphaned Land’s sound has changed quite a bit over its past two albums, and its becoming clear to me with Unsung Prophets and Dead Messiahs that the choice of metal subgenre, or harsh or clean vocals doesn’t really matter —- the core of this style of metal is the traditional/ethnic Middle Eastern sound itself.

 

This new album is Orphaned Land’s grandest, deepest, and richest embrace of that sound, so widely and deeply does it cover and infuse every single song from front to back. You couldn’t honestly say that about an album like Mabool, or especially The Neverending Way of ORwarriOR —- go back and listen to those records, there are large swathes of those songs where what you’re predominantly hearing are slamming prog-metal riff passages and Kobi’s scream-growled death vocals. Sure the Middle-Eastern elements are there, but they sometimes recede to the background or they ebb and flow in and out of places in songs. I remember thinking that my one wish for the Mabool album was that the band could’ve thrown in more songs along the lines of “Norra El Norra”, those perfect, symbiotic fusions of cultural folk influences and metal. I longed for another “Sapari” on ORwarriOR, and though I’ve come to enjoy that album over time, there are still large chunks of it where I feel its lacking that special element that makes Orphaned Land (and Oriental Metal) so unique. The band headed in the right direction with All Is One, an album where they increased the melody by relying more on Arabic strings to drive most of the songwriting, pairing it with a power metal inspired turn towards choir vocal backed choruses. But here on Unsung Prophets, Kobi and company have finally dived headfirst into the pool of Middle Eastern sounds —- it infuses every song in intertwined melodic patterns and motifs.

 

 

 

 

The first visible ripples of that headfirst dive appear in the opening seconds of the album, where a sonorous female voice wordlessly expresses some undefinable emotion, ushered in by graceful violins. Those strings coalesce with a dramatic flourish and we’re off, their Arabic melodies leading the way on “The Cave”, leaving gaps for Balbus and Amsalem’s guitars and bouzouki. Back again are Kobi’s scream/growled melo-death vocals, and not just on this track but all over this album (they were relegated to a single song, “Fail”, on All Is One), and I find their reintroduction to the band’s sound refreshing. It has the effect to keep us off-balance with sudden bursts of heaviness and aggression in the songwriting to accompany him. A chief criticism of All Is One was its static tempo all throughout —- and while I don’t agree that it was a detriment to the songwriting quality on that album, I can understand why others might have. So the pinball bouncing around of tempos, melodic shifts and unpredictable rhythmic patterns on Unsung Prophets must be an absolute delight for anyone who felt that way. I guess another way of looking at it is that All Is One was imbued with a strong prog-power influence in its major key melodicism and reliance on vocal melodies, and here they’ve reintroduced some of the melo-death back into the formula while still carrying over the power metal esque love of dense orchestral arrangements.

 

Proof of that melo-death resurgence is heard in “We Do Not Resist”, arguably the heaviest song they’ve done in years, one that starts off with door kicking-in riffs with perhaps the fiercest growling vocals I’ve ever heard Kobi deliver. Once again however, that strong choral vocal influence from the last album stirs again for the chorus with a largely female backing cast singing the refrain. Its instrumental final half minute sets the stage for one of the prettiest songs on the album, “In Propaganda”, where traditional sounds lead the way in favor of electric guitars —- bouzouki melodies and crying violins usher us in, and we find Kobi showcasing the delicate, upper register of his voice that is really lovely. The mid song uptempo rhythmic shift is also traditionally inspired, something about it has an echo of Greek folk music, like the kind of excitable moments you’d hear at some kind of celebration. That’s an underused term for this band’s music, that it sounds celebratory, even if the lyrics are counter indicative of that sentiment. I’m speaking from experience a bit —- I’ve been to many a Muslim and Hindu wedding, or Diwali celebration, even the odd party at those kinds of households, and sometimes Orphaned Land’s music reminds me of standing outside with all the other guys, drinking a beer or chai (or both!) and hearing traditional music drift out from somewhere inside.

 

 

I had wondered if there would be an instrumental drop off after Yossi left the band, he was such a talent on a multi-instrumentalist scale, but thankfully the band has diversified their supporting musicians cast and still employs all the sounds you’d expect them too. I’m not good at picking individual tones out to identify each instrument correctly, but surely all of them are present on “All Knowing Eye”, a four minute journey into a lush Steven Wilson-esque soundscape, hypnotic melodies, and once again Kobi knocking it out of the park with a memorable vocal hook. He’s captivating again on the old traditional Hebrew vocal sung “Yedidi”, and its always interesting just how seamlessly the band’s amplified interpretations of these old religious/cultural songs fit in with their original material. The song that surprisingly might be the gem of the album is the nine minute plus epic “Chains Fall to Gravity”, a breathtakingly beautiful piece of music in construction and execution. Its not just the heart-wrenching violin melodies that grab you here, but the surging, hair-raising choral vocal bridge build up: “Go forth and be all you can be…”. The strange thing about this song is just how admittedly disjointed it really is if you break it down to its constituent parts. I’m not sure why it works so well, but its one of the most captivating things Orphaned Land has ever recorded, this album’s “The Beloved’s Cry” or “Brother”.

 

A close second favorite is the lead-off single “Like Orpheus”, which features the one and only Hansi Kursch on guest vocals. First, what a treat to have both these singers on the same song, but this track has really grown on me from my initial listen to it where I came away uncertain of what to think. Its hook is deceptively buried, revealing itself through its gossamer thread violin melodies that weave around Hansi’s distinctive tones in the chorus. It took a little courage for the band to trust such a crucial fragment of a song to a guest vocalist, but you’ve got to credit them for seeming to know that Hansi would be a great fit. If you haven’t seen the music video for this one, check it out below —- not only is it shrewd of the band to remove themselves from it entirely, but its message of unity through music is a hard one to pull off without feeling canned or corny. Great actors, a simple concept and focused yet simple cinematography go a long way (so many metal bands and video directors could learn from its example methinks). Moving on, I could see some people getting impatient with the lack of metal on “Poets of Prophetic Messianism”, but if you consider it in context within the tracklisting, it works well as a change of pace semi-instrumental. Particularly so when its followed by the up-tempo, groove-riffed “Left Behind”, a candidate for a single release with its ear-wormy hook and awesome acoustic rhythmic shuffle. I love the choice to deliver half the verse with the choral vocals, its one of those little details that keeps this album sounding fresh and exciting even on my umpteenth playthrough.

 

 

 

 

If you got to “My Brothers Keeper” and all of a sudden began to suspect that Unsung Prophets had some kind of conceptual streak running through it, you weren’t alone. Its not just that Kobi’s almost spoken word vocals here immediately draw attention to it (and to his credit, he pulls them off convincingly where so many others would sound terrible), but in examining lyrics like “I have to go back / To save these shades, souls with faded hearts, brothers of my pain” I immediately began to think about a larger picture at work here. Indeed this is a conceptual album, as Kobi has discussed at great length in the various interviews surrounding its release, one that’s inspired by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, something those of you who’ve read The Republic might remember. I won’t go into its conceptual details here, but you can gather just by looking at the tracklisting that these songs follow the journey of the freed person in that allegory (Kobi provides a pretty good overview of the concept if you’re interested). Normally I’ve tended to avoid looking too deeply into the band’s overarching concepts, preferring to enjoy individual songs on a musical and lyrical level as my own personal interpretation I suppose. But I think this is the most intriguing, in depth, and frighteningly relevant concept Kobi has ever worked with, and it clearly brought out the best in him on a lyrical level.

 

The album finishes strong, with “Take My Hand” and “Only the Dead Have Seen then End of War”, the latter serving as a visceral reminder of just how good bassist Uri Zelcha and percussionist Matan Shmuely are at being an inspired, vibrantly unconventional rhythm section. The closing cut “The Manifest – Epilogue” isn’t technically part of the concept but is somewhat thematically linked, being a tribute to the assassinated revolutionary Chilean singer Victor Jara (if you were at any point a U2 fan like myself, you’ll remember his name being dropped in “One Tree Hill”). What a strikingly beautiful way to end an album that is really battling it out with All Is One as my favorite of all their records. For all that I loved about that album’s exuberant simplicity and joyous outpouring of melody, I love that Orphaned Land have delivered an album that really speaks to the darker mood of the world right now. But with this band, there’s always hope, and so at the 3:05 mark, where the choir vocalists get one final moment in the sun, their voices surge to sing in Spanish a sentiment that I honestly think Orphaned Land have earned unto themselves —- “Songs of bravery, will always be new songs, forever.”

 

Stuff I Missed From Other People’s Lists

January 16, 2018

Before we plunge directly headlong into discussing 2018 music, I’ve been having a blast listening to all the recommendations from other year end 2017 lists from writers/sites I’ve respected over the years. Some of the albums on these lists have just bounced right off me, but many have piqued my interest, so below are a couple things I’ve stumbled upon late that maybe you hadn’t heard yet either. Its my blog companion piece to the two MSRcasts we’ve recently recorded focusing on a slew of releases we missed. On the horizon are reviews for albums I’m already listening to in addition to these latecomers from last year, namely the new Watain, Summoning, and the upcoming Orphaned Land album. If the jam packed release schedule for this first quarter means anything, its hopefully going to be a good year!

 


 

 

Serenity In Murder – Eclipse:

 

 

 

Its rare that bands from Japan ever light up my radar, let alone ones that dish out such satisfying melo-death as the oddly named Serenity In Murder on their third album Eclipse. Most J-Metal in my experience has been either in the Loudness inspired vein (largely a thing of the past these days), or stuff that’s musically influenced by X Japan and the ongoing neo-visual kei style. While I have enjoyed quite a bit of that stuff to a certain extent (Versailles’ wild, sometimes clunky take on symphonic power metal being the latest that I can remember), particularly for the musicality that Japanese rock and metal bands seem to innately possess, the vocal styles have always been my ultimate stumbling block. Maybe I just haven’t heard the right band yet, but most Japanese singers to my ears sound better when singing in Japanese, but are glaringly off-key and oddly phrased when trying English. A friend recently pointed out that this might be a byproduct of the shape of the Japanese language in pronunciation in comparison to English —- something only a linguist could perhaps really explain.

