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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.

 

Serenity Join the Crusades: The Lionheart Review

November 13, 2017

Would it be accurate to call this a surprise release? I heard rumors of Serenity working on a new album this year, but the idea that it would be released before the year was out seemed a little far fetched. Their previous album, Codex Atlanticus, was just released in January of 2016, and I suppose that does fall a few months shy of a two year mark, but simply put releases don’t tend to come this quickly —- record companies don’t like it. The short turnaround got me wondering if the band had even toured to support that album, I couldn’t remember… but sure enough they did a European tour of their own directly after its release. It seems to have been only a month or so, which might explain why they were able to get back to work on new material, perhaps feeling like they needed to ride the wave of creativity they were feeling after the critical success of that album (and it was a success to me anyway, remember “The Perfect Woman” landing on my top ten songs list). Then there’s also the added dimension of Lionheart being a concept/thematic album about… well Richard the Lionheart of course. Don’t these things usually need a little more time to work out? A longer bake time if you will. You’d probably be able to brush that aside considering that Serenity’s vocalist/songwriter Georg Neuhauser’s day job is that of a history professor, so presumably, all the research on such a topic had already been loaded into his brain long ago and this was a natural outsourcing of his passion. But as Angry Metal Guy smartly points out, Serenity’s take on Richard I comes off a bit slanted, biased, or even more dishearteningly, naive:

 

Googling Richard I for three minutes will show that he, like all regents and generals, was a complicated man who did complicated things for complicated reasons. But such a nuanced picture of the character is notable in its absence. Missing, for example, is a song about the massacre at Ayyadieh, where Richard I lion-heartedly executed 2,700 people—some accounts saying it was closer to 3,000, including women and children—because Saladin would not pay a ransom. Instead, Lionheart relies heavily on messages of unity and a lionization (see what I did there?) of Richard I. While “Massacre at Ayyadieh (I Executed 2,700 People Because Saladin Would Not Pay Me a Ransom)” makes a less inspiring song than “United” or “Stand and Fight,” it also makes a crucial point: who would write an uncritical concept album about The Crusades in 2017?

– Angry Metal Guy

 

 

As I’m sure I’ve pointed out before, I try to make a point of not reading other reviews of an album before penning my own, but I was late to this album, and during a bored, scrolling through my phone moment, I let my guard down and read his review. Angry Metal Guy doesn’t write as often as I’d like him to these days but that’s a stellar review (one I highly encourage you to read), and considering his site was one of the biggest influences on me starting my own blog, I make an exception for him without guilt. His larger point that Neuhauser’s lyrics seemed to rely on power metal’s proclivity towards positivity is what’s worth examining here. If you take a glance through the lyrics throughout this album, you’ll see a largely sympathetic take on Richard I, one that doesn’t offer a corresponding opposite view of his decisions and actions. I’m not saying Neuhauser should have written the soundtrack to Kingdom of Heaven here, but AMG delivers a valid criticism, and the overt romanticism that drenches every song on Lionheart actually works against it, makes it less likely to draw us in, particularly in the fraught, politically, racially charged climate of 2017. I’d immediately point out that I don’t detect anything malicious or nefarious in Neuhauser’s lyrics, and that’s reinforced in part because the formula he’s using on Lionheart is a damn near replica of the one he used for DaVinci on Codex Atlanticus. It worked there, because DaVinci is an interesting, engaging, well respected figure that largely avoids being seen in any particularly negative light today —- as a conceptual subject, he’s far better suited to power metal’s proclivity towards joyful euphoria.

 

 

All this wouldn’t really be much of an issue of course if the songs were on point, and some are nearly there, but for the most part this album sees Neuhauser missing his usual mark of excellence for the first time since I’ve become a fan. I’ve gone through this record well over a dozen times now over the course of a few weeks and its just not clicking with me. Many of the songs lack the sharpness, the well defined arcing hooks that he’s so adept at penning, with the exception of a few cuts. Opening song “United” comes across as the inspirational, horns bellowing call its supposed to be, its lyrics speaking of coming together to take up the holy crusade —- the sort of stuff power metal is meant to be the soundtrack for. Similarly on “Lionheart”, where “Jersualem unites us against Saladin”, Neuhauser delivers an impassioned vocal in the verse segments in particular, a slight phrasing twist in his delivery that reminds me of why I love him so much as a singer. Choir vocals backup the refrain here, bringing to mind a Blind Guardian influence that is noticeable all throughout the rest of this album. We get triumphant, punctuating horns in the chorus of “Hero”, a lyrical clunker but possessing enough strength in its vocal melodies to make you ignore the Enrique Iglesias reminders it will conjure in your mind.  This change in style and tone is appropriate for the subject matter, and on first listen I wasn’t too surprised to find the album’s first four cuts storming out of the gates in this mode. But it never lets up, the entire approach across the board sounds more epic and grand than we’re used to from Serenity, its all glory and light here. By the time I got to the fifth cut “Rising High”, I started to wonder where was this album’s “Wings of Madness”, or “Far From Home”, those doses of melancholy that I’ve come to expect.

 

For the bulk of their back catalog, like their spiritual cousins in Kamelot, Serenity were consistently working with light and shade, a splash of darkness to their sound to balance out their major key heavy songwriting. Even on Codex Atlanticus they had those more dark, introspective moments —- “Reasons” and “The Order” come to mind, and that was an album I thought was an abrupt about face from the darker tones of War of Ages to a brighter, cheerier sonic palette. Neuhauser pulled that off successfully because he had a couple musical factors changing; namely that Thomas Buchberger was no longer in the band, his thick guitar riffs dominating the bulk of the band’s earlier work, and as a result Neuhauser built up the songs around his vocal melodies, giving the album a noticeable Broadway vibe. So back to Lionheart, where songs like “Eternal Victory” midway through the album sport a few nice moments in the way of hooks and the odd nice riff or solo, a sameness begins to set in with all of these songs essentially mirroring one another. Another glorious paean to Richard I and his inevitable victory, got it. I didn’t actually realize that the sameness throughout the album was what might be dragging it down until I read Angry Metal Guy’s review, but his analysis of the lyrics really do sum it up: These songs all have the same theme of glory and victory, yadda yadda yadda, and that results in stylistic sameness throughout the album, and that ultimately results in a relatively unremarkable listening experience.

 

 

The first real difference in tone and even in song structure comes in the closing pair of tracks, “My Fantasy”, and “The Final Crusade”. The latter is a strange bird, featuring some harsh vocals that I suspect we all figured were coming at some point (every power metal band seems to do a little dip in them at some point), and while they don’t ruin what is a largely a good song, they fail to add anything to it. The strength of this track is the Broadway vibe of the chorus, bringing to mind hints of the last album, Neuhauser’s vocals soaring against the backdrop of a swooning symphony. He’s joined towards the end by Sleeping Romance vocalist Federica Lanna, her vocals a sweet, subdued tonic to his soaring theatrical delivery, though he does bury her sonically in the mix when their voices are supposed to be conjoining. The other song, “My Fantasy” might be the highlight of the album, a song that reminds me of the Death and Legacy era in its multi-faceted approach. A heavy riff progression sandwiches a wide open power ballad chorus where Neuhauser dreams up as glorious a hook as he’s ever conjured, his vocal progression bringing to mind the very best of Tony Kakko and Klaus Meine in his tone and vocal melody direction. Its also the only moment on the album where you could forget about the Richard I concept for a few minutes, because even though its written from the perspective of Richard while he’s imprisoned, its lyrics are vague enough to be malleable to anyone and anything. Neuhauser is such a gifted songwriter, he’s bound to deliver a gem per album at least, even when the rest of the affair is a surprising misstep. I’ll take it, and while I won’t recommend Lionheart as a must own, I’ll be happy to wait an extra year or so for a far greater Serenity album next time around.

 

 

 

Rising Anew: The Unlikely Return of Power Quest

October 27, 2017

Even though I foolhardily consider myself to be a power metal expert (I’m often surpassed by the collective knowledge of the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group and the Power Metal Subreddit), sometimes I just get things wrong. When it comes to the UK’s Power Quest, my sin was not giving the band the attention they deserved after being introduced to them. I first heard about Power Quest in late 2004 in the wake of the Dragonforce furor that got everyone looking at the UK as the epicenter of power metal’s latest shockwave. The band’s second album Neverworld had just been made available for import from Sentinel Steel’s ever reliable mail order, and I grabbed it based on the recommendation of a trusted group of forum members on UltimateMetal.com (remember forums?). It was in retrospect the band’s only pure power metal album in the classicist Helloween mold. At the time Power Quest were heralded by some as superior to Dragonforce, and by others as the “Valley of the Damned” squad’s little brothers. The comparisons were natural, both bands shared members at one point in Steve Williams and Sam Totman, mainly because the UK power metal community was small and tightly-knit (still strange to think about given the country’s pedigree with Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden). It was so small that its leading lights both had to import vocalists —- the Force’s ZP Theart was from South Africa, and the Quest’s Alessio Garavello was from Italy. Together both bands made waves worldwide, denied any notion of a rivalry, and although a flood of British power metal bands failed to materialize in their wake, they both blazed their own distinctive trails.

 

I loved Neverworld, but when they released its follow-up Magic Never Dies a year later, its change in sound and approach threw me for a loop. I drifted away from following the band as other musical shiny metal objects attracted my attention. It wouldn’t be until many years later when I’d reignite my interest in Power Quest and go back to see what all I’d missed. It was right about early 2011 actually after hearing Dr. Metal play a cut from their upcoming Blood Alliance album with new vocalist Chity Somapala on his Metal Meltdown show. I dug the new song and went back out of curiosity to give Magic Never Dies another shot: It slapped me in the face for my absence with the sheer shock of just how awesome it was. That album and its 2008 follow-up Master of Illusion were bright, crisp, energetic, and dare I suggest even cheerful mash-ups of power metal with 80s guitar rock ala Van Halen circa 1984. Although power metal as a genre had taken a turn towards mixing in hard rock influences for awhile by then (to the delight of some and the agitation of others), what Power Quest had been doing was almost the diametrical opposite to the darker, aggressive, and often more symphonic direction that bands like Avantasia and Kamelot were going in. As much as I loved those bands, it was refreshing to hear someone in power metal doing something entirely unique on their own in another direction.

 

Even in comparison to their fellow countrymen in Dragonforce who were in a race with themselves to get faster and more over the top with frenzied, extended guitar passages; the ‘Quest was more interested in pursuing songs led by vocal harmonies, with Steve Williams trademark throwback keyboard sound paving the way underneath. Alessio was a high register vocalist, capable of helium heights only scaled previously by singers like Michael Kiske and early Tobias Sammet. And Power Quest may have had the most underrated lineup of guitarists in the genre, unheralded talents like Andrea Martongelli (now of Arthemis fame), and of course, the awesome Andy Midgley. Francesco Tresca on drums and longtime bassist Steve Scott were a rockin’, groove ready, occasionally jazzy rhythm section that always kept the band’s sound loose and lithe, never mired in sludge, even during the band’s slower songs. Eventually all those guys left to pursue other music, including Alessio, to be replaced by an entirely new lineup for Blood Alliance, and although the music got even more AOR influenced, the same spirit established by the old guard lived on in that record. Steve was the link of course, being the main songwriter and the force behind the Force, and even though Chity’s vocals couldn’t have been more different from Alessio’s, a song like “Better Days” sounded like the epitome of Power Quest. I remember first playing that song for my black metal loving buddies while helping one of them paint inside his house, they laughingly were aghast at its overt cheerfulness and 80s vibe, but a few months later they were jamming it by themselves.

