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NEGATIVE PLANE The Pact...

Album · 2022 · Black Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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NEGATIVE PLANE dates back as far as 2001 when it was founded in Gainesville, Florida and found its unique niche with a mixture of classic heavy metal sounds forged in black metal with its debut “Et In Saecula Saeculorum.” The band caught the world’s attention with its 2006 debut but took another five long years for its followup “Stained Glass Revolutions” to finally see the light of the day. Without even an EP in sight for years this band has been presumed M.I.A. but lo and behold after a whopping eleven year absence NEGATIVE PLANE which now calls New York City its home base has arisen from its slumber and at long last finds its third album THE PACT out in 2022.

The works of the German literature king Goethe is nothing new in the subject matter of classical music or even metal for that matter and NEGATIVE PLANE has adopted the subject matter of Dr Faust and beyond, NEGATIVE PLANE offers an hour’s length of seven tracks that offer that classic 80s speed metal meets black metal sound of Venom and brings it into the modern era. Despite a lengthy absence between albums, the lineup of Nameless Void, Bestial Devotion, D.G. and Thammuz remains intact which allows the band to focus on the chemistry of making their strange mix of early Celtic Frost mixed with the Japanese band Sabbat along with the pummeling speed metal ferocity bands like Helstar.

Paced like a true dramatic theatrical release, the first three tracks which all exceed the eight minute mark showcase the band’s most intense playing style with chugging and oft angular riffing accompanied by the ferocity of speed bass and technical drum rolls. Bestial Devotion offers a vocal style that exists somewhere between the world of 80s speed metal and modern black metal sounding more like Lemmy of Motorhead than either of those respective styles actually. The middle intermission “The Wailing of the Immured” provides a classical orchestration of less than two minutes which offers a nice breather between the intensity of the two sides of the album that bookmark it. The Satanic and evil tales of woe pick up the pace with “Even The Devil Goes Into The Church” with the same aforementioned style of blackened speed metal.a

The grand finale comes with the 16 1/2 minute track “And So It Came To Pass” which finds NEGATIVE PLANE weaving a tapestry of movements into its speed / black metal vision along with moments of clean guitar as well as a heavier reliance on atmospheric backdrops. Given the length of the the tracks on the album, THE PACT in many ways comes off as the modern representation of Venom’s “At War With Satan” and to be honest if someone were to tell me that this was a modern Venom album, a band i don’t keep up with, i might even believe them! In the end this one is what i would call retro metal that evokes some of the classic 80s sounds over four decades ago. The Venom connection is undeniable however since i’ve been been the biggest Venom fan, i have to say that NEGATIVE PLANE in many ways corrects some of the mistakes of Venom’s classic albums.

Overall this isn’t a bad album at all but it seems like it overly relies on the same speed metal riffs decorated in black metal clothing. The diversity factory for such a concept album is painstakingly small and therefore the album does wear thin in its delivery. The closing track is the exception with some nice additional touches that contrast it with the rest of the album but overall the band relies on the same formula which may be fine for some but doesn’t quite take me where i want to go. Still though this is a decent slice of speed meets black metal, two sounds that don’t really commingle much these days and for anyone hoping for a continuation of the classic NEGATIVE PLANE sound then even though it’s eleven years down the road, this is a worthy follow up indeed.

BUCKETHEAD Pike 313 - Vincent Price SHRUNKEN HEAD Apple Sculpture

Album · 2022 · Alternative Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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PIKE 313 - Vincent Price SHRUNKEN HEAD Apple Scultpure 11th installment of 2022 Everything played by BUCKETHEAD Total playing time 27 minutes and 39 seconds All instrumental as always!

Whether you love him or hate him, you cannot deny that ole BUCKY has some of the most outrageously creative album titles! Here’s just the latest example. PIKE 313 is titled VINCENT PRICE SHRUNKEN HEAD APPLE SCULPTURE and features seven equally silly track names. Most find the words SHRUNKEN HEAD or have something to do with the theme. Of course with all instrumental tracks it’s just word games as the music itself has little to nothing to do with the theme but such is the life in BUCKETHEADLAND!

“Turn Apples Into SHRUNKEN HEADS” takes on a rather typical alternative metal guitar riffing style with that atmospheric backdrop that adds a smoothness to the guitar distortion. This general riffing session alternates with a heavier rock guitar heft without the atmospheric touches. Basically heavy blues rock mixed with alt metal. Nothing new under the sun in BH LAND. Generic and blah.

“Having a SHRUNKEN HEAD is Like Having Halloween All Year Round” is heavier with thrash metal chugging and accompanying bass and drum stomps. Then the guitar gets weird in a fast and furious way. Sounds like a buzzsaw gone rogue. The track keeps a Pantera-esque groove metal thrashing heft to it for the track’s entirety however there is a nice moment of the volume freaking out and the crunchiness of the guitar is overall quite pleasing.

“Apple Sculpture” starts a bunch of shorter tracks. This one is less metal and more blues rock with some funky bass grooves. Basically like a gazillion other BH tracks in the PIKE world. Nice funk guitar breakdown though.

“Create Your Own Collection of Delightful SHRUNKEN HEADS” jumps back into a heavier metal motif with aggressive guitar riffs and then a freaky distortion. This one is actually sort of clever and unlike other PIKEs. Nice freaky time signature changes. This is prog metal with the emphasis on strange knotty workouts.

“You'll Find SHRUNKEN HEAD Apple Sculpture Kits Wherever Toys and Crafts Are Sold” is a slower metal track with slower bass grooves and guitar chords but the distortion is loud and violent. Then it starts those spidery riffs that slowly build with the atmospheric backdrop adding some ambience. This could be considered a power ballad i guess. OK but less enthralling than the faster tracks it follows.

“Buy Your Kit Now and Get a Head-Start” is a short track barely over a minute but features a wild freakout of sounds and palm muted guitar riffs. Short and to the point but nothing terribly exciting.