 

Serenity In Murder get around this with the expertly scream-growled melodeath vocals of Emi Akatsu, her approach having the fierceness of Angela Gossow and the obsidian shades of Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. Despite her fairly crisp enunciating, this is a heavily layered and dense listen, brick walled too (try to avoid cranking it at max), Akatsu’s English vocals are more of a texture here, which suits the music rather well I think. Whats really fun about Serenity In Murder is the sheer unrelenting attack of everything —- they’re going full throttle on speed, aggression and melody. And wow the melody, its here in wild, majestic, colorful splashes that coat damn near everything with a power metal playfulness. They remind me a lot of the melodies that run through the soundtracks of Japanese anime and videogames, the band making heavy use of piano/keys to carry primary motifs alongside the riffs and lead guitars. If you like what you hear above in “Dancing Flames”, check out “Dreamfall” next, I can’t decide which of the two are my favorite, but this album has been a joy to listen to these past few weeks.

 

 

 

 

Æther Realm – Tarot:

 

 

 

I really really wish I had been introduced to this back in June, because although I’ve only been jamming it for a little over two weeks now, I think its addicting qualities could have seen it land a spot on the shortlist for the best albums of the year. Aether Realm (normal spelling works for Google!) sound like their members are probably from Helsinki or Tampere, but these guys are actually from the land that James Taylor famously had on his mind. Geography aside, Aether Realm play melodic death metal with strong folk overtones, think Ensiferum and a toned down Wintersun. This means intense, ultra-tight riffing and a crisp, clean production that allows room for not only keyboard orchestral elements but massive group choral vocals ala Jari and company. There’s an accessibility running throughout this album that has as much to do with how awesome some of these riffs are in addition to simply strong songwriting. When I consider the Ensiferum album released a few months after this one, I marvel at how a relatively new band like these guys could get damn near close to perfecting a sound that has escaped its originators. The key to Aether Realm’s success is their ability to incorporate a variety of songwriting styles and musical elements to captivating effect —- no two songs sound the same really.

 

Take “Temperance” where I was captivated by a beautifully played acoustic passage that’s deeply affecting in the way that the best metal ballads can be (the clean vocals here are just the right tenor of American folk). The monstrous nineteen minute epic “The Sun, The Moon, The Star” starts off with what I’m sure are Nintendo midi sounds, perhaps a not so subtle nod to some of these guys old musical influences. Its an impressive piece of songwriting overall, one that never feels as long as its actual length and is always changing, shifting from pummeling aggression with Wintersun levels of virtuosity on guitar and similarly vicious growling vocals to carefully crafted keyboard orchestrations. I wish I could identify who the clean vocalist was between bassist Vincent Jones and guitarist Heinrich Arnold —- he’s got a stellar voice and a good ear for just how to deliver those epic, folk metal inspired yearning vocals. My only complaint on the album is a slightly personal one, but just can’t get behind “King of Cups”, with Chris Bowles on guest vocals. The subject of drinking in a folk/viking metal context is so passe that not even this admittedly catchy take on it can prevent me from rolling my eyes, and of course the Alestorm guy has to be involved. A minor quibble though, one that I’m all to happy to overlook. Get this album.

 

 

 

 

Night Flight Orchestra – Amber Galactic:

 

 

 

I was introduced to these guys sometime earlier in the year by my MSRcast co-host Cary on a lark —- he had seen a music video of theirs pop-up on the Nuclear Blast YouTube channel and it was a piece of kitschy throwback glory. The video was for “Something Mysterious” and its unabashedly indulgent early 80s look and feel (check that VHS grade quality and dated overlay graphics) immediately won me over, and when I got a chance I nabbed their May release Amber Galactic. Its been one of those random albums that I’d go back to every now and then as a musical antidote to the usual slurry of metal albums I’d been listening to for reviewing purposes. I’d always have to shelve it for something else before long, but over the rest of the year I racked up a substantial amount of time listening to the album not only as a palette cleanser, but just because these songs were so addicting and downright charming. If you’re completely unaware of their lineup, you’ll be surprised to learn that the smooth crooning vocalist here is the very same Björn “Speed” Strid of Soilwork growler fame alongside Arch Enemy bassist Sharlee DeAngelo.

 

What they and their fellow NFO bandmates have managed to craft over this project’s three albums is a detailed, rose-tinted, affectionate look back at a bygone era of transitional rock music. The touchstones here span the the birth of AOR hard rock in the late 70s through the introduction of synths in the 80s, notes of Toto and The Police on opposite ends and everything in between. I love that they’ve found themselves here, focusing on this particular era for their musical influence, because I’ve always felt its overlooked for the Zeppelin / Sabbath dominated early to mid 70s in general. So instead of Jimmy Page worship and any attempts at writing their own psychedelic epics, we get a High Spirits-esque focus on tight songwriting, precision guitar harmonies, and understated female backing vocalists on “Gemini” and “Josephine”. I hear tinges of Night Run era UFO in the aforementioned “Something Mysterious”, that low-key bass pulse humming through the rhythm section, contrasted by lonely drivin’ around the city at night keyboard melodies. This is just a grin inducing, super fun album to jam when you need something easy and comforting, songs you feel you’ve heard before even though its your first time listening to them.

 

 

 

 

Spirit Adrift – Curse of Conception:

 

 

 

Coming from Arizona of all places is the classic metal/doom machine Spirit Adrift, whose Curse of Conception is their second album release in little over a one year span(!), their debut having arrived in 2016. If Pallbearer was a little too slow moving and meandering for you (as they seem to be for me… ironic I know given my placing Bell Witch on my 2017 top ten albums list), Spirit Adrift might be the middle ground you’re looking for. Think doom metal’s bleak colors and ominous crushing volume of sound played with a touch more urgency, with riffs that resemble the tone and structure of classic Metallica. Vocalist/songwriter Nate Garret has a plaintive voice, almost reminiscent of Chris Black of Dawnbringer/High Spirits, typically a type of voice that I don’t really find myself gravitating to for most bands. The exceptions for both Dawnbringer and Spirit Adrift is due to just how endearing their songwriting and rich musicality come across, that hard to master alchemy of preserving classic sounds and styles yet somehow conjuring something new from them.

 

Take a listen to the title track to get an idea of what I’m trying (and hopefully succeeding in) to convey, with its Ride the Lightning lead guitar tones leading us into a drawn out slow motion verse sequence. The uptick in tempo at the 1:18 mark is kicked off a riff progression that is straight out of the classic metal playbook, and its something we’ve heard a thousand times before in our nascent metal listening years but it just sounds so explosive here. When we get to the solo around the four minute mark you start wondering if your Spotify player actually did switch over to Metallica when you weren’t looking, so reminiscent of Kirk Hammet’s mid-80s style is the playing here. I hate just referring to one band as a reference point, but I also get that Metallica feeling on the gorgeous “Starless Age”, a dramatic power-ballad that ascends on the type of chord progressions that James Hetfield would’ve approved of back in 1986. My MSRcast cohost Cary would chastise me if I didn’t mention Trouble here, and he’d know better than I but there definitely are some shades of that band. There’s so much to love here, but I’ll end on a particular favorite: The intro to “Graveside Invocation”, with its staggered, pounding percussion and half doom half battle ready chord progression is the kind of minor detail I will never stop being a dork about.

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2017 // Part Two: The Albums

January 3, 2018

 

 

For as little trouble I had putting together the best songs list in the first half of this 2017 Best Of feature, I had a devil of a time deciding what albums to leave out of the final few spots of the albums list. There were a couple late comers to the nominee pool that made things hard to finalize, and so of course I had to leave a handful out. A few of them I haven’t even written reviews for or had a chance to discuss on the MSRcast yet (though I will). One of these was Aetherian’s The Untamed Wilderness, a mid-November find on the Spotify New Metal Tracks playlist, being a carefully constructed merger of melo-death with classic metal song structures that reminds me of a Gothenburg-ian Opeth. Another hard cut was Wolfheart’s Tyhjyys, a thoroughly enjoyable record that struck a balance between progressive metal and melo-death albeit with some simplicity via The Black Album era Metallica (not a slight I promise!). I was also aggrieved to cut Iced Earth’s Incorruptible, because I thought it would for sure make the list all those months ago, it just got crowded out over time (and played less than others). I was late in discovering but loved Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic, and I also feel the need to shout out Dragonforce’s Reaching Into Infinity, both albums being an absolute blast to listen to. In a year of mostly serious and introspective metal releases (my list being no exception), they were reminders that metal can and should be fun sometimes too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1.   Unleash the Archers – Apex:

Here it is then, my most listened to album of 2017, one that’s been on constant rotation ever since first coming to my attention way back in late June. I remember blasting it in the car as I sped through Houston’s spaghetti bowl of freeways on the way to see Iron Maiden play at the Toyota Center, and as openers Ghost were onstage wearing out my welcome, I wished that Unleash the Archers could have opened the show instead. It was the album I blared before and after work on exhausting, sweat-drenched, jungle humidity days throughout the summer. It was my go to soundtrack during those moments where my bad mood threatened to sour the whole day, and I was able to do that likely ridiculous looking mix of slight headbanging (headnodding?), air guitar, and mouth drumming (where you click and clack your jaw and tongue along to the beat… is that only me?) along to these songs to work off the angst. It was the album I returned to in trying to distract myself during the worst, worry-filled moments of Hurricane Harvey where flood waters were rising mere streets away from me and I wondered if I would have a dry car and apartment at the end of it all. Mostly I just listened to it because in a year full of music that was largely dark, bleak and introspective, Apex was an absolute blast to play, a genuinely fun album from start to finish.

 

But it didn’t just make number one on this list because it was my most listened to, although that is a solid metric for being honest about these things. No, Apex landed atop the list because it is packed with unbelievably well crafted songs that crackle with excitement and sheer kinetic energy. This is the band’s watershed moment, an album that towers above anything they’ve done previously, in the same way that Number of the Beast pointed towards a far greater ceiling for Iron Maiden’s sound and songwriting abilities. That comparison is not idly thrown out, because what Unleash the Archers do so well is recapturing the joy and excitement that Maiden was capable of achieving during those formative mid-80s “golden years”. Their approach to traditional metal is rooted in that hallowed Steve Harris gallop, but with modern power metal influences shaping the texture of their sound to prevent them from sounding like only a throwback. This mix defines full speed chargers like “The Matriarch”, and “The Coward’s Way”, but its their ability to go for the grand, the epic overture of towering mountains like “Cleanse the Bloodline” (Brittney Hayes’ steel lungs providing the vocal performance of the year during the chorus) and the best songs listee title track where the band truly transcends genre-boundaries. This is an album for anyone who calls themselves a metal fan, regardless of whether its a Mayhem or Blind Guardian back patch on your battle jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

2.   Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep:

Chalk it up to Deep Calleth Upon Deep being the second album in Satyricon’s new approach to sound, that being the deconstruction of black metal sonics that has moved them into fresh creative territory. Or maybe it really did have something to do with Satyr’s recent brush with mortality that is the amorphous force driving his creative demons to new heights this time around. What the band was trying to achieve with 2013’s confusion inducing self-titled album was hard to discern by almost everyone, rejecting the black n’ roll of their previous three albums by stripping away surface aggression of continuous riffs and accelerating rhythms. It resulted in a sound that was full of slow moving tempos, lots of space between instruments, an almost airy atmosphere that was pushed up front as the centerpiece at times. Black metal is a normally dense, compressed approach to metal, and Satyricon was its complete opposite in everything except for its bleak tone. Its an album that I’ve understood more (and enjoyed more) over time, particularly after hearing where they went on its sequel, but at the time it left me wondering where the band intended on taking their new found direction.