 

 

When Steve announced in January 2013 that the band was coming to an end due to serious financial troubles, an increasingly demanding day job, and a perceived indifference from the market, I and many others were disappointed to say the least. That disappointment grew even deeper as I kept listening to their albums in the following years, feeling like the band ended long before their time and that a couple more albums were lost as a result. Steve was ever present on Facebook, heard all our longing comments over this time span, how we missed the band, hoped he would write new music again. He had a stint in Eden’s Curse, a rare UK based power metal band whom he did an album with (2013’s Symphony of Sin) although barely got to contribute to its writing process. And that’s what fans like myself missed the most, because the man has a definite vision of the kind of music he wants to make and its combination of influences result in a very unique blend. So fast forward to March of 2016, when Steve announced via social media and a gleeful YouTube video that he was bringing the band back. I know I was giddy, and I was happy to see that most of the Blood Alliance lineup was back in the fold: Rich Smith on drums, Paul Finnie on bass, Gavin Owen on guitars alongside his twin brother Dan. The newcomer was Dendera vocalist Ashley Edison, who was apparently Steve’s first choice for the position, his vocals finding a landing spot between Alessio’s silky tenor and Chity’s gritty, soulful croon. A pre-order funded EP was in the works, and an album to follow.

 

Things hit a bump in March of this year however when the Owen brothers left for unknown reasons, causing the band to have to postpone their Portsmouth show —- but here’s where things got interesting, and kinda fun. So Power Quest have fully embraced social media in their rebirth, and when they hit the studio this summer in between festival dates they began to unleash a flurry of Facebook Lives. These broadcasts had been delivered here and there since the band reformed, but come summer of 2017 they were popping up on my phone’s notifications seemingly every other day —- usually close to midnight GMT as the band’s post-recording session way to blow off steam over a beer and keep fans engaged in the process. The enthusiasm was contagious, and we got introduced to the new guys through these videos as well, guitarists Andrew Kopczyk and Glyn Williams, both of whom revealed themselves to be longtime fans of the band. Because this isn’t a band that would necessarily draw in tons of viewers for these broadcasts, those of us who were there got to ask all sorts of questions, comment on whatever, and generally be a part of a rather cool fan experience —- the sort that galvanizes longtime casual fans into diehard fans. So it’d be safe to say I was already engaged in a preexisting disposition towards this album heading into hearing it for the first time. I think its worth mentioning right now before I actually get into any analysis just so you can weigh that against anything I write about it (though I do think mine is a reasonable, non-hyperbolic perspective).

 

So its been six years since the last Power Quest album, and that was with a one-off singer as well, which really keeps expectations for Sixth Dimension a bit up in the air. I honestly didn’t know what we’d get, but that we got a fairly steady-handed, finding their footing, straight down the middle take on the Power Quest sound isn’t surprising in the least. Nor is it a bad thing, this is the kind of record they probably were right to deliver, something that finds itself firmly between all of their previous albums’ approaches. There’s a classicist moment like the Neverworld invoking “Lords of Tomorrow”, which also boasts an “Edge of Time” mid-tempo hard rock riff sandwiched in between as a kind of breakdown. The EP title track “Face the Raven” is newly recorded here, and sounds a little fiercer in its attack, the guitars slightly heavier —- its grown on me as a single, Steve’s keyboard melody working as a well-timed motif to complement the chorus. The AOR vibe is strong with “Coming Home”, and maybe its due to the recency to the Blood Alliance era, but it can’t be more than coincidental that this winds up being the best song on the album. Ashley’s vocals here are confident, sure, and full of the bright energy that a chorus this fully arcing demands. Even the guitar solo sequence here is excellent, full of complex layering and melodies that run counterpoint to the primary song melody as a sort of centerpiece. This song has Master of Illusion type DNA, and I was hoping for a couple more like it but I’ll definitely take the one —- it is however the difference between a solid album and something better.

 

 

There’s some stuff here that doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot that we’re used to getting from Steve’s songwriting, two songs being “Starlight City” and “Kings and Glory”. They’re not bad tunes, but “Starlight City” doesn’t have a chorus that lives up to its promising intro verse and cascading bridge, and not even some surprising gang vocal “whoooaaahs” can lift up a refrain that seems a bit flat. Their positions in the tracklisting at two and three handicap the album a bit coming out of the gate, leaving the “Face the Raven” and “No More Heroes” to attempt to recapture the energy generated by the opener “Lords of Tomorrow”. They’re largely successful in that attempt, because “No More Heroes” has the kind of vocal melody ear candy that defined the band’s mid-period artistic success, a song you’ll come back to just to hear how Ashley bends his voice on the line “…I pray with all my heart / we find a brighter day yeah…”. Its followed up by “Revolution Fighters”, which has a level of grit in its verses that lend it enough power to carry the song over a chorus that doesn’t quite arc into a hook the way it needs to. On “Pray For the Day”, there’s enough of that awkward Power Quest charm to worm its way through to make me kinda love the track despite its flaws, I just wish that chorus hit with a little more heft.

 

Where things really do come together once again is on the title track for the album, serving as the closer and falling in line as one of the band’s best epic-length cuts in their discography. Its a moody, dark, tension filled slice of prog-metal that is patient in its buildup, with sublime melodic twists in the lead vocals during the verses. The chorus is a declarative eruption of yearning from Ashley, delivering his best vocal of the entire album over lyrics that would feel at home on a Tony Kakko penned tune. There’s a surprise Anette Olzon guest vocal drop in during the instrumental passage midway through, coming in so sweet and sudden that it seems to surprise Power Quest themselves, so sharp and swift is the change in tempo and melody. She sounds great, and its a perfect pairing, sounding all the more distinctive which is surprising given her time out of the spotlight —- there’s a unique accent to her vocal that Nightwish seemed to keep largely in check but its charming all its own. Steve wrote the song with an outside co-writer (Richard West from Threshold) which is unusual for him but it might account for its freshness, because there’s really nothing in the back catalog quite like it. Kudos to the band for also breaking a streak of really rough album closer epics from a string of releases that I’ve reviewed over the past three years here, someone finally did it right again.

 

What can I say in conclusion, except that I’m so grateful to have this band back, they mean more to me now than when they went away. Power Quest get tagged as flower metal by some, a pejorative for hyper positive power metal heavy on the major key, though I suspect the band themselves would wear it as a badge of honor. This is metal folks, it doesn’t sound like Darkthrone, it certainly doesn’t sound like Kreator or Morbid Angel, but its metal —- accept it. I have taken to comparing metal to ice cream, you might not like every flavor equally, but hey, its still ice cream right? There’s a flavor for everyone and Power Quest are the most fruit filled, whip cream plopped with a cherry on top flavor there is. Even amidst a genre of some often shiny, happy music, Power Quest are at another level, with only Freedom Call as their closest contemporary. Their willingness to stand apart even in power metal, against all the tides that have pushed against them is worthy of absolute respect even from those with no love for the style. Its funny that a band with more hooks than they know what to do with is inherently more noncommercial than extreme metal like Behemoth or Cradle of Filth as a direct consequence. That must have seemed unfair at moments for Steve Williams, who might have felt himself born a decade or so too late to have unleashed his sound in the mid to late 80s. His is a British mentality though, the “carry on” spirit built on stubbornness and pride and dignity that we recognize in bands like Iron Maiden. Ashley Edison said in a recent interview that at some point long after he had ended the band in 2013 and had since cleared his debts, Steve had wondered aloud to himself why he wasn’t doing the band anymore. He realized he needed it. And really, we needed him.

 

 

October Rust: Myrkur’s Mareridt

October 22, 2017

So much has been written about Myrkur in regards to her black metal credibility that its almost tiresome now. I had only vaguely been aware of the controversy she inspired two years ago when she released her Relapse Records debut M. It was an album I’d picked up after being drawn to its cover art on a display rack of new releases at a local record store (Cactus Music for you H-Towners), not even realizing for half a second that it was by the lady who’d been shaking the black metal beehive online. I largely enjoyed it, finding it a strange collection of music that veered between classic black metal era Ulver and a darker strain of Enya. It wasn’t as its promotional hype claimed “the future of black metal” or whatever the quote was from that Terrorizer cover, but it was an interesting and often inspired listen. Fast forward to now, and Amalie Bruun is releasing her sophomore album under the Myrkur banner, and she’s actually leaned a great deal into the direction I hoped she would. I wrote in my review for M that I found myself growing to enjoy the more ethereal side of her work more, the clean vocal directed haunting soundtrack to some fog drenched Norwegian forest. It wasn’t that she couldn’t deliver convincing grim vocals, she certainly can, but I think that raw second wave Norwegian black metal aspect of her sound was her weakest link because its influences were so obvious to all of us well versed in that genre. Most of it was stuff taken from the Nattens Madrigal playbook and didn’t really bring anything new to the table.

 

On Mareridt, Bruun largely eschews black metal fury in favor of this new approach, and often sticks to clean vocals even over beds of tremolo riff laden, double-kick pounding, furious black metal such as on “Gladiatrix” which creates a rare listening experience only mirrored by those power metal unicorns in Falconer. Similarly on “Maneblot”, the track begins with a pure black metal approach only to later find Bruun switching to clean vocals over the same bed of frenzied tempos and abrasive walls of noise. Partway through, there’s an abrupt shift to rustic violins screeching a tortured folk melody in a cavern of silence only to be slowly crushed in by the black metal seeping in through the cracks —- like water engulfing the creaking hold of a ship. Those kinds of change-ups and attention to sonic details are what make Mareridt’s black metal aspects way more interesting than M’s ever were. She’s found her footing here, understanding that pure blanket second wave black metal shouldn’t be her end goal, that it should be used as an element of a greater sonic palette. On “Ulvinde”, one of the album’s stranger tracks, she couches blasts of her black metal vocals directly against an almost Tori Amos-esque plaintative vocal, one that’s almost sedate in its abrupt juxtaposition. On this and many other tracks, she’s found a way to blend black metal elements like tremolo-riffing, double-kick (even blastbeats at times) with decidedly non black metal tempos, song structures, and melodies. Sure, its walking down the path that artists like Alcest paved; to create something new by merging black metal with an outside genre (in their case, shoegaze). What Bruun is doing here sounds more like a marriage between black metal and the strong, defined folk of Loreenna McKennitt (and that’s awesome, in case you’re wondering who the latter is).

 

Not everything is a mish mash of black metal with something else however, as she reserves many of the album’s fifteen tracks for dips into pure Scandinavian folk music. Even here she’s improved by broadening her palette, no longer solely relying on the delicately ethereal, but exploring grittier, earthier variations on traditional folk melodies that often weave beautifully dark webs. The rumbling “Kaetteren” is one of these, setting the scene of musicians around a quietly flickering fire in the Scandinavian hillsides. While that track is the album’s lone instrumental, other folk laden songs revolve around Bruun employing far more hushed and delicate vocals than we’ve heard from her prior. On “Himlen Blev Sort”, she croons as sweetly and lightly as Sharon Den Adel, and the acoustic guitars trip lazily along in a semi-waltz rhythm, almost lullabye like in their intention (and perfect for an album closer). My favorite song is the truly spectacular “Death of Days”, a Dead Can Dance styled meditation with a swirling melody that’s utterly hypnotic. There’s a lot to process over these fifteen tracks, and I’m glad that Bruun decided to keep things short and sharp (just like Eluveitie with their recent eighteen track Evocation II), with no tracks hitting the five minute mark.

 

 

The background concept is also intriguing, giving reason to explore the lyrics —- Bruun kept a journal about her experiences with sleep paralysis and nightmares recently and a lot of these songs explore the feelings those stirred in her. I’ve experienced sleep paralysis myself, its wasn’t pleasant to say the least (absolutely terrifying when I didn’t even realize what it was at first), so my interest in Mareridt (Danish for “nightmare”) has only deepened on a lyrical level. I think I went into this expecting to like it, but not love it, that perhaps Bruun would make the mistake of trying what Deafheaven did, to get purposefully aggressive in order to win over some of the metal set. That she did the opposite is not only shrewd, but refreshing. She has nothing to prove to anyone, and a lot of the criticism towards her has been transparently misogynistic. I don’t like to use that term blithely, but it seems to me that most of the agitation surrounding her has been largely misguided as a result of the media coverage she gets. Its not her fault that the NY Post’s article about this album has the stupidly ignorant sub headline “This singer is making black metal into art”. Mainstream media likes to appropriate the appealing parts of our genre and promote them as their own grand discoveries. Bruun’s integrity however is unstained in my view, she’s in tune with the same artistic spirit that I find in a relatively more obscure band such as Swallow the Sun. My advice if you’ve been avoiding this is to ignore all the noise and check this album out, Bruun really is doing something new and fresh, a difficult thing to do in black metal, and its worth listening to.

