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The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 // Part Two: The Albums

January 15, 2017

Here we are, halfway into January and I’m just now delivering the final words on 2016, but that’s fitting for a year that was pockmarked by delays in updating the blog. I scaled back my reviewer work load last year because 2015’s sheer insane quantity of releases had me nearing burnout stages. It was a beneficial move as a music fan, and a handicap as a blogger, but the hope is that I balanced things out enough to keep an even keel on the writing front going forward. So though the pool of releases I listened to was far less (and less is relative, I’m talking about a scaling down from 120-ish in 2015 to 60-70 in 2016), I felt like I was able to spend longer amounts of time with the ones that captured my attention in one way or another. This list represents the ten best of that pool, selected for not only just how much I listened to them or for their excellence, but also how they affected me personally. As always, I keep these lists to a simple ten instead of twenty-five or fifty to force myself to make difficult cuts and really think about what I loved the most, not just what I happened to listen to. Thanks for reading throughout the year and being patient with me, I hope you’re back for all of 2017!

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Albums of 2016:

 

1.   Avantasia – Ghostlights:

Like Lebron James with the Cavs, and the entirety of the Chicago Cubs, Avantasia/Edguy founder Tobias Sammet found himself in 2016 rallying from a deficit. His was an artistic one, that being the 2013 Avantasia release The Mystery of Time, where for the second time in half a decade he was floundering on the songwriting front (Edguy’s 2008 album Tinnitus Sanctus being the first such misstep). That album lacked in several aspects, namely an uninspiring roster of guest vocalists either contributing to or exposing songwriting that seemed forced, and at its worst, half-baked. At the time I wondered whether or not he was spreading himself thin over his two bands, both massive enough that each required lengthy touring commitments that could possibly detract from quality rest and time at home to focus on songwriting at his usual caliber of excellence. I also wondered at just how similar the two projects were beginning to sound, with both The Mystery of Time and Edguy’s The Age of the Joker (2011) sharing similarities for their heavy reliance on orchestral arrangements. There was also the confusion of lyrical subject matter, with Edguy albums receiving equal numbers of Scorpions-esque songs with silly and humorous subject matter in addition to the more typical, serious work. He’d address that problem by compartmentalizing: He launched Edguy into a more leaner, hard rock path with 2014’s Space Police, with a largely tongue-in-cheek, loose, comic approach to the lyrics. Left unanswered was whether he’d further differentiate the two bands by leaning hard in the other direction with a future Avantasia album.

Lean hard he did, and it paid off better than anyone could’ve predicted, because Ghostlights is the greatest Avantasia album of them all (yes, including The Metal Opera Pt I/II). Sammett rolled the dice a bit here as well, picking guest vocalists that quite honestly had me shaking my head no when I first learned of them —- Geoff Tate, Dee Snider, Robert Mason (Warrant/Lynch Mob)… I just didn’t see it working. I had the same feeling when I first saw the guest vocalist listing for The Mystery of Time, a lack of excitement and anticipation that felt empty. This time however, Sammett’s songwriting was renewed, full of confidence and purpose, and in his masterful way he dug deep to deliver songs that brought out the absolute best in each of them. Geoff Tate sounds like his old self again on “Seduction of Decay”, an addictive, Queensryche-ean thriller built on a supremely epic chorus where his vocals carry the load admirably. On “The Haunting”, Snider embodies his character with real dramatic verve and melodic range, while Jorn Lande’s eternal voice brings darkening clouds and swirling winds on “Let the Storm Descend Upon You”. Largely absent are the hard rock tendencies that so confused previous Avantasia albums with Edguy ones, replaced with a darker toned orchestral arrangement throughout that further ingrains this album with its own unique identity.

Lande has one of the album’s three star turn moments on “Lucifer”, as magnificent a piece as Sammett has ever dreamed up, built on Broadway piano balladry that stutter steps into a rocketing, spiraling out-of-control blast of heavy metal theater. The other belongs to another unusual vocalist choice, Sinbreed’s Herbie Langhans, who delivers the album’s most accessible pop-gem in “Draconian Love”, singing in a lower register than we’re used to hearing him in, and it works perfectly in contrast to Sammett’s straight-ahead dual lead vocal as they deliver an absolute ear-worm of a chorus. Of course I’ve already gushed about Sammett’s duet with Bob Catley on “Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” (alongside Ghostlights it marks the first time the same artist has topped both my songs and albums lists), but its worth reiterating here just how gorgeous and aching this song is. I should also commend Sharon Den Adel’s work on “Isle of Evermore” which might get unfairly compared to her earlier Avantasia contribution  (“Farewell” from The Metal Opera), but her vocal here is delicate and shattering, perfect for a ballad that is more about lamentation than triumph. Ah, there’s so much I could point out, but then this would be an album review (which I’ve already written) —- to sum it up, this was my most listened to album all year, and my most loved. Gritty comeback Tobias, one for the ages.

 

 

2.   Alcest – Kodama:

People have written a lot over the years about the beauty of Alcest’s music, and how its sonic deconstruction of black metal has liberated the genre forward into exciting new directions. Maybe too much was written, so that their distinctly French take on black metal was spread so far and wide to such an extent that copycats sprung up in every corner of the world. In the past few years, they’ve almost become an after thought in elitist metal circles whereas lesser bands who’ve been directly influenced by these pioneering Frenchmen have soaked up the limelight for themselves. There was a time when I myself tried to brush off Alcest, albeit in a willfully ignorant manner —- that is until I heard their 2012 masterpiece Les Voyages de l’Âme, and was unable to ignore them any further. It was a hypnotic album, full of music that demanded adjectives that metal writing doesn’t usually inspire… beautiful, elegant, breathy, meditative, dreamy… descriptors that could easily apply to the new Enya album (which was fantastic by the way). Fascinatingly enough, when Alcest attempted to distance themselves from metal entirely on 2014’s Shelter, they made the most listless, flat, and boring album of their career. They’ve since returned to embrace their black metal influences on Kodama, and it signals to us that Neige perhaps understands that he paints more skillfully when he has all the colors available to him, not just the bright and cheerful ones.

I’m going to have to police myself in not getting too flowery with my descriptions here, because its such an easy temptation with Alcest because that’s the headspace their music puts you in. The theme that encompasses this album is far more interesting to comment on anyway —- “Kodama” itself is a reference to creatures found in Princess Mononoke, a film whose central conflict between the natural and human worlds also tied into Neige’s growing fascination with Japan. Specifically he was intrigued by how such a technologically immersed society still holds onto and embraces nature, tradition, and spirituality. As a result Kodama shimmers with cultural influences, down to the flavor of the melodies themselves, imbued with Japanese folk patterns that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I wrote in greater detail about this in my original review, so here I’ll just use one moment as an example of why I love this album so much. At the end of “Eclosion”, around the mid six minute mark, the song spirals into a closing instrumental sequence, but instead of opting for a grandiose finish Alcest isn’t afraid to employ a minimalist approach —- allowing the song to hush to an end as lonely notes flutter upwards. It took a few listens before I caught the realization that it was merely the same melody that had been played throughout the entire song simply stripped of distortion and aggression. Deconstruction as an art form, not just an art term.

 

 

3.  Trees of Eternity – Hour of the Nightingale:

There’s a sentiment in the minds of many as we slog on through December, that being done with 2016 would be a welcome relief. From poisoned politics to natural disasters to the passing of beloved celebrities, icons, and artists, it was a rough twelve months indeed. For us in the metal world, there’s likely no one that endured as much raw grief and pain as Swallow the Sun’s founding guitarist Juha Raivio. He had to endure the tragedy of the passing of his longtime partner, Aleah Liane Stanbridge, who sadly lost her battle with cancer in April. She’s not a name that’s well known even among the metal world at large, but anyone who paid attention to the last Amorphis album Under The Red Cloud or Swallow the Sun’s triple disc Songs From the North would’ve heard her beautiful voice on some of their songs. She was also an experienced professional photographer, shooting a various range of projects —- the most notable and recent being the covers of the aforementioned Swallow the Sun album. Trees of Eternity was a project she and Raivio dreamed up many years ago actually, releasing a demo in 2013 and actually recording their one and only full length album in 2014. There’s scant details to go on except what Raivio has chosen to state himself on his social media, but at one point the album was rejected by a prominent metal label (who knows why), and it was shelved indefinitely. Credit to Raivio for pulling together the emotional fortitude needed to finally release what would be called Hour of the Nightingale (and credit Svart Records for coming to the rescue) in November of 2016. Its simultaneously a tribute to Aleah’s memory, and a reminder of what we’ve all lost as a result.

Trees of Eternity aren’t that far removed from the mellower, more quietly introspective side of Swallow the Sun, albeit with Aleah’s shimmering, ethereal vocals cascading throughout. This is an album built on calming tempos, rises and swells, slow building crescendos, and an almost dreamy sonic palette. That’s not to say it can’t get heavy —- Raivio’s guitars at times hit with force and a satisfying crunch (see the single “Broken Mirror” for this), but generally a cut such as the lullabye-esque “Sinking Ships” is far more representative. When things do veer into heavier directions, its that distinct Swallow the Sun mold of doom metal washing over everything, and its Aleah’s vocals that contrast with its tone so perfectly, yet still complementing its mood and spirit. I was taken aback by how much I immediately fell under the spell of Nightingale, first listened to on a nighttime drive to the MSRcast studios to record an episode of the podcast. I immediately blubbered to my co-host Cary about how this might be something to talk about when it came time to put our year end lists together. I briefly wondered if it was the circumstances surrounding the album’s backstory that were influencing my opinion —- but the truth is that this has been on heavy rotation since then, usually played at night when its power is far more manifest. This is a bittersweet experience, a perfect melodic doom metal album that was released with heavy hearts, and one that leaves a lasting shadow over ours as we listen.

 

 

4.   Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional:

It seems that every year that I’ve been doing this blog, and probably in the years preceding that, I’ve gotten into a band that I’d ignored or dismissed altogether before. In 2016, that band was surprisingly Hatebreed, a road I was led on when my MSRcast co-host Cary recommended that I check out vocalist Jamey Jasta’s podcast The Jasta Show. I was instantly hooked, and soon enough curious to give old Hatebreed another listen as they were one of those bands that I had long ago pegged as that other heavy music (hardcore/punk/whatever) that wasn’t meant for the likes of me. I listened to their Perseverance album on Spotify and was completely surprised that I was enjoying it, and that soon extended to their other albums too. It was music that was getting me back in tune with the idea of just enjoying heaviness as a tangible quality —- nothing complicated going on, just very heavy riffing and screaming vocals that was simple but extremely catchy (Jasta even refers to his music as “neanderthal metal”), with hooks arranged for maximum impact on your adrenal glands. It was like a palette cleanser in a way during a year filled with wildly diverse metal releases. By April, I was actually anticipating the release of a new Hatebreed album so much that I bought the digital download on release day.

What’s astounding about The Concrete Confessional is how it might actually be my favorite Hatebreed album of them all, and though I’m too new to the party to suggest it might be their best… I very well think it is. More than any other album, this was my soundtrack to 2016 —- a pissed off, vicious, scathing, and intelligent lyrical attack upon government, society, and modern culture set to ferocious thrash metal guitars . That attribute is the most surprising facet of the album, that it actually comes across as more post-1990 Slayer than Converge or old Rise Against. Take “A.D.” (a best songs listee!), where guitarists Frank Novinec and Wayne Lozinak unleash riffs at breakneck speed, even completing the aforementioned Slayer comparison with an evil Jeff Hanneman sounding bridge at the 1:33 mark. Or going the other direction, listen to the outpouring of melodicism present in “Something’s Off”, with guitars that owe more to Iron Maiden-esque sensibilities as the provide the musical refrain throughout. More than just the music though, it was Jasta’s always inspired way with words in conveying the rage that we all tend to feel and sometimes can’t properly express. I listened to this album constantly, it was a refuge and a comfort, the soundtrack to stressful days and restless nights.

 

 

5.   Haken – Affinity:

This was a surprise and a reprimand at once, a wooden spoon smacking of thy hand that I hadn’t listened to Haken sooner, even though they were already recommended to me by a few people (and they were right, the previous album The Mountain was excellent). As with Alcest above, Haken put a lot of thought into their albums, and Affinity is no exception, being a thematic album about man and machine and the idea of artificial intelligence. And just like Alcest, they filter this concept into the fabric of the music itself to better depict the theme —- in the case of Affinity by infusing their prog-rock with 80s electronic music influences that remind us of Rush, and early 80s Toto and Van Halen. What I love about prog-bands such as Haken is the admirable attention to detail in ambitious projects like these, from the Atari/Nintendo styled electronic bridge in the song “1985”, to the album artwork that references classic tech/computing advertising of the 80s (which cleverly employs the birds that graced the cover of The Mountain). Together all these aesthetic details accumulate into a larger, cohesive experience, one that allows the actual songs to have gravitas and intellectual weight behind them.

Speaking of, the songs here are magnificent, from sprawling epics like “The Architect” to pop gems such as “Earthrise” (a best songs listee!). The former features a guest spot by Einar Solberg of Leprous (who also had an awesome drop in moment on the recent Ihsahn album) and runs the gamut from fierce metal passages to futuristic sounding prog moments that remind of Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet. I’ve gushed about “Earthrise” enough already, but it really is an incredible song, with the kind of chorus that present day Anathema would be proud of. My other major favorite is “1985”, the keystone song of the album (being written first, it inspired the direction the band took for the project) that at times sounds more like Rush than Rush themselves, and has an amazing chorus that switches from a soaring, major key vocal melody to the fattest, heaviest bottom end bass and guitar riff that you never expected. I could point out other moments just like that, but to cover it in a nutshell, these songs just keep you guessing and surprised at every bend. That wild diversity is a trademark of Haken’s, a glimpse of their vivid creativity and imagination, and their willingness to bend both the rules of prog-rock and their listeners’ expectations.

 

 

6.   Myrath – Legacy:

One of the most positive leaning metal albums in a year full of anger and despondency, Myrath’s Legacy was a much needed refuge. The prog-power yang to Orphaned Land’s death metal yin in the small but growing niche of “oriental metal” from the Middle-East, Myrath made a huge artistic leap forward with Legacy. Five years separated it from its 2011 predecessor Tales Of The Sands, and the band honed their songwriting in that span of time —- toning down the prog-metal flourishes (which to be fair they never really overdid), leaning far more on pop accessibility, and strongly emphasizing their cultural folk musical elements. The latter comes in the form of Arabic melodies delivered via an actual string section, and they actually carry the musical load of a majority of these songs, the guitars often taking a backseat. This doesn’t make things less metallic, but guitarist Malek Ben Arbia simplifies his approach, approaching his guitar work in a manner that’s more Kamelot than Symphony X. On the best songs listee, “Believer”, this approach pays dividends in delivering the most cinematic and earwormy cut of their career, the strings and Arabic-phrased choral vocals working in tandem to deliver a knockout hook.

Speaking of vocals, Zaher Zorgati is one of the more expressive and unique singers in heavy music, rhythmic in his lyrical phrasing, able to bend the English language in appealing ways by virtue of his accent and sheer ingenuity —- and he drops moments that ache with authenticity when he sings in Arabic as in “Nobody’s Lives”. We’ve all heard those metal albums where bands attempt to add in some pan-Arabic sounds, be it through awful keyboard orchestrations that pull from schlocky Hollywood movie soundtracks or by simply playing a few bent notes or phrases. Myrath transcend all that with songwriting that is steeped in the cultural music they grew up with. They’re a Tunisian band (recently relocated to France) and Legacy is streaked with imprints of the Jasmine Revolution in its optimism and beautifully expressed yearning for freedom. Its was a surprise to read the lyrics and realize that most of these tracks were indeed love songs, the unnamed narrator expressing either his devotion or lamenting his loss thereof. Whether the subject of these love songs was left up to the listener only Myrath themselves know, but they could easily be about a woman, a country, or an ideal. In that sense, I think they succeed in making something really fresh, much like Orphaned Land’s All Is One, where Orientalist imagery is manipulated to discuss issues that matter to people —- and not just to those in the Middle-East, but all people.

 

 

7.   Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

Born from the smoky woods and rocky shores of New Brunswick, Thrawsunblat unleashed the finest folk-metal album of the year, a strange thing to say about a band from Canada but there you go. They’re likely to have sailed under more than a few radars, and I hope Metachthonia‘s presence on this list changes that in a small way, because they really are worth your time. Thrawsunblat can be considered a spiritual sibling to Woods of Ypres and its departed founder David Gold, who co-founded this band as a side project with ex-Woods guitarist Joel Violette. I’ll refer you to my original review if you’re interested in details about this project’s origin, but suffice to say Violette has turned the band into his main priority in the years since. He delivered a promising debut album in 2013 that merged a fresh, maritime folk influence with rootsy black metal, yielding some awesome songs in the process (“Maritime Shores” and “We, The Torchbearers” to name a pair). This sound is the blazing of a new trail in both North American black metal and folk metal, a merging of sounds from both sides of the Atlantic much in the same way that Panopticon has done so from Appalachia. His second album, Metachthonia, is a further refinement of this relatively new sound, one that pushes the black metal extremity forward and more seamlessly interweaves the still rich folk influences.

I believe I originally referred to Moonsorrow and Borknagar as touchstones in Metachthonia‘s particular black metal strain, and I still stand by those comparisons. They both have that roots in the earth warmth to their sounds (moreso in Borknagar’s later albums Urd and Winter Thrice), despite their capacity for raw fury, and I hear that coming through in Violette’s songs. He has an uncanny way to marry minor key built melodies with his often atonal vocal lines to astonishingly tuneful and melodic results, such as in “She Who Names The Stars” where the album’s most blistering passages lurk. You get another taste of that in “Dead of Winter”, where Violette wields dissonance like a malleable piece of clay and fashion out the most hooky tremolo riffs this side of Ulver. As a vocalist, he instantly reminds me of Gold himself in both clean and grim vocals, and I wonder if he’s not channeling that (either consciously or somehow subconsciously). I can’t deny that I started investigating Thrawsunblat because of the Gold connection directly, but with Metachthonia Violette has found a voice all his own.

 

 

8.   Insomnium – Winter’s Gate:

As I mentioned in my intro, I haven’t read many best of lists as of yet, a lesson I learned a few years back when first publishing my own lists to not allow others to influence me. Most of those come out in early to mid December we all knew my list wasn’t getting up that soon! But I will be going around scoping out what everyone else picked out on various metal and non-metal publications and blogs, and I’ll be surprised and a little suspicious of any list that doesn’t feature Insomnium’s bold and daring Winter’s Gate. I describe it as such because its such an abrupt departure from their self-made Finnish take on melo-death —- polished, pristinely recorded, full of melancholic melody set to a tempo that hovered around mid-tempo and contemplative. For this narrative concept album, the Insomnium guys got meaner, darker, faster, heavier, and at times, downright brutal. They managed this by injecting their sound with ample doses of black metal tremolo riffing and blastbeat percussion, while vocalist Niilo Sevänen pushed his vocals to a level that can only be described as ferocious, his guttural screaming racing towards you with the intention of a hungry wolf in pursuit of his prey.

This was an album of risks, not only for the aforementioned sonic changes, but for the fearlessness in crafting one forty minute song and releasing it as a singular track (for the physical album, the digital release was broken into seven “parts”, presumably for the purposes of streaming/iTunes sales). If you were one of those physical album buyers like myself, you simply had to submit yourself to a complete album listening experience without the luxury of skipping tracks whenever your twitchy, media-overloaded brain got an impulse to. You were rewarded with one of those rare albums where a flowery description such as “musical journey” was actually applicable, and while this was enhanced by following along with the lyrics and the Sevänen crafted short story it was set to, the high drama of the music was enough to keep our attention on its own. I’ve yet to talk to someone who was “meh” about Winter’s Gate (if you were, by all means post in the comments below!), because I just don’t think anyone expected this out of them. I think most people were lukewarm about 2014’s Shadows From A Dying Sun, and it seems the band also felt that they were slipping into complacency. Its not my favorite Insomnium album (that honor still goes to One For Sorrow), but I wouldn’t fault anyone for saying its theirs.

 

 

9.   Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

Only a little over a month separates this from my original published review of Theocracy’s long-awaited Ghost Ship, but unlike in 2014 where the album of the year winner Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter was released in December (and was the most unexpected dark horse in Metal Pigeon history), I’d actually been listening consistently to the new Theocracy since late October when it was released. The delay in publishing my review ended up delivering a more accurate take on the album, because it was definitely a grower. At first it wasn’t registering in the same instantaneous manner that their previous two albums were, but as I sussed out in that review, this was largely due to Matt Smith and company injecting these songs with progressive metal elements and stepping away from the pure Euro-power metal track they’d previously been running on. This is an album that deserves the benefit of extra listens and a touch of patience, because there is such a wealth of musical ear candy to rot your ears with here (I mean that in the best way) if you just allow these songs the time to sink into you.

The uptempo, seemingly joyous sounding “Castaway” was listed as one of the year’s best songs, but it was only one highlight among many, such as “Currency In A Bankrupt World”, where the vocals channel Sebastian Bach/Skid Row circa 1992’s Slave to the Grind, while the guitar patterns during the verses expertly channel vintage Queensryche. Smith’s an exceptional vocalist, his highs capable of registers that stop just short of helium heights, still retaining power and downright grit and grime. He has the vibrato of late 90s Tobias Sammett and actually might be a better technical vocalist overall in comparison thanks to his American born ease with pronunciation and phrasing. The band he’s built around his songs excels not only technically, but in achieving that difficult middle ground between surgical technical precision and rock n’ roll swagger, their performances exuberant and barely restrained. Its such a wonder that Theocracy are an American band, despite their European musical foundation, and they’re continuing to succeed while many European bands have lost their way. And also that I, as a secular/non-religious person am able to find myself connecting with music and even lyrics that are written by a devout Christian, for the purposes of expressing and exploring his faith. Metal succeeds where religion cannot.