 

The answer then is that Satyricon could be seen as a complete reboot of the band’s sound, a thoughtful re-imagining of how they perceived black metal could sound. These types of grand ideas rarely work out in one go, and Deep Calleth Upon Deep as its sequel is the real fruit of all that labor, with the gradual mixing back in of a touch more aggression via riffs and Frost’s even more primitive than usual percussion. Interesting that the drums sound more menacing when Frost was forced to abstain from his usual dizzying array of fills and counter tempos. Then there’s the stuff that counts of course, the songwriting —- and here Satyr is at his most inspired and creative that we’ve seen him since the Now, Diabolical era. The best songs list topping “To Your Brethren In The Dark” is riveting, full of coiled energy, and a thousand hidden meanings. There’s a primitive (that word again!) spirituality to “The Ghosts of Rome”, made alive by the use of tenor Hakon Kornstad, his strange, mournful wailing making me think of that scene in Conan the Barbarian where Valeria is trying to ward off those hellish spirits around Conan’s near-dying body. Its an arguable point to say that this is Satyricon’s best album —- certain folks just won’t hear of anything being considered over Nemesis Divina, and I don’t think anything I could say would convince them. But it is shockingly excellent for a band in the third phase of redefining their sound, and gives them a masterpiece for each one of those wildly different eras, an achievement unparalleled in metal.

 

 

 

 

 

3.   Sorcerer – Crowning of the Fire King:

As I mentioned in their entry on my best songs list for “Unbearable Sorrow”, Sorcerer came out of nowhere in late October to nearly dominate my attention for the final two months of the year. I’m still kicking myself that they slipped under my radar with their excellent comeback album In The Shadow Of The Inverted Cross in 2015. Here’s a band that contains one of my favorite guitarists in metal, Mr. Kristian Niemann of Therion fame and glory, and its a joy to hear him play in that inimitable style once again. He’s one of the most melodically fluid and natural sounding guitarists I’ve ever heard, never failing to conjure up a big batch of dreamlike melodies that swirl and flow. When he left Therion I never thought he’d find a better place for him to be as a creative outlet, but Sweden’s Sorcerer are honestly the next best thing. That turns out not to be a coincidence either, given that previous Therion vocalist alum Anders Engberg is one of its co-founders, and I’m guessing that when he and his old bandmate Johnny Hagel decided to restart the band, Kristian was the first person they thought of. I know I’ve blindsided a few of you by not writing anything about these guys well before these year end lists, but better late than never right?

 

Sorcerer create a darkened blend of Candlemass-ian doom metal with Kamelot style prog-power melodicism, Engberg’s vocal style being at times very baritone, while still capable of soaring heights in his upper register. I could throw out all the appropriate adjectives on how to describe the songwriting here —- intelligent, sophisticated, artful —- but that really won’t give you a good idea of the magic of The Crowning of the Fire King. For me anyway, there’s a cosmically oriented spirituality running throughout this album in the way that recalls Kristian’s best work in Therion on albums like Gothic Kabbalah and of course the twin masterpieces Sirius B and Lemuria. The very opening guitar pattern on “Abandoned By The Gods” for example has that very effect, the result of Kristian being the kind of guitarist whose playing could say more in a smaller amount of space than a vocalist could convey. On the stunning “Unbearable Sorrow”, he matches Engberg’s anguished, gorgeous vocal melody with a stunning lead guitar pattern that sounds like he’s trying to recreate the heavens. I don’t know how he does it, but Kristian has always had that innate sense of creating guitar melodies that are panoramic, as if everything in the song (and the cosmos) rotates around his playing. The results are not only otherworldly, but create another voice to cry out the invisible emotions not reachable by human vocal chords —- musical dark matter then.

 

 

 

 

 

4.   Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay:

Here’s how I know Cradle of Filth is in the midst of an artistic career renaissance that is winning back over longtime fans like myself and slowly spreading the word to potential new ones —- two metal loving buddies of mine have given their thumbs up to Cryptoriana, after hearing me proselytize about it for months now. They both disliked Dani Filth’s vocals before, his tendency to go to shrill, ear-piercing heights and largely stay there. Well those days seem to be well past the diminutive vocalist, with his performances on this new album as well as 2015’s Hammer of the Witches seeing him stake out more of a fierce mid-range growl, punctuated by his deep, demonic bellow with only cursory trips into ear-bleeding, shrieking territory. And I think he’s responding to the awesomeness of the riffs here too, the metallic B-12 shot that relatively new guitarists Richard Shaw and Ashok injected into the band’s musical repertoire. They deepened the band’s sound by doing away with tired tremolo riff patterns heard on past Cradle albums and instead unleashing a battery of chunky, menacing death metal riffing ala Behemoth. Oh the nods to Iron Maiden are still there, and things are as melodic as ever, but they avoid giving in to this band’s history of musical tropes, those patterns and formulaic riff sequences that grew tiresome over time.

 

The result of this forced musical shift was to inspire Dani to be a better vocalist, not only in the aggressiveness of his delivery but in his control as well, he’s never been this impressive before. He sounds inspired and revitalized, and you can hear him utterly destroy on “The Night At Catafalque Manor”, where the crackling intensity of his performance is only matched by the frenzied rhythmic assault and epic lead guitar melodies. His still new guitarists (only two albums in) seem to have an innate understanding of how to steer the songwriting into surprising and unexpected directions, both to us and to their boss. On “You Will Know The Lion By His Claw”, they plunge straight away into deep death metal passages, and Dani tunnels in the middle of their slabs of riffs with a hellish, doom-inflected death metal growl. He’s not going for the typical Dani Filth maneuver, to go high and let his voice ride the wave over the top —- he’s choosing to be a part of the darkened sonic assault here, an essential part of the overall brutality. The supremely talented Lindsay Schoolcraft’s keyboard work is restrained, taking a more elegantly symphonic approach rather than clumsily piling on layers and layers of atmospherics, and her vocal work throughout the album is a perfect foil to Dani extreme aggression here (check “Achingly Beautiful” for proof). I was thrilled and surprised by Hammer of the Witches, it really was a tremendous album; but the songwriting on Cryptoriana is absolutely thrilling, capturing the dark majesty of the band’s mid-90’s era while rattling our teeth harder than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

5.   Myrkur – Mareridt:

I think its remarkable to look back on how folk metal was rejuvenated both as a subgenre and as an idea or an expression this past year. The last cut I made before coming to this final ten as my albums of the year was Eluveitie’s acoustic based Evocation II – Pantheon, a bright and vibrant collection of rustic, woodland European folk that sounded not only inspired, but authentic. That last adjective is one that would raise a small internet outcry if directed at Myrkur, but in my opinion, the Danish-born United States based Amalie Bruun has found her true, authentic voice on this genre bending album. In the process she’s unwittingly perhaps stumbled upon one of the most creative and emotionally charged folk metal releases of the past fifteen years. I wrote that her previous album M’s fatal flaw was its inability to detach itself from its very overt second wave Norwegian black metal influences. Here she steps back from any notion that she has to outdo that album’s bleak oeuvre, and instead she pushes forward her other influences ranging from female inspirations like Chelsea Wolfe (who guests on “Funeral”) to Nordic folk to classical music. The black metal is still there, but she finds ways to subvert traditional structures, for example her juxtaposing ethereal clean vocals over tremolo riffing on “Ulvinde”. Its not a gimmick or a cheap trick, the actual musical effect is haunting and beautiful, but still dark and a little unsettling.

 

I’m not sure about who else Bruun herself would list as an influence, but I hear shades of Tori Amos, Bjork, and one of my favorite chanteuses in Loreena McKennitt. I also can’t help but hear a strong Dead Can Dance feel in the album highlight “Death of Days”, its swirling melody utterly entrancing and hypnotic. On “Kaetteren”, we’re treated to the kind of rustic, Nordic folk music that paints the scene of an evening fire on a hilltop overlooking Oslo, or for us flatlander southerners, music reminiscent of what we’d want to hear at the renaissance festival. It reminds me of the kind of stuff we heard Otyg do way back in folk metal’s infancy. At the album’s heaviest moments, Bruun finds ways to take black metal’s fervor and manipulate it to heighten its impact, such as on “Maneblot”, where during a quieter violin passage midway through the song, you hear the whispered strains of black metal fury just on the edges of the soundscape, slowly growing louder before crashing into the forefront. Its akin to water breaking through the hold of an old wooden ship and flooding everything. In a year when we were all bombarded with news and information in an exhausting, unrelenting manner, I found myself drawn to music that reflected a sense of the natural and the organic —- that spirit runs throughout Mareridt.

 

 

 

 

 

6.   Vintersorg – Till fjälls, del II:

I probably wouldn’t be repeating myself so much about 2017 being the year of a folk metal revival if it wasn’t for the fact that genre pioneer Vintersorg was a major part of this renaissance. He’s one of the old guard, his early solo works pioneering examples of the sound, expanding on the two classic folk metal masterpieces he recorded with his band Otyg in ’98/99 (not to forget the handful of demos they were doing as early as ’95, also the same year Fenriz and Satyr released the oft-forgotten but widely influential at the time Nordavind album from Storm, their one-off side project). I started listening to Vintersorg in 2000 with Cosmic Genesis, and he was a revelation, one of those artists who was delivering a sound and musical concept that upon first hearing, I realized I had been longing for all my years as a music fan. He’s made a slow return to his folk roots over the course of his past few albums, but it wasn’t until this year with Till fjälls, del II that he really tapped into the songwriting style that was rooted in his classic, pioneering early folk metal of Till fjälls and Odenmarkens Son. This album is full of song structures in that mode —- blistering riffs intertwined with acoustic guitar melodies, Vintersorg’s layering of his trademark majestic baritone “oooohhs” over the top of choruses for that old world sound, its all here.