Metal Spice Lattes: New Music from Cradle of Filth, Eluveitie and Cellar Darling!

October 17, 2017

October! My exclamation is defined both by my surprise at just how fast the year zips by now, and also just how aggravatingly long September felt like (to me anyway). We’ve just released a new MSRcast covering some of the music from August and September, and you should check out my recent July + August diary update for a handful of small reviews on various summer releases. I was going to deliver another reviews cluster with a bunch of new albums at once, but ended up writing longer reviews for most of them so I’m going to be releasing them a few at a time from here on in. Yeah, I’m not good at keeping myself to a word limit.

 


 

Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay:

Two years ago, we were treated to Cradle of Filth’s rebirth, their first album with their two new guitarists Richard Shaw and Martin “Ashok” Šmerda, and new keyboardist/backing vocalist Lindsay Schoolcraft. I went into that album not knowing what to expect with the departure of longtime guitarist Paul Allender, who I had felt had overstayed his creative energy for the band by a handful of albums. Surely it would be a little different at the very least, but what we got was a full blown refreshing of the Cradle sound, a return to an authentic true twin guitar attack with heavy, downright thrashy guitars delivering chunky riffs and injecting some real brutality back into the band’s previously thinning sound. It was hands down the most interesting Cradle of Filth album since Nymphetamine, and one I played (and still play) often which I can’t say for most of the band’s releases over the past decade. Now we’re on to album number two with the same lineup, the band’s twelfth overall, and its only further vindictation that Dani’s instincts were right on the money in recruiting his three newest members. Not only is Cryptoriana an improvement over the already quite excellent Hammer of the Witches, but I’m calling this the absolute best Cradle album since Midian —- no ‘well that’s just my opinion’ here, I’m freakin’ calling it!

 

With an album and world tour under their belt, Shaw and Ashok’s guitar work is even more resembling something of a real tandem —- Cradle’s own Murray/Smith pairing if you will. Even at their mid-late nineties best, Allender and his longest serving axe partner Gian Pyres never were able to achieve the sort of creative partnership to play off each other the way that great metal guitar duos do. It may be premature to some for me to say that right now, only two albums in, but seriously check out their riff sequences on “You Will Know The Lion By His Claw”, in which they amplify a Maiden-esque influence upon the entire affair that is pure musical ear candy. They’re unafraid to get unconventional and creative, as we hear in the spitfire solos they shoot out without warning, but in keeping with their seeming determination to remake Cradle as a brutally heavy band once again, everything is subservient to their crushing rhythm guitars. That song is an album highlight, not only for its awesome guitar work, but as a display of just how shrewd Linsday Schoolcraft is in her musical role on the keys —- she doesn’t pile on layers of sound, instead dreams up a nightmarish quasi-orchestral accompaniment that never demands to take center stage. Schoolcraft however is a talented vocalist in her own right, and she gets to showcase her beautiful voice on “Achingly Beautiful”, delivering one of Cradle’s all-time catchiest hooks in the refrain.

 

The first time playing this album, I was laying down with it on blast at night, frequently smiling while hearing some awesome little riff pop up that gave me flashes of Judas Priest, Behemoth, or hell even Megadeth. Take the slamming, full throttle “The Night at Catafalque Manor”, where there are simply too many grin inducing guitar moments to fully list here, just a riff explosion that match Dani’s intensity step for step. While we’re on the subject, the new blood in the band has done wonders for the overall songwriting —- these guys and gal just have it down on how to write music for Dani and steer him into a more guttural overall approach, spiked with a reigned in mid-range shrieking style. The sheer aggression of the music has forced Dani to up his game and employ a diversity in his vocals that we’ve not heard ever before. He sounds revitalized, energized and far more focused than I’ve ever heard him, his new songwriting partners forcing him out of comfort zones. Its almost like in the past he’d become one dimensional because there seemed to be a formula for just how his vocals would have to work in relation to Allender’s guitar work. Quite the opposite these days on albums like Hammer and Cryptoriana, and as ridiculous as it might be to read this, Dani Filth has just dropped one of the best overall metal vocal performances in 2017. People are still sleeping on Cradle’s artistic resurrection, and that’s a grogginess that hopefully will be shaken off by the time the band tours anywhere and everywhere for this. LL Cool J once said “don’t call it a comeback”, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t the very definition of one.

 

 

Eluveitie – Evocation II – Pantheon:

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Cellar Darling – This Is The Sound:

One of the most intriguing behind the scenes story lines in 2016 was the split between Elveitie’s key members Anna Murphy and Chrigel Glanzmann. Murphy and guitarist Ivo Henzi’s decision to leave the band simultaneously seemed to be tied to Eluveitie’s firing of drummer Merlin Sutter. I honestly can’t remember the details but that’s kind of the point, everything was hazy in the public fallout from the big split, and to this day, no one really knows why it happened in the first place. Whatever it was, it definitely was personal and the band’s statement included the eyebrow raising statement “thus we felt that we have become something we shouldn’t have”, which caused Murphy to essentially go WTF?! in her own counter statement. Look, it was all very interesting for a couple days to dorks like me who are deeply interested in the behind the scenes stories of rock and metal bands of all sizes. But fast forward a year later and this summer provided something of an answer perhaps to that vague quote above: Both Eluveitie and its former members new project Cellar Darling were releasing albums within mere months of each other. It was a folk off!

 

So the monkey wrench here in trying to directly compare the two bands’ new albums is the very obvious fact that Eluveitie’s isn’t meant to be a metal album at all. This is of course because Evocation II is a direct sequel to their 2009 acoustic release Evocation: The Arcane Dominion, and in keeping with the original’s theme, it is all acoustic and sung in Gaulish with nary a trace of metal anywhere. Cellar Darling’s debut album on the other hand is a full on metallic rock infused affair —- it would be skewed and pointless in even remotely comparing the two, right? Absolutely… except that the stark differences between the two albums help to illuminate some of the issues that might have been at the root of their 2016 split on personal and creative differences. I think that a lot of us in the States don’t fully appreciate just how big Eluveitie has gotten in Europe. Sure they do well here Stateside, able to draw nice crowds for club tours and capable of headlining their own touring packages, but in Europe they’ve ascended to just under mid-major festival headliner status. The reason for all this has a lot to do with a cut like “Inis Mona” off the Slania album, a single which ignited the band’s career back in 2008 (caught them on the Houston Paganfest stop that year with Tyr/Ensiferum/Turisas, what a bill!), but it has just as much if not more to do with their 2014 hit “The Call of the Mountains”. We’re talking about bonafide hits measured in the only way that really matters these days, with YouTube views —- 26 million and 18.6 million respectively (that “The Call of the Mountains” is trailing in view count here is undercut by it being posted three years ago, versus nine years ago for the former).

 

The difference between these two songs is striking —- Glanzmann screams on “Inis Mona”, while Murphy delivers soulful, passionate melodic lead vocals on “Call of the Mountains”, and while both songs have genuinely awesome hooks, its easy to see just how much the band’s sound had changed in that time span of six years. I know a lot of people gave 2014’s Origins a pretty critical eye, but I really did enjoy that album because it seemed stronger overall than 2012’s Helvetios, and because I kinda appreciated the band’s more streamlined melodic approach on some of its tracks. Not coincidentally, those particular tracks happened to be cuts where Murphy or Henzi were co-writers alongside Glanzmann. The album was a huge hit, like hitting #6 in the German Media Control charts, #1 in their native Switzerland, and #1 on the U.S. Heatseekers charts (#106 on the Billboard 200) kinda huge. It also dented the UK Indie and Rock charts pretty significantly, and if you were paying attention to the crowds they were drawing on their tour supporting the album, you could see they had graduated to another level. The video for “The Call of the Mountains” also gave Murphy star billing, rather deservedly I’d argue since her lead vocal was the primary catalyst for the song’s tangible artistic success. She became in my mind and I’m sure many others, the face of the band alongside (or perhaps moreso than) Glanzmann. Now I know what you’re thinking, and I’m not insinuating that jealousy is at the root of their split, but I think it probably exacerbated already existing creative tensions that saw the band leaning more poppy in their sound than anyone ever pegged them becoming.

 

At some point between then and 2016, discussions about what to do musically must have come up and in one camp you had Sutter/ Henzi/ Murphy leaning towards continuing down the road that sparkling hit song had paved. Even if Glanzmann’s recent comments in interviews that Evocation II was planned as the next release prior to the split-up are to be believed (and we have no reason to doubt him), that very intention might have been the nail in the coffin for both parties agreeing on the band’s future direction. And certainly, Evocation II is almost the diametrical opposite of the “Call of the Mountains” approach, hearkening back to a more traditional folk music base, an album completely devoid of anything resembling rock (or metal). The addition of new lead vocalist Fabienne Erni makes this sequel sound quite different from the first Evocation, her singing far more breezy and brighter in tone. The music responds in kind, “Epona” being a vivid example of something I would pay money to hear at the Texas Rennaisance Festival as I’m walking around —- that’s not an insult by the way, I love stuff like this (this album is definitely on the playlist for the drive up there). Whereas its predecessor was dark, rumbling, full of stormier moods and melodies (better attuned to Murphy’s relatively deeper range), Evocation II keeps thing buoyant, lively and head-noddingly rhythmic. Even instrumentals such as “Nantosvelta” get in on this action and are anything but filler, tracks I don’t skip over in play-throughs and find myself replaying in my head later in the day. I particularly love “Lvgvs”, Erni’s vocals here are especially lovely, her voice capable of delivering genuine warmth —- she’s practically sunlight here, and in concert with the gorgeous melody and backing instrumentation at work. I know its a cover of an old folk song, but its one of the best things the band has ever recorded.

 

As surprising as it is to admit to myself and you, I can’t find a single negative thing to say about Evocation II. I even loved the sly remake of “Inis Mona” in “Ogmios”, reworking the song in a way that’s refreshing and comforting at once. I love that its eighteen tracks but that only two cuts go over the four minute mark, these are focused, tightly written pieces of music, vocals or no. We had our first real fall day here awhile ago, and I celebrated the chill in the air by playing this album, opening the windows, lighting a few sticks of this awesome incense I bought at last year’s RenFest and it was pretty perfect. There’s something this band has over its fellow folk metal brethren, and that is the real instrumentation at work —- real bagpipes, violin, harp, bodhrán, hurdy gurdy, its all tangible on the recording, giving this music a gritty earthiness that keyboard reliant bands lack. As ridiculous as it might be that one band has this many members (nine at last count), at least there’s a valid reason for so much personnel (because frankly its a little stupid that Slipknot has a drummer AND two percussionists, and do they use that DJ for anything?… nevermind).  Maybe an acoustic album was the soft landing that Eluveitie needed after so dramatic a lineup shift, particularly concerning a major voice and image of the band. And give them credit for so gracefully giving Erni the spotlight in the trio of videos they’ve released in support of this album, when so easily they could’ve shifted the attention to themselves —- the songs they picked are not only the catchiest, but vocal showcases for their new frontwoman. Hats off, seriously, I’m genuinely impressed at how well they’ve pulled this off… now the question is, can they carry this over successfully onto a metal based album?

 

 

The other side of this break-up story is told through the debut album of Cellar Darling, which was the name of Anna Murphy’s solo project while she was a member of Eluveitie, so I suppose it makes sense that she’d just carry on under that moniker this time as a band (as awkward a name as it is). She along with Henzi and Sutter tackle the challenging task of continuing where “The Call of the Mountains” left off, that is, imagining a merging of metallic rock with folk elements and trying to negotiation a balance between the two. The title of the album, This Is The Sound, is almost an explanation as much as it is a declaration —- a way of saying, this is where we saw Eluveitie heading, the sound we wanted to explore (and why we’re not in the band anymore). Its certainly one of the most interesting albums of the year for genuinely trying to merge the tangible essence of folk-metal as we know it to a more streamlined, rock music path. There are no melo-death riffs on display here, Henzi operating from a headspace more attuned to groove and rhythmic support, interlocked with Sutter’s deft, creative percussion. Together they remind me of modern rock ala Tool, A Perfect Circle, and occasionally (surprisingly) Rage Against the Machine. Murphy is frequently the melodic catalyst, be it through her charismatic vocals or her hurdy-gurdy, she’s our musical narrator. It is in that sense a showcase for her in the way that a solo project would be, and I wondered after my first pass through the album whether Sutter and Henzi were getting relegated to backing musicians status instead of equal contributors.