 

 

10.   Death Angel – The Evil Divide:

I was absolutely convinced that I had written a review for this album shortly after its early summer release, but a trawl backwards through the archives proves me wrong. Strange that… but I guess I thought I did based on just how much I’ve listened to this album over the second half of 2016, returning to it again and again. I’ve only paid attention to a few fellow bloggers 2016 lists (I like to avoid the possibility of influencing my own), but I did watch BangerTV’s Lock Horns Best of 2016 show, and before they aired that they released a Best Thrash Albums of 2016 episode —- asking aloud the question, “(The)Year of Thrash?”. Perhaps they’re right because as that episode suggests, it was a banner year for thrash metal across the spectrum of the subgenre, from the big four to old vanguards such as Testament and newer bands ala Vektor. I’ve never been the biggest Death Angel fan, lamenting the thin vocals of their early records while loving the musicianship and yet finding that their post-reunion albums weren’t catching my attention either despite vocalist Mark Osegueda’s much deepened range. So I was caught entirely off guard by how much I loved The Evil Divide, an album that is a watershed for the band creatively —- full of risks and rewarding payoffs, as well as a truly convincing display of aggression that matched Hatebreed in terms of viciousness for 2016 releases.

Album opener “The Moth” is one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick down the door songs you’ll ever hear, with that perfect mix of speed and thrashy rhythmic syncopation throughout. The muscular build up to the refrain built on tribal drum beats is somehow one-upped by the fierceness of the chorus, with blazing fast riffs that accelerate nearly out of control as crisp, precision hit gang vocals land, “We die together!”. But the real gem on the album is “Lost”, perhaps Death Angel’s finest moment ever, mid-tempo(!) in its groove and built upon an ascending melodic bridge/chorus that sees Osegueda carrying a song with his vocals alone. He’s a convincing mid-tempo vocalist, full of grit and yet able to somehow smooth that into an actual minor key melody that you could really call a hook. Its almost Hetfield-ian in its pacing and delivery, and that’s surprising not only for its unexpectedness but also for just how carefully it was written. That’s something that defines the entirety of this album, a sense of confidence and purpose in its craftsmanship. We get that feeling because the heaviness doesn’t feel cheap or gimmicky, it feels like a long carried weight, finally unburdened.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 // Part One: The Songs

January 4, 2017

Time yet again for the culmination of a year’s worth of metal listening, writing, and audibly opining (on the MSRcast) into the annual year end best of lists! Sometime ago I quietly added a link to the main page of the blog up above called “Recurring Features” that handily compiles all the other previous year end lists together in one place, so be sure to check those out if you haven’t yet. For the past few years, I’ve been splitting up the songs and albums lists, and so in continuing that tradition, I’m eager to present part one of The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 — the songs! These ten songs were culled from a nominees pool of 23 songs this year, and they’re in part isolated gems off flawed albums as well as highlights from the very best albums of the year. I had fun with this list, while agonizing over the albums list (isn’t that always the way?), hope everyone has fun going through it as well!

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2016:

 

 

1.   Avantasia – “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” (from the album Ghostlights)

 

 

The year’s most surprising artistic comeback success story, Avantasia’s Ghostlights was littered with superb, often stunning songs that were not only expertly written and constructed as only Tobias Sammett could manage, but fun to listen to as well. And at specific moments, they were downright transcendent —- the case in point, the Bob Catley led heart string tugging “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”, a power ballad that might well be a spiritual sibling to the fan favorite “The Story Ain’t Over” (from the Lost In Space Pt 1 EP). Sammett has a magical rapport with Catley, or more accurately, as a songwriter writing for Catley —- channeling Magnum’s sense of dramatic pomp with his own inherent Jim Steinman-esque way with theatricality. Catley is an apt narrator, his raspy yet melodic vocals able to imbue any lyric with a rock n’ roll inspired joie de vivre and yet an appropriate amount of gravitas. Meanwhile Sammett’s ability to let it soar vocally is still unparalleled in power metal. Sure, he doesn’t have the unlimited range that he did during the late 90s/early 00s, but he understands how to pen lyrics and vocal patterns that provide trajectory and lift on a Steve Perry esque level.

This is an absolute gem of a song, with a chorus so rich and beautiful, so aching with indefinable magic that the first time I heard it whilst driving around, I had to pull over in a nearby parking lot just to get my mind right. I’m not being dramatic either, I can vividly recall that memory and the overwhelming rush of what I can only describe as joyous childhood nostalgia that I felt upon listening to it again, and again, and again. It helped that it was near sunset and with a partially overcast sky overhead, and such a backdrop and musically stirred emotional state mirrored the actual lyrics/title of the song. Sammett’s lyrics are stately and romantic in nature, full of atmospheric imagery and a sense of the narrator’s yearning: “Dark is the night, scarlet the moon / Sacred the light in the haze reflecting within…Be still my restless heart / Obsidian’s the sky / Inward you look as you halt / Be still restless heart —- I’m on my way”. I’ll be the first to admit that its not a perfect song, its verses not quite matching the glory of the refrain resulting in a somewhat see-saw song, but that chorus is so unbelievably perfect, I’m willing to forgive what would ordinarily be a major flaw for lesser songwriters. Here, the verses set the mood, almost tempering our expectations, all before that arcing, soaring, perfect chorus rockets us to sheer happiness.

 

2.   Ihsahn – “Mass Darkness” (from the album Arktis.)

 

 

Yet another in a long line of 2016 surprises, Ihsahn returned with his sixth and perhaps most accessible solo album since The Adversary with Arktis., an album that owed perhaps more to classic metal song craft  (read: riffs n’ hooks) than it did to his post-black metal avant garde experimentation. I enjoyed the album a great deal, some tracks more than others ( the saxophone solo wasn’t so bad this time around!), but I was totally blown away by “Mass Darkness”, an uptempo, three minute long adrenaline rush of arena ready black metal that is miles away from the usual dense and complex songwriting Ihsahn usually engages in. Its the best chorus of his career, featuring a genuine hook built upon guest vocalist Matt Heafy’s (Trivium and noted black metal fanboy) repeated refrain “Give in!… Give in to darkness!”, with lyrics that are some of the most convincingly parent-worrying in ages. What’s really special here is that for all its accessibility, “Mass Darkness” still very much retains Ihsahn’s DNA, heard in unusual guitar effects, counter-intuitive musical patterns, a solo that owes more to Wagner than Tipton, and a sense of dark theatricality  that permeates the entire song. Give in indeed.

 

3.    Haken – “Earthrise” (from the album Affinity)

 

 

I was properly introduced to London-based prog-metallers Haken this year through Affinity, having been aware of the band’s name in passing for awhile now. Having no idea or expectations of what to expect, I played through the album and came away more than impressed with the entire affair, especially its prog-metal exploration of 80s influences such as Rush, Toto, and Van Halen. There was one song I kept coming back around to in return trips to the album, and I’d always have to play it first, last, and a few extra times in the middle, and that was the cinematic “Earthrise”. Best described as 90s alternative rock in a prog blender (well, perhaps not the best description…), this is the hookiest track on the album and one of the most uplifting songs I heard in all of 2016. Not quite a power ballad and not quite rockin’ in its tempo, it played somewhere in the middle, built on bouncy rhythms and interlocking synth parts with some excellent, sprightly percussion dancing all throughout. Vocalist Ross Jennings takes a little getting used to (some people don’t enjoy his vocals when he’s not letting it rip from his throat), and you’ll either likely know right away what your tolerance level is for unusual vocalists when you hear him. I enjoyed his earnestness in this song, and wasn’t surprised to see through iTunes statistics that this was my second most played song of 2016.

 

 

4.   Myrath – “Believer” (from the album Legacy)

 

 

I think we’ve all been bombarded with enough talk about how 2016 was a seemingly downcast and darkened year for society, be it through everyone’s endless lamenting over celebrity deaths, the very understandable grief over terrible tragedies all around the world, and of course, *cough* presidential elections. I’ve been guilty of wallowing in it as well, and though I’ve tried to distance myself a bit from all that stuff, the truth is that 2016 was a bit of a crap year for me personally as well. So in looking back, I’m amused to find that I somewhat subconsciously began favoring very positive or happy or downright euphoric music over dark and grim stuff. Enter Myrath, whose Legacy album was one of the early 2016 releases and whose lead off single “Believer” never really left my rotation for any extended period of time. Euphoric is really the best adjective for this song, a celebratory rush of positivity, which only sounds corny if you’ve never really been in need of it. Its also a perfect microcosm of Myrath’s impressively Middle-Eastern infused take on metal, with sweeping violins playing ethnically informed arrangements in between the band’s epic, ambitious progressive metal. Vocalist Zaher Zorgati has a perfect voice for the band,  accented clean vocals to welcome newcomers (his pronunciation of “bandwagon” is certainly interesting), but powerful enough to give his lyrics about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and throwing away yesterday a real sense of belief and passion. The music video (linked above) was kickstarter-ed, and while the song is better off without it, we can’t begrudge them some Prince of Persia fanboying, as tempting as it may be to say something…

 

 

5.   Hatebreed – “A.D.” (from the album The Concrete Confessional)

 

 

Hitting with the force of a gut punch, or perhaps that black and white footage of the cannon ball slamming into the fat guy’s stomach, Hatebreed’s “A.D.” was my go-to during a year when I was frequently in the mood for something raging and snarlingly angry. More than any other band, this was the sound of rage incarnate, and its one of the catchiest and heaviest songs of 2016, at times owing more to thrash metal ala post-1990 Slayer than anything hardcore related. Its lyrics are startlingly open ended despite their specificity, “It’s time to rethink this dream you call American / Corrupt beliefs that some will call their heritage”, a sentiment that could apply to fans around the world in addition to those of us here in the States. Vocalist Jamey Jasta has a precision oriented way with rhythmic syncopation in his lyrics and vocal patterns, just check out the 2:04 mark onwards when he sings “Now hear the media fools discuss the killer’s mind / Staring at the screen to tell us what they find / Manifesto, dollar worship, get on your knees / So they can sell us a cure for the American disease”. That syncopation alone adds that extra teeth gritting power to already sharpened, well written lyrics. The crazy thing about The Concrete Confessional is that it had two other cuts that were in the nominee pool for best songs of the year, a fact that surprised me as much as it likely has you.

 

 

6.   Serenity – “The Perfect Woman” (from the album Codex Atlanticus)

 

 

Serenity’s first post-Thomas Buchberger album was certainly far from flawless, but it wasn’t the complete disaster that it could have been say for other bands when a key songwriter leaves the lineup. Crucial in this was vocalist Georg Neuhauser’s longtime role as co-songwriter and the primary writer of the vocal lines throughout the Serenity catalog. He shrewdly realized that without Buchberger writing songs built around his Kamelot-ian riffs, songs for Codex Atlanticus would have to be written largely around his vocal melodies first and foremost. But he’s a gifted vocalist, and has an inborn knack for understanding where a melody should go and how it should direct the arrangement of the song, from guitar parts to orchestral arrangements (the Tony Kakko gene in other words). Nowhere was this more evident than on the spectacular Broadway balladry of “The Perfect Woman”, a song ostensibly about Leonardo DaVinci painting The Mona Lisa. I mention Broadway, and yes, this song owes a lot to songwriting for musical theater, taking into account everything from the speed up vocal gymnastics during “I got a sensation that my creation in a quite disturbing way / Has come to life”, while jubilant horns punctuate behind him with musical exclamation marks —- down to the decision to throw in female vocals on the second verse (courtesy of the always on point Amanda Somerville) that serve as a sort of audience chorus in a perspective shift away from Georg’s first person take on Da Vinci’s own thoughts. Its a strange moment but weirdly amusing in its own way, and one I’m glad to have.

 

 

7.   Purson – “Electric Landlady” (from the album Desire’s Magic Theatre)

 

 

Winner of the most clever music/lyric video of 2016 award, metal or otherwise (and let’s be real, calling Purson metal is stretching genre definitions… but they’re here by association), “Electric Landlady” was also the band’s quintessential calling card off Desire’s Magic Theatre, their incense smoke love letter to 60s psychedelic rock. Its a bouncy number, built on nimble guitar lines with a slight crunch (but not too much!) and all the Hammond dressing that psych-rock of this ilk requires wrapped in studio production that is decidedly analog sounding (if there’s anything digital here, its cleverly disguised). I was fortunate enough to see Purson live earlier in late April of 2016 here in Houston towards the beginning of their US tour, which I believe was a mix of supporting shows and solo headliners. We got one of the latter, and it was at a local haunt named Rudyards, upstairs in the venue’s small live music room where no more than 70 people could probably fit comfortably. It was a fun night, and Purson were extremely entertaining and convincing as a live band —- little did I know that it’d be there last trip to Houston. Purson only just recently announced their breakup for “personal reasons”, and that’s a shame because they had the potential to blow up in a big way. We’ll always have this song and its gorgeous, tribute to 1960’s groovy, swingin’ London visual companion.

 

 

8.   Suidakra – “The Serpent Within” (from the album Realms of Odoric)

 

 

I have such affection for Suidakra since becoming a die hard fan of theirs back in 2013 through their awesome (and Metal Pigeon Best Albums list winner) Eternal Defiance. Since then, I’ve poured through their immense back catalog, gained a basket full of favorite songs across the spectrum of their discography and have declared them to be one of the new leading lights in modern melodic death metal (even though they’ve been doing this for nearly two decades now). Simply put, no one else sounds like them, with their blending of folk elements and melo-death, as well as their arms wide open embrace of power metal sensibilities in the way of hooks and clean vocals. I love bands who can honor traditions yet still imprint their own identity upon things. So it was a slight let down when I finally published my review of the highly anticipated Realms of Odoric, that I knew it wouldn’t find its way to the best albums list for 2016. That being said, I haven’t been able to quit “The Serpent Within” —- like at all… its one of my most listened to songs of all 2016 releases according to iTunes and its that mesmerizing chorus that’s pulling me back in every time. Arkadius Antonik’s lyrics here hit a poetic nerve, as I love the line during the chorus “This life is but a spiral path / The serpent lurks inside”. The entire song is a lyrical gem constructed with fantasy motifs, yet able to work as a real world meditation on the value of solitude and inward peace as a bulwark against modernity.

 

 

9.   Katatonia – “Old Heart Falls” (from the album The Fall of Hearts)

 

 

I’m not sure if I ever managed to resolve my feelings about Katatonia’s The Fall of Hearts, and that’s kinda par for the course with my relationship with their more recent albums. They’re all pretty good, certainly have their moments but as whole, cohesive works they somehow fail to impress me across the board. Ditto for this new album which I really gave the benefit of a couple weeks of regular listening, often times for the simple pleasure of hearing “Old Heart Falls”, perhaps one of the most beautiful and rich slices of doomy, depressive rock you’ll ever hear. Its seemingly difficult for bands to write songs with perfect buildups, but Katatonia manage that here: vocals accompanied only by wounded guitar notes floating into the ether over a bed of 70s prog keyboards usher us in, then the rhythm section slips in behind a descending chord figure that continues through ascension. The bridge comes after a soft pause, audible bass setting the mood with simple patterns, and then distortion comes, slowly growing louder and Jonas Renkse’s sublime vocal melody careens forward, set to thoughtful lyrics, “For every dream that is left behind me… / …With every war that will rage inside me…”. Its hypnotic and alluring despite its bleak-hearted subject matter and downcast perspective. Try as they might, American bands rarely get music like this right… its just something that comes natural to Scandinavians, and that’s okay. Bonus points for the stylish, austere, and inventive lyric video.

 

 

10.   Borknagar – “Winter Thrice” (from the album Winter Thrice)

 

 

When this album first came out I figured it would be in regular rotation throughout the year, being a relatively strong and intriguing listen throughout. But the truth is that it sort of fell off for me after the first few months for reasons I’m still uncertain about. That didn’t happen with 2012’s Urd, an album that I contend could vie with Empiricism for their best ever. That album gave us the Best Songs list makin’ “The Earthling”, which is my favorite Borknagar song of all tid(!), and fortunately Winter Thrice throws its own contender for that spot in the mix with its star studded title track. I use the term “star” loosely of course, but in black metal terms, a single song with vocal parts by Lars Nedland, ICS Vortex, Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm), and of course Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg) can aptly be described as studded by something or another. Its a tremendous series of performances, each vocal filled with enough personality to be discernible from one another and nuanced in their own manner. The song itself is epic, with angular riffs and brutal screaming vocals stacked against each other in frigid formation, unfazed by the warm fires of the lead guitars and soaring clean vox lines. It also received a gorgeous music video treatment with Garm playing the role of the jarl in Whiterun…er, somewhere in Norway!

 

The Wait: Metallica’s Hardwired To Self Destruct

December 20, 2016

It’s difficult to know where to begin in reviewing a new Metallica album. I’ve listened to Hardwired…To Self Destruct many dozens of times, and have watched the album wide collection of music videos that the band released (in one of the more interesting and expensive promotional stunts in metal history). I’ve read a plethora of reviews across a variety of metal and non-metal sites, and the comments sections under them as well. As expected with such a polarizing band, opinions seem to range across a spectrum, but I think that the underlying problem in reviewing a new Metallica album is that we’re all a little clueless on what a new Metallica album is supposed to sound like. This isn’t our fault obviously, it’s Metallica’s —- which is what naturally happens when a band takes half decade to near decade long gaps in between studio albums. The trouble has been though, that this affected not only the public and fan perception of new Metallica music, but the band’s creative process as well.

Over two years ago, I wrote about my frustration with Metallica’s continuing new album delay as that spring marked the beginning of the longest gap of time between proper studio albums in the band’s history. They were on the cusp of passing their seemingly standard 5 years, 3-6 months n’ change gaps between albums (with slight deviations, that was the amount of time between ReLoad to St. Anger to Death Magnetic). The time span from the release date of Death Magnetic to Hardwired is a staggering 8 years, 2 months, and 6 days. There’s never really been an official reason given for why the band allowed such a lapse of time to occur, even though they’ve at times questioned it in the press themselves. The answer seems obvious enough however: too much touring, too many ancillary band projects (3d movie, an ill-conceived experimental album with Lou Reed, a financially disastrous festival that required more touring to make up the losses), and we can probably tack on weeks upon weeks of time off to recover from all these activities, and pretty soon five years spirals into eight. These were the choices Metallica made. Fine, fair enough, but as I explained in my piece two years ago, they came with consequences. Artistic ones.

How does a band who takes so long in reconvening for songwriting collaborations, let alone releasing albums, expect to maintain anything in the way of artistic continuity within their own relationships with each other? In Bill Flanagan’s excellent biography U2 At The End of the World, he depicts how that band’s extra long gap of time between their monumental 1987 blockbuster The Joshua Tree and 1991’s artistic rebirth of Achtung Baby almost threatened the band’s very existence as a functioning creative unit. On The Joshua Tree, the band tempered their arty arena rock with Americana musical and literary influences. Achtung Baby saw them reinventing their sound by embracing European dance textures and rhythms. But in between those studio albums, the band had spent time working on, releasing, and promoting their Rattle and Hum concert film and its accompanying soundtrack, a mix of live cuts and a few originals that further focused on American roots music. That process left them physically and mentally exhausted as well as at an artistic dead end. U2 took a year plus break from each other through 1989 and 1990, after which they reconvened to find that their aim to launch a new musical direction was at odds with one another.

 

Singer and guitarist Bono and Edge, respectively, found themselves exploring then cutting edge dance and house music, the Manchester scene, and other new forms of popular music sprouting up around the time. Drummer and traditionalist Larry Mullen Jr however went back to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and a load of other bands he missed in the late 70s while he and his bandmates were knee deep in post-punk. The former pair came into the studio talking in the abstract about textures, deconstructing their sound, and incorporating new production techniques that were making traditional rock music sound antiquated by comparison. This was to bassist Adam Clayton’s irritation, who at one point wondered where the songs were and whether or not Bono and Edge had written any. Each faction expressed surprise at their bandmates’ differing perspectives. Tensions boiled and nearly split the band up before they were able to work things out. The point of this non-metal anecdote is to point out how easy it is for a band to jeopardize its creative momentum when they cease communication about artistic matters —- and that’s from a case where the end result turned out pretty well (to say the least).

In Metallica’s case over the past twenty five years, every new album (counting Load and ReLoad as one big songwriting session for the most part) has been a complete revision of their sound, often to murky or embarrassing ends. I personally thought Load was (and remains) a fine experimental album, full of songwriting depth and Hetfield’s most personal, poetic lyrics to date. It was too long and had filler, and its best songs should’ve been combined with ReLoad’s to make one really excellent album (a problem that rears its ugly head twenty years later, more on that below). But St. Anger was a travesty, not only for its tin can production but for its awful, group-therapy produced lyrics and neanderthal approach to metal. It was the very opposite of the impressive artistic heights they achieved with “Until It Sleeps” and “Bleeding Me” and “The Outlaw Torn”. Then there was Death Magnetic, where the band brought in another therapist-like outsider in the form of Rick Rubin to tell them to write music like the old days, a recommendation that failed because of its inherent shortsightedness. It was a dismal album, full of songs that sounded like they were impersonating Metallica. And if we must talk about the time sink of Lulu, well, lets just say it sounded like Lou Reed was holding Metallica hostage at gunpoint forcing them to be the backing band for his terrible songs.

What outsiders such as Rubin failed to realize was that the secret to Metallica’s success during their classic first five albums era was exactly what sustained a band like U2 through its glory years —- a regular frequency of writing new music and communication between band members about music and direction. By frequency I mean treating the creative process as a muscle that needed to be worked consistently rather than allowed to wither from disuse. The 80s-early 90s were a prolific time for Metallica, mostly because they were a new band on the rise and they simply had to be, but it strengthened them creatively. And by communication, I’m thinking back to all those anecdotes by Hetfield of how Cliff Burton would always recommend new music to him, even non-metal stuff —- a cumulative effect that produced huge changes in his songwriting approach. Its easy to see in retrospect just how much that could have played into the musical leap into maturity from Kill Em’ All to Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. That was simply a band that worked hard at being creative, as opposed to the Metallica of the last twenty years, who’s seemingly allergic to the very concept.