 

Of course, whats most essential here is that Vintersorg has written some of the finest material of his career, spiritual folk metal that we haven’t heard from him in well over a decade. This is music infused with the rustic feeling of nature and the mountains, yet also of deeply existential and scientific pondering of our place within this context. On a gorgeous gem like “Vårflod”, Falkenbach-esque chiming acoustic chords usher in his old Otyg bandmate Cia Hedmark’s emotive singing about the days growing long and the nights getting shorter (the song title translates to “spring flow”). Vintersorg’s bellowing chorus here is sublime, catchy in its Swedish phrasing but also epic, with glistening horns trumpeting in the distance, as if roaring their praise for the changing of the seasons. He also understands just how acoustic guitars can be used for more than just pretty intros and outros —- take “Allt Mellan Himmel Och Jord”, where the mid song acoustic bridge keeps the tempo quick and alert, subtly increasing the tension like someone pulling back a rubber band before letting loose with hammering snare hits and some dizzying progressive riffs. Vintersorg himself described this album as “heartfelt”, music that arose when he didn’t even realize he was writing a sequel to Till fjälls, and indeed nothing about this seems contrived or forced (a rarity for musical sequels). This is the folk metal I fell in love with way back in the subgenre’s infancy —- its godfather has returned with the musical equivalent to the beacon of Minas Tirith. The beacons are lit!

 

 

 

 

 

7.   Aeternam – Ruins of Empires:

If you missed out on Aeternam’s sweeping, bombastic musical adventure that was Ruins of Empires, you deprived yourself of one of the year’s most fun and creative metal albums. Aeternam are one of the newer, noteworthy bands playing a style that has been long dubbed “Oriental Metal”, as flawed and controversial as that term is among the intelligentsia. Unlike subgenre godfathers Orphaned Land who began their sound with a bedrock of old school death metal influences, Aeternam’s sound is far more rooted in Gothenburg melodic death metal territory. Like Orphaned Land, the band’s sound is progressive by the very nature of adding in pan-Arabic folk musical influences, resulting in the richly melodic paintbrush strokes that adorn Ruins of Empires. These guys can be as brutal as Behemoth and Septic Flesh, but as wildly orchestral as Dimmu Borgir in their grandest moments, with the ambition of Therion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the album centerpiece “Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel”, a song that rings out from the start with a dramatic flourish of choral voices, exotic violin melodies, and a Blind Guardian rhythmic swagger before the death metal comes punching its way through against a backdrop of discordant, Arabic scale sounding guitar patterns. The guitar work throughout by vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy is superb, playing on the level that I associate with masters like Andre Olbrich and Jesper Stromblad.

 

Where they really got me hooked was just how well Loudiy and company pulled off the beautiful ethnic folk music of “The Keeper of Shangri-La”, a stunning piece built on rich Arabic instrumentation (the striking exception being the erhu, a traditional Chinese string instrument). Here Loudiy gets to showcase his melodic singing voice, and he sounds like a slightly accented, more soulful Matt Heafy, his role here as a desert bard speaking of tales “deep in a forgotten land”. Lesser bands would fumble this type of thing, but Aeternam has the songwriting and musical chops to deliver it, and the imagination to make it soar and sink deep within our psyche. I felt the same way on the other non-metal track, “Nightfall In Numidia”, a shorter track but no less imaginative, and though I have no knowledge of what or where Numidia is, I come away from every listen of that track with a picture of it in my mind’s eye, and that’s enough. So much average or merely passable metal that makes attempts at grandeur just resides in our listening experiences on a surface level, but Aeternam’s gift is delivering soundscapes that come alive like the best written fiction. I’ve been a big fan of Oriental metal in general, Orphaned Land and Myrath being two obvious loves, but also of the epic black metal of Melechesh and a few others. But Aeternam have really staked their claim as one of the genre’s leading lights with this inspired album, they are the Blind Guardian of the subgenre, storytellers who possess the musicality to take us elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

8.   November’s Doom – Hamartia:

I consider myself fairly new to November’s Doom, only really being introduced to them in the last few years due to co-hosting the MSRcast where Cary G is a big (scratch that, huge) fan of the band, a longtime one at that. Although I had scoured their discography in that time, Hamartia was my first real, proper introduction to their music, and what an introduction it was. Offering up their most melodically accessible album to date, November’s Doom received a minor backlash upon the initial release of this album for an increase in clean melodic vocals and doomy metallic hard rock riffs. At the time I thought those criticisms were ridiculous for a band that had been showing signs of heading in that direction (2014’s Bled White serving as a huge indicator), and I wondered if they would abate over the months that followed. In retrospect I’m realizing that its backlash is similar to Opeth’s around the release of Heritage, especially considering its predecessor Watershed also showed similar signs of moving away from death metal growls —- and in that respect, I guess I can understand some of the grumbling. Unfortunately, I haven’t been seeing this album pop up on a lot of year end lists, and I’m not sure if that’s down to said criticism or if this band just sails under most radars (like they did for me for many years).

 

That’s a shame really, because beyond the change in musical approach, this is an album of truly inspired songwriting alongside rich musicality that incorporates acoustic sounds and gorgeous piano as much as slabs of granite riffs. A gem like “Ever After” hit my sweet spot for melancholia ala Type O Negative and Charon, with its bleak tone complemented with bursts of elegiac melody (that solo sequence at the 3:42 mark is one of my favorite moments of the year). There’s also a strong Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel influence seeping through here, as heard on “Borderline” and “Hamartia” respectively, both songs where vocalist Paul Kuhr demonstrates tremendous emotive range in his clean delivery. At times, he sounds like a synthesis of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and Peter Steele. Its not all lighter stuff though, as they’re as heavy as they’ve ever been on moments like “Apostasy” which has a beefy, fattened bottom end that is reminiscent of the Entombed sound. That song employs a long worn trope, the old distant sounding intro that slams immediately into the forefront with a pulverizing riff, but man do they do it so well. The production all across Hamartia is worth praise too, because it seems fewer and fewer albums get the concept of dynamics right these days, but they deliver a properly mixed and mastered full spectrum of audio. On such a varied album like this, that was a crucial element —- here, the heaviness really hits you, and the quieter, more introspective moments are deeply affecting.

 

 

 

 

 

9.   Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:

I broke my rule about not looking at other best of lists before finalizing mine this year, not a lot of them, but enough to notice that some folks were calling 2017 the year of death metal. It seems that every year is the year of death metal, in my memory anyway, and truth be told I didn’t find myself getting too excited about many of the releases those lists were touting. You’ll notice I didn’t review the new Morbid Angel (Kingdoms Disdained), mainly because I was late on listening to it, but once I did, well… its hasn’t really made an impression with me yet (why does every Morbid Angel album have some new weird production approach?), and I wonder if a lot of the praise its getting seems to be based around it not being Illud Divinum Insanus. Then there were a few people throwing Immolation’s Atonement on their lists, and while I enjoyed that album and it was a step up from Kingdom of Conspiracy, I didn’t come back to it often. Point is, there’s a lot of death metal albums on those lists that are puzzling choices (even the Obituary s/t, which was good fun but again, one of the best albums of the year? Really?).

 

What was more alarming than some questionable choices was one particularly glaring omission —- that being Evocation’s career watershed The Shadow Archetype. It had the buzzy, lo-fi production of old school Entombed with the instrumental separation of a professional modern recording, the combination packing a sledgehammer level of heaviness all throughout. Evocation also finally found their musical path, straightforward brutality mixed with a complex, progressive edge that resulted in the striking melodicism in tracks like “Imperium Fall”, “Dark Day Sunrise”, and the epic title track. On “Modus Operandi”, the unabashed musicality and melodic thru-line in the instrumental bridge is closer to stuff you’d hear from a progressive power metal band rather than a band who likely would cite Left Hand Path as a defining influence. Yet for an album awash in melody, its still one of the most unrelentingly heavy albums of the year, largely due to that fat, lumbering low-end in rhythm guitar riffs, the car engine rumbling bass, and of course Thomas Josefsson’s blackened, oppressive death metal mouth of Sauron impersonation. Check out “Condemned to the Grave” for the absolute heaviest song of the year (it narrowly missed the best songs list), a song that is both catchy as hell and one of the most sinister sounding performances I’ve ever heard.

 

 

 

 

 

10.   Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:

I’ve never been as surprised by a metal album of any kind the way I was with Bell Witch and their 84 minute long, single track monolith Mirror Reaper. I think the only time I was this shocked to see myself placing a particular release on my year end list was when Alcest landed at number ten in 2012 with Les Voyages de l’Âme, being a band I had largely deemed as pretentious prior to. You guys know me, funeral doom isn’t really my forte, and the only time I came close to discussing that subgenre was when reviewing Swallow the Sun’s triple disc Songs From the North (and I didn’t grade that third disc very highly at all). I came across this album in late October through BangerTV’s Overkill Reviews, and while I took Blayne Smith’s review with a grain of salt (hey, its hard to tell whether he’s being serious half the time), I did check out the track myself because the clips he played on the show were way more musical than a band consisting of just drums and a bass (for reals!) should sound. And in a moment of old-school spirit, I found the cover art was so freaking excellent that I was intrigued to see if anything on the album justified it. So I found it in its entirety on YouTube and scrubbed through it impatiently at first, almost trying to confirm to myself that it was as boring as I’d expect it to be. I spent a few minutes going through it here and there, and remember being surprised at how such a variety of sounds were being coaxed from a bass guitar, but then as expected I moved onto something else.