 

It took a few more listens, but gradually I was able to pick out the moments where its really their contributions that make everything tick, such as on “Fire, Wind & Earth” where Henzi delivers an intro blast that Tom Morello would approve of. On “Hullabulloo”, they dish out a fierce tandem attack, Sutter spicing up the space between riffs with creative fills and accents, one of the few songs where it could be argued that they’re really the ones driving the energy forward. Murphy however clearly is the star, the center of our attention through most of the songs and rightfully so —- she’s developed into an excellent vocalist over the years and you can hear tinges of Sinead O’Connor and Dolores O’Riordan in her tendency to wordlessly harmonize. Listen to “Black Moon” for an example of this, being one of the more balanced cuts in weighing folk harmonies against a modern rock song structure. Its not the best song on the album however, that honor goes to “Under the Oak Tree…”, which although lacking a strong motif is interesting in its ever-changing aspect of becoming increasingly folk-drenched as it goes on.  But just as often the album falls flat, such as on “Six Days”, where Murphy reminds me a little too much of Cristina Scabbia, which isn’t a bad thing by itself, but that its my least favored song on the album isn’t a coincidence. The same could be said for “Challenge”, which sports a terrific hurdy-gurdy led motif, but I just can’t get into Murphy’s vocal approach on the moments where she dips down low in her delivery (“…this is the sound…”). That reaction I have to that moment kind of sums up my aversion to modern rock in general, and I can only handle so much of that sound without feeling like I’ve heard it all before.

 

Cellar Darling is an interesting idea but they’re lacking in execution, which when we’re talking about albums basically means they don’t have enough strong songs to support that idea. I’d love for them to consider leaning a little harder in the folk direction and minimizing the modern rock elements a tad. Stick to what you’re stronger at I suppose, and although Henzi certainly has the modern rock guitar approach down, that sound means very little if its not supported with hooks galore. I’m not sure if things have changed for teenagers growing up now, but generally the way it works is that you start listening to rock radio, those more accessible bands with their easy riffs that only serve as ladders to the explosive chorus. You grow bored of that after awhile (or you settle for it and don’t) and want to hear something more exciting, whether its a conscious decision or not, and somehow you stumble upon metal. Metal is where the verses can be just as exciting as the chorus, if not more so —- where the musicianship during a verse can be as thrilling as the glorious vocals that careen outwards in the refrain. Its why folk metal happens. Its why hurdy-gurdys don’t sound out of place next to slicing riffs and staggered tempos. Cellar Darling might sound exciting to someone only well versed in melodic rock, but they’re lacking something when it comes to enticing this metalhead to linger too long. I’m looking for improvement the next time around, and perhaps learning a lesson in my wishing for more music like “The Call of the Mountains” —- that song was special, and by definition, they can’t all be.

Exit Eden: Symphonic Metal’s Double-Take Inducing Pop Experiment

October 11, 2017

This is a review that was written in early August that I thought I had lost permanently in a freak browser freezing accident, but apparently was saved through means I can’t really understand. Exit Eden is the four-piece vocal group that tackled a handful of pop/non-metal cover songs in the vein of symphonic metal —- the reaction towards it was mixed, as expected, but I’ve been surprised to see that over the past few weeks a more positive embrace of this album is taking hold. This is the unedited (except for grammar, hopefully) version of that original review, and my feelings on the album haven’t changed since, so I figured I’d repost this one. A fall reviews cluster is to follow this with a slew of reviews on albums that have dropped in the past few weeks/months.

 


 

It would be so easy to come at this project with an ample amount of cynicism and derision… expected even. A label/producer concocted “band” (the quotation marks for that piercing barb!) with four strikingly gorgeous female vocalists from the Euro/power metal scene, coming at you like the corset wearing version of Il Divo (or worse, The Tenors, who by the way have no business covering a song that can only be truly sung in its full glory by either Freddie himself or my lady Sarah Brightman!). That its a covers album is yet another reason you’d be forgiven for indulging in a little eye-rolling. Check out that tracklisting, okay “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, that’s a Steinman classic that could’ve been a Meatloaf song so its an easy shoe-in for the symphonic metal treatment —- but Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, her paean to bad girls feeling guilty? C’mon, that’s just pandering for clicks and algorithm placement on YouTube and Spotify right? A take on Lady Gaga’s alliterative dance pop “Paparazzi”, seems like an unlikely candidate for a project like this and perhaps thrown in only for eyebrow raising right? Look, you’d be forgiven for thinking all of these things —- and when we listened to some of this stuff whilst recording our MSRcast with Blues Funeral’s Maurice Eggenschwiler, both he and my cohost Cary scoffed at this entire affair. I didn’t blame them.

 

But here’s the thing, despite all that, I kinda am having the best time when I listen to this album. Its ridiculous and absurd to a large degree, but its fun too, satisfyingly joyous for its musicality. I love symphonic metal because a long time ago I heard bands like Nightwish and Therion and realized that the sound of sweeping strings over a bed of thundering metal guitars was something I’d always wanted to hear. But I was scarcely provided the opportunity to until I directed my attention towards metal bands across the Atlantic way back in the late 90s. Its no coincidence that Exit Eden was dreamed up by a European production team, specifically the in-house studio producers at Elephant Studios in Flensburg, Germany. It figures, German producers just seem to have a knack for this kind of thing: Sarah Brightman’s longtime musical collaborator/producer is the German born Frank Peterson, who cut his teeth working with Michael Cretu (of Enigma fame). Oh then there’s Mr. Sascha Paeth himself, the man behind countless power metal productions at his Gate Studios in Ehmen, Germany —- and if you don’t know his work, I’ll just direct you here. Yeah, he’s involved in Exit Eden as well, as one of the guitarists at work in the band laying down the metal aspect of the soundscape here, and no doubt, helping on the symphonic end as well.

 

Paeth is also responsible for bringing on board Amanda Somerville as the first vocalist selected for the project, a wise choice because she possesses such a strong, powerful voice that can carry the majority of the load on any song she’s on. She was apparently instrumental in recruiting French vocalist Clementine Delauney (Visions of Atlantis, ex-Serenity) into the fold, a singer who I championed a few years ago in my review of Serenity’s War of Ages. She was spectacular on that album, the variety of songwriting giving her the opportunity to showcase a spectrum of vocal approaches, from delicate and breathy to otherworldly in a Sinead O’ Connor/Bjork vein. I was disappointed when she left that band, but both she and they rebounded fairly well. Her work on Visions of Atlantis 2016 EP Old Routes New Waters was promising, particularly for it’s hushed ballad “Winternight“, though it remains to be seen if that band will fully display her capabilities the way Serenity did. The other two vocalists filling out Exit Eden’s lineup are Brazil’s Marina La Torraca and German-American Anna Brunner, who apparently is Elephant Studios secretary who happened to lay down guide vocals on the demos for the project. La Torraca is best known for being Avantasia’s live backup vocalist during some shows in 2016, although she’s likely soon to be associated with Phantom Elite, Sander Gommans’ new project post-After Forever who are on the verge of releasing their debut album.

 

 

The music itself is well executed, with just enough of a balance between heavy, crunching metallic rock riffs (think Within Temptation) and computer/keyboard generated symphonic elements, but that’s to be expected given the caliber of the pros behind the scenes. And these are covers in the most strict, traditional sense —- there’s no changing up the melodies, no musical deconstructions, no slowing down tempos, its really just these songs as you’ve heard them in their original states but painted with symphonic metal colored paint. Some might find that annoying, but these songs relied primarily on the vocal melody in their original state, and unless you have a skilled composer reworking entire song structures (ala Sonata Arctica’s Tony Kakko or Therion’s Christofer Johnnson, both accomplished at reworking cover versions), then its best that Exit Eden played it this way. I guess the real question here is do all the song choices lend themselves to this approach? The answer is unsurprisingly no, because there’s a few that fall flat, one being Adele’s “Skyfall” which for some reason features a guest drop-in by Simone Simons of Epica. I’m not sure why, but “Skyfall” loses some of its sly charm in Exit Eden’s version, though I’ll venture that its because their more straight ahead approach diminishes the dreamy, 2am blurred vision feel of the original. You could practically see Adele in a smoky-hazed bar, hunched over the mic in the corner, crooning away —- Exit Eden’s feels practically clinical in comparison. And I thought the bizarre song selection of Visage’s “Fade to Black”, which is just… well for lack of a better term, bizarre! Never was fond of the original myself, and I hoped this version would change my mind but sadly it has not.

 

Where things actually work are on the big, bright, arcing pop songs with soaring choruses: Katy Perry’s “Firework”, Rhianna’s “Unfaithful”, and yes even the Backstreet Boys faux-soul balladry of “Incomplete”. Regarding the latter, Exit Eden’s version towers over the original, which was always hampered by the sub par, often nasally voices of the individual Backstreet Boys singers themselves. Here the chorus is beefed up by a kick of guitars and see-sawing strings to give it extra heft, and the vocalists (I believe Delauney alongside Somerville backing up) deliver a rather passionate performance —- its a delight to hear, a good song finally given a proper recording. The Rhianna cover was also surprisingly successful, complete with an organic violin sound in the verses which was a shrewd choice because if you’ve heard the original, they were going to be the problematic area for any symphonic metal transition. I will say that the tone of the vocals during the bridge/chorus don’t really match what the lyrics in this tune are going on about —- for the most part, I’m nitpicking however and its entirely possible to ignore those aspects and just enjoy everything on a purely musical level. There’s a good showcase in one of the verses here of Anna Brunner’s more rough-hewn vocal ability, as she demonstrates a more Doro-influenced vocal that she uses in spots throughout the album. Its on Katy Perry’s “Firework” where everything, and I mean everything really come together for one harmonious outpouring. But its easy to see why, the original was such a perfect pop song, and the producers here have wisely avoided doing anything except adding a little more guitar and some nicely played symphonic beds.

 

Two other cuts worth getting starry-eyed over are the aforementioned expected take on “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with Amanda Somerville and Masterplan/At Vance vocalist Rick Altzi going back and forth on dueling vocals; and an unexpectedly majestic take on Bryan Adams eternal classic “Heaven”. About a decade ago I remember hearing a Euro-dance version of “Heaven” that I actually thought was fairly good despite the tackiness of the genre it was attached to, and hearing Exit Eden’s version just makes me think that its one of those songs that sound good when anyone does it. There’s a nicely stutter-stepped rush of guitars and orchestration when the chorus hits and it just lends a bucketful of gravitas to what’s already an impactful chorus. But its the verses I love —- and for the life of me I wish I could identify with absolute accuracy who’s singing in the second verse sequence, because she’s accenting all the right moments just perfectly. I really love this version, its as bright, hopeful and romantic as the original, but there’s a wash of melancholy that’s coming through the lead vocals that give the track a different kind of vibe that Adams’ vocals didn’t give it. It may be sacrilegious to say it, but I might prefer this rendition more? I’ll say it —- I do. Going back to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, Altzi gives his lines the right amount of that classic hard rock sandpaper feel and he’s a solid choice for the duet, not flashy, not showing off, just getting the job done convincingly. This is Somerville’s moment however, her best performance on the album and proof positive that she’s consistently one of the best vocalists in power metal today (regardless of gender).