 

Okay, enough pontificating. What I have realized right now however is that this isn’t really going to be a review in the traditional sense. Everyone of you already has listened to and dissected this album in your own fashion, and your opinions aren’t going to be swayed by anything I say here. That might not be the case with other bands where I could persuade you to give an album a second chance, or the benefit of extra listens. Nope, you already know what you personally want from a new Metallica album. In fact, me writing anything about this album is largely for my own edifice, to put myself through a process where I gave the album (and the band) the respect of time and attention. I do think its worth keeping in mind that all of our wants and expectations regarding Hardwired are likely to be different, so I’ll lay out mine here. What I always loved most about Metallica was Hetfield’s songwriting and his pure, impassioned, and often poetic manner of conveying darkness or inner turmoil. Whether that came in the form of aggressive, up-tempo thrash metal or mid-tempoed, epics such as “The Unforgiven” or “Until It Sleeps”, or beautiful, aching balladry ala “Nothing Else Matters”, “Hero of the Day”, or “Low Man’s Lyric”. He was one of the original poets in metal as a whole, standing shoulder to shoulder with Dio in my book for lyricism that at times for me was far more intriguing than the riffs he played under them.

I can’t express how surprised I was that I didn’t completely dislike this album. I say this with full acknowledgement of my inclination to not like it beforehand just due to how annoyed I was with the delays and their past two offerings (three if we count most of ReLoad). Don’t get me wrong, this is a severely flawed album, in dire need of an editor —- in fact, allow me to play one right now. Let’s grab this tracklisting here… okay, we’ll keep all of the first disc, and then from disc two let’s keep “Spit Out The Bone” and scrap the other five songs. That’s only seven tracks? Eh, who cares, its still a 43 minute tracklisting. Seriously, that second disc sans the last track should never have made the final tracklisting, everything from “Confusion” to “Murder One” is meandering, with riffs that lead nowhere interesting and choruses that seem half-baked. “Am I Savage” is head shakingly terrible, and an unfortunate assault on a Diamond Head classic made popular by Metallica’s own cover version (only Megadeth’s “When” was a worse Diamond Head re-appropriation). I applaud Metallica’s thinly veiled attempt at making up for the lengthy delays in giving their fans a double disc album, a sort of make up offering along with the third disc found on the limited edition where they unload some pretty fun covers of classic metal (Dio, Maiden, Purple). Interestingly enough, they fell into the same trap Iron Maiden did with their last album, also a double disc —- the misguided notion that they don’t need someone that serves as an editor in their recording process.

 

But those seven tracks we just isolated? Not too shabby, in fact, downright fun at moments and hinting at the genius of old in small, fleeting moments. Regarding the latter, Metallica come really close to delivering a home run with “Moth Into Flame”, Hetfield’s morbid musing on the life of departed singer Amy Winehouse. His barked vocals sound like they were lifted straight from 1991, sharp, angular and full of vigor, and simply put, few in metal are as good at syncopating their lyrical delivery to match the rhythm of chugging riffs underneath as Hetfield is. Its the song I’ve kept coming back to, even when not listening to the album, those verses stuck in my head long after. Its also Kirk Hammett’s best solo, a small thing, but complementary to the song, a rarity on an album where he is really the weakest link throughout (whether its attributed to him losing his song ideas on his lost phone years ago or not… his solos seem phoned in for the most part, whatever happened to the guitarist we once knew?). Everyone’s fawning over “Spit Out The Bone”, and it certainly is very fun, though I reject the notion that its the best song the band has done since Justice (as I’ve seen many declare), that’s a lame opinion from people who can’t get past the populism of the black album nor acknowledge the artistry of Load (both have phenomenal songs, just not thrash metal songs… get over it).

I really enjoy “Atlas, Rise!”, and it features one of Hetfield’s most intriguing lyrics in quite a long time, with mythical imagery possibly serving as a greater metaphor for something else (and open enough to allow everyone to fill in their own blanks). The riffing here is imaginative, clean and concise and full of memorable hints of melody, and the dual lead guitar solo is inspired. Kudos must be given to Lars on our seven song tracklisting too —- he’s good when he wants to be, nowhere near as awful as many claim. I’d argue that his groove based, almost swinging approach to most of these songs works in their favor, particularly on “Now That We’re Dead”, a song that took a few spins to grow on me but has a swagger to it that I find appealing. I will say that as much as I like “Dream No More” on a musical level, I find Lovecraft based lyrics from Hetfield at this point in his life a bit unconvincing, sort of as if he was just dishing out a bit of fan service. Maybe I’m wrong and he really is reading the stuff at home even now, but it seemed far more genuine when he was in his early twenties and was writing songs about it because it was on his brain. Oh well, nitpicking, we could do that for a lot of things but its still a decent song, if not in need of a slight tempo increase. I’ll keep these seven songs though, and Metallica should too —- as building blocks for another album. Don’t allow five years further to elapse (you don’t have that luxury anymore!), simply put, build on the chunk of artistic success you carved out of nothing here, and get momentum going for another album in two or three years.

The Belated Fall Reviews Cluster: Darkthrone, Sonata, Theocracy, Alcest!

December 8, 2016

This is late incoming, oh I know, but better late than never right? This was supposed to come out in November but some real life stuff got in the way and exhaustion claimed most of what spare time was left. So while that left little time for writing, I did manage to get some extra listening time on all these releases below which proved critical in changing my opinion on one or two. This isn’t all that I listened to (hardly), but we’re running out of 2016 so this will be the last cluster of the year —-with that in mind, you might be hearing about a few albums not listed here on the upcoming Best of 2016 double feature. I’ll keep this preamble short, only to mention that I’ll have a hard look at the new Metallica coming next, with the year end lists following closely. This has been a rough year for the blog in terms of the update schedule, and one of my resolutions in 2017 is to simply write and publish more. Thanks for everyone who’s patiently stuck with me!


 

Darkthrone – Arctic Thunder:

If you have any interest in Darkthrone whatsoever (and I think you should), you’ve probably heard by now that this new album is something of a shift in style for them. That’s true to a certain extent, it is markedly different from their past three to four releases which found them delving deep into an almost black n’ roll approach to experimenting with more classic 80s metal stylings on 2013’s The Underground Resistance. But where those albums were taking the band into new, explored territory (for them anyway), Arctic Thunder is an about face to the black metal Darkthrone of the turn of the millennium, recalling the style of Plaguewielder and Hate Them. I imagine that for a lot of people the news that Darkthrone was returning to black metal brought about hopes of the band returning to their early, second wave style of A Blaze in the Northern Sky through Transilvanian Hunger, sort of what Blut Aus Nord did with their awesome and majestic Memoria Vetusta III. That would’ve required a severe and intentional handicapping of the sonics in the recording however, and I just don’t think that either Fenriz or Ted (Nocturno Culto) are all that interested in recreating the past like that.

In fact, sonics are the only thing that Arctic Thunder has with their black metal past, because even though it is far more grim and frost bitten than recent albums, you can’t tell me that middle riff that accelerates in “Inbred Vermin” is a black metal riff —- it sounds like it could be lifted off a mid to late 80s thrash album (not being Fenriz, I can’t pinpoint exactly what band and album it was inspired by). But this is a cleanly produced album, for all its first-take approach, Ted’s guitars are upfront, fresh and often crisp, full of nuance and intricacy in the actual execution of the riffs —- and Fenriz’s drumming is as full bodied and loud (the complete antithesis of the approach to drums in most early second wave Norwegian black metal). I had a strange time with this album as a listener, at first loving it due to its radical departure from what they had been doing and for the pleasure of hearing a colder, darker Darkthrone once again. That actually lasted awhile, a few weeks in fact. But over time I’d begun find myself longing to hear Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance, and when I went through those albums again I realized what Arctic Thunder was lacking (and it always comes back to this) —- hooky, memorable songs.

There are a few moments that fit that bill, “Tundra Leach” serving as an excellent album opener, with a bleak, dirty sounding riff that accelerates into tremolo flourishes. There’s an awesome moment midway through where an abrupt shift occurs —- built on pounding, tribal beat percussion and a classic metal riff that takes us into Metallica’s “Creeping Death” territory (think of the moments before “Die! By my hand…!”). Then there’s “Boreal Fiends” which successfully takes on the same approach, hitting you with a memorable riff straight away, this time with loud/quiet dynamics in between verses, only to lead to an about face mid-song. That shift, at the 4:18 mark, is as grin inducing as it is unexpected, Fenriz coming back from a funeral doom tempo with a cowbell accented over a meaty, flat out heavy riff. The guitar solo that follows is a surprise as well, a rare blast of technicality and intricacy from a band that is essentially built from large, wet slabs of uncut riffs stacked hither and yon. The thing I’ve realized after umpteen listens to this album however is that there’s not enough of that kind of variety, not enough surprises. For instance I like the main riff on “Burial Bliss”, it coming across as a sort of black metal take on the Misfits, but the song lacks a hook in a bad way, being one of the chief examples of how things can get repetitive here rather quickly. I have no problem with the band returning to this more blackened approach, but they clearly need another album to fully re-acclimate.

 

 

Alcest – Kodama:

Some of you might remember that Alcest was a Metal Pigeon Best of 2012 finisher with their magnificent Les Voyages de l’Âme, the album that made a fan of me with its panoramic scope and sweeping beauty. Beauty of course is a key word when discussing Alcest, because they don’t shy away from it, their albums chock full of melodies that can only be described as such. If you’re not familiar at all, Alcest is the pioneer of French black metal, which took the atmospherics of second wave Norwegian black metal ala Burzum’s Filosofem and deconstructed its metallic nature, replacing harsh, atonal riffing with dreamy, shoe-gaze inspired melodicism. They use guitars and keyboards in equal measure, whatever it takes really, to achieve a sound that is the aural equivalent of a watercolor painting, where most metal regardless of subgenre is more akin to a construction project (foundations, walls, etc… you get the idea). On that aforementioned album, they blossomed into that rare metal band that could make fans of non-metal folks, particularly if they’d ever been a fan of Sigur Ros, Porcupine Tree, or even Smashing Pumpkins for that matter (that band’s influence on Alcest is under discussed and overlooked).

Disappointingly for me, Alcest decided to abandon their blackgaze approach for 2014’s Shelter, leaving us with a record full of bright, sunlit post-rock that was certainly pretty, but was noticeably lacking the expansive vision and bottomless depth of Alcest in their full glory. I’m sure they’re glad they made that record, one that pushed them in a way to expand their sound and to see what could come of it artistically. What I suspect they realized however, was that the darkness that comes from their black metal origins and influences is not something that’s easily shed. Without it, they sounded to me like another post-rock/shoegaze band, a good one certainly, but as an Alcest album Shelter was merely pretty on a surface level, it never pulled me in deeper. Thankfully, they’ve happily returned with their full complement of influences on display, as they demonstrate here with the awe-inspiring Kodama. Thus proving that the darkness they explore through black metal aesthetics is the key to their unlocking that cosmic door from which spills their transcendent sound.

This album is simultaneously a return to form and a departure, the latter being the injection of a album wide pronounced Japanese influence; not only for the album title (“kodama” literally means both “tree spirit” and “echo”) and the accompanying artwork that depicts a Japanese woman in some uncomfortable looking waters, but mostly for the Japanese folk melodies that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I could pinpoint an example but that would be a little silly, because this influence is coursing through almost every riff, melody, and extended musical passage of Kodama —- unlike a lot of cases where metal bands will use cultural music as window dressing and stick to their own sound otherwise, Alcest here submerge their songwriting into this wellspring of Japanese musical inspiration entirely. Frontman, vocalist, guitarist, and all around songwriter Neige is on record about the purpose of his doing so, that the album is directly inspired by the animated film Princess Mononoke, and that in his words, its about “the confrontation of the natural world and the human world”. That was something he witnessed firsthand when Alcest played in Japan a few years ago, stating, “Japan has a hyper technologic society, always ahead of its time, full of crazy items, gadgets, etc, but yet people there are very attached to tradition, nature, and spirituality.” Of course, if you’ve seen the film (you should, its a classic), its easy to tie Neige’s own observation and tie it into the film’s narrative, both boiling down to this idea of duality and how we all deal with it in various forms.

I love the intellectual depth of conceptual albums like this, in many ways reminding me of 2015’s almost album of the year, Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson. Its the stuff that concept albums should be made of, instead of what we usually get in rock and metal —- mostly paper-thin surface narratives of ridiculous stories that have little to no meaningful echo to them whatsoever. I’m not trying to be snooty here, I love many albums that meet that description to a tee, but when a zillion other bands deliver their own version of it, it gets a little boring, trite, and dumb (after awhile you stop paying attention to bands’ concepts altogether). And setting the concept aside, Kodama is a musical wonder as well, eschewing traditional verse-chorus-verse pop formatting in favor of longer tracks with more of a storytelling song structure. Hardly anything repeats, but somehow all of its seven tracks and forty-right minutes are captivating —- the parts that sound like a build up actually deliver pay-offs, and there’s an equal balance of light and shadow as heavy riffs run headlong into transcendent ethereal sequences.

On the first single and most representative track matching the preceding description, “Oiseaux De Proie, a loose, jazzy mid-song bridge plunges dramatically into perhaps the album’s most up-tempo, accelerated moment (check the 5:50 mark). Its an adrenaline rush, largely due to how unexpected it was. This lack of foreshadowing is what keeps your attention rapt throughout Kodama, because you never really know what’s around the next minute mark. And I love how Neige does unexpected things texturally as well, such as the prominent use of the bass as a primary melodic instrument in the opening/title track, a quirky choice that creates separation with the higher pitched guitar accents that drift and careen above it. He also uses minimalist guitar to hearken to that Japanese sound that was discussed earlier on “Eclosion”, the patterns and phrasing and sleek, clean tones mimicking that country’s native folk melodies. I also love the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream influences that wash all over that track towards the middle bridge onwards —- Neige acknowledges them as a major influence and there are times when you can close your eyes and imagine this as something from their mid-90s era output. That actually might be my favorite on the album, its peaceful lone-guitar fade out saying more in those few delicate notes than many bands manage in an entire song. Ditto for closing instrumental “Notre Sang Et Nos Pensées”, with its descending chord patterns blossoming into one of the year’s most memorable musical moments. Make no mistake, this will be on my album of the year list, only question is how high.

 

 

Sonata Arctica – The Ninth Hour:

Its kind of unfortunate that I have to write this review before I’ll be seeing the band live here in Houston come mid-December, because as you might remember from their last album Pariah’s Child, I ended up enjoying most of its songs far more after I had heard their live airing a few months after my initial review. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy that album at all before the concert, but moreso that Tony Kakko’s impressive live performance both as a vocalist and a performance artist helped me see why he made the choices he did on the album as a songwriter. So I wonder, how much will my opinion change on songs like “Life”, or “We Are What We Are”, “Fairytale”, and “Closer to an Animal” (those being the primary cuts they seem to be pulling from this disc). They’re not bad songs by any means, the former being the first music video filmed for the album, with a chorus built on some amusing lyrical self-criticism by Kakko, who sings, “Life is better alive”, a lyric we could tear to pieces if it weren’t followed immediately by “It is a dumb thing to say / But the fact won’t wane away”, which in a nutshell encapsulates the theme of the song. Sonata Arctica have never been ones to shy away from positivity as a lyrical theme, particularly as of late —- it does not however make for a hook as strong as “The Wolves Die Young”.

But where Pariah’s Child was in some ways meant to be a classicist Sonata album (that’s debatable), The Ninth Hour isn’t explicitly held to such guidelines because its a part concept album, or thematic album to be more precise. The Stratovarius influence over Sonata Arctica looms particularly large here with the theme of environmentalism and reigning in of humanity’s careless destruction of the planet. If you weren’t familiar with Stratovarius albums around the turn of the millennium, that’s pretty much what those guys sang about for a handful of ’em. So a thematic leaning song like “We Are What We Are” is given license to be a bit more expansive, less concerned with delivering those knockout Sonata hooks we love in favor of non-romantic balladry that leans more towards White Lion’s “When the  Children Cry” than “Tallulah”. It only works because despite its too slow for slow dancing pace and downtrodden vibe, Kakko’s melody is charmingly simple and beautiful, almost lullaby-esque. Similarly on “White Pearl, Black Oceans Pt II” (a sequel to the original much beloved fan classic from Reckoning Night), Kakko allows a more overwhelmingly lyrical songwriting approach to govern things, which makes sense considering the narrative nature of the song in continuing a story. But in 2016, that means its a track that is substantially slower than its predecessor, lacking the midtempo and uptempo change ups that so characterized the original. Some might not like that, but I think the melody really works here, used as more of a Broadway show centerpiece complete with mimicking orchestral arrangement.

Not everything is slowed down though, there’s the surprisingly heavy and accelerating “Fly. Navigate. Communicate”, which took me awhile to get into but I now can appreciate for its striking aggression alongside its subtle lyrical hook. And “Rise A Night” is a classic uptempo slice of Sonata power metal with a nice verse and lead in bridge, only to meet a middling, aimless chorus that lacks a defining hook, a trait that handicaps the entire song sadly. Then there’s the strongly starting “Fairytale” where the inverse is the problem —- we’re treated to a memorable hook that doesn’t hit as hard as it could due to there being no build up to it via tempo shift or fully formed bridge. Of course when it comes to Sonata Arctica albums post 2004, we’re not expecting complete perfection, just some moments of perfection… and here’s where The Ninth Hour is worryingly deficient. There’s nothing here that I’d really consider adding to my Sonata playlist on the iPod, and there usually is at least a track or two per album. I’d give a huge maybe to the charming ballad “Candle Lawns”, but I’ve really gotta be in the mood for it. I honestly don’t know what to make of this album, and I know that makes for a crappy review —- but there’s nothing here that is shockingly bad like we’ve had in spots on the past three albums. In fact, its all just sounds alright, but I know I don’t often come back to revisit an album that’s just “alright”. Maybe I’ll have more to say after I see them two weeks from now.

 

 

Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

I’ve been a quiet admirer of the Atlanta based Theocracy and its 98-01 era Tobias Sammet channeling vocalist/songwriter Matt Smith for a few years now. I got into them with 2011’s As The World Bleeds, an album of power metal songwriting perfection of such magnitude I strongly believe its one of the classics of the genre. I had first heard of the band way back in 2003 with their self-titled debut which was promising despite its flaws, but I promptly cut my interest when I learned that the band was outwardly Christian. Sure enough, the lyrics checked out, and I naively wrote the band off. In my defense I was young, stupid(er), and not mature enough to reconcile that it was okay to enjoy a band that was outwardly religious in their lyrics if I enjoyed their music in general. Looking back now, I suppose I thought it was anathema, to be into metal and subgenres like black metal which were largely about the darker stuff in life while simultaneously listening to something so religiously positive, so opposite in spirit. Never mind that I enjoyed U2 with all their Christian background, nor that I was conveniently ignoring the strongly religious overtones of Edguy’s classic Theater of Salvation. In between, I missed 2008’s Mirror of Souls, another quality release with some excellent songwriting, and when I finally did come around in 2011, I chickened out on publishing a fully written piece on Theocracy (if I remember right it was about whether or not it hypocritical to like their music without sharing their views on faith… guess the jury’s still out there). So essentially, no one has really known about how much I’ve loved this feisty prog-power metal band’s music, when I’ve been all too eager to champion any really worthwhile American bands of this genre. In all… Theocracy deserved better from me.

I’m quite keen on rectifying this here, even in a shorter, abbreviated review, although I might not have done the band a service had I reviewed this album shortly after first hearing it in mid-October. For whatever reason, I was having a devil of a time getting into Ghost Ship for the first few weeks I had it, and maybe it was due to other things competing for my attention (one of which may have been the ultra-negativity of the 2016 election… maybe I just wasn’t ready to hear something bright and positive just then…?). That seems so absurd and unlikely now given how much I’ve been enjoying these songs on their own merits, and that last bit is crucial to those of you who are already familiar with their past albums: In short, as hard as it might be, don’t compare this album to As The World Bleeds! You will of course, its only natural, but I say that for two reasons; first, …Bleeds was a uniquely excellent album, a perfecting of a specific type of aggressive power metal and dense, solid production that Edguy first introduced with 2000’s Mandrake; and secondly, because Theocracy has greatly expanded their sound intro far more progressive areas with Ghost Ship, toning down the pure Euro-step power metal influences and increasing their Queensryche influenced tendencies a bit. This is a far reaching, thorough permeation, affecting all the songs on the new album across the board, and maybe it makes them less instantly accessible —- though it must be stressed, that accessibility is still there, it just requires more listens than their previous albums.

You’ll hear that accessibility most vividly on leaner cuts such as the title track or on the lyrics contrasting cheerfulness of “Castaway”. Regarding the former, Smith is among those few in power metal circles so gifted at peppering his already hook-laden songs with those glory-claw raising micro-hooks like the ones heard at the :40 second and 2:02 minute marks. They come via his simply changing the key of his vocal delivery of a verse lyric mid-phrase, from a not-quite minor key to an abrupt, full-on MAJOR key. Its such musical ear-candy, and mark of a talented songwriter who knows how to utilize the technical prowess of his band and his vocal ability to inject these viscerally energy packed moments into the fiber of these songs. That awareness as a songwriter, to keep his songs dancing on two feet like a boxer in his fighting stance, unpredictable and ready to strike at a moment with a flourish of a micro-hook or ultra-melodic figure or accent is what keeps our attention even through lengthy epics such as the nine-minute “Easter”. Midway through we shift from a thunderous, choral vocal backed section into a solo acoustic guitar sequence with a gorgeous, arcing melody at the 6:38 mark that will always have me returning to this song. That’s the kind of attention to detail that characterized the best of Tobias Sammet’s lengthier epics back in the classic Edguy era (think “Theater of Salvation” and “The Pharaoh”).