“Vincent Price SHRUNKEN HEAD Apple Sculpture Kit” jumps into blues based hard rock / heavy metal that sounds like glam metal from the 80s. At least from a guitarist’s point of view. Would be perfect if there was a screaming vocalist along for the ride but no such luck. Not bad but also sounds incomplete.

Despite the cleverness of the PIKE titles and tracks, BH rarely lives up to the same creativity in the musical deliveries. This is an average PIKE with some great moments and many average. Overall this one is hit and miss with the strongest tracks being the most metal amongst them. After a few PIKEs that offered some insanity which i love the most, seems like BH is back to the “normal” PIKE sounds.

SEPTICFLESH Modern Primitive

Album · 2022 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.00 | 1 rating
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Arguably the most famous symphonic death metal band in the world these days, Greece’s SEPTICFLESH has been killing it since it reinvented itself in 2003 with the now classic “Sumerian Daemons” which the band has continued to base its unique brand of melodic death metal, traditional Greek folk music and classical orchestral works set to a unique mix of sensuality and bombast. The band has been silent for quite a few years having taken a whopping five to release anything since its 2017 “Codex Omega” but at long last these angsty guys from Athens have just dropped its 11th studio album MODERN PRIMITIVE onto the world and for true fans of this unorthodox stylistic approach won’t disappoint!

Nine new tracks that add up to just less then 39 minutes of playing time conspire to craft another raucous maelstrom of symphonic death metal that perhaps sounds closest to 2008’s “Communion” with short snappy tracks that focus on instantly gratifying metal hooks and the one two punch of the harmonic vocal attacks of bassist Seth Siro Anton’s clean vocal deliveries along with the guttural growls of guitarist / keyboardist Sotiris Anunnaki V. Anton. Add some tasty intros of Greek folk music which seeds the melodic underpinnings and the now classic orchestral elements which SEPTICFLESH continues to excel at and i have to say that MODERN PRIMITIVE is one of my faves from these Greeks since “The Great Mass” although the band has been extremely consistent in delivering the expected goods for quite some time now.

While not the only symphonic death metal band on the scene, SEPTICFLESH succeeds in continuously crafting instantly catchy tracks that allow the dualistic nature of the melodic with the extremely brutal to coexist in relative harmony. Like many of the band’s previous works, MODERN PRIMITIVE tackles the subject matter of ancient history which given the lengthy timespan of the world of Greece is an inexhaustible supply of inspiration for sure! This is classic SEPTICFLESH all the way with very little to make you think otherwise. If something completely new was on your wishlist i’m afraid that MODERN PRIMITIVE is not going to scratch that itch. This album features the tried and true fanbase tested formula which remains a fairly unique sounding one that is unlike any other. Even bands like Fleshgod Apocalypse sound nothing like SEPTICFLESH.

Given that this band has always had a bit of a propensity for pop hooks made intense with death metal clothing and turned sophisticated with orchestral sounds of classical music, it should be no surprise that SEPTICFLESH has continued down the road already tread in order to bring another properly baked tracks of similar style to the fanbase. In that regard i have to say that this one was instantly addicting with some albums being more instantly likable than others. This one features an immediacy the the previous works of “Titan” and “Codex Omega” lost a bit of with the more complex arrangements. This is certainly a band i never really tire of so any album of what these guys do best is more than enough to keep me satisfied. All the elements that made albums of yore so utterly irresistible are here in full abundance. Another score for one of symphonic death metal’s top dogs in the biz.

BLUT AUS NORD Disharmonium - Undreamable Abysses

Album · 2022 · Atmospheric Black Metal
Cover art 4.08 | 2 ratings
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Having gestated in the fertile French black metal scene of the 1990s, the Mondeville based BLUT AUS NORD has been quite instrumental in bridging the gap between the worlds of atmospheric black metal and psychedelic electronica and has produced some of the most memorable experiences of surreal metal especially in the 21st century with the mind bending musical antics of “The Work That Transforms God” and beyond. While many a black metal act seems stuck on autopilot, BLUT AUS NORD is one of those rare acts that remains utterly unique in pretty every way and some 30 years on still is crafting the same styles of bestial black metal in fine form.

The power quartet of VIndsval (vocals, guitar), W.D. Feld (drums, electronics, keyboards), GhÖst (bass) and Thorns (drums) returns with its 15th powerhouse DISHARMONIUM - UNDREAMABLE ABYSSES. With an album cover that comes just in time to make one think of the new Dr Strange flick about the Multiverse, it also seems fitting that the bizarre sounds unleashed on this bizarre avant-garde display of black metal and dark ambience does indeed sound like a stroll through some strange path in between universes. Once again BLUT AUS NORD delivers the perfect ingredients of an ominous journey into a hypnotic atmospheric series of soundscapes that teeter between absolute dissonance and infernal elegance.

Like many of the modern BLUT AUS NORD releases, this one sort of oozes its way from beginning to end with a mix of heavy guitar riffs, hyperactive percussion, oscillating sound effects and buried vocals that sound just as out there as ever. While BLUT AUS NORD may not be covering any new ground, i have to say that these guys really don’t need to either. They have successfully inculcated a unique style that even decades later sounds like no other. The impeccable mix of the metal and ambient parts that swarm around like a mad swarm of hornets attacking a choir is literally intoxicating as the music is unrelenting and unsettlingly surreal!

This time around DISHARMONIUM - UNDREAMABLE ABYSSES features seven hypnosis inducing tracks that all sort of gel together fairly comfortably but as an album of this magnitude where the freakery dial is turned up to 11 and beyond, the album is merciful in that it doesn’t exceed much beyond the 46 minute mark. This is truly music that can test your very sanity and too much exposure may indeed cause some sort of mental breakdown of some sort! I happen to have thick skin so i personally love this bizarre chimeric musical display and even though BLUT AUS NORD continues to stick to its formula, it’s one that i personally never grow tired of one little bit.