 

 

The most daring experiment here (besides that Visage cover) is the opening cut, a challenging take on Depeche Mode’s dark, storming “Question of Time”. Now, I love Depeche Mode, and completely love that metal bands feel the same way and have responded throughout the years with some really excellent covers. Not sure how the guys in that band feel about it, but they’ve quietly influenced so many metal bands over the years. I’m ultimately undecided on whether or not I can enjoy this one, because while there’s nothing wrong with it as a cover, it just makes me want to hear the original (something that may simply speak to just how awesome Depeche Mode is). Its rivaled in its bold experimentation factor by “Paparazzi”, the iconic Lady Gaga hit, which definitely is interesting for its vocal choices. Instead of playing along with Gaga’s patented alliterative vocal rhythms, Exit Eden stretch them out, like a roller pin over a mound of dough. It results in a chorus that sounds very much like Tarja era Nightwish, with heavy vibrato undercurrents in the vocal approaches. Its also the heaviest track on the album by far, with extra thick guitars and little micro solos flying around in unexpected moments. Again, I’m not sure just how I feel about it, because while I enjoy the musicality, I wonder if it doesn’t lose its meaning in transition. I think a successful cover can do one of two things: Either bring the original meaning of the song with it, or give the song an entirely new context via a different approach (think about Therion’s gorgeous cover of Accept’s “Seawinds” vs their radically different reworking of ABBA’s “Summernight City” —- the former kept the bittersweet yearning of the original while the latter turned a shiny, happy, upbeat dance cut into something truly sinister).

 

Minor quibbles and philosophizing aside, bet you didn’t think a review on a project like this would end up being so lengthy. Truth is, neither did I, and that’s what makes Exit Eden and “Rhapsodies In Black” stand out. We’ve seen some pointless releases come out recently… Masterplan’s cover album of Helloween classics is one of them, Krokus’ entirely pointless Big Rocks was another. Covers albums generally fall in the pointless category, and it takes either a special band to make them convincing (Metallica’s Garage Inc for example, which was half compilation/half new) or a unique, fresh take to make them worthwhile (Therion’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, their reworking of classic French pop covers and 2012’s Album of the Year!). Sometimes even a unique take isn’t enough if the execution isn’t there, as the tepid Maiden uniteD [sic] acoustic albums (albums!) have proven. But Exit Eden have managed to side step this with a release that is quirky, playful, and really quite fun. The band and their production team succeeded in this attempt where Within Temptation faltered on their The Q-Music Sessions —- you gotta pick the right songs and fully lean into the idea of a symphonic metal translation. This is worth your time for a Spotify play-through, you just might find yourself smiling despite your misgivings.

 

 

 

Satyricon’s Spiritual Delving: The ‘Deep Calleth Upon Deep’ Review

September 28, 2017

The last time we really heard from the Satyricon camp in a big way, it was some bleak news that had nothing to do with black metal, black n’ roll, or however you might describe their post 2002 musical output. Frontman and guitarist Satyr (Sigurd Wongraven) announced on Instagram on October 5th, 2015 that upon being rushed to the hospital after feeling extremely ill, doctors found a brain tumor that while Satyr described as “most likely” benign, still managed to rattle myself and I’m sure many others who read the statement. I remember we discussed it on the MSRcast around then, and then everyone just kinda held their breath to see what would happen. I began following Satyr’s Instagram feed because of that post, and was encouraged to see his upbeat, positive nature in regards to his new found condition and how he seemed to just be forging ahead with life in general. He has one of the most intriguing Instagram feeds of any metal musician out there, particularly in the black metal realm where the majority of the big names are fairly reclusive when it comes to social media (understandably). Satyr’s feed is startlingly candid, featuring photos of his family life, his kids, a lot of his work in relation to his wine making (hosting wine tasting dinners in super fancy Norwegian restaurants… seriously), artistic pictures of some incredible looking meals, and generally devoid of most of the grim and brutal things you’d normally associate with the guy who penned Nemesis Divina. He replies to comments frequently, and has been open with his current medical status, which is thankfully fine, though he says he’ll have to be on alert for any signs of that changing.

 

What he took away from that intensely frightening personal experience was a sense of urgency, about life in general but also about his art. It was reflected in his statement in the press release for the album,

“Approaching this release, what I always kept in mind is that either this is the beginning of something new or it’s gonna be my last record. If this is going to be the last, then it needs to be something special. If there are more records, then I’d better make sure that this is so different from the last one that it feels like a new beginning. I think it’s really, really dark, very spiritual and filled with confidence and energy.”

– Satyr

I don’t usually quote from press releases in my album reviews, but this one is pertinent to fully understanding where Satyr is coming from as a songwriter on Deep Calleth Upon Deep. And of course before delving into this album, we should talk about where we all stand as fans or critics of the two major divisions of Satyricon’s career. Personally I love it all, but I came in at the end of their classic black metal era, that run from Dark Medieval Times through The Shadowthrone and their masterpiece Nemesis Divina. Their modern era, which arguably started with 1999’s Rebel Extravaganza (some would say 2002’s Volcano) has its share of detractors, particularly when singles like “Fuel For Hatred” and “K.I.N.G.” moved into a far more simplified musical direction, with shorter and more to the point songwriting built around catchy riffs and hooky choruses. But the band’s success increased throughout this latter era, and they released some of their best work as well —- to my ears anyway. I do understand some folks longing for a band like Satyricon to release something in their classic style again, with their Norwegian-ness and inherent second wave pedigree. But I’d argue that Satyricon have forged a sonic identity unique to themselves in their pursuit of a simpler, more direct songwriting approach. Its not new anymore, they’ve been in this milieu for just under two decades now, and they’ve released a handful of albums in its vein, but its unmistakably Satyricon’s.

 

On their previous album, the self-titled Satyricon in 2013, I wrote that the band was attempting to try something new and fresh, to shake off the black n’ roll tag they had been shackled with, describing its sound as “…the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression.” It was an intriguing shake up of their sound, one that was regarded with dismay by quite a large part of their audience, even the ones that had gotten on board during the Now, Diabolical and The Age of Nero eras. What I hope for those of you who were thrown off by that last album’s strange sonic deconstruction of the band’s black metal sound is that you’ve had enough time to digest it properly and appreciate some of its more abstract aspects. I emphasize this because even though four long years separate it and Deep Calleth Upon Deep, and even though this album is truly the beginning of something new for the band, they’ve continued that album’s exploration of a more muted sound (slightly less this time), as well as carrying over a penchant for atmospherics that they gained from that experience. In many ways Deep Calleth is a kaleidoscope of an album, its various turns featuring glimpses of the full spectrum of their career, from classicist black metal grandeur to grim, punchy black n’ roll, set to a backdrop of haunting atmospheric touches that often transcend mere keyboard studio trickery. Now I know what you’re thinking… Pigeon, you’re telling me this is the start of a new, fresh Satyricon yet you’re telling me they’re continuing the sound of their last album, which I loathed? Yes, and that’s seemingly a contradiction, but this is a band talented enough to make it work.

 

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say this is the best Satyricon album start to finish since Nemesis Divina. its just absolutely captivated me and held me in thrall since I first started listening to it weeks ago. To say its shocked me is an understatement, because although I always expect to enjoy most of a new Satyricon album (being a fan of the band), what I’m hearing on this album is the sound of a songwriter delivering his most inspired, most meaningful material —- perhaps ever. These songs are filled with imagery recalling nature, particularly in its wild, untamed, and primitive state, and the effect is spellbinding. There’s a spirituality to Deep Calleth Upon Deep that has eluded previous Satyricon albums. This comes through in the lyrics straightaway, as on the album opener “Midnight Serpent”, where Satyr barks in that inimitable grimness, “From soul to soul—I speak to you / God of no gods—I’m slave of none / I pledge to fight—your cause is mine”. The song lays out the underlying theme of the album, which Satyr remarked in that same press release I quoted before that the album was thematically about the essence of appreciating art itself. The very title of the album is in reference to this, that the creator digs deep within to create, and if the listener wants to truly appreciate that art, they have to dig deep within themselves as well. That may sound sanctimonious to some, but to me its the very root of what it takes to be a metal fan. And Satyr is writing with an eye towards his mortality as well, which adds gravitas and urgency to his spoken word lyric later in the song, “Face of morbidity / spotted through the keyhole / Unlocked by the persecuted / who wants nothing but the sunlit meadows”. When he barks a few bars later, “Let another song reverberate”, you know he means it like nothing else.

 

Its the first salvo in a barrage of excellent, inspired songs, the next being the uptempo “Blood Cracks Open The Ground”, where we get to hear our first example of how the sound from their previous album has carried over yet not dominated on these new songs. The band employs space between instruments, wide and airy as production technique to work as a counterbalance to the song’s heavy riffing and rumbling, thunderous percussion. I know that this particular approach to production and mixing must aggravate those who are used to Satyricon’s dense, crushing wall of sound that adorned albums like Now, Diabolical but I do feel it has a purpose. The guitars here are highly melodic, full of twisting, spiraling patterns that are center stage, not running into slabs of brutal rhythm guitars and having to fight for space in the mix. The result is an unorthodox way to perceive black metal, as not a furious assault on your ears, but a focused, concentrated effort —- and you’ll know what I mean at the 3:20 mark, where Satyr hones in over a particularly ominous chord progression with “Ravens flee / Pitch black”, the combination of the two resulting in a truly unsettling but addictive moment. The production (more precisely, the mixing) on this song and indeed throughout the album is best characterized as warm, open, and spacious. Instruments are given room to breath individually, even down to the basslines, and I think that’s on purpose. Nothing is able to hide under blankets of riffs in Satyricon’s new sonic world.

 

Those aforementioned sonic attributes are central to the triumph of “To Your Brethren In The Dark”, a slow-dance tempo meditation built on open chord sequences that ascend and descend like that skeleton you always knew was walking up and down your staircase at night when you were a kid (oh is that just me??). This is normally the kind of song that should irritate me, a slow moving dirge when I really want the album to be kicking off into high gear around track number three, but I’ve loved this upon first listen. I can’t explain why, but there’s something immensely satisfying about its construction —- the lead guitar motif that first appears at 1:26 is so beautifully wrought and evocative in itself that I want to grab hold of it like a corgi puppy. The patient rhythmic structure at work here is a coordinated effort between those open chord figures and Satyr’s most reigned in, yet still tension-filled vocal performance. His lyrics here are spectacular, perhaps his best ever amidst a career full of praise-worthy work, this time writing them with an eye towards poetic structure and rhythmic meter and the symmetry of it all. My favorite stanza is in the middle, “October sky, October leafs / and the silence, of nightfall / pass the torch to your brethren in the dark”, that last line serving as the song’s echoing refrain, a beautiful image that can sit at the center of the album’s thematic core. What an incredible song.

 

I’ll refrain from going on at length about every single song because I know I’ll be writing about this album again, but the rest of the record is just as spectacular. The early lead single was the title track, and it hits even harder within context of the album, being one of the most slyly hooky songs of the year. The background vocals by tenor Hakon Kornstad add an extra dimension to the soundscape here, as well as on “The Ghost of Rome” —- his contributions sounding more like the grief stricken wailing of some old-world woman at a funeral pyre. And I have a specific fondness for some of the riffs in specific passages of “Burial Rite”, particularly around the 3:27 mark when things get monstrously heavy after a section that was almost loose enough to be called jazz, a wild juxtaposition. Songs like “Dissonant” and “Black Wings and Withering Gloom” are fierce and fiery enough to prevent this album from leaning towards the slower end of the spectrum. Its a far more aggressive affair overall than Satyricon, despite continuing for the most part in that album’s sonic palette production/mix wise. That might be a stumbling block for some, but its worth trying to push past. It sounds borderline trite to say this, but Satyr’s brush with mortality has seemingly given him a focus that we’ve never heard from him. These songs have a clarity about them lyrically and musically, with a sense of vitality that is palpable. In a year where black metal has been unusually quiet, Deep Calleth Upon Deep is a cannon shot from the Norwegian wilderness that its old veterans still have the mastery of this dark art.