Of course its not just the minor details that make these songs work. They’re carefully crafted with strong melodies and semi-technical instrumentation, with often gorgeous guitar work from Val Allen Wood and Jonathan Hinds, as well as soaring vocals via Smith’s helium tinged tenor. As I sit here listening to this album for the millionth time, I wonder if Smith’s English as birth language familiarity is his secret to songwriting success as an American well-versed in writing in the European vein of power metal. Theocracy can bring the wood, but they never get really heavy like Iced Earth, Pharaoh, or even Kamelot —- all fellow American power metal bands who utilize thrash metal elements or in Kamelot’s case, prog-rock and mid-tempo time signatures. Those American and British stylistic influences temper their power metal and make it easy for them to match their vocal melodies to lyrics in a suitable manner (I realize Roy Khan is of Norwegian decent, and he of course wrote most of Kamelot’s beautiful lyrics, but he’s an outlier in this case). Theocracy is a rare duck being an American band coming from the Edguy/Avantasia/Gamma Ray/ Helloween school of power metal, all of whom are guilty of lyrical atrocities. Smith’s songwriting from a lyrics to vocal melody perspective is so effortless, so smooth, that it actually helps the melodies flow like water —- there’s nary an awkward pause. His lyrics are finely written, and seemingly always set to melodies that fit them perfectly like a glove. That pairing is likely to be the litmus test for most people, can they allow themselves to enjoy those melodies despite them being set to (very finely written) spiritual lyrics. I definitely can.

 

Insomnium: At The Heart Of Winter

October 23, 2016

This was a dicey proposition from the press release alone. The exact wording that left me feeling uneasy was “it is a concept album made up of one epic 40-minute song”. What the heck? Did the Insomnium guys get confused and show up to Moonsorrow’s rehearsal space, shrug their shoulders and say “Screw it!”? This was such uncharted territory for a band who despite delivering consistently cohesive albums on a sonic and lyrical level (in aesthetic values at the least), is not exactly known for writing full blown, narrative-driven concept albums. Insomnium has always operated in a broad, expansive thematic field, their lyrical subject matter able to deftly shift between plainly written outpourings of introverted despair or the usage of folk allegory and natural imagery to communicate an intensely personal feeling. Their best album, 2011’s One For Sorrow, was a shifting, undulating collection of light and shade, moods and temperaments across a collection of songs about the memory of loss and the ache of loneliness. But this new album Winter’s Gate, their seventh overall, is based on a short story by vocalist/bassist Niilo Sevänen about a band of vikings that set out to discover a fabled island west of Ireland as winter approaches. Word is that Sevänen actually won a few literary awards for the original Finnish version of the short story, so its got some literary academia cred behind it. But even the finest storytelling won’t amount to much in the context of a metal album if the music doesn’t pull you in, let alone a singular forty minute track… and on that note, a bit of clarity is needed.

I’m not sure how all of you are consuming this album, but I got two copies —- somehow I landed a promo invite for this album thanks to a kind PR rep despite not being a regular for Century Media releases, and then my deluxe edition book arrived in the mail. So here’s the thing, on the physical edition of Winter’s Gate you get the album as one track at 40:02 in length, no cuts or segmentation at all —- yeeesh. However, on the promo copy, the album is divided up into chapters (titled “Winter’s Gate Pt. 1” and onwards through seven). This was curious, so I did some looking around and it turns out that perhaps the band or label was forced to make some cuts for the digital release of this album, and I wonder if its due to track length limitations on these various platforms such as iTunes or Spotify (perhaps caching such a long song is a problem?). Notice that audiobooks sold over iTunes are heavily segmented, even massive ones like The Silmarillion or the Game of Thrones stuff (maybe I’m way off on that theory, just speculating). What’s clear is that the band preferred to have this album consumed as one long, singular track ala Crimson by Edge of Sanity, their admitted inspiration for its structure (and perhaps not coincidentally, Dan Swano handles the mixing of this album!).

As for myself, faced with two options in listening experiences, I opted for convenience’s sake and went with the segmented digital copy. Firstly it would help me because often times in reviewing I’ll play the album straight through, and then go through it again in reverse order just to see if my opinion isn’t being strongly influenced by the first couple tracks (a long standing practice that isn’t talked about much publicly was/is to front load an album with what’s considered the best material and thus get the over burdened rock/metal press to peg glowing reviews, however skewed —- see Sepultura’s Roots). Anyway, that being the case, you might find it frustrating that I refer to particular sections of “Winter’s Gate” by the chapter instead of marking the time that you’d find in the 40:02 single player. I apologize in advance for that, but I do actually wish they’d sliced this up on the physical release a bit. I get why they chose not to, but if I only had the physical copy to play or rip to my laptop, it’d be a frustrating thing for me to get to my favorite chapter of the album, or a particularly awesome moment I really wanted to hear right then. That is a criticism I’m leveling at the band right away, because I applaud ambition (even if a forty minute song on paper sounds dreadful) and I love the guts it took to do something daring like this album when it could so easily backfire —- but a little detail like slicing the piece into skip-able sections shouldn’t be viewed as a concession to low attention spans in the iPod age, but simply as a considerate feature for your passionate fans.

 

 

I’m happy to say that all my fears about what this album could have sounded like are allayed, and in fact, Winter’s Gate might just be Insomnium’s most gripping, powerful piece of music to date. It’d be pure speculation to suggest that it was a purposeful internal reaction to the somewhat mixed reception of 2014’s Shadows Of A Dying Sun, but it sounds like a band having a sense of urgency about their art. That idea of urgency is most vividly heard in the increase of raw brutality that streaks across the album like that bear’s paws across Leo’s back in The Revenant, barreling at us in the form of harsher, more guttural vocals by Sevänen, and a surprising second wave of Norwegian black metal injection that courses through much of this material. That particular facet begins straight away, where blastbeats and furious tremolo riffing combine in a violent musical bed over which more traditional Insomnium-esque lead guitar melodies spiral upon at a slightly slower tempo. In other words, its a merging of Finnish melo-death mournful melody and Norwegian black metal hypnosis into something truly unique, and you’ve never heard Insomnium sound this heavy or impactful before. Its a satisfying combo, particularly when they add in flourishes of Gothenburg, or let’s be more specific, Jesper Stromblad-ian speed-picking riff flurries as a just-as-frenetic yet lighter shade to the black metal furor. My first playthrough of the album had me grinning like an idiot only a few minutes in “Winter’s Gate Pt. 2”.

And it was right around that time where we are treated to our first tastes of a more recognizable, classic Insomnium sound (approximately 8:43 for you folks with the single track), with guitarists Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala abruptly shifting away from a staggeringly brutal passage into a flowing, beautifully written, lilting open chord sequenced solo over chiming acoustic guitar. We also get our first dose of Friman’s excellent clean vocals, suitably downcast in tone but still built on tuneful melodies and helped along by his perfect enunciation that pairs well with only the slightest tinge of an accent. This chapter ends with swirling, long guitar sustains, like leaves stirred up by gusts of autumnal winds, quietly falling into a hush from which rises “Winter’s Gate Pt.3” (at the 12:52 mark). This section really reminded me of Porcupine Tree, not only for the syncopated rhythm section with playfully bouncy bass and dancing guitar lines, but for the paintbrush strokes of keyboard generated atmospherics that move in and out of audible range like waves lapping a shoreline. Vanhala has mentioned in interviews to referring to this chapter’s guitar solo as his “Dire Straits moment”, and its easy to hear why he’s characterizing it as such. It caps off an overall lovely 5:52 minutes of delicate musicality largely built upon progressive rock touchstones and dynamics (I say delicate because even Sevänen’s harsh vocals are a little more subdued when he comes back in towards the end).

Its not only a welcome musical interlude that is engaging and oddly comforting, but it sets up my favorite moment of the album in “Winter’s Gate Pt.4” (begins at the 18:45 mark). Friman has steadily been growing in confidence as a clean vocalist since his work on One For Sorrow, with his largest leaps marking some of Shadows of a Dying Sun’s finest moments (“Lose To Night”), and on this particular chapter he fully realizes his potential. His clean vocals during this section range from Mikael Akerfeldt earthiness in the beginning of the chapter (“Still I bear the flowers…”) to near Pink Floydian epic layering towards the chapter’s emotional crescendo (“I walk with my head down…”). Listen to this chapter with headphones, because there’s some impressive acoustic guitar work going on underneath all the heavy layers of riffs and aggressive vocals that absolutely needs to be heard. I also love the sombre, twilight conjuring use of piano to mark the beginning of “Winter’s Gate Pt.5”, as the instrument is an Insomnium staple at this point and it’d be strange not to hear it. What it introduces is the march towards some of the most dark, intensely heavy music the band has ever done —- cue up 29:36 where a classic Insomnium bittersweet melody unfurls into a blisteringly fierce section, Sevänen’s vocals delving down into previously unheard death-doom territory over tremolo riff sequences.

 

 

By the time we reach the concluding “Winter’s Gate Pt.7”, we’re somehow still not ready for the sheer violence that the band plunges you ear first in (specifically at the 34:31 mark), with Sevänen’s vocals exhanging guttural death-metal for the coarse, wind-strained harsh black metal barking more associated with Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson. If you’re following along with the lyrics and the storyline in general, this is around the time when it all hits the fan for our viking friends, but even if you’re not, the urgency and sense of madness conveyed by this awesome, eye-opening sequence is certainly heart pounding. The guitar work is inspired and tremendous, and the implementation of tremolo riffing isn’t a gimmick, it really does have a way of getting your hackles up as a listener —- funny how so many black metal bands never learned that tremolo picked passages work best when used alongside tempo accelerations and shifts and counterpoints… a melo-death band from Finland seems to understand that intuitively. If you want another example of tremolo passages being used in non-black metal music to powerful effect, check out Sweden’s own Falconer on their Armod album.

 

Something we should consider on the guitar front is Vanhala’s longer period of time within the lineup, he is in fact a co-songwriter all through the album, contributing to the music alongside Friman and Sevänen. Friman used to handle most of the music by himself, but he seemed stretched thin in spots for Shadows with some notable exceptions. I wonder if Vanhala’s integration in the music writing was the catalyst for injecting some much needed change with the way the guitar riffs and passages were envisioned and written (Vanhala is the primary songwriter for Omnium Gatherum whose music is considerably more uptempo and frenetic than Insomnium’s… well, until now perhaps). I’m absolutely thrilled that Insomnium pulled off the improbable here, and dare I suggest that they’ve made one of the most complete albums of the year. Its nicely concise, something I think the band needed after spending a decade in 55 minute plus territory through most of their albums, and despite the single track on the physical release being a significant flaw, the music here is strong enough to lock in most attention spans. Insomnium are a rather smart, intellectual bunch (check their bios), so credit to them for realizing that they had to shake things up somehow, even if that meant doing so in the riskiest way possible.

 

 

Late Summer Reviews! Sabaton / Belakor / Thrawsunblat / High Spirits 

October 6, 2016

Fall is here, though you wouldn’t know it here in H-town quite yet. But the autumnal equinox is still a noteworthy occasion to mark, and as you likely know I spent the summer really giving myself a break from the review treadmill with positive results. I got to enjoy a lot of older records from various bands that hadn’t been played in ages, and I was able to devote a greater amount of attention to the handful of new music I did listen to. The ones I listened to the most are reviewed below, but there were a host of others that I’m passing on reviewing (new albums by Iron Savior, Dark Funeral, Volbeat, Rage, Nails, Fates Warning, Running Wild, Vicious Rumors, Evergrey to name a few off the top of my head) —- regarding the latter, some of them were pretty good, most kinda meh and nothing that really stood up and grabbed my attention (although Nails is indeed an interesting band). As I sit here waiting for the cool winds to blow in, the leaves to turn color and drop off these damned trees I’m busy making time with the new Insomnium, Darkthrone, and Alcest albums. And I just experienced Blind Guardian’s “Imaginations For North America” tour stop here the other day, meeting yet another one of the bards in the process (Andre Olbrich —- squeeeee!). Its going to be a busy fall metal wise, a lot of late year albums and a handful of concerts coming up! But it’ll be nice for things to be hectic again, I love this time of year. Pumpkin spice me up!


 

Sabaton – The Last Stand:

It struck me during my first few weeks listening to Sabaton’s latest cannon-shot, the thematically dictated The Last Stand, that the opinions surrounding this album tended to fall into two camps. Either you are a fan of the band and welcomed the album with varying degrees of affection and favor, or you have tended to be a Sabaton critic, and arguably pointed out that the band’s sound had not changed all that much in eight albums. Both opinions are equally valid, but whether or not the latter could be interpreted as a true criticism is something that’s up for debate. Without meaning to come across as snarky, are we really going to criticize a band for playing in their ballpark? Do we do that to death metal and black metal bands? To classic bands like Iron Maiden or Judas Priest? I know I know, a band should be expected to progress within the context of their sound, and I agree and can argue that Sabaton has done that in the past —- that being said, the hardest thing for any band to achieve is to create an identifiable sound all their own, and no one can argue Sabaton hasn’t managed that.

The way I hear things, Sabaton made some pretty interesting strides with their last two albums on the musical front, particularly with the increased choral elements on 2012’s Carolus Rex, alongside its symphony draped arrangements. But they also veered off into unexpected territory on 2014’s Heroes, with a spaghetti-western Ennio Morricone motif on “To Hell and Back”, and a throwback period-piece take on the piano ballad for “The Ballad of Bull”. They are capable of expanding or stretching their sound, but they’re wisely sticking to their wheelhouse for the most part because it simply works. And by “works”, I really mean that vocalist/main songwriter Joakim Broden is metal’s most consistent, quality songwriter going on well over an entire decade now. This isn’t an easy feat, but somehow the man has been able to tap into a seemingly endless well of musical inspiration to craft immensely catchy, hook laden songs with a propensity for high drama and adrenaline rushes.

For The Last Stand, he either by accident or design leaned towards an old school, or classic if you will Sabaton sound —- that being the keyboard heavy Primo Victoria/Attero Dominatus era. Its an interesting choice that works largely due to how lean and attacking these songs are —- take “Last Dying Breath”, where the keyboard “horn sections” actually work as the song’s musical hook, not allowing the intensity of the verse sections to slow down for a huge, protracted chorus. Kinda reminds me of “Nuclear Attack” from Attero Dominatus. Speaking of expanding musically however, how about a hat tip towards “Blood of Bannockburn”? I’ll confess that I wasn’t wild about the song when it premiered as a lyric video a few months back, but it sounds far better on the album (Nuclear Blast and their crappy quality audio uploads) and it boasts a melody delivered on actual bagpipes, befitting the subject matter of the song. But largely, this is a throwback album for Sabaton musically, and you can hear that shining through on ultra catchy cuts like “Shiroyama”, as ear-wormy and addictive a song you’ll hear all year. I’m a bit mystified as to why Broden doesn’t get more credit for his skill in this particular facet of songwriting —- maybe its that Sabaton shy away from technicality or overt complexity in their songs, but to me the ability of writing memorable melodies is so paramount. Its something a great deal of power metal bands even struggle with.

I like the interesting group vocal shouts/grunts in “Sparta”, you guessed it, a song about the famed 300 (think they made a movie about this awhile ago), as they tend to fall into a stomping pattern that actually paints a picture of the Spartans martial movements. Similarly I loved the usage of actual sounds of guns and artillery in “The Lost Battalion”, which conspire to add to the suffocating feeling of being trapped in the Argonne Forest, where its likely all that those soldiers heard for those six days. Give the band credit for being mindful of little details like that, they’re not included just for show, but tend to have a greater purpose. That of course brings up the topic of lyrics, this time bound by the overall thematic link of famous last stands in military history. Again I’ll mention the idea of this album being a throwback, lyrically as well, with subject matter anchored to stories of various historical battles and their gritty details (just like older albums). Its an about face from Heroes, where the focus was on non-violent acts of heroism (a theme that I still laud as admirable in its originality and spirit), as well as from Carolus Rex which was their first actual narrative concept album about the rise and fall of the Swedish Empire.

I guess one could view The Last Stand as a “regular” Sabaton album in that respect, and to some it may seem like regression as a result. But I think pairing the decision to go back to a more “regular” thematic approach (for lack of a better adjective) along with revisiting an older mode of the Sabaton musical style is smart, shrewd, and actually gives this album a bit of a looser, free-wheelin’ spirit that sets it apart from the gravitas of its two predecessors. If the last two albums were a more sombre, serious Sabaton approaching complex topics with delicacy and appropriate musical accompaniment, then The Last Stand is more of just a slamming, full-on power metal album with an aim to reset things for both the band and their audience. I’ll be honest, while I can honestly say I think this is a good album with some truly great moments (“Shiroyama”, “The Lost Batallion”, “Last Dying Breath” in particular), it didn’t grab me on the intellectual level that Carolus Rex did, nor the intensely emotional level that Heroes did.

That being said, its the right album for the band at their career at this particular point (and I know most people reading this won’t necessarily care about that). It charted in the States at #63, one of the highest positions for a power metal band alongside Dragonforce, Iced Earth, and Nightwish (#17 in the UK!); they just played at Ozzfest meets Knotfest in what signals to be a breakthrough moment for them with American promoters; and they’re opening for Trivium in North America in a huge score of a support slot this fall. This “reset” album is the perfect introduction for all the new fans they’ll have coming through, and Sabaton have worked hard, they deserve it. That they have vocal detractors online is merely a consequence of their widespread notoriety, and few bands can be all things to all people —- but if you’ve seen the band live you already know why all those criticisms don’t matter, because the impact Sabaton have on audiences from the stage is something no smug internet snark can deteriorate. I’ll find myself coming back to this album again and again, its a worthy addition to their already deep catalog, just not my favorite, but I’m sure its some fifteen year old kid’s album of the year.

 

 

Be’lakor – Vessels:

New Zealand’s own Be’lakor were one of 2012’s biggest surprises for me, their spectacular album Of Breath and Bone smashing into that year’s top ten albums list at number three. I was new to them, and it was a revelation to learn that a band from the southern hemisphere was creating a fresh take on melodic death metal. My enthusiasm for that album has not waned, I’ve consistently gone back to it when the mood strikes, so much so that I felt I was close to wearing it out sometime last year. Thankfully, the band is back after a Blind Guardian esque gap of time between releases with Vessels, an album that simultaneously sounds strikingly different from its predecessor, and comfortingly similar all at once. That paradox is the source of why I’ve had a hard time collecting my thoughts about this album, but I think I might have come to some way of sussing it out (I guess we’ll find out here…). With that said, I’m glad I took a longer time to get around to reviewing this one, mainly because my opinion has evolved a bit from when I first heard it back in July to now.

At first I thought it was the cover art that was affecting my interpretation of the sound, that the warmness I getting from the overall tones of Vessels was due to the imagery of lit torches, and that my mind was playing tricks on me. Nope, its not that at all —- this is indeed a warmer toned album compared to the subtle coldness heard on Of Breath and Bone, its melodies a hue brighter with an increased emphasis on major key flourishes. Its still the Be’lakor I came to know and love however, dense melodic death metal that eschews traditional structures of verses and choruses in favor of recurring instrumental hooks and leitmotifs. Alongside the new mode of melodic death metal being forged in Finland by Insomnium, Omnium Gatherum, Ghost Brigade, and to some extent Swallow the Sun, Be’lakor should be recognized as a major force in the revitalization of a once glorious genre. The 1990s source of melodic death metal from Gothenburg was used and abused by American and British bands in the creating of metalcore to such a degree that the original genre was left a dry well. Its this motley collection of artists from such disparate parts of the world that are redefining what melodic death metal could sound like, to spectacular results.

How they’re doing this is a far more difficult thing to suss out, but Be’lakor for one doesn’t hide its progressive influences —- time shifts, tempo changes, and free-form song structures abound to such a degree that you can’t help but hear echos of Tool, Opeth, even Dream Theater (really only in structure). On a piece (I feel less comfortable calling these tracks “songs”… if you hear the album you’ll know why) such as “An Ember’s Arc” the band transitions from a cleanly plucked acoustic intro to a tension building staccato riff sequence only to plume outward in the most dreamy, hushed musical sigh you can imagine, isolated notes rising and drifting off into the ether. Its a subversion of expectations, that just when you think they’re going to blow the roof off the place with you in the blast radius, they instead gently push you onto a comfy bed and tuck you under plush blankets where you dream of Emmy Rossum feeding you grapes by an infinity pool. And make no mistake, I’m not suggesting its boring (far from it), merely trying to point out just how skillfully the dynamics of these songs are crafted and performed. The explosion does occur, like the rudest alarm clock of all time, waking you with a gorgeous lead melody rising out of the silence that ushers along a brutal, pummeling blast beat fueled passage.

Its almost impossible for me to pick out favorites from this album, simply because my favorite moments are all over the place, scattered hither and yon. If I had to pick though “Roots to Sever” would be a hard one to ignore, its beautiful, ultra-melodic lead guitar melody guiding us through the entirely of the piece over shifting, undulating rhythm section. I noticed that there’s a new drummer in the lineup (one Elliot Sansom), a stunner because I hadn’t notice a drop in creative quality on that front, even though previous sticksman Jimmy Vanden Broek was the unheralded MVP on Of Breath and Bone. Credit the band for understanding how their music is best recorded and mixed as well, because one of the joys of Be’lakor is getting to hear interesting bass guitar in an extreme context, bassist and original member John Richardson crafting basslines that add far more creativity to the music than merely keeping in lockstep with the drums. I started off not sure if I completely enjoyed Vessels as much as the last one, but repeat listens over these past few months have slowly changed my mind, its a compelling, addictive album and a worthy follow up.