Still no idea what to call this. Some sort of industrial black metal that utilizes elements from post-rock, dark ritual ambient, depressive black metal and even a bit of stoner doom metal here and there. Whatever this madness it, you cannot mistake these sounds for anything other than the inimitable BLUT AUS NORD which remains one of the French scene’s most dynamic and prolific extreme metal acts. While every album is firmly in the BLUT AUS NORD camp, the band has been clever in how it switches things up subtly from one album to the next and this 15th installment is by no means the exception. Expect elements from the “Memoria” releases as well as the “777” trilogy and beyond. As bleak and inaccessible as ever, BLUT AUS NORD remains one of my favorite extreme metal acts of all time.

EVERGREY A Heartless Portrait: The Orphean Testament

Album · 2022 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.00 | 1 rating
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With Escape of the Phoenix still hot off the press, dark metal maestros Evergrey are set to release a new full-length album, their 13th to date, on May 20th via Napalm Records. The writing of A Heartless Portrait (The Orphean Testament) started almost immediately after the release of Escape of the Phoenix, with the same line-up comprised of singer/guitarist Tom S Englund, guitarist Henrik Danhage, keyboard player Rikard Zander, drummer Jonas Ekdahl, and bass player Johan Niemann. Inevitably, the new album inhabits similar sonic territories as the previous one, to the point that in interviews frontman Tom S Englund jokingly referred to it as “Escape of the Phoenix Part II”. But if you are worried that the record’s 10 songs may just be leftover material from the Phoenix sessions, let me reassure you: although the two records share similar strengths and weaknesses, on balance A Heartless Portrait is even stronger than its predecessor.

Once a herald of dark progressive/power metal, over the years Evergrey have gradually morphed their sound into a highly developed form of modern metal, rich as much in melody as in heart-breaking melancholia. Nevertheless, the band’s prog metal heritage is still lurking there somewhere in the Swedes’ musical brains, and it helps them sidestep the cardinal sin of many modern melodic metal albums: an excess of emphasis on vocal melodies at the expense of musical substance. Evergrey combine the big, soaring melodies and simple song structures of the genre with a satisfying barrage of muscular riffs, sophisticated arrangements, and virtuoso leads and solos, which allow the music to be much more than mere background for the vocals. In a handful of tracks, the riffs and arrangements get really exciting, like the intricate guitar lines of “The Great Unwashed”, or the brilliant solo duels between Englund, Danhage and Zander on the title-track.

The high dosage of solos is probably one of the most striking and engaging aspects of this record. In nearly all songs, Englund and Danhage take turns to provide beautifully melodic and suitably virtuoso guitar leads, with Rikard Zander interjecting a few trailblazing keyboard solos in a couple of tracks too. It’s a nice touch that wasn’t perhaps so much prominent in Escape of the Phoenix and that brings me back to the “classic” ol’ metal sound of yesteryears. For the rest, most of the spotlights are on Englund’s beautiful and emotive vocal performance. The man has one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable voices in metal: gravelly and powerful, yet warm, passionate and full of yearning. He is a spectacular singer, who can transform each melody into a heart-rending masterpiece.

The album contains several strong tracks, fuelled by inspired songwriting and excellent melodies. In fact, I am prepared to go out on a limb and say that some of the songs included here are among the best Evergrey have written throughout their whole career. The title-track is a muscular tour de force that takes heads on the listener with one of the heaviest episodes of the record, before softening into a beautiful middle-8 that paves the way for a fantastic trio of solos by Englund, Danhage and Zander. “The Great Unwashed” features a great, proggy riff and a strong chorus, while “Blindfolded” is a dark and brooding piece that creates a stark contrast with the serene, semi-acoustic album closer, “Wildfires”. You may have noticed that most of the songs I mentioned so far appear in the album’s second half. The first half also contains some good tracks (good luck in getting the chorus of “Call out the Dark” out of your head), but is somewhat weaker and less explosive than the second-half. Tracks like “Save Me”, “Midwinter Calls” and “Ominous” are in all respects decent and pleasant, but they sound a tad too generic and fail to stand out as much as other songs here. The same goes for “Reawakening” and “Heartless”, two tracks that veer dangerously close to the filler status.

This alternation between first-rate and second-rate songs is a frustrating feature of many recent Evergrey’s albums, and this one is no exception. Fortunately, the scale here is definitely tipped in favour of the better tracks, which is why I think A Heartless Portrait is a stronger album than its predecessor. However, looking at the bigger picture and putting the album in the context of Evergrey’s discography, I must say that A Heartless Portrait does not add much to the previous 3 or 4 releases by the band. This is Evergrey doing what they do best, without changing much their sound or taking any risks. When the music is as good as this, it’s hard to complain. Nevertheless, I am left slightly underwhelmed by this album, because I always look forward to being challenged by the music I listen to, especially when it comes from one of my favourite bands that I have been following for over 20 years now.

Ultimately, I suspect that how much you will like this record probably depends on how much you are bothered by listening to slight variations of the same musical formula album after album. If that is something that bothers you a great deal, subtract half star to my rating. If that does not concern you, add a full star. Regardless of the final score, A Heartless Portrait remains a top quality product from one of the most talented bands out there. In a market oversaturated with thousands of mediocre new releases, this cannot be but a highly recommended listen.

[Edited from original written for The Metal Observer]

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LACRIMAS PROFUNDERE Burning: A Wish

Album · 2001 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 3.14 | 3 ratings
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German band Lacrimas Profundere have been around since the early 1990s with their melodic brand of doom/death metal. Released in 2001, Burning: A Wish is their fourth full-length album and was recorded by a somewhat revised line-up compared to their previous record Memorandum. The whole rhythm section was replaced on the 2001 album, where new members Willi Wurm and Rico Galvagno play drums and bass, respectively. The new record also sees the departure of violinist/singer Anja Hötzendorfer who had been with the band since the first album and had contributed to shape their sound with the alternation of male and female vocals. An uncredited female singer does appear also on Burning: A Wish (“Melantroduction”; “Morning … Grey”), but the baritone voice and occasional growls of Christopher Schmid dominate the proceedings here.