 

The 2017 Journal: July+August Hurricane Edition

September 11, 2017

mpavatWell, I’m alive. For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter and hadn’t seen an update on this blog in over a month, that might be news to you —- particularly if you remembered that I live in Houston (well, just outside southwest Houston). I was already behind on reviews and of course this “monthly” 2017 journal, but Hurricane Harvey knocked me sideways for a good two and a half weeks. It was a cocktail of stressing out about prepping for the hurricane (which is expensive as hell and oh so exhausting), enduring the hurricane for days cooped up inside, waiting for my internet and power to go out (miraculously they never did), stressing (did I mention stressing?!) on maximum overload about whether or not the waters would reach my car (they never did), whether or not the damn lake I live right next to (an alligator preserve no less) would spill over into my living room, and oh yeah wondering if my parents house mere miles away from the soon to be overflowing Brazos River would be 5-10 feet underwater (the waters made it to the very edge of their neighborhood… literally the actual edge). Just north of me, my friend’s car flooded, neighborhoods experienced street flooding, and a couple miles further north, the straining Barker reservoir threatened to engulf nearly all of southwest Houston with a biblical flood.

 

I’ve lived in H-town since 1986. I’ve dealt with hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and lengthy power outages before. You get used to it when you’ve been down here for so long. But I’ve never been as stressed out as I was during the three to four days that Harvey was standing over us like a guy at a Texans game during halftime over the urinal, pissing rain down in a torrent that defined the very term. I had to take some extra days to recover, let alone begin listening to music again. I had left off in the middle of an already behind schedule review for To The Bone by Steven Wilson, which I’ve just now published oh so late to the party. But when I thought about perhaps recalling my own Harvey story for the August journal entry, I immediately felt pangs of the same stress I felt the other week when I was experiencing the storm. So for the continued betterment of my mental and physiological health, I’m going to elect to spare both you and I. Suffice to say it was awful, but I’m one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough to be in a specific area of Houston and its outer limits where I was spared the utter destruction and uprooting that many people in this stout, hardy city are having to endure right now. Friends I know had to evacuate with water in their homes, and here I was with nary an internet outage to contend with, only stir-craziness and anxiety.

 

In an effort to get back to normalcy, this August entry (written now in early September) is simply going to be a collection of quick takes covering a few of the albums I listened to but missed covering in actual reviews over the summer. Many of these I might have mentioned on the MSRcast at some point but certainly not all of them. The following July entry was something I wrote within that month and while its entirely random, blog-related brainstorming, I’m looking forward to implementing some of those ideas into action before the year’s end. It can only get better from here right? Onward and upward.

 


AUGUST

 

Anathema – The Optimist:

In what might register as one of the most pondered over albums in The Metal Pigeon’s six year history, I still have no freaking idea what to make of Anathema’s fourth post-metal album. Its not for lack of trying either, because I have spent a considerable amount of time on this hoping it would jump out of its densely packed soundscapes. Unlike recent offerings Distant Satellites, Weather Systems, and We’re Here Because We’re Here with their satisfying mix of beautiful dream pop amidst their transcendent progressive tracks —- The Optimist offers very little in the way of easy listening pleasures, and certainly no pop of any kind to counterbalance the overall gloomy, darkened, and often somber tone of this album. But that doesn’t mean its not interesting, or worth listening to, and it keeps compelling me back for more. But if you’d ask me to name a highlight? Well… I don’t really know. Maybe “Springfield” for its slightly Fear of a Blank Planet era Porcupine Tree vibe, its got a hypnotic, almost trip-hop keyboard/drum rhythmic element going on, paired with a ringing, airy lead guitar figure that is beautifully dark and evocative. Its the track I’ve listened to the most individually anyway, for what its worth.

 

I have a suspicion as to what is, lets see… what’s an apt term here… dampening(?) the impact of this album. Everything is largely written in varying shades of minor keys (or minor scale? Someone tell me if I’m wrong in my terminology, I’d like to get that right at least —- already found out I was using the term “syncopation” wrong which is totally on me). If you’ve heard any of those aforementioned past couple Anathema albums, you’ll understand what I’m trying to illustrate here. I miss the bright, shiny, epic, gorgeous moments that those albums had in spades, largely with songs that juxtaposed big, shimmering major key refrains, bridges, solo verses against largely minor key song structures. It was the figurative light house cutting through the fog, the break in the rain to let the sun shine through —- The Optimist is desperately in need of a few of those across this album. We get half of one, towards the middle of the final track “Back to the Start”, with a simultaneous lead guitar and majestic string arrangement duet, as co-vocalist Lee Douglas gets to deliver her best moment on an album where she’s woefully underutilized. I’m curious as to what you guys think of this album, because I can’t tell if its just my own personal apathy or if this is something that most folks are feeling. Let me know!

 

 

Unleash the Archers – Apex:

I should be properly ashamed that I haven’t written about this magnificent album yet. Partly because if some of you haven’t actually checked it out yourselves yet, then I’ve done you a disservice by allowing you to go through the summer without this rockin’ beast. Mostly though, its because I’ve been playing this thing on heavy rotation throughout these past few months after first hearing it in late June. They’ve been a name I’ve heard for awhile now, but never actually managed to give them their proper due and chalked them up in my mind to being a metalcore band with a better than most name with some epic tendencies. The latter detail because often times I’d see their name thrown around as an example of modern traditional metal done right. Stupid me, I really should take greater heed of those kinds of praise when I first hear them and not years later when I finally get a promo sent to me. But as I always say, the cream rises to the top, and while I can’t contextualize how good Apex is compared to the rest of their discography, its an album that should be turning heads.

 

Its wild, rollicking, thunderous bangers like “The Matriarch” and “Shadow Guide” that will have you shake your head approvingly and exclaim, “Hey… these guys rock!” But its deeper, more complex cuts such as “Cleanse the Bloodline” that will have you regarding the band with a far more elevated perspective. Far more than just delivering a new take on the Maiden sound, Unleash the Archers demonstrate an ability to write convincingly epic material, with gradual builds and intriguing mid-song interludes. Nowhere better is this exemplified than on the stunning album closer title track, an eight minute masterpiece with one of the most adrenaline inducing refrains I’ve heard all year. The journey in getting to that chorus is wildly diverse, with a beautiful near acoustic intro verse, complete with a Number of the Beast-styled sonic wall of guitars slamming in to usher in an almighty epic galloping rhythm section. Unleash the Archers succeed in making old traditions sound fresh where so many others have failed, because they have the songwriting smarts to back it up and create songs that are fresh and inspired and vital. And this is no disrespect intended believe me, but it wasn’t until more than halfway into my first listen through that I realized the band’s vocalist was female, so perfectly suited are Brittney Hayes vocals to the band’s sound. I could toss out a few reference points, but I realize they’d be terribly inaccurate, Hayes’ vocals are strong and distinct enough to defy comparisons. A must listen for 2017, and a lock for the best albums of the year list.

 

 

Orden Ogan – Gunmen:

We did actually talk about this one for a bit on the MSRcast episode 196, playing the Liv Kristine duet “Come With Me to the Other Side” on that episode, which is a brilliant epic power ballad. At that point I hadn’t heard the album in its entirety though I immediately loved that track. Liv Kristine is just money when it comes to guest appearances on other bands’ albums, with all due respect to her work with Theatre of Tragedy and Leaves Eyes, she’s just amazing in these roles (and perhaps long overdue for a little retrospective on this blog, she’s a pioneer that doesn’t get the credit she richly deserves). Anyway back to Orden Ogan, whom I compared to a piece of delicious cake on the podcast —- certainly a treat in its own right, but only if kept at a slice. I know that’s counter-intuitive for the kiddos out there, but when you’re an adult you want a grown up meal with proper ingredients, and save the sophisticated slice of cake for after, preferably with coffee while eaten in a state of rapturous bliss. So after having gorged myself on the tooth-hurting sugary frosting laden sheet-cake that is Gunmen, the band’s sixth album, I’m more sure than ever of my analogy. Hang on a sec while I brush my teeth…

 

An album of Orden Ogan’s technically accomplished and often fun Blind Guardian-inspired power metal is just too much for one sitting. I enjoy this band in small doses, but Sebastian Levermann’s approach to layering heaps and heaps of vocal tracks in a thick pile and rolling every single fricken chorus in them just wears on me. There’s another joyous gem in the bunch here, one “Forlorn and Forsaken”, an uptempo jam with an instantly lovable chorus that will be great on the drive up to the Texas Renaissance Festival this fall. But most of these songs are lacking those kinds of strong hooks, ones they desperately need to keep my ears perked up. Without them, this isn’t a band that’s gifted enough to provide anything else to grab onto. Their biggest musical inspiration —- those bards from Krefield, Germany —- write musical pieces that are far more musically compelling than any one single chorus, hook, or melodic motif. Even on Guardian’s recent work, there are specific magical moments that occur only once within a song that keep me coming back again and again, nevermind the rest of the song being awesome in its own right. Orden Ogan lack that complexity, their songwriting seemingly focused on locking onto a chorus that might work, and plastering it over and over and over again until they hit the four minute mark. When it works, its nice, but you can’t sustain albums like that.

 

 

Paradise Lost – Medusa:

A few weeks into getting full listening time with this one and I’m still a little on the fence. Its a weighty, massively heavy album, full of doom-laden riffs that shake your skull like a slow moving giant stomping across the cityscape. Its also a shift back to more mid-period elements of the band’s sound, touches of their Gothic metal and Depeche Mode influences creeping up in spots, particularly in Nick Holmes vocals here and there. That’s not a bad thing, and I suppose a carbon copy of The Plague Within and its complete deep dive into aggressive death/doom would have been criticized as being predictable. The thing is that album really rattled a lot of cages, particular folks like me who really hadn’t been all too enthused about the band’s recent output prior to that earth shaker of an album. It was the most uptempo album in ages, and I still jam cuts like “Cry Out” on a fairly consistent basis. The only song that’s really stood out as a must-add to my iTunes playlist from Medusa is “Blood and Chaos”, not coincidentally the most uptempo cut on the record. The truth is that I was never altogether too big on Paradise Lost throughout their career, and when I listen to Medusa, I’m reminded of how I’ve felt about most of their other albums (barring a couple). That feeling is one of ambivalence, where the album isn’t bad by any means to warrant severe, specific criticisms, but conversely doesn’t do much for me in terms of getting me hooked or excited. It seems The Plague Within was an exception to this rule, and things are back to normal, which I’ll chalk up to perhaps my own lack of enjoyment for the band rather than any misgivings on their own part. My co-host Cary, an actual Paradise Lost fan, was genuinely enthusiastic about this album. I might revisit this towards the end of the year to see if I change my mind.

 

 

Leprous – Malina:

If you watched the livestream of Emperor’s set at this year’s Wacken Open Air festival, you’d have noticed just how awesome their rendition of “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” was that evening. They had the sunset slot (so dubbed by me as that magical time of the day when a band takes the stage during the waning moments of daylight, with the sun setting in the distance, and finishing up just as dusk falls), and their performance of that song came just as things were growing dimmer in the sky around them. The performance was inspired, Ihsahn’s vocals full of fiery conviction, the musicianship in perfect lockstep, and the sound engineer had finally corrected the mix that was skewed during their first two songs. Their setlist was of course their much talked about performance of the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk album in its entirety for these handful of 2017 festival dates. To play it here, in front of the largest crowd of any metal festival must have felt special, despite the rain soaking the ground and making moshing impossible lest the risk of slippage. When the song hit its emotional zenith, the ending refrain of “Nightspirit! Spirit! Spirit! / Embrace my soul!”, the camera panned to the crowd who were caught in the moment, arms up, horns up, singing along to one of black metal’s finest moments. Thousands of miles away, on a livestream feed, I felt it too. And what really made it stand out was just how excellent the vocals were during that specific lyric, sung by Ihsahn himself in his distinct and improved with age clean vocals, but more importantly, given uplift and dramatic tenor by the band’s keyboardist/backing vocalist, one Einar Solberg.