 

 

Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

Though I’ve not written specifically about Woods of Ypres and their brief but monumental career (yet), I’ve been a posthumous admirer of their works and their gone too soon founder David Gold. I unfortunately came to know about the band well after Gold’s death in late 2011, and only through their last album, Woods 5: Grey Skies and Electric Light. It was released a little over a month after his passing, and with Gold as the lyricist, its meditative songs about life, existence, meaning, and death took on an entirely different perspective and gravitas to everyone who heard the album. Five years on and it still has that same power for me and anyone else I’ve talked about the album to… I think I’ve avoided writing about Woods 5 for that reason (though having admitted that out loud, that’s probably the exact reason I should write about it). An important person who contributed greatly to the artistic success of Woods 5 was Gold’s sole bandmate, guitarist Joel Violette, who penned the music for six tracks on the album. He was a newcomer to the Woods of Ypres lineup, the band itself being a rotating cast of assorted musicians too long to recount here, but Violette was different —- something clicked between he and Gold that allowed the latter to share songwriting duties with his newfound partner. Violette’s contributions on the album are spectacular, emotionally affecting moments, his music coaxing out some of Gold’s finest lyrics ever.

Sadly, the collaboration was short-lived, and what seemed like a promising joining of talents resulted in only one album —- albeit a masterpiece at that. There was something else that Gold and Violette collaborated on briefly however, and that was Thrawsunblat, Violette’s own project that sought to forge melodic black metal with more of a maritime folk influence. Gold played drums on their demo “Canada 2010”, but that was the extent of his involvement. After Gold’s passing and Woods of Ypres ending as a result, Violette decided to run with the idea of making Thrawsunblat a full time project, and in some small way it was a tribute to Gold who had come up with the band name. Another detail that I view as a tribute was that Violette named Thrawsunblat’s first proper album Thrawsunblat II: Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings, thus retroactively making his and Gold’s initial demo release the first Thrawsunblat album and also in keeping with Woods of Ypres numerical convention for titling albums (a subtle yet touching tribute I think). And that album is worth seeking out, not only for its awesome folk-black metal mix that sounds in some ways like a continuation of the Woods of Ypres sound, but for its completely acoustic slices of maritime folk that are right up my musical alley.

Its sequel, the third Thrawsunblat album Metachthonia, is a slight departure however from the project’s initial musical vision; this time owing more to blistering Norwegian black metal influences such as Borknagar and the darker folk-metal of Moonsorrow. Gone are the concise song lengths of its predecessor, instead Violette and company have constructed longer compositions reaching progressive metal lengths. The tracklisting is pared down to six tracks as a consequence, half of what Wanderer had, but at the album clocking in at two minutes shy of an hour you never feel like this is an EP disguised as a full-length album. I think the major difference that can be pointed to in describing Metachthonia’s different approach is that the folk influences are pushed back from the musical foreground a bit —- on the last album they took up entire songs themselves and were pronounced influences on most songs melodies. Here you’ll get shades of that maritime folk influence in various details, such as the clean vocals of the epic opener “Fires That Light The Earth”, Violette at times sounding eerily like Gold himself. His harsh vocals however remind me of one Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg), lean, razor sharp and just pure burning, white hot fire.

On “She Who Names The Stars”, Violette lays down a series of furious tremolo patterned black metal riffs that roll together in gathering intensity, resulting in the most violent sounding song on the album. Its tempting to cite Ulver as a major influence here but what gets in the way of that are the tone and direction of the overlaid lead guitar motifs, owing more to Violette’s self-identified Pacific Northwest folk roots. Said roots peek their head out for a brief star turn towards the end of the track, during its final fifty seconds, where cello and clean electric notes combine in a dare I say, charming melody? There’s a similar moment during the second half of “Dead of Winter”, where an acoustic passage becomes the overriding motif for Violette’s lead guitar patterns thereafter. I love how effortlessly and unapologetically these songs shift from absolute black metal fury to shimmering, folk melody driven sequences. That tendency towards diversity and contrast was a trait I admired about Woods of Ypres and I’m glad to hear that it influenced Violette. His band mates are actually former Woods collaborators Rae Amitay on drums, Brendan Hayter on bass, and session cello player Raphael Weinroth-Browne (who laid down those heartbreaking cello accompaniments on Woods 5), and there’s a sense that this is a project born out of both a void and a calling —- not just to honor the musical spirit of their departed friend, but to continue where he left off.

 

 

High Spirits – Motivator:

Ah well some of you might remember that I love me some High Spirits, the somewhat retro straight ahead hard rock meets early 80s metal influences project by one Chris Black (Dawnbringer, many others). I was introduced to the project via their 2011 debut Another Night, an album that put Scorpions worship front and center (and that’s alright with me). But the follow-up, 2014’s You Are Here fell a little flat for me, mainly due to lacking much in the way of memorable riffs, melodies, and hooks (barring a few good songs). To be honest I wasn’t even expecting another High Spirits album so soon, figuring Black was working on one of his many other projects, but Motivator sounds like a record that was simply begging to be released, full of the same vitality and energy that coursed throughout their debut. Simply put, these are rocking songs and they’re pretty much all on point, hitting all the classicist nerves that one would want out of a band that is earnest about their love for the sound of the early 80s, where hard rock and metal met in an amorphous blending where subgenres and labeling did not exist yet. And check out that cover art too, the visual cousin to Another Night with its neon framed night time cityscape —- look I know it sounds strange but I’ve long contended that there’s a certain undefinable aspect to the sound of 80s Scorpions songs that always reminded me of an airport at sunset. Lo and behold! Chris Black knows what I’m talking about!

The songs, where to start? How about the cover art referencing opener “Flying High”, its Scorpions hat-tips lovingly obvious in that joyous backbeat on the drums, and that very Schenker/Meine trait of guitars outpacing the tempo of the vocal lines. There’s a surprising Maiden influence on “Reach For the Glory”, its opening twin lead melodies sounding like the rock n’ roll cousin to “Aces High”, and frankly they’re just as addictive. The guitars give a little Thin Lizzy treatment on those fragmentary melodies in “This Is the Night”, the same way Gorham and Robertson would punctuate Phil Lynott’s vocals with little five to ten second solos. My favorite has to be “Haunted By Love”, with its Pat Benatar-ish opening riff (cue “Heartbreaker”) and stop/start, sublime chorus that just takes me back to my initial days of exploring so many classic hard rock bands —- a real On Through The Night era Def Leppard feel to that one, particularly in the backing vocals. I know I keep referencing old bands, but its something I can’t help when it comes to High Spirits, because for me that’s half the fun when it comes to this band and their retro-fresh take on a sound that should never die. Black’s relatively monotone vocals are what actually keep High Spirits firmly locked in the present however, because they’re certainly impassioned, but he lacks the vocal range to pull off the acrobatics that we commonly associate with this type of music. But I think that’s a good thing, Black’s inadvertent way of dragging the past up off the booze soaked pavement of the Sunset Strip and stumbling towards the future.

The Metal Pigeon Recommends – Part Three: Sentenced

August 22, 2016

 

So remember a few years ago when I introduced a much trumpeted on-going series called The Metal Pigeon Recommends? No…? Well don’t feel bad. The premiere edition focusing on Falconer came out in October of 2013, and it wouldn’t be until nearly a year later in August of 2014 when I’d get the second edition out, focusing on the Scorpions post-1993 career. In my on-going effort to take a break from the new release review treadmill, it was well past time to bring this feature back to the blog. And though two years late, I’m happy to release the third iteration of this rather blog-defining feature, this time focusing on Finnish goth metal legends Sentenced. Now’s a good time to post that quote of myself from the series debut explaining this whole concept in the first place:

This series will cut to the core of one of my primary sources of inspiration and motivation in writing this blog, that being the exhilarating feeling of getting someone else into music that I think is great. Its a simple concept. I’ll take one band, pick out ten cuts that I think will make a fan out of you, have YouTube clips ready for all —- plus some commentary to go along with them.


 

My introduction to the band came in the form of 2002’s stunning The Cold White Light, an album I had on repeat for the better part of that year while I sought to revisit their older catalog album by album. They were unique to many ears, certainly to mine, a frayed-edges take on metallic hard rock with melancholy flowing through its veins —- the dirtier, darker, far more troubled cousin to their countrymen of H.I.M. whose goth-rock was just beginning to make females across Europe collectively swoon. Goth rock/metal as a concept wasn’t new to me, I had enjoyed a little Type O Negative and was totally mesmerized by The Cult. Sentenced were tagged as goth largely because they made music concerned with the darkness associated with loneliness, mortality, the fragility of life, and whether there was simply any meaning to it all. But those universal topics were put through a distinctively Finnish filter, both musically and lyrically, and you can bet that meant melancholy in huge doses, even when their lyrics were purposefully humorous or tongue-in-cheek (see “Excuse Me While I Kill Myself” for starters). Their album artwork and photography in their album liner notes also mirrored the tone of their music, all shots of desolate Scandinavian landscapes, lonely places with scant vegetation, and ice, lots of ice set against a backdrop of grey-blue skies. To an American living in the ecstatically bright city of Houston, Texas, Sentenced were fascinating just from their imagery alone.

I want to clarify something for everyone before we start: I got into this band when they were well into their goth-metal era, having long abandoned their death metal roots of 1992’s Shadows of the Past and 1993’s North From Here. For the purposes of this article, I’m only going to be discussing the band’s 1996-onwards output, or more pointedly those albums with Ville Laihiala as vocalist, his rough and slurred baritone spurring a schismatic shift in their sound. With all due respect to those earlier works and the difficult 1995 transition album Amok, those records never commanded my attention the way their goth-metal approach did (I can appreciate them academically, with a metal historian’s perspective, but they don’t strike a chord emotionally). With that in mind, and in keeping with the format of these Recommends features, I’ve picked out ten Sentenced songs that I personally love and that have meant something to me (listed in order of their release date). I know that you die-hards out there will likely scoff at how few cuts from Down and Frozen ended up here, but as much as I love those albums I personally feel that the band only got better and better as they forged ahead. Now, bow your heads…

 

 

“Noose” (from 1996’s Down)

 

 

This was the dawn of that schismatic shift in sound I was mentioning up above, the first proper song on Laihiala’s debut as lead vocalist. He comes in over a confident series of crunchy, fuzzy riffs, with a voice all his own, full of rich character and glorious imperfections. Its not that he is a native Finnish speaker trying his best to deliver lyrics written in English —- the Finnish power metal scene was full of bands like that —- instead, its that his delivery is one part drunken bellowing, one part syrupy sweet vocal melody, and two parts full-on don’t give a $%^# attitude. I haven’t been able to dig up any old interviews with the band explaining how they came to settle on Laihiala’s voice as the perfect fit for the band, but I would love to get a glimpse into what their thought process was, because it was a gutsy move. When I introduce Sentenced to friends, nearly all of them have balked at the suggestion simply due to not liking Laihiala’s vocal style alone. And I get it, he’s a love it or leave it proposition, but seriously, his vocals are such a perfect fit for the grim yet wry lyric, “Yeah, I think I’ll put my head / into the Noose and let it all go…and so I will”. This was the spectacular highlight off an otherwise good album, one that saw main songwriter/lead guitarist Miika Tenkula and fellow guitarist/primary lyricist Sami Lopakka take their first run at becoming the dominant songwriting tandem they’d ultimately become.

 

 

“Farewell” (from 1998’s Frozen)

 

 

I think it could be argued that Frozen wasn’t as compelling overall as Down, the latter seeming to benefit its songwriters with the excitement of writing for a new voice and in a new style. But for all Frozen’s flaws, its spotty highlights shined bright, the most stirring of these being the oddly upbeat sounding, propulsive rocker “Farewell”. I say odd because the lyrics read as a suicide note, a theme that was explored later on this album in “The Suicider”, these two songs being seedlings for greater exploration on the theme on the next few albums. I’ve always found “Farewell” of particular interest because it was Laihiala’s first credit as a solo lyric writer (he had two co-lyricist credits on Down alongside Lopakka), and it suggests two things —- first, that Laihiala quickly took to the band’s penchant for all things depressing and despairing, and that Lopakka wasn’t territorial or over-protective of his role as chief lyricist… if the new guy had something good, he’d be all too happy to roll with it. And “Farewell” certainly was something good, Laihiala’s vocal melody leading the way alongside Tenkula’s almost jangly, Cure-like guitar patterns during the refrain. It was a lighter song, the beginning of something new for Sentenced, where they’d keep the heavy, dirty riffs for the verses and allow a chorus with a strong melody the space to soar.

 

 

“The River” (from 2000’s Crimson)

 

 

Sentenced delivered their first masterpiece in Crimson, a confident, hook-packed refinement of their goth-metal sound helped along by the best production quality they’d ever had. And to emphasize as much, the band was finally delivering softer, slower tempo songs that were able to burn with the smoldering intensity found in their faster, heavier counterparts. On “The River”, Tenkula demonstrates his ability to communicate with as few notes as possible, the clean plucked electric guitar pattern serving as a start to finish motif that is sombre, reflective, and full of regret. Lopakka occasionally joins in with a series of crunchy, gritted-teeth open chord blasts, while Laihiala gives one of his many truly awesome vocal performances. He’s the perfect voice for the narrator in “The River”, one who’s caught in the grip of alcohol addiction, reflecting on his situation during “Yet another morning / that feels like this /Yet another life’s bitter kiss”. There are a lot of songs in rock and metal that talk about addiction, but rarely do they ever come across so helpless and resigned, as Lopakka’s lyrics manage in the refrain: “What can I do now except continue / and open a bottle once more / What can I do now except see this through / and float with the stream, off the shore / see where the river will take me”.

 

When I listen to this song today, I can’t help but think of the tragic nature of Miika Tenkula’s passing in 2009. He was only 34, and while the official cause of death was never publicly released (I’ve read claims varying from a heart attack to kidney and liver failure from alcohol poisoning), it didn’t seem to come as a surprise to anyone in the Finnish metal scene. Sentenced were known for their predilection towards the bottle and in reveling in that particular aspect of their “Finnish-ness”, and I suspect its what largely led Lopakka to develop his hatred of touring, that the one hour on stage was awesome but filling the rest of the travel time was an exercise in self-destruction for nearly everyone in the band. The guys have been quiet about Tenkula’s death, and while I would think its out of respect for his family, I suspect a lot of it has to do with how Tenkula’s remaining years reportedly were spent. The band went into 2005’s The Funeral Album with the intention of it being their swansong, that the band had run its course and they wanted to go out on their terms. I’m sure everyone agreed to this, but while four of the five band members went on to other projects, Tenkula languished —- he had gotten noticeably heavier by the time the band filmed their farewell show on the Buried Alive DVD. Its not for me to start rumors, but quietly I’ve wondered whether he was simply depressed over the band ending and drank until his heart stopped working. He released no new music, there was no news of forthcoming projects. Life for Tenkula seemed to come to a halt —- unfortunately, we’ll never really know.

 

 

“Killing Me Killing You” (from 2000’s Crimson)

 

 

I had a massive internal debate about whether or not to order this list in chronological order as I have, or in order of what song I think an interested newcomer to Sentenced should try first. If I went with the latter, “Killing Me Killing You” would’ve been at the very top, without the slightest hesitation. This is the finest song Sentenced ever recorded, with Tenkula’s most elegant, all-encompassing, downright perfect melody distilled into a gorgeous piano line that he knew was so good, it starts off the song naked alongside Laihiala’s crooning vocal. Lopakka wisely wrote his lyrics to match the piano melody, and while the explosive and ultra-hooky chorus tends to get all the attention, I find the true heart of the song lies in its verses. These sections speak to a theme that is often at the heart of many goth rock/metal bands, the idea of lost romance or a romance going astray. Sentenced put their spin on this by talking about a romance being poisoned: “Baby, have you seen, there is a snake in our paradise / A serpent that’s wriggling between us / and freezing our feelings to ice”. But our narrator isn’t certain, and during the second verse he asks aloud in a heart-wrenching lyric: “Darling, do you feel, there is a storm coming our way / The burning light between us is already starting to fade”. Lyrical imagery tends to work best when its impressionistic —- you don’t need Laihiala to sing-tell you that storms bring wind, and winds can blow out candles, but its that unspoken imagery that your brain is processing in the background, making that lyric ache so much.

 

Part of the appeal of “Killing Me Killing You” to many fans is in how they were introduced to the song. Some through the album I’m sure, but a lot of us first saw its music video (somehow, way back before YouTube). Its one of the finest metal videos of the past twenty years, beautifully shot with a thoughtfully artistic concept. Dare I suggest that the slow-motioned shots at 1:56 of Laihiala singing atop that frigid dockside platform, wind whipping his hair in his face as the band hammers out the song in the background are the most iconic images of Sentenced… ever? I could go on and on about it, but I figure its a good time to bring in another perspective, this belonging to the late David Gold of the Sentenced-influenced Canadian band Woods of Ypres. Gold was an active participant on the Woods of Ypres Official Forum at Ultimate Metal, and in searching through his posts shortly after his passing, I came across the following post in a thread called “The Music Video that Changed Your Life!“. His choice of course was “Killing Me Killing You”, and he really said it all:

“I was 19 years old and had grown up on a steady diet of Metallica, Pantera and Slayer while living in Northern Ontario, Canada before I saw this video for the first time on the Much Music’s (Canada’s MTV before we had MTV) one and only metal show, the 30 minute a week program called “LOUD” which aired at 11:30 on Saturday night when “derds” as we were called, would most certainly be at home watching television, as I was. I believe this to be the first time I saw a video from a Finnish metal band and the one that “changed my life”. Being a Northern kid, I could identify with parts of the video such as the Finnish landscape, the woods, the frozen beach in the winter, and that cold blue of not only the sky but often seemingly of the air itself, and SENTENCED were metal, which I also thought I had figured out by then, but this band was more than what I had become familiar with and it was everything new about them to me that blew my mind. They were tall, long haired Finns, wearing all black, playing metal with piano and powerful, convincing clean singing. It was dark, classy, professional, a cleaner and more serious image of metal than the one I had known, seemingly focused on the atmosphere, the feeling the meaning, the message as the song itself rather than flashes of speed or displays of heaviness within its separate parts. It flowed. I felt it was to be taken more seriously and consumed on a deeper level that everything else I had known prior. The darkness, the cold, the class, the song writing, it was the metal that was all of what I wanted to aspire to become.

– David Gold / Woods of Ypres

 

 

Cross My Heart And Hope To Die (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

 

 

I consider the last three Sentenced albums to be amazing in their own particular ways, but its The Cold White Light that ranks as my personal favorite among them all. Maybe its slightly due to it being my introduction to the band, an album that I bought at one of the few record stores that had a decent metal section without hearing a second of it beforehand simply due to thinking the cover looked cool and different. The intro track aside, “Cross My Heart and Hope To Die” was the first shot across the bow, my first taste of this band that would soon become an obsession and what an introduction it was. Though drummer Vesa Ranta doesn’t get mentioned often for his (rather solid) musicianship, he was an integral part of what defined Sentenced, and here he stands by laying down thunderous, booming, almost tribal tom hits during the second verse. He shares the spotlight with Tenkula, whose sparse, fluid melodic clean plucked patterns etch emotional motifs that hang in the air and make the entire song pulse and breathe. Laihiala’s vocals are yearning and full of emotive inflection, and if he strains at times to finish a run of syllables without a breath, it only adds to the desperation of the narration. How can a song be about something so grim and dark such as contemplating suicide —- yet sound so full of life? That dichotomy was the essence of the band’s brilliance.

 

 

No One There (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

 

 

I would’ve linked the music video for “No One There” above, because alongside “Killing Me Killing You” it is one of the most well-executed metal videos in recent memory. My only gripe with it is that the music video was set to the single edit of the song, which cuts out an astonishing minute and a half plus from the song, and not just instrumental parts either —- a whole verse section is missing. The full length version of this song is absolutely essential to getting its complete experience, but I highly urge you to check out the video itself after you’ve listened to the song. Its depiction of an older aged couple dealing with daily existence is powerful imagery when juxtaposed with specific lyrics in the song, “It freezes my heart, my desperate heart  / To think we both will die alone”. Taken on its own, it’d be an oversimplification to call this song depressing —- sure it can be, but its lyrics are contemplative and speculative about a topic we’ve all thought about but feel its too taboo to talk about. Its a credit to the songwriting here that we get a chorus that doesn’t repeat a single line, which is not only a rarity in modern songwriting but particularly astonishing in this instance because the chorus spans seven lines of lyrics. There’s the primary chorus, and a mirroring secondary chorus set to distinctively different lyrics all while acting as an outro bridge. My favorite detail is the piano melody underneath that is exposed as the guitars fade, leaving it to close out the song in solitary fashion —- in a clever way mirroring the isolation of the narrator. Amazing stuff.

 

 

Guilt and Regret (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

 

 

Sentenced blurred the line between the idea of the “rocker” and the ballad (/blatant Scorpions reference), with songs like “No One There” and “Killing Me Killing You” treading the territories of both. Their songwriting approach didn’t shy away from utilizing non-metal instruments such as the piano, and few used to it such captivating effect in creating downcast, melancholic laments. Similarly, “Guilt and Regret” is a quasi-ballad built on a captivating vocal melody and a supporting piano line underneath. Guitars crash in for the refrain and for the furious, anguished guitar solo that follows, but the musical highlight comes during the mid-song bridge at the 2:10 mark, where a head-spinningly gorgeous acoustic guitar solo is ushered out. I found this moment so hypnotically beautiful, I remember rewinding it a dozen or so times after first hearing it —- and its not just that the acoustic guitar melody is so lovely, so full of ache and emotion that lyrics can’t convey, but that its helped along to the finish line by a perfectly complemented rush of electric guitar with a flourish all its own. I love that moment, and I love this song. Its lyrics are admittedly odd and some might say ham-handed, with a narrator citing guilt and regret as his “inbred brothers” with whom he buries their “little sister Hope”. Ham-handed or not, its the gloomiest song about a hangover ever.