Burning: A Wish is firmly rooted in the melodic doom/death tradition of bands like Paradise Lost, My Dying Bride and especially Anathema. In fact, the Liverpudlians circa The Silent Enigma / Eternity may provide the most suitable comparison with Lacrimas Profundere’s 2001 album. Like those albums, Burning: A Wish is caught midway in the evolution from classic doom/death metal to gothic metal/rock. The tempos are faster than on a typical doom album and there is a stronger emphasis on catchy melodies, both on the part of the instruments (piano, guitars) and the vocals. There are also traces of dreamy, Pink Floyd-infused rock (atmospheric e-bowed guitars, gently plucked acoustic guitars, languid piano arpeggios), though not so prominent as on Anathema’s Eternity. Christopher Schmid’s deep voice draws parallels with Darren White’s and Vincent Cavanagh’s when the latter had just started his singing career. Oliver Schmid’s guitar riffs, arpeggios and melodic leads are also reminiscent of Danny Cavanagh’s, and in some cases the similarities are striking (“Solicitude, Silence”).

Although Burning: A Wish may not get many points for originality, it does make for a captivating listen thanks to its gloomy, rainy-day atmosphere and a nice overall sound, warm and well-rounded. The songwriting is smooth and dynamic and the arrangements are classy. There isn’t an awful lot of variation across the album’s 9 tracks – they all capture the same mood and follow similar melodic ideas and structures. Yet this isn’t too bothersome as the music flows smoothly, if without too many highlights. The acoustic, female-sung piece “Morning... Grey” grabs attention in this respect, as it nicely marks a change in pace and style

If you are looking for a slick, well-produced, and highly melodic slab of doom/gothic metal, you should look no further: this album will provide all the gloomy goodness you’re after. This LP may not stretch any musical boundaries, but it is effective, enjoyable and very cohesive, unlike some of the albums it draws inspiration from (Anathema’s The Silent Enigma, for example).

NEAL MORSE Sola Scriptura

Album · 2007 · Metal Related
Cover art 4.50 | 35 ratings
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After spending 2006 concentrating on non-prog endeavours - putting out more worship music, a collection of cover versions, and a singer-songwriter album - Neal Morse put out his next prog album in the form of Sola Scriptura. As with his previous prog solo album, "?", this avoids the all-too-common pitfall of explicitly Christian-themed music by actually doing a deep dive on some subject from the rich history and literature of the faith, rather than just harping on the same limited set come-to-Jesus themes that all too many "Christian rock" bands limit themselves to.

This time around, he's offering a concept album about Martin Luther's theological confrontation with the Catholic Church. This is a thorny subject - in the liner notes Neal mentions he almost reconsidered the project after he learned about some of the virulently antisemitic writing Luther put out, but then decided to go ahead since that isn't the aspect of Luther's career the album is about, merely adding the caveat that Luther was a flawed man trying to reform a flawed system.

That shows a level of nuance which suggests a thoughtful approach to the subject matter, and largely that's what you get here. The album doesn't flinch from criticising some of the stuff the medieval Church said and did in very stark terms, but I don't think this extends to being knee-jerk anti-Catholic so much as it involves portraying the central conflict (and it would be disingenuous of Neal to try and be "both sides"-y about this when he clearly believes that on many of these questions Luther was in the right). Also, it should be remembered that the Catholic Church of today isn't the Church that Luther was rebelling against - they actively implemented a bunch of reforms since then in part to shift away from some of the excesses he was objecting to.

So much for the concept: what about the music? Well, Mike Portnoy's on drums, as he had been for all of Neal's prog solo albums to date, and Randy George is on bass again as he had on the previous two prog albums from Neal; having cemented themselves as Neal's regular rhythm section, they accompany Neal throughout the album, with other instrumental offerings from a pool of the usual suspects (the string section have all appeared on past Morse albums, as has Michael Thurman on French horn, and the backing singers include a number who also sang on "?").

With personnel like that, you'd be right to expect that this is more or less business as usual for Neal - indeed, he's shifted back to the sort of long songs he likes to tackle, after "?" was made up of shorter songs (though those could be seen as short sections in one long piece).

As has been the case since the earliest Spock's Beard material, he goes broad when it comes to the range of influences he throws in, rather than focusing on one approach exclusively, which is helpful: there may well be bits here and there you don't enjoy (for instance, All I Ask For drags on a little long to my taste) but you at least have the consolation that it won't be like this throughout, and if some of the sections go on for a bit Neal at least does a good job of using them to build to appropriate emotional climaxes.

There's the odd touch from gospel here and there, especially in terms of the use of the backing singers, but this is quite tastefully done (and it's not like Neal hasn't been dipping into the worlds of gospel or musical theatre from time to time to add a flavour to his prog material that other prog artists don't touch on so much.) For instance, Keep Silent feels a lot like a somewhat more upbeat take on Pink Floyd's Dogs combined with a gospel chorus, which works surprisingly well.

Some of the material also hits harder than much of Neal's prior solo material, Neal making good use of Mike Pointer's talents to work on some heavier and more metallic sections. Do You Know My Name? has this dirty-ass funk metal air to it, which then lurches into a sort of prog metal transition section as it shifts into Party To the Lie, which has this sort of jaunty Kansas-esque note to it, or perhaps a whiff of Genesis circa Trick of the Tail.

Taken as a whole, the album is another solid effort in the same general style that Neal had been working since he left Spock's Beard, and whilst some of the individual moments are somewhat shaky, he pulls off the trick again of bringing it all together in a big emotional conclusion right at the end. I'd certainly put it on a par with "?", and whilst I don't think it quite gets the fifth star, it comes awfully close.