 

But Mirror Reaper didn’t go away, I kept seeing it mentioned in random comments on various metal sites, it kept getting recommended to me on YouTube, and I saw a few metal writers I respect on Twitter raving about it. So I went back to that YouTube upload, and one night when trying to read, I let it play in the background and go its full length. That particular setting unlocked the album for me, and I spent more time paying attention to it than reading American Gods for the umpteenth time. I have no idea how bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond manages to write such a lengthy, ponderous piece of music —- does he actually write out every single passage and shift in direction? Or does he and drummer Jesse Shreibman simply record for hours, later cutting and pasting things around when editing and utilizing the studio as an instrument? I’m inclined to ignore the latter notion, because everything here sounds deliberate —- not only the direction of the passages that slowly paint a landscape of oppressive sorrow and resigned sadness, but that every note sounds purposeful, a connective artery to the next one. Its a bizarrely affecting listening experience, transcendent at its most outwardly mournful melodic wailing (the 32 minute mark area is noteworthy), and incredibly depressing when it hits a particular motif for sustained passages (particularly the 41 minute area). Some of the most emotional moments occur during the lengthy (of course) clean vocal period towards the second half of the album, where slight bends of the melodic motif and the introduction of a distant organ create a hypnotic effect. One that’s not so laid back that you’d fall asleep however, in fact its unsettling nature makes you focus in more sharply at what’s going on. So at the 1:09:50 mark, when Desmond suddenly ushers in a ringing high note out of the mists, you might be as alarmed as I was and glance about the room to see if you’re still alone.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2017 // Part One: The Songs

December 20, 2017

 

What a year, its feels like its both taken forever to get through and yet passed in the blink of an eye. I was a bit concerned halfway through around the early summer when I realized that it was a little light on noteworthy releases. My worries were premature however, as 2017 was backloaded in a staggering way, causing myself to pick up the pace in the late summer and early fall just to keep up. The process of putting together my year end lists this time was a bit strange, because I felt that my nominees pool for the albums list was a little shorter than I’d expected, while the songs list was way more stacked than it normally is. I keep written nominee lists for songs and albums going throughout the year, both so I can throw my choices in whenever I’m feeling like I’ve come across a contender, and (primarily) so I don’t have to trawl through my own blog come December to see if I’ve missed anything. As usual, I relied on iTunes stats for play counts to keep myself honest, but this year instinct really led the way. The following songs on this list just stood out clearly among the other nominees and they are absolutely worth a few minutes of your time. Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the best albums list coming soon, before year’s end is the goal!

 

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2017:

 

 

 

1.   “To Your Brethren In The Dark” – Satyricon (from the album Deep Calleth Upon Deep):

 

 

 

Not only is “To Your Brethren In The Dark” the emotional core of Satyricon’s controversial masterpiece Deep Calleth Upon Deep, its one of the defining songs of their career. Its almost slow-dance like tempo is hypnotic, its spiraling ascending and descending melodic phrasing eerie and suggestive, working to strengthen the captivating allure of this dirge. If the loose theme around Deep Calleth was about the spirituality found in appreciating art while set against the transience of life, this song could apply directly about our own most cherished art form (weighty stuff I know, but consider Satyr’s recent medical scares as its source material and that heaviness is appropriate). The phrase within the lyrics, “… pass the torch to your brethren in the dark…” is so relevant to everyone who loves metal, from the bands and labels to the writers at blogs and magazines to fans buying albums, going to shows, recommending stuff to other fans. There is no governing structure that supports metal music as a subculture or records its history for us, those tasks simply fall to us and its our responsibility to make sure that this music gets passed onto younger generations growing up today. I know this is a very metal blogger take on a song that is far more expansive in its lyrical reach, but its what I took from it. That’s also a testament to its power, as Satyr himself ascribed to it, “A song for the dark towers of the past and those who will rise in the future.”

 

 

 

 

2.   “Apex” – Unleash The Archers (from the album Apex):

 

 

 

No song was more liable to get me a speeding ticket than the title track to Unleash The Archers awesome Apex, an album that not only represents the very best of what power metal has to offer, but has certainly opened up the genre to those who would normally scoff at it. This cut is a perfect example why, eight minutes that feel like three of a Maiden-gallop led charger that builds to the year’s most epic, satisfying chorus. This band is economical in the best sense, riffs are purposeful, built for conducting the crackling energy that underlies Brittney Hayes impassioned vocal melodies. Even the moody intro is a delight, with faintly chiming acoustic strumming underneath a lazily gorgeous open chord sequence, a moment of respite from the dramatic build up that follows and the rocket launch that happens immediately after. There’s real craft here, songwriting with an understanding of the trad/power metal bedrock that makes this kind of music spectacular, coupled with the wisdom of how to avoid the cliches and tropes that so often make it an easy target. In a recent tweet, Adrien Begrand (of Decibel fame) observed that the tastemaker best metal of 2017 lists were sorely lacking in metal that was actually, you know, fun —- I agree, and if said lists were missing out on Unleash the Archers, you can go ahead and ignore them now.

 

 

 

 

3.   “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)” – Wintersun (from the album The Forest Seasons):

 

 

 

For all that I’ve written (controversially) about Wintersun that has aroused the ire of not only the band’s fans but Jari Mäenpää himself, I was eagerly anticipating The Forest Seasons, not to tear it down mind you, but because I genuinely think the guy is supremely talented. I loved the idea behind the concept, a metal re-imagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, it was inventive and fun and made you wonder why no one (Malmsteen perhaps?) hadn’t tried it before. I’m not sure how well it succeeded in the minds of Wintersun fans as an album, I’ve seen a spectrum of opinions ranging every which way but for me I found that the autumn and winter cuts were lacking (ironic given the band’s name). The spring and summer movements however were fresh reminders of just why there’s so much hubbub surrounding this band in the first place. For my part, Mäenpää has never written something as starkly beautiful as the epic folk metal with a power metal engine of “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”. There’s a spirituality heard in the dim orchestral keyboard arrangement that mournfully croons in the air above the noteworthy riff sequence going on in the verse sections. His clean vocal melody in the refrain is not only surprisingly hooky in a Vintersorg-ish way, but soulful even, the kind of thing old school folk metal was built on really. The moment that will send crowds of people headbanging in venues all over Europe is the coiled snake springing to strike in the full on riff assault that occurs at 7:19.

 

 

 

 

4.   “Unbearable Sorrow” – Sorcerer (from the album The Crowning of the Fire King):

 

 

 

Sorcerer is one of those bands who quietly slipped under a lot of radars this year, and their late October opus The Crowning of the Fire King will get unjustly ignored, but hopefully not by you once you hear “Unbearable Sorrow”. This was one of those bands I didn’t actually write a review on but we did cover on the MSRcast, which was my introduction to them and the moment when I realized that this was where ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann had wandered off to after he had left that band. Sorcerer actually began back in the late 80s, released a few demos, and split up in 1995 before ever doing a full length. Finally in 2010 its founding members bassist Johnny Hagel and vocalist Anders Engberg reunited and grabbed some of their Swedish pals to round out the lineup. Engberg is a sublime talent, and for you Therion diehards out there, he might look familiar if you remember the male vocalist onstage from the Wacken 2001 footage off the Celebrators of Becoming DVD box set (he was also on the 2001 live album Live In Midgard). This Therion connection is of course magnified with Niemann’s role as the lead guitarist here, as his distinctive neo-classical, richly melodic style is painted all across this album to stunning results. He was my favorite of the many guitarists that have graced Therion’s lineup, just wonderfully inventive in his writing and possessing a fluidity in his playing that I’ve rarely heard mirrored by anyone else. On “Unbearable Sorrow”, his guitarwork is mystical, other-worldly, darkly beautiful and damn near spiritual in its expressions, and he’s almost topped by Engberg’s powerful, melancholic vocal performance.

 

 

 

 

5.   “The Same Asylum As Before” – Steven Wilson (from the album To The Bone):

 

 

 

While Steven Wilson’s newest album didn’t wow me as much as 2014’s absolute masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase., it did bear a handful of gems, the shiniest among them this slice of Lightbulb Sun era prog-rock. Wilson’s distinctive songwriting style makes it difficult not to look for comparisons to his previous work, despite this song being set amidst an album heavily influenced by 80s ‘intelligent pop’ icons Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Tears For Fears. For all the art-pop ambition of To The Bone, what I mostly got out of it was Wilson returning to the lighter moods and tones of that classic turn of the millennium Porcupine Tree era. I hear it in this song’s chorus, a dichotomy of bummed out lyrics sung by a resigned narrator against a splash of bright, warmly laid back acoustic guitar. The escalating guitar pattern that slices through this lazy summer day is crackling and electric, an unexpected piece of ear candy that has kept me coming back to this song even if I haven’t been tempted to revisit the entire album yet. Also worth commending here is Wilson’s vocal performance, because his delivery in the chorus is sublime, hitting the boyish tenor he’s been avoiding on the past few albums but has achieved so often earlier in his discography. Forlorn Porcupine Tree fans who’ve long fallen off the Wilson wagon should really be giving this track (and the album at that) a spin, because its the closest he’s come to his old band’s sound in almost a decade.

 

 

 

 

6.   “Black Flag” – Iced Earth (from the album Incorruptible):

 

 

 

Iced Earth rebounded with this year’s Incorruptible, after the subtle disappointment that was 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, and the album yielded a pair of absolute classics in “Black Flag” and “Raven Wing”. One could make an argument for either being the best on the album, but I know that the former was simply one of my most listened to songs of the year just based off iTunes play count stats alone. The band recently released an actual music video for this too, just a week or two ago, six months after the album saw the light of the day. If you’ve seen it in all its Master and Commander glory, you’ll get why it took them six months to get it out to the public —- and look, I’m hard on conceptual music vids by metal bands, frequently citing that the budget never covers the ambition. That truth applies this time as well, which is why I linked to the song itself above (though in fairness, the “Black Flag” video is far from the worst I’ve seen this year, one could even call it relatively decent). But I’m getting distracted, because my larger point is that this song’s evocative, scene setting lyrics need no video at all, particularly when Stu Block sings “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. How does that not put a music video of your own in your mind’s eye (or at least memories of playing Assassin’s Creed IV)?

 

 

 

 

7.   “A World Divided” – Pyramaze (from the album Contingent):

 

 

 

Two years ago, I referred to then new Pyramaze vocalist Terje Haroy as one of the most promising new vocal talents in metal, and he certainly lived up to that hype on this year’s Contingent. It wasn’t a perfect album, in fact it was severely lopsided in that its first five cuts were home runs while the latter half of the album seemed lost and directionless. Amidst those first five songs however was the absolute gem “A World Divided”, a deceptively heavy song that lulls you in with a delicate, calming piano melody over much of its first minute, perhaps fooling you into thinking a power ballad was in the works. The great thing about guitarist Jacob Hansen’s production (yes that Jacob Hansen, he joined up after working as their producer/engineer on their last album and is pulling double duty) is that he keeps the keyboards high in the mix above the groove based riffs, and they’re an integral part of the musical fabric here. I know its a small thing, but there’s something delightful about how keyboardist Jonah Weingarten delivers a slowed down shadowing melody underneath underneath Haroy’s soaring vocal melody during the chorus. It speaks to the intelligence of the songwriting and the care put into crafting the soundscape that’s both hard hitting yet also fragile, delicate even. Oh and kudos to the band for actually delivering a high concept music video that was artfully done, and the band even looked great in it (which almost never happens)!