 

 

You Are The One (from 2002’s The Cold White Light)

 

 

Sentenced didn’t write love songs, or at least they didn’t until they produced this underrated gem from The Cold White Light. Lighter in tone than anything else they’ve ever done, it was an open window into the pure romanticism that would sometimes course underneath the layers of grim bleakness and despair that characterized their music. Written largely in major keys, its lighter feel is heard in Tenkula’s clean plucked melodic figures that float upwards, and particularly the chiming, lilting acoustic guitars that ring throughout the bridge, giving way to an almost alternative rock guitar fueled chorus. Its a strange mix-up for Sentenced that really works, largely because Laihiala’s vocals remain as rough around the edges as ever, despite him attempting to deliver his best soft-hearted croon. This is also one among a number of songs on this album where Tenkula really gets to demonstrate just how amazing he was when it came to delivering guitar solos. He just seemed to have a knack for writing clear, lucid, flowing solos with strong melodic thru-lines, check the 2:28 mark here for proof —- one melodic figure leads into another before the band kicks in behind him and he explodes into a flurry of semi-technicality with an unexpected finish at its end. Incredibly underrrated as a guitarist, Tenkula was a master of transforming raw emotion into lyrical figures and solos, and this album is full of them.

 

 

Drain Me (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)

 

 

Finally we arrive at the swansong, The Funeral Album, which the band wrote and released with the full intention of it being their last statement, and indeed it comes across that way with head nods to their death metal past (“Where Waters Fall Frozen”), and a tracklist concluding eulogy that comments on the end of the band’s career in metaphorical terms and ends with an emotional instrumental passage. I do love this album quite a bit, though it isn’t as strong song to song as The Cold White Light —- its high points are incredible however, and “Drain Me” is chief among them. Its actually one of their most accessible moments, built on a strong melodic guitar hookline that’s ushered along by fuzzy-heavy riffs and a chorus underscored by a restrained lead melody that later breaks out into a wild, careening solo. Laihiala is actually the sole songwriter here, one of a handful of solo-penned songs by him throughout Sentenced’s discography and its barely disguised sexual lyrics foreshadow the more direct, hard-rock approach he’d further explore in his other band Poisonblack. I’ve never been wild on the lyrics of “Drain Me”, coming across as vaguely misogynistic (I guess it all depends on perspective) —- but I suppose you have to give Laihiala credit for keeping things vague enough to match Sentenced’s general lyrical tone. It’d be hypocritical for me to rebuff it for that reason alone, after all Appetite For Destruction is one of my all-time favorite albums, and also with a melody and hook this strong, I’d simply be lying to myself.

 

 

We Are But Falling Leaves (from 2005’s The Funeral Album)

 

 

The ballad of The Funeral Album, “We Are But Falling Leaves” is also its most richly poetic lyrical moment, with Lopakka likening the passage of time to the seasons (“Think of your lifetime as one year / Look autumn is here / Getting colder, the winter’s impending”) and our own lives as falling, autumnal leaves (“We are but falling leaves in the air hovering down / On our way we are spinning around”). Instrumentation kept to a minimum during the verses, coming in full force during the refrain to hit like a sledgehammer, the song’s most remarkable musical moment is Tenkula’s guitar solo at the 2:30 mark, with a string of isolated clean notes giving way to one of his most emotional, expressive solos ever. The natural imagery of this song reminds me of something I’ve neglected to talk about, that being drummer Vesa Ranta’s stunning photography that filled the liner notes of both The Cold White Light and The Funeral Album. If you follow him on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see more examples of what I’m talking about, but Ranta is a master of capturing the natural beauty of the Finnish countryside, its often rich and bountiful landscapes and its sometimes desolate and barren locales as well. The liner notes/booklets of both albums were incredibly fascinating to look at simply because of his photographs and the overall art direction that they inspired —- and others took notice, as I observed awhile back when I deciphered the influence of Sentenced on their countrymen in Insomnium.

 

Its promising that Insomnium is one of the few carrying that influence down the line, because Poisonblack is over, Charon has disbanded, Wood of Ypres ended tragically… bands in this vein are growing few and far between. There’s still Vesa Ranta’s sometimes incredible The Man Eating Tree, who have produced a number of fine singles, and of course Amorphis is still releasing amazing new music, though they don’t quite cross completely over into the darkened musical and lyrical realms that Sentenced so completely inhabited. The fact is that there’s a void in Sentenced’s place, something further emphasized by Tenkula’s untimely passing, and maybe there will always be a void. No band so embodied this particular vein of metal or gothic metal (whatever you want to label it) so fully and passionately. Though they were around in demo form since 1990, they really only started to burn as bright as they did during their 1995-2005 run with Laihiala on vocals, a lineup combination that seemed to bring out the best in Lopakka and Tenkula as songwriters. It was a quick burn though, and I still felt that they had a few more great albums in them. I wish the band was still around, and more than that I wish Miika Tenkula was still alive and making new music, but all that we can do is remember his work and try to let others in on one of metal’s finest secrets. Sentenced is dead, long live Sentenced!

 

 

The New Metal Media(um)

August 13, 2016

If you’ve been a regular listener of the podcast I co-host, the Mainstream Resistance podcast (MSRcast @ iTunes) you’ll have heard me mentioning The Jasta Show every so often. That is Jasta as in Jamey Jasta, vocalist of Hatebreed, and his show is actually a long form, conversational styled podcast where he interviews someone from the world of heavy music. It was something first brought to my attention by my co-host Cary, who listened to an episode where Jasta interviewed a favorite of his, Devin Townsend of course. He was impressed and thought highly enough of it to mention it during one of our podcast recordings. So I looked over the list of archived episodes, picked out the Duff McKagan one, and soon found myself hooked. Its proved itself to be the podcast I’ve been waiting for without realizing it, bringing the non-interview conversational approach of popular podcasts like The Nerdist, WTF with Marc Maron, and many others to the world of metal. Jasta himself is key to this concept, being like Chris Hardwick and Maron, a guy who’s plugged into his particular industry’s world, someone who knows a lot of its players and big names and has been entrenched in it himself long enough to garner the respect of nearly all his peers.

 

You might remember Jasta for his stint as the host of MTV2’s Headbanger’s Ball from 2003–2007. I had the opportunity to tune in to that show quite often during that time and I found him to be an engaging interviewer, not only for his surprising talent as a TV host, but mainly for his credibility factor as a fellow musician of heavy music. It was a lot easier for bands to come on the show and feel at ease with Jasta at the helm rather than a carefully auditioned and manicured personality, or worse, someone who wasn’t all too interested in heavy music altogether. The same could be said for the original incarnation of Headbangers Ball back in its early-mid 90s run with Riki Rachtman, an on and off musician who co-owned a club called The Cathouse frequented by the days biggest stars such as his good friend Axl Rose. Rachtman was one of the ‘boys, an outsider with no television experience who despite his good audition, certainly flaunted his “in” with many major rock stars to MTV producers as an undeniable selling point. Rachtman and Jasta knew their guests off camera, hung out with them, partied with them, and in Jasta’s case, toured with them as well. Its that credibility factor that makes The Jasta Show such a compelling listen —- you’re eavesdropping on a conversation full of inside jokes between old buddies like Howard Jones from Killswitch Engage, or hearing Jasta recall hanging out with Derrick Green in Rio, marveling that gorgeous could-be-supermodel women were clamoring for a picture with the Sepultura frontman.

Now funny stories and tales of the road are one thing, entertaining though they are, but the reason I feel compelled to discuss The Jasta Show here is mainly because of just how inside baseball Jasta wants his podcast to be. Open and frank discussion of the state of the heavy music industry and its ins and outs and realities are not shied away from, in fact, Jasta seems to encourage and facilitate discussion towards those topics. The aforementioned McKagan episode was chock full of this stuff, ranging from topics as wide ranging as over saturation of markets by excessive touring, the royalty rates of Spotify, why younger generations aren’t buying digital downloads, to how bands should look to run their operations as a small business. At one point, McKagan reveals that Guns N’ Roses actually had Geffen Records audited in 1994, and discovering that the legendary label hadn’t paid the band for approximately 6 million albums —- Geffen offered a settlement, payment for two million albums, or the choice for the band to sue the label with all the expensive costs that such a court case would guarantee. The band settled, and McKagan’s view of who and what labels were changed (he’d subsequently go on study business in college once he left Guns N’ Roses for the express purpose of understanding the contracts he’d signed… read his autobiography, its fantastic). Its just one example of otherwise hidden info you wouldn’t get anywhere else, largely because no one before has ever really steered a documented conversation with someone from Guns in that direction.

The McKagan episode only scratches the surface of deep industry talk that Jasta gets his guests to engage in. A few times he’s had on purely industry people like Vicky Hungerford, the promoter of UK’s Bloodstock festival, or Live Nation promoter Andy Copping, frequent booker of heavy hitters like AC/DC and one of the guys behind the Download Festival. In these discussions, Jasta and his guests delve deep into the economics of rock and metal festivals, what determines booking and running order, who are the future headliners of major European festivals (or arena tours for that matter). Its not a starters guide either, conversations aren’t dumbed down for our ease as relative outsiders. I’ve gone through over half of Jasta’s 189 episodes to date, and often times I’ve found myself having to think rather quickly about the context of what a particular word that I didn’t quite understand was used in. The first time I heard Jasta mention “syncs”, it took me a second to decipher that he was referring to synchronization rights, which are licensing deals artists or labels can make for a song’s placement in TV/advertising/videogames. Until I listened to The Jasta Show, I didn’t realize (though surely should have) that there was such a thing as a “radius clause”, built into most live performance contracts between artists and promoters —- that being a specified amount of time and/or distance that the artist could not perform within the vicinity of the agreed upon date and venue. I’ve learned more about the concert industry from this podcast alone than I have in my years as a curious fan doing whatever scant and meager research I could on the subject.

 

 

He leans heavily on guests from American based bands, largely I suspect due to his band Hatebreed’s tendency to play alongside them on touring lineups, but a few people from the European metal scene have popped up from time to time. Most episodes I find myself coming away with a newfound liking for a particular guest who I couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to before. I was impressed with Trivium’s Matt Heafy, a thoughtful, well-spoken guy whose albums I’ll be willing to give a chance to now, in fact, I’ve gone and listened to music from every guest on the show who I walked away with a good impression of. With most of the bands, my opinion on their music doesn’t really budge, but I’ve still benefited from my internal prejudices being dissolved by hearing the artist have a non-promotional oriented discussion. With Jasta in particular, I actually went back and gave Hatebreed a second chance and found that I actually really enjoy their music now (check my review of The Concrete Confessional). He himself is a model for how most of the metal world should relate to one another, embracing the diversity of all subgenres and being open to different kinds of heavy music. This from the singer of Hatebreed, who was initially viewed as outside of the metal genre coming from a Connecticut hardcore band (they’ve long since transcended that limiting tag). I actually think the guests are secondary to my interest in the show, because ultimately what Jasta has to say himself is just as or more compelling.

The medium that he’s chosen to do his show in was a deliberate choice. He was initially offered a radio show, but in keeping with much of what he preaches as music business common sense on his podcast, he turned it down when he realized that he could be the recipient of ad revenue himself if he, rather than a corporate network, owned the show. Its also a medium that, while having grown in the world of heavy music and metal, was largely void of a big name metal podcast that had a comparable audience to that of the popular comedy podcasts. Being the co-host of one of the longest running metal podcasts, I know that most of the metal ones have extremely limited audiences, even those associated with bigger websites. The Jasta Show was the first metal podcast hosted by a guy in a big name band, able to draw a large audience from day one (his show started in summer 2014, and yes I realize Chris Jericho’s Talk Is Jericho started in 2013, but his guests tend to lean more wrestling than rock/metal). Why aren’t more people in Jasta’s position doing shows like his? I think, largely, because they don’t realize that they can. Yes Bruce Dickinson had his BBC Rock Show for a few years, the wonderful Fenriz has his NTS Radio affiliated “pirate” Radio Fenriz shows (essential listening if you want a curated hour of music from a guy who listens to thousands of releases a year for all our collective benefit), but no one else has a show like Jasta’s with an emphasis on heavy music informed conversation.

 

Right alongside my newfound interest in The Jasta Show, I was starting to pay more attention to the activities of another guy who was trying to do something new in metal media, one Sam Dunn, the famed anthropologist-turned-documentarian whose Banger Films company turned an eye towards new media in the form of YouTube. They established BangerTV a few years ago simply as a place to put up trailers for their films and VH1 series Metal Evolution, along with scattered interview outtakes from those projects. At some point, they looked around at what other people were doing with YouTube in terms of original content and decided to try their hand at it, and announced their intentions in September of 2015. Two months later they premiered their first series of YouTube original content in Lock Horns, a live web show in which Dunn and his invited guests would restructure and reshape the “metal family tree” that was so prominently displayed in Metal: A Headbangers Journey and the Metal Evolution VH1 series. Being live, viewers on YouTube could throw in their two cents on the discussion about what bands should or should not be under a particular subgenre branch of the metal tree, and Dunn and his producer take notice, reading many of the comments verbatim in all their fanboyish glory. The episodes are archived, so people who couldn’t catch the live premiere can always check them out later (I’ve only managed to catch one live myself).

Let’s step back a bit for a second —- when it came to Dunn’s documentaries, I recall being excited that someone was finally doing something like it on metal, yet simultaneously disappointed at the same time. His first, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey premiered in 2005, and at the time I felt vindicated as a metal fan that we were getting a serious portrayal in a cinematic medium, yet dismayed that so much of my own metal experience wasn’t really represented within it. There were only glancing looks at extreme metal or power metal, but it was a 90 minute film, so I could understand it to some degree. Years later, their Metal Evolution series on VH1 sought to delve deeper into metal’s broad spectrum by focusing each of its eleven episodes on a particular era or subgenre of metal. I was surprised and impressed that power metal was chosen as one of the topics, but wildly agitated at how Dunn admitted to being uninformed of the genre. One of my early articles that never ended up being published on this blog was a critique of that very episode, specifically on how and why he was bereft of knowledge of major bands that were quite clearly known to the rest of us here in the States (your Iced Earth, Blind Guardian, Hammerfall, etc). At the end of the episode, he excused his lack of knowledge on power metal as a result of its being tied to European festival culture —- a plausible theory, yet not completely waterproof. I’d never been to any European metal fests, yet I was a record buying participant of the late nineties/early aughts golden era of the genre right from my bedroom in Houston, Texas (a wasteland for a power metal fan). Dunn hailed from Canada, and it seemed strange to me that he had a far more tunnel visioned experience as a fellow North American metal fan than I did.

My opinion was naive —- I must have subconsciously realized it at the time because I actually finished writing the article but couldn’t bring myself to hit the publish button. One day I found myself at my parents place watching VH1 on their satellite and catching an episode of That Metal Show, you know, the goofy, classic rock pandering disaster starring Eddie Trunk and comedians Jim Florentine and Don Jamieson. It annoyed me in general, because even if the guests were good, the format was godawful and the “interviews” were lowest common denominator stuff. It was like every bad cliche about people at Metallica shows rolled into a glossy, manicured presentation, down to the buffoonish audience who lapped it up and misguidedly thought of Trunk as a “metal expert” (even though he largely ignores anything resembling non-mainstream metal and doesn’t pay attention to bands formed after 1992 unless they were a new band by someone established… Chickenfoot anyone?). I was suddenly struck with the realization of how much Dunn’s documentaries, on film and TV, were so deserving of far more praise than I had ever given him in conversations with fellow metal fans and friends. His approach was always thoughtful, full of discourse about the actual music and the reasons why it was created, in search of something with greater substance than just stories of excess and debauchery. But I missed my window to do that, a few years had lapsed and Metal Evolution was old news to just about everyone in the metal scene.

 

 

So in a way, this is kind of an unsolicited apology to Dunn and an urging to anyone reading this to jump aboard the Lock Horns train. Its a fun watch, at times utterly compelling in its ability to get you shouting at your screen over why no one, guest or live audience has mentioned Vintersorg during the Folk-Metal episode (they finally did!). Camera work and sometimes audio are a little spotty, but it is an operation in its infancy and I actually prefer this DIY, rough n’ tumble production approach to something overtly glossy and plastic. The heart of the show is conversation, intellectual discourse about the actual music of the subgenres and bands that we love and so feverishly quibble over. Its a unifying experience to be a part of such a discussion, even as a passive watcher long after the live episode airing. Sometimes the discussion within an episode will give birth to another episode, as was the case when bands like Nightwish, Sonata Arctica, and Rhapsody were deemed too symphonic for the regular power metal branch, thus growing the metal tree with a symphonic power metal branch all its own. The Early Black Metal episode had the live audience getting raucous about the inclusion of Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir (they too got the boot). These are the kinds of conversations that we used to hold only in forgotten message boards, now largely abandoned in the wake of Facebook and Twitter. Lock Horns is a centralized place to hold this debate, and a cultural touchstone for metal fans of all flavors (remember my metal as ice cream theory?). Its become one of my favorite YouTube watches, a show I will only view on my TV with YouTube pulled up through the Xbox, sitting on the couch with an iced tea or beer in hand, attention full-on.

Lock Horns fills a void on YouTube, a place long devoid of quality metal content. There are occasional moments of promise, such as Infidel Amsterdam’s channel and some stray things here and there that are actually creative such as Brutally Delicious or The Metal Voice. I used to get emails from people asking me to check out their vidcast show they’d put on YouTube, or a video version of their podcast, and I would. All of them were well meaning, most of them were relatively unwatchable however for one reason or another. A round table discussion of what was the best Metallica album with a single 360 microphone, one camera, and bad lighting is not exactly compelling viewing, especially when the panelists are inebriated and the clicking of beer bottles tunes out the actual talking. Yes that was sent to me and I’m not trying to be condescending, just being honest. Point is that Lock Horns really is groundbreaking, a show with a modicum of budget behind it that’s really going for the jugular in terms of creating outlets for in-depth metal debate with an emphasis on the music and on putting its history together. It and The Jasta Show are just two endeavors using new media to document and archive parts of our metal past, and we need more things like them out there. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that metal has no governing body, no organizational control structure or educational institution instructing us to document our history —- outsiders don’t care, they never will, we have to do it ourselves.

Anti-Summery Jams: Suidakra, Grand Magus, and Katatonia

July 13, 2016

Three belated reviews of albums that I’ve been listening to over the past month and change, and then I’ll be taking advantage of the slow summer release schedule (that is, of interest to me rather) and writing more about a lot of the older metal stuff I’ve been revisiting, as well as some random metal related topics I’ve been putting off discussing for a long time now. Stepping off the review treadmill has never felt so liberating! Fear not though, I see some major releases on the way that will definitely get a throughout examination on this blog upon their release.


 

Suidakra – Realms of Odoric:

 

I almost jumped the gun with my review of the new Suidakra. The first couple spins when I received the promo a few weeks back had me feeling a bit antsy, a little impatient at moments, with an onset of encroaching dread that this new album by a band I had fallen in love in the interim period since their previous release wasn’t clicking with me for some unknown reason. I was supposed to issue a review of this in early June and given my feelings towards it at the time, it would’ve been vaguely negative (more likely, just a meandering complaint about how it wasn’t impacting me as instantaneously as Eternal Defiance, a 2013 Best Album of the Year). I figured I might be in need of a metal break so I took a few days to not listen to anything aside from podcasts and pop music, and a whole week later, I returned to the Realms of Odoric. It wasn’t instantaneous, but over a series of repeat listens I began to find its melodies lodging themselves in my memory, humming a guitar line or folk instrument melody here and there. Its a long held belief within the metal community and other music aficionados that often times the best albums take the most work to reveal themselves, the difference between a can of coke and a fine whiskey or wine. I do subscribe to that belief as well, but don’t discount the impact of instantaneous love of an album either (nor the idea that you’ll burn out on the latter quicker, not necessarily true).

So following that thought, is Realms of Odoric Suidakra’s best album then? I wouldn’t personally propose it as such, but its not as awful as some of the random reviews I’ve seen for it online. Its a step down from Eternal Defiance, being a relatively good album that sports some unfortunate bumps and bruises throughout its thirteen tracks. Some of those bruises come in the form of meandering, directionless instrumentals such as “Cimbric Requiem” (pretty, pleasant, but I’d rather have that space for another melo-death gem), and quasi-instrumentals such as the battle-readying “Creeping Blood” with spoken word dialogue, a marching percussion and riff sequence that stretches for two minutes without really resolving into anything memorable and whose fade out doesn’t really set up the following track “Undaunted” at all. Then there’s the intro cut “Into the Realm”, which actually does a good job of mixing suspense building atmospherics and riff fueled bombast into a minute long rallying cry, except that it seems like a missed opportunity that it fades out before feeding in properly to the first actual song on the album. I know I’ve been critical of bands overdoing things like intro tracks and small instrumentals, but they can be effective and even exciting when placed with a purpose, and Suidakra of all bands seems like they would know how to wield them. Its baffling that they’re committing these blunders.