 

Solberg of course is a prominent member of Ihsahn’s backing band, as well as his brother-in-law (Ihsahn is married to Einar’s sister Ihriel), but he is also the mastermind behind Leprous as its vocalist, keyboardist and primary songwriter. A slight distinction on that last detail, Solberg writes nearly all of the band’s music, but his co-founding guitarist Tor Oddmund Suhrke contributes almost all of the lyrics. That’s an unusual combination but one they’ve employed seemingly since their debut album so whatever works right? I have tried to get into Leprous for as long as they’ve been releasing albums, coming close with 2015’s The Congregation, but somehow that appeal that lured so many others seemed elusive to me. Well I’m pleased to say that these dapper Nords (check their promo photos) have finally won me over, because Malina is just a revelation to listen to. They’ve finally hit upon that perfect mix of complexity and simplicity, the result being heard in more focused songwriting, as on album highlight “From the Flame”. Its the most accessible moment to date for sure, but just as compelling as any of the other cuts on the album, such as my personal favorite “Stuck” where the chorus is capable of tying together all the off-beat, zig-zag musical elements to support a gorgeous vocal melody. Sure, there’s a touch of melodic rock on offer here, the kind you’d associate with American rock radio, but its never overwhelming and as a background accent I find it refreshing in contrast to their overwhelmingly progressive approach. This was an unexpected treat, and its nice to get to enjoy Solberg as a vocalist in a more leading man context —- give this one a shot.

 


JULY

Where I Brainstorm Openly:

All the recent photobucket crap I’ve been dealing with has had me going back through the blog, article by article, fixing up images and dead YouTube links while I’m at it. I’ve found myself stopping at some of the articles and re-reading many of them, parts of others. Sometimes I cringe, but other times I’ve been surprised at how well I was able to convey an idea or my rationale for reviewing something a certain way. I wish there was a way to collect the best of what I’ve written and post them in a separate space/ site/ or digital place (er… isn’t that a site?), kind of like my own writing portfolio. If that sounds too much like me allowing my ego to make decisions, feel free to let me know, but it might be useful to have. Perhaps another WordPress site, but with a different theme so as to work better with what I have in mind. I dunno… I’ll have to think about that. What do other writers/bloggers do?

 

One thing I have thought about doing is pulling quotes of my writing that I’m really fond of and placing it in a transparent layer over an image of whatever band, album, genre I’m talking about and posting them to Instagram. Oh you didn’t know I’m on Instagram? Don’t worry, hardly anyone does and I really just use it as a tool to keep up with other metal bands, fellow metal writers and a load of friends and other non-metal interests of course. Its hard to come up with stuff to put on Instagram if you’re not into marketing yourself as a person (which I’m not), and I won’t bore you with the plate of eggs I made this morning (they were delish). But with the above idea, I can simultaneously promote my own writing as well as have a re-Gram able image that other fellow metal fans can throw around. Every now and then I’ll get a notification on my phone that someone’s liked an old Instagram image I’ve thrown up… why this person has found it I have no idea but it does happen. Remember that idea I had in March of last year to put something up on Instagram everyday? I actually made it through successfully, but wow was that brutal. Maybe I can make a bunch of these at once and parcel them out —- would perhaps make it interesting to see what came up next.

 

Okay, enough about social media. What I also noticed when going through the old blog posts was that sometimes really good pieces just never got any attention at all. I haven’t done a Metal Pigeon Recommends since last year’s feature on Sentenced, which I thought was pretty excellent, but maybe was alone in that thinking(!). I may have just failed in promoting it well or had it published at a bad time (Sentenced is a fall weather type of band, not the go to for mid-August, so it might be on me). I’d love to republish that sometime later this year, as well as a few other things that I have my eye on that I think might have sailed under the radar. If I’m being honest, the lack of response on that one made me put off publishing the next one. The most popular piece by far on the site is something I wrote back in 2012 called “The Legacy of Roy Khan“, which not only went semi-viral when I published it, but continues to draw in those forlorn souls who Google search Roy Khan and see this usually listed near the top. Its been the gift that keeps on giving site visitor wise, but I’d love for other lesser known things to grab an audience.

 

That kind of brings me to another thing that’s been running through my mind as I go on this backwards-in-time journey through the blog. Within the past two years, I’ve settled into a more manageable pace of consuming new music for the purposes of the blog, as opposed to the overwhelming amount I was trying to juggle a few years ago. When I first decided to purposefully slash the amount of stuff I was forcing myself to cover, I thought I’d get more time to attempt the fun stuff I had been putting off for awhile. Like what you ask? Well for example like putting together in-depth top ten lists for what I considered the essential classic albums of various metal subgenres. Ranking my favorite bands discographies, doing a survey of what I considered the best twenty Maiden songs (just to spitball ideas). I kind of leapt into this a little while ago when I put out my list of Blind Guardian’s most overlooked songs, a piece that was incredibly fun to brainstorm and write, and I’d like to do that with other favorite bands: Kamelot, Nightwish, etc to name a pair that I certainly know others would love to chime in on. Whether it ends up being songs or albums is still undecided, but the point is to release more stuff along those lines that create real in-depth discussion and tangible debate.

 

I think I’ve been inspired by all the episodes of BangerTV’s Lock Horns YouTube show I’ve watched, where genuinely entertaining discussions arise over subjects you wouldn’t expect them to. Part of the responsibility I decided I’d shoulder myself with when I started the blog was an effort to build legitimacy for maligned subgenres such as power metal, to defend it and argue its artistic validity. But that’s been a scary proposal, one I’m afraid I’ll muck up in a clumsy effort. But being a part of a group such as the US Power Metal Connection on Facebook (even as a lurker) has shown me that people really want to talk about this stuff and have open debates about it. Sometimes the problem with new album reviews is that a lot of people don’t get around to listening to said album when they’re just being released —- hell I get promos for some of them and even I don’t manage that. By the time they do, looking up old reviews might not be their most immediate priority (or even a priority), and I have to remind myself that not everyone is as obsessive compulsive about music as I am where getting into a band or album involves a splurge of joyful research afterwards. Don’t worry if you do keep up with the new album reviews though, they’ll keep coming, but I’m going to feel less guilty about delaying them in favor of working on more fun things.

 

Steven Wilson’s To The Bone: The Delayed Review

September 7, 2017

Strange things are afoot in the music world right now, because as of this writing, Steven Wilson’s much anticipated new album To The Bone is sitting at the number one spot in the UK Official Albums Mid-Week chart (its since debuted at #3, the release of this review was delayed by Hurricane Harvey stressing me out). It was seen as a deserved triumph when his 2015 masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase. seemed to finally bang loudly on the mainstream’s doors by debuting at #13 in the UK, a high water mark for his career (solo, Porcupine Tree, otherwise). But even the most optimistic among us had to suspect that it would be as good as it gets, and his next releases would hover just slightly below that mark. But no, To The Bone and its prog-fan enraging single “Permanating” seem to be readying to —- as former Houston Oiler’s coach Bum Phillips once said —- “kick that sumbitch in” entirely. His closest competition is the Game of Thrones appearing goofball Ed Sheeran, the pop equivalent to a glass of warm milk before bedtime, and audible proof enough that Wilson’s right about the unambitious, flaccid state of modern pop music. And yes, this is very much the most overtly pop album Wilson’s recorded since 2004’s Blackfield debut, or more accurately due to similarity in tones, since 1999’s Lightbulb Sun by Porcupine Tree. Wilson’s fans come in a spectrum, from those who relish his most far out prog adventures to those who are more attuned to his ability to demonstrate masterful song craft and the odd musical or vocal hook. To The Bone functions if anything as a ready barometer to see where you fall on that spectrum.

 

If you remember my previous Steven Wilson solo album reviews for The Raven That Refused to Sing and the aforementioned Hand. Cannot. Erase. (#2 on 2015’s Best Albums list!), you’ll know that I fall into the latter part of the spectrum. I got into Wilson the way most metal fans did, because he produced Opeth’s Blackwater Park, and I eventually went out and bought the most widely available Porcupine Tree album I could find, 2002’s In Absentia. That album was chock full of catchy, tight songwriting built around glorious hooks (think “Blackest Eyes” and “Trains”), as well as being an introduction to the man’s ability to squeeze emotion out of the most simple melodies (I think immediately of the haunted sparse piano and vocal of “Collapse the Light Into Earth”, to this date still one of my favorite songs). The next album I scored was Lightbulb Sun, and through those two albums, I began to view Wilson at a pop savant dressed up in prog-clothing. Oh I completely acknowledged that he was a prog-rock artist, but when I found myself having difficulty getting into the very early Porcupine Tree work that owed more to Pink Floyd than The Beatles, I realized that I didn’t love his music for the same reasons most of his other fans did. My relationship to Wilson’s overall musical catalog is a bit touch and go —- I’ll enjoy a few songs off the earlier albums, love a few other albums completely, and find difficulty in getting into the works that most other fans fawn over.

 

Case in point, when it came to Porcupine Tree, I couldn’t get into most of Deadwing, but that album contains two of Wilson’s most shimmering moments in “Lazarus” and the re-recorded “Shesmovedon”. I loved specific moments on the sprawling The Incident such as “Time Flies”, “Kneel and Disconnect”, and “I Drive The Hearse”, but largely found the album meandering, overly lengthy and unfocused. You might be thinking at this point that I’m just anti-prog rock but wait! I loved every bleak-hearted second of the band’s 2007 masterpiece Fear of A Blank Planet, prog-rock song lengths and all, it was a magnificent album with a resonant theme. With Wilson’s solo catalog, I found his debut Insurgentes charming for songs like “Harmony Korine” and the piano ballad title track, but absolutely could not get into the jazz experimentation of Grace For Drowning, save for the single “Postcard”. Everyone raved about The Raven That Refused To Sing, but I haven’t had the urge to go back and listen to that album since its release. In my review for that album I wondered if Wilson was moving away from the kind of things I loved hearing from him the most. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t a permanent shift, and in Hand. Cannot. Erase., Wilson delivered a perfect mix of pop-songwriting smarts, disciplined prog-rock structures, and a concept that was emotionally gripping and shattering. I know you didn’t ask for my personal bio here, but I figure its best to lay everything out in the open regarding my preconceptions when reviewing an album this controversial among his die-hard fanbase.

 

First, the majority of the controversy surrounds one of the album’s advance singles, a bright, bubbly piano jaunt named “Permanating” (love that word creation!) that owes more to The Carpenters and ABBA than to Genesis and Yes. It is indeed the most positive, uplifting song Wilson has ever penned, the close second being “The Rest Will Flow” from Lightbulb Sun, and its notable for that reason alone. Nevermind that its got a hook and easy appeal that could see it fit alongside ol’ Ed, Coldplay, and Mumford & Sons on BBC2 Radio. This isn’t Wilson’s first brush with the idea of radio success either, as many of you will remember that “Shallow” from Deadwing actually landed on the Mainstream Rock chart here in the States back in ’05. And for all the hoopla around “Permanating”, it hasn’t actually landed on any UK singles charts yet, so maybe all the noise surrounding it will be all for naught. Now I know what you’re thinking, that the most poppy Wilson penned pop number would logically be my favorite, and while I do enjoy “Permanating” overall, its actually not my pick for the best pop tune he’s written, nor is it my favorite tune on this album. His best pop tune? Debatable —- but right now my mind went to a battle between “Hand Cannot Erase” (the title track for that album) and a classic gem like “Trains”. The best song on To The Bone? Well… let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, we still need to talk about the album as a whole.

 

What’s struck me hardest about To The Bone after listening to it well over a dozen times now is just how much it reminds me of classic era Porcupine Tree albums like Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia. I don’t know what I expected when first seeing the pre-release interview quotes from Wilson about his 80s pop touchstones of specific works by Peter Gabriel, Tears For Fears, and Kate Bush as driving influences for the album. I got the gist of what he was referring to, smart pop music written with an air of sophistication and artistry, but I didn’t have an idea of what that would sound like in my head. Listening to the album, I hear those specific touchstones spring to life on a bracing, vivid song such as “Song of I”, where Wilson duets with Swiss jazz-pop vocalist Sophie Hunger over slow, heartbeat rhythm bass pulses, sharp hand-clap like percussive effects, and dreamy synths. It recalls the strange lanes that the aforementioned Peter Gabriel would find himself on in the mid-80s, and even recalls the eerie atmosphere of fellow Genesis alum Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”. Going down a similar path is the strange cut “Detonation”, with its sparse instrumentation set over a bed of hushed keyboard atmospherics, though call me crazy —- anyone reminded of something off Fear of a Blank Planet? What I’m picking up on here is that Wilson has a sonic palette that we’re all familiar with, and for all these new experiments that To The Bone has conjured, there’s just as much, if not more in the way of familiar Wilson-isms throughout the album.