 

 

 

 

8.   “Lvgvs” – Eluveitie (from the album Evocation II – Pantheon):

 

 

 

I loved this song and many, many others off Eluveitie’s first post Anna Murphy and company album, so much so that Evocation II – Pantheon is in the nominee pool for the upcoming albums of the year list. In a year where folk metal experienced something of a quiet artistic renaissance, Eluveitie released an album full of acoustic, European folk inspired music that was imbued with the very spiritual essence of what we loved about rootsy folk metal. It blew away its 2009 predecessor, but more importantly, it gave Eluveitie a bit of breathing room to stand apart from the more modern rock direction its former bandmates took with Cellar Darling. Their secret weapon in pulling this off turned out to be new vocalist Fabienne Erni, her voice light and breezy, providing a new tone in the band’s soundscape. On “Lvgvs”, her vocals are full of genuine warmth, almost reminiscent of Candice Night (of Blackmore’s Night fame), and her performance is surrounded by a stunning array of rustic instrumentation. This is technically not an original song, apparently being a traditional folk tune, but I’m not going to let that prevent me from putting it deservedly on this list —- Eluveitie make it their own here. This was on my playlist for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and it was the song I played when I woke up to the first really chilly winds of November sweeping through. Like the stick of frankincense I was burning that morning, “Lvgvs” was autumn’s musical incense.

 

 

 

 

9.   “Journey To Forever” – Ayreon (from the album The Source):

 

 

 

If you tune into the upcoming MSRcast’s yearly recap episodes (we usually run a two-parter), you’re likely to hear loads about Ayreon’s The Source, the latest album from a band that is among my co-host Cary’s favorites. This album was really my first headlong plunge into Arjen Lucassen’s career defining project and while I certainly didn’t hate it, I didn’t share his extreme love for it for various reasons I outlined in my original review. One thing he and I will agree upon however is that “Journey to Forever” is one of the year’s best songs, bar none. Its got a pair of my all-time favorite vocalists in Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch and Edguy/Avantasia’s Tobias Sammet (joined by Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus) —- and as impressive as that cast is, it wouldn’t be nearly as special if Lucassen hadn’t penned an incredible song. The chorus is spectacularly joyous, and it opens the song in acapella mode, followed by the beautiful plucking of a mandolin playing a variation on the chorus melody. After the guitars have kicked in, a gorgeous violin decides to swoon alongside everyone else, and at some point a hammond organ gets in on the fun too. Its the best three minutes on the album, in fact, its rather short length being the only serious criticism I can levy at it. If you heard the track and were reminded of his delightful work in The Gentle Storm project he did with Anneke van Giersbergen, you weren’t alone. More of this stuff please Arjen.

 

 

 

 

10.   “Queen Of Hearts Reborn” – Xandria (from the album Theater of Dimensions):

 

 

 

One of the year’s grave disappointments was seeing the way Xandria split with vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen, a break-up that went public when she detailed the circumstances on a social media post. It didn’t paint the band in the best light, and to add to the condemnation were two ex-Xandria vocalists in Manuela Kraller and Lisa Middelhauve weighing in with similar testimony as to how the band treated its frontwomen. I got to see the band live with van Giersbergen a few years back while opening for the Sonata Arctica / Delain North American tour, and she was spectacular, easily one of the best live vocalists I had ever seen. I walked away from that show more impressed with her performance than anything else that night, and instantly decided to give Xandria another shot and began delving into their discography. Their 2017 release Theater of Dimensions is one of the best traditional symphonic metal albums in years, a throwback to a sound pioneered by Nightwish on classics like Wishmaster and Century Child. Its not quite revolutionary stuff then, but I enjoyed the hell out of it earlier this year, and “Queen of Hearts Reborn” was its supreme highlight, a powerful, towering showcase of dramatics and theatricality. I’ll admit, I soured on listening to the band after reading about the way they treated their vocalists, and I’m looking forward to what van Giersbergen will do with her original band Ex Libris. I wish I could’ve written instead about how Xandria’s future was bright, how this was their defining album —- and while artistically it might be, I pity whomever else they convince to work with them going forward.

 

 

The Autumn Reviews Cluster: Enslaved, Cyhra, Amberian Dawn and More!

December 6, 2017

To my perception anyway, this has been a backloaded year, with most of the releases that would have caught my attention arriving within the past few months and here in November. This was a relief at first back in the early months of spring when I realized I’d have a lot of extracurricular writing time on my hands and began an ill-fated monthly journal (now several months behind, I’ve kinda decided to can it as a partial success/failure). But now due in part to a frenzied flurry of new music coming out and already having been behind from the chaos that was my life in late August/September, I’m in a constant state of catching up. This reviews cluster addresses a slew of albums that came out in various points during the past three to four months. I wanted to write more about Cyhra, because that’s an interesting project just for the personalities involved, so its a little longer, but generally I forced myself to keep these as short as is possible for me. Straight and to the point takes on the new music itself, not a lot of room for contextualizing (which you know I can’t help doing when unrestrained).

 


 

 

Cyhra – Letters to Myself:

I know people might scoff at me describing this as possibly the most intriguing release of 2017, but seriously think about it: We were given an announcement sometime ago, that ex-In Flames guitarist Jesper Stromblad and ex-Amaranthe clean vocalist Joacim Lundberg were teaming up (alongside ex-In Flames bassist Peter Ivers, and power metal veteran drummer Alex Landenburg). What on earth would that sound like? Stromblad’s last recorded output was with neo-thrash/death outfit Dimension Zero, with whom he released some decent metal, though nothing to write home about. Certainly nothing that resembled the imaginative, ultra melodic richness of his career defining work in In Flames. Lundberg’s last recorded work was with the increasingly poppier pop/electro/metal hybrid Amaranthe, whom he left shortly after finishing work on last year’s Maximalism, citing that in the process of the band’s ever changing sound, his role was (ironically?) being minimized. In describing why he left, he dropped a hint about what sound he envisioned that his previous band strayed away from, ” I wanted the band to sound like… a mix between those Soilwork-like guitars and melodic Bon Jovi-type vocals combined with a female voice”. Now if you cut out the last bit about the female voice, there’s a fairly blunt description of what Cyhra could possibly end up sounding like.

 

Turns out that was exactly what Cyhra sounds like, and though my MSRcast cohost Cary vehemently disagrees, I actually think it works better than expected. I enjoy this album on the same wavelength that allowed me to get into Amaranthe, the songs largely being built around the vocal melodies where it turns out Lundberg has genuine songwriting talent (it was always hard to decipher individual songwriting contributions within Amaranthe, to separate Olof Morck and Lundgren in that respect). But what puts it over the top is that I’m getting to hear Stromblad’s signature melodic guitarwork again, that very distinctive style that he pioneered in In Flames that became a hallmark of the band’s sound and something I’d forever associate with Gothenburg melodic death metal. Given that its been sometime since he’s done music in this vein, its closer in approach to his last few records with In Flames than say those earlier classics of The Jester Race / Whoracle eras, but still, its refreshing to hear him playing in this vein again. If we’re all being honest, those are the types of records we’d love to see him return to making, where his guitar melodies dictated the direction of the songwriting and everything (vocals included) were arranged around them. But Lundgren is who he is, and there likely won’t be death metal growls coming from him, well, ever —- but that’s okay, because even though I’m in the minority here, I’ve always liked his voice.

 

The opener “Karma” was a solid choice for a preview track, giving a fairly representative overview of the band’s sound: Simple songwriting structures dressed up with Stromblad’s complex guitar attack, a chunky rhythm attack underneath and an ample dose of keyboard generated electronic effects for ambiance. Whats surprising is just how well his style meshes with a “Bon Jovi” type vocalist like Lundberg, because you’d figure that the sheer melodic expression projected from his guitarwork would crowd out the vocals rather than complement or support them. Its a weird thing to think about at first, because you’re probably thinking about all the very excellent guitarists in rock and metal history who’ve been aligned with a melodic singer without a problem —- and you’re right. What I’m emphasizing is that the melo-death/Stromblad-ian guitar approach is usually something you’d instinctively pair up against a harsh vocal, the better to contrast with (as we’ve seen on a load of excellent records past and present). So take “Heartrage”, my favorite cut on the album, where Lundberg’s emotion rippled vocal melody carries the heavy lifting of the song. Here Stromblad works around the edges, conjuring up beautiful patterns that punctuate and bookend verse fragements, while in the chorus he restrains himself enough to allow Lundberg to soar, only crashing in for the outro to send things accelerating again. Its a satisfying song, with a chorus as excellent as Lundberg ever penned in Amaranthe —- and with the foreknowledge that a lot of these songs are directly about or influenced by Stromblad’s battles with his personal demons, perhaps possessing more emotional gravity as a result.

 

This is largely a bouncing, kinetic listening experience, one that doesn’t slow down in tempo until the second half with a few slower, quasi-ballad songs that aren’t bad, but clearly aren’t what this band is best suited for. That they run together for three songs in a row is a sequencing problem, but one that is made somewhat tolerable by the fact that they each boast a fairly successful chorus. But the last track, “Dead to Me”, features some cringe worthy narration (this stuff usually never works) that overshadows what is a very well written hook that comes slowly at first, working its way to a heavier crescendo towards the end. They could’ve cut one of those songs and left it for future development on the next release, but its not enough to sink the album, because the first nine songs are the heart of this record. Normally I’d argue that a band should diversify the tracklisting a bit, slip in a slower song to break up the monotony, but there’s enough diversity in tempo and aggression in Cyhra’s uptempo songs to do that naturally. And I wonder now, thinking on Cary’s intensely negative reaction to this album (“its too poppy!”) if one’s individual tolerance level for pop is a determining factor in whether or not you’ll like it. Lundberg’s Bon Jovi-ian vocals are a major component of the band’s sound, and all the Stromblad melo-death guitars can’t mask that aspect. I’m considering myself lucky then to enjoy both, because this is a solid debut, something I honestly didn’t know that I’d be saying. Oh, and glad to you have back Jesper.

 

 

 

 

Enslaved – E:

The only thing I’ve learned for sure about Enslaved and the act of writing about their music is that everyone’s opinions about said music are wildly different. There seems to be no actual consensus about anything regarding their discography for example, a long list of fourteen studio albums and a handful of EPs and splits that have as many musical twists and turns as most bands have lineup changes. One of my favorite metal reviewers for example, Angry Metal Guy, had a lower opinion of the band’s 2010 Axioma Ethica Odini than myself and several of my metal loving friends did, one of whom loves that album so much it might make his top five desert island albums list. We also share the opinion than 2009’s Vertebrae was the weakest moment in their discography, an opinion that is generally not held among a host of prominent metal publications and blogs. It just gets more suffuse beyond that —- no one really has a consensus on what’s the band’s classic, definitive album (I would say 2004’s Isa along with the aforementioned Axioma), and seemingly everyone has a vastly different view on 2012’s heavily rock-infused RIITIIR (I rather enjoyed it myself). There’s a review on the band’s Metal Archive’s page for Below the Lights where a reviewer describes that album as Enslaved’s Dark Side of the Moon —- and don’t get me wrong, I like ‘Lights as well, but as you can see, there’s a spectrum of opinions here, reflected in that very same websites reviewer percentage ranking of the band’s discography: There’s no clear-cut high ranking album that towers above all the rest, most of them are high 80s and low 90s, which speaks volumes about the band’s consistency, if little about anything resembling certainty.