MACBETH Vanitas

Album · 2001 · Gothic Metal
Cover art 2.57 | 3 ratings
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Three years after releasing a solid debut record like Romantic Tragedy's Crescendo, rooted in the “beauty and the beast” gothic metal tradition, Italian band Macbeth are back with their sophomore album, Vanitas. There have been a few line-up changes between the two albums, most notably both vocalists (Vittorio and Cristina) who had played on the debut have been replaced by Andreas Cislaghi (the brother of the band’s drummer, Fabrizio) and Morena Rozzi. Bassist Marco “Sem” Semenza also makes his first appearance with the band on this record.

The line-up changes are reflected in a fairly marked shift in the band’s sound too. On Vanitas Macbeth distance themselves from the Norwegian symphonic gothic metal scene (Theatre of Tragedy, Tristania), which had been an inspiration for the debut record, and move closer to the brand of symphonic black/gothic metal that Cradle of Filth were heralding in those years. The songs are long (many pass the 6 minutes mark) and are comprised of multiple recurring parts, alternating between faster sections and slower, more atmospheric episodes. Gothic keyboards and piano abound, while the guitars combine thrashy riffs with melodic galloping leads and solos. I also perceive influences from more straightforward classic heavy metal lurking in there, perhaps more prominently so than on Cradle’s albums. In the same way, there is perhaps a bit less double bass drums than what you would expect on a symphonic gothic metal album, but that’s because Fabrizio Cislaghi is a very versatile and technical drummer who likes to spice things up using multiple playing styles. His performance on this album is remarkable and very engaging. In fact, all musicians are very proficient at their instruments, and the rich, tight and vibrant instrumental arrangements are probably the main strength of this record.

The influence of the British vampires is also evident in the style of the two vocalists, Andreas and Morena. Andreas in particular adopts many of Dani Filth’s vocal gimmicks, from lacerating growls, to evil whispers, to guttural spoken parts. Unlike Dani, Andreas also frequently employs his clean voice, in a declamatory and mildly deranged style that is reminiscent of Norwegian “clean” vocalists in black/extreme metal albums. Morena plays a secondary role compared to Andreas. She mostly appears in spoken vocal parts, with languid declamations that are intended to be sensual as per the genre stereotype of the female vocalist. In a few songs she also sings together with Andreas. The wide range of vocal styles adopted on the album is certainly ambitious, but the vocals are also the weakest spot of the record. Andreas and Morena’s cleans are particularly bad, often pitchy and devoid of any emotional depth. To be fair, they are not given very strong melodies to sing. To the contrary, the melodic ideas on display here are pretty flat and unoriginal. The spoken/whispered/theatrical parts are also bad and often cringeworthy. They are not helped either by the rather stereotypical lyrics. Andreas’ growls are OK, but are too upfront in the mix in a way that highlights all the little imperfections of his singing.

The weak vocals are most definitely a death sentence for this record. It’s a pity because the music is actually pretty good and full of nuance, and the quality of the playing is also high. Listen for example to the awesome instrumental detour in the second half of “Pure Treasure” or to the sophisticated guitar arrangements on “Aloisa”. Unfortunately these cannot fully compensate for the poor vocal performance, also because the vocals are all over the songs on this album. Overall, this is an album that could have been so much better and instead leaves me with the impression that Macbeth are an unfulfilled promise of Italian extreme metal.

THERION Secret of the Runes

Album · 2001 · Symphonic Metal
Cover art 3.87 | 31 ratings
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lukretion
Just one year after releasing a solid but somewhat lacklustre album like Deggial, Therion are back with what many consider the high point of their whole discography: Secret of the Runes. A concept album centred around the nine worlds of Norse mythology, Runes is a massive step-up relative to the band’s previous releases, which improves and expands their blend of symphonic metal in multiple directions. There are a number of reasons for this advancement.

First, Therion are now a proper band rather than a solo project by Christofer Johnsson. Brothers Johan and Kristian Niemann (bass and guitar, respectively) and drummer Sami Karppinen had joined Johnsson already for the recording of Deggial in 2000. Although on Runes Johnsson retains control of most of the songwriting and arrangements, there are contributions from the other band members too (Kristian Niemann is credited as co-writer of the opening track “Ginnungagap”) and, more generally, one gets the feeling that the ensemble now sounds more like a band, with more nuanced and personalized arrangements for the rock instruments and more freedom in terms of performances (more guitar solos, more drum fills). In short, there is more depth to the band’s performance than on the preceding couple of albums (Vovin, Deggial), which were instead largely a Christofer Johnsson solo affair.

Second, the sound production has also improved on this album. This may sound strange since, for the recording of Runes, Therion actually transitioned from the famous Woodhouse Studios, where they had worked with renowned engineer and producer Siggi Bemm, to their very own, newly built Modern Art Studios, where they instead relied on in-house engineering (Karppinen, K. Niemann, Johnsson) and production. Mixing and mastering duties were instead assigned to Mikko Karmila and Mika Jussila (Amorphis, Childreon of Bodom, Nightwish, among many others). The album sounds much better than Vovin or Deggial, which were both recorded and produced at Woodhouse Studios. One difference between these albums is that on Runes the drum sound is lighter and drier and the drums are placed further back in the mix, so that they are less “in-your-face”. This is great because Therion’s songs often rely on simple grooves, which can make the music feel sluggish and undynamic when the drums dominate the mix. The arrangements are also airier and more spacious, which contributes to make Runes an easier and more immediately likeable album than the dark and oppressive Deggial or the occasionally rigid Vovin.