 

Take for example the loud, rushing, primal rock of “People Who Eat Darkness”, which is a nice change of pace during the album, albeit not a song I’d willingly seek out on its own. Wilson’s intro vocals certainly remind me of “Four Chords That Made A Million” from Lightbulb Sun, and while that’s not an offense worthy of condemnation, its not exactly a new and fresh idea. Much more appealing is “Nowhere Now”, which sounds utterly like a lost cut from Lightbulb Sun, built on gentle, dreamy piano intro that pairs nicely with casually strummed chiming guitar as Wilson softly sings about floating above the clouds (literally!). Its a nice song, especially its more up-tempo midsection that provides a nice detour, but its still vintage Wilson. That’s not a bad thing really, and I wonder at most folks who lament the disbanding of Porcupine Tree in comment threads still… are they listening to this album? Half of it is easily the most Porcupine Tree-ish thing he’s done since the band went on hiatus, probably because its pop-oriented and avoids all the eclectic music that he started doing on his first couple solo albums. Yet another song in this vein is “The Same Asylum As Before”, as its my pick for the best cut of the album, built on an explosive escalating guitar riff that slices through a gorgeous, carefree melody. I love that song, and its one I’m returning to over and over. I love that on this cut and some others, Wilson is catapulting his voice to places it hasn’t been in awhile. He’s a better vocalist than he gives himself credit for.

 

There’s a couple things to think about in conclusion here, but the most obvious of these isn’t even a question —- yes this album is worth your time in checking it out. I won’t go out of my way to say its a must purchase because unlike Hand. Cannot. Erase., this doesn’t grip me with the same kind of emotional intensity that fueled that album’s backstory, conceptual narrative, and heartbreaking songwriting. No, To The Bone is a more loose, relaxed, casual affair that while succeeding in being the art-pop album like those its inspired by somehow doesn’t hit the overall Steven Wilson pop sweet-spot that I hoped it would. One of the more critically lauded tracks, “Pariah”, a dreamy duet with Ninet Tayeb is a lovely, inventive song that I have genuinely enjoyed hearing, but I’ve found myself growing tired of it. That’s even after giving the entire album a good long break —- and that represents my overall split feelings on this album: I can recognize that it has some wonderful moments, but for reasons I can’t decipher, its lacking the staying power. We’ll see how I feel at the end of the year, but I can feel myself losing interest with each play through, and that’s a bizarre notion to apply to any Wilson penned album.

Wintersun Returns! Musing on The Forest Seasons

July 27, 2017

wintersunforestseasons300Awhile back in August of 2014, I wrote a piece on the continuing delays that surrounded Wintersun’s Time Pt II. It got noticed by a handful of their fans and linked on the band’s Facebook page where it made quite a stir (even eliciting a few disapproving comments from Jari Mäenpää himself). My main criticism in that piece was his attempt to deploy crowdfunding to circumvent his deal with Nuclear Blast who according to Mäenpää weren’t helping him achieve his artistic vision with adequate resources. Nuclear Blast had responded and the result was an ugly fight in the metal press, one that saw many people even outside of the Wintersun fandom taking sides. While I did side with Nuclear Blast to a certain extent, I think the source of my frustration was that I also considered myself a fan of the guy. The band’s 2004 self-titled debut was (and still is) an electric mix of speedy Swedish melo-death infused with Finnish power metal’s major key melodicism, christened with Yngwie-like guitar and keyboard theatrics that made the whole thing crackle with intensity. That album was only a couple months removed from another 2004 Mäenpää classic in Ensiferum’s Iron, the second of two incredible, pioneering albums he made with that band before leaving to pursue Wintersun full time that same year. In a span of just three years and change (’01-’04), Mäenpää had delivered three bonafide classics, exciting albums that made us rethink where metal could go and how it could sound. He seemed poised to among metal’s most admired prolific voices, like Therion’s Christofer Johnsson and Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt before him, a guy who would knock out a flurry of awesome works in rapid succession over a decade. Instead, we wouldn’t hear anything new from him until 2012.

When Time I finally arrived in 2012, I found myself enjoying it, but wondering why it took eight years for just three songs proper (two of the album’s five tracks were instrumentals). Even if they were on the long side (13, 8 , and 12 minutes respectively), the lack of more than five tracks on the release made the whole thing come across as some kind of extended EP instead of an album proper. But no matter as I pointed out in my original review, because Time II was on the way, slated at the time for an early 2013 release (by whom, the label or band, no one’s really sure). Well, my snarky prediction that we might not see Time II until 2020 might not be so far off the mark, because in the intervening years Wintersun have focused on some touring and the launching of a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign to build Mäenpää’s much longed after Wintersun studio. Now as I pointed out above, my 2014 article took issue with the band’s attempt to crowdfund against the wishes of their label, but things have changed in the time since. In the autumn of 2016, the band and Nuclear Blast were able to come to terms and negotiate out a resolution that apparently has pleased both parties. No, The Forest Seasons isn’t Time II with a different title, we’re still being promised that far off epic, but at least Mäenpää has delivered new music in the meantime, realizing that another near decade wait would be inexcusable.

 

The resulting Indie-Go-Go crowdfunding campaign ran all of this past March. Instead of offering the usual run of merch n’ perks that most bands put up in exchange for donations, the only donation option was for “The Forest Package”, which was essentially the band’s new album The Forest Seasons, its instrumental twin plus a remastered version of Time I (and its instrumental version), as well as the remaster of the debut album along with the Live at Tuska 2013 live album. When this news went out I actually thought that it was a smart move, to just simply offer the die hard Wintersun fan a pre-order of the new album (essentially) plus a host of other Wintersun music that you could get a tidy amount for per person. It wouldn’t appeal to a casual fan like myself, and as a result I suspect many of us scoffed at the band’s overall stated goal of 750,000 Euros (a goal to be reached in chunks —- this being the first of three crowdfunding campaigns), but the band has gotten the last laugh as they netted € 428,310 in just March alone, more than halfway towards their goal. Kudos to them, seriously. I’m not against crowdfunding in metal, I think that its a valid way to go if a band can pull it off. With Mäenpää, the frustration was that he had started clamoring for a crowdfunding attempt after making his fans wait a decade, not to forget the numerous delays and social media posts that grated on everyone’s patience. Its a testament to the man’s music that so many didn’t hold that against him in March.

All that business related history aside, here we are with The Forest Seasons plum in our laps, and if its tracklisting looks a little familiar to you at first, its because Mäenpää has apparently found his preferred format for albums —- a couple songs, make em’ really long (I’d be willing to bet that Time II will follow this format closely). In this case Mäenpää has a built in excuse, that the album is patterned after Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, and accordingly so, Wintersun delivers four “suites” for four seasons. I just want to point out how utterly shocking it is that no one has attempted this in the history of metal until now (unless I overlooked something), because this is a concept that was begging to happen. And its one that really suits Mäenpää’s tendency towards melancholic melodies and vague, abstract, all-encompassing lyrics. Speaking of his lyrics, they’re ostensibly about the nature of these individual seasons albeit in a more metal fashion (particularly autumn and winter), mirroring the actual sonnets that Vivaldi wrote (supposedly) to accompany his famed violin suite. But what sets them apart and lends to their metal nature is that they seem to also speak to the condition of someone’s inner turmoil by use of metaphor, something my lyric loving self has to tip his hat to Mäenpää for. I love stuff like that.

The albums most enthralling moments are found in its first two suites, “Awaken from the Dark Slumber (Spring)”, and “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”, where we find Wintersun in peak form, at times eclipsing anything else they’ve ever done. You have to give “(Spring)” a few minutes into its fourteen minute long journey to really get going because there’s a lot here by way of the intro. Around the 6:27 mark a distant, dissonant riff emerges amidst the atmospheric quiet of stray keyboards and xylophone-like wind chimes, and transitions into the albums first proper headbanging riff progression. Towards the 12:32 mark, we finally get treated to that epic Mäenpää clean vocal, an almost baritone like quality that recalls the best of his work with Ensiferum. By the end of spring, I’m fully engaged and its a strong segue into summer which is not only the best suite of the four here, but in the running for Mäenpää’s most cohesive, devastatingly awesome work ever. Quite bluntly, I love everything about its twelve minutes, from the mournful strings that weep gently across the start of the piece, to the energetic, bouncy riffing that locks us in from the word go. There’s a riff progression motif you’ll hear just before the clean vocal chorus that so simple yet sounds so inspired. And after the mid-song atmospheric break, at the 7:19 mark, we’re treated to a riff sequence that’s the kind of thing people pony up nearly half a million Euros for. Stunning.

 

Riding such a high from the sounds of spring and summer, its a bit of a bummer that I couldn’t find as much enthusiasm for “Eternal Darkness (Autumn)”, and “Loneliness (Winter)”. You’d figure with the band’s name being Wintersun that these would be home runs, and while they’re not bad by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t inspire the same awe and grandeur of their more flowery siblings. With autumn we get the band’s most blistering attack ever, its furious black metal assault nearly running the gamut of the track’s fourteen minute run time. There are breaks here and there, the song being broken up into “parts”, transitioned by more breathable musical interludes. This piece instantly reminded me of fellow Finns Insomnium and their Winter’s Gate album, both in tonality and sheer aggression —- great for depicting the brutality of winter, which is what made Insomnium’s album so convincing, but I’m not so sure it was the wisest choice for the autumn sequence. The suite’s second half is so reminiscent of Dimmu Borgir riff sequences (complete with Tim Burton-esque orchestrations and Shagrath-like vocals) that I wonder if they weren’t a direct inspiration. Its a trying piece, one that is unforgiving in its attack and devoid of the Wintersun melodicism we all came for, and I just don’t think it succeeds on any level.

After that brutal assault, the quietude and near calm of the winter suite is indeed refreshing, but while Mäenpää’s clean vocals are nice in those moments that juxtapose them against his scathing harsh vox, a whole song built on them is perhaps too much. He’s not a bad clean vocalist (far from it), but he leans too hard on making every phrase sound pained and anguished here, which effectively saps them of all pain and anguish and just leaves them loooonnnngggg and drrrraaawwwnnn ouuuuutttttt. Things perk up quite wonderfully in the instrumental interlude that begins at the eight minute mark, culminating in a beautiful passage towards the tail end of an awesome guitar solo at 8:40. Here, the guitar melody is supported by a mimicking percussion pattern, heavy on the kicks, that gives everything a nice punch that the song desperately needed. Its a moment worth coming back for it, and to be fair, “Loneliness” certainly is captivating on a musical level, because I did enjoy listening to the instrumental version, so maybe it’ll just take some time to get on board with the vocals. I do get a Summoning vibe from parts of this song, a relatively obscure lo-fi black/viking metal one man project who I’ve seen thrown around here and there as a supposed influence for Mäenpää in writing this album.

So if we’re taking my appraisal literally, we’re looking at a fifty-fifty split on The Forest Seasons; but really its an intriguing listen overall, and for those first two suites, an exciting one at that. Whether or not Wintersun fans will agree enough to continue funding Mäenpää’s studio construction efforts will remain to be seen. They’re a contentious bunch at that, often found arguing with the man himself on the official Wintersun Facebook page where I’ve been an occasional lurker. A band shouldn’t be applauded just for releasing an album, but in this case it seems somewhat needed —- good on Mäenpää for releasing something worth discussing and debating, and for simply getting everyone to stop thinking about Time Pt II. I personally wouldn’t mind if there was yet another Wintersun album released before we even got to that one, so as to create more distance and perhaps lift the weight of expectations off of it just a little. I’m sure at some point in retrospect, Axl Rose would’ve loved to have released a new studio album in between 1991 and 2008, if only to give the much beleaguered Chinese Democracy a chance to breathe. This isn’t quite the same epic weight to carry, but Mäenpää could go a long way towards reclaiming any lost good will by being more consistent. This is definitely a start.