There are other songs that don’t quite hit the mark for me, like the outro track “Remembrance”, a clean-sung, acoustic strummed lament over muted percussion and cello. By all rights it should hit me in the heartstrings… yet its a tease, a build up to nothing (dare I suggest it sounds incomplete, like it was the half finished intro to a song that never materialized). On Eternal Defiance, the band tried the same formula to stirring, inspiring effect with “Damnatio Memoriae”, one of my favorites from that album and a cut I’ll randomly revisit when I’m in a wistful mood. They’re quite capable of executing these ideas… I even enjoyed past instrumentals in the middle of album tracklists, such as on Caledonia and Emprise To Avalon. For whatever reason though, they’re all falling flat this time around, and that’s disappointing, though I don’t think they mar the entirety of the album. Lets talk about the good stuff then, because there’s plenty of it, the first song that comes to mind being the album launcher proper “The Serpent Within”, which is one of the band’s all-time finest moments. Its built on a mid-tempo riff and rhythm sequence, with a melancholic melody built on long, patient guitar sustains, a creative way to allow the song to breathe and unfurl naturally. The chorus is really inspired, with guest vocalist Matthias Zimmer of Perzonal War (I think! I was wrong on this before) providing clean vocals with an emotive performance. The lyrics throughout this song are a highlight of the band’s career, sparse yet poetic, with imagery that conjures up the ancient and eternal, “This life is but a spiral path / The serpent lurks inside”. That’s about as awesome a couplet as I’ve ever heard sung in a metal song, full of depth and thought provoking sentiment, and one that works as a visual metaphor as well. Well done, seriously.

There’s a handful of other earwormy cuts as well, “Hunter’s Horde” being the most traditionally Suidakra styled melo-death, with riffing that takes equally from black metal and Gothenburg and a semi-growled and clean sung vocal blend on the chorus for that extra pop. Wonderful longtime guest vocalist Tina Stabel returns on “Undaunted” and lead single “Pictish Pride”, the former boasting a bag-pipe led chorus as Stabel delivers one of the more gritty performances amongst her various Suidakra guest spots. I do enjoy the actual song “Pictish Pride” quite a bit, with its acoustic folk instrumentation intro and ability to work with a bouncy melody without devolving into folk metal cliches. I can’t say the same thing however for the music video the band wasted money on —- it has nothing to do with the album certainly, but my gods is it awful (who chose the lighting on the soundstage?… Suidakra deserves better). Also don’t sleep on “Dark Revelations”, a rather exciting experimental, almost Nightwish-y track built around symphonic guitar riff sequences. I’ll admit that it took me awhile to let the acoustic ballad “Braving the End” sink in, its certainly not one of the band’s best (“Mag Mell” being the standard bearer”) but its a pretty track in its own right and Stabel is always a joy to hear.

The Takeaway: Though not quite being the masterpiece I had hoped for after a nearly three year absence, this is still a good Suidakra album, just not my recommendation to be anyone’s first from the band. There was a time when these guys were releasing albums at a one year or two year interval, and I hope the next comes sooner than three years. A highly underrated and overlooked band that delivers consistently creative music.

 

 

Grand Magus – Sword Songs:

Similarly to Suidakra, Sweden’s doom n’ rollers Grand Magus were a band I got into relatively recently through their 2012 album The Hunt, an album that saw them transition slightly away from their earlier heavy doom influence and incorporate more of the traditional metal leanings that singer/songwriter “JB” Janne Christoffersson so clearly loves (your Priest, your Maiden, etc). But it was 2014’s Triumph and Power that really impressed me, landing on that year’s best albums list and remaining in regular rotation for me ever since. I love that album mainly due to the increased shift towards trad metal stylings that informed all of its songs, almost like the band injected their sound with an ample dose of classic era Manowar. Their newest, Sword Songs, seeks to continue where they left off and operate more in this newly unearthed traditional metal space, but it suffers from a few miscalculations. The first of which being the band’s choice of tempo on some of these tunes, take for example “Forged In Iron – Crowned In Steel”, where the verses kick along at a rather speedy pace, only to slow down for the chorus, a downshift in energy that just seems to work against the song. There’s an unusual number of more uptempo songs on this album that while not completely foreign to Grand Magus, certainly aren’t what they do best. On “Master of the Land”, they engage in the same downshifting of tempo during the refrain, and it just comes across as a bucket of water being poured over your head, your interest in the song diminishes almost instantly. A shame because the guitar solo in the middle is worth getting to, but not enough to salvage a rather mediocre song.

Grand Magus works best in the solid, mid-tempo groove n’ roll approach where Christoffersson can sing in a rhythmic strut. On “In For the Kill” he builds the hook from an alliterative dance during the chorus when he lays down a longer stress on the word “IN….” followed by “…forthekill” in quick succession. Its a small thing, but man oh man it makes the song work, gives it a swagger that a lot of metal bands couldn’t achieve even with their best Accept impersonations. The album’s opening duo of “Freja’s Choice” and “Varangian” is a one-two punch of classic Magus, a series of staggered riffs working as the hook for the former, while the latter uses an almost folky, Falconer-ish solo melody to work as its’ post-chorus outro hook. Almost there but not quite is “Last One to Fall”, where a strong chorus is left to drift amidst verse sections that can’t manage enough of a dramatic buildup. Its something that plagues a lot of this album, and I can’t tell sometimes if its just a error in tempo choice or just half-baked songwriting. Hard to believe the latter from a band that delivered such a knock out last time. I think one thing they should consider is shifting back towards some of their doom roots on the next go-round, because there’s precious little of that ingredient here, and I think its what is missing ultimately.

The Takeaway: A decent album from a band whose previous three albums were leaps and bounds better —- and in that regard its a disappointment. If you’re new, start with Triumph and Power, but if you’re just curious to hear a taste check out “In For the Kill”, a rockin’ party metal track if there ever was one.

 

 

Katatonia – The Fall of Hearts:

If you’ve been keeping up with Katatonia, I suppose it won’t be that much of a shock to hear just how far removed they sound from anything resembling metal on their newest album, the gorgeously titled The Fall of Hearts (sweet artwork too). Metal fans and media will still cover them due to the Anathema clause, that the contribution of a few early career death/doom metal albums hereby lock you into our collective conscience as a “metal” band even though you have nothing metallic amongst your new music at all. But of course its their songwriting complexity and stylistic choices of tone, subject matter where their metal roots still show, and that’s ultimately all that matters. Full disclosure, the last Katatonia album that I bought (and since have apparently lost) was The Great Cold Distance, which is about as perfect a depressive metal album as you can ever hope to hear and a perfect apex of their metallic, crunchy riffs that lingered from the mid-90s and their ever increasing adoption of progressive rock elements. On its 2009 follow up Night Is the New Day however, the band’s sound really shifted, and they kinda lost me and I fell out of the loop with them as a result. I suspect that if I went back and revisited it now, it wouldn’t be as awkward sounding as I remembered, and the good news is that The Fall of Hearts has persuaded me to do just that.

I’m surprised at the lack of surprise or faux-outrage with people hearing this new album, almost as if everyone just predicted the band’s sound getting this frigging soft, and well… quiet for lack of a better term. There’s some really wonderful stuff here despite the hushed atmosphere throughout, such as “Old Heart Falls”, the album’s first single and one of the best lyric videos by a metal band you’ll see (the lyrics being typed on a vintage typewriter, filmed in sepia). The chorus here is sublimely beautiful, with vocalist Jonas Renkse singing a poetic lyric “For every dream that is left behind me / I take a bow / With every war that will rage inside me / I hear the sound / Of another day in this vanishing life / Returned to dust / And every chance I’ve pushed away / Into the night”. If you’re into excellent lyrics, Katatonia is a band you should consider, and it appears that Renkse has only gotten better over time, because The Fall of Hearts is actually one of the year’s most impressive albums on a lyrical level, full of imaginative word play, imagery, and well considered rhythmic meter. But if its just the laid back jams you care about, check out “Residual”, a slow burning epic that gradually crescendos into an expansive, moody, dream sequence built off oscillating guitar patterns and sharp, jazzy drumming. Towards the end it shifts into a surprisingly aggressive riff-sequence that is a bit of a head nod to Tool and A Perfect Circle (don’t let that sway you negatively if you don’t like those bands). Closer “Passer” is the closest thing you’ll get to mid-period Katatonia heaviness, with its pummeling percussion and Enslaved like riff sequences. Best to regard this album as more of a late night, headphones on chill-out listen, and on that level, it succeeds with aplomb.

The Takeaway: I can’t say whether or not this is better than its predecessor Dead End Kings since I rather lamely ended up skipping that one, but this is actually a good listen judged on its own merits. It isn’t marred by any of the awkward, finding their footing that characterized Night Is the New Day for me, perhaps they’ve finally settled into a comfort zone with their full on progressive rock/metal blending.

The 2016 Mid-Year Reviews Codex!

May 26, 2016

There’s been more than a handful of new releases in this first half of 2016 that have gone unwritten about on the blog, but no longer! This is a collection massive haul of quick takes on all the other albums that I’ve managed to listen to from January through now, some more than others (for good reason in some cases), but no longer! Due to this being kind of a clearing the decks type feature, these are shorter, one to three paragraph reviews (for real this time) where I try to get to the gist of my opinion as succinctly as possible. If an album isn’t on this list, I either didn’t get to listen to it or only gave it a cursory listen —- not enough to form an opinion over. Also, I kinda run the gamut of emotions throughout the course of this entire piece and get a little impatient, off-topic, and well just plain nutty at spots, just a heads up. Might as well put the laundry in, you’re going to be here awhile.


 

Ihsahn – Arktis.:

If you were anything like me, then you found the past few releases from the legendary Ihsahn a bit patience-testing and at times, outright baffling. Ihsahn has always had a bit of an avant-garde streak in his black metal, most vividly witnessed in his Emperor days on their swansong, Prometheus, with its wildly scattered assemblage of zig-zag riffs and keyboard orchestration. His solo albums have been a bit mixed musically though, with his first two showing more of a traditional approach to songwriting with conventional structures (I enjoyed The Adversary and most of angL), and the following three reaching into more of his extreme avant garde interests with results that I found wanting. But on Artkis, his sixth album under his eponymous banner, he throws us a real curve ball, that is a record built on classic metal riffs and soaring, dare I say even melodic clean vocals. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, Ihsahn hasn’t written the next Maiden or Priest album, and he’s still writing music that is often surprising, veering off into unexpected directions, and challenging at its core. What’s changed is the language he’s using in doing so, almost as if he realized his venturing onto the outermost fringes of extremity with Das Seelenbrechen demanded a severely sharp contrast simply to get back to center.

Maybe I’m far off the mark in guessing his motives, but no matter the reasons why, I’m just happy Arktis happened, because its the first Ihsahn album that I’m absolutely loving in well over half a decade. There are tangible, meaty riffs to grab hold of on songs such as “Disassembled” and the soaring, skyward “Mass Darkness”. The latter is a gem, an instant contender to make this year’s Best Songs list and perhaps Ihsahn’s most accessible moment ever, built around a guitar figure that’s as memorable as his eyebrow raising clean vocals during the chorus. In addition to a classic metal influence, there’s shades of 70s prog-rock in ways we’ve never heard before, via the mellotron (or a reasonable emulation of one) on “My Heart Is Of The North”, recalling hints of bands such as Deep Purple and King Crimson. And there’s still loads of Ihsahn weirdness about, such as on “South Winds”, where his black metal vocals are set against a hushed, electronic pulsed backbeat —- a song that is still tuneful due to a chorus that lifts and thunders. Another favorite of mine is the very rollicking “Until I Too Dissolve”, which my MSRcast cohost Cary remarked as containing a Ratt-n-Roll riff! I’m not going to go that far, I’ll say its more mid-80s Tipton/Downing, but I get what he’s saying. The dreaded saxaphone does make a brief reappearance in “Crooked Red Line”, but its not to the detriment of the song overall (just don’t think I’m a fan of it being in metal), besides, everything else is so much fun I’m inclined to let it go here especially when its followed up by the gorgeous “Celestial Violence”.

The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar with Ihsahn outside of Emperor or in general, make this your point of entry (yes I know I risk black metal heresy here but this IS more accessible than Emperor, and everyone needs a way in). Regardless of your experience level, this is a must get for 2016.

 

 

Haken – Affinity:

I’ve been largely unfamiliar with England’s progressive rock/metal explorers Haken (pronounced “Hey-ken”), having seen their name here and there but always dismissing them as being just another in a big bunch of prog bands from the UK that all tend to sound the same to me. That was largely due to not giving them more than a cursory glance/listen, because as a result of longer attention on my end recently I’ve realized that Haken are a band with an inherent uniqueness, one that will force me to go back and take another look at their catalog. That is once I can stow away Affinity for a bit, which is proving an impossible task at the moment. This is an amazing piece of work, a sharply written blend of traditional prog-rock with metallic riffs, an 80s electronic motif that recalls the best hints of Rush post Moving Pictures, vivid melodies and an ear for hooks galore.

If there’s a stumbling block you’ll come upon, its likely going to be vocalist Ross Jennings, whose voice I now love but freely admit that it took me more than a few listens through to become comfortable with. I can’t even describe why that was the case, but if you listen to the should-be-a-single “Earthrise”, you’ll get an idea of what I’m referring to —- incidentally, that magnificent song is what really sold me on the band so perhaps you’re simply better off letting the album play through until you come to it naturally in the middle of the tracklisting. I guess one observation is that its not a metal voice, yet its not quite as perfectly melodic as Steven Wilson’s, Jennings has a distinctive slant on his approach that you’ll either accept or be unable to come to terms with. But these songs guys… so good, such artistry and a precision balancing of technicality, they’re clearly tremendous musicians, particularly drummer Ray Hearne, whose creative patterns and refreshingly aggressive approach are a huge source of power overall. I recently played a song from these guys on the last MSRcast episode and talked them up a bit, and you’ll likely be hearing more about them from me as the year goes on.

The Takeaway: One of the year’s first out of nowhere surprises, a contender to hit the Best Albums of the Year list, and a new band for me (and you) to delve into. Can’t recommend highly enough.

 

 

In Mourning – Afterglow:

Just like Haken above, Sweden’s In Mourning are another one of those names I’d seen in passing sometime ago yet they never really made a blip on my radar until now. They’re identified as progressive melodic death metal on the Metal Archives, and they certainly fit that bill on Afterglow, with the first track “Fire and Ocean” storming out of the gate with total Opeth-worship fury. That’s not a bad thing either, because they’re channeling Blackwater Park / Deliverance era Opeth, which is not only a hard thing to do but something that I didn’t realize I was deeply missing until I heard this song’s juxtaposition of deep, iceberg-like death metal vocal patterns courtesy of Tobias Netzell over shifting guitar beds, like the cracking of glacial ice underneath. Again, just like Ihsahn and Haken above, I played In Mourning on the latest MSRcast ep (probably should’ve spaced these albums apart on this list, oh well) —- my cohost Cary commented that Netzell’s vocals were slightly metalcore-ish. I didn’t agree and still don’t, but I have to admit that Netzell’s clean vocals on a cut like “The Grinning Mist” are perhaps more American-tinged in approach than Mikael Akerfeldt’s, whose death metal vocal style is clearly an influence at work throughout this album.

What I enjoy about this album is its blend of diverse song styles, tempos, moods, and guitar patterns —- you’re hard pressed to find a moment where you’re getting bored, and that’s half the battle when it comes to prog death metal. A song such as “Below Rise To The Above” manages the impressive trick of layering brutal death metal vocals over a semi-ballad melodic structure, long atmospheric guitar sustains, minimal riffing and some major key rays of sunlight amidst the gloom. If there is a drawback to In Mourning’s style, its that at times it presses a little too close to Opethian tendencies, take song lengths for example, the shortest cut here clocking in at 6 minutes, or that Netzell’s long sustained screams over accelerating riffs just pinch a bit too much of the magic sugar that made Akerfeldt and company so riveting. Influences are expected in metal, you should hear bits and pieces of where a band is coming from (this is after all a genre based on tradition), but when those influences are identifiable patterns and systemic in nature as opposed to mere paintbrush strokes and isolationist, then a band or artist isn’t pushing hard enough (and I wind up yearning to listen to Blackwater Park).

The Takeaway: Talented band with a quality new album that’s worth your attention span for a few YouTube clips at least. One thing I wanted to point out and applaud despite not being review-esque is their history of awesome album art, not only for Afterglow, but for the Lovecraftian theme on The Weight of Oceans, great taste in aesthetics just like another band we knOw! 

 

 

Wildernessking – Mystical Future:

I quite like minimalism in black metal, as much as I do its audacious, tiara adorned cousin symphonic black metal, and if the album art to the left wasn’t a dead giveaway, Wildernessking play a blend of furious second wave Norwegian black metal mixed with elements of post-BM and blackgaze. They’re from South Africa, which is a neat fact in that we typically don’t hear about a lot of bands making an impact from that particular country, so good for these guys for breaking out worldwide in a small way. I’ve been enjoying this album as a mood appropriate listen since the promo landed on the MSRcast desk a few months ago. When I say “mood-appropriate” I do mean it, because if you’re not receptive to the adjectives I threw out above, you won’t have the patience to deal with Mystical Future. I find that it works best as a background piece, something to listen to while you’re doing a mindless task, because its not background music, these are songs worthy of your attention and filled with emotional musical twists and scorching bleak vocals that are often blanketed by pretty guitar figures and moving melodies.

There is no obvious “single” or lyric-video cut here, but “I Will Go To Your Tomb” boasts the album’s most vivid, sharp melody, a guitar pattern that is more of a stream of conscious type affair than a predetermined pattern or hook. Frenetic percussion is its metallic foil, wild, unpredictable, and violent in its furious outbursts, particularly towards the second half when it accompanies the album’s most straight forward black metal section. Yet for all its high intensity moments, Mystical Future is largely a quiet, pensive, dreamy affair, such as on “To Transcend”, where isolated guitar sustains twist and bend in elegant figures against a stark atmospheric backdrop. This is Wildernessking’s calling card, at least on this album (I’ve yet to check out their debut nor the many EPs they’ve put out in the interim), but they play it well and with enough creativity to prevent it from being a wet blanket like many atmospheric black metal albums tend to be. And yeah, I love that artwork.

The Takeaway: With Agalloch sadly calling it quits just a few days ago, Wildernessking will be helping to fill a void for a post-black metal sound that is both rooted in tradition and simultaneously detached from it. Worth your time and attention.

 

 

Oceans of Slumber – Winter:

Houston’s own (!) Oceans of Slumber, my fellow H-town metallers, with a new album on Century Media Records! First of all, and I know we’ve spoken about this on the podcast, but we’re very proud, and rightfully so —- Oceans of Slumber are the first band in a long time to break out of the local scene and truly make an impact on metal media and fans across the nation and pond. They just did a European tour opening for My Dying Bride, likely to do more opening stints throughout the year and next, and that they’re doing so in supporting such a intriguing and well-done album such as Winter is even more reason that we’re excited down here. Oceans are notable for their inspired approach to progressive doom/death metal on a musical level, and for having one of the more unique female vocalists across metal in general, in Cammie Gilbert, whose bluesy/jazzy tinged vocals are a stark contrast to the music at work here. Its that facet in particular that keeps me returning to this album as a front to finish listening experience —- and I enjoy so much of it when I’m actively listening to it, but I can admit to having trouble to remembering a lot of the songs after the fact. Whether that last detail has clouded my view of the album is still a bit of a mystery to me, but a friend whose listened to the album as well came away with the same criticism.

The title track right out of the gate is actually highly memorable, due to its unique vocal/solo guitar near-ambient intro verse and Gilbert’s sheer dominance on the song, she steals the show and you couldn’t imagine any other female voice singing this particular tune. Ditto for “Turpentine”, where Gilbert’s “wooohooohoooo” vocal coos are as addictive as any fully formed chorus hook (except that these are just flavorful parts of the intro verse) —- her performance on this song is captivating, she’s got a gravitas to her voice that is gorgeously accented by her ability to sound sweet, almost like she’s singing an old standard. Speaking of old standards, Oceans pretty much knock out of the park their cover of the Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin”, giving the song a sense of dramatic urgency with heavy, smolderingly intense verse riffage and Queensryche-ian guitar sustains in the chorus. Guitarists Anthony Contreras and Sean Gary deliver a twin harmony outro solo just after the second chorus that I got to see live at a benefit show here in Houston, and I believe my jaw actually dropped —- it sounds just as good on the album. One last observation, there’s a lot of short one and half to two minute long acoustic guitar/piano and vocal songs on this album, and those are great to hear on the album for the most part, but I never remember those in particular. They do however add a strong sense of musicality to an already musical batch of heavy, doomy, prog-death metal, so there is value, I just wonder if they should try scaling them back next time.

The Takeaway: Trust me when I tell you to buy this album that I’m not being a Houston homer… okay, there’s a little of that in there but if this wasn’t worth your time or money, I’d tell you regardless of the band’s H-Town status. Its a rich, diverse, really friggin interesting metal album that is big on musicality, refreshingly unique for a female fronted band, and worth it alone for the Moody Blues cover.

 

 

Avatarium – The Girl With The Raven Mask:

I’m new to Avatarium, ex-Candlemass bassist/founder Leif Edling’s new project that seeks to take elements of his doom metal songwriting and mix them with classic hard rock and metal elements. Having missed their 2013 debut, I can only go based on what The Girl With The Raven Mask is presenting me, which I can honestly say is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Sometimes I really enjoy it, and other times I can identify moments where the songwriting doesn’t quite gel, but what keeps me coming back are the fierce, belting, Doro/Grace Slick styled vocals of unknown singer Jennie-Ann Smith. She’s the star of this album, capable of going full on Robert Plant on the title track, complete with “Immigrant Song” styled wailing screams —- and this is an interesting song coming from a guy like Edling, a fairly uptempo, rollicking hard rocker that reminds me of Catatonia (the Welsh rock band, not the Swedish metal one). Its placement on the tracklisting as the opener is a bit deceptive, because the following two songs are a little more in line with Edling’s doom-metal roots, both “The January Sea” and “Pearls and Coffins” being built around lazy, delicate melodic crawls. You’re hardly listening to the capably produced music underneath however, as once again Smith’s vocals are hypnotic, capturing all your attention.