Ultimately, though, the superiority of Runes comes down to better, more inspired songwriting. The songs are varied and dynamic, moving between different sections and moods. This is a major improvement over previous albums, where often the same riffs were repeated over and over, making the songs feel monolithic and static. The vocal arrangements are also more varied. In some songs, Johnsson wrote counterpoint and multipart vocals melodies (“Jotunheim”; “Nifelheim”), and in general I get the feeling that more attention has been paid to the alternation between male and female vocals that in many occasions engage in playful duets (“Asgard”). Most importantly, the signers are finally given vocal melodies that are catchy and memorable. This is a huge difference relative to many of the songs that were recorded for Deggial, where the vocal parts were particularly lacklustre. Songs like “Ginnugagap”, “Midgard” and “Asgard” feature some of the best melodies that Johnsson has written up to this point in his career. Some may miss the fact that on Runes Johnsson ended the tradition of writing songs with metal vocals mixed with the opera singing (the whole of Theli was built this way, as well as “The Wild Hunt” and “Flesh of the Gods” on Vovin and Deggial). Personally, I do not find this to be a problem, especially when the operatic vocals are given such quality melodies to sing.

There are many other aspects of the music and concept that contribute to make Runes a special album. The Norse mythology that inspired the concept of the album also influenced the songwriting, which features subtle but decisive folk influences on several tracks. The whole album has almost a Viking metal feel to it, with its icy atmospheres and at time raw choirs (“Nifelheim”). The use of different languages, including Johnsson’s native Swedish, also contributes to the Nordic folk atmosphere of the album. Somewhat incongruently with the album’s theme, Runes also contain two covers as bonus tracks, “Crying Days” by Scorpions and “Summernight City” by Abba. These tracks were recorded in 1999 with former Therion’s drummer and singer Piotr Wawrzeniuk on vocals alongside the opera singers. Some people are disturbed by the fact that the inclusion of the two covers disrupts the concept of the album. I can see where they are coming from, but the two songs are objectively so good that I cannot help but be grateful for their inclusion on the album.

Despite all the great things one can hear on Runes, the album is not perfect. Its middle part tends to plod a little, with songs like “Schwarzalbenheim” and “Ljusalfheim” coming across as a tad too repetitive and uninventive. Part of the problem is that most songs on the album remain firmly in mid-tempo territory, which amplifies the sluggish feeling one has as soon as the quality drops a little. Sometimes I wish Johnsson would make more use of different tempos on his albums, to inject some dynamics and a sense of moving forward to the music which is sometimes lacking on Therion’s records. However, despite the somewhat weaker mid-section, the album is quick to recover, with tracks like “Muspelheim”, “Nifelheim” and “Helheim” providing stunning highlights, together with the opening trio of songs (“Ginnugagap”, “Midgard” and “Asgard”).

In conclusion, Secret of the Runes is one of the best albums in Therion’s catalogue. If you are new to this band, this could be a great place to start (together with the breakthrough album Theli, of course). By the time this album was released, Christofer Johnsson had time to refine and perfect his skills at arranging songs that combine metal, classical music and operatic singing, and this clearly shows on the album. The vocal parts are catchy and memorable. The orchestral arrangements are merged seamlessly with the metal parts. The metal parts themselves are more dynamic than on previous albums, with richer and more accomplished performances by guitar, drums and keyboards. Add a touch of Nordic folk, and you have a nearly perfect album indeed!

DREAM THEATER Systematic Chaos

Album · 2007 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.51 | 128 ratings
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Warthur
As a prog metal group who put a lot of stock in both the "prog" and the "metal" part of that term, Dream Theater have had a tendency over the years to follow up more progressive-leaning releases with harder-edged affairs. The band seem to spend much of their career walking a tightrope - why, they even included one on the cover of a later album! - and so once they've pushed hard in one direction, they tend to correct in the other direction rather than going too far in any one trajectory.

On Octavarium they pulled out an orchestra, something which prog bands had been doing as far back as 1967 (if you are willing to accept the Moody Blues' Days of Future Passed as a proto-prog release); thus, Systematic Chaos finds them trimming back to just the core band members. No guest instrumentalists are present at all: every note played is played by the band members, and every word is sung by just James LaBrie himself. The sole concession is that a large cast of friends of the band show up to provide spoken word contributions to Repentance, this album's episode of the multi-album Twelve-Step Suite by Mike Portnoy: as the title implies, it's a song about making amends for past mistakes, so a great number of musicians from the prog or metal world show up to record little apologies, regrets, and admissions of fault.

So much for the talking: what about the music? Though generally heavier than Octavarium, it feels like the band here are trying to show off just how diverse a sound they can deliver with just the five of them. Take The Dark Eternal Night, which has moments ranging from a Dream Theater approximation of nu-metal to a sort of prog-metal-jazz-fusion hybrid. Some aspects of Repentance feel like a nod to Porcupine Tree, which makes the presence of Steven Wilson on the track (he's providing one of the apologies) particularly apt.

Meanwhile, Prophets of War finds Dream Theater inspired once again by Muse, as they were on Octavarium, though I'm absolutely fine with that because as far as I am concerned by this point Dream Theater were doing that sort of very feverish sound better than Muse were. That said, I actually find it a weaker track - it's a little too much like a rehash of Never Enough from Octavarium - and one suspects the band aren't too keen on it either, since so far as I can tell it hasn't exactly been a live staple. (A quick check of setlist.fm suggests that they didn't even touch it live until 2009, and then dropped it from the set in 2010 and haven't picked it up since.)

Still, rounded off by two epics - The Ministry of Lost Souls and the second half of In the Presence of Enemies - the album comes to a pretty solid close, and whilst I don't think it's as consistent as Octavarium by some measure, it's still a very good release which finds Dream Theater going from strength to strength.