 

Why am I telling you all this? Well, for the self-defeating purpose of telling you that my review of E doesn’t really matter, not in the way that it usually might for those of you who have in the past discovered a new band through something I’ve written here on the blog. We’re talking about a band who’s new album is arriving with a major lineup change in its ranks (the departure of longtime keyboardist/clean vocalist Herbrand Larsen who is being replaced in those same roles by Hakon Vinje), though you wouldn’t know it unless you looked because the new guy sounds so much like his predecessor. The overall sonic palette and lengthy, progressive songwriting approach that characterizes so much of the band’s sound over the past couple albums is present as well. And while there’s nothing here that’s as rock-inflected as some of the cuts on RIITIIR or the chorus of “One Thousand Years of Rain” off 2015’s In Times, you generally feel like E is a close sibling to those albums. As expected, we’re treated to one absolute snore-fest of a tune in “Hiindsiight”, complete with repetitive clean vocal segments that last minutes too long, overwhelming keyboard drenched ambient sound effects and that godawful dreaded saxophone (can we have a year without that instrument on any metal record, just for the sake of good taste?). Then there’s bits I really enjoy: The fierce, slamming riffs that fuel “Sacred Horse” are very Axioma (again, all of us lean hard on our favorite aspects of this band); and “The River’s Mouth” is a pretty concise and hooky song all things Enslaved considered. Its kinda shocking that the best thing on the album however very well might be their cover of Röyksopp’s Icelandic trip-hop hit “What Else Is There?”, which they transform into a moody, Depeche Mode-ian clean vocal jam that is really excellent.

 

Largely though, I find myself losing attention through various moments on E, and while that has happened on the past two releases as well, it is occurring on this album at an alarming rate. That aforementioned friend who loved Axioma so much he’d plaster it to a volleyball he painted and called Wilson? His opinion of the new album and the band’s recent direction has turned dour: “They’re just getting boring”. And I think he’s right —- because sometimes its just that freaking simple. I used to think it was my fault or failing when I had trouble processing a complex, lengthy, multi-facted work of progressive metal such as this. But wait a second, I love other albums that fit that description: Opeth’s Blackwater Park and Still Life for starters, Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, Alcest’s Kodama… the list go could on and on, you get the idea. I’m going on month two of constantly going back and giving this album another shot, another sit down listening experience when its late at night and I’m in the mood for some serious headphone music time. Its not catching on this time around and not exciting the pulse points that I know this band is capable of hitting with sledgehammer. I’m undoubtedly sure that E will end up on a few best of lists at the end of the year, but I can’t honestly say its one of the best albums of 2017 (it might be quite the opposite).

 

 

 

 

Amberian Dawn – Darkness of Eternity:

I’ve written gushingly about Amberian Dawn and their surprise 2015 year end list making release Innuendo, which was and remains a breath of fresh air within the ranks of metal bands with female vocalists at the helm. That album, like Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter a year before, was an exciting, inventive non-operatic/classical affair that melded power metal with other outside influences from the world of pop and rock. In Amberian Dawn’s case, if you don’t remember, that predominant influence is the mighty ABBA, those masters of pop in its purest, most elegant, crystalline form. I was new to the band at that point, and Innuendo was my point of entry into their discography and apparently it was also the biggest injection of that ABBA sound in their work to date. Having gone back through their older albums with previous vocalist Heidi Parviainen, I discovered a more conventional symphonic power metal approach with dashes of ABBA spice thrown in here and there, a mix that resulted in some good stuff, if not great albums. Call me biased, but I’m all for keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppala and vocalist (and ABBA cover band dabbler) Capri Virkkunen happily indulging their love for the finest of all Swedish pop. So its a pleasure to discover that they’ve not only continued in that direction on Darkness of Eternity, but might have increased the dosage so to speak.

 

I think Virkkunen’s vocal quality and approach is the secret to making this actually work, because she has that slight Scandinavian accent that bends the pronunciation of certain words all while singing with a clarity in her enunciation that reminds me exactly of Frida and Agnetha. That’s not to say nothing about Seppala’s knack for penning a catchy tune, because he has the gift, and is a studious disciple of the Benny/Bjorn school of songwriting (and the key to that in my opinion was understanding the techniques, range, and capability of the vocalists they were writing for). If you doubt me, consider these words in the press release from the man himself, speaking about the song “Maybe”:

“I was happy to produce this song as a tribute to ABBA‘s Benny Andersson. Most of the keyboards on this song was recorded at his studio in Stockholm and with his legendary keyboard ‘Great White Elephant,’ a Yamaha GX-1 which is often heard on ABBA songs in late ’70’s and early ’80s.”

That song is perhaps the most emblematic slice of archetypal ABBA-ian pop on Darkness of Eternity, a 70’s disco-groove inspired rhythmic shuffle built with moody keyboards, fat bass and tight metallic riffing. Virkkunen skates over the top with a rich minor/major key vocal that’s sung at a slightly slower tempo, creating that magical effect where melancholy rises to the top in that juxtaposition of happy and sad. Its the same effect that ABBA used for tunes such as “Knowing Me Knowing You”, or “When All Is Said And Done”, and its one that sounds simple on the surface but I’ve come to suspect is a talent reserved for only the best songwriters in any respective style. There’s another dance-tempo built gem on here, the 70s keyboard heavy “Sky Is Falling”, with bittersweet vocal melodies leading the way. And the lyric snob in me is impressed, because while its not earth shaking stuff, these lyrics are written without the typical misconstrued phrasing that tends to accompany most stuff from Scandinavia. The phrasing is both utilitarian and clever, as in the set up for the refrain, “Drip drop the tears are falling… Drip drop the sky is falling”, which has a built in major to minor transition in its phonetics alone. I love, absolutely LOVE well done pop in this mode, and sure, its a little light on the metallurgy, but that’s not why I’m listening to this band.

 

If you’re wondering then, why YOU should be listening to this band, well, like I mentioned earlier —- this is refreshingly different female fronted metal. I know that folks on my Twitter feed tend to scoff at that tag, but its just a catch all word choice to describe a grouping of bands that tends to sound one way or another. If gothic-metal isn’t your thing or you feel that no one does it better than Nightwish and just aren’t interested in hearing a copycat, this is the perfect band for you to explore. When they do lean a little harder here, as on “Dragonflies”, they morph into something resembling a heavier, meant for Broadway stages type of song, with the power metal elements working to support a soaring vocal run. On “Abyss”, you get a rather awesome melding of both a wild power metal explosion with some tightly crafted sublime pop songwriting, the heavy riff passages surrounding a gorgeously ascending refrain laden with semi-maudlin emotion. The vibrato that Virkkunen flashes in that chorus is pure ear candy for anyone who appreciates wonderful singing, she’s one of metal’s truly underappreciated talents right now. I’d also point out just how satisfyingly deft and tightly written is the pomp-epic storm of “Luna My Darling”, something that borrows as much from Wishmaster-era Nightwish as it does Sonata Arctica. But if you’re like me, you’ll be pulled in with cuts like “Breathe Again” and “Ghostwoman”, songs marinated in that sweet honey ABBA glaze. This album is my late year happy place, just an absolute blast to listen to.

 

 

 

 

Aetherian – The Untamed Wilderness:

Just when I was thinking that this year was offering little in the way of great music from new bands, this late November release drops in my lap thanks to a track being previewed on Spotify’s New Metal Tracks playlist (that’s new, not nu). First of all, I can’t oversell just how useful a tool that playlist has been for myself and my MSRcast cohort Cary G. Its constantly updated with the latest singles well ahead of the album releases, it spotlights that weeks new releases, and is a well rounded mix of every sub genre because really it doesn’t care if you’re power metal, death metal or grind —- if you’re new, you’re in. I highly suggest everyone check it out as one of those solid free resources to keep tabs on if you’re not subscribing to magazines or are frustrated by certain bloggers who don’t write/update fast enough for your liking (*cough*). Aetherian’s track on the playlist was “Black Sails”, which perked my ears up due to its beautifully arranged acoustic/electric, almost Falkenbach-ian intro that led into a mix of Insomnium styled melo-death over some ultra-bleak and doomy vocals. Its a rich, varied and colorful track, full of elegant melodies but also some uptempo, speedy Gothenburg rhythmic patterns that prevent things from ever getting boring. It was a breath of fresh air in that moment, coming right after Machine Head’s newest slice of utterly abominable meathead metal (the last thing I thought was okay by them was The Blackening, and even that’s a bit overrated in retrospect, we were all a little too eager for thrash metal to return in 2007…).

 

These guys are from Greece, and The Untamed Wilderness is their first album, although they’ve been releasing media attention getting singles (and an EP) since 2013. I like the strategy, and hope more newer bands are going that route —- start small, keep the focus narrow by aiming for a single first, another and another and then finally try for the EP. I haven’t gone back and listened to any of their pre-album releases, but what their full length debut illustrates is a band that really thought hard about what they wanted to sound like and what they wanted to say. This album sounds simultaneously classic and new, both firmly rooted in tried and true metal traditions (the delicate intros/outros that remind me of classic Metallica, spotlight grabbing guitar solos, an emphasis on memorable melodies), all while being unafraid of trying to cross-pollinate styles at will. Case in point is “The Rain”, where we get some epic guitar melodies that one would normally associate with traditional metal, followed by the band launching into a borderline metalcore/largely melodeath breakdown. I know you’re groaning at seeing that term thrown in here, but give the track a listen and you’ll see its not what your brain is conjuring up this very second. Vocalist Panos Leakos has a deeper register than most melo-death screamers, coming across like a blend of Swallow the Sun’s Mikko Kotamäki and Omnium Gatherum’s Jukka Pelkonen. There’s enough grit there to make it not overpower the melo-death underneath with overwhelmingly doomy vocals, but enough doom in his vocals to give everything a bleak as hell coating. Give this album a shot, we’re going to be talking about it on the next MSRcast for sure.