There’s an aesthetic running through this album that I can’t quite put my finger on —- there’s definitely hints of 60s/70s musicality here, a ton of organ, mellotron, a theremin at one point (!) which all combine towards that old-school prog-rock era vibe. And the songs are written as to at times entirely separate the vocal melodies and musical patterns, so that Smith often sounds like she’s singing Jim Morrison-esque verses of poetry rather than simply carrying a tune. She’s actually great at that, convincing and passionate in her delivery, yet sometimes it all passes over as instantly and fleetingly, to me anyway (more on that in a second). What is strange about Avatarium’s overall sound that is likely to keep me coming back to investigate this album throughout the year are those scattered moments where they lean more alt-rock in guitar tone (and subsequently, melodic structure and pattern) such as on “Run Killer Run”, where a fantastic driving riff anchors the most sing-song styled jam on the album. I wound up wishing they’d had more of these kind of songs, with meaty hooks to grab hold of and firmly lodge in one’s upper recesses. Don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty, highly intriguing album that is captivating to listen to, but I suspect my own hangup with it is that while I can admire its construction and aesthetic while its playing, I can’t form an emotional attachment to anything here, and that’s either a songwriting problem or a Metal Pigeon problem. Shrug.

The Takeaway: Do listen to this and at the very least get to hear something really unusual in metal (well, unusual for those of us who don’t follow the doom metal scene with a sharper eye, I’m told there are others like Avatarium). I suspect a few of you might share in my inexplicable distance from these songs despite enjoying what I’m hearing on a sonic level —- for you others, this band might be a revelation.

 

 

Sunburst – Fragments of Creation:

Sunburst are heavy prog-metal tinged power metal group out of Greece, not an uncommon place for power metal love given their Iced Earth worship and for local heroes such as Gus G and Firewind. Its always been a little bit puzzling as to why Greece hasn’t produced more breakout bands in these stylistic veins (although the state of the Greek economy over the past decade and the apparent lack of reliable venues seems to form a reasonable hypothesis as to why), but Sunburst are seeking to be another ray of light (oy!) peeking out from the skies of this tiny country. And they get a lot right, for starters their vocalist Vasilis Georgiou has a voice that recalls strong flavors of Tommy Karevik, a little Roy Khan, and some Georg Neuhauser in there as spice —- but he’s not a composite, in fact, he has a distinct quality that in further records could see him separating himself as truly unique. He’s not quite there yet, but this is a debut, and Appetite styled brilliance is a rare thing when it comes to first times at bat. With time I think Sunburst could be a band really worth gushing over, but they have a guitar problem they need to address first.

Allow me to clarify, I think the lead guitar parts on Fragments are really, really awesome, full of flowing melodic goodness and carefully though out so as to create motifs that complement Georgiou’s excellent vocal melodies. But if sole guitarist Gus Drax (another Gus!) put as much thought and effort into his riff writing and rhythm guitars as he did his lead parts, Sunburst would be on another level. What bogs this album down is clunky, simplistic, and often ill-timed riffs that lack originality, give us a dose of standard chug-a-chuga without really going anywhere (you know the kind, like on a Disturbed album). The first thing you’ll hear, notice, and remember about these songs are the vocal melodies, upon which nearly everything revolves (and that’s fine), but if that’s to be the case, then reduce the rhythm guitars in the mix (way too in your face for not having anything memorable to offer). There’s one moment where he goes get this right, on “Symbol of Life” the rhythm sequences are fairly standard but unobtrusive and kinda rockin’ in their straight forward lean metal attack. Over such a bed, Georgiou owns the song with a wonderful vocal and Drax’s lead guitar motif is the perfect kind of splashy overload that we all geek out over. Sadly, there’s not enough of this perfect balance.

The Takeaway: A promising debut with a really talented vocalist and a guitarist that has a flair for crafting beautiful lead guitar work. If he can settle down and start writing rhythm beds that support the vocal melodies instead of trying to fight them for dominance then Sunburst could have a breakout sophomore album.

 

 

Thunderstone – Apocalypse Again:

Finland’s quasi-thrash/power metal hybrid Thunderstone is back, well, back with original vocalist Pasi Rantanen after he left in 2007 and the band recorded a indifferently received album with another singer. I’m glad they reunited (I have no idea on why Rantanen left in the first place, if anyone has any info on that I’d love to be clued in), because for the kind of traditional metal/hard rock meets power metal songs guitarist Nino Laurenne is writing, Rantanen’s grizzled, raspy, rough n’ tough melodic croon was always the perfect complement. If there’s ever a band to have lived under the shadows of an entire country’s metal scene, its Thunderstone, whose sound seems to fit far better coming from England or even mainland Europe, Germany in particular. Overshadowed in their early years by the success of Stratovarius and then Nightwish and Sonata Arctica, Thunderstone never really seemed to capture mainstream Finnish attention until they were invited to take part in their country’s Eurovision qualifiers. It shot a few of their singles into the national top ten along with their next album, and then things promptly unraveled with the departures of Rantanen and longtime keyboardist Kari Tornack.

Ten years later, I don’t think its outrageous to suggest that Thunderstone is essentially starting over again, especially in the context of Finnish metal’s collective attention shifting from power metal to melodic death and depressive rock/metal. They have their work cut out for them, and unfortunately I don’t hear a potential single on this album as ear-wormy as “10,000 Ways”, although a song like “Fire and Ice” boasts a chorus that hints of past glories. Alright, I guess I’ll just let my frustration show, because I was thinking about this last night as I was listening through this album again, and maybe its simply because I do end up listening to such a large number of new releases but —- sometimes I think its only worth talking about music that really hits me in the heart and moves me. Because the alternative, which I’m doing right now, is attempting to dissect how a relatively ho-hum, average new album by a veteran band stacks up against their past few ho-hum, average albums. Thunderstone has never released anything we’d call close to a masterpiece, and while no band knocks it out of the park every time at bat, over time a lack of home runs makes you wonder why they’re on your team (arrrgggh baseball metaphors! How did that happen?!). Is this a listenable album? Sure, of course it is, professionally recorded and with a few songs that have hummable melodies and a nice hook or two. But is that really enough in the light of some of the really majestic, heart-stirring music I’ve already heard this year? I’m going to say that at this particular moment, no its not.

The Takeaway: A veteran hard rock/power metal band comes back with a new album with their original singer. If that’s enough to get you in the door then by all means walk on through, but at least to my ears, there’s nothing else worth adding.

 

 

Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional:

My MSRcast co-host balked when I listed Hatebreed as one of the band’s we were going to play on our recent episode of the show, but he has no one to blame but himself. It was he that introduced me to Hatebreed vocalist Jamey Jasta’s podcast The Jasta Show, simply one of the most illuminating metal/heavy music based discussion podcasts available. The show captured my attention with its musician to musician access, providing a level of friendly, open conversation that no conventional interview could provide. It helped that Jasta is immensely likeable as a personality (something I even thought during his tenure as the MTV2 Headbanger’s Ball host a decade ago), and that he already knew most of his interviewees and vice versa via touring with them at some point or by crossing paths with them behind the scenes in the music industry, or simply by reputation. Its a show worth delving into especially if you enjoy hearing more industry/business related discussion in regards to the music industry and just how bands operate in general.

So what does this have to do with the new Hatebreed album? Well, my enjoyment of the podcast quickly turned into curiosity about what my opinion of Jasta’s music with Hatebreed would be now, in 2016, when I had previously written them off as hardcore/metalcore in the past (which they unabashedly were and still are to a certain extent). I watched a load of their music videos on YouTube, and found myself enjoying the songs simply for what they were, as Jasta himself describes, “caveman metal” built around heavy riffs, syncopated vocal delivery and shouted gang vocals, structured around precision songwriting that aims for the most catchy assault on your speakers and ear drums possible. Its music meant for live shows, mosh pits, and visceral physicality —- but within that are Jasta’s lyrics, mostly motivational based calls to action, and he’s really good at it. After buying Perseverance I found myself listening to it before work as a motivational tool, and as blood-pumping, adrenaline spiking workout music. I started to relish the idea of Hatebreed as music with a practical application —- I might not listen to it with headphones on with deep concentration, but it really hit the spot in those particular situations and just as a heavy metal palette cleanser of pure, unadorned heaviness. I know that some of you are shaking your heads at this right now, but give songs like “I Will Be Heard”, “Perseverance”, “In Ashes They Shall Reap”, “This Is Now” and newer singles like “A.D.” and “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” a shot.

Since this is an album review after all, I should probably speak about The Concrete Confessional a bit. It is certainly not deviating that much from what this band is known for, but one thing worth mentioning is just how thrashy these guitarists are getting on some of their riffs. Take “A.D.” for example, which sounds more like what modern day Slayer should sound like mixed with a little Kreator in those minor-keyed, subtle melodies. That’s not a surprise to me anymore, seeing as how Jasta constantly throws out his love for Kreator, Destruction, and plenty of other thrash metal mainstays on the podcast. You’ll be harder pressed to find an angrier, more vicious sounding single in metal this year than this one, with Jasta tearing apart the commonly touted idea of the American dream with his perfectly-timed verbal assault (what he lacks in vocal tone variation he more than makes up for with his ability to understand how well chosen lyrics with percussive syllabic structures make his delivery so potent). Its follow up single “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” is a little more metalcore-ish in its approach and stop-start moments, but its still addictive and will stick in your head, and its lyrical sentiments are admirable despite their biologically inadvisable suggestion of “No Sleep! No Rest!” (because seriously guys, 8 hours…). I’m actually impressed with the consistency of the album overall, there are at least five potential other singles here, and that should say something about the band’s songwriting strengths if nothing else.

The Takeaway: If you’re unfamiliar, The Concrete Confessional isn’t a bad place to start with Hatebreed, especially if you’re keen on some thrashy guitars now and then. This is a band that has been leaning more metal than core over their past few releases, although the ‘core is still an important (and vital) aspect of their sound. Just give it a shot, this album or the band in general, what do you have to lose but a few minutes spent not watching videos of Corgi puppies?

 

 

Brainstorm – Scary Creatures:

Ah Brainstorm, one of power metal’s chunkier, heavier leading lights. At least they were for awhile from the turn of the millennium through 2008’s Downburst, but since then the band has released three albums of wavering, shaky, brow-furrowing quality. I’m not exactly sure what happened, because this is a band that at one point was knocking out full length albums with nary a filler track on offer and a killer single or three apiece. Did they run out of creative fuel? It certainly seemed like it, and you’d expect that with a band dealing with a plethora of lineup changes, but that wasn’t the case with Brainstorm whose members have been solidly in place with the exception of a bassist change in 2007 (a non-songwriting member at that). In trying to gain some context for this album I went back and listened to 2014’s Firesoul which I actually remember enjoying initially, but hearing it now I can’t figure out why I was so impressed back then. The good news straight away is that I’m enjoying Scary Creatures a bit more than any of their past three albums. The bad news is that its still not hitting the adrenaline spiking heights of Metus Mortis, Soul Temptation, or Liquid Monster.

The album is front loaded with both the music video fueled single and lyric video adapted second single, “The World to See” and “How Much Can You Take” respectively. Its a wise choice because they’re both reminiscent of classic Brainstorm, ear-wormy, hook laden and propulsive in that particular way that only German heavy metal can be, and it gets you in a receptive headspace for the rest of the album, which is sometimes hit and miss. I will say there are more hits here though, such as the album closer “Sky Among the Clouds” which is a refreshing injection of a shades lighter melody (alongside a very 80s rock inspired guitar solo) that gives the song an unusual vibe relative to the rest of the album. Then there’s the very epic “Caressed By the Blackness”, where we’re treated to a far more complex songwriting arrangement that Brainstorm is typically known for, with a chorus with shifting vocal layers where Andy B. Frank’s bellowed backing tracks soar to the heavens. Frank’s voice is ageless, he sounds the exact same as when I first heard him back in 2002, must be something about German singers perhaps —- he’s on fine form throughout and about seventy-five percent of the reason why we’re listening at all (no disrespect intended to the other guys). There’s a handful of seemingly filler-esque cuts that plague the middle of this album and might cause a wandering attention span to develop at some point, but its at least a sign of a potential turnaround from a band that should never have lost their way.

The Takeaway: Worth a listen on Spotify or YouTube, but I’m not sure if I can really recommend buying Scary Creatures particularly if you haven’t grabbed those aforementioned classic era Brainstorm releases yet. This is an easy band to root for, really nice guys, honest metal, some moments of brilliance through their career —- I have high hopes for the next one because they seem to have found their footing a bit here.

 

 

Exmortus – Ride Forth:

I’ve spent a lot of years ignoring Exmortus, on purpose really, though I’ve been aware of talk around them and have in the past tried to get into their sound because on paper it should something I’d enjoy. And I do… to a certain extent, I’ll get to that in a second. If you’re in the dark here, Exmortus play a hyper, shredder-inspired, technical riff oriented blend of thrash and melodic death metal with a hint of neo-classical stylings ala Noise Records roster circa 1988. This is music that rarely, if ever, demonstrates an ability to breath and relax. Its up-tempo nearly all the time, built around skittish, almost nervous riffing (nerves like a Viking might appear over the next hill swinging a battle axe), with vocals that are fairly monotone in their raw, black-metal forged growling vocal attack. I’m not sure who’s singing for these guys at the moment, they’ve gone a heap of lineup changes seemingly at every position including vocalists, but he’s a competent enough growler on a technical level. What he lacks is any hint of emotional resonance, there are no moments here where he loosens the iron-tight grip on his enunciations and delivery to allow a little genuine emotion (such as, I dunno, anger or rage) break through. Anders Friden was good at that back in the classic In Flames days, and with growling vocals I consider him to be a benchmark of quality.

The thing about precision in metal, whether it be vocals or guitars or drums, is that it always works better when you treat it like a baseline from which you can vary and dip in intensity and adherence —- that’s where the excitement comes from (listen to 80s Priest if you need a primer, and you shouldn’t). That’s ultimately the problem with Exmortus, because there’s so much here that does pop out as potentially enjoyable, but its never given space or a little added jolt of energy to come alive and breathe. Its like watching an NBA game where all you get is fundamental basketball, set plays, unwavering game tempo, mid-range two pointers, hook shots, lay-ups, and free throws. What you’re yearning for is a steal and a fast break down the court with an explosive dunk to finish and get the crowd really amped up and waving those white towels (or whatever the heck they’re waving these days). I can’t say Ride Forth is a bad album, but I’m not sure its a good one either, simply because I can’t friggin tell —- that makes me a bad reviewer but you tell me, what am I supposed to be reviewing here? I’m actually really interested in what everyone thinks of this album in particular because maybe it boils down to me missing something critical. Why did I review this? Because a very friendly PR person requested it and I’ve been putting off those requests far enough, and hopefully this doesn’t prevent them from sending me more stuff in the future but I’m coming up empty on this one.

The Takeaway: I don’t know. I’m actually at a loss as to what I think, but maybe it goes back to what I was saying with Thunderstone and how difficult it is to write about music that doesn’t move the needle positively or negatively.

 

 

Rhapsody of Fire – Into The Legend:

My immediate reaction to seeing this release arrive as a promo earlier in the year was somewhere along the lines of “What the hell… another Rhapsody album?!”. I was of course recalling that ex-Rhapsody of Fire’s guitarist Luca Turilli released his own Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody album just last year with Prometheus, Symphonia Ignis Divinus. I actually wrote a review for that one, my first for any Rhapsody related release ever, and I think it was an honest assessment of what that album did for me on a purely musical level, but I didn’t bother at the time to research just why they were two Rhapsody bands in the first place nor what it could mean for the sound of either project. This time around, I’ve gone back and read a few press statements, some interviews, a little quick research on just what the schism in the Rhapsody world really entailed and have come away simultaneously baffled and yet a little more receptive to what it is I’m hearing. Bear with me.

So Rhapsody (of Fire) was founded by keyboardist Alex Staropoli and guitarist Luca Turilli, and from 1997’s Legendary Tales through 2011’s From Chaos to Eternity, their music was set to their own fantasy universe —- one that involved albums groups into sagas that could span over many albums (if I’m getting it right, its ordering was The Emerald Sword Saga, followed by its sequel The Dark Secret Saga). Regardless of what I thought of their music during this time, I will say now that its a heck of an achievement, a life’s work type of thing that is laudable for its sheer ambition and for both men’s tenacity in finishing it while dealing with all sorts of legal problems (copyright suit over the Rhapsody name, the contractual mess with Magic Circle *cough* Manowar’s label). But I guess it sort of took the wind right out of their sails, because by 2011 with the release of From Chaos to Eternity, Staropoli and Turilli agreed to a mutual split, stating that working together “was not the same anymore”. But instead of agreeing that one guy should keep the Rhapsody name and the other create something new, they decided in their amicable split to share the name the way they’re currently doing —- and thus becoming the LA Guns of power metal. So here’s the obvious question: Aren’t you guys risking splitting or splintering your market? If I’m a promoter, and I’ve booked Staropoli’s Rhapsody of Fire one year, and then Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody comes sauntering along in the early part of the following year, do I really see much of a difference? Rhapsody is in both names, and in booking two Rhapsody shows so close together I’m taking a huge risk on that second booking —- confused fans might stay home thinking they’d already seen the band not too long ago.

Think about how this could be affecting festival organizers and their relationships with promoters in the regional area. Proximity in booking shows for particular markets is something that promoters look at —- its why its hard for a band who was on a package tour with a bunch of other bands to come back through to the same city four to five months later on their own headline tour. Because they’ve already saturated that particular market’s demand, and they have to let some time lapse or a new release come out in order to reset the demand for that area. Blargh! Its infuriating! Why didn’t Turilli just form his own non-Rhapsody named project? Luca Turilli’s Sweet Jams or something, anything other than the dreaded R word?! Okay, rant over, here’s something to be encouraged about: I think that being freed from the conceptual/fantasy storyline has actually made Rhapsody of Fire sound better (I actually might need to hit up their 2013 album in order to reinforce this theory), because Into the Legend is the first Rhapsody album that I’ve actually enjoyed to a notable degree. Its got some actual meaty, metal riffs, and apparently Fabio Lione is writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies and it really shows —- there’s a naturalness to his delivery and he’s carrying a majority of the material here on his own back. He doesn’t have to shoehorn in lyrics to tell a story, he can just write y’know, regular lyrics, a radical concept for this band. The songwriting is far more attuned to classic power metal templates and that helps to restrain the normally grandiose factor that spirals Rhapsody’s sound out of control (it also succeeds in keeping the keyboard arrangements more precise, focused and purposeful). I’m impressed.

The Takeaway: My opinion could be entirely contrary to what long time Rhapsody fans are thinking, but for me, this might be a case of less is more. No grand interwoven story dominating what the lyrics have to be, thus not impacting the vocal melodies directly, and allowing Rhapsody to simply be a straight up power metal band for once. I actually had fun listening to this, so take that for what its worth to you!

 

 

Abbath – Abbath:

It seems pretty damned silly to come out with a review for an album I recieved in January and have been listening to for the past five months now and already discussed on my other outlet, the MSRcast. But, this being the reviews codex, its either gotta be here or nowhere at all and it would be silly not to considering how much I have gone back to it time and again. No backstory here, you’ve all likely heard that Immortal and Abbath have parted ways (stupidly I might add, on the part of Demonaz and Horgh), and Abbath is the first out of the gate with his own new album. I suspected upon hearing “To War” and “Winter Bane” in particular, that I was hearing cuts from a once-future Immortal album that never happened, because let there be no man who attempts to tell me those aren’t Immortal songs. They’re also incredible, brutally punishing, slicing cuts of sharpened black metal built on riffs that only Abbath devises. His sound is so distinctive at this point, that I often use him as a reference point in sussing out other bands sounds (“hmm… this sounds Abbath-y”), his very name becoming an adjective in metal writer circles and having the potential to turn into a verb (I’m working on that!). As for what era of Immortal these songs seem tied to, I’d say they’re picking up where All Shall Fall left off, but with flashes of Sons of Northern Darkness hook factor splashed across the board (they’re far catchier than anything off the last Immortal album in truth).

I hear this album as one divided by each song’s original destination, because just like those two mentioned above, there are a handful of other cuts that absolutely sound like they belonged on a future Immortal record, and others that find Abbath dabbling in looser riffing, more rock n’ roll influenced songwriting. As to the former, songs like “Ocean of Wounds” built upon classic Immortal hypnotic riff sequences, riffs that deviate higher or lower in tone but are relatively static while Abbath’s inimitable vocals dance over the top. Up tempo cuts like “Count the Dead” and “Fenrir Hunts” are amazing, the latter being a personal favorite, its viciousness and accelerating speed reminding me of At the Heart of Winter. But take a listen to “Roots of the Mountain”, and you’ll hear Abbath in a different light, one where he employs a slower, looser approach to his rhythm guitar playing, one that lacks his typical intensity and tightness. At a certain point during the song, things get a little black metal meets ZZ Top (speaking guitar wise). I’m not wild on the song but its alright in a change of pace type of way. Far more interesting is “Eternal”, which at times sounds like a punk rock / Immortal crossover with its raw, first-take sounding guitar riffs and uber-aggressive patterning —- this is definitely a song specifically crafted for the idea of an Abbath solo album. Ditto for “Riding on the Wind”,  a cover of an oft-forgotten Judas Priest cut where Abbath’s vocal choices recall Alexi Laiho during Children of Bodom’s covers of “Poison” or “Rebel Yell”. Kudos for not choosing something obvious to cover, and kudos in general for simply getting new music out, Abbath is a worldwide treasure in metal and he was being cooped up for too long.

The Takeaway: I’m kinda glad I waited on reviewing this because my initial reaction was simply one of sheer joy that we had new Abbath-related music to listen to. It had been six years, and many more before that —- I suspect now that my bias in that regard would’ve over-inflated any verdict I’d have issued. As it is now, this is a good, not great album, albeit with moments that are at times majestic and reminiscent of classic Immortal.