ALICE COOPER Dragontown

Album · 2001 · Heavy Metal
Cover art 2.95 | 16 ratings
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lukretion
The turn of the new millennium marked a stark change in sound for shock rock / hard rock maestro Alice Cooper. In 2000 he released a heavy, industrial metal/rock record, Brutal Planet, which received mixed responses from public and critics, and was even dubbed as a paradoxical and not-so-subtle attempt to follow the footsteps of his creative grandchild (at least as far as shocking image goes), Marilyn Manson. Released only one year later, Dragontown continues in a similar direction as it predecessor, albeit also looking back to a more classic Alice Cooper sound. The return of Alice’s veteran producer Bob Ezrin may or may not have had something to do with it. Regardless, Dragontown strikes a better balance than Brutal Planet between Alice’s newly-found modernist proclivity and the rest of his discography, and is as a consequence less of a disaster compared to his 2000’s album.

Having said that, Dragontown remains a flawed affair and ranks fairly low in Cooper’s discography. The best material is concentrated in the first half of the record. Songs like “Triggerman”, “Dragontown”, “Sex, Death & Money” and “Fantasy Man” lie at the crossroad between heavy, industrial metal and classic hard rock. Crunchy guitars and groovy drum patterns complement Alice’s raspy voice and characteristic phrasing. It’s an entertaining and mildly interesting hybrid that stretches the reaches of Alice’s music into the new millennium, without dispensing with its sonic heritage

The second half of the disc is remarkably worse. It is filled with cringeworthy ideas, such as the Elvis’ impersonation on “Disgraceland” or the rapped singing on “Sister Sara”. Meanwhile, “Every Woman Has a Name” is a 70s-infused ballad and the record’s last three songs go back to the mixture of industrial and classic hard rock, but in a very bland and unremarkable way. There is a palpable lack of cohesion among these songs, which inevitably reduces the listening value of the whole album.

Overall, although not totally unlistenable like Brutal Planet, Dragontown is hardly a return to form for Alice Cooper. The album’s material is slightly more interesting and finds a better footing between the “new” and “old” Alice Cooper sound. However, the fact that all of the songs included on this record will cease to appear in live sets shortly after the release of the album, says a lot about its quality and overall positioning within Alice Cooper’s sprawling discography.

BEYOND TWILIGHT The Devil's Hall of Fame

Album · 2001 · Progressive Metal
Cover art 3.97 | 16 ratings
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lukretion
When his previous band, power metal act Twilight folded, Danish keyboard player Finn Zierler embarked in a new project, aptly named Beyond Twilight to mark a sort of continuity between the two bands. In fact, Beyond Twilight begin where Twilight ended: Zierler’s new creature takes the power metal epicness of his former band and morphs it into a dark, progressive beast that may draw parallels with acts like Kamelot and Evergrey for the brooding, theatrical nature of the music on display. If you are however expecting a minor record that follows the footsteps of the aforementioned more well-known acts – think again: The Devil’s Hall of Fame is a stunning masterpiece that vastly surpasses most releases in the dark progressive/power metal genre. Here is why.

First of all, Beyond Twilight’s line-up on this release can count on one of the most formidable singers in metal: His Majesty Jørn Lande. Here at the beginning of his lustrous career, the Norwegian vocalist combines the grit and power of Ronnie James Dio with the soulful delivery of David Coverdale. His performance on The Devil’s Hall of Fame is absolutely spectacular, injecting power and feeling into beautiful vocal melodies that are catchy and instantly memorable, but never banal or boring. The rest of the lineup is also very solid. Bassist Anders Lindgren and drummer Tomas Fredén, who had already played on Twilight’s debut album, provide a reliable backbone that strikes the right balance between simple groove and intricate playing. Anders Kragh is a skilled and versatile guitarist who adapts his playing to suit the different needs of the music, from muscular no-frills riffs, to subtle melodic leads, to tricky technical passages and blazing solos (“Hellfire”). Beyond Twilight’s mastermind Finn Zierler is also a very proficient player. I particularly enjoy the wide range of keyboard sounds and samples he employs on the album, and the use he makes of the instrument – always very imaginative and inventive.

Strong musicianship counts for little without strong compositions. Fortunately, this album has both. Its eight tracks are exceptional examples of how to write keyboard-driven prog metal that is not just all technical twiddly bits and intricate songwriting, but also has feeling and depth. The intricacies of prog are certainly there, as most songs follow feature frequent tempo changes, plenty of instrumental detours, unusual melodic solutions (the suddenly uplifting second part of the chorus in “Shadowland”), and unexpected turns (the extravagant Latin choirs in the title-track and “Perfect Dark”). But each song is also cleverly anchored in excellent melodic ideas that hook you in and make the music immediately enjoyable and memorable. Credit here goes to both Zierler who composed and arranged all music, and Lande, who wrote the vocal melodies. I also dig the overall mood of the album, dark and ominous. It is a perfect match for the dystopian sci-fi concept that runs through the record, about a man who travels through the depths of his own mind and slowly loses grip with reality.

There are no dull moments on this album. Each song is a small gem, from the bleak and hyper-heavy “Godless and Wicked”, to the hard rock accessibility of “Shadowland”, to the two short, evocative instrumentals “The Devil’s Waltz” and “Closing the Circle”. My favourite songs are the title-track and the closing piece “Perfect Dark”. The former is a sprawling epic that covers a lot of ground, traversing different moods and musical styles from its doomy first part to the proggy extravaganza that explodes halfway through the second half, in a way that reminds me of Arjen A. Lucassen’s best (and heaviest) work with Ayreon and Star One. As per its title, “Perfect Dark” is a perfectly dramatic conclusion to this awesome album. Foreboding, slow and sinister, it is powered by a massive crescendo where Jørn Lande is at its absolute best.

In summary, if you are a fan of progressive metal – especially its dark, melancholic variety – you simply must listen to this album. I struggle to find things to criticize (perhaps the sound production is a bit thin), or to pinpoint better records in the genre than this. Instantly enjoyable and with great repeated listen value, The Devil’s Hall of Fame is up there with the best music of Ayreon, Evergrey, and Kamelot. Beyond Twilight will go on to record two further albums, although Mr Lande will step down from his role as vocalist after this one. It’s a pity, as his vocals clearly play a big role in making this record such a masterpiece. But the quality of the music is really high too, so I very much look forward to listening to Beyond Twilight’s other two records as well.