 

 

 

Blut Aus Nord – Deus Salutis Meæ:

I’m really going to be in the minority here, but I’m just not able to crack the new Blut Aus Nord, which is a complete roundabout dive back into their industrial work of a few years ago that also blew right past me. It wasn’t for lack of trying, I really did give all those highly praised 777 era albums a shot, willing myself to like them and see what all the hype was about, but it just never happened. I’m one of those curmudgeonly types that only enjoys it when the band delivers something in that second wave of black metal milieu, as they did for 2014’s brilliant Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry. The problem on Deus is that it sounds like one seriously monotone wash of noise, dark hellish noise for sure but unlike even the heaviest black metal, there’s nary a riff to grab onto. This is the perfect soundtrack to some kind of industrial, HR Giger influenced hellscape horror house. That’s not exactly the kind of listening experience that I’m after as a metal fan and the immense density of the production here —- slabs and slabs of noise colliding with each other, an almost drone-like repetitiveness to the rhythmic structures at work, not to mention just how annoying the drum machine programming comes across, assaulting ones ears with tinny blasts. The most listenable sequence here is “Chorea Macchabeorum”, which at least has a riff boasting a microhook in its curving rhythm, resembling a NIN track more than anything metal. I don’t know what else to say, and was almost going to skip writing about this album except I thought it’d be strange to have so highly spoken about their last release while being mum on the new one. I’m not saying its bad, but its clearly not for me —- I only hope there’s a Memoria Vetusta IV at some point.

 

 

 

Elvenking – Secrets of the Magic Grimoire:

So I was introduced to Elvenking way back in the early aughts by a Blind Guardian loving friend of mine on a record store trip where he took a chance on their sophomore effort Wyrd just based on the cover art reminding him of Finntroll (ah the days of blind music purchasing!). It was not what he expected of course, but being able to appreciate power metal, he dug it and so did I. Over the years I’ve kept a moderate interest in Elvenking, waiting for them to finally deliver that career defining album that gelled all the best elements of their sound. They fascinate me in that they’re an Italian band that somehow manages to sound like they’re from Italy yet maybe from Germany and the States as well. Their blend of triumphant power metal with occasional folk music injections sometimes hits all the right sweet spots, but other times comes across as cluttered, unfocused, and uninteresting. I’ve always personally felt their folk moments sounded forced, and they sounded better when leaning harder on the traditional power metal approach. Part of the reason for that is just how much I like Damna (Davide Moras) as a vocalist, his vocals an oddity in the power metal world for their rough hewn Bon Jovi like quality. Hell, there have been times where he sounds more apt to be the vocalist in a pop-punk band —- and that’s not a knock, he’d be great at it.

 

So the band has returned to their more traditional sound over the past few albums, and Secrets of the Magic Grimoire is no exception (with that title it better not be). In fact they’re hitting that sweet spot that I was referring to earlier straight off the bat here on the opener “Invoking the Woodland Spirit”, a charging, pounding anthem built on a tasty riff sequence and ascending vocal melody. Damna has a way of injecting addictive melodic bends in his vocals that owe more to rock than metal but still seem perfectly at home within the greater context of a song this epic (“Hounded, darkened and laid underneath…”). Its a glorious track, and so is the follow up “Draugen’s Maelstrom” where the verses are just as fist-pumping as that excellent chorus. I particularly love Damna’s shrewd tempo shift accenting on the bridge (“Through the pouring rain / The icy spurts”), a clever trick that gives those lines just a little extra juice in the energy department. But for every pair of rockin’ rollin’ jams like those two, you get a dud like “The One We Shall Follow”, with its plodding tempo, predictable sound /w group chorus vocal that sounds like so many other bands. I know people gave Elvenking a hard time for their poppier explorations over the years, but I really think the band’s strength is that middle ground between these strange pop-punk sounding influences and epic power metal. It gives them an identity that no one in the genre has, for better or worse (no one sounds like them when they’re merging both influences anyway). This is one of the band’s better efforts in recent memory, and cuts like “Summon the Dawn Light” that remind me simultaneously of Coheed & Cambria and Freedom Call are when the band is at their best. But they have trouble staying in that zone, and like the rest of their catalog, Secrets is an uneven listen.

 

 

 

Ensiferum – Two Paths:

I’m a jerk for pointing it out, but the title of the new Ensiferum album is just ripe for fitting in all sorts of insults and snarky Twitter burns. But you know, its also kinda emblematic of what’s really going on in folk metal in 2017,  a year in which we’ve seen a small handful of releases from the genre’s older standard bearers attempt to steer the genre back towards its gritty, dark, blackened roots. What they’re steering away from is sadly the kind of thing Ensiferum still find themselves stuck in, like some sticky tar they’re struggling to walk through for miles and miles. Its the goof-ication of a once solitary and spiritual subgenre of metal, the mid-2000s turn towards songs about ale, drunkenness, trolls, and whatever schlocky gimmicky stuff that’s been overplayed and overdone for about a solid decade plus now. I know I’ve gone on about this before so I’ll spare you all now, but there really has been solid statements of intent this year from folk metal artists such as Vintersorg, King of Asgard, and Wolfheart. We can even add Myrkur to that list, of new folk infused metal that reminds me of the way the genre used to be before it got all cartoonish and something to laugh about. Ensiferum’s first couple albums were part of that original legacy, and its been concerning to see them descend into the tropes that the genre’s more widely known bands have been barfing up.

 

I wasn’t wild about 2015’s One Man Army and only lukewarm on 2012’s Unsung Heroes, and I’m disappointed to see that trend continuing. Going back to my reviews of those albums now, I see that I chalked up my feelings on them with the belief that the band just needed to write better songs, which is an obvious take that could apply to any mediocre album. I wonder if Ensiferum’s problems are far deeper however, that maybe its a personnel problem in Petri Lindroos ultimately not being the most exciting vocalist the band could’ve picked as a replacement for Jari Maenpaa (for all Jari’s many difficulties, he had one of the best melo-death screamer voices in recent memory). Lindroos has the tendency to sound tame in comparison, his screaming vocals never really threatening or deviating from the monotone delivery he’s been using since his time in Norther. That might not bother some people, but I find it grating over the period of a couple songs, and its something that I’ve only just put my finger on this time around. I commend the band for trying to spice things up here with Lindroos and fellow band mate Netta Skog taking on clean vocals on “I Will Never Kneel” and “Don’t You Say”, but they fall flat musically. The latter sounds more like something off a Flogging Molly album and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, its just bewildering in the context of an Ensiferum release. The former features Skog on lead vocals and she’s got a fine voice, but there’s nothing emotionally gripping about what she’s singing, nothing that makes you feel that rush the way say Eluveitie did on “Call of the Mountains”.

 

Bassist and lyric writer (post Maenpaa) Sami Hinkka has contributed to the music writing more than ever on this album, being credited in writing five songs, a pair of them by himself (“God Is Dead”, “I Will Never Kneel”). I can only guess as to why longtime music writer/guitarist Markus Toivonen decided to mix things up this time around, but I wonder if there was a feeling in the band that things were getting stale and they had to inject something new. Skog also is credited on a few tracks, and unsurprisingly Lindroos is still not a major part of the songwriting team. Hey, some people just aren’t skilled in that particular facet of things and that’s okay, but that’s also why I wonder if the Lindroos/Ensiferum thing is running whatever course it seemed to have (at least on those fairly decent post Maenpaa albums). There are bands where the guitarist can write all the songs and the lyrics, and have a convincing frontman go out and sell them, we see it all the time in power metal and just regular rock n’ roll. Folk metal is a different breed however, its music that works best when its coming at you as a cohesive artistic expression. Lindroos was a fun vocalist in Norther, an admittedly generic melo-death band with a few fun songs and one excellent Europe cover, but I never really get the feeling he’s been a folk metal guy. When we go back and listen to those first two Maenpaa lyric penned albums we can hear the seeds of stuff he’d later explore in Wintersun, that guy really puts a ton of conviction into his art and recorded performance (regardless of however well he succeeds on a artistic or technical level). I hope I’m not sounding mean-spirited towards Lindroos, whom I hold no rancor towards —- I’m interested to hear someone else’s thoughts on this.

 

 

 

Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:

This was one of those albums that you see the cover art for and just have to check out —- if the image on the left isn’t big enough for you, check out the full length spread here. It certainly gives a visual to the album title, allowing no one any room to wonder at what a mirror reaper would look like (Dark Souls concept art anyone?). While I had no doubt it would be atop everyone’s best album art of 2017 lists, I saw the band described as funeral doom and lamented for a minute before going ahead and giving the album a shot on Spotify, fully expecting to be bored or at the least, severely disinterested. Funeral doom is a tough genre to get into, I even had problems with the third disc of Swallow the Sun’s Songs From the North and I rather enjoyed the first two discs of that one. So a little background first: This is Bell Witch’s third full length (their debut came out in 2012), they’ve been a two piece band since their inception with only drums and bass (yes, bass) as the primary instruments. Dylan Desmond is the bassist and co-lead vocalist, and he somehow manages to get sounds out of a bass that would trick anyone’s brain into thinking they’re hearing a guitar. The band’s drummer on their first two albums was Adrian Guerra, who sadly passed away in May of 2016. He’s replaced by Jesse Shreibman here, and together he and Desmond produce a spectrum of sound that runs the gamut from soft, hushed atmospherics to withering, claustrophobia inducing waves of noise.

 

Whats surprising about Mirror Reaper is just how well it really works while being presented as a single song clocking in at 83 minutes, and yes you’re reading that right. I’ve enjoyed my time listening to the album, never feeling impatient with it like I figured I would have. Its a hypnotic, lulling, and subsequently jarring listening experience, something perfect for a chilly autumn day or a quiet night with the headphones on. The scope of this is huge, difficult to put into words except to say that it does sound like the soundtrack to grief, or at least a window into someone else trying to process grief. It wasn’t necessary to understand the backstory of Guerra’s passing to hear that element in the music —- this is a very sad, brutally melancholic listen in the most understated way possible. I marvel at what Desmond is able to convey through a bass, all while playing in seemingly slow motion, his notes ringing long and laboriously, only coming in just as its predecessor is about to fade entirely. Both he and Shreibman play in a manner that can only be described as economical, somehow crafting sounds out of two instruments that can fill your entire room with reverberating sound that is at times as bleak as you’d expect but also surprisingly beautiful and aching. This is not an easy listen just by virtue of its length, but its a seductive one, and a journey that pulls you in and keeps you listening. I’m more surprised at my own reaction to this, coming from a genre that I usually just ignore. This is nothing I’d want to see played live, but at home, on my own with the lights turned out and the headphones on, its a mesmerizing experience.