CAGE Darker Than Black

Album · 2003 · US Power Metal
Cover art 4.09 | 7 ratings
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UMUR
"Darker Than Black" is the 3rd full-length studio album by US, California based power/heavy metal act Cage. The album was released through Massacre Records in April 2003. It´s the successor to "Astrology" from 2000 and features one lineup change since the predecessor as guitarist Eric Horton has been replaced by Anthony Wayne McGinnis.

The three years since the release of "Astrology (2000)" have been spend well, because while both "Unveiled (1998)" and "Astrology (2000)" are good quality US power/heavy metal albums, "Darker Than Black" is in a whole other league. Cage were always a skilled and very well playing band, and lead vocalist Sean R. L. Peck is an outstanding singer with a strong voice and a commanding and passionate delivery. That haven´t changed on "Darker Than Black", but the quality of the songwriting and the production values have increased significantly compared to the preceding releases.

Stylistically Cage play a heavy and relatively dark type of US power/heavy metal on "Darker Than Black". Think Judas Priest when they are most heavy and aggressive ("Painkiller") and you are half way there. There´s great intensity and energy on display here and paired with the powerful and raw vocals by Peck, the heavy and fast-paced riffs, the blistering guitar solos, and the energetic and powerful rhythm section, "Darker Than Black" comes off a high quality release in the genre.

"Darker Than Black" is through and through a high quality release, and there´s not a single sub par track on the album. It´s consistent in quality and style, but still relatively varied. Including both an English- and a Spanish language version of "Chupacabra" is a small curiosity, but since the band are from San Diego, where a large part of the population are latin country immigrants or descendents of immigrants, it makes perfect sense (and of course the tale/legend of "Chupacabra" is a Latin America tale).

Upon conclusion "Darker Than Black" has been a positive surprise and definitely a recommendable US power/heavy metal album. High level musicianship, intriguing and effectful songwriting, and loads of heavy metal attitude and passion. A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

SINISTER The Carnage Ending

Album · 2012 · Death Metal
Cover art 4.07 | 3 ratings
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UMUR
"The Carnage Ending" is the 10th full-length studio album by Dutch death metal act Sinister. The album was released through Massacre Records in September 2012. It´s the successor to "Legacy of Ashes" from 2010 and features quite a few lineup changes since the predecessor as bassist Bas van den Bogaard has been replaced by Mathijs Brussaard, drummer Edwin van den Eeden has been replaced by Toep Duin, and guitarist Alex Paul has been replaced by no less than two guitarists in Bas Brussaard and Dennis Hartog. With only lead vocalist Aad Kloosterwaard remaining from the lineup who recorded the predecessor, Sinister are virtually a new band on "The Carnage Ending".

It´s not the first time in the band´s history that they´ve changed almost an entire lineup, but they´ve remained fairly true to their original sound throughtout the years, although they´ve successfully incorporated more brutal grooves since the old school death metal days, and have had some slightly progressive tendencies (at least structurally adventurous) on a couple of releases too. "Legacy of Ashes (2010)" generally featured a more conscise and sharp songwriting style with less emphasis on creative song structures, and that tendency is continued on "The Carnage Ending"...multible lineup changes or not.

"The Carnage Ending" features a brutal and technically well played death metal style with good rhythmic variation and effective use of brutal grooves. This definitely has an old school atmosphere and authenticity, but it´s not retro sounding. Sinister have managed to create a more timeless death metal sound. With a background as the band´s drummer Kloosterwaard has great understanding of vocal rhythms and it´s audible as he has a way of placing his words and vocal rhythm patterns to great effect. Some death metal vocalists either deliver one-dimensional toneless growling or forget to put phrasing on their words, but that´s certainly not the case here.

Although this is an almost completely new lineup playing, Sinister are a well playing unit, and the performances reek of skill and professionalism. Sure you won´t find anything particularly original here that you haven´t heard on other death metal releases, but Sinister are one of those rare death metal artists, who understand how to use known and beloved death metal elements and create an effectful and entertaining death metal pack of those elements and then add just enough of their own elements, for it to sound distinctly like them, without really bringing much new to the table. Now that´s an art too... A 4 star (80%) rating is deserved.

DIM MAK Intercepting Fist

Album · 2002 · Death Metal
Cover art 3.50 | 1 rating
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UMUR
"Intercepting Fist" is the 2nd full-length studio album by US, New Jersey based death metal act Dim Mak. The album was released through Olympic Recordings in March 2002. It´s the successor to "Enter the Dragon" from 1999 and features the exact same four-piece lineup who recorded the predecessor.

Dim Mak features several former members of Ripping Corpse and "Enter the Dragon (1999)" was in many ways a continuation of the brutal thrash/death metal of Ripping Corpse debut- and sole full-length studio album "Dreaming with The Dead (1991)", but with a martial arts lyrical themes (check out song titles like "Tai Pan Snake Venom" and "Phoenix Eye Fist"). "Intercepting Fist" is the natural successor to "Enter the Dragon (1999)" and continues the brutal thrash/death metal style of that release. Scott Ruth´s brutal aggressive semi-growling vocals are the defining feature of the band´s sound, and what make them stand out in addition to the unconventional lyrical themes. The instrumental part of the music is aggressive death metal with brutal thrash metal leanings. Dim Mak play both fast and mid-paced groove laden heavy sections.

"Intercepting Fist" features a decent quality sound production. It could have been more detailed and well defined, but if you prefer them raw and organic, this one certainly qualifies. The musicianship is also on a high level, but the songwriting is a bit one-dimensional in nature, and a few more catchy memorable moments could have made the album a bit more interesting. There aren´t many hooks to hold on to and it´s not an album you remember much from when it´s finished playing. It´s not a major issue, but it´s not a positive either. A 3 - 3.5 star (65%) rating is deserved.

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